Escape Pod 358: Like a Hawk in its Gyre
Rated 15 and up for language
Like a Hawk in Its Gyre
By Philip Brewer
The bicycle noticed someone was following before Kurt did. Watching for a tail was a habit he’d finally broken himself of, but not before the bicycle’s impressionable brain had picked it up. Its low warning hum sent a thrill of adrenaline through him, giving power to the part of his brain that wanted him to sprint away.
Kurt glanced back down the single track. The trees were already beginning to turn fall colors around the edges of the forest, but here along the narrow trail the foliage was green and thick. Resisting the urge to pick up the pace, he continued on, looking back when he could take his eyes off the trail, and after a few moments caught sight of what the bicycle had seen.
“It’s just another cyclist,” Kurt said, reaching down to pat the bicycle’s yellow-and-black, hornet-striped frame. The bicycle didn’t understand–its brain was small and lacked the regions for understanding speech–but Kurt’s tone of voice calmed it and the warning hum grew softer and less anxious.
The end of the trail, a scenic overlook above the Vermillion River, was not far ahead, but the overtaking bicyclist was approaching even faster. The polite thing to do would be to find a place to pull off the trail and let the cyclist past. But there were no surveillance devices in the forest, and Kurt couldn’t face meeting someone out of sight of some sort of watching eyes. At just the thought of it, his adrenaline surged again.
Letting his brain chemistry have its way with him, Kurt leaned low over his handlebars and pedaled hard.
With its good forward eyes, the bicycle watched the trail, sending little twitches into the steering to help Kurt take the best line. On the road it didn’t make much difference, but on a technical trail the bicycle’s assist could add several percent to his speed.
Giving in to the urge to sprint away took some of the pressure off, enough that Kurt had a chance to think. The urge to find surveillance cameras–the need to do nothing that wasn’t observed–was one that he’d had some time to get used to. Even, to an extent, come to terms with. What his brain needed was watching eyes. It wanted surveillance cameras, but those weren’t the only kind of eyes. His own two didn’t count, but there were others. His bicycle had eight. And the forest was full of eyes. He could hear a woodpecker hammering not far off, the buzzing of deer flies around his head, and rustlings in the litter that might be frogs or small mammals. They all had eyes. Focusing on that, Kurt was able to ease his speed down and brake to a stop as he reached the end of the trail, where a wide, clear area looked out over the river.
Breathing hard, he looked back down the trail. He started to reach for his water bottle, but the trembling in his hand made him wait.
The approaching rider was dressed like a cyclist–lycra shorts, padded gloves, helmet, wrap-around amber shades. The bike had a rack over the rear wheel and a large bag, as big as the bag that Kurt had on his own bike, big enough for a picnic lunch and a six-pack of beer. The man angled toward the other side of the viewing area and jumped off his bike a good distance away.
Kurt began to relax. The lack of surveillance was fine if they didn’t interact. The clearing, nearly flat until it dipped sharply down to the river, began to feel a little more comfortable. His breathing slowed and he calmed down enough to smell the moist dirt. He pulled out his water bottle.
“Hello, Kurt,” said the man.
Kurt’s hand tightened, forcing a narrow spray of water out the top of the bottle.
“My name’s Starkweather. It’s been difficult to arrange a private conversation with you.”
Not private, Kurt thought, twisting his head left and then right. The forest is full of eyes and ears. He knew he was just fooling his brain, and not fooling it very well, but the thought took the edge off what would otherwise have been a panic attack.
The man watched him, then continued. “You post all your email to the web, your phone provides your GPS coordinates to the net in real time, and your shop has cameras that put an unencrypted feed on the net.”
Kurt’s knees trembled in yearning for his shop cameras.
Starkweather moved closer to Kurt. The bicycle’s warning hum grew louder.
“This must be one of your bicycles,” Starkweather said. He took off his shades and peered at it, then pointed toward a round bulge at the front of the top tube. “The brain is here?”
The hum shifted, changing from the warning tone to a more threatening snarl and Starkweather pulled back his finger. “I’m terribly interested in your bicycles. On your shop video feed, you can plainly see them moving on their own. They can’t carry you around, can they?”
The bicycles he made were a topic Kurt could discuss, even in a private conversation. “No. To do that, they’d have to be as big as a horse. They can just shift back and forth a little by shifting fluids in their tires.”
“The tires are living tissue?”
Kurt nodded. He considered explaining that the handlebar grips were living tissue as well and didn’t wear out or need replacing, but somehow the forest clearing didn’t seem like the right place for his sales pitch.
“Fascinating. But don’t you feel restricted having so little living tissue to work with? Wouldn’t it be better to make something that was a whole animal. Something like a bird, perhaps?”
The safe talk of bicycles had lulled Kurt into relaxing. At the mention of birds his throat closed and he couldn’t speak.
Starkweather leaned forward. “The bicycles are a clever toy, but I want to talk about birds.”
Remembering the comforting image of eyes in the forest, Kurt gestured toward the trees and managed to say in a strangled voice, “The forest is full of birds.”
“Ah, very droll. No, I want to talk about hawks, such as you made for the government during the unpleasantness a few years back.”
Kurt could say nothing to that. This was so far beyond anything he could have a private conversation about he couldn’t even retrace the steps of the conversation as it went from bicycles to hawks. The only response to a conversation like this was to call a particular number and report it. Ignoring Starkweather, he dug in his bag for his phone like a starving man going through a restaurant’s garbage.
As Kurt pulled out his phone, Starkweather spoke in a gentle voice, calling his name. The words washed over him, his entire attention focused on holding down the 2 button, speed dialing the number he needed to call. The phone displayed “Call Failed.” He pressed the button to try again, and then again. Finally Starkweather’s words got through. “Kurt, it won’t work. I’m jamming the cell phone frequencies. I have been since before you even knew I was behind you on the trail.”
Kurt leaned on his bicycle. Its warning hum changed tone, taking on a worried sound. Kurt made an effort to get himself under control. His mind was going in tight circles around and around the urge to make that call. Having gone through the motions, he found the circle widening just a bit. It would come back to this point–the need to make the call would return–but for a moment he could think about other things.
“I know it’s hard for you to talk about your government work. I can help, though. For one thing, I already know all about it. I’ve read all your papers. The secret ones, I mean, that document the genetic and surgical changes you made to hawk brains. I particularly liked your ‘Genetic basis for replicating human structures in the avian fusiform gyrus.’ That was the work that let your hawks recognize people’s faces from photographs.”
Kurt shook his head.
“I know,” Starkweather said. “If I’ve got the papers, why do I need you? Well, it’s very difficult to do that sort of work these days. Impossible, really. And yet, I have a certain task that would be much easier with one of your hawks. So, it occurred to me that you probably had some hawks left at the end of the war. In fact, the records show that there were eight.”
Kurt couldn’t answer. He could barely breathe.
“I can help you with that,” Starkweather said in a gentle voice. He gestured in the direction of the river. The move was so casual Kurt glanced that way without thinking. As he did so, Starkweather reached out, quick like a bird of prey, and slapped Kurt on the hand.
Kurt looked down and saw that a patch had been applied to the back of his hand. He shrieked and clawed at the edges.
“Relax. It won’t come off without some sort of solvent–acetone will do the trick. It’s not bad–just some neurotransmitters to damp down what they did to you.”
The need to get the patch off was like the need to breathe. Nothing else mattered and he would have fallen if the bicycle hadn’t shifted to help him keep his balance.
“Do you even know what they did to you?”
Having designed the procedure himself, Kurt understood better than anyone what they’d done to him. A little minimally invasive brain surgery. Some stem cells and growth hormones injected in just the right places, so that certain areas of his brain became a little larger, a little more complex, a little better connected. Some old-fashioned conditioning. The whole procedure aimed at making it impossible for him to give away any of his old secrets, while making it intolerable for him to have any new ones.
“The chemicals in that patch go a long way to making you normal again.”
It was like having a fog over his brain, but after a few seconds, Kurt found it was a selective fog. Those urges he had, out of necessity, come to terms with, fell away. It wasn’t quite so important that he do nothing in private. He still wanted to make that phone call, but now he realized that it would be okay to wait a few hours. He closed his phone and slid it back into his bag.
“There,” Starkweather said. “Feel more like your old self?”
Starkweather paused, but when Kurt had no response, went on. “It won’t last, of course. I can let you have a few more of these patches, but that’s not a long-term solution either. There’s only one thing that will free you from what they did to you. You have to tell me your secrets. I know most of them. I know everything that was in your papers, logs, records, and reports. None of that information is secret anymore, so you don’t have to keep it secret. But there are still a few things that are secret, and those secrets will still have power over you, until you tell me. What happened to those hawks?”
Kurt stared at him, the fog in his brain making it hard to think. It was true that only secrets preyed on his mind. The things he did now, that were fed to the internet in realtime, were not a burden. Already, knowing that his papers had been read, he could feel the weight of keeping those secrets lifting. It wasn’t as simple as that, though. “What about this meeting?” Kurt said, an instant before it occurred to him that he might be asking a dangerous question. “I’ll have to tell them about it, or it would be a secret too.”
“Of course,” Starkweather said smoothly. “You don’t have to keep any of this secret. Starkweather isn’t my real name. And I’ll want them to know that I’ve got a hawk. Really, that’s the whole point.”
Kurt knew that keeping his old secrets secret was as important as making sure that he didn’t have any new secrets, but the drugs in the patch confused the two. The allure of freeing himself from his old secrets was very, very strong. “There were never any extra weaponized hawks. We only made one when they were going to use it immediately. Anything else would have been far too dangerous.”
“Very careful phrasing, Kurt. But don’t you think the hawks were ‘weaponized’ even before they were fitted with explosives? Didn’t the genetic changes amount to weaponizing? There were eight hawks left. I’ve seen the records. They were not destroyed.”
Kurt clamped his mouth shut.
Starkweather looked around, as if admiring the scenery. “This used to be a prime nesting area for hawks, here by the river. Then, what with DDT and habitat destruction, hawks got pretty scarce. After the war, birders noticed there were hawks nesting on the Vermilion River again. That could just be coincidence, but combined with the fact that you ride down here nearly every week, I started thinking maybe there was a connection.”
“You think I set them free? They couldn’t have survived. They were lab animals.”
“They were supposed to live off the land for as long as it took to complete their mission. If they can survive for weeks, they can survive for three years. They’re out there. I want one.”
Kurt looked up at the sky, nodding to himself. Birdwatchers saw hawks along the Vermillion River, often from this very spot. They posted reports about it to their blogs. But there were no hawks over the river today. There never were, when he came to look. “Why do you think I come out here? To visit them? They weren’t pets. They were weapons of war. Weapons of terror, really.”
Starkweather gestured at the bicycle. “You forget that everything you do is broadcast on the net. I’ve seen you with your bicycle. I’ve seen you in your shop with the other bicycles. You couldn’t just kill your hawks. And you couldn’t just set them free and then not check up and make sure they were doing okay.”
Kurt petted the yellow-and-black striped frame absently. The bicycle’s hum had quieted as Kurt had relaxed under the influence of the patch. “If I couldn’t do that, then surely I couldn’t give one to you. They didn’t survive their missions.”
“That’s the nature of bombs,” Starkweather said.
“The generals were fools! Bombs were all they understood. What we wanted to do was use poison!” Kurt clamped his mouth shut again, holding back his rant on how easy it would have been to grow some venom glands in the hawk’s talons. There were plenty of poisons deadly enough that one slash would be as certain a kill as a bomb. But the generals wouldn’t hear of it. “Military types are stupid about a lot of things,” Kurt said, unable to keep his mouth shut any longer, “But they’re rather clever when it comes to keeping weapons safe until you’re ready to use them. Poisoned talons would have been a danger to everyone in the lab.”
Starkweather glanced up at the sky with an uneasy expression on his face.
Kurt smiled. Based on the effect it was having on him, he was beginning to understand how the patch worked. It was hard to keep his mouth shut, but he found he could pick and choose which secrets to reveal. “The explosive payload was inserted in the females. Females are larger and can carry more. It was inserted in place of their reproductive organs. We used the same birds for breeding stock, so a bird was lost for that once it was armed.”
“Will they come when you call them?”
Kurt’s smile vanished. “No birds to call.” He tilted his head back as if to look for birds, but really to keep tears from falling from his eyes.
“Let’s find out,” Starkweather said. “Call them.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a compact bundle that shook out into a mesh cage big enough for a hawk. He attached it to the rack on the back of his bicycle.
Kurt shook his head. “There aren’t any. All gone.”
Starkweather reached into the bag again, and this time pulled out a small pistol. As the gun came clear, the bicycle’s quiet hum took on an urgent warble. “How interesting! Your bicycle recognizes a gun! That’s a very clever… creature. Does it have a name?”
Kurt patted the frame again and hummed a calming hum. “No. I just call it my bicycle.”
“Too bad,” Starkweather said. “I’d like to call it by name when I threaten it.”
Kurt found that he was no longer in danger of crying. He turned his gaze from the sky and fixed it on Starkweather.
“You’d threaten a bicycle?”
“Not just the bicycle. I’ll kill you, too. But somehow I get the idea that killing the bicycle would be a bigger threat.” He raised the gun. “I guess it’s really the same thing, though, isn’t it? The bicycle isn’t like the birds. It can’t take care of itself. If I kill you, your bicycle will die here, alone in the forest. Probably all the bicycles in your shop as well, unless someone takes over caring for them.”
