The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
Mrs. Millamont: Well, ’tis a lamentable thing, I’ll
swear, that one has not the liberty of choosing
one’s acquaintance as one does one’s clothes.
– from William Congreve, The Way of the World
Four days passed, and Kaitrin found herself preparing to deliver an informal exposition of her preliminary work to a group of interested scholars. She had spent half the night crouched over a port without achieving any breakthroughs. The detailed analysis of the termite’s brain waves had yielded a set of repetitions that included twenty-eight occurrences of the initial wave sequence of Unit 1 and thirty-five of its concluding sequence. The significance of those patterns, however, continued to elude her.
Feeling tied in mental and physical knots, Kaitrin headed for the exercise gym at 0700h. From childhood she had studied a martial arts regimen called “jukara,” which was descended from self-defense and mind-discipline systems that went back several thousand years. The skill had assumed new relevance once she had embarked on a career with a potential for physical risk, so she tried to train two or three times a week. At the gym she corralled her instructor and they engaged in a set of vigorous exercises and a couple of sparring matches. A brisk shower completed the rejuvenation and she arrived fortified at the xenoentomology conference room at 0945h, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
Tió’otu was looking decidedly out of sorts. Dishevelment had replaced his usual sleek appearance; his crest feathers stuck up at disordered angles, his mantle projected roughly above his cape, and the vanes of his arm feathers appeared to be crumbling. His head was sunk between his shoulders, his eyes half closed. As Kaitrin regarded him, he ran his knobby fingers over his head and came away with a ragged black feather snagged in a claw. He glared at it and flung it on the floor.
“What’s the matter? I thought you finished molting months ago,” Kaitrin said to him.
“/Hakhís↓~] /Kei’irí] ” he croaked. “This is what human detox treatment does to me – induces an abnormal molt.” He inflicted a savage preening jab on his breast and extracted a beakful of feathers which he proceeded to spit inelegantly on the table. “I itch, besides. … Do not sit down here!” He shook himself and a cloud of feather particles flew about. “I make humans sneeze!”
Kaitrin hastily backed away. She could see that some of the people in the room were hiding amusement, but she felt no inclination to laugh at her friend’s obvious discomfort. “Will you be all right? Perhaps you should have stayed home and taken care … ”
“The condition is not contagious! And I am taking care! Two different kinds of medicated baths! A few days and the molting will cease. I will be quite recovered before the voyage, if there is one. Just a little patchy, perhaps. Only, everybody stay away from me!” He added, “But this will throw the normal molting sequence all out of … /Khepsá∙di !i safakhrá∙ ismrekú♪]”
Leaving A’a’ma to mutter to himself, Kaitrin joined Luku at the other end of the table and began to prepare for her presentation. Faculty members were trickling in.
“Prf. Ranovich has come,” said Luku.
“I’d better go speak to her,” said Kaitrin. “Hell, Jerardo is with her. That’s all I need!”
“Well, Oliva!” The Chairperson of the Department of Xenoanthropology knuckled her on the shoulder. “You’re getting your chance to make your mark! Comes to all of us sooner or later! You’ve got The Big Bird to thank for this opportunity, you know.”
Kaitrin got on amiably enough with Prf. Ranovich, but her penchant for calling Tió’otu THE BIG BIRD with audible capital letters never failed to annoy her. The physical anthropologist, due to retire soon, was serving her last term as Department Chair. Her enthusiasm for the job had noticeably withered and she was running a very loose ship.
“You impressed Prf. Jerardo at the Yakuta symposium. He says you debate with a real instinct for the kill.”
Kaitrin looked at Jerardo in surprise; he was grinning and rocking on his heels. So he really had noticed that she had trounced him! Maybe she had been selling him short.
Then she saw Gwidian coming through the door. He was with a woman – a tall, striking blonde in her forties with a chic, sideswept hairdo, a flawlessly tailored suit of mauve surrolinen, and a good deal of stylish lilac eye makeup and lip frost. The entomologist was being very attentive toward her. Kaitrin excused herself from her colleagues and returned to Luku. “Who’s that with Gwidian?”
Goggled against the room’s bright light, Luku could look anywhere she liked without being observed, and her natural gregariousness made her a perfect wellspring of personal gossip. “Oh, that is Prf. Lindeman, Gwidian’s Department Chair.”
“That’s Prf. Lindeman?”
“You would never think she was bug-person, yes? But I have heard that she is very knowledgeable scholar. Specialist in social insects, so our project interests her much.”
Kaitrin watched the entomologists approach Prf. A’a’ma, listened to him wave them off – “Get away from me! I give humans asthma!” – and a thought struck her. What if this social insect Specialist wanted to supplant Gwidian on the expedition? Somehow the thought did not sit at all well. In her perception this was A’a’ma’s expedition, and instinctively she thought of it as her own. And she had become resigned to Gwidian’s participation. But this person …
This person was her complete opposite, and all at once Kaitrin became uncomfortably aware of her own persona – her businesslike, slightly rumpled green pantsuit – her unaccented eyes and hastily twisted braid of ordinary light-brown hair. I never obsess about this sort of trivial appearance stuff! What’s getting into me?
A’a’ma was calling the meeting to order. “I will say almost nothing today. Not up to it. Only that the work is quite unfinished and you should not expect too much. Prf. Griffen Gwidian will summarize the scientific data, then Asc. Kaitrin Oliva, a joint Specialist in Xenoanthropology and Linguistics, will speak on the language investigation. Prf. Gwidian, get on with it!” And Tió’otu settled even lower on his perch and shut his eyes, which were watering.
Gwidian’s brief statement concluded with an explanation of how a neural recorder had been used to capture potential language brain waves from the dying isopteroid, “on the recommendation of Asc. Oliva, who perceived something in this specimen that surely would have never been evident to most of us.”
Then it was Kaitrin’s turn. “Esteemed colleagues, I’ve been studying this data for only three days and anything I say today is highly tentative. But certainly patterns are beginning to emerge – patterns that hold the potential for some unique discoveries. In the long history of space exploration, not merely by Earthers, but by the Krisí’i’aidá and the Pozú, true language has never been found to exist in a species that lacks the capacity to communicate acoustically. Even all known telepaths employ vocal speech as their primary medium. So the discovery of an ILF that communicates by some hitherto undiscovered method is truly exciting and must surely be investigated to the full extent of our capabilities.”
This opening was promising, but Kaitrin had very little solid data to support it. She presented a chart of the repetitions, hiatal patterns, positional relationships. She offered some tentative remarks about syntactic paradigms, but there was no evidence that any of them applied here. She herself found it very confusing. If she, who had spent her entire life immersed in secondary tongues, found it confusing, what must these non-linguists be thinking?
Prf. Jerardo opened the Q and A with a digression into the language potential of terrestrial apes. Kaitrin was forced to waste time arguing the point that, while behavioral, genetic, and psychometric studies indicated that a certain level of human communication was within their capabilities, they had never been observed inventing original syntax or developing learned words into new concepts. Moreover, since higher primates were extinct in the wild, human influences biased all investigations.
Then Jerardo wanted to talk about parrots. This provoked Prf. A’a’ma to utter a few trenchant remarks, to which Kaitrin added impatiently, “We’re really straying from the point. I’m convinced that these termite creatures are ILFs, so the language capacity of terrestrial animals is irrelevant to what we’re dealing with here.”
Then Ranovich mentioned sign language. Kaitrin sighed and acknowledged that sign language certainly could be a primary communication system, but that most likely the entire population of these isopteroids was blind, so it would have to be a touch-sign system. No interaction over even the briefest distance would be possible, unless of course some method of touch-writing was utilized, and that was also irrelevant, given the current state of their knowledge.
Another xenolinguist began to perorate. “It would seem to be a reasonable conclusion that blind and deaf ILFs would evolve telepathy for communication. Surely the brain studies are showing the closed-wave EM signatures emitted by the brains of known telepaths.”
Kaitrin queried Prf. Gwidian, who in turn deferred to Prf. Chandra, the neurophysiologist who had just finished dissecting the soldier’s brain and was now studying the bioelectric data from the living specimen.
“No telepathic bands,” he said succinctly. “No closed-wave signatures. The specimen emitted a chaotic amount of EM activity while it was alive – an unusual amount from the antennae. But no telepathic configurations.”
“When will I get your reports, Professor?” asked Kaitrin.
“Almost ready. Three-four days, I guarantee.”
“How do you expect Chandra’s data to help?” asked Prf. Ranovich.
Kaitrin hesitated. “Well … I’m theorizing that something like a broadcast transmission may be involved. Some unique neural evolution may have produced what are in effect organic radio-wave transmitters and receivers.”
“Hmm,” said Prf. Chandra.
“Actually, it was Junior ComTech Luku !eya Kash here who suggested the possibility. I saw its potential at once. But I have no evidence to support the theory. I’m hoping Prf. Chandra and his colleagues can come up with something.”
“This is an interesting idea,” said Chandra. “The possibility that buried in the neural frequencies may be a carrier wave … ”
“Do any of the emissions match the brain wave patterns that the neural recorder picked up?” Kaitrin asked. She was beginning to like this Prf. Chandra, who seemed at once astute and laconic, and not closed-minded.
“Not been investigated. A possibility. May take a couple extra days to check out.”
For the first time Prf. Lindeman weighed in. “Frankly, I find the idea of a carrier wave projected from an insect’s brain to be far-fetched to the point of absurdity! These creatures may very well be able to recognize one another’s EM signatures, but if they do have more advanced communication, I’m inclined to favor a medium of touch – contact between sensory hairs, for example, or variable patterns of vibrations. Also, like terrestrial Isoptera, these creatures have a highly developed system of chemoreception and a lot of pheromonal glands, which definitely send meaningful signals. Evolution may have carried these to an advanced level. But the idea that this thing is an ILF with intelligence equal to our own and full language capability utilizing some hitherto-unknown communication system – I find all that very difficult to swallow. And I can’t see that Asc. Oliva has presented any evidence whatsoever that such a situation exists. If you’ll pardon my bluntness, if you xenolinguists happen to find a bunch of twigs scattered across the ground, you end up seeing semantic patterns in them.”
She means ‘syntactic,’ Kaitrin thought scornfully. Her unfavorable impression of Prf. Lindeman was not improving.
The debate then degenerated into an argument over baseless theoretical possibilities. Gwidian contributed nothing to the discussion, to Kaitrin’s surprise. Finally, Prf. A’a’ma came to life. “There is no more to say today. The only satisfactory way to solve these dilemmas is to find ourselves a live informant. To find a live informant, we must outfit an expedition to 2 Giotta 17A. We have three weeks, gentlemen and ladies. The Committee on Off-World Expeditions wants our proposal in three weeks. Let us hop, hop! Everybody, go away now!”
* * *
The group disbanded without protest. Kaitrin followed A’a’ma into the lift. “Are you going to be all right? Can I do anything for you?”
“No! I am not really sick, just – miserable! Cranky! Do not talk to me again till day after tomorrow!” And he huffed out of the building.
Kaitrin hesitated, then decided to stop off at the xenozoology dining room. She had to be somewhere in an hour and it would be quicker to have lunch here. She picked up a spinach-tomato salad, a couple of plums, and a chunk of brown bread spread with soy cheese and found a small table along the wall where she could think about her performance at the meeting. It had been pretty pedestrian and much as she hated to admit it, Lindeman had been right about how she had proved nothing. But it was too soon. Surely longer familiarity with these infuriating spectrographic patterns would provide her with …
“Asc. Oliva! May I join you?”
Kaitrin looked up to see Griffen Gwidian’s lunch tray and blue eyes above her. Oh, hell, she thought.
“Of course. Sit down, Professor.”
He took a seat. She noted his entree was a grilled bison chop with herb-roasted potatoes, the most expensive item on the menu; bison-meat was a specialty product, produced only on small ranches near the Noonavik border. Well, unlike me, he’s a Professor, she thought. I guess he can afford to eat whatever he wants.
Gwidian also had a bunch of red table grapes and a pot of tea. Tea drinkers were something of a novelty in Midammerik. As he fussed with the infuser pouch, she noted that he had slender, deft fingers that were very well groomed, surprising for a field entomologist. She found herself staring in fascination as they gracefully plucked grapes from the stem. She thought of the woman in the dining room. What would it feel like if he … ?
Annoyed, she said, “Well, Prf. Gwidian, you didn’t contribute much to the discussion.”
“The meeting was a bit premature, wouldn’t you agree? Anyway, when Prf. Lindeman is present, I usually defer to her.”
She looked up to see if he were joking, but his face gave no evidence of it and she said, “The only valuable development in the meeting was the exchange with Prf. Chandra.”
“Yes, he’s a good man – thoughtful and thorough. He’ll undoubtedly come up with some interesting data.” The Professor glanced fleetingly at Kaitrin as he attacked his chop. “I must say, I also am skeptical about the carrier wave theory, but since I’m beginning to know you a wee bit better than my Chairperson does, I’ll withhold judgment.”
Kaitrin continued to find him hard to read. Before she could answer, he said, “Too bad about Prf. A’a’ma.”
“Yes. He’s always had fits about the detox process, but I never realized it could affect him that seriously. Shiras-Peders ought to invest in some Kr♪isí’i’aid detox equipment. After all, Prf. A’a’ma isn’t the only avian on campus. What?”
Gwidian had fixed her with an eye. “What was that sound you just made?”
That made her chuckle. “The closest approximation of a trill that I can manage! It marks the word as a modifier. I think it’s better to try than simply say ‘Krissy-eyed’ for all forms of the word the way most people do.”
“I must confess,” said Gwidian, “that I found A’a’ma a little unnerving when I first met him. Those sudden head movements … One second he’s looking across the room and the next second he’s glaring at you. And the tongue … He opens his mouth and the tongue flicks and that voice comes out unsynchronized with anything.”
“It’s a lot like his head is an audio speaker, isn’t it? The vocal organs are all in the throat – you can’t expect a beaked creature to move its lips! And you surely understand about raptors’ eyes. They don’t move as freely as human eyes. If Tió’otu wants to redirect his gaze, he turns his head.”
Gwidian was nodding agreeably as she continued, “I know people think he’s eccentric, and he is – I’m the first to admit it – but a lot of that is simply that he’s an off-worlder. Why do Earthers persist in believing that off-worlders should behave exactly like humans? I mean, we Earthers have always been so closed-minded. We used to persecute members of our own species if they had lighter or darker skin or a different kind of eye or hair. Thank goodness human physical variants have gotten so mixed together that none of that matters anymore.”
I’m ranting, she thought. Why do I always do that about things that make me indignant?
But Gwidian had been listening to her with a grave attentiveness. She conceded reluctantly that he had a way of doing that – of making you feel that what you were saying mattered to him. She wondered if that were sincere or merely a skillful pose.
“How did you become so well acquainted with our resident avian?” Gwidian asked.
“Well, I was pretty young when I came to the Consortium – only fifteen years old … ”
“Yes, I’ve heard you were a prodigy.”
“Really? I don’t know about that, but I was able to pass all the requirements for admission. I traveled a good deal when I was growing up, but I had never been on my own before and this is a pretty big, intimidating place. My mother was – still is – an Administrator at the IQDB in Pikes … ”
“Ha! She works in the Hollow Mountain?”
“Well, no – in the complex outside it. The Hollow Mountain holds the Archives. My mother works with current stuff – in Information Dissemination, Language and Literature. She had met Prf. A’a’ma through her work and been thoroughly charmed by him, so when she brought me down here, she basically dumped me on his doorstep and he took me under his wing like one of his own nestlings. It was love at first sight. No, I don’t mean what you’re thinking,” she added in annoyance as Gwidian raised an eyebrow.
“I understand what you mean,” he said.
“For me, he’s been the grandfather I never knew. But frankly, I think my mother is a little sorry she introduced me to him. If I hadn’t gotten to know him so well, I’d have never gone into xenoanthropology. I was planning to specialize in terrestrial linguistics. Now she has to worry about her daughter getting killed by giant alien bugs!”
“I’ve heard you spoke three languages by the time you were five.”
“Goodness! Who’s been gossiping like this about me, Prf. Gwidian?”
“A’a’ma – who else? He never gave me a moment’s peace whilst he was trying to persuade me to allow you into this project.”
“Oh! Well, that’s correct. My mother is from Mehik, so I spoke Spainish from birth and my contract father is – was – a Francophone, so I spoke … ”
“He was killed in a mountain-climbing accident two years ago. It was a … Well, my mother took it pretty hard.”
“I’m truly sorry.”
There was a brief lull in the conversation. Kaitrin observed Gwidian as he bent over his teacup, his face hidden from her.
Then he said, “So you learned French from him? French speakers are fairly uncommon in these times. Was he from Old Kaneda?”
“No, from Afrik … Oh, good grief, look at the time. I promised the Admissions people I’d counsel new postgrads this afternoon. I’m working with Luku mostly in the evenings. When you deal with a nocturnal species, you have to adapt. I’d better run.”
As she was gathering her gear, Gwidian said, “Why is it every time Afrik comes into the conversation, you cut it off?”
Kaitrin paused to glance at him. “Just coincidence.”
“Perhaps we can return to this topic some other time.”
“Prf. Gwidian, you must have something better to do than bore yourself with my life history. Goodbye!”
As she hurried out of the building, she found herself thinking with some surprise that a forced conversation with Prf. Gwidian had not ruined her lunch nearly as much as she might have expected.
As Kaitrin suffers from "translator's block,"
she continues to have social encounters with Prf. Gwidian,
and she visits the Ich Oquaz Club with Luku