By Bettyann Moore
There’s little reason to go into how I managed to get access to Larry and to the place he works, a place that most people don’t even realize exists. Most couldn’t fathom the work he does there anyway. Suffice it to say that this town runs on favors and I called a few in.
Larry’s room was two doors down from mine at the frat house. He was brilliant and the go-to man for any math or science questions. We weren’t close, but I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time one frigid December night and kept him out of big, big trouble. Like most people with a debt to pay, Larry began avoiding me, moved out of the frat house and changed schools. I never saw him again. I kept track of him, though.
He didn’t know I was coming. The person who got me the one-day security clearance assured me he’d be there.
“He never leaves,” I was told. “And I don’t mean that rhetorically. He lives there.”
It seemed to be a pretty creepy place to work and live, judging from the labyrinth of corridors I had to get through. Dim, overhead lights clicked on as I neared them, then shut off as I left their sphere of light. Dark ahead, dark behind. Finally, I came to a formidable-looking door upon which someone had sloppily painted the symbol for infinity. Had to be Larry; I remember that he had a thing about the concept.
I swiped the card I was given through the scanner located where a doorknob should have been. The door swung open slowly. I peered inside, but all was black, just like the hallway behind me. I stepped over the threshold, expecting another light to pop on, but none did. The door was closing behind me.
“Come on in, Prescott,” a voice said. Larry. He sounded far off. I wondered how he knew it was me. I wondered if I was going to fall down some steps.
“Don’t worry just walk forward,” he said, reading my mind.
A few steps inside and lights snapped on. Not just any lights, though. I held up my arm to shield my eyes from their intense glare. I heard the door shut behind me and I looked back. No doorknob there, either.
“Oh, gee, sorry about that,” Larry said, sounding less than sorry. “I forgot they were initialized. I seldom get visitors.” The light faded to a warm, amber glow and I could finally see ahead.
The room, what I could see of it, seemed to go on forever. Platter-sized light fixtures, the kind that are enclosed in metal cages – think gym class – dangled from thick cords from a ceiling too far away to see. They illuminated a living room-sized area under which Larry sat, his right side facing me, at a huge desk arrayed with all manner of electronics. The keyboard, if you could call it that, looked more like something you’d see in a sound engineer’s booth. There wasn’t a screen anywhere in sight.
“Prescott, my boy,” Larry said, “come, sit, sit!” He gestured to the only other piece of furniture in the space, a tattered gold and brown armchair upholstered in a repeating hunter/dog/gun scene. My grandfather used to have one just like it. I shook Larry’s very soft, very small hand. I’d forgotten how little he was. I noticed that his desk chair was augmented with two mismatched cushions and his feet rested on an upside-down apple crate. He didn’t bother to get up. The armchair was a lot lower than I was expecting and I landed heavily, sending up a storm of dust particles that glinted in the air. My blue suit would need cleaning.
We chatted as old frat mates do, Larry talking much more than I’d ever heard him. And fast. He talked very fast. I chalked it up to being alone so much. His hands never stopped moving over the keyboard the whole time, though, like I said, there wasn’t a computer screen in sight.
“So,” I finally said, “you knew I was coming?”
“Not until you got to the building,” Larry said. “Cameras. Even then I wasn’t quite sure who you were until I watched your progress down the halls. You still have that little limp.”
Duly noted, Larry, I thought, you pay attention and you go for the weaknesses. “Certainly no surprising you then, I guess,” I said. “It’s been a long time, Larry. What? Since December of 20-whatever it was?” Just saying the month was my way of letting him know I was there to let him pay off his debt. He got it, I could tell. He looked relieved, though trepidatious.
He looked at me candidly for the first time. “What can I do you for?” I cringed. It was an expression used back in my old neighborhood, a place I’d sooner forget. Was he trying to keep an upper hand?
“The birds,” was all I said.
Larry’s hands paused in mid-air over the keyboard. He sighed once, twice. Finally, he tapped a few keys here and pushed a slider there.
“You’ll have to come around behind me to see this,” he said.
Confused, I wrestled my way out of the low chair and went around behind him.
“Wow!” I said, “What the heck?”
“Hologram screen,” Larry said, the pride obvious in his voice. “Cool, huh?”
The screen, which I hadn’t been able to see from the side, was a good six feet by 12 feet and seemed to hover just beyond the desk. On it was blank map of North America.
“I could use it as a touch screen,” Larry said, “but this is just easier.” He hit a couple of keys and the map was populated by tiny black specks.
“Migrating bird populations,” Larry said, “dating back to the 1700s – extrapolated, of course – up to the present. It’s a time-lapse. We’ll start with 25 years apart then 10, five, etc. Watch.”
I watched. The black specks streaked from the south, then streaked back, then up, then back. As time progressed, the number of black dots decreased and decreased … until there were but a few along coasts and large bodies of water. As each decade, each year passed, I found myself rooting for the black dots. Kept hoping for them to increase. They didn’t.
Larry glanced back at me to see if he still had my attention.
“I’ll do an overlay now,” he said, “of certain events and conditions that occurred over the same time period.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Increases in industrial activity, earthquakes, chemical train derailments, that little incident at Yellowstone with the geyser, filling in swamps ...”
“Okay, I got it,” I snapped.
He ran the program again. Around 1760, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, red squares began popping up here and there. Then more and bigger ones. It didn’t take a genius to see that there were fewer and fewer black dots populating the red areas. Most sobering was the fact that by the end, almost the whole continent was red and varying shades of pink.
I went back to the big chair and flopped down into it, thinking.
Finally, I said, “I don’t buy it.”
Larry looked surprised. “What don’t you buy?”
“According to this, there’s hardly a bird left at all,” I said, “but just walking over here today I heard them singing, saw them flying … I call BS despite what you just showed me and the Senator’s great-aunt told me.”
“Ah, our dear Ethel Oddstetter,” Larry said, turning back to the hologram screen and hitting a few keys. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he knew her. “You might want to come see this,” he said.
Wearily, I got up from the chair again. On the screen was the lady in question, her pith helmet jauntily atop her head. She was walking in a field of tall grasses, a pair of binoculars dangling from her neck. I didn’t even bother to ask how the footage came into being. Suddenly, the old lady is startled as a great flock of birds rises out of the grass, fluttering wildly. The old lady clasped her hands together in apparent delight and stands stock-still. Before long the birds come back, settling in the grass once more. The old woman begins moving again, but this time the birds don’t fly up. She advances, then turns in large circles, looking bewildered. Larry stopped the program.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Obviously, the birds are there.”
“Obviously you say?” Larry cocked his head at me. “Let me show it again, this time in slo-mo. Watch carefully.”
I see the woman walking. I see the birds slowly rise out of the field, I see their wings fluttering, I see them return, I see … wait, what’s this? I peered more closely at the screen. As the birds return, some of them appear to be landing right where Ethel is standing. They appear, actually, to pass right through her body.
“What the …? Holograms? The birds are holograms?”
“Ding, ding, ding, give the contestant a prize!” Larry crows. “Cool, huh?” Everything is cool with Larry. “And it’s not all of them, yet. The scavenger species – the gulls, the ravens, crows, vultures – they’re still around, along with a few others.”
Sinking back into the chair, I pulled out my tablet, the one I’d taken notes on during my meeting with Oddstetter. Sure enough, there it is, her account of seeing a flock of birds “just disappear right before my eyes.” I had chalked it off to senility and ignored it.
“And that cardinal outside the Senator’s office every single day?” I asked.
Larry frowned. “There are glitches,” he said, “and that’s one of them. Another one is the fringing.”
“Yeah, it’s like a purplish halo around each hologram. It’s okay as long as there’s an element of surprise and no one looks too closely. I’m working on it.”
I thought back to the cardinal, maybe that’s what had struck me as odd about it, the fringing.
“So, why the subterfuge?” I asked Larry.
“Oh, they tell me national security,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “Whatever.”
He gazed at the screen almost lovingly and I’m hit by a realization. He doesn’t care what it’s all for, just so long as he gets to do the science, the cool stuff. For him, it’s all about the science, the wonder. Carrying that thought further, I realized that for me, what I do is all about the power, the politics. I slouched heavily into the chair, brooding.
“So, are you going to be cool with telling me all this?” I asked, using his favorite word. “I mean, the Powers That Be aren’t going to send you to some island prison for snitching?”
“Nah.” He waved his hand again. “In real terms, this bird thing is nothing compared to other stuff. Besides, it’s pretty much reached critical mass and people are noticing. Ethel Oddstetter has been very useful that way.”
“Still, it’s terrible to think that all those birds have died,” I said, feeling somewhat guilty.
“Died?” Larry said. “They’re not dead.” He started chuckling while he fiddled with the keyboard again. I didn’t even wait for him to say it, I hoisted myself out of the chair and came around behind him.
“If they’re not dead, where are they?” I asked.
He had Mexico and the North, South, and Central American continents on the screen. He replayed the first program and I finally saw what he meant.
“They’re pissed,” Larry said, “and have decided not to migrate.”
“Pissed? Decided?” I said. “They’re birds! You know, with teeny little bird brains!”
Larry looked at me with I can only describe as pity on his face. “Now, Prescott,” he said as if talking to a little kid, “we still don’t know a lot about the whys and hows of migration, but surely if they’re programmed genetically to migrate in the first place, that same program can be reversed if necessary, right?”
“I suppose,” I allowed. “But what about the sheer numbers? All those billions of birds staying in just two continents all the time, year after year, competing for food, territory?”
“That’s another thing those ‘bird brains’ have done,” Larry said. “The population numbers have adjusted themselves. A species that had 100s of thousands might now have just tens of thousands. It’s quite remarkable, actually, and not unheard of in other animal populations. Unlike humans,” he added, “we just keep on filling up the place.”
He had a point there.
“Well, at least we still have four eagles,” I said dryly.
“Er, well, two anyway ...”
“The other two are holograms?” The look on his face told me the answer. “Is this happening anywhere else?” I asked.
“To this extent? No, but it’s bound to. There are already portions of the lower Americas that the birds are avoiding.”
He’d given me a lot to ponder and as far as I was concerned, had paid his debt. It was time to go see Mrs. Oddstetter, then the Senator. There had to be some way to leverage this information to help his presidential bid and prevent him from trying to advance that odious bill that the handlers suggested. Suggested was probably not the right word, though. What the handlers wanted, they got.
“Thanks, Larry, for the education,” I said. “It was good to see you. I’ve forgotten so many people and things from the old days.” He looked relieved, having gotten the message I’d just given him.
I shook his hand again – he didn’t bother to get up – and headed to the door. By the time I got to it, it was swinging open for me. On the threshold I turned back to him.
“By the way,” I said, shouting across the expanse, “that girl?” I saw his back go rigid. “Darned if after all these years she didn’t wake up from the coma. Her family is thrilled, especially since she’s talking.” Someone had to tell him and it may as well have been me. I scooted through the door and made my way through the maze.