Guyen took his time over his decision, as the Gilgamesh followed its long curving path around this solitary island of life in the vast desert of space, its trajectory constantly balanced between the momentum that would fling it away and the gravity that would draw it in.
The face of Doctor Avrana Kern—whoever and whatever she truly was—flickered and ghosted on their screens, sometimes inhuman in its stoic patience, at other times twisted by waves of nameless, involuntary emotions, the mad goddess of the green planet.
Knowing that Kern was listening, and could not be shut out, Guyen had no way to receive the counsel of his crew, but Holsten felt that the man would not have listened anyway: he was in command, the responsibility his alone to bear.
And of course there was only one answer, for all the agonized pondering that Guyen might give to the question. Even if the Sentry Habitat had not possessed weapons capable of destroying the Gilgamesh, the ark ship’s systems were at Kern’s mercy. The airlocks, the reactor, all the many tools they relied on to keep this bubble of life from the claws of the void; Kern could just switch it all off.
“We’ll go,” Guyen agreed at last, and Holsten reckoned he wasn’t the only one who was relieved to hear it. “Thank you for your help, Doctor Avrana Kern. We will seek out these other systems, and attempt to establish ourselves there. We will leave this planet in your care.”
Kern’s face sprang into animation on the screens, though still moving almost randomly, and completely divorced from the words. “Of course you will. Go take your barrel of
Lain was murmuring, “What is this business about monkeys?” in his ear, and Holsten had been wondering the same thing.
“Monkeys are a sort of animal. We have records regarding them—the Empire used them in scientific experiments. They looked something like people. Here, I’ve got images …”
“Gilgamesh has got a course plotted,” Vitas stated.
Guyen looked it over. “Re-plot. I want us to swing by this planet here, the gas giant.”
“We won’t be able to gain anything useful by slingshotting
“Just do it,” the commander growled. “Here … get me an orbit.”
Vitas pursed her lips primly. “I don’t see what would be served by an orbit—”
“Make it happen,” Guyen told her, glowering at one of Kern’s images as though waiting for it to challenge him.
They felt the change of forces as the Gilgamesh’s fusion reactor brought the engines back online, ready to coax the vast mass of the ark ship off its comfortable orbit and hurl it out into space once more.
Without warning, Kern’s face was gone from the screens, and Lain quickly ran a check of all systems, finding no trace of the intruder’s presence there.
“Which is no guarantee of anything,” she pointed out. “We could be riddled with spy routines and security back doors and who knows what.” She did not add, Kern could have set us to explode somewhere in deep space, which Holsten reckoned was generous of her. He saw the same thought on everyone’s face, but they had no leverage, no options. Just hope.
Pinning the whole future of the human race on hope, he considered. But, then, hadn’t the whole ark ship project been
“Mason, tell us about the monkeys,” Lain suggested.
He shrugged. “Just speculation, but the thing was talking about an ‘exaltation program.’ Exaltation of beasts, the old stories say.”
“How do you exalt a monkey?” Lain was studying the archive images. “Funny-looking little critters, aren’t they?”
“The signal to the planet, and the mathematics,” Vitas mused. “Are they expecting the monkeys to respond?”
Nobody had any answers.
“You’ve set our course?” Guyen demanded. “Naturally,” came Vitas’s immediate reply.
“Fine. So the whole universe is ours except the one planet worth living on,” the commander stated. “So we don’t stake it all on whatever’s at this next project we’re being sent to. We’d be fools to—it could be as hostile as here. It could be worse. There might not be anything there. I want us—I want humanity to have a foothold here, just in case.”
“A foothold where?” Holsten demanded. “You said yourself that was the only planet—”
“Here.” Guyen brought up a representation of one of the system’s other planets: a streaky, bloated-looking gas giant like some of the outer planets of Earth’s system, then narrowing in on a pallid, bluish moon. “The Empire colonized several moons back in Earth’s system. We have automated base units that can carve us out a home there: power, heat, hydroponics, enough to survive.”
“Are you proposing this as the future of the human race?” Vitas asked flatly.
“The future, no. A future, yes,” Guyen told them all. “We will head off first to see if this Kern has sold us something of worth or not—after all, whatever’s there isn’t going anywhere. But we’re not betting all we have on that. We’ll leave a
functioning colony behind us—just in case. Engineering, I want a base unit ready to deploy once we arrive.”
“Hm, right.” Lain was running calculations, looking at what the Gilgamesh’s sensors could say about the moon. “I see frozen oxygen, frozen water, even tidal heating from the gas giant’s pull, but … it’s still a long way short of cosy. The automated systems are going to take … well, a long time— decades—to get everything set up so that someone can be left there.”
“I know. Detail a roster of Science and Engineering to be woken at regular intervals to check progress. Wake me when it’s near completion.” At the general groan, Guyen glared around at them. “What? Yes, it’s back to the chambers. Of course it is. What did you think? Only difference is, we’ve one more wake-up call before we set off out of the system. We maximise our chances as a species. We establish ourselves here.” He was looking at the screens, where the gradually receding green disc of Kern’s World was still showing. The unspoken intent to return was plain in both his face and his tone.
Vitas had meanwhile been running her own simulations. “Commander, I appreciate your aims, but there was limited testing of the automatic base systems, and the environment they will be deployed into does seem extreme …”
“The Old Empire had its colonies,” Guyen stated.
Which died, Holsten thought. Which all died. True, they had died in the war, but they had primarily died because they were not stable or self-sufficient, and when the normal business of civilization was interrupted, they had not been able to save themselves. You won’t get me living there, if I have any choice in the matter.
“All doable,” Lain reported. “I’ve a base module ready for jettison. Give it long enough and who knows what we might cook up down there? A regular palace, probably. Hot and cold running methane in every room.”
“Just shut up and do it,” Guyen told her. “The rest of you, get ready to go back to suspension.”
“First off,” Karst interrupted, “who wants to see a monkey?”
They all looked at him blankly and he grinned. “I’m still getting signals from the last drone, remember? So let’s look around.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Holsten put in, but Karst was already sending the images to their screens.
The drone was moving over an unbroken canopy of green, that unthinkable wealth of foliage that had been denied to them.
Then the viewpoint dipped, and Karst was sending the drone down, corkscrewing it through a gap in the trees, zigzagging its way delicately around a lattice of branches. The world now revealed was awe-inspiring, a vaulted cathedral of forest overshadowed by the interlocking boughs above, like a green sky held up by the pillars of tree trunks. The drone glided on through this vast and cavernous space, keeping ground and canopy equally distant.
The expressions of the Gilgamesh crew were hungry and bitter, staring at this forbidden birthright, an Eden not made for human touch.
“What’s that ahead?” Lain asked.
“Detecting nothing. Just a visual glitch,” Karst replied, and then abruptly their viewpoint was swinging wildly, wheeling in mid-air with frustrated forward momentum.
Karst swore, fingers flying as he tried to send new instructions, but the drone seemed to be caught on something invisible—or near-invisible. Holsten could only see brief glints in the air as the drone’s viewpoint spun and danced.
It happened very swiftly. One moment they were staring out into the clear space ahead that the drone was being inexplicably denied, and then a vast hand-like shadow eclipsed
their view. They had a moment’s glimpse of many bristling legs spread wide, two fangs like curved hooks striking savagely towards the camera with ferocious speed and savagery. On the second impact, the picture shattered into static.
For a long while nobody said anything. Some, like Holsten, just stared at the dead screens. Vitas had gone rigid, a muscle ticking frantically at the corner of her mouth. Lain was replaying the last seconds of that image, analysing.
“Extrapolating from the drone and its camera settings, that thing was the best part of a metre long,” she remarked at last, shakily.
“That was no fucking monkey,” Karst spat.
Behind the Gilgamesh itself, the green world and its orbiting sentinel fell away into obscurity, leaving the ark ship’s crew with, at best, mixed feelings about it.