Grunt, Chapter 104: The Zoo Keeper

VENOM CHANG

Our trail makers reported success. “It looks to be a promising ford, War Leader. A little steep on this side, going down, but nearly level on the other side. Wide and slow. No more than three feet deep, I think. Brush beyond the far gravel to screen our movements.”

“Show me.”

The sergeant led us from the ever-advancing road to a branch trail no more than three feet in width. Men and horses would have to go single file here for now. Stirrups would need to be bound atop the saddle seats to keep them from catching on branches crowding either side. The trail could be widened, of course, but that might not be a good idea. The wider the gap, the greater the chance of its discovery by an enemy scout with a long glass. A screen of jungle would be left in place until moments before crossing the river. The Emperor’s Glorious Army was beyond taking foolish chances. Five of us slipped forward through the screen. For obvious reasons, I was not wearing my eye catching red armor. We spread out, picking our way over a profusion of fallen trees, winter-dry vines, and some sort of leathery fronds that seemed impervious to cold.

We were no more than a man’s body length short of the open riverbank when a blur of color flashed toward my face. My arm snapped up, blocking the first attack, but the bird wasn’t done. I didn’t even feel the needle sharp beak that pierced my forearm. There was no time for that.

“Birds!” Somebody yelled it. I hoped it wasn’t me. “Hey!” An awesome response from a hardened soldier, right? Hey!

Half a dozen of them, six on five, air-to-ground missiles. They were flashy. They moved almost too fast for the eye to follow. They were…

Hummingbirds.

Freaking hummingbirds. We were being attacked by Fringe mutant hummingbirds.

I successfully swatted my diminutive assailant out of the air during its third pass. Sora, to no one’s surprise, accounted for three of them. No human had faster reflexes than the Skilled Man. Who nailed the final two wee birds I couldn’t say. Not that it mattered. What mattered was that the six midget mutants were down. A couple of them weren’t quite dead yet, their wings still vibrating feebly. “Ouch,” a soldier muttered, wiping blood from his cheek. He’d nearly lost an eye.

Sora knelt. Picked up one of the not-dead humminbirds. Studied it closely. “War Leader,” he said in a voice of wonder, “this is…I think it’s a machine.”

“Yes.” with a quick motion of his hands, he twisted the head off, twisting the neck, breaking the cervical surface to expose something that was certainly not flesh, blood, or bone. The vibrating wings stilled. “What sort, I don’t know, but certainly manmade. The beak, see? It’s some sort of a metal tube, like a…hypodermic syringe, maybe? And the–yikes!” H dropped the tiny whatever-it-was. It bounced off his boot, landing feet up. “It peeped at me! The head peeped at me!”

“Let me see.” I squatted beside him. “It’s not saying anything now.” I reached down, nudged it with a finger, turning the tiny body end for end. The little green head with its wicked orange hypodermic bill peeped again. “Whoa, there it is. Eye flashed, too. I wonder….” It was my turn to pick it up. A bit of experimentation cemented my theory. “Gentlemen, I do believe it’s pointing toward its home base. Maybe sending a distress signal, too.”

“Finish killing it,” I heard one of the soldiers mutter. Understandable. This was obviously Before technology. Maybe even an AI, an Artificial Intelligence. The ancients had relied on those to an unhealthy extent for centuries before the Fall. The Robobird was Legend come to life, still functioning long after we’d all believed the last wonder (or horror) of the distant past had supposedly gone belly up. A handful of fanatics mourned the loss of Earth’s high-tech glory days. Most of us were glad they were gone. Mothers frightened their boisterous sons into civility and obedience with stories of cloning, cyborgs, man eating dinosaurs brought back to life after eons of extinction, omnipresent surveillance of civilians, brainwashing implants, you name it. Some even attributed the Fall itself to the Before age of Dark Marvels aka Black Magic. Yes, I understood the man’s reaction.

But I had to know. While I lacked Sora’s scientific curiosity bone, I lived by the tenet that said no knowledge of the battlefield was ever wasted. MAP didn’t have a clue about this jungle Fringe. At least, I didn’t think they did. Their leaders–leader?–had wreaked havoc in our ranks precisely because they knew their turf better than I did. If there was Before technology here that I could discover and tame to my own uses… “Priority One for the army,” I said, “is now to find this peeper’s home base.”

