Chapter no 8

Children of Time

The reply that came back from the satellite was not intentionally encoded, but Holsten still sweated over what seemed to him an age, trying to turn the radio signal into something comprehensible. In the end, it gave up its secrets under the combined might of Lain, the Gilgamesh and himself, presenting him with a curt, brief message in classical Imperial C that he could at least make a stab at translating.

Finally, he leant back in his seat, aware that all eyes were fixed on him. “It’s a warning,” he told them. “It’s saying that we’re transmitting from incorrect coordinates, or something like that. It says we’re forbidden here.”

“It looks as though it’s warming up,” observed one of the science team, who had been taking readings from the distant object. “I see a swift increase in energy usage. Its reactor is increasing output.”

“It’s awake, then,” Guyen declared, somewhat vacuously in Holsten’s opinion.

“I reckon it’s still just automatic signals,” Lain guessed. “Tell it we’re responding to its distress call.”

Holsten had already phrased a reply in scholar’s language which read as formally as an academy exercise, then had Lain and the Gilgamesh transcribe the message into the same electronic format the satellite was using.

The waiting, as the signals danced across those millions of kilometres of void, was soon stretching everybody’s nerves.

“It’s calling itself the Second Brin Sentry Habitat,” Holsten translated eventually. “It’s basically telling us to alter our

course to avoid the planet.” Before Guyen could ask, he added, “and it’s not mentioning the distress call now. I think, because we’ve gone in with an answer to whatever it was signalling to the planet, it’s that system we’re interacting with.”

“Well, tell it who we are and tell them we’re coming to help them,” Guyen instructed him.

“Seriously, I’m not sure—” “Just do it, Mason.”

“Why would it be signalling elementary maths to the planet?” Vitas complained to nobody in particular.

“I can see all sorts of systems coming online, I think,” added her underling at the sensor suite. “This is incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I’m launching some drones, both for the sat and for the planet,” Karst announced.

“Agreed,” said Guyen.

“It doesn’t recognize us,” Holsten reported, frantically translating the latest message from the satellite, stumbling over its antique grammar. “It says we’re not authorized here. It says

… something about biological hazard.” And, at the shudder that went through the crew, “No, wait, it’s calling us an unauthorized biohazard. It’s … I think it’s threatening us.”

“How big is this thing, again?” Karst demanded.

“A little under twenty metres on its longest axis,” was the reply from the science team.

“Well, then, bring it on.”

“Karst, this is Old Empire tech,” Holsten snapped.

“We’ll see what that’s worth when the drones get there.” As the Gilgamesh was still fighting to slow down, the drones outstripped it rapidly, their own thrust hurrying them towards the planet and its lone sentinel at an acceleration that a manned craft could not have managed without pulping its occupants.

“I have another warning to divert,” Holsten reported. “Look, I think we’re in the same position as with the distress call. Whatever we’re sending it just isn’t being recognized by the system. Probably if we were supposed to be here we’d have the right codes or something.”

“You’re the classicist, so work them out,” Guyen snapped. “It’s not like that. It’s not like the Old Empire had a single

… what, password or something.”

“We have archives of Imperial transmissions, don’t we? So just strip some protocols from those.”

Holsten sent a glance of mute appeal towards Lain, but she was avoiding his gaze. Without entertaining any hope whatsoever, he began paring ID and greetings codes from those fragments of Old Empire recordings that had survived, and throwing them at random towards the satellite.

“I’ve got signal from the drones on screen,” Karst reported, and a moment later they were looking at the planet itself. It was still just a glint, barely distinct from the surrounding starfield, even with the best magnification of the drones’ electronic eyes, but they could see it growing. A minute later and Vitas pointed out the tiny pinprick shadow of its moon passing across the planet’s surface.

“Where’s the satellite?” Guyen demanded.

“Not that you’d see it at this distance, but it’s coming round from the far side, using the planet’s atmosphere and the moon to bounce its signal to us.”

“Drone parties splitting off now,” Karst reported. “Let’s take a proper look at this Brin thing.”

