Plague has worked its way thoroughly into the heart of Great Nest until physical contact between peer houses has almost ceased. Only the desperate and the starving roam the streets. There have been attacks—the healthy assaulting those they believe to be sick, the hungry stealing food, the incurably deranged attacking whatever their inner demons prompt them to.
And yet the straining strands of the community have not quite parted, the trickling exodus has not become a flood—due in no small part to Portia and her peers. They are working on a cure. They can save Great Nest and, by extension, civilization itself.
Portia has enlisted not only Bianca but every scientist— Temple and otherwise—that she has faith in. This is no time for reserving the glory to her peer group, after all.
And, in contacting them all, she has made sure that they all know who she is, and that she, as instigator, is their leader. Her dictates twang out across Great Nest on taut wires, received and relayed by diligent male attendants. Normally cooperation between peer houses does not work smoothly at this level: too many egos, too many females vying for dominance. The emergency has focused them wonderfully.
This is my new Understanding, Portia had explained to them. There is a quality that these immune children have that marks them out from their fallen peers. They were born into a plagued city, but they survived. It seems likely, given how long the plague had been rife in their home, that they must have been born from eggs laid by progenitors likewise resistant to the infection. In short, it is a resistance that they inherited. It is
This prompted a storm of objection. The process by which new Understandings were laid down was not fully understood, but those Understandings related only to knowledge—a recollection of how to do things, or how things were. Where was the evidence that a reaction to a disease could also be passed on to offspring?
These spiderlings are the evidence, Portia had informed them. If you doubt that, then I have no use for you. Reply to me only if you will help.
She lost perhaps a third of her correspondents, who have since sought answers elsewhere, and with no success. Portia herself, however, whilst having made advances enough to justify her area of research, is running into the very limits of her people’s technology and also the boundaries of their comprehension.
One of the other scientists who chose to support Portia— call her Viola—has studied the mechanism of Understandings for years, and passed on to Portia all she knew: great tangled nets of notes setting out her procedures and results. The spiders are very reliant on the effortless generational spread of knowledge that their Understandings produce. Their written language, a system of knots and ties, is awkward, long-winded and hard to preserve and store, and this has slowed Portia’s progress greatly. She cannot wait for offspring to inherit her colleague’s grasp of the subject; she needs that acumen now. Viola herself was initially unwilling to even cross the city, for fear of infection.
Today, confirmation arrived that Viola has entered the second stage of the plague, and knowing that is a keen incentive in Portia’s mind: her colleagues are falling one by one to the enemy they seek to defeat. It can only be a matter of time before Portia feels the stirring of it within her own joints.
Bianca is already infected, she believes. In private the maverick scientist has confessed to Portia that she is feeling those elusive first-stage symptoms. Portia has kept her close
anyway, knowing that by now there may be no spider in the whole of Great Nest that is not incubating the same disease.
Except for those maddeningly few who are somehow immune.
Thanks to her failing colleague, however, she has a tool formerly denied her. Viola’s peer group operates an ant colony that has been nurtured to the task of analysing the physiological stigmata of Understandings.
This is another great advance that Portia’s society is built on, and yet one that has become a serious limiter of their further advancement. There are hundreds of tamed ant colonies within Great Nest, not counting those in the surrounds that undertake the day-to-day business of producing food, clearing ground or fending off incursions of wild species. Each colony has been carefully trained, by subtle manipulation of punishment, reward and chemical stimulus, to perform a specific service, giving the great minds of the spiders access to a curious kind of analytical engine, using the cascading decision trees of the colony’s own governance as gearing. Each colony is good for a very limited set of related calculations—a vastly skilled yet vastly specialized idiot savant—and retraining a community of ants is a long and painstaking task.
However, Viola has already put in the work, and Portia sent her samples from the three captive spiderlings for comparison to the studies Viola had already undertaken of other members of their species. The results were delivered in a veritable rolled carpet of writing, along with Viola’s admission of her own infirmity.
Since then, Portia and Bianca have been poring over her copious reasoning, stopping frequently to confer over what Viola may or may not have meant. Their system of writing was originally brought into being to express transient, artistic thoughts—elegant, elaborate and pictorial. It is not ideal for setting down empirical scientific ideas.
Fabian is often in evidence, bringing food and drink and
offering his own interpretations when asked. He has a keen mind, for a male, and brings a different perspective. Moreover, he seems to have lost nothing of his vigour and dedication, despite showing a few first-stage symptoms himself. Usually, when any spider comes to believe that she or he is infected, the quality of their service steadily erodes. The problem is so great that even the most undesirable male can find patronage if he has the will to work. Great Nest’s society is undergoing curious, painful shifts.
Viola’s studies are in another language still, inexpertly rendered in that knotwork script. In her writings, she calls it the language of the body. She explains that every spider’s body contains this writing, and that it varies from individual to individual, but not randomly. Viola has experimented on spiderlings out of eggs isolated from clutches where the parentage is known, and has discovered that their internal language is closely related to the parents. This was to have been her grand revelation, in the looked-for years to come, when the completed study would allow her to dominate Great Nest’s intellectual life. Portia herself is quite aware of the humbling genius that she is looking at. Viola has uncovered the secret language of Understandings—if it could only be translated.
That is the sticking point. Viola knows enough to state confidently that what her ants can sequence from biopsy samples is the hidden book that resides within each and every spider, but she cannot read it.
However, her ants have a final gift for Portia. There is a passage, in the book of the spiderlings retrieved by Fabian, which is new. Ants of another of Viola’s colonies have been trained to compare these hidden books and highlight differences. The same paragraph, never before seen, turns up in each of the three immune infants. This, Viola hypothesizes, may represent their Understanding of how to ward off the plague.
