Portia’s people have no fingers, but her ancestors were building structures and using tools millions of years before they attained anything like intelligence. They have two palps and eight legs, each of which can grip and manipulate as required. Their whole body is a ten-digit hand with two thumbs and instant access to adhesive and thread. Their one real limitation is that they must fashion their work principally by way of touch and scent, periodically bringing it before their eyes to review. They work best suspended in space, thinking and creating in three dimensions.
Two strands of creation have given rise to Portia’s current mission. One is armour-smithing, or the equivalent in a species with access to neither fire nor metal.
The ant column has stopped for the night up ahead, forming a vast and uniquely impregnable fortress. Portia and her cohorts are twitching and stamping nervously, aware that there will be plenty of enemy scouts blindly searching the forest, attacking all they come across and releasing the keen scent of alarm at the same time. A chance encounter now could bring the whole colony down on them.
Bianca is fussing over her males as the butchers set to work killing and dismembering her pets. The males will perform their part of the plan, apparently, but they lack the nerve to form the vanguard. It is Portia and her fellows who will undertake the impossible task of infiltrating the colony while it sleeps, taking their secret weapon with them.
The collection of Paussid beetles that Bianca had accumulated have been driven here from Great Nest. They are not herding animals by nature and the going has been
exasperating, meaning that they have arrived alarmingly late in the night, getting close to the dawn that will see the enemy on the move again.
Several of the inventive beetles have escaped, and the rest appear to be communicating via scent and touches of the antennae, so that Portia wonders if some mass action is being planned on their part. She has no idea if the Paussids can think, but she reckons their actions are more complex than those of simple animals. Her world is one in which there is no great divide between the thinkers and the thoughtless, only a long continuum.
The beetles have left any intended breakout too late, however. Now they are penned in and Bianca’s people kill them quickly and efficiently and peel off their shells. Great Nest artisans promptly begin fashioning armour from the pieces, cladding Portia and her fellows as completely as possible in heavy, cumbrous suits of chitin mail. They use their fangs and the strength of their legs to twist and crack the individual sections of shell to make a better fit, securing each plate to its wearer with webbing.
Bianca explains the theory, as they work. The Paussid beetles seem to use numerous and very complex scents to get the ants to feed them, and otherwise provide for them. These scents change constantly as the ants’ own chemical defences change. The beetles’ chemical language has proved too complex for Bianca to decode.
There is a master-scent by which the beetles live, however, and that does not change. It is not a direct attack on the ants themselves, but simply functions to inform the colony Nothing here. The beetle does not register with the ants at all, unless it is actively trying to interact with them. It is not an enemy, not an ant, not even an inanimate piece of earth, but nothing. For the blind, scent-driven ants, the beetles utilize a kind of active invisibility, so that even when touched, even when the ant’s antennae play over the beetle’s ridged carapace, the colony registers a blank, a void to be skipped over.
The null scent persists even through death, but not for very long, hence this massacre of the beetles at the eleventh hour. Bianca cautions Portia and her fellows that they must be swift. She does not know how long the protection will last.
So we can just kill them, and they will not know, Portia concludes.
Absolutely not. That is not your mission, Bianca replies angrily. How many of them do you think you could possibly destroy? And if you begin attacking them, their own alarm system may eventually override the scent of your armour.
Then we will kill their egg-laying caste, Portia tells her. The ant colony on the move is still a growing organism, constantly churning out eggs to replace its losses.
You will not. You will distribute yourselves about the colony as planned, and wait for your packages to degrade.
The packages are the other part of the plan, and represent the other end of spider craftsmanship. Bianca makes them herself by brewing up a chemical from prepared compounds and the remains of the Paussids, and sealing it in globules of webbing. Again, it will not keep for long.
The alchemy of Portia’s people has a long history, evolving at first from the scent markers their distant ancestors used, and then becoming swiftly more elaborate and sophisticated after contact with species like ants, who can be deftly manipulated and enticed by artificial scents. To a spider like Bianca, personally experienced and blessed with past generations of Understanding to assist her, mixing chemicals is a visual experience, her senses blending into one another, allowing her to use the formidable ocular parts of her brain to envisage the different substances that she works with and their compounds in a representational mental language of molecular chemistry. She spurs her alchemical reactions with the use of exothermic catalysts that generate heat without a dangerous open flame.
Just as the chemicals themselves have a limited lifespan, so do their webbing containers. Precisely crafted, they will
release their payload within moments of each other, which is essential timing as Portia and her fellows will have no way to coordinate with each other.
Bianca hands them their weapons, and they know what they must do. The mobile fortress of the enemy is ahead of them, through the dark forest. They must accomplish their task in the short time gifted to them or they will die, and then their civilization will follow them. Still, every part of them that cares for self-preservation balks at it. Nobody enters an ant colony’s travelling fortress and survives. The advance of Portia and her fellows is slow and reluctant, despite the chivvying of Bianca from behind. A fear of extinction was their birthright long before intelligence, and certainly long before any kind of social altruism. Despite the stakes, it is a hard fear to suppress.
Then the night is made day, and the spiders look up at a sky from which the stars have been briefly banished.
Something is coming.
They can feel the air shake in rage, the ground vibrate in sympathy, and they crouch inside their heavy armour, terrified and bewildered. A ball of fire comes streaking across the sky, with a trail of thunder rushing after it. None of them has any idea what it can possibly be.
When it strikes the ground, well within the ant colony’s scouting range, it has lost a great deal of its speed, but the impact still resonates through their sensitive feet as though the whole world has just cried out some vast, secret word.
For a moment they remain still, petrified in animal terror. But then one of them asks what it was, and Portia reaches within herself and finds that part of her that was ever open to the incomprehensible: the fearful and the wonderful understanding that there is more in the world than her eyes can see, more than her feet can feel.
The Messenger has come down to us, she tells them. In that moment—out of her fear and her hope—she has quite
convinced herself, because what has just happened is from so far beyond her experience that only that quintessential mystery can account for it.
Some are awestruck, others sceptical. What does that mean? one of them demands.
It means you must be about your work! Bianca hammers out from behind them. You have little time! Go, go! And if the Messenger is here with you, then that means she favours you, but only if you succeed! If it is the Messenger, show her the strength and ingenuity of the Great Nest!
Portia flags her palps in fierce agreement, and then they all do likewise. Staring at the trail of smoke still blotting out the night stars, Portia knows it is a sign from the sky, the Messenger’s sky. All her hours spent in reverent contemplation of the mathematical mysteries of Temple, on the brink of revelation, seem to her to have led to this.
Onward! Portia signals, and she and her cohorts head off towards the enemy, knowing that Bianca and her team will be following behind. The beetle-shell armour is heavy, obscures their vision, is awkward to run in and makes jumping impossible. They are like pioneering divers about to descend into a hostile environment from which only their suits can protect them.
They hurry along the forest floor as best they can, the armour catching on their joints, hobbling and crippling them. They are determined, though, and when they come close to ant scouts scouring the area, they pass by in their black armour as though they were nothing but the wind.
The scouts themselves are agitated, already on the move, heading for that gathering smoke and fire where the Messenger has visited, no doubt ready, in their blind and atheistic way, to cut a firebreak to preserve their colony—and, unwittingly, their colony’s enemies.
Then the fortress of the colony is right in front of Portia and her fellows. The fortress is the colony. The ants have made
a vast structure around a tree trunk, covering tens of square metres horizontally and vertically, constructed only from ants. Deep within the heart of it will be hatcheries and nursery chambers, food stores, racks of pupae where the next generation of soldiers is being cast, and all of these rooms and the tunnels and ducts that connect them are built from ants, hooked on to one another with their legs and mouthparts, the entire edifice a voracious monster that will devour any intruder who dares enter. The ants are not wholly dormant, either. There is a constant current of workers coursing through the tunnels, removing waste and the bodies of the dead, and the corridors themselves shift and realign to regulate the fortress’s internal temperature and airflow. It is a castle of sliding walls and sudden oubliettes.
Portia and her fellows have no choice. They are the chosen warriors of Great Nest, tough veteran females who have faced the ants on dozens of battlefields. Their victories have been few and small, though. Too often, all they have achieved is to either lose less or lose more slowly. By now they all know that mere skill at arms, speed and strength cannot defeat the numbers and singular drive of the super-colony of which this fortress is only a single limb. And for all they do not understand it, Bianca’s plan is the only plan they have.
They split up as they near the fortress, each seeking a different entryway into the mass. Portia elects to climb, lugging her bulky second skin up a ladder of living ant bodies, feeling their limbs and antennae twitch as she crosses them, investigating her plated underside. So far so good: she is not immediately denounced as an intruder. She is more than able to imagine what would happen if the colony knew her for what she actually was. The very wall would become a blade-lined maw to dissect and consume her. She would have no chance at all.
Some distance away, one of her fellows meets exactly this fate. Some gap in her armour has let out the scent of spider, and at once a pair of mandibles clenches on one of her leg joints, severing that limb at the knee. The brief rupture of fluid
excites the other nearby ants, and in moments there is a full scale seething of angry, defensive insects. Whilst those parts of the spider that are still armoured are ignored, the ants follow the blood, tunnelling into the kicking intruder’s innards via the wound, cutting her apart from the inside whilst letting the obscuring armour fall off piece by piece, unseen and unseeable.
Portia presses on grimly, finding one of the openings through which the fortress breathes and forcing her bulk into it, clawing at a mat of sluggish bodies for purchase. Her palps hold the slowly disintegrating package close to her to avoid snagging it on the angular shapes that make up every solid surface around her. She burrows on into the mass of the colony, following their airways and walkways, jostling the scuttling workers but attracting no attention. The armour is serving its purpose.
