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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 27

We did reach the rendezvous point. It took us exactly one week. We saw a great deal of enemy activity. We reported what we saw and were under attack every day. There was no time to check out the pass. For a con­siderable distance around it spread out in a huge semicircle we ran into enemy units. It looked as if the Coleoptera were about to use the pass to cross the Proga Range. We duly reported it. We never once saw one of our own fliers.

The map reference Major Mackenzie had given us was a tiny clear­ing in the jungle. About ten kilometers to the east of it the rocky spires of the first mountain chain reached for the sky. To the west an undulating carpet of trees rolled away to the far horizon. Thank goodness Perlos did not have many poisonous reptiles. The rugged terrain and the frequent attacks by Coleopteron fliers had slowed down our progress considerably the last day of our march so that we were worried about missing the pick­up time. Long before dawn we were under way again, stumbling through the darkness. After half an hour I was about to suggest that we wait until daylight when I realized that it was not quite as dark any more.

Our enclave M1 was situated to the east and north, a few hundred kilometers away. There were swamps and bogs between us and relative safety and in places the ground consisted of quagmire and quicksand. It would be most difficult, almost impossible, for us to cross it on foot in the face of the strong enemy presence.

During our week-long trek here Petra had filled me in on most of the details of our past. I did not actually ask her but in the course of conversations she gave me enough background to permit me to paint a picture in my mind of how things stood.

Hornepayne, the seat of government of a huge region of space called the Warinski Sector, had been lost near the beginning of the war. Our High Command was now located on the planet Inverness near the border between the Warinski Sector and the Home Sector. Inverness was forty light years away from Earth in the direction of the center of the galaxy. Currently the Warinski Sector was being administered from Tremaine. Admiral Bill Grainger was in charge of the military. He hardly ever left Inverness. Our enemies were an intelligent species which looked like giant, golden colored beetles, about two and a half meters tall. Collectively they were called Coleoptera. Relatively little was known about them as we had been unsuccessful in capturing any of them alive. The few times we did take a prisoner he died within hours.

We had once before been involved in a war with another race. They also looked like beetles, but were black or dark grey in color and only about one and a half meters tall. The encounter then had been as fierce and unforgiving as the current one was. It had taken place some two hundred and fifty years ago and was now referred to as the War of Survival. Beginning about five years ago the smaller, dark colored beetles had once again made an appearance on the battlefield. So far they made up only a small percentage of enemy forces.

While we were resting in the shade of a butte one day I asked Petra whether she knew the date. It was near noon and the sun was burning down from a cloudless sky. According to the calendar it was autumn, but it was autumn only in the northern hemisphere. Here south of the equator it was still summer.

“It is October 688 S.Y.G.C.,” Petra said, “although I do not know the exact date.”

“What does the designation S.Y.G.C. stand for, Petra?” I idly asked.

“Surely you know it, Carl.”

“Would I be asking you if I did?”

“Come now, even though you were born on Earth you must be familiar with it.”

“I agree. I should be.”

“You don’t honestly know?”

“I should not have asked. It is a stupid question.”

“Well, if you really don’t know - “

There was a short pause as if Petra waited for me to make a com­ment to that. I kept quiet, but looked at her.

“All right,” she said at last. “As you can probably guess the S.Y. stands for standard year. Wouldn’t you agree that it makes sense?”

“Yes, it does indeed, now that you mention it.”

“And the G.C. stands for galactic calendar, of course. Yo u see, every planet keeps its own calendar based on when it was first settled. We would be in a terrible mess if we did not have a standardized calendar. That is why interstellar trade and the military use the galactic calendar. What were you doing before you joined the ranger force?”

“What was I doing?”

“Yes, Carl. I was a student at the university of Inverness. And you?”

“I did several different things over the years. I was in the ground forces on Earth for a spell, and after that I worked in a construction office. And then for a while I was part of a ship’s company.”

“Also on Earth?”

“Well - I joined the ship on Earth. But it was based on Inverness.”

“You certainly have been around a bit, haven’t you, Carl?”

“Actually, I have not seen all that much, Petra.”

“But you definitely had a varied past. What was it like being a sailor or in the ground forces? Or being a civilian, for that matter?”

“We are in the ground forces here. Sure we are rangers and we are on patrol all the time. But basically it is not that much different to what I recall about being in the ground forces on Earth. The major variance is that here we are mostly only the two of us.”

“How large a group were you in the ground forces of Earth?”

“Oh, I was part of a company.”

“I see. And did you like being a sailor better?”

I did not answer her right away. In my mind’s eye I could see the Petra Baird of that time sitting next to me in the wardroom and also questioning me about my past. “I don’t really know,” I said at last. “It had a certain attraction, yes. But it also had its large share of hard work.”

