Read The Creatures of Man Online

Authors: Howard L. Myers,edited by Eric Flint

Tags: #Science Fiction

The Creatures of Man (7 page)

BOOK: The Creatures of Man
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"Yes."

 

2

He took to the air and found his mended wing was as sturdy as ever—as he had known it would be. Flying to a group of flowers he had not yet visited, he lit on a tall, deep-cupped blossom and unrolled his proboscis. As he sipped the sweet nectar from the bottom of the cup he realized that he had made his decision.

There was no question about it being his decision to make. Butterflies do not vote. The others were, certainly, interested in what his decision would be, but he was the individual directly involved in the matter of the metal-secreters.

The strange hive was on his hunting ground. He had seen it himself and had been attacked by one of the creatures. He had discussed the situation with the spider. In short, this was his affair, and his ability to decide how to conduct it was as good as any other butterfly's.

He would call Man. The other favored creatures would assist him if he requested their help.

Having decided, he continued to feed for two hours. Man could not be called from his hunting ground—that had to be done at a special place hundreds of miles away. It was best to be well nourished before beginning such a journey. When his feeding took him close to the spider's web, he kept his promise to tell her what he was going to do. She haughtily approved.

The day was still younger than mid-morning when he took a last sip, climbed higher in the air than usual and began the long flight westward. He had never come this way before—in fact, he had never traveled far from his hunting ground in any direction. But he found nothing strange in the countryside below him, no wonderful new sights to see. He knew the now-moment, and what he saw was what he had known was there to see.

When he grew hungry after several hours of flight, another butterfly, a Swallowtail like himself, called invitingly: "Come down and feast and rest. My flowers are suitable, sweet and plentiful." He accepted the offer and lighted in the other's hunting ground where he fed, napped and fed again until mid-morning. Then he resumed his journey.

* * *

He made five more such stops before the terrain began to change from the lush, slightly undulating plain into a more rugged and elevated landscape where the flowers grew in less abundance. He was approaching a towering range of mountains. As he climbed with the land, the atmosphere grew noticeably thinner; breathing and flying required increased vigor, and his periods of rest became longer and more frequent. But he was nearing his goal.

He reached a spot near the upper end of a high valley, with only one more tremendous barren ridge to fly over. He had left the area in which butterflies lived and hunted far behind; at this elevation the flowers were too small and sparse to support the likes of himself in comfort.

He fluttered down to light on a rock near a beehive. Several bees came out and examined him with wonder. To their limited knowing he was a sight at which to marvel, gigantic in size and with wings the colors of many flowers. And he was a butterfly, which meant he was wise.

"You are welcome here, butterfly-who-is-going-to-call-Man," they told him, "though you will eat so much, doubtless, that you will set our population expansion program back at least a year. Never has a butterfly visited our hive before. It will please us to serve you well."

"I am grateful," he responded
,
"especially since you do not have plenty."

"What we have you will find good," they replied.

And he did. The bees fed him honey, and his knowing was shocked most pleasantly by its heavy richness and almost overwhelming sweetness. Never before, he realized, had a butterfly been so hungry and fed so deliciously. It was a wonderful and novel now-moment to know.

After he had been fed and had drunk from a shaded, icy spring, he napped by the water for several hours. Then the bees fed him more honey and, thoroughly invigorated, he began the last segment of his journey.

He needed all the strength the honey gave him. As he made his way up the steep final slope, the thinning air became hardly sufficient to sustain him, no matter how hard he worked his wings, and it seemed all but impossible to pump his abdomen fast enough to bring as much oxygen as he needed into his body. Long before he reached the summit he was reduced to making short, hopping flights of only a few yards at a time, from one ledge to the next, interspersed with rests for breathing.

The last fifty yards of the ascent he did not fly at all, but crawled. When he came in sight of the Nest That Man Left he was tempted to stop where he stood and sleep, but the chill in the air told his knowing that this would be unwise. He made his way clumsily over the leveled ground of the mountaintop toward the entrance of the rambling metal structure.

As he did so he realized that the Nest That Man Left was another emptiness in his knowing. That was not surprising, though, since it was an unpopulated, unvisited location. His knowing told him only what the outer appearance of the Nest would be, and where it was to be entered. The inside was as blank as that of the metal-secreters' hive. With a sense of uneasiness in the face of the unknown, intensified by the strained condition of his body, the butterfly crawled to the entrance.

The Nest sensed his presence and opened the door as he approached. He went inside without a pause, and the door slid closed behind him.

 

 

3

The interior was dark at first but brightened immediately as overhead panels shifted to let in sunlight through a wide expanse of glass.

The walls hissed as an oxygen-rich flood of air pressed in to bring the thickness up to a level the butterfly found comfortable. A trough in the floor gurgled and filled with water, and he drank gratefully. These events were all unexpected, of course, but there was a definite rightness about them. This was the way a butterfly should be received in the Nest That Man Left, and it was not difficult to place in his knowing.

The Nest addressed him: "You are a butterfly, and you are here to call Man." The mind of the Nest was shrouded, somewhat like that of the spider except for an absence of personality.

"Yes," the butterfly responded.

"I am the voice of the Nest, a contrivance that does not live but that can converse with you to a limited extent. Do you have injuries or unmet needs that are an immediate danger to you?"

"No." The butterfly's senses searched his surroundings while the voice addressed him, and he gained a partial knowing of the nature of the voice contrivance. Man had to be wise, indeed, to construct such a complex dead device and to shelter it so perfectly that, after untold thousands of years, it could still awaken and engage in a conversation of minds.

"Do butterflies continue to know the now-moment?" the Nest asked.

"Yes."

"That is an ability Man did not give me, and one that he lacks himself," the Nest told him. "Thus I do not know the nature of the emergency that brings you here. Nor do I know where Man is, nor what he may have become during the centuries since he made me, mutated your ancestors and departed."

"Man does not change himself, according to my knowing," commented the butterfly.

"Not intentionally, perhaps, but he changes nevertheless. He is a discontented being who, not knowing the now-moment, wanders and searches for new things to know. What he finds changes him, not in the orderly manner in which he fitted you for conditions on this world, but in ways that are unplanned and sometimes undesirable. Occasionally he finds something very damaging to him, something that darkens his intelligence and causes him to forget much of his learning from previous findings."

* * *

The butterfly struggled with this information. His difficulty was
not that what the Nest told him was new. On the contrary, it was
ancient; so ancient that it had been all but forgotten—dismissed as having no meaning to current knowing. It occurred to the butterfly that perhaps the creatures of Man had
wanted
to forget that Man could not know the now-moment, which implied that Man was inferior to themselves. But then, he quickly reassured himself, Man must have completely different abilities that made him superior—abilities so far beyond a butterfly's comprehension that the Nest would not attempt to describe them.

At last he addressed the Nest: "Then if I call Man, the being who responds may be unlike the beings who established the creatures of Man on this world. He may even have forgotten that he has such creatures as us."

"That is correct," the Nest responded. "Man instructed me to be sure you understood that before he was called. If he comes, the results will be unpredictable. You are to reconsider the nature of your emergency with this in mind and decide if your need for Man is sufficient for you to accept the uncertainties of his present nature."

This was a difficult decision indeed. The butterfly thought about it for several minutes before saying, "In essence, the emergency is an intellectual one. An area of blankness has entered our knowing. Since Man does not know the now-moment, it is possible that we could not explain to him the nature of the emergency."

"That is possible," agreed the Nest. "In any event, unless Man has changed greatly, you will be unable to communicate with him directly. Man does not speak mind-to-mind, the way you and I are conversing, but through the use of special sounds he can emit, each sound being a symbol of a fragment of thought."

"Then how could we have ever communicated?" asked the astonished butterfly.

"Through intermediary devices such as myself," said the Nest. "You can talk to me and I can put your thoughts into the words of Man, like this." The Nest emitted, from a wall cavity, a complex series of noises.

The butterfly listened in stunned recognition. He had never heard such sounds before today, but as he had hovered over the metal-secreters earlier that morning just such noises, though dim and muffled, had struck his sensors. But Man was supposed to be ten-fingered—more manipulatory members than even the spider! And the metal-secreters had clearly been deficient in this respect, having only two pairs of legs.

The Nest was continuing: "Communication is rendered more complex by the use of differing sets of sound-symbols called languages, and by the fact that a given set of symbols tends to change with the passage of years to become an entirely new language. I probably would not know the sounds man uses today, but would have to communicate your thoughts, with some explanation, to a device similar to myself that Man brought with him, and that device in turn would speak to Man."

"Man uses metal extensively, does he not?" asked the butterfly.

"Yes. Metals were abundant on his, and your, original planet. He built his nests of them and other dead materials, and also his flying shelters in which he journeyed here and to many other worlds."

"What are fingers?"

"They are relatively small, slender extensions of Man's arms, his upper legs. They are useful for gripping and manipulating. He has ten of them, normally."

"I wish to call him," said the butterfly.

"Very well . . . The call is now being emitted. I do not know when he will arrive. He may have to come far, a journey of more than a day for his fastest shelter. Certainly, he cannot be expected to arrive within a hundred hours at best. As there is no food stored for you here, I suggest you return to your hunting ground to await him."

"My knowing is unsure," replied the butterfly, "but I believe Man to be quite close. I will wait outside, at least for a while. It is certain he will respond to the call?"

"If he does not," the Nest said, "he will have changed too greatly to be of any assistance to you. I am preparing to open the door."

The air thinned; the door opened, and the butterfly went out onto the mountaintop. This was the kind of air Man could breathe without the protection of an artificial exoskeleton, the butterfly reasoned. Thus this mountaintop was the place where Man should be met by his creatures.

 

 

4

He was hardly outside when the knowing came that the flying hive of the "metal-secreters" had lifted from the Rock Hill back in his hunting ground. It was hurtling toward him almost with the speed of a meteorite, but when it arrived it landed as gently as the butterfly could have descended onto a flower.

The Nest commented: "So your emergency was Man himself . . . They have a device with them to permit communication." Nearly an hour passed before the butterfly was addressed again: "A Man is coming out now. I have told him about this world."

The butterfly watched with a touch of awe as the Man came out of the unplugged hole in the flying hive. Without his artificial exoskeleton, but with most of his body covered with brightly colored woven material, he still looked very odd—but not like some freakish creature who could secrete metal. The butterfly's senses informed him that, without his woven coverings, Man would appear rather drab: pink all over except for a scattering of dark hair and for the eyes which were small and one-faceted.

Still, there was an austere attractiveness in the Man's appearance and a startling grace in the way he crawled, precariously balanced on his rear legs. The Men had looked less graceful earlier in the morning, using all four legs to push their way through the flowers and the attacking bees, or to climb the steep side of Rock Hill. Apparently Man was designed to crawl best over level, unobstructed ground.

The Man advanced to stand before the butterfly, his small eyes studying the insect as the insect studied the Man. The wings seemed to fascinate the Man. When held in a resting, vertical position their tips were approximately a third as high off the ground as the top of the Man's head.

A series of sounds came from the Man's mouth.

"He is asking your name," explained the Nest. "That is an abstract symbol you would use to identify yourself, as an individual, from the other butterflies. I have explained that, while butterflies have individuality, you have no use for names because of the way you communicate."

"You (Man) may give me a name if you wish," said the butterfly.

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