“Bird Nest Soup” by Madeline Bridgen
Bernhard Kroesen knew that something was wrong when the dawn chorus never rose.
Without the birds, the patter of dewdrops was deafening in the silence of the jungle. The normal sounds of the forest — the screams of creatures as they whistled, sang, snarled, quarreled, hissed, roared, and killed each other — were gone, and they left behind an emptiness that bored on Bernhard’s senses and gnawed on his mind. This was the silence that woke him before dawn, and it held more import than the whirlwind of life that had existed up until that moment.
He also felt a beating in his ears that at first he thought was his own heart, but as he lay awake he began to wonder whether it was within him or in the air around him. “God damn it,” he said aloud, just to hear something. But it didn’t help him solve his problem.
After a few more hours of fitful sleep, he awoke again. His clock was broken, so he opened the blinds to gauge the time. The sun was just breaking over the hills.
Twenty minutes later, Bernhard walked outside with his backpack and a cutting board, some vegetables and a knife, its blade spotty with grease and water stains. After he started a fire he chopped a carrot and a celery stick and then crushed peanuts with the flat of the blade. That done, he sat and watched the water pot boil, periodically rubbing his eyes free of sleep grit. In the distance he could hear someone shouting, but other than that the only audible sound was the wind in the grass. It was a sound like skirts shifting, of stockinged legs on tip-toe gliding over one another in contemplation, a murmur of small voices.
The man’s voice shouted again. It echoed in the air, and the sound remained in his ears afterward like the spotty afterimages of light in the eyes. Bernhard still heard something else just on the fringe of his perceptions, but he tried to put it out of his mind.
The buildings were on the northern side of Borneo. They were the portable things that had been left behind by the logging company and now housed scientists, nest collectors, and a handful of natives. The ragged hills around it were home to fields of saplings of hundreds of different types of trees. They grew together over the corpses of their parents, left behind to rot when the loggers withdrew. As yet, a long grass dwarfed many of the saplings, but the unfolding ferns and broadleaved sprigs were curling their way above these interlopers. The stink of rot struggled for dominance with the smell of growth, heady scents of coming and going. The mountains loomed to the south.
Bernhard lived in what had been the foreman’s cabin, some small distance away from the rest of the camp. When the water boiled, he made coffee and poured himself a bowl of water. He put two bird nests inside and watched them soak for a full minute before dumping the vegetables and nuts in with them.
Bernhard loved bird nest soup. It was his occupation and his solace. He worked gathering the nests for sale, but he always skimmed over the harvest for himself. He fed himself almost solely on bird nest soup, because, he said when asked, it made him feel like he was eating boiled gold. These particular bird nests were made of the layered mucus secretions of the brown-rumped swiftlet, and were worth a small fortune.
It was an expensive delicacy.
Bernhard poured hot water into his thermos, which already had the makings for his lunch inside. As he put this inside his pack, he saw Benny and Adam walking up the path. He nodded to them.
“Hey, Kroesen,” Adam said, waving around him to take in the entire landscape. “What is this shit?” he asked. “All this, you’d think they’d just dropped a bomb on us.”
“Something’s got the animals damn spooked,” said Bernhard.
“That little biologist — what’s ‘is name — is trying to get the short-range radio up,” said Benny. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on but all their equipment’s gone haywire.”
“Is it bad?”
“Yeah, apparently. I was just talking to Peterson. The radios are down, their specialty equipment’s down. The birds and cats they’re looking at over there, well, they’re acting all weird.”
“Like, they’re just lolling around. They aren’t responding to anything the biologists do, they’re just sitting around, eyes half closed, not responding to light or food. They’ll let people handle them, even the wild ones, but the bio guys stopped letting us do that in case it’s contagious.”
Bernhard felt time slow for a moment. A virus?
Adam took a drag of his cigar, flicked it, ground down the ash, and asked, “You still want to go in to work?”
That was the real question, thought Bernhard. The only criterion that matter suggested they go in. “Yeah. Money’s money,” he said. He drank the dregs of his soup and stood up. “Let’s go.”
The river carried by scores of lumpy, and very dead, fish. They floated down the river in a broken chain, like beads strewn from broken jewelry, and bumped into the boat with dull, hopeless thuds. Bernhard felt like something was on the edge of his mind, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. The pounding in his ears became steadily more audible.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“Hear what?” asked Adam.
“I don’t know, like a calling?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“I might,” said Benny.
“Yeah,” said Bernhard. “Might.” The harder he tried to figure out what it was, the more elusive it grew and his attention wandered.
Whatever it was, it was growing more pronounced as they traveled south.
They moored the boat at the makeshift dock and started up the ridge. By ten in the morning they were looking into the limestone cavern that housed the swiftlets. It was a long, vertical shaft with a small forest oasis at the bottom where the sun barely shone. These trees partially hid a horizontal tunnel that had been an underground river at one point, long ago, and in this were the birds. The men lowered their ladders and descended.
Where the soil allowed it, the forest overflowed into the shaft. Trees dangled precariously over the edge, their children growing far below, stunted and withered. The trio settled on the edge of the dwarf forest and made their way into the dark of the tunnel.
Immediately, their nerves were set on edge. It was wet, but that wasn’t the problem. Bats roosted on the ceiling, but they weren’t sleeping soundly. They were singing a demented chorus, all in unison, and as they travelled farther in to the cave, the chattering increased. As the light from the shaft faded, three men took out their flashlights and arched the beams over the animals.
“Shit,” said Benny.
“Just ignore it,” said Bernhard.
It was hard advice to follow. The little voices grated on their ears, and on top of that the men felt a definite pulse in the air, like a heartbeat. And with a shock they realized that the bats were all singing to the beat. For a moment Bernhard felt like he was in the throat of a feral god, and despite himself he couldn’t shake his fear. “What do you think of this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Adam.
“No,” said Benny.
“You want to do a different cave today?” asked Adam.
“No, we’d have to track our way back down the river…” said Bernhard.
“Yeah,” Benny muttered.
They reached the corridor used by the swiftlets. The birds built their mucus nests along the upper walls of this part of the tunnel.
Their flimsy scaffolding was as they’d left it — this was the bamboo and rope contraption that made their job dangerous. Bernhard had worked with men who had fallen from these and broken limbs, gained concussions. This was the trademark of their job, but it was also a danger that was routinely dismissed by the collectors. They never thought that it would happen to them. So Bernhard took the lead.
He carried a hollow rake — with a flashlight strapped above the tines — clamped between his teeth. With his hands wrapped in rags to protect from splinters, he began his climb. Benny and Adam would take the point at other places along this corridor, but for now, they were going to collect what Bernhard dropped from above.
The vibration in the air was gnawing at Bernhard’s nerves, and as he climbed an irritating cheeping reached his ears. Halfway up he wrapped his arms through the ropes and pointed the flashlight above. The swiftlets sat in their nests, mindlessly burbling along to the pulse. Bernhard’s eyes started to shift. The pulse was getting worse. It was taking more of his resources to pay attention to his job.
“Hey, these birds are still up here!” he called down to Benny and Adam. He screwed up his eyes. The voices of the birds sounded like stones scraping together — but no, that was just this bloody, throbbing noise in the air. The cave had a psychic muscle twitching, resonating like the clacking of teeth in the dry, arctic wilderness, like the plucking of saw teeth marching down a block of ice, all in an orderly row. Passing as individuals, each little blade scraped off another tiny portion of Bernhard’s consciousness, leaving him waiting for the momentary relief of an upstroke which was not forthcoming.
“What are they doing up there?” asked Benny, his voice on the fringe of Bernhard’s awareness. “They should be outside.”
“Yeah,” said Bernhard. “Yeah.” He managed the energy to continue upwards.
A snarl emitted from beside Bernhard. He started, but then realized that it was just the radio at his waist.
“Kroesen, is that you?” the voice said. It was heavily garbled but Bernhard still made out the voice of Peterson. “Kroesen, pick up. I heard you were off to the Vogt cave and I wanted to get a hold of you before you got there.”
Bernhard picked up the microphone. “Yeah what? I’m already here.”
“You’re already in the cave?”
“Yeah,” said Bernhard. “I can barely hear you.”
“Regardless, Bernhard, you need to get out of there.”
“When we got the radios up, we got messages from the capitol straight up — there’s some sort of seismic activity centered on your area. There’s something larger at play, too, and getting worse. There’s a…” the next few words were garbled “…being picked up by the machines, and it’s affecting the animals and…they’re singing, but they’re very unhealthy, unresponsive — ”
Bernhard hauled himself up the final stretch of the ladder, and the shock of looking into the eyes of the birds sent the thought of danger from his mind.
They were crowded all over the ceiling, resting in their rubbery nests. They chirped in unison, as if brainwashed, or possessed, singing along with the pulse. Not a single beak broke the pattern. They sat without responding to him, lolling as if dead, the only sign of life in them the high-pitched monotonous cry that pricked into his mind like the teeth of spiders. Overwhelmed by revulsion, Bernhard lashed out at the nests. When he knocked their perches off the wall, the birds still didn’t respond; they just fell limp to the floor below. Some died when they hit the ground, tiny bodies crushed so easily it was a wonder they lived at all; the life was snuffed from them in the barest fraction of a second it took the small bodies to strike stone. Their trance was broken by death, and death alone.
