Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, page 9
Then he comes across a horrible sight. One of the old females lies dead, her throat torn. Over her stands a hideous and misshapen, yet strangely familiar, figure. It is almost like a plains-dweller, but it does not have the long legs, its belly is not so round and its teeth are not so massive. These must be the strange new creatures that have moved onto the plains.
It is staring at him, the female’s blood dribbling down its chin. Its eyes are grey and steady, it bares its teeth, and then it pounces. As a reflex, Larn brings down the cutting edge of his left hand, thrusting it into the soft flesh of the creature’s neck, killing it instantly. So they are not invulnerable, Larn thinks with triumph; we can kill them.
Then another dark shape crashes into his back, sinking its teeth into his neck, and as he falls into the dust he realizes his mistake. He should have run, like the young females. These creatures have cunning and hunting skill, but they do not have speed.
If plains-dwellers are to continue to be the masters of the plains, they must learn to keep clear of these monsters. Speed is going to be their saving, but it is too late for him.
* * *
2000 YEARS HENCE
Developed in the earliest centuries of genetic engineering as a refinement to the aquamorphs, the aquatics were the first group to carry hereditary genetic changes. Clumsy and vulnerable on land, the sea is now their instinctive habitat. Piscanthropus submarinus can move swiftly and powerfully within water. The ocean provides food and does not vary its temperature as swiftly as air – valuable when the increasing cold forces land-based species such as Homo virgultis fabricatus into adaptation or retreat.
Even with long toes and fine balance, the temperate woodland-dweller has to move carefully across the slippery rocks. Curiosity proves stronger than its fear of falling.
* * *
COOM’S NEW FRIEND
The tide seems to be going out further these days. Coom is only a young lad, but he is sure that he can remember when the water came right up to the cliffs. Yes, sure enough, there is still a line of whitened tree-trunks and bleached sticks, the remains of debris brought up by the waves long ago. His father is much older than he is, and can probably remember when the sea came right up to the foot of the cliff all the time. He might even remember it washing to the top of those austere stone faces.
Now the water is well out, leaving pools and puddles amongst the slippery, weed-covered rock. It will return, before the day is out, but it will not come anywhere near the cliffs. Coom thinks that it probably never will again.
He drops to all fours by the nearest of the rock-pools. The empty woven-reed bag flops onto the cold rocks beside him. Nothing much in the water here. Further down, towards the edge of the sea, the pools will be more alive.
Here he has to be careful. The rocks are wet, weed-coated and slippery; and they are very cold beneath his feet. Now the cracks in the rocks are full of winkles, limpets lie flat and immobile against the wet algae-clad stone, and crabs scuttle and hide in the clear waters of the pools. With his long fingers, Coom pulls the shelly creatures away from their rocks, and dips into the cold waters for the crabs and sea-anemones. It is meagre fare, and even when his bag is full it will not give very much nourishment to this family.
He straightens up and looks back towards the cliff. There, in one of the caves along the foot, live his parents and his three brothers and sisters. It is a good thing, he thinks, that the sea does not come up to the cliffs any more. He and his family would be washed away.
He is far enough down the beach now to see the mountains rising beyond the cliff. They are white, and have been for some time. He can remember, when he was very very little, that sometimes they were green and purple. It is snow and ice that covers them, he knows that. Even the rocks and the cliff are covered in snow and ice now and again. Then a sudden thought strikes him – snow and ice are made of water, so could it be that, with so much more snow and ice over the land, the water has been taken from the sea – and that is why the sea does not come up to the cliff any more?
A loud splash from behind him breaks his train of thought. Something big trapped in a pool! He turns quickly. At first he thinks it is a fish, but he has never seen a fish as big as that. Then he thinks it is one of his family who having slipped in is finding it difficult to get out, but no. It is neither of these.
It seems to be something in between.
The creature rises half-way out of the water. It has a face like his, with eyes, a nose and a mouth; but the eyes are enormous, the nose a pair of slits, and the mouth a vast downturned feature between huge fleshy lips. It has arms and hands, but the rest of the body is indistinct in the water. It seems to be smooth and shining.
Coom stares at the apparition, and it stares back at him. The great mouth begins to work, and sounds come out. It is trying to say something.
Is it dangerous? No, Coom does not think so; in a strange way it is almost like himself. He says a few words back to it, one or two of the few words that he and his family use, but that is no good. Whatever it is does not understand. Instead Coom tentatively reaches out his hand; the odd creature reaches out its own hand, and the two touch.
A friend! Coom has found a friend outside his family.
He lets drop the strange slippery hand, and turns to run back to the cave to tell everybody, full of joy and surprise at his discovery. His father is there, at the entrance, cracking open and scooping out a shellfish that the others of the family have brought him. Coom goes running up to him, grunting out his news. His father is all attention, as are his older brothers.
The result is unexpected. Coom is snarled at to move out of the way, then thrust into the cave while the others run off down the beach towards the sea.
That is not right, thinks Coom, that is not how it should have happened. They do not seem at all pleased about the new friend. He is not going to stay in the cave while all this is happening, so he runs down the rocks after them; but he is too late.
Already his father and his brothers are throwing rocks and bleached sticks at his new friend, and shouting the most hideous threats.
The strange creature, in panic, has pulled itself out of its rock-pool, and is wriggling its way across the clammy weed and cold rocks towards the waves in blind terror, bleating out strange sounds as it goes. Coom stops. He does not want to be any closer, and see in more detail. He can imagine the weals and bruises on the glossy body, the blood from the fresh cuts, the look of anguish and pain on the outlandish face. He can only hope that the strange being reaches the water before his father and his brothers.
With sadness he watches it slip into the waves, beyond the gesturing figures of his family. A flip of the fin-like tail and it is gone.
Well, his father must be always right. Coom considers the matter. He must have done wrong to try to befriend it in the first place. It is obvious that his people, the people of the land and the creatures of the sea will never be anything but enemies.
* * *
YEROK AND THE TOOL
They are not going to be able to stay much longer. Old Yerok knows that the tribe is finished in this area. They will move on somewhere else, probably to a place owned by another tribe, and where the Tool is of no use at all.
He looks down at the clay model inside his shelter. It has taken him all his life to build, and now that life is almost finished it is becoming useless as well. The boxes, holes and chambers are an accurate reproduction of what has been found beneath the gravel and sand across the plain, but soon the whole thing – original and model – will be engulfed.
Every year the waters change. The rivers flow out of the ice wall and wash across the plain to the distant sea, splitting, crossing one another and rejoining, amongst the shifting pattern of gravel banks, sand bars and clay pans. They change their courses continually. This has always happened; the tribe is accustomed to it. Now, however, the ice wall is creeping out so far it is spreading over the pla
Beneath the gravel, the sand and the clay, lies the Mystery. It was built by people a long time ago, and it was built to live in. Yerok can tell that by the pictures that he has found in it. Then it was destroyed by the sea, which he can tell by the layers of sand and mud that fill the rooms, chambers and passages, and the old seashells that cluster on the crumbling walls and the red powdery metalwork. Other people lived there afterwards, once the sea had retreated again, probably digging into it like his own tribe does. He can tell this by the skeletons piled in the mud layers above, that have to be shifted every time they dig downwards with the Tool.
The skeletons are of people, but of people quite unlike those of his tribe. His own people have longer arms and longer fingers and toes, as though they were designed to climb on things – rocks or even trees. Their teeth are bigger, as though they were meant to chew harder foods. Yerok feels a great sympathy with these old people, guessing that when he is dead, and that occurrence is not too far away, his skeleton will be found to be more like that of one of these ancient people than that of one of his own tribe.
