Descending to Eve, Part One – Al Onia

Olduvai Gorge, Western Rift, Tanzania. September, 2028

Pierre Archambault stopped his hammering to wipe the sweat from his brow. The wind did not cool. During the day, it carried the heat from the rocks surrounding his site. During the night, it carried the songs from the tourist camps. 

He stared across the valley at the dark, broken rocks of the landscape and tried to remember what this valley, his valley, had been like before the tourists came. The vision shimmered, as uncertain of its own reality as he was of his memory. There was always the wind, not so long ago lifting the scents and sounds of the great Serengeti herds. The herds were gone, migrated to new pastures with the increase in visitors and tremor activity. Now, Pierre smelled the cooking from the camps and heard the mindless songs repeated endlessly through the dark, warm nights.

He set his magsat on top of the cross mark his assistant Gerard had made earlier in the week. The bearing checked and he resumed his hammering, driving the next guide stake into the hardpan of the drained lake. The wind blew a flash of yellow in front of him. He stopped the object with his hammer and turned it over. An empty drink carton, the red printing advertised the product of another continent. He lifted his gaze once more, this time to stare in the direction of what he could smell but could not see from here. The caravan camps he wished he could will out of any sight.

“Cochons,” he muttered, and stuffed the carton into his sweat-stained pack.

Pierre removed more stakes from the pack and hammered the first in place at Gerard’s next mark. He gauged the daylight left while walking to the final corner of the survey outline. He hoped tomorrow would confirm the potential for another season’s digging. The new Commissioner was making the circuit and Pierre needed to justify the renewal of the Grenoble Institute’s permit.

There is an undiscovered mystery in this lake bottom, Pierre thought. I will reveal it and understand it before I leave this land.

The sun bore down. He put his hammer away and took out a pen and logbook. He dated the survey diagram then turned the book to the back where he kept his personal journal. He began writing. Today I see the gorge in its current state and speculate on its raw beauty when it had been the birthplace of man. What brought our ancestors here? What drove them away? Food? Safety? Burgeoning numbers? Were they more than animals? Did curiosity drag them around the globe? Did they wonder what lay beyond?

Pierre put down his pen to watch the red sun settle in the dusty air. He pictured the rift valley forming, tearing the Eden apart to savannah on one side and desert on the other, the hunt forcing the nimble tree dwellers to walk upright on two legs instead of four.

He turned his head to scan the grid of stakes in the dying light. If the tourists would leave them undisturbed overnight, he and Gerard could begin the survey at dawn and save the permit.

He penned a last thought before leaving. I can’t imagine leaving here after all my years of searching and digging. My valleys are getting crowded by the invading tourists but I must stay. Neither they nor the government will force me to leave.

Pierre’s jeep rattled into camp. The light from Sharon Hood’s work table flooded onto the rutted vehicle path. He saw the Kansan-born geologist in her usual evening position, transcribing the day’s field notes onto chip for weekly downloading to her university.

He parked in front of his tent and unloaded the surplus survey stakes. He slung his pack over his shoulder and headed toward Sharon. She gave no acknowledgement of his presence even when he stepped into her cone of illumination. Her ashen-blond hair glinted above the charts and rocks spread out before her.

Pierre fished the crumpled carton out of his pack. He dropped it beside her. She jumped.

“What the hell?”

“Tourists,” he answered, as if the one word explained everything. His mood, his work, his life.

“Fine, thank you. And how was your day?” She kept working. Her hand brushed the carton aside.

Damn tourists,” he amended, this time with both fists on her table. He grabbed the carton and pointed it in the direction of the visitor camp.

“What are you railing about now?” She stopped working. She brushed a few stray hairs out of her face and looked up at him.

Pierre held the offending trash in front of her nose with a bony fist. His thin body trembled with tension. “Tourists. All over the damn place. They’re worse than the insects.” He brushed phantom flies away before realizing there were none. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time the insects had bothered him. Had they disappeared with the larger animals or had his sensitivities been overshadowed by the human onslaught?

He continued. “My diggers have to wade through these…people’s trash every morning before their real excavations begin. God knows how many fossils their tramping around has obliterated. And I’m weeks behind. The new Commissioner is due any time and I have little to show.” He stood back, leaving the crushed box on her table. Fists on his hips, he turned in the direction of the closest visitor camp. “I spent my entire day planning my survey of that dry lake. Two hours ago, I found this, they may have ruined the best reason I have for the Tanzanians to renew my permit.”

Sharon picked up his trophy and started to smooth it out. It crackled under her examination. “Pierre, aren’t you over-reacting? It’s one piece of discarded plasboard. It’s nothing new, the wind blows them in and out of camp all the time. Outside the parks the country is one big trash pile. I’ve found junk clear on the other side of the rift, where the tourists aren’t supposed to go. They don’t do it on purpose, it’s the wind.” She retrieved her pen and resumed writing. After a few seconds, she stopped. “Wait a moment, you laid out the grid alone? Where was Gerard? I asked him yesterday if he could help me today and he said he would be with you.”

Pierre shrugged. “I don’t know, he isn’t important. It’s those bastards.”

“I didn’t see him this morning, come to think of it.” She shrugged. “Grad students, sometimes they forget their rightful place at the bottom of the academic food chain. If Gerard isn’t helping anyone, then I say he’s in trouble, Professor. I’m behind too. Look at these.” She held up a sheaf of flimsies. “Dr. Anderson wants my figures yesterday, to coordinate with the other centers around the globe.”

Pierre finally allowed his exhaustion to surface. He sat opposite Sharon and finished restoring the carton to its original shape. “Inform Anderson of another new species of homo sapiens has been added to the rift valley. See how they fit into his global data.”

Sharon turned the plasboard so the printing faced her. “Portuguese?”

Pierre nodded. “The language is. ‘Packaged in Brazil’, you can see it there. It depresses and angers me. Have you seen recent vids of their cities? This will be ‘Olduvai Slum’ or ‘The Great East African Trash Heap’ in five years or less if the Tanzanians don’t put a stop to the immigration.”

Sharon pushed the carton back to him. “These aren’t the same class of people. The tourists are the wealthy ones, the ones who can afford the motor coaches. And they’re too old to create a population explosion. Pierre, relax. The tourists aren’t allowed near your dig nor my survey sites. We have the Commissioner General’s guarantee.” She shoved her chair away and stretched her short, brown legs.

Pierre slapped his hand on the table. “We had the old Commissioner’s guarantee. This new one is a German. Hell, half the tourist camp is German, judging by the nightly songfest. Whose side do you think he’ll be on?” Pierre stared up at the stars overhead. “I’d prefer facing them on a battlefield, as my ancestors did, to this political confrontation. I’m uncomfortable with diplomacy.” He took a few steps away from Sharon’s table. “And these tourists, it’s a damned odd way to channel their energy.” He wheeled around, struck by a sudden thought. “You know, I’ve never seen one of their motor coaches leave.”

“Why don’t you satfax Paris and see how many of your countrymen are prepared to join you on the Serengeti?” Sharon asked. “Fight it out with the Germans, we’ll take on the winner. Or does the E.U. have a better way to settle disputes?”

“Don’t joke, Sharon. Old hatreds die hard and they die slowly. This destruction could affect your research too.”

“It already has. Some of my readings are so radical I suspect tampering. But I don’t know how it could be accomplished. And I don’t know how you or I can stop the tourists.” She slumped in her chair. “They just keep coming.”

“We’ll stop them, our countries will bring pressure to bear.”

Sharon laughed. “Our two nations’ combined presence here is thinner than the Tanzanian sky.” She sighed. “I still remember how it was the first time I came here. That’s what always draws me back, that unmatchable blue.” She fell silent.

“What’s wrong? You look sad.”

“I miss the herds. Their smell, the dust clouds and shaking of the ground. I could accept the tourists if the animals were still here. They’re not coming back.”

Pierre felt the loss as a rising tightness in his chest. “The animals sense the tremors that you need your instruments to detect. That’s why they’re gone.”

“Maybe, there’s a lot of development interfering with their migration routes too.”

Pierre’s sense of loss turned to increasing anger. “I have to do something, even if it’s just to keep the tourists from interfering in our work. We have guarantees in our contracts and I’m going to see them enforced or I will enforce them myself.”

“Petition the government? In person?”

“I will count on American support.” He snapped his fingers, ready to act.

Sharon stood beside him, “You have it from me. But if you leave for the capital, you will lose your diggers. And who would watch the tourists? They tramp everywhere.”

Pierre dropped his hands, “You’re right, the diggers would be off, hiring themselves out as guides for the tourists the moment I left. Gladly accepting E.U. Marks over the local currency I have to pay them.” He picked up a sheaf of her work notes. “What about your work? Could you interrupt it when your readings are in dispute?”

She grabbed the papers. “Give me those, I’m not one of your cowardly students.”

Pierre released them. “Speaking of, I must find Gerard before morning.” He looked around the now darkened camp. He cupped an ear to the light breeze. “Listen, you can hear them, singing. German songs.”

“I’ll take your word on that,” said Sharon. “I can hear a tune but it’s all indistinguishable to me. Mother says I have a tin ear. Would you like me to demonstrate?”

“Please don’t. I sat in front of you at last year’s Christmas service. They’re German all right. I spent a lot of time in beer gardens as a student. In a few minutes, the small contingent of English tourists will launch a counter-offensive.”

“One big happy continent, right?”

He nodded. “And they all bring a particular strain of mindless curiosity. And their garbage.”

Sharon stared at him. “Look, Pierre, I agree this is a shabby way to treat the birthplace of the human race. The tourists are an ironic representative of the evolutionary result of an Eve that walked these paths two hundred thousand years ago. The Kenyans started it with their tourism push. Don’t blame your European kin too much for the degradation we see now. Wait a month, Pierre. October will be too hot for all of them, we can both finish our season’s work in peace. Then make your petition.”

Pierre considered her advice in silence. There was sense in what she said. His impatience made it difficult to control his anger.

Sharon tapped her pen. “I’m being selfish, this data is startling. Ph. D., here I come. Anderson can kiss my dust.” She closed the conversation by pulling her chair forward and resuming her transcription.

“I hope the heat will accomplish what I cannot,” said Pierre. “I’m glad your findings are so promising. I need an important discovery, too. Then I could risk the trip to Dar es Salaam and convince Minister Nterre we need isolation, or at least protection, from even more of these unwanted rabble.” He mumbled the last words, meant only for himself. It seemed he was getting more isolated with each passing day. 

Pierre and Gerard drove out to the site early the next morning.

“I could have used your help yesterday,” said Pierre. “Laying out the grid and pounding the stakes is a two-man job.” He took his eyes off the road for a momentary glance. The lanky youth shrugged but offered no explanation of his whereabouts the day before. He had not been in his tent the previous night when Pierre went to bed but was there this morning.

“Watch out, Professor,” Gerard put an arm in front of his face. 

Pierre turned just in time to intercept a cloud of flies. He spit out the few that had gone into his mouth. Another dark mass appeared as his vision cleared. Pierre swerved around this swarm. “I expect two days’ work from you today. We won’t return to camp until the recording is finished. I can’t afford to risk the tourists interrupting a survey overnight.”

Gerard shrugged again and the two were silent the reminder of the hour’s journey to the dry lake bed.

The jeep coughed to rest and the dust caught up to them.

“Help me lift the radar unit.” Pierre waited while Gerard slowly unfolded himself from the passenger seat. The two men grabbed the wheeled box by its sides and push handle.

“There, that’s got it. Wheel it to the orange stake, then come back and rig the awning while I check telemetry.”

Gerard returned in a few moments and began to unfurl their canvas protection. “Professor, how long do you think this lake has been dry?”

Pierre looked up from the receiver-recorder unit toward the flat bed of silt. “Decades. Sharon thinks a tremor during the last cycle of seismic activity in the early 1990’s fractured that row of hillocks apart and drained the water permanently. I found it last season but the rains had left it too muddy to use even the portable radar.” As well, Pierre thought, the Minister had only granted the right to survey here this year. The Ministry guessed there was nothing of value here. The Gorge itself was the best site for evidence of early man and Pierre’s sponsors could not afford the price of those permits.

Pierre satisfied himself that the GPR unit was functioning. “You can begin the first traverse. We’ll do a couple of repeats until we find the best speed.”

Gerard walked to the unit, turned it to line up on the first string and engaged the drive.

Pierre watched the screen of his receiver. Irregular shapes jumped each time the image refreshed. He recognized boulders down to a centimeter in diameter. Most of the picture was grey with lines marking different depositional events.

“Try moving faster. It’s a big lake, I can always slow you down when we hit something anomalous.”

Gerard returned the machine to the orange stake and began again.

Pierre heard the morning breeze rattle the awning and brushed away the flies that had discovered a new source of interest. After an hour, Gerard had made three traverses and Pierre could see the sweat on the lad’s face. Pierre called to him, “We’ll switch, come into the shade.”

Gerard ducked his head under the awning and flopped into the chair Pierre had occupied. “Thank you.”

“A good night’s sleep would have better prepared you for work today.” When Gerard didn’t respond, Pierre said, “The raw data is very noisy so don’t be disappointed if you don’t recognize anything. The processing will bring out coherent signals we can’t see.”

Pierre grasped the handle crossbar and pulled the unit back a meter before setting the spread.

“Receiving,” Gerard called.

The sun was already burning down but Pierre closed his mind to the heat. He visualized what might lay hidden beneath the baked surface.

The two rotated positions throughout the day. Stars were coming out when Pierre said, “That’s sufficient for today. Two more long days and we should be done.” He walked out to man and machine. “Power down.”

“Do you really think it will take two more days, Professor?” Gerard shook the sweat from his hat and drew a sleeve across his brow.

Pierre swung the GPR unit around and rolled it under the tarpaulin. “I’m prepared to spend the night here. You are welcome to stay or take the jeep back to camp,” he lowered his voice, “and spend time wherever it is you go when you disappear.”

Gerard stuffed his hands in his pockets while Pierre inserted a backup chip into the computer. “If you’re sure you’ll be okay out here.”

“I’ll be fine. We can always use fresh battery packs for the equipment.”

Gerard looked relieved. “I thought the jeep sounded off on our way out this morning. I could check it first thing in the morning at camp.”

“Check it tonight. I’ll expect you first thing in the morning, at sunrise. No excuses.” Pierre stood up and heard and felt his back crack. “Help me unload my gear.”

Pierre grabbed his knapsack and fresh canteen and set them down by the field survey equipment. Gerard dropped the bedroll beside them. Pierre walked back to the jeep with his assistant. “Tell Sharon I’ll come in tomorrow night whether we finish or not. If she wants to ride out with you in the morning, it could save her a trip to check her nearby stations.”

“She’ll pester me this evening. ‘Does he have enough water? What did you leave him to eat? Any animals about?'”

Pierre stopped him. “Cease, I know her habits. Tell her I am truly content.” He grabbed the bedroll out beyond the tarp’s protection. He pointed up. “Look at that sky. There are too few opportunities like this anymore. The nights you spend dancing and drinking, do you ever stop and look up, away from the lights? I look forward to an evening under the stars.” Pierre inhaled a lungful of the air. “I can actually taste that.”

Gerard was already climbing into the jeep. He called, “I will see you first thing in the morning.”

“Bring coffee,” Pierre shouted over the engine’s uneven drone. 

Gerard pulled away, raising more dust than Pierre thought necessary but the young man was no doubt eager to return to the relative comfort of the multinational camp and the exciting American students.

Pierre ducked under the tarp again and checked the status of his data backup. Complete. He turned off the computer. The light from the screen dimmed quickly and he was alone in the dark. He scanned the horizon. A dull glow in the direction of the visitor camp was the sole blemish again the black of the African sky. He didn’t even mind the low level of noise from the camp. He turned his gaze away from them and to the stars above, chewing on his small repast.

When he finished eating, he relieved himself then stretched out on the ground to study the stars in comfort. Maybe he should have pursued astronomy after all. Not a new thought. He stuck a fingertip into his ear and squeegeed the grit. Astronomy was definitely cleaner. And you looked up instead of down. It was often solitary, like archeology. It too held a sense of wonder, the potential of discovery and then the greatest intellectual reward of all, insight.

The minutes passed slowly, the noise from the tourists became just another buzz in the night. Small animals and insects contributed to the dissonance. He tried to separate each individual sound but his mind kept coming back to the tourists. How long had they been an intrusion in his world? Two years? It was curious, he decided, they hadn’t appeared gradually, but all of a sudden. One season they weren’t there, the next season they were. And they stayed.

Twice Pierre arose to check what he thought was nearby movement but no savage beast attacked out of the darkness and no human intruder could be found. Pierre’s thoughts returned to the sediments beneath him and he fell asleep pondering the potential for discovery there.

Pierre was awakened simultaneously by the sun’s attacking heat and the sound of the jeep. He stretched and rubbed the grit from his eyes. He had to roll onto his side and let his back spasms quell before attempting to get to his feet.

The vehicle stopped next to his bedroll. Pierre waited for Gerard to shut the motor off. “Good thing I moved, you might have parked on top of my bed.”

Gerard said nothing but passed a thermos to him.

“I’m grateful.” Said Pierre. “Coffee is an undervalued benefit of civilization. I will live.” He drank then pointed at the empty passenger seat.

Gerard followed his direction like a dog waiting for its stick to be thrown. “Sharon had to check all of her readings from last week. She said she won’t come this way for two or three days.”

Pierre pulled his face away from the cup quickly. “Check? Did she say why?” The damn tourists, he thought.

Gerard didn’t look at him, he was staring toward the visitor camp. He shook his head. “No, no reason. She just said the readings were questionable.” He turned to Pierre. “I saw the seismometer charts. The rift is active but the motions are too small for us to feel.”

Pierre drank the rest of his cup and refilled it. The day was already getting warm. “We’ll make sure we don’t have to redo all of yesterday’s work. Repeat the last traverse while I correlate the equipment.” He began uncovering the machines. “If the tourists are tampering with Sharon’s recorders, it’s well I stayed here last night.”

“Any visitors, professor?” Gerard exchanged the batteries with fresh packs. “Sharon said I should bring these, just in case. The new solar panels still haven’t arrived.”

“It’s only been nine months since I requisitioned them, no reason to start expecting them yet. No visitors. None that came near enough to disturb me, anyway.” He glanced over his shoulder involuntarily then turned back to watch Gerard push the GPR unit out onto the site. 

Gerard activated the laser sight and lined the beam up with the previous day’s grid. He asked, “Will we finish today?”

Pierre felt his patience evaporate with the meager dew. “I don’t know. Do you have an urgent appointment elsewhere? Some assignation more important than my support of your grad thesis?”

“I just wondered when we’d be done, that’s all.” Gerard spoke mechanically.

Pierre switched on the instruments. “We’ll get done what we get done. We don’t have to run as many tests or set up this morning so we can cover more ground than yesterday. Tonight, you can stay with the equipment to ensure we’re done no later than tomorrow.” As soon as he’d said it, he had second thoughts. His trust in Gerard weakened daily. “Anytime you’re ready.”

Gerard rolled the GPR unit along while Pierre compared yesterday’s records on split screen with the real time images. His trained eye discerned little variation and the software confirmed it. As a boy he had pictured a grown-up Pierre Archambault hunched over prehistoric artifacts with magnifying glass and brush, painstakingly uncovering the mysteries of human past in the earth under his feet. Hell, hunched in front of these electronics, he was as much a geophysicist as Sharon, his specialty being near-surface remote sensing instead of seismology. They’d spent many times together in camp and in the field sharing each other’s expertise, looking for methods to improve their interpretations as well as their confidence in the data. When he dug up a bone or a tool, he had the physical evidence in front of him. Holding it in his hands gave him a subconscious direction for his understanding. Other archaeologists might dispute the discoverer’s conclusions but they could at least argue over an object. As he stared at the wiggly lines on the screen before him, Pierre recognized, not for the first time, that this once-removed data could take any interpretation so far. He was proud he could appreciate the radar signals generated by the GPR unit, how the subtle changes in the sediments beneath the surface altered and reflected those signals and finally how the recorded reflections were manipulated by the software to create images in depth-time.

Gerard reached the end of the first traverse and set up for the return along the next profile.

Pierre shouted, “Slow down, Gerard, let the unit pull you.” He checked the readouts. “That’s better.”

Pierre punched up a preliminary time-slice. No recognizable patterns emerged on the screen. As he scrolled deeper, he saw meanders reveal themselves, ancient water flows cutting into the earth before the lake was formed. He compared the images to the stars of last night. Astrophysicists deduced star evolution by analyzing the light that left those stars millions of years ago and theoretically evolving it into the present. Pierre’s information was what the sedimentary layers were like now, then he had to take it back in time.

Gerard was suddenly beside him. “I’m ready to switch, professor.”

Pierre looked at his watch. “We’ll take a short lunch break. I hadn’t realized you’d been out so long.”

Pierre checked the battery levels then put the equipment on powersave. He removed a canteen from the pack and passed it to the youth. “Drink, Gerard. Only Englishmen and their stupid dogs expose themselves to the sun at its peak. You and I should not add French scientists to that characterization.”

Gerard ate and drank wordlessly.

Pierre tried to bring him out. “Lost in thoughts of home? I often think of Grenoble this time of year, just before the snows. It is the best time, no tourists. You should visit. Do you ski? Maybe the winter would be better for you.”

Gerard nodded, grunted and continued to eat. Finally, he said, “I don’t miss my home. I doubt I’ll ever go back.”

Pierre sipped his water sparingly. “What about your family? I know your mother is still alive, she must miss you.”

“She has my brothers. The first time I left home I was fourteen. I haven’t spent longer than a month there in the last ten years.”

“Ah well, home is where you heart is, true enough. But I find I can split my heart between here and the valley of my birth.”

Gerard looked across the landscape. “Sometimes I feel I should have been born here.”

Pierre put his hat on and stood. “We all were, two hundred thousand years ago. At least, that’s what I believe. An Eve, barely recognizable as kin to your mother or mine, but carrying the successful genetic blueprint and strength that threads down to you and me. I’m glad you have the passion for what we do here, Gerard. Passion will take you farther than intellect.”

The midday heat was more intense than Pierre had known for many weeks. I never, ever want to be compared to an Englishman, or even a mad dog for that matter. The next survey, I run at night.

He stayed out all afternoon steering the GPR across the silt and pebbled surface of the old lake bed, imaging in his mind what intellectual treasures lay beneath his feet and the technological translator attached to him. Pierre pushed himself because he too wanted to be finished. Not to escape back to the camp like Gerard, but to assemble his data. His goal was to interpret, to challenge the preconceptions of his teachers, to find something more exciting than his competitors.

On his next to last traverse, he stopped to view the raw data on screen.

“The power’s low,” said Gerard. “A half-hour left at most.”

Pierre traced his finger along the computer image. “Then I’d better move.”

His hands were blistered and pain shot through them as he gripped the bar for a last run. The batteries and daylight expired together as he covered the final few meters.

The pair loaded the equipment into the jeep. “You drive,” said Pierre and he collapsed onto the passenger seat.

The camp was lit and Sharon was in her usual position when they entered camp. They stopped in front of Pierre’s tent to unload.

Sharon walked over. “Did you break it already? You’ve only been gone forty hours or so.”

Pierre placed the last small piece of equipment inside his tent. “Not at all, my American colleague, our radar survey is complete. I go back to the site only with shovel and diggers.”

Sharon helped Gerard wrestle with the GPR unit. She said, “I wish I could say the same about my work.”

“I have a lot of data still to process and interpret,” said Pierre. “Gerard, park the jeep. I’ll join you for dinner shortly.”

“The kitchen is closed at this hour.” Gerard tapped his watch.

Pierre looked at his. “You’re right. We’ll open it up for some cheese and biscuits. I have a bottle of wine in my tent. I’ll meet you in the kitchen in five minutes.” He turned to Sharon. “Will you join us in celebrating our small success?”

Sharon shook her head. “I’m sorry, no, it would depress me. Besides, I’m truly exhausted and have to get my own early start in the morning.”

“Gerard said you had some troubles. You can tell me all about them over wine and cheese.” He held out his arm.

“All right,” she laughed.

The kitchen was dark when they got there.

“Gerard?” Pierre called.

Sharon turned on the lights. The tables were bare, the chairs empty.

Pierre fetched two glasses and uncorked his bottle. He poured and handed her a glass. “Here’s cheese and I believe the biscuits are hidden here.” He set the food before her. “Voila, Pierre the mighty hunter provides for the tribe once again. Gerard can fend for himself when he shows up.” He lifted his glass. “Cheers.”

Sharon clinked her glass to his. “A votre sanque.”

Pierre glanced at the door expecting Gerard at any moment. By the time he finished his second glass of wine, he no longer believed Gerard to show up that night.

“I hope he returns by morning,” said Sharon.

“He is devolving,” said Pierre, and poured another glass of wine.

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Emerging Worlds is a Zealot Script Publication.

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