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Memory people

A genetically-manipulated but latent ability to recall the long-term past is forced to the surface by climatic extremes. A group of temperate woodland-dwellers become the memory people.

The memory person, Homo mensproavodorum, (also known as boat people, boatbuilders, travellers or possessors of hereditary memory) is an australopithecine-like human from 5,000 years (the 70th Century), descended from the temperate woodland-dweller, with an advanced memory, literally recalling the ways of their ancestors, from Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future.

As the genetic engineers have long gone, there can be no further artificial changes. When climates and conditions shift, altering habitats, the inhabitants must normally adapt or evolve to survive. But some of the woodland-dwellers have had a different option.

That way lies the end of the blizzard and the howling white blankness. Somewhere in that direction is the secluded dell of gentle green woodland, full of berries and nuts, with misty shafts of bright sunlight slanting through the leaves, bringing dappled patches of warmth, and the relaxed noises of chattering, twittering birds heard over the gurgling of a little brook as it splashes over the moss-covered rocks.

How does Hrusha know that? She has never been here before. She has never even seen a gentle green woodland, would not recognize berries and nuts for what they were, and would be alarmed at the strange noises of twittering birds. Yet somehow she knows that these things are to be found in the direction in which she is walking.

Her colony by the seashore is starving. The colder weather this year has meant that fewer fish have come to the beaches, and fewer herbs are growing along the spume-blown shingle that separates the grey ocean from the white of the icecap. Others have travelled out from the colony both ways along the coast, to try to find new sources of food; but few have returned, and those who did come back reported no success.

Now Hrusha and her mate Vass have tried going inland instead: a bold and dangerous choice, and one that Vass is constantly regretting. Inland is nothing but snow and ice.

As they trudge onwards the blizzard develops, intensifies and turns everything to a featureless whiteness. Their vision is blocked by the relentless glare, their hearing muffled by the unchanging howl of the wind, and their sense of touch numbed by the cold.

Suddenly, with her normal senses dulled by the disorientating surge of the blizzard, Hrusha remembers something that she could not possibly have experienced, and with excited gestures urges Vass to follow her. This is too much for her mate, who turns and tries to find their tracks, hoping to follow them and make his own way back to the coast.

Acting on the hunch that is stronger than her mating bond, she trudges in the direction her senses dictate, deeper and deeper into the blasting, blinding blizzard, and suddenly the snow gives way beneath her. She falls, tumbling with the snowy lumps, and ends up face down in a shallow drift. As she struggles free she finds that the wind has dropped, and she is lying in a sheltered ice-free valley. Dark rocks jut from black frozen soil, and an ice-bound stream winds along the valley floor. The most remarkable features of the landscape, though, are the hulks of dead trees, standing black and branchless, frozen and upright, where they died of cold an unimaginable time ago.

This is the green and leafy dell that she remembers, but changed by time and creeping coldness. How can she remember this, when the trees she sees around her have obviously been dead since the time of her great-great-grandfather? Could that be it? Could the landscape have been seen by one of her ancestors? Could the memory have been passed on to her, like her distinctive hair and eyes? As far as she knows, none of the others of the colony have had that experience before. Certainly her mate Vass has not.

She settles by the frozen stream, smashes the thin covering of ice, and drinks from the cold water beneath. Surely this experience could be useful. Surely she must be able to remember other things that her ancestors saw and knew - things that would help the colony in its time of trouble. She must think.

Where is there food?

Where the stream comes out, comes the answer, in a lake full of fish, a lake that never freezes over even in the harshest of winters. She remembers that now.

Weary from her journey, but now filled with hope, Hrusha rises and walks heavily down the frozen soil of the valley following the winding stream between the dark rocky banks. Eventually the valley gives out and a plain stretches out before her. The blizzard has abated and she can now see for some distance. In the middle of the plain is a white expanse of perfectly flat snow that can only be the lake. It is frozen now, but the ice is quite thin, and it seems very likely that fish still live in there.

That is what the colony needs to know. She turns to retrace her journey to the coast, and there in the distance she sees a figure coming towards her, a figure she seems to recognize. It is not Vass, is it? No. Vass does not have the knowledge that brought her here. It must be someone else who can remember this place from long before they were born. Someone else who has the ability (an ability forced to the surface by the jeopardy of the colony). The figure is closer now, and she sees that it is Kroff, the son of her cousin, a person she has always ignored since the two of them have never had anything in common.

That must change now. If Kroff has the knowledge, then he is a far more suitable mate for her than Vass ever was. This needs to be seriously considered.

