Chapter no 50

Children of Time

“Rocks! They’re throwing rocks at us!” Karst declared incredulously. “They’re space-age stone-age!”

One of the console displays flickered and went out and others began to dot with baleful amber displays.

“Karst, this isn’t a warship,” Lain’s brittle voice snapped. “The Gilgamesh wasn’t designed for any sort of stresses except acceleration and deceleration, certainly not impact—”

“We have a hull breach in cargo,” Alpash reported, sounding as though someone had trampled over his holy places. “Internal doors are …” For a moment, apparently, it wasn’t clear whether they were or weren’t, but then he got out, “Sealed off, the section’s sealed off. We have … cargo loss—”

“Cargo is already in vacuum, or close to. Exposure shouldn’t cause any harm,” Vitas broke in.

“We have damage to forty-nine chambers,” Alpash told her. “From the impact, and from electrical surges resulting from the damage. Forty-nine.”

For a moment nobody felt up to following that. Half a hundred deaths from a single hit. Trivial, compared to the overall cargo manifest. Horrifying, though, to go behind that word “cargo” and think about the implications.

“We’re in orbit, one hundred and eighty kilometres out from the web,” Karst said. “We need to fight back. They’ll be throwing more stones at us.”

“Will they?” Holsten’s meagre contribution. “Maybe they’re reloading.”

“What other damage?” Vitas asked.

“I … don’t know,” Alpash admitted. “Hull sensors are … unreliable, and some have been lost. I don’t believe any essential systems have been damaged, but there may be weakening of the hull in other areas … our damage-control systems have been refined so as to concentrate on emergencies and critical areas.” Meaning that they simply hadn’t been able to properly maintain the entire network.

“We can reposition the lasers,” Karst stated, as though it was a natural sequitur to what had last been said. Perhaps in Karst’s head it was.

“We can probably reposition the ship rather more easily,” Lain told him. “Just turn him round so that the asteroid arrays are aiming towards the web. In orbit, our orientation doesn’t matter.”

Karst blinked at that, obviously still somewhat married to the idea that the front end should go first, but then he nodded. “Well, let’s start on that, then. How long?”

“Depends how responsive the systems are. We may need to do some spot repairs.”

“We may not have—”

“Fuck off, Karst. I am literally in the same boat as you. I will do it as fast as it can be done.”

“Well, right.” Karst grimaced, apparently remembering that his status as acting commander had been sidelined once they woke up Lain.

The ancient engineer lowered herself in front of one of the working consoles, a handful of her Tribe gathered around her to do her bidding. She looked terribly tired, Holsten thought, and yet there was still an energy to her he recognized. Time had fought with Lain for possession of this bent, fragile body, and so far time had lost.

“We are simply not going to be able to burn our way to control of the planet,” Vitas stated.

“Sure we are,” Karst said stubbornly. “Seriously, we can

probably cut across that entire web, just send it fucking off into space like an old … sock or something.” And then, “Shut up, Holsten,” when the classicist seemed about to take issue with his simile.

“Karst, please check the available power to the asteroid array,” Vitas said patiently.

Karst scowled. “So we recharge them.”

“Using all the energy that is currently ensuring that systems like life-support or reactor-containment keep working,” Vitas agreed. “And, even if you get it right, what then? What about the planet, Karst?”

“The planet?” He blinked at her.

“You were planning to just trip down there in a shuttle and plant a flag? If that’s what near-orbit looks like, what do you think you’d find on the surface? You’re going to laser all of that, too, are you? Or will you take a disruptor, or a gun? How many bullets do you have, precisely?”

“I’ve already got the security team and some auxiliaries woken up and armed,” Karst said stubbornly. “We’ll go down and make a beachhead, establish a base, start pushing out. We’ll burn the fuckers. What else can we do? Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody said it would happen overnight.”

“Well, it might come to that,” Vitas conceded. “And if it does, I shall stay up here and coordinate the assault, and good luck to you. However, I hope there will be a more efficient way to dispose of our pest problem. Lain, I’ll need at least one of the workshops up and running at my direction, and access to all the old files—anything we’ve still got regarding Earth.”

“What’s the plan?” Lain asked without looking back at her.

“Brew up a present for the s-s-… for them, below.” This time Vitas’s stutter was clear enough that everyone noticed it. “I don’t think it should be impossible to put together some sort of toxin that will target arthropods, something to eat away at their exoskeletons or their respiratory system, but that won’t

have any ill effect on us. After all, assuming they’re derived from actual Earth spiders, they’re essentially a completely different form of life to us. They’re not like us at all, in any way.”

Holsten, listening, heard too much emphasis on those words. He thought of broken messages in Imperial C. Had it been Kern herself, or something just parroting Kern’s words?

In the end, he supposed, it didn’t matter. Genocide was genocide. He thought of the Old Empire, which had been so civilized that it had in the end poisoned its own homeworld. And here we are, about to start ripping pieces of the ecosystem out of this new one.

Nobody was paying attention to him, especially as he wasn’t voicing any of these thoughts that entered his head, so he found a console that looked halfway operational and got into the comms system.

As he had expected, there was a great deal of broad-frequency radio activity issuing from the planet. The destruction of the Sentry Habitat meant that nothing was coming to them now as clearly—possibly it had been merely a powerful transmitter for the planet, at the end. But the green world itself was alive with urgent, incomprehensible messages.

He wanted to think of something wonderful, then: some perfect message that would somehow bring comprehension in its wake, open a dialogue, give everyone options. The cruel arithmetic of Vitas’s prisoners locked him down, though. We couldn’t trust them. They couldn’t trust us. Mutual attempts at destruction are the only logical result. He thought of human dreams—both Old Empire and new—of contacting some extra-terrestrial intelligence such as nobody had ever truly encountered. Why? Why would we ever want to? We’d never be able to communicate, and even if we could, we’d still be those same two prisoners forced to trust—and risk—or to damn the other in trying to save slightly more of our own hides.

Then there came a new transmission, from the planet direct to the ship, fainter than before, but then it was not using the satellite as a relay any more. One word in Imperial C, but absolutely clear in its meaning.


Holsten stared, opened his mouth two or three times, about to draw someone’s attention, then sent a simple message back on the same frequency.

Doctor Avrana Kern?

I told you to stay away, came the immediate, baleful response.

Holsten worked swiftly, aware that he was negotiating now not for the Gilgamesh but as Earth’s last classicist in the face of raw history. We have no option. We need to get off the ship. We need a world.

I sent you to a world, ungrateful apes. The transmission came from the planet, pulsing strongly out of the general riot of signals.

Uninhabitable, he sent. Doctor Kern, you are human. We are human. We are all the humans there are left. Please let us land. We have no other choice. We cannot turn back.

Humanity is overrated, came Kern’s dark reply. And, besides, do you think that I am making the decisions? I’m only an advisor, and they didn’t like my preferred solution to the problem that is you. They have their own ways of dealing with trouble. Go away.

Doctor Kern, we are not bluffing, we really have no option. But it was just like before: he was not getting through. Can I talk to Eliza please?

If there was anything left that was Eliza and not me you’ve just destroyed it, Kern responded. Goodbye, monkeys.

Holsten sent further transmissions, several times over, but Kern was apparently done with talking. He could hear the woman’s contemptuous voice as he read through the

impeccable Imperial C, but he was far more shaken with the ancient entity’s suggestion that the creatures on the planet would not be held back even by her. Where has her experiment taken her?

He glanced about him. Vitas had gone now, heading off for her workshop and her chemicals, ready to sterilize as much of the planet as was necessary so that her species could find a home there. Holsten wasn’t sure how much would be left of what made the place attractive for habitation, after she was finished. But what other choice have we? Die in space and leave the place to the bugs and to Kern?

“We’re still losing hull sensors,” Alpash noticed. “The impacts may have caused more damage than we thought.” He sounded genuinely worried, and that was a disease that others caught off him almost immediately.

“How can we still be losing them?” Lain demanded, still concentrating on her own work.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m sending out a drone, then. Let’s take a look,” Karst stated. “Here.” After some fumbling, he got the drone’s-eye-view up on one of the screens as it manoeuvred somewhat shakily out of its bay and coasted off down the great curving landscape of the ship’s hull. “Fuck me, this is patched to buggery,” he commented.

“Mostly from what we installed after the terraform station,” Lain confirmed. “Lots of opening her up and closing her back down to get new stuff in, or to effect repairs …” Her voice trailed off. “What was that?”

“What now? I didn’t see—” Karst started. “Something moved,” Alpash confirmed. “Don’t be stupid …”

Holsten stared, seeing the lumpy, antennae-spiked landscape pass. Then, at the corner of the screen, there was a flurry of furtive, scuttling movement.

“They’re here,” he tried to say, but his throat was dry, his voice just a whisper.

“There’s nothing out there,” Karst was saying. But Holsten was thinking, Was that some kind of thread drifting from that antenna? Why are the hull sensors going down, one by one? What is that I see moving …?

“Oh, fuck.” Karst suddenly sounded older than Lain. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

In the drone’s sight, a half-dozen grey, scrabbling forms passed swiftly over the hull, running with slightly exaggerated sureness out in the freezing, airless void, even leaping forwards, catching themselves with lines, leaving a tracery of discarded threads latticing the Gilgamesh’s exterior.

“What are they doing?” Alpash asked hollowly. Lain’s voice, at least, was steady. “Trying to get in.”

You'll Also Like