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Africa Zero

an extract from the short novel

cover scanby Neal Asher

As the sun sunk behind the horizon I gathered lumps of bark from a huge preconvulsion baobab dying a hundred year death on the cliff top. By the time I had a fire going the moon was filling the night with mercury light, reflected from its labyrinth etched face, and hyraxes were screeching like murder victims from the heather trees behind me. It was for comfort really - the fire - for that old comfort born in the hidden psyche when men crouched in caves and feared the night, the last time the ice was here. I had no need of the heat or of cooked food. Few Earthly extremes of temperature were dangerous to me and the sustenance I took was poison to flesh.

While staring into the flames I slowly altered the spectrum of my hearing. The screeching of the hyraxes became a low gasping and other sounds began to impinge; the mutter of cooling rock and the strained whispering of the heather trees. Then, then a sound I had not heard in thirty-eight years; the low infrasonic rumbles that were the conversation of mammoth. I listened for a while and realised I was smiling, then I stood from my fire, walked to the baobab at the edge of the Break and looked out over the silvered foothills.

Behind me the Atlas Mountains of Old Morocco still held back the ice that had swamped Europe. Six centuries in the past the hills below me had been bare, and arid where they faded into the Sahara desert. Five centuries ago the wasteland had begun to bloom as water vapour, blown down off the ice, condensed and fell in storms still told of around the campfires of bushmen. Now the hills were thick with vegetation, and wild with the fauna that fed on it including, of course, the mammoth. But it was not the ice that had caused their return.

Far below me a lone bull was tusking bark from a huge groundsel tree and muttering to himself like a grouchy old man. I watched him for a while and felt an affinity with those men in ancient Siberia to whom this creature had been all life and a lord of death, and who had hunted it to extinction. Men not so different from he who had resurrected it. I remembered the first herd; cloned from ten thousand years old carcases preserved in the Siberian tundra, gestated in the wombs of elephants, and kept as a tourist attraction in a national park in North Africa. Perhaps they would have remained no more than that - a novelty - but then had come the thinning of the human race.

To begin with, the compulsory sterilization of one in three people was introduced planet-wide. Then air transmitted HIV's and more virulent diseases had appeared. It was open to conjecture whether they had evolved or been manufactured. The nightmarish creatures that appeared and fed on the out-of-control third-world population had certainly been gene-spliced. The dictums at that time had been: better not to be born than to be born and starve to death. Your neighbour dies so you might live. The human race cannot be strong while the weak breed: the human race must be prey. Some called it a catastrophe and against the teaching of God. Others called it the choice of survival.

During the chaos of that time, as twelve billion people fought for insufficient resources and the encroaching ice sucked the planet dry, during the water wars, plagues, brief atomic conflicts, and desperate strivings to become established beyond Earth, the mammoth had broken free and roamed across North Africa. While millions then billions of humans died the mammoth burgeoned. I always considered this a beautiful irony and a kind of justice: humans had been too busy killing each other to notice. But then it is easy for me to make such judgements. I ceased to be human in many ways over two thousand years ago.

In time the bull finished with the tree and dozed in the moonlight with his four metre tusks resting on the ground. I turned away to head back for my fire, but then, suddenly, his trumpeting shattered the night. As the hyraxes fell silent I turned back to the Break. Something ... something of flickering silver and shadow darted round him then was gone before I could upgrade my vision. Pykani? I doubted it. They would be in the air; dark bat shapes singing their calming songs as they moved in for blood. They would not have startled him. I waited and watched his heat and the red colours, but the shape did not reappear. At length I returned to my fire, troubled, but not unduly so.

The bright flames flickered and died like night spectres and the bark collapsed to black edged rubies. I considered the possibility of sleep and rejected it. I had slept for three hours a couple of days ago up on the ice and I would not need to sleep again for several weeks. Boredom drove me into fugue and I listened like a yogi to the oh so accurate ticking of my body clock as the altered moon traversed its arc and the hyraxes raised Cain. An hour before sunrise the sky began to lighten. Only then did I come out of fugue and kick dirt over the cooling ashes of my fire. Time to move on.

The Break was a new addition to the Atlas mountains. When the ice had first reached the coast of Old Morocco it was as if it had suddenly rested its entire weight there and tipped a plate on which the mountains rested. The event was The Convulsion and The Break was the further edge of that plate. It was heaved from the Atlas foothills in less than a year, seven centuries ago.

Under the baobab I removed my boots and put them in my pack. Then I removed the syntheflesh coverings of my hands and feet and placed them in my pack as well. The sky was lighter then, pink tinted to the east, and that light glinted like blood off the knurling on the inner faces of my metal fingers; a reminder of what I am and what I am not. Shouldering my pack I moved to the edge, lowered myself over, and began to descend, driving my fingers and toes like pitons into the mossy crevices in the rock. At first I was careful. Even for me a fall from such a height could cause some damage. As the sun breached the horizon I was two hundred feet down with another hundred to go. One bad moment then when a huge black scorpion did its damnedest to sting my face and I jerked away pulling a slab from the cliff and abruptly found myself hanging by one hand watching the slab crash into the jungle below. Synthetic or not my reactions are still flesh, much to my chagrin. Fifty feet from the ground and I was scrabbling down the cliff face like a spider. I dropped the last twenty feet straight into the rosette of a giant lobelia, scattering sunbirds like a treasure of sapphires and emeralds. Once free of the flattened plant it took me some time to clean the sap from myself before I could replace my coverings and return to a semblance of humanity. Then, booted and fingered again, I made my way into the greenery.

Beyond the patch of lobelias, I pushed my way through a five-foot thicket of putrescent-smelling plants I could not put a name to, but these soon thinned out to give way to wild banana plants, groundsels hung with sulphurous yellow lichen, and a ground covering of bracken. Soon I reached the remains of the groundsel, of which the mammoth had made a meal, and there, where the jungle had been flattened, found progress easier. All around this area frogs were chirruping noisily, perhaps because they could now see the venomous spiders that hunted them. As I advanced, a python the thickness of my torso observed me speculatively from a tree, tested my scent with his tongue, then lost interest. At one point I heard something stalking me, but it soon went away. I was exposed on that narrow path, but I knew that if I stayed with the mammoth I would eventually encounter those I had come to see.

© Neal Asher 2002.
Africa Zero is published by Cosmos Books.

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