The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
In the beginning was the Word …
– from Gospel According to St. John 1:1
A’a’ma had been right. His self-therapy had arrested the molting and he was looking much less disheveled when Kaitrin trekked to his office on the following morning.
“I have missed seeing you,” he said. “Luku tells me you are not very pleased with how things are going.”
“That’s an understatement,” said Kaitrin, falling into what tutorial students called the “torture chair.” “I hate to come to you. I know this is my responsibility. But I really need to talk this out. I can’t make anything happen. I’m desperate.”
A’a’ma twittered. “Summarize what you have been doing.”
She did so. She showed him graphs and tables. She pointed out patterns of repetitions and hiatuses. “I’ve read everything I can find from the Second Millennium forward on the deciphering of cryptic languages. But they all had some kind of reference point. Linear B, the hieroglyphs, the Fosnian planetary runes – they all start with written symbols that can be related to something known. Only cases with no context and very little text, like the Easter Island and the Indus Valley glyphs, have never been solved – and this is even worse than those, because it’s nothing but electronic gobbledygook recording possibly random thought patterns. And don’t tell me to live and breathe this spiteful thing until I get some intuitive flash. I have been doing that. I can’t sleep for seeing spectrographic waveforms. Since Luku digitized it, jumbles of code go flashing through my dreams. I’m missing something – some connection. How can I communicate with something that talks in wave patterns? I’ve never been so frustrated!”
“Thinking is not digital,” said Prf. A’a’ma.
“Language – syntax – may be reducible to digital codification, but the thinking processes that evolution created are analog. Why do you think the NDRs function so well? Kaitrin, give me some other words that are – ♫ – related to the word ‘analog’ and define them.”
“Oh! Well … ‘analogous!’ ‘Analogy.’ ‘Analogical.’ Mmm … Whether the meaning is ‘comparable’ or ‘continuously variable,’ it’s all the same root, isn’t it?”
“A thinking mind has to be responsive – cope with what is unexpected. Forget these number patterns and abstract waveforms – they have begun to obsess you. Take your digital syntax or your patterns of peaks and troughs and surrender to the non-sense within them. What did that wonderful author of yours write? ‘’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves … ’ The syntax there makes perfect sense, but the meaning – /He’etí <khe!dora] Try to think like that. Chaotically. Nonsensically. Responsively. That quotation could mean ‘It was windy, and the tall trees … ’ Or it could mean, “It was raining, and the unhappy children … ’ Find the logic in the nonsense, or vice versa. Imagine how the elements might relate to what you already know. Try to think analogically, like the termite or like an Earther or like any ILF that uses language to express its thoughts.”
For a full two minutes, Kaitrin sat looking at A’a’ma, who gazed back at her, nictitating genially.
Then Kaitrin said explosively, “Ha!”
“You see, you do have something to relate these patterns to,” said the Professor. “Now go home, Asc. Oliva. The report is due in less than two weeks. We are counting on you and I for one have never doubted that you can do this.”
* * *
Back in her quarters, there was a message on the relay. It was from Prf. Chandra. “The neurological reports are complete. I have forwarded them to your DB port. I think you will find some interesting conclusions there.”
She perused them. Then she perused them several more times with the help of a technical glossary. Chandra had reexamined the nerve bundles in the antennae of both specimens and isolated previously misinterpreted aggregations of cells similar to the electrocytes that occurred in certain fish. They were of a hitherto undiscovered configuration that would produce what Chandra chose to call “bioelectric pulses.” They might be powerful enough to transmit a carrier wave of unusually low frequency across short distances, perhaps up to ten meters. Transmitter cells were located in the sixth, twelfth, and eighteenth nodes of the moniliform antennae, in a kind of booster relay. The distal nodes – sixteenth through eighteenth – contained clusters of a variant type of cell that might act as receptors. The intermediary nodes contained what might be coordinating and relay neurons connecting to processors in the lowest nodes and from thence to the ganglia at the base of the antennae. The longer hairs on the antennae probably functioned to increase the gain. “If this individual did have language capability, I believe the bioelectric signals associated with the brain waves from the language centers, which are most likely located in the ganglia at the base of the antennae, could be broadcast by means of this carrier wave. Individuals would not need to be in physical contact in order to communicate with one another. Furthermore, a comparative filtering of the bands utilized in the biopulse emissions reveals a pattern closely matching the brain wave patterns from the neural recorder.”
Kaitrin paced around the room. The gist was, she had been right. The termites could speak to one another – in language. If they could speak to one another, they could speak to her.
What would they say? What would the chaotic, responsive thought processes of the unfortunate being who had died in her lap have been prompting it to say? It would have no one to say anything to. It would be speaking, but there was no one who could receive its speech. It would be alone – utterly and terrifyingly alone – shut up in a featureless box, unable to see or hear, with no one to touch or smell or speak to, in a state of complete sensory deprivation.
If it were an individual – if it had an awareness of itself – then it would require others – someone to comfort it, someone to relate to. But there was no one.
And then I came in, and I treated it gently, and it responded. It tried to taste me. It laid its head in my lap … it touched my chest with its antennae, the thing that emits its voice … It wanted to talk to me … It surely must have wanted me to answer …
Kaitrin went into the bedroom, flung herself face down on the bed, covered her head with the pillow and mashed it over her ears, trying to simulate the isolation of the dying insectoid.
What would I be thinking about? I would think about what I longed for the most. I would think about what I had lost, what I missed, what I feared. I would think about people I loved, who loved me. Maybe about my home. My pain. My isolation. My inevitable approaching death. Myself.
Myself. My own being. My name. I would say my own name, to center myself, to try to hold on to my sanity in this place without relationships.
Kaitrin rolled over and hugged the pillow to her chest, staring at the ceiling.
I would say my own name. My name is Kaitrin Oliva. Me llamo Kaitrin Oliva. Je m’appelle Kaitrin Oliva. Ko^ilda ne’il Kaitrin Oliva] I am Kaitrin Oliva. I am Kaitrin.
How might the termite have arranged the words? There was that two-unit phrase – the first repetition she and Luku had identified … Could that be ‘I am’? Could that be its name? The first unit occurred so often – sixteen times in different combinations. If the creature were thinking of itself, its own terror and misery and desperate need to cling to existence, it might say ‘I am’ again and again.
But something is still missing. It would say ‘I am.’ It would say it. It is speech.
It must be spoken.
Kaitrin sat up, sat on the edge of the bed, gripping the covers in her fists on each side of her thighs. It must have real words. An acoustic rendering of its speech. It had no vocal organs, while I have no antennae for transmitting a carrier wave. Either medium of expression is valid, but I must have something I can speak by means of air passing through vibrating membranes in my throat, for that is my means of expression. I must give this creature words according to my means of expression so that I can have words to speak back to it.
‘I am.’ I will call it – sho. Sho signifies ‘I am.’
Kaitrin jumped up, rushed for the port wall. She had found the link, the clue, the missing piece of the puzzle. Now she could find her way to the end.
She called up the graph of frozen waveforms and created an interlinear chart of little boxes. Each one stood for a single word and she concluded each with a vertical line. Inside each box she placed apostrophes to indicate the tiny breaks within words. At the end of sequences, where the longer stops occurred, she placed double vertical lines.
Now she had the syntactics – the framework of syllables, words, phrases, sentences. All she had to do was assign pronounceable units – the “slithy toves” – and then determine what they signified.
Every place the ‘I am’ symbol appeared, she entered the morpheme sho. Every place the initial wave element of sho appeared in another combination, including in the second syllable of the potential name-word, she entered sh.
The preceding unit was unique in the entire text. She called it ti.
She assigned the syllable ra to the medial unit. The final unit she called ze. It seemed like a sort of afterthought and occurred only in this combination. If this were a name, -ze might be a determinative, perhaps a marker to indicate a proper noun.
sho| ti’shra’ze| ||
Kaitrin said it out loud, “sho| ti’shra’ze| ||. ‘I am Ti’shra.’”
She ran around the room yelling, jumping over piles of portscarps and laundry and unwashed dishes. “‘I am Ti’shra!’ It has a name! It has a language! It’s not a meaningless jumble of waveforms and numbers! I can do this! I can be a creator and make its language! I can learn to communicate with its people and take the memory of Ti’shra home!”
She tripped over the table leg, sprawled on the floor helpless with laughter, got up, flung herself into a chair at the port wall, and began the process of interpreting the world of a dying termite.
Nine days later, Kaitrin impulsively asks Prf. Gwidian
to accompany her to the Archaic Crafts Studio
to celebrate her progress with the language
-- can such an excursion end well?