The first sun was just beginning to dip below the long, brown grass of Plane 37A, as two tiny blue dots began their slow ascent. They always travelled in pairs, darting and looping-the-loop as the planet yawned, and readied itself for bed.
The players in this simple and beautiful display, which had dazzled so many of the settlers on first arrival, had begun to dwindle, the paint splashes on the orange canvas shrinking, thinning out. Now, from the many thousands of dots of varying sizes, there were simply two left; two brilliant pin-pricks of blue light against the ruddy backdrop of this newly-discovered world.
The beta birds, so-called simply because they were the second species of bird to be discovered in a world which still had no name, were dying out. Had died out almost entirely, despite the efforts of the colony’s best scientific minds. They could not be understood, saved or made to breed by any method the settlers possessed.
Brogan watched the dots grow larger, before alighting on a nearby branch. Even without an accurate sense of scale – the creatures sitting still too close to make judging distance useful – he was dismayed at how small these last two specimens were. Chicks? A lost brother and sister in search of their parents? The thought put fire in his belly, steeled him against his task. He knew he wouldn’t have to make this journey many more times, that someone was bound to find them. He took out his LRT, centred the birds within his sights, and waited for the sound of boots on dying grass.
The beta birds had, as the colonists’ understanding of their new world had grown, become immensely valuable, both as a commodity and as a signifier for the beauty and peace that had drawn them. Possessed of a strange kind of empathic telepathy, the birds were considered not only incredibly intelligent, but also, almost irrationally compassionate. An experiment launched soon after the first birds were captured, demonstrated the remarkable gift, or curse these creatures had been given.
Researchers out walking in the grass plains had discovered that any beta bird, regardless of age or subspecies – for there were many, “handily colour-coded for our convenience” a flippant journalist had written – would not only approach a human, but land freely on an outstretched finger.
The only exception to this rule seemed to be witnessed by those with no interest or apparent affection for the animal kingdom. As two researchers carried a brace of birds back to a nearby base, they discovered the birds responded to tones in the human voice. Reassuring coos were met by the birds with twittering, and an attempt to nuzzle the researcher’s hand through the bars of their cage. It transpired that they also picked up on stress, issuing loud, moaning cries that were not merely echoes of the captors’ emotions, but requests for the birds to be allowed to help, to be observed, and thus to put their human transporters’ minds at ease.
This incredible discovery was tested to its limits in a trial whose ethics have yet to be discussed. In an attempt to read a subject’s brainwaves, a tiny static shock was accidentally administered, causing the bird considerable pain, but – it later transpired – no real long term damage. The overly compassionate scientist who had administered the shock was distraught, and once the bird had recovered from its shock, it began to cry, and would only settle once the scientist’s own momentary feelings of distress abated.
A less scrupulous scientist had witnessed this occurrence, and thus an experiment was born, with a battery of birds being administered multiple small static shocks, and their behaviour observed. Every time, without fail, the same bird who had been shocked over a dozen times previously, allowed itself to be handled, a small electrode placed on its crown and a shock administered. Later brainwave readings demonstrated that, far from being the result of the birds’ poor memory, it was simply that, at each turn, the birds trusted their captors not to make the same mistake. And every time they were proved wrong.
Brogan lay in the long grass, considering the experiment he’d read about only the last week, coming to light as it did months after the programme was terminated, He re-stoked the fire inside him, and as he saw the dark outline of a man crest an eastern hill, he pulled the trigger, and watched two small blue dots fall to the ground.