“On a ship? Hard work on a ship?” Petra seemed baffled.

“It was no cruise, you know. There were action stations, there were drills, there were exercises. It certainly was no picnic.”

“I did not know you had been on a ship. Yo u never talk about your­self. How long ago ...”

“A long time ago, Petra,” I interrupted her. “Come on, we shall have to get under way if we want to reach that clearing at map reference 691 328 before the flier arrives there.”

“Yes, we shall have to. Still, I would like to know what made you quit the fleet and become a ranger, Carl.”

I stood up. I remembered how I had been flung back to my own time when the ship had been destroyed. Would it happen again? Could it?

“It is a difficult thing to explain, Petra. On a ship you are confined to it all the time. If the captain makes a mistake in an engagement with the enemy - well, your life is snuffed out. As a ranger you have a far greater chance of survival. It is up to you to a considerable degree.”

“I don’t know about that, Carl. Most of our class mates are dead now. When we graduated from ranger school on Tremaine there were twelve teams in our group. I am not exactly sure, but I think besides us there are only three other teams still operating.”

Petra had also risen. Before us stretched the unbroken view of a shallow valley with mostly rocks and buttes interspersed with copses of trees and bushes. I walked over to Petra and gently stroked her hair.

“If I had not become a ranger I would not have met you, Petra. Who knows what might have happened to you or to me.”

She leaned her head on my shoulder and put her arm around my waist.

“I am so glad that you switched,” she whispered. I pulled her close to me and then the magic moment was gone.

For a short distance we walked side by side, holding hands. Then an aircraft swooped down the mountainside. We raced to the nearest bushes and dived under their branches. Fortunately the enemy flier had not seen us. After it had disappeared we resumed our march, now much more alert.

As I said, we did reach the clearing, map reference 691 328. I stood beside the green bole giant conifer and scanned the horizon with my field glasses. In the distance I could see the activity of the Coleopteron advance forces, the ones we had reported yesterday. It had almost cost us our lives. Petra had wondered aloud why our side had not attacked the beetles when they had camped west of the pass.

It was daylight now and we waited for our flier to pick us up. I was curious to see our base M1. It was supposed to be huge, several thousand kilometers long and at its broadest over nine hundred kilometers deep.

I did not have much faith in our flier arriving. And if it did, how was it going to effect the pick-up and avoid being shot down by the large number of Coleopteron craft circling in the vicinity of the pass?

“What do you think the chances are of us being rescued here, Petra?” I asked as we sat in the shade of the giant conifer.

“Pretty good,” she replied. “Major Mackenzie would not abandon us.”

“He did not seem to be the friendliest soul around. He sure did not like it that I left my carryall under the bush.”

“There is a lot of pressure on him, Carl. He is in charge of the ranger units. He has no transport, no fuel, no reserves. His losses are staggering. Yet the High Command demands that we hold out against a vastly superior force. The Coleoptera are ahead of us in both weapons and personnel. How would you like to be in his shoes?”

Suddenly there was a loud thunderclap above us. Petra jumped towards me and clung to me as the pressure wave hit us and the reverber­ating boom rolled across the sky.

I retreated behind the tree trunk, pulling Petra along. We both picked up our laser guns which had been leaning against the bole while we scanned the distant action of the beetles. I released the safety switch on my weapon and was ready for whatever might jeopardize us. Petra had her hand on a grenade. We would not be captured alive by the beetles. She would make sure of that.

There was a shadow flitting into the clearing. It stopped quite suddenly, hovered beside the trees on the opposite side and then gently settled to the ground. Somehow the craft looked familiar. I took one step ahead in order to see better. There was a number and unit designation on the fuselage and in big, green letters I read the word Inverness along the side. Just then a door opened and a figure stepped out, a human figure.

“Hurry up,” he yelled. “You’ve got five seconds.”

Neither Petra nor I gave it another thought. At the greatest speed we could manage we sprinted across the clearing, right into the open door of the craft. Here we stopped. The sailor who had hollered at us jumped past us. I caught a brief glimpse of the outside just before the door slid shut. Tw o enemy craft were streaking towards us from the region of the pass. It was about eight kilometers away. If the fliers traveled at a thousand kilometers an hour we had thirty seconds to get away. It was not much of a margin.

The instant the door to the outside snapped shut the pitch of the idling turbine rose dramatically. A great weight descended on us and we were pressed to the floor. Now the lights slowly brightened. And then the background noise faded out. At the same time the pressure on us eased. I stood up.

