by Faith H. Goble
The mysterious Lodestars that have suddenly appeared in the sky have brought about an apocalypse. Michael, who has contracted a bizarre medical condition, moves to the Palace, the indoor capital city of Birdland, a nation of genetically modified, hyper-intelligent birds. In his position of technician, things go downhill fast for both Michael and civilization.
This morning it woke me again, that awful piercing ring. Eden said she thought I was trying to scream over it, the sound she claims she can’t hear. I think she must, though — that old sawtooth wave, shifting into a scream, looped and layered and topped with harmonics. It’s so loud now, even louder than it used to be. The headaches are worse too, and I’ve been having nose bleeds. I keep waking up in little crimson pools, my nostrils crusted and sore.
It started the summer I was five, and I still remember that day with an almost surreal clarity, perhaps because that was the day when everything began to change — the day that led me to this place.
It was a sweltering Saturday towards the end of summer. Mom had the day off from her job at Anodynex, and I was helping her wash the windows — or at least I trying to. I remember looking up at the scorching sun and wondering if the blackbirds flying across the white-hot sky got sweaty the way people do. And I remember dipping my hands in the vinegar-smelling water and how cool the water felt on that hot August day.
“You look like you’re so hot and tired you can barely sit up, Mikey.” Mom lifted her ponytail of dark-blonde hair off her neck. “Hand me that rag, and then you go on inside where it’s nice and cool. You can watch TV till dinnertime.”
My mother was right; I didn’t feel well. My head hurt and everything seemed oddly muffled; it was as if there were a layer of something transparent — yet thick and somehow deadening — between me and the too-bright world around me. And even though I wanted to help, I didn’t feel like staying out in the heat any longer — but I did feel like watching cartoons, and I wasn’t allowed to watch TV very often.
So I got down off the step-stool I’d been sitting on and took my mother the wrung-out rag she’d asked for. I watched as she rubbed at a few stubborn specks with the wet cloth, tossed it back in the bucket, and picked up a small, scratchy towel. She began to wipe down the glass — and that was when the glass started to sing.
At first I thought the sound musical; but then it became a roar, slowly drowning out my mother’s voice, the hum of cars on the busy street in front of our house, the rumble of the trains on the tracks behind it, and all the other noises the city had in the ManAges before the Lodestars came.
* * *
For the rest of that year, every time I had a headache and heard the ringing, it was as if I stepped out of my mind and body for a while. Then in the spring, the grand mal seizures started; and pretty soon I was having them so often that Mom was afraid to let me climb the stairs or take a bath by myself. My uncle Jeff, a neurosurgeon, thought I might not make it.
Jeff and the other doctors tried every drug they could throw at me; they even tried vagus nerve stimulation. Eventually my seizures got so bad they considered a temporal lobotomy, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. She put me on special diets, gave me megadoses of vitamins, and took me to see an acupuncturist; but nothing worked.
In desperation, my mother, a biomedical engineer, designed an implant to interfere with my brain’s abnormal electrical pulses; and Uncle Jeff performed surgery to position the tiny electronic device in my head.
I made it through the operation with no problems; but a few months later, when the skull still wasn’t healing properly, Jeff decided to replace a section of bone with a steel plate. I was pretty weak for a while, but Mom and Jeff thought that they had cured me of the seizures and headaches. They had, that is until the Lodestars appeared out of nowhere.
* * *
I was only seven and my babysitter was sick, so Mom had taken me to work with her the day the Lodestars appeared in the skies. We were in the heavily shielded underground computer lab when they came, and looking back, I suppose that’s why the implant wasn’t destroyed as the Lodestars emitted their first and strongest pulses. The glittering satellites orbited high above the Earth all day and far into the evening, an array of tiny coruscating suns lighting up the night.
I remember the pervasive feeling of fear in the cool white lab when the phones and power failed and one of the researchers rushed in to tell us that the Earth appeared to be under some kind of attack. I remember Mom hugging me and telling me everything would be all right — but of course it wasn’t.
While we were still reeling from the first assault, the second wave of satellites came along, circling the Earth for years and slowly heating the atmosphere before they fell blazing from the sky, only to replaced by others. Even now, no one is really sure where the Lodestars came from and who or what could build anything so powerful.
* * *
The seizures came back with a vengeance after that; I got so much sicker that Mom was afraid I might have the DC plague, better known as the red, white, and blue flu because of its colorful symptoms: a reddish rash, white pustules, and occasional cyanosis. This encephalophagous disorder (which seems to have started in Congress, almost decimating the House and Senate before anyone realized there was anything unusual about the lawmakers’ behavior) was the first of the terrible pandemics that together wiped out more than three-quarters of the human population.
I had some of the symptoms of the DC plague. However, unlike most of those infected, I didn’t suffer a complete loss of higher level mental function. When I didn’t descend into a near-vegetative state and instead began to recuperate, it became clear that I wasn’t a victim of the plague, and I eventually recovered almost completely.
I continued to suffer from rashes and periodic bouts of respiratory distress, but the seizures gradually abated until I was able to lead a fairly normal life. Finally, one of Jeff’s doctor friends diagnosed ETD (Environmental Toxicity Disorder), essentially extreme allergies, which could have been making my epilepsy worse.
The smoke and filth of the city were making me sicker, so when Mom died of rat fever just after my thirtieth birthday, I decided to leave the colonies. I obtained a travel permit from the local sheriff (which was granted me only after I joined the sheriff in the the obligatory sheriff’s PCPeacepipe and handed him an exorbitant gift, which he insisted on calling a campaign contribution).
After recovering from the unfamiliar effects (including red eyes, staggering, and a strange desire to eat everything in sight) of the sheriff’s fumous good-will gesture, I put the little repair shop at which I’d made my living in the hands of my long-time and trusted helper, left most of my precious books and a few treasured possessions with a friend for safekeeping, and sold what little remained to the family who shared our house.
I took some of the money I’d saved through the years and bought some good boots, warm clothes, and an old rucksack from the neighborhood rag and bone man. I filled the rucksack full: a few books including Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World, my most useful repair manuals, and my favorite dictionary; blankets; an old tent; and a week’s worth of food.
Shouldering my pack, I turned my back on the crumbling city of my birth and set out for Birdland and the Palace, the indoor metropolis that served as that nation’s capital. I was drawn there by talk of the tranquility, beauty, and cleanliness of the Palace; and I was particularly excited by rumors of the its vast libraries and colleges that even humans were allowed to attend.
* * *
After setting off the metal detector at the security checkpoint on Birdland’s border, I had to tell the authorities about the steel plate and implant in my head and explain their purpose. Fortunately, the immigration officers seemed willing to accept my explanation, particularly when I told them I was a mechanic and repairman — and proved it by fixing an officer’s ancient and much-admired pocket watch (a surprisingly modest bribe didn’t hurt either).
The birds needed human labor, especially skilled labor since most immigrants weren’t qualified to do much besides pick lettuce in Birdland’s enormous greenhouses or work as au pairs for wealthy birds (but there was never any shortage of cheap lettuce — or au pairs). However, the birds had learned to be particular about who they allowed into the country. I suppose if they hadn’t been, they would’ve been overwhelmed by flocks of desperate and sometimes criminal humanimals.
When I was released from initial processing, an immigration officer escorted me to the Bureau of Five-Fingered Labor, which was located in the Palace. The Palace was only a little over an hour’s travel from the border by rail (the prevalent mode of transportation in Birdland even for the birds, whose size made long flights impossible), and the trip passed quickly for me, especially since I had never been to Birdland before and I was entranced by the countryside’s order and prosperity, which was apparent even through the coach’s windows.
Upon reaching the Bureau, I was asked to take a battery of job-placements tests — intelligence, aptitude, and psychological. I was then directed to a crowded and slightly seedy workers’ clinic on the city’s forth level from the top (L4), where I was x-rayed (to see if the plate in my head was consistent with my story) and given a mandatory, comprehensive physical (the birds were understandably leery of human-borne filth and contagion after having suffered an influx of bedbugs and lice).
Despite my health problems, I was issued a provisional city work permit, and I quickly found a job as a purification and filtration tech because of my skill with machinery. I’d be working in the Palace’s echoing sub-floors, servicing the huge turbines, pipes, and conduits that helped keep the city comfortable and clean: I would help maintain the machines that filtered the water and freshened the temperate air drawn from the limestone caverns far below, eventually to be pumped upstairs into the clean, sun-filled rooms of the Palace. Unfortunately, the three-level basement, the only part of the Palace not inspected by the birds, was not particularly clean. And the basement was where I would have to live.
* * *
The Palace, all seven above-ground stories of it, towered over its surroundings like a pale and elegant queen, smaller buildings huddling at its skirts like supplicants. The great glittering structure appeared ephemeral when compared to the overweening civic monstrosities that man had built in his bureaucratic heyday; its attenuated towers and external walls were comprised of glass panels that hung suspended in a lacy, white steel framework.
The Palace gleamed with reflected light, shining like molten gold in the late-afternoon sun, flashing white like silver at noon, or burning red like fire at sunrise and sunset. At night it was cloaked in warm yellow, the golden mistress of a dark and starry realm. It looked too fragile to withstand the stresses of time and weather, but the birds themselves designed it, and birds, these birds anyway, knew architecture.
The Palace reigned atop a low grassy hill that rose gently from the surrounding karst. The hill was adorned with majestic oaks, some of the few old trees left standing after the ravages of the Lodestar winters.
The Lodestar winters, with their terrific storms and blizzards, were caused by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the satellites. The radiation eventually heated the atmosphere and caused the Gulf Stream to shift, radically changing the climate in the process.
The fragile silicon web on which modern civilization depended was damaged by the Lodestars’ energy, and we were left defenseless without the shield of technology to protect us from the violence of our altered world. And so people had burned anything they could to keep from freezing; most of the trees, furniture, and even books were fed to the flames.
The first of the Lodestar winters took place about the same time as the Bird Revolution began. The revolution took place after the CRAPS (Citizen Reservist Army [for] Preservation [and] Sanitation) expelled the human survivors of the plague from DC, leaving only the animals behind.
When only the animals remained in Washington, the genetically enhanced talking birds from the DOD (Department of Defense) sponsored MACAW (Meta-Avian Cognitively Augmented Weapon) Project escaped from their compound, made their way to the Library of Congress, and taught themselves to read.
These unnaturally large and intelligent birds came into their own then; the empty city, with its museums and institutes of science and culture, became an incubator for the developing avian genius. Eventually, the birds figured out how to get things running again and developed their own birdistic and enlightened nation, a country they called Birdland. Then they had designed the Palace.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble