The Termite Queen
The Speaking of the Dead
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
– from John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
Two days later, Kaitrin went for a run among the campus buildings, again hoping that exercise might dispel the fuzzy mental state that pondering the puzzle of termite communication seemed to induce. She was not accustomed to mental fuzziness; her mind could conceptualize languages and sort their elements with an uncanny precision.
But this was not a normal language; this was a meaningless jumble of electromagnetic signals. There was nothing to conceptualize – no context, no relevance, no images, no words … Her mind refused to recognize a lexeme in a blip on a spectroscope.
Maybe the skeptics were right; maybe the patterns really were nothing more than some hitherto undiscovered type of bioelectric noise that had deceived the thought recorder …
It was late afternoon and it was hot. Sweating, she ran into a juice bar and collapsed into a chair, mopping her face and neck. She was wearing running shorts and the plastiform chair chilled her bare legs. Her hair was falling down.
And then Prf. Gwidian materialized at her elbow again. “You look desperately in need of refreshment!” he said. “Wrong time of day to be exercising, what?”
What in the world could have made him turn up in an XA juice bar at 1600h? “Aren’t you a little far from home, Professor?” she said inhospitably.
“Actually, I was returning from a budget meeting in Admin – defended the proposal for the fund transfer. I decided to walk part of the way back, but it’s a bit scalding out, so I stepped in here. What would you like to drink?”
“I can get it.”
“I know you can, but I’m still on my feet and you seem a bit knackered!”
“Tangerine would suit me.”
While he was gone, Kaitrin worked frantically to fasten up her hair, but she had lost the pins, so she was forced to let it hang down her back. When Gwidian returned with two tall cups of juice and two packets of energy crackers, she saw him glance at the unraveling braid.
“You’re right – ‘capital’ is the word for this!” she said, draining half the drink. Then she sat back, nestling the cold cup against her wrists. “So what about the funding? Is there hope?”
“Indeed. The university at large is excited about the possibilities of this project. With funding and a ship in hand, and if you and A’a’ma can arrive at even tentative conclusions about the language thing, I don’t see that the expeditionary authorities can refuse us.”
The “if” made Kaitrin uncomfortable. She avoided answering by mopping her face vigorously.
“So,” said Gwidian abruptly, “enlighten me about your connection to Afrik, before something intervenes again.”
“My word, Professor, you are persistent! It’s just that my contract father was from Nouvelle Victoire, the French-speaking Enclave west of Niroba. Like half the residents there, he was descended from Masay tribesmen. He was a folklorist and an amateur naturalist and I spent – oh, I suppose four or five summers – traveling around Afrik with him, and other parts of the world, too. I spoke Swahil by the time I was seven. Remember when I said I had eaten termites? Well, he’s the one who teased me into doing it!”
“Now I understand! I spent much of my boyhood in Afrik, if you’re wondering why I couldn’t let this subject rest.”
“Did you! But you’re from West Britan!”
Gwidian mimed exaggerated amazement. “Astounding! Most people note my accent and make some vague remark like, ‘You don’t talk like most Midammerikans. You must be from Noonavik – or the Mars Colony!’”
Kaitrin laughed. “I have a trained ear for such things, Professor. I would wager, New Swansee or Kardif?”
“Kardif. But that is amazing! I thought I had developed an Afriken accent, touched up with some Standard Brit from my time at Oxkam. So the Bristel Channel still comes through?”
“There is a certain vocal quality to the West British way of speaking – quite … ” She stopped, meaning to say “quite musical” but suddenly growing self-conscious. “Now that you mention it, I can detect a Southern Afriken twist in the vowels and the intonation. I hadn’t any cause to make the connection – the Standard Brit is definitely ascendant. So when did you move to Afrik and where did you live?”
“I arrived in Jonnsberg at the age of ten. I lived there until I had finished prep, when I headed to Oxkam for university. Then, after beating about the world a bit, I spent a lot of time in Afrik working on terrestrial insects before I switched to xenoentomology. I came to Okloh for that. No university bests Shiras-Peders for extraterrestrial studies.”
A thought struck Kaitrin. “Say, you don’t suppose … As I said, my contract father was a part-time naturalist – he descended from generations of Preserve rangers. He did a lot of volunteer fieldwork, mostly with small mammals – meerkats, hyraxes, bush babies … His name was Jaq Mokiba. You didn’t by any chance … ?”
