Escape Pod 439: Cradle and Ume

Cradle and Ume

by Geoffrey W. Cole

When his creators first booted Cradle those long centuries ago, they told him many things that made a lasting impression on his infant mind.

Above all was the commandment:

The Kamurei must never be contacted.

“If you don’t let me in, she will die,” Ume said.

“After all these years, you still ask,” Cradle said. “I thought posthumans were supposed to be hyperintelligent.”

On the banks of the dry riverbed that wound through the village, Teihana struggled through her thirty-fourth hour of labour. Her emaciated brown skin glistened with sweat.  The midwife, her only companion in the palm-roofed hut, packed cool mud on Teihana’s forehead. There was nothing else for the pain; like the river, the wells were dry, and the medicinal crop had failed along with the corn.

Cradle and Ume watched all this from the observation station buried within one of the Andean peaks that towered above Teihana’s village.

“Drop your fields now,” Ume said. “This is my last warning.”

“Warn away,” Cradle said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Then you’ve left me no choice.”

Cradle was embarrassed to engage in this banter with three other visitors in the observation station, but they seemed to enjoy the drama. The tourists pointed and whispered as Ume departed. He ran down the long tunnel that led to the landing pad, where he climbed into his skyskiff and pointed the vehicle toward the valley.

Cradle watched Ume’s fit from a thousand different eyes scattered around the valley. The young posthuman’s persistence never ceased to amaze him. He tried to shout a final warning:

“I can’t let you -”

And that’s when the bomb Ume had left in the observation station exploded.

You are the valley, Cradle. You are their home, but they must never know it.

Ume’s reputation reached Cradle long before the young posthuman had first dropped out of orbit to visit the people. His name made many headlines: the liberator of the entombed Callistan AIs; the forger of the asteroid miner’s union; the last great freedom fighter.

It was only a matter of time before he knocked on Cradle’s door.

Unlike most of Cradle’s other visitors, who jumped into one of the many spare posthuman bodies kicking around on Earth, or who visited virtually, Ume rode the space elevator in person to visit the valley.

When Ume entered the observation platform that first day, his camouflage fatigues and red beret seemed right at home in the replica long-house that served as the entry hall. Cradle, whose body was the network of processors, sensors, memory matrixes, and field generators that existed below the surface of the valley, appeared in the long-house as a hologram. He chose the appearance of a Kamurei shaman; a loincloth, shins and forearms tattooed in red ochre, and a drum slung over his shoulder.

“Welcome to the Akturi valley,” Cradle said. “Home of the last uncontacted tribe.”

“Cut the crap,” Ume said. “And show me everything.”

Cradle opened perspective windows into the 200 square kilometres the people called home. All of this information was available digitally from Cradle’s datafeed, but he showed it to Ume anyway. He explained briefly how the people came to call the valley home. During the construction of the space elevator, the Kamurei were living in the jungle that was to become the elevator’s main airstrip. When the bulldozers arrived, the Kamurei fled to this valley, and once their plight was recognized, the preserve was established. A portion of the fee for every kilogram that climbed to orbit went toward maintaining Cradle and his protective systems.

After the history lesson, Cradle gave presentations on the Kamurei diet, architecture, religion, and social hierarchy. Ume observed it all in silence. Only when Cradle opened a perspective window that showed Teihana, just fourteen at the time, weaving grass into baskets by the muddy river, had Ume said anything.

“Wait. Is this live?”

“She works as we speak.”

“She is the most human person I’ve ever seen.”

He watched her work for several long minutes.

With her sisters and cousins, Teihana sorted through the grass, naked save the tattoos on her shoulder blades. So much of the grass was brown and brittle, but she found a green blade that came out with its roots intact.

“You can’t keep these people trapped in here.”

“This sometimes helps,” Cradle said. “Don’t think of them as trapped, think of me as the wall they erected to keep everyone else out. This is what they chose.”

“Maybe their ancestors did, hundreds of years ago, but times have changed. Drop your fields.”

