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Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

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BOOK: Children of Time
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And amongst the relics were the star maps, detailing where in the galaxy the ancients had walked.

They showed him the signal, as it was distantly received by the
’s instruments. It was a relatively short message, repeating interminably. No busy radio chatter of a bustling extra-solar colony: that would surely have been too much to hope for, given the time that had elapsed.

‘Maybe it’s a warning,’ Guyen suggested. ‘If so, and if there’s some danger, we need to know.’

‘And if there’s some danger, what precisely do we do about it?’ Holsten asked quietly. ‘Can we even change our heading enough now, without hitting the system?’

‘We can prepare,’ Lain said pragmatically. ‘If it’s some cosmic event that we somehow haven’t picked up, and that somehow hasn’t destroyed the transmitter, then we might have to try and alter course. If it’s . . . a plague, or hostile aliens or something, then . . . well, it’s been a long time, I’ll bet. Probably it’s not relevant any more.’

‘But we have the maps. Worst comes to worst, we can plot a course for the next world,’ Guyen pointed out. ‘We’ll just slingshot past their sun and be on our way.’

By then Holsten had stopped paying attention to him and just sat hunched, listening by earpiece to the
’s rendition of the signal, looking over visual depictions of its frequency and pattern, calling up reference works from their library.

He adjusted the
’s interpretation of the signal, parsing it through all the known decoding algorithms that long-dead civilization had used. He had done this before plenty of times. All too often the signal would be encoded beyond the ability of modern cryptography to unpick. At other times there would be plain speech, but in one of those problem languages that nobody had been able to decipher.

He listened and ran his encryptions, and words began to leap out at him, in that formal, antique tongue of a vanished age of wonder and plenty, and an appalling capacity for destruction.

‘Imperial C,’ he declared confidently. It was one of the more common of the known languages and, if he could just get his brain working properly, it should be child’s play to translate it now he’d cleaned it up. There was a message there, finally opening like a flower to him, spilling out its brief, succinct contents in a language that had died before the ice came.

‘What—?’ Guyen started angrily, but Holsten held up a hand for silence, letting the whole message play again and enjoying his moment of prominence.

‘It’s a distress beacon,’ he announced.

‘Distress as in “Go away”?’ Lain pressed.

‘Distress as in “Come and get me”,’ Holsten told them, meeting their eyes, seeing there the first spark of hope and wonder that he himself felt. ‘Even if there’s no one – and almost certainly there’s no one – there will be tech, functioning tech. Something waiting there for us for thousands of years. Just for us.’

For a moment this revelation was strong enough that their generalized low-level dislike of him almost vanished. They were three shepherds leading their human flock to a new, promised land. They were the founding parents of the future.

Then Guyen clapped his hands. ‘Fine. Good work. I’ll have the
wake key personnel in time to start deceleration. We’ve won our gamble.’ No words said for all those left behind, who had not even been given the chance to play, or to wonder about the handful of other ark ships that had taken different courses, the Earth spitting out the last gobbets of its inhabitants before the rising tide of poison overcame it. ‘Back to your slabs, both of you.’ There was still at least a century of silent, death-cold travel between them and the signal’s source.

‘Give me just half a watch awake,’ Holsten said automatically.

Guyen glared at him, remembering suddenly that he had not wanted Holsten among Key Crew – too old, too fond of himself, too proud of his precious education. ‘Why?’

Because it’s cold. Because it’s like being dead. Because I’m afraid I won’t wake up – or that you won’t wake me. Because I’m afraid.
But Holsten shrugged easily. ‘Time enough to sleep later, isn’t there? Let me look at the stars, at least. Just half a watch and then I’ll turn in. Where’s the harm?’

Guyen grumbled his contempt at him but nodded reluctantly. ‘Let me know when you go back. Or if you’re last man up, then—’

‘Turn out the lights, yes. I know the drill.’ In truth the drill was a complex double check of ship’s systems, but the
itself did most of the hard stuff. All of Key Crew were taught how to do it. It was barely more taxing than reading down a list: monkey work.

Guyen stalked off, shaking his head, and Holsten cocked an eye towards Lain, but she was already going over the engineering readouts, a professional to the last.

Later, though, as he sat in the cupola and watched the alien starfield, two thousand years from any constellations that his ancestors might have known, she came to join him, and sat with him for a fidgety fifteen minutes without saying anything. Neither of them could quite voice the suggestion then, but, by raised eyebrow and abortive hand movement, they ended up out of their shipsuits and clasped together on the cool floor, whilst all of creation wheeled gently overhead.



The name she answers to has both a simple and a complex form. The simple form comprises a series of telegraphed gestures, a precise motion of the palps conveying a limited amount of information. The longer form incorporates a backing of stamping and shivering to add a subtle vibrational subtext to that crude flag-waving, varying with mood and tense and whether she speaks to a dominant or submissive female, or to a male.

The nanovirus has been busy, doing what it can with unexpected material. She is the result of generations of directed mutation, her presence mute witness for all those failures who never bred. Call her Portia.

To travel the forest is to travel the high roads, branch to branch, each tree a world in miniature – crossing where the branches touch: now upside down, now right side up, scaling vertical trunks then leaping where the branches give out, trailing a lifeline and trusting to the eye and the mind to calculate distance and angle.

Portia creeps forwards, judging ranges: her branch juts out into the void, and she spends a careful minute considering whether she can make the jump to the next, before deciding that she cannot. Above her the canopy fades out into a network of twigs that can’t possibly bear her weight. Portia is far larger than her tiny ancestress, half a metre from fangs to spinnerets, an arachnophobe’s nightmare. The support of her exoskeleton is aided by internal cartilage once used for little more than muscle attachment. Her muscles are more efficient too, and some of them expand and contract her abdomen, drawing air actively over her book-lungs rather than just passively taking in oxygen. This permits a boosted metabolism, regulated body temperature and a life of swift and sustained action.

Below is the forest floor, no place to be crossed lightly. There are larger predators than Portia abroad and, although she is confident in her ability to out-think them, that would involve lost time and dusk is close.

She scans her surroundings and considers her options. She has the excellent eyesight of the tiny huntress she evolved from. The great dark orbs of her principal eyes are considerably larger than those of any human.

She turns her body to bring her companions into view, trusting to her peripheral eyes to warn her of danger. Bianca, the other female, is still behind at the trunk, watching Portia and willing to trust her judgement. Bianca is larger but Portia leads, because size and strength have not been their species’ most prized assets for a very long time.

The third of her party, the male, is lower than Bianca, his legs spread out for balance as he hangs on the tree, looking downwards. Possibly he thinks he is keeping watch, but Portia feels he is probably just letting his mind wander. Too bad: she needs him. He is smaller than she; he can jump further and trust to more slender branches.

The three of them are out of their territory by fifty days. Theirs is a species given to curiosity. That same ability that allowed their tiny ancestors to create a mental map of their environs has become the ability to imagine, to ask what is beyond the forest. Portia’s people are born explorers.

She raises her palps, white side out, and signals:
Come here!
No need to give him his name. Females do not refer to males by name. He catches the motion in his lateral eyes and twitches. He is always twitching, afraid of his own shadow – wretched creature. She has distinct opinions on him, and more complimentary ones concerning Bianca. Her world consists of over a hundred individuals – mostly females – with whom she enjoys carefully maintained relationships. The nanovirus has been driving her species hard towards a communal existence. Although her brain is decidedly smaller than a human’s, just as the original Portia could use her miniscule knot of neurons to accomplish remarkable things, this distant daughter has an impressive ability to solve problems: physical, spatial, theoretical, social. Her species has proved fertile ground for the virus’s attentions.

Cautiously the male crosses beneath Bianca and springs up to her branch, safety line trailing in a white thread behind him.

Bridge across
, she tells him when he is close enough to communicate with properly.
Quick now
. The basic content of her speech is visual, in a rapid semaphore of the palps. A wealth of context – mostly her general dissatisfaction with him – is provided in the vibrations of her flurrying feet.

He flashes his humble acquiescence briefly and heads out as far along the branch as he dares, settling and resettling his feet over and over as he considers the jump ahead. Portia flashes her exasperation back to Bianca, but her companion is watching something below. An apparition like a walking carpet is creeping along the forest floor, another spider but a species that the nanovirus has managed to gift with a greater size and little else. As bulky as half a dozen Portias, it would kill her in a moment if only it could catch her.

Bianca is hungry. She indicates the ground-crawler and idly suggests they break their journey now.

Portia considers and finds the suggestion has merit. She waits until the male has made his jump across – easily, despite all his trepidation – and leaves him hauling himself back along his own line to begin the bridgework. Then she flashes a message to Bianca and the two of them begin to descend.

The hairy hunter below is intent on its own hunger – the forest is not short of prey species of varying sizes, many of them abortive results of the nanovirus’s work. There are some surviving vertebrate species – mice, birds, dwarf deer, snakes – but the virus has tried and failed with them. Kern’s experiment called for monkeys, and she ensured that the green planet’s chosen would suffer no competition from close cousins. The vertebrates that the monkeys were intended to interact with were designed to reject the virus. They have changed hardly at all.

Nobody considered the invertebrates, the complex ecosystem of tiny creeping things intended to be nothing more than a scaffolding by which the absent monkeys would ascend.

In so many cases – as with the great tarantula-descendant below that Portia is considering – whilst the virus was able to provoke growth, the sought-for neural complexity never arose. Often the environmental pressure to select for such a facility was simply lacking. A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves. Portia is a rare exception – though not the only exception – where increased cognitive capacity granted an immediate and compelling advantage.

The carpet-like hunter stops, the faintest of vibrations reaching it. The forest floor is strewn with its thread, forming a messy but effective sense organ that alerts it to the movements of its prey. Against a creature as simple as this, Portia and her kin prefer hunting methods that have not changed in thousands of years.

Portia has discerned the pattern of threads below, running through the leaf litter, almost hidden save to eyes as keen as hers. She reaches down with a foreleg and plays them carefully, speaking eloquently the language of touch and motion, creating a phantom prey, and giving it the illusion of size, distance and weight entirely conjured by her skill. She places herself in the primitive mind of the ground-hunter, as surely as if she could actually implant her thoughts there.

It advances a handful of steps, testing out this sensation, not wholly convinced. She wonders if it has had some near-escapes with her kind before. The great shaggy abdomen is up, ready to shake out a cloud of barbed hairs that will choke Portia’s book-lungs and irritate her joints.

She reaches down gingerly again, prying and tugging, suggesting that the illusory prey is getting further away, soon to escape entirely. Her body is mottled and irregular as her ancestors’ were, and the ground-hunter’s simple eyes have not made her out.

It takes the bait suddenly, in a hairy rush across the forest floor towards nothing, and Bianca drops on its back, fangs first, driving them in where its legs meet its body, and then springing away a few body-lengths to be out of the way of any riposte. The hunter lunges after her, but stumbles even as it does so, abruptly unsteady. Moments later it is twitching and quivering as the venom takes effect, and the two females wait for it to grow motionless – though still alive – before closing in to feed. Bianca in particular remains taut for another leap to escape if need be, her abdomen heaving slightly in and out as she forces air past her book-lungs.

Up above, the male is looking down plaintively and, when Portia checks on him, he signals for permission to feed. She tells him to finish his work first.

A moment later he has dropped down practically on top of her, sending her leaping instinctively backwards, landing clumsily and flipping onto her back before righting herself angrily. Bianca has come within a whisker of killing the male, but he is stamping and signalling frantically:
Danger coming! Danger! Spitters!

BOOK: Children of Time
8.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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