Descending to Eve, Part Two – Al Onia

Sharon cursed and fought the steering wheel. “Lord a’mighty,” she cried, the ruts almost tearing the wheel from her hands. The path that passed for a road was much worse than the month before; the previous evening’s rains beginning the damage yet to come. The highways were not much better. The hard-topping of the pavement resisted total erosion only in the center of the road forcing drivers to make their own way in the ditches more often than not. She swerved off into the brush to avoid the remains of a broken-down motor coach. How had the driver found this road? she wondered.

Back on the path, she risked a glance at her watch. She was still behind schedule. The damn news, she thought. Instead of ignoring the newsvid and getting on the road, she had lingered with Pierre at breakfast, morbidly spellbound by images of the latest harbor riots in Boston. News from home was rare unless she tuned in CNN. This morning’s stories of violence in her country were disturbing and fascinating, she could not leave until the station finally switch to similar footage from Perth. God, she had remarked to Pierre, I never picked Australia for such protest. Boston either, she realized. And she never heard an explanation from the reporters. What drove these mobs?

A familiar rise in the landscape jarred Sharon out of her musings. She braked to her first stop of the day. 

She waved the dust away from her face. The cloud announcing her arrival settled over the jeep. Sharon slung her knapsack over her shoulder for the hike to the recording station.

With the jeep shut off she listened for any sounds. Nothing, quiet all around, not even a breeze to rattle bushes. She checked her logbook, reconciled the GPS location, sighted her compass, and set out up the gentle slope of loose rocks and hardy plants. The pack was heavy and she began to sweat immediately. “I had to bring enough discs for all the stations,” she groaned. She wouldn’t risk leaving them unattended in the open jeep. It was quiet now but she had experienced trouble with the tourists in the past. Not theft or vandalism, but they seemed to creep up in the oddest places. Like that abandoned coach.

She sipped her water and scanned the area before her. There, she recognized the foliage she had used to lightly camouflage her recorder.

Twenty paces further and she turned sideways through two of the bushes. She knelt down beside the tripod-mounted seismometer. It looked like a three-legged fly with its solar cells on top and stabilizing bag of gravel underneath. Pierre had christened her machines ‘bugs’ when she first set one up in camp. She examined the unit visually for wear then retrieved the disc from its insides. From her knapsack, she removed her finger pad, unsealed the protective bag and inserted the disc. A quick scan indicated uncorrupted data. She unwrapped a fresh disc, stuffed the cellophane into her pocket and placed the disc into the bug. She triggered the lockout on the used disc, then sealed it and her finger pad back in the pouch.

By late afternoon, Sharon had visited four more sites, covering a distance of seventy kilometers, all on the same side of a large tributary gully. Each time the recorders yielded another usable piece of data. She would collate all of them in camp before downloading the contents in Moshi via satellite back to the coordination center in Lawrence, Kansas. The newer equipment could automatically record and send remotely but Sharon was stuck with the stuff no one else wanted, certainly not the tenured profs. The sixth and last seismometer site sat atop a high knoll. Her self-imposed daylight schedule was on track thanks to the problem-free pickups thus far. The battered jeep worked hard up the backside of the hill. She intersected a newly worn path and followed it with the drivers’ side wheels, it was slower getting to the top but easier on her machine. 

At the flat top of the hill the path ran straight for her station. Unlikely animal run, she thought. Then she saw the seismometer. “Shit.” She jumped out of the jeep as soon as she stopped and ran to the wreckage. “Oh great. Just raving great.” The bug lay on its side, one leg pointing to the sky, the stabilizer pinning broken solar panels to the earth. She peered at the unit. the indicator light was dead. No power. “Damn it. Dammit, dammit, dammit.” No power, maybe no data.

Sharon lifted the gravel bag away and righted the machine. She slid the disc out. It looked okay, no grit inside. She picked up one of the cracked solar panels. It flopped in two. On the ground underneath where it had lain was a drink carton like the one Pierre had shown her a few nights ago. The tourists had done this. She hadn’t believed them to be capable of wanton destruction. An aberrant accident? Regardless, it didn’t help her research. 

A few dollars more to her grant and she could remote all of these, put them in safer places. But that wouldn’t give her this hands-on field experience or first crack at interpreting the data before Lawrence. Bugger that, I need good data. Her figures showed the seismic activity along the rift valley was increasing. Did this increase bode a major earthquake occurring in the near future? Only robust data would help predict when and where a destructive quake would hit. The only residents of concern were in fact the tourists. “Will serve you bloody right,” she shouted. 

She tried to remember if she had any spare solar panels left. She left the stabilizer to mark the location should she be able to get the seismometer back in service and hefted the damaged bug into the jeep. She strapped it in by the belt on the passenger side and started the engine. An hour of daylight left and she had two laser ranging stations to check before heading back to camp.

She was relieved to find the ranging laser stands unmolested. The second one was the most exposed and had a small fence surrounding it to ward off animals. As she unlocked the gate in the fence she realized a determined human effort would easily overcome the minimal security. Perhaps it was mere carelessness that had wrecked the bug, the thought did not diminish her anger at the unknown vandals.

She mounted the laser and checked the calibration against the survey monument on this side of the valley. She adjusted the unit until the reading matched her last data point. She rotated the laser to sight on the monument on the other side of the gully. She entered the azimuth and distance into her finger pad. The angle deviated by milliradians. “That can’t be right,” she said aloud. “That’s one hell of a lateral movement in one month.” She reset the laser back to the first control monument and checked the reading. No deviation during the last six months. She turned it to the other side of the valley. Same deviance as the first time. The variance distance came out the same. Three centimeters. The sides of the rift valley were moving past and away from each other on a suddenly accelerating rate. She logged the figures and removed the laser. She walked the perimeter of the fence, looking for evidence of tampering. So far as she could tell, no trespassers had intruded on this site.

She secured her equipment in the jeep and backed up to turn around. In her anger she spun the wheels in the gravel. The dust slowly dissipated as she forced the shift lever into first. As it cleared, she saw them. Five tourists, three men and two women. She hadn’t seen nor heard a vehicle. She was at least ten kilometers from her base and thirteen from the nearest visitor camp. Had they walked?

She stopped the jeep in front of them and shut off the motor. “Hi. Out for a hike?”

None of them spoke. Eye contact seemed to mean nothing to them as she looked from person to person. She asked, “Do you speak English?” What the hell was the German phrase? “Sprechen zie Anglaise?” she attempted.

The tourists glanced at each other and one muttered something Sharon could not distinguish. The five then turned and walked away from the path and Sharon. In a minute, they were hidden by the terrain.

“Assholes,” she said under her breath. Sharon realized her heart was racing and her breathing uneven from the encounter. She gripped the wheel of the jeep tightly to control her shaking and headed for camp.

Sharon showed Pierre the figures from the ranging laser.

“I’ll take your word these are significant,” he said. “What about your seismometer readings? Have you analyzed them?”

“Not completely. I’ve been trying to radio southern camp all afternoon to confirm the laser data.” Sharon reached into the cooler. “I’m still shaky after running into those tourists. I worry they’re lost out there. I hope they’re okay, maybe I should have offered them a ride.” She reclaimed her notes. “At first examination, I can’t explain the increase in the frequency or the magnitude of the quakes.”

Pierre pushed his dinner plate away. “Well, surely Kansas will tell you how your figures fit in with the rest of the data.”

“Communication with Kansas is one way, as usual,” said Sharon. “Information goes in, nothing comes out. Not to me, anyway. There could be an eight-magnitude earthquake on its way and I’d be the last to know. Or the first, depending on how you look at it. I don’t know if they’re afraid someone will intercept the message or what.”

“A rival rogue band of geophysicists?” Pierre laughed. “I have read about such gangs of scientists gone bad.”

Sharon allowed herself a smile. “Be very, very frightened. How did your survey turn out? Can I see what you did today while I committed further deconstruction of my bug?”

Pierre produced flimsy paper from his vest pocket. He smoothed it on the table. “I’m still processing what I can but I’ve made preliminary copies of a few vertical and horizontal profiles. Here.” He pointed to multi-colored diffraction patterns on the sheets.

Sharon turned the paper in different directions, struggling to discern a recognizable image. Then it registered. “Bones?”

Pierre nodded quickly. “Yes. A lot of them. Ten years ago, the equipment could not have resolved more than grave-size anomalies in the soil. Now, even with my ancient machine, we can see smaller, individual remains. I’m quite excited.”

“This is a valuable find.” Sharon let out her breath in a low whistle. She sipped her Tusker. She had a sudden thought of the damage even a moderate quake could inflict on Pierre’s treasure. “What next?”

“I must proceed quickly. There is power in these remains.”

“Power?” Once again, his logic had leaped well ahead of her more pragmatic concerns.

Pierre elaborated. “Other researchers will do anything to ‘assist’ once they recognize the significance of this discovery.”

“You’d better begin taking protective measures. Don’t include the precise location of the survey for one thing.”

“I sent Gerard out this afternoon to remove all evidence of our activity. I want nothing left to indicate we have been surveying. No tracks from the jeep or the GPR, no holes from my grid stakes, every trace eliminated.”

The sound of an over-revving engine interrupted their examination of Pierre’s displays. A jeep was coming fast, raising an abnormal trail of dust.

Sharon put a preventative hand over the top of her beer. “Gerard?”

“Fool, I hope he brakes soon.” 

Pierre ran to the spot where the jeep had now come to a halt.

Sharon was right behind him. Gerard jumped out, fighting for breath.

Sharon offered her beer. “What happened?”

“Sit down, Gerard,” said Pierre. “Calm yourself and explain your panic.”

Gerard took more deep breaths before finally speaking. “Spent a few hours around the lake bed, disguising our activity. I decided to walk down the side of the valley. You remember, professor, the one directly to the east?”

“I know what you mean.”

“Why?” Sharon asked. “Why didn’t you come back to camp after you’d finished the cleanup?”

“I thought the rain the other night might have caused some erosion. Maybe some new specimens had been exposed. I didn’t stop to think that since the rain hadn’t affected the lake bed, it shouldn’t have affected the valley either.” He stopped and fought to regain his breath. 

He took a gulp of Sharon’s beer then continued. “I was perhaps a kilometer away from the jeep when I felt a small tremor. At first I thought I was dizzy from the heat and my work but I could see differences of movement as I looked toward the sides of the valley.”

“The quakes are becoming more frequent,” said Sharon. “I told you, Pierre. Gerard, you’ve felt the quakes before.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Why the panic this time?”

“It wasn’t the quake. That was just coincidence, I guess. I didn’t find any signs of recent exposure so I decided to return to the jeep and come back here. I climbed up to the lake bed and then I saw them.”

“Saw who?” Pierre asked.

Sharon didn’t need to ask. She knew who.

Gerard gasped once more and looked back and forth between Sharon and Pierre. “The tourists. Dozens of them.”

“On the lake bed? On my survey site?” Pierre demanded.

“Yes. All over it. They just walked across it.”

“What did they say? What did you do?” Pierre asked.

“I tried to chase them away.” Gerard stared past his inquisitors. “They ignored me. I wasn’t there. They moved on at their own speed.” He focused on Pierre. “There is no evidence of our activity now, professor.”

Pierre exploded. “My own fault. I didn’t want them to find it but they could damage the upper layers of bone and artifacts. I should have fenced it off, posted warnings.” 

Sharon refrained from reminding him that the tourists had provided exactly what he wanted.

Gerard took a long swallow of her beer and said, “I don’t think that would have stopped them.”

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Emerging Worlds is a Zealot Script Publication.

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