Chapter no 19

Children of Time

They were down.

The cabin section of the shuttle had still been passably aerodynamic, and the pilot had deployed braking jets and air scoops and chutes to slow them, yet still it seemed that the first human footprint on this new green world would be a colossal crater. Somehow, though, the mortally wounded craft had battled through the air, swinging with the turbulence and yet never quite spinning out of control. Holsten learned later that jettisoning the cargo hold was in fact something the vessel was supposed to be able to do. The pilot had dumped the last twisted stump of it just before they hit atmosphere, letting the mangled chunk of wreckage streak across the new world’s sky as though signifying a new messiah.

Not to say that the landing was gentle. They had come down hard enough, and at a sufficiently unwise angle, that one of the mutineers was ripped from his straps to smash bodily— fatally—into the comms panel, while Holsten himself felt something give in his chest as physics fought to free him from the restraints Lain had finally managed to get closed over him. He lost consciousness on impact. They all did.

When he woke, he realized they were down but blind, the interior of the cabin dark save for a cascade of warning lights telling them all just how bad it was, the viewscreens dead or smashed. Someone was sobbing and Holsten envied them, because he himself was having a hard time just drawing breath.

“Mason?” sounded in his ear—Lain speaking over the mask comms, and not for the first time from the sound of it.

“H-hh …” he managed.

“Fuck.” He heard her fumbling about next to him, and then she was muttering, “Come on, come on, we must have emergency power. I can see your fucking lights, you bitch. You don’t flash your fucking lights at me to tell me there’s no

…” and then a dim amber illumination seeped in from a strip that encircled the cabin near the ceiling, revealing a surprisingly tidy crash scene. Aside from the one luckless deceased, the rest of them were still strapped into their seats: Scoles, Nessel, the pilot and one other man and woman of the mutineers, plus Lain and Holsten. The fact that the landing had been survivable by mere fragile humans meant that most of the cabin interior was still intact, though almost nothing appeared to be functioning. Even the comms panel appeared to have been exorcized from Avrana Kern’s malign ghost.

“Thank you, whoever that was,” Scoles said, then saw it was Lain and scowled. “Everyone speak up. Who’s hurt? Tevik?”

Tevik turned out to be the pilot, Holsten somewhat belatedly discovered. He had done something to his hand, he said; perhaps broken something. Of the others, nobody had escaped bruises and broken blood vessels—every eye was red almost to the iris—but only Holsten appeared to be seriously injured, with what Lain reckoned was a cracked rib.

Scoles hobbled from his seat, fetched medical supplies and began handing out painkillers, with a double dose for Tevik and Holsten. “These are emergency grade,” he warned. “Means you won’t feel pain much at all—including when you should. You can end up tearing your muscles really easily by overdoing it.”

“I don’t feel like overdoing it,” Holsten said weakly. Lain stripped his shipsuit down to the waist and strapped a pressure bandage about his chest. Tevik got a gel cast to keep his hand together.

“What’s the plan?” Lain was asking as she worked. “Seven of us to populate a new Earth, is that it?” When she looked up, she found Scoles was training a gun on her. Holsten saw the

thought occur to her to say something sarcastic, but she wisely fought it down.

“We can do it with five,” the mutineer chief said quietly. His people were watching him uncertainly. “And if I can’t count on you, we will. If we’re going to survive out there, it’ll be tough. We’ll all need to rely on one another. Either you’re part of the team now, or you’re a waste of resources that could be allotted to someone more deserving.”

Lain’s eyes flicked between his face and the gun. “I don’t see that I have a choice—and I don’t mean that because you’re about to shoot me. We’re here now. What else is there?”

“Right.” Scoles nodded grudgingly. “You’re the engineer. Help us salvage everything from this thing that’s going to be useful. Anything we can use for heat or light. Any supplies here in the cabin.” A tacit acknowledgement that all the gear he had planned to use, to build his brave new world, had been cut from him along with the bulk of his followers, up at the atmosphere’s edge.

