Nest, by Douglas Hoffman
Night, the Adarbonine Mountains
Messy tipped a few glugs of brandy into his drinking saucer, lowered his beak, took a good hard swallow. Yeah, that’s it.
He stretched his feathered arms, yawned, and tried to scratch. That’s all it took to upset his equilibrium. He almost fell from his perch, a low, heavy branch, but caught himself. His talons bit into the bark.
You must be all fluffed up if you can’t even scratch your own self. He pointed his beak at the starry midnight sky, and raked his crest against the butt of the rifle strapped to his back.
I need a hen. Nice fat one to keep me warm. He tried to rub some warmth into his arms and shoulders. Careful. Some drunk bastards been known to scratch themselves featherless and bloody.
He took another dip of brandy. You sorry cock. How drunk are you? The scrubby ground six feet below seemed to buck and heave. Try hopping down. You’ll find out real quick.
Shivering in the cold wind, Messy scanned the valley to the east: Meller’s Trough, where the Aban refugee camp glowed like a miniature metropolis. He could smell the unsanitary beasts, sour as a fouled nest. Campfire smoke snaked upward. Pots clattered, hatchlings cheeped with single-minded fury. An argument broke out, squawks clear and crisp in the cold dry air. Messy couldn’t understand a word of it. Twitters escalated to bloodthirsty shrieks, derisive caws. Then the wind shifted, muting the fight.
You’re no dummy, Mes, and that’s a fact. You can wet your beak and keep your tail clean. So stop worrying. You picked a good perch, a fine perch.
He could make out his squad’s campfire glowing up-canyon. With his binoculars, he could spot a few of the other squads’ fires, too. If any officers came snooping, he’d have plenty of time to high-tail it back to his post. Not that discipline was enforced these days. They were the Guard, after all, not the fluffing Army.
Messy didn’t spare much anxiety for his fellow Guardcocks. The refugees, they were the real problem. Each arroyo leading out of the Trough had one and only one quartet of Guardcocks. If the Abans got it into their pebble brains to rush them, it would be murder. He reached backward, clacking his talons against the rifle barrel.
Branches rustled. Messy’s chest seized, then relaxed when he recognized Korno’s deep squawk. “It’s me.”
They didn’t make Guard uniforms big enough for a bird like Korno. He had the huge head of a championship nutcracker, a genuine trophy-winning beak-builder. Breast feathers burst out from under his dark blue collar. He looked like an overstuffed pillow, but Messy knew Korno had more than feathers under that blue shirt.
It took Messy a moment to recognize the pale shaft Korno held in his hands. It was a hollow bone, sun-bleached in spots, dark and meaty in others. He’d made himself a flute by carving seven holes into — what was it, anyway? Some poor refugee’s leg bone, no doubt. Barbarians. Between their own private (but often deadly) squabbles and the bandits that roamed these mountains, the Abans were absolute hell on themselves. Not that Messy cared what those animals did to each other.
He glanced back at the refugee camp. Scary to think what those mother-fluffers might do to good, decent Huuran society if they were allowed to immigrate in such numbers.
He stepped sideways on the branch to make room for Korno. “Finally get fed up?”
“I wanted a smoke,” Korno said, hopping up. “I didn’t want His Holiness staring down his beak at me.”
Messy sighed and felt himself relax. Korno’s voice had an oddly comforting effect. Squawks and barks, nary a twitter or cheep.
“His Holiness.” Messy spat. “Andie’s an idiot.”
“Can you be an idiot with that much education?”
“If you’re gonna smoke, roll me one, too.” Messy burped and the alcohol fumes made him sneeze. “Damn it anyway. Catch our death out here, just because we can’t drink or smoke in His Holiness’s presence.”
“If it’s not Andie quoting scriptures, it’s that jerk of a kid Hahn. Stupid little fluff has stars in his eyes. He’s all pop-eyed whiz-bang over the Benevolents.” Korno said Benevolents in English, drawling each syllable.
Messy caught a whiff of pod from Korno’s pouch. Korno rolled a cigarette, lit it, held it to his nostril and puffed. He nodded towards the Trough. “Biggest round-up ever,” he squeaked, and passed the joint to Messy.
Messy snorted deeply. He held it as long as he could, then coughed until he wheezed.
“Isn’t fair. Damn jungle-poppers get all the best pod.”
“Ask your daddy for a transfer,” said Korno. “Tell him you’re tired of the easy life. Hell, boy, you could hide out in the Army just as well as the Guard –”
“Thought we agreed not to talk about that.”
Korno laughed. “Eight years old. And you call me a nasty piece of work.”
Damn him anyway, scratching up old dust. I am not ‘hiding out’ and I am not a pervert, no matter what some folks think. That girl swore –
“She swore she was thirteen,” Messy said.
“Yumplash doesn’t fall too far from the tree, that’s what I think.”
“Say that out loud in Little Stump, else keep your beak shut.”
“Yeah, go to your daddy, Mes.” Korno pitched his voice an octave higher. “‘Daddy, gimme an all-expense-paid trip overseas . . .’ Admit it. You always wanted to be an Army grunt.”
“If I go, you’re coming with me.”
Korno grunted. “Oh yeah, I’d go, fast as Apogon. Might be fun. Plug a few hundred Kulos, smoke some killer pod.”
“This is dangerous enough, thank you. Bandits and all.”
Messy inched further out on the limb.
Can’t reason with a cock like Korno. He’s not afraid of anything.
“I’m telling you, this is dangerous work,” said Messy. “Last month, this Aban farmer came over with his family. Crops failed, chicks starving, the usual story. Only good thing he and his wife had were their wedding rings. Aban bandit caught ‘em. Couldn’t pull off the bands, so he chopped off their ring fingers with a pocket knife.”
