Chapter no 36

Children of Time

Holsten had assumed it would be the cage for him, but apparently things had moved on somewhat in Crazyville. The weird shanty town of makeshift partitions and tents that he had glimpsed briefly before was now all around him. It baffled him really. There was no weather in the Gilgamesh, and any extremes of temperature were likely to prove fatal. And yet everywhere people here had put up makeshift cover against the non-existent elements, draped lines and blankets and cannibalized wall panels to demarcate personal territories that were barely big enough to lie down in. It was as if, after so many centuries spent in cold coffins, the human race was unwilling to be freed from their confines.

He had previously only got a decent look at those votaries who had overseen his captivity. Now he was being held, under guard, in what he recognized as the Communications suite. How long ago—how short a remembered time ago—he had sat here trying to initiate contact with the Brin Sentry Habitat. Now the consoles were folded away—or ripped out—and the very walls were invisible beneath layers of encrusting humanity. They peered out at him, these long-haired, grimy inheritors of the ark. They talked to one another. They stank. He was ready to loathe them, and be loathed right back, observing these degenerate savages locked in the bowels of a ship that they were slowly destroying. He could not do it, though. It was the children that dissuaded him. He had almost forgotten children.

The adults all seemed to possess some disconcerting quality, people who had been fed a narrow range of lies that had slowly locked their faces into expressions of desperate tranquillity, as though to admit to the despair and deprivation

that so clearly weighed on them would risk losing them the favour of God. The children, though—the children were still children. They fought and chased each other and shouted and behaved in all the ways he remembered children doing, even back on toxic Earth where their generation had no future but a slow death.

Sitting there, he watched them peeping out, running at the sight of him, then creeping back. He saw them fabricate their little half-worlds between them, malnourished and frail and human in a way that Holsten felt neither their parents nor he himself still were.

It had been a long road to here from Earth, but not as far as he himself had travelled from their state of innocence. The burden of knowledge in his head burned like an intolerable coal: the certainty of dead Earth, of frozen colonies, a star-spanning empire shrunk to one mad brain in a cold satellite … and the ark overrun by the monkeys.

Holsten felt himself coming adrift, cut loose from any emotional anchor. He had found a point where he could look forward—future-wards—and see nothing that he could possibly want, no hoped-for outcome that was remotely conceivable. He felt as though he had reached the end of all useful time.

When the tears came, when his shoulders unexpectedly began shaking and he could not stop himself, it felt like two thousand years of grief taking hold of him and twisting at him, wringing out his exhausted body over and over until there was nothing left.

When two large men eventually came for him, one of them touched his shoulder almost gently, to get his attention. That same reverence he had noticed when he had been their caged pet was still present, and his outburst seemed only to have deepened it, as though his tears and his misery were worth vastly more than any of theirs.

I should make a speech, he thought wryly. I should stand up and urge them: Throw off your chains! You don’t have to

live like this! Except what do I know about it? They shouldn’t be here at all, not three generations of ship-rats living in all the spare space of the ship, breathing all the air, eating all the food. He had no promised land he could lead them to, not even the green planet. Full of spiders and monsters, and would the ship even survive the journey there? Not according to Lain. He wondered whether Guyen had thought past the point of his own ascension. Once some corrupted, half-demented copy of his mind was uploaded into the Gilgamesh’s systems, would he watch the suffering and death of his grey followers with equanimity? Had he promised that he would take them along with him to life everlasting? Would he care when the adults that these children grew into starved, or were cut short by the failure of the Gil’s life-support?

“Take me to him,” he said, and they helped him hobble away. The denizens of the tent city watched him as though he was going to intercede for them with a malign deity, perhaps one whose supplicants could only carry the messages of the faithful after their hearts had been torn out.

Shuttle bays were some of the largest accessible spaces on board. His cage had been in one, and now here was another. The shuttle was missing, again, but more than half the space was cluttered with a vast bank of machinery, a bastard chimera comprised of salvage from the Gil and ancient relics from the terraform station. At least half of what Holsten was looking at did not seem to be connected to anything or fulfilling any purpose—just scrap that had been superseded but not disposed of. At the heart of it, actually up on a stepped dais constructed unevenly of metal and plastic, was the upload facility, the centre of a web of cables and ducts that spilled from its coffin space, and the focus of a great deal of the supporting machinery.

But not all of it. Some of it appeared now to be keeping Guyen alive.

He sat on the steps before the uploader, as though he was a steward awaiting a vanished king, or a priest before a throne fit only for the celestial. But he was steward and king both,

minister of his own divinity.

His appearance was plain proof that the ragged cult he had surrounded himself with was still capable of working with the Gil’s technology, most especially the medical bay. Guyen sat there quite naturally, as though at any moment he might get up and go off for a stroll. But just as the upload facility was threaded through with connections to the ship, so was Guyen. He wore robes that lay open over a shipsuit that seemed to have been patched together from several older garments, but none of it hid the fact that two thick, ridged tubes had been shunted up under his ribs, and that one of the machines beside him seemed to be doing his breathing for him, its flaccid, rubbery sacs rising and falling calmly. A handful of thinner pipes issued from just past his left collarbone, like the flowering bodies of some fungal infection, before running into the mess of medical devices, and presumably cleansing his blood. It was all familiar to Holsten from back home, and he was aware that the Gil must store equipment like this for the extension of life in extreme cases. He had not expected to witness an extreme case, though. He was the oldest man in existence, after all, and if anyone was going to need this stuff, it would be him.

Guyen was an extreme case. Guyen had beaten him to that title by a comfortable margin. Lain had said he was old, but Holsten had not really processed the concept. He had thought he knew what “old” meant. Guyen was old.

The commander’s skin was a shade of grey Holsten had never seen before, bagged and wrinkled about his face where his cheeks and eye sockets had sunk in. Those almost-hidden eyes did not seem to focus, and Holsten was suddenly sure that somewhere there was a machine that was seeing for Guyen as well, as though the man had just started outsourcing his biology wholesale.

“Commander.” Absurdly, Holsten felt a curious reverence creeping in on him as he spoke, as though he was about to be born again into Guyen’s ridiculous cult. The man’s sheer antiquity placed him beyond the realm of human affairs, and

instead into that of the classicist.

Guyen’s lips twitched, and a voice came from somewhere amid that nest of botched technology.

“Who is it? Is it Mason?” It was not Guyen’s voice, particularly. It was not really anyone’s voice, but something dreamt up by a computer that thought it was being clever.

“Commander, it’s me, Holsten Mason.”

The mechanical sound that followed was not encouraging, as though Guyen’s reaction was too foul-minded for his mechanical translator to pass on. Holsten was suddenly reminded that the commander had never particularly liked him.

“I see you’ve got the uploader …” Holsten petered out. He had no idea what the uploader was doing.

“No thanks to you,” Guyen croaked. Abruptly he stood up, some sort of servos or exoskeleton lifting him bonelessly to his feet and perching him there incongruously, almost on his toes. “Running off with your slut. I might have known I couldn’t depend on you.”

“All the travelling I’ve been doing since your clowns woke me up has been entirely the idea of other people,” Holsten shot back hotly. “But, seriously, you don’t expect me to ask questions, given what I’ve seen here? You’ve had people just

… what, living out their lives here over the last hundred years? You’ve set yourself up like some kind of crazy god-emperor and conned all those poor bastards into being your slaves.”

“Crazy, is it?” For a moment Holsten thought Guyen would rush at him, pulling all those tubes out of himself on the way, but then the old man seemed to deflate a little. “Yes, well, I can see how it might look crazy. It was the only way, though. There was so much work. I couldn’t just burn through Science and Engineering, using up their lives like I’ve used up my own.”

“But …” Holsten waved a hand towards the cluttered mass of machinery at Guyen’s back. “How can this even happen?

Okay, the uploader, it’s old tech. It’s going to need fixing up, troubleshooting, testing—that much I understand. But not a century of it, Guyen. How can you have been doing this for so long, and got nowhere?”

“This?” Guyen spluttered. “You think the uploader took all that time?”

“Well, no I … yes …” Holsten frowned, wrong-footed. “What did, then?”

“I’ve gone over the whole damn ship, Holsten. The drive’s been upgraded, the system security, the hull shielding. I’d say you’d not recognize the specs of the Gilgamesh—if I thought you had any idea what they looked like before.”

“But …” Holsten waved his hands as if trying to encompass the magnitude of what the other man was saying. “Why?”

“Because we’re going to war, and it’s important that we are ready for it when we arrive.”

“To war with …” sudden understanding struck. “With Kern? With the satellite?”

“Yes!” spat Guyen, his lips quivering, the artificial sound of the single word far grander than anything he could surely make on his own. “Because we’ve seen it now: the ice worlds, and that grey abomination we’ve left behind. And then there’s the green planet, the life planet, the planet our ancestors made for us, and we all thought the same when we saw that: we thought: ‘That’s going to be our home.’ And it is! We’ll go back and take out the satellite, and we’ll finally be able to stop journeying. And then what you see here, that so offends you with how unnatural it is, all these people living and breeding, that will be right again. Normal service will resume. The human race can pick up at last, after a hiatus of two thousand years. Isn’t that something to strive for?”

Holsten nodded slowly. “Yes, I … I suppose it is.”

“And when that’s all done—after I’ve worked a generation of specialists from cargo to death, Mason! To death from sheer

old age! After I’ve taken their descendants and had them taught, and brought them in on my vision—brought them up on it!—and then prepared ourselves to defend against the satellite’s weapons and its attacks, why would I not go back to the upload facility and try to get it to work? Do you think any of this would have happened without me? Do you understand how important having a single vision is? This isn’t something to delegate to some committee; this is the survival of the human race. And I’m old, Mason. I’ve worked nobody harder than I’ve worked myself, and I’m on the brink of collapse, every scrap of medicine we have is needed just to keep my organs working, and it’s still not done, it’s not finished. I need to see it through. I’m going to upload myself into the machine, Mason. It’s the only way I have of being sure.”

“You want to be immortal.” It had been intended as an accusation but it came out as something else, something with a hint of respect.

There was a ghastly choking sound, and for a moment Holsten thought that Guyen was actually dying. But no: he was laughing.

“You think that’s what this is? Mason, I’m dying. The uploader doesn’t change that. The ‘me’ I live inside will die. And soon—before we see the green planet again. I can’t even go back to the coffins now. There’s no way I’d ever wake up. But now that I’ve got the uploader working, I can preserve a copy of me, to make sure things work out. I’m not some mad dictator, Holsten. I’m not some crazy man with delusions of divinity. I was given this task: to shepherd humanity to its new home. There’s nothing more important than that. Not my life, not yours.”

Holsten realized unhappily that his own moral compass was spinning by now. “Lain thinks you’ll wreck the Gil’s systems, if you try that. She says there are copies of your test subjects running riot through the software.”

I’m my own test subject,” Guyen growled. “Anything in the system is just cast-offs of me. But none of them worked.

None of them were me—not enough of me. But what little work I could squeeze out of you before you went gallivanting has served. Perhaps that’s irony. It’s ready now. I can complete an upload, and then it doesn’t matter if I die. When I die, it won’t matter. And as for Lain, Vitas doesn’t think it’ll destroy the computer. Vitas wants me to do it.”

On Holsten’s list of reassuring things to say, that phrase did not feature. “Lain seems pretty sure it’s going to be a bad thing.”

“Lain doesn’t know. Lain thinks small; she lacks dedication.” Guyen glowered, his face screwing up like a piece of paper. “Only I can plan long enough to save us, Mason. That’s why they chose me.”

Holsten stared up at him. The guards were some distance back, and it came to him that he could leap on decrepit old Guyen and just start pulling things out until nature took its course. And also that he had no intention of doing so.

“Then why did you grab me back, if you didn’t need me?”

Guyen took a few stalking, mechanical steps, pulled up by the leash of his life-support. “You’re our star historian, aren’t you? Well, now you get to do the other part of your job, Mason. You get to write the histories. When they tell each other how we came to live on that green world, that other Earth, I want them to tell it right. So tell it right. Tell them what we did, Mason. Write it down. What we do here creates the future, the only possible future that will see our species survive.”

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