House of Birds
by Steven Popkes
Is a terraformed Venus full of dinosaurs worth it?
What if God is an alien who inhabits the body of a macaw? Young Ian finds out when his mother’s nasty-tempered bird offers to cure her alcoholism if Ian will work for the alien.
What follows is a career spanning hundreds of years and identities, as Ian struggles to save at least some of humanity from environmental disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, and lost species. He gets used to lots of dying.
Is a terraformed Venus full of dinosaurs worth it?
Read a sample online
Chapter 1.2: Ian
Ian Bones staggered up out of the surf, fell back in and swallowed more water, choked, and vomited. He stood up again, swaying against the waves. He spit and inhaled a blast of sun-dried air.
A little farther up the beach and he fell first to his knees, then lay down. He vomited again and felt immensely thirsty. He’d kill for a glass of water. Perform serial murder for a beer.
He rolled over and let the sun burn him down to the bone.
Let’s see. Distant smell of primary sewage discharge. Crude oil like a spill from a tanker. Lots of trace burnable hydrocarbons—boat fuel? Slight trace of cholera and an undertaste of plasmodia. Mixed with the smell of bleak and arid desert. Northeast Africa.
He sat up. Somalia. Puntland. Good. He knew people in Bosaso.
Ian looked around for a sign of Percy. Nothing. That meant he would be dealing with Georgette.
His pants looked as if he’d been in the water for weeks. Possible. It wouldn’t be the first time. He found a small waterproof bag in the cargo pocket next to his knee with passport, money, cash cards, and necessary Puntland State of Somalia paperwork.
Okay, then. Ian closed his eyes and a picture of his location swam up in his mind. West. North to the road and look for a truck to Bareeda. Then see if he can get transport to Bosaso—fast boat or small plane. It was a long trip by road.
Clothes, shower, and the nearest bar. Georgette liked bars.
Ten kilometers up the beach to the road, walking over oil slicks and the incipient fossils of dead fish. His bare feet complained but toughened up quickly.
A deserted seasonal fishing camp marked the end of a road running inland.
Ian looked up the road. Empty until fishing season. He could chance it and wait for a truck to arrive intending to meet unknown and unseen returning fisherman. Who knew how long that would take? Or he could hoof it thirty kilometers away from the marginally cooling influence of the sea inland a few kilometers to be baked alive on the dirt road while he walked to Bareeda.
“Not going to make this easy, are you?” Ian shouted at the wind. “Do the job and get screwed. Is that it?”
He saw a boat come around the point. Ian shook his head. “You like your bloody fucking jokes, don’t you?” He waved at the boat and it changed course towards him. He could see the stiff silhouettes of automatic weapons. Ian gave them a grin, wondering what they’d leave him. Georgette didn’t like to waste anything.
The pirates let him off in the harbor where the Juba Hotel was only a few hundred meters from the Bosaso port of entry. Ian had half expected them to amuse themselves with the random beating of a westerner. But these pirates were quite cordial and businesslike. They relieved him of the burden of his cash and cash cards but left him with his passport and visa and the date: he’d only been in the water a few days.
Bosaso had no embassy or consulate but Ian had a contact in the market and an hour later he had a phone and enough cash to check into the hotel. A tepid shower and a change of clothes and he felt almost human.
As always, he called Pauline.
She picked up immediately. “Hello?”
“Ian. How are you?”
Pauline laughed in delight. “Not bad. Still interviewing the last few candidates. Looks like I’ll be done on time.”
As always, Ian found himself listening closely to her voice. Did she remember anything at all? Fifty years and he was still listening. “What’s the project this time?”
“Long term asteroid habitation. I will be contract boss. It’ll be interesting.”
Until the end of the world, Ian thought but said nothing. It was something no one needed to know.
“That’s good.” Ian fell silent as he sometimes did, talking to Pauline. When he remembered what she had done to him. What he had done to her. What she did not know. What he remembered.
“Pick it up, slow boy,” said Pauline. “Tell me where you are.”
“Too big a place. You can do better than that.”
“Somalia,” he said. “Puntland. Bosaso.”
“Okay. I have never been there. Tell me one cool thing about Bosaso.”
He went to the window and looked outside. “You remember when we were in New Mexico? The light from the desert? How on a hot summer day it seemed like the world was two dimensional and if you looked hard enough you could see through everything?”
