Chapter no 32

Children of Time

Holsten was pondering his relationship with time.

Not long ago, it seemed that time was becoming something that happened to other people—or, as other people had then been in short supply, to other parts of the universe. Time was a weight that he seemed to have been cut free from. He stepped in and out of the forward path of its arrow, and was somehow never struck down. Lain might call him “old man” but in truth the span of objective time that had passed between his nativity and this present moment was ridiculous, unreal. No human ever bestrode time as he had done, in his journey of thousands of years.

Now, in his cell, time weighed him down and dragged at his heels, chaining him to the grindingly slow pace of the cosmos where before he had leapt ahead across the centuries, skipping between the bright points of human history.

They had hauled him from the suspension chamber and thrown him in this cage. It had been twenty-seven days before anyone gave him even an indication of what was going on.

At first, he’d thought it was a dream of the mutineers kidnapping him. He had been quite sanguine before he realized that the people dragging him through the Gilgamesh were not the long-dead Scoles and company, but total strangers. Then he had entered the living quarters.

The smell had assailed him—an utterly unfamiliar, sick reek that even the Gil’s ventilation had not been able to purge. It was the scent of close-packed human habitation.

He had a blurred recollection of a former operations room now festooned with grey cloth, a veritable shanty town of

makeshift drapes and hangings and close partitions—and people, lots of people.

The sight had shocked him. Some part of him had grown comfortably used to being part of a small and select population, but he registered at least a hundred unfamiliar faces in that brief moment. The press of them, the closeness of their living conditions, the smell, the sheer raucous noise, all of it merged into the sense of confronting a hostile creature, something fierce and inimical and all-consuming.

There had been children.

His wits had started to come to him by then, with the thought: The cargo’s got loose!

His captors all wore robes of the same sheer, grey material that the squatters were also using for their amateurish tents— something that the Gilgamesh had presumably been storing for some other purpose entirely, or that had been synthesized in the workshops. Holsten had spotted a few shipsuits during his hurried passage through the living quarters, but most of the strangers had been wearing these shapeless, sagging garments. They were all thin, malnourished, underdeveloped. They wore their hair long, very long, past the shoulders. The whole scene had a weirdly primal feel to it, a resurgence of the primitive days of mankind.

They had seized him, locked him up. This was not just some room in the Gil that they had secured. Within one of the shuttle bays they had welded together a cage, and this had become his home. His captors had fed him and sporadically removed the pail provided for his other functions, but for twenty-seven days that was all he had. They seemed to be waiting for something.

For his part, Holsten had eyed the shuttle airlock and begun to wonder if his future did not include some kind of space-god sacrifice. Certainly the manner of his captors was not simply that of oppressors or kidnappers. There was a curious respect, almost reverence to be observed amongst some of them. They did not like to touch him—those who had manhandled him to

the cage had worn gloves—and they refused to meet his eyes. All this reinforced his growing belief that they were a cult and he was some sort of sacred offering, and that the last hope for humanity was even now vanishing away beneath a tide of superstition.

Then they set him to work, and he realized that he must surely be dreaming.

One day he woke up in his cell to find that his captors had brought in a mobile terminal: a poor, lobotomized sort of a thing, but at least a computer of sorts. He leapt on it eagerly, only to find it linked with nothing, entirely self-contained. There was data there, though, files of familiar proportions written in a dead language that he was frankly coming to loathe.

He looked up to find one of his captors peering in—a thin-faced man, at least a decade younger than Holsten but small-framed like most of them and with pockmarked skin suggesting the aftermath of some manner of disease. As with all these bizarre strangers, he had long hair, but it was carefully plaited and then coiled at the back of his neck in an intricate knot.

“You must explain it.”

It was the first time any of them had spoken to Holsten. He had begun to think that he and they shared no common language.

“Explain it,” Holsten repeated neutrally.

“Explain it so it can be understood. Make it into words.

This is your gift.”

“Oh, for … you want me to translate it?” “Even so.”

“I need access to the Gil’s main systems,” Holsten stated. “No.”

“There are translation algorithms I wrote. There are my

earlier transcriptions I’ll need to refer to.”

“No, you have all you need in here.” With great ceremony the robed man pointed at Holsten’s head. “Work. It is commanded.”

“Commanded by whom?” Holsten demanded.

“Your master.” The robed man stared coldly at Holsten for a moment, then suddenly broke off his gaze, as though embarrassed. “You will work or you shall not eat. This is commanded,” he muttered. “There is no other way.”

