Read World of Fire (Dev Harmer 01) Online
Authors: James Lovegrove
Tags: #Science Fiction
HE MAN WAS
dressed in military-surplus protective outerwear, complete with a pair of gauntlets made of artificial spider-silk fibroins, lightweight but virtually impenetrable. His head was encased in mesh helmet not unlike a fencer’s. He flipped up the visor and blinked at Dev owlishly.
His face was skinny and slight, with a nose a little like a chicken’s beak. His corneas were sheathed in jet-black lenses with an iridescent sheen – image intensification contacts. He had a motion-sensitive tracking device strapped to his forearm.
“You mean kill that scroach?” Dev said, indicating the mess.
“Yes I mean kill that scroach. What did it ever do to you?”
“Er, tried to kill
“Well, okay. Yes. Well, if it did, that wasn’t its fault. You must’ve alarmed it.”
“Not as much as it alarmed me,” Dev said. “You should have seen the size of it.”
“Mature adult male,” said the man, scrutinising the tail. “On his seventh, maybe eighth ecdysis. Which would put his age at about twenty-five. A venerable specimen.”
“The shedding of the cuticula. Moulting. You can’t get that big without going through a few exoskeletons.”
“You’re a scroach expert?” said Dev.
“Not yet, but I aspire to be.” The man pulled off a gauntlet and extended a hand. “Ludlow Trundell. Professor of xeno-entomology at the Qatar Institute for Extraterrestrial Sciences.”
“Dev Harmer. Amateur scroach squasher. No other relevant qualifications. You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake.” His fingers were sticky with a liberal coating of arthropod juices.
“No, I quite understand,” said Professor Trundell, withdrawing and re-gloving his hand. “And I apologise for sounding off at you just now. I’m not happy about what you did, but I can see the rationale. Clearly you don’t appreciate what a remarkable, wonderful creature
“I don’t think this one appreciated what a remarkable, wonderful creature
is, either. Otherwise we mightn’t have had a problem.”
“You’re in his domain. You’re an intruder. What did you expect? He’s going to want to defend himself.”
“Look, back that-a-way there’s a half-dozen more of the things that I
destroy. I don’t think, on balance, that massacring one is too bad.”
“Such restraint,” said Trundell dryly.
. Stress on the second syllable.”
“You obviously know your way around these geodes.”
“Been spelunking down here for over three months now,” said the xeno-entomologist proudly. He showed off his tracking device. “This helps me navigate. It’s got a detailed chart of the tunnels programmed in, on which I’ve marked common scroach migratory routes. But even without it, I doubt I’d get lost. I’ve become a bit of a tunnel rat during my researches.”
“So can you get me out and back up to civilisation?”
,” said Trundell pedantically. “What you’re asking is, would I be
“I might. I’ve only just started work this evening, though. Scroaches are more active when they’re on Alighieri’s night side – my theory is it’s something to do with the slight temperature drop – so I’ve had to become somewhat nocturnal myself. I was planning to study them for another two or three hours.”
“I don’t want to hang around that long.”
“Then we are at an impasse.”
Dev restrained an infuriated sigh. “I’ll pay you.”
“I’m well-funded. My university is generous with its grants. Besides, you can’t put a price on pure science.”
“How about this, then? Help me or I’ll treat you much the same as I did this scroach. Protective gear won’t save you.”
Trundell gulped and blanched. “I’m not a man of violence.”
“Nor am I, unless provoked. The evidence for that is, I’d say, pretty conclusive.”
Trundell glanced around the gore-spattered geode.
“Fine,” he said. “Your argument is forceful and persuasive. Let’s go.”
The professor led the way, shuffling through the fissures, Dev close behind. Every so often he paused to consult his tracking device, then carried on.
“If you love scroaches so much, how come you’re all togged up in ceramide fibre and tungsten mesh? Don’t you trust them?”
“I may admire the scroach, but I’m not crazy. They’re temperamental and sometimes unpredictable. Only a fool would get as close to them as I do and not take precautions.”
“Ever been attacked?”
“Couple of times. A female tried to sting me once, but her aculeus failed to pierce my clothing. Just. It felt like being rammed hard in the chest with the end of a steel rod. I was bruised for days. I blame myself, though.”
“No, really. I didn’t respect her. She was carrying her infant brood on her back, and I plucked one off to take a closer look. I was going to return it, of course, but she couldn’t have known that. Another scroach nearly took a couple of my fingers off with its pincer. Again,
is a proud beast and doesn’t take kindly to insults.”
“You were rude to it?”
“By its own lights, yes,” said Trundell. “I mimicked the brandishing of its pedipalps incorrectly.”
“For shame. It waved its arms at you and you didn’t have the courtesy to wave back?”
“I did, but in order to indicate submission you not only have to copy what the other scroach does precisely but you must do so at a marginally slower rate to denote your inferior status. I freely admit I got it wrong. Also, and this is the real issue, I don’t have chelicerae.”
