Christopher Muscato

Birds of a Feather

Three green lights blinked in sequence, one, two, three. The scanner was activated, although not yet fully charged. I held up the solar dish to catch a little more power.

“Trying to hurry,” I shouted to my brother. On the other side of the van, he grunted, wrestling the squawking bundle of feathers from the net. He cussed as it snipped his finger, then seized it by the beak and bent its neck back, one thumb pressing under its jaw.

“Damn thing doesn’t even know it’s not a real bird,” he grumbled as the baird unit went still. Hami pulled down the tailgate of our vehicle, setting the baird next to him and rubbing at his legs. The itching was a reflex; the doctor had warned it might become habit. He didn’t feel itching anymore. Couldn’t.

The scanner blinked, full charge, and I connected it to the baird.

“Kanai, amplify output sensors for heavy metals,” Hami instructed.

“Clean,” I responded once the machine finished beeping.

“Ammonia? Nitrogen oxide? Ozone?”

“Running.” I gave the scanner a quick pop with my fist. It was getting older, but remained reliable. Not bad for something we had to rebuild with scrap, more than once. But such was this life. It beeped.

“All clean. No excess output, full efficiency on all fronts, brother.”

Hami nodded, rubbing his chin. He lifted the limp creature in his hands, inspected it, then reached under its beak and flipped the switch. It quivered, then leapt to the ground. The baird rustled its feathers a few times, shaking out whatever recalibration was running through its system, then cocked its head to look at us. It chirped, then flitted off to rejoin its flock.

“Another perfect test,” I said as I collapsed the scanner. “I think this is it, brother. We’re done.”

Hami did not turn his head, still watching the baird fly away. He rubbed his legs.

“Just one more, Kanai, to be sure.”

 

Hami took a bite of one of the wild plums I had foraged.

“The high-altitude rainwater samples look good,” he commented. “Signs of acidity are trending down. Way down.”

Hami leaned his head back and scanned the sky. From my spot comfortably seated in the shade of an acacia tree, I did the same. Neither of us were looking for anything specific. White clouds drifted in front of Kilimanjaro and canopies of green leaves rustled in the dry breeze. Hami returned to his data, I to repairing a hole in one of our nets. Just another patch. Our reinforced EV was full of them, from the red-clay-caked tires that we seemed to be constantly repairing with the bio-filament printer to the canvas awning that extended from the roof. Even the vehicle’s foldable solar panels glistened with cracks filled in by the mineral resin I compounded. It wasn’t much, but it was home.

“Kanai,” Hami whispered. “Hear that?”

I cocked my head, thinking Hami must have identified a specific song from the flock. But instead of birdsong, my ears caught the vibrations of deep rumbling and heavy thuds, creaking of branches and snapping of leaves.

“Elephants,” I whispered back. Hami nodded.

“Let’s just hope we stay clear of their guard,” he said. “That’ll slow things down.”

 

The baird quivered and shook out its wings, chirped at us and flew off. Another perfect test. Just one more, Hami said as he watched it flit away.

“Kanai, run an analysis on their song,” he instructed, and I did.

“It’s warning the other units about us.” Just like it should be doing. Based on these weather conditions and time of day, the next song to cycle through the flock should be the cue to begin high-altitude feeding, once they felt we no longer required monitoring. The bairds began to sing.

I shot Hami a glance. By the expression on his face, he’d noticed it too. The truth was we didn’t need our software to interpret the bairdsongs, not after all this time programming and reprogramming, awakened each day by their dawn chorus and regaled by their midday chatter.

The notes, whatever they were, rippled through the flock. Then the song changed, back to what it was supposed to be all along. The bairds soared off to their feeding grounds in the clouds amidst a burst of feathers and chirps, just as they should.

“That was weird,” Hami said.

 

Hami’s legs poked out from the back of our van, twitching. The diagnostic test beeped its completion and he grumbled something to himself, lifting a leg to poke at the wiring.

“Help me get these back on,” he said. I tapped my ladle on the side of the campfire and scurried over. Something rustled in the bushes.

“Come on,” Hami sighed. Together we reattached his left leg. His right was still in my arms when the bushes rustled, then exploded with shouts and cries and the cocking of guns.

We froze. There must have been a dozen of them, white tusks painted on their faces.

