The Thrush

3.5/5 (1)

‘This droning,’ growled Ulreddar into his comms array, ‘is incessant.’

‘Oh aye,’ came the crackling response from Ôboryn. ‘And to think you called this “the perfect extraction” before it started. Ha!’

At first, the mission had seemed such: breathable air, an idyllic and untouched lushness all around, a temperate clime with lakes and rivers pockmarking the terrestrial expanse they harvested—all a far cry from the horrid environs to which the Cthonian Guilds usually sent Ulreddar’s crew.

Not to mention the sheer pleasure of using a mining laser for tree-felling. The beams sliced through the trunks with ease. It felt like using plasma to cut up rations—overkill, but divinely smooth. It was much better than hewing rock deep within a planet’s crust.

Krrrssszzzztttt. Another sweep brought the satisfying snap of breaking branches, the tell-tale whoomph as a handful of trunks fell. One angled toward Ulreddar, dousing him in shadow as it crashed groundward, but he simply raised the arm of his exo-suit and shunted it aside.

But that blasted buzzing. With each tree that fell to clear the worksite, the drone seemed to amplify alongside the swarming, stinging bugs responsible for it.

In his exo-suit, Ulreddar did not fear that the insects could harm him, though they had forced him to lower his visor. He begrudged them that. He’d been enjoying the fresh air and the warmth of the system’s bright star. A minor annoyance dwarfed the suit’s inability to drown out the noise.

‘It’s starting to drive me a little mad,’ said Raloff, as he felled another row of mixed conifers and leafy trees.

‘Like you weren’t already,’ Ulreddar jibed.

‘Can’t blame him, though,’ Ôboryn said. ‘You’d be crazy too if they’d pumped your veins that full of stims and coolants so you could work the mantle back on M-19.’

Raloff scorched the grasses in front of Ôboryn with a quick tap of his beamer.

‘Too bad they couldn’t cool his temper, eh?’ added his target, laughing even as he stepped over the blackened line.

The trio progressed roughly parallel to one another, felling the trees while a pair of E-COGs followed and used plasma torches to remove the branches. Three magma-coil grav-bikes floated nearby, rigged for heavy hauling. For a time, they lost themselves in the work, the pattern of cut and crash, beam and burn.

‘Anyone care to make things interesting?’ Ulreddar felt as though he could hear the smirk on Ôboryn’s blonde-bearded face through the comms. ‘Twenty, twenty-five days ‘til planet’s clear and cored?’

‘Optimistic,’ harrumphed Raloff. ‘The Vesynya is small as extraction vessels go. We don’t have enough equipment for that pace. We’ll get there, just much slower. But I’d be willing to wager a night out on a Guild orbital station—with all the stims, games, and libations I want—that it takes us sixty days. Minimum.’

‘I’ll take the under on that, then. Same stakes.

‘Then you better get to working harder, Ôboryn,’ said Ulreddar. He glanced up at the sky, as if to spot the Vesynya in its orbit around the planet, but the bright blue and speckled grey clouds of the atmosphere revealed nothing of the vast dark beyond.

The buzzing grew notably worse, then, as though the bugs increased their frenzied assault against his crew. It climbed in pitch until it reached a keening whine.

By the time Ulreddar realised the meaning of this new sound, it was too late.

A blurred form screamed past them, flying low over Ôboryn. Ulreddar watched in horror as his companion sluiced apart, sectioned so quickly that, at first, no blood even flowed. The wavering airborne shape whirled, launching a salvo that shredded through Raloff’s exo-suit with as much ease as their mining beams cut the tree trunks.

For the merest moment, their attacker came into resolution. It was a jetbike, both driver and rider masked, clad in black with bright plumes and ribbons trailing them. To Ulreddar, the sight recalled the colourful winged creatures that had fled in loud protest at the start of the day’s harvesting.

The rider at the back of the jetbike hurled something just as Ulreddar raised his beamer to fire. Wire wrapped him, set intermittently with blinking charges, pinning his arms to his chest. His beam went wide, topping several trees.

