Holsten Mason started awake into a nightmare of claustrophobia, fighting it down almost as quickly as it hit him. Experience allowed him to recognize where he was and why that was no cause for alarm, but the old monkey instincts still had their moment of glory, shrieking Trapped! Trapped! in the halls of his mind.
Fucking monkeys. He was freezing cold and enclosed in a space that his body barely fit into, with what felt like a thousand needles withdrawing themselves from his grey and nerveless skin-and tubes being yanked from more intimate regions-none of it done with much sense of tender care.
Business as usual for the suspension chamber. He would like to think that he really hated suspension chambers, but that wasn’t exactly an option for any member of the human race right now.
For a moment he thought that this was it; he was being woken up but not released, to be trapped instead behind the frigid glass, unheard and unnoticed on a vast and empty ship of iced corpses heading forever into the nowhere of deep space.
The primal claustrophobia jumped him for a second time. He was already fighting to lift his hands, to beat at the transparent cover above him, when the seal hissed and the dim, undirected light was replaced by the steady glare of the ship’s lamps.
His eyes barely flinched. The suspension chamber would have been preparing his body for this awakening long before it deigned to spark his mind back to life. Belatedly he wondered if something had gone wrong. There were a limited number of circumstances in which he would have been revived, after all. He could hear no alarms, though, and the very limited status readout within the chamber had all been safe blue bars. Unless that’s what’s broken of course.
The ark ship Gilgamesh had been built to last a very long time indeed, using every piece of craft and science that Holsten’s civilization had been able to wrest from the cold, vacuum-withered hands of their forebears. Even so, had there been an option, nobody would have trusted it, for how could anyone have faith that a machine-any machine, any work of the hands of humanity-could last throughout the appalling periods of time that would be required for this journey?
“Happy birthday! You’re now the oldest man in history!” said a sharp voice. “Now get your feet under you, you lazy tosser. We need you.”
Holsten’s eyes focused on a face, nominally a woman’s. It was hard, lined, with a bony chin and cheekbones, and her hair the same close crop of stubble as his own. Suspension chambers were not kind to human hair.
Isa Lain: chief Key Crew engineer of the Gilgamesh.
He started trying to make some joke about never thinking she’d say she needed him, but he slurred the words and lost it. She understood enough to look at him contemptuously.
“Need isn’t the same as want, old man. Get up. And button your suit; your arse is hanging out.”
Feeling like a hundred-year-old cripple, he hunched and clambered and swung his way out of the coffin-shaped tank that had been his resting place for …
Oldest man in what, now? Lain’s words came back to him with a jolt of realization. “Hey,” he said thickly. “How long? How far out?” Are we even clear of the solar system? We must be for her to say that … And, as if he could see through the close, confining walls, he had a sudden sense of the vast emptiness that must be out there beyond the hull, a void that no human had plumbed since before the ice age, since the millennia-ago days of the Old Empire.
The Key Crew suspension room was cramped, barely space for the two of them and the ranks of coffins: his own and two others open and empty, the rest still holding the not-quitecorpses of other vital crew, against the need for them to resume an active role aboard ship. Lain threaded her way over to the hatch and swung it open before answering, glancing back over her shoulder with all her mockery gone.
“One thousand, eight hundred and thirty-seven years, Mason. Or that’s what the Gilgamesh says.”
Holsten sat back down on the lip of the suspension chamber, his legs abruptly insufficient to keep him standing up.
“How’s the … how’s he holding up? Have you …?” The sentences kept fragmenting in his head. “How long have you been up? Have you checked over … the cargo, the others …?”
“I’ve been up for nine days now while you were being lovingly licked awake, Mason. I’ve gone over everything. It’s all satisfactory. They did a good, solid job when they built this boy.”
“Satisfactory?” He sensed the uncertainty in that word. “Then everyone’s …?”
“Satisfactory in that we have a four per cent chamber failure rate amongst the cargo,” she told him flatly. “For just short of two millennia, I think that counts as satisfactory. It could have been worse.”
“Right. Yes, of course.” He got to his feet again and made his way over to her, the floor chilly against his bare skin, trying now to work out if they were accelerating or decelerating or if the crew section was just spinning about its axis for gravity. Certainly something was keeping him on the floor. If there was some sense that could split hairs between different flavours of ersatz gravity, though, it was one his forebears had somehow failed to evolve.
He was trying not to think about what four per cent meant,
or that the handily impersonal word “cargo” referred to a very large fraction of the surviving human race.
“And you need me for what, anyway?” Because most of the others were still asleep, and what bizarre set of circumstances could possibly require his presence when most of Command, Science, Security and Engineering were still locked in a freezing, dreamless stasis?
“There’s a signal,” Lain told him, watching for his reaction carefully. “Yes, I thought that would get you moving.”
He was nothing but questions as they negotiated the passage that led through to comms, but Lain just set a punishing pace and ignored him, letting him weave and stumble as his legs tried to betray him with every few steps.
Vrie Guyen was the third early riser, as Holsten had anticipated. Whatever the emergency, it required the Gilgamesh’s commander, its chief engineer and its classicist. But what Lain had said accounted for that neatly. A signal. And, out here, what could that mean? Either something wholly alien, or a remnant of the Old Empire, Holsten’s area of expertise.
“It’s faint and badly distorted. The Gilgamesh took too long, really, to even recognize it for what it was. I need you to see what you can make of it.” Guyen was a thin, small-framed man, with a nose and mouth that both seemed to have been salvaged from a far broader face. Holsten recalled his command style as being a mixture of aggressive motivation and good delegating skills. It seemed like only a few days ago that Holsten had been under that stern gaze as he climbed into his suspension chamber, but when he probed his memories to determine just how many days, he uncovered an uncrossable grey area, a dim sensation that his sense of time was out of joint.
Two thousand years will do that to you, apparently. Every minute or so he was struck afresh by the revelation of how ludicrously lucky they all were just to be here. Satisfactory, as Lain had said.
“Where’s it coming from, though?” Holsten asked. “Is it where we thought it would be?”
Guyen just nodded, his face composed, but Holsten felt a thrill of excitement go through him. It’s there! It was real, all this time.
The Gilgamesh had not just cast itself randomly into the void to escape the end of all that they had left behind. They were one step short of being quite as suicidal as that. They had been following the maps and charts of the Old Empire, looted from failed satellites, from fragments of ship, from the broken shells of orbital stations containing the void-mummified corpses of Earth’s former masters. Vacuum and stable orbits had saved them while the ice was scouring the planet below.
And amongst the relics were the star maps, detailing where in the galaxy the ancients had walked.
They showed him the signal, as it was distantly received by the Gilgamesh’s instruments. It was a relatively short message, repeating interminably. No busy radio chatter of a bustling extra-solar colony: that would surely have been too much to hope for, given the time that had elapsed.
“Maybe it’s a warning,” Guyen suggested. “If so, and if there’s some danger, we need to know.”
“And if there’s some danger, what precisely do we do about it?” Holsten asked quietly. “Can we even change our heading enough now, without hitting the system?”
“We can prepare,” Lain said pragmatically. “If it’s some cosmic event that we somehow haven’t picked up, and that somehow hasn’t destroyed the transmitter, then we might have to try and alter course. If it’s … a plague, or hostile aliens or something, then … well, it’s been a long time, I’ll bet. Probably it’s not relevant any more.”
“But we have the maps. Worst comes to worst, we can plot a course for the next world,” Guyen pointed out. “We’ll just slingshot past their sun and be on our way.”
By then Holsten had stopped paying attention to him and just sat hunched, listening by earpiece to the Gilgamesh’s rendition of the signal, looking over visual depictions of its frequency and pattern, calling up reference works from their library.
He adjusted the Gilgamesh’s interpretation of the signal, parsing it through all the known decoding algorithms that long-dead civilization had used. He had done this before plenty of times. All too often the signal would be encoded beyond the ability of modern cryptography to unpick. At other times there would be plain speech, but in one of those problem languages that nobody had been able to decipher.
He listened and ran his encryptions, and words began to leap out at him, in that formal, antique tongue of a vanished age of wonder and plenty, and an appalling capacity for destruction.
“Imperial C,” he declared confidently. It was one of the more common of the known languages and, if he could just get his brain working properly, it should be child’s play to translate it now he’d cleaned it up. There was a message there, finally opening like a flower to him, spilling out its brief, succinct contents in a language that had died before the ice came.
“What-?” Guyen started angrily, but Holsten held up a hand for silence, letting the whole message play again and enjoying his moment of prominence.
“It’s a distress beacon,” he announced.
“Distress as in ‘Go away’?” Lain pressed.
“Distress as in ‘Come and get me,'” Holsten told them, meeting their eyes, seeing there the first spark of hope and wonder that he himself felt. “Even if there’s no one-and almost certainly there’s no one-there will be tech, functioning tech. Something waiting there for us for thousands of years. Just for us.”
For a moment this revelation was strong enough that their generalized low-level dislike of him almost vanished. They were three shepherds leading their human flock to a new, promised land. They were the founding parents of the future.
Then Guyen clapped his hands. “Fine. Good work. I’ll have the Gilgamesh wake key personnel in time to start deceleration. We’ve won our gamble.” No words said for all those left behind, who had not even been given the chance to play, or to wonder about the handful of other ark ships that had taken different courses, the Earth spitting out the last gobbets of its inhabitants before the rising tide of poison overcame it. “Back to your slabs, both of you.” There was still at least a century of silent, death-cold travel between them and the signal’s source.
“Give me just half a watch awake,” Holsten said automatic-ally.
Guyen glared at him, remembering suddenly that he had not wanted Holsten among Key Crew-too old, too fond of himself, too proud of his precious education. “Why?”
Because it’s cold. Because it’s like being dead. Because I’m afraid I won’t wake up-or that you won’t wake me. Because I’m afraid. But Holsten shrugged easily. “Time enough to sleep later, isn’t there? Let me look at the stars, at least. Just half a watch and then I’ll turn in. Where’s the harm?”
Guyen grumbled his contempt at him but nodded reluctantly. “Let me know when you go back. Or if you’re last man up, then-“
“Turn out the lights, yes. I know the drill.” In truth the drill was a complex double check of ship’s systems, but the Gilgamesh itself did most of the hard stuff. All of Key Crew were taught how to do it. It was barely more taxing than reading down a list: monkey work.
Guyen stalked off, shaking his head, and Holsten cocked an eye towards Lain, but she was already going over the engineering readouts, a professional to the last.
Later, though, as he sat in the cupola and watched the alien starfield, two thousand years from any constellations that his ancestors might have known, she came to join him, and sat with him for a fidgety fifteen minutes without saying anything. Neither of them could quite voice the suggestion then, but, by raised eyebrow and abortive hand movement, they ended up out of their shipsuits and clasped together on the cool floor, whilst all of creation wheeled gently overhead.