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". . . And that is about all." Ten days later Ashe, a dressing on his leg and a few of the pain lines smoothed from his face, sat on a bunk in the arctic time post nursing a mug of coffee in his hands and smiling, a little crookedly, at Nelson Millaird.
Millaird, Kelgarries, Dr. Webb, all the top brass of the project had not only come through the transfer point to meet the three from Britain but were now crammed into the room, nearly pushing Ross and McNeil through the wall. Because this was it! What they had hunted for monthsyearsnow lay almost within their grasp.
Only Millaird, the director, did not seem so confident. A big man with a bushy thatch of coarse graying hair and a heavy, fleshy face, he did not look like a brain. Yet Ross had been on the roster long enough to know that it was Millaird's thick and hairy hands that gathered all the loose threads of Operation Retrograde and deftly wove them into a workable pattern. Now the director leaned back in a chair which was too small for his bulk, chewing thoughtfully on a toothpick.
"So we have the first whiff of a trail," he commented without elation.
"A pretty strong lead!" Kelgarries broke in. Too excited to sit still, the major stood with his back against the door, as alert as if he were about to turn and face the enemy. "The Russians wouldn't have moved against Gog if they did not consider it a menace to them. Their big base must be in this time sector!"
"A big base," Millaird corrected. "The one we are after, no. And right now they may be switching times. Do you think they will sit here and wait for us to show up in force?" But Millaird's tone, intended to deflate, had no effect on the major.
"And just how long would it take them to dismantle a big base?" that officer countered. "At least a month. If we shoot a team in there in a hurry"
Millaird folded his huge hands over his barrel-shaped body and laughed, without a trace of humor. "Just where do we send that team, Kelgarries? Northeast of a coastal point in Britain is a rather vague direction, to say the least. Not," he spoke to Ashe now, "that you didn't do all you could, Ashe. And you, McNeil, nothing to add?"
"No, sir. They jumped us out of the blue when Sandy thought he had every possible line tapped, every safeguard working. I don't know how they caught on to us, unless they located our beam to this post. If so, they must have been deliberately hunting us for some time, because we only used the beam as scheduled"
"The Russians have patience and brains and probably some more of their surprise gadgets to help them. We have the patience and the brains, but not the gadgets. And time is against us. Get anything out of this, Webb?" Millaird asked the hitherto silent third member of his ruling committee.
The quiet man adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, a flattish nose which did not support them very well. "Just another point to add to our surmises. I would say that they are located somewhere near the Baltic Sea. There are old trade routes there, and in our own time it is a territory closed to us. Their installation may be close to the Finnish border. They could disguise their modern station under half a dozen covers; that is a strange country."
Millaird's hands unfolded and he produced a notebook and pen from a shirt pocket. "Won't hurt to stir up some of our present-day intelligence agents. They might just come up with a useful hint. So you'd say the Baltic. But that's a big slice of country."
Webb nodded. "We have one advantagethe old trade routes. In the Beaker period they are pretty well marked. The major one into that section was established for the amber trade. The country is forested, but not so heavily as it was in an earlier period. The native tribes are mostly roving hunters, and fishermen along the coast. But they have had contact with traders." He shoved his glasses back into place with a nervous gesture. "The Russians may run into trouble themselves there at this time"
"How?" Kelgarries demanded.
"Invasion of the ax people. If they have not yet arrived, they are due very soon. They formed one of the big waves of migratory people, who flooded the country, settled there. Eventually they became the Norse or Celtic stock. We don't know whether they stamped out the natives tribes they found there or assimilated them."
"That might be a nice point to have settled more definitely," McNeil commented. "It could mean the difference between getting your skull split and continuing to breathe."
"I don't think they would tangle with the traders. Evidence found today suggests that the Beaker folk simply went on about their business in spite of a change in customers," Webb returned.
"Unless they were pushed into violence." Ashe handed his empty mug to Ross. "Don't forget Lurgha's Wrath. From now on our enemies might take a very dim view of any Beaker trade posts near their property."
Webb shook his head slowly. "A wholesale attack on Beaker establishments would constitute a shift in history. The Russians won't dare that, not just on general suspicion. Remember, they are not any more eager to tinker with history than we are. No, they will watch for us. We will have to stop communication by radio"
"We can't!" snapped Millaird vehemently. "We can cut it down, but I won't send the boys out without some means of quick communication. You lab boys see what you can turn out in the way of talk boxes that they can't snoop. Time!" He drummed on his knee with his thick fingers. "It all comes back to a question of time."
"Which we do not have," Ashe observed in his usual quiet voice. "If the Russians are afraid they have been spotted, they must be dismantling their post right now, working around the clock. We'll never again have such a good chance to nail them. We must move now."
Millaird's lids drooped almost shut; he might have been napping. Kelgarries stirred restlessly by the door, and Webb's round face had settled into what looked like permanent lines of disapproval.
"Doc," Millaird spoke over his shoulder to the fourth man of his following, "what is your report?"
"Ashe must be under treatment for at least five days. McNeil's burns aren't too bad, and Murdock's slash is almost healed."
"Five days" Millaird droned, and then flashed a glance at the major. "Personnel. We're tied down without any useful personnel. Who in processing could be switched without tangling them up entirely?"
"No one. I can recall Jansen and Van Wyke. These ax people might be a good cover for them." The momentary light in Kelgarries' eyes faded. "No, we have no proper briefing and can't get it until the tribe does appear on the map. I won't send any men in cold. Their blunders would not only endanger them but might menace the whole project."
"So that leaves us with you three," Millaird said. "We'll recall what men we can and brief them again as fast as possible. But you know how long that will take. In the meantime"
Ashe spoke directly to Webb. "You can't pinpoint the region closer than just the Baltic?"
"We can do this much," the other answered him slowly, and with obvious reluctance. "We can send the sub cruising offshore there for the next five days. If there is any radio activityany communicationwe should be able to trace the beams. It all depends upon whether the Russians have any parties operating from their post. Flimsy"
"But something!" Kelgarries seized upon it with the relief of one who needed action.
"And they will be waiting for just such a move on our part," Webb continued deliberately.
"All right, so they'll be watching!" the major said, about to lose his temper, "but it is about the only move we can make to back up the boys when they do go in."
He whipped around the door and was gone. Webb got up slowly. "I will work over the maps again," he told Ashe. "We haven't scouted that area lately, and we don't dare send a reconnaissance plane over it now. Any trip in will be a stab in the dark."
"When you have only one road, you take it," Ashe replied. "I'll be glad to see anything you can show me, Miles."
If Ross had believed that his pre-trial-run cramming had been a rigorous business, he was soon to laugh at that estimation. Since the burden of the next jump would rest on only three of themAshe, McNeil, and himselfthey were plunged into a whirlwind of instruction, until Ross, dazed and too tired to sleep on the third night, believed that he was more completely bewildered than indoctrinated. He said as much sourly to McNeil.
"Base has pulled back three other teams," McNeil replied. "But the men have to go to school again, and they won't be ready to come on for maybe three, four weeks. To change runs means unlearning stuff as well as learning it"
"What about new men?"
"Don't think Kelgarries isn't out now beating the bushes for some! Only, we have to be fitted to the physical type we are supposed to represent. For instance, set a small, dark-headed pugnose among your Norse sea rovers, and he's going to be noticedmaybe remembered too well. We can't afford to take that chance. So Kelgarries had to discover men who not only look the part but are also temperamentally fitted for this job. You can't plant a fellow who thinks as a seamannot a seaman, you understand, but one whose mind works in that patternamong a wandering tribe of cattle herders. The protection for the man and the project lies in his being fitted into the right spot at the right time."
Ross had never really thought of that point before. Now he realized that he and Ashe and McNeil were of a common mold. All about the same height, they shared brown hair and light eyesAshe's blue, his own gray and McNeil's hazeland they were of similar build, small-boned, lean, and quick-moving. He had not seen any of the true Beakermen except on the films. But now, recalling those, he could see that the three time traders were of the same general physical type as the far-roving people they used as a cover.
It was on the morning of the fifth day while the three were studying a map Webb had produced that Kelgarries, followed at his own weighty pace by Millaird, burst in upon them.
"We have it! This time we have the luck! The Russians slipped. Oh, how they slipped!"
Webb watched the major, a thin little smile pulling at his pursed mouth. "Miracles sometimes do happen," he remarked. "I suppose the sub has a fix for us."
Kelgarries passed over the flimsy strip of paper he had been waving as a banner of triumph. Webb read the notation on it and bent over the map, making a mark with one of those needle-sharp pencils which seemed to grow in his breast pocket, ready for use. Then he made a second mark.
"Well, it narrows it a bit," he conceded. Ashe looked in turn and laughed.
"I would like to hear your definition of `narrow' sometime, Miles. Remember we have to cover this on foot, and a difference of twenty miles can mean a lot."
"That mark is quite a bit in from the sea." McNeil offered his own protest when he saw the marking. "We don't know that country"
Webb shoved his glasses back for the hundredth time that morning. "I suppose we could consider this critical, condition red," he said in such a dubious tone that he might have been begging someone to protest his statement. But no one did. Millaird was busy with the map.
"I think we do, Miles!" He looked to Ashe. "You'll parachute in. The packs with which you will be equipped are special stuff. Once you have them off, sprinkle them with a powder Miles will provide and in ten minutes there won't be enough of them left for anyone to identify. We haven't but a dozen of these, and we can't throw them away except in a crisis. Find the base and rig up the detector. Your fix in this time will be easybut it is the other end of the line we must have. Until you locate that, stick to the job. Don't communicate with us until you have it!"
"There is the possibility," Ashe pointed out, "the Russians may have more than one intermediate post. They probably have played it smart and set up a series of them to spoil a direct trace, as each would lead only to another farther back in time"
"All right. If that proves true, just get us the next one back," Millaird returned. "From that we can trace them along if we must send in some of the boys wearing dinosaur skins later. We have to find their primary base, and if that hunt goes the hard way, well, we do it the hard way."
"How did you get the fix?" McNeil asked.
"One of their field parties ran into trouble and yelled for help."
"Did they get it?"
The major grinned. "What do you think? You know the rulesand the ones the Russians play by are twice as tough on their own men."
"What kind of trouble?" Ashe wanted to know.
"Some kind of a local religious dispute. We do our best with their code, but we're not a hundred percent perfect in reading it, I gather they were playing with a local god and got their fingers burned."
"Lurgha again, eh?" Ashe smiled.
"Foolish," Webb said impatiently. "That is a silly thing to do. You were almost over the edge of prudence yourself, Gordon, with that Lurgha business. Using the Great Mother was a ticklish thing to try and you were lucky to get out of it so easily."
"Once was enough," Ashe agreed. "Though using it may have saved our lives. But I assure you I am not starting a holy war or setting up as a prophet."
Ross had been taught something of map reading, but mentally he could not make what he saw on paper resemble the countryside. A few landmarks, if there were any outstanding ones, were all he could hope to impress upon his memory until he was actually on the ground.
Landing there according to Millaird's instruction was another experience he would not have chosen of his own accord. To jump was a matter of timing, and in the dark with a measure of rain thrown in, the action was anything but pleasant. Leaving the plane in a blind, follow-the-leader fashion, Ross found the descent into darkness one of the worst trials he had yet faced. But he did not make too bad a landing in the small parklike expanse they had chosen for their target.
Ross pulled loose his harness and chute, dragging them to what he judged to be the center of the clearing. Hearing a plaintive bray from the air, he dodged as one of the two pack donkeys sent to join them landed and began to kick at its trappings. The animals they had chosen were the most docile available and they had been given sedation before the jump so that now, feeling Ross's hands, the donkey stood quietly while Ross stripped it of its hanging straps.
"Rossa" The sound of his Beaker name called through the dark brought Ross facing in the other direction.
"Here, and I have one of the donkeys."
"And I the other!" That was McNeil.
Their eyes adjusted to a gloom which was not as thick as it would be in the forest and they worked fast. Then they dragged the parachutes together in a heap. The rain would, Webb had assured them, add to the rapid destruction wrought by the chemical he had provided. Ashe shook it over the pile, and there was a faint greenish glow. Then they moved away to the woodland and made camp for the balance of the night.
So much of their whole exploit depended upon luck, and this small part had been successful. Unless some agent had been stationed to watch for their arrival Ross believed they could not be spotted.
The rest of their plan was elastic. Posing as traders who had come to open a new station, they were to stay near a river which drained a lake and then angled southward to the distant sea. They knew this section was only sparsely settled by small tribes, hardly larger than family clans. These people were generations behind the developmental level of the villages of Britainroving hunters who followed the sweep of game north or south with the seasons.
Along the seashore the fishermen had established more permanent holdings which were slowly becoming towns. There were perhaps a few hardy pioneer farmers on the southern fringes of the district, but the principle reason traders came to this region was to get amber and furs. The Beaker people dealt in both.
Now as the three sheltered under the wide branches of a towering pine Ashe fumbled with a pack and brought out the "beaker" which was the identifying mark of his adopted people. He measured into it a portion of the sour, stimulating drink which the traders introduced wherever they went. The cup passed from hand to hand, its taste unpleasant on the tongue, but comfortingly warm to one's middle.
They took turns keeping the watch until the gray of false dawn became the clearer light of morning. After breakfasting on flat cakes of meal, they packed the donkeys, using the same knots and cross lashing which were the mark of real Beaker traders. Their bows protected from dampness under their cloaks, they set out to find the river and their path southward.
Ashe led, Ross towed the donkeys, and McNeil brought up the rear. In the absence of a path they had to set a ragged course, keeping to the edge of the clearing until they saw the end of the lake.
"Woodsmoke," Ashe commented when they had completed two thirds of their journey. Ross sniffed and was able to smell it too. Nodding to Ashe, McNeil oozed into nothingness between the trees with an ease Murdock envied. As they waited for him to return, Ross became conscious of another life about them, one busy with its own concerns, which were in no way those of human beings, except that food and shelter were to be reckoned among them.
In Britain, Ross had known there were others of his kind about, but this was different. Here, he could have easily believed that he was the first man to walk this way.
A squirrel ran out on a tree limb and surveyed the two men with curious beady eyes, then clung head down on the tree trunk to see them better. One of the donkeys tossed its head, and the squirrel was gone with a flit of its tail. Although it was quiet, there was a hum underneath the surface which Ross tried to analyze, to identify the many small sounds which went into its making.
Perhaps because he was trying so hard, he noted the faint noise. His hand touched Ashe's arm and a slight movement of his head indicated the direction of the sound. Then, as fluidly as he had melted into the woods, McNeil returned. "Company," he said in a soft voice.
"Tribesmen, but wilder than any I've seen, even on the tapes. We are certainly out on the fringes now. These people look about cave level. I don't think they've ever heard of traders."
"Three, maybe four families. Most of the males must be out hunting, but there're about ten children and six or seven women. I don't think they've had good luck lately by the look of them."
"Maybe their luck and ours are going to run together," Ashe said, motioning Ross forward with the donkeys. "We will circle about them to the river and then try bartering later. But I do want to establish contact."
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