“Know Thyself.” —Inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi
Julian Gamier reprimanded himself for being out of shape as he paused on the last of the steps leading up from the sidewalk to the museum entrance, wiping his brow clear of sweat and gulping mouthfuls of the humid air. The museum, the National Institute of Human Antiquities, had been open just ten minutes, and a few visitors had entered through the sliding glass doors. Julian checked his reflection in those doors. He looked every inch the tourist, from his shirt festooned with scarlet macaws to his khaki shorts and sunglasses. The straw hat served a double purpose, both complimenting his disguise and shielding his spreading bald spot from potential sunburn.
Julian stepped through the entrance, met with a rush of cool air that enveloped him like a balm. He often joked that air-conditioning remained the greatest human invention; this morning, with the Illinois sun blasting the streets of her most famous city and heating them to the temperature of a griddle, he believed it. His glasses fogged and he removed them, wiping them on his shirt. In no apparent hurry, he approached the museum greeter and ticket seller.
“Just one today?” she asked, an older woman trying to appear otherwise.
“Actually, I am here to see Professor Soto,” Julian said.
“And you are?”
“Dr. Julian Garnier.”
“Okie-dokie.” She lifted a telephone receiver, punched in an extension and delivered the message.
“You can go on back,” she said. “His office is down at the end…”
“I know where it is,” Julian said. “Thank you.”
He stepped through a set of double doors, passing a large-scale exhibit of several Paleo-Indians attacking a woolly mammoth with spears and torches, these last implementing flames sculpted of glass with blinking orange bulbs to complete the representation. The mammoth’s fur looked a little artificial, like Spanish Moss painted brown, but Julian otherwise liked the display, its depiction of human courage and teamwork. He found Soto’s door waiting half open, down a hallway past the rest rooms and soda and snack machines. He knocked anyway to be polite.
“Come in, Julian,” Soto said, standing over his desk. “Look what I have for you.”
The little Asian had been waiting for him. He’d cleared his desk, covering it with a sheet to use it as a makeshift display table. On the desk, laid out in sequential order, were numerous bones making up the better part of a skeleton.
“Where’d they find this one?” Julian asked, closing the door behind him.
“Dug up along a riverbank in Alabama,” Soto said. “Apparently they’re building a new bridge and…”
“How many have seen it?” Julian asked.
“Only the necessary few,” Soto said. “I put it aside for you immediately. Secrecy was paramount, as usual.”
“So says the man who leaves his door standing open,” Julian said. Stepping closer to the table, he lifted the skull. The mandible was missing; otherwise, it presented a perfect specimen.
“I estimate that he would have stood over ten feet tall,” Soto said.
Julian caressed the skull. Elongated and slanted on top, clearly it did not belong to Homo Sapiens Sapien. Clearly it could not have been human.
“This may be the best one we’ve seen,” Julian announced, returning it to the table.
“I knew you would be impressed,” Soto said.
“The usual rate,” Soto asked. “In cash, of course.”
“Of course.” Julian pulled out his pocketbook. “Thank you.”
“I will prepare it for transporting personally,” Soto said. “By this afternoon, I should think, he’ll be ready to roll.”
Julian thumbed out bill after bill. He had counted the money before his arrival.
“A pleasure, as always,” Soto said, taking the money. “You know, you have enough specimens now to open your own museum. And what a museum, eh?”
“Yes,” Julian said. “It would be.”
“Too bad, really,” Soto said. “No one will ever see him.”
“Someday,” Julian replied. “When the world is ready for him.” He shook Soto’s hand and excused himself.
Two steps beyond the snack machine, it hit him.
His vision grew blurry, then went black, and then a flash of blinding light overwhelmed him. Julian placed a hand against the wall to steady himself, finding it out of reflex. His head throbbed as a solitary impulse boomed inside it, drowning out all other sensory input, all other thought. Unspoken, yet conveying a message as clearly as any words: COME.
His vision returned, the feeling gone, leaving a headache in its wake. Julian steadied himself, forcing himself to take deep, calming breaths. He had never experienced the summons so forcefully before, and it only came now in times of great need. Julian collected himself. He was needed. He would answer.
Exiting the building, he passed by the exhibit again, the Stone Age hunters and the mammoth. On none of the reconstructed faces did he see any expression of fear. That’s where they got it wrong, he mused. Facing such a grave threat, a band of hunters such as those represented could assume that some among them would die in the attempt to subdue it. Brave and determined they would have been, yes, but they also would have known fear. Real fear.
The kind of fear that Julian felt at that very moment.