Chapter no 37

Children of Time

The spider city states operate a variety of mining concerns, but they themselves do not dig. They have insects for that: one of the tasks that comes more naturally to the ant colonies they use in so many different ways. For centuries there has been enough for all, since spider technology is not metal-heavy, and the organic chemicals more important to them are fabricated from the common building blocks of life itself.

This is where it starts.

An ant from a colony run by Seven Trees is now making its way deeper into a set of galleries at some distance from the city itself. Its colony extends all around it—the mine workings are its home, and its siblings’ excavations just a modified form of the same tunnelling they would use to expand their nest. True, much of the colony extends into solid rock, and the ants use modern techniques to conquer that element. Their mandibles are fitted with metal picks, assisted by a selection of acids and other substances to weaken the stone. The colony plans its own mine, including drainage and ventilation to make the place a conducive workplace for the hundreds of blind miners who toil there.

This particular ant is exploring for new seams of copper within the rock. The metal ore leaves traces that its sensitive antennae can detect, and it gnaws and works patiently where a trace is strongest, digging inch by inch towards the next deposit.

This time, instead, it suddenly breaks through into another tunnel.

There is a moment of baffled indecision as the digger teeters on the brink, trying to process this new and unexpected

information. After that, scent and touch have built up a sufficient picture of its surroundings. The message is clear: other ants have been here recently, ants belonging to an unknown colony. Barring other conditioning, unknown colonies are enemies by default. The ant spreads the alarm immediately, and then goes forth to investigate. Soon enough it encounters the miners of the other colony and, outnumbered, is swiftly killed. No matter: its siblings are right behind it, summoned by its alert. A cramped, vicious fight takes place, with no quarter given by either side. Neither colony has received instructions from its spider masters to cross this particular line in the sand, but nature will take its course.

The second colony, that had literally undermined the Seven Trees workings, has been sent out by Great Nest to seek for new sources of copper. Shortly thereafter, centuries of diplomacy begin to break down.

Since contact with the Messenger was first established, metals consumption has increased exponentially in an attempt to keep up with the complex blueprints that form the Divine Plan. Those cities like Great Nest that are most fervent in pursuing God’s design must push outwards constantly. Supply cannot keep up with demand unless new mines are opened—or appropriated.

Consequently, more mining works are being contested between rival colonies. Elsewhere, caravans of mineral wealth fail to reach their proper destination. In a few cases entire mining colonies are uprooted, driven away or suborned. Those who lose out are all relatively small cities, and none of them strong adherents of the message. A storm of diplomacy follows, amidst considerable uncertainty as to what has actually happened. Open conflict between spider cities is almost unknown, since every city is bound to its neighbours by hundreds of ties. There are struggles for dominance but thus far in their history, the point has always been that there must be something to be dominant over. Perhaps it is due to the nanovirus still working towards unity between those that bear its particular mark of Cain. Perhaps it is simply that the

descendants of Portia labiata have developed a worldview in which open brute conflict is best avoided.

All this will change.

Eventually, when the truth becomes sufficiently evident to all parties, the transmitters of Great Nest issue an ultimatum to its weaker neighbours. It denounces them as straying from the purity of the message, and claims for itself the right to take whatever steps it must, to put into effect the will of God. Transmissions from the Messenger, though always obscure and open to interpretation, are taken to endorse Great Nest’s proclamation. Slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly, this outright division spreads from local differences into a global fragmentation of ideology. Some faithful cities have thrown in their lot with Great Nest’s vision, whilst others— distant others—have set up rival claims based on different interpretations of the Messenger’s commands. Certain cities that had already begun to turn away from the message have pledged support to those cities that Great Nest has threatened, but those cities themselves are not united in their response. Other cities have declared independence and neutrality, some even severing all contact with the outside world. Sister conflicts have sparked up between states which perhaps have always rubbed along with a little too much friction, always jostling for leg room, for food, for living space.

At the disputed mining sites, many of which have changed hands several times by this point, Great Nest sends in dedicated troops. Another task that ant colonies will perform without special conditioning is to fight unfamiliar ants, and a mining colony is no match for an invading army column equipped with special castes and technologies. In two months of hard warfare, not a spider has died, but their insect servants have been slaughtered in their thousands.