“Mokiba? I believe I recollect someone of that name, when I was collecting data in the Serenghi Preserves, maybe twelve or fifteen years ago! Fancy that!”
It was Kaitrin’s turn to be amazed. “The old cliché ‘it’s a small world’ certainly seems to apply here, Prf. Gwidian!”
“A volunteer ranger – a very good man, as I recall. Yes, I’m sure of it – he was a collector of folktales, not that there is much to be done in Afrik in that area these days.”
“But Jaq was a folklorist in a very broad sense. He was interested in pre-Dark Age literary materials – 19th, 20th, 21st century – anything paper or digital that could possibly be recovered. He often assisted professional archivologists in their digs into old middens and the ruins of PDA cities. He played a part in the rediscovery of some of the 20th century Fantasists – found some wonderful stuff that ranks right up there with the Mythmakers! Better than some of them, in my opinion – not so consciously tendentious! And – I must tell you about this! It was he who recovered a forgotten work called … ”
Gwidian interrupted. “I seem to remember Mokiba mentioning a young daughter in Midammerik.”
Kaitrin was a little jolted. It was easy to forget that he was sixteen or seventeen years older than she was. “I suppose that was I, Prf. Gwidian. Yes, fifteen years ago I would have been eleven.”
His face opened into a grin tinged with mischief. “You must be mistaken. You couldn’t have been more than five.”
Kaitrin stared at him, wordless for once. Did he intend that remark as compliment, ridicule, or simply a mild tease?
“Did you mention just now that you had learned Swahil by the age of seven?” Gwidian asked. “A’a’ma was right, I believe. You were a prodigy.”
“Well, I was born with a predisposition for languages – they simply enthralled me! My mother promoted it – arranged a lot of tutoring. I’ve studied several periods of pre-Dark Age Inglish, and Letin, of course, which propelled me easily into Old Talian, and I got a little Griek and a little Rus, enough to know what it’s like to work in a different alphabet. Then … ”
“Then you turned ten years old.”
“Well, not quite that fast, Professor! But … ” She frowned, gazing out the window at the creaking Slorail cars and the sweaty people trudging or pedaling two-wheelers across the quadrangle. A delivery hauler whirred by, and from the sky came the whine of an evacuflyer, transporting an emergency case to one of the campus hospitals. “I do seem to have a rather strange mind when it comes to language. Children normally lose their instinctive ability to learn languages after the age of five or six, but I never lost that infantile facility. I can still hear non-Inj phonemes and articulate them – that is, if they don’t involve whistling! – and I can pick up a new language almost as readily now as when I was four. And I can retain it and pocket it up in my brain so that it stays there and I can shift from one pocket to another as if I were inserting and withdrawing portscarps. I almost never forget anything where language is concerned and I almost never mix up words or syntax among tongues.
“The Consortium thought I was pretty unusual, so when I was eighteen, I spent a month in Psycholinguistics being tested to determine how I could have soaked up three years’ worth of ancient Hebru in three months. They hoped to find something in my brain chemistry or my genes that might suggest a way to enhance the abilities of other adults. But it all remained a mystery.” Kaitrin shrugged, a little self-conscious. “I guess it just demonstrates that I really am rather peculiar!”
Gwidian was watching her with that perfectly concentrated gaze. “You impress me, Asc. Oliva. You most assuredly are the right person to unravel this termite tongue.”
She took a deep breath. “Except it isn’t a tongue, Professor. It’s a bunch of meaningless spectrographic waves on a portscreen. And it’s driving me crazy. But – it’ll work out! Forget I said that! My goodness, I’d better get going!” She stood up and a piece of hair fell over her eye. Annoyed, she raked it back.
In the briefest of blinks Gwidian’s eyes took in her bare legs. But what he said was, “May I say that if you wore your hair loose, it would be most becoming?”
A warning bell went off in Kaitrin’s head. “Oh,” she responded lightly, “but that wouldn’t be very practical, Prf. Gwidian.”
He conceded with a nod. “Life would be much more difficult if we were not practical.”
As Kaitrin left the juice bar, she could feel his eyes following her. She felt relieved to be escaping.
* * *
That night Luku digitized the wave patterns, leaving Kaitrin with screens full of binary code. At 2300h the following evening the Tae Quornaz found her friend pacing her quarters like a caged bear.
“Kaitrin! When you did not come to the studio this evening and you did not answer the link, I thought I should come see! Are you all right?”
