Paradeisia origin of par.., p.5
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       Paradeisia: Origin of Paradise, p.5

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  Having not seen the titanium submersibles in over a month, Zhou Ming-Zhen, PhD, cringed at the sight of them now, lined up on a platform in the drilling station. They were shaped like giant phalluses. They were identical: eleven feet tall, twenty-five inches wide, tubular, and topped with an acrylic glass bubble. Hidden inside the edge on the bottom of each was a propulsion fan.

  Members of the international press had congregated around them; some were snickering to each other.

  Back in the East China Sea, Doctor Ming-Zhen had spent hours under water in order to master his claustrophobia and learn how to maneuver them. Conditions inside were atrociously confined: it was like being in a metal coffin. To say he was relieved when training was over was to put it mildly.

  At the insistence of his camera crew, he jumped up to pose in front of the subs with the only person who would descend after him: Doctor Ivan Toskovic.

  They made an odd pair, Doctor Toskovic winking with triumph at the journalists and Doctor Ming-Zhen staring straight-faced and anonymously into their lenses. The two wore tight wetsuits, Doctor Toskovic's accentuating his muscular physique; Doctor Ming-Zhen's emphasizing his skeletal smallness.

  After the photo op, the first vessel was prepared for descent. Two hooks at the end of a steel cable with a Y-split were attached to a small u-bar protruding out on each side. The cable slowly tightened and lifted it up onto a platform above the steel-rimmed borehole. As it came down to rest with a clang that echoed up the ninety-foot tower, the press shuffled, murmuring in expectation.

  Doctor Toskovic shook Doctor Ming-Zhen's hand, saying, “Are you ready, my friend?”

  He nodded a reply. “And you?”

  Doctor Toskovic smiled with a shrug, “I like dark abyss, I like certain death.” He motioned to the sub, “I like to drive giant penis. So, of course, I love this mission!” He clasped a small compass hanging by a chain from his neck and kissed it, “Besides, I have my lucky compass, we will be A-OK.”

  Doctor Ming-Zhen knew that he carried the compass with him at all times. It was a matter of pride for the Russian after he had been lost in the Siberian wilderness while working a remote drill site. Placing a hand on Doctor Ming-Zhen's shoulder, the Russian said, “I see you on other side of ice, eh?”

  Practically blinded by a thousand camera flashes, Doctor Ming-Zhen walked up the steps to the platform and entered the doorway on the side of the upright submarine. Inside, he climbed two notches in the white, round wall up to a spot with stirrups for his feet. Then he buckled a vest around his chest and placed his forehead against a brace. When he pushed a button, the vest, the brace, and the stirrups all tightened so he was firmly buttressed within the machine.

  He pushed another button and the door swung in and clinched shut with a suction sound. There was a hiss which he knew to be the chamber pressurizing.

  He was now totally sealed in. He started to feel a wave of panic, claustrophobia, but he took a deep breath, closed his eyes. It subsided.

  Opening his eyes, he said, “Ready for descent.”

  “Enjoy your trip,” Doctor Toskovic's voice said over speakers in the cabin.

  “I will,” he lied.

  He heard operators talking over the speakers: “Ready for descent. Releasing submersible, opening hatch.” Doctor Ming-Zhen knew that much of this was actually automated; the operators were mostly there for dramatic effect—for the journalists.

  He slipped a picture of his wife and daughter out of his sleeve. Fastening it to a rim below the glass, he said a quick prayer mantra.

  His stomach lurched as the machine took a sudden two-foot drop. He heard some women from the press shriek in alarm, but he knew there was no reason to worry, at least not yet: the platform had simply given way and the submersible was swinging mildly from the steel cable like a giant pendulum. He folded his hands over his chest and took another deep breath. There was a loud metallic twang from up the tower and he felt the machine beginning its descent.

  Doctor Zhou Ming-Zhen was now forty-two years into his paleontology career. His last educational acquisition had been his second PhD, this one in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Stanford, awarded over twenty years ago. He was now the head of the Chinese National Academy of Sciences Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

  His childhood, burdened by heavy expectations, had done little to contribute to his success in the field. His late father had been a Communist Party official in a smaller town, relatively poor compared to the officials in Beijing. His mother, still living and now placed in a monolithic assisted living facility housing thousands of the elderly, had been a homemaker. The two of them had presented a dichotomy of nurturing values: on the one hand he was coddled and spoiled, but on the other he was chastised and scolded with the constant weight of the family's success on his shoulders.

  When his father, through the Party, secured the scholarship for him to attend university, he was dispatched with the anticipation of greatness. None in his family had attended higher education. But when he secretly chose Paleontology as his course of study, his parents were devastated, angry. How could he improve the family fortunes by scratching the ground for old bones? He was a fool, his mother said. He shamed his family, said his father.

  And now, forty-two years later, he agreed with them. He was known the world over not merely as a paleontologist, but, as the greatest fraud in the history of paleontology.

  This came about through a chance discovery in the Gobi—during a routine fossil dig two years ago. What he and his team of students found there in the desert was something so astonishing that all his years of study and practice could never have prepared him for the firestorm that it unleashed.

  As he descended down towards the deep interior of the ice, he desperately wished he would never have stepped foot on the Gobi, that he had listened to his parents and become an engineer. But here he was, dropping into the dark unknown, not knowing whether he would return at all.

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