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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 19

Tremaine was two days away. I mean Outpost Twelve. That was still its official name although hardly anybody called it that any more. Its sun was by far the brightest star on our forward screen. Nobody could be in doubt as to our destination.

“Ten minutes to normal space,” navigator Baird called out.

I had my board all powered up and had just finished with the test sequences. The manual override switch at the top of the console worked as well. At least it checked out. I could not actually engage it for it would cut out all the computers. Only under the most dire circumstances would Captain Litvak order me to flip it. It was a simple toggle switch. It was protected by three other switches which had to be activated in a certain sequence in order to release it. The manual override could not be engaged accidentally.

We were as ready as we could be. There was no need for detailed orders. We had practiced action stations often enough to do everything in our sleep.

“Five minutes to normal space.” I looked over to Petra’s station and briefly caught her eye as she called out the time remaining. Almost imperceptibly she nodded to me.

“Sound battle stations, code three, Mr. Yonge.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” the first officer replied. Then switching on the intercom he called out: “Battle stations, code three alert. Battle stations.”

The last couple of words of the first officer were drowned out by the hooting of the klaxons. The three red warning lights began to flash.

The countdown to normal space progressed without a hitch.

“Thirty seconds,” Ensign Petra Baird called out.

For a last time I checked every gauge and every meter. The repeller field was activated. The deflectors and the magnetic field were ready to be switched on. The scanners and sensors were powered up. The motion detectors still stood at zero but the small warning light was green. They were under power. All my other gauges also stood at zero, the doppler, the deflector overload, the stress gauges. Power output hovered around the one hundred percent mark. Then my eyes flitted to the weapons section. The grenade launchers showed a green light. Energy was cours­ing through the accelerator rings of the particle guns. The laser banks were fully charged. We were about as ready as we could be.

“Escape trajectory,” the captain ordered.

“Plotted and laid,” came the navigator’s immediate reply. “Code A yellow. Voice override.”

Captain Litvak grunted a brief acknowledgement. “Helmsman, course vector 21 09 54.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Course vector 21 09 54,” the helmsman repeated.

And then we were down to ten seconds. I took a deep breath. At their steady rate the seconds slid silently from the future through the present into the past.

“Five, four three, two, transition sequence, zero. Normal space,” the navigator called out.

The ripples started running across the screens. I flipped the switches at the bottom of my board.

“Deflectors on,” I advised the captain. “Magnetic field building. Scanners and sensors activated.”

Then I glanced at the motion detectors. On the one scanning ahead the needle flickered once. Only for the briefest moment did I hesitate.

“Quiver on forward motion detector,” I shouted.

The captain swiveled around in his chair. “An enemy vessel, Mr. Kester?”

“I believe so, Sir. I could not obtain a proper exhaust signature. The needle has fallen back to zero. He must have jumped.”

“Mr. Yonge?”

The first officer looked up. “Nothing on my board, Sir.”

Captain Litvak’s glance shot back to me. For an instant his blue eyes pierced mine. I felt naked before him. Then he turned, looking at the forward screen.

“Helmsman, course vector 83 39 16. Execute. Maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Course vector 83 39 16. Max acceleration.” As he was talking the helmsman entered the new course into his computer.

While the rest of the crew followed their routine I turned to the computer at my station. “Scan on screen,” I ordered, pushing the button underneath the forward motion detector.

Instantly the screen lit up displaying various lines and curves.

“Comparison check, Coleopteron and human, alternating.”

The computer obeyed at once. The scan did not match the Coleopteron exhaust signature. I could see that right away. When the computer switched to our own exhaust signatures, I mean those of federation vessels, they matched even less. Would it be safe to overrule the computer? I hazily recalled something about a minimum of seven points which had to show congruency before a positive identification was established. There was not even one point. Ye t the signature was closer to those of Coleopteron ships than to our own. It took but a tiny fraction of a second for me to evaluate all that and come to a decision.

“Enemy vessel, affirmative,” I said in reply to the captain’s earlier question. “Not verified by computer,” I added.

The captain almost jumped out of his chair. There was little time to query the discrepancies.

“Are you sure, Lieutenant?” Litvak asked again.

“Yes, Sir.” I was going to say more but the captain had already pushed the intercom button and was talking to the weapons deck.

“Motion detectors off the scale,” I shouted. “Bearing ...”

“There he is,” the first officer yelled, pointing to the side screen. An enemy vessel had materialized less than a kilometer from us. It had a negative velocity relative to us, meaning that it was moving away from us. I felt the thump, thump, thump as the grenade launchers commenced firing. On my small monitor I could see the laser batteries centering their pulsed beams on the enemy’s aft section. The gauges told me that our particle guns were also activated, spewing out streams of subatomic particles pushed to nearly the speed of light by the accelerator rings of the gun barrels. We still had power reserves of more than sixty percent.

My specific task was defensive. As third officer, after having identi­fied an alien vessel and given its location relative to us, I had to watch the deflectors and the magnetic field. Second officer Appleyard now took charge of the enemy ship. We were four seconds into the action.

As my eyes scanned the gauges at the top of my console I noticed that the magnetic field had passed the ten thousand gauss mark and was still building. Soon we would be impervious to the Coleopteron proton beams, but not yet.

Suddenly the ship bucked. My battle harness kept me from being flung off my seat. The enemy had commenced firing at us. I threw a quick glance at the deflector gauges. The needle was slowly sinking back towards the green on the port deflector gauge. Whatever had hit us had not damaged us.

The distance between our two ships increased rapidly. Then the grenade launchers stopped firing. It seemed very quiet when the steady thump, thump, thump came to an end.

Suddenly the motion sensors fell to zero.

“Enemy ship has jumped,” I yelled.

“Mr. Yonge?” the captain questioned the first officer.

“Affirmative, Sir,” he replied.

“Helmsman, course vector 16 29 01. Engineering, all engines on full power. Stand by to jump. Weapons deck, starboard ...”

“Aft motion detectors off the scale,” I shouted, interrupting the captain’s string of orders.

“Navigator, ten second random jump.” Captain Litvak smoothly fitted his orders to the demands of the current situation.

“Aye, Sir,” I faintly heard Petra’s acknowledgement. And then stars faded out just as the deflector gauges began to quiver.

“Maximum acceleration, Helmsman,” the captain ordered the instant we crossed the barrier as the ship returned to normal space.

I watched my meters and gauges. They were deceptively quiet, standing at the zero mark as if they had ceased functioning. Only the needle on the stress meter showed any movement at all. It was still in the lower end of the green scale.

“Max acceleration,” the helmsman repeated.

On my board the needle on the stress meter began creeping up as the ship started to gain speed. The acceleration gauge also began its climb.

“Course vector 26 15 89,” the captain ordered.

The helmsman repeated the new course and entered it into his computer. The needle of the stress gauge was climbing into the yellow range. In the background the hum of the gravity compensators became noticeable. We were still alone. For a short while I thought that we had lost the Coleopteron warship. But I was wrong.

“Flutter on the forward mass-proximity units,” I shouted when I thought the needle had quivered. Now it was back at zero.

“Weapons deck,” Captain Litvak called at once, “tie in battle computer.”

“Aye, Sir,” came the instant reply. “Battle computer tied in.”

Once more the needles on the mass-proximity units quivered, but this time all of them. Then they shot up to the stops at the upper end and remained there, vibrating against them. At the same time the motion detectors jumped off the scales.

“Mass-prox units at max, motion detectors off the scale,” I yelled. “Forward and aft, both positive.”

“Code A yellow,” the captain shouted, drowning out all other noises on the bridge.

Half a second later we jumped again, but not before a massive bolt of energy hit the repeller field, causing the gauge to shoot past the yellow and red deep into the purple. I could almost smell the acrid smoke of the field generators as they tried to cope with the overload.

A glance at the meters told me that our power reserves were down to less than fifty percent. The battle computer had engaged the enemy with the particle guns and all laser banks. It had pinned down the beetles long enough to let us escape.

“Navigator, plot a course to - “Captain Litvak looked at me. “Power reserves, Mr. Kester.”

“At fifty-two percent and climbing slowly,” I hastened to reply.

“ - to vector 16 23 16. Maximum distance, Navigator.”

“Aye, Sir. 16 23 16. With our power reserves the best I can do is one hour, Captain.”

“Then do it!”

“Aye, Sir.” Navigator Petra Baird bent over her computer.

On my board the clock was counting backwards. There were thirty seconds left on the emergency jump. Our power levels had risen margin­ally and now stood at fifty-five percent. Twenty seconds. We all waited,

our eyes on navigator Ensign Petra Baird. Te n seconds. Five, four.

“Course plotted and laid in,” she reported at last.

We all breathed a sigh of relief.

“Three seconds, two, transition sequence, zero. Normal space.”

On my board the mass-proximity units jumped to the top of their scales while the needles of the motion detectors fluttered once and then shot up as well.

“Helmsman, execute jump.” The captain’s voice was calm, yet I could distinctly hear the apprehension in it.

A massive force hit the ship on the port side. The straps of the battle harness dug deeply into my shoulder and waist. The indicator of the left deflector gauge shot far into the black region. It stayed there for what seemed like a long time. Then it fluttered briefly and disappeared. The deflector had collapsed under the overload.

“Port deflector gone,” I called as the ship jumped.

Captain Litvak nodded acknowledgement and then wiped his brow with the back of his hand. It came away damp.

We reached Tremaine two days later.

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