2001-A Space Odyssey

    5 - Encounter in the Dawn




     As he led the tribe down to the river in the dim light of dawn, Moon-Watcher paused uncertainly at a familiar spot. Something, he knew, was missing; but what it was, he could not remember. He wasted no mental effort on the problem, for this morning he had more important matters on his mind.


    Like thunder and lightning and clouds and eclipses, the great block of crystal had departed as mysteriously as it had come. Having vanished into the nonexistent past, it never troubled Moon-Watcher's thoughts again.


    He would never know what it had done to him; and none of his companions wondered, as they gathered round him in the morning mist, why he had paused for a moment here on the way to the river.




      From their side of the stream, in the never-violated safety of their own territory, the Others first saw Moon-Watcher and a dozen males of his tribe as a moving frieze against the dawn sky. At once they began to scream their daily challenge; but this time, there was no answer.


    Steadily, purposefully - above all, silently - Moon-Watcher and his band descended the low hillock that overlooked the river; and as they approached, the Others became suddenly quiet. Their ritual rage ebbed away, to be replaced by a mounting fear. They were dimly aware that something had happened, and that this encounter was unlike all those that had ever gone before.


    The bone clubs and knives that Moon-Watcher's group carried did not alarm them, for they did not understand their purpose. They only knew that their rivals' movements were now imbued with determination, and with menace.


    The party stopped at the water's edge, and for a moment the Others' courage revived. Led by One-Ear, they halfheartedly resumed their battle chant. It lasted only a few seconds before a vision of terror struck then dumb.


    Moon-Watcher raised his arms high into the air, revealing the burden that until now had been concealed by the hirsute bodies of his companions. He was holding a stout branch, and impaled upon it was the bloody head of the leopard. The mouth had been jammed open with a stick, and the great fangs gleamed a ghastly white in the first rays of the rising sun.


    Most of the Others were too paralyzed with fright to move; but some began a slow, stumbling retreat. That was all the encouragement that Moon-Watcher needed. Still holding the mangled trophy above his head, he started to cross the stream. After a moment's hesitation, his companions splashed after him.


    When Moon-Watcher reached the far side, One-Ear was still standing his ground. Perhaps he was too brave or too stupid to run; perhaps he could not really believe that this outrage was actually happening. Coward or hero, it made no difference in the end, as the frozen snarl of death came crashing down upon his uncomprehending head.


    Shrieking with fright, the Others scattered into the bush; but presently they would return, and soon they would forget their lost leader.


    For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.


    But he would thinkof something.