Chapter no 13

Children of Time

There was an awkward silence for some time after Scoles left. The unnamed gunman and the woman, Nessel, went about their duties without speaking to one another; she bent over the computer displays, he scowling at the prisoners. Having confirmed to his own satisfaction that furtive squirming resulted only in the restraints cutting deeper into his wrists, Holsten became more and more oppressed by the silence. Yes, there was a gun pointing his way. Yes, the Gilgamesh was obviously playing host to a conflict that could plainly get him killed at any moment, but he was bored. Just out of suspension, freshly woken from decades of involuntary hibernation, and his body wanted to do something. He found he had to bite his tongue to stop himself speaking his thoughts aloud, just to vary the tedium.

Then someone varied it for him. There were some distant bangs that he identified, after the fact, as gunshots, and someone passed by the hatch with some muttered instruction he missed hearing. The gunman caught it, though, and was out on the instant, running off down the corridor and taking his gun with him. The small room seemed remarkably more spacious without it.

He glanced at Lain, but she stared at her feet, avoiding his gaze. The only other person there was Nessel.

“Hey,” he tried.

“Shut up,” Lain hissed at him, but still looking away.

“Hey,” Holsten repeated. “Nessel, is it? Listen …” He thought she would just ignore him, but she glanced over sullenly.

“Brenjit Nessel,” she informed him. “And you’re Doctor Holsten Mason. I remember reading your papers back when … Back when.”

“Back when,” Holsten agreed weakly. “Well, that’s … flattering, I suppose. Scoles was right, then. You’re a classicist yourself.”

“Student,” she told him. “I didn’t follow it up. Who knows, if I had, maybe we’d be in each other’s places right now.” Her voice sounded ragged with emotion and fatigue.

“Just a student.” He remembered his last classes—back before the end. The study of the Old Empire had once been the lifeblood of the world. Everyone had been desperate to cut a slice off the secrets of the ancients. In Holsten’s time it had fallen out of favour. They had seen the end coming by then, and known that there would not be enough broken potsherds of lore from the old days to stave it off; known that it was those same ancients, with their weapons and their waste, that had brought that long-delayed end upon them. To study and laud those antique psychopaths during the Earth’s last toxic days had seemed bad taste. Nobody liked a classicist.

Nessel had turned away, and so he spoke her name again, urgently. “Look, what’s going to happen to us? Can you tell us that, at least?”

The woman’s eyes flicked towards Lain with obvious distaste, but they looked kinder when they returned to Holsten. “It’s like Scoles says, it’s not up to us. Maybe Guyen will end up storming this place, and you’ll get shot. Maybe they’ll break through our firewalls and cut off the air or the heat or something. Or maybe we win. If we win, you get to go free. You do, anyway.”

Another sidelong glance at Lain, who now had her eyes closed, either resigned to her situation or trying to unmake it all, to just blot out her surroundings.

“Look,” Holsten tried, “I understand you’re fighting Guyen. Maybe I’m even sympathetic about that. But, she and

I, we’re not responsible. We’re not a part of this. I mean, nobody consults me about these things, do they? I didn’t even know this thing was … that any of this was going on until you slapped me awake back there.”

“You? Maybe,” Nessel said, abruptly angry. “Her? She knew. Who’d the commander have overseeing the technical details, then? Who was arranging to ship us down there? Who had her fingers in every little piece of the work? Only the chief engineer. If we shot her right now, it’d be justice.”

Holsten swallowed. Lain continued to be no help, but maybe he could now see why. “Look,” he said again, more gently, “surely you must see that this is crazy?”

“Do you know what I think is crazy?” Nessel returned hotly. “It’s setting up some fucking icebox of a base on a moon we’ve no use for, just so Guyen can run a flag up his dick and say he’s claimed this system for Earth. What I think is crazy is expecting us to go there peaceably, willingly, and just live there in that artificial hell, while the rest of you just fuck off on some wonder-trip that’ll take you how many human lifetimes to get there and return? If you ever do.

“We’re all a lot of human lifetimes from home,” Holsten reminded her.

“But we slept!” Nessel shouted at him. “And we were all together, all the human race together, and so it didn’t count, and it didn’t matter. We brought our own time with us, and we stopped the clock while we slept, and started it when we woke. Why should we care how many thousands of years went by on dead old Earth? But when the Gil heads off for wherever the fuck it’s going, us poor bastards won’t get to sleep. We’re supposed to make a life down there, on the ice, inside those stupid little boxes the automatics have made. A life, Doctor Mason! A whole life inside those boxes. And what? And children? Can you imagine? Generations of ice-dwellers, forgetting and forgetting who we ever were, wasting away and never seeing the sun except as just another star. Tending the vats and eating mulch and putting out more doomed

generations who could never amount to anything, while you— all you glorious star-travellers—get to sleep wrapped in your no-time, and wake up two hundred years later as if it’s just the next day?” She was shouting now, almost shrieking, and he saw that she must have been awake for far too long; that he had cracked the dam, let it all pour out after his thoughtless words. “And when you woke up, all of you chosen who weren’t condemned to the ice, we’d be dead. We’d be generations dead, all of us. And why? Because Guyen wants a presence on a dead moon.”

