We are back with the second half of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s vignettes! If you are just catching up with The Quill to Live, Orbit has graciously allowed us to publish a series of vignettes that take place between two of our favorite books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you missed part one of this post you can find it here. Thanks again to Adrian and Orbit for giving us the opportunity to post these. We hope you take the time to check out the shorts and original books when you have a second. Enjoy!
Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 2
4. Tomb Raiders
When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.
“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.
“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.
“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.
Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.
Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.
Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.
“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.
Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.
But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.
“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.
“Let’s get in there.”
Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.
“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”
A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.
Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.
“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.
He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.
The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.
“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”
“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”
“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.
“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.
“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.
“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.
They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.
“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, virtual, transcending the physical.
But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.
Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.
“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.
“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.
He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?
Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin and Channec and the corpses, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.
Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.
“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”
“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.
“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”
He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.
It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.
“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.
Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.
The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.
He saw it too late: the lights stayed still but the shadows moved.
The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.
He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.
Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.
With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.
She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.
Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.
5. Voyage to Nowhere
You wake in darkness, enclosed. Something is forcing its way into your mouth, down your throat. Something is clamped about your nose. Things are invading you. You fight; you can’t fight: you are restrained. Then something gives; your arm clutches towards your face but strikes a cold, hard surface right before you… above you… you cannot tell. You cannot tell which way is up.
Your hand slithers up the cold surface until it is at your mouth. Tubes, there are tubes. You wrench them out. You stare into the darkness until the lights come on.
They are soft lights, originating from somewhere behind your head. Probably they are intended to be comforting. You are not comforted.
The barrier before you is clear. Looking out of it you see… ranks of clear-fronted coffins in a great dark space. At first you think they are reflections, but all the others of you are asleep, their tubes still plugged into nose and mouth.
You have no idea where you are. You yell. You bang at the clear plastic. It is colder than it was.
There is a voice, a man’s voice.
“Can you hear me?” it says.
You listen. It repeats itself. The voice sounds patient, sad.
“Yes,” you whisper into the tiny coffin that is your world. “I hear you. Who are you?”
“Do you know where you are?” asks the voice, leaving you uncertain whether it’s owner can hear you.
You open your mouth to say, and there is a hole in your mind, a great yawning gulf where the knowledge should be. You do not know where you are. You do not know who you are. Your sense of self is a string of disjointed images: the sun, parents, a brown landscape, the harsh taste of the air.
“Listen to me,” says the voice. “You are on the Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh is a colony ship. Do you remember.”
You know the name, but it’s like someone you met a long time ago. You can’t place it. You try to understand what the voice means. A colony ship…?
The voice continues with its dreadful, didactic patience. “The Gilgamesh is on a journey to another world, do you understand that?”
And you do. When the information abruptly flowers in your mind you feel like weeping. You are coming back to yourself. You are more than these broken fragments. “Yes,” you say, and “Yes!”
“We have star maps from the Old Empire,” the voice confides to you – things you think you knew once, fitting into place like bricks, one on another. “We are humanity, in this ship. We are on a long journey to a planet that we believe the ancients made into another Earth. But an unspoiled Earth, one not poisoned by their war.” There is a terrible, wistful yearning in that voice.
“Who are you?” you demand. If not for that yearning you might have taken it for some thinking computer, such as the ancients were supposed to have.
“My name is Guyen. I am the Gilgamesh’s commander. Right now I’m the only member of Key Crew not in suspension. You and I are the only two human beings awake.”
And you think about that, and you know it must be an honour that they’ve woken you first. You and the commander, of all those sleeping people outside your coffin. “Commander,” you say, “how long before we’re on this new Earth?”
Guyen’s voice says nothing for long time.
“Commander?” you prompt him, and then again. And then again.
“If it is there,” says Guyen’s disembodied voice, “then the Gilgamesh will reach it in approximately twelve-hundred years.
You do not understand. Guyen does not volunteer an explanation. You cannot even think of how to phrase the question. The silence stretches out, and it’s getting colder.
“You see,” the commander tells you eventually, after listening to your teeth chatter, “you are the first.”
“The first to wake.” You can barely get out the words.
“The first cargo malfunction,” Guyen tells you. The words mean nothing. You turn them over in your mind. Still nothing. Then, as though a visual illusion has just flipped before your eyes, you understand.
“We knew this would happen with a proportion of the cargo over the time periods involved,” Guyen goes on, and you wish he would just shut up but you have no way to make him. “I had the Gilgamesh wake me, when it did. You are the first. I felt I owed it to you.” And, perhaps because his voice is all you have, you can hear the ragged edges there: the man who is responsible for everything.
You try to say something. Guyen will never know what your final message to him would have been.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
The light goes out.
6. Trespassers in Eden
They were working on this place when the bomb went off in Reykjavik, putting the finishing touches to a biosphere imported from earth. A big job, but the planet was perfect for it, the first of a long string of islands in the great empty night. The dream project of a misanthropic genius transhumanist, who planned to make it her grand experiment.
When everything fell apart, when the colonies on Mars and Europa and all the others died, when the signals from Earth ceased, this other Earth circled its far-distant other sun with blithe unconcern. The genius behind it never got to run her experiment. Something else happened instead, something unplanned for, unexpected, unwanted.
All the while, when the tough remnants of the human race lived in the shadow of the ice and dragged themselves back into an understanding of themselves, something else was breeding and growing on this world, a usurper in this human paradise. Not an experiment, barely a mistake, just an unintended side-effect of how things fell out.
And one day, while mankind regrouped on its poison Earth, eyes looked up at the sky and asked Why? and Where did we come from? They looked at the pinprick lights above them and wondered why one moved so swiftly across the sky, never realizing that they were looking at all that was left of their creators.
From something that merely bred and fed, they became something that remembers and builds and dances and thinks. They told their own stories in their own language.
They cannot know that their creators are coming back to haunt them. They cannot know that sometimes, Where did we come from? is the worst question of all.