Chapter no 47

Children of Time

Far beyond the physical tendrils with which they have ringed their planet, the spiders have extended a wider web. Biotechnological receptors in the cold of space hear radio messages, await the return of soundless calls into the void, and reach out for disturbances in gravity and the electromagnetic spectrum—the tremors on the strands that will let them know when a guest has arrived in their parlour.

They have been preparing for this day for many generations. The entire planet has, ever since they finally bridged that gap with God, fingertip to leg-tip. Their entire civilization has come together with a purpose, and that purpose is survival.

The Messenger had forever been trying to prepare them, to mould them into Her image and give them the weapons She thought they needed, in order to fight back. Only when She stopped treating them like children—like monkeys—was She able to do what perhaps She should have done from the start: communicate the problem to them; let them find a solution that was within the reach of their minds and their technology.

One advantage of God ceasing to move in mysterious ways is that the entire planet has found a hitherto unknown unity. Little focuses the collective mind more decisively than the threat of utter extinction. The Messenger was unstinting in Her assurances that the spiders would have nothing else to look forward to if the Gilgamesh was allowed to return unopposed. She had racked her piecemeal recollection of her species’ history and found only a hierarchy of destruction: of her species devastating the fauna of planet Earth, and then turning on its own sibling offshoots, and then at last, when no other suitable adversaries remained, tearing at itself. Mankind

brooks no competitors, She has explained to them—not even its own reflection.

For generations, then, a political unity of the spider cities has worked towards creating this vast orbital presence, using all the tools available. The spiders have entered the space age with desperate vigour.

And Bianca looks up at the darkening sky, at the unseen filigree of Great Star Nest, the orbital city, and knows that she would rather this had not come about in her lifetime.

The enemy is coming.

She has never seen this enemy, but she knows what it looks like. She has sought out ancient Understandings, preserved across the centuries, that reach back to a time when her kind faced extinction at the jaws of a much more comprehensible foe. For, during their conquest of the ant super-colony, Bianca’s species encountered what she now knows as humanity. There were giants in the world, back in those days.

She now sees, through the long-gone eyes of a distant ancestor, the captive monster that had fallen from the sky—not from the Messenger, as had been believed, but from this approaching menace. Little did they know it was a herald of the end.

It seems so hard to believe that such a huge, ponderous thing could have been sentient, but apparently it was. More than sentient. Things like that—just as the Messenger had once been a thing like that—are the ur-race, the ancient astronauts responsible for all life that has evolved on Bianca’s world. And now they are returning to undo that mistake.

Bianca’s musings have taken her out of the vast reach of the Seven Trees conurbation and on to the closest anchor point, travelling swiftly by wire in a capsule powered by artificial, photosynthetic, self-sufficient muscle. Now she disembarks, feeling the great open space around her. Most of her world’s tropical and temperate land area is still forested, either for agricultural purposes, as wild reserves, or serving as

the scaffolding that her species use to build their cities. The areas around the elevator anchor points are all kept clear, though, and she sees a great tent of silken walls a hundred feet high, culminating in a single point that stretches ever away into the high distance, beyond the ability of her eyes to follow it. She knows where it goes, though: heading up, up out of the planet’s atmosphere, then up further and further, as a slender thread that reaches halfway to the arc of the moon. The equator is studded with them.

That long-ago balloonist was right: there was an easier way to claw one’s way up and out of the planet’s gravity well and into orbit, and all it took was spinning a strong enough thread.

Bianca meets with her assistants, a subdued band of five females and two males, and they hurry inside to another capsule, this one moving by little more than simple mechanical principles utilized on a grand scale. Unimaginably far away is a comparable weight even now descending inwards towards the planet’s surface. By exercise of the sort of mathematics that Bianca’s species has been fluent in for centuries, Bianca’s own car begins its long, long ascent.

She is the general, the tactician. She is going to take her place amidst the bustling community known as Great Star Nest to mastermind the defence of her planet against the alien invaders: the Star Gods. She has ultimate responsibility for the survival of her species. A great many better minds than hers have formulated the plan that she will attempt to carry out, but it will be her own decisions that will make the difference between success and failure.

The journey up is a long one and Bianca has plenty of time to reflect. The enemy they face is the child of a technology she cannot conceive of, advanced beyond the dreams of her own kind’s greatest scientists, using a technology of metal and fire and lighting, all fit tools for vengeful deities. At her disposal is fragile silk, biochemistry and symbiosis, and the valour of all those who will put their lives at her disposal.

Fretting, she spins and destroys, spins and destroys, as she

and her fellows are hauled towards the open darkness of space, and the gleaming grid of her people’s greatest architectural triumph.

Already in orbit on the globe-spanning three-dimensional sculpture they think of as Great Star Nest, Portia is steeling herself for a fight.

The great equatorial web is studded with habitats that trail out from one another, interconnect, are spun up or taken down. It has become a way of life for the spiders, and one they have taken to remarkably quickly. They are a species that is well made for a life of constant free-fall around a planet. They are born to climb and to orient themselves in three dimensions. Their rear legs give them a powerful capacity to jump to places that their keen eyes and minds can target precisely, and if they get it wrong, they always have a safety line. In a curious way, as Portia and many others have considered, they were born to live out in space.

The old cumbersome spacesuits, which once took those pioneering balloonists to the outer reaches of the atmosphere, are things of the past now. Portia and her squad traverse the lattice-strung vacuum quickly and efficiently, setting out on manoeuvres to ready themselves for the coming conflict. They carry most of their suit about their abdomens: book-lungs fed by an air supply that is chemically generated as needed, rather than stored in tanks. With their training and their technology and their relatively undemanding metabolisms, they can stay out in raw space for days. A chemical heating pack is secured beneath their bodies, along with a compact radio. A lensed mask protects their eyes and mouths. At the tip of each abdomen their spinnerets connect to a little silk factory spinning chemical silk that forms strands—formidably strong strands—in the airless void. Lastly, they have packs of propellant with adjustable nozzles, to guide their silent flight in the void.

Their exoskeletons have been coated in a transparent film, a single molecule thick, which prevents any decompression or moisture loss without diminishing much in the way of feeling.

The tips of their legs are sheathed in insulating articulated sleeves to guard them from heat loss. They are the complete astronaut-soldiers.

As they cross from line to line, judging each leap effortlessly, they are swift and agile and utterly focused.

The enemy is coming at last, just as the Messenger foretold. The concept of holy war is alien to them, but this looming conflict has all the hallmarks. There is an ancient enemy that they know will negate their very existence if they cannot defend themselves. There are weapons that, try as they might, they cannot even conceive of. The Messenger did Her best to set out for them the technical and martial capabilities of the human race. The overwhelming impression received was of a terrifying and godlike arsenal, and Portia is under no illusions. The best defence her people have is that the invaders want their planet to live on—the worst excesses of Earth technology cannot be deployed without rendering the prize that both sides fight for worthless.

But there are still a great many unpredictable weapons the

Gilgamesh could conceivably possess.

The spiders have done what they could in the generations allowed to them, having considered the threat and prepared what is to them the best technological and philosophical response.

There is an army: Portia is one of hundreds who will serve on the front line, one of tens of thousands whose turn will likely come to fight. They will die, many of them, or at least that is what they expect. The stakes are so high, though: individual lives are ever the chaff of war, but if there was ever a just cause, it is this. The survival of an entire species, of a whole planet’s evolutionary history, is now at stake.

She has heard that Bianca is on her way up. Everyone is glad, of course, that the commander of their global defence will be up here alongside them, but the simple fact that their leader is on her way brings it home to all of them. The time is finally here. The battle for tomorrow is beginning. If they lose,

then there will be no future for them and, with that severed tomorrow, all their yesterdays will be undone as well. The universe will turn, but it will be as though they had never existed.

Portia knows that the great minds of her species have considered many diverse weapons and plans. She must take it on faith that the strategy she has now been given is the best: the most achievable and the most acceptable.

She and her squad gather, watching other bands of soldiers surge and spring across distant sections of the webbing. Her eyes stray to the high heavens. There is a new star up above, now, and it foretells a time of terrible cataclysm and destruction simply by its appearance. There is no superstitious astrology in such predictions. The end times are truly here, the moment when one great cycle of history grinds inexorably into the next.

The humans are coming.

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