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.
“So do you think the headaches are getting any better since you’ve been in here? Or are they about the same?” Dr. Steve looked up from my chart.
“I think they might be a little worse. Dr. Steve, I’ve been wondering, is it possible that the implant and plate in my head could be causing my headaches somehow? I know the implant’s not been working right since the Lodestars came, but could it be getting more screwed up all the time?”
“Well, anything is possible. But I don’t think so, Michael. The implant is inactive. It shouldn’t have any impact on your headaches or anything else at this point.” The doctor looked down at my chart again and shifted from one foot to the other on his perch. “Do you think the pills are helping?”
“Maybe a little.”
“How are your allergies?”
“They’re better. I think I’m breathing easier in here.”
“That’s good. Now I understand you’ve had several more seizures. I’m going to increase your medication, and I’d like for you to try to rest as much as you can.” Dr. Steve looked at the humanarian at his side. “How about we try another five milligrams, twice a day. Alright, Michael” — the bird’s beady eyes fastened on me once more — “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
* * *
During the first few weeks of my treatment, I was often content to simply lie on the uncomfortable steel gurney with its protective side rails despite the tedious sameness of my surroundings. When I wasn’t too tired, an orderly escorted me on a short walk, and every day I was allowed to spend an hour in the day-room after lunch, reading books from the library.
Unfortunately, I often felt too unwell to enjoy my outings. The recurring seizures weakened me and played tricks with time; the hum tech told me I sometimes slept for hours after an episode.
I’d been in the chamber almost a month when I was awakened one afternoon by the sound of Dr. Steve’s badly muffled voice — he must have been standing in the lock with the door to my room slightly ajar.
“Yes, Admiral Coop, we’re getting an excellent signal — although we’ve only been able to receive a few channels, mainly featuring syndicated rebroadcasts from the mid-twentieth century — and those shows are what we’re airing. But at least they’re not MTV.” Dr. Steve’s cackle sounded strained.
“Of course we’ll need to further study the impact of AV viewing habits on public health,” an overbearing nasal voice squawked, “and then we’ve got to decide how we should deal with what we have here. Reports indicate fledgling test subjects appear to be particularly susceptible and suggestible, especially to unwholesome influences.”
“Yes, Admiral, the young do tend to parrot back everything they hear. And anything to be a member of the flock. Why, just the other day— ”
“As augmented GMOs,” the unfamiliar voice cut off Dr. Steve abruptly, “our species was designed to learn much faster than humans ever could; the chicks especially are imprinted very quickly. Watch how they bob their heads any time they hear a little music, no matter how foul. My concern about the chicks’ psychological well-being is why I support PMRC, the Parrots’ Music Resource Center, you know.”
I didn’t have much time to wonder what the voices were discussing before the door swung open, and a gigantic Military Macaw appeared. The four-foot tall bird, cocksure in olive drab plumage set off by an impressive burgundy, blue, and green tail, held his beak high in the air and goose-stepped into the room.
Dr. Steve walked in behind the imposing bird, the lock’s internal, copper-clad door drawing to a close behind him. He waddled stiffly to my side. “Good morning, Tech 457-4F. I take it you’re feeling better?”
“I’m alright, I guess,” I said, clumsily struggling to pull myself up on the uncomfortable steel gurney where I had to spend most of the day. I was a little surprised by the cockatoo’s unaccustomed formality.
Dr. Steve watched me for a few moments, and his expression softened. “Sorry about the gurney, Michael, but we had to ground you.”
“What?” I was confused.
The larger bird gruffly cleared his throat, and Dr. Steve glanced at the macaw nervously.
“Oh, it’s just an alternative therapy thing, Tech.” Dr. Steve puffed his feathers a bit and craned his neck, reminding me of Uncle Jeff awkwardly adjusting his tie before he had to give a speech. “Anyway, Michael, this is Admiral C. Everight Coop. The Admiral here,” — he nodded a trifle obsequiously at the larger bird — “is Surgeon General of Birdland. He’s heard about our experimental treatment plan, and he wanted to meet you.”
I didn’t really feel well enough to meet anyone, but I was sufficiently intimidated by Coop’s air of superiority to smile and nod politely. Of course, I didn’t think I had much choice; the Admiral didn’t look the sort to take no for an answer, especially from a lowly TOOL.
“How are you feeling today, young man?” Coop spryly hopped up on a step-perch at my bedside.
“I’ve been better, Admiral.” I tried to shake off my now-habitual afternoon grogginess. “But thank you for asking.”
“We should be completing your tests shortly, and then we’ll know more about what’s going on with you.” The macaw peered at me through the large squarish spectacles balanced on his impressive beak.
What was he talking about? “Tests, Sir? I haven’t had any tests since I’ve been in this room.”
The birds glanced at each other. “This whole chamber is a testing facility, Technician,” Coop said, “and it’s given us some very critical information about the situation. We should have some answers soon.”
“Michael, we’ve decided that you’d benefit from a private nurse; your needs will be better met by one individual.” Dr. Steve pressed the call button on the wall, and a few moments later a dark-haired young woman stepped into the room.
“This is Nurse Eden Henslay, Michael. She’s one of our finest.” Dr. Steve smiled paternally at the pretty nurse.
The woman appeared to be a few years younger than I and reminded me of a sparrow — small, delicate, and gently rounded. She nodded respectfully at the Admiral and smiled at Dr. Steve before turning to me.
“Hi, Michael, I’m Eden.” Her voice was soft but very clear. She smiled at me, showing straight white teeth.
