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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 13

We did not have much time to ourselves. Johnson finally overcame his shock and put his uniform on as well. For several minutes he stood in front of the mirror, slowly turning around and around, admiring himself.

“Boy, wait until we go to the mess hall,” he said. “Everybody will be envious. We’ll be the honored guests.”

“Honored guests? Surely there’ll be more lieutenants there, and I should imagine that we would be of the lowest ranks. I trust that you had in mind to go to the officer’s mess.”

He hit his brow with his hand. “Of course, I never thought about that. The officer’s mess. Yo u are entirely right. Still, I should think that we’ll be ...” There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Johnson shouted.

The door opened and a corporal stood on the threshold. Gradually my memory supplied all the things I ought to know. For anybody who had been on a military base for some time and had risen to the rank of lieutenant there was quite a bit to know. I could even hazily recall the time we had spent on the Moon, first at Moonbase and then at Farside, that desolate officer training facility. Officer and ranger training facility.

Actually I had never been on the Moon. Less that a couple of hours ago I had been a civilian in what was now the distant past. But at the same time my memory seemed very clear as to when I had been accept­ed as an officer candidate. They had a strange way of deciding who would become and officer and who would not. One day, right after our morning run around the perimeter of the base, we had stood at attention on the parade ground. A Major O’Brien had talked to us, given us a pep talk as he had often done before.

We were at war, and the need for people with initiative was greater than ever. We were to be at such and such a map reference at 0500 the next morning. How we got there was our business. All Major O’Brien men­tioned was that he thought it was located in the mountains to the south.

I clearly recalled the mad rush of our group. Some were going to hunt for transportation. Several groups left immediately. I stood there for a while all be myself. The first thing to do was to find out exactly where this place was. I went to the cartographic section and obtained a map. The map reference he had given us was due east and not to the south at all. It was about forty kilometers away. There were several dry watercourses to cross. I was sure that no ground vehicle could negotiate the crossings. Not even a hovercraft could manage the steep ravines. The surest thing was to simply walk there. And that was what I had done. I had left late in the afternoon after the greatest heat of the day was over.

It was shortly after midnight when I had arrived at the map refer­ence. There was nobody else around. For several minutes I studied the map, now quite unsure whether I was at the correct location. But no matter how I turned, all the evidence indicated that the small level area was the correct site. A couple of minutes before 0500 a small aircraft drifted towards me. It set down some twenty meters from where I was waiting. When the door opened I saw Major O’Brien stand just inside. I approached the craft and saluted.

“Are there any others around?” the major asked.

“No, Sir. I am all by myself.”

And that was how I had been chosen for officer training according to my memory.

I met Bill Johnson when I was waiting to board the Moon shuttle at the civilian space port, Space Terminal West, as it was officially known.

And now a corporal stood on the threshold, saluting.

“Lieutenants Johnson and Kester?” he asked.

“That’s us,” I replied.

“You are to gather up your duffel bags and your personal belong­ings and follow me.”

One last time Johnson admired himself in the mirror. He stood in front of it at an angle so that he could see the three rockets of his sleeve and the stylized warship on his left breast pocket. He also made sure that the corporal saw it but the latter seemed to be quite unimpressed.

I picked up my duffel bag. How did I know It was mine? It had my name stencilled on the tag attached to the top of it. I was ready to leave. It took a little longer for Johnson. It was not because he was slow or had a lot to pack. His worldly possessions were not very numerous. The navy sees to it that you travel lightly. It was just that he was so excited.

“This is it,” he kept mumbling to himself. “This is it.”

At last he was also ready to leave.

“Don’t worry about anything you have forgotten,” the corporal said. “It will be put in storage and you can claim it when you get back.” He was now waiting outside the door. As I passed him I noticed the bar with the string of decorations. It was fastened to his right breast pocket. And the corporal was not a young as he had seemed to be at first glance.

“Are you going to ship out too?” Johnson wanted to know. As he passed the corporal he also noticed the decorations. There were five of them.

“No, Sir. I am attached to Fleet Headquarters now.”

“Where did you get all those?” Johnson asked impulsively, pointing to the ribbons. His voice suddenly sounded very respectful. “I am sorry, I should not have inquired.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” the corporal replied. “I don’t mind. I got them out there.” He raised his left arm and pointed to the ceiling. “Outpost Twelve.”

“Outpost Twelve? You were on Tremaine?”

“Tremaine is not yet the official name, Lieutenant. If you care to follow me, please.” And he marched towards the exit.

We did not go to the mess hall and Johnson did not get a chance to display his new status as indicated by the stylized warship on his breast pocket. He did not get a chance to show that he was now part of Sector III as denoted by the three rockets on his left sleeve. We were not given a chance to do anything at all.

By a route designed to meet as few people as possible we were taken to the office of Major O’Brien. Actually we did not meet a single soul.

A sergeant was waiting in the major’s office. He was a dominating and faintly familiar figure. I immediately had the impression that I was looking at a battle-hardened veteran. While his uniform was clean it was well worn. Somehow the stylized three rockets on his left sleeve just belonged there.

The corporal came to a halt and saluted.

“Lieutenants Johnson and Kester, Sir,” he said. We also saluted.

Major O’Brien rose from behind his desk.

“Gentlemen, at ease.” He was very much in command yet at the same time his words somehow did not seem to say ‘I order you’.

Johnson and I relaxed, but only slightly so. And now I became aware of the two ensigns sitting on a divan in the background. O’Brien nodded to the corporal who had brought us here.

“Dismissed,” he said. The corporal saluted again, turned around and left.

“Let me first introduce you all to each other,” O’Brien continued after the door had closed behind the corporal. “Please be seated, all of you. As I call your name you stand up briefly.”

Johnson and I found chairs along one wall while the sergeant let himself slide into the armchair next to the major’s desk.

“Sergeant Earl Mackenzie is in charge of the ranger detail. He has seen a good deal of action and you are well advised to heed what he has to say even though you outrank him.” The sergeant sat down again.

“The rest of you are all new people, and you will all be part of the crew of one of our front-line ships. Ensign Louise Yasuda is a pilot. Lieutenant Bill Johnson will be the weapons officer. It is a most important position. Ensign Petra Baird is a trained navigator. Without navigators we would not be able to find our way across the star lanes. Lieutenant Carl Kester will be the third officer. Perhaps at some future time he will take command of one of our ships.” We all stood up briefly as the major called our names. Now he rose and came around his desk.

“ASV 659 has successfully completed her trials. Captain Litvak is overseeing the final check-out. For those of you who do not know Roy Litvak, he was the first officer on Captain Warinski’s ship when we first made contact with the Coleoptera. He is an experienced officer and has been on front-line duty ever since this war was forced upon us. I am sure that you will all do your very best.” There was a lot more to his pep talk.

Apparently we had been at war for a couple of years now, accord­ing to Major O’Brien. From somewhere out of the depth of space an intel­ligent species had appeared on the scene, challenging us humans for some of the planets we have begun to explore. They are even threatening our very existence. They are a war-like species, dark in color and are called the Coleoptera. We know very little about them. They are thought to be carnivorous and it is surmised that they are looking for food planets. If the conjecture proves to be true it is of the utmost importance that they do not reach Earth with her teeming billions. It would be our job to help insure the safety of Earth.

Admiral Alvin Marshall was in charge of Inverness base, our for­ward base, about forty light years towards the center of the galaxy as seen from Earth. He would coordinate the patrols of our ships and assign the crews. Inverness, our most distant base, is one of four planets circling a G type star. It is a class A planet, which means a planet suitable for human colonization. It was about to be declared a settlement world when the war broke out. It has a large military base and a civilian settlement comprising mostly of retired service personnel. That was about the gist of Major O’Brien’s address.

Oh, one other thing which he did not mention but which my mem­ory supplied. Our force is called the Survey Service.

The lecture was most interesting to me as it was delivered with flair and enthusiasm. It also provided me with much needed background. The only thing I did not know yet was how far I had moved into the future. And suddenly I remembered that neither Bill Johnson nor I had read our orders. We would have to do that at the first opportunity. Only no oppor­tunity presented itself.

Like me, the others in the room had listened attentively. Slowly Major O’Brien drifted back behind his desk. And then, almost as if on cue, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” the major shouted. It was the corporal again, the same one who had escorted Johnson and me here.

“All is ready, Sir,” the corporal said, saluting.

“Very well, lead the way.” And turning to us he continued: “Please follow Corporal Mellaby.”

Everybody rose. It so happened that Johnson and I were closest to the door and thus were first in line, followed by the sergeant and the two ensigns. Major O’Brien made up the rear. We grabbed our duffel bags and followed the corporal to the elevator.

When the elevator stopped and we stepped out into the lobby I once again felt completely bewildered. The lobby was very impressive. There were several counters along one wall, manned by young, attractive service personnel. Tastefully done posters exhorting officers and the lower ranks to do their best were set in strategic locations. I even noticed two recruiting posters. One in particular caught my eye. It showed a young man and a young woman in their smart dress uniforms standing on what looked like an alien world with a warship hovering in the background. The text at the bottom said something like ‘Join the Survey Service and see the universe’.

