Chapter Alpha –
"There'll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate... except those in your own mercenary little heart!"
"I don't think Springer is educational." The big bird shook his head to clear it and took another sip of beer.
"Peggy, your parrot doesn't look right," Marsha called from the break room where she, with all the other SETI employees stood around Peggy's pet bird, Birdy.
It was a typical Friday happy hour. Everyone gathered in the break room to try to get everyone else drunk and laugh at them. Very few even realized the dating and / or reproductive potential alcohol catalyzed. Fewer still were willing to make use of it that way.
Like every other Friday Birdy was the center of attention and the font of wit. The humans fed the bird drinks like it was a busty stripper at a role playing gamers' convention.
"He's not a parrot, he's a Chillian Sea Bird." Peggy called over her shoulder from her desk. She buried her thoughts in her computer readouts.
"He's a riot," someone called.
Like every Friday Peggy didn't participate in the festivities. She had tried when she first got there, but she seemed to deaden the party. All the women gave her dirty looks and all the men stared at her with their mouths open. Every one except Tami, Rus and Timmy. It took time away from work anyway.
She had had the same problem since she was fourteen. Until that age she hadn't had even the slightest hint at puberty. She was brilliant, a certified genius, but her body had not developed with her mind. Having skipped two grades she was a fourteen yearold pole among sixteen yearold hourglasses. She couldn't wear a skirt because she had not hips to keep it up. It didn't bother her so much since her nose was always buried. What she was disappointed about was not being physical enough to join any sports teams.
Senior year Spring Break everything changed. Her parents took her to Idaho on a ski trip. Because of all the insulation they didn't even notice the change until the first day back to school and Peggy came down wearing her older sister's sundress. It was too tight in the top and too short and it looked great. It didn't improve her status at school.
Overnight she had gone from looking fourteen and flat to twenty and something else starting with a "T." She blew everyone out of the water and they got their towels, dried off, got in their cars and drove home. It was too late to join any teams even if the other girls hadn't been too jealous of her to let her on.
In college she stuck to individual sports, dating rarely. She was finally physically developed enough to do all the backpacking, skiing, tennis and swimming she loved. She would often go on weekend long backpacking trips to stargaze.
In the break room Birdy took another sip from an offered plastic cup. He preferred vodka, but beer would do. It was free.
"John, you know I need that report by the COB." He imitated Jackie, the supervisor, who convienently wasn't there. The room erupted into gafaws and snorts. Beer flew through noses.
Birdy was on fire tonight. He took another sip and preened his kelidascope feathers. He was a big bird with a long neck and a bulbous head. His long, conical beak made his Jimmy Durante jokes work even better. As a matter of fact it helped his Jackie jokes too.
He was standing on one of the break room tables and took up most of the space. He shrugged his shoulders, got his wings into place and readied himself for another joke when suddenly he went glassy eyed and staggered around the poorly balanced table again.
"Eleven hours, fifty-seven minutes, twelve seconds right assencion; minus forty-two degrees six minutes, seven seconds declination. Five hours, thirty-one point five minutes right ascension; twenty-one degrees fifty-nine minutes declination. Acceleration fifteen seconds per second," Birdy's voice didn't sound like anyone in the office.
"That's not funny. Is that funny?" John asked. Birdy wasn't known for his subtle humor or his knowledge of astronomical data.
"Increase acceleration point one one five. Point seven degrees pitch adjustment," Birdy said in the strange voice as he reeled on the table. It flopped back and forth on uneven legs.
"For the love of god, someone get a folded napkin!" John cried.
"Peggy! Something's really wrong with your bird," Marsha called.
"Twenty hours, seven minutes right ascension; minus one degree, point four seconds declination."
Peggy sighed. It was like this every Friday. She mumbled to herself, "Please bring Birdy to the party. Oh Birdy is so funny. Your pet bird is just the best." Peggy was sick of it.
She swiveled in her chair and swung her long legs out from under the desk. He threw back her head and ran a hand through her ringlets of long, thick brown hair. She stood up and straightened the bottom of her tight blouse and the top of her mini skirt. She couldn't see her midsection past her jutting bust, but she knew her clothing probably needed to be straightened over her washboard abs. She strutted into the break room on four inch pumps.
Birdy spread his enormous wings, knocking Marsha over. She landed in Chuck's lap, something he had been secretly hopping would happen all night.
Birdy swung his fat head toward Peggy as she strode into the room, but his eyes looked right through her.
"Must get better reception. Must get closer," he mumbled, flapped and lept from the table to fly right at Peggy's face. Unfortunately his pin feathers had been cut and all he managed was a half lutz off the table onto the floor.
The men laughed and all but the drunkest of the women gasped. The party was over. It was a silent rule that when the bird got drunk it was time to leave. It was much earlier than usual this time though.
Marsha and Chuck helped Peggy get Birdy back to her desk.
"I'm all right," Birdy said in his best Gary imitation. Gary self-conciously pushed up his heavy glasses and nearly fell off his chair.
"Chuck, get some coffee please," Peggy said.
"No really. I'm alright," Birdy said in Gary's voice again.
"What's he been saying?" Peggy asked. Marsha shrugged.
"I dunno. It sounded a lot like astronomical coordinates and spacecraft guidance instructions. Has Birdy been watching the NASA channel at home while you're at work?"
"How would I know?"
Chuck returned with a mug of coffee. It said, "work is for the birds."
"I thought this would be appropriate," Chuck handed it to Peggy who held it out for Birdy to drink. He was just getting a good buzz from the beer, but he reluctantly sipped the coffee. He pulled back suddenly and made a hacking sound.
"He's starting again," Chuck said.
"No, he just doesn't like cream and sugar. He takes it black," Peggy said and offered the mug again. Birdy took it in one foot and downed the brew.
"What's wrong big guy?" Peggy stroked his head.
"Insufficient data," Birdy said with the voice of K9 from Dr. Who.
"Is something bothering you?"
"You are correct sir."
"Was it something you ate?"
"Oo sorry, sorry," Birdy said as Alex Tribeck.
"Something you drank?" Chuck asked.
"Thank you for playing," Birdy said in what could have been the voice of one of many gameshow hosts. Then he shook. He seemed to be fighting something off, but then he went slack jawed.
"Sixteen hours, twenty-nine point seven minutes right ascension…"
Peggy grabbed a pen and started writing.
"Adjust seven degrees yaw, point zero zero zero one degrees pitch," Birdy finished speaking by shaking his head as if pulling free from a wrestler.
Peggy chewed her lip.
"What is it?" Marsha asked.
"I don't know off the top of my head. The coordinates and guidance corrections sound authentic, but where is he getting them from? It's like a radio picking up an unintended signal."
"He doesn't have fillings does he, or no wait, I had a cousin who could pick up radio on his braces. He doesn't have braces or a retainer maybe that we can't see?" Chuck said.
Peggy stared at him a long moment before simply saying, "he's a bird."
Marsha had pulled the paper away from Peggy and was reading it. "I think I know some of these coordinates. This one is Messier Object one-oh-seven, that's General Catalog Number sixty-one seventy-one."
"I love you," Chuck blurted out in admiration.
"What?" Marsha said.
"Nothing," Chuck looked off down at the paper quickly. "What are these others?"
"It's like the coordinates are being used to triangulate a position. This one isn't to anything I know," Peggy handed it to Marsha.
"Me neither. Oh, and this one he said earlier, ' Eleven hours, fifty-seven minutes, twelve seconds right assencion; minus forty-two degrees six minutes, seven seconds declination.' There's nothing there either."
"Well," Peggy said, taking the sheet back, "I'm going to keep track of what he says and send it to a friend of mine who works at the VLA. Maybe she can sneak some time on the system or pull some data off someone else's studies and let us know if there is something at these coordinates and maybe we can figure out where someone following these course adjustments is heading.
"Hey, did you guys ever think that maybe this could be a signal from aliens and the coordinates are from not on earth and the guidance controls are for a ship on it's way here?" Chuck said.
Peggy and Marsha looked at him.
"Well, this is SETI, right? That's what we do, right?"