“You cocky son of a bitch,” I said, glaring at Pale Male. He stood perched in the tree, watching me as he dipped his head down into the body of the pigeon he’d just taken down. I perched in the tree opposite him, my feathers ruffled. “You stand there, eating one of my fuckin’ buddies in front of me. You have some fucking nerve.”
Pale Male stood up slightly straighter, his eyes fixed on me. Down on the cobblestone paths of Central Park, a growing crowd of tourists raised their cameras, taking pictures of him. The red-tailed hawk was a celebrity. He founded a dynasty. He brought the red-tailed hawk back to New York City. He killed pigeons.
He fixed me with a piercing gaze, the heavy brows fixed forward towards me, his wings raising slightly. He let out his cry, a high and sharp call that echoed off the walls. It was the kind of cry that people used in movies to represent bald eagles, a single striking cry that sounded much more impressive than the squawking noise the big white-headed jerks usually made.
It reminded me of the scream of a stukka, diving down towards my friends. I went somewhere else for a moment.
“What did you say to me, punk? You screeching at me?” I looked around. “I don’t see any other pigeons around here. You must be screeching at me.”
Pale Male called out again, and the people below clapped, raising their cameras, excited for the chance to see some blood.
The hawk was taken quite by surprise when I launched myself from the tree, flitting across the gap, and struck him solidly in the side. The hawk took a plunge out of the tree, barely regaining his bearing in time to swoop low over the ground, flapping away.
“Yeah! You’d better fuckin’ run!” I yelled after him. Then I leapt into the air, just before the rock hit me, warned by decades of experience.
“Leave Pale Male alone!” said one of the tourists, a kid. He reached down, and grabbed another chunk of rock from the gravel at the edge of the path. He threw it at me, and a few other tourists joined in as I swooped away. “Stupid gutter bird!”
“Fuckin’ ungrateful bastards. Can’t believe I fought for this country.” I fluttered away, something in my wing twinging from the impact. I’d had worse, though. I alighted on the ground, and strutted up towards a man eating a very delicious looking hot dog. I cooed softly at him. “Hey, buddy. Help out a vet?”
The man looked from side to side, frowning. He looked down at me, and kicked half-heartedly at the air. Not trying to hit me, just trying to get me to move away. I gave him a long, hard look, hoping it might guilt him into losing his appetite, but he just stood up and started walking down the path, finishing the foot-long in two great bites.
“Yeah, yeah, with skills like that, you must make a killing in porn,” I called after him, but he didn’t seem to notice. People didn’t pay attention to random voices in this city. It was a survival trait. They didn’t hear me, not because of some mystical powers or a filter in their brain, but for the same reason they didn’t hear the homeless guys on the streets. I took off, pumping my wings, and kept an eye out for anyone who looked sympathetic.
New York City’s not a bad place to be homeless. The current administration is damn sympathetic, which ironically means there’s a pretty large homeless population. But it’s a shit-awful place to be a pigeon. And a worse place to be a demon.
It wasn’t just the food. It was hard to get people to care about a pigeon. What was I supposed to offer them?
It wasn’t always that way. I’d been important, once. I’d been-
I turned my head, and circled down. A young man was standing at the edge, with a large box of bread crumbs. Panko, the nice stuff, that went down smooth. “You talking to me?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Want a meal?”
I alighted on the ground in front of him, and gave him a suspicious cock-eyed look, taking in the look of the kid. He was in his late 20s, dressed alright but not fancy. I didn’t know him. “What’s your name, kid?”
“You aren’t weirded out by a pigeon who can talk.”
“It’s- Betty! No!”
Instincts that had preserved my life dozens of times, in war and out, fired. I rose into the air in a flutter of feathers just as whirling black death scythed from out of a shadow. A housecat landed where I had been, and glared up at me on my new perch on a tree branch, muscles tensed for another leap. “Better gods than you have tried, kitty.”
She was suddenly a human woman, dark-skinned and green-eyed, glaring up at me, still crouched and ready to jump. “I’m going to get you some day, bird. You’re in my city.”
“What? Have we met before?”
“I’ve been hunting you on and off for the last seventy years!”
“Huh,” I said, and cocked my head. “Not doing a very good job of it. I always wondered why this city seemed so dead. Lot more weird stuff happening lately, though. Those Atlanteans and stuff.”
“I’m sorry about that,” said the kid. “Betty. Don’t attack the guy. We’re here to talk with him.” He looked up at me. “Uh, look, would you like somewhere warm to stay?” He shivered, rubbing his arms. I didn’t blame him. It was a bitter cold December, and the offer was welcome.
The apartment was a nice one. I stood on the human’s shoulder as he walked in, drawing an odd look from the doorman, but since I wasn’t crapping everywhere, he let it slide. Once inside, I sniffed at the air.
“Kid, you keep a lot of goddamn snakes and cats around. I’m rethinking this whole agreement.”
“I’ll make sure they don’t do you any harm, I promise. I need to talk to you.” He took out a folder. “My father and my uncle were part of this group. I’ve been tracking down some of their old records, figuring out what they got up to. Some of the older folders mentioned something I found interesting. Something that happened in Tunisia.”
“Ah,” I said, softly.
“The reports get… vague, around the end. Most of the members of the Order of Set who were involved died in the mission. The one survivor didn’t see the end of the thing. But he does mention someone who did. An American demon, by the name of G.I. Joe.” He looked up at me, frowning. “Please. Tell me. Are you G.I. Joe?”
The kid didn’t even smile at that. “Christ. That’s not my name. That’s what they called me for P.R. purposes. My name was Dove, kid. Captain Rock Dove.”
It was the closing days of the Tunisian Campaign. Two long years of tanks maneuvering in the endless desert had culminated with the Americans showing up, and saving everyone’s bacon, as we always did-
“Nothing,” said the boy, coughing, and looking away.
“Hey, look, whatever, we kicked ass. Patton got a piece of crap corps into fighting shape, and the Germans underestimated us, to their peril.” I looked aside. “And ours.”
I was one of about eighty pigeons that had been brought during the landings in Operation Torch. Of us, I had by far the most experience. I had served in World War 1, and a number of intervening wars with the United States Army. And, at some point in that time, with the attention and the thought that was paid to me, I had become something more than just a pigeon. Something that was special.
“How are you doing today, Capitaine?” asked Jillian, the incredibly pretty French girl who had volunteered to join as the pigeon-keeper. Her family had been raising pigeons for centuries in both France and Algiers, and she had leapt at the chance to have anything to do with the effort to rescue her home from the German invaders. She was a good girl, and she had an ass like one of the better class of fertility goddess. It might have been odd that a pigeon would be attracted to a human woman, but what can I say? I liked the intelligent conversation.
“Eh, fine enough, Jillian. How about you? You look a bit unsteady.” I reached out, and gave her ass a squeeze. The girl jumped, letting out a sharp cry of indignation, and fixed me with a merciless glare that couldn’t hide the smile in her eyes.
“Wait,” said the boy. “You were a human back then, right?”
“What? No. I never went in for that kind of thing. Thinking and talking like a human’s good enough for me. You think I want to flail around on the ground like some chump monkey?”
“Then- How-” He stared at me.
“Kid, who’s telling this story? Quit interrupting.”
“The Germans have been pushed back again,” said Jillian. “The British broke their lines at Wadi Akrit. It’s predicted Tunis will fall within a month. Then, to Italy. And from there…” Her voice dropped off, her eyes becoming far away. Jillian got that way when she thought about home.
“We’ll be dancing in the pastures of France by Christmas,” I said, cheerfully.
“Not that soon. But perhaps there is hope, now,” said Jillian, giving me a brave little smile. The girl couldn’t have been older than twenty, but she’d seen a great deal.
“Hey, speaking of which.” I raised my bandaged wing. “What’s the prognosis, doc?”
She reached out, and very gently took hold of the wing, unfolding it. I let her, and tried not to wince. From the expression she made, I didn’t do a great job at it. I’d taken a bullet through the bone there, shattering it. I’d barely been able to flap home with the call for help before I passed out from pain and blood loss. If I wasn’t as tough a cuss as I was, I’d be out of the war. As it was, I’d still been sidelined. Only a few days back, nearly half the birds in my company had been sent out in crates with an entire armored company on some mission to an out of the way stretch of the desert.
“Guess it’ll be a few more days before I’m back in the saddle?” I said, with a bit of forced cheer.
“I’ve never met a bird so eager for battle as you,” said Jillian, softly. “You came back soaked in blood. I wouldn’t have thought such a tiny body could contain so much. I’ve seen men with lesser injuries sent back, the war finished for them. No one could doubt your heroism, Capitaine. Are you so eager to face the German guns again?”
“It’s not going out and facing the guns that scares me,” I said. “It’s staying here and facing the men.” I hooted, and waved my wing towards the cages. The others stood in their roosts, nestled together, cooing occasionally, clearly ready for their seed. “They do the best they can, but come on. We both know that when the time comes, when people’s lives are on the line, I can do what they can’t.”
“Ah, well, my Capitaine, here I thought you were just a bird with delusions of grandeur. Can it be that the Saviour has returned, with fine plumage around his throat?” She tickled my neck fondly, and smiled. Damn, but that felt good. “The men shall survive your lack for a little bit longer. Come, now. What would you say to a drink?”
“Damn, I must have done something right. Don’t mind if I do.”
She reached down, allowing me to climb onto the broad and roomy sleeves of her dress, careful to keep my admittedly small and fairly harmless talons from digging into any soft bits. I hopped up to her shoulder, and there took my watch as she served out the seed to the other birds, scooping it out for them.
I didn’t know, precisely, what I was. I knew I was different from the other birds- beyond just the intelligence, and the speed and the strength, and the uncanny- even for a pigeon- awareness of where home was. I felt stronger when people paid attention to me. And at war, people always paid very close attention to the messengers. And I was the best at such things. Twice as fast as a human running flat out, unharried by mountain or bog. And I was smart. Any pigeon could find their way back to their nest with uncanny accuracy. Some, well-trained, could ferry between a place where they got food and their home nest, creating a simple route. Me? I could always find where I was looking for.
Radio was becoming more and more ubiquitous. It was a powerful tool, and it left me in the dust, travelling on the waves of aether to pass back and forth. But there were two problems with that. First, the damn thing could be intercepted; And not like me. Anyone who held out their hat could intercept it, whereas in my long life not one filthy bastard had ever gotten their hands on my messages. Second, even if you couldn’t tell what was being said, you knew something was being said. That was a message all its own. And third, they could be jammed.
I could avoid all that. I could avoid notice. I could slip through interference. I was smart, unlike a radio wave. The damn things would never replace me.
The bar was one of the more disreputable in the small city that the II Corps had occupied. The addition of soldiers hadn’t helped that much, but Jillian was the kind of girl who could inspire chivalry in the blackest Kraut heart. The soldiers cleared a space for her as she approached the bar. She gave her best winning smile. “Whiskey, please. Three fingers.”
“Are you sure you would not like a nice glass of wine, mademoiselle?” asked the bartender, a dark-skinned man with bright eyes. “We have some very fine vintages from-”
“It’s not for me.” She nodded her head to the side gently, one of her locks brushing my wing. “It is for Joe, here.”
The bartender looked bemused, but she placed a dollar on the table, and he shrugged, getting out the glass. One of the soldiers looked over to the side. “Joe? G.I. Joe?”
I cooed with indignation. My ability to speak was not common knowledge, and honestly, I preferred it that way. Saved me from a lot of boring conversations. I still wished people used my real name, though.
“Indeed,” said Jillian, the traitor smiling sweetly. “You know him?”
“Know him? Saved my division. We were getting pounded by Kraut armor. He comes through a hail of bullets with a message to pull back. We pulled them into an enfilade. Saved my life personally.” He placed a dollar down over the one she had. “Does the guy really drink?”
“Like a fish. I tell him to cut down, but apparently, birds are far better at holding their liquor than men.”
The men around the bar laughed at this, a little loud, a little hard. But men at war found everything funnier. It was one of those human things that I understood, now. When you were surrounded by people who might die, it provoked a need to laugh at the deaths.
That was one difference between me and the humans, though. A strange thing, but I never really remembered the people who died. They faded around me. I remembered the ones who were still alive much better. Maybe that was why I wanted to be out there. I wanted to keep as many people in my life as I possibly could.
“Now- If I remember correctly- Joe here is the leader of the company of pigeons, correct?” asked the man who had paid for the drink.
“Oh, he likes to think of himself as first among equals, but there is no doubting he is a Capitaine, through and through.”
“Well, sir, here’s to your health.” The man raised his glass, and knocked it back. Not to be outdone, I hopped down onto the bar, and dipped my beak into the amber whiskey. It was the good stuff, and I drank long and hard, throat bobbing, until the glass was empty. The men whistled and clapped around me, and I felt a burst of energy and cheer, my wing feeling stronger than ever.
It was much the same as the feeling I got in battle. When I crossed the threshold of enemy fire and reached safety, and my feathers flashed for the soldiers to see. When they knew I brought news, and salvation. It gave me that extra push of speed, that extra endurance to make the flight and back again. I was a damn smart bird- I could have escaped any time I wanted. But this was where I belonged. It was the place I’d been made for.
I lifted my head, and began to coo a little song for the men, in the soft tones of a dove. The men turned and listened, conversations quieting, as I sang for them. It wasn’t much. Hell, with the amount these men had given, the amount that had been asked from them, the amount that had been taken from them, it was barely a drop in the bucket. But I saw the way they appreciated the song, the way they took a moment to sip their drinks appreciatively, watching me as I sang. The song came to an end, slowly, but surely, just as the door to the bar entered and a bald guy entered the room.
“Where the hell’s G.I. Joe?” asked General George Smith Patton Junior.
Jillian stood up. I fluttered up to her shoulder, and raised a wing in silent salute. The general knew exactly what I was capable of, and he expected a damn salute. I could hear some of the men whispering to one another, and I had to admit, as far as legends to add to Patton’s, the idea that he could make a bird come to attention was going to be a good one.
Outside, the fierce Tunisian sun beat down. Patton grumbled softly under his breath, as was the man’s way. He was a great leader in no small part because he didn’t take things like the weather lying down. He gestured for Jillian to step into the jeep, driven by a serviceman wearing a pair of heavy black sunglasses. The serviceman started the jeep.
“You know, it never ceases to amaze me, how goddamn weird the Lord made the world,” said Patton, as we drove, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the engine’s hum. “Birds that talk. And then he gave me one that thinks, too.” He looked across the divider. “Jillian. I’m trusting you to keep your mouth shut about what we’re about to talk about. You are familiar with the ranks of secrecy- Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, Above Top Secret.”
“Of course,” said Jillian, softly. She hadn’t just been a pigeon fancier. Women didn’t get given a lot of roles in war, but they could rely on two steady sources of employment. Nursing, and spycraft.
“There is a rank above these four. A rank that is largely deniable, a rank that is very rarely used. Above Top Secret denotes information that, if revealed, could cause an existential threat to the United States. Esoteric is above that. Consider, for a moment, what this means.”
“The Germans have researched some horror,” she said, softly. “Something like the Project, back in the states.”
“Something like that. But they didn’t research it. They discovered it.” He took out a folder. Operation Skygod’s Eye was written in it. I tilted my head, curiously. “The Germans have grown desperate. The Russians have stalled them out. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor has not brought them the swift victory they expected. England remains unconquered. And now, we are about to cut into their soft, vulnerable underbelly. Good stuff, to be sure. But they’ve done something rash. Tell me, either of you familiarize yourself with the mythology around these parts?”
“Somewhat, sir,” said Jillian, as I said “Not a fucking bit.”
“Hmmm. Egyptian Gods. There’s evidence, apparently, that one of them is still running around- according to forces higher up on the totem pole than me. She’s even supposed to be fairly friendly. But she’s not involved with this.” He took out a photograph. Black and white, showing a blurry picture of what looked like a tomb from one of those Universal Picture movies. “Three weeks ago, an elite German commando unit raided deep behind enemy lines. They stole something from a tomb. Men with a very different education from my own suspect that it was a reliquary, containing the power of the god Horus. They also tell me that there is a leyline here- That’s fancy talk for ‘magical power lines’- which would make an ideal place to bring that god back. Specifically, under Nazi control.”
“God in heaven,” murmured Jillian, softly, as I eyed the pictures. Whoever had taken it had a natural flair for photography. I admired the use of thirds, in a picture that had clearly been taken with great haste.
“I fear that he’s not going to stay there. We sent an armored company to secure the leyline, with pigeons to communicate. The god they are attempting to raise is a god of the sun, and damned if I know why, but apparently, the men who know these things worry that they can read radio waves. I’ve been waiting three days to hear from them. Not a single pigeon has arrived. I am not a happy camper.” He looked over at me, meeting my eye. “Captain, how’s the wing?”
“World’s better,” I said, pecking gently, affectionately, at Jillian’s shoulder. Obligingly, she carefully lifted her arms and undid the bandage around my wing. I folded and unfolded it.
“Captain, I’m going to warn you. For all I know, I may be sending you into a slaughterhouse. I may be sending you into the teeth of a vengeful Nazi god, which is one of the darkest things I can imagine. I wish I could tell you that we have something to deal with this. We’re hoping to keep them from even starting it, recover the eye if we can. The sun has not begun to cast down fiery spears of death upon us, which is a good sign, but the silence…” He sighed. “I will send men to die, if it will secure victory. If.”
“I’ll find what happened, sir. Relay it back,” I said, snapping another quick salute.
“You can find it?”
“With my eyes closed, sir. I’ll return as quickly as possible with news.”
I spread my wings, and alighted into the sky. My wings flapped furiously as I rose up into the air, catching a thermal, imitating the hawks I had watched and fought to raise myself higher into the air.
God damned hawks. There was a true lack of fairness. Everyone respected them because they were predators. Oh, look at them, so graceful and wondrous, hunting and coming out of the sky like death. Humans always thought that was so impressive.
They were dumb as shit. They didn’t know how to carry messages. You had to clip their wings most of the time or else they’d never come back. They didn’t understand art. They didn’t understand language. They never fought in a fucking war. They never took a bullet through the chest and kept flying because it was the right thing to do, because men counted on you-
“Are you alright?” asked the kid, as I stopped for a moment, my feathers rustling.
“Fine,” I said, my voice a little choked up. “Just- Give me a second.”
He reached out, and cautiously, as though expecting me to take a bite out of him, scratched at my neck. I closed my eyes, and appreciated it. It had been a long time since any human had been willing to come close to touching me. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault, kid. Time makes fools of us all. Where was I…”
The relatively lush coastal areas gave way to scrubland, and then to out-and-out desert. I winged along, guided by a combination of magnetism, memory, and something that was beyond my powers to explain. I knew the right way to find my way to the other pigeons. They were a kind of home, after all. I flapped and soared across the miles.
I had to stop and rest a couple of times. It wasn’t a quick trip by any means. The sun was getting low in the sky when I finally started to approach my destination.