“Welcome!” I quickly opened my hands towards their matriarch and bowed. “We are honored to have walezi wa tembo in our campsite.”

The matriarch exchanged a few glances with the soldiers poking around our van, arched an eyebrow at the mechanical leg still cradled in my arms, my stew bubbling over the fire. She nodded. Her soldiers shouldered their weapons.

The matriarch of the elephant guard looked at me.

“Who are you?”

 

“Darn thing’s been glitching,” Hami complained. The elephant guard’s medic took the chip out of her scanner and handed it back to my brother.

“Nothing wrong with the program or the wiring,” she said. “Let me see you walk on it.”

Hami reinserted the microchip into his leg and paced in small circles. As she questioned him about his routines, I opened the back of our van for the others, putting away our authorization papers from the migration lands management office.

“They’re called bairds. Biomimicry Artificial Intelligence Restoration Drones.” I pulled a reference model out from our supplies.

“It looks so real,” breathed a young girl who had pushed her way to the front.

“That’s the idea,” I smiled. “The baird units were built to consume and breakdown microplastics in the air without disrupting the ecosystem.”

“You made these?” another guard asked. I glanced at Hami, still talking to the medic.

“My brother and I. It was his idea, initially,” I said. “We follow the baird flock, monitor it.”

“Why?” the young guardian asked, inching even closer.

“What we’re doing, it’s like introducing a new species into the biome. It must be done very carefully. The bairds interact with their environment, with other species, even. Our dream is to make it so flocks can be programmed for any ecosystem, to clean the air and water and land anywhere in the world, fitting into their habitats without disruption.”

The guardians chatted among themselves, some laughing or shaking heads, and I answered their questions in turn. Once they were satisfied, I turned back to my van to find the young girl still staring, eyes wide, at the baird.

 

“It’s pretty,” Kanoni cooed, fingers caressing the iridescent feathers.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” I smiled. “Biomimicry draws inspiration from nature, and nature can be very beautiful.”

“Does it have a name?” Kanoni asked. Hami snorted.

“Unit 1.47.2E.”

The young elephant guard narrowed her eyes. As the clan’s herd was watering nearby, the matriarch had elected to share our campsite for the time. Hami thought some of them still suspected us as poachers, although they trusted us enough to let Kanoni intern for the day. Her request.

“I think it should have a name,” Kanoni asserted. Hami shrugged and continued running diagnostics. Kanoni decided the argument had been won and moved on to explaining the names of the elephants her clan followed, how to tell each apart. Hami watched the conversation over his work but said nothing. When Kanoni began showing me the dances of her clan, he turned away.

“Nothing in the code,” he said after several minutes of scanning. I rubbed my chin, reviewing the data. Kanoni flitted over to inspect our work. She asked what was wrong. Hami grumbled something and buried his head in the scanner.

“There’s an anomaly in the bairdsong.” I explained. “We programmed songs to help them communicate, and to spread updates through the flock without us needing to capture and manually upgrade each individual unit.”

Hami finished the test and ran a hand over his head. He flipped the baird back on.

“Neema,” Kanoni breathed as she watched it fly away. “Her name is Neema.”

 

Half of the elephant guard left for night patrol, the rest remaining with us. Food shared around our campfire turned into singing, singing into dancing. One of the elephant guardians offered to teach Hami some of their clan’s dances. He declined with a snort. The matriarch and medic exchanged glances.

“Kanai, can I speak with you?” the medic asked. I nodded, following her away from the campfire.

“I don’t want to seem indelicate,” she began. “But will you tell me about your brother’s injury? He hasn’t been open to discussing what happened.”

“Acid rain,” I answered. He wouldn’t like me talking about it, but this felt important. “He was field testing his first biomimicry prototypes by the coast, where air toxicity was most concentrated. One of the storms caught up with him. His dream of building a complete flock was all that kept him going throughout that time. I couldn’t let him give that up, so I convinced him to move his project closer to home and I joined him. But he’s had a hard time with the artificial legs out here.”

The medic opened some notes on her tablet.

“Kanai, there is nothing wrong with Hami’s prosthetics. They are functioning perfectly. The problem is in his mind.”

“No, the legs run their own programming,” I protested. The medic offered a compassionate smile.

“Through his central nervous system. Never underestimate the power of the mind, Kanai. He’s afraid of relying on them, of accepting them as part of his body. Hami’s view of himself as un-whole is preventing him from making full use of his legs, his life.”

