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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 30

During our absence Admiral Grainger, who had arrived on Perlos a few months earlier, had paid a visit to our outpost. Unfortunately we had missed him. I would have loved to have met the commander in chief of our defence forces. He must have had a magical personality, for when we arrived at our compound I could immediately sense the change in attitude.

No longer were my fellow rangers and the two companies of regular ground forces resigned to die on Perlos. There was a new feeling of purpose, a feeling of adventure, a feeling of winning. The mood was upbeat. Success was in the air. Rangers and soldiers talked about what they were going to do when they got back to Inverness or Tremaine or Buenaventura. We even had a couple of troopers there from far away Tenerife and one from its stellar neighbor Restigouche and two were from Torkau in the Home Sector. And everyone of them was convinced that he would get back home again.

Sure the road ahead was arduous and fraught with danger. But there was hope.

Much to my surprise Major Mackenzie was also at the outpost when we arrived. Even he had changed. Apparently we could look forward to furlough. Not right away, of course. But in two or three months they expected the first ship to return combat troops to Tremaine. Chances were good that Petra would be among them.

The debriefing took a couple of hours. We had been listed as miss­ing in action. According to Major Mackenzie we had brought back a host of useful information. I could not see how this time we had gathered any more valuable intelligence than at any other time. But not for an instant did I entertain the thought of arguing with the major.

There were also some bad news. Captain Ruth Appleyard had been lost when the shuttle in which she had hitched a ride to the coast was shot down as it crossed the Proga Range. The other bad news concerned Roy Litvak. He was on his way back to Tremaine aboard a hospital ship. He was among a handful of survivors who had held out against an attack by two units of beetles. He had lost both legs when the blockhouse in which he had sought shelter had suffered a direct hit by a mortar shell. On Tremaine they can fit you with artificial limbs. It is said that they are as good as your natural legs. Well - maybe.

For us a change was planned too. Petra, having been born on Hornepayne, one of the planets overrun by the Coleoptera near the beginning of the war, was scheduled to go on leave as soon as space could be found, as I reported already. Much to my surprise she turned it down.

“What did you do that for?” I chided her, yet also glad that she would stay with me. We got along exceedingly well, and not only as rangers and combat troopers.

“Would you have gone if Earthers would have had first choice?” she countered. I never cared much for the term Earther referring to humans having been born on Earth. But every native of the Warinski Sector called us that. I got used to it over time but I never liked it.

“No, of course not. Not without you.”

“Well, there is your answer, Carl. I would have loved to go if you could have come along. But you Earthers rate a low priority.” She laughed and her eyes twinkled.

We had been back two full days. We had luxuriated in the warmth of the shelters. We even had had baths and had slept for fifteen hours straight. On patrol you caught a nap lasting an hour at the most whenever you could. And one of us had to stay awake at all times. Thus we averaged maybe four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. It was not nearly enough even for only a few days.

We were walking over to the mess hall. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining down from a deep blue sky. Not a cloud marred the view. Ten kilometers away the massive snow covered mountain chain glittered in the rays of the sun. We were near the four thousand five hun­dred meter level and the air was noticeably thinner than in the lowlands by the coast. It was also quite cold. Nevertheless, I felt on top of the world and not only in the literal sense. Petra was also in an exceptional mood.

As we walked into the mess hall Major Mackenzie met us inside the door.

“Hurry up and eat,” he urged us. “We’ve got to get going.”

“Going where?” I inquired. “We just got back. Our last patrol had been a very exhausting one.”

“Yes, I know. But you came back the day before yesterday.” His voice sounded weary.

“That does not seem very long ago to me,” Petra said.

“Lieutenant Baird, the High Command in its wisdom has ordered you to accompany me to M1. I know no more than that. There is a rumor afloat that we will launch a major attack very soon. Now hurry up and eat. The shuttle is waiting.”

“The shuttle? Are we going into orbit?”

“No, Lieutenant. It is a suborbital shuttle.”

Petra was a shade disappointed.

We ate a quick breakfast without tasting it very much. A patrol is an ordeal at any time. Usually it lasts several days and you are in constant danger. The loss ratio at times rises to above sixty percent and to my knowledge has rarely been below twenty. On paper and in words it sounds so simple. When you are out among the rocks and the Coleoptera stalk you and you smell the ozone of the laser beams and hear the explo­sions of the grenades and listen to the staccato reports of the rifle guns of the beetles it is anything but simple. Yo u are scared to death and often hope against hope that you will survive.

The flight across half the planet took three hours. When we landed at M1 it was already dark there. They shuttled us through the port facilities and out to where the fliers were parked. Everything ran very smoothly. They did not even overlook our need to eat. Shortly before the flier took off a page arrived with three bags of sandwiches and some coffee.

It took more than an hour to fly over the vast expanse of M1. Keeping our speed just below the speed of sound we arrived at our dispersal point some time after midnight. As soon as we had landed Major Mackenzie climbed into a ground vehicle and disappeared. Petra and I were met by no one other than Captain Yonge.

“And how did you like it in the Falba Mountains?” he greeted us.

“Cold, very cold,” both Petra and I said simultaneously.

“I take it that you are not keen on low temperatures,” Yonge said. “Very good. Yo u won’t freeze to death here. How is the injury, Lieutenant Kester?”

“The injury? What injury?”

“Did you not get hurt below the knee?”

“Oh, that! It’s all healed up a long time ago.”

“Good, good. I am glad to hear that.” Yonge was making conversa­tion as he slowly walked towards another ground car. “You can throw your parkas into the vehicle. How are you set for food and power packs and grenades?”

“ We had a couple of sandwiches just before ...”

“I didn’t mean that, Lieutenant Baird. We are moving you out with­in the hour. Our big offensive will get under way at dawn. By then you will have to be behind enemy lines. We need the intelligence.”

I felt Petra grabbing my hand and squeezing it hard. Lately she had gotten into the habit of doing it whenever she became nervous. It was very reassuring to me. Captain Yonge briefed us on our tasks. He did it in a conversational tone, leaning against the ground car. Our task was very simple.

“Stay alive and report what you see,” he said.

There would be fliers standing by to assist the ground forces. Captain Yonge even had a corvette at his disposal to pick up casualties behind enemy lines. And so it went. He painted a very comforting picture. I felt my anxiety dissipating. Even Petra relaxed her grip on my hand.

Then Captain Yonge reached inside the ground car and brought out two carryalls, handing one to each of us. In addition he gave us four spare power packs for our laser guns and a couple of dozen grenades. Petra was going to be in charge of the radio while I took the infrared glasses.

Just as we finished stowing all the paraphernalia on our persons a personnel carrier came to a halt behind the ground car. Captain Yonge walked over to it.

“All set?” a voice shouted out of the darkness.

“All set,” the captain replied.

“All right, you two. Hop aboard.”

The voice was that of Major Mackenzie. We climbed into the carrier. Six other ranger teams were crowded into it. Then we took off. In the excitement I plumb forgot to salute Captain Yonge when we left.

The ride was a short one. After five minutes we stopped.

“Everybody out,” Mackenzie shouted.

We piled out. The ground was sandy and rough. Half hidden behind some bushes and trees was a dark object. As it turned out it was our transport.

“This way,” a voice shouted from the inscrutable darkness. It was a female voice and it was somehow familiar to me.

We all more stumbled than walked in the direction of the voice.

“Welcome aboard,” the same voice said. “Be careful, the ramp is rather steep.”

“How are we coming along, Chief?” another voice shouted from the darkness ahead. That voice was also familiar to me but I was hard pressed to place it.

“It would help if we had a bit of light,” one of the rangers ahead mumbled.

“ We are okay so far, Captain,” the chief said. I could not visualize anybody being a chief. A chief of what? And a female chief at that!

“Mr. Williams, can we chance it?” That must have been the captain again.

In reply a short distance ahead two rows of lights began to glow in a passageway.

“Step up. Make it lively now,” the chief called out. We stumbled along, moving faster now since we could see where we were going.

The ramp was indeed steep. I went first, pulling Petra along behind me. There was one more ranger team and then the chief climbed in behind them.

“The best of luck,” Major Mackenzie called out from the darkness. The faint glow of the lights had gone again. “Give me a couple of minutes before you take off,” the major continued. He was talking to the captain.

“Aye, Sir. Tw o minutes. Mark.”

Then the chief closed the door.

“All set?” the captain’s voice came out of the darkness at the other end of the hallway. I had no idea on what kind of vehicle we had climbed.

Gradually the panels brightened again. And then I saw who the chief was. She wore a fleet service uniform with the insignia of chief engineer. Suddenly it all made sense to me. And as the lights increased in intensity I recognized the person. She was none other than Chief Engineer Louise Yasuda.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” the captain said. “Just don’t touch any­thing. It will take about a quarter hour until we reach our first drop-off point.”

The captain was Bill Johnson. Of course! That was why the voice had sounded so familiar. The third person sitting at a huge console was the weapons officer, George Williams.

Bill Johnson grinned at me when he saw me. “It seems that you people draw all the most dangerous assignments,” he said.

Then he introduced his crew. Apparently Petra and I were the only ones who had met them before. For some time we all talked.

“We’ve got five minutes left,” Bill Johnson observed. He shook hand with every ranger.

“Take care of her,” he said when he shook my hand. “Don’t let any harm befall the lieutenant.”

Then he shook Petra’s hand. “Now that we have reached the begin­ning of the end of this war make sure that you see Tremaine again and see to it that your partner survives as well.”

And then the lights dimmed out again.

Tw o minutes later the turbines began their climb through the sound frequencies. Suddenly I felt very heavy. Centrifugal forces pulled at me. There were a few moments when I felt normal again and then there was a small bump.

“Mitchell, Kruger,” Captain Johnson shouted. “Your position.”

There was a soft whine. A slightly lighter rectangle showed itself in the darkness. The Mitchell-Kruger team slipped out.

“Good luck,” Johnson hollered after them. I heard the soft whine a second time and inscrutable darkness prevailed once more. The exercise was repeated three more times. Then we felt the bump again.

“Kester, Baird,” Captain Johnson called out. “Your location. When you leave the corvette run like hell. There is supposed to be a Coleopteron camp not far from here. Be careful.”

Petra’s hand found mine. The door was open. We slid to the ground, got up and ran as fast as we could. After ten seconds we flopped down on the gravel. There was an immensely loud scream as the turbines speeded up. The corvette shot into the sky. About two hundred meters high it seemed to hover for an instant. It shimmered for a split-second and then was gone. There was a loud thunderclap.

Petra and I got up. It took us but a moment to get oriented. In front of us was a vertical rock wall, at least two hundred meters high and a little less than half a kilometer away. We were on a rocky ledge. Boulders had toppled down from the high ground eons ago. I marveled at how Captain Johnson had picked the only level spot on which to land his corvette. A hundred meters in any direction and he would have crashed into the rocks.

Far to the east the horizon was beginning to lighten. Dawn was about to creep up on us.

“Let’s go to the ridge,” I suggested to Petra. It was less than three hundred meters away. Petra nodded.

The ridge was not really a ridge. It was the edge of the ledge. A few seconds after peering over it through my infrared field glasses I pulled myself back and took a couple of deep breaths. My heart was palpitating wildly.

“What is it, Carl?” There was concern in Petra’s voice for by now she knew me well.

“Down there. A camp of the beetles. There must be thousands of them camped there.”

Petra chanced a glance. The infrared glasses made the image quite bright and distinct.

“ We shall wait until it gets a little brighter. Then we report and after that see what havoc we can wreak. And then we get out of here.”

“Exactly my idea, Carl.”

We waited twenty minutes. During that time we counted the num­ber of aircraft, the ground vehicles, and we made an estimate of the Coleoptera present. It was quite a formidable force.

“All right, Carl, I think we should attack this camp from two loca­tions. Yo u can stay right here and take on the beetles and I will see what damage I can do their equipment. I’ll let you have all my C grenades and you can give me all your E grenades.”

“Yes, we are not likely to find as tempting a target again.”

I gave Petra all my E grenades and she handed me all her C grenades but one. We changed the settings on all the grenades from the normal three seconds to the maximums of seven or eight seconds. The grenades had different maximum settings depending on where they had been manufactured.

While Petra jogged to her location I attached all the C grenades to my belt. I would run to her and as I did so I would throw two grenades at a time over the top, one close to the rock wall and one as far as I could manage. They would fall about thirty meters apart and thus cause the greatest damage. I had twenty-two grenades.

At last Petra reached her location. She signaled me that she was ready. The sun was not yet up but the sky had begun to turn crimson in the east. Petra sent the message we had composed. The radio pulse was only one millisecond long. I took one more look over the top. At least a thousand Coleoptera were within reach of my grenades. When I saw Petra throw her first grenade I threw my first two and began running towards her.

I got rid of my last grenade when I was still about a hundred meters away from Petra. She waited until I was next to her before she also took flight. Down below among the vehicles and aircraft the primary explosions had stopped but now there were secondary blasts as the ammunition blew up and the fuel ignited. Far to our right I heard thew whine of starting turbines.

It would not be hard for the beetles to figure out from where the attack had come. We had run for about a kilometer when the first flier became airborne. In a wide circle it headed towards the location where we had first seen the camp. Luck was with us. We kept on running.

After having gone two kilometers at full tilt we were both thorough­ly out of breath. We both can jog all day if necessary. We are in good physical condition. We can probably jog twice as fast as most people. In the ranger force they put a great deal of value on physical conditioning. But neither of us can run at top speed all day, or for an hour for that matter. After two kilometers I was gasping for air. Petra was also ready to collapse. We simply sank to the ground in the lee of some boulders. After a rest of a couple of minutes we would continue, but at a less hectic pace.

About two dozen fliers were in the air now. They were searching for us. Purple streamers of energy were boiling away the rocks from where we had thrown the grenades. They dropped mines and missiles. And then they withdrew.

Three large fliers rose in the far distance and circled to beyond where the aircraft had dropped the missiles. About five kilometers away from us they set down. Through my field glasses I watched them disgorge beetles. I counted at least sixty individuals, four troupes, one entire unit.

By this time we both had regained our breath.

“ We had better move out,” Petra said, getting up.

At that moment a lone Coleopteron flier came swooping down from the high plateau above. He could not possibly have seen us. He dropped a single missile. It exploded a good fifty meters away. Nothing should have happened to us. I pulled Petra back down and we cowered behind the boulders. After a few seconds the air was clear, relatively speaking. I sat up.

Petra did not move.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I said.

There was no reply and she stayed where she was. Suddenly I felt chilled to the core, but not by anything cold. It was fear.

I turned towards her. She looked unusually pale. The sun had climbed above the horizon. A blood red ray of sunshine played around Petra’s face. She had her eyes closed. And as I looked closer it was not the ray of sunshine which was blood red. There was a cut at the side of her throat. And steadily more red blood came out of the wound.

She had a few minutes left to live unless I could stop the bleeding. What was I to do? I am no medic and I have no training whatever in first aid. But something had to be done.

First of all I took her cold grenade, the last one we had, pulled out the pin and laid it next to me on the rock. The unit of beetles, all four troupes, were advancing towards us but were still more than four kilome­ters away. Then I took out the medical kit. There were several bandages in it, pads, fasteners, salves and sticky tape. I used one bandage to wipe the blood away. There was a lot of it.

If I could only seal the cut. The piece of stone which had caused it was still there. It was flat and quite sharp. The edge had sliced into Petra’s jugular vein. The only thing I could think of was to seal the cut with med­ical tape and hope for the best. I pulled the stone out and threw it away.

Once more I wiped the blood away. Then I applied the medical tape directly over the incision. I cut the widest tape there was into a num­ber of short pieces and placed them tightly over the wound. If the worst came to the worst I would use the C grenade. We would not be captured alive. The beetles were now about three kilometers away.

As I stood up I could see a fairly level stretch about a hundred meters away. Ah yes, the radio. I activated the medical emergency button.

Petra was no featherweight. I carried and dragged her the hundred meters. Then I waited. Should I try the radio once more? The beetles were two kilometers away. Te n more minutes to live unless help arrived sooner.

I laid Petra on the ground. Blood was again seeping through the tape but it was not the flood it had been before. She remained uncon­scious. Meanwhile the beetles had approached to within one kilometer. I took the C grenade into my right hand. With my left I held Petra’s hand which felt ice cold.

Suddenly there was a pressure wave. It came from above and threw me down on the rock. It was accompanied by a loud boom of thunder and the shrill scream of turbines. The sound was physically painful.

I levered myself up to see what was happening. Twenty meters away a corvette was setting down.

Before it had made contact with the ground the door opened and a ramp extended. Two people came out of the opening and jumped to the ground. They came racing over to where I was still groggily trying to col­lect my thought. One of them grabbed me.

“I am okay,” I said. “It’s her.”

He let go of me and took Petra by the left arm while the other per­son seized her right. Unceremoniously they dragged her to the craft and up the ramp.

“Came along,” one of the sailors yelled when I did not follow them immediately.

The closest beetle was now a hundred meters away and running at top speed. I depressed the plunger on the grenade still in my right hand and hurled it behind me while I ran towards the corvette and up the ramp.

“Take her up,” one of the sailors shouted. I was slammed to the floor. Faintly I heard a soft whine behind me as the door closed.

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