THE TEACHER LEARNS
"Can anyone tell me what they think man’s successors would look like if the human species died out?" asked the teacher, "If something else evolved to take our place. Try to imagine."
Her question was met with titters from the class. She silenced the laughers with a glare from her beak-nosed face.
"You," she said, pointing at me, "What do you think?"
"They will be much like us," I answered, "Upright bipeds with large craniums, they'll have hands adapted to manipulation. They'll have forward facing eyes and binocular vision. No tails."
"Why? Why not reptilian, avian, why mammalian? Why even humanoid?"
I shrugged, "I did not say they would be human, but they would be subject to the same forces that created us humanoids, they would evolve under similar laws to fill similar niches. Convergent evolution."
She huffed at my explanation and I rose to her challenge. I had a gift. I could go places.
"Come and see for yourself - I’ll show you the end of the world and more," I said with a smile.
The air swirled, erasing all but us; the teacher and the pupil, roles reversed. Years blurred by as grey haze until we hung suspended above a landscape. A murky, sediment choked river laboured across its wide, shallow bed between ploughed fields whose dark furrows were barren. Pale grass straggled in the polluted river margin, poisoned by metal wastes, but growing despite the noxious fluid that slip viscously past. Skeletons of tall poplars lined the river bank, leaves long fallen and the bark rotted in the sulphur rains to leave only pale wood, resembling beach driftwood and pitted by acid.
"The world dies," I told my pupil as we gazed down, "not under a baking sun or under ice, but under attack from man. Come."
We drifted past the sterile fields, towards a roadway where we alighted. My pupil seemed relieved to be on terra firma at last. Several tens of metres ahead some people clustered around the wire mesh fence of a missile base. Human priorities - missiles well maintained, but earth barren. Within the fence, a sterile concrete apron surrounded the low-rise military buildings, extravagantly wasteful of space. Protesters chanted when they saw us, but we continued past them.
"This world has little time left, let them air their views in ignorance," I said.
The town greeted us with its row upon row of red brick houses, each row built only a few feet behind the other so that only alleys separated front doors of one row from back doors of the next. All faced introspectively into the town centre, their few windows alive with artificial light so that the world was lit by them rather than the houses being lit up by daylight. Perpetual dusk walked the narrow paths, broken by amber street-lamps casting dull gold puddles of illumination on the pitted concrete. I walked inwards past endless ranks of red-brick boxes; some with skylights hoping to catch sight of the sun through ever boiling clouds of acid.
We walked centre-wards as far as a children’s play ground full of metal climbing frames and slides. Acid had eaten the metal into a lacework of rust and shapeless lumps of metal which appeared to have melted then re-solidified over and over. It stood in a school-yard before a low-rise but cramped school built of prefab cabins and covered passages. Beyond the school’s chain-link fence contractors were bolting together modular housing. A wall with a built-on bed slotted into a base whose foundations were metal stilts sunk into the bare, packed earth. A wall with kitchen fittings bolted onto another with table and cupboards; some walls double-sided, bristling with furniture, others smooth to survive the hostile elements outside.
A thin drizzle began and workmen threw great sheets over unfinished modules. Beside the instant houses clustered mobile homes, huddled together against the elements. The grass hissed and withered as the acid water fell and my cheeks stung with it. Our clothes would suffer and rot in the noxious drizzle and we sheltered under eaves which nearly met above the narrow paths to form corridors all but protected from the sizzling corrosion.
My fellow traveller stared about her, wide-eyed in amazement at our world’s future. Acid water spattered the pockmarked concrete; somewhere it dampened sterile soil and dissolved copper-tolerant grass. Metal corroded silently and imperceptibly under its onslaught; humans demoralized by their lot were scarred physically and emotionally by the corrosive acid drizzle.
"Where are the animals? Have they all died?" she asked.
I smiled wryly, "Nature has conspired with evolution as always. They are beneath us, burrowed in long hibernation like seeds. Only man walks the earth, having set himself apart from evolution and set upon the straight path to extinction. Even the slowness of nature learns from its mistakes."
Her hand went to her mouth in horror.
"Now," I said, "I have shown you the end of the world. For aeons there will be emptiness as the earth heals. I can take you beyond to the reign of the successors to man ..."
The world blurred grey with the speeding of years .....