One of the curious customs to arise out of the Collapse was the practice of pyramiding robotic brain cases, in the same manner that certain ancient Asiatic barbarians raised pyramids of human heads that later turned to skulls, to commemorate a battle. While the brain-case custom is not universal, there is enough evidence from travelers' tales to show that it is practiced by many sedentary tribes. Nomadic peoples, as well, may have collections of brain cases, but these are not pyramided except on ceremonial occasions. Ordinarily they are stored in sacred chests which, when the band is on the march, are given positions of honor, carried in wagons at the head of the column.
Generally, it has been believed that this fascination with robotic brain cases may commemorate man's triumph over the machines But there is no undeniable evidence that this is so. It is possible that the symmetry of the cases may have an esthetic appeal quite apart from any other real or imagined significance. Or it may be that their preservation is an unconscious reaction to a symbolic permanence~ for of all things created by technological man, they are the most durable, being constructed of a magic metal that defies both time and weather.
— From Wilson's History of the End of Civilization
Thomas Cushing hoed potatoes all the afternoon, in the small patch on the bench above the river, between the river and the wall. The patch was doing well. If some unforeseen disease did not fasten on it, if it were not raided on some dark night by one of the tribes across the river, if no other evil fell upon it, come harvest time it would yield up many bushels. He had worked hard to produce that final harvest. He had crept on hands and knees between the rows, knocking potato beetles off the vines with a small stick he held in one hand and catching them as they fell in the bark container he held in the other hand. Catching them so they would not crawl from where they fell into the vines again, to feast upon the leaves. Crawling up and down the rows on his hands and knees, with his muscles screaming at the punishment, with a pitiless sun hammering at him so that he seemed to creep in a miasmatic fog composed of dead and heated air mixed finely with the dust that his crawling raised. At intervals, when the bark container was nearly full of the squirming, confused and deprived bugs, he'd go down to the riverbank, first marking the spot where he had ceased his labor, with the stick planted in the soil; then, squatting on the bank, he'd reach far out to empty the container into the flowing stream, shaking it vigorously to dislodge the last of the beetles, launching them upon a journey that few of them would survive, and carrying those few that would survive far from his potato patch.
In his mind, at times, he had talked to them. I wish you no harm, he'd told them; I do this not out of malice but to protect myself and others of my kind, removing you so you'll not eat the food on which I and others count. Apologizing to them, explaining to them to take away their wrath as ancient, prehistoric hunters had apologized and explained ritually to the bears they had slaughtered for a feast.
In bed, before he went to sleep, he'd think on them again, seeing them once again, a striped golden scum caught in the swirl of water and carried rapidly away to a fate they could not understand, not knowing why or how they'd come to such a fate, powerless to prevent it, with no means of escaping it.
And having dumped them in the river, back to crawling between the rows once more to gather other bugs to consign to the selfsame fate.
Then, later in the summer, when days went by with no rain falling, with the sun striking down out of the cloudless blue bowl of the sky, carrying buckets of water from the river on a yoke slung across his shoulders to supply the thirsty plants the moisture that they lacked; day after day trudging from the river's edge up the sharp slope to the bench, lugging water for his crop, then going back again to get two more pails of water, on an endless treadmill so the plants would grow and thrive and there would be potatoes stored against the winter. Existence, he had thought, survival so hard and dearly bought—a continual fight to assure survival. Not like those ancient days Wilson had written about so long ago, reaching back with fumbling fingers to try to create the past that had come to an end centuries before he had put quill to paper, forced to exercise a niggling economy of paper—writing on both sides of each sheet, leaving no margins on either side of the page, with no whiteness left at either top or bottom. And always that small and niggardly, that painfully small, script, so that he could cram in all the words seething in his brain. Agonizing over the concern that he mentioned time and time again—that the history he wrote was based more on myth and legend than on fact, a situation that could not be avoided since so little fact remained. Yet, convinced it was paramount that the history be written before what little fact remained completely disappeared, before the myth and legend had become more distorted than they already were. Agonizing, as well, over his measurement of myth and legend, sweating over his evaluation of them; asking himself, time and time again, "What should I put in? What should I leave out?" For he did not put in all of it; some he had left out. The myth about the Place of Going to the Stars he had left out.
But enough of Wilson, Cushing told himself; he must get back to his hoeing and his weeding. Weeds and bugs were enemies. The lack of rain, an enemy. The too hot sun, an enemy. It was not only he who thought SO: there were others working patches of corn and potatoes that lay on other tiny benches, so much like his own, all up and down the river, close enough to the walls to gain some protection against the occasional raiders from across the river.
He had hoed all the afternoon and now, with the sun finally gone behind the river bluffs looming to the west, he crouched beside the river and stared across the water. Upstream, a mile or so, stood the stone piers of a ruined bridge, with some of the bridge's superstructure still remaining, but nothing one could use to cross the river. Still farther upstream, two great towers rose up, former living structures that the old books called high rises. There had been, it appeared, two such types of structures—ordinary high rises and high rises for the elderly—and he wondered briefly why there should have been such age distinction. No such thing was true today. There was no distinction between the young and old. They lived together and needed one another. The young provided strength and the old provided wisdom and they worked together for the benefit of all.
This he had seen when he first came to the university and had experienced himself when he had been taken in under the sponsorship of Monty and Nancy Montrose, the sponsorship in time becoming more than a formal sponsorship, for he had lived with them and had become, in effect, their son. The university and, most of all, Monty and Nancy, had given him equality and kindness. He had, in the last five years, become as truly a part of the university as if he had been born to it and had known what he came to recognize as a unique kind of happiness that, in his years of wandering, he had not known elsewhere. Now, hunkering on the river's bank, he admitted to himself that it had become a nagging happiness, a happiness of guilt, chained here by the sense of affectionate loyalty to the aged couple who had taken him in and made him a part of them. He had gained much from his five years here: the ability to read and write; some acquaintance with the books that, rank on rank, lined the stacks of the library; a better understanding of what the world was all about, of what it once had been and what it was at the present moment. Given, too, within the security of the walls, the time to think, to work out what he wanted of himself. But though he'd worked at it, he still did not quite know what he wanted of or for himself.
He remembered, once again, that rainy day of early spring when he had sat at a desk in the library stacks. What he had been doing there he had now forgotten—perhaps simply sitting there while he read a book which presently he would replace upon the shelves. But he did recall with startling clarity how, in an idle moment, he had pulled out the desk drawer and there had found the small pile of notes written on flyleaves that had been torn from books, written in a small and crabbed hand, niggardly of space. He recalled that he had sat there, frozen in surprise, for there was no mistaking that cramped and economic writing. He had read the Wilson history time and time again, strangely fascinated by it, and there was no question in his mind, not the slightest question, that these were Wilson's notes, left here in the desk drawer to await discovery a millennium after they'd been written.
With trembling hands he had taken them from the drawer and laid them reverently on the desk top. Slowly he read through them in the waning light of the rainy afternoon and there was in them much material that he recognized, material that eventually had found its way into the history. But there was a page of notes—really a page and a half—that had not been used, a myth so outrageous that Wilson must finally have decided it should not be included, a myth of which Cushing had never heard and of which, he found upon cautious inquiry later, no one else had ever heard.
The notes told about a Place of Going to the Stars, located somewhere to the west, although there was no further clue to its location—simply "in the west." It all was horribly fuzzy and it sounded, in all truth, more like myth than fact—too outrageous to be fact. But ever since that rainy afternoon, the very Outrageousness of it had haunted Cushing and would not let him be.
Across the wide turbulence of the river, the bluffs rose sheer above the water, topped by a heavy growth of trees. The river made sucking sounds as it rushed along, a hurrying tide that stormed along its path and, beneath the sucking sounds, a rumbling of power that swept all in its course. A powerful thing, the river, and somehow conscious and jealous of its power, reaching out and taking all that it could reach—a piece of driftwood, a leaf, a bevy of potato bugs, or a human being, if one could be caught up. Looking at it, Cushing shivered at its threat, although he was not one who should have felt its threat. He was as much at home in or on the river as he would be in the woods. This feeling of threat, he knew, was brought on only by a present weakness, born of vague indecision and not knowing.
Wilson, he thought—if it had not been for that page and a half of Wilson's notes, he'd be feeling none of this. Or would he? Was it only Wilson's note, or was it the urge to escape these walls, back to the untrammeled freedom of the woods?
He was, he told himself somewhat angrily, obsessed with Wilson. Ever since the day he had first read the history, the man had lodged himself inside his mind and was never far away.
How had it been with Wilson, he wondered, on that day of almost a thousand years ago, when he first had sat down to begin the history, haunted by what he knew would be its inadequacy? Had the leaves outside the window whispered in the wind? Had the candle guttered (for in his mind the writing always took place in candlelight)? Had there been an owl outside, hooting in derision at the task the man had set himself to do?
How had it been with Wilson, that night in the distant past?
I must write it clearly, Hiram Wilson told himself, so that in the years to come all who wish may read it. I must compose it clearly and I must inscribe it neatly, and most importantly, I must write it small, since I am short of paper.
I wish, he thought, that I had more to go on, that I had more actual fact, that the myth content were less, but I must console myself in the thought that historians in the past have also relied on myth, recognizing that although myth maybe romanticized and woefully short of fact, it must, by definition, have some foundation in lost happenings.
The candle's flame flared in the gust of wind that came through the window. In a tree outside, a tiny fluffed-out screech owl made a chilling sound.
Wilson dipped the quill in ink and wrote, close to the top of the page, for he must conserve the paper:
An Account of Those Disturbances Which Brought About an End to the First Human Civilization (always
in the hope there will be a second, for
what we have now is no civilization,
but an anarchy)
Written by Hiram Wilson at the University of Minnesota on the Banks of River Mississippi, This Account
Being Started the First Day of October, 2952
He laid the quill aside and read what he had written. Dissatisfied, he added another line:
Composed of Facts Gathered From Still Existing Books Dating From Earlier Days, From Hearsay Evidence
Passed on by Word of Mouth From the Times of Trouble and From Ancient Myths and Folklore Assiduously
Examined for Those Kernels of Truth That They May Contain
There, he thought, that at least is honest. It will put the reader on his guard that there may he errors, but giving him assurance that I have labored for the truth as best I can.
He picked up the quill again and wrote:
There is no question that at one time, perhaps five hundred years ago, Earth was possessed of an intricate and sophisticated technological civilization. Of this, nothing operational remains. The machines and the technology were destroyed, perhaps in a few months' time. And not only that, but, at least at this university, and we suppose otherwhere as well, all or most of the literary mention of the technology also was destroyed. Here, certainly, all the technological texts are gone and in many instances allusions to technology contained in other books, not technological in nature, have been edited by the ripping out of pages. What remains of the printed word concerning technology and science is only general in nature and may relate to a technology that at the time of the destruction was considered so outdated there seemed no threat in allowing it to survive. From these remaining allusions we get some hint of what the situation might have been, but not enough information to perceive the full scope of the old technology nor its impact upon the culture. Old maps of the campus show that at one time there were several buildings that were devoted to the teaching of technology and engineering. These buildings now are missing. There is a legend that the stones of which the buildings were constructed were used to build the defensive wall that now rings in the cam-
The completeness of the destruction and the apparently methodical manner in which it was carried out indicate an unreasoning rage and a fine-honed fanaticism. Seeking for cause, the first reaction is to conclude that it came about through an anger born of a hatred of what technology had brought about—the depletion of non-renewable resources, pollution of the environment, the loss of jobs resulting in massive unemployment. But this sort of reasoning, once it is examined, seems far too simplistic. On further thought, it would seem that the basic grievance that triggered the destruction must have lain in the social, economic and political systems technology had fostered.