“There is no hatch,” I replied. “Just find a hole you think will be big enough and take us in.”
“Plenty of candidates. The rock looks like a bloody sponge. You want fore or aft?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. I was used to this: humans found it very hard to come to grips with the Chirikti’s lack of specialisation.
Whatever avian neurons Smith had grafted onto his brain did their job. He brought us down a long fault that extended a hundred yards into the vespiary, easing the shuttle into a three-dimensional powered spiral and set us down as gently as a mother hen settling onto a clutch of eggs.
The vespiary had a slight spin to it: enough to give an apparent weight of about three quarter’s standard.
The fault continued deeper into the ship in the direction my brain now told me was up and we set off along a steep, irregular slope.
This part of the ship was unpopulated but that was to be expected. The vespiary always allowed space for future expansion. I took the lead with Jura, the giant neuter, following so close behind that I repeatedly had to tell it to back off. If we came across any Chirikti our posture as a group would be important. Jura had been schooled on this in the last couple of days as had the others, but either the neuter’s curiosity or its aggression kept getting the better of it.
During my lectures on human-Chirikti psychology, Jura had joked that all human interaction came down to the decision to eat, fight or fuck whatever it was they came across. By divesting itself of the third option, Jura’s appetites for the first two had grown sharper and I disliked having its oppressive bulk so close behind me.
Contact with aliens was difficult. Humans are social animals, hierarchical and status-obsessed: that’s an easy system to game. We’re pre-disposed to defer to authority. If you can assume that authority then you’re home and hosed. Basic monkey politics.
But those tricks aren’t universal. Alien species don’t pick up on tone, inflection or body language. Some do not even inhabit the same sensory space as we do. At first contact with the Gilbrashi, the aliens spent the whole time trying to read the infra-red signatures given off by the human ambassadors. They didn’t even know they were supposed to listen for the modulations in air pressure we call sound. Compared to finding your way around a Chirikti vespiary, Father’s conversion of an entire generation ship to his own personality cult was child’s play.
Perhaps that was why I worked with aliens. I wanted something more challenging than what my father had done. Monkey politics again: hierarchy, status, be the best.
“Are we getting close?” Albright Smith’s voice sounded anxious but that may have just been the distortion of the com link.
“Not far now,” I said. “All we need is one Chirikti so as soon as we reach the edge of the vespiary we’ll be able to ask.”
“How will we know when we’re there?” Mina asked.
I smiled. She was in for a treat.
There was light ahead: colourful cycling pulses of brilliance on an organic beat that seemed in time with my heartbeat. I found my footsteps following its rhythm.
The tunnel opened into a huge, spherical rock bubble and I crawled out onto the inner surface of a world reversed. Above me the cavernous space, curved around to an antipodes over three hundred yards distant. The surface of the sphere was plated in reflective, prismatic panes of crystal that shimmered like the wings of butterflies. There was no obvious order to the riot of light but it had a chaotic beauty that fascinated rather than overwhelmed.
I had the feeling of being an observer cast inside a huge glass prism, watching as the rainbow of colours was struck from white light.
“Fuck me,” said Jura as it crawled out onto the inside of the sphere next to me.
“I know,” I said. “Beautiful isn’t it?”
“I meant fuck me, there are lots of them.”
Chirikti crawled all over the inside surface of the sphere. Each was an identical oblate disc about a metre across at the widest point. Their leathery surface gave them the appearance of headless sea turtles but instead of flippers, branching limbs extended from their carapace at approximately two, four, eight and ten o’clock on the dial of their disc-like bodies. They wore clothing of photo-reactive film that glistened like soap bubbles in the refracted light that filled the sphere.
“Stay close,” I said as Mina and Albright Smith crawled out of the tunnel.
I checked my shibboleth. The university had issued me with enough for a day in the vespiary. Split four ways it would only last a few hours, but that should be enough. The adhesive patch of volatile resin attached to my suit would boil away at a steady rate, surrounding me in a perfume of pheromones that identified me as a legitimate visitor. It acted like a peptide marker on a cell; without the shibboleth we would be torn apart by the vespiary’s equivalent of an immune response.
I approached one of the Chirikti, walking slowly towards it so as not to outpace the invisible cloud of protection provided by the shibboleth. It was working on one of the vespiary’s computer nodes, routine maintenance by the look of it. Although it made no reaction as I advanced, I could see the cluster of black eyes on the front of its carapace and knew that I was in its field of vision.
Chirikti language included body posture and limb-glyphs, a kind of semaphore with the front limbs. Fortunately they had evolved as an arboreal species so orientation was not important: I would not have to drop to all fours in order to communicate.
I delivered the query I had prepared, something like a material requisition but phrased with a casual postural context and a structure of hormonal graphemes that I hoped would be compatible with the underlying identification markers of my shibboleth. Parallel with the query, I released a cocktail of complex, volatile hydrocarbons which basically said, “Excuse my accent, I’m new in town.” Composing this one phrase had taken several days. This was what Mina was paying me for. This, and my ability to get us out alive.
The chemicals were released from a small dispenser in the chest-plate of my suit. I waited, holding my posture in a one-foreleg-raised salute that was strangely human while the chemicals perfumed the atmosphere around me. I tried not to shake. This was the crucial time: if the Chirikti found my query to be inconsistent with the agreed parameters of my mission (as encoded in the chemical signature of my shibboleth) then the best we could hope for was escape.
The Chirikti bobbed up and down on its four limbs, acknowledging communication, and then its right rear flank rippled with a fast pattern of light pulses. The photo-chromatic suit of its nearest neighbour caught the pulse and passed it on, as did the next and the next. My query, encoded as a staccato pattern of colours, sped outwards like the reflected flash rippling through a turning shoal of silver fish. It fanned out as it propagated, passing from one individual to two, then four until it became a wave-front of information rolling across the entire inner surface of the spherical chamber. The Chirikti I had spoken to went back to working on the computer node.
“Did it work?” Mina asked.
“As far as I can tell,” I replied. “It accepted my request and passed it on. That’s about as much as we could have hoped for.”
“So what now?” Jura asked.
“We wait. It will take some time for the request to propagate through the whole vespiary. The response time will depend on how many Chirikti know the location of the diamond and how far away they are.”
“So all these colours are Chirikti talking to each other?” Mina asked.
“Exactly. Humans have encoded our language in the written word, allowing us to save, copy, and transmit data. The Chirikti have done the same thing using colour and light. Any pheromone-posture grapheme can be encoded as a different shade and the order of the syllables maintained either as a printed spectrum of colours or a series of individual coloured pulses. The light can be transmitted much easier and quicker than pheromones and the signal remains coherent.”
We busied ourselves in recording as much of the photic conversation as we could, and I constantly monitored the local pheromone concentration. I had to have something to show the university after all.
Although there was too much to translate all at once, I kept an eye out for certain key phrases and set up an autonomous program to parse as much of the information as I could. There was still a chance that our ruse would be discovered. As our “material requisition” was passed to more and more individuals, it took up an ever-greater percentage of the vespiary’s information bandwidth. The more individuals that knew we were here, the greater the intelligence of the combined meta-mind who might turn its attention on us. One Chirikti might accept an oddly formatted request; a meta-individual of several thousand combined Chirikti, however, might have the experience or just the prudence to question our motives.
The Chirikti were not a true hive-mind--their communication methods were too slow for a true synergetic consciousness to emerge--but any doubts expressed by an individual would be encoded along with the other information in the signal and could be amplified as it was passed on.
But for now there was no sign that our presence was in any way objectionable. I made Mina and the others help me with the monitoring equipment. Having something to do steadied their nerves and the action also reinforced the I.D. imprint of the shibboleth. We were broadcasting the fact that we were visiting academics. If we acted out of character, we would draw a lot of unwanted attention: shibboleth or no shibboleth.
After about twenty minutes of work, the reflected wave front of information reappeared in our chamber. There was an obvious ripple in the shimmering riot of colours around us: a shrinking circle of light converging on our position. Jura shifted nervously, the converging wave was a bit too much like being at the centre of a target.
“Stay calm,” I said as the wave front broke around us and concentrated on the individual I had first approached. As the colours splashed across its surface it laid down its tools and orientated itself towards me.
I checked the chemical sniffer on my suit. The Chirikti was emitting a complex cloud of ketones. The sniffer broke down the concentration for me and displayed it graphically in the heads-up display on the inside of my faceplate. I translated directly, bobbing up and down slightly in acknowledgement as I did so.
“Any luck?” Mina asked.
“It’s basically saying follow me,” I replied. “Although ‘me’ isn’t strictly accurate as the Chirikti language uses pronouns differently.”
“Have they found the diamond?”
Was Mina’s voice always that deliberate? Either her stress levels were rising, or perhaps I was reading too much into it. Working with non-humans tended to make me hyper-sensitive to subtext.
“It didn’t mention it,” I said. “But based on the overall format of the returning light pulse, I’d say results were most likely positive.”
“It’s not an exact science, Mina. I’ll review the spectrography on the fly as we move, but the light has been evolved for Chirikti compound eyes. Doing a visual analysis without tools is like trying to out-sniff a bloodhound.”
“On the move...?” asked Albright Smith: the words too fast, the tone of the query almost timid. Was he stressed too?
Jura pushed past me. “Like the bug said... Follow me.” The neuter was the only one of us whose voice wasn’t displaying signs of stress. And it was the only one who I wouldn’t mind being a little cowed.
“Did I ever tell you how the Chirikti hunt?” I asked casually. “They spit out a thick mucus that hardens on contact with the atmosphere. They trap their prey and then devour them whole, re-ingesting the mucus along with the trapped prey. Once they’ve caught you, they tend to work inwards from the extremities. It’s one of nature’s more unpleasant ways to die. I’d advise staying behind me.”
Jura squared up to me, its chest plate level with my helmet, before bowing theatrically and waving me past.
“Be my guest, Professor,” it said as I passed.
The Chirikti took half a dozen crab-like steps to its nearest neighbour and touched it with its foreleg. Two of the fore-limb palps were specialised to deliver packets of sticky pheromone similar to our shibboleths. Our guide deposited a chemical marker on its neighbour and then scuttled back to work on the computer node.
I tried to run an analysis on the chemical marker, but its effects were too localised to get a good reading. Each Chirikti passed the chemical signal on to its neighbour and we followed it through the crowd of scintillating, jewelled bugs. As each passed the marker on, it immediately went back to its former business. We never followed the same individual for more than a few seconds.
Our succession of guides led us to a narrow corridor that was little more than a crack in the rock. Chirikti were fewer here and we followed some individuals for up to a minute before being passed on. We turned and then turned again, following a rough counter-clockwise spiral heading deeper into the vespiary. I wondered what would happen if they took us down a route that was too narrow for humans. Already Jura was forced to turn sideways to negotiate some of the tighter areas.
“Ask it where we’re going, can’t you?” said Albright Smith, his voice strained with the effort of climbing and something else. His breathing heavy but fast.
“Just relax.” Mina’s voice was like anaesthetic: like Prester John’s at the start of his sermons, before he whipped his audience into foaming apoplexy.
“Fucking bugs,” said Jura. “How do you know they’re not leading us to the brig or into a garrison?
“Because they don’t have a brig or a garrison. Just relax and enjoy the ride. Not many people have been this deep into a vespiary.”
“Have you? I mean, before?” asked Smith. I didn’t answer.
“I’ve got a partial on the returned light signal,” I said instead. “There was definitely directional information and a kind of telomeric suffix that shortens every time it’s passed on to a new individual--that probably measures distance--but I can’t see any material modifiers for carbon. That might just be an accent thing. Each vespiary is slightly different. It’ll take a few more minutes to get a full translation.”
Our Chirikti guide stopped in its tracks. The colours on its soap-bubble clothing took on a greener hue and then it scuttled sideways and disappeared into a crack in the rock hardly wider than its disc-like body.
I checked my chemical sniffer. There was no sign of the signal that had caused the Chirikti to lead us here.
“So where is it?” Jura asked.
I instructed everyone to turn off their suit lights while I scanned the darkness looking for any electromagnetic clue as to why the Chirikti had abandoned us. There was none. We had been abandoned in darkness.