I only hoped Robobird’s power source didn’t fail before we could trace it to its lair.

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SORA, the SKILLED MAN

It took us three weeks and four days to follow Robobird back to its nest. None of its fellow needle-nosed bird-things ever peeped but Robby never stopped. A fair enough tradeoff in my book. Hacking a man-sized trail to follow the peeper was not easy. Axes and saws dulled quickly, fighting frozen wood and vine. Filing them back to decent sharpness ate up many an evening hour. The men, wary at first, soon got into it, competing with each other to see who could carve out the most trail. The jungle rang incessantly with rasp of saw and thunk of axe. Chang and I agreed that while MAP was not likely to lay eyes on us, they couldn’t possibly miss hearing us if they had a scout within two miles of trail’s end.

We also decided we didn’t care. If those plains-bred fools made the mistake of crossing the Roil after us, they’d be even more ignorant and blind than we’d been when we first crossed their border and burned their warning sign. They wouldn’t know about Vampire Vines or any of the other two dozen dangerous Fringe mutants we’d identified to date. While they were floundering, we’d cut them to pieces.

If they crossed the river. Which we doubted they would. But once could hope.

The Nest, as we’d begun to think of it, was buried beneath a tangle of broken branches, sawtooth grasses, fallen leaves, mold, you name it. Robobird’s head peeped excitedly as my men uncovered a domed cover so durable it didn’t have a scratch on it. Sora and I inspected it carefully. Seamless. No knob or lever or keyhole.

Yet Robobird’s distress calls had been heard. We jumped back as the lid hinged upward, revealing an access shaft some three feet in diameter. A pipe-rung ladder plunged into the depths, apparently forty feet or more. Down there, wherever “there” was, a soft glow illuminated what I could only guess might be a larger chamber.

Venom Chang wasn’t happy about it but he did let me go first, Robobird’s two parts resting in my coat pocket. As we descended, the peeps came more slowly in a deeper pitch, settling down from excitement to contentment. Or so it seemed. The hunter was home from the hill.

We stepped off the final rung of the ladder, surveying the room with care. Circular. Huge, maybe sixty feet across. High ceiling, eleven feet at a guess. Around three quarters of the perimeter, banks of…monitors? If memory served, that’s what they were called. Some of the screens showed scenes that had to be live views of various locations in the Fringe, focusing on one life form or another as it went about its business unaware. Other screens were dark and blank, still others flickering with meaningless light displays. There were two other notable features. One was the smell, a pungent mixture of urine, vegetative decay, and death, about the nastiest combination I’d ever encountered. It made my eyes water and my nose run but I managed not to gag.

The other notable feature was a man. Or what was left of a man. Half naked, clothed in the rag-remnants of what must have been a military uniform at one time. Skin so wrinkled it made a Shar-Pei’s face look marble smooth. Starvation thin, emaciated, stick-arms, stick-legs, bare feet with yellowed toenails that curled up and out like a fighting bull’s horns. His skin was yellow, too, jaundice yellow rather than Asian skin tone. What his ethnicity might have been, who could tell? Skull caved in at the temples, utterly bald, splotchy like Vampire Vine hide. Mouth breather, one remaining tooth visible. He drooled, seemingly unconscious of the fact, and his eyes were clouded over, milky. Cataracts in an age without a cure. Stone blind and, one could assume, nasally dead to the horrific odor.

However, his sense of touch remained sensitive and capable as his fingers flew over some sort of black glass perched on his lap. And his sense of hearing was acute.

“Gladja made it back, Kurnel! Long patrol this tyem. I’d jump an’ slute butcha ordered udderwise, eh?”

Tough accent to follow. Thee was an arched doorway opposite the ladder shaft. I gestured to the sergeant whose squad had followed us down. Eight picked soldiers moved to secure whatever rooms there might be on the other side while Chang watched everything and I interrogated the pitiful wreck before me. It wasn’t just ego that made me take the lead in this matter. From childhood, I’d been able to talk to people one on one, intuiting their real motives before they could intuit mine. Kurnel had to be Yellow Man’s version of Colonel. In his raddled mind, he believed me to be his commanding officer? Possibly. Or at least a senior officer. Someone long dead. It was clear he’d been without human company for…years? Decades?

The sergeant appeared in the doorway, hands up and flashing sign. One more room. All clear. Chang signed back. Stay put.

I kept my attention focused on the wretch in the chair, tuning my attention. “Indeed I did, soldier. At ease.”

Yellow Man cackled, the sound of a great grandfather delighted at some private joke only he could understand. His fingers kept moving over the lap glass, nonstop. “At eeze it is, sir. At ease it is.” My language talent was working; his atrocious accent was, to me, disappearing.

“Not many left.”

I was fishing for information. With nothing but a bare hook, not knowing what sort of bait I needed. Luckily, he’d been alone too long to notice that. Acting on instinct, I pulled the broken-necked Robobird from my pocket and placed it on the glass. Yellow’s hands found the tiny corpse immediately. Stilled for a moment. Moved with infinite tenderness, tracing over the composite exterior, brushing the tiny head, closing the eyes. I hadn’t realized the thing even had eyelids. “Ah, Frankie. They did for ye, now, didn’t they?”

“Frankie?”

He didn’t hear me. The fellow was in his own world. Tears ran down his wrinkled cheeks, coursing from blind eyes to trembling yet clean shaven chin. Agony there, the horror of losing a beloved pet or close friend. Or both. I decided not to draw his attention to the other five busted birds but had to ask, “Frankie?”

This time he responded. “You never could tell ’em apart, Colonel. You never could.” There was no bitterness in his tone. Only sorrow.

“Aye, and that’s my failing. More so since I nearly didn’t make it back this time. Took a terrible blow to the head, soldier. Terrible blow. Can’t remember much. Need you to tell me. Bring my memory back. Tell me what we’re doing here. All of it, soldier, from the beginning. It’s lucky it was I remembered you, and this wee bird, but only vaguely. Only enough to wend my way through the jungle for I don’t know how long. Yet here I am. Teach me, old friend. Teach me.”

Chang knew me well enough. He’d seen me do this sort of work before. The sergeant was another matter. His mouth hung open in astonishment. Not that I noticed.
Chang told me later with much amusement. In the meantime, I’d made the connection. It was like I’d lit Yellow Man up from inside. He cradled the tiny, needle nosed attacker to his scrawny chest and began talking.

“Amnesia, is it then? Aye, and I’ll be ye’ve been searching a long time, trying to get back home. Well then, from the beginning, you said? From the beginning.

“In the End was the Beginning. Mankind was falling fast, the Great Extinction Event some said, yet the PPA, that’s the President’s Private Army, had its orders. The last President of the United States of America, free nation, free planet Earth, signed his last Executive Order. A hater of humanity, this man was, this President Bascom, and who could blame him? Yet a lover of all things animal, the birds and beasts of the fields. Gather all the Experiments from border to border, coast to coast, even from disfigured Alaska, none from drowned Hawaii, bring them all together in the greatest Zoo ever created. Plant Experiments, too, fungi to fern, grass to gymnosperm. The Last Greatest Zoo was to be the 26th century’s Ark, a creation to beggar Noah.

“By this same Executive Order was the Fringe designated for federal use only. The great lava flows of the Yellowstone Caldera were already cooling and would serve as both barrier and border to the east. Newly formed Upheaval Rivers would, so said the Order, serve as a sort of rough C shape sealing the other three sides. Bascom’s Science Advisors convinced him and the final federal department was created, the Department of Life Preservation. You were promoted to full colonel and given charge of enforcing this Order. I, oh brilliant Believer that I was then, oh grasper of Hope, one of the great scientific minds of the century, fit for comparison with even such as William Johnson Schenk himself, I was given charge of the Scientific Arm, commanded to provide you with the tools you needed.”

This wretch was–or had been–a top scientist? I shuddered to think. He went on, his rant a ceaseless breaking of waves upon the shore.

“Oh, the arrogance of youth! I decided the way to keep the Experiments safe within the borders of the Zoo would be to inculcate them with an overpowering fear of running water. Yes! If they could not step over it, they would recoil from it. Yet there were thousands upon thousands of Experiments, each with its own unique DNA, its own take on life if you will. I had neither the manpower nor the desire to redesign each and every species. How am I doing so far?”

His sudden question caught me off guard. “Uh…some of this is starting to sound familiar. Do go on.”

