Chapter no 11

Children of Time

He was hauled unwillingly into consciousness within the close confines of the suspension chamber, with the thought in his mind: Didn’t I do this before? The question came to him substantially before he recalled his own name.

Holsten Mason. Sounds familiar.

Fragmentary understanding returned to him, as though his brain was ticking off a checklist.

… with Lain …

… green planet …

… Imperial C …

… Would I like to speak to Eliza?…

… Doctor Avrana Kern …

… Moon colony … Moon colony!

And he jolted into full comprehension with the absolute certainty that they were going to send him to the colony, to that freezing wasteland of frozen-solid atmosphere that Vrie Guyen had decided would be humanity’s first stab at a new home. Guyen had never liked him. Guyen had no more use for him. They were waking him now to transport him to the colony.

No …

Why would they wake him before dispatch? What could he contribute to the founding of a lunar colony? They had already taken him there, insensible in his chamber. He was waking in the eggshell confines of the base structure, to tend the

myoculture vats forever and forever and forever.

He could not keep the conviction at bay, that they had already done this to him, and he tried to thrash and kick in the close interior of the suspension chamber, shouting loud in his own ears, battering at the cool plastic with shoulders and knees, because he could not get his arms up.

“I don’t want to go!” he was shouting, even though he knew he had already gone. “You can’t make me!” Even though they could.

The lid opened suddenly—wrenched up as soon as the seal broke—and he nearly jackknifed out entirely to hit the floor face first. Arms caught him, and for a moment he just stared around him, unable to work out where he was.

No, no, no, it’s all right. It’s the Key Crew room. I’m still on the Gilgamesh. I’m not on the moon. They haven’t taken me—

The arms that had caught him were being none too gentle about setting him on his feet, and when his knees buckled, someone grabbed him and shook him, ramming his back against the chamber so that the lid slammed shut and trapped a fold of his sleep-suit.

Someone was shouting at him. They were shouting at him to shut up. Only then did he realize he was screaming at them

—the same words over and over, that he didn’t want to go, that they couldn’t make him.

As if to give the lie to that, whoever was manhandling him slapped him across the face, and he heard his voice wind down to a puzzled whimper before he could get control over it.

Around then, Holsten realized that there were four people in the room and he didn’t know any of them. Three men and a woman: all strangers, total strangers. They wore shipsuits but they weren’t Key Crew. Or if they were, Guyen hadn’t woken them for the pass at the green planet.

Holsten blinked at them stupidly. The man who held him was tall, lean and long-boned, looking around Holsten’s own age, with little scars around his eyes that spoke of recent

surgical correction—recent presumably meaning several thousand years ago, before they put him to sleep.

The classicist’s eyes passed over the others: a young-looking woman, heavily built; a small, thin man with a narrow face that was withered up on one side, perhaps a suspension chamber side-effect; a squat, heavy-jawed man standing by the hatch, who was constantly glancing outside. He was holding a gun.

Holding a gun.

Holsten stared at the weapon, which was some sort of pistol. He was still having difficulty interpreting what he was seeing. He could think of no reason whatsoever why there would be a gun involved in this scenario. Guns were on the manifest for the Gilgamesh, certainly. He was aware that, of all the trappings of old Earth carried on to the ark ship, guns had certainly not been left behind. On the other hand, they were surely not something to be carried about aboard a spaceship full of delicate systems, with the killing vacuum waiting just outside.

Unless the gun was there to force him to go down to the moon colony—but it would hardly take a gun. Karst or a couple of his security detail would surely suffice, and run less risk of damaging something vital aboard the Gilgamesh. Something more vital than Holsten Mason.

He tried to phrase an intelligent question, but managed just a vague mumble.

“You hear that?” the tall, lean man told the others. “He doesn’t want to go. How about that, eh?”

“Scoles, let’s move,” hissed the man at the door, the one with the gun. Holsten’s eyes kept straying to the weapon.

A moment later he found himself strung between Scoles and the woman, being awkwardly push-pulled through the hatch, the gunman leading, pointing his weapon along the corridor. In Holsten’s last glimpse through the hatch before withered-face closed it, he saw that the status panels for the

other Key Crew chambers were all showing empty. He had been the only person left to sleep late.

“Someone tell me what is going on,” he demanded, although it came out sounding like babble.

“We need you—” the woman started.

“Shut up,” snapped Scoles, and she did.

By that time, Holsten reckoned he could have stumbled along under his own power, but they were hustling him along faster than he could get his feet under him. A moment later he heard some loud noises from back the way they had come, as if someone had dropped something heavy. It was only when the gunman turned back and began returning fire that he realized the sound had been shooting. The pistol made little tinny noises that were oddly unimpressive, like a big dog with a tiny bark. The answering sounds were thunderous booms that shook the air and rattled Holsten’s eardrums, as though the wrath of God was being unleashed in the next room. Disruptors, he recognized: crowd-control weapons relying on detonating packets of air. Theoretically non-lethal and certainly less dangerous to the ship.

“Who’s shooting at us?” he got out, and this time the words sounded clear enough.

“Your friends,” Scoles told him shortly, which ranked amongst the world’s least comforting answers, in the circumstances, leaving Holsten with the twin assurances that his current company did not consider him a friend, and that his actual friends—whoever they were—were ambivalent at best about hurting him.

“Is the ship … is something wrong with the ship?” he demanded, his tone telling him second-hand how frightened he must be. His emotions seemed to be buzzing about somewhere else in his mind, kept apart from his higher brain by the slowly thawing wall of the suspension chamber.

“Shut up or I will hurt you,” Scoles told him, in a tone suggesting that he would enjoy doing so. Holsten shut up.

The one with the withered face had been lagging behind them, and then suddenly he was down on the ground. Holsten thought the man had tripped—he even made an abortive, automatic motion to try and help before he himself was dragged away. Withered-face was not getting up, though, and the gunman knelt by his corpse, dragged a second pistol from the back of the dead man’s belt and then levelled both weapons at attackers Holsten had not even seen.

Shot. No disruptor burst for withered-face. Someone on the other side—Holsten’s friends purportedly—had apparently run short of patience, prudence or mercy.

Then there were two other people passing by to give the gunman assistance—a man and a woman, both armed—and the amount of gunfire from behind increased dramatically, but it was plain from Scoles’s slowing pace that he reckoned he was safer now. Whether that translated into any greater safety for Holsten himself seemed to remain a live question. His mouth instinctively thronged with all manner of protests, questions, pleas and even threats, but he bit them all back.

He was hauled on past another half-dozen armed people— all strangers, all in shipsuits—before being shoved through a hatch, and sent sprawling unceremoniously across the floor of a small systems room, which was just a narrow space between two consoles with a single screen taking up most of the back wall.

There was another gunman there, whose startled reaction to his appearance was probably the closest Holsten had yet come to actually being shot. There was also another prisoner, sitting with her back to one of the consoles, with hands secured behind her. The prisoner was Isa Lain, chief engineer.

They dumped him beside her, restraining his arms in the same way. Scoles then seemed to lose all interest in him, stepping outside to join a hushed but heated discussion with some of the others, of which Holsten could only catch the odd word. He heard no more gunfire.

The woman and the gunman who had brought him in were

still in the room, meaning that there was barely space for anyone else. The air was stuffy and close, smelling strongly of sweat and faintly of urine.

For a moment Holsten caught himself wondering if he had simply dreamt all that he remembered since leaving Earth—if some defect of the suspension chamber had drawn him into some grand hallucination where he, the classicist, was suddenly considered a necessary and useful figure among the crew.

He glanced at Lain. She was regarding him miserably. It struck him that there were lines on her face that were foreign to him, and her hair had grown to something more than mere stubble. She is—she’s catching me up. Am I still the oldest human in the universe? Perhaps just.

He eyed their guards, who seemed to be paying far more attention to what Scoles was saying outside than to their two charges. He essayed a whisper: “What’s going on? Who are these maniacs?”

Lain eyed him bleakly. “Colonists.”

He considered that one word, which opened a door on to a hidden past where someone—Guyen probably—had royally screwed up. “What do they want?”

“Not to be colonists.”

“Well, yes, I could have guessed that, but … they’ve got guns.”

Her expression should have curdled into contempt—stating the obvious when every word might count—but instead she just shrugged. “They got into the armoury before it kicked off. So much for Karst’s fucking security.”

“They want to take over the ship?” “If they have to.”

He guessed that Karst and the security detail were trying to redeem themselves by doing their best to stop that happening, which had apparently now escalated to pitched gun battles in

the fragile corridors of the ship. He had no idea of the numbers involved. The moon colony would house several hundred colonists at least, perhaps with more being kept in suspension there. Surely there weren’t half a thousand mutineers currently running loose on the Gilgamesh? And how many did Karst have? Was the man waking up secondary crew to use as foot-soldiers and shoving guns into their cold hands?

“What happened?” he demanded, the question aimed more at the universe than anyone in particular.

“Glad you asked.” Scoles pushed into the room, virtually elbowing the gunman out to give himself space. “What was it you said, when we hauled you out of bed? ‘I don’t want to go,’ was it? Well, join the club. Nobody here signed on for this journey to end up freezing in some death-trap on a moon without an atmosphere.”

Holsten stared at him for a moment, noticing the lean man’s long hands clenching, seeing the skin round his eyes and mouth twitch involuntarily—he guessed it was the mark of some drug or other that had been keeping the man awake and going since who knew how long. Scoles himself held no gun, but here was a dangerous, volatile man who had been pushed about as far as he could go.

“Ah, sir …” Holsten began, as calmly as he could manage. “You probably know that I’m Holsten Mason, classicist. I’m not sure if you actually wanted me, or if you were just after whoever you could get for … for a hostage, or … I don’t really know what’s going on here. If there’s anything … any way that I—”

“Can get out with your skin intact?” Scoles interjected. “Well, yes …”

“Not up to me,” the man replied dismissively, seeming about to turn away, but then he refocused and looked at Holsten again as if with fresh eyes. “Fine, last time you were about, things were different. But, believe me, you do know things—very valuable things. And I appreciate you’re not to

blame, old man, but there are lives at stake here, hundreds of lives. You’re in this, like it or not.”

Not, decided Holsten grimly, but what could he say?

“Signal the comms room,” Scoles ordered, and the woman twisted her way over to one of the consoles, virtually sitting on Holsten’s shoulder as she sent the commands.

A long moment later, Guyen’s louring face appeared on the wall screen, glaring thunderously at all and sundry. He, too, looked older to Holsten’s eyes, and even more lacking in human kindness.

“I take it you’re not about to lay down your arms,” the

Gilgamesh’s commander snapped.

“You take it right,” Scoles replied levelly. “However, there’s a friend of yours here. Perhaps you want to renew your acquaintance.” He prodded Holsten in the head to make his point.

Guyen remained impassive, narrow-eyed. “What of it?” There was no real clue that he recognized Holsten at all.

“I know you need him. I know where you’re intending to jaunt off to, once you’ve consigned us all to that wasteland,” Scoles told him. “I know you’ll need your vaunted classicist when you find all that old tech you’re so sure of. And don’t bother searching the cargo manifests,” this was said with bitter emphasis, by a man who until recently had been merely a part of that cargo, “because Nessel here is the next best thing—not an expert like your old man, but she knows more than anyone else.” He clapped the woman beside him on the shoulder. “So let’s talk, Guyen. Or else I wouldn’t give much for your classicist and your chief engineer’s chances.”

Guyen regarded him—all of them—without expression. “Engineer Lain’s team is quite capable of covering for her, in her absence,” he said, as though she had simply gone down with some transient infection. “As for the other, we have the codes now to activate the Empire installations. The science team can handle it. I will not negotiate with those who defy

my authority.”

His face vanished, but Scoles stared at the empty screen for a long time afterwards, hands clenched into fists.

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