The Chaosium Digest

The Chaosium Digest supports the role-playing games produced by Chaosium Inc. and all content is fan submitted. Begun in 1994 by Shannon Appelcline who passed it to myself in 2000 and previously distributed via email, this is the newest incarnation of the Chaosium Digest. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chaosium Digest Classics: Turkey and Jaguar

by Prof. Richard Scott Nokes, Ph.D
Originally published in The Chaosium Digest v38.07 on Sunday, November 13, 2004

Seeing the wild turkey on the hillside reminded Pete Byrd that he would miss Thanksgiving with his family this year. Archaeologists spent most of their time in classrooms and at colleges, but when they had to go out into the field they had to stay for long periods. Only seven months remained on Prof. Sinclair's grant to study the ancient Maya city of Tikal in the Peten rainforest of Guatemala, and he could not afford to lose any of that time. No days off, no slack days. He'd rest when the grant money ran out. Of course, Prof. Sinclair had flown out on Tuesday; No such luck for Pete, his research assistant.

Pete lugged his laptop and machinery through the low brush on a small hillside, the worst part of his job. He was mapping out the still-buried structures of the city, which involved hauling three heavy trunks around each hill in the stifling Peten heat and getting an "image" from sound waves bounced off of about two dozen spots around the hill. The image was a fuzzy jumble of lines and blurs, but in later months he would clean up the images and construct a three dimensional image of each structure. The dirty, sweaty, boring nature of the work, and the excess of turkey droppings on this particular hillside did not make the job any more fun, Thanksgiving fantasies aside.

At first he ignored the muffled sound of someone yelling up the path. The main temple square and north acropolis were off a way, so tourists generally did not get out to where he worked, but when they did they tended to be loud and annoying. As the person on the path drew nearer, though, Pete thought he could make out his name. Yes, it was his name. Sighing, he lumbered down the hill, knees aching. Like many Maya archaeologists, his knees were starting to give out, the result of spending a career climbing up and down steep pyramid steps. If they're aching at the beginning of my career, what'll they be like by the time I retire? he wondered to himself.

Luis was running up the path, out of breath and drenched in sweat. Luis qualified as the laziest assistant Prof. Sinclair had ever hired, so to see him moving so quickly was a surprise. Something was wrong. Even though the graduate student had good Spanish, Luis jabbered with such excitement that he could not make out what was being said. After repeating himself three times, Luis simply shook his head, gestured for Pete to follow, and sped back up the path. Pete followed.

Soon he found the cause of all the excitement, and became excited himself. Recent rainfall had knocked over a tree. Rain in the Peten region had only two settings: on and off. The area saw no drizzles, showers or sprinklings. Rain either thundered down like a waterfall, or not at all. In fact, atop a pyramid you could see the rain coming in like a gray wall, a spot of twilight moving across the sky. Earlier that morning a torrent had come down for about forty minutes. That forty minutes had apparently been enough to fell an old, rotten tree on a hillside near where he was working.

Luis's excitement did not come from a fallen tree, however. The root system of the tree seemed to have burrowed into a buried wall of the city. From his previous work, Prof. Sinclair believed this particular section of the city had been an acropolis, but it had never been excavated before because of the cost of labor, as well as the cost of preserving it from tourists and the elements. Indeed, now that the tree had fallen, the professor's hypothesis seemed correct, because the place that the tree had stood was now a gaping hole in the earth. The fierce sunlight revealed stone walls below.

The excitement Luis had felt now infused Pete, and he recognized an opportunity. With Prof. Sinclair gone for at least another two weeks, Pete would have time to examine the interior on his own. If he moved quickly, he might be able to submit the initial findings under his own name, rather than as "second author" status under Sinclair. This find, Pete realized, could mean the difference between getting his first job at Podunk College for the Semi-Literate, or getting his first job at Ivy-Covered Research University. He would have to cut corners, he would have to move fast, and he would have to document his findings in some public way.

Pete ordered Luis to stay and guard the entrance from tourists, who might disturb the site. He ran - yes, sprinted in the Peten heat - to get a flashlight. Though he was flushed from the heat and the exertion, Pete didn't notice. His career was made, and next time it would be he who flew back to the States for the holidays, while his own assistant stayed behind to do the grunt work. The hotel in which they were staying was not, unfortunately, air conditioned. Some of the nicer hotels were, but they were too far from the site. Pete's shirt was dirty and heavy with sweat by the time he arrived at the hotel. He fumbled for the flashlight, smearing it with sweat and dirt on his hands.

Luis squatted with a friend outside the hole when Pete arrived. They were munching some greasy chicken from "Pollito", sucking the taste off their fingers. Pete panted and gasped. When he brushed back his matted hair, Pete's finger (which had somehow ended up in the dirt) smeared a filthy line across his forehead. Luis looked at Pete with a little disgust, but kept it to himself - it wasn't smart to disrespect the Yankee archaeologists, not if you wanted to keep this cushy job for the next research grant. "SeƱor Byrd..." he began, wiping his fingers clean. Luis pulled a video camera from his bag. The camera belonged to Prof. Sinclair, and in his excitement, Pete had
forgotten about it. He snatched it from Luis.

Pete stripped off his sweat-drenched shirt, leaving him in just his ripped shorts and worn sandals. Just as Pete started to climb down into the hole, Luis heard him mutter something about "rats." The American then climbed back out, picked up a large branch off the ground, presumably to use to club rats, then descended into the cave-like hole.

When Prof. Sinclair returned from America, the police had already found Luis and his friend, Enrique. Luis had refused to talk about what had happened to Pete Byrd at all, but Enrique, being a more practical man, had shown the police the hole, but refused to go near it, pointing from a distance. Since Tikal was a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity Site, the police had stayed out of the acropolis entrance, but insisted on sending an officer down to accompany Prof. Sinclair. Once in the hole, they found that only two rooms were connected. Another wall was completely obscured by ages of dirt, which the professor assumed led in the direction of more acropolis. The first room was simply stone, with two jaguar heads carved in relief on either wall. A low doorway led to the second room, which was simply small and cramped. On the ground was the flashlight, batteries dead, but in the "off" position, and the video camera. The dirt on the ground was disturbed, apparently from Pete walking around in the room, but there was no other sign of him, and only the one exit.

The policeman apologized to Prof. Sinclair for the inconvenience, and he promised that someone would be punished for the disappearance of Pete. Obviously, he said, Luis and Enrique were involved in some conspiracy, perhaps a ransom plot gone wrong, and they had waylaid poor Pete when he was cornered in the second room. As Pete had been missing for two weeks and no ransom notice had been given, the policeman did not offer Prof. Sinclair much hope.

That evening, Sinclair watched the video recording in the camera. It was rather short, less than four minutes long. It began from the base of the hole, spent a minute or so panning close-ups along the stone jaguar heads, then went into the next room. On the tape, Pete could be heard to laugh, as the flashlight and camera light revealed that a wild turkey had gotten into the second room and was staring up at the camera light rather indignantly.

The last brief, chaotic images did not reveal much, and were of little use to the police; Pete's finger had come off the camcorder button before anything of use was filmed. A low rumbling noise, almost like a growl, could be heard. The camera swung wildly, randomly. A quick shot of Pete's dirty knees, a few words from Pete, so garbled that they might be English, might be Spanish, maybe neither, then static.

The police never found Pete's corpse. They charged Luis and Enrique, but they knew they had no case, so after the grant expired and the professor returned to Los Estados Unidos, they quietly dropped the charges. They had found a pile of bones not very far away, but the bones were not human. They looked like the bones of wild turkeys and other birds.

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