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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 24

I dropped the garbage bag in shock.

There was no parking lot. There were no cars. There was no drive­way. And there were no flower beds. To my right instead of a red brick wall there was what I took to be a hedge consisting of strange looking plants with purple leaves. Twenty meters away where the mountain ashes with the red berries grew I now saw two trees with giant thorns, thou­sands of tiny green leaves and red blossoms in the shape of bells. Beyond that there was a forest, almost a jungle. It was obviously mid-afternoon for the sun was well past its highest point in the sky. The sky! It was till blue, but a different blue to what I expected it to be, a very deep blue.

Underfoot instead of the shaped paving stones I stood on a bit of gravel, overgrown with a tough grass, almost like twitch grass, but longer and much rougher. Slowly I turned around. The twenty-two story tall apartment building was gone. A primitive cabin built out of logs and branches occupied its place. I saw no sign of a road anywhere but a short distance to my left there was a level area covered by what at first glance looked like concrete. Beyond that there were corrals for cattle and in the distance fairly open ground which could have been pasture land. At intervals fences crossed it.

Apparently I was in a valley for I could see tall mountains in the background. Using the sun as a guide they seemed to be to the north and south, with the valley running in an east-west direction.

Finally my eyes caught a glimpse of my shoes. They were not the running shoes I had put on a few minutes ago. I wore heavy boots, very comfortable boots. They were of a grey-green shade, almost the color of leaves. My trousers were of a similar material, with pockets all over. They were dyed in a camouflage pattern as was my shirt. It was quite warm here.

The bag of garbage I had dropped was not the plastic bag any more. It was made of something which looked like a cross between canvass and leather. And the cardboard tube had mysteriously changed into what at first glance looked like a gun.

I was all alone.

There was a large stone a short distance away. I grabbed the bag and walked the few steps over to it. Here I sat down to take stock. Gradually some knowledge seeped into my consciousness. The gun I held in my hand was a standard issue laser gun. The bag was called a carryall.

I looked inside. It contained a number of cubes, soup cubes, and quite a few small plastic bags full of a white powder. I examined one of them. The powder had the consistency of flour.

I looked at the directions. Add hot or cold water, it said. Under­neath in small print I read: Manufactured to Fleet Service Specifications by General Foods, Tremaine and Hornepayne, Warinski Sector. Although I prided myself on a good knowledge of geography I was stumped. I had never heard of the Warinski Sector, presumably some region or territory, nor did Hornepayne or Tremaine mean anything to me. I took them to be cities.

Wait a minute. Tremaine? Hazily I recalled something about it. Had I not been on a ship a long time ago, when I had broken my ankle? And had we not landed some rangers on a world unofficially called Tremaine? It had been an entirely unexplored planet then. And we had been at war, fighting some kind of intelligent beetles.

If this was the same Tremaine - - - . It could not be! It would take years, generations, to populate a world and build up a manufacturing economy large enough to export food. And I could not recall anything about a place called Hornepayne. But then again, if I followed my reason­ing, I would now be in the distant future even looking from my previous vantage point!

It all made no sense.

I put the bag with the white powder back into the carryall. There was no doubt about it. I was a member of some military force, armed to the teeth. The gun I held in my right hand was very light, yet sturdy. It had a stock, a tube and a button to fire it. A power pack was fitted into the stock. Aside from the firing button and safety switch there were no moving parts except for an intensity setting and a gauge indicating the power level. Right now it stood at the one hundred percent mark.

There were a number of grenades attached to my belt. And some spare power packs for the gun. The grenades were of two types. Some had a big E on them, some a C. The C grenades were of a different size and weight. Of course! The E stood for explosive, the C for cold. And I knew how to use them. You pulled an E grenade off your belt and depressed the plunger. That would arm it. Once you released the plunger you had three seconds before it would go off. It was just enough time to throw it. The C grenades were slightly smaller and lighter. Once the plunger was released on them you also had three seconds. But they would not explode. They would simply pop, releasing an agent which would extract all the heat in the affected area, killing all living things. I knew exactly the affected area for both types of grenade and what damage they could do.

A pin acted as a safety device to prevent the accidental depressing of the plunger. The grenades were attached to my belt in such a way that pulling them off also pulled out the pin. The High Command frowned on the way rangers handled and carried them but in the field they over­looked it as they overlooked a great many things.

As I was sitting there on the boulder details were flooding into my consciousness, but only details on how to stay alive. I was still completely in the dark as to where I was and what my purpose was in being here. What was I to do all alone and in the wilderness? I took a deep breath.

I got up to go into the cabin and check it out but changed my mind for no apparent reason. I would first take a look around outside. I saun­tered over to the trees. They certainly were a lot different to the trees of Earth. The boles were mostly green and quite thick. Many of them had long thorns, like spikes. Most had leaves, although a number of them also had needles.

From this angle the cabin looked different, almost blending into the environment. There was grass on the roof. A stand of trees did not quite reach the hedge. Only the geometric arrangement of the corrals and the concrete landing pad gave the place away as a human habitation. To one side towards the west was the open meadow, crossed by fences every few hundred meters. It stretched for several kilometers to the jungle covering the mountainside. There was no sign of life, no cattle, no sheep nor any other kind of domestic animals.

I slowly meandered along the edge of the forest until I came to a brook. I could hear the running water through the trees although I could not see it at first. I followed the sound. After a dozen steps or so I almost stepped into the water. The trees provided an effective screen. Different kinds of plants grew here. Some were giant flowering bushes, some smelled horrible and some had sticky leaves and branches.

