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Martinez gazed at the planet below, the unknown world beyond the eleventh gate. His glimpse of lights along the coastline had been brief before clouds rolled back in. But he had seen the lights; everyone on the Skylark and Zeus and Green Hills of Earth had seen them. Clustered lights, as in a city, along the dark waters of the coast.

Could humans from old Earth somehow have discovered unknown gates between Terra and here and launched a colony before Polyglot had even been settled? No, that wasn’t possible. Earth’s death agonies had been swift by extinction standards, but not instantaneous. It had taken four or five generations for desertification, biowarfare, rising oceans, famine and, finally, all-out war to kill Terran civilization. By the time the nuclear weapons were launched, Polyglot had been colonized, and both Samuel Peregoy and Kezia Landry had taken their differing governmental philosophies from Polyglot to the new worlds of Galt and New California. The long Terran exodus had been documented for generations. No lost colony had emigrated to this undiscovered planet.

Whatever was down there was not human.

Martinez turned from the viewscreen to planetary data from atmospheric probes and visual surveillance. More reason why this was not a rogue human settlement. The planet more closely resembled one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, than it did Earth, with high concentrations of nitrogen and methane, although the atmosphere also contained some complex hydrocarbons. The inhospitable world had a low surface temperature, clouds of methane ice and cyanide, dunes of hydrocarbons, oceans of liquid methane. It was the first planet beside any gate that was not habitable. Whatever built those cities did not have human biology.

Could this entire “city” be a Landry trap, as the initial booby-trapped orbital had been? Martinez didn’t dismiss the idea, but neither did he give it much credence. Too elaborate.

Martinez kept his three-ship fleet on alert, ready to either dart back through the eleventh gate or to return fire. Scouts kept watch on the deep-space side of the gate. So far, nothing had happened. The aliens didn’t seem to have anything in orbit, so perhaps they were pre-space-age. They might not even know that they had a gate, or that the Peregoy ships hovered near it.

Martinez considered. His orders were to hold the gate against any Landry incursion, not to make contact with aliens. On the other hand, neither Sloan Peregoy nor anyone else had imagined there could be aliens here. Maybe there were not, because time-lapse monitoring from high orbit as the planet rotated showed that there was only the one city, and its lights never varied. None turned off during daylight hours, and no additional lights switched on.

Nobody was home.

He made a decision. “Lieutenant, open all possible broadcast frequencies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Send prime numbers three to sixty-seven, followed by this message: ‘This is the Peregoy Corporation Space Service ship Skyhawk, in orbit above your planet. We come in friendship.’ Repeat sequence at five-minute intervals until instructed to stop.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nothing. Five hours later, ten hours, still nothing. Were they conferring down there—if there even was a “they”?

At any moment, Landry ships could approach the eleventh gate from Prometheus.

Sloan Peregoy didn’t want only the gate for Peregoy Corporation—he wanted the planet. If it was as useless to humans as it seemed, and if it had no other gates around it leading to anywhere that was useful, then Martinez’s three warships were better deployed elsewhere. The loss of the Prometheus gate meant it was going to take Martinez much longer to return to New California. He would have to travel to New Utah, a three-month trip, and then through two more gates. Martinez couldn’t receive orders from Sloan, not here. He needed to decide if this planet was worth holding on to or not, and he needed that information before he lost forces defending a useless piece of real estate against the enemy.

“Lieutenant, continue broadcasting. Meanwhile, we’re sending an exploratory team to the surface.”

* * *

He couldn’t go himself, of course. He wasn’t an expendable young hotshot, and it made no difference that he had never wanted anything as much as to be on that exploratory team. Instead, he stayed on the Skyhawk and received the radio and data communications as the three chosen took their scout through the cloud cover.

“We’ve landed at the edge of some structures,” Lieutenant Maxwell Gruber said. “No sign of life of any kind.”

The structures were low, circular, with ridged walls tapering to flat tops. They seemed arranged randomly, as if someone had tossed a bunch of huge, dun-covered bottle caps beside the sea. The lights glowed on the tops of the structures. No streets or walkways snaked between structures, and Gruber detected no plant life of any kind. The ground beneath the scout was sand over rock. Methane haze drifted above distant mountains.

Martinez said, “Wait one hour for signal or approach.”

Gruber did. Nothing.

“Send the reconnaissance bot from your vessel and proceed with caution.”

A clumsy looking object of metal and polymers, which was not nearly as clumsy as it appeared, continuously transmitted data as it made its way to the closest of the alien structures. Gruber dutifully reported what was already clear from the data stream. “No visible doors or other sorts of entrances, sir.”

“Continue reconnaissance.”

The image from the scout became eerie: a human substitute wandering among giant dun bottlecaps, one looking as solitary as the other. A child’s nightmare of abandonment among the familiar turned grotesque.

Sonar revealed nothing underground. The bottlecaps themselves contained shadowy substructures of some kind, utterly unfamiliar. Other scans revealed no additional detail. No gears, joints, radioactivity, sound waves, digital activity. Nothing at any wavelength.

And yet Martinez had the stubborn idea, utterly unfounded, that the bottlecaps were not dead. No way he could know that—but it persisted.

Gruber said, “I can try a breach.”

It was the next step; the robot carried explosives. Martinez considered. How far could he stretch Sloan Peregoy’s original orders? And if something unimaginable did inhabit the bottlecaps, an explosion might provoke retaliation. Or, at a minimum, fully justified distrust.

“Negative, Lieutenant. Recall the ’bot and return to the Skyhawk.”

“Yes, sir.”

Without direct orders from Sloan Peregoy about the situation, Martinez made a judgment call. He would remain here with his three-ship fleet to defend the gate. A scout would return to New California, carrying Martinez’s report.

He was aware of, but did not give undue weight to, his own desire to see what might happen next on the planet below.

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