Chapter no 52

Children of Time

“Hah!” Karst shouted at the screens. “That screws over their fucking radio.”

“It’s not exactly a killer blow.” Lain rubbed at her eyes with the heel of one hand.

“It doesn’t deal with the implications of them having radio in the first place,” Holsten remarked. “What are we dealing with here? Why aren’t we even asking that question?”

“It’s obvious,” came the terse voice of Vitas from over the comms.

“Then please explain, because precious little is looking obvious to me right now,” Lain suggested. She was concentrating on the screens, and Holsten had the impression that her words had more to do with being irritated at Vitas’s superior manner.

“Kern’s World was some sort of bioengineering planet,” Vitas’s disembodied voice explained. “She was creating these things. Then, knowing we were returning, she’s broken them out of stasis at last, and has deployed them against us. They’re fulfilling their programming even after the destruction of her satellite.”

Holsten tried to catch the eyes of Lain or Karst or, indeed, anyone, but he seemed to have faded into the background again.

“What does that mean the surface is going to be like?” Karst asked uneasily.

“We may have to conduct some widespread cleansing,” Vitas confirmed with apparent enthusiasm.

“Wait,” Holsten muttered.

Lain cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Please let’s … not repeat their mistakes. The Empire’s mistakes.” Because sometimes I feel that’s all we’ve been doing. “It sounds like you’re talking about poisoning the planet to death, so we can live on it.”

“It may be necessary, depending on surface conditions. Allowing uncontrolled biotechnology to remain on the surface would be considerably worse,” Vitas stated.

“What if they’re sentient?” Holsten asked.

Lain just watched, eyes hooded, and it looked as though Karst hadn’t really understood the question. It was now Holsten versus the voice of Vitas.

“If that is the case,” Vitas considered, “it will only be in the sense that a computer might be considered sentient. They will be following instructions, possibly in a way that gives them considerable leeway in order to react to local conditions, but that will be all.”

“No,” said Holsten patiently, “what if they are actually sentient. Alive and independent, evolved?” Exalted, came the word inside his head. The exaltation of beasts. But Kern had spoken only of her beloved monkeys.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Vitas snapped, and surely they all heard the tremble in her voice. “In any event, it doesn’t matter. The logic of the prisoners’ choice holds. Whatever we are ranged against, it is doing its best to destroy us. We must respond accordingly.”

“Another drone gone,” Karst announced. “What?” Lain demanded.

“With the hull sensors being picked off I’m trying to keep tabs on the fuckers with drones, but they’re taking them out. I’ve only got a handful left.”

“Any armed like the ones that took down Kern?” the old

engineer asked.

“No, and we couldn’t use them, anyway. They’re on the hull. We’d damage the ship.”

“It may be too late for that,” Alpash commented levelly. He showed them one of the last drone images. A group of spiders was clustered at one of the shuttle-bay doors. A new line in the metal was visible, flagged by a ghost of dispersing vapour down its length.

“Fuckers,” said Karst solemnly. “You’re sure we can’t electrify the hull?” That had been a hot topic of conversation before they tried the EMP burst. Alpash had been trying to work up a solution for a localized electrical grid around wherever the spiders were located, but the infrastructure for it simply was not there, let alone the enormous energy that would be needed to accomplish it. Talk had then devolved towards lower-tech solutions.

“You’ve got your people armed and ready?”

“I’ve got a fucking army. We’ve woken up a few hundred of the best candidates from cargo and put disruptors into their hands. Assuming the little bastards can be disrupted. If not, well, we’ve broken out the armoury. I mean,” and his voice trembled a little, small cracks evident from a deep, deep stress, “the ship’s so fucked a few more holes won’t make any difference, will they? And anyway, we can still stop them getting in. But if they do get in … we may not be able to contain them.” He fought over that “may,” his need for optimism crashing brutally into the wall of circumstances. “It’s not like this ship was laid out with this kind of situation in mind. Fucking oversight, that was.” And a rictus grin.

“Karst …” Lain began, and Holsten—always a little behind

—thought she just wanted to shut him up and spare him embarrassment.

“I’ll get suited up,” the security chief said. Lain just watched him, saying nothing.

“What?” Holsten stared. “Wait, no …”

Karst essentially ignored him, eyes fixed on the ancient engineer.

“You’re sure?” Lain herself seemed anything but.

Karst shrugged brutally. “I’m doing fuck all good up here. We need to go clear those vermin off the hull.” There was precious little enthusiasm in his voice. Perhaps he was waiting for Lain to give some convincing reason that he should stay. Her creased face was twisted in indecision, though, an engineer seeking a solution to a technical problem she could not overcome.

At that point Holsten’s console flickered into activity again, and he realized the attackers on the outside had located the clear channels that Karst had been using to control his drones; and that Karst would soon be using to communicate with the ship. It was Holsten’s job to notify everyone the moment the spiders made this discovery, but he said nothing, part of him staring at the sudden patchy scatter of signals being picked up by the Gilgamesh’s surviving receivers, the rest of him listening to the conversation going on behind him.

“Your team?” Lain prompted at last.

“My core team are suited and ready,” Karst confirmed. “It looks like we might have a fight the moment we open the airlock. Little bastards could be out there already, cutting in.” Nobody was arguing with him, but he went on, “I can’t ask them to go and me stay behind,” and then, “This is what I’m for, isn’t it? I’m not a strategist. I’m not a commander. I lead people: my team.” He stood before Lain like a general who had disappointed his queen and now felt that he had only one way to redeem himself. “Let’s face it. Security was only ever here to keep Key Crew and cargo in place for the duration of the trip. But if we have to be soldiers, then we’ll be soldiers, and I’ll lead.”

“Karst …” Lain started, and then dried up. Holsten wondered whether she had been about to say something bizarrely trite, some piece of social ornament like, If you don’t want to go, then don’t. But they were long past what people

did or didn’t want to do. Nobody had wanted the situation they found themselves in now, and their language, like their technology, had been pared down to only those things essential to life. Nothing else, none of the fripperies and flourishes, had been cost-effective to maintain.

“I’ll get suited up,” the security chief repeated tiredly, with a nod. He paused as though he wanted to throw out some more military form of acknowledgement, a salute from those about to die, and then he turned and left.

Lain watched him go, leaning on her metal stick, and there was a similar ramrod stiffness to her bearing despite her crooked spine. Her bony knuckles were white, and everyone in that room was watching her.

She took two deliberate steps until she was at Holsten’s shoulder, then glowered about her at the handful of Tribe engineers still left in comms.

“Get to work!” she snapped at them. “There’s always something that needs fixing.” Having dispersed their attention, she took a deep breath, then let it out, close enough to Holsten’s ear that he heard the faint wheezing of her lungs. “He was right, wasn’t he?” she said very softly, for his ears only. “We need to clear them from the hull, and the security detail will fight better if Karst’s out there with them.” It was not that she had told the man to go, but a word from her might have stopped him.

Holsten glanced up at her and tried to make himself nod, but something went wrong with the motion, and the result was meaningless and noncommittal.

“What’s this?” Lain demanded abruptly, noticing the stream of signals on his screen.

“They found our gap. They’re transmitting.”

“Then why the fuck didn’t you say?” She called out, “Karst?” then waited until Alpash confirmed that she was connected to the man. “We’re changing frequencies, so get your people ready,” next giving him the new clear channel.


“Vitas is wrong,” he told her. “They’re not biological machines. They’re not just Kern’s puppets.”

“And how are you supposed to have worked that one out?” “Because of how they communicate.”

She frowned. “You’ve cracked that now? And didn’t think to tell anyone?”

“No … not what they’re saying, but the structure. Isa, I’m a classicist, and a lot of that is a study of language—old languages, dead languages, languages from an age of humanity that doesn’t exist any more. I’d stake my life that these signals are actually language rather than just some sort of instructions. It’s too complex, too intricately structured. It’s inefficient, Isa. Language is inefficient. It evolves organically. This is language—real language.”

Lain squinted down at the screen for a few seconds until the transmissions abruptly cut off, as the jamming switched frequencies. “What difference does it make?” she asked quietly. “Does it get Vitas’s fucking prisoners out of their cells? It doesn’t, Holsten.”


“Tell me how it helps us,” she invited. “Tell me how any of this … speculation does us any good. Or is it just like all the rest of your bag of tricks? Academic in every sense of the word.”

“We’re ready,” came Karst’s voice at that moment, as though he had been politely waiting for her to finish. “We’re in the airlock. We’re about to open the hatch.”

Lain’s face was like a death mask. She had never been intended as a commander, either. Holsten could see every one of those centuries of hard decisions in the lines on her face.

“Go,” she confirmed, “and good luck.”

Karst had a squad of twenty-two ready to go, and that used up

all the heavy EVA suits that were still functioning. Another twelve were currently being worked on, and he was only grateful that the Tribe had needed to go out and make patch repairs on the hull, or he might not even be able to field that many soldiers. Soldiers: he thought of them as soldiers. Some of them actually were soldiers, military woken up from cargo either this time or the last time, added piecemeal to the security detail whenever he had needed a bit more muscle. Others were veterans of his team: Key Crew who had been with him from the start. He was taking only the best, which in this case meant almost everyone who had the appropriate EVA training.

He remembered very clearly when he himself had gone through that training. It had seemed a complete waste of time, but he had wanted to win a place in Key Crew on the Gilgamesh and it had been something they had been looking for. He had spent months bumbling about in orbit, learning how to move in zero gravity, how to step with magnetic boots, acclimatizing to the nausea and the disorientation of such a hostile and inimical environment.

Nobody had mentioned fighting an army of spiders for the survival of the human race, but Karst half-fancied he might have imagined it, day-dreamed it back when he was young and the Gilgamesh project was still just an idea. Surely he had seen himself standing on the hull of a mighty, embattled colony ship, weapon to hand, beating away the alien horde.

Now, in the airlock, his breath loud in his ears and the suit’s confines pressing and leaden, it didn’t seem at all as much fun as he had imagined.

The hatch they were about to exit through was set in the floor, from where he was standing. There would be a vertiginous shift of perspective as they got out, carabinered to one another and trying not to be flung off the ship’s side by the rotating section’s centripetal force. Then they would have to trust to their boots to hold them, progressing along a surface that would constantly try to dislodge them. Things would have been easier, perversely, had they been accelerating or

decelerating in deep space, with the inner sense of “down” falling towards the front or the rear of the ship, and the rotating sections stilled, but they were in orbit now, free falling around the planet, and therefore forced to fake their own gravity.

“Chief!” one of his team warned. “We’re losing air.”

“Of course we’re—” Then he stopped, because he hadn’t given the order to open the external doors. They had been standing here on the brink for some time and the words had been reluctant to emerge. Now someone—something—was forcing his hand.

Somewhere on the hatch there must be a pinhole letting out their air. The spiders were out there, right now, trying to claw their way in.

“Everyone latch down and lock your boots,” he ordered and, now he was faced with action, the thoughts were coming smoothly and without undue emotional embroidery. “You’d better crouch low. I want the outer door opened quick as you like, without the air venting first.”

One of the Tribe confirmed his instructions in his ear, and Karst followed his own advice.

Instead of the steady grinding of the hatch that he expected, someone had obviously taken that “quick as you like” to heart and activated some sort of emergency override, snapping the hatch open within seconds so that the pressurized air around them thundered through the resulting breach like a hammer. Karst felt it raking at him, trying to drag him out with it, to enjoy the vast open vistas of the universe. But his lines and boots held, and he weathered the storm. One of his team was immediately torn loose beside him, yanked halfway through the opening and only saved by her anchoring line. Karst reached out and grabbed her glove, clumsily pulling her back until she was against the subjective floor beside the gaping hole.

He saw some fragments, then: jointed legs and a torn-open

something that must have been most of a body caught by the mechanism of the hatch. Beyond …

Beyond were the enemy.

They were in disarray, crawling over one another. Several had been battered away by the decompression, and he hoped that a few had been lost to space, but there were at least three or four dangling out at the end of threads and beginning to climb back up towards the hatch. Karst aimed his gun. It was built into his glove, and was a refreshingly simple piece of kit, overall. Nothing in the airless wastes of vacuum would stop a chemical propellant working if it contained its own oxygen, and the airless void should be a perfect marksman’s paradise, his range limited only by the curve of the Gilgamesh’s hull.

He wanted to say something inspiring or dramatic but, in the end, the sight of the creeping, leg-waving, spasmodically scuttling monsters so horrified him that, “Kill the fuckers,” was all he could manage.

He shot but missed three times, trying to adjust for the surreal perspective and mistaking the distance and size of his quarry, his suit’s targeting system mulish about locking on to the little vermin. Then he caught it, sending one of the beasts that still remained on the hull spinning away. His team were shooting as well, careful and controlled, and the spiders were plainly utterly unprepared for what was happening. Karst saw their angular, leggy bodies being hurled away on all sides, the dead ones dangling straight out from the hull like macabre balloons.

Some of them were returning fire, which gave him a nasty turn. They had some sort of weapons, though the projectiles were slow and bulky compared to the sleek zip of bullets from the human-made guns. For a moment Karst thought that they were throwing stones again, but the missiles were something like ice or glass. They shattered against the armoured suits, causing no damage.

The spiders were unexpectedly resilient, clad in some sort of close-woven armour that had them dancing about under the

impact of the bullets without necessarily letting any penetrate, and Karst and his fellows had to hose several of them with shot before something got through.

They exploded quite satisfactorily, though, once they died. Soon, if there were any enemy survivors, they had fled;

Karst paused a moment, reporting back to Lain before taking

the big step of putting himself outside on the hull, out before the curtailed horizon of the Gilgamesh.

Then there was nothing for it—so he went.

The heavy EVA suits were proper military technology, although most of the actual military systems Karst would have liked to have accessed were not online or had been removed entirely. After all, the engineers had not needed sophisticated targeting programs when going out to make repairs. Like everything else that survived of the human race, a tyranny of priorities had come into force. Still, the suits were reinforced at the joints, and armoured everywhere else, with servos to help the determined space warrior actually move about in them. They had an extended air supply, recycled waste, controlled temperature and, if the hull sensors had actually been left intact, then Karst would have had a lovely little map of everything around him. As it was, he climbed laboriously through the hatch in a second skin that bulked out his torso and each limb to twice its actual circumference, feeling hot and cramped, sensing the slight shudder as ancient and lovingly maintained servomotors considered each second whether or not they would relinquish the ghost and seize up. Some of the suits still had functioning jet packs to allow for limited manoeuvring while away from the hull, but fuel was at a premium, and Karst had given the order to save it for emergencies. He was unconvinced that using the antiquated, oft-repaired flight packs was not just one step too far towards a death-trap.

His image of his surroundings was the cluttered and narrow view from his faceplate, and a handful of feeds from cameras on his squad-mates’ suits, which he was having difficulty

matching up to the actual individuals concerned.

“Lain, can you send everyone instructions on a formation, and their place in it?” It felt like admitting defeat, but he did not have the tools that the suit’s inventor had anticipated to hand. “I need eyes looking out every way. We’re heading for Shuttle Bay Seven doors. Close this airlock behind us. And the outer door’s compromised somewhere—”

“It’s not closing,” came Alpash’s voice. “It … something’s gone wrong.”

“Well …” and then Karst realized he had nothing much to say to that. He could hardly demand they came out and fixed it right now. “Well, seal the inner door until we return. We’re going now.”

Then Lain’s instructions came through: showing them her best guess at a route to take, and a formation for the security team to fall into, eyes focused all around.

“We’ve got another drone launching,” she added. “I’ll send it far out to look down on you, and patch it into your … fuck.”

“What?” Karst demanded immediately.

“No drone. Just get to the shuttle bay, double-time.”

“You try fucking double-time in these things.” But Karst was moving, the point of the arrow, and his team shambled into place, step after hulking metal step along the hull. “And let me guess: drone bay after the shuttle, right?”

“Well done.”

The drone had simply not got out of the bay, hanging tangled in webbing that its sensors could not even detect, its launch hatch still open. Holsten had no idea what sort of access the drone bays gave to the rest of the ship, but Lain was already sending people that way, so presumably that meant the creatures were aboard.

They had camera feeds from Karst and a handful of his people, though by no means all, recording their slogging progress outside on the hull, constantly surveying the ground

before them over that truncated horizon.

“Blind!” hissed Lain furiously. The network of hull sensors was in pieces, hundreds of maintenance-hours of damage inflicted in just minutes. “Where are they, then? Where else?”

Holsten opened his mouth—another chance for a trite and meaningless remark, and then alarms began to go off.

“Hull breach in cargo,” Alpash said flatly, and then, with a curious deadness to his tone, “That’s a second breach, of course. After the impact earlier.”

“There’s already a hole in cargo,” Lain echoed the sentiment, eyes seeking out Holsten’s. “They’re probably already inside.”

“Then why make another hole?”

“Cargo’s big,” Alpash said. “They must be boring in all over the ship. They don’t need hatches. We …” His eyes were wide as he looked at Lain beseechingly. “What are we going to do?”

“Cargo …” Holsten thought of those thousands of sleepers, oblivious in their little plastic coffins. He thought of spiders descending upon them, coasting in the gravity-free vacuum towards their prey. He thought of eggs.

Perhaps Lain harboured similar thoughts. “Karst!” she snapped. “Karst, we need your people inside.”

“We’re coming up on the shuttle-bay hatch now,” Karst reported, as though he hadn’t heard.

“Karst, they’re inside,” Lain insisted.

There was a pause, though the clomping progress of the cameras didn’t slow. “Get people there from the inside. I’ll deal with this, then we’ll head back in. Or do you want them actually right outside your door?”

“Karst, cargo is without gravity and atmosphere, I can’t just send—” Lain started.

“Let me kill this nest and then we’ll be back,” Karst spoke

over her. “We’ll keep a lid on it, don’t worry.” He sounded maddeningly calm.

