"And for the scatterlings of Africa The journey has begun Future find their hungry eyes Beneath the copper sun."
They'd been driving for hours and Daria wasn't sure where they were. She tried to read the map, but the ancient jeep jumped and lurched as if it had never even heard of a suspension system. She looked out at the scrubland around them, the heat waves shimmering in the distance.
"Stop worrying, I know where I am."
"Care to enlighten me, Doctor?"
The man beside her, a tall African in a khaki bush outfit, looked down to give her a mischevous grin. "Call me Karl. Anyway, soon, you will see. Then maybe you will not doubt me again for a couple of miles."
"Very funny. How long till we get to the preserve?"
"Another couple of hours if luck is with us. May I ask you, why meerkats?"
"Always had a fondness for them. You know, the ridiculous way they stand at attention and stare in the same direction? So, when it came time to decide on a focus for my doctoral dissertation I decided, hey, why not meerkats?"
"Meerkats is a good topic. I did my disertation on Mongooses, in southern India. Not too dissimilar, neh?"
"No. I read your dissertation. Hope I can do as well."
"I'm sure you will. Have you ever spent time in the bush alone before?"
"No. I've tried to prepare as best I could. I've had some good advice, and I've packed according to the instructions in your email. Any last minute advice?"
"Just prepare your mind to being alone. It can be daunting at first. Keep your radio handy just in case. Ah, here we are. I told you I wasn't lost."
Daria looked up. There was a sea of tents and lean-to's stretching out on either side of the road.
"What is this place?"
"A refugee camp, probably the southernmost one. They're fleeing the latest civil war in Angola." He stopped the jeep. "Something's wrong."
"I don't know. Nobody's around."
At that moment a child came running towards them. She shouted something in a language Daria could barely recognize as Portuguese. Karl replied in kind, and he and the girl conversed.
He turned to Daria. "She says there has been an accident. The men were digging a well and it has collapsed in on them. The winch on the Jeep could help them move the stones quicker."
"By all means," she said. "Was that Portuguese?"
Karl followed the child as she guided them between the rude shelters. "It's a pidgen. Portuguese and some local tongues. A common tongue between disparate cultures."
They came upon a group of people standing around the accident scene. Some were already tugging at the rocks, trying to pull them out. Karl showed Daria how to work the winch, then went to attach the cable to one of the larger rocks.
A young boy stood watching Daria as she awaited Karl's signal. "You American?"
She nodded. "Yes. I live in Boston."
"I speak English some."
She gave a weak smile. Karl signalled her and she started the winch. Then there was a frantic waving of hands around the site and she stopped. "Hold on! We have to secure it better!"
She waved in acknowledgement.
"Teacher taught me. He's nice man. You save him?"
Daria glanced at the boy. "He's in there?"
"Yes. He help to dig. Got stuck just as they find water."
"We'll get him out."
"He's too from Boston."
"Oh?" Karl signalled again and Daria started the winch. This time the rock came free without incident. He waved her over.
She came over as the first man was being pulled out, muddy but unhurt.
"Thought you might be interested. One of them is a Peace Corps worker from your country."
"That's what that kid was telling me back at the Jeep."
There was a cry of pain from the well. They were gently pulling a man out. Daria's stomach lurched when she saw the bone, yellow and red against the black skin, sticking out of his thigh.
"They will probably need us to take him to the hospital."
Daria nodded. "The meerkats have lasted this long without me, another day won't hurt... Oh, my God..." Her jaw fell open.
Pulling himself out of the well, muddy and bleeding from a scalp wound, was Tom Sloane. He brushed off any offer of aid and went to the injured man. He gave Daria a brief and incredulous glance, then grasped the man's hand, speaking in the Portuguese pidgen as others splinted his leg. As soon as he was sure the man was taken care of, he stood up and walked over.
"Friend of yours?" asked Karl.
"Former boyfriend," she replied.
"It is you," said Tom. "I thought I had had a concussion. What are youdoing in Namibia?"
"I'm doing field work, studying meerkat behaviour for my doctoral thesis. This is Doctor Karl Matambele, a naturalist at the University of Transvaal. He's been kind enough to escort me to the nature preserve on the Botswana border. Karl, this is Tom Sloane."
"Pleased to meet you," said Tom, offering his hand.
"The pleasure is mine, young man."
"And so, my natural question is..." said Daria.
"Two huts down, on your left, but I'll warn you, it's open and unisex. Mind the scorpions."
Daria folded her arms and supressed a grin.
"Alright, I was at loose ends after college. I didn't want to go immediately into the family business, got in an argument with Dad over it, the Foreign Legion wasn't hiring, so I joined the Peace Corps."
"I thought you graduated three years ago."
"This is my second tour. I think I've gotten a taste for teaching."
"Where was your first?" asked Karl.
"Got a taste for the desert sun, eh?" said Daria.
"Well, if I pull another hitch I'm going to see if there's any openings in Siberia. My immediate concern, though is for Joao. Looks like they've secured his stretcher to the Jeep now."
"Which way to the hospital?" asked Karl.
"I'll show you. I promised him I'd stay with him on the trip and there's a better road than the one you came in on."
It was near sunset when they arrived at the infirmiry in the village of Kitumbwe. Daria had remained in the waiting area talking with Karl, as Tom escorted his friend into the examining area. A while later, wanting some fresh air, Daria went outside and stood gazing up at the myriad stars that the cities kept her from seeing, strange southern stars in unfamiliar patterns, unrecognizable save for the Southern Cross.
She heard the door open and close. She turned to look and there was Tom, cleaned up and sporting a bandage on his head.
He smiled. "Eighteen stitches. Didn't even know I'd got cut."
"Bloody obvious to the rest of us," she said with a sad smile. "Never thought I'd see you again."
He looked off in the distance. "I'm sorry for what I said last time. I really thought we could pick back up that summer."
"I said some pretty cruel things myself."
"Not really, but that remark about close cousins stung."
"A bit close to home?"
"It's been two centuries now since that happened," he said, pretending offense. "I did mean what I said about accepting rejection. Guess you finally gave up the writing career."
"I'll have you know I've had two articles published in Natural History and one in Audobon."
He gave her a look both surprised and impressed. "I always knew you could do it."
She shrugged. "Changing majors helped. Suddenly writing wasn't the center of my attention and the rejections were easier to take. Plus," she grimmaced, obviously loathe to admit it, "some of what you'd been telling me sank in."
"Some of which I'd been telling you since our first relationship back in Lawndale."
"Gloating is so ugly."
They stood there, watching the stars in the cool desert sky, as the night birds called to one another. Eventually they drew closer and finally, without words, embraced. Somewhere a lone hyena called up the moon.
This was from an Iron Chef Challenge on the PPMB, a ficlet with a non-evil Tom. Since Young Thomas is a character I like (yes, I know, I'm in the minority), this was not a big challenge for me. If anybody remembers who issued the challenge, please let me know so I can acknowledge them.
Daria and other characters from the show are of course, property of MTV and Viacom. Any original characters and settings are my own. This is a work of fanfic, and is therefore a work of love and not meant for profit. And all hail Glenn Eichler and Suzy Lewis!