A Susurrus of Plastic Wings

Hummingbirds are big sellers this week. Makes sense, considering we usually see an uptick in sales when the real thing finally goes the way of the dinosaurs and—well, any animal, vegetable, or mineral these days. So when the last ruby-throated buzzbird bit the Big One, we had orders oozing out of our ears.

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I rip open the printsac dangling over my section of the assembly line, spilling its 3D-printed contents onto my workbench. I pick through the mycoplastic pieces, wrinkling my nose at their strong iodine-mushroom scent, and separate them. I wash each part, sloughing off viscous, brown-gray residue. When each piece is all nice and pretty, I start assembling a ruby-throated hummingbird, snapping one glittering emerald wing into place here, and another one there. I insert tailfeathers and a needle-thin beak, then connect the head to the body.

(Image by JL G from Pixabay)

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Being busy is great, both in terms of overtime pay and sanity; it’s good keeping your hands busy and having your mind on something other than impending doom, you know? And that’s all you ever get on the vidfeeds anymore: doom and gloom. California swallowed by the sea! Supermegastorms slam the East Coast! Wildfires blaze across Canada! Could drive a person mad, seeing what’s happening, and not being lucky enough to have work to get you through it.

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I place my hummingbird on the conveyor belt, press the flashing red button to bid it sayonara, and bring a new printsac forward. I think I’ve already done a hundred, hundred-fifty birds this morning; I wouldn’t be surprised if our cohort alone completes ten- or fifteen-thousand units by the time our shift ends.

Like any business, if you want to thrive, you’ve got to take advantage of a boom, and here, in the age of apocalypse, there’s no boom bigger than the death of a natural species.

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KindCorp is the only place to get a steady job these days. They’ve cornered the market on green-tech, and have factories spread all over the globe, printing up replacements for extinct biospheres. They hold lotteries every month where lucky losers can win a job, and once you’re in, you’re in—you don’t ever have to worry about being jobless again.

Which is nice, all things considered.

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“Hey,” Mendez says from his workbench, to the right of mine.

He playfully flutters a pair of hummingbird wings on either side of his head.

“Beautiful,” I say.

“Get back to work, slackers,” Sanji says from my left, leaning over her workbench, a smile crinkling the corners of her lips.

She gestures at one of the security meerkats standing in a far corner of the factory. The meerkats are another best-selling KindCorp product, biosynthetic security systems with nanoscopic eye-cameras that connect to a downloadable app.

Mendez flips Sanji off, snaps his hummingbird together, and places it on the conveyor belt.

“You’re an idiot,” Sanji says. She blows Mendez a kiss.

“I shall treasure this forever,” Mendez says, catching her kiss and pressing it to his heart.

“You’re too good for this world, Manny,” I say.

“What’s left of it, anyways,” Mendez agrees.

We laugh.

A security meerkat steps forward, glaring at the three of us; we stop farting around and get back to work before it drags us off to the foreman.

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Yeah, it can start to weigh on you, I guess. The whole mass extinction-, synthetic-copies-thing. But having a job is better than just sitting around watching the world burn, right?

Right?

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When our overtime shift ends at 3am, me, Sanji, and Mendez grab drinks at Rooster’s. It’s the only bar in town that stays open this late, because most everyone in town works for KindCorp and Rooster’s adapted to keep from going under. It’s the perfect place to unwind after work and drown out the horrors of the day.

Mendez buys the first round, since he lost our bet—turns out I was right: our assembly line put together over fifteen-thousand hummingbird biosynth units today.

Sanji says she heard from a cousin working the assembly line at KindCorp New Delhi that the company’s next big project may be printing blue whales. I don’t buy it—there’s no way to quickly assemble something that big. And multiple units? Out of the question. Sanji shrugs and says that’s what she heard.

I’m on my fourth Jack and Coke when the BREAKING NEWS banner overtakes all the vidscreens in the bar.

The world’s last salamander has died.

“Shame,” I mumble, downing my drink.

“Guess we know what we’ll be doing tomorrow,” Sanji says.

“Maybe your cousin doesn’t know the difference between whales and salamanders,” Mendez says.

Sanji punches his shoulder.

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I get home from Rooster’s a little after 4:30 am. My unit is on the first floor of a cluster of KindCorp-printed prefab apartments stacked on top of each other. Inside, I tap my pin into the app that’s connected to the security meerkat by the door; it lets me pass, nodding and winking before resuming its silent watch.

I grab water from the fridge and move into the living room, debating if I should stay awake since I’ll have to be at work again soon anyway. I decide to brew a bulb of coffee to keep myself from falling asleep, cursing myself for staying out so late.

As the coffee brews, I look out the only window of my apartment. The night sky is blood-orange. Black smoke smolders along the horizon. The city looks like the desiccated carcass of an ancient colossus. It’s been this way for longer than I care to remember, day and night. Never changes.

Smells like the coffee’s burning; I can never get the settings right.

Burning. The whole world is burning.

The last salamander has died.

My vision swims. It feels hard to breathe, like I’ve got a rock wedged in my chest. A susurrus of plastic wings flutters about my head, the sound deafening, suffocating.

The last salamander has died.

I bring my hands to my face and weep.

Austin Shirey lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Sarah, their two daughters, and two cats. His short fiction has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Haven Spec, Gone Lawn, The Dread Machine, and Orca, among others. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. You can find his work online at www.austinshirey.com and follow him on Twitter @tashirey87.