As I turned to the center of the craft I could see three people work­ing on a console. One of them was the young sailor who had been outside. The other one I did not immediately recognize. But the third one looking straight at me was quite familiar. He grinned as he waved at us. He had an uncanny resemblance to Bill Johnson, the Bill Johnson who had been the driver of the Landrover in Norway, the Bill Johnson who had been the weapons officer on the ASV vessel when we dropped off the ranger contingent on Tremaine. This person looked a shade older, but perhaps it was only the stark lighting which gave me the impression, and his uniform was a bit different. He now stood up and approached us.

“We have a couple of minutes,” he said in greeting. “Welcome aboard. I am Bill Johnson. I am in charge of this corvette. Meet my engineer, Louise Yasuda, and my weapons officer, George Williams.”

Now that I took a closer look at Louise Yasuda she did look quite familiar. In fact, she could easily have been the Louise Yasuda who was the pilot on ASV 659. Not even her hair style was very different. Or she could have been the interpreter with the medical team in Narvik if I imagined her wearing a British uniform. I swallowed hard.

“Petra Baird,” my companion said, introducing herself. “And this is Carl Kester. We are both rangers.”

Bill Johnson shook hands with us.

“Boy, I would not want to trade with you rangers,” he said. “You are practically sitting right on top of the beetles.” He shook his head. We talked for a while.

“Ninety seconds,” Engineer Yasuda called out.

“I’ll drop you off at our base in the Falba Mountains,” Johnson said, returning to his console. “Sorry, we can’t get better acquainted. I hear that your reports saved our flank at M1. We were able to pull back before the entire brigade was cut off. Good work.”

That was news to us. Both Petra and I had assumed that we were making routine observations which were only of value insofar as they helped give our High Command a better picture of enemy activity.

As Captain Bill Johnson took his seat again we moved back into the passage. I watched him, how he moved and the way he talked. In many ways he was just like the earlier Bill Johnson I had known. And then I suddenly felt a heavy weight pressing on me. There were hand­holds built into the wall. I grabbed one. Petra was as unprepared as I and simply let herself slide to the floor. The heavy feeling lasted for a number of seconds and then gradually eased off. Petra stood up again.

As I looked past Captain Johnson I caught a glimpse of a screen which had come to life. It showed a mountain scene. And as I watched, the scene moved. The sky was pale blue. A huge massif blocked the way to the north. The ridges stood out dark against the snow covered sides. An immense glacier lay across a wide valley. Our destination appeared to be a canyon which met the glacier some considerable distance ahead, for that seemed to be the direction in which we were traveling.

There was a deep rumble somewhere far below us. Once more I felt a great weight descending on me. At the same time I was pressed against the wall. Petra slid into me and held on to my arm. As suddenly as it had come the pressure abated again. The rumble faded away. When I looked at the screen the massive mountain had been replaced by an uneven, dirty white plain over which we were rushing at breakneck speed.

The whine of the turbine swelled up once more. We decelerated rapidly. I felt the pull of centrifugal forces. The high pitched scream of the turbines faded.There was a slight bump and the moving picture froze.

Bill Johnson grinned. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked.

Petra shook her head.

“Where are we, Captain?” I queried Johnson.

“ We are at E1, our enclave in the Falba Mountains.”

“But we just came aboard. We didn’t leave the Proga Range more than fifteen minutes ago.”

“Sixteen minutes, twenty-one seconds, Lieutenant.” Johnson was still grinning. He seemed to enjoy our surprise immensely.

“We were fifteen thousand klicks away from E1. How could we have covered that much distance in such a short time?” Petra asked.

“This is a corvette,” Engineer Louise Yasuda said proudly.

“It sure is,” George Williams, the weapons officer agreed. He patted the gauges at his station. “When we picked you up two Coleopteron fliers came over to attack us. We got one before we jumped.” He walked past us and opened the door to the outside. A blast of cold, arctic air came in. In moments we were chilled to the bone.

Johnson got up and also came over to us. “The best of luck to you,” he said, shaking our hands. “If you ever get into another untenable situa­tion just call Bill Johnson.” And then we were dismissed.

I picked up my carryall and laser gun. Petra did the same. We trot­ted down the ramp to the ground. As we rounded the corvette we saw the shacks of the base a couple of hundred meters away. An icy gust of wind caught us. We did not waste any time standing out there in the cold in our tropical uniforms. We ran all the way to the first building.

Later that day I went to the medical facility to have the cut below my knee checked. When the nurse took off the bandage a new skin had grown over the wound.

“It looks fine,” she said. “You are all healed up. To o bad you could not come here right away. Now you will have a nasty scar there for the rest of your life. Still, it is better than not having survived at all.”

I had to agree with her.

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