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A Rumor of Birds

1. The Rumor

Birds! An entire colony of birds, flourishing in what was left of the rainforests of South America. Lucy Pearlson blinked her eyes hard and read the entire letter again. She couldn't believe the words she was reading. Her sister, Rebecca, working with a group of missionaries in Brazil, claimed to have seen an entire flock of birds with her own eyes!

Now Becca Pearlson was not prone to exaggeration. She was as down-to-earth as any other grad-student drop-out. Sure, two years ago, she suddenly left University and any chance at a graduate degree in plant biology, to follow her overly-religious boyfriend into the wilds of South America and work with the survivors of the South American war. Well, maybe she wasn't quite down-to-earth. But exaggeration and confabulation were mostly foreign to her way of thinking. If Becca said she saw birds . . . .

Of course, everyone in the ornithology department of Missouri University, (affectionately known as “Mizzou”), had heard the rumors. There had been scores of rumors, from all over the world, of birds which had survived the ecological turmoil of the so-called golden age of genetic technology, between the third and fourth world wars. At first, teams of scientists were quickly dispatched to any corner of the globe where birds were said to be found. Hope filled these researchers with energy. But time has a way of sapping the energy out of hope. Claim after claim was proven false. Eventually, the scientists stopped believing the rumors and the rumors gradually diminished in frequency and urgency and believability. Every scientist was convinced of the same conclusion. There were no birds left anywhere in the wild.

But the written word of one Rebecca A. Pearlson was worth more than any two or three rumors put together! Well, it was worth checking out, anyway. And it would give Lucy sufficient criteria for obtaining all of the necessary (and very difficult to come-by) government approvals, security visas, international I.D and travel authorization, and other ridiculous and redundant paperwork needed to travel anywhere these days. Every reasonable government left in the world understood the importance of repopulating the world with birds.

2. The Trip

After a surprisingly expedited travel approval process, taking over three months and costing several thousand inter-credits, Lucy was lightly-packed and fully-authorized to travel alone to the jungles of what used to be the nation of Brazil. She had to practically sign her life and her legal rights away to obtain those authorizations. After scores of small wars, a couple world wars that went nuclear, and incessant terrorist campaigns by every unhappy splinter group on the planet, anyone who wanted to engage in international travel was placed under the most intense scrutiny allowed by law.

Some overzealous Travel Security officials even felt obliged to go beyond the bounds of the law, in pursuit of their duty, or their career advancement, or their own personal semi-delusional worldview. They opened an Investigation and Surveillance case on practically anyone they wished, sometimes obtaining the proper authorizations, by submitting false statements on the appropriate forms, but more often by doing so off-the-books. If they found anything illegal, the proper paperwork could always be obtained later and back-dated. And if they found nothing, there was no record of their mistakes.

As Lucy boarded the UST-17 Ramjet, she breathed a sigh of new anxiety. This latest breed of super-jet was the pride of the U.S.T. (United States and Territories) military-run airline. But, as such, they were also prime targets for attacks by foreign powers or various political, economic, and social factions. Oh well, if the plane was attacked in mid-flight, at nearly Mach 9, she'd only feel it for a fraction of a second.

To keep her mind off the anxiety of possibility, Lucy leafed through her favorite book, a rare first-edition Audubon Society Field Guide to South American Birds, one from before the third world war. The plethora of birds thriving on earth during that time was staggering! Birds of every shape and size and color made their nests in every ecological niche imaginable. Some birds nested in trees, some on the face of high cliffs, some underground . . . and that was the problem. They all nested somewhere on the face of the earth. Soaring high above the ground, they were safe from most predators (except other birds). But once they nested, they and their eggs and their young were easy targets for the genetically-enhanced mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and combinations thereof, which now scoured the earth.

