Time’s Edge Chapter One
Training Assignments That Are Top Secret
A young red-haired girl bounded up to Michael. “Commander Blayne, you have been ordered to report to Division 9.”
Michael’s face remained impassive, though he groaned inwardly. He nodded at the messenger, who grinned back at him.
“Could be anything. You never know with Division 9.”
Michael, who agreed wholeheartedly, smiled at the young girl in the blue jumpsuit. He remembered his days as an SAF trainee, carrying assignments to the officers and commanders and dreaming of the day he would be an agent. Boys and girls were generally apprenticed to the Special Assignments Force, an elite division of the Galactic Armed Forces, at age twelve and often spent their first year at RMB 1020, a remote moon base, carrying messages and performing assorted odd jobs in-between the intense intellectual and physical training. Cadets were sorted out according to their strengths, and only the best went on to become officers. Unless Michael missed his guess, this young woman would become an SAF commander.
Michael began to walk and gestured for Angela to walk with him. She eagerly fell into step beside him. They paced down one of the spotless white corridors that honeycombed the domes which housed the base. Outside the thick transparent walls was the frozen, deadly beauty of Lilith, the largest moon of the planet Tressla. The landscape was a billowing and frothy mass of ice formations, the frozen waves, twists, and spires filled with poisonous gases glowing in brilliant blues, yellows, oranges, and greens.
“How many others have been called for Division 9?” he asked. Angela might not have carried the messages, but he was sure she would know the answer.
“Three,” she replied promptly. “All top agents. Commanders Stark, Taire, and Joyston.”
“Interesting,” Michael mused.
“Very,” Angela agreed, her eyes alight with the information she carried. “What’s even more interesting is none of the assignments were issued by Division 9. They all came from Control.”
“Indeed?” Michael shot a quick glance at Angela. She met his glance with a sidelong look of her own. Michael was rather good-looking, tall with blonde hair, light blue eyes and the muscular, wiry body of an athlete or a dancer. However, after knowing him for two years, Angela still couldn’t read his expressions. He smiled and frowned, laughed and argued like anyone else, but, somehow, she could never sense any real emotion in his words and face as if there was a barrier between him and the world. She sometimes wondered what lurked behind the icy calmness of his eyes.
“You know, Michael,” she suddenly said, “I can never tell what you are thinking.”
“Never let your thoughts or emotions show. It could get you killed.” He smiled as he saw her mouth open to protest. “And never make exceptions. If you don’t practice it all the time, you won’t be able to do it when you need to.”
“I’ll remember. But it seems silly when it’s just you and me. I never talk.”
That was true. Not only did Angela have an eye for detail and an ear for information, she knew when to keep quiet. She also had a fine sense of how far she could push someone to get information.
“It seems to me,” she continued, “something important is going on. The SAF isn’t in the habit of using top agents on assignments from the experimental division. The fatality rate would be too costly.”
“Also, why did Chief Commander Zartollis personally order the assignments?”
That stopped Michael in mid-stride. He turned to find Angela grinning at him.
“Ah,” she smiled. “So you can look surprised.”
“You were deliberately withholding information,” Michael returned with mock severity.
“Me?” Angela’s bright blue eyes grew round with innocence. “I was only supposed to ask you to report to Division 9 and then return to my station.”
Michael rolled his eyes and began to laugh. “Okay,” he said. “You tell me what you saw and heard, and I’ll tell you what I think of it.”
“I was on duty in Control when the Chief came in and went into the Governor’s office. Chief Z. came out a short time later and dispatched messengers to all the commanders. I was the last one, so I heard it all. The Chief is meeting you in Division 9.”
Michael began to walk again, his hands behind his back and his head slightly bent as he mulled over this information. Angela paced along beside him in silence for a few moments.
“Is it something important?” she asked at last.
“It certainly seems that way but a few things don’t make sense. If this is a secret mission, why summon us in such an obvious manner? Also, Chief Z. involving himself so openly only underlines the importance of the assignments.”
“Perhaps it’s not so secret,” Angela suggested.
“Then it’s not so important,” Michael smiled. “The two go hand in hand.”
“Maybe it’s a cover for something else.”
“That’s more likely.” Michael nodded in approval.
“What do you think it is?”
“There’s not enough information for me to speculate on that.”
“You sound just like a computer,” Angela complained.
“It could be one of a hundred things, Angela. Guessing is a waste of time.”
“Don’t you ever use your intuition when you’re on assignment? You can’t always have information when you need it. Then you’d have to guess, wouldn’t you?”
Michael smiled. “I wouldn’t call that guessing. And as for intuition, that’s not as haphazard as you might think. What you call intuition is really a logical choice based on experience.”
“But don’t you ever get a feeling? You believe something to be true, but you can’t give any reasons for it.”
“If you stopped and thought about it, you probably could give reasons for your belief. You may have subconsciously observed many small things from which you formed a logical impression of events. Your mind doesn’t consciously tabulate all the items. That would take too long. But you’re aware of them nonetheless.”
“I see.” Angela looked thoughtful. “I suppose you’re right. I feel something important is going on from the look on the Governor’s face and the tone of the Chief’s voice. When I couple that with summons to our four best commanders and the involvement of Division 9, I come up with the theory something big is brewing and these summons are camouflage for it. How’s that?”
“Much better. Always use logic and facts. They never fail you.”
He stopped outside the entrance to Division 9 and turned to Angela. “I probably won’t be seeing you for awhile. I have a feeling I’m going to be dispatched immediately.”
“A feeling?” Angela grinned at him.
“An impression based upon experience,” Michael corrected with a smile. “Better get back to your post.”
“Yes sir, Commander!” Angela formally saluted him and then winked and ran off down the polished white corridor.
Michael turned and paused in the doorway for the molecular identification process. An unseen wave of light washed over him, recording his molecular body print. Instantaneously, the data was scanned and compared to the file of prints of those with clearance to enter Division 9. A white light above the door signaled that entry had been confirmed. The door slid upward, and Michael proceeded into the briefing room, a sterile-looking white chamber so spotless it seemed as if no one had ever been there before. The rest of the department, he knew, looked exactly the same. He always marveled at the discrepancy between the pristine, orderly work area and the often chaotic, unpredictable inventions that emerged from this antiseptic environment.
As soon as he entered, the door softly returned to its closed position. Because of his delay in talking to Angela, Michael was the last to arrive.
The three other commanders were standing in a group in the center of the room. Valda Taire, Franc Stark, and Lucas Joyston, along with Michael, had risen rapidly in the ranks of the SAF. They were part of an elite core of agents, the best of the best, handling the most dangerous and sensitive assignments. Valda had all the qualities of a cat: sleek, cool, and poised, a deadly fighter, well-disciplined and calmly efficient. Her hair was short, blonde, and curly and her eyes green and unreadable. Michael had never seen the slightest flicker of emotion in those green eyes. Franc was a large man, six and a half feet tall, with brown hair and eyes, massive shoulders, and a broad, bland face. Those who didn’t know him often appraised him as stolid and slow. Neither of those descriptions applied to the man whose body movements were like lightning in spite of his size and whose placid countenance concealed a shrewd mind. Lucas, with his brown hair, skin, and eyes, was anything but average. A chiseled jaw, straight nose, and high forehead gave him classic good looks that were as much a part of his arsenal as his gun.
Three other people were seated at a small table to the left. Zilla, the commander of Division 9 was a small, dark woman, intense and serious. Only a few knew of the wry sense of humor that lurked beneath the exterior of the dedicated scientist. Her two assistants, Gage and Petra, were brilliant young scientists, faultlessly attired in white jumpsuits as spotless as the rest of the room.
Standing beside the table was Chief Commander Alrick Zartollis, a senior officer with the SAF and Michael’s personal mentor. When a young cadet showed unusual promise, a commander was assigned to personally monitor and encourage the growth and education of the protégé. An unusually strong bond had been forged between Michael and the older man. Alrick was as tall as Michael with brown hair and dark blue eyes and the same wiry build. Although he was of an age and rank that would entitle him to a position in the Control Division, the Chief Commander was still active in the field.
As Michael came forward, he was greeted by the three commanders.
“At last!” Lucas said, clapping Michael heartily on the shoulder. “You’re slowing down. We’ve been waiting at least five minutes. Isn’t that right?”
“Six and a half minutes to be exact,” Franc intoned with a perfectly serious face.
“We would have started without you but the Chief refused,” Valda added, slanting an assessing look at him. “Perhaps you’re in on the big secret.”
“Not guilty,” Michael smiled. “I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do.”
“You wouldn’t tell if you did,” Valda laughed. “Ah, well. We’ll find out soon enough.”
“It’s a very simple matter, really,” Alrick stated as he joined them. “We need a team of reliable agents for basic survey and retrieval missions.”
Four pairs of eyes fixed on him showing varying degrees of disbelief. From her seat at the table, Zilla observed the reaction and smiled.
“The assignments are as follows,” Alrick went on, ignoring the surprised looks. “Valda, technological intelligence survey on the deactivated Hendel space port. Franc, a basic computer update and briefing of all three SAF outposts on Prav. Lucas, inventory and mapping of the abandoned space station orbiting Mur. Michael, probe retrieval in an Old Earth sidetime.”
Silence followed this recital. Alrick gazed at the four commanders. “Do you have any questions on your assignments?”
“Why us?” Lucas asked.
Alrick looked slightly surprised at this. “Why not?”
“These aren’t like the usual assignments we get,” Franc noted.
“Perhaps there’s something behind all this?” Valda suggested.
“No. Everything is straightforward. These are your assignments as directed by Governor Bennett and myself.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Franc pursued doggedly. “If all you need are reliable agents, there are plenty on the base. Why were we specifically picked for these duties?”
Alrick fixed a steely eye on Franc. “Because that’s the way I want it to be, Commander Stark. Are there any other questions?”
Franc looked directly at his Chief Commander for several seconds. Then he replied briefly, “No, sir.”
“Probe retrieval?” Michael finally asked as if he had not heard correctly.
“Cheer up, Michael,” Lucas grinned. “At least you pulled the easy assignment.”
“Zilla, Gage, and Petra are waiting to brief each of you on your missions,” Alrick added. “Each assignment falls, of course, under an S-1 security level.”
Again, four pairs of eyes looked at him in disbelief.
“Basic training assignments that are top secret.” Lucas shook his head. “Are you sure this isn’t a disciplinary action?” He caught Alrick’s eye and hastily sketched a salute. “Very well, sir. I’m off to my top secret space station inventory.” As he moved away with Valda and Franc, he muttered, “Inventory and mapping! They could have sent a probe on this assignment.”
“They could have sent probes on all these assignments,” Franc observed thoughtfully. “Wonder what’s up?”
Valda raised her brows at Franc’s comment but said nothing.
Michael turned to Alrick and voiced the same opinion. “Isn’t probe retrieval the job of other probes?”
“Not this time. The sidetime complication makes this probe retrieval a highly sensitive mission. It needs a top agent.”
Michael eyed the older man dubiously. “The theory of sidetime has been around for centuries. What’s so sensitive about it?”
“We have finally broken the travel barrier. You’ll be the first person to travel to a sidetime.”
“Thanks for the honor. Why am I really going?”
“Because this is your assignment, Commander Blayne.” Alrick looked sternly at him.
“I understand that, Chief Commander Zartollis,” Michael returned calmly. “I’m still entitled to inquire why I was selected. It might have a bearing on my mission.”
Alrick raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Why didn’t the other commanders give me a hard time?”
“They’re in awe of your legendary status in the SAF,” Michael grinned.
Alrick brought his gaze back to Michael. “So why aren’t you?”
At that Michael laughed. “I know you too well.”
“And you’re not in awe of anyone,” Alrick muttered.
“I don’t see why I should be.”
A look of what might have been apprehension crossed Alrick’s face but it was gone before Michael could be sure. The Chief Commander sighed and then gave a rueful smile. “And I don’t see why I’m even surprised.”
“Right.” Michael laughed again. “Now about this mission…”
“You’re perfect for this assignment, Michael. Trust me.”
Michael shot a quick look at Alrick. He had caught a faint emphasis on the words trust me.
Alrick nodded slightly. Then he clapped the younger man on the back and turned away.
Puzzled, Michael approached the table where Zilla was seated. Valda was standing nearby listening to Gage, who was briefing her on her mission. Petra was lecturing Lucas and Franc.
Zilla raised a brow at Michael. “Not satisfied with your mission, Commander?” she asked.
“I’m not satisfied with the reason I was given for the assignment. My liking for the mission itself is irrelevant.”
“A very correct response,” Zilla grinned. “But I still wonder how you really feel about it.”
“It’s just another assignment. Feelings don’t enter into it.”
“You wouldn’t tell me if they did.” Zilla shrugged and then continued. “Your ship is being outfitted with the components necessary for sidetime travel. Your destination is Earth, in the year 2009, the seventh sidetime. The on-ship computer will be loaded with data pertinent to that time and place. A schematic of the probe will be included. I assume you already understand the concepts of time travel and sidetime?”
“Yes, madam,” he said and then went on as if reciting a lesson by rote. “The theory of sidetime was first postulated by Jerod Dacher in the early 21st century. He speculated time exists in cosmic strings that run parallel to each other, each with a slightly different frequency and, hence, a slightly different reality. He believed a multitude of sidetimes could exist in parallel. Therefore, one could not only go backward or forward in time but jump sideways from one string to another. Thus the term sidetime.”
“I’m glad to see you studied,” Zilla said dryly.
“Thank you,” Michael returned solemnly.
“Alrick was very insistent the four of you be given these assignments. I hope you will take it seriously regardless of how simple it appears.”
“I take everything Alrick says seriously. I would be dead several times over if I didn’t.”
“I doubt that. However, I have a great respect for him. He does nothing without a reason.”
Michael gave Zilla half a smile. “So you don’t know what is going on either.”
“No,” she admitted frankly. “I do not.” She studied Michael’s face closely. “What I can’t decide is whether you do.”
Michael raised a brow at her.
“You never give secrets away by your face.”
Zilla tipped her dark head slightly to one side as she gazed at him. “They don’t know.” She inclined her head toward the other three agents. “I saw that right away. Each looked surprised. But not you. You weren’t surprised. You looked…” She hesitated.
“Yes?” Michael questioned.
“As if you were expecting something more,” she finished slowly.
“An explanation would have been nice.”
“I think there is more to it than that. But if you will not admit it, you will not.” She grinned up at Michael. “By the way, we have installed a Max-Com on your ship.”
“A Max-Com?” Michael inquired curiously.
“Multipurpose Advanced Experimental Computer,” Zilla smiled. “Fresh from the computer techs. We are all interested to see how Max performs.”
“Great,” Michael said with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. Division 9 inventions were notorious for being unpredictable.
Zilla turned her head and signaled to Petra, who had just finished with Franc and Lucas. “Take Commander Blayne to Bay 8. His ship should be ready.”