“Moveable mouth parts. Scroaches use them to signal to one another in addition to their pedipalps. They exhale through special spiracles set just inside their jaws and modify the sound with the chelicerae. I can hiss too, of course, but not with nearly the same range of modulations and frequencies.”
Dev recalled the extensive rattly hissing he had heard from the scroaches. “You’re saying they can talk to one another?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Because that’s freaky. Insects talking.”
“No more so than birds chirping or dogs barking, and scroaches are no less intelligent then either of those species. Personally I find it extraordinary and rather beautiful.”
“Of course you do.”
“In fact I’m thinking of making it my field of specialism – quasi-verbal communication among alien invertebrates. How they manage to convey aggression, announce the desire to mate, familiarise themselves with their young, share warning messages and so forth, by means of a complex system of principally auditory cues.”
Dev did not seem to have endeared himself to Trundell by bullying him earlier, but the xeno-entomologist’s passion for his subject, however, was overcoming his nerdy resentment. He just couldn’t help enthusing about his beloved scroaches to anyone who would listen, and in Dev he had a more or less captive audience.
“We’re familiar with Terran insects who use sound to communicate,” he went on. “The stridulation of cicadas and grasshoppers, for instance, or the sharp air expulsions of the Fijian long-horned beetle and the Madagascan hissing cockroach. But they operate at a relatively low level of sophistication compared with the scroach. They’re either calling to mates, demarcating territory, or trying to repel rivals or predators. That’s about all.”
“Who needs more than that? I know I don’t.”
,” said Trundell patiently, “has such a variety of hisses, so many intonations and patterns to suit different circumstances, that I can’t help but think of it as a language. I haven’t found another insect quite so intricately expressive, apart from the so-called singspiders on Auriga B with their web harps.”
“Still freaky, though.”
“It might because they’re a wholly subterranean species. Their environment lends itself to auditory communication. Tunnels and caves act as natural amplifiers, carrying sounds over long distances. Scroaches see adequately enough, but their tympanal and chordotonal organs – their, for want of a better word, ears – are acutely well developed.”
Trundell stopped, holding up a finger.
“Case in point. Hear that?”
Dev listened as a faint whispery rustle drifted through the air. It was coming from some distance away, and it wavered and skittered like wind-blown autumn leaves.
“That’s scroaches,” Trundell confirmed. “Lots of them, spread out far and wide. Communing remotely.”
“Can’t be good. What are they saying?”
“I’ve been recording their different hisses and attempting to correlate them with mood and context in order to decode the syntax, but I still haven’t fully mastered it. It’s a work-in-progress. That noise could mean a massed spat, or it could be a mating-frenzy summons, or maybe...”
Now there came a soft tremor, like the noise of one heavy stone scraping against another.
“Or maybe,” said Trundell, “it’s
The scroach hissing rose in pitch and volume, becoming sharper and shriller.
“Earthquake?” said Dev.
“No, but we’d better hurry all the same. A couple more geodes and we’ll be out in the tunnels. Then we can get some proper speed up.”
“What is it?” said Dev as they scurried on all fours through one fissure, then the next. “I could be wrong, but those scroaches sound... frightened.”
“That’s because they are. You must know why.”
“I’m not from round these parts.”
“Appearances to the contrary, no.”
“Well, neither am I, but even I know what a moleworm is. And does. Apex predator. Top of the food chain. Favourite meal: scroaches. But it’s not choosy, and if we’re unlucky it’s just as apt to snack on us!”
UT OF THE
geode maze, Dev and Trundell crouched and scuttled along the tunnels. Trundell’s tracking device was giving out loud beeps at two-second intervals.
“Ooh, judging by the ping-back strength, it’s a big one,” the xeno-entomologist said. “Probably a female. They outweigh the males by a ratio of one-point-five to one, on average.”
“Less talking, more moving?” Dev suggested.
“It’s all right. We’re heading away from her.”
“Are we? Because those beeps sound to me like they’re getting closer together rather than further apart.”
“No. No.” Trundell squinted at the tracking device’s tiny floatscreen, which hovered just above the back of his wrist. “Well, maybe. But if we keep going this way, we should...”
“Oh. That isn’t... I must have got turned around. In all the confusion...”
“Spelunking down here for three months, he said. Tunnel rat, he said.”
“We should backtrack.”
“Really? You think?”
They returned to the junction where they had last made a turn. Trundell increased the gain on the tracking device’s scanner. A cross-section of branching tunnel architecture swept across the screen, routes indicated by dotted lines.
The beeps were now less than one second apart.
“It’s coming,” said Dev. He could feel a vibration underfoot, as though some heavy road vehicle were approaching. “Which way do we go?”
“I’m trying to work out the optimal course.”
“Then try a bit harder.”
“Don’t harass me! I’m flustered enough as it is.”
“Stop clucking. Focus.”