Chapter no 3

Children of Time

Doctor Avrana Kern awoke to a dozen complex feeds of information, none of which helped her restore her memories of what had just happened or why she was groggily returning to consciousness in a cold-sleep unit. She could not open her eyes; her entire body was cramping and there was nothing in her mental space except the overkill of information assailing her, every system of the Sentry Pod clamouring to report.

Eliza mode! she managed to instruct, feeling queasy, bloated, constipated and overstimulated all at once as the machinery of the coffin laboured to bring her back to something resembling active life.

“Good morning, Doctor Kern,” said the Sentry hub in her auditory centres. It had assumed a woman’s voice, strong and reassuring. Kern was not reassured. She wanted to ask why she was here in the Sentry Pod, but she could feel the answer continually just about to hit her and never quite landing.

Just give me something to get my memories back together! she ordered.

“That is not recommended,” the hub cautioned her.

If you want me to make any kind of decision-and then everything fell back into her head in pieces, dams breaking to unleash a flood of horrifying revelation. The Brin 2 was gone.

Her colleagues were gone. The monkeys were gone.

Everything was lost, except her.

And she had told the hub to wake her when the radio signals came.

She took what was intended to be a deep breath, but her chest would not work properly and she just wheezed. About time, she told the hub, for all that statement would be meaningless to the computer. Now it was talking to her, she instinctively felt she should converse with it as though it was human. This had always been a vexing side-effect of the Eliza mode. How much time has elapsed, Earth standard?

“Fourteen years and seventy-two days, Doctor.”

That’s … She felt her throat open a little. “That can’t be …” No point telling a computer it couldn’t be right, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t long enough. Word couldn’t have got back to Earth and a rescue ship arrived back in that time. But then the hope set in. Of course, a ship had already been heading for her before Sering destroyed the Brin 2. No doubt the man’s status as a NUN agent had been uncovered long before, when their ridiculous uprising had failed. She was saved. Surely she was saved.

Initiate contact, she told the hub.

“I’m afraid that is not possible, Doctor.”

She tutted and called up the systems feeds again, feeling better able to cope with them. Each part of the pod opened for her, confirming its working order. She checked the comms. Receivers were within tolerance. Transmitters were working- sending out her distress signal and also performing their primary function, broadcasting a complex set of messages to the planet below. Of course, it had been intended that some day that same planet would become the cradle to a new species that might receive and decode those messages. No chance of that now.

“It’s all …” Her croaky voice infuriated her. Clarify. What’s the problem?

“I’m afraid that there is nothing to initiate contact with, Doctor,” the hub’s Eliza mode told her politely. Her attention was then directed to a simulation of space surrounding them: planet, Sentry Hub. No ship from Earth.


“There has been a change in radio signals, Doctor. I require

a Command decision as to its significance, I’m afraid.”

“Will you stop saying, ‘I’m afraid’!” she rasped angrily.

“Of course, Doctor.” And it would, she knew. That particular mannerism would be barred from its speech from that moment on. “Since you entered cold sleep, I have been monitoring signals from Earth.”

“And?” But Kern’s voice shook a little. Sering mentioned a war. Has there been news of a war? And, on the heels of that: Would the hub even know to wake me? It wouldn’t be able to filter for content like that. So what …?

It had been there, lost amidst the profusion of data, but the hub highlighted it now. Not a presence but an absence.

She wanted to ask it, What am I looking at? She wanted to tell it that it was wrong again. She wanted it to double check, as though it was not checking every single moment.

There were no more radio signals from Earth. The last trailing edge of them had passed the Sentry Pod by and, radiating out from Earth at the speed of light, were already out of date by twenty years as they fled past her into the void.

I want to hear the final twelve hours of signals.

She had thought that there would be too many of them but they were few, scattered, encoded. Those she could interpret were pleas for help. She tracked them back another forty-eight hours, trying to piece it all together. The hub’s rolling recorder had retained no more than that. The precise details were already lost, speeding away from her faster than she could possibly pursue. Sering’s war had broken out, though; that was all she could think. It had come and begun snuffing out colonies across human space. The lights had gone out across the solar system, as the NUNs and their allies rose up and wrestled with their enemies for the fate of mankind.

