Keeva heard the eerie, strident hooting and felt the air tingle with their approach moments before she actually spied them. In a straggly V they climbed above the horizon of Aton-17, carving the violet sky, their wings blazing white as they banked over the ocean. Waves of energy rippled before them, like the advance of a storm.

“There,” she whispered, pointing a slender arm.

“I don’t see anything,” said LaForest, who crouched beside her in a thicket of reed-like stalks, peering through binoculars. The muck of the shore smelled like a salt marsh on Earth, fecund and sour, as Keeva imagined the original broth of life might have smelled.

“The Audobon Effect” is excerpted from Scott Russell Sanders’s Dancing in Dreamtime (Indiana University Press, August 2016) and is reprinted here by permission of the author and publisher. An earlier version of the story was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
 

Dancing in Dreamtime, by Scott Russell Sanders

Fans today may be surprised to learn Scott Russell Sanders was previously one of the brightest science-fiction newcomers of the 1980s. In Dancing in Dreamtime, he returns to his roots, exploring both inner and outer space in a collection of speculative short stories. At a time when humankind faces unprecedented, global-scale challenges from climate change, loss of biodiversity, dwindling vital resources, and widespread wars, this collection of planetary tales will strike a poignant chord with the reader. Sanders has created worlds where death tolls rise due to dream deprivation, where animals exist only in mechanical form, and where poisoned air forces people to live in biodomes. Never before has Sanders’s writing been so relevant and never before have the lessons in these stories been so important.

Learn more now.

“They’re headed straight for us,” she told him.

LaForest crouched lower. Though his elbows and knees bent at painful angles, he was so lanky that his coarse brown hair rose above the water plants like an abandoned nest. His gawky height made people stare at him from a distance, but few exchanged looks with him at close quarters, for he had penetrating eyes. Keeva was among those few. She delighted in his searching gaze. It shielded her from the empathic signals that flowed into her from every living thing. Where she pressed against LaForest, there in the shallows, his limbs felt like tensed springs.

Taking his bearded chin in hand, she turned his face toward the approaching V. “See how their wings catch the light?”

Under the binoculars his lips drew tight from concentration, then parted with astonishment. “Yes,” he murmured. “My God, they’re like fire. Must be a hundred of them. And hear those high-pitched calls?”

The reeds quaked from his trembling. Keeva circled an arm around his waist, fingering the bones of his hip through the taut fabric of his shimmersuit. “Be still,” she whispered. “I sense they’re coming down.”

They did come down, wings tilted, plowing to a stop and floating majestically in the calm waters of the cove, their black-billed heads lifted high on long white necks.

“What in the world are they?” Keeva asked. She recognized the bio-fields of thousands of creatures, but these were new to her.

LaForest lowered the binoculars, a flame of excitement in his cheeks. “If we weren’t 64 light-years from Earth, I’d say they were tundra swans.”

“Which they can’t be?”

“Of course not. They aren’t even birds, really.”

The improbable creatures were feeding, tipping forward and thrusting their regal necks into the water, then bobbing upright and swallowing captured morsels. Between bites they ran their bills along their wings, preening. Born 20 years too late to have seen any species of living swan, Keeva possessed no feeling-print for them. But she had studied museum specimens and videos of swans, and in these elegant white beauties, afloat on Aton-17 like scraps of sunlight, she could see nothing alien.

“The resemblance is amazing,” she whispered.

“But that’s all it is, resemblance. This place differs from Earth in only a few parameters. It’s a case of similar environments selecting for similar organisms.” He drew the netgun from his pack. “Let’s get one to scan.”

He fired. The net settled on a gleaming body and held it firmly, wings folded and head erect. The others paddled around the immobilized one in nervous circles, long necks periscoping, on the alert. As LaForest began reeling in his prize, they broke into raucous chatter. Keeva sensed their panic, and her stomach knotted in sympathy. Suddenly there was an explosion of white bodies kicking and flapping, wings swatting the water, as the creatures scrambled for take-off. In seconds they were airborne, beating away out of sight, all except the specimen LaForest had snared.

