Pierre brushed away unconsolidated silt then carefully blew the remainder clear of the skull fragment. He relaxed for a moment and sat up straight, back aching. Countless more fragments dotted the pit floor and sides.
Sharon’s head hung over the edge. “Are you sure I can’t help until Gerard arrives?”
“No thanks. Manning the camera is help enough. I can’t understand what happened to him. He has my cameras. I am not pleased.” Pierre examined the area he’d cleared. Progress was slower when he couldn’t direct Gerard and had to excavate and evaluate by himself. He checked the various angles of illumination for the premium find. “The exposure is right for contrast full 3-D record. I’m grateful for the loan of your equipment. Ready?”
“It’s more than a loan, I’m not taking these only for you, Pierre. Copies will go into my lecture resource library. You will teach through me eager minds you’ll never meet. These might even impress Krug.”
“Can you estimate the size of the flood deposit?” He blew away more dirt. “I can see how deep it is here but can that indicate a real extent?”
“So much is eroded by eons of runoff. This is a lucky spot, dropped down by the rift separation process and preserved. By the thickness, I’d say it would have been a massive flow. It’s a shame most of the students have returned home, I could have them scout further afield for more preserved sites.” She positioned her cameras.
“I agree. The one I kept, Gerard, can’t be relied upon. Your opinions are valuable and with a batch of photographs distributed to our institutions and others, it will give me all the evidence I need to declare this protected ground. Maybe enough to expropriate the visitor area and send them packing.” He fell silent, calculating volumes of potential bone harvest. “God, if these are a representative sample of what covered the area at one time, the skeleton assemblage was massive. The number of humans gathered here defies reason. We must publicize the find. The academic world will support our battle against the tourists.”
“I’m set up,” said Sharon. “Do you think Krug will recognize the significance of such a large grouping of Neanderthal? Here?”
“As his ancestors, you mean?” Pierre laughed. “No, I think he’ll recognize it only in its import to him and his position. An assemblage this size for an extinct Homo species is of greater importance than he is capable of imagining.” Pierre climbed from the excavation.
“Hold this,” said Sharon. She handed him a screen to provide illumination while she positioned another.
After watching and obeying her instructions for forty minutes, Pierre took a break. “I admire your perfection. For a geoscientist who normally deals on grand scales, you have a mind for detail.”
“Thank you. Back over there, please. Raise the screen a little. Hold it.” She scrambled with a hand-held recorder like a fashion photographer on amphs.
“I feel like an undergrad. No wonder Gerard disappears.”
“You remember your academic roots, that’s good. I’m almost finished.” Sharon concentrated on her final shots. “There, done. You may sit.”
Pierre stretched before sitting on the pit’s rim. “Hard work was in my roots but I prefer supervision now. Back-breaking labor is why God invented students.”
Sharon dismantled her equipment efficiently.
When she’d packed all away he asked, “Can I help you with those?”
“Too little too late, supervisor Archambault. You rest, old timer.”
Pierre jumped to his feet for a reply when his gaze found the other side of the valley. “My God, Sharon. Look at all those people. I didn’t notice them before. When did they arrive?”
She slipped a camera from one of the stacked bags and pointed it toward the crowd. “There are dozens.”
“Just standing there,” he said. “It’s eerie.”
“It’s insane. They must have left camp before we set out this morning, as if they knew we’d be here today.”
“Keep photographing them. If I can locate Krug, I’m taking him to Dar with me. The site need more than a government declaration, they need military quarantine.” Pierre looked down at the dig for a moment. “Wait,” he snapped his fingers. “No, don’t stop photographing. I’ve a better plan and it doesn’t involve Krug. I have friends in Nairobi who might help. And it’s closer.”
“Closer but it could start a war.”
“No,” said Pierre. “The threat of Kenya taking an interest in this location should be enough to prompt Minister Nterre to action.”
“It sounds risky. You could lose your permit, international support notwithstanding.”
“You take the jeep back to camp. Print the best images and hide them. I’ll stand guard here and compose a release.”
“What about your permit?”
