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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 16

“You are fit for duty,” Doc Williams said to me on the morning of the seventh day after I had completed my exercises. He looked at the chronometer above his desk. “Report to briefing room one.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Thank you, Sir,” I replied.

I lost no time in getting dressed. Slipping into my battle fatigues I was ready to leave sixty seconds later.

“One more thing, Lieutenant,” the doctor said as I was stepping across the threshold. “You will experience a slight discomfort from time to time. According to ancient folklore you will be able to feel approaching rain about a day or so before it arrives. I can’t vouch for that but the discomfort will be real. Take it easy on those days.”

“Yes, Sir. What kind of discomfort? Pain?”

“Perhaps a slight sensation of pain, yes. Also you might get the impression that your ankle is brittle when you step on your right foot after having been sitting for a while. Be careful. Most of the time you will be all right and feel nothing.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” I was eager to leave sick bay.

“We, that is the medical researchers, have spent uncounted years trying to find out why that should be so, but we have not been able to isolate the cause. It is an enigma, the same as aging is. Are you aware that our best brains have labored for centuries trying to find out exactly why we age?”

“No, I haven’t given it much thought,” I replied, fidgeting just beyond the threshold. I could see the seconds slip by on the clock above Doc Williams’ desk. He apparently was not to be hurried.

“Of course, you wouldn’t,” he said. “You are still young. People don’t worry much about aging until they approach the two hundred mark. Then it becomes ... What’s the matter? Are you feeling light-headed, like fainting?”

“No, no, I am quite all right.” When he said that about people living for more than two centuries I noisily took a deep breath.

“Are you sure?”

I nodded. “Yes, Sir. I am quite sure.”

“I guess you are. You look all right to me. A bit elevated blood pressure. But I can understand that. Yo u are eager to get to the briefing room. As I was saying, people don’t think much about aging until they are about two hundred years old. It is the last fifty or seventy-five years that has them worried. We know exactly how the aging process works and what goes on. What we don’t know is why.” His eyes fell upon the clock on the wall above his desk. He had kept me here for five minutes now, talking about geriatrics.

“Oh yes,” he continued, “they do want you in briefing room one. Be careful that you don’t have to spend another week here. Dismissed.” He laughed.

I saluted and left, eager to be out of his sight lest he change his mind.

Suddenly I felt like being in a different world. And I was. I was back in a world of action, in a world where everything had a purpose. I almost ran all the way to briefing room one. My broken ankle had healed completely. I felt no pain, not even any weakness. It was as if I had never had an injury.

I arrived at the briefing room at the same time as Commander Yonge did. He was quite an aloof person. Nobody had been able to get near him on a personal level. Unlike the captain he kept himself apart from the rest of the crew. I saluted and halted, letting him enter first. He returned the salute.

“How are you feeling, Kester?” he inquired.

“As good as new, Sir. I am glad to be back on the active roster again.”

“Good show,” he said and went into the room. I followed him.

The room was not even half full. Chief Engineer Sun Lee was sitting at the table. Commander Yonge picked a seat next to him. On the other side of the chief engineer I noticed weapons officer Bill Johnson. Bill Johnson? He had been second in command of the weapons deck. What had happened to Lieutenant Baker?

Navigator Petra Baird sat across the table from Chief Engineer Sun Lee. I picked a place next to her. She smiled when I pulled out the chair.

“How are you?” she whispered.

“Fine, fine,” I whispered back. “And you?”

“Fine too. I am sorry I could not come for the past couple of days. We were practicing simulated attacks almost nonstop.”

“Attention!” Pilot Yasuda shouted from the door, putting the accent on the last syllable.

We all jumped up. Captain Litvak, tall and imposing, entered, followed by ranger Earl Mackenzie. Then the second officer came into the room, Lieutenant Ruth Appleyard. She was a new face. At last Pilot Louise Yasuda closed the door.

Captain Litvak stood at the head of the table for a few moments, waiting.

“Please be seated,” he said at last, and turning towards me he con­tinued: “Good to have you back on the active list, Kester.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I hastened to reply.

We all pulled our chairs closer to the table as we sat down. The captain remained standing and cleared his throat.

“What happened to Commander Brainswaithe?” I whispered to Petra as we both took our seats.

“She was ordered back to Earth. Promoted to first officer. Had to take some courses, I believe,” she whispered back.

“This briefing is to familiarize you with the purpose of this patrol,” the captain began. “As you are all aware we have a ranger contingent aboard, led by Sergeant Mackenzie. Before we go to our patrol position near Tora Two we will stop at Tremaine, I mean Outpost Twelve, and land the rangers. There have been reports of enemy activity on the surface of the planet. It will be the task of Sergeant Mackenzie and his detail to ascertain Coleopteran strength and their tactics, if possible.”

The briefing lasted for almost two hours. It was the first time that I was thoroughly briefed on our adversaries. They actually were beetles, about one and a half meters in height, dark in color and tremendously vicious. They were physically strong and could run considerably faster than a human. Of course during the voyage from Earth to Inverness I had gleaned some information on the enemy. They were called Coleoptera or beetles. I had naturally assumed that beetles was a nickname for them and that in reality they were mammals. The term Coleoptera did not mean anything to me.

