Mickey slowed his hover-bike to a soft rumble. The forest was thinning and Grand Oaks was nestled in a kilometre-wide clearing. Midday and the sky was mustard yellow. The aroma of burning wood didn’t fully mask the acrid stench of sulphur.
The town’s perimeter was marked by a concrete fence, fifteen metres high. Mickey approached a massive sheet metal gate’s control panel and hit the intercom.
After four rings, a scratchy voice answered, “Whas yur name?”
“ID, thankya kinely.”
Mickey placed his Ameritech ID-card on a scanner which glowed below the intercom. Light flashed beneath. He placed the ID back in his breast pocket.
“Whas yah biness in Gran Oakes?”
“Just passing through.”
“Rock nest crag.”
“Alrihy. Come on in.”
The intercom gave a high octave whine. Metal screeched as the door slid open and revealed Grand Oaks.
The houses were made up of logs cut in the old world suburban fashion. They even had grassy yards which had grown half wild. The houses were unpainted but most had the signature yellow haze that permeated most everything near the wilds.
Dark-black pillars of smoke rose in several places. In four stone pits, bonfires the size of boulders threw flickering arms of flame into the air. Bundles of timber ten metres tall lined the street. A small boy and girl played run and chase outside of a house. Mickey saw a thin man turn towards him from the far end of the village. He pulled a smoke from the shoulder of a raggedy tank top and lit it before heading towards Mickey.
“How ya doin’?” Mickey hung a finger from his belt loop. Right next to the holster.
“I’m doin’ just fine.” The man blew smoke into Mickey’s face. It was the same voice from the intercom. “Names Garvy. Did Ameritech sendyas?”
“In a roundabout way.”
The man grunted.
“You hair about thouse disappearances?”
“I’m here to stop them.”
“I say. Com naw I’ll shaw ya round.” Mickey trailed slowly behind as the man led him to the biggest building. Two stories with great log pillars and big, stained glass windows. A sign cut out of wood above the front door read; The Wooden Ladel.
“Yur gonna need a playce to stay the nigh.” Garvy gestured at the building with his head. “Ain much but you ain’t gettin’ anythin be’er roun heur.” He began scratching his balding head. “Daryl’ll give ya a good deal, speciallay if you tell em you work fo’ Ameritech.”
Mickey glanced further down the village road, towards the teeming, buzzing wilds. “I appreciate the offer but I wasn’t planning on being here long. Thought I’d buy some essentials and be on my way.”
“You’re gunna wanna rethink all tha. The man you’re chasin’ he use ta be one of us. His family still livin’ heur.”
Mickey didn’t see any harm in it. so he told him thanks again, asked if the family’d come to the bar and then parked his bike in front of the Wooden Ladel.
It was a spacious joint that managed to feel cramped. Ten foot ceilings, a wide bar and seating area were crowded with relics and artifacts; the kind of things that still shock and amaze near the wilds. An animal skull that was at least ten feet in diameter sat in a corner, horns spiralling outwards. Teeth and skulls of great variety hung from thin poles of polished wood situated between tables. Mickey moved a small animal skull from a bar stool, placed it on the dark wooden bar and sat.
The bartender was a very short, very muscular man with a balding head and thick beard. He scowled when he saw Mickey and ambled up to the bar, climbing a step ladder to get behind it. The effect of the ladder was that the small man towered over the bar, mighty as zeus himself.
“Done ramemba tellin’ you ta tuch tha skull naw.” He growled.
“I just wanted to take a seat,” The little man’s scowl grew sterner when he heard Mickey’s accent. “or is that not allowed in your bar?”
The bartender’s lower lip jutted out and he leaned forward, thick arm slamming the bar. “If I wanted chyou to sit, I’d move the skull for ya.”
Mickey’s hand darted forward and grabbed the man’s grubby ear. “Listen you fucking hayseed. I’m here to help your shitty little village, and the least you could do is give me a drink without any hassle.”
The bartender tried to pull away from Mickey’s white knuckled grip on his ear, but winced in pain. He tried punching Mickey, in the shoulder, the stomach, the face, but it had no effect.
Mickey threw the bartender back against the bar, where he fell with a crash. The broad little man was reaching for something under the bar. Mickey groaned and pulled out his pistol, cocked and aimed it.
“Hey tendy.” The bartender looked up with small, red rimmed eyes and snarled. “Why don’t you just leave whatever you have under the bar where it is?” With his other hand, Mickey reached into his chest pocket, pulled out a handful of coins and dropped them on the bar. “I’ll double your cause when I walk out of here full of drink. Now how about I put this away and we both forget it ever happened?”
The bartender began scooping the coins into a dirt-stained hand. He grunted and then slowly nodded. “What’ll you have?”
“Double Rye. No ice.” Mickey sat back down. “Don’t get many visitors around here?”
“Naw, nawt many.” The bartender said, filling a small glass with golden brown liquid. “What brang ya round?”
The door to the bar banged open and a woman walked in. She wore a dirt-stained dress of blue cream, cracked knee-high leather boots and a scowl on her face. She could’ve been pretty, if it weren’t for her expression like the world had gone to shit. Not that it hadn’t but still, a man liked to remain ignorant, when he could.
“I tuld yaw Meredith, you’ar nawt ta come round here naw maw. I won’t servya.”
Mickey shook his head at the bartender. Where was the man’s business sense? If anyone needed a drink, it was this woman. Meredith’s eyes settled on Mickey, narrowed and then she walked towards him. Her movement was graceful, each step sure and silent.
“Mickay Wisah?” She asked, standing in front of him. The bartender was completely still, watching her closely, as if poised to refuse her drink.
The door banged open again. “Faw fucks sakes.” The bartender growled as the man who greeted Mickey came in, puffing on another cigarette. “Wha’s alla this Garvy?”
Garvy raised his hand at the bartender. “This is mighy impo’tant Daryl. Can we ave a momen ah peece?”
Grumbling, Daryl pulled a smoke from a pocket in his apron and stepped outside.
“This here’is Meredith. It’all startid with her husban.”
Mickey looked into Meredith’s eyes. They were yellow, strained and he noticed with disdain that there were creases around the lids.
“Tell me about your husband.”
Meredith looked at Garvy, as if she’d rather not talk at all, but he nodded briskly at her and she sighed. “You murried Mickay?”
Taking a drink of whiskey, Mickey shook his head no.
“Then ya caint understan’. Ya think ya know erythin’ about em. Thair hawpes, thair dreams.” Meredith cleared the stool beside Mickey and sat down. She ran a gloved hand through dirty blond hair. “Euge always wanned to get out o’ here. He’d tell me tha he’as gonna strike gold n move us away.”
Garvy laughed. “Couln’t stop drinkin’ though could e?”
“It’s so borin’ here.” Meredith sighed, eyes glued to Mickey’s drink. “There’s naw much els ta do buh’sides drinkin’ n fuckin’ an we did alotta both.”
“Alright.” Mickey drank deeply.
Meredith eyed him sharply. “What am I borin’ you?”
“No.” Mickey said, staring back, unfazed. “I have no problem with talkin’ about activities of a sexual nature. The thing is, you’ve got seven missing children, a few dead search and rescue parties and all you’re tellin’ me is that this little village is a veritable shit hole, which, sorry to say, is utterly self apparent.”
“Wach yur tone.” Garvy barked. “Good people heur and we don much shine to thuh ideya tha some strangur comes by an tells us we’re nawt worth nothin’.”
“Fair enough. I’ll keep what my eyes are tellin’ me to myself if Meredith here gets on with her story. What’s dear old Euge got to the do with the birdman who keeps causin’ you all such a bad time?”
“Well that’s the thing.” Meredith said softly. “I think Euge is the bird keeper.”
Mickey smiled. “What makes you think it’s him?”
“Couple thins.” Meredith said, holding up a hand and counting off on her fingers. “Euge used to work killin’ birds in the wile. Their feathahs can be awful valyable. One day, somethin’ got em good. He came home, covered from boot to brain in blood. I thawt he was dead. But he didn’t. Next mornin’, he was good as pie.”
“How long after that did he disappear?”
Mickey nodded and finished his drink. He stood and held a hand out to Meredith.
“What are you offerin’?” Meredith asked, looking at Mickey’s hand.
“How about closure?”
“By wha means?”
“You’re gonna help me find him.”
Meredith’s skin paled. “Naw, he wawn’t reconize me.”
“I believe he will.”
“I don wan ta see im.”
“Garvy baby, lend a hand?”
Garvy leaned across the bar and took Meredith’s hands in his own. “This isn’ jus gonna go a way Mare.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “It’s no fair.”
“Fair?” Mickey snorted. “Is it fair I’ve gotta come halfway cross the continent to help you clip a birds wings? I’d say ‘about as fair as a blind man dealin’ a game of cards’, but look up and here I am. The least you can do is lend a dainty hand.”
Meredith began to breathe heavily, her chest rising and falling dramatically. Her eyes swung to Garvy.
“Come with us.” Meredith begged clutching her skirts in both hands. “Please.”
The balding man closed his eyes, squeezed her hands and then nodded. “How does tha’ sit with ya Mick?”
“Sits fine but we’re leaving right quick.”
“How soon?” Meredith looked from Garvy to the door.
“Right after I get about one more drink.” Mickey leaned over the bar and secured himself a bottle of whiskey. “How about you go discuss whatever it is that’s got miss Meredith dancin’ light and afford a tired man a moment’s peace.”
Garvy frowned at Mickey but led Meredith outside by the hand.
There was a moment’s silence in the bar and Mickey sighed. There’d been no quality sleeps on the road and his legs ached, but the whiskey was warm and filling him with that particular sensation of liquid flame. Sometimes a man didn’t need sleep as much as he needed some fire in his belly.
The door slammed open once again and Mickey wondered why the stout little tender hadn’t put in a stopper. Turning his head, Mickey saw the little fellow walking towards him, an expression of intense dislike on his face.
“Thawt ya’d help yahself to ma wares, haw?”
Mickey raised the glass to the man, and finished it off. He stood to leave when Daryl struck forward with his fist, sinking the meaty club into Mickey’s stomach. Mickey gasped and doubled over, when he was knocked flat by something big, round and hard.
Groaning in pain on the ground, Mickey flipped onto his stomach and rose to his hands and knees. There was a bloodstain on the oak floor.
“Forners could do wid a few manners, I think.” Mickey saw a pair of small feet in loafers, attached to legs like hams. “Comin’ in my establishmen, drinkin’ up all my finiss rye withou a wur ahthanks. A casule observah mye think ya owned the place.”
Mickey rose to his feet with a wobble and looked down at the stout man who held his gaze. He was still as stone.
Reaching into his breast pocket, Mickey pulled out a handful of coins and dropped them lazily down on the counter. Then he turned for outside while Daryl said, “Tha’s righ. You jus’ up an leave naw, don’ botha comin’ back eitha.”
Despite the thick yellow smog, it was a sticky hot day. Mickey climbed on his bike and swung it around the main street. Garvy and Meredith were whispering to each other, a hand on his forearm, a hand cupping the back of her neck.
“I think I got the lay of this.” The two looked at him, startled and their hands drew away. “You two drove this birdman into the forest on account of your extramarital transgressions.” Mickey grinned.
Garvy’s face darkened with blood. Meredith took a step back, eyes widening before she grit her teeth and took two steps forward. Mickey had a feeling the girl could dance.
“An who the fuck are you enyhow?” She wove a finger through the air at each word, as if slashing at him. “Know us for not even an ahour, an there you are, prowd as a squirrl wid a nut.”
“It’s okay darlin’.” Mickey winked jovially at her. “I don’t mind a woman actin’ to suit her libido. No bone to pick with that.”
Meredith looked caught between anger and amusement. Eventually she just shrugged and turned away. “Les get the bikes.”
While the two went away, no doubt for a quicksilver kiss and giggle, men began to come back through the wilds. They were all alike; uniformly tall, thick as trees, lots of chin and head hair, and coated with dirt and sweat.
Mickey dug into his bike’s side pouch and pulled out a flask, then tipped it back. A man with hands like shovels lumbered by as if asleep and Mickey nodded at him. “How’s it goin’ there bull?”
