Short story: In the future there will be birds
Genewatch had only recently learned of the small, privately-owned lab’s existence – and its links to Organa Corp. Rumour had it they’d been manufacturing birds.
Like a photographic still, the silvery helicopter maintained perfect position above the Bainbridge Building. In the cabin, crouched silently beside Forster and Aaron, Alanna waited for Derek to cut the hole in the enormous cage capping the skyscraper’s roof. The dangling ladder rocked with Derek’s weight. Fighting back nervous nausea, she willed him to hurry, hoping the crazy noise of the rotors wouldn’t alert police or building security to their presence before they had achieved their mission.
Whatever that would turn out to be.
They weren’t sure what they were going to find. Genewatch had only recently learned of the small, privately-owned lab’s existence – and its links to Organa Corp. The skyscraper had seemed an easier nut to crack, security-wise, than the bio-producer’s main centre.
Derek reappeared and gave them a thumbs-up. Lowering her matching balaclava, Alanna checked that her black, Tite-weave leggings and turtleneck were securely tucked. Good. No exposed skin.
She eased out of the cabin, Derek’s hand guiding her feet onto the rungs. Above, Forster, dressed in ghost grey, grasped her forearms in case she slipped. Each wore a different colour to make identification easier beneath the masks and muffled voices.
The turbulent, cork-screwing wind made the ladder buck and twist. Alanna braced herself, the empty satchel on her back flapping wildly. Her grip tightened to white-knuckled granite as the massive skyscrapers below her feet tapered towards cracks of distant black road.
She had to be mad.
Forster backed over the edge and Alanna forced herself to move. She descended stiffly, muscles full of acid, relieved when she passed through the ragged hole in the fine mesh. A shiver of fear – the cage could well have been electrified.
Dense treetops followed before Alanna’s feet finally touched down on soft, wet-smelling soil. They’d been expecting a rooftop garden; had scrutinised the building using NASA Satellytics, but all the same, it was bizarre to be standing atop a skyscraper in knee-deep, fleshy shrubbery, the petroleum stink of smog blending with the musk of mowed grass.
Derek pulled Alanna aside as Forster and then Aaron shimmied down the ladder with enviable ease.
The unmarked helicopter hovered in place, the option of a fast extraction trumping inconspicuousness.
They headed off through the dense, snarling greenery, as rustling and twittering started up in the branches all around them. Alanna flashed her torch into the canopy. Fat little birds – mainly American Goldfinches and buntings – peered back at her with beady eyes. “It’s a giant aviary.”
“We’re in the right place then,” Derek muttered. “Anything wrong with them?”
Alanna was the bird expert. “Not that I can see.”
Derek grunted. “There’s no way a company could churn out that many birds without making some concessions – Damn!” He glanced up at the helicopter; the hole in the mesh. “If these mutants get into the wild population ...”
“They’re diurnals. They won’t fly at night,” Alanna said, hoping to God she was right. “We just have to ensure the mesh is sealed when we leave.”
Derek nodded and picked up speed, leading the way across a stretch of lawn to a door. Forster’s satchel contained a crowbar and explosives, all redundant as the door opened with a turn of the latch. Aaron and Forster high-fived. Derek and Alanna exchanged worried looks.
The unmarked helicopter hovered in place, the option of a fast extraction trumping inconspicuousness.
Beyond a short flight of stairs lay an enormous space, walled in windows overlooking the city. A laboratory, clogged with display cabinets and lines of steel benches. In the dimness, Alanna could make out the hunched, angular forms of microscopes, centrifuges, fume-hoods and even the big white donut of a Computerised Tomography unit.
“We need to hurry,” Derek said, moving to a cabinet and rifling it for documentation to steal, while the rest of them spread out, examining everything swiftly and silently.
Alanna’s torchlight fell upon a display case. Her eyes went wide. “Look at these!”
Hundreds of spidery forms rested upon long glass shelves. Birds composed completely of vascular casts; from the large arteries of their outstretched wings right down to the microcapillaries of their brains and kidneys.
“Wow,” she heard Derek breathe behind her as his camera began clicking.
Alanna knew about plastination; had seen examples in the university biology department. But these didn’t look like plastic. In the torchlight, the intricate, branching vessels were transparent, crystalline and slightly golden.
She picked one up. It was spiky, but ever so fragile, shedding tiny shards of gold onto the floor.
“Look at the names,” Derek said, his torch illuminating strips of plastic at the foot of each bird. Golden Eagle. Shoebill. Wandering Albatross.
“All the endangered birds that have been turning up in the zoos,” Alanna murmured.
