4 – Try Not to Break Anything
“Well, how is it? Damn, it looks real. Creepy.”
“It better be. I’m going to be paying for it for two years,” Madison says. “It is fun to fly. I owe you one for that.”
Marcus smiles, and when he’s gone, Madison contemplates the drone. It is eerily real: shiny black eyes and feathers that glint like motor oil on a puddle. Not a cure. Just a painkiller. She ought to resist it the same way she’s resisted every other one. Ought to.
Madison tinkers. She can’t help it. The Corvus wakes up a long-dormant part of her that used to love building kites when she was a kid, that aced her aeronautical engineering courses in college. The thing that triggers her atavistic, obsessive need to test the machine’s limits is its eyes. Flying the drone didn’t feel real; the field of view felt too smooth. Frame-stabilized. It didn’t match the energetic pumping of the Corvus’s wings.
To fly a seventh-generation strike fighter, Madison had a cortical node bored through her skull and straight into her entorhinal cortex. The system will be standard issue when the Swallowtail goes into production, and she will be a footnote in how to avoid syncing failures that lead to catastrophic loss of signal. She hates the presence of the implant as much as she hates the absence of her legs. The node isn’t a violation so much as a broken promise, like having a telescope with no focus knob.
She touches her antenna and wonders if she can yoke the Corvus to the implant and fly it that way. Can her vestibular system handle having wings? She can roll a sixty thousand-pound jet fighter on its nose without losing her sense of balance. How hard can it be?
Wondering what it feels like to see the world the way the crows do, Madison makes her modifications in a daze. She works in a fever that belies the autumn air leaking in her window. Loses track of herself the same way she used to when she flew: total abnegation of every part of herself except her destination and the horizon line. The kit came with a hand-held controller in case she wanted to go outside and fly the Corvus like a kite. She takes it apart and weaves it back together, wishing faintly that she could do that for everything else.
When she’s done, Madison sets up a few little web cameras in case her test fails. Old habits. If she somehow manages to kill herself, her successors will know what went wrong. Or they can post it on the internet and get famous for a few minutes.
She drapes the remains of the controller around her neck—a faintly glowing paisley scarf made of glass and fiber-optic cable. When she boots the bird up, her screens stay dark, and the start-up graphics play across the lower field of her vision, the same way they used to in the Swallowtail cockpit. Keeping her eyes unfocused, Madison turns her head. The bird turns with her, quiet and still on its perch. She tries again, not moving and just thinking about turning her head. The Corvus turns its beak toward her as accurately as a mime. She opens the bird’s eyes and closes hers.
The view is a little fish-eyed, and her inner ear goes haywire when she looks at herself. A legless woman in navy sweats sitting on an office chair with her hands hovering in the air. Idly, Madison wonders why she’s doing that and remembers that’s where the controls are in a jet cockpit. The vision gives her the sense of looking into a deeply warped mirror. That isn’t her, never was, never will be again.
It’s time to stop. Test successful. Breathing softly, Madison can’t figure out if it’s the displacement or the sight of herself that’s making her nauseous. She looks gaunt through the crow’s eyes. Wasted. She has to stop.
Just stop. Test successful. Stop. Come home.
Madison reaches for the scarf, and the nausea recedes. She hesitates before taking it off. The quiet part of her, the one she forgot, opens the Corvus’s eyes again. It isn’t a successful test if you don’t break something. She spreads her glossy black wings.
For one frozen second, there’s an old feeling. One she knows. Flight. Then, her brain’s mapping software finally loses its fragile grip on what’s going on. She manages two quick wingbeats and throws up. The scarf drops out of proximity with her cortical node, and she completely loses control.
The Corvus flies wildly across the room and crashes into the shadow box. Drops on its back with its legs in the air, tail feathers twitching spastically. Broken glass and medals tinkle around it.
Madison reels out of the chair and cracks her head on the corner of the desk. The pain makes her throw up again, and her flailing arms drag half her tool kit off the desk to ring off first her skull and then the floor.
It takes her until the middle of the night to reorganize both herself and her workspace. She does this with calm, dogged efficiency. She broke everything, and she’s covered in bile, but it’s progress. Everything else is just cleaning it up. Once she’s done, she reviews the webcam video and can’t stop laughing.
Blake Jessop is a Canadian author of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories with a masters degree in creative writing from the University of Adelaide. You can read more of his speculative fiction in “Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers” from World Weaver Press, as well as in anthologies from Otter Libris, Zombies Need Brains, and Parsec Ink, among many others.