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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 20

“Normal space,” Ensign Petra Baird called out from her station.

I looked up and saw the ripples running across the screens. The star pattern was abruptly replaced by a bright, central sun and its plane­tary system. Slowly the ship turned, centering its destination on the screen.

On my station the gauges remained at zero. There was no enemy battle group anywhere near. Or far, for that matter. The port deflector had been repaired by Chief Engineer Sun Lee after we had shaken the battle group two days ago. It was almost as good as new, being ninety-six percent effective. Four percentage points were not much. At least so I told myself.

Our power reserves were right up there at one hundred percent. We were drifting in the Tremaine system, thirty-seven AU’s out from the sun. The seconds turned into minutes and the minutes kept piling up. I let my eyes rove over my station. But no matter how hard I watched, the mass-proximity units stayed at zero as did the motion detectors. We were alone and remained so. After half an hour Captain Litvak gave the order to jump closer to our destination.

The ripples ran across the screens. We remained at the code three alert status. Minutes later we slipped across the barrier again. Once more the ripples flowed across the screens. Where there had only been points of light before we now saw a large sphere and two tiny pebbles: Tremaine or Outpost Twelve and its two moons.

We were still all alone. The long range scanners remained dead, the indicators stuck at the zero mark. Five minutes later Captain Litvak relaxed our status to code two.

“I think that it’s safe enough, Mr. Yonge. We can approach the planet.”

“Yes, Sir,” the first officer replied.

“Navigator, plot us a tight orbit, as close to the surface as you can go.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

Fifteen minutes later we were in orbit at the edge of the atmosphere. Sergeant Mackenzie, Captain Litvak, Lieutenant Appleyard, Ensign Yasuda and I were in the briefing room. Although we had gone over everything already a number of times during the last few jumps this time there was no feeling of unreality pervading the room. Half an hour from now we would be on the planet’s surface. It was exciting and at the same time scary.

“You will live off the land,” the captain was saying. “Your task is not to fight the enemy. Your task is to observe and report. The federation will have a ship here in one standard month to collect what information you have gathered. Sixty days from today we hope to pick you up again.”

“Yes, Sir,” the sergeant said. “We will try our best.”

“And do not take any chances. We, that is the federation, want you to survive. The important thing is the intelligence you will gather. When it comes right down to it your life and the lives of your crew are more valuable than any information you may glean by taking undue risks.” The captain rose and walked around the table. “Good luck, Sergeant Mackenzie.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Mackenzie replied, shaking the captain’s hand. Then he stepped back and saluted. Roy Litvak returned the salute and then left for the bridge.

“I don’t envy you,” Ruth Appleyard said to ranger Earl Mackenzie when we all stood on the shuttle deck.

“The feeling is mutual,” the sergeant replied. “I would rather take my chances in the wilderness. At least there we will be on an equal footing with the beetles and not locked up in a tin coffin as on this ship.” He smiled.

“To each his own,” Appleyard answered.

She solemnly shook hands with the three rangers and Pilot Louise Yasuda. Yasuda would also remain on Tremaine as the pilot for the flier. I would go along in order to bring back the shuttle. For the most part second officer Ruth Appleyard ignored me.

“Let’s get the show under way,” Mackenzie said when Appleyard had left the deck.

“If you don’t mind, Lieutenant,” Yasuda whispered to me, “I would be keen to fly the shuttle down. It may be the last time I get a chance at it.”

“I don’t mind. It’s all yours.”

Her face was beaming as she climbed into the pilot’s seat.

The door to the shuttle deck closed with a thump. Through the window on my side I could see Appleyard standing outside the deck in the hallway. She was a shade indistinct through the transparent top half of the plastiwalls.

“Shuttle secure and ready for departure,” Yasuda said into the microphone, at the same time switching on the guidance system and powering up the engines.

I faintly heard the whine of the air pumps when they started up. After fifteen seconds the sound faded out and the lights became harsh. The soft shadows changed to an inscrutable black as the pumps sucked the air out of the deck. I could feel the vibration of the engines though the arm rests of my seat. Once more I checked the harness holding me. It was tight. Then the big doors to space slid into the wall.

Slowly the shuttle crept towards the opening. At first I did not even realize that we were moving, so gently did Yasuda ease us along. Then we were outside. From where I was sitting I could just see the acceleration gauge. It hovered near a quarter gee and then began climbing. Looking the other way I was awed by the immense size of our ASV ship. As we gained speed it quickly fell away and shrank as a consequence.

