Moira’s only company is a fat black fly. He thumps against the window—she can hear him hit its pane, but not see—and she wishes him well. If she had a way out of things, she’d be taking it, too.
Nurses pad in and out of her room, inserting new glass syringes of morphine when the old run low. They rewrap her wounds and plug in fresh jars of saline that run through her body and out again through her injuries. She can’t move—between scar tissue and her bindings, she is trapped, immobile. Can’t even blink the eye she has left, and no telling what’s happened to the other.
Her father was important enough that she earned preferential treatment, but he couldn’t afford truly excellent care. Most of the serious doctors were in the military now, anyhow. The best they could do here was offer her high doses of low-class drugs. And so now, at the edge of the desert, in a hospital not fifty miles from where her home had been burnt down around her by an artillery shell, Moira waits to die.
The fly gave up on his attempts at escape, landing somewhere. Probably exhausted. She understood that, too.
Then—she felt. A touch. On maybe the last three nerve whole endings in her entire body. The only ones still that might feel pleasure, instead of pain, which is all the others ever felt, when her bindings were stripped off and replaced. A smooth coin-sized patch, right below her left eye, where her skin was still whole.
She looks down, and sees the fly there, landed. It crept closer to the salt of her tears.
Don’t do this, fly. We have an arrangement. One of us is getting out of here, right?
Its face loomed. Whatever prior association she’d felt with it was gone. It had eyes dimpled like the buttons on soldier’s uniforms, and forelegs that congratulated each other with fervor as it neared to drink.
Then it was gone. No more buzzing. No more friend-not-friend. Moira strains to see, wandering her eye around at the limits of its socket.
And there, sitting on the bed-side railing, is a green spider the size of her thumb, quietly trussing something furry and black. She hadn’t even seen him snatch the fly. She’d have thought she must have blinked, only she knew she couldn’t anymore.
The spider looks back at her. Seven eyes sit on the gun-turret of its forehead, and it contemplates her with each glittering black dot. She counts its eyes, wondering what happened to the eighth, because all spiders have eight eyes, right? And it surveys her, its head tilting, seeing all of her just as trussed as the fly is, on the bed below itself.
Air-raid sirens begin screaming, again.
A nurse comes in. Her badge says, “A. Tropos, R.N.” She looks down at Moira.
“Sorry girl. It’ll be better this way. Wish things—” but the siren’s yo-yoing volume rises to occupy the same space as her words. She reaches out and moves the drip’s dial up. It buzzes a warning, which she turns off with a key. And then, after a grimace and a nod, which Moira tries to return but cannot, she leaves. Her good eye finds the spider again.
Guess it’s just you and me now, spider.
The spider creeps closer, dragging its meal behind. It bobs and dances a bit—or maybe that’s the extra painkiller, coursing through her porous veins.
Moira counts its eyes again. Seven. The spider’s the only thing that has reality. It’s realer than she is, right now. She’s already on her way out—has been since the burns, really. She tries to breathe, but the wrappings are so tight, and the weight on her chest is so heavy. Makes it hard.
The hospital shakes, as she hears propellers tear the unseen sky.
What happened to that other one, spider? Lose it somewhere? Game of marbles? A bet with a cat?
The spider sits back on its haunches, gesturing out with its smaller pedipalps. Let me tell you, it seems to say.
I have a story for you, girl. Hold my hand. Hold this too—yes, this. There’s a little bit of all of them in it, see. And when I’m gone, it’ll hold me, too.
No—don’t cry. I ain’t going yet. I still got a story to tell.
When the Devourer arose from the trapdoor of her home, where she hid during the long days of the sun, waiting for the peace of the night and cattle on which to prey, she once found a strange thing before her.
A soft child sat, wriggles and screams and crying out. It had been left there by someone, perhaps in offering, maybe to get rid of an extra mouth to feed.
Now the Devourer was a mother too. It had carried egg sacs across the desert upon its rose-furred back, and had seen many generations pass by, not only of her own daughters, but of the soft-shells around it. This little soft one would hardly matter, inside her belly, or left without.
She angled her great head and looked down with glittering eyes. The soft child looked back—but here is the story, eh? Looked back, but with only one eye.
And that was why she was left outside, eh? No one wants a soft-girl with only one eye.
But Devourer? She got eyes to spare.
I can feel them now, inside me, coming up, coming out. Each of them’s got a story. You got ears to listen, yet? Sure you do. It’s cold, right? No better way to pass the time then with a story. Hush again. No questions. Just hear.
We hunt together. Me and her, her and me. She was all violence, and I was all cunning.
I clung to her back as we jumped from tree to tree, chasing down prey. Men chasing us with spears, but we laid down webtraps and ate delicious flesh each night. Sleepin’ during the day, ‘tween her front legs, a bed, soft, warm. Safe. Safest place in the world, really. I had one of her eyes, and she had one of mine.
Maybe this was how it changed. I wasn’t the first, I was the tenth, or the twelfth. And she wasn’t the same either—not anymore. She’d molted, and we’d changed, together.
Sure there was screaming, when she plucked out my eye and took it for her own. Tasted blood for days. But I got her eye in return, and with it, the true sight.
Made me into half a monster, it did—but my eye changed her, in reverse. Made her less a monster. Made her—made her more like us.
“Don’t kill me!” he shouted, all fearlike.
They all shouted that, as we chased them down. Devourer and I don’t listen. Killing them was too much fun.
And Devourer wheeled to a halt.
“What you waiting for?” I pounded on her back, on the place where all the legs joined up. And she trussed him up, but didn’t bite him. Instead, we took him home.
No, no, don’t cry. Still have a home. Just far away is all, right? Just keep listening. Swear it. Cough up the dust. There, there.
“Worship me,” she said, softly. “Worship Vol the Devourer and her eternal thread.” Her voice was as soft as the silk she wore, a thin shift, barely covering her body as she rode sidesaddle on a simple grey spider into the village.
Vol sat on the hill behind the village, eclipsing the setting sun, her bent legs sending out long and jagged shadows.
“Who are you?”
“Cotho, the messenger of the thread.” She slid off of her spider’s back, and stood, diaphanous, ethereal. Men bowed, and stayed bowing, as she passed. “I see with my eye, and with hers.” She lifted the band of silk that covered her goddess’s gift to her, the cold black sheen of the other eye that offered second sight.
“What happens if we do not worship?” a man asked, his bow slightly less low than the rest.
Cotho swallowed, a soft sound in the still dusk. “Then I hunger. And upon you, I will feed.”
You from a long line like me, see? We strong, strong women. Eyes one and all. Being a good girl, you is.
“I have a wife.”
Cotho had chosen him for her own from the town’s elect. He had wide shoulders and a strong back. The type of man that sturdy women were made from.
“The armies of the spider queen cannot be denied. Plus, it is no shame to service so.”
“And still,” he said, letting his voice hang.
Cotho stood in the tent that her servants had created. She now wore nothing, not even the patch that covered Vol’s eye. And his clothing had been removed long ago.
She could tell that he wanted her. And yet there was something that he wanted even more. Even more than Vol’s favor? Even more than her flesh? She nested her fingers together in front of her chest.
“If I have a son, I will give him back to you. Does that suit your purpose?”
He shook his head. “No. If you have a son, take his eye. Make him like you.”
Cotho considered him, first with her human eye, and then with Vol’s.
Fights were brewing. Tween us and them, y’see. We were stronger than they were, us, and Devourer, and some-a her children.
Strange men came from the coast. Had strong things, strong as skeletons—no, stronger. And fire, hot lashing fire, worse than venom.
And where we’d once been enemies, us wild-ones and the soft-men, we became forced friends.
Cotho screamed. Birthing was a horrible process. Three girls attended her, all of them trained as midwives, and all of them potential eyes of Vol.
When a spider molts, there is a moment, when if the shell parts incorrectly, the spider’s liquid flesh can leak out, no matter how small the hole. When all the fluids are gone, the spider will die.
When a woman gives birth, she, too, has the chance for such a moment.
Cotho reached up to her one black eye, as the child exited and took up its own scream.
“You,” she said, pointing to the third girl. “Take it. Now.”
This girl ran up, held her hands out, and accepted the gift.
“Make the payment. Take the sight.”
The girl looked at the knife she held in her hand to cut the cord. She flipped the blade to face herself and planted it into her left eye.
You see? You see now? This why I’m like this. Feel in there. Don’t be scared. Soft as leather, eh? The space is smooth. Don’t hurt a bit, after awhile.
The scouts reported to Keysis, first. Endless stories, through thousands of eyes, from windwisps up to racers, of new spiders walking across the ground. She had not traded eyes with them though, and so she could not see what it was that they saw. They told Vol, and Vol could only tell her unclearly.
“I will go,” Anank volunteered, on the third of her restless nights.
She frowned at him. “I would not have you leave.”
“You need someone who can think, harder. Someone who can truly see.”
“We can wait. There is no rush. We have conquered nations already.” But even as she said the words, she knew they were a lie. She was spinning her own web, designed to hold him safe. He waited, knowing that lies did not become her.
Anank wasted no time, rising up from their bed. His racer dropped down from the ceiling to follow, frost blue fur bitten with green. Green as Anank’s remaining eye.
She looked to the racer. “Make sure he comes back to me.” The racer made a jerking bow, before chasing its soft-one out the door.
They sent poisons. Strong ones. Inside metal—we knew what metal was now. We all seen it, often. We sent up spiderlings as scouts. Warn us when they come overhead, dropping down the metal.
On the move, all the time. Devourer and her friends, us soft on their backs—we roamed, whole cities worth of people. Herded along cattle, goats, ate the wounded, left no meat behind. We knew how to survive. We learned how to hang on.
I was her eye in the people. And she was her eye in me. We was one, us against the fire things with wheels.
Devourer sent out more scouts. Asked for more friends.
Not all them listened. But some did.
Keysis stood at the edge of their camp. She’d readied for war, when Anank had not come home. And spiderlings kept reporting movement on all fronts. She was loathe to attack without knowing what was coming, and yet—
A thin racer emerged, out of the underbrush. Blue, with a trace of green.
“I told you not to return without him.”
The racer crawled as it approached. It bowed low, near her feet, and then retreated quickly.
Near her left foot—one shriveled, green, eye.
Up till then, we’d been helping people die. It was tragic-like.
After that? We started killin’.
Strange gasses. Fine silk masks kept out the worst of it, but these things made Keysis’s one soft-eye weep. This was the worst artillery shelling yet. She watched a warwidow teeter, its giant abdomen swaying as its legs lost purchase with the ground. She looked to the sky for any movement of the clouds.
Not even beloved Vol could make the wind change.
Took in more warwidows. Bellies dragging heavy, leaving furrows going behind. Sprayed out waves of venom. Et through their clothes. Watched ‘em melt. Served ‘em right!
Shot out bits of metal from their tubes. We got armor now though—skins of the dead, layered three deep, striped with webs. And shells, from spiders gone beyond. All of us look like spiders now. We telling them where to go, what to do. Learning, us.
And always Devourer and me. Not me, me, but a me. Maybe a you. You see what I’m gettin’ at?
Sometimes Keysis’s right eye aches. It isn’t the socket, once empty, that is now filled with Vol’s. It’s the eye that’s in there. Spiders don’t cry, but they do feel pain—Keysis has been through enough molts by now to know.
Pain comes with growth. That’s how it is for a spider. Eat so much and your old shell won’t fit.
She wonders if the things in metal ever grow.
Caught some of the wheels. Opened up and looked inside. Guess what we saw? Us! Soft-shells!
I know. Thought they’d be full of guts, too.
Can’t even eat them. Well, the soft-shells, yes, but the rest? Useless.
Mobile scouts run ahead. Spiderlings report from the skies. Keysis paces inside her tent, as wave after wave of men and women come in, reporting what it is that their spiders have seen. She realizes that there’s a chance to win—that they’re wounded, now, and morale is low. She doesn’t think they’ve had an enemy that ate their wounded before. And they know they can’t hide inside metal for forever.
We’ve been pushing them back through sheer force of numbers for years. How much land is there to cover? The spiderlings have no way of telling us, it is not something they can measure. They see prey and not prey, movement, and stillness. Runners can only go out so far, and we cannot spare any strength.
Now, now, child. Stop your crying. I’ll be right here till the end, see? Breath a little deeper. A little harder.
Her favorite scout runs up, under Keysis’s hand, and her fingers fall between his eyes. His fur bristles against Keysis’s palm, and she scratches along his carapace.
“Keysis, we’ve spotted blue ahead. Ocean. Metal lines the beach. Much more.” He made the hand signals for types and numbers of their wheels, and Keysis nodded.
Will this be the place we can finish things? Can we shove them into the ocean? They’ll never fight harder, than with their backs against the blue.
Wide swath of us. Fatter than Devourer could walk in a day. Coming down on the ocean, smash them up against its side. Let the blue swallow them down, right? But they had hidden homes floating in the water, more metal. More fire. More pain.
Lost three warwidows that day. But we pushed them off the beach entirely.
I know. This is the sort of war that has no end. Everyone thinks it does in the beginning, but it don’t, it don’t.
Keysis’s scouts have captured a soft-thing from one of the shells. He carries a box which holds his voice inside of it.
“Truce—” she sounds out the word. Her mouth works just like his does. He looks the same as Anank. Only he still has both his eyes.
She makes a gesture, so small that there’s no way the soft-thing noticed. Three small warwidows descend from the ceiling, to land upon him.
Metal upon metal, rains down from the sky. No time to breathe. Can’t see the sun during the day for the dust, or the moon at night from the fires. We run.
“Vol,” Keysis begins, looking up at the Devourer. Her tent is being built in front of the shambles of what’s left. She walks forward and strokes the fur of Vol’s legs, touches the hard shine of Vol’s fang. Vol can see where she is from there, using the second sight. “Vol, I’m sorry.”
No response to this, at first. If there was, neither of Keysis’s eyes can see it.
A wind struck up over the hills. Grass and fur moved as one beneath it, and Vol reaches out with a pedipalp to gently stroke Keysis’s flowing hair.
Keysis took Vol’s pedipalp into her arms, and embraced it, feeling her tears spatter against Vol’s fur.
And that’s that, child. S’why I only have seven eyes. Why you only have one. Why we can talk like this, here, and now. Wheels came for her. Wheels are coming for you.
Moira stares at the spider. The rumble of approach—planes, tanks, men—the hospital shakes with it. A blast shatters something above, and ceiling pieces come crashing down, below. More sky than she’s seen in weeks opens up in an instant. The sun blazes down, and smoke folds in.
When the dust settles, on her and over her, the spider’s still there, waving its small legs grandly. She watches him conduct an orchestra of destruction around her.
You should leave now, spider. Someone’s gotta make it out of here. It won’t be me.
The gun-turret of eyes tilts from side to side, then looks to the parcel it holds. It takes a delicate fang, and slices the silk open. The fly, emerges, struggling. And Moira watches it buzz away into the light.