“Mommy, look,” she said, pointing to the roadside ahead. “Why are all those people there?”
The mother turned down the car’s radio just as the announcer was saying, “The White House acknowledged for the first time tonight that Dr. Kissinger had secretly met in Paris with North Vietnam’s.. ”
“I’ve never seen so many people at the quarry,” said the mother. “There must be a couple hundred of them.” She glanced at her nine-year- old daughter and said, “Let’s stop and find out.”
They pulled to the side of the two-lane highway and slid out on the passenger side. The mother took her daughter’s hand and guided her across the road. They approached a small knot of people clustered around a telescope. Beyond it was a lake formed when the quarry workers hit an aquifer decades before. The telescope was trained on the shore opposite them with the barrel stretching over the chain link fencing that surrounded the quarry.
“Hi, what’s this all about?” said the mother. “Alien sighting?” “Nothing so common,” said the man looking through the telescope.
“It’s a whooping crane.” He wore a brimmed fishing cap with a red bull’s eye on top of it and splotches of white as though several birds had taken aim there.
“What’s a whooping crane?” asked the girl. “It’s a bird,” said her mother.
“Not just any bird,” said the man. “There’s only 56 whooping cranes left in the whole world right now. They face extinction. No one here has ever seen one in the flesh, just pictures.”
“Mommy, what’s extinction?” she asked.
“It’s when a species dies out,” said the man, “usually because human beings are stupid.”
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I even know what a species is.”
“Mind your manners,” said the mother, more to the man than her daughter.
“Forgive me, young lady,” said the man, looking from daughter to mother.
“But do you mean there won’t be any more cranes?” the girl asked. “Not unless we do something to help them,” said the man in a softened tone. “Tell you what; would you like to take a look?” “Yes,” she said.
The man looked at the mother, who nodded.
“Okay, let me lift you up,” said the man. “Put your eye up to this little lens. That’s right. Now close your other eye and look through your right one.”
She couldn’t see anything at first, but when she pulled her head back a fraction a white bird appeared. He was standing on the opposite side of the quarry lake with his legs in the shallow water. The glow of the setting sun behind them illuminated the sight.
“Let me zoom that in for you,” said the man as he slowly turned a knob. “Can you still see him?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, as the image zoomed in to focus on the white neck and the head with black and red markings. She saw the eye facing her before the bird turned its head to one side and then disappeared as it dropped out of sight.
“Where did he go?” she asked, pulling back from the lens now empty of crane.
“He’s eating,” said the man. “Let me adjust this so you can watch him catch blue crabs.” He turned the knob while looking into the eyepiece. “Here you go, look again.”
The bird was putting its beak into the water and grabbing at something. She saw him draw back with a blue crab clutched in its beak. The bird let it drop, then pitched his head forward. When his beak came up, he seemed to be chewing on parts of the crab. He then repeated the process.
“Wow, Mommy, he ate a crab right there.” She pulled away from the telescope to point into the distance.
“Okay,” said the mother, “we’ve imposed on this gentleman enough.”
“It was my pleasure, Ma’am,” said the man. He turned to the girl, “Little lady, if you want to know more, our bird watching club meets every other Tuesday at the Carnegie Library downtown.”
“Oh, Mommy,” said Sheila, “can I go?”
“Sheila, I got the guy in lock-up, but he ain’t talkin’,” said the sheriff as he shifted the phone to cradle it on his shoulder. “At least, we don’t understand what he’s sayin’.”
“Sheriff, I don’t have much sympathy for him,” said Sheila. “We’ve got video proof that he was attacking an endangered species.”
“I know, I know,” said the sheriff, “but that’s a federal matter. Because of his resisting arrest I’ve referred the issue to the FBI rather than the Fish and Wildlife Service, and their guy will be here this morning.”
“I’ll be there,” said Sheila.
She entered the sheriff’s office a little after 11 o’clock. A man wearing a dark jacket and pants with a light blue button-down shirt but no tie was waiting in one of the chairs. She walked over to him.