“I’ve got readings from outside,” Tevik reported, having jury-rigged something on his console one-handed. “Temperature’s six over ship standard, atmosphere is five per cent oxygen over ship standard. Nothing poisonous.”

“Biohazard?” Nessel asked him.

“Who knows? What I can tell you, however, is that we have precisely one sealed suit between us, because the rest were back in the hold when it blew. And without the scrubbers working, my dial here says we’ve got about two hours breathable air max.”

Everyone was silent for a while after that, thinking about killer viruses, flesh-eating bacteria, fungal spores.

“The airlock’ll work on manual,” Lain said, at last. While everyone else had been thinking about impending doom, she had just been thinking. “The medical kit can run an analysis on the microbial content of the air. If it’s alien stuff we’re fucked, because it won’t know what to make of it, but this is a

terraformed world, so any bugs out there should be Earth-style, let’s hope. Someone needs to go out and wave it around.”

“You’re volunteering?” Scoles asked acidly. “Sure I am.”

“Not you. Bales, suit up.” He prodded the other female mutineer, who nodded grimly, shooting an evil look at Lain.

“You know how to work the medical analyst?” Lain asked her.

“I was a clinician’s assistant, so better than you do,” the woman Bales replied tartly, and Holsten recalled that she had been the one to case up Tevik’s hand.

They got her into the suit, with difficulty—it wasn’t a hard suit like the security detail had been wearing, just a ribbed white one-piece that hung slack off her frame, given that they wouldn’t need to pressurize it. The helm had a selection of visors to guard against anything ranging from abrasive dust to the searing naked glare of the sun, and enough cameras and heads-up displays to let the wearer run around blindfold, if need be. Working patiently, Nessel connected the medical scanner to the suit systems, and Lain managed to use emergency power to resurrect one of the small viewscreens in the cabin to receive Bales’s camera feed. Nobody said anything about the vast scope of unknown dangers that could be waiting out there for this woman, and which her suit could not possibly have been designed for.

Scoles hauled open the airlock, and then shut it behind her. With no power to the doors, she would have to do the rest herself.

They were watching through her lenses as she got the external door open, whereupon the dark of the airlock was replaced by a dull, amber glare, the camera’s viewpoint swinging wildly as Bales stepped down from the hatch. When their vantage point stabilized, the scene revealed looked like some vision of hell: blackened, smoking, some of it still on

fire, the external emergency lamps lighting up the choked air in an unhealthy yellowish fog.

“It’s a wasteland,” someone remarked, and then Bales stopped looking back down the charred furrow the shuttle cabin had raked in the soil, and turned her lens, and her eyes, on the forest instead.

Green, was Holsten’s first helpless thought. In fact it was mostly shadowed darkness, but he remembered what the planet had looked like from orbit, and this was it: this was that great verdant band that had clad most of the tropical and temperate regions. He examined his memories of Earth— distant, poisoned Earth. By his generation, there had been nothing left like this, no riot of trees towering high, stretching into a vaulted, many-pillared space, out from the splintered hole that the shuttle’s fist had broken into it. It was life, and only now did Holsten realize that he had never really seen Earth life, as it had been intended. The home he remembered was just a dying, browning stub, but this … Gently, almost imperceptibly, Holsten felt something breaking up inside him.

“Looks better than the inside of the Gil,” Nessel suggested tentatively.

“But is it safe?” Lain pressed.

“Safer than suffocating in here, you mean?” Tevik asked derisively. “Anyway, the medical scanner is working. Sampling now, it says here.”

“… hear me …?” came a faint voice from his console, and he jumped.

“Comms is fried,” Lain said tersely. “There’s a lot of crap in here that can be repurposed as a receiver, though. Don’t think we can answer yet.”

“… know if you’re getting this …” Bales’s voice ghosted in and out of audibility. “I can’t believe we’re …”

“How long for the scanner?” Scoles demanded.

“It’s working,” Tevik said noncommittally. “High microbial

count already. Some of it recognized, some not. Nothing definitely harmful.”

