Chapter no 56

Children of Time

Helena Holsten Lain reclines in her webbing, feeling at ease in the zero gravity, whilst around her the rest of the crew complete their pre-launch checks.

The ship has two names and they both mean the same thing: Voyager. Helena does not know that this was once, in a long-ago age, the name for a pioneering human space vehicle, one that might, millennia after its launch, still be speeding through the cosmos somewhere, a silent record of achievement long forgotten by its makers’ descendants.

There is nothing of the long-dismantled Gilgamesh in the Voyager, save the ideas. The old technology of Earth, so painstakingly husbanded by Helena’s great-great-grandmother, has been resurrected, rediscovered, built upon and advanced. The scientists amongst the spiders first learned what the humans could teach, about their technology of metal and electricity, computers and fusion drives. After that, they taught it back to their tutors’ children, broadened and enhanced by a non-human perspective. In the same way, human minds have unravelled the threads of the spiders’ own complex biotechnology and offered their insights. Both species have limits they cannot easily cross: mental, physical, sensory. That is why they need each other.

The Voyager is a living thing with a fusion-reactor heart, a vast piece of bioengineering with a programmable nervous system and a symbiotic ant colony that regulates, repairs and improves it. It carries a crew of seventy, and the stored genetic material of tens of thousands of others, and hundreds of thousands of Understandings. This is a vessel of exploration, not a desperate ark ship, but the journey will last many sleeping years, and the precautions seemed wise.

The two peoples of the green world work together in easy harmony now. There was a generation of wary caution on both sides, but once the nanovirus had taken down those barriers— between species and between individuals—so much potential tragedy was already averted. Life is not perfect, individuals will always be flawed, but empathy—the sheer inability to see those around them as anything other than people too— conquers all, in the end.

Communication was always the great problem at the start, Helena knows. Spiders lack the ability to hear speech as anything more than a tickling of the feet; while humans lack the sensitive touch required to detect the wealth of arachnid language. Technology on both sides came to the rescue, of course, and there was always the sour, recalcitrant presence of Avrana Kern. The common language, everyone’s second language, is that curious mangled Imperial C that Kern and the spiders worked out between them when she was still the Messenger, and they her faithful. The dead language lives on. Helena’s great-great-grandfather would find that thought hilarious, no doubt.

All of the living ship’s systems are within tolerance, the organic readouts confirm. Helena adds her own confirmation to the chorus, waiting for the word. She is not the commander of this mission. That honour goes to Portia, the spiders’ first ever interstellar pioneer. Hunched in her own webbing slung from the ceiling—or at least the curved side of their chamber that faces Helena’s, the spider considers the moment for a few seconds, exchanges quick radio communication with the dock and with the world below, and then speaks to the ship itself.

When you wish.

The ship’s response, though positive, has a fragment of the dry wit of Doctor Avrana Kern. Its biomechanical intelligence is extrapolated from what she once was: a child of Kern budded off her, with her blessing.

With awesome, colossal grace, the Voyager reconfigures its shape for optimum efficiency and detaches itself from the

orbital web, a structure vastly grander than when the Gilgamesh first saw it, and now blooming with green solar collectors, dotted with other amorphous spacecraft that have already plotted the extent of the green planet’s solar system.

The Voyager is more fuel-efficient than the Gilgamesh—or even than the Old Empire’s vessels, according to Kern. Sometimes all it takes, to crack a problem, is a new perspective. The vessel’s reactor can accelerate smoothly and constantly for far longer, decelerate likewise, and the ship’s fluid internal structure will protect the crew from extremes of acceleration far more effectively. The journey out will be a sleep of mere decades, not millennia or even centuries.

Still, it is a grand step, and not to be taken lightly. Although returning to the stars was always a certainty that both species had worked hard towards, nobody would ever have suggested reaching out there quite yet, if it had not been for the signal, the message.

Out of all the points of light in the sky, one of them is talking. It is not saying anything comprehensible, but the message is plainly something more than mere static, something more structured than the orderly calls of pulsars or any other known phenomenon of the universe. The work, in short, of intelligence, where there should be none. How could the people of the green planet ignore such a beacon?

The Voyager begins its long acceleration, gently stressing the bodies of its crew, realigning its internal geometry. Soon they will sleep, and when they wake there will be a new world awaiting them. An unknown world of perils and wonders and mystery. A world that calls out for them. Not an alien world, though, not entirely. The ancient progenitors of the people of the green planet walked there once. It exists on the Gilgamesh’s star maps, another island in the strung-out terraformers’ archipelago that was left to its own devices by the collapse of the Old Empire.

After all the years, the wars, the tragedies and the loss, the spiders and the monkeys are returning to the stars to seek their


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