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Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

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BOOK: Children of Time
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She had sold it to the people back home by describing how colonists would reach the planet then, descending from the skies like deities to meet their new people. Instead of a harsh, untamed world, a race of uplifted sentient aides and servants would welcome their makers. That was what she had told the boardrooms and the committees back on Earth, but it had never been the point of the exercise for her. The monkeys were the point, and what they would become.

This was one of the things the NUNs were most incensed about. They shouted about making superbeings out of mere beasts. In truth, like spoiled children, it was
sharing
that they objected to. Only-child humanity craved the sole attention of the universe. Like so many other projects hoisted as political issues, the virus’s development had been fraught with protests, sabotage, terrorism and murder.

And yet we triumph over our own base nature at last
, Kern reflected with satisfaction. And of course, there was a tiny grain of truth to the insults the NUNs threw her way, because she
didn’t
care about colonists or the neo-imperialistic dreams of her fellows. She wanted to make new life, in her image as much as in humanity’s. She wanted to know what might evolve, what society, what understandings, when her monkeys were left to their own simian devices . . . To Avrana Kern,
this
was her price, her reward for exercising her genius for the good of the human race: this experiment; this planetary what-if. Her efforts had opened up a string of terra-formed worlds, but her price was that the firstborn would be
hers
, and home to her new-made people.

She was aware of an expectant silence and realized that she had got to the end of her speech, and now everyone thought she was just adding gratuitous suspense to a moment that needed no gilding.

‘Mr Sering, are you in position?’ she asked on open channel, for everyone’s benefit. Sering was the volunteer, the man they were going to leave behind. He would orbit their planet-sized laboratory as the long years turned, locked in cold sleep until the time came for him to become mentor to a new race of sentient primates. She almost envied him, for he would see and hear and experience things that no other human ever had. He would be the new Hanuman: the monkey god.

Almost
envied, but in the end Kern rather preferred to be departing to undertake other projects. Let others become gods of mere single worlds. She herself would stride the stars and head up the pantheon.

‘I am not in position, no.’ And apparently he felt that was also deserving of a wider audience, because he had broadcast it on the general channel.

Kern felt a stab of annoyance.
I cannot physically do everything myself. Why is it that other people so often fail to meet my standards, when I rely on them?
To Sering alone she sent, ‘Perhaps you would explain why?’

‘I was hoping to be able to say a few words, Doctor Kern.’

It would be his last contact with his species for a long time, she knew, and it seemed appropriate. If he could make a good showing then it would only add to her legend. She held ready on the master comms, though, setting him on a few seconds’ delay, just in case he became maudlin or started saying something inappropriate.

‘This is a turning point in human history,’ Sering’s voice – always slightly mournful – came to her, and then through her to everyone else. His image was in their Mind’s Eye HUDs, with the collar of his bright orange environment suit done up high to the chin. ‘I had to think long and hard before committing myself to this course, as you can imagine. But some things are too important. Sometimes you have to just do the right thing, whatever the cost.’

Kern nodded, pleased with that.
Be a good monkey and finish up soon, Sering. Some of us have legacies to build.

‘We have come so far, and still we fall into the oldest errors,’ Sering continued doggedly. ‘We’re standing here with the universe in our grasp and, instead of furthering our own destinies, we connive at our own obsolescence.’

Her attention had drifted a little and, by the time she realized what he had said, the words had passed on to the crew. She registered suddenly a murmur of concerned messages between them, and even simple spoken words whispered between those closest to her. Doctor Mercian meanwhile sent her an alert on another channel: ‘Why is Sering in the engine core?’

Sering should not be in the engine core of the needle. Sering should be in the Sentry Pod, ready to take his place in orbit – and in history.

She cut Sering off from the crew and sent him an angry demand to know what he thought he was doing. For a moment his avatar stared at her in her visual field, then it lip-synced to his voice.

‘You have to be stopped, Doctor Kern. You and all your kind – your new humans, new machines, new species. If you succeed here, then there will be other worlds – you’ve said so yourself, and I know they’re terraforming them even now. It ends here.
Non Ultra Natura!
No greater than nature.’

She wasted vital moments of potential dissuasion by resorting to personal abuse, until he spoke again.

‘I’ve cut you off, Doctor. Do the same to me if you wish, but for now I’m going to speak and you don’t get to interrupt me.’

She was trying to override him, hunting through the control computer’s systems to find what he had done, but he had locked her out elegantly and selectively. There were whole areas of the facility’s systems that just did not appear on her mental schematic, and when she quizzed the computer about them, it refused to acknowledge their existence. None of them was mission critical – not the Barrel, not the Flask, not even the Sentry Pod – therefore none were the systems she had been obsessively checking every day.

Not mission critical, perhaps, but
facility
critical.

‘He’s disabled the reactor safeties,’ Mercian reported. ‘What’s going on? Why’s he in the engine core at all?’ Alarm but not outright panic, which was a good finger in the air for the mood of the crew all around.

He is in the engine core because his death will be instant and total and therefore probably painless
, Kern surmised. She was already moving, to the surprise of the others. She was heading up, climbing into the access shaft that led to the slender central pylon of the station, heading away from the outer floor that remained ‘down’ only so long as she was close to it; climbing up out of that spurious gravity well towards the long needle they all revolved around. There was a flurry of increasingly concerned messages. Voices called out at her heels. Some of them would follow her, she knew.

Sering was continuing blithely: ‘This is not even the beginning, Doctor Kern.’ His tone was relentlessly deferential even in rebellion. ‘Back home it will have already started. Back home it is probably already over. In another few years, maybe, you’ll hear that Earth and our future have been taken back for the humans. No uplifted monkeys, Doctor Kern. No godlike computers. No freakshows of the human form. We’ll have the universe to ourselves, as we were intended to – as was always our destiny. On all the colonies, in the solar system and out, our agents will have made their move. We will have taken power – with the consent of the majority, you understand, Doctor Kern.’

And she was lighter and lighter, hauling herself towards an ‘up’ that was becoming an ‘in’. She knew she should be cursing Sering, but what was the point if he would never hear her?

It was not such a long way to the weightlessness of the needle’s hollow interior. She had her choice then: either towards the engine core, where Sering had no doubt taken steps to ensure that he would not be disturbed; or away. Away, in a very final sense.

She could override anything Sering had done. She had full confidence in the superiority of her abilities. It would take time, though. If she cast herself that way down the needle, towards Sering and his traps and locked barriers, then time would be something she would not have the benefit of.

‘And if the powers-that-be refuse us, Doctor Kern,’ that hateful voice continued in her ear, ‘then we will fight. If we must wrest mankind’s destiny back by force, then we shall.’

She barely took in what he was saying, but a cold sense of fear was creeping into her mind – not from the danger to her and the Brin 2, but what he was saying about Earth and the colonies.
A war? Impossible. Not even the NUNs . . .
But it was true there had been some incidents – assassinations, riots, bombs. The whole of Europa Base had been compromised. The NUNs were spitting into the inevitable storm of manifest destiny, though. She had always believed that. Such outbursts represented the last throes of humanity’s under-evolvers.

She was now heading the other way, distancing herself from the engine core as though the Brin had enough space within it for her to escape the coming blast. She was utterly rational, however. She knew exactly where she was going.

Ahead of her was the circular portal to the Sentry Pod. Only on seeing it did she realize that some part of her mind – the part she always relied on to finesse the more complex calculations – had already fully understood the current situation and discerned the one slim-but-possible way out.

This was where Sering was supposed to be. This was the slow boat to the future that he – in a sane timeline – would have been piloting. Now she ordered the door to open, relieved to discover that this – the one piece of equipment that was actually his particular business – seemed to have remained free of Sering’s meddling.

The first explosion came, and she thought it was the last one. The Brin creaked and lurched around her, but the engine core remained stable – as evidenced by the fact that she herself had not been disintegrated. She tuned back into the wild whirl of frantic messaging between the crew. Sering had rigged the escape pods. He didn’t want anyone avoiding the fate he had decreed for himself. Had he somehow forgotten the Sentry Pod?

The detonating pods would push the Brin 2 out of position, drifting either towards the planet or off into space. She had to get clear.

The door opened at her command, and she had the Sentry hub run a diagnostic on the release mechanism. There was so little space inside, just the cold-sleep coffin –
don’t think of it as a coffin!
– and the termini of its associated systems.

The hub was querying her – she was not the right person, nor was she wearing the proper gear for prolonged cold sleep.
But I don’t intend to be here for centuries, just long enough to ride it out.
She swiftly overrode its quibbles, and by that time the diagnostics had pinpointed Sering’s tampering, or rather identified, by process of elimination, those parts of the release process that he had erased from its direct notice.

Sounds from outside suggested that the best course of action was to order the door closed, and then lock the systems so that nobody from outside could intrude on her.

She climbed into the cold-sleep tank, and around that time the banging started; those others of the crew who had come to the same realization as her, but slightly later. She blocked out their messaging. She blocked out Sering too, who was obviously not going to tell her anything useful now. It was better if she didn’t have to share her head with anyone except the hub control systems.

She had no idea how much time she had, but she worked with the trademark balance of speed and care that had got her where she was now.
Got me leading the Brin 2 facility and got me here in the Sentry Pod. What a clever, doomed monkey I am.
The muffled banging was more insistent, but the pod only had room for one. Her heart had always been hard, but she found that she had to harden it still further, and not think of all those names and faces, her loyal colleagues, that she and Sering between them were condemning to an explosive end.

Which I myself have not yet escaped
, she reminded herself. And then she had it: a work-around jury-rigged release path that avoided Sering’s ghost systems. Would it work? She had no opportunity for a dry run, nor had she any other options. Nor, she suspected, any time.

Release
, she ordered the hub, and then shouted down all of the different ways it was programmed to ask ‘Are you sure?’, until she felt the movement of mechanisms around her.

Then it wanted her to go into cold sleep immediately, as had been the plan, but she made it wait. If the captain was not going down with her ship, she would at least watch its demise from a distance.
And how much distance would that need?

There were, by then, several thousand messages clamouring for her attention. Every member of the crew wanted to talk to her, but she had nothing to say to any of them.

The Sentry Pod had no windows either. Had she wanted, it could have shown her a HUD display of the rapidly receding Brin 2, as her little capsule of life fell into its prearranged orbit.

Now she returned to the Brin’s systems, her internal comms boosted by the Sentry hub, and instructed it,
Launch the Barrel.

She wondered if it was just poor timing, but in retrospect that had probably been Sering’s first and more carefully performed task – subtle enough to slip by in all her checks, because of course the actual mechanical release for Flask and Barrel was virtually beneath her notice.
On the shoulders of others
, she had said, but she had not stopped to think about those beneath her in that pyramid of achievement. Even the lowliest of them had to agree to bear her weight, or all of it would come falling down.

She saw the flare not even in her mind’s eye, but through the brief flower of damage reports from the Brin 2’s computers, as all of her colleagues and her facility, and Sering the traitor, and all of her work became abruptly no more than a rapidly disassociating cloud of fragments, a ghost-breath of dissipating atmosphere, with some unrecognizable organic remains.

Correct course and stabilize
. She had been expecting a shockwave, but the Sentry Pod was already far enough away, and the Brin 2’s energy and matter were so miniscule, compared to the distances involved, that barely any adjustment was required to ensure the Sentry Pod remained within its programmed orbit.

BOOK: Children of Time
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