Thursday, November 19, 2015

Story: The First Gate

The First Gate

by Floyd Looney

As expected the gate stations traffic control center made contact almost before he could see it. “You are the sixth in line, take a parking orbit 12 kilometers out. Your estimated through-time is 2 hours.” The human voice said. The first human voice Gol Pratchett had heard since he had hastily left Charon Station a week ago.

A blue ring around the gate station appeared on his sensor screen. He tapped it and selected the option to take up this circular orbit. The computer complied as he rubbed his painful left shoulder.

Now just the wait. He glanced over to the empty co-pilot seat and sighed. Sheena should have been sitting there, she should be with him. Instead, she had shot him and tried to arrest him. Gol had never even suspected that she was some kind of undercover agent in the seven months he knew her. He fell in love with her and she had been acting the whole time.

The burn on his left shoulder was testament that he had been fooled completely. Gol had carried out the whole scam, done all the work thinking she was supporting him. She had never said she did, but she never voiced any disapproval or tried to stop him either. What kind of agent lives with a man for months and give him knowing smiles as he steals for her?

Gol had gotten away though. He had the loot and he had his freedom. Once he went through that gate on the Cert Line they might never be able to catch him. His biggest fear was that the authorities on the gate station had been informed, that they were looking out for him.

The more he thought about it, the stranger it felt. Who had she been working for? Sheena might not have been working for the authorities. The likelier explanation was that she was working for one of the crime families. Maybe even Vrabec himself.

Gol Pratchett winced at the thought. If Vrabec was after him, then getting far away and hiding was imperative. Vrabec wouldn't lock him up for criminal therapy, he just kills those who cross him. In the pit of his stomach something started hurting. If Sheena had been one of Vrabec's people, and they had found her, then Gol was going to be dead sooner than later.

The large ring of the gate flared into existence as it was reactivated. A small cargo cruiser was lined up next to it. When the traffic control center told the cargo cruiser to move forward it began inching toward the shimmering light of the circle. Then the front of the ship kissed the shimmering surface and the whole thing became a blinding white light, a mini-supernova. It stopped when the ship was fully passed through the gate.

The gate would need to cool off for a quarter of an hour at a minimum to even pass through a tiny ship, a passenger ferry was lining up with the gate to be next. Gol was informed by a message to the computer that he was now fifth in line and a new orbit was assigned. The ship moved itself as ordered.

Gol reached down toward the co-pilot seat and his hand stopped a few inches above it. The soft, furry Gnoble was curled up there, asleep. It was fully transparent now, he could never predict it's coloration. The creature had mourned Sheena for most of the trip but it was finally getting used to a new owner, or whatever it thought Gol Pratchett was.

The station was now requesting a full recitation of everything aboard the ship. It was such a small ship that it would hardly tax the gate technology at all, so this inventory was a pain in the end. The computer had most of the information. He was surprised that his small vessel was carrying 3 tons of water, it seemed like a lot since waste could be purified. Gol learned more about his own vessel reading that document.

That was a bit disturbing, the realization that he had thrown everything away and relied on the vessel to keep him alive and he had not taken the time to make sure it could. He had assumed the vessel was it good condition, but he probably should have made sure before the heist. He reached down and petted the invisible furry creature again, it was soothing.

The only human-controlled gateway in the galaxy connected to the Cert line, along which there were several stations and branches to other inhabited solar systems. Humans were newcomers to the galaxy but had spread pretty fast. Still, once you passed a few stations you might just find yourself the only human around.

Gol had crafted a plan a while back to take the loot and Sheena somewhere where human authorities would never find them. In hindsight this had been a really stupid idea, now he would run and hide alone and hope that Vrabec or whoever Sheena had been working for didn't think he would worth the trouble of hunting down.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Gol Pratchett tapped the screen as his vessel took the fourth slot. If Sheena had been working for a government, he would never get through the gate. He was sure they would have boarded his ship by now and taken him into custody. For the past week he had been monitoring the news feeds from Charon and nothing had been reported about the heist, about himself or Sheena.

Who had the power to keep something like this quiet? Certainly not the governing authority of Charon or the Plutarch Alliance. It had to be someone like Vrabec and none of the other crime syndicates had as big a footprint on Charon. Gol hadn't even considered all of this beforehand. It had never occurred to him that he would be robbed of the loot as soon as he got home.

The encased crystalline units that he had found were worth a fortune, but he couldn't sell or trade them in this solar system. The human governments had strict controls on them, making it illegal to trade or sell them except through bureaucratic channels. In the rest of the galaxy, though, they were freely traded like currency. Gol was rich once he made it through the gate.

Gol pet the Gnoble again. It was no longer invisible, more like a ghost of a cat-like creature. It was sitting up and looking around, probably looking for its former master again. Poor thing.

“Are you hungry? Emmerit, want some nim-nims?” He asked the small animal, it looked at him, closed its eyes halfway and showed its teeth. This was a yes. Gol stood up and walked the dozen steps to the galley and pulled the food from the third cabinet. Emmerit had belonged to Sheena, she had doted on it as if it were a real child. Gol didn't want to leave it behind with that mess.

It was self-defense. She had pulled out a weapon, told him that he would never get away with the loot and fired. His left shoulder had burned and gone limp. She had been trying to incapacitate him with a chest shot, he had ducked. He had ran to her and slammed into her before she could fire again, she had hit the wall hard, head first.

Gol hadn't waited around. He took the loot and the orphaned pet to the ship and left. He had filed the flight plan hours before and he kept the schedule to keep from looking too suspicious.

Gol thought he was doing it for Sheena. She had been playing him the whole time, probably intended to hand it over to a crime syndicate the whole time. He would have been in a cell before he woke up and Sheena and her boss would have the loot. It was a trick. They were playing the long con while he was the patsy.

They were third in line. There was a private yacht lining up for the pass through, much bigger than Gol's second or third-hand executive transport. Again, he wondered if the vessel would be able to do the job. It was made for in-system travel, for ferrying important passengers. It was not heavily armored, had no real armaments and the drive unit was not exactly interstellar class.

Nothing he could do about that now. Once he passed through the gate he would exit trans-space at Terminus. There he could make deals for some of the precious loot. He might even be able to trade up on the ship, if another vessel was available. After that, no one would be able to find him.

The Gnoble stretched out on the dash and then crossed over and sat on his shoulder. The station contacted him again after a bright light flashed from the gate.

“Take up a holding position at the indicated location, you are second in line for departure.”

He breathed deeply. The crossing fee had been paid in advance, there was no reason for alarm. The crime syndicate hadn't informed the authorities and they hadn't caught up with him. He could make his escape.

The only vessel ahead of him was already lined up in the chute for departure through the gate. His estimated departure time was around twenty minutes.

“Communication request received.” his computer said. Gol checked the reading. There was another ship trying to contact him. It was three ships behind him in the departure line. His first instinct was to ignore it, he reached to hit the decline button. Then he shrugged, they couldn't stop him anyway what was there to worry about?

“Open the channel.” He told the computer.

Suddenly Sheena's face appeared on his screen. One side of her head had bandages, but she was still alive. “Gol! You can't just run away.” she said.

“Watch me.” He answered. The animal on his shoulder was now alert and looking around at the voice of his master, trying to find her.

“Gol, if you take off with that cargo we'll both be dead. Do you want that?” she asked

“You know what I wanted. You didn't care. Stop expecting me to care what happens after I leave.” He told her. He was glad he hadn't killed her, even if Vrabec would do it later.

The screen changed to the face of a very large and gruff man. “Let us stop playing games, Pratchett. Once we are through the gate, I expect you to hand over the loot or the girl gets thrown out an airlock and you will be hunted down like a rabbit.”

Gol cut the connection.

There was no way to unload the cargo for a good price in an hour, about the time for the hunter's ship to come through. Gol Pratchett understood that he needed a new plan. He checked the type of ship they were on and found it was a faster and better armored and armed vessel than his own. One that was made for interstellar travel.

Not that they could fire upon his ship at Terminus station without getting vaporized by the Tureans that owned it. The hunter would have to be polite, arrogant humans had a way of offending the various aliens and getting themselves killed. It didn't help normal humans that their reputation as a species was not good.

Especially the Tureans. They were a very formal species, respect and honor were their highest ideals and those who ticked them off had a habit of getting hurt. They didn't generally dislike humans as many species in the galaxy did. Having so much direct contact they understood that some humans were better than others.

His ship was now being lined up with the gate. Gol was nervous and excited about his first time passing through. He was also nervous because there was a hunter on his tail. There was a bright flash, everything looked like a photographic negative and just moments later he was in a different part of space.

Terminus station was larger than he had imagined.

“Greetings and salutations, human vessel. Please follow indicated route and dock at port twenty-four and welcome to Terminus station.” a strange voice told him. “We are pleased to have your business.”

Finally the idea for a new plan starting forming in his head.

“Emmerit, I bet you can't wait to see mommy again, right?”



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