Chapter no 43

Children of Time

High above the green world, high above the Sky Nest and all the other industrious endeavours of its inhabitants, Doctor Avrana Kern tries to come to terms with what she has just been shown.

She has seen these things before, these scuttling, spinning monsters. The drone sent from the Gilgamesh saw one briefly, before its demise. Cameras from the shuttle that she downed caught sight of some before it burned. She has known that there were things, unintended things, down on Kern’s World, the serpents in her garden. They were not part of the plan: the ecosystem so carefully designed to provide a home for her chosen.

She has known for lifetimes that they were there, but she has found within herself an almost infinite capacity to overlook. She can reel back in horror one moment, demanding, What have you done with my monkeys? and a mere decade later she has almost forgotten, hidden subroutines coating this offending memory until it no longer irritates the oyster of her mind. The electronic interior of the Sentry Pod is cluttered with such cast-off memories, the understandings that she cannot bear to have as part of herself. They are lost thoughts of the home that she will never see, they are pictures of arachnid monsters, they are images of a barrel burning as it strikes atmosphere. All gone, excised from her functioning mind, and yet not lost. Eliza never throws anything away.

Avrana has always returned to the certainty that her plan for this world has succeeded. What else is there for her, after all? For untold ages she has orbited in silence, broadcasting her never-ending examination questions at a heedless planet. For untold ages she slept, the robust systems of the Sentry Pod

doing their diligent best to stave off the inching encroachment of decay and malfunction. Whenever Avrana woke, at longer and longer intervals, screaming and clawing at the inside of her tiny domain, it was to cringe before an indifferent cosmos.

The pod systems themselves, running on minimal power, did their best to keep everything going, but still there were sacrifices: she is blind, she is fragmented, she is not sure where she ends and where the machines begin. The pod is playing host to a multitude, each sub-system devolving into some crude autonomy: a community of the half-witted holding everything grimly together. And she is one of those shards. She occupies a virtual space, crowded and cramped as a rookery. She and Eliza and the many, many systems.

The passing of the Gilgamesh—with all that undignified shouting and begging, even down to the colossal energy expenditure it took to bring their intruding shuttle down—it seems like a dream now, as though the would-be humans had wandered in from some parallel reality that had so very little to do with her. All they had taught her was that she had not known despair until they arrived. A silent planet was preferable to a planet bustling with human life, for human life would preclude the success of her mission entirely. Let her circle the globe until the Sentry Pod fell apart, so that still she could hope her monkey subjects would eventually call out to their creator. An absence of success did not mean her experiment was a failure.

At no time has she examined her motives or priorities or asked herself why she is so rigidly dedicated to carrying out this mission to the exclusion of all else. While she was speaking with those alleged humans from the ark ship, it was almost as if she was two people: one that remembered what it was like to live and breathe and laugh, and one that remembered the importance of scientific success and achievement. She wasn’t sure where that first Avrana had come from. It didn’t seem like her, somehow.

Then the monkeys had answered, and everything changed.

True, they were late. The projected few centuries had been and gone, and the Sentry Pod was long past the lifespan its creators had envisaged for it. Still, they built things to last, in those days. If the monkeys had needed their hundreds or even their thousands of years, Avrana and Eliza and their myriad support systems were ready for them.

But they had been so dense, and their thinking had been so strange. She had tried and tried, and so often seemed to be getting somewhere, but the monkeys had their own ideas—and such strange ideas. Sometimes they could not understand her superior intellect. Sometimes she could not understand them. Monkeys were supposed to be the easy first step to a universe of uplift. Everyone had assured her they would be close enough to humans to understand, yet far enough to remain a valid and worthwhile subject. Why could she not see eye to eye with them?

Now she sees their eyes. She sees all eight of them.

The image sent to her is insane, fantastical, a vast, layered, tangled structure of lines and links and enclosed spaces that exist only because they have been pulled into temporary arrangements of tension. The spiders are all about it, caught in mid-creep. The words that heralded this image were simple, clear beyond mistaking: This is us.

Avrana Kern flees into the limited depths of her remaining mind and weeps for her lost monkeys, and knows despair, and she does not know what to do.

She consults with her council of advisors, the others who share her deteriorating habitat. Individual systems tell her that they are still doing their jobs. The main control is keeping a log of transmissions sent from the surface. Others record the progress of celestial bodies flagged as of interest, including a distant—a very distant—speck that calls itself the last hope of the human race.

She presses further, seeking that other large focus of calculation she shares this pod with, and must occasionally negotiate with. They are legion, in there, but there are two

poles to the Brin 2’s Sentry Pod, and she reaches for the other carefully.

Eliza, I need your assistance. Eliza, this is Avrana.

She touches the stream of that other mind, and is momentarily immersed in the tumbling river of thought constantly flowing there: my monkeys where are my monkeys cannot help me now I’m cold so cold and Eliza never comes to see I can’t see can’t feel can’t act I want to die I want to die I want to die … The thoughts flowing, helpless and unconstrained, out of that broken mind as though it is trying to pour itself empty, and yet there is always more. Avrana recoils and, for a terrible, frozen moment knows that if what she has touched is an organic mind, then I must be … but she has, after all, an almost infinite capacity to overlook, and that moment of self-reflection is gone, and along with it any threat of revelation.

She is left merely with that intolerable image, reconstructed pixel by pixel inside her mind.

This is what she has been communicating with. The monkey mask has been lifted, and that appalling visage is revealed instead. Every hope she had for her grand project— quite literally the one thing in the universe left to her—is now dashed. For a moment she tries to imagine that her simian protégés are out there somewhere else, hiding from the festering civilization of the spiders, but her memory has had enough of playing games. They burned. She remembers now. The monkeys burned, but the virus … the virus itself got through. That is the only explanation. Oh, perhaps what she has seen could arise spontaneously, given millions of years of the right conditions. The virus is the catalyst to condense all that span of time into mere millennia, though. The agent of her triumph has become instead the agent of something weird and strange.

She tilts on the fulcrum of decision. She sees clearly the path of rejection: those squabbling ape-things of the Gilgamesh will return eventually and make an end of it all in

that mindless way that humans always have done. Monkeys or spiders, it will not matter to them. And she, Avrana Kern, forgotten genius of an elder age, will slowly decay into senescence and obsolescence, orbiting a world given over to the thriving hives of what she must nominally allow to be her own species.

Her long history will be done. This last corner of her time and her people will be overwritten with the fecund hosts of her distant and undeserving descendants. All of it will be lost, and there will be no record of her long and lonely aeons of waiting and listening, of her breakthroughs and her triumphs and her eventual horrifying discovery.

There are few immutable boundaries inside the Sentry Pod. The various entities, electronic and organic, have no firm divisions any more, each leaning on and borrowing from the others for simple everyday functionality. Similarly the past bleeds into the present at the slightest invitation. Avrana Kern

—or the thing that considers itself to be her—relives her history with the green planet and its denizens: their mathematical reply; teaching the monsters to speak; her painful, difficult conversations; their worship, their entreaties, the baffling, half-incomprehensible tales they told her of their exploits. She has spoken with uncounted numbers of their great minds: votaries and astronomers, alchemists and physicists, leaders and thinkers. She has been a cornerstone of a civilization. No human being has ever experienced what she has, nor touched anything so alien. Save that they are not alien, of course. In the end, undeniably, their stock arose alongside hers. She and they share ancestors five hundred million years old, before the stuff of life separated into those who would forever carry their nerves upon their back and those that would carry them within their belly.

There are no aliens that her people ever met or heard from. Or, if there were, their signals were overlooked, passed by: alien in a way that meant no human could see them and recognize them as evidence of life from elsewhere. Kern’s faction and her ideology already knew this, which was why

they intended to spread Earth life across the galaxy in as many varied forms as possible. Because it was the only life they had, they had a responsibility to help it survive.

She has lived lifetimes along with the people of the green planet. She and her host of companion systems have soared on their triumphs, shaken under their defeats, sought always to bridge what has ever been a troubled and incomplete understanding. She sees them now, yes. She sees them for what they are.

They are Earth. Their form does not matter. They are her children.

She backtracks, calling up logs of centuries of conversations from where they are crammed into her electronic memories, having overwritten all the last desperate radio songs of old Earth. She reviews all the baffling mystery of the monkey dialogues now seen under a harsh and uncompromising new light. She stops trying to tell them things, and starts listening.

Much as the spiders can use their Understandings to write new knowledge into their minds—though Kern has no idea of this—so Kern’s current state means that she can rewire her own mind far more readily than a human brain could be reconditioned. She models generations of conversations, changes her perception of the senders, ceases trying to cast her protégés as something one step down from human.

She understands, not perfectly—for great swathes of their talk remain a mystery—but her comprehension of what they are saying, their preoccupations, their perceptions, all of it suddenly falls that much more into place.

And at last she answers them.

I am here. I am here for you.

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