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Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera

Children of Time (7 page)

BOOK: Children of Time
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‘Yeah, well, you’d been up for how long, before they woke me?’ he goaded her. ‘Keep pulling those long hours and you’ll catch up real soon, won’t you?’

She had no ready comeback, and when he glanced at her, her face was long and pensive.
This is no way to run a civilization
, he thought.
But of course, that’s not what we are, not any more. We’re a civilization in transport, waiting to happen somewhere else. Maybe here. We’re the last cutting of old Earth.

The pause stretched out between them, and he found he had no way of breaking its hold, until Lain abruptly shook herself and said, ‘So, cultural specificity. Let’s talk about that.’

He was profoundly grateful for the lifeline. ‘So I know it’s a distress beacon, but that is literally only because we’ve had prior contact with Imperial tech, and in sufficient context that we can make assumptions – some of which may be wrong, even. And this isn’t an alien species – this is
us
, our ancestors. And, in turn, they won’t recognize our signals, necessarily. There’s this myth that advanced cultures will be so expansively cosmopolitan that they’ll be able to effortlessly talk down to the little people, right? But the Empire never intended its tech to be forward-compatible with primitives – meaning us. Why would it? Like everyone else, they only ever intended to talk to each other. So I’m telling this thing, “Hello, here we are,” but I don’t know what protocols and what codes their system is expecting to receive from whatever rescuer would have been planned for, however many thousand years ago. They can’t even hear us. We’re just background static to them.’

She shrugged. ‘So what? We get there and send Karst over with a cutting torch and open her up?’

He stared at her. ‘You forget how many people died, in the early space years, trying to get at Empire tech. Even with all the systems fried by their old electromagnetic pulse weapons, there were still plenty of ways for it to kill you.’

Another lift of the shoulders, indicating a tired woman at the edge of her reserves. ‘Maybe you forget how much I don’t like Karst.’

Did I forget? Did I ever know that?
He had a vertiginous sense that maybe he had, but that any such knowledge had fallen unnoticed from his head during the long, cold age of his suspension. And it genuinely had been an
age
. There had been whole discrete periods of human history that had not lasted so long. He found himself holding on to the console as though, at any moment, the illusion of gravity gifted by the
Gilgamesh
’s deceleration would vanish, and he would simply slip away in some random direction, with all connection lost.
These are all the people there are
, with the image of that roomful of near-strangers he had never had a chance to get to know before they sealed him in the coffin.
This is life and society and human contact, now and forever.

It seemed to be Lain’s turn to find the silence awkward, but she was a practical woman. She simply got up to go, drawing away sharply as he tried to put a hand on her arm.

‘Wait.’ It came out more as a plea than he had intended. ‘You’re here – and I need your help.’

‘On what?’

‘Help me with the signal – the beacon signal. There’s always been a lot of interference, but I think . . . it’s possible there’s actually a second signal clashing with it on a close frequency. Look.’ He passed a handful of analyses over to her screen. ‘Can you clean it up – compensate it out if it’s noise, or at least . . . something? I’m running out of things to try right now.’

She seemed relieved at actually getting a sensible request from him and resumed her seat. For the next hour the two of them worked wordlessly side by side, she with what was now her task, and he in sending increasingly desperate enquiries aimed at the satellite, none of which evinced any response. Eventually he felt that he might as well just be sending over gibberish, for all the difference it made.

Then: ‘Mason?’ from Lain, and there was something new in her tone.

‘Hmm?’

‘You’re right. It is another signal.’ A pause. ‘But we’re not getting it from the satellite.’

He waited, seeing her fingers move over the panels, checking and rechecking.

‘It’s from the planet.’

‘Shit! You’re serious?’ And then, with a hand to his mouth. ‘Sorry, I’m sorry. Not language befitting the dignity of etcetera, but . . .’

‘No, no, this is definitely a shit-worthy moment.’

‘It’s a distress call? It’s repeated?’

‘It’s not like
your
distress signal. Much more complex. It must be actual live talk. It’s not repeating . . .’

For a moment Holsten actually felt her hope peak, pulling the air between them taut with the untold potential of the future, and then she hissed. ‘Bollocks.’

‘What?’

‘No, it
is
repeating. It’s longer and more complicated than your distress call, but this is the same sequence again.’ Hands on the move once more. ‘And it’s . . . we’re . . .’ Her bony shoulders sagged. ‘It’s . . . I think it’s bounce.’

‘Come again?’

‘I think this other signal is bouncing from the planet. I . . . Well, most likely hypothesis: the satellite is sending a signal to the planet, and we’re catching bounce-back. Fuck, I’m sorry. I really thought . . .’

‘Lain, are you sure?’

She cocked an eyebrow at him, because he was not joining in her dejection. ‘What?’

‘The satellite is communicating with the planet,’ he prompted. ‘It’s not just a bounce-back of the distress call – it’s something longer. A different message sent to the planet than for the rest of the universe.’

‘But it’s just on a loop, same as . . .’ She slowed down. ‘You think there’s someone down there?’

‘Who knows?’

‘But they’re not broadcasting.’

‘Who knows? It’s a terraform world, whatever Vitas says. It was created to be lived on. And, even if the satellite is nothing but a call for help these days, if they seeded the world with people . . . So maybe they really are savages. Maybe they don’t have the tech to receive or transmit, but they could still be there . . . on a world specifically made for humans to live on.’

She stood up suddenly. ‘I’m off to fetch Guyen.’

For a moment he looked at her, thinking,
Seriously, that was the first thing you thought of?
But he nodded resignedly and she was off, leaving him to listen in on the newfound contact between satellite and planet, and try to work out what it signified.

To his great surprise it took him very little time to do so.

‘It’s what?’ Guyen demanded. The news had brought along not just the commander but most of the Key Crew as well.

‘A series of mathematics problems,’ Holsten explained to them all. ‘The only reason it took me as long as it did was that I was expecting something more . . . sophisticated, something informative, like the beacon. But it’s maths.’

‘Weird maths, too,’ Lain commented, looking over his transcription. ‘The sequences get quite complicated, but they’re set out step by step from first principles, basic sequences.’ She was frowning. ‘It’s like . . . Mason, you mentioned extra-solar listening posts before . . . ?’

‘It’s a test, yes,’ Holsten agreed. ‘An intelligence test.’

‘But you said it was pointed at the planet?’ Karst stated.

‘Which raises all kinds of questions, yes.’ Holsten shrugged. ‘I mean, this is very old technology. This is the oldest working tech that anyone anywhere ever discovered. So what we’re seeing could just be the result of a break-down, an error. But, yes, makes you think.’

‘Or not,’ Lain put in drily. When the others just stared at her, she continued in her snide tone: ‘Come on, people, am I the only one thinking it? Come on, Mason, you’ve been trying to get the thing to notice you for how long now? We’ve rounded the star on our approach to the planet, and you’re still drawing blanks. So now you say it’s setting some sort of maths test for the planet?’

‘Yes, but—’

‘So send in the answers,’ she suggested.

Holsten stared at her for a long time, then glanced sideways at Guyen. ‘We don’t know what—’

‘Do it,’ Guyen ordered.

Carefully, Holsten called up the answers he had compiled, the early problems solved easily on his fingers, the later ones only with artificial help. He had been sending plaintive signals to the distant satellite for hours. It was simple enough to dispatch the string of numbers instead.

They waited, all of the Key Crew. It took seven minutes and some seconds for the message to reach its intended destination. There was some shuffling. Karst cracked his knuckles. One of the science team coughed.

A little over fourteen minutes after sending, the distress beacon ceased.

2.4
POOR RELATIONS

 

Portia’s people are natural explorers. As active carnivores with a considerably more demanding metabolism than their forebears, too many of them in one place will quickly over-hunt any home territory. Traditionally their family units fragment often; the females who are weakest, with the fewest allies, are the ones who venture further afield to establish new nests. Such diasporas happen regularly for, although they lay far fewer eggs than their ancestors, and although their standards of care are far below human so that infant mortality rates remain high, the species population is in colossal expansion. They are spreading across their world, one broken family at a time.

Portia’s own expedition is something different, though. She is not seeking a nesting ground, and there is a home that her present plans require her to return to. In her mind and her speech, it is the Great Nest by the Western Ocean, and several hundred of her kind – most but not all relatives of one degree or another – reside there. The basic domestication of the aphids and their husbandry by the spiders has allowed the Great Nest to grow to unprecedented size, without the shortages that would prompt migration or expulsion.

Over several generations the social structure of the Great Nest has grown exponentially more complex. Contact has been made with other nests, each of which has its own way of feeding the modest multitudes. There has been some halting trade, sometimes for food but more often for knowledge. Portia’s people are ever curious about the further reaches of their world.

That is why Portia is travelling now, following the paths of stories and rumours and third-hand accounts. She has been
sent
.

The three of them are entering already claimed territory. The signs are unmistakable – not merely regularly maintained web bridges and lines amid the trees, but patterns and designs stating by sight and scent that these hunting grounds are spoken for.

This is exactly what Portia has been looking for.

Ascending as high as they can go, the travellers can see that, to the north, the character of the formerly endless forest changes dramatically. The great canopy thins, fading away in patches to reveal startling stretches of cleared ground; beyond that there are still trees, but they are of a different species and regularly spaced, in a manner that looks jarringly artificial to their eyes. This is what they have come to see. They could simply avoid this little piece of family turf that they have come across and go look. Portia’s plan, however – the step-by-step route that she has plotted from the start of their trek to its successful conclusion – specifically calls for her to gather information. For her ancestors, this would mean painstaking visual reconnaissance. For her it means asking questions of the locals.

They proceed with caution, and openly. There is a real possibility that the incumbents may chase them off; however, Portia can mentally put herself in their place, consider how she herself would look upon an intruder. She can think through the permutations enough to know that an aggressive or covert entrance will increase the chance of a hostile reception.

Sure enough, the locals are sharp enough to spot the newcomers quickly, and curious enough to make their presence known at a distance, signalling for Portia and her fellows to approach. There are seven of them, five females and two males, and they have a neat nest strung between two trees, liberally surrounded with trip lines to warn them of any over-bold visitors. Also present are a brood of at least two dozen spiderlings of various ages, hatched from a communal crèche. Fresh from the egg they are able to crawl and take live prey, and understand a variety of tasks and concepts without having to be taught. Probably no more than three or four of them will reach adulthood. Portia’s people lack a mammal’s helpless infant stage, and the maternal bond that accompanies it. Those that do survive will be the strongest, the most intelligent and the best able to interact with others of their kind.

The palp-semaphore language allows for communication over a mile away in clear conditions, but is not suitable for complex discussions. The more subtle step-vibration speech will not travel far across the ground or down a branch. In order to hold a free and frank exchange of views, one of the local females spins a web that stretches between several trees, large enough for everyone to rest a few feet on its many anchor points and follow the conversation as it progresses. One of the locals climbs onto the web and, at her invitation, Portia joins her.

We bring you greetings from the Great Nest on the Western Ocean
, Portia begins, meaning: we are but three, but we have friends.
We have travelled far and seen many things.
For information is often a trade good in itself.

The locals remain suspicious. They are spoken for by their largest female, who shudders upon the web and shifts her feet, saying:
What is your purpose? This is no place for you.

We do not seek to hunt
, Portia states.
We do not come to settle. We shall soon return to the Great Nest. Word has come to us –
the concept is expressed very clearly, to their minds: vibrations twanging down a taut line. They are naturally equipped to think in terms of information transmitted at a distance.
The land beyond your land is of interest.

Unrest amongst the locals.
It is not to be travelled
, their leader says.

BOOK: Children of Time
10.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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