Jane was feeling remarkably good for a Friday morning. The sun was shining on her beloved BirdWorldnt, the largest and most famous bird park in the whole state. From 8am weekdays, tourists ooh-ed and ahh-ed their way over five kilometres of meticulously maintained pathways, weaving through habitats that seamlessly blended into one another. For many, it was the first time they had come face-to-face with the rarer native birds, and for most the first time they had seen some of the species preserved from Old Earth. Although she loved seeing the birds so appreciated, and was technically only employed to work at one of the three popcorn stands, it was ultimately all about the bins for Jane. And today, with its good weather and pleasant coachloads of polite (mostly elderly) tourists was a particularly excellent day because she had got in early and ensured the bins were sorted. At least, the employee one were.
The bins for the public were immovable concrete monstrosities, painted with green to resemble bushes with bright pink rims so people could find them. Not that Jane minded the look, but they were stuck in all the wrong places. Too many near the entrance to the park, when people had nothing to throw out, and then none where they were needed, like the entrances to the Suck Pit and the Bird Show. People thought it was funny to throw litter into the Suck Pit, which (as the name would suggests) sucked it satisfyingly down into the galaband burrow. What they didn’t see were the obsessive compulsive galaband, programmed by instinct to feverishly collect and bind everything sucked in their pit into perfect cubes of saliva and rubbish. The poor nocturnal creatures couldn’t keep up, so the birdsguard had to lend a hand. “Crazy,” Gunter had said, when management had asked him to go into the galaband enclosure and help them make their cubes. They had tried just taking the rubbish away, but the galaband had been so unimpressed they’d gone catatonic. The little winged puffballs really needed to convert all the Suck Pit detritus into cubes.
“Mummy, why are all the eight-legs sleeping?” said some little snot, squinting at the stiff galaband. “Because BirdWorldnt is run by corporate monsters,” said Mummy, who was unfortunately Pangent Markinson, avid animal rights activist and pain in the backside. Management, who were worried about the galaband but couldn’t find any qualified bird counsellors (probably because they don’t exist, at least there aren’t any websites with legit phone numbers for them) immediately acted. Rather than just putting a bin next to the “no littering” sign at the Suck Pit, they’d erected some mesh, which people could still poke small wrappers through, and added a galaband cube shift to Gunter’s roster. It was a rocky start, but in the end, the galaband had taken to Gunter. He would spend about an hour each day sitting amongst them in full birdsguard costume, collecting and passing them the litter from the Suck Pit so they could push and squeeze and make their cubes. This did reduce traffic to the galaband enclosure (“Mummy, why is there a man in there?” “Because BirdWorldnt is run by corporate nutjobs”), but the surplus cubes sold well at the gift shop. Also, Gunter could mutter “crazy” to his heart’s content, because the sweet little galaband didn’t seem to mind.
“One bag of popcorn, please!”
Jane smiled at the Negaleg who had stopped in front of her stand. Behind him, a lady in a deep red hoodie was looking over the food stand, probably trying to catch a glimpse of the plump little finches that lived in the trees beyond. As Jane picked up a red and white striped bag to fill with popcorn, the lady’s hand meandered from the Negaleg’s shoulder, erratically weaving through the air until it was also pointing toward the trees.
“Oooh,” it cooed in a high child-like voice, “Bro, there’s lots of little guys!”
Jane started, spilling some popcorn onto the floor of her small food van. The negaleg smiled sympathetically as he passed her some coins.
“Just a sec, buddy” he said over his shoulder. Jane couldn’t help but stare as the hand began to point. “Look look look look mfrrrrg” the childlike voice was cut off as the lady sharply grabbed her left forearm with her right hand, frowning.
“Yes, Ham, he’ll look when he’s got his food” she said. “Mrrr-mmmrrr” said her left forearm, suggesting assent. She let it go, and it dropped to her left hip. It looked almost… sulky. Curious, thought Jane. She noticed a large pair of headphones were strapped to the woman’s hip, cord disappearing underneath a hoodie tied around her waist. The skulking hand began flicking at the headphones.
“Leave me alone,” said the lady’s hip.
Jane stared. The lady just rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the finches.
Jane kept staring, her brain frantically kicking into gear. She’d heard about these things in high school, but at the time had mentally placed it in the same mental category of useless trivia as “you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose” and “pontoons are surprisingly dangerous”. Besides, nobody had been to the Telamat system for twenty years… Absently scooping more popcorn into the bag, she looked closer at the woman. Maroon hair, face that might be pretty if you’re into that sort of thing (that sort of thing being very pointy cheekbones), petite build and enough fashion sense to coordinate colour if not style. Maybe in her mid-twenties? The timing might just work. Back when exploration was new and exciting, there were so many expeditions to nearby planets. Reckless sense of biosecurity, in hindsight of course. This lady was too young to have gone herself, but maybe some intrepid explorer had been to the Telemat system, accidentally brought back some eggs and she’d been infected – uh – colonised – uh … Jane’s frowned deepened as she scrambled for the politically correct term to a process that resulted in a sentient and bodily inhabitant.
The negaleg coughed. Jane wondered if the lady had to buy three passes to get into the bird park, as technically there were three people in that one body. Maybe more. How many of those Valde-whatsit parasite – uh – symbiotes – uh – internal people could fit in someone? One would be more than enough, Jane mused. Always there, with you, you’d never have any time to yourself to really enjoy the good things in life, like a long bath or optimizing the bins. Not that you could do much about it, she supposed, her high school teacher had emphasised that removal would be murder. It had seemed hyperbolic at the time, but now she was looking at the subtly distorted tendons of a talking left hand, Jane could see his point.
“Thank you,” said the negaleg in a cheerful but forceful tone, reaching over the counter and prying the bag of popcorn from Jane’s hands. “You’re welcome,” Jane said reflexively. As he turned away, she realised she had been staring, and felt her face flush. But it didn’t seem like the lady had noticed her gawping. She must be used to it. Popcorn in hand, the negaleg ambled to the side of the truck and peered where the hand had pointed. The three of them stood for a time, chatting and appreciating the small birds, before ambling away toward the anglebird habitat. Jane watched them go until they were nearly completely obscured by the lush path side vegetation. In silhouette, she could make out the negaleg raising the popcorn back to his face, pausing for a time, then pulling it away and crumpling it into a small ball. She felt a familiar stab of frustration as he cast around, clearly looking for somewhere to dispose of his empty popcorn bag, then turned and made for the Suck Pit.
“Bird show, bird show, bird show!” Ham chanted, flapping emphatically between Ackerley and Bro. He pointed at a wooden sign with a blackboard square, ensconced in a panoply of what looked like soft greenish clover. It read “Next Bird Show”, with some times written in chalk on the blackboard square. Tiny purple peanut-shaped birds zipped in and out of the clover. One of them brushed the blackboard, smearing the 3:30 slightly.
Bro was embarking on his fourth bag of popcorn for the day, smiling to himself with the prospective delight of shoving his whole nose into an empty bag to huff the buttery residues (Bolf polling found that 90% of Negalegs surveyed agreed this is “the best”). He consulted his watch. 3:20pm. “We do have time,” he said.
“Ok,” Ackerley absently agreed.
They followed the brightly painted wooden signs until the cobble pathway broadened into wide open space, bordered on either side by a small strip of grass and dense shrubbery. The space was dominated by a tall building, Ackerley estimated about four stories, covered in faux rock cladding and vine. The walls continued beyond the clearing’s edges, their extremities effectively camouflaged by thick shrubbery and palm trees. These otherwise successful efforts to hide the building in an illusion of natural landscape was dashed by bright red lettering proclaiming “Bird show” daubed above the entrance. That and the entrance itself. It consisted of a giant bird’s head, brilliant blue plumage jutting outwards from the rock wall. The bright yellow beak was wide open, like a chick ready to receive food. In this case, the food was an orderly cue of people slowly walking into the bird show arena. As they got closer, Ackerley saw a figure standing next to the door, holding a large bin bag. They were dressed to match the entrance, blue feathers covering most of their body and face peeking out of an open beak. They proffered the open bin bag to people as they filed into the arena.
“No snacks inside,” the birdsguard bellowed. A tall hangdog man with soft, sad eyes reluctantly relinquished a half-eaten chocolate bar to the park employee. “So sad,” Ham whispered. Bro looked at the pleasantly warm bag of popcorn in his hands. The butter had started to congeal in the corners, making the paper tacky on the outside. It was so perfect. He absently kept pace with Ackerley as they shuffled along with the cue. They weren’t at the end for long, as soon a veritable coach load of tourists descended on the opening. They miraculously devolved into an extension of the cue, snaking back and forth and filling the space with excited chattering bodies. Bro felt panic grip him as he considered his popcorn.
Ham wobbled into his field of view, moving slowly to give Bro scope to tell him “no”, then all at once clumsily grasping at the popcorn. Meeting no resistance, he grabbed at the puffs, knocking as many as he grasped onto the ground, and swung away to bounce them invitingly near Ackerly’s face. “Biiird show!” he shouted excitedly. Bro’s stomach rumbled as she obligingly scoffed the offered snack, and then sunk as he looked up and saw another hapless tourist relinquish their foodstuffs to the tyrannical bag of confiscation. Distracted, Bro didn’t see the darting brown flash of feathers which swooped low across the path and neatly collected the fallen pieces of popcorn that Ham had dislodged. It was like they were never there. Bro was snapped out of his reverie as Ham clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s almost time!” Ham cooed. The line had started to move, tipping itself lazily into the huge novelty bird mouth. In moments, just five or so people were between them and the stern birdsguard. Stretching upwards to peer over the sea of shoulders, Bro could see two huge bin bags, one still slowly being filled with contraband muesli bars, chips, and popcorn. The paper bag in his hands rustled as Ham fumbled for another helping. The movement released a small, delectable puff of buttery scent. Bro had to clamp his lips tightly over an involuntary burst of saliva. The line continued to move forward, bringing them closer and closer to the novelty bird’s maw. Ackerly had taken long enough to open her mouth that Ham’s erratic movements caught the eye of the birdsguard.
“Hello!” Ham proclaimed, waving happily to the official. Staring, the official automatically waved back. He had seen the popcorn. Desperate to finish his snack, Bro made a snap decision. In one swift movement, he rose the bag high and tipped a hefty pile of popcorn into his mouth. The screeches and rumble of the crowd faded for just an instant. The world transformed into salt and butter and satiety. Breathing solely through his nose, Bro raised the bag again to top up his enormous mouthful. The birdsguard had stopped staring at Ham, turning his attention to the Negaleg with the bulging cheeks and blissed-out expression. Again and again, Bro raised the bag and tipped an increasingly impossible amount of popcorn into his mouth. As the cue progressed and they drew level, the birdsguard looked into Bro’s face. He saw eyes watering, a potent mix of turmoil and satisfaction. Holding the birdsguard’s gaze, a single tear ran down Bro’s cheek. Then he tipped forward in a short but explosive paroxysm of coughing. Everyone was taken aback – a coughing Negaleg was a very rare sight. They had the advantage of nostrils bypassing the throat entirely, so clogged throats impeding breathing were almost unheard of. Concerned, Ackerly slapped Bro between his shoulder blades (Ham enthusiastically joining in) and cast an apologetic look to the people behind them. She found a veritable wall of cameras pointed in their direction. People had come for the bird show, but would not pass up the opportunity to grab their very own video footage of a coughing Negaleg. She hastily turned back to Bro. The coughing had subsided. Ham continued to slap his back with aplomb as Bro straightened up and tossed a crumpled ball of stripy paper into the guard’s bag, then stiffly walked through the door.
“He scarfed the lot,” a man from further down the cue murmured in wonder. There was a slight pause as everyone watched Bro’s retreating back, phones and cameras finding their way back into pockets and bags. Then, to the birdsguard’s horror, several more people in the queue began to frantically stuff their faces. Far more coughing, this time exclusively from the human clientele, ensued.
Ackerly, Haig, Ham and Bro gingerly wove between chairs in the large arena area, heading to Ackerly’s preference of centre third row from the front. Low tribal music gently throbbed from hidden speakers embedded in the deep red faux-rock walls that lined the seating area, just audible over a small tinkling water feature. The diminutive waterfall flowed to the front and left of the benches, leading to a shallow stream that separated the 100-or-so seating capacity area from a flat grassy area. Behind the grass, high rock walls were thick with jungle vegetation, hiding little openings just big enough to fit a head, loaf of bread, or several medium sized birds through. Bro was walking stiffly, but otherwise appeared to have recovered from his sudden popcorn indulgence. Ackerley zeroed in on her preferred seat and Bro followed. Inside, the arena felt like a clearing bordered by cave and jungle and open to a cerulean sky, though the illusion was frayed at the edges by an emergency exit sign glowing greenly above the single entrance, and a faint grid-like shadow thrown by netting high above.
When everyone had filed in, the birdsguard, Gunter, slid a mesh door across the entrance and flipped the “show in progress” sign into place. Now the crowd had dissipated, the cobble of the clearing was streaked by the braver of the small brown birds, swooping and squabbling over crumbs. Some of the nearer ones started to show an unhealthy interest in his confiscation bags, eyeing them like a collector eyes a rare Burple card (with a timid but unhealthily intense interest). Gunter tied off the bags before the snack smell could convert the sweet little scramble of brown feathers into a mass of hungry beaks and claws. Predictably, the small birds lost interest almost immediately. Fickle little things, not like his consistent galaband buddies. Gunter hefted the bags over his bright feathery blue shoulder. They were much lighter than usual, thanks to the remarkable scoffing madness that had swept the afternoon’s crowd. “Crazy,” he muttered to himself, shuffling away to find the employee only bins. Hopefully Jane hadn’t moved them again.
Inside the arena, everyone had settled down. Low key warm-up music began, an outdoor proxy to lights dimming in a cinema. With a punch of bombastic horns, the first birds entered, a flock of five cockatoos emerging form one of the entrance holes and circling high above the crowd. After a minute, they returned to the vegetative curtain and were replaced by a line of ducks and donks, all waddling to the small stream and plomping down into the water. Ackerley drank in the restrained browns of the ducks, and smiled as one flapped its wings to reveal sparse but striking iridescent deep green feathers. She had always felt that the birds from Old Earth were classy compared to their Fonda counterparts. The mottled teals and blues of the donks seemed gaudy in comparison. The ducks were gliding smoothly over the water, dodging the donks who had tipped on their sides and raised their left wings to resemble lop-sided sailboats. Just when Ham started to fidget, the timbre of the music changed. Immediately, the ducks dutifully made for the far shore, hopped out of the stream, shock the water off their little stubby tails and exited through a cranny masked behind a rock. The donks clearly knew where they should go, craning their necks to look toward the exit, but didn’t move. A BirdWorldnt employee discreetly crawled past the seated audience and crouched with a squat desk fan. The small breeze in the otherwise still arena was sufficient to catch the donk’s feathery sails and send them back to the far shore of the little stream. The donks flopped onto the grass and waddled after the ducks.
Then, a veritable marching band picked up, notes highlighted by a blistering electric guitar solo. Two flocks of proots rocketed into the sky, two broad-beaked chartrudle following behind. An infant human screeched, shrill wails blending in with the blistering guitar solo. Not many people seemed to notice, but it was like nails on a chalkboard to Ackerley. The music died down so the audience could hear the soulful “Shnnurrrth” of the chartrudle. “Shnnurrrth” said chartrudle number 1. “Screech!” said the small child. Ackerly turned to glare at the source of the noise. Ham was appreciatively pointed toward chartrudle number 2, caressing the invisible electromagnetic shapes thrown by its massive blunt feathers. Bro glanced furtively around and stealthily reached for his legpit.
“Shnnurrrth” said chartrudle number 2. “Oooh,” cooed the crowd. Sensing the audience had reached peak shnnurrrth, the BirdWorldnt employee crouched at the front flashed the appropriate hand signal and the music picked up again. “SCREEEE!” said the infant. As the chartrudle turned to exit, Ham moved to comment to his friend.
Now he was right next to Bro, a corner of his popcorn bag was just visibly poking out from between his leg and body. Ham conspiratorially rested gently on Bro’s horn, and whispered “We thought you ate the lot”. Bro shook his head slightly, eyes fixed on the back of Ackerley’s head. Luckily she was still frowning at that caterwauling child.
Bro shifted slightly. The remaining quarter bag of popcorn plopped softly onto the chair below him, still largely hidden. Ham was scandalized, not so much that Bro had flouted the clear “no snacks” rule, but because the inspiring demolishment of the whole bag of popcorn had fallen slightly short. He was about to chastise Bro, whom he still respected deeply but just not quite as much as before, when Ackerley tugged him around to point where she was looking. Her face had melted from glare to concern. Where there had been a family of four, there was now a flashing swirl of brightly coloured feathers. As they watched, the birds abruptly ascended, revealing three very bedraggled adults and a squalling infant. It was feebly clutching at the sky with scratched and slightly bloodied chubby hand, a glossy green feather falling precariously close to its gaping maw. Squinting into the departing ball of feathers, Ackerly could just make out something brown clutched between bright orange talons. Just like the other birds before them, the proots disbanded and disappeared to make way for the next exhibit. Unlike the birds before them, these proots had successfully obtained a snack. The music dropped again, probably to build tension.
“Who brings an infant to a bird show?” a negaleg in the audience stated in a stage whisper, effectively building tension. “What’s the point? Their brains just aren’t done yet.” The man Ackerley assumed was the father turned to retort, but thought better of it when the negaleg finished with a scalding “Probably someone who doesn’t understand the concept of ‘no snacks’” she snarked audibly. She didn’t notice Bro uncomfortably shuffling his hooves. It was a matter of seconds before the scent of Bro’s unauthorised popcorn made it to the birds…
“I am NEVER going out with you again,” Ackerley proclaimed.
“I am ALWAYS going out with you! That was amazing! There were birds and birds and birds!” Ham shouted with equal intensity, drawing enthusiastic circles in the air. Two hapless passers by did their best not to make eye contact as they detoured a considerable distance from the path to bypass the crazy failing lady and contrite negaleg covered in scratches.
Ackerley scoffed and strode decidedly away toward the tram stop. Ham pulled her shoulder to an almost uncomfortable angle as he reached out towards Bro.
“See you later, best buddy!” Ham cooed. Bro waved and smiled despite himself; stolen popcorn and stinging scratches aside, it had been a fun day out.