Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, page 14
Like them it has a black skin, but the skin is completely smooth and hairless. The head is like that of a fish, with big eyes that do not seem to be functioning in air. The mouth is huge and gaping. No neck separates the bulbous head from the streamlined body. Gills on the chest flap ineffectively, and the body narrows to a paddled tail. It is the arms, however, that are most remarkable: they are human arms, complete with hands and fingers. The thing flaps about on the beach pathetically as it slowly dies of suffocation.
The sea creature has devised some means of coming onto land and bringing its own environment with it. If these islands are now the domain of these creatures it is going to be difficult to settle here, for they have proved to be undeniably hostile.
Moreover, what will happen when the boatbuilders’ pursuers arrive?
1 MILLION YEARS HENCE
* * *
ONE MILLION YEARS HENCE
Communication between hunter and carrier has been simplified to a telepathic link – the huge slow-moving tundra-dwellers controlled directly by the weaker but agile-minded hunters. Fights, when they happen, are usually ritual. Death is unexpected.
As the icecaps retreated, the symbiont tundra-dwellers – Baiulus moderatorum – retreated, living at high altitudes and near the poles. Nowhere else is there a suitable environment.
* * *
HUNTERS AND CARRIERS
The leader starts from his sleep because his carrier is uttering grunts of alarm. Dawn is almost here, and the sun is already shining on the highest snow-clad peaks of the range, although the valleys are still in deep purple shadow. The mountain birds have set up their calling and the short grass beneath him is damp with dew, but his fine pelt keeps him from the chill.
What has disturbed his carrier?
He unwinds his long limbs from around his female and rises to his spindly legs in the cold half-light. Most of the rest of his clan, hunters and carriers, are asleep. He can see the hunters, huddling in pairs or with their children on the slope. The huge white shaggy forms of the carriers are more visible, forming a loose defensive circle around the group. His own carrier, whom he thinks of as Oyo, is awake and alert, disturbed by something that he cannot see.
Could it be one of the distant creatures from the far lowlands? It is not really likely, since they rarely come this far up the mountains, particularly at this time of year. Nor is it likely to be one of the big birds. They do not attack so early in the morning.
On all fours (his usual posture) the leader trots around the group to check that all is well, and realizes that he is not the only one awake. At the far side of the circle two hunters are mating, with gentle noises. He looks around and, true enough, their carriers are mating too – a rougher exercise accompanied by hoarse grunts. Certainly nothing is amiss here.
He scrambles over to where his carrier stands, a white silent dutiful column. Without a word he scrambles up the fur and onto its back, resting his narrow chin upon its usual spot on the broad cranium. The massive shaggy arms come up and clutch him firmly. Now he can communicate by thought, without clumsy language.
With thought he commands the great Oyo to turn slowly so that he can scan the lightening landscape. He does not realize it, but this is far from the landscape of his ancestors. The hunters and the tundra-dwellers first came together on the chill wastelands bordering the retreating northern icecap. The tundra-dwellers were well adapted to the cold, and their great bodies could generate enough heat to keep the slim-limbed hunters warm. The hunters for their part were nimble enough to catch the most evasive of food, and to catch enough to feed both of them. Together they made up more than the sum of each. There is no icecap left now and no tundra, and nowhere in the lowlands are there any environments that suit them; the forests and woodlands are more suited to different humanoid creatures altogether. Only in a few places, on chilly peaks and in cool mountain valleys, are conditions still right. In these isolated places the symbionts linger, marooned as the colder conditions withdrew up the mountains, and towards the pole where they disappeared.
Nevertheless there is still a good living in the mountains: plenty of small mammals and birds for the hunters to hunt for themselves and to share with their carriers, and plenty of grasses, mosses and lichens for the carriers to scrape up and share with their hunters. Hunters and carriers mate at the same time – the mating of a pair of hunters inducing mating in their respective carriers, and vice versa. This usually results in the birth of a hunter baby at the same time as a carrier baby. Both babies are carried by the parent carriers for about six years, at the end of which the young Hunters choose their own carrier of the same age and same sex.
The family groups move with the seasons, from the grassy slopes of the valleys in the winter and spring to the flower-strewn bluffs and crags of the peaks in the summer and autumn. The habitable areas, although productive, are few and scattered, and the tribes of symbionts have their own ranges.
Down the brightening slope, with the grey mist of the valley behind it, stands a stranger. That is what had disturbed Oyo: the massive shape of a carrier, with the squat hummock of a hunter lying over its shoulders and head.
With a burst of thought the leader asks Oyo if it recognizes the newcomer, but the dim-witted reply is inconclusive (direct questions like this between hunter and carrier rarely yield anything useful). The stranger strides purposefully up the hill towards them.
