Chapter no 45

Children of Time

Portia wants to go out along with the rest of the crew, but Viola has forbidden it. She is being saved for her own private ideal. Until then, Portia is to be as cosseted and pampered as a sacrificial king.

This high up, the Sky Nest’s colony needs physical help to keep the airship envelope in shape, and to keep the ship maintained. Even working from within, the cold is getting to the ants. Tiny and unable to regulate their own temperature, they cannot accomplish much outside the core of the ship itself, and so the spiders have donned their special suits and gone out to crawl about the exterior of their floating home, entering and leaving through pressure doors of their own weaving and re-weaving, temporary airlocks appearing and disappearing as needed. They stumble and stutter back in twos and threes, their work done for the moment. Some return bound to their comrades’ backs, overcome by the cold, despite the layers of silk swathing their bodies and the chemical heaters slung beneath their bellies. Portia feels uncomfortable at not being able to assist, for all she understands that she is being saved for another ordeal.

There were a few who had clung to the idea that being closer to the sun would be to feel its unmitigated heat. They have been roundly disabused of this notion. Up here the thin air leaches at their bodies like a sightless vampire. And, despite this, Portia would have joined them, worked knee to knee alongside them and pulled her weight, even as the airship is pulling all of their weights.

The other reason that she wants to work is to take her mind off what is going on down below—or up above, depending on perspective. The sudden silence of the Messenger has affected

them all. Reason dictates that their mission is no more than peripherally connected—in that both events involve the erratic brilliance of Bianca—but, like humans, the spiders are quick to see patterns and make connections, to extract untoward significance from coincidence. There has been a curious anxiety about the crew, for all that those glory days of Temple are long gone. Being this much closer to the essential mystery of the Messenger, and so cut off from all they know, arouses strange thoughts.

At last Viola is confident that the Sky Nest will coast stably in the thin air, and she liaises with radio beacons on the ground. The air currents—that have been mapped out crudely over the last few years—are carrying them closer to the crisis point.

Portia, Fabian, go to your station, she orders.

Portia questions her respectfully, signalling with terse passes of her palps that she feels the mission could be achieved single-handed as easily as it could with two. It is not a lack of faith in Fabian’s abilities that moves her, but a fear for him. Males are so frail, and she feels protective.

Viola indicates that everything will proceed according to the plan, and that plan calls for two of them to enter the smaller craft mounted atop the Sky Nest. The Star Nest, they call it, and it will carry them where no spider has ever been— into regions that have been the province of myth and imagination since their records began. Some small unpiloted vessels have coasted close to that boundary. Now, the scientists believe they have come to an understanding of the conditions at the very edge of the world’s reach, and have planned accordingly. Portia and Fabian will have to wrestle with the truth of their beliefs, and they go as a pair in case one of them should fail.

The Sky Nest is robust, able to survive the hectic and turbulent weather conditions extending all the way down to the surface of their world. It is still a great, almost weightless object: a cloud of silk and wood and hydrogen; a small crew of

spiders and a handful of engines are the heaviest things aboard. Still it is not light enough. When fully inflated, the Star Nest will be a reasonable fraction of the Sky Nest’s size, and carry a much smaller fraction of its weight: a truncated onboard colony to handle life-support, a radio, two crew, the payload.

This is one of the things that Bianca and her peers have discovered, that there is a tapering edge to the sky, that the air diminishes as a traveller grows more distant from their world, thinner and colder and more unreliable until … Well, there remains some disagreement as to whether it actually ends, or whether it simply grows so rarefied that no instrument exists able to detect it. How many molecules of air in a square kilometre of space constitute a continuation of the atmosphere, after all?

Portia makes her way to the robing chamber, to be fitted into her suit. This is not simply an insulating covering, such as the sailors have worn, but a cumbersome and curious outfit that is bulky about the joints, and bloated about the abdomen where the air tanks are housed. At the moment it is depressurized, and hangs flaccid about her, feeling surprisingly heavy, interfering with her movements and making a mumble out of her attempts to speak. On this mission she will be reduced to palp signals and radio.

Fabian joins her, similarly caparisoned. He flicks her an encouraging gesture to keep her spirits up. He has been chosen as her second because they work well together, but also because, small even for a male, he is half her size and less than half her weight. The Star Nest has a long way to haul them; after all, the stars are very far away.

Even the Messenger is far away, passing across the sky far higher than the Star Nest could ever reach. Philosophical quibbles aside, there is no atmosphere there at all. The Messenger is a form of life dwelling in the harshest, most life-negating environment a spider can imagine.

And Portia cannot help wondering: Have we silenced Her

by reaching as high as we are? Are we measuring legs with Her by simply doing so?

The crew cabin of the Star Nest is terribly cramped. The ceiling is swollen with the airship’s systems: its heater, chemical factory, transmitter/receiver and a population of ants of limited capacity, dedicated only to keeping it all running. Portia and Fabian settle themselves as best they can, nestling into the limited give that the walls allow them.

The radio pulses the instructions from Viola, back in the long crew compartment of the Sky Nest, putting Portia through a long series of checks, cross-referenced with the reports of both vessels’ onboard colonies that are, in any event, mother and daughter, which kinship aids in linking communications between the colonies.

Viola signals that the crisis moment is reached: given best estimations of air-current movement, this is when the craft must separate for the Star Nest to obtain the optimum chance of success. Viola’s words, transmitted as electronic pulses that strip the information of all the sender’s character and personality, sound dreadfully efficient.

Portia responds that she and Fabian are ready for separation. Viola starts to say something, then stills the words. Portia knows that she has just reined in some platitude concerning the Messenger’s goodwill. Such sentiments seem inappropriate just at this moment.

Down on the surface, dozens of observatories and radio receivers are awaiting developments, agog.

Star Nest has been clinging to the upper surface of Sky Nest’s gasbag like a benign parasite. Now its crew have effected the climb to it and set themselves in place, it is detached gently by the Sky Nest ants, a host of tiny lines severed, so that all at once the Star Nest’s superior buoyancy tells, and it floats free of the mothership with jellyfish-like grace. Immediately it ascends higher than the more robust vehicle could follow, caught in the upper air currents, holding

—for now—to the models of its movements set out by

scientists who are not having to trust their own lives to the thing.

Portia and Fabian make regular radio reports back to Viola, and the wider world. In between, they mostly amuse themselves. Their ability to communicate is limited to palp-signalling, any greater subtlety being stifled by their close quarters and the cumbersome suits. The cold is infiltrating despite the layers of silk cosseting the crew compartment. They are already breathing stored air, which is a limited resource. Portia is aware that there is a strict timetable by which their mission must be fulfilled.

The chemical light of her instruments tells her of their swift ascent. The radio confirms the Star Nest’s position. Portia feels that curious sensation that is so much of what she is: she is walking where no other has walked. This sense of opportunistic curiosity that has been with her ancestors since they were tiny, thoughtless huntresses, is strong in her. For Portia there is always another horizon, always a new path.

It is around this time that the Messenger breaks radio silence. Portia is not tuned to God’s frequency, but the tumultuous response from the ground tells her what has happened. She herself is not fluent in God’s difficult, counter-intuitive language, but translations come through swiftly, passing across the face of the planet as swift as thought.

God has apologized.

God has explained that She has previously misunderstood some key elements of the situation, but has now gained a clearer understanding of how things are.

God invites questions.

Portia and Fabian, locked in their tiny, ascending bubble, wait anxiously to hear what will be said. They know that Bianca and her fellows on the ground must be feverishly debating what comes next. What question can possibly mark the start of this new phase of communication with the Messenger?

But of course, there is only one vital question. Portia wonders if Bianca will actually canvass anyone else’s opinion in the end, or whether she will simply send off her own demand to God to prevent anyone else doing likewise. It must be a grand temptation to every other spider with access to a transmitter.

What Bianca asks is this:

What does it mean that you are there and we are here? Is there meaning or is it random chance? Because what else does one ask even a broken cybernetic deity but, Why are we here?

