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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 18

“Status report,” Roy Litvak barked as he crossed the threshold to the bridge.

“Six minutes to normal space,” navigator Petra Baird called out.

“Everything is ready for action, Sir,” Commander James Yonge informed his captain. “All stations are powered up. We are ready to initiate the transfer sequence.”

“Very well, Number One. Carry on.”

The entire bridge complement was at their stations. I kept my eyes on the gauges in front of me. By now I was thoroughly familiar with them, as if I had been a survey service vessel officer all my life.

“Five minutes to normal space.”

Everything was routine. So far we had not made contact with the enemy but with each jump we came closer to the region of space controlled by the Coleoptera and chances of running into one of their battle groups increased.

“Engineering, we need maximum power in four minutes,” the first officer ordered.

“Aye, aye, Sir. We’ll be ready,” came the reply.

“Repeller field, Lieutenant Appleyard.”

“Powering up right now, Sir,” the second officer replied.

Yonge punched several keys on his computer. At my station all the gauges stood at zero. I had already run through my test sequences. I had even checked out the manual override switch on the top of my console. The chronometer counted backwards. We were coming up to the three minute mark.

“Course vector 61 93 27, Helmsman.” Captain Litvak’s voice was still gruff but I fancied that it had mellowed somewhat over the past few minutes.

“Aye, aye, Sir. Course vector 61 93 27,” the helmsman acknowl­edged as he entered the course into his computer. “Laid in, Sir,” he added after a slight hesitation.

“Sound the alert, Mr. Yonge. Code three.”

“Aye, Sir.”

The captain had barely finished giving the order when the klaxons began hooting and the red lights started flashing.

“Battle stations. Code three alert. Battle stations.” The sound from the loudspeakers was neutral but we all felt our heart rate increase. Our blood pressure rose, and everybody breathed more quickly.

“Two minutes to normal space.” Even navigator Petra Baird’s voice had suddenly acquired an edge.

“What do you figure our chances are of running into an enemy patrol?” I heard somebody whisper behind me. I half turned around. Ensign Louise Yasuda was looking at ranger Earl Mackenzie. It was quite clear that she was nervous.

“We have been lucky so far,” the sergeant whispered back. “We’ll find out as soon as we are across the barrier.”

“Weapons, deck,” Commander Yonge said.

My eyes flew to the left of my console. The grenade launchers showed a green light. The laser banks were charged as well. Energy was flowing through the accelerator rings of the particle guns.

“We’ll be ready.” Johnson’s voice was distorted by the speaker.

The routine was standard, just like on a training exercise.

Would this be the time when the enemy would be waiting for us? Theory predicted that the fabric of space would bulge slightly where a ship was about to enter normal space. Of course it was imperceptible to the unaided eye. And there was really no fabric of space, it was merely a mathematical concept. However the proper instruments should be able to detect it. Our side did not possess that type of instrument. Our scientists were still not sure what kind on instrument could pinpoint a bulge in space. But it was rumored the Coleoptera had such a device. It certainly would help explain our tremendous losses. On a statistical basis the loss ratio of our ships stood at thirty-five percent. That meant that one out of every three ships was lost while on patrol. Or looking at it from a different angle, the probability of safely reaching Inverness again stood at only sixty-five percent. Statistically no ship could expect to survive its third patrol. It was a dismal prognosis indeed.

“One minute to normal space.”

I shuddered. I had let my mind dwell on the statistical probability of whether we would survive this patrol. I swallowed. In less that sixty seconds we could all be dead. I checked my station for the tenth time while all over the bridge orders were given and acknowledged. Since none were for me they faded into the background noise.

“Thirty seconds to normal space.”

“Navigator, plot an escape trajectory,” the captain ordered.

“Plotted and laid in, Sir. On code E green.”

“On code E green. Thank you, Navigator.”

Everything worked like a finely tuned, complex machine, which in fact it was. The long hours of training were paying off.

“Twenty seconds to normal space.”

Everybody waited. We were as ready to face the unknown as we could be. Once again I scanned my board. The grenade launchers still showed the green light. The laser banks were fully charged. Even the particle guns were ready for instant action. I noticed that Bill Johnson had them under computer control which meant that they would instantly swivel towards an enemy and discharge their lethal streams of proton and neutrons at almost the speed of light. The accelerator rings were pulsing with energy.

Somehow this time it felt different. For the past couple of weeks we had often returned to normal space ready for action the instant we popped past the barrier. We had been training and we all knew it. Not once had we spotted an enemy battle force.

At the beginning of the war a couple of years ago the Coleoptera, like ourselves, had had patrols consisting of single warships. Yo u met your opponent and you were either victorious or you succumbed. It was a questions of skill and perhaps a shade of luck. But mostly it was expertise and experience. Then not quite a year ago the enemy had changed his tactics. Now the standard Coleopteron formation was three ships and on occasion four. We called them battle groups.

It was rumored that once you met a battle group your fate was sealed. There was almost no chance of escape. The grapevine said that our losses exceeded ninety percent in such an encounter. That meant that only one ship in ten was lucky enough to elude an enemy battle group. Our side did not have enough ships to also form battle groups.

“Ten seconds.”

The navigator’s voice was tense and apprehensive. It did not sound at all like Petra. Although in theory I did not belong into this time period I felt sure that I was as vulnerable as anybody else. Like the rest of the crew I could also be killed. And once dead there would be no future for me either.

Once more I studied my board. The repeller field was in place. Everything else was in readiness as well. We could not activate our defences except for the repeller field until we were past the barrier. All the lights on my station glowed either green or yellow. The airtight partitions throughout the ship had slid into position a long time ago.

“Five seconds,” the navigator counted. “Four, three, two, transition sequence, zero. Normal space.”

It was a smooth transition. Aboard ship we did not feel a thing. The instant we were past the barrier my eyes flew to the motion detectors. They quivered.

“Enemy at extreme range,” I yelled. I swiveled towards the right. There it was. The computer had already analyzed the exhaust signature of the ship. It was indeed of Coleopteron manufacture.

“Enemy vessel? Are you sure, Lieutenant?

“Aye, Sir. Vector 71 69 73 positive.”

Everybody’s eyes flew to the big forward screen. The ripples were still rolling across it, from left to right and from top to bottom, as the computer cleared the projections and substituted the real picture.

Some of the stars slightly shifted positions.

Ensign Baird was busy at her station, calculating our exact location. I had my eyes back on my board. I flipped all the switches on the bottom to on. The deflectors snapped on as did the magnetic field. Then it began to build.

“Deflectors on,” I reported. “Magnetic field has passed the one thousand gauss mark and is building.”

“Helmsman, change course to vector 10 23 41 negative.”

“Aye, Sir. 10 23 41 negative.”

“At maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, Sir. Max acceleration.”

We sheared off from our course. At the same time I became aware of the hum in the background as the ship picked up speed. I felt a tug which kept gaining strength. The hum quickly increased in pitch and volume as the centrifugal forces and the acceleration overloaded the gravity compensators.

“Mr. Johnson, take a few pot shots at him with the particle guns,” the captain shouted into the intercom. We were four seconds into normal space. I could see the discharges on my board as the protons and neutrons left the aft guns. Power levels had dropped to sixty-five percent. We were in good shape. We were accelerating away from the enemy. The whine of the gravity compensators began to diminish again as the centrifugal force lessened. I kept a sharp eye on the motion detectors.

On my small number one monitor I noticed a sparkle around the enemy ship. The particle beam was right on target. It had taken eight seconds to bridge the distance.

“Enemy ship is about two million klicks aback,” I shouted.

Captain Litvak nodded acknowledgement.

Suddenly the motion detectors jumped halfway up the scale. In an instant the computer had sorted out the interference.

“Two more enemy ships have materialized,” I yelled. “Vector 72 68 79 positive. Range one million klicks.” I blinked and glanced at the doppler gauge. They were approaching us, sure enough. However, we had accumulated a good velocity and they were not likely to catch us. Had Captain Litvak not ordered a change in course as soon as we were past the barrier we would have been right between them.

“Keep the particle guns trained on the decoy, Mr. Johnson,” the captain said to the weapons officer over the intercom.

We were too far away to be effective. It took seven seconds for light to bridge the distance to the decoy ship, longer for our particle beam. Conversely it was easy for the enemy to evade the beam. And our objec­tive was not to engage the enemy. Our objective was to land the rangers on Tremaine, if possible unseen by the Coleoptera. Once that was accom­plished we were to patrol in the Tora region, a long way from Tremaine. Our job was to harass the enemy, not to engage a superior force.

“How are we coming, Navigator?” Captain Litvak asked. He clearly was not worried.

“Ten more seconds, Sir,” Baird replied.

I kept my eyes on my board. The doppler indicated that we were receding from the two enemy ships, that is the distance between us was increasing. Ye t I knew that they were following us. At the rate we were moving the doppler shift should have been twice as large.

And then they suddenly blinked out. They blinked out simultane­ously.

“Enemy ships have jumped,” I shouted.

The captain glanced at Petra Baird.

“Course calculated,” she said, hesitating for a second. She punched a code into her computer. “And laid in,” she concluded.

“Helmsman, execute jump.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” the helmsman replied, pushing the red jump button at the side of his console.

The ripples ran across the screen. At my station the motion detec­tors jumped across the scale as the two enemy ships broke through the barrier. I was about to advise the captain when the needles fell back to zero. We had jumped.

I heaved a deep sigh of relief as did the second officer, Lieutenant Appleyard. We had been in normal space for less than thirty minutes.

Captain Litvak rose.

“Normal routine,” he ordered and then left the bridge. At the threshold he halted briefly. “I shall see you in my cabin, Navigator,” he said over his shoulder and was gone.

I had the first two hour watch. When I came off duty Commander Yonge was waiting for me. The next four hours we spent on simulated battles, us against the computer. Then we had an hour-long damage control drill.

When we returned to normal space seven hours after the jump had commenced we were all alone. So far no enemy vessel had fired a single shot at us. But that was all going to change soon.

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