Fabian is brought into Portia’s presence after his escorts return him to the peer house. Her reaction on seeing him is a mixture of relief and frustration. He has been missing for most of the day. Now he is brought into a room of angled sides deep within the peer group’s domain, where Portia hangs from the ceiling and frets.
This is not the first time that he has evaded his custodians and gone walkabout, but today he was retrieved from the lower reaches of Great Nest, closest to the ground, a haunt of hungry females who either lack or have left their peer groups; the habitat of the busy multitudes of maintenance colonies whose insect bodies keep the city free from refuse; an abode of the numberless, hopeless, unwanted males.
For someone like Fabian, it is a good place to go to die.
Portia is furious, but there is a genuine streak of fear for his wellbeing that he can read in her jittery body language. You could have been killed!
Fabian himself is very calm. Yes, I could.
Why would you do such a thing? she demands.
Have you ever been there? He is crouching by the room’s entrance, his round eyes staring up at her, still as stones when he is not actually speaking. With her elevated stance that would let her leap on him and pin him in an instant, there is a curious tension between them: hunter and prey; female and male.
The ground down there is a tattered mess of broken silk, he tells her; of hastily built shacks where dozens of males sleep each night. They live like animals, day to day. They prey on the
ants and are preyed on in turn. The ground is littered with the drained husks where the females have made meals of them.
Portia’s words thrum towards him through the boundaries of the room. All the more reason to be grateful for what you have, and not risk yourself. Her palps flash white anger.
I could have been killed, he echoes, matching her stance, and therefore her intonation, perfectly. I could have lived my entire life there, and died without memory or achievement. What separates me from them?
You are of value, Portia insists. You are a male of exceptional ability, one to be celebrated, to be protected and encouraged to prosper. What have you ever been denied that you have asked for?
Only one thing. He walks forwards a few careful steps, as though he is feeling out the strands of a web that only he can see. His palps move lazily. His progress is almost a dance, something of the courtship but laced with bitterness. Theirs is a voiceless language of many subtle shades. They are like us, and you know it. You cannot know what they might have achieved if they had been allowed to live and to prosper.
For a moment she does not even know what he means, but she sees his mind is still focused on that detritus of doomed males whose lives will take them no further than the foot of the trees.
They are of no value or worth.
But you cannot know that. There could be a dozen geniuses dying every day, who have never had an opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude. They think, as we do. They plan and hope and fear. Merely see them and that connection would strum between you. They are my brothers. No less so, they are yours.
Portia disagrees vehemently. If they were of any quality or calibre, then they would ascend by their own virtues.
Not if there was no structure that they could possibly climb. Not if all the structure that exists was designed to
disenfranchise them. Portia, I could have been killed. You yourself said it. I could have been taken by some starving female, and nothing in that would be seen as wrong, save that it might anger you. He has stepped closer, and she feels the predator in her twitch, as if he were some blind insect blundering too close, inviting the strike.
Portia’s rear legs close up, building muscle tension for the spring that she is fighting against. And still you are not grateful that I think enough of you that your life is preserved.
His palps twitch with frustration. You know how many males busy themselves around Great Nest. You know that we fulfil thousands of small roles, and even some few great ones. If we were to leave the city all at once, or if some plague were to rid you of all your males, the nest would collapse. And yet every one of us has nothing more than we are given, and that can be taken away from us just as swiftly. Each one of us lives in constant fear that our usefulness will come to an end and that we will be replaced by some more elegant dancer, some new favourite, or that we will please too much and mate, and then be too slow to escape the throes of your passion.
That is the way things are. Following her argument with Bianca, Portia is finding this polemic too much to deal with. She feels as though her beloved Great Nest is under assault from all sides, and most from those who ought to be her allies.
Things are the way we make them. Abruptly his pose changes, and he is stepping sideways, away from her, loosening that taut bond of predation that was building between them. You asked about my discovery, before. My grand project.
Playing his game, Portia comes down from her roost, one leg at a time, while still keeping that careful distance. Yes? she signals with her palps.
I have devised a new form of chemical architecture. His manner has changed completely from the intensity of a moment before. Now he seems disinterested, cerebral.
To what end? She creeps closer, and he steps away again, not fleeing her but following that unseen web of his own invention.
To any end. To no end. In and of itself, my new architecture carries no instructions, no commands. It sets the ants no tasks or behaviours.
Then what good is it?
He stops, looking up at her again, having lured her this close. It can do anything. A secondary architecture can be distributed to the colony, to work within the primary. And another, and another. A colony could be given a new task instantly, and its members would change with the speed of the scent, as it passes from ant to ant. Different castes could be made receptive to different instructions, allowing the colony to pursue multiple tasks all at once. A single colony could follow sequences of separate tasks without the need for lengthy reconditioning. Once my base architecture is in place, every colony can be reconfigured for every new task, as often as needed. The efficiency of mechanical tasks would increase tenfold. Our ability to undertake calculations would increase at least a hundredfold, perhaps a thousandfold, depending on the economy of the secondary architecture.
Portia has stopped still, stunned. She understands enough of how her kind’s organic technology works to grasp the magnitude of what he is proposing. If it can be done, then Fabian will have surpassed the chief limiting factor that is frustrating the Temple even now, and that is preventing them from giving true reality to the Messenger’s plan. The brake will come off the advancement of their species. You have this Understanding, now?
I do. The primary architecture is actually surprisingly simple. Building complex things out of simple things is the basis of the idea. It’s like building a web. I also have a system for constructing any secondary architecture, fit for any task required. It is like a language, a concise mathematical language. He stalks forwards a few steps, as if teasing her. You
will appreciate it. It is as beautiful as the first Message.
You must pass this Understanding to me immediately. For a moment Portia feels the strong desire to mate with him, to take his genetic material into herself, with its newfound Understanding, to set down immediately the first of the next generation who will rule the world. Perhaps she should instead have him distil his new knowledge so that she can drink it and Understand it herself, rather than leave it to her offspring, but the thought seems intimidating. How will the world look, when he gives her the secret of unlocking the future?
He does not speak. His shuffling feet and trembling palps suggest an odd coyness.
Fabian, you must pass on this Understanding, she repeats. I cannot imagine how you thought risking yourself could be acceptable, if you hold this knowledge.
He has ventured quite close, almost within the span of her forelegs. He is a little more than half her size: weaker, slower, more fragile and yet so valuable!
So unlike the rest of my kind? It is as if he has read her mind. But I am not, or you cannot know if I am or am not. How many Understandings are extinguished every day?
None like yours, she tells him promptly.
You can never know. That is the problem with ignorance. You can never truly know the extent of what you are ignorant about. I will not do it.
She physically recoils. Explain yourself.
It dies with me. I will not distil this Understanding. I will take steps to prevent it being taken by force. For, of course, there were chemical countermeasures for that now as well.
Why would you do such a thing?
Fabian looks direct into her eyes. Unless. Unless? she prompts.
You are the pre-eminent priestess of Great Nest. I think
there is no female more influential than you, Fabian observes, still watching her intently.
You wish to mate …? she begins tentatively, because Portia is finding some difficulty in knowing what he, a pampered male, can really want that he does not already have for the asking.
No. I wish you to go to your peer group, and to Temple, and to the other great matriarchs of Great Nest, and tell them that there will be a new law. Tell them that to kill a male shall be as abhorrent to them as to kill another female. Tell them that my brothers deserve to live.
She freezes because, yes, there have been deranged philosophers in the past who might put up such an idea as an intellectual exercise, and there are those other cities where the males assumed more of the work after the ravages of the plague, and have never quite let go. But that is not Great Nest
—and Great Nest’s way is the true way, the preferred path of the Messenger.
Within her, biology and custom are at war. There is a place in her mind where the nanovirus lurks and it tells her that all her species are kin, are like her in a way that other creatures are not, and yet the weight of society crushes its voice. Males have their place; she knows this.
