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The Eleventh Gate: Chapter Seventeen

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

 


 

GALT

        Philip lay on a blanket hand-woven of rough juba fibers in a field of experimental crops at the edge of the university campus.  Stars glittered above him, impossibly high.  He couldn’t name any of the Galt constellations, so different from those of distant Polyglot.  Around him rose the scent, pungent but not unpleasant, of whatever plants grew in the darkness.  Unseen fronds rustled softly.  Beside him on the blanket, wetting its design with its last spilled drops, a bottle of the strong local wine lay on its side.  It was not the only bottle.  

        Maybe that would free his mind.  Nothing else had. He was desperate.  Also very drunk.

        A meteor streaked across the field of stars.

        In the distance an animal made a quick, harsh noise.

        Something small and many-legged skittered across his out-flung hand.

        He could not get there — wherever “there” was.  With the presences.  To the basement level of reality, down there among the old crates and dusty broken machinery.  Or whatever.  It didn’t matter how he thought of it, because it was beyond conscious thought.  Beyond words.  Also because he was such a failure at getting there, wherever “there” wasâ¦

        Fuck it.  Why was he the only person on the Eight Worlds who wanted this?  Was he the only person?  Was he really that weird, abnormal, out of his mind?

        Yes. 

        No.  “Out of his mind” was where he wanted to go, and couldn’t.

        He was just about to give up, stagger back to his university room, and sleep off the wine, when the stars began to swirl above his head.  They circled slowly, a stately minuet, then moved toward each other to coalesce into a shining globe until, all at once, Philip was among them, was them, was everywhere and nowhere.

        A presence, registering surprise.  No, not a presence, presences — or not.  But Philip was among them, was them.  They made, or were beside, or clustered around, a door.  A portal, an entryway, wide open.  Philip turned his attention to it, this thing of energy.  It closed around him, taking him in.  Then it vanished, or he did.

        None of those words described what had happened, or how.  There were no words for something so beyond language.

        He lay on the blanket, now soggy with morning dew. His body felt stiff and cold; his mouth tasted sour with last night’s wine.  Thin strips of color stained a gray sky.

        Slowly, Philip creaked upright.  He had been there, at the fifth level of awareness, the substrate underlying the universe, amongâ¦what?  He didn’t know.  But he’d been there, and now he knew they existed.  Not just as energy, but as energy’s condensed twin, matter in some strange form.  Not just in timelessness, but in time — his time.  Somewhere.  He had touchedâ¦something.  He had doneâ¦something.  He had been there.

        Philip limped toward the lighted building beyond the field.  He was elated, confused, hung over, apprehensive, and very, very hungry.

        #

        Philip and Julie sat in her office at the Institute for Brain Research, he on a chair with a too-hard back and she barricaded behind her desk.  As if, he thought bitterly, she needed more barriers than the emotional ones she’d already erected between them.  Maybe she did.

        The office was preternaturally neat and elegant in its simplicity, like Julie herself.  She wore a dark blue business tunic that was neither tight nor loose, a necklace of light blue stones, her hair in a tight chignon.  She looked untouchable.

        “Julie –” he began, not even trying to keep the pleading out of his voice.  Bad enough that he was still hung over, and looked it.

        “No,” she said crisply.  “I called you here to tell you that this phase of the research study is finished.  We have all the data about your implants that we need.”

        He felt a smile split his face.  “Good!  Then you and I can –“

        “No, Philip.  What happened was a breach of professional ethics.  My fault entirely.  There will be follow-up phases to the research in a few months.”

        “And you’ll be doing that, too?”

        “Wellâ¦no.  I have a different project, now that we’re at war.  I’ll be –“

        “I don’t care,” he said, anger turning him rude.  “So you and I could see each other again, you just don’t want to.”

        She said nothing.

        “It’s because of what I’ve told you happened, isn’t it.  My sensing — no, touching — something out there.  Leaving my body to do it.  You think I’m crazy, and you don’t want to get involved with a crazy person.”

        “Not ‘crazy.’  But delusional, yes.  I’m sorry.”

        She was, deeply sorry, and Philip didn’t care.  The first woman he ever thought he could love, and she was kicking him away because of what was, in fact, the most important thing about him.

        “Philip — it’s the brain implants.  They’ve intensified your neural pathways, so that you believe even more deeply what was never true in the first place.  You’re a wonderful person, but the –“

        “But nothing,” he said, and rose because he couldn’t bear to look at her any longer.  It was the old, old divide between materialists and mystics, those who thought the mind was nothing more than the actions of the brain and those who knew differently because they’d experienced differently.  Experience that could not be measured, could not be replicated at will, could not even be described in words or numbers — and so, to the scientific mind, did not exist.

        Philip left.  Julie did not try to stop him.  He heard her sob just once, a sharp catch of breath, but he didn’t turn around.

        19: THE ELEVENTH GATE

        Cloud cover, denser than before, wrapped the planet in mystery.  No sensors on the Skyhawk registered any different data than before Martinez had sent the scout to the surface.  He finished his report to Sloan Peregoy, summoned Lieutenant Gruber to his quarters, and gave him orders and codes to get it directly to Sloan or Sophia Peregoy, via New Utah.  Gruber would have to spend three months alone in space, but Martinez had picked him carefully.  The lieutenant could handle it.

        Martinez went to the bridge.  He had nothing to do there.  He had nothing to do anywhere.  No Landrys had appeared through the eleventh gate; no aliens had appeared on the planet; no further instructions had, or could as of yet, come by scout from Sloan.  Had the new Landry weapon captured more Peregoy gates?  It was frustrating not knowing what was happening elsewhere, since nothing was happening here.

        I am not built for inaction, Martinez thought, not for the first time.  All his life, he’d counted this as his greatest personal challenge: to wait patiently, to restrain his overflowing energy until the best time to act.  He thought that, by and large, he had learned that difficult lesson, but not easily. 

        On the viewscreen, he watched the scout launch from the Skyhawk and fly toward the gate.  Vondenberg and Murphy were undoubtedly doing the same, also victims of inaction.  During the past two weeks, Martinez had sent two more expeditions down to the planet, searching for something — anything — to put in his report to Sloan.  There was nothing.  Finally, he had to send yet another of his limited number of scouts.

        “Approaching gate,” Gruber said.

        That lovely, strange, inexplicable shimmer.

        “Entering gateâ¦.waitâ¦what?”

        Everyone on the bridge snapped up straighter.  The scout hovered at the edge of the shimmer.

        “Gruber,” Martinez said sharply, “what’s wrong?  Do you have a malfunction?”

        “No, sir — the gate has a malfunction.  It won’t let me enter!”

        “Send ship data!”

        It was already arriving.  The scout’s drive labored at maximum power.  Nothing happened.

        “Sir, I can’t see anything different, but it’s like the gate is suddenly pushing me away.  Matching my power so I can’t move forward.  Is that possible?”

        “It’s never happened before.  Retreat and approach again.”

        He did.  Martinez watched the sensor data, which told him nothing.  The gate was not emitting any different radiation, but it was not yielding.  A new Landry weapon?  But drones patrolling the spaceside of the gate had not reported any Landry ships approaching; nor had the scouts sent periodically to check on the drones.  Martinez was no physicist, but surely it wasn’t in the scope of human knowledge to just close stargates?

        He glanced at the planet turning beneath them.  Inhuman knowledge?

        An hour later, the scout still had not been able to penetrate the gate.  Nor had probes or drones, no matter how small.  Martinez ordered the scout to return to the Skyhawk and the bridge crew to fire drones at the gate every hour.   Tension on the bridge, and undoubtedly throughout the entire warship, stung like tiny needles on the skin.  But no one — at least, no one on the bridge — voiced the question.

        What if the gate was permanently closed?

