Field Notes Part 3, Week 5: Zhoukoudian

Week 5, DAY ONE

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Update on Andrea

The recovery mission, though long, was ultimately successful. Andrea spent approximately 48 hours in the collapsed cave before I was able to complete the rescue. She’s resting now and recovering from hypothermia. Following her return to the Dome, she drank warm electrolyte solution and worked on reheating her core with electric blankets. I also treated some superficial frostbite on her fingers, toes, and cheeks. Her left ankle is severely swollen and almost certainly broken, but I’m hesitant to attempt setting the bone without taking an x-ray or applying local anesthetic.

Will you send medication for a hematoma block and a portable x-ray machine in the next drop? Other supplies might be necessary as well; I will send daily updates all this week.

Let me make an addendum to that request: Andrea’s health would benefit immensely from someone with more medical training. If the original protocol is being followed, other scientists have been trained for using a Tipler Dome and are on standby for emergency missions. I can’t imagine a much more serious issue. Assistance from just one extra person might mean the difference between her walking normally or with a limp for the rest of her life. If this is at all a possibility, I strongly recommend attempting it.

My apologies for any disjointedness with this report. Between awaiting the arrival of the secondary Dome, rigging a system of lines above the shaft where Andrea fell in, removing all the debris around her, then descending to pull her out, there’s been little time for rest of my own. I will be taking time for my own recovery as soon as this report is sent off.

My own health is good, apart from exhaustion. No injuries sustained on the descent into the cave, no muscle strain in operating the winch or retrieving Andrea.

Weather has been cold and getting colder. No sign of hominin life. I can’t say when we’ll return to our field work, as it will depend largely on how soon Andrea is able to walk again.

Once again, I must emphasize how serious this situation is and how closely Andrea came to dying. If her ankle is to heal well, I would feel much more comfortable with a better-trained professional overseeing the process.


Week 5, DAY FOUR

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Irony is dumb

Dear Noelle,

Thank you for the science-inspired paper doll kit. No, I don’t think it’s a silly present—you’re limited to sending things back that fit inside a #10 envelope! And trust me, I need all the entertainment I can get. In the past three days I’ve reread all my favorite books, played about a dozen different card games with Evie, and sketched up a storm. Unfortunately the painkillers seem to affect my drawing ability almost as much as they do my concentration. I’d work on writing some reports, but I still can’t keep things straight from one sentence to the next.

Evie is peeved at Mission Control because they refuse to send someone else back to help with my ankle. Apparently none of the scientists on retainer have been following the iron-elimination diet to be prepared for a safe jump back in the Mystery Box, so we’re on our own. We’ve got an x-ray machine—yuuup, my ankle is totally busted—and some kind of fancy painkiller, so Evie is gonna try to fix me up tomorrow. Should be fun.

You know what’s the worst part? Besides now having regular nightmares about being buried alive in a cave? I was actually surrounded by bone fragments. Bones that looked HUMAN! Seeing as I spent a solid two days down there, I got a good look around. I think it was probably a hyena cave, where the scavenger brought all its meals—including some of the local hominins. But if I’d have tried to move the rocks to get at more of the bones, I could’ve further squashed myself, and Evie is way too worried about another accident to go back down there. Motherfucking irony, right?

Gotta say, that was the first time I’ve ever found skeletons particularly creepy. I know our culture wants us to think of them as macabre, but how can the body’s foundation be gross or terrifying? There’s nothing scary about a pile of bones. At least that’s what I thought until I was trapped in a cave surrounded by them.

I did manage to get one small bone and stick it in my pocket. Evie thinks it’s probably part of a finger. Maybe Mission Control will be able to extract some genetic material from it. If it turns out to be our only direct evidence of hominins in Zhoukoudian, maybe, maybe I’ll feel less grouchy about nearly being crushed to death in a cave collapse. But Evie found some old footprints just the other day, so chances are good that we’ll see more signs of hominin life in the near future. In any other situation I’d be excited about this. But it’s really hard to muster up enthusiasm when your ankle is the size of a bullfrog’s neck and your field leader isn’t sure when you’ll be able to walk normally again.

In other words, keep the paper dolls coming!

All my love,