J.J. Miller
Wonders of the Gods?
in: Fantastic Science Fiction
October, 1980

I WAS ALONE in camp the day that he walked in.

The woman had gone off to a nearby lake to pick tender water-reed stalks. The children were playing somewhere, Alrick, my eldest, trying out the carved throwing stick that Old Father had just made for him.

My younger brother Fenic, Old Father, and wife-brother Mammoc were out hunting. Mammoc was living with us that season. Other bands didn't tolerate him sometimes. True, he tended toward laziness and on the hunt he was about as quiet as a wounded tusker. But nobody could tell stories and jokes the way Mammoc could. Who could forget his joke about the wandering hunter and the fisherman's daughter?

I like a good hunt myself, but that day I had stayed in camp to put the finishing touches on the fine-chipped knife I was making for my brother. With all due modesty, there was no one in the whole clan who could work flint like me. I inherited the skill from Old Father, I guess. Ah, he was a sharp hawk of a man! When he was younger no one could follow a trail like him. He was tireless and keen-eyed and sure-handed with the stabbing spear and throwing stick. Now his eyes were failing him and he could no longer work the hard stone like he once used to because of the sickness that twisted his fingers. Lately, since Old Mother had died in her sleep last season, he had been spending a lot of time on the hunt to keep his mind occupied. Either that or he played with the children, carving them little intricate toys of soft wood that his hands could still handle. Those hands were still clever.

Well, on that day I was hunkered down comfortably before the cook-fire putting the fine touches on the edges of the knife by pressure flaking with a bit of antler. The smell coming from the bubbling pot was making my stomach grumble. I was about to put down the knife and grab a snack when he came from the surrounding trees into the camp clearing.

He was alone and appeared unarmed. I watched him come into the camp, wrinkling my brow in concentration, but knowing at the same time that I had never seen him before. Nor had I ever seen anyone like him.

He was huge, taller and broader than any man I'd ever seen. But his face was almost womanish, not entirely because it lacked any kind of beard. It was soft, plump almost, like that of a baby or young girl. His body was covered by a strange garment, neck to feet. It looked to be of a texture totally unlike hide and it certainly wasn't the color of any animal I'd ever seen. It was as bright as the sun on rising and glittering upon it were narrow bands of some other kind of material that gleamed in the light like sun off calm water. It was rather handsome.

He just looked down at me where I was squatting comfortably before the always-burning fire. I thought him curiously deficient in manners, for he spoke neither words of greeting or identification. The thought then struck me that he was either an outcast or ashamed of his clan. Although outcasts and loners can sometimes be dangerous, I felt no real fear of him. His eyes lacked the madness that burns in the eyes of such men when they are dangerous. Instead, his eyes were soft and watery, almost like those of a doe.

"Welcome stranger," I said courteously. "Will you sit and have something to eat?"

I put my antler-tine flaker on the ground and gestured at the pot that was bubbling slowly over the fire. It contained a particularly savory stew that had turtle, deer, squirrel, water-plant, rabbit, tuber, and a little nut-flour that we had left over from our cold-season stores. He shook his head, his nostrils flaring slightly as he sniffed the delicious aroma coming from the pot. For a moment a look almost of distaste passed over his features, but I might have imagined it.

Finally he spoke.

"I have come from a very distance to see you," he said, his voice deep and resonant. He spoke with a peculiar accent, but that is not unusual. Our people are a far-ranging lot and the distances sometimes cause our words to blur their meanings for each other's ears.

"Oh," I asked, interested. "Are you from over the mountains, from the land that has always a burning sun? I have kin in those parts I haven't seen for years."

"No," he said, laughing a little. "I come from much farther. I come from what you see as one of the burning bits of light in the night."

"Ummm, I see."

I looked at him closely. He didn't appear insane, but sometimes you can't tell. Still, there was his strange appearance and stranger garments.

"Which light have you come from?" I asked politely. He laughed again, louder this time.

"You wouldn't understand if I told you."

I swallowed his insult. Did he think that I had no more sense than the smallest child? Even Alrick, though he's only six or seven gatherings of the clan, could name the hundred or so brightest lights. How else could we find our way at night? How could we return to the choicest nut-groves, the favorite watering-places of the animals? True, there are uncountable lights in the whole sky, but if the stranger couldn't tell me the one he came from, at least he could tell me the general area of the sky!

I caught myself short in my anger, realizing that I was thinking like I believed the madman.

"Well," I replied, determined to humor him somewhat, "it must have been a long trek. Are there trails to follow, then, coming down from the sky?"

He didn't smile this time, but he smiled a smile that I didn't like. It was the superior smile of some bastard who knows where a tusker had just died and he'd rather let the meat rot than tell you the location out of his dislike for you.

"I didn't walk. I came in a, well, vehicle, an enclosed container like your hut there," he said, pointing at our hide and woven-reed shelter. "Of course, my vehicle was much bigger and much sturdier."

This fellow should get together with Mammoc, I thought. A large shelter that moved by itself!

"I came down last night over there," he said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm past the belt of trees from which he had emerged.

It hit me all of a sudden. I remembered the roaring noise, like the sound of a far-falling waterfall, that had woken me last night. And I remembered the ground-quivers. I had dismissed it all in my sleepiness as the ground tremors that sometimes shake this region coupled with the noise of the dream-beast that I was hunting in my sleep.

He must have noticed my change of expression, for he said, "So you believe me now?"

I nodded yes, hoping that his moving shelter hadn't crushed the prime berrypatch that grew in the meadow behind the trees.

"Why have you come, then? Are you looking for better hunting?" His laughter was loud and I didn't like its tone.

"I don't need to chase animals for my sustenance. And you won't have to either! I've come to help you, I've come to show you many wonderful things! Look!" His hand went to a pouch cunningly sewn into the side of his garment and came out with a handful of tiny objects. I peered interestedly at his outthrust hand. "Do you know what these are?" he asked, and then answered his own question before I could open my mouth, "They're seeds. You put them in the ground and they grow into food-bearing plants. You'll be able to live in one place and not have to move about all the time to search for food."

I stared at him for several seconds before I regained my composure and softened my gaze. I knew then that what ever his accomplishments in building marvelous moving shelters, he was quite mad. Who else but a madman would believe the fact that plants grow from seeds is a great revelation?

I thought then that I'd really better humor him.

Well, that's all very interesting. But, personally, I like to move around a bit. A change of scenery every now and then does me good."

He frowned at me briefly.

"We'll discuss it more fully later when you realize the implications of what I've told you. But meanwhile I have other wonders to show you."

"Like what?" I asked, expressing polite interest.

He returned the seeds to his pouch and brought out, well, it was something. I don't know what it was made of, but parts of it shone like the stone that runs molten from the broken mountains, the stone that flows as burning liquid and then hardens to make the best material there is for chipping into sharp tools. Without a word he pointed the object at some nearby trees. He made no move except to flex tiny muscles of his wrist and hand. I could see them jump under his skin.

And the trees shattered with an awesome sound. I was impressed.

His smile, smug and self-satisfied, was again on his lips. "What do you think of that?"

"Well," I said, "that was certainly something. But—" I trailed off and he looked at me suspiciously.

"But what?" he asked, his face clouding visibly.

"Look," I said reasonably, "how can you use that for hunting? It would mangle the animal so badly that, why, you'd waste most of the carcass, to say nothing of the blood and the organs—.

He clenched his lips together tightly, I wondered if in anger.

"Are you so simple that you don't realize what I'm giving you? What about your enemies?"

"Enemies?" I repeated, somewhat blankly.

"Yes, you know, those whom you hate! Those whom you have to fight so that you can live! Those whom you'd like to kill!"

I thought about it carefully for a few moments. There was no one I wanted to kill, no one I had to fight. Oh, there was the occasional bully or the fellow whom you just couldn't get along with. The bully and the madman (not those of the harmless sort, just the violent ones) were usually turned out by the clan if they got to be too much trouble. And if a man annoys you too much, you simply don't band with him and you avoid him at clan gatherings. Like I do my older brother Starn. If someone persists in annoying you, you might have to face him man to man, like I did Rufo about four gatherings ago. He had been such a general pain that the clan was glad to get rid of him and I didn't even have to pay man-price to his close kinsmen.

I thought about it carefully and decided that there was no one to use such a weapon on.

"I have no enemies," I finally said.

My reply somehow angered the stranger.

"You don't understand, you primitive, ignorant fool," he said with some vehemence. "You don't understand the wonders, the powers that I'm offering you."

"You can settle down in one place, all your people can build permanent dwellings and live together. You'll be able to grow your own food, you'll have time for the arts, you'll become civilized!"

His voice rose in anger and he spoke words I couldn't understand. I began to see that I had totally misjudged him. Hidden until now but burning deep in his liquid eyes was a spark of madness the likes of which I had never seen.

"I like the way we live," I said quietly. "The earth is good to us and gives us what we need. Sometimes it is difficult and we have to work hard, but there is no need to huddle together in crowded masses in these 'dwellings' that you speak of. I also don't like the idea of tending plants all day. I don't think that I'd like to be 'civilized'."

The thought of living permanently near Starn was unsettling. I knew that within a season we'd be at each other's throats. It was better this way when I saw him only during part of the year, the easiest and most carefree part.

"Savage," the stranger said, the contempt in his voice now unhidden. "Ignorant savage! I would have been like a beneficent father leading his children to the light. I would have given you wonders the likes of which you've never imagined. You would have sat at my knees and learned what it is like to be men instead of animals."

His voice rose louder and he gestured wildly with the hand that held his terrible destroying device.

"You will all still be my children, even if I have to force you to go my way. I know what you need, I know what is best for you. I am superior mentally and physically and I have the power to force you onto my path. Instead of a father among his children I will be a god among his worshippers—"

He spoke with a frightening intensity. His madness was fully upon him. I looked in his eyes and I saw how he held himself above us, and I thought upon the way he wanted us to go, and I remembered the power that he carried in his soft hands. He stared coldly at me.

"You will see that my way is the proper way. You will thank me eventually, or at least your children will. You will be my first worshipper and I'll bend the rest of your people to my will. It will be a simple thing—"

My legs were gathered comfortably under me and I shot upwards like the uncoiling of an angry snake, my right hand, holding the knife I had been making for my younger brother, pointing straight out like it was the head of a spear that was my entire arm.

I took the stranger in the throat and the knife slid in easily. It grated upon his neckbone and I slashed sideways, ripping open his throat and severing the great vessel that carried the blood to his head.

He looked at me incredulously, his blood showering the ground in a bright fountain. He opened his mouth but no words would come. For a moment the stranger looked like a bewildered child as he watched his dream pump out of his body in a shower of blood, and then he tumbled backwards loosely.

I regarded the bloodied knife in my hand. I would have to make another, for this one was stained with the blood of a madman. There is no honor in killing one such as he, but sometimes a dangerous animal must be destroyed to protect the people. I looked at the dead stranger for a moment and then spoke softly.

"You wanted things which weren't yours," I said. "I have no need for another father, for I have one whom I love dearly. And I have no need of another god, for I worship the Earth who gave me birth and feeds me with the sweat of my brow and to whom I'll someday return. And no man should force another to follow unwanted paths."

I looked at his terrible device that had tumbled from his hand and now lay shining at my feet. It was beautiful, in a deadly sort of way. I picked it up.

Freeing my other hand by sticking my knife into my belt, I stooped over and grasped the fabric of the stranger's clothes. It felt smooth and strange to my hand. He was bigger than me but it was no problem to drag him away from the camp so that neither the scavenger beasts nor his odor would disturb us. I would have buried him but I didn't know if the Earth wanted his body.

His device I threw far into the deep river by which we were camped. The soiled knife followed it into the water.

I went back to the camp thinking that I had a story even Mammoc couldn't top.


 

John Miller

My wife Gail and I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with our four cats (Fafhrd, Shadowjack, the Phantom Stranger and Lord Dunsany), where she is an associate manager of a bookstore and I'm working for my Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of New Mexico. I've loved science fiction and fantasy ever since the third grade when my mother (much to her eventual dismay) bought me a paperback edition of E.R. Burroughs' At the Earth's Core (Hi, Mom). My two dreams are to play the outfield for the New York Mets and to become an established science fiction author. While it's probably too late for the former, I'm still working at the latter.

As a practicing (well, sometimes practicing) archaeologist, I have two pet peeves. The first is the manner in which pre-agricultural man has been treated by virtually every fantasy or science fiction writer from E. R. Burroughs on down. The brutish, degraded caveman stereotype predominates the portrayal of such societies. (This in itself is interesting because it has become apparent that man, or at least H. sapiens, has never really lived in caves for any great length of time). My second peeve concerns the "theories" of von Daniken and their popularity among people who should really know better (i.e., people with I.Q.'s equal to or greater than the average Australopithicene).