I remembered what I had told Jura about the Chirikti eating inwards from the extremities and tried to guess what direction the chewing noise was coming from. It seemed to be directly in front of my face. Not that it really mattered where the bugs started. As soon as they breached the suit I’d be dead in a couple of minutes from asphyxiation.
I tried to move but I was still encased. My suit was overheating. With the exhaust ducts clogged with resin I was looking at heatstroke within the hour.
The chewing noise grew louder. It looked as if heatstroke wouldn’t be a problem after all.
The resin came away from my faceplate in chunks and suddenly I could see again. I was glued to the wall of a cylindrical chamber about twenty yards in diameter and more than double that in length. It was dark by Chirikti standards with only a few of the crystalline lighting panels emitting a warm orange glow. It was only when the Chirikti that uncovered me pushed back and floated across the cylindrical space that I realised that we were weightless. We were at the very heart of the vespiary. The centre of its rotation.
I checked my shibboleth. Nearly all gone. I must have been out for some time.
I tried to look for the others, but the back of my head was still encased in the unyielding resin. I could see and the sensors in the temple of my helmet were clear, but I could not move.
“Morgan? Morgan, are you OK?” It was Mina’s voice. I would have jumped out of my skin were I not held immobile. “I saw that thing eating into you but then it just stopped. Are you talking to them?”
I wished that I could. I had expended most of my stock of pheromones in the vain attempt to talk us out of being captured. And in any case, the translator on my chest plate was still buried.
“Where are you?” I asked. “I can’t see anyone.”
“We’re behind you and to your right. At least Jura and I are. Smith got knocked loose and is bouncing around the ceiling somewhere. We’re still stuck like you: they just cut us free enough for transport.”
I started to reply, but a Chirikti drifted over towards me, its stance a pose of dominant inquiry. It stopped in mid-space in front of me and held station with tiny vents of thrust from an armoured suit that encased everything except its forelimbs in a kind of second carapace.
I tried to get my overheating onboard computer to behave and readied some phases.
What/why human incursion. My domain. Violation!
The voice was obviously a computer simulation and was coming in through our supposedly secure local network.
“Nice work, Professor,” said Jura. “The fucking bugs can talk. Probably been spliced into our net since we landed.
“No they can’t!” I said.
“Maybe it’s an AI?” Mina ventured.
“It said ‘my domain’. Chirikti use a distributed computer system modelled on their own society. It wouldn’t use a personal pronoun like that.”
“Morgan. Don’t think about what it should be saying, just concentrate on what it is say--“
Response insignificant. Garbled translation.
The Chirikti drifted closer with small puffs of gas from its thrusters. I could see the distended bulge on its back--a black star-shaped formation just like the other Chirikti, the ones that had finished the job of capturing us.
The black shape lifted itself up on six legs and leaped across the void onto my faceplate. It started at me, not with the compound eyes of a Chirikti, or the lenses of an automaton but with six eyes of black pearl like a spider. It was a separate organism.
I could see its mouth parts moving and feel the faintest of vibrations against my suit. It was talking to me.
Why incursion?It asked again. My suit flashed coloured pulses across my heads up display, trying to convey emotion and intention in a garbled mish-mash of gaudy Chirikti phonemes. But the creature wasn’t a Chirikti. The morphology was all wrong, it was six-legged not four and the limbs ended in spikes of black chitin, lacking the Chirikti’s manipulative pedipalps. Even here, if the heart of an extra-terrestrial hive, it looked alien.
Behind it, the husk of its Chirikti host hung motionless in space. The recess that the parasite had occupied was a cauterised wound that had excised most of the Chirikti’s brain.
That was why my request hadn’t worked. The vespiary was already host to a parasite more subtle and invasive than we could ever be. They squatted here at the heart of the vespiary like a cancer buried so far into the brain tissue that it was inside all defences: so deep that the host did not even realise that it had been infected.
They squatted here, manipulating, dissembling, just like we had planned to do but with a couple of million years more practice. An evolved parasite: an intelligent germ with all the morality of a virus, thinking only of itself and the continuation of its line. Like an elderly preacher spouting dreams of a heaven on earth that would cost a hell to pay for, entreating people to look forward to a bright future past the blood on their hands and the bone meal dusting their boots.
With a surge of revulsion that was almost physical I saw the difference between us. I had been so keen to prove that I was not my father I had never realised that that desire alone made me different. I was not my father. I could not do what he had done, what these parasites were doing.
I like to think that I spotted the movement before the parasite on top of me exploded but I think that was just rationalisation after the fact. The Chirikti that stormed the core were fast. They wore armoured carapaces similar to the ones commandeered by the parasites, but theirs were stronger, faster. The parasites put up a stiff resistance: I caught the edges of it through my suit. The chemical concentrations were off the scale. Lights flashed, reflecting off armour like neon on black water but the Chirikti shock troops were unphased. Their suits protected them from the parasite’s propaganda as effectively as they did from enemy fire.
I heard Jura cheering as the parasites were shredded.
I looked at the chemical signature of my shibboleth as it faded to nothing. We were unprotected.
The attack was also a purging. The vespiary had decided to rid itself of the infestation and wasted no time in trials and investigations. Where parasites were found outside of their individual hosts, they were destroyed utterly. When they fought back from the armoured steeds of their burned-out Chirikti, their mounts were amputated by scything planes of force or in hand-to-hand combat by the bladed greaves of the shock troops’ powered armour.
The limbless torsos of immobilised Chirikti floated briefly in the microgravity before shots of epoxy glued them to the nearest surface for later retrieval.
I checked my suit. The shibboleth was long gone and anyway would have been lost in the garbled, clouded atmosphere of the core. The armoured Chirikti, encased in their hardened local net and immune to external signals, probably would not have noticed it anyway.
My heads-up display started to flash amber. The suit was overheating badly. Sweat stuck to my face in the microgravity and flicked off my blinking eyelashes to tumble like tiny ocean worlds inside my helmet. The recycler wasn’t dealing with the excess moisture well. That was bad: the air would be next to fail. Once that went, I would have maybe a minute breathing my own body stink until I passed out in a cloud of my own exhaled carbon dioxide.
I couldn’t see any parasite that was still whole. Gory cuts of charred meat drifted in front of me. Garbled sounds crackled through my failing suit systems: Jura laughing, someone else--Smith or Mina I couldn’t tell--sobbing.
The shock troops switched tactics and started spraying everything in the core with the sticky epoxy. Jura’s laughs turned to curses as it was re-buried. The amber gel crept up my suit and over my helmet and for a few seconds I could watch it against my faceplate, hear the tiny cracking-ice sound of its hardening.
I heard the fans inside my suit die a moment before it registered on the display then that too cut out, leaving me in darkness.
Waking up was a good news, bad news deal. I became aware of a throbbing pain in my head and the taste of vomit. I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the glare of lights above me. Only then did I realise that once again I was free to move. I was free of the confining resin: more than that I was out of my suit.
I sat up. I was lying on a couch in the shuttle: the one near the medical locker that folded all the way back and was the closest thing the shuttle had to an infirmary.
“You’re alive,” Mina said. “We nearly didn’t get you out of the suit in time.”
“Where are we?” I asked groggily. “Are we back on the Folly?” I could see Smith pottering around in the cockpit but Jura was nowhere in sight.
“’Fraid not. The Chirikti won’t let us leave. I had to compromise by leaving Jura out there. Don’t worry... It’s cool. I don’t know if it’s possible for a neuter to have a crush, but Jura seems to have taken a shine to the Chirikti.”
“Why won’t they let us leave?” I asked.
“You’re the linguist. You go ask.”
Jura was sitting next to an armoured Chirikti in one of the hydroponic fungal gardens.
“It’s okay,” Jura said as Mina and I approached. “It only stops me when I try to move towards the shuttle.”
The Chirikti would never anticipate that we could leave one of our party behind. They saw us as one meta-individual; holding one was as good as holding us all. Perhaps they weren’t far wrong about that.
I examined the Chirikti’s posture. “It likes you,” I said and only afterwards did I realise what that meant. This Chirikti was not an individual; it was part of a greater whole. If it liked Jura then--
“Why didn’t they kill us?” Jura asked. “What they did to those other bastards was just fucking glorious.”
“I’d say they have a history with those parasites: probably a stowaway from their homeworld. Maybe we’re not worth that kind of effort.”
I checked the readouts on my suit. The chemical sniffer in my chest plate had been damaged beyond its capacity for self-repair. I tried to read the colour and posture of the Chirikti around us but without the chemical analysis it was like trying to lip-read every conversation in a crowded bar. I could only get the jist of what they were saying. I spotted shades associated with novelty and a postural subtext of caution.
“They’re talking about us,” I said. “But my sniffer’s broken. I can’t tell what they’re saying.”
The colours on the Chirikti’s photo-reactive clothing started to synchronise into ripples of cyan that expanded outwards until the whole chamber pulsed with it. They were chanting.
“What do you think, Morton?” Jura asked. It had finally used my proper name and it had only taken incarceration in an alien hive to do it. “Looks like they’re getting ready for a lynching.”
I read the Chirikti’s postural context. “I don’t think so.”
There was a disturbance in the pattern of ripples: a chevron shaped indentation of purposeful royal blue that moved towards us through a sea of bobbing Chirikti. As it moved closer I could see something at the apex of the chevron: a small black shape, the charred corpse of a limb-less Chirikti with the technological carapace of one of the parasites still embedded in it.
“Exhibit A for the prosecution,” Jura said and laughed.
The corpse was passed hand over hand above the crowd until it was set down next to the Chirikti at Jura’s side.
“What’s gong on?” Mina asked.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy tracing the Chirikti’s limb glyphs and cross-referencing them to the torrent of data thrown up by the spectrograph. There were concepts of communication and reproduction, awakening and a brooding, ancient hatred. It was too much to take in: I only understood a fraction of what I was seeing, but the concepts were powerful. I tried to translate for the others but the best I could do was parrot a few lines from a half-remembered poem.
“Or the last trumpet of the Eternal Day, When dreaming with the night, shall pass away.”
“We woke them up,” I said. “When we trashed their system it forced them to completely rebuild local networks. It re-booted the vespiary and broke the parasites hold over them.”
The Chirikti pushed one pedipalp into the innards of the charred corpse. The speakers in my helmet hissed with the sound of an open communication channel, the one the parasites had used.
The colours shifted around us. I saw the marbled greens of six protons, a staccato pattern of flashes like Morse code indicating shape: a pattern of tetrahedrons bonded into a cube. They could have been talking about tin or silicon, but I knew they weren’t.
I turned and walked back towards the shuttle. They didn’t need me anymore and I was tired. Mina and Jura could handle the rest. They were the brains and the muscle, I was just the mouth.
“You said it before...” I said to Mina as I walked away. “When we gave them a gift, they knew enough to accept it. Now it’s your turn...”
Another ripple of movement. Another chevron of advancing activity and another object passed between the thousand palps of the vespiary: a white crystal half as tall as Jura.