Among the crashing branches and the whine of the jetbike, the drone of the insects stayed constant.

Buzz. Buzz. Boom.


‘Wake up.’

Ulreddar’s eyes flickered. His head pounded as if after a night of combining the wrong sort of stims and drinks. Alfjar lay beside him, holding him in a tight embrace—a bit too tight for his tastes, but Alfjar never did anything halfway.

‘It’s too early, skeinheart,’ he mumbled, groggy.

‘Wake up,’ Alfjar repeated, his voice strange, his grip on Ulreddar unrelenting. ‘It is time.’

‘I’m not ready,’ he said to his partner. He tried to throw Alfjar’s arms off himself, only to find that he could not.

Ulreddar blinked hard, trying to raise his fists to clear the sleep from his eyes. Alfjar’s grip did not lessen. ‘Let me go,’ he growled.

His vision swam but soon started to clear. The light was all wrong, over-bright and harsh, not at all like they usually kept their berth on the Vesynya.

‘Not until you have seen what you must.’

That was not Alfjar’s voice. It was skeinspeech, as surely as he was kindred, but forced through a machine, accented, strange.

Panic surged in Ulreddar, and he strained to free himself to no avail. He looked down to see corded wire around him, several emptied canisters set at regular intervals along its length. Scorch marks marred his exo-suit in spidering patterns around each of them.

When he lifted his gaze, he saw a shimmering, masked form before him. The lithe figure held a crystalline pistol in a languid, almost uncaring grip, and yet there was no mistaking its target.

Ulreddar could sense the danger, and yet he could not shake the swimming, dream-like visions. His head drooped and then snapped back upright. The figure hazed and transformed again. He would have sworn it was Alfjar before him, elbow deep in grease, shaking the day’s inevitable missing minutiae—the rivets, washers, screws, multitool driver and drill heads—from his uniform’s myriad pockets.

But the figure resolved into clarity once more, and it—she, as it became apparent—was a far cry from gentle, thoughtful Alfjar. Her face was a horror: his own, reflected, distorted and bloodied, his eyes empty holes from which hordes of insects crawled.

The figure leaned back, sparing him from terror for a moment. She spoke something to another behind her, similarly clothed but in a bronze mask that did not swirl and change as if alive. What she said Ulreddar did not quite catch. He tried to fight the void darkening the corners of his vision but could not force his neck to respond. His chin collapsed to his chest.


‘This one struggles to shake the effects of our phantasm grenades,’ said Elisohen, twirling his bolas as though each did not end in a charge sufficient to blow both him and the shadowseer at his side beyond the forest’s canopy.

‘I am surprised,’ Ilyf murmured, ‘as from what the rest of the masque told us, these strange folk are no meek mon’keigh. Hardy creatures, much more resilient to our weapons.’

‘True, they appear to be something else entirely—perhaps, do you think, they are what the mon’keigh call abhumans? They have been known to work together before.’

‘Too smart and too short by far—you recall the abhumans we faced alongside Lugganath’s forces? As big and dumb as the metal slabs they hid behind. As if those would save them…’ Ilyf flicked the passed-out creature’s nose with a gloved finger. There was no response. ‘Besides, they speak another tongue. Our attempts to use the mon’keigh’s crude Gothic with the others yielded little, and we were forced to retrain our translators during observations of their patrols.’

Elisohen gathered the bolas in one fluid gesture and coiled them to hang from his flip-belt.

‘Regardless,’ the shadowseer continued, her smooth and silvered mask shifting to display a single, opening eye, its iris black, its pupil flame, ‘we wait for him to wake.’

Her companion struck a pose, a question pregnant within it.

‘And then we show him why he cannot have this planet, and he will tell the others the same.’

Elisohen grunted, the sound muted behind the bronze rictus that hid his true face. ‘You expect them to listen?’

‘No,’ said Ilyf, ‘which is why we cannot leave everything to chance, of course.’ Her mirrored agaith transformed once more into a display of arcing light and smoke and blood.


