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Chapter no 33

Children of Time

Portia stretches and flexes her limbs, feeling the newly hardened sheen of her exoskeleton and the constricting net of the cocoon she has woven about herself. The urge came at an inconvenient time, and she put it off as long as she could, but the cramping tightness at every joint had eventually became unbearable and she was forced to go into retirement: a moon’s-span of days out of the public eye, fretting and fidgeting as she split her way out of her cramped old skin and let her new skeleton dry out and find its shape.

During her lying-in she has been attended by various members of her peer house, which is a dominant force now in Great Nest. There are two or three others who, as a union, could challenge the hold of Portia’s family, but they are seldom friends with one another. Portia’s agents provocateurs ensure that they are kept constantly fighting over second place.

The political realities of Great Nest are finely balanced just now, however. Despite the reports brought to her daily during her lying-in, Portia knows there will be dozens of key pieces of information that she will have to catch up with. Thankfully, there is a ready mechanism for doing that.

Portia is the greatest priestess of the Messenger that Great Nest has, but a month out of circulation will have given many of her sisters ideas. They will have been talking to that fleet, all-important light in the sky, receiving the bizarre, garbled wisdom of the universe, and using it for their own benefit. They will have been taking over the grand, often incomprehensible projects ordered by the voice of God. Portia will have to jostle to recover her old prominence.

She descends to the next chamber, a gaggle of younger

females attending her. A flicker of her palps and a male is brought in. He has lived a busy month, and been present at gatherings that his gender are usually banned from. Everywhere that Portia might have gone, he was brought by her adherents. He has had every missive, every discovery and reversal, every proclamation of God patiently explained to him. He has been well fed, pampered; he has wanted for nothing.

Now, one of the females brings forward a bulging bulb of silk. Within is the distilled Understanding that the last month has added to this male. It comprises an intelligence report which, if delivered in any conventional way, would be interminable in its detail. That single draught contains enough secrets of Portia’s peer house to hand Great Nest on a platter to any of her enemies.

She drinks, the fluid thick with learning, the bulb held within her palps as she carefully drains its contents, before passing it to her subordinates to be destroyed. Already she feels a flutter of discord inside her as the nanovirus she has just ingested begins to fit the purloined knowledge into place within her own mind, accessing the structure of her brain and copying in the male’s memories. Within a day and a night she will know all that he knows, and likely she will have lost some unfrequented mental pathways too, some obsolete skill or distant recollection reconfigured into the new and the necessary.

I will send word about him. She indicates the male. Once she is sure that the new Understandings have taken, the male will be disposed of—killed and eaten by one of Portia’s clique. He knows too much, quite literally.

Portia’s society has come some way since the primitive days when the females ate their mates as often as not, but perhaps not so very far. The killing of males under the protection of another peer house is a crime that demands restitution; the needless killing of any male garners sufficient social disapprobation that it is seldom practised, and the culprits usually shunned as wasteful and lacking that golden

virtue of self-control. However, to kill a male for a good reason, or after coitus, remains acceptable, despite occasional debates on the subject. This is simply the way things are, and the conservation of tradition is important in Great Nest these days.

Great Nest is a vast forest metropolis. Hundreds of square kilometres of great trees are festooned with the angled silk dwellings of Portia’s kin, constantly being added to and remodelled as each peer house’s fortunes advance or decline. The greatest of the spider clans dwell in the mid-level— shielded from the extremes of weather, but suitably distant from the lowly ground where those females without a peer group must fight for leg-room with a swarm of half-savage feral males. In between the peer houses are the workshops of artisans who produce that dwindling stock of items that ants cannot be bred to manufacture, the studios of artists who weave and craft and construct elegant knot-script, and the laboratories of scientists of a score of disciplines. Beneath the ground, amongst the roots, crawl the interlocking networks of ants, each nest to its own specialized task. Other, larger, nests radiate out from the metropolis’s limits, engaged in lumberjacking, mining, smelting and industrial manufacture. And, on occasion, war. To fight the other is something that every ant colony can remember how to do, if the need arises, although Great Nest, like its rivals, has specialist soldiers as well.

Portia, on her way to temple, feels fragments of current affairs falling into place within her. Yes, there have been further troubles with Great Nest’s neighbours: the lesser nests

—Seven Trees, River Chasm, Burning Mountain—they are testing the boundaries of territory once again, jealous of the supremacy of Portia’s home. It is likely that there will be a new war, but Portia is not concerned about the result. Her people can muster far more ants—and far better designed ants

—for the fight ahead.

The sheer size of Great Nest necessitates a public transport system in the higher reaches. The central temple where Portia

holds sway is some distance from the site of her lying-in. She is aware that the transporting of things is the province of God, and among God’s troubling, hard-to-understand plans are various means of moving from place to place at great speed, but so far no peer house, no city, has succeeded in realizing any of them. The spiders have made their own arrangements in the interim, albeit with a cringing awareness that they are inadequate compared to the Divine Plan.

Portia boards a cylindrical capsule that is strung along a thick, braided strand, and lets it carry her at a rushing speed through the arboreal glory that is her home. The motive power is partly stored energy in silk springs, a macro-engineered development drawn from the structure of spider-silk itself, and partly cultured muscle: a mindless slab of contracting tissue running along the dorsal rib of the capsule, obliviously hauling itself over and over—efficient, self-repairing and easy to feed. Great Nest is a complex interconnecting web of such capsule-runs, a network amongst networks, like the vibrational communications strands that go everywhere, since the temple maintains a rigorous monopoly on the invisible traces of radio waves.

Shortly thereafter she steps into the temple, carefully marking the reactions of those she finds there, sniffing out potential challengers.

What is the position of the Messenger? she asks, and is told that the voice of God is in the skies, invisible against the daylight.

Let me speak to Her.

The lesser priestesses clear out of her way somewhat resentfully, having had the run of this place for a month. The old crystal receiver has been improved steadily since the messages of God became comprehensible—that being the first lesson of God, and one of the most successful. Now there is a whole machine of metal and wood and silk that acts as a terminus for a sightless strand of the great and unseen web of the universe that links all such termini, allowing Portia to

speak direct to other temples across half the world, and to speak to and hear the words of God.

After God originally began speaking, it took the combined great minds of several generations to finally learn the divine language, or perhaps to negotiate that language, meeting the comprehension of God halfway. Even now, a certain amount of what God has to say is simply not something that Portia or anyone can understand. It is all set down, though, and sometimes a particularly knotted piece of scripture will yield to the teasing of later theologians.

Slowly, however, a rapport with the godhead was established by Portia’s forebears, and a story was thus told. Late in the development of their culture therefore, Portia’s people inherited a creation myth, and had their destiny dictated to them by a being of a power and an origin that passed all their understandings.

The Messenger was the last survivor of an earlier age of the universe, they were told. In the final throes of that age, it was the Messenger who was chosen to come to this world and engender life out of the barren earth. The Messenger—the Goddess of the green planet—remade the world so that it would give rise to that life, next seeded it with plants and trees, and then with the lesser animals. On the last day of the previous age, at the apex of creation, the Messenger dispatched Portia’s distant ancestors to this world, and settled back to await their voices.

And, after so many generations of silence in which the Messenger’s voice alone touched the strands of that invisible world-spanning web, the temples now sing back, and the balance of God’s plan is parcelled out in piecemeal revelations that almost nobody can yet understand. The Messenger is trying to teach them how to live, and this involves building machines to accomplish purposes that Portia’s people can hardly grasp. It involves dangerous forces—such as the spark that sends signals up the strands of the ether to the Messenger, but of a vastly greater power. It involves bizarre, mind-hurting concepts of nested wheels and eyes, fires and channelled

lightning. The Messenger is trying to help them, but its people are unworthy, so preaches the Temple—why else would they fail their God so often? They must improve and become what God has planned for them, but their manner of life and building and invention is wholly at odds with the vision that the Messenger relates to them.

Portia and her sisters are often in contact with the temples of other cities, but they are nevertheless drawing apart. God speaks to each of them, each temple being assigned its own frequency, but the message substantially the same—for Portia has eavesdropped on God’s dictates to others before. Each temple translates the good news differently; interprets the words and co-opts them to fit with existing mental structures. Worse, some temples are losing their faith entirely, beginning to recast the words of the Messenger as something other than divine. This is a heresy, and already there has been conflict. After all, that tiny point of moving light is their only connection to a greater universe which—they are told—they are destined to inherit. To question and alienate that swift star could leave them abandoned and alone in the cosmos.

By the end of the day, between reports and the Understanding the male has just gifted to her, she has caught up with what has transpired in her absence. Friction with the apostate Seven Trees temple is high, and there has been serious infringement at the mine sites. The demands of God mean that raw materials

—metals especially—are in high demand. Great Nest has maintained a monopoly of all good veins of iron and copper, gold and silver anywhere near its ever-extending reach, but other cities constantly dispute this, by sending their own ant colonies out in column to raid the workings. It is a war where the weapons, so far, have been more efficiently bred miners rather than fiercer warriors, but Portia is aware that this cannot continue. God herself has stated, in one of those long philosophical diatribes She is partial to, that there is always a single end-point to conflict if neither side will pull back from the brink.

