Chapter no 29

Children of Time

The influx of new material from the abandoned station had slowed dramatically, every database and store having been raided and transferred over to the Gilgamesh. Holsten’s cataloguing duties were mostly done, and now he was merely an on-call translator for when the engineers needed help in getting something working.

Most of his time he spent on Vrie Guyen’s private project, and if he didn’t, Guyen would soon be round wanting to know why.

The ark ship was crawling with unaccustomed life, given that several hundred of its cargo had found themselves prodded back into a waking state light years away from their last memories, given hasty, unsatisfactory explanations of where they were and what needed doing, and then set to work. The ship was noisy, and Holsten found himself constantly baffled by the din. Not only was there the shudder and bang of the actual works, but there was the unceasing murmur of people doing things like living and talking and, not to put too fine a point on it, having a good time in a variety of ways. It seemed that everywhere Holsten went he saw impromptu couples—could they be anything but impromptu, given their circumstances?—clinched in some manner of embrace.

They made him feel very old, sometimes. They were all so young, just like all the Gil’s cargo, save for a few tired old specialists like himself.

They were refitting the ark ship—and if I feel like this, how old does the Gilgamesh feel, eh?—with all manner of toys ripped out of the station. Not least was a new fusion reactor, which Vitas reckoned would prove more than twice as

efficient as the far more recently built original, and be able to sustain economic acceleration for far longer with the fuel available. Other technology was merely being extrapolated, the Gil’s systems being fine-tuned after the ancient model.

In Holsten’s mind ran that same litany: Coat-tails, coat-tails. They were still clutching at the receding train of the Old Empire, still twisting themselves into knots to stay securely in its shadow. Even as his compatriots celebrated their newfound bounty, all he saw was a people condemning their descendants to evermore be less than they might have been.

Then the message came from Lain: she wanted him over on the satellite. “Some sort of dangerous translation or something,” to be precise.

Between Guyen’s constant pressure and the aggressively exclusive youth of the rest of the human race, Holsten was feeling quite sorry for himself by that time. He was not particularly looking forward to being made fun of, which was apparently what Engineering thought he was there for. He seriously considered ignoring Lain if she wasn’t even prepared to ask him properly. In the end it was Guyen that decided him, because a trip to the station would give Holsten some blessed relief from the commander’s vulture-like presence.

He signalled to her that he was coming, and found a shuttle and pilot were ready for him in the bay. On the journey over, he turned the external cameras towards the planet and stared moodily at the fungal grey orb, imagining it reaching upwards, vast building-sized towers of fruiting bodies bloating into the upper atmosphere to seize the tiny intruders that had dared to dispute its complete mastery of the world.

A pair of engineers—from Lain’s original Key Crew, he reckoned—were waiting for him at the station end, assuring him that he wouldn’t need to suit up.

“All the parts we’re still bothered about are stable,” they explained. When Holsten asked them what the problem actually was, they just shrugged, blithely unconcerned.

“Chief’ll tell you herself,” was all he got from them.

And finally he was almost unceremoniously shoved into a chamber in the second rotating ring segment, where Lain was waiting.

She was sitting at a table, apparently about to start on a meal, and for a moment he hovered in the hatchway, assuming that his timing was off as usual, before noticing that there were utensils for two.

She raised her eyebrows challengingly. “Come on in, old man. Got some tens-of-thousands-of-years-old food here. Come and do history to it.”

That actually got him into the room, staring at the unfamiliar food: thick soups or sauces, and greyish chunks that looked uncomfortably as if they might have been hacked from the planet below them. “You’re joking.”

“Nope, food of the ancients, Holsten. Food of the gods.”

“But that’s … surely it can’t still be edible.” He sat himself across from her, staring down in fascination.

“We’ve been living on it for almost a month now, over here,” she told him. “Better than the pap the Gil churns out.”

A loaded pause came and went, and Holsten looked up sharply as she gave a bitter little laugh.

“My starter gambit worked too well. You’re not supposed to actually be that interested in the food, old man.”

He blinked at her, studying her face, seeing in it the extra hours she had put in, both here on the station, and in sporadic waking days during the journey from Kern’s World, while making sure the ship didn’t consume more of its precious cargo by malfunction and error. We’re a good match now, Holsten realized. Look at the two of us.

“So this is …” He made a gesture at the assortment of bowls on the table and ended up getting some sort of orange goo on his finger.

“What?” Lain demanded. “It’s nice here, isn’t it? All the conveniences: light, heat, air and rotational gravity. This is the lap of luxury, believe me. Hold on, wait a moment.” She fiddled with something at the table edge, and the wall to Holsten’s left began to fall away. For a heart-stopping moment he had no idea what was happening, save that the dissolution of the entire station appeared to be imminent. But there was a somewhat clouded transparency left behind after the outer shutters groaned open and, beyond it, the vastness of the rest of creation. And one more thing.

Holsten was staring out at the Gilgamesh. He had not seen it from the outside before, not properly. Even when being returned to it after the mutiny, he had passed from shuttle interior to ark ship interior without even thinking about the great outdoors. After all, in space the great outdoors existed mostly to kill you.

“Look, you can see where we’re putting the new stuff in. All looks a bit tatty, doesn’t it? All those micro-impacts on the way, all that vacuum erosion. The old boy’s certainly not what he was,” Lain remarked softly.

Holsten said nothing.

“I thought it would be …” Lain started. She tried a smile, then began another one. He realized that she was unsure of him, nervous even.

He navigated his way across the table to touch her hand, because frankly neither of them was good with those sort of words, nor were they young enough to have the patience to fumble through them.

“I can’t believe how fragile he looks.” The future, or lack of it, decided by the fate of that metal egg—tatty, patched and, from this vantage point, how small the Gilgamesh looked.

They ate thoughtfully, Lain progressing from brief moments where she talked far too fast, trying to force on a conversation for the patent reason that she felt they should be having one, then subsiding into longer stretches of

companionable quiet.

At last, Holsten grinned at her, out of one of those periodic silences, feeling the youth of the expression stretch his face. “This is good.”

“I hope it is. We’re shipping tons of the stuff over to the


“I don’t mean the food. Not just that. Thank you.”

After they had eaten, and with the rest of Lain’s crew tactfully out of sight and out of mind, they retired to another room she had carefully prepared. It had been a long time since their previous liaison on the Gilgamesh. It had been centuries, of course—long, cold spacefaring centuries. But it seemed a long time, also. They were part of a species that had become unmoored from time, only their personal clocks left with any meaning for them while the rest of the universe turned to its own rhythms and cared nothing for whether they lived or died.

There had been those back on Earth who claimed the universe cared, and that the survival of humanity was important, destined, meant. They had mostly stayed behind, holding to their corroding faith that some great power would weigh in on their behalf if only things became so very bad. Perhaps it had: those on the ark ship could never know for sure. Holsten had his own beliefs, though, and they did not encompass salvation by any means other than the hand of mankind itself.

“What’s he after?” Lain asked him later, as they lay side by side beneath a coverlet that had perhaps been some ancient terraformer’s counterpane thousands of years before.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either.” She frowned. “That worries me, Holsten. He’s even got his own engineers doing all the work, you know that? He took his pick from the cargo, woke up a bunch of second-stringers and made them his own personal tech crew. Now they’re installing all that stuff you’re helping him with, fitting the Gil with it. And I don’t know what it

does. I don’t like having things on my ship that do things I don’t know about.”

“Are you asking me to betray the commander’s trust?” Holsten was joking as he said it, but then he was suddenly stung by the thought, “Is that what this is about?”

Lain stared at him. “Do you think that?” “I don’t know what to think.”

“What this is about, old man, is me wanting to scratch an itch without messing up the way my crew works and …” He could hear her trying to harden the edge in her voice, and hear it crack a little, even as she did so. “And you know what? I’ve been on my own a lot over the last … what? Two hundred fucking years, is what. I’ve been on my own, walking around the Gil and keeping him together. Or with some of my crew, sometimes, to fix stuff. Or sometimes Guyen was there, like that’s better than being on your own. And there was all that mad stuff … the mutiny, the planet … and I feel like I forget how to talk to people, sometimes, when it’s not—not the job. But you …”

Holsten raised an eyebrow.

“You’re fucking awful at talking to people too,” she finished viciously. “So maybe when you’re around it doesn’t feel so bad.”

“Thank you very much.” “You’re welcome.”

“Guyen’s thing, it’s for uploading people’s brains into a computer.” It felt oddly good for him to no longer be the sole custodian of that information. Otherwise, only Guyen knew, as far as Holsten was aware. Even his tame engineers were just working to rote, each on their own piece.

Lain considered that. “I’m not sure if that’s a great thing.” “It could be very useful.” Holsten’s tone of voice did not

even convince himself.

Lain merely made a sound—not a word, not anything really—just to show him she’d heard him. It left Holsten turning over in his mind what little he had learned about the device from the technical manuals Guyen had set him to work on. They had all been written for people who already knew what the device did, of course. There was no handy moment when the authors had stopped and gone back to explain the basics for their unthinkably distant monkey descendants.

Holsten was becoming sure that he now knew what the upload facility was, though. More, he thought that he might have seen the result of one, and what happened when someone was mad enough to make themselves its subject.

For out there, in the distant dark around another world, in her silent metal coffin, was Doctor Avrana Kern.

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