Sunday, February 26, 2012
THE TERMITE QUEEN: v.1: THE SPEAKING OF THE DEAD (Chapter 7)
[A link to the following extract from THE TERMITE QUEEN: VOLUME ONE: THE SPEAKING OF THE DEAD will appear on the Third Sunday Blog Carnival on March 18, 2012. For those of you who have not read earlier extracts, the story is laid in the 30th century. Prf. Tió’otu A'a'ma is an extraterrestrial (a human-sized eagle from the planet Krisí’i’aid) and Luku !eya Kash is another ET (a human-sized lemur from the planet Quornam). The creature that has just died was a giant worker termite that exhibited signs of intelligence and possibly language.]
Horatio: Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!
Marcellus: ’Tis gone, and will not answer.
– from William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“It’s dead,” Kaitrin said, steadying herself in the doorframe. “Tió’otu, it died. It laid its head in my lap and – it died.”
She was aware of the scientists in the room, of Gwidian standing motionless, staring at her with a slight frown and unreadable eyes. In spite of a gritty effort of will, she found herself sobbing against Prf. A’a’ma’s feathery neck.
<Khedazi go’ol Kaitrin] !I zi↔ oví<↔ fs♪i’o↓] Go♪ fereigí↑ bela nei♪ bi’át♫♫] twittered the lilting bird-voice.
It’s all right, Kaitrin. It has been a hard day. Your heart cares, my nestling. Somehow Tió’otu’s comforting warbles were not making self-control any easier.
She pushed herself away from him. “I’m sorry, Tió’otu,” she said. “I shouldn’t have touched you. They’ll make you go through detox again.”
“Who cares? There is not one organism left on me to be assassinated!”
She laughed shakily, palming away tears. Across the room Gwidian had come to life, issuing instructions as his assistants scurried around preparing to enter the cube. “Bring out the recorder,” she said. “Get the transceptors off its head! Tió’otu, it wanted to come to me. It put its head in my lap. It laid its antennae against my chest – on purpose, I swear. And it – it hooked its claw here … ” She fingered her shirt. “Look, I had to tear the material to get it loose. No, Prf. Gwidian, it didn’t scratch me. Oh, here we go again … ”
Med Security had burst into the room. “Go back to Detox,” said Gwidian in a strange, rough tone. “We’ll make sense of this tomorrow, after the physicians reassess you.”
“All right! But the recorder … ”
“It must be decontaminated, but don’t fret – nothing will be done to harm the contents.”
“♫ It is my recorder and I will look after it,” said A’a’ma. “Now be good for me, Kaitrin, and obey the MedTechs.”
On the way out, she said to Gwidian, “I suppose you must dissect it.”
“It’s necessary, of course.” Then he said, “Would you like to observe?”
She looked at him sharply, thinking he was being purposely cruel. But she saw no mockery in his face, only a direct seriousness. “No,” she said. “I don’t even want to know when you do it!” And she allowed herself to be whisked out the door.
* * *
At 0900h the next morning Kaitrin paced the outer chamber of her quarters in the Detox Unit, waiting for the others to arrive. Prf. A’a’ma was first to appear and he was carrying the recorder.
“Kaitrin! How are you feeling?”
She pounced on him, seizing the recorder. “Perfectly fine! Tió’otu, before anybody else gets here, I want to apologize for getting so emotional yesterday. My behavior was completely unprofessional.”
“Tsit tsit – it is understandable!”
“I suppose it’s because I never had anything die in my lap before, even a pet. We always had cats when I was growing up, but it was Mamá who took care of things when they got old or sick … Anyway, I couldn’t sleep. I kept feeling those antennae vibrating against my ribs and then that sudden stillness … ”
“I understand. I understand.”
“I confess I asked the MedTech for a sleeping pill. I’m a little ashamed … I’ve sworn never to let anything in the course of my work get to me, no matter how bizarre it was.”
A’a’ma tapped his invisible ear hole, the Kr♪isí’i’aid version of laying a finger on one’s lips. “We will not tell anyone in the universe that you broke this oath,” he said.
“Do you think we got anything on the recorder? You haven’t played it, have you?”
“No! I would not steal the pleasure of that from you!”
“If there is, what will we do next?”
“We will know soon enough – here is Prf. Gwidian!”
The entomologist’s eyes latched onto the recorder as he came in. “Congratulate me!” Kaitrin said. “The doctor says I can get out of prison day after tomorrow if I promise to come in for tests every day for a week. I got the feeling somebody put pressure on our medical tyrants. Tió’otu?”
“Partly, partly. But Prf. Gwidian had something to do with it, too.”
“He did? You did? Does that mean I’m not off the project?”
“This question prompts me to remind you,” said Gwidian, “that you have never officially been a part of the project.”
A’a’ma huffed. “It all hinges on what we find on this recorder. Shall we end the suspense?”
“What are we using for a receiving medium?”
“The translation matrix was useless, so I removed it, but the transducer and the amplifier remain in place. If there is anything there, the unit should produce some kind of chaotic sound.”
Kaitrin settled herself in front of the recorder and activated the port for the first track.
Nothing. They waited. Nothing. “That was the transceptor near the back of the head,” she said a bit huskily. “The next is from the center.”
Nothing. Gwidian leaned back in his chair; Tió’otu ruffled his crest and nictitated. Kaitrin gritted her teeth and jabbed the control for the third port. “The base of the left antenna.”
Static. Broken static, stuttering with tiny hiatuses. “Oh, god,” whispered Kaitrin.
She deactivated the third port, activated the fourth. The same stream of intermittent sound crackled.
“Wait, let me … ” She rewound and activated the two ports simultaneously. The two tracks synchronized perfectly, and with increased intensity.
Then the recorder squealed and a robotic voice said, Error message. Translation failed for language track recorded 1900h 8.13.214. Reason: absence of translation matrix.
“Tió’otu, that’s it!” Kaitrin cried, jumping up. “We’ve got it – we’ve got it!!” She grabbed a twittering Prf. A’a’ma and hugged him. “It recorded a language transmission – it even calls it that! Now, Prf. Gwidian, now you don’t dare be such a spoilsport, do you?”
The entomologist made a vague noise, scowling at the recorder as if trying to discern what malfunction could have persuaded the device to register such an absurd conclusion.
“We need a visual display,” said A’a’ma. “I have to confess, I am no expert in this technology,”
“Tió’otu, let’s bring in Luku. She would know better than anyone how to modify … ”
“A moment!” said Gwidian. “Xenoentomology has plenty of proficient technicians … ”
Never one to be intimidated by superiors, Kaitrin let her excitement overmaster her judgment. “Prf. Gwidian, this project has passed way beyond your field. You can no longer deny this is a first-contact situation, which puts it solidly in the province of xenoanthropology!”
Gwidian had bristled. “I see that you’ve forgotten, Asc. Oliva, who mounted this expedition. I’m not about to consign this unique insectoid species to XA on the basis of one recording of bioelectric static! A’a’ma was never more than a consultant, and your role … well, I’ve tolerated your intrusion, but … ”
A’a’ma was flapping his arms. “/Chitú<^ ♫po·atré Wéwana♪] I knew this is what it would come to!”
“Tió’otu, how dare you call me a ‘stork-head’?” cried Kaitrin, favoring her old friend with a humorously ferocious scowl.
Gwidian exploded with a mixture of annoyance and laughter. “‘Stork-head?’ You understand his language?”
“Of course I understand it – it’s my specialty! And he just called us both a ‘pair of stork-heads’!”
“Kaitrin! You are betraying me!” cried A’a’ma.
“Well, not really storks – the Wéwana are the ciconiiform species on Krisí’i’aid. The !Ka<tí consider them to be stubborn and impulsive and inclined not to think things through clearly, so where we might say ‘bot-brain’ or ‘nitwit,’ they say ‘Wéwana-heads.’”
“Kaitrin! You betray me! It is the delight of my life that you have learned my language, but not when you betray me!” Tió’otu hopped about ruffling his feathers in distress.
“‘A pair of stork-heads.’ Aren’t we that, though?” Kaitrin’s incorrigibly irreverent sense of the absurd was overpowering her. “You’ve no idea, Prf. Gwidian … what a profound acquaintance I’ve gained … with !Ka<tá expletives … ” Helpless laughter choked her words.
That laughter was infectious. A’a’ma caught it, then Gwidian. Gwidian’s laugh was surprisingly deep; Tió’otu sounded like a kookaburra.
An alarmed MedTech stuck her head through the door. “Is everything all right in here?”
A’a’ma waved a claw, unable to speak. Gwidian rose. “Sorry if we’ve disturbed anyone,” he said, “but it’s rather a private matter, don’t you know?” He ushered her out and shut the door with an exaggerated flourish.
A’a’ma sighed, preening his unsettled neck feathers with his beak. “Were we arguing about something before all this undignified nikák↓~akak began?”
“About who has jurisdiction over this termite project, I fear,” said Kaitrin.
“Oh, yes. No one is trying to deny that the expedition began under the sponsorship of xenozoology. However, Prf. Gwidian, I concur with the Associate that a new dimension has revealed itself. Here is what I would suggest – that we avoid interdepartmental squabbling and undertake a joint endeavor. Work together – XA and XZ – in harmony, I hope? ♪♫♪ ”
“The team leader … ” Kaitrin began.
A’a’ma cut her off hastily. “ … should be joint as well! The focus of our study is an insectoid, after all, so the expertise and leadership of a first-tier entomologist like Prf. Gwidian is imperative. But at the same time, the discovery of a new lifeform with potential language capability calls for a xenoanthropologist of some experience as co-leader, as well as the participation of an expert xenolinguist. If I may, I propose promoting myself from consultant to co-leader and the installation of Asc. Kaitrin Oliva here as the xenolinguist … ”
Gwidian was sitting with his chin in his hand, the index finger tapping his nose. He still seemed amused. He looked at Kaitrin. “Prf. A’a’ma can be quite the diplomat, what? – at least, when he’s speaking Inj! Might I suggest that you take some lessons from him, Associate?”
To her annoyance Kaitrin felt herself flushing. A retort came readily to mind: How about joining me in the class, Prf. Gwidian?
She bit it back and said, “I’d still like to bring Luku !eya Kash into this mix.”
“I concur!” said A’a’ma. “While I have the greatest confidence in XZ’s ComTechs, Professor, they may lack experience in linguistic endeavors. Luku !eya Kash is one of our best and Asc. Oliva is accustomed to working with her. I would strongly recommend her to you.”
“What sort of name is that?” asked Gwidian.
“Luku is a Tae Quornaz,” said Kaitrin.
“Of course. I wasn’t thinking,” said Gwidian. “We don’t have that many off-worlders among our own technical people. I’d have no objection to enlisting her help.”
“We’ll have to mount another expedition to 2 Giotta 17A,” said Kaitrin impulsively.
“Is that so!” said Gwidian. “Do you have any idea, Associate, what that entails? Obtaining funding – reserving a research vessel and scheduling appropriate personnel – arranging for others to assume one’s campus obligations … It could take a year.”
“Earth bureaucracy can indeed be cumbersome,” said A’a’ma, “and we need some solid data to make a proposal – after all, we really know nothing yet. But I can tell you that we would not have to wait a year for transportation. The ship from the first expedition is still here – laid up in the Kr♪isí’i’aid repair dock at Luna Base. While we were dashing back to Earth, something went awry with the gravity matrix.”
“Don’t tell me you spent the return trip in free-fall!” exclaimed Kaitrin.
“No, the opposite. Everybody was weighing at least ten kilos too much. Krisí’i’aidá have pneumatic bones – an evolutionary relic. Extra G’s can be disastrous. Why, one of our crewmembers broke his … What is that wonderful Inj expression for a bird’s tibiotarsus? Some kind of musical device … ”
“Drumstick,” said Kaitrin, her voice quivering.
“Yes, that is it! The crewmember broke his drumstick! So the ship is waiting for parts to arrive from one of our maintenance depots. It should be spaceworthy in a month or six weeks. It was scheduled to return to Krisí’i’aid, but I can pull a few strings, if – and I stress the ‘if’! – we can triumph over the bureaucracy and obtain authorization for another expedition.”
“You know, it just occurred to me – we completed less than half of this last expedition,” said Gwidian. “I could probably swing a transfer of at least that amount of funds.”
Kaitrin sat listening in a euphoric haze. The termite had a language … She was to be the xenolinguist who would study it … She might actually get to participate in an off-world expedition to this creature’s homeworld …
If she could go to 2 Giotta – if she could decipher the language and learn to communicate in it – she might somehow be able to make amends, to atone for the wrong that had been done to this harmless creature who had died in her lap.
“Tió’otu, I want to thank you,” she interrupted suddenly.
He looked at her. “For what, Kaitrin?”
“For taking my vacation away from me.”
“Heihei … /Gi nei♪ mong’á↑~]”
“I should like to know something,” said Gwidian. “If you’re so well-versed in the Professor’s bird-tongue, why don’t you ever speak it with him?”
Kaitrin shook her head. “I wish I could. But that’s just it – it’s a bird-tongue. There’s not a human throat on Earth, Prf. Gwidian, that can properly deliver those trills and warbles.”
“Besides, Kaitrin cannot whistle! ♪<<<♫” crowed A’a’ma triumphantly.
“True enough,” she said with rue. “He never lets me live that down.”
Later, as the conference was breaking up, Gwidian approached Kaitrin. “Allow me to give you credit, Associate,” he said. “There appears to be at least some evidence that this species has more about it than my colleagues and I have been able to detect, and you were ingenious – and persistent – enough to discover it. I anticipate that working with you on this project will be – quite remarkable.”
Kaitrin surveyed him quizzically.
“It’s only … Well, you keep surprising me, Professor.”
Unexpectedly, Gwidian’s face opened into a quite engaging smile. “Do I! May I say, I reciprocate that sentiment? We’ll all get together for a conference when the medical people are finished with you. In the meantime, I’ll see that you get clearance for any data that might become available.”
* * *
When Kaitrin messaged her mother two evenings later, her world had changed.
“Mamá, I was just released from Xenodetox this morning.”
“¡Válgame Dios!” Brigit Oliva exclaimed. “What did Tió’otu get you into?”
“He says I can talk about it now. There are so many rumors flying and no real reason to keep the project secret … ”
When Kaitrin had finished, Brigit said, “The things a mother has to worry about these days! Attacks by alien bichos gigantes!”
“Mamá, I won’t be able to come see you this week.”
Brigit sighed. “That certainly doesn’t surprise me!”
“But I promise I’ll come within the next two or three. My time has become more flexible since I won’t be teaching. I was excited about the new course, but this project is so much more significant. I have to submit a report to the Committee on Off-World Expeditions about our discoveries. Luku is part of the project – she and I will start analyzing the recording tomorrow. We’ll have to work like demons.”
“Yes! Isn’t it exciting? It will be my first! I mean, my first real one, with an official role and a defined goal – and it will be a first-contact situation, to boot!”
“The Morlasa … ”
“That was just apprentice stuff. It wasn’t a first contact and I didn’t particularly distinguish myself.”
“Not at first, but the linguistic work earned you a commendation.”
“Well, yes, but I still wasn’t happy with the way I performed in the field. And this is something much more important. This creature … it really touched me, Mamá.”
“‘Off-world.’ Oh, dear. Of course, I understand – it’s the field you went into … Why couldn’t you have stayed with good old safe Earth languages the way you first planned?”
Kaitrin laughed gently. “You can blame Tió’otu for that, too, I guess.”
“Will he be heading up this otherworldly jaunt?”
“Well … ” Kaitrin hesitated. For some reason, she had been reluctant to mention Prf. Gwidian. “He’ll be co-leader along with the entomologist who directed the original expedition. Prf. Griffen Gwidian.”
“Gwidian? Like the old Welsh god-hero? I never heard of him. Of course, the hard sciences are outside my normal sphere. I’ll look him up.”
Kaitrin felt a little relieved that her mother was unfamiliar with Gwidian, but she knew very well that she would look him up. “This really is a great opportunity, Mamá. I know you wouldn’t begrudge me that. And nothing will happen to me. I’ll be back sitting on your terrace and recounting my adventures before you know it.”
On the port screen, Brigit glanced down, then up with a tremulous smile. “That’s something like what Jaq said to me before he left to scale the Needle.”
“Oh! Mamacita, I’m sorry – lo siento mucho … But I promise you I’ll be all right. And I’m coming to see you before I leave – I swear I’ll do that, if I have to sneak away in the middle of the night and two-wheel it all the way to Pikes Mountain!”
