The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
Eyeless in Gaza …
Eyeless in Gaza …
… among inhuman foes …
– from John Milton, Samson Agonistes
My name is Ti’shra. I am Shshi. I am a Grower in the Fungus Garden. My fortress is Lo’ro’ra. The Holy One is A’kha’ma’na’ta. The King is Sei’o’na’sha’ma. I have a Little One named Zuf.
If I keep speaking these words inside myself, perhaps I will not lose myself. I do not know where I am. No one knows where I am. Gli’tha’mu is dead. It sacrificed itself for me, but I cannot even perform a proper mourning dance for it because there is no one here to touch.
Why did these cruel ones not strike me, too, with the great shock-thing? I would rather have died then than suffer as I do.
I only wanted to smell the tho’sei| blossoms – to sense them at full bloom. I had been working a long time in the Fungus Garden. I had not received the warnings of unnatural odors and vibrations. I wanted to smell the tho’sei| blossoms and to bring some petals back to eat. I wanted to take Zuf for a walk, to eat blossoms in the fresh air. I do not know where Zuf is now. It broke away when I struggled – when my foreleg broke off.
Gli’tha’mu received the warnings in the Warriors’ Quarters. It came to find me – to warn me. It gave its life for me. Ai-i-i, Gli’tha’mu … my friend Gli’tha’mu. I dance for you inside my head.
Everything here causes pain. The walls and ground are flat and slick. The corners are straight and hard – nothing is rounded, nothing yields. My claws can find no purchase. The odors are terrible, threatening. The creatures come in and put mesh over me. They stick thorns into me. They palpate all over me, in my orifices, in a rough and unkind way. They smell of fear, but fear does not stop them. I do not know how to make good threat postures, for I am only a Worker and they pay no attention. They are without feeling.
I ask them why they do these things to me. I send out words to them. But they do not respond. They are speechless. There are no words here. And yet meaningless sendings are always striking my antennae, especially when the creatures remove the stone from the entrance to my prison before they come in. Perhaps they are intelligent in some unnatural way …
But I cannot believe that. No being who can speak could be so cruel, so comfortless …
The air is bad here. I can hardly breathe. My spiracles are clogged with secretions. I am starving to death. They give me food of the Enemy – wood and rotten leaves. They give me fungus, but it is not our kind and my gut repels it. They give me flowers that taste sweet but do not nourish me. I try to eat my excrement like the Enemy, but it is of no benefit. I am in pain. I am becoming weaker. I will soon be dead, too. Soon I will no longer suffer.
My name is Ti’shra. I am a One Being. But I am alone. I am among creatures who are not One Beings – who cannot speak or feel. I cannot understand why the Highest-Mother-Who-Is-Nameless has brought such creatures from the egg.
My name is Ti’shra … I am Shshi … I am a Grower in the Fungus Garden … My fortress is Lo’ro’ra … The Holy One is A’kha’ma’na’ta. The King is Sei’o’na’sha’ma … I have a Little One named Zuf …
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands …
– from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Eagle
“Asc. Oliva, do pardon this interruption – so sorry! – but there is a long-range message for you on the relay.”
Kaitrin Oliva turned to see an attendant bobbing and smiling obsequiously at her elbow. “Oh! I didn’t bring my MP. Are there any ports handy?”
“In the Arboretum. This way, please – if you please … ”
Kaitrin followed the little man past the canapé tables with their trays of fruit and protein crackers, past the clusters of languidly conversing symposium guests. They passed through a set of glazed doors into a humid room heavy with the smell of earth and plants. Against the translucent outer wall, August sleet rattled.
“Is something the matter with this port? No vid.”
“Begging your pardon, but the vidbase is undergoing maintenance. The link is audio only. What an inconvenience we make for you! So sorry!”
“It’s fine, thanks. Here, take this drink away with you … ”
She jabbed the start button and said, “Kaitrin Oliva here!”
A voice chirruped, testy and uncertain. “Hello? Hello? Do I have Kaitrin Oliva? ♪♫ What is the matter with this vid? ♫ Hello?”
“What? Can it be … ? Is this my Prf. A’a’ma?”
“Kaitrin! Do I have you?”
“Yes! But this says you’re in Okloh! I thought you were several parsecs across the galaxy!”
“Well, I was, but now I am back at the Consortium. What in the name of He’etí are you doing in Yakuta?”
“Participating in an anthropology symposium at Northeast U. Somebody canceled and I was invited at the last minute. I read that piece on the pair-bonding ritual of the Morlasa and I threw in a progress review of my notational studies of your own language, Professor Off-Worlder!”
A cackle of laughter on the Midammeriken end of the connection. “How presumptuous of you! Did it go well?”
“Very. Except for Prf. Jerardo. Yes, he’s here, unfortunately. He hogged the Q and A – argued about the harmonics of !Ka<tá without having the slightest idea what he was talking about. The poor man is obviously tone-deaf.”
“And who won?”
“Whom do you think? Everybody in the audience understood I’d clobbered Prf. J. – except Prf. J.! I didn’t disillusion him.”
Another explosive cackle. “Prf. Jerardo ali ♫hi ♫ko’ó∙wa gi !i po∙atré]”
“Tió’otu! That’s not nice! But what’s going on? You surely didn’t go to all the trouble to contact me just to make fun of one of our colleagues.”
“You are right, of course! I called to find out when you are coming back.”
“The symposium is ending today. They were about to summon us for the concluding banquet when you called.”
“Oh, what a shame! I have snatched you away from one of life’s most significant pleasures!”
“Huh. Sarcasm, too. Consorting with Earthers certainly does a Krisí’i’aidá no good!”
“So you come home tomorrow?”
“Well, actually, yesterday was my birthday … ”
“/Hakhís↓~] I forgot all about it! Twenty-six, is it not? Saretigá↑~, Kaitrin!”
“Thank you! Anyway, I’m celebrating by going to Aleska for some camping before the start of term. I have a voucher for the Denaly Preserve and I’m going to join up with a tour group. I’m hoping to see a moose!”
“Ah! Interesting! But I could dissuade you from doing that, could I not?”
Exasperated, Kaitrin said, “Tió’otu, what are you trying to say? Why did your expedition come back early? You’re making a big mystery of it!”
“I apologize, Kaitrin. We came back early because we acquired a fragile specimen that needed care. I want you to see it, but it is not likely to survive more than a few days, what with bad air, incompatible nutrition, and xenotoxic microbes attacking it.”
“What sort of animal is it?”
A startled Kaitrin laughed. “Termite! What am I supposed to know about termites? Have all the xenoentomologists expired? If I don’t use my voucher before the end of the year, I’ll have to forfeit it. And you want that to happen just so I can stare at an insect?”
“It – ♫♪ – is not just any insect. It is nearly a meter long and weighs thirty kilos.”
“Good grief! Is that biologically possible? But even so, I don’t see how you could expect me to contribute anything worth canceling a trek to Denaly. Even one anthropologist on a case like that seems like overkill!”
“Kaitrin, how long have we known each other?”
“Oh … eleven years … ”
“Long enough for you to trust my judgment?”
“Tió’otu, you know better than that.” She sighed. “I’m well aware that if you insist I do something, you probably have a rock-solid reason, so I’ll cancel my moose and grab a transport to Okloh tomorrow morning.”
“Splendid! I knew you would come through for me!”
“Besides, I have to confess you’ve sparked my curiosity!”
With a self-satisfied chirp, the Professor said, “I was sure I could! Now, if you will let me know the time of your arrival, I will be at Herinen to meet you.”
* * *
The flyer circled, waiting for a landing slot at the Herinen Memorial Space Port. Founded over 200 years ago in old calendar year 2746 and named for the physicist who developed the temporal-quantum theory that made interstellar travel possible, the port was a city in itself, sprawling across hundreds of square kilometers of the Midammeriken plain. A tilt of the flyer’s wings provided Kaitrin Oliva with a glimpse of the landing pads, hangars, and concourses of the Space Sector, where service vehicles and NDRs swarmed around gleaming Lunar shuttles, space planes, and cargo transports, all eager to spring like grasshoppers beyond the Earth. As the flyer glided toward the Atmospheric Sector, Kaitrin could see the greenways that enclosed the campuses of Midammerik’s premier Flight Academy and the Hilo Institute, where most of the research and engineering work related to interstellar flight had been conducted. A web of maglev track rayed out in all directions from Herinen – southwest toward the Precinct of Okloh and northeast toward New Washinten (the primary capital of Earth) with Minnesonta Prefecture lying far to the north and Koloredo Prefecture and the Mountain Preserves to the west.
As the late afternoon sun winked in and out of the windows, Kaitrin gathered her gear together, feeling rumpled and hot. The Northwest Quad Educational Consortium would pay only for low-atmosphere flights and the salary of an Associate Specialist would hardly support the cost of an ionojumper. As the flyer jostled itself into a pad, Kaitrin could feel the braid of her hair falling against her neck. She probed grumpily for the pins and finally found them in the seat, ready to slip between the cushions. A woman two seats away was smiling sympathetically at her. A little embarrassed, Kaitrin wagged her head as she gouged her scalp with the pins. “I ought to cut it off,” she volunteered. “More trouble than it’s worth.”
The flyer doors opened to a wave of stifling August heat as the crawler tube closed in on the fuselage. Kaitrin shouldered her bags and was swept out with the rest of the passengers. On the raised entry concourse she paused and leaned over the railing to search the throng below her for Tió’otu A’a’ma. The indigenes of all the worlds that made up the Confederation of Four Planets – the only worlds in explored space known to possess interstellar flight capability – passed through Herinen at one time or another. On this day, however, the atmospheric terminal was filled almost entirely with humans. Only a few Te Quornaz caught her amused eye. The tall lemuriforms were loping through the crowd, bulbous goggles screening nocturnal eyes, tails waving or clutched to the chest to protect them from getting pinched in the gates.
Then Kaitrin spotted A’a’ma furiously flapping his arms and she hitched up her bags and headed down the ramp toward him.
One of four rotating chairs of the Department of Xenoanthropology at Shiras-Peders University, Prf. Tió’otu A’a’ma was a falconiform, a member of one of the three species of avian ILFs who hailed from the planet Krisí’i’aid. Slightly shorter than Kaitrin Oliva at 160 centimeters, he was covered in sleek black feathers, with head crest, mantle, and tail embellished with white. Evolution had transformed the wings of a flightless bird into curiously double-jointed arms equipped with dexterous, three-clawed hands. His beak was less formidable than a terrestrial eagle’s but still daunting enough, and his eyes retained the gold-rimmed, fixed-pupil ferocity of his raptor ancestors.
The aspect of threat, however, was clearly only feather-deep. When Kaitrin reached him, the head crest flared dramatically and the Professor clasped her against his breast like a grandfatherly penguin. “Kaitrin! How good to see you! You will not regret coming back, I assure you! But let us escape from this psa∙. We can talk on the Rail.”
They headed for the appropriate exit. A’a’ma’s gait was punctuated by an occasional hop or skip that Kaitrin was always tempted to imitate when she walked with him. No footgear trammeled his scaly feet and when they found a rail compartment equipped for his species, he hopped onto the perch, closed his clawed toes around it, and settled into a roosting posture, whistling in satisfaction.
Although the Krisí’i’aidá natively wore only their natural plumage, the Earth-adapted A’a’ma sported a short cape furnished with useful pockets. Now he fished a bulky object out of one of them.
“Saretigá↑~, Kaitrin! I must make up for forgetting your birthday!”
“Oh!” It was a framed broadside produced by the Consortium’s Archaic Crafts Studio – an illuminated page from a 14th century manuscript hand-copied on handmade paper, showing a maiden at a castle fenestration with armored knights on horseback jousting below. “Beautiful! Our modern culture does insist on being so drab and utilitarian! I’m really pleased, Tió’otu! But here – I brought something for you, too.” She dragged up the heavy case that she had been lugging through the terminal. “The flyer stopped at the Kamchata Preserve long enough for me to rush out and buy – salmon! There are four great big flash-frozen fish in here.”
“/<Khelora↑ He’etí] My friend! I am indebted to you forever! The fish of my home planet is wonderful, of course, but I sometimes think no more exquisite fare exists in the galaxy than the wild salmon of Earth. But this must have cost you a fortune!”
“Not so much when you get it at the source. Kamchata is the only place on Earth where wild salmon never stopped returning – the only place where brown bears have flourished for thousands of years – and where the largest fish eagles on Earth still fly, Tió’otu!”
“I know. I have been there and seen them.” The Professor’s beak gaped a little, showing a quivering tongue. His eyes’ nictitating membranes flicked furiously. “I try to imagine the time when Earth was at the peak of its ecological bounty and all the shores of the northern Pacifik teemed with species of this fish.”
“What are your plans? Are we going up to view this insect tonight or can it wait till morning? I’m flagging a bit.”
A’a’ma shuddered, his mantle ruffling over his cape. “I can imagine. I hate atmospheric flight – all that ground and water down below! The creature was relatively stable this afternoon. Prf. Gwidian thinks it can wait. But we must be in Xenoentomology by 0700h.”
“Then come to my rooms with me and we’ll gobble up some of this piscine delight!”
“Splendid! I am ravenous and I accept your invitation with fervent gratitude! But let me take advantage of our travel time to fill you in on this termite mystery.”
“Good! I thought you’d never get to it! All I know is that you signed on to this off-world survey expedition as a consultant because sitting around in the Okloh heat all summer didn’t appeal to you.”
Prf. A’a’ma resettled himself, folding his arms backward against his flanks. “Right! A Prof. Spec. in Xenoentomology named Griffen Gwidian headed up the team. A rather odd fellow. Do you know him?”
“Mmm – name sounds vaguely familiar. It’s a little outside our field.”
“If you think for a moment, you might remember what you know about him. He has – ♫ – something of a reputation … He enjoys his – ♫♪ – his leisure time in certain ways that are perhaps not … ”
“Oh! I know the one you mean! But only through the gossip mill – I’ve never met him.”
“Well, whatever he might do in his personal life, he is a respected bug-man. A few years back, when he was working for his Professorship, I translated some obscure Kr♪isí’i’aid studies for him so I already knew him slightly. The Committee assigned a Kr♪isí’i’aid research vessel to his expedition – always more satisfying than those big, sterile, metallic tubes you Earthers build! – and off we went for a four-month jaunt. We conducted some baseline surveys in a couple of under-explored systems, and then, about two months into the trip, we paid a visit to a planet called 2 Giotta 17A. Do you know anything about it?”
“Never heard of it.”
“In the last century the unmanned Giotta Probe discovered a previously unknown star that had been obscured against the Andromeda Galaxy – a yellow dwarf about four billion years old, negligibly cooler and dimmer than Earth’s Sun, lying 32.5 light years from Earth. The probe documented three outlying gas giants and two other planets – a lifeless rock near the star and a second planet with an approximate circumference of 39,000 kilometers, orbiting within the zone of liquid water. That planet possesses a magnetic field, active volcanism, oceans, and an atmosphere suitable for biological lifeforms. In short, it is a lot like both Earth and Krisí’i’aid.
“About ten years ago a manned mission made a pass around the planet at an altitude of 400 kilometers and recommended a more thorough investigation. So last year a team of scientists performed a reconnaissance survey from within the stratosphere and they also undertook some brief planetside explorations in coastal areas of the two southern continents and the interior plain of the northern continent. They found familiar varieties of carbon-based life – no evidence of silicon-eaters or those hideous hydrocharged monsters – /♫o^tí ♫ps♪a∙glé↓] The interiors of the southern continents are barren deserts, but the northern hemisphere includes forested mountains, moist coastal habitat, and semi-arid savanna, with a fauna of saurians, avians, and invertebrates but no mammals. In the savanna region the team observed three-meter saurians – probably the top predator. They also recorded flying birds in all sizes; flightless birds – or possibly transitional sauro-avians – larger than your emus; and some impressive arthropods, notably antlike creatures up to thirty centimeters long.
“The stratospheric scans picked up certain topographical features scattered over the savanna regions; the team’s geologist assumed them to be some type of volcanic outcropping. By the time these features were noted, it was too late to investigate on the ground.
“I had read the survey reports and become interested in the planet; mammalian lifeforms never evolved on Krisí’i’aid either and this might be my planet a few million years ago. We had with us Ast. Haner Towsen – a xenogeologist struggling to make Associate. I happen to be the extra-departmental member of his oversight committee and I thought a chance to investigate an underexplored, geologically interesting planet might give his work a boost. Moreover, that material I translated for Prf. Gwidian concerned the forty-centimeter aquatic beetles of a world far on the other side of Krisí’i’aid, but no land insect of that magnitude has ever been discovered. So I used the business about the oversized ants to prick our leader’s curiosity and he agreed to include 2 Giotta 17A in the mission’s itinerary.
“Another altiscan of an area where a number of the formations had been observed did nothing to clarify their nature. Ast. Towsen noted that the outcroppings were consistently surrounded by patches of bare ground and were more numerous along rivers. They seemed to occur in clusters of three to six and to be repetitive in shape and positioning, not amorphous or random the way old lava upthrusts usually are.”
Intensely interested, Kaitrin leaned toward the Professor. “It sounds as if they could be purposeful constructions, Tió’otu.”
“It does, doesn’t it? As I said, our scans found not a trace of mammalian DNA – nothing remotely resembling human, Quornat, or Pozú lifeforms. Plenty of avian DNA. Our scanning sensors can identify a broad variety of lifeforms, but they cannot discern intelligence. If Earthers scanned my planet, they would find lots of birds, and human bias would force them to assume all of them were as empty-headed as one of your proverbial dodos!” Prf. A’a’ma squawked gleefully. “Anyway, let me go on! We selected a small, isolated outcropping and flew down to observe it – and found the place crawling with some of the big formicidiforms! I tell you, when maybe 500 creatures 25 centimeters in length are swarming around your flyer clattering their jaws, you do not go rushing out the door!”
“No, I guess not! So these were ant mounds? But made of rock?”
“That is what we first thought. We observed through the window from a distance of about seventy meters and saw the insectoids going in and out of the rockpile as if it were home. But something did not quite add up. The entrances were much larger than these ants would require and the building stones appeared to be bulkier than they could handle. Much of the pile seemed in ruins. In places the ants had repaired it, using much smaller and looser accreta.”
“Ah, ha! Something else had constructed it originally. Your termites!”
“The thought of termites had not yet entered our heads; we suspected the builders might be even larger ants. I can tell you, Towsen was disappointed that it was not a geological feature, but Prf. Gwidian was in a paroxysm. He was determined to investigate firsthand, so he whipped up some protective gear and sallied out. I was not sure he would ever come back alive! He made it to the rockpile, fending off his attackers with a retrieval pole like one of you Earthers’ fantastic knights fighting dragons!”
Kaitrin chuckled and A’a’ma hooted, then continued, “He managed to pick up some soil and stones, stick a collector through an opening for an air sample, net some specimens, and safely regain the flyer. Then he ran some tests, which produced some surprising data. The air inside the pile – indeed, the air around the pile and the soil near it – showed significant traces of methane, acetate, naphthalene – all chemicals more associated with termites than with ants. Furthermore, the stones were crusted with a mortarlike substance containing desiccated fecal material and the remains of protozoans similar to those in the guts of some termites here on Earth.”
“Ah! But obviously, the size … ”
“Yes! We really should not have been as surprised as we were when we finally encountered these creatures. I think we envisioned them as comparable in scale to the formicidiforms, or perhaps slightly larger – not what we found.
“We could not do any exploring from our current location, what with those little critters so riled up, so we moved the flyer about eight kilometers northeast, nearer to a cluster of larger formations. To approach them, one had to pass through a forest of lovely flowering trees – creamy amber blossoms, ten centimeters across, fragrant like s^♫lo’a or like your jasmine! There were enough butterfly and wasp-like insectoids around to keep an entomologist breathless for a week. Gwidian was running around with his net like a crazy man! But before that, there was the matter of the wall.”
“Yes, a stone wall just over a meter high, crumbling in spots but almost certainly of deliberate construction. This was very puzzling.”
“Could you have been encountering artifacts left by an extinct race of ILFs?”
“We had very little time to ponder the point. We were still among the flowering trees, negotiating an understory of tangled brush. There were seven of us – myself, Gwidian, Towsen, a botany Associate, a BioTech, and two security people. Towsen was a little ahead of the rest of us and he went out of sight.
“All at once there was this commotion – thrashing and thumping, and Towsen screaming in terror and pain … ”
“Really? Good grief!”
“Everybody yelled and rushed through the bushes. And there was our luckless geologist with this monster on top of him – a thing over a meter long, with a huge eyeless head and jaws like scythes hooking horizontally across each other … ”
“Tió’otu! You should have warned me! Was Towsen … ? Did he survive?”
“Yes, but barely. The creature had already slashed him across the chest and was poised with its head swinging back and forth, snapping its jaws, preparing to administer the deathblow! Sgt. Obirny fired her laser pistol at full power and blasted the thing’s head off. Its body fluids gushed all over Towsen, right into his open wound. He will be in Xenodetox for a couple of months. I believe he intends to confine his geological exploration to lifeless planets in the future!”
“Tió’otu! This isn’t funny!”
“Towsen certainly did not think so. Nor did I, Kaitrin, in spite of that scandalized glare you are giving me! As we stood there momentarily stunned, the second security person cried, ‘Another one!’ We all jumped around to see her pointing her gun at … well, we know now it is a worker of the species; obviously the dead one was a soldier. You did not have to be an entomologist to recognize that.
“But this one seemed to be less of a threat and Prf. Gwidian shouted, ‘Hold your fire!’ The worker was cowering – really, ‘cowering’ is the only word to use – against a clump of saplings. Our BioTech had been holographing as we moved through the brush and she had the presence of mind to keep the cam running, so we have a hologram of the whole thing. You can view it tomorrow.
“It was very odd. The worker had a heap of flower petals in front of it, as if it had been gathering them. That might not be so strange. But right next to the worker was one of those big formicidiforms – again, not all that odd – except that it was attached to the worker’s foreleg by some kind of filament, like a leash.”
There was a pause. Then Kaitrin said, “I think you’re trying to tell me something.”
“Let me finish. While some of us rushed to help Towsen, Gwidian and the rest tried to net the worker. You know how these bug people are: specimens are everything! It put up a ferocious struggle once the net was on it – lost part of a foreleg, which got left behind at the scene. But they subdued it and tied it up. An anesthetic likely would have been ineffective – too risky in any case.
“We messaged the flyer and managed to get back safely with all our burdens. I for one was scared to death – I was sure a whole troop of those soldiers was going to pop out of the bushes and jump us! We were able to bring back the dead soldier’s remains as well. It has been necropsied. You can see those results tomorrow, too.
“We beat it back to Earth at 2.7 TQU – made it in twelve days. That creature required special care, but even with that, it cannot possibly survive.”
Kaitrin regarded A’a’ma critically. “That was quite a hair-raising experience – or feather-raising, in your case! But frankly, I still don’t see why you made me cancel my holiday.”
“Kaitrin, those stones that Prf. Gwidian retrieved from the ant pile – they had tool marks on them. And the wall, certainly deliberately built. And the ant, tethered like one of your canine pets … And the worker’s reaction, clutching its head with its forelegs, cringing … I have observed a great many species on many planets. Why did it not run away, like any defenseless animal trying to survive? And some of its behavior as a captive … ”
Fixing A’a’ma with her stare, Kaitrin said, “Are you implying that this big bug is an intelligent lifeform?”
A’a’ma swayed on his perch, huffing. “Prf. Gwidian thinks I am brain-addled. He cannot see anything more than a social insect acting instinctively. He thinks bringing you into this is a foolish waste of everybody’s time. But I want you to look at the holograms and the necropsy report, and I want you to observe this … ”
“We’re coming into the terminal, Professor Fish-Eagle! The salmon awaits!”
“Hei, yes! My gizzard is gnawing in anticipation! We will return to this over the feast!”
Chapter 3: Two more major characters are introduced.
I’ve just read all three chapters, which I enjoyed very much. Actually, I was a bit disappointed that chapter 3 ends before Kaitrin meets Ti’shra. That, of course, means I’ll be back for chapter 4. I’ve sent you a much longer e-mail with additional comments.
You've got me interested in termites!ReplyDelete
I didn't think that was possible.
Great! Do I sense a potential sale? ;-) All social insects are interesting, but termites seem more human somehow. They will fight, but mostly to defend their homes and mostly against ants. Ants have that ferocious, carnivorous, marauding nature (at least in some species). Bees are quintessentially flyers, but a meter-long bee would be too heavy to fly. So termites make the best candidate for evolving intelligence and forming the basis for a species humans can relate to.Delete