Originally published in Analog, September 2010. Distribution in any form without written permission from the author is forbidden.
by David D. Levine
A spasm of pain made Ksho drop her forelimb-brush.
Xinecotic-ki Ksho always ached all over, from her mandibles to the tips of her third pair of limbs. Pain and hunger were the natural states of a Shacuthi juvenile -- pain from constant rapid growth and hunger for the vast quantities of food she needed to sustain that growth -- but this latest spasm was the bone-deep ache that meant her skin was getting to be too small. She had already molted seven times, and knew this feeling well, but this next molt would be her last as a juvenile. After this molt she would pupate for three months, her ugly juvenile body replaced by a gleaming adult.
She was thrilled. She was terrified.
But for now, she had a job to do.
Ksho bent down and scrabbled with clumsy, weak two-fingered hands for the brush on the rough cloth of the floor, wishing she had an adult's hands -- gleaming three-fingered structures of chitin and bone, capable of powerful grasp and fine manipulation. Finally, using both of her first pair of hands, she managed to regain the brush and resumed her laborious progress to her parent Xinecotic's grooming chamber, waddling along on stumpy little hind limbs barely capable of supporting her growing weight.
The delay probably saved her life.
Ksho did not scrape at the door before entering the grooming chamber. The scraping-board was for adults; juveniles came and went as their duties required, with no more notice or need for permission than the air that cooled the corridor. She paused for a moment with one hand on the door latch, making sure she had a firm grip on the brush, and at that moment she heard voices from within.
The unexpected sound made Ksho freeze, her skin tingling -- an instinctive response honed over thousands of generations. Surely there could be no other adult in Xinecotic's grooming chamber at this hour? The hour of grooming was inviolate, a time of quiet contemplation. But life had been strange ever since they had traveled to this cold and desolate place, and it had only become stranger in the last few months. Ksho worked the lower door latch, slid the door open a crack, and poked one eye into the room.
Xinecotic was not alone in her grooming chamber. Takacha, the head of the expedition, was there as well. Neither adult took any notice of Ksho's eye peeping around the door's edge. Ten or twelve of Ksho's sisters were also present, buffing and polishing their parent's gleaming limbs and torso. None of them seemed to be alarmed by Takacha's presence in Xinecotic's grooming chamber, but Ksho told herself she shouldn't expect her younger siblings to be as observant as she. She was the eldest, after all, nearly ready to pupate.
"You should have realized," Takacha was saying, "that you wouldn't be able to maintain this deception forever." As she spoke, a flavor of apprehension drifted through the slightly open door to Ksho's fingers. Both adults were nervous, verging on terrified. Why?
"Don't do this, Takacha." Xinecotic was holding perfectly still, most unlike the usual rolling and preening of an adult being groomed. "You can stop this madness now, before any permanent harm is done. I'm authorized to offer clemency if you halt the operation immediately and surrender."
Takacha chuttered, antennae lifting, as though Xinecotic had just said something funny. "Clemency." She raised one hand, and Ksho's already-sour stomachs soured still further, with fear, as she realized Takacha held a weapon leveled at Xinecotic's thorax. That explained her parent's unnatural immobility. "You'll have to offer far more than that to make abandoning this operation worthwhile."
One of Ksho's sisters ran out of grooming-wax and headed toward the wall niche for more. Neither adult paid her any heed. "Think, Takacha. What you've done so far is only a level three offense, but harming an agent of the Grand Nest means death by suffocation. And if I don't check in, there will be an investigation."
"Oh, you will check in tomorrow, at twelve past the hour of waking, just as you have been doing every sixthday." Xinecotic's eyes twitched at the statement, and the flavor of anxiety that pervaded the room intensified. "Yes, we've been monitoring your communications. And we're able to reproduce them as well. You won't be missed until after our job here is done."
Xinecotic bristled. "A bad clutch of eggs always hatches a bad swarm. One of your compatriots will betray you to the Grand Nest in exchange for leniency."
All during this conversation Ksho's mind raced -- there must be something she could do to help her parent. But her soft little voice would never be heard more than a few rooms away, and even if she ran for help, no adult would listen to a juvenile. Even the structural failure alarms were deliberately out of reach of her stubby little limbs; everyone knew that juveniles, with their undeveloped brains, could not be trusted with such a responsibility.
But Ksho was almost an adult. Anyone could see how close she was to pupation. Surely she could use that fact to convince someone to come and help.
Just as she was about to slip her eye out of the door and ease it closed, Takacha buzzed "None of my compatriots would ever betray me! This nest is as one."
This nest is as one. Takacha was saying that every single adult on the expedition was part of... whatever it was that Ksho's parent was trying to stop. Something illegal. That meant that even if Ksho managed to get one of the adults here to believe her... it wouldn't save Xinecotic.
Ksho trembled, immobilized by fear, her eye still peeping into the room.
"The Grand Nest is mired in tradition," Takacha continued, the weapon still pointed at Xinecotic. "We are the future. What we are doing here may be prohibited today, but the children who hatch from eggs not yet even laid will hail us as the saviors of our species."
And then, to Ksho's horror, Takacha squeezed the weapon's actuator. A sharp, acrid flavor filled the room as the weapon discharged its load onto Xinecotic, the powerful acid eating through chitin and muscle and revealing the bone beneath. Xinecotic hissed in pain and lunged toward Takacha, but she fired again, the acid spewing right into Ksho's parent's face. With a horrid gasping hiss she collapsed, eyes and antennae dissolving into a smoking ruin at Takacha's feet.
Four of Ksho's siblings had also been caught by the acid, and writhed hissing on the floor. The rest stood stock-still, ancient instincts holding them rooted even as their parent, the only adult in hundreds of leagues who would care for them, lay dying within easy reach.
Ksho's own body froze, trembling in terror. Takacha was already slipping the weapon into one of the folds of her garment and striding toward the door where Ksho stood. Ksho barely managed to pull her eye from the door and move out of the way before Takacha reached it. She brushed past Ksho, taking no notice whatsoever of the trembling juvenile. A moment later Ksho heard the nest's weather door scrape open, then shut, leaving her alone with her dead parent and dying siblings.
The hideous flavors of acid and spilled bodily fluids suffused the air.
Ksho, too, was doomed, as were her sisters, even those who hadn't been struck by the acid. The offspring of a deceased adult of eggbearing age were usually adopted by close relatives, but Xinecotic had no relatives at all in this tiny, isolated encampment. Ksho realized now why this was so -- she had been one of the Grand Nest's "wasps," an undercover agent hidden in a nest of criminals. None of them would adopt even the smallest, most innocent grub of Xinecotic's; left alone, the younger ones would starve within days. Ksho, nearly an adult, was capable of feeding herself, but without a parent to watch over her during the long months of pupation she would surely be eaten by predators or succumb to parasites.
It would be so easy to die. To sit here, petrified with fear, until thirst or starvation or predators took her. Every instinct told her to hold still until the danger had passed.
But Ksho knew the danger would not pass. Not by itself.
Something would have to be done.
And there was no one but Ksho to do it.
It took her many long, panting breaths to convince her body to move. To edge one limb forward was an effort; to haul her ungainly, gravid body across the floor was an agony. And hunger, always present, clawed at her stomachs like a predator.
She must be her own adult, and her sisters' adult as well. She pulled in her eyes for a moment, comforting herself with the darkness, before resuming her painful movement. The sharp flavor of her own fear soured her stomachs, but she persisted, returning to the door through which she'd seen her parent's death.
Nothing in the room moved. Ksho's sisters sat as motionless as Xinecotic's acid-mangled body. Even those that had writhed in pain now lay still.
Bitter grief lay strong on Ksho's fingers.
"Ksho will find help," she told her unmoving sisters, though she didn't know how she would manage it. Even the shape of the number Ksho in her mandibles reminded her that, no matter how close she was to pupation, she was still only a juvenile -- unfit to bear a personal name or to use the pronoun I. "Seko-cho," she said, addressing the eldest of her younger siblings, "after Ksho leaves Xinecotic's nest you must seal the doors behind her, and do not let anyone else in until she returns. Can you do this?"
"Seko-cho does not know..." she responded, her voice very small, only her mandibles moving. The flavor of fear seeped from her. She was only a little more than two-thirds Ksho's age.
"You must." Ksho hauled herself to Seko-cho's side and stroked her trembling skin. "You must."
"Seko-cho will try."
Ksho stayed beside Seko-cho for a moment longer, taking comfort from the touch herself as well as giving it, before dragging her heavy body to the nest's weather door. She closed the door behind herself, satisfied to hear Seko-cho's mandibles working at the edge of the door to seal it. The seal would not withstand a concerted effort, but would hold off anyone who tried to enter out of idle curiosity, at least for a day or so.
She turned away from the door and took in a great breath, letting it out with a shuddering hiss through the spiracles on her sides.
The expedition had set up on the side of a rocky, inhospitable mountain far from the nearest outpost of the Grand Nest. The individual nests of the expedition members -- all criminals, Ksho realized now, except her own dead parent -- lay scattered across the gravel-strewn slope wherever their occupants had thought best to build them. A cold wind blew down from the top of the mountain, making Ksho shiver.
What should she do now? What could she do?
No one here would help her voluntarily. There was nothing to eat here outside of the central refectory, and only an adult could requisition food from there. Stowing away on the lone air transport that connected this site with civilization would be impossible -- Ksho had often overheard the pilot complain about how every minim of weight was accounted for and double-checked. She could, she supposed, slip a written note onto an outbound transport, but to whom, and who would believe a note written in a juvenile's scrawl?
But there was one other way out of the encampment.
Ksho considered her options. A long moment's thought convinced her that the few alternatives were no better.
Tasting determination as well as fear, she shambled toward the center of the encampment.
The portal was a ring of pale glowing metal standing upright, twice the height of an adult. Its bottom edge hung a span above the ground, apparently unsupported. Anyone or anything that passed through the ring went... elsewhere. Some people and things came back. Armed soldiers surrounded the ring, ready to defend the encampment and the planet against any attack from the other side at a moment's notice.
They paid no attention to Ksho, though, as she waddled across the stony ground toward the ring. Juveniles were often seen running errands and carrying messages to and from their parents on the other side. Ksho herself had done so several times a day since the portal had been opened a month and a half ago, and all juveniles looked alike to adults other than their own parents.
She remembered how pleased everyone had been when, after months of fruitless searching, the portal had finally connected to a world with breathable air and people worth trading with. A very strange people, but people nonetheless. Ksho hoped they would be willing and able to help an orphan.
Using all four hands of her first two pair of limbs, she boosted her swollen body over the ring's lower edge.
Immediately the suffering of her overgrown body seemed to double as she fell into the other world's gravity field. The gravity here was actually only a little higher than what she was used to, but its leaden pressure seemed to emphasize the grief that weighed her down. The air, too, seemed heavy -- chill and dense with unaccustomed metallic and astringent flavors.
And then there was the weight of the hunger in her stomach, which dragged her down and sapped her energy. She realized she should have eaten something before she left her deceased parent's home. How many other mistakes had she made? Would the armed soldiers shortly come charging through the portal, with orders from Takacha to detain and dispose of her?
Ksho straightened herself and moved away from the portal as quickly as her stumpy limbs could carry her in this strange environment. The ground here had been covered with a prickly bed of tiny plant stalks when they'd arrived, but after the first half-month many paths had been trampled into bare dirt. Eventually the dirt had been replaced by a dark and gritty surface that tasted like a cross between fuel and broken stone.
This side of the portal had its own defenses: towering two-legged aliens clad in their own version of body armor, huge hulking vehicles flavoring the air with iron and solvents, towering walls of rough artificial stone topped with coils of jagged metal. But the alien defenders, too, were so used to juveniles appearing from the ring that they paid her little heed. As always, she was required to pass through a portal that hummed and tickled her insides, but otherwise her progress was unimpeded.
Beyond the defensive walls stood an even larger structure: smooth sheer cliffs of gleaming white stone pierced at regular intervals with hard-edged, angular openings. This structure, which the aliens called the White Nest, was the center of the aliens' government and was the reason the portal had been shifted to this location from the point of initial contact. The structure was entirely flat planes, straight edges, and square corners except for an imposing forest of cylindrical columns that stood in a semicircle before the structure's weather door. This enormous pile of stone was the dwelling of just one alien, one who held more power than any on this world. Or else it was the workplace of hundreds of aliens and home of none of them. It wasn't clear. Perhaps there were translation difficulties.
There were always translation difficulties.
Ksho was seized again by a spasm of pain, her body stretched nearly to its limits and her aching bones squeezed by the higher gravity of this place. Her stomachs, too, throbbed with renewed hunger, and whether the White Nest was dwelling or workplace, it seemed the most likely place for her to find something to eat. She moved toward it as rapidly as she could manage.
As she hauled herself along the path, she passed several of the towering aliens, all of which stared at her with predatory intensity. Their disturbing eyes, dark circles within light circles, each looked like the opening of a weapon pointed directly at her; their movement, accomplished by a shift of weight from one of their two lower limbs to the other, emphasized their intimidating height and made them seem even more huge and ponderous than they were.
After a long time she passed through the half-ring of imposing columns and approached the giant structure's weather door, not a proper door at all but a pair of huge, flat, angular plates that hinged open at one side. She had passed through this door many times before, but every other time she had been expected and one of the aliens had been here to open it for her. Now the door stood closed, silent and untended.
Ksho realized she had been a fool. She'd stepped through the portal to an unknown world, throwing her own fate and that of her siblings into the strange hands of alien beings with unknown motivations. They might be just as likely to eat her as to feed her...
Suddenly an alien appeared on the other side of the door, peering at her through one of the transparent plates in the door's substance. Ksho froze in terror.