        Life supplies on Martinez’s three ships were not infinite.

        Drone after drone failed to penetrate the gate.

        After eight hours and sixteen minutes, when Martinez had been awake for twenty-five hours, a drone sailed into the maddening shimmer and disappeared.

        “Yes!” the helmsman burst out, followed by, “Sorry, sir.”

        Martinez barely heard her.  He studied the sensor data, which showed no detectable change in gate information.  He sent Gruber through the gate with instructions to wait for an hour before leaving for New Utah.  Gruber’s scout cleared the gate.  Next trial was the Zeus, which also passed back and forth easily through the gate.

        None of it made any sense.

        Gruber left with his report, and for the next few days, Martinez tested the gate often.  It functioned normally.  Scouts went through and back to report that there was nothing to report.  Boredom resumed.

        One evening, just before ship’s lights dimmed for the “night,” Martinez went to his cabin, opened the safe, and took out the small box Sloan had given him on New California.  He stared at the bold lettering: PERSONAL.   Sloan had told him not to open the box until Martinez departed New Utah for home.  However, Martinez didn’t see why he should delay.  Either he was never going to reach New Utah and so never depart it, kept on perpetually resupplied duty guarding this alien planet, or else the Landrys would eventually show up and vaporize him with a weapon he could not match.  In his current mood, neither alternative seemed worse than the other.  And he was curious.  And anything PERSONAL was not official orders.

        He opened the e-box with the code that Sloan had given him.

        It contained a datacube and a folded piece of paper labeled TRANSCRIPT OF ENCLOSED HOLO-RECORDING.  Sloan being meticulous about back-ups.  Martinez could read much faster than Sloan could talk; he opened the paper first.  It was brief, hand-written in Sloan’s formal, slightly pompous style:

        TO LUIS MARTINEZ FROM SLOAN PEREGOY:

        This is to inform you that I am disinheriting both my grandchildren, SueLin Serena Peregoy and Tarik Ryan Peregoy.  My heir to Peregoy Corporation is my daughter, Sophia Kenly Peregoy.  Should she die without issue, as seems likely, my heir will be you, Luis.  I am executing legal documents to that effect on New California.

        This may surprise you.  However, it was you who told me about the Roman emperors and Frankish kings who chose their own successors, bypassing blood kin when necessary for the good of the state.  After Sophia, you are the person I trust most to guide the Peregoy worlds in the ideals we both believe in: care of and employment for every citizen plus stewardship of the planetary environments, all ensured by a strong hand at the top exercising ceaseless vigilance. 

        By the time you return to New California, I hope we have won the war with Landrys. I will then prepare my vice-presidents to accept your eventual stewardship, as will Sophia, who agrees with me about your inheritance after her.  My kin will be provided for, the funds tied up in such a way that they have its use but no control over Peregoy holdings.

        I do this for the good of the worlds in my care.

        Sloan Richard Peregoy

        Martinez sat down, stood up, took a few aimless steps.  Surprise put him on automatic pilot, not aware of what he did.  When he returned to himself, he read the letter again, then viewed the holo.  It consisted only of Sloan reading the same letter, his face impassive as ever, his voice dry.

        Him.  Luis Martinez.  To inherit the Peregoy empire.

        He’d known, of course, that if he’d married Sophia, his influence would increase.  Not, however, all that much — Sophia Peregoy was a woman who kept firm control of what was hers.  But now, if Sophia died before himâ¦

        Did he even want Peregoy Corporation?  Did he want to run three planets — or four, if he could keep the one rotating below his ship — instead of, as he’d hoped would be his future, eventually becoming admiral of Peregoy Corporation Space Service?  

        He didn’t know.  He wasn’t sure of anything: not what his future should be, not if he would survive to have a future, not why Landry warships hadn’t yet arrived here, not why the stargate had closed and then opened again.

        He shut down the holo, held the letter in his hands as if it were a bomb, and watched the cloud-covered planet turn slowly on its invisible axis.


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