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REFORMATION
Primordium Book One
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-215-X
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 297 Pages
Published: January 2015

From inside the flap

John Lohner, a paleoanthropologist on a dig in northern Kenya, is driven to distraction by an inner voice. But can he achieve peace of mind when the voice belongs to a mysterious life form intent on nurturing in him the only remaining pure strain of the alien genome responsible for mankind's humanity?

Reviews and Awards

PRIMORDIUM BOOK ONE: REFORMATION

"In Mason’s debut sci-fi novel, a tormented anthropologist looking for the origins of mankind meets a not-quite-human girl who reminds him of a lost love.

This work impressively shuttles backward and forward through the cosmos, speculating on humanity’s remote past and destined future, while largely remaining bound to the same setting: a few arid square miles in northern Kenya in 1985. That’s where John Lohner, a Harvard paleoanthropologist on an excavation site, tries to forget about the tragedies in his life—specifically, his mother’s suicide, his own suicide attempt, and the death of his fiancee, Diane, in a traffic accident.

The fact that Lohner hears voices in his head doesn’t make things any easier.

When he and his African assistant, Kamau, find an unnaturally pale, hairless, and nude girl, Mia, in a field, he’s shocked to find that she reminds him of Diane. Readers, however, already know that Mia, perceived by natives as a “witch,” is actually a synthetic humanoid—a sort of ephemeral scout created by a mysterious, spaceborne entity called the Shepherd, which travels through time and space by using black holes.

Four million years ago, the Shepherd clashed with a marauding artificial intelligence called A4-Ni over the custody of Gilomir, a precious, sentient genome sequence. The two wounded combatants tumbled to primordial Earth, where Gilomir sowed the seeds for intelligent Homo sapiens. Now the Shepherd and A4-Ni, with inhuman patience, near a showdown, in which Lohner unwittingly plays an important part.

In lesser hands, this obtuse material could have gone completely off the rails. However, Mason doles out the story’s mind-stretching revelations, on an Olaf Stapledon–like scale, and pathos with fair skill, keeping the narrative’s key features carefully hidden or flat-out confounding.

In his flights of imagination, he sometimes spins sheer prose-poetry out of genetic-science terminology, practically singing of haploids, nucleotides, chromosomes, and amino acids (“A4-Ni stored her methodology in a genetic lockbox she constructed in his Y chromosome”).

A sequel, Primordium Book Two: Renaissance, has already been published.

An ambitious tale with compelling concepts but one that’s dauntingly dense—even for sci-fi readers raised on the temporal loops of Doctor Who." --- Kirkus Reviews

REFORMATION (Excerpt)


PROLOGUE

Four million years ago, Binary Star Cygnus X-1.

Matter streamed from the blue super‑giant and curled in a smoky spiral toward its black hole companion. At the event horizon, torn atoms paused to cast off x-rays like parting screams before hurtling to oblivion.

A4-Ni fell without end. Gravitational tides ripped her insides. Supercharged photons seared her extremities. A mounting shudder threatened to rend her apart.

Sow, nurture, replicate. She clung to the one thought that rose from her memory, a molecular ribbon, now riddled, pitted, and returning little if anything at all.

Skim the event horizon, then climb the spiral stair.

The dark abyss loomed to one side. It spun, compelling her approach, a siren's call.

She held to her tight orbit, rattled over a washboard of distorted spacetime, then came to a relativistic stop, breaking free to drift in a vacuous eddy.

I am elsewhere, elsewhen.

The genome she carried was dead. Her databanks in corrupted disrepair. Only the mechanism for her self-replication remained intact.

I evolve.

Interminable time. She stopped counting.

Light surrounded her. Light passed through her. Light bathed her with a blinding intensity. Glistening filaments rippled from her extremities. Distant stars glowed through silken sacks at her center. She had become spider and web, a wispy array of tendrils festooning space, drifting, waiting.

Like flies, other craft appeared, seeming to generate spontaneously from the star's dark corpus. The dead ashes of their remains streamed through her sensors, mute testimony to the hole's ripping tides. All dead. All dead, until a gray craft arose, blunt, rounded, a finely textured prune.

Sow, nurture, replicate.

She slid to an embrace, easing a probe through a rubbery exterior. Information streamed into her mind. Doped silicon. Protoplasmic structures. Organic tangles. Fractal patterns of nested cells regressing to infinity.

Tubes oozed on walls shaping a silken womb. A small sphere, a silvery pearl bedded in the flesh of its oyster, spewed tumbling helical strands. Acids coiled bunched-sugars. Bunched-sugars coupled quatrains of alkalis.

A genome.

She reached.

"Kuotu ir okemu!" The craft wormed. Its rippled surface puckered. Angry welts rose. Gray slugs of matter spewed.

Puff, Puff, Puff.

Ballooning blasts hammered her insides.

Pain.

Gossamer strands snapped loose. Fragile traceries imploded. Reserves of energy flashed in a stroboscopic pyrotechnic shower.

Trailing ribbons, she let go a punch of radiation.

The detonations stopped.

She returned.

Where once genomic tissue squirmed, charred hydrocarbons now swam in a sea of frozen glass. Blackened tissue dripped life-sustaining fluid. The silvery pearl hung from a blistered wall.

Sow, nurture, replicate.

She plucked the pearl from its tenuous mooring and tucked it into what was left of her being.

"Fioqcaom...a vakk dekkev."

More incomprehensible electronic chatter. She ignored it, shrugging off a tracking tether. Pursue me, if you can.

She sped toward the only place she knew, the third planet of nine circling a five magnitude star.

Limbo.

She drifted.

Her vigilance gave way to sleep and sleep to dreams, staccato memories coughed up from the quicksand of her tired mind. Images of children danced across her subconscious, their voices tinkling with song as they ran through green fields, under blue skies, tossing a red ball into the air.

The dream children dissolved into dream clouds, slow condensations tumbling through dream space. The clouds birthed stars, threading them with lifeless beads on elliptical strings. Then the dream stars grew old, consumed their progeny and collapsed, sparking bright flashes in the darkness of her slumber.

I am mother.

She wept as the children sang.


Chapter One

Fossil Fields of Kanapoi, Northern Kenya, Wednesday, June 19, 1985

Rough hands gripped John Lohner's shoulders, shaking him hard.

Kamau leaned close, his black face glistening with a fine sheen of sweat, his eyes wide showing a mix of concern and apprehension. "Wake up! You were screaming again."

John lay on his cot and stared unfocused. Where am I?

Sunlight struck tent canvas, flooding the inside with a warm glow. Humid air smelled of mildew, animal dung and human sweat. Beyond, sing-song voices chattered in Swahili, competing with the clatter of cook pots, the bark of a nervous dog and the distant braying of camels.

John's thoughts drifted, dead leaves loosed from a tall tree, descending by looping degrees, back and forth, ever faster until they settled to the ground with a touch.

Morning. Kanapoi, Kenya.

The words pushed into consciousness. A town, or village or camel herder's supply post, he never knew which. It lay ten kilometers to the west of camp on the shores of Lake Turkana and was his only reference to civilization, or as he preferred to call it, the outside world. He had arrived a week ago Saturday. Or was it Sunday? What day is it, now? He struggled to sit up.

Kamau thrust a white towel at him.

John stared at its coarse cotton weave, then down at his sweat-soaked torso and the tangle of olive-drab sheets around his waist. The stale smell of dried urine spiked his nostrils. He swayed sideways, his hand brushing an open, near-empty bottle of Glenfiddich. It fell off the side table and rolled on the floor next to another empty bottle. Amber liquid sloshed one end to the other.

His stomach lurched. Visions of crud coming up made him wince. With an effort he suppressed the spasm. "Is the shaman here?" Words slurred from his dry mouth. The shaman would fix everything. The man had powers, or so John had been told.

"He's come every day for three days."

"I've been out that long?"

"You don't have a clue, do you?"

John took the towel, closed his eyes and buried his face into its cool, dark dampness. "You know I'm not well."

"Who was it this time?"

The dream John had been dreaming still feathered the edges of his mind, veiling his thoughts in gray. Always the same dream. Always the screams. He had no shortage of nightmares, his mother's suicide when he was five, then twenty years later his fiancee killed in a car accident. Death stalked him, or so it seemed. He looked up.

Bad idea.

His brain seemed to keep moving under its own inertia. He braced his hands on the cot to keep from falling over. Kamau swam in and out of focus. He had asked a question.

"My mother," John said. "I'm thirty-five, for Chrissake. You'd think I'd get over it."

