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.
Dr. Steve was pacing nervously in front of the turbine room’s reinforced doors. “The elevator by the nurses’ station was working, so the power’s back on — and that means we’ve gotta hurry. What took you so long?”
“Sorry, there’s a lot going on up there.” Eden lifted both our clasped hands to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief. “But we made it.”
“Each of you grab a hard hat and a pair of goggles.” Dr. Steve indicated a row of hooks holding an assortment of each on the wall. “We’ve got to pass through the turbine room to get to my machine. Wearing these, you’ll look like the other workers.”
He waited while Eden placed a pair of goggles over his eyes and handed me a hard hat. “Now, Michael, take off your hospital name tag — and get rid of that stethoscope.”
The bird paused at the door to the turbine room. “Don’t worry, the workers know who I am and that I come down here occasionally to check on things. They’ll assume that you belong here too. Fortunately, there aren’t many people here today — busy losing IQ points, no doubt.”
We passed a few white-coated electrical techs checking dials and gauges as Dr. Steve led us over a maze of catwalks. The turbines, blue and white half-cylinders resting in wells in the concrete floors, were twelve feet tall and at least as wide. Their loud rumbling permeated the air, and even the concrete under our feet seemed to vibrate in harmony.
We hurriedly crossed the vast, high-ceilinged room, stopping only when we reached a partially dismantled turbine, its great copper coils starting to corrode.
“Our first turbine. I helped design it myself. It’s been offline for a few years, and nobody ever comes back here now.” Dr. Steve yelled over the noise, leading us behind the deteriorating hulk and stopping in front of a yellow and black striped steel door, its paint peeling. “Eden, you’ve got the key.
“I’m the only bird who’s been in here in years.” Dr. Steve tapped a wingpad by the door, and a row of lights above our heads blazed to life. “Good thing all the necessary equipment to power my device is still here. All right, Eden, you’ll have to flip the switches to power up, the way we talked about.” He glanced at me. “This board was built to be operated by human techs.
“Sit down, Michael.” The cockatoo indicated a chair placed in the middle of the floor on a thick rubber mat.
The chair looked like one of our old kitchen chairs, and I remembered how as a child I used to take my favorite Winnie the Pooh pillow and place it in the hard, unpadded seat before I sat at the kitchen table to draw pictures of monsters and aliens. The homely wooden chair — stranded as it was in the large room with its metal cabinetry, banks of controls, and cinder block walls — struck me as unreal.
Suspended from a pulley and hanging a few feet over the chair was a roughly spherical object, almost two feet in diameter, composed of copper coils and small metal bars. Thick electric cables and liquid-filled tubes were connected to the sphere’s top and sides, but the flattened bottom of the sphere was open. The dark interior cavity was a little larger than a man’s head.
“What are you going to do to me?” I looked up at the menacing contraption. Blue fluid pulsed and gurgled through the tubes, and I imagined I heard the plaintive creak of overburdened supports.
“We’re going to destroy your implant, Michael. This machine is the only hope we have of ending this nightmare. It’s this, captivity, surgery — or death. And the last two options are essentially the same.”
“What exactly is it?” I was afraid, but it was too late to turn back now. Besides, the bird was right. There didn’t seem to be another way out.
“It’s a degausser, an electromagnetic device which produces a powerful magnetic field — much as the Lodestars did. This field will destroy your implant and scramble its delicate circuits. I paid a black-market tech to weld the mechanism together, and I had him install a cooling system so it wouldn’t overheat.”
Eden squeezed my hand. “It’ll be okay, Michael. I’ll be right here, and Dr. Steve knows what he’s doing.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed my cheek. Then she guided me gently into the chair.
She slowly lowered the heavy contraption onto my shoulders, and everything went black. I heard my friends’ muffled voices and the gurgling of the fluids as they coursed through the tubes. The low hum of electricity slowly increased, drowning out all other sound.
I wondered then if the monsters and aliens I’d imagined when I was a little boy sitting in a chair like the one I now sat in were real — and as I thought I saw their leering faces, I smelled something burning.
27:00, Day 490, Expedition Time
Disinformation and Infotainment Office, Administration Pod
Intergalactic Communications Starship Foregone Conclusion
Somewhere in the Galaxy where no man has gone before...
“Have you managed to pull yourself away from your disgusting pastimes long enough to read the latest reports from Terra?”
“Yeah, I was (bleep)in’ pulling myself, all right!”
“Grow up! Anyway, looks like our ratings are down: we lost Terra.”
“Man, that bites the big (bleep). Makes me wanna go back to bed, put my heads under the covers and (bleep) till I can’t (bleep) anymore.”
“You know, you and your kind are what’s wrong with the Federation! Your liberal porno-culture is destroying our tradition of decency, rugged individualism, and self-reliance.”
“Self-reliance, huh. Man, I (bleep)ed myself off seven (bleep)in’ times today. If that’s not (bleep)in’ relying on yourself—”
“We’ve got a bigger problem than your perversion. Can you believe that somebody’s cooked Terra’s Receiver! You remember, the wacko.”
“You mean (bleep)in’ Michael! Man, that was some hot nursie he had. She can take my (bleep)in’ temperature anytime, if you know what I mean. Those mammals have the biggest (blee—”
“Biggest my foot! They’re the only ones with them, you xenophile! Now if you’d stop thinking with your hind brain for a while... I was reminding you that after the Federation decided to destroy Terran civilization by sending the electromagnetic generators, we thought we’d thrown Terra back into the dark ages. And of course, we thought that the genetically engineered diseases that escaped from Terra’s own biological warfare labs after their infrastructure failed would really put them out of the running.”
“Wait just a (bleep)in’ minute. You mean we didn’t have a hand in the plagues?”
“No, even we are not that evil.”
“Guess you’re (bleep)in’ right about that. But I thought those mutant birds were supposed to be at least a hundred Terran years behind (bleep)in’ humans.”
“If you hadn’t been so busy being a filthy degenerate, you’d know what was going on. These birds are smarter than we ever imagined. They’re developing technologies of their own that are almost as advanced as human technologies were before the Lodestars were activated. And you know where that will—”
“Hey now, I may be a filthy degenerate, but I’m not the one popping OXY. So, your highness, what are we going to do to keep these (bleep)in’ Terrans from blowing up that nice piece of real estate they’re roosting on? Could be even worse — they might get smart enough to get back into space, get a (bleep)load further out than the humans ever did. You know, if Terrans make it out here, then there goes the neighborhood — and even I’ve got some (bleep)in’ standards.”
“We’ve already done something to slow them down; we started sending them rebroadcasts of old Terran television shows as soon as we heard about the Receiver from our operative, you know that skinny red-headed broad who worked in Personnel down in Birdland. Ah... what was her name? Chickpea, Chapstick, something like that.
“Anyway, television was great at distracting the birds and making the humans as lazy as Scumwellians collecting welfare and sitting on their rear-ends watching color TV while they nuke fargat and popples in the microwave.
“But unfortunately, television wasn’t as effective as we’d have liked; the birds’ society was much tougher to destroy than we thought. That’s when the Supreme Programmer decided to hit them with the big guns: talk radio. That’s where you and I came in.”
“You mean that (bleep)in’ stuff we’re sending them — that crap we did years ago when we were fifth-columning on Terra?”
“Obviously. Were we going to send them National Public Radio? Might’ve put them to sleep, but that’s about it. But to get back to what I was saying, the Receiver is down.”
“So you’re telling me that we’re off the (bleep)in’ air on Terra?”
“Yes, the Receiver’s got brain damage. When that bird doctor tried to cure him, he jammed the guy’s brain along with his implant. The only thing Michael’s getting is crazier by the minute. Now he only thinks he hears voices.”
“So is Terran civilization recovering from our (bleep)in’ offensive?”
“Offensive...? Well, that’s one way to describe it. But don’t worry, the birds will eventually figure out how to build more receivers. And when they do, we’re going to send them something that’s even more lethal to Terran intelligence than talk radio: Reality TV.”
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble