Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, page 8
In fact, in outward appearance he resembles the ancestral human being. Inside his long body, however, his digestive system contains special organs for treating particularly tough food, and self-sustaining colonies of specialized bacteria that can break down tough silica and cellulose, allowing him to digest just about anything that he swallows.
His mind, though, is dull. That was part of the plan as well, as it had been believed that such a creature would survive better without the typical human power of logic and reasoning. Its food was all around it, so it would not need to experiment, to try to make its life more efficient, since its environment would sustain it perfectly adequately. The prototype worked so well that many others were engineered, and now there are self-sustaining colonies throughout the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere.
Nevertheless, Hoot now finds something new in his forest. On top of the hill, close to his own trees, there has always been an array of glistening things, like the leaves of a tree, but bigger and square. Hoot has always known that something big exists deep within the hill, connected to these strange things. A minor sense that came to the surface when his ancestor’s furry pelt was engineered was sensitivity to electrical fields: a tingling of his hair roots tells him when he is in the presence of electrical machinery. He understands none of this, of course, but he knows that this sense tells him that something important lies beneath the hill; and this something big is important to the lumpy creatures that he has always thought of as some kind of distant relation to his own people.
An unfamiliar noise and increased electrical disturbance has brought him to the hill this morning. Flying things came in from all round the sky and descended, disgorging more lumpies than there are woodlice in his tree. Sometimes when his own people are angry with one another – say, if he wants to mate with the same female as somebody else – he can sense the tension in the air. Anger and hatred are obvious and can be communicated without noise, and it is the same here. Hundreds of lumpies have collected together and they are angry. They want to get into the hill, and are pushing at the door.
Eventually they break through, and other lumpies come out and tackle them. Hoot has never seen such a fight – dozens of lumpies tearing away at one another, pulling each other apart, stamping each other into the ground. His own people do not do things like that.
Eventually the battle moves on, into the hill. The noise and the chaos retreat underground, leaving the soil littered with dead.
Stealthily, Hoot descends from his tree and scampers over to the site. The first dead lumpy is still warm, and oozing blood. He sniffs all around the corpse, using his selective sense of smell to ignore the main odours and concentrate on the smells that seem most interesting. He lowers his mouth to the seeping wound and, experimentally, licks the blood. It is good. He licks some more, using his tongue as an organ of touch, to find the parts that may be palatable. Then he starts drinking.
His digestive system was designed to absorb almost anything. This is as big a feast as he has seen in many a day, and the others of his kind should have a part of it.
Rearing up to his full height, he lets fly his own recognition yodel, summoning all of his brethren who are within earshot. It looks as if this is going to be an easier winter than last.
As he hears the crashing and scampering of his relatives approaching through the leaves and undergrowth he turns back to his feast. With a feeling of contentment he sinks his teeth into the synthetic flesh and artificial organs of the creature before him.
* * *
THE END OF DURIAN SKEEL
Some things just cannot be predicted, Durian Skeel muses; but he knew that the end would come as something like this. Mankind has built defences against everything that nature can inflict. Throughout human history the waste products of civilization built up and poisoned the air, the seas and the land. When the damage became too much to bear, technology was brought in and in the end halted the process. Nature repaired the damage eventually. Now processes have been found that produce little or no waste; but it has not been enough.
Climates have been gradually changing for ages. Now mankind can shelter away in artificial habitats, immune to the changes in weather conditions; but it has not been enough.
Only so much food can be grown or manufactured. The only way to guard against shortages has been to regulate population, so that there are never too many people for the available resources; but it has not been enough.
There are the larger-scale processes that mankind can do nothing about, no matter how sophisticated the technology. The moon goes around the Earth. The Earth goes around the sun. The movement of the Earth’s metallic core generates the magnetic field that has subtle influences on everything on its surface.
It has always been known from the geological record that the magnetic field changes. At times in the past there has been a magnetic north pole at the geographic north pole and a magnetic south pole at the geographic south. At other times there has been a magnetic south pole at the geographic north and vice versa. It has never been fully understood how these change, when they change and how long the change takes to occur. There must be times, during the changeover, when there is no magnetic field whatsoever, and this must have an influence on just about everything.
The Earth is undergoing just such a change now, and there is no magnetic field. The most obvious effect is on the technology of transportation and navigation. With no magnetic field the compasses and everything that works on a compass principle must cease to function. There are natural processes of navigation as well: most creatures have organs, sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field, which help them to find their way about. The mechanics of fish and bird migration and the homing processes of bees have been disrupted and are now ceasing to work.
Humans have this ability too, but it has never really been used. Only now that the field has collapsed is its absence noticed, with even the most sensible and level-headed of people becoming confused about direction and time and many other subtle things. In the natural world this should not really matter, since the magnetic effect is relatively minor, and most animals navigate by the sun and the stars. However, with no magnetic field the ozone layer of the atmosphere breaks down – just as in the bad old days of pollution. This allows for deeper penetration into the atmosphere by ultra-violet solar radiation, upsetting the normal climatic patterns and producing abnormal wind circulation and hence abnormal ocean currents. The resulting overcast skies break down any biological stellar navigation systems.
On top of all that, there is the harmful biological effect of ultra-violet rays: burns and skin cancers develop wherever the sun does shine through, and birth abnormalities are increasing to well above normal levels. Then there is the disruption of radio waves through cosmic interference. Each human community is now effectively isolated from any other – denied both the exchange of information and physical travel.
Modern civilization and technology are not tuned into any of this. Durian Skeel knew that all this was going to happen, and he tried to warn people from the start. They would not listen.
He takes a grim satisfaction in the knowledge that he, and only he, foresaw the collapse of human civilization. Its death would be slow, from a human point of view, but rapid and catastrophic in the historical scale. Eventually the magnetic field will re-establish itself, with the opposite polarity to before. It may be within months, or it may take decades, but it will be too late to rescue civilization as it hurtles downwards into rubble.
He is not waiting. Purposefully and methodically he disconnects each of his life-support devices and lapses into peaceful oblivion.
* * *
The earth’s electromagnetic field fails as the magnetic poles reverse. On land migration ceases and at sea, as a result of changes to the ozone layer, the ocean currents change as wind patterns are altered. Beneath the waves, giant generators fall silent to be colonized by sealife.
* * *
Beneath the tumult
This may be a good thing for them. They do not now need to travel so far to find their food, and the new children that are born seem to have a better chance of survival now that food is more available. What is more the knowledge has gone out across the seabed, and aquas from other areas are moving in. It looks as if the population is growing quite fast in this area, and they no longer travel in small family groups. A whole interactive society may develop in this region, with all the advantages which that entails. Things may change from now on.
2000 YEARS HENCE
* * *
2000 YEARS HENCE
Homo glacis fabricatus
Mosses, lichens and heathers provide the slow-moving tundra-dwellers with their diet. A hook-like nail on the foot, developed from the main toe, scrapes up moss and also provides a grip on the snow. Migratory by nature, the dwellers move to open tundra each summer but winter deep in the forests. As with all migrations it is the old, the weak and the young who fall prey to predators.
The five engineered forms do not perceive each other as members of the same species. When different types meet, they do so as competitors and enemies; or else ignore one another as irrelevant.
* * *
RUMM THE FOREST-DWELLER
Still it becomes colder. This is obvious even to a being of such dim perception as Rumm. His favourite hollow has not yet cleared of snow, and already the sun has passed its high point. From now on, for the rest of the year, the days will become shorter and the air colder. Therefore the snow will not melt at all.
It is going to be far more difficult to find food. Although his intellect is basic, his senses are acute enough when food needs to be located.
His mate and his children are safe from the cold in their hollow-tree den, but they will soon be hungry. They may need to move away, to follow the sun like all the others in the area have done. Rumm has always resisted that because his instincts told him that if everybody else moves away all remaining food will be left for himself and his family. So far this philosophy has worked. The gathering of food has become more and more difficult, but there has been enough to keep them alive. Now he is not so sure. If the snow does not melt, then little will grow during the rest of the year.
He gathers the twigs and branches of the scrubby bushes rising above the snowy ground cover. With a prickly armful he turns back towards his den. The leaves will be bitter and tough, but at least they will be edible.
He surmounts a ridge, and glimpses a group of people below him.
Fast as a blink, he drops his branches and falls to the ground, off the skyline. What are people doing here? Everybody in the area has moved away, following the sun.
Stealthily he moves back up the slope and peers cautiously over the top. They are people, all right, but quite unlike any people he has ever seen. Their bodies are padded out with fat, and their hair is dense and curly. There are thick rolls of flesh around their necks and wrists, and their faces are broad, with enormous nostrils but tiny eyes. There are about ten of them and they are moving towards the sun.
