Birds of a Feather

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

There are trillions of them and they fly in layers.

The larger ones at the top interlock together during mating season, puzzle-piece continents drifting above us. The whalescoops dive down to feed on the krillsparrows below them. Turtlehawks and wolflocusts prey on rabbitdoves and deergulls. Hummingbird piranhas flit and nip at the turkey squids, producing dark puffs of ink-cloud pollen.

Insects, plants, mammals, reptiles and unclassifiable combinations of the four. All flying. The inhabitants of this planet’s entire ecosystem are airborne and they never land because there is no land, only dark, sterile ocean thousands of miles below.

Small birds roost and nest on the bigger ones. There’s a hierarchy food and waste chain based on altitude, gravity pulling leftovers down through each layer, filtering evolution. The huge ray gliders drift through schools of brilliant parrot squirrels bursting with colour. The entire world is a continually shifting miasma of hues and sound.

At night, they glow. Flourescing horse pelicans trailing long tails of feather lights. Firefly minnow finches exploding with colour en masse looking for mates. Peacock trout cry out as they display fireworks of neon-shimmering leaves along their spines. Jellyfish Condors drip glowing willow-tree stingers to attract the mothgrouse. Deep-sky angler dragons trail ribbon-like through the lower atmosphere, dangling their lures like intelligent flares. Eel geese honk in giant arrow formations, stripes running across their bodies in synchronized communication. And the fissures underneath the massive air-island floaters above us glow with algae all colours of the rainbow.

I cannot see the ocean below or the sky above. I am a scientist and my name was Walter. My research mission ended six years ago but I elected to stay. There are skytribes here. I researched them and befriended them. Their name is birdsong that I have painstakingly learned to reproduce with my whistling.

My research helped classify them as a non-threatening, level-four primitive civilization. Tagged for quarantine non-involvement until such time as they develop the technology to explore space.

Personally, I see them as stalling at a sweet spot in their evolution that needs no improvement. There has been little to no change in them in millions of years, much like crocodiles or barracudas back on Earth.

I theorized that they started as a symbiotic relationship, remora-like with larger birds. Eventually, they started steering the birds to the best food. In time, that control made the remoras dominant and the larger birds the underlings. The remoras had to band together in schooltribes to hunt. Communities formed. Societies followed.

They have insect-like iridescent chitin armour skin. They reproduce by back spores seasonally like dandelion seeds. They hatch from eggs and go through larval stages in huge tadpole flocks. They mature into their final three stages as warm-blooded and gradient from male to female to genderless over their lives.

I’ve named the second-stage one next to me Rebecah. Her legs blend and clutch with the neck of her mount perfectly, forming the illusion of a swantaur. Her mane ripples out behind her.

She looks over at me with smile that I saw as terrifying years ago with all those eyes and beak teeth but I see as endearing now.

My mount is a ravenshark. My body is smeared with the fluorescent paint needed to mock Rebecah’s chitin skin. I have proven myself to them. They are fascinated by my ability to hold onto my male ‘stage’ for longer than usual. I have entered into their oral tribal history.

Rebecah screams the hunt scream and raises her spear. I copy her and we both dive. The hunt is on.

I live here now.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Wings of Night. That’s what Jeffrey thought the ship should be named. Instead, the bonehead Captain James had named her Silverfish.

Jeffrey sat at his small, cramped station going through his pre-launch checklist, face lit by the screens and buttons in front of him.

The head engineer Sparling wanted to name the ship Leap Year and the communications officer wanted to name her Screamer so Jeffrey supposed that they were getting off easy with Silverfish but it still rankled him.

Silverfish are little bugs that eat furniture back in terrestrial habitats, thought Jeffrey. They have no majesty, no sense of mystery.

Jeffrey wasn’t sure Captain James even knew what a silverfish was. He probably thought it was like a huge metallic trout or something. That was a nice image, sure, picturing the muscled fins arcing out of a stream with the dawn sunlight prisming into rainbows through the droplets in slow motion.

The only problem with the name was that this new experimental tesseractive engine housing that they were all piloting was black as a planet’s shadow. That’s why Jeffrey thought that it should be called something darker.

Like Wings of Night.

The scientists wanted to call her Tess because of the tesseract-drive. In fact, they kept making jokes about taking it out for a ‘tess drive’. Jeffrey guessed that things could be worse. At least the captain has asked for their opinion. Jeffrey wasn’t the only person a little grumpy about the choice of name but it would pass, though, as soon as the mission was underway and they had their separate jobs to do.

Jeffrey was the armament officer which, on a sleek vehicle designed for stealth like this one, mostly meant making sure that they were invisible to scanners and, if necessary, deploying the scrambling countermeasures that would fry nearby communication and detection systems so that they could make a clean getaway.

It was a new thing for Jeffrey. He’d always been in charge of what he thought of as ‘actual’ armaments before.

But the prestige that came with this trip would be immense. If they didn’t origami themselves out of existence when they turned on the engine for the first time.

“All hands. Operational stations. Silverfish is go for T minus twenty.”

Jeffrey strapped himself in. A small quiver of fear shivered through him that he stamped down on immediately. Wings of Night actually had an ominous feel to it, he thought. Silverfish sounded kind of hopeful.

Jeffrey made the sign of the cross there in his chair before giving an all-clear response to the control board. He hadn’t done that since he was seven years old.

Let’s go Silverfish, he thought. Deliver us from evil.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Are we robot zombies or are we the pinnacle of humanity? Are we ahead of the evolutionary curve? Did we make the leap that all creatures with a finite lifespan have to or are we freaks? The universe remains as silent as it ever has on the subject.

No one dies of natural causes anymore.

We count our blessings but we’re scared. Dr Hansen saved us and doomed us all at the same time.

The year was 2020. “A year for vision”, they called it. And Dr Hansen delivered.

Immortality, eternal youth, the cure for AIDS and the Big C. All a person had to do was cease to be human.

“You see, our spirits are not our bodies. Our bodies are not our selves,” Dr. Hansen said. “Our brains are meat but our minds are something altogether different. We decay too quickly. The problem is what we’re made of, not who we are.”

He proposed a consciousness transfer into mostly artificial bodies. Sausage meat into a bullet casing. Nervous systems became calm systems. The hot red of blood became the cool blue of coolant. Neurons became nanocapacitors. Shreds of the original brain and nerves survived but were coffined into layers of hermetically-sealed exoskeletons.

The eccentric rich went for it. After that, Hansen cut corners and lowered prices, extolling his wares on telnet and oldweb. It sold well. The older folk, the terminally ill and the daredevil visionaries lined up. It created a very lively debate amongst the existentialists and religious scholars.

The military departments loved him. Living weapons were a reality; more predictable than the alien algorithms of flaky A.I.s. Unregistered mercenaries loved him as well.

Dr. Hansen became rich off of the patents involved, the factories that made the equipment, and the laboratories that made the switch. The black market, the grey market, and the legitimate downtown offices all were booming.

The thing that freaked the naysayers out was that it was a one-way switch. Just a glance at the metal skin of the warmechs or even the plastic skin of the short-lived humanomorph fad made a lot of people shut their eyes and shiver.

Sex was no longer possible in an artificial body. Orgasm programs and virtual reality were available stims for the fakebodies but it wasn’t the same. That fact made the young people stay away.

Dr Hansen was trying to figure out how to pitch to their demographic when the plague hit.

An airborne flesh-eating virus dubbed The End with a 98% communicability rate killed all the non-transferred people, Dr Hansen included. The higher primates all died as well. In one year, the population of the earth nosedived.

Everyone in Shells survived.

The earth is populated now by the minds of out-of-work soldiers, old people, and the once rich. Hulking metal weapons and artistic interpretations of the human form. Basic automaton models mixing with shining, high-end custom jobs. The population is holding at ten million, two hundred thirty thousand, and sixty-six.

Scared minds in tin cans.

We’ve been building shells again in an effort to propogate the species but we’re finding it difficult to clone new nervous systems with the virus still in the air. It hasn’t gone away. And most of Dr Hansen’s notes were lost in The End riots.

We are a closed system now. A finite population that can only get lower unless we figure out how to reproduce properly. Our scientists are working on it but not that many of them made the switch, oddly enough.

Until we can figure out how to reproduce, we wait.

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Coal Miners

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The cure for the plague that killed half of the planet’s population forced mankind’s biology to outgrow what was previously defined as human.

We skipped ahead six chapters in our evolution, overachieving little tryhards that we are. Those scientists were savants without the idiot. The vaccines were rushed to the city centers. Riots followed. Governments were reinstated. It was a long ten years. Giant ‘dead pits’ burned at the centers of most cities for years.

Half of the planet was suddenly vacant. Room for everyone now. It was a new dawn.

Korgath Bigbones looked at the black stripes and zigzags on his thick, pale hand. He stopped thinking about the past and starting thinking about the present.

Coal tattoos. That’s what it was called when coal dust got into a miner’s wound. The cut darkened and it became a permanent black line.

He ate his sandwiches daintily, pinching one corner between each thumb and forefinger, the rest of his black-encrusted fingers raised far away from the sandwich. The dark poisons on his fingertips stained the small corner he was pinching. The ground was littered with tiny black triangles of bread after lunch.

