Engines flared, somewhere far above us, and the bartender made us drinks as we sat and watched the rockets take off out the window at the spaceport bar. It is in the nature of bartenders to make drinks, and we had ordered gin and tonics; which the bartender mixed with proportions to their own conscience, and we drank regardless, Harris and I.
Harris was a great one for rocket-spotting. He knew everything about them, could point out each engine by its sound, each fuel mixture by the color of the flame, and given half a prompt would go on about variations and histories and engineers - I half think that perhaps he was always trying to work out in his mind a whole genealogy of the things, to capture it crystal clear in his mind before they were all gone.
Once, when the bartender's conscience was stronger than it was now, and there was but a splash of tonic in a glass of gin, I asked Harris what he meant by a certain comment he used to make, on "the lack of lions" - for he and I both knew that lions had been extinct for many years now. He explained it to me, in his own way, but he did not start out on the last ragged great cat, breathing its last in some zoo, it's fabled mane dingy with age, the life wheezing out of it as ten million people watched, concentrating in those final few minutes more attention than they had in years.
"It was on the veldt," Harris said, "you see, when man was young. And the lion, the lion was the last of the great predators of man and antelope. Certainly, there were still bears and wolves, and wild boars can be dangerous, but nothing was as pure a predator as a lion, out on the savannah where we came to be human. Elephants, rhinos, and hippopotami were certainly dangerous, but they do not hunt man, they only kill him when they come upon him. And it is a strange thing about lions..." he paused to drink "...the antelope does not need the lion. The antelope will get on just fine without the lion, while the lion depends on the antelope. Predators, left to themselves can only prey on each other, and so consume themselves, and eventually diminish - while prey, when left to their own, always flourish. Often too much so, you know. Without lions, the antelope will multiply and eat until there is no more grass. Ecological balance unchecked. But, you know, that is a peculiar problem with antelopes, not lions. The antelope would be happy without the lion, but the lion depends upon the antelope...or the man."
The bartender refilled our glasses; he seemed to be listening to Harris' story.
"Humans became too smart for the lion. That was the problem. We had spears, and traps. We grew to no longer fear him. Imagine the antelope, if he had gained knowledge of the spear! To have the lion caged, for when he wanted him. That is a thing about ecological niches, like the predator. There is extra energy to be had, if someone is willing to change their role - and many creatures will, of course. So when humans created the spear, the lion ceased to be their predator. They were prey without predators. And that created a, I don't know what you would call it, an opportunity for new predators to come in. But there was no-one. You don't get a lion right away, you know. Can't breed it up out of a housecat. Humans, however, humans are smart enough to work it out, the opportunity - imagine the antelope that figures out how to eat other antelopes. That is what it was like, out there on the veldt, at the dawn of man. We like to say it was man against nature, man against animal...but we just exchanged one predator for another. And some of us were predators and some were prey, so we got more numerous - and we got smarter. We had to, you see. We had stopped competing against nature, and had begun to compete with each other. An arms race, antelopes with spears meeting antelopes with swords..."
An engine flared, bright green out on the sands. We sat and watched.
"All this, for the lack of lions."