Generations have passed this green world by, in hope, in discovery, in fear, in failure. A future long foreseen is coming to pass.
Another Portia from the Great Nest by the Western Ocean, but a warrior this time, in the manner of her kind.
Her surroundings right now are not Great Nest but a different metropolis of the spiders: one she thinks of as Seven Trees. Portia is here as an observer, and to lend what aid she might. All around her, the community is a hive of furious activity as the inhabitants scurry and leap and abseil about their frantic business, and she watches them, her scatter of eyes taking in the chaos on all sides, and compares the sight to a disturbed ant’s nest. She is capable of the bitter reflection that circumstances have now dragged her people down to the level of their enemy.
She feels fear, a building anxiety that makes her stamp her feet and twitch her palps. Her people are more suited to offence than defence, but they have been unable to retain the initiative in this conflict. She will have to improvise. There is no plan for what comes next.
She may die, and her eyes look into that abyss and feed her with a terror of extinction, of un-being, that is perhaps the legacy of all life.
There are signals being flagged by messengers and lookouts posted high in the trees above, as high up as Seven Trees’ silk scaffolding extends. They signal regularly. The signal is time counting down: how long this place now has left before the enemy comes. The message wires that are strung between the trunks and their multitude of spun dwellings
thrum with speech, as though the community is raging against the inevitability of its destruction.
Neither Portia’s death nor Seven Trees’ destruction is inevitable. The community has its own defenders—for in this time, in this age, every spider conurbation has dedicated fighters who spend their time training for nothing other than to fight—and Portia is here along with a dozen from Great Nest, in support of their kin. They wear armour of wood and silk, and they have their slingshots. They are the diminutive knights of their world, facing an enemy that outnumbers them by hundreds to one.
Portia knows she needs to calm herself, but the agitation within her is too great to be suppressed. She needs some external reassurance.
At the high point of the nest’s central tree she finds it. Here is an expansive tent of silk whose walls are woven with complex geometric patterns, the crossing threads drawn out according to an exacting plan. Another handful of her kind are already there, seeking the reassurance of the numinous, the certainty that there is something more to the world than their senses can readily grasp; that there is a greater Understanding. That, even when all is lost, all need not be lost.
Portia crouches down with them and begins to spin, forming knots of thread that make a language out of numbers, a holy text that is written anew whenever one of her people kneels in contemplation, and that is then consumed when they arise. She was born with this Understanding, but she has learned it anew as well, coming to Temple at an early age just as she has come here now. The innate, virus-hardwired Understanding of these mathematical transformations that she inherited did not inspire her in the same way as being guided through the sequences by her teachers, slowly coming to the revelation that what these apparently arbitrary strings of figures described was something beyond mere invention—was a self-evident and internally consistent universal truth.
Of course in Great Nest, her home, they have a crystal that
speaks these truths in its own ineffable way—just as most of the greatest nests have now, that pilgrims from lesser communities often journey great distances to see. She has watched as the votive priestess touches the crystal with her metal probe, feeling the pulsing of the message from the heavens, dancing out that celestial arithmetic for the benefit of the congregation. At such times, Portia knows, the Messenger itself would be in the skies overhead, going about her constant journey—whether at night and visible, or hidden by the brightness of the daytime sky.
Here in Seven Trees there is no crystal, but to simply repeat that message, in all its wondrous but internally consistent complexity, to spin and consume and spin again, is a calming ritual that settles Portia’s mind, and allows her to face whatever must soon come, with equanimity.
Her people have solved the mathematical riddles posed by the orbiting satellite—the Messenger, as they think of it— learning the proofs first by rote and then in true comprehension, as a civic and religious duty. The intrusion of this signal has seized the attention of much of the species in a relatively short period of time, because of their inherent curiosity. Here is something demonstrably from beyond, and it fascinates them; it tells them that there is more to the world than they can grasp; it guides their thinking in new ways. The beauty of the maths promises a universe of wonders if they can but stretch out their minds that bit further: a jump they can almost, but not quite, make.
Portia spins and unravels and spins, soothing away the trepidation consuming her, replacing it with the undeniable certainty that there is more. Whatever happens this day, even if she should fall beneath the iron-clad mandibles of her foes, there is a depth to life beyond the simple dimensions that she can perceive and calculate in, and so … who knows?
Then it is time, and she backs out of temple and goes to arm herself.
