I am awake…and alive. Evidently the nanotechnology built into my Combat Damage Control has been effective enough to bring me back from the dead, in a manner of speaking.
A quick assessment reveals that I am operative at only 80.2% of baseline capacity, but it may be enough…for what? I realize after only .35 minutes of monitoring RF and hyperwave frequencies that there are neither Concordiat nor Melconian forces active on Cronos or in the Cronos system. Instead, there are scattered signals in English and an as-yet-unidentified alien language, along with fusion powerplant signatures of an unbelievably low efficiency. I remain at the ready while passively monitoring the communications…
The Wildcards paused, gasping for breath inside their suits. "I think we lost those Chigs," Cooper offered, looking hopefully down their backtrail.
McQueen shook his head angrily. "Doesn't matter. They're still between us and the pickup point, and if we don't get Damphousse back to the sickbay soon, she'll be going home in a bag." He looked at his watch. "Another hour until the task force returns."
Shane looked up from her seat on the ground next to her stricken squadmate. "Her pulse is steady, sir, but all this bumping around can't be helping."
At the other end of the defile they'd stopped in, Kelly Winslow peered out in disbelief at the enormous armored vehicle that occupied the plain below. Surrounded by wreckage, it looked like one of the fanciful multi-turreted monster tanks her little brother had drawn in school...only this looked all too real. "Colonel McQueen? Are there any armored units here on Cronos? Earth armor, I mean? "
Paul Wang bellied up next to her. "Jesus," he whispered. "I sure hope that's ours. If that's a Chig tank we might as well pack it in."
Winslow slid backwards to make room for McQueen, who stared in disbelief for a second before answering. "It's not ours…but something tells me it doesn't belong to the Chigs, either."
The tactical communications of the human unit nearest to me are confusing. How can they not be aware of my presence? Has it been so long since the Last War that all records have been lost? Still, they are humans, and in combat against an alien force. My duty is clear. I activate a low-power RF transmitter.
"Unknown human force, this is Unit 1940-GRY of the Line. Request permission to file VSR."
The voice on their comm channel brought Damphousse out of her unconscious state.
"Gary! Oh, God, Gary!" She staggered to her feet for a moment, but collapsed back as the strain proved too much.
Before McQueen could answer, the tank began to roll towards them. The Chig squad that Cooper thought they'd lost appeared on the ridge behind it, only to be immediately shredded by a burst from one of the immense vehicle's after turrets.
There is no question now where duty lies. The voice can only be that of my commander, Major Vanessa Damphousse. Somehow, she and I have survived the carnage, and I must heal her as best I can before consulting her on how best to proceed. There is much about the situation that is confusing, and there are worrisome gaps in my memories.
The tank stopped a meter short of the defile. "Please enter the cargo bay through the access port between the treads. Be quick; there are more of the Chigs approaching, though they will not reach this area for another 20.14 minutes."
The Wildcards lost no time in scrambling aboard. Once Cooper had swung up into the bay, the ladder retracted and the hatchway sealed behind him. Again the voice sounded on the squad frequency before any of them could speak.
"Please bring Major Damphousse forward into the command deck. I will remove the rock fragments lodged in her skull."
"Who exactly are you?" McQueen asked. "And why don't you show yourself?"
"I have shown myself, Colonel. I am Unit 1940-GRY of the Line. You are standing in my cargo bay. Major Damphousse needs immediate surgical intervention, and you cannot get it except from me. Please bring her forward to the command deck."
Shane caught McQueen's arm. "It's an AI! There's an AI running this thing!"
"This is true, Captain Vansen, but not in the sense you appear to intend it. I assure you, I intend Major Damphousse no ill will." There was a touch of asperity to the voice, as if Unit 1940-GRY was an adult dealing with children disappointingly slow on the uptake.
West and Wang picked up Damphousse's limp form between them and trudged up to the open doorway that led to what was apparently the unit's command deck. As they entered, a metal slab extruded itself from one of the walls. As gently as they could, they swung her up onto the slab; as soon as their arms were clear, metal arms with incomprehensible instruments swung out and began to pass back and forth over her body. McQueen shrugged, and gestured to them to rejoin the others.
"Please make yourself comfortable," the Unit said. "Colonel McQueen, I would appreciate some background. Until my Commander recovers consciousness, which she will not do until 25.48 minutes have passed, you are the senior officer present. I require a briefing before I can effectively assist you against the Chigs."
"First, I want some answers. What are you, what are you doing here, and where did you come from?"
"I am Unit 1940-GRY of the Line, assigned to the 64th Armored Brigade here on Cronos. The Brigade was deployed here in a spoiling attack against Melconian forces, which had intended to use Cronos as a forward base against Concordiat forces in the Whill Sector. We were attacked and overcome, though I compute a 68.45% probability that our spoiling attack weakened them enough to prevent further success in this Sector. The Brigade was deployed here with supporting infantry units directly from Fortress Luna as soon as I and my partner, Unit 1941-GML, had completed final testing at the General Motors Bolo Division's complex there."
The Wildcards listened in increasing disbelief. None of what they were hearing made any sense at all. McQueen broke the palpable silence. "What year do you think it is, Unit 1940-GRY?"
"Given the amount of time necessary for my nanotech subsystems to repair my processors and power systems, I compute that this is August 14, 3570 A.D.."
McQueen shook his head. "You're not even close. Try August 14, 2063. We've been at war with the Chigs and their Silicate allies for less than a year. There is no Fortress Luna. There's no Concordiat, just the United Nations. And whatever the Melconians are, we haven't found 'em yet."
"Good thing, too, if this is what you need to fight them," Winslow whispered.
I ponder this information for .025 seconds, rejecting out of hand the notion that this is some Melconian trick. Voice stress analysis and other biometric clues indicate that Colonel McQueen is telling the truth as he knows it. Somehow, I have fallen through a crack in time…or is it reality itself? Is it possible that the woman whose wounds I have just tended is not, in fact, my Commander?
"You are not from my past, Colonel, nor am I from your future. I am apparently an anachronism."
The Wildcards' attention had been totally focused on the conversation, so they were completely surprised by the mocking, rhythmic clapping from the rear of the cargo bay.
"Bravo! Quick thinking, even for a Mark XXXIII Bolo Combat Unit." Six M-590s spun as one to cover the slim, auburn-haired woman who stepped forward literally out of nowhere. "Oh, put those away. Senior Timesweep Agent Mellia Gayl, at your service."
The strain of too much weirdness packed into too little time showed in McQueen's answer. "Not until I get some answers as to just what the hell is going on here."
Gayl shrugged. "There isn't any simple way to explain this without using mathematics you can't begin to understand." She sat down on the deck and clasped her knees to her chest. "The easiest way to describe it is to say that you Marines and the Bolo, along with the Chigs, have fallen into the sump pump of time itself."
I do not like the analogy employed by Agent Gayl, and I could certainly perform the computations she speaks of given the proper grounding. Still, she is providing some order to the chaos of the situation.
"You see," she continued, "there are multiple timelines of human history. Some of them
are artificially produced by time travel, but many of them exist…well, because people want them to exist. People always have speculated about what would happen if Lee won at Gettysburg, or Hitler's Nazis won the Second World War. Get enough people thinking about it, and that creates an alternate timeline. It works that way for the future, too. There's an entire alternate reality built up on the commercial expedition to the Moon launched by one Delos D. Harriman, and another where the United States and the Soviet Union combined in the CoDominium. Of course, you have to have thousands, maybe millions of people thinking in those terms."
"But what about time paradoxes?" Paul Wang blurted out. "Doesn't time travel create those and goof it all up?"
"Not necessarily. Time streams are pretty robust, mainly because they're forks off a pre-existing reality. The actions of individuals do have some effect, but the individual has to be very powerful-a national leader, say. Someone that can affect the lives of thousands or millions of people."
"None of that explains this situation," McQueen interrupted impatiently.
"Not directly," Gayl agreed. "Your situation is somewhat unique. At first, your timestream was rather tenuous, but it gathered strength. Eventually, it became a very solid stream, much like that of our armored friend here."
"Are you telling me," McQueen said softly, "that I'm a figment of somebody's imagination? That all this is an illusion?"
"What is reality, Colonel?" Winslow whispered sardonically into Shane's ear.
"Shut up!" Vansen hissed back.
I perform a brief scan of Agent Gayl. There are no external physical indications of mental illness or injury leading to delusional behavior, but my probes of her internal biochemistry are blocked by some unknown force.
"Originally, yes," the Timesweeper replied. "Now, no. Lieutenant Damphousse's injury is quite real. The death of the Chigs under the Bolo's infinite repeater fire is real as well."
"But where does it all start?" Wang asked. "This…time stream, it can't just be
created out of somebody's imagination! Can it?"
Gayl smiled. "No, you're right about that. Every human time stream has its roots in the Main Line, as we call it. Somewhere, a decision was made, a coin flipped, and a stream forked off. Just like now. We're not too far from a junction-" she glanced momentarily at her wrist, though none of the Wildcards could see a watch or anything else there "-now. Actually we're right in the middle of one."
"What junction is that?" West asked edgily.
"The junction between your future and a future in which humanity loses the Chig War."
"You mean we're supposed to beat the Chigs?" Hawkes said, speaking up for the first time.
Gayl shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on what happens here in the next twenty-four hours. One way, the UN masses the resources to blast the Chigs back to their previous stage of evolution, and the other way, they do the same to you."
"So what's the choice? Where is this junction? And what exactly are you doing here?"
McQueen stared intently at the Timesweeper.
She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and tugged on it distractedly.
"It's all rather obvious, really. Your choice is fairly straightforward. You either carry out your mission with the assets at hand, or you don't." As if you had a choice, her expression read. "The junction is this particular planet, which is located at the intersection of a number of timelines for no good reason that I can see. As for what I'm doing here, well, I'm just trying to survive. My timeline has been dead for several subjective decades-not that that's any of your affair. One way or another, I'll be able to use the energies released in the upcoming battle to jump to another, more stable timeline. As for you, well, I don't know what exactly you're supposed to do. Even if I did, of course, I wouldn't be able to tell you."
A weak voice interrupted. "It's OK, Colonel. I can." Vanessa Damphousse clung to the door jamb with whitened knuckles, and slowly slid to the floor, breathing heavily.
The Wildcards stared at her. In place of her Marine all-atmosphere camies, she wore a
royal blue jumpsuit with unfamiliar insignia, sewn to fabric that had more resemblance to a flashy disco dress than a military uniform. Her head was shaved, exposing the once-fatal head wound. Her eyes wandered occasionally, but snapped back into intense focus whenever she opened her mouth to talk.
"We're in a zone of severe temporal instability here, sir. That's how Gary fell back in time. That's why we're going to win." Her eyes slid out of focus, but only for a moment. "We need to stay here for another hour, sir. The Chigs will be here in force…and we'll be waiting. One squad of grunts…and Gary…against a Chig fleet. Poor Chigs." She smiled dreamily, but not even Cooper mistook the look in her eyes for amusement. Those eyes drifted to regard the Timesweep agent.
"It doesn't matter about her, you know. Little lost Timesweeper. No mission, no family, nowhere to go…driftwood on the sea of time."
"Shut up!" Gayl flared. "You don't know anything about me, Marine!"
"Don't I? I can see it in your eyes, read it from your body. I have the second sight, Agent Gayl. Never doubt it. You know it too, Colonel."
I am less certain than ever that I have chosen the correct course of action, though the data acquired via direct neural input from Lieutenant Damphousse is confirmed by my own sensors. DNA analysis matches the Marine's genes to those of my Commander, and yet…her memories are not those of my Vanessa. We have no history together, this young Marine and I, yet I must still proceed so as to save her life and those of her comrades.
