We were on the run, hoping the trees could conceal us. The sun was up, depriving us of the cover of night. And the birds were out — several followed us, watching, maybe tracking us, reporting on our position, we didn’t know. But they had raised the alarm earlier and had given us away, so we didn’t trust them.
I’d heard that birds aren’t real, that they’re mechanical drones devised to keep us all under surveillance. A sobering thought, though I’ve never seen little flying machines build nests and lay clutches of eggs. And if they’ve all been replaced with robots, why would birds still sing and wear bright plumage? Drones don’t need to attract mates.
No time for these musings. We were deep in a Colorado forest on the west side of the Rockies, and a half dozen armed men were after us.
The previous day, our client had engaged us to find and investigate a facility believed to be making some kind of a weapon or device for controlling the population.
“Whose population?” you had asked when we picked up our assignment. “Just in this country?”
“No, they’re international,” the man behind the desk replied. We weren’t allowed to know names. His three-piece suit and dark blue tie suggested a government agency. “They want to control everyone.”
“Who doesn’t?” I said.
We had met our client in a sparsely-furnished office in the back of a nondescript strip mall on the outskirts of Denver. Low profile. He never said how he got our contact information and we didn’t ask. He paid cash.
“We’re not professional spies,” you reminded him.
“No, no. We called you in because you’re woodsy types — you know the outdoors.” He said outdoors as if referring to a mysterious planet no one else had been to. “And you’re not affiliated with anyone. You’re a neutral party.” That last bit should have aroused our suspicions. We thought he meant it in a good way, like we were Switzerland.
He continued: “Our latest intel suggests the target is in a forest, somewhere between Glenwood Springs and South Fork.”
“That’s a lot of territory,” I said.
“But we’ll find it,” you added.
“Keep me apprised of your progress.” We never saw him after that.
We used our contacts in the forest — a network of trees whose underground connections covered hundreds of square miles — to find out where there had been unusual human activity recently.
“What we’re looking for,” I had explained, “is someplace where people have moved to that’s not on a main road, probably hidden. They had to transport a lot of equipment, so there would have been trucks moving about. Maybe some building going on.”
The message that came back was this: Two moons ago, at the empty workplace of the tree-cutters, lights shone at night and big vehicles moved in and out. Two house-boxes appeared.
“They’re at that old logging camp,” you said. “That was shut down over eighty years ago.” Still recent in the memories of trees who live hundreds of years.
“And they put up a couple of buildings or barracks, it seems.”
You pulled out a map and we made our plan. We’d have to approach from the densely-wooded side, away from the road. That meant a full day’s hike through a forest of mostly piñon pine and juniper — over a few hills, down some gullies, across a meadow, over more hills. We’d leave in the morning and reach the camp in the dead of night. We called our client to let him know where we were heading.
By evening of the next day, just before dark, we had crossed the meadow and were deep in the pines when we stopped for a quick dinner. A bird shot past and landed on a nearby tree. I thought it was a sparrow, but it looked too big.
“No,” you said, “that’s a swift. Not sure what type, but it even looks big for a swift.”
You tried some bird calls. It just tilted its head at you, looked around and scanned the surrounding trees, then gave us both another close look.
When we moved on, it followed us farther through the woods and was joined by a few more swifts. Not quite a flock, but close. I thought it odd that they’d be out in the dark, then dismissed them from my mind as we got close to our destination — maybe they were hunting some kind of night-flying bug.
About two in the morning we saw a glow through the trees from the camp ahead.
“Well, somebody’s home,” I said.
We moved more cautiously, until we came to the edge of the woods, then crouched down to survey the scene.
A dirt road led to a clearing about half the size of a soccer field. New growth around the perimeter suggested that the old logging camp had once been much bigger, before the forest decided to start crowding back in. Outdoor security lamps on high poles provided enough light for us to get an idea of the layout: two mobile homes off to the left of the entrance, a long one-story building to the right, a pickup truck, and two bored-looking men with rifles strolling around.