This alien was different from any of the others Ksho had met. It was no bigger than Ksho herself, both shorter and smaller around than any other alien she'd seen. It was dark like a Shacuthi, instead of pale like most of its kind, which made it seem a little more familiar but also made its disturbing eyes even more prominent and strange. And the tendrils on its rounded head, which curled in tiny dark ringlets, were gathered into tufts on either side. Each tuft was bound at the base by a few turns of some soft, sparkly material. Was this unusual tufting some indication of caste or status?
The alien and Ksho stared at each other for a time. And then the alien leaned forward and pushed the door open a couple of spans. Moving the huge door was clearly an effort for the small alien, which made Ksho feel a little sorry for it -- it seemed nearly as unsuited to this enormous, heavy world as Ksho herself.
And then the alien spoke. Its voice burbled and lapped like a stream flowing over pebbles, an almost pleasant sound, higher and softer than others Ksho had heard. A moment later a device strapped to one of the alien's limbs spoke in an approximation of Ksho's language: "Speaker equivalence (assertion) Ah-lec-sa (proper name). Identity listener (possessive) existence (query)."
The second translated phrase was one Ksho had heard before; it meant what is your name? Still petrified with fear, she struggled to reply. "Xinecotic-ki Ksho," she managed to stammer.
The alien's head drew back and its eyes narrowed a bit. Ksho had no idea what that might mean. "Zi-neh-ko-tick (proper name, possessive) three (ordinal) existence (denial) name." It took Ksho a moment to recognize her own dead parent's name, as rendered by the alien's mandibles and then the translation device, and another moment to puzzle out the sense behind the translation: "Xinecotic's Third" is not really a name.
And, indeed, ksho was not a proper name, an adult name, at all. It was just the number three, indicating that Ksho was the third of Xinecotic's offspring: the first had failed in the egg and the second had died as a grub. Then there had been three more deaths before Seko-cho, number seven; Xinecotic's luck with offspring had not been good. And now there would be no more siblings at all.
Ksho tasted grief, but could not give in to the emotion. How to explain all of this to an alien?
"Ksho is not a name, but is Ksho's designation," she said. "Ksho is a juvenile, and does not have a name like an adult's."
After Ksho finished speaking, the alien held its upper limb close to one side of its head -- those curved protuberances had to be its ears -- while the device burbled softly in the alien's language. It seemed to consider for a moment what it had heard, then replied. "Listener existence (assertion) merely juvenile," came the translation. "Speaker equivalence (assertion) listener."
You're just a juvenile, the alien meant. I am the same.
That explained why this alien was smaller than the others, and why it was willing to speak with Ksho. Ksho relaxed a bit, allowing herself to breathe but still not moving from the spot. Perhaps the young alien would also be willing to help one like itself. "Ksho is hungry," she said. "Ksho needs food for herself and her siblings."
After hearing the translation, the alien suddenly bared its teeth -- a vicious surprise of white against the dark skin that made Ksho freeze again. The alien's flavor, salt and iron and flowers, told Ksho nothing about its emotions. Then it spoke: "Speaker bring (conditional) listener building within." Ksho didn't know why the verb was flagged as conditional, but the statement was accompanied by an unmistakable gesture: the alien pushed the door open wider and stood to one side, leaving enough space for Ksho to enter.
Ksho hesitated, trembling, for a long time before convincing her limbs to move her forward. Everything in this place was so strange and frightening. But the alien, despite its inexplicable habits and the language barrier, waited patiently until Ksho could coax herself into entering the structure.
As the door closed behind her with an ominous clack, Ksho immediately regretted her decision. The air inside was even colder than outside, and the light here was unnatural and flickery and made everything look strange. "Speaker bring (future) listener toward food-preparation-place," the alien said, and moved off toward the interior of the structure. Ksho envied its gait, which was more of a leaping bound than the larger aliens' ponderous motion, as she dragged herself through the heavy gravity. But the promise of a "food-preparation-place" drew her forward. She'd eaten the aliens' food before, at ceremonial negotiations, and knew that it was not harmful and could even be nutritious and delicious.
They came to a place of hard surfaces and bright lights, all ceramic and metal. Many large aliens were here, all working diligently at incomprehensible tasks, and the air tasted of a hundred different things, some delicious and some disgusting. As soon as the small alien entered, one of the larger ones stopped whatever it was it was doing and bent down to the small one's level. They warbled at each other for a while, both of them aiming their strange eyes at Ksho between glances at each other.
Ksho fought to relax. Nothing good would come from freezing in fear; she was deep inside the aliens' nest and if they meant her harm it was already too late to escape. But she didn't think the small alien intended any harm, and some of the flavors in the air here made her stomachs clench with renewed hunger. She had no idea how long it had been since she'd eaten.
The larger alien went away, then returned with a large, flat, angular metal plate upon which were arranged small dabs of many different substances. Ksho tasted each dab with a finger, saying "Ksho likes this one" or "This one tastes awful" for each. The large alien didn't have a translation device on its limb, but the small alien interpreted for Ksho, and a short while later the large alien brought out bowls with larger quantities of some of the foods that Ksho had liked best. She had no idea what any of them were, but some were absolutely delicious and she had soon eaten her fill.
"Ksho would like more of this one, and this one, please. To take back to her siblings." There was some difficulty with the translation, but eventually she made herself understood, and the large alien brought her two containers full of food, warm and flavorful even through the sealed lids. Ksho arranged the two containers in her panniers and spread her upper limbs wide in what she hoped was a universal gesture of thanks.
The small alien led Ksho back to the structure's weather door. With full stomachs and a heavy load in her panniers, Ksho moved even more slowly than before, and the ache in her limbs reminded her that she must pupate soon.
As they made their way, they conversed, in a halting and tentative fashion.
If you are a juvenile, where is your parent? At least, that's what Ksho thought the alien was trying to ask. The translation device kept insisting that "parent" was plural.
"Ksho's parent is dead," Ksho replied.
The alien expressed unhappiness at the news, though its flavor didn't change. Who takes care of you?
"No one takes care of Ksho now. Ksho must care for herself and her siblings." She didn't mention -- didn't want to think about -- the fact that when she pupated she would probably die, and her helpless siblings along with her. She was just trying to cope with one day at a time.
That seems cruel, the alien said.
The alien's statement surprised Ksho. She hadn't thought that an alien might have any concern for the fate of one Shacuthi juvenile. Then she considered the fact that the small alien was the only juvenile she had seen in all the time she'd spent on this planet, and all the adult aliens seemed to treat it with astonishing deference. Juveniles here must be very rare and precious. "Shacuthi juveniles are not important," she said. "They hatch in great numbers, and are put to work. Only a few survive to adulthood."
That took a long time to explain.
The alien's reply took even longer for Ksho to understand. So long, in fact, that the two of them had to sit down together at one side of the long narrow room they were moving through, the hard floor tasting of stone and solvents. Large aliens moved by as they talked, staring at the alien and Shacuthi juveniles in conversation, but Ksho barely noticed because what the small alien said demanded so much concentration to understand.
The aliens, it seemed, had several different tribes, or clans, differentiated by lightness or darkness of skin. The small alien, with its dark skin, belonged to a clan which had in the past been considered inherently inferior to another, pale-skinned, clan. "Speaker (possessive) clan believe (denial, past tense, passive) person (plural)," the alien said. My clan was not thought to be people. But members of the dark clan, together with some members of the pale clan, had insisted over and over, across many generations, that they deserved to be treated like people -- like Shacuthi adults rather than like juveniles. After a long time they had seen some success. In fact, the small alien's parent, a member of the dark clan, was the leader of this entire part of the planet -- a very powerful alien indeed, with authority over pale and dark aliens alike. This was not a perfect situation, the small alien said, but it was an improvement over what had come before.
And then the alien said something that seemed very important to it. "Important dark-clan leader Yeh-seh-yak-sung (proper name) write (past tense) famous ancestor-song." Then its strange eyes widened, it leaned forward, and its burbling water voice deepened in pitch. Its words had a formal cadence, though they didn't sound like any ancestor-song Ksho had ever heard before:
"Speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person.
"Speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person.
"Speaker equivalence (provisional assertion) impoverished.
"But speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person.
"Speaker equivalence (provisional assertion) juvenile.
"But speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person.
"Speaker equivalence (provisional assertion) (untranslatable).
"But speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person.
"Speaker equivalence (provisional assertion) small.
"But speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person..."
It went on like that for a while. Ksho didn't understand all of it, but the message was clear and it was obviously very meaningful to the alien.
The ancestor-song ended with yet another repetition of "Speaker equivalence (assertion) significant-person." Then the alien bent, laid one hand on Ksho's flank, and said "Listener comprehension (query)." Do you understand?
It was the first time Ksho had been touched by an alien, but she didn't flinch away -- the touch was firm but not hostile, cool but not cold. It didn't seem to fit with the alien's lengthy assertion of its own significance. "Ksho understands," she said, "that you are a significant person."
Upon hearing the translation the alien seemed to become upset, standing up and turning in a small circle before sitting down again. This time it placed both hands on Ksho's skin and leaned in even closer. "Listener (emphatic)," it said. "Listener (emphatic) equivalence (strong assertion) significant-person." You! It is you that is significant!
Ksho tasted her own surprise and disbelief. Ksho was not significant.
"Repeat (imperative) speaker (possessive) statement," the alien said. Repeat my statement.
The command was clear, so Ksho complied, although she didn't believe it. "Ksho is significant."
The alien closed its eyes and struck itself on the forehead with both closed hands, an extremely peculiar gesture. "Listener equivalence (strong denial) three (ordinal). Listener equivalence (assertion) name speaker (personal pronoun)." They went back and forth on that one several times before Ksho understood what the alien meant: You are not "number three." You are "I."
"Repeat (imperative) speaker (possessive) statement comprising name speaker (personal pronoun)," the alien said.
"I am significant," Ksho said.
It was the first time she had ever used the personal pronoun, "I," for herself. It was wrong... ungrammatical, inappropriate, a violation of propriety. It made her feel strange even to form the words without meaning them.
"Repeat (imperative) statement," the alien insisted.
"I am significant." It felt a little less strange the second time. There was, after all, nothing extraordinary about the sentence itself... Ksho had heard sentences like that all her life, just never from a juvenile. "I" was for adults.
But Ksho was almost an adult. Ksho was not only nearly ready to pupate, as the constant ache in her bones reminded her... she was responsible for the care of her siblings.
"Repeat (imperative)," the alien said again.
"I am significant."
This time she began to believe it.
This time... I began to believe it.
Ksho... I... was acting as an adult, and must take on adult ways of thinking and speaking.
"I am significant," I said again. I.
"Listener equivalence (assertion) significant-person," the alien concurred, tipping its head up and down.
Ksho realized that much time had passed, and the containers of food in her panniers had grown cold. "I must return to Ksho's... to my siblings," she said.
I. I said.
"Affirmation. Return (imperative). Remember (imperative) listener equivalence (assertion) significant-person."
"I will remember. I am significant."
I hauled myself up from where I had sat for so long on the alien's hard floor. During that long conversation Ksho's hunger had begun to return and the ache of impending pupation had grown even stronger. But I knew Ksho's siblings would be even more hungry. I had to hurry.
Returning through the portal, seeing the encampment again, Ksho felt herself returning to old ways of thought. The air here, which had felt so cold before, now seemed warm and full of familiar flavors; the normal gravity was a great relief. But the weight of the two containers of alien food in... my panniers reminded me that I was now an adult, in terms of responsibility if not physically. I could not relax into old habits; I had no adult to feed and protect me or my siblings.
And yet there was no denying I was still a juvenile. My bones ached, my limbs twinged with every step, and adults gave me no more notice than they would a rock or a patch of lichen. This could be useful to me, though. I could, perhaps, survive through invisibility like any other small camouflaged creature.
I came to Xinecotic's nest and tasted the edges of the weather door, finding only Seko-cho's flavor there. My relief was so strong I was sure my siblings inside could taste it from there. "Seko-cho," I called. "Ksho is here, with food."
Soon enough Ksho was inside, and Seko-cho and the rest fell on the strange food with mewlings of desperate need. There wasn't very much left when they all had eaten, but it was a start. Perhaps Ksho would return to the alien planet soon for more.
After Ksho... after I, too, had eaten, I looked around. My siblings, always busy and diligent even without adult direction, had already cleaned up the ruins of Xinecotic's body, leaving only a dark and pitted acid stain on the floor where she had died. I tasted grief, but my responsibilities were pressing.
The whole time I had been making my way from the portal to Xinecotic's nest I had been formulating a plan. Takacha and the other criminals would be happy to leave my siblings and I alone to starve, but if I could find a way to inform the Grand Nest that their agent Xinecotic had been killed, they might send other agents, and those agents might take us back to Xinecotic's relatives. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best I had. Whatever I did, it had to be done quickly -- the rapidly intensifying pain along my back told me that I would have to pupate within a day or two. I didn't know what would happen if I tried to resist the impulse, but it felt as though my skin would burst right open. But how could I contact the Grand Nest?
Right before killing my parent, Takacha had said something about Xinecotic checking in with the Grand Nest at twelve past the hour of waking every sixthday. Thinking back, I realized that early every sixthday, Xinecotic would retire to her meditation niche... a common enough habit, but not one she had practiced before coming to this encampment.
Searching the niche, tasting every corner and cranny, I soon found an area where Xinecotic's lingering flavor had a slight tinge of anxiety and anticipation. It was a subtle difference, not something anyone other than her own offspring would ever have noticed, but I examined the area closely and eventually found a cleverly concealed panel, closed by a hidden latch. Behind that panel a small compartment contained a notespool and a communication device, both strongly flavored of my late parent.
