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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 12

There in front of me the flower bed contained a gigantic cactus, at least a meter in height and equally large in diameter. The thorns were like spikes, sticking out a good ten centimeters. Where the mountain ashes used to grow I saw two Joshua trees in large planters. For a minute I stood dumbfounded as if I were rooted to the ground. Fortunately I was all by myself.

I stood on some sort of terrace. A short distance away were a num­ber of steps leading down to the tarmac of what at first glance appeared to be an unfamiliar airport. No, not an airport. It was a landing field. Several dozen strange looking craft were parked in neat rows to both sides of a central, broad road. The tarmac seemed to stretch for a considerable distance. At the far horizon a purple hued mountain range shimmered in the heat.

And it was hot. I slowly walked as far as the Joshua trees. I still carried the books in my right hand. And now, as I took another look at them they were no longer books. They were orders, made out to me, Lieutenant Carl Kester. But I was a civilian, had been one all my life.

“Ah, there you are,” a voice said to me from behind the Joshua trees. Somehow I knew that voice, yet I could not immediately place it. The only person in view was a young ensign, vaguely familiar, but again I was hard pressed to say where I had met him before. I did not even know his name and for the world of me could not remember ever having been here before. But I did not have long to wait for an explanation.

“Are you still an ensign, Carl, or have they promoted you too?” He came to attention two steps away. “Lieutenant Bill Johnson, at your service, Sir.” He grinned from ear to ear. In his left hand he held a pack­age similar to mine.

Not knowing what else to do I returned the salute.

“Congratulations, Lieutenant Johnson,” I said, trying a weak smile.

“Thank you, Ensign Kester.” He stepped closer to me, looking at the package I still held in my hand.

“They promoted you too. Lieutenant Kester. What does it sound like, Carl? I bet we are going to see action now. The long, tedious training is finally behind us. Still, I found it quite interesting at Moonbase. Remember the caper we pulled at Farside getting lost and - well, never mind, that is all behind us now. But I was seriously worried about gradu­ating. They could have easily thrown us to the wolves, metaphorically speaking, of course. Come on, let’s get the ensign symbols replaced with lieutenant’s insignia. Then we’ll go to our quarters and read the orders and after that we’ll celebrate.” He took my arm and pulled me along.

I did not tell him that until a couple of minutes ago I had been a civilian living in the late twentieth century. I wondered what year this was. It certainly looked like the far future. All these machines parked on the tarmac had strange markings on them. Some were in white, others in green and red and blue. And the craft were far different from anything I had ever seen before.

I let myself be dragged along, offering no resistance. I certainly was at a loss of what to do next or where to go. Not so my companion. He was bubbling over with enthusiasm and talking all the time.

We descended the few steps to the tarmac and turned left. It was unbearably hot in the direct rays of the sun.

“That’s Arizona in the summer for you,” Bill Johnson was saying. “Heat, nothing but heat. I hope that we’ll be posted somewhere far away. Isn’t it exciting to walk along here at Fleet Headquarters? Back home in Iowa I never thought that I would be lucky enough to ever set foot here. But I made it and that is what counts.”

As we were passing a fairly large craft he suddenly halted. My com­panion seemed awed. The vehicle had green markings on it. Along the fuselage in large, green letters I read the word ‘Inverness’.

“Do you think that we’ll ever get a chance to board one of these?” Johnson asked, pointing to the craft. “Inverness! I would give my right arm to set foot on it.”

“I would be keen on going as well,” I concurred, being at a loss as to how to respond.

“Come on, Carl, what’s the matter with you? Is something bother­ing you? Surely you can tell me, your best friend.”

“No, no, Bill, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just ...”

“I know, I know. It’s because the promotions came through so unexpectedly fast.”

We walked over to the large craft in front of us. Almost lovingly he stroked the sleek metal hull.

“Inverness,” he whispered, and the awe in him made his voice shaky. “You must excuse me, Carl. I don’t usually get this emotional. But to go to Inverness - it would be the fulfilment of my keenest dreams.”

Slowly we walked around the craft.

“Say, did he give you a hard time, General Pershing? Quite an imposing figure from close by, isn’t he?” And to himself he whispered again: “Inverness.”

I was still at a loss as to the significance of Inverness or where it was located. For that matter I had no idea who General Pershing was. Obviously he was a military man and I was on a military base somewhere in the desert of Arizona. It was summer and I had just been promoted to lieutenant. All those facts I had gleaned from my talkative companion. As I stood there in the direct rays of the sun I tried to take stock.

“I wonder whether we’ll get some leave before we get posted,” Johnson suddenly said. “It would be good to see Iowa for one last time before they ship us to wherever ... Say, if we did, would you care to come home with me?” He looked at me expectantly.

“I don’t know whether we’ll get enough time to go anywhere. I just don’t know anything any more.”

“Sure you’ll come with me. When we returned from the Moon you came with me to visit my folks. Yo u even said to my mother that you had never eaten anything as tasty as the roast she made. She’d never forgive you if you didn’t come along. But we must hurry. Come on, let’s go to the quartermaster.”

We marched past the building I had just left. It was easily twice the size of my apartment building. My guide - I was beginning to think of Johnson as my guide since he knew his way around and I had no idea where anything was - walked along the edge of the landing field to another structure. I followed along like a sheep. Our uniforms were of a light yellow-brown color. We saw no other person. The edifice towards which my partner headed was not nearly as large as some of the others. It had a small sign over its entrance which read ‘Stores’. There was a terrace in front of it as well. We climbed the six steps.

“Did you notice that every building here has a raised platform in front of its entrance?” Johnson asked.

“Sure. That’s because of the rains, so the buildings won’t flood.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. But you could be right. Yes, you probably are. Come on, let’s see what they have for us. I just hope that they don’t post us on a tug. Or if they do, that they make it at least a deep space tug.”

I also had not known why all the buildings had a raised platform in front of their entrances. In fact, I had not even noticed it. The reply to Bill Johnson’s question had come to me like a flash of insight.

“Maybe we’ll have to be satisfied with a job right here on the base,” I said. Again the words had come to me as if some divine power was guiding my thoughts.

“Never! I would be totally averse to such a posting.”

“ We might not have much of a choice,” I cautioned him.

“Sure we will. Don’t you remember? We were near the top of our class at Farside. They’ll consider our wishes. They’ll certainly consider them much more than had we only stayed at Moonbase. I bet they’ll at least post us to a deep space tug. We might even get as far as halfway to Adar on some of our trips. Or maybe far out towards Vernon. Yes, certainly. I am almost sure now that we’ll be part of the crew of a deep space tug. Maybe we should have become rangers. Well, it’s too late for that now. Here we are.”

We were at the entrance of the building. Johnson pushed through the door and I followed him. A large sign directed us to the quartermaster’s office. As we entered it a burly character wearing a tight fitting uniform with sergeant’s stripes confronted us. There was an ugly scar on his left cheek.

“Yes?” he inquired, making it sound as if to say, what do you want here? His voice was the deepest bass I had ever heard. Johnson saluted, rather sloppily, I thought. I imitated him.

“ We are here to pick up our new uniforms,” Johnson informed the sergeant, handing him the package he was carrying. The contents were still sealed in the plastic container. I did likewise.

For a few seconds the sergeant studied the top pages which were visible through the clear plastic film. Then he handed them back to us. He was easily twice our age, perhaps even considerably older.

“Johnson and Kester,” he mumbled. “Yes, Sir, just a second.” Sud­denly he was a changed person. His manners implied deference. He disappeared through a doorway and we were left alone.

“Did you see that, Carl?” Johnson said. “It’s because we are officers now.”

The door chimed and another lieutenant entered. We still wore ensign’s insignia on our uniforms. Automatically we saluted. The lieu­tenant barely acknowledged us. He went to the counter and banged his fist loudly on the flat surface.

“Anybody here?” he yelled.

“Twenty seconds later the sergeant appeared. “Yes?” The one word seemed to say, do not bother me, I am busy. And what do you want, anyway.

“Major O’Brien sent me. I am here to pick up his new uniform.”

“I shall be with you momentarily.” And the sergeant left again. It took some considerable time before he reappeared. The lieutenant was seething with impatience.

“What was taking you so long?” he shouted at the sergeant.

The sergeant carried two packages. He handed one to each of us. He completely ignored the lieutenant.

“All the best,” he said to us in his deep bass voice. “I do hope that I shall see you again.” Then he saluted. “Good luck, Sir.”

We both returned the salute. Then we left. As I passed through the door I heard the lieutenant shout at the sergeant. It sounded as if he was cursing.

“Did you see that?” Johnson asked as we made our way along the corridor. “I have never seen anybody in the quartermaster’s office treat us with anything but contempt. I wonder what got into them.”

I made some appropriate sounds and followed my companion as he made his way to our quarters. Te n minutes later we tossed our packages on our respective cots.

“Let’s put the new uniforms on and then we’ll celebrate, Carl,” Johnson said. “I bet we’ll have at least one week’s leave coming. Yo u still haven’t said yes to my offer. If you don’t come up to Iowa my mother will never forgive ...”

He had been ripping the plastic off his parcel. As he pulled his uniform out of the package he suddenly lost his voice and became very pale. For long moments he stood like a statue by his cot. I thought that he was going to faint.

“What’s wrong, Bill?” I asked, walking over to him, quite prepared to catch him, should he loose consciousness.

“It can’t be,” he said, his voice shaky and barely above a whisper.

“What’s wrong, Bill?” I repeated. “Are you feeling all right?”

He merely nodded, pointing to the left sleeve of the uniform shirt he had pulled out of the package. It had lieutenant’s insignia on it. There were three vertical bars above it. They almost looked like stylized rockets. On the left breast pocket was the portrayal of a warship.

Johnson tried to say something but no words would come out of his mouth.

“Have a seat, Bill,” I said, gently pushing him towards his cot. He offered little resistance. Sitting down he took a couple of deep breaths.

“Do you know what these mean?” he asked at last, his voice hoarse and brittle. He was pointing at the insignia on his uniform.

“Sure,” I replied. “They mean that you are a full lieutenant now.”

“No, no, not that. Open your package and let me see your new uniform.”

“I was about to do that. I was about to try it on and see how it fits.” With that I tore open my package. Johnson kept watching me all the time, still unable to move or say very much.

I pulled off my boots, unbuttoned my shirt, slipped out of it, then undid my belt and stepped out of my trousers. Evidently there was some­thing the matter with the shirt but I could not tell what it was. After all, less than an hour ago I had been a civilian in the late twentieth century. As I thought about it my glance fell on the calendar hanging over the desk. It was an electronic calendar. And it was not hanging over the desk at all. It was built into the wall.

The day was clearly visible. It was the 21st. Above it in small letters I read Saturday. And below the day I could easily make out the month, June. Of course today was the 21st day of June. But underneath the month it said 422. I could not make any sense out of it.

Johnson had followed my eyes. “Yes, it’s the 21st of June.” He stretched out on his cot and sighed.

I put my new uniform on, pulled on my boots and placed the service cap on my had.

“How do I look, Bill?” I asked, turning towards my companion.

Johnson jumped up as I slowly turned around. When I faced him I saluted smartly, or at least in a manner I considered smartly. Once again I thought that he was going to faint.

“Your - your - your insignia, on your left breast pocket, there - there - and on your sleeve,” he stuttered.

“Yes? What about them?”

“You are on active service in Sector III too!”

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