Gen-tech was heralded as the next great technological advancement. At first, it was genetically-altered agricultural animals,—cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys,—for use as food sources or to produce the latest bio-tech medicines. Then, various types of household pets were genetically “improved.” The success of these early efforts was so impressive, (though no one now admits to having been impressed,) that genetic alteration of all sorts of creatures in the wild, from insects to reptiles to mammals, began to gain favor. Any project aiming to better any species, other than human beings, easily found government approval and eager investors. Gen-tech IPOs were all the rage.

On the other hand, genetic alteration of human DNA was strictly controlled and mostly illegal. Numerous reasons were given for these laws—ethical, religious, scientific, practical. But the overriding reason, the one with the most political clout, was that the U.S.T. government (and probably other large governments around the world) was allegedly using gen-tech, for military purposes, on humans. And they felt no great need for competition from the private sector.

Lucy gazed out the tiny window of the Ramjet, and wondered what Darwin would say about the strange new wildlife below, which had so rapidly evolved and spread across the earth. The theory of evolution depends, in part, on the concept of the constant interaction of small, naturally-occurring, genetic variations. Darwin never imagined the possibility that science would jump-start the process by introducing large deliberate genetic alterations into the wild. The precarious balance of power between different species in Nature had been upset by the intervention of Science. Evolution was dead, or at least irrelevant.

These genetically-altered creatures made their way into the wild in a number of different ways. Some of the gen-tech pets proved too much for their owners and escaped or were abandoned. A few of the gen-tech animals actually escaped into the wild from on-going research. Occasionally, one animal rights activist group or another would raid one of the larger research facilities and set the creatures free. And then there were the numerous projects that failed to show results, ran out of funding, and were shut down. The animals from those defunct projects were supposed to be killed, but some soft-hearted lab assistants released them instead. But the most talked-about and most maligned reason that these creatures made it into the wild was that numerous projects actually received government approval to release the gen-techs. The scientists hoped to test various gen-tech enhancements with good old-fashioned survival of the fittest. The government officials hoped that the tests would yield results with military applications. Many of these experiments were successful, but the scientists lost control of the experiments.

These creatures not only survived, they reproduced, and then they survived some more. They crossbred with non-enhanced creatures in the wild, spreading their genetic enhancements throughout a species. The non-enhanced versions just couldn't compete. And, every so often, one gen-tech animal would find and mate with another gen-tech of the same species, effectively doubling the enhancements of their off-spring.

But the worst enhancement that ever escaped into the wild, the one with the greatest and most devastating effect, was the cross-species gene set. This set of genes was designed to allow animals from different species to successfully breed, as long as they were from the same genus, or sometimes even the same family. The evolutionary advantage of being able to combine gene pools from two different species proved overwhelming for the non-enhanced creatures of the earth. At first, the gen-techs could only breed with other closely-related species. But, after they had taken in the best of the genes from many different species across a genus or family, they gained the ability to breed with other families of animals.

Soon these super-critters were scouring the face of the earth, out-competing the genetically-challenged by taking over their habitats, using up their food sources, and using them as food sources. Many of these new gen-tech creatures had no names. They were the result of one species crossing with another and another and another, so many times, in fact, that the resultant off-spring often defied categorization. Such a gen-tech critter could be part mammal, part reptile, part amphibian, and part something altogether new. The general population called them by various offensive expressions, none of them complimentary or scientifically accurate.

The bird species were a different case altogether. There were many attempts to improve various species of birds. And these genetic alterations did escape into the wild. But the cross-species gene set had not yet been successfully brought into any population of gen-tech birds. And any enhanced birds which did escape into the wild soon met the same fate as the non-enhanced. The gen-tech critters ate their eggs, ate their young before they were able to fly, and destroyed their nesting places. With no place to nest and no way to reproduce successfully, no species of bird on earth was able to survive.

Numerous zoos and bird sanctuaries still had a few birds, but the populations in captivity were dwindling. And all attempts to repopulate the wild with birds had failed dismally. There were now no birds left in the wild anywhere.

At least, that's what everyone believed. But now . . . a whole flock of birds . . . at least one flock, maybe more . . . and they had apparently survived many years past the peak of the gen-tech animal rampage. Lucy dared to wonder. Could there be an ecological island, safe from the gen-tech critters? What if one type of genetically-enhanced creature formed a symbiotic relationship with a species of bird? The gen-tech critter would protect the birds nest and in return the bird would . . . would what?

3. The Wild

The Ramjet 17 arrived in what was formerly Brazil's capital city, Brasìlia, just over an hour after take off from St. Louis, Missouri. Lucy gathered what little luggage Travel Security had allowed her to take on the trip and debarked from the jet.

The reunion with Becca was joyous and exciting and tearful . . . and then Lucy remembered why they were never that close to begin with. Becca would talk and talk and talk, until the conversation had moved through several different subjects. And whatever Lucy said, Becca just glossed over it and went on to the next thing she wanted to say. Oh, well. It was nice to hear her talk again.

Out of the great storm of words pouring forth from Becca Pearlson, Lucy learned that Becca and her missionary boyfriend, what's-his-name, had married. As a result, Becca's name had changed to Mrs. Becca What's-his-name. At least, that's what Lucy now called her. Lucy never cared for this guy, though he seemed nice enough. The happy couple had decided to marry in the wilds of the rainforest. Becca had always dreamed of releasing a couple of white doves, as a symbol of their undying love, or something like that. But, alas, there were no doves left in the world.

Then, during the wedding, they had heard a sound from far away. It sounded a little like some kind of exotic bird. But, of course, no one believed it actually was birds. It must have been some kind of new gen-tech creature, scurrying about the rainforest, devouring everything in sight and making some new vocalization resulting from the pooling of numerous genes for noise-making.

After the wedding, Becca heard the sounds again. So, she and her beloved decided to slip away from the reception and see what was making the noise. The term “rainforest” is a bit of an exaggeration. All that was left, from the many years of war, civil turmoil, and ecological exploitation, were small islands of rainforest. Most of the area around these islands was fairly open land, where a variety of species of plants and animals were duking it out for control of the area. It was near one of these open areas of ecological flux that Becca and spouse first caught sight of the source of the sounds.

In the air, just above the treetops of the next rainforest island, they saw a whole flock of birds. They did not recognize the species. The call these birds made was unfamiliar. But, Becca insisted, these were not some gen-tech version of the flying squirrel. They were feathered and flew with great skill. They stayed together, in tight formation. And there were several dozen of them.

Lucy was incredulous. How could so many birds from the same flock have survived the constant onslaught from the gen-tech creatures? Lucy interrogated Becca about the birds on the way to the What's-his-name residence.

If Becca could be believed, these birds were fairly large, with a wing-span of perhaps three feet. They had long, slightly-curved beaks and were a rather strange sky-blue color. Becca could make them out against the background of the tree-tops in the distance behind them, but when they soared up into the sky, they quickly disappeared from view. And one more thing—the flock's behavior was like a well-coordinated orchestra or a military marching band. Their bird-calls seemed to come and go all at once. One moment, the whole flock was making the same unusual sound, swerving and swooping around one particular spot in the sky. The next moment, the entire flock regrouped and flew away in tight formation and in complete silence. Or so said one particular ornithologist's quasi-reliable sister.

Surprisingly, What's-his-name, a.k.a. Julio Terroso, confirmed Becca's description. Huh, there just could be some truth to this story. But then he damaged his own credibility with one bizarre claim. He saw, or thought he saw, one small bird riding on the back of another full-sized bird. And he interpreted this as a baby bird riding on the back of its mother!—absolutely unheard of in the world of ornithology.

4. The Birds

The next day they headed out into the rainforest, to the wedding spot. With Becca as their guide, they wandered in random directions for several hours and then became completely lost. Becaa and spouse could neither agree on which way to go, nor on where they were now. They gave up for the day. Lucy suggested finding some high ground and making camp for the night.

Gen-tech critters will eat anything that moves, even human beings. So, making camp is akin to setting up a temporary fortress. The tent was made of double-layered Kevlar with a locking door-flap. They set up a miniature electric fence, powered by fuel cells. They also employed an ultra-high frequency sonic shield, whose high volume and high pitch would definitely not be music to the ears of a wide variety of gen-tech critters.

That night, they slept in shifts, though for most of the time none of the group was able to sleep. Eerie sounds emanated from the forest. Repeatedly, strange animals attempted to breech the barriers around them. By morning, the miniature electric fence was torn apart, the fuel cell containers had been gnawed straight through, and the sonic shield was no where to be found. They probably would not survive another night in the wild.

The group decided upon a strategic retreat. They would head for the nearest sign of civilization, which they eventually determined was north-northeast. But they would take the long way there, an arcing path, which would bring them through their best approximation of the wedding spot. As they traveled, Lucy scanned the distant tree-tops for signs of flight, Becca rambled on about a wide variety of different subjects, and Julio pretended to know how to use the GPS III navigation computer.

A sound. A low and distant sound. At first, it blended in with the forest background noise and went unnoticed by the group. Then the sound suddenly stopped. Lucy stopped too. “What was that?” Everyone listened. They all noticed the sound now, in its absence. Becca grabbed the digital scope from Lucy and focused on a distant island of rain forest.

In the distance, it looked like a small blue cloud, visible only when seen against the background of the forest treetops. As it came closer, the sound started up again, this time a little louder. But it wasn't the usual cacophony of chaos any group of animals might make. There was order, synchrony, and harmony. Yes, flocks fly in formation. But this flock did everything in formation. Even its sounds.

And, a moment later, they noticed something else. The entire flock of birds was headed straight for them. As they came closer, Lucy's mouth dropped open. The birds were fairly large, but some of the smaller birds were riding on the backs of the larger birds. Finding an entire flock of birds in the wild was every ornithologist's dream. But finding a strange new species of bird at the same time was more of a nightmare. Who would believe?

The flock was now flying over the edge of the next island of forest. Lucy, Becca, and Julio hurried across the open field between them and the birds. As they ran across a rough open area, they saw what could only be some type of gen-tech critter breaking out of the forest and rushing towards them. They stopped their run abruptly. Gen-techs can be dangerous.

The blue flock seemed to react to the noise made by the gen-tech critter. They suddenly went silent again. Then one of the birds let out a brief sound, a succinct call to attack. The whole flock silently swooped down on the critter. Several of the larger birds, as a group, together grasped the critter with their talons and struggled to fly their prey high up into the air. The critter fought ferociously. But the flock began to feed. In mid-air, the birds took turns flying into their prey and ripping off pieces of its flesh, literally eating the critter alive a hundred meters or so above the ground.

Lucy was fascinated. They feed on gen-tech critters. But how do they keep their nests and their young safe? As she watched the feeding frenzy, she saw the orderly cooperation of their society. The larger birds took turns holding the prey suspended in the air, so that all could feed. Some of the birds tore off pieces of their prey and brought it to the younger birds riding on the backs of their parents. Lucy began to understand. This flock had no nests. Nesting on the ground or in trees or even on cliffs would make the birds, especially their young, vulnerable to the gen-tech critters. These birds 'nested' in the air.

Becca did not seem to understand what she was seeing. Lucy was too awe-struck to explain. Fortunately, Lucy had brought a high-res holographic camera. And she was snapping photos as fast as she could.

Lucy tried to remember that she was a scientist, not a spectator. If they nest in the air, that would explain how they keep their young safe from the gen-techs. But what about the eggs? The eggs would need to mature over a period of weeks before they hatched and the hatchlings would not be able to fly for weeks longer.

The bones of the gen-tech critter began to fall to the ground. Soon the flock was finished feeding. But they didn't fly away. Instead, they began to circle and to make a strange new sound. Not the attack-call sound. Not the feeding sound. Something else. Then they saw it. They all saw and yet none believed.

One of the birds was flying higher than the others. Something fell from the lone bird above the flock. It was an egg. It fell onto some of the other birds. In fact, they seemed to fly into it on purpose. When the birds and the egg collided, the egg broke open . . . and out flew a new baby bird. It flew!

Born in flight and able to fly, the baby bird made a brief, unsteady arc through the flock. But, just when it seemed that the new-born would fall from the sky, one of the adult birds swooped down and allowed the baby to land on its back.

Lucy's mind dove into an ocean of possibility. Dolphins never stop swimming to give birth. And newborn dolphins can swim immediately. Neither do these birds stop flying to give birth. And the newborns can fly immediately.

The eggs have a fragile shell. The baby bird must reach a more mature stage before the egg is laid. The other birds cooperate in the birth, helping the egg to break open. This radical step in the evolution of birds became possible only because of a particularly strong evolutionary pressure on the birds. Evolve or die. They had evolved beyond the need for nests. They now give birth in the air and are even born able to fly. The young can take their rest on the backs of the adult birds. Flying is safety.

But what about sleep? And do the adult birds ever rest? So many unanswered questions. So many possibilities. Lucy made sure that their location was marked on the GPS III device. She would return numerous times over the next few weeks, to study the flock and their behaviors.

Of all the strange behaviors she observed, one was by far the most unusual, the most unprecedented in the history of evolution. These birds never stop flying. They live their whole lives in the air. They never rest, until death. And sometimes the one quickly leads to the other. Once, while watching a feeding frenzy, Lucy saw one bird nip at another's wing. She couldn't tell if it was accidental or if they were fighting over the food, but the bitten bird was unable to remain airborne. It fell from the sky and was immediately swarmed over by gen-tech critters. Flight is life; rest is death.

Staying in flight is essential to survival. The need to stay air-born at all times is a very strong evolutionary pressure. This new species had developed the ability to feed, sleep, and even give birth, in flight. Newborns can fly almost immediately. In fact, the evolution appeared to be on-going. Lucy noticed that a few of the newborns could fly much more efficiently than the others. These few did not need to land on an adult bird's back after being born. At the other end of the spectrum, though, some of the newborn birds failed to fly at all. These evolutionary stragglers had no chance of survival at all. Death drives evolution.

How do they do it? How can they stay in flight unceasingly, day and night, year after year? Lucy was amazed at the answers she found. Sometimes they would float over updrafts. They could then rest by gliding on the rising air. They even sleep in the air. Horses are able to remain standing during sleep; these remarkable birds are able to remain flying during sleep.

5. The Verdict

Back at Mizzou, Lucy's students generally regarded her as an interesting and eccentric professor. They loved to take her classes, hear her theories, and argue various points. But she was not generally believed by them. Her fellow professors and ornithologists were less sympathetic. They treated her more like an escapee from a psych unit.

Perhaps it was professional jealousy. Or, maybe it was because her find, if verified, would ruin a favorite theory of many ornithologists, which compares the inevitable extinction of all birds to the inevitable extinction of all dinosaurs. In any case, they refused to believe a word of it. She showed them the digital images, but technology had reached the point where even holographic images could be digitally faked with unimpeachable precision. Images were not believable. She had recordings of the bird calls. But the calls were unique; they could not be matched to any previously-known bird species. The sounds could belong to any of the new gen-tech creatures. Each piece of evidence she offered was summarily dismissed.

When everything was said and done, no one with any ornithological clout believed her. Several times in the months and years that followed, Lucy went back to the wild seeking the birds. Sometimes she brought students or skeptical colleges, but each time the search was futile. Eventually, she found herself taking the trip alone. No one would join her, not even a lowly grad student. And she was never able to find the flock again. Maybe they went extinct. Maybe she was just as crazy as her colleagues said. Or, maybe these amazing birds had developed one final essential new survival trait: avoiding humans.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.

Copyright 2004

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