“That’s good. That’s good. Well now, how to breed fear into so many species? Spores I did not worry about much. The prevailing winds here are from the west, blowing them eastward, out over the Caldera Wastelands. I had little time in which to work anyway. But I am brilliant, yes? I created the Hummingbird Patrol, a corps of AIs with the gift of flight and beaks capable of injecting a toxin of my own devising into the bloodstream of any creature daring to dip so much as a toe, nose, or wing into one of the border rivers. The toxin, once injected, easily crossed the blood-brain barrier into the brain, where it created an overwhelming fear of running water.”

I interrupted. “Frankie and five of his fellows attacked my patrol a few weeks ago. Some of us were beaked a bit. Will those men now be terrified of water?”

“Oh no.” Yellow’s cackle grated on my nerves. “You and I, Colonel, we’ve been here too long, you see. We’re the last. Why, I could swear even you fell some time ago, but you’ve got more lives than any cat. Always did. I always admired that about you, you know. When my lab assistants all died and my eyesight went to hell, I could no longer make the toxin. Truth be told, I could no longer remember how to make it. The formula itself is gone from my head. Old age, my old friend, sucks big putty balls.”

That was a relief. “So, I came from the south of here this time. Are the, um, Experiments similar to the north? Or do I need to be aware–”

“Hah! Similar? Colonel, I begin to see–figure of speech, I don’t see squat really–I begin to see how you survived without your memory. No, man, no. The southern Province is easy. North of here is where you’ll find the real nasties. To use a very old line, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Best rest up a while here before you co out on patrol again, Colonel. Get your memory back if you can. You’re going to need it.”

Rest up here? In this malodorous den of death? I’d rather wrestle a Greenfang any day. “You said there’s no more toxin.”

“Not for a while now. Empty bird beaks, tra la la la.”

“Which means some of the jungle creatures could break free of your brainwashing? Or is it passed down from generation to generation?”

Yellow Man writhed his shoulders in an unconscious parody of a shrug. “Now, see, that’s the big question. The Hummingbird Patrol, even without the phobia inducing fluid, might’ve been enough to do the job. But with Frankie’s squad gone, I’m down from two thousand to, um, eighteen birds. Pretty little things they are. I’m especially proud of the cute little antenna. Looks like a quail topknot. Quail feather on a hummingbird, hee hee!”

“Very nice.” My voice was dry. I corrected it. “But–”

“But the truth is, Colonel, I never had time to test succeeding generations to find out if the trait was passed on. Might be. Might not be. Might even be a species or two has already escaped and we just don’t know it.”

An image of the towering, threatening cliffs on the other side of the river flashed into my mind. “I see your point.”

We got out of there pretty quickly after that. It was a mighty claustrophobic, nasty smelling place full of nothing good. But I had one last question before we left. “Soldier,” which he wasn’t, just a civilian scientist, but he seemed to enjoy being addressed that way, “what about the great underground military installations? Cheyenne Mountain, for example. Can the pitiful remnants of humanity–there are some left, though low in numbers–should they expect to see conflict with the US military still, at some point?” Cold sweat was running down between my shoulder blades.

Again with the cackle. “Not likely, Colonel. Man, your memory really is shot. You were stationed there, you know. Got called back for a face-to-face with the President nine days before the Upheaval hit Colorado. Cheyenne mountain is still there, but upside down now. Mama Nature grabbed that whole mountain chain, flipped it upside down, then shook it around in a blender for a while. Threw in a couple of volcanic explosions for topping.”

“Ah.”

The shaft cover eased itself shut within seconds after the last Hooded Cobra soldier climbed out. Without Frankie the Robobird of Hummingbird Patrol to peep it open, I doubted it would ever unseal itself again. Yellow Man would die in place and that would be that. We all sucked in great lungfuls of cold, fresh winter air. I had the sense of having escaped the curse of an Egyptian mummy’s tomb. Chang had beads of sweat standing on his brow. “Please, let’s not do that ever again,” I said.

“Not planning to,” he agreed tersely. “One thing is clear. We’re not going to hang around in the zoo all winter. Not after meeting the zoo keeper and finding out what we found out.”

“No,” I agreed. “Anything is better than that.”

Hummingbird of the Fringe, sketched by Sora Blake. This “mutant bird” is actually no bird at all but an Artificial Intelligence created by a Before scientist to patrol the jungle’s edge. Details in Blake’s book, Mutants of the Fringe.