“That’s it?” I said “Two trailers and a refurbished sawmill?” Hard to believe anyone could control the world from here. “And why in the middle of the woods? Nowhere to grab a cappuccino.”
“Maybe they just like to work in a natural setting.”
“Or they need to be out in the wilderness to test their device, whatever it is.”
As we moved around toward the large building, we came upon a pile of material — rolls of chain link and barbed wire, along with twelve-foot poles and bags of cement. They hadn’t finished the fence, which meant they were still moving in. I wondered if they’d picked out the curtains yet. No fence meant easier access, but more guards — we had already seen two of them. Our tree intel hadn’t mentioned dogs, so that was good.
“Let’s see what they’re up to,” you said.
That meant sneaking up to the main building. We convinced a couple of nearby fir trees to move in that direction and lend us some cover. We waited until the guards had passed, then crept up to the outside wall on the forest side.
“Hmm,” I said. “No fence, no dogs. And look, they didn’t even put shutters up.”
“I have a nagging feeling,” you said.
“Like this is too easy.”
We lifted ourselves up and peered through the narrow window, which gave us a limited view of the inside. A few night lights provided just enough illumination for us to see the layout.
It wasn’t a lab. On rows of long benches were hundreds of small devices in the process of being assembled. We couldn’t tell what they were. Each workstation had a stool, soldering iron, magnifier lamp, and several bins filled with parts, some of which seemed to be tiny transparent wings, the kind sported by flying pixies or wood sprites. It didn’t make sense.
“Those don’t look like weapons,” I whispered, “more like toys. Are we sure this isn’t one of Santa’s local workshops?”
“Guarded by men with rifles?”
“He’s not taking chances. Christmas is only five months away.”
We took a few pictures for our client. Now for the next piece of information: How big of an operation was it? We got a rough estimate from the size of the manufacturing facility — anywhere from twenty to forty workers — but felt we should narrow that down.
“Where do they all sleep?” you asked. The trailers were too small to hold that many people. “Or do they commute?”
“We’ll have to wait till they show up.”
It was almost dawn, so we crept back to the woods and found a place where we could watch the front door.
Around six o’clock a school bus painted steel gray rumbled down the road and pulled up in front of the building. Things started early here. We counted twenty-eight workers stepping off the bus, all clad in identical white jumpsuits and carrying lunchpails. They waited while the supervisor came out of the nearby trailer and unlocked the door, then they filed in and he locked the door behind them. He stood there to exchange a few words with one of the guards. The bus drove back up the road.
I wrote down everything we observed. “That’s all we can get. Let’s go.”
Just as we started to leave, a chorus of squawking erupted in the trees around us. We froze.
“Those damned birds!” you said.
“What are they doing?”
About a dozen of the swifts that had followed us in the night were calling and flapping their wings, making as much racket as they could. I thought it might be a morning ritual, since the sun had now risen. But they had waited until the exact moment we were leaving, as if they wanted to call attention to us.
It worked. The supervisor and the guard looked in our direction and started to walk over. Two more guards headed toward us, unslinging their rifles. There was no choice but to make a run for it — we were going to be spotted anyway. We moved.
“Hey!” one of the guards shouted. “Someone’s there.”
“Go! Get them!”
Two shots rang out. Tree bark splintered to our right. We ducked and weaved through the trees, back the way we had come. We didn’t hear immediate pursuit and assumed the guards were gathering, waking up the others, making a plan. We slowed a bit, quietly pushing aside branches and undergrowth instead of plowing through them, but still keeping a brisk pace.
“Were those birds part of their security?” I asked. “Maybe that’s why they didn’t need dogs.”
“I don’t think so. Why would they let us get so close? And how do you train wild birds to do that?”
“Maybe they aren’t so wild.”
We heard the growling of a truck engine a few hundred yards off. Probably some of the guards expecting to catch us on the road, but we were headed deep into the woods in the opposite direction. If they wanted to chase us, they’d have to do it on foot, unless they had a helicopter handy. We hadn’t seen one.
Still, we didn’t linger, but moved as quickly as we could, jogging where the forest thinned out, occasionally stopping to listen for our pursuers.
After an hour we hadn’t heard anyone, though a few birds fluttered about. I frowned at them, suspicious now of their presence. And there was something far behind in the forest, a sound I wasn’t familiar with, like a low hum. Maybe it was the truck. I didn’t bother mentioning it to you.
We came to the meadow and paused. Crossing it meant we’d be out in the open, but a mist hung in the air, thick enough to obscure the trees on the opposite side, so we decided to risk it. Better than taking extra time to go the long way round. We took a few cautious steps and listened.
“No one’s here,” you said. “Let’s go.” We quickened our pace, taking long strides through the damp grass.
When we were almost halfway across, the sound I had noticed earlier became louder. “Do you hear that?” I asked. “It’s like…”
“Buzzing. Like bees… or mosquitoes.” You turned to look back. “There!”
Through the fog we saw a large, gray form emerge from the trees. It skimmed like a hovercraft across the open space, flying straight toward us. Soon we could make out the individual shapes of insects, a swarm of many different types — hundreds of wasps, bees, mosquitoes, dragonflies, locusts, beetles — all with a seemingly evil intent.
The humming mass surrounded us and began its attack.
This is the time when advanced training in the art of fighting a villainous insect swarm would be useful. For example, is it a superior tactic to keep one’s coat on for protection against biting and stinging, or take it off and use it as a weapon? I took mine off and started swinging it wildly. You kept yours on but grabbed a handful of long grass to swat at the vile things. Both methods were equally futile.
I knocked a few biting dragonflies into the grass and crushed them under my boot. They crumpled with a metallic crunch rather than the expected squish. I took a quick look, saw delicate metal parts flattened in the grass, and recognized the mechanical wings — same as those on the workbenches.
“This is what they’re making back there?” I said. “Are you kidding me? This is their great weapon?”
You had already crushed a few yourself and had seen what I was talking about. “Insect drones. Seem like a pretty effective weapon to me right now.”
We spent the next few minutes swatting, slapping, and crushing. The drone swarm displayed intelligence. It tried different moves, gauged our response, then adjusted its strategy, like a fencing master testing an opponent. It clearly didn’t like to lose any soldiers — each one probably represented thousands of dollars of technology — which is why it didn’t throw everything at us at once.
But the swarm was learning how to penetrate our feeble defenses.
While I was busy swinging at some bees, a mosquito the size of a brooch landed on my shoulder. I could see its two-inch metal proboscis poking at my shirt, looking for a place to jab. I yanked it off and clutched it in my fist. The thin tube was squirting out a clear liquid. It didn’t want to suck my blood, it was trying to inject me with something. I hurled the device against a rock.
“Watch out for the mosquitoes! Their needle things may have poison. Or a drug.”
“Assassin bugs,” you said, as you flung your arm up and sent a few dragonflies tumbling back. “Like those mechanical hornets from Japan. They kill people with their stings.”
I had heard of murder hornets, but didn’t realize they’d been designed for the job. What kind of a world have we created?
The swarm was tiring us out and we were slowing down. More insects were able to get past our flailing arms and land on us. It was no use — there were too many of them. We couldn’t defeat them all.
“Can we make a run for the trees?” I asked, out of breath.
“They’d just follow us.”
“We can’t hold them off much longer.”
The devices, and whoever controlled them, would soon win. I looked at you and you shook your head. Drones were crawling all over your legs. I could feel several on my back. Five more deadly mosquitoes hovered just beyond swinging range, waiting for their chance. The swarm was about to envelop us.
I heard a flutter by my ear and ducked aside. A bird flew past — one of the swifts that had followed us earlier. It grabbed a mosquito in its beak with a crunch, dropped the mangled parts, then banked around to grab another. Screaming cries of swee-swee filled the air as the rest of the flock swooped in and attacked the insects all around us.
I looked up with hope, but the tiny drones fought back. The buzzing intensified and the swarm went into a frenzy of motion. Every insect joined the fray — including those that had been crawling on us — wielding stingers, mandibles, and lacerating feet against their feathered opponents.
It was a melee, and we were in the middle of it.
Leaving the meadow wasn’t an option — the insects still surrounded us. Whenever we took a step, the swarm followed, as if we were the center of a moving whirlwind. At least the swifts were keeping more of the drones occupied, so we didn’t have to fight off as many as before.
But the mechanical insects formed up into groups and mounted counterattacks, with several ganging up on one bird at a time. We saw one flapping madly as a dozen beetle-like drones latched onto its wings and dragged it tumbling to the ground. The drones rose back up, the bird didn’t.
“Look at this,” you said. The downed bird was partially torn open at the neck. Instead of blood and bones we saw the unmistakable sheen of finely-crafted metal parts and a cluster of thin wires in the wound hole.
“It’s another damned robot! Or drone. Or whatever.” I crouched down to prod it with a finger.
“Anyway, it’s not real. Just like some people say.” You looked up at the rest of the swifts still engaged in the battle, then swatted away a beetle that tried to land on your face. “What do you think is going on here?”
I grabbed the bird’s head and yanked out an eye — a camera lens with markings stamped on the copper backing. “This looks specially made,” I said, handing it to you before sweeping a couple of bee-drones off my arm.
“These are NSA parts.” I’m not sure how you knew that, but okay. You pointed at the insect swarm. “So who makes those? Get one for me.”
I found one that had been dropped on the ground by a bird. It was a mosquito, so I had to be careful with the needle, but managed to pull a few pieces off. Most were too small to read any part numbers, but the wings provided the answer.
You examined it while waving your hand in front of your face to scatter a formation of wasps. “This is CIA. They make their own parts too.” Again, you knew that… how?
“I thought they were all on the same side,” I said. “Our side. National Security, Central Intelligence — they’re both agencies of the U.S.”
“I suppose they have their domestic troubles like anybody else.”
“So what does the FBI use — mechanical rodents? Squirrel drones?”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”
The battle was winding down, the agencies were pulling back their forces. It seemed to be a draw.
A few of the birds swooped to the ground and picked up some incapacitated insects, then flew off with them across the meadow and into the trees, no doubt to deliver the rival technology, which would be scrutinized in some lab. At the same time, a coordinated group of stout beetles picked up one of the broken birds and carried it off in the other direction, back toward the camp.
“They set us up,” you said. “Our client controls those birds.”
I shook my head in disbelief as the scenario played out in my mind. “They had the birds follow us, then they made sure we were discovered, so the other agency would send their drones out after us, so our client could get their hands on the technology. Never mind that we could have been killed.”
“And the insect assembly line we saw?” you said. “They wanted us — or someone — to find them so they could… I don’t know, send their devices out against the other drones? To test them?”
“Or so they could grab a bird after the battle?” Our theory still had a few gaps.
We never let our client know we took a disabled bird for our own scrutinizing. Not that we were in the business of stealing advanced technology, just that a bird-drone in the living room — stripped of its skin and mounted in a dramatic pose — would make a great conversation starter, we assumed. Unfortunately, most of our friends prefer to talk about the arts. “Is this a Jean Tinguely?” they’d ask, admiring the artistry of the kinetic sculpture.
But that was for later. For now, the meadow was quiet again. We gathered our stuff and headed into the trees.
We heard shrill calls and birdsongs and buzzing and humming — the usual sounds of the forest as its inhabitants go about their day. But what was that to us? Not only are the birds not real, we had learned that insects aren’t either. Everything has been replicated and turned into a spying device as part of a web of conspiracy where we’re all under observation.
Maybe nothing is really what we think. Every creature, whether equipped with natural senses or mechanical sensors, is just part of the vast surveillance system of consciousness devised by the universe — a way for nature to keep an eye on us, just as we keep an eye on it, and on each other.
“Well,” I said, brushing my fingers on the bark of a pine, “we can always count on the trees.”
You looked back at me. “Are you sure?”
No. I wasn’t sure about anything anymore.