* * *
Luku was elated about her new assignment. Kaitrin spent the next afternoon briefing her in the dimly lit tech lab where Luku denned up. The Te Quornaz squatted on the floor while Kaitrin hunched over the recorder at a table. Together they listened to the static.
Luku jumped up. “I will feed it to annie. We can do all kinds of things with that.”
Soon a spectrographic display was running on the EM analyzer. The transceptors from the base of the antennae had indeed yielded perfectly synchronized patterns.
“Slow it down,” said Kaitrin, and in a moment they were staring at a row of peaks, troughs, and hiatuses crawling sedately across the screen.
“What do you need?” asked Luku. “I can change speed, freeze, compare fragments … ”
“I wish I knew what to tell you. It’s like trying to decipher a cryptogram where the ciphertext is related to no known language. No context, no alphabet, no pictographs – just these boring, meaningless spectral patterns. I think I’m going to invent a new term to characterize it – ‘spectrographic language.’”
“It is maybe unique thing – pure brain code. You suppose the bugs have writing?”
“It seems unlikely, but I don’t know. I don’t know much. Nobody does.”
They stared some more. Then Kaitrin said, “Luku, stop it there. Now back up. There are a lot of hiatuses, but some are longer than others. There – a kind of hiccup, a series of one, two, three, four discrete signals separated by lesser breaks, then another hiccup. Those could be a kind of punctuation to set off a series of concepts, a phrase, a sentence even.”
“Oh, wonderful! I see it.”
“The sample is pretty small, but we should at least be able to get some inkling of the structure. Let’s produce a pattern analysis – match up repetitions.”
“How long should be the matching units?”
“Let’s start with anything between the hiccups, then anything between the smaller gaps. In fact, let’s start with this four-unit ‘phrase.’ And let’s use the term ‘stop’ instead of ‘hiccup.’ ‘Hiccup’ isn’t exactly a standard linguistic term!”
Luku’s long fingers flew over the touchpad. Two rows of waveforms began twitching across the screen and then, incredibly, a match turned up.
Luku froze the sequence and Kaitrin exclaimed, “Those are exactly the same! I’m so excited!”
“What does it mean?”
Kaitrin chuckled. “I suppose it means our informant expressed the same thought twice.”
“What would it say?”
“I haven’t the faintest notion. But I still find it exciting!”
“Wait … ” Luku entered some more commands and the pattern skittered, then froze. “Look! The final three-part unit is again here, amidst these others.”
“You’re right! Here, take the initial unit of our sample – let’s call it ‘Unit 1’ – and try to match it. Oh, my word! Five times!”
“Wait a minute! There it is again, with different pattern added to the end.”
“Let’s search for internal matches.”
In a few seconds the port screen displayed. Unit 1 – 16 matches.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Kaitrin.
“What does it mean?” Luku repeated.
“It means we may have found a very common lexical unit,” said Kaitrin. She reached over and diddled with the touchpad. The screen flashed, Unit 1 – 16 matches (5 discrete, 11 combined [9 initial, 2 medial, 0 final]).
“Unit 1 can be used as a separate entity or as a component. It’s frequently initial. It’s an important morpheme. Look, it occurs as the first unit of the last … Dare I call it sentence? Luku, whatever that last sequence means, my termite friend died right after he expressed it.”
“You are right, Kaitrin! This is exciting! Could this be noun, the sentence subject?”
“Could be, but we don’t know anything about the syntax of this language. Every sentence could start with a verb for all we know, or there could be no set word order – or this morpheme could be some kind of inflection or determinative or be utilized for several different purposes. So we don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
Kaitrin felt overwhelmed. Was there something here comparable to an alphabet? That was absurd – this was the language itself, directly from the brain, not a conventional written rendition of it. The analogy of syllabograms or logograms would make more sense. “I need more analysis,” she said. “Break it down as far as the annie can take it and give me the number of times each pattern occurs, both discrete and combined, and its position relative to other units.”
“I cannot do that much detail so quickly,” said Luku. “I would like to work on this by myself overnight, to be sure it is complete and accurate. It is important to be accurate.” Being a nocturnal creature, Luku did her most serious work during the hours when Earthers slept.
“That will be fine.” Kaitrin leaned back and stretched. “Let’s go have supper. I think I’m getting hungry.”
“Yes! I am growling inside!”
* * *
They went to the XA dining hall and found Prf. A’a’ma there, consuming scrambled eggs topped with an intimidating mulch of grilled, chopped green and red peppers. “Shall we sit down with this cannibal?” queried Kaitrin.
“/Fi’ú↑ fi’ú↑ fi’ú↑],” the ornithoid retorted cheerfully. “I do not eat the eggs of my own species any more than you eat your children! But I seem to recall that humans consume other mammals and that certain terrestrial avians prey on other birds. So I refuse to ruffle my crest at your insults!”
“I did not know that you !Ka<tí ate vegetables,” said Luku, sinking her long teeth into a chunk of pocket bread filled with chickpeas, melon, and hot peppers.
“We hardly ever do on our home planet,” A’a’ma said. “Our flesh food has all the nutrients we require. But on Earth you eat ridiculous things like those dirty-tasting tubers called potatoes! Anyway, I have been here so long that I have come to adore these sweet peppers! My wife thinks I am w♪ei’i↑wei’i↑. That is !Ka<tá for ‘crazy,’ in case you don’t know!”
“Mostly he eats his eggs raw,” said Kaitrin.
“So do I!” said Luku. “Takua eggs. Very tasty.”
“I sampled those when I visited Quornam,” said A’a’ma. “But the scrambled hens’ eggs of Earth are exquisite – one of the few heat-scorched things that I have learned to like!”
After a time, A’a’ma departed, leaving Kaitrin and Luku to finish their meal. Presently something across the room caught Kaitrin’s attention.
“What do you see?” asked Luku.
“Don’t turn around. Prf. Gwidian is over there.”
“You know, I just met him at the conference yesterday. I agree with gossip. I can see that human females would think that he is very much good-looking.”
Kaitrin stared at the distant table. Gwidian was not alone; his companion was someone Kaitrin had seen in the XA Database Lab – an exotic-looking, dusky-skinned woman with hair dressed in the currently trendy lion’s-mane style, frizzed out in points tipped with colors, in this case a mix of silver and blue.
“What is the matter? Your mouth is open.”
Kaitrin closed it. “He’s with somebody. How did he get to know that person so quickly? He’s been over here to anthro only a couple of times.”
“I have to look – just a peek … Oh, I know that woman! Her name is Meka – do not know the second name. And they think I am strange-looking. But she, too, has a reputation.”
Kaitrin was having trouble taking her eyes off the pair. Gwidian was laughing, leaning intimately toward his companion, who bent closer in response. She knuckled him playfully on the forearm, inclining her head sideways. He raised his right hand, slipped it around the back of the woman’s neck in a seemingly practiced gesture and ran his fingers up into her hair. Her head bent a little farther forward with the pressure.
Then Gwidian’s glance shifted and he saw Kaitrin looking at him. For a moment their gazes cleaved together as if no one else were present in the crowded dining room. Then his hand dropped back to rest on the table, his glance slid away, and Kaitrin lowered her own eyes in confusion.
“What now?” asked Luku. “You have that where the blood goes to the face.”
“He saw me looking. He has the most intense eyes. Damn. Let’s finish up here and get back to the lab.”
Afterwards, Kaitrin tried to analyze why this episode had upset her so much. After all, she had been aware of the gossip about Gwidian long before she had given him even a passing thought. To observe him behaving like that with a woman could hardly be unexpected.
But sometimes, she thought, he has seemed so much more responsive and somehow less full of himself than you would expect in a man with that kind of reputation.
Surely it can’t be that I’m upset because he doesn’t seem inclined to pay me the kind of attention he was inflicting on that woman.
She rejected that thought out-of-hand, with a mental flourish of contempt. What an idiotic idea! If he ever does try to hit on me like that, I don’t care how interesting his project is – I’ll leave it immediately!
He saw me looking at him. I can’t let that affect our professional relationship. I simply must keep this whole business on a professional level.
Kaitrin resolved to dismiss the insignificant episode from her mind, but in spite of herself she could not shed a nagging sense of discomfort about it.
Coming on Wednesday
Prf. A'a'ma is molting, and Gwidian intrudes on Kaitrin's lunch