"I can't imagine wearing this many clothes all the time," Crystal grumbled, shifting uncomfortably in her gingham dress, then grabbing for a handhold as the wagon lurched over a rut in the dirt trail.
"Goes with the era, babe," Derek replied, "one more mile and we should encounter the Union Army camp."
"Let's hope their sentries aren't as trigger happy as the ones that shot General Jackson."
"This assignment will be a challenge," Rhada Nuveen said to her top TMA agents at their briefing. "It's been determined that the Rectifiers intend to change the outcome of the American Civil War in the mid-18th Century. As usual, their reasons are obscure, but they must be stopped.
The Looking Glass Techs have studied the situation and decided you should be disguised as neutrals in the conflict, yet be able to traverse all areas at will to search for Rectifier agents. Merchants of the period called 'Sutlers' loaded consumer goods in wagons and sold them to the soldiers of both Union and Confederate armies. They were welcomed wherever they went; that will be your cover."
"Along with period clothing, you will be outfitted with a peddler's wagon, various items to sell and a rather special team of horses. Are there any questions?"
"What about weapons?" Derek asked.
"You may carry your molecularly reduced edged weapons, of course. In addition you will have what appear to be pistols and rifles of the period, but with vastly increased striking power. Explosives will be concealed in the wagon and available as necessary."
"Any indications as to whether they're using cyborgs or human agents?" Crystal asked.
"Not that we can confirm, but given the magnitude of this undertaking they'll probably be using both."
"The two of us against all of them, sounds fair to me," Derek said winking at Crystal.
"Not really," Rhada replied, "You'll have some backup in case of trouble."
"Are other agents coming with us?" Crystal said.
"Not exactly," Rhada replied with an enigmatic smile.
"I'm detecting the scent of men," said Alpha. "We're getting close to the Union camp."
"Given the sun angle and the smell of wood smoke, they're preparing the evening meal," Beta added.
If a stranger had been present, they would have been startled to hear the agents conversing with the horses pulling the Sutler wagon. They weren't real horses of course, but Cyber Horses; cleverly disguised robot animals whose appearance would withstand the most intent scrutiny. They even carried scent projectors that gave them the distinct odor all horses have.
They required no food or water being powered by a small nuclear fission engines connected to servomotors and hydraulic actuators. They could outrun any real horse, fight skillfully, deflect any bullet or sword cut and carried automated medkits in case of human injuries.
Soon, they could see the smoke from cooking fires. Then they were challenged by a sentry to advance and be recognized.
A young man approached them, musket at the ready, his blue uniform fit him poorly and they could see by his demeanor he was frightened but determined. "He's a new recruit," Derek whispered to Crystal, "He can't be over seventeen."
"We're merely peddlers, soldier," Crystal called out to him. "We mean no harm."
The sound of a woman's voice seemed to relieve the young man's tension and he walked to the wagon where Krystal perched on the seat, removing his hat.
"Begging your pardon ma'm. Sergeant Kelly said we're to challenge everyone who approaches the camp. We haven't seen any Sutlers for over a week now. The men will be glad you're here."
"Thank you, soldier," Crystal replied. "Are you in need of anything for yourself."
"I have almost no money, ma'm. We haven't been paid yet." He fumbled in his uniform pockets and found a coin. "I can't buy much with a penny."
"Wait a minute," Crystal said, reaching into the wagon and retrieving something wrapped in leather. "I can sell you this for a penny," and handed it to the boy.
He leaned his musket against the wagon and untied the leather thong holding the small bundle together. It unrolled to reveal all the items necessary to write letters; paper, pens, ink, blotters and pen cleaners.
"Oh, ma'm," he said wide eyed, "This is worth much more than a penny. Are you sure that's the price?"
"Yes indeed, one penny please, young man."
He handed Crystal the penny as Derek sat not speaking, but smiling at the soldier. Crystal had made a good move. Once the word was out that these Sutlers were not cheating people, they would be swamped with customers and they could check them out. Alpha and Beta would be tethered nearby, detectors alert for any potential Rectifier enemies.
Just then an Army officer rode up, flanked by two soldiers. The startled sentry grabbed his musket and stood at attention.
"Are things under control here, soldier?" he said gruffly.
"Yes, sir, these folks are asking to be allowed to sell their goods to the troops."
"Sutlers, eh? Hmph! You can pass, but if I hear you're cheating the men you'll be run out of here at the point of a bayonet."
"We're honest peddlers, major," Derek said, noting the man's rank. "We won't cause any trouble."
"See that you don't." He wheeled his horse around and trotted back to camp with his escorts.
Derek said "Giddyup" to Alpha and Beta and they rolled towards the camp, leaving the young sentry quite pleased with his purchase.
By day's end, they had sold everything in the wagon, promising to return with more. The Time Techs had carefully researched which items were most desired by the troops to attract the maximum number possible to the wagon where they could be observed as Alpha and Beta stood tethered nearby scanning the encampment. They had a resupply scheduled in two days through the Time Portal.
Retiring to their tent, they discussed the day's events.
"All those soldiers and not one contact," Crystal said, removing the hated dress. "What a day. And that smell, phew."
"Bathing's low priority with them," Derek replied, "Those wool uniforms are totally unsuited for this summer heat, but they're all they have."
"I'm glad we can relax in here," Crystal replied, naked and stretching luxuriantly.
Derek finished undressing and lay beside her in their tent. It appeared to be made of waterproofed cotton, but was in fact Armorweave, capable of resisting a cannon ball. Outside air was filtered, cooled and recirculated through a silent nuclear fusion pump to guard against germs and lethal fumes. They had bedded down some distance from the army encampment for privacy while Alpha and Beta stood guard outside and their wagon was secured against intruders.
Crystal rolled on her stomach saying "Massage my shoulders, babe. I'm a little stiff from lifting those boxes."
Derek smiled and complied. She was in superb physical condition as he was; this was a teasing prelude to white hot sex.
"What are the agents doing?" Alpha said.
"A human ritual called mating," Beta replied. "It is how they reproduce."
As night fell, they switched to stand-by mode and stood motionless, detectors on maximum range to await the morning.
Following replenishment of their supplies and additional observations of the battle as it would occur by the Looking Glass Techs, Derek, Crystal, Alpha and Beta were transported within a few miles of the Confederate Army encampment at Gettysburg. A follow-up visit to the Union Army camp had yielded no results, so it was determined that the Rectifier agents were concealed somewhere within the Confederate Army.
"Riders approaching," Beta announced, "Three men, armed."
"Keep that stunner handy, babe," Derek said. "These Confederates are low on supplies due to the Union sea blockades. They may be desperate enough to try to confiscate what we have."
"Ready and waiting, here they come now."
Three men rode toward them dressed in gray uniforms, the leader was older and bearded, and the other two were no more than youths. Derek stopped the wagon and the men reined in in front of them.
"Where y'all head'n," said the bearded man. He wore sergeant's stripes on his sleeve, the others had no insignia except a 'CSA' on their pillbox uniform caps.
"We were hoping to do a little business with the troops," Derek said pleasantly. "We have some goods they may be interested in."
"Tain't nobody got no money," one of the youth's muttered. "We ain't been paid in weeks."
"You'll find our prices quite reasonable," Crystal said, smiling pleasantly, hand tight on the grip of the stunner concealed in the fold of her skirt. "May we pass, Sergeant ... what is your name, sir?"
"Blakely, ma'm, Ephraim Blakely. These here boys are Cletus and Luther. They's new to the Army."
"At least we's got sumpin' ta eat," said Cletus. "We was near to starvin' back home."
"Whyn't we jes' take the wagon for ourselves, Ser'jint," Cletus said in a sudden burst of bravado. "They kin ride them hosses back where they come from."
"You hesh yer mouth, boy," Sergeant Blakely snarled, cuffing the youth in the head. "We's sojers of the Confederacy, not some dang bushwhackers. You hafta excuse him, ma'm," he continued. "As I said, they's new. Y'all git back to camp and tell 'em a Sutlers comin'. Now scoot."
The young soldiers galloped away and the Sergeant shook his head. "I does what I kin with whut they sends me. They're barely in long pants and already they's in the Army. They rightly knows how to shoot though."
"A lifetime of hunting, no doubt," Derek replied. "Thanks for letting us pass, Sergeant."
"I have something you may be interested in," Crystal said, reaching into the wagon, withdrawing a leather pouch and handing it to him. "Here, have a look."
Inside the pouch was a shaving kit containing a straight razor with an ivory handle, shears, a comb, a shaving brush, a bar of shaving soap and a small hand mirror. The Sergeant whistled in appreciation.
"This surely is fine, ma'm," he said, rubbing his scraggly beard, "but I don't rightly think I kin afford this."
"I'm sure you can," Crystal replied, "The price is one penny."
"Whut, one penny for all this, air you funnin' me?"
"No indeed, one penny is the price."
The Sergeant dug eagerly in a pocket, produced a penny and handed it to her with a flourish.
"This is mighty generous of y'all. Some Sutlers try to cheat anyone who they deal with. I heard some got shot down yonder in Raleigh."
"You'll find us quite reasonable to deal with," Derek said. "Now which way is your camp?"
"I happens to be goin' that way," the Sergeant replied with a grin, "Y'all follow me."
"Another day and nothing," Derek said disgustedly as Crystal massaged his shoulders. In the privacy of their tent they had removed their uncomfortable period clothing and were relaxing in their skins.
There had not been as many soldiers with money as the Union camp, but by lowering their prices and extending credit they had attracted even more men for stealthy examination. The detectors never wavered. No Rectifier agents or their cyborgs were in the crowds.
"I can't imagine the Time Techs were wrong on this one," Crystal answered. "How does that feel now?"
"Much better, I feel more relaxed."
"Part of you isn't."
"Can you massage that too?"
"I have a better idea."
"Mmmm ... that's a good idea."
"Let's go riding for a while."
"They're mating again," said Alpha. "These agents seem to favor such activities."
"There are advantages to being a robot," Beta replied. "No distractions from the mission."
"Accurate programming assures success," Alpha said sagely.
"Such are the inherent flaws in meatware," Beta continued. "That they created us is a fact, but highly illogical."
They powered down and stood motionless, setting their receptors for the morning light.
"Wake up, agents," said Alpha, pushing it's muzzle into the tent, "Something's going on in the camp and our detectors are going off the scale."
Derek and Crystal scrambled into their clothes and joined the robots outside. The air was filled with hoots, hollers and Rebel yells from the milling mass of troops surrounding a group of limbers, caissons and cannons each drawn by two teams of horses; their crews standing nearby surrounded by officers.
"I'll go down there and see what's going on," Crystal said. "They won't be suspicious of me."
"Be on your guard," Beta replied. "Those cannons are of recent manufacture composed of alloys unknown in this era. We're also detecting Rectifier cyborgs among the gun crews."
"Keep me covered, then," she replied. "I'd rather we take them out in a less exposed area."
"We'll use blast rifles set on stun," Derek added, "Less messy that way."
In response, Alpha and Beta opened their mouths as stubby barrels emerged and locked on their gun crew targets.
"What's all the fuss?" Crystal said to a soldier at the edge of the crowd.
"Gen'l Lee done sent us some new artillery from Richmond," was the response, "Six of them 12 pounder Napoleons fresh from the found'ry. They'll put some rock salt on them Yankees tails."
Crystal moved carefully through the milling crowd of excited soldiers until she could observe the cannons and their crews more closely. Everything appeared to be authentic, and then she saw the telltale sheen of synthoflesh on the cheek of one artilleryman. It was a cyborg. Keeping out of direct view of the Rectifier's, she determined that the gun crews were cyborgs mixed with human's acting as officers, then retreated back through the crowd and rejoined her teammates.
"Those cannons look authentic," Crystal said, "Although I'm willing to bet they conceal another type of weapon; enough to turn the tide of battle against the Union Army."
"Blast Projectors or Nucleonic Beamers would do the trick," Derek replied. "However, I can't imagine them using anything that out of synch with the time line."