By 50,000 years (the 520th Century)

She will be able to remember her way home, she keeps telling herself. No matter how far the drifting mat of vegetation takes her or her family, she will remember her way back.

She, and the rest of her tribe, have been blessed in this. They have a knowledge that enables them to navigate to any place they want to go. The area where they live has been occupied by their ancestors since before the coming of the ice. Because of this they can actually remember the coming of the ice, and the places to which the different generations moved. It has all changed now that the ice is going back, leaving the landscape different from how it was before. Nevertheless they have always been able to travel to whatever place their ancestors knew would be good for food or shelter.

Now the ability had let them down. They wanted to go to a great river that their ancestors remembered from the dim past. Plenty of the fish were to be had in that river, and good shelters in the gorges through which it ran. However, when they arrived, the gorges had been gouged out by ice into a broad U-shaped valley with little shelter anywhere.

What is more, the river was in spate. The ice, away up at the head of the valley, must have been melting much more quickly than usual, and the water was hurtling down the valley floor in brown and white torrents, tearing at the riverbed and banks. The floor of the lower valley seemed to have been clear of ice for many years, because a coniferous forest had begun to grow in the soggy peaty soil. It was in this forest that the small group were resting when a sudden surge of the river wrenched away that part of the bank, trees and all. The intertwined roots and the solid trunks of the trees had bound the soil together and kept the whole chunk afloat as a kind of a raft, and the unfortunate group was carried away downstream.

Then night had fallen. The roaring of the river became quieter as it widened and slowed. There was no Moon and the banks became invisible in the darkness.

She had panicked. With no visual landmarks her memory was not functioning. Another sense deep within her, a sense that should help her to find direction, was still working but it was very weak. She knew from experience that when she relied on this other sense and thought that a certain place was in one direction, it always turned out to be in the completely opposite direction. Something big must have changed completely since the days before the ice. She had had to resign herself to the possibility that she would never see her tribe again.

Now it is dawn, a cold grey dawn that brings nothing to warm the huddled and shivering figures on the floating island. The land has gone now and there is nothing to be seen but grey choppy sea. The drifting island consists of little more than a few trees and some trapped soil. There is no cover or shelter anywhere, let alone food.

The food will be irrelevant. They will all die of cold and exposure before they starve to death; unless they can remember something that their ancestors used to do under these circumstances.

There was something, she remembers vaguely.

It was something to do with rubbing sticks.

By 500,000 years (the 5020th Century)

Boat people
The inherited skills that began with the making of fire threw up the memory of boatbuilding. With the forbidden memory came an instinctive drive to use it. Descendants of the memory people, the boat people can now travel freely to colonize habitats not their own. Sharp teeth and hooked claws are their natural weapons, but with the discovery of metal comes the blade.

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 practice 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.

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 world and from the other living creatures that existed on it. They were able to increase their lifespans, eradicate the diseases and accidents that held populations in check, and spread over the whole surface of the planet. Eventually 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 funneled 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 boat 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 other 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 one of the boats 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?

By 2 million years (the 20020th Century)

The food will be there, and can be taken, as the travellers know. Every year the enclosures ripen, the planters awake, feed, repair the enclosures if necessary, plant the new seed and return to their slumbers once more. The secret is for the travellers to time the journey so as to arrive before the planters rouse from their long sleep. The planters are supposed to be a very ancient race, and each one lives for many hundreds of years (if "live" is the right word). How can you be living if more than nine-tenths of your time is spent asleep?

How did this come about? It probably goes back to the time when the differences between the cold times and the warm times were much greater than they are now. There have always been animals that have hibernated (slowed down their systems and gone to sleep during the coldest time of the year). These creatures usually gather their food and store it, waking up and eating from time to time; or else they eat so much when they are awake that they build up stores of fat that nourish them while they sleep. The planters were once normal, like the travellers, but probably not so intelligent. Back when the ice had just shriveled up from the continents and the "winters" were still cold, they developed the ability to sleep away the harshest of conditions, and they stored up food as well. Some of the seeds and grains that they stored would have germinated by the time the stores were opened; if the hibernation time were long enough they may even have fruited again. As the centuries and millennia passed, the planters developed the ability to remain suspended until harvest time, when they would come out and eat, plant the next crop and retire again.

The travellers knew that it was possible for such things to happen. Vaguely they remembered the knowledge that their ancestors had possessed, knowledge about changing conditions and changing life.

There must never be any dealings with the planters. The planters build their enclosures, and use the growing vegetation not just for food. They gather their food from where it grows, but also plant it in places that will be more convenient for them to collect it from. They build walls and roofs of stone and wood to protect what they have done, just as their remote ancestors did. It was the beginning of the changes that eventually destroyed everything - the land, the living things, themselves. Now nothing must be altered, nothing must be built, nothing must be changed from its natural state; that is the credo of the travellers.