I looked back at the campfire, the elephant guard dancing around it, my brother sitting on the ground, slumped against our van.

 

Hami laughed, a sound that almost toppled me over. Kanoni tried again to imitate the bairdsong, blowing through her cheeks.

“The third note is higher,” Hami instructed, whistling the tune. Kanoni had joined us every day that week, and her constant questions and inquisitive mind managed to wear down my brother. Not an easy task. I began to worry how he’d do if our flock and the elephant guard’s herd left the watering in different directions. Then I worried I was worrying too much. The conversation with the medic weighed on my mind.

“Do you ever sing to them?” she asked. Hami shook his head.

“We don’t want them to trust us too much. We’re trying to encourage natural behaviors, like any animals.”

“We sing to our elephants sometimes. I think it’s okay for guardians and their animals to share a bond.”

“These aren’t elephants. They’re not even real birds. And we’re not guardians.”

Kanoni shrugged.

“You follow your flocks, watching them, protecting them. Your whole life is determined by their migrations. Doesn’t sound that different.”

Hami mumbled something. Kanoni’s communicator flashed, indicating a need for her to return to her clan. I offered to walk her. As we left, I glanced over my shoulder at Hami. He was staring at the trees. It looked like he was whistling.

 

“We’re leaving in the morning,” the matriarch of the elephant guard told us that night. “Our herd’s matriarch is getting restless, and the season will be ending soon. They are ready to complete their migration. Thank you for hosting us. We wish you luck with your flock.”

Hami was quiet that night, even by his standards. I tried to draw him into the warmth of the fire, the embrace of the drums. In the end, it was Kanoni’s open hand that pulled him from the back of our van, Kanoni’s feet that he mimicked. I steadied myself against a tree. I had not seen my brother dance in years.

“You changed it that time.” Hami pointed at Kanoni’s feet.

“Dancing is self-expression,” she smiled. “It can’t be the exact same steps, all the time. That’s not real living. Just like how you can’t sing the same song forever without making up a few new words.”

Hami’s face went blank a moment before Kanoni pulled him back into the dance.

 

“I think it’s worth testing,” I agreed.

When I awoke that morning, I was not surprised to find that the elephant guard had already left. I was surprised, however, to find Hami still awake. He had worked through the night. Something Kanoni said triggered his mind, and he began expounding on the AI adapting beyond its programming, the units expressing individual personalities. I checked the scanner. The flock wasn’t far. I offered to drive.

Hami stood.

“No, I think I’d like to walk.”

A smile broke across my face.

“Habari za asubuhi!”

“Matriarch!” I gasped, turning at the voice from behind us. “What a surprise! Is there something we can do for you?”

The matriarch nodded, and Kanoni stepped out from behind her. Without her face paint, the girl seemed different, somehow older and younger at once.

“Kanoni wishes to join you,” the matriarch said simply. Hami and I looked at each other, mouths opening and closing, unsure of what to say.

“If you feel her spirit isn’t matching the elephant migrations, there are other guardian clans that would surely accept someone so bright,” Hami stammered. “Zebra, ostrich, even lion.”

“We have no problem with Kanoni. She wants to join you.”

“But her village, they entrusted her to your clan,” I said. The matriarch raised her hand. I closed my mouth.

“We have informed her village. They agree with the change. In fact, Kanoni has spoken so highly of your work that there are two others who would like to join you as well. Their elders have offered to provide supplies, but that is a matter for later. What is important now is that this is what Kanoni has decided. Her spirit belongs here, with your flock.”

The matriarch nodded, and the issue was resolved. Hami continued to protest long after the matriarch had left, but there was a twinkle in his eye, a lightness in his step as he argued with Kanoni about adopting styles of face paint and dance. We were not guardians, he said.

“Be careful, they will bite you,” Hami warned as he instructed Kanoni on using the nets. He looked up at Neema chirping overhead, singing out a melody all her own. “The darn things don’t realize they aren’t real birds.”

I glanced at my brother and smiled. He was finally beginning to realize that they were.

 

 





Christopher Muscato

Christopher R. Muscato is a writer from Colorado, USA. He is the former writer-in-residence of the High Plains Library District and a Pushcart nominee. His recent works can be found in Shoreline of Infinity, House of Zolo, and Solarpunk Magazine