Graven Image – B. Morris Allen

It’s about impressions. First impressions, last impressions, the creased and corrugated impressions that life leaves on our skin as it wears us down to our essentials, and eventually to nothing. I know about impressions; I’m in sales now.

Back then I was a lonely xenoarchaeologist, chasing down one more faded rumour, one more mystery worn flat by repetition and examination. Study, publish, repeat, as postgrads say, until there’s nothing left to say, no iota of meaning left unexamined. And there’s always something to say.

I’d found mention of the temple in Henbro’s Analects, Volume CLMXIV (General Era 7,829), and in Studies of Alien Ruins in the Gortheran Quadrant, #234 (GE 9,237), and again in Borhin’s A Complete Compendium of Religious Structures of a Cubic Nature (GE 13,943). Eventually, I traced down thousands of other mentions in the literature. None of them had anything interesting to say about it — cursory mentions of indecipherable carvings, a lackluster image of a bare stone cube, and coordinates, should anyone care enough to visit.

Graduate students feed on the crumbs left by larger mouths, hoovering up just enough academic nutrition to keep the system running. By the time they have their degrees, grads have learned to live on nothing, but learned nothing about how to harvest their own food.

I was as desperate as any other postgrad. I’d scrimped and saved throughout college and university, borrowed, cheated, gambled — anything to raise enough money to buy a ship. And I’d done it. A battered, creaking, barely functional S-class scout with no spare parts and a solid-state drive that made ominous clunks despite a lack of moving parts.

I’d saved that simple temple for myself, cobbling together a doctoral thesis from dribs and drabs of nothing, dressed up to look like data. I’d seen, of course, what greater, more tenured minds had not, because that’s what postgrads always need to see. I’d seen that the temple looked the same in every image. From crude tri-Ds in GE 3,113 to full-immersion expeers a decade old, the temple stood unchanged. As the sea around it fell, as jungle grew and shrank, as jagged ridges cracked into place above it, the temple never changed. Very slightly rounder, perhaps, the pile of dust at its base a tiny quantum higher, but essentially the same, over 20,000 years.

I wasn’t the first to spot the temple’s durability, of course. Dozens of others had examined I analyzed it, determined the stone it was built from was stone, and put the building’s longevity down to good engineering and good luck. They interviewed the place’s addled but taciturn occupant, learned nothing, and let it go; Methuselan species were a dime a dozen. If one chose to live in the building as a curator of sorts, that was its own business.

They all missed the point, the one crucial datum that would make my reputation, or at least get me a published paper — the dust. In all those images, all those expeers, the dust never moved, never changed, except to grow infinitesimally higher.

The dust was thickest below the carvings; the carvings that millennia of xenoarchs had examined, dismissed, and nonetheless speculated about in reams and reams of dry and ultimately baseless paper. Here there had been change — with every visit, every visual record, the dust grew slightly higher, in peaked drifts that slowly, slowly accreted, clinging to the stone at the base of the temple’s single altar like moss determined to reach the top.

In all those centuries, through all the upheavals of flora and climate and land, the dust never moved.

I landed with a screech of sliding metal and a feeling that the landing gear might be, so to speak, on its last legs. I lowered the ship to maintenance level, belly-down in the grass, more confident of a risky zero-base liftoff than of the gear’s structural integrity. I had to exit through an alternate port and climb down handholds rubbed slick by age, but safe is safe.

The temple was just as advertised, a nondescript cube of grey stone with a soft fringe of dust at its base. A dark square in the center of one wall marked the single entry to its faded secrets. The curator’s yellow tentacles flickered briefly into view as if tasting the scent of ship and woman. Everything just the way every recording showed. No surprises.

The temple was set in the center of a broad sward of teal grass, like a crumb of basalt in a malachite locket. At the far end, the land fell off sharply to a clear pink lake. On the sides, stately growths of brown and beige reached smooth arms up to a light indigo sky. Behind us, a ridge rose sharply up to a plateau. It was beautiful, or would have been if there hadn’t been hundreds like it on other, more central worlds.

I gathered my gear from where I’d dumped it out the port, a paltry selection of third-hand analyzers and limited-memory recorders that were all my budget could afford. I strapped, snapped, and inserted until I could find no further excuse for delay.

Closeup, the temple looked the same. The dust beside the door formed the subtly serrated ridges familiar from weeks of study and analysis, from days of repeated viewing en route. I readied an ancient handheld analyzer, but a tremor from the doorway caught my eye, a slow undulation of yellow, like blond hair in a summer breeze. The Curator.

Every report said it was senile, so old and decrepit as to make no sense, kept alive by sheer inertia, too befuddled to leave, too dull to die. Simple manners, however, suggested a greeting might do no harm.

“Greetings, Curator.” I said. Not deathless oratory, but it served the purpose.

The thing clacked and hooted and grumbled, slowly waving its tentacles like a hydra, or a Ganulan whispertree. It spoke Common; the records agreed on that. But only when it chose to, and seldom sensibly. It liked visitors, but not imagers, the records suggested.

I shrugged. I’d paid my respects, and I’d yet to turn on my recorders.

Behind the curator’s thick stalk, the temple was empty but for the waist-high cube of an altar and its skirt of dust. A thick pane of some transparent stone above provided ample light. I stepped into the entry, and the Curator obligingly flowed aside, its ruffled skin streaming up the near side to form new tentacles as old ones deliquesced into its far surface. It was surprisingly beguiling, like an endless stream of rose petals blown by a gentle breeze. I gave it a smile and a half-bow as I stepped past it.

“Welcome,” it said, quite clearly.

I missed my step, turned back in surprise as I struggled for balance.

“Did… Hel… Thank you,” I settled on, at last.

“Welcome,” it repeated.

“Thank you,” I said again, for lack of a better idea. “You’re the Curator, are you?”

Yellow tentacles waved, and a rustle of petals rippled round its trunk.

“Okay. What can you tell me about the temple?”

“Welcome.” The sound issued from a tangle of yellow limbs, or a ruffle of skin, or some organ deep in the stalk. It seemed to vary.

“The temple hasn’t changed,” I tried. “For millennia.”

Tentacles undulated in an intangible wind.

“Can you explain? How does the temple remain?”

Silence. I tried again, and again, but made no progress. ‘Welcome,’ then, was the one word it knew, or could remember. Senescence comes to all creatures, even those that live for eons.

“Right, then.” I turned away, tried one last time. “What about the dust?” It seemed a topic unlikely to engage the threadbare fibers of a timeworn mind, but it was my topic, after all.

“No image.” The thing’s smooth tone seemed harsher, more insistent, if no more coherent.

“That’s alright. I won’t take any recordings just yet, okay? What can you tell me about the dust?” The Curator had my full attention again, and it seemed to me that its yellow skin was rumpled, the waves sweeping faster, like buttercups on a rippling pond.

“Image,” it said. “No image.” Was there a greenish tinge to the yellow now?

“Can’t quite make your mind up, eh?” Cruelty is attractive, when we’re the ones being cruel.

We went around for another quarter hour, but I coaxed no more revelations from it, no further expansions of its vocabulary. At last, I turned back to the altar.

It was a waist-high cube of blackish stone, greenish at the edges, but smoother and more rounded than the grey of the exterior. Its surface was smooth as well, with the faintest of sinuous lines suggesting where etching might once have formed gullies and trenches among broad plateaus of stone. Some lines were darker, depressions just barely tangible to a questing hand. I swept my fingers gently across the surface, watching the Curator from the corner of my eye. It stood unchanged, the green shade faded back to golden yellow, the squalls to flurries of bright petals.

There were two places where the relief of the surface was more perceptible. Scratches, even a notch, perhaps. They formed jagged, awkward lines unlike the faintly visible twists and graceful curves of what I assumed to be original carving. Careless equipment mounting, I assumed, or even graffiti; even xenoarchs are people, and some people are fools. The last expedition I’d encountered in the literature had been a decade or more back. The scratches seemed fresher than that, but clearly the temple was made of resistant stuff.

Eventually, the sightseeing complete, I squatted to take my first look at my real subject – the altar’s petticoats of dust. The dust formed a fringe of diminutive scree, its gentle slopes looped down here into mild valleys, shaped up there into squat peaks. The tallest stood proud of the others by a centimeter or more, a spike among bumps. It seemed sharper, taller than the images I recalled, and I pulled up the latest record on my left lens. I twitched to an overlay, and yes, the new peak was higher, by a good centimeter or more. Or the altar and virtually everything else had sunk, but that seemed unlikely, and was easily contradicted by a comparison with the other peaks.

My hand trembled as I reached for a sampler. I’d done a meticulous analysis of dust levels in previous records. No peak had grown more than a millimeter per year, and here was a rate ten times that! Not only had I found my footnote in history, but perhaps a moment of glory – a speech at a sector conference, and perhaps more.

A glance at the Curator confirmed that it had not moved, though the undulant petals swayed even more than before. I opened my sample vial, gripped my polished spatula with nervous fingers.

But wait! What was I doing? Sweat slicked my temples as I realized I’d almost compromised my own great find before recording it. I rocked back on my heels, swallowing hard. Almost! Almost, glory had fallen prey to careless ambition, as so often happens when even an expert loses sight of the forest in the glory of the trees.

I took a moment to rest, letting my breathing calm. When my heart had slowed to a rate closer to its norm, I peeled a recorder from its holdstrip and aimed it at the altar dust. “Keep it together,” I told myself, and turned it on.

“No image!” The Curator swirled in a squeal of tangled limbs. “No image! No image!” It held its ground, coming no closer, but roils of harsh green swept through its skin, petals suddenly compressed to buds, emerald pustules on citrine muscle.

I turned off the recorder, and watching long tentacles flailing like whips above my head. No prior expedition had mentioned this. They’d described the Curator as feeble and harmless, a fuddled entity of inoffensive mien. This was something different.

I shuffled back from the altar as the Curator calmed, or so it seemed. The thing’s petals unfurled again to a carpet of ruffles, their color fading slowly from lime to lemon. I stood carefully, sliding the recorder conspicuously into a pocket.

“No image,” I said, holding out bare hands.

“Welcome,” it said, in sighs and crackles.

“Not as much as I’d hoped,” I said with a hint of smile. No offense; a little joke among friends.

“Welcome,” it insisted. A spiral pleat crinkled around its trunk and was gone.

Any good xenoarch studies some biology and physiology. You have to, to interpret relics. I might be a very small fish in the archaeological world, but I was a good one, to use a mixed but biological metaphor. It seemed to me that I might have stumbled on a second good thing here. Other expeditions, including some with biologists, had discounted the Curator. The biologists had instead waxed enthusiastic over the planet’s balanced ecosystem, the adaptability of species, the motility of lignolithic graveltrees. Demented singleton sapients were of lesser interest, apparently, even to postgrads.

The Curator, however, was exhibiting a dramatic change in behaviour, a change not noted in twenty millenia of casual reference. Surely that meant something. Yet, while more aggressive and insistent than records noted, it had not said much. If it conveyed its point more forcefully than in the past, it provided little information. A mystery, but perhaps not a great one. Awkward, no doubt, but not an absolute barrier to my investigation. Also a handy backup discovery to keep in my pocket in case of need. Dust, though, was my focus.

Wary, I squatted again, and shuffled my way slowly toward the altar. The Curator stood rooted to the spot, even as I slowly, very slowly, withdrew my sample vial and spatula. No reaction. I had a basic image from the recorder, I rationalized. That would be enough to document my discovery.

I held the vial close to the tall peak of dust, and ever so gently slid the tip of my spatula into the rising edge of one side. The Curator made no sound, and, with almost imperceptible shudders, I transferred my precious grains of dust to the sample vial. My touch was delicate enough, it seemed; the peak held, forming no avalanche to fill the tiny gap in its supporting slope.

I capped the vial and leaned back. Colored swirls formed across my vision, and I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time I was sampling. I closed my eyes and waited until the colors faded away.

I slipped the vial into a chest pocket, sealed the pocket closed, held it tight with my hand. If the Curator objected, I thought I might escape to the ship with my sample intact. I stood, the altar between me and the mysterious creature. My peak was just below one of the scratches in the altar surface, I realized. From this angle, the scratch seemed cruder, more visible, more evidently purposeful. It started in the faint shadow of an older swirl, jagged sharp left, then down toward the edge, then left again, like the rift from a recent earthquake. It ended just above the peak I had sampled.

Curious, I leant forward. Pulling a thread from my well-used uniform, I tied it to my spatula to form a simple plumb-line. The coincidence of scratch and dust was exact — as exact as could be, with such a crude instrument.

I hovered close over the end of the scratch, aware as ever now of the Curator, but it swayed calmly in its place, seemingly unconcerned.

In the canyon of the scratch were particles of black dust. I fumbled free another vial, set my spatula into the scratch, and traced it from start to finish. A little fall of dust spat out of the crevice and into my vial.

“No image,” said the Curator woodenly.

I froze, my eyes straining up to see, but the thing stood calmly, petals unfurled, limbs graceful arcs above it.

“No image,” I agreed, definite.

It said nothing, and I straightened in a slow, measured rise.

“No image,” I repeated, for good measure. There was no answer, and I skirted the altar, keeping it between us as long as I could. At length, I stood beside the altar, the Curator to my right, the door free before me.

“No image,” I said, and bolted.

I was halfway to the ship before I risked a look back. The Curator had flowed back to its position in the doorway, but showed no sign of following. I took no chances, running until I could clamber back up the slippery side of my ship and in through the port. The Curator was unmoved, and I took a moment to watch it. It was an impressive sight, its yellow bright against the grey of the temple, and harmonizing nicely with the teal grass and pink lake beyond. An alien place, but a beautiful one.

I opened a foodpack, and let it steam gently while I labeled my vials and set a grain from each in a battered, century old analyzer. I forced myself not to look at the screen as the machine chugged and whiffled and posted results one by one. Dinner was braised magna beans on a slab of Alerian gelbark, with a beaker of gleanberry juice to wash it down. I let it slide past my tongue untasted, attention fixed firmly on the noisy machine behind me.

Rock, it said, when I turned at last. Specifically, amphibole composed largely of arfvedsonite – a conglomeration of silicon, oxygen, iron, and sodium. Rare on some worlds, common on others. Other expeditions had found no local supply of the stone, and no trace of the builders, which was a minor mystery, but vanished civilizations don’t inspire corporate funders as much as picturesque temples, and that was as far as the investigation of origins had gone.

That ground had been trodden further than I could go with my limited means. What mattered to me was that the grains were the same. The dust from the altar skirt was the same as that from the scratch on its top. Not coincidence, then. The one was the source of the other. That was interesting indeed.

Or was it? My heart, which had crept slowly up toward my throat, came sliding back down to my belly. Who was to say there was any meaning to it? Probably the scratches were just what they looked like — graffiti. The planet wasn’t exactly on the main routes; in fact, it was in something of a galactic hinterland, but it could be reached. I’d proven that just by coming here.

The Curator must know. It was always here. Presuming it had a memory, of course. Perhaps all it retained were its point and counterpoint of “welcome” and “no image”, grooves worn deep into its placid mind.

In any case, I had evidence that dust and altar were of the same material. That was step one in my investigation, and a solid one. I ate my plate (guaranteed nutritious, but it still tasted more of carboard than cake) and went to bed satisfied, if not happy.

I woke the next day with a renewed enthusiasm. My gamble had paid off. A long trip into nowhere, and already I’d gathered important data, with a possible biological footnote to boot. Excellent progress! I could taste the professorship already. Secure in my solitude, I stuck my tongue out and waggled it back and forth. Definitely a professorship. Maybe even associate-flavored.

I ate, washed, dressed, and arranged my gadgets. I’d already decided not to aggravate the Curator more than necessary. I stuck a recorder deep in an inside pocket and threaded an optic fiber out to the front of my coveralls, virtually invisible against a seam. I switched the recorder on, tested the playback. Everything worked fine. I switched off again until I could get outside. No sense wasting limited memory.

The outside was the same. The sky, a slightly lighter shade than before, shaded the grass a little toward turquoise, and I switched the recorder on again just to have a memento. I could always delete extraneous bits later.

As I walked toward the temple, I caught glimpses of the Curator, long tentacles waving languidly at first, then faster and faster until they were almost frantic. The creature pushed out to the door of the temple, leaning out farther than it had done the day before. Like a tongue, I remembered, and flickered mine in response.

