Feather Bonnet

Rey Piper

1,800 words
Content Warnings: animal death

Joanne Redcloud didn't want to be a soldier. Her degree was in Earth Science; her specialty water conservation; her particular pet strategy the retention of water in soil through the uses of mulch and animal manure. The U.S. Army didn't have much use for that. So when she was drafted, they took out a chunk of her skull, set an array of sensitive magnets into her brain, and turned her into something that felt like it could fly.

That night she sang to herself, a poem by Peter Beagle, attributed to a New York City blue jay:    Lullaby, lullaby, swindles and schemes
   Flying's not nearly such fun as it seems.

That wasn't exactly true. Flying was amazing, even if she was really only a lax body lying on a couch in an Oklahoma office park. As far as Joanne could tell, she was made of sharp eyes borne up by six spinning wheels of wing. She didn't control the gun. Women weren't allowed in combat at that level; not these days anyway. Her job was just to fly around and look. When her brain took notice of the enemy–which could be a certain kind of vehicle or building or roadworks; much more rarely a human being–an artificial intelligence decided whether or not to take the shot. Sometimes Joanne wondered how intelligent it actually was. As far as she could tell it always shot. It never missed.

On a day so hot that the streets seemed to ripple like water, Joanne flew low along what had been One Hundred Sixty-Second Street West. They had been newly briefed on enemy tactics. Word was that the insurgents had begun to control animals in ways that mimicked Joanne's ability to be part of a flying machine. Rats, they suggested, possibly squirrels or skunks or raccoons. Nothing strong or dexterous enough to replace a human being yet, though the new orders were ominous with the implication that there would be, if the enemy's new trials were not destroyed.

Joanne did see a rat. Just one, brown, hugging the corner between asphalt and curb as it ran. The AI must have made its decision, because the gun fired. Joanne felt the recoil; her camera eyes swinging to compensate. It must have been the smallest caliber she carried, but the back half of the animal exploded. Something small and green bounced away, and Joanne's sharp eyes saw it clearly: a crabapple, white where the rat had carried it in its teeth.

The sight made her melancholy. The enemy seemed unlikely to concern itself with fruit. That had probably been a real rat, a regular living animal, foraging for food on a summer day. The fact that the decision to kill it had nominally been made by an AI was no comfort to Joanne; she had seen it, and it was dead. She tipped up and flew high over crumbling brownstones, higher over green summer trees, up past the mirrored wreckages that still scraped at the sky. It was no use. Her vision was excellent. If there had been another rat not hidden beneath or behind something more officially innocent than itself, she would have seen it. It would be shot.

She diverted herself to the narrow strip of parkland between this part of the city and the river. It had not rained in weeks; the bacterial count in the water was no doubt unacceptably high. The count of children in the water was also running high. Joanne hovered above, worrying about this. Then she dutifully reminded herself that this wasn't what the U.S. Army was paying her to do and veered off towards the south.

Just as she came to the end of the park (the beginning of Harlem proper, she knew its history) there was a flash of bright color high even higher in the sky. She looked towards it, and something blew into her eye–her camera–she was half-blinded, but the wind held it in place. Joanne rarely had to use the maintenance protocols for her flying-drone self, but she had them by reflex: a multipurpose arm emerged, the wheel-wings spinning for balance, and she pulled the debris back to examine it.

It was a red feather–a cardinal's. Protocol probably suggested she drop it, but another half-remembered lyric came to mind:
 Cardinal flying up from the tree
   Rain your innocence down on me

She had no way to look at herself, and very little haptic feedback. But she knew her shape well enough from diagrams and training sessions and maintenance drills, and a feather is designed for flight. She wedged the shaft into a narrow slot, twisted it securely into a screwhead down inside. A bit of its length would protrude outside. Joanne liked to think it might look jaunty.

Towards the end of her shift, as the sun went into shadow behind the highest buildings, she spotted the enemy for sure. There was a collection of oil drums–she recognized them as part of a design for weaponry, the flame fougasse. Add cocoa tin charges and some wires, and these could be deployed almost anywhere, disguised as tar barrels on any roadside. She pulled back and watched as her guns fired. They blew up spectacularly, fougasse in effect regardless of intent. She dropped low to search for more evidence, keeping an eye on the burning as she hovered over the debris.

She didn't see any wires, but her eye was caught by a movement. A bird was repeatedly thrashing up a foot into the air and crashing back down to the ground, both wings spread and one on fire. She wasn't equipped for sound, but she could imagine the poor creature screaming. Enemy, she thought, enemy enemy ENEMY, damn it gun why won't you fire? Put the thing out of its misery. That's not what the U.S. Army is paying you for. In the end she flew right under the apex of its abortive attempts to escape, and the bird exploded in the whirling blades of Joanne's wings. The moment she knew it was dead she dropped all conscious control of her flight, and some combination of instinct and AI took her straight up high. The firelight was only a twinkle on the ground, so far away it looked like the brilliant night sky over Oklahoma.

She let the AI run most of the maintenance as well, though she kept it clear of her cardinal's feather, and in the end she had a certain amount of crow left on her too. It was the end of her shift and Joanne was tired. She flew back to the rookery, then let herself awaken in her couch.

Joanne didn't sleep much these days. The Army doctors said that was normal; her body needed to move and respond directly to her environment. She got out of her uniform and washed her hair, put on a baseball cap and a set of overall shorts. The sun wasn't quite ready to set on Oklahoma yet, but the temperature was down to pleasant enough, even over the blacktop of the parking lot. She drove home and cracked a beer, took it out on the back porch to look at the stars. Restless, she climbed down into the yard, took a walk, sipping as she went. There was nothing unsafe in her neighborhood, and she could see her neighbors' televisions lighting up their living rooms. A dog barked as she passed by its yard, and another dog answered. She imagined they were talking to each other. Hey, hey, the dogs said, Joanne Redcloud's walking by. That woman's wearing feathers, and she smells like fire.

The next morning she went to work early. Breakfast was the best meal the mess hall did, with real eggs and all the jam you wanted on your toast. When she had eaten her fill, she took the drugs that let her lie down and do her work all day. She lay back in a couch with her uniform on and let her job take her body by the brain.

There was a thin mist up high at this hour, and she could almost imagine that it smelled like rain. More than likely it would burn off before long, but Joanne thought of the children in the river. She liked to imagine them here with her, the droplets misting cool and clean on their skin.  She took herself higher and higher, so far up she could see the whole island, all the way over to New Jersey, all the way down to the Statue of Liberty.

Governor and Ellis Islands weren't part of her usual pattern, but Joanne considered this an oversight. She knew she had colleagues in the area, and she also knew that the reason they didn't have pre-arranged patrols was so they could do blind checking to back up each others' work. So she flew towards the wider waters, where the damaged, verdigrised Lady now stood without a crown, still holding her tablet on view and her torch up high.

Joanne banked upwards, clinging to the disappearing mist. She wished she were above it all, metaphorically as well as literally. She didn't want to kill animals, not even rats and crows. She didn't want to explode oil all over a landscape, not even an empty city street. Waiting for children to die in poisoned water wasn't all right either. She remembered thinking enemy and how useless that had been. She didn't want to have an enemy; she didn't want to be an enemy either. She wanted to stop. Not even flight was worth killing for.  Not even the U.S. Army, on the streets of what was still New York.

The Army's control towers were in New Jersey, and Joanne knew the shape of those buildings.  She flew that way and found it within the hour. It was unmanned ninety-some per cent of the time, and she didn't see any cars in the lot. She went over the area with care. There were some rabbits nibbling the dry grass between parking and the building packed with machines, but they fled as soon as they noticed her from a hundred feet overhead. Joanne spotted the power array easily enough. A word hung in her mind, not quite explicitly thought. The guns' recoil snapped her harder than ever, and she reeled back end over end. Dazzled and dizzy as she reeled past the sky, she thought of the shape of an eagle, a shadow between herself and the sun.

Piper is a middle-aged, autistic brain scientist who lives just north of Boston, Massachusetts.  The household also includes Icelandic horses, a silken windhound, half a dozen other people, and a very fluffy kitten.