“Gather the kit and be ready to get out as soon as we get the all-clear.”

“… not seeing any sign of biohazard …” from Bales.

“Give it time, come on,” Tevik’s answering, unheard complaint. “All sorts of crap out there. Still no yellow lights, but …”

Bales screamed.

They heard it: tinny and distant as though it was some tiny person locked away within the cabin’s workings. The camera view was suddenly wavering wildly, then Bales appeared to be fighting with her own suit.

“Fuck me, look at that!” Lain spat. Holsten had only a blurred view of something spiny, leggy, attached to the woman’s boot. The screaming continued, and now there were audible words, “Let me in! Please!”

“Open the airlock!” Scoles shouted.

“Wait, no!” from Tevik. “Look, we can’t flush the air out. Nothing’s working. The air out there is planet-air. If there’s shit in it, we get it the moment we open the inner door!”

“Open the fucking thing!”

And now Nessel was hauling on the lever, dragging the door open. Holsten had a mad moment of holding his breath against the anticipated plague before recognizing the stupidity of it.

Well, we’ve all got it now.

“Get the guns. Get the gear. We’re here now, and it’s survive outside or die inside,” Scoles snapped. “Everybody out, and quick!”

Nessel was already dragging at the outer door, tearing open their little illusion of security. Beyond was the real world.

They could hear Bales screaming as soon as the outer door opened. The woman lay on the ground just outside, smashing both hands against her suit, kicking and flailing as though beset by an invisible attacker. Everyone except Holsten and Tevik piled out to help her, trying to get her under control. They were shouting her name now, but she was oblivious, thrashing out at them, then trying to force her helmet off as though she was suffocating. One foot was a red ruin—seeming half cut away—the leg of her suit slashed open with a weird precision.

It was Nessel that released the catch and dragged Bales’s helmet off, but the screaming had already turned to a ghastly liquid sound before then, and what came out first, after the seal broke, was blood.

Bales’s head flopped aside, eyes wide, mouth open and running with red. Something moved at her throat. Holsten got sight of it just as everyone else suddenly recoiled: a head rising from the ruin of the woman’s throat, twin blades brandished at them under a pair of crooked antennae that flicked drops of Bales left and right as they fidgeted and danced.

Then Scoles shouted and kicked madly, flinging something away from him, and Holsten saw that the ground around them was crawling with ants, dozens of ants, each as large as his hand. Monkeys might be merely a memory of Old Empire, but spiders and ants had paced humanity to the ends of the Earth, and now here they were waiting on this distant world. In the leaping, dim light cast by the fires the insects had gone unnoticed, but now he saw them everywhere he looked. More of them were scissoring their way free of Bales’s suit, each emergent head accompanied by a slick of sluggish blood from the wounds the things had carved in her.

Scoles began shooting.

He was calm, ridiculously calm, as he levelled his pistol to pick out each target carefully, but he still hit only one out of two, unable to track the insects’ rapid, random movements. It

was a forlorn hope. Everywhere Holsten looked on the ground there were ants, not a vast carpet of them but still dozens, and they were converging on their visitors.

“Get in!” Tevik shouted. “Inside, now, all of you!” and he went down with a yell, rolling over, tearing at his thigh where an insect was clinging, its scissor jaws embedded in him, tail curling under itself to sting and sting. Nessel and Lain pushed past Holsten, almost knocking him out of the hatch in their hurry to get back in. Scoles was right behind them, shoving Tevik forwards and then frantically fumbling another clip into his gun. The remaining mutineer was trying to drag Bales after them.

“Leave her!” Scoles shouted at him, but the man didn’t seem to hear. The ants were already crawling over him, and yet he was still hauling at the ragged weight that was Bales, as blindly single-minded as the insects themselves.

Lain had ripped the ant off Tevik, but the insect’s head was left behind, still holding its grip, and the man’s leg was visibly swelling where the sting had lanced through his shipsuit. He was screaming, and now the man outside was screaming too; Scoles was trying to force the airlock closed, but there were ants already inside with them, rushing about the enclosed confines of the cabin, seeking out fresh victims.