Sure I had seen caricatures of them. But again I had wrongly assumed that they were not beetles, but only portrayed as such. Human political leaders was also drawn in caricatures in the form of birds or bulls or on occasion as worms. I did not dare ask anybody. Naturally the others aboard ship took it for granted that I - like them - was a product of their time and thus was thoroughly familiar with the events of that time.

“You look great,” Johnson said to me when we were back in the corridor at the end of the briefing. “How was it in sick bay.”

I grunted.

“It couldn’t have been as bad as that. Yo u spent a full week there.”

“Not by my choice, Bill. Certainly not by my choice. I understand that you are now in charge of the weapons deck. Congratulations.”

“Thanks, Carl.”

“Don’t misunderstand my next question, Bill, but what happened to Lieutenant Baker?”

Johnson laughed. “I squeezed him out. He was superfluous.”

I stared at him.

“No, no,” he said, “not really. He was transferred. As I understand it he had applied to become weapons officer on a ship commanded by Captain Hank Soo. It seems that they trained together a long time ago. So when the position became available on Soo’s ship - well, I don’t mind. I always wanted to be in charge of the weapons deck. Come on, let’s have a drink before we return to normal space.”

The four of us, Petra Baird, Louise Yasuda, Bill Johnson and I drifted towards the smaller wardroom halfway between the shuttle deck and the weapons deck. For some unexplained reason the four of us stuck together. Louise Yasuda had her eyes on Bill Johnson and he did nothing to discourage her. Bill always struck me as an all right guy. He was a bit on the skinny side and so was Louise. Petra on the other had tended to lean towards the - well, let’s say that she was well proportioned, well padded, without actually being fat. She was lively and fun to be with.

We had our drinks. This time we all opted for hot chocolate.

“It won’t be long now before we will meet the enemy,” Petra was saying as she drained the last of her cocoa. “We are already in the transi­tion zone.”

“Transition zone?” Bill questioned.

“Yes, the zone where the probability of meeting the enemy becomes real. Once we reach the vicinity of Outpost Twelve we are in the battle zone.”

“Oh!” Johnson looked at his chronometer.

“Listen guys, I’ll have to get to my cabin and then to the weapons deck. Normal space is in forty-five minutes. See you.” He patted Louise on the cheek and then rushed off. Louise also left.

Petra moved closer to me. She let her hand slide onto my knee.

“I hope you are not upset,” she whispered. “It is really true. We practiced all the time, battling fires, evacuating wounded personnel and of course attacking the enemy. This is the first free time I have had since leaving Inverness.”

“I thought that you were no longer interested in me,” I slowly replied. “I missed you.”

“Did you really?”

I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to me. “Yes, I did,” I said softly. She leaned against me and closed her eyes. For a few seconds we were content being close to each other.

“When we are back at Inverness we will all get several days of furlough,” she said dreamily. “Maybe we can do some exploring together then.”

“I would like that very much,” I replied and I meant it. The chances of getting back to my own time seemed more remote than ever. Petra put her arm around my waist and pulled me as close to herself as she could.

“They have some completely unexplored areas there,” she contin­ued. “Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the first humans to set foot there?”

“It certainly would,” I concurred. “And with you it would also be fun.”

“I hope that you will not be disappointed at some future time. I am really quite an ordinary girl.”

“I doubt that, Petra. If you were you would probably be still on Earth, working in some dull, uninteresting job. Here you are on an inter­stellar warship, holding one of the most important positions on this vessel.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Without a navigator - how could we find our way?”

“I suppose you have a point. And now that you mention it I see that it is less than half an hour before we cross back into normal space. We had better get up to the bridge.”

“Yes, we had better. How fast the last quarter hour has gone by, Petra!”

“It has indeed, Carl. I hope that we will have many more periods like that in the future.”

“So do I, Petra. So do I.”

She stood up as did I. For an instant she looked at me. Then she quickly bent forward, kissed me and was gone. It was so unexpected that I got no chance to hold her or to reciprocate. Slowly I also left the wardroom.

Five minutes later I found myself at my station on the bridge. Petra stood at the navigator’s position, not far from me. Next to me the second officer’s place was still vacant. The captain and first officer were also still missing. But one of the helmsmen was on duty, and the auxiliary engineering station was occupied by an ensign.

“Twenty minutes to normal space,” the helmsman called out.

I flipped a number of switches and began powering up my station. The large forward screen was still dead. Next to it the navigation screen showed a computer generated star map and our location on it. To me it made little sense. There were points of light all over, some faint, some bright. It was a three-dimensional representation and to my untrained eye utterly confusing. It showed our location as a slowly blinking beacon.

“Fifteen minutes to normal space,” the helmsman called out. Commander Yonge and Lieutenant Appleyard entered the bridge.

“Good to see you at your station, Number Three,” Yonge said as he stepped across the threshold.

“Likewise,” Ruth Appleyard concurred, nodding in my direction.

Yonge stopped behind me for a moment, studying my board. I had it fully powered up by now although all the gauges were still on zero. My station was almost identical to that of the first and second officers. In an emergency the ship could be run by me.

We also had an auxiliary bridge just past the engineering section from which the ship could also be run, in case the bridge was damaged.

At ten minutes before normal space the captain arrived.

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