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Starved dunes: The Vstelian Skineaters

A brief documentation on the 'Dermestes Vestiliae', locally referred to as "hungering sand"

Documented by the crew of starship Valhalla, a small team of researchers dedicated to documenting the local fauna of the treiachian xenosphere.
"There was perhaps nothing one could really do, It was as if the sand had turned to water. Hungry water, the kind that wouldn't just thrash you about and suck you below. The kind that would rear up over ships with waves as a hungry maw to swallow them down. Except here, where instead those who drowned faced a fate unimaginably worse. I will never forget their faces when they resurfaced, still screeching as their throats decayed and their flesh was rended from the bone. And the sand, all over their body like a swarm of insects. For that's precisely what they were. An ocean of insects starved for flesh and thirsted for the water held in our blood. If there was a god back on earth, then they clearly have abandoned us here."
-Account from survivor of an encounter with a Skineater swarm

Basic Information

Anatomy

What we will refer to as the 'vstelian skineater' (Or simply 'skineater') is a small single-segmented arthropod typically averaging roughly 15mm in length. They possess roughly between 20 to 50 small limbs that allow it to move over not only the sand but also that of its swarming brethren. It possesses only a parietal eye located on the top of its body. However, instead of a carapace, they instead have a fleshy, flexible exterior that secretes a hardening substance, clinging to sand it comes in contact with to create a makeshift shell that flexes and segments with it. It also holds a multi-rowed set of jaws on the underside of its front, located between a pair of olfactory sensors. While their bite force is not necessarily strong, it is more than sharp enough to be able to puncture any soft membrane between scales, or in exposed soft areas.   (As such, it is highly recommended among local sallok to wear goggles and keep their mouths and softer regions covered when traversing areas known to be infested with them. For us human folk, it is of utmost importance that no exposed skin or entrances to it are available, as once a chink is found, it is only a matter of time before the swarm catches up to exploit it.)

Biological Traits

There is little deviation between one skineater and another, with the only real variations being in traits such as speed and relative strength and resilience. Obviously, those with stronger traits are the ones that will inevitably survive to pass their genes off to spawn. What sets them apart from most other arthropods of the local regions is their slender, flat shape and multitude of short legs, strikingly different from the typically more bulky builds of their distant cousins.

Genetics and Reproduction

The skineaters seem to exhibit signs of sexual reproduction, as during certain times of the year mass mating swarms can be observed coming together in grotesque mounds of moving sand. Curiously enough, the swarms will exhibit deviant behavior, instead relentlessly seeking out warm bodies to incubate their young, eating the males along the way. As locations are found, many will swarm up until the entire mass is covered, burrowing in and laying their eggs by the dozen.   The rest of the swarm will continue on searching for more locations until all have found somewhere to lay their eggs, prioritizing the survival and protection of those still bearing clutches, feeding them and protecting them from predators and hazards. Upon hatching, the grubs will eventually completely devour the host, as well as any of their starved siblings until they rapidly mature, culminating together into several new, greater, and all the more terrifying swarms of a new generation of skineaters.   On the subject of genetics, it has been found that entire swarms of skineaters have been shown to share rather similar genetic traits and chromosomal patterns, including aberrations in their genetic code. What this effectively means is that as a collective, many of those in a single swarm may be considered to be near identically to one another, with enough diversity to facilitate the culling off of inferior traits and survival of stronger ones, until those that are left to breed the next batch are among the strongest.

Growth Rate & Stages

Starting lain in small hard-shelled eggs lain in aforementioned hosts, they will soon hatch over the course of roughly two solar-rotations into the nymph stage, the only period of time where they will feed on dead/decaying flesh. During this time, they will very gradually grow in size, gaining more segments and growing in width in a similar fashion to millipedes or silverfish, until eventually reaching the adult stage.   At this point, roughly a month will have passed with the skineater nymphs feeding off of all the corpse has to offer, including the marrow and bone matter, as well as those of its siblings who did not survive. During this time, the secretion upon their back will serve as a very potent preservative/antibiotic. After this point, the swarm will completely skeletonize and devour any remaining sustainable nutrients from the carcass before beginning their journey on as a force of nature to be reckoned with.   In time, after about a year, the cycle will begin again as the swarm reaches it's aged area, while the parents carry the eggs and allow them to incubate up to a certain point, spending their remaining days to search for a suitable host, wherin the eggs are laid and the surviving parents will assist in the efforts of those who've not yet found a suitable location to lay their spawn, with the swarm always prioritizing the strongest and most genetically ideal parents to lay their young first and have the first choice in locations, followed by the rest. The remainder of the swarm will eventually come together as a far smaller 'senior swarm' that will then spread to interact with other swarms that may come across its way, sharing its collective information with one another to ensure survival and intellectual growth.

