500,000 YEARS HENCE
STRINGS OF SOCIALS
A string of figures winds rapidly through the arid
scrub, kicking up clouds of dust from the red powdery soil. The sun is
rising to the height of its heat, and soon the open semi-desert will
be no place for any living thing. Despite their dark skins, and the protective
covering of hair over their heads and backs, the socials would not be
able to tolerate the shrivelling temperatures of midday. That is no problem,
since at their speed the string will reach the Home before the conditions
become too bad.
At the tail of the string two of the young
gatherers are carrying a living creature between them. It is somewhat
like one of the socials but smaller, and it does not have the long legs
that allow the string to move so quickly. The two socials that carry
it have interlocked their arms to form a kind of seat, and on this the
creature perches with its arms around the necks of its supports. They
treat this creature with care: it is their seeker.
500,000 YEARS HENCE
The last warrior to fall is the stringmaster himself. He is
happy to give his life for the defence of the string; less happy that it has
been in vain and the string is lost. His last regret is that he will now never
have the chance to mate with the mother.
After the defending warriors, the gatherers are easily slaughtered. Soon there is nothing left of the original string but the seeker, who stands unmoved by the carnage. The interloper’s stringmaster addresses it and it agrees to lead them to its own Home. After all, it is a seeker. Seekers obey socials, whatever their Home.
The attacking stringmaster dispatches two of his warriors back to their own Home to summon young gatherers to take back the booty – warriors do not carry. He assigns about a third of his men to guard it where it lies. Then he organizes the remainder into a raiding string and has the seeker lead them towards the Home of their enemies. This string must move slowly, since the seeker cannot run as fast as the socials, and it cannot now be carried. Warriors do not carry.
Towards the blaze of noon, the bulk of the Home appears on the horizon. From a distance it would be unnoticeable. All that can be seen is a pair of ventilation chimneys that look just like the solid pointed towers of the beautiful and sacred insects that inhabit the entire region. The Home itself is in a hollow, an impenetrable fortress. Smooth walls, with no hand- or footholds, red and hard as bone, curve upwards enclosing the entire colony in an impregnable dome, the shape of a tuber. Only the two tall chimneys at the top break the symmetry. Near the top a crack in the structure is being repaired by a small group of gatherers, moist red clay being kneaded and pressed into the damaged area. In this vast structure are the mother, the infants, the juvenile gatherers, the female nurses, an unknown number of male warriors, old male drones, a ghetto of seekers and, most important for the raiders, the foodstores that would sustain them all.
The raiding stringmaster, having hidden his warriors and crept as close as he dares, peers over the rise of the land not far from the Home. It is as well guarded as his own. Each of the ground-level entrances is guarded by several warriors, and most likely many more warriors are housed in chambers close to the entrances. Breaking in is going to be difficult.
The vague stirrings of an idea occur to him. He often has ideas. Even when he was a mere gatherer he did, but it was difficult to work on them then, when everything that he did was prescribed, regimented and expected of him. Likewise, when he had grown to a warrior and his female siblings had gone to be nurses those ideas came to him. Only in the heat of battle, when an individual could act on his own initiative for the good of the Home, could any of them come to fruition. Most of the time events showed that his ideas had been justified. That is why he is now a stringmaster. This idea, however, is something quite novel – disturbingly so.
Stealthily he makes his way back to his warriors and the captured seeker. With much difficulty, through the few words they possess, he gives the seeker his instructions. The seeker is puzzled. It takes a long time to convince him of what is required, as this is something new to him as well. Eventually he seems to understand and goes off towards the Home.
The guardian warriors at one of the entrances start into attentiveness as they see the lone seeker scrambling down the dusty slope towards them. They demand to know what he is doing. Dutifully the seeker states that the string is under attack, not far away, in the direction from which he has come. When he is asked for more details, however, he is blocked. He was not told to report anything more. As these warriors ask him questions he becomes more and more confused. The answers he should give are in conflict with the statement he was told to make. He was given orders by socials. Now he is asked questions by socials that would confuse the first orders. He throws his arms over his head and collapses to the ground. He cannot understand what is happening.
Nor can the defending warriors. What they have understood is the report that one of their strings is under attack. They rouse the other warriors of the Home and form themselves into a fighting string, running out in the direction indicated by the gibbering seeker.
Once they have gone and things are quiet, the raiding stringmaster brings his warriors stealthily from the other direction to the abandoned entrance. He picks up the cowering seeker and shakes him back into attention. Then, preceded by the seeker, the raiding party enters the Home.
There are still warriors in the chamber behind the entrance, but these are soon silenced, and the raiders make their way into the interior. Pushing the unhappy seeker before him, the stringmaster and his warriors penetrate deeper and deeper into the Home. The air becomes heavier and stuffier. This is to be expected. As the females grow to be nurses and, in a few instances, mothers, they spend their time deep in the airless tunnels and chambers. Their metabolism slows, allowing them to consume less air and less food, and devote their lives to feeding mother and infants.
The seeker dodges out of the passage and into a side chamber, illuminated by a dusty shaft of light slanting through a hole in the outside wall. A great commotion arises. This is part of the seekers’ own quarters, a rambling disorganized muddle of chambers and passages within the walls of the Home, a place of chaos and random life where these low creatures mate and play at will, fed and cleaned constantly by the Home’s nurses. The seekers, despite their disgusting habits and lifestyles, are essential to the life of the Home.
The dark bobbing shapes of his companions welcome him back but are then thrown into consternation by the appearance of strange warriors behind him. A nurse, bringing the seekers their daily ration of food, is shocked into immobility and stares stupidly at the raiders. A bowl of chewed roots and flattened insects falls from her long hands. They kill her immediately but leave the seekers alone. The captured seeker has now collapsed in terror and confusion amongst his companions and will obviously be of no further use. The stringmaster and his men push onwards and downwards, feeling their way in the darkness now. Occasionally they come across the soft slow body of a nurse, or the active one of a juvenile, and these they kill without hesitation. Those that are nimble enough to escape are ignored. The raiders are after more important prey.
Eventually, in the dimly-lit chamber beneath one of the ventilation chimneys, they find her: enormous and reclining, fat with obesity and pregnancy, her hairless skin over folds of fat glistening dimly in the gloom - the mother.
Around her move a dozen pale nurses carrying in food and taking away waste. Slow drones, their weapon hands hanging long unused by their sides, stare stupidly at the intrusion. All cluster around the mother in a vain attempt at protection.
The raiders move in. The nurses put up no fight at all, but the drones, remembering their glorious days as warriors, make a token struggle – and perish. At last the prize is won. In the dimness the mother pathetically tries to pull her great bulk away, on her stunted legs and wizened arms. She lets out a plaintive wail as the raiders fall upon her, and she dies under their hacking hands.
Not long afterwards, the mother’s body hangs head-down from the partly-repaired crack on the outer wall of the Home. The stringmaster stands in triumph above it. All the fighting is done now. The returning strings of defending warriors, those that had been lured from the Home by false information, are totally demoralized by the sight. Their tightly coordinated groups break up and scatter, and the individuals wander off into the arid landscape, inevitably to die.
The Home is the stringmaster’s now. Normally he would send messengers to their own Home, and they would return with gatherers who would strip the captured place bare and carry all the food and the seekers back to their own, thus expanding their hunting territory.
This time, though, he is going to do something different. This whole incident has been different so far. There has never been a Home won over by using deceit, a totally alien concept amongst the socials. Their language is simple, but it has always allowed for individuals to express themselves, for stringmasters to communicate orders to warriors and seekers, and for gatherers to describe the whereabouts of food supplies and their dimensions. This is the first time that their language has been used in a deliberate way to deceive. It is indeed a new and useful development, showing great promise for the future.
The other difference in this campaign is that this Home is not going to be destroyed. There will still be young nurses cowering in the tunnels and warrens below, one of which he will make the new mother. The other nurses and the few juvenile gatherers that are left will naturally be loyal to her, and his warriors will remain loyal to him, or he hopes that they will until he can raise new ones of his own. He will send deceitful word to his former Home that his own string has been wiped out, so he will not be missed.
For the first time a new Home will be established, not by a mating pair cast out of a single Home, but by uniting two strong Homes, drawing on the strengths of each.
The working of metals had been a forgotten art; but then
it was remembered – and forbidden. The making of boats had likewise been forgotten
and then remembered and had likewise been forbidden.
Now those who have dared to practise these skills are dispossessed. The boats they made carry them to safety, away from the anger of the remainder of their people.
The boats are sturdily-built, of planks cut by metal tools and pinned together with wooden pegs. Someday they will be able to build them of metal – if this is permitted. For now the five boats are carrying the 43 individuals who represent the only group of beings in the world with the courage to use the remembered knowledge of their ancestors. The woven sails bulge with the wind that they know will carry them to the islands in the warmer regions of the globe.
500,000 YEARS HENCE
It is not that they lack the conscience and moral terror of
the rest of their people, just that they feel strong enough to overcome any
danger. They know, deep inside them, that the knowledge their ancestors gained,
generation by generation, eventually destroyed them. They know that their ancestors
made things, that they took power from the sun and the sea, from the ancient
concentrated remains of life, from the breakdown of the very forces that held
matter together. With this power they took metals, food and other materials
from the solid Earth and from the living creatures that existed on it. They
were able to increase their life spans, eradicate the diseases and accidents
that held populations in check, and spread over the whole surface of the Earth.
Eventually the Earth had become too crowded and burdened to carry them, and
they perished under the weight of their own technical cleverness. All this
they remembered, although they hardly understood it; but the inherited memory
of the loss of everything that their ancestors had achieved was enough to forbid
the use of the inherited memory of the means of achieving it.
All abided by this, except for the boatbuilders, who continually flouted their people’s taboo on using their ancestors’ knowledge, and were persecuted for it. They fought back with blades, but the overwhelming hostility had driven them away from their fertile homeland. Now they are on the run, but it may not be for long. Many of their boats have been left behind, and it seems likely that the more zealous of their enemies will come in pursuit. Although boatbuilding is forbidden, sailing them may not be – and everybody shares the memory of how to sail.