“Got one of them, anyway,” LaForest said.

Keeva put a hand on his shoulder, to keep him from rising. “Wait. I feel something else… flying… huge.”

They searched the sky. She quickly spied an immense gliding shape with stiff wings, cruising toward them along the coast. In the otherworldly daylight, its underside was cobalt blue, and its wings and back, visible as it wheeled about, were an even deeper blue, like the smoky depths of mineshafts. A crested head with sword-like beak slowly turned, surveying the water.

Keeva shrank down among the reeds. The beast’s aura made her think of caves, crevasses, deep sea rifts. “Some sort of raptor,” she whispered. “It’s ravenous.”

LaForest nodded, a wag of beard. Stealthily he continued reeling in the net, its captive bobbing on the waves. The motion must have caught the hunter’s eye, for the great head ceased pivoting, the wings drew in, and the massive body came hurtling down like a fallen swath of sky. LaForest dropped the reel and tugged at the line hand-over-hand, grunting, but it was too late. An instant before the raptor struck, its wings flared out and taloned feet swung down, then it snatched the animal, net and all, and began to climb.

LaForest leapt up, roaring, “Let go of my swan!” He yanked on the line and the talons opened, dropping the torn and bloody prey.

Gasping for breath, Keeva watched the predator ride a thermal up into the glare of Aton’s star. The beast’s hunger had nearly smothered her. When LaForest waded back through the shallows cradling the limp creature, the anguish in his face made her feel a stab of jealousy. “You called it a swan,” she said.

“I was excited.” Lifting the body, he rubbed his cheek against the downy breast.

Keeva took the black-billed head gently in her palm. The ebony eyes had glazed over. “It has the face of a swan. The same feathers, the webbed feet.”

He shook his head doggedly. “All it lacks is the right history on the right planet.”

 

LaForest held the tattered creature in his arms, its blood smearing his suit, as Keeva piloted the shuttle back to the warpship, which was anchored a few kilometers out in the bay. She and the other five members of the survey team had spent the previous week cooped up in that ship, studying maps, swallowing detox pills, running tests. The tests confirmed what the drones had shown: Aton-17’s atmosphere was not only hospitable to humans, it was rife with flying organisms. LaForest had spent much of the week pacing the ship, eager to get outside. In studying most exotic creatures he was self-possessed, even coldly rational; but anything resembling a bird sent him into a frenzy. Keeva had seen him wade through swamps, crawl through briars, dangle in harness from shuttles, for the mere glimpse of a flying creature.

After remaining silent during the brief flight, his mind clearly churning, as they docked at the ship LaForest muttered, “This bird can’t be here. It can’t be anywhere. The last tundra swan was shot in 2049.”

“What about that blue nightmare with the six-meter wingspan?”

He went on obliviously. “There were swans on the arks they sent up in the 30s. But those were real-time ships, and even if one had been aimed this way, it would take another five or six hundred years to get here.”

“Did those ships carry raptors?”

“One puzzle at a time.” He staggered to his feet under the swan’s ungainly weight. “Let me get this to the lab. There’s got to be an explanation.”

Keeva opened the hatch and stood back. As he passed, the gleaming neck jounced languidly from his arms and one lustrous wing brushed her thighs.

Inside the ship, Gomez and Tishi were seated at the galley table, dictating their logs. Evidently they had just returned, for their shimmersuits were still muddy. Between log-entries, Tishi was sucking a drink through a straw, her thin lips puckered into a kiss. Gomez fondled a handful of glistening baubles that resembled clams. The two gazed up open-mouthed as LaForest hobbled through the galley with his burden.

Tishi’s eyes widened. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know yet.” LaForest stilted past them into the lab.

“It looked like a bird,” said Gomez, face screwed up in puzzlement.

“It felt like a bird,” Keeva said. With delicate motions of her fingers, she sketched in the air the creature’s feeling-shape. But of course Tishi and Gomez, unable to sense bio-fields, could not read her gestures. The imprint of the huge soaring hunter she would not even try to draw, for it was too hideous.

“We saw plenty of flying organisms near our survey spot,” Gomez said. “But we were busy studying the river”—he displayed his handful of iridescent baubles—“and we never dreamed those fliers could be anything like Terran birds.”

“What was the largest wingspan you saw?” Keeva asked.

“Oh, a meter or so, I’d guess,” Gomez replied. “Why?”

“There’s something a lot bigger cruising around out there.”

“How big?” Tishi asked. A frown accentuated the slant of her ink black eyes and the upward strokes of her brows.

Keeva scrutinized the diminutive figure. Would she weigh even 40 kilos? “Big enough to haul away a Japanese exobiologist.”

Tishi smiled cautiously. “How about our plump friend here?”

“Me?” proclaimed Gomez, smacking his ample belly. “There’s too much of me for one flying monster to haul off. It would take a flock.”

“Wait until you see it.” Keeva popped a detox pill in her mouth, washed it down with distilled water. “Yuck. The price we pay to thwart the local microbes.” Rising to join LaForest in the lab, she turned, uneasy. “Are Minsk and Wodo still up in the hills collecting plants?”

While Gomez put in a call, Tishi sat very still and fixed those dark eyes on Keeva. “You are not teasing about this giant?”

“I wish I were.”

“They’re on their way back,” Gomez announced.

“Any problems?” said Keeva.

“Something attacked their shuttle and knocked them around pretty good, but nobody’s hurt. And they’re bringing a few surprises for LaForest.”

 

The two brightest regions in the lab were the wall screen, which displayed anatomical drawings of the tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus, and the table where LaForest was dissecting his baffling specimen. His gloves were stained with blood the same rusty color as his beard. He glanced up as Keeva entered, his face radiant with curiosity. “How could one of our extinct species turn up on Aton?”

“It’s the same bird?” she replied.

“Genetically identical, according to the scanner.”

She drew close to him. His hair still smelled like the muck of the seashore. Keeva felt roused by that smell, by his obstinacy, by the pale queenly presence of the dead swan. “Could it be parallel evolution?” she suggested.

“The odds against it would be astronomical. Think of the billions of accidents that led to this species. They couldn’t be duplicated on two planets.”

“What if they’re not accidents?”

“You know I don’t believe in cosmic design. Evolution is like water running downhill, cutting a channel, and no two paths are ever the same.”

“Do you really think life’s that simple?”

“I think it’s blind, that’s all. It blunders into shapes that work in a given habitat. I don’t believe there’s a preordained set of possibilities.”

“But sometimes I feel patterns.” She plucked the air, as if playing a harp, searching for words to convey her intuitions. “There are only so many states an electron can occupy, so many ways a crystal can form. Organisms might be like that, except the number of possible states is far greater.”

“You and your Platonic forms.” His face softened and he put a finger to her cheek. “The tundra swan can only happen once. And so can you.”

He leaned down to kiss her. Through the bloodied suit she traced his collarbone, touched the hollow at the base of his throat, felt his pulse. Life danced everywhere—in the violet skies of this planet, in the deeps of space, in this man. She felt him trembling, as he had shivered while watching the swans, and she trembled with him.

Boots sounded in the passageway and the lab door slid open. Tishi hurried in first, then Gomez. Wodo came next, with several catch-nets dangling from his brown fists, each net holding a lump of feathers.

“Fliers for the bird man!” he cried, hoisting the specimens.

“And here’s more,” said Minsk, who sidled in after Wodo, bearing another clutch of nets.

LaForest stooped excitedly over these new discoveries. One of the feathered tufts squirmed in its web and emitted a frail peep. “They’re all alive?” he asked hopefully.

“Of course,” said Wodo. “We knew you’d skin us if we snuffed any.”

