Falling Forward

Chapter 1

-28:17:18:37

Sheila Pennington watched as dawn sunlight struck the far edge of the clearing about 400 feet away. She was drinking the last of her morning coffee as she sat in a wildlife blind on the edge of the Sanctuary’s compound. She often greeted the dawn from the blind, from where she could watch the area and still be apart from it. Her two-seater ultralight aircraft perched in the center of the open field, faintly glowing in the early morning light. From where Sheila sat, she could see across the entire four-acre compound to the chain-link fencing on the opposite side. Several whooping cranes clustered not far from the blind. Beyond the fencing that surrounded the entire compound, gentle tree-covered hills rolled into the distance. This was the center of her world, a touchstone she sought each day to ground herself in her mission. To say it gave her happiness did not apply as most people considered the term. They often confused it with joy, but she was not a joyous person. She was happy in that her life had a purpose beyond itself.

It was only a matter of weeks before she would guide a new flock to Florida. She ran a hand through her short black hair flecked with gray and listened to the morning sounds. Her long limbs folded into the blind were beginning to feel a bit stiff; she needed to get moving. Off in the northwest Wisconsin distance a cow was lowing. She’s probably complaining that no one has milked her yet, Sheila thought. Well, I’ve got things to do, too. She ducked outside the blind and walked to the center of the compound.

Physically taller than most women, Sheila had a face that was more striking than attractive. She moved with the easy grace of an athlete even though she had never pursued such endeavors with any zeal. She exuded an air of internal purpose. In everyday relationships with others, her sense of purpose produced a directness that was often misinterpreted as brusqueness — even rudeness.

“Anna, let’s get these birds out to the middle of the compound,” Sheila called to her intern. “They’re not gonna trust this plane until we get ’em used to it.”

“I’m workin’ on it, Boss Lady,” Anna said, as she flapped her arms and made a honking call. She was dressed in a costume featuring wings sprouting along her arms. Anna Francis was in her early twenties and was using the summer internship to build experience in the hope of landing a job as a zoologist. Just over 5 feet tall herself, Anna barely had to bend her knees to match the height of the tall birds.

Anna’s appearance and manner misled many people who encountered her. She dressed and groomed like a teenage mall rat with blonde curls and elaborate eye makeup, which often masked a fine intelligence. In a society that prized and rewarded physical beauty, her looks worked against others’ taking her seriously.

“Hopeless,” Sheila muttered. Once again she wondered if an unpaid intern was worth it. Deciding to help, Sheila raised her head and made a sound somewhere between a squawk and a bugle, repeating it several times as she climbed into the ultralight. Only then did the birds begin to move away from the perimeter toward the small aircraft in the middle of the field. With the birds flocking behind, she continued to make the call and started the engine. At first the birds began to back away, but Sheila’s calls drew them back. She eased the aircraft into forward motion, taxiing slowly on the ground in a wide circle. The birds followed her as she orbited the edge of the compound. After a few minutes, she returned to the center and shut down the engine.

“Okay, that’s enough ground training for this morning. Let’s get them fed,” she said, gesturing toward the sacks of feed beside a Quonset hut at the south end of the compound. Anna shrugged out of her costume with relief; it heated up quickly in the late summer sunshine.

Sheila saw Eric striding up the path toward her as Anna moved off toward the sacks. He moved fluidly on his long legs. People often observed that he looked like the actor James Garner, except for his light brown hair, which he kept in a crew cut. While unaware that his executive abilities were still on a gentle slope upward, he was a superb salesman. Eric could sell smoke. In mission-driven fundraising, he effortlessly found the values animating potential donors and used them to open their checkbooks. Eric Winger was the Sanctuary’s chief fundraiser and had helped move it from near bankruptcy to something very close to solvency. Sheila was thankful for that, but she was not always comfortable with the methods he used to find the money. He was also too interested in young Anna for her comfort. Eric’s eyes followed Anna as she walked, lingering on her formfitting jeans. When he reached the fence surrounding the compound, Sheila said, “You know she’s not interested in you, even with that jawline of yours.”

“Sheila, we need to get ready,” Eric said, ignoring the dig. “They’ll be here in an hour, so we need to coordinate our messages.” Sheila groaned inwardly. “Did you see my talking points?” Eric continued.

“I don’t need talking points,” she said. “I know how to talk already.”