I stole another glance at the acceleration gauge. It was in the shade now and I could not make out the dial against the bright patch of plastic next to it. Yasuda flew the shuttle manually although its voice controlled computer in all probability could have handled it better than even an expert human pilot. Yasuda was an expert pilot.

When I looked back outside to check our distance from the ship it had disappeared. Instead I saw a sliver of pink growing at the lower corner of the window. We were approaching the planet. From time to time Yasuda talked into the radio or made a slight adjustment to our course. Then we hit a rough spot. It felt as if something tried to grab the craft. We were all flung forward in our harnesses. And then we were past the obstruction.

“Hitting the first wisps of the atmosphere,” Yasuda reported to Yonge who was monitoring our descent aboard ASV 659.

Behind me Sergeant Mackenzie was quietly looking out the window. The other two rangers also remained silent the entire way down.

Exactly twenty-one minutes after leaving the ship Yasuda landed the shuttle at the edge of a forest, some two hundred meters from the shore of an ocean. She sidled up to a huge tree and set us down under the canopy of leaves and branches growing out of an immensely thick trunk. Then she shut off the engines.

“Welcome to Tremaine,” she said.

For a few seconds nobody moved. One of the tasks of our patrol had been fulfilled. Louise Yasuda opened the door and let the fresh air in. Like all planets Tremaine has a distinctive odor which was quite pleasant. It was warm outside and suddenly we all felt eager to set foot on the planet.

“Let us quickly get organized,” Sergeant Mackenzie said when we were all standing on firm ground. “We don’t know whether there are any enemy units operating in this vicinity.”

“We scanned the area before we left the ship, Sergeant. There was no indication of any Coleopteron activity.”

“I am aware of that, Ensign Yasuda. Just the same, we are the hunt­ed now and it pays to be prepared. Look around you. The beetles have been here before. At least once. I can still see the wreckage of their fliers out there near the water.” The sergeant pointed to the north. About a kilometer away where the gentle curve of the bay lost itself among the rocks and hillocks some dark patches stood out from the green of the grasses and the reeds.

It took us an hour to unload the flier and assemble it. Louise took it up for a test run. It worked fine. Then we began unloading the supplies. They consisted mostly of weapons and fuel cells for the flier. It was a small machine, capable of carrying four people. It could be taken apart and hidden in a cave or beneath old leaves and branches. The rangers intended to use it to set up supply depots at various locations.

As we unloaded the rest of the provisions Mackenzie selected a thicket a couple of hundred meters from the edge of the forest. He would set up his first cache right there. I helped carry some of the food and grenades. It took no longer than half an hour. When the rangers were fin­ished camouflaging it I for one could not locate it again. Earl Mackenzie clucked his tongue with satisfaction.

“I think that it will be safe there,” he announced.

When we returned to the flier Yasuda had loaded most of the rest of the provisions aboard. They would place three additional caches. I helped getting the rest of the supplies into the machine. And then it was time to take my leave.

“ We may never see each other again, Lieutenant Kester,” Sergeant Mackenzie said as he shook my hand. His grip was firm. “All the best to you and I hope that you will make it back to Inverness. We will probably stay on this planet for two or three months. This is my second tour of duty here on Tremaine. Despite our losses I expect to see Inverness again. If you ever get the chance look us up there. Half a standard year from now I hope to be at the ranger compound near the space port.” He stepped back and saluted. I also shook hands with the other two rangers. Louise Yasuda embraced me. There were tears in her eyes.

“Take care,” she said in an unsteady voice, “and keep an eye out for Bill Johnson.”

Then she climbed into the pilot’s seat of the flier. The three rangers were already aboard. She started the engine. Earl Mackenzie waved once more. The craft rolled along the hard packed sand towards the water. After a dozen meters or so it lifted off and climbed steeply. Turning back towards the forest it was lost from view in seconds. I was alone.

What to do next? The ship, ASV 659, would not be in a rendezvous position for another hour yet. Orbital positions and speeds are very precise. Here I was on a planet which held enemy contingents. Our side had no idea of their strengths nor what weapons they could bring to bear. I had a window of exactly four minutes and twelve seconds in which I could reach the ship with my unarmed shuttle. And that window would not open for another fifty-nine minutes yet.

