Chapter no 54

Children of Time

They could hear Karst shouting and screaming for an appallingly long time, his microphone fixed on an open channel. His suit camera gave them blurred glimpses of hull, stars, other struggling figures. Lain was shouting at him in a cracked voice, urging him to get inside the ship, but Karst was past hearing her, instead fighting furiously with something they could not see. From the fumbling of his gloves, glimpsed briefly in the periphery of the image, it looked as though he was trying to pry his own helmet off.

Then abruptly he cut off, and for a moment they thought he had simply ceased transmitting, but his channel remained open, and now they heard a gurgling sound, a wet choking. The wild movement of the camera had ceased, and the starfield drifted past Karst’s view almost peacefully.

“Oh, no, no, no …” Lain got out, before a segmented leg arched up from beyond the camera’s view to plant itself on Karst’s faceplate. They only saw a piece of the thing as it crouched on his shoulder, bunching itself for better purchase. A hairy arachnid with a shimmering exoskeleton, and a suggestion of curved fangs within some kind of mask: man’s oldest fear waiting for him here at the outer reach of human expansion, already equipped for space.

There were reports coming in from all across the ship, by then. Teams of engineers were suiting up—lightweight work suits without any of the armour or systems that had done Karst so little good—and heading into the hostile, contested territory of the cargo holds. Others were trying to repel boarders wherever the scuttling creatures had entered. The problem was that, with the hull sensors torn up in so many places, the Gilgamesh could only make a poor guess at precisely where

they had broken in.

For bitter minutes Lain tried to coordinate the various groups, some of them out there on Command orders, others just vigilantes from the Tribe, or woken cargo who had been awaiting a replacement suspension chamber.

Then something changed around them. Holsten and Lain exchanged glances, both knowing instantly that something was wrong, but neither able to quite say what. Something ubiquitous, never consciously noted and always taken for granted, had gone away.

And at the last Lain said, “Life-support.”

Holsten felt his chest freeze at the very thought. “What?”

“I think …” She looked at her screens. “Air circulation has ceased. The vents have shut off.”

“Which means—?”

“Which means don’t do any more breathing than you have to, because we’re suddenly short on oxygen. What the fuck is



The old engineer screwed her face up. “Vitas? What’s going on?”

“I’ve shut the air off, Lain.” There was a curious tone to the scientist’s voice, somewhere between determined and frightened.

Lain’s eyes were fixed on Holsten, trying to take strength from him. “Would you care to explain why?”

“The spiders have released some sort of chemical or biological weapon. I’m segmenting the ship, cutting off areas that haven’t been infected yet.”

“Cutting off areas that haven’t been infected?”

“I’m afraid it’s quite widespread,” Vitas’s voice confirmed almost briskly, like a doctor trying to cover bad news with a

smile. “I think I can work around those areas and restore a limited air circulation that’s uncontaminated, but for now …”

“How do you know all this?” Lain demanded.

“My assistants in the lab here have all collapsed. They’re suffering some sort of fit. They’re completely oblivious.” A tiny, swiftly quashed tremor lay behind the words. “I myself am in a sealed test chamber. I was working on a biological weapon of my own to win the war, annihilate the species without having to fire a shot. How could we know they’d beat us to it?”

“I don’t suppose that’s near completion?” Lain asked, without much hope.

“I’m close, I think. The Gilgamesh’s records on old Earth zoology are rather incomplete. Lain, we’re going to have to—”

“Route uncontaminated air,” the engineer finished. She was hunched over a console, trembling hands stabbing at it in desperate, jagged flurries. She looked older, as though the last hour had loaded another decade on to her shoulders. “I’m on it. Holsten, you need to warn our people, get them to put on masks, or fall back to … to … to wherever I’ll tell you in …”

Holsten was already doing his best, fighting the Gilgamesh’s intermittently unreliable interface, calling up each group he could locate on the system. Some did not answer. The spiders’ weapon was spreading invisibly from compartment to compartment even as Vitas and Lain fought to seal it off.

He raised Alpash with a surge of relief. “They’re using gas or something—”

“I know,” the Tribe engineer confirmed. “We’re masked. Won’t work for long, though. This is emergency kit.” His voice sounded weirdly exhilarated, despite it all.

“Lain’s preparing a …” the proper words fell into place just in time “… fall-back position. Have you seen any—?”

“We just shot the fuck out of one bunch of them,” Alpash

confirmed fiercely. It occurred to Holsten that the fight was different for the Tribe. Yes, intellectually he knew that the Gil was the only haven for all mankind, and that his species’ survival depended on it right now, but it was still just a ship to him, a means of crossing from one place to another. To Alpash and his people it was home. “Right, well you should fall back to …” and by that time Lain had prepared a route, working with furious concentration while her breath wheezed in and out between her lips.

“Vitas?” the old engineer barked.

“Still here.” The bodiless voice sounding no more distant than the scientist’s usual tones.

“All this compartmentalization is going to hamper your own weapon’s dispersal, I take it?”

Vitas made a curious noise: perhaps it was meant as a laugh, but there was a knife edge of hysteria to sabotage it. “I’m … behind enemy lines. I’m cut off, Lain. If I can brew something up, I can get it to the … to them. And I’m close. I’ll poison the lot of them.”

Holsten made contact with another band of fighters, heard a brief cacophonic slice of shouting and screaming, and then lost them. “I think you’d better hurry,” he said hoarsely.

“Fuck,” Lain spat. “I’ve lost … we’re losing safe areas.” She bunched her crabbed hands. “What’s—?”

“They’re moving through the ship,” came Vitas’s ghostly voice. “They’re cutting through the doors, the walls, the ducts.” The shakiness was growing in her tone. “Machines, they’re just machines. Machines of a dead technology. That’s all they can be. Biological weapons.”

“Who the fuck would make giant spiders as biological weapons?” Lain growled, still recalibrating her sealed areas, sending fresh instructions for Holsten to relay to the rest of the crew.

“Lain …”

There was something in the scientist’s voice that made the two of them stop.

“What is it?” Lain demanded.

There was a long gap into which Lain spoke Vitas’s name several times without response, and then: “They’re here. In the lab. They’re here.”

“You’re safe? Sealed off?”

“Lain, they’re here,” and it was as though all the human emotion that Vitas so seldom gave rein to had been saved up for this moment, just to cram into her quivering voice and scream out of every word. “They’re here, they’re here, they’re looking at me. Lain, please, send someone. Send help, someone, please. They’re coming towards me, they’re—” And then a shriek so loud that it cut the transmission into static for a second. “They’re on the glass! They’re on the glass! They’re coming through! They’re eating through the glass! Lain! Lain, help me! Please, Lain! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Holsten never got to know what Vitas was sorry for, and there were no more words. Even over the woman’s screaming, they actually heard the almighty crack as the spiders broke into her test chamber.

Then Vitas’s voice abruptly died away, just a shuddering exhalation left out of all that terrified noise. Lain and Holsten exchanged glances, neither of them finding much to be hopeful about.

“Alpash,” the classicist tried. “Alpash, report?”

No more words from Alpash. Either the ambusher had become the ambushed, or perhaps the radio wasn’t functioning any more. Like everything else, like their defence of the ship itself, it was falling apart.

The lights were going out all over the Gilgamesh, one by one. The safe zones that Lain set up were compromised just as quickly, or were not as safe as the computers told her. Each band of defenders encountered its final battle, the spiders within the ship becoming only more numerous, more


And in the hold, the tens of thousands who were the balance of the human race slept on, never knowing that the battle for their future was being lost. There were no nightmares in suspension. Holsten wondered if he should envy them. He didn’t, though. Rather face the final moment with open eyes.

“It’s not looking good.” It was a rather laboured piece of understatement, an attempt to lighten Lain’s mind just for a moment. Her creased, time-worn face turned to him, and she reached out and clasped his hand with her own.

“We’ve come so far.” No indication as to whether she meant the ship or just the two of them.

They each spent a few moments in assessment of the spreading damage, and when they next spoke, it was almost together.

“I can’t raise anyone,” from Holsten.

“I’ve lost integrity in the next chamber,” from Lain.

Just us left. Or the computers are on the blink again. We lasted too long, in the end. Holsten the classicist felt that he was a man uniquely qualified to look down the road that time had set them all on. What a history! From monkey to mankind, through tool-use, family, community, mastery of the environment around them, competition, war, the ongoing extinction of so many of the species who had shared the planet with them. There had been that fragile pinnacle of the Old Empire then, when they had been like gods, and walked between the stars, and created abominations on planets far from Earth. And killed each other in ways undreamt of by their monkey ancestors.

