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Children of Time
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Who will inherit this new Earth?
The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age — a world terraformed and prepared for human life.
But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.
Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth? Span
1.1 JUST A BARREL OF MONKEYS
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that “outside” was always “down,” underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
It had no officially confirmed name beyond its astronomical designation, although there was a strong vote for “Simiana” amongst some of the less imaginative crewmembers. Doctor Avrana Kern now looked out upon it and thought only of Kern’s World. Her project, her dream, her planet. The first of many, she decided.
This is the future. This is where mankind takes its next great step. This is where we become gods.
“This is the future,” she said aloud. Her voice would sound in every crewmember’s auditory centre, all nineteen of them, though fifteen were right here in the control hub with her. Not the true hub, of course—the gravity-denuded axle about which they revolved: that was for power and processing, and their payload.
“This is where mankind takes its next great step.” Her speech had taken more of her time than any technical details over the last two days. She almost went on with the line about them becoming gods, but that was for her only. Far too controversial, given the Non Ultra Natura clowns back home. Enough of a stink had been raised over projects like hers already. Oh, the differences between the current Earth factions went far deeper: social, economic, or simply us and them, but Kern had got the Brin launched—all those years ago—against mounting opposition. By now the whole idea had become a kind of scapegoat for the divisions of the human race. Bickering primates, the lot of them. Progress is what matters. Fulfilling the potential of humanity, and of all other life. She had always been one of the fiercest opponents of the growing conservative backlash most keenly exemplified by the Non Ultra Natura terrorists. If they had their way, we’d all end up back in the caves. Back in the trees. The whole point of civilization is that we exceed the limits of nature, you tedious little primitives.
“We stand on others’ shoulders, of course.” The proper line, that of accepted scientific humility, was, “on the shoulders of giants,” but she had not got where she was by bowing the knee to past generations. Midgets, lots and lots of midgets, she thought, and then—she could barely keep back the appalling giggle—on the shoulders of monkeys.
At a thought from her, one wallscreen and their Mind’s Eye HUDs displayed the schematics of Brin 2 for them all. She wanted to direct their attention and lead them along with her towards the proper appreciation of her—sorry, their—triumph. There: the needle of the central core encircled by the ring of life and science that was their torus-shaped world. At one end of the core was the unlovely bulge of the Sentry Pod, soon to be cast adrift to become the universe’s loneliest and longest research post. The opposite end of the needle sported the Barrel and the Flask. Contents: monkeys and the future, respectively.
“Particularly I have to thank the engineering teams under Doctors Fallarn and Medi for their tireless work in reformatting—” and she almost now said “Kern’s World” without meaning to—“our subject planet to provide a safe and nurturing environment for our great project.” Fallarn and Medi were well on their way back to Earth, of course, their fifteen-year work completed, their thirty-year return journey begun. It was all stage-setting, though, to make way for Kern and her dream. We are—I am—what all this work is for.
A journey of twenty light years home. Whilst thirty years drag by on Earth, only twenty will pass for Fallarn and Medi in their cold coffins. For them, their voyage is nearly as fast as light. What wonders we can accomplish!
From her viewpoint, engines to accelerate her to most of the speed of light were no more than pedestrian tools to move her about a universe that Earth’s biosphere was about to inherit. Because humanity may be fragile in ways we cannot dream, so we cast our net wide and then wider …
Human history was balanced on a knife edge. Millennia of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and desperate striving had brought them at last to this: that humankind would beget new sentient life in its own image. Humanity would no longer be alone. Even in the unthinkably far future, when Earth itself had fallen in fire and dust, there would be a legacy spreading across the stars—an infinite and expanding variety of Earth-born life diverse enough to survive any reversal of fortune until the death of the whole universe, and perhaps even beyond that. Even if we die, we will live on in our children.
Let the NUNs preach their dismal all-eggs-in-one-basket creed of human purity and supremacy, she thought. We will out-evolve them. We will leave them behind. This will be the first of a thousand worlds that we will give life to.
For we are gods, and we are lonely, so we shall create …
Back home, things were tough, or so the twenty-year-old images indicated. Avrana had skimmed dispassionately over the riots, the furious debates, the demonstrations and violence, thinking only, How did we ever get so far with so many fools in the gene pool? The Non Ultra Natura lobby were only the most extreme of a whole coalition of human political factions—the conservative, the philosophical, even the die-hard religious—who looked at progress and said that enough was enough. Who fought tooth and nail against further engineering of the human genome, against the removal of limits on AI, and against programs like Avrana’s own.
And yet they’re losing.
The terraforming would still be going on elsewhere. Kern’s World was just one of many planets receiving the attentions of people like Fallarn and Medi, transformed from inhospitable chemical rocks—Earth-like only in approximate size and distance from the sun—into balanced ecosystems that Kern could have walked on without a suit in only minor discomfort. After the monkeys had been delivered and the Sentry Pod detached to monitor them, those other gems were where her attention would next be drawn. We will seed the universe with all the wonders of Earth.
In her speech, which she was barely paying attention to, she meandered down a list of other names, from here or at home. The person she really wanted to thank was herself. She had fought for this, her engineered longevity allowing her to carry the debate across several natural human lifetimes. She had clashed in the financiers’ rooms and in the laboratories, at academic symposiums and on mass entertainment feeds just to make this happen.
I, I have done this. With your hands have I built, with your eyes have I measured, but the mind is mine alone.
Her mouth continued along its prepared course, the words boring her even more than they presumably bored her listeners. The real audience for this speech would receive it in twenty years’ time: the final confirmation back home of the way things were due to be. Her mind touched base with the Brin 2’s hub. Confirm Barrel systems, she pinged into her relay link with the facility’s control computer; it was a check that had become a nervous habit of late.
Within tolerance, it replied. And if she probed behind that bland summary, she would see precise readouts of the lander craft, its state of readiness, even down to the vital signs of its ten-thousand-strong primate cargo, the chosen few who would inherit, if not the Earth, then at least this planet, whatever it would be called.
Whatever they would eventually call it, once the uplift nanovirus had taken them that far along the developmental road. The biotechs estimated that a mere thirty or forty monkey generations would bring them to the stage where they might make contact with the Sentry Pod and its lone human occupant.
Alongside the Barrel was the Flask: the delivery system for the virus that would accelerate the monkeys along their way—they would stride, in a mere century or two, across physical and mental distances that had taken humanity millions of long and hostile years.
Another group of people to thank, for she herself was no biotech specialist. She had seen the specs and the simulations, though, and expert systems had examined the theory and summarized it in terms that she, a mere polymath genius, could understand. The virus was clearly an impressive piece of work, as far as she could grasp it. Infected individuals would produce offspring mutated in a number of useful ways: greater brain size and complexity, greater body size to accommodate it, more flexible behavioural paths, swifter learning … The virus would even recognize the presence of infection in other individuals of the same species, so as to promote selective breeding, the best of the best giving birth to even better. It was a whole future in a microscopic shell, almost as smart, in its single-minded little way, as the creatures that it would be improving. It would interact with the host genome at a deep level, replicate within its cells like a new organelle, passing itself on to the host’s offspring until the entire species was subject to its benevolent contagion. No matter how much change the monkeys underwent, that virus would adapt and adjust to whatever genome it was partnered with, analysing and modelling and improvising with whatever it inherited—until something had been engineered that could look its creators in the eye and understand.
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 terraformed 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.
Show me. She braced herself for the image, but, really, at this remove it seemed almost nothing. A flash; a tiny burned boat of all her ideas and friends.
In the final analysis it had all been nothing more than a barrel of over-evolved monkeys, after all. From this distance, against the vast and heedless backdrop of Everything Else, it was hard to say why any of it had ever mattered at all.
Distress beacon, she ordered. Because they would need to know, on Earth, what had happened. They had to know that they must come and collect her, wake her like Sleeping Beauty. After all, she was Doctor Kern. She was the future of the human race, right here. They needed her.
Twenty long years for her signal to reach Earth. Far more than that for the rescue to come back, even with the best fusion engines employed to accelerate to three-quarter light speed. But her frail body would survive that long in cold sleep—and more than that.
Some hours later, she saw the end of it: she saw the Barrel hit atmosphere.
It was not on the planned trajectory, the conflagration of the Brin 2 having sent it off on a tangent so that it narrowly avoided being hurled forever into empty space. Its cargo would not care, in the long run. The Barrel burned, streaking like a meteor through the atmosphere of the green world. Somehow the thought of the insensate terror that its primate occupants must be going through, as they died in ignorance by fear and burning, touched her more than the death of her fellow humans. And wouldn’t Sering claim that as evidence that he was right?
From force of habit, a redundant professional thoroughness, she located the Flask, watching as the smaller canister fell through the atmosphere at a gentler angle, delivering its viral cargo to a world devoid of the simians it was intended for.
We can always get more monkeys. That was a curious mantra, but it made her feel better. The uplift virus would last for millennia. The project would survive the treachery and death of its creators. She herself would ensure it.
Listen for a change in radio signals. Wake me when you hear it, she instructed.
The pod computer was not happy about that. It required more exacting parameters. Kern thought over all the developments back home she might want to be appraised of. Listing them all was tantamount to trying to predict the future.
Then give me options.
Her HUD streamed with possibilities. The pod computer was a sophisticated piece of engineering, complex enough that it could feign sentience, if not quite own to it.
- "Children of Time is a joy from start to finish. Entertaining, smart, surprising and unexpectedly human."—Patrick Ness
- "Brilliant science fiction and far out world building"—James McAvoy
"A refreshingly new take on post-dystopia civilizations, with the smartest evolutionary worldbuilding you'll ever read"
—Peter F Hamilton
- "A magnificently imaginative space opera."—B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
- "Like a Stephen Baxter novel with an epic sweep of history (see his Evolution, for example), added to a broad cast of a Peter Hamilton Space Opera and the narrative drive of, say, a David Brin or a Greg Bear old style SF novel, Children of Time soon got me hooked."—SFF World
"Children of Time has that essence of the classic science fiction novels, that sense of wonder and unfettered imagination but combined with this is the charm of a writer who really knows how to entertain, how to spin a good story. Essential science fiction, a book not to be missed."
- "The novel's clever interrogation of the usual narrative of planetary conquest, and its thoughtful depiction of two alien civilisations attempting to understand each other, is an exemplar of classic widescreen science fiction."—New Scientist
- "This is superior stuff, tackling big themes - gods, messiahs, artificial intelligence, alienness - with brio."—Financial Times
- "An entertaining and thought provoking novel of post humanity, survival and legacy."—SF Signal
- "Tchaikovsky's prose is superb, and his world-building was exceptional, brilliantly realized on the page, and both fascinating and original."—Civilian Reader
- On Sale
- Sep 18, 2018
- Page Count
- 640 pages