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Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

Children of Time (10 page)

BOOK: Children of Time
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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.’

BOOK: Children of Time
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