She had left in a terrible moment--the warm security of her body there one second and gone the next. He had stared to where she lay twisted in a spreading crimson pool, the blood-splattered revolver in her outstretched hand, a smile still creasing one side of her face but disappearing on the other side into a mess of broken teeth and bone.

"Can you blame me? I saw a goddamned shimmer rise from her body." John tossed the towel to Kamau. "A ghost or something. It rippled in the air, then across the wall. It washed through me, and a voice said she died because she was flawed. Why did I think that? I was just a child."

Kamau pulled a canvas folding chair opposite John and sat. He leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. As camp manager and John's trusted friend, it was Kamau's familiar prelude to a serious talk that usually began with an observation, then escalated to when I was a boy, my father's father told me....

Twisting the towel nervously, Kamau studied its contours and gathered his thoughts. "I tell you a sheitani left your dead mother and entered your body."

John stifled a manic giggle. No my father's father but Kamau would get there. "A sheitani?"

"Little devil men," Kamau said, his face stone cold, serious. "They live in forests and streams and enter humans to make their lives miserable. But yours is very bold. He speaks to your mind, and you think his thoughts are your own."

"If I've got a sheitani, it's female--" John burped. Coughed-up acid bit the back of his throat. "--at least the voice is." His hands shook. He clasped one in the other, hoping to quell them.

"A woman?" Kamau's gaze drifted to John's hands. "That is not good. A male sheitani bedevils but follows rules. A female sheitani is jealous and unpredictable."

"I wish it were that simple." John tried to force a smile but the taste in his mouth ruined the attempt. His tongue stalked dry lips. He pointed. "Canteen."

He ran fingers through sweat-dampened hair, then pulled a long drink from the canteen Kamau offered. He wiped his mouth with a corner of the sheet.

Kamau took back the canteen. "Not many men can say good things about a sheitani who occupies their soul."

And that is the goddamned point. Whatever it was had occupied his soul since his mother's death, and he couldn't get rid of it. The thing rode him, a background whisper, insinuating, cajoling, directing. He'd done drugs, tried therapy. He'd twisted into a pretzel doing yoga. Nothing helped. So he pleaded with the voice for accommodation but it remained incessant, a drip torture, one liquid splash at a time, until the intervals became illusions of peace to be interrupted when least expected.

Accommodation didn't work. What was left was a rising hysteria, an impeding insanity. Perhaps his mother had been right, doing what she had done, leaving him alone, as though her own coping had reached a limit and she had been broken, deciding to pass the burden on to him. The years hadn't dulled his pain. I'm not as strong as you were, Mom. How am I going to beat this thing?

"That's the point," John said, not looking at Kamau. "It does occupy my soul. I can't get rid of it." Deep inside, he cringed, knowing the voice was listening.

"You must let go your grief," Kamau said.

John exhaled. "Grief isn't my problem. I'm a paleoanthropologist. I dig fossils. I also--by the way--hear a voice. If I told anyone, I'd be the laughingstock of my profession."

Years after her death, he had told his father about the shimmer-figure.

The old man, a revered paleoanthropologist in his own right, had stared him dead in the eye and told him never to mention the subject again.

Odd. Had he been afraid for his reputation? A crazy son?

Kamau smiled. "You've told me."

For a moment, John was confused, having lost the train of their conversation. "You're my friend. Besides, in your culture, I thought you'd be more tolerant of these things."

Kamau's smile traveled to his eyes. "You are wrong."

"About what?"

"In my culture, we'd also say you are crazy."

John's gloom lifted. "God bless you, Kamau."

Kamau seemed pleased. "My father's father told me when a man wants to pour milk from a heavy gourd, he needs a brother to hold the cup."

John winced as he suppressed another turn in his stomach. Kamau was taking the subject seriously--first the elbow lean, then finally a father's father all in the space of two minutes. John reached for the bottle of Scotch.

Kamau closed his big hand over John's. "You don't need that." He pulled the bottle from John's grasp and set it on the washstand.

John's gaze followed the bottle, lingered, then he resigned himself to the loss. "I'll see the goddamned shaman." He spoke rapidly, feigning a control he didn't feel.

Kamau stood. His shoulders bunched with a returning tension. "You won't change your mind?"

John blew out a stale breath. "Right now the shaman is all I've got. I want this crap out of my head."

"And if it won't go?"

John blinked. Good question.

Kamau set the canteen on the side table and paused at the tent flap before exiting. "You don't know what you are getting into."