For their first survey they had chosen to botanize—as Wodo liked to say—up in the hills in a stand of tree-like plants. From each trunk at a height of four meters or so, limbs rayed out like spokes, each limb joining onto a nearby trunk, so the branches formed a scaffold. The wilderness came alive in Keeva’s mind as Wodo and Minsk reported their findings. They described phosphorescent vines weaving through the lattice of limbs. Fungus-like growths sprouting from flinty soil. Lavender tubes writhing to catch the filtered light. Everywhere a chattering and buzzing. Furtive shapes darted in the shadows. When Minsk and Wodo climbed up into the canopy, they found the air thronged with fliers—swooping, twittering, winging dizzily, a fever of motion.

“So we caught a few for our bird man to study,” Wodo said.

“And the raptors?” said Keeva. “A pair attacked you?”

Wodo frowned. “We were flying back when they hit our shuttle. It took all the juice we had to drive them off the hull.”

 

Ivory-billed woodpecker, demoiselle crane, bower bird, Carolina parakeet, dodo, crested ibis, passenger pigeon, blue bird-of-paradise, and half a dozen more—LaForest called out their names as the scanner analyzed the chemistry and anatomy of each specimen. He wore an expression of stunned amazement, the same look he wore during warp-jump or love-making, Keeva thought, as if the muscles of his face were numb from an excess of emotion. Only his eyes burned.

She had met him six years earlier, when he approached her at a VIVA conference with a song sparrow in his hands, inviting her to hold it. Even without his rangy good looks, his passion for birds would have attracted her. Since childhood, she had yearned for companions who shared her gift—or affliction—of sensing biological fields. Oh, to meet a St. Francis, Thoreau, Leopold, or Carson! Such people, uncommon at any time, were exceedingly rare in her own age, when humans lived inside the Enclosure, never leaving the network of travel tubes and domed cities, wandering among their own artifacts like joy-seekers lost in a labyrinth of mirrors.

So when LaForest invited her to hold the tiny sparrow, his face aglow, Keeva had felt a tremor of recognition. Soon they were members of the same Project VIVA team, then survey partners, and eventually lovers. His bio-sense proved to be weaker than hers, but his reasoning was more powerful. Their complementary skills made them a brilliant survey team—Keeva locating the organisms, LaForest fitting them into the scheme of near-galaxy life. In their first five years together, they produced bio-maps for seven E-type planets. By the time video arrived from drones sent to Aton-17, showing skies filled with bird-like creatures, she and LaForest were in a position to choose their own survey locations, and of course they chose to go investigate these flying wonders.

This was the dream, she knew, that sustained him through the arduous training for Project VIVA and the ordeal of warp-jump, this dream of finding, somewhere among the millions of E-type planets in the Milky Way, creatures analogous to the avifauna that once flourished on Earth. Now he had found not merely analogies but exact matches.

LaForest gently placed the last of the captured birds in a mist cage. Bending near, he made cooing sounds, more like a doting father-bird than a sober scientist. “So now we have two mysteries,” he said.

“How they got here and—what?”

“Why they all belong to species that are extinct on Earth.”

She contemplated the rainbow of birds. “All of them?”

He nodded. “Every last one. Extinguished.”

“How long ago?”

“Most of them since 2020. A few earlier.”

She bent over the warbling turquoise bit of fluff which LaForest had identified as an indigo bunting. It was like a bright scrap torn from the enormous predator that had killed the swan. “When did this one disappear?”

“Around 2050.”

“And this one?” She pointed to a small, streaked bird with a cocked tail and down-curved beak.

“Yucatan wren, last sighted in Mexico about 2040, soon after Enclosure.”

Keeva gazed at the chittering, posturing, preening birds. Who, seeing such beauty, could bear to have it erased? Had her ancestors ever imagined it this concretely—a chorus of vibrant, singing creatures banished forever?