Spider has always killed spider. From the start, the species

has had a streak of cannibalism, especially female against male, and they have often struggled for territory, for local dominance. Such killings have never been casual or common, however. The nanovirus that runs through each of them forms another web of connections, reminding each of the sentience of the other. Even males partake: even their little deaths have a meaning and a significance that cannot be denied. Certainly the spiders have never fallen so far as to practise widespread slaughter. They have reserved their wars for defending themselves against extra-species threats, such as that long-ago war against the ant super-colony that in the end proved such a boost for their technology. For a species that thinks naturally in terms of interconnected networks and systems, the idea of a war of conquest and extermination—rather than a campaign of conversion, subversion and co-option—does not come easily.

God has other ideas, however, and the superiority of God’s ideas has become a major point of dogma for the Temple— after all, why would anyone need a temple otherwise?

When she is finally on top of developments both theological and political; when she has been capsuled out of the city limits to visit the divine workshops where her priest-engineers labour to try and make real something—anything— from God’s perplexing designs, only then does she find time for a personal errand. For Portia, personal and priestly are almost always interwoven, but in this she is indulging herself: finding time to meet with one little mind amongst so many, and yet such a jewel of clarity. Several of the key moments of epiphany, in which God’s message was untangled even slightly, have originated with this remarkable brain. And yet she feels a tug of shame in spending her time in travelling to this little-remarked laboratory where her unacknowledged protégé is given the chance to experiment and build without the rigid control that the Temple traditionally exerts.

She enters without fanfare, finding the object of her curiosity studying the latest results, a complex notation of chemical analysis woven automatically by one of the ant colonies of the city. Interrupted by her presence, the scientist

turns and waves palps in complex genuflection, a dance of respect, subservience and pleading.

Fabian, she addresses him, and the male shivers and bobs.

Before coming here, Portia has been to the outer laboratories to view the progress on God’s plan, and she is not heartened.

The history of the Messenger’s contact with Her chosen is the enactment of a plan. Once the language barrier was breached—as it is still being breached, missive to missive— God wasted no time in establishing Her place in the cosmos. There was, at the time, some debate amongst the scholars, but against a voice from the stars that promised them a universe grander than anything they had imagined, what could the sceptics suggest? The fact of God was inarguable.

That it served the Temple to argue God’s corner is something Portia is aware of. She is aware that the first reaching out to God was a defying of Temple edicts of the time. Now she finds herself wondering what might happen if the Great Nest temple itself once again defied God.

Unfortunately the most obvious answer is that God would simply gift more of Her message to other temples and not to Great Nest. A unity of religion has led to a rivalry and factionalism between the nests. In all their long histories they have worked together, kindred nodes on a world-spanning continuum. Now divine attention has become a resource that they must squabble for. Of course Great Nest is pre-eminent amongst the foremost favourites of God, with its own knot of frequencies with which it monopolizes much of the message. Pilgrims of other nests must come begging for word of what it is that God wants.

Only those of the inner temple are uncomfortably aware that the message they distribute to those petitioners is merely a best guess. God is at once specific and obscure.

Portia has viewed the best efforts in those high-risk laboratories outside the city. They are distant because they

must be surrounded by a firebreak. God is in love with the same force that burns in the radios. The ants there smelt vast lengths of copper that carry pulses of that tame lightning just as silk can carry simple speech. Except that the lightning is not so easily tamed. A spark is often all it takes to birth a conflagration.

The temple scientists try to build a network of lightning according to God’s designs, but it achieves nothing, save occasionally to destroy its own creators. Somewhere out there, Portia fears, some other community may be closer than Great Nest to achieving God’s intent.

God’s work is not to be entrusted to males, but Fabian is special. Over the last few years, Portia has become curiously reliant on his abilities. He is a chemical architect of surpassing skill.

It is the age-old limiting factor: the ants are slow. The scientific endeavour of each spider nest rests on its ability to train its ant colonies to perform needed tasks: manufacturing, engineering, analysis. Whilst each generation has become more adept, pushing the boundaries of their organic technology, each fresh task requires a new colony, or else for a colony’s existing behaviour to be overwritten. Spiders like Fabian create chemical texts that give an ant colony its purpose, its complex cascade of instinct that allows it to perform the given task. Although in truth there are few like Fabian, who accomplishes more, more elegantly and in less time, than any other.