Holsten crouched by Tevik, trying to work the ant’s head free of his leg and aware that his ribs should be vociferously complaining right then. In the end he had to pry it out with pliers, whilst Tevik clutched at the floor, emergency painkillers unequal to the task.

Holding up the head, Holsten stared at it. The bloodied mandibles looked weirdly heavy, metallic.

Scoles now had the airlock shut and he, Nessel and Lain had been stamping on every insect they found, whilst the cabin slowly filled up with an acrid reek from their crushed bodies. Holsten looked over just as they spotted one more ant up on the consoles.

“Don’t smash the electronics,” Lain warned. “We may need

… was that a flame?”

There was a brief flash and flare at the ant’s abdomen, which it was directing aggressively towards them.

Aiming was the word that came to Holsten’s mind. Then that end of the cabin was on fire.

The crew reeled back from the sudden jet of flame that sprayed burning chemicals across the confined space. Nessel fell back over Holsten and Tevik, beating at her arm. Suddenly there was a line of fire between them and the airlock, leaping absurdly high, seeming to burn fiercer and faster than there was any reason for. And the ant was still spewing it out; now the plastics of the consoles were melting, filling the air with throat-catching fumes.

Lain lurched to the rear, coughing, and slapped at one of the panels, hunting for an emergency release. Holsten realized that she was trying to open the shutters to the hold—or where the hold had been. A moment later the back wall of the cabin irised out into open space and Lain almost fell through.

Scoles and Nessel went straight out with Tevik between them, and Lain hauled up Holsten under the armpits and helped him follow.

“The ants …” he managed.

Scoles was already looking around, but somehow the great host of insects they had seen earlier appeared to have disintegrated in just the few moments they were inside. Instead of the purposeful coalescing of an insect horde there were now just little knots of fighting insects all about—turning on one another or just wandering blankly around. They seemed to have lost all interest in the shuttle. Many were heading back into the trees.

“Did we poison them or something?” Scoles asked, stamping on the closest just to be on the safe side.

“No idea. Maybe we killed them with our germs.” Lain

collapsed next to Holsten. “What next, chief? Most of our kit’s on fire.”

Scoles stared about him with the baffled, angry look of a man who has lost control of the last shreds of his own destiny. “We …” he started, but no plan followed the word.

“Look,” said Nessel, in a hushed voice.

There was something approaching from the treeline, something that was not an ant: bigger, and with more legs. It was watching them; there was no other way to put it. It had enormous great dark orbs, like the eyesockets of a skull, and it approached in sudden fits of movement, a rapid scuttle, then it was still and regarding them once more.

It was a spider, a monster spider like a bristling, crooked hand. Holsten stared at its ragged, hairy body, its splayed legs, the hooked fangs curled beneath it. When his gaze strayed to the two large eyes that made up so much of its front, he felt an unbearable shock of connection, as though it was trespassing on territory he had only ever shared with another human being before.

Scoles levelled his pistol, hand shaking.

“Like on the drone recording,” Lain said slowly. “Fuck me, it’s as long as my arm.”

“Why is it watching us?” Nessel demanded.

Scoles swore, and then the gun boomed in his hand, and Holsten saw the crouching monster spin away in a sudden flurry of convulsing limbs. The mutineer chief’s expression was slowly turning to one of despair—that of a man who, it seemed, would next turn the gun on himself.

“What am I hearing?” Nessel asked.

Holsten had somehow just thought it was a rolling echo of the gunshot, but now he realized that there was something more, something like thunder. He looked up.

He didn’t quite believe what he was seeing. There was a shape in the sky. It grew larger as he watched, slowly

descending towards them. A moment later a bright wash of light seared down from it, illuminating the entire crash site in its pale radiance.

“Karst’s shuttle,” Lain breathed. “Never thought I’d be glad to see him.”

Holsten looked over to Scoles. The man was staring up at the descending vehicle, and who could guess at what bitter, desperate thoughts were passing through his head?

