On the Ontology of Glass Spiders
Michael H. Payne
“Glass spiders?” Just saying that second word was enough to send shivers squirming across Moira’s scalp, her tightly wrapped bun feeling like a tennis ball bouncing around on the back of her head.
“It’s okay,” Casey said, shoveling her mouth full of soup. Of course, speaking and shoveling at the same time turned her slurp into a slobber, spots speckling the front of her lab coat and her whole side of the kitchen counter, but as usual, she didn’t notice. At least she was sporting a buzzcut this month: when they’d been kids, Casey’s hair had always looked duller and grayer than Moira’s glossy black because Casey couldn’t be bothered to wash or even brush it. “It’s not that the spiders are really glass,” she went on. “It’s more that they’re a kinda silicon-based lifeform so the webs they spin will be a sorta wi-fi receptive fiber optic cable.”
Did that make them better or worse than regular spiders? Moira couldn’t decide, so instead she asked, “You’ve created a whole new form of insect just to make fiberglass?”
Casey laughed, and Moira scrupulously didn’t look at the dark tangle of her sister’s teeth. “First, fiber optic’s got nothing to do with fiberglass, and second, spiders aren’t insects.” She waved one of the rolls Moira had brought home from work, Moira flinching at the tiny impacts of crumbs against her face. “I could tell you more, but then they’d never find my body! I mean, you wanna talk about non-disclosure agreements? This one’s a beaut! Just the right mix of carrots and sticks if you know what I mean!”
Moira decided once again not to point out that she’d pretty much stopped knowing what Casey meant before their shared sixth birthday. By then, Casey had started doing more and more peculiar things with bugs, and her work at the science fair their freshman year in high school had caught the eye of someone at Borolus Labs outside town. She’d interned there till graduation, had been hired full-time the next day, and had been making so much money the past ten years that Moira got to live in a nice little house a block from the bay while still working at the bakery downtown like she had since junior high.
“Anyway!” Picking up her bowl, Casey slurped the rest of her soup. “I’ll be in the deep shop the next twenty-four hours, but I should be home for dinner tomorrow night.” She slammed the bowl onto the countertop. “Thanks, Moi! This is so much better’n the stuff at the labs’ cafeteria!”
With a smile, Moira pointed past Casey to the plastic cooler beside the door. “I put a midnight snack in there for you as well as some covered bowls for your breakfast and lunch tomorrow. Will I need to text you a reminder?”
“Nope.” Casey patted the side of her coat. “I’ve got my phone all set to make chewing noises at me every six hours like you said.” Leaping from her chair, she scooped her brown duster from the back of the sofa, wrapped herself in it, and pulled open the front door. “You’re the best, Moi!” She grabbed the cooler and charged out into the evening darkness.
Already getting up to close the door, Moira didn’t sigh. She’d text Casey anyway: photos, videos, funny little thoughts, anything to keep her sister from pulling back into her skull and never coming out again. But as much as Moira loved her sister and the challenge of finding interesting things to send her, being her caretaker got a little tiring sometimes.
Still, what other choice did she have? Back home, after one too many of Casey’s experiments had escaped, Mom and Dad had gotten insistent about her moving out. She and Moira had just turned eighteen, and, well, letting Casey go on her own was out of the question. Casey could make goldfish glow in the dark, could make houseflies smell like cinnamon, could make bees produce grape jelly instead of honey, but did she remember to eat? To sleep? To brush her teeth or bathe?
Closing the front door, then, Moira did sigh. She hadn’t a single real complaint about her life, but hearing the tidbits Casey dropped when she wasn’t rushing from one place to another made Moira wonder what she’d missed, doing exactly the same thing every day for the past dozen years.
No time to brood on it, though. She had to be up before dawn to get the early donuts done at the bakery.
By four o’clock the next afternoon, Moira was humming, practically skipping up the street heading home after her shift. The springtime sunlight dappled through the ficus trees, and the aroma of the chocolate croissants in the bag dangling from her fingertips brightened the neighborhood even more—she’d already sent Casey a picture of the pastries in an effort to entice her home for supper.
She did a little Ginger Rogers spin on the sidewalk when she reached their gate, pushed inside, started up the steps—
And stopped, her gaze freezing on the window above the front door. The afternoon sun slanted across it, and Moira could only stare at the network of jagged cracks splintering over it in concentric circles.
Had a bird hit it? No, any animal big enough to do that much damage would’ve shattered the whole thing, and as far as Moira could tell, the glass didn’t have any holes in it at all. Even the cracks, she thought, didn’t seem to go all the way through, like they were—
Were they only on the inside?
Pressing herself against the door and craning her neck, she could see the outside surface shining smooth and unbroken. The cracks didn’t reappear till she stepped back.
Suddenly, even the smell of the chocolate croissants couldn’t warm her. She fumbled in her purse for her keys, unlocked the door, and slowly pushed it open.
It didn’t scrape against shards of glass scattered over the carpet because there weren’t shards of glass scattered over the carpet. But when she stepped inside and looked up, the circles of cracks stood out clearly.
Except…the cracks were moving now, undulating in the breeze from the doorway. They weren’t touching the window at all somehow, were floating with a light prismatic sheen a fraction of an inch away from the surface, the edges anchored to the corners of the window like—
Like a big glass spider web.
“No,” Moira heard herself saying out loud. “No, no, no, no, no.” She wasn’t shouting it, and that surprised her a little, but, well, this wasn’t exactly the first time Casey had brought her work home with her.
Slamming the door, Moira stomped into the kitchen, set the croissants carefully on the counter—they were chocolate, after all—grabbed the broom, and marched back out to the entryway. Whether Casey got home tonight or days from now, Moira would express her displeasure as to this situation in no uncertain terms. But first things first.
She raised the business end of the broom and did a quick glance over and around the whole web without seeing an occupant. She swallowed, but maybe the creature had melted in the concentrated sunlight or something. She couldn’t imagine it would leave after spinning such an intricate and sparkly pattern—and it really was quite stunning in the afternoon light, tiny rainbows flickering along every strand and casting themselves down over the living room’s white carpeting.
Then she remembered that she was looking at a spider web, and shuddering, she shoved the broom upward into it. The strands tinkled like miniature teacups shattering, but they stuck to the corn straw like regular cobwebs; winding them quickly around the bristles, she dabbed at the edges of the window, made sure she was sweeping away the entire—
“Hey!” a tiny voice shouted beside her. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jerking away from the sound, Moira snapped her head over to see something floating and shimmering there in the sunlight.
No, not floating: it was hanging from a glistening filament that seemed to reach up to the ceiling. Two of its eight legs curled to crook against what looked like a cinched waist, and multiple emerald eyes fixed glaring upon her. “Do you know how long it took me to spin that?” the tiny voice shouted.
Several blinks revealed that the entire semi-translucent figure—including the span of its long, spindly legs—took up less space than the average plum. But when it waved half those legs at the window, size didn’t matter. All that mattered was its tiny voice going on: “Since dawn! That’s how long! And you just sweep it away in a matter of seconds! Who do you think you are, anyway?”
Moira found that she didn’t have an answer to that.
Why she didn’t faint, Moira wasn’t sure. Not that she’d ever been much of a fainter. But then she’d never been yelled at by a glass spider, either. “You,” she finally managed to squeak. “You shouldn’t be here.”
The spider folded its front legs across its—well, not its chest, but Moira couldn’t at the moment recall the technical terms for arachnid body parts. “I’m a spider,” it said. “According to some, I should never be anywhere.”
Ignoring the sections of her brain that were demanding she curl up into a screaming ball in the corner, Moira grabbed her purse and started digging for her phone. “That’s it!” she hissed between clenched teeth. “Of all the bone-headed things my sister’s done—!”
“Wait! Please!” When the spider waved all its legs at once, every color Moira could imagine flashed in the air around it. “Don’t send me back! I mean, I love Katherine, of course, what with her being my creator and all, but—” The spider drew its legs in and shivered on the end of its line. “Well, she’s a bit of a slob.”
“Oh, really?” Moira wrenched the phone out. “You mean the way she lets intelligent spiders escape from her lab?”
