The cottage stood empty on the bluff, wind whistling through long-broken shutters as a fine mist descended from the thin clouds. Occasional god-rays shone through, which was as sunny as it got this time of year. The cottage on the hill was, like most structures, derelict – abandoned years ago and nowhere near salvage or food to bother fixing up. As such, it made for a fantastic bird perch, as well as hideaway for one individual.
Perched under the overhang on a beam, worn from claw and beak, sat eleven birds: three ravens, jet black and scarred beyond a doubt; two magpies, immaculate in their plumage; five pigeons, cooing in unison as they crowded together; and one hawk, smaller than the rest but as brightly feathered as a game hen. Each perched with its own kind, but their proximity to one another was an uncommon sight, even in a dreary locale where teamwork was more important than turf – a sort of civil partnership, to aid in hunting or defending their roosts.
Gathering together under one roof, as it were, was more than just show, however. As a noise inside sparked a murmur of rustled feathers and quiet squawks, the quiet clamour became a choir of dissonance as a cloaked man came to lean on the inner door frame.
“Yes, hello. Its good to see you all, as well.” He spoke softly, as though he had said this so often it was a reflex. “And what have my lovelies to share?”
As if given a code-word, the birds took flight into the misting rains, meandering and circling back to the man as he strode purposefully after them. Occasionally, they alighted on his shoulder, and he showed them affection as one would a pet. The hawk, however, did not land until they had traveled nearly four kilometers into the forest, swooping down onto a high branch in the clearing.
The scene before him was grisly, as always – a body, splayed in its death throes and covered in hundreds of claw marks, lay in a puddle of blood and insides. Normally it would not have phased him, and he would begin the work of harvesting it immediately. Something about the shape of it stopped him.
It was a Waterback. One of Their creatures, bred from mutated livestock when the rains turned sour. The beasts would roam and collect information from various sensors under the skin, powered by the water running down the strange pools and grooves on their backs. Even in death, he had a hunch it could still record its surroundings, and he itched to be away from this place. Eyeing the birds circling and pecking idly at the corpse, he quietly cursed under his breath, moving quickly to hack the creature’s hide into manageable chunks; there was no sense leaving good meat to waste.
The entire ordeal took an hour, and as time wore on, the man found more wiring and sensors, both organic and otherwise, than most vehicles had in them before the Rains. This animal was more of a walking recording suite than a living thing, grown only to serve a master’s whims. He would have burned the damned thing had he not run so low on supplies. When you had a piece of machinery break down, there was always someone who would fix it, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they came to claim it.
He couldn’t be here when they arrived. Nor could the birds, little spies all their own.
They, like the beast, had been changed by the storms and rains, but also by human hands. The steady, weather-beaten hands of a man so driven to be alone that he had created an army of sentries to ensure it. The birds were still autonomous, but he could see through their eyes when they were close, and even hear what they heard at times – many a sleepless night of hunting and flying had he tossed on his bunk, the images from multiple angles assaulting his senses.
That was the price of his freedom and solitude. A rundown, desolate cottage and a crew of birds so changed by the world they could barely be considered natural.
But the alternative lay before him like so much scrap, torn down by beast and man alike.
One of the magpies called out over the din, and the pigeons took up the call, bringing it to the man’s mind as if he were on the same wavelength as they were. It said /Danger/ and /Them/
Abandoning the piece of wire he had fished from the beasts head, he slung the bloody sack over his shoulders and ran from the site, careful to leave as little evidence of his tracks. His butcher’s tools would barely stand up against those Things, the mutated offspring of terrible ideas and worse planning. They walked like humans, but lacked enough to be unnerving, even surreal.
Few people had survived direct confrontation with them in the early days; someone finally figured out that staying out of their way was the best way to keep breathing, and that hadn’t changed much since.
His back was slick with blood by the time he reached another cottage, this one in even worse repair. He saw the view from above through the eyes of ravens, and deemed it safe enough. Within five minutes, he had stripped down, left the meat inside an old freezer buried in the ground under sod, and retrieved another set of clothes from inside. Drier, and lacking the blood covering he had gained, he made haste to two other safe-houses, keen to throw off anyone that might tail him.
His journey ended at the same cottage it always did, overlooking a city rife with skyscrapers. Most of the birds returned to their roosts or hunts, no longer needed by their host. The hawk stayed nearby, silent in the rain and keeping watch on the man’s house as he relaxed on the porch, worn rifle rested across his lap with practiced ease.
He saw with two pairs of eyes, and prayed that sight would see him through another day.