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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 22


Coming to the end of a jump was by now also very routine. About half an hour before crossing the barrier we all made our way to the bridge. One by one we took up our positions. Around the ten minute mark everybody was at his post. Usually, but not always, the captain arrived last. We powered up our stations, went through the test sequences, and then waited. The routine orders were given and acknowledged. And eventually the navigator called out: “Normal space.”

I always talk about a barrier when we leave normal space or return to it. In actuality it is no physical barrier. As a rule we did not notice it inside the ship when we popped through this barrier. Only our instru­ments told us. Very occasionally we would have a brief feeling of vertigo as we crossed it.

For many centuries this barrier marked the ultimate speed one could travel in space - today we call it normal space. The old fusion ships could approach it. It was, of course, the speed of light. Even today we cannot accelerate a radio wave beyond it. But several hundred years ago, after Adar had been discovered and settled, a professor at some university had come across a formula which neatly lets us sidestep this limit and today it is no barrier at all. Rather it is a border or threshold.

Oh, there is one other thing I have not mentioned. Once we cross this threshold or barrier, as it is commonly called, our ship has the same velocity, that is the same speed and direction it had when we began our jump. For that reason we usually, but not always, begin a jump at as high a velocity as possible.

The navigation computer naturally has in its data banks the veloci­ties and relative position of all the known stars and planets and their moons, meteors, comets, denser accumulations of interstellar dust and so on. Our navigators can pinpoint the location where a ship will return to normal space with a high degree of accuracy.

Of course they cannot be exact to within a few thousand kilometers, but certainly within a few thousand AU’s, which is really quite a feat when one considers that many jumps encompass several light years. The shorter the jump is the more accurate we can pinpoint where we will cross the barrier. And in planetary systems we can jump to within frac­tions of an AU.

Navigator Petra Baird called out: “Normal space.”

Tora Two was deserted. Our sensors and scanners picked up nothing. We were all alone. Everybody wanted to set foot on Tora Tw o but Captain Litvak vetoed our presentations. Of course he would. He had been on the planet.

“There is nothing there to interest you,” he said. “The entire planet is one vast desert. Sand and rocks and minerals. And it is hot. In seven days we will be on our way back to Inverness. You can set foot on it when we arrive there.”

Nobody went down to Tora Two.

The navy - I beg your pardon, the Survey Service - has many strange customs. Among them is the way we approach a star system, any star system. We jump to within thirty-seven AU’s of the primary. The theory goes something like this. It is distant enough not to arouse any suspicion, should an enemy have a strong presence in the system. We could easily be overlooked and in fact, when we approached Tremaine and now Tora we were counting on it, on not being noticed. On the other hand it is close enough for us to ascertain whether the enemy has occu­pied the system.

We jump to exactly thirty-seven AU’s. Not thirty or forty or thirty-five or twenty. Thirty-seven AU’s, no more and no less. So far I have been unable to find out why exactly thirty-seven.

Ah, you ask, how far is it? It is a very good question. I am not sure what the AU stands for. Some say it has been derived from some old measure used on Earth many centuries ago. Others claim that is found its way into our language as a measuring tool at about the time the calendar was changed. It is the distance light travels in five hundred seconds. It is a measure of distance used in planetary systems. Interstellar distances are officially computed in parsecs, while colloquially we use light years. Confusing? Perhaps a bit at first. But one gets used to it.

We were cruising in the Tora system from the edge of the atmos­phere of Tora Two all the way to one hundred AU’s out. We jumped back and forth. One thing we rarely did was to jump directly to or from the edge of the atmosphere of a planet. Apparently it is dangerous and has to do with the gravity well of the planet.

After six days of hanging around Tora Two we were thoroughly bored. Even Captain Litvak was wearied by the dullness of the patrol. I doubt though that our efficiency suffered much. Commander Yonge stood on the bridge, stopwatch in hand, timing our response time on each exercise.

We had been at the edge of the atmosphere of Tora Two for well over six hours. We were preparing to move to our jump-off location for the hop to the thirty-seven AU position. We were on yellow alert, code two.

Yellow alert or code two meant a slightly relaxed condition from code three or red alert. All stations were occupied, of course.

We went through the motions of keeping a sharp lookout. In reality we were bored to death after six hours in normal space without sighting so much as a rogue meteor coming our way. And that after six days of perhaps the dullest patrol on record in the Survey Service!

Captain Litvak was in his command chair. He appeared to be asleep but that was an illusion. Every so often he would cast a glance in my direction or watch the helmsman or give an order. When the captain had his back to the first officer Commander Yonge would relax, his posture almost slouchy. Second officer Ruth Appleyard let her eyes wander from her station for long periods of time. Everybody was sick and tired of the inaction.

I found my station the most interesting one on the entire ship. I had rows upon rows of lights, red, yellow and green ones. I had dozens of gauges measuring almost everything one could think of. And I had more than a dozen monitors displaying moving and snaking lines of every description. I was fully occupied all the time.

My eyes roved constantly over the arrays of instruments. Did the needle of the doppler gauge quiver? What about the motion detectors? No, they were at zero. But again I had the unmistakable feeling that they were not steady. How about the mass-proximity units? No, nothing there either. Ye t I felt distinctly uneasy.

