Chapter no 55

Children of Time

The shuttle seems to take forever to fall from the clear blue sky.

There is quite a crowd gathered here, on a cleared field beyond the edge of the Great Nest district of Seven Trees City. On the ground and in the surrounding trees and silk structures, thousands of spiders are clustered close and waiting. Some are frightened, some are exhilarated, some are less than well informed regarding what precisely is about to happen.

There are several dozen seeing-eye colonies, too, and these capture and send images to chromatopore screens across the green world—to be viewed by millions of spiders, to be pored over by stomatopods beneath the waves, to be gazed at with varying degrees of incomprehension by a number of other species who stand close to the brink of sentience. Even the Spitters—the neo-Scytodes on their wilderness reservations— may see images of this moment.

History is being made. Moreover, history is beginning: a new era.

Doctor Avrana Kern watches, omnipresent, as her children prepare themselves. She is still not convinced, but so many millennia of cynicism will take time to wash away.

We should have destroyed them, is her persistent thought, but then, and despite the dispersed form she currently inhabits, she is only human.

Her surviving files on human neurochemistry, together with the spiders’ own investigations of their long-ago captive, have wrought this. She has not been its prime mover, though. The spiders themselves argued long and hard over how to

respond to the long-awaited invaders, discounting her advice more than following it. They were aware of the stakes. They accepted her assessment of the path the humans would follow, if given free rein over the planet. Genocide—of other species and of their own—was ever a tool in the human kit.

The spiders have been responsible for a few extinctions along the way, too, but their early history with the ants has led them down a different road. They have seen the way of destruction, but they have seen the way the ants made use of the world, too. Everything can be a tool. Everything is useful. They never did wipe out the Spitters, just as they never exterminated the ants themselves, a decision that later would become the basis of their burgeoning technology.

Faced with the arrival of humanity, the creator-species, the giants of legend, the spiders’ thought was not How can we destroy them? but How can we trap them? How can we use them?

What is the barrier between us that makes them want to destroy us?

The spiders have equivalents of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but they think in terms of intricate interconnectivity, of a world not just of sight but of constant vibration and scent. The idea of two prisoners incapable of communication would not be an acceptable status quo for them, but a problem to overcome: the Prisoners’ Dilemma as a Gordian knot, to be cut through rather than be bound by.

They have long known that, within their own bodies and in other species across their planet, there is a message. In ancient times, when they fought the plague, they recognized this as something distinct from their own genetic code, and took it to be the work of the Messenger. In a manner of speaking they were correct. Long ago, they isolated the nanovirus in their systems.

It had not escaped their notice that creatures formed like the giants—mice and similar vertebrates seeded across their world—did not carry the nanovirus, and so lacked a

commonality that seemed to bind the spiders to each other and to other arthropod species. Mice were just animals. There seemed no possibility of them ever becoming anything else. Compared to them, the Paussid beetles—or a dozen other similar creatures—were practically bursting with potential.

The spiders have worked long and hard to craft and breed a variant of the nanovirus that attacks mammalian neurology— not the full virus in all its complexity but a simple, single-purpose tool that is virulent, transmissible, inheritable and irreversible. Those parts of the nanovirus that would bolster evolution have been stripped out—too complex and too little understood—leaving only one of the virus’s base functions intact. It is a pandemic of the mind, tweaked and mutated to rewrite certain very specific parts of the mammal brain.

The very first effect of the nanovirus, when it touched the ancient Portia labiata spiders so many thousands of generations ago, was to turn a species of solitary hunters into a society. Like calls out to like, and those touched by the virus knew their comrades even when they did not have enough cognitive capacity to know themselves.

Kern—and all the rest—watches the shuttle land. Up on the Gilgamesh, orbiting a hundred kilometres beyond the equatorial web and its space elevators, there are many humans, all infected, and thousands still sleeping who will need to have the virus introduced to them. That task will take a long time, but then this landing is the first step towards integration, and that will also take a long time.

Even within the spiders, the nanovirus has fought a long battle against ingrained habits of cannibalism and spouse-slaying. Its notable success has been mostly within-species, though. Portiids have always been hunters, and so pan-specific empathy would have crippled them. This was the true test of their biochemical ingenuity. The spiders have done their best, conducting what tests they can on lesser mammals, but only after Portia and her peers had taken control of the ark ship and its crew could the truth be known.

The task was not just to take a cut-down version of the virus and reconfigure it so as to attack a mammal brain: difficult enough on its own, but essentially useless. The real difficulty for that legion of spider scientists, working over generations and each inheriting the undiluted learning of the last, was to engineer the human infection to know its parents: to recognize the presence of itself in its arachnid creators, and call out to that similarity. Kinship at the sub-microbial level, so that one of the Gilgamesh’s great giants, the awesome, careless creator-gods of prehistory, might look upon Portia and her kin and know them as their children.

Once the shuttle has landed, the spiders press closer, a seething, hairy greyish tide of legs and fangs and staring, lidless eyes. Kern watches the hatch open, and the first humans appear.

There is a handful of them only. This is, in itself, an experiment simply to see if the nanovirus fragment has produced the desired effect.

They step down among the tide of spiders, whose hard, bristly bodies bump against them. There is no evident revulsion, no sudden panic. The humans, to Kern’s reconfigured eyes, seem entirely at ease. One even puts her hand out, letting it brush across the thronging backs. The virus in them is telling them all, This is us; they are like us. It tells the spiders the same, that crippled fragment of virus calling out to its more complete cousins: We are like you.

And Kern guesses, then, that the spiders’ meddling might go further than they had thought. If there had been some tiny bead present in the brain of all humans, that had told each other, They are like you; that had drawn some thin silk thread of empathy, person to person, in a planet-wide net—what might then have happened? Would there have been the same wars, massacres, persecutions and crusades?

Probably, thinks Kern sourly. She wants to discuss it with Fabian, but even her faithful acolyte has crept out into the sunlight to watch this first-hand.

At the shuttle’s hatch, Portia steps out after the humans, along with some of her peer group. The enormity of what she has played a part in is mostly lost on her. She is glad to be alive: many of her fellows are not so lucky. The cost of bringing the human race around to their point of view has been high.

But worth it, Bianca had assured her, when she aired that thought. After this day, who knows what we may accomplish together? They are responsible for our being here, after all. We are their children, though until now they did not know us.

Amongst the humans is one who Portia had thought was injured or ill, but now understands to be simply at the end of her long giant’s life. Another, a male, has carried her from the shuttle and laid her on the ground, with the spiders forming a curious, jostling but respectful circle around them. Portia sees the ailing human’s hands clench at the ground, gripping the grass. She stares up at the blue sky with those strange, narrow eyes—but eyes in which Portia can find a commonality, now that the bond of the nanovirus runs both ways.

She is dying, the old human—the oldest human there ever was, if Kern has translated that correctly. But she is dying on a world that will become her people’s world: that her people will share with its other people. Portia cannot be sure, but she thinks this old human is content with that.

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