Don’t be foolish. You cannot equate every ignorant, crawling male with one such as yourself. Of course you are protected and valued for your accomplishments. That is only natural, that merit be rewarded. The great host of males beneath us, though, the surplus, what use are they? What good are they? You are an exceptional male. Something female got into you in the egg, to make you thus. But you cannot expect my sisters to blindly extend such consideration to every male in the city just because of you. What would we do with them?
Put them to work. Find their strengths. Train them. Use them. Apparently Fabian has given this matter some thought.
Use them as what? What use can they be?
You can never know, because you do not try.
She rears up in frustration, sending him scuttling back, momentarily terrified. She would not have struck, but for a moment she wonders if that sudden injection of fear might assist her argument. When he settles himself across the chamber from her, though, he seems even more resolved.
What you ask is unnatural, she tells him sternly, controlling herself.
There is nothing about what we do that is natural. If we prized the natural we would still be hunting Spitters in the wilderness, or falling prey to the jaws of ants, instead of mastering our world. We have made a virtue of the unnatural.
She does not trust herself to answer, so she scurries past him, almost knocking him aside. You will reconsider, she tells him, pausing in the doorway to beat out the rhythms of her anger. You will give up this foolish dream.
Fabian watches her go, eyes glinting with rebellion.
He cannot simply walk out of the peer house. From a genuine concern for his safety, Portia has given instructions that Fabian is not to leave. She does not see it as an imprisonment; it is simply not fitting for any male to wander freely. Valued males who have secured the patronage of powerful females are expected to be at their beck and call, or to labour out of sight for their betters. Other males are preferably out of sight as well as out of mind.
Fabian paces the boundaries of his laboratory chamber, knowing that he must manufacture an exit, but fearful of taking that irreversible step. If he leaves now, after that confrontation with Portia, he will be leaving behind everything he has known. Curiosity is built into the spider genome, but in males it is not encouraged. Fabian is fighting centuries of conditioning.
Finally he conquers his timidity and sends out a chemical signal. Shortly afterwards, the scent is picked up by a handful of ants from the city maintenance colonies, passing nearby on
their endless round of duties. Their entire colony has been reprogrammed by Fabian, his master-architecture already set in place. Nobody has noticed, because the secondary structures that guide the colony about its task are functionally identical to those that were originally bred into the ants generations before
—if a little more elegantly designed. Now, though, the pheromones that Fabian has released instil new behaviours in these individuals, bringing them to the silk side of his chamber, where they cut a neat exit wound for him to depart through. After they are done, he resets them, and they go about their duties with no sign that they were ever subverted. Fabian has been busy these last months in testing his discovery, with the whole of Great Nest as his experimental subject.
He has listened to the news constantly recycled by the peer group. He knows who is causing Portia distress, who has tried to challenge the order of the world—other than himself. He is a male, vulnerable from the moment he slips from the peer house. He knows where he needs to go, but he fears journeying alone. He needs a guardian. He needs a female, in fact, however much he might regret that.
Fabian’s ideal female has three characteristics: she must be intellectually useful, so a commodity in her own right; she must be in a position of weakness that will allow even a male to bargain with her; she must have no interest in mating with him, or otherwise harming him. Regarding the last, he knows he must trust to chance. The first two criteria have already suggested a travelling companion. He knows who has caused Portia to fret most.
Fabian is going to see Bianca.
He pauses halfway down the tree trunk from the peer house, gazing back up at its complex collection of suspended chambers and tents. For a moment he is uncertain—should he not trust the safety of its walls, and give up his ambitions? And what will Portia think, once she finds him gone? She represents all that he intends to overthrow, and yet he likes and respects her, and she has always done her best for him. Everything he has accomplished has been made possible only
by what Portia has given him.
But no, it is that kind of gifting that he must break away from. A life lived entirely at the whim of another is no life at all. He has always been surprised at the large number of other males who see matters differently, revelling in their own cosseted captivity.
Previous excursions outside have given him the opportunity to lay groundwork, and where he has not travelled himself, he has sent his proxies instead. His new chemical architecture allows him to use ants as the delivery agent of his instructions, with colonies programming other colonies. Nobody suspects just how far this has all gone.
He suborned the prison colony relatively recently, paving the way for his insurrection. When he arrives, the ants at the tunnel mouth start forwards, antennae waving, mandibles wide in challenge. He releases a distinct, simple scent, a back door into their societal structures, and they are instantly his. With a rapid cycling of olfactory clues he alters their behaviour in specific, precise ways. The tunnel guards turn and enter their colony, unleashing a cascade of his amended architecture throughout their fellows. Fabian follows them in, as though they are his honour guard.
It takes him time to find Bianca’s chamber amongst all the others held in custody. Great Nest holds no prisoners for long, executing the males and exiling females but, as the Temple tightens its dogmatic grip, the number of those crushed within its grasp only increases. With no way of getting the ants to locate an individual, Fabian is aware of time passing—already he will have been missed, but nobody should guess that here would be his destination.
Part of his mind is already considering that he should have arranged for a tissue sample somehow, with which he could program an ant to track its original. Fabian often thinks about more than one thing at once, just to save time.
Then he stumbles into Bianca’s cell, and for a moment she rears up, frightened and angry, and he thinks she might strike
him down without even hearing what he has to say.
I am here with an offer, he hammers out hurriedly.
Portia sent you? Bianca is suspicious.
Portia and I have taken different paths.
I know you. You are her creature, one of her males.
Fabian gathers his courage. He must say it, so as to make it real. I am not hers. I am my own.
Bianca watches him carefully, as though he is some prey animal behaving in an unexpected way. Is that so?
I am intending to leave Great Nest tonight, he tells her. I will travel to Seven Trees.
Why? But she is interested, inching closer.
He is very aware of her fangs, in this confined space. He does not know Bianca like he knows Portia; he cannot judge her limits and tolerances so well. Because Seven Trees was rebuilt by males. Because they have been forced to accord males a value there.
The flurry of her palps is a gesture of cynicism. Seven Trees is a poor city. The males there would give all the value they are held in to be looked after by a strong Great Nest peer house, just as you have been. Life is hard there, I have heard.
Yes, you have heard, he echoes. And yet I would make the opposite exchange. I would have my own peer house, however poor. I would give away all of Portia’s in exchange for some small territory of my own.
She makes a disgusted gesture. How happy I am that you came here merely to tell me this. I wish you a swift journey.
Perhaps you will accompany me?
You will have to wait until Portia exiles me then, and hope that whatever they taint me with will not see the ants of Seven Trees becoming as hostile to me as those of our home, Bianca taps out bitterly.
You have been in communication with Seven Trees already.
Fabian feels he must come out and say it.
For a moment, Bianca is still. Then a short gesture prompts him to continue.
I went to your chambers after you were exposed as a heretic, after they took you captive. I read some of the knot-books you had made your notes in. They fit with philosophies and ideas that Portia’s agents report are current in Seven Trees. I saw many parts and pieces in your workshop. It occurred to me that one could construct many useful things with them, and not just the telescopes that you were known for. A radio, perhaps?
Bianca regards him stonily. Her words are stepped out stiffly. You are a dangerous little monster.
I am just a male who has been allowed to use his brain.
Will you come with me?
You have some trick to come and go, if you are not here at Portia’s orders, Bianca understands.
I have some tricks, yes. I have some tricks that Seven Trees may be glad of, if we reach there.
Seven Trees, Bianca considers. Seven Trees will be the first city to feel the bite of Great Nest. I know what Portia has been planning, even down here. You may not enjoy your new home long.
Then I will go somewhere else. Anywhere else but here. Fabian skips a little dance at the time-wasting, feeling that eventually someone will come to look for him, or simply to look in on Bianca. Perhaps it will even be Portia. What would she make of these two conspirators together?
Come, then, Bianca confirms. Great Nest has lost its appeal for me now it has shrunk to the confines of this chamber. Show me your trick.
He shows her more than that, for rather than exit upwards into Great Nest he reprograms twenty of the guards into
miners. Bianca’s own insect custodians dig her escape tunnel, and by morning the two of them are well on the way to Seven Trees.