‘C’mon, you veritable waaaaagh of worry,’ Alfjar teased, ‘the worst you’ll face down there’ll be a case of plant fever, and there’s meds aplenty to stop the worst of that. There’s no need for goodbyes.’

‘There is always a risk to an extraction,’ Ulreddar said in response. ‘You being flippant does not change that fact.’

‘Oh, ho, I think it changes much—your ever dour demeanour to start. You’re as plodding and foreboding as a Votann itself sometimes, you know?’

Ulreddar failed to withhold a chuckle. ‘Don’t start that again, Alf.’

‘Then don’t catastrophise,’ retorted Alfjar. ‘It’s a simple mission on a planet about as dangerous to you as I am.’

Ulreddar knew Alfjar to be right. Early scans from the Vesynya showed a lush and unsettled planet, ripe for exploration and extraction, to strip and core as they pleased. The worst they might face would be perturbed wildlife, and even the few examples of that they’d picked up appeared benign. In but a short time, they would return home laden with a planet’s riches.

Still, he looked at Alfjar with concern crinkling his brow. For a moment, he lost himself in the visage before him: the way the ship’s light sparked little flames when it caught on the white flecks in Alfjar’s fiery hair, how his moustache was perennially crooked from the way the mechanic chewed his upper lip when concentrating, the smudge on his thick and freckled neck from where he’d used some greasy tool to scratch an itch.

‘I can’t help it, Alfjar,’ he said. ‘I’m too afraid of goodbyes not to say them.’

But hadn’t they had this conversation before? This exact one?

Ulreddar startled awake again, this time to a glorious, purpling starfall. Enough golden light still slanted down to illuminate a meadow before him, swaying in a warm breeze.

The haziness from earlier had lessened. Only feels like I caught a hammer to the head now instead of a rail rifle, he thought.

He took stock of his situation, unsure if he could trust his eyes.

What was clear: he was strapped to a tree by wires. What was unclear: where his attackers, his grav-bike or his mining laser were located. Clear: his exo-suit had been disabled. Unclear: how it had been done.

The visor of his exo-suit had been lifted, too. Though he expected to feel a thousand bug bites and stings on his exposed face, it seemed the insects had left him alone while he slept.

Drugged, more like. He’d joined his crew in a fair share of their revelries. He knew the feeling, although never before anything quite like this.

‘Hallo?’ he called into the dusk.

‘Ah, you’ve come back to us.’ The voice from before remained stilted and halting, as though processing each word of skeinspeech it uttered. It came from behind him. ‘Come, walk with us.’

The wires around Ulreddar loosed, but his exo-suit remained without power, forcing him to untangle from it. Before he could even think of escape, the voice cautioned, ‘Try anything untoward, and there’ll be nothing left of you for your companions to find.’

He stepped into the meadow, its grasses reaching mid-thigh. With each footfall, sprays of pollen erupted from the multi-coloured flowers nestled within the strands. Haphazard flights of the same droning bugs followed soon after.

‘Walk with care,’ said his captor. Ulreddar snuck a glance out of the corner of his eye and saw that horrifying mask, now just a curve of pure silver peeking out from beneath a patterned hood.

‘What do you want from me?’ he ventured, voice croaking from disuse.

‘To witness,’ came the reply.

The mask changed as the figure raised her arms, fingers lilting in the air like a puppeteer. It began to glow, displaying a web of lightning connecting billions of sparks, recalling nebulae and galaxies, entire universes.

As the light twisted and leapt down these paths that splintered the face of the mask, the insects in the meadow responded, rising and swirling into a manic dance of activity, whirling between blooms. To Ulreddar, it looked as though the meadow grew in near real-time: buds spreading, grasses stretching, roots reaching.

‘Hyperpollination,’ said the figure beside him, ‘responsive to the touch of the Warp, perhaps even fully controllable. Such a species would be a great boon to any civilisation with psychic aptitude if they yet grow crops. It certainly would be for other maiden worlds, if we can figure out how to replicate these environs and transfer these insects without risk to native organisms—which is why further, undisturbed study is required.’

