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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“There is no brook here, Carl,” Petra insisted, walking next to me. I
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,
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
We covered the fifty meters to where the flier was parked without
further incident. The sun was just touching the mountain ridge far to
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
“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
“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
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
“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.