Endless Birds

The label reads, “To: Professor Djinn – Four (4) transport rocs, twelve (12) laser-equipped ostriches, fifty (50) speaking crows – COD.” I apply it with care to the top right corner of the ostrich cage, step back, and give the signal to Betsy. She grabs the release switch in her beak and pulls down.

Above me, a great rumbling begins. Heavy chains clink along their courses, and the huge door to the giant-grade aerie starts to rise. The rocs rustle their wings impatiently while the ostriches croak in their cage. With a resonant clunk, the door stops. I blow a precise five-note sequence on my whistle and watch the rocs take flight. The ostrich cage hangs on cables strung between the rocs’ huge feet, forming an odd, lovely silhouette against the orange sky. Sunset is my favorite time to send out shipments.

From the medium-grade aerie below us comes a cloud of chattering blackness. It’s a minor failing, but I still hate the sound of crows’ voices, even with the modifications I’ve made over the years. I’ve considered looking for markets that want talking songbirds – your suburban housespouses, your lakeside retirees – but they don’t pay nearly as well and never order in bulk.

Once the glittering forms of my bronze hawk honor guard have swooped in around the shipment, I give Betsy another signal. She flips the switch back up. I leave the empty, clanking aerie for the peace and quiet of my own office.

Arthur is waiting for me, a new order held gently in his beak. Integrating a beak-based pressure sensor feedback system with emu neurology was one of my first major breakthroughs. I try to take time to appreciate my past successes. So many of the people I work with are always trying to go bigger and better than their last achievement, and they always seem so unhappy. There’s something to be said for simple satisfaction with past work well done.

Speaking of the ever-unhappy, the new order is from that unpleasant little umbrella twirler on the East Coast. What a piece of work he is. If he wasn’t such a reliable customer, I’d advise him to take his business elsewhere. Money is money, however, and he always pays up, give or take a few casualties from the delivery team.

One-week rush: Three hundred exploding pigeons and fifty programmable, radar-equipped penguins suitable for sewer travel. All standard packages and warranties.

I sigh and drop into my chair. Pigeons and penguins again. The man has his motif and is sticking to it. There’s something commendable about that, I suppose, even if it does make for monotonous work with a criminally desaturated palette.

Turning to look out my wall of windows, I contemplate the golden sky outside. In the distance, I can see two of my bronze hawks frolicking, enjoying time off between assignments. I envy them their wing-borne freedom.

In my quieter moments, I have often reflected on the paradox of my creations. Since time immemorial, cultures around the world have revered flight as one of the purest forms of freedom. I bless most of my creations with this gift, yet also bind them with purposes and programming. From the harsh mechanical eagle drones I built for Baron Destruction to the sentient bird of paradise I raised as a familiar for Lady Vesper, none of my birds has ever been truly free. Perhaps one day I shall create a lovely, speaking songbird that serves no master but itself.

Today will not be that day, I’m afraid. There are explosive pigeons to build and penguins to be equipped with radar and sewage-capable gastric systems. I call up the most recent designs for both on my desk screen.

The pigeons are just a skin-and-feathers shell over a wholly robotic interior. I decide to try C4 as the primary explosive element this time. These are crude things, requiring little craftsmanship. They are so commonplace, and so despised by most people, that little attention need be put into their appearance.

The penguins are another matter, being mostly biological with only a few technical additions: radar equipment, a supplementary toxin pump, that sort of thing. Since they’re presumably meant for stealth rather than flashy visibility, I’ll use plenty of black and dark gray. Again.

I started with an Emperor base last time, as I needed the room to fit the additional equipment. The customer feedback survey suggested the size was a problem, though. I’ve been tinkering with smaller radar tools, and I think I’ll be able to work with gentoos this time.

It really is a shame to take such a beautiful species, invest this magnificent technology in them, and then just shove them in a sewer to spy on a decadent populace and its deranged “guardian.” Another paradox of the work, I suppose. Maybe someday I’ll build gorgeous photosynthetic gulls that can fly through the sky, transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. Today, though, I need to make enough money to keep the power on, the supplies coming, and the authorities paid off. Today I make sewer penguins.

As I tinker with the gentoo-radar blueprint, I lament that there is so little to be gained from saving the world through the more esoteric forms of genius. Many of my customers and competitors are truly brilliant people, yet we spend our time thinking of ever-more-creative ways to threaten, ransom, and extort. I dream sometimes of the world we could build together, a world of crystal-powered cities, botanical care attendants, and endless birds.

I must dream later; there is work to do now. I sign off on the new penguin plans and transmit them to Carla in the quick-grow lab. I summon Arthur to go over the supply list. I’ve been thinking of changing up our C4 vendor. Outside the window, the frolicking hawks wheel back to their aerie. It is time for them to come inside while the owls take the night shift.