Chapter no 27

Children of Time


Holsten started, half asleep over his work, and almost fell off his chair. Guyen was standing right behind him.

“I—ah—was there something?” For a moment he was racking his brains to remember whether he had already finished the translations that the commander had been asking after. But yes, he’d sent those over for Guyen’s personal inspection yesterday, hadn’t he. Had the man read them already?

Guyen’s face gave no clues. “I need you to come with me.” The tone could quite easily have accommodated the inference that Holsten was about to be shot for some treason committed against Guyen’s one-man regime. Only the lack of an accompanying security detail was reassuring.

“Well, I …” Holsten made a vague gesture towards the console before him but, in truth, the work had lost much of its interest for him over the last few days. It was repetitive, it was gruelling, and in a curiously personal way it was depressing. The chance to get a break from it, even in Guyen’s company, was inexpressibly attractive. “What do you need, chief?”

Guyen motioned for him to follow and, after a few turns along the Gilgamesh’s corridors, Holsten could guess that they were heading for the shuttle bays. This was not exactly a path that he remembered fondly. Here and there he even saw the odd bullet scar that the maintenance crews had yet to get around to dealing with.

He almost resurrected those long ago/recent days then, almost made the mistake of talking about old times with

Guyen. He restrained himself just in time. Odds on, Guyen would just have stared at him blankly, but there was an outside chance that he actually would want to talk about the failed mutiny, and where would that leave Holsten? With that one question that had obsessed his thoughts for those long days after he and Lain were brought back to the Gil. As he sat in solitary decontamination—just like Lain and all of Karst’s crew—he had turned those events over and over, trying to work out which of Guyen’s words and deeds had been bluff, and what had been cold-heartedly meant. He had wanted to talk to Karst about it at the time, but had not been given the chance. How much of the way that desperate rescue mission had gone was Guyen’s plan; how much was Karst’s improvisation? He had always thought the security chief was a thug and yet, in the end, the man had gone to ridiculous lengths to get the hostages back alive.

I owe you, Karst, Holsten acknowledged, but he did not know whether he owed Guyen.

“Are we …?” he asked the commander’s back.

“We are going to the station,” Guyen confirmed. “I need you to look at something.”

“Some text there, or …?” He envisaged spending the day translating warning notices and labels for an increasingly opaque Guyen.

“You’re a classicist. You do more than translations, don’t you?” Guyen rounded on him. “Artefacts, yes?”

“Well, yes, but surely Engineering …” Holsten was aware that Guyen had wrong-footed him often enough that he hadn’t really finished voicing a properly articulated thought since the man arrived.

“Engineering want a second opinion. I want a second opinion.” They came out into a shuttle bay to find a craft ready and waiting, with open hatch and a pilot kicking her heels beside it, reading something on a pad. Holsten guessed it was one of those approved works that Guyen had released from the

Gil’s capacious library, although there was also a brisk trade in covert copies of unauthorized books—writing and footage supposedly locked down in the system. Guyen would get angry over it, but never seemed able to stem it, and Holsten privately suspected that was because the censorship he had ordered Lain to put in place was never going to be able to keep out the chief culprit—to wit, Lain herself.

“You must be grateful for a chance to actually walk the satellite yourself,” Guyen suggested, as the two of them took their seats and strapped in. “Footsteps of the ancients and all. A classicist’s dream, I’d have thought.”

In Holsten’s experience, a classicist’s dream was far more about letting someone else do the dangerous work, and then sitting back to write erudite analyses of the works of the ancients or, increasingly as his career had progressed, of other academics’ writings. Beyond that, and far beyond anything he might tell Guyen, he had come to a depressing realization: he did not like the ancients any more.

The more he learned of them, the more he saw them not as spacefaring godlike exemplars, as his culture had originally cast them, but as monsters: clumsy, bickering, short-sighted monsters. Yes, they had developed a technology that was still beyond anything Holsten’s people had achieved, but it was just as he had already known: the shining example of the Old Empire had tricked Holsten’s entire civilization into the error of mimicry. In trying to be the ancients, they had sealed their own fate—neither to reach those heights, nor any others, doomed instead to a history of mediocrity and envy.

Their flight to the station was brief, moving from acceleration to deceleration almost immediately, the pilot jockeying with physics as she liaised with the Gil and whatever impromptu docking control had been set up on the station.

The station was a series of rings about a gravity-less central cylinder that still housed the most complete Old Empire fusion reactor that anyone had ever seen. Lain’s team had managed to

restore power to the station with remarkably little difficulty, finding the ancient machines still ready to resume functioning after their millennia-long sleep. It was this seamless and elegant technology that had, by imitation and iteration, spawned the systems of the Gilgamesh which had got them this far into space at the cost of only a few per cent of their human cargo.

With some ring sections rotating again, there was something approaching normal gravity within parts of the station, for which Holsten was profoundly grateful. He had not been sure what he would find on stepping out of the shuttle, but this first ring of the station had been thoroughly explored and catalogued, and subsequently colonized by Lain’s greatly expanded team of engineers. He and Guyen came out into a wave of energy, bustle and noise, to see the corridors and rooms crowded with off-duty engineers. There was an impromptu canteen serving food, rec rooms where screens had been rigged up to show footage from the Gil’s archives. Holsten saw games being played, intimate embraces, and even what might have been some sort of dramatic rendition that was cut very short when Guyen was sighted. Under Lain’s custodianship the engineers had become a hard-working but irreverent bunch, and Holsten suspected that their Great Leader was not universally respected.

“So where’s this thing of yours?” Holsten asked. He was increasingly curious about Guyen’s motivations, because it seemed that there was surely nothing a classicist could advise upon that could not have been dealt with just as easily over a remote link. So why has Guyen hauled me all the way over here? There were some possible answers, but none he liked. Chief amongst them was the idea that no communications between the station and the Gilgamesh were particularly secure. Anyone with a little savvy could theoretically be listening in. Of course, nobody was likely to have anything to say that was of a sensitive nature, were they?

Perhaps they were.

A shiver ran through Holsten as he dogged Guyen’s heels

through that first ring section, until they arrived at a hatch linking to the next.

Has he found something? He imagined the commander piecing through reports with an eye for who-knew-what. Something had caught his eye, though, surely—something that perhaps nobody else had perceived in quite the same way. And now it was evident that Guyen was keen on keeping it this way.

Which makes me his confidant? It was not a comfortable thought.

They progressed further through the station, from ring to ring, airlock to airlock, the bustle of relaxing engineers giving place to a different, more focused flurry of activity. They were now stepping carefully through those areas of the station that were still being thoroughly investigated. The first sections were reckoned safe now, therefore left to the most junior of Lain’s people—often recent awakenees of limited experience

—to restore a few final systems or finish the last of the cataloguing. After that, Guyen directed Holsten to get himself into an environment suit, and to keep his helmet on at all times. They would be entering parts of the station where air and gravity were not necessarily guaranteed commodities.

From that point on, everyone they passed was similarly suited up, and Holsten knew that the pace of breaking new ground was limited by the reserves of such equipment that the Gilgamesh carried or could manufacture. He and Guyen passed a dwindling number of engineers working on key systems, trying to restore the station’s basic life-support to the extent where they could declare this ring section safe for unprotected work. The banter and easy nature of the previous sections were gone, the work efficient and focused.

The next section they reached had gravity but no air, and they walked through a nightmare of intermittent lights and flashing warnings that threatened dire consequences in Imperial C. Engineers, faceless in their environment suits, fought to cure the ravages of time and work out where the old

systems had failed, and how to work a repair around the ancient and intimidatingly advanced technology.

We’re walking back in time, Holsten thought. Not back to the days of the Old Empire, but back through the engineers’ efforts to restore the station. Once there would have been nothing here, no light, no atmosphere, no power, no gravity at all. Then came Lain, mother goddess in miniature, to bring definition to the void.

“We’re crossing to the next ring. It has some power, but they’ve not got the section rotating,” Guyen cautioned, his voice crisp over the helmet radio.

Holsten fumbled for a moment before remembering how to transmit. “That’s where we’re going?”

“Indeed. Lain?”

Holsten started, wondering which of the three suited figures now in sight was the chief engineer. When Lain’s voice came over the com, though, it seemed to sync with none of their movements, and he guessed that she was probably elsewhere on the station.

“Hola, chief. You’re sure you want to do this?”

“You’ve already had people go over the section for active dangers,” Guyen pointed out. That would be the first step, Holsten knew—the step he himself would never witness first-hand. Before anyone could start patching up the key systems, a crew would have to go into that lightless, airless place and check to make sure that nothing the ancients had left behind was going to try and kill them.

At least the station hasn’t been deliberately rigged to be like that. That had been the bane of the old astronaut-explorers of the past, of course. The ancients had gone down fighting— fighting each other. They had not been idle when it came to making their orbital installations difficult to get into, and often the traps were the last things still functioning on an otherwise dead hunk of spinning metal.

“Chief, you’re going somewhere without basic life-support.

It doesn’t need to be actively dangerous,” Lain replied. “No end of things can go wrong. Who’s that with you, anyway? He’s not one of mine, is he?”

Holsten wondered where she was observing him from, but then presumably the internal surveillance had proved easier to restore than breathable air.

“Mason, the classicist.”

A pause, then: “Oh. Hi, Holsten.” “Hello, Isa.”

“Look, chief,” Lain sounded bothered. “I said you needed someone to go with you, but I assumed you’d be taking someone who was trained for it.”

“I’m trained for it,” Guyen pointed out.

He’s not. I’ve seen him in zero-G. Look, sit tight and I’ll come over—”

“You will not,” Guyen snapped angrily. “Stick by your post. I know you’ve got half a dozen people in the next section. Any difficulties and we’ll signal them.” He sounded a little too insistent to Holsten.


“That’s an order.”

“Right,” came Lain’s voice, and then, “Fuck, I don’t know what the bastard’s up to, but you look after yourself.” It took Holsten a startled moment to work out that she must be transmitting only to him. “Look, I’ll send to the tripwire crew and tell them to keep an eye out. Call out if there’s any trouble, all right? Yes, the place has been gone over, and they’re working to restore full power and all the rest. But just be careful—and whatever you do don’t turn anything on. We’ve sent in a team for a first-stage survey of it, but we don’t know what most of it actually does. That ring looks like it’s set up for some sort of command-and-control, or maybe it’s just terraforming central. Either way, no pressing buttons—and you warn me if Guyen looks like he’s about to. You remember

how to get a dedicated channel?”

To his surprise, Holsten found that he did, prodding at tongue controls that worked just like those in the mask the mutineers had put on him. “Testing?”

“Good man. Now, you look after yourself, right?” “I’ll try to.”

It did not take long for the classicist’s dreams of becoming a space explorer to be cruelly dashed. The environment suits had magnetic boots, which was an idea that Holsten had just sort of accepted when he was a child watching films of bold space explorers, but which proved frustrating and exhausting to actually use. Simply gliding through the chambers of the station like a diver in the ocean also proved considerably more difficult than he had anticipated. In the end, Guyen—who could apparently clamber about the depthless spaces like a monkey—had to run a lanyard from belt to belt so that he could haul Holsten back when the classicist drifted helplessly away.

The interior of that ring—the furthest limit of their expansion through the station—was not properly lit up yet, but there were countless dormant panels and slumbering banks of readouts that glowed their dormancy softly to themselves, and the suit lights were enough to navigate by. Guyen was setting as swift a pace as he could, plainly knowing just where he was going. Holsten’s own ignorance in that regard was never far from his mind.

“I have hijacked your suit camera,” came Lain’s voice inside his helmet, “because I want to know what the old man is after.”

At that point Holsten was dangling after Guyen like a balloon, and so he felt he could spare some time for conversation. “I thought was the old man.”

“Not any more. You’ve seen him. I don’t know what he was doing on the way here, but it looks like he’s been around for years more than us.” He heard her draw breath to say more,

but then Guyen was slowing down, hauling Holsten closer and then touching him down to the wall so that his boots could get purchase; Lain’s voice said, “Oh, it’s that thing he likes, is it?”

There was a coffin there—like a suspension chamber with its head end built into the wall. Holsten knew that the station had come with a very limited suspension facility—as far as they had explored it—so it had not been intended for anyone to spend a few lifetimes here. Besides, what would be the point of all this room, all of the complex, sleeping machinery, just to preserve a single human body for posterity?

The pad on Holsten’s suit signalled that it had received new information, so he took it out, fumbling in his gloves, and managed to get the data up, seeing the first-pass survey of this room and its contents. The engineers had not known what it was, therefore had noted its basic features, recorded pictures, and moved on. They had also activated some of the consoles in the room, dumped some data for later analysis by someone like Holsten, then thought no more about it. These had been some of the files Guyen had wanted translated. Holsten called them up now, wondering how good his work on them had been. It had been complex technical stuff, even though it had been just a surface fragment of the knowledge locked in here.

Now he scanned those files again, the dense originals and his own computer-assisted translations, along with everything else the original cursory survey had recorded about this room. Guyen was looking at him expectantly.

“I … what am I supposed to be doing?”

“You’re supposed to be telling me what this thing is.”

“For this, you need me here?” Holsten’s rare temper sparked a little. “Chief, I could just—”

“Your translation is mostly incomprehensible,” Guyen began.

“Well, technical details—”

“No, that’s all to the good. This way it can be just between you and me. So I want you to go through this again and

confirm—tell me just what this is. And we’re here specifically so the device can help you understand it.”

Guyen turned back to the coffin and hunched over it, reaching into the toolbelt that he had slung from his suit harness. Holsten’s anxiety spiked and he very nearly broadcast his worries directly to Guyen, before remembering to switch channel over to Lain.

“He’s turning something on,” he got out, and then the whole array around the coffin lit up like a festival: screens and panels flaring and stuttering into life, and the humanoid space at its heart ghosting with a pale blue glow.

“I see it.” Lain’s voice blurred with static, then stabilized. “Look, I’ve got my people right outside. Any trouble they’ll be all over you. But I want to see.”

So do I, Holsten realized, leaning closer to the displays. “These are … error messages?” Guyen murmured.

“Missing connections … The engineers think the main computer was gutted by the virus,” Holsten speculated, “so all we’ve got are isolated systems.” And that all we’ve got was still an overstuffed library of esoteric knowledge. “It looks like it’s trying to link up to something that’s not there. It’s basically listing a whole load of … somethings that it can’t find.”

Guyen examined the control panels, his bulky, gloved hands approaching the surfaces occasionally but not committing to a touch. “Get it to tell me what it is,” he said. He had left the channel open, and Holsten was not sure whether those words had been intended for export.

“Listen carefully,” Lain said clearly in Holsten’s ear. “I want you to try something with the panel. It’s a routine we developed, when we started up here, for cutting through this sort of shit. Seems to work on most of the kit here. You’ll have to blag it to Guyen that it’s your idea, or that you read it somewhere on our reports or something.”


Guyen let him take over at the panel, bathed in the pale illumination from the coffin, and he followed each of Lain’s commands carefully, hesitating every time to let her correct him where necessary. The sequence was only fifteen steps, touching the screen carefully to unlock new cascades of options and complaints until he had somehow stripped away all of the device’s plaintive demands for its lost links and pared it down to what was left.

Which was …

“Emergency upload facility,” Holsten translated, a little uncertainly. He stared at that human-shaped absence at the heart of the machine. “Upload of what?”

He glanced at Guyen then and saw a swiftly hidden expression on the man’s face, clear even within the gloom of his helmet. The commander’s face had been all triumph and hunger. Whatever he was really looking for, he had found it here.

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