During our absence Admiral Grainger, who had
arrived on Perlos a few months earlier, had paid a visit to our outpost.
Unfortunately we had missed him. I would have loved to have met the
commander in chief of our defence forces. He must have had a magical
personality, for when we arrived at our compound I could immediately
sense the change in attitude.
No longer were my fellow rangers and the two companies of regular ground
forces resigned to die on Perlos. There was a new feeling of purpose, a
feeling of adventure, a feeling of winning. The mood was upbeat. Success
was in the air. Rangers and soldiers talked about what they were going
to do when they got back to Inverness or Tremaine or Buenaventura. We
even had a couple of troopers there from far away Tenerife and one from
its stellar neighbor Restigouche and two were from Torkau in the Home
Sector. And everyone of them was convinced that he would get back home
Sure the road ahead was arduous and fraught with danger. But there was
Much to my surprise Major Mackenzie was also at the outpost when we
arrived. Even he had changed. Apparently we could look forward to
furlough. Not right away, of course. But in two or three months they
expected the first ship to return combat troops to Tremaine. Chances
were good that Petra would be among them.
The debriefing took a couple of hours. We had been listed as missing in
action. According to Major Mackenzie we had brought back a host of
useful information. I could not see how this time we had gathered any
more valuable intelligence than at any other time. But not for an
instant did I entertain the thought of arguing with the major.
There were also some bad news. Captain Ruth Appleyard had been lost when
the shuttle in which she had hitched a ride to the coast was shot down
as it crossed the Proga Range. The other bad news concerned Roy Litvak.
He was on his way back to Tremaine aboard a hospital ship. He was among
a handful of survivors who had held out against an attack by two units
of beetles. He had lost both legs when the blockhouse in which he had
sought shelter had suffered a direct hit by a mortar shell. On Tremaine
they can fit you with artificial limbs. It is said that they are as good
as your natural legs. Well - maybe.
For us a change was planned too. Petra, having been born on Hornepayne,
one of the planets overrun by the Coleoptera near the beginning of the
war, was scheduled to go on leave as soon as space could be found, as I
reported already. Much to my surprise she turned it down.
“What did you do that for?” I chided her, yet also glad that she would
stay with me. We got along exceedingly well, and not only as rangers and
“Would you have gone if Earthers would have had first choice?” she
countered. I never cared much for the term Earther referring to humans
having been born on Earth. But every native of the Warinski Sector
called us that. I got used to it over time but I never liked it.
“No, of course not. Not without you.”
“Well, there is your answer, Carl. I would have loved to go if you could
have come along. But you Earthers rate a low priority.” She laughed and
her eyes twinkled.
We had been back two full days. We had luxuriated in the warmth of the
shelters. We even had had baths and had slept for fifteen hours
straight. On patrol you caught a nap lasting an hour at the most
whenever you could. And one of us had to stay awake at all times. Thus
we averaged maybe four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. It was
not nearly enough even for only a few days.
We were walking over to the mess hall. It was a beautiful morning with
the sun shining down from a deep blue sky. Not a cloud marred the view.
Ten kilometers away the massive snow covered mountain chain glittered in
the rays of the sun. We were near the four thousand five hundred meter
level and the air was noticeably thinner than in the lowlands by the
coast. It was also quite cold. Nevertheless, I felt on top of the world
and not only in the literal sense. Petra was also in an exceptional
As we walked into the mess hall Major Mackenzie met us inside the door.
“Hurry up and eat,” he urged us. “We’ve got to get going.”
“Going where?” I inquired. “We just got back. Our last patrol had been a
very exhausting one.”
“Yes, I know. But you came back the day before yesterday.” His voice
“That does not seem very long ago to me,” Petra said.
“Lieutenant Baird, the High Command in its wisdom has ordered you to
accompany me to M1. I know no more than that. There is a rumor afloat
that we will launch a major attack very soon. Now hurry up and eat. The
shuttle is waiting.”
“The shuttle? Are we going into orbit?”
“No, Lieutenant. It is a suborbital shuttle.”
Petra was a shade disappointed.
We ate a quick breakfast without tasting it very much. A patrol is an
ordeal at any time. Usually it lasts several days and you are in
constant danger. The loss ratio at times rises to above sixty percent
and to my knowledge has rarely been below twenty. On paper and in words
it sounds so simple. When you are out among the rocks and the Coleoptera
stalk you and you smell the ozone of the laser beams and hear the
explosions of the grenades and listen to the staccato reports of the
rifle guns of the beetles it is anything but simple. Yo u are scared to
death and often hope against hope that you will survive.
The flight across half the planet took three hours. When we landed at M1
it was already dark there. They shuttled us through the port facilities
and out to where the fliers were parked. Everything ran very smoothly.
They did not even overlook our need to eat. Shortly before the flier
took off a page arrived with three bags of sandwiches and some coffee.
It took more than an hour to fly over the vast expanse of M1. Keeping
our speed just below the speed of sound we arrived at our dispersal
point some time after midnight. As soon as we had landed Major Mackenzie
climbed into a ground vehicle and disappeared. Petra and I were met by
no one other than Captain Yonge.
“And how did you like it in the Falba Mountains?” he greeted us.
“Cold, very cold,” both Petra and I said simultaneously.
“I take it that you are not keen on low temperatures,” Yonge said. “Very
good. Yo u won’t freeze to death here. How is the injury, Lieutenant
“The injury? What injury?”
“Did you not get hurt below the knee?”
“Oh, that! It’s all healed up a long time ago.”
“Good, good. I am glad to hear that.” Yonge was making conversation as
he slowly walked towards another ground car. “You can throw your parkas
into the vehicle. How are you set for food and power packs and
“ We had a couple of sandwiches just before ...”
“I didn’t mean that, Lieutenant Baird. We are moving you out within the
hour. Our big offensive will get under way at dawn. By then you will
have to be behind enemy lines. We need the intelligence.”
I felt Petra grabbing my hand and squeezing it hard. Lately she had
gotten into the habit of doing it whenever she became nervous. It was
very reassuring to me. Captain Yonge briefed us on our tasks. He did it
in a conversational tone, leaning against the ground car. Our task was
“Stay alive and report what you see,” he said.
There would be fliers standing by to assist the ground forces. Captain
Yonge even had a corvette at his disposal to pick up casualties behind
enemy lines. And so it went. He painted a very comforting picture. I
felt my anxiety dissipating. Even Petra relaxed her grip on my hand.
Then Captain Yonge reached inside the ground car and brought out two
carryalls, handing one to each of us. In addition he gave us four spare
power packs for our laser guns and a couple of dozen grenades. Petra was
going to be in charge of the radio while I took the infrared glasses.
Just as we finished stowing all the paraphernalia on our persons a
personnel carrier came to a halt behind the ground car. Captain Yonge
walked over to it.
“All set?” a voice shouted out of the darkness.
“All set,” the captain replied.
“All right, you two. Hop aboard.”
The voice was that of Major Mackenzie. We climbed into the carrier. Six
other ranger teams were crowded into it. Then we took off. In the
excitement I plumb forgot to salute Captain Yonge when we left.
The ride was a short one. After five minutes we stopped.
“Everybody out,” Mackenzie shouted.
We piled out. The ground was sandy and rough. Half hidden behind some
bushes and trees was a dark object. As it turned out it was our
“This way,” a voice shouted from the inscrutable darkness. It was a
female voice and it was somehow familiar to me.
We all more stumbled than walked in the direction of the voice.
“Welcome aboard,” the same voice said. “Be careful, the ramp is rather
“How are we coming along, Chief?” another voice shouted from the
darkness ahead. That voice was also familiar to me but I was hard
pressed to place it.
“It would help if we had a bit of light,” one of the rangers ahead
“ We are okay so far, Captain,” the chief said. I could not visualize
anybody being a chief. A chief of what? And a female chief at that!
“Mr. Williams, can we chance it?” That must have been the captain again.
In reply a short distance ahead two rows of lights began to glow in a
“Step up. Make it lively now,” the chief called out. We stumbled along,
moving faster now since we could see where we were going.
The ramp was indeed steep. I went first, pulling Petra along behind me.
There was one more ranger team and then the chief climbed in behind
“The best of luck,” Major Mackenzie called out from the darkness. The
faint glow of the lights had gone again. “Give me a couple of minutes
before you take off,” the major continued. He was talking to the
“Aye, Sir. Tw o minutes. Mark.”
Then the chief closed the door.
“All set?” the captain’s voice came out of the darkness at the other end
of the hallway. I had no idea on what kind of vehicle we had climbed.
Gradually the panels brightened again. And then I saw who the chief was.
She wore a fleet service uniform with the insignia of chief engineer.
Suddenly it all made sense to me. And as the lights increased in
intensity I recognized the person. She was none other than Chief
Engineer Louise Yasuda.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” the captain said. “Just don’t touch
anything. It will take about a quarter hour until we reach our first
The captain was Bill Johnson. Of course! That was why the voice had
sounded so familiar. The third person sitting at a huge console was the
weapons officer, George Williams.
Bill Johnson grinned at me when he saw me. “It seems that you people
draw all the most dangerous assignments,” he said.
Then he introduced his crew. Apparently Petra and I were the only ones
who had met them before. For some time we all talked.
“We’ve got five minutes left,” Bill Johnson observed. He shook hand with
“Take care of her,” he said when he shook my hand. “Don’t let any harm
befall the lieutenant.”
Then he shook Petra’s hand. “Now that we have reached the beginning of
the end of this war make sure that you see Tremaine again and see to it
that your partner survives as well.”
And then the lights dimmed out again.
Tw o minutes later the turbines began their climb through the sound
frequencies. Suddenly I felt very heavy. Centrifugal forces pulled at
me. There were a few moments when I felt normal again and then there was
a small bump.
“Mitchell, Kruger,” Captain Johnson shouted. “Your position.”
There was a soft whine. A slightly lighter rectangle showed itself in
the darkness. The Mitchell-Kruger team slipped out.
“Good luck,” Johnson hollered after them. I heard the soft whine a
second time and inscrutable darkness prevailed once more. The exercise
was repeated three more times. Then we felt the bump again.
“Kester, Baird,” Captain Johnson called out. “Your location. When you
leave the corvette run like hell. There is supposed to be a Coleopteron
camp not far from here. Be careful.”
Petra’s hand found mine. The door was open. We slid to the ground, got
up and ran as fast as we could. After ten seconds we flopped down on the
gravel. There was an immensely loud scream as the turbines speeded up.
The corvette shot into the sky. About two hundred meters high it seemed
to hover for an instant. It shimmered for a split-second and then was
gone. There was a loud thunderclap.
Petra and I got up. It took us but a moment to get oriented. In front of
us was a vertical rock wall, at least two hundred meters high and a
little less than half a kilometer away. We were on a rocky ledge.
Boulders had toppled down from the high ground eons ago. I marveled at
how Captain Johnson had picked the only level spot on which to land his
corvette. A hundred meters in any direction and he would have crashed
into the rocks.
Far to the east the horizon was beginning to lighten. Dawn was about to
creep up on us.
“Let’s go to the ridge,” I suggested to Petra. It was less than three
hundred meters away. Petra nodded.
The ridge was not really a ridge. It was the edge of the ledge. A few
seconds after peering over it through my infrared field glasses I pulled
myself back and took a couple of deep breaths. My heart was palpitating
“What is it, Carl?” There was concern in Petra’s voice for by now she
knew me well.
“Down there. A camp of the beetles. There must be thousands of them
Petra chanced a glance. The infrared glasses made the image quite bright
“ We shall wait until it gets a little brighter. Then we report and
after that see what havoc we can wreak. And then we get out of here.”
“Exactly my idea, Carl.”
We waited twenty minutes. During that time we counted the number of
aircraft, the ground vehicles, and we made an estimate of the Coleoptera
present. It was quite a formidable force.
“All right, Carl, I think we should attack this camp from two
locations. Yo u can stay right here and take on the beetles and I will
see what damage I can do their equipment. I’ll let you have all my C
grenades and you can give me all your E grenades.”
“Yes, we are not likely to find as tempting a target again.”
I gave Petra all my E grenades and she handed me all her C grenades but
one. We changed the settings on all the grenades from the normal three
seconds to the maximums of seven or eight seconds. The grenades had
different maximum settings depending on where they had been
While Petra jogged to her location I attached all the C grenades to my
belt. I would run to her and as I did so I would throw two grenades at a
time over the top, one close to the rock wall and one as far as I could
manage. They would fall about thirty meters apart and thus cause the
greatest damage. I had twenty-two grenades.
At last Petra reached her location. She signaled me that she was ready.
The sun was not yet up but the sky had begun to turn crimson in the
east. Petra sent the message we had composed. The radio pulse was only
one millisecond long. I took one more look over the top. At least a
thousand Coleoptera were within reach of my grenades. When I saw Petra
throw her first grenade I threw my first two and began running towards
I got rid of my last grenade when I was still about a hundred meters
away from Petra. She waited until I was next to her before she also took
flight. Down below among the vehicles and aircraft the primary
explosions had stopped but now there were secondary blasts as the
ammunition blew up and the fuel ignited. Far to our right I heard thew
whine of starting turbines.
It would not be hard for the beetles to figure out from where the attack
had come. We had run for about a kilometer when the first flier became
airborne. In a wide circle it headed towards the location where we had
first seen the camp. Luck was with us. We kept on running.
After having gone two kilometers at full tilt we were both thoroughly
out of breath. We both can jog all day if necessary. We are in good
physical condition. We can probably jog twice as fast as most people. In
the ranger force they put a great deal of value on physical
conditioning. But neither of us can run at top speed all day, or for an
hour for that matter. After two kilometers I was gasping for air. Petra
was also ready to collapse. We simply sank to the ground in the lee of
some boulders. After a rest of a couple of minutes we would continue,
but at a less hectic pace.
About two dozen fliers were in the air now. They were searching for us.
Purple streamers of energy were boiling away the rocks from where we had
thrown the grenades. They dropped mines and missiles. And then they
Three large fliers rose in the far distance and circled to beyond where
the aircraft had dropped the missiles. About five kilometers away from
us they set down. Through my field glasses I watched them disgorge
beetles. I counted at least sixty individuals, four troupes, one entire
By this time we both had regained our breath.
“ We had better move out,” Petra said, getting up.
At that moment a lone Coleopteron flier came swooping down from the high
plateau above. He could not possibly have seen us. He dropped a single
missile. It exploded a good fifty meters away. Nothing should have
happened to us. I pulled Petra back down and we cowered behind the
boulders. After a few seconds the air was clear, relatively speaking. I
Petra did not move.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I said.
There was no reply and she stayed where she was. Suddenly I felt chilled
to the core, but not by anything cold. It was fear.
I turned towards her. She looked unusually pale. The sun had climbed
above the horizon. A blood red ray of sunshine played around Petra’s
face. She had her eyes closed. And as I looked closer it was not the ray
of sunshine which was blood red. There was a cut at the side of her
throat. And steadily more red blood came out of the wound.
She had a few minutes left to live unless I could stop the bleeding.
What was I to do? I am no medic and I have no training whatever in first
aid. But something had to be done.
First of all I took her cold grenade, the last one we had, pulled out
the pin and laid it next to me on the rock. The unit of beetles, all
four troupes, were advancing towards us but were still more than four
kilometers away. Then I took out the medical kit. There were several
bandages in it, pads, fasteners, salves and sticky tape. I used one
bandage to wipe the blood away. There was a lot of it.
If I could only seal the cut. The piece of stone which had caused it was
still there. It was flat and quite sharp. The edge had sliced into
Petra’s jugular vein. The only thing I could think of was to seal the
cut with medical tape and hope for the best. I pulled the stone out and
threw it away.
Once more I wiped the blood away. Then I applied the medical tape
directly over the incision. I cut the widest tape there was into a
number of short pieces and placed them tightly over the wound. If the
worst came to the worst I would use the C grenade. We would not be
captured alive. The beetles were now about three kilometers away.
As I stood up I could see a fairly level stretch about a hundred meters
away. Ah yes, the radio. I activated the medical emergency button.
Petra was no featherweight. I carried and dragged her the hundred
meters. Then I waited. Should I try the radio once more? The beetles
were two kilometers away. Te n more minutes to live unless help arrived
I laid Petra on the ground. Blood was again seeping through the tape but
it was not the flood it had been before. She remained unconscious.
Meanwhile the beetles had approached to within one kilometer. I took the
C grenade into my right hand. With my left I held Petra’s hand which
felt ice cold.
Suddenly there was a pressure wave. It came from above and threw me down
on the rock. It was accompanied by a loud boom of thunder and the shrill
scream of turbines. The sound was physically painful.
I levered myself up to see what was happening. Twenty meters away a
corvette was setting down.
Before it had made contact with the ground the door opened and a ramp
extended. Two people came out of the opening and jumped to the ground.
They came racing over to where I was still groggily trying to collect
my thought. One of them grabbed me.
“I am okay,” I said. “It’s her.”
He let go of me and took Petra by the left arm while the other person
seized her right. Unceremoniously they dragged her to the craft and up
“Came along,” one of the sailors yelled when I did not follow them
The closest beetle was now a hundred meters away and running at top
speed. I depressed the plunger on the grenade still in my right hand and
hurled it behind me while I ran towards the corvette and up the ramp.
“Take her up,” one of the sailors shouted. I was slammed to the floor.
Faintly I heard a soft whine behind me as the door closed.