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
“I can’t rightly say. It’s one way to see the world without being too
“You mean to see the universe. I have often wondered, Carl, you have
strange expressions. Do all the people on Adar talk like you?”
“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.”
“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
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
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 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.