The ongoing weekly serial continues. Click here for the introduction and click here for Part 1.


Chapter Two


I won’t go into too much detail about the first month of training. It was four straight weeks of lectures on subjects like social theory and contradictory consciousness. Stuff I’d already seen in school dozens of times. This should have been my first clue the DF wasn’t interested in ‘Defense,’ but I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy having fun getting to know everyone else in the program.

There were twelve of us at the start. Izzy, a gregarious girl from Venezuela, was the class leader. We didn’t vote for her or anything. It just happened. Todd and I were the last ones to walk into class the first day, more than a little hungover, and she jumped out of her seat and came right up to us.

“Hi! I’m Izzy. You must be Todd and Daniel.”

“I’m Todd,” he said, waving to rest of the room.

“Daniel.” I steeled myself for the outpouring of sympathy that always followed these introductions en masse.

Izzy bent down, which always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “Just so you know, Daniel, they have configured the classroom to be accessible for people of small stature. Please let me know if you need anything at all. We want to make sure you feel welcome in this space.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” It’s hard to sound appreciative through gritted teeth, but I gave it a shot. I knew she was only trying to be nice.

She then introduced our classmates: Ben from Israel, Ivan from Russia. Amanda and Jill from the USA, Li from China, Abbott from England, Kesha from Kenya, Park from Korea, and Natia from Samoa. It was a young group. Everyone, except maybe Park — who never told us her age but had the air of an elder — was under twenty-two.

We spent the first morning getting to know one another. In short order, it became clear we were all rejects of one kind or another.

Ben, for example, couldn’t hear out of his left ear. I made the mistake of choosing the chair on his left and thought he was an asshole until he explained his disability. Kesha and Ivan each had prosthetic legs. Kesha lost her left leg below the knee, and Ivan lost both above the knee. If they’d said nothing, I wouldn’t have known. Amanda had selective mutism. Izzy let everyone know Amanda couldn’t speak when more than one person was present. Park stuttered during everyday conversation, but when she was in the VR room flying a mission, we later learned, her voice was strong and clear.

No one else volunteered, and I assumed they weren’t comfortable divulging whatever made them special to the rest of the group. I know this was the case for Todd. We lived together. He couldn’t hide it from me.

We focused on bonding that first month. The bots droned on during the day, and at night we went to each other’s houses to eat and drink and socialize. It was one of the best times of my life.

But even there, nestled in a welcoming group of outcasts, I still felt out of place. The first time I noticed it was after the Sydney bombings, two weeks into training. We watched the aftermath live at Li and Abbott’s house. After a few minutes, everyone else wanted to turn it off, but I needed to soak up every detail.

“Sydney is so far away. It won’t happen here,” Jill said airily.

“More people die every year from drug overdoses,” Natia waved her hand.

“The media shouldn’t give them all this publicity,” Ivan scolded. “It just encourages them.”

They all went out to the patio, but I stayed. I knew the anguish the families must be feeling — not knowing if their loved ones at the Opera House were injured or disfigured or dead, or simply alive and scared and unable to make contact. The news analysts all said we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about who committed this horrific act — they always use the word horrific for some reason — and even if the Prosties were responsible, it wouldn’t represent them as a people. Finally, the President spoke and told the world she needed more money for anti-poverty programs to address the real reasons behind these attacks. She also warned people about taking vigilante action against Prosties in their communities. That, she intoned, would be dealt with in the harshest possible manner.

Then Amanda walked in, and I heard her voice for the first time.

“Are you ok?” She asked.

“I’m just thinking about my parents.”

“Are they in Sydney?”

“They were on the plane that went down in Florida a couple months ago.”

To her credit, she didn’t cry out in shock or pity. Her shoulders didn’t slump. A look of concern didn’t spread across her face. She simply asked, “Is that why you joined?”

I nodded.

“I hope you’ll be able to make a difference.”

“If they ever get around to teaching us what we’re here to learn, we all might.”

“I joined because of my father. I didn’t have a choice, really. He’s been in for 30 years.”

“What does he do?” I asked.

“He guards freighters traveling back and forth to Geb. He’s away for two years at a time. One year there and one year back. I didn’t see him much growing up.”

“Was that hard?”

“Not really.” She responded matter-of-factly. “He’s an asshole.”

I couldn’t tell if this was a joke. I laughed anyway.

“But, he did teach me the value of good, honest work,” she continued. “He inspects every container on the ship. Takes almost the whole year. He’s never found any weapons or explosives, but he always says the minute he stops looking is the minute they’ll try to slip something past him. Such stoic vigilance. There’s beauty in that, but it’s not a job I could do. I studied psychology in school. I’m more interested in why someone chooses to kill scores of innocent people.” She pointed to the muted images in front of us.

“Why do they?”

“Nobody knows for sure. The working theory is racism and poverty and marginalization all play a role. But my thesis advisor thought there was something else. According to him, religion influences their choices.”

“All religions have extremists,” I countered reflexively. It’s a sentiment I’d been spoon-fed since I was young. Something you have to say in polite conversation.

“Perhaps, but they don’t all act the same way. Muslims believe they know the one true path to God, but they don’t blow up churches and synagogues filled with innocent people.”

“They used to. Hundreds of years ago. So did Christians and Jews and pretty much every other religion on the planet.”

“But not now. No other religion, what’s left of them, has followers who use their faith to justify bombing opera houses.”

“So, what do we do?”

“I don’t know that we do anything. Like I said, I’m interested in the psychology of it all.”

“What part of their religion makes them think killing people is ok?” This was a genuine question. I didn’t know. I hoped Amanda would respond, but she was looking through me, her mind somewhere else.

“Just before I graduated, my advisor said he thinks this is just the beginning. It won’t end anytime soon. I asked him what would make them stop, and he said, ‘They won’t stop until they win.'”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said mournfully.




During our second month at Fort McMaster, the bots taught us about birds.

, in particular.

Are you a bird watcher? Do you know anyone who is? I was utterly unaware people spent their free time searching for birds to look at until Jill explained the practice to us. Apparently, before VR, people traveled the globe to do what they called a ‘Big Year.’

“They would try to spot as many species of birds as they could during a single calendar year,” she told us one night during dinner and drinks at Izzy and Park’s place.

“Why?” Ivan asked.

“Was that before the internet? Couldn’t they just look at pictures?” Kesha wondered, reading my mind.

“That wasn’t the point,” Jill answered. “They had to see them in person, in their natural habitat.”

“Just to see them? Not capture them?” Li queried. “I don’t get it.”

I took stock of the room. Mine was not the only astonished face.

“Bird watching was a huge hobby back then. Why am I the only one who knows this? We’re all here to learn how to fly birds. Hasn’t anyone done their homework?”

The question hit me like a thunderclap. Jill was right. I’d known for weeks the DF would teach us to fly, but until this point, I was a passive participant. I took what our instructors gave and nothing more. I never dug any deeper. No reading on the side. No probing questions. Nothing. I was along for the ride, but I wasn’t preparing to drive.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this logic applied to every facet of my life. I hadn’t committed to my parents before they died. I pushed them away and didn’t care enough to learn anything real about them. Walking through the house after the funeral, I saw so many things I didn’t understand, so many pieces of their lives for which I had no context.

My mother, for example, had a collection of thimbles in a wood and glass presentation case on the wall. I saw it a thousand times while she was alive but never looked at it until she died. She had thimbles from Paris, Rome, Caracas, Pyongyang, and dozens of other places around the world. I knew she liked to travel when she was younger but didn’t know she’d traveled so much. When did she do this? What did she see? Who did she meet? I asked precisely none of those questions.

It was the same with school. Classes were a nuisance that always pulled my attention away from the things I really wanted to do, like playing with my friends. I kept my grades high enough to keep my parents and teachers off my back. That was it. Never once did I think about diving into a subject head first and learning all I could. I never saw the point. If I wanted to know an answer, I thought, all I had to do was ask a bot.

What never occurred to me, until Jill’s innocent remark, was if I knew nothing about a subject, I had no way of knowing the right questions to ask. A bot will give you polite answers all day. It will help you connect the dots until you keel over from exhaustion, then it will pick you up and take you to bed. But what it won’t do — what it can’t do — is dive deep inside your mind to ascertain what dots it needs to give you to facilitate real learning. You have to provide the dots yourself.