“No image,” it cried. “No image. No image! NO image!” Its cries grew louder as I approached, its frenzied gestures almost angry now. I stopped, well clear of the door and the Curator’s long tentacles. It seemed unwilling to leave the shelter of the temple, and I realized I’d seen no reports of it ever being outside. Someone had remarked on it some millennia back, in fact, and it now seemed accepted that the creature was in some way tied to the building.

“No image,” it said again, almost plaintive. “Welcome. No image.” Its surface was a striated bilious green now, and the buds had disappeared altogether, leaving a surface slick and solid as muscle. It writhed in place, leaning as far out of the door as it could, its base tight to the temple stone, its tentacles holding it in place, agitated ripples running back and forth in gruesome shivers.

“Alright, alright,” I mumbled at last. “No image.” I slipped a hand into my pocket, switched off the recorder. “I don’t know how you could tell, but no image.”

The moment the recorder switched off, the creature calmed. I could see the tension slipping away as tentacles relaxed, the trunk righted itself, and the angry green faded to gold.

“Welcome,” it said at last, as the petals re-emerged from its skin. It flowed back a step, welcoming.

I switched the recorder on again.

The reaction was instant. The tentacles flailed, and the Curator’s rich skin flushed with the vile green. “No image,” it said. “No image, no image, no image!”

I turned the recorder off.

The green faded away. “Welcome,” it said, and wagged its tentacles. Like a child beaten by its parents, I thought, recalling customs in the late Althantic period. Bruised, battered, but still hopeful. Still looking for love from its single source of joy and pain.

I turned the recorder on. The Custodian went through its routine, its pleading, colouring frenzy of waving and crying. It made no move to stop me, even standing aside as I walked up, entered, exited again. I could hear it calling as I walked around the outside of the temple, noting drifts of dust, seeing how the teal of the grassy lawn stopped well short of the temple walls, leaving bare the rock supporting it.

When I came back around to the front, I turned the recorder off. I had enough data, and I’d had enough of the pleading. Truth be told, I’d had enough of myself. Grotesque, demented alien it might be, but it had feelings, that was clear enough. And I’d been toying with them for the sake of knowledge.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as I watched the creature transform again from green to gold. “I just… I was selfish.” I had been, and I could think of no justification. “Humanity at its best.”

“Welcome,” it said, with a graceful bow of tentacles.

“Yeah.” I felt a sudden urge to rip the recorder off, to throw it off, over the cliff and into the pink lake below. But data was data, even when evilly gathered. Ignorance served no one. I contemplated that slippery slope, the Curator rustling at my back, the lake enticing before me, and then I let it go. “What can I say, Squiggly? I’m weak.”

“Welcome.”

I couldn’t face it again, so I went around the outside to the back of the temple. The dust there looked similar, but grey instead of the greenish black of the altar. I scooped out vial and spatula, and squatted down to take a sample from a drift I knew I had captured well in the recorder. Human frailty, or a desire to make the Curator’s suffering meaningful?

With a nasty, grating sound, the spatula scooped nothing. Instead of the fine, powder of the altar dust, this was hard. Hard as rock, in fact. I stared at it, befuddled. Perhaps it wasn’t dust at all, but a growth, an excrescence, a crust. A secretion, if the temple were a living creature, like mucus dried around its eyelashes. Seepage — that was the word I wanted. Mineral seepage.

And yet, it looked like dust. I’d made a minor study of dust settlement forms on the voyage out. This looked like dust, piled high by droppage from above, and forming peaks depending on the mass, shape, and coefficient of friction of the individual particles. Seepage didn’t work that way, but crept up or out, or effloresced in a centered pattern.

I jabbed at the little dust hill, gently at first, then harder and harder, but nothing changed except that the fine tip of my spatula dented. I hadn’t even loosen one grain.

Here was my answer, I realized bitterly. The reason the dust never changed. It wasn’t dust, but rock, somehow formed to look just like dust. One of nature’s little jokes, or perhaps one by the long-gone builders. I threw down my spatula in disgust and went to the cliff to look at the lake.

Almost immediately, I was back. The pattern changed. The piles of dust grew over time. Slowly, but they did. The dust of the altar in particular had … The altar! I’d had no trouble there. Altar dust behaved like dust.

I grabbed up my spatula, slid it into a pocket. It was useless now for sampling, but I could clean it, and I had others. Vial in hand, I raced back around the temple to the entry.

“Welcome,” said my yellow friend.

“Welcome,” I answered, and pushed past a stray tentacle toward the altar. Its skin felt warm, like spring sunshine.

I skipped around the altar to the back. The little pile of dust I had sampled had slumped, filling in the spot where I had sampled. The distribution was different, but the peak seemed even higher than before. I sampled again, extracting a tenth of a gram with no difficulty, and slipping it into a vial. The peak shifted again.

I looked up at the scratch in the altar top, to find it fringed with dust again. I sampled some, even as I realized what it meant.

“You’re doing this, aren’t you?” I asked as I straightened.

The Curator stood silent.

“You’re making these scratches!” I looked around. The floor was bare, smooth stone. There! In the corner, behind the Curator, a rusty scrap of metal. I leaped toward it. A piece of wire, discarded by some expedition or other, and now put to other uses. The tip was shiny. I waved it at the Curator triumphantly. “You’ve been scratching on the altar!”

“Welcome,” it said languidly.

This was a find! Far more important than the damned dust. Here I had the dust creator itself! The Curator, the ancient, disregarded denizen of the temple, was responsible for the carvings. At least, for the new ones. Doubt assailed me as I recalled that the new, jagged scratches were quite different from the original, sinuous ones. Nonetheless — Curator, temple, etching. My fortune was made.

“Way to go, curator. Way … to … go!”

‘Fortune’, I admitted, meant minor acclaim by way of a published letter in Xenoarchaeology Quarterly, followed by a lengthy scientific paper. But that was enough for a position in a university in some peripheral system, or maybe even toward the center of the spiral arm.

Cold practicality intervened, shunted the flow of enthusiasm into storage. How to prove this, then, without a record? Perhaps, I thought, just a little more recording. I’d have to catch the Curator at it, of course; I’d have to wait.

“What you say, Squigs?” I turned to the Curator. “One more…”

“Welcome.”

What was I saying? What was I thinking? Already twice, I’d rebuked myself for cruelty, committed to do no evil. And here I was, planning yet another round of villainy.

I could make notes. Record my own impressions. Dictate my comments. That would get me no more than an excerpt in the Letters section of some minor journal. Which would draw one or two real xenoarchs, who would make recordings. They’d get all the glory. And the Curator would get the anguish — the same unhappiness I was trying to spare it, or worse.

Back to step one then — I might as well do it myself. I’d done it before. I could do it again.

It would be harder this time, though. In the last few hours, I’d somehow come to think of the Curator less as ‘creepy old creature’ and more as ‘charming, enduring companion’. It was beautiful, it was ancient, and it only wanted one thing, “no images”.

Two things, perhaps. Maybe three. It wanted to welcome others, it wanted to scratch on the altar, and it wanted no record made. No visual record. Why?

I went back outside, slid a statipack from my thigh pocket, and settled down to a lunch of fermented pola nuts and thought. I reached no conclusions and didn’t taste the food, but I made a decision.

“Squiggly,” I said, stepping back into the temple.

“Welcome.”

“Welcome,” I agreed. “I want to test something, okay?”

“Welcome.”

“Promise not to get angry?” I held out a hand, gripped a tentacle lightly. It twitched, but didn’t pull away. It was firm, but surprisingly delicate. Not really well suited to wire gripping. I looked closer, and soon spotted a pale spot on one of the other tentacles. The Curator shifted form, but perhaps it had a preferred rest setting, a default, with a spot that was callused or raw from holding the little wire. Or maybe it was just a freckle. It didn’t matter.

I let loose the tentacle. It flapped about a bit, then settled into the same slow wave as the others, like a cat’s tail that’s been held and then set free.

I stepped over to the altar. As I’d thought, there were two jagged scratches on it. Ragged, raw, and obvious now that I knew to look for them, one like an angled S, the other like a crooked Y. They hadn’t been there on the images from previous expeditions. The altar’s carvings had been studied near to death, and there was no way they would not have been noted.

“Here we go,” I warned, taking up my first metal spatula. Lightly, as lightly as possible, I traced the second scratch, the Y. The Curator twitched, but didn’t move, didn’t speak. I traced it again, with a little pressure now on the tip of the spatula.

“Welcome.”

“Welcome indeed.” It seemed a good sign. A promising start. I traced the scratch again, pressing much harder now. If I did this enough times, my theory went, I could win the Curator’s trust, and it would let me make a recording or two. It entered my mind that I was, without a doubt, contaminating the field, but I let that go. One step at a time.

“Welcome,” the Curator said, each time I traced the scratch. Little by little, grain by tiny grain, a fine, powdery dust accumulated in the scratch.

“Well, then,” I said, as I stretched my back, and worked the cramp out of tired fingers. “So far so good.” The Curator said nothing, but it looked to be a brighter, more vivid shade of yellow. Of course, I’d been in a dimmish temple for some time now.

“Let’s try the other one, shall we?” I stepped around to the original scratch, as I thought of it, the one shaped vaguely like an S. It was deeper than the other, when measuring depth in fractions of a millimeter. I set my metal stylus on it, traced it out.

“No image,” said the Curator.

I stopped. This was a setback, without doubt. Ten minutes of steady “welcome”, and now we were back to “no image” already. The Curator was a fickle creature.

There were no signs of anger or outrage, no green flush. The yellow petals pulsed steadily in spirals around the trunk. I traced the scratch again.

“No image.”

No other reaction. It had done the same, I realized, the other day. The exact same.

I traced the scratch again.

“No image.”

And again.

“No image.”

Harder, this time.

“No image.” The spirals ran faster, but they were all yellow, and the petals fluttered freely.

It had to be. I traced the Y scratch again.

“Welcome.”

I traced the S with shaky hands.

“No image.”

Back and forth, back and forth until there could be no doubt, though mine had long since gone.

Y scratch — “Welcome.” S scratch — “No image.”

I set down the spatula, left it on the altar.

“Squiggly, my boy, you are something else.” But what?

I thought about it all the rest of the day, sitting with my back against the temple, the Curator standing friendly by my side, every now and then letting out a tuneful “Welcome”. I thought about it that night, over a statipack of something or other edible. I thought about it until I fell reluctantly asleep, thought about it when I woke up in the middle of the night, and as I dressed in the morning.

“Squigs,” I said, as I stood once more in the entry of the temple, and it flowed back to let me in, “the way I see it, we have three possibilities.

“One. You’re making those scratches as a reminder of the only things you have left; maybe the only ones you ever had. One for welcome, one for no image. Maybe you’re a guard dog, maybe you’re a degenerate sage, maybe you’re a rocktree that’s slowly learning new tricks. But you know your memory’s not so hot, and you’re setting your two favorite phrases down in stone. Maybe you remember the builders doing that, or maybe you were inspired by these carvings.” I waved at the altar. “Who knows how old you are?”

“Two. You’re renewing your programming. You’re — no offense — some kind of elaborate cyborg or genetic robot, and out of desperation, you’ve taken to trying to fix up your own circuit board. Only,” I waved again at the altar and the scratches, “you don’t have quite the same artistic touch as your makers.” I looked again. The scratches were definitely deeper now. The spatula was … over in the corner, next to the now-redundant piece of wire.

