J. R. Rustrian
I wake up that day with frost on my wings and scars on my beak. My breath drifts away from my yellow bill in thick, white wisps, nearly freezing on this frigid morning. It’s nothing new to me; I’ve slept in colder, dirtier marshes than this one. The pain in my back from yesterday bids me a good morning as I stretch my aging, stiffened muscles. It’s worse off today than it was the day before. I rub the sleep from my eyes as my stomach rumbles. My fellow waterfowl are probably beak-deep into bugs by now.
The sun peeks its face over the hilltops, showering its warm radiance down upon a tense and morose marsh. Every fowl is on edge, no matter how hard they try to hide it. I pass by a group of flamingos working in near silence, stacking a group of infants as they sleep idly inside their birth pods. The pink on their plumage, normally so bright and inviting, was nearly drained of all color. They, out of everybody in this bog save for the pilots, know what the stakes are.
The wetlands are uncomfortably silent, even with the remaining few working at a fever pace to meet that day’s quotas. Near the feeding grounds, I spy row upon row of empty nests gathered near the edge of the swamp. I frown. Last week, stork commanders, in all their inscrutable wisdom, decided that a mass airlift would be the best course of action to deliver their packages over some of the most heavily defended airspace in the entire region. Thirty rookie storks, some fresh right out of flight delivery school, soared over enemy territory with smiles wide on their beaks. Days later, a small search party went out after none of them had checked in and found nothing but feathers and blood.
Breakfast, much to my horror, consists of large trout and frogs; a delicious, but seldom served meal. It’s a bad sign. Stork commanders only feed us this when there’s an assignment with little chance of survival coming up. I gaze around at my fellow squad-mates with trepidation. They’re all veterans of countless deliveries over dangerous and inhospitable territory and they’re definitely thinking the same thing I am. We’re all nervous and so we eat in a tense silence.
Sure enough, our commander, a tough old crane who is hard as they come, gives us our mission in a stern voice: fly over the notoriously dangerous PCOS route and deliver your packages to their intended destinations. It’ll be tough, he says, but he needs the best, so stick together and you’ll be fine. He’s avoiding saying what it actually is: This is a suicide mission and you old fowl are all we got.
It’s all part of the job, I remind myself. There’s no time to be angry about it. Before long, the sun climbs higher over the emerald hills and the sky grows blue with splotches of cumulus cloud cover. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect day to fly. Maybe the missions won’t be so bad today. Not like last time I flew a sortie under constant bombardment, where an airburst shell shredded my body like a blade of grass or the time before that when I took a bullet to the bill. I’ve probably spent more time in the medic’s hut than actually flying in the sky.
I make my way out to the runway, where my squadron mates are being prepped for final take-off. One of the crew fowl, a goose by the name of Raimi, places a metal tube encased in fabric on my back, inside which the precious cargo rests comfortably and straps me down tighter than a mother hen on her eggs. The fabric, itchy and weathered, chafes against my scarred skin. My feathers in that area haven’t fully grown back and a few of my cuts are still healing. Nothing much I can do about it now.
We’re given the signal to take-off. One by one, my flock soars into the sky in perfect formation. Each one is a close friend of mine, whom I’ve known for years now. Each one I’ve flown with and shared over three hundred hours of flight time with. Each one, I’ve delivered thousands of packages with; through wind, snow, rain and smoke. I’ve even spent the holidays with several of their families. I frown. Only one or two of them are going to come back unscathed.
The tarmac ducks give me the signal to flap my wings and, in minutes, I’m flying high above the runway with my wing mates to my front. We cruise west across the marshes and bogs that dot the landscape below. I heave heavily, and my lungs go into overdrive. My body feels like it weighs a ton and my wings burn from the inside. The muscles inside my chest have atrophied, even after hours of wing flapping therapy and rehab. My mind wanders back to what my first commander said: there’s nothing like a real mission to wake the body up.
Immediately, I begin to fall behind. My squadron pulls ahead in perfect formation. I flap my wings harder, much harder than any stork has had to before. It’s no use. I curse my failing body, lamenting my lack of muscle strengthening exercise. The rest of the squadron finally flies out of sight, leaving me completely to my own devices. I curse my own abilities and reduce my speed. Gliding is my only friend now as I try to regain my strength for a slow flight ahead.
Bit by bit, the rich green marshes below give way to strips of blackened, collapsed trenches and bombed out craters. The fringes of the battlefield herald that I’m entering enemy airspace. This is the region that the Paramilitary Coalition of the Southland calls their home. It’s a place that suits their main goal in life: to spread chaos, destruction and decay. It’s also where my pains begin to emerge once more.
I groan and climb higher, hopefully to stay out of arrow range and to see where my squadron had flown off to. The sounds of bombs, bullets, and crackling of fire fills the air. Smoke obscures my sight. Even at higher altitudes, ash chokes my nasal passages and stings my eyes.
The smell hits me. It’s burnt, roasted stork. I’m surrounded by flaming pieces of ash and feathers. My friends ran into something bad, most likely a roaming patrol who ambushed them. My gag reflex kicks in, causing me to retch over the battlefield. Fresh air evades me at this altitude and I have little strength to ascend, so I descend through the smoke, exposing myself to the enemy below.
It doesn’t take long for the PCOS to find me flying high above them. Airburst shells explode around me and arrows and bullets whiz by so close that I can feel their textures. I fly straight through a patch of smoke, trying to hide from the soldiers below. Ahead of me, endless rows of trenches and burnt-out villages lay ahead. Just a few more miles, I remind myself, and it’s smooth sailing all the way to my destination.
An arrow slices my left wing, splattering blood on my remaining feathers. I wince in pain and immediately spin into a free-fall. The rush of wind courses through my body as I struggle to correct myself. Then, a shell explodes above me, sending shrapnel tearing through my already battered body. I spin like a top and crash hard onto the mud-soaked trenches below.
A loud explosion rouses me out of my slumber after what seemed like hours. The pain is intense, and I immediately sense a broken bone in my rib cage. For a moment, I sensed the overwhelming dread that my cargo pack had been damaged or destroyed. My head swivels around and spies it lying helplessly on the ground to my left, covered in mud and soot.
I stumble over to it and check the casing and the gauges. It’s undamaged and the readings on the gauges show nothing out of the ordinary. I’m still in the game, I think to myself. Now to find a way out of these trenches.
Fires rage unchallenged, and coarse war cries echo all around me. They know I’m still alive somehow. I can hear their meaty, scruffy claws digging and pawing nearby. Silently, I limp down the trench, making sure to keep a low profile. The loud explosions work in my favor as they hide my ragged footsteps and soft grunts of sharp pain.
A loud growl stops me in my tracks. Sweat retreats from my forehead, seeking to find refuge on my scarred, yellow bill. I peek left around a corner and spy one of the brutes sniffing the air, enjoying the smell of burnt fowl. It’s a Soolin PCOS, a tall, swollen, lumbering creature covered head to hoof in ragged, patchy hair, resembling a vicious, crazed orangutan. Its body is covered in stitches, indicating it had been put together from parts of other dead Soolins. Across its back, a rusty axe hung from a leather strap while it carried its bow and several arrows in its meaty, puffy claw.
Normally, a sane, rational bird would turn feather and run. I’ve heard stories of these beasts shooting down cranes and eagles with precision accuracy and shredding apart their prey in a gleeful display of satisfaction. The one ahead of me looks plenty hungry and I struggle to fight every single urge to flee. Doing so would just draw more attention to me.
The soldier places his snout towards the ground, careful to keep his bow high and sniffs. He licks his lips in a disgusting, rancid manner. He can smell me and if this one can, the rest can too. My heart races. He’s so close now I can smell his odor of decaying flesh horrendously masked with sweet, maple syrup. I cannot decide whether or not this is worse than the roasted stork.
The Soolin lumbers around the area and groans in frustration. A high-pitched shriek pierces the sky. Behind the brute, a squat, bulbous little creature lands on the shoulder of the Soolin. It licks its own sticky fur, similar to its larger partner and twitches.
Damn it. It’s a Dreen PCOS. The last thing that I needed. If the Soolin is powerful and lumbering, then the Dreen is compact and fast. The Dreen’s entire body twitches and convulses in saccharine overload, hungry and looking for a meal. The little fangs on its mouth constantly tap against each other, dripping disgusting, cloudy saliva onto its larger partner. The eyes, a glassy, milky white, dart back and forth trying to find its next dinner, mainly me. On its back sat two tiny wings, camouflaged brown against its matted, tangled hair.
Quietly, I back away from the Soolin and the Dreen and sink into the shadow of a plywood bridge that spans the trench. Hooves surround me. I scramble down an auxiliary trench. The pain keeps me company, better than anything those hairy beasts would provide.
As luck would have it, I run into a raging inferno which quickly surrounds me. I curse and turn back only to run into the Soolin and Dreen, along with more PCOS soldiers. Each of their eyes are hellbent on consuming me and my cargo. They approach slowly, eyes in a frenzy and saliva dripping down their coarse cheeks.