“Guyen wants to preserve the human race,” Lain said sharply. “And whatever we encounter at the next terraforming project could obliterate the Gilgamesh, for all we know. Guyen simply wants to spread our chances as a species. You know this.”

“Then let him fucking stay. And you can stay too. How about that? When we win control, when we take the ship, the two of you can go keep the species going in that icebox, on your own. That’s what we’ll do, believe me. If you live that long, that’s just what we’ll do with you.”

Lain did her best to shrug it off, but Holsten could see her jaw clench against the thought.

Then Scoles came ducking back in, snagging Nessel’s arm and dragging her aside for a muttered conversation in the doorway.

“Lain—” Holsten started.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said flatly, wrong-footing him. He was not sure what she was apologizing for.

“How far does this go?” Holsten murmured. “How many of them?”

“At least two dozen.” He could barely make out Lain’s whispered words. “They were supposed to be the pioneers— that was Guyen’s plan. They’d go down awake, to start everything off. The rest would be shipped down as freight, to be awoken as and when.”

“I see that all worked out beautifully, then,” Holsten remarked.

Again her expected caustic response did not come. Some barbed edge seemed to have been filed off Lain since he had last seen her, all those decades before.

“How many’s Karst got?” he pressed her.

She shrugged. “The security detail’s about a dozen, but there’s military he could wake up. He’ll do it, too. He’ll have an army.”

“Not if he’s got any sense.” Holsten had been pondering this. “Why would they take orders from him, to start with?”

“Who else is there?”

“Not good enough. Have you actually thought about what we’re doing, Lain? I don’t even mean this business,” a jerk of the head towards Scoles, “but the whole show. We don’t have a culture. We don’t have a hierarchy. We simply have a crew, for life’s sake. Guyen, who someone once considered fit to command a large spaceship, is now titular head of the human race.”

“It’s the way it’s got to be,” Lain replied stubbornly.

“Scoles disagrees. I reckon the army will disagree too, if Karst is stupid enough to start waking people up and putting guns in their hands. You know what’s a good lesson of history? You’re screwed if you can’t pay the army. And we don’t even have an economy. What could we give them, as soon as they realize what’s going on. Where’s the chain of command? What authority does anyone have? And once they’ve got guns, and a clear indication of where they might wake up next, why should we ever expect them to go back to the chambers and sleep? The only currency we have is freedom, and it’s plain that Guyen’s not going to be handing that out.”

“Oh, fuck off, historian.” At last he got a rise out of her, though he wasn’t looking for it by then.

“And although I don’t want to think about what happens if Scoles wins, what happens if he loses?”

When he loses.”

“Whatever—but what then?” Holsten insisted. “We end up shipping all those people down to a—what—a penal colony for life? And what happens when we return? What do we hope to find down there, with that for a beginning?”

“There won’t be any down there, not for us.” It was Scoles again, pulling that trick of suddenly being in front of them, now squatting on his haunches, hands resting on his knees. “If the worst comes to the worst, we still have a plan B. Thanks to you there, anyway, Doctor Mason.”

“Right.” Looking the man in the face, Holsten didn’t know what to make of that. “Maybe you’d like to explain?”

“Nothing would please me more.” Scoles smiled thinly. “We have control of a shuttle bay. If all else fails, we’re getting ourselves off the Gil, Doctor Mason, and you’re coming with us.”

Holsten, still thinking slowly after the suspension, just goggled at him. “I thought the point was not to go somewhere.”

“Not to go to the ice,” Nessel said from behind Scoles. “But we know there’s somewhere else in this very system, somewhere made for us.”

“Oh.” Holsten stared at them. “You’re completely mad. It’s

… there are monsters there.”

“Monsters can be fought,” Scoles declared implacably.

“But it’s not just that—there’s a satellite. It came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the whole of the Gilgamesh. It sent us away. There’s no way a shuttle can … possibly get …” He stammered to a halt, because Scoles was smiling at him.

“We know all this. She told us,” a companionable nod towards Lain. “She told us we’d never make the green planet. That the ancient tech would get us first. But that’s why we

have you, Doctor Mason. Maybe Nessel’s grasp of the ancient languages would be enough, but I’ll not take that chance. Why should I, when you’re right here and desperate to help us?” The chief mutineer stood up easily, still with that razor grin on his face.

Holsten looked at Lain, and this time she met his gaze and he read the emotion there at last: guilt. No wonder she’d been easy on him. She was cringing inside, knowing that she had brought him here.

“You told them I could get them past Kern?” he demanded. “No!” she protested. “I told them it couldn’t be done. I said

that, even with you, we barely made it. But I …”

“But you managed to get them thinking of me,” Holsten finished.

“How was I to know these fuckwits would just—” Lain started, before Scoles stamped on her ankle.

“Just a reminder,” he growled, “of who you are and why you deserve all you get. And don’t worry, if we have to take the shuttle, you’ll be right there with us, Chief Engineer Lain. Perhaps then you might feel like using your expertise to prolong your own life, for once, rather than just to ruin other people’s.”

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