The vaccine let humans be groomed for their jobs. If a job was dangerous, the body could be adapted to endure and even thrive in hazardous environments. No longer did we have to destroy the environment around us to suit our needs. We could, when the occasion called for it, become different to suit where we were.

The coal miners were a pale breed. Their lungs were changed to gain nutrients from the coal dust as well as the oxygen and gasses miles down beneath the earth. Their nostrils were very wide. They had small, greenish white, night-vision eyes that glinted in the darkness like sharks in an ocean at evening.

Korgath realized that there were no mirrors down here except in the tattoo/cutter’s caves.

These were bodies that could take punishment. Bodies with solid fat on them coating muscles borne of pure endurance.

The ones that had been there the longest had the most detailed coal tattoos on their broad backs and huge arms. The workers looked like pot-bellied, hairless, albino, subterranean gorillas wrapped in the black-ridged whorls, initials, and high-contrast designs of their tattoos. Memorials for those crushed in cave-ins, crude portraits of departed friend’s faces, and cultural swirls from the ancient Celts, Maoris, Africa and the Orient.

It took seventeen elevators and nearly a day to get down this low.

They didn’t need many lights to work in the depths and they didn’t need to come for fresh air. The cooling flanges on their back dissipated the constant heat. They’d do six-month stretches down there. They don’t call it the bowels of the earth for nothing. They’d come up stinking.

Korgath was six days away from the end of this contract. The end of half a decade in blackness.

He’d need respirators filled with coal dust and special sunglasses when he was above ground for six months until the vaccines returned him to what was considered normal baseline human. Even tropical temperatures would feel chilly to him until he acclimatized.

Some miners kept their appearance. That level of intensity was hard to shake off no matter what the topside mirrors said.

Korgath was considering keeping the tattoos. But he still wasn’t sure.

The lunch bell rang and he went back to work. Six more days.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

We are on a planet whose proper name is unpronounceable by us according to the aliens who left us here. We call the planet Here, Prison, Earth2, Re-earth, Zooplanet and many others names. We haven’t been here long enough for one single name to stick.

It looks kind of like what I remember Africa looking like when I saw it on television back on Earth. Lots of arid land with occasional fields of tall grass and little tiny lakes scattered around, lots of sun.

We’ve got three suns and sixteen moons. The suns are weaker so we don’t cook. They add up to a constant summer. The moons make for a much brighter night. Both days and nights are twice as long here but we’ve adjusted.

We sleep half the day and then half the night. The protective atmosphere here is not flawed. We tan here with no burning and no skin cancer.

Over a year ago, the aliens came down to Earth and left a puzzle for us floating in the middle of the Pacific; a giant geodesic dome bobbing in international waters. They made a lot of noise leaving it there. Our weapons had no effect. We watched the ship leave and turned our attention to the artifact.

One by one, the countries sailed out, surrounded it and stared. For once, the UN came in handy and volunteered to be first to go into it.

Inside the dome were a series of simple puzzles that became progressively harder. The puzzles were relayed back. The world got busy.

The first six were completed in days. Prime number sequences, geometric and logic proofs, a couple of theoretical physics equations. Then they got hard.

We made it up to question twenty. Hawking died trying to figure it out.

After no more puzzles had been solved for sixteen months and a few of them had been answered incorrectly, the aliens came back.

Twenty-three million of us were collected at random. We simply woke up in the cargo hold of the arkship floating around our former home, a mathematically fair cross-section of ages, races, nationalities and gender. Family ties were not taken into consideration.

As the Earth grew smaller, we saw it flash a number of colours.

We were told later that the Earth had been sterilized and cleaned for its new tenants. That meant that every human not on board the ship was dead.

I missed my parents. We all still had nightmares. Some of the women have given birth, though, and a new generation has been born here.

There was initial fury, insanity and sadness after we left the arkship. Factions developed, readying themselves to attack the aliens if they returned and trying to rally others. The aliens have not come back and those factions are being listened to less and less.

There are still some that see us as victims rounded up and put on some sort of a reservation. Their numbers are dwindling. The grief-stricken are starting to rejoin conversations and laugh sometimes.

The silent surroundings and lack of predators are calming. You can’t die from exposure to the elements here. It’s always good weather. The plants and food and game animals are plentiful and none of it seems to be poisonous.

There’s no money here. The unemployment rate is 100%. The air is clean and so far, the weather’s been a flat and uneventful paradise compared to the growing superstorms on Earth.

The fact is that most of us have taken to thinking that technically, we’ve been rescued.

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