“What an awful idea!”
Starkweather leveled the gun, aiming toward the bicycle’s small brain. “Call a hawk.”
Kurt pushed hard on the bicycle seat, sending the bike rolling across the ground, angling toward the river.
Starkweather tracked it for a moment, then turned the gun back toward Kurt. “That won’t save it. Not if you’re dead. Call a hawk now, or I’ll kill you.”
“All right.” Kurt whistled, then made his hand into a fist and held it above his head. He kept his eyes on the sky, so he didn’t see the bicycle begin making a wide turn behind Starkweather’s back. He whistled again, a lower, repeated sound.
“Where are the hawks?”
“If they’re alive,” Kurt said, “They’ll be watching us. They’re trained to stay hidden when there are strangers about. Especially strangers with guns.”
“If you can’t get them to overcome that training in about fifteen seconds, you’re dead.”
Kurt whistled again, his fist still in the air, his eyes still on the sky. “You know,” he began in a more conversational tone, “Nothing about the bicycles is secret. I can’t keep anything secret. But some things aren’t as clearly documented as others. Especially things that didn’t need any further research. Unlike the hawks’ brains, which were really just barely changed, the bicycles’ brains were designed from the ground up. The most obvious part is loosely based on a llama’s brain. That’s the part that recognizes people and guns, the part that hums to warn or threaten. But the central core of the brain is based on a spider’s brain. That’s the part that knows how to use eight eyes. The part that feels vibrations, treating the frame as if it were its web.”
“Five seconds,” Starkweather said.
“Spiders,” Kurt said, “Don’t warn or threaten.”
The bicycle, having completed its wide turn, rolled silently up behind Starkweather, brushing past his left arm. Starkweather began to turn, but far too late. Kurt knew what he was feeling–sudden, blinding pain like a wasp sting. Pain that didn’t start and then grow worse, but was so abrupt and severe it couldn’t fail to grab someone’s full attention.
Starkweather swung his right hand around to reach the site of the agony. Before he could change his mind and swing the gun back toward Kurt, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t do anything but collapse in a heap.
“Good bicycle,” Kurt said. “Come to me.”
The bicycle didn’t understand words, but it knew what Kurt meant. It began another wide, circling turn from the angle of its attack on Starkweather.
Kurt looked down at Starkweather, the man’s breathing becoming steadily more ragged. “We did a lot of research on toxins, when we were trying to convince the military to go that direction.” The drugs from the patch made it hard to shut up, and Kurt no longer saw any reason to try. “The bicycle produces wasp venom, for the instant pain that distracts you. It can use just that, if it’s simply trying to deter a thief. But it has another. For the military we came up with some very deadly shellfish, snake, and spider toxins, but I had trouble making those play nicely with the wasp venom. I ended up going with scorpion genes. Enough to grow a stinger from the living tissue of the handlebar grip, and a tidy poison gland full of very deadly nerve poisons. In large doses–and this is a much larger dose than you’d likely get from a scorpion–they paralyze almost instantly, with death following in just a few minutes.”
The urge to make that phone call, to report on everything that had happened, was growing again. Kurt thought about searching Starkweather and his bicycle for the patches, then decided against it. His new, public life was very comfortable. After all, he had volunteered for it, and designed the procedures that made it work. It was the old secrets that were hard, and he’d finally given those away. Even knowing that he’d told his secrets to a dead man, they seemed to weigh less on his mind.
Straddling his bicycle, Kurt looked again at the sky. “It’s true that I released the birds,” he said, hoping that Starkweather wasn’t quite dead, so he could give away one more secret. “But I can’t call them. I don’t even see them. I tell myself it’s because they’re smart enough to keep away from me, but I don’t really know. I just come here, in case they need me. They don’t though. Maybe they’re all dead. But, if they’re not dead, then I guess I didn’t break them too badly.” Kurt looked down. “I wish I knew.”
About the Author
Philip Brewer’s stories often involve genetic engineering and money—perhaps not surprising, as his parents are biologists and he has a degree in economics. Even before his former employer did him the great kindness of closing the site where he’d been working, giving him the opportunity to become a full-time writer, his stories often involved hard economic times. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Futurismic, Redstone Science Fiction, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He speaks Esperanto and uses it for international communication.
About the Narrator
Tim Crist, otherwise known as the comedy musician ShoEboX of Worm Quartet. You can hear his wonderful weirdness at wormquartet.com