“Systems” by Nathaniel Lee

The frogs were dying again. That’s what Corina wanted to talk about at dinner.

I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t know why I did. It’s like a chemical signal goes out. Pheromones. The amount of sunlight. Some plant that blooms. I don’t know. We just both wake up and say, “Hey, you know who I should call and ask to dinner again?” It’s not like we have any kind of long-term prospects with each other. We’ve been down that road, God knows, and I’ve got the ropy burn scars and the police record to prove it.

So we’re at dinner, at the little sidewalk cafe at the Breighton, and I’m refilling my glass once more because it’s somehow empty again. Stimulus, response. The crumb-scattered table reeks of congealed grease and aging tomato sauce, and I’m trying to enjoy the buzz I’ve built up and see if I can catch a glimpse of Corina’s nipples under her filmy black scarf, but she’s going off about the damned frogs. Again.

“I think you should just write another paper,” I tell her. “You predicted this outcome when they proposed the factory, right? You’re like a prophet. Time to rub it in.”

Those dangerous little wrinkles show up at the corners of Corina’s eyes and her thin, pale lips about disappear into her mouth. “It’s not about me,” she says. “This die-off could be the start of the spiral. I’m talking catastrophic decline, ecosystem decay. We’ve lost half the fish species already, and that’s just in the last three years. It’s accelerating.”

I shrug. My glass is empty again. I go for the bottle, but that’s empty, too. “We need another.” I toss the bottle overhand at the garbage can, and it bounces off the lid, rings like a bell on the ground, and startles a crow into flight. I keep forgetting the lids. All the garbage cans have them now. “My bad,” I say.

Corina sits back. She snaps her arms up across her chest like she’s bringing her weapons systems online. “I should have known you wouldn’t understand,” she says.

“I understand more than you think.” I’m trying to catch the waiter’s eye, but he’s avoiding me. Smug little git. “The wetlands are fucked, but we knew that already. You’ve been saying that for a decade and a half. Nobody listened ’cause nobody cares. So what are you going to do? Keep tapping at the door and asking if they want to see any literature before you go? No, you deal with what you have, which is a moribund frog population and a shot at another grant if you propose a follow-up study to your original research. They love your stuff in the journals.” I stifle an onion-and-red-wine belch. “I’d do it if I were you.”

Corina stands up, and she’s got an expression in her eyes, a kind of fragile distance, like she’s pushing away a drowsy snake with a melting icicle. “It’s probably just as well that you aren’t, Gordon,” she says. “I’m always glad when we have these little talks. It helps remind me what’s important.” And she’s angry, and she’s hurting – not about the frogs – and it’s not like I don’t know any of this. It’s not like I couldn’t at least try to fix it, fix the frogs, fix everything.

“I thought we were going dutch on this one,” I say instead. I flash her my best grin, lots of teeth, lots of nostril. I want to punch that face myself, sometimes.

There’s a noise in the back of her throat and for a second I think she’s drunker than I realized and is about to hurl, but then all she does is toss a pair of crumpled twenties onto the table and run out the door as best she can in those shoes. Then it’s me and the snotty waiter pretending that neither of us saw her crying. He sniffs and twitches his mustache.

“Fuck you, Julio. Bring me the check.”

The waiter’s name isn’t Julio, but he brings the check anyway.

And that’s when the crow tries to kill me.

Hear me out on this. Humanity, from an ecological perspective, is basically a natural disaster. A forest fire, a volcano, a flood, whatever. We’re a little slower, but we get the job done once we move in. Chop up the landscape into a dozen little islands separated by impassable barriers of roads and suburbs, isolate the populations, and let natural attrition do the rest.

We simplify things. There’s a handful of animal species that do really well in urban environments: rats, pigeons, cockroaches, and crows. The numbers go up if you count pets; they change again if you tweak your definition of “urban,” and so on, but the point remains that once humans settle in, biodiversity is over with, sooner or later. Adapt to the new status quo or screw off: that’s the law of nature, and most species can’t hack it. The ones that do have a population boom, moving into all the abandoned niches and enjoying the lack of predators.

So then you’ve got vermin. Huge numbers, ubiquitous, living everywhere humans do, even outside their previous ranges. We’re their environment now. They aren’t domesticated. They aren’t tame. They’re smart scavengers, for the most part, who’ve thrown in with the current top of the food chain, but from our perspective, from the human point of view, they’re useless.