“You also know we need to have message consistency,” he said, pulling out a set of pages from a portfolio. “If we don’t do half the work of the reporters, they won’t write the story we want them to tell.”

“I’m not a political candidate,” Sheila said. “I don’t need handling. Take those away,” she said, looking at the pages in his hand.

“Look, I was brought in by the Board to help get this operation on solid funding. The Sewanee Sanctuary hangs by a budgetary thread. You know we need benefactors’ support to finish out this season,” he said. “Just remember to tell them that while this species has been brought back from the brink of extinction, much remains to be done before the bird population is large enough to be self-sustaining.”

“I know that,” she snapped.

“Granted, but you have to say it in 20 words, not 200. We might get a 3-second sound bite from these guys, not a scientific paper,” he said.

“But I’m a scientist, not a parrot,” she said.

“All right, just humor me. Make it simple, keep it short,” he said, softening the message with a smile.

“Okay,” she agreed, reluctantly taking the pages from him. She pulled out a pair of reading glasses, scanned the pages, and looked up. “How can we say we’re pivotal to the effort to redeem the whoopers?” she said. “So many others are involved. The folks in Louisiana and Florida, for example.”

“We’re the only group trying to teach these birds to be birds — how to migrate,” he said. “The ultralight is the leader and you’re teaching these birds to follow the leader. You know without migration these are just museum specimens. As you’ve said many times, they need to be wild.”

Loud squawking erupted from the far side of the compound. Most of the dozen or so birds were milling around a spot over a small rise, hidden from view, and raising their voices in excitement.

“Anna, what did you do?” Sheila muttered, before noticing that her intern was still next to the Quonset hut, 100 feet from the commotion. She began walking toward the sound. Topping the rise, she spied an adult whooping crane writhing on the ground and quickened her pace. The distinctive call of the bird indicated that it was male.

Nearing the site, Sheila slowed and began to utter small sounds to reassure the birds that the leader was near. She stopped twenty feet away and saw blood dripping from the bird’s wing.

“Anna, get the kit. We’ve got a wounded bird,” she called. Slowly, she edged nearer to the bird, making the same small sounds. He tried to scurry away by beating the ground with his uninjured wing. She stopped again to let him see and hear her.

In a few moments, Eric came up next to her. “He’s not one of ours,” he said.

“No, he’s not,” she agreed, bending down to reduce her profile. Eric followed suit. “Go tell Anna to bring the net as well. He’s not going to let us help him without a struggle.” Eric edged off in a crouch for a dozen paces, then rose and moved urgently away.

Sheila continued to make the small sounds, adding, “There boy, there boy.” She knew that human speech was useless to the birds, but it made her feel better.

Anna and Eric hurried up carrying two bags, one marked with a red cross and the other plain green. Anna opened the plain one and pulled out netting, allowing it to spill on the ground next to Sheila. “Eric, you anchor it here,” Sheila said, as she took hold of the netting and started pulling it to one side of where the bird lay. Following protocol born of habit, Anna did the same in the opposite direction. They pulled the netting open, moving in twin diagonals to each side with Eric holding the middle between them. As they moved to either side of the flopping bird, Sheila continued to make comforting sounds.

When the bird was between them, she raised her hand to signal Anna and Eric. Together, Anna and Sheila raised the edges of the netting as Eric let go. The net flew quietly over the bird and the edge hit the ground beyond where he lay, covering him. His writhing and squawking increased initially, but then slowed as none of the three moved. They just held the edges of the netting in place.

“Ready?” Sheila asked. They both nodded. Then they each started rolling their portion of the netting toward the bird. Sheila resumed the chirping sounds as they neared the bird. “He’s got a broken leg, too,” she said. “That explains why he couldn’t run away.” As they came to about 10 feet from each other, just beyond the bird’s wingspan, they stopped and knelt on the rolled netting. The bird continued to struggle in pain and fear, but was slowing down.

“Is he going into shock?” asked Anna.

“Probably. We better not treat him out here. Let’s get him wrapped up and into the hut,” Sheila said, nodding toward the dilapidated Quonset hut just beyond the fence of the compound. “Hut” was a misnomer as the shed was large enough to serve as office space, veterinary clinic, storage area, and airplane hangar. An area adjacent to one corner was enclosed with fencing on the top and sides. Sheila and Anna brought the net under the bird, capturing him in a makeshift basket, while Eric held his side in place. Once complete, the two women lifted the bird between them and began to carry him toward the shed. Eric picked up the bags and followed.

“He’s a big one,” Anna commented.

“Yes,” said Sheila. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whooper this size.” Despite being the tallest birds in North America, most whooping cranes only weighed about 10 or 15 pounds. This one was noticeably heavier.

The bird stopped moving and the women picked up the pace. “He might be going into shock. Let’s get him stabilized, pronto,” said Sheila.

They moved the bird into the shed and placed him gently on a table in the middle of an open space.

“We’ll have to cut him out, but let’s see if we can examine him a bit first,” Sheila said.

Anna and Eric leaned in to watch as Sheila felt for the bird’s pulse. “Rapid and shallow,” she said, as she looked at the wounded wing and the swelling leg. “Anna, I need gauze to stop the bleeding, and bring a pressure bandage, too. Bring a lot of gauze,” she added.

When Anna returned with a box of gauze and bandages, Sheila cut away the netting to reach the wounded wing and dabbed it with the gauze to clear away the blood. There was a hole about half an inch across, with a bit of bone exposed along the edge.

“Hold here,” she said to Anna, pointing to the black tip at the end of the three-foot wing. “Eric, hold his body. He won’t like this.”

Taking hold of the wing near the wound, she placed a wad of gauze on either side, and wrapped a pressure bandage around it. The bird struggled to move, but Anna and Eric held him mostly in place.

Sheila felt the bird’s pulse again. “He’s going into shock. Let’s get a saline IV into him and give him some oxygen.”

They set to work, fitting the specialized mask over the bird’s beak, and making sure that the rubber gasket created a seal. After a few minutes, Sheila checked his pulse again and counted his respiration. “Better, he’s stabilizing. I think we can back off the oxygen.” The big bird lay very still on the table. “All right, let’s get his leg in a splint.”

As they finished, Sheila stepped away and said, “Let’s give him a moment before we move him. The netting will hold him in place, and I can take some notes. It would be good for him to hold that wing still for a while.” She went to a table along the wall, picked up a digital voice recorder, and began to dictate.

“Male whooping crane, adult, wingspan over 3 meters. Injured with a puncture wound and grazed humerus on the occipital wing. Wound about 1 centimeter in diameter,” she said. “Slight but debilitating fracture of the left femur.” She clicked the recorder off.

“He’s huge,” she said. “He can’t be wild. No birds have been this size on any record that I know of.” All three stared at the bird.

“How did he get here?” Eric broke the silence. “He didn’t walk in and couldn’t fly in, unless someone hit him while he was flying over the compound.”

“I didn’t hear a shot,” said Anna.

“That’s not a gunshot wound,” said Sheila. “There would have been more tearing or even burning. It was a smooth hole made by a round object. He couldn’t have flown more than a few meters with that injury.”

“Shouldn’t we take a blood sample to test for avian respiratory disease?” asked Anna.

“Good call,” said Sheila. “You’re learning the protocol. Eric, hand me that kit.” She motioned to the same table as before. “Let’s take a sample and then get him into isolation to rest.”

When they had finished, they carried the bird to the adjacent pen outside. The securely fenced area contained bedding straw, water, and food. As they peered through an observation window in the Quonset hut, the bird hobbled to the water and began to drink. After a minute, he began to gag. Anna moved toward the door, but Sheila put a hand on her arm to stay her.

“He’s just regurgitating. Let him finish and we can get a sample of his stomach contents,” she said.

Once he had delivered his payload, Anna moved in to scoop up the mess, exiting the pen as fast as she entered.

“Let’s have a quick look,” said Sheila. She took the scoop from Anna and put it under a magnifying light, then picked up the digital recorder. “Contents of stomach are viscous (no surprise there); some unidentifiable matter that could be remains of crab; corn, dark red and orange kernels. Resembles some type of heirloom variety. Corn seems to be undigested and must have been eaten soon before regurgitation. Perhaps a few minutes.” She clicked stop.

She turned to the others. “Do we know of any cornfields in the area that grow heirloom varieties?” she said.

“I’ve never heard of heirloom grain being grown anywhere, much less around here,” said Eric.

“Well, we’re close to the Corn Belt. Maybe we can get someone to identify this,” suggested Anna.

“Sure, but let’s not put too much effort into that,” said Sheila. “Let’s concentrate on getting this guy healed.”

