Justin Rasmussen leaned back in the low hanging crook of a baobab tree. Adansonia digitata. Legend said the devil pulled it out of the ground and shoved it back in upside down. Justin didn't dwell on how he knew this. He knew a lot of things, but unlike the baobab tree, which knew how to put down roots, sprout leaves, survive from season to season, most of Justin's knowledge was useless in this time and place.
He was satisfied for now that the tree provided a good view over the surrounding savannah. Dry grass spread out before him spotted with dense thickets and thorn bushes. He drew the palm of his hand across his forehead to forestall a rivulet of sweat that threatened to slide off his balding pate before cascading down through thick brows and into his eyes.
Jamani, ever faithful, squatted below on a low knoll. He had chosen more level ground, which still gave him a view without the necessity of expending the energy to climb a tree.
The grass of the savannah bent to a gentle breeze. It was almost wheat‑like in color, punctuated here and there with leaning acacias, their dark trunks gnarled, their tops splashed with sprays of small green leaves. The rainy season was yet to come, which would urge forth bursts of red and orange blossoms.
A denser jungle crowded with towering palms, laced together by twisted vines, clustered in thick competition following the course of a river that flowed across the plain and emptied a kilometer away into Lake Turk.
An iridescent blue, the lake spread from lapping waves on the near shore to an extended line at the horizon. Justin could only surmise where it emptied. His learning said the lake was drained by a great river that flowed north all the way to a large sea.
But he had never ventured far from what he called home. So he was unable to confirm or deny what he had been taught.
To the far south Mount Ken rose. Near its summit a faint dusting of white was a reminder of the cold that had gripped the region a generation ago.
Justin rubbed his hand dry against an animal hide that served as a loin cloth. He twisted his shoulders in a stretch of his lanky body, bronzed by the sun. "I can't decide," he said to Jamani, shifting a spear from one shoulder to the other, "whether the cold we experienced forty years ago was better or worse than the heat that assaults us today."
"Like heat." Jamani threw a stone out over the grass, as much in boredom as to check no saber cats were creeping up on them. "Like food. Like trees and grass."
We were just children, Justin thought. Glacial ice melted in a matter of months, forcing a scramble for survival. Devastating floods followed, swelling the lake beyond ancient shores and scouring the landscape. Years of famine followed until the land rejuvenated. Vegetation now grew in the open, and game grazed on the flat plains. It had all happened so quickly.
A tug at Justin's foot drew his attention to a diminutive primate. An australopithecine was its scientific name. The creature pointed a crooked finger at the remains of a banana Justin held in his hand.
He tossed the banana and watched as the primate snagged it. "Good catch for a being without an opposable thumb. But they have time for that to develop."
With a tired, forgiving look, Jamani raised his hand and wiggled his thumb. "Oppos...I have thumb."
"Yes, you do."
The rest of the primate troop foraged farther out on the savannah in the waist high grass, oblivious to the noon day heat. They dug for tubers recent rains had spurred into growth.
An odd, swishing sound distracted Justin. He looked around, bewildered, wondering where the sound could be coming from.
Jamani pointed overhead.
Startled, Justin almost unbalanced himself.
A bright light fell out of the sky, descending rapidly.
The primates scattered, then huddled together at a distance as the light slowed and came to ground with a soft touch. The grass around the object smoldered, giving off a whiff of smoke that drifted south but did not ignite.
What had landed was ovoid, twenty meters in diameter and three meters thick with a textured outer surface. It had dug a short groove into the loamy soil, and now lay steaming, dirt pushing one side up at an angle to the ground.
An orifice sagged open on its top. From the orifice an arm extended, first one, then another. Pale, white and thin, the arms grappled against what appeared to be a slippery edge. A head emerged.
Justin leapt from the tree, his spear gripped tightly and raised.
A slender female, naked and pregnant to all appearances, levered herself out of the craft, for that is what it must have been. She slid to the ground, all the time shouting at someone or something.
The object's coloration darkened morbidly. If it were organic, Justin could have concluded it was dying, at least all movement from it ceased. That the object exhibited any indication of dying made Justin wonder. How could something organic survive such a fiery descent?
After a moment's hesitation, the female staggered to her feet and began slicking a slimy, clear mucous off her body. While doing so, she glanced often at the stunned primates who stood thirty meters from her. She didn't see Justin or Jamani in the dark shadows of the baobab.
