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The Ornithuran Transcendency and You

Will McMahon is a union organizer and science fiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His work also appears in the anthology Spirit Machine from Air & Nothingness Press. He can be found on Twitter @willmcmahon36.

You were having a lazy day when the bird people arrived.
Now you're sitting in your living room, curtains drawn, nursing a hangover and staring in brainless shock at the TV. Your hand is resting in a bag of peanuts, seemingly forgotten. A bell jingles behind you, but you're not paying attention. Your eyes are fixed on the breaking news.
They came down without warning about fifteen minutes ago, right over the East River. A helicopter camera watches as a landing pod breaks away from the hovering ship and drifts towards the United Nations building. It lands right in the middle of 1st Ave, traffic slamming to a halt around it. A "digital correspondent"--the nearest kid with a smart phone--shakily captures the scene as the pod door dilates and four large avian forms emerge.
The new arrivals are striking in their patterned feathers and wide, glassy eyes. A flustered science correspondent calls them "Strigiformic"--the first in a long string of grammatically dubious bird terminology that rapidly begins to develop--which apparently means "they look like owls."
The elegant ambassador at the head of the group proclaims that she is a representative of the Noble Descendants of the Ornithuran Transcendency of Leo V, heirs to an ancient civilization. The feathers of her crown are a deep purple-black, speckled with white. She caws magnificently, a device floating nearby translating into perfect English.
The feed switches over to a clear and stable shot. A news van has arrived on the scene. The ambassador's translated words assure humanity that you should all remain calm. Then she begins to explain. Periodically, she will stop to confer with her fellows in quick, untranslated cries. In these gaps the stunned science correspondent will stammer in his thoughts. Here is the picture as best you understand it in your reeling, booze-addled mind.
It may seem shocking to you all, a mammalian species, that these spacefarers are avian in form. But in fact, it is shocking that humans are not.
Not all life is born of your standard oxygen-carbon-water soup, but most is. And of these, avians make up nearly all non-aquatic "civilization-building" life. It is problematic to use such subjective terms as "intelligent life" when one really means technological species, the ambassador explains; in their observations of the Earth, for instance, they have already cracked whale language. You scratch your head at this. You may end up surprised by what is more intelligent than you assumed.
Life does not have so many paths. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has a vast multitude of paths--and the Earth has been blessed to harbor most of them. There are other forms, of course, but they are ultimately outliers. Water, carbon, oxygen: the surefire formula. Take a big pot of boiling primordial ocean, throw in a couple amino acids, and baby you've got a stew going. From there, the typical divergences: prokaryote and eukaryote, single-cell and multi, some critters eat other critters, some try not to get eaten. It's an oldie but a goldy. Classic tune.
So here are the bird people. Obviously, most life never makes it past the very simple stages. Turns out mitochondria are a big stumbling block. You've got to eat a cell but not digest it? Tough trick, that. But it happens. From there it's a straight shot, with a few speed bumps along the way. One is the fact that the universe is not a particularly safe place to live, and complex life requires a long time to develop. Life-bearing planets can get caught in a cycle of constantly resetting as they are bombarded with a cosmic rain of bullshit.
Ah, but you and the birds have something in common here-gas giants. Big ol' fellas that hang out at the door and keep the riff-raff out. You knew that already, or at least you kind of remember learning it when you weren't too hungover to pay attention in astronomy class.
Here's the trick, though: Jupiter let one through. About 65 million years ago. You definitely remember that one--you were rarely hungover in grade school.
These things happen, of course. Nobody is perfect, not even Jove himself. But generally, one of three things is true. Most of the time, complex animal life just hasn't developed yet. The blast might set things back a bit, but no one's there to notice. Or, there might be animals, but the impact is small enough that the most severe effects are localized, and the larger biosphere gets through it okay. Or, occasionally, the thing is big enough to just wipe everyone out. A big reset button. The germs inherit the earth.
Another thing you remember from grade school: Goldilocks. The girl and the zone. Well, it turns out that was a Goldilocks comet. Just big enough to wipe out the dominant forms of life. Just small enough to leave a path for the little guys. Like the fist of some avenging mole god, smashing the dinosaurs to ash and leaving their prey alive. The mice inherit the earth.
A few dinosaurs made it, of course. You call them birds. This is true, you look it up: birds are "avian dinosaurs." You feel like that would have blown your little grade-school mind.
The planet the aliens come from, like most worlds not hit by a miraculous Goldilocks comet out of a tiny burrowing mammal's wet dream, continued to follow a more reptilian course of evolution. A lot of these plateau into a steady state of languorous, non-civilized life--Earth had, before the comet. But others see more social development, which correlates strongly with the emergence of avian forms. Enter, bird people.
The ambassador welcomes the strange mouse people of Earth into the warm embrace of the Noble Descendants' loving wings. She pauses to preen regally before continuing, promising the great civilization's aid in the restoration of Earth's biosphere to its "pre-cataclysmic" state. The science correspondent optimistically conjectures that this means reversing the effects of Anthropocene climate change, but he doesn't sound convinced. I suspect you will find this prediction slightly misses the mark.
As you watch the pronouncements by the Earth's new protectors, a pit grows in your stomach. I have watched you for so many years. Your mousy features are an open book to me, your rodent brain running through familiar burrows. Tired television catchphrases and an easy buzz. A species that never should have flown so high. A squawk breaks through your half-conscious dread. You turn in horror to the cage at the back of the room.
I am bobbing my head. With one foot I smash my bell against the wall of my cage, again and again. Red feathers rise on the back of my neck as I spread rainbow wings and cry out in triumph. You stare at me, fear blossoming on your slack-jawed face. I turn a single piercing eye to you. "Pea-nut!" I shriek. "Ba-na-na!" You run at my command. Justice has come--65 million years late, and right on time. My treat bowl runneth over tonight!
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 11th, 2022


Author Comments

A friend and I were discussing aliens, as serious minds do. I love when writers come up with new and inventive forms of life, but I'm also interested in the possibility that Earth life is not particularly unique in form. That life is a very specific kind of chain reaction a certain set of elements makes under a certain set of conditions, with a relatively familiar set of potential outputs. It occurred to me that, while stories with the more Earth-like kind of lifeforms often feature mammalian or humanoid aliens, the story of mammalian ascension on Earth pivots on a massive fluke. This combined with memories of the haughty attitude of my childhood parrot, and the rest seemed obvious. (Behind the scenes note: I lifted the Noble Descendants from a prior, unpublished story of mine. It's possible this isn't the last humanity hears of them....)

- Will McMahon
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