It is a challenge. Evidently this is a rogue male, thrown out of a clan, possibly even thrown out of the leader’s own clan some time in the past. Wherever it came from its intentions are now clear. With thin yells and reedy shouts – strange noises to be coming from the huge bulk of a symbiont – the newcomer utters its threats and challenges. The leader replies in like voice.
The result is ritual. The hunters pull themselves back from the great heads of their carriers, and hang on tightly with their own hands to the long fur of the shoulders and back. This frees the carriers’ arms for the combat. Then, spurred on by the hunter’s thoughts, the great carriers that bear them wade into each other, striking, slapping and pushing with the flats of their vast hands.
Most of the blows land harmlessly on the great areas of muscle and fur on the chest and forearms. An occasional blow that lands on the face brings blood from the nose or the lip, but does no serious damage. This sparring will continue until one of the combatants, usually the attacker, tires and turns away, or else falls over separating hunter from carrier.
On this occasion the combat is quite predictable. Although the attacker’s carrier is big (bigger than Oyo, in fact) the hunter does not have the mental skill to guide its blows and punches to best effect. If, by chance, he did become the leader of the clan, its future would not look good. Mental skill is needed by a leader in order to judge the timing of the fruiting of food plants, and to plan the routes of migration.
This time, however, the leader’s mental agility is not proving to be enough to counteract the strength of the attack. Oyo is cringing in pain from the bruises and cuts from the blows which the opponent’s carrier is hammering down with particular ferocity. The sharpness of the pain and fear is picked up by the leader, through the same nerves and ganglions along which he gives Oyo his orders.
It is no good! He is going to have to step down. Oyo will die if this continues, so after all these years he must relinquish the leadership of the clan. He had not anticipated anything like this. Yesterday he was at the height of his powers and virility; now he must give way to a younger symbiont. He will live out his days as an old and revered clan member, nothing else.
He steps back and turns round, presenting his naked back to his opponent: the age-old sign of surrender. The clan now belongs to the attacker.
What happens then is totally unexpected, and quite against any tradition. The opponent’s carrier seizes him by the exposed neck and shoulder with its huge hands. Strange thoughts and emotions burst through him from the cont
The leader is torn free from Oyo’s fur and flung onto the ground. The flood of alien thoughts ceases, as do the sensations of pain and panic from Oyo. It is just as well. The attacking carrier brings down its great hands on Oyo’s back and shoulders, flinging the dear creature to the ground, and wrenches back its head, breaking its neck.
The silence that follows is not just the silence of the horrified clan, who have been roused from their sleep and are watching the fight earnestly. Nor is it the silence of the hillside, produced when the birds are quietened by the violence of alarming events. It is the aching silence of loneliness.
Oyo is gone. Half of the leader’s being is dead, and the other half must follow soon. He can no longer be a part of the clan, but must seek out a life of his own and exist as best he can.
This is always a failure. A hunter without a carrier, like a carrier without a hunter, is always dead within a few days.
Yet cutting through the searing grief is an even more troubling thought. The clan – his clan – is now in the charge of a symbiont that consists of a powerful violent carrier that cannot be controlled by its hunter. The hunter, as well as being weak, does not have the mental versatility to lead a clan. That much was evident during the fight. It is not just his own death and that of Oyo he mourns, but the death of his entire clan and family.
* * *
ONE MILLION YEARS HENCE
As the aquatics spend more time on land, their tough protective bubbles refine and become more efficient. Eventually the gel becomes form-fitting, holding the thinnest layer of life-giving seawater against the aquatic’s body. This covering is enough to keep the skin moist, and to absorb oxygen from the air which is then absorbed through the gills. A steady increase in population among the aquatics has led to food shortages and famine. With the sea stripped bare, the aquatics face a hostile environment.
The flexible envelope is made of gelatinous algae filaments and filled with seawater. Its close fit allows more freedom of movement than the earlier bubble.
With food in short supply competition between species becomes, literally, a matter of life and death. Once out of the water, aquatics labour under their own weight.
* * *
There is no more food growing here; it has all heen cleared out. The ravaged soil has scraggy shoots sticking out of it, but it will be a long time before these grow and bear anything worth eating. Dead tree trunks stand gaunt and stripped, harsh splintery wood, killed by greed – no, not by greed, by necessity. The leaves had to be taken to feed the aquatics, but now the trek from the sea to the food is becoming longer and longer.
Ghloob peers through the watery film and the gelatinous envelope over his eyes. This work is dangerous and unpleasant, but the days of easy and pleasant life disappeared long before his birth. It is said that once the sea, their home, supplied all their needs, but then their numbers became too many, and all the food was gone. Famine raged. Whole populations perished and sank into the dark deeps. Sometimes after famine, the fish, krill and plankton would return, but this food source was never enough. As soon as it came back it was exploited and destroyed once more. Nothing can be done about it: if they want to survive they haye to eat; if they eat they lose what they have and die.
