“Requiem for a Bird-Slinger” by Robert Jeschonek

Chirrup chirrup chee! I am the feelie-bird of kindness! Pick me! Pick me!

That is what I sing, again and again, from the bandolier strapped to the chest of the running bird-slinger, Rollo. That is what I sing from my prison—a pink plastic hair curler tucked in a loop of the bandolier.

But Rollo, chirrup, he’d rather pick another bird instead.

Fleeing through the rain-slicked streets of Bang City at night, every puddle rippling with neon light, Rollo knows a prison of his own is closing in around us. He stole a prize feelie-bird (not me) from a smuggler today, hoping to get flush in the feel-fights and fix his life…but word got around, and the Wing Syndicate want their bird back. Instead of the cheers of the crowd, he hears heavy footsteps running from behind—big-shouldered shouting, hard knuckles cracking—and worst of all, feelie-bird calls.

Skee skireek skraww! That one I know too well, a feelie-bird of hatred and wrath. Like me, she’s wedged in a tube in a bandolier or belt, awaiting her moment to fly free—and there she goes! One of the goons pursuing us tears the mesh screen from the end of the tube, points it our way, and the flicker of tiny wings strobes the air.

In our native habitat in the distant Jungles of Eem, amid multitudes of feelie-birds of every conceivable mood, that hateful creature would have been held in check by the rest, no danger to any—but here in the streets of Bang City, she becomes a terrible thing. Tiny, yes, but fierce and fleet and frenzied, able to force feelings on impressionable people-men as every one of us feelie-birds can. (Why else do you think they smuggle us here to use as weapons or convincers or aphrodisiacs?)

From my curler, I hear her slash past Rollo and blast away with a piercing cry of pure hatred. Skee skireek skraww!

I feel Rollo’s heart race faster in his chest, feel him recoil as the hate blast sears through him. Fighting the surge of unadulterated rancor, he finds the presence of mind to fight back as any bird-slinger would. He reaches for the bandolier, and I sing with all my might for him to pick me at last, I’m just what he needs…

But no, he grabs the tube next to me instead, rips the mesh screen off the end, and pinches out another feelie-bird…one whose native mood is nothing but vengefulness.

Kyeeeee kuraww chikreeee!

Rollo’s vengeful bird launches at the hateful attacker, sending her spinning into a brick wall. Then, as Rollo runs onward, the bringer of vengeance charges after our pursuers, bombarding them with mind-altering excrement and cries of furious intent designed to wreak havoc on their amygdalas.

Two of the pursuers fall away from the chase and go after each other instead, roaring with infused vengefulness. Even as we leave them behind, I can hear them pounding each other with blow after blow.

But then I hear a flurry of wings coming toward us as the sole remaining bruiser on the hunt releases more feelie-birds our way.

Reeeek reeheee yaawww!

Braaww peekree cawyeek!

I recognize their calls and shudder in my tube. The feelie-birds of rage and sadism are fast-approaching.

I cry for attention, but Rollo goes for the feelie-birds of defiance and despair instead. Without breaking stride, he grabs their tubes and unleashes them.

Dying to help, I peck at the mesh screen on my own tube, jabbing the point of my beak at a weak spot in the center. If only I could break free of this prison, I know I could save the day.

Reeeek reeheee yaawww!

The bird of rage screams as it clashes with the bird of defiance. It sounds to me, from a distance, like they’re tearing each other to shreds.

Braaww peekree cawyeek!

The bird of despair, however, goes silent, as does the bird of sadism. What terrible things are happening between them, I can’t begin to guess.

Suddenly, then, Rollo stumbles to a stop in a puddle. Through the holes in my curler, I see why.

Two Wing Syndicate enforcers clad in black, bulging with muscles, have leaped out in front of us, white teeth gleaming. Both are heavily armed, strapped with double bandoliers packed with dozens of feelie-birds.

“Hey now, Rollo!” The bigger enforcer, the male, totes a curler tube in each meaty fist. “I hear you like a quality bird! Well, we got loads of ’em right here!”

“Only the nastiest for you, Rollo!” The other enforcer, a woman, brandishes two tubes per hand. “Nobody steals from the Wing Syndicate!

“Wait!” hollers Rollo. “I just need to win one feel-fight purse to buy a Cupid-bird to make me love my old lady! She says she’ll leave me otherwise!”

Just then, the goon who’s been chasing us catches up. “You wanna feel something? Well, we’ve got lots of fear and pain and sorrow coming your way right here!”

I know what’s coming next before it happens. All three enforcers fire away, unleashing birds of the harshest feelings from their tubes. At the same time, Rollo grabs a bird from his own bandolier—yet again, a bird that isn’t me.

This bird leaps out of its tube the second Rollo strips away the screen. It flaps up, glowing with iridescent rainbow light, leaving a glittering trail as it cries to the night sky.

Geeeyeek yeezeek sheekree!

It is the stolen prize bird, a creature of fabulous power. I hear the waves of emotion in its cry, a mixture of wild and terrible feelings tuned to conquer one and all.

Geeeyeek yeezeek sheekree!

Its toxic scat spatters the attacking feelie-birds, reducing their anger and madness to simple terror and surrender.

Faced with such a threat, the enforcers empty their bandoliers. The sky is filled with wings as every feelie-bird rises, careening and screeching—every feelie-bird except me, though that’s about to change.

No longer am I content to remain in my tube, waiting for a release that never happens. Taking charge of my destiny, I attack the screen keeping me trapped…and the weak spot finally gives way.

Wriggling forward, I thrust my head from the tube and cry out with joy. Chirrup chirrup chee!

Heart fluttering with purpose, I push still further and burst free of the tube, extending my little wings for the first time since my capture in the Jungles of Eem.

But it has been too long since I last flew. My wings are weak, and I drop like a stone into the puddle below.

Bobbing in the filthy water, I gaze up at the flurry of feathers and beaks and claws, wishing I were strong enough to soar up and do my part to end the fray

All the while, the heavy feet of those who sling the birds stomp around me, coming ever closer, oblivious. Rollo and the other slingers are all alike, grasping at hatred and anger when the key to happiness is right within their grasp…all of them too empty inside and deaf to the answer to their prayers even as it rings in their stopped-up ears.

Chirrup chee chirrup! Please have mercy! Please have mercy!

For I am the feelie-bird of…

I was the feelie-bird of kindness.

Robert Jeschonek is a USA Today-bestselling author whose fiction has been published around the world. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge, Pulphouse, Escape Pod, and other publications. He has written official Star Trek and Doctor Who fiction and has scripted comics for DC and AHOY. His young adult slipstream novel, My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, won the Forward National Literature Award and was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Youth. He also won an International Book Award, a Scribe Award for Best Original Novel, and the grand prize in Pocket Books’ Strange New Worlds contest.