The Great Nest. The greatest metropolis of Portia’s kind. Home.
Returning like this, at the head of a band of defeated stragglers—those lucky enough to escape the flames of Seven Trees—Portia feels something analogous to shame. She has not stopped the enemy, or even slowed it down. Each day, the ant colony will march closer to Great Nest. Looking across the expanse of her beloved birthplace, she finds herself picturing it in the throes of evacuation. In her mind’s eye—a faculty already present in some form even for her tiniest ancestress— she sees her home burning. The ants do not know where Great Nest is, of course—their spread across the world is methodical but mindless—but they will reach the coast soon. The days are counting down to when they will arrive at the gates.
Great Nest is vast, home to several thousand spiders. The natural forest is still thick here, but great effort and artifice has gone into erecting artificial trees to provide more living room. Great pillars made from felled trunks, sheathed and strengthened with silk, spread out from the living copse at the city’s centre—and even out into the sea itself, allowing the webwork of the city to reach out across the waters. Space is at a premium and, over the last century, Great Nest has grown exponentially in all directions, including up.
Beyond the city proper, there lies a patchwork of farms: aphids for honeydew, mice for meat, and stands of the blister-trunked trees cultivated by the ants, another secret stolen from the enemy. The seas throng with fish ready for the netting, and offshore there is a sister-settlement on the sea-bed; relations with the marine stomatopod culture are cordial and mutually profitable, in a minimal sort of way. A generation ago there
was friction as the spiders began to expand their city seawards. The sunken bases of the pillars, however, have enriched the marine environment, providing an artificial reef that sealife has quickly taken advantage of. In retrospect, the sea-dwellers concede that they have gained from this situation, however inadvertently.
Portia and her band get aloft quickly, clambering up towards the city on lines strung over the outlying farmland. She has brought back some warriors, and a reasonable number of males, though few will thank her for returning with the latter. The smaller males are better able to parachute to safety: they survived when many of their sisters did not. And they fought, Portia concedes. The idea of a male warrior is absurd, but they are still stronger and faster and more intelligent than ants. For a moment she has a mad idea: arm and train the males, thus vastly increasing the number of fighters available to Great Nest. But she shies away from the idea instantly—that way anarchy lies, the reversal of the natural order of things. Moreover, even that way their numbers would not be enough. Arm every male in the city and the spiders would still be only a drop against the ant colony’s ocean.
She reaches a high vantage point, looking down at the great elegant sweep of her home, the myriad threads that link it all together, Down in the bay she sees a great balloon of silk half-submerged in the water, sagging and rippling as it is filled with air. An embassy to the stomatopods, she knows: a diving bell allowing inquiring minds amongst her people to visit their underwater counterparts. There can be no exchange of Understandings with the sea-dwellers, of course, but they can still teach and learn via the simple language of gestures that the two cultures have worked out between them.
Seek out your peers, she instructs her fellows, the returning warriors. Await the call. The males she leaves to their own devices. If they possess any initiative, they will find work and get fed. In a vast city like Great Nest there is a constant need for maintenance—lines and sheets of silk needing repairs. An industrious male can make himself useful enough to be
rewarded. The alternative for him is to make a living through courtship and flattery, which involves less effort but considerably more danger.
Portia sets off through the city, creeping and jumping from line to line, seeking out her peer house.
Using communal crèches and lacking any maternal instincts, Portia’s people have no strict family units. The youngest spiderlings, still confined to the crèche, are provided with food by the city, but this period of free bounty does not last long. The fast-maturing young are expected to become independent within their first year. Like the males, they must make themselves useful.
Because a spider alone is vulnerable, always at the mercy of bullying from her larger kin, these maturing spiderlings tend to band together into peer groups formed from those who hatched from the same crèche at around the same time. The bonds made between juveniles, who aid and rely upon one another, persist into adulthood. Unions of such peers form the base social unit in most spider settlements, and these peers then tend to found a crèche between them, looking after one another’s eggs, and so inadvertently perpetuating a continuity of heredity down the female line. The social bonds within such peer groups are strong, even after the individuals have gone their separate ways and taken up their particular trades and specialities. All the larger peer groups maintain peer houses within the city—“house” here meaning a complex of silk-walled chambers.
Males do not form such groups—for who would have any use for a large group of males? Instead, juvenile males do their best to attach themselves to the periphery of a female peer group, playing at flirting, running errands, paying in utility and amusement value for the scraps of food that might get thrown their way. Portia is vaguely aware that males fight each other, and that the lower—less desirable—reaches of the city play host to countless little dramas between males struggling over food or status. She has very little interest in the subject.
She is bitterly exhausted when she crawls through the entrance of her peer house, located at the lowest point of the series of bubble chambers in which her fellows dwell and meet. Another couple of rooms have been added since she was last here—re-structuring is no major chore for her kind—and for a moment she feels proud and happy that her peers are doing well, before her treacherous memory goads her with the thought of the ants’ inexorable advance. Building more just means more to lose.
Those of her peers who are currently in residence greet her warmly. Several of her closer friends are holding court there at the centre of a worshipful knot of younger females and fluttering, dancing males. Their dances are courtship rituals that they constantly almost, but not quite, consummate. Other than menial labour, this is the place of a male in Portia’s society: adornment, decoration, simply to add value to the lives of females. The larger, more notable or more important a female is, the more males will dance attendance on her. Hence, having a crowd of uselessly elegant males around one is a status symbol. If Portia—the great warrior—were to stay still long enough, then she would attract her own entourage of hopeful parasites; indeed, if she cast them off and refused their attentions she would be diminishing herself in the eyes of her peers and her culture.
And sometimes the courtship will proceed as far as mating, if the female feels sufficiently safe and prosperous to start work on a clutch of eggs. The act of courtship is consummated as a public ritual, where the hopeful males—in their moment of prominence—perform in front of a peer group, or even the whole city, before the female chooses her partner and accepts his package of sperm. She may then kill and eat him, which is thought to be a great honour for the victim, although even Portia suspects that the males do not quite see it that way.
It is a mark of how far her species has come, that this is the only openly acceptable time when killing a male is considered appropriate. It is, however, quite true that packs of females— especially younger ones, perhaps newly formed peer groups
seeking to strengthen their bonds—will descend to the lower reaches of the city and engage in hunting males. The practice is covertly overlooked—girls will be girls, after all—but overtly frowned upon. Killing a male, sanctioned or not, is a world apart from killing a beast. Even as the fang strikes, the killer and the slain know themselves to be part of a grander whole. The nanovirus speaks, each to each. Portia’s culture is strung between base spider nature and the new empathy the nanovirus has inflicted upon them.
There are more of her peers here than Portia had expected to see. One of her seniors is entering her time and therefore must retire from society for a month or so, and her sisters are rallying round her to make the ordeal as painless as possible. Portia ascends to one of the inner chambers to witness the rite, because it will at least give the illusion that life here is proceeding according to age-old patterns, and so might continue in the same way for generations to come. She arrives just in time to see her ailing sister retreat into her cocoon. In ancient, primitive times she would have been left alone in some high, safe spot, spinning her own retreat before retiring in lonely secrecy. Now she has sisters to create her haven for her, and then keep her company while she moults.
Portia’s kind must shed their skins in order to grow. When it is time for a large female to cast off her skin—when she feels it too tight at each joint and with each breath of her abdomen—she retires to her peer house, to the company of those she trusts, and they spin her a cocoon that will support her expanded frame until her expanded skin has hardened again.
As Portia watches, the retiring female begins the difficult, painful task of ridding herself of her skin, first flexing her abdomen until the shell cracks there, and then peeling herself from back to front. The process will take hours, and her sisters stroke the cocoon with messages of solidarity and support. They have all been through this.