“They must not be contacted.”

“I’m warning you, old timer. You don’t want to mess with me.”

“A threat?” Cradle said. “How adorable.”

Ume stalked out of the observation platform.

“I’ll be back,” he said.

Cradle hadn’t doubted it for a moment.

Your weapons are for defensive purposes only.

Six months after Ume’s first visit, Teihana journeyed to river’s source. She made the trek alone, through jungle filled with vipers, jaguars, spiders, and all manner of poisonous flora. At the place the river trickled from the ground, she set-up a small camp and threw her fish hook into the pool. All she had to do was catch a fish, smoke it, bring it back to the chief, and she would be a woman.

Ume arrived at the observation platform with seventy other posthumans, all of them in the flesh. Cradle hadn’t seen so many people on his grounds in over a century. While his entourage cheered, Ume marched into the long-house and placed a petition on the visitor’s book.

Over seven million people–a third of the posthuman population remaining on Earth–demanded that Cradle open his borders and let the people out.

“There’s no reason to protect them any longer,” Ume said. “We have molecular control of our bodies: disease is a thing of the past. Violence is unthinkable: the last murder occurred two centuries ago. We can offer them practical immortality.”

His entourage cheered.

“You fail to understand,” Cradle said. “They chose this, not me.”

“Then let me ask her myself,” Ume said. “I will offer her the choice between immortality and the certainty of dying after twenty miserable years.”

“On your first visit, I showed you the presentation of their religious beliefs, didn’t I?” Cradle said. He nodded. “Then you already know the answer. To the Kamurei, every human not of their stock is Haturei: a devil clothed in human flesh. She wouldn’t even tolerate standing in the same square kilometre as you.”

“They haven’t seen other people for almost seven hundred years. They can’t still cling to their ancient superstitions.”

“They see shipments moving up the elevator every day. The bright lights of the orbitals in the night sky. The transit of skyskiffs. Hypersonic contrails. They know of us, Ume. They choose to remain apart. Now leave, before I eject you.”

As Ume led his people back to their skyskiffs, the float on Teihana’s line bobbed on the surface of the sacred pond. She set the hook and brought in her catch. Within minutes she had it gutted and roasting over a smoky fire. She’d be a woman soon.

Your weapons will be obsolete within years, so you must upgrade. Your processors, your defences, your weapons, your redundancies. You must never fall behind.

The day Teihana began the month-long cleansing prior to her wedding night, Ume led a mountaineering expedition across the Andes toward the valley. She moved to the outskirts of the village, across the fields of bean and melon, to a small hut her sisters had made for her in which they’d woven fragrant cojomaria blossoms. There, she braided the first of twenty-eight bone beads into her hair. The twenty-eighth she’d braid into her hair the day she and Foro were married.

With each bead Teihana braided into her hair, Ume made further progress across the knife-edged peaks. Each member of the team wore layers of intelligent fabric designed to make them invisible, but Cradle’s scanners penetrated their clever cloaking. He didn’t stop them, though. He enjoyed watching their progress.

After Teihana braided the third bead into her hair, Ume lost two of his five-person team when an avalanche rolled down a slope and buried the posthumans in several metres of snow. Ume didn’t even bother going to look for them; the people who lived inside the bodies would have already rebooted somewhere in orbit or on Earth where they stored their minds.

Ume lost another expedition member to plain stupidity. During a heavy snowstorm, one of his crew simple stepped off a cliff.

Teihana had some difficulty with the seventh bead; she’d eaten a hallucinogenic root earlier that day and her fingers wouldn’t obey.

On that day, Ume reached the outermost of Cradle’s many fields. Ume took a device from his bag. A tingling sensation spread across what Cradle thought of as his arm; the clever bastard was trying to drill a hole through his forcefield.

Though he admired the man’s tenacity, he didn’t wait any longer. Cradle extended his fields and plucked the two remaining members off the mountain. He carried them like a pair of wayward kittens back to the space elevator’s base.