“This is too important not to take the risk. Immediate action is required to protect the site. If you don’t object, I’ll include your geological evidence as well. Nterre will hesitate to cancel both French and American licenses. You can take the photos and the release to Moshi tomorrow. There’s a UNESCO office there which Krug won’t interfere with if he gets wind of our activity. Take a couple of diggers with you. Tell them you’re going for supplies.” He turned to look behind them. “I need Gerard more than ever.”
Sharon loaded her equipment. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she said.
Pierre sat on a campstool, shaded by one of Sharon’s screens. He retrieved a notebook from his pack and began to draft his release. He worked through the numbers for a conservative estimate of skeletons in the original deposit, prior to erosion removing most of the sediments. The total staggered him. He checked the figures again. His reasoning was solid. He trusted his global colleagues would not dismiss his claims before performing the calculations themselves with the help of Sharon’s photographs.
The collective extended in two directions. It pushed in one and pulled in the other. The two foci were physically separated by half a planet but linked spiritually. Linked by the plate tectonics which disturbed the collective the last time it had reached critical mass. It would use the growing followers to strengthen its influence once again, to feed.
Pierre heard, then saw Sharon’s return. She had a passenger. He assumed the missing Gerard had finally surface but as she neared he saw it was Krug. The Commissioner could not have appeared at a worse time for his clandestine trip into Kenya.
The usual avalanche of airborne dust cascaded from the jeep. Pierre let it settle before greeting the pair. “Commissioner, this is a surprise.” He watched Sharon for a sign Krug was ignorant of her recent and planned activity.
“The Commissioner arrived in camp shortly after me,” she said. “He helped me with a supply list for my trip into Moshi.”
She hadn’t told him. “Most kind of you, Commissioner,” said Pierre. “Let me have a look.” He held out his hand but Sharon had nothing to give him.
“I am traveling to Moshi and offered to take the order for you,” said Krug. “Your supplies will be sent out quickly, save Miss Hood the time away from her research.” He smiled.
A private joke? Pierre wondered. “I hope it will be quick. Sharon was going herself to ensure speed and that nothing was overlooked.” He glanced toward her. “Didn’t you need to contact Dr. Anderson?”
“It can wait,” she said. “I’m sure our satellite connection will return soon.” She studied the valley. “You’re offer is most generous.” Her voice tapered off.
“Any service I can provide,” said Krug. “On my way to Moshi regardless. Which brings me to the reason for stopping at your camp.” Krug walked to the edge of Pierre’s excavation. “This looks most interesting, Professor. What have you found?” It was an order, not a question.
The tourists were gone, nothing concrete to show Krug regarding them. They had come, stayed and left, like a flock of birds. “An exploratory pit Kru…Commissioner. I’m staying on for another month and need to plan next season’s digging schedule based on the best leads.”
Krug stepped over the rope Pierre had stretched around the corner pegs.
“Not too close to the edge,” Pierre snapped. “You’ll cave in the sides.” His own order.
Krug whirled on him. “I’ll stand where I please. I am in charge here, Professor.”
Pierre gripped Krug’s arm. He squeezed as tight as he could. “You’ll step back. All sites are my responsibility. I won’t endorse vandalism of any kind. I’d ask the same if you were a tourist or one of my students.”
Krug shook free but retreated as told. “I am not one of your students, Archambault.” He rubbed his arm.
Sharon intervened. “You were going to tell Pierre why you are here, Commissioner.”
Krug turned his icy stare from Pierre to Sharon. “Yes. I doubt if you can aid, engrossed as you are in your work. And so protective.”
“I apologize, Commissioner,” said Pierre. “I value my work highly and can overreact when it is threatened. I did not mean to criticize your intent.”
“Hmph. I’ve been informed by the Tourism Ministry that some of our guests are missing.”
Pierre held out his arms. “You can see I don’t have them.”
Krug didn’t appear amused. “You might have seen some where they didn’t belong?”
“They don’t belong anywhere in the rift valley as far as I’m concerned.”
“I told him we haven’t seen any for a few days,” said Sharon.
Why did she say that? Pierre sensed the importance of consistency. “I haven’t either though they become part of the landscape, it’s hard to remember when or where. I’d guess it’s getting too hot for them to be out in the teeth of the sun during the day.”
Krug stared across the valley at the opposite ridge.
Pierre held his breath, hoping the visitors hadn’t suddenly reappeared to kick their lie aside. The ridge was empty.
“We shall return to your camp and I will journey to Moshi tomorrow. Report to me if you see any unusual signs of activity among the tourists.”
“I will do precisely that, Commissioner, if I have to drive to Moshi myself.” He saw a possible reason for Sharon’s silence regarding the tourists. With some missing, a report of their presence here would bring soldiers looking for wandering tourists, not guarding the sites. Krug could not be taken into their confidence.
Krug and Sharon waited for him in the jeep. He took a last look into the excavation then climbed in the back. As they drove away, Pierre wished for Gerard to return so he could send him out to spend the night on guard. Futile wish, he thought. The dig would be on its own until he could spread the word.
Krug’s Rover was gone when Pierre emerged from his tent. Sharon sat outside, drinking coffee. He sat beside her and gazed at the countryside. “I think I like mornings best,” he said. “The air is fresh and clear.”
“I know what you mean. Mornings in Kansas can be like this. Dust from the previous day has settled and each summer dawn rekindles the beauty. Sunrise lasts a fraction compared to sunset. End of the day goes on for hours.”
“Krug lasts for hours, even after he’s gone. What did you do with the pictures?”
She reached under her camp stool and withdrew a package. “I hid them in the last place anyone would look.”
“Under your ass? Good thinking. Your chair wouldn’t hold a man of Krug’s stature.”
“Or weight.” She passed them to Pierre. “I kept debating with myself. It’s possible Krug could help.”
“We can always tell him later, say we were waiting for approval from Kansas and Grenoble. He was on a different mission, not just the missing tourists, that was convenient but not his agenda.”
Sharon poured a large mug from the pot. “Drink up, if we run out of coffee I’ll have to go to Moshi myself for more.”
“Careful, Krug covers a lot of ground. If you meet in Moshi he’s bound to be suspicious.”
“I’ll think of more excuses on the long drive. Did Gerard show up?”
Pierre shook his head. “I don’t know whether to be angry or worried.”
“You think something’s happened to him? He’s vanished before.”
“If he’s dead, I’ll be real angry.”
“Not funny,” she said. “He could be in trouble.”
“I know. I’ll make inquiries among the tourists if and when I cross paths.” He withdrew a fold paper from his shirt pocket. “I slept on this, literally and figuratively. It’s the press release to accompany your pictures. Are you taking help?”
Sharon read. “This is good. Yeah, Mago is coming with me. He has family to visit near Moshi. He’ll be adequate protection. Krug was going to stop at the visitor camps so I can be in Moshi before him.”
“I’d prefer he stay there for all his visits. Why bless us with his presence?”
Sharon poured her dregs on the ground and stood. She slid Pierre’s note into the envelope with the photos. “Maybe they make him nervous too.”
“He isn’t on our side, Sharon. I’ve no doubt of that. No matter how much you think Krug understands my position, our position, he will never be on our side.”
“I’m not sure of his intentions, that much I admit. You can’t get past his German heritage. You’re prejudiced. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
Pierre lifted his head from his chest and looked out under the rigged shade. Midday heat lingered but his nap was over. It was time to renew the search for Gerard.
A digger claimed to have seen him on this side of the valley two evenings before but there was no sign. Pierre’s keen eyes were adapted to searching for signs of human passage and occupation which were hundreds of thousands of years removed, not hours. He had to alter his mindset to look for recent passage and was surprised by what he saw. He was, he reckoned, thirty kilometers from the nearest visitor camp and yet he’d found numerous foot tracks all morning. No vehicle tracks. The tourists had walked. En masse.
He folded the shade and jumped into his jeep. The heat stifled. He donned his hat and started the jeep, accelerating quickly to try to cool in the breeze. Despite the many tracks, there were no tourists visible now. Nor Gerard. His options dwindled. He would have to enter the visitor camp to ask after his student.
He didn’t wish to befriend these people. It was easier to despise them and whatever they represented when he did not know them.
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