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Feathers and Void, by Charles Payseur


We are crows,
circling round the wake of death, black wings silent as we glide, waiting, waiting.

The big one’s gonna hit. Any second now. Iv’s thoughts coat mine like oil, slide away, always so clear in the moment but impossible to hold on to. Iv, my crow. My shell. My ship.

They told me, before, that being joined with Iv would be like living in a constant state of déjà vu. Like remembering something from a previous life, always a surprise when it happens but somehow familiar, like I’ve been silently preparing for just this thing.

There’s the explosion. The volley of missiles impact and my eyes widen even as my hands are ready to guide us in. We flock, the whole murder of us, as the Branthel 99X [JUPITER CLASS] Three Moons loses itself to the cold. The Distress blares as we approach, our sleek bodies the absence of light, wrapped in warmth and silence and life.

It carries something in its belly. It has eaten well and deep and so shall we. Rip it open. Feed. I shiver as the thoughts come, pins and needles down my spine.

Another volley might scream out from opposition at any moment, or else the Three Moons might trip its self-destruct, or else—We are in, talons digging into metal, finding purchase on the burnt slag of ship.

Xi(a) runs point, beak snapping at bits of debris—filling up on garbage. But then, maybe Xi knows something Iv isn’t telling me. Crows can be like that, secretive. It doesn’t mean we trust them any less. They are part of us now, after all.

I keep my beak shut as we push deeper into the ship, though each scrap that hits the light tempts me. I feel the call of something deeper, tastier. I wait, using the hunger to push me past Xi(a), past the bodies now thicker, now thicker.

A Jupiter Class can hold five thousand in crew and soldiers, though I know there’s no way the Far Home would have put so many aboard. Two, maybe? The war with the Near Home has cost them much—planets of people are gone through this conflict. Like me. Gone into the dark. Only I’ve come back.

Second right. Very close. Be careful. Iv’s voice is a cold shadow in my mind I follow on instinct.

I come to sealed bulkheads. Cumbersome to breach but my claws are sharp. I tear and scratch. Behind me the others pick over bodies, snapping out ID chips, ripping free whole neural arrays. Flesh gives like slush. Weakened metal punctures, and around us the corridor shudders and releases as air is pushed into the void. The bulkhead puckers enough to allow us through.

Inside I hesitate, tasting the fleeing traces of air and hope. Hallways branch and I surge ahead, as if by muscle memory, following the ghost of Iv’s intent—forward, then right. There’s another door but it cannot hold me. I—I wait, listen. There is something strange about this. Movement behind the door, the smell of electricity and something acrid, chemical. I wonder at the extra shielding to this area, able to withstand a direct hit from a Near Home barrage. I push my questions and doubts away and crash through the door.

Inside is a swarm of people, scientists—and something else, something hot and shiny and I need it. Weapons fire at me but I’m already dodging, already sweeping wings, claws, beak. I aim for masks and hoses, don’t need to kill them direct, just buy myself time. The firing stops and the source of my desperation looks like an egg of liquid metal suspended in a cylindrical stasis pod. No bigger than a human fist.

Fly!

I snap up the egg and a dozen other things from the table—tools and data chips and whatever else, then turn and fly. My squawk is a call, a warning. Speed is impossible in the corridors but I half-fly, half-crash through and through and out until the void is clear again and the Near Home Verol G9 [URSA CLASS] Starborn stares me in the face.

Stand-down orders shout through all channels. I dim them as I dive, seeing the telltale twinkle of a thousand piranha missiles firing at once. My caw is desperate as I sheer down, back, away, away. I do not worry about the missiles, which are larger than me but which lack the power to track us. I worry about debris. I worry about what else might be lurking around the perimeter of the battle, waiting. We crows are not the only scavengers, nor the largest.

Nor the fastest, it turns out. The barrage hits the Three Moons and Vi(ctor)’s squawk as he pulls himself free of the last corridor, weighed down by meat and swag, is indignant. I clench my jaw and fly. The mourning can come later, now we need to fly. But it doesn’t stop the pain, and in my beak there is the faintest vibration, as if something responds to that pain. Iv is strangely silent.

I was chosen because of my name. And yes, okay, I volunteered, too, but millions volunteered. It meant avoiding infantry, the meat grinder, which everyone knows well to avoid, or to try to avoid. Does it matter that the science is untested, that the price is your mind? We all wanted to live, and that’s what guided us, what guides us still.

But there’s something about the military and names. Or scientists and names? My profile ticked all the right boxes. Asexual, aromantic, introverted, no history of violence or resistance, high testing in special relations, logic, and reflexes. But there were hundreds that fit, and they needed only eleven. So they picked us for our names. I(ván), I(a)i(n), I(th)i(r)i(al), Iv(y), V(era), Vi(ctor), Vi(v)i(an), Vi(r)i(d)i(an), Ix, X(an), and Xi(a).

I’m not sure how many of those not chosen are still alive. Not many. And I’m not sure how to feel about still being alive. It’s what I wanted. But that was back when I was Ivy, before I became the fourth of eleven. Before Iv came along and made me less than half a name.

Five of us fly into Circus Field, where more ships than stars crowd the void, a gathering place of the unaligned. There are ships of every make and taste, some bought and paid but most stolen or cobbled together from small bits of shine. Security is a cloud of Verol PP2 [OSPREY CLASS] fighters with a pair of PP8 [HERON CLASS] patrollers coordinating. Even the PP2s, the smallest make of military value, are about ten times our size—we transmit passcodes and wait to acknowledge permission to trade, but they could not stop us, catch us, even if they twisted all their resources to the task. We do not come as friends, because crows are friends of no one, but we come full of shine, which will be enough.

Vi(v)i(an) is waiting at Crows Home, what people call the converted Extril BGX [PELICAN CLASS] Sprig of Holly that we scavenged mostly whole following the Third Raid of Heliocrux. The field had been so full of dead and dying that we crows had eaten for months off the spoils, coils, and codes. We simply call the vessel the shop, because crows do not have homes, are welcomed nowhere and so live nowhere, brooding wherever possible until storm or fire or humans push them on. The first thing Vi(v)i(an) notices is that we’re short one, and as we bow our heads she rips the void with a clacking call, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.

When she is done we take turns spitting our hauls onto the floor of the shop. It was a minor battle but we have eaten well. I(ván) coughs up a mostly-undamaged null-shield, preens as the others gawk and snap their beaks in agitation. I hang back, feeling the egg, which is both hot and cold. The wait is shorter than it used to be, without Vi(ctor). Without I(a)i(n) or I(th)i(r)i(al) or V(era) or Vi(r)i(d)i(an). Only six of us now, and only five who fly the void since Vi(v)i(an)’s brush with a neuronanite trap. Her steps stretch with a deep limp and her wings will not unclench from her sides, will no longer unfurl, embrace the void. Still she holds on, acts as our base of operations and hawker, which causes her no end of amusement.

When the others are done, I am careful to release the tools and detritus first. The others gaze hungrily at everything—even without the final reveal I have rivaled I(ván)’s haul, the tools specialized and expensive, the datachips gleaming with research and other classifieds. Then I set the stasis pod down into the middle of my pile, and five heads tilt to the side as one. The electric curiosity of their attention is new. I let the pod down and feel a new chill inside me, a cold pit of anticipation. We crowd forward to examine the pod but Vi(v)i(an) darts in with her beak and snatches it up, and we shrink back, none willing to press.

“Where did you get this?”

I tell her what I am able, which isn’t much. The lab, the guards, the scientists. I do not know what this is or what it could be, but I spend as little time as possible among the gossipmongers and traders, so I am not the one to ask. Vi(v)i(an) flies now in entirely different circles, wings of information replacing those she’s lost to the neuronanites, and so I hope she can tell me what I have discovered.

“It’s not worth the trouble,” I(ván) says, no doubt wanting to go back to admiring the shine we’ve collected.

“Shut it and let Viv work,” Xi(a) says, beak snapping. She and I(ván) have never gotten along, he too proud and she too small, fast. Xia, she will introduce herself, like See-Ya! And then she will be voidward and onward, a streak of movement, something valuable trapped in her talon.

“Why not let the adults talk, little one,” I(ván) says, ruffled.

“Why not fuck yourself, old man. Just because you were made first doesn’t mean you were made best.”

It’s an old argument and one that Ix cuts short with an angry squawk. Ix, who doesn’t speak in human terms any more, who is normally least present, eyes too busy scouting unseen patterns in the stars. Right now Ix is focused entirely on the pod, and they hush all noise with a flutter of wings and a narrowing of their eyes.

“This is familiar,” Vi(v)i(an) says, putting the cylinder down on a scanner. “I’ve…been looking into ways of getting around the bugs that messed up Vii.” Her voice is raw for a second but recovers, and we all are silent, still. “They aren’t susceptible to most countermeasures, but from what I’ve seen it would be possible, if we had the original Corvid bioform, to—”

“That’s the Corvid bioform?” Xi(a) asks. The rest of us hold our breath.

The Corvid bioform. The progenitor of the entire Corvid class of ship. Our class of ship, which included a production run of eleven. A failed experiment. Had the Far Home decided to try again?

“No, but it’s similar,” Vi(v)i(an) says.

They’re coming for you. You need to go. Iv’s words send a spike of panic up my back. My head twists to the side, as if there’s a predator lurking behind us. Vi(v)i(an) continues talking.

“There’s not a lot for sale on bioforms,” she says. “Living ships were abandoned after…after us, and any new research is strictly classified. But there have been whispers.”

“The war’s going poorly for the Far Home,” X(an) says, matter of fact. “I read it on the Three Moons. They’re running out of soldiers. There were only twelve hundred aboard when the barrage hit.”

Of course e would have checked. Data has always been eir favorite shine.

I walk over to the long range scanners, distracted from the conversation. I should be paying attention, but something is nagging at me and I’ve learned enough not to ignore it.

“I’ve heard that they’re looking into living ships again,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “Though they’ve given up on the augur engine and ship sentience. After what happened with us…but they’ve also made the structures less rigid, the delivery vector more viral, so they could convert larger numbers quickly.”

“What the fuck’s it supposed to be, then?” Xi(a) asks.

The question is running through my mind, as well. The whole purpose of the Corvid experiment was to create a living ship, smart and adaptive, able to predict events. Magic, essentially, because I never understood the science of it. I only understood that, while there was a small chance of success, it was a hell of a lot better than entering the meat grinder.

My hand brushes the scanner controls, brings up the channel feeds of the Circus.

“I’m thinking they want suits smart enough to react to the pilots but not be fully aware,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “More computer than bird. Able to shrink and grow and change shape. Like a shape-shifting suit that can become a ship and then revert back into clothing, neurally linked to the pilot but not cocooning them.”

I swallow. I see it, at the edges of the feeds. Small queries about long distance readings. And something else. One voice asking after a murder of crows. Has anyone seen them? Have they attempted to sell—

“We need to go,” I say. My hands fly over the controls and cast the net wider, beyond the Circus. The feeds begin to grow more frantic as others start to see it. A fleet. Far Home. My eyes soar over the displays. Two Jupiter Class carriers and at least ten Mars Class battleships. Saturn Class, Venus Class, Khyber Class—it’s a full fleet, moving slow but too fast for the Circus to disperse in time.

The others scatter, X(an) going for the controls while I(ván) and Ix gather up the shine. Xi(a) helps Vi(v)i(an) with the pod. I remain at the controls, waiting for what I know is coming. It takes all of twenty-five seconds, by which time X(an) already has us moving through the shifting currents of the Circus.

They deliver their message on an open frequency. “Deliver the Crows and you can live.”

It’s strange, the urge to live. For a long time I was angry about it. Still am, really. Angry at people’s selfish desire to keep on living. Wasn’t enough to fuck over Earth. Wasn’t enough to fuck over everything we ever knew and fling ourselves into the stars with all the care of a gaggle of drunken toddlers. Wasn’t enough to start this idiotic war about what planet to call New Earth, which was really more about branding for the Big Four ship manufacturers than it was about human pride and integrity.

I can’t blame them, except I can. I mean, we’re here. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to die, but I can sure as shit blame people for still thinking doing nothing but reproducing will make it any better. Legions of people and all they do is sell their children to the war in hopes it will grow full enough to spare them. Maybe that’s not fair, but as one of those sold I don’t care about being fair. The real blame might belong elsewhere, but there was a choice and I didn’t get to make it. The first time I got an option it was how I wanted to die. Infantry or pilot. Certain death or uncertain.

There are costs to participate, they told me. No touch. The ship will always encase me. No sex, no eating, no pissing or shitting. And okay, the last I’m sure most would be quick to give up. And the first I never cared for. I had never found eating that satisfying, but not being hungry? That’s something different. I’ve never had enough food to care how it tasted. So yeah, sign me up, Mx. Recruiter. Cover me in your Corvid suit and I’ll try not to scream as it burrows into me, as I stop being me and start being us. As I start hearing a voice I can never remember. At least this is me choosing something.

And when you underestimate the process? When you think the Crows will somehow stay obedient, that they’ll be so grateful to you for feeding them living people so they can fight for you? Well, this time we don’t wait to be given options. We take. We take and we take and we take and you can’t tell us we’re wrong or bad if you can never catch us. Eat slag. Eat the fire and death you serve up on planets like they’re dinner plates. Eat the trail of void our wings leave in our wake.

It’s never a surprise to run, and it has nothing to do with seeing the future. At least, I hope there’s no voice constantly droning in my head, You cannot stay you cannot stay you cannot stay. The crows don’t need to bother, because it’s something even we humans can figure out, taught by the string of places left behind.

The Circus will not protect us, and we don’t have long now before they come en masse for us, sacrifices to appease angry gods. Crows have always been blamed for bad luck. Storm heralds and battle gorgers. Servants of evil, because people think since they can’t see into the dark there’s something menacing lurking there. Never quite believing that it’s mostly just empty, that crows are just more comfortable there than most.

You’ve got to get to Ourla. Iv’s voice is an itch in the back of my mind—I see an image. Dr. Ourla. The lead researcher on the Corvid program. A man I haven’t thought about in a long time. Why now?

“You all need to hit the void,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and I wince. We all wince. This isn’t open for debate or hesitation. When Crows say we need something, we act. So we all get to it. I(ván) gathers up a few choice pieces of shine while Xi(a) delivers the stasis pod to me and Ix fiddles with something in the corner.

“We have about three minutes before they start firing on us,” X(an) says. It’s been two years here, at the Circus, among other people avoiding the war, resisting Far Home and Near Home both, at least passively. Gone now. Vi(v)i(an) pecks X(an) in the shoulder.

“Get to the hatch,” she says. “No way I’ll make it out of here. It’s me that pilots this ship to the end.”

X(an) almost looks like e’s going to argue but shrugs instead and stands, walks over to where we gather by the hatch.

“But what do we do with this?” Xi(a) asks, holding the pod, still facing Vi(v)i(an). “You’re the only one who knows anything about it.”

“Dr. Ourla,” I say. The others glance at me, features twitching at the name, but there is understanding as well. The recognition of the truth of the name.

“We could always just give it back,” I(ván) says, though his voice shakes as he says it.

We don’t answer him. Ix squawks from where they were working and stands, joins us near the hatch. They’ve tampered with the null shield. My eyes widen slightly as I see what they’ve done.

“That should do lovely,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and we can see the glimmer of her eyes. Two years, and here we are. Crows know to be comfortable while you can, but to know your exits.

Go. I’m giddy with Iv’s voice in my head, gone before I can fully comprehend. Maybe they’re just saying goodbye.

The hatch opens and we wing into the chaos. The Circus is still roiling around us, a thousand thousand ships making a hurricane of activity, the urge to flee and fight and surrender warring on every micro and macro scale. Only we are determined as we fly. Away from the fleet. Away from the Circus and whatever safety it might have offered us if we belonged. The mood of the storm is changing, making up its mind in waves. The first shots are fired at Crows Home, which dodges the worst and takes the rest harmlessly to its shields.

Ships can track us, too, of course. They know we’re flying. But for now we’re outrunning their fear.

They’re not going to let you leave.

We glide through the ships, pushing outward. Most are more than willing to see the back of us and offer no resistance. Some need to be reminded how sharp our claws are and we let them live because if we started killing now there would be a frenzy. Crows Home lets itself be herded, toward the fleet. I patch into the channels and hear the calls going out. We have them, we have them, take them and let us live. I clench my claws so hard the pain almost makes me miss the flitting shadows of the PP2s.

My cry alerts the others a moment before the PP2s open fire—three dozen cannons turn the void into plasma. They should have stayed out of it.

Ix takes the lead and we fall in behind them except for Xi(a), who draws what fire she can as we make for the PP8s, weaving between the PP2s, a tapestry of destruction. Everything is hot and close and fast but we were built for it and built hungry and we find their eyes and blind them. Metal feels like flesh and tastes sweet as we tear apart the PP8s. Without their coordination and sophisticated scans the relatively simply PP2s are stabbing in the dark, something they have no experience doing while we are old masters. What is left of them lets us flee and calls it a victory because on the other side of the Circus, Crows Home is being buoyed by the Far Home fleet.