“Bosaso is like that. Except in Africa.”
She chuckled. “That’ll have to satisfy me until next time.”
“I have to go, Mom,” he said. “Things to do.”
“Go do them. Call me soon.”
Ian agreed and closed the connection. He looked at the phone. For a moment he heard Pauline’s voice twice: once, as he heard it just now, and once when he thought she was going to murder him over Percy. Which was real?
Ian shook it out of his head. He had work to do.
Somalia was strictly Moslem which forbade drinking. But money spoke wonders.
The room was low and dim. There was a counter at one end. It was filled with men sitting on rude stools in front of cheap folding conference tables. Each man nursed a plastic cup of an unidentifiable liquid.
Ian went to the counter and the Somali on the other side gave him a wordless, questioning stare.
“How much?” Ian asked.
The Somali sized him up. “Two dollars for regular. Five dollars for special.”
Ian put down a ten. “Two specials.”
The Somali pulled a plastic jug from the shelf and poured it into two plastic cups. Ian took them and found a space next to the wall. He sipped one. Fermentation product. Ian was grateful. It could have been used motor oil fractionated down to ethanol and water. Additional aldehydes, ketones, and heavy metals came for free.
Ian looked around the room warily. Nobody had tried to sell him anything. That was a bad sign. Some were lost in the “regular” but others were giving him a hard eye. He glanced at the Somali bartender. Inscrutable. He could be indifferent or in on it. There was no way to tell.
Someone sat across from him. A young boy from the looks of it. Ian caught a bluish tint to the hair. Ian recognized the emotionless slant of his face.
“Percy!” Ian passed him the cup. “Where’s Georgette?”
Percy ignored him. “I left a briefcase in your room. It has everything you’ll need. Be on the next plane to Mogadishu. When you’re finished there, you’re due in Morocco. Finish quickly. You have to be back in India by the first week in February.”
“Good to see you, too.”
Percy gave him an odd look. “This was all your idea. My plan was to copy them and leave the bodies behind. Your idea was to take them whole and help them along. Don’t blame me.”
Ian grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”
“You’re going to be attacked on your way to your room. Just let your reflexes take care of it.”
“I don’t want to kill them.”
Percy gave him the same odd look. “They’ll kill you if you don’t.”
Ian pinched the bridge of his nose. Sometimes talking to Percy or Georgette gave him a headache. “There must be a happy medium between a friendly greeting and sudden violent death.”
“You make things difficult.”
“No doubt. Anyway, can you put them all to sleep for the five minutes I need to get out of here?”
Ian smelled something like flowers. Then his eyes seemed to cross and everything went gray and flat for a moment. He shook his head and looked around. Everyone was slumped on the floor. The bartender was lying behind the counter, his feet sticking out one side.
Percy was watching him.
“They’re not dead?”
“I’ve done nothing to offend your delicate sensibilities. Let’s go.”
Ian rose and followed Percy towards the door. “How did you do it?”
“Think of it as chloroform flatulence. Your improved liver metabolized it faster than theirs. Now, get moving. You want to be out of here before they wake up. Remember: we’re on a schedule and a budget.” Percy ducked out a side door and was gone.
He finished Morrocco early and needed a break. He wasn’t due in India for three weeks.
Rolf Henderson was running the Sequoia research cabin when Ian was dropped off. It was always either Rolf, Julie Agata, or Terri Matamoros. Ian’s funding kept this small collection of botanists wrapped around the trees. If anyone could figure out how to keep Sequoias alive in the coming warmth and drought, they could.
“Mister Bones,” said Rolf as Ian entered and stamped the snow off his boots.
“Call me Ian,” he said. “I’ve told you that often enough. I think you just like saying ‘Mister Bones.’ Like in the old song.”
“What old song?”
“Right.” Ian dumped his backpack on his bunk and looked around. “Any news?”
“Since September? Winter came.”
“Everybody’s a bloody comic.”
“Oh. You mean research data. The stuff your grant pays for.” Rolf smacked his head. “What could I have been thinking?”
Ian stared at him. It had been a long flight from Morocco.
Rolf waved him off. “All right. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Let’s see. Snow pack so far this winter is down another two percent from last year. Think of it as a two thousand year drought.”
“Compared to now or compared to the twentieth century?”
“Compared to now it’s business as fucking usual. A two thousand year drought is the new normal.”
“Right.” Ian looked outside. The cabin was in a cluster of relatively young trees—say, less than five hundred years old. These saplings only towered a mere thirty meters over them. Not much bigger than a large hickory, if you think about it. If the hickory were as big around as a sports car. “How are they taking it?”
“Like you’d expect them to take a two thousand year drought.” Rolf joined him at the window. “Some are managing all right. Those that have water. Those with deep roots. Those which are genetically pre-disposed.”
“How are they managing against new pests?”
Rolf put a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Nothing happens quickly up here. They’re managing so far.”
“Yeah. That’s all we know. But Sequoiadendron is a tough genus. It made it past the Chicxlub meteor. Past the heat of the Deccan Traps. Past the PETM. These guys are tough. If not here, then up in Oregon. Or in Europe. They can survive anything.”
Ian managed a grin. “I always like your optimism.”
“Yeah. Go get some sleep. You look like hell.”
Ian walked by himself.
Rolf cautioned him. “Be careful. I’ve caught a few hungry mountain lions on the cams.”
“Don’t worry,” Ian said. “If something happens to me the program is covered in my will.”
“Well, thanks. That was the only thing I was worried about.”
Ian barely listened. Their research wasn’t why he was here. These trees were the biggest, greatest organisms on the planet that he could see. Feel. Smell. They gave him the illusion that everything would ultimately be okay. After all, if one of these could last three thousand years, there was hope for the rest of us. Right? Right?
He knew better, of course. He was paying for false reassurance.
The adult sequoias crowded out the light and left nothing for the understory. Ian walked on bare forest litter in silent shadowy gloom. He saw several ground squirrels and one deer. Rolf’s hungry mountain lion sat on a rock, ears forward looking for her next meal. She didn’t even twitch when Ian walked by.
That depressed him. He should at least register as predator or prey.
It didn’t surprise him when Georgette walked from behind a huge tree, dragging one perfect hand along the side. Her long blond hair fell down her back.
She was dressed in a light jacket and slacks, the color matching the red bark of the sequoias. As always, it seemed she caught all the available light. As always, he had to catch his breath when he saw her. Knowing what she was made no difference at all.
“I see why you like coming up here,” she said in a soft voice.
“Maybe I shouldn’t if you’re here.”
She smiled. “Have I spoiled it for you? Was this the last lonely place you could escape me?” Georgette pouted. “That’s so sad.”
Ian pulled his eyes away from her. Everything seemed smaller with her here.
“You should have seen them in the Cretaceous.” Georgette leaned against the trunk; spread her arms to hug it. “They were everywhere. T. Rex walked around under them. Herds of Ceratopsians. Little tiny mammals.” She held her thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. Then returned to hugging the trees. “I loved my dinosaurs.”
“What do you want?”
“Percy wants you to go to Mussoorie.”
“I’m scheduled to leave in a few days.”
“Of course you will.” She came over to him and took his arm. “Don’t you think I made the park just perfect?”
“This was intentional?”
Georgette shrugged. “Can’t I take credit for accidental beauty in something I made?”
Ian felt bludgeoned. “How much of everything you’ve ever done was just an accident?”
Georgette shrugged, unconcerned. “It’s a little like bonsai. The artist shapes the tree but the tree grows the only way it can.”
“Is that how you made us?”
“Oh, no. Six days and then I rested—you’ve read the documentation.”
Ian shook his head in exasperation. “Why does it have to be this way? Couldn’t we just take who we need? You can do what you want with the rest.”
Georgette gave him a tinkling laugh. “Oh, Ian. What is it you think I’m doing? Destruction for destruction’s sake?”
“You poor darling. This is just practice.”
“Practice for what?”
Georgette danced a perfect pirouette and bowed to the tree. “You are taking advantage of events in place long before you were born.” She cast the idea away with a wave of her hand. “Percy’s needs and your very, very tiny human lifespan drive the timetable. But such things would have happened regardless.”
“So I gathered.”
“I know.” She pinched his cheek and there was a jolt of electricity through him.
“Why are you here?” he said, his teeth clenched. “You could have reminded me in lichen patterns on a tree.”
“True enough.” Georgette held his arm and looked around. “I like your company. I like to poke at you. It makes Percy suspicious of my motives. It tweaks your motivation. It demonstrates I’m following our agreement.”
