Chapter no 6

Children of Time

This time they had all of Key Crew out of the morgue— Holsten almost the last one to appear, stumbling on numb feet and shivering. He looked better than a lot of them, though. His little jaunt—mere moments of personal time and over a century ago—had loosened him up. Most of the people he was now looking at had last opened their eyes while the Gilgamesh shared a solar system with the failing husk of Earth.

They were crammed into the briefing room, all grey faces and shaven heads, some of them looking malnourished, others bloated. A few had pale mottling across their skins: some side-effect of the sleep process that Holsten couldn’t guess at.

He saw Guyen, looking more alert than anyone else there, and guessed the mission commander had ordered himself to be woken early, so that he could assert his bright, brisk dominance over this room full of zombies.

Holsten checked off the departments: Command, Engineering, Science, and what looked like the whole of Security too. He tried to catch Lain’s eye but she barely glanced at him, nothing in her manner admitting to any century-ago liaison.

“Right.” Guyen’s sharp tone drew all ears as a final few stumbled in. “We’re here. We’ve made it with five per cent loss of cargo, and around three per cent system deterioration according to the engineers. I consider that the greatest vindication of the human spirit and strength of will that history has ever known. You should all be proud of what we’ve achieved.” His tone was adversarial, certainly not congratulatory, and sure enough he went on, “But the real work is yet to come. We have arrived and, as you all know,

this was supposedly a system the Old Empire spacefleet frequented. We set our course for here because these were the closest extra-solar coordinates where we could hope to find a liveable habitat, and perhaps even salvageable tech. You all know the plan: we have their star maps, and there are other such locations within a relatively short journey of here—just a short hop compared to the distances we’ve already travelled without mishap.”

Or with just five per cent mishap, Holsten thought, but did not say. Guyen’s belief in the extent of the Imperial presence within this system was also highly speculative, from the classicist’s own perspective—and even “Old Empire” was a maddeningly inaccurate term. Most of the others looked too groggy to really think beyond the words themselves, though. Again he glanced at Lain, but she seemed to be focused only on the commander.

“What most of you do not know is that the Gilgamesh intercepted transmissions emanating from this system on our way in, which have been identified as an automatic distress beacon. We have functioning technology.” He hurried on before anyone could get a question in. “The Gilgamesh has therefore plotted a flightpath solution that will brake us around the star, and on the way out we’ll come by slow enough for a meaningful pass close to the source of that signal—the planet there.”

Now his audience started waking up, and there was a rising babble of questions that Guyen waved down. “That’s right. A planet in the sweet spot, just like we were promised. It’s been thousands of years, but space doesn’t care. It’s there, and the Old Empire has left a present for us too. And that could be good or it could be bad. We’re going to have to be careful. Just so you know: the signal isn’t from the planet itself but from some sort of satellite—maybe just a beacon, maybe something more. We’re going to try and open communications with it, but no guarantees.”

“And the planet?” someone asked. Guyen indicated Renas Vitas, the head of the scientific team.

“We’re loathe to commit so far,” the slender woman began

—another who’d obviously been up for a while, or perhaps by nature unflappable. “The analysis made by Gilgamesh on our way in suggests something only slightly smaller than Earth, at close to Earth’s distance from the star, and with all the right components: oxygen, carbon, water, minerals …”

“So why not commit? Why not say it?” Holsten identified the speaker: big Karst, who led the security detail. His chin and cheeks were raw, red and peeling horribly, and Holsten remembered suddenly how the man had refused to lose his beard for the suspension chamber, and was now apparently paying the price.

I remember him arguing with Engineering over that, he thought. It should have seemed just days before, according to his personal waking history but, as he had noticed last time, there was clearly something imperfect about suspension. Certainly, Holsten could not feel the centuries that had passed since they abandoned Earth, but something in his mind acknowledged that lost time: the sense of a yawning, terrible wasteland, a purgatory of the imagination. He found himself reluctant to consider ever going back under.

“Why, in all honesty?” Vitas replied brightly. “It’s too good to be true. I want to overhaul our instruments. That planet is too Earth-like to be believed.”

Looking around at all the suddenly sour faces, Holsten raised his hand. “But of course it’s like Earth,” he got out. The looks turned on him were not encouraging: some merely creased with dislike, but rather more with exasperation. What’s the bloody classicist want now? Desperate for some attention already?

“It’s a terraforming project,” he explained. “If it’s like Earth, that just shows it’s finished—or near finished.”

“There’s no evidence the ancients ever actually practised terraforming,” Vitas told him, her tone an obvious putdown.

Let me take you through the archives: it’s mentioned a

hundred times in their writings. But instead, Holsten just shrugged, recognizing the showmanship of it all. “There is,” he told them. “Out there. We’re heading straight towards it.”

“Right!” Guyen clapped his hands, perhaps annoyed that he had not been listening to his own voice for two minutes at a stretch. “You each have your tasks, so go and make ready. Vitas, run checks on our instrumentation, as you proposed. I want us to conduct a full inspection of the planet and satellite as we close. Lain, keep a close eye on ship’s systems as we approach the star’s gravity well—the Gil’s not done anything but go in a straight line for a long time. Karst, get your people reacquainted with their kit, just in case we need you. Mason, you’re working with my people on monitoring that signal. If there’s anything active there to respond to us, I want to know about it.”

Hours later, and Holsten was almost the last person left in the Communications suite, his dogged academic patience having outlasted most of Guyen’s people. In his ear, the signal—full of static—still pulsed its single simple message, clearer now than it had been out beyond the system, and yet saying no more. He had been sending responses regularly, seeking to spur something new, an elaborate academic’s game where he formulated queries in formal Imperial C in the hope of seeming like the sort of caller that the beacon was crying out for.

He started at a sudden movement beside him, as Lain slumped into the neighbouring seat.

“How’s life in Engineering?” He took out the earpiece.

“Not supposed to be about people management,” she grunted. “We’re having to thaw out about five hundred coffins from cargo to run repairs on them. Then we’re having to tell five hundred recently awoken colonists that they need to go right back into the freezer. Security have been called in. It’s ugly. So, have you even worked out what it says yet? Who’s in distress?”

Holsten shook his head. “It’s not like that. Well, yes, it is. It

says it’s a distress beacon. It’s calling for help, but there are no specifics. It’s a standard signal the Old Empire used for that purpose, intended to be clear, urgent and unmistakable— always assuming you’re even a member of the culture that produced it. I only know what it is because our early spacefarers were able to reactivate some of the stuff they found in Earth orbit and extrapolate function from context.”

“So say ‘Hi’ to it. Let it know we’ve heard it.”

He sucked in the breath of the annoyed academic, starting off with the same pedantic, “It’s not …” before her frown made him reconsider. “It’s an automated system. It’s waiting for a response it recognizes. It’s not like those extra-solar listening-post things we used to have—searching for any kind of signal pattern at all. And even those … I was never convinced by them—by the idea that we could necessarily recognize an alien transmission for what it was. That’s too rooted in our assumption that aliens will be in any way like us. It’s … you understand the concept of cultural specificity?”

“Don’t lecture me, old man.”

“It’s—will you stop with that? I’m, what, seven years older than you? Eight?”

“You’re still the oldest man in the universe.”

Hearing that, he was very aware that he honestly did not know how the pair of them stood, one to another. So maybe I was just the last man in the universe, right then. Or me and Guyen, at most. Apparently it doesn’t matter now, anyway.

“Yeah, well, you’d been up for how long, before they woke me?” he goaded her. “Keep pulling those long hours and you’ll catch up real soon, won’t you?”

She had no ready comeback, and when he glanced at her, her face was long and pensive. This is no way to run a civilization, he thought. But of course, that’s not what we are, not any more. We’re a civilization in transport, waiting to happen somewhere else. Maybe here. We’re the last cutting of old Earth.

The pause stretched out between them, and he found he had no way of breaking its hold, until Lain abruptly shook herself and said, “So, cultural specificity. Let’s talk about that.”

He was profoundly grateful for the lifeline. “So I know it’s a distress beacon, but that is literally only because we’ve had prior contact with Imperial tech, and in sufficient context that we can make assumptions—some of which may be wrong, even. And this isn’t an alien species—this is us, our ancestors. And, in turn, they won’t recognize our signals, necessarily. There’s this myth that advanced cultures will be so expansively cosmopolitan that they’ll be able to effortlessly talk down to the little people, right? But the Empire never intended its tech to be forward-compatible with primitives— meaning us. Why would it? Like everyone else, they only ever intended to talk to each other. So I’m telling this thing, ‘Hello, here we are,’ but I don’t know what protocols and what codes their system is expecting to receive from whatever rescuer would have been planned for, however many thousand years ago. They can’t even hear us. We’re just background static to them.”

She shrugged. “So what? We get there and send Karst over with a cutting torch and open her up?”

He stared at her. “You forget how many people died, in the early space years, trying to get at Empire tech. Even with all the systems fried by their old electromagnetic pulse weapons, there were still plenty of ways for it to kill you.”

Another lift of the shoulders, indicating a tired woman at the edge of her reserves. “Maybe you forget how much I don’t like Karst.”

Did I forget? Did I ever know that? He had a vertiginous sense that maybe he had, but that any such knowledge had fallen unnoticed from his head during the long, cold age of his suspension. And it genuinely had been an age. There had been whole discrete periods of human history that had not lasted so long. He found himself holding on to the console as though, at any moment, the illusion of gravity gifted by the Gilgamesh’s

deceleration would vanish, and he would simply slip away in some random direction, with all connection lost. These are all the people there are, with the image of that roomful of near-strangers he had never had a chance to get to know before they sealed him in the coffin. This is life and society and human contact, now and forever.

It seemed to be Lain’s turn to find the silence awkward, but she was a practical woman. She simply got up to go, drawing away sharply as he tried to put a hand on her arm.

“Wait.” It came out more as a plea than he had intended. “You’re here—and I need your help.”

“On what?”

“Help me with the signal—the beacon signal. There’s always been a lot of interference, but I think … it’s possible there’s actually a second signal clashing with it on a close frequency. Look.” He passed a handful of analyses over to her screen. “Can you clean it up—compensate it out if it’s noise, or at least … something? I’m running out of things to try right now.”

She seemed relieved at actually getting a sensible request from him and resumed her seat. For the next hour the two of them worked wordlessly side by side, she with what was now her task, and he in sending increasingly desperate enquiries aimed at the satellite, none of which evinced any response. Eventually he felt that he might as well just be sending over gibberish, for all the difference it made.

Then: “Mason?” from Lain, and there was something new in her tone.


“You’re right. It is another signal.” A pause. “But we’re not getting it from the satellite.”

He waited, seeing her fingers move over the panels, checking and rechecking.

“It’s from the planet.”

“Shit! You’re serious?” And then, with a hand to his mouth. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Not language befitting the dignity of etcetera, but …”

“No, no, this is definitely a shit-worthy moment.” “It’s a distress call? It’s repeated?”

“It’s not like your distress signal. Much more complex. It must be actual live talk. It’s not repeating …”

For a moment Holsten actually felt her hope peak, pulling the air between them taut with the untold potential of the future, and then she hissed. “Bollocks.”


“No, it is repeating. It’s longer and more complicated than your distress call, but this is the same sequence again.” Hands on the move once more. “And it’s … we’re …” Her bony shoulders sagged. “It’s … I think it’s bounce.”

“Come again?”

“I think this other signal is bouncing from the planet. I … Well, most likely hypothesis: the satellite is sending a signal to the planet, and we’re catching bounce-back. Fuck, I’m sorry. I really thought …”

“Lain, are you sure?”

She cocked an eyebrow at him, because he was not joining in her dejection. “What?”

“The satellite is communicating with the planet,” he prompted. “It’s not just a bounce-back of the distress call—it’s something longer. A different message sent to the planet than for the rest of the universe.”

“But it’s just on a loop, same as …” She slowed down. “You think there’s someone down there?”

“Who knows?”

“But they’re not broadcasting.”

“Who knows? It’s a terraform world, whatever Vitas says.

It was created to be lived on. And, even if the satellite is nothing but a call for help these days, if they seeded the world with people … So maybe they really are savages. Maybe they don’t have the tech to receive or transmit, but they could still be there … on a world specifically made for humans to live on.”

She stood up suddenly. “I’m off to fetch Guyen.”

For a moment he looked at her, thinking, Seriously, that was the first thing you thought of? But he nodded resignedly and she was off, leaving him to listen in on the newfound contact between satellite and planet, and try to work out what it signified.

To his great surprise it took him very little time to do so.

“It’s what?” Guyen demanded. The news had brought along not just the commander but most of the Key Crew as well.

“A series of mathematics problems,” Holsten explained to them all. “The only reason it took me as long as it did was that I was expecting something more … sophisticated, something informative, like the beacon. But it’s maths.”

“Weird maths, too,” Lain commented, looking over his transcription. “The sequences get quite complicated, but they’re set out step by step from first principles, basic sequences.” She was frowning. “It’s like … Mason, you mentioned extra-solar listening posts before …?”

“It’s a test, yes,” Holsten agreed. “An intelligence test.” “But you said it was pointed at the planet?” Karst stated.

“Which raises all kinds of questions, yes.” Holsten shrugged. “I mean, this is very old technology. This is the oldest working tech that anyone anywhere ever discovered. So what we’re seeing could just be the result of a break-down, an error. But, yes, makes you think.”

“Or not,” Lain put in drily. When the others just stared at her, she continued in her snide tone: “Come on, people, am I the only one thinking it? Come on, Mason, you’ve been trying

to get the thing to notice you for how long now? We’ve rounded the star on our approach to the planet, and you’re still drawing blanks. So now you say it’s setting some sort of maths test for the planet?”

“Yes, but—”

“So send in the answers,” she suggested.

Holsten stared at her for a long time, then glanced sideways at Guyen. “We don’t know what—”

“Do it,” Guyen ordered.

Carefully, Holsten called up the answers he had compiled, the early problems solved easily on his fingers, the later ones only with artificial help. He had been sending plaintive signals to the distant satellite for hours. It was simple enough to dispatch the string of numbers instead.

They waited, all of the Key Crew. It took seven minutes and some seconds for the message to reach its intended destination. There was some shuffling. Karst cracked his knuckles. One of the science team coughed.

A little over fourteen minutes after sending, the distress beacon ceased.

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