Chapter no 20

Children of Time

Portia examines the creature as it sleeps.

She was not in time to see any of the momentous, inexplicable events that left a great, burning scar across the face of her world—the fires that are still burning despite the ants’ best efforts to contain them. From others of her kind she has heard a garbled version of events, crippled by the tellers’ inability to understand what it is they have witnessed.

It will all be remembered though, through the generations to come. This Understanding, this contact with the unknowable, will be one of the most analysed and reinterpreted events of all her species’ histories.

Something fell from the sky. It was not the Messenger, which clearly retains its regular circuit of the heavens, but in the mind of Portia and her kin it seems linked to that orbiting mote. It is a promise that the skies are host to more than one mobile star, and that even stars may fall. Some hypothesize that it was a herald or forerunner, a message from the Messenger, and that if its meaning can only be interpreted, then the Messenger will have new lessons to teach. Over the generations, this view—that a test has been set beyond the simple, pure manipulation of numbers—will gain in popularity, whilst simultaneously being viewed as a kind of heresy.

The events themselves seem inarguable, however. Something fell, and now it is a blackened shell of metals and other unknown materials that defy analysis. Something else came to earth, and then returned to the sky. Most crucially, there were living things. There were giants that came from the sky.

They were fighting off scouts from the ant colony when Portia’s people first saw them. Then, when the scouts had been killed or converted, the giants killed one of Portia’s own people—one of Bianca’s assistants. After they departed, they left some bodies of their own kind, some killed by the ants, others just dead from mysterious wounds. Swift work by Bianca’s team removed these remains from the scene, with fortunate timing given the explosion that occurred soon after, ending any useful enquiry, and killing a further handful of Bianca’s males.

At the time, nobody realized that one of the star-creatures had remained alive and entered the forest.

Now Portia examines the thing, as it appears to sleep. The shape of a human being sparks no ancestral recollection in her. Even had her distant antecedents any memories to pass on, their tiny keyhole’s span of vision would have been unable to appreciate the scale of anything so large. Portia herself is having difficulties: the sheer size and bulk of this alien monster give her pause for thought.

The creature has already killed two of her kind, when it encountered them. They had tried to approach, and the thing had attacked them on sight. Biting it had little or no effect— being designed for use against spiders, Portia’s venom has limited effect against vertebrates.

If it was just some monstrous, oversized beast, then to trap and kill it would be relatively simple, Portia decides. If the worst came to the worst, they could simply set the ants on it, as they are obviously more than equal to the task. The mystical significance of this creature is a different consideration, however. It has come from the sky: from the Messenger, ergo. It is not a threat to be confronted, but a mystery to be unravelled.

Portia feels the thrumming of destiny beneath her feet. She has a sense that everything that is past and everything that is to come are balanced at this point in time, the fulcrum resting within herself. This moment is one of divinely mandated

significance. Here, in its monstrous living form, is some part of the Messenger’s message.

They will trap it. They will capture it and bring it back to Great Nest, using all the artifice and guile at their command. They will find some way to unravel its secret.

Portia glances upwards—the canopy of the forest keeps the stars from her view, but she is keenly aware of them: both the fixed constellations that wheel slowly across the arch of the year and the Messenger’s swift spark in the darkness. She thinks of them as her people’s birthright, if her people can only understand what they are being told.

Her kind has won a great victory over the ants, turning enemies into allies, reversing the tide of the war. From here on, colony after colony will fall to them. Surely it is in recognition of this, in reward for their cleverness and endurance and success, that the Messenger has sent them this sign.

With her body twanging with manifest destiny, Portia now plans the capture of her colossal prize.

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