Descending to Eve, Part Four – Al Onia

Pierre reached the lake bed an hour before sundown. He would have two usable hours of light to examine the destruction. There was little evidence of tourists in the vicinity now, aside from the disturbed ground. Whatever their reasons for trampling through when Gerard was here had taken them beyond the survey site. The lake bed hadn’t been their destination, it had been in their path.

Pierre turned off his engine and alighted. He swept his hat through a cloud of insects and hiked down the slope to his site. He noticed the broken scrub where the invaders had congregated. Any bones recently exposed which he’d missed would be destroyed by now, crushed into the topsoil by the indiscriminate feet of the tourist mass. He looked for telltale splashes of unnatural color. None. At least they haven’t left behind their garbage for a change.

At the survey’s edge, or where he guessed it had been, no demarcation was left between his work area and the migration. Pierre squatted and sighted across the dry lake bottom. The surface which had been pristine and undisturbed for millennia was a jumbled mess. His minimal-disturbance GPR machine might as well have been a plow. He would have difficulty interpreting follow-up data, the differing compaction of the surface would affect the electromagnetic probe’s sensitivity and significance of its images. The preliminary data would have to be sufficient to convince himself and others of the area’s importance. He took pictures of the damage and began preparing his plea to the Commissioner General.

He didn’t want to add even one more pair of footprints to the scene so he withdrew up the slope to his jeep. He sat past dusk watching and listening. The tourists didn’t return. He decided their foray was an unfortunate coincidence. Nevertheless, he would demand protection for his site or demand his own government’s economic contribution to Tanzania be re-examined. Pierre hoped the threat would be real.

Two weeks later, Pierre slowed his jeep as he passed the main body of the visitor encampment. “I don’t believe it,” he muttered. “How many more of them can there be?” He released the clutch and drove on to base camp.

Many days driving the terrible roads of the countryside hadn’t improved Pierre’s disposition, particularly when coupled with the results of his trip to Dar es Salaam. He swerved to avoid another tourist vehicle trying to drive from asphalt patch to asphalt patch. He silently cursed whoever thought of paving these surfaces in the first place.

Pierre entered his camp and brought the jeep to a stop amidst a cloud of dust and a squeal of worn brakes. He parked behind a new, bright orange Desert Rover sporting government decals on its doors. Pierre had caught up to the Commissioner General at last.

Sharon and a man came out from under her awning. The man was taller and heavier than Pierre. He had the ruddy glow of skin ill-designed for the east African sun. Pierre took an immediate dislike to him.

Sharon asked, “How was your trip?”

Pierre slammed the thin jeep door as hard as he could. He composed himself as menacingly as he could. “I’ve spent eight days on the roads having my spine shattered. Another two in Dar trying to get an audience with Minister Nterre while he,” Pierre jabbed a finger towards the Commissioner’s chest, “was playing with his new truck. Out of all contact.”

Sharon stepped between them. “May I introduce our new Commissioner General, Herr Krug.”

“You can call me Boris.” Krug held out his hand in greeting.

“Professor Archambault,” said Sharon, and stepped aside.

Pierre heeded the warning in her voice and calmed himself. He was prepared for the bone-crushing grip. Krug might be bigger but he hadn’t spent a decade working hard rocks with his hands. “Commissioner Krug.” Pierre gained small satisfaction in Krug’s quick withdrawal from the handshake.

Krug’s easy manner remained, seemingly amused by Pierre’s show of temper and machismo. “Professor, I am sorry your long trip to Dar was wasted. Minister Nterre is much too busy to personally entertain every minor guest in his country.”

Pierre did not miss the veiled message. His research continued because of the Tanzanian Government’s accommodation to France, his personal importance was negligible. Any attempt to increase his stature might trigger a negative response. Pierre could be replaced by another eager, less confrontational representative. Perhaps not even French. Krug’s appointment hinted the Germans were currently in favor.

Krug continued. “Minister Nterre has fully entrusted me to oversee the activities of all the digs. While you hunted for me in Dar, I was where I belong, in the field.” He rested his hands on his hips and scanned their camp. “Visiting every site. Offering my assistance, my advice.”

Pierre couldn’t resist a comment. “Your predecessor was never around for long when we needed him, either.”