And yet she is aware that all is not well; she is invisible, but she causes ripples. When she blocks an airway, the colony notices. When she must pry ant bodies apart to force her way through, she adds to a slow, general sense in the ants’ collective understanding that something is not quite as it should be. As she presses on into the lightless reaches of the living fortress, she is aware of incrementally greater movement and mobility around her, a disturbance that can only be a symptom of her own infiltration. The tunnels behind her are closing; the colony investigating, by its massed sense of touch, what it cannot smell.
Ahead of her she feels a quick movement that is not an ant. For a moment she is blindly face to face with a Paussid beetle that investigates her stolen carapace and then retreats in horrified fright. Instinctively she pursues, allowing the beetle to show her the inner ways of the nest, while pushing herself to the limit. By now she is overheating, running out of strength in her muscles, her heart barely able to keep oxygenated fluids moving about the hollow inside of her body. She finds herself losing focus, moment to moment, only ancient instinct keeping her moving.
She can feel the whole colony unfolding around her, waking up.
Then it happens. A questing antenna finds a gap where her own cuticle is exposed, and at once there is a dead weight at the end of one of her legs as the ant latches on mindlessly, sounding an alarm that has the tunnel about her breaking apart into individual ants, each searching for the intruder they know must be present.
Portia wonders if she has progressed far enough. After all, her own survival is not necessary for Bianca’s plan to work, even though she would personally prefer it.
She tries to bundle herself up, tucking her legs in, but the ants are all over her, and she quickly finds it hard to breathe, too hot to think. They are smothering her with their relentless enquiries.
The package she has been carefully guarding seizes this moment to come apart, its webbing fraying by carefully coordinated measures, its pressurized chemical cargo unleashing itself in an explosion of stinking, acrid gas.
Portia loses consciousness, nearly suffocated in that initial detonation. On slowly returning to herself after an unknown period of time, she finds herself on her back, legs curled in, still in most of her beetle armour and surrounded by ants. The entire fortress has collapsed and dissolved into a great drift of insect bodies, from which a handful of individual spiders are even now digging themselves free. The ants do not resist them. They are not dead: they wave their antennae hopefully and some of them make uncertain moves here and there, but something has been struck from the colony as a whole: its purpose.
She tries to back away from the quiescent colony, but they are crowding her on all sides, a vast field of fallen insect architecture. It seems to her that at any moment they must surely remember their place in the world.
Less than half her infiltration force remain alive, and they
stumble and crawl over to her, some of them injured, all of them exhausted by the weight of armour they have been forced to wear. They are in no state to fight.
Then one of her fellows touches her to attract her attention. Their footing of dazed ants is too inconstant to hold a conversation upon, so she signals broadly with her palps: She comes. They come.
It is true: Bianca and her male assistants have arrived, and they are not alone. Trotting tamely by their side are more ants, smaller than most of the invader castes and presumably reared from the domesticated colonies that Great Nest interacts with.
Portia stumbles and drags herself over to the edge of the tumbled fortress, hauling herself from the slough of feebly-moving bodies to collapse in front of Bianca.
What is going on? she asks. What have we done?
I have simply saturated the area with a modified form of the Paussid beetle chemical that has protected you thus far, Bianca explains with precise motions of her feet, whilst her palps continue signalling instructions to her staff. You and your sisters had sufficiently infiltrated the colony, and the radius of the gas was sufficiently large, that we have caught the entire column—as I had hoped. We have blanketed them in a scent of absence.
The males are now priming the tame ants for some manner of action, by exposing them to carefully calibrated scents. Portia wonders if these little workers are to be the executioners of that great mass of their hostile brethren.
I still do not understand, she confesses.
Imagine that most of the ways the ants know about the world, all the ways that they act and react, and most importantly the way that their actions spur other ants on to action, are a web—a very complex web, Bianca explains absently. We have unravelled and consumed that web entirely. We have left them without structure or instruction.
Portia regards the vast host of aimless ants on every side.
They are defeated then? Or will they re-weave their web?
Almost certainly, but I do not intend to give them the chance.
The tame herd ants are going amongst the larger invaders now, touching antennae urgently, communicating in the way of their kind. Portia watches their progress at first with perplexity, then with awe, then with something closer to fear at what Bianca has unleashed. Each ant that the tame workers speak to is immediately filled with purpose. Moments later it is about its frantic way, just like ants everywhere, but its task is simple: it is talking with other ants, reviving more of its stunned brethren, converting them to its cause. The spread of Bianca’s message is exponential, like a disease. A wave of new activity courses across the face of the fallen colony, and in its wake is left a tame army.
I am weaving them a new structure, Bianca explains. They will follow the lead of our own ants now. I have given them new minds, and henceforth they are our allies. We have an army of soldiers. We have devised a weapon to defeat the ants, no matter how many of them there are, and make them our allies.
You are truly the greatest of us, Portia tells her. Bianca modestly accepts the compliment, and then listens as the warrior goes on: Was it you, then, that made the ground shake? That made the light and the smoke that distracted their scouts?
That was not my doing, Bianca admits hesitantly. I am still awaiting news of that, but perhaps, when you have shed that ungainly second skin, you may wish to investigate. I believe that something has fallen from the sky.