I tell a tale from the early days of humankind — before written history, before civilization, before Dynasty and Froot Loops. The earth was different then. Where today there are cities and highways, there were then great glaciers, grinding the land underneath their inexorable march southward. Beyond the edges of the glaciers, the world was dangerous and unstable. Great earthquakes toppled the forests; volcanoes thrust up without warning; floods and tornadoes scoured the earth.
His was the clan of the Men-Sa, the 'People of the Top'...'
Gigantic beasts roamed the plains — the woolly mammoth with its tusks thirty feet long, the ravenous sabre-toothed tiger, the famous cave bear. The ground shook where they walked, and at night the forests rang with their cries.
But there were smaller and gentler creatures as well. The first horse, eohippus, no larger than a modern dog. The swift and timid antelope. The rabbit, the pig, and the hairy armadillo. They climbed the trees or hid among the rocks; and when they ventured forth, they ran in zigzags from bush to bush across the unprotected grasslands.
Now, among these gentler creatures none were more remarkable than the apes that dwelt in caves. Unlike other apes they walked nearly upright, stooping only occasionally to balance themselves on their knuckles. Their hands were no longer flat; they curled around to grasp the tools that they made. Their grunts and cries had become modulated, complex, precise. They banded together in small family clans, with leaders, vice-presidents, and production supervisors. They were the first human beings.
They had learned the use of Fire, these early men, and they used it to warm their caves as the winter sun sank below the mountain peaks. Seated in a ring around the life-giving flames, they naturally began to trade stories. They talked of daily events, of the hunt and hunting heroes, of spirits and magic and tax shelters. Listen! Even now the Old One is beginning to speak. In a voice soft with age, he is telling once again this ancient legend...
Lok-sek stood on the brow of the hill, sniffing the air to the south. Soon rain would come. As leader of his clan, it was his duty to make sure that the rain was carefully collected in leaves, so that the hot tubs could once more be filled with fresh, pure water.
His was the clan of the Men-Sa, the "People of the Top," who dwelt in the mountains. They alone held the precious secret of the hot tubs — the art of constructing and heating great wooden basins in which the whole clan could bathe, relax, and talk. It set them apart from all the other cave apes. With their hot tubs, the Men-Sa had gained the respect and envy of all — particularly of the cave apes that lived in
the valley, whose hairy skins never touched warm water from one season to another.
Lok-Sek's flat nostrils distended, taking in the gamy odor that arose from the valley below. Yes, he thought, it is better to cleanse the skin. We are indeed fortunate, we Men-Sa. But as he stood there in the sunlight, his eyes picked out a figure hurrying up the hill. It was one of his clan: Booz-Sig the party-giver, in whose corner of the cave one could always find the biggest fire and the warmest hot tub. Today, however, it was clear that Booz-Sig was not in a party mood. Lines of worry creased his sloping brow as he toiled up the hill toward Lok-Sek.
Gaining the crest of the hill, Booz-Sig held up a bright yellow pebble in the universal sign of recognition among the Men-Sa. Still out of breath, he hurried to Lok-Sek and acknowledged his fealty by rubbing his nose in the leader's shadow. Then he spoke.
"A new people are coming," he gasped. "They are already below us. They come from a valley called Sil-Con. They do not admit our superiority." And then in a whisper he added, "They carry a great new magic with them." His yellow eyes were wide with fear.
Lok-Sek was puzzled. What new magic could there possibly be? Did not the Men-Sa already know the secret of fire and the hot tub, as well as the recipe for White Zinfandel? Surely they could teach these upstarts from Sil-Con a thing or two! But something in Booz-Sig's expression made him unsure. He'd better call a Gathering of the clan. Motioning Booz-Sig to follow, Lok-Sek hurried toward the Big Cave.
Soon all the Men-Sa were gathered inside, drinking and arguing as was their wont. One of the last to arrive was Ra-Kel, the beautiful young daughter of Pol-Tic the troublemaker. For some time now, Lok-Sek had wanted to mate with Ra-Kel; but every time he approached her he was cut off by Ter-Kee the hunter. Ter-Kee, who had many mammoth kills to his credit, had convinced her that Lok-Sek was not worthy until he had at least speared a musk-ox. Even now, when every man in the clan was obliged to concentrate on the current emergency, Ter-Kee was running his grimy hands over Ra-Kel's wolfskin and drooling in her hair. Lok-Sek made a mental note to throw Ter-Kee over a cliff after the meeting. But now there was business to conduct. He sprang upon a boulder and addressed the clan.
"Booz-Sig has a vital report," he cried. "Listen to him!" The clan fell silent and turned toward Booz-Sig.
"Yea, I have seen it with my own eyes," quavered Booz-Sig. . "I have seen the magic of the Sil-Con people. They carry boxes with windows in them, and when they look into the windows the Gods speak to them!" A murmur of fear ran through the crowd.
"There is more," he continued. "Although they look and talk like us, the Sil-Con have learned how to control the nether Gods. I heard one of them call upon Mega-Byte, and another invoked the name of Sof-Ware. They fill me with fear."
"Point of order," shouted Pol-Tic, with his usual penchant for parliamentary tricks. "How do we know that Booz-Sig is not lying to us? Has anyone else seen this so-called magic?"
"I have," replied Ter-Kee. He momentarily released Ra-Kel and she wriggled away gratefully into the crowd. "I too just came from the valley and saw the new clan. I know that they call themselves the people of Hak-Ker, and that their leader is called Nerd. Yes, they possess the magic of which Booz-Sig speaks."
At this point confusion broke out in the meeting. Some wanted to descend immediately into the valley with spears and clubs. Others insisted that the whole clan should flee higher into the mountains, even though it meant abandoning the caves and hunting grounds that they knew. Still others suggested that they all just climb into their hot tubs and hope for the best. Lok-Sek shouted for order, but he knew that he had no chance once the Men-Sa got to arguing.
The spears-into-the-valley contingent was just beginning to gain a decision, when the mouth of the cave was suddenly darkened by a horde of men. Total silence swept the room.
"I am Nerd, leader of the Hak-Ker!" With a shout, the tallest of the newcomers strode confidently into the center. He carried under his arm a curiously-shaped box that glowed with an eerie inner light. "I bring you the wisdom of Sof-Ware," he declared, glaring at the Men-Sa.
"And I am Lok-Sek, leader of the Men-Sa!" From atop his boulder, Lok-Sek looked down upon the arrogant Hak-Ker and upon his own clan, now immobilized with fear. "You bring new magic, but ours is older and stronger." He expressed a confidence he didn't really feel.
"Behold," cried Nerd, fiddling with his glowing box and staring into its insides. "My magic tells me that your hot tubs each contain as many deerskins of water as there are stones around your central fire- pit, and that the temperature of the water is the same as that of the blood of a freshly-killed warthog."
"Aeiii, all he says is true!" wailed Ed-Tor, the oldest of the Men-Sa and the one who kept their secret knowledge. "I know it myself. But no one could have told him this. His magic must truly be the voice of the Gods!"
For a moment, Lok-Sek wavered. Was there any point in fighting against a force such as this? But he had not become leader of the clan by giving in. He pulled together the last of his strength and hurled a challenge at the Hak-Ker. "Let us have a test of strength, then," he shouted. "Bring your magic together with ours, and we shall see which is the stronger!" The assembled crowd, Men-Sa and Hak-Ker alike, murmured approval.
Although Nerd sensed a trap, he was forced to agree. As everyone pressed closer to watch the outcome, he slowly carried his magic box over to the hot tub. Not a word was spoken — indeed, scarcely a breath could be heard in the cave — as he lowered his magic box into the warm water. For a brief second it glowed more brightly, and Lok-Sek's heart was chilled by a certainty that all was lost. But then the box hissed gently and went dark, its magic buried forever in the power of the primal sea.
The Gods of Sof-Ware had deserted the Hak-Ker.
Later, as the Hak-Ker joined the Men-Sa in their hot tubs and Ed-Tor began to explain to the newcomers the secret of White Zinfandel, Lok-Sek felt a soft wet hand steal into his. It was Ra-Kel.
"Overcoming Nerd was braver than spearing any number of silly mammoths," she simpered, snuggling up to him. "I've told Ter-Kee to go take a hike."
Now the fire burns low, as the Old One finishes his tale. It is dark outside and snowflakes are beginning to fall. One by one, the listeners disperse to their blankets for the night. But they will not soon forget the brave Ancient Days, when Lok-Sek defeated Nerd and preserved for his children and his children's children the ways of the Clan of the Hot Tub.