Her distress was obvious.
She kicked the craft in disgust and simultaneously gripped her swollen abdomen. Her face contorted in pain.
Justin waved his spear toward the leader of the primates, Wakuru, indicating he should help her.
Wakuru, who had a basic knowledge of commands, shook his head and motioned as though Justin should do the approaching himself.
But Justin had been told in his youth of a craft like this. His instincts urged caution.
He motioned again making a slicing gesture across his throat, something he knew Wakuru would interpret to mean Justin was serious.
Wakuru stepped toward the pale female and stopped three meters from her. He sat on his haunches, broke off a stem of grass and picked his teeth. After surveying the situation, he looked back over his shoulder a couple of times to Justin, who motioned he should proceed.
With what could be interpreted as a primate sigh, Wakuru tossed the reed aside and stood. Stepping gingerly on bowed legs, he closed the distance between himself and the female.
She didn't flinch at his approach, but instead grabbed her abdomen again and groaned. Another contraction.
Wakuru stretched out his hand.
The female grasped it.
Wakuru made an awkward up and down motion that in another time would have amounted to a handshake, but now might have meant let go. He motioned with wild sweeps of his other arm they should go to the jungle by the river. Presumably, he hoped to communicate it would be cooler there, maybe safer.
The female gave the craft a last look as Wakuru led her toward the jungle. Her long strides forced him to double‑time to keep up with her.
Another contraction gripped her, and she faltered.
Wakuru grasped both hands as high as he could to reach her upper arm, supporting her awkwardly until the spasm passed. Then, huddled together, they disappeared into the leafy growth.
Jamani eyed the craft. "It be Shepherd."
"I believe so." Justin looked from where the female had disappeared with Wakuru, then back to the craft. He felt an odd sense of déjà vu. He had only vague memories of the Shepherd from tales told to him during his youth. And now it lay in front of him seemingly dead. "I wonder what he expected to accomplish by coming here."
Gilomir's first utterance was a cry, the kind normal babies make when they exit the womb. Whereas his mother may have taken this to mean he was healthy, he screamed instead his frustration at still being in a hominid body.
The slick fluids of a human birth surrounded him. This is degrading. Why am I still here? He opened his mouth to cry again and gagged on blood and soggy tissue.
He lay on dirt, his mother's legs spread wide, rising like pillars, bloodstained and slick with the detritus of birthing. The orifice to the womb he had just exited gaped open, a red sore.
Mid‑scream, he turned his head and stared through eyes still filmed over at his mother. His vision distorted a pleasant face. She must be all of twenty years old, pale and slender with wide spaced dark eyes and close‑cropped black hair. Mia. He had spent nine months in her womb listening to her every conversation, her prattling, feeling her every emotion, absorbing her every thought. She was a host. But if he had any choice in the matter, he wouldn't be here at all. But what next?
Mother picked him up, wet and slippery, and cradled him in her arms. "He's beautiful. I shall call him Humanus to honor my master and acknowledge His debt to the hominid John Lohner, his father."
As far as Gilomir, now presumably Humanus, could tell no one in attendance but himself had any idea what she had just said. Large eyes in flat simian faces peered at him more in curiosity than with any sense of being in the presence of a lord and master.
Unceremoniously, Mia dumped him from her chest. Someone chewed the cord connecting him to her. He could only hope it would be tied off. These primitives--he peered as best he could--were more like monkeys. They could bleed his essence onto the ground before realizing such basics.
Someone laid a rough skin on him, providing a warm cover. Not that he needed it. The air was hot and humid beyond his expectations. An attending female wiped a leaf across his eyes, and his vision improved.
A tangle of growth climbed chaotically overhead, green and brown, all the while buffeted by the sound of far away rushing water. Off to one side, a view corridor revealed waving yellow grass that caught the slanted rays of the sun at what must be the close of day. In the distance, purple hills darkened in the dwindling light.
An elephant trumpeted. A familiar sound, not one he must learn. After all, this age was not that different from where he had originated six million years in the future. Elephants were still elephants.
A far off huffing cry of a saber‑toothed cat slid low to the ground. Now that was different. That kitten would have the lions of north Kenya for lunch. But Humanus didn't care. He was alive and better yet, looking forward to rescue.
A few days later, he was roused from a sleep in Mia's arms.
Her breathing had become labored. The lines around her eyes had darkened, giving her a hollowed‑out look.
He knew she was synthetic, a product of the Shepherd. And therefore, it was of no surprise with the Shepherd gone, she had run out of energy and was going to die.
"My little man." She smiled down at him.
He tried to respond, but managed nothing more than the abrupt passing of air from his stomach.
She waved a hand.
Humanus tightened his cheeks, drawing his lips wide and exposing his gums.
"Your father was a strong man. Not just physically, but in what he believed. And all the while he was assaulted by that alien A4-Ni. I think it drove him insane in the end, so much destruction, so much death." She paused and took several deep breaths. "He was caught in the middle of a confrontation between A4-Ni, the guardian and the Shepherd, and what they wanted everyone to do."
Mia wasn't making a lot of sense. Humanus had a good grasp of what had happened while he was being carried around in her womb and even before, but that was still not a whole lot. Most of the time she was in a slumber as the Shepherd had transported them around a black hole and deposited them here, six million years back from where they had taken off.
"Your father was a paleoanthropologist."
As if he didn't know, but she seemed to have to say these things. Maybe this was what people did before they died.
"He made love to me on a night like this--" she gazed through the branches overhead where a full moon cast its ghostly rays. "--it was my first and only time. The Shepherd tricked me. I thought I was sterile, but I wasn't. When he could not extract your genome any other way, he said you and I were his backups."
I'm a backup?
"At first I was incensed I had been deceived, but upon reflection, I decided I didn't mind." She suppressed a cough. "John was dead or dying and I would have you to remind me of him."
Humanus would have nodded in agreement if he had control of his neck muscles.
"You are a composite of our master Gilomir and John, the hominid. And as such you are more than you could ever hope to be as Gilomir alone." She drew in a breath with what seemed like all her remaining strength. "I..."
And that was the last word she uttered. Her head flopped forward, and Humanus, who had been sucking on her breast, struggled to free himself from being suffocated by a doughy press of flesh.
Wakuru hurried to her side. Distress showed in his simian eyes, and Humanus knew the primate was feeling much of what he felt. Death was a known quantity. It had claimed members of Wakuru's tribe. It had certainly befallen others known vicariously by Humanus. The gloom of it descended upon him like a dark enveloping blanket. As it closed about his psyche, a swift movement caught his attention.
Gomo, a surly, aggressive male lunged forward. He grasped Humanus' foot and dragged him from Mia's limp arms, then thumped him onto the jungle floor and headed for the plain.
With a screech, Wakuru leapt onto Gomo's back and rained fierce blows about his head.
Gomo blinked as though surprised by the attack. He dropped Humanus and shrugged Wakuru to the ground, then turned with a snarl, his mouth wide with a dry hissing, his long incisors glistening. The skin on his nose wrinkled. His eyes closed to mere slits.
Wakuru rolled away and regained his footing.
The two bluffed and blustered, Wakuru the larger and ten years Gomo's senior.
The other members of the troop danced around in agitated witness.
Finally, Gomo seemed to have had enough and simply stopped his assault and sauntered out of the clearing toward the savannah.
Wakuru limped over to Humanus and cradled him in his arms. He walked back to where Mia lay prostrate, the gray of death making her look dried and worn.
Wakuru muttered under his breath, nothing Humanus could interpret as intelligible words, but certainly sounds of mourning and sorrow. Had Mia known the commotion she had caused she probably would have been embarrassed.
Behind the grieving primate, a tall male figure appeared. He was definitely human with bronzed skin and a short wrap of animal hide around his waist. His face was lean and chiseled with stringy graying hair falling long from his temples and bald top.
He gazed at Humanus with deep set eyes that projected an air of wisdom. The man placed a hand on Wakuru's shoulder and squeezed. "You must now care for this child."
Wakuru nodded and returned the gesture with a long string of gibberish.
The tall figure stroked Humanus' forehead. "You have come a long way. I pray your journey will not end here."
Humanus heard the words and understood them, but he didn't comprehend what the tall figure meant. Nor did he understand what a human was doing here millions of years before they were presumed to have evolved.
The tall figure smiled at him, then turned and disappeared into the jungle.
The other members of the troop gathered around Wakuru and Humanus, offering their own toothy smiles and little pokes with their fingers.