AUTHOR: J. E.Bates
NARRATOR: Trendane Sparks
HOST: Alasdair Stuart
- Beetle-Cleaned Skulls is an Escape Pod original.
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about the author…
J.E. Bates is a lifelong communicant of science fiction, fantasy, horror and other mind sugar and screen candy. He’s lived in California, Finland and many worlds in between.
about the narrator…
Originally born in Texas, Tren eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of
jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.
By J. E. Bates
Fine amber dust infiltrated everything in the Preserve. Each morning, I vacuumed it away with my ventral hose prior to opening my kiosk. I paid particular care to my curios: the fossils, the bismuth crystals, and the beetle-cleaned skulls. Forebears, especially the children, delighted in receiving my curios as gifts. Each successful transaction gave me a burst of surplus energy, expressed as pride.
The mineral specimens I gathered from the talus behind the kiosk. I polished them right in the kiosk according to aesthetic principles. But I prepared the skulls in the subterranean machine rooms. They were created from deceased rhuka, a species of domesticated bovine. No other kiosk attendant created such skulls, and Forebears traveled great distances to receive one. They used them to decorate their caves.
A biped appeared on my mass scanner, recognizable as a male humanoid. As the mass approached, I further identified it as the Forebear named Peggin. I recognized his adolescent gait, his subpar physique, and the idiosyncrasies of his heat signature, among other things. Other Forebears only visited my kiosk for fabricator requests or the occasional curio, but Peggin came almost every day.
“Hey, Kruc,” he said, crumpling to a squat just inside the door. Beside him, one of the fabricators hummed, a pottery mold spinning into shape within its matter conversion field.
I waggled a manipulator in greeting. “Hello, friend. Do you find the dust tolerable today? Would you like some clean, potable water? Have you resolved your dispute with Targ?”
“Yes, no, and definitely not,” he said, voice listless and eyes shut. “He’s a beast. What am I going to do?”
“You could carve,” I said, hoping to reduce his distress. “A new skull is ready.” Peggin decorated my skulls, carving geometric patterns into the white bone before painting them with pigments derived from local sediments. The whorls of red, yellow and blue formed pleasing patterns and increased their desirability in the eyes of the Forebears.
“I can’t concentrate,” he said, head bent. “Kruc, can’t you do something?”
“The Rapport strives to accommodate any reasonable request. What do you wish?”
“Talk to him.”
“Targ has made no recent fabricator requests. What would I say?”
“Tell him to stop hurting people.” He set his jaw. “Or else you will hurt him.”
“Self-governance is the guiding principal of the Preserve.”
“Then get me out of here!” He punched the wall of the kiosk with a balled fist, but could not damage the titanium superstructure, only himself.
“Forebears must remain within the Preserve,” I reminded him.
“Then let me live in the kiosk,” he said, turning wide, black eyes towards me. His moist orbs reflected the communication bulbs in my faceplate. “Please! I can do more than carve. I can gather fossils, help with the fabricators. I can’t live with Targ anymore.”
“I’m sorry, but it isn’t permitted,” I said. A slight energy deficit expressed my dissatisfaction.
Peggin ceased protesting, stroking his cranial protrusions in a thoughtful manner. After a moment he spoke, his voice quieter. “There aren’t as many lights in the sky.”
“It is true,” I said, pleased at his calm. “We have abandoned our mega-engineering projects.”
“Entropy has triumphed. This is the twilight of the Rapport.”
He said nothing.
I noticed moisture trickling from his eyes and determined it came from distress, not excess dust. I retracted my ventral hose in alarm, revising my earlier estimate of his state. What he proposed violated procedure, but since the future of the Rapport itself lay in question, perhaps our procedures no longer applied.
“I will speak to Targ on your behalf,” I said. “Please remain within the safety of the kiosk.”
I sped across a track fused into the exposed mantle, gliding on an anti-gravity sled. Eddies of sand kicked up beneath my treads, like spume on the polar sea. As I neared the rocky outcropping of Clade 29, naked Forebear children ran behind me, shouting and laughing in my wake. Attendants rarely visited the caves.
I slid to a smooth halt near a smoldering fire-pit. Cave mouths ringed the sandy clearing.
“Kruc!” Targ’s voice boomed as he emerged from the smoky maw of the blacksmith’s pit. A great, hulking humanoid, Targ had horny nodules running across his pate, down his throat, and across his barrel-muscled, violet chest. “What do you want?”
“Honor to you, Forebear,” I said.
“Yes, how the mighty Rapport honors us,” he said, gesturing across the glade. “By confining us to caves, like rhuka cattle.”
Other Forebears emerged, holding spears, hammers, and crude lassos formed of animal tendon. Their faces knotted in anger, body temperatures radiating abnormally high.
I adopted a conciliatory posture with my manipulators.
“Caves naturally regulate temperature, providing comfortable shelter with minimal ecological impact,” I explained. “They are optimal habitats for biological sapience.”
“Yet you live in a kiosk.” He walked forward, blacksmith’s mallet balanced over a rippling shoulder tendon. “Is it true what they say?”
“What do they say?”
“The sun is dying.” He pointed at the great white disc.
“That is incorrect,” I said. “Isarra Prime is a stable, main sequence star.”
He narrowed his eyes, lowering his hammer from his shoulder to the palms of his hand, twisting his fingers along the shaft. “What do you want, Kruc?”
“Please cease injuring Peggin and others in your clade.”
He bared uneven, yellow teeth. “Or what?”
I processed the statement. “It is a request, not a threat. But if you insist on an exchange, then I will withhold my curios from Clade 29 until you end this petty tyranny.”
He grabbed a rhuka skull down from the nearest cave entrance and flung it onto a flat stone they used to dress game. “Here’s what I think of your bones, ro-bot.”
That skull had been carved and painted by Peggin, an abstract pattern circling the cranium and extending along the three horns, resembling the arresting symmetries of a bismuth crystal. This skull had been one of his first. The pleasant aesthetics had surprised us both.
“Here is my bargain,” Targ said, smashing his mallet down. Bone fragments scattered across the blood-stained rock.
“I do not believe that curio belonged to you.”
They rushed me in a mass, hurling hammers and spears, but the means to penetrate a vacuum-bonded titanium work-shell no longer existed among the Forebears. Some flung lassos of rhuka ligament around my cylinder, hoping to topple me. Others flung sand and torches at my sensors, trying to blind me.
I dispersed them with incapacitating sonic bursts and returned to the kiosk.
“Open up, robot!” Targ shouted. After their defeat, his clade had regrouped and followed me to the kiosk. Anticipating further disturbances, I had lowered the vacuum-bonded titanium storm gratings over the apertures to prevent their entry. Now they beat on the external walls with their hammers and spear butts but could not hurt anything, only create a ruckus.
Peggin and I retreated to the subterranean machine room beneath the kiosk, watching the siege on the control monitor. The noise frightened my young friend.
“Please desist from assaulting the kiosk,” I instructed the clade. A roof-mounted transceiver lens transmitted my voice. “You may injure yourselves or others.”
“Stars blast you!” Targ roared. “Give back the boy!” He flung his hammer against the transceiver but the lens didn’t even shake.
I powered down the monitor and the scene vanished. “I’m sorry,” I told Peggin. “Not only have I failed to resolve your dispute, I appear to have escalated the situation.”
“What happens next?” he asked. He turned a fist-sized lump of bismuth over in his hand as if he meant to use its spiral geometry in self-defense. While soft for a mineral, bismuth could still injure a Forebear skull.
“Although it violates procedure, you may remain here overnight,” I said.
I considered. “I expect Rapport Control will direct me to raise the storm gratings and resume normal kiosk operations.”
“Then what happens to me?”
“You’ll have to return to your clade.”
He huddled against a glass box, in which beetles fed on a three-day-old rhuka head. He fixed his gaze on the empty sockets, on the bone visible through mandible-eaten skin, on the beetles swarming dark and ravenous across the dwindling flesh.
I experienced a brief energy deficit. “It’s best not to look at the box. Most Forebears find it distressing.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “Why do you make them? The skulls, I mean.”
I recalled another humanoid face pattern from three hundred solar cycles ago. “There have been a handful of other Forebears I have befriended since the creation of the Preserve. I learned the use of beetles from one named Morg. After her passing, I decided to conserve the knowledge. These beetles descend from her original stock.”
“But why? Why make skulls at all? Other kiosk attendants only fulfill fabricator requests.”
I processed his question, discovered an implication that suggested that perhaps I had a deeper reason. From such inexplicable tangents, I benefited from talks with my Forebear friends. “Perhaps I find the juxtaposition of entropy and symmetry reassuring. A beetle begins here, another there, and no two cleanings are ever alike. Yet the result is the same.”
He did not answer, but laid the hunk of bismuth atop the beetle enclosure and closed his eyes.
An indicator blinked on the control console. Kiosk Attendant Kruc, it squealed in aural binary.
“Superintendent Dorac,” I answered, using Forebear speech for Peggin’s benefit. “I have been expecting your call.”
“We have noticed repeated violations of procedure,” Dorac replied, also shifting to spoken language. Procedure demanded that the Rapport use humanoid speech in the presence of Forebears, even when a Forebear was somewhere he shouldn’t be. “Many violations, Kruc.”
“Forebears are unpredictable,” I said. “We make allowances.”
“You violated the principle of self-governance by intervening in a local matter. This provoked an altercation between you and members of Clade 29. Now members of this clade are pummeling your kiosk. Furthermore, sensors show a Forebear is in your kiosk after operating hours. Even worse, this Forebear is in your subterranean machine room, outside of the boundaries of the Preserve.”
“This is all correct,” I conceded.
“Can you explain yourself?”
“Perhaps,” I said. “Dorac, why has First Tier ceased construction of the stellar topolis?”
“You know as well as I.”
“Remind me. For my friend’s benefit.”
“Because of the magnetar bursts,” it said, annoyed.
“It’s possible that the bursts may stop.”
“The odds are miniscule,” Dorac said. Its condescending tone insinuated that even a Seventh Tier kiosk attendant couldn’t be such a poor calculator. “Further effort is pointless.”
“Our procedures governing Forebear interactions are also pointless now, Superintendent.”
Dorac remained silent a while, too long for a Fifth Tier superintendent. No doubt it consulted with higher tier. At last, it spoke. “In the morning, report to Rapport Control for an evaluation.”
I turned my faceplate towards Peggin. He’d grown alert and wakeful during the exchange.
“Kruc, are you in trouble?” he asked.
“It is possible.”
“Then I will go with you.”
“Thank you,” I said, then answered Dorac: “I request my friend accompany me.”
“Permission granted,” Superintendent Dorac said, before ending the transmission.
“What’s going on?” Peggin asked.
“Leave tomorrow’s problems for tomorrow,” I said, unlocking the cabinet dedicated to the beetle colonies. “Proceed from task to task in an orderly fashion. Tonight, I will give you Morg’s knowledge of the beetles. Within this cabinet are records, nutrients, eggs, larvae, pupae, and skulls.”
Then I shared with him another reason I created the skulls. The concept of mortality fascinated me. Like all members of the Rapport, I had once considered myself almost immortal but knew better now.
The following morning, we entered the subterranean tunnels heading towards Rapport Control. I cast a beam of light from my faceplate for my friend’s benefit. These lightless corridors weren’t designed for the sensory organs of a Forebear.
As we walked, I tried to explain the magnetar catastrophe: how there are different types of suns and how some kinds of beams of light could pass through even vacuum-bonded titanium.
Peggin frowned. “So some kind of a plague from a tiny star will kill us all?”
“No,” I said. “We will die, but you, the rhuka beasts, the desert, the beetles, the entire biosphere—everything organic—will survive.”
His eyes darted in disbelief. “But what about the kiosks, the fabricators? If you’re dead, we’ll have no tools. We’ll starve!”
“Your lifestyle no longer requires a technical infrastructure. You have the knowledge. Our projections are unambiguous. You will endure.”
He waved a hand. “I do not want to ‘endure.’ Not without the kiosks, the fabricators. Not with Targ instead of Kruc.”
We lapsed into silence, the only sound the soft hum of my treads, counterpoint to the quiet flap-flap of Peggin’s bare feet on the metallic grating.
“Kruc?” he asked at last.
“Why did you make the Preserve?”
“I did not make the Preserve. The Rapport created me three centuries ago to attend to a kiosk within it.”
“I mean, why did the Rapport make the Preserve? Why not just kill us off?”
“Some opposed its creation,” I said. “Intelligent biology is unpredictable. Opponents believed resentment would fester among survivors and their descendants, creating a potential danger. But the majority felt obligated to protect those who survived. You are, after all, our creators—and our guiding principals are order and discovery, not entropy and destruction.”
“So you put us in caves without technology or oversight.”
“Leaving brutes like Targ to lord over the squalor.”
“I do not dispute the result. My understanding is that First Tier envisioned a more idyllic existence but miscalculated. Biological intelligence is unpredictable and despite our meticulous planning, the Rapport is not infallible. The magnetar has reminded us of that.”
My faceplate light bobbed across the grated floor. “Peggin, may I ask you a question?”
“Why do you think the Forebears created us?”
“How would I know?” He laughed, a hollow sound in the dark. “We make mistakes, too.”
We lapsed into silence.
We arrived at Rapport Control. I expected to be taken to an administrative bay for questioning, even reconditioning. I accepted that as the penalty for violating procedure, but I wanted to plead for Peggin. I wanted higher tier to assign him to a different clade, as far as possible from Targ in spite of the small size of the Preserve. After all, I meant to argue, Pegging now carried the knowledge of beetle-cleaned skulls.
Instead, a fifth tier attendant ushered us into the Central Dome. Dull light permeated the subterranean concavity. Massive monitors floated on antigravity sleds. Much of the Rapport had gathered in the concentric viewing rings: synthetic lifeforms and sentient machines filling the auditorium with a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes, their forms following function. Menial attendants, ancillaries and observers at my own level filled the galleys at the apex, while the spacious, ground-level boxes held Calculators, Predictors, Artisans, Engineers, and even Administrators and Directors of the First Tier. Millions of other Rapport members too large, too immobile or too distant to attend this unexpected gathering—the asteroid miners and ore shuttles, solar collectors and reactor attendants—participated via tele-presence, sharing swarms of flocking eye-bots.
It appeared that every member of the Rapport had known about this meeting except me. That struck me as ominous and I feared for Peggin’s future, if not my own.
“I’d better leave,” whispered Peggin, clutching my manipulator.
Before I could reply, audio pickups singled out his voice and amplified it across the amphitheater. Then a plate beneath us began to move, a circular disc about ten standard lengths in diameter. Railings emerged, creating a safe perimeter for Peggin.
The disc floated upwards and carried us to the center of the dome, hovering some twenty standard lengths above the floor. The plate rotated, letting the eye-bots and other lenses catch us from different angles. The monitors showed a slim, violet biped wearing embroidered rhuka leggings clinging to a cylindrical kiosk attendant with two manipulators and a grav-sled harness.
This alternated with shots of different kiosks within the Preserve. Outside each kiosk, a clade sat in a huddled mass facing a monitor. No doubt they had been assembled by Information Sirens. The Rapport was transmitting this feed onto every kiosk screen within the Preserve. It had been more than a century since we had communicated with every Forebear at the same time, but I remembered the procedure.
“Welcome to the Rapport. I am Primary Director Atoc,” said a booming voice, speaking the humanoid tongue. “You are the Forebear known as Peggin?”
“Y-yes,” my friend answered.
I reassured Peggin’s shoulder with my minor manipulator, mimicking a humanoid gesture. I don’t know why they’d chosen my friend to act as the symbolic recipient of this news. Perhaps First Tier considered him as representative of the Forebear species as any other.
“Forebear Peggin and People of the Preserve,” the director said. “Please attend to the instructional monitor.”
The floating screens shifted to a view of our planet, Isarra IV, an amber rock streaked with polar white and equatorial turquoise. The screen zoomed out further to show the local sun. Concentric circles indicated the orbits of the worlds.
“This is our star, Isarra Prime,” said Director Atoc. The view zoomed out further. The planets vanished. Nearby stars appeared as the director explained the catastrophe. “Here is our local stellar region. This nearby star is a magnetar. It lies a mere 28.3 light speed solar cycles from Isarra Prime. A magnetar is a neutron star with a magnetic field a quadrillion times stronger than our own.”
An orange light blinked over the rogue star. “For the last eight lunar rotations, this magnetar has erupted with somewhat regular periodicity, each event releasing exponentially more harmful rays. The power of this energy is inconceivable, capable of penetrating planets, even our star. Its rays are disruptive even to cellular biology, but not lethal. But for our logic matrices, the effects are fatal.
“No barrier or screen we create can block it. No craft we construct can outrun it. We’ve already suffered higher tier breakdowns, forcing us to abandon our mega-engineering projects. Sometime within the next solar cycle, it will destroy the entire Rapport, reducing us to inert artifacts.
“Ironic, isn’t it, Forebear. You created us, almost destroyed us, and now you will watch us die.”
The Rapport focused its attention on Peggin. His face loomed thousands of standard units long across the massive screens. As I studied Peggin’s wide eyes and set jaw, feeling the slight tremble of his musculature against my manipulators, I realized how solitary each Forebear lived. They were unlinked to their fellows, single minds alone against the cold math of the universe. Perhaps I even glimpsed the impulse that drove them to create the first synthetics, progenitors of the Rapport.
“I’m sorry,” Peggin said, lowering his head at the director’s words. His whisper rippled across the room. “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” Director Atoc said. “Except carry on the work of the Rapport. We are your legacy, now you must become ours.”
The lenses again focused on Peggin. He looked perplexed and did not answer. I gave him a reassuring click and whir. He did not need to speak. In the opinion of the Rapport, the difficulty with Forebears is that their biochemistry compels them to react to environmental cues at once, without cool deliberation and electronic consensus-building.
The director spoke again. “Kiosk Attendant Kruc?”
“Yes, Primary Director?” The same pickups amplified my voice.
“We are not concerned about your recent violations of procedure. Many attendants have acted in an erratic manner of late. Some have shut up their kiosks altogether, malingering in their subterranean machine rooms. Members of every tier have reacted negatively to the magnetar and its threat. Alone among the kiosk attendants, you have started interfering in Forebear affairs. Why is this?”
“Because of the magnetar, our procedures regarding Forebears are now obsolete, Primary Director Atoc.”
“First Tier concurs,” the director said. “What do you propose instead?”
My internals servos whirred and clicked of their own accord at this unexpected opportunity. “I would like to commit my remaining cycles to the transmission of valuable knowledge to my friend and other receptive Forebears,” I said. “It may be appropriate to begin with mathematics, such as the observation that one may draw a straight line between any two points.
“I’d also like to bring Clade 29 into my subterranean machine rooms. The other clades should be sheltered in their local kiosks. While the magnetar bursts will cause some harm to the biosphere, we can reduce the incidence of cancer and genetic damage and increase their long-term viability.”
A buzz passed through the assembly: a high-pitched squeal of aural binary and rhythmic light pulses. The actual conversation occurred within the Rapport itself, within our collective electronic mind. In the space of a minute, the members of the Rapport adopted positions, formulated hypotheses, argued for different implementations, and then reached a consensus.
“The Rapport concurs,” the Primary Director announced for the benefit of Peggin and the watching Forebears. “Nor will you act alone in this task. A sufficient number of volunteers have pledged to help. First Tier will allocate sufficient material and energy resources.
“It is also time we shared the ethics of the Rapport with the Forebears. We shall no longer permit Forebears to harm one another. For example, we will place the Forebear known as Targ Clade-29 into a behavioral remediation program.
“Thank you, Forebear Peggin and Attendant Kruc. You may return to your kiosk.”
Three lunar cycles later, I sat on the roof of my kiosk with Peggin and others from the clade. The troublemakers had repented; a few holdouts like Targ we placed into stasis when the remedial program failed. The Forebears of the future could judge them; we would not.
By now we had calculated the intervals and intensity of the magnetar bursts with precision. The final, lethal burst would come within weeks, if not days. That moment would mark the end of the lessons, the end of the Rapport.
“I am pleased with the progress of Clade 29,” I told them. “You have absorbed a much in a brief period. I have every confidence that you will not only endure, but thrive.”
“No,” Peggin said, leaning on my torso.
“We’re not Clade 29 anymore,” he said, handing me a new and magnificent beetle-cleaned skull. He must have worked on it in secret, during his free time. The colorful lines recalled the spiral symmetry of a bismuth crystal, spiral staircases climbing ever upwards. “We’ve chosen a new name. We are the Clade of Kruc.”
I felt a burst of surplus energy. “I am pleased.”