Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, page 10
This time the weather has caught him out. The water of the lake is too cold for a long-term immersion, and the birds have not been coming. The sun is going down and the sky is about to turn to the misty purple he usually sees when he is almost back amongst his tribe; but this evening his tribe is a long, long way away.
Yet still he remains, reluctant to return empty-handed.
Over on the other side of the lake forages one of the tundra-dwellers, which also seems to be separated from its group. Its compact appearance, with its furry rolls of fat and its short arms and thick legs, makes it look as if it belongs in the landscape. It seems to be at home here, while Snatch, with his long limbs, does not. The two beings ignore one another. Their differing lifestyles do not put them in conflict, yet it seems to Snatch that the tundra-dweller should resent him, for being somewhere he does not belong; but he does not think about it too much. All he hopes for at the moment is that the other creature’s movements do not interfere with his hunt.
Then, with a comical quacking noise, half-a-dozen birds settle on the still water, breaking up the reflection of the cold empty sky. Now Snatch squats into his hiding place amongst the fluffy heads of the grass, waiting for his chance.
It is a long time before any of the birds paddle close enough for an attack, but eventually they drift over towards his side of the lake. With a single dive, he throws himself out from the bank, his long arms and delicate fingers shooting out towards his prey. Startled ducks leap straight upwards from the water, flapping towards the sky and safety. One is too slow. The long fingers close around a webbed foot, and with a flurry of feathers it is dragged back as Snatch’s body splashes downwards into the chill waters of the lake.
The numbing impact of the icy water cannot subdue Snatch’s yell of triumph as he leaps out of the lake with his prize. Yet, before he has wrung the bird’s neck, the chill has crept from his skin, through his flesh and to his bones. His newly-caught meat will be of no use to him if he freezes to death.
He rips the head off the bird, tears away the crop, and plunges his numbed fingers into the warmth of the carcass. It is not enough. He must find more body heat somewhere.
There is only one other big living thing nearby.
The tundra-dweller stands, still as a dead tree, watching all this with a dim curiosity. It shows no fear as Snatch approaches it carefully. Why should it? Tundra-dwellers have no natural enemies out here on the tundra, and no capacity for fear was ever designed into them by the genetic engineers all those millennia ago. For Snatch, there is a problem. How does he kill a big creature like this? His hands have only dealt with small mammals and birds up to now. The face, with the tiny eyes and broad nostrils, stares at him from within the frame of its voluminous neck ruff. There is no expression, and the creature does not flinch as Snatch drops his bird and throws himself at it, groping for a soft or vulnerable spot on its broad chest or its thick neck. Everywhere his fingers find tightly-matted hair and yielding blubber – nothing to hold or tear. Then, slowly, the great body leans over him and goes down onto its knees, pinning him to the springy vegetation. Snatch panics, and writhes and twists to pull himself out from under the mass of bouncing fat, but he is trapped. He can do nothing now but wait for the great creature to kill him.
After a while Snatch realizes that he is not dead. The tundra-dweller has not tried to kill him – it is just ignoring him. It went down onto the ground to reach Snatch’s dropped bird, and is now eating it. Snatch was trapped by accident.
Night is falling, and it is warm in the folds of furry fat. As long as the tundra-dweller remains where it is, Snatch will survive; so he is quite happy to let it have his catch, in return for this life-saving imprisonment.
* * *
5000 YEARS HENCE
As the genetic engineers have long gone, there can be no further artificial changes. When climates and conditions shift, altering habitats, the inhabitants must normally adapt or evolve to survive. But the woodland-dwellers have a different option.
A genetically-manipulated but latent ability to recall the long-term past is forced to the surface by climatic extremes. A group of Homo virfultis fabricatus become the memory people.
* * *
That way lies the end of the blizzard and the howling white blankness. Somewhere in that direction is the secluded dell of gentle green woodland, full of berries and nuts, with misty shafts of bright sunlight slanting through the leaves, bringing dappled patches of warmth, and the relaxed noises of chattering, twittering birds heard over the gurgling of a little brook as it splashes over the moss-covered rocks.
How does Hrusha know that? She has never been here before. She has never even seen a gentle green woodland, would not recognize berries and nuts for what they were, and would be alarmed at the strange noises of twittering birds. Yet somehow she knows that these things are to be found in the direction in which she is walking.
Her colony by the seashore is starving. The colder weather this year has meant that fewer fish have come to the beaches, and fewer herbs are growing along the spume-blown shingle that separates the grey ocean from the white of the icecap. Others have travelled out from the colony both ways along the coast, to try to find new sources of food; but few have returned, and those who did come back reported no success.
Now Hrusha and her mate Vass have tried going inland instead: a bold and dangerous choice, and one that Vass is constantly regretting. Inland is nothing but snow and ice.
As they trudge onwards the blizzard develops, intensifies and turns everything to a featureless whiteness. Their vision is blocked by the relentless glare, their hearing muffled by the unchanging howl of the wind, and their sense of touch numbed by the cold.
Suddenly, with her normal senses dulled by the disorientating surge of the blizzard, Hrusha remembers something that she could not possibly have experienced, and with excited gestures urges Vass to follow her. This is too much for her mate, who turns and tries to find their tracks, hoping to follow them and make his own way back to the coast.
Acting on the hunch that is stronger than her mating bond, she trudges in the direction her senses dictate, deeper and deeper into the blasting, blinding blizzard, and suddenly the snow gives way beneath her. She falls, tumbling with the snowy lumps, and ends up face down in a shallow drift. As she struggles free she finds that the wind has dropped, and she is lying in a sheltered ice-free valley. Dark rocks jut from black frozen soil, and an ice-bound stream winds along the valley floor. The most remarkable features of the landscape, though, are the hulks of dead trees, standing black and branchless, frozen and upright, where they died of cold an unimaginable time ago.
This is the green and leafy dell that she remembers, but changed by time and creeping coldness. How can she remember this, when the trees she sees around her have obviously been dead since the time of her father’s father’s father’s father? Could that be it? Could the landscape have been seen by one of her fathers? Could the memory have been passed on to her, like her distinctive hair and eyes? As far as she knows, none of the others of the colony have had that experience before. Certainly her mate Vass has not.
She settles by the frozen stream, smashes the thin covering of ice, and drinks from the cold water beneath. Surely this experience could be useful. Surely she must be able to remember other things that her ancestors saw and knew – things that would help the colony in its time of trouble. She must think.
Where is there food?
Where the stream comes out, comes the answer, in a lake full of fish, a lake that never freezes over even in the harshest of winters. She remembers that now.
Weary from her journey, but now filled with hope, Hrusha rises and walks heavily down the frozen soil of the valley following the winding stream between the dark rocky banks. Eventually the valley gives out and a plain stretches out before her. The blizzard has abated and she can now see for some distanc
That is what the colony needs to know. She turns to retrace her journey to the coast, and there in the distance she sees a figure corning towards her, a figure she seems to recognize. It is not Vass, is it? No. Vass does not have the knowledge that brought her here. It must be someone else who can remember this place from long before they were born. Someone else who has the ability – an ability forced to the surface by the jeopardy of the colony. The figure is closer now, and she sees that it is Kroff, the son of her cousin, a person she has always ignored since the two of them have never had anything in common.
That must change now. If Kroff has the knowledge, then he is a far more suitable mate for her than Vass ever was. This needs to be seriously considered.
* * *
Plenty of fruit is available in the tropical treetops, so there is nothing to worry about here. Like the extinct monkeys and apes, the tree-dweller (he has not the wit to consider himself as an individual let alone as a being with a name) climbs the vertical trunk through the luminous green of the leafy canopy, and scampers four-footed along a broad bough, forking on to a thinner branch and finally along slender waving twigs to reach the point where the bunches of fruit dangle invitingly. Hanging upside down now, he reaches outwards with his narrow prehensile fingers and delicately prises the bunch free from its stalk. Some fruits drop off, falling with a fading ‘plop, plop’ through the layers of leaves and twigs below, away to the forest depths. These are immediately forgotten, as he has secured enough for his needs.
This is his whole life. It is of no relevance to him that the equatorial tropical forest belt of the Earth is narrower now than it has been at any time within the last million years, that the cooler climates have been encroaching from the north and the south, bringing their windy grasslands and barren deserts with them. The only significance to him is the fact that when he is in the gloom of the lower branches he often sees, on the forest floor, bands of strange creatures moving purposefully in a particular direction. Since he rarely ventures down onto the floor anyway, he just ignores them.
The lost fruits, dented and bruised by their fall through the branches, at last thump softly down into the decaying plant matter of the forest soil. A group of gaunt long-legged plains-dwellers, uneasy and out of place in this strange environment, but driven from their grasslands by increasing cold and ravening packs of wild creatures, starts at the sudden noise. Then, when they see the fruit that has fallen, all four of them pounce upon it, scratching and tearing at one another in their attempts to reach it first.
This drama is completely irrelevant to the tree-dweller. There is always plenty to eat up in the sunny heights and he can leave the lower shades to those strange beings.
It is in the far north and the far south that the ice age is causing its havoc. Fluctuating icesheets and glaciers, together with unstable weather patterns, are forcing high- and middle-latitude inhabitants to resort to drastic measures and changes in lifestyle just in order to continue living, and encouraging genetic changes in body and mind that could not have endured if the environment had remained constant and unchanging. Here, in the tropical forest, however, things have not altered for thousands of years. The tree-dwellers have a constant supply of fruit and insects in their leafy canopies, so there is no need for them to move to new areas or to change in any way.
10,000 YEARS HENCE
* * *
10,000 YEARS HENCE
Two species form a single unit of value to both – symbiosis. The woodland-dwellers have skills that their carriers lack. The hunting ability of the swift forest-dweller provides enough food both for itself and its slow-moving carrier. The tundra-dweller, in turn, provides both with general movement and protection against the cold.
Lacking thick fur and insulating layers of fat, Moderator baiuli can only hunt in short bursts before needing to return to the body heat of its carrier. Communication is by touch.
* * *
The symbionts are marching.
A temporary and small retreat of the northern icecap has created vast new tundra areas over the northern continents. For the first time in 5000 years the rate of melting of the edge of the glaciers is exceeding their rate of southward movement. In effect, the edge of the icecap is melting back. Rocky debris, broken up by the weight of the ice and shoved along the ground by the southward movement, now lies in hummocks and thick beds of mixed clay and boulders. Here and there a long winding esker (a steep ridge of rubble marking the old course of a sub-glacial river) snakes across the plain. Huge lumps of abandoned ice embedded in the clay melt slowly, gradually becoming lakes.
Yet below the ice-free surface the soil is still permanently frozen. Little grows here, except for the hardy grasses and reeds along the sides of the lakes, and the mosses, lichens and heathers that form tussocks over the rocky soil. A way to the south lie the great forests, which are already spreading northwards into this newly-exposed land, with their outposts of stunted willows, birches and rowans, backed by the dark palisades of spruce and pine. It will be a short-lived advance if the ice moves south once more.
It is the domain of the symbionts. From a distance as they trek across the plain they look like the tundra-dwellers of old, but they seem to be bigger and rather top-heavy. A closer look shows them each to have two heads – a large one surrounded by the woolly ruff of blubber, with small eyes and large nostrils, and beneath the chin a smaller head with big ears and active, darting eyes. The herd consists of about 30 individuals, adult and juvenile. They follow the biggest, whose lower head seems to be looking around all the time for the best way to travel.
It stops, staring away into the distance. A dark flock of birds circles in the far sky, something that should be investigated. The leader’s arm shoots out in that direction – an amazingly slender arm for a creature of such a size – and it turns towards the distant flock. The rest of the herd turn as well, each one also shooting out an arm.
After a while they come to the site of the disturbance. Most of the birds are hawks, and every now and again one swoops to the ground and carries away something small and furry. There are small foxes there as well, but these turn and scatter as the symbionts approach. The cause of the activity is now visible before them. A mass of small rodents – lemmings – is on the move. Every now and again, in times of relative plenty, they breed prodigiously, until there are so many that the food in their area runs out. Then they move en masse to find new foraging regions. The symbionts have just come upon one such migration, a moving furry layer that stretches in a straight line along the ground towards a possible distant food source.
If the movement of the rodents is remarkable, what then happens to the symbionts is even more strange: about half of the individuals fall apart, literally. Each one resolves itself into two separate creatures. The huge hairy arms of the tundra-dweller that were clutched across its chest open up like doors, and to the ground drops a spindly figure – the owner of the second head and the pointing arm. The slimly-built creatures are running as soon as they hit the ground, and ten of them plunge into the moving mass of lemmings, snatching and killing as they go. The remaining symbionts, mostly females and young, stand watching, shouting encouragement in words and noises that only members of their own group can understand. The tundra-dweller shapes vacated by the hunters stand immobile and silent.
After a while the hunters gather up the rodents that they have killed and bring them back to the group. They are handed around to the figures clutched to the bosoms of the tundra-dwellers. Then each hunter returns to its own tundra-dweller/carrier and, with a touch and a word, it is gathered up into the great arms. For a while they eat. Each lemming is partly eaten by the being at the symbiont’
This strange state of affairs began thousands of years ago. When the hunters (the humans that had been engineered to live in the temperate forests) spread out to hunt on the tundra, with the coming of the current ice age they had to adopt all kinds of strategies to keep themselves warm and to survive. Some found that they could live close to the dull tundra-dwellers and share their body heat. The tundra-dwellers did not mind this, if the hunters shared their food with them. So the symbiotic situation gradually developed, until now the hunters could not travel by themselves in the tundra and these particular tundra-dwellers would not be able to survive on their own.
Once the food is eaten, the group sets off again. The smaller hunters can talk to one another, using a simple language, but each communicates with its tundra-dweller/ carrier by nudges and gestures – a pointing of the arm is enough to tell the carrier to go, and which way. They follow the lemming march, as there will be good eating here for a day or two.