Kaitrin flung herself into the lounge chair. “Luku, I’m simply at my wit’s end! Look at that stuff on the screen! It means nothing to me! How do you Tech types do it – work with code all the time! It would drive me crazy!”
“Oh, Kaitrin, there are different ways of thinking! You must do right thing for you.”
Kaitrin scrubbed her eyes. “Part of it is, I’m not getting enough sleep. That must be it – I’ll blame it on that! There are only eighteen days till I have to make the report. What if there is nothing to report? Everybody is counting on me to pull this off! I mean, I don’t have to translate the thing, but I have to be able to say something meaningful about it. I’m missing some step – some process or connection – but for the life of me I don’t know what it is.”
Luku squatted beside her, her enormous amber eyes full of concern. “Go to Prf. A’a’ma. He is feeling better.”
“No! This is my project and I have to do it alone! But I haven’t felt this panicky since – since the first time I had to stand up and lead a discussion when I was a fifteen-year-old fresher!”
“Kaitrin, take a free day. Seventeen days to finish it will be as much good as eighteen. Do nothing tomorrow. Go to gym, go to arboretum and look at flowers – go over to NW10 and see some holoshows! And then come with me tomorrow night to Ich Oquaz. It is night before term starts and the music and dance will be special. Forget all this mystery and we will come back fresh next day.”
Kaitrin took a deep breath. “I can’t … Oh, hell. Maybe you’re right. You Te Quornaz have such a great way of staying balanced. Will you be playing?”
“A little, but mostly listening. And there will be people there who do not know much Inj. You can practice the speaking of Glin Quornaz, Kaitrin!” she added slyly, and swished her tail sideways so it flicked Kaitrin’s cheek.
Kaitrin laughed, seizing the furred appendage and letting its lush softness run through her hand. “All right! I surrender! It probably makes sense.”
“Good! Go to bed, you who waste nights in sleep. I will see you tomorrow evening.”
* * *
Kaitrin did not go to a holoshow, but she did exercise, stroll in the cool, moist shade of the arboretum, and spend an ecstatic hour browsing in the Archaic Crafts Studio’s commercial shop. Every time those damned rows of waves and numbers intruded on her mind, she relentlessly pushed them aside. And at 2000h she was ready for Luku’s arrival.
The Ich Oquaz Club – the “Place of Home” – was the gathering center for the university’s Te Quornaz community. The Club was open to Earthers by invitation only; when the lemuriforms had first established their presence in the Consortium, they had wanted a place where they could practice their own customs in a private and unregulated way. This quite suited the authorities, who were reluctant to allow free human access to what some considered a licentious environment. But there was nothing to fear from the Te Quornaz; they were more civilized and honest than many Earthers and they loved to share their culture when they felt they were not being treated simply as curiosities or a source of sensation. And Kaitrin reveled in their exotic lifestyle.
Ich Oquaz was located in the sub-basement of a building in Shiras-Peders’ recreational complex. As befitted a nocturnal species, the rooms were dimly lit; a scattering of glow torches, a Quornat technology employing bioluminescent chemicals, produced an unsteady gleam and wavering shadows, almost like candlelight. The floor was thickly carpeted and strewn with seating cushions and the walls were hung with velvety tapestries; everything was decorated with colors and designs both subtle and bright. The Te Quornaz abhorred plainness.
Kaitrin, Luku, and a few of her friends found seats at a low, round table. While Luku went to order food, Kaitrin sat cross-legged on a cushion, looking around. The hall was crowded with tall, furry, brightly garbed creatures whose tails, of varying ring patterns and colors ranging from brown and rust red to coal black and cream, waved over their heads like an aggregation of bizarre tubeworms rising from the seabed. The atmosphere was filled with the scent of their body musk and the fragrance of warm spices.
Te Quornaz society was immutably hierarchical and hereditary in structure, dominated for hundreds of years by an elite class of noble families. However, this fact did not result in as much social rigidity as one might expect. The people were very prolific; it was not unusual for mates to produce a dozen offspring and inheritance protocol was strict. It was forbidden to break up an Aquotae, or “House-Holding,” the unit of property and wealth that controlled everything from social rank to position in the government to mating rights. Therefore, offspring below the third position in the birth order were automatically disinherited. When they came of age at fifteen Earth-equivalent years, they either mated into another family or received a small one-time allotment that allowed them to go off to seek their fortunes.
Ninety-four years ago (38 years after they had perfected their own interstellar drive), the Te Quornaz made their first contact with off-worlders when they and a team of Earthers chanced to be simultaneously exploring the same planet in a nearby star system. Fifty-nine years ago Quornam had been admitted to the Confederation as its fourth member. Since that time many of the Choitove – the “Disinherited” – had chosen to emigrate temporarily to another planet, seeking education, adventure, or profit. Often they prospered and returned home to develop their own spheres of influence, even founding their own Houses in more sparsely inhabited regions of their world or in urban settings not bound by the ancient Land-Rules. They had become an influential adjunct to society; nearly all the governmental functionaries below the top tier, as well as most of the scientists, educators, creative people, and entrepreneurs, were Choitove.
Luku !eya Kash was one of those. Her name meant “Small One of the House Kash,” and she was the eighth and last child of the current House-Lord, who ruled a vast Aquotae famous for its fine fruit orchards and excellent zhoka vintage and who served with honor in the ruling Hall of one of the Eight Nations of Quornam. Not long after the date of her official adulthood, armed only with a small stipend, her toviz, and an aptitude for technical pursuits, Luku had come to Earth, which was the most popular destination among the Confederation planets, being only 35 light years from Quornam. Fate had warded her path, as the Te Quornaz liked to say, and brought her to the age of 23 Earth-years, working for the Northwest Quad Consortium and dwelling in a small community of her fellow Choitove, among aliens, on the exotic planet that her people called “Urt.”
Kaitrin relaxed as she waited for the food, letting her mind swim through the husky babble of Quornat voices. She could make out at least three versions of Glin Quornaz; one she had no knowledge of and another she could partially comprehend. The people at her table spoke Luku’s tongue, which was familiar to her. She mostly listened, throwing in an occasional comment, grinning as they hooted at her accent or her grammatical gaffes. The language was structured very much like Letin, spare and highly inflected. A small error could make a huge and often risible difference in meaning.
The food arrived. The Te Quornaz favored extreme seasonings; they loved the Mehiken and Asien spices of Earth and substituted them in their recipes if they ran out of imports. Kaitrin knew enough to request the mildest possible items on the menu even though she had grown up on her mother’s Mehiken cooking. Still, the pungency of the !akaf stew made her eyes water and her nose run. She took refuge in the wonderful raised-dough pafoje with their cool fruit fillings. Her companions laughed at her again.
Presently the music started. The instruments were acoustic; the Te Quornaz rarely applied technology to art. Besides the six-stringed lute called the toviz, the ensemble included vertical reed pipes; large, stringed, bass and baritone instruments called klu-e that were held upon the lap and plucked; and several sizes of drums. The bass and the drums alternated and competed with the toviz and the pipes; the Te Quornaz believed the sound mirrored life, where the heavy, the coarse, and the tragic fought with the delicate, the gentle, and the beautiful for dominance. The Great Dichotomy for the Te Quornaz was not evil versus good but rather tragedy versus beauty.
There was also singing, where the purpose was not competition but the reconciliation that can come through the addition of words. In the strong bardic tradition of Quornam, songs were always narratives. Luku was the first to perform, accompanying herself on her toviz as she chanted a tale that was familiar to Kaitrin. It told about a forest of sacred trees whose demise would signal the end of the world. This forest required constant tending and could only be nurtured in starlight; hence the creatures that lived in its branches had to become night-dwellers in order to keep their world from dying. And by that legend the Te Quornaz accounted for their nocturnal lifestyle.
The voices of females and males sounded similar when they spoke, but when they sang, it was another matter. Females’ voices were more suited to enunciating the words of songs, being pitched low, with a throaty, purring rasp. The males’ voices were high, with an eerie timbre and amazing volume – a ghostly reflection of an extinct Earth creature called the indri, whose cries were known from ancient recordings preserved in an Underground Archivist’s cache.
The melody was composed of extended, repetitive lines rendered in archaically accented syllables. Between groups of lines, Luku would pause while the males of the group inserted wordless, subtly varied crescendos. These were called “cascades” (the word in Glin Quornaz literally meant “waterfall”) – open-mouthed calls that started low and rose to a high, pure stream of sound that pierced the ears of humans as if from another dimension. At the climactic end of the tale, males and female began to “sing” simultaneously, the seemingly incompatible tones reconciling themselves in a harmony truly alien to Earth.
