“So you’re the poo doctor?”
Irving Buchanen never imagined he’d visit the Pentagon. He certainly never imagined he’d be sitting in a tiny, windowless office deep within the basements, across from a general with so many stars and medals festooning his uniform that he clinked and chimed with every movement. And even if, by some extraordinary stretch of the imagination, he had conceived of such circumstances, he would definitely never have imagined that said general would have referred to him as a ‘poo doctor’.
“Ah, no sir. I’m–”
“So why are you here?” The general asked, “I don’t have all day son.”
The general’s aide leaned forwards, cleared his throat.
“Uh, sir? This is Professor Buchanen, sir. He’s the…the poo doctor.”
“I’m a palaeontologist!” Irving snapped.
The aide glanced down at a file, back up.
“You wrote a paper, ‘A study of oligocene coprolites’ correct?” He asked in such a way as to suggest he really wasn’t asking.
He chuckled, then broke out into full-blown guffawing. It was fully five minutes before his laughter petered out. He wiped tears from his eyes, looked from the aide to the general.
“That was a student paper. From three decades ago. Yes, I have an interest in coprolites, which are fossilized dinosaur feces. But poo doctor?” He snorted, “Not hardly!”
“Well golly, this ass is all we’ve got, right?” The general asked his aide, who nodded.
“Take him through and get him started,” the general continued, already turning to the next file on his desk, dismissing Buchanen and leaving him even further in the dark than before.
“Would you kindly explain to me what in the blue blazes is going on?” Irving demanded.
“Of course. This way, please.”
Irving gritted his teeth and followed, further down into the basement levels. The exited the uniform corridors into a lab, banks of computers and technical-looking equipment. White coats passed to and fro, clipboards and tablets annotated and exchanged.
One especially harried-looking young woman made a beeline for them.
“Is this him?” She asked.
“It is. We haven’t briefed him yet but I thought perhaps your people would prefer to do that.”
She nodded, “Best call. You barely comprehend what we’re talking about when we use layman’s terms.”
Irving liked her.
“I’ll leave you with Ms Childs. She’ll give you the tour and show you why we asked you here,” the aide told Buchanen stiffly, then turned and left, so quickly as to suggest he wanted to flee before Ms Childs found another opportunity to harangue him.
She gave Irving a cursory head to toe glance.
“You’re a palaeontologist, right?” She asked him.
He sighed happily, “I am, yes.”
“You should get a kick out of this then,” she replied, “follow me.”
They entered an even larger room, with some mysterious apparatus draped in tarpaulins. Atop a side table were boxes, all meticulously labelled, of various sizes.
Ms Childs stopped beside the table, turned to him.
“See the tarps? That’s a time machine. Or it will be, if we ever get it working. And we know we’ll get it working, because…”
Here she lifted the lid of one of the boxes and lifted out a very normal-looking coprolite.
She hefted it, then passed it over.
He weighed it, turned it round in his hands.
“Okay, I’ll bite. How does a coprolite from the late Cretaceous prove that you’ll invent time travel?”
She took it back and led him towards a cabinet that reminded him of the x-ray machines in airports. She warmed it up, put the coprolite in a tray and rolled it inside.
“That’s not possible!” Irving exclaimed.
There was very clearly the mandible from a human skull inside the coprolite.
“What kind of elaborate prank are you trying to play?” He demanded.
“No prank. You can look at the sample again, study it, test it as much as you please. It’s legit.”
She retrieved a tablet, opened a file for him to read through. They’d subjected the rock to every test imaginable. It looked real, an authentic fossil, Cretaceous-era, most likely a large carnivore. His mind raced.
“There were no mammals of anything like our size back then,” he said, still disbelieving.
“See these boxes? We’ve been gathering them for a couple of years,” she explained, “Ever since an incident involving a collector, Francis Mayweather.”
Irving cocked his head, clearly curious.
“Mayweather has a fondness for fossils. One of which arrived at his home cracked. And inside were what appeared to be fingerbones. He started to look into it, until his fossil hit a lab that we were keeping tabs on. At that point we stepped in. Confiscated the fossil, the lab reports. And then we started to search. All these,” she gestured to the table, the boxes, “seem to be fragments from the same skeleton.”
“Hold on, why were you keeping tabs on that lab?” Irving asked.
“For the last decade, we’ve been aware that certain foreign powers have been funding research into time travel and so we keep tabs on any lab or university where there could conceivably be breakthroughs. It was sheer coincidence that Mayweather sent his samples there.”
Irving paced to and fro in a tight circuit, processing all he’d learned in the last hour. He could scarcely believe how radically his world had been altered.
“So why am I here?” He asked. “That still isn’t clear.”
She nodded, “I can see this is all quite overwhelming for you. You should probably sit down for this next part.”
There was something about her solemn tone he didn’t enjoy. Nor the look in her eyes, like she was delivering a terminal medical diagnosis. He sank onto a stool and clasped his hands tightly in his lap.
“This most recent find, the mandible. It has fillings. We were able to find a match through dental records.”
She paused. He waited. Continued to wait.
“You’re going to be eaten by a dinosaur, Professor Buchanen.”
“As am I, believe me. If it’s any comfort–”
He broke in, “Unless you’re about to tell me you’re joking, it won’t be any comfort at all!”
“We’ve no idea when this is going to happen, other than within your lifetime. But clearly you are part of our efforts to travel to the past, which is why we brought you here.” She continued, “That you’re also a palaeontologist is a happy coincidence.”
“Happy might not have been the best choice of words,” she conceded.
She stepped towards him, arm extended, and he shook the proferred hand automatically.
“Welcome to the Bureau for Chronological Surveillance and Security, Professor Buchanen.”