I reached out and cranked the deflectors up to full power. Then I reached for the switch of the magnetic field generator. It used consider­able energy when set at one hundred percent. I turned it, slowly at first, click - click - click - and then faster all the way up to the top.

“What are you doing, Mr. Kester?” Suddenly the captain was wide awake, sitting up in his chair, his blue eyes piercing mine.

“Increasing the magnetic field to full strength. I have this feeling that we are not alone.” Everybody’s eyes were on me. The magnetic field had begun building, just passing the one thousand gauss mark.

“Did your instruments indicate an enemy presence, Mr. Kester?” The captain’s question had an element of sarcasm in it.

“No, Sir. Not exactly.”

“Not exactly! Yo u will refrain ...” That was how far the captain got in his reprimand. Suddenly the mass-proximity units jumped across the scale while the motion detectors shot up to the top, the indicators vibrat­ing against the stops.

“Battle stations, code three,” I yelled, hitting the red alarm button at the lower right of my board. It was most fortunate that the doppler gauge showed the enemy ships, all four of them, rushing off in the opposite direction from us.

“Mass-prox units off the scale. Motion detectors negative one hun­dred,” I shouted. My eyes flew to the gauge indicating the power reserves. Sadly they stood at only sixty-one percent and were falling rapidly.

“Emergency power, Chief,” Captain Litvak yelled into the intercom. “Helmsman, course vector 61 92 04 negative. Maximum acceleration. Weapons deck, full power to ...”

There was chaos on the bridge. It would take almost a minute to energize the laser banks. What was the matter with Bill Johnson? The particle guns seemed dead. The red light was still on.

The ship lurched as if a heavy object had hit it. And it had. The deflector gauge was deep within the red zone. But then it began to fall towards the yellow band.

“Navigator, give me an emergency override. Quickly.”

I could imagine Petra punching keys on her computer. We simply did not have the power for an override. Suddenly the mass-proximity units fell to zero as did the motion detectors.

“Enemy ships have jumped,” I shouted.

The deflectors were just sliding into the green zone. They stood at forty percent, far too low for a full blast of the enemy’s offensive weapons systems. The magnetic field was still building and had reached only a third of its full strength. Our power reserves were still falling. And the particle guns were also still dead. No energy was flowing through the accelerator shells.

I could feel the centrifugal forces pulling at me as the ship changed directions. Power reserves were now down to nineteen percent but the emergency system was coming on stream and the gauges began to climb again. We were forty seconds into the action. The laser banks were still at only twenty-two percent.

Both the mass-proximity units and the motion detectors fluttered once and then fell back to zero. I knew exactly what it meant.

“Enemy force had taken a bearing,” I yelled. The captain should immediately change course or else we were doomed. Instead he was listening to both the engineering station and the weapons deck.

“Give me the emergency escape, Navigator,” Litvak roared.

“ I can’t. We are not powered up enough.”

“Then see to it that we are.”

Our power reserves had climbed to twenty-five percent. We needed at least forty percent for the override.

“Enemy force has taken a bearing,” I yelled for the seconds time.

The captain looked at me for an instant as if to integrate into his battle plan what I had just said. Then he glanced at the big forward screen. It showed only the star field.

“The enemy has taken a bearing?” he quizzed me.

“Yes, about a minute ago now.”

“Helmsman, come to course vector 39 16 03 positive.” He had finally given a new course. I hoped that it would not be too late.

“Mass-prox units off the scale,” I shouted. “Motion detectors green sixty.” The enemy battle group had crossed the barrier and was approach­ing us at an oblique angle.

The background hum of the overloaded gravity compensators changed to a shrill scream as the ship obeyed the helmsman’s computer. The centrifugal forces added to the acceleration were too much for them. I had the straps pulled tightly on my battle harness. It kept me from being thrown from my seat. I was dully aware of a thump. I more felt it than heard it.

At the same time there were a series of loud bangs somewhere aft. Then our laser banks discharged. Johnson had also finally activated the particle guns. And the grenade launchers started their thump-thump-thump. And then they stopped. Power reserves had climbed to thirty-six percent.

For the second time I more felt than heard an impact. The deflector gauge for the port deflector rapidly climbed through the red range into the purple and then into the black. It stayed there for what seemed like a long time. And then it died.

“Port deflector gone,” I shouted.

There was no reply from the captain. He was intently listening to the intercom. Engineering had suffered damage and the weapons deck was also in trouble. It would take another minute or two for the power reserves to rise sufficiently for an override.

Something was inhibiting the accelerator shells on the particle guns. The power was not getting through.

“Weapons computer is out,” Captain Litvak said, looking directly at me.

“I have secondary training in weapons control, Sir,” I replied.

“Go!”

There was no way I could leave until the gravitational field was back to normal. I glanced at my board again. The gauges were falling to zero.

“Enemy has jumped,” I shouted.

“Helmsman, one gee acceleration. Course vector 16 01 90 negative.”

“Aye, aye, Sir, one gee. Course ...”

The tremendous acceleration suddenly ceased. I unhooked my battle harness, grabbed my code cards with my right hand and jumped towards the door. It sensed my approach and split in the middle, each half sliding into the wall. As I stepped across the threshold there was a terrific blast. The entire bridge was a sheet of brilliant light. And then ...


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