“Three. Something else. I admit, that’s by far the biggest category, but I don’t want you to go wild with it. And I admit, one and two aren’t really all that different. But there’s a difference of intent, I think; an important one.

“Thing is, Squig, there’s a test we can do, that might help us find out.” The Curator stood silent. “What do you say we try?” It went well against my xenoarch training, but that seemed to have gone by the wayside in the excitement, with only the faintest of squeals from my conscience.

I went over to the corner of the temple, picked up the spatula, came back to the altar. I studied it carefully, as I’d studied the oldest records all morning. I positioned myself perpendicular to the doorway, to get the most contrast on the altar, then flicked an overlay up onto one lens. I set it to auto-adjust for perspective, waited until it had settled and run a range of precalculations for possible shifts in position.

“Here we go, buddy.” The Curator was across the altar and to my left. With as delicate a touch as I could master, I set spatula to stone. I’d chosen the shortest, simplest curve that I could still make out, and the clearest, oldest record I could match to it. Softly, I ran my spatula along it, with one eye on the altar, one on the transparency, and a third, if I’d had it, on the Curator.

Nothing happened.

I stood up, looked the being over carefully. Was the yellow a little more orange? Were the spirals going the other way? I closed my eyes, couldn’t remember. It was hard to see color in this light.

I stooped again, ran the spatula carefully over the curve. Again and again, slowly, until I was certain I was getting it right. There was definitely a tinge of orange now, and the petals were spread flat against the trunk, except when they swirled in complex patterns of spirals and circles. It was very pretty.

“We are getting somewhere, Squigs!” I pressed harder, staying as close to the true path as I possibly could. My arm knew the movement by now, and I was confident I was fairly close. Two more runs, pressing harder every time, until the Curator, now a vivid apricot, broke out into a ululating, earsplitting cry of screeching, crumbling lumber mixed with bird calls and the sound of thunder. It wasn’t pretty at all.

I dropped the spatula and ran. I stopped halfway to the ship; my usual spot. When I turned back, the party was over. The Curator wasn’t visible, and I jogged slowly back, tacking toward the forest to maintain my distance from the entry while getting a view into the temple.

The Curator was bent over the area I’d been tracing, slowly feeling the surface with one tentacle, dragging the spatula along behind with the two others. It was trying to etch it deeper!

I stepped closer, and the being immediately stopped. “Welcome,” it said, holding out the spatula.

I took it, stepped cautiously back. Those tentacles could grip, that was clear enough, and there were enough of them that the Curator could hold me with no trouble. No more trouble now than yesterday, or the day before.

“In for a penny,” I offered, and stepped up to the altar.

The Curator had done a terrible job. The new scratches were jittery and angular, where the original etching had been smooth and sinuous. The new scratches ran the risk of completely obscuring the old. Already, I had trouble seeing where my marks had been, and where the new ones went wrong. If this was reprogramming, it was going to lead to some serious glitches.

“No scratching,” I said, gathering up the spatula and the discarded wire. “You don’t have the eye for it.”

Actually, I realized, the Curator had no eyes at all. Clearly it could sense things; it sensed my presence well enough. But there didn’t seem to be any actual light-gathering apparatus. “Pretty good for a blind … thing,” I amended. “But not good enough. Not to do restoration work.”

My own skills weren’t good enough either, I realized. It was one thing to test a theory. It was another to rewire a stone circuit board, or whatever this was. Who knew what might happen? The Curator might not be deft, but it looked to be plenty strong. More than strong enough to throw me against a wall, if I triggered the wrong subroutine. A bit like sticking electrodes into a man’s brain, really. Run some voltage here, his left arm raises. Run some there, he recites Nuaji poetry. Over here and …

“Run some there and he recites Nuaji poetry,” I repeated, as a chill settled on my shoulders and worked its way down my breasts. I backed slowly out the door, spatula and wire carefully in hand.

I backed up to a safe distance, halfway to the forest. It might be a safe distance. Who knew?

I remembered my first day on the ground. I’d seen the temple from the side, the Curator’s slim yellow tentacles flickering in and out of the entry. Like a tongue. A long, yellow, very, very forked tongue.

I’d stood there next to it, reached out my hand to hold it. Standing in the creature’s very maw. What else could it be? If that was the tongue, the entry was the mouth. And mouths don’t only speak.

I shuddered. How close had I been to disaster? No wonder it said “welcome”. The next phrase was “come into my parlour”, no doubt.

I slept poorly that night, locked behind a sealed port with the manual override engaged, and a makeshift barrier outside my berth. I’d been in the beast’s mouth, perhaps its belly. Jonah had nothing on me, except perhaps a certain amount of style, and a lot of divine backing.

Only one thing kept me from flying out of there as soon as my hands stopped shaking enough to activate the controls. The Curator said “welcome”. Logical enough, if you’re a huge stone flytrap with a prehensile tongue. Got to get the suckers in somehow.

It also said “no image”. Where was the sense in that? “Step right up, make yourself at home while I make you dinner. Oh, by the way, no pictures.” Your average mass murderer, human sacrificer, wants a little recognition. Your average carnivore couldn’t care less. Why the stricture against records? What difference could it make once the victim was in the trap? For that matter, why hadn’t it eaten me already? Or any other expedition in the past twenty thousand years?

Twenty thousand years is a very long time to be patient. It’s also a very long time not to eat, even if you’re a rock-based organism. If the thing had forgotten how to eat, it would be dead by now. Instead, it was very patiently, and very badly, performing brain surgery on itself with its tongue and a piece of wire.

The curse of the scientist is in not being able to let go. We’re like detectives and like cats in that, except that cats have more lives, and detectives have armchairs, and sometimes guns. I’d have like to have something behind me, even if just a chair. The nearest thing to a gun was the ship, which was hard to carry around. I settled instead on a recorder. Maybe all it would do was anger the thing, but at least it would be a distraction.

In slow, careful stages, I walked halfway to the temple. The skull. The being. Whatever. ‘Temple’ seemed silly now, but it was the best I had. Besides, heads had temples, didn’t they? Two apiece. There should be another around.

“Get a grip on yourself, woman.” Hilarity and hysteria were far too close together to risk confusing them now.

I walked halfway again. And another half, until I was only a few meters from the structure.

“Welcome,” said the tongue.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Welcome.”

“You would say that.” This was getting us nowhere.

If it did eat, where were the bones of its kill? Yet if it were photosynthetic, why would it need a tongue? Even if the tongue were more for talking than for taking, whom would it talk with? Why would it need to? And why to humans? In all the novels, thinking mountains thought very very slowly. How… Or maybe that was why. Maybe the tongue was semi-independent. Maybe even, and this seemed quite likely, part of some sort of symbiotic relationship, and not technically part of the temple at all. Of course, then both of them would need to eat. Best not to think of that.

Still, why the prohibition on recording? How did it even know? Obviously it had senses I did not, but my recorders were purely passive, receiving light and sound as they arrived. How could it sense such a thing?

The best way to find out, it seemed to me, was to ask.

I’d spent the morning well away from the temple, setting up a complete record of all my thoughts, all my data, and all my speculations. I attached the recordings I’d made, cross-reference with all the files I’d brought. I even mentioned the dust — both kinds, loose and solid, and how the loose kind had led me to my discovery. I set out in detail the steps I indented to take. When I was done, I sealed up the ship, squared my shoulders, and marched to meet my doom.

It felt like doom. I had my recorder, and I’d brought my finest stylus, a sturdy durasteel probe used for testing masonry in the finest of building cracks. It was cheap, but it was tough.

“Right, then, Squigs.” The phrase was missing the camaraderie of our earlier exchanges, but I was aiming for bravado instead. “Brain surgery 101. Pay attention.”

I’d like to say I stepped bravely into the lions’ den, but in fact, I slunk in on shaky legs, keeping my back to the wall. For all I knew, the wall was where the giant stone teeth were waiting to grind me into altar paste.

Methodically, I traced line after line as well as I could, starting with the clearest. I traced and traced each one with just the faintest touch, until the movement felt natural, until the software said I was staying within a one percent margin. It wasn’t great, for brain surgery, but then I wasn’t a brain surgeon. Not by training. I didn’t touch the pattern I’d used the other day. Whether through my own carelessness or through design, if one can say that about synapses, the result had been frightening; I didn’t care to chance it again. When taking stupid chances, it seemed to me, it might pay best to take ones not known to be dangerous.

When I thought I had ten of them down, and when the Curator — the Curatongue? — hadn’t yet thrown me to the teeth, I started back on the first. When I’d traced it five times again within my margin of error, I increased the pressure. The first firm tracing did nothing. Nor the second, nor the third. The scritching, scratching grind of the stylus started to wear at me. I didn’t dare look away from my work, but I could tell that the Curator was close. Four times, five, with no result, and I stepped away. Sweat drenched my back and plastered my hair to my forehead. My shoulders were so tight they hurt.

As I stepped back, the Curator flowed forward. I scrambled back, heedless of stone teeth until the temple wall was cold against my back. Yellow-pink tentacles traced across the path of my stylus, the thin scratch I’d managed.

“Welcome!” it boomed.

I shut my eyes. Volume control. Or enthusiasmotor, or adrenalith gland, or some other outlandish thing. Not speech.

“Welcome,” the Curator said in a more normal tone. It had flowed back to its normal place, across the altar from me. Pink spirals chased each other around its trunk, and its petals danced in intricate patterns. Not helpful.

I did line two. No result. Line three. Line four. Line five. Each led to different displays from the tongue buds, different colours, different arrangements of tentacles. It was lovely, elegant, and utterly unrelated to Common speech in any form I or my analyzers could recognize.

I took a break after five. It wasn’t surprising, really. What were the chances I’d hit the right combination out of the who knew how many that must be available? The oldest records hinted at layers and layers of lines, at different depths. And that was just the surface. Who knew what mineral nerves lay within the altar, and what had caused them to stop working? A scratch on the surface was just that — a superficial mark that could mar but not effect real change.

I ate a snack. My shoulders were tightening already from tension, and that wouldn’t help. I stretched doggedly until the muscles loosened as much as they were likely to.

“Okay, Squiggly.” He stood in his place by the altar, tentacles wrapped into an intricate basket at waist level. Like a seat. “Thanks anyway, buddy. Not yet.” I went back to my usual place, across from him, the altar safely between us.

Line six. Line seven. Line …

“Thank you.”

I raised my head, only for my neck to spasm painfully. Warm tentacles helped me lurch upright, held me while blood rushed to my head and stars danced before me.

“What was that?” I squinted across the altar, trying desperately to refocus on a distance further than ten centimeters away.

“Thank you.” The tentacles let go. “Thank you for your help.”

It talked. For real. Full sentences and everything. “Um. Sure.” Just what I’d wanted. Why I tried to recall? Why had I wanted it to talk? I’d had a question, surely. A question.

“What do you eat?” I blurted. That had been it. The grip of the stylus cut painfully into my hand. I’d feared the answer, this morning.

“People.”

My shoulders sagged. That was it, then. I dropped the stylus. What was the point? I’d never fight this thing. Probably the stone mouth was already shutting, the teeth emerging. But I had my answer. I clung to that, wrapping my arms around my chest as the shivers started. Relief, I thought.

“You have the humor?” the Curator asked. “You are a species with humor, with jokes? This is a joke.”

“You’re telling me.” How many meals teach their predators to speak? That was a joke if I’d ever heard one. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” That was another.

“I eat the … essence…” Oh, it got worse? Wonderful. “The companionship, the company.”

“Just get it over with already. I’m the only company you’ve got. Start sucking up my essence or let me loose.”

“I have already done so.”

I frowned, looked down at my body. I felt like myself. I looked like myself. Essentially and otherwise. Uncrumpled, unmasticated.

“I don’t get it.” Here I was, prey for a brain damaged vampire rock skull, and I didn’t even understand it. Bad xenoarch.

“I feed on on companionship, on the presence of others. It does them no harm, I believe. Some even enjoy it.”

Not many enjoy being fed on, in my experience. Maybe there was supposed to be some kind of gaseous emission at work, but if so, I didn’t feel particularly calm.

“This is the reason for the Squiggly,” the Squiggly said. “You call it the Squiggly? Or Squigs? The Curator. The Interlocutor. Interlocutor is best.” It wriggled shyly, and a violet pattern chased across all the tentacles before disappearing into the trunk. “It is to entertain, to caress, to nourish, to solicit, to speak.”

I looked at it. At the Interlocutor, anyway. I wasn’t even sure just what I was talking to yet.

“So Squiggly calls them in, and you feast on their emissions, is that it?” Like one of those fish with a light on its head. Glow, glow, snap.

“Yes. But with no harm. And some benefit. The Squiggly can feed you, if you desire.” The Interlocutor proffered a long tentacle, now dripping with some clear yellow fluid.

I shuddered. “No, thanks. I had breakfast.” A thought came to me. “So what does Squiggly eat, then?”

“It eats me.” I knew there was a catch. “Sunshine, minerals. I draw them up from the soil, from the rain.”

“For twenty thousand years?”

“When I run out, I make changes.” I remembered the upheavals in the land surrounding the temple, the rises and falls of land.

“You did that? The lake, the cliff, the ridge?” The ridge was a good kilometer away.

“Yes.”

“So what do you eat when there are no people?” As there had not been for a decade.

“Animals will suffice when needed. The Squiggly is very versatile. It can welcome many types. My minimal needs are small.”

“So then, what happened?” I gestured to the altar, unsure now whether the Interlocutor could see me. “How did your brain get … this way?” I eased away from ‘erased’.

“No image,” squawked the Interlocutor immediately. “Yes, ‘no image’,” it repeated in a more thoughtful tone. “I feed on companionship, respect. Conversely, I … wither … in disregard. ‘Feeding’ is a simple but inaccurate term. Perhaps it is better to say that sympathetic, pleasant interaction generates brainwaves that resonate with my own, build their amplitude, allow me to manipulate my own form in addition to the land around me. Analytic, dispassionate, distant interaction generates waves that dampen my own, that cause my control to … lapse. When that happens, my systems degrade, my structures slump. As when visitors make recordings, rather than using their own senses. You see the result.”

I looked down at the altar, with its faint lines, its painstakingly scratched surface, and at the skirt of dust at its base.

“Dust!” I gasped. “The dust.” I’d been right after all. Sort of.

“Yes. The dust. It remains part of me, but disordered, chaotic.” The Interlocutor chuckled. “You re-established my language capacity, in a rather brutal way.”

“Hey!” Here I’d just done delicate brain surgery on a stone-brained twenty thousand year old alien, and it was complaining?

“Oh, I appreciate it. You did better than the Interlocutor could. And perhaps the day will come when I can reestablish the circuits properly.”

“What do you mean?” It was talking, wasn’t it? And I was here! “Feed away.”

The Interlocutor waved its tentacles. “Much as I savor your … feedback, it is a crumb to the feast I would need.” It paused. “Can you bring more people?”

“What? No.” Not in my tiny ship. And yet… “How old are you?”

“Old, even for my kind, though we are few and far between. One million local years. Perhaps a bit less.”

A long time. “So you’ve met other races. Talked with them.”

“Oh yes.”

“And you remember.” I looked back at the altar with its tracery of faded, failed synapses.

“Mostly. The efferent systems are the first to go. Memories are stored elsewhere.”

“I have an idea.”

So that’s why I’m in sales now. Sure, I’ve got a dozen honorary degrees or so. Mostly, though, I run the SI Center for Advanced Xenoarchaeology Research. No recorders allowed.

I get in touch with distinguished xenoarchs who are a little past their prime. People with big names at big universities, but without much new to say. They come and ask the Interlocutor questions about past spacefaring civilizations that have visited. Then they go away and write groundbreaking articles as ‘thought experiments’. It’s amazing how often supporting evidence turns up, once you know where to look.

We invite the names to give lectures on our lovely grounds. They stand on the top of the temple and speak to huge crowds of attentive, companionable people. The dust is already disappearing from the base of the temple walls, flowing back in to reestablish the simpler neural pathways. Humans are very useful, Squiggly says, and easily influenced. I feel like that line of thinking should bother me. Maybe it would have before. I suppose that’s the drawback of living with a giant stone brain. Maybe some of its ways are starting to rub off on me. Still, I wonder whose idea it was to start calling the brain an altar, and why we still do.

About B. Morris Allen

Editor and publisher of the vast Metaphorosis empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *