The Eleventh Gate – Snippet 05
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 door…no, wait, there’s something there, are you getting it on cam? A round hatch, you have to look really hard to find it…I’m pulling myself toward it.”
“We have you on visual,” Captain Peregoy said.
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.
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 here…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 first…Christ, it’s a tight fit. I see something at the far end of this deck…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.
“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 Landry…
“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.