Bird Hunting

“Now available,” the ad said. “Bird collector cards in every ZipFresh Ready Meal. Collect them all!”

A surprised-looking cartoon astronaut in a blue-and-purple suit, holding a card with a bird on it. I

There was one particular card she wanted, a relic from the days when paper still existed. It started at a transit station out past Mars, the type of place where no one looked twice at the knife strapped to her thigh. She’d found an old Your Universe magazine, wedged between two hard plastic seats in the lounge. The front cover was missing, so she didn’t know the date, but it looked old. She would have thrown it away except she’d noticed an ad on the back, an ad that caused a flicker in her mind.

“Now available,” the ad said. “Bird collector cards in every ZipFresh Ready Meal. Collect them all!”

She had a memory of sitting in a plush red armchair, next to a window that looked out onto a green landscape. In her lap was a book—an album, made of paper, and full of bird cards. Every page had space for several cards, each pasted into an illustrated frame. Some frames were empty, waiting for birds to roost inside.

Someone stood behind her. A man’s voice said, “Here, you open this one.” A hand stretched out and gave her  a ZipFresh Ready Meal box. She dug inside the box and pulled out a bird card.

The memory was so vivid that it made her shiver. But the trees in the memory were a distinctive shape—tall and pointed. Fir trees. And fir trees had gone extinct long before she’d been born.

One day, one of the shackled men on her ship noticed her reading the Your Universe ads. He smirked at her and said, “I bet you’re one of those losers who pay through the nose for a bit of old plastic on Retro Dreams.”

She’d ignored him, as she ignored all of them, but once he’d been delivered to the client she logged on to Retro Dreams. She’d never imagined there were so many things to collect. All over the galaxy people were buying and selling objects that were no longer made—books and magazines, plastic toys, cotton clothing.   

And there, among all these weird and wonderful objects, was a selection of bird cards. She read the listings aloud. The names danced on her tongue. Coral whipbird. Northern swamp warbler. Superior firedancer. Birds that were long dead, from a world that no longer existed. The cheapest ones were in terrible condition, more scraps of paper than cards. But in the next price bracket she found some that weren’t so bad. A couple of taps with her finger and she was the owner of a variegated shellbird.

Her collection grew from there. Soon every spare moment was spent on Retro Dreams, bird hunting.

One morning, something appeared on the site that made her heart skip. An album—just like the one in her memory. And this one was already partly full of cards. It wasn’t cheap but she bought it. She had to.

A year passed. More birds found their way to her. She had almost all of them now.

But there was one that eluded her. The sapphire sunbird. In her album, it had its own page, the border decorated with leaves and flowers. In the centre of the page was an empty rectangle. The blankness tormented her. The card had been for sale on Retro Dreams for months, its cost too prohibitive for most people.

It would take her years of work to earn enough to buy the card. But it wasn’t hard to find a client who’d pay her more for a different type of job. And in the end, it wasn’t hard to make the change from shackles to knives.

The collector didn’t care where she got the money. He handed her the card in a clear envelope. In her ship, she took it out, cradled it in her hands. The edges were scuffed and there was a smudge on the back. Someone else had loved this once.

She pasted it carefully into her album, along with the other dead things from a world that no longer existed.

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