The critically acclaimed anthology THE WAY OF THE LASER came out last June, but we decided that in honor of Mur Lafferty’s status as a Hugo Finalist, it was time we revisited this gem by giving away a few copies and hosting one of the stories here, on our website.
Now that you’ve entered the giveaway, sit back and enjoy this excerpt of Marie Vibbert’s short story “Sister Thrush”, which you can read in its entirety if you pick up a copy of The Way of the Laser and her new novel, Galactic Hellcats!
by Marie Vibbert
When my kid sister Alyssa came home as a bird, well, it wasn’t as big a surprise as it should have been.
Mom paced the kitchen. “A bird? She should’ve been a rat.” Mom was selling her anger to the cheap seats, like anger kept the sorrow from coming in. “Of course she’d end up dead in an alleyway.”
Alyssa, now a brown thrush, tossed her feathered head with one loud chirp. It sounded like bird-speak for “Fuck you.”
Me? I felt relieved. Part of me had been tensed for sixteen years, waiting for the worst to happen, and now it had. The bird shape was unexpected, but not the uploaded personality bit. Alyssa was hard into tech, and kids did it all the time, these days. One of my buddies drowned in third grade and his parents let him finish out the school year in a robot body. I tried to stay friends with him. He asked to be turned off, though, a year later.
“What was a robot bird doing there?” I asked.
Alyssa hopped over to the interface section of the kitchen table and pecked, turning on the old-fashioned keyboard input.
Songbird Surveillance. Police.
“You nicked a cop bird?”
Mom hit the table, making the bird and saltshakers bounce. “You stole from the police? Patrick, talk some sense into your… I…” Mom let go her fist as fast as she’d made it. Her hand shook. “I can’t do this.” She slammed the door to her bedroom after herself. We could hear her bawling. Mothers always love their bad children best.
Dude. Right here. Typed Alyssa.
“I know. Downloaded, not dead. But she’s old, and this is a hell of a thing.”
Need UR help. Got 2 do 1 more job.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be messing around with those people anymore, look where it got you.”
Alyssa hopped to the right, hit shift, and then the dollar sign. And then she hit it again and again and again. She cocked her head at me.
“Forget it. I’m not putting Ma through another day like today.”
Alyssa started warbling and whistling and hopping up and down.
I recognized this attitude like her teeny fist could crack open the world. I felt tears forming. Damn but I’m a sucker. “Fine, what is it?”
EZ job. Gets me, u, all out of it clean.
“Could you spell stuff all the way out? It’s giving me a headache.”
Typing with my face. You want a headache!?
I didn’t know a bird could look that pissed off. It was so… it was adorable. “Okay, okay, so what do I gotta do?”
I was always the good kid. I did all right in school. Not great, but all right. Alyssa was the smart one. She built transmitters to hack surveillance drones, wrote software to strip ownership records. She fried a cop camera when she was just six. Then a few months ago she started bringing home all the latest gadgets. Stuff you couldn’t steal.
I never said anything, but I had an idea where she was getting it. She was wearing these bright embroidery threads, big stitches on whatever jacket or shirt she had on. There’s a local gang called The Sewing Machine. That was one of their signs, that and the holograms of black treadle machines they threw up all over the place.
Had they led Alyssa to her body’s death? Did she even hate them for it?
Alyssa fluttered ahead of me, from ledge to post down the stairs and fire escapes to street level. Our neighborhood’s more vertical than horizontal; new buildings wedged like knife blades between old ones, improvised wiring and bridges filling the gaps like human spider webs. Ranks of herb-pots like audiences observing every shaft of sunlight that could get in.
We broke into open air near street level and another bird flew past. I wondered if it was real or a fake like Alyssa. Would she look like a mannequin to a real bird? If it was another cop camera, would it recognize her and get pissed? I tried to watch it without looking like I was watching it. It didn’t follow us below the street.
How was she not being picked up by the cop cameras all around the neighborhood? The rusty copbot at the turnstile didn’t even turn our way.
Alyssa had to hop into my pocket before we got on the subway. I knew the tiny body was titanium or something, but I was scared the whole ride someone would bump into me and crush my sister’s thin bird bones.
I wished we could talk. Go over the plan again. It was a long train ride, and I didn’t have any external interface for her to peck on, just my implant phone. Alyssa couldn’t call direct, because the cops would find their stolen interface. She was working on it, though, she said. She said a lot. She typed fast with her beak.
Bad ppl after the same thing we are. I’ll b lookout. Follow my lead.
Bad people. And all I had was a bird.
The factory was several blocks from the last stop on the westbound subway. It looked like a castle, with false buttresses worked in brick zigzags and five-story windows all gone to lace and ruffles of barbed wire. You could see the sky all around, and even through it. We were past the green law boundary. I got dizzy, seeing that much sky, like I might fall upward into it.
What was my kid sister doing out here in the first place?
Alyssa waited on a brick for me to catch up. She watched me with one steady, bead-like eye. When I was almost to her, Alyssa fluttered in circles around a broken window until I climbed onto the sill.
On the dull grey-green linoleum inside was the print of a girl-sized combat boot.
My heart clenched like a fist. “We aren’t going to find your body, are we?”
The little thrush landed on my head and pecked hard, then flew deeper into the building. The window was edged with so many shards of broken glass it might as well have had teeth. I eased carefully over the sill. I avoided stepping on Alyssa’s footprint.
The factory floor was a story below, lit with long shafts of golden light that caught dust-motes and hanging chains. Alyssa hopped back and forth on a railing. She whistled and jerked her little head to the right.
“Yeah, give me a sec.” I breathed uneasily. It felt like going into the big Cathedral downtown – there was something hallowed about the space, something resisting trespass like a surface. Alyssa impatiently hopped sideways down the railing, tweets echoing.
The metal gantry led to a stone staircase. Leaf litter and curls of paint filled the corners of the steps, which sagged in the middle like old cake.
At the bottom, Alyssa pecked on the stone she had described back at home, the one with a K on it – there was a whole big inscription on the floor at the base of the steps, but parts of it were obscured by coils of chain and giant, empty spools. I pried up the K. This was the reason Alyssa had brought me – to be muscle. I felt a sudden pang of loss for Alyssa’s strength.
Alyssa hopped back and forth on her bird-feet, tilting her head to see under the stone before I finished lifting it free.
In a tiny recess in the brick sub-floor, there was a glass vial, a slip of something black inside of it. Memory film? This precious, dense stuff was why they could make robots so tiny with so much brain in them. I wondered if this had something to do with the bird.
A door slammed overhead. “Hey!” someone shouted. I dropped the stone, nearly on top of Alyssa, who twittered and squeaked, snatched the vial and flew straight up.
A woman jumped onto the rubble beside me. Her arms and legs flashed with the metal of combat implants. She held a gun the size of a small motorcycle. The other goons who rushed in, I didn’t pay as much attention to: I was watching Alyssa fly away through one of the long windows.
She should have been a rat.
“Where is it?” the woman with the motorcycle-sized gun asked.
I lowered my head and raised my hands. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Her backhand sent me sprawling on the steps. I blinked to clear my vision. You really did hear bells when you got clobbered like that.
“Want to try again? Where is the film?”
I knew how good “a bird took it” would sound. I kept my arm up to shelter my face. “My sister told me to come get something for her. She said it was under the letter ‘K’ at the bottom of stairwell ‘C’. This is ‘C’, there’s your ‘K’ – that’s all I know.”
One of the goons picked up the K rock. “There’s nothing here, Nan.”
Nan cocked her head and raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“I swear that’s all I know. You can jack into me and you won’t see nothing but sports scores and how to do my stupid job.”
“You’re probably right. Still, better safe than sorry.” She stepped back, lowering her monster of a gun. “It’ll be easier to download your mind after you’re dead. This might sting, precious.” The barrel centered on my face, close enough I could smell the metal and hear my breath echo inside it. I felt the warm spread of urine in my pants.
A strangled, metallic groan sounded overhead. Something fell from the ceiling. Nan swiveled and shot. A garage-door-sized section of wall vanished.
“Shit, Nan! Watch that thing!” Someone else fired. The thugs ducked.
Nan aimed up, narrowing her eyes. “The pigs have all kinds of tiny drones these days.” I crawled backward, up the stairs, lifting and dropping my butt like a kid, one step at a time. “Cover your heads.” Nan fired up at the ceiling again. A chain hissed as it fell.
Was it the cops? Something heavy crashed to the floor. The air filled with smoke and random gunfire. “Ack!” someone shouted. It might have been me. I ran blind.
I fell in the mud by the property fence. I crawled on my belly into some trash and weeds. People were running toward the factory. I didn’t see anything more clear than a flash of legs and guns.
I held still. Still as a brick. My heart was the only thing moving, jumping up and down between my airless lungs. I smelled piss and mud. I was grateful for the mud.
Three cop cars blew past, their lights off, heading toward the factory. A hawk followed them, flying too low and straight to be real.
I counted to sixty and then ran the entire way to the subway, stiff pants and all. I more fell than ran down the stairs, my legs could barely stay under me.
A meat cop stood at the subway entrance and made a show of scanning everyone with a handheld. There was nothing to do but walk past him, exposed and obvious. He sneered at me, but turned to scan the next person coming down the steps.
There was a crowd of sparrows fighting over an overturned French fry box. They shied away as I got close, but kept darting back for one more fry, brave and vicious like all city birds. None of them were a brown thrush.
It was a long ride home, trying to avoid everyone’s gaze, trying to stay out of smell-range, flinching every time the doors opened because it might be Nan or one of her goons, guns blazing.
How could Alyssa have done that to me? Yeah, she was a tiny bird, but she could have pecked an eye or ear or something. I’d have, for her. I knew it in my gut.
I went straight for the shower when I got home, not even saying hi to Mom. When I stepped out, she was waiting for me with my favorite soup cup, eyes red-rimmed.
I felt worse than dirt. I’d done just like Alyssa; I’d disappeared and come home filthy with no explanation. “Ma, I’m sorry. I…” She pressed the cup into my hands and my vision went all to mist. “I shoulda called.”
Mom’s mouth twitched, like she was trying to smile and cry at the same time. “The cops are here. Patrick, they found her.”
I wasn’t clear what I was hearing. “Alyssa?”
“She’s alive, Patrick. My baby’s alive!” Mom pressed a fist to her mouth. “She said she saw herself die. The little liar. The rat. I’ll kill her.”
I was getting cold, wrapped in a towel, and now I could hear the sounds of other people moving around the apartment. I felt heavy. Now I had two Alyssas to worry about.
“I’ll go put on some pants,” I said. Mom squeezed my arm and went back to the front room.