Chapter no 16

Children of Time

Great Nest has no strict hierarchy. By human standards, in fact, spider society would appear something like functional anarchy. Social standing is everything, and it is won by contribution. Those peer groups whose warriors win battles, whose scholars make discoveries, who have the most elegant dancers, eloquent storytellers or skilled crafters, these garner invisible status that brings them admirers, gifts, favours, greater swarms of sycophantic males to serve as their workforce, petitioners seeking to add their talents to the group’s existing pool. Theirs is a fluid society where a capable female can manage a remarkable amount of social mobility. Or, in their own minds, their culture is a complex web of connections re-spun every morning.

One key reason this all works is that the middling unpleasant labour is undertaken by males—who otherwise have no particular right to claim sanctuary within the Nest at all, if they lack a purpose or a patroness. The hard labour— forestry, agriculture and the like—is mostly undertaken by the domesticated ant colonies that the Great Nest spiders have manipulated into working with them. After all, the ants work by nature. They have no inclination or capacity to consider the wider philosophy of life, and so such opportunity would be wasted on them. From the point of view of the ant colonies, they prosper as best they can, given the peculiarly artificial environment they find themselves enmeshed in. Their colonies have no real concept of what is pulling their strings, or how their industry has been hijacked to serve Great Nest. It all works seamlessly.

Portia’s is a society now pulled taut to breaking point. The fact of the encroaching ant column demands sacrifices, and

there is no chain of command to determine who must make them and for whose benefit. If the situation becomes much worse, then Great Nest will start fraying apart, fragmenting into smaller fugitive units and leaving only a memory of the high point of spider culture. Alternatively some great leader might arise and take control of all, for the common good—and later, if human examples can be valid guidelines, for the personal good. But, either way, the Great Nest that Portia knows would cease to be.

It would not be the first lost metropolis. In its ceaseless march across the continent, the ant colony has obliterated a hundred separate, distinct and unique cultures that the world will never know again, exterminating individuals and overwriting ways of life. It is no more than any conquering horde has ever done in pursuit of its manifest destiny.

Portia’s military exploits have won some esteem for her peer group, but Bianca is currently their greatest asset: one of the Nest’s most admired and maverick scholars. She has improved the lives of her species in a dozen separate ways, for she has a mind that can see answers to problems others did not even realize were holding them back. She is also a recluse, wanting little more than to get on with her experiments—a common trait for those driven to build on their inherited Understandings—which suits Portia’s peers well, as otherwise Bianca might decide that she was owed rather more of the group’s good fortune.

However, when she sends a messenger, her peers come running. Should Bianca suddenly feel unappreciated, she would have her pick of the peer groups of Great Nest to join.

Bianca is not within Great Nest proper. True science demands a certain seclusion, if only so that its more unexpected results can be safely contained. Portia’s people are, by ancestry, born problem-solvers, and given to varying their approach until something succeeds. When dealing with volatile chemicals, this can have drawbacks.

Bianca’s current laboratory, Portia discovers, is well within

the territory of one of the local ants’ nests. Approaching the mound along a trail marked out for the ants to avoid, she feels herself reluctant, pausing often, sometimes lifting her forelegs and displaying her fangs without intending to. The old association between ants and conflict is hard to shake.

The chamber she finds Bianca in would have been dug by the ants themselves, before being cordoned from their nest by the application of colony-specific scents. Such measures have been attempted in the past to ward a settlement from attack by the encroaching super-colony, but never successfully. The ants always find a way, and fire does not care about pheromones.

Silk coats the walls of the chamber, and a complex distillery of webbing hangs from the ceiling, providing the mixing vessels of Bianca’s alchemy. A side-chamber houses a pen of some manner of livestock, perhaps part of the experiment, perhaps simply convenient sustenance. Bianca presides over the whole enterprise from up on the ceiling, her many eyes keeping track of everything, signalling to her underlings with palps and sudden stamping motions when her direction is required. Some light falls in from the entryway above, but Bianca is above the routines of night and day, and has cultured luminescent glands from beetle larvae to glitter amid the weave of her walls like ersatz constellations.

Portia lets herself down into the chamber, aware that part of the floor is also open, giving on to the ant colony below. Through the thinnest skein of silk, she can see the constant, random bustle of those insects going about their business. Yes, they work tirelessly, if unknowingly, for Great Nest’s continued prosperity, but if Portia cut through that membrane and entered their domain, then she would meet the same fate the ants reserve for all intruders, unless she had some chemical countermeasure to preserve her.

She greets Bianca with a flurry of palps to renew their acquaintance; the exchange contains a precisely calculated summary of their relative social standings, referencing their mutual peers, their differing expertise and the esteem that Bianca is held in.

The alchemist’s reply is perfunctory without being discourteous. Asking Portia to wait, she turns her main eyes on the busy laboratory below them, checking that matters in hand can be left without her close attention for a few minutes.

Portia gives the activity below a second glance, and is shocked. Your assistants are male.

Indeed, Bianca agrees, with a stance that suggests this topic is not a new one.

I would have thought they would prove insufficient for the complexity of such work, Portia assays.

A common misunderstanding. If well coached and born with the pertinent Understandings, then they are quite able to deal with the more routine tasks. I did once employ females, but that results in so much jostling for status and having to defend my pre-eminence; too much measuring of legs against each other—and me—to get the work done. So I settled on this solution.

But surely they must be constantly trying to court you, Portia replies perplexedly. After all, what else did males actually want out of life?

You have spent too long in the peer houses of the idle, Bianca reproaches her. I choose my assistants for their dedication to the work. And if I do accept their reproductive material from time to time, it’s only to preserve the new Understandings we come up with here. After all, if they know it, and I know it, the chances are good that any offspring should inherit that Understanding as well.

Portia’s discomfort with this line of reasoning is evident in her shifting stance, the rapid movement of her palps. But males do not—

That males can transmit to their offspring knowledge that they learn during their lives is an established fact, as far as I am concerned. Bianca stamped harder to impose her words over Portia’s. The belief that they can only pass on their mothers’ Understandings is without foundation. Be glad for

our peer group that I at least comprehend this—I try to choose mates who hatched from our own crèche, as they’re more likely to already possess worthwhile Understandings to pass on, and the cumulative effect is to compound and enrich our stock overall. I believe this will become common practice, before either of us pass on. When I have time, I will start trading on the Understanding of it to those few in other peer groups who are likely to appreciate the logic.

Assuming either of us is granted so much time, Portia tells her forcefully. I will not be remaining in Great Nest long, sister. How can I help you?

Yes, you were at Seven Trees. Tell me of it.

Portia is surprised that Bianca knows even that much of Portia’s comings and goings. She gives a creditable report, focusing primarily on matters military: the tactics used by the defenders, the weapons of the enemy. Bianca listens carefully, committing the salient details to memory.

There are many at Great Nest who believe that we cannot survive, Bianca tells her when she is done. No peer group wishes to attract general scorn by being the first to abandon us, but it will happen. When one has gone, once that gap has been bridged, there will be a general rush to leave. We will destroy ourselves, and lose all we have built.

It seems likely, Portia agrees. I was at temple earlier. Even the priestess seemed distracted.

Bianca huddles against the ceiling for a moment, in a posture of disquiet. It is said that the message is contaminated, that there are other Messengers. I have spoken to a priestess who said that she felt a new message within the crystal at the wrong time, and without meaning—just a jumble of random vibrations. I have no explanation for that, but it is concerning.

Perhaps that message is meant for the ants. Portia is staring down at the scuttling insects below. The sense-image of “a jumble of random vibrations” seems apposite.

You are not the first to suggest it, Bianca tells her.

Thankfully, my own thoughts on message and Messenger are just that: my own—and they do not prevent me from working towards the salvation of our nest. Come with me. I have researched a new weapon, and I need your assistance in deploying it.

Portia feels a sudden hope for the first time in many days.

If any mind can find a way forward, it is Bianca’s.

She follows the alchemist to the animal pens, seeing within them an unruly throng of ant-sized beetles—twenty centimetres at most. They are a dark red in colouration and most remarkable for their antennae, which spread out into a disc of fine fronds like circular fans.

I have seen these before? Portia says uncertainly with hesitant movements.

Great confronter of our enemies as you are, it seems likely, Bianca confirmed. They are a species of unusual habits. My assistants have gone into the colony below, at some risk to themselves, to find them. They live amongst the ants and yet remain unmolested. They even eat the ants’ larvae. My assistants’ reports indicate that the ants themselves are persuaded to feed these creatures.

Portia waits. Any communication from her at this juncture would be futile. Bianca has this entire encounter already planned out, point by point, to a successful conclusion.

I need you to gather capable and trusted warriors, perhaps twenty-four, Bianca instructs her. You will be courageous. You will test my new weapon, and if it fails you are likely to die. I need you to confront the colony marching against us. I need you to walk right into the heart of it.

Infiltrating an ant colony is no longer just a case of taking some heads and stolen scent glands. The super-colony has developed its defences: a blind chemical arms race run against the spiders’ ingenuity. The ants now use the chemical equivalent of shifting cyphers that change over time, and in different detachments of the sprawling colony, and Portia’s kin

have been unable to keep up. The chemical weapons the spiders use to disrupt and confuse their enemies are short-lived, and barely an annoyance in the face of the sheer scale of the enemy.

The increased security of the colony has had a catastrophic impact on a number of other species. Ant nests are ecosystems in their own right, and many species live in uneasy communion with them. Some, like the aphids, provide services, and the ants actively cultivate them. Others are parasitic: mites, bugs, beetles, even small spiders, all of them adapted to steal from the ants’ table or to consume their hosts.

The majority of such species are gone from the super-colony now. In adapting to defend against the external enemy, the increased chemical encryption used by the ants has also unmasked and eliminated dozens of unwelcome guests within the ants’ domain. A very few, however, have managed to survive by ingenuity and superior adaptation. Of these, the Paussid beetles—Bianca’s current area of study—are the most successful.

The Paussids have dwelt within ant nests for millions of years, utilizing various means to lull their unwitting hosts into accepting them. Now the nanovirus has been working with them and, although they are not as intelligent as Portia, they still have a certain cunning and the ability to work together, and utilize their versatile pheromonal toolkit with considerable insight.

Each individual Paussid has a suite of chemicals to manipulate the ants around it. The individual ants—sightless and living in a world entirely built on smell and touch—can be fooled thus. The Paussid chemicals artfully create an illusory world for them, guiding their hallucinations to induce suborned units of the ant colony to do their bidding. It is fortunate for Portia and her people that the Paussids have not yet quite reached a level of intellect that would allow them to look beyond their current existence as a self-serving fifth column amongst the ants. It is easy to envisage an alternate history where the advancing ant colony became merely the

myriad-bodied puppet of hidden beetle overlords.

The changing chemical codes of the colony provide a constant challenge to the Paussids, and individual beetles exchange chemicals continuously to update one another with the most efficient keys for unlocking and rewriting the ants’ programming. However, the simple feat of living undetected amongst the ants is left to the Paussid’s secret weapon: a refinement of their ancestral scent that Bianca has detected and become fascinated by.

Portia has listened carefully as Bianca sets out her plan. The scheme seems somewhere in between dangerous and suicidal. It calls for her and her cohorts to seek out the ant column and ambush it, to walk straight into it past the multitude of sentries as though they were not there. Portia is already considering the possibilities: an attack from above, dropping from the branches or from a scaffolding of webbing, plunging into that advancing torrent of insect bodies. Bianca, of course, has already thought this part through. They will find the column when it is halted for the night in a vast fortress made of the bodies of its soldiers.

