TQ v.1:3

The Termite Queen
Volume One
The Speaking of the Dead

Chapter 3
Mrs. Millamont: There is not so impudent a thing in nature, as
the saucy look of an assured man, confident of success.
                                                  from William Congreve, The Way of the World

       In the kitchen alcove, Kaitrin stood over a miniature grill, turning a sizzling, herb-sprinkled fillet of flash-thawed salmon.
        “Almost ready!” She slid the fish onto a plate, scooped up a platter with the wet, raw remainder of the salmon upon it, and transferred both dishes to a table in the living area of her two-room university-housing flat. Making juicy clucking noises, Prf. A’a’ma was waiting with knife and fork at the ready. For herself, Kaitrin fetched bread, slices of lime, raw carrots, and an apple, and they fell to it.
        Kaitrin never particularly enjoyed watching her avian friend eat. He consumed cooked flesh only if forced to do so and, although his people customarily ate with utensils, he tended to jab his beak at a forkful of food as if attacking prey.
        After a few moments of satisfying their appetites, A’a’ma paused and eyed Kaitrin’s plate disapprovingly. “Why must you drown it in that sour juice?”
        “I like it with the taste of lime!”
        “If you did not dry and char your fish over heat, you would not find it necessary to refresh the flavor. There – you are laughing at me again!”
        “Yes, I am! Do you know how many times we’ve had this conversation?”
        “It appalls me to think! Fortunately for you, I am very good-natured! Oh, that reminds me … ” He fished a holoimager out of a pocket and set it on the table. “I have a new grandnestling – the third.”
        “Congratulations! But why did our incompatible food habits remind you of that?”
        A’a’ma touched the switch. “Because you make fun of our hatchlings, too!”
        A miniature hologram popped up, showing a gaping nestling with a fuzz of pale, disheveled down on its pinkish skin and delicate claws on spastic forelimbs. Kaitrin scrutinized it, deadpan.            
        “Male or female?”
        “Male. There was a single egg. The first two were nestmates, both females. This one is being named ‘Tió’otu’ in my honor.”
        Kaitrin cleared her throat. “Adorable.”
        “There, you see? That compliment was totally insincere! Why are you so prejudiced against the offspring of the !Ka<tí?”
        “It’s only … they’re so – naked. And their mouths are so – big.”
        “And those wet, slimy slugs you humans expel are more enchanting?” Prf. A’a’ma crowed with vindictive delight. “To my mind, they might make a tasty desert morsel!” And he dived at his fish, pecking a bite directly off the plate.
        “Do not sound so scandalized, Kaitrin! You know I must always pay you back for your teasing! A million years ago, before we Krisí’i’aidá evolved into the charmingly civilized creatures that we are today, you might have had to worry!”
        Kaitrin grinned in satisfaction. Of all the people in the galaxy, she enjoyed the company of none more than her long-time mentor, this quixotic Bird. “May I ask you something personal, Tió’otu?”
        “Ask away,” responded A’a’ma, stuffing a huge chunk of salmon down his gullet.
        “You’re the only off-worlder ever to hold a Senior Professorship at one of Earth’s universities. You spend so much time here – you hardly ever go home – and yet you seem so attached to your family. Don’t you miss them? Don’t you miss your wife?”
        He paused with another bite halfway to his beak. “Well, yes. Sometimes. But I am sixty years old – Earth years – and I have spent the best part of a quarter-century on this planet. Before that, my wife and I were rarely apart. Hwi<ve↑ visited a time or two in the early days and, since our nestlings are all fledged, there is nothing to stop her from coming here to live with me; as a medical researcher, she would be a welcome addition to the xenomed labs. But 94 light years make for a long journey and she hates the tedium and risk of space travel. So she stays home and works at her career there even as I work at mine here. My people bond for life – something not all the ILFs of Krisí’i’aid do – and someday I will go home to stay. But the !Ka<tí are good at taking things in stride. Besides, we rarely have the relations of sex unless we are seeking to produce offspring, so it is possible to be separated from one’s spouse without being tempted to infidelity.” A’a’ma cackled. “Not that I would have much opportunity to cheat, what with the scarcity of !K♪a<tí females on Earth!”
        Kaitrin giggled, then added with some seriousness, “I think the Krisí’i’aidá are superior to Earthers in so many ways, Tió’otu.”
        “Oh, well, it was not my intention to suggest that.”
        Kaitrin cleared her throat. “Can we go back to our termite conundrum?”
        “Yes! Tell me what you are thinking!”
        “It occurs to me that if this creature really is an intelligent, self-aware, thinking individual, then its suffering may be quite a bit more extreme than this bug-man might realize.”
        “I agree with you. I am not comfortable with that notion.”
        “It’s a serious ethical violation, to take an ILF captive and treat it as a specimen. It might have been better if Prf. Gwidian had erred on the side of caution and released it.”
        “I agree with you there, too. But of course there was no obvious indication that this creature is intelligent.”
        “That’s true. If I might play the old devil’s advocate, stones that exhibit tool marks are no proof of who worked them. At most, they suggest an absent or extinct ILF of undetermined nature.”
        “I agree.”
        “For a large social insect to occupy big mounds of stones mortared together with excreta is a reasonable extrapolation from terrestrial insect behavior.”
        “I agree.”
        “The leashed ant – some previously unknown symbiotic relationship. The wall – the product of an instinctive behavior not found among terrestrial insects, or additional evidence for an extinct ILF. The termites themselves – merely an evolutionary outgrowth native to that planet, although none the less interesting for that.”
        “I agree. These are Prf. Gwidian’s arguments. I have no real data to dispute them.”
        “I think I’m going to remain neutral. I don’t have all the facts or even any firsthand observations yet. I’ll wait to make a judgment till I get better data.”
        “That’s my good little skeptic! But I must say this: a thousand years of interstellar exploration have sensitized the Krisí’i’aidá to the possibility that new ILFs may turn up when you least expect them. That awareness has yet to develop in your species. After all, you have made – what? … only three first contacts during your two hundred years in space – and one of those was us! I simply sense subtleties in this creature that seem at odds with the standard view of termites as mindless social machines.
        “But you, Kaitrin, have a quality that I value – a native intuition where off-worlders are concerned. It is the reason I denied you your vacation. I want to know what you perceive. You do not have the experience, but you have … perhaps you humans would say, the heart.”
        Kaitrin took a long breath and sat back, smiling at the Professor. “Thank you, Tió’otu! You can’t know how much a statement like that means to me, coming from you.”
*        *        *
        After the remains of supper had been cleared away, Kaitrin sat down at her port to inform her mother she was back. As she impatiently swept aside a clutter of portscarps, A’a’ma cast a critical eye over the room’s chaos. A desk with relay and research ports, scanners, and recording equipment consumed the wall next to the bedroom door, while two other walls were covered with overflowing storage shelves. The upper half of the rear wall was adorned with pictures and broadsides similar to the one that A’a’ma had given Kaitrin for her birthday; below these was a shelf holding reproductions of 2nd millennium-style books, elegantly bound in leather. In the middle of the room sat a contour chair with a lap blanket hanging from the back. Beside it a stand held a portable reader, piles of scarps, an unwashed coffee cup, and a plate containing an ancient husk of toast and a mummified apple core. A half-full laundry basket stood next to the bedroom door and a stray shoe held conspicuous reign in the center of the floor.
        Ah, ♫♪ … This place is something of a scholar’s paradise, but – you really need a larger dwelling, Asc. Oliva!”
        “Ha, ha. You know I’ve sworn to remain in this flat until I make Professor. Inhabiting this cramped gopher hole is added incentive!”
        “Kaitrin, be practical! Nobody ever obtains a Professorship before the age of thirty.”
        “Well, work on it for me if you can’t stand how I live!”
        “When I submitted your name last year, our colleagues appeared ready to commit me to the IPD. I did it again this year and Prf. Wankowski reared up like the pompous ass that he is and accused me of favoritism. The recommendation has never yet made it out of committee. The World Board is aware of your existence, however, because I keep bombarding them rather unsubtly with information. I know people in Oxkam and in Moska who are always willing to listen to me no matter how annoying I am. So – someday … ”
        “Before I’m thirty! I tell you, it will happen! Or I’m going to be found suffocated to death in this room, and it will be your fault!”
        “♪♫ – chakchak …
        Kaitrin laughed wickedly and spoke an ID to the relay. In a moment, a woman’s voice came from the speaker. “Brigit Oliva here.”
        ¡Mamacita! ¿Qué pasa?
        “Kaiti? But this shows … Why aren’t you in Aleska?”
        “Can’t you activate the vid?”
        “Well … I’m in my nightgown … Hold on.”
        A’a’ma discreetly lofted his gaze to the ceiling.
        In a moment the screen lit up, revealing a striking face framed in loose dark hair streaked with gray. The eyes were the green-gray of Eira, but the olive skin and aquiline nose spoke of a Mehiken heritage. Kaitrin was blonde and softer of feature, but she had the same eyes, and both women displayed the same crooked grin that could easily turn irreverent.
        Brigit Oliva was tugging a red robe together across her breast. “What are you doing back in Okloh?”
        “I had to give up Denaly – a special project came up.”
        “Well, that’s a rotten deal! Say, your symposium reports came through today. They’re now duly posted on the IQDB for all the world to peruse.”
        “Good grief! Already? The Q and A, too?”
        “Of course! We daren’t slight Prf. Jerardo!” Brigit Oliva held a position of substantial responsibility in the Interquad Database Center in Koloredo Prefecture; she was an Administrator in Information Dissemination and Control within the Language and Literature Section.
         “Oh, why not?” said Kaitrin. Then, “How’s the garden doing?”
        “Kaiti, those carnations I put in the planters are in full bloom – the terrace smells divine! The mountains got so much snow last winter that the powers-that-be are letting us have extra water … Wait a minute! Do I see somebody behind you?”
        Kaitrin moved over as A’a’ma snaked his beaky head toward the cam. “Brigit! Surprise!”
        “Tió’otu! ¡Dios mío! You aren’t supposed to be there, either! Will somebody kindly tell me what’s going on?”
        Kaitrin looked questioningly at A’a’ma. He said, “In fact, I do not believe I will. We are involved in a project that has not yet been made public, and – you know … ”
        “Yes, I know! A leak or a pronker raid, and it would be much better if I could make an honest disclaimer. The IQDB is getting so difficult – this fine line between personal security and the principle of non-exclusiveness – and then there’s that gray area of the chartered pop links … It’s touchy to stay on top of it all sometimes.”
        “Why do you keep working, Brigit?” said the Professor. “Retire and enjoy your life!”
        “You should talk, Prf. 60-year-old Bird! I’m only 54 – far too young to retire! And what work could be more fascinating than helping to make all the knowledge in the universe accessible to anyone who wants it? Besides, I’m afraid they would promote somebody … well, I’ll flatter myself … somebody who isn’t as meticulous as I am or whose integrity is shakier. But if you’re the one responsible for Kaiti’s canceled holiday, Tió’otu, you’re a total spoilsport!”
        “So I am, so I am! ♫♫” warbled A’a’ma. “I make my … what is that quaint old Letin phrase? … my mia gulpas.
        “‘Mea culpa!’” said Kaitrin, cracking up.
        “But she forgave me – even brought me salmon from Kamchata, Brigit!”
        “I ordered some for you, too, Mamá. It should arrive in a day or two.”
        ¡Maravilloso! I love salmon! But, Kaiti, aren’t you going to come help me eat it? I’m really impatient to see you – you haven’t visited me since last winter! And Pikes isn’t all that far.”
        “I know, I know. I make my mia gulpas, too. I can probably come late this week and stay for three or four days. The fall term doesn’t begin for another two weeks. For now, though, I’d better quit and get to bed. I have a really early start in the morning.”
        “All right! I’ll be counting the days! And I’m glad I could talk to you, Tió’otu, and that you’re back safe. Te quiero, mi hija. ¡Ten cuidado!
        Te quiero, también, Mamacita. ¡Adiós!
        Cutting the relay link, Kaitrin turned a little ruefully to A’a’ma. “You know, I used to neglect her even worse, but she had Jaq then. Since he died, I’ve tried to visit more and message her a lot, but time just gets away from me … ”
        “Your link is activating.”
        “Who in the world … ? Nobody knows I’m back … Kaitrin Oliva.”
        As the port came to life, A’a’ma muttered an imprecation under his breath.
        The screen was showing another striking visage – of a man with black hair and brows above arresting blue eyes deep-set within dark lashes. The features were finely cut, with a long, straight nose, a well-modeled jawline, and a remnant of childhood dimples creasing the cheeks. It was a face configured to make a favorable initial impression, especially on females.
        Kaitrin’s trained ear sorted through the man’s complex accent, immediately discerning traces of West British as he said, “Prf. Griffen Gwidian here. So you’re the estimable Asc. Oliva. I seem to be too much in the sun.”
        Kaitrin scowled at the entomologist. His cryptic remark rang a vague bell in her mind, but her inability to identify it instantly rankled. “What does that mean – ‘too much in the sun’?”
        Prf. Gwidian ignored the question. “Prf. A’a’ma has been a bit tedious in his attempts to bring you into this project, but I can assure you there’s no good reason for you to be bothered.”
        Out of view in the background, Tió’otu was making obscene gestures.
        “Were you trying to locate Prf. A’a’ma?” asked Kaitrin. “He’s right here.” Any positive impact Gwidian’s physiognomy might have generated had quickly dissipated.
        “As a matter of fact, XA said I might find him at this ID.”
        A’a’ma pushed into cam range. “Well, you did! Do you have anything of importance to say, Professor? I was about to leave. It is getting late and you are the one who wants us in your office practically at sunup.”
        “I was simply seeking to confirm our plans and to report on the specimen, which is still alive but weakening rapidly, I fear. I trust it will still be with us in the morning.”
        “All right! The plans are confirmed and the report duly noted! Both of us will see you at 0700h.”
        Gwidian persisted, however. “Asc. Oliva, you have a tenacious advocate in Prf. A’a’ma, but I must again emphasize that there’s little to warrant your participation in this project. If you’re sprinting to make Professor at a record age, as he assures me … Well, I say, do you really want to waste your precious time on a type of investigation of which you have no knowledge?”
        “Good night, Prf. Gwidian!” croaked A’a’ma firmly and cut off the relay with a stabbing claw.
        “Well! That’s an arrogant S.O.B., I must say!” said Kaitrin as Tió’otu lapsed into a warble of expletives. “So this is the man all women are supposed to find irresistible? With that holier-than-thou attitude, how could any woman stand to be around him?”
        Heihei, he is quite the sophisticate and I have heard he can be quite engaging at times. But he can also be edgy, moody, and unpredictable. And I think he is being – ♫ – protective of his turf.”
        “I’m not even on his turf – I’m an entomological ignoramus, according to that insufferable remark that just came out of him! And so what if I want to try for an early Professorship? Does that shave any skin off that elegant nose of his? He must have earned his status a hundred years ago.”
        “No, if I recall correctly, achieving that rank didn’t come so easily for him. Kaitrin, males of your species can feel threatened by any woman who might be capable of getting the better of them. But then who am I to interpret the behavior of humans? Even after all my years on Earth your species still often mystifies me! Now I really am leaving! Get to bed, do not fret about Gwidian, and be ready for an extraordinary day tomorrow!”
Coming Friday:
Chapter 4:
We finally meet the Shakespearean termites!

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