The first thing I remember was the siren – not the standard emergency variety you might be familiar with, but one more reminiscent of an air raid. Even then, it didn’t pique my interest anymore than usual. Just another drill, I thought.
I’d grown accustomed to the rising and falling whirring noise over the years, a not so uncommon nuisance in most Chinese cities.
I brushed off the disruption, closed the windows and got back to my class. I often used to joke with the students about how we were under attack whenever the air raid sirens went off. I don’t make that joke anymore.
Generally these drills lasted little longer than a few minutes. I’m not sure how long it was before I noticed that the siren was still blaring. Something was different this time.
It was one of the students who first brought my attention to the fact. I paused mid-lesson and returned to the window.
I gazed out over the smoggy city skyline; just another typical day in Shanghai, nothing out of the ordinary. A few students too had joined me, curiosity compelling them to forget the classroom rules.
I was about to tell them to sit back down when one of them called out
“Look teacher, look!”
I followed his gaze up at the sky to what appeared to be a large black cloud… no, not a cloud. Its edges were too well-defined and it was moving too fast. What was it?
As I continued to watch, the thing seemed to grow in size with each passing moment. It was heading our way! Finally I recognised it for what it was – birds – a great flock of them, hundreds if not thousands, all heading in the same direction.
I had never seen anything like it before. What could cause birds to behave in such a way? Had something spooked them? By now the vanguard of the flock was flying over our building, but more were coming… so many more.
All the students were gathered by the window at this point, chattering away in Chinese. Some were awestruck by the sight while others were clearly distressed.
Their boisterous exclamations must have caught the notice of the parents outside, or perhaps they had been alerted to the situation by a phone call or news story. The classroom door opened and the parents rushed in, their faces a mixture of anxiousness and confusion.
In the following moments, more than half the class had been hurried out of the room, most not even bothering to take their belongings with them. I was left with a skeleton crew of scared-shitless kids. What was happening?
Although I wanted to leave the classroom too, I couldn’t. As long as the remaining kids were still in my care, I had to stay with them. I took out my phone to look online for answers… no signal.
The students and I continued to stare out the window at the sky which was by now almost completely blocked out by the incredible flock.
Suddenly a bird hit the window with a sickening thud eliciting a scream from a couple of the girls and we all jumped back in shock. Another one hit and I quickly moved the kids away from the window to the far end of the classroom.
More and more birds continued to hit the window as we cowered in fear under the barrage. I heard a crack and I felt sure the window would break, but then… it stopped.
An eerie silence hung in the air, and I realised that even the siren had gone quiet. Was it all over then? I decided to risk it and check the window again, instructing the students to stay put this time.
Sure enough, the sky was clear. I looked down at the street and saw that the ground was littered with the bodies of the birds which had collided with the building.
A few people emerged from undercover and began wandering aimlessly around; some looked to be inspecting the damage; a couple ran for their cars and quickly sped off. I saw one man squat down to take a closer look at one of the dead birds, before recoiling in disgust.
I guess it really was over. I gathered the students and lead them out to the hallway where other students and parents were milling about. I spotted Vivian, one of my colleagues who was comforting a few students of her own and asked her what had just happened, but she knew nothing more than I did. I left my students with her and proceeded to the staff office, desperate for information.
Sure enough, the office TV was on and a crowd of my coworkers and some of the parents were gathered around, enraptured by the images on the screen.
A reporter was saying something over video footage of the same flock of birds – first from the perspective of someone inside an office building like I was, and then another of someone caught outside during the incident; the cameraman was running and shouting as birds swooped down from above. One must have struck him as he fell down with a cry of pain and dropped the camera, ending the recording.
The screen changed to a view of a news presenter at a desk. Behind him was a map of the country with a number of red dots over different cities, including Shanghai. Had this happened elsewhere too? What the hell was going on?
Suddenly the screen changed again, this time to what appeared to be a live recording. A crowd of people were gathered along the riverside of what I recognised as downtown Shanghai. They were shouting loudly and pointing towards the sky over at the far side of the river.
The camera zoomed in on a dark object hovering above the Shanghai Tower – another flock of birds perhaps? No, this one was different. Despite the smoggy sky, I could still make out the rectangular shape of the object. It looked as if a large shipping container had been suspended above the tower by some invisible crane.
Someone from out of view of the footage screamed and the camera changed focus, this time to a different building where another box-like object was hovering.
The camera zoomed out so that the two were in focus. The first of the two appeared larger, but it was difficult to judge accurately. I would have guessed them to be about the size of a bus at least, but possibly larger.
A sudden flash of light shone from above a third building, the Pearl Tower, and a third of the objects appeared. It hadn’t flown or dropped from the sky, it just popped into existence in an instant. Someone behind me swore under their breath at the sight. What was happening?
The downtown area wasn’t too far from the school, and the buildings were tall enough that they could be seen from most parts of the inner-city. I thought perhaps I might be able to get a view from the roof. I rushed out into the hallway. By now, most of the students had left with their parents.
As I ran towards the stairwell, Vivian, now free of students, called after me
“Where are you going?”
“To the roof, come!” I replied and she followed a step behind.
A little voice at the back of my head wondered if it was safer to stay inside, but I just had to see for myself. I had to know what was going on…
We raced up the stairs and burst through the door at the top and into the open-air. I quickly tried to orient myself east towards downtown. Although my view was partially blocked by a couple of adjacent apartment buildings, I could still make out the towers.
“Over there, see?” I said to my colleague, and she starred out towards where I was pointing, but to no avail. At this distance, and through the heavy smog, the objects above the towers were impossible to discern.
Another flash of light like the one I had seen on TV lit up the sky over the towers and Vivian gasped
“What is it?” She asked, and I told her what I had seen in the office. Without another word, she took off back downstairs, no doubt to see the footage for herself.
I was about to leave too but just then my foot brushed against something on the floor. I looked down to see one of the birds from earlier. Although clearly dead, there was something strange about it. It didn’t look like any bird I was familiar with.
I knelt down for a closer look… its feathers appeared coarse and disheveled, and they seemed to be coated in some strange substance. I pulled out a pen from my pocket and removed a sample of the stuff. It was oily and viscous like glue, and it clung to my pen with thick ropy clumps as I pulled away from the dead animal.
Was this why they had crashed into the building? Had they encountered something in the sky which covered them in this goo? – Questions for another time perhaps. Right now there were more pressing concerns.
I hurried back down to the office. My colleagues were having a heated discussion. The TV was now showing images of a different city, one which I didn’t recognise. More of the same box-like craft were hovering above buildings. As the camera panned, I tried to count how many there were – easily a couple dozen. Clearly this phenomenon was nationwide at least. I wondered how far-spread it really was.
One of the objects began to glow and the camera zoomed out to reveal the full scene. Each building now had a bright beacon of light above it. People out of sight began yelling and the camera was knocked off-angle as someone ran passed. Then an incredible flash of light filled the entire view before the footage suddenly cut out.
What was that? I was starting to panic now. Were we under attack? Were those strange boxes some sort of weapon? – And if so, from who?
I was distracted from my wild thoughts as another flash of light illuminated the office, this time from outside the window, followed by a distant rumbling sound. This is it, I said to myself. We’re done for…
The TV footage returned, this time to a wide shot of Shanghai. The entire downtown area was engulfed by white light. My colleagues were shouting hysterically and one of the girls broke down in tears.
The ball of light gradually faded to reveal a massive crater where once the towers had stood. Water from the river was quickly flooding into the now empty space. As for the box-craft, they were nowhere to be seen.
to be continued…