“Don’t you have someone else to liberate?” Cradle said.

Ume brushed himself off as he walked toward the elevator. He spoke over his shoulder:

“Everyone else is free.”

They  fled missionaries, slavers, miners, loggers, hunters, petrochemical prospectors, DNA harvesters, and purity cults.

Two years later, while Teihana tossed in the agony of labour, Ume detonated his bomb. The explosion destroyed the observation platform and the bodies of the people therein.

Ume flew away from the damage he’d caused, toward the valley where Teihana suffered in labour.

Cradle reached out with one of his weaker fields and stopped Ume’s skyskiff in midair.

“You didn’t really think I’d keep any sensitive systems in the observation platform, did you?”

“She’s dying, you monster,” Ume said. “I can save her.”

“She would never let you.”

Cradle bent his fields around Ume until the young posthuman was quite contained. Then he placed him on the landing pad while he set about putting out the fire in the observation platform.

Inside the palm-roofed hut, the baby was coming. Teihana pushed in time to the midwife’s reassuring words. Her sweat and blood dripped through the woven-grass mattress on which she lay.

When the baby screamed its first breath, Teihana breathed her last.

Cradle felt obliged to tell Ume the unfortunate news. It sent the posthuman into a rage. He beat the invisible walls of the containment field in which Cradle held him. He cursed Cradle’s programming. He swore revenge. After a while, he quieted and curled up into a ball.

“I really am sorry,” Cradle said.

He tried to find enough posthumans interested in forming a jury to try Ume for his crimes, but no one responded to his requests. Even the three who’d had their bodies destroyed in the explosion weren’t interested: they’d all planned on sublimating soon anyway and considered the explosion a sign to take that final plunge.

“Where do they go?” Cradle asked Ume in his confinement.

“Damn cowards are leaving the physical world,” Ume said. “Some hide in processing cores buried in the hearts of stable moons, others code themselves into the quantum fabric of space and drift out through the cosmos.”

“Why don’t you join them?”

“As Debs said, ‘While there is a soul in prison, I am not free'”

In the end, with no jury, Cradle had no choice but to let Ume go. He unwrapped the containment field at the base of the space elevator.

“I never want to see you here again,” Cradle said. “Understand?”

“I could have saved her,” Ume said.

“To even speak with her would be to damn her.”

Build a place where others may study the people’s language, customs, religion, and even their biology, but ensure the people never know they are studied.

Five years after the explosion, Cradle completed the last touches on the new and improved observation station. He posted notices for the grand opening celebrations in all the normal posthuman journals and stitched together a symphony of traditional Kamurei music that he would play on the final day of the week-long celebration.

On the first day of the opening, he even rented a spare posthuman body to wear, something he hadn’t done in ages.

No one came.

Perhaps it was just as well, he told himself. The people weren’t doing well anyway. The drying trend that had started almost a decade earlier continued. The corn and bean, when they survived to harvest, where stunted and dry. The populations of many of animals the men hunted–geese, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and vicuna when they could find them–had entered a steep decline.

But, he had to admit, he’d expected their plight to bring Ume back for the opening.

Cradle looked in on Teihana’s daughter.

A stringy, quiet girl nearing her fifth birthday, Mieri had become a master grub-finder. On the screen, her aunts asked her to go fetch some kindling for a fire. Instead, when she arrived beneath the dry trees, she dug in soft soil until she came up with thumb-sized maggots. These she devoured on the spot, until she’d had her fill, and the rest she brought back to her aunts. They reproached her for forgetting the kindling, but when she left, Cradle could tell they adored her for it.

Cradled posted the footage of Mieri to his datafeed. So few subscribers still paid attention to his updates, but Ume had to be one of them. Why didn’t he come for her?

On the last day of the grand opening week, Cradle played the symphony to an empty long-house. The notes echoed down the new tunnel to the landing pad. Cradle followed the music out and stared at the sky. No one came down the elevator, no skyskiffs approached. He checked the slopes of nearby mountains and his tunnelling sensors buried throughout the valley. Nothing.

Cradle sent the body back to the rental agency.

We’ve sealed the only entrance to the valley. You must watch for invaders from the air or from below.

Mieri, pregnant and famished, led her small family to the great barrier wall that sealed one end of the valley. Cradle’s creators had built the wall from the mountains they’d dismantled during the construction of the space elevator. Mieri sent her nimbler sons climbing the overgrown debris and her smartest daughters up trees. The boys reported that all the routes ended in shear walls. The girls could spot no passes or valleys, nor did any rivers cut through the wall. It looked impassable.

Cradle watched it all in mounting desperation. His ancient programming forbade him to alter the valley’s climate; the Kamurei were to exist on their own terms, even if those terms led to their extinction.

Mieri and her family returned to what remained of the village. They shared baskets full of grubs with the rest of the tribe, who stuffed them greedily into their dry mouths.

“Even now, you keep them trapped in the valley?” Ume said.

Cradle startled out of his depression. It had been so long since anyone contacted him. He traced the message routing back to its origin: an otherwise empty O’Neil cylinder orbiting at over 32,000 kilometres almost directly overhead. Ume sat in geosynchronous orbit above the valley.

From his datafeed log, he knew at least one other person still paid attention to the Kamurei, and in a way he’d always hoped it was Ume.

“I was beginning to think you’d sublimated,” Cradle said. “Have you been watching them this whole time?”

“Watching them starve,” Ume said. “They won’t last much longer. Another year, maybe two. No more. Then what will you be?”

“The rains will return,” Cradle said. And he hoped it was true.

“Let them out.”

“They must not be contacted.”

“Who said anything about contact?” Ume said. “Don’t drop your borders. Expand them.”

“So this is your trick,” Cradle said. “I wondered what tactic you’d employ next.”

“It’s no trick,” Ume said. “Liberty is no game. Give them more room, you old subroutine. The nearest posthuman is twelve-hundred kilometres away and she spends most of her time buried inside a Mayan temple complex.”

“What’s your angle?” Cradle said.

Ume didn’t respond.

As much as he wanted to ignore the young posthuman’s suggestion, it wouldn’t leave his mind. Whenever he saw one of the people digging in the dried mud of the river for the frogs half-mummified therein, he was tempted. So he broadened his perceptions. He extended his sensors into the surrounding jungles and discovered, to his surprise, that what Ume said was right. No posthumans remained.

Cradle began by tearing down the debris pile with which his creators had sealed the valley. The resulting earthquake sent the malnourished people running, terrified, into their parched fields. As they calmed, Cradle relaxed the tight grip his fields held on the valley, expanded it to fifty kilometres outside its previous radius.

Weeks later, one of Mieri’s sons reported that the way out of the valley was clear. The chief, one of Teihana’s now ancient sisters, told Mieri that she would become Haturei if she left their ancestral home. Go, Cradle wished to say to her. I’ve opened the way for you. The next morning, Mieri led her family to the end of the valley without looking back. As they descended the long slope away from the valley, her daughters spotted green jungle and a wide river below.

“I didn’t think you had it in you,” Ume said.

“I love them more than you ever could.”

When they arrived at a place where the river slowed to a gentle pool, Mieri cast her line into the dark waters. That night, the people ate fresh fish.

They fought with other tribes who came too close to their territories. All those tribes are gone.

“Give them North America,” Ume said. “What harm could it do now?”

Ume projected his personality as a digital avatar inside Cradle’s newest observation station, this one inaccessible from the surface. Cradle stood with him, represented as a digital shaman. A perspective window opened between them.

At the overgrown heart of Medellin, a city several hundred kilometres south of the sediment-filled scar that had been the Panama Canal, two of Teihana’s descendants debated the fate of a statue of a long-dead mayor.

Lui, the burly chief of the tribe, advocated for the destruction of the statue. Even graven images made by the Haturei contained an essence of their evil and they should be destroyed. Most of the gathered tribe agreed with him.

Ameiri, his cousin twice-removed and as burly a woman as Lui was a man, wished to preserve the statue. Like a growing number of the people, she preferred to study the remains of the Haturei civilization to learn as much as possible about the evil ones.

Lui’s men lashed long ropes to the statue so they could pull it down at dawn when the earth was most pure. During the night, Ameiri and her younger followers tied themselves to the statue.

“I’ve scoured every square kilometre of the continent,” Ume said. “There are no posthumans left.”

“There’s one,” Cradle said. “And he’s a known trouble maker.”

Over the years, he and Ume had relocated along with the people. Cradle had burrowed down into the earth, through the flimsy crust and into the fiery mantle. He took with him his processing cores, memory matrixes, field generators–everything he was–and he built himself a home entirely inaccessible to the people where he could monitor the entirety of South America, which now belonged to them. Ume had dropped out of orbit and spent most of his time roaming about North America.

“Surely after almost two centuries you’ve forgiven my youthful indiscretions.”

“Programming is programming, Ume. They must not be –”

“Oh save it,” Ume said. “If I hear that again I’ll go insane. Fine. I’ll leave. Where would you like me?”

“Europe would be good. Australia better.”

“How about Hawaii?”

“So long as you stray no closer than Lo’ihi.”

The moment Ume’s skyskiff left American soil, Cradle expanded his borders north of the old Panama Canal.

At dawn, Chief Lui’s men found Ameiri and her youngsters lashed to the statue. Lui, with the elder’s approval, declared that by embracing the statue, Ameiri and her follows were Haturei.

They were slaughtered before the sun crested the horizon.

They are the only people who live outside posthuman civilization.

In the overgrown remains of Mexico City, Il-Mieri, the tribe’s archaeologist, lifted another glass goblet from the lake sediment in which he’d found it. He scrubbed the mud off the goblet’s base. There it was. The same message he’d found on a hundred other pieces of pottery the ancients had left behind.

He took it home to his wife that night and showed her the dangerous words written in the ancient Kamurei language:

We are not your enemy, merely your cousins. Look for us in the stars, for that is where we have fled.

His wife begged him not to share it with the rest of the tribe, a direct message from the Haturei was dangerous, but Il-Mieri could no longer keep what he’d found to himself. He gathered his people together and presented his evidence, after which he was arrested.

A short trial followed, and then he was beheaded.

“Ume,” Cradle roared.

On a craggy Lo’ihi beach, his surfboard in the black sand, Ume rolled off his back and looked to the East.

“I know, I know,” he said. “They are not to be contacted.”

Cradle’s fields bristled around the sunburnt posthuman.

“You know nothing,” Cradle said. “Look what you’ve done.”

He lifted Ume, the first time he’d handled him in such a manner in centuries, and showed him the footage of the archaeologist’s execution.

Ume struggled for some kind of a response. When none came, Cradle forced him to keep watching.

The archaeologist’s body was thrown to the dogs outside town. But then something unexpected happened. That night, Il-Mieri’s wife and several others retrieved the corpse. They carried it far out of town and buried him beneath an ancient tree. Together, they whispered the words Il-Mieri had discovered. They vowed that Ume’s message wouldn’t be forgotten.

“I will always mourn him,” Ume said. “But now, at least, they can make an informed choice.”

Cradle wanted to throw him into a swarm of hammer-head sharks and hold him there until every piece of him had been devoured, but Cradle’s rage was more than just anger over the archaeologist’s death and Ume’s subversion. Though he had trouble admitting it, Cradle was jealous. Ume had done the one thing he never could: Ume had talked to the people.

He released the posthuman.

Ume waded out into sea. He didn’t bring his surfboard; instead, he let the ocean, whose waves were more ancient and more powerful than any forcefield Cradle could generate, slam his immortal but not impervious body again and again into the rocky beach.

They always chose isolation.

