They gave him a shipsuit. He could hardly present himself in his flimsy sleeping garb, open at the back where the tubes had gone in, for all he had already paraded his pockmarked old backside through half of the crew quarters before they caught him.
The name on his new outfit was “Mallori.” Searching his fragmented memory Holsten had no idea who Mallori might have been, and did not want to think about whether there was even a Mallori any more. Would he prefer to be wearing the clothes of a corpse, or those of someone who might any moment wake up and need them back?
He asked after his own suit, but apparently it had been taken away and worn out long ago.
When they were getting him clothes, he saw other people. This generation’s engineers left him in one of the science rooms that had been converted into a dormitory. At least forty people were crammed in there, the walls studded with hooks for hammocks that a few were still sleeping in. They looked frightened and desperate, like refugees.
He spoke with a few. When they found out he was actually crew, they bombarded him with questions. They were insistent. They wanted to know what was going on. So did he, of course, but that answer did not satisfy them. For most of them, their last memory was of a poisoned, dying old Earth. Some even refused to believe how much time had gone by since they had closed their eyes in the suspension chambers that first time. Holsten was appalled at how little some of these escapees had actually known about the endeavour they were embarking on.
They were young: most of the cargo would need to be young, after all, to be able to start anew in whatever circumstances they were thawed out for.
“I’m just a classicist,” Holsten told them. In truth there were a thousand things he knew that would be relevant to their predicament, none of which he felt like talking about or thought would much reassure them. The most important question—that of their immediate future—he could not help with, at all.
Then the ersatz engineers came with the shipsuit and led him off, against the complaints of the human cargo.
He had his own questions then; he was feeling calm enough to deal with the answers.
“What will happen to them?”
The young woman who was leading him glanced grimly back the way they had come. “Returned to suspension as soon as chambers are available.”
“And how long will that be?” “I don’t know.”
“How long has it been?” He was picking up ample cues from her expression alone.
“The longest anyone has been out of suspension was two years.”
Holsten took a deep breath. “Let me guess: there are more and more you’re having to thaw out, right? Cargo storage is deteriorating.”
“We’re doing all we can,” she snapped defensively.
Holsten nodded to himself. They can’t manage it. It’s getting worse. “So where …?”
“Look,” the woman rounded on him. Her badge said, “Terata,” another lost, dead name. “I’m not here to answer your questions. I have other work to get to, after this.”
Holsten spread his hands appeasingly. “Put yourself in my position.”
“Friend, I have enough trouble just being in my own position. And what’s so great about you, anyway? Why the special treatment?”
He nearly responded with, “Don’t you know who I am?” as though he was some grand celebrity. In the end he just shrugged. “I’m nobody. I’m just an old man.”
They passed a room of perhaps a score of children, a sight so unexpected that Holsten stopped and stared, and would not be moved on. They were aged around eight or nine, sitting on the floor with pads in their hands, watching a screen.
On the screen was Lain. Holsten choked at seeing her there.
There were other things, too: three-dimensional models, images of what might be the Gil’s schematics. They were being taught. These were engineers in training.
Not-Terata tugged at his arm, but Holsten took a step into the room. The students were nudging each other, whispering, staring at him, but he had eyes only for the screen. Lain was explaining some piece of work, demonstrating by example and expanded diagram how to enact some particular sort of repair. She was older, on the screen: not the chief engineer, not the warrior queen, just … Isa Lain forever doing her best with the shoddy tools the universe gave her.
“Where do they …?” Holsten gestured at the now fatally distracted children. “Where do they come from?”
“Friend, if you don’t know that, then I’m not explaining it to you,” not-Terata told him acidly, and some of the kids smirked.
“No, but seriously—”
“They’re our children, of course,” she told him sharply. “What did you think? How else were we going to keep the work going?”
“And the … cargo?” he asked her, because he was thinking about those people stuck outside suspension for months, for years.
By then she had managed to drag him away from the schoolroom, directing the students’ attention back to the teaching display with a stern gesture. “We have strict population controls,” she told him, adding “We’re on a ship, after all,” as if this was some sort of mantra. “If we need fresh material from cargo, then we take it, but otherwise any excess production …” and here her clipped, professional voice faltered just a little, touching on some personal pain so unexpectedly that Holsten stumbled slightly in sympathy.
“Embryos are put on ice, to await future need,” she finished, with a scowl at him to cover up her own awkwardness. “It’s easier to store an embryo before a certain point in its development than it is a full human being.” Again, this sounded like some rote-learned dogma that she had grown up with.
“I’m sorry, I—”
They had reached Communications. Until he actually stood there, he had not realized where they were going.
“Just go in.” Not-Terata gave him quite a hard shove, and then she walked away.
For a long time Holsten stood outside the door to Comms, obscurely fearful of crossing the threshold, until at last the hatch slid aside of its own accord and he met the gaze of the woman inside.
He had not known what to expect. He had thought there might be no living being at all, just a face on a screen that was perhaps something like Lain’s death mask, perhaps with taints inherited from Guyen and Avrana Kern and who-knew-what-else that was rattling about in the system. If not that, then he had been terrified that what would meet his gaze might be
something like Guyen had become: a withered lich that had once been human, sustained by and inseparable from the mechanisms of the ship itself, harbouring dreams of immortality in its curdling skull. To see the woman he had known curtailed to that would have been bad. Worse would be for the door to open and show him someone else entirely.
But this was Lain—Isa Lain. She was older, of course. She must have been fifteen years his senior by now, a veteran of the long battle against entropy and hostile computer intrusion that she had been fighting, on and off, since they last parted. Fifteen more years would have been almost nothing to the people of the Old Empire. All the myths of that elder age confirmed that the ancients had lived far longer than a natural human span. In these reduced days, however, fifteen more years had made Lain old.
Not ancient, not decrepit—not yet. She was a working woman in the last days of her strength, staring down time’s inevitable slope which would rob her of her abilities piecemeal with every step. She was heavier than she had been, and her face was written over in that universal human language of hardship and care. Her hair was grey, long, tied back in a severe bun. He had never seen her with long hair before. She was Lain, though: a woman he had seen evolve in snapshot over the course of so short a time for him, but a lifetime for her. He felt an upsurge of feeling in just looking at her face, the lines and weathering doing their best to hide her familiarity from him, and failing.
“Look at you, old man,” she said faintly. She seemed as affected by his years as he was by hers.
She was wearing a shipsuit with the name ripped off, a garment fraying at the elbows, patched at the knees. The ragged remains of another suit hung about her shoulders, reduced to something like a shawl that she fingered thoughtfully, while looking at him.
Holsten stepped inside, looking at comms, noting two dark panels and one that had been gutted, but the rest of the stations
seemed to be operational. “You’ve been busy.”
A nameless expression flickered across her face. “That’s it, is it? All this time, and it’s still the old flip remarks?”
He gave her a level look. “Firstly, it’s not been ‘all this time.’ Secondly, it was always you ready with the lip, not me.”
He was smiling as he said it, because that kind of banter he was used to from her was something he dearly wanted to hear just now, but she just stared at him as though he was a ghost.
“You haven’t changed.” And, as she said it, it was plain she knew how fatuous a remark it was, but still something she needed to get out. Holsten Mason, historian, had now outlived the histories. Here he was, bumbling through time and space, making mistakes and being ineffectual, the one stable point in a moving universe. “Oh, fuck, come here, Holsten. Just come here.”
He didn’t expect the tears, not from her. He didn’t expect the fierce strength of her arms as she held him to her, the shaking of her shoulders as she fought against herself.
She held him out at arm’s length, and he was struck with how alien this situation must be for her. How normal for him to meet an old friend and find her changed and aged, and search the lines of her face for the woman she had been. How wrenching it must be for her to try and find the older man he might one day become in his untouched features.
“Yes,” she said at last, “I’ve been busy. Everyone’s been busy. You’ve no idea how lucky you are that you get to travel freight.”
“Tell me,” he encouraged her. “What?”
“Tell me what’s going on. Please somebody tell me something, at least.”
She lowered herself carefully into what had once been Guyen’s seat, gesturing to another for him. “What? Situation report? You’re the new commander? The scholar doesn’t like
being kept in the dark?” And that sounded so like the old—the young—Lain that he smiled.
“The scholar does not,” he confirmed. “Seriously, of all the people left in the … on the ship, it’s you I trust. But you’re … I don’t know what you’re doing with the ship, Lain. I don’t know what you’re doing with these … your people here.”
“You think I’ve gone like him.” No need to name any names there.
“Well, I wondered.”
“Guyen fucked over the computer,” she spat out. “All his upload nonsense, it went just about like I said it would. Every time he tried to grow, in there, it shut off more of the Gil’s systems. I mean, a human mind, that’s a fuckload of data—and there were four or five separate incomplete copies fighting for space in there. So I set to work, trying to contain them. Trying to keep the essentials running: keeping the cargo cold; stopping the reactor getting too hot. You remember, that was the plan when you went under.”
“Seemed like a good plan. I remember you said you’d be going into suspension yourself, soon enough,” Holsten noted.
“That was the plan,” she confirmed. “Only there were complications. I mean, we had to find cargo space for Guyen’s crazies. Karst had great fun rounding them up and putting them on ice. And by then some of them were working with my people in keeping a lid on the hardware situation. And Guyen
—the fucking Guyen archipelago strung out through the system—kept getting out, trying to copy itself, eating up even more space. We purged and we isolated and we set packs of viruses on the bastard, but he was seriously entrenched by then. And when my team was up and running and I had faith in them, I went under like I said I would. And I set myself a wake-up call. And when I woke again, things were worse.”
“Yeah, still him, still clinging on by his electronic fucking fingernails, but my people were finding all sorts of other shit
going wrong too.” Holsten had always found Lain’s swearing faintly shocking, but weirdly attractive in a taboo sort of way. Now, from her old lips, it was as though she had been practising all those years for just this level of bitter world-weariness. “Problems from losing more cargo, and other systems going down that Guyen and his halfwit reflections weren’t responsible for. There was a bigger enemy out there all along, Holsten. We were just kidding ourselves that we’d got it beaten.”
“The spiders?” Holsten demanded immediately, all of a sudden imagining the ship infested with some stowaways from the green planet, no matter how impossible that seemed.
Lain gave him an exasperated look. “Time, old man. This ship’s close to two and a half thousand years old. Things fall apart. Time is what we’re running out of.” She rubbed at her face. The mannerism made her look younger, not older, as though all those extra years might just be scrubbed away. “I kept thinking I’d got a lid on it. I kept going back to sleep, but there was always something else. My original crew … we tried taking it in shifts, parcelling out the time. There was just too much work. I lose track of how many generations of engineers there have been now, under my guidance. And a lot of people didn’t want to go back under. Once you’ve seen a few failed suspension chambers …”
Holsten shuddered. “You didn’t think about … about upload?”
She eyed him sidelong. “Seriously?”
“You could watch over everything forever, then, and still stay …” Young. But he couldn’t quite say that, and he had no other way of ending the sentence.
“Well, apart from adding to the computer problem about a hundredfold, fine,” she said, but it was plain that wasn’t it. “And, it’s just … that copy, the upload, over all those years … I’d have set it on a task that would include killing itself off, at the end, leave no survivors in the mainframe. And would it? Because if it wanted to live, it could sure as hell make sure I
died in my sleep. And would it even remember, in the end, who was the real me?” There was a haunted look on her face that told Holsten she had thought long and hard about this. “You don’t know what it’s like … When those bits of Guyen got loose, when they hijacked the comms, listening to them … even now I don’t think the system’s right. And the radio ghosts, mad transmissions from that fucking satellite or something, I don’t know … and …” Her shoulders slumped: the iron woman taking her mail off, when it was just him and her. “You don’t know what it’s been like, Holsten. Be thankful.”
“You could have woken me,” he pointed out. It was not the most constructive thing to say, but he resented being cast as the lucky survivor with no choice in the matter. “When you woke, you could have woken me.”
Her gaze was level, terrible, uncompromising. “I could. And I thought of it. I came so close, you wouldn’t believe, when it was just me and these know-nothing kids I was trying to teach my job to. Oh, I could have had you at my beck and call, couldn’t I? My personal sex-toy.” She laughed harshly at his expression. “In and out of sleep, and in and out of me, is that it?”
“Well I … ah, well …”
“Oh, grow up, old man.” Abruptly she ceased finding herself so funny. “I wanted to,” she said softly. “I could have used you, leant on you, shared the burden with you. I’d have burned you up like a candle, old man—and for what? For this moment when I’d still be old, and you’d be dead? I wanted to spare you. I wanted to …” she bit her lip, “keep you. I don’t know. Something like that. Perhaps knowing I wasn’t putting you through this shit helped keep me going.”
“Now we had to wake you, anyway. Your chamber was fucked. Irreparable, they tell me. We’ll find you another.”
“Another? Seriously, now that I’m out—”
“You go back. I’ll have you drugged and stuffed into a pod by force, if I have to. Long way to go yet, old man.” When she smiled like that, a hard woman about to get brutal with whatever part of the universe stood in her way, he saw where a lot of the new lines on her face had come from.
“Go where?” he demanded. “Do what?” he demanded.
“Come on, old man, you know the plan. Guyen surely explained it to you.”
Holsten boggled. “Guyen? But he … you killed him.”
“Best crew appraisal ever,” she agreed mirthlessly. “But his plan, yes. And he was thinking that up without realizing how the ship was starting to fail. What else is there, Holsten? We’re it. This is us, the human race, and we’ve done really fucking well to make it this far against all the odds. But this piece of machinery simply cannot keep going forever. Everything wears out, old man, even the Gilgamesh, even …”
Even me, was the unspoken thought.
“The green planet,” Holsten finished. “Avrana Kern. The insects and things?”
“So we burn them out a bit, get ourselves established. Hell, maybe we can domesticate the fuckers. Maybe you can milk a spider. If the bastards are big enough, maybe we’ll be riding around on them. Or we could just poison the fucks, scrub the planet clean of them. We’re humans, Holsten. It’s what we’re good at. As for Kern, Guyen had put in most of the groundwork before. He spent generations fucking with the Gil, shielding the system from her. That old terraforming station she sent us to, it had all the toys. She can try taking over and she can try frying us, and we’ll be ready for both. And it’s not like we have anywhere else to go. And, as luck would have it, we’re already on the way there, so it all lines up nicely.”
“You’ve got it all worked out.”
“I reckon I’ll let Karst sort out the frontier-spirit end of things, once we’re there,” she told him. “I reckon I’ll be ready for a rest by then.”
Holsten said nothing, and the pause lengthened uncomfortably. She did not meet his eyes.
At last the words fought themselves free, “Promise me—” “Nothing,” she snapped instantly. “No promises. The
universe promises us nothing; I extend the same to you. This is
the human race, Holsten. It needs me. If Guyen hadn’t fucked us up so badly with his immortality scheme, then maybe things could have gone differently. But he did and they haven’t, and here we are. I’m going back to bed soon, just like you, but I’m setting my alarm early, because the next generation’s going to need someone to check their maths.”
“Then let me stay with you!” Holsten told her fiercely. “It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going to need a classicist any time soon. Or at all, ever. Even Guyen only wanted me as his biographer. Let’s—”
“If you say grow old together I am going to thump you, Holsten,” Lain returned. “Besides, there’s still one thing you’ll be needed for. One thing I need you to do.”
“You want your life story set down for posterity?” he needled, as nastily as he felt able.
“Yeah, you’re right, I always was the funny one. So shut the fuck up.” She stood up, leaning against the consoles, and he heard her joints pop and creak. “Come with me, old man. Come and see the future.”