There is considerable variation in the settlements of
Portia’s people, but to human eyes they would look messy, possibly nightmarish. Seven Trees now encompasses more than the original seven, the thicket of trunks interlinked by hundreds of lines, each part of a plan, each assigned a specific purpose, whether structural, as a thoroughfare, or for communication. The vibratory language of the spiders transmits well down silk threads over some distance, and they have developed nodes of tensioned coils that amplify the signal so that speech can pass for kilometres between cities in calm weather. The dwelling places of her kin are silk tents pulled taut by support lines into a variety of shapes, suitable to a species that lives its life in three dimensions and can hang from a vertical surface as easily as resting on a horizontal one. Meeting places are broad webs where a speaker’s words can be transmitted to a crowd of listeners along the dancing of the strands. In the high centre, shadowing much of the city, is the reservoir: a watertight net spread wide that catches rain and run-off from a grand area around Seven Trees, the water channelling to it through troughs and pipes from a multitude of smaller rain-catchers.
Around Seven Trees the forest has been cut back by the semi-domesticated local ants. Previously this has been a firebreak. Soon it will be a killing ground.
Portia crawls and leaps her way through Seven Trees, and sees that the sentries are signalling first contact with the enemy: the settlement’s automated defences have been triggered. All around her the evacuation is ongoing, those who are not dedicated fighters gathering what they can—supplies and those few possessions they cannot simply recreate—and abandoning Seven Trees. Some carry clutches of eggs glued to their abdomens. Many have spiderlings clinging to them. Those young that are not sensible enough to hitch a ride are likely to die.
Portia swiftly draws herself up to one of the lofty watch towers, looking out towards the treeline. Out there is an army of hundreds of thousands advancing towards Seven Trees. It is an independent arm of the same great ant colony her
ancestress once scouted out; a centuries-old composite life form that is taking over this part of the world day by day.
The nearby forest is riddled with traps. There are webs to catch incautious ants. There are springlines, pulled taut between ground and canopy, that will stick to a passing insect, then detach and whip the luckless creature upwards, to trap it in the high branches. There are deadfalls and pits, but none of them will be enough. The advancing colony will meet these dangers as it meets all dangers, by sacrificing enough of itself to nullify them, with the main thrust of its attack barely slowing. There is a particular caste of expendable scout now ranging ahead of the ants’ main column, specifically to suicidally disarm these defensive measures.
Now there is movement in the trees. Portia focuses on it, seeing those scouts that survive washing forwards in a chaotic mass, obeying their programming. The ground between them and Seven Trees is only lightly trapped, but they have other difficulties to face. The local ants are on them instantly, sallying forth valiantly to bite and sting, so that within metres of the treeline the ground becomes messy with knots of fighting insects, insensately dismembering each other and being dismembered in turn. To human eyes, the ants of the two colonies would seem indistinguishable, but Portia can discern differences in colouration and pattern, extending into the ultraviolet. She is ready with her slingshot.
The arachnid defenders start their barrage with solid ammunition, simple stones gathered from the ground, chosen for their convenient size and heft. They target those scouts that break loose from the ant melee, picking them off with deadly accuracy, each shot plotted and calculated exactingly. The ants are incapable of dodging or reacting, unable to even perceive the defenders at their high vantage points. The death toll amongst the insects is ruinous, or it would be if this host was anything but the disposable vanguard of a much greater force.
Some of the scouts reach the foot of Seven Trees, despite the bombardment. But, after a metre or so of bare trunk, each tree boasts sheer web skirts that angle up and out, a surface
that the ants cannot get purchase on. They climb and fall, climb and fall, initially mindless in their persistence. Then a sufficient concentration of messaging scent builds, and they change their tactics, climbing up over one another to form a living, reaching structure that extends blindly upwards.
Portia stamps out a call to arms and her sisters from Great Nest muster around her. The local defenders are less well armed, lacking both experience and innate understanding of ant-war. She and her fellows will lead the charge.
They drop swiftly from the heights on to the ant scouts, and begin their work. They are far larger than the attackers, both stronger and swifter. Their bite is venomous, but it is a venom best used against spiders, so they now concentrate on using their fangs at the intersections of the insects’ bodies, between head and thorax, between thorax and abdomen. Most of all, they are more intelligent than their enemies, better able to react and manoeuvre and evade. They tear apart the scouts and their bridge-building with furious haste, always moving, never letting the ants latch on to them.
Portia leaps back to the trunk, then scuttles over to cling effortlessly to the same silk underhang that the ants could not climb. Upside down, she sees fresh movement at the treeline. The main column has arrived.