Then the dancing began. In the humdrum routine of Earth – a planet whose culture had been revived by committing to utilitarianism – the tall, long-limbed lemuriforms seemed sometimes uncoordinated and out-of-place, but when they moved to their own music in their own milieu, their grace was transfixing. The music’s rhythm and tempo intensified as they danced; their mighty sidewise leaps and whiplashing movements grew wilder and their tails gestured with meanings intelligible only to the initiate. They shed their garments and danced naked at such a time; clothing served mostly for adornment and dance-nudity was of no more consequence than the unclothed state of the model is to the artist. The teats of the females were negligible when they were not nursing offspring, but male sex organs were prominent at all times and occasionally one of the wilder dances would conclude with an actual coupling. It was believed that the art form called dance had originated in rituals of mating.
On this night, however, the performance ended more discreetly. Kaitrin and her friends strolled home after midnight through the somnolent campus. Luku played her toviz as they went, accompanied by a descant of the group’s blended voices that seemed discreetly restrained to the Te Quornaz but must surely have startled any security guard who was trying to sleep on the job. To Kaitrin it seemed like starlight focused on the ear.
One by one the individuals peeled off to return to their own dwellings until only Kaitrin and Luku were left.
“Do you want to come up?” Kaitrin asked at the door of her building.
“No. I am going to lab and work awhile. You must go to bed.”
“I probably must. I drank a bit too much zhoka. What with that and the singing, my head is buzzing.”
Luku laughed. “At least you will sleep sound.”
“Luku, it will turn out all right, won’t it?”
“Fate will ward your way, Kaitrin! I have no doubt at all!”
Kaitrin sighed, took her at her word, and went to her flat to sleep.
* * *
The next day was the first of the term. The instructors who had only just learned that Kaitrin’s classes were now theirs were in a state of panic, the Registrar’s database was spitting out incorrect lists, and Kaitrin ended up spending most of that day helping iron out departmental problems. When she returned to the translation project on Sunday, she came in with a positive attitude that she thought would surely produce results.
It did not, and by the end of the day she was almost as distracted as she had been two days earlier.
Frustration drove her out of her quarters for supper. She returned to find a message on the relay from Prf. Gwidian.
“Asc. Oliva!” said his recorded image. “I’ll be passing through the XA campus about noon tomorrow. May I join you for lunch in the dining room? Relying on chance encounters is not always satisfactory. If you intend not to be there at that time, don’t fret about it. We all have our individual obligations, I quite understand that. Perhaps I’ll see you?”
She played the message three times. Relying on chance encounters is not always satisfactory. What in the world did he mean by that? Could it be that he had manipulated their meeting in the juice bar? No, he couldn’t have done that. She herself had not planned to go jogging until ten minutes before she started out.
“I do have other obligations for tomorrow,” she said out loud to Gwidian’s image frozen on the port screen.
But at 1100h the next morning she was ready to scream and she quickly tidied herself up and left the flat. Chatting with him on those other occasions had not been so bad; in fact, she was surprised at how easy conversation with him could be.
Gwidian was already in the dining room when she arrived. He spotted her passing among the tables with her tray and rose to pull out her chair. It was a rare gesture that she surmised came from his Islands education; antiquated customs seemed as persistent in Britan as the ancient ivy.
As they exchanged courtesies, Gwidian scrutinized her. “You look tired. Is the work not going well?”
It was the last thing she wanted to talk about and she shrugged vaguely, countering with a question of her own. “What brought you into our part of the campus today, Professor?”
“A jaunt to Medlab for a briefing on the progress of the vaccines.”
“If we are to come into sustained contact with these isopteroids on their home world, it’s best to protect ourselves against whatever xenotoxins we’re aware of. Medlab has been working furiously on some DAMTs against the major strains of alien microbes that were present in the creatures’ bodies.”
Kaitrin hooted. “The first time I ever heard that acronym pronounced was in school when I was about nine or ten and I almost fell off my chair laughing. Then the whole class dissolved and I thought I was headed for the DO for sure. But then the teacher started laughing, too, and finally we all simmered down and got back to work. When I learned the acronym stood for something as humdrum as ‘DNA antimicrobial therapy,’ I was very disappointed!”
Gwidian was chuckling. “Yes, amusing, what? Anyway, some of the off-world people up on the ship are preparing vaccines suitable for Prf. A’a’ma and Luku. Did you know your blood produced some antibodies after you were infected? The biochemists used Towsen’s infection as a starting point, of course, but your tissue samples were helpful in verifying the results – facilitated the work tremendously.”