I crossed the brook. After another dozen steps I came to a fair sized clearing. I must not get my directions mixed up, I thought. I remained motionless at the edge of the open space. After a minute or so the leaves of a bush at the opposite side of the clearing swayed and a huge antelope stepped out. It sniffed the air and nervously glanced around. I stayed hidden. After a while it strode into the meadow and began grazing.

The antelope had taken several mouthfuls of grass when it suddenly perked up, briefly glanced at the sky to the west and then bounded away at breakneck speed. For a few seconds I could hear it crashing through the underbrush. And then there was silence. I was alone once more.

What could have alarmed the antelope that much? I had not moved and the light breeze had not shifted. The answer was not long in coming.

I had taken half a dozen steps along the perimeter of the clearing when I heard the faint sound of an engine. Something in my mind said danger. I slipped through the bushes to hide behind the green bole of a giant tree with fern-like leaves. I still carried the bag with the food in my left hand. Now I slid my arms through the handles, changing it into a knapsack. It was a surprisingly comfortable fit.

The sound of the distant engine had increased considerably in volume. It seemed to be coming from the west. It swelled up to an ear-splitting crescendo. Looking up I saw a shadow dart by just above the top of the trees. The sound diminished. And then it swelled up again.

I stayed motionless behind the fern tree. There was a slight change in the scream of the engine. Then the sound suddenly dropped in volume as well as in pitch. A strange looking craft circled once around the clear­ing, gradually descending. About thirty meters from my hiding place it hovered and then slowly dropped to the ground.

I moved one step away from the tree trunk in order to see better. The sun’s rays falling through the canopy of the tree branches above made patches of light and dark, green and brown and black. I was sure that I was invisible to any observer as long as I remained motionless.

After a short time, perhaps a minute or so, a door opened in the fuselage of the craft. Its engine had slowed down to a deep, low hum near the threshold of hearing. I stood next to a bush, watching. The urge to step behind the bole of the tree fern was strong and it took considerable willpower to overcome it. Somehow I knew that moving now would give my position away.

Another minute went by. Then something stirred in the opening. Tw o giant, yellow beetles jumped out of the craft to the ground. My heart thumped loudly and I felt the adrenaline seeping into my arteries. Ye t I stayed put.

The two beetles were easily two and half meters tall. They stood on their hindmost legs. The middle two appendages held what looked like some type of gun while the two top ones cradled grenades. The beetles bent forward, as if to sample the air. The two feelers on top of their heads were gently swaying to and fro. They were sensing for motion. Something in my brain seemed to click, telling me to stay where I was. The beetles were called Coleoptera and they could sense motion like we humans can sense sound.

We stayed like this for well over a minute, I behind the bush next to the tree fern and the two beetles in front of the craft. Suddenly they straightened up. I heard faint clicking and hissing sounds, very high pitched, as the two moved aside while other beetles jumped out of the flier.

Once again my memory provided much needed information. The beetles were the enemy. They were all milling around in front of the machine. Now was the moment to attack. I pulled a C grenade off my belt and depressed the plunger. The pin acting as a safety device remained attached to my belt.

No sooner had I moved my arm when a number of Coleoptera bent forward, facing in my direction. Their feelers swayed back and forth. There was a hissing sound and they all froze. I extended my right arm behind me and in a smooth motion flung the grenade towards the beetles. There was a loud clicking noise, very high pitched. The Coleoptera all took one step ready to spread apart when the grenade softly popped in their middle. I could see a white mist spread out in a circle, faster than the eye could follow. The beetles keeled over as they were taking their second step, some landing on top of each other, some in bizarre positions. The grass and in the affected area was turning black and a white hoarfrost was forming. It all took less than a second. A blast of extremely cold air passed me. I shivered and my face and ears felt as if they were turning into glass, especially my ears.

Meanwhile I had pulled an E grenade off my belt, depressed the plunger on it and thrown it at the alien craft. I dropped to the ground, hugging a furrow. The grenade exploded under the flier forward of the door. The blast was tremendous. The pressure wave lifted me up and then slammed me to the ground so hard that I almost blacked out. It took some time before I was able to collect my thoughts. When I tried to move I felt a soreness at my right shoulder.

I had to wait a couple of minutes longer before I could sit up. The sight which greeted my eyes was one of utter destruction. Twisted metal was thrown over most of the clearing. There was no crater and the hoar­frost had disappeared. Nothing moved. I stood up and grabbed my laser gun. Releasing the safety switch I slowly advanced towards the clearing, my finger on the firing button of the gun.

Some of the Coleopteron corpses had been chopped into small pieces by the explosion. I felt frightened. Never before had I witnessed a destructive force that powerful. I had been thirty meters away from the impact, sheltered by bushes and a depression in the ground. I had hugged the furrow, offering hardly any surface at all to the blast, yet it had almost incapacitated me. My only other experience with explosives had been in Narvik in northern Norway, almost an eternity ago. At that time I had thought that the grenades were powerful. But against the present they seemed like large firecrackers.

I gave the clearing a quick but thorough examination. Then I made my way back across the brook, through the trees and to the cabin.

The sun had moved some distance towards the western horizon. I slid to the ground in the lee of the hedge. I was shaking uncontrollably. Where had I landed? What was going on? My reaction to the Coleop-teron flier had been completely automatic, as if I had trained for this type of encounter for years. What kind of war was I fighting? I and who else?

After a while I calmed down and the shaking stopped. My shoulder was still sore but I could live with it. Obviously there was no medical help available and no transport to anywhere. I would sit here for a while longer and then check out the cabin and the corrals behind it. And then, before it got dark, I would make myself something to eat.

I would also have to find a place to sleep. I wondered whether it would be safe to stay in the cabin.

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