Sunday, April 8, 2012

A New Entry for the Third Sunday Blog Carnival

The following was written as the Prologue to my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," a fictionalized autobiography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the 28th century starship Captain who was the first to lead an expedition to a neighboring star and who made Earthers' first contact with aliens during that mission.  The aliens turned out to be big Birds -- eagles, storks, and grouse.  I hope the readers of the April Third Sunday Blog Carnival will enjoy this preview.  
March, 2737, near Madestone Precinct, Island of Britan

       When Milo Tanner found his ewe, there was blood on the ground and on her head and she was no longer pregnant, but there was no lamb anywhere about.  Deep puncture wounds had almost put the ewe’s eye out.  Cherry the border shepherd had led Milo to her, and now the usually unflappable dog was running in circles, sniffing the blood and barking excitedly.
       It was the third lamb Milo had lost this year in mystifying circumstances, but this was the first time a ewe had been injured.  He was getting damned angry about the situation.  “Cherry, you don’t suppose we got some kind of PDA religious cult rearing its ugly head,” he said.
       But that didn’t make sense … the lamb had just flat disappeared into thin air, and the marks on the ewe’s head looked like the work of … claws or teeth …
       That was absurd – there were no animals in 28th century Britan who ran around nabbing lambs … unless it was a pack of feral dogs … Maybe that was it.
       But there were no drag marks on the ground, or paw prints …
       “It’s like it disappeared into thin air,” Milo repeated, and then he thought of something …  Aw, it couldn’t be that.  There’s no bird big enough in these parts to take away a whole baby lamb.
       And the sheep farmer looked up into the sky.
       And there it was, wheeling in slow majesty beneath the overcast:  the biggest godawful flying animal he had ever seen.  That was no hawk … that had to be …
       Milo swore.  “What’s a golden eagle doing over the south of Britan?”
       But that didn’t seem right, either.  He’d seen pictures of golden eagles and even a wild one in the flesh when he and the wife had taken a vacation to the northern highlands.  This thing was gleaming white underneath, with a dark head and bib and dark flight feathers, and it was big – bigger than any golden eagle he’d ever heard of.  He gawked until his neck hurt – until it began to seem that the creature was watching him, perhaps sizing him up for a strike …
       … or sizing up Cherry …  Suddenly, Milo sprang alive.  “Come on, dog, let’s get that ewe home where we’re all safe.  I got to get Dr. Fitzpierce out here, and then I got to do something about this situation.” 
       Evan Fitzpierce bent over the scratch marks on the ewe’s head.  He had been inclined to skepticism when Milo Tanner had informed him that a demonic bird the size of a ram was terrorizing his flock, but now he wasn’t so sure.  He got out some calipers and measured the distance between the punctures.  “You see,” Milo was saying, “there’s one hole right here and another over there.  A centimeter to the right and she’d a lost an eye.”
       “I got eyes myself – I can see that,” the young veterinarian said testily.  “God almighty, this measures a good 15 centimeters.  That’s one whopping claw.”
       “There, now do you believe me?”
       “Well, I believe something.  What other evidence did you find out there in the field?”
       “I saw the thing!  Isn’t that enough?”
       “Well, I mean on the ground.  Didn’t you look around?”
       “Not with that thing hanging up there waiting to strike me down!  …  Are you going to doctor my ewe, or do I got to get somebody all the way from Tunebridge?”
       Fitzpierce cleaned the ewe’s wounds and administered an antimicrobial injection, then he talked the farmer into taking him to the scene of the crime.  The flying monster didn’t show itself, but the vet did find a couple of long, dark feathers – obviously primaries.
       “Huh,” Fitzpierce said, “that’s no golden eagle.  And here’s some white feathers stuck on this patch of nettles – probably breast feathers.  We’ve got to be dealing with an exotic here.”
       “What’s a ‘zotic’?”
       The vet sighed.  “‘Exotic.’  A foreign bird.  A bird that didn’t originate in these parts.”
       “Yeah, a demon.”
       Fitzpierce declined to dignify that assertion with an answer.  “I’m going to take these feathers along with me.  May help me identify the creature.”
       “What good will that do?  I just want to get rid of it.  I got to make my quota of lambs in these goddam times or this land that my ancestors have owned since the beginning of the world will go into the goddam Gov pot.”
       “Aw, Milo, you’re not in danger of losing your land.  You only got to produce 400 lambs with this number of hekters, and you got 700 breeding ewes.  Say only 600 of them lambed successfully, you could still lose 200 and safely meet expectations.  And no one bird is going to kill 200 lambs in the space of a couple of weeks.”
       The farmer was stumping back toward the house on the heels of the vet.  “Well, whatever.  I know I want my lambs to go to feeding the good British citizens of these Islands and not some goddam alien demon bird.”
       The vet took the feathers away with him, but Milo returned to his house and started ringing up his neighbors, who all raised either sheep or milch goats, except for a couple of poultry operations.  The foreman of one of the latter said he’d had several disturbances in the yards recently and found some blood and feathers.  The man asserted that he had thought at first that he was being bothered by marsh harriers but then he had caught a glimpse of what must have been a goshawk flying off.  Milo suspected that what he had really seen was the demon.  Then a woman reported finding the remains of one of her barn cats, reduced pretty much to a few scraps of fur and bone.  None of the sheep operations had suffered any losses, but a goat farmer was inexplicably missing a kid.
       “Why am I the only one losing lambs?” said Milo grumpily.
       And his wife said, “Maybe it’s because we got that beech grove up on the hill.  I mean, the thing has to hang out somewhere out of sight, doesn’t it?”
       Milo swore, and he sat thinking for a while.  The creature’s boldness was escalating, it seemed … it had gone from chickens to cats to kids and lambs, and then it had attacked his ewe.  Of course, Fitzpierce had thought that the newborn lamb might have been quite close to the ewe and the bird’s talon had simply raked her by accident.  “Milo,” the vet had said patiently, “there’s no bird in the world big enough to pick up a 75-kilogram sheep and carry it off.”
       But Milo Tanner wasn’t so sure; the thing was a monster, as big as a cow.
       He continued to think for a while, and finally he decided what he ought to do.  He sat down at the com port and rang up the regional headquarters of the Terrestrial Security Force in Madestone.
       Back in the Ag Office, Evan Fitzpierce had scrambled up the Ed Link and was doing some research.  If this really was an exotic eagle, there weren’t all that many species that were big enough to actually carry off lambs … There was the crowned eagle of Afrik … the harpy eagle – but that Southwest Quad species was thought to be extinct … maybe the imperial, but those also had become very rare, except in captivity …
       But the coloration on none of those matched the description that Milo had given him … a dark head with white underparts … although Evan wasn’t sure he could trust the excitable farmer to be describing the “demon” accurately; the thing got bigger every time he mentioned it …
       Could it have been a vulture?  No, no, vultures never attacked live prey …  What about the rare species known as the stellar sea eagle?  The Ed Link mentioned that it had been known to prey on mammals, and it had a dark head and white legs.  But it had a dark belly and a white tail, and besides it was native to the coasts of Northeast Quad – whatever would one of those be doing halfway around the world in the British Islands?
       Wait a minute … here was a picture of a truly fierce-faced bird with white underparts … the martial eagle.  It was from Southern Afrik, but maybe it had somehow gotten blown off-course during a migration.  Or did they migrate?  Dr. Fitzpierce was not all that knowledgeable about wild raptors.  And anyway, this one in the picture had a white head and throat.
       Presently, Fitzpierce closed out the link.  This was getting him nowhere, and it was lambing season – he couldn’t afford to hang around the office and study the problem.  There was only one thing to do.  A search of the comdex yielded the number for the Avian Pavilion at the Lunden Zoological Park.
       But it was a Sunday and the principal curators were not there.  So Evan wrote a note to the appropriate parties, bundled up the feathers, and dispatched them to Lunden.  The packet would arrive the next morning; he ought to get a call back by the following afternoon. 
       Dr. Fitzpierce was out in the field early the next day and he didn’t get back to the office until midafternoon.  When he walked in, the receptionist said, “You’ve got two visitors waiting for you in your office, doctor.  They said they’re from the Lunden Zoo – some kind of beefeaters, it looks like.  They’ve been here about an hour … seemed pretty heated up about something.  I couldn’t get ’em to go away.”
       “Holy nedders … I expected maybe a com call but not … ”
       As the vet entered his office, a woman and a man jumped up and Evan said, “I’m Dr. Evan Fitzpierce, Chief of the Gov Ag Vet Clinic here in Madestone.  You must be … ”
       “Prf. Sylvia Locke, Director of the Avian Pavilion at the Lunden Zoological Park.  And this is the Chief of the Raptor Section, Prf. Peter Klement.”
       They shook hands all around and Dr. Fitzpierce said, “I must say I’m a bit surprised.  I wasn’t expecting you to come down – I just wanted a bit of help identifying … ”
       An obviously gleeful Prf. Klement interrupted.  “When you’ve got our missing eagle, doctor?  When you’ve found our Polemaetus bellicosus living in the Kentish countryside?  Certainly that was worth a trip!”
       “Polemae- …  Uh … that’s the martial eagle, as I recall …  But the farmer who saw it said the bird had a dark head, and the picture I found showed the head to be white.”
       “You were looking at a juvenile bird,” said Prf. Locke.  “The head and upper chest turn dark as they age, and this one is a big mature male, about ten years old.”
       “And it escaped from the Zoo?”
       “Not exactly,” said Klement as they settled down around the vet’s desk.  “It was being imported from the Kruger Raptor Research Center, which is operated by the Vitsrant School of Biological Sciences at the Jonnsberg Consortium.  It’s a wild-caught bird.  Our Zoo was selected for an off-continent raptor-breeding program and this was the first acquisition.  After this one settled in, we were to get a female to go with it.  Anyway, the bird was flown into Dover Flight Base, but while he was being transferred to a wing hopper for the jaunt to Lunden … ”
       “The Zoo has its own transport pad and flyer, by the way,” interrupted the Director, “so we don’t have to depend on ground transportation.  That’s how we managed to get here so quickly today.”
       “In the transferal process, somehow the lid of the box came off – we aren’t sure how.”
       “The Kruger people told us this bird was a wily character.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t figure out how to undo the latches.”
       “Maybe.  Anyway, he escaped and simply disappeared.  That was about two months ago.  I’m surprised you didn’t see the publicity, doctor.”
       “Well, I stay pretty busy around here – don’t get to keep up on the news as much as I should.  But how big is the thing, anyway?  Milo Tanner at one point said it was the size of a ram.”
       The two avian experts laughed.  “Well, not that big,” said Prf. Locke, “but he’s a good 6.5 kilos of bird, with a wingspread of almost two meters.  We’re absolutely thrilled to find him – we’ve had the Afrikens denouncing us as a bunch of incompetent northern nincompoops and we’ve had the Environmental Authority threatening to cut back our research funding.  But now we can arrange to trap the old boy and get him back behind bars where he belongs.”
       “Hmm,” said Dr. Fitzpierce, finding that phraseology rather distasteful. 
       Prf. Klement seemed of the same mind, because he said, “Well, I don’t know that he really belongs in a cage, but we need him to help ensure the future of the species.”
       “Well,” said the vet, “at least he should be healthy.  He hasn’t wanted for exercise or food.”
       “And we’ll be glad to compensate this farmer for his losses,” said Sylvia Locke.  “It’ll be worth that to know that our eagle didn’t end up starving or dying of hypothermia somewhere in this cold hyperborean land.”
       “Does the big fellow have a name?” asked Fitzpierce.
       “Not yet,” said Klement.  “We wanted to get a bit acquainted with him before we stuck him with a moniker.”
       Presently the doctor rang up the Tanner household and got the farmer’s wife Merrilee.  “Merri!  Evan Fitzpierce here!  I’ve got an answer for Milo about his big bird.”
       “Oh, gar … you have?”
       “Yes, it’s an Afriken raptor called a martial eagle that belongs to the Lunden Zoo.  It escaped while it was being transported.  I’ve got people from the Zoo here right now.  Can you get Milo into the house?  I need to talk to him about making arrangements to set some traps.”
       “Uh, great gaw … I can’t get him into the house, Evan.”
       “Why not?”
       “’Cause he just went off somewhere looking for the bird, with two TeSeF officers.”
       “What?”  Fitzpierce laughed.  “What’s he thinking – that he’s going to have it arrested?”
       “No, he’s thinking he’s going to have it shot.”
       And after Prf. Peter Klement had seized the com piece and lost his temper with Merrilee Tanner, reducing her to tears, and after Prf. Locke had apologized, saying they understood that this disaster wasn’t Ms. Tanner’s fault, Dr. Fitzpierce and his visitors piled into the Vet Office’s hydrogen-powered half-hauler and headed out through the sunken lanes toward the Tanner farm.
       Milo Tanner stood in the middle of a field with Sgt. Jack Alcorn and Officer Bertie Cope alongside.  The three of them were staring up at the sky.  “Is that it there?” asked the young Cope, fingering the holster of his sidearm breathlessly.  He had never before been asked to shoot anything in cold blood except targets on the firing range, and he found the prospect both seductive and alarming.
       “Hell, no,” said Milo, disgusted.  “That’s pigeons.”
       “I have a feeling you’d know what this was if you saw it, Bertie,” said Alcorn nervously.  “Frankly, I still think you’re imagining things, Mr. Tanner.”
       “Dammit, I am not!  I showed you the ewe.”
       “I’d rather a talked to the vet first.  Not knowing what we’re shooting … it could be we’re doing something illegal.”
       “It’s an animal, for gods’ sakes!  I’m not asking you to shoot my neighbor down the way!  You’re sworn to protect the public, aren’t you?  That’s why you’re allowed to have guns when the rest of us aren’t.  If I could a had a gun, I could a shot it myself.”
       “Well, there’s more good reasons than bad for not letting the general public have firearms, you know … ”
      “Yeah, it’s so you TeSeF goons can lord it over everybody.  But we didn’t come out here to argue gun ownership.  You’re supposed to protect the public, and if this thing could carry off a lamb, it could carry off a human baby.  So let’s … ”
       Bertie Cope grabbed hold of his superior’s arm and pointed upward with his other hand.  “Uh-h … uh-h-h … ”
       And there it was, just as Milo had seen it earlier, spiraling upward above their heads.  Something was dangling from its talons – the corpse of some small animal, probably a hare.
       “Oh megod!  Shoot it!  Shoot it!” cried Milo.
       Both the Security men had drawn their pistols, which were ballistic weapons; the electropistols and laser guns with which present-day TeSeF officers are armed had not yet come into regulation use.  But Sgt. Alcorn said, “It’s getting out of range, Mr. Tanner.  It may take shotguns or rifles to get this done, and I don’t have access to those without special permission from my superiors.”
       “Hell, you people aren’t good for anything.  I don’t know why I should have to pay taxes for your upkeep.”
       “Look!” cried Officer Cope.  “It’s headed for that line of trees!”
       They watched the bird swoop down and disappear among the greenery at the top of a small rise.  “Just like the wife said!” exclaimed Tanner.  “Come on!  Let’s follow him up there!  Maybe we can catch him on the ground and get close enough for a shot!”
       So the three men trotted off through the sheep that were scattered about the field and scrambled up toward the stand of beech trees.  They made no particular attempt to approach quietly, but apparently the eagle did not feel threatened, because it didn’t fly away.  They did hear a little scruffling and a few wing beats, however, as they stepped cautiously into the cover of the trees.
       On the ground they discovered the remains of the hare, as yet unconsumed.  And then … they looked up …
       Above them on a tree limb, much too close for comfort, perched the biggest bird any of those Brits had ever seen.  His enormous talons gripped the branch and he was standing on tiptoe, as it were … stretching tall on his muscular white legs as he hunched over and mantled his meter-long wings.  But it was the head that completed the work of intimidation; it was more than the viciously hooked beak – it was the eyes … the vivid gold eyes with round, black pupils that pierced his antagonists, set in beetling, slanted patches of darker feathers that lent a truly demonic intensity to the gaze.  The whole was topped off by a short bristling crest that kept rising and falling like a signal flag.
       Then the eagle opened his beak to show a quivering tongue and emitted a series of high-pitched screeches … klee-klee-klee-kluee-kluee …  What was he expressing?  Warning?  Threat?  Triumph?  Perhaps he was laughing at them – or perhaps he was only inviting them to talk.  But what human can understand the subtleties of the language of birds?
       And then a terrified Bertie Cope, who had never turned his weapon on a living being before, raised his pistol and fired.  And the screech ended in a squawk as the martial eagle, who had never encountered a human with a weapon before, toppled backward from his perch and crashed into the brush below the tree.
       Milo surged forward, but a more cautious Sgt. Alcorn grabbed at him.  “Let’s make sure it’s dead first,” he said.  “Something like that wounded is worse than whole.”
       And he was right, for there was a thrashing in the brush and then the eagle emerged, trying to fly up, and succeeded in scrambling back into the tree.  Blood was dripping from near the tip of one pinion; Officer Cope had only managed to wing him.  But the raptor didn’t give ground; he continued to mantle and dance back and forth in agitation on the branch, screeching again.
       Somewhere in the distance behind them, the three men heard shouts, but they were too absorbed in the drama before them to pay attention.
       “Well, finish him!” cried Milo.  “What are you standing around for, you dunces?  He’s about to attack us!”
       And this time it was a shaken-up Sgt. Alcorn who fired.  The bird crashed backward again and for the moment there was no sound.  That allowed the men to hear the voices in the background … “Stop, stop!  Don’t shoot!”  “Holy Mother Earth, they’re killing my eagle!”  “You’re destroying Government property – that’s a valuable bird!  Stop!”
       The TeSeF men and the farmer looked at one another in alarm and then they bolted out of the copse, to see two men running madly across the field toward them, scattering sheep in all directions.  A rather stocky middle-aged woman was paddling along behind, doing her best to keep up. 
       “That’s the vet,” said Milo.  “I don’t know who the others are.”
       The two groups came together on the fringes of the trees and Peter Klement shoved past the farmer and the TeSeF officers.  As the others followed, Dr. Fitzpierce was explaining, “These people are from the Lunden Zoo.  What we’ve got is an Afriken eagle that escaped while it was being imported … ”
       But just ahead of them Prf. Klement was cursing violently.  “Damn you all to perdition, you pea-brained bloody bastards!  What have you done?  You’ve shot my eagle!”
       The Sergeant’s aim had turned out to be no better than his subordinate’s.  The eagle had come to life and had been hopelessly attempting to regain his refuge in the tree.  Now his struggle had brought him out of the undergrowth and he was crouching with his back to the tree trunk, bobbing up and down, with the dead hare on the ground before him.  Both wings were maimed and bleeding now and his white belly was splashed with red, but only from contact with a wing.  He kept snaking his head and his gaping beak toward his assailants and, while he no longer made any sounds, pain had done nothing to mitigate the ferocity of his glare.
       Prf. Locke rasped, “This is absolutely reprehensible!  Shame on you, Sergeant, taking matters of which you know nothing into your own hands like this!  You’re going to have to answer to the law, all of you, and that includes the owner of this property.”
       And Klement kept repeating, “You sons-of-bitches, you went and shot my bird!”
       Mightily discomfited, Milo Tanner retorted, “Well, if he’s your bird, mister, what’s he doing out here flying around the countryside terrorizing the law-abiding citizens of Britan?  Seems like we got a right to protect ourselves against alien incursions … ”
       Peter Klement sprang around as if he might attack the farmer himself.  “It’s a bird, not an army!  And you’re not just a British citizen anymore – you’re a citizen of Earth!  How long is it going to take for you provincial nitwits to get that fact through your thick skulls, that things have changed on this planet?  Every creature on it … belongs … to everybody …”  And as he turned back to the panting eagle, the ornithologist began to weep.  “All he was doing was earning his living – surviving, just like you.  And you bloody bastards shot him … this majestic creature … you shot him … ”
       Sylvia Locke had seized her colleague warningly by the arm.  “You better calm down and back off, Peter.  Sergeant … ”
       “I’m really sorry, Ms. … whoever-you-are … Tanner convinced us the public safety was threatened, and it did seem … ”
       “I wish I hadn’t done it,” wailed Bertie Cope suddenly.  “Gaw, I’ve always wished I could know what it felt like to shoot something, but now I don’t think I could ever shoot anything again!”
       Then Dr. Fitzpierce sprang to life.  “Well, at least he’s not dead … ”  But he was thinking the same as the Zoo people.  The chances he’ll ever fly again are minuscule, and he may lose his wings, and he may not survive …  “I’ve got gear in the hauler – a big net and some trank and a dart gun … ”
       “That’ll stress him more,” said Prf. Locke.
       “Yeah, I know.  We won’t tranquilize him unless we have to – maybe the net will be enough to handle him.”
       “There’s a hood and some gauntlets in the hauler, in my pack,” said Peter Klement, mopping his face on his sleeve and turning once again to eye the grounded eagle woefully. 
       “I’ll be back as quick as I can,” said the vet.  “Professors, you stay and keep an eye on our friend in case he decides to make a break for it.  Tanner and you TeSeF chaps, you better come with me.  I don’t think anybody wants you out here any longer.”
       “But you’ll be hearing from our legals forthwith,” said Prf. Locke frostily.
        And Tanner muttered as he hiked off after Dr. Fitzpierce, “All a man wants out of existence is something to make his life more comfortable – tangible benefits, those global econ types call it.  But they won’t even let us have that any more.”
       They netted the eagle; surprisingly, subduing him was easier than Dr. Fitzpierce had expected.  Perhaps he was weakening, or perhaps he understood that his best chance for survival lay in submission, or perhaps he realized that these particular humans were not his enemy.  However that was, he struggled very little as they threw the net over him and scooped him up, then caught him by the feet and the back of the neck, hooded him and bound his legs.  But as Prf. Klement was pulling down the hood, Dr. Fitzpierce could still see the untamed defiance in those golden eyes, and it was something that he was never to forget.
       They put the eagle into a cage that the vet kept in his half-hauler and Klement rode with his charge in the bed of the vehicle all the way back to Madestone.  In the Vet Office’s surgery they decided to sedate the bird after all so that Fitzpierce could do scans and make a preliminary assessment of the damage.  Sgt. Alcorn’s bullet had shattered the humerus in the right wing, but Bertie Cope’s wilder shot had wrecked the carpals in the left.  “My advice,” said the vet, “would be to amputate the tip of the left wing.  It may be possible to repair the right humerus, although it would be pretty dicey surgery.  Of course, I’m no avian expert.  But no matter what … ”
       “I know,” said Klement, despairingly raking his fingers through his hair.  “Amputation will deprive him of his primary flight feathers on that left side.  No matter what we do, he’ll never fly again.  Probably never breed either.”
       “The Kruger people will never trust us with a female now,” said Prf. Locke.  “But we have a top-notch avian surgeon on staff in the Pavilion.  If anybody can fix up our unfortunate friend, it will be her.  At least, we may be able to render this bird cosmetically fit to be displayed to the public and maybe used for educational work, if he should prove trainable.  But the breeding project will have to be put on hold for a while, I fear.”
       As the ornithologists were leaving, armed with information as to the identity of the culpable parties, they thanked Evan Fitzpierce profusely for his help.  And he said, “You know, this experience has really piqued my interest.  I’ve always been a mammal man, but I’m suddenly thinking of going back to Vet School and taking some advanced courses in avian surgery.  I may be about ready for a change in my life, anyway.  Maybe I’ll start looking for a job with a raptor center.”
       “Well, birds make for a very rewarding and fascinating study,” said Prf. Locke.  “We would welcome you to our ranks, doctor.”
       Fitzpierce drove the visitors and their cargo to the Madestone Flight Port where their wing hopper awaited them, and they flew away.  The groggy eagle was recovering consciousness, but still he didn’t struggle.  Could he have known how oddly his life was playing out?  In Afrik he needed no one, soaring in splendid isolation high above the veldt; in Britan he was surrounded by caring friends, but he would always be alone.
       As the wing hopper began to descend into the heart of the Precinct of Lunden, Prf. Klement said suddenly, “Sylvia, I know what we should name this eagle – that is, if he lives.”
       “We should name him ‘Survivor.’”

       [Later the boy Robbin Nikalishin was to meet Survivor at the Lunden Zoo and the sight of the caged, flightless eagle brooding on his perch was to influence his whole life, turning him into a birder and making his future encounter with the Bird people in the depths of space seem like the intervention of fate.]

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