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.
“Michael, can you hear me?”
I gradually became aware that Dr. Steve was standing over me, dimly illuminated by a ghostly green glow. I was lying on the cool metal floor. When I looked up through the glass overhead, I could see that night had fallen
Eden stood at Dr. Steve’s side, holding a chemical lantern, and I realized that the power was out and the door was open behind them.
Eden put down the lantern and knelt beside me, taking my cold hand in her two warm ones. “Michael, do you know where you are?”
I nodded and tried to raise myself up on my elbows, but I was too weak to succeed. “Eden. I’ve missed you.”
She put a hand on my shoulder. “I know, Michael. It’s okay, I’m here now.” Giving my shoulder a final gentle squeeze, she removed a penlight from her pocket. She shined it into my eyes, and looked up at Dr. Steve. “Looks alright... I don’t think he hurt himself when he fell during the seizure.”
“What were you doing up, Michael?” Dr. Steve asked.
I didn’t remember why I had gotten up. “I don’t know...”
“Here, Michael.” Eden helped to my feet and got me back into bed. She fumbled in her pocket, pulled out a small vial, and shook two of the familiar yellow pills out into my palm. “Take these. They’re only sleeping pills, but you’ve gotta get some rest tonight. You’re gonna need your strength tomorrow.” She poured a glass of water, handed it to me, and waited while I swallowed the pills.
“Is that all you were giving me, Dr. Steve?” I wasn’t really surprised at this point. What was one more lie? “You told me they were experimental drugs.”
“Well,” the cockatoo said, “our medicines are even more primitive than the old human drugs, but I wanted to make you as comfortable as possible without compromising our reception. Too, I hoped that the drugs might have a placebo effect and reduce your stress and that might give you a little relief.
“And I’m ashamed to admit it, but we gave you the meds to make you think we were doing something; we needed to justify keeping you here. The drugs did make you sleep, and that made you feel better, but as hypnotics they probably also allowed you to tune in, so to speak, to the signals you were receiving. That’s why you could see and hear the images and sounds.
“Lately, though” — Dr. Steve paused and shook his head as if in self-reproach — “there have been so many other things to worry about that your comfort was kind of forgotten. Eden hasn’t even been able to get through the picket line to come to work or to see you until tonight, but the protestors have faded away for the time being. Guess they’re too busy with call-ins.” He made a disgusted little snorting sound.
“Michael, some time ago, Mac told me that you were having severe seizures almost every day. So I decided to do something about your condition.”
“What can you do? I’m not going to get any better, Dr. Steve.”
“Well, keeping you here isn’t helping you. I think it might even kill you, and I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. The signals you started receiving after the Lodestars damaged your implant seem to have caused a recurrence of your seizures — or at the very least, made them worse.”
The cockatoo looked up at the gold-laced ceiling. “Owing to the characteristics of this chamber, the amplified signals you’re receiving now could very well be more than you can stand. And since we’ve been monitoring you, the strength of the signals from space has increased. It’s almost as if whoever’s sending the signals knows you’re here.”
So now aliens were purposely screwing with my head. What next? Big Foot was going to appear in my room?
The bird spoke slowly, “And you know, of course, that you’ll be held captive as long as you’re the only conduit for the signals. But I’ve come up with a solution to your problems — and ours too.”
“Your problems? You mean all the trouble over AV?” Meeting his questioning look, I said, “Eden told me everything that was going on outside.”
“Well, it’s even worse out there than it was before.” Dr. Steve tilted his white head, pale in the lamplight, towards the door. “When you hit your head trying to escape, not only were you injured, but the implant must have been damaged too. It no longer receives television signals — and of course, there’s no way we can even try to tune the implant without removing it from your skull.”
I could feel the pills gradually starting to kick in. “So what’s going to— ”
“Some say we should just take it and not worry about killing you.” Dr. Steve cut me off mid-sentence. He exhaled deeply and looked at the floor, seemingly dismayed at such humanishness. “But that’s where I draw the line. Our humanarians just don’t have the skill to do delicate brain surgery successfully, and I refuse to let my project force us to sink to the level of butchers.”
Even through the relaxing haze of the little yellow pills, I shivered at the thought of the birds’ tame humanarians hacking away at my skull.
“But I’ve seen how much harm these signals have done to you, and they’ve played hell with our society too.” Dr. Steve gazed thoughtfully into the void past the feeble greenish glow of the lantern. “I’ve done something about it. I’ve secretly built a device to keep your implant from receiving signals ever again. I believe my device will work without injuring you. It should be safer for you than surgery, I think... And it’ll put a stop to this madness for good.”
“So... you’re saying the implant’s still receiving signals?” I could feel my eyes drifting shut, and the figures of Eden and the doctor seemed to be moving away from me.
“Oh, it’s receiving, all right. It’s just picking up a different kind of signal now — a radio signal, and it’s causing a lot more trouble than AV ever did...”
* * *
The power went off around noon and the lock swung open. I stopped pacing. This was it. Dr. Steve had told me that it would be time to go when the electricity failed.
“Alright, Michael. We need to get going.” Dr. Steve waddled rapidly into my room a few minutes later, with a white-coated Eden close behind.
“Put this on, Michael.” The rumpled white coat Eden helped me into was several sizes too large, and she plucked at the too-long sleeves critically, her head tilted to the side. “I don’t think anyone will notice. Lots of the staff are absent and everyone here has his hands full. Good thing so many people are missing work — there’s only one guard on duty.”
I looked down at the name tag pinned to the coat’s lapel. “Humanary Technician Cheepy MacMartin? What happened to Mac?”
Dr. Bill shrugged.“He’s quit — said something about going to Mexicrow ‘where all the good jobs are’.”