“More warnings. Nothing’s getting through to it,” Holsten slipped in, aware that by now nobody was really listening to him.

“Karst, remember, no damage to the satellite once you contact,” Guyen was saying. “Whatever tech’s there, we want it in one piece.”

“No problems. And there she is. Starting our run right now.”


“Relax, Commander. They know what they’re doing.”

Holsten glanced up to see the drones fixing their aim at a point on the growing green orb’s circumference.

“Look at that colour,” Vitas breathed. “Unhealthy,” Lain agreed.

“No, that’s … that’s old Earth colour. Green.”

“This is it,” one of the engineers whispered. “We’re here.

We made it.”

“Visual on the satellite,” Karst announced, highlighting a tiny glint on the screen.

“‘This is the Second Brin Sentry Habitat,’” Holsten read out insistently. “‘This planet is claimed by the …’ The, what? Something … ‘Exaltation Program, and any interference is forbidden.’”

“Exaltation what?” Lain asked sharply.

“I don’t know. I …” Holsten was racking his brains for references, hunting through the ship’s archives. “There was something about … the Old Empire fell because it descended into sinful ways. You know the myth cycle?”

A few grunts of confirmation.

“The exaltation of beasts—that was one of the sins of the ancients.”

Karst let out a yelp of surprise and moments later the transmissions from his satellite-bound drones exploded into static.

“Ah, shit! Everything heading for the satellite just died!” he bellowed.

“Lain—” Guyen started.

“Already on it. Last moments of …” A busy silence as she worked. “Here, this is the last one to go, by about a second. There—brief power surges—and the other drones are gone. Then this one goes right after. It just blew your drones, Karst.”

“What with? Why would it need a—?”

“Look, that thing could be serious military hardware, for all we know,” Lain snapped.

“Or it would need to be ready to track and deal with deep-space object impact,” suggested Vitas. “Anti-asteroid lasers, maybe?”

“I’m …” Lain was frowning at the readouts. “I’m not sure it did shoot … Karst, how open are the drone systems?”

The security chief swore.

“We are still heading towards it,” Holsten pointed out. Even as he said this, some of the other drone screens were dying—the machines Karst had been sending planetside. The satellite was snuffing them out the moment it rounded the world enough to obtain line of sight.

“What the fuck’s going on?” Karst demanded, fighting for control, sending his last pair of machines zigzagging towards the planet. A moment later there was a sudden energy spike, a colossal expenditure of power from the satellite, and one of the two surviving machines was gone.

“Now that was a shot,” Lain confirmed grimly. “That atomized the bastard.”

Karst swore foully as he coded instructions for the last machine, sending it spiralling towards the planet, trying to keep the curve of the horizon between the drone and the satellite.

“Are those weapons a danger to the Gilgamesh?” Guyen asked, and the room fell silent.

“Probably, yes.” Vitas sounded unnaturally calm. “However, given how much energy we’ve just seen, its ability to use them may be limited.”

“It won’t need a second shot at us,” Lain said grimly. “We’re not going to be able to deviate from this course—not significantly. We’re already decelerating as much as is safe— we have too much momentum. We’re plotted to come into orbit.”

“It’s telling us to leave or it will destroy us,” Holsten said tonelessly. As the Gilgamesh’s computers adapted, they became quicker at bringing him a comprehensible record of the signal, and he found that he was now reading the reproduction of an ancient script almost fluently. Even before any demands from Guyen, he was already phrasing his reply: Travellers in distress. Do not initiate hostile action. Civilian transport ship requires assistance. Lain was looking over his shoulder critically as he sent it.

“It is adjusting its positioning,” from the science team. “Pointing at us,” Guyen concluded.

“It’s an inexact comparison, but …” But yes, in the minds of everyone there.

Holsten could feel his heart hammering madly. Travellers in distress. Do not initiate hostile action. Civilian transport ship requires assistance. But the message wasn’t getting through.

Guyen opened his mouth to issue some desperate order, but Lain burst out, “Send it back its own distress call, for fuck’s sake!”

Holsten goggled at her for a moment, then let out a cry of some nameless emotion—triumph inextricably mixed with annoyance at not having thought of it himself. Moments later it was done.

There were some hard minutes, then, waiting to see how the satellite would react, to see if they had been in time. Even as Holsten returned the satellite’s own distress signal to it, the attack could already have been sent leaping across space towards them, fast enough that they would not even know until it struck.

Finally, Holsten sagged back in his seat with relief. The others were crowding round, staring at his screen, but none of them had the classical education to translate it, until he put them out of their suspense.

“‘Please hold for further communication,’” he told them, “or something like that. I think—I hope—it’s gone to wake up something more sophisticated.”

There was a murmur of conversation behind him, but he was counting the minutes until the next transmission arrived. When the screen filled instantly with code, he was elated for a fraction of a second before letting out a hiss of exasperation. “It’s gibberish. It’s just a wall of nonsense. Why is it—?”

“Wait, wait,” Lain interrupted him. “It’s a different sort of signal, that’s all. Gilgamesh has matched the encoding with some stuff in your archives, old man. It’s … hah, it’s audio. It’s speech.”

Everyone was silent once more. Holsten glanced around at a cramped room full of bald men and women, all looking in less than good health, still shivering from the after-effects of their unthinkably long suspension, and all unable to keep up with the revelations and emotional trauma of their current situation. I’m honestly not sure who’s even still following this. “Probably it’s still an automated …” he started, but tailed off, not sure if he even had the energy for the argument.

“Right. Gilgamesh has done his best to decode, based on the fragments in archive,” Lain reported. “Everyone want to hear this?”

“Yes,” Guyen decided.

What came to them from the ship’s speakers was hideous: a corroded, static-spiked mess in which a female voice could just be discerned, nothing but isolated words breaking in and out of the interference—words in a language that nobody but Holsten could comprehend. Holsten had been watching the commander’s face, because it had been obvious to him what they would get, and he saw a spasm of rage spike there briefly

before being fought down. Oh, that’s not good.

“Mason, translate.”

“Give me time. And if you can clean it up any, Lain …?” “Already on it,” she muttered.

Behind them, the others began speculating cautiously. What had been speaking? Was it merely an automatic message or … Vitas was speculating on the Old Empire’s supposed intelligent machines—not just a sophisticated autonomous engine like the Gilgamesh but devices that could think and interact as if they were human. Or more than human.

Holsten hunched over his console, phones to his ears, listening to the incrementally clearer versions that Lain was scrubbing for him. At first he couldn’t understand more than a few words, having to slow the transmission down and focus on small slices of it, while trying to wrestle with a thoroughly unexpected intonation and pattern of speech. There was a lot of interference, too: a weird, irregular rise and fall of static that kept interfering with the actual message.

“I’ve got the drone into the atmosphere,” Karst announced abruptly. Everyone had almost forgotten him, as he sent instructions to his one surviving remote, with no idea of whether each refinement to its course would arrive in time to prevent its destruction. When he had the attention of the majority, he added, “Who wants to see our new home?”

The drone’s images were grainy and distorted, a high-altitude scan of a world so green that one of the scientists asked if the picture had been recoloured.

“You’re seeing exactly what the drone’s seeing,” Karst assured them.

“It’s beautiful,” someone put in. Most others simply stared. It was beyond their experience and their imagination. The Earth that they remembered had not looked like this. Any such verdant explosion had been locked away in the years before the ice, and it never returned after the toxic thaw. They came from a planet immeasurably poorer than this one.

“All right.” The conversation behind Holsten had grown into a hubbub of speculation, then died away into ennui in the time it had taken him to adjust to the new transmission. “Translation, here.”

He sent it to their screens: The Second Brin Sentry Habitation acknowledges your request for assistance. You are currently on a heading that will bring you to a quarantine planet, and no interference with this planet will be countenanced. Please provide full details of your emergency situation so that habitat systems may analyse and advise. Any interference with Kern’s World will be met with immediate retaliation. You are not to make contact with this planet in any way.

“We’ll see about that,” Karst declared, and, “Doesn’t know about the last drone, then. I’ve set it so as to try and keep to the far side of the planet from that thing.”

