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Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

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BOOK: Children of Time
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There were no more radio signals from Earth. The last trailing edge of them had passed the Sentry Pod by and, radiating out from Earth at the speed of light, were already out of date by twenty years as they fled past her into the void.

I want to hear the final twelve hours of signals.

She had thought that there would be too many of them but they were few, scattered, encoded. Those she could interpret were pleas for help. She tracked them back another forty-eight hours, trying to piece it all together. The hub’s rolling recorder had retained no more than that. The precise details were already lost, speeding away from her faster than she could possibly pursue. Sering’s war had broken out, though; that was all she could think. It had come and begun snuffing out colonies across human space. The lights had gone out across the solar system, as the NUNs and their allies rose up and wrestled with their enemies for the fate of mankind.

That there had been an escalation seemed incontrovertible. Kern was well aware that the governments of Earth and the colonies possessed weapons of terrifying potential, and the theoretical science existed for far worse.

The war on Earth had gone hot, that much she could tell. Neither side had backed down. Both sides had pushed and pushed, pulling new toys from the box. The beginnings of the war were lost from her two-and-half-day radio window, but she had the dreadful suspicion that the entire global conflict had lasted less than a week.

And now, twenty light years away, Earth lay silent – had lain silent for two decades. Were there people there at all? Had the entire human race been exterminated save for her, or had it simply been thrown back into a new dark age, where the dumb brute people looked up at those moving lights in the sky and forgot that their ancestors had built them.

‘The stations, the in-solar colonies . . . the others . . .’ she got out.

‘One of the last transmissions from Earth was an all-frequencies, all-directions electronic virus, Doctor,’ Eliza reported dolorously. ‘Its purpose was to infest and disable any system that received it. It appears that it was able to penetrate known security. I surmise that the various colony systems have all been shut down.’

‘But that means . . .’ Avrana already felt as cold as any human could have. She waited for the chill of realization, but there was none. The in-solar colonies and the handful of extra-solar bases were still being terraformed; they had been built early on in mankind’s spacegoing history, and after the technology had been developed, the extensive presence of human settlements there had slowed the process down: so many individual toes to tread on. Tabula rasa planets were so much swifter, and Kern’s World was the very first of these to be completed. Beyond Earth, mankind was terribly, terribly reliant on its technology, on its computers.

If such a virus had taken over the systems on Mars or Europa, and disabled those systems, that meant death. Swift death, cold death, airless death.

‘How did
you
survive then? How did
we
survive?’

‘Doctor, the virus was not designed to attack experimental uploaded human personality constructs. Your presence within my systems has prevented me being a suitable host for the virus.’

Avrana Kern stared past the lights of her HUD at the darkness inside the Sentry Pod, thinking about all the places in the greater dark beyond where humanity had once made a fragile, eggshell home for itself. In the end all she could think of to ask was, ‘Why did you wake me?’

‘I require you to make a Command decision, Doctor.’

‘What Command decision could you possibly need now?’ she asked the computer acidly.

‘It will be necessary for you to return to cold sleep,’ the hub told her, and now she bitterly missed the ‘. . . I’m afraid’, which had added a much-needed sense of human hesitancy. ‘However, a lack of information concerning current external circumstances means that I am likely to be unable to determine an appropriate trigger to reawaken you. I also believe that you yourself may not be able to instruct me concerning such a trigger, although you may give me any instructions you wish, or alternatively simply specify a particular period of time. In the alternative, you may simply rely on your personality upload to wake you at the appropriate time.’

The unspoken echo of that sounded in her mind:
Or never. There may never be a time.

Show me the planet.

The great green orb that she spun about was produced for her, and all its measurements and attributes, each linking to a nested tree of additional details. Somewhere in there were the credits, the names of the dead who had designed and built each part and piece of it, who had guided its plate tectonics and sparked its weather systems into life, fast-tracked its erosion and seeded its soil with life.

But the monkeys burned. All for nothing.

It seemed impossible that she had been so close to that grand dream, the spread of life throughout the universe, the diversification of intelligence, the guaranteed survival of Earth’s legacy.
And then the war came, and Sering’s idiocy, just too soon.

How long can we last?
was her question.

‘Doctor, our solar arrays should enable our survival for an indefinite period of time. Although it is possible that external impact or accumulated mechanical defect may eventually result in the cessation of function, there is no known upper limit on our working lifespan.’

That had probably been intended as a pronouncement of hope. To Kern it sounded more like a prison sentence.

Let me sleep
, she told the pod.

‘I require guidance on when to wake you.’

She laughed at it, the sound of her own voice hideous in the close confines. ‘When the rescue ship arrives. When the monkeys answer. When my undead uploaded self decides. Is that sufficient?’

‘I believe I can work within those tolerances, Doctor. I will now prepare you for a return to cold sleep.’

Sleep for a long, lonely time.
She would return to the tomb, and a simulacrum of herself would stand watch over a silent planet, in a silent universe, as the last outpost of the great spacefaring human civilization.

2
PILGRIMAGE

2.1
TWO THOUSAND YEARS FROM HOME

 

Holsten Mason started awake into a nightmare of claustrophobia, fighting it down almost as quickly as it hit him. Experience allowed him to recognize where he was and why that was no cause for alarm, but the old monkey instincts still had their moment of glory, shrieking
Trapped! Trapped!
in the halls of his mind.

Fucking monkeys.
He was freezing cold and enclosed in a space that his body barely fit into, with what felt like a thousand needles withdrawing themselves from his grey and nerveless skin – and tubes being yanked from more intimate regions – none of it done with much sense of tender care.

Business as usual for the suspension chamber. He would like to think that he really hated suspension chambers, but that wasn’t exactly an option for any member of the human race right now.

For a moment he thought that this was it; he was being woken up but not released, to be trapped instead behind the frigid glass, unheard and unnoticed on a vast and empty ship of iced corpses heading forever into the nowhere of deep space.

The primal claustrophobia jumped him for a second time. He was already fighting to lift his hands, to beat at the transparent cover above him, when the seal hissed and the dim, undirected light was replaced by the steady glare of the ship’s lamps.

His eyes barely flinched. The suspension chamber would have been preparing his body for this awakening long before it deigned to spark his mind back to life. Belatedly he wondered if something had gone wrong. There were a limited number of circumstances in which he would have been revived, after all. He could hear no alarms, though, and the very limited status readout within the chamber had all been safe blue bars.
Unless that’s what’s broken of course.

The ark ship
Gilgamesh
had been built to last a very long time indeed, using every piece of craft and science that Holsten’s civilization had been able to wrest from the cold, vacuum-withered hands of their forebears. Even so, had there been an option, nobody would have trusted it, for how could anyone have faith that a machine – any machine, any work of the hands of humanity – could last throughout the appalling periods of time that would be required for this journey?

‘Happy birthday! You’re now the oldest man in history!’ said a sharp voice. ‘Now get your feet under you, you lazy tosser. We need you.’

Holsten’s eyes focused on a face, nominally a woman’s. It was hard, lined, with a bony chin and cheekbones, and her hair the same close crop of stubble as his own. Suspension chambers were not kind to human hair.

Isa Lain: chief Key Crew engineer of the
Gilgamesh
.

He started trying to make some joke about never thinking she’d say she needed him, but he slurred the words and lost it. She understood enough to look at him contemptuously.


Need
isn’t the same as
want
, old man. Get up. And button your suit; your arse is hanging out.’

Feeling like a hundred-year-old cripple, he hunched and clambered and swung his way out of the coffin-shaped tank that had been his resting place for . . .

Oldest man in what, now?
Lain’s words came back to him with a jolt of realization. ‘Hey,’ he said thickly. ‘How long? How far out?’
Are we even clear of the solar system? We must be for her to say that . . .
And, as if he could see through the close, confining walls, he had a sudden sense of the vast emptiness that must be out there beyond the hull, a void that no human had plumbed since before the ice age, since the millennia-ago days of the Old Empire.

The Key Crew suspension room was cramped, barely space for the two of them and the ranks of coffins: his own and two others open and empty, the rest still holding the not-quite-corpses of other vital crew, against the need for them to resume an active role aboard ship. Lain threaded her way over to the hatch and swung it open before answering, glancing back over her shoulder with all her mockery gone.

‘One thousand, eight hundred and thirty-seven years, Mason. Or that’s what the
Gilgamesh
says.’

Holsten sat back down on the lip of the suspension chamber, his legs abruptly insufficient to keep him standing up.

‘How’s the . . . how’s he holding up? Have you . . . ?’ The sentences kept fragmenting in his head. ‘How long have you been up? Have you checked over . . . the cargo, the others . . . ?’

‘I’ve been up for nine days now while you were being lovingly licked awake, Mason. I’ve gone over everything. It’s all satisfactory. They did a good, solid job when they built this boy.’

‘Satisfactory?’ He sensed the uncertainty in that word. ‘Then everyone’s . . . ?’

‘Satisfactory in that we have a four per cent chamber failure rate amongst the cargo,’ she told him flatly. ‘For just short of two millennia, I think that counts as satisfactory. It could have been worse.’

‘Right. Yes, of course.’ He got to his feet again and made his way over to her, the floor chilly against his bare skin, trying now to work out if they were accelerating or decelerating or if the crew section was just spinning about its axis for gravity. Certainly
something
was keeping him on the floor. If there was some sense that could split hairs between different flavours of ersatz gravity, though, it was one his forebears had somehow failed to evolve.

He was trying not to think about what
four per cent
meant, or that the handily impersonal word ‘cargo’ referred to a very large fraction of the surviving human race.

‘And you need me for what, anyway?’ Because most of the others were still asleep, and what bizarre set of circumstances could possibly require his presence when most of Command, Science, Security and Engineering were still locked in a freezing, dreamless stasis?

‘There’s a signal,’ Lain told him, watching for his reaction carefully. ‘Yes, I thought that would get you moving.’

He was nothing but questions as they negotiated the passage that led through to comms, but Lain just set a punishing pace and ignored him, letting him weave and stumble as his legs tried to betray him with every few steps.

Vrie Guyen was the third early riser, as Holsten had anticipated. Whatever the emergency, it required the
Gilgamesh
’s commander, its chief engineer and its classicist. But what Lain had said accounted for that neatly. A
signal
. And, out here, what could that mean? Either something wholly alien, or a remnant of the Old Empire, Holsten’s area of expertise.

‘It’s faint and badly distorted. The
Gilgamesh
took too long, really, to even recognize it for what it was. I need you to see what you can make of it.’ Guyen was a thin, small-framed man, with a nose and mouth that both seemed to have been salvaged from a far broader face. Holsten recalled his command style as being a mixture of aggressive motivation and good delegating skills. It seemed like only a few days ago that Holsten had been under that stern gaze as he climbed into his suspension chamber, but when he probed his memories to determine just how many days, he uncovered an uncrossable grey area, a dim sensation that his sense of time was out of joint.

Two thousand years will do that to you, apparently.
Every minute or so he was struck afresh by the revelation of how ludicrously lucky they all were just to be here.
Satisfactory
, as Lain had said.

‘Where’s it coming from, though?’ Holsten asked. ‘Is it where we thought it would be?’

Guyen just nodded, his face composed, but Holsten felt a thrill of excitement go through him.
It’s there! It was real, all this time.

The
Gilgamesh
had not just cast itself randomly into the void to escape the end of all that they had left behind. They were one step short of being quite as suicidal as that. They had been following the maps and charts of the Old Empire, looted from failed satellites, from fragments of ship, from the broken shells of orbital stations containing the void-mummified corpses of Earth’s former masters. Vacuum and stable orbits had saved them while the ice was scouring the planet below.

BOOK: Children of Time
3.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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