Great Nest can draw upon a vastly larger and more coordinated army than its opponents and one that is better designed and bred for war, but those first months are still inconclusive. When Portia and her fellows gather together to review their progress, they are faced with an unwanted


We had thought to find matters settled, Portia considers, listening to her peers weave together their next moves: a sequence of steps that will lead them to … where? When the original actions over the disputed mining sites were agreed, their purpose had seemed very plain. They all knew they were in the right. The Messenger’s will must be done, and they needed copper in great quantities—copper that Seven Trees and the other apostate cities would have little use for, save to trade to Great Nest at a ruinous cost. So: seize the mines; that had been a simple aim in itself, and it has been accomplished relatively quickly and efficiently, all things considered.

And yet it seems that building the future is never so simple. Each thread always leads to another, and there is no easy way to stop spinning. Already Portia’s agents in Seven Trees and the other cities know that Great Nest’s enemies are building and training forces to take back the mines, and perhaps to do even more. Meanwhile, the peer group magnates of her enemies are engaging in similar debates over what is to be done. Every council has its extremists who push for more than mere restitution. Abruptly, to call for moderation is to seem weak.

All around Portia, there are those saying that more must be done to secure Great Nest from its new-minted enemies, and thereby to secure the will of their divine creator. They are performing that oldest of tricks: constructing a path by which to reach a destination, only in this case the destination is permanent security. With each step they take towards it, that security recedes. And, with each step they take, the cost of progressing towards such security grows, and the actions required to move forward become more and more extreme.

Where will it end? Portia wonders, but she cannot bring herself to voice her doubts. An ugly mood has come to the web-walled chamber. Great Nest has its spies in other cities, individuals and whole peer groups who have been bought or who are sympathetic to the dominant city’s ideology. Equally, those other cities will have their agents in Great Nest.

Previously, this interconnectedness of cities has always been a virtue, a way of life. Now it is a cause for suspicion, straining the bonds between peer groups, awakening division and distrust.

Nothing is being decided here, so she heads for Temple. It seems plain to her that guidance is needed.

She transmits as good a report of the situation, and her concerns, as she can, knowing that, while her speech to the Messenger will be private, God’s response will be received by anyone listening on Great Nest’s frequency—which will certainly include some residing in Seven Trees.

The record of the Messenger in dispensing practical advice is not good, as Portia is painfully aware. She knows she cannot expect something so much grander than her to spare much consideration for the lowly affairs of Her creations. God is intent on Her machines that will apparently solve many problems, not least that of the maddeningly imperfect communication between the Messenger and those She has set below Her.

Portia is not expecting a clear response therefore, but the Messenger seems to understand her better than she realized. The intended meaning is not precisely clear, for despite a painstakingly negotiated common language, the Messenger and Her congregation are separated by a gulf of common ground and concepts that is only slowly being filled. However, Portia understands enough.

The Messenger is aware that there are differences of opinion amongst Her creation.

She knows that some, like Portia, work hard to fulfil Her directives.

She knows that others, such as the Temple in Seven Trees, do not, and indeed have lost much of their reverence for the Messenger and Her message.

She instructs Portia now that the very future of her people is dependent on Her will being executed precisely and

promptly. She states that a time of great danger is coming, and only by obeying Her will may this be averted.

She says, in words clear enough for Portia to understand without a trace of uncertainty, that Portia should take any and all steps to reach Her goal, and that there is no higher goal than this.

Portia retreats from the temple, prey to a whirl of mixed emotions. Spider feelings are not human feelings, but there is something in her of shock, also something of elation. Never before has the Messenger spoken so clearly.

Great Nest’s hand has now been forced. Not only has their duty to God been personally reaffirmed, but spies in Seven Trees and the other enemy cities will also have heard God’s latest words, and they will hardly have to wonder hard about what question could have yielded that dogmatic answer.

Life in Seven Trees has not turned out to be as free and effortless as Fabian hoped.

Bianca, at least, has fitted in well enough. Her contacts amongst the astronomical sorority have seen her installed comfortably into a respected peer group, although a powerful peer house in Seven Trees is still considerably smaller and poorer than even a mediocre house in Great Nest. She did offer to find Fabian a favoured position there, and indeed worked quite hard to import him with her—perhaps to quit a debt of gratitude or perhaps because she has seen how useful that dangerous little mind of his can be. He refused.

Life has been difficult for Fabian during the months since, but he has a plan. He has begun to ascend the thread of life, and this time as nobody’s pet or favourite, acting without patronage and without sacrificing his vaunted freedoms. Males in Seven Trees may have more freedom and influence than in Great Nest, but they can still be killed out of hand. They still have no more rights than any momentary usefulness grants them.

Seven Trees also has its gutters, though there is less of an

underclass than Great Nest—just as there is less of everything else—but there are still surplus males and females down on their luck; each prey for another, just fallen corpses to be cleared away by the maintenance ants.

Fabian was nearly killed several times before he was able to take the first steps in establishing himself as a diminutive power within Seven Trees. Hungry females stalked him, delinquent males chased him from their territories, and he grew shrunken from starvation and exposure. At last, though, he was able to make contact with some females who had lost everything, yet had not quite descended into unthinking cannibalism. He managed to catch them on the very cusp of savagery.

They are three haggard sisters, ageing scions of a peer group that is now nothing but a memory in the higher reaches of the city. When Fabian found them they still kept a little tent of a peer house in good repair, at the very base of one of the trees that regrew here after that great and ancient war when the ants burned down the originals. They listened to him speak, taking turns to vanish from his sight purportedly to instruct the house males concerning his meagre entertainment. He knew there were no males, and what hospitality they could muster was mere crumbs: tiny insects and an old, half-mummified mouse that they had been feeding off for days.

I will reverse your fortunes, he told them. But you must do what I say.

He needed them. It was a bitter admission, but any social group must be fronted by females. For now.

What must we do? they had asked him. Any flavour of hope was nectar to them, even that offered by a scruffy foreign male.

Just be yourselves, he had assured them. I will do the rest.

Having attached himself to them, he had gone out with more confidence to begin recruiting.

There were hundreds of abandoned males scratching a

living on the ground level around Seven Trees. They lacked training, education or useful experience, but they all had inherited Understandings of one kind or another. Now Fabian sought them out, interviewed them, adopting those who had abilities he could use.

Acting as merely the servant of one of the old crones he ostensibly worked for, he began to undertake jobs for more powerful peer houses, employing the chemical architecture of the ant colonies. With his unique system, it was not long before word of his prowess began to spread. The peer house of the three old females accumulated favours and barter. Soon they were spinning themselves a new house higher up on the tree, reaching for the same dizzying heights they had once known.

When they tried to take it all away from him, as Fabian had known they would, he had simply stopped working. By then the other males had grown to understand his ambition and they downed tools as well. A new arrangement was reached. The females were free to enjoy the status that Fabian’s work brought them, but his would be the mind that directed the house, and—most importantly—his people were to be sacrosanct. The males of his house must not be touched.

Still, it has been a long, slow road to get anywhere. As a result, Fabian’s unorthodox methods have just begun to bear fruit within the social network of Seven Trees at around the time that the mining skirmishes erupt.

Once the rumours reach him, he is quick to re-establish contact with Bianca. Her position has shifted from independent scientist to political advisor, as the major peer houses of Seven Trees and its neighbours try to come up with a suitable response. Great Nest has almost contemptuously stripped them of all their mines, but nobody is keen to be the first to suggest a straight-out violent response.

When diplomats contact Great Nest to try and negotiate, however, they come up against the new world that Portia has constructed after talking to God. Instead of simply beginning

to exploit its own strength in return for concessions, as is traditional, Great Nest’s position is uncompromising. Demands are made for other resources belonging to Seven Trees and the allied cities: farms, colonies, laboratories. When Seven Trees protests, the speakers for Great Nest label them heretics. The Messenger has spoken. She has chosen Her champions. This is not war: it is a crusade.

Then, and only then, does Seven Trees send out a large force of fighting ants to retake the mines. They are met by a similar force from Great Nest, and a battle ensues that is only a faint echo of the tumult promised for the future. The ants fight with mandibles, with blades, with acids and fire. They fight with chemicals that confuse the enemy, drive them berserk, attack their respiratory surfaces, suborn them and change their allegiance. The force sent from Great Nest readily obliterates the attackers.

A simple radio message is received in Seven Trees—and in all of its allies’ cities—the next day.

Now we will come for you. Surrender yourselves to our Understandings or we will do what we must. The Messenger wills it.

There is chaos then, with the loose-knit, non-hierarchical spider society threatening to tear itself apart, as it has before under intense pressure. Ruling councils rise and fall. Some advocate surrender and appeasement, others outright resistance, others simply suggest flight. None of these carries the majority, instead each fragments and factionalizes in turn. The stakes are higher every day.

Then, one day, with an army from Great Nest already dispatched and on its way, Bianca asks to be allowed to address the great and the good of the city.

She finds herself positioned in the centre of a web with almost forty powerful females crouching at its edges, legs forward attentively to catch her words as the individual strands relay them. They listen intently. Everyone knows that they need a masterstroke now, to save themselves, but nobody can

agree on what it might be.

But Bianca herself has nothing to say. Instead, she tells them, I will bring one to you now who has found a way to combat this threat. You must listen until the end. You must hear what he has to say.

The reaction is instant derision, shock and anger. The powers-that-be of Seven Trees do not have time for such foolishness. There is nothing a male could have to say that they themselves have not already considered a dozen times over.

Bianca presses on. This male is from Great Nest, she explains. It is only through his assistance that I was able to escape from there. He possesses a curious facility with ants. Even in Great Nest his work was highly respected, but I believe he has discovered something secret, something new. Something Great Nest does not yet have.

At last, by such means, she is able to gather their attention, soothe them, persuade them to hear Fabian out.

The male creeps out, to be pinned by their collective gaze. Fabian has given this moment some thought, based on his earlier failure with Portia. He will not ask for too much. He will show, rather than tell. He will woo them, but as a female does, with success, rather than as a male, with flattery.

Give me a force of ants and I shall defeat their army, he declares.

Their response is not as negative as he had expected. They know he is a turncoat from Great Nest, after all. They question him carefully, whilst he gives evasive, cautious answers, in a fencing match of subtle vibration and noncommittal gesture. He hints at having some secret knowledge of the Great Nest ant colonies, but he gives them nothing more. He watches them confer, plucking discreetly the radial strands of the web to send messages around their circle without their conference reaching the centre where he crouches.

How many ants? one asks him at last.

Just a few hundred. He only hopes that this will be sufficient. He is risking everything on this one venture, but the smaller the force he takes with him, the more valuable will seem his victory.

It is a ridiculously small force compared to the army that is encroaching on Seven Trees’ territory, and in the end the females feel that there is little to lose. The only other serious alternative is to surrender and give up all they own to the peer groups of Great Nest.

Fabian heads with all speed back to his own peer house and chooses a score of his most able assistants, all males. They know much of his secret: the new architecture. He and they set at once to the most laborious task, reconditioning the ants he has been gifted with to obey his primary architecture, so that they can be given instructions while on the run.

The next day they leave Seven Trees for, Fabian hopes, the annals of history. He travels with his cadre of apprentices, with his meagre force of insect soldiers—and with Bianca. The leaders of Seven Trees could not countenance a force devoid of any female guidance, and so she is its figurehead, the respectable face of Fabianism.

For her part, Bianca has not been let in on Fabian’s secret, but she remembers their miraculous escape from Great Nest and knows his reputation as a chemical architect. She has yoked her future to his, and now must hope that he is as good as he thinks he is.

The old weapons that allowed their species to fully dominate the ants—and thereby vastly enrich and complicate their society—are no longer viable weapons of war. The deconditioning effect of the Paussid beetle master-scent is something that most ants are now conditioned to resist, both because of inter-spider rivalries, and simply because the Paussid beetles themselves are constantly hacking colony architecture for their own purposes, remaining a persistent ghost in the organic machine. The spiders can only strive to minimize their effects.

Fabian’s plan is more complex, therefore more risky. The first phase is a frontal assault.

The path that the Great Nest column is likely to take has already been densely strewn with a complex maze of deadfalls, spring-traps, webs and fire-traps. No spider would be fooled by them, but ant senses are easier to deceive, especially as they have little ability to sense anything at a distance. The Great Nest force is screened by a large, dispersed cloud of scouts to find and trigger these traps, and it is on to these that Fabian sets his own troops.

The response is immediate, alarm scents drawing more and more of the invaders. Positioned upwind of the skirmish, Fabian releases scent after scent into the air. Each one contains a fresh set of instructions, chemically encoded, allowing his small force to react swiftly, to change tactics and outmanoeuvre the enemy, whilst the Great Nest ants are simply following a basic battle architecture little changed from the insects’ ancient fighting instincts.

Within minutes Fabian’s forces have pulled out with minimal losses, and with prisoners, a handful of scouts cut off, immobilized and carried away.

Fabian and his fellows retreat, and keep retreating until the pursuing scouts from Great Nest break off and follow their own scent trails back to the advancing column. Left in peace, Fabian’s team set up their laboratory and use samples from the captured scouts to brew up a fresh set of instructions for their soldiers.

Their ants are given their initial orders. Their little force splits up, each ant to its own, and heads for the enemy.

What are you doing? Bianca demands. You have thrown away your army. Everyone knows that ants are only effective in force. A lone ant counts for nothing.

We must move, is all Fabian will say. We must be upwind of them. It is an annoying limitation of his technique, but one he will solve in time. He is already working out systems in his

head, using Paussid beetles as carriers of new information, or somehow triggering chemical releases by distant visual cues

… but for now he must work with what he has.

The host of individual ants reach the enemy column, and pass through the far-flung screen of scouts without any alarm being raised. They touch antennae with the invaders, a quick fidget of appendages, and are let through, recognized as friends.

From a viewpoint in the branches, Fabian tensely watches his ants accumulating unnoticed within the Great Nest ranks. Now comes the hardest step for Fabian himself. He has never been responsible for the death of another of his species. He knows that there are those who live lives of deprivation where to fight, kill and even consume another spider is simple survival, but he feels strongly that he is working directly against such deprivation, and that to kill one’s own belongs in the past. The nanovirus in him resists the necessity of what he intends, recognizing the sibling strains in his potential victims.

His plan is delicately balanced, however, and he cannot let anything endanger it.

There are a dozen or so observers from Great Nest moving amidst the thousands-strong column. Surely they will notice the foreign ants amongst their ranks? Although the Great Nest army will already have its rigid architecture in place, there will be a series of pre-set protocols that the spider officers will trigger, no doubt including one to order the attack on Seven Trees itself. It is possible that one of these pre-prepared positions will be some manner of emergency response.

Fabian releases his next set of instructions with some foreboding.

His infiltrators systematically seek out and murder the Great Nest spiders accompanying the army. They attack fearlessly, releasing alarm scents that throw the nearby loyalist ants into a frenzy. It is a calculated, merciless act painstakingly planned out in advance. Watching the result, which leaves knots of ants grappling over loose limbs and scraps of

carapace, Fabian’s people and Bianca are quiet and subdued. Of course it is not the first time that spider has killed spider, or even that male has killed female, but this is different. It represents a gateway to a new war.

From there on, the Great Nest column is doomed. Fabian’s soldiers eat it from the inside out. The invading army has some defences, pre-set conditioning to defend itself against unexpected attack, plus shifting scent codes that change in a prearranged sequence over time. But Fabian’s new architecture allows him to shift swiftly to adapt. The lumbering composite engine that is the Great Nest army has detected that something is going wrong, but it simply cannot adjust quickly enough to understand the threat. A trail of dead ants stretches for kilometres, by the time Fabian is through. His own losses are less than a dozen. His Thermopylae has been not a physical but a mental constriction that the enemy simply could not pass through while he held it against them.

Great Nest is not defeated yet. The column Fabian has destroyed is merely a fraction of the military machine that the Temple there can set in motion. Seven Trees’ victory will be answered by further aggression, no doubt. Fabian returns home and presents himself to the ruling females.

They demand to know his secret. He will not tell them, and he confirms that he and all of his peer group have taken precautions to ensure that their new Understandings cannot be extracted by force from their dead bodies.

One of the females—call her Viola—takes the lead. So what will you do?

Fabian suspects that she has thought further ahead than her sisters, having used his services before the war came. She has some idea how he thinks.

I will defeat Great Nest and its allies, he declares. If necessary I will take an army from Seven Trees all the way to their city, and show them the error of their ways.

The reactions he sees are a fascinating mix: horror that a

male can speak so boldly of such large matters; ambition to see their stronger rival humbled; desperation—because what option do they have?

Viola prompts him to go on: she knows there is more.

I have a condition, he admits. Before that massed and hostile gaze, he outlines for them what he wants, what he wishes them to commit Seven Trees to, in return for its survival. It is the same deal he put before Portia. They are scarcely more inclined towards it, but then Portia was not in their current precarious position.

I want the right to live, he tells them, as firmly as he dares. I want the death of a male to be punishable, just as the death of a female is—even a death after mating. I want the right to build my own peer house, and to speak for it.

A million-year prejudice stares back at him. The ancient cannibal spider, whose old instincts still form the shell within which their culture is nestled, recoils in horror. He sees the conflict within them: tradition against progress, the known past against the unknown future. They have come so far, as a species; they have the intellect to break from the shackles of yesterday. But it will be hard.

He turns slowly on the spot in a series of short, jerky moves, looking from eye to eye to eye. They weigh him up, and they weigh the cost of his demands against the cost of having to acquiesce to Great Nest. They consider what his victory has bought them, and how it has improved their bargaining position. They ponder what Great Nest will exact from them if they surrender—certainly the temple at Seven Trees will be emptied and filled with foreign priestesses, all enforcing their orthodox vision of the Messenger’s will. Control of Seven Trees will be removed from these females here. Their city will become a puppet worked by strings from afar, dancing to the pulse of Great Nest’s radioed instructions.

They confer, they agonize, they threaten each other and scuffle for dominance.

At last they formulate their answer.

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