Chapter no 9

Children of Time

Negotiations with the locals have gone sufficiently well—now that Portia and her party have established their superiority— and the incumbents have lent the three travellers a male to serve as a guide in the lands to the north. The creature is slightly smaller than Portia’s own male companion, but of a quite different character, bold to the point of impudence by Portia’s standards. He has a name: call him Fabian. Portia, whilst aware that males give themselves names, has very seldom needed to know any, even with the concentration of that gender to be found at Great Nest. She guesses that in a small family unit such as these locals, males are likely to be more self-reliant, therefore both more capable and more independently minded. Still, she finds his brashness off-putting. Bianca appears to find him less objectionable and, on their trip north, Portia catches Fabian displaying for her, a tentative offer to gift her his sperm. Bianca has not yet shown herself receptive, but Portia notes that she has not chased him off either.

Portia herself has put several clutches of eggs behind her— females seldom depart Great Nest without having passed on their lineage—and she feels this current behaviour is distracting from their mission. On the other hand, Bianca has fought for her and probably considers playing with this new male her reward. Portia only hopes she can keep her desires in check. It would be more diplomatically advantageous if Fabian was not killed and eaten during the throes of passion.

They do not have to travel far to the north to see just what has been growing here at the edge of the Great Nest’s web of awareness. Soon they begin coming across felled trees—their trunks showing a combination of blackening, chewing and

surprisingly clean cuts, often painstakingly scissored into sections. Frequently the entire root system has been unearthed as well, ensuring that nothing will regrow. The forest is under wide-scale attack, its fringes being gnawed away. Fabian can remember when there were more trees, he communicates. The clearing of land continues year to year, and Fabian’s inherited Understanding suggests that it is happening faster now than in his mother’s time.

Beyond that ragged edge, the other trees—the foreign trees

—are set out in discrete stands. They are small and squat and bulbous, with fleshy leaves and trunks that are warty with protrusions. The exaggerated space between each copse is a firebreak—something the spiders are very familiar with. Their planet’s oxygen levels are higher than Earth’s—lightning-sparked fires are a constant threat.

What they are seeing is no work of nature. This is a plantation on a grand scale, and the labourers tending it are plainly visible. Everywhere Portia turns her eyes there are more of them and, if she looks beyond the chequerboard of groves, she can make out a steep-sided mound that must be the upper reaches of the plantation-owners’ colony, the bulk of it being hidden underground. A pall of smoke hangs over it like bad weather.

Portia’s kin are well aware that they are not the sole inheritors of their world. Whilst they cannot know how the nanovirus has been reshaping life here for millennia, there are certain species she shares the planet with, that her people recognize as something more than animals. The Spitters are a low-end example, barely removed from a state of brute nature, but to look into their small, weak eyes is nonetheless to recognize that here is a thing of intellect—and hence, danger.

The western oceans that Portia’s Great Nest looks over are home to a type of stomatopod with which her people have cautious, ritualized relations. Their ancestors were fierce, inventive hunters, equipped with unparalleled eyesight and deadly natural weapons, and used to living in colonies where negotiations over living space were common. They, too,

proved fertile ground for the virus, and have developed on parallel lines with Portia’s own kin. Perhaps because of their aquatic environment, perhaps because they are by nature prone to wait for prey, their society is simple and primitive by Portia’s standards, but the two species have nothing to compete over, and in the littoral zone they sometimes swap gifts, the fruits of the land in exchange for the fruits of the sea.

Of more pressing concern are the ants.

Portia understands the nature of ants. There are colonies near the Great Nest, and she has both personal and genetically encoded dealings with them to draw upon. It is the Great Nest’s collective experience that ant colonies are complicated neighbours. They must be dealt with decisively—left to themselves they will always expand in a manner detrimental to any species that the ants themselves have no use for, which would naturally include Portia’s own. They can be destroyed

—her inherited Understandings include chronicles of such conflicts—but war with even a small colony is costly and wasteful. Alternatively, preferably, they can be accommodated and limited by careful manipulation of their decisions.

Portia knows that ants are not like her people, nor like the Spitters or the stomatopods of the western shallows. She knows that individual ants themselves cannot be treated with, communicated with or even threatened. Her comprehension is coarse, of a necessity, but approximates to the truth. Each ant does not think. It has a complex set of responses based on a wide range of stimuli, many of which are themselves chemical messages produced by other ants in response to still more eventualities. There is no intelligence within a colony, but there is such a hierarchy of interacting and co-dependent instinct that it seems to Portia that some manner of entity is behind a colony’s actions and reactions.

With ants, the nanovirus has simultaneously failed and succeeded. Amongst the ants’ network of reactive decision making it has inculcated a strategy of experimentation and investigation that approaches rigorous scientific method, but it has not led to intellect such as any human or spider would

recognize. Ant colonies evolve and adapt, throw up new castes, investigate and make use of resources, devise new technologies, refine them and interrelate them, and all this without anything approaching a consciousness to direct it. There is no hive mind, but there is a vast and flexible biological difference engine, a self-perfecting machine dedicated to the continuance of itself. It does not understand how what it does functions, but it constantly expands its behavioural repertoire and builds upon those trial-and-error paths that prove fruitful.

Portia’s understanding of all this is very limited, but she has a grasp of how ants do and do not work. She knows that individual ants cannot innovate, but that the colony can—in a strange way—make what appear to be informed decisions. Application of force and reward, a narrowing of the colony’s viable options so that the most advantageous is the one the spiders intend it to choose, can lead to a colony accepting boundaries on its territory and its place in the world, and even to become a productive partner. The colonies are perfect exponents of game theory: they will cooperate where that course is less costly and more beneficial than other strategies, such as all-out genocidal war.

The colonies that she is already familiar with, near Great Nest, are surely less than a tenth the size of what she is now looking at. Fabian explains that there were once several warring colonies here, but one has become dominant. Instead of driving its lesser neighbours to extinction, the ruling colony has incorporated them into its own survival strategy, permitting their continuance in return for making them into extensions of itself, utilizing food that they gather and technologies they have developed. It is this world’s first superstate.

Portia and the others have a brief, agitated conversation. This super-colony is far enough from Great Nest not to threaten it now, but they can look ahead and envisage that its very existence here endangers their people’s future. A solution must be found but, to think through a plan like that, Portia’s

kin at home will need all the information she can bring back to them.

They are going to have to continue their journey into the land of the ants.

Fabian is surprisingly useful. He has travelled further than this himself; in fact his family makes a habit of it. It is dangerous, but they have developed ways of minimizing the risk of raising the alarm, and when hunting has been lean, the ants’ larders are a last resort.

A new column of ants has arrived, and they are here for timber. The spiders retreat further into the trees and watch as the insects set to work breaking up the already fallen trunks into manageable sections, using acid and the strength of their jaws. Portia is swift to spot something new: a caste that she has never seen before. Smaller branches are severed and carried off by unexceptional-seeming workers, but the large trunks are dealt with by ants with long, curved mandibles equipped with jagged inner edges. These they fix to the circumference of a trunk, and move their mouthparts in incremental opposition, scoring around and around so as to cut a circular section away. Those mandibles did not emerge from the cocoon with the rest of the ant, however. They gleam in the sunlight in a way quite unlike anything Portia has seen before: rigid, toothed sleeves that make remarkably quick work of biting and sawing the wood into pieces.

With Fabian taking the lead, the spiders ambush an ant logging party, trapping and killing them quickly and efficiently, then decapitating them and dissecting them for their scent glands. The ants are smaller than Portia—between fifteen and thirty centimetres long—and the spiders are stronger, swifter and far more efficient fighters, one on one. What they must avoid is a general alarm, where large sections of the colonies are mobilized against them.

The ants communicate principally by pheromones—to Portia’s keen chemical senses the air is thick with them. They use the ants’ scent to disguise their own, and they carry the

severed heads with them, secured to their abdomens. In extremis they can try to divert ant attention by a morbid form of puppetry, manipulating the dead antennae of their victims in a pretence of communication.

