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The Eleventh Gate: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, April 18, 2020 21:56 EDT

 


 

DEEP SPACE

        The Peregoy cruiser approached the uncharted eleventh gate.  There — it showed on the viewscreen, a gorgeous lacy shimmer against the blackness of space, its sensory data creating the same incomprehensible pattern as the other gates.  David Gordon’s fists balled in excitement. 

        David wasn’t captain on the Samuel Peregoy; Sloan hadn’t agreed to that.  Well, much as David had wanted to captain her, the decision made sense.  He’d never had the conn on something as big as this; the ship was undoubtedly armed in ways David wasn’t familiar with; Sloan wanted to control, if only by proxy, whatever action might lay on the other side of this new gate.  Peregoys were big on control.

        At the command console on the spacious bridge sat Captain Magda Peregoy, some distant relative of Sloan’s.  Keep it all in the family.  David had always thought it was weird the way all Peregoy kin had that same last name no matter who their other parent was.  So did the Landrys.  Arrogant — not that arrogance was always a bad thing.

        He sat beside the captain, watching the gate grow from an instrument detection to that mysterious shimmer an irregular kilometer across.  Unlike many spacers, David had never tried to understand how or why the gates existed.  The best guess was something to do with plasma cosmology and the quantum flux, whatever that meant.  It didn’t matter.  The only things that mattered were that the gate existed, he had found it, and it was going to make him some degree of rich, depending on the planet that lay on the other side.  It might be lush and fertile, a new part of the Peregoy empire, with David receiving a percentage of all immigration fees.  It might be useful for mining.  It might — worst case — be fit only for tourist viewing from orbit if, say, it was in such early formation that it was geologically violent.  David would still get a percentage of fees.  But he expected better than that; all planets beside gates had, so far, been habitable by humans even if, like the Landry mining planet New Hell, only barely.

        “Thar she blows,” David said.  The captain and her crew ignored him.  Maybe they didn’t get the reference, or maybe they were just as much uptight pricks as Sloan Peregoy.  No matter. 

        Sloan knew his business.  David, accustomed to the bureaucratic licensing delays and credit problems that were the inevitable fate of his small-time expeditions from Polyglot, had been astonished at how fast Sloan had been able to create this enterprise.  Less than a week to equip the ship with personnel and supplies.  Then a few days on conventional drive through the New California-Polyglot gate.  A week to the Polyglot-Prometheus gate, farther away from Polyglot than any other gate from its planet.  Why?  No one knew.  From the dwarf planet Prometheus, an entire month in deep space to this lonely shimmer much farther from Prometheus than other gates from their planets. 

        The executive officer said, “Captain, there’s a ship following us.”

        “Identify?”

        “Just a minuteâ¦got it.  Class 6A vessel.”

        It was a small Landry ship.  But then, David already knew that.  Only–the ship was supposed to be here already, waiting at the gate, not just arriving.  Certainly not behind the Samuel Peregoy.  That was the plan.

        The captain said, “Full speed ahead.  We can reach the gate first.”

        Disaster!  The Samuel Peregoy would reach the gate first, go through, and claim the gate — depriving David of his chance to be part of history.  And Tara had planned this so carefully!  The Landry ship was supposed to be waiting at the gate.  It was supposed to pass through simultaneously with the Peregoy ship, and both families would thus own the gate and the planet beyond.  They would be forced to cooperate, which would be the opening wedge to defuse a rivalry growing steadily more dangerous.  And David would be a part of that.  He would be a fucking hero.

        Although, on second thoughtâ¦maybe this was better.  In Tara’s plan, all the money to be made from a new gate and a new planet would be split between the ruling families, with David taking his percentage from the Peregoy share.  But if the Samuel Peregoy went alone through the eleventh gate, only Peregoy Corporation — which meant Sloan — would own the discovery.  David’s take had just doubled.  Of course, now the new gate wouldn’t help bring peaceâ¦but hadn’t the Eight Worlds managed for a hundred fifty years to avoid an actual war?  A few skirmishes in space, money spent building weapons, a lot of tensionâ¦but no war.  It could just go on like that.  Maybe this was better.

        The exec said, “Gate perimeter imminent.”

        The captain said, “Proceed through.”

        The passage felt like nothing much: a shimmer on the screen, a nanosecond blip on the sensors, no different from any other gate.  As a citizen of neutral Polyglot, David had gone through Peregoy gates and Landry gates.  He hadn’t yet gone through this one, nor even approached it ever before — despite the lies he’d told Sloan.  Only Tara had gone through, when she first found this gate.  She could have claimed it for the Landrys but instead had chosen to set in motion this idealistic plot.  When she hired David to approach Sloan, he’d been a little surprised at her scheme; when he’d known her on Polyglot, she hadn’t seemed like the idealistic type.  They’d had some good evenings in bars, some athletic sex, but then she’d fallen hard for some visiting lecturer at the university and tossed him out of her bed.  Still, they’d kept in touch, and she’d always been interested in David’s spacer exploits, especially the ones a bit outside the law.

