Chapter no 24

Children of Time

Portia looks out across the vast, interconnected complexity that was Great Nest and sees a city just beginning to die.

In the last few generations, Great Nest’s population has swelled to somewhere near a hundred thousand adult spiders, and countless—uncounted—young. It spreads through several square miles of forest, reaching from the earth to the canopy, a true metropolis of the spider age.

The city Portia sees now is depopulated. Although the dying has only just started, hundreds of females are abandoning Great Nest for other cities. Others simply strike out into the remaining wilderness to take their chances, relying on centuries-old Understandings to recapture the lifestyle of their ancient huntress ancestors. Many males have fled too. Already the delicate structures of the city are showing some disrepair as basic maintenance is disregarded.

Plague is coming.

In the north, a handful of great cities are already in ruins. A global epidemic is leaping from community to community. Hundreds of thousands are already dead from it, and now Great Nest has seen its own first victims.

She knows this was inevitable, for this current Portia is a priestess and a scientist. She has been working to try and understand the virulent disease, and to find a cure.

She does not quite understand why this disease has had such an impact. Aside from its highly contagious nature, and its ability to spread by contact—and somewhat less reliably through the air—the sheer concentration of bodies in the cities of Portia’s people have turned a minor, controllable infection

into something more virulent than the Black Death. Such great concentrations of bodies have led to all manner of squalor and health problems; Portia’s people were only beginning to grasp the need for collective responsibility for such issues when the spread of the plague caught them unawares. Their casual, almost anarchic form of government is not well suited to taking the sort of harsh measures that might be effective.

Another factor in the deadliness of the disease is the practice, increasingly common in the last century, of females choosing males born within their own peer group as mates, in an attempt to concentrate and control the spread of their Understandings. This practice—well meaning and enlightened in its way—has led to inbreeding that has weakened the immune systems of many powerful peer houses, meaning that those who might possess the power to take action are often first to come down with the plague when it erupts. Portia is aware of this pattern, though not the cause, and she is also aware that her own peer group fits that pattern all too well.

She is aware that there are tiny animicules associated with disease, but her magnifying lenses are not acute enough to detect the viral culprit for the plague. She has the results of experiments carried out by fellow scientists from other cities, many of whom are dead of the plague themselves, now. Some even arrived at a theory of vaccination, but the immune system of Portia’s people is not the efficient and adaptive machine that humans and other mammals can boast. Exposure to a contagion simply does not prepare them for later, kindred infections in the same way.

The world is falling apart, and Portia is shocked at how little it has taken for this to occur. She had never realized that her whole civilization was such a fragile entity. She hears the news from other cities where the plague is already rife. Once the population begins to drop—from death and desertion—the whole structure of society collapses swiftly. The elegant and sophisticated way of life that the spiders have built for themselves has always been strung over a great abyss of barbarism, cannibalism and a return to primitive, savage

values. After all, they are predators at heart.

She retreats to the Temple, picking her way past the mass of citizens who have taken refuge therein, seeking some certainty from beyond. There are not as many as the day before. Portia knows this is not just because there are fewer of her people left in the city: she is also aware that there is a slowly growing disillusionment with the Messenger and Her message. What good does it do us? they ask. Where is the fire sent from heaven to purge the plague?

Touching the crystal with her metal stylus, Portia dances to the music of the Messenger as it passes overhead, her complex steps describing perfectly the equations and their solutions. As always, she is filled by that measureless assurance that something is out there: that just because she cannot understand something now does not mean that it cannot be understood.

One day I will comprehend you, is her thought directed to the Messenger, but it rings hollow now. Her days are numbered. All their days are numbered.

She finds herself entertaining the heretical thought, If only we could send our own message back to you. The Temple acts fiercely against that sort of thinking, but it is not the first time Portia has considered the idea. She is aware that other scientists—even priestess-scientists—have been experimenting with some means of reproducing the invisible vibrations by which the message is spread. Publicly, the Temple cannot condone such meddling, of course, but the spiders are a curious species, and those who are drawn to the Temple are the most curious of all. It was inevitable that the hothouse flower of heresy would end up nurtured by those very guardians of the orthodox.

On this day, Portia finds that she believes that if they could somehow speak across that vast and empty space to the Messenger, then She would surely have an answer for them, a cure for the plague. Portia finds, just as inexorably, that no such dialogue is possible, no answer will come, and so she must find her own cure before it is too late.

After Temple, she returns to her peer house, a great, sprawling many-chambered affair slung between three trees, to meet with one of her males.

Since the ravages of the plague began, the role of the male in spider society has changed subtly. Traditionally the best lot in life for a male was to hitch his star to a powerful female and hope to be looked after, or else—for those born with valuable Understandings—to end up a pampered commodity in a seraglio, ready to be traded away or mated off as part of the constantly shifting power games between peer houses. Other than that, the lot of a male came down to being a kind of underclass of urban scavengers constantly fighting each other over scraps of food, and always at risk without female patronage. However, from being a host of the useless and the unnecessary, decorative and fit for menial labour at best, a furtive meal at worst, they have become a desperate resource in time of need. Males are less independent, less able to fend for themselves out in the wilds, and so they tend to stay when females flee. That Great Nest and many other cities remain functioning at all is due to the number of males who have taken the chance to step into traditionally female roles. There are even male warriors, hunters and guards now, because someone must take up the sling and the shield and the incendiary grenade, and often there is nobody else to do so.

Females in Portia’s position have long had their pick of male escorts and, whilst some keep them about merely to dance attendance—literally—and add to a female’s apparent importance, others have trained them as skilled assistants. The Bianca of old, with her male laboratory assistants, had uncovered something of a truth about spider gender politics when she complained that working with females involved far too much competition for dominance, and old instincts lie shallowly under the civilized surface. This current Portia, too, has come reluctantly to trust in males.

Not long ago she sent out a band of males, a gang of adventurers that she had made frequent use of before. They were all capable, used to working together from their youngest

days as abandoned spiderlings on the streets of Great Nest. Their mission was one that Portia felt no female would accept; their reward was to be the continued support of Portia’s peer group: food, protection, access to education, entertainment and culture.

One of them has returned: just the one. Call him Fabian.

He comes to her now at the peer house. Fabian is missing a leg, and he looks half-starved and exhausted. Portia’s palps flick, sending one of the immature males from the crèche to find some food for them both.

Well? An impatient twitch as she watches him.

Conditions are worse than you thought. Also, I had difficulty re-entering Great Nest. Travellers suspected of coming from the north are being turned away if female, killed out of hand if male. His speech is a slow shuffle of feet, slurred and uneven.

Is that what happened to your comrades?

No. I am the only one to return. They’re all dead. Such a brief eulogy this, for those that he had spent most of his life with. But then it is well known in Portia’s society that males do not really feel with the same acuity as females, and certainly they cannot form the same bonds of attachment and respect.

The juvenile male returns with food: trussed live crickets and vegetable polyps gathered from the farms. Gratefully, Fabian scoops up one of the bound insects and inserts a fang. Too exhausted to bother using venom, he sucks the spasming creature dry.

There are survivors in the plague cities, as you had thought, he continues, as he eats. But they retain nothing of our ways. They live like beasts, merely spinning and hunting. There were females and males. My companions were taken and devoured, one by one.

Portia stamps anxiously. But were you successful?

Fabian’s ordeal has sufficiently affected him that he does not immediately respond to her enquiry, but asks back, Are you not worried that I might have brought the plague to Great Nest? It seems likely I must have contracted it.

It is already here.

His palps flex slowly, in a gesture of resignation. I have succeeded. I have brought three spiderlings taken from the plague zone. They are healthy. They are immune, as those others living there must be. You were right, for what good it may do us.

Take them to my laboratory, she instructs him. Then, seeing his remaining limbs tremble, she continues: After that, the peer house is yours to roam. You will be rewarded for this great service. Merely ask for whatever you wish.

He regards her, eye to eye, a bold move—but he was always a bold male, and why else would he have made such a useful tool? Once I have rested I would assist you in your work, if you would let me, he tells her. You know I have Understandings of the biochemical sciences, and I have studied also.

The offer surprises Portia, who shows it in her posture.

Great Nest is my home, too, Fabian reminds her. All I am is contained here. Do you truly believe that you can defeat the plague?

I believe that I must try or we are all lost, anyway. A sombre thought, but the logic is undeniable.

You'll Also Like