2001-A Space Odyssey

    2 - The New Rock




    Late that night, Moon-Watcher suddenly awoke. Tired out by the day's exertions and disasters, he had been sleeping more soundly than usual, yet he was instantly alert at the first faint scrabbling down in the valley.


    He sat up in the fetid darkness of the cave, straining his senses out into the night, and fear crept slowly into his soul. Never in his life - already twice as long as most members of his species could expect - had he heard a sound like this. The great cats approached in silence, and the only thing that betrayed them was a rare slide of earth, or the occasional cracking of a twig. Yet this  was a continuous crunching noise, that grew steadily louder. It seemed that some enormous beast was moving through the night, making no attempt at concealment, and ignoring all obstacles. Once Moon-Watcher heard the unmistakable sound of a bush, being uprooted; the elephants and dinotheria did this often enough, but otherwise they moved as silently as the cats.


    And then there came a sound which Moon-Watcher could not possibly have identified, for it had never been heard before in the history of the world. It was the clank of metal upon stone.


    Moon-Watcher came face to face with the New Rock when he led the tribe down to the river in the first light of morning. He had almost forgotten the terrors of the night, because nothing had happened after that initial noise, so he did not even associate this strange thing with danger or with fear. There was, after all, nothing in the least alarming about it.


    It was a rectangular slab, three times his height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted on its edges. As Moon-Watcher had never encountered ice, or even crystal-clear water, there were no natural objects to which he could compare this apparition. It was certainly rather attractive, and though he was wisely cautious of most new things, he did not hesitate for long before sidling up to it. As nothing happened, he put out his hand, and felt a cold, hard surface.


    After several minutes of intense thought, he arrived at a brilliant explanation. It was a rock, of course, and it must have grown during the night. There were many plants that did this - white, pulpy things shaped like pebbles, that seemed to shoot up during the hours of darkness. It was true that they were small and round, whereas this was large and sharp-edged; but greater and later philosophers than Moon-Watcher would be prepared to overlook equally striking exceptions to their theories.


    This really superb piece of abstract thinking led Moon-Watcher, after only three or four minutes, to a deduction which he immediately put to the test. The white round pebble-plants were very tasty (though there were a few that produced violent illness); perhaps this tall one...?


    A few licks and attempted nibbles quickly disillusioned him. There was no nourishment here; so like a sensible man-ape, he continued on his way to the river and forgot all about the crystalline monolith, during the daily routine of shrieking at the Others.


     The foraging today was very bad, and the tribe had to travel several miles from the caves to find any food at all. During the merciless heat of noon one of the frailer females collapsed, far from any possible shelter. Her companions gathered round her, twittering and meeping sympathetically, but there was nothing that anyone could do. If they had been less exhausted they might have carried her with them, but there was no surplus energy for such acts of kindness. She had to be left behind, to recover or not with her own resources. They passed the spot on the homeward trek that evening; there was not a bone to be seen.


     In the last light of day, looking round anxiously for early hunters, they drank hastily at the stream and started the climb up to their caves. They were still a hundred yards from the New Rock when the sound began.


     It was barely audible, yet it stopped them dead, so that they stood paralyzed on the trail with their jaws hanging slackly. A simple, maddeningly repetitious vibration, it pulsed out from the crystal; and hypnotized all who came within its spell. For the first time - and the last, for three million years - the sound of drumming was heard in Africa.


     The throbbing grew louder, more insistent. Presently the man-apes began to move forward, like sleepwalkers, toward the source of that compulsive sound. Sometimes they took little dancing steps, as their blood responded to rhythms that their descendants would not create for ages yet. Totally entranced, they gathered round the monolith, forgetting the hardships of the day, the perils of the approaching dusk, and the hunger in their bellies.


     The drumming became louder, the night darker. And as the shadows lengthened and the light drained from the sky, the crystal began to glow.


    First it lost its transparency, and became suffused with a pale, milky luminescence, Tantalizing, ill-defined phantoms moved across its surface and in its depths. They coalesced into bars of light and shadow, then formed intermeshing, spoked patterns that began slowly to rotate.


    Faster and faster spun the wheels of light, and the throbbing of the drums accelerated with them. Now utterly hypnotized, the man-apes could only stare slack-jawed into this astonishing display of pyrotechnics. They had already forgotten the instincts of their forefathers and the lessons of a lifetime; not one of them, ordinarily, would have been so far from his cave, so late in the evening. For the surrounding brush was full of frozen shapes and staring eyes, as the creatures of the night suspended their business to see what would happen next.


    Now the spinning wheels of light began to merge, and the spokes fused into luminous bars that slowly receded into the distance, rotating on their axes as they did so. They split into pairs and the resulting sets of lines started to oscillate across one another, slowly changing their angles of intersection. Fantastic, fleeting geometrical patterns flickered in and out of existence as the glowing grids meshed and unmeshed; and the man-apes watched, mesmerized captives of the shining crystal.


    They could never guess that their minds were being probed, their bodies mapped, their reactions studied, their potentials evaluated. At first, the whole tribe remained half crouching in a motionless tableau, as if frozen into stone. Then the man-ape nearest to the slab suddenly came to life.


    He did not move from his position, but his body lost its trancelike rigidity and became animated as if it were a puppet controlled by invisible strings. The head turned this way and that; the mouth silently opened and closed; the hands clenched and unclenched. Then he bent down, snapped off a long stalk of grass, and attempted to tie it into a knot with clumsy fingers.


    He seemed to be a thing possessed, struggling against some spirit or demon who had taken over control of his body. He was panting for breath, and his eyes were full of terror as he tried to force his fingers to make movements more complex than any that they had ever attempted before.


    Despite all his efforts, he succeeded only in breaking the stalk into pieces. As the fragments fell to the ground, the controlling influence left him, and he froze once more into immobility.


    Another man-ape came to life, and went through the same routine. This was a younger, more adaptable specimen; it succeeded where the older one had failed. On the planet Earth, the first crude knot had been tied.


    Others did stranger and still more pointless things. Some held their hands out at arm's length, and tried to touch their fingertips together - first with both eyes open, then with one closed. Some were made to stare at ruled patterns in the crystal, which became more and more finely divided until the lines had merged into a gray blur. And all heard single pure sounds, of varying pitch, that swiftly sank below the level of hearing.


    When Moon-Watcher's turn came, he felt very little fear. His main sensation was a dull resentment, as his muscles twitched and his limbs moved at commands that were not wholly his own. Without knowing why, he bent down and picked up a small stone. When he straightened up, he saw that there was a new image in the crystal slab.


    The grids and the moving, dancing patterns had gone. Instead, there was a series of concentric circles, surrounding a small black disk. Obeying the silent orders in his brain, he pitched the stone with a clumsy, overarm throw. It missed the target by several feet.


    Try again, said the command. He searched around until he had found another pebble. This time it hit the slab with a ringing, bell-like tone. He was still a long way off, but his aim was improving. At the fourth attempt, he was only inches from the central bull's-eye. A feeling of indescribable pleasure, almost sexual in its intensity, flooded his mind. Then the control relaxed; he felt no impulse to do anything, except to stand and wait.


    One by one, every member of the tribe was briefly possessed. Some succeeded, but most failed at the tasks they had been set, and all were appropriately rewarded by spasms of pleasure or of pain.


    Now there was only a uniform featureless glow in the great slab, so that it stood like a block of light superimposed oil the surrounding darkness. As if waking from a sleep, the man-apes shook their heads, and presently began to move along the trail to their place of shelter. They did not look back, or wonder at the strange light that was guiding them to their homes - and to a future unknown, as yet, even to the stars.