“Right,” Ian said bitterly. I am caught between a hammer and an anvil.
“Ian! Our love means nothing to you?” She grinned wickedly at him, danced around one of the sequoias. Ian followed and found only a pile of leaf litter against the trunk.
He returned to the cabin and ate with Rolf while he looked over the project’s data. Rolf thought the future of the sequoias was promising.
Ian knew better.
Ian did not fly directly to Mussoorie. Instead, in an act of silent rebellion against both Percy and Georgette, he flew first to Kolkata.
It was duty, he told himself. Responsibility. Ian told himself he had not caused the tsunami.
During the Renaissance, Georgette had seeded the area around the Andaman Island with derived coral capable of withstanding the depth and pressure of the Andaman slope and with an appetite for impurities in the Andaman shale. Of course, calling it a coral was about as accurate as calling a stegosaurus a chicken. It was a coral host that lived on the outside of the fissure and grew tendrils inside. An Archean bacteria dissolved the calcite and carbon remnants. A relative of euglena transformed the dissolved slurry into layers of calcium carbonate and carbon fibers. Eventually, a single coral head supported kilometers of energetically expensive tendrils. It succeeded by working very slowly and dispensing with luxuries like reproduction. When the entire slope had been destabilized and the only thing holding it together was this weak glue, the coral and the derived euglena died, leaving only the web of calcium carbonate and the Archean bacteria.
Each lunar-triggered fission of the bacteria shortened a long protein chain. One day in January the last link was broken. The Archae died by the thousands, releasing a powerful enzyme dissolving the protein/calcium carbonate matrix into calcium hydroxide and carbon dioxide. The CO2 erupted out of solution. The Andaman shale shifted. An underwater section of the ridge supporting the islands fell. The wave sped towards Contai.
Ian stared out the plane’s window. He had insisted he be allowed to save who he could and be a witness. Isn’t that what Doctor King said? We must choose the good we can, eschew the evil we know, and, ultimately, bear witness.
Well, choosing good and eschewing evil was off the table. Bearing witness and saving those he could was all he had left. He couldn’t even manage that for most of them. Not even a tenth.
So what was he rebelling against? Percy? Georgette? Pauline? His bitter entry into his sixties? An uncaring world? Only it wasn’t that uncaring. Georgette was the world and she loved her dinosaurs, after all. She said so.
Refugee camps surrounded Kolkata on all sides.
As his flight approached Ian saw regular grids of refugee housing had already been marked off adjacent to vast tent cities. The solar collectors were up. He could see the thick square cargo container systems for power and more rounded ones making potable water. Three large oval containers were being linked together by a mob of workmen—sewage systems. The latrines were surrounded by a collection of potted trees. Some worker years ago had thought the plants would improve the inevitable smell and the tradition had stuck long after the smell was no longer so inevitable.
Ian smiled. Investing in UNERA had been the right thing to do. Three weeks since the wave hit and he could see the difference from three thousand meters in the air.
The plane landed and he walked past endless restaurants, play rooms, shops, and subtle invitations. An underground economy thrived in all major airports. Any drug, drink, or sexual partner could be found right here, right now.
Outside, he was struck with sudden self-doubt. What was he doing here in Kolkata? Checking on the handling of refugees like he checked on the progress of the sequoia research? It would make no difference. Those few people he’d saved—five thousand here, a few hundred there, twenty thousand in between—would never thank him.
“You need some time off,” said Percy standing next to him.
“I had time off in California.” Ian didn’t look at her. “You wanted me to go to Mussoorie.”
“Not for another week.”
“That’s not what Georgette said.”
“Georgette likes to mess with you.”
Ian turned to her. This time she was a tween Indian girl in a miniskirt over tights. She chewed gum loudly.
“Why would a three hundred million year old inhuman entity want to do that?”
Percy shrugged. “We get bored.”
“How old are you? Really?”
“I’ve been working on this project for about twenty thousand years. I’ve only been on Earth since 1885.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Then you can presume that’s my answer.”
“I’m going to assume that’s young in this scheme of things. Georgette has been here since the Permian Extinction.”
He turned to her. “Given all of that, how could you possibly know anything about how bored she is? She must be ten thousand times your age.”
Percy grinned at him and spun a finger on her cheek. “Gee, I’m just guessing, mister. I’m only a kid.”
“Little girl, where are your parents?”
“Inside trying to get a rental car. Don’t worry. I’ll be properly chastised for walking outside by myself. I could get kidnapped.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Work,” Percy said instantly.
“I thought you wanted me to take time off.”
“Work,” she repeated. “But not for me. Not for Georgette. You’re pretty good with your hands. You saw the refugee camps from the plane. They need all the help they can get.”
“Just what a billionaire needs to do: work with plumbing.”
“Here are your papers.” She handed him a packet. “Passport. Trade union memberships. Go down there and do what you need to do for a week. Then, go to Mussoorie.”
There was a shout behind them.
Percy—now just a thirteen-year-old girl—turned sullenly to confront her shouting parents.
Ian stepped into a suddenly vacated cab before the parents could turn on him.
What he needed, he found, was to dig ditches.
Little ditches for water pipes to the newly printed refugee housing. Bigger ones to connect the sewage systems and the assembled central bathrooms. Thin ones for electrical conduits. This could have been done by robots at six times the cost of human labor. In some places, giving a machine any possible human job even if it made no economic sense was considered a moral duty. But here labor—especially his—was cheap and doubled as welfare. Work was the preferred way to distribute necessary funds to the refugees but there was so much immediate need they hired anybody who could dig.
Ian’s back strained against the pull of mattock and shovel. At the end of the day, he flopped on the cot, sore and stinking, but with a clear conscience and a smile.
Worker’s Housing was for those who were not refugees and not locals. Ian’s tent was mostly populated by rural Bengalis with a lesser representation of Biharis, Punjabi, and a scattering of Chinese. There were four Europeans. Ian was the sole American.
Ian kept to himself. When payday came, he took his tiny pile of rupees and joined the crowd leaving the barracks.
There was no place in the camps to drink and so the workers bled sluggishly south into Uttar Raypur. There, residential housing had been transformed into markets, shops, restaurants—anything to capture the local thermodynamic rise of money coming from government assistance. Small storefronts blared out Bollyjaxx, a blend of classic Bollywood movie songs and jazz instrumentation. There were sections of sidewalk cordoned off that served as restaurants, bars, or dance clubs.
Ian drank leaning against a stucco wall. The bar was a six-foot piece of plywood stretched across two cinderblocks. A slight, thin man with a narrow face and a long nose like a hawk, poured yellow fluid from an unlabelled milk carton into pink plastic cups, fifty paise a cup. Two huge men protected him. The half-drunk crowd milled around the bar or helped Ian hold up the wall.
Ian felt the warm glow of toxic petrochemicals.
It faded quickly. He looked around. Many of the clientele were ex-pats like himself. Most were sliding down the invisible stairway. He stared into the cup. Ian wanted to leave. Leave this bar. Leave Kolkata. Leave Percy and Georgette. Leave everything.
The rough trade on either side of the plywood plank moved subtly towards him. Time to go.
On the street, Ian sobered quickly. He bought a wrap of greasy bread and fried vegetables. He ate as he strolled, ignoring any hard and speculative looks, secure in his reflexes and confident he would (probably) not kill anyone if they attacked. Tomorrow morning there would be several empty beds in the dormitory. His among them.
Ian moved with the press of the crowd and the illusion of common humanity. Gradually, he moved south towards the Charial Khal River. The neighborhoods returned to what must have been a more normal balance: family apartments on the second floor with regular small stores occupying the first. Even that turned into the tiny farms that, in India, dot every possible place food can be grown. It was dark. There were still people walking near him but the crowd had disappeared.
The road ended in the dirty river and he stood under the trees on its bank. There were a few houses and gardens nearby with lights on for safety. He was alone. He could hear a distant dog bark. In the distance, he could hear the grumble of the crowd he had left and further off the muted roar of Kolkata.
He backtracked to a branch in the road and began walking vaguely east with no particular direction towards no particular goal.
It felt wonderful.
Then, Ian heard a snarl and looked up the road. A dog stared at him. Ian stared back, surprised at seeing an animal take notice of him. Since he’d begun work for Percy, wild animals hadn’t been an issue. Did that not apply to domestic dogs?
A second dog joined the first. Both staring at him and growling.
Ian backed slowly away towards the low hum of Uttar Raypur. He wondered if he could run faster than a dog. Unlikely.
But it was somewhere to back towards.