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The Eleventh Gate: Chapter Fourteen

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

 


 

THE ELEVENTH GATE

        Martinez gazed at the planet below, the unknown world beyond the eleventh gate.  His glimpse of lights along the coastline had been brief before clouds rolled back in.  But he had seen the lights; everyone on the Skylark and Zeus and Green Hills of Earth had seen them.  Clustered lights, as in a city, along the dark waters of the coast. 

        Could humans from old Earth somehow have discovered unknown gates between Terra and here and launched a colony before Polyglot had even been settled?  No, that wasn’t possible.  Earth’s death agonies had been swift by extinction standards, but not instantaneous.  It had taken four or five generations for desertification, biowarfare, rising oceans, famine and, finally, all-out war to kill Terran civilization.  By the time the nuclear weapons were launched, Polyglot had been colonized, and both Samuel Peregoy and Kezia Landry had taken their differing governmental philosophies from Polyglot to the new worlds of Galt and New California.  The long Terran exodus had been documented for generations.  No lost colony had emigrated to this undiscovered planet.

        Whatever was down there was not human.

        Martinez turned from the viewscreen to planetary data from atmospheric probes and visual surveillance.  More reason why this was not a rogue human settlement.  The planet more closely resembled one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, than it did Earth, with high concentrations of nitrogen and methane, although the atmosphere also contained some complex hydrocarbons.  The inhospitable world had a low surface temperature, clouds of methane ice and cyanide, dunes of hydrocarbons, oceans of liquid methane.  It was the first planet beside any gate that was not habitable.  Whatever built those cities did not have human biology.

        Could this entire “city” be a Landry trap, as the initial booby-trapped orbital had been?  Martinez didn’t dismiss the idea, but neither did he give it much credence.  Too elaborate.

        Martinez kept his three-ship fleet on alert, ready to either dart back through the eleventh gate or to return fire.  Scouts kept watch on the deep-space side of the gate.  So far, nothing had happened.  The aliens didn’t seem to have anything in orbit, so perhaps they were pre-space-age.  They might not even know that they had a gate, or that the Peregoy ships hovered near it.

        Martinez considered.  His orders were to hold the gate against any Landry incursion, not to make contact with aliens.  On the other hand, neither Sloan Peregoy nor anyone else had imagined there could be aliens here.  Maybe there were not, because time-lapse monitoring from high orbit as the planet rotated showed that there was only the one city, and its lights never varied.  None turned off during daylight hours, and no additional lights switched on. 

        Nobody was home.

        He made a decision.  “Lieutenant, open all possible broadcast frequencies.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        “Send prime numbers three to sixty-seven, followed by this message: ‘This is the Peregoy Corporation Space Service ship Skyhawk, in orbit above your planet.  We come in friendship.’  Repeat sequence at five-minute intervals until instructed to stop.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        Nothing.  Five hours later, ten hours, still nothing.  Were they conferring down there — if there even was a “they”?

        At any moment, Landry ships could approach the eleventh gate from Prometheus.

        Sloan Peregoy didn’t want only the gate for Peregoy Corporation — he wanted the planet.  If it was as useless to humans as it seemed, and if it had no other gates around it leading to anywhere that was useful, then Martinez’s three warships were better deployed elsewhere.  The loss of the Prometheus gate meant it was going to take Martinez much longer to return to New California.  He would have to travel to New Utah, a three-month trip, and then through two more gates. Martinez couldn’t receive orders from Sloan, not here.  He needed to decide if this planet was worth holding on to or not, and he needed that information before he lost forces defending a useless piece of real estate against the enemy.

        “Lieutenant, continue broadcasting.  Meanwhile, we’re sending an exploratory team to the surface.”

        #

        He couldn’t go himself, of course.  He wasn’t an expendable young hotshot, and it made no difference that he had never wanted anything as much as to be on that exploratory team.  Instead, he stayed on the Skyhawk and received the radio and data communications as the three chosen took their scout through the cloud cover.

        “We’ve landed at the edge of some structures,” Lieutenant Maxwell Gruber said.  “No sign of life of any kind.”

        The structures were low, circular, with ridged walls tapering to flat tops.  They seemed arranged randomly, as if someone had tossed a bunch of huge, dun-covered bottle caps beside the sea.  The lights glowed on the tops of the structures.  No streets or walkways snaked between structures, and Gruber detected no plant life of any kind.  The ground beneath the scout was sand over rock.  Methane haze drifted above distant mountainsâ¦

        Martinez said, “Wait one hour for signal or approach.”

        Gruber did.  Nothing.

        “Send the reconnaissance bot from your vessel and proceed with caution.”

        A clumsy looking object of metal and polymers, which was not nearly as clumsy as it appeared, continuously transmitted data as it made its way to the closest of the alien structures.  Gruber dutifully reported what was already clear from the data stream.  “No visible doors or other sorts of entrances, sir.” 

        “Continue reconnaissance.”

        The image from the scout became eerie: a human substitute wandering among giant dun bottlecaps, one looking as solitary as the other.  A child’s nightmare of abandonment among the familiar turned grotesque.

        Sonar revealed nothing underground.  The bottlecaps themselves contained shadowy sub-structures of some kind, utterly unfamiliar.  Other scans revealed no additional detail.  No gears, joints, radioactivity, sound waves, digital activity.  Nothing at any wavelength.

        And yet Martinez had the stubborn idea, utterly unfounded, that the bottlecaps were not dead.  No way he could know that — but it persisted.

        Gruber said, “I can try a breach.”