I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t exactly a new insight. People have known this for centuries. And you’re right. My only defense is, it was a new insight to me. With varying degrees of success, from that day forward, I began applying it to everything in my life, starting with the Common Starling.




They are fascinating creatures! Eminently adaptable, they’re found almost everywhere on Earth except the deep desert. After they were introduced to Geb, they took over the planet. Living in and around humans is no problem for them, and they eat almost anything. All of which makes the Starling a near-perfect intelligence collection asset. People and bots and AI-aided surveillance systems see the birds so often they’re part of the background noise. The DF couldn’t use a penguin to gather intel in Paris. It would be comically out of place. But a Starling can go anywhere.

They have one other characteristic we learned to use as the months progressed. They can talk.

Now, I know scientists will take issue with this, and I don’t mean to say Starlings talk the same way humans talk. They can’t create new meaning. But they can mimic the surrounding environment. The DF developed a technique to use these sounds to send coded messages to other birds. The operator of one flock could talk to the operator of another through birdsong!

The bots droned on for days about Starling habitats and behaviors and mating rituals – giving us an opportunity to poke fun at Park and Ivan, who were engaged in a mating ritual of their own. But mainly, we learned about flocking.

If you watch a murmuration of Starlings in flight, it looks like a single organism comprised of thousands of smaller parts. You could be forgiven for thinking a single central nervous system controls the entire organism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Flocking is an emergent behavior, and it’s not unique to birds. Insects, fish, even humans flock in one form or another. No one controls it. It’s created organically, from the bottom up.

The whole process is grounded in a set of rules ingrained in each Starling. These rules dictate which direction they fly, how close they can be to their neighbors, and how they react to changing circumstances. When a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand Starlings come together, the result is a complex flight pattern informed by those rules but unable to be predicted by even the most advanced AI.

The Starlings we flew weren’t real, of course. They were highly advanced drones, indistinguishable from the real thing – if both were laying immobile on an exam table. But the differences piled up quickly when they started moving.

The birds had a ‘steady state’ program impersonating Starling behavior on the ground or perched in a tree. Looking around, pecking, shuffling their feet, that sort of thing. We tested it against the most advanced surveillance equipment available, and for a few minutes, maybe five at the most, the algorithms couldn’t tell the difference. The trick was in the flying.

You have to feel it. I can’t describe it any other way. I could put you to sleep breaking down all the equations the bots drilled into our heads, but in the end, they didn’t help me very much.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression those weeks in the classroom hurt. They didn’t. I couldn’t have picked up the feel of flying without being grounded in theory. What I am saying is, the theory wasn’t nearly as critical to me as the days and weeks I spent in the VR room. Flying doesn’t come naturally to anything born without feathers, and no physical skill comes naturally to me. I had to practice.

After eating and drinking together almost every night the first month, the group splintered once we started to fly. Todd, Abbott, Natia, and I stayed after class most nights while the rest of the group went home. We were behind the others, and we knew it. The bots never handed out grades or ranked us according to proficiency, but we all knew who was performing and who wasn’t.

Without the extra practice time, I might have dropped out of the course like the other three eventually did. They never ‘got it,’ but somehow, I did.

I still remember the moment! I’ve had the same feeling a few other times in my life, and I can never predict if or when it will happen, but I know the feeling when it does. My brain stops fighting itself, and things just click into place.

The night flying finally clicked for me, I was the last one left in the VR room. I was stuck on a particular training exercise calling for me to find and return a data storage device amid a vast, heavily fortified enemy base complete with multi-story buildings and underground cave complexes. It only had a difficulty rating of medium, but I’d already spent so much time trying and failing to finish it I was thinking seriously about calling it quits and heading back to Winnipeg.

It was the first simulation requiring us to use all the birds’ capabilities in concert with each other. I had fewer problems mastering individual skills in isolation, but I fell flat on my face trying to put them all together.

Getting inside the enemy base was a walk in the park. In normal flight mode, at altitude, there are few threats to react to, and it’s no problem to fool surveillance cameras into thinking you’re just another flock of living, breathing Starlings. But you can never glean much information, in training at least, from simply flying over the camp. You always have to dig deeper. And digging deeper usually requires entering a building.