Should I remain with the shuttle? Or was it wiser to explore the edge of the forest? I opted for the latter. The rangers had left me four grenades of the C type. I also had my laser rifle. I clipped the grenades to my belt, slung the rifle over my shoulder and was off. Far to the north where the shore turned towards the east were the wrecks of some ships or vehicles. That was my destination. Give it ten minutes to walk the kilometer, ten minutes to walk back and half an hour to linger there. I should be back in plenty of time.

After having covered half the distance I was thoroughly soaked in perspiration. It was hot on Tremaine, certainly at this location and at this time of its year. The sun, now almost overhead, burnt down from a cloud­less sky. There was barely a breeze to be felt and here at the edge of the forest it was very humid.

I was sure that I was quite alone. I drifted towards the ocean. In the direct rays of the sun it was even hotter but there was also some move­ment of the air. I bent down to splash some water over my face. To my considerable surprise it was not salty.

The wrecks were farther away than they had appeared. It took me a good fifteen minutes to reach them. The ground here consisted of rock and a short distance away the hillocks began. Some of the wreckage was undeniably farm machinery. There were a few places where fire had gutted a building. As I turned in a full circle I realized that I was looking at the remains of a farm, probably an experimental station, testing the climate and soil and to see how human cereal crops and domestic animals adapted to a new planet.

As I walked among the destruction I came across several patches where the ground was hard and shiny, like glass. Of course, laser burns! A battle must have taken place here a long time ago. And then I found the remains of a strange craft. Part of the fuselage was still there and there was some writing on a portion of it. I studied it but the script, while neat, was completely different to anything I had ever seen. Of course, it would be. I was looking a Coleopteron craft.

There were several more wrecks in other places. One had crashed into the ocean, about a hundred meters offshore. As I walked through the farmstead I realized that it had been laid out as a fort which could be defended easily.

There were no human bodies left. Naturally there would not be any. It was rumored that the Coleoptera used humans as food. There were no Coleopteron bodies either. But at one place, close to a crashed flier, I found what could have been the hard shell of a beetle’s wing, only very much larger. I levered it up. It was about three quarters of a meter long and perhaps thirty centimeters wide. It was hard to the touch and felt tough. Elsewhere I located other Coleopteron remains, part of a carapace and some legs and feelers. Not being a scientist I could not be sure, of course. But I let my imagination have free reign.

When I looked at my chronometer I got a shock. In barely twenty minutes I had to take off. One last look around and I began my return trip. And now I realized that the camp or battleground was quite large. I was deep within the hillocks.

I had fifteen minutes left when I reached the beach with the green grasses and sedges. I halted briefly to orient myself. I could not see the shuttle from here. It was too well camouflaged.

I was now in a hurry and began jogging towards the edge of the forest with the intention to follow the line of trees to where the shuttle was parked. I am convinced that it saved my life.

When I had covered three quarters of the distance to where I thought the shuttle was waiting I heard a swishing sound to my left. I came to a halt and then retreated behind the bole of a nearby tree. An unfamiliar craft had set down on the ground not twenty meters away from my hiding place. Here the beach was mostly sand with plenty of small tufts of grass all over. From a distance if gave the impression as if the entire area was a meadow.

For a short while the machine just sat there. Nothing moved. My view of it was head-on. It would be better to look at it from an angle. Twenty meters to my right was another huge tree. I made my way over to it, keeping in the woods to avoid detection. And from my new perspec­tive I could see some writing on the fuselage. The script was unfamiliar to me. No, not entirely unfamiliar. I had seen something similar not half an hour ago. The adrenaline pulsed through my veins. There, less than thirty meters away sat a Coleopteron flier, presumably with a crew and prob­ably looking for me.

Silently I unslung my rifle. There was a click when I released the safety switch. The prudent thing to do now would be to avoid detection, get to my shuttle and take off. A glance at my chronometer showed that the window to the ship would open in less than five minutes.

Ahead of me was some underbrush which I could skirt. About a hundred meters away were more big trees. If I could reach them I would also reach a measure of safety. The beetles had probably not yet seen me. As silently as possible I began to move ahead.

I had taken perhaps ten steps when I heard another swishing sound from the Coleopteron craft. I halted. Did my ears pick up some hissing and clicking noises?

I could not afford to miss the window opening up in another three minutes. It was my only chance. I took two more steps towards the big trees, now maybe eighty meters distant. The hissing and clicking stopped. So did I. For the longest time I stood there, not moving a muscle.

I must have been mistaken, I told myself. The big trees. That was where safety lay. If I could reach them ...

