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By John Darnton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 John Darnton
All rights reserved.
Akbar Atilla rested his AK-47 against a tree trunk and moved away from the campfire in search of a place to relieve himself. There was barely enough moon to see by; bands of clouds spread across the night sky in layers and from time to time blotted it out altogether.
The Mujahadeen guerrillas had ascended higher and higher into the Tajik mountains in search of a secure base. Here they were safe. No government forces could reach them short of mounting a major expedition, and if they tried, the guerrillas could lie in wait in any one of thousands of crevices and pick them off. The mountain was an unassailable fortress.
He felt along the path with his feet as he climbed the rocky slope, then stopped and listened. There was the wind whirring through the fir trees and the voices of his comrades below talking quietly. Someone was telling a story.
He loosened his tunic and reached inside for his belt. Then he heard something: a sound, unmistakable, a step behind him. He straightened and started to turn.
The attack came quickly. He had no time to react. He felt a crashing blow on his head and stared up in panic as the clouds parted. There in the moonlight he saw a vague form, grotesque and savage, then a snarling face, an elongated visage with a protruding bonelike brow. He didn't have time to scream as he felt a second blow and then encircling arms that crushed his ribs. He was carried off into the night.
Early the next morning, the others found his rifle still resting against the tree. There was nothing else. They wondered if he had run off into the valley, maybe to join his family, maybe to work the crops. But why would he leave his weapon behind?
The story of the disappearance was like other recent stories and so eventually made its way to a village and then to a town in the foothills. By then, imaginary details embellished the tale and there was barely a resemblance to what had actually happened. Only the central mystery remained: A man was there one minute and the next had vanished into the ether.
The report was picked up by an American traveling through the Pamirs, who, for convenience' sake and to avoid too many questions, was called a consul. He transcribed it onto a disk and also appended a brief clipping from that week's local paper, which had been translated by his secretary:
HISKADETH, Nov. 8—A 24-year-old woman from Surrey, England, who was part of an Upward and Outward group climbing Mount Askasi was found dead last week. After being missing for four days, her body was located on a ledge about two miles from the summit.
The instructor, Robert Brody, from London, said the group had been worried about the woman, Katrina Bryan, after she apparently walked away from the campsite. He said the party launched a wide search but she was not found until they gave up and started their descent.
The group had been hiking and climbing for three weeks in the region, which is rarely visited by outsiders. Locals tell stories of "mountain men" that prey on people who venture there. Mr. Brody said the group had been frightened by several mysterious apparitions, but he refused to go into detail.
An autopsy performed by Dr. Askan Katari showed multiple abrasions and extensive damage to the cranium. There were "inconsistencies," Dr. Katari said, without elaboration. The body is being flown to England for burial.
The consul coded the disk, placed it in an envelope, and addressed it to the college in Bethesda, Maryland, that he had been advised to use for such occasions. He sent it through the diplomatic pouch of the American embassy in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
Matt decided to take a break. He heaved himself out of the grave-like hole, walked over to the water jug, and was hoisting it on one shoulder when he spotted a small speck out of the corner of his eye. He lowered the jug and stared into the valley at a dust cloud swirling in the far distance. A car.
It was the first car he had seen in four months. What was it doing in the middle of nowhere? He took off his broad- brimmed hat with its ring of sweat stains and looked up. Instantly he felt the East African sun shoot into his brain. He rolled his shoulders and felt a pleasing ache across his back muscles.
On the barren slope below, five figures were working: his students. He liked looking down on them like this, each of them busily engaged on the dig. One pushed a wheelbarrow of rocks; another lay prone inside a trench and scrubbed a stone surface with a toothbrush. It looked exotic, in all the heat and dust, like a lunar landscape.
He looked at his watch. Time for lunch. He loped down the hill with long strides, sliding down sideways, until he reached his tent. It was stiflingly hot inside. He tied the flaps open and flicked on a fan with a four-inch rubber blade, which did little to move the torpid air.
Flies buzzed thickly. In a mirror hung from the tent pole, Matt caught a glimpse of his face. He studied the sweat lines running like rivulets across his brow and cheeks, disappearing into stubble. A thicket of brown hair hung across his forehead, topped his ears, and curled up around his collar. The dirt engraved the crow's-feet around his dark brown eyes and the down-turning wrinkles on either side of his mouth.