It must be difficult for males, who presumably undergo the ordeal alone, but then males are smaller, and less sensitive,
and Portia is honestly not sure how capable they are of finer levels of thought and feeling.
A handful of her sisters notice Portia there and scurry over to talk. They listen with agitation to her news of Seven Trees
—news that will be all over Great Nest by now, because males can never keep their feet still when they have something to say. Her fellows touch palps and try to tell her that what happened to Seven Trees cannot happen here, but nothing they say can remove those images from Portia’s memory—the flames, the whole structure of a thriving settlement just withering in the heat; the reservoir fraying and splitting, its waters cascading down amid a rising curtain of steam; those who could not jump or glide far enough being overwhelmed by the roiling tide of ants, to be dismembered while still alive.
She performs a careful calculation based on her count of days and the elevation of the sun outside, and tells them that she is going to the temple. She badly needs peace of mind, and the Messenger will be passing soon.
Go quickly. There will be many others seeking the same, one of her sisters advises her. Even without Portia’s personal experience, the population of Great Nest is fast becoming aware that they face a threat seemingly without limit. All their centuries of culture and sophistication may become nothing but a fading memory in the minds of the stomatopod sea-dwellers.
The temple at Great Nest is the city’s highest point, a space without walls, strung between the extremity of the canopy above with an inward-sloping floor below. At its centre, on the apex of one of the city’s original trees, is the crystal that Portia’s own ancestress wrested from the ants, a deed that has since become legend. If Portia reaches inside herself, she can even touch that other Portia’s Understandings, a private retelling of the well-known story through the lens of first-hand experience.
She arrives ahead of the Messenger’s appearance, but there is already barely room for her amongst the crouching
multitude, thronged all the way up to the central trunk. Many have the look of refugees—those who escaped Seven Trees and other places. They are come here to find hope because the material world outside seems to hold little of it.
How Portia’s people regard the Messenger and its message is hard to say: theirs is an alien mindset, trying to unravel the threads of a phenomenon they are equipped to analyse and yet not understand. They gaze up at the Messenger in its fleet passage across the sky, and they see an entity that speaks to them in mathematical riddles that are aesthetically appealing to a species that has inherited geometry as the cornerstone of its civilization. They do not conceive of it as some celestial spider-god that will reach down into their green world and save them from the ant tide. However, the message is. The Messenger is. These are facts, and those facts are the doorway to an invisible, intangible world of the unknown. The true meaning of the message is that there is more than spider eyes can see or spider feet can feel. That is where hope lies, for there may yet be salvation hidden within that more. It inspires them to keep looking.
The priestess has emerged to dance, her stylus hunting out the connection points on the crystal as, invisibly, the Messenger crosses the blue vault of the sky while broadcasting its constant message. Portia spins and knots, reciting the mantras of numbers to herself, watching the votary begin her elegant visual proofs, each step, and every sweep of her palps speaking of the beauty of universal order, the reassurance that there is a logic to the world, extending beyond the mere chaos of the physical.
But, even here, there is a sense of change and threat. As Portia watches the dance, it seems to her that the priestess halts sometimes, just for a second, or even stumbles. Ripples of unease pass through the close-packed congregation, who spin all the harder, as if to cover over that slip. An inexperienced priestess, Portia reassures herself, but she feels dreadfully afraid deep within herself. Is the doom that threatens her people in the material world now being reflected
in the heavens? Is there a variation in the eternal message?
After the service finishes, and feeling more shaken than reassured, she finds a male in her way, frantically signalling his good intentions and that he bears a message for her.
You are needed, the little creature tells her, coming close enough to brave her fangs in his insistence. Bianca asks for you.
Bianca—this particular Bianca—is one of Portia’s peer group, but not one that she has spoken with in a long time. No warrior but instead one of the foremost scholars of Portia’s people.
Lead me, Portia directs.