Chapter no 39

Children of Time

Fabian has come to the gates of Great Nest with an army.

It is not his army, technically. Seven Trees is not so desperate that it would give over this force to the official command of a male. Viola, one of that city’s most powerful females, is the speaker for her home and therefore nominally in control. Fabian himself is there to put into effect her commands. He had expected this arrangement to rankle more than it has.

It helps that Viola is calm, long-sighted and intelligent. She does not try to tell him how to do his job. She gives him the broad sweep of strategy, bringing to the table an understanding of conflict and of spider nature that is far in excess of his own. He attends to the tactics, playing an army of thousands of ants like a maestro with his fluid, adaptable chemical architecture. The two of them work surprisingly well together.

Another reason that he is glad not to have the final authority is that he is similarly denied the final responsibility. To get this far, Seven Trees and its allies have tallied up a butcher’s bill of the enemy that leaves Fabian shaken every time he considers it. Aside from numberless dead ants, several hundred spiders have perished in the fighting, some by design, others by happenstance. Great Nest has done its best to reverse the tide by killing the Seven Trees leaders, hampered in its belief that those leaders must necessarily be female. Fabian has thus been bypassed by assassins on several occasions, whereas Viola has lost two legs and has personally ended the lives of three attempting to kill her. It is a terrible truth they have discovered about themselves—all the participants in this conflict—that they are of a race that does not kill lightly, and yet give them a cause and they will.

And now they are at Great Nest itself, their army facing a host of ants dredged from that larger city’s colonies, most of which are not even conditioned for military service but will fight against enemy ants if they must.

Ahead of them, the vast conurbation that is the spiders’ greatest city seems fragile, like mere tatters of silk that the wind might blow away. For most of his life this was Fabian’s home. There are hundreds of thousands of spiders currently crouching in their peer houses, beneath their canopies, against the tree trunks and branches, waiting to see what will happen next. There has been almost no evacuation, and Fabian has heard that the Temple has done its best to prevent anyone leaving.

Viola has sent a messenger to the peer houses of Great Nest, with a list of demands. The messenger was a male, therefore Fabian does not envy his chances. When he himself complained, Viola stated darkly that if Fabian truly wished all the freedoms of a female for his gender, then his fellow males must take the same risks.

Fabian can only try to imagine the debate going on in Great Nest even now. Portia and her temple priestesses must be urging resistance. Perhaps they believe that the Messenger will save them, even as She once interceded for Her people in the great war with the ants in ancient times. Certainly the Temple radio frequencies must be crammed with prayers for deliverance. If the Messenger has the power to aid Her faithful, then what is She waiting for?

Radio …? And then Fabian is lost briefly in a dream of science, where every ant soldier could be fitted with a radio receiver, and somehow could write its own chemical architecture according to the urgings of signals sent out over that invisible web. A colony of ants that could be orchestrated swift as thought …? He trembles at the thought. What could we not do?

And it nags at him, and nags at him, that he has come across such a thought before. And with a sudden jolt, he

realizes that the great project of the Messenger, which Portia and her fellow zealots have given their all to realize—the indirect cause of this war—could itself be just such a thing. No ants, no chemicals, but that net of copper would carry impulses just as the radio would, just as the individual ants in a colony would. And were there not switches, forks, gates of logic …? It seems to him that such a design would have the virtue of speed, yet surely it could not be as versatile and complex as an ant colony working at full efficiency?

You know Portia. Will she yield? Viola prompts him. They have been waiting for a response for so long that the sun is now going down. Full dark was their deadline, for the ants can fight perfectly well at night.

If she is still in control, she will not. The Seven Trees forces will tear Great Nest open, if they have to, and Fabian is very afraid that within the close, confused confines of a city he may lose control. Scraps of his army may end up cut off from him, unable to be directed, still following their last conditioning. The death toll, amongst those whose only crime is to have made Great Nest their home, will be horrifying. Fabian would almost rather turn back.

Viola has explained things patiently, though. Great Nest’s influence has been cut back to the city’s very boundaries, but it must still concede defeat. There are tens of other temple-dominated cities across the world. They must be taught this lesson.

Fabian has already heard the outcome of other conflicts. Entire cities have been burned—by design or by simple accident, given how voracious fire is and how flammable much of spider construction can be. There have been massacres on both sides. There have been ant armies gone wild, reverting to their old ways, breeding unchecked. The radio brings in daily stories of worsening warfare.

Great Nest stands as the symbol of defiance for the crusaders, though. If Great Nest submits, then perhaps sanity might be salvaged from the chaos.

They will have to kill her themselves, Viola considers.

It is a moment before he understands to whom she is referring: Portia. He himself cannot think of Portia without a stab of guilt. She is the cause of this war, as much as any individual spider is, but Fabian knows bitterly that she has done all she has for what she considers the best of reasons. She has hazarded her entire city because she believes. And he still feels respect for her, and also that curious coiling sense affecting males, that here is a female to dance for and offer his life for. It is a shameful, backwards feeling, but it has been driving the males of his species to engage in the dangerous pursuit of continuing the species for millions of years.

