He was no communal plains-dweller adapted to the searing heat of the desert. He was in no way prepared for the dryness that had killed his tribe and was now killing him. His dark skin was protecting him from the worst of the Sun's blast, but without water he was going to perish.
They could not move northwards anymore, his tribe and he, despite the fact that the arid lands were moving northwards year by year. They had tried to stay ahead of it, keeping abreast of the zone where there were still enough trees to supply their fruit and seeds, and still enough smaller animals for their protein; but now the people of the lush north barred their path. They were not moving away from their homelands just because the people from the marginal lands needed to survive. After a particularly fierce battle the southerners had to retreat and find their own way of life in the desert.
It has not worked. They are all dead but one, and he has not much longer to go.
The Sun in his eyes dazzles him, the singing of the sands dulls his hearing, the dust in his nostrils clogs his sense of smell and taste. He is wandering lost and without the help of any of his senses. Hallucinations about his tribe force themselves upon him (waking nightmares that chide him for surviving while the rest perished). No matter, he is about to join them.
Then comes the other hallucination; the one about the water. Over there, about 500 paces away, if he has the strength, and just below the soil surface beneath the rocky ledge of a gully, lies enough water to save him. It is only a dream and not worth any attention.
Yet it is not like a dream, but more of a conviction that has been put into mind pictures. Over there lies enough water to save his life. He does not imagine it, he knows it.
He finds the strength to pull himself in that direction, slowly, on hands and knees against the abrasive sand and rock, until eventually he sees ahead of him the rocky outcrop and gully of his hallucination. With a final burst of energy he pulls himself into the hollow, and begins to dig the loose soil. After a while the fine powdery sand becomes coarser, cooler and more cohesive. It is coming out as lumps, stuck together by moisture.
He crams a handful into his mouth and sucks the water from it. Then he digs further and finds the sand becoming wetter and wetter.
After a long time he is finally refreshed. He must now look for food, which is another difficulty; but there will be plants and small burrowing animals around. Somehow he has solved the main problem of living in the desert.
He can see water.
By 500,000 years (the 5020th Century)
At the tail of a social string two of the young gatherers carry a living creature between them. It is somewhat like one of the socials but smaller and not as intelligent, and it does not have the long legs that allow the string to move so quickly. The two socials that carry it interlock 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 other 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' families (and species) and lead their own lives within the Home, are a valuable part of the community.
The social 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 in their simple language 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 (rare for his kind to inherit this from their distant ancestors). 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. They seek the Home's mother.
Eventually, the Home is the stringmaster's. 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.
By 2 million years (the 20020th Century)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 almost 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 female hivers of colonies that grow up 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.
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 other 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.
By 5 million years (the 50020th Century)
They are wiped out by the travelers of the stars.