She led him through the cluttered, half-unmade chambers and passageways of the crew area, heading towards what he recalled were the science labs.
“We’re going to see Vitas?” he asked.
“Vitas,” she spat. “Vitas I made use of right at the start, but she’s been sleeping the sleep of the not particularly trusted ever since. After all, she’d not soil her hands with maintenance, and I’ve not forgotten how she was egging Guyen on all the while before. No, I’m taking you to see our cargo extension.”
“You’ve put in new chambers? How?”
“Just shut up and wait, will you?” Lain paused, and he could see she was catching her breath, but trying not to show it. “You’ll see soon enough.”
In fact, he did not see, when she eventually showed him. Here was one of the labs, and here, taking up much of one wall, was a specimen chamber: a great rack of little containers, hundreds of little organic samples kept on ice. Holsten stared and stared, and shook his head. And then, just as Lain was about to lay into his lack of perception, he suddenly connected the dots and said, “Embryos.”
“Yes, old man. The future. All the new life that our species couldn’t stop itself putting out but that we had no space to raise and bring up. As soon as some over-eager girl decides she wants a family that I, in my wisdom, don’t think we can afford, it’s out with the surgery and it comes here. Harsh world, ain’t it?”
“Of course, alive,” Lain snapped at him. “Because right now I’m still hoping the human race has a future, and we are frankly still kind of short on people from a historical perspective. So we put them on ice, and hope that one day we can fire up the artificial wombs and bequeath a load of orphans to the universe.”
“The parents must have …”
“Argued? Fought? Kicked and screamed?” Her stare was barren. “Yeah, you could say that. But also they knew what would happen ahead of time, and they still did it. Biological imperative’s a funny thing. The genes just want to squeeze themselves into another generation, no matter what. And, of course, we’ve had generations growing up here. You know how kids are. Even when you offer ’em countermeasures, they won’t use them half the time. Ignorant little fucks, so to speak.”
“I don’t understand why you thought I so desperately
needed to see all this,” Holsten pointed out.
“Oh, yeah, right.” Lain bent over the console and skimmed through various menus until she highlighted one of the embryo containers. “That one, see it?”
Holsten frowned, wondering if there was some mutation or defect that he was supposed to be noticing.
“What can I say?” Lain prompted. “I was young and foolish. There was this lusty young classicist, he swept me off my feet. We had dinner by the light of dying stars in a ten-thousand-year-old space station. Oh, the romance.” Her deadpan delivery never wavered.
Holsten stared at her. “I don’t believe you.” “Why?”
“But you … you never said. When we were up against Guyen, you could have …”
“Right then I wasn’t sure we had a future, and if Guyen had found out, and got control of the system … It’s a girl, by the way. She’s a girl. Will be a girl.” And it was that repetition that told Holsten how close to the edge Lain was now skating. “I made the choice, Holsten. When I was with you, I chose. I made this happen. I was going to … I thought there would be time later … I thought there would be a tomorrow when I could go back to her and … but there was always some other damned thing. The tomorrow I was waiting for never came. And now I’m not sure I …”
“Listen, Holsten, you’re going back under as soon as they find you a chamber, right? You’re priority, fuck all the rest. There are some perks to being me right now, and first off is that I call the shots. You go under. You wake up when we hit the green planet system. You make planetfall, and you make sure everything is done to make that place ours, come crazy computers or monster spiders or whatever. And you make it somewhere she can live. You hear me, old man?”
“No, Holsten, this thing you get to take responsibility for. I’ll have done all I can. I’ll have done everything humanly possible to bring about this tomorrow. It’ll be down to you after that.”
Only later, after she saw him to his newly restored suspension chamber, did he glimpse the name still tagged on the ragged shawl of shipsuit she wore about her shoulders. The sight of it froze him just as he was about to get a leg up into the refurbished coffin. Really? For all this time? Facing that long, cold oblivion, with no certainty that he would wake up again, it was curiously warming to know that someone, even if it was this cynical bitter woman, had been holding a torch for him all those unfelt years.