“Here, Michael, these” — Eden hung a stethoscope around my neck and handed me a clipboard with a sheaf of papers attached to it — “will make you look like you belong.”
“Let’s go!” Dr. Bill headed for the door. “Okay, Eden, I’m going to check around the corner. You two come at my say-so.”
Standing in front of me with her hand resting on my arm, Eden cautiously swung open the outer door and peered out. “Come on, Michael, the coast is clear.”
As I stepped out of the lock, I could feel a fine layer of grit coating the once-pristine corridor floor under my shoes. The human guard dozed in his chair, a tray with a half-finished cup of tea and a crumb-festooned plate beside him.
“A few of your sleeping pills in his tea. Should be out for hours.” Eden tugged at my sleeve. “Come on.”
Dr. Steve fell behind as we hurried down the next corridor. “I’m just slowing you down, and we’ve got to get Michael downstairs. It’s just a matter of time before the power’s restored. Eventually someone will think to check on Michael after they turn on their radios and can’t get anything.”
I could feel the strength in Eden’s warm hand on my arm as we started down the hall. We’d only walked a few steps when we heard Dr. Steve’s voice behind us.
“Wait, you two. The elevators aren’t working right now because the power’s off, and I’m not sure when they’ll get the electricity back on.” Dr. Steve looked worried as he continued, “And you can’t take the hospital stairs by the nurses’ station. One of the nurses might see Michael, realize he doesn’t work here, and get suspicious. This is a small hospital, you know, and everyone’s already paranoid because of the protests.
“It will take longer, but you’ll draw less attention if you take the stairs on the opposite side of the atrium.” The bird looked at me. “We’re going to the basement, Michael, where I’ve tapped into the power mains. Eden knows the way. I’ll meet you two at the door to the turbine room.”
Eden and I saw only a few harried workers as we walked through the dim maze of corridors, and no one paid any attention to us but a janitor who grunted as we crossed the wet floor he was swabbing lethargically with a filthy mop. We hurried past him and stepped out an unmarked door that led to a small portico on the western side of the hospital.
As we passed the pharmacy that lay next door to the hospital’s main entrance, I noticed that security bars, the first I’d seen since I’d entered the Palace months ago, had been installed over the store’s darkened windows, one of which was marred by a jagged hole. Shards of glass glittered on the sidewalk beneath the breach, and a few stray packets of colorful pills lay scattered among them. A harried gray-feathered bird in a white coat stood on the sidewalk, gesticulating angrily at a towering uniformed guard from whose shiny belt dangled an assortment of menacing-looking paraphernalia.
Old, dirty birds stood in front of the grocery store, swigging from brown paper bags. “Got any scratch, man?” One of them held out filthy broken claws as I passed by. He looked ill and smelled of guano, and his yellowed foot trembled as he spoke.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any change.” I shook my head and walked on, trying to ignore the stream of invective the decrepit bird spat out behind me.
A heavily made-up pullet strutted past the corner suet shop, from which loud jarring music interspersed with shrieked obscenities pounded. She caught the eye of a young hawk with a purple-and-green mohawk and a couple of beak rings.
“Hey, chickie, show me your white meat!” the punk crowed at the chick as he turned to his companion, a scrawny falcon sporting a leather hood and guyliner. “Bird, how’d you like to deep-fry that?”
The pullet stopped and glared at the two punks. “Kiss my cloaca,” she snarled through her black-painted beak.
I was amazed at the behavior of the young birds. “What’s up with the teenagers?”
“People blame the broadcasts. They say that the trash the kids hear is turning them into sex fiends and hoodlums.”
In front of the Edwin P. Owl-Huddle Science Academy, a group of matronly pigeons flocked around a small fire, cooing angrily about “birdolution in the classroom” as they tossed books into the flames. A few young birds wearing new navy blazers and school ties looked on, complaining about the dress code and chafing at what was apparently unaccustomed neckwear.
The fountain in the atrium was silent, and cigarette butts bobbed in its stagnant, gray water. A bedraggled buzzard, his emaciated carcass covered with newspapers, slept on a park bench, a shopping cart loaded with bits of rubbish and carrion parked nearby.
On the bench where the young lovebirds had perched so long ago, spray-painted graffiti proclaimed “Larks are Gay” across its back. The plantings looked dusty and uncared for, and the ground was dotted with beer cans, Thunderbird wine bottles, and fast-food wrappers.
I looked at the sad, wilting flowers, trampled berry bushes, and the little trees with their broken branches. “Why isn’t anyone taking care of the park?” I caught a whiff of the buzzard’s rotting tidbits. “It even smells foul.”
“A lot of the birds are skipping work and not supervising the 5Fs, so lots of people aren’t bothering to come in.” Eden shepherded me past the neglected plants. “And plenty of other people are afraid to get out and go to work because of the right-wingers — the Bird Firsters are saying that we’re getting uppity and need to be taught a lesson.”
I realized then that I had seen very few humans as we crossed L1, and the ones I had seen didn’t look comfortable. They were even quieter than they usually were when working on the upper levels.
In the center of the atrium, a group of angry birds chanted and waved banners and signs: “Humans Aren’t Human,” “Biped — Better Off Dead,” “Hairheads Are Airheads,” “People Aren’t Peeple.” When they spotted us, a few of them shook clinched feet and shouted, “Humanimals, go back to your cages!”
“Don’t look at them, and maybe they’ll let us alone.” Eden walked by the protestors quickly and guided me past the stairs towards a bank of brushed steel doors. “Hey, looks like at least some of the elevators are working now. Electricity must be back on, but that means we’re running out of time.” She pulled urgently at my arm. “Hurry up, there’s an empty car.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble