Arabella and the Spiders
By KT Wagner
The spiders have multiplied. The constant tinny hum of the spaceship masks their noises but they’re there lurking at the edges of my vision. I turn my head and they disappear into crannies.
Eradication is no longer a possibility, if it ever was. There are too many.
Over the weeks I’ve generated plausible excuses for my lack of action: The loneliness stayed my hand. I had a concern I might compromise the scientific equipment. Just yesterday I typed The cosmic web mesmerized me into the log.
All correct but none reflect the truth. Ground Control is not trustworthy.
I don’t mention the distention of my cheek or the swelling that’s closed one of my eyes or the heaviness in my limbs despite zero gravity. Maybe that’s why I finally switched off the internal monitoring cameras. The second week out, I coated the camera lenses with dry lubricant, but a crawling unease whispered I may not have found them all.
The engineers didn’t provide much room for a human crew when determining the cargo capacity of the space shuttle. The ideal pilot had to be under 65K, and ‘relatively healthy’. The latter qualification meant free-of-plague-antibodies and it reduced the available pool to less than a dozen. All of us women. Conveniently, that suited the needs of the colony. They rounded us up and placed us in isolation. Never too many baby-breeders. My words, not theirs.
I didn’t protest. On earth, exposure to the plague is only a matter of time. Perhaps I could scrape together the cash to pay for drugs to slow the progression, but it only delays the inevitable. The shuffling, mindless, late stages of the disease don’t bear thinking about. Nobody says it out loud, but the colony looks like the last hope for humanity.
I wasn’t Ground Control’s first or second choice. Maybe not even their third, fourth or fifth choice given the shortness of my remaining reproductive years. However, in the final stages of launch preparation, one of the loading crew bit the pilot’s arm. By the time the security detail reached them, he’d gnawed through to the bone. They sent someone to retrieve their second-choice pilot from her cell and found her dead. Apparent heart attack. I now think the spiders had something to do with it.
Ground Control had released many of us the evening before. They found me as I trudged along the railway tracks, heading to check out a rental at a nearby trailer park. The previous night there’d been another meteor shower and I’d lain in a field to watch it. It tired me out and I curled up amongst the corn stalks and slept there. Odd. I never used to sleep very well.
This journey is one way. At first, I dreamed about those I left behind. Now, I barely remember their names.
In the event of my death, the sleeping pod is designed to preserve my organic matter. Ground Control didn’t tell me this. I think the spiders must have. I trust them. I avoid the pod.
For the first two weeks of the journey, I slept in the pilot’s seat. When I noticed a funnel web deep between a container labelled mycorrhizae and another labelled cyanobacteria, and I took to securing my sleeping bag to the shuttle window.
The lights dim automatically every night cycle. I lay my face against the quartz glass, gaze into the expanse and wait on dreams. The smooth surface cools the heat in my cheek.
“Contrived reality,” a dry rustle of a voice in my head. It cackles.
The line between awake and asleep is no longer a certainty. The monitors might tell me, but I’ve stopped looking at them. The warning lights irritate me. I break a couple and an alarm goes off. My head pounds. Hours later the shrieking finally stops.
This might be the last supply run Earth manages. The plague spread faster than predicted and a cure is elusive. A group of scientists blamed the first meteor shower, but no one believed them. If they weren’t all dead, they’d probably be saying, “We told you so.”
A team of government scientists claim this ship’s cargo will help address the terraforming issues the colony struggles with. The technicians sounded nervous as they explained this to me. Or maybe the microphones on their hazmat suits distorted their voices.
All around me are bio-containers of fungus, microbes, plants and insects. The spiders are particularly happy to be aboard.
I’m not a biologist or even a scientist, just an ordinary pilot. My job was to manually steer the shuttle past the dark side of Mars. I fulfilled my duty. Now I am mostly excess cargo. If I survive the rest of the journey—eight long months—my genetics could further diversify the colony, but I’m not interested in bearing children.
I don’t think the colonists will be either.
A jab of panic accompanies this random thought—more and more are intruding—and I stretch my arms in an attempt to dissipate my anxiety. Space sick, nothing more. It will pass.
Orb webs edge the rim of the window, cloak the control panel, and mute the annoying auto-pilot lights. Funnel webs bridge gaps between containers. The webs glow a faint, iridescent purple. Or maybe the swelling around my eye is affecting my vision.
I’ve still not seen a spider, but their webs are everywhere. They’re here and waiting.
The spun fabric of the universe unfolds around the ship. The blacks and pale beiges of the early weeks have evolved into kaleidoscopes of swirling colour.
Reedy, garbled voices twist through static bursts from the radio. Ground Control continues to issue their shrill petty orders. It wasn’t difficult to rotate the receivers slightly away from both earth and the colony. The shift could be explained by the buffeting of space wind. Important, because Ground Control still has access to life support and other essential systems. Caution is best, for now. The spiders are working on a solution to silence Earth.
I pace around the pilot’s chair, a kind of bouncy lurch that gives me something to do and perhaps staves off bone-density loss.
My fingertips brush a web. The strands are sticky and soft and not unpleasant. I run my hand through the silk and gather it onto my fingers.
Long ago, I lay next to grandmother and looked up while she spun fiber. I hold my hand out like a drop spindle, though I don’t trust the memory. It feels new.
I rub the web-silk between my fingers, and the oils from my skin smooth and shape it into a narrow roll. My rhythm improves the less I concentrate. I spin a fine lavender-blue filament. Grandmother would be proud, except I’m pretty sure my grandmothers both died before I was born.
I gather more silk. Hours, perhaps days, float past. Calm replaces anxiety. Acceptance replaces calm.
Throbbing in my cheek brings me back to myself.
I hang centre-ship, facing the window and the galaxy. Earth is no longer visible, but one planet is less than insignificant among centillion’s of celestial bodies. A speck on a mote of dust.
The web is complete. A spun dreamcatcher. It connects everything in the ship to me, and through me, them. I wriggle and the movement shivers out along the strands.
My cheek burns and prickles. Seeking relief, I rub it against the web. A crawling sensation spreads across my face. I close my eyes. The pressure in my cheek lessens.
The receiver spits out an angry burst. I open my eyes. A few spider babies still scurry through the web, but most have settled in.
The shuttle continues on its journey to the colony. Our new home.