Carrier Bird System

Sharon watched Pinku rise into the sky. She always felt a pang of sadness when a bird left her hand, knowing there was a chance that it would not return. They were trained to return, the same or next day, but you couldn’t be sure. Birds were a blessing to the humans remaining.

It was hard to believe that people had once eaten pigeons – beings whose brave adventures now kept us connected in far-flung territories. The flatlands were all taken; humans who had not escaped were captured and killed.

Communities remained only on the mountains at each end of the Lucerne Valley – the larger one in the meadows atop Mt Alba, and smaller one in Mt Negra’s caves. They were in regular communication by CBS – the Carrier Bird System built upon an aviary bequeathed to the village. The tropical birds were beautiful but not sustainable, and were a luxury in difficult times. Their flesh was eaten and their feathers used for decoration. But the pigeons, hawks, and eagles proved useful. They were nourished and trained.

Sharon wondered if a hawk would have been better for this mission. The message had seemed important to her, and she had alerted her commander upon its arrival. The Signal Corps were meant to relay “but not absorb” messages’ contents, so if they were captured no secrets would be betrayed. Her commander had said to send a pigeon.

Her brother had built the coop himself. Its design was ingenious. When a CBS courier arrived, wires sounded a bell, alerting the guard. Then he or she would remove the steel canister from the bird’s neck or back, decode the message, and relay it upward.

She’d heard that carrier pigeons had flown only one way originally, towards home; hence the common term for them, homing pigeons. But the Signal Corps had trained them to fly both ways, by making them feel that Mt Negra was home and Mt Alba was their feeding station. Hence they flew happily between them, managing the 160 km round trip in a day.

Pinku hadn’t returned by dusk. She began to worry, and again wondered if she should have selected a hawk. She had seen some hawks during her surveillance of the valley; even eagles back early from their winter sojourn in the Gulf. Could a hawk or eagle have got the better of Pinku? It was unlikely. He was a smart bird, always flying close to the tree line, not leaving himself exposed. She had a worse thought – were they cultural, rather than natural, predators? Maybe enemy forces had trained their own birds.

She’d better send a hawk. She prepared another coded message and selected Bubbly to deliver it. As she saw him rise into the dusk sky, she saw an eagle rise with him. Hawks were faster, but eagles were smarter and stronger, and generally got the better of any fight. She knew right then that Bubbly was gone.

Sharon prepared a third coded message, and called forth Azeem. You couldn’t treat eagles like other birds. You had to treat them like people.

She said, “Azeem, my beautiful bird, my powerful companion, I have a request for you. Would you please deliver this message to Mt Alba by daybreak, and then return safely home?” Azeem stood still as she affixed the steel canister, and then was gone. She saw his back shine silver in the half-moon.

The next morning she saw glittering air in the valley. At first it seemed a flock of birds reflecting sunshine, but then she realized that it wasn’t birds. They moved too deliberately, taking no advantage of winds and thermals. If anything, they were pushing against them.

But one shape among them moved differently, and dodged from side to side, dropping down suddenly and swirling. It was Azeem.

When he dropped heavily beside her, she saw he was injured. His breast and wings were bloody, and his feathers tattered rags. “What happened to you, brave bird?” she said as she opened his canister. As she unrolled the hand written message, she had a brief recollection of digital technologies. They were now of no use to humans; 100% too dangerous to use.

The message when decoded read, “Urgent. The machines have adapted. They are no longer confined to land and water. They can fly now. Evacuate immediately.” Sharon looked up and saw a swarm of small aircraft, all remotely controlled like toys, but deadly ones, seeking out humans.

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