Unless.

Unless some clever bastard figures out how to give them a function.

I’ve got the bastard part down. I used to think I was clever. I picked crows. Possibly the most intelligent species of bird. Impressive brain-to-body ratio. They figure things out; they learn fast. And they remember. Send a grad student out to poke their nests, and in a month, every crow on campus knows that poor kid’s face and drops acorns on his head wherever he goes. Even the ones that have never seen him; crows talk. They tell each other about the Egg Thief, the Nest Molester, and they give his vital statistics, from a crow’s point of view. You have to wear a mask to do your fieldwork; that way, the crows all warn each other about Guy Fawkes and you can eat your lunch in peace. They’re not that smart.

They’re just birds, after all.

Beak and claws and feathers in my face. Acrid ammoniac smell of birdshit. I flail my hands, but I’m slow, and the crow is never where my fists land. All I do is give myself a few extra bruises. I feel the burn as its jagged claws rip holes in my cheek, then a sudden flash of pain as it gets a hold of my ear and tries to twist it off. Something gives inside the fleshy lobe, and I hope the bird doesn’t get the bright idea to jab its beak down to burst my eardrum.

Then Not-Julio comes to my rescue, wielding a broom like Errol Flynn with a rapier. The crow backs off, lands on a railing a few feet away. It croaks and glares at me, and I see it has only one good eye; the other is a grub-like white in the middle of a red scar, vivid against the glossy blue-black feathers. It croaks once, sharply, a guttural cry that I understand as clearly as if the bird had spoken: This isn’t over.

Then it’s gone.

I give Julio an extra twenty bucks. He gives me the stink-eye. I head off into the night.

It’s way past time for the last train, and I gave Julio my cab money, so I’m walking home. The streets are empty, long corridors of rock and tar reaching in every direction. From the corner of Fifth and Seevers, I can look north, south, east, and west, and see the same thing wherever I turn, white lines and traffic signals stretching to infinity. I watch the lights change from red to green in a smooth sequence, the electrical signals washing past me in an invisible wave, like wind through treetops. The city is a single machine, a unified, mechanized superstructure. The skyscrapers are like smokestacks, or maybe server towers, covered in das blinkenlights; streams of cars mesh like the teeth of gears; crowds of people flood and retreat like lubricant along the pipes and valves of the streets, spewing out in little toxic spills all around the main bulk. And me? I’m a loose screw, a wobbly connection. Sooner or later, one of the engineers will notice and fetch the soldering gun, but until then I’m free to wander.

What does the machine make? More machines! What fuels it? Human lives!

I’m really drunk.

Overhead, the sound of wings. Birds settle on the wires and poles around me; black birds, beady eyes. Crows. I don’t see the big one, old One-Eye. There are a lot of other crows, though. Shades of Hitchcock. I saw an art piece once where someone digitally edited out all the birds from The Birds, leaving scenes of actors screaming and ducking from nothing at all and a lot of shots of empty playground equipment or building ledges.

“Poof!” I tell the crows, pointing my hand at them like a gun. “You’re gone. I clipped you out. The city-machine doesn’t run on birds.”

The crows don’t move. They just watch. There are more of them arriving all the time. In another few minutes, my intersection will be surrounded.

I decide I’d better leave.

The principle is pretty simple. Same as training any animal. You start out rewarding anything close to what you want them to do, and then narrow the criteria for rewards further and further until you’ve drilled them into performing a complex task. It works on everything from fish on up. Even insects, sometimes.

I start with my machine in the middle of a field and spread peanuts all around it. The machine doesn’t do anything at first; this is just acclimation. The birds learn pretty quickly that there’s good eating around the machine. Next I put peanuts on the machine. Then only on the delivery tray. Then mix the peanuts in with, say, scraps of aluminum. And finally only aluminum.

The birds dig with their beaks, looking for the peanuts. Eventually, they knock some metal into the bin down below. Hey-presto! Some peanuts pop out.

After that, you put the aluminum on the ground. The birds carry it up to drop it in. Then you increase the size of the pieces, the shapes and so on.

It doesn’t have to be aluminum. You can use whatever you want. I’m just saying how it was when I did it.

With gradual enough changes, you can do almost anything. Shape the behavior over time, over generations, if necessary. The birds pass it on themselves, teach each other, teach their children. It ends up self-perpetuating. Ask Jane Goodall about it sometime.

Me? I taught crows to recycle used soda cans. What have you accomplished lately?

I do not flee the crows. They don’t herd me. I just happen to be going in the direction where there are the fewest crows, and by coincidence most of them end up behind me. I’m going exactly where I want to go.

Repeat anything often enough and it becomes true, or true enough.

The crows and I make our way through the streets until we end up outside Corina’s apartment building. There’s a light burning inside, where I know Corina’s bedroom faces the street. It flashes in the darkness overhead like a power indicator on a hulking computer tower. Or a warning light: Battery Low. Check Engine.

Maybe the city-machine is breaking down. Sprung a leak. Spilling oil and coolant every time it parks for the night. Maybe that’s what’s killing the frogs.

Corina must still be awake, lying on top of her coconut-brown comforter, staring up at the water stains on the ceiling. I told her I’d paint over those, once, but they’d just come back unless you fixed the pipes, so I never did.

The crows cluster closer as I linger, staring upward, remembering. I notice that they’re all injured. Old injuries, healed over, scarred. Missing toes. Clipped feathers. Broken wings. Chipped beaks. A whole crippled flock. A lazy cat’s wet dream. An avian platoon of walking wounded. Old One-Eye still isn’t anywhere around, but I recognize him in every glinting eye and flicker of motion around me. The only clear spot is the entrance to the building, a few feet to my right.

I think I’ll go inside.

My plan worked. Whatever else has happened, whatever else might come, at the very least I can say that I was right. for a couple of weeks, the town looked almost halfway decent; the crows spread the word, and soon every black-feathered deadbeat in a ten-mile radius was hauling scrap aluminum and empty bottles to my recycling bin. I had to empty it two, three times a day. The cost of peanuts was actually starting to eat into my salary, which is probably irony of some kind.

And then I lost control. Probably I never actually had it. That’s the lesson I’m supposed to take away from this, I’m sure. Reification. Frankenstein’s monster. Well, to hell with that. Why should I have to learn anything from this? Sometimes things just happen.

I may have mentioned crows are smart. There were crows in Japan that learned to use cars on a highway to crack nuts that they couldn’t have opened otherwise. I’ve seen crows taunting predators dozens of time their size just to irritate them into picking fights with other predators, and thus save the crows from both. They watched and noticed the times and places where those shiny metal peanut-tickets got left lying around, and they adjusted their strategies.

It started with them raiding garbage cans, knocking over freestanding ones and tearing the bags if they couldn’t. They were worse than bears or raccoons. Every public waste container in the city looked like it had been hooked up to an air cannon.

The first time someone had a drink actually snatched out of their hands, it ended up posted on the Internet with a goofy soundtrack. It wasn’t as funny the fifteenth time, less still the fiftieth. Stores bought scare-away systems that worked for about ten minutes per hundred dollars of cost. Canned drink sales plummeted locally. Some idiot tried to get his drink back and got nicely scratched up for his troubles.

I’d wanted to be famous, but I freely admit I was thinking more of publishing a paper on corvids or urban ecology and pulling some major citation statistics for a few years. Maybe some small civic honor for my clean-up program. Show up on talk shows as their quirky non-political guest for the day. That kind of thing. Not becoming the local folk villain, Lord of the Corvidae.

Still, my picture was in the paper. People knew who I was. And my experiment was successful. I told myself that every time I was passed over for tenure.

The trouble with being sarcastic at yourself is that there’s no one to appreciate it.

The birds don’t follow me inside the apartment building. Not through the door, anyway. I hear them in the air vents, though, their wings sounding like flags on a windy day. I try the bank of rickety elevators, but I can hear croaking calls echoing down the shaft, and I think about being trapped in a five-by-five room with a dozen angry, clawing, stabbing crows. I opt for the stairs instead. At least I can run in there.

Six flights later, I admit defeat. Running up or down stairs is best left to men with crew cuts and less padding over their abdominal muscles. I sit and wait for the building to stop pirouetting. The incipient pain of tomorrow’s headache is already lurking in the background, like a space heater behind glass. I close my eyes and rub at my temples.

On the landing below, I hear a scratching sound. Squeezing one eye open, I can see the handle of the reinforced security door jiggling, like someone testing to see if it’s locked. Rattle-rattle. Scraaape. Thump. I see a shadow along the bottom of the doorframe. Several shadows. One disappears, and the scrabbling at the handle starts up again.

Without thinking, I am on my feet and moving, not away, but toward the door. My shoes catch on the bottom step and I stumble against the cold metal surface. I shout hoarsely, a wordless battle-cry, and I pound on the door, on the walls, on the floor. When I stop, my throat is sore, and my headache is much more than just a threat. I think I can faintly hear surprised squawks retreating down the hall on the other side of the door, but I don’t open it to check.

At the top of the stairs, there is a door to the roof. It’s supposed to be locked, but it isn’t. Corina and I used to come up here to pass a joint back and forth and talk bullshit. A black feather is wedged in the crack between the door and the frame. The door creaks when I open it; outside is the night and the city, a humped landscape of shadowed buildings covered with a chaotic sprinkle of lights, lit from below as though rocket-propelled upward through the darkness. Above is an obsidian field, speckled with diamonds.

Nearer to hand are the crows.

At first, the roof looks like an extension of the night sky, a sea of blackness punctuated by gleaming points. Where the sky is smooth velvet, however, the crows are shag carpeting, a weedy and overgrown lawn of inky feathers. They are utterly still as they watch me step out amongst them. I have an audience. A very attentive one. Pity I left my lecture notes in my other jacket. They clear a path for me to the edge of the room. I walk forward, careful not to step on anyone.

Krauk,” says one bird, smaller than the others. It’s perched on the knee-high ledge that encircles the rooftop. It gestures with its beak, and I squint out into the dark. Somewhere off on the edge of town, a squat building belches smoke or steam into the air. You can see it as an absence of stars, a hole in the sky. The building is otherwise unprepossessing, a flat industrial rectangle. Its windows glow. At first, I don’t realize what it is. Then I remember: Corina’s one success. It had been a canning plant, I think. Soda or tinned fruit. They’d been looking to move overseas anyway, and the petitions she’d started about the chemicals in the local streams had provided a convenient excuse. Corina wasn’t much more popular than I was, really. And for similar reasons.

Something strikes me, then. Cans…

“Look,” I say, doing my best to sound sober and reasonable through the alcohol fumes and the aching bruises on my hands, “I made a mistake, okay? I tampered in God’s domain or whatever. Bite me. That is,” I hastily wave my arms as the birds shift restlessly, “it’s over. I’m done with it. You go your way and I’ll go mine, and never the twain shall meet again. Okay? I’ve learned my lesson. Humans and birds: it’ll never work out. Right?”

Hundreds of eyes stare at me, unblinking. Someone coughs, or maybe that’s just the sound of crows whispering together in the back of the lecture hall.

I sigh. “I don’t have any more goddamned peanuts.”

The crows rush forward, making no sound other than the rustle of feathers. I barely have time to cover my face with my arms before they’re on me. I stumble backwards, hit the ledge, and hover for a heart-stopping second of indecision on the part of gravity and inertia. Then I feel a rapid series of impacts, one, two, three. Crows. Kamikaze crows. I wave my arms, but it’s useless. I topple. I fall.

Black wings follow me down, louder than the air in my ears.

That’s the last thing I remember.

I dream, then, I think. I am at the factory, the canning factory. Inside, the machines go chunk and clatter and fzzzzzst. Pistons pump, spinners whirl, and massive, multi-ton spools of aluminum sheeting go through the crimping and clipping and curling that turns them from flat discs to shiny cans. It could have been a scene out of some 1940s newsreel about the Power of Industry, back when a good job meant operating a dangerous machine for ten hours a day in return for half-again minimum wage until you retired. Even now, when those jobs have evaporated like a chunk of dry ice on a stovetop, that’s still what people think of when they hear “working man.” How did such a brief period of history become so ingrained on our consciousness?

Here, though, now, the factory isn’t being run by burly men in coveralls.

It’s the crows.

Flocks of crows heave on pallets and push, dozens at once, to move the jacks. Crows throw themselves at levers, hop frantically on buttons, scrape with their feet to turn dials and flick switches. Over on the processing line, a handful of crows peer curiously into an open panel, bundles of wires in their beaks, looking for a short circuit that’s holding up production. At the stamper, crows dance wildly to clear jams without being caught in the jaws of the machine, which moves almost too fast for the eye to follow. With unfortunate regularity, one of them will be too slow. Then there is a terrible screech of pain and – if they’re lucky – a crow crawling away with a freshly broken wing or a smashed foot. It is purgatory, a maelstrom of sound and danger, everything moving every direction at once.

Up ahead of me, perched on the railing of a catwalk that oversees the production floor, I see old One-Eye. He turns his head this way and that to supervise his work crews. As he does, his eye catches mine. He opens his beak to call something, but I cannot hear him over the pounding and roaring of the machinery.

Birds. Birds in the machine. My head throbs angrily. It’s not right. It’s my fault, something I’d done, something I’d created.

I try to back away, but the door is closed behind me. On a peg beside it hangs a pair of blue coveralls. The name “Gordon” is stitched on the left breast in red. I turn back, and One-Eye is standing on the floor in front of me. He cocks his head to the side, and I stare into his blind white gaze. Around us, the factory works.

For a moment, everything is inverted. I see the machines like trees, sprouting from the fertile concrete, growing tall and strong, the crows among them as natural as crows sitting on a branch, or on a telephone pole. The factory building, the roads around it, the cars that traveled on them; the whole city grew like a flower, or at least a carpet of moss, nourished by the sun and fed by the streams. Not a threat, not a blight, not separate at all. The ecosystem changes, and life adapts.

I want to tell One-Eye what I’ve realized, that I act on the birds no more – and no less – than the birds act on me, that I understand my role. I want to thank him for his hard-won wisdom. But as I open my mouth, there is a crash and a chorus of shrieks from one of the machines. Smoke is billowing out, and birds are flying in a panicked cloud. The air smells of ozone and scorched feathers. One-Eye flaps furiously away, heading into the center of the chaos, croaking orders. I try to follow him, but my human frame puts me at just the wrong height, and I inhale lungfuls of thick, greasy smoke. My vision narrows to pinprick brightness, and I fleetingly wonder how many carcinogens I’ve just inhaled before someone switches off my brain.

The smell of smoke lingers when I awaken. I am curled around Corina underneath the coconut comforter. The sheets are in a sweat-tightened knot around my ankles. I have to pee.

Corina snorts like a congested pug and burrows into the pillows as I extricate myself. I wipe at the side of my face where someone has drooled and left a puddle on the pillows. Probably me, judging by the state of my sinuses. I wobble slightly as I stand up, dizzy and aching. I have a theory that this is how we actually feel all the time, and alcohol just strips away the illusions we like to maintain to keep ourselves sane. That’s why you notice it more the longer you live.

After voiding my bladder, I still smell smoke. I pad down the hallway and peer into the kitchen, which appears to have been hit by some newly developed ten-megaton pancake bomb. Bottles of syrup and alcohol lie around the crater like shrapnel. We must have decided to cook breakfast somewhere around three or four in the morning. One of the burners is still on, and is gradually turning to ash a rivulet of batter stretching in tentacular fashion from an overturned bowl. I right the bowl, turn off the burner, and make a tentative swipe at the mess with my hands, burning my fingers in the process. I put my hand up to my mouth and feel my bruises twinge. The sensation worries me, though my memories are still jumbled, scabbed over and painful to the touch. The living room looks foreign; Corina’s redecorated since I was here last. My favorite chair is gone. In its place is some wispy postmodern tangle of wires and pale cloth, with a pair of blue coveralls neatly folded atop it. I see my name in crimson thread on the chest. It smells of acrid smoke, feathers and melting plastic.

I breathe in sharply and feel the sudden pain in my lungs, where the smoke scraped my insides raw. I back away from the coveralls, bump into a pedestal and nearly upset a decorative vase.

There is a knock at the door. A heavy pounding. Not angry, but unyielding. After a moment, it repeats.

I swallow the thin and acidic saliva in my throat. The doorknob is cold on my burned and battered hand. I open the door and see a one-eyed crow standing on the rubber doormat.

Krauk,” it says, cocking its head to look at me with its good eye.

“I understand,” I tell it. I reach for my coveralls.

It’s time to go.


Nathaniel Lee puts words into various orders. Sometimes people give him money afterward. No one knows why. You can find more of his writing, including many free stories to share around, at www.mirrorshards.net, as well as his infrequently updated blog.