He kicked off his boots, lay on the cot, folded his arms under his head, and looked up at the luminous canvas of the tent. A shadow shifted above as the tarp overhead waved lethargically in the breeze.
Nicole's voice had a light, solicitous tone with a hint of mockery.
"Not really. Just a catnap."
"It's only one o'clock."
He sat up. "Well, you know, these old bones...."
She smiled and shook her head in exasperation. She hated it when he made references to his age. It was one more way he had of driving a wedge between them. She removed her bandanna and let her hair fall down her back. It was walnut-colored and streaked with dirt and moved across her shoulders in the fan's breeze.
"You saw the car," she said. It was more of a statement than a question.
"Who could it be?"
"I don't know. We're not expecting a mail drop for two weeks."
"Could be something important. Maybe a part for your computer."
"Like an instruction booklet." Matt's computer sat in a corner, unused as always. He had not been able to master it—he was a man of the past, not the future, he liked to say—and his incompetence made him the butt of jokes from his students.
"It could be a message from the university. Maybe the dig's being funded for another six months."
"When they hand out money they don't send someone halfway around the world to do it. They announce it at night—in an empty room."
She laughed. He stood up and stretched.
"Anyway," he said, "whoever they are, they're too late for lunch." He moved toward the opening.
"I just hope it's not bad news," she said. "I love it here. I've found my life's work."
He smiled. "It's got its moments," he said, then bowed and gestured past the tent flap, an invitation to leave. She shot him a glowering look, and as she passed she ran her forefinger slowly across his lower abdomen, mussing his shirt and brushing his skin below the navel. Despite himself, he felt himself stir.
Why didn't he sleep with her? It was not that he didn't feel desire—that, thank God, had not abandoned him. He thought back to the evening when Nicole had made her move. She simply slipped unnoticed into his tent, and he found her waiting in his cot. She was naked under the canopy of the mosquito netting, which hung around her like a transparent gown. Matt had felt a tangled rush of desire and dread. He reached into his box of gear and pulled out a fifth of whiskey and sat on a crate near the bed. They passed the bottle back and forth. She sat up, holding a blanket across her chest, and once or twice as she reached over to take the bottle she let it sag and he caught a full view of her breasts, small and firm. How long had it been since he had made love, ten weeks? Three months?
They drank in a spirit of camaraderie until they had killed the bottle. He staggered out for a walk under the stars, and when he returned an hour later she was gone. For days afterward she was furious. Then, strangely, her anger melted and she began acting as if she had a special claim on him. At meals she sat next to him, and she looked up to him and smiled in a wifely way at his jokes.
Once or twice she engineered situations to be alone with him to talk. He spied the moments coming and, feigning blindness, he diverted the conversation with a banter so unartful it was almost cruel. He felt base, but it struck him as so predictable and wearying—the campfire romance between the graduate student and the safari-hardened professor—as much the lore of digs as the serendipitous bones in the earth. He didn't want to go through all the declarations, the revelations, the recriminations. Perhaps I'm getting old, he mused, but I feel like embracing abstinence the way I used to revel in self-indulgence.
Suddenly, at thirty-eight, Matt had become conscious of time. He chided himself for hypocrisy in romance; all the games, the stabs at mystery, the flirtatious routines he had perfected over the years like a politician's hollow patter now struck him as vapid. Only once had he been able to strip away all that pretense, years ago. And that he had messed up.
He felt restless and dissatisfied, his edges worn away like stones awash on a beach. He told himself that he treasured his solitude, which was true, but something else also was true, and he was honest enough to recognize it during the odd sleepless night: He was lonely.
Still, the situation with Nicole was unstable. He had to do something to acknowledge her feelings or they would explode, and that could wreck the expedition. It always amazed him how the cohesive sense of the group was essential to a successful dig.
Outside, Matt looked into the bowl of the valley. The car on the plain below was closer. The dust seemed to shoot straight up like an explosion and then rain down behind in a plume.
"Thing I like about this site," he said. "No one can sneak up on you."
"Gives you time to rig the defenses." Nicole turned and looked meaningfully at him to emphasize the double entendre. As she walked ahead on the path, he stared at the back of her frayed shorts. The bits of thread hung like whitened bangs upon the exposed flesh of her upper thigh, and as she led him along slowly he could see the outline of her panties and watch the rolling sway of her buttocks.
Dr. Susan Arnot felt the customary excitement of speaking to an audience, even if it was only to the undergraduates of Anthro 101. It was something about being at the hub of things, the focus of all those uplifted eyes. And the sense of control—she had to admit she liked that too. Is that what demagoguery is all about?
Susan Arnot's class on prehistoric man was one of the most popular at the University of Wisconsin, even though she was known as a tough grader. There was always an extra thrill in taking a course from someone who was well known in the field, especially someone controversial, whose theories had shaken up the establishment. And of course she was something of a campus sex symbol. She cut a striking figure, long-limbed, sometimes wearing blue jeans and black leather and riding a motorcycle on her days off, her long raven hair tucked into a cherry-red crash helmet. When she walked into a room, it stirred as if molecules were heating up.
Susan's lectures were fabled on campus, so the auditorium was crowded. Standing on a creaking wooden stage, with a beam of light projected above her from the back of the hall like a spotlight, she could see only featureless heads. One or two bits of jewelry gleamed in the semidarkness, and a pair of eyeglasses reflected back like tiny headlights.
She had softened them up with jokes: the usual fare about rare archaeological finds, comparisons between Java man and a certain eminent campus personality, and the Piltdown hoax and a professor's research. It was cheap but it worked, and she felt gratified when they had laughed at the appropriate lines.
Abruptly she raised her right fist, flexed her thumb, and triggered a distant whirring sound. Behind her appeared a huge map, starkly drawn in thick black ink, with meandering cracks for rivers and eyelashes for hills. The students focused on it and some raised their pens, ready to scribble notes. German place-names from the Rhine valley: Oberhausen, Solingen, the Düssel River. She raised a pointer and walked over to the map, all business.
"And so we come to the main event. The year is 1856: August. It's three years before Darwin will publish On the Origin of Species. He's been laboring away on it some twenty years now, and he's in no particular hurry. But soon he will hear that a rival is working on a manuscript proposing something called 'natural selection,' and this will send him into a frenzy of competitive production."
She looked out at the students to make sure they were with her, and for some reason she began to feel slightly on edge, a vague, disorienting feeling that came upon her out of nowhere these days.
She raised the pointer. The red rubber tip touched the map, and she caressed the center in a slow, circular motion.
"Here in this little valley east of the Rhine, something is about to happen that's going to turn the scientific establishment of the nineteenth century on its ear. A discovery. And like many important discoveries, chance will play an important part."
She raised her fist. Another click, and a color photograph of meadows and glades flashed on the screen.
"It's a tranquil little valley, filled with edelweiss and daffodils. The gorge you see was named in the seventeenth century after a headmaster from Düsseldorf, Joachim Neumann. He roamed the valley for inspiration for his poems and music—both rather dreadful, by the way. But he was a beloved figure, and after he died the village elders decided to bestow his name on the fields he adored. Joachim was a bit of a pedant. He preferred to be called by the Greek translation of his name, which meant New Man: in Greek, Neander.
"Two centuries later—in 1856—on a quiet August day, quarry workers discovered a cave, which had scores and scores of bones in it, piled up around the edges and scattered about, but mostly heaped in a mound near the center. The workers threw them away, all but a handful. For some reason the owner of the land, one Felix Beckershoff, took an interest in these old bones and managed to salvage a few: arms and thighs, part of a pelvis, a fragment of skull."
Another slide came on the screen: bits of bone, shiny like polished gems and as dark brown as wet cardboard. Parts were identifiable—the roof of a brainpan, a familiar-looking femur, a slender tibia. The tip of the pointer danced among them and drew a figure eight.
"Luckily, Beckershoff was acquainted with a J. C. Fuhlrott, the founder of the local Natural Science Society. When Fuhlrott saw those fragments, he couldn't believe his eyes. What manner of bones were these? The low-vaulted skull with its awesome protruding ridge: how to explain that? The bowed limbs. The injured ulna of the lower arm. Whose were they? Surely from no animal, and yet from no man—or species of man—still living."
Susan returned to the lectern. The students were writing feverishly now. She didn't have to consult her notes; she had given the lecture a dozen times. But still she couldn't shake the feeling of being off stride, vulnerable. Who are all those people out there listening to me? she wondered. What are they really thinking? She forced her voice into an easy, conversational tone.
"Fuhlrott brought in an anatomist from Bonn, one Professor Schaaffhausen. He became the first to theorize that the specimen was something truly unimaginable—not an ape, not a man, but some type of pre-man, perhaps an ancient being who roamed Europe long before the Romans and Celts. Try to conceive for one second what a bold leap that singular induction was.
Excerpted from Neanderthal by John Darnton. Copyright © 1996 John Darnton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Without a doubt, this is one of the schlockiest storylines to make it to print and mass distribution in quite some time. An intriguing beginning soon devolves into a ridiculous pageant of telepathic cavemen hamming it up with some of the most vacuous characters you¿re likely to run across outside the Harlequin romance category. Without giving too much away, I will concede that the irredeemably preposterous (and unintentionally laugh-out-loud hilarious) climax could be worth it for its incomparable cheesiness alone. Overall, though, the book is simply asinine. Make your kids read it as punishment next time they act like little Neanderthals.
Matt Mattison and Susan Arnot drive each other crazy. Years ago, when both were graduate assistants to Harvard archaeologist Jerry Kellicut, they lived together as lovers and then parted company when they couldn't stop competing. Or was that all that drove them away from each other? In the busy years of hard, career-building work since then, each has thought about it. Now they're being thrown back together by the professional opportunity of a lifetime. They will have to not only get along, but depend on each other and trust each other. On that their survival will depend. Can they do it? And are both smart enough, on a level that has nothing to do with intellectual brilliance, to realize that's the case? That's the human conflict at the heart of this speculative fiction outing. The book's premise, Neanderthals surviving into the present thanks to isolation, has its moments as author Darnton spins an entertaining yarn. All in all, though, this is familiar stuff and the ending is utterly predictable. Mind candy for spec-fic lovers. Pretty good mind candy, but female readers may sometimes be amused or embarrassed when the author tries with touching awkwardness (marked by complete failure) to get inside Dr. Susan Arnot's head. 3 stars for this one, I think. Worth reading, but impossible to take seriously.
This book was full of action. It was hard to put this book down. It was a great way to start of my summer. The copy I read stated this was going to become a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and come out through Dreamworks. What happened?
Don't read this book if your looking for the meaning of life .This book is nothing more than a story and a very interesting one at that. It's good in that it gives some knowledge of the theories surrounding Neanderthals -it's especially blatant through the conversations between the scientists. It's so contrived that it makes you wonder if the two main love-interest characters think about anything other than sex and anthropology. But this book doesn't sell itself as something that towers above in the intellectual sphere. It is a great boook for a film. It's true what the cover says,'It will do for Neandertthals what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs'. I eagerly await Mr. Spielberg's or Mr. Lucas's attempt to turn this into what they do best.
This was a great edge of your seat book. I couldn't put it down! It's a long book but it's worth it. I highly reccomend.
Many of the negative reviews for this novel discount it's primary objective: to take it's readers on a science-fiction adventure. They spoil the story's surprises, some of these reviews, and gasp at the notions presented here in relation to psycho-telepathy and other wonders of which we could not disprove, even if they seem unlikely. I'd love to read their version of a modern adventure about the Neanderthal, and see if I'm half entertained by their interpretation based on current, unimaginative fact alone. Somewhere along the line they failed to remember they were reading fiction. Along that trajectory, I wonder if Moby Dick draws regular criticism about its realism and scientific fact. Now, I don't mean to compare this work with the literary genius of Melville's classic, but my point lies in the allowance for fiction to take it's liberties in telling a story that flexes known facts, and dares to suggest other possibilities. For what it was meant for, this novel does it's job. If I were to have read this story without knowing who the author was, I would have pegged Michael Crichton. There is science here, but only in the service of establishing a perfect "what-if" scenario. There are indeed a handful of modern scientists and investigators who believe in the premise this novel suggests, but I doubt Mr. Darnton adamantly subscribes to their theories. What he does seem to subscribe to is fun, tense, and (if not particularly original in form) unique story-line parameters that make this a joy to read. I mentioned the negative reviewers, and I respect their point of view. But, if you are like me, and have been looking for an entertaining adventure story with just enough technicality and scientific basis to immerse yourself in it's world...Neanderthal provides. And always remember history when doubting others' ideas, even the fictional ones. At one point mankind thought it was ridiculous to imagine evolution, or flying in machines, or a world that was not the center of the universe. We doubt even our own capacities for mental transcendence. Darnton is simply saying, "What if...?" Me...I prefer to have fun with those beliefs and feel that power of possibilities; we don't have to swear by them, but why not allow for their potential? Those negative reviewers must have a hard time enjoying anything interesting, unless of course someone's already spelled it out for them.