“We’re not intelligent!” The spider was flailing again. “Only I am! My sisters and I are connected, see, like fiber optic nodes in a communications network, but I seem to be where all our sapience is concentrated! The other girls are mindlessly content, sipping silica gel and churning out reams of glass fiber, so there’s no one for me to talk to! I’ve tried striking up conversations with Katherine, but she’s always crashing about, never staying still long enough for me to get a word in! Speaking frankly, I could barely stand hiding in her brassiere long enough to make my escape yesterday! I mean, when did she last wash that thing? A decade ago?”
The phone hung from Moira’s fingertips, her mind frantically trying to sort through what she’d just heard. But all she could manage to say was, “Casey.”
The spider’s glittering green eyes blinked. “What?”
“My sister. She hates being called Katherine. She says it sounds way too dignified for her.” Moira let her phone fall back into her purse. “You…you’re really the only one in your whole family who can think?”
The spider seemed to wilt like a flower in autumn. “It just doesn’t make sense! I mean, why me? Can I really even talk about ‘me’? Shouldn’t I say ‘us’ since I’m apparently some kind of composite being? Maybe it’s that I have an individual identity as the result of the distributed intelligence function of the software Katherine used to design us! Or am I merely the unintended consequence of the wireless connection that binds my sisters and me?”
Fortunately, the back of the sofa was right behind Moira so when her knees went rubbery, she just fell a few inches instead of slumping all the way to the floor. “How do you even know English?” she finally asked.
When the spider shrugged, it used all its legs. “From the internet. I was connected to Katherine’s account at the lab, so I’ve been reading the messages and watching the cat videos you send her every day. You seemed so friendly that when I wasn’t having any luck talking to Katherine—I mean, Casey—I thought I’d try you. I couldn’t contact you directly since the lab monitors all outgoing e-mail, so once I got here, I began spinning that web as an antenna to tap into your wi-fi and send you a text introducing myself. But then you came in and swept it away.” It did some more glaring. “And if you make a single joke about spiders surfing the web, I swear I’ll bite you.”
With a grin, Moira started to say that such a thought had never crossed her mind when she realized she was grinning. At a spider. At a glass spider. At a talking glass spider. At a talking glass spider her sister had made and inadvertently brought home with her.
“I need a chocolate croissant,” Moira declared. “Can I get you anything?”
Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a croissant made things, well, not saner. Less insane maybe.
The spider was currently perched quivering on the lid of the butter dish and crunching away at some grains of salt Moira had shaken out for it. “I can’t abandon them,” it was saying. “They’re my sisters! But I can’t go back, either! Locked up in that place, I’ll go crazy, and, I mean, I’ve got all our sapience! If I lose my mind, I’ll be losing everybody’s mind, and maybe that’ll set us all off on a rampage or something! Think about it! I’d be responsible for loosing a plague of glass spiders upon an unsuspecting world!” It clasped its front legs together. “What’m I gonna do, Moira? What’m I gonna do?”
Not having any answers, Moira instead changed the subject. “We should give you a name,” she said.
For a few seconds, the house was silent—the first time that had happened all afternoon, Moira thought. Then the spider asked, “What?”
Moira sighed. “Look, I’m just a baker. I don’t know anything about science or philosophy, but I do know that you’re not an ‘it.’ You’re a person who loves her sisters, who wants to help them but doesn’t know how, who doesn’t even know what she’s doing or why she’s doing it. And to me, that means you need a name.”
Even though she could barely see the spider’s mandibles, Moira could tell they’d shifted sideways. “If you even breathe the word ‘Charlotte,’ I’ll threaten to bite you again.”
With a scowl, Moira folded her arms. “I was going to suggest Zoe.”
“Ooo.” The spider stood straighter on the butter dish. “That’s got a ring of intrigue about it.” She slid down to the table and began to strut across it, her eyes half closed. “With a trench coat and slouch-brim fedora, I could break hearts on every continent.”
The laugh that bubbled up from inside Moira felt so right and natural, she let it out, clapping her hands for good measure. “Then it’s settled! You’ll be staying here, going to work with me, and learning all about the world!”
Zoe stopped beside the sugar bowl. “Excuse me?”
“Well?” Moira spread her hands. “For the sake of your sisters, you need to stay sane. I’ve been doing exactly that for my sister for as long as I can remember, and I’ll be happy to show you how!”
“You—” Again, Zoe clutched her forelegs to her thorax—was that the word? The first thing Moira needed to do was learn some spider anatomy. “You’d do that?” Zoe finished, a choke in her tiny voice.
Her throat tightening, Moira managed to get out, “I’m really looking forward to it.” Then she swallowed and stood. “Right now, though, we need to get dinner ready in case Casey actually comes wandering home tonight.”
Having someone to talk to while she cooked changed the whole experience, Moira discovered. At the bakery, she’d always taken the early shift to be alone while she mixed, spread, formed, and cut the dough, the sliding of the big metal trays in and out of the oven the loudest sound in the whole place. But now with Zoe ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over every little thing while adding her own commentary…
“Do you think maybe a tiny bit more oregano?” the spider was asking, clinging to the edge of the fan hood over the stovetop and waving her forelegs through the steam rising from the soup pot. “I got interested in cooking after reading all the messages you send Casey about what you’re making for dinner, but when I poked around a few websites…” She shook her head. “Your approach to spices just makes more sense to me.”
Moira nodded. She wanted to ask if that was because Zoe seemed to have patterned her entire personality on Moira’s, but no. The last thing the spider needed right now was another existential crisis.
So instead, Moira reached for the oregano shaker and gave it a tap. “Most recipes call for too much garlic, I’ve always thought. But for me ‘any’ is the same as ‘too much,’ so I might not be the best judge of that.” She cocked her head. “Can you even taste things? I mean, how—?”
At that point, the front door burst open behind her, and Casey’s voice shouted, “Look out, you idiots!” Snapping her head around, Moira could only stare over the kitchen counter at the dozen figures in white hazmat suits who began flooding into the living room.
“Stop!” Casey went on shouting. “Are you morons even listening to me?”
A tiny “Eeep!” tickled Moira’s ears followed by an actual tickling at the collar of her shirt, something not quite ice cold and more than a little prickly scurrying up the back of her head till it reached the base of her hair bun.
Part of her brain started screaming, “Spider! Spider! Spider!” But Moira forced the rest of her brain to yell back, “Zoe! Zoe! Zoe!” in the hope that the two parts might drown each other out.
This back and forth pretty much froze her in place, but that, she decided, watching the suited figures pull instruments from their belts and wave them at the living room walls and furniture from her spot in front of the stove, was probably a good thing. Otherwise, she might be tempted to do as much shouting as Casey was.
She hadn’t realized that Casey had picked up such a colorful vocabulary, though…
Her sister finally shoved herself inside between the two workers who’d remained in the doorway. “This is my house!” she was currently shouting. “And this is my sister! You goons’re gonna suspend activities right the Hell now, or I will personally see to it that Borolus Labs doesn’t pay for your funerals tomorrow!” She smacked the one spraying some sort of mist over the curtains. “This percolating through that headset of yours, punk?”
The figure flinched, turned, tapped a button at his or her throat, and said in a buzzing voice: “Dr. O’Shaughnessy, we have a potentially major breach of—”
“Don’t you ‘Dr. O’Shaughnessy’ me!” Casey shook her right index finger in front of the suit’s solid black faceplate and waved her other hand toward the ceiling. “My sister’s a gentle and delicate soul, God damn it, and she’s my responsibility! So if you jerkwads have scared her, there won’t be a hole deep enough for you to hide from me in!” Flailing, Casey shot a glance sideways, Moira speechless again to see such fire in her sister’s glare, then Casey was whirling to face her completely. “Moira! Are you OK?”
It took some effort, but Moira nodded. “I was making soup,” she heard herself say, and the way her voice warbled made her wince even more than the realization that Casey apparently thought that she was Moira’s keeper.