What is more, their choice of destination has been made on the basis of inherited memory. Their pursuers, using the same mix of ideas, inspiration and basic knowledge that the inherited memory entails, will come to the same conclusions. There is no such thing as secrecy now.
After many days of steady winds, the fugitives see the first of the islands. It is as they expect. The first sign is a cloud on the horizon; blue hills appear next, then the green of lowland vegetation, and finally the white streak of beach. All is as predicted – except for the bubbles.
Several shining bouncing globes are moving up the beach. The puzzlement that they produce in the boatbuilders is short-lived, however, as the boats are caught in the rising swell of the shallowing sea. The waves that have pulsed unnoticed across the open ocean are now funnelled and magnified as the seabed shallows, building up into steep walls of green water that curl over and crash into an oblivion of sparkling white spray and surge, hissing up the hot sandy beach. In this turmoil the boats heave upwards, dive into the hollows and are flung towards the land. As the prows crunch into the beach, the boatbuilders jump out, splashing ankle-deep in foam and sand, and drag their vessels to safety. Then, when all are safely ashore, they collapse onto the beach in joy and exhaustion. Although the voyage was completely predictable, because of their common memory, they have been very uneasy during their days at sea. That was not their environment at all.
One of their females notices it first: the huge translucent sphere beneath a sagging palm tree at the head of the beach. They had all seen the bubbles from the sea, but had ignored and then forgotten them. It was always the way that the inherited memory was more powerful than that developed by the individual. In size, the sphere could probably be encompassed by the outstretched arms of three people. It is shiny with a greenish tinge, and its base is spread and flattened by its own weight. Its outer covering seems flexible and the whole thing wobbles as it rolls slowly down the beach towards them. Sand adheres to its outside as it moves, but dries and drops away very quickly.
The female who first saw it stands and watches it roll right up to her. All watch, to see what happens next. Inherited memory cannot guide them now. Before there is time for reaction, a silvery arm shoots out of the side of the sphere, seizes her hand and tugs it inside. Then it starts rolling towards the water’s edge, dragging the surprised female with it. When she realizes what is happening she begins to scream, but she and the sphere disappear beneath the surf before anyone can do anything about it.
The travellers stare after her, stupidly. Then several more of the spheres appear at the head of the beach. They do not seem intent on attack – they roll towards the sea, avoiding the party. Anger, an emotion not often felt by the boatbuilders, surges to the surface, like one of the bursting waves, and as one they launch themselves in a revenge attack at the nearest sphere. Surrounded, the sphere cannot move, but it seems to waver, this way and that, to try to break free. Its surface is yielding but too tough to be penetrable. Blows and punches are absorbed and bounce right back. Then one of the boatbuilders brings a blade from the boat and plunges it into the glistening surface.
The sphere bursts, and a rush of salty water gushes over the attackers and sinks into the dry sand. The punctured surface has collapsed into slimy gel, releasing seawater. In the middle of the stain lies a strange creature, gasping.
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?
|FOREWORD by Brian Aldiss||8|
|INTRODUCTION – EVOLUTION AND MAN||11|
|IN THE BEGINNING||16|
|The Human Story So Far||16|
|8 MILLION YEARS AGO
|3 MILLION YEARS AGO
|2.5 MILLION YEARS AGO
|1.5 MILLION YEARS AGO
|500,000 YEARS AGO
|15,000 YEARS AGO
|5000 YEARS AGO
|2000 YEARS AGO
|1000 YEARS AGO
|500 YEARS AGO
|100 YEARS AGO||19|
|MAN AFTER MAN||22|
200 YEARS HENCE
|Piccarblick the aquamorph
|Cralym the vacuumorph
|Jimez Smoot the space traveller
|Kyshu Kristaan the squatty||29|
300 YEARS HENCE
|Haron Solto and his mechanical cradle
|Greerath Hulm and the future
|Hueh Chuum and his love
500 YEARS HENCE
|Gram the engineered plains-dweller
|Kule Taaran and the engineered forest-dweller
|Knut the engineered tundra-dweller
|Relia Hoolann and cultured cradles
|Fiffe Floria and the Hitek
|Carahudru and the woodland-dweller||48|
1000 YEARS HENCE
|Klimasen and the beginning of change
|The end of Yamo
|Weather patterns and the Tics
|Hoot, the temperate woodland-dweller
|The end of Durian Skeel
2000 YEARS HENCE
|Rumm the forest-dweller
|Larn the plains-dweller
|Coom’s new friend
|Yerok and the Tool||61|
5000 YEARS HENCE
|Snatch and the tundra-dweller
10,000 YEARS HENCE
|Leader of the clan
|Disappearance of the plains
50,000 YEARS HENCE
|Families of plains-dwellers
|The advancing desert
|Schools of aquatics
500,000 YEARS HENCE
|Strings of socials
1 MILLION YEARS HENCE
|Hunters and carriers
2 MILLION YEARS HENCE
3 MILLION YEARS HENCE
|Slothmen and spiketooths||111|
5 MILLION YEARS HENCE
|In the end is the beginning ...||123|