ALL the Birds in the sky
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the Apocalypse by the hugo Award-winning editor-in-chief of io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders.
Childhood friends Patricia and Laurence were always outsiders. Laurence was a scientific genius, and Patricia was a witch – a discovery that tore their friendship apart. But now they are grown up, and they are about to be reunited…
Other cities had gargoyles or statues watching over them. San Francisco had scare owls. They stood guard along the city’s rooftops, hunched over bright ornate designs that were washed out by waves of fog. These wooden creatures bore witness to every crime and act of charity on the streets without changing their somber expressions. Their original purpose of frightening pigeons had ended in failure, but they still managed to startle the occasional human. Mostly, they were a friendly presence in the night.
This particular evening, a giant yellow moon crested over a clear warm sky, so every fixture, the owls included, was floodlit like a carnival on its last night in town, and moon-drunk roars came from every corner. A perfect night to go out and make some dirty magic.
Francis and Carrie were screwed. Their lives were over, and you could hear their cries of despair from the street outside the UFO-shaped house. This was supposed to be the geek party to end all geek parties, where the A-listers met the thoughtleaders, and visionary investors would supercollide with the best and brightest. Every detail was meticulous, from the three DJs to the fountain of exotic liquor to the organic slow-food hors d’oeuvres. They were even able to host it at Rod Birch’s place in Twin Peaks, with the living room that converted to a planetarium where the constellations changed shape to reflect the mood of the crowd.
But everything had gone to shit. The DJs had launched a turf war, and the mashup DJ was trying to colonize the dubthrash DJ’s set with some kind of meta-mashup. The Caddy engineers had gotten into a fistfight with the open-source Artichoke BSD developers on the balcony. Everybody felt guilty about drinking soju after what happened in Korea. The A-listers didn’t show up, and somehow the party invite on MeeYu had gotten cluttered with wannabes, bloggers, and local nutcases. The slow-food hors d’oeuvres made everybody sick to their stomachs, and soon there was an endless line to throw up in the hyperbaric bathroom. The dubthrash DJ won the DJ war and proceeded to make everybody’s eardrums bleed with the most dreary shit imaginable. The smoke machine belched horrible candy-floss-scented smog, while the lights lurched into epilepsy-inducing configurations. The line to vomit in the bathroom was starting to resemble that famous photo of the bedraggled masses evacuating Seoul on foot. The constellations on the ceiling became a supermassive black hole, a Sagittarius A of party foulness. This was the worst disaster in human history.
Just when Francis and Carrie resigned themselves to changing their names and
you could hear the cries of despair from the street outside the UFO-shaped house
leaving town, that weird girl showed up. The girl whom nobody would cop to having added to the party invite, the hippie who (Carrie had heard) let birds nest in her hair and rats live in her purse. Paula? Petra? No, Patricia. There had been a time – a happier, more innocent time – when Francis and Carrie had believed that Patricia showing up would be the worst thing that could happen to their party.
“Sorry I’m late,” she told Carrie, slipping out of her shoes as she strode into the front room. “I had to run some errands across town.”
As Patricia walked into the party room, the fugly smoke parted and the lights swung together, so her Bettie Page hair had a halo and her wide face was lit by a floodlight aurora. She seemed to float into the room, barefoot in a small strappy black dress that left her pale shoulders mostly exposed. Her necklace had a heartstone that caught the arclights and refracted pink sparkles. She walked through the party, saying hi or introducing herself, and everybody she touched felt the nausea and ill feeling pass away. As if she’d painlessly drawn some poison out of them. She wandered past the DJ and whispered in his ear, and moments later the awful crunging dubthrash music was replaced by soothing dubstep. People swayed happily. The wailing and lamentation became the hum of conversation. The bathroom had no line. People started hanging out on the balcony for reasons other than punching each other or throwing up in the bushes.
Everybody agreed that Patricia had salvaged the party at the UFO house somehow, but nobody could have said how. She’d just kind of shown up, and the vibe had improved. Carrie found herself making Patricia a thank-you cocktail, holding it out in both hands, like an offering.
Patricia hadn’t needed much magic to rescue this awful party from the brink – fixing an upset stomach was second nature to her, after some of the dorm-room cooking at Eltisley Maze, and the partygoers did most of the heavy lifting themselves once she redirected their energies a bit. But just like with the poet in North Beach and the junkie in the Tenderloin, the most important thing was not to let anybody see her doing magic – she’d been indoctrinated never to share her big powerful Seekrit with anyone, but she needed no reminder in any case. She still remembered her friend in middle school whom she’d done magic in front of, how he’d lost his shit and run away, and stopped talking to her right when she needed him. When she told herself that story nowadays or shared it with others, she boiled it down to: “I showed my magic to a civilian one time, and it got ugly.”
Other than that, she hadn’t thought about that kid in years. He’d been reduced to a single cautionary anecdote in her head. But she found herself thinking about him now, maybe because she was surrounded by geeks, or because pulling this shindig back from the Party Abyss with her bare hands was reminding her of how weird social interactions could be, here in the “real” world. Especially after so many years in the bubble of Eltisley Maze. And somehow, the image popped into her head of the boy, naked in a closet with bruises all over and blood caked around his nostrils. The last time she’d seen him. She found herself hoping he’d turned out okay after all, and then as she finished her loop around the party, he was standing right in front of her. Almost, but not quite, like magic.
Patricia recognized Laurence right off the bat. The sandy hair was the same, cut into a messy part instead of a fringe. He was a lot taller and a tad stockier. The eyes were the same hazel-gray and his chin still jutted, and he still looked kind of perplexed and a little pissed off about everything. But that could be because he was one of the people she hadn’t yet healed. She did that now. He was wearing a collarless black button-up shirt with a small tiger embroidered on it, and black canvas pants. “You feeling okay?” she said. “Yeah,” he said, straightening up. He half-smiled, and rolled his neck like an owl. “Yeah. Thanks. Starting to feel better. There was something weird about those hors d’oeuvres.” “Yeah.” He did not recognize her. Which made sense, it had been ten years, and a lot had probably happened. Patricia should just keep moving through the party. Just move along, don’t try to have some kind of bullshit uncomfortable reunion. But she couldn’t help herself. “Laurence?” “Yeah.” He shrugged. And then his eyes grew. “Patricia?” “Yeah.” “Oh, cool. It’s good to, uh, see you again. How have you been?”
“I’ve been good. How are you doing?”
“I’m good too.” Long pause. Laurence shuffled and kneaded a square napkin. “So. You violate any laws of physics lately?”