“Of course,” LaForest mused, “our sample may be skewed. We may have stumbled onto the only pocket of birds on the planet. Or there may be hundreds of other species that are nothing like Earth’s.” He smoothed his beard with fingers and thumb. “We’ve got to find out how they blundered into these familiar shapes.”

“Life doesn’t blunder,” she said. “These aren’t accidents.”

“You think some deity collected them on Earth and planted them here?”

“Of course not,” she said defensively. “It’s just a feeling I get from the birds, a note common to all of them.”

“A feeling—”

“Something familiar, something I’ve picked up before—”

“On Earth?”

“I’m not sure where.” Eyes closed, tracing the energy field radiating from the caged birds, she tried to name that elusive overtone.

 

Each morning the survey teams set out in their shuttles to study the planet. They found bizarre vegetation, colonies of clicking bugs, legless ground-wrigglers, inflated water-skimmers—nothing even faintly earthlike, except for birds, and birds they found everywhere. Some they netted, but most they merely scanned, for the ship was soon crowded with specimens.

Even the most improbable of the birds—ones with bills like hatchets, wattles bright as neon signs, feathers in more zany colors than a clown’s wardrobe—proved to be identical with species that had once flourished on Earth but were now extinct: whooping cranes, emus, auks, an array of hummingbirds, three kinds of eagle, nine owls, leggy herons, bald vultures. Born into the desolate age of the Enclosure that followed the Great Extinction, Keeva found it hard to imagine her home planet had ever held such bounty.

Here on Aton-17, birds appeared to occupy the top of the food chain. The lattice-work forests abounded with small creatures, none of them quick or powerful enough to prey on adult birds, but perhaps they kept the avian population in check by raiding nests.

For the next few days, nobody sighted the menacing raptors. Every time she glanced at the sky, Keeva nerved herself for that huge silhouette and its blast of hunger. Then one afternoon, as she and LaForest were returning to the ship with a cargo of birds, a wide-winged shape glided onto the shuttle screen, wheeling overhead.

“Uh, oh,” she said.

“What’s the matter?” said LaForest.

Before she could answer, the creature dove. Keeva threw the craft into a roll but could not evade the raptor, which slammed into the shuttle. The captive birds screeched. Keeva jounced in her harness, clinging to the joystick. There was a scrabbling sound, talons raking metal, wings buffeting the roof. She fired a mild voltage through the hull, but the jostling continued. She upped the voltage. A crested head loomed in front of her and hammered on the cockpit window. Finally she amped the charge to maximum and the raptor loosed a piercing shriek and spiraled up and away.

Keeva pulled the shuttle out of its dive. The birds cowered in their cages. LaForest looked stricken.

“Whew,” she said. “You all right?”

Between gasps, he muttered, “Now I know how the swans felt.”

 

The following day, Tishi beamed a breathless call from the nearby canyon where she and Gomez were surveying. “One of those raptors is prowling around upstairs,” she told Keeva, who was in the ship logging data. “I think it’s measuring us for supper.”

“You’d only make a couple of mouthfuls,” Keeva said.

“Don’t joke. You should see this thing.”

“I’ve seen one. Listen, you two get in your shuttle and put a scan on it. We’ll fly over there and dart that bruiser.”

“Too bad we can’t just kill it.”

“Now, now. Remember the code. Get under cover and sit tight.”

Keeva had to wake LaForest, who was bone-weary from hours of wading in marshes and climbing pseudo-trees. When he understood what they were going after, he came swiftly alert.

In a few minutes they were nearing the canyon, and could see the other shuttle, sleek and fan-shaped like a stingray, with Tishi and Gomez inside. The raptor circled above, wings motionless for long spells, then it flapped languidly, swiveling its great crested head. Its hunger made Keeva throb. The wheeling flight left a burning after-image in her mind. Whatever it was, it clearly ruled these skies.

“Some kind of dinosaur,” LaForest murmured, glassing the beast. “Early in the transition to birds. No sign of feathers. Wings covered by membrane. Scaly legs.”

“I’ll try to get close enough for a dart,” said Keeva. “You figure the dose.”

