Chapter no 34

Children of Time

Four of them met in an old service room that seemed to represent neutral ground in the midst of those parts of the ship claimed by the various cliques. Lain and the other two all had retinues who waited outside, eyeing each other nervously like hostile soldiers in a cold war.

Inside, it was a reunion.

Vitas hadn’t changed—Holsten suspected that overall she had not been out of the freezer much longer than he had, or perhaps she just wore the extra time well: a neat, trim woman with her feelings buried sufficiently deep that her face remained a cypher. She wore a shipsuit, still, as though she had stepped straight from Holsten’s memories without being touched by the chaos that the Gilgamesh was apparently falling into. Lain had already explained how Vitas had been enlisted by Guyen to help with the uploader. The woman’s thoughts on this were unknown, but she had come when Lain got a message to her, slipping through the circles of Guyen’s cult like smoke, shadowed by a handful of her assistants.

Karst looked older, closing in on Holsten’s age. His beard had returned—patchy, greying in uneven degrees—and he wore his hair tied back. A rifle was slung over his shoulder, barrel downwards, and he had come in armour, a full suit of the kind that Holsten remembered him favouring before— good against Lain’s gun, perhaps not so much against a knife. His technological advantage was being eroded by the backwards nature of the times.

He was also working with Guyen, but Lain had explained that Karst was something of a law unto himself these days. He controlled the ship’s armoury and only he had ready access to

firearms in any quantity; his security detail, and whatever conscripts he had enlisted, were loyal to him first and foremost. And so was he, of course: Karst was Karst’s chief priority, or so Lain believed.

Now the security chief let out a loud bark of what sounded like derision. “You even broke the old man out of his grave for us! That sick for nostalgia, Lain? Or maybe for something else?”

“I broke him from a cage in Guyen’s sector,” Lain stated. “He’s been there for days. I guess you didn’t know.”

Karst glowered at her, then at Holsten himself, who confirmed it with a nod. Even Vitas seemed to be unsurprised, and the security chief threw up his hands.

“Nobody tells me fucking anything,” he spat. “Well, well, here we all are. How fucking pleasant. So how about you speak your piece.”

“How’ve you been, Karst?” Holsten asked quietly, wrong-footing everyone, including Lain.

“Seriously?” The security chief’s eyebrows disappeared into his shaggy hairline. “You actually want to do the small-talk thing?”

“I want to know how this can possibly work, this … what Lain’s told me is going on.” Holsten had decided, on the way over, that he was not merely going to be the engineer’s yes-man. “I mean … how long’s this been going on for? It just seems … insane. Guyen’s got a cult? He’s been futtering with this upload thing for, what, decades? Generations? Why? He could just have brought this business before the Key Crew and talked it over.” He caught an awkward look shared between the three others. “Or … right, ok. So maybe that did happen. I suppose I wasn’t Key Crew enough to be invited.”

“It wasn’t as though anyone needed anything translated,” Karst said, with a shrug.

“At the time there was some considerable debate,” Vitas added crisply. “However, on balance it was decided that there

was too much unknown about the process, especially its effect on the Gilgamesh’s systems. Personally I was in favour of experimentation and trial.”

“So, what, Guyen just set himself to wake early, got a replacement tech crew out of cargo, and started work?” Holsten hazarded.

“All in place when he woke me. And frankly, I don’t pretend to understand the technical arguments.” Karst shrugged. “So he needed me to track down people who were escaping from his little prison-camp cult thing. I figured the best thing I could do was look after my own people and make sure nobody else got hold of the guns. So, Lain, you want the guns now? Is that it?”

Lain cast a glance at Holsten to see if he was about to go off on another tangent, then nodded shortly. “I want the help of your people. I want to stop Guyen. The ship’s falling apart— any more and the main systems are going to be irretrievably compromised.”

“Says you,” Karst replied. “Guyen says that once he actually does the … does the thing, then everything goes back to normal—that he’ll be in the computer, or some copy of him, and everything’ll run as sweet as you like.”

“And this is possible,” Vitas added. “Not certain, but possible. So we must compare the potential danger of Guyen completing his project with that of an attempt to interrupt him. It is not an easy judgement to make.”

Lain looked from face to face. “And yet here you both are, and I’ll bet Guyen doesn’t know.”

“Knowledge is never wasted,” Vitas observed calmly.

“And what if I told you that Guyen’s withholding knowledge from you?” Lain pressed. “How about transmissions from the moon colony we left behind? Heard any of those lately?”

Karst looked sidelong at Vitas. “Yeah? What’ve they got to say?”

“Fucking little. They’re all dead.”

Lain smiled grimly into the silence that generated. “They died while we were still on our way to the grey planet system. They called the ship; Guyen intercepted their messages. Did he tell any of you? He certainly didn’t tell me. I found the signals archived, by chance.”

“What happened to them?” Karst said reluctantly.

“I’ve put the messages up on the system, where you can both access them. I’ll direct you to them. Be quick, though. Unprotected data gets corrupted quickly nowadays, thanks to Guyen’s leftovers.”

“Yeah, well, he blames you for that. Or Kern sometimes,” Karst pointed out.

“Kern?” Holsten demanded. “The satellite thing?”

“It was in our systems,” Vitas remarked. “It’s possible it left some sort of ghost construct to monitor us. Guyen believes so.” Her face wrinkled up, just a little. “Guyen has become somewhat obsessed. He believes that Kern is trying to stop him.” She nodded cordially to Lain. “Kern and you.”

Lain folded her arms. “Cards on the table. I see no fucking benefit to Guyen becoming an immortal presence in our computer system. In fact, I see all manner of possible drawbacks, some of them fatal for us, the ship and the entire human race. Ergo: we stop him. Who’s in? Holsten’s with me.”

“Well, shit, if you’ve got him, why’d you need the rest of us?” Karst drawled.

“He’s Key Crew.”

Karst’s expression was eloquent as to his opinion of that.

And is that it, for me? I’m just here to add my miniscule weight—unasked!—to Lain’s argument? Holsten considered morosely.

“I confess that I am curious as to the result of the

commander’s experiment. The ability to preserve human minds electronically would certainly be advantageous,” Vitas stated.

“Planning to become Bride of Guyen?” Karst asked, startling a glare from her.

“Karst?” Lain prompted.

The security chief threw his hands up. “Nobody tells me anything, not really. People just want me to do stuff and they’re never straight with me. Me? I’m for my people. Right now, Guyen’s got a whole bunch of weirdos who have been raised from the cradle on him being the fucking messiah. You’ve got a handful of decently tooled and trained lads and lasses here, but you’re not exactly the fighting elite. Take on Guyen and you’ll lose. Now I’m not a fucking scientist or anything, but my maths says why should I help you when I’ll likely just get my people hurt?”

“Because you’ve got the guns to counter Guyen’s numbers.”

“Not a good reason,” Karst stated.

“Because I’m right, and Guyen’s going to wreck the ship’s systems by trying to force his fucking ego into our computers.”

“Says you. He says differently,” Karst replied stubbornly. “Look, you reckon you’ve got an actual plan, as in an actual plan that would have a chance of success and not just ‘let Karst do all the work’? Come to me with that, and maybe I’ll listen. Until then …” He made a dismissive gesture. “You’ve not got enough, Lain. Not chances, nor arguments either.”

“Then just give me enough guns,” Lain insisted.

Karst sighed massively. “I only really got as far as making one rule: nobody gets the guns. You’re worried about the damage Guyen’ll do with this thing he wants to do? Well, I don’t get any of that. But the damage when everyone starts shooting everyone else—and all sorts of bits of the ship, too? Yeah, that I understand. The mutiny was bad enough. Like I

say, come back when you’ve got more.” “Give me disruptors, then.”

The security chief shook his head. “Look, sorry to say it, but I still don’t think that’ll even the odds enough for you to actually win, and then Guyen’s not exactly going to be scratching his head about where all your dead people got their toys from, eh? Get me a proper idea. Show me you can actually pull it off.”

“So you’ll help me if I can show I don’t actually need you?”

He shrugged. “We’re done here, aren’t we? Let me know when you’ve got a plan, Lain.” He turned and lumbered off, the plates of his armoured suit scraping together slightly.

Lain was icily furious as Karst and Vitas left, fists clenching and re-clenching.

“Pair of self-deluding fuckwits!” she spat. “They know I’m right, but it’s Guyen—they’re so used to doing what that mad son of a bitch says.”

She glared at Holsten as if daring him to gainsay her. In fact, the historian had felt a certain sympathy with Karst’s position, but plainly that was not what Lain wanted to hear.

“So what will you do?” he asked.

“Oh, we’ll act,” Lain swore. “Let Karst keep his precious guns locked up. We’ve got one workshop up and running, and I’ve already started weapons production. They won’t be pretty, but they’re better than knives and clubs.”

“And Guyen?”

“If he’s got any sense, he’s doing the same, but I’m better at it. I’m Engineering, after all.”

“Lain, are you sure you want a war?”

She stopped. The regard she turned on Holsten was a look from another time—that of a martyr, a warrior queen of legend.

“Holsten, this isn’t just about me not liking Guyen. It isn’t because I want his job or I think he’s a bad person. I have taken my own best professional judgement, and I believe that if he goes ahead with uploading his mind, then he will overload the Gilgamesh’s system, causing a fatal clash of both our tech and the Empire stuff we’ve salvaged. And when that happens, everyone dies. And I mean everyone. I don’t care if Vitas wants to make notes for some non-existent posterity, or if Karst won’t get off the fucking fence. It’s up to me—it’s up to me and my crew. You’re lucky. You woke late, and then you got to sit in a box for a bit. Some of us have been pushing every which way for a long time, trying to turn this around. And now I’m basically an outlaw on my own ship, at open war with my commander, whose crazy fanatic followers will kill me on sight. And I’m going to lead my engineers into fucking battle and actually kill people, because if someone doesn’t, then Guyen kills everyone. Now are you with me?”

“You know I am.” The words sounded tremulous and hollow to Holsten himself, but Lain seemed to accept them.

They were attacked as they were crossing into what Lain seemed to consider her territory. The interior of the Gilgamesh made for odd tactics: a network of small chambers and passages fitted into the torus of the crew area, bent and twisted like an afterthought around the essential machinery that had been put in first. They had just reached a heavy safety door that Lain—in the lead—obviously expected to open automatically. When it slid a shuddering inch, then stopped, there was no obvious suspicion amongst the engineers. It seemed to Holsten that, under the present regime, little things must be going wrong all the time.

With a tool case already in hand, one of them pried off a service plate, and Holsten heard the words, “Chief, this has been tampered with,” before a hatch above them was kicked open and three ragged figures dropped upon them with ear-splitting howls.

They had long knives—surely nothing from the armoury, so Guyen’s people had been improvising—and they were

absolutely berserk. Holsten saw one of Lain’s people reel back, blood spitting from a broad wound across her body, and the rest were down to grappling hand-to-hand almost immediately.

Lain had her gun out but was denied a target, a lack that was rectified when another half-dozen appeared, running full-tilt from the direction they had come. The weapon barked three times, colossally loud in the confined space. One of the robed figures spun away, his battle-cry abruptly turning into a scream.

Holsten just ducked, hands over his head, his view of the fight reduced to a chaos of knees and feet. Historian to the last, his thought was: This is what it must have been like on Earth at the very end, when all else was lost. This is what we left Earth to avoid. It’s been following after us all this time. Then someone kicked him in the chin, probably entirely without malice, and he was sent sprawling, trampled and stamped on, under the thrashing feet of the melee. He saw Lain’s gun smashed from her hand.

Someone fell across his legs heavily, and he felt one knee being wrenched as far as it would go, a shockingly distinct and insistent pain amidst all the confusion. He struggled to get free and found himself furiously kicking at the expiring weight of one of Guyen’s mad monks. His mind, which had temporarily given up any illusion of control, was wondering whether the commander had promised some sort of posthumous reward for his minions, and whether that promise was any consolation with a torn-open stomach.

Suddenly he was clear, and scrabbling at the wall to regain his feet. His twisted knee savagely resisted bearing any of his weight, but he was adrenalined to the eyeballs right then, and overrode it. That got him all of two steps away from the skirmish, whereupon he was grabbed. Without warning, two of Guyen’s bigger goons were on him, and he saw a knife glinting in one hand. He screamed, something to the tune of begging for his life, and then they bounced him off the wall for good measure. He was convinced he was about to die, his

imagination leaping ahead, trying to brace him against the coming thrust by picturing the blade already in him in agonizing detail. He lived through the sickening lurch of impact, the cold keening of the knife, the warm upsurge of blood as those parts of him that his skin had kept imprisoned for so very, very long finally took their chance at freedom.

He was living it, in his head. Only belatedly did he realize that they had not stabbed him at all. Instead, the two of them were hurrying him away from the fight, heedless of his staggering, limping gait. With a start of horror—as though this was worse than a stabbing—he realized that this was not just random gang warfare, Guyen vs. Lain.

This was the high priest of the Gilgamesh recovering his property.

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