Ecology and Habitats

The skineaters reside primarily south of the Vstelian heat-strip, typically in areas where there is limited rainfall, as water can often spell the drowning death of whole swarms should they be unable to swim. As such, heat deserts are their primary location and especially high traffic areas for preferred food sources.   Peculiarly enough, the swarms will not unwaveringly consume any and all sources of food in their path, leaving behind enough to sustain further ecological growth while still satisfying the needs of the swarm instead. Once a location has been reduced to the minimum capacity required for its major food sources to reproduce and regrow, the swarm will relocate to another to feast upon, typically leaving behind the pregnant females and the adolescents, and targeting the weakest members of any group, such as vegetation with low survival chances or the old and crippled bulls of some herd.   As such, many species have developed defense mechanisms and tactics for detecting, avoiding, and even hunting these feindish gluttons, and in turn many swarms have adapted strategies to counter them, such as forming stacked pillards to haul down offending flying creatures, anticipating the movements of attempts to crush them for other creatures and crawling over their grounded limbs, and forming defensible mounds rather than high surface area carpets when in reigons of certain predators known to carpet slaughter their kind with hazardous fluids, making it more difficult to maximize damage as the corpses form a watertight seal.   Some swarms have even taken to redistributing excess waste matter to areas in need of more fertile ground, and even potentially rooting out undesirable breeds and strains of creatures while encouraging reproduction among those with desirable traits, so as to maximize their own personal gains. Almost as if, or potentially exactly as if, some swarms have learned how to farm and genetically modify their food sources through selective breeding. Many fear that it might not be long before the swarms reach a point where they may begin to learn how to create and manipulate tools to use, which could potentially result in a rising threat far greater than that of any rival nation.

Dietary Needs and Habits

Skineaters are omnivorous, feeding on whatever living or otherwise edible organic matter they can get their jaws on. Due to their extreme metabolism from their habits, the appetite of one swarm can be voracious, especially considering the sheer number of them. One swarm has the potential to consume a whole eight-man party of travelers, including mounts and additional edible matter. Water is also another important resource for them, despite also being potentially deadly, as swarms have a tendency to prioritize plants and animals capable of storing water, often draining them even if they do not actually end up consuming the flesh. Be wary of dry waterplants, as they may contain the corpses of dead skineaters that had drowned in reaching the waterspine.   The waste that is produced from such an excursion are often left in areas where there is dense vegetation if available, likely to support the growth for the associated plant life. However, since much of the nutrition would have already been sapped away, it is typically not ideal soil for farming (if better than sand) but at least can come in sizable quantities from appropriately sized swarms.

Biological Cycle

The skineaters are known to be primarily nocturnal in activity but are potentially more dangerous during the daytime, as that is when they most easily blend in with their surroundings due to the lack of movement. When in a sleep state, they keep alive off of the heat of the sun and surrounding bodies, but will immediately be roused should any threats make themselves apparent, moving in to exterminate whatever it is that could potentially feed upon them, or feed them. Otherwise, while dormant they blend in almost completely with the sand around them due to their natural camouflage, though it should be noted that due to their weight, it is far harder for the wind to disturb sand on their back, leading caution to be exercised in windy regions where there is no blowing sand.   At night, they will rouse themselves from sleep and begin moving to seek food sources to metabolize and keep themselves alive until the morning, as the brutally cold nights can easily freeze them to death should they stop moving at any point. Travelers venturing out into the night have often documented tales of nights where the desert becomes more than alive, manifesting into a vicious ocean as death rushes in a rippling wave of sand that sweeps across the desert plains, spelling doom for those unlucky enough to be caught in its current of damnable fate. Many of those inexperienced with these regions of Vsteli have made the deathly mistake of sleeping at night, only to wake while the moon is high to the feeling of thousands of tiny scuttling claws crawling all over and into their body, knawing at their teeth, flesh, eyes, and mind. Ravenously feasting upon any living matter their body has to offer the gluttonous swarm.   Mating occurs roughly on an annual basis, and tends to end with the demise of the breeding swarm, though stragglers may regroup with other swarms to form what is often referred to as a 'senior swarm' which some might suspect shares information that parent swarms had gained in order to pass it on to the next generation of skineater spawn.

Additional Information

Social Structure

There appears to be no true hierarchy or structure to how the swarms organize themselves, beyond prioritizing the survival of those observed to be biologically superior to the rest. Each individual operates as one of a whole, behaving as if it were a single cell in a complex organism in the best efforts to keep the swarm alive and minimize damages. However, while there is no clearly defined structure of organization beyond a gradient of relative power, interactions between swarms seem to indicate that there are clear power struggles among groups of swarms. Some will compete and dominate others, using their greater numbers bully smaller swarms in competition for resources. Others will cooperate to form terrifying "super-swarms" that have been documented as catastrophic on unprecedented levels when introduced to areas of civilian activity.

Domestication

One group of well-known desert pirates had been reported actually working cooperatively with a fearsome swarm of skineaters, terrorizing travelers and taking the 'useless' inorganic matter in exchange for giving the rest to the swarm. However, at one point it seemed as if negotiations had taken place, resulting in conflict between the two. However, apparently deciding it would be more beneficial to leave without aggression, both sides separated without any form of fighting among each other, going their separate ways.

Uses, Products & Exploitation

There is one vstelian village Te'Pvoslo-darpis (warm sands) that has not only mastered protection against the skineaters, but in fact cultivates and farms them as an incredibly useful resource for the preservatives they produce as nymphs, and for being a very reliable food source considering they are capable of digesting otherwise harmful or inconvenient to prepare foods that are instead used to farm them. They are well known for the method they use to prepare them for cooking, soaking them in some form of vinegar until the sharp teeth become ineffective, also loosening the sand off their back. (this fact has alone led us to the idea that perhaps their teeth and the hardening secretions may be a calcium-based enamel substance, hence perhaps why the bones are often left crumbling and consumed.)

Geographic Origin and Distribution

The Vstelian skineater is found only in certain regions of 'sunmet' (western) Vsteli, though a fair distance from the coastline. This is likely due to their relationship with their waterborne ancestors, likely moving further and further from the coastline until making it to where they are now. Most activity is in fact observed near areas with high activity of sapient life, such as outposts and villages.   However, other variants of skineaters besides that of the Vstelian variety have been reported all over the world, with different patterns of behavior adapted to their respective environments.

Average Intelligence

Individually limited, but swarms as a collective have demonstrated fearsome levels of intelligence. Tests done with isolated swarms have shown them to be capable of solving complex problems, completing mazes, long-term memory, and even doing tasks that may resemble using tools (manipulating blocks and props to create bridges and ladders, assuming they are in conditions it would be less effective or impossible to only rely on one another.)   Perhaps most strikingly of all is that when placed in a skinner box classical conditioning chamber, they instead attempted to barter with the machine, attempting to return excess food. However, while it never accepted it, the machine still dispensed food when triggered, though less and less often. As such, the microswarm had further pressed upon trying to feed the machine, before then growing agitated in a manner that could only be described as 'frustrated' before making attempts to find and locate a way to destroy the machine, eventually and expectedly finding a way to get inside of it to the food stored as it 'devoured' it from the inside.

Perception and Sensory Capabilities

Possessing only a single parietal eye for vision, they exhibit a limited dependency on light, seemingly more using it to determine whether or not it is buried. Despite this, its olfactory senses are also surprisingly limited, and only seem to register the difference between living and dead matter for an individual to consume.   What it does seem to possess is some unknown manner of rapid communication among a clustered swarm, or even other swarms, able to operate in dangerously cunning tactics in immense swarms, reacting in a manner that seems to be far beyond what it may initially seem capable of. Because of the speed at which information travels through a swarm, it is very typical that at night time, when they are most active, a swarm will suddenly expand itself in a terrifying line, sweeping through the desert for plant and animal matter and converging upon located sources, changing positions so as to maximize the averaged satiation of the swarm.   What this implies is that as a collective intelligence, a swarm of skineaters may possess levels of intellect comparable to that of a subsentient being, capable of solving complex problems and optimally beneficial decisions. Further testing is required to determine the exact nature and extent of this, but there has already been reports and evidence to suggest an ability to count and an understanding of concepts such as sustainability and 'greater good' decision making.

Symbiotic and Parasitic organisms

Due to the nature of the swarm, some have ended up striking up peculiar relationships with some communities, as the local sallok population might offer them any leftover food waste that would otherwise be used for compost, appeasing the swarm in a fashion one might compare to paying off the mafia for protection. Furthermore, it has been known for some swarms to actually make attempts to keep one large host alive as a mobile colony, providing them with protection and shelter as well as a food source in return for basically numbness due to the chemicals secreted that harden when oxidized

The story of D'rau-sobha.

Written by D'rau-sobha, translated by Britir fi' Khron.

[todo]

Footnotes

  [1]The word for "sand" in Vstelian culture often has a synonymous meaning with "danger", "hazard", and "death" and as such, is typically used in a similar fashion.   [2]Tchemisi (Saltpile) is a small salt mining town located roughly in the middle of one of the most active skineater locations currently documented.

Transcripts from native vstelian accounts

"The sand are what we are afraid of when we venture out in the day. Despite the immensity hazards at night may pose, there are far fewer threats greater than that of unmoving sand. Night is when they are out hunting yes, but at least we have the means to keep them from approaching us then. Even when riding upon a strider, they will not give chase.   In the day though, any still and soft dune of sand screams to us as where we may find ourselves succumbing to a horrific and agonizing death from which there is no escape. Anything trodden upon a sleeping swarm is doomed to die. There is nothing that can be done to save them, for the sand is angry and hungry when it is disturbed from it sleep.
Vstelian Cartographer
 
"The softstone beetles are perhaps the sole reason we do not risk venturing further past the border in an attempt to gain a foothold where they don't have one. Until we can properly develop a method of transport that safely transports us across the desert without pissing off a bunch of swarming insects that look like sand, then we're totally restrained to the designated borders.
Letonian border outpost commander
 
"My father giave me stories of them. He and other carers enjoy employ them as tool to scare soonhatched ones to not go farsafe. Of course, we all seereal after they came. One sun, a sand swept through our village, crawling under and over the walls in a torrent. My mother was far killing eat, my father with me in the house safetrap inside. Some small ones got in, but they seemed to think us untimeworth. When the light came timemore, the effects belonged to death.
Native Vsteli-Tchemisi[2] adolescent

Additional Information

Common Terran name Skineater Common Vstelian name Hungry Sand[1] Genetic Ancestor Dermestes Treiachias
Scientific Name
Tlezskin Pvoslo-gner (Swarming tiny-sand) / Dermestes Vsteliae
Origin/Ancestry
The skineaters are presumably descendants of what the Bhorgasae have dubbed 'sea teeth', which are similar in nature and behave in a similar manner, but possessing far inferior collective intellect and being adapted for shoreline predation.
Lifespan
2 complete solar cycles (roughly one and a third earth years), though this does vary upon how long it may take to find and locate a nest, with many naturally dying off in as little as one year of maturation.
Conservation Status
As with many hostile beasts of the Vstelian desert territories, this species is marked for first-category genocide efforts. Any and all swarms are to be reported to the nearest Vstelian so as to be marked for destruction attempts.   Primary tactic to be used is aerosol insecticide spread over a wide area of where the location was reported, starting with the outermost perimeter and attempting to spiral inwards while maximizing the safety of the team. The secondary option is to use pitch or oil and fire, though experience has found such methods to be among the easier ones to counter due to the nature of the creatures, burying themselves under the sand to smother flames.
Average Weight
2-6g
Average Length
10-25mm
Body Tint, Colouring and Marking
beneath the sands gathered from the local area, the flesh is a dull red color, potentially indicating the presence of hemoglobin and a need for aerobic respiration.
Documentor's note "Please regard the information listed here as purely based on observation and information collected from the local population with the assistance of translators. Misconceptions, translation errors, and poor interpretations of feverish ravings of crew members may result in discrepancies between the information provided here and the reality of the matter."   Alister Braveris

Artist's sketches

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