From her high vantage point Doctor Avrana Kern readies herself to make full disclosure: here is a question she can answer in more detail than all the spiders in the world could ever want. She, Avrana Kern, is history itself.

She takes the equivalent of a deep breath, but no answers come to mind. She is replete with the assurance that she knows, but such confidence is not backed by the knowledge itself. The archive of data that she thinks of as my memories is unavailable. Error messages leap out when she seeks the answers. It is gone. That trove of what-once-was has gone. She is the only witness to a whole age of mankind, yet she has forgotten. The unused records have been overwritten in her thousands of years of sleep, in her centuries of waking.

She knows she knows, and yet in truth she does not know. All she has is a patchwork of conjecture, and memories of times when she once remembered the things she can no longer recall first-hand. If she is to answer the planet, it will be with those pieces stitched together into a whole cloth. She will be giving them belated creation myths, high on dogma but low on detail.

But they are so desperate to know, and it is the right question. Would she have them ask for technical specifications or serial numbers? No. They must know the truth, as best as she can tell it.

So she tells them.

She asks them what they think those lights in the sky are: those below are astronomers enough to know that they are unthinkably distant fires.

They are like your sun, she says. And around one such was a world much like your own, on which other eyes looked up at those distant lights, and wondered if anything looked back down. She has slipped into the past tense naturally, although her concept of a linear past is a little at odds with the spiders’ own concepts. Earth itself is dead to her.

The creatures that lived on that world were quarrelsome and violent, and most of them strove only to kill and control and oppress each other, and resist anyone who tried to improve the lot of their fellows. But there were a few who saw further. They travelled to other stars and worlds and, when they found a world that was a little like their own, they used their technology to change it until they could live upon it. On some of these worlds they lived, but on others they conducted an experiment. They seeded those worlds with life, and made a catalyst to quicken that life’s growth; they wanted to see what would emerge. They wanted to see if that life would look back at them, and understand.

Something moves within what is left of Avrana Kern, some broken mechanism she has not used for such a long, long time.

But while they were waiting, the destructive and wasteful majority fought with the others, the right-thinkers, and started a great war. She knows now that her audience will understand “war” and “catalyst,” and the bulk of the concepts she is using. And they died. They all died. All the people of Earth save just a few. And so they never did come to see what grew on their new-made worlds.

And she does not say it, but she thinks: And that is you. My children, it is you. You are not what we wanted, not what we planned for, but you are my experiment, and you are a success. And that jagged-edged part moves once again and she knows that some part of her, some locked-away fleshy part, is trying to weep. But not from sorrow; rather from pride, only from


In her tiny, insulated world, Portia listens to what God has to say, and tries to assimilate it—as other spider minds across the world must also be trying to grasp what is being said. Some of it is incomprehensible—just as so much of the Messenger’s message is—but this is clearer than most: God is really trying to be understood, this time.

She asks the next question almost simultaneously with Bianca:

So you are our creator? With all the baggage that comes with it: made why? For what purpose?

And the Messenger responds: You are made of My will, and you are made of the technology of that other world, but all of this has been to speed you on a path you might have taken without me, given time and opportunity. You are Mine, but you also belong to the universe, and your purpose is whatever you choose. Your purpose is to survive and grow and prosper and to seek to understand, just as my people should have taken these things as their purpose, had they not fallen into foolishness, and perished.

And Portia, for all that she was never a temple-goer, feels that she—as she ascends into the sparse reaches of the upper air—is fulfilling that very mandate in pushing the frontiers of understanding.

Their ascent has been rapid; God has been long-winded. They are slowing now, and the colour of the altimeter suggests that even the tenacious Star Nest, which is merely a thin skin around a great mass of hydrogen from which dangles a very little weight, is reaching its ceiling, out where the atmosphere is almost nothing, and therefore there is nothing for the light gas to be lighter than. They are still far, far short of the orbiting Messenger—barely a third of the distance to that distant spark—but this is as far as they themselves can go.