Fabian possesses everything a male might desire, and yet he is unhappy. Portia finds him a bizarre mix: a male whose value has made him forthright enough that she sometimes feels she is dealing with a competing female.

Before she retired to moult, he was hinting that he was on the brink of a great advance, and yet a month later he has not broached the subject further with any of her subordinates. She wonders if he has saved it all for her. They have a complex relationship, she and Fabian. He danced for her once, and she

took the gift of his genetic material to add to her own, so as to gift their combined genius to posterity. He has learned a great deal more, since then, that he has not passed on. In truth she should wait for him to petition her but, now she is here, the subject has come up.

I am not ready, he replies dismissively. There is more to learn.

Your great discovery, she prompts. Fabian is a volatile genius. He must be handled with a care normally unbecoming in dealing with a male.

Later. It is not ready. He is agitated, twitchy in her presence. Her scent receptors suggest that he is quite ready to mate, so it is his mind that is holding him back. Let us get it over with now, she suggests. Or perhaps simply distil your new Understandings? Whilst I do not want anything to happen to you, there are always accidents.

She had not intended a threat, but males are always cautious around females. He becomes quite still for a moment save for a nervous fidgeting of his palps, an unconscious plea for his life that goes back through the generations to before their kind ever developed language.

Osric is dead, he tells her, which she was not expecting. She cannot place the name and so he adds, He was one of my assistants. He was killed after a mating.

Tell me who was involved and I shall reprimand her. Your people are too precious to consume in such a way. And Portia is genuinely displeased. There remains a tight faction of ultraconservatives in Great Nest that believe males can have no genuine qualities that are not simply a reflection of the females around them, but that hard-line philosophy has been dying out ever since the plague, when a simple lack of numbers saw males assume all manner of roles normally reserved for the stronger sex. Other city states, like Seven Trees, have gone even further, given the far greater ravages of plague there. Great Nest, originator of the cure, has combined cultural dominance with a greater social rigidity than many of

its peers.

The improved mining architecture has been completed, Fabian drums out distractedly. You are aware that I myself may be killed any day?

Portia freezes. Who would dare so tempt my disapproval?

I don’t know, but it may happen. If the meanest female is killed, that is a matter for investigation and punishment, just as if someone were to damage the common ground of the city or to speak out against the temple. If I am killed, then the only crime the perpetrator commits is to displease you.

And I would be displeased greatly, and that is why it will not happen. You need not fear, Portia explains patiently, thinking: Males can be so highly strung!

But Fabian seems oddly calm. I know it will not happen, so long as I retain your favour. But I am concerned that it can happen, that such things are permitted. Do you know how many males are killed every month in Great Nest?

They die like animals down in the lower reaches, Portia tells him. They are of no use to anyone save as mates, and not even as mates of any substance most of the time. That is not something you need to concern yourself with.

And yet I do. Fabian has more he wants to communicate, she can tell, but he stills his feet.

You are worried that you may lose my favour? Keep working as you are, and there is nothing in Great Nest you will not have, Portia assures the fragile male. No comfort and no delicacy shall be denied you. You know this.

He starts to phrase a response—she sees the emerging concepts strangled, stillborn, as he overrides the trembling of his palps. For a moment she thinks he will enumerate the things he cannot have, no matter how favoured, or that he will raise the point (again!) that all he can have, he can attain only through her or some other dominant female. She feels frustrated with him: what does he want exactly? Does he not realize how fortunate he is compared to so many of his

brothers?

If only he was not so useful … but it is more than that. Fabian is a curiously appealing little creature, even aside from his concrete achievements. That combination of Understandings, impudence and vulnerability makes him a knot that she cannot stop pondering. She must some day tease him out straight or cut him through.

After that unsatisfactory confrontation with Fabian, she returns to her official duties. As a senior priestess, she has been asked to examine a heretic.

From radio communications with other temples, she is aware that other nests display varying tolerances for outspoken heresy, depending on the strength of the local priesthood. There are even those nests—some worryingly close—where the Temple is a shadow of its former strength, so that the city’s governance depends on a collusion of heretics, lapsed priests and maverick scholars. Great Nest itself remains a cornerstone of orthodoxy, and Portia is aware that even now there are plans to exert some measure of forceful persuasion on its recusant neighbours. This is a new thing, but God’s message can be interpreted as supporting it. The Messenger grows frustrated when Her words are ignored.

Within Great Nest itself, the seed of heresy has recently taken root within the very scientists the temple relies on. The mutterings of artisan females who have lost Temple favour, or vagrant males fearful for their worthless lives, are easy to ignore. When Great Nest’s great minds start to question the dictates of Temple, important magnates such as Portia must become involved.

Bianca is one such: a scientist, a member of Portia’s peer group, a former ally. She has probably entertained heretical views for a long time. Implicated by another wayward scholar, an unannounced search of Bianca’s laboratories demonstrated how her personal studies had veered on to astronomy, a science particularly prone to breeding heretics.

Portia’s kind are hard to imprison, but Bianca is currently

confined to a chamber within the tunnels of a specialist ant colony bred for this purpose. There is no lock or key but, without adopting a certain scent, changed daily, she would be torn apart by the insects if she tried to leave.

The ant gatekeepers of the colony receive the correct code-pheromone from Portia, and douse her with today’s pass-scent. She has a certain period of time in which to conduct her business, after which she will become as much a prisoner as Bianca.

She feels a stab of guilt over what she is about. Bianca should have been sentenced by now, but Portia is steeped in memories of her sister’s company and assistance. To lose Bianca would be to lose a part of her own world. Portia has abused her authority just to gain this chance to redeem the heretic.

Bianca is a large spider, her palps and forelegs dyed in abstract patterns of blue and ultraviolet. The pigments are rare, slow and expensive to fashion, so to sport them displays the considerable influence—an intangible but unarguable currency

—that Bianca until recently could muster.

Hail, sister. Bianca’s stance and precise footwork give the message a barbed emphasis. Here to bid me farewell?

Portia, already ground down by the vicissitudes of the day so far, hunches low, foregoing all the usual physical posturing and bluster. Don’t drive me away. You have few allies in Great Nest now.

Only you?

Only me. Portia studies Bianca’s body language, seeing the larger female change stance slightly, reconsidering.

I have no names to reveal, no others to betray to you, the accused warns the inquisitor. My beliefs are my own. I do not need a brood around me to tell me how right I am.

Leaving aside the fact that many of Bianca’s accomplices have already been seized and sentenced under the Temple’s authority, Portia has already decided to abandon that line of

enquiry. There remains only one thing at stake. I am here to save you. Only you, sister.

Bianca’s palps move slightly, an unconscious expression of interest, but she says nothing.

I do not wish a home that I cannot share with you, Portia tells her, her steps and gestures careful, weighty with consideration. If you are gone, there will be a hole torn in my world, so that all else falls out of shape. If you recant, I will go to my fellows at Temple, and they will listen to me. You will fall from favour, but you will remain free.

Recant? Bianca echoes.

If you explain to Temple that you were mistaken or misled, then I can spare you. I shall have you for my own, to work alongside me.

But I am not mistaken. Bianca’s movements were categorical and firm.

You must be.

If you turn lenses on the night sky, lenses of the strength and purity that we can now produce, you will see it too, Bianca explains calmly.

That is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by those outside Temple, Portia reprimands her.

So say those inside Temple. But I have looked; I have seen the face of the Messenger, and measured and studied it as it passes above. I have set out my plates and analysed the light that it seems to shed. Light reflected from the sun only. And the mystery is that there is no mystery. I can tell you the size and speed of the Messenger. I can even guess at what it is constructed from. The Messenger is a rock of metal, no more.

They will exile you, Portia tells her. You know what that means? For females do not kill other females any more, and the harshest sentence of Great Nest is to deny the accused that metropolis’s wonders. Such felons receive a chemical branding that marks them out for death if they approach any of

the city’s ant colonies—and many other colonies beyond, as the mark does not discriminate. To be exiled all too often means a return to solitary barbarism in the depths of the wilds, forever retreating before civilization’s steady spread.

I have taken on many Understandings in my life, Bianca clearly might as well not have heard. I have listened to another Messenger’s incomprehensible signals in the night. The thing you call God is not even alone in the sky. It is a thing of metal that demands we make more things of metal—and I have seen it, how small it is.

Portia skitters nervously, if only because, in her lowest hours, she herself has played host to similar thoughts. Bianca, you cannot turn away from Temple. Our people have followed the words of the Messenger since our earliest days—from long before we could understand Her purpose. Even if you have your personal doubts, you cannot deny that the traditions that have built Great Nest have allowed us to survive many threats. They have made us what we are.

Bianca seems sad. And now they prevent us from being all that we could be, she suggests. And that is at the heart of me. If I were to cut myself away from it, there would be nothing left of me. I do not just feel Temple is mistaken, I believe that Temple has become a burden. And you know that I am not alone. You will have spoken with the temples in other cities— even those cities that Great Nest is hostile to. You know that others feel as I do.

And they will be punished, in turn, Portia tells her. As will you.

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