Albert Smith, Keeper of the Ravens, walked his evening round slowly, wearily. Not for physical decrepitude—he had performed these same tasks every day for thirty years—but in a rising sense of helplessness.
He replenished the carrion-points around the Tower, adding food laced with antibiotics. He checked the shallow poolings of water in the mediaeval masonry, adding antifungal and antiparasitic medications to the ravens’ favourite bathing-puddles. He placed high-vitamin treats on the stone ledges of the Tower. This morning he had even sprayed the roosting-places with hormones to encourage breeding… but nothing seemed to help.
Next week, he must report to his employer, Henry IX as he did every spring and as his predecessors had done over the centuries. For the eighth year in a row he would have to report lower activity levels, poor breeding behaviour, declining numbers and frequent aggressive rejections of newly-added birds. And Harry would nod, flicker a charming smile and look earnest, but he could never disguise the fact that he found Albert's vocation a bit of a quiz and their yearly meeting a bit of a bore.
As dusk fell, Albert stood outside the Tower, listening as usual. Above him the ravens cawed, communing as they prepared to roost. Other listeners would hear nothing odd in the sound. Visitors to the Tower, thrilled by stories of historical intrigue and royal prisoners, would follow captivated as the electronic tour guide explained the thousand-year legend: that as long as the ravens nested at the Tower of London, England and this great City would survive. Those who could recognise the ravens' calls would nod in satisfaction: so long as the ravens croaked, the City of London was safe.
Albert's own grandchildren remained unamused. Vicci (as she spelled herself), a green warrior (as she styled herself), strongly disapproved of the age-old practice of clipping the birds’ wings to keep them close to their human-assigned home.
“We don’t clip much off,” Albert always tried to explain. “Not enough to prevent flying, just enough to make them happier staying put. It’s an important tradition, you know.”
“And you seriously think London will slide into the sea if you let them go.”
“These old legends,” Albert said slowly— “you can never tell….”
“Well, if London needs to keep beautiful wild creatures Prisoners of the Tower to keep itself safe, maybe London doesn’t deserve to be safe,” Vicci retorted. “And sea levels are rising, you know, so maybe that means something.”
Albert's grandson, Steve, scarcely seen with his face outside a laptop, had hated the ravens since he was 10. That year, once, he had thrown stones at one bird, and several others had flown in, pecking and clawing his head. Of course Vicci had sided with the ravens, declaring that they must have recognised him as “a baddie”, and predicting his future as “a dreadful bad robber”. Even now Steve found his grandfather's work irritating.
“You're not worrying about your blackbirds again?” he would ask. “Look, if it's getting you down, chuck it in and get a real job. Or retire. You’re old enough.”
A real job. These days, Albert knew, that meant the kind of obscure and nebulous cyber-activity that formed the landscape of young people's reality. He knew Steve did some kind of programming for a very important security company linked to practically every finance corporation in the City. He supposed Steve had the ability to wander through it all, navigate abstract labyrinths of information and interconnection. This was power, now, just as the black-grey-white stones of the Tower had exercised doom and authority in centuries gone by.
Albert knew, too, that his grandson earned several times his Keeper's wage, and could surely by now have bought a house or two of his own even after his expenditures on state-of-the-art computing equipment. Maybe he planned for a luxurious retirement, or maybe his physical surroundings simply passed him by, just as all this technology had passed by Albert. Either way, side-by-side in their shared home, they existed in alternate universes.
Sometimes Albert wondered which London he and his ravens lived to protect: the history, the culture, the territory of a nation... or this new world of cyberspace, cyber-money, cyber-trade, in which “the City” was not a place but a sprawling, invisible organism?
“Spiffing job you're doing there, Smith,” said Harry the Ninth, with a brief inclination of his head. “A valuable tradition, yes indeed; they say the tourists love these, ah, crows.”
“Ravens, your majesty.”
“Yes, ravens, good man. You know your birds, don’t you?”
“I hope so, your majesty, but I have to report I am becoming more and more concerned for their welfare. I've followed all the veterinary advice I discussed with you last year—”
“Well, one does what one can. We don't blame you in the least if you cannot persuade the fellows to breed. Ha. Reminds me of my predecessor, Eighth of my name. Six wives and he still couldn't keep the line going. Can’t you, er, buy new ravens to replace the old chaps?”
“Yes, Your Majesty; we add stock as regularly as we can, but it’s a stressful event for the birds. Our stockists tell us they will have a new contingent of captive-bred ravens available in the autumn. For now, we are obliged to use wild-captured stock.”
“Well, we’re sure you’re doing all you can. Very nice to speak with you, Smith. Delighted.”
The next day, Albert found one of his ravens on the ground, bedraggled and miserable-looking. He took the bird to the vet, who found nothing wrong. He took it home and offered it food and water in his utility room, but once indoors the bird became agitated. It escaped through the small kitchen hatch, only to flap helplessly around the house, defecating on the breadboard and finally attacking Steve's latest new laptop—breaking the keyboard and dropping a memory stick into an unfinished tumbler of whisky. Before Albert could rescue either bird or computer, the laptop had crashed to the floor and the bird had found an open window.
Albert picked the bird up from his low garden wall, and took it sadly back to its Tower home. At least let him die among family, he thought.
He returned home to find himself confronted by a raging Steve. Oh, no, he thought: the laptop! He began to apologise.
“A WHAT?” Steve shrieked. “One of your filthy birds? In my room?”
“I suppose the door was open—”
“Grandad, you realise that bird has destroyed three months' work?”
“Oh, that’s terrible Steve. I’m sorry. What were you working on?”
“Never mind! Nobody's business—you wouldn't understand if I told you. Why question me like this? I'm not the one who believes in magic birds. Why are you questioning me? Why me?”
“Oh, Steve, I'm not.” Albert said, pushing away a feeling of discomfort. Of course Steve would keep the details of his security software confidential. “I'm just sorry to hear it. Three months... Sorry it happened.”
“Well, I'm getting a proper lock on my door. I can't even have my own space in this house.”
“Yes, but Steve, you want the cleaner to come in, don't you?”
“No,” said Steve with a glint in his eye. “I don't. I'll clean the place myself. You and your birds and your cleaner can just leave my space alone.”
Albert nodded, envisioning ants and mice taking over; and yet, he felt far more upset by the raven's mysterious illness than this argument with his grandson.
At dawn, returning to the Tower, Albert found his raven dead.
The next morning, another raven. Then three. A week later, another. Autopsies revealed slightly elevated levels of trace pesticides, heavy metals, stress hormones—but nothing that could explain the dieoff. A few at a time passed, until one day there was only one old female, who ate and drank nothing and would not let Albert approach. That night, Albert went home with death in his heart.
Once in bed, he had difficulty falling sleeping and became first vaguely aware, then mildly surprised, to hear the clicking of keys from Steve’s room. He must be awake, too. Perhaps he had something on his mind, but the thought soon slipped away as Albert drifted off asleep. In the morning, he went out and found Old Martha (as he had called her) dead below the Tower.
He took her body indoors, placed her into a plastic bag, turned and walked away. He trod the streets aimlessly. The noise of crying disturbed him, but it took him a long time to realise that it was coming from those around him—it sounded so like the ravens, in their last days. People shouted on the sidewalks about some disaster. Cyber-terrorism, they said. waving smartphones of bad news: the City! The City has fallen! Banks, corporations, the economic heart of the nation, ruined!
Eventually, Albert arrived back home. He found the house unoccupied, Steve’s room unlocked, its closets empty and most of Steve’s possessions removed—not hurriedly but neatly, as though planned for a long time. Albert crept back into his own room and sat on the bed.
“Steve,” he whispered, looking tearfully at the childhood photo of his grandson. “Steve... my boy... what have you done?”
Albert remembered the day after Steve had thrown the rock at the raven. He had stood by the door, his grandson sitting at his desk, the computer screen flickering against his still-healing face. He had looked at peace, clicking away; happy, even. He had always loved his computers.
What had Steve done, in that abstract realm of clicks and icons? He had bloodily slaughtered some rows of figures, perhaps; disobeyed orders for his own gain, betrayed some esoteric principle of commerce… had exiled himself to some foreign island, to live a life of indulgence...
“You've killed my ravens,” Albert sobbed.