“There, you see? Being scratched wasn’t such a bad thing after all! But – ‘dammits’ may safeguard the expedition members, but what about the termites? After all, infections from terrestrial pathogens definitely hastened our specimen’s demise. What is the chance that XTIS might kill off the whole population?”
“It’s a risk. We should avoid unnecessary physical contact for the good of both sides. But Jana believes the risk is acceptable if we encounter the creatures on their home turf, where they’re healthy and properly nourished.”
“I’m sorry. Prf. Lindeman.”
“Oh!” Suddenly Kaitrin felt an overwhelming urge to ask if Lindeman were of a mind to accompany them to 2 Giotta 17A.
It proved unnecessary, however, for Gwidian was continuing, “Too bad Prf. Lindeman can’t join us. She finds this expedition of the greatest interest. But the Biosciences Division has a policy that a sitting Department Chair may not go off-world during her – shall we call it her ‘imperium’?”
Inexplicably, Kaitrin felt her spirits lift several notches. “That’s a sensible policy. The Cultural Division is always having to shuffle assignments around.”
Gwidian was observing her somewhat intently and she quickly quelled an overly enthusiastic smile by stuffing her sandwich into her face.
He abruptly changed the subject. “You’ve referred to Jaq Mokiba as your contract father. May I indulge my curiosity about that relationship?”
“Oh, my mother met him when I was two, the same way she met Prf. A’a’ma, through her work at the IQDB. They spent a couple of years getting to know each other and then became legal companions. My mother had always vowed she would never make a contractual commitment, but Jaq was definitely the right one for her. They were exceptionally close for twenty-two years and he was the best kind of father to me.”
“There is something missing in that picture.”
Kaitrin regarded him questioningly.
“You must have had a biological father. But I’m chagrined – I may have strayed into a sensitive area.”
“Oh, that! No, not at all!” She flashed her irreverent grin. “My biological father lived in the Anarber Sperm Bank of the Mitchican Research Institute. Specimen A2339, Year 185.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Ha! Your mother paid a good price for A Level sperm.”
“More than a year’s salary – or rather her salary at the time. But she had the savings and she was twenty-seven and decided that if she wanted a child, she shouldn’t continue putting it off. To be frank, she’d never met a man who lived up to her standards, so she just settled on the AI route. I guess genetically it was worth the money. She wanted a child with a superior mind and she got one. That is, I don’t know if my mind is superior, but at least it’s unusual.” She felt herself flushing. Why do I do this when I’m around him? “But this is all in my record. You could have looked it up.”
“That would have been far less interesting than hearing you recount it.”
She had no riposte for that and she bent to concentrate on the remains of her sandwich.
“So, did your mother and Jaq Mokiba give you any siblings?”
“No, none. The odd thing is, when my mother finally did find a compatible mate, nothing happened.” She looked up. “What about you, Prf. Gwidian? Did you have both a father and mother? Siblings? A so-called ‘historically normal’ family unit?”
He hesitated marginally. “Until I was ten. My father and mother were married – yes, that antiquated term applies, Associate! My father had a tour-boat business – ran sightseeing boats on the West British coast and across to Eira. His hovercraft capsized in a squall when I was eight and he drowned.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
“My mother proceeded to die as well, two years later. Breast cancer, of all things.” He stopped, then continued in a somewhat impetuous rush. “She couldn’t abide medical people and never would take treatment. It was – a serious waste. What woman dies of breast cancer in the 30th century?”
Gwidian was scowling, his eyes fixed across the room. Kaitrin felt she had touched a nerve in him that he commonly guarded and she murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m the one who seems to have blundered into a sensitive area.”
He quickly brought his gaze back to her face, assuming a slight, remote smile. “No harm! Anyway, I was a child of my parents’ later years and I had a sister twelve years older than I. Rianna had committed to a man from Southern Afrik, so that’s why I left Britan. I lived with them for the rest of my boyhood. She still resides near Jonnsberg.”
“‘Rianna,’” said Kaitrin. “Beautiful. Another name derived from the extinct West British tongue.”
“Your name – ‘Kaitrin’ – is unusual. Not very Spainish. Didn’t you say your mother was Mehiken? You don’t have Mehiken physical characteristics.”
“My mother does, although she’s half Eirish. It must have been a combination of my father’s genes with a sandy-haired grandmother that turned me into a washed-out blonde with a snub nose.” She guffawed. “You should have seen the puzzled expressions on people’s faces when they would look at Jaq, who was tall and lean and dark with typical Afriken hair, and at my olive-skinned, black-haired mother, and then at me. I don’t know how many times Mamá was asked how she happened to adopt me! But as for my name, she wanted it to be a little different. She liked Katrin, but hated Kat or Katti as a nickname, so she combined Katrin and the Eirish form Kaitlin. Voilá! Kaitrin!”
“So what is your nickname?”
“Oh, I don’t have one,” she lied.
“‘Kait’ makes a fine nickname for Kaitrin.”
“I suppose it does,” she said a little frostily. The warning bells were going off again.
“My more informal acquaintances call me ‘Griff.’ I’d be pleased if you chose to do so.”
“Maybe someday I will, Prf. Gwidian.”
He hesitated, regarding her. Then he sat back and laughed. “‘A hit. A very palpable hit.’”
This completely disarmed her. “You know Hamlet?”
“Don’t sound so incredulous!” he responded, his smile crinkling his eyes. “Nobody attends Oxkam without picking up a little knowledge of Shaksper.”
“You know, that’s true! I’d forgotten! Mamá and Jaq and I spent two weeks in Britan the summer I turned seventeen. We visited Oxkam – attended a capital production of Henry the Fifth! What a wonderful place! Especially the Old Oxferd Living Museum – all those buildings that are twelve and fifteen hundred years old! The Bodley Library, where so many of the ancient paper books survived the Dark Age! Britan is very fortunate to have come through that period with so many of its cultural artifacts intact! I’ve always been quite in love with the Islands!”
“So – if I have a little knowledge of Shaksper, you think there might be some hope for me after all?”
Kaitrin was taken off-guard. “I’m not quite sure what you mean, Professor.”
Gwidian sighed. “Still ‘Professor,’ is it? Oh, well … I suppose it will have to be ‘Asc. Oliva’ for a while. Shall I be the one to break this up today? I do have some appointments this afternoon that I’d best not slight.”
She glanced at her watch and was panicked to see how late it had grown. “I must get back to the text – that damn text … ”
“It’s not going well. I sensed it.”
“Well … no. No, it isn’t. I … ” Kaitrin took a deep breath. Gwidian was not the one to help her in this matter.
He said as much. “I would be happy to help you if I could, but I fear it’s farther outside my area of expertise than I once considered insects to be outside yours.”
“It’s only – the presentation is due two weeks from today. … It doesn’t look like a language! Oh, I can see the potential for syntactic structure in it – organized repetitions – but it doesn’t suggest anything to me. The only new thing I’ve done in the last three days is to plot the hiatuses according to their lengths – the shortest ones may indicate lexical units within words and the slightly longer ones may demarcate whole words. Also, there are a number of minuscule waveforms that we overlooked earlier and one of those occurs sixteen times. But I … can’t … discover … any … meaning!” She banged her fist on the table. “Maybe there isn’t any! You bioscientists may have been right! It was only a mindless overgrown insect and I’m nothing but a romantic anthropomorphizer with an outlandish imagination!”
“Kaitrin … ” Gwidian put out his hand as if he would touch hers, then withdrew it at the last moment. “I wouldn’t obsess so much over it. I honestly believe you’re on the right track. Why don’t you go talk to A’a’ma? He mentioned yesterday that he hadn’t seen you since before his molt.”
“I have to do this on my own.”
“You needn’t expect him to do the work for you. Just mull things over with him. You and he get on so comfortably. I have less experienced colleagues who come to me with their difficulties. I don’t do their work for them, but I try to steer them, suggest new directions for their investigations – or simply let them bounce their ideas against the knowledge I’ve acquired.”
She regarded him, struck by the complete sincerity of his demeanor. There was no condescension, no clever wordplay. He had impulsively called her “Kaitrin” and she had scarcely noticed.
“Maybe I will go see Tió’otu,” she said. “Luku also thought I should. I desperately want this to succeed, Prf. Gwidian. Thanks. I … yes, I think I definitely will go talk to my old Prf. Bird.”
In one of the most important chapters in Volume One
the advice of Prf. A'a'ma enables Kaitrin to achieve
a breakthrough in deciphering the termite language.