“You’re wrong. Why are they flying south?”
Heejong gave her research assistant Minho a playful slap.
“It’s spring, moron. Which direction should geese be flying?”
“Ah. North,” Minho said, squinting up at the ragged skein of geese.
“Yes, now let’s collect the last of today’s samples.”
Minho grimaced and finished bagging a stick of goose feces.
“I’d rather be on Gageo Island, looking for rarities. Instead we’re collecting goose crap.”
“We have to gather evidence to prove that this latest outbreak of bird flu wasn’t caused by migratory birds. The vector is obviously that.”
Heejong pointed her chin at a runnel of stinking brown fluid that trickled into a ditch from a plastic greenhouse — a small chicken farm.
“And the only thing that smells is you, you dog baby. You spilled soju all over your legs. Must you drink two bottles with every—“
A goose dropped out of a low V overhead, lost altitude, then cartwheeled across the field close to the two researchers in a large puff of dirt. The indignant screech of startled magpies carried across the fields.
Heejong saw the bird’s eyes lolling, the grisly clicking of the tongue. The stricken goose flailed about like a drunkard, neck snaking grotesquely.
“That drunken dance. That’s new, Heejong. I heard some vague reports about this from China last week. They’re calling it ‘the drunk bird flu.’”
The goose vomited out a dark pile at Minho’s feet, then fell to one side and stilled. Minho prodded the pile with his foot, and it ruptured like an egg yolk.
“It’s moving,” he shrieked and staggered backwards, “…it’s…bugs, it’s made of bugs!”
The black mass boiled, then a tendril exploded from the goose and blurred up Minho’s bare legs.
“No, they’re, no, get them off, it’s biting me!” Minho screeched, flailing at the seething swarm on his legs.
Heejong, calm or perhaps in shock, methodically pulled out a can of bug repellant and emptied it over her panicked research assistant’s legs. Most of the frothing swarm fell away, and Heejong knocked and wiped the rest off with a small towel. Minho looked down at his swollen and bleeding legs, then collapsed into the dirt with a whimper. Heejong squinted at one of the small black creatures that was stuck to the towel.
“These are deer ticks, Minho, my god. How is this possible? Why are they inside a goose? Thousands of ticks inside a goose? I mean…”
“I don’t care, screw this. I don’t feel well. I’m going back to Seoul. Right now. I’m sorry,” Minho jabbered, his voice shaky. He staggered towards the road.
Heejong heard a muffled pop from inside Minho’s mouth as he retreated. He collapsed again, as if shot.
“Ahhh, my, my uh toof, exploded,” he gasped in disbelief, spitting out shards of pulverized tooth, before loping down the road.
Heejong looked down at her own bare legs, which remained unmolested, then examined the dead goose. She pulled a metal tag from the bird’s leg, which had a link of chain on it.
“So you escaped from somewhere. What’s this say…Hamhung? That’s in North Korea. Is this…bird a weapon?” Heejong watched the last of the ticks percolate through the farm rows and into a ditch.
“Oh God, they’re headed into town.”
Overhead, she saw more geese flying in from the north.
“No, no no,” she said. Another goose fell to earth, then a dozen.
Two hours later, Heejong was locked inside of her car, in a desperate debate with her superiors.
“I know sir, but now I think that migratory geese are the problem. Yes. I think they’re being weaponized in the North, they’re full of ticks. Ticks. Deer ticks. I don’t…wait wait, call me back.”
Heejong clicked through a video-call from Minho, and saw the young man’s pale face. He was on the train, the picture was shaky.
“The KTX is almost back in Seoul,” he rasped. His face was raw with scratches and covered in sweat, and there was blood around his lips. The sound of passengers screaming and general chaos clamoured in the background.
“Heejong, other people are sick on this train. I don’t…my damn teeth are—“
The feed went blurry, then Minho’s phone fell to the floor. Heejong heard him groan, then another loud pop. She saw his foot for a second, and then the view angled to a passenger across the aisle.
The man was coiled defensively on the seat next to the window, muttering at the pandemonium around him. He clutched a green bottle of soju to his face, then took a long pull, spilling alcohol over the front of his suit. Almost instantaneously, a cloud of blackness — ticks — washed up from below and blanketed the man’s face and chest. He pawed at himself with his fingernails, and then, to Heejong’s best guess, all of his teeth exploded at once with a devastating cascade of cracks, before Minho’s phone went dead.
Heejong tried to get a hold of her flurried thoughts. OK, What’s happening? Think. North Korea somehow weaponized ticks, stuffed them into geese and sent them south. What’s happening? Why didn’t they go after me? They were on Minho’s legs. That man’s face and — oh no. Soju. Alcohol must be the catalyst. I don’t drink. But if this thing reacts with soju, then we are screwed. South Korea is doomed.
Heejong’s fingers quavered as she typed a desperate email to her contact in the American CDC. As she typed, she was peripherally aware of a large silver plane crashing into the horizon with a dull crump, and the sound of massed car horns blaring from town. She was about to hit send when an air raid siren spooled up in the distance. It was quickly joined by others, like howling neighbourhood dogs setting one another off.
As the horizon brightened to a deathly white-yellow that raced towards her, Heejong clicked send. She thought about her cat, and wondered if her email would get off in time.
Matt Poll has spent most of the past decade living in South Korea, and has written a memoir about the shenanigans involved with being a foreign birdwatcher there, as well as a thriller/fantasy novel set on Korea’s DMZ. He has also started writing a series of bizarre stories about birding.