He remembered his name just before he reached the edge of the jungle.
Ricky. Ricky… something. He had been trying for a while—ever since he stumbled headfirst into that stream—and he felt overjoyed at the discovery. The orange-yellow beams of light winking at him from beyond the trees ahead were just an added bonus.
Good grief. How long have I been running like this, completely zoned out?
Time had become a dimensionless abstraction, with only the white mark on his hand where his watch used to be reminding him that there were things such as hours and minutes and that he was fast running out of them. Danger surely, but what kind? Nearby, or had he left it behind in the dense vegetation that seemed to clutch at him as he ran? All he knew was that he had to get out of the jungle at any cost.
Run when the ground permitted, walk when it didn’t.
Duck, crouch, and crawl.
Most importantly, don’t get hurt.
Even when the fog in his mind had allowed no more than a reptilian awareness to flutter, he had carried out these actions with effortless ease. Which meant prior experience. Malaysia? Africa? He couldn’t tell.
A sea breeze wafted in from ahead. He breathed in greedily, the wholesome salty air starkly contrasting with the dank smells of the rainforest that clung to him like a second skin. He had spent more than a day inside. Many days—perhaps weeks. It was hard to say. He remembered curling up at night under a rock, trying to sleep while the jungle sang to him with the sound of flutes.
Don’t be daft. Jungles don’t sing.
Suddenly, he found he could run no more. His pounding chest, which he’d been ignoring till now, threatened to burst if he didn’t stop.
Just a few seconds, and I’ll be on my way again.
As he stood panting, he gave himself a once-over out of habit. He was mostly in one piece; there were cuts and bruises aplenty, but none that hampered function. He wasn’t all that hungry, no more than the last time he’d been lucid. Just very, very thirsty. So much that it hurt when he swallowed. Yet, the thought of water made him uneasy, stoking some nameless fear that for now lay deeply buried.
His clothes were largely intact. There had been a backpack and a rifle as well, now lost forever like the watch.
Not bad, Ricky Dunn. Not bad at all.
A satisfied smile lit his grimy face at the rediscovery of his last name. Then, as some crucial synapse made a connection and fired off dormant parts of his brain, it slowly started coming back.
His last name was Dunn. Middle name Walter. Born in Des Moines, Iowa. He still lived there: with his wife, Gail, and his sweet kid, two-year-old Jeremy. There was a baby on the way—a girl. They hadn’t decided on the name yet.
He was an army veteran. The Rangers, 3rd Battalion. Now he worked in the private sector. And it was Africa, not Malaysia, where he’d acquired his jungle survival skills. Malaysia was where he had stopped over before coming to this blasted… island.
Dim recollections of a map said he was somewhere in its northern half.
Good, good. What else?
Before he could squeeze more out, the hairs on his forearms stood up like little sentries roused from sleep. They’d sensed something—a presence nearby. He went rigid, instinctively crouching to present a smaller target.
Enemy combatant? No, this was something else. A hybrid odor of human sweat and wet moss slithered up his nose, followed by a sharp coppery note that didn’t belong among the regular smells of the forest.
Don’t assess. Just move!
Overruling his protesting muscles, he charged through the final stretch of trees into the open. There he stopped, his breath coming in great ragged gasps. The jungle had terminated in a cliff. A few dozen yards ahead, the rocky stretch of grass dropped off into the vista of a wide, empty ocean.
Dunn looked up, blinking painfully at the orange globe that was the evening sun. It felt like an eternity since he’d seen one of those. To his right the cliff sharply climbed to a promontory. On his left, however, the slope was more navigable, leading to a muddy beach about two clicks southwest. He nodded gratefully at the welcome sight. He probably had an hour before it got completely dark. He could spend the night at the beach and then hike and swim down south along the coast in the morning.
Because that’s where the settlement is.
But the idea, instead of giving him hope, filled him with that same nameless fear. His mind kept returning to his rifle. He needed it—he had plans to do something. Dunn brought a hand to his chest to feel his wildly thumping heart, only to run into something hard under the shirt.
My pistol! I didn’t lose it after all!
Feeling giddy with a renewed sense of purpose, he undid the first few buttons and took out the weapon holstered within. A Smith & Wesson M&P. The weight on his practiced hand said it was loaded.
The coppery smell assailed his senses again as the jungle behind him rustled in accompaniment. He spun around, trying to locate the source. He didn’t have to search very hard—it was standing in plain sight next to a bush. Standing on all fours as it watched him watch it.
Not, Would you look at that—it’s a goddamn alien! Not, Christ, what the hell is that thing? Simply, the alien. Like he’d noticed a bird or something.
Multicolored beads of light flipped on and off and moved inside its head like a mob of fireflies doing the mating dance. Trying to tell him something in a language he would never understand. He remembered: it was this abomination that had been stalking him since his last bout of lucidity.
What the hell do you want from me?
Maybe it was the sight of the bizarre creature that did it, but suddenly, all his repressed memories came flooding into consciousness with the force of a dam bursting. Dunn staggered back as he remembered every horrible detail: his mission; what happened to the rest of his group; and, most importantly, the fate awaiting him if he didn’t act soon. The clouds had lifted, and he wished they hadn’t.
The strength drained from his body as he fell to his knees. He laughed—manic peals of joyless mirth that threatened to go on until his lungs gave out.
Get ahold of yourself, man! You are a soldier, for fuck’s sake! Do what you came here to do.
Right. The endgame.
Dunn rose, his temporary bout of insanity giving way to grim determination once again. Clicking the safety off his gun, he backed away, taking care not to trip on the stony ground. To his relief, the creature remained where it was. He turned and went to the cliff’s edge, where he found a seat among the rocks and sat down facing the ocean.
Better hurry—no telling how long this spell of lucidity will last.
A brisk wind climbed the cliff and ruffled his sweat-matted hair, bringing with it the sound of waves gently rolling on the shore below. A lone seagull was riding the updraft, starkly silhouetted against a mackerel sky infused with dying reds and violets. Dunn allowed himself a forlorn smile. It was so beautiful—not at all morbid as he’d imagined it to be. He felt at peace, the constant terror of the past few days receding to nothingness. For he finally knew why his autopilot had brought him here.
There was no escaping the island—he saw that now. But breathing your last while lying face down in the muck and filth of the jungle, and then having your body gnawed at by those… ball things was no way for a soldier to go. This was clean. Dignified.
Some sixth sense warned that the alien had stepped out from the jungle behind him.
Let it. I don’t care.
Dunn took a final look at the ocean, closed his eyes, and stuck the pistol’s muzzle inside his mouth. He willed his last thoughts to be of his wife and kid, and the baby he would never see.
However, to his infinite frustration, what occupied his brain in the final milliseconds before it turned to mush was a solitary, nagging worry.
He was wrong about the island. He’d been wrong from the very beginning.
And now, no one would ever know.
A cold wind blew across the Sacramento River.
Holly Truong lowered her binoculars and pulled on the drawstrings of her hoodie, wondering why she hadn’t put on an extra layer underneath. She’d been in such a big rush to get everything loaded into the car and drive to the test site. And David had been of no help at all—he’d started making last-minute changes to his code the moment the trail cameras pinged their confirmation on the birds.
He was still working, furiously tapping away at his laptop inside their Honda CR-V.
The biologist in her told her she shouldn’t be complaining; the weather was perfect for finding large flocks of starlings. There was a group of about five thousand right there on the wooded islet not far from her spot. Another six or seven thousand congregated on the far bank, on the big transmission tower amidst the freshly harvested cornfields. Twelve thousand in all, give or take. A good number. Bigger than last time, but not so big as to overwhelm the drones she was preparing to launch.
Today was going to be different—she could feel it in her bones. No crashed drones like last time. No snags, no CPU lags, no code bugs. Just pure, glorious success. All one had to do was gather the birds, hold formation for a couple of minutes, and take them to the drop-off point a quarter of a mile south. Easy peasy.
