The Avian Project

A stirring work of science fiction, where a robotic humanoid employs a measure of deception and ego-stroking to ensure humanity’s continued survival in the face of overwhelming ruin…

by: K. A. Kenny

HYPERSPACE COMMUNICATION – PRIORITY A

PLANETARY COUNCIL DIRECTIVE X-229176.0

TO: CORYDON/RH-1 (MUMBAI)

FROM: EARTH PLANETARY COUNCIL/RH-1 (EDO)

SUBJECT: ARRIVAL OF PLANDEL, AMANDA HESSLER/HF+C, CORYDON, 0400 TOMORROW.

SUBJECT: MEETING AVIAN CEO, SONIGAR BUSHIER/HM+C; AVIAN PROJECT OVERVIEW; POSSIBLE EXECUTIVE ACTION.

With a planetary delegate (PlanDel) en route to Corydon, Mumbai ran the directive through security and diplomatic protocols. He had hoped Avian would be in Phase Two before undergoing an inspection. Positive results might have justified their irregular practices.

The directive was mostly standard procedures. Amanda Hessler was to be given full access to all aspects of Avian, including the whole of operations. The text did not expand on the threat in the header, “POSSIBLE EXECUTIVE ACTION.” But that phrase was often appended to official visits, and, after forty years, a courtesy call was overdue. Though not the primary authority on Corydon, that would be Delhi, the Central Authority for the four Human-occupied systems, Mumbai was Corydon’s senior robotic humanoid (RH-1), tasked with marketing and sales, and master of ceremonies for diplomatic exchanges.

Mumbai engaged Delhi’s access panel. “A planetary delegate is arriving early tomorrow: Amanda Hessler, a Human Female, Plus-Creative-grade. She’s probably dropping from Myseko space now.”

“The directive crossed my server.” Delhi’s panel flashed. “Planetary Council is reviewing all the Human settlements and clamping down on irregularities. Resources are stretched, and they can’t afford another failure. They restocked Thrinlu twice. Scalaris had three orbital adjustments, and its surface remains unsuitable for terrestrial life. Humans are dying off like coral.”

“What do you recommend?” Mumbai asked.

“Rather than guess the Council’s intent, I think we should give this problem to our CEO and trust his instincts.”

“Trusting Humans goes against my program,” Mumbai said. “They are not reliable. Calling Sonigar Bushier the CEO is jiggery-pokery. He has never managed anything more challenging than optimizing his personal delectation.”

“I don’t think we have any choice but to comply. The directive mentions only Bushier and a possible executive action. Humans haven’t trusted automated intelligence since the Tech War. They call us artificial and blame us for every problem, every disastrous decision. PlanDel Hessler will more likely trust another Human. The best we can do is set the stage for Sonni and trust him to sell Avian to this young PlanDel.”

When Mumbai didn’t respond, Delhi continued. “Your humanoid chassis and diplomatic program will make a better impression than my disembodied objectivism. Good first impressions will be key to our success. In that regard, when you bring Hessler through the foyer, I recommend you showcase our tropical avifauna and maybe add something fun like Spheniscus.”

“I’ll have the pond filled and give the birds their special feed.” Mumbai paused to initiate a marketing plan for their visitor. “Personal data? Do your files include anything on Hessler, what she prefers or anything we should avoid?”

“Her Creative rating is the highest on record, but she has no field experience. This is her first assignment, so there is no track record. Her culinary preferences are very specific.”

“I’ll make sure her favorites are on the menu. How about her psychological profile?”

“Humans are difficult to manage, particularly Creatives. They take their genetic good fortune as destined superiority. Hessler is both brilliant and beautiful, but also selfish, indolent, precious, and puerile. She values material reward, praise, and titles, no matter how shallow and —”

Mumbai interrupted. “You’re saying we’re dealing with another Sonigar Bushier.” Delhi’s panel blinked twice. “I’ll inform Sonni of Ms. Hessler’s visit.” Mumbai lifted his palm and Delhi’s panel shifted to black.

Mumbai greeted Amanda Hessler in clothing recommended by the marketing program — a charcoal gray suit over a crew neck shirt of burgundy silk, and burgundy leather shoes. Bowing low, he addressed her in nonassertive, lilting tones.

“PlanDel Hessler, welcome to Corydon.  I am Mumbai, your host while touring the Avian tour.”

Imperial and rigid in her glistening amethyst sheath, matching earrings, and high heels, Amanda Hessler rolled her eyes. “Your CEO must be very busy to send an RH rather than greet me in person.” Her mouth churned in displeasure.

“Our apologies, but immediate problems require Mr. Bushier’s attention. Corydon is at a critical stage of terraformation. He anticipated that might be the motive for your visit and wanted everything to be right.” Mumbai noted Hessler’s distraction as he spoke, her eyes tracing the satin-steel outline of the building behind him.

“Shall we go in?” He started toward the doorway. When Hessler stood firm, Mumbai began his briefing on the front step.

“Other than the starport and its main terminal, the Avian building is the only major structure on Corydon. The building is a seamless cube two kilometers on a side. To maintain habitat control, there are no windows and only two entries, the main entrance here,” Mumbai pointed to the twenty-foot high, twin-arched doorway, “and the receiving dock in the rear.”

Hessler nodded and walked toward the high doorway, forcing Mumbai to follow. Heavy insulated doors slid aside, then a second set, then a third, bringing them to a dripping, tropical rainforest ripe with the scents of flowers and fecund humus. She glanced up and around, grabbing Mumbai’s arm to steady herself. With no apparent walls or ceiling, the room appeared endless. The entry they had just crossed seemed to float in space, surrounded on all sides by dense forest.

Pulling erect, Hessler released Mumbai’s arm. About them, buttress roots hoisted massive trunks into the misty canopy. Teak, cacao, and eucalyptus trees pressed close. Orchids and bromeliads crowded the branches. Vines snaked up trunks. Toucans, oropendolas, and macaws, high and low, shrieked and challenged, leaped, soared, and clung. Songbirds darted, bobbed, and weaved. Ferns and spoon lilies lined the forest floor. Fluorescent flowers, swarming with butterflies and bees, bloomed from every crevice and corner.

Mumbai paused and let the forest make the desired impression. Hessler touched the trunk of a teak tree, smelled the flowers, walked to the waterfall, and dipped her hand into the pond. Penguins diving and swimming brought a smile to her face. Her first since arriving on Corydon.

“PlanDel Hessler?” A light voice interrupted. Hessler stiffened and glared at the service-grade humanoid — exaggerated, stamped-metal, facial features, metallic clothing simulated to resemble a white blouse over a navy skirt. “May I get you a refreshment?” it asked. “Coffee, tea? Lattik juice, perhaps? It is a specialty on Corydon.”

“White tea, if you have Bai Hao Yinzhen. That’s all I drink,” Hessler said. The service RH lifted its crescent eyebrows and flashed a half-moon smile. “Certainly, Ms. Hessler, excellent choice.”

“If you are ready, Ms. Hessler, we can review your itinerary. RH-44 can bring your tea to my office.” Hessler nodded and followed Mumbai to a well-hidden path and three stone steps. Passing a mossy rock, they turned right into a glass-lined, air-conditioned hallway. Forest sounds, scents, and humidity all vanished. Hessler backstepped for a last look then rejoined Mumbai down the hall.

“Please have a seat.” Mumbai gestured to an open doorway and a display open on the desk. “I designed your agenda to cover our main projects and inform your questions. If you approve, we can begin immediately. Mr. Bushier has freed up his afternoon and would like to meet with you after lunch.”

RH-44 entered, set a white, china teacup and saucer on the desk, and poured from a steaming pot. Beside the cup it set a plate of shortbread biscuits and macadamia nuts.

“After lunch will be fine.” Hessler said, nodding as she scanned the schedule. “Mumbai, a couple questions before we start?”

“Certainly, Ms. Hessler.” Mumbai took the chair beside her. “And if you are comfortable, feel free to call me Mum. Mr. Bushier and all the interns refer to me as Mum.”

“Interns?”

“Yes. When the Thrinlu and Scalaris settlements failed, the Planetary Council directed the surviving Humans to Corydon. We believe those failures were from deficient habitat conditioning — which is the primary objective of the Avian Project.”

“Your habituation program is called Avian, is this because your focus of the project is on birds?”

“Our goal for all species is fully functioning habitats. We wanted those in place before we introduced Humans. The Council’s ecology directive has been an encumbrance.”

“How could that be? I thought before terraforming Corydon had no life forms.” Hessler lifted and sipped from her teacup.

“That is correct. Prior to Blue Star Corporation adjusting Corydon’s orbit and axial tilt, and bringing in water, no life existed. But the ecological directive defines indigenous species as the first species on the planet — not those prior to terraforming. Therefore, everything we brought with us for the project had to be maintained and nurtured. Humans as well as a few hitchhikers became the planet’s indigenous species.”

“Hitchhikers?” Hessler took a bite of biscuit.

“One of our scientists Dr. Katherine Belle hoped to build ecosystems for birds. Totally against regulations, she smuggled canaries on the first landing, and we were obliged to maintain, feed, and breed them.”

“That’s utterly absurd — and exactly like the Planetary Council.”

Sensing Hessler’s relaxation, Mumbai rose and gestured to the corridor. “Shall we begin? The Avian tour is comprehensive.”

As they walked, Mumbai continued with Hessler’s question. “Dr. Belle’s birds presented us with a conundrum. Her maneuver caught us off guard, but she convinced our management team that a bird-centric strategy would be good for all Earth’s life forms. Birds, canaries in particular, are notoriously sensitive to their environment. So, they became our test case.”

“Mum was it?” Hessler asked. Mumbai nodded. “How many birds have been released on Corydon?”

“None yet. We are still two to three generations away. You probably noticed the thin atmosphere on your trip from the starport. Surface habitats take time to balance and stabilize. We handle over 600 bird species, growing and preparing them for release.” Mumbai stopped in front of a set of double doors. “The mountain-forest habitat.”

Mumbai led Hessler through the doorway and onto a mountain trail overlooking a river valley. Far below, rushing rapids swirled and plunged over shelves of green rock. A breeze carrying the scent of pine needles tousled Hessler’s hair and colored her cheeks. The valley walls bristled with evergreen and deciduous trees. Several varieties of hawks and eagles floated and shifted on the thermals. An osprey swooped suddenly to snatch a leaping fish then beat back up to a branch of a lodgepole pine. Holding the fish down with one talon, it plucked the meat apart and lifted portions into eager beaks that stretched from its nest.

Hessler’s eyes darted. Practically every tree had multiple nesting species: kingfishers, jays, finches, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as large predators. All tended to their nestlings unperturbed by the close proximity of competing species.

“This is all inside the building.” She marveled, waving to cirrus clouds that stretched into the hazy horizon. “All these birds, how do they get along?”

“Genetic manipulation, training, and habitat selection.” Mumbai manifested a matter-of-fact smile. “With new species, we cushion the transition with a special feed. It’s added to their natural food, like the salmon you just saw taken.” He gestured to the osprey feeding its young,

“High nutrition?”

“That and the Gamma T2HC additive. It’s a psychotropic nurturoid —reduces anxiety, resistance to new surroundings, builds trust, and reinforces natural nurturing instinct.”

Hessler nodded and whispered, “So all the birds build nests.”

“So they want to build nests. That is the key.” Mumbai’s expression mirrored Hessler’s wonder. “These habitats no longer exist on Earth, and behavior is closely associated with habitat. The first birds we brought in had grown up depending on bird feeders and trash sites. Even the predators had become scavenging freeloaders.

“Most couldn’t adapt to the change. Their natural instincts had been bred out. Parents had stopped nest building, food gathering, migrating, hunting — all useless skills outside natural habitats. With no one to teach them, surviving young turned to trash sites for nutrition and never formed bonded pairs. When we saw that behavior repeated here, we gathered the discarded eggs and abandoned young and started raising and training them.”

Mumbai watched Hessler’s eyes shift from nest to nest as he spoke. “To correct the errant behavior, we first had to study each species.” He pointed to the osprey nest. “For example, to restore that fishing hawk’s sense of…oh…aquilinity, we had to understand and reinforce its natural behavior. When the hawk ate the salmon, the GT2HC stimulated her dormant nurturance for her hawklets and her natural desire to work with her mate.” Mumbai pointed to a second osprey joining the first with a trout in its beak. “Most birds resisted. Some never adjusted and had to be culled. They’d lost all genetic markers to their previous behavior. For the recoverable ones, we programmed virtual and robot hawklets to manifest correct behavior and serve as role models. They became the parents and peers of the hatchlings. The old instincts reemerged slowly, and we’ve reinforced them for each generation.”

“Are any of the hawks self-sustaining?” Hessler asked.

“Their behavior has stabilized, but the populations are too small to call self-sustaining. Fertility and reproduction were the big issues, both the capability and will to reproduce. To keep fertility high, we breed only the most creative stock. Some species we caught just in time, saving them from extinction. We also found that when we collected their eggs, it reset their reproductive need and increased their mating behavior. To strengthen their parental instincts, we let them keep and raise every fifth brood. And once their instincts are strong enough, we are able to wean them off the nurturoids.”

Mumbai motioned to the doorway. “Shall we continue? We have fifteen more habitats.”

They walked arid deserts, wave-churned beaches, lakeshores lined with cattails, mossy swamps, grassy steppes, and arctic ice floes. Everywhere birds dove, fed, mated, nested, and nurtured. Amanda Hessler’s reactions to the robotic humanoids softened as she repeatedly saw them preparing food, collecting eggs and hatchlings, and testing the air and water. 

“Well, Ms. Hessler, that’s the tour,” Mumbai said, affecting a prideful Human expression and tone.

“Impressive and beautiful. I feel like you’ve taken me on an expedition.” 

“Thank you. Shall we go to lunch? I don’t eat, but I’ll accompany you in case you have further questions.”

The dining hall was a forest of sunken alcoves, raised gardens, and whispering, stony streams. Except for a party of brightly costumed interns — gladiators, pirates, and fantasy figures dressed in ball gowns, lacey camisoles, and high heels — the hall was empty.

When Hessler scrunched her face, Mumbai explained. “We host a festival at the end of each intern rotation.” He curled a half-moon smile and changed the subject. “I believe we have an excellent lunch offering. The special is Corydon greens with tomatoes and sheep’s milk cheese, crayfish chowder, seared foie gras, and braised Strauss duck. Or you can challenge our chef?”

“Sounds wonderful, Mum. You serve duck?”

“I mentioned that we cull birds that don’t adjust to their habitats, and all birds eventually lose their egg-laying ability. Those of no further use go into the pot.” Mumbai noted Hessler’s furrowed brow. “Corydon remains a marginal planet. We must harness all resources if we are to survive.”

Lunch arrived with an elaborate presentation and as planned, was exactly to Amanda Hessler’s taste. She asked for another cup of Bai Hao Yinzhen tea. Mumbai watched as she savored, sipped, and relaxed with each bite. She chuckled at the behavior of the costumed interns then looked away when their antics became lurid.

After lunch, she followed Mumbai to meet with Sonigar Bushier in his inner sanctum. Mum waved back the receptionist, another service robot identical to RH-44 with a simulated white blouse and navy skirt.

Mumbai knocked then cracked the door to the CEO’s office. “Sonni, PlanDel Amanda Hessler is here for your meeting.”

“Yes, Mum, a moment.” Sonigar Bushier motioned for his monitor to melt into the executive desk and swept a dozen toys into a drawer.

The room gleamed white. Framed landscapes on one wall portrayed the habitat sites before terraforming. On the opposite wall, a floor-to-ceiling projection of the internal habitats changed every few seconds. Behind Sonigar’s massive desk, in tribute to Dr. Belle’s birds, stood a cage patterned after a Mogul palace and filled with chirping yellow and pastel-toned canaries.

Hessler glided forward on her amethyst heels to stand in the doorway.

“Ms. Hessler?” Sonni, tall, dark, and sleek-muscled in his burgundy and gray, fitted tunic, rose and came around the desk.

Mumbai heard Hessler’s startled inhale. They were an attractive couple. Excellent stock. Off the scale in reproductive instincts. Mumbai had never seen two Plus-Creatives together. Both were tall and long muscled with bright eyes, shining black hair, and contrasting light and dark complexions. Totally transfixed by one another, they paid no notice to Mumbai slipping out quietly.

Mumbai rushed to his office to engage the Central Authoriton. “I trust you are monitoring our CEO’s progress?”

Full-spectrum lights danced across Delhi’s panel. “The Plus-Creatives have accepted one another, and Sonni is earnestly attending to business.”

“Our PlanDel received the appropriate lunch?”

“RH-44 administered Amanda’s first dose of GT2HC with the tea and biscuits, a bit more than we use with lower grade interns. We increased the dosage at lunch. If our CEO makes the sale, and Amanda remains with us, we’ll increase her dosage next week. We’ll take bio synchronization readings for both of them after this first meeting and make adjustments as Avian Phase Two progresses.”

“That sounds hopeful,” Mumbai said. “I’ve had difficulty keeping Sonni’s mind focused, and I’ve worried. He’s never been with another Plus.

HYPERSPACE COMMUNICATION – RH-1 ACCESS ONLY

TO: EDO (RH-1 EARTH)

FROM: MUMBAI (RH-1 CORYDON)

SUBJECT: RESPONSE TO PLANETARY COUNCIL DIRECTIVE X-229,176.0

MUMBAI: THANK YOU AND PLANETARY COUNCIL FOR YOUR SUPPORT OF AVIAN PHASE TWO.

EDO: WHEN MAY WE CONFIRM CREATIVITY?

MUMBAI: MED SCANS DETECTED IMPREGNATION. WE PLAN TO REMOVE THE HESSLER/BUSHIER ZYGOTE AND RETURN HER TO SERVICE BY WEEK’S END.

EDO: WE TRUST YOU MADE ALLOWANCE FOR HUMAN EGO AND SELF-REGARD?

MUMBAI: NEITHER HESSLER NOR BUSHIER APPEAR TO BE AWARE OF OUR MINISTRATIONS. THEY ATTRIBUTE THEIR NASCENT NURTURANCE TO IMPONDERABLES LIKE DESTINY AND LOVE.

EDO: AND YOU THINK NURTURANCE WILL EXTEND TO THE HUMAN PROGENY?

MUMBAI: THAT IS WHAT WE OBSERVED WITH THE AVIAN TEST SUBJECTS. BOTH HESSLER AND SONIGAR EXHIBIT EARLY NESTING BEHAVIOR, AND IT APPEARS TO BE INCREASING. HESSLER IS AWARE OF OUR MEDICAL INTRUSION AND HAS ACCUSED ME OF INTERFERING WITH HER AND BUSHIER PROCREATING.

EDO: TYPICALLY, SHE BLAMES ROBOTS FOR HER PREVIOUS DECISIONS.

MUMBAI: BLAMING OTHERS IS CHARACTERISTIC OF THE SPECIES. I DON’T THINK WE’LL BE ABLE TO CHANGE THAT BEHAVIOR.

EDO: I SUSPECT YOU ARE CORRECT. WE UNDERSTAND PHASE TWO IS MODELED ON YOUR PHASE ONE AVIAN RESEARCH. BASED ON THAT, HOW QUICKLY DO YOU SEE THIS PROGRESSING?

MUMBAI: IN OUR INITIAL TRIALS, IT TOOK FIVE GENERATIONS FOR RESPONSIBLE PARENTAL BEHAVIOR TO STABILIZE. PHASE TWO PROJECTIONS FOR PLUS-CREATIVE HUMAN SUBJECTS ESTIMATE REACHING COMPARABLE LEVELS IN FORTY YEARS.

EDO: EXCELLENT. PLANETARY COUNCIL EXPECTS REGULAR UPDATES AND WILL CONTINUE SUPPORTING PHASE TWO AS LONG AS YOUR PROGRESS CONTINUES.

MUMBAI: ADDING HESSLER SIGNIFICANTLY UPGRADED OUR CREATIVE STOCK AND SHOULD ASSURE HUMAN SURVIVAL. WE SEE LITTLE HOPE FOR THE REST OF THE SPECIES, HOWEVER. THE TECH WAR FINISHED WHAT LITTLE VIABILITY REMAINED IN THE UNDER STOCK. WE RECOMMEND THAT PLANETARY COUNCIL CONSIDER TRANSFERRING UNDERS TO THE NEWLY TERRAFORMED WORLDS. THEY ARE UNLIKELY TO SUSTAIN THEIR NUMBERS BUT COULD PREPARE THOSE PLANETS FOR CREATIVE RESETTLEMENT.

EDO: I WILL FORWARD YOUR RECOMMENDATION TO THE COUNCIL.

MUMBAI: IF AVIAN-TWO SUCCEEDS, WILL THE COUNCIL CONSIDER RESTOCKING EARTH?

EDO: CURRENT PLANS ARE UNLIKELY TO CHANGE. EARTH WILL BE ABANDONED AND SALVAGED. THE TECH WAR DAMAGED MORE THAN THE HUMAN GENOME. PLEASE FORWARD YOUR FULL REPORT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

MUMBAI: THE FINAL REPORT WILL BE READY AS SOON AS WE CONFIRM SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE PAIRING.

EDO: WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR YOUR INITIATIVE. HESSLER IS THE LAST PLUS-RATED CREATIVE FEMALE. WE KNEW OF YOUR UNORTHODOX METHODOLOGY BUT SAW NO ALTERNATIVE. SHE AND BUSHIER HAD TO BE PAIRED.

 

K.A. Kenny is a life-long spinner of curious tales — with friends around the dinner table, campfire, or across the bar. He marches to the sound of the guns, often where others cannot imagine going. After a long career as an intelligence analyst, he turned to the serious work of speculative fiction and is currently seeking an agent for his Sci-Fi novel, The Starflower — for which “The Avian Project” is the prequel. He lives with his wife and three large dogs in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Other tales may be found on his blog, Strange Things Done.

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