We can see Vi(v)i(an) in our minds, imagine her tilting her head as she examines their approach vectors, as she times everything. The null-shield beeps, an almost avian sound, as she presses where Ix made their adjustment. And then a white explosion, and we imagine her happy that at least they will not feast on her corpse. That is the job of a crow and she would not want others to profane our work.

We fly, the void wrapping us in cold arms. And as we move our voices rise together, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.

We were made to work together. Eleven ships that could go where others could not. Flying as one, each with a separate glimpse of the future—some far out, some much closer into what will be. Some sensing danger and some seeing goals and some doing a little bit of everything. We were made to work together, only whole with all eleven active, together, a beautiful murder.

I wonder sometimes if they were warned. Did Vi(ctor) know the barrage was coming, and just ignore the feeling? Was he tired of living on the whispers of a voice that was only an absence? Or did Vi not warn him? Was Vi the one tired, seeking that final solitude?

It’s impossible to know the truth. Sometimes I speak to Iv and I feel a tingle on my skin. My actual skin and not the organic metal of the crow. Being a crow means never being alone, means being able to stand the void without blinking or turning away.

What I know is that Vi(ctor) isn’t really gone. He’s an absence, but he’s not gone. If I close my eyes I can still feel him. We might look like only five crows cutting through the dark, but there are six shadows that fly with us, and we are still active, together, a beautiful murder.

We know where Dr. Ourla is. Even in the void there are some things we will never forget, some faces that chase us, that are seared into our minds. Enemy. Parent. Even the thought of him makes me want tear at myself—pull my feathers, spit curses into the void. Better yet, to tear at him, to pay him back in blood and pain and loss. There is no solace in the fact that he was punished, that he languishes in confinement on the edge of space.

Breaking into prison is child’s play.

With the Circus gone, there are few enough places to run to, and fewer with labs sufficient for the task at hand. We return to the beginning. Our beginning, at least. On a little moon once firmly in the grip of the Far Home. In the nebulous disputed zones between the two great powers, there is a now-deserted compound we all know well.

“I knew you wouldn’t leave me there,” Dr. Ourla says as we herd him into the lab where we were made. “I knew you would thank me for what I did for you.”

“Thank you?” Xi(a) approaches, beak gaping, promising. I(ván) is right beside her, the two finally united in their hatred of Ourla. “You’re lucky we don’t bite you in two.”

“But I did so much for you,” he says, though he is wise enough to stumble back as Ix and I hold our wings to prevent the others from ripping him apart. “And you’ve done so much. The news they feed us is heavily filtered, but I can still see your marks. Embarrassments for both sides. How would you have managed that, if I hadn’t made you—”

“You do not get to claim our victories as your own,” X(an) says, eyes narrow. “Nothing we do or accomplish will ever make your actions noble or right.”

“But then why free me?” he asks.

To take. To take to take to take to take. I suck in a breath, suppress the urge to taste his blood, to see the dull shine of his heart in my beak.

“Because we need you,” I say, and produce the stasis pod. Even though it is all of ours, it was mine first, and not even I(ván) questions that I should carry it. Ourla’s eyes widen when he sees it.

“We need to know what this is,” I say. I do not say why. I do not say that I already have a plan for it, that I can hear the whispers of something in my mind that I trust, even I don’t quite understand them. I know the plan starts here, with Ourla and the bioform.

Ourla’s face darkens as he steps forward, examining the pod.

“Those bastards,” he says, fist pounding the table the pod sits on. The rest of us share quick glances, unsure of this reaction. Of all the ways we expected him to respond, anger was not one.

“It wasn’t bad enough that they locked me away,” he says, “for doing exactly what they wanted me to do. But now they’ve stolen my work. My life’s work.”

“So it’s related to the Corvid bioform?” X(an) asks.

I keep my attention sharp. Most of the science of what we are is beyond me. The crows…I know that they are alive, know that they are aware, that their skin now coats my own in material stronger than steel but able to feed on solar radiation and transform it into energy, able to integrate into my body, recycling my waste, making it so that I don’t need to eat or breathe. Beyond that, I am a mystery even to myself.

“Related, though…grotesque,” Ourla says. He already has the pod onto one of the analysis tables, is already scanning its data. “They stripped away the elegance. The interface is barbaric, the bioform completely slaved to the host. It’s…it’s a mockingbird.”

“We understand it can fly,” X(an) says. “Will it give the host the same integrated metabolism?”

The void is a cold place indeed if everyone starves before they can reach a new world. Iv’s words are a whisper stolen by the distance of neurons in my mind, but I find I’m holding my breath as I wait for the scans to progress, for Ourla to answer.

“Yes,” he says. “But they learned from their mistakes. They’ve encoded a failsafe. A kill switch. Otherwise it’s brilliant. Viral. It can be passed blood to blood, activates almost instantly. A planet of people could be transformed within weeks. Days, if there’s no resistance.”

I imagine whole worlds emptied of people, drawn into the war. I imagine the scouts, telling everyone the suit is theirs, their ticket from hunger, their ticket from a government stealing their resources, their blood, their will. The thought of wings, of freedom…only to find that the wings carry a price tag, the freedom a cage. Fight or die. It’s not difficult to believe.

“Can you disable the failsafe?” X(an) asks. We are all leaning closer to the conversation, waiting, waiting.

“Why should I?” Ourla says, face twisting into something ugly, utterly human.

What does any man like this want, after everything?

“To hurt those who hurt you,” I say. “To take the work they stole from you and use it as a weapon to make them pay. To make sure none forget your brilliance. Together, we can end the war for good.”

The smile that spreads across his face is all the answer I need about his intentions.

Crows use tools. Crows mourn for their fallen. Crows never forget a face. Somewhere in all the facts about crows there is something else as well, the shadow of a voice.

A crow is never alone. A crow dies free.

They’ve found you. It’s time to leave.

I blink and shake my head. I’ve been staring out the window, at the gray desolation of the moon. Inside the lab my wings feel cramped, but I know better than to leave. We’re running out of time. I move to where the others are waiting, watching Ourla work. He keeps bobbing and making small noises as his hands move over the pod, modifying the code, the structures of the bioform.

“Is it ready?” I ask.

Ourla grunts and steps back. “It’s not my most elegant work,” he says, “but I’ve disabled the failsafe. At least, I’ve made it so it can’t be activated from outside. The host will still be aware of it, and if they choose to activate it, well…”

I retrieve the pod, take it inside me again. It’s enough. Better, even, because it means no one will be taken against their will, that anyone wanting to become a mockingbird will have the ultimate control over their bodies and souls. We’ve taken the shackles the armies have wrought and repurposed them into wings. We move toward the exit hatch and Ourla trots after us until Ix notices and turns, snaps the air between them with their beak.

“What is the meaning of this?” Ourla asks, puffing out his chest. Ix’s body lowers, body tensing at the tone of Ourla’s voice.

“We thank you for your assistance,” X(an) says.

“But you’re a right bastard and we never want to see you again,” Xi(a) says.

The words seem to wash around him without sinking in.

“You can’t leave me like this,” he says. “You need to find me a ship. If they find me again, they’ll—”

“They’ll lock you back up,” I say. “And probably not be as gentle about it this time.”

“But I helped you,” he says. Then, in a whisper, “I created you.”

Ix coughs up a pistol onto the floor between them and we all turn and file out of the lab. From the void we can already feel the massive shape of an approaching fleet. We take wing.

We dance the distance between stars, our feathers glistening in the starlight. Out here we glow, hum with the song of radiation and propulsion and hope. We never asked to have the void as our map, the stars as our landmarks. And now that we have it, I often wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.

Fly free. Feel yourself a point of shadow against the darkness and call out into the silent reaches. We are here, we are here, we are here. Is there any answer?

The sky is full of wings. Millions of wings. The planet, a remote outpost of the Near Home, has changed quickly. At least, the life on it has. Nearly everyone, even those who have no intention of leaving the surface, who will never once reach into the air and pull, has accepted the gifts we bring. Our mockingbird children.

It is freedom. Not only from gravity but also hunger. Cold. Distance. Many have already left. While the Far Home and Near Home battle on the borders of their space, arguing over who has the better right to pursue us, everyone is slipping between. What does near or far matter when we can make our home in the void. Never still, we can carry it with us.

They are joining forces. They will come for you.

Millions strong, we could fight them now. With the mockingbirds beside we could tear them apart with the strength of a million beaks pecking as one. We could beat them. Instead, I look around me. I(ván) and Ix and X(an) and X(ia) all stand, and I can feel the shadows filling the circle—I(a)i(n) and I(th)i(r)i(an) and V(era) and Vi(ctor) and Vi(v)i(an) and Vi(r)i(d)i(an).

There are so many other planets to see, suns that glitter like bits of shine. We all crane our necks upward and call. Sorrow and warning, sorrow and warning, over and over again. And all around us the void fills with voices calling back.

You are not alone.

We fly.

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

Other Flocks:

The Earth and Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight.

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace – Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.

Birds on An Island, by Charlie Bookout – I sent the last package to Arkansas today. I made it a point at the beginning never to use the same post office twice, so I drove up to Lubec this time. The roads in this part of Maine don’t offer much to look at—miles of pine forests, wild blueberry fields, little else—and it’s a long way back to my house, so I’ve fallen again into thinking about the lady who came from there, from Arkansas. I hate that I can’t remember her first name.

Allosaurus Burgers by Sam J. Miller

Our teacher Mrs. Strunt said the allosaurus coming to Hudson Falls was the best thing that ever happened to Hudson Falls, but the worst thing that ever happened to the allosaurus. She herded us onto the bus looking mad about it, trying to keep us from seeing she was just as excited as we were. The bus was freezing and we had all the windows fogged up in five minutes. Other boys drew curse words. I wrote F-U-C and then flinched, imagining my mother finding out, so I wiped it away and drew an allosaurus.

“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said. “Wherever it came from, it’s got to feel terribly lonely and lost and scared.”

The roads were all madness on the way to the farm. Barely a day since Mr. Blecher made his big announcement, and everyone in the world was coming to Hudson Falls. Scientists and men with giant cameras, and lots of soldiers with lots of guns, but not the mean soldiers and scientists from movies. Everyone I saw had a smile so big it could have been their birthday. Everyone is coming to Hudson Falls, I thought.

And then: a treacherous, wicked, horrible thought.

Maybe my dad will come.

Where had it come from—dad—that foul forbidden word? I sucked in my cheeks like making a fish face and closed my teeth on as much flesh as I could, and bit down hard. And then harder. Punishing myself. Until I felt the same hot smothering rage that rises up in my mother every time I say that word.

I thought my mother was God, then. Six-foot-something, all flesh and freckles, she towered over our neighbors in church and at the supermarket. She came home from the slaughterhouse smelling like blood. I was nine then, and she could still pick me up, hoist me into the air. Not even the fathers of the other boys my age could do that. She wasn’t afraid of anything.

At breakfast that morning my mother had said “Day after tomorrow, the army’s going to take it away, and I personally think it can’t happen soon enough.”

I finished my milk and Mom poured me more, which I did not want, which I drank. Mom is certain that the government wants to take our stuff. Mostly our guns. She has a lot of guns and a lot of stickers on her car about them and her cold dead hands. So now I wondered why she wanted them to take the allosaurus.

“Woulda taken it right away, only it’ll take ’em 48 hours to scrounge up the right equipment.”

I nodded. Mom drank from the jug and put it back in the fridge.

“Blecher’s going to make out okay, though. Heard he’s got a million in TV deals lined up.” She likes Mr. Blecher because he’s an old old man, but he can still get over on her once in a while in arm wrestling. “And he’s hidden away some of its droppings to sell to the companies.”

“What kind of companies?”

Mom frowned. “How the hell would I know something like that?”

I wondered what they would do with dinosaur poop. Could you clone something from its poop? Could something so gone forever come back so easily? And if poop worked, what else would? I thought of my father’s baseball cap, the one Mom didn’t know I had, the one that still smelled of his sweat when I crawled to the back of my closet late at night and in total darkness buried my nose in it.

Mom never sits at meal times. She made anxious circles through the tiny kitchen, moving refrigerator magnets and removing expired coupons and straightening the cat and dog figurines I could never stop forcing to fight each other. It was a Tuesday morning, which is when my sister Sue calls from college. Waiting for the call always made Mom a little tense.

“What?” she said, kicking me lightly. “Why the face, like I just killed a puppy?”

I shrugged.

“You want me to be excited about it. But that thing ain’t right. They got scientists out combing that corner of Blecher’s farm, but mark my words they won’t find nothing. This is something bigger than science.”

“At church yesterday, Pastor said it’s a creature of God,” I spoke carefully, not contradicting, just seeking clarity. I could no longer swing my legs when I sat at the kitchen table. This was a recent development, one I’d been looking forward to that had turned out to be pretty crummy. My feet rested resentfully on the cold tiles. A draft came from under the door.

“Pastor’ll say what needs to be said to help Mr. Blecher out and to get people to come and spend their money in town. Creature of God, my foot.”

Church was the most important thing in my mother’s life, but I don’t think she believed in God. The Hudson Falls Evangelical Lutheran Church gave her lots of things, like friends and a full social calendar and a reason not to go to the liquor store. God didn’t offer her anything extra. Mostly she just liked what Pastor said: the sermons full of blood, fire and the devil and impending doom, about a world gone haywire and full of sinners and about to be punished.

She heaped bacon on my plate, five then six then seven slices. “‘Fore you know it, there’ll be bunches of them things, running riot over all the world. Eating us all up.”

“It’s locked up, Mom.”

“I know you saw King Kong, because I saw you crying at the end of it—” and she thumped me on the arm, not hard, because I saw her cry too when the big ape fell—”so I know you know they had Kong tied up good and proper, and he still got loose.”

My sister Sue called then. Mom talked to her for a little while, not sounding super-excited. Mom handed me the phone while Sue was in a sentence.

“Hi,” I said, interrupting her.

“Matt? Hi! Exciting stuff, right? A dinosaur in stupid little Hudson Falls! It’s on all the news channels.”

“Yeah.”

“Have you seen it?”

“No,” I said. “We go today.”

“I wish I could come see it, but it’ll be gone soon, right? Did you read the dinosaur books I sent you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged.

“Did you just shrug? You can’t shrug over the phone.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Do you not like dinosaurs anymore?”

I shrugged again. Then I remembered about shrugging. “I don’t know.”

But I did know. Starting around the time I turned seven, Mom frowned when I talked about dinosaurs. “You get too excited about those things,” she’d say. “Loving something too much is dangerous.” So whenever I got the urge to pick up a dinosaur book or toy, I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek.

The allosaurus was different, of course. It was something you couldn’t ignore or pray away.

“I talked to Dad,” Sue said. Mom was making a lot of noise putting the dishes in the sink. “He’s coming to town to see the allosaurus. He begged his editor to give him the assignment.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember your dad?”

“No,” There was nothing to remember. Some phone calls, sometimes, some letters, and once a box with a birthday present. Mom set it on fire without opening it. Sadness-anger tightened my stomach. I bit my lip to banish it.

“Mom’s…” Sue spent a while figuring out where to go with that one. “Mom’s not always thinking straight, when it comes to him.” She knew she had to be careful. After she screamed bad things at Mom, I refused to speak to her for the whole week before she went to college. “I know it seems like Mom’s the toughest chick on two legs, but she’s afraid of lots of things.”

The being-mad-at-Sue didn’t really go away until we clambered down from the bus at Blecher’s Farm. I had been a million times, for church picnics and farm field trips, but had never seen it so full of strangers, people on cell phones, slinging weird devices. The inside of the barn was full of new gates and doors and walls, built quick by the army while they waited for the elephant cage to come from San Diego.

The allosaurus was as tall as two of my mother when it reared up to its full height, but it rarely did. Its usual leaning-forward walk placed it at just the right level to look Mom in the eye. It looked the way it did in books and movies, a tyrannosaurus but smaller, only it had something the movies don’t: a personality. Curious and mistrustful, not particularly smart, a little like a seagull that wants to steal your food.

“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said, looking up at it. It bobbed its head as it walked.

I was glad Mom wasn’t there. I could stand there staring at the thing with what Mom calls my “gape-mouthed imbecile look.”

The allosaurus was anti-camouflaged, wine-colored with long wide yellow streaks down the flank. It didn’t need to hide from anyone. The claws were a weird marbled grey I hadn’t imagined. Blood and hay covered the floor. It had been eating; its arms and face were messy from it. It didn’t look lonely or lost or scared. It looked proud of itself, like it had lucked into a lot of food and was waiting to see how things played out.

Mr. Blecher took us on a personal tour, his hands heavy on the heads of the kids he knew from church.

We stood at the edge of the barn, beside the steep railing that penned it in. The allosaurus came closer and someone screamed. Its nostrils snorted smoke into the chilly air. The barn had been there since forever, but the sawdust-and-cement smell of the air gave the place a freshly-built feel that was not reassuring. Only raw wood and new nails kept it away from us. It nudged a bar with its head, its claws a yard from my face, and a whole bunch of someones screamed. Maybe including me. The arms are what make an allosaurus so much better than a tyrannosaurus. Tyrannosaurus is way bigger, but they have stupid stumpy little arms with two claws. Allosauruses have long, muscular, useful arms with three scary claws.

Mrs. Strunt asked “What are they going to do with it?”

“Rent it out to movie studios,” Blecher said. “Take its DNA and make little ones. Bottle its spit and sell it for engine grease. Honestly ma’am, I have no idea.”

He took us around to the adjoining cages, where the goats had been crammed. He gripped the lever that would release a goat into the allosaurus pen, and grinned and said “You kids want to see what happens when I pull this?”

We all screamed yes, but Mrs. Strunt said no. She said it loud and weird so Mr. Blecher didn’t.

“Sure wish I could keep it, but they won’t let me. It was all I could do to get them to camp down the hill with their whole security rigmarole, not keep me up all night with their noise.”

I watched the allosaurus. Mr. Blecher was telling the story about how he found it on bear patrol in his John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle, and how everyone always told him he was crazy to bring the harness and the tranquilizer cannon like he could shoot down a grizzly and bring it home. Didn’t he do them one better? … except that he had to call up five of his friends to bring their Gators to help drag it back.

In my head I broke the allosaurus down into the cuts Mom taught me, from the picture of the cow. Thick rib, thin rib. Silverside. Brisket. Chuck. Blade. Drumstick? Cows don’t have drumsticks. Probably the allosaurus was closer to a chicken, but Mom doesn’t work with chickens. That’s a separate slaughterhouse. That’s a whole set of words she doesn’t know.

“So?” Mom said. “How was it?”

“Neat,” I said, sitting down at the kitchen table. She blinked and smiled like she’d been praying, or napping. Her hands were raw, bright pink. Winter’s tough at the slaughterhouse. The meat gets cold fast. Mom doesn’t do the killing. The room where they hang the cows to empty out, after they’ve been killed but before Mom comes through to turn them into smaller pieces, isn’t heated. By the time she gets there they’re barely above freezing.

“Is it true they don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

I nodded.

“Well shoot, you’d think that’d be easy to figure out.”

“You should come,” I said.

“What’d Rebecca have to say about the thing?”

I shrugged. Mom hates Mrs. Strunt. They went to school together, but Mrs. Strunt went to college after and Mom went to the slaughterhouse, and now Mrs. Strunt makes more money than Mom does. Not much more, Mom says, but the fact that Mrs. Strunt doesn’t have to spend the whole day standing up and lifting heavy things really rankles.

“Why don’t you want to come see it?”

“Lord, Matt, I don’t know.”

“Stanley’s parents let him stay home from school today. They said it was because they’re Catholics and the Pope hasn’t spoken on the allosaurus yet, so they don’t know whether it’s demonic or not. But really it was because Stanley was scared.”

I held my fists to my chest right after I said it, steeling myself for what might come, but Mom just smiled. “You think maybe I’m scared of that big brute? He don’t scare me. All it is is meat.”

She stood up and I heard something pop. Mom said one bad word, then, and spent a long time saying it. She put both her hands on her back.

I stood up, but didn’t go closer. Lately I’d been hearing that popping more and more. Once the pain passes she usually moves on to being mad. But this time she shut her eyes and her lips moved, and when she opened them the fierceness had gone out of her face.

“Is she a good teacher? Rebecca?”

“I guess,” I said.

“Do you like her?”

I nodded.

“Good. You need to do well in school.” She looked at me, smiled at whatever she saw. “Somebody ought to make that dinosaur into steaks, is all I’m saying. Or burgers. Eat it before it eats us.” Then she elbowed me. “Would you eat allosaurus burgers, kid?”

I said I would. She said she would too. We laughed about it more than maybe we meant to, but laughing felt good.

Much later that night the phone woke me up. I sat at the top of the stairs so I could hear Mom’s side of the conversation.

“No.”

“No. Uh uh.”

“Don’t.”

So it was Dad.

“Really, Max? That’s all it is? And if they shipped the dinosaur out to Texas or it died tomorrow, you wouldn’t come?”

“You’re a damn liar.”

“No.”

“No. Why would you ask me that?”

“Why all of a sudden do you care about him now?

“You’re the one who chose to live way the hell down there. And we’re doing fine, him and me.”

“No.”

“Don’t.”

“Please, Max. Please don’t.”

I cried a lot when Mom got drunk and burned the box with my birthday present from Dad, but only because I was five. I wouldn’t cry now.

Things started to get bad between Mom and Sue around the same time Sue called Dad.

“She’s taken him back once before,” she had told me, not long after she snuck out of the house and took a train to see him without telling Mom, and not long before she decided to go to college in Plattsburgh because that would put her just a six-hour bus ride from where Dad was. “I was nine when he came back. He stuck around for a month or two.”

Sue is nine years older than me.

“You should see him. He’s a big strong tough guy. Like you’ll probably be.”

I wouldn’t rise to the bait.

“He’s smart too. Also like you’ll probably be.”

I thought about him a lot. But I’d learned not to ask about him ever. Mom had lots to say.

“Why…” I said, back then, to Sue—but I needed to be careful if I was going to say out loud the things I barely dared think. The things that would break my mother’s heart to hear. “Why does she hate him so much?”

“She can’t say to no to him,” Sue said. “That’s why Mom goes to church so much. Because she’s not nearly as strong as she wants people to think.”

I said something, probably not nice.