I know what you’re thinking: won’t people notice an entire flock of starlings inside a building? Yes! You have to split the birds up. The enemy might see to a single Starling darting around an office, but even if they do, there’s a good chance they’ll leave you alone, especially if you look adorable. And there’s a bonus. Outside they can bring you down with a directional EMP without worrying about hitting their own equipment. If they try it inside, they might knock out something important. Shutting all the doors and windows works, but if you’re quick enough, you can scoot out first.

Splitting the flock also requires you to split your focus. The birds outside on the steady-state program are fine for a while, but you have to stay vigilant and be on the lookout for threats.

At the same time, the bird inside has to be inconspicuous enough to evade detection while you’re searching for the intel needed to complete the mission. A single slip-up with any of the birds can be enough to cause the mission to fail. I know. I slipped up in every way imaginable, multiple times.

But not that night.

The first thing I did was land in a tree near the perimeter of the base to observe the flow of activity nearby. After a few minutes, I found an intermediary landing spot in a bush near the tallest building. You can spend time in trees or bushes to catch your breath, but don’t stay too long! Assume you’re under constant surveillance from the moment the birds fly over the fence.

I split a bird off, landing it on a third-floor windowsill, and sent the rest to forage on the grass in front of the building. This is important. When I started out, I would often fly the birds far away to let me focus my attention on the single bird inside the building. It never worked. The cameras always spotted me. A single Starling just doesn’t maneuver into and out of multiple structures in the span of a few minutes.

I felt the natural flow and rhythm of the flock outside, pushing their control to the back of my mind while the lone bird remained at the forefront.

Failing to find the device in the first building, I moved on to the second after an appropriate amount of time. When nothing turned up in the third building, I realized I had to go underground. This maneuver had a higher degree of difficulty because there was only one entrance to the tunnel, and it was always guarded. I had to use the birds’ stealth mode, which allows them to fly nearly silent, not beating their wings, for short distances.

I found the device deep in the tunnel, and after I did, the only task remaining was to transport it back to base. It wasn’t exactly child’s play, but at that point, I knew I had the simulation beat.

Once it was over and I got the green checkmark, I whooped and yelled and danced around the room while the bot looked on. When I stopped to catch my breath, its only reaction was to ask if I wanted to begin the next simulation.

I told it where to shove the next simulation and sashayed out of the room.




We stopped the simulations about a week later and moved on to flying actual robotic birds. There were new things to learn we couldn’t simulate in a VR room. They never told us at the time, but later I figured out this was the real reason for the ‘special’ program. You can drive or fly anything remotely from anywhere on the planet, but if you think your communications link is compromised, you have to do it the old-fashioned way using line of sight and encrypted radio frequencies.

There were nine of us remaining when we began this phase of training, and I had an entire house to myself. We didn’t throw any going-away parties for those who left. They slipped away quietly. I only knew Todd was going was because he woke me up early one morning.

“I’m heading out,” he said, shaking me awake.

“Where to?” I asked, rolling over.


“Why?” I sat up and wiped sleep from my eyes.

“It’s not for me. You know I don’t have the hang of it, and I won’t get any better.”

“Are they kicking you out?”

“No. They want me to stay. Even offered to put me in another training program. But this whole thing was a bad idea. Keep in touch, eh? You know where to find me.”

“Wait, is this because of…” I didn’t finish, but he knew what I meant.

“Not at all. Look, I have a great life at home. I don’t have to work. I can just sit back and wait for my real passion to find me. My old man will be appeased. I can say I did my best, and I can get on with my life.”

I slipped on some pants and walked him out. He didn’t look beaten or tired or hang his head. He was just turning the page, and as long as it’s his decision, I can’t fault a man for that. I was just like him a few months before.

I gave him a final wave, then closed the door and went back to bed. I sent him a note about a year later, but he never responded. And to protect us both, I haven’t tried to contact him since.

But I still think about him now and again. I hope he’s found his place in the world.


Chapter Three



During the entire course of training at Fort McMaster, we regularly interacted with only one real, live person: Captain Rian Gonsalves. 

And even he had bots following him around everywhere. 