Several other groups of people, all in spotless uniforms, joined us from seemingly nowhere. We marched to the center of the lobby. Here we formed into neat, orderly rows. Major O’Brien held another short speech. It was a proper ceremony. At the end we all cheered.

When it was over we were left to ourselves for a while. Our neat, orderly rows fell apart and we drifted about the lobby. For the first time I saw rangers in their battle dress. Near the exit somebody was interview­ing one of them. This particular ranger looked lean and capable. He had an easy smile, yet his manners suggested that he was not one to be fooled around with.

Bill Johnson and I drifted closer so that we could hear what the ranger had to say. He was very modest. Yes, he had met Captain Warinski. Yes, he had been on Tora Two. No, he did not feel like a hero, and there were others who had helped insure his survival.

We were about to drift away again when the ensign operating the recorder motioned us to remain.

The lieutenant doing the interviewing thanked the ranger and then came over to where we were standing.

“I am Lieutenant Densmore,” he introduced himself, “and I repre­sent the news media, more specifically the Survey Service in Action.” Johnson poked me with his elbow. “I am sure that you have watched it many times. With whom do I have the pleasure of talking?”

“My name is Bill Johnson,” Johnson said, “and this is Carl Kester.”

The lieutenant implied a bow in my direction.

“Would you mind standing a bit more at and angle, sort of facing the door?” he asked.

We shifted positions.

“I see that you are on active service in Sector III,” Densmore continued. “Have you been out there long?”

“As a matter of fact, no. Yo u see, we returned from Farside on the Moon only recently. And then we had a few days of furlough. And after that we were posted here to this base. We did not receive our orders until early this afternoon.”

“Isn’t that interesting. And are you looking forward to going to the front?”

“Are we ever! I am going to be the weapons officer on an ASV vessel. I can hardly wait until we face an enemy battle group. We are the lucky ones to be able to go out there and do our bit.”

I was content to let Johnson do the talking. He seemed to know what was going on while I was still trying to come to terms with events. Surely all this was a dream, a very vivid dream perhaps, but still only a dream. And then I thought about the Narvik episode. No, it was real, it was actually happening.

“And you, Lieutenant Kester, have you been assigned yet?” Lieu­tenant Densmore addressed me.

I felt somehow shocked, particularly since I had not paid too close attention just now.

“Yes,” I managed to mumble, and then more affirmatively, “yes, I am going to be the third officer on an ASV vessel.”

“Then you will go out on patrol?”

“Yes, that is the plan.”

“And when will that be?”

“I assume just as soon as we reach Inverness. I understand that Captain Roy Litvak will be our commanding officer.”

“Ah, Captain Roy Litvak. Yes, a very experienced field commander. The best of luck to you, Lieutenant Kester, and also to you, Lieutenant Johnson.”

Densmore saluted. Both Johnson and I returned the salute. Then we drifted out with the crowds.

The sun had moved quite a bit towards the western horizon. Yasuda and Baird were standing next to Sergeant Mackenzie.

“There you are,” the latter said when he spotted us. “What took you so long?”

“ We were interviewed by the news team,” Johnson replied.

“The news team?” Mackenzie furrowed his brow.

“Yes. They were recording our departure. The one from the Survey Service in Action. We could not very well be rude to them.”

Mackenzie growled something which neither of us understood. “Just stick with me from now on. This is not a picnic. Yo u are now on active service. The fun is over,” he said scoldingly.

Both Johnson and I were too timid to make a reply. We were lieu­tenants and he was only a sergeant. Ye t he spoke with authority. We still thought in terms of our training where sergeants had drilled us until we literally dropped from exhaustion. How did I know this? My memory supplied the information.

“Yes, Sir,” Johnson said meekly. I merely mumbled consent.

As I looked up I saw the shuttle with the green letters parked on the tarmac near the bottom of the stairs. Behind us was the flower bed with the giant cactus. From the two potted Joshua trees the marines lounging around out here were forming up into two lines leaving a path in the center which led to the shuttle. And then Major O’Brien came out of the building.

The major walked within a few meters of us. Once again I could see the recording crews discreetly in the background.

“Tenshun,” I heard Sergeant Mackenzie say. His voice was quiet, barely audible, but it carried a great deal of authority. We came to attention.

Major O’Brien said a few more words in a ringing voice, wishing us a successful hunt and saying something to the effect the he hoped to greet a victorious crew - us - in the not too distant future. Then we were dismissed. He shook hands with each of us, saluted and then stepped back.

Led by Sergeant Mackenzie we marched down the center path between the honor guards towards the waiting shuttle.

As we mounted the steps and climbed into the craft I heard three cheers thundering over the field.

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