The plague is insidious at first, then tyrannous, and at last truly terrifying. Its symptoms are by now well recorded, reliably predictable—everything, in fact, except preventable. The first sure signs are a feeling of heat in the joints, a rawness at the eyes, mouthparts, spinnerets, anus and book-lungs. Muscle spasms, especially in the legs, follow; at first just a few, a stammering in speech, a nervous dance not quite accounted for, then more and more the victim’s limbs are not her own, leading her in babbling, staggering, whole frantic meaningless journeys. Around this time, from ten to forty days after the first involuntary twitch, the virus reaches the brain. The victim then relinquishes her grasp on who and where she is. She perceives those around her in irrational ways. Paranoia, aggression and fugue states are common during this phase. Death follows in another five to fifteen days, immediately preceded by an irresistible desire to climb as high as possible. Fabian has recounted in some detail the dead city that he has visited once more: the highest reaches of the trees and the decaying webbing were crowded with the rigid carapaces of the dead, glassy eyes fixed upwards on nothing.
Prior to those first definitive symptoms, the virus is present in the victim’s system for an unknown period but often as long as two hundred days, while slowly infiltrating the patient’s system without any obvious harm. The victim feels occasional periods of heat or dizziness, but there are other potential causes for this and the episodes usually go unreported; all the more so because, prior to the disease taking hold in Great Nest
—as it now has—any suspected sufferers were exiled on pain of death. Those incubating the disease were part of an inadvertent conspiracy to mask the signs of outbreak for as
long as possible.
During this early, innocent-seeming phase, the disease is moderately contagious. Being close to a sufferer for an extended period of time is very likely to lead to oneself contracting the disease, although bites from deranged victims in their last phases are the surest way to become infected.
There have been half a dozen late-stage victims in Great Nest. They are killed on sight, and at range. There are three times as many lingering in the mid-stage, and so far no consensus has been reached regarding them. Portia and others are insistent that a cure is possible. There is a tacit agreement amongst the temple scientists to conceal just how little idea they have of what can be done.
Portia is making the best uses of Fabian’s prizes that she can. The spiderlings came from the plague city, and she can only hope that this means they are immune to the plague, and that this immunity will somehow be amenable to study.
She has tested them, and taken samples of their haemolymph—their arachnid blood—to examine, but all her lenses and analyses have so far discovered nothing. She has ordered that fluids from the spiderlings be fed or injected into mid-stage victims, a manner of transfusion having been pioneered just a few years before. The limited immune system of the spiders means that blood-type rejection is far less of an issue. In this case the attempt has had no effect.
In working with sufferers, in order to preserve herself as long as possible from the inevitable moment when she becomes her own test subject, she has used Fabian, and he has liaised with the males within those peer houses where the plague has taken hold. It is known that males are a little hardier than females where the plague is concerned. Ironically, ancient genetics link the elegance and stamina of their wooing dances with the strength of their immune systems, keeping a constant pressure on natural selection.
Everything that Portia has tried has so far failed, and none of her fellows has obtained any better results. She is beginning
to drift into ever more speculative sciences, desperate for that one lateral thought that will save her civilization from a collapse into dispersed barbarism.
She has now been working in her laboratory for the best part of a day. Fabian has departed with a new batch of solutions to pass to his counterparts within the sealed lazar-houses that the dwellings of infected peer groups have become. She has no particular belief that these solutions will work. She feels she has reached the end of her capabilities, frustrated with the great void of ignorance that she has found, while standing out here at the very edge of her people’s comprehension.
She now has a visitor. Under other circumstances she would turn this one away, but she is tired, so very tired, and she desperately needs some new perspective. And new— disturbingly new—perspectives are what this visitor is all about.
Her name is Bianca and she was formerly one of Portia’s peer group. She is a large, overfed spider with pale brindling all over her body, who moves with a fidgety, nervous energy that makes Portia wonder whether, if Bianca caught the disease, anyone would actually notice.
Bianca was formerly of the Temple, too, but she did not fulfil her duties with the proper respect. Her curiosity as a scientist overwhelmed her reverence as a priestess. She had begun experiments with the crystal and, when this was discovered, she came very close to being exiled for her disrespect. Portia and her other peers interceded on her behalf, but she effectively fell from those lofty levels of society, losing both her status and her friends. It was assumed that she would leave Great Nest, or perhaps die.
Instead, somehow Bianca has clung on and even thrived. She has always been a brilliant mind—perhaps that is another reason Portia, at the end of her own mental resources, lets her in—and she has bartered her skills like a male, by serving lesser peer houses, and eventually forming a new peer group
of her own, drawn from other disaffected scholars. In better times, the major peer houses were always on the point of censuring or exiling the entire clutch of them, but now nobody cares. Portia’s people have other matters to concern them.
They say you are close to a cure? However, Bianca’s stance and the slight delay in her movements convey scepticism very neatly.
I work. We all work. Portia would normally exaggerate her prospects, but she is feeling too weary. Why are you here?
Bianca shuffles slyly, eyeing Portia. Why, sister, why am I ever anywhere?
This is not the time. So Bianca is after her usual, then. Portia huddles miserably, the other spider stepping close to hear her muted speech.
From what I hear, there may be no other time Bianca says, half-goading. I know what messages come down the lines from the other cities. I know how many other cities have no messages left in them. You and I both know what we are facing.
If I had wanted to think further on that just now, I would have remained in my laboratory, Portia tells her with an angry stamp. I will not give you access to the Messenger’s crystal.
Bianca’s palps quiver. I even had my own crystal, did you know? And the Temple found out, and took it away. I was close
Portia does not need to know what she was close to. Bianca has one obsession, and that is speaking to the Messenger, sending a message back to that swift-moving star. It is a subject of debate within the Temple every generation—and in every generation there is one like Bianca who will not take no for an answer. They are watched, always.
Portia’s position is wretched because, left to herself, she would probably support Bianca. She is swayed by the majority, however, in the way that most large decisions fall out when the great and the good stand on the same web and
debate. The Temple old guard, the priestesses of the former generation, hold the message sacrosanct and perfect. The path of Portia’s people is to better appreciate it, to learn the hidden depths of the message that have yet to be unlocked. It is not for them to try and howl into the darkness to attract the Messenger’s attention. Passing overhead, the Messenger observes all. There is an order to the universe, and the Messenger is proof of that.
Each generation a few more voices are raised in dispute, but so far that enduring meme has won out. After all, did the Messenger not intervene during the great war with the ants, with no need for anyone to ask for help? If it is within the Messenger’s plan to help Portia’s kind, then such help will come without being solicited.
Why come to me? I will not go against Temple, Portia tells her as dismissively as she can manage.
Because I remember you from when we were still truly sisters. You want the same thing as me, only not quite enough.
I will not help you, Portia declares, her weariness adding a finality to the phrase. There is no speaking back to the Messenger anyway. Our people need the Temple as a source of reassurance. Your experiments would likely take that from them, and for what? You cannot achieve what you wish, nor is it a thing to be achieved.
I have something to show you. Suddenly Bianca is signalling and some males are bringing in a heavy device slung between them, stepping in sideways to lower it to the taut floor, which stretches a little more to take the weight.
It has long been known that certain chemicals react with metals in curious ways, Bianca noted. When combined, linked properly, there is a force that passes along the metals and through the liquids. You remember such experiments from when we were learning together.
A curiosity, nothing more, Portia recalled. It is used for coating metals with other metals. I recall there was an ant
colony induced to make the task work, and they produced remarkable goods. This memory from her comparatively innocent youth lends her a little strength. Many noxious fumes, though. Work fit for ants only. What of it?
Bianca is attending to her device, which resembles the experiments that Portia recalls in that it has compartments of chemicals within other chemicals, linked by rods of metal, but it has other metal parts too: metal painstakingly teased out until it is as fine as thick silk, coiled densely in a column. Something changes in the air and Portia feels her hair prickle, as though a storm is coming—an event that always inspires a very reasonable fear because of the damage that natural fires can cause to a city.
This toy of mine is at the heart of an invisible web, Bianca tells her. By careful adjustment, I can use it to pluck the strands of that web. Is that not remarkable?
Portia wants to say that it is nonsensical, but she is intrigued, and the idea of some all-encompassing web is attractive, intuitive. How else could they be connected with
What you say is that this web is what the Messenger speaks to us through?
Bianca skitters about her novel device. Well, there must be some connection or how could we receive the message? And yet the Temple does not speculate. The message simply “is.” Yes, I have found the great web of the universe, the web that the Messenger plucks its message upon. Yes, I can send our reply.
Even for Bianca this is a bold and fearful boast.
I do not believe you, Portia decides. You would have done it already, if it could be done.
Bianca stamps angrily. What point in calling to the Messenger if I cannot hear her words? I need access to the temple.
You wish the Messenger to recognize you, to speak to you.
So it is Bianca’s ego that really drives this experiment. She was always thus: always ready to measure legs with the whole of creation. This is not the time. Portia feels exhausted once more.
Sister, we have no more time. You know that, Bianca wheedles. Let me fulfil my plan. I cannot leave this to future generations. Even if I could pass the Understanding on, there will be no future generations worth speaking of. Now is the only time.
There will be future generations. Portia does not step out those words, only thinks them. Fabian has seen them: living like beasts in the ruins of our cities, heads crowded with Understandings that they cannot use, because all the architecture of their mothers’ world has gone. What use is science then? What use the Temple? What use art when there are so few left that all they can do is feed and mate? Our great Understandings will die off, generation to generation, until none of those left alive will remember who we were. But the thought is incomplete, something nagging at her. She finds herself thinking of the selection of Understandings—those lost survivors will presumably have some long-ago Understandings to assist them in their hunting, and those offspring that inherit such primal Understandings would become the new lords of the world. But that will not be all that they inherit …
Portia leaps up, electrified into wakefulness as though she had inadvertently touched the wrong end of Bianca’s machine. A mad thought has come to her. An impossible thought. A thought of science.
She signals one of her attendant males and demands to know if Fabian has returned. He has, and she has him sent for.
I must work in my laboratory, she tells Bianca, and then hesitates. Bianca is half-mad already, a dangerous maverick, a potential revolutionary, but her brilliant intellect was never in doubt. Will you assist me? I need all the help I can get.
Bianca’s surprise is evident. It would be an honour to work
with my sisters once more, but … She does not quite articulate the thought, but she tilts her eyes over towards her machine, now inactive and no longer stressing the air with its invisible web.
If we succeed, if we survive, I will do all I can to take your plea to Temple. And a rebellious thought of Portia’s own. If we survive, it will be by our own merits, not because of the Messenger’s aid. We are now on our own.