That there had been an escalation seemed incontrovertible. Kern was well aware that the governments of Earth and the colonies possessed weapons of terrifying potential, and the theoretical science existed for far worse.

The war on Earth had gone hot, that much she could tell. Neither side had backed down. Both sides had pushed and pushed, pulling new toys from the box. The beginnings of the war were lost from her two-and-half-day radio window, but she had the dreadful suspicion that the entire global conflict had lasted less than a week.

And now, twenty light years away, Earth lay silent-had lain silent for two decades. Were there people there at all? Had the entire human race been exterminated save for her, or had it simply been thrown back into a new dark age, where the dumb brute people looked up at those moving lights in the sky and forgot that their ancestors had built them.

“The stations, the in-solar colonies … the others …” she got out.

“One of the last transmissions from Earth was an allfrequencies, all-directions electronic virus, Doctor,” Eliza reported dolorously. “Its purpose was to infest and disable any system that received it. It appears that it was able to penetrate known security. I surmise that the various colony systems have all been shut down.”

“But that means …” Avrana already felt as cold as any human could have. She waited for the chill of realization, but there was none. The in-solar colonies and the handful of extrasolar bases were still being terraformed; they had been built early on in mankind’s spacegoing history, and after the technology had been developed, the extensive presence of human settlements there had slowed the process down: so many individual toes to tread on. Tabula rasa planets were so much swifter, and Kern’s World was the very first of these to be completed. Beyond Earth, mankind was terribly, terribly reliant on its technology, on its computers.

If such a virus had taken over the systems on Mars or Europa, and disabled those systems, that meant death. Swift death, cold death, airless death.

“How did you survive then? How did we survive?”

“Doctor, the virus was not designed to attack experimental uploaded human personality constructs. Your presence within my systems has prevented me being a suitable host for the virus.”

Avrana Kern stared past the lights of her HUD at the darkness inside the Sentry Pod, thinking about all the places in the greater dark beyond where humanity had once made a fragile, eggshell home for itself. In the end all she could think of to ask was, “Why did you wake me?”

“I require you to make a Command decision, Doctor.”

“What Command decision could you possibly need now?” she asked the computer acidly.

“It will be necessary for you to return to cold sleep,” the hub told her, and now she bitterly missed the “… I’m afraid,” which had added a much-needed sense of human hesitancy. “However, a lack of information concerning current external circumstances means that I am likely to be unable to determine an appropriate trigger to reawaken you. I also believe that you yourself may not be able to instruct me concerning such a trigger, although you may give me any instructions you wish, or alternatively simply specify a particular period of time. In the alternative, you may simply rely on your personality upload to wake you at the appropriate time.”

The unspoken echo of that sounded in her mind: Or never. There may never be a time.

Show me the planet.

The great green orb that she spun about was produced for her, and all its measurements and attributes, each linking to a nested tree of additional details. Somewhere in there were the credits, the names of the dead who had designed and built each part and piece of it, who had guided its plate tectonics and sparked its weather systems into life, fast-tracked its erosion and seeded its soil with life.

But the monkeys burned. All for nothing.

It seemed impossible that she had been so close to that grand dream, the spread of life throughout the universe, the diversification of intelligence, the guaranteed survival of Earth’s legacy. And then the war came, and Sering’s idiocy, just too soon.

How long can we last? was her question.

“Doctor, our solar arrays should enable our survival for an indefinite period of time. Although it is possible that external impact or accumulated mechanical defect may eventually result in the cessation of function, there is no known upper limit on our working lifespan.”

That had probably been intended as a pronouncement of hope. To Kern it sounded more like a prison sentence.

Let me sleep, she told the pod.

“I require guidance on when to wake you.”

She laughed at it, the sound of her own voice hideous in the close confines. “When the rescue ship arrives. When the monkeys answer. When my undead uploaded self decides. Is that sufficient?”

“I believe I can work within those tolerances, Doctor. I will now prepare you for a return to cold sleep.”

Sleep for a long, lonely time. She would return to the tomb, and a simulacrum of herself would stand watch over a silent planet, in a silent universe, as the last outpost of the great spacefaring human civilization.

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