Mason was still playing back the message, trying to work out what that continuing interference was. Like the distress call, it sounded as though there was some other message hitching a ride along with the satellite’s signal.

“Is it still sending down to the planet?” he asked Lain.

“It is, but I’ve compensated for that. You shouldn’t be getting …”

“Kern’s World?” Vitas noted. “Is that a name?”

“‘Kern’ and ‘Brin’ are phonetic,” Holsten admitted. “If they’re words, then they’re not in my vocabulary files. What response?”

“Will it understand if we speak to it?” Guyen pressed.

“I’ll send an encoded message, like before,” Holsten told him. “I … whatever it is, it’s not speaking Imperial C the way the textbooks think it should be spoken. Different accent, different culture maybe. I don’t think I could speak to it well enough to be properly understood.”

“Send this.” Guyen shunted over a block of text for Holsten

to translate and encode. We are the ark ship Gilgamesh, carrying five hundred thousand humans in suspension. It is of utmost priority that we are able to establish a presence on your planet. This is a matter of the survival of the human species. We require your assistance in preserving our cargo.

“It’s not going to work.” Holsten wondered whether Guyen had somehow heard some other message from the satellite, because that wasn’t an appropriate response as far as he was concerned. He sent it off, though, and returned to listening to the previous transmission, recruiting Lain to try and parse out the rider signal, to separate out something comprehensible. And then abruptly he began to hear it, listening between the words, stock-still and gripping his console as the meaning came through to him.

The Second Brin Sentry Habitation acknowledges your request for assistance. You are currently on a heading that will bring you to a quarantine planet and no interference with this planet will be countenanced. Please provide full details of your emergency situation so that habitat systems may analyse and advise. Any interference with Kern’s World will be met with immediate retaliation. You are not to make contact with this planet in any way.

Cold so cold so very long waiting waiting why won’t they come what has happened can they all really have gone is there nobody nothing left at all of home so very cold coffin cold coffin cold nothing is working nothing working nothing left Eliza Eliza Eliza why won’t you answer me speak to me put me out of my misery tell me they’re coming tell me they’re going to come and take me wake me warm me from this cold so cold so cold so cold so cold so cold cold cold cold

“Uh …” Mason had kicked his seat back from his position, but the voice still droned and grated in his earphones— absolutely the same voice as the main message’s formal efficiency, but twisted by a terrible despair. “We may have a problem …”

“New transmission coming through,” from Lain, even whilst others were demanding to know what Holsten meant.

“What should I do with the drone?” Karst put in.

“Just sit on it for now. Tell it to keep itself blocked from communications with the habitat,” Guyen told him. “Mason


But Holsten was already working through the new transmission. It was a far shorter, punchier message than the first, but the word stuck in his mind. “Habitat: that was my translation. Did the ancients mean that? They couldn’t really have meant something for someone to live in. Twenty metres across, for however many millennia? No, that can’t possibly …

“It says, do we want to speak to Eliza,” he choked out.

Inevitably, someone had to ask, “Who’s Eliza?” as though anybody there could have answered the question.

“We do,” Guyen decided, which was just as well as Holsten had already sent the response.

Minutes later—the delay shorter each time, as they neared the planet—something new spoke to them.

Holsten recognized the same voice as before, though considerably clearer, and still with that horrible stream-of-consciousness backing constantly trying to break through. His translation for the others came swiftly. By now he reckoned he must be as fluent in Imperial C as anyone had ever been in post-glacial history.

He passed it around the others’ screens: Good evening, travellers. I am Eliza Kerns, composite expert system of the Second Brin Sentry Habitat. I’m sorry, but I may have missed the import of some communications that you have already sent to me. Would you please summarize what was said?

There was an interesting split in the listeners then. Command and Security remained mostly unmoved whilst Science and Engineering were thrown into sudden debate: what did the voice mean by “expert system”? Was Holsten sure that was the proper translation? Was it actually an intelligent machine, or just something pretending to be one?

Holsten himself was busy piecing together that background message, although he felt less and less happy about it. The words, the very tone of horror and desperation in his ears, were making him feel ill.

Good evening, travellers. I am Eliza Kerns, composite expert system of the Second Brin Sentry Habitat. I’m sorry. I may have missed the import of some communications that you have already sent to me. Would you please summarize what was said?

What are you doing what are you in my mind taking taking why can’t I wake up what am I seeing the void only alone and nobody nothing there is no ship why is there no ship where are there is no Eliza Kerns has stolen me stolen mine stolen mind

Holsten re-sent the Gilgamesh’s last substantive transmission: We are the ark ship Gilgamesh, carrying five hundred thousand humans in suspension. It is of utmost priority that we are able to establish a presence on your planet. This is a matter of the survival of the human species. We require your assistance in preserving our cargo.

And the reply:

I’m sorry, it will not be possible for you to approach or contact Kern’s World in any way. This is an absolute interdiction in line with Exaltation Program guidelines. Please let me know if any other assistance may be given.

Avrana I’m Avrana’s monkeys are all that matters if everyone’s gone what do we have to exalt in save exaltation itself there can be no contact contamination Sering will not win we will exalt but must it be so cold slow hard to think

“Same words from a different computer,” Guyen spat angrily.

Lain was looking over Holsten’s shoulder, staring at his translation of the second, hidden voice. He saw her mouth the words, The fuck …?

“Mason, I don’t care how you phrase it—dress it up as fancy as you like. It needs to understand that we are human and that we need its help,” Guyen said. “If there’s some old-

world way of overriding its programming, of getting through to whatever that is, we need you to find it.”

No pressure, then; but Holsten was already planning out his response. It was not a linguistics problem, no matter what Guyen might think. It was a technological problem, but one that even Lain was surely little better equipped to deal with than he was. They were speaking to a functioning, autonomous Imperial system. The EMP-blasted hulks in orbit around Earth had contained nothing like it.

Eliza, he sent back, we are in desperate need. We have travelled far from Earth to find a new home for that part of the human race we are responsible for. If we cannot locate such a home, then hundreds of thousands of human beings will die. Does your system of priorities allow you take responsibility for such a result? The Gilgamesh archives did not contain them, but Holsten had an idea that he had read somewhere of some philanthropic rules imposed on the fabled old artificial intelligences.

I’m sorry, but I cannot permit you to compromise the exaltation experiment at this time. I understand that you have other concerns and I am allowed to tender such help as my priorities allow. If you attempt to influence the planet then you will leave me no choice but to take action against your vessel.

What ship let me see the ship is coming from Earth but is it Sering’s Earth or my Earth or no Earth is left for any ship to come silently they stopped sending so long so cold so let me out you bitch you witch Eliza you stole my mind my name can’t keep me here let me wake let me speak let me die let me be something

So much for that. “It really is just the same line as before.

We’ve got nowhere, except …” “What?” Guyen demanded.

“I want to try something a bit lateral,” Holsten explained. “Is it likely to get us blown up ahead of schedule?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then you try whatever you’ve got, Mason.”

Holsten steeled himself and transmitted a simple, surreal question: Is there anybody else there we could talk to?

“You’re taking the piss,” Lain said in his ear. “Better ideas?”

“I’m Engineering. We don’t do ideas.”

He managed a weak smile at that one. Everyone else was on tenterhooks, awaiting the response, save for Guyen who was glowering at Holsten as though his fierce regard could somehow inspire the classicist to greater efforts of antiquarianism.

Would you like to speak to my sister? Please please please please please please

Lain swore again, and Guyen stared down at his own screen. Another murmur of baffled speculation was rising around them.

“Right, look, I have a theory,” Holsten explained. “We’re talking to some sort of automated system still, obviously, even if it’s programmed to respond in a human-like manner. But there’s something else there. It’s … different. It seems less rational. So we could see if it will let us do things that the main expert system won’t. Worst comes to worst, we could even turn it against the main system, somehow, I don’t know.”

“But what is ‘it’?” Vitas asked him. “Why would they have two systems?”

“Failsafe?” Holsten suggested, because he was keeping his worst suspicions very much to himself.

“Try it,” Guyen said. “Karst, I want some solutions if this turns ugly. Our current course will bring us into the planet’s attraction at the right speed to make orbit. The only alternative is to stop decelerating now and just fly past, and then … and then what?” The question was plainly rhetorical, the hard-pressed commander showing the working of his sums. “Then we set course for the next point on the star maps, and

somehow hope there’s something different there? We’ve seen this planet now. This is going to be our home. Mason, tell it.”

Why, yes, Eliza, please let us talk to your sister. Holsten tried to match the expert system’s polite and formal manner of speech.

He was not sure what they would get back, and he was ready to shut down the comms if it was just that anguished mad babbling, because there could be no dialogue with that— no possibility of negotiating with that internalized storm of insanity.

“We’re being told to stand by,” he reported, when the instruction came. After that there was nothing else for a long time; the Gilgamesh continued to fall inexorably towards the green planet’s gravity well. The satellite was still silent when Lain and her team began their anxious watch over ship’s systems, as the ancient ark ship began to creak and strain at the unnatural imposition of an external source of mass, large and close enough to claw at the vessel’s structure. Everyone there felt a subtle shifting: for the whole waking portion of the journey, their perception of gravity had come from the ship’s gradual deceleration. Now an alien force was reaching for them, subtly tugging with insubstantial ghost fingers, the first touch of the world below.

“All signs suggest stable orbit for now,” Lain reported tensely. There followed a slow-motion comedy as deceleration ceased and then rotation began, gravity creeping across the floor to make a new home against the wall, and the Gilgamesh’s consoles and fittings shudderingly adjusting. For a minute there was no point of reference; a room full of weightless people trying to remember their long-ago training, hauling on each other to get to the right surface before they could be slammed into it. In the commotion, awkwardness, and a series of minor medical calls, the whole business of their imminent destruction was almost forgotten.

“New transmission,” Holsten alerted them, as the signal came in. In his ear those same female tones sounded, but the

intonation, the rhythm of the speech was quite different, and stripped free of that tortured backing.

I am Doctor Avrana Kern, chief scientist and administrator of the Second Brin Exaltation Project, was his translation. Even through the filter of archaic Imperial C, the voice was stern and proud. What are you? What is your provenance?

“That doesn’t sound like a computer,” Lain murmured.

“Of course it’s a computer,” Vitas snapped. “It’s simply a more sophisticated approximation of—”

“Enough.” Guyen cut through the argument. “Mason?”

We are an ark ship from Earth, Holsten sent, seeking permission to establish a colony on Kern’s World. If the thing he was talking to was in any way human, he guessed that a little flattery couldn’t harm.

Whose Earth, though? Sering’s Earth or my Earth? came the swift reply. Now that they were in orbit, there was barely any delay: it was almost like a real conversation.

Real conversation with a faceless machine mind, Holsten reminded himself. He sent his translation round the room, looking for help, but nobody had any suggestion as to what the satellite meant. Before he could give any kind of answer, a new transmission came in.

I do not recognize you. You are not human. You are not from Earth. You have no business here. Eliza shows me all that she sees of you and there is nothing of Earth in you but why can I not see you for myself why can I not open my eyes where are my eyes where are my eyes where are my eyes. And then an abrupt cessation of the message, leaving Holsten shaken because that was it: a segue straight into the voice of madness, without a moment’s warning.

“I don’t think it’s a computer,” he said, but soft enough that only Lain heard him. She was reading over his shoulder still, and nodded soberly.

Our vessel is the ark ship Gilgamesh from Earth. This ship

was built after your time, he prepared and sent, with a bitter awareness of the sheer understatement implicit in that. He was dreading what they might receive back.

Good evening, I am Eliza Kern, composite expert system of the of the of the am instructed to require you to return to your point of origin.

Send them away I don’t want them if they say they came from Earth they can go back go back go back I don’t won’t can’t no no no no no

“It’s completely deranged,” Karst stated flatly, and that with the benefit of only half of what was being said. “Can we keep the planet between us, or something?”

“Not and retain stable orbit,” one of Guyen’s team reported. “Seriously, remember how big the Gil is. We can’t just flit him about like your drones.”

Holsten was already sending, because Guyen had stopped dictating and it now seemed to be down to him. Return to Earth is not possible. Please may we speak to your sister again, Eliza?, pleading for the life of humanity in a dead language—having to make the call between artificial intransigence and what he was increasingly sure was real human crazy.

That other voice again, delivering a rant that he got down as: Why can’t you just go back where you came from? Are you Sering’s people? Did we win? Did we throw you out? Are you here to finish what he started?

“What happened here?” demanded Vitas incredulously. “What’s Sering? A warship?”

Earth is no longer habitable, Holsten sent, even as Lain warned, “That’s going to push her over the edge for sure, Mason.”

He had dispatched the message even as she said it, the hollow feeling in his stomach arriving a moment later. She’s right, at that.

But there was a measure more sanity in Doctor Avrana

Kern’s voice when it replied. Nonsense. Explain.

The Gilgamesh archives had histories, but whoever would have thought they would need translating into a language only historians were now interested in? Instead, Holsten did his best: History 101 for the lost time traveller, based on best guesses as to what had actually happened beyond the dawn of his recorded time, back when the Old Empire had held sway. There was so little he could actually say. The gap between the last thing Kern must know and the earliest definite fact that Holsten could rely on was insuperable.

There was a civil war between factions of the Empire, he explained. Both sides unleashed weapons the nature of which I do not understand, but which were effective in devastating higher civilization on Earth and completely destroying the colonies. He remembered seeing the eggshell ruins on Europa. The in-system colonies had all predated any apparent later expertise in terraforming that the Empire had come to possess. They had been hothouse flowers on planets and moons haphazardly altered to better support life, reliant on biospheres that must have required constant adjustment. On Earth people had lapsed back into barbarism. Elsewhere, when the power had failed, when the electromagnetic weapons had destroyed the vital engines, or the electronic viruses murdered the artificial minds, they had died. They had died in alien cold, in reverting atmospheres, under corrosive skies. Often, they had died still fighting each other. So little had been left intact.

He typed it all out. As though writing an abstract to a history text, he noted with dry precision that a post-war industrial society may have persisted for almost a century, and may even have been regaining some of the sophistication of its predecessors, when the ice came. The choked atmosphere that had smothered the planet in gloom had shouldered out the sun, resulting in a midnight glacial cold that had left very little of that abortive rebirth. Looking back down the well of time, Holsten could make no definite statements about those who were left, nor about the frozen age that followed. Some scientists had speculated that, when the ice was at its height,

the entire remnant human population of Earth had been no more than ten thousand all told, huddling in caves and holes around the equator and staring out at a horizon rigid with cold.

He went on into more certain waters, the earliest unearthed records of what he could truly think of as his people. The ice had been retreating. Humanity had sprung back swiftly, expanded, fought its small wars, re-industrialized, tripping constantly over reminders of what the species had previously achieved. Human eyes had looked to the skies again, which were crossed by so many moving points of light.

And he told Kern why they could not go back: because of the war, the Empire’s war from thousands of years before. For so long, scholars had taught that the further the ice receded, the better for the world, and yet nobody had guessed what poisons and sicknesses had been caught up in that ice, like insects in amber, the encroaching cold protecting the shivering biosphere from the last excesses of Empire.

There is no returning to Earth, he sent to the pensively silent satellite. In the end, we could not counterbalance the increasing toxicity of the environment. So we built the ark ships. In the end all we had was old star maps to guide us. We are the human race. And we’ve had no transmissions from any other arks to say that they’ve found anywhere to stay. Doctor Avrana Kern, this is all we have. Please may we settle on your planet?

Because he was thinking in human terms, he expected a decent pause then for his opposite number to digest all that potted history. Instead, one of the science crew shouted out, “New energy readings! It’s activating something!”

“A weapon?” Guyen demanded, and all the screens briefly went blank, then flared to life again with nonsense scattering across them: fragments of code and text and simple static.

“It’s got into the Gilgamesh control system!” Lain spat. “It’s attacking our security—no, it’s through. Fuck, we’re open. It’s got full control. This is what it did to your drones, Karst, the ones it didn’t just vaporize. We’re fucked!”

“Do what you can!” Guyen urged her.

“What the fuck do you think I can do? I’m locked out! Balls to your ‘cultural specificity,’ Mason. It’s all over our fucking system like a disease.”

“How’s our orbit?” someone asked.

“I have no feedback, no instrumentation at all.” Vitas sounded very slightly tense. “However, I’ve not felt any change in thrust, and mere loss of power or control should not affect our position relative to the planet.”

Like all those hulks orbiting Earth, Holsten thought helplessly. Those fried, dead ships, with the vacuum-dried bodies of their crew still in place after thousands of years.

Abruptly the lights jumped and flickered, and then a face appeared on every screen.

It was a bony, long-jawed face; that it was a woman’s was not immediately obvious. Details kept filling in: dark hair drawn back, skin shaded and textured, harsh lines about the mouth and eyes; unflattering by modern criteria but who could name the ancient aesthetics that this face acknowledged? It was a face from an era and a society and an ethnicity that time had otherwise erased. The kinship between it and the crew of the Gilgamesh seemed tenuous, coincidental.

The voice that rang out through the speakers was unmistakably the same, but this time it was speaking the crew’s own common language, although the lips did not sync.

“I am Doctor Avrana Kern. This is my world. I will brook no interference with my experiment. I have seen what you are. You are not from my Earth. You are not my humanity. You are monkeys, nothing but monkeys. You are not even my monkeys. My monkeys are undergoing uplift, the great experiment. They are pure. They will not be corrupted by you mere humans. You are nothing but monkeys of a lesser order. You mean nothing to me.”

“Can she hear us?” Guyen asked quietly.

“If your own systems can hear you, then I can hear you,” Kern’s voice spat out.

“Are we to understand that you are condemning the last survivors of your own species to death?” It was a remarkably mannered, patient display from Guyen. “Because it seems that is what you are saying.”

“You are not my responsibility,” Kern pronounced. “This planet is my responsibility.”

“Please,” Lain said, ignoring Guyen when he gestured at her to shut up. “I don’t know what you are, if you’re human or machine or whatever, but we need your help.”

The face froze, nothing but a still image for a handful of heartbeats.

“Lain, if you’ve—” Guyen started, and then abruptly Kern’s image began to break up, distorting and corrupting on screen, features bloating or atrophying and then flickering into nothing.

The voice spoke again, a plaintive whisper in its native tongue, and only Holsten could know what it was saying. I am human. I must be human. Am I the system? Am I the upload? Is there anything of me left? Why can I not feel my body? Why can I not open my eyes?

“The other thing, the Eliza thing, it was mentioning some other help,” Lain murmured, although surely even a whisper would be overheard. “Can we just ask it—?”

“I will help you,” Kern said, speaking their language again, sounding calmer now. “I will help you leave. You have all the universe except this world of mine. You can go anywhere.”

“But we can’t—” Guyen started.

Then Lain broke in. “I’m back in. Checking all systems.” A tense minute to ensure that, at the very least, the ship’s computer was telling her that everything was still working. “We’ve got new data flagged up. It’s just dumped a whole load of stuff on us. It’s … the Gilgamesh recognizes star maps.

Mason, I’ve received some stuff in that jabber of yours.”

Holsten scanned over the jumble of data. “I, ah … not sure, but it’s linked to the star maps. It’s … I think it’s …” His mouth was dry. “Other terraforming projects? I think the … I think we’ve been given the keys to the next system. It’s giving us destinations.” It’s selling out its neighbours, was what he did not say, given that it was listening, it’s bribing us to go away. “I think … something here might even be access codes.”

“How far?” Guyen demanded.

“Just under two light years,” Vitas reported briskly. “Just a step, really.”

Through a long, stressed silence, they waited for Guyen’s decision. The face of Avrana Kern was back on some of the screens, glowering at them; twitching, distorting, reforming.

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