The approaching shuttle got to about ten feet off the ground, jockeyed a little, and then picked a landing site some way back down the devastated scar that the crash-landing cabin had created. Even as it came down, the side-hatch was opening, and Holsten saw a trio of figures in security detail armour, two of them with rifles already levelled.

“Drop the weapon!” boomed Karst’s amplified voice. “Surrender and drop the weapon! Prepare to be evacuated.”

Scoles’s hand was shaking, and there were tears at the corners of his eyes, but Nessel put a hand on his arm.

“It’s over,” she told him. “We’re done here. There’s nothing left for us. I’m sorry, Scoles.”

The mutineer chief gave a final glance around at the looming forest that no longer seemed so wonderfully vibrant and green and Earth-like. The shadows seemed to throng with unseen eyes, with chitinous motion.

He dropped the pistol disgustedly, a man whose dreams had been shattered.

“Okay, Lain, Mason, you come right over here first. I want to check you’re unharmed.”

Lain did not hesitate, and Holsten shambled after her, feeling only the faintest deadened sense of pain, yet still having to labour at both breathing and walking, weirdly disconnected from his own body.

“Get in,” Karst told them.

Lain paused in the hatch. “Thank you,” she said, without so much of her usual mockery.

“You think I’d leave you here?” Karst asked her, visor still looking outwards.

“I thought Guyen might.”

“That’s what he wanted them to think.”

Lain didn’t look convinced, but she helped Holsten up after her. “Come on, get your prisoners and let’s get out of here.”

“No prisoners,” Karst stated.

“What?” Holsten asked, and then Karst’s men started shooting.

Both of them had taken Scoles as their first target, and the mutineer leader went down instantly with barely a yell. Then they were turning their guns on the other two—Holsten barrelled into them, shouting, demanding that they stop. “What are you doing?”

“Orders.” Karst shoved him back. Holsten had a wheeling glimpse of Tevik and Nessel trying to put the crashed cabin between themselves and the rifles. The mutineer pilot fell, struggled to his feet clutching at his injured leg, and then jerked as one of the security men picked him off.

Nessel made it to the treeline and vanished into the deeper darkness there. Holsten stared after her, feeling a crawling horror.

Would I rather be shot? Surely I would. But it wasn’t a choice anyone was asking of him.

“We have to get her back, alive,” he insisted. “She’s … valuable. She’s a scholar, she’s got—”

“No prisoners. No ringleaders for a future mutiny,” Karst told him with a shrug. “And your woman up there doesn’t care so long as there’s no interference to her precious planet.”

Holsten blinked. “Kern?”

“We’re here to clear up the mess for her,” Karst confirmed. “She’s listening right now. She’s got her finger on the switch of all our systems. So it’s straight in, straight out.”

“You bargained with Kern to come and get us?” Lain clarified.

Karst shrugged. “She wanted you out of the picture down here. We wanted you back. We cut a deal. But we need to get going now.”

“You can’t …” Holsten stared out from the hatch at the deep forest beyond. Call Nessel back just to have her executed? He subsided, realizing only that, at heart, he was just glad to be safe.

“So, Kern,” Karst called out, “what now? I don’t much fancy going into that to get her, and I reckon that would just involve more of that interference you don’t want.”

The clipped, hostile tones of Avrana Kern issued from the comms panel. “Your inefficiency is remarkable.”

“Whatever,” Karst grunted. “We’re coming back to orbit, right? Is that okay?”

“It would seem the least undesirable option at this point,” Kern agreed, still sounding disgusted. “Leave now, and I will destroy the crashed vessel.”

“The …? She can do that?” Lain hissed. “You mean she could have …”

“It’s kind of a one-shot. She’s got our drone up there under her control,” Karst explained. “She’s going to stick it into the crash there and then do some kind of controlled detonation of its reactor—burn up the wreck without flattening the entire area. Doesn’t want her precious monkeys playing with grown-up toys or something.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t see any fucking monkeys,” Lain muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”

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