“Are you from the Milwaukee FBI office?” she said.
“I’m with the FBI, Special Agent Jim Padgett,” he said as he pulled his identification out for Sheila to see. “Actually, I’m out of the Minneapolis office since it’s much closer to here than Milwaukee,” he continued. His ancestry looked to be Native American, and he saw Sheila’s unspoken question. “I’m a member of the Sioux Nation, but I work for the FBI.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but I grew up with Efram Zimbalist, Jr., as my mental image of the FBI,” she said.
“I get that sometimes,” said Jim. “I hear you run the Sewanee Sanctuary.”
“Well, I’m one of the founders and chief scientist,” said Sheila, pausing for a beat. “Lest you get the wrong idea, I spent my morning mucking out one of the bird enclosures.”
The sheriff came into the lobby area and joined them. “I see you two have met,” he said. “Agent Padgett, I’m hoping your skills in languages will work here. We don’t understand this prisoner at all.” He led them back through the door he had entered from.
“Sheila, I’d like you to sit in the observation room,” said the sheriff. “Agent Padgett, the interview room is this way.”
Sheila entered a dark room with a large window on one wall that looked into another room where a young man in an orange jumpsuit sat handcuffed to a table. The prisoner held his head in his hands as though to shield himself from the light in the room. She noticed that he looked paler than when he was arrested a few days before, and his breath was shallow. Then she saw Jim and the sheriff enter the room and sit across the table from the prisoner. The man looked up to watch them.
“This is Special Agent Jim Padgett of the FBI,” said the sheriff. “He’s going to ask you some questions.”
Jim leaned forward and said in Lakota, “I greet you, visitor. My given name is Red Willow. What is your name?”
The prisoner stared at the agent, mute. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
“I am a member of the Sioux Nation,” said Jim in Lakota. “What is your tribe?”
The prisoner sat unmoved. His eyes looked down at his shackles, across the room to the walls, up to the ceiling, and then to Jim.
“Do you have an exercise yard or other secure area outside?” Jim asked the sheriff.
“There’s a fenced area out back for impounded vehicles,” said the sheriff. “I see where you’re headed. Let him see the sky. It should be secure enough if we keep the hand and foot cuffs on him.”
A few minutes later, they led the prisoner outside to an area surrounded by six-foot chain link fencing. Sheila watched from outside the compound. The prisoner fell to his knees when they stopped about 20 feet inside the area. He began to move rhythmically and made sounds as though chanting.
“You understand any of that?” said the sheriff to Jim.
“No, I don’t think he understood the words I was saying either, but he may have gotten some meaning frommy tone,” said Jim. “He doesn’t look well, by the way. Has a doctor seen him?”
“Doc Martindale looks after our prisoners,” said the sheriff. “He’s due here this afternoon.”
“Look, I know this is way outside protocol, but I think you should leave this prisoner out here for the time being. Being outside seems to have a beneficial effect. Maybe take him inside at dusk.”
“For an FBI agent, you sure have a soft spot for this guy,” said the sheriff. “What gives?”
“He reminds me of my aunt when she was profoundly unhappy,” said Jim. “Her daughter had moved away and she became mute and immobile. The doctor thought she was schizophrenic and put her in a hospital. When a tribal healer visited her, he recognized the syndrome. They took her home and she began to recover. I wondered if he wanted to see the sky, something familiar.”
“Okay, he’s in your custody out here,” said the sheriff and walked back into the building.
Sheila came over to the gate of the impound lot. “What was that all about? Are you leaving him out here?” she asked.
Jim explained his reasoning. “He’s like the oldest people in my tribe in how he holds himself, but with a difference.”
“What difference?” said Sheila.
“He’s terrified,” said Jim, “but I don’t know of what.”
“Well, he’s one sick boy,” said Doc Martindale. “He needs to be in the hospital right away.” He had just examined the prisoner in the impound lot. “He’s running a very high fever, 105°, and his lungs are filling with fluid.”
“What’s your diagnosis?” asked Jim.
“He’s got measles,” said Doc Martindale, “and it’s gettin’ worse very fast.”
“Measles?” said Sheila. “He’s an adult. Why would a childhood disease become so serious?”
“Well, you have to remember that measles is still a killer,” said Doc Martindale. “We get too comfortable sometimes believing that these diseases aren’t serious.”
“Centuries ago, when measles first came to the Plains,” said Jim, “the disease wiped out a large portion of the native population.” “Well, this fellow seems to have no immunity at all,” said Doc
Martindale. “I’ve never seen a case get this serious so fast. I’m gonna have a full blood panel run on him. Find out why he’s so different.”
Doc Martindale turned to the sheriff and Jim, “What are we calling this guy? John Doe?”
“I suggest we call him ‘Inila’,” said Jim. “Ee-nee-lah?” said the sheriff.
“Yes, it roughly translates from Lakota as ‘the quiet one’,” said Jim.
Two days later, Sheila walked out of her office in the Quonset hut to where Eric was working with Anna to unload sacks of feed from Sheila’s van. The mid-afternoon sun shone through the western windows. “I just got off the phone with some guy from Homeland Security. A deputy under-assistant something or other,” she said. “They want me to make a technical report in DC on what happened here last Wednesday.”
“Maybe we can get some funding from these guys,” said Eric. “Whatever happened the other night can’t be explained by any science I know of.”
“The last thing we need is a bunch of federal paranormal investigators stomping around here,” Sheila said. “Anyway, we got a nice contribution from the Andersons. That should hold us for a while.”
“When Harriet was looking at her video, I thought she was going to pee her pants when that guy popped out on her recording,” Anna giggled. “Too bad the cops took her phone away.” She bent to pick up another sack of seed.
“If that thing had been posted online, there’s no telling how many kooks would be camped outside our gates,” said Sheila. “For once, having no Wi-Fi out here is a blessing. Come on, Anna, since we still have a few birds left, let’s do the afternoon ground circle. We can put the plane back in the hangar when we finish.” Anna followed her out the door.
As they reached the compound, Sheila opened the gate and gazed across the four-acre enclosure. Without looking at Anna, she asked quietly, “Did you check the readings this morning?”
“Yup,” Anna said. “The transponder placed him near your alma mater.” “Knox? In Galesburg?” said Sheila.
“Yeah. It’s not the route we expected him to take. Too far to the west,” said Anna.
“I wonder if his customary route is the Aransas flyway to Texas,” said Sheila. “Why that way? Usually Aransas whoopers start from the northern Great Plains. We’re 400 miles east of that flyway. What aren’t we seeing here?”
After standing motionless for a moment, she turned and said, “Not a word to anyone about this. Not Eric, not the Board, not your Dad or your Facebook friends. Got it?”
“Yes, Sheila,” said Anna, rolling her eyes. Sheila did not see the gesture. “Okay, let’s get these birds moving,” Sheila said, and headed to the ultralight.
“Evel, it’s Carl Fredrickson. I’m glad I caught you before you left the office.”
“Oh, Carl,” said Evel. “This is an unexpected pleasure.” The hidden meaning was not lost on Carl.
“Look, buddy,” said Carl, “we have something of a mystery that requires someone with your combination of skills. I know we didn’t part on the best of terms, but I’m hoping we can be above that.”
“Carl, I’d characterize our parting in stronger terms,” said Evel, “since I’m now out here at LANL and not part of Threat Analytics, Inc., any more.”
“Let’s not replay an old administrative issue. I do need your help,” said Carl. “It needs your unique talents. Hear me out.”
“Okay, what’s this all about?” said Evel, wondering what the mystery was.
“Well, we had a curious event in Wisconsin last week,” said Carl, “I’m emailing you the details over our secure channel. Take a look and call me back to let me know if you’re interested.”
“All right,” said Evel. “Will you be available this evening?” “Sure thing,” said Carl. “Bye now.”
Carl hung up the phone and looked at the man sitting across the desk from him. The man said, “Will he buy what you’re selling?”
