The Eleventh Gate – Snippet 16
11: THE ELEVENTH GATE
The Skyhawk streaked through normal space, trailing the two Peregoy ships that Luis Martinez had sent ahead to the new gate. He was in retreat, tail between his legs, and everyone on the bridge kept their eyes firmly on their consoles and viewscreens. Their first battle, and they had lost.
“Landry ships remaining behind at New Prometheus, sir,” said DiCaria.
“Continue monitoring as long as possible. Report a no-change status every five minutes.”
Of course the Landry warships weren’t following. They remained to control the Prometheus gate, which now was Landry territory, along with the research station on the planet below.
“Lieutenant DiCaria, contact both the Zeus and the Green Hills of Earth on encrypted channel.”
“Yes, sir…Captains Vondenberg and Murphy on commlink.”
In quick, clipped sentences, Martinez explained what had happened at the battle. Such dryness for what should never have happened at all.
The Peregoy claim to the new gate had been filed on Polyglot. Yes, technically the Landrys had gone through the gate first, but they had used it as an ambush and so clearly forfeited their claim. Martinez had served with officers who died on the Samuel Peregoy, good men and women who had been slain by Landry treachery. It was difficult to keep the dispassion in his voice.
He concluded with his orders: “Deploy a scout to inform the command at New Utah, with instructions to send a full report to Sloan Peregoy. All available sensor data from the attack is attached. All three Peregoy Corporation worlds must increase gate defenses.”
The scout would have to make the three-month voyage to New Utah and then go through two gates to reach New California. There was no faster way to send information. It would also cost Martinez one of his three scouts. Why hadn’t the damn physicists figured out faster-than-light communications?
“The Zeus and Green Hills of Earth will proceed to the new gate with all possible speed. If you encounter Landry ships at the gate, retreat as soon as they are detected and wait until this vessel arrives. We don’t know how many of this new weapon the enemy possesses. If no Landry vessels are detected, send a probe through the gate to determine possible enemy presence on the other side. If the probe does not return, retreat and wait.
“If the probe does return, send a scout through the gate. If no enemy presence is detected planetside, both the Zeus and the Green Hills of Earth are to proceed through the new gate. Use thrusters to remain as close as possible to the planetside of the gate. When the Skyhawk arrives, we will proceed through the gate while constantly emitting an encrypted signal, being sent to you now along with a random-generator program to change the signal often. If any vessel not emitting that signal comes through the gate, fire immediately and destroy it. Our best chance is to attack before the enemy knows we are there.”
Captain Edward Murphy said from the Zeus, “Any vessel at all, sir?”
“Yes. Even if it’s a Peregoy ship — it could merely be disguised as one. Peregoy, civilian, Polyglot, pirate — destroy it. I don’t anticipate that contingency, but those are my orders.”
“I shouldn’t be more than a standard day behind you. But that one day might be critical.”
He answered their questions, which were intelligent and thorough, especially Captain Elizabeth Vondenberg’s. He had strong hopes of her. She could one day lead the fleet.
If they won this war. If they survived this war. If there was still a Peregoy fleet to lead.
The Skyhawk crept cautiously toward the new gate. There was nothing here to impede the ship’sscanning signals, only empty space. Nowhere for a Landry ship to hide.
There were no Landry ships in evidence.
So either the three Peregoy vessels had succeeded in being first to reach the eleventh gate, or the enemy had outwitted Martinez’s ruse with one of their own. Martinez had spent the month-long flight thinking over and over of all the possible ways the enemy might engage. Still, if the initial report had been accurate, the surviving scout from the Samuel Peregoy had detected only one vessel on the space side of the new gate, a small Landry craft. It must have set the bomb. Martinez had no idea where the little ship had gone next, or who had been aboard.
There it was, the eleventh gate, shimmering against the blackness. Identical to and as mysterious as the other gates, it differed from them only in having no planet on this side. In a hundred fifty years, the best minds on seven worlds had not learned how these gates formed, how they worked, why they existed only beside planets that could support human life. Nor why Prometheus was the exception. Was it to eventually lead humanity here?
He said to his exec, “Emit signal constantly.”
“Prepare all weapons to fire on command.”
“Prepare to enter gate.”
Martinez found he was holding his breath as the Skyhawk entered the gate. He made himself breathe. Adrenalin coursed through his body, quicksilver. The shimmer took them, and then they were through.
No attack. No debris. Only the Zeus and the Green Hills of Earth, holding their fire.
Martinez said crisply, “Captains Murphy and Vondenberg, report.”
Vondenberg answered. “No sign of the enemy, sir.”
“Stay in position and prepared to attack. Other intel?”
“Yes, sir,” Murphy said, and Martinez would have sworn his voice held an undertone of fear. “Two observations, sir. First, the planet appears to have only one gate, not two.”
Nothing startling about that. New Utah and New Hell, at the edges of the frontier, each possessed only one gate. So had Prometheus, until this new one, so far out from the dwarf planet, had been discovered.
Murphy continued, and now the fear — or was it wonder? — sounded more strongly. “Sir, the planet is covered with clouds, as it usually is, but a few hours ago they cleared and…wait…there, sir! Look!”
The planet below lay between its star and the Skyhawk, its night face turned toward the ship. Clouds covered all of it that wasn’t dark water. But as Martinez watched, the clouds shifted rapidly; there must be really high winds down there. A clear patch of coastline emerged along the twilight zone between day and night.
The land twinkled with bright lights.