Smoke streamed from Korno’s nostrils.
“Story doesn’t hold up. If the Abans are so damned malnourished, why would their rings get stuck?”
“Don’t know. But remember last week, the miners? Bandits left ‘em for dead, no food, no water. That was cold.”
“There’s wicked shit in these hills,” said Korno. “Most of it they’re doing to each other.”
“Worse than wild animals. Hen last month? Cooked and ate her own eggs.”
“It’s true. Fellow I met at the Commissary, good ol’ Propys cock, he saw the shells.”
They smoked in silence for several minutes, listening to the cheeps and squawks from the Aban camp. Messy drained his drinking saucer and slid it into his backpack.
“This is an idiot’s job, Korno. Sworn duty to protect. Shit. When do the trucks get in?”
“Captain said they got some weather at the Pass. It’ll be late morning.”
“It’ll take a lot of trucks.”
“One way ticket back to Ab-ah-kah.” Korno stretched. “Next week, we do it again.”
“Fat waste of taxpayer money.”
“What would you do? Give them amnesty?”
“It’s a thought.”
If we welcome them with open arms, we wouldn’t need to fear them. And if they bring their dirty ways with ‘em, well, cops like Korno’s dad will sort that out.
“I’d kill ‘em,” said Korno.
“I bet you would, you cold son of a fluff-hen.”
“No, really. A few spectacular executions, right on the spot. Bandit, peasant, doesn’t make a difference.”
Messy took back the joint. “Even for a cop’s son, you’re bloody-minded.”
Korno shrugged. “Mom gave me a baby coney for my fifth birthday. Cute bugger. They’re nothing but pink worms before they get all that fur.”
“You have a point?”
“I called him Poot. See, he was such a little fart. Poot would hop all over the house, shitting in the closets, gnawing at the baseboards.”
“They have to chew,” said Messy. “Otherwise, the front teeth get all curly.”
“Right. So anyway he got big, big as a coney gets. And one day, Dad says, ‘Today, you become a cock.’”
“He picked Poot up by the scruff and took us both out back. Told me what I had to do. Fingers here, under the neck, press up sharp, like you’re popping the cap off a beer bottle. Don’t be surprised by the struggling, he says. Do it fast, before you have a chance to think about it.”
“And you did it?”
Korno huffed. “Mother-fluffer was shitting up my clothes.”
Messy tipped his head towards the Aban camp.
“This wouldn’t be the same.”
“Course not. Abans are bigger. Besides, I wasn’t talking about killing them with my bare hands. I’m talking legal execution. Two, maybe three. Well publicized. How long do you think before – what’s that?”
Messy’s pectoral muscles cramped for the second time that evening. Damn him, if he’s jerking me around . . .
But Korno’s back was rigid.
“Listen,” he said. “Something rustling. And there’s a torch. Come on!”
Messy hopped off the branch and scrambled down the hillside, half of it sliding on his tail. Damn damn damn . . .
His head spun from the pod and the brandy, but he managed to keep up with Korno.
They reached the canyon mouth in time to block a trio of Aban hens. The refugees pulled together, and the oldest, a silver-crested hen with a chipped beak, stepped forward.
Messy caught his breath. “What’s she jabbering about?”
“This is Grannie,” said Korno. “Mom’s back at camp. Sick.”
The older hen chirped. Korno held up his hands to slow her down.
“I keep getting the word for ‘water’,” he said. “One of them is sick. No, they’re all sick. Look at their tail feathers.”
Messy hopped behind the group. “Vent feathers are all matted. Diarrhea. Suppose the water’s bad down there?”
“Guess so.” Korno spoke a few words in Aban. “I told her to tough it out until morning. We don’t have enough – hang on.”
The silver-crested hen became more animated, jabbing her talon up-canyon.
“She remembers a freshwater spring. Damn, Messy, we got ourselves a guide!” Korno paused as the old hen prattled on. “She wants permission to bring them up a few at a time. Fill some containers for the ones too weak to hop it themselves.”
“Korno, how’d you get to be such an Aban-fluffing-scholar?”
“Kept my ear holes open in school. So, what do you think? I say fluff ‘em. They can last until the trucks come.”
At the word ear, Messy realized he could hear his heart pounding. Damn Korno and damn these hens for giving me a fright. Damn the Guard for putting me out here and damn Daddy’s damned political fears. Damn it for being scared and cold and hungry.
He hopped between the two younger hens. One was eight or nine, the other, maybe sixteen. The older girl had royal blue neck feathers, a silver crest, and an ivory white breast flecked with gold. Listen to you.‘Ivory white breast flecked with gold.’ That’s just the torchlight.
“She’s a fine one,” he said.
“You can’t be serious. They got the squirts.”
“Fellow can always wash off afterwards.”
“You’re one sick chick. What do you want me to tell her? The girl can check it out, but the other two stay back?”
“Too suspicious.” Messy drew a talon across the tiny blue feathers below her eye; she drew back slightly and looked away. That cringe inflamed him. He wanted to jump her then and there.
“This one knows I fancy her.” He hooked her beak with a talon, forcing her to look at him.
Let’s take them all. We’ll protect them from harm, right?”
“Right.” Korno snorted. “All those bandits.”
“And who knows, maybe we’ll get separated on the trail. Anything can happen.”
“Very true. Anything can happen.”
Korno twittered a few halting words in Aban. The silver-crested hen looked back and forth between the two Guardcocks, then nodded to her granddaughters.
Together, they began the trek up-canyon.