I steeled myself and then began sprinting at top speed towards what I perceived to be security. Seventy meters, sixty, fifty. I felt as if I flew over the ground, barely touching it. Forty meters.

There was a popping sound behind me and then a blast of unbeliev­ably cold air overtook me. I suddenly lost all feeling in my arms and legs and my ears felt as if they had turned into glass. Only my momentum carried me on. And then I was at the giant trees.

As I sank to the ground behind the first bole the severe cold was gradually diminishing. After a short while I had gathered enough strength to look back the way I had come. Nothing moved but about halfway between me and the Coleopteron flier the leaves of the shrubs were all shriveling up, and I could distinctly see the white hoarfrost all over.

I stayed a few more seconds watching the area covered by the hoar­frost slowly decrease. I must get to the shuttle, I told myself. Silently I moved back.

Suddenly a laser beam hissed by, barely missing my head. I could smell the strong odor of ozone. Bewildered I halted. It was as if I had advertised my position by making the loudest noise I was capable of pro­ducing.

A few seconds later I jumped behind another tree trunk. And sure enough, two more laser beams missed my head by mere centimeters. Did the enemy have such accurate motion detectors? No, not likely, I decided. I had not even seen them yet.

I shifted my weight from my left foot to my right. Suddenly the old branch my foot was resting on gave way and broke with a loud crack. The beetles could not have helped hearing it. I was sure now that they had me pinpointed. But there was no response. I waited. Nothing happened.

Finally I got bold enough to move one step back. Immediately a laser beam hissed in my direction. That was strange. The Coleoptera reacted to the slightest movement, no matter how silent, yet they ignored a loud noise. What was wrong with them?

I took a dead branch and snapped it in my hand. There was no response. I tried that several times, each time making more noise. It was completely ignored. Ye t the slightest movement caused an immediate laser attack.

My glance fell on my chronometer. The window to reach the ship was opening up right now. I had exactly four minutes and twelve seconds in which I could escape. Four minutes and thirteen seconds and my life would be forfeited. Suddenly it became an abstract situation.

I had four minutes. That was all. Sixty seconds to analyze and three minutes to act.

I heard two more swishing sounds. As I looked up two more Coleopteron craft were setting down on the beach close to the water, maybe a hundred meters beyond the first ship. At the same time two giant beetles, dark grey in color - almost black - stood up and raced towards my position. For a second I was too astounded to act. They were easily moving a twice my fastest sprint. Then I had the laser rifle lined up. It was set on full power. The pulsed beam looked like a steady pencil of green light. I caught the first beetle across the head and sliced the second one in two right across the thorax.

The two larger enemy craft were unloading troops. There must have been at least two squads jumping to the ground.

I did not stop to count them. I ran at my own top speed towards where I thought the shuttle was hidden. It was now or never.

I had somehow misjudged the exact location. Racing around a tree trunk I almost ran into the craft. At my verbal command the computer obediently opened the door. With literally my last strength I jumped into the pilot’s seat. I uttered the emergency code and then was too winded to even think of another word.

I still had the laser rifle in my hand. Now I flipped the safety switch back on and dropped the gun on the floor next to me.

With a swoosh the computer closed the door. At the same time it started the engines. I could see the trajectory building on the monitor. Then we moved. Through the window on my left I could see the closest beetle no more than a hundred and fifty meters away. And then I was pressed into the seat as the shuttle began its ascent. My eyes fell on the chronometer on my left arm. There were two seconds left in the window.

It took an entire minute before I was able to answer the radio. By then I was already so high that Tremaine looked like a large scale relief map.

I docked without difficulty under full power. Even before the shuttle deck was pressurized ASV 659 jumped.

The debriefing took place in Captain Litvak’s cabin. He and Commander James Yonge studied every aspect of the records I had captured on my recorder. They finally found the speculations of the High Command confirmed. The Coleoptera were unable to detect ordi­nary sounds. Their hearing lay on a different level. Unfortunately we were too far away from Inverness to send a message. Not even a drone could be programmed for that distance.

Almost four hours later Captain Litvak dismissed me. Second officer Ruth Appleyard had also taken part in the debriefing as well as Chief Engineer Sun Lee. All through the hearing I felt intimidated, as if I had done something prohibited, as if I had gone against express orders.

“Well done, Lieutenant Kester,” the captain said at last. It felt good to hear his words.

Navigator Ensign Petra Baird had tears in her eyes when she could finally see me.

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