When Ulreddar said nothing, mouth agape at the patterned swirl of insects, she added, ‘A great boon to you and yours as well, surely. We’ve seen what you call food.’

‘What would you care about boons for us? You murdered my crew,’ said Ulreddar.

‘A rich accusation from one caught taking life so glibly,’ the strange figure retorted. ‘We do not kill without reason. Your crew decimated not just the habitat of these insects but clearly intended to threaten that of all organisms who call this planet home.’

‘Then why not simply tell us?!’

‘How could you not notice?’

Ulreddar glowered at her, teeth grinding.

‘No matter. Your crew were not the first we’ve encountered since your kind’s arrival. The others…’ A small silence followed. The silver mask became a skull weeping blood. ‘We mourn those who tried to parlay first.’

So, they’ve found other crews, and some fought back, thought Ulreddar. He wondered how many remained. Aloud, he said, ‘At least tell me what you’re called. I would know the name of my death and greet it as such.’

‘We do not intend for you to die here.’ A longer pause. ‘But very well. There are records, once kept by the mon’keigh, now held in our library, that speak of a bird—the thrush—once also known as “the herald of spring.” That was a season on their home planet, one of renewal, rebirth. My people are dying out, but there must be a cycle of death in every story of rebirth. We are not yet finished. And, as I intend to be that herald for my kind, you may call me the Thrush.’

‘Very well, Thrush. I am Ulreddar.’

The masked figure made a strange gesture. Ulreddar attempted to repeat it, and the silvered mask almost seemed to curve upward like a smile.

‘And that thing you ride? Never seen anything like it afore. Makes our grav-bikes look like baskets.’

‘We call it a skythresher. It separates the chaff.’ The mask swirled to show a field of swaying grasses felled by a single, translucent scything. Ulreddar did not care much for the disdain that even this creature’s mechanised tone could not keep from her voice.

‘So, Thrush,’ he said, ‘what would you have of me, if not my death?’

‘Leave,’ the Thrush said simply, ‘and do not return here. Tell your fellows of what you saw and convince them the same.’

‘Oh, just like that?’ scoffed Ulreddar. ‘I can assure you that there are those who will avenge my fallen kin.’

‘It was vengeance for the slain that brought about their deaths,’ said the Thrush. ‘I would consider the balance restored. Further death will only upset it, and I can assure you that it would not tip in your favour.’

She held up a hand, and the insects began to swarm around it—not as though responding to a threat but to a queen. She added, ‘Remember our kindness in letting you go. If you do this with no further conflict, you may expect us to share what we learned with you—when the time is right. But we will brook no further risk to ourselves, these creatures, or this planet. On that, you can be certain.’

Ulreddar thought for a while before responding. ‘We killed in ignorance. You killed knowing full well what you did.’

‘Ignorance is no excuse,’ murmured the Thrush, ‘as much as the mon’keigh bray otherwise.’


After he’d witnessed the meadow’s swarm tend it into even greater lushness, Ulreddar returned to his grav-bike, observed from a distance by the Thrush and her silent companion. All other evidence of his crew’s presence, save for the swathe of fallen trees, was gone.

Kindness, Ulreddar mused. For all her talk of ignorance, she seems not to know the meaning of the word. We cannot even return them to the Ancestors.

On the short trip back to the camp, darkness gathering around him as he rode, he wondered how he might convince the expedition to leave. He could not deny reality. The Vesynya was hardly equipped for heavy combat. When the sector appeared uninhabited, they’d taken on extra extraction equipment instead of the full complement of armour and weapons with which kindred ships normally sailed.

Nor could he deny the fact that the Thrush had spared him.

He resolved to speak in favour of leaving—for Alfjar’s sake, if no other. He hoped his skeinheart remained blissfully unaware of the confrontation on the planet surface far below. Worry had never been a good look on him.

When he arrived at the camp, face grim and alone as he stormed to the command pavilion, a small gathering already huddled around a table. It was set with rough maps, ledgers, and a smattering of comms equipment.