Holsten had sat down at the terminal and looked at what they wanted from him.

That was the beginning of his understanding. Obviously he was dreaming. He was trapped within a dream. Here was a nightmarish environment, both familiar and unfamiliar. Here was a task without logic that was nonetheless the cracked mirror of what he had undertaken when last awake, when the Gilgamesh had been in orbit over the grey planet. He was in the suspension chamber still, and dreaming.

But of course one did not dream in suspension. Even Holsten remembered enough about the science to know that. One did not dream because the cooling process brought brain activity to an absolute minimum, a suspension of even the subconscious movements of the mind. This was necessary because unchecked brain activity during the enforced idleness of a long sleep would drive the sleeper insane. Such a situation arose out of faulty machinery. Holsten remembered clearly that they had lost human cargo already: perhaps this is how it had been for those martyrs.

It was a strangely calming revelation to know that his suspension capsule must be failing at some deep, mechanical level, and that he was lost inside his own mind. He tried to imagine himself fighting with the sleeping-chamber, crawling up the steep incline of ice and medication so as to wake up, beating on the unyielding inside of the coffin, buried alive within a ship-shaped monument to mankind’s absurd refusal to

give up.

None of it got the adrenaline going. His mind stubbornly refused to leave that makeshift cell in the shuttle bay, as he worked slowly through the files he had been left with. And of course it was a dream, because they were more of the same: more information about Guyen’s machine, the upload facility the man had wrenched whole from the abandoned terraform station. Holsten was dreaming an administrative purgatory for himself.

Days went by, or at least he ate and slept and they slopped out his pail. He had no sense of anything functional happening outside the cage. He could not see what these people were for, save living day to day and forcing him to translate, and producing more of themselves. They seemed a weirdly orphan population: like lice infesting the ark ship, that the Gil might any moment purge from its interiors. They must have begun life as cargo, but how long ago? How many generations?

They continued to regard him with that curious reverence, as though they had caged a demigod. It was only when they came to shave his head that he fully understood that. They, none of them, seemed to cut their hair, but it was important to them that his scalp was cropped back to fuzz. It was a sign of his status, his difference. He was a man of an earlier time, one of the originals.

As is Vrie Guyen. The unhappy thought finally dispelled his somewhat fond thought that this might all be some hibernation nightmare. Wading his way through tangled philosophical treatises concerning the implications of the upload process, he had a window into Guyen’s tightly clenched, control-hungry mind. He began to assemble the sketchiest possible picture of what might be going on; of what might have gone wrong, therefore.

Then one day they opened his cage, a handful of robed figures, and led him out. He was not finished on his current project, and there was a tension about his keepers that was new. His mind immediately boiled with all manner of potential

fates they could be intending for him.

They moved him out of the hangar and into the corridors of the Gilgamesh, still not speaking. They seemed to lack the show of reverence in which they had previously held him, which he reckoned could not bode well.

Then he saw the first bodies: a man and a woman collapsed in their path like string-cut marionettes, the textured flooring sticky with a slick of blood. They had been hacked at with knives, or at least that was Holsten’s impression. He was hurried on past them, his escorts—captors—paying no obvious heed to the dead. He tried to question them, but they just hauled him along quicker.

He considered struggling, shouting, protesting, but he was scared. They were all solidly made people, bigger than most of the grey ship-lice he had observed so far. They had knives in their belts, and one had a long plastic rod with a blade melted into the end: these were the ancient tools of the hunter-gatherers remade from components torn from a spaceship.

It had all been handled so swiftly and confidently that only right at the end did he realize that he had been kidnapped: wrested from one faction by another. At once, everything became worse than he had thought. The Gilgamesh was not just crawling with crazy descendants of awoken cargo, but they had already begun fighting each other. It was the curse of the Old Empire, that division of man against man that was the continual brake on human progress.

He was hustled past sentries and guards, or so he took them to be: men and women, some in shipsuits, some in makeshift robes, others in piecemeal home-made armour, as though at any moment someone would be arriving to judge the world’s least impressive costume competition. It should have been ridiculous. It should have been pathetic. But, looking into their eyes, Holsten was chilled by their steely purpose.

They brought him into one of the ship’s workshop rooms, housing a score of terminals, half of them dead, the rest flickering fitfully. There were people working on them—real

technical work befitting real civilized people—and it looked to Holsten as though they were fighting for control, engaged in some colossal virtual battle on an invisible plane.

At the far end of the room was a woman with short-cut hair, a little older than Holsten. She wore a shipsuit that had been fitted out with plastic scales and plates, like somebody’s joke idea of a warrior queen, if only she had not looked so very serious. There was a ragged, healed scar about her chin, and a long pistol was thrust through her belt, the first modern weapon Holsten had seen.

“Hello, Holsten,” she said, and his interpretation of what he was seeing suddenly flipped like a card turning over.

“Lain?” he demanded.

“Now you’ve got that look on your face,” she observed, after giving him enough time to get over his surprise. “That one that’s sort of ‘I have no idea what’s going on,’ and frankly I can’t seriously believe that. You’re supposed to be the smart guy, after all. So how about you tell me what you know, Holsten.” She sounded partly like the woman Holsten remembered, but only if that woman had been living hard and rough for some time.

He gave the request due consideration. A lot of him genuinely wanted to disavow any knowledge, but she was right: that would be self-serving mendacity. I’m just a poor academic doing what I’m told. I’m not responsible. He was beginning to think that he was indeed, in part, responsible. Responsible for whatever was happening now.

“Guyen’s taken over,” he hazarded.

“Guyen’s the commander. He’s already, what, over. Come on, Holsten.”

“He’s woken up a whole load of cargo.” Holsten glanced at Lain’s villainous-looking crew. Some of them he thought he recognized as her engineers. Others could well be more of the same cargo that Guyen had apparently now pressed into service. “I’d guess he started on that a while ago—looks like

they’re maybe two, three generations down the line? Is that even possible?”

“People are good at making more people,” Lain confirmed. “Fuckwit never thought that one through, or maybe he did. They’re like a cult he’s got. They know fuck all but what he’s told them, yeah? Any of the originals from cargo who might have argued, they’re long gone. These skinny little creeps were basically raised on stories of Guyen. I’ve heard some of them talking, and they’re fucked up, seriously. He’s their saviour. Every time he went back into suspension, they had a legend about his return. It’s all kinds of messianic shit with them.” She spat disgustedly. “So tell me for why, Holsten.”

“He had me working on the upload facility taken from the station.” A little of the academic crept back into Holsten’s unsteady tones. “There was always a suggestion that the ancients had found out how to store their minds electronically, but the EMP phase of their war must have wiped the caches out, or at least we never found any of them. It’s not clear what they actually used it for, though. There’s very little that’s even peripheral reference. It didn’t seem to be a standard immortality trick—”

“Spare us!” Lain broke in. “So, yes, Guyen wants to live forever.”

Holsten nodded. “I take it you’re not in favour.”

“Holsten: it’s Guyen. Forever. Guyen forever. Two words that do not sit well together.”

He glanced at her confederates, wondering if things here in Lain’s camp had got to the point where dissent was punishable. “Look, I understand it’s not the most pleasant idea, but he’s got us this far. If he wants to load his mind into some piece of ancient computing, then are we definitely sure that’s something worth, you know, killing people over?” Because Holsten was still thinking a little about those crumpled bodies he had seen, the price of his freedom.

Lain put on an expression to show that she was considering

this viewpoint. “Sure, fine, right. Except two things. One, I only got one look at his new toy before he and I had our falling out, but I don’t reckon that thing’s a receptacle for minds: it’s just the translator. The only place he can go is the Gilgamesh’s main system, and I seriously do not think that it’s set up to keep doing all of its ship-running with a human mind shoved into it. Right?”

Holsten considered his relatively extensive understanding of the upload facility. “Actually, yes. It’s not a storage device, the thing we took from the station. But I’d thought he’d got something else from there …?”

“And have you seen any of your old files that suggest he has?”

A grimace. “No.”

“Right.” Lain shook her head. “Seriously, old man, did you not think about what it was all meant for, when you were doing his work?”

Holsten spread his hands. “That’s unfair. It was all … I had no reason to think that there was anything wrong. Anyway, what’s your second thing?”


“Two things, you said. Two reasons.”

“Oh, yes, he’s completely nut-bucket crazy. So that’s what you’re diligently working to preserve. An utter god-complex lunatic.”

Guyen? Yes, a bit of a tyrant, but he had the whole human race in his hands. Yes, not an easy man to work with, someone who kept his plans to himself. “Lain, I know that you and he


“Don’t get on?” “Well …”

“Holsten, he’s been busy. He’s been busy for a very long time since we left the grey planet. He’s set up his fucking cult

and brainwashed them into believing he’s the great hope of the universe. He’s got this machine mostly up and running. He’s tested it on his own people—and believe me that’s not gone well, which is why it’s still only mostly up and running. But he’s close now. He has to be.”

“Why has to be?”

“Because he looks like he’s a fucking hundred, Holsten. He’s been up and about for maybe fifty years, on and off. He told his cultists he was God, and when he woke up next time they told him he was God, and that little loop has gone round and round until he himself believes it. You see him, after they woke you?”

“Just his people.”

“Well, believe me, any part of his brain that you might recognize abandoned ship a long time ago.” Lain looked into Holsten’s face, hunting out any residual sympathy there for the commander. “Seriously, Holsten, this is his plan: he wants to put a copy of his brain into the Gil. He wants to become the Gil. And you know what? When he’s done it, he won’t need the cargo. He won’t need most of the ship. He won’t need life-support or anything like that.”

“He’s always had the best interests of the ship at heart,” said Holsten defensively. “How do you know—?”

“Because it’s already happening. Do you know what this ship was not designed for? Several hundred people living on it for about a century. Wear and tear, Holsten, like you wouldn’t believe. A tribe of people who don’t know how anything actually works getting into places they’re not supposed to be, buoyed up by their sincere belief that they’re doing God’s work. Things are falling apart. We’re running out of supplies even with what we took from the station. And they just go on eating and fucking, because they believe Guyen will lead them to the promised land.”

“The green planet?” Holsten said softly. “Maybe he will.”

“Oh, sure,” Lain scoffed. “And that’s where we’re heading

all right. But, unless things get back under control and people go back to the freezer, Guyen’ll be the only one to get there— him and a shipful of corpses.”

“Even if he does manage to upload himself, he’ll need people to fix him.” Holsten wasn’t sure precisely why he was defending Guyen, unless it was that he had long made a profession out of disagreeing with just about every proposition put in front of him.

“Yeah, well.” Lain rubbed at the back of her neck. “There was all that auto-repair system business we took from the station.”

“I didn’t know about that.”

“It was priority for my team. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I know, I know—conniving at our own obsolescence. It’s up and running, too, or looks like it. But, from what I saw, it’s not dealing with the cargo or even most of the systems we need. It’s only set up for those parts of the ship Guyen’s interested in. The non-living parts. Or that’s the best impression I got, before I took my leave.”

“After Guyen woke you.”

“He wanted me to be part of his grand plan. Only, when he gave me access to the Gilgamesh, I found out too much way too fast. Some seriously cold stuff, Holsten. I’ll show you.”

“You’re still in the system?”

“It’s all over the ship, and Guyen’s not good enough to lock me out … Now you’re wondering why I haven’t screwed him over from inside the computer.”

Holsten shrugged. “Well, I was, yes, actually.”

“I told you he’s been testing the upload thing? Well, he’s had some partial successes. There are … things in the system. When I try and cut Guyen out, or fuck with him, they notice me. They come and start fucking right back. Guyen, I could handle, but these are like … retarded little AI programs that think they’re still people. And they’re Guyen’s, most of them.”

“Most of them?”

Lain looked unhappy—or rather, unhappier. “Everything’s going to crap, Holsten. The Gil’s already starting to come apart at the system level. We’re on a spaceship, Holsten. Have you any idea how fucking complex that is? How many different subsystems need to work properly just to keep us alive? At the moment, it’s actually the auto-repair that’s keeping everything ticking over, rerouting around the corrupted parts, patching what it can—but it’s got limits. Guyen’s pushing those limits, diverting resources to his grand immortality project. So we’re going to stop him.”

“So …” Holsten looked from Lain to her crew, the old faces and the new. “So I know about the upload facility. So you got me out.”

Lain just looked at him for a long moment, fragments of expression burning fitfully across her face. “What?” she said at last. “I’m not allowed to just rescue you, because you’re my friend?” She held his gaze long enough that he had to look away, obscurely ashamed of what was objectively an entirely reasonable paranoia he felt about her, about Guyen, and about near enough everything else.

“Anyway, get yourself cleaned up. Get yourself fed,” she instructed him. “Then you and I have an appointment.”

Holsten’s eyebrows went up. “With who?”

“Old friends.” Lain smiled sourly. “The whole gang’s together again, old man. How about that?”

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