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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 29

We were constantly being reminded to make sure that the Coleoptera would not capture any of us alive. To reinforce this training we had to watch actual pictures of what happened to some of the humans the beetles had caught. They played back the images the recorders had taken, together with the sounds. It was not easy to sit through such a sequence, which could last from ten minutes to almost an hour. The pictures - and the sounds accompanying them - were unedited.

So far there has been no substantiated record of a human escaping from the beetles once they had captured him. Where did we get the recorders from? Of course from the territory retaken from the enemy. It was always the same. The Coleoptera are carnivorous. There were piles of human bones wherever we reoccupied areas we had lost. And at times among the bones we found recorders.

The ranger command never lost an opportunity to remind us of what the enemy was like. Often the sessions were gruesome.

Some considerable time had elapsed since our return from the lower reaches of the Falba Mountains. We had been on many patrols since, sometimes just the two of us, Petra and I, and sometimes we had been part of an entire squad. All the patrols had been dangerous and there had been many a time when survival had seemed impossible. Ye t we were still alive.

“You must have a sixth sense,” Petra had said to me on one occa­sion when we had returned from a perilous scouting mission.

“Why do you say that?”

“Do you know what the odds are of surviving the number of patrols we have been on, Carl?”

“I am not a mathematician, Petra, but they are pretty good for each one.”

“Our ranger team, Carl, you and I, is one of the longest surviving ranger teams in our entire force. Major Mackenzie told me so the other morning. There are a few Special Forces rangers who have survived longer, like the Masters team. But we are becoming famous in our own way. I think it is you who is bringing us the luck.”

“Luck does not exist, Petra. Yo u make your own.”

“Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not. But as long as I have you I am not afraid. Fate smiles on you.” And she had hugged me for a long time.

The weather had turned nasty. The beetles had kept up their pressure and the territory under our control had shrunk some more. Petra and I had lost our way in a snowstorm a few days ago. Now we were desperately trying to get back to our own lines. We were deep within the territory occupied by the Coleoptera.

“Only three more ridges to cross,” I said to Petra as we rested. It was near noon on this dreary day.

“If our lines are behind this mountain chain, Carl. It’s a big if. Somehow I don’t think we’ll get back.”

“Don’t give up hope yet, Petra. We’ll make it, you’ll see. Admiral Grainger would not have come to Perlos if it were a hopeless situation here.”

“Do you think so, Carl? Come on, let us get under way then. It will take us four hours to reach the top.”

I was so weary I could have stayed in the valley forever. But it was cold and our food reserves were running low. Three more days and then -well, there was no use thinking that far ahead.

Halfway up the mountain it began to snow again. Doggedly we kept on climbing. As dusk began to fall we crossed the top. We had half an hour left to find shelter. The temperature had been hovering near minus twenty degrees ever since we got lost and would drop to near minus forty degrees during the night. There was no way we could survive that in the open. Thank goodness, there was no wind.

The descent was easier than the climb up. We were making good progress. Suddenly Petra, who was in the lead, halted.

“There is a cave up ahead,” she said when I stood beside her. “I hope that it is unoccupied.”

“Let’s find out.”

Although we had not seen an enemy patrol since the previous after­noon and it was highly unlikely that we would run into one this late in the day and in such a remote location, bitter experience had taught us to expect the unexpected.

We were approaching the cave from the east.

“I’d better reconnoiter,” Petra said and slid away downhill.

She had barely gone when I heard clicking sounds, as if somebody lightly banged two small pebbles together. I was instantly alert. The noise seemed to come from some distance beyond the cave.

“Enemy patrol,” I yelled, hoping that Petra was still within reach of my voice. I was not worried about the beetles becoming aware of me. Their hearing lay at a much higher frequency. At least that was what our instructors had told us and so far I had had no reason to doubt them.

I jumped to within thirty meters of the cave entrance. The beetles -it was a troupe of Coleoptera who had made the clicking sounds - were spread out over a wide area. They seemed to be searching for something. If only Petra were next to me now! We could have slid into the cave. It would have been much easier to defend.

I waited. The beetles were in no hurry. Slowly they moved towards me. All of a sudden I realized that it was too late for me to escape undetected. Well, my luck had to run out some day. I felt quite cool and completely emotionless. My only thought was that they must not capture me alive. I would take as many of them with me as I could.

I pressed myself into the crevice formed by two boulders. My mind was as cold as ice. Slowly I pulled a C grenade off my belt. It was just the right size for my hand. With my thumb I depressed the plunger. The grenade was armed. Three seconds after releasing the plunger the grenade would pop. Idly I wondered whether I would feel anything when I died. How long did it take to die of the cold? A few seconds? Was it long enough to feel any pain? Did one feel pain when one was within the effective range of a C grenade? For an instant I was amazed at my ignorance. Then events around me claimed my attention once more.

The beetles had found the cave, our cave. There were some hissing and clicking noises. Cautiously I raised my head. Dusk was well advanced by this time. I heaved myself erect, the C grenade still in my right hand, my thumb firmly on the plunger. If all the troopers would congregate in front of the cave I would stand a chance. For the first time I entertained the thought that survival was possible.

Tw o beetles went into the cave, presumably to check it out. The others milled around in front of it. I counted them, and then I counted them a second time. There were eleven of them. Plus the two in the cave. That made thirteen. But there were fifteen to a troupe.

The two Coleoptera came back out of the cave. It was now or never. I flung the grenade. Three of the beetles closest to me took a step in my direction. I could see them silhouetted against the sky, their feelers slowly sweeping forward. They had detected some movement. Was it Petra? Or was it me? Or it was perhaps the grenade? I heard a clicking sound, short and powerful.

All the Coleoptera took one step in different directions as if to scatter. Then I heard the soft plop of the bursting grenade. Even here in the crevice, thirty meters away, I could feel the wave front of the cold race by. The beetles died as they were taking the second step. I felt completely incapacitated. It was as if I was suddenly turning into glass. But I was at the fringe of the affected area and after a while my ability to move slowly returned.

Far to my right, at least a hundred meters distant, an E grenade exploded. Had the enemy thrown it? It was rapidly getting darker. It would be some time before we could approach the cave. The intense cold of the area in front of it would have to warm up to within twenty or thirty degrees of the surrounding ground.

Slowly and carefully I made my way towards where I had heard the explosion. I jumped from boulder to boulder and from crag to crag.

I had covered about half the distance when I suddenly saw a flash some fifty meters ahead and slightly to the left. At almost the same instant there was an impact on the rock next to me. I was showered with dust and some sharp bits of granite stung my face while something jerked hard at the back of my parka where the hood was fastened.

I swung my laser gun around as it was too far to throw a grenade with any degree of accuracy in the dark. And how long would it take for a grenade to cover a distance I could not even see? Besides I did not know exactly where Petra was hiding. I did not want to hurt her. All these considerations passed through my mind in a split second.

I pressed the firing button on my gun. A thin, green beam of concentrated energy shot out of the muzzle, faster than the eye could perceive it and much faster than a living being could react to it. The burst of energy lasted for maybe half a second.

I dropped to the ground and propelled myself to a crevice a few steps away.

“Petra,” I called after a few seconds.

“Carl,” came the reply, a short distance to my right.

Together we inspected the area where I thought the enemy had been hiding. We found the beetle without too much trouble. He was not quite dead. He got another shot off from his rifle gun, but he missed both Petra and me. We each pressed the firing button on our laser guns. The two green beams of coherent energy focused on the head of the beetle. Although the bursts we fired were less than half a second long they vapor­ized the head and most of the upper thorax of the Coleopteron.

We withdrew to within forty meters of the cave entrance. Here we waited for half an hour, intently listening for any kind of noise. When we were sure we were all alone we approached the opening of the cave. It was pitch black and we could see no farther than a meter.

The cave was not very large. It veered off at almost a right angle ten meters in. Here we heated the rock wall with our laser guns set a wide dispersion. We spent a comfortable night there.

Our food ran out three days later. It took us an additional two days to reach our lines. We ran into three more enemy patrols.

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