Portia and her fellows are briefly ecstatic, finding themselves on the very brink of success, the epidemic as good
as beaten. Viola has one last comment, though, and her spinning is noticeably harder to read by this point.
She points out that, just as she has no way of reading the inner book, so she has no means by which to write on it. Other than allowing the spiderlings to grow and breed a new generation that will grow into a wild and barbaric immunity, this new knowledge is theoretically fascinating, yet practically useless.
There follow some days while the city decays about them, each hour sending the communication strands dancing with the grim news of yet more victims, of peer houses sealed, of the esteemed names of Great Nest who have gone mad and been put down, or who have taken their own lives by poison because to surrender that hard-earned gift of intelligence is worse still. Portia and Bianca are in shock, as if the plague has come early to cripple their minds. They were so close.
It is Bianca who returns to the work first. Her steps stutter and shudder with uncontrollable utterance. She is closer to death, therefore she has less to lose. She pores over Viola’s notes while Portia regains her mental fortitude, and then one morning Bianca is gone.
She returns late that night, and has a brief, trembling stand-off with the guardians of the peer house before Portia convinces them to let her back in.
How is it out there? Portia herself does not venture forth any more.
Madness, is Bianca’s brief reply. I saw Viola. She will not last much longer, bbbbbut she was able to tell me. I must show you, while I sssssstill can. The disease is jumping from leg to leg, sending her speech into sudden, involuntary repeats. She is never still, prowling about the peer house while she fights to form the words, as though trying to escape the thing that is killing her. She claws her way up the taut silk of the walls, and somewhere within her body lies that keening desire to climb, to climb and then to die.
Tell me, Portia insists, following her meandering trail. She sees Fabian following at a respectful distance, and signals him closer because another perspective on whatever Bianca will say can only be useful.
What comes out is pared down to the minimal, the essential, and Portia thinks Bianca has been pondering it on her return journey through the city, knowing that her ability to describe is constantly being eroded by a pestilential tide.
There is a deeper book, she hammers out, stamping each word on to the yielding floor in a shout of footwork. Viola identifies it. There is a second book in a second code, short and yet full of information, and different, so different. I asked Viola what it was. She says it is the Messenger within us. She says the Messenger is always to be found when new Understandings are laid down. She says it dwells with us in the egg, and grows with us, our invisible guardian, each one of us, she says, she says. Bianca turns on the spot, her wide, round eyes staring at everything around her, palps trembling in a frenzy of broken ideas. Where is Viola’s treatise?
Portia guides her to the great unrolled skein that is Viola’s life’s work, and Bianca, after several false starts, finds this “deeper book.” It is barely an appendix, a complex tangle of material that Viola has been unable to unravel, because it is written within the body in a wholly alien manner, far more compact, efficient and densely organized than the rest. The spiders cannot know, but there are good reasons for the contrast. This is not the product of natural evolution, or even evolution assisted: this is that which assists. Viola and her ant farm have isolated the nanovirus.
Portia spends a long time, after Bianca has staggered away, in reading and re-reading and doing what her kind have always done best: making a plan.
The next day she sends word to Viola’s peer house: she needs the use of their specialized colonies. At the same time she is begging and borrowing the expertise of another half-dozen scientists still willing and able to assist her. She sends
Fabian with instructions to her own colonies as well, those that can perform a range of functions, including doing their level best to duplicate any chemicals that they are given a sample of.
Viola’s peer house—though their erudite mistress is past helping now—isolate the fragment of the body’s book unique to the immune spiderlings, but they do more than this. They isolate the nanovirus as well: the Messenger Within. Precious days later, their males stagger across to Portia’s peer house with vats of the stuff—or at least some do. Others are killed on the streets, or simply flee. Great Nest’s survival stands on a knife edge.
Portia spends her time in the temple, hearing the voice of the Messenger above, and trying to listen to the Messenger that is within herself. Was it just a conceit of Viola’s to use that term? No, she had her reasons. She grasped that whatever that alien, artificial tangle of language is doing, it has a divine function: drawing them out of the bestial and into the sublime. It is the hand that places Understandings within the mind and tissue of life, so that each generation may become greater than the last. So that we may know you, Portia reflects, as she watches that far away light arc across the sky. It seems self-evident now that Bianca has been right all this time. Of course the Messenger is waiting for their reply. This was heresy such a short time ago, but Portia has since looked within herself. Why should we be made thus, to improve and improve, unless it is to aspire?
To Portia, as always with her species, her conclusions are a matter of extrapolated logic based on her best comprehension of the principles the universe has revealed to her.
Days later, the ants have produced the first batch of her serum, a complex mixture of the immune spiderlings’ genetic fragment and the nanovirus: Messenger and Message circling and circling within that solution.
By this time, over half of Portia’s peer house are well into the second stage. Bianca and several others have entered the
third, and are confined, each to a separate cell, where they will starve. What else is to be done with them?
Portia knows what else.
Fabian offers to go in her place, but she knows that the late-stage infected will kill a little male like him effortlessly. She rounds up a handful of desperate, determined females, and she takes up her artificial fang with which she will inject her serum at the point where the patient’s legs meet the body, close to the brain.
Bianca fights against them. She bites one of Portia’s orderlies and injects two full fangs of venom, paralysing her victim instantly. She kicks and staggers and rears up, challenging them all. They rope her and bind her un-gently, turning her on to her back even as her mouthparts flex furiously at them. All language is gone from her, and Portia acknowledges that she does not know if this stage of the plague can even be reversed.
Still, Bianca will be the proof or disproof of that. Portia drives her syringe in.