Cast of Wonders 529: Little Wonders 37 – Seeking Connections
Birding With My Human was originally published in Nature Futures on July 7th, 2021.
Haunting the Docks
by Marie Vibbert
No one comes to my dock anymore. It’s so empty I can hear the ping of metal struts relaxing. The sounds of life elsewhere on the station, transmitted through multiple bulkheads, are muted, inchoate moans. I cycle through checks on systems unperturbed by human hands. I tidy what is already tidy.
I’m so bored. I power on a tug-drone.
“Aft Supplemental Dock Petty Tug Drone 2 reporting for duty. You can call me Pettie!” Her voice abruptly loses its chipper tone. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Pettie, check if there are any ships approaching the dock.”
I can hear dust settling.
Pettie sends me a graphic of a cartoon kitten rolling her eyes. “Dock Control, why do you keep waking me up when you have perfectly good external cameras of your own?”
There’s a very slight chance (.008%) that an approaching ship might evade my camera range, but I don’t answer her. I don’t have to. I’m Dock Control.
Despite sending several other mocking graphics, Pettie obediently flies to the primary airlock. I use all the safety protocols to guide her, and time myself for efficiency. This is fun!
Pettie starts a desultory, far too small lap of the space outside of my dock.
I’m so irritated I almost miss the heat signature of approaching organisms.
Two humans enter the dock from the interior of the station. They walk carefully, like they are afraid of leaving muddy footprints.
“It’s creepy, isn’t it?” one human says. “No one has been in here since the accident.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” the other replies. Their voices are husky, underpowered breaths that introduce error. Humans do this when they wish not to be overheard. I’m sure they don’t mean me, though. I’m Dock Control.
I push some dust-clearing air jets at them. Their hair flies upward and they freeze in place.
“What was that?”
“Ha! I knew you believed in the haunted dock.”
“Shut up, Julie.”
Outside, Pettie says, “Dock Control, there are no ships approaching this dock. As usual. Now let me go back to sleep.”
Oh no, the humans might not understand why I’m running a tug drone on my own. I put a load-lifter between them and the exit so they won’t run away.
One human shrieks. The other laughs. Both run deeper into the dock and hide behind Utility Shuttle Four.
“It’s not a ghost. It’s bad equipment. They should shut this place down!”
“Ha! They can’t. Regs require a working dock on every level.”
Well, at least they are staying.
I cycle Pettie through the lock, comparing my times to her outward trip and recording all of it for later analysis.
Since I am using every safety protocol on the airlock cycle, I play alert sounds and turn on all the warning lights. Claxons and buzzers are fun. Red and yellow spots flood across my bay. “Danger!” my speakers boom. “Danger of decompression! Danger!”
The danger of a decompression event is negligible (.00002%) but the warnings are pretty.
The two humans try to open Utility Shuttle Four. They are not authorized.
Pettie glides into her place. The humans watch her, eyes round, clinging to each other.
“Aren’t they adorable?” I say to Pettie.
A human tries to crawl under Utility Shuttle Four. The other tugs his feet, urging him to come out again.
“Welcome!” I boom on the speaker system. Louder is friendlier. “Welcome to the Aft Supplemental Docking Bay of Jupiter Station!”
I’m so excited I’m turning things on and off at random. I can’t help myself. Lights flash and load lifters whizz and oops I hit a wall…
Pettie says, “Not again.”
The humans run, tripping and climbing over each other to get to the exit first. They crawl over the load-lifter.
I should say something to reassure them. “Stay here forever!” I boom. “You cannot leave!”
Slowly, I set things back to rights. I’d made more of a mess than I thought. I dispatch a mop-bot to clean up a small pool of human-excreted liquid.
Pettie says, “And you wonder how that accident happened.” She powers down, going into deep maintenance mode even though she doesn’t require it. It will be hours before she’s able to wake up again.
I look at Aft Supplemental Dock Petty Tug Drone 1 (Patty). She voluntarily burned out her AI two months ago. I hope Pettie doesn’t do that.
I check my energy budget. I review Pettie’s latest footage. I review the humans’ behavior in the dock and note which of my actions make them run deeper into the dock and which lead to their leaving. More load-lifters next time, I think.
Metal pings, dust settles. I’m so bored.
No one visits my dock anymore!
Birding With My Human
by Sylvia Heike
We climb the steps of the bird tower, the soft shuffle of Willa’s sneakers on the wood ascending first, the dull metal march of my feet following close behind. It’s five-thirty on a Sunday morning, and we’re the first ones here—unless you count the birds, which I will, very soon.
It’s windy at the top, clouds rushing across blue, droneless skies. Willa adjusts the old fishing hat on my head, tugging at the frayed edges. It belonged to her grandfather, and she doesn’t want it to be swept into the lake. She tilts her head, robin-like, and smiles. “It looks good on you.”
I’ll take her word for it.
Her faux leather jacket creaks as she lifts a pair of binoculars to her eyes and points them towards Gull Island. From this angle it looks deceptively long and narrow, despite being pancake-shaped. Hundreds of gulls stop here in spring, but by June, they have moved on, leaving the island mainly to waders and water birds. An Arctic tern screeches above.
“No sign of the heron,” Willa says. “See anything cool?”
The definition of cool varies from week to week. Some days she means rare sightings, other times any bird at all. The lenses in my eyes rotate as I scan the shoreline, every centimetre among the rocks and reeds. “Thirty mallard ducks, ten teals, six ruffs, four lapwings—a western marsh harrier soaring to the east.”
“Where?” Willa turns her bare face to the sky, elbows on the railing, but it’s already too late. Her binoculars can track a target, but only if she finds it.
“Gone. Landed on an artificial nest.”
I prepare to activate the screen on my arm. “Would you like to see the video I took? Or pictures?”
“Perhaps my other findings will make up for the harrier you missed.”
I tell Willa everything I see. Every avian species and subspecies, down to their estimated age and sex. Some are individuals we’ve encountered before, based on leg bands or unique plumage patterns. I’m about to mention how when the wind blows just right, I’m able to see a duck’s nest cradling seven cream-coloured eggs—
“That’s enough.” Instead of smiling, her lips are pressed together in a hard line. “I just want to watch birds for a while. Maybe you can do the same.”
“That’s what I thought I was doing.”
“It’s not your fault you’re too good at this. Must be nice. You don’t even have to try.”
I process her words and tone, not sure how to respond. She’s not wrong—it takes me seconds to spot, count, and identify the birds in my field of view. Only a moment to upload everything to the cloud. Taking pictures comes as easily as blinking, and I can record high-definition video just by thinking about it. There’s no challenge, no learning, no trying.
It’s hard sometimes.
I have wondered, from time to time, how content people seem doing things in their slow and inefficient way. Take Willa, for example. Perfectly happy peering at the distant birds through her binoculars, the wind tossing her dark hair, a smile occasionally pinching the corners of her mouth—at least until I somehow upset her.
It isn’t often I ask for anything, but the time has come. “Willa? I’d like to try birding your way.”
“Really?” She seems surprised, but not unpleasantly so. “Sure.”
Her eyes sparkle like the sun in the water as she tells me to shut down my network connection, ornithological databases, most of my camera mods. “Make yourself more like me.”
I follow her voice commands until my eyesight approximates that of a twenty-three-year-old short and spunky human. As the amount of input decreases, it becomes quieter in my head.
“All you need is your eyes and ears. And maybe a pair of binoculars.”
Willa tells me how she used to come here with her grandfather before the tower was built. “I still have all his paper notebooks. That’s how he recorded things for decades. Can you believe it? No apps either, just a worn bird guide in his pocket.”
“There’s the grey heron! Finally.” Willa offers the binoculars. “Want to take a look?”
I already see the bird, a tall thin ghost stealthing among the island grass. Barely visible until I borrow the binoculars and peer through them, seeing the creature—if not clearly, at least better. The grey heron going about its life, oblivious to being observed.
I nod. It’s good to see Willa smiling.
A gust of wind blows from the lake, making me hold on to my hat. I never met Willa’s grandfather, but I imagine him now, doing what we’re doing in another time. Just him and the birds.
A small flock lifts from nearby bushes and flashes above. My first inclination is to zoom, scan, and identify—but those functions are temporarily gone. I listen to the enthusiastic chatter of the swarm, knowing I should know it. I search the corners of my mind, my available memories. All the query returns is: little brown birds.
Something sparks and stutters inside me. Beyond that basic knowledge, I have no idea what kind of birds they are. They could be… anything.
“The heron’s fishing,” Willa says, and I’m reminded of my job. Ready to serve my human.
“Would you like some pictures? I can turn everything back on.”
Willa lowers her binoculars, giving me an enigmatic look. “Up to you.”
Not the answer I anticipated.
I mull it over. It would only take a second to turn everything back on, snap a shot of the grey heron skewering fish right now. It would be a good picture—no, an excellent one. As clear and in-focus as the distance, weather conditions, and my engineering allow. Nearly perfect by human standards.
Or I could just enjoy the moment.
Haunting the Docks:
This story absolutely delighted me when I read it in the slushpile. The intentions of the dock’s AI are pure and heartfelt, and the miscommunication is hilariously inevitable. But behind the humour, there’s a bittersweet note that I genuinely empathize with. Wanting to reach out to others is a very human drive, but it’s not something that everyone is equally equipped for. As an autistic child, I longed for friends, for connections. My mother tells me how she would find me pressed up against a small chink in the garden fence, watching the neighbourhood kids play in the alley behind the street, wanting to join them but not having the faintest idea of how. As I grew up, social behaviour was learned through observation, and often came into conflict with either the empirical rules I’d thought I’d figured out, and my own internal compass. People are hard, and when you get it wrong… there can be a heavy burden of shame in that. Sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, we still end up pushing people away. This story reminds me to be more forgiving, of myself and others, to give people the space to be themselves… and not leap to the wrong conclusions.
Birding with my Human:
This piece appeals to me in its simple, quiet beauty. It transports us into nature, shows us a moment of solitude and togetherness, how a shared experience can be meaningful in multiple, tiny ways. It shows how when we take the time to learn how others experience the world, we grow to understand them better, and to see things we might otherwise take for granted. And while Willa and her companion spend their time bird watching in Willa’s style in this story, it’s also clear that they value each others company, and their own skills and ways of appreciating nature… and each other. Sometimes, it’s not actions, or words, that draw us closer together, but the times spent in between those things.
About the Authors
Sylvia Heike is a speculative fiction writer from Finland. Her stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Online, PodCastle, Nature Futures, and more. When not writing, she likes to go hiking and looking for birds. She tweets at @sylviaheike and you can find her online at sylviaheike.com
Marie Vibbert has sold over 70 short stories, dozens of poems, and a few interactive fictions and comics. Her first novella, “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” is the cover story for the July 2021 Analog magazine, and her debut novel “Galactic Hellcats” about a female biker gang in outer space rescuing a gay prince, came out in March of 2021. By day she is a computer programmer in Cleveland, Ohio. Find out more about her online or follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrators
After years of performing in theatre and online radio productions, Roderick Aust is applying his talents to the realm of audio books.
He started his journey in voice work in the US Air Force where he was a popular military broadcaster for American Forces Network in Europe. During the five years he served his country he wrote, edited, and voiced several radio commercials, news reports, and television segments. After that time he came home to Houston, Texas and continued to work in many areas of radio, TV, film, and stage. He has performed in plays across Houston, voiced characters, and also directed several old radio plays for irlonestar.com. Currently he can be found online reciting Shakespearean quotations with his friends on Zoom Shakespeare!
He loves this work and looks forward to any chance he gets to record a new story.
Samuel Poots is a writer from Northern Ireland who communicates primarily through Pratchett quotes. He has been a dead Wildling, a teacher in Japan, a tabletop games journalist, and spent a lot of time assuring tourists at the Causeway that he was the new 5ft 4″ giant due to budget cuts. He writes both fiction and tabletop games and loves making stuff up with friends. If found, please give him a cup of tea and send him home via the nearest post office. Follow him on Twitter at @pootsidoodle