“He’ll buy,” said Carl. “He’s not my first choice, far from it. He gave me pains at TA because he has no real respect for authority. He’s too much like his namesake.”
“But he’s the only biochemist we know with direct experience sequencing ancient DNA, who also has a Top Secret security clearance,” said the man.
“That’s just part of working at LANL,” said Carl. “I don’t know if we can fully trust him.”
“What about the bird lady?” said the man.
“She’s mostly a witness,” said Carl. “‘Crazy bird lady’, I’d say. Once we debrief her, we can cut her loose. Let her go back to the wilds of Wisconsin and her loons.”
“Folks, let’s everybody take a seat. My name is Carl Fredrickson and I’m the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Homeland Office of Internal Security,” Carl said as he stood at the podium. People who had been gathered in small knots of conversation moved to take seats around the four tables pushed together to form a large conference table. “I want to thank everyone for coming in, especially those from out of town who dropped everything to be here.”
Jet-lagged from her late night flight from Minneapolis to Chicago and finally to Reagan National, Sheila squeezed into a seat near the back of the room, behind a tent card with her name and affiliation on it. She had only dozed a bit during the flight and not much more in her short stay at the hotel. Still, she was alert enough to note that there was little space in the room for the people. The oversized table, chairs, podium, and screen seemed to make human occupants an afterthought. As she scanned the other cards, she did not recognize manyof the agency names. She spotted Jim Padgett across the room and they nodded to each other. At least there’s one person I’ve met here, she thought. Once everyone had taken a seat, Carl resumed.
“Thank you all again for coming today. Our purpose is to review the events of the past few days and provide a set of recommendations to the Secretary for further action. Our work product will be a decision document with recommended options laid out for her consideration. Let me add one formal note: According to the US Intelligence Authorization Act of 2001,” he picked up a paper and began to read, “‘All information provided, as well as our discussion, is considered secret and may not be revealed, relayed, transmitted, or inferred outside this room.’” The same text appeared on the screen at the front of the room. “Any questions?”
“I’m an ornithologist,” Sheila spoke up, “and have no interest in ‘official’ secrets. I merely tend to migrating whooping cranes.”
“We understand that this is unfamiliar to you, Dr. Pennington. Please bear with us,” Carl said. After hearing no more questions, he continued, “Well, Dr. Pennington, please introduce yourself and help us understand the bird in question.”
“All right,” Sheila said and took a deep breath. “I am chief scientist at the Sewanee Whooping Crane Sanctuary in Minnetoka, Wisconsin,” she began. She told of Nelson’s appearance, treatment, and recovery,
briefly describing his physical wounds, her treatment, and his subsequent healing. She relayed his introduction into the compound and his encounters with the other birds.
“We noted that even though he was impaired by his wing and leg injuries, he quickly established himself as the flock leader. He seemed to take actions to acculturate the rest of the flock with his practices.”
“Pardon me, Doctor,” said a man across the table. Sheila noticed that he was from the Interagency Working Group for Threat Reduction and wondered how anyone made a living doing that. “What do you mean by ‘acculturate’? Do birds have cultural beliefs?” he asked. There were chuckles around the table.
Sheila felt herself reddening. “Yes, birds have a culture, but not in the way we normally understand, much less appreciate. It was that lack of understanding that almost drove them to extinction 70 years ago when less than a score of the birds existed,” she said. “They don’t act just on instinct, but have to learn many skills and practices as they mature.
Migration is one practice that requires guided experience for these flocks to do it successfully and efficiently. Our observations suggest that Nelson arrived with a high level of knowledge and skill in matters important to whooping cranes.” She had unconsciously slipped into the habit of using his given name.
“Dr. Pennington,” said Carl, “perhaps you can tell us about the grains recovered from the bird.”
“When Nelson was first treated for a broken leg and wound in his left wing, he went into shock and regurgitated the contents of his stomach. Several whole, undigested kernels of corn were among the other content. The fact that they were undigested suggested that they had been ingested quite recently.”
“How short a time?” asked a young man who was sitting down the table on Sheila’s right. He looked to be in his thirties and in need of a haircut. She had not noticed him before, but he seemed quite interested in her answer. His tent card identified him as Evel Knebbel from something called LANL.
“Given the fact that the kernels were completely intact, it could have only been minutes,” she said.
“You’re sure of that fact?” he asked.
“Yes, we froze the sample in liquid nitrogen and shipped it off for analysis,” Sheila said.
“Was that standard procedure?” Evel said.
“Almost; we usually don’t freeze and analyze stomach regurgitation, but in this case we made an exception,” said Sheila.
“Why was that?” asked Carl, preempting Evel from continuing the questioning.
“We noted the freshness of the kernels, but there are no cornfields that would have that variety in our part of Wisconsin,” she said. “Our farmers stick to corn they can use to feed dairy cattle. These reminded me of older varieties grown by Native American tribes.”
“Could it have been someone’s heirloom corn or seed corn?” asked Evel, resuming his queries. He seemed even more fascinated.
“These were fresh, meaning they were hydrated, tender, and had a ragged base as though they had been torn from the ear. Seed corn is dried for transportation purposes as well as preventing spontaneous combustion during storage. Finally, all seed corn is mechanically cut from the ear and shows a flat base. I’ve lived in the area for fifteen years; if someone had heirloom corn in their garden, I’d know about it,” Sheila said. “So, you have expertise in corn,” Carl said, returning the questioning to the front of the room.
“Mr. Fredrickson, I grew up in northern Illinois, west of Chicago in a small farming community. My family’s house was in a subdivision literally surrounded by cornfields. I know about corn,” Sheila said. A few smiles appeared around the room, but no sound.
“Okay, let’s move on, Dr. Pennington. What else can you report?” asked Carl.
“The kernels were from a variety not seen today. Subsequent analysis at the Smithsonian suggested that they have the same DNA signature as maize found in ancient Native American burial mounds,” she said. “There are no known live specimens of that grain.”
Several people began to murmur as Sheila added, “Live, vibrant examples of that grain have not existed for over 2,000 years.” The murmur became louder. “The Smithsonian experts estimated that the grains were less than half an hour from being plucked by Nelson.” The room erupted.
“Quiet,” said Carl over the din. “Quiet,” he repeated as the room fell silent. “Anything more, Dr. Pennington?”
“Not from me,” Sheila said, sitting back in her chair. She had not realized how tense she had been.
“Questions from the room?” said Carl.
“Just one more,” said Evel. “Do you know where the bird is now?” “Um, no,” said Sheila. “We don’t put transponders on them until just before we migrate them. That’s still a couple of weeks away.”
“Thank you,” said Carl. “Let’s turn our attention to the man in question.” He nodded to an assistant in the back of the room. The lights dimmed and a video began to play on the screen at the front of the room. “This is a smartphone video taken at the time of the event. Sorry for the color balance, our projector needs some tuning. As you can see, the man in question suddenly appears in a single frame. He appears already in motion, running, and then throws his spear.” The group watched as the assistant repeated the sequence in slow motion and then frame by frame.
“Special Agent Padgett, please give your report,” said Carl. “I’m Jim Padgett, Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Jim began. “I was assigned to investigate this case initially because the person in question was accused of both resisting arrest and violating the federal laws protecting endangered species.” “Special Agent Padgett, please describe the man,” said Carl.
“Male, late teens or early twenties, 5 foot 6 inches, about 110 pounds.
Seems to be Native American, but no record of him anywhere. While originally entered as a John Doe, I suggested that they refer to him as ‘Inila’. It’s a Lakota term meaning a quiet person.”
“Do you mean he’s a member of the Lakota Sioux?” asked the Threat Reduction man.
“No, it was just a descriptive term for me,” said Jim. He continued. “He had no dental work, but some parallel scarring along his rib cage as though done intentionally,” he said, as he scanned a paper before him.
“While initially healthy when taken into custody, he now is not expected to live out the week.” More murmurs.
“That’s news to me,” said Carl. “I thought he only had measles.” “Measles is still a serious disease. He is now isolated in the hospital,”
Jim reported. “When originally apprehended by county deputies who were directing traffic at the event, he did not respond effectively to any spoken words or physical gestures.
“As it turns out, he is highly vulnerable to measles,” Jim continued. “One of the deputies belongs to a religious group that refuses vaccinations and one of his children had the disease. He must have been a carrier.
“Before he became ill, I interviewed the suspect when he was in custody by the county sheriff. Because I am from the Sioux nation, my superiors hoped that I would be able to relate and communicate with the suspect because of his appearance. He had not responded to any interactions in English. I tried several times to communicate with him in Lakota, one of the languages spoken by the Sioux. He did not respond. He was withdrawn and uncommunicative, yet upset by his surroundings.”
“How do you mean, upset?” asked a woman from across the room. She was from something called DTRA. Sheila was lost in the acronyms.
“He was anxious and kept looking at the walls and ceiling. On a hunch, I was able to convince the sheriff to take him into an open area,” Jim said. “We took him into an impound lot where he could see the sky and he became less distressed. It was there that a physician summoned by the sheriff examined him and recommended that we hospitalize him.”
“Did you try to communicate with him further?” asked Evel.
“Yes, later when he was in the hospital, I used a translation app to try several different languages.”
“Which languages?” asked the woman from DTRA.
“Aside from English and Lakota, we tried Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dakota.”
“How do you know they didn’t work?” asked the woman.
“He did not react to any of those languages, but he did respond to a recording of one,” said Jim.
“Which one?” asked the woman. “We don’t know,” said Jim.
Murmurs started across the room.
“Excuse me, you were able to speak to him in a language that prompted a response, but you don’t know which one?” said the woman, rising slightly out of her chair.
“Please let me explain,” said Jim. “At that point, we figured that we might be introducing errors in pronunciation and syntax. Therefore, we arranged to play several languages from online recordings. We must have tried dozens. When I played a recording from southern India of a bronze age hymn, he struggled to sit up, but then lapsed into unconsciousness. The language is unknown and predates any language we can understand today.”
Several people began to raise questions, prompting Carl to call for quiet. He then said, “I think we need to understand the context of the recording and the language it contained.”
Jim gulped and continued. “While scholars believe that the oral tradition has transmitted the hymn faithfully for many generations, the meaning of the language is lost. The people reciting the hymn learn only the sounds.”
“So, he was from southern India?” asked the DTRA woman. “Linguistically, he responded to a hymn from long ago, but other indications suggest a different heritage,” broke in Evel. “His clothing and artifacts were of North American origin.”
“Let’s turn to those items,” said Carl. “Special Agent Padgett, thank you for your report. Dr. Knebbel, please take it from here.”
“I’m Evel Knebbel. I’m a genetic anthropologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” he said. Ah, Sheila thought. LANL.
“Just so everyone is clear,” interrupted Carl, “Dr. Knebbel is the point person on this investigation and has been seconded to DHS for the time being. Dr. Knebbel, please continue. Can you describe the clothing and artifacts he had?”
“When he appeared, he was dressed in tanned animal skins, carried some articles in a pouch, and had an atlatl,” said Evel.
“Atlatl?” asked the man from the Threat Reduction Group.
“It’s a device that allows a person to throw a spear with greater force and for a greater distance than just doing it with your arm. It does so by extending the arc throughout the throw,” said Evel. “All the articles were of recent origin. The atlatl was made from Dutch Elm wood. The wood was still green and the atlatl was probably only a couple of weeks old.”
“I thought Dutch Elms were decimated in Wisconsin in the 1960s,” said the woman from DTRA.
“They were. We cannot explain the origin of this wood,” Evel said. “There are no such trees in the vicinity of the Sanctuary.”
“What can you tell us about the man?” asked Carl.
“His genetic markers only deepen the mystery,” said Evel. “He seems to have no antibodies for the measles virus. In fact, when we sequenced his DNA, there were no markers that signified any family history with measles.”
“What else?” asked Carl.
“His progenitors came from eastern Asia over the Bering Land Bridge, probably about 20,000 BCE. There are no European genetic markers.”
“What’s his current medical status?” asked the lady from DTRA.
“High fever, cough, rash initially, and now with complications including pneumonia and encephalitis. So far, efforts to control the fever and complications have not been successful,” said Evel. “He’s still unconscious as of the last report. There has been no positive response to our therapeutics. That’s it.”
“Thank you Dr. Knebbel. Questions?” Carl said. He paused momentarily. “Hearing none, let’s move on to the decision document. Special Agent Padgett, Dr. Pennington, thank you for your participation. You are excused.”
“Jim, wait up!” called Sheila as she emerged on the sidewalk outside the federal office building. Jim turned to face her.
“That was surreal,” said Sheila as she caught up with him.
Jim smiled and said, “One of the advantages of being out in the field is I don’t have to have too many meetings like that one.” “What are you going to do now?” asked Sheila.
“I’m heading back this afternoon. I want to see Inila again.”
“I wasn’t very happy with him when he first appeared, but now I feel regret for those thoughts. He seems so alone.” Sheila looked down.
“I can understand your mixed feelings. Inila is very different than any person I’ve met. He seems ancient, like a man out of his time. I’d like to stay with him for a time just so he has someone there, even if it’s just a stranger.”
“Then in my book, you’re one of the good guys,” said Sheila.
After the meeting ended, Carl put his hand on Evel’s arm. “Hang back a minute, we need to talk.” They waited for the rest of the group to leave. Carl closed the door to the now empty conference room. He sat down and invited Evel to do the same.
“Evel, you and I haven’t seen eye-to-eye very often,” Carl said. “But we need to look at the larger picture here.”
“What larger picture? And what can I do?”
“There’s something goin’ on here that we don’t understand. Animals and people popping out from the past seems like science fiction. There’s people all the way up the line asking about it. You heard this group ask for more information.” Carl paused. “I don’t think Dr. Pennington told us everything. I want you to follow up with that lady and find out what else she has to offer. Use that famous charm with her.”
He stood up; Evel followed suit. “I recognize that this is an unusual situation, but we have some all-purpose protocols to follow,” said Carl. “The paperwork to make it official will take a few days, but as of this moment, you are the Incident Commander. Your assignment is to ferret out what’s going on and keep me informed.”
“What resources do I have?” Evel asked.
“At the moment, since this is an unofficial inquiry,” said Carl, “you have your wits and an expense account. Save your receipts.”
“Dr. Pennington,” said Evel when Sheila answered the phone in her room. “May I buy you a drink?”
“Dr. Knebbel, I’m what my mother would call a confirmed spinster. Thank you, but no.”
“Whoa. I’m not gonna hit on you. I want to talk about what happened in the meeting after you left. We need your help.”
“I thought Carl was the guy in charge. You get promoted?”
“Nah, nothing so exalted; but now I’m the guy on the spot, and I could use your help.”
“Okay, but only because you’re a man asking for help, and they’re as rare as whooping cranes.”
“Great, meet me in the lobby of your hotel.” “When?”
“I’m standing down here now,” said Evel.
Sheila stepped off the elevator and found Evel right at the door, standing next to a tastefully potted tree of some sort. He still had on the dark suit he wore at the meeting, but had taken off his tie. His straw- colored hair fell over his ears and reminded her of the boys she knew back when such long hair was the fashion. She looked at him and wondered why he was so interested in what she had to say. After a moment, she said, “Where are we headed?”
“Right here in the hotel bar,” Evel said. “The prices are outrageous because they cater to lobbyists trying to get Congressional staffers drunk, but the booths are quiet.”
“So, no senators and congressmen here?” said Sheila. She looked at the glowing wall panels that gave off a high-tech blue glow. The booth seats were a soft, dark leather. “Looks plenty fancy to me.”