The first sight that something was wrong was the body. My eyes were drawn to it. Something inside of me tugged me downwards, and I did quick spirals and adjustments, landing next to the corpse. One of the other pigeons. Speckled Jim, I remembered, his dappled white coat distinctive. He lay in a patch of blood on the ground, the red slowly turning brown in the sun. He couldn’t have been dead for more than a couple of hours. I rested my wing on him, feeling the cold slowly seeping into those feathers.
Three puncture wounds had pierced through his chest. Small, needle-sharp implements had been thrust through his heart. His… Damn. What was his name again?
I shook my head. It was strange. This was the attack of a raptor, a bird of prey. Not unthinkable here; I knew there were falcons in this area. But the body hadn’t been eaten. Not even touched.
The thing that unified predators is that they killed because they were hungry. Not because they were cruel, or wanton. It was a simple, and straightforward thing. I didn’t like it any better because of that, but I understood it.
I spread my wings, and took off, rising on a thermal bloom into the sky once more. The warm wind beneath my wings did nothing to hold back the shiver of anticipation I felt as I ascended once more.
Missions went wrong, sometimes. There was insufficient information, someone had been underestimated. You sometimes arrived at the site of the battle to find nothing but corpses, or you made it back to command only to find you were too late. Those memories had always faded from me quickly. I didn’t hold onto them. I didn’t get a chance to examine them much.
Speckled Jim was no different. He had died in battle, seeking to save men’s lives. We all died eventually. I couldn’t change that. I could just try to make sure his sacrifice counted for something.
I slowed as I approached my destination. Off in the distance, to one side, I could see another body on the ground. This one was Swifty, young and brave, who was the fastest in the flock, except for me on a good day. Half her feathers had been shaken violently out of her, and she lay, her pale pink skin exposed, her neck broken. I felt another name leave my mind. She’d died doing what she had to.
Perigee was next, and then Fait Accompli. More of my flock, killed. They must have been released at the same time, all striving to escape. The story became slowly clear to me; As the killer had thinned the flock mercilessly, one after another, Swifty had made a break for it, luring the killer away from the more experienced… What was his name? The first one I’d found. She’d given her life to try to buy him a few more precious seconds. To buy him time to vanish into the distance.
It hadn’t been enough.
I approached. There were many methods of telling the future. I’d heard people talk about them from time to time. For some reason, the subject fascinated me. I’d read books about men who shook little sticks out to try to find out the future, men who drew cards. The Romans had sought the future in the flight of birds, which struck me as particularly noble. There were certain savage bastards who had, in turn, eviscerated birds and looked for the future in their entrails, which struck me as an approach that would lead one down a bloody path. Once, I’d learned that the ancient Greeks would see the future through the patterns of smoke that rose from a fire. It was called capnomancy.
It turned out I was a skilled capnomancer. In the black, greasy fires rising from the distance, I could see the future. It was a future where I was too late, the fucking Krauts had murdered everyone, and an ancient god of some heathen fuckass religion from out in the shithole of the universe was about to see Brooklyn speaking German and drinking lager.
The smoke came from the armored company. A half dozen tanks had been reduced to smoking ruins. A killing field had been set up, but the defense must have been difficult. The land was open, with long lines of sight. There was German armor everywhere, and someone must have set off a flare down among the Germans, because there was an obnoxiously bright light from the middle of their camp. Someone shouted, pointed up towards me, and gunfire erupted. I sailed around it with contemptuous ease, noting the bodies of more of my flock, a dozen or so of them who had been shot and gone down. The fury in me built, and the bullets seemed to stand still as I danced and sailed towards the American lines, small and painfully outnumbered.
The sun was on the horizon, but still hot. Surprisingly hot. I dived towards the lines, and saw people shouting and pointing at me.
No, not quite at me. I felt my feathers begin to rustle in the wind, in a way that wasn’t quite right.
Winged death fell on me from above.