They travel swiftly. Their victims will be missed, but the initial response will target where they were, not where they are now. Their road is the high one. They travel through the upper reaches of the ants’ plantations, and whenever they reach a firebreak, one of them scuttles across the intervening ground with a thread that then forms the spine of a temporary bridge. With their own scent disguised, they travel over the ants’ heads and beneath their notice.

Fabian demonstrates that the protrusions on the trunks of the ant-tended trees can be lanced with a fang to release a sweet, nourishing liquid not unlike the honeydew of aphids, a taste they know the ants relish. This plantation agriculture is obviously a useful secret, and Portia adds it to the list of observations to include in her report when she returns home.

For now, they press on towards the main colony mound, avoiding the ants where they can, killing them swiftly where they cannot. Each small alarm will contribute to a generally raised awareness across the nest, until significant insect resources are devoted to locating intruders whose presence has been deduced by the colony’s ineluctable internal logic.

Portia’s goal is to investigate the central colony mound, which promises more secrets. During the day the air shimmers over parts of it, and there are plumes of smoke venting from stubby chimneys. At night, some of the ants’ entrances glow dimly.

In the darkness of their home, the ants start fires in the oxygen-rich atmosphere, ignited by exothermic reactions from chemicals that certain of their castes can produce. Complex arrangements of internal passageways use the temperature differentials to stimulate airflow: heating, cooling and oxygenating their nests. The ants also use fire for land clearance, and as a weapon.

Portia’s world—the underlying geology that existed before the terraforming—is rich in shallow deposits of metals, and the ants dig deep to build their nests. In this colony, centuries of burning has led to charcoal production, and occasional inadvertent smelting has been systematized into the forging of tools. The blind watchmaker has been busy.

Entering the mound itself is more than Portia dares, and she is tempted to leave with all the information she has gathered. Curiosity urges her on, though. Atop the mound, beneath the hanging shroud of smoke, is a spire that gleams in the sun brightly enough to draw the eye. Like all of her kind, she is driven to investigate anything new. This reflective beacon is the highest point on the mound, and Portia wants to know what it is.

Portia finds her band of infiltrators a vantage point in the nearest plantation to the mound and considers the paths taken by the chains of ant workers. Inside the brain that bulks out the underside of her body, she has fallen into a way of thinking that her diminutive ancestress would recognize: constructing an internal map of the world, and then deconstructing that to find the best course to where she needs to go next.

I will go alone, she instructs Bianca. If I do not return, then you must go home and report.

Bianca understands.

Portia descends by line from the tree that provided her watchtower, and begins her journey, following the itinerary that she spent so long plotting. The ants follow particular paths that their constant travel has packed down into flat, smooth roads representing the most efficient routes. Portia navigates a delicate, cautious path between these thoroughfares. She moves haltingly, pausing, quivering, then drifting on, gauging the lightly gusting wind and letting her onward progress follow its patterns, as if she herself was nothing but some overlarge piece of wind-blown debris. The vibrations of her movement are swallowed up in the entropy of the world at large. With her scent disguised, she can ghost past the near-

blind ants as though she is invisible.

The going gets more complex and more dangerous as she reaches the mound itself. Her careful plan knows constant amendment, and she comes close to discovery several times. Once she uses the detached head of one of her victims, in a brief moment of feigned contact, to put off a wandering cleaner who is paying too close attention to her.

Her painstaking progress has taken hours, and the sun has set. This leads to outdoor ant activity dropping off, and makes her progress easier; only then does she reach the summit.

The ants have built a stumpy spire here, as already observed, and atop it is something new: a pale crystal that gleams translucently in the moonlight. She has no idea what this is for, and so she waits in the hope that the ants themselves will show her.

After the moon begins to dip towards the far horizon, they do. All of a sudden there are ants issuing out on to the mound’s summit in considerable numbers, so that Portia must move rapidly, and keep moving until she has found somewhere that they do not intend to occupy, which means some way further back down the shallow gradient. The insects are forming a carpet, a net of their bodies, touching antennae and limbs. Portia is baffled.

They seem to be awaiting something—or that is how she interprets their behaviour. It is un-antlike. It concerns her.

Then another of the insects emerges from a small hole at the base of the spire and climbs up it. It flicks one antennae towards the crystal, with the other directed downwards to make contact with the general host gathered below it. Portia’s wide, round eyes gather as much of the moonlight as they can, and focus on this newcomer: this small, unprepossessing ant. It has a prosthesis on its antenna, like the tree-cutters, but this is a fine cap of the same material—metal, though Portia does not know that—that tapers to invisibility, so that the ant is now touching the crystal with a tiny, delicate, hair-like wire.

And, as Portia watches, the ants begin to dance.

She has never seen anything like it. Shivers go through the entire mat of them, apparently originating in that contact between metal feeler and crystal, and spreading through the assembled host. They are sent into constant waves of motion, each transmitting to its neighbours some rhythmic message that holds the entire congregation rapt.

Portia watches in quiet bewilderment.

She is no mathematician. She does not quite grasp the series of arithmetical progressions, series and transformations that are represented in the waves of motion passing through the ants—no more than the ants themselves do—but she can grasp that there is some pattern there, some significance to what she is seeing.

She does her best to interpret what she sees in light of her experiences, and those experiences she has inherited, but there is nothing comparable in the whole history of her own world. The ants feel the same. Their constant exploration of possibilities has resulted in this solitary contact with something vast and intangible, and the colony processes the information it receives and attempts to find a purpose for it, more and more of its biological processing power being applied to the task, more and more ants quivering under the pulsed rhythms of a distant radio signal.

Intent on trying to find pattern and plan in the scene before her, Portia’s hungry eyes note one more element, and she wonders, Is that important?

Like humans, Portia’s people are quick to see patterns, sometimes when there are none. Hence she makes the association quickly, seeing the timing as too close to be coincidental. When the gathering of ants breaks up and hurries inside, without warning and all at once, it is just as the traveller, the swift-moving star that she has often watched coursing across the sky, is passing beneath the horizon.

She makes a plan then, swiftly and without much

forethought. She is intrigued, and her species is driven to investigate anything new, just as the ants are, though in very different ways.

Once most of the ants are gone she approaches the spire carefully, wary of triggering some alarm. Lifting her palps she lets the wind ruffle them, feeling its strength and direction, and matching her movements to it.

She ascends carefully, foot over foot, until she finds the crystal before her. It does not seem so large, not to her.

She sets to spinning a complex package of silk that she holds with her rear legs. She is keenly aware of being at the very centre of the great colony. A mistake at this point would go very badly.

She has left matters almost too late. Her presence—through the vibrations of her work—has been detected. From its hole at the spire’s base, the small ant that led the congregation abruptly emerges and touches one of her feet with its uncovered antenna.

Immediately it lets out an alarm, a chemical sharp with outrage and fury at finding an alien, an intruder, in this place. As the scent passes outwards it is picked up by tunnel guards and other castes that have remained close to the exterior. The message is passed on and multiplied.

Portia drops on the ant beneath her and kills it with one bite, removing its head as she did with the others, although she knows she cannot bluff her way out of this one. Instead she scuttles up the spire again, seeking as much height as it will give, and seizes the crystal from the top.

She secures her two trophies to her abdomen with webbing, even as the ants begin to swarm out over the exterior of their colony. She sees plenty there with tools and modifications that she is suddenly no longer sufficiently curious to investigate.

She jumps. An unassisted leap from the spire would land her in their very midst, to be savagely held and stung and dismembered alive. At the apex of her upward spring, though,

her hind legs kick out their burden of carefully folded silk, forming a fine-spun net spread between them that catches the wind Portia was so carefully measuring earlier.

It is not taking her quite back towards Bianca and the others, but she has no control over that. At this moment her chief priority is to get away, gliding over the heads of the enraged insects as they lift their metal-sheathed mandibles and try to work out where she could have gone.

Her descendants will tell the story of how Portia entered the temple of the ants and stole the eye of their god.

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