The tent flap dropped, and Kamau's footsteps receded.

"You're probably right," John said into the silence.

"You brood too much." The voice inside his head. The hated voice.

The side of the tent behind Kamau's chair seemed to shift, a jerky stop-frame motion. The shimmer? He couldn't be sure. But a cold fear washed through him as it always did.

John scrubbed a shaky hand over the sweaty stubble on his jaw. And who's responsible for that? Conversation with the voice was easy, like a short circuit of thought without obvious beginning or end.

He closed his eyes, and the tent seemed to spin. Try as he might, he could not pin down the voice in the resulting darkness. It floated somewhere behind and above his eye sockets. That would put it in his cerebral cortex. A bullet through that dense ganglion would take out the voice along with knowing--two birds with one stone, so to speak. His mother had used that approach.

"I know why you're here." The voice sounded almost coy.

I'm here to find hominid fossils.

"I think it has more to do with the place."

Mind games. He stepped to the washstand and poured water from a pitcher into a white enameled-metal basin. He soaked a sponge and wiped his body. The simple bath didn't make him much cleaner but he felt better. The residual moisture cooled him.

Before shaving, he gripped his cheeks with a hand and pushed his face back and forth in front of a small camp mirror clipped to the wall. He stared at the deep furrow that creased his forehead between his brows. It seemed all his problems concentrated at that one spot. The crease made him look stern and older than he was.

Since his mother's death, his life had shifted by lurching steps, pushed by an ill-defined compulsion. It had carried him through prestigious schools, earned him advanced degrees, always pointing to a far off place--Africa, where he felt compelled to root in the cracked earth for the bones of ancient dead, as though their unearthing would shed light on his own turmoil. And all the while, the voice dragged on his desire.

It obviously disliked what he was doing. But if he were talking to himself, was that an indication of his awareness of the demons that roamed his mind? Everyone had demons. Were only his out of control?

He worked up a lather and started shaving.

"The manner of your mother's death intrigues you."

The voice never played fair. If it caught him musing in areas it considered off-limits, it would bring him back with a distracting thought. It's a way out.

When he finished shaving, he retrieved a pair of bush shorts from the floor and put them on. He sat, reaching for his boots. After banging the heels on the wooden floor, he tipped them over, checking for scorpions.

"But she was not like you." The voice remained steady, neutral, in control, taking no notice of his frustration.

He pulled on knit socks, shoved his feet into the boots and yanked the laces taut. She was still my mother, for Chrissake.

"I could do nothing to help her."

You're not helping me either. John stood.

"You know I try."

He buckled his belt. Are you telling me suicide is out of the question?

A pause. John felt a fleeting satisfaction. Suicide was one of those topics the voice abhorred. He reached for a khaki shirt draped over the chair.

"You exaggerate the control I have over your destiny."

What tripe. You involve my every waking moment as you did Mother's.

"Your mother's death could not be prevented. She was flawed."

And Diane's?

"You know Diane's death was an accident."

Still gripping the shirt, he pressed his hands against his temples and squeezed hard enough to hurt, a self-inflicted pain to distract, or maybe a forerunner of things to come. And you had me, was the only retort he could summon.

"And I still do."

Point, set and match. John crumpled, or at least the wall of resistance in his mind he had constructed buckled inward and fell apart. He was again a child, alone, facing the unimaginable.

Five candles flickered on a cake in front of him. He inhaled and blew. The dancing flames leaned and vanished, to be replaced by curling plumes of pale smoke and a sweet smell of hot wax. Mommy stood at the end of the birthday table, her gaze unsettled, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. She slid her hand beneath her apron, withdrew a small silvery revolver, put it to her temple and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet punched a hole on one side of her face and blew out the other side to leave a red tangle. A splatter of blood, bone and bits of hair slapped onto the dining room's pastel blue wall. Her knees buckled. She dropped straight down, thudded to the floor and toppled sideways.

Red and white helium-filled balloons thunked at their tethers. A child whimpered and reached small fingers for security. Some mommies screamed. Others rushed past John to stare, wide-eyed.

He gripped the edge of the table, confused by the commotion and embarrassed by the concerned stares the mommies cast over their shoulders as they hunched above Mommy's body. Leaning sideways, his small hands slipped on the white, paper tablecloth stamped with grinning, red, clown faces.

On the far wall, the shimmer rose and slid with a ripple to one side.

