“Normal space,” Ensign Petra Baird called
out from her station.
I looked up and saw the ripples running across the screens. The star
pattern was abruptly replaced by a bright, central sun and its
planetary system. Slowly the ship turned, centering its destination on
On my station the gauges remained at zero. There was no enemy battle
group anywhere near. Or far, for that matter. The port deflector had
been repaired by Chief Engineer Sun Lee after we had shaken the battle
group two days ago. It was almost as good as new, being ninety-six
percent effective. Four percentage points were not much. At least so I
Our power reserves were right up there at one hundred percent. We were
drifting in the Tremaine system, thirty-seven AU’s out from the sun. The
seconds turned into minutes and the minutes kept piling up. I let my
eyes rove over my station. But no matter how hard I watched, the
mass-proximity units stayed at zero as did the motion detectors. We were
alone and remained so. After half an hour Captain Litvak gave the order
to jump closer to our destination.
The ripples ran across the screens. We remained at the code three alert
status. Minutes later we slipped across the barrier again. Once more the
ripples flowed across the screens. Where there had only been points of
light before we now saw a large sphere and two tiny pebbles: Tremaine or
Outpost Twelve and its two moons.
We were still all alone. The long range scanners remained dead, the
indicators stuck at the zero mark. Five minutes later Captain Litvak
relaxed our status to code two.
“I think that it’s safe enough, Mr. Yonge. We can approach the planet.”
“Yes, Sir,” the first officer replied.
“Navigator, plot us a tight orbit, as close to the surface as you can
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
Fifteen minutes later we were in orbit at the edge of the atmosphere.
Sergeant Mackenzie, Captain Litvak, Lieutenant Appleyard, Ensign Yasuda
and I were in the briefing room. Although we had gone over everything
already a number of times during the last few jumps this time there was
no feeling of unreality pervading the room. Half an hour from now we
would be on the planet’s surface. It was exciting and at the same time
“You will live off the land,” the captain was saying. “Your task is not
to fight the enemy. Your task is to observe and report. The federation
will have a ship here in one standard month to collect what information
you have gathered. Sixty days from today we hope to pick you up again.”
“Yes, Sir,” the sergeant said. “We will try our best.”
“And do not take any chances. We, that is the federation, want you to
survive. The important thing is the intelligence you will gather. When
it comes right down to it your life and the lives of your crew are more
valuable than any information you may glean by taking undue risks.” The
captain rose and walked around the table. “Good luck, Sergeant
“Thank you, Sir,” Mackenzie replied, shaking the captain’s hand. Then he
stepped back and saluted. Roy Litvak returned the salute and then left
for the bridge.
“I don’t envy you,” Ruth Appleyard said to ranger Earl Mackenzie when we
all stood on the shuttle deck.
“The feeling is mutual,” the sergeant replied. “I would rather take my
chances in the wilderness. At least there we will be on an equal footing
with the beetles and not locked up in a tin coffin as on this ship.” He
“To each his own,” Appleyard answered.
She solemnly shook hands with the three rangers and Pilot Louise Yasuda.
Yasuda would also remain on Tremaine as the pilot for the flier. I would
go along in order to bring back the shuttle. For the most part second
officer Ruth Appleyard ignored me.
“Let’s get the show under way,” Mackenzie said when Appleyard had left
“If you don’t mind, Lieutenant,” Yasuda whispered to me, “I would be
keen to fly the shuttle down. It may be the last time I get a chance at
“I don’t mind. It’s all yours.”
Her face was beaming as she climbed into the pilot’s seat.
The door to the shuttle deck closed with a thump. Through the window on
my side I could see Appleyard standing outside the deck in the hallway.
She was a shade indistinct through the transparent top half of the
“Shuttle secure and ready for departure,” Yasuda said into the
microphone, at the same time switching on the guidance system and
powering up the engines.
I faintly heard the whine of the air pumps when they started up. After
fifteen seconds the sound faded out and the lights became harsh. The
soft shadows changed to an inscrutable black as the pumps sucked the air
out of the deck. I could feel the vibration of the engines though the
arm rests of my seat. Once more I checked the harness holding me. It was
tight. Then the big doors to space slid into the wall.
Slowly the shuttle crept towards the opening. At first I did not even
realize that we were moving, so gently did Yasuda ease us along. Then we
were outside. From where I was sitting I could just see the acceleration
gauge. It hovered near a quarter gee and then began climbing. Looking
the other way I was awed by the immense size of our ASV ship. As we
gained speed it quickly fell away and shrank as a consequence.
I stole another glance at the acceleration gauge. It was in the shade
now and I could not make out the dial against the bright patch of
plastic next to it. Yasuda flew the shuttle manually although its voice
controlled computer in all probability could have handled it better than
even an expert human pilot. Yasuda was an expert pilot.
When I looked back outside to check our distance from the ship it had
disappeared. Instead I saw a sliver of pink growing at the lower corner
of the window. We were approaching the planet. From time to time Yasuda
talked into the radio or made a slight adjustment to our course. Then we
hit a rough spot. It felt as if something tried to grab the craft. We
were all flung forward in our harnesses. And then we were past the
“Hitting the first wisps of the atmosphere,” Yasuda reported to Yonge
who was monitoring our descent aboard ASV 659.
Behind me Sergeant Mackenzie was quietly looking out the window. The
other two rangers also remained silent the entire way down.
Exactly twenty-one minutes after leaving the ship Yasuda landed the
shuttle at the edge of a forest, some two hundred meters from the shore
of an ocean. She sidled up to a huge tree and set us down under the
canopy of leaves and branches growing out of an immensely thick trunk.
Then she shut off the engines.
“Welcome to Tremaine,” she said.
For a few seconds nobody moved. One of the tasks of our patrol had been
fulfilled. Louise Yasuda opened the door and let the fresh air in. Like
all planets Tremaine has a distinctive odor which was quite pleasant. It
was warm outside and suddenly we all felt eager to set foot on the
“Let us quickly get organized,” Sergeant Mackenzie said when we were all
standing on firm ground. “We don’t know whether there are any enemy
units operating in this vicinity.”
“We scanned the area before we left the ship, Sergeant. There was no
indication of any Coleopteron activity.”
“I am aware of that, Ensign Yasuda. Just the same, we are the hunted
now and it pays to be prepared. Look around you. The beetles have been
here before. At least once. I can still see the wreckage of their fliers
out there near the water.” The sergeant pointed to the north. About a
kilometer away where the gentle curve of the bay lost itself among the
rocks and hillocks some dark patches stood out from the green of the
grasses and the reeds.
It took us an hour to unload the flier and assemble it. Louise took it
up for a test run. It worked fine. Then we began unloading the supplies.
They consisted mostly of weapons and fuel cells for the flier. It was a
small machine, capable of carrying four people. It could be taken apart
and hidden in a cave or beneath old leaves and branches. The rangers
intended to use it to set up supply depots at various locations.
As we unloaded the rest of the provisions Mackenzie selected a thicket a
couple of hundred meters from the edge of the forest. He would set up
his first cache right there. I helped carry some of the food and
grenades. It took no longer than half an hour. When the rangers were
finished camouflaging it I for one could not locate it again. Earl
Mackenzie clucked his tongue with satisfaction.
“I think that it will be safe there,” he announced.
When we returned to the flier Yasuda had loaded most of the rest of the
provisions aboard. They would place three additional caches. I helped
getting the rest of the supplies into the machine. And then it was time
to take my leave.
“ We may never see each other again, Lieutenant Kester,” Sergeant
Mackenzie said as he shook my hand. His grip was firm. “All the best to
you and I hope that you will make it back to Inverness. We will probably
stay on this planet for two or three months. This is my second tour of
duty here on Tremaine. Despite our losses I expect to see Inverness
again. If you ever get the chance look us up there. Half a standard year
from now I hope to be at the ranger compound near the space port.” He
stepped back and saluted. I also shook hands with the other two rangers.
Louise Yasuda embraced me. There were tears in her eyes.
“Take care,” she said in an unsteady voice, “and keep an eye out for
Then she climbed into the pilot’s seat of the flier. The three rangers
were already aboard. She started the engine. Earl Mackenzie waved once
more. The craft rolled along the hard packed sand towards the water.
After a dozen meters or so it lifted off and climbed steeply. Turning
back towards the forest it was lost from view in seconds. I was alone.
What to do next? The ship, ASV 659, would not be in a rendezvous
position for another hour yet. Orbital positions and speeds are very
precise. Here I was on a planet which held enemy contingents. Our side
had no idea of their strengths nor what weapons they could bring to
bear. I had a window of exactly four minutes and twelve seconds in which
I could reach the ship with my unarmed shuttle. And that window would
not open for another fifty-nine minutes yet.
Should I remain with the shuttle? Or was it wiser to explore the edge of
the forest? I opted for the latter. The rangers had left me four
grenades of the C type. I also had my laser rifle. I clipped the
grenades to my belt, slung the rifle over my shoulder and was off. Far
to the north where the shore turned towards the east were the wrecks of
some ships or vehicles. That was my destination. Give it ten minutes to
walk the kilometer, ten minutes to walk back and half an hour to linger
there. I should be back in plenty of time.
After having covered half the distance I was thoroughly soaked in
perspiration. It was hot on Tremaine, certainly at this location and at
this time of its year. The sun, now almost overhead, burnt down from a
cloudless sky. There was barely a breeze to be felt and here at the
edge of the forest it was very humid.
I was sure that I was quite alone. I drifted towards the ocean. In the
direct rays of the sun it was even hotter but there was also some
movement of the air. I bent down to splash some water over my face. To
my considerable surprise it was not salty.
The wrecks were farther away than they had appeared. It took me a good
fifteen minutes to reach them. The ground here consisted of rock and a
short distance away the hillocks began. Some of the wreckage was
undeniably farm machinery. There were a few places where fire had gutted
a building. As I turned in a full circle I realized that I was looking
at the remains of a farm, probably an experimental station, testing the
climate and soil and to see how human cereal crops and domestic animals
adapted to a new planet.
As I walked among the destruction I came across several patches where
the ground was hard and shiny, like glass. Of course, laser burns! A
battle must have taken place here a long time ago. And then I found the
remains of a strange craft. Part of the fuselage was still there and
there was some writing on a portion of it. I studied it but the script,
while neat, was completely different to anything I had ever seen. Of
course, it would be. I was looking a Coleopteron craft.
There were several more wrecks in other places. One had crashed into the
ocean, about a hundred meters offshore. As I walked through the
farmstead I realized that it had been laid out as a fort which could be
There were no human bodies left. Naturally there would not be any. It
was rumored that the Coleoptera used humans as food. There were no
Coleopteron bodies either. But at one place, close to a crashed flier, I
found what could have been the hard shell of a beetle’s wing, only very
much larger. I levered it up. It was about three quarters of a meter
long and perhaps thirty centimeters wide. It was hard to the touch and
felt tough. Elsewhere I located other Coleopteron remains, part of a
carapace and some legs and feelers. Not being a scientist I could not be
sure, of course. But I let my imagination have free reign.
When I looked at my chronometer I got a shock. In barely twenty minutes
I had to take off. One last look around and I began my return trip. And
now I realized that the camp or battleground was quite large. I was deep
within the hillocks.
I had fifteen minutes left when I reached the beach with the green
grasses and sedges. I halted briefly to orient myself. I could not see
the shuttle from here. It was too well camouflaged.
I was now in a hurry and began jogging towards the edge of the forest
with the intention to follow the line of trees to where the shuttle was
parked. I am convinced that it saved my life.
When I had covered three quarters of the distance to where I thought the
shuttle was waiting I heard a swishing sound to my left. I came to a
halt and then retreated behind the bole of a nearby tree. An unfamiliar
craft had set down on the ground not twenty meters away from my hiding
place. Here the beach was mostly sand with plenty of small tufts of
grass all over. From a distance if gave the impression as if the entire
area was a meadow.
For a short while the machine just sat there. Nothing moved. My view of
it was head-on. It would be better to look at it from an angle. Twenty
meters to my right was another huge tree. I made my way over to it,
keeping in the woods to avoid detection. And from my new perspective I
could see some writing on the fuselage. The script was unfamiliar to me.
No, not entirely unfamiliar. I had seen something similar not half an
hour ago. The adrenaline pulsed through my veins. There, less than
thirty meters away sat a Coleopteron flier, presumably with a crew and
probably looking for me.
Silently I unslung my rifle. There was a click when I released the
safety switch. The prudent thing to do now would be to avoid detection,
get to my shuttle and take off. A glance at my chronometer showed that
the window to the ship would open in less than five minutes.
Ahead of me was some underbrush which I could skirt. About a hundred
meters away were more big trees. If I could reach them I would also
reach a measure of safety. The beetles had probably not yet seen me. As
silently as possible I began to move ahead.
I had taken perhaps ten steps when I heard another swishing sound from
the Coleopteron craft. I halted. Did my ears pick up some hissing and
I could not afford to miss the window opening up in another three
minutes. It was my only chance. I took two more steps towards the big
trees, now maybe eighty meters distant. The hissing and clicking
stopped. So did I. For the longest time I stood there, not moving a
I must have been mistaken, I told myself. The big trees. That was where
safety lay. If I could reach them ...
I steeled myself and then began sprinting at top speed towards what I
perceived to be security. Seventy meters, sixty, fifty. I felt as if I
flew over the ground, barely touching it. Forty meters.
There was a popping sound behind me and then a blast of unbelievably
cold air overtook me. I suddenly lost all feeling in my arms and legs
and my ears felt as if they had turned into glass. Only my momentum
carried me on. And then I was at the giant trees.
As I sank to the ground behind the first bole the severe cold was
gradually diminishing. After a short while I had gathered enough
strength to look back the way I had come. Nothing moved but about
halfway between me and the Coleopteron flier the leaves of the shrubs
were all shriveling up, and I could distinctly see the white hoarfrost
I stayed a few more seconds watching the area covered by the hoarfrost
slowly decrease. I must get to the shuttle, I told myself. Silently I
Suddenly a laser beam hissed by, barely missing my head. I could smell
the strong odor of ozone. Bewildered I halted. It was as if I had
advertised my position by making the loudest noise I was capable of
A few seconds later I jumped behind another tree trunk. And sure enough,
two more laser beams missed my head by mere centimeters. Did the enemy
have such accurate motion detectors? No, not likely, I decided. I had
not even seen them yet.
I shifted my weight from my left foot to my right. Suddenly the old
branch my foot was resting on gave way and broke with a loud crack. The
beetles could not have helped hearing it. I was sure now that they had
me pinpointed. But there was no response. I waited. Nothing happened.
Finally I got bold enough to move one step back. Immediately a laser
beam hissed in my direction. That was strange. The Coleoptera reacted to
the slightest movement, no matter how silent, yet they ignored a loud
noise. What was wrong with them?
I took a dead branch and snapped it in my hand. There was no response. I
tried that several times, each time making more noise. It was completely
ignored. Ye t the slightest movement caused an immediate laser attack.
My glance fell on my chronometer. The window to reach the ship was
opening up right now. I had exactly four minutes and twelve seconds in
which I could escape. Four minutes and thirteen seconds and my life
would be forfeited. Suddenly it became an abstract situation.
I had four minutes. That was all. Sixty seconds to analyze and three
minutes to act.
I heard two more swishing sounds. As I looked up two more Coleopteron
craft were setting down on the beach close to the water, maybe a hundred
meters beyond the first ship. At the same time two giant beetles, dark
grey in color - almost black - stood up and raced towards my position.
For a second I was too astounded to act. They were easily moving a twice
my fastest sprint. Then I had the laser rifle lined up. It was set on
full power. The pulsed beam looked like a steady pencil of green light.
I caught the first beetle across the head and sliced the second one in
two right across the thorax.
The two larger enemy craft were unloading troops. There must have been
at least two squads jumping to the ground.
I did not stop to count them. I ran at my own top speed towards where I
thought the shuttle was hidden. It was now or never.
I had somehow misjudged the exact location. Racing around a tree trunk I
almost ran into the craft. At my verbal command the computer obediently
opened the door. With literally my last strength I jumped into the
pilot’s seat. I uttered the emergency code and then was too winded to
even think of another word.
I still had the laser rifle in my hand. Now I flipped the safety switch
back on and dropped the gun on the floor next to me.
With a swoosh the computer closed the door. At the same time it started
the engines. I could see the trajectory building on the monitor. Then we
moved. Through the window on my left I could see the closest beetle no
more than a hundred and fifty meters away. And then I was pressed into
the seat as the shuttle began its ascent. My eyes fell on the
chronometer on my left arm. There were two seconds left in the window.
It took an entire minute before I was able to answer the radio. By then
I was already so high that Tremaine looked like a large scale relief
I docked without difficulty under full power. Even before the shuttle
deck was pressurized ASV 659 jumped.
The debriefing took place in Captain Litvak’s cabin. He and Commander
James Yonge studied every aspect of the records I had captured on my
recorder. They finally found the speculations of the High Command
confirmed. The Coleoptera were unable to detect ordinary sounds. Their
hearing lay on a different level. Unfortunately we were too far away
from Inverness to send a message. Not even a drone could be programmed
for that distance.
Almost four hours later Captain Litvak dismissed me. Second officer Ruth
Appleyard had also taken part in the debriefing as well as Chief
Engineer Sun Lee. All through the hearing I felt intimidated, as if I
had done something prohibited, as if I had gone against express orders.
“Well done, Lieutenant Kester,” the captain said at last. It felt good
to hear his words.
Navigator Ensign Petra Baird had tears in her eyes when she could
finally see me.