« Cologne 2050 

A Bird Story

When the alarm rang in her truck’s sleeping cabin, Emily sat up and noticed the latest issue of the Bird Watching magazine sliding off her chest. She must’ve fallen asleep while still reading. Putting the magazine aside, she turned on the water cooker for some instant coffee, got dressed and checked out the leftovers from her last meal, a sandwich whose salad had turned into a brown goo. “Will have to do,” she muttered to herself while removing the expired salad. “How nice it would be to start the morning with some fried eggs.” She briefly turned on the CB radio to see if something useful made the rounds, but it was just the usual wankers. She had zero interest talking to those.

A little while later, she was back on the road, almost on schedule to make it to this day’s depot. It would still take some time to unload all those boxes that her 40 ton 18 wheeler was hauling. Traffic seemed fine, with only two construction sites on the next segment, promising an easy day.

Four hours later, it was time for the scheduled break. She briefly considered messing with the black box again to fake the break, keep going and for once get home a bit early, but her bladder suggested to play it by the book. When she got off the highway to turn into a small parking area, covered by trees on both sides, she wondered why there were no other trucks. At this time of day and place there should’ve been at least another four. Instead, there was just a station wagon with the trunk packed up to the roof. The dad, she assumed, was walking from the woods towards the car with a crying child in tow. By the time Emily turned the engine off, the station wagon was gone.

After prepping another cup’o’black, she found the magazine again and tried to remember where she left off. But before she could find her page, a quiet, deep hum distracted her. She checked the mirrors to see if it was coming from another truck or car coming into the parking area, but there was no one. Yet the hum only got louder, until it seemed to come from above. As she was leaning to the left window, she noticed a bunch of leaves flying away from the truck. “What’s making that wind?” she wondered aloud, as she pulled down the window and stuck her head out. Above her was a swarm, not of birds, but seemingly of mechanical devices, with lots of propellers. Like those toy drones at the store, except that there were so many at once. At least that explained the noise and wind. Emily was fascinated with their seemingly random formation. The swarm moved, but each member kept just enough distance to the others to not crash into them, like flocks of migrating geese. After watching them for a while, she noticed two long lines hovering below the swarm, the top one being a bit inside the shape of the swarm, the bottom one somewhat smaller. Just when she was starting to replace her fascination with anxiety, she heard loud clangs, like metal attaching to metal, from all around the truck. “Shit shit shit, what the hell,” as she scrambled for her phone. No signal. She turned on the CB radio, but all she got was static. “Are you jamming me?” Emily asked in the direction of the swarm above, trying to suppress her oncoming panic. “For what?” An answer came in the form of a sudden pull upwards. The whole truck was lifted off the ground, slowly, but steadily, turned, and then started moving to the woods. It kept rising until it was just above the top of the trees. Emily felt like she had to do something, but all she could think of was “Don’t panic!”. It was too late to get out and she couldn’t contact anyone. She kept her eyes on the ground ahead, which seemed to drop off slowly into a valley. She remembered that place – it had been a big lake, a reservoir, until the dam burst and nature reclaimed the valley that used to be inhabited a long time ago. “Where are you taking me? There’s nothing here!”. As they moved into the valley and her view of the horizon stayed the same, the ground below seemed to fall away further and further. Through a moment of calm, Emily remembered something she had read last night in the magazine, about birds of prey dropping their victim from some height, like a crow opening walnuts or a bald eagle cracking a turtle. As she felt the panic make a comeback, she put her seat belt on and stowed everything in reach. Just in time as she felt the truck tilting forward, giving her a look at the ground below. In the midday sun she saw twisted metal shimmering in a huge pile of tires, colorful containers and boxes. Something snapped loudly around her, and she could feel the seat belt cut into her chest and neck as the truck dropped away below her. At least the deep hum finally went quiet.

When Emily regained consciousness, she felt strangely calm, even though she couldn’t see anything. Her right arm didn’t seem to respond, but her left arm was okay and after a little struggle, she managed to wipe her eyes enough to see something. By the smell it seemed like blood, likely her own. As she slowly observed her surroundings, she realized that she was hanging down in her seat belt, the front window mostly crushed on the ground before her. There was plenty of light coming from the left window, which she had opened not that long ago. The hum had now turned into a much more irregular buzzing. She could see individual devices flying away into the distance, with small colorful packages underneath them. “Like birds returning to their nest, feeding their young,” Emily marveled to herself, “with batteries and solar panels.” She kept watching them, mostly going alone, but some transporting bigger boxes in groups. As the last few went on their way, she started feeling her right arm again, and as she was screaming in pain, she almost missed the crackle of the radio.

“Hello? Got your ears on? This is Scooter. Beep.” said the other voice, in a slightly wavering, but pleasant baritone. Emily still had no idea what was wrong with her right arm, but it hurt like hell, as it was hanging limb down towards the broken window, so she had to bend over to reach the receiver with her left arm. That took some time and some pain, but at least “Scooter” couldn’t hear her, yet. Eventually she managed to press the send button and tried to speak up, “hello?”. At first nothing happened, then she remembered that she had to let go to receive an answer.
“Hey driver, you’re breaking up, can you repeat? I only got ‘hello’. Beep” said the other voice, including the ‘Beep’.
“Err, sure, hi Scooter. Why are you saying beep?” Emily had talked to truckers who’s radio beeped when the other party stopped sending, but this was the first time someone actually said ‘beep’.
“Dunno what you’re talking about. What’s your handle? I’m Scooter, I’m stuck in the reefer, or what’s left of it. I only stopped at the pickle park to throw in some high speed chicken feed, and then all those spies in the sky, or so I thought, showed up, and suddenly I found myself in this situation, shiny side down and motion lotion all over the place. Sorry, I’m probably walking all over you. Beep.”
At least all that blabbering distracted Emily for a moment from her dangling arm. She also regretted a bit that she avoided the radio, or she would’ve picked up some more of the slang. “My handle is, I mean, I don’t have a handle, the name’s Emily. I’m hurt pretty bad and I’m not sure if I can make it out of the truck. I didn’t get all the other things you said.”
“10-4! I mean, copy. Well, I got that, Emily. Sounds like we’re in the same fucked up situation. Though I’m out of those pills that are keeping me awake. I tried plenty other channels and could not reach anyone. Phone’s dead. You? Beep.”
Emily looked for her phone and remembered stuffing it in the door on her left. Keeping the receiver hanging on her seat belt, she went for the phone. Still working, still no signal. “Shit, must be the valley. No tower in a lake.” To the radio: “My phone is still working, but I got no signal. I do have one idea though.” She hesitated. “It was supposed to be a gift.” It took some stretching to reach the package, still wrapped in orange and teal. Sticking it between her thighs, she managed to rip the paper off and open one side. “Oh man, this is going to be really hard.”
“Whatever it ish, I preeshaydit if you can shomehow get ush out of hee. Ah shing my pillsh are wearin’ off and ah won’ be ‘wake much lon”

Considering that Emily knew Scooter barely more than a few minutes, and only by his voice, the gradual slowdown, cut off at the end and especially the lack of the ‘beep’ hit her much harder than she would’ve expected. Like losing a good friend she barely knew she had. “Scooter, you’re still there? Please copy.” But there was no reply. She waited another moment and tried again, but still got nothing. So she got back to work. She wanted to rush, but knew that dropping any pieces could be catastrophic, so she went about as carefully as she could. She got the remote out and managed to insert the batteries. Next she got the drone itself, inserted its battery and placed it on top of the package that she carefully put between the door and steering wheel. She remembered the sequence the slightly condescending guy in the store had explained to her and followed it step by step. And the drone really came to life, with the display on the remote showing her a different perspective of the world outside. The first thing she noticed was another truck, mostly in pieces, but she could identify it as having a refrigerated trailer. “Maybe that’s the ‘reefer’ Scooter was talking about?” She very very carefully tried to launch the drone, focusing on what the drone could see, show on the screen in front of her, instead of her direct line of sight to the drone itself. The opening in the window was rather smaller, now that the top had been crushed, but still big enough for the drone to go through. Going very slowly, she flew the drone through the window. Outside, she had the drone fly up a little and turned it slowly clockwise. From here, the place looked so much worse than what she had seen from above. A graveyard of trucks, some with the remains of shipping containers, but mostly solid walled trailers like hers, or that of Scooter. She didn’t spot any covered with tarps. “Maybe they have other means of attacking those?” Emily could feel her curiosity about the swarm coming back and decided to focus on that, and not her miserable situation. “If you pretend to be birds, do you also build a nest?” She looked away from the screen for a moment, outside the window, and focused on the few things she could recognize from her position. Back on the PoV view, she turned again until she found those things again. Some wreckage, some trees in the far distance. She changed the drone’s altitude until she could see it roughly at the height where the other drones had flown away. “Off we go!” she said to herself, as the already light hum of the drone faded away. On the screen she could spot what might’ve been a village once, razed to the ground before the dam was built and the area flooded. Beyond that, in a small valley, were the leftovers of some fishing boats. Beyond that, just when a range warning started flashing, she spotted the nest.

After a moment of stunned silence, she reached for her phone, found the voice recorder and started it. “If anyone ever listens to this, I found the nest. I really want to call it a hive, since it looks much more like something ants might build, than a bird’s nest. It’s incredible. It seems completely chaotic, yet also well structured. There’s little ramps everywhere, apparently used to get bits and pieces to lower levels. There’s something resembling a lift, but working more like a catapult. They don’t open the packages like they opened the trucks, so they must be clever enough to understand that the packages are much more brittle. I spotted a repair station, where broken propellers get replaced. There’s charging stations on the ground levels – I guess on low batteries it’s easier to land there than on the top levels. There’s wires all over the place. I think they use lots of batteries to store the solar energy overnight. The top of the hive is all solar and it looks like it might rotate with the sun. I can’t be sure, since my drone’s battery is starting to run out. Gotta get it back to replace the battery and scout again.”

She stopped the recording there and focused on the drone again. After a little while the range warning turned off, but the battery warning got more intense. Just when she thought the drone wouldn’t make it back, she could hear the hum of the drone again. Quiet at first, then louder. She even spotted her own truck on the display and carefully aimed for the little window. The hum got louder as the drone got closer. She almost missed the opening, then bumped into the steering wheel. “Good enough!” Emily exclaimed as she turned the motor off. But as she was enjoying that the drone made it back, she noticed that the hum hadn’t stopped when she turned off the drone. It had only gotten louder. And massive. And heading directly towards her.

-Jörn