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.
When I awoke the next morning the sun was already high overhead, and I wondered why Eden hadn’t brought my breakfast. Dr. Steve and a strange tech appeared about nine o’clock with my tray. When I asked where Eden was, Dr. Steve said that she’d not come in that morning.
The day passed slowly with no one to talk to except for Dr. Steve, who appeared after lunch bringing me another book; but I couldn’t get interested in A Short History of the Parrot Utopian Ideal, Volume 18. No one brought me any dinner or my medicine that evening, and no one answered when I pushed the call button. Since I was locked in, I didn’t have much choice but to wait until someone showed up.
Hunger and anxiety kept me awake that night, and I finally gave up on trying to sleep and got out of bed. It must have been about one o’clock, and I was trying to slog my way through Dr. Steve’s book when a loud thump rattled the room’s heavy inner door in its frame.
A few minutes later, an unfamiliar tech — a tall and muscular man — stuck his head in the door. “Just checkin’.”
“What’s going on out there?” I asked, laying my book aside.
The tech didn’t meet my gaze. “Nothin’ to worry about.” He came to my bed and handed me two pills and a glass of water. “Here, take these. You need to rest and this’ll help.” He waited until I swallowed the medicine. “Now try to go to sleep.” He turned on his heel and left, closing the door and throwing its bolts behind him.
* * *
It must have been almost ten a.m. when they finally came. I had been alternately trying to read and pacing since I woke at eight from a heavy yet unsatisfying sleep. Eden, looking almost as tired as I felt, rolled my meal cart in front of her, Dr. Steve on her heels.
“What happened last night?” I looked at the doctor. “What was going on in the corridor?”
“Just some protesters.” He shrugged, not meeting my eye.
“Protesters?” I raised my eyebrows. In my experience, birds were law-abiding and tractable citizens, and humans lucky enough to make it to Birdland weren’t going to cause trouble. They knew the birds would deport them without a moment’s thought.
“Some folks aren’t happy about your being here. You know, you’re more important than you realize, Michael, for a number of reasons.”
The bird paused and nodded at my tray. “Eat your breakfast now. You must be starving.”
I was hungry, but I was more concerned about what he had to say; I simply sat there and waited for him to continue.
Dr. Steve sighed. “I’m going to explain everything to you while you’re eating.” He turned to Eden. “You can go now. This may take a while, and I know you have plenty of other things to do.”
The door closed behind her, and the bird pushed the cart towards me with one foot. “You need to eat, Michael.”
He was right; I was famished after missing last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast, and I hungrily spooned a mixture of nuts, dried fruits, and toasted grains covered with fresh milk into my mouth as Dr. Steve looked on.
“Sorry we forgot you last night, Michael. There’s been a little trouble around here, and in the confusion the dietician must have forgotten to order your meal. All this fuss over my project...”
“Are you talking about Avi-Vision? That’s your baby, isn’t it?” I was curious in spite of my worries, and I paused before pouring a generous dollop of honey into my chamomile tea.
“Well... yes.” Dr. Steve preened a little. “Avi-Vision is my fledgling. After the Lodestars destroyed television and most other electronic devices, we scientists spent years trying to reinvent them all. Eventually we redeveloped television and produced some great educational programs as well. You should watch some of them when you get out of here.”
“So I might be getting out of here soon?” I set down the heavy mug of rapidly cooling tea and sat up straighter.
Dr. Steve rocked back and forth uneasily before finally meeting my gaze. “First, you should know something about the problems you’ve been having and why you’re really here.”
“What do you mean, why I’m really here?”
“I told you earlier that you were being purged of energy. That’s why we put you in here. Well, signals might be a better term than energy actually.” Dr. Steve paused. “Old signals,” he said.
“What kind of signals?”
“Television signals, Michael.”
So I’m not going crazy. “That’s what I’ve been seeing and hearing since I’ve been in this room!”
Dr. Steve’s pupils widened in surprise. “Maybe... and that would explain how you knew that song. You couldn’t have heard it anywhere else. You’ve been in here since before it was broadcast.
“Perhaps the plate in your head and the electromagnet in your implant are working together to convert the audio signal to sound and th— ”
“’Are working?’ Are you telling me that my implant is doing something? You told me it was dead.”
“I lied, Michael. I’m sorry. But I’m telling you the truth this time. The implant is damaged, but it still works.” The cockatoo gazed up at the glass ceiling, a faraway look on his face. “And with the enhanced reception that the chamber was designed for...”
“Enhanced reception? What are you talking about?”
“Michael, I’m trying to explain. I’ll get to that if you’ll just give me a chance.”
“And you’ve been lying to me all along...? This has never been about helping me, has it?” I felt like a fool; I had trusted Dr. Steve.
“No, I’m afraid you’re right.” He seemed to shrink a little, his narrow shoulders slumping. “But now I’m going to tell you exactly what’s going on. When the humanary technician who conducted the physical you had when you first arrived in Birdland saw your x-rays, he contacted his supervisor, who contacted me. He thought I might be interested in you.
“And,” Dr. Steve said, “his letter piqued my curiosity, so I had him send me copies of your records and x-rays. After I saw them, I did a little research on you and found out about your mother’s work in medical microelectronics. I knew right away that your implant was something special. And that’s why I arranged for your transfer up here.”
“Lucky me,” I said sarcastically.
“Um... yes. Well...” The bird looked down at his feet and cleared his throat. “Well anyway, I studied the results of the second examination you underwent when you were transferred, analyzed the signals given off by your implant, and eventually came to believe that the device in your skull contained an electromagnet attached to an electronic controller.” He paused. “Do you understand this so far, Michael?”
“Yes. I have a general idea of how the implant worked. My mother explained it to me once when I was little, and I have worked with a few electronics. The Lodestars didn’t fry all of them; there were a few Faraday cages that were strong enough to protect the electronics inside, you know. And even in the city I’m from, some rich people do have generators and a few electronics. I actually had the chance to work on a little music machine called a Walkman once; it was part of Sheriff Billy Bobwhite’s daughter’s dowry.”
Dr. Steve nodded. “Well, good. With your experience, you shouldn’t find the implant’s mechanism hard to understand. But just in case you’ve forgotten the details, I’ll explain the device very quickly: the implant was designed to emit regular pulses of energy that would regulate your brain-waves, thus preventing your headaches and seizures.”
The cockatoo’s intense brown eyes fastened on me. “It contains a modified receiver originally meant to synchronize itself to the timing codes in a television signal; it used these codes in order to produce pulses at precise intervals.”
“So what’s this got to do with what’s happening to me?”
“Well, Michael, I think when the receiver was damaged by the Lodestars, it stopped regulating your brainwaves. Then it started doing what it was designed to do before it was modified — it started receiving television signals. It ended up routing those signals into the implant’s electromagnet. The signals the implant is emitting in response are faint, and that’s why we designed this special chamber.” The bird blinked, nictitating membranes flashing horizontally across his eyes.
“I know we told you that it was supposed to shield you from energy, but in reality the chamber works like a giant antenna. It’s got absolutely nothing, including excess bedding, that might absorb the signal.” Dr. Steve squared his shoulders and met my eyes. “I’m sorry I lied to you, Michael.”
I didn’t know what to say. In a way, it was a relief to have some answers. The whole world had gone crazy since I was a child — or maybe it had been crazy for a long time.
“I realize that you must’ve been uncomfortable, but your signal is so weak that we decided to do everything we could to avoid dampening it. We built the lock to separate the chamber from the rest of the building and block any stray signals that might leak in from our equipment.”
The cockatoo glanced up at the ceiling. “And to enhance your reception, we even embedded a gold matrix in the glass overhead. The gold acts as an antenna and helps pull in the signals from space.”
“Yeah, I meant to ask you about that,” I said; and as I spoke, I realized that I’d known something was off all along.
“I can’t justify the way we’ve been exploiting you, Michael, but we didn’t think that what we were doing would really hurt you; and we wanted to study the signals you were emitting. We thought the end justified the means. We were wrong.”
Dr. Steve shifted on his perch and fluffed his golden crest. “I’ve tried to see that you were as comfortable as we could make you within the parameters of our experiment, Michael. That’s why I assigned one nurse to you full-time; I thought you needed a friend, and Eden is a kind and competent young woman. I know she’s grown to care about you.”
The bird stared at the floor, his wings crossed behind his back. “But sadly, it doesn’t seem that there’s much to be done for you as long as your implant’s malfunctioning. As of now, the implant’s useless for stopping your headaches and seizures: it may even be making you sicker, no matter what I told you when you first asked me about it. But I promise you that I’m going to try to find a way to help you.”
He was quiet for a few moments, and I realized that he was gazing longingly at my food.
“Here.” I pushed a plate holding a few blueberry muffins towards him. “I seem to have lost my appetite.” I watched him grab a muffin with one strong grayish foot. “Dr. Steve,” I said, “where are the signals coming from?”
The bird choked down the last dry bite of muffin and coughed up an errant crumb. “Thanks for the food. Since the cooks in the cafeteria got Avi-Vision, they’re so busy watching it that they’ll barely pull themselves away long enough to cook a decent meal. And they refuse to come to work unless they’ve got their own set.”
I peeled a banana and offered to Dr. Steve. He ate rapidly and sighed with satisfaction.
“Anyway, Michael, before the Lodestars wiped out Earth’s transmitters, television signals from our planet traveled far out into space. Well, somebody up there must have been listening — and now they’re sending some of these signals back to us. Those signals are what your implant is receiving.”
“So how is it that I’m picking up these signals, exactly?” I picked up my cooling tea and took a swallow. My throat felt dry, and my heart seemed to be beating much too fast.
“The signals we’re getting have been converted to digital, which means we birds don’t have the technology to process them right now. That’s where you come in. Your implant is reconverting these signals to analog, which we can process.”
“Why haven’t you told me all this before?”
“I couldn’t, Michael. I was under strict orders not to discuss this with anyone. We didn’t plan on allowing the public access to your signal until we had thoroughly studied the potential societal effects.”
“So what happened?”
Dr. Steve sighed. “Unfortunately, a technician started routing your output through our educational network without permission, and now it seems the demand for these programs is too great for us to just cut them off: if the citizens couldn’t watch Green Acres and Leave It to Beaver, they might even stop overseeing the humanimal workers they’re responsible for.”
“That’s fine for you.” I pushed my tray aside roughly. “But just how long are you birds planning to keep me here?”
“Well, you see, it wouldn’t be safe for you outside. Initially only the bigwings knew about you, and we planned on keeping everything under wraps until we had developed our own converters. But someone sang, and the cat’s out of the bag.” Dr. Steve looked glum. “So now everyone knows about you.”
“Am I ever going to get out of here?”
“As I said, you wouldn’t be safe if we let you go, Michael. Look what happened last night.”
“You mean the protesters?”
“Yes. Some of those protesters could get violent. You don’t realize how much things have changed since you starting transmitting.”
“I think I’m starting to get an idea. Things sure as hell have changed for me.”
“I know, Michael.” The bird winced. “And there are those who would like to see the signal stopped, no matter what it takes.”
“So they’d kill me if they could? That what you’re saying?” I felt my breakfast turning to lead in my belly.
“I’m not going to let that happen, Michael. You won’t be released until we can figure out how to construct our own converters. You’ll be safe then, and everything should settle down. If you’re not the transmitter, there’ll be no reason to bother you.”
Dr. Steve pushed my tray towards me once again and headed for the door before turning around to face me. “Try to finish your breakfast, Michael. It may be a while before you get another decent meal.” The heavy door swung shut behind him.
That was the day I started filing down the handle of the spoon I’d taken from the breakfast tray.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Faith H. Goble