Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When Giants Walked the Earth

"Once, the world was flat."

Predictably, heads flitted up at the gesture. The professor registered surprise from some of the students, and emitted his own pleasure. He was not enough the sophisticate to hide it. It mingled with the scent of warmed vermin wafting up from the cafeteria, with the silvery tang of the old tarnished paneling of the lectern. The ceiling curved comfortably just over his head. He was teaching, and he savored it.

"I don't mean that the world wasn't round, we have known for generations that the earth is a ball. I mean the surface of it. It was significantly less rough..." the mass of his forelegs rippled with the dramatic word "...much less rough than it is today." He inclined his head expectantly at his students. Timid wafts from one of them.

Its young legs moved tremulously. "The oceans? The oceans too?"

The professor reared threateningly. Idiot. "The oceans had an extremely important role in the cataclysm!"

The student pulled back. Satisfied, the professor continued. "In a way, the oceans became flat too, but only figuratively. There was an enormous amount of limestone that grew from the species that survived the great extinction, but by all of our available measurements, the ocean floor did not become level in the way that most of the continental crust evidently did. You have heard of fossil fuels?"

"Limestone is a fuel?"

"Absolutely not! Copper is a fuel, especially when used with iron. Zinc and aluminum are excellent fuels in their pure state and we use them to power vehicles as they oxidize. Lithium--" A sharp smug scent scent interjected, and the professor stopped, only moving his eyes toward its source.

He didn't recognize this student, but then, juveniles were harder to tell apart every year. "Most of that stuff was always oxidized. It doesn't come out of the earth that way."

"I take it one of you has actually studied?"

"It's not really a fuel. You need to take it to the geo plant, or maybe the solar one, and--"

"Actually, the ancients used to burn the things that grow on the surface to generate metals. They started with veins of pure copper though."

The student's top legs twitched sullenly, signing nothing.

"Yes, it's the metal that is a fuel," the professor went on, "and you have to recover it from ores, but those ores come from the earth. And the fossil record contained in those ores is amazingly rich and complex. The world was thoroughly vermin-infested."

"Were they really giant?" There was certainly such a thing as stupid questions, but this one played to the professor's sense of drama, and he indulged himself.

"Some were. Luckily for us, most of the large ones didn't survive for long past the cataclysm. There were vermin the size of a whole burrow, and some were even bigger. When the meteor hit them, they needed too much energy to survive when resources got scarce. Our own ancestors were smaller and hardier than the vermin, and had a much easier time adapting."


"Our young friend disagrees with the foremost scientific minds? How else did minerals concentrate so strongly in such a short geological epoch? What else could nearly kill a thriving world?"

Another student stirred. "There are orogenic minerals. And fresh volcanic ones."

"Hardly any! The great concentration of metallic minerals come from sedimentary rock. The earth was flat because it filled up with them. The ores from the verminiferous era are far richer in iron, copper, and carbon than those few from the mountains. Almost all native carbon that has been discovered comes from that age. There are also great pockets of pure noble metals, a tremendous concentration of rare metals. It came from the sky like a vast fireball and distributed its ash and dust across the globe. Imagine the size of it! Little could have survived."

"A gift from the founders."

The professor stopped moving and looked carefully at the student who just communicated. Its legs, lightly earth-colored from recent molting, remained in a defiant poise. The creature reeked of defensiveness.

The professor's legs moved slowly, explaining. "The founders. Are you sure you are in the right class?"

"The founders built the world."

"And they just put all those older rocks there, all those giant vermin fossils, just to confuse us? We have radiometric dating now. If the founders built the world they made it from an older world."

"They made it whole. How do you explain all those straight lines that the geologists find? They were the scaffold of the earth. The founders filled it in with rocks, and then added metal at the end for us to use."


The student moved more quickly, sensing the mood. "The giant vermin were their machines. I read about the fossil site near West Burrow 6425. Vermin stretched out flat, row on row of them, each one with its own rock. They were filling the earth in."

"This is not science!"

"I don't know why those weren't used, the ones that were found. The founders--"

One of the other students curled up its back and jumped against the zealot, stopping its spiel. Another used some of its gripping legs to pull it toward the back of the room.

Still on his lectern, the professor ranted. "Out, out! Get it out of here!"


It was a good lecture, the professor thought. An incident like that always helps to establish the primacy of scientific thought in the minds of the students. He felt the smooth, worn surface of the floor with his motive legs, faint vibrations coming through them. Traffic in some other corridor.

He followed his own faint chemical trail down the winding halls of the university warren, ignoring the few passersby and glancing only out of habit at the frescoes that decorated the walls and floor around every skylight, stylized art indicating to students (and forgetful faculty) the departments they were closest to. The professor noted to himself, not for the first time, how the path grew stronger as many old routes converged. It was remarkable the way a life could be deciphered just by walking from place to place, but like all things, these faded with time, and surely every triumph of civilization would disappear as completely as a trail of vapor. The long view was the geologist's curse.

By the time he reached his quarters, his ebullient mood had become completely introspective. He looked at the figures on either side of the entrance to his private corridor. They marked his field, and they marked the passage as his. To his knowledge, no students had seen this part of the warren.

One of the figures was the internal skeleton of a modern vermin in a typical pose, bound together with wire. It was about the same size as the professor himself. Four of the bony legs held the creatures awkward shape above the ground, and its other two legs were hunched in front, good for nothing more than shoveling food up into its fleshy mouth. On the other side of the opening was what looked like a magnified view of the end of one of the vermin's legs. It was a plaster cast of an original, buried somewhere deep within the department, part of the skeleton of one of the prehistoric creatures.

The professor looked closely at the appendage. It split into five smaller legs, which must have helped stabilized the creature's massive bulk when it stood. If you compared it to the modern vermin, you could see the arguments of his paleontologist colleagues in evidence. They theorized that in the evolutionary event after the cataclysm, this appendage split such that the bottom portion became the modern animal's central legs, presumably so it could keep its balance while peering over around objects, or through the dust and ice that must have been present after an impact of that scale. The professor imagined the one off-axis subleg pulling away from the others and descending down the creature's shrinking body.

These hairy creatures would have evolved motive and gripping legs on an independent path than his own species then. The professor looked at the giant thing in front of him. If that could grip like a modern vermin's then it could pick him right up to be mashed to bits in the monster's dull, wet internal jaws. Caught in the reverie, he exuded alarm, but there was no one to observe it. He calmed, and reassured himself that the feeling would be dissipated well before anyone else came by.

As machines, the giant vermin would be as formidable as any mechanical terror that existed in modern times. The founder cult died hard. But still, any mythical god creatures would have needed better machines than these to build the world--these animals could never have pulled apart rocks with their soft legs. And if the founders had built machines, why not build metal ones, which could actually do something? Even if the rest of the earth was remarkably metal-poor, then surely they had their magic ore at their command to work with, right? There was simply no reasoning with true believers.

The professor had some time before he needed to report to research, and he chose to spend it dormant. He leaned back and drifted off, thinking of amazing lost ages, when giant, soft, unthinking brutes stalked the earth, stumbling about on clumsy inarticulate legs, unaware of their imminent fate by metal from the sky.


[Random thoughts from obvious sources, dashed off just for fun. I was thinking how people have done more to rearrange the composition and shape of the crust than millennia of geology. The professor's theories are mostly wrong of course. Call it a comment on our own reasoning, if you want to read that much into it.]

[Also, metals as fuel if anyone else is up late and bored...]


Archaeopteryx said...

I'm not sure what to think about the idea of professors as cockroaches, but my students probably think it apt.

Nifty story, Keif!

Keifus said...

I'm comforted to imagine that in 300 million years, somebody will be scratchin' their carapace about whatever the hell happened here in the verminiferous age.

Those bugs'll survive an apocalypse, donchaknow.

Artemesia said...

I love your intelligent designation.. and agree, that often we have proved to be little more than a film of vermin on our Mother planet, destroying each other and fouling our nests. No need for Glliver here, you have taken us right into our parallel future with ants/dung beetles and other profound diggers and collectors of valuable data and beliefs into their exclusivity as possessors of true intelligence..and reasoning. I love the cemeteries as part of the scaffolding for ‘intelligent design/framework.' Science based on dead ideas..the sacred past as inviolate gospel. Your analogy Of Ants and Men buggers the mind deliciously, though the vinegary scent of formic acid scared me a little because: What if..What if?

Artemesia said...


Guess I missed the leg count
and plumbing details..or were they cockraoches vs 'giant' waterbugs?

Galatea said...


Please excuse the OT here, but I wanted to direct you to some Philip Lamantia poems and links that I recently posted for you, plus a reply from previous post that was half on time and also some late ones (what else is new LOL). It’s ridiculously late, otherwise I’d try to respond to this post which I glanced at and can see it’s interesting…I shall return. But in the meantime this links for you.

~ Galatea

Keifus said...

Leg count? I was thinking "lots." Some bugs of unclear details, but definitely buggy. (I wish I had thought to include some buggery, but it was a very short short indeed.) I didn't necassarily intend the cemetery as a metaphor, but if it works, then, uh, that's exactly what I meant, yeah.

A reply that I didn't make to Arch in an earlier, different conversation: (about cities), sure they're sewers, but what are people but rats with bigger hands?

Galatea: I'm off to the links.