The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
But who are these? for with joint pace I hear
The tread of many feet steering this way;
Perhaps my enemies who come to stare
At my affliction, and perhaps to insult,
Their daily practice to afflict me more.
– from John Milton, Samson Agonistes
Kaitrin was tired enough not to obsess over Prf. Gwidian and six hours of solid sleep left her ready for anything. After checking in with her departmental office, she headed across the campus of the Shiras-Peders University of Xenological Studies, bound for the biology complex five kilometers away.
Like many official institutions of 30th century Earth, the Northwest Quad Educational Consortium was a behemoth. It was situated on the southern edge of Okloh Precinct of which it was nominally a part, but in fact the Consortium functioned as a self-contained entity, with residential accommodations, a commodities acquisition and distribution network, medical facilities, and systems of transportation, communications, utilities, security, and justice. Of its seven universities, Shiras-Peders was the most globally distinguished, being the prime center for extraterrestrial studies among all of Earth’s institutions of higher education.
Personal ownership of vehicles had been illegal since the unification of Earth 279 years ago; only the hoppers and haulers of the security, medical, maintenance, and delivery services ran on the magnetic concourses that webbed the Consortium campus. People walked or pedaled two-wheelers, or they took the express underground rail line or the quirky system of stop-and-go local transport known as the Slorail. This latter was a ground-level web of suspended, hexagonal monorail cars holding six passengers each; it jostled around the campus at the speed of 30 kph like a spastic centipede. Spaced at intervals of 150 meters, the cars could be arrested for boarding by touching a panel on one of the many terminal posts located along the route.
The Slorail was not crowded at 0630h when Kaitrin boarded it. A kilometer from her destination, however, she decided some exercise was mandatory and she got off to walk the remainder of the way. She strode through the xenoscience quadrangle, where a maze of footpaths and transport tracks crisscrossed a planting of native grasses that had been lush and full of wildflowers in the spring but were burning to a seed-plumed beige in the August heat. Rows of dwarf redbud trees fronted the buildings, interspersed with planter tubs of desiccating marigolds. Luxuriant landscaping was not a priority of urban life on a planet where the conservation of fresh water was mandated.
Unsure how much contact she was to have with this giant bug, Kaitrin had worn a long-sleeved, heavyweight field outfit, which was making her sweat even at this early hour. The cooled atmosphere within the xenoentomology building provided a refreshing shock. As she boarded the lift to Prf. Gwidian’s fifth floor research suite, she glanced at her watch. Two minutes late. Momentarily, she regretted spending yesterday evening enjoying herself with Tió’otu instead of boning up on termites, but then one could not be dutiful all the time …
In the outer suite, Kaitrin found an office aide, a research assistant, and Prf. Griffen Gwidian. “Well, Asc. Oliva,” he said with a formal smile.
“Sorry I’m late. I walked part of the way. I lost my holiday so I needed some exercise.”
He made no reply, seeming to be looking her over. She glanced down at her clothes. “What’s the matter? Am I coming apart somewhere?”
He looked away then and said a little curtly, “My apologies. I’m finding you a bit younger than I expected.”
“You saw me on the link,” she said stuffily. “I’m twenty-six.”
“Fancy that!” Gwidian glanced at the chronometer. “Prf. A’a’ma has not arrived yet. How much has he told you about our subject?”
“Only that we have an unusual organism with behaviors that might suggest intelligence.”
“Huh. And you think you have something to contribute to this study.”
“Prf. A’a’ma seems to think so. Frankly, I can’t assess the usefulness of my contribution until I have more data, so we ought to get started. I’d like to view the holoimage of the attack.”
“Precisely where I intended to begin. This way.”
They passed down a short corridor and entered a holostudio. “I’ll activate the gram and be back in a few minutes to answer your questions. But perhaps I should warn you – it’s a rather daunting and gory display. If you should wish to discontinue it, simply touch … ”
“Thank you, I know how to operate holostudio controls. But I wouldn’t learn much by discontinuing it, would I, Prf. Gwidian?”
He glanced at her again and went out. In a few minutes, he returned with A’a’ma, to find Kaitrin scrutinizing a freeze-stop scene. The soldier termite was crouched on top of the hapless geologist, its flattened head high in the air, its mandibles dripping blood. With some discomfort, Kaitrin had noted that Towsen had been wearing a field outfit of the same heavyweight twill as her own and it had been slashed as if it were surrosilk.
She nodded a greeting to A’a’ma and said, “Quite a horrific sight, I concede. How’s Towsen doing?”
“Progressing physically,” said Gwidian. “The unfortunate chap will be immured in Detox for awhile longer, however.”
“He is also undergoing psychological counseling,” said Tió’otu, ogling the gram with his crest standing on end. “I do feel a good bit guilty about him.”
“Is it typical for a terrestrial termite to attack with such ferocity when surprised?”
“Well … certainly if a soldier were reacting to a threat … What is less typical is for individuals to be wandering around in isolation from other members of the colony.”
“There were no other individuals in the vicinity?”
“We recorded no evidence of any before the attack occurred.”
“And we were in a pretty big hurry to leave afterwards,” said A’a’ma.
“What size is this soldier?”
“Approximately 120 centimeters. His head is a third of that – perhaps 40 centimeters. The remains weigh about 40 kilos. The blast dispersed a good bit of the mass, so precise measurements are impossible.”
Kaitrin blew out a breath and reactivated the gram. The audio started up – shouting, Towsen’s screams, an unnerving snapping clatter from the mandibles. Then the laser pistol flashed and the head went flying through the air as the six-legged body rolled out of cam range in a spray of greenish-yellow hemolymph. The image jumped and blurred before settling down in momentary stasis.
The cry came, “Another one!” and the cam panned wildly and zoomed in on the worker. Several figures rushed past as Towsen’s panicked screams continued. Kaitrin recognized Tió’otu hopping madly and Prf. Gwidian with a drawn side arm.
She froze the gram again, glancing up from her seated position to see Gwidian looking down at her. He was quite tall – over 180 centimeters – and he did have very compelling eyes.
“You displayed considerable fortitude viewing that,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow. “What? You mean, the violence? The gore? Which did you expect – that I would throw up, burst into tears, or faint? Or maybe all three?”
A’a’ma emitted a particularly birdlike croak.
Prf. Gwidian’s responding laugh seemed startled and Kaitrin turned back to the holoimage, frowning. “So this is our specimen. You’re right, Tió’otu, it’s crouching against those trees in a definite display of fear – sort of like a threatened dog. Is this typical behavior for a termite? The insects I’m familiar with run around in panic if you stomp your foot at them.”
“Actually, terrestrial termites could be expected to run with a zigzag motion, seeking to encounter others and to raise an alarm,” said Gwidian a bit reluctantly.
“I see the tethered formicidiform. It’s a strange color for an ant – almost pink.”
A’a’ma said, “The free ones that we saw were a dark reddish-brown and somewhat smaller, but with much bigger jaws.”
“I understand you took some specimens of those. What have you learned about them?”
“They’re physically quite similar to terrestrial ants,” replied Gwidian, “with a few credible adaptations to suit the size – heavier musculature – a more complex air-exchange system … They have a soldier caste, with impressive mandibles and the ability to spray a substance comparable to formic acid, like some terrestrial ants. One unusual feature is an anal gland in the workers that apparently secretes a sweet nutritional fluid. That’s found in a number of terrestrial insects but not in Formicidae. Likely its purpose is to provide food for their larvae.” And he added, “Unfortunately, all the specimens died during the trip back.”
Kaitrin was running the scene forward and back. “The antennae on the termite – they quiver but they seem awfully static. Is that normal?”
Gwidian shifted his weight with slight impatience. “One might expect them to swing about erratically in an attempt to sense the environment. Actually, our specimen often does swing them in such a manner.”
“They’re lumpy – quite unlike moths or butterflies – or ants.”
“Standard for Isoptera. We call them moniliform antennae. That means ‘beadlike.’”
“It seems to be tugging on the tether – pulling the ant closer to its body. That must be the leg that was broken off.” Kaitrin activated the gram, which showed the net being thrown over the creature and the wild thrashing that ensued. The ant broke loose and escaped from under the edge of the net, dragging the tibia out with it. It commenced to run around in great excitement, then disappeared from cam range. Gwidian and a couple of team members converged on the desperate termite, which was ultimately bound and carried off. As the holoimage ended, the foreleg part could be seen lying on the ground.
Kaitrin sat back, deactivating the imager. “I want to look at the remains of the soldier and read the necropsy report before I view the specimen.”
Gwidian favored her with the slightest inclination of the head. “Your wish is my command, Asc. Oliva.”
On the way to the cryolab, Kaitrin caught Prf. A’a’ma’s glance and rolled her eyes.
The dissected corpse of the soldier was visible inside a glass cryocapsule. The blasted head had been sawed into two halves, each bearing a mandible like a bronze sickle. The belly and thorax gaped open, with the dorsal sclerites and some of the organs lying next to the body and the legs still attached to the thorax. A’a’ma turned away disgusted. “/Psa∙] /Nei ofs vrong] How can my wife work with this kind of thing?”
“Were you the one who performed the necropsy, Prf. Gwidian?” asked Kaitrin.
“Yes, during the return voyage. It felt a little bizarre – dissecting an insect without any need for magnification. Rather like doing a … ” He stopped abruptly.
“An autopsy on a human cadaver?” queried Kaitrin dryly.
Gwidian made no answer and Kaitrin continued, “Those plates look very solid.”
“I should explain that insects have no bones – only what’s called an exoskeleton … ”
Suddenly Kaitrin had had enough. “Prf. Gwidian, will you please stop patronizing me? I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m not an expert in your field, but I took all the biology courses required for a xenoanthropology specialty, so I don’t think I need to be led by the hand through the rudiments of insect anatomy. Besides, I learned something of termites in Afrik when I was a child. I’ve eaten fried ones – and even live ones, too, as a matter of fact! And while I’m at it, let me just add that there was no need for you to define ‘moniliform.’ I’m a linguist, so I’m well aware that monile is the Letin word for ‘necklace.’”
Prf. A’a’ma presented his back to them, his tail feathers jerking in a highly suspect manner. Gwidian straightened a little, regarding Kaitrin. Then he said unexpectedly, “I do beg your pardon, Asc. Oliva. I confess, my behavior has been less than exemplary. I simply feel strongly that your time is too valuable for you to be concerning yourself with this.”
Kaitrin was a little startled, but a barbed retort came easily. “Perhaps what you really feel is that your own time is being wasted.”
Prf. Gwidian took a breath, then expelled it without a rejoinder. Kaitrin suddenly felt a little mean-spirited. “It’s my time, Professor,” she said. “I’ll use it as I think fit. But I acknowledge your apology. Now, may we continue without further digressions?”
“You’ve lived in Afrik?”
“Yes! But that’s a digression, Prf. Gwidian, while the live specimen continues to deteriorate. I was about to remark that the – exoskeleton – seems more rigid than I would expect in a termite. Aren’t they usually soft-bodied?”
Gwidian hesitated, then cleared his throat a little and replied, “Yes, but a creature this large would have difficulty sustaining its own weight if it were soft-bodied. And soldier termites are generally a bit more sclerotized than workers, in any event. But in fact the very size of this creature is what makes it such a significant discovery. It has always been considered an indisputable fact that arthropods could never attain such a size.”
“These legs – how do they compare to terrestrial termites? I notice the foreleg has a double claw.”
“Actually it’s a double tarsus, with a single claw at the tips of the bifurcations, which are articulated in three places.”
“Almost like fingers. Arranged for grasping,” said Kaitrin. Prf. A’a’ma chirped, staring at his own trifurcated, clawed digits as if he saw a discomfiting similarity.
Gwidian looked pained. “Possibly. Terrestrial termites have a single tarsus on each leg.”
“How does this one’s general anatomy and physiology compare to its terrestrial counterpart?”
“The systemic organization is almost identical, but an internal web of very strong and tough ligament and cartilaginous tissue binds together the internal organs, the exoskeleton, and an amazingly powerful musculature. We’re still analyzing the composition of the integument, which appears to be both lighter and stronger than that of terrestrial insects; the chitin is interwoven with material comparable to spider silk. The integument has a spongy underlayer not present in any Earth-sized insect, likely providing a supply of oxygen and nutrient-carrying hemolymph. I’m postulating that the imagines can continue to grow without molting and that a damaged integument can heal. However, the outer layers would retain scratches or gouge marks – scars, if you will, like these on this creature’s thorax, which are possibly the result of combat.
“Insects have chitinous intrusions to which muscles are attached … ”
“And what are those called?” queried Kaitrin. “You see, when I don’t know something, I’m quite capable of asking.”
Gwidian glanced at her. “They’re called ‘apodemes.’ These xenotermites have taken those processes to an advanced level. Note here how the body cavity contains pairs of chitinous plates located between the thorax and abdomen and at the junctures of the first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth abdominal segments. These plates are perforated for passage of the viscera and the circulatory, respiratory, and neural tubes. The pairs slide against each other to allow for flexibility whilst acting to stabilize the body cavity and ensure a more efficient distribution of fluid pressure.”
A fascinated Kaitrin leaned to observe as Prf. Gwidian pointed out the various organs. “The circulation is a truly insectile open system, pumping the hemolymph, which carries nutrients and waste but no oxygen, directly into the body cavity through a dorsally located vessel. However, in this creature this primary vessel branches with considerable complexity, ensuring a more complete saturation of the tissues. Twelve pumping nodes are spread throughout the body cavity – in the ventral regions of the abdomen and most likely in the back of the head as well. Unfortunately, that area was heavily damaged by the laser blast.”
“This bunch of tubes and bags lying outside the body must be the gut. But what is this scary-looking thing with the toothy plates?”
Gwidian smiled. “The proventriculus. It forms the posterior portion of the foregut. Those toothed chitinous processes grind up the food.”
“It is like my gizzard.” remarked Prf. A’a’ma, “except I have to ingest stones!”
“And this messy globular stuff?”
“The fat body. It extends throughout the internal cavities of the organism and has a number of functions – storing food reserves, regulating metabolism and the immune system, detoxification … It’s somewhat comparable to the mammalian liver. This creature appears to have been quite healthy.”
“Insects take oxygen directly into the cells through holes on their sides – ‘spiracles,’ that’s the word,” said Kaitrin. “I seem to recollect that the inefficiency of oxygenating tissues by diffusion is one of the reasons for hypothesizing that insects could never get this large.”
“Correct. Dare I remark that insects have no lungs? You can see some of the tracheae there, branching very finely throughout the tissues to end in tracheoles where the exchange of gases takes place. However, evolution has provided this creature with an array of muscular air sacs that probably act like bellows to help diffuse the oxygen.”
“And what are those curly-looking tubes?”
“The equivalent of Malpighian tubules … ”
“Oh, I remember those! I was the only person in the class who knew how to pronounce the word!”
“These xenotermites have many hundreds of them, feeding into two central channels that lead to the hindgut. They function like a kidney, filtering the hemolymph and discharging solid uric acid and other wastes into the gut. Most of the water is reabsorbed; the wastes combine with products of digestion and are discharged as pellets that we call ‘frass.’”
“I realize that you’ve whacked the head in half, but these irregularities … ”
“Again, the laser blast vaporized the rear of the head. We lost the tritocerebrum.”
“The brain … But I think it’s time I read that necropsy report. It will probably answer some of my questions.”
* * *Kaitrin pounced into Gwidian’s office, waving the reader. “I’ve read this four times and I can’t believe it’s correct! This creature has a brain-to-body-mass ratio of 1 to 35?”
Prf. A’a’ma said, “I thought you might pick up on that. Extrapolating from the amount of tissue remaining in the head capsule, that seems to be accurate.”
“The human ratio is about 1 to 40. This species has a larger brain in relation to its size than you do, Tió’otu! How can a creature that’s poikilothermic – that means ‘cold-blooded’ – and which oxygenates its body by diffusion maintain a brain that size?”
Gwidian twitched an ironic eyebrow. “It may not be fully poikilothermic. We’re keeping our specimen’s environment at 90% humidity and 30º C, approximately what an Afriken fungus-growing termite prefers, but during the flight back, when it was in better condition, we tried varying the temperature by as much as 5º in either direction and its body temperature fluctuated no more than half a degree. But you’re quite right – maintaining a brain of this size would require a substantial investment of energy and oxygen. The atmosphere of 2 Giotta 17A contains about 24% oxygen compared to Earth’s 21%, which could help increase the efficiency of respiration. The atmosphere also carries more CO2, SO2, and methane than does Earth’s, the effect of the planet’s energetic volcanism. Possibly these xenotermites utilize these or other trace components of the air or soil in maintaining metabolism. We really haven’t enough data to make a determination.”
“So what’s going on inside that big brain to justify the investment of so much energy?”
“Good question,” said A’a’ma, nictitating furiously.
Kaitrin was scowling at the reader. “This says unusual processes run from the deutocerebrum into small, concentrated ganglia extending into the scape … What’s that?”
“The basal segment of the antenna, where it attaches to the head.”
“Thank you! … into the scape of each antenna, then up the core, connecting with neural nodes in the moniliform protuberances. The antennae themselves show a proportional increase in diameter over the average for terrestrial termites in order to accommodate and protect these dense neural structures. So it seems the antennae have developed some specialized function.”
“Undoubtedly sensory,” said Gwidian. “A termite’s principal senses are tactile and chemosensory – touch, taste, and smell – with the input coming primarily from various types of cuticular bristles. These antennae may be especially well adapted for those functions, as are the abdomen and legs, which are richly endowed with sensory transmitters and receptors. Termites share information by vibrations, pheromones … ”
“But it has neither vision nor hearing. Am I correct?”
“Correct. This creature was stone-deaf; it has no tympanal organs, even in a vestigial state. The part of the brain called the protocerebrum, which is normally linked with vision in insects, exists only as a few non-functional cells. But it may have the ability to ‘see’ temperature variants and to sense electromagnetic fields. It’s normal for the deutocerebrum, the second segment of the brain, to be linked with the functioning of the antennae, from which a lot of this sensory input would come. That part of the brain is much enlarged in this specimen; it includes four ganglia in contrast to the usual two.”
“It doesn’t look like you did much dissection on the deutocerebrum.”
“In fact, I did not. I’m a field biologist who has done some work on termites, but my specialty is the cladistics of xenocoleoptera … ”
“Working out the evolutionary relationships and lines of descent among extraterrestrial beetles,” said Kaitrin, unable to resist showing off her knowledge.
“Indeed. As such I didn’t feel qualified to probe further into the physiology of the neural systems. We’re waiting for Prf. Logan Chandra, who is a neurophysiologist with entomological expertise, to return from a symposium in Mileno. He’s due back tomorrow.”
“What about the tritocerebrum? What is its function in a terrestrial insect?”
“It would control the mouthparts and the ventral nerve cord – digestive and other autonomic processes. It also links the forward brain processes with the rest of the nervous system, although it’s hard to say what its role is here, since it was so extensively damaged. Altogether, this brain includes eight to ten individual lobes, while the ganglia in the body cavity are greatly reduced in size. It seems the brain has assumed a more centralized function – I doubt this creature could survive having its head removed as some terrestrial insects can.”
“I have a vague recollection of something called mushroom bodies that stick out from the insect brain and have been associated with learning and memory functions. Are those entities present here? I don’t see anything that looks like a mushroom.”
Gwidian looked slightly exasperated, as if he could see where she was heading. “Those processes are absent, unless these two small nodules on the deutocerebrum are vestigial remnants or indicate they have been internalized.”
“So is there anything at all here comparable to the human cerebral cortex?”
“Not that I can discern!” Gwidian almost snapped. “But I acknowledge that we have no precedents to draw on in regard to this creature’s neural system; nothing like it has ever been studied before. So anything is possible – I’ll concede that much to you anthropomorphizers!”
There was a moment of silence. Then A’a’ma huffed, his crest rising and falling. “I never ‘anthropomorphize,’ Gwidian. I ‘ornithomorphize.’”
With a twitch of the lips, Kaitrin continued, “What about the live specimen? Have you been monitoring its brain emissions?”
“Of course, Asc. Oliva! We’re working to construct a map of its neural activity – its entire body is emitting a chaotic profile of electromagnetic signatures – but we have no idea what the patterns signify. We have Specialists in both general and entomological electrophysiology working on this project, as well as biochemists, molecular geneticists, a botanist who is expert in xenofungiforms, and a Specialist in the behavior of social insects. And I can still find no evidence that the input of linguistic anthropologists would add anything whatsoever to the effort.”
Kaitrin contemplated Prf. Gwidian’s irritated scowl. Then she said, “I think it’s time for me to visit our – dare I say, unfortunate? – captive.”
* * *
The glass-walled environmental isolation cube sat in the middle of the observation room, connected on all sides to the tubes and wires of intakes, outflows, and sensor grids. Filled with a growing distress, Kaitrin stood observing the occupant.
The creature lay close to the glass, splayed on its belly. Occasionally it would raise its head and turn it from side to side, its antennae vibrating and swinging in a circle and its mouth palps wriggling. With the remnant of its damaged foreleg flailing futilely, it would contract its legs in an attempt to stand on its feet. Invariably its claws would find no purchase on the smooth floor and it would sink down again into a prone position. Its abdomen heaved at intervals as it struggled to breathe through clogged spiracles.
“Surely it was not always so lethargic,” Kaitrin said.
“No,” said Gwidian. “On the ship it was very active, at least in the beginning.”
“In fact, it displayed great panic at first,” said A’a’ma, “scuttling endlessly around the walls. It would perform a strange kind of slow dancing display at times, stepping backward and forward and raising and lowering its head. Occasionally it would retreat to a corner and crouch with its antennae motionless. I would have sworn that it was thinking. Of course, Prf. Gwidian considers that to be … ”
“It’s starving to death,” interrupted Gwidian, and Kaitrin was surprised to detect a note of regret in the voice of one whom she had already written off as a typical detached scientist. “We have only data on terrestrial termites to indicate what it might natively eat. We’ve tried many forms of cellulose – fungus-rotted wood, dry grass, humus, other plant materials … We even flew in some Termitomyces from Eastern Afrik – had to demolish quite a number of mounds to obtain a sufficient supply. Incredibly, it refuses wood in any form, and although it consumed some of the fungus combs and the hyphae and fruiting bodies, this material passes through its gut undigested. It did eat some flower petals, but the petals it was gathering when we captured it were quite acidic, as were the leaves of the trees that produced them – unlike anything we could find for it on Earth. Perhaps it requires food with a low pH in order to thrive. We tried adding various types of mild acids to its food, but this didn’t seem to help.
“Its gut contains no Protozoa for cellulose digestion – a bit surprising, since we found remains of such organisms in the mortar of the ant colony – but it does have symbiotic bacteria. The enzymes it produces are incompatible with anything in our terrestrial experience. Fungal spores and tissues were extracted from its gut and mouth, indicating it is indeed a fungivore. We’re trying to cultivate the spores, but it will certainly die before anything edible results. For a while it tried to eat its own excrement. It’s – quite a shame, really.”
“Too bad,” interpolated A’a’ma, “that this problem did not occur to us before we removed this creature from its natural environment.”
“It’s the size,” said Kaitrin. “It makes its suffering so palpable. I’m sure, Prf. Gwidian, that you haven’t the slightest qualm about the deaths of one-centimeter insects, or even about those 25-centimeter ants that you brought back.”
Gwidian glanced at her almost furtively but again offered no rebuttal. “We discovered it will drink water from a container. I know of no precedent for that amongst terrestrial termites. However, this creature excretes moister frass than its terrestrial counterparts do and it’s probably more dependent on a continual supply of liquid water.”
“What are those dark splotches on its sides?”
“Infections. Xenotoxic ulcers. Its cuticle is starting to break down.”
Suddenly, Kaitrin could not stand it. “I’m going in there,” she said.
“What?” said Gwidian sharply.
“Kaitrin, you do not want to do that!” exclaimed Prf. A’a’ma.
“You’ve both been in there, haven’t you?”
“Prf. Gwidian has. I have not,” said A’a’ma. “But, Kaitrin … ”
“I have to do this! I want to have contact with it. I feel … My intuition tells me that it’s necessary, Tió’otu!“
A’a’ma flapped his arms hopelessly, looking at Gwidian.
“Well, I’ll get you some gear,” said the entomologist.
“What gear? I don’t want gear! Look at it! It can’t hurt me! It’s totally helpless!”
“No, but it can infect you! Do you want your own case of XTIS?”
“Oh! But surely your department has a detox unit! I’ll just run through that a couple of times when we’re finished.”
Gwidian finally capitulated. “Well, if you must … But at least don a mask.”
“Really, Kaitrin,” said A’a’ma worriedly, “the stench in that cubicle – you have no idea!”
“Oh!” she said again. “Well, all right, a mask. Better not to breathe the alien stuff, I guess.”
Even with the mask, when the door was opened Kaitrin was almost staggered, but she took a deep breath of the outer air and stepped inside the glass. The door closed behind her and suddenly she and this creature were all that existed in the world.
It raised its head, its body contracting, trying to push away from her. Its bumpy, bristle-covered antennae quivered, stiffening toward her.
Kaitrin approached it slowly, bending over it. It raised its remaining front foot, working its two jointed tarsi like fingers. It seemed to gesture at her.
She knelt, looked into its strange eyeless face, all weirdly complex mouthparts. The palps flanking its mouth twitched incessantly.
“You can’t hear me, can you?” she murmured. “Touch and smell – chemoreception – maybe a sense of EM fields and warmth and vibration – no more than that. What a strange, closed world you live in.”
She reached out and lightly touched its head, brushing the sensory hairs around the base of the antennae. It cringed, but she persisted, using both hands, gently stroking all over the head, even along the antennae. It lay still, with the antennae vibrating under her fingers. She let her hands stray down toward the mouthparts.
Suddenly it was touching her in return, the palps exploring her hand. Its antennae stretched to feel along her upper arm, her shoulder. The hairs of the antennae tickled her throat as the contact moved upward along the filter mask, reaching her eye and forehead.
It had worked her hand into its mouth, as if it wanted to taste her. Kaitrin could feel its tongue. She sat spellbound.
The door was wrenched open. Gwidian’s voice grated. “Oliva! What do you think you’re doing?”
Kaitrin jumped. The creature was startled and its jaws contracted with a jerk. As it ejected Kaitrin’s hand, her thumb caught a sharp mandible tooth and she was cut.
* * *
They enter again. Please, no more pain. I speak to you – I beg of you – no more …
The odor … this odor is different … Now there is no fear pheromone … no challenge … I sense compassion …
It touches me, but not to stab or twist or drag … It grooms me … It strokes my head …
The Tenders … when I was a little nymph … before I could speak words … before first molt … I was afraid and they groomed me … comforted me …
This one is not like the others. Could it be a One Being? Can it speak? Can you speak? Speak to me!
I feel a strange, soft leg … palps on the end instead of claws … Does it have a head? Yes, high up … It sits up in threat posture, but I sense no threat … It has a sclerite on its head, but elsewhere it is soft … soft or covered with fibers …
Speak to me! I do not want to die alone. I try to speak to you. Please answer me!
Its palps taste of the salt rock …
Another comes, one of the tormenters … angry, afraid … I jerk and the Comforting One pulls away … I taste worse salt, bitterness of body fluid.
Help me, Highest-Mother-Who-Is-Nameless! I have wounded it! I did not mean to wound it!
It is gone. I have hurt it. I have driven it away. It will not come back.
Please come back … come back and comfort me. I did not mean to hurt you.
I am Tish’ra. I am alone. I do not want to die alone …