The communication device was designed for an adult's fingers, and I was unable even to open the case. Frustrated, I opened the notespool and ran its tape through my fingers. The sequence of flavors I read there astonished me.
Xinecotic had discovered here, and documented with her usual meticulousness, an extensive conspiracy to violate the laws against exploitation of less advanced species. Takacha and her fellow criminals were representing themselves to the aliens as the duly authorized representatives of the Grand Nest, offering wondrous technology in exchange for large quantities of alien artworks, genetic material, heavy elements, and other valuables. But the promised technologies did not exist except as convincing fakes; the criminals' plan was to extract as much from the aliens as possible and then close the portal, leaving the aliens with nothing but some complex-looking but worthless devices. After closing the portal, they would "poison" the channel to the aliens' planet, preventing the Shacuthi or any other species from ever opening a new portal and discovering the crime.
The last item on the spool indicated that Xinecotic was nearly ready to transmit her notes to the Grand Nest. Takacha must have discovered this, somehow, and killed her to prevent it.
I sat there with my parent's last written words between my fingers, already hungry again, with my bones aching and my skin feeling ready to split. Under normal circumstances I would be curling up in my little nest already and preparing to pupate.
These were not normal circumstances. If I pupated now I would die, and my siblings with me. My parent's death would go unreported and unpunished. Worse, a whole planet of innocent aliens would be swindled and cut off from civilization forever, and the crime might never even be discovered.
I hated to think of that happening to the juvenile alien who had been so helpful to me. And I was the only one who even knew about it.
But what could I do to prevent it? I was only one juvenile, small and weak and powerless. I had no relatives to protect me, no adult would listen to me, and I couldn't even work my parent's communication device.
Then, as I sat lamenting my fate, I remembered what the alien had made me say: I am significant.
I am significant, I told myself.
I didn't really believe it. Deep down, I knew that no matter how close to pupation I was, I was still only a juvenile. But acting as though I believed it was the only way I had any chance to stop all those awful things from happening.
"I must go out again," I said to Seko-cho, tucking the notespool and communication device into my panniers. A strong flavor of confusion came from her, and I realized it was because I was speaking as an adult. But, just as though I really were an adult, she said nothing and waited attentively for further instructions. I decided to continue using "I" -- it would help to keep Seko-cho and the others from panicking. "You must seal the door behind me, as before. I will return with more food as soon as I can."
"When will that be?" Seko-cho asked, not unreasonably.
I thought for a long time before answering. "I do not know. I may not return at all. If I do not, you must take care of your siblings and yourself as long as you can. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Xinecotic," Seko-cho responded, unthinkingly calling me by our parent's name.
I left as quickly as I could, so that my own flavor of grief and self-doubt would not infect my siblings.
Outside the weather door, considering my options, I realized that my best hope was to return to the alien planet and try to find the juvenile that had helped me before. Its parent was a leader of its people; if nothing else, the information might prevent the aliens from being swindled. And I might be able to return with one more load of food before I had to pupate.
But as I moved across the encampment toward the portal, I realized that pupation had advanced much farther than I'd thought while I'd been reading Xinecotic's notes. My limbs were swollen and stiff, my vision was beginning to cloud, and the pain along my spine had turned into an itching line of fire that felt ready to tear open at any moment. And the faster I tried to go, the worse the pain got.
I am significant, I told myself. I matter. I can make a difference. But only if I keep going.
I dragged my swollen body across the stony ground toward the portal. As I passed through the ring of soldiers guarding it against alien invasion, one of them eyed me warily and said to her neighbor "That juvenile looks sick."
"Maybe we should put an end to its suffering," the other soldier replied.
As the soldier raised her weapon, I froze in fear. I had not considered my appearance, or what any considerate adult would be expected to do upon seeing a juvenile in pain.
"No!" I managed to cry, despite my paralysis. A whiff of surprise leaked from the soldier's armor -- no juvenile, especially a sick one, would ever say such a thing to an adult -- but she hesitated. "I -- Ksho is delivering an important package to her parent on the alien planet." I gestured to my pannier. "Ksho must do this before pupating."
I waited, trembling. The soldier seemed uncertain what to do.
After an eternity, the other soldier spoke. "Oh, let her go," she said. "If she dies over there, no one will ever know."
Somehow I managed to will myself into motion. The soldier's weapon continued to follow me, and I expected a gout of acid to strike me at any moment, but finally I found myself on the other side of the portal.
I never expected to feel relief at the cold, the strange flavors, the leaden weight of the other planet's gravity.
That relief was short-lived. Now I had to find the alien juvenile.
The path to the huge stone structure seemed infinite as I hauled myself along it. The aliens who passed did not react any differently than they had before -- they probably did not know the difference between a healthy and a sick juvenile -- and I was glad there were no Shacuthi present. At one point I felt a tearing pain in my side, followed by a slow trickle of fluid down my flank, but I pressed on, not wanting to know what it looked like.
At last I came to the structure's massive door, which stood firmly closed. There was nothing like a scratching-board... I had no idea how to signal for entrance.
Then a form loomed up behind the door's transparent panels. For a moment I felt hope, but then I realized it was just an alien adult, one I'd never seen before. It did not appear to have a translation device on its limb.
I needed the alien to bring me to the juvenile. But how?
And then I remembered the very first thing the juvenile had said to me: "Speaker equivalence (assertion) Ah-lec-sa (proper name)." It had made no sense to me at the time, but I realized now what it had meant: I am Ah-lec-sa.
"Ah-lec-sa," I said to the alien at the door.
I repeated it as the alien opened the door.
I continued to repeat it until the alien departed, then returned with another which had a translation device. "I must speak to Ah-lec-sa," I said. "It is vitally important."
I sat on the cold stone outside the structure's weather door for a long time, unmoving from pain and fatigue more than from fear. Something tore open on my other flank.
And then a whole crowd of aliens appeared: the juvenile Ah-lec-sa, followed by several others with dark skin like hers, and several more.
I dug in my pannier and brought out the notespool, and I explained as best I could what my parent had learned. Another alien brought a larger, more complex version of the translation device, and that made the conversation a little easier. Many other aliens came. When I brought out Xinecotic's communication device, two of the larger aliens immediately moved in and took it away from me. I was too tired to argue.
After a long while they brought it back, saying they had examined it and determined it was safe. I explained how to open it, and one of the aliens who had taken it away tried, but in the end it turned out that only Ah-lec-sa had fingers small and strong enough to work the catch. I showed Ah-lec-sa how to feed the notespool into the device's reader and how to initiate transmission.
"You must take the device through the portal," I said, "and transmit from there." After so much talking, my voice was hoarse and whispery.
The aliens argued a long time among themselves. I didn't follow the argument very well -- I was drifting in and out of consciousness -- but I gathered that Ah-lec-sa was the only one who could manipulate the device and the other aliens didn't want it to go. Eventually, though, Ah-lec-sa bent down to where I could see. My vision had nearly failed. "Speaker travel (future) and return (future)," it said to me. "Listener wait (imperative) at this location."
"I will wait," I said. I didn't really have much alternative.
Ah-lec-sa left, accompanied by four of the largest aliens. I slumped where I sat. Some of the other aliens asked me questions, but I was barely able to respond.
I realized I had done all I could.
I crawled into a corner and began to wrap myself, beginning with my tail and working up. I had waited almost too long; my skin had stiffened to the point that I could barely reach my tail with my mandibles. I did the best I could, but it took much longer than it was supposed to. I hoped my adult form would not suffer because of the delay.
While I worked, many other aliens came, pointing devices at me that flashed and beeped. I ignored them.
I was nearly finished, just my head and one limb unwrapped, when Ah-lec-sa and the others returned. My vision had failed nearly completely by now, but Ah-lec-sa's flavor, different from the other aliens' though equally strange, had become familiar to me.
"Transmission completion achieve (past, assertion)," Ah-lec-sa said. "Grand Nest acknowledge (past) transmission. Grand Nest send (assertion) soldiers, apprehend (future) criminals."
"Thank you, Ah-lec-sa," I sighed.
"Listener status (query)," Ah-lec-sa asked.
"I am pupating now," I whispered. "You must watch over the pupa for three months. Do not let predators eat it, or let it get too warm or too cold. The soldiers from the Grand Nest will tell you what to do, and will care for my sisters."
"Speaker talk (future, assertion) with listener in three months."
I paused in wrapping the one remaining exposed limb. "No, Ah-lec-sa. The adult that emerges from the pupa will not be me. She will know the things I have done and learned, but I am told it is like reading a spool about the ancestors, not like a memory. She will be a different person. You will need to introduce yourself to her."
Ah-lec-sa and the other aliens discussed this for a long time, while I continued wrapping myself. Covering my own head was the most difficult part, but I relaxed and let my instincts guide me.
"Speaker equivalence (assertion) great sadness," Ah-lec-sa said.
"Do not be sad, Ah-lec-sa. The new adult will be glad to meet you. She will enjoy hearing from you what we have done together."
"Adult feel (future, assertion) pride about listener. Listener equivalence (assertion) significant-person."
"I would never have been significant," I said, "if you had not taught me to be."
I tucked my mandibles against my neck, feeling the wrappings begin to harden, and let myself relax into the long sleep.
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