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.
“Here, I sneaked this out of the supply closet when no one was looking. I’ll try to bring you several more blankets and a softer pillow later. That’s not gonna hurt anything.” Eden pulled a thin blanket out from under her peach-colored smock, folded it into a tight square, and shoved it into a cabinet.
“Thanks, Eden. I can really use the extra bedding. Some days I do get kind of cold.” I sat up and moved over so she could perch on the bed by my side the way she always did when she had a few minutes to talk.
“Oh yeah! Did you know they have guards posted outside your room now? Your picture was on the front page of the Beak’n again this morning. And all the big magazines — Peeple, A Little Bird Told Me, Newsbeak, Flychology Today — did stories on you this week. Now everybody knows you’re the AV receiver.”
“Oh, that’s just dandy.” I reached for Eden’s hand. I didn’t feel like talking about the problems outside right then. “Anyway, where have you been? I was worried about you.”
“You worry too much, Michael.” She smiled and gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “I couldn’t get into the hospital yesterday. Protesters were blocking the entrance, and they weren’t letting most of the humans in.”
“How bad is it?”
“Well, they’re not really violent, but they’re kinda unpleasant.” Eden lowered her eyes and gave a little shrug. “Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned ’em, but I think you have a right to know exactly what’s going on. And you know I wouldn’t miss being here unless I had to.”
She raised her eyes and squeezed my hand again. “Look, they’re mad about AV and what it’s doing to Birdland, they’re not really mad at you.”
“Sure, Eden.” I smiled halfheartedly. From what Dr. Steve had said, I thought whether the birds were mad at me or not, some of them wouldn’t mind killing me if that’s what it took.
“A lot of the birds say that AV is ruining society, say it’s corrupting the young birds and messing up people too. And” — Eden swung her legs and kicked her heels lightly against the side of the bed — “they say those programs that show humans running things are putting ideas in people’s heads and making ’em forget their place. Then there’re other birds, the Pro-AVs, who think we all have a right to watch whatever we want.”
She leaned towards me. “Would you believe that there are humans protesting too! Most of them just want their programs, but a few have joined the Anti-AVs. They call ’em the DoubleAVs on the news. The DoubleAVs say that if God had wanted us to watch Avi-Vision, he would’ve made us all birdbrains.”
* * *
The glass overhead was black against the muted light coming from my reading lamp. I’d had my dinner hours ago, and I’d forced myself to eat even though I was too keyed up to be hungry. My bed had already been rolled into my room, and if all went as it usually did, no one would miss me till the next morning when AV broadcasting began around my breakfast time.
Just in case someone did happen to check during the night, I’d arranged some of the extra bedding Eden had brought me to look as if I were sleeping. The mound of blankets and pillows should pass a cursory inspection, which is all the night staff ever gave me — that I was aware of, at any rate.
The hospital should have quieted down for the night, and it was time to get out of there. I hadn’t taken my pills earlier that evening; I couldn’t tell that they were doing me any good anyway, and I didn’t want anything to interfere with my thinking or my reflexes. I just had to hope that I didn’t have a seizure as I was climbing down the fire escape (even though the birds could fly, they’d birdanely made provisions for the humans, who couldn’t) that ran by my chamber and spanned the height of the Palace.
I’d spent most of that day scraping at the frozen screws holding one of the heavy legs to the gurney I rested on during the day with the spoon handle I’d filed down until it would fit into their slots. I was shaking from fatigue and nervousness, and my hands were tingling and raw from grasping the steel spoon. Gritting my teeth, I gave a final few turns to the last rusty screw. I breathed a sigh of relief as it came free.
Even though I was tired and weak, I’d made up my mind to make my escape that very night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep with so much adrenaline in my system. And I told myself that the longer I waited, the more likely it was that my plans would come to light. Someone might find the hoarded food I’d secreted in one of the cabinets or notice the shiny new scratches on the gurney’s legs. And I didn’t know if my makeshift screwdriver could stand the strain of even loosely reassembling the gurney and then taking it apart once again. I’d already broken off a piece of the spoon handle’s tip.
I had debated telling Eden of my plans, but I’d finally decided against it. I didn’t want to involve her: the less she knew, the better off she’d be. Besides, I was afraid she’d try to talk me out of it. And I might listen. Eden trusted the birds a lot more than I did, and I knew she thought I wasn’t well enough to leave the hospital. She’d think everything I was doing was too dangerous. I’d already written a note to leave on my pillow, telling her I’d see her again; and as I had penned the note, I’d vowed to myself that someday I’d be healthy. Then I would come back and find her.
I figured I could get to the railway station and out of the country before anyone missed me; and if not and if it seemed too risky to make my way to the border on foot, I still had most of my savings. Some greedy or poverty-stricken humanimal would be willing to take a chance and help me, if the price was right.
Getting out of the country wouldn’t be too difficult if I could just get out of the Palace; the birds were more concerned about undesirables getting in than desirables getting out. And once I got out of Birdland, I’d be fine. I knew the deserted countryside that surrounded Birdland well, and walking back to the city I’d grown up in shouldn’t take me more than a couple of days.
Luckily, I’d kept up my exercises, so I wasn’t too badly out of shape. And I told myself I’d feel better when I got away from the Palace and my so-called therapy. It was late August now; the nights were getting cooler, but I had a couple of blankets I would take with me. As for water, there were several small springs on the way back to the city, so I would be okay on that score. Eden had been seeing that I got more than enough to eat lately, and I’d managed to save a good supply of food — nuts, seeds, and dried fruit — from my meal trays over the past few weeks.
I took off the pajamas I’d put on at the usual time and changed into my warmest clothes; then I carefully wrapped my money in a a couple of handkerchiefs and pushed one of the little packets I’d created deep into each of my jeans’ front pockets. I bundled a blanket, the empty juice bottles I’d saved to carry water, and my food in my remaining blanket.
With great effort, I lifted off the heavy machine that rested on a sturdy equipment cart. I rolled the cart into the middle of the room and wedged folded pages torn from books against the cart’s wheels (I hadn’t been able to remove the wheels; loosening them required a hex wrench) as tightly as I could. Clutching the heavy gurney leg, I climbed up beside my makeshift pack resting on the cart’s gray enameled top.
The sky was black velvet above my head, and stars glimmered like ornaments strung on the sparkling gold filaments embedded in the roof’s thick glass panes in their steel framework. I tapped the glass with the gurney leg experimentally; at least I didn’t have to worry about anyone hearing the impact of the metal leg on the glass; the sealed room was virtually soundproof when the doors were closed.
I took a deep breath, tried to clear my mind, and swung the leg at the ceiling as hard as I could. I heard a satisfying crack and the tinkle of shattering crystal. And I felt the cart flying out from under me.
* * *
When I came to, I was lying in a hospital bed, and I had a sharp, throbbing headache. As I lifted my hand to feel what I was certain would be a walnut-sized lump on my scalp, a dull pain shot up my arm. That’s when I noticed the IV. I also became aware that the ringing noise and the voices that I vaguely remembered were gone, replaced with a tentative silence. When I looked up through the now-intact glass, I could see that it was night, and I slipped back into a blissful darkness.
“Neo-Socialist Feminazi,” a bellicose voice suddenly blustered, the harsh tone shattering the quiet and jerking me awake.
“What... who’s there?” No one answered and all I heard was the gentle roar of the ventilation system. It was peaceful for a few moments, but then the voice began jabbering about “left-wing environmentalist wacko Chi-Com regimes.”
This nonsensical dialogue quickly disintegrated into a cascade of meaningless gibberish, punctuated by screeches and ineffectual squawks and farts as if a large, angry bird were being strangled nearby.
The voices slowly faded as the door opened; Dr. Steve entered the room, followed by a hulking, blank-faced hum tech in a rumpled white coat. I recognized him as the man who’d been on duty the night I’d heard the thump on my door.
“Michael? Can you hear me?” Dr. Steve looked concerned. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Michael?”
“Yes,” I said, “of course I do.” I glanced up as the tech busily fitted a blood pressure cuff around my arm. “Where’s Eden?”
Dr. Steve didn’t answer my question. “Mac here will be taking care of you for a while. Do you remember what happened?”
“Sort of...? I fell.” I could remember last night, but not clearly; everything seemed misty and faraway as if it had happened to someone else.
“Yes, Michael. You hit your head trying to escape. The blow seems to have done something to your implant. Only the Good Lorikeet knows what you did to your brain. The humanarians didn’t know when you were going to come out of your coma or even if you would.”
Mac removed the cuff from my arm and looked at Dr. Steve. “Everything’s normal, Sir, least as far as I can tell... But he’s still weak.”
Dr. Steve nodded to the tech, dismissing him. He watched Mac close the door and then turned back towards me. “How are you feeling, Michael?”
“I feel as if I’ve been asleep for days. How long have I been out?” I asked, my voice creaking like an old man’s.
“Michael,” the bird said gently, “you’ve been unconscious for two weeks.”
* * *
I wasn’t seeing the images anymore, but I was hearing voices almost every day, and they had changed. Gone were the songs, the laughter, and the gentle banter of the AV programs. In their place were the voices of vituperative men, such as the one I’d heard right after I woke up, and a few autocratic women ranting endlessly. All the voices were arrogantly berating anyone who dared disagree with them. These hate-filled voices purported to know the answer to any question, and the answer often entailed incarcerating someone.
Sometimes I heard another voice, glib and somehow prurient, blathering continually about deviant sex acts and bodily functions while holding embarrassingly asinine conversations with what appeared to be a group of pathetic mental deficients.
At other times the voice seemed obsessed with violence, repeating the speaker’s desire to continually bang almost everyone and everything and boasting of an ability to partake of this antisocial pastime indefinitely.
Occasionally the voice engaged in less-than-sparkling repartee with a giggling, cackling, and supposedly large-breasted female bird, a robin (although she sounded almost human at times). I couldn’t understand why a member of this normally intelligent species would put up with the puerile teasing she suffered at the hands of the human nincompoop — perhaps he supplied her with a lot of birdseed.
The voices were different; some were demagogic while others were lubricious, yet they all seemed intent on cultivating the basest parts of either bird or human nature. I could only imagine what their motives were and what impact the voices would have, but listening to them made me fear for all of birdanity.
One morning, when the voices were still, I realized how quiet the chamber was; the usual constant susurration of the ventilation system seemed muted. When I put my hand to the vents, I felt only a weak current of lukewarm air and realized the pumps were no longer working at full strength. I had noticed that the chamber often became unpleasantly warm during the middle of the day, when the sun was high overhead, and slightly chilly at night. I wondered who was servicing the pumps.
As the days marched on with mesmerizing slowness, the electricity sometimes failed, causing the pumps to cease completely. When that happened, someone always opened the door so I could get plenty of fresh air, but now there was a guard posted outside day and night. It didn’t much matter to me; I felt exhausted most of the time and didn’t have the energy to worry.
Even though I was drowsy all day, I could barely sleep at night and felt edgy and nervous. I had little appetite for the increasingly unappealing meals, which consisted mainly of dried fruits and nuts or canned soups and vegetables. No one was even bringing me my medicine now: maybe they’d realized it wasn’t helping me anyway.
Dr. Steve stopped by several times a day and tried to cheer me up. He often assured me that he was working on a solution to my problem, but he wouldn’t give me any details. I tried as best I could to stay hopeful, and I talked to Mac sometimes to try to find out what was going on outside. Unfortunately, Mac wasn’t very communicative.
I missed Eden.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble