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Merlin and his Drones

Toby, a twenty-first-century character from A Darker Magic This Way Comes, describes Merlin’s two birds, his jackdaw and his merlin hawk as “Merlin’s drones” and he believes he has every reason for calling them that.

Merlin, a fifth-century magician, and genius is puzzled by the name ‘drones.’

“Why do you call them drones? My beautiful birds do not drone on like a bagpipe. They sing and then sit quietly on my shoulders unless they are hungry. Then they will nibble my ears until I release them to hunt for their breakfast.”

“Because,” Toby replied carefully since you never knew with Merlin, “our little flying machines drone on like bees when they fly. But they are unmanned flying vehicles that from the air can scout a landscape. And they can spy, they can race, and they can transmit pictures back to their handler. Just like your birds do!”

“How did you get these drones?” Merlin is smiling, twisting his apprentice’s tail. “Do you steal them from their nests?”

“No,” Toby replied solemnly but vigorously shaking his head and thinking: what have I got myself into. Why didn’t I zip my lips? “They are not alive, Merlin. They are machines.”

“Does that mean that your drones are clever?”

“They are only as clever as the artificial intelligence we put in them or the person who handles them.”

“And what good is that? Tell me do these drones think like my ladyhawk,” he asks stroking her head, “my restless little merlin with her orange eyes?”

Toby nodded his head from side to side saying: “No. Drones can’t think but then again nor can birds.” Oh no, Toby thought, I should stop here before he gets me tied in knots.

“Do these drones love your company the way Crook, my crippled jackdaw does or are they indifferent?”

“No. Drones are not capable of love. They are mechanical and therefore, indifferent.”

“Well, do they react when you look at them and bob their heads? No, they do not! Can they follow your gaze? I am now sure, they cannot! Well, I am going to give you a lesson on how to work with a live bird, my flying machine, and you will realise that birds are different from what you believe them to be. Ready? Now sit down, shut your eyes and shut up. We are sitting on a rock facing an oak tree. Without opening your eyes, I want you to project your gaze into the oak tree and then look back towards us. Silently, describe to yourself what you see. Have you done that? Now open your eyes to check how true your projection was? Tell me the result.”

“It was fair but nothing as good as a photo. I could improve with practice to capture all the detail.”

“Now I am going to put my jackdaw on that stump opposite you. I want you to project a picture of a smallish fish, a chub will do, and convey to Crook a picture of the seascape where she might find one for you. She is to catch it, retrieve it, return here and drop it alive at your feet. I will watch you on the inner plane as you follow my instructions.”

It was a half hour before Toby could manipulate his inner vision and successfully convey his thought-vision to the jackdaw and before Crook left she gave Merlin a look that said: “I hope you know what you are doing, big fella.” And she took off on her mission without much enthusiasm and returned twenty minutes later with a fat chub in her beak and dropped it petulantly at Toby’s feet. “Well done.” Merlin praised his bird. There was no such praise for Toby.

“Now, Tobias, your hard work begins.”

It would be nine months later before Merlin thought Toby was ready. “Today, you will work with my Merlin hawk, and you will project your mind into hers, and I will work similarly with Crook’s. Our art needs strong purpose and strength of concentration. We will fly to where the river Exe meets the sea. When we return, we will discuss our journey.”

About forty minutes later the two birds returned, and Merlin held out both his hands for them to land on, then to hop up onto his shoulder, Crook to the left and his merlin to his right, and from the pouch that hung from his belt, he retrieved their treats of dried bacon.

“From your memory of the flight, Tobias, describe the most alarming incident you saw.”

“I saw a man whipping his horse until it reared up and tossed him onto the ground before it reared again and brought its hooves crashing down on his chest. Everyone around was screaming, and then we had flown ahead, and it was all behind us. It was as if your hawk was saying we have seen enough and it is too distasteful to see any more.”

“Now describe the most useful scene…”

“It was a twenty-oared boat breaching the mouth of the Exe. A raiding party of Jutes by the look of it.”

“And then what did you find you could do?”

“I found that I could use your merlin’s mind as if it was mine, to control wherever I wanted to go, and I could fly nearer to something, so I could see every detail of the invader’s boat up close.”

“And what did you conclude?”

“That my mind and the merlin’s mind were one.”


“And that meant as far as I am concerned, the merlin has a mind too.”


“And working with a bird, I could make an excellent spy.”

“Now let’s go back to the comparison of my birds and your drones. What have you learned?”

“That birds are intelligent, sentient beings. They feel emotions. They startle easily. They know their names. They come when they are called or whistled. They can be used to spy, scout and race. While they do not transmit pictures back to base, I have learned, instead, to send my mind to fly with them and to use their eyes to see what they are seeing and to blend my consciousness with theirs. While I do not override their intentions, I can influence them. I do not doubt they can love because I have seen their strong attachment to you and they are certainly not “bird brains,” they are very clever.”

“And you now promise never to…?”

“Compare your birds,” Toby was smiling mischievously… “to an expensive, mechanistic, unthinking, noisy drone again.”

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