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Orn woke exhausted. His body was cold and somewhat sticky, and his muscles were uncertain. He could not remember how he had come here, but he knew it was not safe to yield to his confusion now.
Something was wrong. He lifted his head and forced open eyes that had been sealed shut by goo. At first the brightness hurt him; then it settled to a wan glow as his sensitive eyes protected themselves. He was in a cave, and it was half-light: the start or end of a day. That much he grasped, remembering the inanimate cycle.
He was sprawled awkwardly across cold stone. He wedged four sticky, clumsy limbs under his body ungracefully, then rose to stand with greater confidence on two.
Yes--in the gradually brightening light he made out the flat floor and naturally corrugated ceiling, both descending into darkness beyond him. Nearby was a voluminous tumble of dehydrated stalks: a nest, containing a single monstrous, elongated egg, and sticky fragments of another.
Orn brushed gingerly against the whole egg. Cold--nothing would hatch from this. Beyond it and the nest were rocks and bones and other debris of indeterminate origin. All dead.
He walked unsteadily toward the light, avoiding the scattered joints and droppings and teeth and dehydrated leaves and sticks that lined the track. The exertion warmed his body, and he began to feel better. But with this physical improvement his mind seemed to backslide, to lose coherence. Strange visions passed through his awareness, incredible peripheral memories that could not be his own, that faded as he became aware of them.
He relaxed, not attempting to scrutinize thetwitchings of his brain, and then the pictures perversely took on a sharp focus.
Memory. It began far, far back in the half-light, wetter and warmer than since. He floated in a nutrient ocean and absorbed what he required through his spongy skin. He reached for the light, a hundred million years later, needing it ... but recoiled, burned, finding it too fierce to approach. He had to wait, to adapt, and this did not come easily. He held his position and ate what he could and expanded his mass slowly, very slowly, a billion years slowly. But somehow the larger he grew, the greater became his hunger. He could not get enough nourishment. Never enough, never enough...
The odd memory dissipated as he turned the corner and stood in the stronger light at the cave's mouth. Green shrubbery showed beyond, and the intense gray-white of the sky. This was morning: not the steamy dawn of twenty million years ago, but a chilly and empty rising of the sun.
The corpse of a mighty bird lay on the ground, astride the opening of the cave. In life it might have stood so tall as to brush the very ceiling, and it had a thick, slightly curved beak, stubby wings, and cruel, forward-reaching talons. Under the disarray of gray feathers the long strong muscles of the thighs still bunched, as though it had been running--or fighting--when it died. The powerful neck was twisted so that the head stared stiffly to the side, and dried blood fouled the upper plumes. One eye peered into the sun, the orb already shrunken with the dehydration of its tissues. Once-handsome tail feathers were broken off in the dirt.
There had been a desperate battle, and the bird had lost, but the victor had not paused to consume the flesh. This too was strange.
Looking at her--for he recognized the corpse as female as readily as he was coming to identify all the things he saw--Orn felt a vague alarm. He did not conjecture the meaning of his own awakening beside the abandoned nest of this creature, nor did he wonder what had vanquished her. Instead he searched his troubled memory--and found the bird within.
Sixty to eighty million years ago the hot-bodied aves had completed their divergence from their rep ancestry, conserving the produce of their internal furnaces by means of scales lengthening into fluffy down. They lived in tall pines and rocky gullies, where it grew cold at night, and needed continuous warmth in order to stay alert and alive in those windy heights. They spread all four legs with strengthened coverts to add buoyancy, and leaped and glided to safety at the slightest provocation. For some of the predator reps could climb, and all were hungry. The tree-leaper who fell to the ground was dead, and not from the fall.
But soon one line of aves had grown too large to escape through the air, and while its light-boned, light-brained cousins ascended ever higher into the sky and pumped their expanding front wings and let the hind wings shrivel into claws, this nether line planted its hind limbs firmly in the dread earth and discarded flight. Here only the fleet of foot survived at all, and the strong of beak, and the firm of memory. They had to run at times, and fight at times, and to know without hesitation when each was appropriate in the stronghold of the reps.
They succeeded. They were able to forage in colder areas than the reps, and to travel at night. Other land-bound lines diverged.
All this Orn knew, his memory triggered by the need, by the sight of this ultimate bird. She was not a creature of terror to him, but of history, who had come fifty million years along her line to die so brutally before this cave. Orn did not sorrow for her; such was the nature of existence. The weak, the careless, the unlucky--these died and were replaced by others.
He stepped around the body and stood in the sun. A towering pine ascended from the nearby turf, as ancient and grand in its fashion as the bird. The ground was covered with tall ferns, and cycads shook their fronds in the light breeze. Similar plants had dominated the landscape for a very long time, Orn knew. Only recently had others come to contest the land, and those others had not been very successful here.
He scratched the ground experimentally while the rising sun took the chill off the land. His digits were feeble and tender compared to the thick horned toes of the dead bird, but a few tentative scrapes exposed the underlying structure. Beneath the surface leaves and twigs and needles lay spongy humus teeming with its own awakening life. He put one eye down and concentrated, bringing the miniature landscape into focus.
Here were cricks and roaches and black-shelled beets busily scavenging microscopic debris. Tiny springs, those wingless arths who jumped by flipping forked tails against the ground--these too scrambled for cover, disliking the sun.
