They were packed into the briefing room. It was like déjà vu, but these days that seemed a good thing. Holsten was a citizen of a tiny world of cycles and repetitions, and where events failed to repeat themselves, it meant deterioration.
Some of the lights were out and that really brought it home to him. All the miracles of technology that had made the Gilgamesh possible, all the tricks they had stolen from the gods of the Old Empire … and right now they either couldn’t get all the lights working, or there were simply too many higher-priority things to be doing.
He recognized a surprising number of faces. This was clearly a Command meeting. These were Key Crew—or who was left of them. He saw the science team, a handful of Engineering, Command, Security, all people who had got on board when Earth was still a place where humans lived. These were people who had been granted custodianship over the rest of the human race.
With some notable omissions. The only department chief present—assuming you discounted Holsten himself and his department of one—was Vitas, orchestrating the bleary, recently awoken muster, ordering people according to some idiolectic system of her own. There were a handful of young faces in old shipsuits helping her—Lain’s legacy, Holsten guessed. They could have passed for the mob that he remembered from so recently, but he guessed they must be at least a generation further on from that. They had persevered, though. They had not turned into cannibals or anarchists or monkeys. Even that fragile appearance of stability gave him some hope.
“Classicist Mason, there you are.” It was hard to say what Vitas felt about seeing him present. Indeed it was hard to say what she felt about anything. She had aged, but gracefully and only a little it seemed. Holsten found himself indulging in the bizarre speculation that she was not human at all. Perhaps she was her own self-aware machine. Controlling the medical facilities, she would be able to hide her secret forever, after all
He had seen a lot of mad things since setting foot on the Gilgamesh, but that would have been a step too far. Even the Old Empire … unless she was Old Empire, some anachronistic ten-thousand-year survival, fusion-driven and eternal.
Finding himself momentarily adrift from reason, he grasped for Vitas’s hand and snagged it, feeling the human warmth, willing himself to trust to his own perceptions. The scientist raised her eyebrows sardonically.
“Yes, it’s really me,” she remarked. “Amazing, I know. Can you use a gun?”
“I very much doubt it,” Holsten blurted out. “I … What?”
“The commander wanted me to ask that of everyone. I had already guessed the answer in your case.”
Holsten became cold and still, all at once. The commander
Vitas watched him with dry amusement, letting him hang
in suspense for a few long seconds before explaining. “Lem Karst is the acting commander, for your information.”
“Karst?” Holsten felt that was hardly better. “How bad has it got that Karst gets to call the shots?”
There were a lot of looks from the rest of Key Crew at that remark, some frowning, others plainly sharing his opinion— including even one of the security team. It was a rare moment when Holsten would far rather be in the minority.
“We’re travelling into the Kern system,” Vitas explained. She turned to the console behind her, gesturing for Holsten’s
attention. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but once we’re in orbit around the green planet, the Gilgamesh’s wandering days are likely to be done.” The oddly poetic turn of phrase gave her clipped tones an unexpected gravitas. “Lain’s tribe have done a remarkable job in keeping him together, but it really has been damage control, quite literally. And the damage has begun to win. There’s quite a population of ship-born now, because the suspension chambers are failing beyond the point of repair. Nobody’s going to be heading off on another interstellar jaunt.”
“Which means …?”
“Which means there’s only one place left for us all, yes, Mason.” Vitas’s smile was precise and brief. “And we’re going to have to fight the Old Empire for it.”
“You seem to be looking forward to it,” Holsten observed. “It’s been the goal of a long, long plan, Mason, and
centuries in the making. The longest of long games in the
history of our species, except for whatever that Kern thing has been doing. And you were right, in a way, about the commander. He’s not here to see it but it’s Guyen’s plan. It was so from the moment he set eyes on that planet.”
“Guyen?” Holsten echoed.
“He was a man with vision,” Vitas asserted. “He cracked under the strain at the end, but given what he’d gone through that’s hardly surprising. The human race owes him a great deal.”
Holsten stared at her, remembering how she had treated the disastrous upload of Guyen’s mind as some sort of hobby experiment. In the end he just grunted, and something of his feelings were plainly visible on his face, judging by the scientist’s reaction.