He was the commander of our training detachment and held nominal authority over our class. But the bots did all the work. We saw him maybe once a week when he strolled into the room to scream at us for some random thing we may or may not have done.

Gonsalves always wore formal DF attire. As students, we wore no uniform at all. We came to class in casual clothes. The bots wore a purple cotton shirt with the DF logo over the left breast and a pair of khaki slacks. But Gonsalves always wore a dress suit two sizes too big with shiny DF pins on his chest and lapels. 

He was a prick. But he was an arbitrary, bipolar, darkly comedic prick who never followed up on any of his tongue lashings, so I didn’t mind him all that much. It was fun to laugh about his blowups after the fact. Everyone got in on the act, even Izzy, when she wasn’t being a downer and insisting we see things from his perspective.

One Monday morning in our third month of training, he sauntered into class, bot in tow, and ordered Amanda and me into the hallway. When we got there, he made us stand at the position of attention with our backs to the wall while he paced. 

After a dozen laps, he stopped in front of Amanda and directed a calm, quiet question her way.

“So, you think you’re the Commanding General of this Fort, huh?”

I saw her struggling and knew she couldn’t say anything, so I cut in. “Sir, she can’t–”

“I’m not talking to you!” He bellowed. “I’m asking this shit stain a question. Do you think you outrank the Commanding General?”

This was technically a different question, but I shut up and watched Amanda’s chin quiver. Even if it had been just her and Gonsalves in the hallway, I don’t think she could have answered. She was that frightened and intimidated.

“You’re milksop. You’re nothing. I don’t think you belong here, little girl.” He pivoted toward me. “What about you? You were with her. Do you outrank the Commanding General?”

“No, sir,” I replied, not understanding this line of questioning. I glanced at the bot, but it was no help.

“Are you sure?” He yelled as he bent down, his mouth inches from my forehead. 

“Yes, sir!” I knocked my head on the wall trying to avoid the shower of spittle.

“Good.” He rose, spun on his heel, and strode off down the corridor. 

Even the bot looked confused. It had to hurry to catch up.

We both stayed put until he turned the corner. When we were alone, I heard Amanda say, “What was that?”

“No idea,” I shook my head. “Let’s go back to class.”

Izzy shot us a quizzical look as we stepped back into the room. I shrugged my shoulders and sat back down at my desk. 

Fifteen minutes later, Gonsalves rushed in and ordered us into the hallway. 


“I don’t want to ever see either of you in my yard, do you understand?” He was much calmer this time, looking neither of us in the eye.

“Yes, sir,” I answered for Amanda. Even though our class was his only responsibility, I don’t think he ever knew about her condition.

I still had no clue what he was talking about or where he lived. I thought he had us mixed up with two other people, but you never corrected Gonsalves about matters of fact. That just made him angrier.

“The Commanding General sets the standards for this Fort, and if you disobey them, you’re disobeying a direct order from her. Get back to class.”

I didn’t think much about it for the rest of the day, but the entire encounter steamed Amanda. She knew what it was about, too. That night she came over and refreshed my memory. 

The previous Friday, after class, Amanda and I took a trip to the liquor store. I hosted the party that night – the three of us who lived alone did the bulk of the entertaining – and Amanda offered to help set up. We were each carrying a massive bag of goodies and took a four – maybe five – step shortcut through someone’s yard.

Gonsalves’ yard. 

Even one step was against the rules. Soldiers are supposed to stay on the sidewalk at all times. We knew this, and if Gonsalves had said, “Hey guys, rules are rules, please stay off my lawn,” we would have apologized and never done it again.

Also, to put this into a bit more perspective, it’s not like we trudged through a patch of highly manicured, velvety green Bermuda grass filled with mushrooms and flowers and little leprechauns who die when they touch a student’s shoes. We were in the fucking desert! His ‘yard’ consisted entirely of unkempt sand and rock. Amanda was positive he came out of his house the following day, saw footprints in his sand, and checked the surveillance tapes to find out who made them. 

When everyone else heard the story a few nights later, they couldn’t stop laughing, but Amanda was still pissed. I was indifferent to the whole thing. Gonsalves had yelled at us, sure, but he yells at everyone, and we weren’t in any real trouble. 

But I surprised myself the following week by suggesting to Amanda that we get even. 

And, holy shit, did we ever get even.




We were out in the Central Corridor, a large parcel of flat, barren terrain crisscrossed by trails and wadis, situated between two sharp, rugged mountain ranges in the middle of the training area surrounding Fort McMaster. All nine of us stayed in tents near a rock formation called the Iron Triangle, learning to perform basic maintenance and fly in the elements. Spring brought squalls and showers to the California desert, and plucking wet sand out of a bird after a flight is something you just can’t simulate.

Amanda and I had gravitated toward each other early on, and Todd’s departure only accelerated that trend. I don’t think she was interested in me romantically – I would not have reciprocated her interest – I think she truly enjoyed my company. 

We bunked together that week, and one night, after we crawled into our sleeping bags and rehashed the day’s events, I blurted out, “We should do something to Gonsalves.”

“What do you mean, do something?”  

“I don’t know. I hate that he gets to scream at us for no reason, and we have to stand there and take it. I want to fight back.”

“I do, too. But he’s the commander. It’s his job to yell at us.”

“It’s not his job to be an irrational asshole who makes fun of you for not being able to talk.”

“So, what do you want to do?” She asked.

“We know his address now. Let’s rearrange the rocks in his front yard to spell out ‘fuck stick.'”

“And he checks the security stream again in the morning and sees us there? No thanks.”

“What if it wasn’t us?” I asked, an idea forming.

“You mean get one of the others to do it?”

“Not exactly.”




The next day Amanda and I flew our missions as scheduled then hung around the maintenance area for a couple of hours until the bots left. Bots rotated back to the Fort every night – wet, blowing sand was hard on them, too – leaving us all alone with the birds. I’m sure their bot brains had calculated that we couldn’t get into any trouble at night in the middle of the desert. 

They underestimated us. 

I told no one what Amanda and I had planned for the evening, but they all showed up anyway as we prepared for the flight. For someone with mutism, Amanda can be pretty chatty. 

I told them I wasn’t confident the plan would work, but they stayed to cheer us on. We were by ourselves in the Central Corridor. There was nothing else to do. 

Once we were set, Amanda and I went to separate VR tents and launched our birds. We flew together over Cook Mountain before splitting up at the outskirts of Fort McMaster. She flew to Gonsalves’ house while I flew to his office. Whoever spotted him first would tell the other. 

The Fort was so small vehicles weren’t a necessity. Still, the Commanding General issued an order mandating that people walk at all times to increase their level of physical fitness and decrease the amount of power the Fort consumed. 

Gonsalves, we knew, would never violate this order.

If he was at home, we planned to lure him outside. If he were at the office, we would wait until he walked home. Then we would put all of our training with the birds to good use. 

Outside Gonsalves’ office, I split a bird off and landed on the windowsill. Gonsalves was inside, sitting behind his desk with his feet up, watching a drama series on his screen.

I tried to use the birds to tell Amanda I’d found him but didn’t hear her acknowledge. She was too far away. I’d need to get closer. 

I gathered my flock together and was about to take off when I heard Izzy’s voice in my ear. “She knows. We told her.” 

I jumped, causing the birds to face-plant in the sand.

We always trained alone in the VR tent, and I had completely forgotten she and Kesha and Ivan were behind me. I wondered why Izzy, as class leader, wouldn’t want some level of plausible deniability for the events to follow. But to be fair, even I couldn’t have predicted what would follow.

Uprighting the birds, I sent one back to the window. Gonsalves hadn’t moved and didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon. We’d planned to be patient and wait for him to leave, but I wasn’t feeling patient that night. I wanted to get him out of the building, soon, and had a better shot of making it happen from the inside. 

I flew around looking for an open door or window. The building was long and rectangular, with doors at either end. Windows dotted each side of the building, but the nights were still frosty, and they were all sealed tight. 

Amanda’s birds announced her arrival. “I’m here. What’s the plan?”

“Stay here,” I responded. “I’m going in.”

Through a window, I spotted a bot preparing to leave. I sent my bird sweeping low across the angled roof and landed it precariously on top of the doorframe. 

Seconds later, the door swung open, and the bot exited. I switched to stealth mode and, watching to make sure the bot didn’t turn back, dropped into the building just as the door closed. 

With the rest of my flock foraging outside near Amanda’s birds, I walked the lone Starling down the hallway until it reached Gonsalves’ open door, the only source of light in the otherwise darkened building. 

I snuck the bird inside, careful to ensure Gonsalves’ screen remained between his eyes and my position on the floor, where I surveyed the room. 

A coffee table stood in front of a threadbare couch to my right, and a bookshelf filled with manuals and three-ring binders was to my left. When I looked up, I spotted an ancient light fixture hanging from the ceiling, and an idea occurred to me. 

“Amanda,” I said with my outside birds only. “Fly to the window and watch him.” 

“Will do,” she acknowledged. 

I walked the bird out of the office and waited. 

“In position,” she declared after a few seconds. “What am I looking for?”

“Just watch,” I launched the bird down the hallway to pick up speed before making a tight U-turn and heading back. I banked hard at the upper left corner of the doorway before making a soft, precise landing on top of the light fixture. 

“Did he see me?” I asked.

“He didn’t move. What an asshole! Even the way he breathes annoys me.”

I tiptoed the bird to the end of the light fixture and looked down. I was right above him. 

Did you know robot Starlings can poop on command? 

It’s just multicolored silicon syrup, but I didn’t think Gonsalves would be curious enough to taste it. I backed the bird up, let one fly, and heard a deafening cheer from the crowd behind me. 

“Motherfucker!” Gonsalves cried out and scrambled to his feet. 

I took off before he could swat at me and glided out into the hallway, flipped the display to infrared, and landed on another light fixture near the door. 

“Nice shot!” Amanda whooped. “Looks like he’s getting ready to leave.”

“Perfect. Head to Jackrabbit Park. I’ll meet you there.”

Gonsalves’ office light went out a few seconds later, and I saw him lock his door and head down the hallway, grumbling. I waited for him to open the front door and walk outside before zooming past him and into the night sky. 

“Fucking birds,” I heard him growl as I gained altitude and reunited with the rest of the flock. 

I kept an eye on him as he made his way toward the park, then flew ahead to get in position. 

Amanda had the first crack at him once he reached the park. She insisted on this. I watched from a tree a few meters away as her birds mobbed him, flying around his head and torso at close range. We’d worked out the rules beforehand. He had never laid a hand on us so we wouldn’t touch him. Instead, we’d annoy him to the maximum extent possible. 

I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t I already violate this rule by shitting on him? And I guess technically I did, but I’m only human. Could you have turned down that opportunity?

A few seconds after Amanda’s birds dispersed, I went in. It takes a lot of skill to keep two dozen birds inches away from a human trying to swat them away, and I barely pulled it off. I lost a few feathers, but I had spares sitting in a drawer next to me.

We repeated this procedure several more times, and Gonsalves became increasingly more enraged. After my birds retreated for the third time, he stopped and screamed nonsense words at the night sky. 

“I think we did it,” I said. “Let’s head back.”

“I want one more,” Amanda declared, and her birds dove in instantly. 

Gonsalves had had enough. He put his hands over his eyes, shrieked at the top of his lungs, and ran forward at full speed. 

If he’d stayed on the path, he would have been fine. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he ran headlong into the thick, gnarly two-hundred-year-old tree near the park exit. The crowd behind me gasped, then erupted into gales of laughter.

I couldn’t stop smiling. 

“Is he ok?” I asked and landed a single bird next to him as he lay, face-up, next to the tree. 

“He’s breathing.” One of Amanda’s birds hopped on his chest and walked up to his neck. It pecked his chin, and his eyes fluttered.

“We better go,” I suggested and took off toward Cook Mountain. 

“I’m right behind you.”

When the birds returned to the tent some minutes later, they got a hero’s welcome. We celebrated, and I learned everyone else was already two or three drinks in. We weren’t supposed to have alcohol in the Central Corridor, but Izzy had taken it upon herself, as class leader, to bring an emergency supply. 

Amanda came over from her tent, and we exchanged a tender, joyful hug. 

“I think you’re even now,” I whispered in her ear as we embraced.

And with seven other people around us drinking and yelling and acting like fools, I heard Amanda’s sweet voice say, “You are amazing. Thank you.”




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