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Bugs. Hundreds of bugs. Thousands of them, many nearly as tall as she. All chittering and clicking and waving their feathery antennae at one another as they went about their daily business. Magnified by the heat and the more than 90 percent humidity they favored, the atmosphere in the teeming underground avenue was saturated with the natural perfume emitted by their massed bodies. Understandably, they stared at her, their gloriously red-and-gold compound eyes tracking her progress. When she felt it necessary, she would respond to their inquiring gazes with a crr!lk of acknowledgment. Astonished to hear a human speaking High Thranx, their multiple mouthparts would invariably twitch in startled response. Such moments made her smile—though she was careful not to expose her teeth. Through such small diplomacies were relations between species improved for the better.
They were not bugs, of course. Though commonly used to describe the highly intelligent insectoids, that word was typically insensitive human shorthand. The thranx were arthropods, insectlike but internally very different from their primitive Terran look-alikes. Four-armed and four-legged, or two-armed and six-legged—depending on the needs of the moment—they had helped humankind finally defeat the invidious Pitar. That notable achievement was now more than thirty years in the past. Since then, relations between the two victorious species had improved considerably over the suspicions and uncertainty attendant upon First Contact.
Stagnated would be a more accurate description, she mused. In certain specific instances, it could even be argued that they had decayed. As a second-level consul attached to the human embassy on Hivehom, it was the job of Fanielle Anjou and her colleagues to see that they did not worsen any further. Those who entertained higher hopes found themselves frustrated by the sluggish pace of diplomacy on both sides.
The electrostatic wicking of the shorts and shirt she wore reduced the effect of the oppressive humidity by more than half, and the electronic cooler integrated into her neatly cocked cap did much to mitigate the heat, but there was no way to pretend she was comfortable. It had been worse on the transport capsule that had brought her into the inner city, even though the commuting thranx had politely allotted her more space than they would have one of their own. As she wiped at her face, she reflected on the eternal low-tech usefulness of an absorbent handkerchief.
Diplomatic offices were on this level, but another half quadrant forward. She passed a nursery, where larval thranx were cared for and educated while awaiting metamorphosis; an eating establishment, with its rows of padded benches on which a tired thranx could stretch out on its abdomen, legs dangling comfortably on either side; and a large public information screen. The activities it proffered were utterly alien to her. Despite nearly ninety years of casual contact, and much closer interaction during the Humanx-Pitar War, humans still knew all too little about the enigmatic eight-limbed acquaintances with whom they shared the Orion Arm of the galaxy.
The public announcements that periodically echoed above the constant clacking of busy mandibles were all in Low Thranx. She had not mastered either language, but for a human, she was considered fluent—at least by her colleagues. What the thranx thought of her attempts to speak their complex language she did not know. No doubt they considered soft lips and a flexible tongue poor substitutes for hard mandibles.
At least, she thought, I can make myself understood. That was more than many of her click-challenged coworkers could claim.
An adult female with two adolescents in tow passed close by. Unlike human postpubescents, the pair of youngsters were perfect downsized versions of the adult. They were in the premolt stage, preparing to shed their hard exoskeletons preparatory to growing into another size. Both had their antennae pointed rigidly and impolitely in the direction of the bizarre biped coming in toward them. As she strode past, Anjou overheard one chitter excitedly.
“But Birth Mother, it’s so soft and pulpy! How can it stand upright like that? And on only two legs!”
Anjou did not hear the birth mother’s answer. From what the diplomat knew of thranx culture, the reply was most likely in the form of some mild chastisement coupled with an attempt at explanation. What the latter would consist of would probably be highly imaginative. The average hive dweller knew as much about human physiology as a hydroengineer whose business it was to work on the venerable water system of London knew about a thranx’s internal plumbing.
The particular burrow complex she was traversing was home to, among other segments, the Diplomatic Contact section. Its sub-burrow loomed just ahead. The main entrance, with its impressive portico of anodized metal and floating holoed worlds, presented no problem. Entering the lift and hallway that lay beyond, however, forced her to watch out for low-hanging appliances. Here her short stature was a positive advantage. Her male colleagues dreaded having to visit anything smaller than a main burrow corridor. If Jexter Henry, who stood a shade under two meters tall, wanted to spend some time in a city like Daret, his travels would be restricted to the main corridors. As a consequence, he was essentially confined to the human outpost at Azerick.
Thoughts of that establishment, of its comfortable surroundings on the temperate Mediterranea Plateau on the largest of Hivehom’s four continents, did not improve her mood. At least, she reflected as she turned into a tertiary access tunnel, the Contact facilities were located in a brand-new section of the city. Being the capital not only of Hivehom but of the entire thranx expansion, Daret had been among the first burrows to transform itself from a traditional hive into a real city. As a diplomatic representative, she had been allowed to visit the older, archeologically important sections of the metropolis, with their early nurseries, food storehouses, and primitive arsenals. She had maintained a smile—tight lipped, of course, so as not to expose her teeth—throughout, but had no desire to repeat the tour. Even to a non claustrophobe, the ancient quarter of the city was oppressive.
As she passed through the unobtrusive security scan, the male thranx of midage who had been following her ever since her arrival in Daret was at last compelled to abandon his pursuit and continue on past the entrance. He was not disappointed. Though he possessed within his backpack the means for evading the security system, now was not the time to employ it. That would come later, when the fractionated time-part was deemed right by himself and his compeers.
Even fanatics have a sense of timing.
Unaware that she had been followed, Anjou presented her thranx security chit to a series of scanners. It took her longer to gain entrance to the facility than thranx who ambled up from behind and passed her, since the automated security system had to not only verify that the pass she carried was indeed a match to her particular cerebral emissions, but that she was of the species claimed by the embedded photons. The eye scan that served to pass most thranx was of no use in identifying humans, with their oversized, single-lensed oculars.
Eventually she reached the corridor that led to Haflunormet’s office. He greeted her with a cheerful click and whistle, to which she replied to the best of her increasing fluency in Low Thranx. He also inclined his head slightly forward, presenting his feathery antennae. Bowing in turn, she reached up and flicked them gently with the tips of her index fingers before allowing them to make contact with her forehead. Formalities concluded, he employed both a truhand and foothand to direct her to one of the three benches that fronted the freeform arc of his workstation. Composed of a wondrously light yet strong beryllium-titanium alloy, it was anodized with a flux that gave it the look of a dark, fine-grained wood.
There were no windows in the chamber because there was nothing to look out upon. Dwellers within the ground throughout most of their history, the thranx were equally comfortable on the surface, but a complex assortment of reasons kept their communities underground. A human forced to work every day in such confinement would have found it suffocating, despite the excellent simscene of luxuriant jungle that filled one wall with color, depth, and a farrago of fragrance.
“I bid you good digging, Fanielle.” The Terran diplomat and her thranx counterpart had been on a first-name basis for several months now. As he settled himself back on his elongated seat, she retired to one of the low visitors’ benches. Instead of lying prone on her chest and stomach while straddling it head-forward in the thranx manner, she simply sat down on the soft artificial padding. It made for a perfectly comfortable perch, if one discounted the absence of any back support. It was certainly preferable to sitting on the floor.
She did not need to see Haflunormet to recognize him. Every individual thranx emitted a distinctive personal perfume, each more aromatic and sweet-scented than the next. A visit to a city the size of Daret could easily overpower the olfactorily sensitive. To her, entering a thranx hive was like plunging into a sea of freshly plucked tropical flowers. Even those humans who disliked the appearance of the thranx were hard put to remain hostile in their astonishingly fragrant presence.
Unfortunately, she reflected, a way had yet to be found that could effectively transmit true smell via tridee. It was too bad. If every human could meet a thranx face-to-face, the continuing uncertain and unsettled state of relations between the two species might be at least partially alleviated.
The improvement in Haflunormet’s Terranglo had kept pace with her growing fluency in both Low and the more difficult High Thranx. “I trust you had a pleasant journey from Azerick?”
“The flight was smooth enough, if that’s what you mean.” She shifted her rear on the near end of the long, narrow cushion, wishing for something to rest her spine against. “The tube transport from the port into Daret was a little slow.”
“It’s a busy time of year. Fourth cycle of the Dry Season here.”
She chuckled softly. “You have a dry season?” It had rained hard and steady ever since the atmospheric shuttle had begun its descent into Daret Port East.
“Taste in atmospheric conditions is relative.” Haflunormet gestured expressively with both truhands. “I don’t see how you humans stand that high, cold desert you call the Med’ranna Plat’u.”
Anjou tried not to think of the pleasant, temperate hillsides where the human outpost was situated. Despite the best efforts of her specialized attire, she was sweating profusely. Though she had grown personally fond of Haflunormet, she couldn’t wait to get out of the chamber, with its low ceiling and windowless environment, and back onto the surface.
From the Hardcover edition.