But Bernhard didn’t know that. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he felt the birds were swallowing him up in their song.
Benny and Adam saw the little puffs of the birds striking the ground. Not all of them died right away — some continued their mantra as they lay broken on the ground.
Adam called up, “Bernhard! Oi!”
But the call was lost to Bernhard’s ears. He could just make out the faint call of Peterson, “Bernhard, that cave may not…stable for life. You need to…”
The nests were only a couple of inches wide, rubbery loops for the birds to rest their weak legs in. They looked like diminutive canoes, with high curved bows and sterns connected to the ceiling. That was the last thought that went through Bernhard’s mind before he fell.
He dropped the rake and wavered. Adam and Benny couldn’t see him in the dark, although they let up a cry as the pike struck down next to them.
Bernhard hit the side of the wall as he went down, scraping his arm and shoulder. In a mild way, he was surprised when the floor gave way under him, as though only a thin film of limestone covered it. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Darkness caught him.
He woke up on the floor.
The pounding in the atmosphere was so great that he couldn’t hear his own voice when he called out. He screamed himself hoarse in the darkness as he tried to get his bearings, but the world was now a place of impulse and instinct. He remembered falling, but didn’t know where he was. And where were Benny and Adam? Had they left him here?
Petersen had said the cave was unstable, so perhaps Bernhard had fallen into a lower cavern and his coworkers couldn’t get to him. Whatever the cause, the darkness was complete. How far had he fallen? He tried to climb the walls, but he was so full of energy that he felt he must hurry down this tunnel instead. He couldn’t make himself want to go back to that world of life he called Borneo, and the farther he travelled the less interest he had in returning.
The walls arched away, leaving Bernhard wandering in a wide open cavern. Some part of him knew this was dangerous, but the only thing he really cared about was getting out through the other side.
Walking, he kept his arms outstretched, trying to find a wall. Even though the floor was level, he found it oddly hard to keep his balance. Try as he might, Bernhard could not walk in any direction other than towards the pulse, which he felt thrumming from some source ahead. Why on earth he had felt anger towards the pulse-singing birds up above, he didn’t know. If anything, those birds were blessed.
He felt he had always wanted to go to the pulse, and that finding its source would be the cumulating event of his life. As time passed he saw the pulse as its own form of light, its energy blowing into his eyes and putting protrusions in the tunnel into silhouette.
He looked at the protrusions as he walked by them, but he was not motivated to pause in his march. They were finlike things, full of veins but without skin or meat to cover and support them. He ran his hands over the tendrils, but they wavered away from his touch like skittish kittens.
The unlight blowing into his eyes was playing tricks with his mind. The more he stared into the void, the less certain he was of whether or not he was in darkness at all. It was like looking into the marks of color on the back of his eyelids, and he saw entire worlds stretching away beyond him. He wondered if his eyes were burning out from staring into this mirage. He no longer heard his own thoughts; all that he knew was that this void would engulf him. He didn’t mind.
And then he came upon the unlight’s point of emission, but it was surrounded by a wall. He tapped the wall; it was made of glass. He touched the walls until he found the door. It closed after him, and then everything changed.
The pilot project was a success! said Fungus. He ran to meet his master and share the news, but the doctor, Feather-Mite, was leaving the office already. The doctor wore an expression of purest disgust on his twisted features, and the birds perching along his spine twittered nervously. They met in the corridor, and Feather-Mite waved away his assistant.
Yes, yes, he said. I’ve read the report. Come along now, I want you with me when we catch the human.
Shall I ready your chambers on board the zeppelin? asked Fungus.
You mean you haven’t already? Birds damn it, what do I keep you around for? Feather-Mite struck Fungus with his clipboard in several fluttering, ineffectual strokes. Stop fucking around and get my things. I’ve been waiting too long for this! He paused, taking a moment to collect himself. He gestured to those around him and remained, somehow, dignified. Now! Let’s go!
The gateway spat Bernhard out into a new world, after the universe turned inside out like a Chinese finger trap rolled inside itself and pulled like so much plastic taffy into a new form.
He was in another cave, and this time the currents were pushing him away from the deeper sections. He couldn’t make himself turn his body around, but he could look behind himself. A machine was running inside a webwork of cables, like a tin can being mauled by octopi. Before him, daylight was radiating out of a shaft in the floor, which drew his attention while at the same time puzzling him.
When he approached the shaft he was surprised again. In the darkness above him, a grove of saplings weathered the poorly lit conditions, while just beyond his feet lay a tunnel to the sky. Clouds scudded the blue expanse. A fringe of trees sat around the lip of the shaft, obscuring the view. And all of this below him. He was looking over a precipice into the heart of an empty world.
The effect of the gate no longer reaching him, he withdrew into the shadows. The world was too fantastic, but like a trapped animal he had to test the boundaries of his cage. He approached the chasm.
A large pill-shaped object was floating into view, partially eclipsing the sun. A zeppelin. Watching it approach gave Bernhard a sense of vertigo, so he lay down and peered over the edge that way. Still, looking into the chasm made him feel like he was slipping over the edge. Normally, Bernhard was unaffected by heights, but this was different. This was an immensity he had never before even contemplated.
Something was coming up from the zeppelin. It was just a speck at first, but it grew steadily larger. It floated up the shaft and came to a rest before him.
Standing on this disk-shaped device where two of the most disgusting things that Bernhard had ever seen. They were tall and wide, and covered in lumps, boils, and holes, with an unpleasant rubbery texture to them. They controlled the disk at a pedestal at its bow.
The disk came level with the cave floor, and the creatures towered above him. Their pointed heads met in conference, and then the larger of the two reached out to Bernhard. Thank the fortunes that I reached you so quickly, human, or surely you would have done something stupid by now, it said.
The words seemed to bypass Bernhard’s ears and go straight into his skull. Bernhard blinked. Yes, yes, earth-man, we are not of your ilk, came the voice from the creature. Now get onto this disk right away, so that we can get down to business.
Bernhard stood, but hesitated over the chasm. Show some nerve, damn it, snapped the bird nest man. Bernhard started at that realization.
Bird nests? No. That’s the role you play in this world.
Well, said the smaller one, there is certainly a parallel there —
— in the generation of the Terrestrial bird nest and we, the Dysonian mucosa. Yes, yes. That is food for thought, but at the moment I have other pressing matters to consider. Now come along, human, it’s only a three-birdspan step…
Bernhard had felt put off by them at first, but the more they talked the deeper an impression he gained that they were good, trustworthy people. “I’m Bernhard Kroesen,” he said, and with a hop, he was on the disk.
The lead bird nest shook his hand. Hello there, I am Doctor Feather-Mite, and this is my assistant, Fungus. We’ll be taking you down to the zeppelin now to sign some paper work. Steady there.
“How are you alive if you’re bird nests?” asked Bernhard.
Don’t take that tone with the doctor, please, said Fungus.
The doctor in question slapped Fungus — rather roughly, thought Bernhard, although when Feather-Mite spoke again he sounded reasonable. Ignore him. It is a good question, and one that I am earnest to find out about you, as well.
Never you mind. Just stay inside the edges. And they were off.
“What is this paper work you mentioned?”
It’s a legal contract I need you to sign, to make trade between your world and myself legal.
The shaft flew by in a gray blur, and then Bernhard was treated to the sight of the canopy receding above him. He tilted back his head and leaned back, his jaw agape. The dizzying sight threw off his orientation, and he fell into Fungus’ forearms. Feather-Mite let up a psychic shriek.
“I’m fine,” Bernhard said, pulling himself out of Fungus’ crabby grasp.
You should mind yourself! snapped the doctor. All my resources poured into this project, and you risk my profits by falling over the side!
“Damn it, man, I just want to look around. I don’t even know where I am, how I got here…
That was entirely my doing. I am the head of this private enterprise — this family of experimenters that have headed into the exciting new world of trans-dimensional travel.
“How did you manage that?” asked Bernhard. “And why?”
I created a device like a funnel to shift specific creatures from one dimension to another. I’ll explain it in detail when we get into my office. I don’t like being this close to the old world.
The disk was in shadow, but as they fell through a cloudbank Bernhard saw his companions in all their deformity. They both had six limbs, four of which were legs, and a sausage shape to their bodies. Their folded arms and arching backs reminded Bernhard of a mantis. Their constant picky little movements emphasized their bug-like nature, and even though he trusted them he still understood that they were nervous about something.
As they fell, Bernhard felt himself relaxing. He tried to look over the edge, but Feather-Mite held him back with an exclamation.
“I just want to look over the edge,” Bernhard said. “I want to see if the sun is down there.”
It is, and hold still. We’re almost there.
“Piss off. I’m looking over it.” Bernhard leaned over, and felt Fungus’ hands awkwardly clasping the back of his shirt. One second spent looking at the molten sun was enough, even as they fell into the zeppelin’s shadow. Feather-Mite grumbled as they coasted into dock at the side of the ship.
The smell from the zeppelin was nauseating. Its gas chamber was made from old leather, and was crawling with swiftlets. The flock rose and settled on top of the two aliens, where the birds began grooming them with picking, nuzzling, gnawing motions of their beaks. A cloud of birds turned on Bernhard and attacked him, too. With a yelp he shook them off — but not before he was bleeding in several places.
Here, said Fungus, helping him scare away the second wave.
“Why don’t you shoo them off yourselves?” asked Bernhard. The birds fluttered from one mucosa to another between slaps from Bernhard.
Because we are symbiotic, said Fungus.
Bernhard thought the birds were more parasitic than anything else, swarming over his new friends.
What’s this? asked Fungus, noticing the thermos sticking out of Bernhard’s pack.
“Er,” Bernhard began, but the assistant grabbed the thermos and peered into it. When he realized what it was, Fungus screamed and threw the thermos over the side.
Quiet! snapped Feather-Mite.
As they walked down the ramp, Bernhard said, “Sorry Fungus. I forgot what was in it.”
Oh, it’s…it’s fine, really, said Fungus. Don’t worry about it. Even speaking telepathically, Bernhard knew the little assistant was disturbed.
Open the door quickly, said Feather-Mite.
“What’s the rush?” asked Bernhard.
The hippies on Sheer Dock Island called the cops half an hour ago, and they’ll be here soon.
Bernhard was taken aback. He couldn’t imagine these two having trouble with the police. As they disembarked, Fungus hurried ahead and worked on a complicated lock with a set of ivory keys. Bernhard waved away birds and they settled angrily and defeated on Feather-Mite coating him with more mucus. Despite the affection that the mucosa instilled in him, Bernhard was momentarily nauseated.
I count myself fortunate that I have even this great a flock, said Feather-Mite. Only with the birds can I create more slaves.
Well, the slaves are my children.
“What? Your children?”
Yes. Mucosa children are created when flocks of swiftlets get together and sculpt them out of their own mucus. Their parents are anyone who cares to raise them, said Feather-Mite. All the slaves here were created by my birds, and are therefore my children, to keep in bondage as I please. Even with the swiftlet population rapidly decreasing, I can do whatever I want.
“So you can’t breed without the birds, and the bird population has decreased,” said Bernhard. “But why are the birds disappearing?”
Well, there are a lot of possible reasons, but the root cause is that the humans are all dying off due to global warming. Without anything to nest inside, the swiftlets have simply been dying off.
“Wait, what?” said Bernhard.
Well, the humans are on the verge of extinction, and the birds may be our symbiotes, but they are your natural parasites. This was just a pilot project, but soon I will send portals to your urban centers, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City…places that will draw the most humans into my trap.
“What?” Bernhard shouted. For a moment, panic overwhelmed his trust. However, he was still confused by the calming affect that Feather-Mite had on him, and he took too long to get away. Feather-Mite’s arms snapped out and snared him, the long fingers curling like pythons around Bernhard’s arm.
I’m going to flood this world with new human stock, but first I need you to sign the contract. I don’t need to worry about the authorities from your dimension, but I’ve got these hippies on my ass — a Human Rights Group, pah! So I must do this legally.
Bernhard tried to pull himself free, but the doctor’s grip was too great. Don’t run, Bernhard. You’ve got nowhere to go. I’m going cut off your head and drink all the slop from your stomach. There’s not much else to do with you — I mean, why feed one human to a flock of eight hundred birds? They’d tear you to shreds fighting over the vital organs.
No, I’m just going to eat you. It’ll be nice to have some bird nest soup. The doctor looked over his shoulder. Damn it Fungus, what’s taking you so long?
“You’re mad, Feather-Mite!” said Bernhard. “I’ve been working with swiftlets for years and they don’t feed on humans!”
They do in this world. Although, what we call humans are actually large communities of bacteria that resemble animal life. They have a protective layer resembling skin, they have an internal bone structure — actually collections of minerals that they cannot digest. I think the birds will have a fit over your bones, said Feather-Mite. He tugged on Bernhard’s arm, trying to bring him closer. It was all Bernhard could do to stay away from the alien. Who would have thought that something made of mucus would be so strong?
Feather-Mite continued: They are fascinating, the cave-humans. They have communities within their communities — of organs, even muscles, and the brown-rumped swiftlet simply must nest inside these creatures.
Some say that the birds may take to the other great apes, said Fungus. The assistant slowly walked towards them, an obvious predator’s stalk to his step. The doctor’s back was to Fungus.
Nonsense spoken by damned hippies! shouted Feather-Mite. The fools! They say that the next generation will be created by chimp- and gorilla-nesting swiftlets, that we can genetically modify the great apes into acceptable nesting material for birds. That is complete bullshit! I tried to prove to them the folly of their ways, but they barred me from meetings and entire halls!
Doctor, said Fungus.
What is it? Have you finally gotten the door?
Fungus leaped forward and brought the ivory key down onto the doctor’s outstretched arm. It vibrated like a plucked wire and tore, ashes spewing out where Feather-Mite’s bones broke the skin. The doctor screamed and whirled on Fungus, and the scientist lashed out with the remains of his arm.
Go for the disk! cried Fungus.
Bernhard ran. Once on the disk, he fumbled with the controls. The disk lurched and slowly sank below the dock.
Damn it! Said Feather-Mite. Fungus, you fool! We still need him to sign the documents!
I have a different contract for him to sign, said Fungus. This operation is now out of your control.
A siren pealed overhead. Bernhard slapped the controls, but nothing changed. He had time to watch the two mucosa fight like two bulls locked at the horns — the doctor doing his best to crush Fungus; the assistant doing his best to push the doctor over the ledge.
Feather-Mite looked up, as the police blimp circled into view. It was strung up like a Christmas tree and as vivid as a blacklight poster, a machine designed to attract attention. Fungus hurled the distracted doctor aside, and then leapt overboard onto the disk.
“Get off!” shouted Bernhard.
What? I just saved you —
“Damn you monsters!” Bernhard said, and struck Fungus.
They struggled with the controls, and then their descent began in earnest. They were already far gone when the police cruiser came to dock, an angry Feather-Mite screaming bloody murder after the escapees.
Thin wisps of cloud struck them like damp blankets as they fell through the atmosphere. Far away, and growing farther every second, the zeppelin hung sheathed in clouds. The disk dropped like a lead weight through the clouds, and soon even this sight was lost to them. Bernhard and Fungus furiously scrambled at the controls, their struggles adding a shaky dance to the disk’s fall. The wobble threatened to hurl them off, and they were as much clinging to each other for safety as they were trying to fight each other off.
You must give me the controls! Fungus shouted, his mind’s voice given extra emphasis by the squeal of the wind. Quickly, before you throw us off this thing!
“No!” snapped Bernhard.
You have nothing to fear from me. I saved you from Feather-Mite, didn’t I?
“How should I know what you did that for? You’re not human — you’re not natural! I don’t know what’s going on inside your head, but I do know that you tried to feed me to swiftlets!”
No, Feather-Mite did that. He was desperate for an answer to our problem, and in times of poverty the rich are the most dangerous of all, said Fungus. After all, they still have a place in society to fall from. Anyone in their right mind would try to make them do so.
“What does that mean to me?” asked Bernhard.
It means I’m a plant in Feather-Mite’s organization. You can trust me. Now, give me the controls — you don’t know how to use them.
Bernhard felt himself being drawn into Fungus’ kind words. His hold on Fungus weakened, and the mucosa pulled him off the controls.
Now, to level us out…
Taking advantage of their wild momentum, Fungus pulled them into an extended loop back towards the forest above. The jungle was gray with distance, but as they sped along Bernhard noticed that Fungus was taking them a considerable distance from the zeppelin and the gateway.
“Where are we going?” asked Bernhard.
I’m taking you someplace safe.
“You need to take me back to the gateway,” said Bernhard. “That way I can get back out the way I came.”
That gateway only goes one way. It was not made to send beings back the way they came.
Bernhard remembered that while inside, he had not been able to turn around, no matter how he willed himself to move in other directions. Reluctantly, he accepted what Fungus said.
“Well, where can we go?” he asked
We’re going to need to go back to Sheer Dock Island, the location of Feather-Mite’s base of operations.
“Why would we go there?” Bernhard asked. “Won’t the rest of his slaves just capture us?”
There are others that are not loyal to him, those of my clique who will help us. We have been using Feather-Mite’s machinery behind his back, and we were successful in opening a gateway in Times Square. We have been sending messages of diplomacy to New York City, said Fungus. Your kind has so far reacted negatively, but we can send you back through that gate.
“What do you mean they’ve reacted negatively?” Bernhard asked. He could only imagine the things that his race would do in retaliation against these invaders. All the horrors of Hollywoodhad been unleashed upon the denizens of New York.
Fungus did not allay his fears. There’s considerable panic in New York, and they’ve quarantined their side of the gateway, but everything is still in working order.
Bernhard found himself wondering whether it was wise to go anywhere near the Big Apple under those circumstances. He didn’t have much time to think about it, though, as he was caught be the sight of a cloud unfurling above them. Tendrils snaked out from the cloud.
“What’s that?” asked Bernhard.
Instead of answering him, Fungus swerved. Bernhard had barely enough time to grab hold of the mucosa as a colossal flying creature closed in on them. It was a mass of bubbles and flaps, like the offspring of a carnation and a cauliflower. Tentacles fluttered towards them.
It is the cannibal membrane, said Fungus.
“Good God!” Bernhard shouted as a barbed tentacle threatened to close around them. Fungus drew a knife and severed it, and crystals of blood bubbled out of the stump. A bass rumble emitted from the creature.
Just a little further.
“What is this thing?”
It is a predator of this world, albeit one that mostly feeds on its own species and cousin-species. Rarely will it go after anything else.
“Will it eat us?”
No. It cannot digest us, but its predatory instinct drives it to attack things that enter its territory. The membrane floated away from them. A trail of red gems falling into the inferno below marked its passage. It is a simple creature. This one lives on Sheer Dock, which you can see coming up on our left.
Turning, Bernhard saw an island in the sky. The rock floated in the void amidst a cloud of gas. They circled around the cliff top, which housed a structure lit by the sunlight directed upon it by giant mirrors. It was a complicated building, a mass of glass and metal that further reflected scant light upon a village of tents crowded between it and the cliff.
A crowd of people were waiting for them as they landed. The mucosa hippies waddled out of their fairground to see the newcomers. The only light in the street was a neon banner that made the mucosa look spectral, even though they were all dyed in playful colors. They filled in around the disk.
They let up a telepathic sigh as Bernhard disembarked. Dry, cadaverous hands reached out, pinching his clothes, his arms, and his face. Chatter filled his mind, and the weathered faces of the mucosa were pressed close to his. Fungus pushed them aside and led Bernhard to the gates.
“Why are they here?” asked Bernhard.
They are here for various reasons. Most of them are part of the Human Rights Group. It’s quite a thing. No one had given them any credence before now, because our humans are not sentient and few could imagine them to be so, said Fungus. The spotlight is on you now that all has changed. These people are good news for you, but for now, we need to get you inside. We’ll interview you while we’re powering up the gateway to New York.
We need you to sign a contract to establish a trade route between your world and ours. That’s what Feather-Mite wanted you to sign, but he would have killed you afterwards.
“Do you know that for sure?”
I know it, for he told me so. Fungus led Bernhard into a side building. Here, we need to wait in here while the sympathetic scientists and the hippies secure the laboratories. Here — into this alcove.
“Will you come back?”
I’m going to guard you for now.
After the building had been secured, Bernhard was placed inside a glass chamber. He was told that this room was the sending end of the gateway system. Bernhard looked at it, as the last one he had encountered had been in complete darkness. In the room beyond, Fungus’ loyal mucosa were working at computer terminals. Bernhard could just make out, crouching above the glass paneling, the machinery that would take him home. As he sat in contemplation, Fungus came into the room with two other mucosa, one normal and one orange and green striped hippie.
The hippie carried a clipboard with many sheets of a film-like substance, English and the writing of the mucosa sequestered into separate columns.
These will make you the ambassador from Borneo, said the hippie. We take it that your government will want ambassadors from most major nations… Bernhard wondered if they knew that Borneo was not a major nation.
Of course we know that, but the South-Asian islands have the only resource we’re interested in. Borneo is major in our eyes.
“And that resource is…?” asked Bernhard.
Why, the swiftlets, said Fungus.
“Oh,” said Bernhard.
And that’s what this other form is for: to establish trade with Borneo. Of course, we’ll warrant some time for you to sort it out on your end, but this will ensure it happens at all.
“You know that Borneo isn’t an independent state, right?”
“Borneo’s landmass is divided between three different countries. I’m from the Malaysian state of Sarawak. If you want birds, you’re going to need trade forms for all three countries.”
The mucosa were visibly ruffled. They turned their heads together in nervous communion. After a moment, Fungus waved their worries away. We will deal with that when the time comes. For now, we must do what we can with Bernhard.
“Okay. But another thing: how do you know the Terran swiftlet will sculpt kids for you?”
We can do that ourselves, so long as we have enough birds to farm for mucus.
“You can’t just bioengineer this?”
No; unfortunately, our biology is far behind yours.
“Well, that’s something we can look into.”
Bernhard signed the papers.
Good, said the other mucosa, the scientist. We’ll go out now and get you two on your way.
“You two?” Bernhard asked as the scientist and the hippie left the test room.
I’m coming with you, said Fungus.
“Why?” asked Bernhard.
The quarantined gateway in New York wants one of us to appear in person. That’s going to be me.
“God, why are we going to New York at all? I live on the other side of the planet!”
It would take us too long to recalibrate the machines, and we’ve already got New York in our crosshairs. It’s just faster this way.
“Well, I suppose I should thank you for helping me at all,” Bernhard said.
You’re welcome, Bernhard.
A throbbing erupted, and drowned out their thoughts. Bernhard closed his eyes and let the darkness wash over him.
The receiving machine was inside a small room. The walls were painted a violent orange — a color like an industrialized irritant to the eye. A security camera sat in the center of the ceiling like a boulder on a plain, obtrusive. They were alone in the room, and as the thrumming of the machine died down, Bernhard felt the pressure of the place as an ominous thing.
They seem to have given us a cold welcome.
“Maybe they weren’t prepared.”
Yes, well, I can feel the machinery working, Fungus mused. People are coming.
“Can you hear their thoughts?”
Yes. They are on the edge of my reach, but they are coming closer. There are also people on the other end of the surveillance machine watching us.
“You can even hear them?”
Very faintly, but yes. They are in a nearby room. He paused, and then said, I have contacted the men in the hall.
Fungus walked to one of the walls and peered into the orange panel. Bernhard ran a hand over his chin, wishing that he had shaven that morning. He knew that to whichever government agency the people in the hall worked for, he would look like a slob. However, a long moment passed and Fungus continued to stare at the panel. Finally, Bernhard asked, “Well, are they opening the door?”
They are watching us through this one-way window.
“Great,” Bernhard muttered. He walked to an adjacent wall and leaned against it. He ran his left hand through his hair, and slipped down the wall. “God,” he said. “When I get out of here, I’m going to have a cold beer. It’s been months since I’ve had a cold one, and after this day, I don’t think I ever want to leave Sarawak again.” He left his head fall against the concrete, felling reassured by its presence.
You’ll have to get back their first, Fungus laughed.
Bernhard smirked. “Yeah, whatever.”
Bernhard closed his eyes. After a while an industrial creak woke him from his reverie. Two men walked in wearing what appeared to be space suits. The doors cycled close behind them.
“Good God,” said Bernhard. “I thought we were in New York City?”
We are. They’re just taking precautions.
An electronic voice erupted out of the suited men’s voice boxes. “Hello, mucosa. I am Gordon Klaus and this is Paul Johnson, from the United States military. Please forgive the suits, but we must stop any contaminants from infecting such a dense urban center.”
Yes, I understand perfectly. I am the ambassador from Dysonia, as you may have presumed, Fungus said. He appeared to be speaking publicly, letting anyone in on his projected thoughts.
“Who is this man with you?”
This is Bernhard, who was picked up by a rogue scientist’s cross-dimensional antics. I don’t see there is anything wrong with him telling you all about it — the mucosa have many ills, but for now we must have nothing to hide from each other. He will need to be decontaminated.
“Are you comfortable in here for now?” Paul asked Fungus.
Fine enough. I presume we will have better quarters for our treaties in the near future. He made it more of a statement than a question.
“Of course. That’s what we’re here for,” said Paul.
“I hadn’t thought of foreign bacteria,” said Bernhard. “I should probably get washed down pretty quickly, huh?”
Yes, that is probably best, said Fungus.
Gordon pointed back the way he had come. “The higher ups will have someone meet you at the end of the hallway, at the second right-hand door down the orange wing.”
“Okay,” said Bernhard, getting to his feet.
Goodbye, Bernhard, said Fungus.
“Yeah, thanks, Fungus. For everything.” They shook hands, to the surprise of the army men.
And then Bernhard left. He traveled down the orange hallway, and at the second door marked with a biohazard symbol he met another man in a suit. The man led Bernhard inside.
“Who are you?” asked the soldier, “and how did you end up with those creatures?”
“It’s a crazy story,” said Bernhard. “It involves a lot of…weird…stuff, but, you know, the funny part is that it all revolves around bird nests.”
“Bird nests, Mister…?”
“That’s Mister Kroesen, officer, and not a damn thing would have happened if it wasn’t for a little thing we call bird nest soup. I know I’m gonna be telling this story a bloody million times, so you listen and you’ll get to be the first to hear it:
“Okay, so there are these birds in Borneo called swiftlets, and they make their nests out of mucus. Some people like to eat ‘em, and it would seem that some people are made of ‘em…”
|Madeline Bridgen lives in Canada. Her writing has recently appeared at Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k) and The Mustache Factor. She loves coffee.|