The helicopter flew low over a landscape as barren as any to be found on planet Earth. This was Nunavut. It wasn’t a province and hardly a territory though they called it that. As far as Warburton was concerned they could give it all back to the Eskimos—which is exactly what Canada had done, back in 1999. Nunavut was 810,000 square miles of nothing much, one fifth of Canada’s land area.
Warburton looked out his frosty window and was amazed to see a polar bear loping along a few hundred feet below him. Hunting? Fleeing the helicopter? He was tempted to ask the little Inuit with the brown and weather-beaten face, but realized he could never hope to deal with the man’s name. He was introduced to Warburton at the Churchill airport as Charlie Charttinirpaaq, which sounded like a man with a bad cough and a severe case of the hiccups.
Warburton hated helicopters. And he hated large helicopters even more than he hated small ones. The one he was sitting in now was a Sikorsky HB-53F, the civilian version of the military Sea Stallion, probably the largest passenger-carrying chopper outside of Russia. It could be configured to carry fifty soldiers with full combat gear. This one had only two rows of seats bolted to the floor up in the front, the rest of the cavernous interior empty. With so little cargo the Sikorsky’s range was enormous, more than enough to make it from Churchill, where the Air Canada flight had dumped him, to the site known to only a handful of people as Mammoth Seven.
It was damn cold inside, but it didn’t seem to bother Charlie. The little Inuit had pushed the hood of his parka back, revealing straight black hair that looked to have been groomed with rendered walrus blubber. His gnarled brown hands were bare. His coat had a handmade and hard-used look to it, but his boots looked like L.L. Beans. He seemed to feel Warburton’s gaze, looked across the helicopter and smiled, revealing widely spaced but strong, brown teeth. Didn’t they chew reindeer hides to soften them? Or was that just the women? Warburton’s own outfit, purchased at Abercrombie & Fitch during his layover in Toronto and guaranteed by the salesman to protect him from a polar blizzard, was providing him no more warmth than a banlon shirt.
He looked out his window and saw the first spot of color he had seen for more than five hundred miles. The heavily insulated modular dwelling that had been flown in dangling from the cargo hook of this very helicopter was almost the same color as the snow. But a short distance from it was a large half-cylinder tent, like a Quonset hut, made of blue and red canvas panels, strongly anchored with yellow poly ropes, near the bottom of a large, bare hill. This was Mammoth Seven.
Warburton saw people emerge from one of the trailers. One looked up and waved. Then they were setting down on a big red X in the middle of a red circle that had been painted on the snow. Warburton and Charlie unfastened their belts and waited for the pilot, another Inuit, to open the door and lower the ramp.
Once outside, Warburton realized he hadn’t really been cold at all inside the damn helicopter. This, now this was cold.
There were two people hurrying out to meet him, all but indistinguishable in their puffed-up nylon and Gore-Tex outfits, hoods over their heads, eyes hidden by big blue sunglasses against the icy glare. Warburton followed them toward the big pressurized tent, looming like some high tech circus big top a hundred feet up the side of the hill. They trudged up the path and entered through a zipper in its side.
Inside, hoods off, Warburton recognized Dr. Rostov, formerly of the St. Petersburg Museum of Natural History, now the head of the Mammoth Seven recovery.
They were in a square room about the size of a hotel elevator, which he knew from visits to previous mammoth sites to be a sort of air lock. The tent was held up by internal pressure, so the outer and inner doors of the room could not be opened at the same time.
Rostov started to open the inner door, then cleared his throat. Warburton realized the man was nervous.
“Now, I know what your first reaction is going to be,” Rostov said. “It was my first reaction, too. You’re going to think this is some kind of joke.”
Rostov had just a trace of an accent. He looked the part of a university professor, with an unkempt mane of white hair and a goatee that was more salt and pepper. But his face was almost as weathered as Charlie’s, and he had an alarming red nose shaped like a potato. Though his hands were now clad in fur-lined gloves, Warburton knew the doctor had lost the tips of several fingers to frostbite. Being a mammoth hunter in the 21st century didn’t entail the same risks as it had for our mammoth-hunting ancestors, but it was no picnic, and it took you to climates that could kill just as surely as a wounded and enraged mammoth.