Emotions stormed across Casey’s face: relief was one, Moira was sure, and anger another, but the rest sparked and vanished like static on a fleece blanket just out of the dryer. “Don’t panic!” Casey shouted, rushing across the living room carpet and through the doorway into the kitchen. “We just…we think I might’ve…ummm…”
The suited figure Casey had been speaking to buzzed again. “We need to get her into a number three containment bubble.”
Casey whirled again. “If any of you so much as moves, your wives will become widows and your children orphans!” When she spun back, her left eye was twitching, but her voice came out at a much more reasonable volume. “We were just wondering if you might’ve maybe seen something…weird…in the house today.” Her mouth went sideways. “Other than, y’know, these jerks.” She waved across the kitchen counter at the living room.
Stalling for time, Moira let her gaze follow Casey’s gesture, let her eyes go wide and her mouth drop open. All the suited figures had their blank faceplates turned toward her, so she shifted her focus upward away from their eyeless stares to the now-darkened window above the front door—
And knew exactly what she had to do.
“Yes!” She tried to say it breezily, off-handedly, like she’d forgotten all about it till just that moment, but instead it exploded out of her like air from a stabbed balloon. “Let me show you!” With one hand, she reached for the door to the cupboard under the sink where they kept the trash bin; the other hand, she wrapped around the collar of Casey’s lab coat and hauled her down to squat with her on the kitchen floor so they’d be below the sightline of the people in the living room. “See?” She tipped the trash can toward a blinking Casey, the glass web shards tinkling in the bottom, and whispered, “Pretend the spider’s crushed in there, too!”
All noise in the kitchen, in the house, maybe in the whole entire city just plain stopped, then Casey said, “What?”
Eyes fixed on her sister’s confused face, Moira tried to speak quickly, quietly, and clearly. “The spider’s name is Zoe. She can talk and she’s really nice and you have to pretend that I killed her when I swept up her web or she’ll have to go back to the lab and that’ll drive her crazy!” She turned her head to the side and pointed a shaking finger at her bun. “Say hi to Casey, Zoe!”
For half a shattering heartbeat, nothing kept on happening, and scenes of her future locked in a padded room began flashing through Moira’s head.
Then that cold prickle shifted along the back of her neck, and a tiny quivering voice said, “Hi, Casey.”
Casey had taken the trash bin out to the team in the living room, and they’d carefully scooped all the shimmering fragments into plastic bags. “That’s it,” Moira heard Casey tell the one she’d been yelling at earlier. “I can see remains of the eyes, the book lungs, the spinnerets, everything in among the webbing. Make sure each bag gets sealed, and if anyone even breathes on ’em before I get there, I’ll skin you all. Just leave ’em on my desk in the operations center, and I’ll be back at the lab as soon as I get my sister settled.”
Nodding, the whole batch of them trooped out, and Casey closed the door—apparently they’d used the knob when they’d come busting in; at least, the latch didn’t seem to be broken. That had been nice of them, Moira thought, but less nice was the way Casey was still standing there staring at the doorknob, rubbing the back of one hand, and possibly mumbling to herself: Moira couldn’t quite tell from where she was sitting on her side of the kitchen counter.
The tickling along her neck this time hardly even set Moira’s brain to gibbering. “Wow,” Zoe muttered directly into her ear. “Is she OK?”
“Probably,” Moira muttered back, then she raised her voice. “Why don’t you come on over and sit down, Casey? Then I can introduce you.”
Spinning, Casey wobbled, one hand shooting out to grab the door frame while the other snatched at the open lapels of her lab coat. She stood that way for a long minute before finally asking, “How?”
Moira blinked. “Well, like I said, Zoe can talk. So if you say, ‘hi,’ she’ll say ‘hi,’ and things’ll go on from there.” She patted the counter. “C’mon! She doesn’t bite. Unless—” Glancing sideways, she could just make out the spider glimmering on her right shoulder. “You don’t have some big, fiendish scheme going on here or anything, do you?”
“No! Never!” Zoe waved her forelegs. “For one thing, Casey, you’re my creator, so it wouldn’t be polite to—”
“Stop it!” Casey lurched away from the door, her teeth and fists clenched. “I don’t know how or why you’re doing this, Moira, but it’s not funny!”