It is a sign of their strength that they know how to make their life easier, but ignore the knowledge. Any one of them has enough inherited knowledge to dig the burning stones or the naturally-distilled organic fluid from the ground (if indeed there are any deposits of these left) and use their heat to melt down the metal minerals. They could all break down the substances from the rocks and use them for many varied purposes. They know that it is possible to fly to the Moon and stars, and they know how to do it; but they will not. They will not call down the destruction once more.

It is not just their memories that impress this credo upon them. Wherever they travel, through the lush forests and woodlands or across the open plains and deserts, they see the dismal results. In a forested valley, where they remember once stood a city, the rocks that outcrop in the slopes of the stream gullies are not natural. They are manmade, sometimes with unnatural angles and faces that have miraculously survived 2 million years of burial. The soil here is stained and streaked with red and green where the vast volumes of metal that went into the artifacts have oxidized away to dust. The area is disgustingly unnatural, and avoided.

Elsewhere lie similar remains that are lethal to any creature that passes close by. Even now, 2 million years later, the technological overproduction of their ancestors has the power to kill. Nothing appears at the surface here, but not far down lies the disintegrated ruin of some vast structure. So great have been the natural forces of erosion and decay that nothing recognizable of the original structure remains even underground, but some of the raw materials still lie there, emitting a deadly force. Anyone crossing this area sickens and dies. The travellers remember that it was something to do with the generation of energy.

This is why the travellers despise the dark-minded creatures, their distant relatives, with whom they share the planet but who do not have the remembered knowledge. These beings, such as the planters, constantly use their minds and their hands to devise and construct artifacts. They are intelligent enough to think out anew the ways of doing things, although they do not remember that these things have been done before. It is as if the whole disease were starting all over again.

Dig a shelter today. Build a house tomorrow. Clear a forest for a city the day after. Choke the landscape with the waste materials the next.

Plant a seed today. Cut down a clearing for many seeds tomorrow. Deforest and irrigate a valley the day after. Change the global climate the next.

Make a spade today. Make a spear tomorrow. Make an explosive machine the day after. Engulf a plain with instantaneous fire and leave it a poisonous ruin the next.

Although the travellers make it their work to frustrate any of this activity wherever they find it, they also use its results. In the far north where they go when times are warm they eat the food grown in the enclosures by the planters. In the far south, when they have travelled there along the spines and ridges of high ground between the foul low-lying slimelands, they eat the roots and tubers stored in the cooled chambers of the hivers. It is a paradox that they do not even try to solve - they are, after all, human beings.

Things are set to change, however. It was not just the making of things and the deliberate changing of the planet that killed their ancestors. The planet itself undergoes changes from time to time, and these changes were such that their ancestors could not withstand them. A force within Earth that allowed them to tell which was north and which was south died away and then reversed: that was one of the factors.

That same force is used by the travellers themselves; something, some sense inside them, allows them to detect and follow it. Over the past few generations, however, it has been fading away again, and now travel between feeding grounds is going to become increasingly difficult.

The travelling party of 15 contemplate this, as they sit in the cave mouth, watching the rain hurtling down, stirring up the smells of the forest. This cave, in fact this whole hillside, is unfamiliar to the party. They have never passed it in previous years, so they must have gone well off course. It should not be too much of a problem: once the skies clear they can take their direction from the Sun and the stars.

If the skies clear.

Night is falling, and the wet greyness is becoming darker. They are going to have to spend the night here, but at least they have the shelter of the rocky overhang.

When morning comes there are only 12 of them. During the night something has come out of the cave and taken away the other three - something that their communal memory has not anticipated, something with small humanlike feet that have left damp prints on the rock.

The survivors move on. The skies are not clear, but they would rather make a guess about which way to go than stay in this place.

By 3 million years (the 30020th Century)

They die out. Their religious refusal to use the knowledge that they all possessed meant that they could do nothing to help themselves to improve their situation. When natural conditions changed they refused to change as well. Earth's magnetic field reversed, continents moved, and changing sea levels cut off migration routes. Rivers changed their courses, volcanoes threw up new barriers, and climates altered from year to year. Creatures of lesser wit and no knowledge of the past survived these upheavals, which constituted disasters on a local scale, but merely inconveniences on a global one. However, amongst those with the memory, the changing conditions took their local environment further and further away from what they knew or remembered, and eventually, rather than change with it, they perished.

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