        It was the next step; the robot carried explosives.  Martinez considered.  How far could he stretch Sloan Peregoy’s original orders?  And if something unimaginable did inhabit the bottlecaps, an explosion might provoke retaliation.  Or, at a minimum, fully justified distrust.

        “Negative, Lieutenant.  Recall the ‘bot and return to the Skyhawk.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        Without direct orders from Sloan Peregoy about the situation, Martinez made a judgment call.  He would remain here with his three-ship fleet to defend the gate.  A scout would return to New California, carrying Martinez’s report. 

        He was aware of, but did not give undue weight to, his own desire to see what might happen next on the planet below.

        15: NEW CALIFORNIA

        It was surprisingly hard to find SueLin, which argued that the “resistance” organization was larger than Sloan had suspected.  Perhaps, Sophia’s chief of intelligence suggested, it was organized into cells, each with no direct knowledge of most of other cells, so that the people who had been interrogated had said nothing useful because they didn’t know anything useful.  If so, that suggested a sophisticated level of organization.  But, then, organization was what Peregoy worlds did.  But not what SueLin did.  She was pawn, not queen.

        At any rate, the resistance no longer topped Sloan’s list of concerns.

        Captain Ananya Batra said, “Approaching the New California-Polyglot gate, sir.”

        Sloan sat behind her and the co-pilot on the tiny bridge of Sloan’s personal ship, the Acropolis.  Class6A vessels were unarmed — mostly — and modified as the owners wished.  Sloan’s included two cabins, crew quarters, and a common area with small galley, all of it comfortable but not luxurious.  With him were a multi-lingual translator and six elite bodyguards, augmented and so well trained that they did not need to carry weapons.  Of course, neither bodyguards nor weapons were allowed where he was going, but they were comforting on the trip and useful when conducting business on Polyglot, although Sloan did not intend to do much of that.  He had a mission here.

        He had not left New California in two decades.  Sophia often visited New Yosemite, but mostly Sloan relied on his network of corporate vice-presidents and planetary operation officers, chosen with supreme care and monitored constantly.  Sloan was, after all, almost ninety, and rejuv could do only so much.  Still, he was pleased that he had stood so well the trip from New California to the orbital port.  Rising up the gravity well had hurt, but not broken, his old body. 

        This trip to Polyglot was imperative.  The Peregoy fleet had violated Polyglot neutrality by taking the gate between Polyglot and the primary Landry world, and the Polyglot Council of Nations was furious.  The presence of Sloan Peregoy himself wouldn’t be enough to mollify them — even though it was the Landrys, not the Peregoys, who had started this war.  Polyglot didn’t care who started the war.  The Council of Nations cared only that war not violate their neutrality.  However, Sloan planned on adding considerable sweeteners to his explanations.  He was going to turn a violation into a negotiation, and negotiating was what he did best.

        Captain Batra exchanged terse communications with the one Polyglot cruiser on this side of the New California-Polyglot gate, as well as with a Peregoy cargo ship approaching the gate from Sloan’s left.  He watched the cargo ship, the Quasar III, as it disappeared into the shimmer of the gate.  He hadn’t realized how much he missed seeing that shimmer.  A holoview was not the same.  The gate was beautiful, insubstantial silver lace in the blackness of empty space.

        Batra said, “Entering the gate, sir.”

        A brief moment of suspension, and then they were through.  Polyglot lay below them, green and blue, its generous continents sparkling with evening lights.  If Samuel Peregoy had had such a world, if he had reached this planet first instead of the lunatic who had discovered the first gate and indiscriminately opened settlement to everyone, the Peregoy Empire might now rule all eight worlds.  If —

        The co-pilot gasped.

        Sloan leaned forward in his seat, trying to see over the co-pilot’s shoulder to the datascreens.  The co-pilot stared, rigid.  Batra frowned deeply.  For a long moment, Sloan didn’t see what was wrong: no alarms sounded, no other ship appeared on the viewscreen, nothing fired at them.  Then he realized it was not what was present that mesmerized both pilot and co-pilot, but what was absent.

        The Quasar III had not emerged from the gate.

        “Captain Batra⦔ Sloan began, and was ignored.  Batra was giving rapid, incomprehensible orders.  Screens flashed with data and with panning views of space.  Finally the co-pilot said, “She’s gone, ma’am.  No debris, no residual radiation, nothing.  She wasn’t destroyed on this side of the gate.”

        Sloan said sharply, “The cargo ship was destroyed inside the gate?”

        Batra said, “It would appear so, Director.”

        “Do you know of anything that could do that?”

        “No, sir.”

        “A new weapon then?  A Landry weapon?”

        “Unknown.”

        Cold filled Sloan’s belly.  If the Landrys could destroy ships inside gatesâ¦catastrophe.  Not only would warships be lost, but communication scouts and cargo vessels.  Commerce among the Peregoy Corporation worlds would be crippled. 

        Butâ¦wait.  He was on the Polyglot side of the gate.  The Council of Nations would be just as outraged as he was.  In fact, next to this Landry violation, the Peregoy taking of the Polyglot-Galt gate would become less important.  Sloan could use this, exploit it, to enlist Polyglot on his side in the war.  He had personally witnessed this war crime against a civilian ship.  The Acropolis might just as easily have been the victim of this new weapon.  Perhaps that was even what had been intended, and the Quasar III had been unwittingly attacked instead.  Innocent lives lostâ¦

        “On,” he said to his wrister. “Crew list for the Quasar III, with pictures and brief bios.”

        With any luck, at least one of the dead would be young, attractive, and sympathetic.  That would be the image to present to the Council of Nations.  He or she might even be — have been — a Polyglot citizen.  With any luck.

        Sloan’s ship dropped toward the planet.


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