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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 26


It was not yet dawn when we were up again the next morning. The cave was rather shallow as caves go, yet it was deep enough to risk a small fire. After about five meters in, the wall curved to the right forming an almost circular room, about three meters in diameter and perhaps two meters high. There were a few large rocks lying on the ground. The narrow entrance was hidden from here and the darkness of the night masked the smoke. I am not sure whether the Coleoptera have a sense of smell. None showed up to investigate. We had a rather tasty meal of mush mixed with broth. That is to say we cooked one package of the white powder and mixed a soup cube in with it.

“I have never done it that way before,” Petra said to me after we had finished eating. “It just never occurred to me. For a steady diet - well, I don’t know. But this morning it was all right.”

She sat quite close to me. We let the fire go out. She leaned against my shoulder and closed her eyes. “What made you volunteer to become a ranger, Carl?”

“I can’t rightly say. It’s one way to see the world without being too regimented.”

“You mean to see the universe. I have often wondered, Carl, you have strange expressions. Do all the people on Adar talk like you?”

“Adar?”

“Yes. Yo u are from Adar, aren’t you? Your accent gives you away.”

“I am sorry, I’ll have to disappoint you. I am from Earth.”

“No!”

“Yes. I have never been on Adar.”

“Really? And I thought that Adar was your home planet. Here we have been together for well over two years and I did not even know where you came from. You never talk about your home.”

“That is because there is nothing to talk about.”

“Surely there must have been as much going on there as there was on Hornepayne. Do you know why I volunteered for ranger service?”

“No, I don’t. I couldn’t even guess. And you never told me before.”

“My parents and my sister and brother were lost there when the Coleoptera occupied Hornepayne. I never told anybody before. I never was that close to anybody as I am to you. I was studying on Inverness when the war broke out. It’s been going on for close to fifteen years now. I wonder how much longer it will last.”

I put my arms around her shoulders. “No war lasts forever, my dear, although this one seems to.”

“I wanted to get even with the beetles, kill as many as I could when Mom and Dad and Mary-Anne perished. And Dennis. He was the oldest, a lieutenant in the forces. He was stationed on O’Brien Field. That was the big base on Hornepayne. Someday I’ll tell you more about it.”

I squeezed her lightly.

“I wanted to quit my studies at once and enlist in the service.” She took my hand. “But the sergeant in the recruiting office insisted that I finish my courses and get my degree. He said that they badly needed people with a completed post-secondary education. I found it hard to continue. But he simply stamped deferred on my file. I had no choice. Eventually I received my degree. And look at me now! I am a ranger here on Perlos. I could have become one without all those courses.”

She was silent for a long time.

Dawn was gradually approaching. Once more I squeezed her lightly and then took my arm away. Petra snuggled up to me for a moment. There were tears in her eyes.

“I promised myself that I would never again get close to anybody. I was able to keep myself distant from anybody, including you, until last night. I don’t know what I would have done if the beetles would have ...” She sniffled.

“Come on, Petra, it’s getting bright. If they send another flier to investigate, well, you know what we can expect.”

“We’ll have to make a stand. Only now I don’t want to die.”

We stood up. “You won’t die, Petra. Not yet.” As I hugged her she put her arm around me and pulled me close to herself.

By the time the sun was above the mountain range to the east the cave was already two kilometers behind us. We were on our way to the map reference Major Mackenzie had given to us. If possible we would check out the pass through the Proga Range which is an immense moun­tain range running from the west to the east south of the Boothia Highlands and then turning south, following the coast from five hundred to a thousand kilometers inland until it turns east again and runs into the Gulf of Denkos. The total length of the Proga Range is over six thousand kilometers. Only three passes cross it. The mountain chain is a natural barrier, in places over fifteen thousand meters high.

A couple of hours after we had left the cave we heard the sound of a Coleopteron patrol craft. At the time we were walking along the side of the mountain, a good thousand meters above the valley floor and one thousand five hundred meters below the top. This mountain was a branch of the Proga Range, the ridge leading up to the pass about four thousand meters above sea level. Petra had looked at the lay of the land from a flier a few days earlier. Naturally I knew nothing of that since I had only arrived on the scene yesterday, but my memory somehow supplied the missing facts.

This was the third time that I had been mysteriously transported somewhere. Once I had gone sixty years into the past to take part in a military action in Norway, once I had gone centuries into the future to become a sailor on an interstellar warship based on Inverness, and now I was here on Perlos, again taking part in a military action. While we had been trudging through the mountains gradually climbing to our present location I had been thinking about it all.

Who was I? What had happened to the ‘me’ whose place I had taken? Petra had mentioned that we had already trained together on Tremaine more than two years ago. Ye t two years ago I had lived in the twentieth century, in the distant past as seen from my present vantage point. It could be that I had been killed shortly before my arrival - I mean the other me. I always was Carl Kester. That did not change. And some­how I always met a girl named Petra Baird. She even looked the same, or at least similar enough that this time I had recognized her the instant she had stepped off the flier.

And there was this Major Mackenzie. I had met him in my earlier encounters as well. He also looked and acted exactly the same as the two earlier Mackenzie’s had. He was the same no-nonsense man as the ranger, Sergeant Mackenzie, aboard the ASV vessel, and if I visualized him in a muddy and torn uniform of the British army he could have been my second lieutenant in the Narvik affair. I tried to make sense out of all this, but so far had made little progress.

And then I became aware of the sound of the Coleopteron patrol craft. It was like a low hum just above the threshold of hearing. Petra, walking about five meters ahead of me, stopped dead in her tracks. I had my eyes on the ground and my mind centuries away. I had paid scant attention to my surroundings and almost bumped into her.

“Did you hear that?” she asked, straining to see something far below and to the rear.

“A hum,” I agreed. “Yes, I did.”

I fumbled for my field glasses. I took a few steps up the slope to lean against an evergreen tree. It had a thick, brown bark and a crown thirty meters or more up. The trunk was smooth all the way to the top. Steadying myself against the tree I slowly swept my glasses over the canopy of the forest down in the valley. Petra waited patiently. She car­ried our field radio.

The sound faded away. Once more I slowly passed my binoculars over the valley to the rear of us. Nothing moved. I lowered the glasses and looked at Petra, shaking my head.

“No luck?” she inquired. “It’ll be back, Come one, let’s find better cover than this. I don’t want to become their target.”

We slid down the slope for some fifty meters to a thicket of deciduous trees. For a few more moments we stood there listening. And there it was again, the low hum of an engine, just a shade above the threshold of hearing. For an entire minute I searched the valley. Did I see something move? I handed the glasses to Petra.

“Take a look. Down there where the flank of the mountain meets the valley floor.”

She took the glasses and for the longest time studied the area I had indicated to her.

“I am not sure whether it is one of theirs or one of ours,” she said at last, handing the binoculars back to me. “We’d best make a report.”

I nodded.

I pulled the map out of my pocket. It was a photographic map. The area we were in was easy to identify. The sound of the aircraft had gone again. Once more I searched the far end of the valley. Yes, there it was. The slow flying aircraft was following the mountainside for several kilometers and then made a right angle turn, crossing the valley. Then it disappeared, the view cut off by a bulge in the mountain. But on the opposite side another craft appeared.

I increased the magnification a little. It was eerie the way the flier moved soundlessly over the trees at a majestic pace. We were a good eight kilometers away. The sound did not come back. A freak inversion layer had carried the noise of the engines to us. Now it - the inversion layer - seemed to have evaporated.

The image in my field of view shook quite a lot. I sat down in the open, bracing my elbows on my knees. Gradually I increased the magni­fication to maximum. As the image grew in size the outlines of the flier took on a familiar shape, the shape of a Coleopteron patrol craft. There was no doubt. And there also was no doubt that it was flying a search pattern. That meant that the enemy must have found the site of the ambush. They were looking for us.

Petra had the radio set up when I lowered the glasses again. We would have to send a message. It was our job to report on enemy activ­ities. Our side regularly sent out drones to keep track of Coleopteron positions and movements. Only most of the time the drones were shot down before they could send back any information, hence the ranger patrols.

Petra composed the message. It was short and to the point. The computer in the radio would condense it into a burst lasting a millisecond or less. We hoped it was too short to give our position away.

“Here we go,” she said and pushed the transmit button.

I kept watching the two craft flying their search patterns. Suddenly one of them broke off, heading up the valley. A second later the other one followed behind. They had caught the transmission. We slithered under the trees of the thicket. The next ten minutes would decide whether we would live. Petra took my hand and squeezed it hard.

“We’ll survive this one,” I said to her.

“Maybe,” she countered. “And maybe not. Many of the others in our graduating class are now dead. Rangers on active service do not have a reputation for a long life. Don’t forget that.” She was quite calm. Neither of us said another word.

After a while I could hear the turbines of the first enemy craft as it approached. It stayed some distance to our left. The sound swelled up considerably in volume and then faded again.

We waited. Then there was the howl of the approaching enemy patrol flier a second time. And then it faded once more. And then it came closer again. And then there was a tremendous explosion some distance away. The ground shook and a shock wave came racing through the air. Occasionally we also heard the second enemy craft, but it seemed to be farther way.

It took almost an hour before the two fliers departed. They dropped a total of six mines. Two of them were close enough for us to feel the impact, the explosion and the shock wave.

We did not dare leave our hiding place until noon, but before we departed Petra wanted to take another look at my injury. I was all for getting away as quickly as possible.

“Now is a good time to check it,” she insisted. “The fliers have left. Who knows when we will get another chance.”

Petra changed the dressing.

The cut below the knee was healing up very well. It was no handi­cap as far as moving along was concerned. It did not even hurt.

“You will have a nasty scar there,” Petra observed. She smeared a salve on the bandage over the portion which was in contact with the gash on my leg and put it back on. I was amazed at the rapidity with which the injury was healing. It certainly was several times as fast as a cut would have healed in my own time of the late twentieth century. They must have developed strange and powerful medicines. When I commented on it Petra looked up at me.

“You are joking, of course,” she said.

“Do you think so?”

“Are you that backward on Earth?” She laughed.

“In some things I suppose you are ahead of us.”

She smiled. “You should see our new biodex machines. They heal a fractured bone in one day!” There was pride in her voice.

I refrained from saying another word on that topic.

A short time later we were on our way again.


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