The Eleventh Gate – Snippet 13
DiCaria said, “There they are, sir.”
The Landry warship showed as a blip on a datascreen of the Skyhawk. Technically, of course, it was not a warship since it belonged to a corporation fleet and, until now, there had never been a war. But call it what you will, Martinez had no doubt that it was just as heavily weaponized as his own vessel.
Martinez said, “Arm weapons.”
“Countdown at twenty units from firing range.”
The Skyhawk hovered on the Prometheus side of the Polyglot-Prometheus gate. Martinez’s three-ship fleet had raced from New California through the gate to neutral Polyglot, spent a week reaching the Polyglot-Prometheus gate, and passed through. The most remote gate and — until now — the farthest away from any planet, it had been the last one discovered, barely fifty years ago. It led only to the dwarf planet Prometheus, or so everyone had assumed.
Prometheus orbited the same star as New Utah, although so far away that the planet was frozen, a small ball of rock and ice. It shone with thin layers of carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen over water ice. Tholins, darker areas caused by charged particles falling on mixtures of methane and nitrogen, dotted the surface, as did craters and shallow mountains. It made for a bleak environment, totally unlike anything else near a gate. The only thing on Prometheus was an underground Peregoy research station on a hundred-year lease from Polyglot, which owned Prometheus. Neither Polyglot nor Peregoy Corporation had stationed defense ships at the gate, since the barren planet below held nothing of real value.
Control the Prometheus gate and you controlled the most direct access to the newly discovered eleventh gate. The eleventh gate could also be reached from New Utah, but that was a three-month voyage through deep space. Martinez sent his other two ships, the Zeus and the Green Hills of Earth, to the new gate, as per Sloan’s orders. The Skyhawk lingered here, gambling that this critical access point was where the Landrys would attack in the first battle of the war. He would, if he were a Landry captain. In addition to the weapons on the Skyhawk, Martinez had back-up from the planetary defense weapons. They weren’t much, but the Landry captain might not expect them to exist at all.
And here came a Landry cruiser, newly emerged from the Polyglot-Prometheus gate.
“Twenty from firing range,” the lieutenant said.
Martinez felt in his own skin the muscle-tightening of everyone else on the bridge. This was what they had trained for and had never yet had a chance to exercise. On New California, more ships were being hastily constructed; in war you always lost some battles. Martinez did not intend to lose this one.
“Eighteen,” the lieutenant said.
Mounted on the bulkhead was a permascreen with Sloan Peregoy’s portrait. Martinez had never liked that; it reeked too much of veneration, with overtones of Lenin and Mao and other dictators. Sloan Peregoy, that intelligent but limited man, did not read enough history. But Martinez had never had the portrait removed. Standard fleet equipment.
Sloan stared out, level-eyed and unsmiling, at Martinez.
“Four — aaahhhh!”
A blast of light on all viewscreens, soundless except for the sickening SLAM! Against the ship.
“We’re… hit,” said the gunnery officer. She’d been thrown to the floor, tried to raise herself, and collapsed.
“Retreat!” Martinez said. “Straight-line retreat!”
The Skyhawk had not lost power. Wherever they’d been hit, it hadn’t been in the drive. Martinez, who’d kept his seat, watched the moving blips on the data screen. If this new weapon had an even greater range, or the Landry ship a greater speed…
Because it had to be a new weapon. Nothing in the Peregoy arsenal had that long a firing range, nothing. This was what Martinez had been afraid of and had argued about with Sloan, arguments that Martinez had lost.
The Landry ship didn’t pursue the Skyhawk, nor fire again. The brief battle was over — the first of the war, and Martinez had lost. He watched another Landry ship emerge from the gate into Prometheus space. Both went into orbit around the gate, out of range of the pitiful planetary defense weapons. The two warships weren’t interested in Prometheus, or its scientists. They wanted only to control the Polyglot-Prometheus gate.
There wouldn’t be Landry ships on the Polyglot side, which was neutral space, but there didn’t need to be. The Landry Libertarian Alliance now controlled the most direct access to the eleventh gate and whatever lay behind it. What the hell was this new weapon, and what else could it do?
“Damage report,” he said. “All sections, damage report. Gardwell, the drive?”
“Undamaged, sir.” Gardwell’s face appeared on a viewscreen.
“Good. Helmsman, set a course for target destination.” Sloan Peregoy’s intel said one month from Prometheus to the eleventh gate.
A medical team arrived on the bridge for the gunnery officer, who’d broken an arm in her fall and was irritable about it. “I’ll be back as soon as it’s set, sir.”
The damage reports came in. Not as bad as he feared; perhaps the Landry ship had fired too soon. Perhaps the new weapon, whatever it was, was too new to them as well. Perhaps — with any luck — this was a prototype, and they didn’t possess more.
But the Skyhawk had lost three crew members and a part of a cargo bay.
As Martinez made the dozens of necessary decisions, a part of his mind would not let go of his thoughts about Sloan Peregoy. Martinez had told him, in the respectful terms that were the only ones Sloan would listen to, that the tight corporate control on the Peregoy worlds might have unintended consequences. Communications were controlled. The environment was cared for and protected. Jobs were provided for all. Indoctrination of children was heavy. Capitalism was tightly regulated. Order and respect were emphasized. None of that, although it forced planetary peace and eliminated want, created the atmosphere needed for creative innovation.
The Landrys, whose Libertarian worlds and unregulated capitalism allowed for virtually anything to be created, tested, and revised no matter what it did to people or planets, were short-sighted but better at innovation. They had innovated themselves a new weapon, and the Skyhawk had lost its first and only battle.
Prometheus and its shimmering gate dwindled on the viewscreen until they disappeared.
Martinez brought up the data on his three dead crewmen. Dean Chimenti, Warrant Officer, wife and two children, file request for burial in space.
Janice Flewellen, spacer first class, parents on New Yosemite, file request for body to be returned there.
Daniel Chapman, brother on New California, file request for burial in space.
Martinez would write to each of the relatives and send the letters with his official report. “Mr. DiCaria,” he said to his exec, “take charge of funeral arrangements.”