Orn knew them. The arths had diverged very long ago, so far back that he had no memory of their early evolution. Somewhere--sometime in that hot sea as he struggled between the freezing darkness and the burning light and satisfied his compelling hunger by growing into an absorptive cup, a cylinder, a blob with an internal gut, as he extruded fins and nascent flukes and swam erratically after game, and formed eyes to harness the light at last and gills to breathe the water and the lateral line system to navigate by--somewhere during that complex billion-year development that preceded his rise to land the little arths had taken their own mysterious but highly successful course. Now they crawled and flew and fashioned webs and hives and cocoons and burrows and lived their hasty lives in many-legged, many-winged, virtually mindless certainty.
Orn moved on, observing everything but questioning nothing. Timorous hairy mams scooted from his path, afraid of him; these represented innocuous lines. He traveled a shallow valley that led gradually downward toward a body of water. Soft, flat vegetation of the new type crowded the edge of the water and floated on the surface, an increasing amount of it bearing flowers. Small fish, piscs, flashed where a streamlet flowed over naked stone and coursed between round mossy rocks; they were an ancient and multiple line, and now and then one came to kiss the surface of the lake.
Once more Orn remembered: the flowing water was a different medium from the passive depths of the sea, as different in its fashion as air from land. The flaccid flesh of the calm ocean depths had had to develop a stiffened but flexible rod of gristle along its length, lest it be tumbled into danger by the new phenomenon of current. To this gristle the expanding muscle tissue was anchored; progress was no longer random but forward, against the flow. Before his line diverged from that of the piscs, they had invaded the less-habited regions up the current, and changed in the process. The spinal rod protected increasingly important nerves, for coordination had become essential; then the gristle hardened into cartilage and then into bone. The skeleton was the gift of flowing fresh water, and so the land had already affected life in the sea.
But the rivers of the past were fast and shallow, and they flowed from the bleak inhospitable mass of substance that formed the continent, and from time to time the ambitious swimmer was stranded in some stagnant pool. He had to gulp life from the surface, even as these fish in the lake did now, and hold the bubble in his mouth in an effort to absorb from it the breath that had left the water. But his mouth was now encumbered with jaws and teeth and tongue, all needed for feeding. Thus he was forced to develop a special cavity in the throat, a bag, a chamber--a lung. When the water of his isolated pool finally sank to nothing, his fins had to strengthen into four stout limbs to support the body against the gut-wrenching land gravity, and the new lungs sustained life entirely. It was a brief but awful trek, that first journey over the cruel land, and almost every fish who tried it perished; but that fraction who were not only determined and strong but fortunate as well--Orn's own line--won reprieve in a deeper, fresher pool.
Orn remembered the original home: the water. He remembered the gradually lengthening adventures over a land inhabited only by pulpy vegetation and rapidly scrambling arths, until most of his life was spent upon it and he was no longer a true fish. He remembered the hardening of the rind around the soft eggs, until they withstood to some extent the ravages of sun and air. A small step, but significant, for it meant that the sea had let slip its last lingering hold. A complete life cycle could occur without the intervention of the ocean.
By the shore of the lake he found the body of the male bird. This one, too, had perished violently--but unlike his mate, he had taken his enemy with him. A long, powerful rep lay belly-up on the sand, its tail in water, its eyes two bloody sockets, its gut an open cavity. Gore on the beak and talons of the bird betrayed the savagery of its attack, here at the fringe of the rep's demesne; but the scattered feathers and blood on its breast showed that the teeth of the croc had not fastened on empty air.
Had the rep reached water before the bird attacked, the rep would have won the battle easily. But it had not, perhaps because of wounds inflicted by the female bird. Now all three combatants were food for the clustered flies.
The croc: as Orn gazed at it he comprehended the course it had taken since its ancestors branched away from his own, more recently than the fishes. His line had stayed on land in the trees before returning to the ground, climbing and leaping from branch to branch, becoming warm of body, omnivorous of diet, and highly specialized of brain. But the croc had returned part way to the water, hiding behind horny skin, preying on anything that fell in or strayed too near.
This time the croc had ventured too far from its region of strength, perhaps seeking to raid the enormous eggs in the cave nest while one bird was absent, thinking the remaining bird would not fight.
Orn did not attempt to work out the details further in his mind. He was weak and tired and alone, and now ravenously hungry. His heritage of memory finally closed the gap between his evolution and himself, and he understood that there would be no outside help for his distress. He was a member of the most advanced species yet to tread the earth of this world--but he had nothing more to sustain him at the moment than his generalized body and the knowledge within him of the genesis of living things.
He did not pause to consider what would have happened had the croc reached the two eggs before the parent birds returned, or the happenstance that the elder egg had been on the verge of hatching the instant the fatal encounter took place. The mother's warmth had been taken away at the critical moment, forcing activity or death for the chick. He did not ponder the coincidence of destiny; he did not contemplate revenge. His mind was designed for far-reaching, comprehensive racial memory rather than true thought. Racial memory was his instrument of survival--a device like none ever employed by another species.
Orn shook out his stubby, still-featherless wings and advanced on the piled meat before him. Flies swarmed up as his beak chopped down. He was hungry, and there was no one to feed him.
Posted May 15, 2011
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Posted December 7, 2010
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