Chapter no 53

Children of Time

Like an ant colony, is Portia’s thought. It is not true, though, just something she tells herself to counter the vastly alien surroundings that weigh upon her.

She comes from a city that is a forest, filled with complex many-sided spaces, and yet the architects of her people have cut even that three-dimensional geography down to their own size, compartmentalizing the vast until it is manageable, controllable. Here, the giants have done the same, making chambers that for them are perhaps a little cramped and constricting, but to Portia the exaggerated scale of it all is frightening, a constant reminder of the sheer size and physical power of the godlike beings that created this place, and whose descendants dwell here still.

Worse is the relentless geometry of it. Portia is used to a city of a thousand angles, a chain of walls and floors and ceilings strung at every possible slant, a world of taut silk that can be taken down and put back up, divided and subdivided and endlessly tailored to suit. The giants must live their lives amongst these rigid, unvarying right angles, entombed between these massive, solid walls. Nothing makes any attempt to mimic nature. Instead, everything is held in the iron hand of that dominating alien aesthetic.

Her peer group is through the savaged shuttle-bay doors, the breach sealed up behind them to minimize pressure loss. She has just had a brief window of radio contact with other groups, a hurried catch-up before the giants change their own frequency and obliterate all the others with their invisible storm. There are six separate peer groups within the great ship now, several of them in a section that had no air of its own. Attempts to coordinate are hopeless. Every troop is on its own.

They encounter the first defenders shortly afterwards: perhaps twenty giants arriving with violent intent before the spiders can set up their large-scale weapons. The vibrations of the enemy’s approach serves as forewarning of an almost absurd degree, and Portia’s band—a dozen of them now—are able to set an ambush. A hastily woven spring trap catches the front-running giants in a mess of poorly constructed webbing

—not enough to hold them for long, but enough to drag them to a stop where their fellows will crash into them. They have weapons—not just the lethally swift projectiles of their compatriots outside, but also a kind of focused vibration that runs like mad screaming through every fibre of Portia’s body, shocking all the spiders into motionlessness, and killing one outright.

Then the spiders begin shooting back. The weapons slung beneath their bodies are far slower than bullets, closer to the ancient slingshots Portia’s ancestors used. Their ammunition is three-pronged glass darts, formed to spin in flight. Here, in gravity, their range is relatively short, but the interior of the Gilgamesh does not allow for much long-distance marksmanship anyway. Portia and her peers are, at the very least, extremely good shots, excellent judges of distance and relative motion. Some of the giants wear armour like those outside; most do not.

When the darts draw blood, they snap, tips shearing off and their contents being forced into the curiously elaborate circulatory systems the giants boast, to be hurried about their bodies by their own racing metabolisms. Only a tiny amount is needed for full effect, and the carefully measured concoction works very swiftly, going straight for the brain. Portia watches the giants drop, spasming and going rigid, one by one. The few armoured enemy are dealt with by the more risky approach of direct injection. Portia loses four of her squad and knows that, if the ambush had failed, they might all have died.

Still, their numbers within the ship are growing steadily. Whilst she would rather survive, she has always accepted the reasonable chance that this mission would mean her death.

Her field-chemist is still alive and ready for orders. Portia does not stint. The Messenger said there will be vents to allow circulation of air about the vessel. The precise logistics of keeping the living quarters of an ark ship supplied with breathable air are somewhat beyond Portia’s understanding, but Avrana Kern’s information has been understood to the degree required.

Their hairy bodies sensitive to movement even through their vacuum coating, the spiders quickly track down the faint motion of air from the vents. Out there, Portia knows, there will be armies of giants mustering, no doubt expecting the spiders to come against them. But that is not the plan.

The field-chemist sets up her weapon swiftly, preparing the elegantly crafted mixture to discharge into the air ducts, where it will find its way around the ship.

Move on, Portia orders when she is done. They have plenty more such chemical weapons to put in place. There are a large number of giants on the ship, after all.

When they understood at last what Avrana Kern had been trying to communicate with them; when it became obvious that the path their species travelled would bring them inevitably into collision with a civilization of giant creator-gods, the spiders turned to the past for inspiration, seeking out learning buried since the early days of their history. But, for them, history could be remembered like yesterday. They had never suffered the problem with human records: that so much is lost forever as the grinding wheel of the years groans on. Their distant ancestors, in conjunction with the nanovirus, evolved the ability to pass on learning and experience genetically, direct to their offspring, a vital stepping stone in a species with next to no parental care. So it is that knowledge of far distant times is preserved in great detail, initially passed from parents to their brood, and later distilled and available for any spider to incorporate into mind and genes.

Globally, the spiders have assembled a vast library of experience to draw upon, a facility that has contributed to their

swift rise from obscurity to orbit.

Hidden in this arachnid Alexandria are remarkable secrets. For example: generations ago, during the great war with the ants, there were giants that walked briefly upon the green world, crew from the self-same ark ship that Portia has now invaded.

One of those giants was captured and held for many long years. The Understandings of the time did not include the belief that it was sentient, and scientists now twitch and skitter in frustration at what might have been learned had their forebears only tried a little harder to communicate.

However, that is not to say that nothing was learned at all from the captive giant. During its lifetime, and especially after its eventual death, the scholars of the time did their best to examine the creature’s biochemistry and metabolism, comparing it to the small mammals they shared their world with. In their library of first-hand knowledge, the spiders uncovered a great deal of how human biochemistry works.

Armed with that knowledge, and a supply of mice and similar animals as test subjects—not ideal but the best they had—the spiders developed their great last-ditch weapon against the invaders. There was much argument between the chosen representatives of cities and great peer groups, and between them all and Avrana Kern as well. Other solutions and possibilities were pared away until the spiders’ nature and the extremity of the situation left only this one. Even now, Portia and the other assault squads are the first to find out that their solution works, at least for now.

The Gilgamesh’s sensors barely register the concoction as it passes into the ship’s circulation, creeping about the rotating crew section one chamber at a time. There are no overt toxins, no immediately harmful chemicals. Some readouts across the ship begin to record a slight change in the composition of the air, but by then the insidious weapon is already wreaking havoc.

The giant warriors Portia has just defeated have been

injected with a concentrated form of the drug. Portia now examines them curiously. She sees their strange, weirdly mobile eyes twitch and jerk, dragged up and about and around by the sight of invisible terrors, as the substance attacks their brains. Everything is going according to plan.

She wants to stay and bind them, but they do not have the time, and she does not know if mere silk could restrain such gigantic monsters. She must hope that the initial incapacity— seen in the mammal test subjects as well—has the intended permanent consequences. It would be inconvenient if the giants somehow recovered.

Portia’s people move on, swift and determined. The substance is harmless to their own physiology, passing over their book-lungs without effect.

Shortly after, they come to a room filled with giants. These are not armed, and they are in several sizes which Portia surmises to be adult and juveniles of various moultings. They are already succumbing to the invisible gas, staggering drunkenly about, collapsing on suddenly fluid legs, or just lying there, staring at sights that exist only in their own minds. There is a strong organic scent in the air, though Portia does realize that many of her victims have soiled themselves.

They check that there is nobody left to fight them, then they move on. There are plenty more giants to conquer.

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