‘There’s no response from crews six through ten,’ crackled a voice through one of the arrays.

‘And there won’t be,’ Ulreddar said as he approached.

The other kindred—a mix of security, crew leaders, shuttle captains, and the expedition forewoman, Gûli the Unburdened—looked up in surprise.

‘And how do you know this, Ulreddar?’ prompted Gûli. Her voice conveyed an almost lackadaisical measure of calm that belied the fierce wisdom and incisive strategic mind behind it. Ulreddar had always imagined that it was how she’d earned her name, though he did not know her story in truth.

‘Because I met—and spoke—with the creatures who killed them. Just as they did my crew.’

The pavilion descended into disarray. Crew leaders grabbed comms and shouted into them. The comms screamed back with questions and confusion. Others drew weapons and scattered to the camp perimeter. Ulreddar fought through it all to Gûli’s side.

‘Call them all home,’ he said, but the expedition leader set her mouth in a grim line, arms crossing as if preparing to argue. ‘Now.’

Gûli relented at the look on his face and gave the command.

True night came before the remaining crews returned. In all, seven of twelve turned up missing. Fingers were pointed.

‘It’s not unusual for the crews to go silent while they work, least for a time,’ protested one of kindred tasked with managing comms. ‘And what of the risk assessors? They said the system showed no signs of habitation!’

He seems more concerned with covering his own arse than with the fate that befell his kin, Ulreddar thought darkly. Well, not all cloneskeins can be perfected.

When it was confirmed that all who could be accounted for were present, Ulreddar shared his tale, leaving out only the content of his visions from the Thrush’s incapacitants.

‘This Thrush minced no words of what her kind wanted. We are to leave so that they might continue their study of these bugs—I witnessed them respond to her will, so doubt not that—and if we do so without conflict, if we do not return, she promised to share the fruits of their research with us.’

A chorus of disagreement followed.

‘Judgment demands we answer for the deaths of Raloff and Ôboryn,’ said one voice carrying above the rest.

Another shouted, ‘Aye, for all the crews!’

‘Nay, we must ask the Votann what these festooned fools are, and act as they advise—all must proceed in accordance with their will,’ protested one of the shuttle captains.

‘And have we aeons to wait for it, Silgo? Would you stand by idly while your brothers and sisters are slaughtered, and you dawdle unless told what to do?’

‘Shut your blaspheming gob, you yellow-livered latrine rat!’ Silgo spat back.

‘But what of their research?’ ventured one of the medics. ‘Crops that our Grimnyr could grow with a wave of their hands?’

‘You would buy it with the blood of kindred? Pah!’ One of the crew leaders unfamiliar to Ulreddar, a vicious scar down one side of his face, stood. ‘Those of you too afraid can cower in the camp. The rest of us will take up the fight you so easily flee.’

He made to storm from the pavilion, but Gûli stepped in his way, head shaking. ‘You would risk us all to avenge the few, hurling yourself headlong into… what? We do not even know who we face!’

‘And when has that stopped true kindred before?’ Spittle flew from the beard of the scarred crew leader, enough so that the forewoman had to wipe it from her face.

‘Be done with this bickering!’ roared Ulreddar, fists pounding the table. ‘I met with these creatures. They spared me for one reason alone: to tell you their message and for us to leave. I saw what they did to our kin. It happened right before my eyes, at a speed that defied comprehension. It is with no lack of courage that I say we would not fare kindly in facing more of them. Not with what limited war gear the Vesynya carries.’

For a moment, silence reigned.

‘Then tonight, we will discuss. Tomorrow, we will vote,’ proclaimed Gûli.

The pavilion erupted once more. Ulreddar could not separate sense from the shouts, and so withdrew to stand beside the forewoman.

‘Let them debate,’ she said to him softly, holding up a hand to forestall whatever Ulreddar might say. ‘It will do them good to vent their anger here and not make any rash decisions before the vote.’

‘They have lost kin. It would be strange if they did not rage about it,’ Ulreddar agreed. ‘But, even through my grief, I understand what this Thrush asks; however, I might disagree with her methods. Imagine were we to face an unknown vessel destroying one of our Guild asteroids, having been unable to detect our under-surface mines. Would we not drive them off?’

‘There would be a reckoning, surely.’

‘There would, and we would not fault ourselves for it. In that, I see the Thrush’s point.’

‘Well, you will have time aplenty to make her point tonight.’ Gûli gestured at the morass of kindred caught up in half a dozen different and concurrent debates.

By the time the arguments ended some hours later, Ulreddar’s headache nearly matched the one the Thrush had given him. His body sagged with exhaustion, and yet the relief of sleep seemed distant. Even cocooned within the articulated plates of a shielded tent, Ulreddar felt exposed. Even in spite of the familiar heavy tread of Brôkhyr Thunderkyn guarding the camp, the whirring of ironkin watchmen, the ciphered call-and-response of patrols on the comms, the back of his neck crawled.

When sleep finally did claim him, Ulreddar dreamed of the winged insects—only this time, he did not hear their droning as they worked their fields of flowers, but a long and rumbling peal of laughter instead.

In the morning, he awoke to cries of dismay echoing across the camp. Plasma pistol in hand, he retracted the metal shielding of his tent to peek outside.

The camp was in chaos. Kin darted about with repair kits, trying to fix vehicles that even Ulreddar could see were beyond it. Others dragged corpses from tents, puncture wounds visible in the dead’s torsos.

Why attack now? It made no sense to Ulreddar. Did the Thrush not think to give me time to convince my kin? What of the balance she spoke of?

He cursed himself for the arguments made last night, as if he could have known—should have known—the Thrush would strike.

Adrenaline took confusion’s place, and it was in that heady blur that an accounting of the damage and casualties was made.

All but one of the shuttles had been disabled by strange charges, as had many other vehicles, their internal wiring and systems fried or fused. As for the slain, it became apparent they numbered only those who had clamoured for vengeance during the night’s debates. Any who had at least entertained the idea of leaving had been spared.

They were listening all along. The thought soured Ulreddar’s stomach. He clutched his plasma pistol close. The heavily armed perimeter offered even less comfort now, and he went to find Gûli.

‘I am full of regret, forewoman,’ he said, unable to keep a growl from his voice. ‘I did not properly assess the threat.’

‘On the contrary,’ Gûli responded, covering one of the fallen with a blood-stained bedroll, ‘I’d say you did exactly that. You weighed our odds and found them wanting. Only we did not listen soon enough.’

There is little satisfaction to be had in that, thought Ulreddar, but he said nothing.

Preparations to evacuate were made on the sole remaining shuttle. Already it was crammed to the brim with salvage.

Ulreddar paused at the top of the entry ramp into the ship, surveying the last of the covered stretchers as they were ferried to the hold.

‘Judgment will find this Thrush one day,’ he swore. As he did, one of the small, winged bugs alit on the shuttle to his left.

He had not yet observed one so closely. Its wings, diaphanous and violet in tint, ended in tiny, sharp spines. Its body was bulbous, almost awkward, and its head outsized, swirling with a pattern that recalled the wrinkles of a brain. What caught his eye, however, were the mandibles. A set of four, they appeared almost mouth-like, something sinuous stretched between them—like precursors to cheeks—as they worked fruitlessly against the metal of the ship panelling.

‘Batten that hatch, and let’s be on with it!’ came a gruff cry from within the ship.

Ulreddar looked once more at the insect, a tiny creature on which the Thrush hung an even tinier hope for her kind. He balled a fist and crushed it.

About the Author

Dorian Zimmerman writes poetry and fiction from his beloved home city of Seattle. A graduate of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and Whitman College, he has worked for and taught spoken word poetry workshops at Fishtrap and found homes for his poems in Blue Moon, Quarterlife, the Zumwalt Prairie Poetry Contest, and CLOVES Literary. Currently, he serves as co-editor-in-chief and poetry editor for Reservoir Road Literary Review.