Chapter no 30

Children of Time

Ever afterwards, Bianca has suffered from momentary fits, stumblings in speech and gait, sudden epilepsies when she is cut adrift from her surroundings for varying periods of time, her legs drumming and spasming as if trying urgently to impart a message in some idiolectic code.

But she has survived the plague and, when a fit is not upon her, retained her mind. For Viola, whose biochemical genius furnished the means, the cure came too late. Many others, great minds, great warriors, leading females of peer houses, starving males in the gutter, all have been struck down. Great Nest has been saved, but thousands of its inhabitants were not so lucky. Other cities were similarly affected, even with production of the cure taking over the work of every suitable ant colony, and the theoretical basis being sung down the lines that link the spider communities together. The disaster has been averted, but narrowly. It is now a new world, and Portia’s people recognize the fragility of their place in it. A great many things are poised on the point of change.

It is not Portia herself who first grasps the wider import of her cure. It is hard to say which scientist was first to the mark: it is one of those ideas that seems simultaneously to be everywhere, exciting every enquiring mind. Portia’s treatment has allowed living adult spiders to benefit from a foreign Understanding. Yes, what was transferred was an immunity, but surely the process would work with other Understandings, if they can only be separated out and their page noted in Viola’s great book of the body. No longer will the spread of knowledge be held down by the slow march of generations or by laborious teaching.

The need for this technology is great. The depredations of

the plague have made Understandings hard to find: where once a given idea might be held within scores of minds, now there are just a handful at best. Knowledge has become more precious than ever.

It is only a few years after the plague that the first idea is transferred between adults. A somewhat garbled Understanding of astronomy is imparted to a male test subject (as are all such, given some failures in earlier experiments). From there on, any spider may learn anything. Every scientist of Portia’s generation and beyond will stand on the shoulders of the giants that she chooses to reside within her. What one knows, any can know, for a price. An economy of modular, tradable knowledge will swiftly develop.

But that is not all.

After she is recovered, Portia presents Bianca to the Temple. She explains about her fellow’s contribution to the cure. Bianca is permitted to address the assembled priestesses.

There has been a shift of orthodoxy in the wake of the plague. Everyone is having to stretch their minds to fill the gaping void left by all those who did not survive. Old ideas are being revisited, old prohibitions reconsidered. There is a great feeling of destiny, but it is a self-made destiny. They have passed the test. They are their own saviours. They wish to communicate something to that one point of intellect outside their sphere: the most basic, essential signal.

They wish to tell the Messenger, We are here.

Bianca’s battery, in and of itself, does not make a radio transmitter. Whilst the experiments with the transmission of Understandings between spiders progress, so does the investigation into the transmission of vibrations across the invisible web that is strung from their world to the distant satellite and beyond.

Years later, an ageing Bianca and Portia are amongst a crowd of the intimates of the temple, now ready to speak to the unknown, to cast their electromagnetic voice into the ether.

The replies to the Messenger’s mathematical problems—that every spider knows and understands—are ready for transmission. They wait for the Messenger to appear in the night sky above, and then they send that unequivocal first transmission.

We are here.

Within a second of the last solution being sent, the Messenger ceases its own transmissions, throwing the whole of Portia’s civilization into a panic that their hubris has angered the universe.

Several fraught days later, the Messenger speaks again.

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