Krug ignored the insult. “Miss Hood has been telling me about her work. I would appreciate you doing the same, Professor.”

Pierre realized Sharon had diplomatically dealt with Krug. It was worth a try. Get him interested in our discoveries. “I’ll gladly share my progress. You’ve arrived at an opportune time.” Pierre switched his anger from Krug to a greater problem. “Did you see the size of the visitor camp as you drove past?”

Sharon interrupted. “This is my concern also, Commissioner. The numbers. We, I mean, my survey team does not object in principle to a few tourists. Many are my countrymen. But the numbers are too great to control the damage they can do to your work, and to the countryside. I wish I could show you what Yellowstone Park looked like fifty years ago compared to today. I’m sure you’d be shocked and offended, I’m certain. Erosion, fences, everything behind glass or wire. They might as well stay home and use VR.”

“Do not be certain of anything I might think,” said Krug.

“He’s right,” said Pierre. “Have you seen what they’ve done to the Black Forest?”

`”Let us remain on topic, Professor,” said Krug. “Or I shall be on my may to more receptive hosts. Your colleague says she does not object to the tourists.”

“In principle,” she said. “Not in this volume.”

“You saw the camp, Krug,” said Pierre. “Didn’t it bother you?”

Commissioner Krug.”

So, Boris was out the window, thought Pierre.

“Yes, I passed by the camp but I did not stop to count them. I’m here at your service, Professor, not theirs. Miss Hood intimated you’ve made some excellent finds this season. I’m very much interested, and your plans for next year. Let’s get out of the sun and discuss them.”

Pierre slipped his shoulder from under Krug’s pushing hand. He was not to be put off by Krug’s change of focus. “You don’t understand,” said Pierre. “The season should be over, particularly the tourist season. The short rains will begin any day, the trees are leafing.”

Krug looked at him in complete ignorance.

Pierre reinforced his point. “There are at least three dozen more motorhomes than when I left ten days ago. They should all be gone, not still arriving.”

Krug extracted a notebook from his shirt pocket. “By my records, thirty-three, to be exact. Assuming there are no unpermitted entrants.” He closed the notebook and returned it to his pocket, debate over.

“Does that close the matter for you?” Pierre stepped close to Krug and pointed at the pocket, nearly touching the notebook’s outline.

Krug did not retreat from Pierre’s advance but pulled out the notebook once more. “All thirty-three are from Brazil. They suffered some delays in clearing Customs with their vehicles and that is why they did not arrive until recently.” Krug turned slightly to face Sharon. “I think further discussion should be inside. I’ve traveled far today but have stretched my legs enough.” He turned back to Pierre. “You should not be so upset, Professor Archambault, they have paid their six-month fee.” Krug stroked his chin and found a whisker long enough to grab between his thumb and forefinger. Pierre winced inside as Krug pulled the whisker and dropped it to the ground. Krug’s hand returned to his chin for another search. Pierre walked past him into Sharon’s tent. The man disgusted him.

Inside, Sharon spoke first. “Six months? How many will die in this summer’s heat, Commissioner? The older ones I’ve seen are not in prime physical condition.”

Krug was already seated. He waved a dismissive hand. “Most of the vehicles have air-conditioning. The government will ensure they can purchase fuel and electricity.”

Like Krug’s Rover, designed to travel in comfort, no wonder he liked the field. The man was immune from the open-air ride common to all of his and Sharon’s teams’ aged transport. The government would short their own citizens’ access to energy in order to sell it at outrageous mark-up to the visitors. Pierre kept his opinion silent but voiced another thought. “Perhaps nature will relieve the stress on our worksites.”

“What do you mean?” asked Krug. He looked uncomfortable for the first time.

Pierre’s thoughts gathered form. “I withdraw my protest and acknowledge their right to stay through the summer.”

Sharon looked puzzled as well as Krug. Her eyebrows silently questioned Pierre’s attitude change.

He explained the completed train of thought which had percolated while he watched the pair. “It’s a good idea to let them remain during the summer. The notoriety of one, two or more miserable deaths from the heat will discourage others from pursuing this vogue. Some of those air-conditioning units will fail and it has been my experience your fuel vendors do not have the technical ability to effect repairs.” Pierre challenged Krug to contradict his opinion.

Krug frowned and shifted in his canvas chair. “I hope the situation you describe does not occur. Such publicity would hurt us all, Professor.”

“There would be nothing Pierre or I could do to prevent this from happening,” said Sharon. “Nor you, Commissioner. You can’t be everywhere at once.”

“Professor Archambault, if you were indiscrete enough to issue unauthorized publicity regarding any mishaps, I would enforce the terms of your Institute’s agreement with my government. I have Ministerial authority to veto any news release.” Krug slapped his knee.

“Just try,” said Pierre.

Sharon rose to stand beside Pierre, her hand on his shoulder. “Neither the Minister nor his Commissioner General have ever exercised that authority before now. We’ve been able to announce our findings without interference.”

“Neither you nor Professor Archambault have attempted to generate negative publicity before now,” said Krug. “And I assure you both I will do more than try, I will act as I deem fit.”

For Krug’s benefit, Pierre slumped in his chair, feigning defeat. “Answer this.” He stood slowly and pointed outside in the direction of the visitor camp. “I want to know why they’re here at all. Then I’ll have a chance to persuade them to leave.” He returned his gaze to Krug. “What draws them?”

“I don’t ask,” said Krug. “I have a financial mandate and these tourists bring wealth. Their fees help support what you do here. Do not jeopardize the Tanzanian Government’s largess to you and Miss Hood.”

Pierre studied him. “What is being jeopardized are important discoveries. History-changing discoveries. A pack of them trampled across a significant site and traumatized my student in the process. Is money all that matters to the government?”

“Of course not,” Krug replied. “But the money will always have influence. For your work also.”

Pierre realized Krug neared the truth about his acceptance of the visitor phenomenon. “Money is more important than history and science.” He looked out the door again and repeated for his own benefit, “Why do they come? Not to observe. Archaeology is dull to watch, even I will admit that and I love my work.”

“I’ve tried to speak to the ones who come close when we are working but they give no answers,” said Sharon. “At first I thought it was because they didn’t understand English but I’ve overhead them speak amongst themselves in English. And other languages.” She sat on the edge of her makeshift desk and spoke to no one in particular.

Pierre sensed she would speak even if he nor Krug were present. This was for her own sake, to verbalize what she held inside.

“Singly,” she continued, “the visitors have no purpose. Yet one by one, a group of them assembles and then rushes away together to another site.” Now she spoke to Pierre. “I think that’s what Gerard witnessed, a coalesced drive from one attraction to another.” She looked to Krug. “I don’t think they intend to damage any specific site.”

Pierre squeezed a wall pole, releasing his frustration. “They scare the diggers as well and I don’t want them rushing across my digs.”

Krug expelled a giant breath. He plucked another whisker from his cheek and studied it abstractly. “The tourists seem calm to me; your diggers allow their imaginations overrule their common sense. Perhaps you too, Miss Hood. This is a desolate place, you are bound to experience some mental…discomfort. Forget the tourists for now, let me see what you’ve found. I must leave tomorrow.”

Pierre knew further argument was futile. “All right. Sharon, continue your briefing and we will tour my digs before sunset. I believe your appreciation for our efforts will improve with first-hand knowledge, Commissioner.”

“I must use the lavatory,” said Krug.

When Krug had left, Pierre said, “Whose side are you on? Telling him the tourist didn’t mean to harm the lake bed?”

“Yours. Before you came he told me he would consider shutting down all of your sites if you can’t cooperate with the tourists. I know you’re protective but you need to be flexible.”

“It isn’t the time to be flexible. I’m piecing together the fragments found so far. There is more import to the lake bed site than I first thought.”

“What do you mean?”

Pierre whispered, “I believe the skeletons to be Neanderthal.”

“No shit? You have dating?”

“I’m sending samples out after Krug leaves. I won’t tell him until I’m certain of the age. If I’m right this is the most significant discovery of early man in many years. It could indicate migration from this area happened more than once and to more than one strain of our ancestors.”

“By the way, Krug put his gear in your tent. You can sleep in here tonight unless you prefer his company. Maybe he’ll let you pluck his whiskers.”

“I’m in no mood to joke, but I accept your offer. Any ideas how we can protect ourselves from the Commissioner and his wealthy tourists?”

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Emerging Worlds is a Zealot Script Publication.

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