“The only reason they’re not together is that he hated Hudson Falls. Said he could never live there. And you know what? She was going to leave everything, to move to the city with him. Quit her job, sell the house, leave her friends and church and family. And then at the last minute—like, the night before—she got blind drunk, stole his car, drove it one block and then deliberately crashed it into a pole, walked home, told him she hated his guts and to get the hell out of her town and her life.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “That’s stupid. Mom’s not stupid.”

“I’m not lying. She can either have him or be in control of her life, and she chose to be in control. And she doesn’t care who gets hurt because of it.”

I didn’t understand Sue then, didn’t know what she was saying, but when Mom hung up on Dad, I heard the cabinet above the refrigerator open and the bottle and glass clink against the counter.

Mom left her bedroom and then made a lot of noise in the garage and I knew right away what she was up to, where she was going. I dressed fast in the dark and was outside by the time she was halfway down the block. She wouldn’t risk taking the car. People would see it and know she had been there. I followed her from a distance. She was dressed in black for stealth and carried a bulging backpack—mine.

The walk to Mr. Blecher’s farm was way too long. She walked like people walk on TV when they drink too many drinks. She paused a quarter of the way there, and it was like I could hear every thought as it went through her head. This is stupid. I should turn back. I can’t do this. I can do this. I have to do this. Finally she took the bottle out and took a long time drinking from it before she started up walking again.

The quiet out at the farm was weird, after how noisy it had been in the daytime. The Army had put up cameras and Mom put her hood up when she got close. There was a new metal door to the barn, with a complicated lock. Mom spent a while looking at the keypad. I was amazed when she guessed at the passcode and got it right the first time.

Here I thought my luck might not hold, but I would not be turned back. Church was the most important thing in both Mom and Mr. Blecher’s lives, so I figured that was where the password came from. I tried the zip code of the church, but that didn’t work. My second guess was the last four digits of the church phone number, which Mom made me memorize because it’s where I could always find her if she wasn’t home or at work. That’s what it was.

I crept in quiet as a cartoon ninja. Mom stood in the middle of the barn, looking in to where the allosaurus was. She fumbled for a light and found one, but it was at the far end of the barn and barely lit one corner. We watched the darkness together, apart. We couldn’t see the allosaurus; it was asleep or maybe watching from a corner. Mom hollered, but the allosaurus didn’t holler back. She set the backpack down and opened it up and took out two of her biggest guns and put them together and put the backpack back on. Then she climbed up onto the high new door of the pen, and said “Hey!”

The allosaurus rose out of nothingness and took one-two-three tiny steps forward.

I walked around to the adjoining cages. I didn’t hurry. My mouth was full of blood from biting my cheeks. I never prayed in church, but I was praying then. She still had time to decide not to do it. From that far away I could watch her and pretend what I was watching wasn’t happening. I put both hands on the lever that would open the goat pen gate, ready to save the allosaurus from my mother. Goats grumbled in the dark beside me.

Sue is wrong, I thought. Mom is not afraid of the allosaurus. She doesn’t do dumb things out of fear. She does them out of fearlessness.

She raised the gun, and wobbled. The allosaurus tilted its head to see her better. They were ten feet apart. It stood up straight, so it was looking down on her, which Mom clearly did not like. She pulled herself up higher, to stand on the top tier of wood. She held her hands out to steady herself, but did not do a good job of it. The edges of the bars were dented and splintered where it connected to the frame. I imagined the allosaurus whacking its tail or head against them all night long, trying to get out, or trying to get the goats it smelled just out of sight.

The wood cracked. Mom fell. In.

It looked down at my mother. Its claws flexed. It lowered its head, and took a step toward her. Mom didn’t move. Her back was to me and I was glad I could not see her face. The thing took another tentative step, then walked purposefully towards her. Only when I saw it stand over her, mouth open and eyes wide, did I realize just how big and beautiful and scary it was.

I pulled the lever as hard as I could. The cage gate swung open and a goat darted into the pen, bleating its excitement, conditioned to believe there would be food when it got there. And there would be, except it would be the food.

At the goat’s bleat, the allosaurus turned its head. The goat was a little further from it than my mother, and a little smaller, so the allosaurus took another step toward Mom. I jumped down into the goat cage and shoved a second goat into the pen. It balked, either out of contrariness or fear. The goat was warm, smelly, and I could feel its muscles unclench as it gave in and trotted forward. I felt bad for it. And then I hunched and prayed in the dark where my mother could not see me.

The goats stood still, looking stupid until they caught the smell of the allosaurus. They scattered. This swiftly-moving meat made the allosaurus let loose a machine screech and stomp after them.

Mom climbed up and out, slowly. Safe on the other side, she sank to the ground. She held her back with both hands. The goats were making an ungodly noise, but I owed it to them to watch, to see what I had done. Blood went absolutely everywhere.

Mom had her head between her knees and her arms around her head. I watched her for a minute and that hurt worse than watching the goats.

I didn’t leave the dark stinking cage till Mom staggered out into the night. I wanted to help her up off the floor, but I knew not to. I listened to the allosaurus eat. It saw me when I stood up. It lowered its head to get a better look. And then it turned and stalked back to the barn-corner shadows. The allosaurus wasn’t a demon or a bad-ass movie monster. It was only an animal. It obeyed laws it did not understand and had no hand in making, just like me.

I followed Mom home much later and snuck into my bed. In the morning I came down to bacon for breakfast. She poured orange juice and I asked for coffee, like I always did, and she smiled when she said I was too young for it. I was glad to see her smile. She didn’t need to know she would never be the same size again.

fin

 

Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller

Shirley Jackson Award winner SAM J. MILLER is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction and essays have appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Icarus, The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Washington Square, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writer’s Workshop, a member of the Altered Fluid writers group, and the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, an anthology published by the University of Texas Press. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com

 

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