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Delia," Professor Athena Carswell said, her voice low with excitement, "I have fully decoded Argenta's Ad Astra journal!"
Delia Sebastian sat at the oval table in a conference room at Red Rock University in Flagstaff, Arizona. "That's awesome!" she exclaimed.
At her right elbow was retired Marine Corps General Beverly Ashton. The three women were discussing one of the greatest secrets on Eartha time-travel lab.
The Ad Astra journal had been stolen from a museum in France. Argenta, a historian and Roman woman in the days of Pliny, had recorded information in this journal about star beings creating a disk and placing pieces of it on Earth. With the information from the journal in hand, they could now move forward with their mission.
Delia studied Athena's heart-shaped face and serious green eyes, which right now sparkled with happiness. In the world outside her lab, so secret it was known only by individuals at the highest levels of the U.S. government, Athena would not be recognized as a genius quantum mechanics physicist. Looks were deceiving, Delia knew.
Ashton stirred. "Better than awesome, Captain Sebastian. Professor Carswell has translated those lost pages you retrieved for her on your last time-jump mission."
Delia had left the Marine Corps, as had the general, but they maintained military protocol. They preferred its efficiency.
"Yes, ma'am," Delia murmured deferentially to the short, blond-haired woman. Delia could see touches of silver at Ashton's temples bracketing her square face with its stubborn-looking chin. When the general was tight jawed, she took on the look of a pit bull determined not to lose a fight. That's why General Ashtonhad been drummed out of her beloved Marine Corps. She had defended Professor Carswell's time travel theories when everyone else wanted to let the professor disappear into history. Ashton had not agreed with the status quo, so she'd been forced to retire.
Undeterred, she had drummed up money from the civilian sector to build the Time Raiders lab here in Flagstaff. The general's belief in Athena's theories had been rewarded, and now they could, in fact, time travel.
Clearing her throat, Delia swung her attention back to the professor, who held a report in her hands. Despite her five-foot-three-inch height, Athena was a force to be reckoned with. Delia had nothing but admiration for the brilliant scientist who was so far ahead of her time.
The 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, had provided a treasure trove of unfamiliar items. The U.S. Army had tried for decades to identify and decode their secrets, but never could. Athena, while working at the Pentagon on the time travel project, had found out about the strange items. Since no one cared about the Roswell crash any longer, the odd collection was released into her care.
Among the items from the Roswell crash was a headband, or what some called a "navigation crown." Athena had cracked the mathematical formula found on a quartz crystal embedded in it, and discovered what the mysterious headband could do: send people back in time.
When she lost twelve volunteers to different periods and cultures, unable to bring them back to the present, the Pentagon quickly dumped her and the project like a hot potato, and more or less booted Ashton out of the Corps.
In the end, it had all worked out. Athena got to keep the alien headband and once the lab was built, was able to discover how to retrieve time jumpers, transporting them back to the present. Now, as a result of the professor's amazing feat, they were ready for some serious missions.
Managing a grim smile, Delia watched lights dance in Athena's narrowed eyes. "I know you've been trying to read Argenta's backward-Latin entries in her journal for some time, Professor. What did you discover?"
Grinning with pleasure, she leaned forward and said, "Where the first of the twelve pieces of the Karanovo stamp seal is located!"
Delia gasped. "You're joking!"
The general snorted. "The professor doesn't joke, Captain. You should know that by now."
"Er that's correct, ma'am." Turning her gaze back to Athena, who was brushing her light brown curls off her forehead, Delia said, "I'm not going to bother to ask how you did it because I know you'd give me a formula I couldn't comprehend. The better question is where is the first piece? What time in history?"
"As always, Delia, you cut to the chase," Athena said. She tapped the papers beneath her hand. "We know the Pleiades constellation is a group of nine, not seven, star systems. This information comes from Argenta's journal, as well as from present-day astronomy. When we sent you to her villa in Pompeii in 44 B.C., you found the leather-bound journal in her study, and copied the pages that were later 'lost.' That's when I knew we were on to something." The lost pages had been stolen out of Athena's office. No one ever found who had done it or why. In order to find out what was contained on those pages, Delia had been sent back to photograph the originals. Excitement rose in her wispy, feminine voice. "Argenta, like Leonardo da Vinci, wrote backwards. It has taken me until just last week to finish translating the Latin text. In one passage, Argenta, who was considered a famous historian in her time, said she knew who had the first piece of the Karanovo bronze sealServilia, mistress to Julius Caesar."
"Are you sending me back to find it?" Delia's pulse began to quicken with that familiar sizzle of excitement. Because of her own Greek heritage, her favorite periods in history were the Roman and Greek empires. She had made three time-travel jumps for the professor after Athena had fine-tuned her use of the alien headband.
Waving her hand, the professor said, "Beverly and I have been working hard to map out this next Time Raider journey. And yes, you are being chosen to go back to 44 B.C."
Delia had been the first volunteer to be sent back in time once Athena thought she'd figured out the retrieval formula. No one had been certain that her tweaks would work. But the jump into the past, plus the return, had been successful.
Athena then sent Delia twice more to the historian's study in Pompeii to locate her mysterious journal. Delia brought the journal back, copied the missing pages and then returned it. Even then, parts of the journal had been missing. So Athena had sent Delia as a Time Raider to Argenta's villa to locate those missing pages.
The professor had been right: those critical passages contained information and a drawing with the twelve pieces of the Karanovo bronze seal, each carved with a different constellation. In the journal Argenta said a fake one would be left on Earth while the real one was cut into twelve pieces. When all were found and fitted together it would create the disk in the journal. The fake had been made, Argenta wrote, to throw off the enemy.
"And you're sure the bronze fragment is there?" Delia asked now.
Frowning, Athena scrubbed her brow and muttered, "Servilia is Julius Caesar's former mistress. She's powerful and savvy. She's been shunted aside for young, beautiful Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, who has, by the way, borne Julius a son. A son he's always wanted but never gotuntil now. Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, has been pushed aside, as well. But it is Servilia who has a piece of the seal, according to Argenta's journal."
"Where is it?" Delia asked.
"We don't know," Ashton said unhappily. "All we can do is have Athena set the course once she puts on that headband and sends you through time to Servilia's location. From there, you're going to have to put clues together like puzzle pieces. Follow the woman around like a cosmic bloodhound until you locate it."
The professor produced a colored photo of the Bronze Age stamp seal that had been unearthed by archaeologists in Bulgaria, near Nova Zagora. "This disk was discovered in 1991. There are twelve constellations emblazoned on it. The seal is solid bronze, six centimeters in diameter and two centimeters thick. What is of great interest to me is that a drawing of this very disk was found in Argenta's journal, among those missing pages you copied. It is an exact copy of the one found in Bulgaria. The Roman historian said that the twelve constellations represent twelve pieces of another seal that was deliberately cut apart by the Star people. When the pieces are fitted together they make a round disk. The twelve sections were scattered around the world, in different cultures and different time periods, apparently. According to my calculations, the time line could cover thousands of years, from Egypt onward to the nineteenth century."
Fascinated, Delia studied the round bronze stamp, which reminded her of an old, worn copper coin. "So I'm going after one of the twelve pieces." She lifted her head. "You say it's the first piece?"
Athena shrugged. "I don't know. But in her journal, Argenta did identify it as the first. And said that Servilia was using it."
"How?" Delia wondered. "Does it possess properties like that headband you wear to send us back and forth in time?"
Again the professor shrugged. "That's something you'll have to discover once you and your partner find it."
"Partner?" Delia swung her head toward the general. The dark blue business suit Beverly Ashton wore wasn't a uniform, but her squared shoulders and the proud way she wore it shouted of her military background. "General? What partner? I've always time traveled alone."
"Not on this mission," Ashton said. She glanced at Athena briefly and then went on. "The professor has created an ESC, or emergency signaling cuffa metal armband with a quartz cabochon embedded into it. The crystal has been imprinted with your brain-wave pattern and frequency as well as the professor's. Information on our time and location are contained in it as well. Now that we know she can send and retrieve a time traveler, we needed to create better plans for future missions."
"Take a look," Athena said, pulling something from the pocket of her white lab coat. She held up a silvery armband, then set it on the table in front of Delia. "You can wear this on your wrist or your arm. It's made from titanium, so it's lightweight and won't break. Through it we will remain connected no matter where you are in time. Never take it off. When you're ready to come back, all you have to do is press the crystal with your finger and it will send a signal to me. I'll bring you home."
Delia raised both hands. "Whoa! Wait a minute. What's this about a partner?"
The former Marine Corps officer eyed her soberly. "As we move into Time Raider mission mode, we will try a team for the first time. That way, if one of you gets hurt or killed, the other can continue the mission and complete it."
Delia was aware that Athena had sent other volunteers besides herself back in time. After recalculating the mathematical formula and upgrading the headband's crystals, the professor had managed to ensure she never lost anyone again. "But," Delia sputtered, "you've always sent us alone."
"This mission is different, Captain," Ashton said. "We have an objective, a target, and it's a serious and deadly business. We have no idea what the pieces of the Karanovo seal really represent aside from what we've learned via Argenta's journal." She grimaced wryly. "Two heads are always better than one. Athena will time-jump a team for this trip, not an individual."
Delia shook her head in protest. "I don't want a partner, General. I've done everything you've asked of me on my other missions. And I did so alone."
"Don't go getting bent out of shape on this, Captain." Ashton drilled her with her blue eyes. "You don't have a choice in the matter."
Delia saw the pit-bull look appear on her face and knew there was no use arguing with the former Marine Corps officer. "Yes, ma'am, I hear you."
"You don't have to agree with our change of policy, but you do have to take a partner," Ashton growled. "I'm ordering you to team up with Captain Jake Tyler. He's U.S. Army Special Forces. His mother is a professor of history at Cornell University and his father a professor of medicine."
She pulled out a file and handed it to Delia. "Tyler has psychic abilities as a mind reader. He's got a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in Roman culture, which is why he was chosen. He knows all about the societal framework of that period and will provide excellent backup to your own psychic skills."
Shock bolted through Delia and she barely heard Ashton's words. The only ones that registered seemed to burn into her heart, filling her with rage. Captain Jake Tyler !
Choking, she rasped, "There's no way in hell you're hooking me up with that Neanderthal bastard, General. No way!" She started to rise out of her chair.
Ashton's arm shot out like a snake striking. She gripped Delia's forearm. "Sit down, Captain. And let's just turn down the volume on this tirade, shall we?"
Delia sank back in her seat and Ashton released her arm, still scowling disapprovingly. Okay, so she wasn't behaving rationally about this, Delia admitted. But Tyler always stirred up that kind of violent reaction in herfrom the aching need to be in his arms, to sharing his bed, to blinding anger. Glaring at the general, she growled, "Then tell me why you'd ever team me up with that caveman?"
"He might be a Neanderthal," Ashton retorted, "but he's got the right credentials for this mission. His background is exactly what is needed to find that bronze piece from the Karanovo seal."
After clearing her throat, Athena interjected, "Delia, remember what is at stake here. In the Ad Astra journal I translated, Argenta admitted she was a 'plant' from the Pleiades, not an Earthling."
"She's an alien?" Delia felt her eyes grow round as she snapped her head toward the professor.
"Yes," Athena said emphatically. "From what I can piece together from the recent journal pages you retrieved, she was deliberately planted here by the Galactic Council. As a mole to spy on our civilization. Argenta was from the constellation Pleiades and they were a part of that council."
Stunned, Delia stared at both women, who nodded almost in unison. "But why? Alien? We knew from her journals that the Pleiadians were enlisted by the Council to embed some sort of message into the twelve pieces of the disk. But this is a new twist."
"Argenta was an alien monitor planted here on Earth," Athena told her. "I wouldn't be surprised if she was the one to give Servilia that section of the seal. I can't prove it. There's nothing in her journal to make my guess a fact, but my gut tells me so.