“Karst and some of the tribe have jury-rigged a control centre in the comms room,” Vitas said, somewhat coldly. “You’re Key Crew, so he’ll want you there. Alpash!”
One of the young engineers appeared at her elbow.
“This is Alpash. He’s ship-born,” Vitas explained, as though excusing some congenital defect. “Get Mason here, and the rest of Key Crew, up to the commander, Alpash.” She spoke to the young man as though he was something less than human, something more like a pet or a machine.
Alpash nodded warily at Mason. If Vitas was his exemplar for Key Crew, he probably didn’t expect much in the way of manners. There was a distinct skittishness about him as he gathered up the recently woken engineers, security men and the like. It reminded Holsten of the way that Guyen’s cultists had treated him. He wondered what legends of Key Crew had Alpash been brought up on.
Over in comms, Karst looked refreshingly the same. The big security chief had been given the time to get some stubble going on his ravaged face, and he had obviously not been wheeled out much since Holsten last saw him, because he had barely aged.
As the surviving Key Crew filed in, he grinned at them, an expression equally of anticipation and strain.
“Come in and find a seat, or stand, whatever you like.
Vitas, can you hear me?”
“I hear,” the science chief’s voice crackled and spat from an unseen speaker. “I’ll continue to supervise the unpacking, but I’m listening.”
Karst grimaced, shrugged. “Right,” he turned to address them all, looking from face to face. When he met Holsten’s eyes there was none of the expected dislike. Gone was any hint that the security man had never much cared for Holsten Mason. Absent, too, was the expected air of dismissal, that of a man of action who had no use for the man of letters. Instead, Karst’s grin dwindled to a smaller but much more sincere smile. It was a look of things shared, a commonality between two people who had been there right at the start, and were still here now.
“We’re going to fight,” the security chief told them all.
“We’ve basically got just one good chance at it. You all know the score, or you should do. There’s a satellite out there that can probably rip open the Gil in a blink if we give it the chance. Now, we bolted on some sort of diffusion shielding, back when we were pirating that terraforming station—some of you maybe weren’t awake for that, but there’s a summary in the system of the changes we made. We also hardened our computer systems, so that bitch—so the satellite—can’t just shut us down or open the airlocks, that sort of trick. We’ve taken every precaution, and I still reckon toe-to-toe we might be screwed.” He was grinning again, though.
“But I’ve had some drones fitted out in the workshops. They’ve got shielded systems as well, and lasers that I think can burn the satellite. That’s the plan, basically. Best defence is a good offence, and so on. As we come in towards our orbit, we burn the fucker up and hope it’s enough. Otherwise it’s down to using the Gil’s forward array, and that puts us within range of retaliation.” He paused, then finished: “So you’re probably wondering what the fuck I need with all of you guys, yeah?”
Holsten cleared his throat. “Well, Vitas asked me if I could use a gun. I appreciate I’m no great tactician, but if it comes to needing that against the satellite, we’ve probably already lost.”
Karst actually laughed. “Yeah, well, I’m planning ahead— planning to win. Cos if we don’t win against the satellite, there’s no point in planning anyway. So let’s assume we burn it out. What next?”
“The planet,” someone said. There was a curious ripple through the room, of hope and dread together.
Karst nodded moodily. “Yeah, most of you never saw it but, believe me, it’s not going to be an easy place to settle down on, at least at the start. Am I right, Mason?”
Holsten started at unexpectedly having his opinion solicited. But, of course, there’s just him and me who were down there on the surface. “You’re right,” he confirmed.
“That’s where guns come in, for those that feel they can lower themselves to use them.” Karst, already pre-lowered, winched his grin up a notch. “Basically the planet’s full of all sorts of beasties—spiders and bugs and all manner of shit. So, while we get ourselves set up, we’re going to be burning them out, too: clearing forest, driving off the wildlife, exterminating anything that looks at us funny. It’ll be fun. Frankly it’s the sort of thing I’ve been looking forward to since I first got aboard. Hard work, though. And everyone works. Remember, we’re Key Crew. Us and the chiefs of the new engineers, like Al here, it’s our responsibility. We make this work. Everyone’s depending on us. Think about that: when I say everyone I really mean it. The Gilgamesh is all there is.”
He clapped his hands, as though that entire speech had reinvigorated him and boosted his personal morale. “Security team, whoever’s got the pad with our new recruits, sort them out and get them armed. Teach them which end not to look down. You lot all get to join us on the bug hunt, afterwards.”
Holsten assumed that meant everyone fool enough to say “yes” when Vitas had asked them if they could use a gun.
“Tribe,” Karst added, then seemed to lose momentum. “I won’t bother telling you, as you know what you’re doing. Been doing it long enough, anyway. Alpash, stick close, though. I want you as liaison.”
“Tribe” seemed to be the engineers, or those descendants of theirs currently keeping the ship together. The few of them still there now bolted off, with the air of people who had found the entire proceedings boring and unnecessary, but had been aware that they should be on their best behaviour nonetheless, like children during a religious service.
“Right, Mason … Harlen?” “Holsten.”
“Right.” Karst nodded, unapologetic. “Something special for you, right? You actually get to do your job. The satellite’s transmitting all sorts of shit, and you’re the only person who
might know what it’s saying.” “Transmitting … to us?”
“Yes. Maybe. Alpash?”
“Probably no,” the young engineer confirmed.
“Anyway, whatever, take Mason here and plug him in. Mason, if you can make anything out of it, let me know. Personally I reckon it’s just gone mad.”
“Madder,” Holsten corrected and, although this hadn’t been a joke, Karst laughed.
“We’re all in the boat, aren’t we?” he said almost fondly, glancing around at the battered confines of the Gilgamesh. “All of us on the same old boat.” The mask slipped, and for a second Holsten was looking into the stress-fractures and botch-job repairs that made up Karst’s over-strained soul. The man had always been a follower, and now he was in charge, the last general of the human race facing unknown odds with the highest possible stakes. His somewhat disjointed briefing now looked in retrospect like a man fighting for his composure
—and holding on to it, just. Against all expectations, Karst was coping. Come the hour, come the man.
Also, he might be drunk. Holsten realized he couldn’t tell.
Alpash led him to a console, still acting as though Holsten and Karst and the rest were heroes of legend brought to life, but turning out to be somewhat disappointing in the flesh. Holsten wondered, with a professional curiosity, whether some crazy myth cycle had grown up amongst the Tribe, with himself and the rest of Key Crew as a pantheon of fractious gods, trickster heroes and monsters. He had no idea how many generations had gone by since their last actual contact with anyone not born on the Gilgamesh, since …
He had been about to ask, but a piece clicked into place and he knew that he wouldn’t ask, not now. Not when he had thought of Lain at last. For Lain must have died long, long ago. Had she thought of him, at the end? Had she come to look into the cold stillness of his coffin, her sleeping prince who
she had never permitted to come back for her?
Alpash gave a nervous cough, picking up on Holsten’s suddenly changed mood.
The classicist scowled, waved off the man’s concern. “Tell me about these transmissions.”
With a worried look, Alpash turned to the console. The machinery looked battered, something that had been taken apart and put back together more than once. There was some sort of symbol and some graffiti stencilled on the side, which looked new. Holsten stared at it for a moment before disentangling the words.
Do not open. No user-serviceable parts inside.
He laughed, thinking that he saw the joke, the sort of bleak humour that he recalled engineers resorting to in extremis. There was nothing on Alpash’s face to suggest that he saw any humour in it, though, or that the slogan was anything other than a sacred symbol of the Tribe. Abruptly Holsten felt bitter and sick again. He felt like Karst must feel. He was just a thing of the lost past trying to recapture an almost-lost future.
“There’s a lot of it,” Alpash explained. “It’s constant, on multiple frequencies. We can’t understand any of it. I don’t know what this Avrana Kern is, but I think the commander may be right. It sounds like madness. It’s like the planet is whispering to itself.”
“The planet?” Holsten queried.
“We’re not getting these signals direct from the satellite, as far as we can understand.” Now that Alpash began speaking more, Holsten heard unfamiliar rhythms and inflections in his words—a little of Lain, a little of the Gilgamesh’s automatic systems, a little of something new. There was obviously a ship-born accent now.
Alpash brought up a numerical display that was apparently intended to be educational. “You can see here what we can tell from the transmissions.” Holsten was used to the Gilgamesh sugar-coating that sort of data in a form that a layman could
understand, but that concession was apparently not something the Tribe felt it needed.
Seeing his blank look, the engineer went on, “Our best bet is that these are transmissions being directed at the planet, just like the original numerical sequence, and we’re now catching bounce-back. They’re definitely coming to us by way of the planet, though.”
“You’ve had any other classicists working on this, out of cargo? There must be a few students or …”
Alpash looked solemn. “I’m afraid not. We have searched the manifest. There were only a very few at the start. You are the last.”
Holsten stared at him for a long while, thinking through the implications of that: thinking about Earth’s long history before the fall, before the ice came. His society had possessed such a fragmented, imperfect understanding of the predecessors that they were constantly trying to ape, and did even that poor record now boil down to just himself, the contents of one old man’s head? All that history, and if … when I die …? He did not see anyone having time to attend history classes in Karst’s survivalist Eden.
He shivered—not from the usual human sense of mortality, but from a feeling of vast, invisible things falling away into oblivion, irretrievable and irreplaceable. Grimly he turned to the messages that Alpash was now showing him.
After some work, Holsten finally deciphered the display enough to register just how many of the recordings there were, and these presumably just a fraction of the total. What’s Kern playing at? Maybe she has gone off the deep end, after all. He accessed one, but it wasn’t anything like the other transmissions from the satellite which he remembered. Still … Holsten felt long-unused academic parts of his brain try to sit up and take notice, seeing complexity, repeated patterns. He performed whatever analysis and modelling the console allowed him. This wasn’t random static, but nor was it the Old Empire messages that Kern/Eliza had used previously.
“Perhaps it’s encrypted,” he mused to himself.
“There’s a second type as well,” Alpash explained. “This is how the majority go, but there are some that seem different. Here.”
Holsten listened to the chosen recording, another sequence of pulses, but this time seeming closer to what he would actually recognize as a message. “Just this, though? No distress signal? No number sequences?”
“This—and as much of this as you could want,” Alpash confirmed.
“How much time do we have before … before things start?”
“At least thirty hours.”
Holsten nodded. “Can I get something to eat?” “Of course.”
“Then leave me with this and I’ll see if I can find anything in it for Karst.” Alpash moved to go, and for a moment Holsten was going to stop him, to ask him that impossible question that historians can never ask, regarding the things they study: What is it like to be you? A question nobody can step far enough out of their own frame of reference to answer.
With some help from the Tribe, he was able to hunt through the Gilgamesh’s systems for at least some of his electronic toolkit to try and unpick the messages. He was given what he wanted, then left alone to work. He had a sense that, across the ship, a great many ship-born and woken were bracing themselves for the moment their lives had been leading up to for generations, and during sleeping centuries, respectively. He was happy to be out of it. Here, at this failing end of time, the classicist Holsten Mason was glad to be poring over some incomprehensible transmissions in a futile search for meaning. He was not Karst. Nor was he Alpash, or his kin. Old, I’m old, in so many ways. Old, and yet still lively enough that he was even going to outlive the ark ship itself, by the look of things.
He realized he could make nothing out of the majority of the messages. They were generally faint, and he guessed that they were being sent from the planet in all directions, just radiating out into space.
Rather, bounced off the planet. Not sent, of course not sent. He blinked, obscurely uncomfortable. Whatever their source, though, they were sufficiently far from anything he knew that he could not even be sure that they were messages, couched in any kind of code or language. Only a stubborn streak of structure to them convinced him that they were not some natural interference or just white noise.
The others, though, they were stronger, and recent analysis conducted by the Tribe suggested that they might actually be targeted towards the Gilgamesh’s line of approach, as though Kern was using the planet as a sounding board to rant incomprehensibly at them. Or the planet itself was shouting at them.
Or the planet was shouting?
Holsten rubbed at his eyes. He had been working for too long. He was beginning to come adrift from rational speculation.
These transmissions, though—at first he had thought they were as much babble as the rest, but he had cross-referenced them with some old stored records of messages from the satellite, and tried to treat them in the same way, varying the encoding by trial and error until something like a message had abruptly sprung out from the white noise. There had been words, or at least he had fooled himself that he had decoded words there. Imperial C words, words out of history, the dead language given new and mutated life.
He thought again about Alpash’s accent. These transmissions seemed almost as if someone out there was speaking some barbarous version of that ancient language, encoded just as Kern encoded her transmissions; some degraded or evolved or simply corrupted attempt at the ancient tongue.
It was proper historian work, just poring over it. He could almost forget the trouble they were all in, and pretend he was on the brink of some great discovery that anyone would care about. What if this isn’t just the crazed gibberish of a dying computer? What if this means something? If it was Kern trying to talk to them, though, then she had obviously lost most of what she was—the woman/machine that Holsten remembered had no difficulty in making herself understood.
So what was she trying to say now?
The more he listened to the clearest of those decoded transmissions—those sent directly along the line of the Gilgamesh’s approach—the more he felt that someone was trying to speak to him, across millions of kilometres and across a gap of comprehension that was far greater. He could even fool himself that little snippets of phrasing were coming together into something resembling a coherent message.
Stay away. We do not wish to fight. Go back.
Holsten stared at what he had. Am I just imagining this? None of it had been clear—the transmission was in poor shape, and nothing about it fitted in with Kern’s earlier behaviour. The more he looked, though, the more he became sure that this was a message, and that it was intended specifically for them. They were being warned off again, as though by dozens of different voices. Even in those sections he could not disentangle, he could pick out individual words. Leave. Peace. Alone. Death.
He wondered what he could possibly tell Karst.
He slept on it for a while, in the end, and then shambled off to find the acting commander in the comms room.
“You’re cutting it fine,” Karst told him. “I launched the drones hours back. I calculate about two hours before they do what they do, if it can be done at all.”
“Fucking right.” Karst stared at the working screens surrounding him with haunted, desperate eyes that belied the
easy grin he kept trying to keep pinned on his face. “Come on then, Holsten, out with it.”
“Well, it’s a message and it’s intended for us—that much I’m reasonably certain about.”
“‘Reasonably certain’? Fucking academics,” but it was almost good-natured, even so. “So Kern’s down to basically bombarding us with baby talk, wanting us to go away.”
“I can’t translate most of it, but those pieces that make any sense at all seem to be consistently along that theme,” Holsten confirmed. In fact he was feeling unhappy about his own efforts, as though in this, the last professional challenge of his career, he had made some student-level error and failed. The transmissions had been in front of him, a large body of material to cross-reference, and he had constantly felt on the edge of a breakthrough that would make it all crystal clear to him. It had never come, though, and now there was no time to go back to it. He felt that he had shackled himself too much to the way the Old Empire did things, just as everyone always had. If he had come to those transmissions with more of an open mind, rather than trying to recast them in the shape of Kern’s earlier work, what might he have found?
“Well, fuck her,” was Karst’s informed opinion. “We’re not going anywhere. We don’t have that option any more. It all comes down to this, just like it was always going to. Am I right?”
“You are,” Holsten replied hollowly. “Are we getting anything from the drones?”
“I don’t want them transmitting anything until they’re close enough to actually get to work,” Karst said. “Believe me, I remember what fucking Kern can do. You weren’t in that shuttle where she just took the whole thing over, remember? Just drifting in space with nothing but life-support, while she worked out what she wanted to do with us. That was no fun at all, believe me.”
“And yet she let you come down and pick us up,” Holsten
recalled. He thought Karst might come back at him angrily for that, accuse him of going soft, but the security chief’s face took on a thoughtful air.
“I know,” he admitted. “And if I thought that there was any chance … but she’s not going to let us on to that planet, Holsten. We tried that one, over and over. She’s going to sit there and hoard the last chance for the human race, and let us all die out in space.”
Holsten nodded. His mind was full of that planet balefully whispering for them to go away. “Can I send from the ship? It might even take her attention from the drones … I don’t know.”
“No. Complete silence from us. If she’s so crazy that she hasn’t seen us, I don’t want you clueing her in.”
Karst could not keep still. He checked with his seconds in Security; he checked with the senior members—chiefs?—of the Tribe. He paced and fretted, and tried to get some passive data on the drones’ progress, without running the risk of alerting Kern.
“You really think she won’t see them coming?” Holsten objected.
“Who can know? She’s old, Holsten, really old—older than us by a long way. She was crazy before. Maybe she’s gone completely mad, now. I’m not giving her anything more than I have to. We get one shot at this before it’s down to the Gil itself. Literally one shot. Seriously, you know how much power a decent laser takes up? And believe me, those are our two best functioning drones—fucking patchwork jobs from all the working bits we could find.” He clenched his fists, fighting against the weight of his responsibilities. “Everything’s falling apart, Holsten. We’ve got to get on to that planet. The ship’s dying. That stupid moon base thing of Guyen’s—that died. Earth …”
“I know.” Holsten hunted about for some sort of reassurance, but he honestly couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Chief,” interrupted one of the Tribe, “transmissions from the drones, coming in. They’re coming up on the planet, ready to deploy.”
“At last!” Karst practically shouted, and stared about him. “Which screen’s best? Which is working?”
Four screens flared with the new images, one flickering and dying but the other three holding steady. They saw that familiar green orb: a thing of dreams, the promised land. The drones were following their path towards the satellite’s orbital track, darting in to intercept it and bring an end to it. They didn’t care about what they were seeing, unlike the human eyes now watching vicariously through their lenses.
Karst’s mouth hung open. At this moment, even the ability to curse seemed to have deserted him. He fumbled backwards for a seat, and then sat down heavily. Everyone in comms had stopped work, instead staring at the screen, at what had been done to their paradise.
Kern’s satellite was not alone in its vigil.
Around the circumference of the planet, girdling its equator in a broad ring, was a vast band of tangled lines and strands and nodes: not satellites, but a whole orbiting network, interconnected and continuous around the entire world. It flared bright in the sunlight, opening green petals towards the system’s star. There were a thousand irregular nodes pulled into taut, angular shapes by their connecting conduits. There was a bustle to it, of constant activity.
It was a web. It was as though some unthinkable horror had begun the job of cocooning the planet before it fed on it. It was a single vast web in geostationary orbit about the planet, and Kern’s metal home was just one pinpoint within its myriad complexity.
Holsten thought about those thousand, thousand transmissions from Kern’s World, but not from Kern herself. He thought about those hateful whispers telling the Gilgamesh, impossibly, to turn around and go away. Abandon hope, all ye
who enter …
The drones were arrowing in now, still seeking out Kern’s satellite, because their programming had somehow not prepared them for this.
“Spiders …” said Karst slowly. His eyes were roving around, seeking desperately for inspiration. “It’s not possible.” There was a pleading edge to his voice.
Holsten just stared at that vast snare laid around the planet, seeing more detail every second as the drones closed with it. He saw things moving across it, shuttling back and forth. He saw long strands reaching out into space from it, as though hungry for more prey. He thought he saw other lines reaching down towards the planet itself. His skin was crawling, and he remembered his brief stay on the planet, the deaths of the mutineers.
“No,” said Karst flatly, and, “No,” again. “It’s ours. It’s ours. We need it. I don’t care what the fuck the bastards have done with it. We’ve nowhere else to go.”
“What are you going to do?” Holsten asked faintly.
“We are going to fight,” Karst stated, and his sense of purpose returned with those words. “We are going to fight Kern, and we are going to fight … that. We are coming home, you hear me? That’s home now. It’s all the home we’ll ever have. And we will mass-driver the fucking place from orbit if we have to, to make it ours. We’ll burn them out. We’ll burn them all out. What else have we got?”
He rubbed at his face. When he took his hands away, he seemed composed. “Right, I need more minds on this. Alpash, it’s time.”
The engineer nodded.
“Time for what?” Holsten demanded. “Time to wake up Lain,” Karst replied.