Most invasions are planned in advance. But this one was an accident.
He sets out in search of food every morning, his mighty wings keeping him aloft. The food may be many tens of kilometres away, but he knows he can trust his wings to take him there, and his nose to tell him when he’s reached.
Now he finds the smell of plankton drifting up from the sea. He dives down low, skimming it from the water’s surface with his bill. On he flies, in search of the fish, squid, crustaceans, molluscs and plankton that make up his food.
His food? No, not his alone. He’s not just eating, but also saving food in his stomach — saving it till he reaches the nest, so he can use it to feed her.
She doesn’t do anything these days. Not hunting, not flying, not even walking around. All she does is sit. Is she ill? No, she is not. She’s merely conserving her energy, building up enough reserves for her main pressing job at the moment: laying an egg.
Some invasions happen slowly, stealthily. The enemy infiltrates your ranks, and mingles with the crowd, and nobody even notices that they exist. They seem to be just ordinary people.
Ordinary, that is, until they get the signal to attack. These people are like spies. They may be enemies from another country, or aliens from another planet, but they look too much like you and me for us to tell the difference. They’re good at pretending to be one of us — and they do it so well that we, with the technology we have, cannot tell the difference.
In other kinds of invasion, it’s not the people themselves who are imitated.
She has laid her egg now. The small white thing is sitting safely in its burrow and she has left him sitting over it to keep it warm. Now, it’s her turn to do the hunting.
She spreads her wings and sets off, away from the island and out to the open sea. Now that she’s started, there’s no time to waste. If she delays too long, he may get impatient and walk away. Then, the egg will be exposed and could freeze to death.
Quickly she catches her food, and begins her flight back home.
Home. That’s a strange word to use. She is a person of the sea: above the sea is where she belongs, and all the sea is her home.
But now, she is tied to the island where her one egg lies.This is the island where she was born. It was used by her parents, and her grandparents, and their parents, all the way back for generations.
Other islands are only for exploring. People nesting there have their own habits, and their own problems. Some islands are getting contaminated by radioactive water. Others are under such severe drought that mice are launching attacks to drink their victims’ blood.
This island may have its own problems as well, to be sure. But she knows how to deal with them, or will have to learn soon. This is the island that, for the few months it takes to grow and raise her chick, she will have to call “home”.
Some people just have things. They don’t realise they can be used for an invasion.
What, for instance, could be wrong with a “smart” CCTV camera to watch over your backyard, or an Internet-enabled plant-pot to tweet you when the water runs dry? Or a cute little “smart spoon” that vibrates when you’ve had enough to eat?
These devices have low security, and can easily be hacked into. But what’s the worst that a hacker can do with a remote-controlled plant-pot?
In October 2016, cybercriminals gave the answer. They infiltrated thousands of “smart” devices round the world, put in their specially crafted software, and mobilised them into a kind of zombie army. The “smart” cameras, routers, printers and DVRs teamed together, and launched a coordinated cyber-attack.
Together, they brought down Twitter, PayPal, Reddit, Pinterest, and hundreds of other websites around the world.
The days pass by quickly. Each of them takes a turn at hunting food or warming the egg. And one day, finally, the egg begins to hatch.
She watches as a tiny crack appears. It slowly grows bigger and bigger, until at last a little bill peeps out. Before long, their young chick has emerged, cold and shivering but ready to be fed.
It is her young chick, of course. It must be: for did it not come out of her own egg?
The chick is tiny, and still to young to keep warm on its own. One of its parents has to remain sitting next to it, covering it with feathers to keep in the heat. The other one, of course, must fly out to bring food for the whole family.
Now, it is his turn to do the hunting. He flies up high, riding on the wind-currents to save his energy. Then comes hunting time: skimming the surface to pick up floating food; diving deeper to snap up fish and other titbits.
Hunting is a bit like exploring. It’s all about travelling around, seeing what is there, making new discoveries, and finding your way back home at the end of it. There is a difference, though. Hunting deals not with still, stable landscapes but with live, moving creatures.
Every time you return, you have to start over.
Luckily, he still has the landscape to guide him. To the untrained eye, the ocean is just a plain stretch of wavy water, with no landmarks to guide you by. To the trained eye, it’s not much better. That’s why he doesn’t use his eyes to navigate the ocean. What he uses is smells.
Smells! The ocean is full of them. The soft, dark-green ones that tell you there’s an island nearby. The deep blue of underwater currents, next to the salty white of the open ocean. The sparkling, orangish-brown that directs you to a shoal of flying-fish, and the pinks, yellows and greens that tell you: Food is here.
Through his nose, he knows the ocean like a map. The pattern of smells around him tell him exactly where he is. He remembers the day he first set out across the waters, finding all the exciting new sounds and smells. One day, he thinks, his young one will do it too.
Some invasions don’t work out at first.
Cuckoos like to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. They do it when the parent birds aren’t looking, so that they treat the egg as one of their own. That way, cuckoos don’t have to care for and feed their own chicks. The baby cuckoo is often bigger than the other chicks, so it can hog all the food or even push the other chicks out of the nest.
Some birds have found a way to counter the cuckoos. Their eggs have signatures: special patterns that are hard to copy. When the cuckoos try to insert their eggs, the parent birds can find them and take them out.
But over time, the cuckoos get better and better at copying eggs. So the other birds have to get better and better at making them hard to copy.
The chick doesn’t seem to be doing well. It seems thin and sickly, and hasn’t been putting on much flesh. But it doesn’t want to eat much, either.
The two parents are doing all they can to help their baby grow. They start off early in the morning now, to try and collect more food, and stay out till late in the evening. They keep an extra-sharp lookout for the colourful jellyfish and squid that make for special treats.
The chick is now able to stay warm on its own, though it still looks thin and skinny. It eats some of the food, especially the colourful bits, but its appetite is not as good as it should be.
With luck, it’ll get better over time. The chick has started walking around now. His parents are able to leave it alone for some time, both flying through the air on their hunting trips. Soon, it’ll be time to leave it alone for good.
Mother mosquitoes don’t mean to carry the dengue virus. They don’t mean to infect humans. All they want is nutrition for their children. The virus takes advantage of them as much as it does of humans. The dengue does that, even though it’s not even alive.
Still, to avoid falling ill, humans poison and kill every mosquito they can. That includes healthy mosquitoes, ones who aren’t infected at all.
But they never kill even a most obviously infected human.
The chick’s body lies alone on the edge of the island. Its parents did all they could to help — but in the end, nothing worked. Whatever could have gone wrong?
A stray wave washes over the shore, pulling the chick down with it. The chick has finally reached the ocean — but not in the way it was expected. He reaches the water not by flying up, but by sinking down.
Down to where the answer lies.
A group of brightly coloured creatures sees the dead chick float past. Some of them dive down to investigate — but the others remain floating. They do not react.
Why not? Because they are not alive at all! Those coloured creatures are not living squid or fish, but un-alive pieces of polyvinyl chloride, polyester, and polypropylene.
Most invasions are planned in advance. Messages are sent out, volunteers recruited, and people roped in to help Who would have thought people would help an invasion without even knowing it was happening?
Who would have thought that un-living plastic would launch a stealth attack, mingling not with the victims but with the food they ate?
Most invasions happen with soldiers, and armies, and battle campaigns, and weapons. But this time, it’s by ordinary humans buying ordinary wrapped-up bread and butter and cheese.
Who would have thought it?
Slowly but steadily, and in ever increasing numbers, the invaders make their way to the ocean. Meanwhile, high above in the sky, two seabirds part to go their separate ways. They didn’t manage to save their chick this time.
Next year, they will try again.
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