He has known that for years, but of course nobody else noticed. He was born different, as if he were actually the son of a very distant ancestor, but one who had lain dormant, generation after generation, and only reappeared with Yerok’s birth. His resulting greater intellect soon made him the leader of the tribe, and he led them into peaceful and plentiful times. It is his one great sadness that his children do not take after him: they are all the same long-armed, long-fingered, dull-witted, instinctively-acting creatures as their mothers.
He has always known there were riches to be found in the old dwelling places buried beneath the gravels of the plain. He built the Tool, and used it to dig into the sediments to find them. Now all the tribes within marching distance have drinking bowls, clothing and footwear, extracted from this plain by his tribe and traded for food.
Soon all that will be finished. The ice has been encroaching on the plain for as long as he can remember. In the gloom of his shelter he leans on his digging Tool and looks down at the meticulously-crafted clay model of the layout of the ancient dwellings – the model he uses to determine which part of the area the tribe should dig in next. Some of the places are gone already; those to one side have now been buried by the ice. The ice surge this coming winter will probably cover and obliterate the Mystery for ever.
Not only that, but the tribe is drifting apart. His two eldest sons, Hrut and Gultha, detest one another, both wanting to lead the tribe once he has gone. No amount of training will persuade them that it will be in the interest of all if they compromise. His death will be a sad blow for the tribe, and for all the other tribes in the area that benefited from the trading.
His death comes so suddenly that he has no time to recognize its approach. Hrut, silently behind him, brings down a rounded boulder from the gravel banks upon his head, and instantly obliterates the one force that has lifted the tribe out of the surrounding savagery. The body that once held the last spark of civilization, a throwback to a sophistication that once was, falls limply into the clay plan of the ancient city, crushing the delicate walls and collapsing the whole intricate network.
With a cry of triumph Hrut grabs up the Tool. With this symbol he is now the master.
A shadow appears in the doorway of the shelter. It is Hrut’s brother Gultha. Despite the slowness of his mind he sees instantly what has happened, and growls out a challenge. Hrut swings up the Tool in a wide arc, catching Gultha across the face and neck, and sending him staggering backwards to collapse bleeding on the gravel. He leaps out into the chill blue daylight and chops downwards with the Tool, until he is sure that Gultha is dead.
Then he stops to catch his breath. He is truly the leader now. He shakes the bloodstained trophy in the air in triumph – he has discovered the true function of the Tool.
5000 YEARS HENCE
* * *
He will be known as Trancer. He really has no name, since neither he nor his people have sophisticated speech, and so cannot think of themselves or of each other in terms of words. They have, however, a deep commitment and affection for members of their own group. Co-operation is necessary in the bleak mid-latitude tundra and coniferous forest where they live. To the north lie the snows and glaciers of the vast icecap; to the south, beyond the narrow belt of conifers, lies the vast sweep of cold steppe. There may be more habitable places beyond the chill grasslands, but they are too far away to contemplate.
The gnawing cold of winter is reaching downwards again, and the store of food that they have gathered this year is not very big. It will be difficult to feed all 20 of the group all through the winter, and impossible if they are raided by others.
Trancer is weary of fighting. Half of the food store in the shelter was gained by stealing from the other groups of the forest. This should not be. There should be plenty of food for everybody, and if there is not it should be shared equally. Certainly Trancer would be willing to share the mound of seed-cones that he is now carrying back to the shelter.
His weariness is temporarily overcome by a vague sense of achievement, as he is now carrying more cones than he has ever been able to before. He found the sloughed bark of a dying tree, and he kept piling cones onto it until it could hold no more. Then he carefully lifted it from the ground, and is now carrying the find, and the food, back to the shelter. If he had been using a thing like this all summer the whole group would have been able to gather much more food.
He breasts the edge of the narrow gully where the shelter is built, and begins to descend the slope carefully. Between the straight trunks of the trees the soil is loose – a yellow fragrant crust of decaying needle leaves and a rich black soil beneath. The shelter is a tightly-woven hood of sticks and branches, covered with a cosy layer of soil and needles. It is built half-way up the slope that faces the sun, so that it will be warmed by the earliest rays of next season, and yet is far enough above the floor of the gully to avoid the bitter frosts of the hollows. These hints for survival have been passed on by example from one generation to another.
Strong smells of crushed needles stop Trancer in his tracks. There is something wrong! He drops his load of cones and finds the shelter of an isolated bramble bush. Dimly, far along the slope, he can see a dozen figures heading silently towards the shelter. They are not his own people. It can only be a raiding party.
Trancer leaps from cover and runs down the cascading stream of soil and needles towards the shelter. He shouts to break up the raiders’ stealth, causing the surprised faces of his group to appear at the entrance. Then, at the edge of his vision, he sees that the approaching party has abandoned its silence and burst out into a full-force attack.
The males of his group rush out of the entrance to defend the shelter, and Trancer turns to join them. Then he sees that the raiders are much more numerous than he had thought, and realizes that his little group is not going to stand much of a chance.
Wearily he steps back from the front line. He is not going to fight. He has had enough. He retreats into a corner of the shelter, closes his eyes tightly and curls himself up into a compact ball. With all his mind he wishes that this were over, that all the fighting were done and that the raiders had gone away. He wishes. He wishes!
He opens his eyes to a dark silence. Nothing is moving anywhere, and there is the unmistakable stench of death about him. His head aches, he is cold and, as he stretches from his cramped position, he finds himself to be unbelievably stiff. What has happened?
Slowly he crawls to the jagged shape of lightness that is the entrance to the shelter. Day is just dawning. He must have been asleep! In the midst of a battle! This could not have been an ordinary slumber.
As the sky lightens, he is able to take in what he sees about him. The raiders have left his tribe all dead; the bodies of his family are scattered limply around. They must have ignored him, thinking him dead as well. He does not look at the
Then he looks closer at the bodies of his family. The spilled blood is dried to blackness, the faces are blue and sunken, the eyes have been taken by birds. These people have been dead for days!
He has been asleep for days! How can this be?
For the next few days and nights he can think of nothing else. His last recollection of the battle was of himself curling in a corner and wishing that it were all past. Now suddenly it is all past, as if he had wished himself into a temporary death to avoid danger.
If he can do that to avoid permanent death in a battle, could he also do it to avoid death by cold and starvation through a harsh winter?
It is worth a try. Best thing is to eat as much food as he can now – presumably his body will still need it while he is ‘asleep’, even though it will use it more slowly. Then he will have to find a comfortable sheltered place and wish that winter were all over.
He hopes that it will be as easy as that. It is his only chance of seeing the winter through until the warm growing times return.
A few of the swiftest woodland-dwellers have adapted to life in the tundra.
* * *
SNATCH AND THE TUNDRA-DWELLER
This one will be referred to as Snatch. In shape, he is much like the generalized dim-witted temperate forest-dwellers generated in the laboratories of the now extinct genetic engineers 3000 years ago. He has the long body with the complex digestive system that allows him to eat almost anything, from leaves to grubs. His arms and fingers are long and nimble, but his legs are quite short – they were meant for pushing through thicket and undergrowth and for climbing the thick trunks of the deciduous trees, not for striding across the wobbly peat bogs and sharp grasses of the open tundra. Nevertheless the quickness of his actions has enabled him, and a few like him, to live on in his original area despite the fact that the landscape has changed from mixed woodland, through coniferous forest, to chill tundra bleakness in a few thousand years. Now an icecap sparkles on the northern horizon, where there was once the luxuriant green of forest in the time of his great-great-great grandfather. The standing waters of the peat bogs attract huge flocks of ducks and other birds for most of the year, and Snatch has become adept at catching these. By floating variously-shaped bits of wood on the surface of a pond he can entice the birds to land there. Then, when they are settled, he darts out of the concealing reed beds and grabs one before it can fly off.