TQ, v.1, ch. 6
The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
… Death who sets all free
Hath paid his ransom now and full discharge.
– from John Milton, Samson Agonistes
Beside herself, Kaitrin shouted, “Damn it, Gwidian, I wasn’t in any danger! It was only exploring me! Ouch!”
MedTechs in full hazgarb were swarming around, irrigating the two-centimeter scratch with stinging antiseptic, pressing transdermal injectors full of antipathogens against her neck.
A’a’ma was hopping around the periphery in much distress, staying as far away as he could in order to avoid having to undergo detox. Gwidian loomed over Kaitrin, his face furious.
“Do you know how much alien flora is in that creature’s saliva? To say nothing of the terrestrial microbes attacking it! This is why it’s not wise to allow amateurs … ”
“It’s your fault it scratched me! If you hadn’t blundered in like a bull elephant and startled both of us, nothing would have happened! We were just getting to know each other!”
Gwidian gestured extravagantly. “You flaming XA types can find human attributes in rocks!”
The MedTechs were hauling Kaitrin away to the detox area. “And you flaming hard-science types can’t see past your data files! I’m convinced this is an intelligent lifeform – that it wants to communicate!”
“Goddam it, Oliva! I was really afraid for you!”
And as this outburst followed her out the door, Kaitrin found herself surprised by Prf. Gwidian’s reaction for the third time that morning.
Vehement protests availed nothing and two hours later Kaitrin was occupying a room of the same Xenodetox Unit in which Haner Towsen was residing. “You’re fortunate,” the physician had told her. “Because medical attention and a detox stall were promptly available, it’s highly unlikely you’ll suffer any ill effects. Quarantine is just a precautionary measure. It shouldn’t last more than seven days.”
Seven days! All because of that sanctimonious bug-man! The world could come to an end in seven days!
Prf. A’a’ma came to see her. They talked by intercom through the glass partition of her room. She railed at him. He snapped back at her because in spite of his efforts to stay clear, they had made him undergo detox, and the human-attuned resonances, seeing them for the aliens that they were, killed all the natural, beneficial organisms in a Krisí’i’aidá’s feathers.
Then they apologized to each other and settled down to discuss their situation. “Tió’otu, I can’t stay in here seven days. I want to go visit Mamá. Besides, term is coming up and I’m teaching Intermediate Xenolinguistics. I’ve never taught the course before and I haven’t finished my preparation. And – this termite … Am I off the project?”
“I do not know. I did not see Gwidian before I left. Because he had a lot of contact with you, he had to go through even more processing than I did.”
“I can’t be off this project. Tió’otu, I’m positive this creature is a self-aware ILF. And it’s dying. We have to do something – try to get through to it somehow. We have a first-contact situation here and we’re bungling it all to hell!”
A’a’ma warbled, nictitated, fanned his crest. “Try to be patient, Kaitrin. I will see what I can do.”
“There may not be time for patience, Prf. Off-Worlder!”
But there was nothing for it except to wait. Morning turned into early afternoon. Kaitrin ate lunch, endured another round of tests. She tried to pull up information about the giant termite phenomenon on the room’s port but very little was available. The neurophysiological data were too preliminary to be posted yet and the information on the creature’s bioelectric signatures was marked “Classified Level 2.” Kaitrin’s clearances were invalid in xenobiology.
Frustrated, and fed up with sitting around in hospital garb and bare feet, she messaged a friend on the room’s basic no-vid relay.
A voice came through, throaty and cheerful. “Luku !eya Kash here!”
“Luku, it’s Kaitrin.”
“Kaitrin! Oh, I heard you were back – they told me in anthro! They told me Prf. A’a’ma summoned you. What is up?”
In spite of everything, Kaitrin grinned. Whenever she had been away from her Quornat associate for a while, the accent always amused her. Although the vocal apparatus of the Te Quornaz was quite similar to that of humans, their language lacked certain phonemes, so what she heard was, “I heart you were pack – tey tolt me in antro … Prf. A’a’ma zummont you.”
“Yes, I’m pack – uh, back. And I’ve gotten myself mured up in Xenodetox for a week.”
“Jocha! What happened?”
“I can’t tell you everything. Suffice it to say, I came in contact with some alien microorganisms in a most regrettable manner.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Oh, yes, I just got a little scratch. But you know how they are – no amount of precaution is too much. Luku, they took all my clothes away and vaporized them! My most comfortable boots! This other department that’s involved is going to get a formidable reimbursement req from me! But I can’t sit around for a week half-naked. Can you stop by my apartment and bring me something to wear?”
“Of course! I still have bioclearance for lock. I can do it right away. What to bring?”
“The scruffiest stuff you can find. In the closet – that dark blue pants outfit I quit wearing a year ago. And the gray-striped one with the faded collar. And the old brown half boots on the top shelf. And some socks and underwear, in the top drawer at the left of the bed. There’s a net bag hanging in the closet – stuff it all in that. When I leave here, I expect they’ll confiscate anything I’ve brought in, so I don’t want my good duffel. It’s under the bed full of dirty clothes from the trip, anyway. Oh, and throw in some hairpins and braid ties. They’re scattered around someplace – maybe in the bathroom.”
“Shall I drop those dirty clothes in chute?”
“Oh, would you? That would be marvelous! Then I’ll actually have something clean to wear after I’m reprieved!”
“Kaitrin, there are rumors – a giant off-world insect. Is that what … ? Oh, I realize you cannot say. But everybody is talking. It is supposed to be from the expedition of that handsome Professor in xenoentomology – I cannot pronounce his name. Quitinan?”
“Gwidian,” said Kaitrin without thinking.
“Yes, Quiditin! So it is that! You are lucky, to hear everyone talk! I have heard some human females say he is – holodream!”
“More like holonightmare!” growled Kaitrin.
Luku’s laugh purred. “Well, whatever! Which Detox Unit are you?”
“Oh, far! It may be one hour and half.”
A little sooner than that, the lemuriform Luku !eya Kash swooped into the outer room with her friend’s accouterments in hand and squatted to face Kaitrin through the glass. She was as tall as Prf. Gwidian, and rangy, with a graceful soft-furred tail shaded in pale and dark gray rings. Her long-muzzled gray face was topped off with tufted ears and surrounded by a startling fringe of white fur, and her eyes, three times the size of human eyes, were completely filled with amber iris. She had a crafty grin, showing discomfitingly long teeth. Her clawed middle fingers extended beyond the other digits. She always emitted a stimulating odor of musk that Kaitrin would have sworn she could smell through the ventilators.
Although they were indifferent to nudity, both sexes of the Te Quornaz affected clothing, usually colorful loose-belted tunics and full trousers with short tail-sleeves, and they were seldom without their protective eyewear when they were out-of-doors.
“You will go crazy in here, Kaitrin,” said Luku.
“I know. A’a’ma is working on getting me out. At least I hope he is. He owes me one.”
“I have some – how do you say? – storms of brain about the notation. I am eager to talk to you about it.” Luku was a Junior ComTech expert in the area of information hardware. For nearly a year she had been working with Kaitrin on a new transcription system for Prf. A’a’ma’s language. The goal was to replace Full Peders Transliteration, which had been in use for almost two hundred years, with a simpler but more accurate representation. It helped that Luku was a musician since !Ka<tá was a tonal, “musicophonetic” language employing whistles, warbles, trills, and chirps. This was the project on which Kaitrin had pinned her dream of making Professor before she was thirty.
“But I cannot talk now,” Luku was continuing. “I have evening shift at the lab and things to do before. Oh, I wanted to say – I am playing toviz with the group at Ich Oquaz next week. Come hear us?”
“Mmm … I’d like that, but life is a little chaotic right now.”
“It always is with you, Kaitrin! But think about it! Well, I am off! Enjoy that handsome Professor! Voi tupta!” And Luku whisked out the door.
Back in familiar clothes, Kaitrin felt almost human again. As the afternoon dwindled toward evening, she sat on the bed reviewing the meager information she had gleaned from the Database, but her thoughts kept straying. Her small wound, irritated by all the irrigating, itched and smarted under its bandage. The isopteroid – the probing of its palps on her hand, the tremor of its antenna against her forehead – all that haunted her. What was it saying to her? Was it saying anything or was the bug-man right? Was it merely mindlessly investigating its environment? Its touch had stirred something in her. Tió’otu had praised her native intuition – what did it tell her now?
Its brain was proportionally bigger than even a human brain, but alien – so alien. No sight, no hearing, no vocal organs – no possibility of communication in any range of the sound spectrum. Perhaps it was telepathic. Kaitrin had not spent much time studying telepathy, but there were other xenolinguistic scholars who knew a lot about the subject …
If it were not telepathic and had no vocal speech, what method of communication – what language medium – could have evolved in this big-brained insect? Surely touch and pheromones and EM awareness were not enough …
Kaitrin wished she had asked Luku to bring her thought recorder. It was so much easier to preserve one’s silent musings in that direct manner, instead of hand-keying or oral dictation …
Thought recorder. Neural recorder. Its full name was “neural interface language recording device” …
Kaitrin sat frozen. Neural interface language recording device.
She leaped to her feet, paced the room. Could it be … ? Yes! It might be possible!
She attacked the relay port, shouting A’a’ma’s ID, cutting him off before he had time to finish his name.
“Tió’otu, I have to get out of here. This minute. You have to get me out of here.”
“What is it? /He’etí <khekli’a] What is the matter?”
“The security is really loose – I could slip out myself if I wanted. But I need somebody to help me. I need a collaborator!”
“A what? Kaitrin, you sound … ”
“I want you to come here and talk the MedTechs into letting me leave! Use your fiercest professorial eagle-glare on them!”
“And bring a neural recorder with you – one with quadruple inputs, if you can manage it.”
“Kaitrin, I think all this has driven you – ♫ – daft!”
“You dragged me back here because you said you valued my intuition, so at least pay attention to what it tells me – you owe me that much! Tió’otu, I think there’s a way I can prove that our poor insect friend is trying to talk to me!”
* * *
Prf. A’a’ma could be disarmingly persuasive when he needed to be and before long he and Kaitrin were sprinting across the catwalk that connected the Xenodetox Unit with the entomology building.
“If Gwidian is not there … ”
Kaitrin said, “Can you open the enviro cube?”
“No. There are a couple of assistants who could, but I doubt if they will. They will be on the relay to him as soon as we are through the door.”
“Hell! I guess I’d just as soon he’d be there! I’m just dying to have another shouting match with a tenured Professor! Ought to look great on my record!”
Gwidian was indeed in the lab, along with two assistants. The expression on his face as they burst through the door would have been funny if Kaitrin had had the leisure to think about it.
“Is it alive? Yes, I see it breathing. Open the cube at once!”
“What is this? What are you doing out of detox? Harry, call Med Security … ”
“Hold it! Hold it! ♫<♫ /Khepsá∙di nei’u] /Nei narr bísu’i khe’adi vrong] Gwidian, I am pulling seniority on you! I rarely do such a thing, but you are making a mistake if you do not listen to Asc. Oliva – one that could have a – ♫ – significantly detrimental effect on your career!”
A’a’ma seemed to have found the way to focus Prf. Gwidian’s attention.
“All right!” barked the entomologist. He was staring at the device in Kaitrin’s hands. “I’m listening! What’s this new fantasy?”
She hefted the small case at him. “This is a neural interface language recorder. Let me explain what it does … ”
“I know what it is, Associate, and what it does! I don’t enjoy being patronized any more than you do.”
Kaitrin grimaced and said with rather bad grace, “Sorry, Prf. Gwidian. I only wanted to emphasize that the neural recorder is a highly selective device. It picks up signals from only the language center of the brain so that purposeful thought from that center is encoded in EM pulses, which are then fed through a transducer and into a display matrix for whatever language the brain is using. Emotions and non-verbal signals are filtered out. I want to apply transceptors to the isopteroid’s head in several different locations. This unit can pick up four tracks.”
“It’s engineered for a human brain.”
“In fact,” said A’a’ma, “it is my recorder, with a reception matrix set for !Ka<tá. But the recorder itself was made here on Earth, where the technology was invented.”
“The fundamental engineering is the same for all species,” said Kaitrin. “All language-capable lifeforms yet discovered in the galaxy have brain centers for language that emit the same kind of EM signatures.”
Gwidian hesitated, cleared his throat.
“Please open the door, Professor. Its breathing is awfully ragged. There are long hiatuses. It’s scaring me.”
“This may show nothing,” Gwidian said.
“/Aidifá↓ ps♪a∙glé↓] If it shows nothing,” said A’a’ma impatiently, “it will prove nothing either way. But if this instrument records anything with any kind of organized pattern to it, it is probably picking up language-oriented brain transmissions.”
“Please, Prf. Gwidian,” said Kaitrin. “I promise I’ll keep my hands out of its mouth. Please, before we lose the opportunity to make contact with a new ILF.”
“Fetch her a mask,” said Gwidian to one of his drop-jawed assistants, and he stepped to the door of the EIC.
* * *
Something comes …
It is the Comforting One! It has come back even though I wounded it!
Oh, Highest-Mother-Who-Is-Nameless! Can it be that I will not have to die alone?
I can no longer raise my head … It touches me, grooms me … It puts stones on my head … beside the antennae … There is no pain … I know it will never hurt me …
Why can you not understand me? I am Ti’shra … Do you have a name? I want to know your name … I want you to speak to me … Stay with me ... I do not want to die alone ... I want to touch you ...
I am a One Being, but One Beings are nothing … when they are alone …
Tell them in Lo’ro’ra that Ti’shra died in pain … but it had a Comforter … who was not evil …
I am Ti’shra … I am Shshi … The Holy One is A’kha’ma’na’ta …
I am the dead one speaking.
* * *
Kaitrin knelt before the prone form of the creature and stroked its head, her hands shaking slightly. The cuticle was clammy to the touch, like damp wax. Then she placed the four remote transceptors, two on the top of the head and one at the base of each antenna.
Those antennae stretched out toward her, trembling. The belly heaved, trying to suck in air. The termite hitched itself toward her. She put her hands on the sides of its head, partially lifting it.
It raised its foreleg, groped as if imploring, and snagged a claw in her shirt. Then its head drooped, dropped onto her knees. The antennae rested against her chest. Through all her rib cage she could feel them quivering.
It was only a moment until she realized the quivering had stopped. The head weighed heavier in her lap. The antennae sagged and collapsed onto the floor on each side of her knees. The claw remained snagged in her shirt.
The holotypic specimen of Xenotermes giganteus, collected Planet 2 Giotta 17A on 7.28.214 EST (old cal. 2969), expired at 1900h, 8.13.214, succumbing to a massive attack of xenotoxic infection syndrome aggravated by nutritional insufficiency.
What the thought recorder reveals --
and is Prf. A'a'ma a cannibal?