Then another transmission came in from aboard the ship, a moment of garbled shouting and screaming … then nothing.

Silence followed. Lain and Alpash and Holsten stared at one another, appalled.

“Who was that?” the ancient engineer asked at last. “Alpash, what did we …?”

“I don’t know. I’m trying … Call in, please, call in, all …”

There was a flurry of brief acknowledgements from different groups of the Tribe and reawakened military across the ship, and Holsten could see Alpash checking them off. Even before they had finished someone was shouting, “They’re here! Get out, get out. They’re inside!”

“Confirm your position.” Alpash’s voice was strained. “Lori, confirm your position!”

“Alpash—” Lain started.

“That’s my family,” the younger engineer said. He was away from his station, suddenly. “That’s our living quarters. They’re all in there: my kin, our children.”

“Alpash, stay at your post!” Lain ordered him, hand trembling on her stick, but her authority—the leverage of her age and pedigree—was right now just smoke. Alpash had the hatch open and was gone.

“There they are,” came Karst’s triumphant shout over the comms, and then: “Where are the rest of them?”

Lain’s mouth opened, her eyes dragged irresistibly towards the screens. There was a handful of spiders about the shuttle-bay hatch, caught in the glare of the sun, long, angular shadows cast down the length of the hull. Less, though, than there had been, and perhaps that just meant that the others had gone for easier access points. The chaos over the comms showed that the creatures were establishing beachheads all over the ship.

“Karst …” from Lain, surely too quietly for him to respond.

Holsten saw one of the spiders abruptly shatter, torn open by a shot from Karst or one of his team. Then someone shouted, “Behind us,” and the camera views were swinging around, giving wheeling views of the hull and the stars.

“I’m caught!” came from someone, and others of the security team were no longer moving. Holsten saw one man, pinned in the camera view of a comrade, fighting something unseen, slapping and pulling at his suit, the drifting net of threads that had ensnared him invisible yet too strong to break.

The spiders were emerging then, racing along the curve of the hull with a speed that laughed at Karst’s plodding progress. Others were steering down from above, where they had been drifting at the end of more thread, climbing up against the outwards force of the rotating section; climbing to where they could leap on Karst and his men.

Karst’s upraised gun/glove, at the corner of his camera, flashed and flared, trying to track the new targets, killing at least one. They saw one of Karst’s people being hit by friendly fire, boots torn off the hull by the impact, falling away from the ship to end up jerking on the end of an unseen line, as an eight-legged monster came inching up towards his helpless, flailing form. Men and women were shouting, shooting, screaming, trying to run away at their leaden, crippled pace.

Karst stumbled back two heavy paces, still shooting, seeing his helmet display record the remaining rounds in his helical magazine. More by luck than judgement, he picked one of the creatures off as it alighted on the woman next to him, spraying freezing pieces of carapace and viscera that rattled as they bounced off him. She was caught in the webbing the little bastards had seeded the hull with, just great loose clouds of the fine stuff that had half his people now completely ensnared.

His ears were full of people shouting: his team, others from inside the ship, even Lain. He tried to remember how to shut down the channels: it was all too loud; he couldn’t think. The

thunder of his own hoarse breathing roared over it, like a hyperventilating giant bellowing at each ear.

He saw another of his people fly loose from the hull, cancelling the grip of his boots without anything else to secure him. He just flew away, ascending into the infinite. If his suit had thrusters, they weren’t working now. The luckless man just kept going, receding into the infinite, as though he just could not abide to share the ship with the busy monsters intent on getting inside it.

Another spider landed on the trapped woman beside Karst, just sailing in at the end of a colossal leap, its legs outstretched. He could hear her screaming, and he stumbled forwards, trying to aim at the thing as the woman flailed and bludgeoned at it with her gloved hands.

It was clinging to her, and Karst saw it carefully line up its mouthparts, or some mechanism attached to them, and then hunch forwards, lancing her between the plates of her suit with sudden, irresistible force.

The suit would seal around a puncture, of course, but that would not help against whatever she had been injected with. Karst tried to call up medical information from her suit, but he could not remember how. She had gone still, just swaying limply against the anchor point of her magnetic boots. Whatever it was, it was quick-acting.

He finally managed to turn off all the voices in his head, leaving only his own. There was a moment of blessed calm in which it seemed possible, somehow, that he could regain control of the situation. There would be some magic word, some infinitely efficacious command that a truly gifted leader could give, one that would restore the rightful arrow of evolution and allow humanity to triumph over these aberrations.

Something landed on his back.

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