And then us; the inheritors of a damaged world, reaching for the stars even as the ground died beneath their feet, the human race’s desperate gamble with the ark ships. Ark ship, singular now, as we’ve not heard from the rest. And still they had squabbled and fought, given way to private ambition, to

feuding, to civil war. And all that while our enemy, our unknown enemy has grown stronger.

Lain had stalked over to the hatch, her stick clacking on the floor. “It’s warm,” she said softly. “They’re outside. They’re cutting.”

“Masks.” Holsten had located some, and held one out to her. “Remember?”

“I don’t think we’ll need a private channel any more.”

He had to help her with the straps, and eventually she just sat down, hands trembling before her, looking small and frail and old.

“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I led us all to this.”

Her hand was in his, cold and almost fleshless; like soft, worn leather over bone.

“You couldn’t have known. You did what you could. Nobody could have done any better.” Just comforting platitudes, really. “Any weapons in here?”

“It’s amazing what you don’t plan for, isn’t it?” something of Lain’s dry humour returning. “Use my stick. Squash a spider for me.”

For a moment Holsten thought she was joking, but she proffered him the metal rod, and at last he accepted it, hefting its surprising weight. Was this the sceptre that had kept the nascent society of the Tribe in line, from generation to generation? How many challengers for leadership had Lain beaten down with it, through the ages? It was practically a holy relic.

It was a club. In that sense, it was a quintessentially human thing: a tool to crush, to break, to lever apart in the prototypical way that humanity met the universe head-on.

And how do they meet the world? What does the spider have as its basic tool?

Briefly he entertained the thought, They build. And it was a

curiously peaceful image, but then his console sounded, and he almost fell over the stick in lunging for it. A transmission? Someone was alive out there.

For a moment he found himself trying to drag his hand back, thinking that it would be some message from them, some garbled mess of almost-Imperial C within which that inhuman intelligence, malign and undeniable, would be hiding.

“Lain …?” came a soft and wavering voice. “Lain …? Are you …? Lain …?”

Holsten stared. There was something dreadful about the words, something shuddering, damaged, unformed.

“Karst,” Lain identified it. Her eyes were wide.

“Lain, I’m coming back,” Karst continued, sounding calmer than he had ever been. “I’m coming back in now.”

“Karst …”

“It’s all right,” came the voice of the security chief. “It’s all right. It’s all going to be all right.”

“Karst, what happened to you?” Holsten demanded. “It’s fine. I understand now.”

“But the spiders—”

“They’re …” and a long pause, as though Karst was fumbling through the contents of his own brain for the right words. “Like us … They’re us. They’re … like us.”


“We’re coming back in now. All of us.” And Holsten had the terrifying, irrational thought of a sucked-dry, withered husk within an armoured suit, but still impossibly animate.

“Holsten,” Lain clutched at his arm. There was a kind of haze in the air now, a faint chemical fog—not the killer weapon of the spiders, but whatever was eating away the hatch.

Then there was a hole near its lower edge, and something

was coming through.

For a moment they regarded one another: two scions of ancient tree-dwelling ancestors with large eyes and inquisitive minds.

Holsten hefted Lain’s stick. The spider was huge, but only huge for a spider. He could smash it. He could sunder that hairy shell and scatter pieces of its crooked legs. He could be human in that last moment. He could exalt in his ability to destroy.

But there were more of them crawling through the breach, and he was old, and Lain was older now, and he sought that other human quality, so scarce of late, and put his arms around her, holding the woman as tightly to him as he dared, the stick clattering to the floor.

“Lain …” came Karst’s ghostly voice. “Mason …” and then, “Come on, pick up the pace,” to his own people. “Cut yourself free if you’re stuck.” And the spark of impatience there was Karst’s, through and through, despite his newfound tranquillity.

The spiders spread out a little, those huge saucer eyes fixed on the two of them from behind the clear masks the creatures were wearing. Meeting that alien gaze was a shock of contact Holsten had only known before in confronting his own kind.

He saw one of the creatures’ rear legs bunch and tense. The spiders leapt, and then it was over.

You'll Also Like