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art by Alan Bao

Are You There? Are You Safe? Is the Flock Safe?

Rob lives in Lawrence, KS (one of the artsiest places in the US, believe it or not) with his wife Shannon, their pets (including the worldís most neurotic cockatiel), and his delusions of grandeur--the last of which take up more space than all of his other possessions combined. Rob has dabbled in a wide range of careers, from disc jockey to soldier to rock singer to webcomicer, but wants to reassure everyone that those superhero rumors are apocryphal, at best. All of the above somehow led to writing, in a way that seemed logical at the time. This is Robís second professionally published work of fiction. His first, about a demon-hunting sandwich girl named Karma, can be found in The Crimson Pact, Volume 2. Find Rob on the web at www.robhamm.com.

Even this close to the desert, the sun finds enough cloud on which to paint its retirement colors. Turner Bray sits beside an almost-dry stream under a Joshua tree while the oranges and yellows and reds and pinks fade into one another, and listens to the birds.
They are not Original birds, of course; the stores of avian DNA were among the many things damaged on the voyage here, centuries ago. They might look like Original birds, and hatch from eggs like Original birds, but they are partly carbon filament and nanotubes, and they grow tiny processors in their brains to guide them--with varying degrees of success--toward Original bird behavior.
This flock--Turner's flock--comprises both parakeets and cockatiels, as well as a mated pair of African Grays and an elderly Amazonian Parrot. Original Birds did not mix like this in the wild, and that is part of why Turner is here; to learn more about how these birds differ in behavior from Originals so that new designs can take into account the failures of the past.
As the light fades, the birds start up the evening chatter that binds them as a flock in much the same way it must have for Original birds. They speak in chirrups and sweels and little squawks that ask, "Are you there? Are you safe? Is The Flock safe?" And they answer each other, "I am here. I am safe. The Flock is safe."
To pass the days and weeks, Turner teaches himself to imitate the bird calls, becoming fluent enough to engage in their daily reassurances. Sometimes he spreads crumbled rations on the ground and calls out in their language, "Food! Food! There is food here!" After a while, most will eat tidbits directly from his hand, and after a longer while they seem to accept as one of them this wingless giant who speaks the language of the flock.
The birds have names for each other. They give Turner a name, as well--a simple, trailing squawk--and even contact-call to him when he moves out of sight. "Where are you? We can't see you! Are you safe?"
On the day of the snake attack, Turner is recording. Although he should simply observe, his first reaction is to raise the alarm. "Snake! Snake! Protect the chicks!" The snake is menacing the Grays' nest, but it is a little cockatiel--his real name is a lilting whistle, but Turner has dubbed him Geronimo for his bravery--who throws himself at the snake's eyes, protecting the chicks for the scant second it takes the rest of the flock to descend in a fury of beaks and claws and battering wings.
When the battle is done, Geronimo lays on his side on the ground flapping one wing and peeping feebly. The lump in Turner's throat surprises him, but more so the reaction of the flock. Original birds would have left Geronimo to die or--depending on the species--finished him off. But these birds form a protective circle around their fallen hero, and several of the smaller ones line up to press their beaks to Geronimo's to feed him the snake meat they've consumed.
They are not just different from Original birds, Turner thinks, but--as blasphemous as the idea may be in a world where terraforming has become a religion--better than Original birds. Yet, because they are not enough like Original birds, they will be phased out and replaced over the next five years. It is the law.
For the first time since he was a small child, Turner weeps openly.
Years pass. Turner is an old man, now; too old for field research, many say, but he manages to acquire a grant, even so. His new study will take him to the edge of a different desert, far from the intentionally terraformed parts of the world, but to a place where Terran life has, nonetheless, taken hold. Most importantly, it will take him far away from the "civilization" he no longer wants to be a part of. The one that saw fit to destroy something beautiful simply because it was not what they had imagined it should be.
After setting up camp, he wheels the heavy cryogenic sample cases out of the back of his vehicle. Most biologists carry empty cases to the field and return with full ones, but Turner is doing the opposite. By the time anyone discovers what he has stolen it will be too late.
The first chicks hatch after a couple of weeks, and Turner speaks to them in the language of birds. "We are here. We are safe. The Flock is safe."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Author Comments

Iíve always been a dog person, but my wife grew up with birds, and in 2009 we acquired a cockatiel we named Sachiko. From the beginning, Sachi was happiest when riding around on our shoulders, grooming us, or being "scritched" on her face and neck. I often marveled (and still do) that such a bond could develop between a human being and this tiny, fragile descendant of feathered dinosaurs, who trusted me so much that I have occasionally had to prevent her from sticking her head into my mouth to play with my teeth when I yawned. That sense of wonder gave me the seed of this story. I had no idea where to go with it, though, until two years later. While watching our parakeets trying to make friends with Sachi, I daydreamed about how cool it would be if they were all just a little better at cross-species communication and cooperation. What kinds of bonds would be possible, and what would be the worst that could happen to those who shared those bonds? With those questions, I had my story, and along the way realized that I was writing about appreciating things even when they donít conform to our preconceived notions, and about the value of forming bonds with those unlike ourselves.

- D. Robert Hamm
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