Short story by Iris Carden
I felt the gossamer-light, grey fabric. It was softer, lighter and finer than anything I had ever felt. I imagined faeries wearing clothes made from it.
“What is it?” I asked, “A new genetically-modified Egyptian cotton? You’ve bred a merino with even finer fleece than superfine?”
“Guess again,” Aaron Sheffield replied, hanging his head down to look at me, in the way that extremely tall men always seemed to hang their heads.
“Just tell me,” I responded, still running my hands over the cloth. It was beyond anything I’d ever seen or felt before.
“Let me show you,” he said. He walked on ahead of me and I followed through the labyrinth of offices and labs in the complex.
Finally we came to a room with a glass wall. On the other side of the wall was the biggest spider I’d ever seen. I’ve spent most of my life in Queensland. I’ve seen huntsman spiders bigger than my hand. I’ve seen bird spiders big enough to hunt and kill birds. I’ve seen huge redbacks with their dangerous red flash across their huge round abdomens. I’ve never seen anything like this. It was at least four metres long.
“What the hell?” I asked stupidly.
Sheffield laughed. ‘Darwin’s bark spiders are orb-weaver spiders, which spin a silk fibre ten times stronger than kevlar. It’s the toughest natural fibre in the world. Females, like Edith here, are usually only about two centimetres long. They don’t produce enough silk to be worth harvesting. We’ve done a little genetic tinkering. Edith is one of four females we’ve created.”
Edith with her black body, red lumpy knees, and just her massive size, was the most horrible thing I had ever seen.
“Is she carnivorous?” I whispered.
“Of course. All spiders are. Her wild relatives create huge web bridges over watercourses in Madagascar and catch insects which use the water for breeding. For these first test subjects, we’re feeding sheep, goats and the occasional kangaroo.”
Edith turned, so that her giant mandible was facing me. I felt a creeping cold come over me. Would a spider the size of an elephant be capable of eating humans?
“With further research and development, it’s possible that these genetically enhanced spiders could actually be the basis of a future fibre industry. You’ve seen the fabric woven from her silk. Feral and other problem animals could be used as a food supply. It would be far less stress on the environment than cotton, or even wool. The fibre is strong and hardwearing and much lighter than other products of similar strength. Have you ever picked up a police kevlar vest? They’re heavy, and hot and uncomfortable. What if police and military could have better protection from a fibre at less than a quarter of the weight? At the same time, you could have jeans tougher than any denim, but as light as cheesecloth. Who wouldn’t want that?”
I was not really listening to Sheffield. I was entirely focussed on Edith. I was sure she was looking at me, and wondering how I would taste. There were three others? Where were those monsters?
“Is she secure? She can’t get out? Can’t breed and become feral?”
“She can’t breed, because we only made females. Any males of her species in existence are far away in Madagascar, and are only about a centmetre and a half long. She can’t get out because, when she’s not in the room where you see her, she’s in a purpose built enclosure, which has electrified outer fences and security officers on duty twenty-four seven.”
I became sure that Edith was studying me just as much as I was her.
“As I was saying,” Sheffield continued, “we are now starting to look at purposes for the adhesive which the spider uses in conjunction with the web for catching prey. It’s not quite so amazing as the protein fibre of the silk, but we’re looking at multiple industrial uses.”
I wanted to turn to the scientist, but I couldn’t look away from Edith, so I said to her, “You said something about needing more funding?”
“Well, yes,” Sheffield said. “Your initial fifty million, you can see has brought us a long way, toward developing this new alternative to synthetic fibres. We will need the same again to bring this to mass market. Unless we produce a marketable product, you won’t get your money back, let alone make a profit. ”
I continued to stare, transfixed, at Edith, and her multiple eyes continued to appear to stare at me. When I’d commissioned Sheffield and his lab to come up with a new fibre alternative, I’d had no thought of anything like this monstrosity.
Somewhere, an alarm sounded.
Moments later, there seemed to be alarms blaring all over the facility. Sheffield picked up the internal telephone from the wall next to window we were looking through. As he dialled the number, the power went out. For a while we were in total darkness, with only the glint of Edith’s shining eyes providing any light. Then some red emergency lights came on.
I could hear some yelling, people running, and other unexplained noises throughout the complex.
In the red light, we witnessed Edith pushing against the wall beside her, the wall collapsing, and Edith throwing a long dragline web into the distance then scampering away along it in a way I’d never have imagined something that size could.