Chapter no 17

Children of Time

Kern had severed all contact, leaving the mutineers’ shuttle to glide on towards the green planet, eroding the vast intervening distances a second at a time. Holsten did his best to sleep, crouching awkwardly on a chair that was ideally designed to cushion the stresses of deceleration but very little else.

He drifted in and out of slumber, because Kern’s absence had not shut down radio communications. He had no idea who fired the first linguistic shot, but he was constantly being woken by a running argument between Karst—on the pursuing shuttle—and whoever was manning the mutineers’ comms at the time.

Karst was his usual dogmatic self, the voice of the Gilgamesh with the authority of the whole human race behind him (via its unelected representative, Vrie Guyen). He demanded unconditional surrender, threatened them with a space-borne destruction even Holsten knew the shuttles were not capable of, vicariously invoked the dormant satellite’s wrath and, when all else failed, descended to personal abuse. Holsten developed the idea that Guyen was holding Karst personally responsible for the mutineers’ escape.

There was mention made of him and Lain, however—that was the only positive. Apparently Karst’s orders did include recovery of the hostages at some level, though possibly not top priority. He demanded to speak to them, to be sure they were still alive. Lain shared a few acid words with him that both satisfied him on that issue and dissuaded him from asking any more. He continued to include their return unharmed in his list of monomaniac demands, which was almost touching.

The mutineers, for their part, bombarded Karst with their

own demands and dogma, going into considerable detail about the difficulties the moon colony would face, and asserting the lack of need for it. Karst countered with the same reasons Lain had already given, albeit less coherently, sounding very much like a man parroting someone else’s words.

“Why did they even give chase?” Holsten asked Lain wearily, after this slanging match over the comms had finally defeated any possible chance of further sleep. “Why not just let us go, if they know how doomed this whole venture is? It’s not just for us two, surely?”

“It’s not for you, anyway,” she riposted. Then she relented, “I … Guyen takes things personally.” She said it with an odd twist, so that he wondered just what her experience of this might be. “But it’s more than that. I accessed the Key Crew Aptitudes, once, in the Gilgamesh’s records.”

“Command access only,” Holsten noted.

“I’d be a pisspoor chief engineer if that could stop me. I wrote most of the access scaffolding. You ever wonder what our lord and master scored so high on, that he got this job?”

“Well now I’m wondering.”

“Long-term planning, if you can believe it. The ability to take a goal and work towards it through however many intervening steps. He’s one of those people who’s always four moves ahead. So if he’s doing this now, it may look just like pique but he’s got a reason.”

Holsten considered that for some while, whilst the mutineers continued ranting at Karst. “Competition,” he said. “If by chance we get past the satellite and on to the planet … and survive the monster spiders.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Lain agreed. “We sod off to Terraform B, or whatever the place is, then come back a few centuries later to find Scoles is well established on the planet, maybe he even cuts a deal with Kern. Guyen …”

“Guyen wants the planet,” Holsten finished. “Guyen is looking to beat the satellite and take over the planet. But he

doesn’t want to have to fight anyone else for it, as well.”

“And more—if Scoles does set up there and sends a message saying, Come on down, the spiders are lovely, then what if a load of people want to join him?”

“So, basically, Guyen can’t ignore us.” And a thought came to Holsten on the tail end of that: “So basically the best result for him, other than surrender, would be Kern blowing us to bits.”

Lain’s eyebrows went up and her eyes flicked over to the wrangle in progress at the comms.

“Can we hear if Karst is transmitting to the satellite?” Holsten asked her.

“Don’t know. I can have a go at finding out, if these clowns’ll let me try.”

“I think you should.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.” Lain unclipped her webbing and pushed herself carefully from the seat, attracting the immediate attention of most of the mutineers. “Listen, can I have the comms for a minute? Only—”

“He’s launched a drone!” the pilot shouted.

“Show me.” Scoles lunged forwards, got a hand on Lain’s shoulder and simply shoved her, breaking her grip on Holsten’s seat back and sending her tumbling towards the back of the cabin. “And she doesn’t get near anything until we know what’s going on.”

There was a clatter and an oath as Lain hit something and scrabbled for purchase to prevent a rebound.

“Since when do these shuttles carry drones?” Nessel was asking.

“Some of them are equipped for payload, not cargo,” came Lain’s voice from behind them.

“What can the drones do?” someone demanded.

“Might be armed,” the pilot explained tensely. “Or they could just ram us with it. A drone can accelerate faster than us, and we’re starting deceleration anyway. They must have launched it now because they’re close enough.”

“Why are we letting them catch us?” another mutineer yelled at him.

“Because we need to slow down if you don’t want to make a big hole in the planet when we try to land, you prick!” the pilot yelled back. “Now get strapped in!”

Amateurs, Holsten thought with creeping horror. I am on a spacecraft intending to make a landing on an unknown planet, and not one of them knows what they’re doing.

Abruptly down was shifting towards the front of the shuttle as the pilot fought to cut their speed. Holsten scrabbled with his seat, sliding forwards until he got a grip.

“Drone’s closing fast,” Nessel reported. Holsten remembered how swiftly the little unmanned craft had closed the distance between the Gilgamesh and the planet, the time before.

“Listen,” came Lain’s forlorn voice as she worked her way forward again, hand over hand, “was there any traffic between Karst and the satellite?”

“What?” Scoles demanded, and then an ear-wrenching screech erupted from the comms that had everyone clutching at their ears, Nessel slapping at the controls.

Holsten saw Scoles’s lips shape the words, Shut it down! It was plain from Nessel’s frustration that she couldn’t.

Then the sound was gone, but it had paved the way for a familiar voice.

It came over the speakers with the booming volume of a wrathful god, uttering the elegant, ancient syllables of Imperial C as though it was pronouncing the doom of every hearer. Which it was.

Holsten translated the words as: This is Doctor Avrana

Kern. You have been warned not to return to my planet. I do not care about your spiders. I do not care about your images. This planet is my experiment and I will not have it tainted. If my people and their civilization are gone, then it is Kern’s World that is my legacy, not you who merely ape our glories. You claim to be human. Go be human elsewhere.

“She’s going to destroy us!” he shouted. For a long moment the mutineers just stared at one another.

Lain hung on to the seat backs, pale and drawn, awaiting developments. “So this is it, then?” she groaned.

“That’s not what she was saying,” Nessel objected, although precious few people were listening to her.

Welcome to the classicist’s lot, Holsten thought drily. He closed his eyes.

“The shuttle’s changing course,” the pilot announced.

“Bring it back on. Get us down to the planet, no matter what—” Scoles started.

The pilot interrupted him. “The other shuttle. The Security shuttle. We’re still good, but they’re …” He squinted at his instruments. “Drifting? And the drone’s off now … it’s not following our course adjustments. It’s going to overshoot us.”

“Unless that’s what they want. Maybe it’s a bomb,” Scoles suggested.

“Going to have to be an almighty big bomb to get us at the distances we’re talking about,” the pilot said.

“It’s Kern,” Lain declared. Seeing their baffled faces she explained, “That warning wasn’t just for us; it was for everyone. Kern’s got them—she’s seized their systems. But she can’t seize ours.”

“Good work there,” Holsten muttered into the mask radio around his neck.

“Shut up,” she returned by the same channel.

Then Kern’s voice was on the radio again: a few sputtering

false starts and then words emerging in plain language, for everyone to understand.

“Do you think that you have escaped me just because you have locked me out of your computers? You have prevented me turning your vessel round and sending it back to your ship. You have prevented me dealing with you in a controlled and merciful manner. I give you this one chance now to open access to your systems, or I will have no option but to destroy you.”

“If she was going to destroy us, she’d have done it already,” one of the mutineers decided—on the basis of what evidence, Holsten did not know.

“Let me get at the comms,” Lain said. “I’ve got an idea.” Once again she kicked off for the comms panel and this time Scoles hauled her to him, a gun almost up her nose. Her deceleration-weight yanked at him, and the pair of them nearly ended up crashing into the pilot’s back.

“Doctor Mason, your opinion on Kern?” Scoles demanded, glaring at Lain.

“Human,” was the first word to come to Holsten’s mind. At Scoles’s exasperated glower, he explained, “I believe she’s human. Or she was human, once. Perhaps some melding of human and machine. She went through the Gilgamesh’s database, therefore she knows who we are, that we’re the last of Earth, and I think that means something to her. Also, a laser like she’s got must be an almighty energy sink compared to just shutting us down or telling our reactor to go critical. She won’t use her actual weapons unless she absolutely has to. Even Old Empire tech has limits, energy-wise. So she’ll shoot us as a last resort, but possibly she’ll try to get rid of us without killing us, if she can. Which she can’t at the moment because we’ve sealed her off in the comms.”

Scoles let Lain go with an angry hiss, and she instantly started explaining something to Nessel and one of the mutineers, something about restoring some of the links to the shipboard computer. Holsten only hoped she knew what she

was doing.

“Will she try to kill us?” Scoles asked him flatly.

What can I say? Depends what mood she’s in? Depends which Kern we’re talking to at any given moment? Holsten unclipped his strapping and slowly crawled towards them, with the idea that perhaps he could talk Kern round. “I think she’s from a culture that wiped itself out and poisoned the Earth. I don’t know what she might do. I think that she’s even fighting with herself.”

“This is your final warning,” Kern’s voice came to them.

“I can see satellite systems warming up,” the pilot warned. “I reckon it’s locked on.”

“Any way of getting round the planet, putting the other shuttle in the way?” from Scoles.

“Not a chance. We’re wide open. I’m on our landing approach now, though. It’s got a window of about twenty minutes before we’ll be in the atmosphere, which might cut down on its lasers.”

“Ready!” Lain chimed in.

“Ready what?” Scoles demanded.

“We’ve isolated the shipboard database and linked it to the comms,” Nessel explained.

“You’ve given this Kern access to our database?” Scoles translated. “You think that’ll sway her?”

“No,” Lain stated. “But I needed access to a transmission. Holsten, get over here.” There was a horribly undignified piece of ballet, with Holsten being manhandled over until he was clipped into a seat at the comms panel, leaning sideways towards the shuttle’s nose as the force of their cut speed tugged at him.

“She’s going to burn us up,” Lain was telling them, as she got Holsten settled. The prospect seemed almost to excite her. “Holsten, you can sweet-talk her? Or something?”

“I—I had an idea …”

“You do yours and I’ll do mine,” Lain told him. “But do it


Holsten checked the panel, opened a channel to the satellite

assume it hasn’t been eavesdropping on everything, anyway

—and began, “Doctor Kern, Doctor Avrana Kern.”

“I am not open to negotiation,” came that hard voice. “I want to speak to Eliza.”

There was a brief, clipped moment of Kern speaking—and then Holsten’s heart leapt as it was overwritten by a transmission in Imperial C. Eliza was back at the helm.

You are currently within the prohibited zone about a quarantined planet. Any attempt to interact with Kern’s World will be met with immediate retaliation.

No Eliza no give me back my voice it’s my voice give me back my mind it’s mine it’s mine enough warnings destroy them let me destroy them

As swiftly as he could, Holsten had his reply ready and translated. Eliza, we confirm we have no intention of interacting with Kern’s World, because he was fairly sure Eliza was a computer and who knew what the limits of its cognition and programming were?

That is not consistent with your current course and speed. This is your final warning.

They’re lying to me to you let me speak let me out help me someone please help me

Eliza, please may we speak to Doctor Avrana Kern?, Holsten sent.

The expected voice thundered through the enclosed cabin, “How dare you—?”

“And away,” Lain said, and Kern’s voice cut off. “What was that?” Scoles demanded.

“Distress signal,” Lain explained. “A repeat transmission of her own distress signal,” even as Holsten was sending,

Doctor Kern, please may I speak to Eliza?

The response that came back was garbled almost into white noise. He heard a dozen fragments of sentence from Kern and from the Eliza system, constantly getting chopped out as the satellite’s systems tried to process the high-priority distress call.

“Almost to atmosphere,” the pilot reported. “We’ve done it,” someone said.

“Never say—” Lain started, and then the comms unit went so silent that Holsten looked at its readouts to make sure it was still functioning. The satellite had ceased transmitting.

“Did we shut it down?” Nessel asked. “Define ‘we,’” Lain snapped.

“But, look, that means that everyone can come to this planet, everyone from the Gil—” the woman started, but then the comms flared with a new signal and Kern’s furious voice whipped out at them.

“No, you did not shut me down.”

Lain’s hands were immediately at her waist, fastening the crash webbing, and then scrabbling for Holsten.

“Brace!” someone shouted ludicrously.

Holsten looked back at his original seat, towards the rear of the shuttle. He actually had a brief glimpse back into the cargo bay, seeing the desperate flailing about as the mutineers there tried to fully secure themselves. Then there was a searing flash that left its image on his retinas, and the shuttle’s smooth progress suddenly became a tumble … and from outside there was a juddering roar and he thought, Atmosphere. We’ve hit atmosphere. The pilot was swearing frantically, fighting for control, and Lain’s arms were tight about Holsten, holding him to her, because she had not been able to get all his webbing secured. For his part he gripped the seat as tight as he could even as the world tried to shake him loose.

The doors to the cargo hold had closed automatically. At that point he did not realize it was because the rear half of the shuttle had been shorn away.

The front half—the cabin—fell towards the great green expanse of the planet below.

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