I grit my teeth, flap my wings, and take off towards the sky. Pain sears across my chest, being kept at bay by the adrenaline coursing through my veins. My wings flap faster and harder than I’ve ever flown. Immediately, arrows and bullets swarm around me. I pray that none hit me and hope that somebody there likes me.
My heart sinks when I see the first of the Dreens fly up, followed by the rest of its squad. Soon, the entirety of the PCOS airspace is filled with their foul-smelling stench. Their tiny wings buzz erratically in comparison to the beautiful form of us storks. It’s a mystery how such small wings can sustain their bulbous frame. It would be funny and cute if they didn’t have murderous intent in their eyes.
Ahead, through the wall of flying PCOS, I view a thin strip of green valleys and fertile farmlands. A hint of hope fills my heart. I surge through the pain and rise higher into the sky. The soldiers follow. I’m faster than these things, I remind myself. It’s the reason why they need to resort to arrows and bullets. I can do it. I can make it.
An errant soldier’s bullet clips me from below, causing me to tumble towards the ground. The swarm of Dreens surrounds me; their teeth mashing and their laughs cackling through the air. I’ve spent the last of my energy getting up here, how the hell am I going to get free? I resign myself to my fate. Better to go out on a mission, than dying alone and cold with my body broken on some lilypad.
I think of what my mother would do. She’s never missed a delivery in all her years of being a courier. Her body was broken beyond belief, but she still managed to raise us from little chicks. Now I realize that it wasn’t her time in the service that she lived for, but to see us grow up. Always pushing herself to teach us, to love us.
I muster the last of my strength and dive bomb back towards the battlefield. I fall like a lead weight, picking up speed as I go. Behind me, the Dreens struggle to keep up. Just before I hit the trenches, I pull back up and out towards the edges of the battlefield. Loud crashes and pain ridden howls rise from behind me. They’re terrible at breaking in time.
The sun crosses its zenith as I fly over much welcome greenery. The chaos and uncertainty of the trenches is a memory now, always there, but finally behind me. I enter the homesteads of fertile ground roasted medium rare and covered in my own sauces. At least the PCOS could’ve seasoned me and served me with a side of mashed potatoes, I joke.
Finally, the small patch of land that the expecting couple calls home presents itself. I sigh in relief and smile, even as I crash land into a muddy patch of earth from sheer exhaustion. Even the cold, mushy earth feels good in relation to the dirty trenches of the PCOS. I lie there for what seems to be hours, letting the sun beat down on my burnt, exposed skin.
The cargo container is still in perfect condition, albeit covered in mud and blood. The walk to the home is painful but rewarding. I place the stained container on the wooden porch and open it up. Inside, the eyes of the little girl greet me warmly. She has no idea what hell she’s been through and is probably better off for it.
The girl smiles and coos. Why do they always do that? I think to myself. I carry her out of the container and carefully place her on a wicker basket left out for my eventual arrival. I wonder how many of my comrades made it through the battlefield. The entire time I haven’t seen any of my mates, other than the remains that lie back on that god forsaken patch of land.
My mind wanders to the other couples who will keep looking to the sky for their deliveries. God, what sort of heart wrenching melancholy and suffering do they have to go through? To wait for a miracle that may never come? I look at the girl, eyes full of wonder and potential. Delivering is the easy part, I think to myself, waiting is just sheer torture. Maybe, just maybe, another brave stork will bring them theirs soon. There aren’t any signs of the PCOS letting up anytime soon. Who knows? Somebody might get lucky.
“You’re gonna be worth it, kid,” I say to her.
I stumble away from the house, ready to fly to safer marshes farther away. For whatever reason, I turn back and spy the couple bursting out of the house and taking the little girl into their arms. They’re a young couple, probably not much older than thirty in human years. Their names have been on the list for years. My God, where do they get the fortitude to endure such a wait?
The little girl’s smile contrasts the look on her parents’ faces. They’re all tears and babbling joy. A family, finally, after a lifetime of letters and prayers. Years of happiness, frustration, headaches, and pure bliss ahead for them. For a moment, the mother looks around, possibly trying to get a glimpse of whoever or whatever delivered their bundle of joy, before going back inside with her new family. Sorry, lady, no autographs. It’s all part of the job.
A smile creeps up my face. Is that what I’ve missed out on this entire time? I take off into the sky, back to the healing, back to the bombs and bullets, back to the hurting. There’s going to be more missions coming up. I can only hope they’re as worth it as this one.
About the Author:
J.R Rustrian is a Latino writer of speculative fiction living and working in Southern California. When not writing, you can find him cooking, playing video games or hiking.
You can find his works in Bards and Sages Quarterly, HyphenPunk Magazine and the upcoming Brave New Girls anthology.
Check him out on Twitter @J_R_Rustrian