Their payload, however, is intended to go further. Deploying it is the riskiest part of a risky journey, out here

where no spider was ever intended to travel. Portia will be sending into orbit the first ever artificial object originating on her world. The spiders have built a satellite.

It is a double-hulled glass ball containing a radio transmitter/receiver and two colonies: one of ants, one of algae. The algae is a special breed cultivated by the sea-going stomatopods, designed to adjust its metabolism to regulate the proportions of the surrounding environment. It will flourish in the sunlight, expanding into the hollow silk vanes that the satellite will spread, and regulated by the ant colony who will feed on it as well as breathe its oxygen. The satellite is a tiny biosphere, intended to last perhaps a year before falling out of balance in some way. It will act as a radio relay, and the ants can be conditioned from the ground to perform a number of analytical tasks. In respect of its capabilities, it is not revolutionary, but in what it represents it is the dawn of a new era.

It is intended to detach itself from beneath the gondola, where it has been hanging, as the single densest part of the Star Nest expedition. It has chemical rockets to push it that little step further into a stable orbit, the ants already pre-armed with the calculations they will need to adjust its trajectory as it flies. Despite their chemical expertise, the spiders have a limited ability to produce combustion-based rockets, hence the entire Sky Nest/Star Nest project. Kern and her people never considered this, but life on the green planet is young by geological standards—too young to have produced anything in the way of fossil fuels. Biotechnology and mechanical ingenuity have had to take up the slack.

The payload is not detaching.

Portia registers the fact dully. She and Fabian are weathering the conditions only with difficulty. The long cold ascent has taken a great deal out of them both. As a species, they are inefficient endotherms. By now both of them are ravenously hungry, consuming their internal food stores yet still growing sluggish with the cold. Now something has gone wrong, and Portia must leave the crew cabin and go out into

the vanishingly thin air to see if it can be rectified. The danger is increasing every moment: if it is the satellite that has malfunctioned, it may try to fire its rockets without detaching from the Star Nest, which would shrivel away the cabin and then ignite the hydrogen cells. Fabian informs the ground of their situation, breaking into the general babble that the Messenger’s revelations have sparked off. Bianca and her peers, those directly involved in the Star Nest project, quieten down rapidly.

Communication is difficult. Fabian repeats himself over and over as Portia prepares her suit for exit into the hostile near-space around them. The Star Nest’s transmitter is having difficulties reaching as far as the planet’s surface, another piece of technology creaking under the strain.

Portia positions herself where she intends to exit, near the bottom of the crew cabin. She spools out a safety line attached to the cabin interior, then spins a second wall over herself, before sealing her spinnerets inside her suit. Then she cuts her way out of the cabin and into the space between the hulls, next repairs the rip left behind her, and then performs the same procedure again to let herself out into the killing cold of beyond.

Her suit inflates instantly, her internal air supply reacting to the thin atmosphere and expanding, mostly about her abdomen, mouth, eyes and joints: those parts which might suffer from a sudden loss of pressure. Portia has several advantages over a vertebrate right now: her open circulation is less vulnerable to frostbite and to gas bubbles caused by changes of pressure, and her exoskeleton retains fluids more readily than skin. Even so, the inflated suit reduces her movement to a crippled shuffle. Worse, she starts to heat up almost immediately. She has—just—been able to keep her body temperature up, but she has no ready way to bring it down. The heat that she is generating has nowhere to go, being surrounded by so little air. She begins the slow process of boiling within her own skin.

She crawls painfully down to find the satellite, seeing

through her filmy viewport that it is glued to the hull with ice. She has no way of communicating this to anyone, and can only hope that the payload itself is still functioning. Grimly she begins chipping and cutting at the ice with her forelimbs. Still the glass sphere remains anchored to the silk of the Star Nest. Portia is distantly aware that its rockets may trigger at any moment, and will likely burn up the entire Star Nest before melting the ice. Even as this thought fights its way into her broiling mind, she sees the first dull glow, a mixing of chemicals giving rise to sudden heat.

This is her job. This is why they chose her. She is a pioneer, a risk-taker, a spider never satisfied with simply sitting and waiting for the world to come to her. She is a hero, but one more envied than emulated.