“Dammit,” said Eric when his smartphone chimed. “The radio people will be here in 30 minutes. Where did those talking points go?” He headed out of the building.

“Anna, get that muck in a sample container and put it into nitrogen to freeze. I’ll pack up the blood sample and do the same for the lab,” Sheila said. The two women set to work.

The bird tried to rise, but failed. He let out a long, mournful squawk.

-28:11:21:22

“This Sanctuary is one of a kind on the Eastern Flyway,” Eric said into the microphone the reporter held out to him. “We’re working to retrain whooping cranes to migrate between their summer and winter homes. It’s part of the process of bringing the species back from the brink of extinction, but also to reintroduce them to the wild habits of their ancestors.”

“So, you train them?” asked the reporter. “How?”

“Sheila has become their surrogate leader, having raised many of the birds here from hatchlings. She orients them to the sound and movement of the ultralight every day to acculturate them to following it.”

“Why is that useful?” the reporter asked.

“It prepares them for the future when she’ll take off with them following and fly down to their winter home in Florida,” said Eric.

“That’s what, 1500 miles?” asked the reporter.

“It’s 1,377 miles as the whoopers fly,” said Sheila, walking up. “That’s how far it is to our sister sanctuary in Florida. It’ll take us 2 to 3 weeks.”

“Don’t they know the route instinctively?” asked the reporter.

“We think they know to migrate by instinct, but the route and destination need to be learned. We’ve had success with this process over the past 10 years. Our program will allow this group of fledglings to learn the way once; then they’ll remember it, and we’ll have helped return them to a wild life — ” Sheila paused as a loud squawking came from the hut.

“What’s that?” asked the reporter turning toward the racket.

“It’s a wild whooper that came in this morning, injured,” said Eric. Sheila shot a look at him, trying to cut him off.

“We don’t know where it came from or how it wandered into our compound,” Sheila said quickly. “He’s been isolated to speed his recovery.”

“May I see it?” said the reporter.

“Sure,” said Eric, not looking at Sheila. He began to guide the reporter to the Quonset hut. Sheila caught up with him.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” she hissed, leaning close to Eric’s ear.

“We know almost nothing about him.”

“We can use this as goodwill publicity,” he whispered back. “It puts us in the bonus round.”

Once inside, the reporter viewed the bird through the observation window. “May I go inside the pen?” she said, careful to direct her question to Eric.

“No,” said Sheila.

“What she means is that we haven’t finished our examination of the bird. We don’t know if he’s a carrier of any avian respiratory diseases,” said Eric.

“Oh. Okay,” the reporter said, backing up a step or two from the window. “He’s bigger than your other birds.” She raised a camera to snap a picture. “This will be great on the website.”

Eric touched Sheila to hold her still. He leaned over and said into her ear, “It’s good to have a wider audience see how we care for the birds.” Sheila stared at him then turned away.

“What’s his name?” the reporter asked.

“Uh, Nelson,” said Eric. Sheila swiveled back and looked at him, then turned to follow his eyes. They were on a sack of bird feed from the Nelson Aviary Food Company.

-20:9:23:18

“The results came back,” Anna announced a week later. “They found some anomalies in his blood, but pretty close to the normal range. He doesn’t seem to have any infectious diseases.”

“What kind of anomalies?” asked Sheila as she reached for the report. “Hmm. Acetylcholines do look odd. Very high for his species. Maybe with that enhanced set of neurotransmitters he’s an avian genius. Acetylcholine is an organic neurotransmitter associated with cell activity in the brain,” she explained for Anna’s benefit.

“Well, he’s healing very fast and does seem to learn quickly,” said Anna. She had spent more time with him than any of the other staff. “He’s learned that we’re trying to help him.”

“How do you know that?” asked Sheila skeptically.

“He’s stopped his flight or fight response when I approach, especially if I’m in costume,” she said, referring to the whooping crane outfit they generally wore to acculturate the birds.

“Well, good. But he’ll need to fear people when we return him to the wild. We’re their worst enemy. I wish I could find the bastard that injured him. I’d happily prosecute him and put his ass in jail.” Harming an endangered species was a federal crime and a mortal sin to Sheila.

“Nelson’s up and moving around without much difficulty. Can we put him in the compound with the rest of the flock?” asked Anna.

“I’ve told you not to use that name, it just anthropomorphizes him. He’s a wild animal, not a house pet,” Sheila sighed. “Okay, let’s let him out today, but keep a close eye on him and the other birds. We don’t want any more fuss than necessary. First sign of a dominance fight, we isolate him until he’s fully recovered.”

A few days later, Eric stopped by the section of the hut where Sheila had her office. Although shabby, the area was neat and clean. Research reports were stacked on shelves, mixed in with petri dishes and a few photographs of the birds. A vaguely chemical odor always hovered in the air. The smell of science, thought Eric. He flopped into an old armchair near her desk.

“The public radio folks will air our story this afternoon and put some of the pictures on their website after the program. It should help us when we hold our donors’ meeting next week.” He was almost bouncing with glee.

“As long as we get enough funding to keep this joint running for a few more months, I can put up with it,” Sheila said, closing her laptop. Somewhat surprised by Eric’s delighted demeanor, she began to wonder if he was actually beginning to connect to the Sanctuary’s mission.

“I’m hoping to quadruple our usual donations. That story will run nationwide and might get picked up by the BBC. Ladies and gentlemen, open your checkbooks.”

“Is that all you care about? The money?” Back to business, she thought with some disappointment. It didn’t really matter what he thought, though, and the sooner he raised the necessary money, the sooner he would be out of her hair.

“You know that without me this place would have closed a year ago. To put it politely, your public relations skills would have bankrupted the operation, the way you insult potential donors,” Eric said.

“I don’t really give a damn about bleeding-heart liberals who only care about wildlife when they munch on cheese and sip wine,” Sheila retorted. “They have no idea how our species has screwed this planet and exterminated untold numbers of species without a thought. We crap in our own nests.”

“Sheila, Sheila. Don’t get abusive. Dancing with these folks is the price we pay in order to continue the good work you do here,” Eric said.

“Yes, the work I do here,” she said.

Ignoring yet another dig, he continued, “We got a report from the Illinois Corn Research Center on that corn Nelson ‘provided’ us.”

“Don’t use…,” she began.

“It’s some sort of variety no one has ever seen,” he said over her objection. “They sent it to the Smithsonian for identification. We’ve really got those guys puzzled.”

-13:12:38:32

“Hello. Yes, this is Sheila Pennington.” She shifted the phone to her other ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your affiliation, Dr. Torricelli. Oh, I didn’t know the Smithsonian had an agricultural anthropology museum.” She listened for a few minutes and said, “Please email those results to me. Here’s my address . . . .” She finished the call and hung up. Sheila sat for a minute, lost in thought, and then checked her email. As she read, she unconsciously stood up in front of the screen. Eric entered just at that moment.

“What’s up? You look surprised,” he said.

“That sample of corn that was sent to the Smithsonian. It’s ancient,” she said.

“You mean it was old?” he said.

“No, it’s fresh corn. Fresh as in just plucked from the ear.”

“So?” he said. “I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. It’s a fresh specimen from a variety that’s been dead for over 2,000 years,” she said. “Where and how did Nelson eat it?”

“Hey, I thought you didn’t want to use that name,” Eric said.

“I didn’t. I mean I don’t. Dammit, you and Anna have contaminated my mind. That bird is a bigger mystery than ever. Let’s have another look at him,” she said as she walked out.

From the blind, they peered at the birds and watched as Nelson led the flock around the compound. Nelson had become the de facto leader and seemed to be training the others. Sheila and Anna had decided that it was a type of avian acculturation.

While they were watching, Anna came into the blind. “Getting one last look before all the people arrive?” she said, referring to the afternoon’s fundraising reception. “We won’t be alone for long. The online RSVP list is over 400.”

“Have the sheriff’s folks arrived?” asked Sheila.

“Yeah, they’re at the end of Five Mile Road to handle parking, and a couple are up by the Quonset hut to escort VIPs to park there,” said Anna.

Eric’s phone buzzed. He answered and listened for a moment. “They’re starting to arrive. I’ll get down to the reception area. Why don’t you fill Anna in?”

-13:9:54:09

“Mr. Anderson, good to see you,” Eric said. “And your lovely wife, Harriet, isn’t it?” Eric wore khakis and a light sweater with a heather weave. He hoped it provided an outline that women found interesting. He gazed at the woman with a smile that promised more than he should deliver. His approach was to talk to the husband but always send the message to the wife, whom he considered the real target of the pitch.

The elegantly emaciated woman smiled at him with perfect teeth. She was dressed in a tight top of blue velvet, accenting the fact that she boasted more than nature had provided. Chet Anderson was dressed in knife-sharp pressed navy pants and a knit shirt that looked brand new even as it stretched to accommodate a large belly.

“Yes,” she said, “I do hope we can see Nelson. He’s become quite a star.”

“Of course, Harriet,” Eric said, steering them to the bar through the growing crowd. “Please let Anna take care of you and I’ll be right back.”

“Harriet, I don’t know why you have such a fascination about some bird meat and feathers,” Chet Anderson said. “Oh, bourbon and branch water,” he told Anna, who was tending bar in a corner of the hangar area. When she froze in confusion, he said, “Bourbon and plain water will work.” He leaned to his wife and said, “Where do they find these people? Don’t know about real drinkin’.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Anderson,” Eric said as he returned, “let’s go out to the blind to let you have a better look. It’s a treat we reserve for a special few.” Harriet squeezed her husband’s arm and pulled him along behind Eric toward the blind. As they entered and got settled, Eric warned them to remain as quiet as possible. “The flock has been rather skittish today; perhaps they sensed you might be coming.”

Chet pressed his eyes closed for a moment, but his wife said, “Oh yes, how thrilling. I’ve often thought that animals had a sixth sense about things. Would you mind if I took a video?” she added, pulling out her smartphone.

“No problem,” Eric replied, as Sheila joined them in the blind. “We want you to learn as much as possible while you’re here.”

Sheila continued Eric’s educational mission. “This is the first migratory training center in the world. Without our efforts, the whooping crane might not learn how to migrate and could slide backwards toward extinction.”

The birds were about 200 feet from the blind.

“Chet, look, there’s Nelson!” Harriet said as she trained her phone on the large bird standing a dozen feet from the rest of the flock. She looked up from the screen as she heard Sheila gasp.

“What the hell?” Sheila said. “Who the hell is he and how did he get in there?” She pointed to a short man with long black braids, clad apparently in skins, with something like a spear in his hand. He was inside the enclosure, about 100 feet from the blind, moving in profile to them toward the flock of birds.

The man used a handle to propel the spear forward as Sheila yelled, “Hey!” Her word caused him to shift in her direction, which threw off his aim. His spear landed a foot from Nelson, causing him to squawk loudly. Nelson began to run, and then his huge wings beat the air as he lifted off and flew away from the compound. Four more birds from the flock followed him and took flight.

-13:4:12:39

The man listened on the phone as he heard the report. He did not move as the voice on the other end covered the essentials. Carl Fredrickson was looking at the ceiling of his office. Around the walls were plaques, citations, and photographs of himself, some with famous and powerful people. One featured him shaking the hand of the current President. Out the window — he was one of the few in the building who had one — lay a busy street that featured a ubiquitous franchise coffee shop on the corner and the White House in the distance.

“Okay, you say it was all on video on the lady’s phone? You’re sure it wasn’t a fake? Uh-huh . . . Yep . . . What about the guy? County lockup? He saying anything?” He brought his chair upright and looked straight ahead as he listened. “What do you mean no one can understand him? It took four cops to restrain him?” He looked down at his notes.

After a pause, he said, “Okay, you got the weapon? Some sort of spear? Ancient design? How ancient? Okay, okay. Let me take this from the top. Injured bird appears out of nowhere with extinct fresh corn in its gut that was eaten that morning. Bird becomes a ringleader of the flock and flies off when this joker appears, taking several birds with him in his escape. Guy appears — as in pops into sight on the video from literally nowhere — dressed in skins, throwing the spear at the bird, misses, but the spear has fresh blood as though he hit the bird. He speaks a language we haven’t been able to identify and has, shall we say, no social skills. Okay, I think I got it. Email me the lady’s video. Let me think about involving the Secretary.”

He hung up. “What’s going on?” he said to no one. He often spoke out loud to himself, giving evidence to his Texas heritage. His voice could range from a treacly ooze to a hard-edged bark. He thought it was his best tool. When the email arrived, he opened the video attachment and watched silently. When it finished, he picked up the phone. “Harry, Carl here. I need to see the Secretary. Yes, tonight. Yes, in person. If I can’t show her this, she’ll never believe it. Okay, on my way.” He hung up, took a breath, and said, “What the hell is goin’ on?”

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David Potenziani

Historian, informatician, novelist, and grandfather. Part-time curmugdeon.