Derek nodded gravely. “We’re close, Lan.” He moved to another bank of drawers and began stuffing paperwork into his satchel. “Any cops, Fozzi?”
Forster performed a swift lap of the periphery, pressing against the windows to peer above and below. “Can’t see any,” he called back.
Alanna eyed the top of a glass staircase set into the floor, wondering if the lab extended to lower levels. Tip-toeing over, she shone her torch down into the darkness. The stainless steel outlines of a kitchen came into view along with an expanse of carpet and a leather settee.
She bolted over to Derek. “It’s an apartment!” she hissed.
Derek froze with papers halfway to his satchel. “What?”
“This place. Someone lives here.” Alanna pointed back the way she’d come. “There’s a kitchen and lounge at the foot of that staircase – I thought we’d decided it was just a lab!”
“It is just a lab,” Derek replied, uncertainly. “What kind of person has a lab in their attic?”
“Someone who takes their work home, I guess.” Alanna swallowed. “What if Snowdon’s here?”
Derek ran a gloved hand across his head before remembering his hair wasn’t exposed. “Well, hopefully he’ll stay in hiding. Heaven help us – him most of all – if he decides to play hero. We can’t afford to be caught, Lan.”
“What if he’s called the cops already? Perhaps we ...”
A hushed call came from across the room. “You guys …” Aaron was crouched over a cuboid machine, his green mask backlit by a soft pink light. “You have gotta freaking see this!”
In the dimness, Alanna could make out the hunched, angular forms of microscopes, centrifuges, fume-hoods and even the big white donut of a Computerised Tomography unit.
Arranged along one side, thermoregulated vials of semi-translucent liquid fed long tubes into a square, boxlike casing into which was set a narrow viewing window. Alanna peered through the glass. She’d never seen anything like it.
Suspended in pink-tinged fluid on pale microfilaments was a tiny bird composed completely of blood vessels. In its centre, a beating heart.
“We need to take this,” said Derek, nudging her out of the way with his video camera.
Alanna didn’t argue. The machine was evidence. Between two of them they could hoist it up into the helicopter.
Derek stowed the camera and reached for the machine. “Give me a hand with it, Aaron.”
“We’re going now?” Aaron asked. “We’ve only just started.”
Alanna filled him in. “If we stay and the police arrive, we’ll lose everything we’ve discovered.”
Aaron sighed. “OK.”
“Fozz, we’re going,” Alanna called to Forster, who was examining a large, wardrobe-shaped object across the room.
Derek unplugged the power and the light went out inside the machine.
“You think that killed it?” Alanna asked.
Derek shrugged. “I got video. Besides, monstrosities have no business being alive.”
Derek and Aaron hefted the machine between and headed for the steps leading outside. Forster still hadn’t moved and, irritated, Alanna made her way through the lab towards him. “Didn’t you hear? We’re going.”
“Look at this.”
“We haven’t got time.”
“Seriously, two seconds.”
He gestured to a small aviary. Inside, tiny birds perched among the branches of potted trees. Lazuli Buntings, but their white, russet and blue markings were a grotesquely flawed hotchpotch of random mottling. They appeared adult, but from the batch-numbers and dates on the cage, it seemed some had been recently born.
No. Not born …
Alanna’s mouth fell open and she stared across the room to the machine Aaron and Derek were hauling.
“They’re manufacturing birds, aren’t they?” Forster whispered.
Alanna didn’t answer. Quietly, she cracked the cage door open. The buntings didn’t stir and, with deft snatches, she caught three. The birds struggled feebly before relaxing in her hands. Their surrender made her furious. “I’m all for bringing back endangered species, but look at these creatures! They’re abominations. I should wring their goddamn necks!” I’m glad you can’t see this, dad.
Forster scooped the birds from Alanna’s hands, returning two to the cage. “We take one for proof, right?” He pocketed the third. “If it needs to go, it gets done humanely.”
Alanna sighed. “I wouldn’t really have hurt them.”
“I know,” Forster replied kindly. “It makes me cross too. Organacorp is pissing on everything your father ever stood for.” He gave her a squeeze and together they ran for the helicopter.
Suspended in pink-tinged fluid on pale microfilaments was a tiny bird composed completely of blood vessels. In its centre, a beating heart.
Letting Aaron off at his apartment, Derek, Alanna and Forster reached the small flat that was their makeshift base just before dawn.
Forster plonked himself in a beanbag in front of the smartscreen, the tame bunting on his finger, while Derek began blogging about the night. The video of the vascular bird with its beating heart was soon loaded on to YouTube.
It was fortunate Derek had thought to film it. The tiny heart had stopped within hours of the machine losing power, its delicate blood vessels disintegrating rapidly, spreading outward in a misty red corona.
Alanna prepared coffee and toast, scrolling away pop-up advertisements for assistance robots and smart-fridges as she scoured the smartscreen newscasts for mention of the break-in.
“Thirty-thousand hits,” Derek reported from his seat at the kitchen table. He got up and aimed the video camera at Forster.
“Get off, Derek. I don’t want people seeing my face.”
“You think I’m going to post our faces after we went to all that trouble with balaclavas and Tite-weave? Hold out the bird.”
The bunting barely even blinked as Forster petted it for the camera.
“It’s pretty tame,” Derek commented, once the camera had been switched off.
“I think it’s brain-damaged,” Alanna said, carrying her coffee over to the sofa propped before the smartscreen.
“Probably gassed itself on Forster’s B.O.,” Derek chuckled, returning to the computer.
“Hey!” Forster protested. “It did not! It was tame from the beginning.” He stroked the soft head. “It’s sweet.”
Alanna scowled. “There’ll be quite the market for emasculated condors if you’re anything to go by.”
“You’re just jealous of my relationship with the abomination,” Forster replied mildly.
Alanna couldn’t help laughing.
Grinning, Forster called to Derek, “You sure my face isn’t on there?”
“Come see for yourself.”
Forster passed the bird to Alanna. Perched on her finger, the animal stared back at her dumbly.
She dropped her arm experimentally. The bunting hung on for dear life, but didn’t attempt to fly. Then, holding it a foot above the beanbag, Alanna shook it free. The bunting flapped feebly, but hit the yielding vinyl like a stone. “You really are a genetic retard,” she said as she scooped it up. “Do we have any bird seed here?”
“Since when do we keep birds?” Derek replied.
Forster was more helpful. “What about toast?” He tossed her a slice of wholegrain bread, which she offered to the bunting. The bird had no idea what to do with the bread, but managed to recognise and eat the grains she picked out individually.
An advertisement for the latest in iDogs: canine-shaped guide-robots, was interrupted by breaking news. “Guys, it’s on,” Alanna called.
The tiny heart had stopped within hours of the machine losing power, its delicate blood vessels disintegrating rapidly, spreading outward in a misty red corona.
Forster scurried back to the beanbag as Derek took up position on the arm of the sofa. News cameras honed in on a press conference broadcast from the lobby of the Bainbridge Building. Alanna leaned forward eagerly.
An elderly man appeared before the cameras, his face drawn and his tie askew. Alanna’s face contorted in horror. She knew him!
“The stolen bio-printer was a research machine and a miniature at that,” the old man was saying. “It was engaged in a personal project and its loss will have no discernable impact upon Organa’s production of transplantable organs ...”
“So he thinks,” Derek muttered.
Alanna barely heard him as a reporter said, “Doctor Snowdon, circulating footage suggests Organa Corporation has been using these machines to create entire life-forms.”
Snowdon. So it was him. Perching the bunting on her shoulder, Alanna fumbled through the small handbag she’d stashed in the flat, hoping against hope she was wrong; that it was a different man.
Dr Snowdon regarded the reporter in mild surprise. As the silence dragged, the reporter re-phrased her query. “There are rumours that endangered birds supplied en masse to zoos around the world have been … er … printed by the company for which you work. Have you any comment?”
“They’re not rumours if they’re true,” Snowdon replied, sounding taxed.
“Whoa!” Forster breathed. “He admitted it.”
Alanna withdrew a collection of tiny, battered photographs from a credit-card slot in her wallet. One depicted two young men, one of them her father, standing thigh-deep in swampwater with an endangered Whooping Crane cradled between them. The second man’s resemblance to the gentleman on the screen was undeniable. On the back was her father’s writing: Rescuing the cranes with Richard Snowdon – Wisconsin.
Before the two men had severed ties, Richard Snowdon had been like a second father to Alanna. And she had repaid him by terrorising him in his bed.
She didn’t hear the next question, to which Richard Snowdon replied, “It’s a science in progress. I am contractually obligated to say no more on matter.”
“Our bird video will reveal the substandard life-forms you’re really turning out,” Derek hissed beside her.
Snowdon wrapped up, thanking the police for attending and his colleagues for being so understanding.
Alanna felt a nudge at her knee. “You OK, Alanna?” Forster whispered.
Tears were trickling down her cheeks. She hadn’t even noticed she was crying. She wiped her eyes and stood, fetching her coat from a stand by the front door.
“Where are you going?” Derek asked.
Stowing the bunting in a large pocket, she said, “Home. I need to think.”
“You don’t want to be here when the live bird footage hits the news? This thing’s gonna blow wide open!”
“He’s already admitted to manufacturing birds.”
“Well, yeah. But the media thinks he’s talking about normal birds. Our footage is proof of flawed outcomes, inappropriate to the breeding pool.” When Alanna didn’t look enthused, he added, “I thought you’d be pleased. This is the proof you’ve been wanting.”
“I am pleased.”
“You’re not acting like it.”
“Look, it’s great, Derek,” Alanna placated. “And hopefully the result will be greater transparency and standards. I just feel bad that we invaded an old man’s home.”
Derek’s voice sharpened. “How were we supposed to know someone was living there?”
“By doing more research on the place! Christ, Derek, it was only dumb luck the cage wasn’t electrified!”
“Guys!” Forster cried. “Enough!”
Derek and Alanna glowered at one another, before Alanna made for the door and slipped outside, promising herself she’d apologise later.
Alanna peered through the glass slot as the printer delivered a fine film of tissue jelly over one of the golden casts.
The Bainbridge lobby was swarming with police and security when Alanna stepped through the glass front doors. Mustering her courage, she approached the coiffed receptionist and asked for Richard Snowdon.
“I have instructions not to disturb him,” the woman replied. “He suffered a ...”
“He’s family,” Alanna interjected. Heat gathered behind her eyes, but she fought the tears back.
The woman blinked. “And you are?”
“Alanna O’Dea. He’ll see me.” He has to, she thought. He has to at least let me apologise and return the bird.
Pursing her lips, the woman dialled her earpiece. “Dr Snowdon? I know you said you didn’t want to be disturbed, but there’s an Alanna O’Dea here to see you.” The receptionist nodded to Alanna. “He’ll be down.”
Several minutes passed before Richard Snowdon, his face pinched with fatigue, stepped out of the lift, shadowed by a muscular man in black. His face illuminated with delight and he embraced Alanna warmly, the bodyguard hovering nearby. “It is so good to see you!”
“I came as soon as I heard.” Guilt gripped her stomach.
“Yes. It was a long night. Worth it to see you again, my dear … How many years has it been?” He indicated the lift.
The bodyguard barred Alanna’s way.
Richard grimaced sympathetically. “Adrian has been commissioned to protect Organa’s intellectual property. He’ll need to search you for weapons and recording devices.”
Swallowing hard, Alanna had no choice but to let Adrian pat her down. Her phone was confiscated. Then he found the bird.
“A bird,” Alanna replied in a small voice.
“Why’s it in your pocket?” The big man’s voice was cool.
Alanna gulped. “I …” She threw a guilty glance Richard’s way; saw the realisation form on his face. “I ... it’s ...”
“A surprise,” Richard answered quickly. “A rarity, if I’m not mistaken.”
Alanna gaped at him.
“But not permitted upstairs,” Richard said, with a meaningful glance Adrian’s way. “It represents a biohazard to the colony we keep.”
The bunting was left with the nonplussed receptionist while Alanna, Richard and Adrian headed for the penthouse. The lift ascended the outside of the skyscraper and, despite having spent part of the previous night hanging beneath a helicopter, Alanna felt distinctly queasy watching the city recede beneath the clear Perspex floor. She was glad when the ride ended.
Leaving the bodyguard with the lift, Alanna and Richard entered the laboratory in silence.
“Why did you break in?”
The question was expected, but she reddened all the same. “We heard Organa was mass-producing endangered birds,” she murmured. “We figured something unnatural was going on and … we were right!”
She spun to face him, her face fraught. “You used to engage in conservation the right way!”
“The right way …” Richard echoed, a question trailing the words.
Alanna indicated the lab. “How’s a bird produced without parents ever to learn how to build nests, find the right food or sing the right songs? How does it serve conservation if a species can’t ever return to the wild?” She thought of the bunting, how stupid it was.
“When dad raised the cranes, he used to dress in a crane costume and spend hours in the swamps showing them what to eat.”
“I know,” Richard breathed. “I was there.”
“When they got old enough, he decorated an ultralight and flew it to Florida for the migration. The birds found their own way back in the spring.”
Alanna mopped her eyes, seeing her father dancing on the lawn, binoculars swinging wildly about his neck, as the first of his birds passed over the house to the lake.
Richard said kindly, “No-one knew more about crane behaviour than Marcus O’Dea.”
“He couldn’t save them though,” Alanna muttered bitterly. One frosty morning they’d found every single bird dead on the marsh. Alanna could still hear her father’s wail of anguish hanging on the misty air. “And then your birds appeared.”
Insult to injury, the first Organa-made birds had been Whooping Cranes: artificially bred with no knowledge of the mating dance. It was as if her father’s work had never been.
“He wanted them to return to the wild,” she whispered.
“As do I,” Richard replied. Taking Alanna’s hand, he led her across the room.
A replacement bio-printer had already been installed, the cartridge with the vials jerking and juddering. At Richard’s behest, Alanna peered through the glass slot as the printer delivered a fine film of tissue jelly over one of the golden casts.
“The sugar is the scaffold over which we lay the stem-cells that generate the vascular system; followed by those that generate the organs themselves,” Richard explained. “The basic process is the same, whether you build a single kidney or an entire bird.”
“You haven’t mastered the brain,” Alanna commented, thinking of the simple, flightless bunting. “Or have you? I can’t decide. The bird we stole last night makes me think you haven’t, but the ones in the zoos can fly and that takes mental acuity.”
“The zoo birds don’t come from machines. Follow me.”
The space was full of birds, flitting through the greenery like rainbow shards.
Curious now, Alanna trailed Richard to the sunlit rooftop where dense gardens and full-sized trees grew in a veritable Eden from rich compost beds; and mowed lawns dotted with flowerbeds extended towards a fully-realised miniature wetland, replete with rushes and willows. The space was full of birds, flitting through the greenery like rainbow shards.
He led her through sun-dappled shadows beneath the trees. Above, branches were full of fat, chattering birds. “Why create buntings and goldfinches?” Alanna asked. “They’re not endangered.”
“We needed to perfect the technology before trialling it on rare birds. We have to kill at least one, you see, to cast the vasculature.”
Richard drew a bowl-shaped nest from within a ground-level shrub. The twig structure was warped, but functional. “One of the prints made this,” he said, his expression fond as he added, “They’re not bright and they’ve never had anyone to show them how, but they’re managing.” He turned the nest over, tipping two juvenile buntings on to his palm. The struggling chicks were fat and healthy and, even though their feathers were only just coming through, Alanna could tell their plumage would be normal.
“The printed birds are just smart enough to breed and nurture their young,” Richard explained. “Whilst we haven’t yet been able to perfect the brain or arrange the follicular stem-cells in exact duplication of the plumage, we have discovered that both problems resolve within a generation. The DNA, after all, hasn’t changed.” He indicated the normal birds flitting about the garden.
“Couldn’t you have hatched normal chicks from stem-cell impregnated eggs?” Alanna asked. “It seems a lot of trouble, printing adults.”
“As you rightly suggest, birds don’t particularly need this technology,” Richard agreed. “But what about other species? Perfecting this process may one day save animals that can’t be hatched from incubatable eggs or grown in surrogacy – but that will be a project for my successor.”
Richard turned to her. “I have no desire to condemn birds to a captive life, Alanna.” Indicating the surrounding buildings, their flat cement roofs bright in the sunlight, he said, “Organa is buying up rooftops right across this city. You can’t see it yet, but one day there are going to be rooftop ecosystems everywhere, just like this one; halfway houses for birds to become accustomed to freedom in their own time.”
“But to get there ...”
“To get there, they need learn how to be birds again, yes.”
Richard led Alanna back to the lab. Finding a video-file on his computer he started it and there, jumping and spinning, the ‘wings’ of his Whooping Crane costume spread out, was her father, Marcus O’Dea. Before him, honking her raucous call, a young female crane turned about on the spot, wings flapping as she learned how to dance. The image swam before Alanna’s unblinking eyes as her tears dropped on to the keyboard.
Richard let her cry. “He was my best friend before we took our separate paths. He just couldn’t countenance that both our fields were needed if we were to ever save a species.”
He clicked on another file. Footage of a remote-controlled crane, its size, plumage and movement perfect, dancing like her father once had before a young adult bird.
Alanna stared. “How?”
“We placed motion-capture sensors on a closely-related crane species and charted its movement as it danced. The movements were programmed into a specially designed robot.
“We’re working with avian behaviouralists just like your father to find new ways of teaching birds the skills they need to survive. Avian drones are already guiding migratory birds along their old routes. The future is looking brighter than ever.”
Wiping her eyes, Alanna offered her hand. “Do you need any help with the Whooping Cranes?”
Richard took the hand and squeezed it. “I was wondering when you’d ask.”