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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 28

Although the Falba Mountains and our enclave E1 straddled the equator the climate was more like the sub-arctic. That was because we were at an elevation of almost six thousand meters. The air was thin and the winds blew at gale force day and night.

It had taken us almost four weeks just to get used to the altitude. Then we had taken part in short patrols and after a couple of months we were beginning to get acclimatized. The beetles had their positions in the valley before us, maybe thirty kilometers away. The territory between us and the beetles was a no man’s land where human and Coleopteron patrols operated. We were on such a patrol now.

The glacier and our lines were almost fifteen kilometers behind us as the crow flies. It had taken us two days to get down to the two thou­sand five hundred meter level, two days of hard climbing and marching. An icy wind blew down the glacier from the north. Despite the bright sunshine I was chilled to the bone as we rested among the rocks near the confluence of two creeks. Before us was an almost vertical rock wall several hundred meters high.

Captain James Yonge was in charge of the patrol. We had two liaison officers along, Captain Ruth Appleyard of the regular ground forces and Lieutenant Roy Litvak from Fleet Service. The purpose of our patrol was to pin down the exact location of the enemy lines. Over the past six weeks there had been a build-up of Coleopteron forces. Our High Command feared a major offensive which would put us in a rather pre­carious position. Last year we had lost two large bases, E2 in the swamps at the Gulf of Boothia north of the Great Desert, and E3 on the high plateau of the Boothia Highlands. The cold climate there had not deterred the enemy and had been of little help to our troops. The Coleoptera were supposed to prefer hot climates. Now all we had left were the base at M1, hugging the coast at the Gulf of Denkos to the east of the fifteen thousand meter high Proga Range and E1 right here in the highest part of the Falba Mountains.

There were rumors afoot that Admiral Grainger, who is the com­mander in chief of all our forces and whose headquarters are on Inverness, was on his way to make a personal inspection tour of Perlos. It looked bleak for us here. For months the Coleopteron forces had been attacking us at E1 and the region under our control had been shrinking steadily so that now all we controlled was a roughly circular area with a diameter of a mere fifteen hundred kilometers.

I had sought shelter in the lee of a boulder facing the rock wall. Petra lay in the lee of another rock about five meters to my left. I let my gaze wander over the mountain scene when I caught sight of a black dot moving against the azure sky. My eyes must have caught a brief reflection for the dot was easily overlooked. I pulled my field glasses out and followed the slowly moving dot, gradually increasing the magnification. In the binoculars the black dot resolved itself into three fliers. It was too early to tell whether they were human or Coleopteron.

“What are you looking at?” Petra asked idly. She was as worn out as I. We carried all our provisions, weapons, grenades, food, and all the things we would need for two weeks.

“I am watching some fliers coming this way.”


I pointed to the west.

“Are they ours?”

“Can’t tell yet.”

She now sat up, also scanning the sky.

“Aircraft at two o’clock to the west,” she shouted.

Everybody suddenly froze, scanning the azure blue to the right.

“Got it,” Captain Yonge shouted. “Nobody moves.”

Long before the fliers were close I could make out the familiar silhouettes of our own craft. They came diving towards the top of the rock wall, their laser guns firing away at it. Had they spied something or were they only testing their weapons?

From where I was lying on the ground it looked as if the lead flier was going to crash into the rock wall. But he made it over the top. The other two followed him. They must have almost scraped the boulders up there. The sound hit us just as the last craft was disappearing. They did not come back and therefore they probably had not spotted any enemy activity. I relaxed as did everybody else.

Lazily I kept watching the top of the rock wall. Slowly I swept my glasses along the edge where the ground and the sky met. Suddenly I halted in my scanning. Had I seen a shadow up there? I was not sure. I studied the spot intensely under maximum magnification. Nothing moved. Ye t I was sure that I had glimpsed something, however fleetingly.

After a minute I rose. Captain Yonge was twenty meters away behind another boulder. I took one last glance at the top of the rock wall. It looked devoid of life. Utilizing what cover was available I made my way over to where Yonge was resting.

“I saw a shadow up there,” I said to him when I let myself slide to the ground beside him.

“A shadow? Where?”

I pointed to the position. The captain got up and walked around the boulder. He pulled his glasses out, rested his elbows on top of the rock and studied the location.

“I wish that wind would die down,” he mumbled as he stared through his binoculars. Then he swept them slowly along the top of the ridge. He did it only once. It was winter in the northern hemisphere and here at noon close to the equator the sun was almost due south.

“I should know better,” Yonge said as he slid into the shade of the rock. “I hope they did not catch the reflection.” He never questioned my report.

He pulled the infrared detector off his belt and switched it on. Raising it up he very slowly scanned the top of the ridge. Twice the needle quivered, but there was no beep and the digital read-out stayed below ten. The two hot spots could have been rocks heated by the sun.

Captain Yonge looked at the boulder strewn plain. Two hundred meters away was the confluence of the two creeks. He pulled out his map and studied it.

“I think they are there on top of the ridge,” he said at last, “even though we can’t see them and the instruments give us an uncertainty reading. I think that they are studying us right now, the same way as we are studying them.” He stood up.

“Seek cover,” he bellowed, “and stay covered.” Then he turned to me.

“How many shadows did you see?”

“Only one, Sir.”

He scanned the top of the ridge once more with his infrared detec­tor. This time the digital read-out only got up to two and the needle did not even quiver once.

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Yonge said to me. “I know they are there. Their patrol leader is probably calling for an air strike right now. We have ten minutes. And then they’ll come down over there.” He pointed to the west where the vertical wall of the rock face had weathered somewhat and an experienced mountain unit could risk a descent.

“ We will have to abandon this position while the aircraft attack and then we shall have to reoccupy it.”

I was scanning the top of the ridge again with my glasses at maxi­mum magnification. Suddenly there was a shadow where none had been an instant before.

“There, Captain,” I yelled, “straight up there.” I pointed to it. But when the captain studied the spot the shadow had disappeared again.

“Litvak, Appleyard, Lee,” Yonge shouted. He called out two more names. “You stay with Kester and Baird. The rest of you follow me.”

We split up. I retreated to the northwest, Captain Yonge and his group to the northeast. After three hundred meters we stopped and wait­ed. Petra was crouching right next to me in a fault line. We did not have long to wait. Three minutes after we had taken cover in the scarp the Coleopteron attack craft arrived on the scene. There were four of them.

They concentrated their assault on exactly the location where we had been. They dived down, their laser guns cutting deep furrows through the rock. A couple of hundred meters above the ground they released their missiles, one from each flier. The explosions were enormous. Here in the trench more than three hundred meters away from the impact of the closest missile we could feel the tremendous heat, even against the strong, cold wind. With turbines screaming the four fliers looped up. It took but seconds for them to reach an altitude of more than a kilometer.

Looping once more at the top of their turn they dove under power towards the ground, the energies of their guns turning the solid rock into gas. At the last possible instant they pulled out of their dives, each craft releasing another missile.

Had we remained there I was sure that we would have all perished. As it was we suffered no casualties. We watched the chemicals burn them­selves out. Lieutenant Roy Litvak, hiding next to Petra, was awed by the spectacle of the intense fire.

The Coleopteron craft made one more pass at treetop level had there been any trees and then left the scene. The air above the ground shimmered with the heat, even after all the smoke had blown away. We stayed put. Captain Appleyard was five meters to my left. She was deeply impressed by the display of Coleopteron fighting prowess. She had only arrived on Perlos a few weeks ago and this was her first encounter with the beetles. All her knowledge of enemy strategy had been gleaned from reports and the accounts of others.

Petra sidled over to me and squeezed my hand.

“Before long the fun will get under way,” she said, forcing a smile. “I am scared. Take good care, Carl. I want to see you in one piece and unhurt after this is over.”

Litvak hid a meter behind Petra. Now he cast a glance at Appleyard. The captain took a couple of steps closer to me, making sure that she was well concealed by the scarp.

“What does she mean, the fun will get under way?” She looked at me uncomprehendingly. “What is she scared of?”

“The Coleoptera, of course,” I said. “ We are going to give them a few bloody mandibles. They will be attacking shortly. We shall lay a trap for them.”

“Can’t we just - just - -”

“Just fade away? And have them follow us for the next couple of days until they catch us off guard? Yo u don’t understand their thinking processes, Captain. They are a race of conquerors. The word defeat does not exist in their language nor does the concept in their society. The only thing we can do is overcome them. There is the signal.” I had faintly heard Captain Yonge’s whistle.

Roy Litvak had crouched next to Petra. Now he looked at her.

“Lieutenant Kester is right,” Petra said. “We have no choice.”

“But we have no back-up. No medical help if anybody get injured,” Appleyard argued.

“That’s right, Captain. We only have ourselves to rely on. But don’t worry. There will be no need for a medic. I hope there won’t be any casualties. But if there are going to be any - dead rangers do not require a medic.”

I slipped over the top of the scarp, Petra right behind me and to my left. We made sure that we used all the cover we could. We were certain that the Coleoptera were scanning the area with their powerful glasses. Sun Lee and the other two rangers slipped away so stealthily that not even Petra and I could tell where they were.

When we reached the area the enemy fliers had attacked we found that in places the rocks were still boiling hot. Carefully we threaded our way around them. There were new grooves on the crags and cliffs and here and there the feldspar and granite and quartzite was fused by the tremendous heat of the laser beams of the fliers.

In the distance I saw Captain Yonge approaching. He waved me over. Petra and the two liaison officers tagged along.

“Any casualties?” Yonge shouted.

“Not in our group.”

“Good. My gamble paid off. Nobody would have survived here.” He waved his left arm at the destruction around us. It was so hot that I unbuttoned my parka. For the next fifteen minutes the cold would not be a problem for us.

“You don’t learn this back on Tremaine,” Yonge said to Appleyard. “There is no substitute for experience. It always pays to withdraw before an attack by aircraft. It gives the enemy false confidence. Now we bide our time.”

We worked out the strategy we would follow when the attack came. We agreed on a series of signals. Then we spread out in a large semicircle and waited. There were three rangers to each position. Petra and I held the western flank, fairly close to a fault line. Captain Appleyard and Lieutenant Litvak shared our position. Captain Yonge thought that the beetles would attack from the west since the rock face was not as high a kilometer away and the enemy would likely risk a descent there.

For the next half hour nothing happened. We lay in the lee of boulders as the hot rocks gradually cooled down. I buttoned my parka up. It was getting cold again, although not to the degree that it would incapacitate me or even seriously impair my effectiveness.

“There they come,” Petra suddenly shouted. She pointed to the top of the cliff about a thousand meters to the west of our position. A faint dust cloud had appeared at the ridge.

We watched it grow. It was faint indeed, and it moved. I heard Petra’s warning shout passed along. After five minutes or so Captain Yonge arrived. The faint dust cloud was halfway down the precipice. Captain James Yonge swore heartily. It would have done credit to a sailor, according to Lieutenant Roy Litvak who smiled broadly.

“You are a man to my liking,” he said. “There must be some fleet service in you.”

Yonge ignored that.

“It’s too late to change positions. You’ll just have to do the best you can,” Yonge said to Petra and me. And then he was gone again.

“The beetles have probably split into two groups,” Petra said to Ruth Appleyard. “One will attack from the front while the other one will try to get us in the flank or the rear. We shall have to be very alert.”

The tenuous cloud of dust had reached the valley floor. I scanned the rock face farther west but I could not make out the second group. That the enemy had split into two groups was certain. I did not doubt it in the least. What I could not understand was why the one group had so easily given its position away. Either they were inexperienced troops or they thought that they could fool us. I doubted it was the latter.

The minutes ticked on. The heat left in the stone from the attack by the fliers had dissipated long ago and we were some distance away from where the brunt of the attack had occurred. I was getting chilled. It was time to move. We spread out among the labyrinth of rocks and boulders and crags and scarps. We were still close enough to hear each other when we shouted.

I watched the area immediately in front of me. I had slid into a shallow fault line and was crouching in it. Not only gave it some protec­tion against the icy wind, it also offered me good cover against the enemy.

Some distance ahead I heard a scraping sound. There it was again, but a shade to the right. I felt tense and my heart began to thump loudly as the adrenaline flowed into my bloodstream. There, straight ahead, was a figure, the figure of a Coleopteron. He had not yet spotted me. He was about fifty meters away. And there was another one, a little to his right. I pulled a C grenade off my belt. Extending my right arm behind me I depressed the plunger. Three seconds after releasing it the grenade would pop.

Another beetle came into view. Nonchalantly he walked through the rocks, not seeking cover but rather trying to avoid the cold wind. I could barely believe what my eyes told me.

I heard a clicking sound ahead. For a moment I thought that the wind had carried a hiss to me from somewhere behind me. I briefly turned around but could not see anything.

Once more I concentrated on the beetles in front of me. There were four of them now. They were all close together. If I tossed the grenade into their middle I could get them all. The closest was now only thirty meters away.

I hesitated an instant longer, debating with myself whether to throw the grenade or use my laser gun. I would be at the fringe of the affected area. Tw o more beetles came around a boulder. I threw the grenade and at the same time jumped over the top of the scarp to my left and raced away from the boulders. I stopped just as the grenade popped.

From my new hiding place I could still see one of the beetles. He stood unmoving for a fraction of a second as a white mist spread out around him. Then he toppled over.

Up ahead I heard the reports of the rifle guns, old fashioned weapons which the beetles used against us with some success. It was said that the bullets were coated with a poison which reacted with human blood. Once you got hit death was usually certain within a few hours. Our side only had laser guns and the two types of grenades.

I did not linger. All around me were explosions now. Somebody threw a chemical grenade in my direction as I dived into a shallow depression. I felt the shock wave pass over me.

Te n meters away a beetle came into view. He was manipulating two guns, one in each of his topmost hands. Almost instinctively I pressed the firing button on my laser gun. The beetle’s thorax turned into vapor and he slid to the ground.

Two giant bounds brought me behind a huge rock, almost two meters high. Here I took stock. For a couple of seconds I listened and looked, trying to get my bearings. It seemed that our squad had split into individual fighting units, each ranger for himself. I had lost track of where Captain Yonge was. I could not even tell if Petra was still alive. Surely our side would have to suffer come casualties.

Somebody shouted something to my left. I slipped in that direction under the cover of the rocks and as silently as possible. I knew that the beetles could sense motion the way we humans sense sound and that their hearing lay at much higher frequencies, yet old habits die hard. I felt safer if I made no noise.

There was Petra. She was leaning against a crevice.

“Watch out, Carl,” she yelled when she saw me. “There are four of them coming this way.”

I turned and saw a shadow flitting from one rock to another. Then I heard a hissing sound farther away, carried by the wind.

“They are turning right towards you,” Petra yelled.

I ripped a C grenade off my belt. I could not see anything.

“On the count of three,” Petra shouted. “One, two, three.” She flung a grenade just as I let go of mine. Then I raced in her direction. But she had disappeared.

Another beetle came into view. He ducked into a fissure. I yanked off an E grenade and threw it, at the same time jumping into a shallow ditch several meters away. As soon as the pressure wave had passed I was up again, running back the way I had come, seeking cover under a small promontory.

Suddenly a line of beetles jumped over a scarp and began advanc­ing towards me. Other Coleoptera came from other directions. I ripped several grenades off my belt and threw them, one after the other in a semicircle. Then I fell back. A Coleopteron can easily run twice as fast as a human. I did not want to be caught or killed. As long as I kept moving I had a chance in the fluid battle lines of friend and foe.

The chill and the cold were long forgotten. I came to a halt among a pile of rocks. There was no pursuit. Carefully I advanced again.

Tw o meters away was a large rock outcropping. There was no sign of any Coleopteron yet I knew that they were nearby. I threw an E grenade to the left and then jumped towards the outcropping. My mind was feverishly trying to work out my next action when I came face to face with a black beetle who had also jumped into the lee of the outcropping. For an instant I stared at a large compound eye, every ommatidium glittering in a different shade. There were the pincers and the fierce mandibles agitatingly moving back and forth. The one feeler was sticking straight up. A tough chitin covered the two top appendages which held guns of some sort. And then came the impact.

With a tremendous force the Coleopteron slammed into me, knock­ing the air out of my lungs and throwing me to the ground. The beetle also toppled over, but at a different angle.

Instinctively - there was no time for conscious thought or effort -instinctively I folded myself into a ball and rolled around the outcropping and behind another crag. Here I kicked the ground and propelled myself away from the encounter.

There was no pursuit by the enemy.

A second later the action was forgotten. Up ahead I had spied some more beetles. I had four grenades left. I pulled one off my belt and threw it, then lined up the laser gun, aiming it at the beetle just leaving the shelter of a small spire. The grenade exploded and something hit my gun. The beam died. The firing mechanism began to spark. I dropped the gun and jumped back behind another boulder.

Faintly I heard the whistle of Captain Yonge far to the east. It was the signal to break off the action. I rose from behind the boulder. At the same instant a beetle stood up from a ditch twenty meters ahead. Without conscious thought I pulled another grenade off my belt and sent it on its way. The aim was dead on. I could feel the pressure wave of the explo­sion pass around the rock behind which I had sought shelter. Once more I heard the signal to disengage, fainter now.

I turned towards the east, still seeking cover wherever I could. Except for two grenades I had no weapons left. As I jumped from rock to rock I heard a scream to my right. I changed directions to investigate. Once more I heard a scream, much closer now.

As I rounded a boulder I stopped dead in my tracks. Two giant yellow beetles were holding a ranger by his arms and legs while a third one, a black one, did something to the human’s front. Without a second thought I ripped my last E grenade off my belt and threw it.

There were no survivors.

I was the last person to reach the assembly point. Captain Yonge was half hidden by a spire.

“Only one more,” he said. “Lee is still missing.”

That was when I recognized the face of the ranger the beetles had been holding.

“Lee is dead,” I said. Captain Yonge nodded.

Petra came over to me and grabbed my arm. There were tears in her eyes. “When I arrived here and did not see you I thought that you had become one of the casualties,” she whispered. For a moment she leaned her head against my shoulder and then straightened up again. She was as emotionally drained as I and the rest of us.

“Where are your weapons?” Captain Yonge asked.

“I have one C grenade left,” I replied.

“And your gun?”

“The firing mechanism began to spark and I had to drop it.”

“All right,” Yonge said. He sounded weary.

We had lost three rangers.

It took us four days to get back to our own lines. We had to fight one more brief skirmish. Major Mackenzie was waiting for us, his impa­tience poorly concealed.

“Your recorder,” he said gruffly to me after Captain Yonge had dismissed us.

I handed him the device. He also took Petra’s recorder and several others. Late that evening I was paged. Major Earl Mackenzie was sitting on a dais. Tw o military policemen flanked him. Several officers were sitting on chairs to the left of him.

“Lieutenant Carl Kester,” the clerk called out. I came to attention.

“Second ranger company, based on Inverness. Captain James Yonge, commanding officer,” the clerk read from his small screen.

“Is that right?” Mackenzie asked.

“Yes, Sir.” I still stood at attention.

“At ease,” Mackenzie said. I relaxed a little.

“You killed a fellow ranger,” the major began. “What do you have to say to that?”

“I followed standard practice, Sir. I did not kill him. He had been captured by three beetles.”

“That is Coleoptera, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir. He had been captured by three Coleoptera.”

When I said it the first time the officers to the left of him had taken deep gulps of air.

“And there was no way you could have released him?” Mackenzie asked the standard questions in a case like this.

“Sir, I had no weapons left. My laser gun had been destroyed and I was down to my last two grenades. Yo u have my recorder. There was nothing else I could do.”

The debriefing lasted a good ten minutes. In the end Major Mackenzie stepped down from the dais and shook hands with me.

“Well done, Lieutenant Kester,” he said. Then he pinned a ribbon to my tunic. “Carry on.”

I was dismissed.

Two days later we were back on patrol.

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