Fabian wishes things could be different, but he can plot no path from where he stands now, to any outcome that would see him reconciled with Portia.

Prepare our vanguard, then. Viola knows that he will already have considered the terrain, the opposing forces and the capabilities of their own troops, and formulated some custom conditioning for the initial assault—to be refined and amended as the war goes on. His revolutionary techniques have won battles against massively superior forces before. Now he will employ them against a defending force that is itself outnumbered and outclassed.

He releases his scents. He has refined the technique. As well as airborne pheromones a host of Paussid beetles are lined up, pressed into service to carry his instructions across the breadth of the army. They are buying their continued survival with their usefulness, their services offered with a spark of awareness of the deal, disturbingly clever insects that they are.

Then there is a bright flash from one of Viola’s spotters, palps signalling a clear message.

A party is on its way out of Great Nest, twenty or more strong. At their head is the male emissary Viola sent in.

Fabian feels a gripping tension leach out of his limbs. Great

Nest wants to talk.

He does not recognize the bulk of the enemy delegation. Certainly none of the females now apparently in control are familiar. There are a handful he does recall, Portia’s cronies from her peer house or from the temple. They are hobbled with silk and herded out by their erstwhile political opponents. They are being given over to the enemy.

The story spills out swiftly. There has been a changing of the guard in Great Nest. There has been fighting within the city, spider against spider, at the highest level. The priesthood has been broken and cast down. Some remain in hiding, sheltered by those who still believe in the sanctity of the message. Some are believed to have fled. The balance are here, as a token of goodwill.

Of Portia, there is no word. Fabian imagines her alone and on the run. She is resourceful enough to survive and now, without the infrastructure of the Great Nest Temple, she is not the threat to the world’s peace she once was. No doubt Viola and the others will hunt her down, or her former fellows in Great Nest will, but he hopes that she survives. He hopes that she escapes to find some quiet living somewhere, and does something good.

Terms are then negotiated, punitive but not impossible. The new clique ruling Great Nest treads a delicate line between defiance and acquiescence; Viola knows the game and plays along. It is only in watching the Seven Trees female throw herself into negotiations that Fabian realizes how much she, too, had wanted to avoid taking that final, unthinkable step.

This is not the end of the war of doctrine, but it is the beginning of the end. The fall and conversion of Great Nest is both the catalyst and a model for the future. Fighting continues in various parts of the world but those who still believe that the Messenger’s message is all-important only lose ground.

This does not mean that nobody is talking to God, of course, but they no longer listen with the same single-minded purpose that Portia and her fellows did. Progress on the

Messenger’s machine loses its original frantic fervour, although it does not grind to a halt. There will always be scientific minds willing to take up the challenge, who continue to speak in guarded, monitored terms to the Messenger and try and reduce the complex, technical language into something fitting spider technology. The irony is that in now taking a layman’s view of the instructions, some progress is being made that the faithful might never have achieved with their more doctrinal approach.

And, quite soon after Great Nest capitulates, Fabian finds himself crouched before the leading females of Seven Trees: a very similar gathering to the one he faced during the war. Viola is dominant, her war-heroine status confirmed, and they all remember the deal they signed in adversity. He has been expecting this moment, when the great and good try to go back on their word.

Has he allies? Perhaps. Bianca is there, one of the lowliest of the great, but great nonetheless, and as much through her connections with him as due to her own scientific achievements.

The female magnates shuffle and settle, murmurs passing around the web. Viola brings them to order neatly.

Of course, Seven Trees and our allies owe a great debt to your discoveries, she allows. Our own chemical architects are already considering all the other aspects of daily life that could be improved by such fine control as you can offer.

I never intended my work to be used as a tool of violence, Fabian confirms calmly. And, yes, the possibilities are near endless.

Perhaps you will share your plans with us?

They all become very still, waiting for his first wrong move.

I have my own peer house, he tells them, reminding them right at the start of one of their major concessions. He feels the dislike and the unease ripple out and then vanish back into

their accomplished composure. I have my peers, who have shared in my Understandings. As you say, there is so much that can be revolutionized. I have already begun.

He remembers Bianca in Great Nest, calling him a dangerous little monster. They all see him that way now. More, they fear him, and perhaps this is the first time females have ever feared a male, in his world. They must wonder whether, if he called, an army would come against them, slaved to his will and his new architecture.

This is not his intention, however, and Fabian suspects that if he makes them too fearful of him, they will kill him and all his followers outright, whatever the loss to posterity. He must make up ground quickly. My peer house will help make our city the greatest the world has ever seen. Whilst it is true that my discovery must eventually spread to the wider world, whoever has first use of it will always remain its mother, and thus need never fear the armies of those who lack it.

Much muted messaging vibrates around the edge of the web. Hard, calculating female gazes study Fabian, a mere morsel before them. He can see that most of them want to put him in his place, to take back what was previously given under duress. Probably they would do it with the best intentions, under the long-ingrained assumption that a male simply could not be allowed responsibility for such weighty matters. Probably there are a dozen separate equivocations ongoing in the minds around him, to justify their now withholding what was promised to him. They will offer him Portia’s deal: Let us feed and value and protect you; what else can you want?

I would prefer that city to be Seven Trees, Fabian taps out, and hunches against the possible response.

A twitch of Viola’s palps prompts him to continue.

I cannot hold you to our bargain, he says simply. I have asked more of you than the Messenger Herself. I have asked you to extend to me and my whole gender the freedoms that you yourselves live and breathe by. It is no small request. It will not be easily made real. Generations from now, there will

still be those for whom these reforms rankle, and places where a matter of gender still determines whether one may be killed out of hand. The concepts themselves are hard to phrase, since gender is integral to so much of their language, so Fabian must tread the long way round to explain his meaning. All I can say is this: that city which extends to me and mine these basic rights will have my service and that of my peers, and will gain all the profit that ensues. If Seven Trees will not, then some other city, more desperate, shall. If you should kill me here, you will find some of my peers already outside the city, carrying my Understanding with them. We will go where we are made welcome. I would like you to make us welcome here.

He leaves them arguing fiercely over his fate. The decision, he hears later, is close, almost as many against as for. Seven Trees nearly has its own schism there and then. Respected matriarchs resort to measuring legs against one another like juvenile brawlers. In the end, solid mercenary interest outweighs outraged traditional propriety—but only just.

Fabian himself does not live to see the world he has helped create. Two years after Great Nest’s surrender, he is found dead in his laboratory, drained to a husk by parties unknown. Many believe that resentful traditionalists from Seven Trees are responsible. Others claim that Temple fanatics from some defeated city had tracked him down. By that time the war is won, though, and the spiders are not normally given to exacting vengeance for its own sake. Their nature tends towards the pragmatic and constructive, even in defeat.

There are some who say that the perpetrator was Portia herself, whose name has since acquired a curious mystique— often spoken of but never seen, her final whereabouts and fate a mystery.

By then, however, Fabian’s new architecture cannot be put back in its box. His extensive peer house, mostly but not uniformly male, has spread well beyond Seven Trees, the Understanding carefully guarded, but its advantages aggressively exported as stock in trade. A technological revolution is sweeping the globe.

Already it has reached those who speak to the Messenger. The application of Fabian’s genius to matters of the divine is still in its infancy, but his wartime revelation—that his new architecture could in some way approximate to what God wishes them to build—is the dream of a number of other enquiring minds.

And out in cold orbit is the fused thing that is Avrana Kern and the Sentry Pod, its computer system and the Eliza mask that it sporadically dons. She is desperate to communicate with her creation. She has taught her monkeys, as she thinks of them, a common language. Originally a stripped-down Imperial C, it has mushroomed into a dense field of unfamiliar concepts, as the monkeys have run away with it. She is aware that, in opening communications with the inhabitants of the green planet, she has broken new ground in the long history of the human race. Having no other humans (in her view) to share it with, she finds the triumph lacking. She is also increasingly aware that the frame of reference of her new people seems very different. Although they share a language, she and they do not seem to have the commonality of concept that she would have expected.

She is increasingly concerned about them. They seem further away from her than she would have anticipated from fellow primates.

She is aware that direct interference from her, in the sense of shoehorning her desires directly into their nascent culture, is entirely against the dictates of the Brin’s mission, which was to gently encourage them, and always let them come to her. There is no time. She has been away for far too long, aware that the Sentry Pod’s power reserves have dwindled during her long sleep, and have subsequently been drained almost to nothing by her showdowns with the Gilgamesh, its drones and its shuttles. The solar cells recharge slowly, but the energy deficit has already taken its toll, starving the auto-repair systems which have slowly accumulated a colossal and continual workload just to keep the pod’s vital systems going.

She is increasingly, miserably aware that she herself is now

better classified as a vital system than anything truly living. There is no line where the machine leaves off and she begins, not any more. Nothing of Avrana Kern is so viable as to be able to stand on its own. Eliza and the upload and the withered walnut that is her biological brain are inseparable.

She has been trying to transmit to the monkeys her plans for an automated workshop, which she could then instruct to start building things down on the planet. She could then transfer herself, datum by datum, down into the gravity well. She could finally meet her arboreal people. Most importantly, she could communicate with them properly. She could look into their eyes and explain herself.

The monkeys have made draggingly slow progress, and time is one of many things that Avrana Kern simply does not have enough of. She cannot understand it, but the technology that seems to have arisen on her planet has gone in a wildly different direction to that of Earth. They do not even seem to have invented the wheel, yet they have radios. They are slow to understand much of the task she has set them. She, in turn, cannot follow much of what they say to her. Their technical language is a closed book.

And that is a shame, because she needs to prepare them.

She needs to warn them.

Her people are in danger.

The Gilgamesh is coming back.

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