        “We’re through, captain,” the exec said.  And then, unable to keep surprise out of his voice, “Object just ahead!”

        David felt his mouth form an O.  Not possible.

        No human had been through this gate except Tara, once and very briefly.  That’s what she’d told him.  That meant this object wasâ¦had to beâ¦

        “Tracking now!”

        The object, magnified, skimmed across a viewscreen.  David couldn’t get a clear idea of its size.  But it was clearly in orbit around the planet ahead, which showed heavy cloud cover.  The orbital was cylindrical, featureless except for a short projection that was — had to be — a landing dock. 

        An alien landing dock.  How had Tara not seen this?  But she’d said she only stayed a moment beyond the gate, and the orbital might have been on the other side of the planet.   But an orbital this close to the gate meant that the aliens — unthinkable word! — knew about the gate.  Why hadn’t they ever gone through it?  Why were they unknown to the human universe?

        It didn’t make sense.

        Captain Peregoy’s voice held the undertones of someone exerting control to keep herself steady. “If we see them, they see us.  Initiate contact.”

        The exec started a pre-recorded message.  Someone had planned for the improbable.  The message sounded on the bridge and, David guessed, went out to the orbital on all possible wavelengths.  First were tones giving a sequence of prime numbers, repeated twice, and then, “This is the Peregoy Corporation Space Service ship Samuel Peregoy, Captain Magda Peregoy commanding.  We come in peace.  Please answer.”

        On the bridge, tension prickled like heat.

        Nothing.

        The exec said, “No other objects detected in orbit, ma’am.”

        The orbital disappeared behind the planet, then reappeared.  The exec said, “Length is ten meters, diameter four meters.”

        The thing was small — smaller than Sloan’s office.  The message from the Samuel Peregoy repeated constantly for an hour.  Were they conferring, down there on the planet?  As it turned, David glimpsed the blue of ocean, plus a brown tip of land mostly still under cloud cover.  Was anyone there?  Maybe this was the sole orbital still in the sky after the civilization that put it there had decayed or perished.  After all, that had happened on Earth.  Only semi-savages were left on Earth, people whose culture had degenerated to practically iron age.  David had read once, or maybe been told, that all sentient civilizations unable to spread to other planets would eventually destroy their own.  Too many beings using up too many resources.

        Captain Peregoy said, “Prepare to launch a scout to rendezvous with orbital.”

 



 

        A bubble of excitement rose in David’s throat, heady as champagne.  “Captain, you have four scouts aboard and you’ll need one to streak back through the gate and file the Peregoy claim.  You should reserve the others, in case anything happens to the first one going back — after all, the Landry ship is so close, just the other side of the gate.  And I fly scouts, so I know that nothing you have aboard will be able to dock on that small platform.  We don’t even know how to secure the scout alongside — look, there’s no apparent mechanism.   But I can put on a suit and get over there on a vacuum sled.  I can see if there’s any way to open any door.  You’d be risking only me, not a scout and not anyone from your crew.”

        The captain eyed him.  “All right, Gordon.  If you fail, we’ll try something else.”

        He was expendable, now that he’d taken her to the gate location that Tara had given him.  Maybe the captain even had orders to risk him first if any danger arose, thereby saving Sloan from paying David his future percentages.  David didn’t care.  He was a spacer and this was what he lived for — along with the percentages, of course.

        Ten minutes later, just as he finished checking and donning his suit, he entered the airlock, waiting for the ship to match trajectory with the orbital.  When it did, the vacuum sled shot out, automatically following directions to rendezvous with the orbital.  The Samuel Peregoy flew close beside.  David saw its scout launch and fly back toward the gate.  The captain was sending it back to file the Peregoy claim.

        The Landry vessel still had not come through the gate.

        David easily caught a projection on the side of the orbital.  “A series of projections,” he commed to the ship, “along the side above the loading dock.  Conveniently spaced for handholds — lucky.  But they don’t seem to lead to any doorâ¦no, wait, there’s something there, are you getting it on cam?  A round hatch, you have to look really hard to find itâ¦I’m pulling myself toward it.”

        “We have you on visual,” Captain Peregoy said.  

        “Good.”

        David reached the hatch.  He grasped a slight projection in the middle and pulled.  Nothing.  He twisted it, and the hatch easily opened.  “I’m in.  The opening is very small.  Maybe they are, too — I’m barely going to fit through this hatch.  No airlock.  This isn’t inhabited.”

        Odd.  The orbital was big enough to enter, but no airlock.

        “Received.  Proceed.”

        David wriggled inside and floated.  He brightened his suit lights.

        “I’m in a completely bare area, a half-cylinder — the space is divided along its whole length.   The interior sort of resembles an unfitted cargo shell.  Absolutely nothing hereâ¦no, wait, there’s a hole in the divider, at the far end.  Going toward it now.”

        Captain Peregoy said, “Nothing?  No equipment or markings of any kind?”

        “Nada.  Pulling myself through the hole head firstâ¦Christ, it’s a tight fit.  I see something at the far end of this deckâ¦oh my God!”

        His headlamp showed the machinery clearly, and David recognized it instantly.  The timer light glowed red, enough light to see the small, distinctive, unmistakable manufacturing logo.

        The bitch.

        “Go!” he screamed into the commlink.  “A Landry bomb!  Get away!  It’s going to –”

        The nuclear device exploded, vaporizing the orbital, David, and the Samuel Peregoy.

        The scout plunged into the gate.

        #

        Tara watched the Peregoy scout emerge from the gate and speed away.  Had it witnessed the explosion?  Of course it had.  Otherwise it would be the Samuel Peregoy coming back through the gate.  She sat frozen at the controls of her small ship, the Waterbird, unable to move, able only to think, and to wish that she couldn’t.

        It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

        A larger Landry ship, a day away from the gate, awaited orders.  That was what it was supposed to do: wait.  It had been waiting a week for Tara to arrive.  The plan had been for Tara to reach the gate and issue orders.  Those orders would have been for the Landry cruiser to match speed with the Peregoy vessel, so that both ships went through the gate at the same time, establishing a joint claim to the new planet.  Then, once they’d spotted the orbital, both captains were supposed to do what any prudent captain would do: send down scout ships to investigate the orbital.  Both scouts would be destroyed when they jointly breached the orbital.  The two cruisers would witness that, as well as what Tara had seen when she’d gone through the gate the first time.

        Lights on the planet below.

        There was life down there.  An alien civilization.  Not capable of space flight; they had nothing in orbit and probably didn’t even know the gate was there.  But they would be assumed to own the orbital that Tara herself had put there on her second trip.  The aliens would be assumed to have blown up Landry and Peregoy scouts.  Necessary casualties.  The aliens would be assumed to be the enemy.

        The enemy of my enemy is my friend

        Landry and Peregoy united in a common cause, which they would win because how threatening could a civilization be if it didn’t even have space flight?  Landrys and Peregoys might eventually discover that the aliens hadn’t planted the orbital bomb — but how?  The evidence would be gone and the aliens wouldn’t speak human languages.  Even if they did learn English and denied the bomb, who would believe them?  Anyway, by that time Tara would have created the alliance.  No one would ever know that, but Philip would be impressed with her nonetheless: the heroine who had created peace by rushing the news to the Eight Worlds.   That was what was supposed to happen.

        But — the Waterbird had been crippled by a comet strike and repairs had taken so long that she arrived at the gate after, not before, the Samuel Peregoy.

         But — the idiot captain of the Samuel Peregoy had somehow gotten his cruiser, not just a scout, blown up.

        But — no Landrys had died, only Peregoys.  Tara had created a war, but not against any unknown aliens.

        “Ms. Landry, this is Captain Albrecht!  Repeat, this is Captain Albrecht!  Please answer!”

        Slowly the voice penetrated Tara’s mind.  How long had the captain of the Landry cruiser been hailing her?  How long had she sat, frozen, in her stationary ship?  Think.  She had to think.

        “Ms. La –“

        “Yes,” she said.  He would have tracked the Samuel Peregoy going through the gate.  “We’ve lost the gate claim.  Yes.  Proceed to and through the gate to survey what planet is on the other side.  We might as well get whatever information we can.  I will wait to accompany you through.”

        “Received.  Will comply.”

        Tara thought furiously.  She had to salvage what she could from this debacle.  Maybe there was still some way to turn Peregoy vengeance away from the Landrys and toward whatever lived on the planet.  Maybe the Peregoy explorer on the orbital — maybe David Gordon — hadn’t had time to send a message to the scout before he was vaporized.  If they hadn’t realized the orbital was Landryâ¦

        “Ms. Landry,” said the captain, sounding surprised, “we just received a delayed message from the Peregoy scout.  It says, in its entirety, ‘Landrys, you won’t get away with this!  We have a recording!’  Your desired action?”

        Tara forced herself to say, “No action.  Proceed toward gate.”  The Peregoys had a recording.  She was fucked.

        Philip.  She must keep Philip from knowing what she’d done.  A good thing David Gordon was dead.  He wouldn’t have had time — she hoped — to name her specifically.  The Peregoys would know this was a Landry act of war, but not which Landry.

        Philip must never know.

        She said, “Captain, change of orders.  I’m going to proceed toward the gate.  Wait for me to join you.”

        “I don’t advise that you –“

        A shimmer, a brief blip on the screens, and she was through.

        Nothing — no debris, no clue that a deadly cargo shell and a doomed cruiser had ever existed this side of the gate.  There was only the planet, below.  Its cloud cover was dissipating. 

        The land along the coast of a continent gleamed with city lights.


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