John pointed, trying to speak but Nanny rushed from the kitchen. She picked him up and carried him upstairs to his room away from the noise and confusion.

"This be a horrible thing," she wailed. "I called master Lohner and he be coming fast as he can. She be sick, Johnny. She be so, so sick."

That night, Daddy tucked him into bed, leaned close and kissed him goodnight. Daddy's breath smelled mediciney.

"Mommy wasn't well, John. She had a disease called schizophrenia. She heard a voice no one else could hear." Daddy heaved a sob. "You must understand. What she did had nothing to do with you. She just wanted the voice to stop."

John wanted to say his stomach hurt, he didn't know what schizophrenia meant and he had seen a shimmer in the room after Mommy died, but Daddy wiped his nose with the back of his hand, squeezed John's arm and left the room.

John also wanted to say that he, too, heard a voice. It said, "You are now very precious to me. I will watch over you."

Frightened, he opened his mouth to scream. Mama! But nothing came out. He sucked air to fill his lungs. A reedy cry issued from his throat, turning to a yell, the yell rounding to a howl, the sound a constant wind makes through a constricted tunnel.

Jesus, I'm screwed up. John stumbled from the sleeping alcove and crossed an outer office area to the tent entrance. After grabbing his hat from a peg, he stepped outside, shoving shirttails into his shorts. He fought for calm, which had never come before and didn't now.

The voice operated on its own terms, not his. If he tried not to listen, the best he could achieve was a reduced volume, a murmur in the background of his thoughts. And if he then concentrated, he could almost function. Of course he'd had practice, a lifetime's worth but the voice would toy with him, letting him out on a line, like one of those retractable dog leashes, then pushing the button that reeled him in.

This time the line had grown taut. He was tired of coping. Something was going to give or he would die trying.


***

Through low-cast morning shadows, smoke from cooking fires drifted like gray ghosts, rising, then whipping downwind in the flat light.

The camp tucked up against the western escarpment of the Loriyu Plateau, an eroded outcropping, a red rock aircraft carrier that rose thirty meters to the deck above the surrounding desert. It aligned north-south with its prow nosing the southern shore of Lake Turkana.

Administrative tents and the mess faced one another, forming a rectangular central compound. They were all large field tents with heavy tent poles pushing up sloping dust-silted canvas roofs. Nylon ropes snaked through brass grommets, anchoring sweeping sides to steel stakes hammered into the sun-baked soil.

To the south, cobbled together dead acacia limbs, sheets of corrugated iron, cardboard and plywood formed a shantytown of lean-tos. The laborers' quarters. Farther downwind, a wood-rail corral penned three camels.

Dried marsh grass, woven into a hedge, surrounded the encampment. The fence deterred wandering animals and provided a windbreak to the sand that drifted above the desert floor.

John pulled his hat low and tried to compose himself.

Fifteen laborers slumped on the back of an ancient, half-ton flatbed. It sat idling, its motor turning over in a fitful but regular cough.

The old Ford would carry the men north, around the end of the plateau, skirting the lake shore, then back south to the dig. It was located in a deep gorge, part of the Kerio River system, which flowed during the rainy season into Lake Turkana. The gorge sprawled across the arid land like a headless scorpion, five kilometers wide at the claws and twenty meters deep in the belly. Ravines rippled its sides. Loose sediment had eroded away long ago to leave corrugated layers of red and ochre dirt and buried fossils.

The men on the truck shifted nervously, their eyes darting as they followed a tall, dark figure who ranged before them, shouting, all the while tugging on a tether tied to the neck of a small goat.

Off to one side, Kamau leaned against a battered Land Rover John had picked up used at a Nairobi estate sale. Next to Kamau stood Bandele, the labor supervisor.

Feigning casualness and still feeling queasy, John ambled up to the two men. He ignored an ache between his eyes and pointed at the dark figure. "That the shaman?"

Kamau nodded.

The shaman's voice carried in the sultry air, punctuated with thrusts of his hand, producing in John a sense of foreboding, not from what the man might be saying, for John only caught one or two words in the language but by the way he said it.

"He's been badgering them for twenty minutes," Kamau said.

"Better call him over."

Kamau put his hand to the side of his mouth and shouted something native at the shaman, who stiffened, then turned.

Kamau waved him closer.

The shaman yanked on the tether attached to the protesting goat and approached.