I have developed something new, Bianca explains. Armour for you. But you will only be able to don it when you are about to make your attack.

Armour strong enough to ward off the ants? Portia is justifiably doubtful. There are too many weak points on a spider’s body; there are too many joints that the ants can seize upon.

Nothing so crude. Bianca always did like keeping her secrets. These Paussids, these beetles, they can walk through the ant colonies like the wind. So will you.

Portia’s uncertainty communicates itself through the anxious twitching of her palps. And I will kill them, then? As many as I can? Will that be enough?

Bianca’s stance says otherwise. I had considered it, but even you, sister, could not stop them in such a way, I fear.

There are just too many. Even if my protection kept you safe for that long, you could kill ants all day and all night, and still there would be more. You would not keep their army away from Great Nest.

Then what? Portia demands.

There is a new weapon. If it works … Bianca stamps out her annoyance. There is no way of testing it but to use it. It works on these little colonies here, but the invaders are different, more complex, less vulnerable. You will simply have to hope that I am correct. You understand what I am asking of you—for our sisterhood, for our home?

Portia considers the fall of Seven Trees: the flames, the ravenous horde of insects, the shrivelling bodies of those who were too slow or too conscientious to escape. Fear is a universal emotion, and she feels it keenly, desperately wanting to flee that image, never to have to face the ants again. Stronger than fear are the bonds of community, of kinship, of loyalty to her peer group and her people. All those generations of reinforcement, through the success of those ancestors most inspired by the virus to cooperate with their own kind, now come to the fore. There comes a time when someone must do what must be done. Portia is a warrior trained and indoctrinated from an early age so that now, in this time of need, she will be willing to give up her life for the survival of the greater entity.

When? she asks Bianca.

Sooner is better. Gather your chosen; be ready to leave Great Nest in the morning. For tonight the city is yours. You have laid eggs?

Portia answers in the affirmative. She has no clutch within her ready for a male’s attentions, but she has laid several in the past. Her heritage, genetic and learned, will be preserved if Great Nest itself is. In the grander scheme of things, that means that she will have won.

That night, Portia seeks out other warriors, veteran females she

knows she can rely on. Many are from her own peer group, but not all. There are others she has fought alongside—whom she has sometimes fought against, in displays of dominance— whom she respects, and who respect her. Each one she approaches cautiously, feeling her way, telegraphing her intent, paying out Bianca’s plan length by length until she is sure of them. Some refuse—either they are not persuaded by the plan, or they lack the requisite degree of courage, which is, after all, near-total fearlessness; a devotion to duty almost as blind as that of the ants themselves.

Soon enough Portia has her followers, though, each one then taking to the high roads of Great Nest to make the most of this night, before the morning calls upon them to muster. Some will resort to the company of their peer groups, others seek out entertainment—the dances of males, the glittering art of weavers. Those who are ready will let themselves be wooed, then deposit a clutch of eggs in their peer house, so as to preserve as much of themselves as they can. Portia herself has learned many things since her last laying, and feels some remorse that those Understandings, those discrete packets of knowledge, will be lost when she is lost.

She goes to temple again, seeking that fugitive calm that her devotions bring, but now she remembers what Bianca has said: that the voice of the Messenger is not alone, that there are faint whisperings in the crystal that worry the priestesses. Just as she has always believed that the mathematical perfection of the message must have some greater, transcendent significance beyond the mere numbers that compose it, so this new development surely has some wider meaning too vast to be grasped by a poor spider knotting and spinning that familiar tally of equations and solutions. What, then, does it mean? Nothing good, she feels. Nothing good.

Late that night, she sits in the highest reaches of Great Nest, staring at the stars and wondering which point of light up there is whispering incomprehensible secrets to the crystals now.

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