While they spoke, the hunter pumped its wings and climbed rapidly.

Focusing the scanner through the cockpit window, LaForest said, “Don’t lose it. I’d love to get some DNA. But I need at least a clear scan.”

“Okay. Here goes.” Keeva donned the guide-helmet, so she could steer with her eyes. The predator’s hunger drowned out all other sensations. Finger poised on the throttle, she warned, “Hold on.”

The shuttle rose swiftly to pursue the soaring hulk. Its long tapering wings stroked the air. Suddenly it banked, and plunged toward the canyon. Keeva watched it steadily, and the shuttle rode the beam of her sight, diving with giddy speed. The raptor leveled out a few meters above the canyon floor and raced between the sandy walls. Then it swerved up a side canyon, the great wings nearly raking stone, and with a sickening tilt the shuttle hurtled after, down ever narrower gulches. Keeva was scarcely breathing. The hunt possessed her. Suddenly a bluff loomed ahead, the raptor swooped up and over, Keeva jerked her gaze after it, and the shuttle, lurching, barely cleared the stone rim. In the few seconds it took the craft to right itself, the raptor escaped.

Keeva spun the shuttle, searching the sky. She wanted to chase down that beast, pounce on it, tear it apart, her training forgotten in a rush of adrenalin.

Beside her in the cockpit, LaForest wheezed, “Enough.”

She was shaking. “It can’t have gone far.”

“No, please, let it go. I got a good scan.”

She forced her eyes away from the arid landscape, toward her partner. His face was drained, skin drawn tight.

“I never saw you so fierce before,” he said. “It was like blood lust.”

She released a long breath, pulled off the guide-helmet, shook her hair loose. “I never felt a bio-field like that before. It was monstrous, ancient, like some primordial enemy. ”

 

The scanner identified the creature as Quetzalcoatlus alleni, a pterosaur from the Cretaceous, with a wingspan up to 12 meters, best known from fossils discovered in the 2020s.

The raptor’s aura still haunted Keeva as she roamed among the mist cages feeding and watering birds. The air was thick with trilling. The flood of sensations made her dizzy. That familiar overtone, part of a melody she could not quite remember, played above the roar.

Tishi and Gomez were hunched over microscopes, examining plants. LaForest was analyzing scans of Q. alleni. The skeletal view glimmered on the screen when Minsk and Wodo trooped into the lab with their day’s catch of birds and data.

Keeva groaned. “Where are we going to put more birds?”

“Hang them from the ceiling,” answered Wodo cheerfully. Gesturing at the screen, he said, “We saw four of your raptors flying down the coast.”

“Keeva and I saw two on our way back to the ship,” LaForest said.

“I wonder how many of those brutes there are,” said Minsk.

“I’m waiting for an answer to that,” LaForest replied. He had fed to the drones orbiting Aton-17 information on the pterosaur’s wingspan, flight pattern, and infrared print, enough metrics to distinguish it from other avifauna. Now he keyed in a request for a global census. A schematic of the planet flashed onto the screen, and black dots began appearing, each one marking the position of a giant raptor. Eventually, skeins of dots encircled the globe, sweeping along coasts and mountain ranges, all converging on a volcanic island near the equator.

“There are thousands,” Tishi breathed.

LaForest scratched his beard. “Why the devil are they congregating?”

Keeva imagined that fearsome gathering. “We stirred them up, and they’re swarming like bees when you disturb a hive.”

Fingering the spot on the globe where the flight trajectories came together, LaForest said, “Let’s move the ship there and see what they’re up to.”

No one objected. If the crew members had craved safety, they would never have joined Project VIVA, never left the Enclosure. The jump was quickly made, and the ship materialized on a lava field near the center of the island. Dozens of raptors spiraled overhead, casting great patches of shadow. More glided over the horizon, gathering from all points of the compass. By nightfall, several hundred smoky shapes whirled in that vortex.

