The skull cracked under the first blow of Kerr’s stone club. He grunted with the next blow: “Uhgh!”
The antelope began to wildly thrash about flaying the tall grass away.
White-grey matter appeared in the mashed open hole.
The skull caved into pieces spurting a bloody halo and the animal lay motionless on the ground.
Kerr dropped the weapon and straddled the antelope’s body, digging fingers into the open skull. A broad grin stretched his thick lips over coarse, brown teeth. He lifted out a large glob of the grey matter and stuffed it into his mouth.
Kerr chewed and slobbered in joy. The brain tasted warm and sweet, as fresh kill always did. He chomped and swallowed, letting the animal’s death fill his empty stomach. He dug out more grey matter and chewed while he ran a finger up and down the soft nose of the antelope. The dry smell of savanna grass and the taste of berries, hot from the sun, passed through his mind as he joined with the antelope’s spirit.
A hyena cackled; Kerr unconsciously reached for his club.
Taking the antelope by the legs, Kerr flipped it up against a tree, shuffling it around until it stayed in place by itself, belly-up and legs splayed.
With a flint hand axe that had taken many hours to sharpen he made a ragged tear down the animal’s belly, careful not to pierce the bladder or the worm-like intestines. Reaching into the open belly, he felt around in the warm, slimy guts until he found a small sack with hard angles within. A few strokes of his hand axe cut the sack free, and Kerr pulled it out.
Pinching the sack between fingers, he felt a small body and the four tiny legs. He understood why he had been able to kill the antelope; this young-one-to-be growing in her belly had made her slow and clumsy. He thought of Klee and Little One and the new baby to come — this kill would feed them, give them strength for many days.
A rumbling growl rolled through the grass.
Kerr dropped the sack, knelt and quickly gutted the animal. He wrapped the heart and liver in some large leaves and stuffed them into the woven pouch that was tied around his waist.
As Kerr tied the antelope’s legs together at the hooves with a vine so he could sling the carcass over his shoulders, the growls turned into a roar as the big cat caught the scent of the blood from the fresh kill. Kerr grunted and heaved the animal up and slung it over his shoulders. He could not abandon the antelope; without its meat, Klee and Little One might starve.
The roaring grew closer and was joined by the scuff of massive paws on the grassy earth. Kerr turned to run, but slipped on the guts underfoot and went down on one knee. Lurching up and away under the weight of the antelope carcass, Kerr caught himself by poking the stone club’s wooden handle into the ground as a cane.
The cat roared through the parting grass and dove into the guts on the ground. Slavering and grunting it mashed the stinking mess down its throat.
Kerr began to run, staggering as his burden shifted to one side. The antelope’s head banged against Kerr’s side as he ran and pain lanced through his leg with every step, as if the cat’s fangs were already tearing at his ankle. He made his way toward an outcropping of black rock that looked as if it floated in the blue of the sky above the grey-green sea of grass. High ground would force the cat to climb to reach him, while he could strike downward with his club; if he could reach the top, he might live.
But even as he scrabbled up the rocky slope, Kerr heard the cat snort only a few paces behind.
Kerr squeezed between two large boulders and found himself surrounded by an impassable concave wall of rock. The clean, blue sky hung above, out of reach.
A growl funneled through the entrance and rumbled against the rock walls, echoing into a cacophony of terror. Kerr hit the rock wall with the stone club and screamed back. It echoed from the walls and tunneled back out to the cat.
Kerr heaved the antelope body up onto a shoulder-high boulder and climbed up after it. Off to one side, a wedge shaped crack in the wall gaped like a black open mouth in the grey shadowy wall. Kerr pulled his black matted hair from in front of his eyes and measured the distance he’d have to throw the animal.
A growl rumbled off the walls.
Kerr grabbed the antelope’s back legs and spun, flinging the animal across the distance. The antelope’s hind quarters landed in the open mouth of the wedge, but its head flopped over the side, its horns clacking against the stone.
With his eyes Kerr traced the spidery webs of cracks across the wall, planning his route to the mouth of safety. Finger and toe tips wedged into tiny ledges, he moved across the wall. Just outside the narrow opening between the boulders, he could hear the rhythmic growls of the cat as it swung its great head back and forth, seeking a way in, ready to pounce if Kerr tried to escape.
Kerr reached the antelope just as the cat made its decision. It roared and barreled into the enclosure. Kerr snatched the antelope head out of the cat’s reach as it jumped for the food. Staying on its hind feet the cat quickly jumped again and swiped a paw across Kerr’s back.
Kerr felt a claw snag one of his ribs. The blow smacked him back against the wall. He sat there for a moment until a blaze of pain roiled up his back. He turned and pressed his back against the cool wall, teeth bared in a grimace of pain.
The sound of the cat’s claws scrabbling against the wall dragged Kerr back out of the red-tinged darkness. He reached over and pulled the antelope body closer to him, watching the red, furry face of the cat bob at the edge of the ledge. Even with its claws, the cat could not climb the rock as easily as Kerr; its massive paws could not find purchase on the nearly vertical wall.
