The communal plains-dwellers, Alvearanthropus desertus, (also known as socials, fighters or hivers) are desert-dwelling, black-skinned descendants of the original plains-dwellers, from 50,000 years (the 520th Century), that have colonial lifestyles and live in great structures, from Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future.
The harsh hot wind hums over the wispy grass and red-hard soil of the semi-desert, drying out the skin of any creature exposed to it. Climates are changing again and the whole of the world is feeling the effect. Here, the grassland that had once been desert is turning back to desert again. After 40,000 years in which the climate has been relatively settled, in which seasonal rains have been enough to sustain sufficient vegetation for the herds of plain-dwellers, the food chain is becoming unstable once more.
Over the years the plains-dwellers have changed, now being the communal plains-dwellers. They still subsist largely on the tough grasses, but now they have begun to vary their diet and lifestyle in a number of ways. They have given up their wandering life and now stay in the few places where they know there is water. Their broad hands, with the bladelike callouses along the edge, have proved to be ideal for digging in the ground, something that was first discovered when they had to dig for water in the cracked and sunbaked hollows that in the rainy season form the muddy waterholes. Soon it was realized that food, as well as water, exists below the surface. Now they dig frequently for the moist tubers and underground stems that keep many of the desert plants alive during the dryness. Occasionally they will also chew and swallow a large insect, or a burrowing mammal or lizard, but these are invariably thrown up and spat out in disgust. The plant-eating digestive system with its bacterial vats is far removed from the omnivorous stomach and intestines of the communal plains-dweller's distant ancestors.
Turning his back on the scorching wind, a male communal plains-dweller heads back towards the oasis with his load of tubers. Intermeshing his long fingers makes a kind of basket of his hands, and this can hold a large quantity of food. Now he must guard them against any enemies, for there are other groups of communal plains-dwellers around, and they would stop at nothing to get at somebody else's foodstore. It is not just the dry wind and harsh sunlight that are enemies to the communal plains-dwellers - they must fear members of their own kind. Not their own family, however; the tough conditions ensure that every family is tightly bound and cooperative.
There is trouble back at the oasis - he can feel it as soon as he crosses the rocky ridge and descends into the hollow. Home is there, as safe and impregnable as usual, its red baked-clay walls rising like cliffs, with its entrances guarded by his young brothers and sisters; but there is an air of strife about the place. It does not feel as secure and homelike as it normally does. He passes through the entrance with no trouble - his brothers and sisters recognize him instantly, and he enters the shaded courtyard within. Over by the well there seems to be some kind of dispute. He ignores it for the time being. His first duty is to store the food that he has brought, and he does this in one of the cool storage cells dug into the hard clay soil. Then he emerges and goes to the well to see what is happening.
It is the usual trouble. One of the younger females, his older sister, has been caught mating. Their mother is understandably enraged, as she is the one who gives birth in this family. The turn will come for the other females when she has become barren, or is dead and gone, but that will not be for a long time yet. Meanwhile the sons and daughters must concentrate on what they have to do to keep the family alive, and not waste their precious time in irrelevant mating. Conditions are too harsh for this. Everyone must do his or her duty, continually, if the family is to survive. There can only be one female giving birth at one time, and she must have the wholehearted support of everyone. Otherwise the birthrate will run away, bringing the family number beyond the present viable level of 20, and the family will collapse through lack of resources.
His sister seems abashed. She knows what she has done. It appears that when she was confronted with her crime she turned on their mother and attacked her, evidently in some kind of halfhearted bid to oust her from her breeding position; but the mother is not yet old enough or frail enough for anything like that. Now his sister, bleeding from cuts to the face and shoulders inflicted by their mother's hand-blades, scuttles through the crowd to the entrance of Home. She will never be welcome here again. Already her brothers and sisters are picking up stones to see her on her way. They will be sad to lose her. Her duties as a wetnurse will be missed, but not for long since some of the younger sisters are almost old enough. It is better, on the whole, for the family to lose an unreliable member.
Outside the entrance she stops and looks back. The first stone is cast, and misses. The second hits, but she does not go. Outside she will die, unless the older brother who mated with her comes out to join her. Then they may go far away and possibly find another family, if any of the other families will let them.
The brother is not coming. He has realized his error and will stay, doing his duty to his mother. The sister eventually realizes this and, still bleeding from cuts and bruised by the stones, walks off into the barrenness to die.