It is as if lthese creatures have come from an even colder place, and they are following the sunshine, just as Rumm’s people have done.
Are they really people? They have a body, two arms, two legs, just like Rumm, but apart from that they are quite different, with their furs and their fatty rolls. They are also from a different place, so they cannot be people, like him.
They must, then, be animals.
The coarse leaves and twigs forgotten, Rumm waits until the group has crossed the open ground and moved into the wispy trees. Then he scampers down the slope towards their track, taking advantage of any cover that lies in the way. Their smudgy footprints in the snow make their trail easy to follow. Silently, as he does when he is stalking birds, he creeps up on the rear of the party, waiting for stragglers. There are none. They are moving as a tight compact group.
After a while the party comes across the stream that runs through the valley, tinkling along coldly between transparent shelves of ice. They pay it no heed, but move onwards, except for one youngster. Unnoticed by its group, it goes down onto its knees by the chilly water, scoops some up in its broad palm and begins to drink. The remainder of the group presses onwards.
This is Rumm’s chance. Silently he pounces upon its back and the youngster stiffens beneath him and gives out a single, high-pitched plaintive yell, like one of his own babies crying.
That yell almost stops the attack, so human is it; but he presses home his advantage. Throwing his hand over the creature’s broad nose and mouth, stifling the unnerving noise, he wrenches its head backwards, into the folds of its neck. A cracking noise tells Rumm that the move has been satisfactorily fatal, and the body goes limp.
The yell has alerted the rest of the group, who turn back and with cries of anger descend upon Rumm and his victim. It is too late, though. The forest-dweller has hoisted the dead creature onto his shoulder and disappeared into the snowy thickets. As he goes, he hears the noises of anger behind him, and hears them change into wails of anguish and loss.
What has he done? Creatures that can feel loss so acutely, and can make such sounds of despair – surely they must be people after all? The wailing fades and disappears behind him, but it will remain long in his memory. It will come back to him in quiet moments, or when he is concentrating on something else; and for many a day he will feel sorrow and sympathy with these strange beings. What has he done?
He has fed his family, that is what he has done. With a more confident stride he makes his way with his prize back to his mate and his children in their hollow-tree den. They will see the winter through all right now.
* * *
LARN THE PLAINS-DWELLER
Larn strides across the grassy plains at the head of his tribe. Not far off he sees a thicket of bushes and thorn trees that he does not trust. Another group of plains-dwellers met danger at such a clump not long ago when a pack of some new kind of animal burst from within, taking them by surprise, and killing three of their number before the rest could escape.
Larn had thought about this incident for some time, and it made him uneasy. He had noticed that the other animals, the little animals of the grassy plains, had their enemies. There was always strife and death in the undergrowth, but not for the plains-dwellers. He had always assumed that this was because the plains-dwellers were the largest creatures around. They had no enemies. The plains were theirs, and theirs alone.
As a result the populations of plains-dwellers are growing and growing. As a lad, Larn could remember travelling with his tribe for days on end, and not meeting any others. Now other tribes are seen daily, and each one seems to be becoming bigger and bigger.
In one part of his mind Larn feels pride at this; his people are the masters of this landscape, and they should spread and fill it. Another, quieter part of him rebels, however. If there are more and more plains-dwellers as time goes by, will there always be enough grass to feed them all?
He turns and looks back at this tribe, and counts them: ten females, all his mates; five young males, that have latched on from other tribes; six of his children, almost adult; twelve of his juvenile children; and two old females, members of the original tribes of two of his mates. He took responsibility for these when he chose the females from those tribes.
It was the two old females that kept the tribe moving slowly. They all had the long legs with muscular thighs and tapering feet that allowed them to run quickl
The children enjoy it, though, he muses as he watches them scamper and gambol through the long yellow grasses of the open plain.
Suddenly there is a hideous howling and baying noise from the suspicious thicket. He had let his mind wander and had forgotten the danger that the other tribe had faced.
With a yelled warning he brings the whole tribe together, but the youngsters are scattered too far. A crashing noise issues from the thicket and about ten indistinct forms burst out and streak through the grass. One of his children is brought down with a crash and a flurry of dust and broken plant stems.
Without thinking, for the moment, of his loss and grief he runs about, rounding up the others, trying to get them to crowd together, instinctively knowing that a large group is stronger.
He is dimly aware that the others are doing their best as well. The young males have rushed together in defence of the younger females and the juveniles. They stand shoulder to shoulder while the others sprint into the distance.