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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 14

There was no loud noise as the shuttle took off. Today I cannot even remember whether there was a whine. I only recall the tremendous acceleration which pushed me into the seat much harder than even a strong person could have done. I had difficulty turning my head, and when I did and managed to glance outside we were already so high that the ground looked like a large scale relief map and the curvature of the Earth was clearly visible.

There was no pilot. Having just arrived from the late twentieth century I felt considerable apprehension about this oversight. None of my fellow passengers showed any concern whatever. However, their confi­dence did nothing to alleviate my anxiety. As I recall it took but twenty minutes to rendezvous with an orbiting ship.

A bright point of light became visible through the front windows. The force of acceleration which had pressed me into the seat had gone some time ago. I had a feeling as if I was continuously falling. It took a good deal of effort to keep my stomach from emptying its contents.

“Stand by for deceleration,” a voice suddenly said. I looked around but could not tell who had spoken. The sound had been to high for a man’s voice and too metallic for a woman. I did not have many seconds to wonder. It seemed that everybody suddenly grabbed the arm rests of their seats and sat very upright. I was not sure what to expect. I also gripped my arm rest, but not very tightly.

Perhaps two or three seconds after the announcement I was thrown forward by a tremendous force. The straps holding me cut deeply into my shoulders and for an instant I feared that my head might be pulled off my neck. I recall no explosion of sound, no loud hissing noises although I imagined a deep rumble, a shade above the threshold of hearing, coming from somewhere underneath and lasting for some seconds.

In front of us the point of light had resolved itself into a huge ship, standing out clearly against the black background of space with its profu­sion of stars and bright patches. There was a dark, rectangular opening right in the middle of the vessel and we were heading towards it at a fast clip. Surely our velocity was far too great to avoid an accident. Unconsciously I braced myself for the coming collision. The pressure throwing me forward in my harness appeared to be diminishing, adding to the feeling of imminent doom. However, I was wrong. My feelings had nothing to do with reality.

Despite my apprehension and my urge to shout for somebody to do something I kept quiet. It was a hard thing to do. We drifted into the dark opening. As we passed from the sunlit brightness outside into the shadow of the ship and its cavernous shuttle deck it seemed that we were plunged into total darkness despite the electric lights inside our craft. I heard nothing and felt only the slightest breath of a bump as we settled down on the magnetic lock. Then there were two clanking noises, more felt than heard, as the mechanical locking device clamped into place.

“Docking successfully completed,” the same metallic voice announced now. “Please remain seated until the deck is pressurized.”

To our left I could still see a few stars through the closing doors of the shuttle deck. Gradually it became brighter as my eyes adjusted to the artificial illumination. I was prepared for a wait of several minutes, but after what seemed like only a few seconds the doors of the shuttle opened. Nobody had said a word all the way up.

“That’s it,” Sergeant Earl Mackenzie announced as he got up.

We followed him down to the deck. Just then a door opened and quite a young woman came through it. She wore the uniform of a second officer.

Mackenzie marched towards her. Five steps away he halted.

“Permission to come aboard,” he said, saluting.

“Permission granted,” the second officer responded, returning the salute.

The ritual must as old as the navy itself, I thought. I was next in line. Did the sergeant speak for all of us? Perhaps, but it was best not to take a chance and start out on the wrong foot. The thought flashed through my mind as I approached the second officer.

“Permission to come aboard,” I said, copying the sergeant. I also saluted. And now I saw that the second officer carried a small tablet in her left hand.

For two long seconds she stared at me. Then she returned the salute. “Permission granted, Lieutenant Kester,” she said.

“Thank you,” I heard myself mumble as I stepped aside to stand next to the sergeant.

“I think that you’ll do,” Mackenzie whispered as I took up my position. I felt myself blush at the unexpected compliment but refrained from commenting.

Seconds later the second officer had completed the ritual and we were following her out of the shuttle deck.

Except for Sergeant Mackenzie each of us was carrying a duffel bag. It suddenly hit me that I still had not read my orders. Somehow it did not worry me. I did not really belong here, I told myself. It was nothing but a vivid dream. And then I thought about the Narvik affair. No, it was no dream, the same as Narvik had been no dream.

Half an hour later I had stowed my gear in my tiny cabin and was waiting in the wardroom. Bill Johnson was sitting across from me, sipping a cup of coffee. Then the two ensigns came in, Louise Yasuda and Petra Baird. They had barely sat down when Sergeant Mackenzie arrived.

“Ten-shun!” he shouted standing just inside the door.

The four of us jumped up and stood at attention, facing the sergeant. We heard approaching steps in the hallway. Mackenzie saluted as a tall, young man entered. He had captain’s stripes on the sleeves of his tunic. We hastened to salute as well.

“At ease,” the captain said, studying us for what seemed like an eternity but probably was no longer than a few seconds.

“Sergeant, if you please?” The captain’s words were a question as well as an order.

“Captain Litvak,” the sergeant introduced the master of the vessel. Then he turned towards us four. “Pilot Ensign Louise Yasuda, navigator Ensign Petra Baird, third officer Lieutenant Carl Kester and weapons officer Lieutenant Bill Johnson.” We each in turn came to attention as our names were called.

“Welcome aboard,” Captain Litvak greeted us. He had a boisterous voice, thick hair which had a reddish sheen to it and he was tall, yet he did not give the impression of a giant. Sergeant Earl Mackenzie, who was no dwarf himself, was at least a head shorter than the captain.

In some ways they all seemed to be familiar to me. Petra Baird in a different environment could easily have been a nurse. If I pictured her in a tightly fitting white dress and the head cover with the bright red cross in the middle - she looked exactly like the Petra Baird I had known in Norway.

And Louise Yasuda? Was she not the little American interpreter we had in Narvik?

Ah yes, Mackenzie! He still was the no nonsense man my second lieutenant had been halfway up the ridge of Ankenes.

And Captain Litvak? In a grubby, dirt-smeared uniform he could have passed for Corporal Litvak who used to tend the machine gun in the back of the Landrover.

I blinked.

“As you well know, we are at war,” Captain Litvak said. “The purpose of this ship and its complement is to prevent the enemy from reaching Inverness and Earth. To effect that we shall be at full alert every time we are in normal space. Yo u will be on duty twenty-four hours out of every day. Yo u will carry out every order flawlessly, and if possible, before it is given.” There was some chuckling.

The pep talk was quite a bit longer. It was basically a summary of what was expected of us. Then we went on a lengthy and detailed tour of the ship. Well over an hour later we were back in the wardroom.

“Now that we understand each other and that we know our way around, you are free to do as you please. The first officer will detail your duties, but not until tomorrow morning. Yo u will be back here at 0600. Dismissed.”

We all jumped up and stood at attention while the captain left, followed by the sergeant. It seemed like a strange beginning.

“I don’t know about you,” Johnson said after we were alone, “but I am starved. And beat. I am going to have a bite to eat and then I am going to have a nice, long sleep. They tell me that aboard an ASV ship you don’t get more than four or five hours of rest each day. They train practically all the time.”

We had our evening meal and then hung around for another hour talking to the two girls. Naturally we assumed that our time and ship’s time were identical. We were about to go to our cabins when Commander James Yonge, the first officer, stuck his face through the door.

“You people had best get some rest,” he said. “It’s going to be a short night. We are on Inverness time aboard this ship.” And he was gone again.

“Inverness time?” Johnson asked. “Does anybody have any idea how long a day is on Inverness?”

Nobody did. But we quickly went to our quarters.

As I lay down on my cot sleep was some time in coming. Where was I? And what was in store for me? Obviously the time was the far future and we were at war. But who was the enemy? Bill Johnson knew and so did everybody else. One thing was for sure, I could not let on that only this morning I had been quite an ordinary civilian of the late twenti­eth century. What date was it now? Questions, questions and no answers!

The present was real enough. It was no dream. Of that I was sure. It had a certain similarity with my Norwegian experience less than a year and a half ago - at least in my time. I had never heard of a place called Inverness, a planet some forty light years towards the center of the galaxy as seen from Earth. And there was Adar, and there was Vernon, both also planets settled by humans. How far into the future had I been catapulted? If time permitted I would try to find out tomorrow. I would have to be discreet.

There was no doubt that I had landed in the far future. The tech­nology was so perfect, so simple to handle, so advanced, that I could easily visualize a time span of half a millennium had passed here on Earth. Wait a minute, had I not seen the calendar on the wall of our room at the military base in the desert? Sure I had. And today was Saturday, the 21st of June. Underneath the month had been the number 422. Could it be that the number 422 indicated the year?

And what if it did? What if it were the early part of the fifth cen­tury? As I recalled it the fifth century was the beginning of a period in history known as the Middle Ages. It was a barbaric period, with no electricity and certainly no space travel. Probably most people harbored lice and fleas, and sanitary arrangements were most crude.

The only other alternative I could think of was that the calendar had been changed. At some future time as seen from my twentieth century vantage point they must have decided that a new method of keeping time was in order. Yes, that must have been it. And now that I thought about it some more there were four letters right underneath the year: S.Y.G.C. Could the first two letters mean standard year? I could not think of a definition for G.C.

It seemed that I had barely closed my eyes when a loud, undulating noise awoke me. For a moment I was confused as to where I was. The undulating noise stopped and I heard a whistle through the speaker in my cabin.

“Battle stations. Code three. This is a drill. Battle stations, code three.” It seemed that the volume was turned up to maximum.

I dived out of my cot. In seconds I had pulled on my uniform and slipped into my boots. I dashed out into the hallway and at a run headed for the bridge. I barely got through one of the airtight partitions which were sliding across the corridor. And then I was trapped. What now? Ahead of me and behind me the airtight partitions blocked the hallway. There was no other person in sight.

I halted and took stock. To be quite honest with myself I had no idea where the bridge was. For that matter I had no idea where I was nor where any other station was. Yesterday we had toured the ship. We had visited the weapons deck, engineering, maintenance and repair, the shut­tle deck, sick bay and of course the bridge. There were a couple of mess halls, recreation rooms which were called wardrooms, briefing rooms, crew’s quarters and so on. But right now I was utterly lost.

Hesitantly I approached the airtight partition in front of me. It had an emergency door in it. I turned the locking wheel to the right until I heard a click. The door opened easily and I slipped through it. Then I turned the wheel again, once more to the right, since I was now on the opposite side. After half a turn I heard the click again.

I was in a different section of the corridor, but I was as lost as before. About five meters ahead of me was a small sign reading ‘Engineering’. What did I have to lose? I walked over. The door was shut tightly. Perhaps they could direct me to the bridge. I opened the door and pushed through it.

“Lost, are you, Lieutenant?” a rating greeted me, grinning from ear to ear. “Just wait here.”

“What are you doing in engineering?” a stern voice inquired from behind me. I whirled around. A person of indeterminate age was scrutinizing me. He looked to be Chinese. His only identification was the engineering insignia on this coveralls.

“I am lost,” I stammered, feeling myself blush.

“You will address me as Chief, Lieutenant. Are you one of the new people?” And before I could reply he continued: “Of course, you are".

The recruits are getting more incompetent all the time. It’s no wonder we are not winning.” With that he turned around and was gone. The rating had barely been able to contain himself and now guffawed loudly.

“What’s so funny?” another voice demanded. “Your magnetic field is fluctuating.”

“Yes, Sir,” the rating replied, the cause of his recent amusement forgotten.

The exercise lasted for a full hour. I stood in engineering the entire time, unable to do a single thing. When it was over I was taken to the main briefing room. I felt like a prisoner and perhaps I was one. Shortly after my arrival somebody herded Yasuda in. Seconds later Baird arrived, also under guard. When they brought Johnson in he looked as if he had just been roused. It took ten more minutes before Captain Roy Litvak appeared, followed by his first officer, Commander James Yonge. Chief Engineer Sun Lee brought up the rear. He was the person I had met earlier when I had stumbled into engineering.

The four of us, Yasuda, Johnson, Baird and I, stood along the wall while the captain and his officers sat at one side of a long table. Tw o security guards also remained.

“This is an informal inquiry,” Commander Yonge said.

Johnson breathed a silent sigh of relief. Both Yasuda and Baird suddenly looked less downcast. I felt like the outsider I was. I told myself that nothing much could happen to me since I did not really belong here. However, I was far from convinced of that.

“Lieutenant Johnson,” Yonge, who was conducting the inquiry, began, “if this would have been a real attack we could have been destroyed for lack of a full complement on the weapons deck. What do you have to say in your defense?”

“I - I am sorry, Sir,” Johnson stuttered. “I did not hear any alarm.”

“You did not hear battle stations?”

“No, Sir. I was asleep in my cabin and there was no call to battle stations.”

“You must have been in a very deep sleep if the loudspeaker did not wake you. Are you sure that your hearing is on a par?”

“Yes, Sir. Nothing came over the loudspeaker in my cabin. I would have heard it.”

“All right, Chief, We’ll have to check that out. Ensign Yasuda, What were you doing in auxiliary control? I trust that you are aware of where your post is.”

“Yes, Sir. I am not sure how I got to auxiliary control. I was certain that ...”

“You were certain,” Commander Yonge thundered. “Do you realize that your absence from the bridge presented a severe handicap and might have jeopardized this ship and its entire crew in a real confrontation with the enemy?”

“Yes, Sir,” Yasuda said meekly. “I am sorry, Sir.”

“Ensign Baird, what were you doing on the weapons deck? Are you a trained weapons officer?”

“No, Sir. I am sorry, Sir. I am a navigator.”

“Since when do we navigate our ships from the weapons deck?”

“I took the wrong turn, Commander. I am sorry. I am not yet com­pletely familiar with the layout of the ship. The reality is a lot different to what it looks like on plan. I shall not make the same mistake again. I hope that I will be given a second chance.”

“Are you sure you can find your way to Inverness and our outposts beyond? I am not all that certain. It seems that you cannot even navigate from your cabin to the bridge.”

Although it sounded funny nobody dared to show even the faintest hint of a smile.

“Kestler, Lieutenant, is it?”

I was not sure that I had heard right but I was not going to take any chances in having the first officer make an unfavorable comment on my hearing ability.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied.

“Do you care to enlighten this board of inquiry what you were going to do in engineering when you were needed on the bridge?” Commander Yonge’s voice sounded sarcastic. The captain sat unmoving next to him and Chief Engineer Sun Lee was at the captain’s right.

“This is the first time that I am on a ship such as this,” I replied. “I simply had no idea where the bridge was relative to my cabin.”

“You have never been on a ship?” The commander’s voice sounded incredible. “Then how is it that you are a third officer?”

“I have been on other, different ships, Sir, but not on any ASV vessels. I do have the theoretical qualifications though, I believe,” I hastened to add to my statement.

“You believe? Don’t you know?” Yonge shook his head. “They take less and less time to train the replacements. What are we going to do with you, Kestler?”

This time I paid attention to how he pronounced my name.

“Sir, my name is Kester, not Kestler.”

“Kester? It says here Kestler, Lieutenant, Carl.” The commander punched something into his computer keyboard. For the first time the captain bent forward.

“I am Lieutenant Carl Kester, Sir. And I am a qualified third officer.”

“Hm, Kester. All right.” He seemed weary. For along time he looked at the four of us. Then he turned to the captain.

“I do not believe that there is any wilful dereliction of duty, Sir,” Yonge said. “It appears that we have acquired completely inexperienced replacements. A bit of training will rectify that.”

“So it seems, Number One. See to it that they become proficient.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

The captain, the chief engineer and the first officer rose.

“Dismissed,” Yonge barked.

All four of us saluted and turned to leave.

“Not you, Johnson,” Chief Lee said. “We’ll check out your story about the malfunction of the speaker.”

As it turned out the speaker was indeed not functioning. Somebody had omitted to hook it up to the intercom system.

We did train after that. We trained for hours on end. After two full days we were as familiar with the ship as we were with the backs of our hands. By that time we had left Earth but none of us four was aware of it. We were kept too busy.

It took a week to reach Inverness. We, the four of us, snatched five hours of sleep every day. The rest of the time we trained. They also left us sufficient time to eat and to look after our sanitary requirements.

We were in normal space. Inverness was one more jump away. For the past ten gruelling hours we had been at battle stations. We were near the conclusion of the exercise. I had to get to auxiliary control and was jumping down a drop shaft. A fraction of a second before reaching the bottom the ship went through a violent maneuver to avoid an imaginary neutron beam. It changed the gravitational field of the drop shaft. I caught my right foot at the lowest rung of the ladder. There was a sickening crack and a lance of pain shot up my leg from my ankle. I simply collapsed at the bottom.

I managed to reach sick bay on my own. When Doc Williams saw me he smiled happily.

“Well, well,” he crowed, “finally something for me to do.”

My right ankle was fractured. In 422 S.Y.G.C. - I don’t know how far in the future that is - they have healing machines called biodex units. It took almost a week for me to get mobile again. Unfortunately we only stayed three days at Inverness.

By the time I was out of sick bay we were already on patrol.

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