“It never entered my mind that you would bring me up here as part of a joke, Doctor,” Warburton said. Now that the green light had come on over the inner door, Rostov ushered the group inside. The interior was well-lit, and not nearly as warm as Warburton had hoped, but at least it was out of the wind.
“We keep it heated to only about four degrees below zero to protect the specimen,” Rostov said. Warburton translated from the Canadian centigrade scale: high to mid twenties.
In the center of the tent was the excavation into the side of the hill, a rectangular area about twenty by twenty feet. It was well lit by floodlights on tripods. The crew had dug out the mammoth’s head and back and most of one side, but those parts were covered with protective cloth. Christian wanted this frozen creature intact, and that meant excavation was a painfully deliberate process, starting with small ice axes, moving to hammers and chisels, getting down to warm brushes and toothpicks before the hairy pelt was reached. And even then, when a section of hide was bared, it was re-frozen in distilled water. It would be absurd for this creature to have survived for ten, fifteen thousand years, perfectly preserved to the point that its flesh was probably still edible, and then to have it rot in a few days of digging. The plan was to free the creature from the permafrost and then quickly airlift it to a large refrigerated facility where further actions could be contemplated at leisure.
“Seven is by far the best and the largest primigenius we have yet investigated,” Rostov said. “In fact, it is so large I have begun to wonder if it might be an actual hybrid, possibly with Mammuthus imperiori, which was quite a bit larger than primigenius. The flesh is in wonderful shape. The nuclei we’ve tested so far have yielded promising DNA, though of course we have yet to reach the sexual organs.”
Warburton had learned a lot about mammoths in the last four years. He always had to learn things to keep up with his boss’s newest manias. He knew Mammuthus primigenius was the Latin name for the woolly mammoth. He’d learned a bit about cloning, too, though he had no aptitude for science. But the basic facts were easy enough to absorb. If one wished to re-create a mammoth, one needed some DNA that was reasonably intact. No perfect specimens had ever been discovered, but as the years went by the criteria for “reasonably intact” had steadily lowered, as new techniques for reassembling genetic material had been discovered and elaborated. Four years ago he had dismissed the whole project as highly unlikely. It hadn’t been the first time his boss had pursued a chimera.
The best mammoth cells to use for cloning would be an egg from a female, or a sperm cell from a male. The resulting embryo could then be implanted in a female elephant—not an easy project in itself, as the reproductive cycle of elephants was complicated and not completely understood.
But maybe it could be done, and that was why orders had come from Mr. Christian to concentrate on the rear of the giant corpse, to gain access to the testicles. Or, as Christian had put it in a phone call to Rostov that Warburton had overheard, “I want that bull’s balls by next Monday, Doctor, or I’ll find somebody else to dig ‘em out.”
This was the following Wednesday, and Warburton presumed he was about to be shown something astonishing concerning mammoth reproduction. It wasn’t a prospect he relished, but he’d undertaken tasks much less appetizing in his work for Christian.
One of the things he had not learned was the precise location of mammoth testicles, but he had assumed they were pretty much where they would be on other quadrupeds, like horses, sheep, cattle, and probably elephants, though he had never actually seen an elephant’s family jewels. But Rostov didn’t take him all the way around the massive beast, but to its left side. The mammoth was sitting more or less upright, with its legs folded under it.
Now Rostov indicated a lump by the hind legs that did not fit with any picture of a mammoth Warburton could come up with, unless its left hind leg was twisted grotesquely out to one side. The lump was covered with the same protective material that concealed the rest of the mammoth.
Warburton looked at Rostov, waiting, and Rostov sighed and pulled back the cover.
The lump was a man.
He was huddled tight against the side of the mammoth, still partly buried. Only his head and torso had been chipped out of the ice. Most of his face and part of his upper arm had been eaten away, gnawed at by animals. Where Warburton could see the chest, the skin was yellow and shriveled and looked like wax.
Warburton looked at Rostov again.
“No joke,” the man assured him, with a helpless shrug.
“Around twelve thousand years,” Rostov said.
What was left of the man’s hair was long and wispy and gray. There were scraps of gray beard lying on his chest. Because of the tissue shrinkage and what Warburton could only think of as an extreme case of freezer burn, it was hard to estimate his age, but he got the impression the man was old. Many of his teeth were missing, or blackened, or brown stumps. But that didn’t prove much, did it? Without dental care a young man’s teeth could rot out, too, and he supposed the best dental care available where this man had come from was a whack in the mouth with a stone axe.
“I am not anthropologist,” Rostov said, “What I can see of his clothing is consistent with what I know of the era.”
Warburton didn’t think you’d need a Ph.D. to figure that out. What clothing he could see was made from fur and leather. What else would the man be wearing on a mammoth hunt? Spats and a school tie?
His mind was racing now. He worked for Howard Christian, who was a complex man of many interests, but none of them exceeded his interest in money, so Warburton immediately was thinking of ways to turn this into a lot of cash. A mummified stone age man? Good money to be made, no question. Get National Geographic out here, have them document the removal, show the film on Discovery Channel or PBS.
“If you lean over just a bit,” Rostov said, “you can just see the top of the head of the second person.”
Second person? Warburton leaned over the corpse—noting it smelled a little like the inside of his refrigerator when he returned from a long trip—and could just make out what might be the top of a human head through a thin rime of ice.
“Oh, yes. When we got this far we stopped and did a close-range sonogram scan. There is a second person between this one and the mammoth. It is somewhat smaller. Possibly a woman, or a child.”
Two people? Woman or child? Better and better, Warburton thought. Alley Oop and … what was her name? Ooma? Oona? The cartoon strip was a bit before his time, but he had to figure that a Stone Age couple was twice as interesting as a lone mammoth hunter. As for a man and his son or daughter, sheltering behind the massive corpse of a freshly-killed woolly mammoth while a savage blizzard froze them solid … well, you couldn’t do much better than that.
And then, because he was a troubleshooter and not really in the business of turning out made-for-cable documentaries or television movies, he thought about what sort of troubles he might be called upon to shoot.
When you got into the area of North American antiquities there was always the Indian question to consider. A lot of tribes considered the study of any old dead bones, much less a couple of more or less intact corpses, to be grave robbing. What’s more, governments lately had begun agreeing with this, and museums were being forced to return bones for proper burial on tribal lands. What was the name of that ten thousand year old skeleton they’d found in Oregon or Washington? Kennebunk Man, something like that? They’d hassled over that one for years. He made a mental note to find out what Canadian law had to say on the subject.
For the first time, he noticed that the other man who had accompanied Rostov and himself into the pit had an Inuit look about him. Warburton looked at him, then at Charlie, and both of them were looking solemn. Could be a problem, definitely could be a problem.
“How many people know about this?” Warburton demanded.
“Just the five of us on the team, Mr. Christian and whoever he told, and you and whoever you told,” Rostov replied.
“Nobody else? None of you called home and talked about it?”
They all shook their heads.
“Here’s what we do, then. Talk to no one. Not your mom, not your wife. If you think you might make a little money tipping off CNN or Hard Copy, forget about it. I promise you I will make it worth your while, you’ll all be getting substantial bonuses. If, on the other hand, you do talk to someone, and I find out … well, Howard Christian has about forty billion dollars, and he could make your lives miserable in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. Do you follow me?”
Charlie and the other Inuit nodded. But Rostov, clearly had something else to say.
“What’s the problem?” Warburton asked.
Rostov reached out and swept away a bit of cloth that had covered the frozen man’s left forearm and hand. Warburton saw a gleam of metal. He leaned closer, and saw the man was wearing a wristwatch.