The family will survive.
By 500,000 years (the 5020th Century)
Strictly-regulated and disciplined, social living produces a stable and efficient society essential for surviving in the more inhospitable places on Earth's surface. However, genetic aberration occasionally produces individuals whose responses are not standard, and these introduce an element of chaos into the tightly-structured existence of such communities. Within the society, responses to danger are consistent and predictable (as are responses to any other stimuli). Functions are hierarchical and rigidly defined.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 shriveling temperatures of midday. That is no problem, since at their speed the string will reach the Home before the conditions become too bad.
The spine of the string consists of about 30 youngsters, each carrying his or her allocated load of roots and tubers in woven bags. Moving parallel to them on both sides are about a dozen mature males, their sensitive eyes and ears scanning the red and grey landscape for potential enemies, their elbows bent and their huge bladed hands dangling in front of them ready for the defense of the string.
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.
Without a seeker the semi-desert would not yield up its tubers and roots, and its water deposits would remain hidden. Socials would use up their energy and time roaming the vast wastes in random attempts to find new food supplies. The seekers, although they are not part of the socials' family and lead their own lives within the Home, are a valuable part of the community.
The stringmaster pauses. There is something not quite right about the landscape ahead of them. He barks a single word and the whole string stops instinctively. They all drop down behind the scrubby bushes, to become invisible, but the cloud of their dust remains over their heads like a flag.
It is another gathering string, one from another community, encroaching on neighboring gathering land.
With a few quietly grunted words, the stringmaster commands the young gatherers into a tight huddle, surrounded by about half of the fighting males, while the rest of the males spread out in a defensive arc facing the interlopers.
They need not have troubled with the stealth. The interlopers know they are there and are approaching in a determined advance, eschewing any cover. The stringmaster views the approach in dismay. This is no gathering string that has lost its way. It is a band of warrior males, without a juvenile gatherer or a seeker amongst them.
No further need for camouflage. The stringmaster barks orders that jab his own warriors into action. Up they leap from their cover and flail into the oncoming party. Instantly the stringmaster sees that his own fighters are outnumbered by about three to one, and so he calls forward those that are guarding the gatherers and their burdens. As for himself, he steps back out of the way of the fighting. He is too valuable to be wasted in the thick of the bloodshed.They are still outnumbered but they fight on, kicking out with their elongated legs and feet, hacking downwards and sideways with the cutting blades of their hands, poking and gouging with their long fingers. The gristly hand-blades, originally designed to cut grass, can now shear through flesh and smash bone, and these are the main weapons of both sides. Severed limbs and heads lie in the dust, still pumping blood, as the defenders are forced back to the knot of helpless gatherers.
The last warrior to fall is the stringmaster himself. He is happy to give his life for the defense 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 male seeker, who stands unmoved by the carnage. The interlopers' stringmaster addresses him and he agrees to lead them to his own Home. After all, he 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 he 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 food stores 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 sisters had gone to be nurses those ideas came to him. Only in the heat of battle, when an individual warrior 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 other 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.
By 1 million years (the 10020th Century)
The socials neither understand nor tolerate the harvesting aquatics.
The socials are a menace to the aquatics (who identify the socials as "fighters"), because they seem quite at home on the devastated areas left behind after aquatic 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 aquatic inside, and their wet dead bodies are dragged away to the socials' citadels. Of late, the attacks have been so organized that it is evident that the skirmishes are no longer defensive. Parties sally out with the firm intention of capturing and killing the harvesting aquatics. These beings must be left alone by the aquatics, and their domains avoided at any cost.
By 2 million years (the 20020th Century)A harsh and arid habitat has forced the socials to evolve into hivers - all individuality curtailed by the group's need to locate water and food. A hump of fat across the shoulders still provides sustenance in the barren season, while heavy lids now protect their eyes against sand. Longer legs allow the hivers to travel great distances.
The hive itself is a massive rocklike structure, with breathing chimneys and thick vented walls similar to those of a giant termites' nest. Flat sloping roofs jut out to provide shade in the heat of the day. Tunnels and shafts beneath the hive reach down deep into the water table where food is kept cool by constant evaporation from the moist walls. Damp air from the lower levels is driven through the hive by wind movement across external vents.
The seeker is now a tiny, wizened object (a degenerate fragment of its ancestor). It has no need of legs, since it is carried everywhere, and so it has none. It has no need of arms, since everything is done for it, and so its arms and hands are atrophied. It needs neither eyes nor ears, since the only sense it uses is deep down within its head, and has no external organ; so its eyes and ears are sunken and shriveled. It is merely a head with a nose and mouth, and a little body.
It nestles within the huge hands of the bearer - a sterile adult female hiver that has been turned away from life as a nurse and potential queen deep within the hive and kept at the surface as part of the foraging bands.The adult males, the warriors, have changed little in outward appearance since the hive communities first evolved. If anything, their legs have become longer, enabling them to cross open spaces more quickly and to forage over large areas. Their bodies have become smaller, and have lost their potbellied appearance, since the warriors hardly ever eat grass now and have little need of the voluminous intestinal bacteria vats of their ancestors. The cellulose-cracking enzyme produced by the engineered pancreatic gland is still being produced, but not in such quantities as previously. The eye-coverings are dark, shielded from the harsh glare of the Sun, and protected against the stinging sand by heavy lids. The nose is bulbous, the internal passages winding between bony panels covered with a damp membrane that moistens and cools the harsh desert air long before it reaches the lungs. A bushy moustache around the nostrils and across the upper lip filters the grit and dust from the breathed air. A smooth hump of fat over the shoulders and neck is established in the wet and abundant season, but this tends to shrivel away when the climates become dry.
It is mostly in their behavior that they differ from their ancestors. Now they have no individuality at all, listening for the few grunts of command from their leader and obeying blindly. It is not in the interest of the hive as a whole for anyone to show an individuality, and so it was lost generations upon generations ago. Now and again, however, it surfaces once more, and under the influence of these throwbacks hives begin to experiment with new and different ways of living, which nearly always end in failure. The progressive hive dies, turns to dust, and the neighboring hives absorb its territory.
As always, the youngsters, male and female, make up the gathering parties, using their big hands to dig in the soil and carry the food that they find. When they come of age, the males develop into warriors, and eventually may become breeders. The females become nurses, with the possibility of becoming queens someday; or else they become bearers, entrusted with the task of satisfying every need of the all-important seekers.
This day is much like any other. The party of gatherers, guided by the seeker and guarded by the warriors, sets out from the hive in the predawn, the coolest time of the day and the best for travel. Behind them, a silhouette against the lightening sky, lies the bulk of the hive; its flat roofs jut out like natural rock formations to produce the shade in the heat of the day, the vertical walls beneath the overhangs form banks of variously-sized openings for access and ventilation, and its many chimneys and breathing funnels point up like fingers and arches against the sky.
Deep below is the maze of passages and chambers dedicated to the housing and comfort of the queen and her young offspring. Here lie the food storage units cooled by the constant circulation and evaporation of water from moist walls. The dampened air is then carried around the hive through the living quarters by an ingenious network of finely-fashioned holes and tunnels, driven by the natural movement of the wind across the external vents. The vapor is eventually recondensed to liquid before the stale air is lost to the outer atmosphere. The water for all this is brought up from the deep wells and water pits by capillary action through the rocks. Sometimes, travellers migrating south might try to take stored food (roots and tubers) from the cooled chambers.
The party, 100 strong, takes its usual route along the undulating foothills, skirting the dreadful slimelands on the right, and the barren rocky uplands on the left. Beyond, the slope widens out into a valley in which water flows for much of the year, and where plants can grow and there are usually tubers or thick roots to be had.
Before their narrow path widens the leader of the party grunts an order to halt. The seeker is agitated, but is not telling them that there is food close by: it is telling them that others approach.
With another grunt the leader calls the warriors together in a protective wall; but they need not have worried. Those who approach pose no threat.
It is full day now, and the party can see five or six shambling creatures moving down the rocky slope towards the slimelands. The bodies are bulky (very bulky for the size of their legs) with thick hummocks and rolls of fat seeming to engulf them. Dull faces look out from the folds of pale flesh. In the dim light, however, the parasites are just visible: tiny and spiderlike, four or five of them are embedded in the deep fat of each figure, their faces buried and unseen, feeding continually from the creature's surplus.
No threat to the hive, and so of no interest to the party; but the leader does recollect that more and more of them are seen nowadays wandering over their domain. They seem to be spreading from the forest areas that are their home. Dimly the leader wonders what they find to eat here, and how they protect themselves from the harsh Sun. He does not wonder for long, however. With a backhanded gesture, he brushes the first of the day's sand out of his moustache and signals for the party to move onwards. Soon he has the party on the move once more and the strangers have been completely forgotten.
Had the party stayed to watch, they would have observed the lumbering creatures scramble down into the flats of the slimelands and wade out amongst the disgusting blue-green sogginess. Dumbly they scoop up handfuls of the slime, exposing the yellow stench beneath, and begin to feed on it. The parasites embedded in their fat ignore all this. The food, be it nuts, leaves or slime, will be converted into huge deposits of fat and tissue that will sustain them.
The parasites and their hosts are not the first communal creature to arise since the days of the engineers, but they are the only surviving type. The symbionts, in which the hunters teamed up with the tundra-dweller-like carriers, to live on the cold plains, are extinct now. They took to the mountains after the cold plains faded away, and there they existed for some time; but they were never really developed as mountain creatures, and all kinds of maladaptations began to show themselves. Eventually the populations dwindled and the whole two races died out.
That is not the case amongst the parasites and their hosts. The hosts, too, are descended from the tundra-dwellers, but unlike the carriers of the symbionts they changed as the conditions changed. Gone are the woolly coats and the resistance to extreme cold, but they still retain the thick deposits of fat. Indeed their metabolism generates more fat than they could possibly need, and that is what sustains the parasites. The energy and raw materials for all this production comes from the constant consumption of plants - any kind of plants and other similar organisms, including the blue-green algal cultures that the aquatics developed as their own food source and spread over the lowland areas of the globe, turning them into the foul slimelands so despised by most of the land-living creatures.
It is not only the hivers that ignore the parasites and their hosts as they wade into the featureless slippery mat to feed on the algae. Also ignoring them are the aquatics, not far away, looping and slithering about in the moist yellow depths below the slime crust. They are grazing their way through the algal culture that their ancestors established ages ago on the lowlands above the surface of the ocean. There is plenty of food for them now, not like in the days of want. They know very well that some creatures from the land come and steal from the edges, but the losses are small. The only trouble is dehydration. If the algal covering is breached there may be a considerable water loss before it has a chance to grow again; but with all the world's lowlands covered in the self-sustaining food-generator there is little to worry about.
By 3 million years (the 30020th Century)
The Sun has now passed its zenith, and the black desert shadows are lengthening. Rested now, a male desert-runner creeps out the shadows of some tall rocks to continue his journey for the perfect shelter. The first part of his travel was over sand, where he used his long legs, with their light elongated foot bones powered by the concentration of muscles in the thigh. Now his way takes him over naked rock, so his passage is slower, using his long toes and gripping fingers to find purchase in the cracks and joints of the hot crumbly stone. As the Sun descends into the dusty haze of evening, his goal is in sight.
The hive looks like one of the rocky hills that surround it. Its vast roof slabs look just like the horizontal strata of the surrounding rocks, and the black entrances just like the wind-blasted caves of the dusty crags. Just as desert-living humans evolved along the lines of the desert-living nonhuman animals, the desert cities of the hivers developed along the lines of their habitats. The vast thick roofs paralleled the flat stones that absorbed the heat of the Sun and protected the creatures that existed underneath. The tunnels burrowed deep into the earth, cool by day and insulated from the bitter cold of the night. Water was gathered by vast dew-traps in the surrounding sands, and food was gathered from wide areas and brought swiftly to the cities by the foraging teams.
The desert-runner will spend some time here. The hivers eat only plants, while he eats only smaller animals, so they will not conflict with each other. The moisture that is generated in and around the hive and the food stored within attract all kinds of insects, reptiles and smaller mammals which the desert-runner will hunt, while the hivers, with completely different nutritional requirements, will tolerate his presence.
By 5 million years (the 50020th Century)
Out in the vast deserts, the members of the few huge hives that are left continue their lives in the familiar mechanical way. Permanently-manned foraging and gathering routes reach out, tentacle-like, from the massive hubs that consist of labyrinthine subterranean bunkers, all swarming with ordered and predestined life. Amongst these millions of individuals there is not one mind that can comprehend the heavens, let alone the significance of new moving stars.
They are soon wiped out by the travelers of the stars.