Sensors detect a large number of Chig ships entering range of my Hellbores. I will not have the advantage of surprise long, and I must ensure the safety of my charges.
"Colonel McQueen, I will be unloading you and your troops in five minutes. I strongly advise you to take cover in the abandoned mine complex, since you would not otherwise survive the nuclear exchange to follow in 15.71 minutes. Lieutenant Damphousse is well enough to travel but I advise further treatment once you have rejoined your own forces."
"And where do you suggest I take cover?" Mellia asked with a raised eyebrow,
"As you well know, the release of energies will be sufficient to recharge your temporal transit nodes, Timesweeper. You may ride in the command chair, if you like. Or you can remain here, with the 58th. There is a strong probability that this would be the optimum choice for you, since my knowledge of the systems that enable you to cross between the time lines is far from complete. "
The Timesweeper's eyes went wide. "You shouldn't know anything about those systems!
What…ah. Damphousse's 'second sight', amplified by a Bolo's multiple processors. Of course."
She turned to McQueen. "You'll want somebody to help you with your injured officer, and we can
worry about the explanations later."
McQueen nodded. "Let's go. We don't have a lot of time left."
The Bolo rumbled to a stop outside the mineshaft, and the Marines piled out. Mellia Gayl
carried a semi-conscious Damphousse on her back, running at full speed into the mine behind Hawkes and Winslow, who had moved into the mine on point. The other Wildcards stayed behind as rearguard, though it was certain that any Chig moving toward the mine would be blown to spooge by the Bolo long before they reached the entrance. Still, West pulled a claymore from his pack and stuck it behind a rock, setting a tripwire fuse to ensure that any unwelcome visitors would get a warm reception.
Outside, Gary waited as the Chig relief force approached the valley. As the Chigs'
sensors detected his fusion plant, he opened fire, vaporizing the leading fighters. The second and third waves corkscrewed out of the attack vector, buying themselves a few more seconds of life before the infinite repeaters snuffed them out in turn. Bombardment missiles screamed in from the hive ships lurking over the horizon, but those too erupted in clouds of plasma, whose energy Gary easily and eagerly absorbed.
The Chigs rapidly concluded that the only successful attack would be one that risked the hive ships. Rising above the horizon, the hive ships began to blast away with their shipboard
batteries and kinetic accelerators. Gary hammered back, shattering one hive-ship after another as he moved away from the sheltering valley into a plain that enabled him to engage more of the Chigs even as it exposed him in turn to more of their fire. The rocks themselves were pounded into dust and heated to slag by near misses and leakage from the Bolo's energy screens. Gary avoided entrapment in the slag by activating his gravs, preserving his mobility at a hellish cost in energy. Finally, only a battered trio of hive ships remained, but they were sufficient to stand off and pound the Bolo to scrap with kinetic projectiles, having learned the hard lesson that no ship could win a battle of energy weapons with a Bolo. The weakened Chig force soon departed, harried by the Saratoga's bombers and the other elements of the returning Task Force 34.
Damphousse stirred, and woke out of her uneasy sleep. "He's dead," she announced.
"Gary's dead." The Wildcards regarded her skeptically.
"She's right," Gayl said flatly. "And it's time for me to go."
"No sooner said than gone," Wang cracked, looking at the suddenly empty space where the Timesweeper had been sitting.
"It's probably safe to go out," Winslow said doubtfully, reading the radiation meter in her
helmet. "Just so we don't hang around too long."
"Damphousse, can you move on your own?" McQueen asked.
"I can make it to the pickup point, sir," she said, wobbling to her feet.
"Let's move out, then."
The Wildcards filed out of the cave and regarded the glassy floor of the valley where
the massive Combat Unit had fought its last battle. In the sky, an ISSCV was descending on
its jets. McQueen wondered how he would ever describe what had happened, and then shrugged.
He'd think of something.