It is as if there can never be a balance. They live there but they intrude on the natural system of things; and nothing that they do will make it any better.
Now they are exploiting the land as well, thanks to to the algal mats that they have developed. Filamentous algae forming a fine mesh, impervious to water but permeable to air, can be induced to make shapes that will hold water. An aquatic can ascend from the ocean into the harsh sunlight and thin air above, still immersed in seawater, but contained in a flexible gelatinous envelope of algae filaments. Air passing through the envelope keeps the water aerated, and the aquatic neither desiccates nor suffocates, as long as the envelope holds.
Progress has heen considerable. When the technique was first developed the envelope had to he spherical, holding a vast quantity of water. The adventurous aquatic moved along in this, rolling the squashy sphere around him, a cumbersome process. Now, and Ghloob cannot rememher when it was otherwise, the envelope is form-fitting. Only the thinnest of water layers surrounds him and protects him from the harsh world of the outside. Movement is still difficult, though, and always will be. He feels his own weight – an unknown sensation in his natural home – and he must pull his elongated body along the ground with his arms. If he is carrying something, he must wriggle along as best he can. Then he has to take care that the jagged denuded ground does not rip the envelope. No, this is not natural.
It has been good enough, though, to allow the aquatics to exploit all the lands that border the ocean. They sweep them clean of any growing or living thing, and do not give anything time to regrow. The teeming populations below the waves cannot wait.
In the distance, glimpsed hazily through the algal membrane, loom shapes that could be trees, or they could just as well be naked rocks. Aquatics had no colour vision built into them when they were engineered, and none has evolved since.
He cannot communicate with his companions, but he hopes that his actions will be clear. He humps his long body, in its glistening envelope, in the direction of the shapes. The three others that are like him turn and follow. The fourth, the one encased in the spherical bubble that looks like one of the originals, is guided along by them. It is he who will enfold and carry home any food that they find.
They are travelling up a slope, which is not good. Distance from the sea is one thing, but height above its surface is another matter altogether. The aquatics live happily with the pressures experienced in the top layers of the ocean, but they are under considerable strain when exposed to the reduced pressures above the surface. To go any higher would produce all sorts of unwelcome effects in their tissues. An abrupt contour line, above which vegetation grows freely in many parts of the world, marks the limit of aquatic exploitation.
Beyond this contour line live the land people – strange beings who neither understand nor tolerate the aquatics.
There are the tree-dwellers, of whom the aquatics know little. They keep themselves in the branches away above. Aquatics rarely look upwards (it is difficult for them to do so), and so these beings are rarely seen.
Then there are the ground-dwellers. Savage and hostile, they feed in the undergrowth and the long-growing vegetation – the very materials that the aquatics harvest. Gangs of them have been known to burst out of hiding and set themselves upon harvesting groups, tearing at their protective membranes with claws and teeth, and sometimes inflicting some damage.
There is also the massive compound being, a huge basic creature, bloated and misshapen, lumbering through the forests with four or five spindly little figures attached to it, embedded in it, seeming to live off its flesh. These beings cause no trouble; in fact, they sometimes blunder out into harvesting parties where they are particularly vulnerable. In the open they are easily brought down and the moving reef of flesh can be killed by blows from an agile aquatic or drowned by being dragged within a membrane. The small attached creatures – tiny wizened bodies with spindly crablike legs and enormous mouths – become strangely pathetic without their mount and scuttle clumsily for cover. There is good eating on the fat creature and it is always borne back to the sea as a prize.
Finally there are the fighters, which are a menace, because they seem quite at home on the devastated areas left behind after harvesting. Their home is in the drier parts of the landmasses, where little grows anyway. They are organized, and many dozen can attack at once, moving as a single entity as if controlled by a single mind. Their forelimbs are cruel cutting weapons that can slice through a living membrane with a blow and kill the aq
The shapes prove to be trees after all, but the undergrowth beneath them is patchy, curled and dead. Since the area down to the ocean has been devastated and left open to the sky, the air moving off the sea has swept in through the branches and between the trunks, drying up and battering the fragile stems and shrivelling up the leaves. Loose sand and dust from the bare lands has gusted in, suffocating the more delicate types. There is little to be harvested here, but what there is must be taken.
Ghloob and his companions reach out their hands through the membranes and snatch up whatever is growing. Anything that is organic, and contains proteins and carbohydrates, can be used as the basis for food, however tough, however unpalatable. Bundles of leaves, stems, sticks, insects, slugs – anything – are caught up and passed into the sphere of the gathering aquatic. Small punctures in the membranes, like those caused when hands pass through, seal up immediately and there is little or no moisture loss.
Before long the cache within the spherical bubble has become quite large; large enough to take back. The five of them turn to make their laborious way back to their ocean home, glistening welcomingly away on the horizon.