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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 25

When I looked up the sun had moved closer to the western horizon. It would be dark in a couple of hours. My shoulder still hurt when I twist­ed it and the carryall suddenly seemed quite heavy, the straps digging into my sore muscles. I slipped it off, letting it slide to the ground. If I could not take it with me I would have to hide it. At the edge of the forest there grew a huge bush with red flowers. Its branches were drooping to the ground. It would do for a hiding place. I grabbed the bag and walked over to the trees. The drooping branches of the bush had thorns. Very carefully I slid the bag beneath them.

I was just straightening up again when I heard the faint drone of an engine. I scanned the tops of the trees to my right.

Quickly the sound grew louder. A small flier cleared the edge of the forest. It made one circuit of the ranch and then settled down on the con­crete pad I had noticed when I had first set eyes upon my surroundings. I still stood by the bush with the red flowers, partially obscured by the hedge near the house. This time there was no feeling of danger. Yet I remained where I was, waiting to see what would develop.

The turbine of the craft shut down, the high pitched whine slowly decreasing in volume and at the same time dropping through the sound frequencies. After a minute a door slid into the wall of the craft revealing an opening. A human figure jumped out of if and raced to the side of the cabin. Then another figure jumped down, also running to the side of the structure. The door to the flier slid shut again.

I waited for several minutes.

“Carl,” I heard somebody shout. “Carl Kester.” It was a female voice and somehow quite familiar.

Slowly I left my hiding place and began walking towards the cabin. As I rounded the hedge I almost bumped into the two occupants of the flier. I stopped dead. The man wore the uniform of a major. He was slim and tall and faintly familiar to me. But it was the woman who caught my eye. She also wore a uniform. There were no insignia of rank on it. The uniform was identical to the one I wore. She had a carryall slung over her left shoulder, a laser gun in her right hand and a number of grenades attached to her belt. But that was not what caught my eye. It was her face. She bore a striking resemblance to Petra Baird, the nurse, but in the light of the sinking sun looked perhaps a shade thinner. She could have been Petra Baird, the navigator on that ASV vessel, not even the arrangement of her hair differed.

“What’s the matter, Carl?” she said.

I kept staring at her for a moment longer. “Oh, nothing, nothing. It’s just that I am so surprised to see you,” I stuttered.

“Yes, I know. I am back a few days early. Major Mackenzie has kindly consented to give me a lift. Major, my team mate, Carl Kester,” she introduced me.

I saluted and came to attention.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” the major said, sloppily returning the salute.

“How have you been, Carl?” the girl said to me in her vivacious way, grabbing my arm and holding it. I winced as lances of pain radiated out from my shoulder.

“What’s the matter, Carl? Are you hurt?” There was concern in her voice. She had not missed my expression.

“I am all right. I’ll be as good as new in a day.”

The major kept scrutinizing me.

“He looks okay, Lieutenant Baird.” His voice was gravelly. He quickly looked over to where the flier was parked. “There’s an hour of daylight left. I shall be off then. I just wanted to make sure that you were not left alone.”

Major Mackenzie let his glance fall back on me. “Did you lose some grenades, Lieutenant Kester?” His voice had an accusing tone and there was a frown on his face. Now the girl also looked at my belt. I could immediately see that she was uncomfortable. What was her first name? Could it be Petra?

“Well, Carl?” she said.

I put my left hand on her arm. “No, Petra, I did not lose any grenades.”

“Where are your supplies, Lieutenant?” The major’s voice had lost all compassion.

“My supplies?”

“Your carryall, Carl.” Petra interjected. “Where is it?”

“Over there.” I pointed to the edge of the forest.

“You know the rules, Lieutenant. Under no circumstances shall you relinquish control over your equipment.” Major Mackenzie’s voice was as cold as ice and as sharp as a rapier.

“Sir,” I turned to the major, “I was not sure what kind of craft was coming in to land. I did not want to be encumbered by equipment I did not require in case of a confrontation.”

“What do you mean, in case of a confrontation? There are no enemy units within two hundred klicks of here.”

“Maybe not. I wouldn’t know. If you care to follow me.” I turned and walked back towards the brook. Major Mackenzie was turning red in the face. Petra came running after me.

“Please, Carl, don’t get him mad at you,” she whispered.

I shrugged and kept on walking.

Evidently the major’s curiosity got the better of him for he followed us.

“Where are you going, Carl?” Petra wanted to know. I had slowed down a bit to give the major a chance to catch up.

“Not very far. Just beyond the brook.”

“The brook?” the major asked. “Which brook?” He was one step behind me now.

“There is no brook here, Carl,” Petra insisted, walking next to me. I said nothing.

We had reached the edge of the forest. I took my gun, released the safety switch and carefully threaded my way through the trees. After a dozen steps or so we crossed the tiny creek. I kept going until we reached the clearing. Here I halted.

Petra right behind me bumped into me and then also stopped, staring at the scene before her. The major had fallen a few steps behind. For several seconds I heard him thrashing through the trees until he reached the edge of the clearing a short distance to my left. He gasped when he saw the view. It took a few moments before either Petra or the major could say anything.

Petra felt for my arm and grabbed it tightly.

“You could have been killed,” she whispered.

“No, not much chance of that,” I assured her.

“Well, - “ she did not say any more. She pulled me closer to herself. Her eyes were shiny, as if she had tears in them.

The major also found his voice again.

“Don’t tell me you did this, Kester.” There was considerable respect in the way he said it.

“Nobody else was here, Sir. I did not have much of a choice.”

Major Mackenzie shook his head. “Are they all dead?”

“It would appear so, Sir.”

Petra had released me now and took a step forward. She now also flipped the safety switch off her laser gun. Turning back to me she said: “I thought that you were being overly dramatic when we entered the bush, Carl. I apologize. The beetles have never been this close to our head­quarters. And where there is one patrol there could be more.”

She walked up to the nearest corpse and poked it with the barrel of her gun. The major also took a step forward.

“Are they all dead?” he asked again.

“They are all dead,” Petra confirmed.

Mackenzie walked over to her. He stamped on the ground with his left foot. “It is still frozen,” he mumbled. “When did all this happen, Kester?”

“Not too long before you arrived, Sir. Maybe an hour ago now.”

Petra and the major investigated the wreck thoroughly. I watched them from the edge of the clearing. At last they were finished. The sun was approaching the western horizon. Dusk was slowly falling.

“I must get back,” Mackenzie said at last. “Are you sure you are all right here?” His question was addressed to Petra. She hesitated for a moment with her reply.

“No, we are not sure, Sir,” I said. “But we will stay here. For the moment there is no danger. And by tomorrow - well, we shall just have to see.”

“Tomorrow morning we’ll send a company of regular troops here. This is far too close for comfort. It’s only a hundred and fifty klicks to headquarters!”

The major walked around the wreckage of the destroyed enemy flier for one last time.

“It’s getting dark. I must get under way.”

He kept on walking to the edge of the clearing some distance to my right.

“Where are you going, Sir?” I could not contain myself. Petra was standing some ten meters towards the center of the meadow. She threw me a glance which said ‘be careful’.

Mackenzie halted as he reached the trees.

“The flier and the farm house are in this direction, Sir.”

“Yes, of course.” He said no more. Slowly and reluctantly he walked over to where I stood. Petra also came over.

“Fifteen Coleoptera dead and a flier destroyed. Not a bad record with only two grenades. What did it feel like, Lieutenant?” Mackenzie had halted a meter away from me.

“ To be quite honest, Sir, I was scared.”

“Hm. All right. Let’s go.” He led the way through the trees. I fol­lowed and Petra brought up the rear.

After a few paces I heard some cursing ahead. Taking several big steps I came to the edge of the brook. The major had stepped right into the middle of it and slipped off a stone. He was just in the process of getting up. His uniform was wet up to his knees and the sleeves of his tunic looked damp up to his elbows. I managed to suppress a snicker.

“I thought there was no river here, Lieutenant Baird,” Mackenzie shouted.

“There isn’t supposed to be one, Sir,” Petra replied. “We spent several days near here and there was no watercourse this close to the house.”

“Then how do you explain this?” the major pointed to the brook.

“I can’t. Maybe the guidance system on the flier is faulty. Maybe ...”

“Not a chance, Lieutenant Baird. Not a chance.” He grumbled something which did not sound like an expression one could repeat at a dinner table.

We covered the fifty meters to where the flier was parked without further incident. The sun was just touching the mountain ridge far to the west.

Major Mackenzie climbed into the craft. I could clearly see that he felt uncomfortable in his wet uniform. But when he talked again his voice was without rancor.

“You better let me have your recorder, Lieutenant Kester,” he said to me. “Headquarters will be interested in enemy activity this close. We can’t risk a rescue by air. You’ll have to make your way back to our own lines on foot.” Now he was all business, the experienced field commander. “They’ll shoot down our craft as soon as it is airborne after effecting the pick-up.” He jumped back down to the ground.

“ We don’t intent to stay here, Major,” Petra said.

“Good idea.” He checked his computer. “I’ll give you a week. If everything is clear pick-up will be eight klicks due south of the pass this side of the Proga Range.”

“And if the Coleoptera will have occupied the pass, what happens then?”

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take. Hopefully they won’t have. Just be there at map reference 691 328.”

“Map reference 691 328. Aye, aye, Sir.” Petra saluted and moved away.

I handed my recorder to the major who took it and carefully placed it on the seat next to his. Then he leaned to the rear, rummaged through the pocket attached to the back of his seat and came away with two handfuls of gadgets. There was a new recorder, a number of grenades and several power packs for the laser guns. Then he once more rummaged through the pocket. This time he had both hands full of food packages and soup cubes.

“Just in case we don’t make it to the pick-up point,” he said so softly that I could hardly hear it. Suddenly he bent over the computer.

“Lieutenant Baird,” he yelled.

Petra came running. “Sir?”

“Does the house have a basement?”

“Yes, Sir. But it shouldn’t have one. The place we ...”

Mackenzie raised his hand. “I can’t explain it, Lieutenant. We have gone ten klicks farther than we should have. The next homestead towards the east has a cabin with no basement and there is no creek close by. I don’t see how we could have arrived here. Your partner, he should be waiting at the other place. Are you sure that the ranger is Lieutenant Kester?”

Although Mackenzie’s voice was quite low and I stood some dis­tance away by a fluke of acoustics I could hear every word.

“Absolutely, Major. I have been together with him since our train­ing on Tremaine more than two years ago. There is no way I could be mistaken.”

“Well, I am not sure, but carry on.”

The sun was sinking below the distant ridge. Mackenzie started the engine of his flier. With a howl the turbine climbed through the sound frequencies until the high-pitched scream was almost painful to the ears. Then it lifted off. With a tremendous burst of acceleration it shot towards the east at a shallow angle.

A couple of minutes later we were all alone.

“What’s the matter with your leg?” Petra suddenly asked.

“What leg? There is nothing the matter with it.”

“Your left leg. Here, let me see.” She came over and touched my trousers at the cuff near the top of my boot. Her hand came away wet, a dark red, sticky fluid on her finger.

“You are hurt, Carl.” She tasted the fluid. “That’s blood.”

Now I looked too. It was indeed blood.

I pulled my boot off and rolled up the trouser leg. Sure enough, my leg was red from the knee down. It looked ghastly.

“If only I had seen that sooner,” Petra said, “you could have gone with the major and got medical aid. There is not much I can do for you here. Does it hurt?”

I shook my head. “I did not feel anything until now. I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

It was nothing serious once we had it cleaned up. I had a six centi­meter long gash below my knee. It did not bleed copiously as one might expect. Blood seeped through the wound in a steady, slow trickle. Petra bandaged it expertly.

“It will leave a nasty scar,” she said. “We simply do not have the means to do a better job nor do we have the time. How do you feel?”

“I feel fine,” I assured her. “I am ready for anything.”

Actually it began to hurt a little. But that was probably because now I was aware of the injury. We speculated about the cause of it. The best we could come up with was that I must have cut myself on a sharp stone when the force of the explosion of the E grenade had lifted me up and then flung me down to the ground.

I retrieved my carryall. Petra and I both fastened the grenades and power packs the major had given me to our belts. I put the extra food packages and soup cubes into my carryall. It had grown markedly darker during the ten minutes we had spent cleaning up and bandaging my injury.

Then we struck out towards the south, Petra in the lead and I making up the rear guard.

We found a cave when it was pitch dark. Overhead an open star cluster filled almost a quarter of the entire sky. There must have been three dozen stars of a magnitude brighter than one and a hundred or more fainter ones. As I leaned against the rock of the cave entrance Petra came to stand by my side. Her hand found mine and squeezed it gently.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said, her other hand sweeping the bril­liance above us.

“It is indeed,” I agreed.

“Some day when we have peace again, we will go out and explore the Pleiades Cluster. We are less than two hundred light years away from it here. Did you know that here on Perlos we are closer to the Pleiades than we are to Tremaine?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, we are.”

We stayed out there for a long, long time.

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