She clumsily enfolds the satellite, and succeeds in finally wrenching it away from its icy holdfast. Bunching her rear legs, she takes aim into clear space and puts everything she has into one grand jump.

She feels her suit rip about one of her rear legs, the sudden leap having been more than the stressed silk can take. The chill that now seizes the exposed limb is almost welcome. Then she is springing out and into the thin, thin air, out and arcing downwards towards the patient pull of the planet beneath them. With a spasmodic motion of six limbs she throws the satellite away from her.

Its rockets flare. The extreme edge of their fiery tail singes her as the satellite corkscrews madly away, under and out from the over-reaching canopy of the Star Nest. She has no idea if it will be able to correct its course enough to make the intended orbit.

In her mind arises the surprisingly rational thought: There must be an easier way than this.

Then she is falling, and falling, and although her legs go through the stuttering motions of spinning a parachute, she creates nothing.

Her descent comes to a sudden jolting stop, dangling beneath the Star Nest. Her safety line has caught her, but it doesn’t matter. The air in her suit is depleted, and she is too hot now to move or think. She gives herself up for lost.

Fabian is already at work by this time. He has followed very little of what has gone on, but the sudden pull on Portia’s line alerts him, and he follows it out, self-made airlock by airlock, until—his own suit puffed out and constricting—he can haul her up. With what feels like the last of his strength he is able to roll her inside, and then uses his fangs to tear open both their suits once the cabin is re-sealed.

He lies there on his back, limbs tangled with Portia’s. She is not moving save for a shallow pulsing of her abdomen.

Somehow he reaches the radio transmitter, sending a semi-incoherent report of their situation. He catches a faint confirmation that the satellite has been successfully deployed, but no indication that they have heard him.

He tries again, sends gibberish with shaking palps, and eventually manages: Can you receive me? Can anybody receive me?

Nothing from the ground. He does not even know if the radio is working now. He is desperately hungry, and Portia’s extra-vehicular excursions mean that they have very little air left. He has initiated venting of the hydrogen, as swift as is safe, but there is still a long way to go down. He and Portia do not have either the energy or the oxygen to reach hospitable altitudes.

Then the voice comes: Yes, I receive you.

The Messenger is listening. Fabian feels a religious awe.

He is the first male ever to speak with God.

I understand your position, the Messenger tells him. I cannot help you. I am sorry.

Fabian explains that he has a plan. He spells his scheme out carefully. Can you explain to them all?

That I can do, the Messenger promises, and then, with a sudden access of old memory, When my ancestors reached for space, there were deaths among those pioneers too. It is worth it. The next phrase is alien to Fabian. He will never know what was meant by, I salute you.

He turns to Portia, who has nothing more left to give. She lies on her back, senseless, stripped of everything but her most basic reflexes.

With slow, difficult movements, Fabian begins to court her. He moves his palps before her eyes and touches her, as if he were seeking to mate, triggering slow instinct that has been built over by centuries of civilization but has never quite gone away. There is no food to restore her, save one source. There is not enough air for two, but perhaps sufficient for one.

He sees her fangs unclench and lift, shuddering. For a moment he contemplates them, and considers his regard for this crewmate and companion. She will never forgive him or herself, but perhaps she will live nonetheless.

He gives himself up to her automatic embrace.

Later, Portia returns to consciousness aboard the Sky Nest, feeling gorged, damaged, strangely sensual. She has lost one rear leg entirely, and two sections of another limb, and one of her secondary eyes is out. She lives, though.

When they tell her what Fabian did to secure her survival, she refuses to believe it for a long time. In the end, it is the Messenger Herself who brings her to an acceptance of what happened.

Portia will never fly again, but she will be instrumental in planning further flights: safer and more sophisticated methods of reaching orbit.

For now that the Messenger has found the patience and perspective to properly understand Her children, She can finally communicate Her warning in a way they can understand. At last the spiders appreciate that, even aside from their orbiting God, they are not alone in the universe, and that

this is not a good thing.

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