The man was two meters tall and thin with protruding ribs. Possibly mid-forties in age. A skin loincloth of wildebeest or maybe steer clung to hip bones rising from a sunken pelvis. Bright red and blue beads intertwined his knotted hair. Tribal scars, shiny flattened skin filling the space between razor-cut ridges, marked his cheeks--three diagonal cuts on one side, two on the other. His left arm hung withered at his side and ended in long yellowed fingers twisted together, root-like, forming a claw. From the claw, a strip of leather dropped to the goat.

The shaman stopped a distance from John, as though he perceived a perimeter he would not cross until he assessed what lay on the other side. He stared, his pupils dark holes reamed into white, porcelain orbs. The holes revealed no bottom in his skull and offered no suggestion of compassion. A sudden gust of wind from behind him carried air laced with the rancid smell of dead things.

John figured the misshapen arm for a birth defect. The shaman must have grown to manhood, perhaps teased because of his deformity, a child confronting an adult world before he was capable of understanding it. John felt an instant of pity quickly suppressed. He was after all the Masahib.

The goat bleated, and the shaman gave the line a sharp tug.

"You have a fine goat," John said.

"It be newborn one week, Masahib." The shaman's voice rumbled deep inside his chest, at odds with his emaciated appearance.

John closed the distance between them and stooped.

The goat trotted to him, straining against the extent of the tether.

John brushed back the goat's ears and slid his hand over the white and brown dappled coat. He let the animal's wet nose nudge his arm. Its mouth found his finger and sucked with an eager sandpaper tongue.

Innocence. Young, without knowing. John's eyes stung. Stupid emotional weakness. Damn hangover. He withdrew his finger and stood, trying not to inhale the man's death scent. "What is your name?"

"I be Watombo Zilabamuzale Imamu."

The words raced unimpeded through John's mind. "And what name do you go by?"

"My father call me Watombo."

"I--" John stammered, feeling ill at ease, transfixed by the shaman's stare. He never felt comfortable dealing with the natives on his own, even more so after three days of boozing. "--I summoned you because I have a problem."

"Watombo know." His expression remained an immobile cast as he withdrew a camel-hair fly whisk from his belt and flicked his shoulders. Then a smile broke across his gaunt face, exposing two rows of blackened teeth. "You hear."

At first John couldn't believe what the man had said, then the unavoidable meaning cut into him with a knife-edged clarity. He stepped back. The air, already hot and devoid of moisture, seemed to disappear, forcing him to inhale sharply. "Hear what?" The question tumbled off his tongue as he tried to wet his mouth.

Watombo drew his shoulders back, pushing out his chest. He seemed to rise taller. "Afareni."

John cast a quick glance at Kamau, who shrugged with incomprehension.

Struggling to recover, John brushed at a fly that had sought out the edge of his left eye. "Who the hell's Afareni?"

"She be the voice inside your head, Masahib. She be my mother. She be your mother."

John scowled, feeling heat rise into his cheeks. "My mother's dead."

Unperturbed, Watombo peered down at John. "No be dead."

I'm not going there. He balled his fists, then forced himself to open them, letting his anger dissipate. "I said I have a problem. Can you help me?"

Watombo continued to stare, zombie-like, as though he had not heard. Then an inner mechanism seemed to trip. He indicated the laborers with a sweep of his arm. "These men need protection."

John studied the shaman, wondering where the conversation was going, wondering if the man were on drugs. "Protection?"

"You disturb spirits."

John had met opposition to his dig before. Fossils always had spirits and avoiding trouble consisted of paying someone to buy the spirits off. "I suppose you're the one who can protect the men."

"Yes, Masahib. I be the one to guide these men's souls through the underworld to the resting place beyond. I be the one to protect them while they be alive and be doing this work."

"Excuse me a second." John walked over to Kamau. "How much is this going to cost?"

Kamau pushed off the Land Rover. "Offer him two dollars American a head for the duration and twenty dollars for himself. If he balks at that, lower the offer."

John turned back to the shaman. "You have a great power over these men. I'll give you two dollars a man and twenty for yourself if you see that they do their work."

"Masahib be fair. But these men be worried. They be worried they handle bones."

"This is an archeological excavation. But if you insist, they needn't handle the bones, at least not today."

"When time come, I protect them from the spirits of the bones. For now they no fear."