“Oh no,” said Evel. “The real power brokers gather on Pennsylvania Avenue, at prices that make this place look like a school cafeteria.”
As they settled into the booth a waiter appeared. “Scotch, rocks. Black Label if you got it,” said Sheila.
“What, no single malt?” said Evel. “It’s my dime.”
“I know what I like,” she smiled. “Johnnie and I have been friends since college. Black Label is the splurge for me.”
“Same for me, then,” Evel said. The waiter headed off to the bar as Evel turned to Sheila. “How did you get linked up with the whooping cranes?”
“Don’t you guys already know? I should be on somebody’s radar screen.”
“You give DHS too much credit and the search engines not enough.”
“You searched for me?” Sheila was a little flattered, but then embarrassed by the prideful feeling.
“Sure. You had a cookin’ academic career. Knox, then Cornell, then a postdoc at UT Austin, finally UW Madison. But then it all stopped. Next thing I see is you at the Sanctuary.”
“Let’s just say I was laboring under an academic misapprehension.”
“Yeah, that scientists value science. That we look beyond the next funding cycle to discover the underlying truths of our universe.”
“Ah, I thought you were familiar. I remember those words from a speech I saw online about fifteen years ago. That was you? That was one of the first videos to go viral.” He stopped and looked at her hair.
She saw it. “Yes, my hair was much longer and no gray then. It was a wild tangle because I was concentrating on other things.”
“It was lovely,” he said, and felt like the twenty-year-old he was when he first saw the video. Her tresses had cascaded down, framing her face with a set of black curls. The effect had been to highlight her dark, piercing eyes.The eyes were still there, and she seemed to see his discomfort.
“Well, don’t read too much into that speech. I was young and full of myself. I mentally cringe if I run across it.”
“But what about the cranes?” he returned to his original inquiry. “That has been a fascination since I was a little girl. Some say I’m obsessed.”
“I don’t buy that. You’re driven and you speak your mind. That’s rare and we need it now. You just don’t know how much yet. What did you think of the meeting today?”
“They didn’t seem interested in the science beyond showing off a few facts.”
“It’s an old Washington game. One of the reasons I try to avoid DC. In fact, I took sort of a demotion to work at LANL — long sad story.” Sheila thought he looked wistful for a moment. “It’s all one-upmanship. Knowledge and information just cloud their judgment. They prefer to make decisions based on ‘gut’,” he continued, making a fist and gently banging it on the table. “They give ‘bird brains’ a bad name.”
When she didn’t chuckle, he said, “Sorry, lame joke.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the birds are smarter than we are,” said Sheila. “They’ve survived, at least in general, for tens of millions of years. What’s our score, two million maybe?”
“Lower than that, probably 100,000 years for modern humans,” said Evel. “Inila seems to go back to soon after the Bering migration, about 15,000 years ago. By the way, do you know the backstory on how he got the name?”
“That FBI agent started calling him that,” Sheila said, “because he was so quiet and reminded him of his Lakota aunt. It means ‘the quiet one’ in Lakota. What about your name?” Sheila continued. “Evel? K-nebbel?” she said, sounding the “k”.
“God protect us from our parents’ mistakes,” said Evel. “My dad worshipped Evel Knievel. He ran a biker bar, but I wasn’t interested. It got me to hate motorcycles as a teenager. Worst years of my life. I took after my mom and headed into the scientific realms.”
He chuckled. “My dad said I was conceived on a motorcycle the same year Evel Knievel wanted to jump the Grand Canyon. Every time he mentioned it, my mom slugged him on the arm. He mentioned it a lot.”
Sheila smiled. “Yes, we do carry the burdens of our parents,” she said. “But what about Inila? Is he a throwback?”
“Not exactly,” said Evel. He sat back and looked at her silently for a moment, as if trying to make a decision. Then he raised his eyebrows, smoothing out the worry lines, and continued, “He’s some kinda throw-forward. I estimate from his DNA that he was born about 15,000 years ago.”