Chapter no 42

Children of Time

Bianca has spoken to the Messenger before, and she has taken on a set of Understandings donated by researchers who have distilled the wide history of contact with the artificial god into an easily analysed format. To Bianca, the results are fascinating, and she is not sure any other before her has come to quite the same conclusions.

The Messenger is plainly a sentient entity orbiting her world at a distance of around three hundred kilometres. The earliest extant Understandings record that, for an unknown period of time, the Messenger was sending a radio signal to the world consisting of a series of mathematical sequences. A relatively short time ago, historically speaking, an answering transmission was sent out by one of Bianca’s forebears, and a strange and unsatisfactory dialogue commenced.

It is the character of this dialogue that Bianca has been obsessing over. She has mulled over the second-hand experiences of those who came before, felt their distant conviction that the curious voice they heard belonged to some manner of intelligence, one that was deeply interested in her kind, intent on communicating, and that had a wider purpose. These conclusions seem unarguable from the facts. Bianca is also aware, from the Understandings she has known, that her ancestors constructed a number of beliefs that are, in retrospect, less verifiable. Many came to believe that the Messenger was responsible for their existence, a belief that their God actively fostered. Furthermore, they believed that the Messenger had their best interests at heart, and that the plan they were following so diligently—and, later, at such cost

—was one that, could they only understand it, was for their express benefit.

Bianca has considered all of that, and finds none of it supported by fact. She is aware that a great many of her species are still invested in Temple, and the belief that the Messenger is in some way looking out for them, even though that belief is only a wishful shadow of the fervour that once existed. She has been relatively tactful about her conclusions, therefore, but she has made it plain that the traditional, antiquated view of the Messenger as something like their own kind writ large—some great spider in the sky—is absurd.

That the Messenger is an entity of great breadth of intellect, she cannot contest. Potentially it is a superior intellect, but that is a harder judgement to make because she can only conclude that it is a very different type of intelligence from her own. There is plainly a vast amount that the Messenger takes for granted which even Bianca, stretch her mind as she might, cannot grasp. Conversely, there is much that has been said to the Messenger that has evidently been misunderstood, or met with blank incomprehension on the part of God. The capabilities of the divine are apparently limited in curious ways. There are concepts that the most ignorant spiderling would intuitively understand that clearly pass the Messenger by.

And this, of course, is with a common language painstakingly hammered out between the two ends of the twitching radio waves. Ergo, as Bianca is not the first to consider, the Messenger is far from all-seeing or all-knowing. It must feel its way; it must work to understand, and all too often it fails.

Where comprehension is most lacking is in basic everyday matters. The Messenger is plainly unaware of most events occurring on the world it orbits. Moreover, descriptive language is usually lost on it. It is able to deal with visual descriptions in relatively basic ways, but any language coloured by the rich sensorium of a spider—the touch, the taste—tends to lose itself in translation. What is received most readily is numbers, calculations, equations: the stuff of arithmetic and physics.

Bianca is familiar with that sort of communication from other sources. Out in the sea is a thriving civilization of crustaceans that her species has been in sporadic contact with for centuries. A basic gestural language has been negotiated over the years, and the submerged stomatopod state has experienced its own dramas and crises, its upheavals, coups and revolutions. Now they have radio, and scientists of their own, albeit their technology is constrained by their environment and their limited ability to manipulate that environment. They are a world apart, though, not just in being aquatic but in their priorities and concepts. The one thing that Bianca can discuss with them readily is mathematics, something for which the stomatopods have a passion.

She has spent many years refining and elevating the complex architecture of the ant colonies in order to create the tools she needs for her cutting-edge experimentation. The most complex systems, such as the self-regulating flight control-colony aboard the Sky Nest, work on highly mathematical principles, and their chemical architecture is able to receive numerical information and act upon it, even to performing intricate calculations played out in ant bodies and the neurons of individual ant brains.

Bianca is living with a recurring thought concerning the theoretical similarity between the Messenger and an ant colony grown sufficiently advanced and complex. Would it feel the same, to communicate with both?

These days, active communication with the Messenger is strictly limited. There are always odd sects: recidivist peer houses who have somehow nurtured and become consumed by a deviant Understanding. As any reply from the Messenger is received wholesale across most of the planet, such closet zealots are quickly uncovered and hunted down the moment it becomes apparent that someone has opened an unauthorized channel to God. Instead, the major cities each have a say in who has access to the Messenger. Some temples, notwithstanding, attempt to find the divine truth behind the bewildering plan that is still broadcast entreatingly from time

to time. Mostly, though, the privilege falls to enquiring scientists, and Bianca has schemed, plotted, flattered and performed favours to buy herself the chance for a free and frank exchange of views.

The Sky Nest is making good progress on its historic mission, rising steadily into the atmosphere. The onboard colony reports on its own radio frequency to Bianca, confirming that all is well, and data from three other distant transmitters triangulate the airship’s position. This is the easy stage of the journey. Barring unforeseen weather, the Sky Nest should reach its effective operational ceiling on schedule.

The Messenger will be clearing the horizon, and Bianca sends a signal to Her, inviting dialogue. She includes a certain amount of the formalities that Temple once used, not because she believes there is any need for them, but because God is better disposed towards those who feign the right humility.

The Messenger is patient enough to outlast generations of Bianca’s kind, and Her thoughts have a momentum that does not take note of developments on the world below—or so runs the theory. Bianca is not so sure. It is certainly a matter of fact that, despite the fall in Temple’s fortunes, the Messenger continues to exhort its congregation to work further on its machine. The demands have become all the more insistent since Bianca’s peers of a generation or so ago essentially ceased to make progress on any literal translation of the Messenger’s desires: neither faith nor ingenuity being able to bridge the gap between divine will and mortal comprehension. Bianca is well aware of the threats and imprecations that have come from on high. The Messenger has preached the coming of a terrible catastrophe. These days, Bianca’s peers believe that this is little more than a crude attempt to motivate them into throwing further resources at an impossible errand.

Again, Bianca is not so sure. She has a gift for seeing problems from unusual angles, and imagining radical possibilities.

The difficulty now, she believes, is not understanding the

Messenger, but getting the Messenger to understand her. She needs to break through what appears to be a deeply ingrained train of thought. Historical example—remembered blurrily through the medium of Understanding—shows that the Messenger was not always so single-minded. Obsession or frustration have made Her so. Or perhaps desperation, Bianca reflects.

She intends to show the Messenger something new.

One of the giants whose shoulders she stands on is a still-living colleague who has bred a colony of seeing ants. Their sight is feeble compared to the spiders’ own, but the individual pinpoints of what the colony perceives can be assembled, by fearful mathematical effort, into a complete picture. Moreover, this picture can be encoded into a signal. The code is simple: a sequence of dark and light dots, spiralling outwards from a central point, that together build up into a wider picture. It is as universal a system as Bianca can conceive of.

She has just such an encoded image that has been received into her working colony. Appropriately, it is a view of the Sky Nest itself, viewed just as it was lifting away from the city.

She tells the Messenger that she intends to transmit a picture. There is no obvious sign that she has been understood

—since God’s needy tirade continues unabated—but Bianca can only hope that some part of the celestial presence understands. She then instructs her colony to transmit, knowing that several hundred of her species’ top scientists will be listening in on any reply.

The Messenger falls silent.

Bianca cannot contain her excitement, and she races frantically around the silken walls of the room. Whilst it’s not the reaction she was hoping for, it is at least a reaction.

Then the Messenger speaks, requesting clarification. The scientific world holds its breath. God has understood, at least, that something new is in the air, and has replied in that odd unemotional style that Bianca recalls from antique

conversations, when She was teaching this common language to Her chosen. This is God at Her most procedural, seeking to understand what has just been received.

Bianca tries, and tries again. The Messenger can grasp that the information transmitted is intended to be a visual image, but decoding it seems insurmountable. In the end Bianca breaks down the task into its simplest elements, bringing the whole operation as close to that universal mathematics as she can, by sending out formulae to describe the spiral that is the blindingly obvious way the image should be read.

Bianca can almost feel the moment when the fulcrum of God’s awareness tilts. A moment later, the response arrives and she learns that God’s language already contains a word for airship.

By this time the Messenger has passed beyond the horizon, but God is insatiable. Show me more is the unmistakable meaning, but Bianca transmits to her peers, cautioning them from further feeding the fire just yet. Privately, she is jealous of her newfound privilege in finally cracking the composure of God. She could continue speaking to God across the far side of the planet, by passing her signal hand-to-hand across other transmitters until it could be sent out towards space once again, but she is willing to wait until God returns to communicate directly with herself, and her peers grudgingly defer to her suddenly elevated eminence.

The Messenger bombards the planet insistently for more information, during which time Bianca comes to a startling conclusion: that the Messenger cannot see what goes on upon the planet right beneath Her. Far from being all-seeing, and despite being readily familiar with the concept of sight, the Messenger is blind. Radio is Her only means of sight.

Bianca has another picture sent to her ant colony, and she transmits it as soon as God returns to the skies above her. It is a simple enough sight, a view of Seven Trees from within, showing the intricate splendour of its scaffolding and the bustling industry of its inhabitants. The developer of the

encoded picture originally used it as a test image in her experiments.

God is silent.

Far distant, the Sky Nest finally reaches the heights it was designed for, and finds equilibrium in the upper reaches of the air, its gasbag now expanded to half a kilometre in length. Bianca absently monitors its progress, knowing that the ship’s crew will be testing their mechanisms and colony conditioning in the thin air, ensuring everything is ready for the most dangerous part of the mission, to be undertaken by Portia. Despite the double-hulled insulation of the cabin, the cold is causing some discomfort. Their species has some ability to regulate its body heat and keep its metabolic rate up, but they still grow sluggish whenever the temperature drops. Viola, in charge of the mission, reports that the work is going more slowly than anticipated, but is proceeding within tolerance.

Bianca is still waiting. The progress of the Sky Nest is now of secondary concern. She has silenced the Messenger. Nobody in all the history of her kind has done the like. The eyes of the world are on her with a judgemental gaze.

So she waits.

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