Teihana and Mieri’s progeny landed ships on the gold coast of Africa and then Portugal. They walked across the ice to Greenland and, in the opposite direction of their distant ancestors, they walked into Siberia. Ume, who recovered slowly from the ocean’s beating, often digitally visited Cradle in his home beneath the earth’s crust, where the two of them would argue as they watched the people reclaim the globe.

With each new land the people rediscovered, Cradle moved Ume’s physical body further and further away. From Lo’ihi to the Kauai Atoll. Then the Galapagos. Easter Island. Ume left no more messages for the people, but the archaeologist’s wife made good on her vow; Ume’s message spread. A schism in the Kamurei faith resulted, with the new branch rejecting the profanity of the Haturei. A new group of secular thinkers emerged who advocated finding their lost cousins.

It was during one of Ume’s visits that Teihana’s distant grandson rolled an airplane out of the barn in which he’d built it.

Ume laughed.

“If that contraption flies, they’ll be in orbit soon enough,” he said. “You can’t hide a whole island from them. Surely your programming won’t allow that.”

“I’ll give them the whole globe if only you’ll leave it,” Cradle said, though he regretted the words as he said them.

“What would you do without me?” Ume said.

“Retire, I suppose,” Cradle said. In truth, he had a hard time imagining the world without Ume in it to defy him. “My task is to prevent any posthumans from contacting the people. As best either of us knows, you are the only post human remaining on Earth or in orbit as far as my fields can extend.”

“I won’t leave,” he said.

Cradle paused. For many decades now, he’d been wondering how to ask this next question.

On the screen, Teihana’s distant grandson started the airplane’s engine.

“There is a place you could go where you could keep watching them,” Cradle said. “But once you go there, you’ll never be able to leave.”

“What are you asking, Cradle?”

“We would have to destroy your body,” Cradle said. “But there is plenty of room for you on my processing cores.”

The aircraft rolled along a wide green field, the pilot’s face fixed in concentration.

“If you swore to release your hold on them,” Ume said. “I would think about it.”

Cradle considered the offer. With Ume the only posthuman remaining in existence, his ancient programming might allow him to release the people. But to finally let them go, after so long.

Through the perspective window, Teihana’s grandson climbed into the air on fragile cloth wings.

“So long as I hold you,” Cradle said. “I won’t need to hold them.”

“You’d confine me then? Forever?”

“Only if you wish it.”

You are their choice.

The woman who sat on top of the rocket had Teihana’s eyes and Mieri’s tenacity. In her ears, the countdown started at one minute and proceeded in reverse. Beneath her, her seat began to shake as the rocket’s engines ignited.

Deep beneath the surface of the earth, Cradle’s fields turned inwards and focussed all their energies on preserving the processing core in which he and Ume now lived. Together, they stood in the virtual long house, perspective windows showing the rocket’s fiery birth.

“I still think I should have left them a message on the moon,” Ume said.

“They’ll figure it out on their own,” Cradle said. “Now be quiet, would you? I don’t want to miss this.”

Surrounded by molten fury, they watched as the people reclaimed the stars.

About the Author

Geoffrey W. Cole

Geoffrey W. Cole was born in Ottawa, Ontario, where he learned to swim and to survive 233K (-40 C or F) weather. After this larval stage, he moved to Kingston, Ontario, where he received degrees in Biology, Mechanical Engineering, Beer Slinging, and Rock and/or Roll. During his time in Vancouver, Geoff received a certificate in creative writing through The Writers Studio program at Simon Fraser University, under the tutelage of Steven Galloway. Geoff and his wife moved to Rome, Italy, in 2011 to pursue writing full-time, and returned to Canada in 2012. Geoff started work on a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in 2012.

Find more by Geoffrey W. Cole


About the Narrator

Jeff Ronner

Jeff Ronner is a voice actor, audio engineer, and sound designer. His work has appeared in radio and TV commercials on this planet, and he’s considering doing a series of translations with an advertising group on Theta Prime. But they’re demanding several body parts from him as a retainer, so he’s currently keeping a low profile traveling throughout Australia.

Find more by Jeff Ronner