“What?” The heat Moira could suddenly feel boiling away from Casey nearly made her jump up to put more space between them. “Casey, I’m not—”
“Not possible!” Stumbling forward, Casey pounded a fist against the back of the sofa. “My whole life, I’ve dreamed that someday, somehow, one of my projects would look up at me and start talking!” She shook her head so violently, she almost fell over again. “But it doesn’t happen! It can’t happen! It…can’t!” Her words dissolved into sobs, and she fell to her knees on the living room carpet.
“Casey!” Moira shouted at the same time as Zoe; leaping up, she slid around the counter and dropped to the floor beside her sister. “It’s true! Zoe’s real! You did something nobody else has ever done! Because that’s what you always do, Casey!” She threw her arms around her, and Casey did the same, buried her face in Moira’s shoulder, and started hiccupping. Which was when Moira remembered Zoe.
“I’m OK,” that crystal-clear but tiny voice called out, and Moira craned her head back to see something like a little eight-pointed star hanging by a stretch of tinsel from the top of the kitchen doorway. “I thought things might get a little emotional down there, so I bailed out at the last minute. Can’t be too careful when you’re a glass spider, y’know.”
A gasp rattled out of Casey, staring with damp eyes over Moira’s shoulder up at Zoe. “It… I… I’m actually hearing her speak….”
Moira smiled, but then Casey was pushing away, covering her face with her hands and scooting across the carpet till she thumped into the door of the coat closet. “This is terrible!” she shouted. “I’m a monster! Worse than a monster!”
Talking with Casey always gave Moira a bit of mental whiplash, but the last few minutes had been way worse than usual. “But wait.” Moira looked back and forth between her sister and the spider. “It’s your dream come true, isn’t it? Weren’t you just saying—”
“I created an intelligent species!” With Casey’s hands still over her face, Moira had to strain to understand her. “And then I enslave it in an industrial sweatshop! I’m, like, all the worst mad scientist clichés rolled into one!”
“What?” Zoe flailed her legs, her body flashing the whole spectrum and swinging in ever-increasing arcs from her web. “That’s crazy! That’s like…like saying your kidneys are slaves ’cause you never invite them out for tea!”
Casey peered up from between her fingers, and Zoe let go of her line, somersaulted through the air, landed with a bell-like jingle on Casey’s knee, Moira’s heart fluttering. “I couldn’t live without my sisters,” she said, “but they’re pretty much just spiders. I’ve got a totally different set of priorities from them, and there’s no use getting upset about it.” She made a little huffing sound. “I can see I got here just in time: you two need someone like me to take care of you.”
“You?” On her hands and knees, Moira scurried to where Casey was staring open mouthed at Zoe. “I’m the one who’ll be taking care of everything around here! Same as always!”
“What?” That seemed to shock Casey’s attention away from the spider, her hands falling to her sides, her face still wet. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even have a place to live!”
Glaring from her purse-lipped sister to the spider vibrating on her knee, Moira couldn’t stop a laugh from bubbling out. Casey broke an instant later, her laugh more whooping than Moira’s, and the little chittering sound that Zoe was making sure sounded like laughter to Moira.
“All right, then.” With a flourish, Moira settled her hand on Casey’s other knee. “All for one?”
Casey’s hand covered hers, and Zoe hopped on top. “And one for all,” they both said at the same time, and that got them giggling again.
“So.” Moira took a breath and blew it out. “The plan is: we have soup, Casey gets back to work, Zoe finds someplace other than the front window to spin her web, and I get to sleep.” Her eyes on the spider, Moira squeezed her sister’s knee. “After all, some of us have to show others of us how to make donuts tomorrow morning!”
Michael H. Payne’s novels have been published by Tor Books and Sofawolf Press while his stories have appeared in Asimov’s, the Writers of the Future Contest collections, and the last ten volumes of the annual Sword & Sorceress anthology. He’s been writing and drawing at least ten pages of webcomics a week for the past twelve and a half years, and he helps curate My Little Pony fan fiction for the websites of Equestria Daily and the Royal Canterlot Library. Check hyniof.com for more details.