 

Next day, while the others ventured out cautiously in their shuttles to continue surveying, LaForest and Keeva stayed aboard ship to observe Q. alleni. He inscribed their data onto a warp chip for transfer back to Earth, and she kept watch through the domed roof. All day the sky darkened as flight upon flight of predators arrived. She had expected to be overwhelmed by their hunger. But instead she sensed a different craving. For what?

“Why send back data before we have any idea what they mean?” she asked LaForest. “What’s Control going to think when they read that the dominant bio forms on Aton-17 are extinct Terran birds?”

“They’ll probably think I want to see birds so badly that I’m conjuring them out of thin air,” he admitted.

“Could you delay the report long enough for me to test a hunch?”

He turned abruptly toward her, bumping one of the suspended cages, which set off a chorus of alarm calls. “What’s your hunch?” he cried above the din.

She waited for quiet, then said, “You know that terrible hunger I was picking up? It isn’t coming through anymore.”

“So they’ve gorged themselves.”

“Exactly, as birds do before they set off on migration. And they’re milling around, like a vast dynamo, charging up for some move.”

He gazed at the funnel of birds. “What sort of move?”

“I can’t tell from inside the ship. Too much shielding.”

Although he objected, she slipped out through the hatch. Immediately, the full force of the raptors’ energy surged through her. Tears sprang to her eyes.

In a moment the hatch swung open behind her and LaForest’s bushy head emerged. “This is crazy. Come back in here.”

Barely able to speak, she growled, “I’m all right.”

“At least carry a stunner.”

“They’re not interested in me.”

“Keeva, please—”

“Go back inside. You’re disturbing the field.”

After a pause the hatch clicked and she was alone. Standing amid the rubble of cooled lava, with thousands of pterosaurs circling above, Keeva felt as if she were in the eye of a cyclone. She glanced at the ship. It looked frail, like an exposed egg. How presumptuous, she thought, for Earth to fling these bubbles into space.

The hatch opened and LaForest called out, “They’re all here. The drones show every single one on the planet has arrived.”

“Quiet, or I’ll lose them.”

Again he withdrew. She pressed a palm against each temple, intent on the vortex of raptors circling above, building power. Their yearning swept everything else from her mind. As night fell the ominous forms merged with the darkness, their craving sharpened, and suddenly she recognized the shape of their desire.

She screamed.

An instant later the sky was empty.

 

Even with eyes shut, Keeva realized from the serenade of birds that she was in the lab. When her eyes blinked open, she discovered five anxious faces peering down at her where she lay on a bench.

“We thought they’d snatched you away,” said LaForest with a tense smile.

“No danger of that,” Keeva murmured. “They were too intent on traveling.”

“Traveling where?” LaForest asked sharply.

“To Earth.” Keeva sat up with a groan. The others drew back, as if fearing she might flail about. “Just before they took off, what they were longing for came into focus—the image of Earth—and their desire swept over me. It was more than I could bear. That’s why I screamed.”

Above her, the others exchanged worried looks.

“Lie back down,” said LaForest, who was gripping her shoulder lightly. “Give your head a chance to clear.”

“It is clear. Everything finally makes sense.” His gentle pressure forced her down onto the pillow. She did not really mind. There would be time to explain. She was exhausted, yet the energy of that blue cyclone whirled in her still.

 

“No animal can fly 64 light-years through vacuum, not even with a 12-meter wingspan,” LaForest said patiently.

Keeva was unwrapping herself from the blankets in which he had bundled her the night before. She felt restored, except for the aching sense of loss which the departure of the great hunters had left in her. “They didn’t fly,” she said.

“Then how did they go?”

“They warped.” She sat up with blankets snarled about her waist, hair frizzed. The mad empath in the morning, she thought.

LaForest eyed her warily. “We’re talking about pterosaurs, sweetheart, not ships.”

“I’m telling you they went through warp. I saw where they were going, I felt them slip through. I’ve passed through too many times myself to mistake the feeling. And every bird in here,” she said, gesturing at the twittering cages, “gives off some trace of warp passage. It’s in them, in their genes. That’s the overtone I’ve been trying to identify since we netted our swan. From at least as far back at Q. alleni, they’re descended from creatures that migrated through warp.”

Years of collaboration had taught him not to dismiss her intuitions, but his reason balked. “How could they have learned to warp?”

“How did they learn to fly?”

“But humans have understood the principles of space transfer for only a few decades.”

“So? Birds have had millions of years to figure it out. Think of all the methods they use to orient themselves in migration—sun, stars, magnetic field, landforms, wind. Who knows what else? We still can’t navigate as well as a homing pigeon.”

He shook his head. “Birds can’t warp. They just can’t.”

“Trust me. I felt them go.”

His bewilderment touched her. His mouth sagged open, as it had when he first spied the tundra swans blazing like white fire above the ocean. She knew he was turning over the idea, to see what it might yield.

“All right, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose they can go through warp.” He began pacing among the cages, the birds tracking him with their glossy eyes. “Let’s say the ancestors of all these birds traveled here from Earth. To avoid extinction back home, they all fled here.” Suddenly he stopped, snagged by a memory. “Maybe old Audubon wasn’t so demented after all.”

“Audubon?”

“There’s a passage somewhere in his Lunatic Journal, the one he wrote in his final years, when he was demented. Let me find it.” He punched in a query, and a page came up on the screen. “Here. Listen. ‘Extinction of species has ever mystified the naturalist. As for birds, perhaps those that vanish are merely slaughtered. Or perhaps cruel nature has extinguished them with ice or fire. Or perhaps, when sorely pressed by men or circumstance, birds undertake a grand migration, to the moon or farther planets.’”

“Maybe he wasn’t so demented,” Keeva said

“Maybe not.” LaForest stood dead still among the birds. A parrot thrust its enameled bill through the mesh of its cage and took a nip at his shoulder. With mounting excitement, he said, “If Audubon’s guess was right, and some threats on Earth drove these birds here, could some disturbance here drive them back? Did Q. alleni flee because we challenged their dominion over Aton?”

Keeva hugged the blankets about her knees. She gazed at the captive birds, large and small, gaudy and plain, each one the exquisite outcome of millions of years of evolution. “Just think, if all these beauties went back home.”

He considered the idea, then said quickly, “No, the code won’t allow it. We can’t tamper with whole ecosystems.”

“Then we’ll have to leave, won’t we? Otherwise, we may trigger more migrations.” When he hesitated, she asked, “Are you going to say anything about it when you send that data?”

“I transferred the chip an hour ago,” he said. “Control sent a reply, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it.”

Curious what earthbound scientists would think about news of tundra swans, indigo buntings, and other extinct Terran birds, Keeva thumbed a button to display the message:

Very funny, LaForest. Were you sampling Aton-17’s mushrooms when you made that report? Now please send real data.

Speaking of birds, here’s a puzzler for you. Hong Kong reported an aerial attack this a.m. We sent a drone to check and it came back loaded with the body of a flying monster, which had crashed into the dome. Huge blue thing. The scans show it’s a pterosaur known from fossils dating to the Late Cretaceous.

LaForest reached out for Keeva’s hand, like a man surprised in sleep groping for a light. “So they really are going home.”

“Home,” she echoed. “I wonder what they’ll think of Earth.”

 

 

From his home in the hill country of southern Indiana, Scott Russell Sanders puzzles over why our species is degrading the conditions for life on Earth, and how we might be moved to live more wisely. Prior to Dancing in Dreamtime, the most recent of his books include Earth Works: Selected Essays (2012) and Divine Animal: A Novel (2014). A Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University, Sanders is devoted to efforts on behalf of social justice, peacemaking, and protection of the biosphere.
 
Read an excerpt of Divine Animal: A Novel also appearing in Terrain.org.

Photo of trumpeter swan courtesy Pixabay.

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