“Hello, Eden,” I said. I noticed that she had large deep blue eyes instead of the soft brown ones I had been expecting. I watched as she pulled a thin pen from her breast pocket and stood ready to write on her clipboard.
“Now, Michael” — Dr. Steve jumped on a tall step-perch beside the macaw — “the Admiral would like to hear about what’s going on with you...”
* * *
Voices, layers and layers of them, circling over themselves, overwhelmed the ringing in my head and the rush of air coming from the vents. If I lay still long enough, I could just make out the words. One voice kept touting sugar-frosted flakes, but never mentioned what they were flakes of. I tried to talk to the voices for a while, yet no matter how politely I questioned them, they just droned relentlessly on and on.
Even though I felt shaky and weak that afternoon, I pulled myself up to a sitting position and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Maybe the doors were open and the voices were coming from the corridor outside my room. Dr. Steve had told me that I shouldn’t try to get out of bed unattended, but I was tired of being treated as if I were an invalid. Surely I could make it to the hallway — after all, what were a few steps?
I made it to the door without mishap. It was firmly closed, so how could I be hearing voices from outside? Still curious, however, I pushed the electric button that had been installed by the door so it could be opened hands free. The door didn’t budge — maybe the power was off. That was funny, everything else seemed to be working just fine; my bedside light was glowing, and the vents were humming along as usual.
I grabbed the door’s steel handle and tried to pull the heavy door open. No luck, the door must weigh even more than I’d thought. I took a deep breath, braced my legs, and pulled as hard as I could. That’s when I realized the door was locked from the outside.
* * *
“We were afraid that you’d wake up in a daze after one of your spells and wander off. That’s too great a risk; you might fall and cause further damage.” Steve’s rectrices rustled gently against the wall as he shifted from one foot to the other. “If you really need to step out for a few minutes, just use the call button, and,” he said, “someone will come and help you. You can’t afford any head injuries.”
I resented being treated as if I were a child, and I had never experienced such disorientation after a seizure that I wandered mindlessly about — but what could I say? I was the lucky recipient of the same level of care as a bird was entitled to.
“I understand,” I said, but I must not have looked too happy.
Steve clumsily patted my arm with his wing. “Hey, it’s not going to be forever. I promise we’ll find some answers.”
* * *
A few days later a loud voice awakened me from a sound sleep. Apparently whoever it was wanted to tell me a story about a mountaineer by the name of Jed who had difficulty feeding his family and who shot at something or other only to find oil coming up instead. Unable to help myself, I began to weakly sing along with the lively banjo music that accompanied the hearty voice.
As I lay wondering who was singing or if I were slowly going insane, Dr. Steve appeared gurney-side, looking as surprised as I felt.
“Where did you hear that song?” the bird demanded.
A bit nonplussed at his brusque tone and unable to remember where I had heard the song, I thought for a few minutes. “Don’t know... but I keep hearing it. It just keeps playing in my head.”
“Same here. I can’t get the damn thing out of my head either.” Dr. Steve shook the object in question briskly as if to clear it. “So... how are you getting along?”
“I’d be better if I had something to read in here — and maybe a thicker pillow and an extra blanket.” I pulled fretfully on the single thin blanket that I’d been allotted for use during the day. “And I’d like to have my own clothes back. I’m tired of wearing pajamas all day, and I’d feel less like an invalid if I could get dressed in regular clothes.”
Dr. Steve shifted uncomfortably, gazing at a point over my left shoulder. “Well, you know we’re trying not to introduce any extraneous dust-collectors into your environment because of your allergies, but I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile, let’s try increasing your medication again.”
The little yellow pills that I’d been taking several times a day ever since I was placed in the chamber didn’t seem to be helping much. The spells just seemed to be getting worse all the time, increasing in frequency and severity. And come to think of it, I’d never heard the voices and the songs before I starting taking the pills.
* * *
I passed most of my waking hours talking to Eden, resting, or reading the books that Dr. Steve had started bringing me regularly. He’d had also provided a few changes of new street clothes — jeans, a warmup suit, a few shirts, a sweater — so I got dressed every morning to keep up my morale; then I spent a half-hour performing light calisthenics to keep up my muscle tone as well.
Considering how bad I often felt, I was sleeping very soundly throughout the night; I’d even gotten into the habit of napping several times a day though the gurney wasn’t particularly comfortable. I usually dozed off at dusk, not waking until an orderly helped me into the more comfortable bed that was rolled in at midnight; then I’d move to the bed and go right back to sleep.
I slept heavily until Eden brought in my breakfast at six; sometimes I’d eat and lie right back down, on the gurney this time (the comfortable bed was removed every morning), and sleep till nine or ten a.m.
Besides sleeping more than usual, I was having peculiar, vivid dreams, especially during the day. My dreams often involved bizarrely happy and inane humans sporting odd clothing and hairstyles and having strangely minor problems that seemed to occupy all their time and energy. Dealing with these problems often generated an almost continual stream of disembodied laughter. And for the first time in my life, most of my dreams unreeled in shades of black and white.
Dr. Steve kept assuring me that my treatment was proceeding according to plan and that to recover I had to be “purged of energy.” His explanations were always vague, and for such a brilliant bird, he didn’t make much sense.
One afternoon as I lay on my cot, staring up at the ceiling, I noticed that the glass overhead was laced with delicate golden filaments. I’d have to try to remember to ask Dr. Steve about that.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble