Chapter no 5

Children of Time

The name she answers to has both a simple and a complex form. The simple form comprises a series of telegraphed gestures, a precise motion of the palps conveying a limited amount of information. The longer form incorporates a backing of stamping and shivering to add a subtle vibrational subtext to that crude flag-waving, varying with mood and tense and whether she speaks to a dominant or submissive female, or to a male.

The nanovirus has been busy, doing what it can with unexpected material. She is the result of generations of directed mutation, her presence mute witness for all those failures who never bred. Call her Portia.

To travel the forest is to travel the high roads, branch to branch, each tree a world in miniature-crossing where the branches touch: now upside down, now right side up, scaling vertical trunks then leaping where the branches give out, trailing a lifeline and trusting to the eye and the mind to calculate distance and angle.

Portia creeps forwards, judging ranges: her branch juts out into the void, and she spends a careful minute considering whether she can make the jump to the next, before deciding that she cannot. Above her the canopy fades out into a network of twigs that can’t possibly bear her weight. Portia is far larger than her tiny ancestress, half a metre from fangs to spinnerets, an arachnophobe’s nightmare. The support of her exoskeleton is aided by internal cartilage once used for little more than muscle attachment. Her muscles are more efficient too, and some of them expand and contract her abdomen, drawing air actively over her book-lungs rather than just passively taking in oxygen. This permits a boosted metabolism, regulated body temperature and a life of swift and sustained action.

Below is the forest floor, no place to be crossed lightly. There are larger predators than Portia abroad and, although she is confident in her ability to out-think them, that would involve lost time and dusk is close.

She scans her surroundings and considers her options. She has the excellent eyesight of the tiny huntress she evolved from. The great dark orbs of her principal eyes are considerably larger than those of any human.

She turns her body to bring her companions into view, trusting to her peripheral eyes to warn her of danger. Bianca, the other female, is still behind at the trunk, watching Portia and willing to trust her judgement. Bianca is larger but Portia leads, because size and strength have not been their species’ most prized assets for a very long time.

The third of her party, the male, is lower than Bianca, his legs spread out for balance as he hangs on the tree, looking downwards. Possibly he thinks he is keeping watch, but Portia feels he is probably just letting his mind wander. Too bad: she needs him. He is smaller than she; he can jump further and trust to more slender branches.

The three of them are out of their territory by fifty days. Theirs is a species given to curiosity. That same ability that allowed their tiny ancestors to create a mental map of their environs has become the ability to imagine, to ask what is beyond the forest. Portia’s people are born explorers.

She raises her palps, white side out, and signals: Come here! No need to give him his name. Females do not refer to males by name. He catches the motion in his lateral eyes and twitches. He is always twitching, afraid of his own shadow- wretched creature. She has distinct opinions on him, and more complimentary ones concerning Bianca. Her world consists of over a hundred individuals-mostly females-with whom she enjoys carefully maintained relationships. The nanovirus has been driving her species hard towards a communal existence. Although her brain is decidedly smaller than a human’s, just as the original Portia could use her miniscule knot of neurons to accomplish remarkable things, this distant daughter has an impressive ability to solve problems: physical, spatial, theoretical, social. Her species has proved fertile ground for the virus’s attentions.

Cautiously the male crosses beneath Bianca and springs up to her branch, safety line trailing in a white thread behind him.

Bridge across, she tells him when he is close enough to communicate with properly. Quick now. The basic content of her speech is visual, in a rapid semaphore of the palps. A wealth of context-mostly her general dissatisfaction with him -is provided in the vibrations of her flurrying feet.

He flashes his humble acquiescence briefly and heads out as far along the branch as he dares, settling and resettling his feet over and over as he considers the jump ahead. Portia flashes her exasperation back to Bianca, but her companion is watching something below. An apparition like a walking carpet is creeping along the forest floor, another spider but a species that the nanovirus has managed to gift with a greater size and little else. As bulky as half a dozen Portias, it would kill her in a moment if only it could catch her.

Bianca is hungry. She indicates the ground-crawler and idly suggests they break their journey now.

Portia considers and finds the suggestion has merit. She waits until the male has made his jump across-easily, despite all his trepidation-and leaves him hauling himself back along his own line to begin the bridgework. Then she flashes a message to Bianca and the two of them begin to descend.

The hairy hunter below is intent on its own hunger-the forest is not short of prey species of varying sizes, many of them abortive results of the nanovirus’s work. There are some surviving vertebrate species-mice, birds, dwarf deer, snakes -but the virus has tried and failed with them. Kern’s experiment called for monkeys, and she ensured that the green planet’s chosen would suffer no competition from close cousins. The vertebrates that the monkeys were intended to interact with were designed to reject the virus. They have changed hardly at all.

Nobody considered the invertebrates, the complex ecosystem of tiny creeping things intended to be nothing more than a scaffolding by which the absent monkeys would ascend.

In so many cases-as with the great tarantula-descendant below that Portia is considering-whilst the virus was able to provoke growth, the sought-for neural complexity never arose. Often the environmental pressure to select for such a facility was simply lacking. A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves. Portia is a rare exception-though not the only exception-where increased cognitive capacity granted an immediate and compelling advantage.

The carpet-like hunter stops, the faintest of vibrations reaching it. The forest floor is strewn with its thread, forming a messy but effective sense organ that alerts it to the movements of its prey. Against a creature as simple as this, Portia and her kin prefer hunting methods that have not changed in thousands of years.

Portia has discerned the pattern of threads below, running through the leaf litter, almost hidden save to eyes as keen as hers. She reaches down with a foreleg and plays them carefully, speaking eloquently the language of touch and motion, creating a phantom prey, and giving it the illusion of size, distance and weight entirely conjured by her skill. She places herself in the primitive mind of the ground-hunter, as surely as if she could actually implant her thoughts there.

It advances a handful of steps, testing out this sensation, not wholly convinced. She wonders if it has had some nearescapes with her kind before. The great shaggy abdomen is up, ready to shake out a cloud of barbed hairs that will choke Portia’s book-lungs and irritate her joints.

She reaches down gingerly again, prying and tugging, suggesting that the illusory prey is getting further away, soon to escape entirely. Her body is mottled and irregular as her ancestors’ were, and the ground-hunter’s simple eyes have not made her out.

It takes the bait suddenly, in a hairy rush across the forest floor towards nothing, and Bianca drops on its back, fangs first, driving them in where its legs meet its body, and then springing away a few body-lengths to be out of the way of any riposte. The hunter lunges after her, but stumbles even as it does so, abruptly unsteady. Moments later it is twitching and quivering as the venom takes effect, and the two females wait for it to grow motionless-though still alive-before closing in to feed. Bianca in particular remains taut for another leap to escape if need be, her abdomen heaving slightly in and out as she forces air past her book-lungs.

Up above, the male is looking down plaintively and, when Portia checks on him, he signals for permission to feed. She tells him to finish his work first.

A moment later he has dropped down practically on top of her, sending her leaping instinctively backwards, landing clumsily and flipping onto her back before righting herself angrily. Bianca has come within a whisker of killing the male, but he is stamping and signalling frantically: Danger coming! Danger! Spitters!

And he is right: here come her kind’s ancestral foes.

The spitting spiders, the Scytodes, have marched in step with Portia’s kin all the way from their miniscule beginnings. They are somewhere between her and the ground-hunter in size; but size was not the key to dominance even in the ancient days before the virus. Now she sees them creep warily forwards, a whole troop of them: six-no, eight-individuals, spread out but watching, come down off their web to hunt. They hunt in packs, these uplifted Spitters, and Portia has an understanding that they are not beasts, whilst not having achieved whatever she has become. They are the big, shambling killers constantly on the edge of Portia’s world; brutal lurking primitives whose unseen, implicit presence keeps hatchlings from straying too far from the nest.

If the numbers had been equal, then Portia and Bianca would have contested the kill-for they see that the Spitters have been following the path of the same prey. Eight is too many, though, even with the additional tricks the three travellers can utilize. The Scytodes will throw out their sprays of sticky, venomous webbing. Although their eyesight is weak, and Portia and her kind are smart enough to anticipate and agile enough to dodge, the sheer number of nets will make the odds of their escaping poor.

Conversely, the Spitters are well aware of the danger that Portia’s kind poses. The two species have clashed over untold generations, each time with more understanding of the enemy. Now both recognize that the other is something less than kin but something more than prey.

Portia and Bianca make automatic threats, lifting their forelimbs and displaying their fangs. Portia is considering whether her secret new weapon would even the odds. Her mind plays out likely scenarios, with and without the male’s assistance. The enemy numbers seem too great for her to be sure of victory, and her task comes first. In her mind is a metaplan, just the sort of A-to-B route-finding that her distant antecedents performed, save that her goal is not just a spatial location but an intangible victory condition. A fight now with the Spitters would likely leave her in no position to achieve what she has set out to do.

She signals to the other two to fall back, making her gestures large and slow enough that the inferior eyes of the Spitters will read them. Can they understand her? She does not know. She could not even say whether they have some way of communicating amongst themselves that approximates to her own visual and vibrational language. Still, they hold off-no spitting and only a minimal threat display from them, as Portia and her cohorts retreat. Bianca’s feet pluck out a muttering refrain of frustration and annoyance. Being larger than Portia, she is quicker to seek physical confrontation. She is here because that has its uses, but for that same reason she knows to follow Portia’s lead.

They ascend once more, aware now that they must hunt again, and hope that the Scytodes clan will be satisfied with what was left here for them. Sometimes the Spitters follow, if they have the numbers, and then it would be a choice of fast flight or turn and ambush.

By dark, they have brought down an orb-web builder, and the male jumps on an unwary mouse, neither of which makes a hearty meal. Portia’s active lifestyle and altered anatomy mean that she needs considerably more food than her predecessors, pound for pound. If they were to be forced to live by hunting alone, then their journey would take far longer than it should. Amongst her baggage, however, Bianca has a quartet of live aphids. She lets the little creatures out to suck sap, fending the male off in case he forgets that they are not for eating-or not yet. After dusk, when Portia has spun a makeshift tent in the canopy, complete with warning lines in all directions, the aphids produce glutinous honeydew, which the spiders can drink as though it was the nourishing liquidized innards of their prey. The domesticated creatures meekly return to Bianca’s webbing afterwards, understanding only that they are safe with her, not realizing that, in extremis, they themselves will become the meal.

Portia is still hungry-honeydew is subsistence stuff, nourishing without the satisfaction of taking real prey. It is difficult for her to crouch there, knowing that there are aphids -and the male-within reach, but she can look ahead and see that her long-term plan will suffer if those are consumed now. Her lineage has always specialized in looking ahead.

And in looking beyond, too. Now she squats at the entrance to the makeshift tent forming their camp, Bianca and the male nestling beside her for warmth, and looks out through the gaps in the canopy at the lights populating the night sky. Her people know them and see paths and patterns in them and realize that they, too, move. Portia understands that their celestial journeys are predictable enough to use when navigating her own. One, though, is special. One light does not tread a slow and yearlong course over the heavens, but hurries past, a genuine traveller just as she is. Portia looks up now and sees that tiny glint of reflected light passing overhead, a solitary motile speck in the vast dark, and she feels a kinship with it, lending to that orbiting pinpoint as much of an arachnomorphic personality as she can conceive of.

You'll Also Like