Jonathan and the Seaman sharing the watch with him both had binoculars held to their eyes. In the distance they could just make out the coast of Africa. They knew the opportunity for fresh supplies and meat would be less than with South America but hoped to stop in Madagascar for at least a week.
The voyage across the Atlantic had been memorable, dealing with several small storms. The real thrill was for the ocean-based sciences. The abundance of whales seen in the Atlantic left them breathless. Pete Sanders had taken hours of digital recordings because of the amazing sizes the whales grew to because of the lack of whaling.
He had also recorded scenes of extinct or near extinct sea mammals. He had been thrilled when they had sailed along side a blue whale for a few minutes. The massive whale had been about one-third the length of the Asimov and kept even with the ship until it rejoined the pod. Pete was convinced he had been curious and had come along side to get a better look at the ship and all the waving creatures on it. After all, theirs was the only ship on Mother Earth.
The some of the younger crew members and Cadets had never been this close to a whale before and had nearly hung over the side to get a closer view of it.
"I can't believe the size of that thing! Even Tank would be just a little snack for him."
Kenny, the Marine Biologist, grinned and addressed Warren Bailey. "Hey Bailey, I know you hate learning science but I really, really gotta tell your friend here about the differences between baleen and toothed whales. "
Warren smacked the Cadet on the arm. "Now you've done it! He's gonna lecture us again. How much info is my poor Coastie head gonna hold?"
Kenny kept his face serious. "Just plug your ears and hum while I explain, Warren."
Roger, the meteorologist consulted his reference books and computer, comparing temperature norms for this section of Africa. "Are you sure you got the correct readings Pete? According to these the norm should be 20º F warmer."
"I'm sure. We've seen this everywhere so far. We know it's not an error in locations because we verified our charts with a known landmark. I'd say Mother Earth is either late ending it's Ice Age or in the middle of a mini one."
The botanical expert, Theo Ruggles, pointed at the fauna. "Look around. In spite of cooler temperatures landscape is even more arid than normal for this region. That's usually because of less rainfall. If we went under the theory of the axis being off by a degree, like Ben suggested, then the area would be like the area north of here on our world, but it's not. I agree with Pete. I'd say glacier formations are the cause of the cooler temperatures."
Marla sighed. "We have lots of theories but little proof. For all we know the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs could have been smaller or larger. Or maybe because humans didn't start the agricultural communities a few thousand years ago it changed things."
"The butterfly effect. One tiny thing was different along the way and changed everything," Theo agreed.
"Well," the meteorologist sighed, "let's get the group together so we can explore inland a little. Maybe we'll find some edible plants too."
The armed guards waited until the small group of scientists collected samples; some taking a quick bathroom break behind brush.
Warren was adjusting his clothing when he heard something behind him. The startled crewman grabbed his rifle as he spun around. He looked around quickly, scanning the surrounding brush but saw nothing.
The Seaman, in spite of his claim to liking to be ignorant, wasn't foolish enough to move into the taller grass alone. "Psst. Frankie, c'mere."
"I'm busy. What do you need?" the man answered back from his side of the bushes.
"Something moved over here."
"So? You want me to go look for you or something? I promise it isn't a burglar."
"Very funny. Get your butt over here so we can take a look-see."
Frankie finished his business and quickly zipped up. He walked around the shrubs and saw Warren watching the tall grasses intently. He looked spooked. Frankie tightened the grip on his own rifle, flicking off the safety. "Okay, nice and easy. I'd hate to find a lion in there."
"Me too but I think something big would have made a lot more noise."
The two young men carefully used the ends of their rifles to part a section of grasses, listening to their surroundings. They peeked every few feet but didn't see anything, but a twig snapping at the 2 o'clock position made them both gasp. Neither moved as they listened to something moving swiftly away in the grass until the sound could no longer be heard.
"I guess we scared it off. Let’s go a bit deeper and see if we can see the tracks," Warren suggested.
"Okay, but make it snappy. I want to get back to the group." He didn't mention that the place gave him the creeps and he wanted the safety of the others around him.
They went forward several yards and found the bent grasses where the whatever it was had been. Frankie kneeled and looked at the ground. "Weird prints. I bet it was a baboon or something. See? The prints almost look human but smaller."
"Yeah, must have been. But I thought they traveled in--" Warren reached forward and picked something up.
"What is it?"
Warren's eyes were wide but he didn't say anything. He just held the object out so his friend could see it.
The Seaman's discovery had everyone in an uproar. They had returned to the ship with the samples they had but now they wanted more equipment and camping supplies. The scientists wanted more than a day's exploration.
"Captain Harrison, this stone isn't something that happened by accident. It's a stone-age hand knife which means Cierra was wrong! There are humans on Mother Earth. Maybe not as advanced as us but certainly intelligent enough to knap flint. Think about it! We won't have to settle for fossilized bones and theories. We can study living examples of early hominids."
Janice crossed her arms as she studied the paleontologist's face. "Are you telling me that you think this was made by some sort of 'ape man'?"
Jonathan shook his head. "Nothing of the sort. This hand knife is clearly Mode 2 in design. Perhaps made by the Homo Heidelbergensis or the Homo Erectus."
"You want to say that again in English?"
The man chuckled, remembering now that the captain wasn't a student or fellow paleontologist. "Captain, mankind didn't come about easily or in a straight line. Mother Nature had a lot of false starts and humans have lots of dead 'cousins'. They existed for a bit before dying off for whatever reasons. The Homo genus is humans and all his very close relatives. Some scientists also include the gorilla and chimpanzee but not most. The modes...think of them this way--as stages. Mode 1 toolmakers make the very simplest of tools. Mode 2 is more sophisticated. They make tools for very detailed purposes, like axes, knives, scrapers, etc. Modes 3 and 4 are obviously two better stages."
"Well, I learned more than I ever wanted to about early man. Now, tell me in detail what you wish to do. Do you want to abandon the rest of the core samples and spend all the allotted time here or...?"
"We haven't gotten that far, Captain. If I had my way I'd have you leave me with supplies and let the rest of you go on ahead without me." He held up his hands to stop the officer from telling him he was crazy. "I know that isn't possible. But what we do need is lots of documentation to take back with us. If we're lucky Queen Cierra will allow a much longer trip in the future so we can explore Africa and Europe in more detail. Marla wants to trace the spread of these hominids in comparison to the Old World."
Janice pursed her lips and thought it out. "I'll give you two weeks and that's it. We can't afford to stay in one place too long, not if we want to meet the deadline. As it is we may have to skip the Antarctica core samples."
"Thank you, Captain. I'll let everyone know."
Four days later the group was tired and frustrated. They hadn't even gotten a glimpse of the hominids or found their community. Theory was that they lived in family groups like chimpanzees but none of them were certain if they would be nomads or not.
Cadet Barnao scoffed and rolled his eyes. For scientists they were sure ignorant. "You all are doing it all wrong. You're hunting these critters. You don't chase after them. You sit and wait for them to come to you."
"And what do you suggest?"
"Set up a blind near one of the watering holes. Unless these guys are advanced enough to dig wells they'll have to come to them eventually."
One of the older scientists sighed and admitted the cadet was correct. The young man grinned broadly and made a mark in the air with his finger.
The blind were quickly assembled and everyone took turns sitting in the confining structures. Inside was hot with very little breeze. The researchers left the hidden shelter sweat drenched and dehydrated in spite of drinking lots of fluids.
The teams had switched positions an hour earlier but kept in contact with hands-free wireless radios.
“Any luck?” Marla asked.
The scientist in the blind whispered nothing had been spotted yet. There were plenty of animals traveling to the waterhole but no humanoids.
The Warrant Officer in charge of security that day scratched his itchy five o’clock shadow. “I was curious. What will you do once you spot some of them? Shoot them with a tranquilizer dart and tag them?”
Marla grinned at the mental image he created in her mind. “No, as tempting as that is, all we can do is record them for now and try and follow after them using their tracks. If we’re lucky we can find a permanent settlement. If they’re nomadic then we might have a heck of a time finding out much about them.”
Franklin, the Zoologist, snapped his fingers. “Marla, why don’t we tag one of them?”
“We just can’t go and dart one of them, Franklin. It would panic any others with him.”
“You don’t have to dart them at all. If they have any natural curiosity we can have them pick it up and carry it along with them. Embed a homing device inside something sturdy, maybe paint it a bright color, and leave it for them to find. We can them follow at a distance and not scare them.”
“You’re a genius, Franklin.”
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” he snickered.
They placed the tracking device safely inside a piece of metal in case the primitives bashed it with a rock. One person suggested welding interesting items to it so whoever picked it up wouldn’t grow bored with it and drop it. So they welded on a metal whistle, a bendable magnet toy, a prism, and a metal mini dump truck (a toy given to a cadet by his little brother).
Once finished they placed it near the watering hole and hoped for the best. They doubted an animal would pick it up since they placed it against a rock. It was brightly painted so the hominids would see the object but animals wouldn’t since they were colorblind.
The scientists continued manning the blind but hope lessened when nothing was seen. Perhaps the primitive tribe had moved on to another location.
The radio hissed in Jonathan’s ear. “Did you see anything?”
The paleontologist whispered into his microphone, “When? The last movement we saw was about ten minutes ago when the antelopes got a drink.”
“Oh ho, you need glasses, old man. Look at the where the tracking unit is.”
Jonathan stretched his torso to peek over the ledge. “It’s gone. When did it disappear? Did you see anything?”
Matt shook his head, forgetting Jonathan couldn’t see him from there. “Nothing. I noticed it was gone just a minute ago. Do you want us to move in closer and investigate?”
““No, let’s wait for thirty minutes. If we don’t spot anything we’ll follow the signal. Your group needs to keep extra quiet. Let us know if you see anything in the distance.” Matt and a few others were on a hill in the tall grasses, using telescopes to scan the area. They had mowed out a circle of grass to hide within but it was still a bit dangerous. Anything could be hiding nearby. Matt whispered to the two guards to keep a sharp eye out and put his eye back to the telescope’s eyepiece.
Everyone waited nervously for an agonizing twenty-eight minutes when something caught the attention of a buck. The large male antelope froze in place for a moment then bound off. The hiding scientists held their breath even after a small group of humanoids entered the clearing and approached the watering hole cautiously. Franklin pressed record and focused carefully, hoping his excitement didn’t make the camera shake.
The Coast Guard crew was surprised at the appearances of the hominids. Many of them had expected them to look like primates that stood upright. The crew examined the group as they approached the water in a well-established pattern. Two of the males, who easily stood six feet tall, stood guard at each end while the women and children drank first. Jonathan noticed one female filled her mouth with water then pressed her mouth to her toddler’s and giving him a drink in that manner. After drinking their fill they took gourds and submerged them in the water. The opening was then filled with large leaves to prevent them from spilling. The gourds had vines tied to them for carrying over one shoulder. Apparently the first kind of canteens invented.
The three men took turns drinking then the two older male children. Jonathan spotted the tracking device in the hand of the largest male. He must be the leader of the group and took possession of the treasure. None of the primitives wore much of anything. A few wore hides around their waists and the males favored a hide codpiece of sorts that was attached with twine. The children were naked. They were dark skinned from life in the African sun, with dark hair and eyes. They almost appeared human except for some minor differences in foreheads, brows, and jaws. Their foreheads weren’t as high as modern humans so their brows looked large. They had large jaws, flat noses, and were heavy boned.
A little boy began urinating into the bushes but his mother nudged him roughly. It seemed that one didn’t piss near one’s drinking water. All of the people in the family group were eerily silent, making little noise. Jonathan watch the men part the grass first with their crude spears before moving forward. A minute later the group had disappeared into sea of tall grasses.
Franklin turned off the recorder and let out his breath. No one said a word for a minute then Jonathan got on his radio and called all the ones with any knowledge of Anthropology were told to gather at the beach so they could return to the ship. “Bring the camera, Franklin. We have some research to do.”
Continued in Part 8
Return to the Academy