Chapter no 51

Children of Time

One of Portia’s peers operates a bulky device of silk-bound glass that acts as an eye, containing a colony of tiny ants whose sole function is to create a compound view of the sights before them and relay it back to the orbital web and to the planet. Bianca can then give moment-to-moment orders to best exploit their new position up on the exterior of this vast alien intruder. This is just as well, for Portia would not have the first idea what to make of anything she sees. Every detail is bizarre and disturbing, an aesthetic arising from the dreams of another phylum, a technology of hard metal and elemental forces.

Bianca herself has little better idea what to do with it, but the images are being routed down to the vast colony-complex that is Doctor Avrana Kern, or what is left of her. Kern can make an educated guess at what Portia is seeing, and offers her recommendations, some of which are taken, some of which are discarded. Kern has fallen far from her status as God. She and the leaders of her erstwhile flock have undergone some bitter disagreements about the fate of the human race currently aboard the Gilgamesh. She argued and threatened, and in the end she begged and pleaded, but by then the spiders had their assault planned, and were not to be swayed. In the end Kern was forced to accept the hard decisions of those that had once been her faithful, and were now her hosts.

Now she has identified the hull sensors for Portia and the other bands of orbital defenders. They have been busy crossing the hull to put out the Gilgamesh’s eyes.

Portia has little concept of the living contents of the ark ship at this point. Intellectually, she knows they are there, but her mind is focused on this stage of her duty, and the concept of a vast ship of giants goes further than her imagination will

stretch. Nonetheless, her mental picture of the processes going on within is surprisingly accurate. They will detect us, and they will know that we will try and break in. In her mind, the Gilgamesh is like an ant colony, one of the bad old kind, and any moment the defenders must boil out, or else some weapons will be deployed.

There will be a small number of hatches that lead to the interior, Bianca instructs. Continue to destroy sensors as you travel, to hamper their ability to respond. You are looking for either a large square … With meticulous patience Bianca gives concise descriptions of the various possible means of access to the Gilgamesh’s interior, as dredged from Avrana Kern’s memory of her own encounter with the ark ship: where they launch their shuttles, where there are maintenance hatches, airlocks, drone chutes … Much is conjecture, but at least Kern was once of the same species as the ark ship’s builders. She has a common frame of reference, while Portia cannot even guess at the purpose or function of the profusion of details on the Gilgamesh’s hull.

If the spiders possessed a certain form of determination, then they would be able to enter the ark ship without needing to find a weak point. After all, they have access to chemical explosives that carry their own oxygen and would trigger in a vacuum. Their space-age technology has its limits, though. Tearing the ship open is not a preferred option. If nothing else, Portia and her peers are intending to rely on the ark ship’s air, even though it is short of oxygen compared to their usual needs. The respirators about the spiders’ abdomens have a limited lifespan, and Portia is keenly aware that they would prefer to return home across the void as well. Better to establish a controlled breach, and then seal it off once her spiders are inside.

A curious sensation washes over her, like nothing she has experienced before, setting her tactile sense organs quivering. The nearest equivalent she could name would be that a wind had blown past her, but out here there is no air to move. Her fellows, and other peer groups currently engaged on the

assault, have felt it too. In its wake, radio communications become patchy for a brief while. Portia cannot know that her adversaries inside the ship have improvised an electromagnetic pulse to attack the spiders’ electronics. The two technologies have passed each other in the night, barely touching. Even Portia’s radio is biological. What little the pulse can touch of it is instantly replaced; the technology is mortal, born to die, and so every component has replacements growing behind it like shark’s teeth.

Portia has located a hatch now, a vast square entryway sealed behind heavy metal doors. Immediately she broadcasts her position to nearby teams who begin to converge on her position, ready to follow her in.

She calls forwards her specialist, who begins drawing the outlines of the hole they will make with her acids. The metal will withstand them for a while yet, and Portia steps from foot to foot, anxious and impatient. She does not know what will greet them once they get inside—giant defenders, hostile environments, incomprehensible machines. She has never been one to just sit and wait: she needs to plan or she needs to act. Denied either, she frets.

As the acid begins to work, reacting violently with the hull and producing a frill of vapour that disperses almost immediately, others of the team begin weaving an airtight net of synthetic silk between them, which will close up the breach once the team is inside.

Then radio contact is gone abruptly, swallowed by a vast ocean-wash of white noise. The denizens of the ark ship have struck again. Immediately Portia begins searching for clear frequencies. She knows the giants also use radio to speak, hence it seems likely that they may have held some channels open. In the interim, though, her squad is cut off—as are all of the hull squads. But they know the plan. They already have their instructions on precisely how to deal with the human menace—both the waking crew and the vastly greater number of sleepers that Kern has described. The precise details will now be down to Portia’s discretion.

Uppermost in her mind at this point is that the inhabitants of the Gilgamesh are taking an active hand in their own defence, at last. She has no idea how this might manifest, but she knows what she would do if an attacker were gnawing at the walls of her very home. The Portiid spiders have never been a passive or defensive species. No patient web-lurkers they—they attack or counterattack. They are made to go on the offensive.

Without the radio, close-range communication remains possible, just. Be ready, they will be coming, she taps out on the hull, flashing her palps for emphasis. Those not directly involved in breaching the hull fan out, watching to all sides with many eyes.

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