The laborers had gotten off the truck and ranged at a distance. Watombo spoke to them, then turned back to John. "I help Masahib, now." He squatted on the ground and indicated that John should sit on the sand in front of him.

John eased himself down and sat cross-legged opposite the shaman who closed his eyes and started chanting, swaying forward and back on his heels and dragging the goat closer to his side.

Lulled by the shaman's monotone, John almost missed seeing the small knife Watombo slipped from the belt of his loincloth.

He pressed the knife to the goat's throat below an ear, worked it through hair until a thin line of blood appeared, then drew the blade down firmly.

The goat squealed as a flood of red oozed from its jugular, staining the white front of its chest. Its eyes glazed over. It twitched and was still.

Watombo held the dripping animal high and began tracing a bloody pattern on the sand.

John's stomach lurched. He leaned his head to one side and gagged.

The shaman stared. "It be only goat, Masahib."

John pulled a handkerchief and pressed it to his mouth, stifling another surge. He reached his other hand to Kamau. "I can't do this, now."

Kamau pulled him up, and with a thrust of his hand indicated the shaman should leave.

Methodically, Watombo wiped the knife on his loincloth, then rubbed his hands with sand. Slapping one hand against the other, he stood, leaving the limp carcass on the ground. "Masahib be sick."

Kamau pointed to the camp perimeter. "Get out of here."

John's stomach tightened in a reflexive knot. "No, let him stay. I'll try again later. I have to."

"This shaman will cause nothing but trouble," Kamau said. "I don't want him around."

John's nausea gave way to anger. He stood, hands clenched at his sides. "Why did you tell him I hear a voice?"

Kamau's face darkened. "I told him nothing."

"Then how'd he know?"

"He's a shaman, John. You forget where you are."

"That would be hard to do." John glared. "Load the laborers."

"And the shaman?"

"I have to take the chance that he can help me." John kept his voice level but his patience was gone. He motioned to Watombo that he should join the men on the truck.

"You'll regret this," Kamau said.

John whipped around. He pointed. "I see one starved shaman, who might know something I don't know about the voice I hear. I don't see how that's going to slow the pace of the dig. If his ranting at the men causes trouble, Omari can handle it."

The guard stood off to one side, a bolt-action Mark I Enfield of World War II vintage cradled in his arms.

Kamau rolled his eyes skyward and shook his head. "We hired Omari to protect us from bandits, not a crowd fired up on a shaman's juju."

"That's mumbo-jumbo," John mocked, suddenly fed up with Kamau's nannying.

Kamau stepped close. "In your head, you know." His voice was a taut whisper. He tapped his finger on John's chest. "But in your heart, you are not so sure."


***

John slouched on the passenger seat as the Land Rover rambled over a narrow track between the lake and the north face of the plateau's towering escarpment. Off to the left, morning sun caressed soft mounds of sand, filtered green through tall shore grass and slid across the still, dark water. Flocks of flamingos and kingfishers stood in the shallows. The knobby backs of crocodiles protruded as they lounged, half-submerged, waiting.

The encounter with Watombo lingered in John's mind like a black tide that refused to recede, planting in his heart an ill-defined sense of gloom. How could the shaman have known he heard a voice? Had it been a wild guess?

"There are things you do not understand," the voice said.

John hung his head in resignation. His tormentor was back. Where had it gone? Scared off by the prescient Watombo? Not likely. That doesn't mean I don't try to understand them.

"Watombo is wiser than you think."

I doubt that. John glanced at Kamau, who threaded the Land Rover between clusters of acacias and bumped over clumps of sand-clogged grass.

"You feeling any better?" Kamau's question was asked with indifference, from a distance, as though it was the only way he could find his way back emotionally.

John shifted in his seat. "I hate dry heaves."

Kamau shook his head and glanced at John.

"Don't give me that look," John said. "I'm done. I'm trying. It's real hard."

Kamau turned back to his driving, his face expressionless. He kept his eyes on the track ahead of him. "Do you think I'm so stupid as to share your confidences with a shaman?"

"I'm sorry I yelled at you. I couldn't see how else he knew. I still don't know how he knew."

"Evil knows where evil sleeps."

"Aren't you being a bit melodramatic?"

Kamau shrugged. "You have been warned."

John grabbed a handle above the door to steady himself. Kamau's reactions were always controlled, a contrast to John's instabilities. "What was Watombo saying to the men?"

"If they disturb the bones, they disturb the spirits."

"There are no spirits." John's frustration edged to anger, searing at his nausea. "We're looking for fossils. They're goddamned rocks."

"Doesn't matter. The spirits stay."

John wasn't going to let Kamau annoy him. "I heard Jabari and something like machugi."

Kamau nodded. "Mchungaji."

"What does it mean?"

"It means shepherd in Swahili."

"Isn't Jabari Arabic for God?"

"Yes. Watombo's people had no name for a one god, so they borrowed one from the Arabs."

"What's all this got to do with protecting the men from spirits?"

"Disturb the bones, the mchungaji will come calling."

"Is that bad?"

"Very bad. It's part of a myth describing the battle when time began between Utu and Ibilisi for the right to rule the world."

"Utu, doesn't that mean human nature, the goodness in human nature?"

"It does."

"And Ibilisi?"

"He's an evil pestilence, an infection. When he blows into a man's soul, he never leaves."

"Like the Devil."

Kamau's grip on the steering wheel tightened. "Worse."

"I can't imagine something worse than the devil."

"Your Christian devil is known. He was once with God, then fell from grace. Ibilisi is something apart. He has no soul. He comes from the dark and steals the light."

An ill-defined apprehension roamed the pit of John's stomach, not a hangover nausea but more like the first hint of an impending storm, like something in the air before lightning struck. "So who won this battle?"

"Ibilisi. Before Utu died, Jabari interceded and wrapped Utu's spirit in the past and the future to make it invisible. Then, from his own flesh he created the mchungaji and gave him the power to think."

The Land Rover hit a rut, bouncing John on his seat. He felt a quick rush of adrenaline, a shot to his system dispelling fear, tightening muscles.

Kamau glanced at him. "Jabari told the mchungaji to carry Utu's spirit and travel the dark tunnels until he found a place of light. The mchungaji did as he was told but at one dark tunnel he was met by the spirit Earth-mother."

"Would that be Oluwari?"

Kamau shook his head. "Oluwari is the spirit of forest rats and comes from Tanzania. The spirit Earth-mother comes from the Afar in Ethiopia. She goes by many names but most people call her Afareni."

"That's the name Watombo used for his mother."

"Earth-mother, his mother, even your mother."

"Where does he get this stuff?"

"He dreams."

John's head snapped up.

Kamau glanced at him and shrugged again. "Watombo claims his dreams give him a special connection to spirits, which he uses to control other men."

"He got to me."

"He's a shaman."

The track roughened.

Kamau slowed the vehicle and downshifted. "Anyway, when Afareni met the mchungaji, she was old and could no longer bear children. So she asked the mchungaji for Utu's spirit. When the mchungaji refused, she stole the spirit and fled to this land to choose an animal where she could hide the spirit."

"An ape?" John hoped to humor Kamau but failed.

"You are the only one here who believes apes are the ancestors of man."

"I thought you--" John tightened his grip on the lurching vehicle's strap. "--Never mind. Go on."

"She told this beast that Utu's spirit would make his kind strong with knowing. She said that if she gave him Utu's spirit, he must first agree to use the knowledge wisely. Since the beast knew nothing, he agreed. Afareni gave him Utu's spirit, and the beast became the first man."

"Is that it?"

"Pretty much. Over the years, Afareni has remained to nurture Utu's spirit in man."

John suppressed a smile. A primitive take on evolution. A precipitating event leading to a branching of an evolutionary line giving rise to a new species. "What if the mchungaji shows up and wants Utu back?"

"It will be the end of man."

Dust billowed into the cab from the Land Rover's churning front wheels, and John drew a bandana over his mouth.

"The end of man," the voice pattered. "Who but Afareni can save mankind from itself? Who but Afareni will nurture that which makes men human?"

Humans will blow themselves to bits before a shepherd robs them of their human-hood.

The Land Rover rounded the end of the plateau and turned south following a track along the edge of the gorge. A work tent sat in the distance, bleaching in the sun, entrance flaps open and fluttering in the breeze.

John pointed ahead and east across the gorge. "Look there. Shifta. Four of them." The bandits were a kilometer away but easy to see against the horizon. They rode their camels at a fast trot over the uneven terrain.

Kamau stared at them with obvious dislike. "They're in a hurry."

The riders changed direction and disappeared behind a distant rise in the landscape.

"They must have seen us coming." John said. "I wonder what they were up to?"