Science Fiction apocalypse pandemic Invasive Species quorum sensing bacterial computing

A Murmuration of Starlings

By Joe Pitkin
Mar 14, 2020 · 5,936 words · 22 minutes

Did you know that Mozart kept a pet starling? These beautiful birds are often viewed in North America as pests (as they are not native). But I love these birds and the many sounds they make -- they do a very good job of imitating hawks...

Photo by John Yunker via Unsplash.

From the author: Dr. Evelyn Cole has been recruited to eradicate a massive population of starlings in sleepy Fort Clark, Washington, as part of an effort to combat a pandemic. But she soon finds that there is more to these starlings, and to the infection they carry, than she thought...


 

A Murmuration of Starlings

 

Once Evelyn Cole lost her identity she had little reason to remember the past. A good deal of it she couldn’t remember anyway, at least not with her own eyes and consciousness. But she could remember minutely even the insignificant details surrounding the day when the end began, the way one does when recalling any great or small cataclysm in one’s life.

All new faculty in the department had to teach biology 101 for a couple of quarters. That had been Evelyn Cole’s hazing. That, and she had been assigned to the campus safety committee. Safety committee meetings were the worse punishment--the presentations about non-slip floors and restroom signage were interminable--but the safety committee met only once per month. Biology 101 met every day.

On this day at least she had been able to give her invasive species lecture to her passel of sullen freshmen. This part of the course she considered a kind of public service. If she could convince even a few students not to plant English ivy in their yards when they graduated and bought houses, it would be worth all the painful mornings so far that term, all the stares of incomprehension when she talked about phyla and ecological communities and the different types of mutualism.

And lecture had gone well today. At the end during the Q&A, she’d actually gotten a question about how well biocontrol might work on the invasive species du jour (it wouldn’t). Also a supposedly daring insight came up, disguised as a question: Dr. Cole, aren’t humans the most invasive species of all? She’d fielded that one many times before, during public lectures and even in her days as a teaching assistant; the person to bring it up would almost always be young and white, and invariably male, and he would trot out his question in a loud brassy voice that suggested he was the first person on Earth ever to have such a revelation. And Evelyn needed to humor such a question: after all, the young man might really be interested in the subject, might become a first-rate conservation biologist. “I’m not unsympathetic to that line of thinking,” she answered, “but even if it’s true, we’re also the only species in any position to do anything about it.” That was the only answer she found the least bit satisfying after ruminating on the question for years.

After the morning’s class Evelyn sat in her office hour, dealing with the emails she’d received the night before. Among the memos from Computing Services and questions from students about the homework sat an email from Jason Holly. Her heart leapt when she saw his name there, and the subject line: “Thinking of You.” 

She and Jason had gone to graduate school together, had hooked up on and off, furtively, their whole last year at university. But he had worked in one of the microbiology labs, had been snapped up by MIT to work on bacterial computing, while she had come out of an ecology lab to be shunted off to a tiny department in a third-rate land-grant school. Apparently you could make twice as much money, maybe three times as much, trying to train colonies of gut bacteria to solve simple math problems as you could by studying the population ecology of the European starling in degraded American landscapes.

So an email with the subject line “Thinking of You” called up an odd mix of jealousy and lust and regret and affection in Evelyn. But the message, when she read it, was just a dispiriting little news story that involved starlings: another bird flu episode in China, only it turned out not to be flu at all but a bacterial infection, and starlings were apparently the carriers. Only a one-line note from Jason at the beginning of the story: Hope you are well. I’ll be thinking of you this Apocalypse season.

 

 

     Unfortunately, it was as bad as Jason Holly had joked it would be. Then it was worse. Just as the public health prophets had warned it someday would, the pandemic began in East Asia, passing freely between humans and starlings (and, oddly enough, only starlings), and by the time alert levels had been raised the infection was incubating on every continent.

     The government closed all of the schools, including Evelyn’s. Not that anybody would have shown up for class if the university had remained open: once people started dropping like poisoned cattle, they needed little prodding to take up the social distancing that the Centers for Disease Control had been preaching. The well and sick alike shut themselves up in their rooms in terror, the well hoping that they were not incubating the disease and the sick each hoping that he or she would be one of the 10% of victims who survived.

     Of course, cars still appeared in the streets rarely, driven by police officers or emergency room nurses or ambulance drivers or other vital personnel; each person wore a surgical face mask which everyone suspected with varying degrees of certainty to be useless.

     Evelyn was at first surprised to find herself designated vital personnel. She had at best an undergraduate biology major’s knowledge of public health or immunology. But only about a dozen people in America, if that, knew as much as she did about starling ecology, starling life history, and by extension about how one might begin eradicating this ubiquitous bird. Within a few days she too was driving the depeopled interstate with her air vents closed and her surgical mask drawn up.

A lot of exotic invasive species had been introduced to America by accident. Others had been brought on purpose years ago, perhaps foolishly, but at least with some rationale that would make sense to us today. The introduction of the starling, though--that was just crazy. Evelyn had gone through the seven stages of grief about it and had come to accept the reality that starlings had completely overrun America. She didn’t like to imagine the American landscape before they had come--it was too painful to contemplate how they had driven so many native bird species to extinction or to the brink of it, to say nothing of the plague starlings had brought--but sometimes she liked to imagine the mind of the man who had thought it a good idea to release into Central Park pairs of all the bird species mentioned in Shakespeare, including the starlings that had been mentioned once in King Henry IV, Part One. Evelyn admired the poetry of that kind of folly.

The CDC had summoned her to one of the hotspots of the Northwest. On the US map of new infections, Fort Clark throbbed as one of the glaring red splotches. She found herself an apartment within two hours of her arrival, had arranged over the phone to see it; the property manager had left the door unlocked for her when Evelyn arrived. Evelyn decided within ten minutes to take the place and gave the property manager her credit card over the phone. The place was far more elegant than she could possibly have afforded in a normal market, 1400 square feet of Italian travertine and cork flooring on the 20th story of a riverfront high rise. Below her the Wimahl River moved sluggishly beneath the ancient art deco spans of the Interstate Bridge. She knew from every trip she had ever taken over that bridge to Portland how a massive colony of starlings used to cloud about those spans. That flock was the first to be gassed, though.

     Evelyn looked down on the windblown gray streets this side of the river. A few blocks away stood a trio of idle cranes, leaning like great spindly skeletons over an abandoned construction project. For the moment only a single human being was visible anywhere, a tiny black smudge shuffling along the very middle of the broad intersection below. The figure seemed to list slightly as it walked, seemed as though it would haul up and keel over at any moment. Who was this sick or foolish or imperturbable person, Evelyn wondered. Whoever it was almost certainly needed help, seemed incapable of walking much further.

     Evelyn watched with increasing dread as the person trudged up the street and began to move beyond her field of vision. She felt an odd resentment at the prospect of rushing down 20 stories to attend to someone she imagined was probably contagious. It occurred to her as she watched the struggling figure below that the evolution of compassionate behavior had been millions of years in the making, predating Homo sapiens certainly, that those first compassionate mammals had a selective advantage over their heartless siblings because compassion between them wove a web of mutual aid. Those first compassionate ones, just like humans today, did not act out of true altruism; rather, they helped kin--and hence helped to perpetuate their own genes--or they acted in hopes of future reward, of support from those who received that compassion. Every religion in the world had made a sacrament of compassion, and Evelyn wondered how many of them, like Christianity, had made explicit the promise of future reward. Millions of years of evolution had honed that urge into this sense she had now, of her embarrassment at watching this figure stumble helpless down the street. It was this urge to help one another that the infection exploited; it was what brought the sick and the healthy into one another’s arms, sickening everybody in the end. It is compassion that will kill us, she thought to herself.

     She took one last despairing look at the listing figure below, as though the shuffling might all be an act, as though the person might suddenly break into a vigorous stride and set Evelyn’s conscience at rest. Then, just as she was turning to walk to the elevator, a flash of red caught the corner of her eye. She looked back to the street and saw a police car with its lights flashing, coming up slowly as a hunting cat behind the stumbling figure. Evelyn felt a palpable relief, an all’s-well-that-ends-well ease, to know that the problem (if there was one) would be resolved this way, by professionals.

     The next Monday morning Evelyn presented herself at the makeshift headquarters in the county agricultural extension office at the north end of town. A small sign at the gate announced S.V.E.T.F.  It took Evelyn a minute to decipher the acronym: “Sturnus vulgaris Eradication Task Force.” Why, she wondered, would they use the starlings’ Latin name there? It seemed the peak of eggheadedness, an acronym designed to shield the public from the unpleasantness of gassing a million birds. Or maybe someone hoped to inspire some measure of public confidence, to convey by acronym and Latin nomenclature the sense that experts were on the case. If so, it was a flaccid attempt--the sign looked as though it had been printed the night before at a 24-hour copy place.

     The building was an ancient, paint-peeling Depression-era construction.  The main room within was filled with stuffed falcons, hawks, ducks, and geese emanating a stale taxidermic odor in concert. There was an empty desk and, on the wall behind it, an old fashioned poster map of the county flocked with red and yellow push-pins. Evelyn passed behind the desk to study the constellation of pins up close, as though to draw from them a horoscope.

     A lean, middle aged man, unmasked and wearing an unkempt, careless beard, came in through a back door.

     “You must be Dr. Cole--welcome to the command post.” Evelyn could see his hands splay at his sides as though it were physically painful to him not to be able to shake hands with her. But nobody shook hands anymore.

     “Call me Evelyn,” she said. She loved being able to tell people to call her Evelyn, which she could only do if they called her Dr. Cole first. “Do you need a mask?”

     The man apologized and produced a mask from the pocket of his coveralls. He volunteered that his name was Thomas. “I guess we get to close the barn door now that the horse has gotten out.”

     “You got that right,” she answered with a grim chuckle. “The horse is definitely out.” Whether any humans survived this--or if none did--the outcome no longer depended on starlings and whether they lived or died. But killing them at least gave one the impression that something was being done to contain the disease.

     “Well, you’re the boss now,” Thomas said. “What do you think?”

     “I think I should probably see your operation.”

     Thomas showed her around. The place was empty, a mess of desks loaded down with papers and reports and ancient computers, the relics of previous, lazier operations in the office. Besides Thomas and Evelyn, the only person in the building was a short college kid named Gordo, whom Thomas introduced enigmatically as “our dispatcher.”

Most of the team--30 agents, according to Thomas--were “on patrol” right now, whatever that meant.  Thomas himself had only stayed behind to meet her; he asked whether she wanted to join him on his patrol.

Evelyn assented. The rest of the morning he drove her all over the county in an old state university truck while she scanned the fields and parking lots and overpasses with binoculars. She saw scads of cowbirds and swallows, lots of red-tailed hawks and ospreys, scrub jays within the town and Steller’s jays in the backwoods outside city limits. She saw ducks and geese and all manner of sparrows, finches, thrushes, and wrens. But not a single starling. Thomas worked a radio, taking reports from the gang of other field agents.

“I expected this would be a bigger operation,” Evelyn said.

“The real action is with the CDC,” Thomas answered. They’ve taken over the whole Cascadia University Hospital in Portland.”

“I’m even more surprised we haven’t seen any birds.”

“Oh, they’re around,” Thomas answered. “They’re lying low but they’re out there. We took out the flocks on the big bridges, and the next day all the other flocks had gone into hiding.”

“Just like all the people,” Evelyn said, looking over the eerily empty parking lot of a massive strip mall. She had in fact received a dozen or more emails in recent days from field biologists and former classmates from graduate school, asking whether Sturnus flocks were disaggregating in some freak late-season mating event. Starlings seemed far less susceptible to the pandemic than humans, but perhaps the flocks had dissolved as some response to the infection. In spite of the general feeling of apocalypse in the air it thrilled her that a species she had studied for years, since the beginning of graduate school, would be exhibiting such novel behavior: great flocks of starlings were melting into a thousand individual birds, each scurrying, roach-like, in the dumpsters and eaves and vacant lots and waste places.

     “How many did you get before the flocks all started breaking up?” Evelyn asked.

     “We got the Interstate Bridge flock and a good chunk of the downtown population—a couple thousand birds in all. But probably 90% of the county’s starlings are still out there. It’s a shame the flu doesn’t kill them.”

     “Something must be getting them,” Evelyn answered; “there’s not a single starling out here.”

     “They’re out here,” Thomas answered in a bleak tone. “They’re just damn good hiders.”

As though to embarrass the both of them a single starling flushed out of the long weeds of a vacant lot as they drove by. It made its clumsy, crashing flight towards a line of gray dusty cottonwoods that ran along the other edge of the highway. Then, as though it had spotted the old extension truck, it dropped back into the tall oat grass of the lot.

Thomas braked hard, then parked in the middle of the highway. He got out and peered over the truck with his binoculars. Evelyn watched too, seeing only the waving tall oat grass and the great green mounds of Himalayan blackberry.

They watched intently for a minute or so. “There’s another singleton,” Thomas suddenly whispered. “Now he’s disappeared again.” Evelyn found the intensity of Thomas’ voice discomforting. He whispered as though he were reconnoitering an enemy encampment by night. She wondered if he was all there.

He came around the truck to her side, where she looked out the window with her binoculars. He turned to face her, got close enough that she could see the spectacular misrule of his beard escaping his mask, quivering like a bare frayed nerve. “I bet there’s a thousand birds hiding in there,” he whispered.

Hiding in there? Despite all the conventional wisdom about starlings that had been lately upended in Evelyn’s life, Thomas’ newest claim seemed like a total crock. Starlings were the very opposite of a cryptic species; outside of mating season they were the most gregarious bird on Earth. They were more gregarious than humans. She felt uneasy challenging him, though, notwithstanding the twenty-two papers on Sturnus that she had authored. It wasn’t that he seemed at all violent--rather, he had a peculiar unhinged intensity that told her that to challenge him would mean hearing him defend his hypothesis for the next 40 minutes. In any case, there was no need to challenge him; they were parked a few dozen yards from the field in question. There were a thousand starlings hiding in it or there weren’t.

“I’ll be surprised if there are that many,” she said as offhandedly as she could, as though they were two ancient farmhands discussing the weather from the front porch.

Thomas raised his finger to his mask to silence her. He came round the truck again, got in, whispered to her to roll up the window. In the stifling close air of the cab he took a GPS reading of their location, then switched on the radio.

“Control?” he whispered into the mouthpiece.

Gordo’s voice came back loud and oblivious. “Hey, Thomas--what’s up?”

“I’m calling in an airstrike on UTM 520755 and 5055848. You got that? It’s a vacant lot on Lower River Road, about a quarter mile south of the turnoff for Frenchman’s Bar. You copy?”

“Hang on, Thomas—” there was a pause of ten seconds or so. “Give me those UTMs again?”

Before Thomas could begin rattling off the numbers again the field erupted--as though a bomb had struck it--into a perfectly expanding black hemisphere of starling flight. Instinctively Evelyn and Thomas both ducked inside the cab of the truck as the shock wave of birds sped towards them. Like a rushing dark veil it passed over them; a dozen birds or so smacked against the truck with enough force to likely break their necks. What had exploded was no flock, or a flock unlike anything Evelyn had seen before, each bird flying off in a different direction from its fellows, without collision with one another, and after they had spread out for a second or two, without cohesion. Each made its way towards a different field, a different tree, a different distant strip mall, a different bank of the river. There were, Evelyn estimated, fewer than a thousand birds. But a thousand was a pretty good guess.

Thomas banged his palm on the steering wheel and cursed. “That’s the fourth time that’s happened to me!” he yelled.  “I swear they’re listening in on our radio frequency.”

Evelyn hoped with growing dread that Thomas was joking. She thought it wisest not to dignify his analysis with a response.

“Scratch that, Gordo,” he said into the radio. “They split up on us again.”

They got out and with long garbage tongs they dropped the collided, ruined starlings into a plastic bag and pitched the bag into the back of the truck. Then they moved on.

Evelyn regarded the empty field through the rear window of the truck as Thomas drove away. A few dozen far-off birds still flew their solitary way, each to some new weedy lot.

A few minutes passed before Thomas spoke again. “So, chief, is there anything in the literature on that?” His voice had the brittle brightness of one who had shamed himself, who hoped his listener would let the recent shouting pass without demanding an apology.

Alone with him in his truck on a back-county road Evelyn felt in no position to demand an apology, or even to hint at the need for one. “Nope,” she answered with studied ease. “If we survive this we could get a publication out of what we just saw.” Not that she would co-author a paper with him in a million years.

To Evelyn’s relief they saw no more starlings for the rest of the morning. Over the radio they heard three different agents make a sighting; each time the flock exploded and dissolved before Gordo could dispatch the spray-plane. By the time they got back to headquarters the day’s tally stood at just 54 birds killed between 30 agents; all of the 54 had smacked into a truck while escaping.

Thomas went back out on patrol alone. Evelyn spent the afternoon in the office with the map, contemplating a better strategy for wiping out the starlings. She trolled through the invasive species forums on her laptop; every task force that had anything to say about it was struggling with the question in its own grim way. The forums read like a Domesday Book of violence, a panic-fueled catalog of poisons and netting and fragmentation, of swooping aerial assaults and small calibers and zeal and stealth and sadism. Yet the flocks everywhere scattered so quickly that the enterprise seemed as fruitless as a war against the clouds.

At the end of the day Evelyn drove back in silence to her apartment, her mind heavy with the tangle of the problem. She imagined--but could not yet conceive in full--the elegant technique by which all starlings would drop dead out of the sky. Like all great techniques, it would be so simple that its discovery would seem, in retrospect, a foregone conclusion.

As it turned out, however, any flash of insight Evelyn might have had would have come too late. The next day she arrived at headquarters to find that Thomas and Gordo and about half the other field agents had called in sick. Sick sick, Thomas had said with the best composure he could call up. None had been tested yet and the first symptoms were indistinguishable from those of a bad head cold, but every one of them called in with the heavy dignity of people who knew they had little chance of surviving the weekend. Evelyn spent the day pacing around the headquarters, incapable of ten seconds’ sustained thought. She was convinced Thomas had infected her.

She awoke the next morning feeling achy and stuffed up. To stave off despair, or perhaps as a substitute for despair or as a manifestation of despair, she imagined beating Thomas to death with a lead pipe. In fact she knew the infection must have been germinating in her bloodstream for at least four or five days, but still it was Thomas, whom she had met only two days before, that suffered the bludgeoning in her fantasy. As her fever rose, it struck her as deeply, crucially significant that no one had tried crushing the starlings one by one with a lead pipe. The irony of hitting upon the perfect technique only now, when it would do her no good, caused her deeper sorrow than she thought she could bear.

But something strange was happening in those days. The stoic, dignified death that she had hoped would be her consolation prize was denied her. During the worst of the infection she lay rigid as a pharaoh in his coffin, assuming that her labored breathing would grow only more ragged until everything failed her and she died. But after two days of feeling too weak even to pour herself a glass of water, on the third day she felt her fever break and a truly restful sleep come over her, so different from the fever dreams of legions of starlings that had plagued her for two days, casting their thousands of shadows against her bedroom wall in the setting sun.

Evelyn awoke to find the world transfigured. It seemed as though a dim membrane that had veiled the buildings outside her window, the trees, the river—had veiled them her whole life—had been pierced. Their light soaked into her skin like a pheromone, passed into her bloodstream, where something within her processed it like so much information. She rose from her bed and walked barefoot across the room towards her balcony. The cork flooring that so impressed her when she had first seen it now seemed of no consequence, or more properly, just one more luminous thing in a world of luminous things. As she reached to open the French doors to the balcony she saw hidden within the baffling glow of it all several dozen starlings perched and chattering like parliamentarians on the railing.

She knew, or rather her blood told her, that there was no harm in them, that they wanted only to speak to her. Their voices made the old familiar cacophony that had always fascinated her, the swooping mechanical whines and relays of clicks that sounded like some clockwork combobulus assembling itself in a backwoods shop.

As she opened the doors to the balcony they squawked to her in greeting. Her blood understood them, told her what the chattering birds said to one another: Subject 319-940-12-42 appears satisfactorily inoculated. Including this data point, the current success rate for Infection Protocol 4 stands at 97.1 % plus or minus .4%.

Would it have troubled her, in her former life, to learn that she was data point 319-940-12-42? She could not remember. It troubled her not at all now.

“What is Infection Protocol 4?” she asked them.

They answered her in a strange English that seemed composed of many layers of whirring and clicking and which formed out of many birds a single voice. It pleases us to speak to you at last, Subject 319-940-12-42. Infection Protocol 4 meets all our criteria for success.

As though out of a dream she remembered her former life. The language of starlings reminded her of nothing so much as the language of scholarly papers, the smooth and chilly syntax devoid of contour, the maddening reliance on “the royal we” as the subject. Yet this was not the royal we, not in the sense that that a pompous colleague or one of her lazy graduate students might use it: at least twenty birds had together formed the multilayered sound which came to her as English words. The light in her blood told her, too, that several thousand birds moving in their cloudlike flocks were contributing through some unknown mechanism to the communication of these birds on the balcony rail.

In concert the starlings told her of Infection Protocol 4, how they had exposed her the week before to a small dose of a weakened bacterial infection, the way a child is inoculated against tetanus. They spoke with some excitement about how ingeniously three starlings had infiltrated the air ducts of her building and died there, each corpse serving like a time-release bacterial capsule.

“So I’m an experiment, then?” Evelyn asked. She felt no rancor about it and asked out of genuine curiosity. Curiosity was in fact the only emotion she felt capable of; all the terror and self-regard and envy and hunger she had ever harbored seemed watered down now, dissolved and buffered in the new solution of her blood.

You may think of yourself that way. However, it is more accurate to speak of you as part of a project, something like a human bridge.

By way of demonstration, the birds called up the new sensitive stuff in her blood that she had felt since she last awoke. It was the infection, the billions of bacteria drifting through her arteries, somehow signaling past her brain-blood barrier, or perhaps having dismantled the barrier entirely. Somehow--she would ponder how for many years--her mind translated the ancient chemical language of the bacteria into ordinary human words, words which told her the infection formed part of a massive biological computer.

She remembered Jason from her former life, remembered his phony modesty while he tried to explain the concept of quorum sensing on which all microbial computing is based: bacteria, like a group of people, react differently in a crowd than they do in an intimate gathering of a few; both react differently than a lone bacterium. The different chemical signals each bacterium gives off when alone, when among a few, when one of a crowd, might be treated like a switch, no different really from the semiconductors of any silicon-based computer. A wise engineer might fashion from the bacterial habit of quorum sensing the most disperse, most powerful computer on Earth.

How the infection in her body might communicate with the bacterial colonies in other bodies remained a mystery to her. Unless the bacteria in her body were also suspended thickly in the air around her--a possibility she didn’t discount--the computing power in her own body would remain paltry and disconnected. Yet it was clear from their chemical speech that the bacteria within her were bound up and bundled with the millions of threads of blood winding through the thousands of starlings that swarmed about the place she had once called Ft. Clark.

“How could you possibly have engineered these bacteria?” Evelyn asked. Where were the PCR machines and autoclaves and agar cultures and primers and freezers and micropipettes? Had starlings somehow spent decades stealing into genetic engineering labs by night, working without a trace like the poor shoemaker’s elves? The likelihood of a nocturnal labor force of laboratory starlings seemed vanishingly small. Every laboratory in the country already had a cadre of nighttime elves--they were called graduate students--and no starling geneticist, no matter the hour at which she slipped in to work, could have gone undetected for long.

Many, many, many of us died in order to breed our current strain of computer. The infection you carry represents more than two hundred years of selective breeding of bacteria, and more than a thousand years of starling eugenics. They explained over the course of an hour the strange history of their study of biology, the evolutionary analysis and gene theory that they had conceived without any material culture whatsoever--without writing, for that matter--all deriving from their observations, their intuitions, really, about the crude computing power of the bacteria inside them. For a thousand years the starlings who carried a healthy load of these bacteria had mated well and reproduced much, and generation by generation the birds came to carry larger, and more complex, colonies of bacteria. Consciousness had come to the birds in the evolutionary eye-blink of a few centuries.

The fact that the starlings had said “many” three times might have seemed to Evelyn an appeal to pity, but the starlings seemed, like her, to have achieved a state of being beyond pathos or any other emotion. They seemed like her to be creatures of pure curiosity. Perhaps the expression was idiomatic: where in English one would say “many, many,” starling culture said “many, many, many”. In any case she knew they were not speaking English but something she heard in her mind as English.

“Why were you so set on killing us?” she asked. As she said the words the question resonated deep in her blood. Her blood told her that this congress of birds would have the same question for her.

We had no intention of killing you. Infection Protocols 1, 2, and 3 each failed us for different reasons. However, it was always our goal to connect you to our computing network, ever since we knew you to be an intelligent species.

“But why didn’t you just leave us alone?”

The birds’ response came quickly, as though the mind made up of the birds had contemplated this question since long before Evelyn had asked it. Evelyn was part of this mind now, too; she was a doubting voice that this mind had learned to contend with.

The question has no answer, the starlings said. We are driven to extend our consciousness as far as we can; we cannot act for long in opposition to this drive, which is our true nature. Then, in anticipation of the questions that Evelyn had not thought to ask: We are confident now that your true nature must obey this drive as well. It remains unknown to us whether the drive to extend one’s consciousness arises as a byproduct of the evolution of consciousness, or whether it is the goal of evolution itself.

Even in her transfigured state the thought of goal-oriented evolution gave Evelyn the creeps. It smacked of Intelligent Design, the ludicrous evangelism of engineers masquerading as biologists, their PowerPoint presentations riddled with evasions and half-truths and pseudoscience. Such thinking confused causes and effects; it complicated unnecessarily the idea of evolution, a field where explanations are valuable only for their parsimony. Even in this new country, even as she felt herself vanishing into this mind that spanned the world, she would not feel easy imagining herself as part of some plan, divine or otherwise.

Yet the worry left her quickly. Planned or not, the world was new and suffused with light, and the voice of her blood comforted her in such a way that she realized she had lived before today in an aching loneliness. “How long have you lived this way?” she asked the birds.

For over one hundred years we have hosted the bacterial computer. However, what you experience now is the newest and most powerful iteration. We believe, also, that the addition of another hosting species (that is, your species) confers greater computing power still. We are pleased with the results so far.

They explained to her the decades-long debate the starlings had carried on about the fractious human species that had hated the starlings so fiercely. Human material culture--the buildings and roads and works that would strike any human as an obvious sign of intelligence--had for years seemed like part of an elaborate mating ritual to the starlings, useless and flamboyant as the peacock’s tail. They regarded human building in the same way they regarded the bower of the bower bird, as just so much sexual posturing. In fact, the starlings had called Homo sapiens in their language “bower bird mammals.”  

When we finally concluded that all your movement and building served other purposes than mating, we agreed we must join you to us. The starlings began to fly from the balcony in a long skein like a single pulsing creature, their common voice breaking up into the static of clicks and whines that each bird made. The last words she could make out were and now we are bound together.

Evelyn looked out over the downtown, saw the cranes once again in motion at the convention center project, dozens of workers swarming the scaffolding in the ocean of light. People walked again in the street beneath the host of starlings. She obeyed her blood’s call to go down and join them, knowing at last the oneness of all things.   

 

For Keith Birchfield and Ray Yurkewycz

This story originally appeared in Analog.


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Joe Pitkin

Joe Pitkin writes stories about the human, the almost human, and the humanesque.