These new ants are larger—though still smaller than herself. They are of many castes, each to its own speciality. At the head of the column, and already accelerating along the scouts’ scent trail towards Seven Trees, come the shock-troopers. Their formidable mandibles sport barbed, saw-edged metal blades, and they have head-shields that spread back to protect their thoraxes. Their purpose is to monopolize the defenders’ attention and sell their lives as dearly as possible, so as to allow more dangerous castes to close the distance.
More of the enemy are even now entering the tunnels of the local ants’ nest, spreading confounding chemicals that throw the defending insects into confusion, or even enlist them to the cause of the attacker. This is one way that the mega-colony
grows, by co-opting rather than destroying other ant hives. For foreign species such as Portia, though, there is no purpose and no mercy.
Back in Seven Trees, the remaining local males are hard at work. Some have fled, but most of the evacuees are female. Males are replaceable, always underfoot, always too numerous. Many have been instructed to remain in the city until the last, on pain of death. Some have fled anyway, to take their chances, but there are still plenty to cut any remaining lines between the settlement and the ground, to deny the ants easy access. Others are hurrying from the reservoir with silk parcels bulging with water. Portia notes such industry with approval.
The front ranks of the column are nearing. The armoured ants suffer less from the slingshots, but now other ammunition is brought into play. Portia’s people are chemists of a sort. Living in a world where scent is so vital—a small part of their language but a very large part of the way the rest of the world perceives itself—they have developed numerous inherited Understandings with respect to the mixing and compounding of chemical substances, most especially pheromones. Now the slingers are sending over silk-wrapped globules of liquid to splash amongst the advancing ants. The scents thus released briefly cover up the attackers’ own constant scent language— denying them not only speech, but thought and identity. Until the chemicals dissipate, the affected sections of the attacking army are deprogrammed, falling back on base instincts and unable to react properly to the situation around them. They blunder and break formation, and some of them fight each other, unable to recognize their own kin. Portia and the other defenders attack swiftly, killing as many as they can while this confusion persists.
The defenders are taking losses now. Those metal jaws can sever legs or tear open bodies. Portia’s warriors wear coats of silk and plates of soft wood to snare the saw teeth, shedding this armour as they need to, repairing it when they can. The column is still advancing, despite everything the defenders can
The males are splashing water about the lower reaches of
Seven Trees, proactive fire-fighting, for the ant colony is now deploying its real weapons.
Near to Portia there is a flash and gout of flame, and two of her comrades are instantly ablaze, like staggering torches kicking and shrivelling and dying. These new ants brew chemicals inside their abdomens, just like certain species of beetle. When they jut their stingers forwards and mix these substances there is a fierce exothermic reaction, a spray of heated fluid. The atmosphere of Portia’s world has an oxygen content a few per cent higher than Earth’s, enough for the searing mixture to spontaneously ignite.
The technology of Portia’s kind is built on silk and wood, potential energy stored in tensioned lines and primitive springs. What little metal they use is stolen from the ants. They have no use for fire.
Portia gains height and reverts to her sling. The flame-thrower ants are lethal at short range but vulnerable to her missile fire. However, the ants now control all the ground around Seven Trees and they are bringing forward more far-reaching weapons.
She sees the first projectile as it is launched, her eyes tracking the motion automatically: a gleaming sphere of a hard, transparent, fragile material—for the ants have stumbled upon glass in the intervening generations—now arcs overhead and shatters behind her. Her lateral eyes catch the flare as the chemicals within it mix and then explode.
Below, behind the shielded shock-troopers, the artillery is at work: ants with heads encased in a metal mask that includes a back-facing tongue—a length of springy metal that their mouthparts can depress and then release, flicking their incendiary grenades some distance. Their aim is poor, blindly following the scent clues of their comrades, but there are many of them. Although the males of Seven Trees are rushing with water to douse the flames, the fires spread swiftly, shrivelling
silk and blackening wood.
Seven Trees starts to burn.
It is the end. The defenders who can do so must leave, or roast. For those that leap blindly, though, the metal jaws of the ants await.
Portia scales higher and higher, racing against the flames. The upper reaches of the settlement are cluttered with desperately reaching bodies: warriors, civilians, females, males. Some shudder and drop as the smoke overcomes them. Others cannot outstrip the hungry fire.
She fights her way to the top, jettisoning the wooden plates of her armour while spinning frantically. Always it has been thus, and at least she has one use for the inferno that is stoking itself below her: the thermals will give her height so that she can use her self-made parachute to glide beyond the reach of the rapacious ant colony.
For now. Only for now. This army is closing on Great Nest, and after that there will only be the ocean. If Portia’s kind cannot defeat the mindless march of the ants, then nobody will be around to write the histories of future generations.