The cat dropped away backed up and charged at the wall and jumped. Kerr heaved a rock when the hunger-crazed face appeared above the ledge. The rock smacked the cat’s black muzzle, dropping the animal back to the ground to roar in pain and rage. With prey scarce, the antelope guts had only been enough to whet the big cat’s appetite; it would take more than that to drive it away from the rest of the carcass — and Kerr himself.
Kerr pulled the heart out of the skin pouch and squeezed blood out of it into his cupped hand. He smeared the blood over the wound on his back, praying that the antelope’s spirit would grant him strength. She had been carrying young; Kerr fought to feed and protect his family. Surely she would understand his need.
The nicked rib blazed pain with every movement. Kerr leaned back and looked around; no way out. Was this to be his death place?
The cat began pacing the floor below.
Kerr held the antelope heart in his hand, trying to figure a way out. He found himself staring at the heart. He set it down and took out his flint axe and began peeling away the skin from a hind leg of the antelope. Exposing the long leg bone, Kerr took the stone club and smashed it to splinters. He picked the splinters from the meat and began shoving them into the heart.
The cat gulped the heart down when Kerr dropped it over the edge, swallowing the sharp splinters of bone without hesitation.
Kerr leaned back against the antelope’s body and surrendered to the pain in his back and his leg, this time welcoming the black of approaching unconsciousness.
The sky through the open mouth of the rocks was a darker blue when Kerr awoke to the squeals of the cat below. He peered down at the now shadow-covered floor and located the big cat by its cries.
It lay curled in a ball digging its muzzle into its stomach. The cat pulled its face from its work and looked up at Kerr. It stood up, walked to the center of the floor and looked up into Kerr’s eyes. It ran a tongue over dry lips, turned and ran out the entrance.
Kerr waited a short time then dropped the antelope off of the ledge and gently lowered himself to the ground. He knew the cat would be searching for water now that its stomach was bleeding out its moisture. He shouldered the carcass, groaning under its weight, and squeezed out the entrance.
Moving through the head high grass, Kerr tried to listen for the cat, but he soon began wheezing from his wound and the heavy burden. The stone club became his third leg as he made the long journey home. He leaned on it with each step as he worked his way along. He was happy to see the large boulder that stood before his home. He was anxious to see Little One and Klee. He hoped Klee had delivered the new child. He wanted another male to help with the hunting. Of course, it would be a long time before even Little One could help feed the family…
Kerr stopped and shrank back behind the boulder.
He dumped the antelope to the ground and crept back on hands and knees to peer around the boulder. Klee was stretched out on the ground under a bright colored something; her eyes were closed. A strange animal stood over her holding a shiny stick above her chest. Kerr froze in terror as Little One ran over to the creature and took it by the hand.
The creature made a soft bubbly sound that somewhat eased Kerr’s terror. It picked up Little One and handed him to another creature who had just walked out of Kerr’s cave. It took Little One and went back into the cave. Kerr watched the creature move the stick up and down Klee’s body. It stopped the stick at Klee’s bulging stomach and held it there, staring at it. The creature put a hand to its chest and Kerr realized it was a female — the soft curves there reminded him of Klee’s breasts. It made excited sounds and the other creature came running back. Kerr realized they both were beings like himself, but dressed in strange skins that were shiny like the bellies of fish that flashed in the summer streams.
Backing away behind the boulder, Kerr slung the antelope’s body up onto a rock and took up his stone club. He noticed the wooden end was cracked from its banging against the rocks when he had used it to walk with. It pinched his hand when he held it in ready. He wedged a stick in between the crack and broke off a corner. It splintered off leaving a pointed end, but he could now hold it. Kerr took the handle in hand and limped around the boulder.
Steven Morgan saw him first. He pulled a stunner gun from a holster and pointed it at Kerr.
Marian Turpin turned in the direction of the muzzle and sucked in her breath at the sight of Kerr.
Kerr limped in toward the female lying at Marian’s feet.
“Careful of the woman and her fetus; it’s the one,” Marian said to Steven. “Careful now — we haven’t made the changes to the fetus yet. And don’t use the stunner on the male unless you must. This family’s going to need him.” She noted the blood smeared on Kerr’s hands and torso, and the way he favored his right leg. “He looks in pretty bad shape. He doesn’t look like he could take a burn if you hit him straight on. Careful now, we’re here and this may be our only chance.”
“I don’t want to hit him at all,” Steven replied, still following Kerr’s movement with the gun.
“That’s what you said about the female,” Marian said as she backed away from the female on the ground.
“Shit,” Steven swore, “You know I had to drop her. She came at me with a rock. I didn’t hurt her. Besides, we were going to put her to sleep anyway, so we could do the baby.”
Marian shook her head. “Damn fool,” she said to herself and backed farther away from the female.
Kerr knelt by Klee, placing a hand on her stomach, speaking the guttural noise he used for her. He shook her when she didn’t respond. He looked up at the two creatures standing back against the rock wall, and bared his teeth in warning.
“She’s okay,” Marian said in a soft, soothing voice, “We just put her to sleep to check her out.”
Steven grunted. “I don’t think he’s going to understand you, Marian.”
Little One came scrambling out of the cave, squealing in delight as he saw his father. But then a maddened roar sounded behind Kerr and he turned to see the cat coming at him.
Steven fired at the cat, singing a patch of hair into a puff of smoke underneath its chest. It stumbled for a moment, then dove at Kerr, jaws open, bloody ropes of saliva dripping from its lips.
Little One and the cat met a few feet in front of Kerr. Little One went down under a swipe of the cat’s big paw and Kerr met the rush on his knees. He had neither time nor room to swing his club, but the pointed end of the wooden shaft caught the big cat just under the breastbone. Momentum drove the point through fur and muscle until the stone head thudded against the cat’s belly.
The cat — all but dead — struck Kerr and sent him rolling over Klee with the cat on top of both of them.
Steven fired a useless blast into the cat’s broad head.
Little One lay unnaturally twisted with his head on his hip beside his mother.
The cat jerked a last convulsion, digging hind claws into Kerr’s thigh and shuddered to stillness with one last moan. All was suddenly still and quiet.
“Oh, damn…” Marian gasped.
Kerr grunted and pulled the claws from his leg. Groaning, he rolled over and up, pulling the club out of the cat’s chest. It made a loud sucking noise. Holding the bloody weapon ready he stared at the two creatures in front of him. They stood motionless in horror looking back.
“Lower your gun.” Marian said softly to Steven. He obeyed and Kerr lowered his club.
Kerr went back to Klee and Little One. He picked Little One’s body up and gently shook him then rubbed his cheek against the tiny face and gently laid him down beside his mother.
“Damn,” Marian said gruffly. “We shouldn’t have been here.”
Kerr looked down at Little One for a moment shaking his head. He returned to the cat and pulled out his flint stone and cut the cat’s chest open. With the stone club he broke open the rib cage. He sliced open the heart sack and cut out the heart. Kerr examined the ragged hole that was punched through it and looked at the point of the club’s handle. He drove the club handle into the ground, his face stony and quiet.
Kerr sliced a piece of the heart off and stuffed it into his mouth and chewed. The taste of mad killing filled his mind and the exquisite rage of battle burnt in his blood.
Marian and Steven watched Kerr eat the heart. It was one thing to “know” how these primitives had lived; it was another to see — and smell — the reality of bloody death.
The female cried out a short, sharp gasp of pain.
Marian hurried over and ran the medical scanner over the prone female’s stomach. “It’s time!” she said. “The cat must have started it.”
Kerr pushed her roughly away and ripped the blanket off of Klee. The ground was wet from the broken water sack. Kerr helped the still dazed Klee to her feet and walked her over between two rocks and held her steady as she crouched between the stone birthing chair.
“Should we help?” Steven asked.
“He seems to know what he’s doing — we should interfere only if something goes wrong,” Marian answered. She took a position behind Kerr to watch.
Her movement caught Kerr’s attention and he growled a warning at her to stay back.
The contractions came sharp and fast. Klee cried little sharp cries and Kerr patted her on the shoulder and gurgled deep in his throat trying to sooth her. The top of the baby’s head appeared. With rhythmic cries of the mother’s pain, the baby pushed its way into the world.
When the baby, and then the afterbirth, dropped to the sand, Kerr cut the umbilical cord with the flint hand axe and held the baby girl in the palms of his large hands.
“It’s not breathing!” Steven snapped out. “We’d better do something!”
Kerr held the baby in his palms and lifted her up to the sky and roared pain and defiance into the darkening blue. The baby girl jerked in her father’s hands and cried out with him.
Marian touched Steven on the shoulder, breaking the trance the scene held over him. “Come on, let’s go.” she said.
“What? What about the child? Aren’t we going to work its DNA?”
“No!” Marian answered, turning away from the man holding his new-born, crying baby. “Come on, let’s go,” she repeated.
Steven followed Marian a way from the family into the tall grass and blackening night. After they had walked into the cover of the grass away, Steven took Marian by the arm, turned her around and said: “What’s up? I don’t get it. We worked for six years to come back forty-thousand years to find the mother of the human race. We found Eve! All we need to do is tweak her babies’ DNA, and we can eliminate half a dozen of the worst congenital diseases from all her descendants. How can we not do it?”
Marian didn’t hear him. She listened to the father roaring his challenge and pain to the world and the baby crying out its new life’s innocence. “Listen to that,” she said and went quiet for a moment. “I can’t–we can’t change the history of the human race. It is what makes us human: the fight, the challenge, the pain. Would we be what we are now without it? I don’t think so. We are human because of it. Let it be. Let’s go home. At least this way, we have a home to go to.”
(Originally published in Aphelion, 2008)