The man continued on, eyes never shifting from the horizon.
“Same to you then crunch.” The soft whir of hover bikes announced the reappearance of Garvy and Meredith.
“Let’s boogie.” Mickey accelerated towards the gate. Security thickened around it. There were eight guards in power armour and all carrying the Ameritech Pulverizer. Each rifle had the stopping power of a guerrilla with a war hammer. The guards raised a hand to slow their progress.
“There’s been a death. No one’s allowed through.”
“Who died?” Garvy asked.
“Jacobs. Got pulled off a tree. It was the bird man.”
“Great.” Mickey said enthusiastically. “We’ll get him while he’s all tired an full from eatin’.”
The guard just looked at him, expression flat. Mickey held up his ID card. “I’m authorized.”
“You goin’ after the bird?” The man asked.
“That’s what I just said, isn’t it?”
The guard stepped aside and held out a hand, beckoning. “Good luck.” A crooked smile formed on his face.
“Thank you.” Mickey said lightly, cruising through the blockade and into the cage. The other two followed suit.
The cage door closed and it began to move, propelled by a wire and pulleys above. Thick, dark green bled together as they sped into the wild. The cage shook slightly and Meredith looked alarmed.
“Did you two have any children?” Mickey asked.
“No, why do you ask?” Meredith’s tilted her head.
“Just trying to distract you from the speeding cage of death. These things are never serviced properly you know.”
Meredith frowned and then leaned against Garvy. The man looked askance at Mickey.
The cage rolled slowly to a stop and the door swung open.
The forest was drowning in a sea of shadows. Trees hundreds of metres tall, with bark like deep soil, towered above. Mickey saw a flower twirling about at the stem like a worm, doing a dance without music.
The flutter of wings echoed from above and Mickey looked up. The sun was barely visible through the thick branches, only a trickle lit their proximity. Mickey drew his pistol from his holster.
With a hum from the bike’s engines, they drew deeper into the forest. Roots shot like lightning from the ground, growing through wild tangles of moss and grass. Wildlife writhed in the background, disappearing with blinks and whispers. This forest was unsettling, not because of how different it was from the natural woods but because of how similar. The radiation turns everything to shit, but this forest was just like the ones Mickey learnt about as a kid. Just – bigger.
Mickey’s jacket stuck to his back, it was like a bath house. Meredith was a comical sight with eyes like rolling magic eight balls. Every sound, every rustle of greenery drew an answer of fear or horror from her. Mickey chuckled.
They travelled for about twenty minutes when Mickey slowed. Silence. No wind, no insects buzzing and no wings. A hiss, long and deep, came from behind them and he hit the brakes.
Mickey glanced over his shoulder and then gestured at the others. An oil black snake, thick as a well pump and at least fifteen feet long was winding behind them. It didn’t seem interested in them, but that didn’t stop Meredith from screaming.
Mickey held his breath. The snake turned towards them, ran a long forked tongue over fangs long as scimitars, and then went on it’s way. Mickey inhaled.
“Never scream.” Mickey whispered angrily. “Might as well ask-“
There was a screaming caw and a large bird swooped from above, digging talons into the snake’s flesh. The serpent snapped at it’s golden-brown plumage but caught only air. The bird circled, and struck again before being joined by another. Then there were five birds, all raking razor sharp talons through snake scale. After a screeching flurry, the snake lay still, bleeding from countless rips and wounds. The birds vanished into the trees above.
“I for one am glad not to be a snake at this point in time.” Mickey said, shaking his head.
“I’m nah so shaw.” Meredith said, glaring.
“Tha ya aren’ one.” Without waiting for a response, the fool accelerated onward, followed closely by Garvy.
As they continued north, the forest began to thin and grass filled the ground beneath their bikes.
Moss covered boulders lined their way with increasing frequency as well as small, organized arrangements of rocks. The forest vanished almost altogether, breaking out into an open, rolling meadow. Flowers of every colour imaginable dusted the ground. Further ahead, lined by meticulously placed trees, was a pathway leading up a large hill.
Garvy and Meredith started slowly up the hill. Mickey turned of his bike’s engine and got off.
“Whatar ya doin’?” The other two had noticed Mickey was gone.
Mickey walked slowly over to the nearby tree and touched it. It had a dark tint, achieved through the application of a wood stainer. He glanced up and saw two dangling foot bones. Stepping back for a better look, he narrowed his eyes against the sun.
Hanging from the back of the tree was a clothed skeleton. The simple, soot-darkened garb was similar to the outfits worn by loggers back in Grand Oaks. At first, the corpse seemed suspended by unseen forces, but Mickey spotted something gleaming and sharp jutting out between the bones of the ribcage.
The corpse was hanging too high to be sure but Mickey thought it was the talon of a bird.
“Wha?” Meredith demanded, face pale.
“Nothin’.” Mickey mounted his bike. Hung from a nearby tree was a freshly dead man, his blood flowing in a wall down the tree’s trunk. They accelerated slowly forward through the walkway, Mickey glancing up at the skeletal decorations. Some were very small. Garvy noticed them and he looked at Meredith, but she’d already seen them.
At the top of the hill, the meadow evened into a plateau. Mickey guessed that it was about fifty metres long and wide. The only notable thing about the area was the lone ash tree at the other end, yellowish green.
“Im naw seein’ anay birs.” Garvy said but he pulled a rifle out of his side bag and held it ready.
There was soft wind up here and it brought cold as it rushed past them. Mickey drove his bike slowly forward, eyes alert and scanning the sky.
There was a pile of stone up on their left, and Mickey ignored it until they got closer. Then he saw that it wasn’t stone but piles of skulls, femurs, pelvis bones and spines of great variety. Rat, boar, dog, bear, goat, snake and man.
The sky was still and yellow, completely void of life.
Meredith was the main source of noise; each inhale a gasp and every exhale a shudder.
They approached the foot of the ash tree and Mickey saw yellow tinted leaves and bark marked with streaks, both exactly alike the sky in colour.
Beyond the tree, the plateau dropped steeply off into a canyon, hundreds of metres down with creep covered rock and sharp, jagged edges.
“There ain’ a sowl.” Meredith breathed. Her arms were shaking.
Mickey looked up into the tree and saw large growths. Darkened ovals in the uppermost branches, three feet in diameter. Pulling a knife from the sheath behind his neck, he slammed it into the trunk and began to climb.
“Wait here.” He commanded, still in sight beneath the thickest branches. Meredith and Garvy looked away and resumed scanning the sky.
The wood was tough and at a few points, Mickey had to slam his blade in twice before it held. The metal was super-durable Ameritech alloy and it won out against the wood but the strength of the tree was unsettling.
Halfway up, the branches began to proliferate wildly, reaching out in seemingly chaotic patterns. It became easier to climb. The nearest oval was only a few yards above him.
Mickey stuck himself between two branches, arms length from the oval and looked down at it. The material seemed to be a hybrid of living flesh and bark. A thick dark base was wrapped at the top by dull-white and brown feathers and the whole package smelt like feces. Mickey crinkled his nose and then held his knife taut above it.
A loud screech came from behind the tree and Mickey almost fell. It was echoed hundreds of times, the sounding of war drums, the blowing of trumpets. The beating of powerful wings filled Mickey’s ears like torrents of rushing blood.
Turning around, Mickey saw the air above the canyon was ripe with black shapes, some with three metre wings, and beaks like curved daggers.
Meredith began screaming, and Mickey tried to silently shush her with his hands, but she was lost. Running wildly back across the plateau, Garvy met Mickey’s eye before chasing after her. Mickey clapped a hand over his mouth and closed his eyes.
The din of wings and wailing beaks passed over him and he opened his eyes to see shapes diving down. They flew back, carrying wriggling shapes towards the tree.
Mickey zipped his jacket up to his eyes and hid his hands, trying to stay still. The knife was pressing softly against his side.
The birds dropped Garvy and Meredith gently to the ground, within eyeshot of the tree, and Meredith stood immediately, making another break.
A massive pair of wings swung down and blocked her path. Mickey saw they were attached to a man. He was tall and fit but his face was too far off to make out. He stroked the back of a curved hand gently down Meredith’s cheek and she recoiled. The man screeched loudly and turned away, pointing animatedly at Garvy. Meredith was crying.
Mickey felt like things were getting worse, so he popped his head out of his jacket, stood between two branches once again and examined the odd oval. It was warm to the touch, and seemed to be pulsing. Almost like a heartbeat. Turning his head up, he counted all of the ovals in the tree. Seven.
Mickey saw that the egg was held to the tree by a thick, sawdust coloured string. He hacked at the restraints with his knife, holding the egg with his other hand.
Then he situated himself among the branches, so as to stand straight and hold the egg in place at the same time.
The birdman had Garvy clutched in curved hands and was screaming into his face. Other than “friends” and “die”, the words were ineligible.
Mickey raised his pistol and fired into the air, making sure to miss the other eggs.
There was a moment of silence as Mickey felt the focus turn to him. Then there was a roar, a hurricane of wings and they were racing towards him.
Mickey drew a huge breath and bellowed, “I’ve got your child Euge.”
A large bird hurtled at Mickey through the trees, so he raised his pistol and shot it square in the chest, rending flesh in an explosion of blood-soaked feathers.
A dominant screech silenced everything and Mickey saw Garvy being helped to his feet by Meredith. He hoped that they were smart enough to run.
Euge glided gently into the tree and landed gracefully across the egg from Mickey. He was over six foot, with a sad, hallow face that contrasted with lemon yellow eyes. The eyes seemed to bug out of his head, too large for his skull. His hair had been replaced with rich, brown bark, winding down his back. When he moved, Mickey had the sense of every muscle working in magnificent unison.
“An’ jus’ who ar yoo?” Euge sang, for there was no other way to describe it. His voice was simultaneously fierce and musical.
“Mickey Wiser. I’m an extinctor with Ameritech and I’m afraid I’m gonna have to take you down. That being said, it doesn’t have to be hard. Hell, maybe I leave the eggs and let your children live. Doesn’t that seem fair? Give em maybe ten or twelve years before I’ve gotta come back down and take em out.”
Euge’s lip curled and exposed a sharp beak inside his mouth instead of teeth. Mickey saw his body tense, ready to strike.
“Uh uh uh. Little Sally or Sam here isn’t held here by anythin’ other than my hand.” Euge looked down at Mickey’s hand, resting on the top of the egg. “Wouldn’t want it to fall now would we?”
Euge looked away. “Iv got othahs.”
“And you want all of them.”
Euge looked back and his eyes were burning. “Moaw than a mongral like yoo could evah understan’.” A tear rolled down his sunburnt cheek.
Mickey raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. Small chucks of wet bark flew in every direction. The slug caught Euge in the head, reducing his skull to fragments, flecks of blood. The headless, winged body of the birdman dropped from the branch and there was a loud crunch.
Meredith screamed. Birds began softly cooing and circling away, separating into smaller groups. Within a minute, the air and sky were silent once more.
Mickey pushed the egg, and waited with eyes squeezed shut until a loud splat. Someone sicked up below. Mickey retrieved his knife and climbed back down the trunk.
The egg had fallen beside the birdman and was leaking a viscous, yellow-white mess through a big crack in the bark. Through the open crack, Mickey saw a half-bird, half-human fetus gasping faintly. He ended it’s pain.
Looking up at the tree, Mickey went back to his bike and dug through his side bag. He took the flask painted bright red with a skull and crossbones on it and returned to the tree. Dousing the base of the trunk with the contents of the flask, he lit a match and threw it on. The tree went up in flame, bootlegged moonshine proving an effective catalyst.
Mickey tried to ignore the feeble sounds as the eggs blackened and smoked, sending great waves of smog into the air. The smell was horrendous.
Climbing on his bike, Mickey began to drive away, leaving a hysterical Meredith in Garvy’s arms.
Mickey turned his bike halfway around, looking at her over his shoulder.
“Yur not gona say a thing?”
His eyes were hard and unblinking. “What’s there to say?”
Meredith wiped her eyes and by the time she looked up again, Mickey Wiser was a small blur disappearing down the hill back into the forest.