At least, that’s what she told herself. Herding mice with cats, David called their endeavor, and when feeling less optimistic, she’d have wholeheartedly agreed. But today was not one for feeling mopey.
Brushing aside a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail, she shot the blond man inside the car an impatient look. Of half-Vietnamese and half-Irish-American descent, Holly had a naturally ambiguous face that was hard to read. Her jet-black hair framed an oval face with a rounded chin and a button nose, making it appear softer than she usually felt, while her slim, wide lips with droopy corners made her seem preoccupied even when she was in the best of moods. Dreamy eyelashes fluttered over a pair of probing green eyes, further muddying the waters. People who went around telling other people they should smile more were usually thrown off their game with her.
“Sun’s getting low,” she urged.
“Nearly there. I’m prepping the config file. How many drones are we deploying?”
“Eight. Start with two, then scale in increments of two.”
This did make him look up. Rising from his seat, he craned his neck to peer at the islet. “You reckon there are so many?”
“I see three more clusters: two on the far bank and one on this side. We take the group on the islet and sweep northwest to the pylon. Then cross over to this side, gathering what we can in a west-to-east arc.”
“Ambitious today, are we, hon?”
She winced. The dreaded h-word, always at the wrong time. David wasn’t just her research partner: he also happened to be her boyfriend. The problem was, she liked to keep the worlds separate, and he rarely did. Right now, she was an ethologist and a postdoc scholar from Sacramento’s UC Davis; David, an Assistant Professor of Engineering who specialized in swarm robotics. They were collaborating on an interdisciplinary project part-sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture. If they could demonstrate proof of concept with today’s numbers, they’d be assured funding for another six months, not to mention finding themselves one step closer to solving a problem that had bugged environmentalists and farmers for decades. A lot was at stake. “Hon” made it seem like they’d just finished drawing up the shopping list for the weekend.
“Should I program a flock shape?” he asked, his stylus poised on the touchpad next to him.
Holly scratched her chin. “No. Nothing fancy tonight. Set the drones to free-react. We need longevity, and we need cohesion.”
“You got it.”
She hurried to the Honda’s boot and took out two of the sixteen drones nestled there. Quadcopters with lightweight 180mm carbon-fiber frames, each had an onboard 64-bit computer for packaging sensor data and making tactical inflight decisions. More unusually, mounted on each drone was a custom-built plastic casing made to look like a peregrine falcon—the starling’s mortal enemy.
“Config’s ready. Uploading it to the drones now,” David said, easing some of the tension that had set in her shoulders. She released the first two drones and watched as they flew toward the islet.
The starlings gave each other cries of alarm and noisily took to the sky. The two drones were the push—the proverbial stone that set the avalanche in motion. The others would draw the flock in, shape it, and keep it confined to a preprogrammed aerial path.
Her hands moved fast, reaching into the trunk for the next pair, waiting for the blinking LEDs to go green, then releasing them in the air. Meanwhile, the birds flew to the opposite bank, where a smaller group of starlings joined them from the fields. The new drones raced west to prevent the flock from prematurely turning toward the river.
The common or European starling, first introduced to North America in the late nineteenth century, had grown in the intervening decades to become one of the top agricultural pests of the continent. Annually, starlings were estimated to cause over a billion dollars of crop damage in the United States alone. There was great interest in curbing their numbers humanely, or barring that, in directing them away from cultivated areas.
The two researchers aimed to achieve the latter, by exploiting a key characteristic of the starlings’ flocking behavior.
Apart from being a nuisance, starlings were famous for flying in beautiful, otherworldly formations called murmurations that ranged in size from a few hundred birds to colossal swarms numbering in the millions. Fast, extremely agile, and capable of behaving as one entity, murmurations had evolved to confuse predators such as the peregrine falcon, which could clock speeds of up to two hundred miles per hour.
However, behind the seeming complexity of a murmuration was a simple rule. All each starling did was keep a fixed distance between itself and its seven nearest neighbors. This was all that was required to turn a leaderless swarm into a seeming hive mind. Scale-free correlation, the phenomenon was called in academia. The neural net algorithm running on David’s laptop exploited this behavior to predict and contain the swarm’s movements in 3D space.
As the drones closed in, the murmuration responded, temporarily stretching into a corkscrew pattern. Then the rear ranks caught up with the middle and turned the whole thing into a ball shape again.
So far, so good. She nodded encouragingly at David, but he was frowning. He had his own view of the field: a composite graphic rendered from the drone cameras. Holly picked up her binoculars and trained them on the pylon. Immediately, her heart sank.
She’d estimated an additional seven thousand birds at most. Now, as the birds roosting in the grain silos behind the tower began taking to the sky, she realized she’d been horribly wrong. She’d undercounted by a factor of four, if not more.
“Goddamn it!” she cried, stamping her feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why didn’t I think of the silos? “We need more! Let’s take it up to twelve.”
“Twelve drones! Are you serious?”
“I underestimated. I’m sorry. Eight are not gonna cut it.”
“Need I remind you we never deployed so many at once?”
Theoretically, the algorithm could handle two dozen drones, but in practice, both knew that silicon reflexes were no match for wetware honed by millions of years of evolution. A drone getting in the way of a fast-turning murmuration was not a pretty sight.
“You fixed the pathing problem, didn’t you? You’ve been working on it the whole week!”
“Then what are you afraid of?” she said, throwing out a challenge.
The initial murmuration drew closer to the tower. She slapped the car door animatedly. “David! They are not going to be here tomorrow waiting for us to have another go. We may not find a flock this big for weeks. It’s now or never!”
“Okay, okay.” He started typing, flashing the new configuration to the machines. Worst case, she knew he could always take manual control of the drones with the mini joystick beside him.
The newly released drones flew wide before closing in. A few gained altitude and raced ahead, intending to swoop in from the opposite direction.
At the tower, a great black mass rose into the sky and engulfed the approaching murmuration like a monster mother devouring her young. Holly gasped. The combined swarm was huge. Now she wasn’t sure if even twelve would be enough.
Somehow, the murmuration held. It turned and moved toward the river. There, the collective hung over the water for a few seconds, as if confused about which way to go.
Please don’t go downriver.
The birds started doing exactly that. At the same time, her phone began to ring.
“There aren’t enough drones pushing in from downstream,” she declared.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Hon, we can’t.”
“David, stop pussyfooting around. All sixteen, now!”
Shaking his head, David began typing anew. “Bossy, bossy. There! You can send them to their deaths.”
When she looked up after releasing the last of the drones, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The murmuration had finally turned in their direction.
“Woo hoo! Here it comes!” she hollered in delight.
The evening light bouncing off the birds’ iridescent plumages made the roiling mass shimmer with alternating waves of auburn and black. More birds from this side of the bank rose to meet the group. A surge of electricity ran through her body. The swarm seemed to cover half the sky as it came rushing toward her. The sound of thousands of flapping wings filled the air.
We did it! We’re steering the avalanche!
“Holding pattern time,” she shouted as the birds passed overhead. “Let’s see if we can sustain it for two minutes.”
David moved the murmuration to a spot a little distance away. There the swarm danced in mesmerizing whorls—left, right, up, down, forward, and back—though always staying inside the imaginary boundaries laid down by the drones. The drones themselves were at various places, some right next to the murmuration and some much further away, all positioned by the arcane math of the neural net. The couple beamed at each other. Obviously, there would have to be many more trials, but today was a big win.
But their celebration was cut short by a sudden chorus of shrieks. Holly stared, befuddled. The murmuration now seemed erratic, less fluid—as if it were dealing with stresses and strains it wasn’t accustomed to. The birds were still following predictive behavior, but some new factor was stretching those intuitive mechanisms to breaking.
“Stupid falcons!” David said, gleaning off the sky cameras. “I see three. There may be more.”
He wasn’t talking about the drones. The actual peregrine falcons were at the scene. With the starlings’ freedom of movement severely restricted, the falcons were probably picking them off like items off a buffet table. No wonder there was chaos in the ranks.
“I’m pulling back the drones,” he announced.
“No! Cancel the holding and direct them to the release point.”
“It’s not worth the risk. We can always try again.”
“And the falcons are gonna be there again. You can’t have thousands of prey without predators nearby. This has to work in the real world!”
The starlings settled their debate. The next second the murmuration broke into two, four, and then eight groups. Next, it was pure pandemonium as fifty thousand birds launched themselves in every possible direction.
Holly tried to run to the car but was quickly engulfed in a storm of wings and panicked shrieks. She threw herself on the grass and shielded her face. She could hear the confused birds hit the car as David cursed and fed new vectors to the drones.
The chaos lasted several minutes before the sky was clear again. When she rose, the ground was littered with feathers and bird poo. And occasionally, a dead starling. The peregrines were nowhere to be seen. They were probably stuffing themselves silly somewhere.
“How many did we lose?” she asked glumly. Her cheeks burned with the humiliation of defeat. It was all her fault. She should have listened to David.
“Five down. Luckily, none seem to have fallen in the water.”
He hopped out of the car and came to her. His six-foot-two, muscular frame made her look small in comparison, even though she was above average height. “Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t h—”
David placed a finger on her lips. “No need to apologize. I wouldn’t have listened to you that last time anyway.”
The drones that had escaped crashing were now gently touching down on the grass around them. Holly looked at them unhappily. “Still…”
He pulled her close and lightly kissed her lips. “When it comes to certain things, you can be as stubborn as a rock, but I love you for that. Because that’s what it takes to get the job done. You made a call; it didn’t work out. Big deal. We’ll try again.”
She nodded. “On the plus side, the configuration held.”
“Absolutely. We should be proud. If not for the hawks…” He shrugged. “I’ll think of some tweaks to the algorithm.” Then a crooked smile broke his lips as he thumbed at the car’s rear seats. “Meanwhile, I know of a way to put this behind us.”
It was hard to tell if he was joking or being serious. Knowing him, probably a bit of both. “Yeah right,” she said, rolling her eyes but also pleased that he wasn’t upset. “What grown woman doesn’t dream of doing it in the backseat of a car?”
Blessed with the temperament of an unendingly huggable golden retriever, David was never one to let life’s little snags bring him down. Holly was twenty-nine and he three years older, but he made her feel like they were a couple of pining teenagers. The fact that they were nearly two years into their relationship mattered little to him.
Not that Holly was complaining. Far from it. After her father had passed away, she’d been terribly lonely for a long time. With no other family to lean on and no time for dating, she had immersed herself in her work, banking on twelve-hour days to fill the emptiness. So when a handsome-but-unknown assistant professor from the Computer Science department approached her out of the blue with a printout of her research paper on starling flock dynamics, enthusiastically gushing about a practical application for her mathematical models, she had been intrigued, and not just by his project proposal. A few weeks into their collaboration, when he finally summoned the courage to ask her out, she’d taken to David Callahan’s infectious energy like a fish to water.
He came from a world very different from hers: parents still together; three siblings, all happily married with kids; and an extended family consisting of several aunts, uncles, and cousins who all kept in touch with each other. She’d met them at a wedding last year and had been blown away by their warmth and friendliness.
David was deeply in love, too. Holly secretly knew from a mutual friend that he had almost popped the question a little while back. Then he had stopped himself, wanting the occasion to be more than dinner at a fancy restaurant. Apparently, he was waiting to whisk her off to Paris come December.
She liked being whisked off to exotic locations. With her limited post-doc salary and student loans to clear, nearby Baja California was as exotic as it got.
Holly nudged him away with her elbow. “You should go fetch the crashed drones, Romeo—it’ll be dark soon. Do you want me to help you look?”
The drones had high-fidelity GPS transmitters accurate to a few meters. David shook his head. “I’m good. You attend your call.”
Her phone was ringing again.