One Man's Trash
by Gustavo Bondoni
“If that’s what I think it is, you’re in serious trouble.”
Camille’s heart sank even before she turned to face the speaker. She knew the voice and also became aware that, though she wasn’t in trouble, her surprise was ruined. “I suppose you wouldn’t believe me if I told you it’s a common sparrow, would you?”
“I don’t think that would fool a first-year undergrad, and I’ve spent more time in the field in Africa than most of them have been alive.” Dr. Terrence Walters paused for a moment, deep concern on his features. “That’s what I think it is, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s a Liben Lark. I acquired it last week.”
“What were you thinking? That bird is critically endangered. In fact, I was at a conference last week in which a field team from Ohio State presented a hypothesis that there are none left in the wild, and none are recorded in captivity. They recommended that the status be changed to extinct.”
“Well, as you can see, they’re not extinct. And besides, who’s going to bust me? You’re probably the only person I know who’d be able to identify one of these without a field guide and a lot of study. I’ve been poring over the thing for five days, and I wasn’t convinced until you walked in and confirmed it.”
Walters studied the bird. It was a small specimen, maybe five and a half inches high and not much to look at with dark brown plumage on its back and wings, and a lighter-colored breast. “Well, you can rest assured that you made the correct identification. This plumage on the crown is the sign you have to look for.” He pointed at the bird’s head with his finger. His eyes filled with tears. “I haven’t seen one of these in thirty years. It’s so sad to know that I’ll never see another.”
“Well, maybe it isn’t a total loss.”
“Unless you can get a breeding pair, it’s no use trying to save them. Even then, you won’t have enough genetic diversity to make a colony self-sustainable.”
“Oh, I wasn’t referring to the bird. I was talking about my surprise.”
“Surprise? What are you…”
But Camille wasn’t listening. She’d walked into the specimen chamber beside her lab. Walters followed her, spluttering.
And then stood completely still.
“You might want to close your mouth. Sometimes birds get loose in here, they’ll fly in.”
“But… how…” Walters groped around for a chair and sat heavily. He took a couple of deep breaths.
“That is the kind of surprise you should never spring on an eighty-year-old professor. You could have killed me.”
Camille laughed. “You’ve still got a couple of years before you see eighty, and everybody thinks you’ll outlive us all.”
“Still. You need to explain that.”
The cage was a cube six feet to a side, wrapped in the kind of wire mesh more often seen in chicken coops than in ornithological research centers. Within were subdivisions that made the whole thing look like a transparent office block.
Every available surface was covered in Liben Larks, male and female.
“It started with that Vulture conservation program in Ghana…”
“Ghana? That’s silly. These are Ethiopian grassland birds. Maybe some in Somalia. But that’s it.”
“Well, these came from Ghana. Do you want to hear the story or not?”
Neither of them noticed that one bird was watching them much more intently than the rest.
Six months later, Camille was in Ghana again. This time, she wasn’t the gofer for an expedition but its leader. Of course, there were only two other people on her team, but it was a start. She’d gotten the funding and the University’s blessing, which was something she never thought possible.
And she was looking at something that most people would never have thought possible. While the international community made a huge fuss about the digital waste dump at Agbogbloshie, she now knew that that was a front. It was a centrally located site meant to attract international suspicion and outrage.
What every local – and very few outsiders – knew, was that all the waste at Agbogbloshie was generated in Ghana. Investigations would prove fruitless, the outraged voices would be silenced. She shook her head in wonder that anyone would believe that such a small site, about four city blocks’ worth, could actually process the digital detritus from a good chunk of the world.
That process was happening in front of her. In a difficult to reach former wetland just north of the Weija Reservoir, discarded monitors, dead hard drives and permanently disconnected mobile phones vied with bales of old wires and stacks of keyboards for space in the mud as far as the eye could see. A few hundred yards away, the piles of waste were stacked against a cluster of rickety wooden warehouses.
“This is where the birds live?” Gerardo asked. He was a tall PhD candidate from Mexico, who’d insisted that he would do fine in a third world setting. Giving lie to that was the fact that he was the only member of the team to have gotten sick so far.
The other team member was an ornithologist called Tina who looked like she belonged in a cage with her subjects. Small and fragile were the first words that came to mind upon seeing her, but she was a tough customer – something which the layabouts at the airport had learned firsthand when they attempted to help her carry their luggage. She simply nudged the bigger man in the ribs and pointed. “We’d never spotted enough of them in one place to study the social behavior, but if you look over there, I think you’ll see a group feeding on the ground.”
“That’s incredible. The ecosystem here is completely wrong for them!”
“Our guide said there would be thousands of them. Looks like he was right.” Camille turned to the translator. “Can you take us to the place where they keep the cages?”
The translator nodded and turned to walk into the mud.
Silently thanking her stars that the birds hadn’t chosen a site with smelly organic wastes to stage their unbelievable comeback in—although it was hard to be thankful that they’d chosen a place as toxic as this one—Camille led her team into the corridors of dead technology.
The warehouse was a relief. Not because the people inside were less poor or hungry-looking than the ones they’d seen picking through the piles, but because the sun was beating down with the ferocity which she remembered from her previous stay in the country, and the shade was a welcome relief.
A tall man of about fifty with mahogany skin and gleaming white teeth displayed in a prominent smile approached. He was dressed in the shorts and short-sleeved button-down shirt they’d come to expect, but his clothing was spotless. “Welcome. I’m Minkah. I hope you didn’t get too muddy,” he said in an impeccable British accent.
Camille tried to hide her surprise. “The mud wasn’t too bad, but you should really put up some shade if you’re going to have visitors to this place.”
The man laughed. “The dump isn’t mine, alas. If it were, I’d be on a beach somewhere, drinking shaken and not stirred vodka martinis.”
Their host held up a hand. “It’s probably better not to talk about that. Unlike my own operation, which is semi-legal, everything else that is going on here is against both local and international law. I hope you followed my instructions and didn’t take any pictures.”
They replied that they hadn’t and he nodded. “Good. They would have taken your phones if you had.”
“Why do you say your operation is semi-legal?” Camille broke in. “From what you’ve told me, you are the man responsible for saving a critically endangered species. That sounds more heroic than criminal.”
Minkah looked embarrassed. “We are proud of having saved the Liben Lark. In fact, we’ve got an entire sector dedicated to breeding the birds and releasing them into the wild, both here in Ghana and through agents in Ethiopia.” He paused. “But you don’t know everything about what we do… and I’m afraid there are some aspects that you won’t like too much.”
“Perhaps it’s better if you don’t tell us, then. I assume we can study the bird population in the dump without knowing anything about what you do.”
“Of course you can. And you’ll be happy to know that the workers have adopted the birds as pets – they never disturb a nest.”
“Then they’re actually nesting here?” Gerardo asked.
“Of course. How do you think we get so many of them. We have quite a thriving population. I’ll have my people show you some of the sites they’ve chosen. In the meantime, why don’t you have some water?”
He led the ornithologists into a small office inside the warehouse. It was a prefabricated building about six meters to a side, with grey walls, a grey desk and a small conference table. A water cooler stood to one side and there was a window on the back wall which gave a view of a complex created of four forty-foot containers joined together. The nearest container had a door with a fingerprint-activated lock in it. The smell of burnt plastic, pervasive outside, disappeared.
“Help yourselves,” Their host said, indicating the water cooler. “It’s filtered tap water.” Seeing that they still had doubts, he continued. “You won’t get sick.”
The admonition made them too embarrassed to decline, and the team drank. After the first plastic cupful, Camille realized just how thirsty she was, and had three more. Minkah chuckled. “Once you feel better, I’ll have Claude show you around the better sites. If you follow his instructions, you will be able to photograph the birds. But please don’t take pictures of anything he doesn’t specifically say is all right. And Miss Dupois, I’d like a word with you in private if you don’t mind. It can wait till after you’re done, but please don’t forget.”
Camille nodded. She could tell that the rest of the team wanted to get out among the birds. It was nearly 11 AM, and the morning was nearly gone. The first day in the field was always an exciting time – they’d learn more today than they would on any other day. Later, they would refine what they found, formulate a hypothesis and perhaps even put some of them to the test, but today was the day that caused the butterflies to jump around in her stomach.
Noon came and went without in the sun, running from one nest to another, ignoring Camille’s admonitions to keep themselves hydrated. There could be no doubt that what Minkah had told them was true. Nests abounded, each with one or sometimes two small eggs inside. The birds nested on the ground – often in beds of wire – but the nests were undisturbed. The mood was one of elation.
But Camille almost immediately realized that the birds were, indeed, ripe for removal from the critically endangered species list, and her attention began to wander. She started to look around the corridors of tech junk from around the world and actually see what was happening.
Most of the workers she could see were children.
They darted in and out of the passages between piles of refuse, over the mounds themselves and even scurried into passages dug into the trash where an adult wouldn’t have been able to fit. They were all loaded down with wires. Thin wires were plentiful and there were children laden with this kind on all sides, but thick coaxial cables seemed to be the biggest prize.
Whenever a kid had gathered all the weight they could carry, they’d set off in the direction of a huge column of black smoke in the distance. She imagined that this was where the wire was burned for its copper.
Her team kept talking about the birds, but the children mesmerized Camille. They seemed happy to be part of the process, running and laughing at each other while they worked for pennies. She’d read reports about the toxins found in these types of dumps, especially risky for children, and wondered at how their parents could let them come to work here.
She also noted that there were no girls among the workers. Family structures were still very traditional in this part of the world, and female children were held back for a good marriage.
One thing that puzzled her was the lack of the hard young men she’d always seen in the photos of these digital dumping grounds. She knew that the media wasn’t above trying to sell an image of utter poverty and crime, but it still seemed that someone had to be administering the revenue and defending the territory. Perhaps the men would be found at the burning stations. Or wherever the recovered metals were stored.
Suddenly, she realized that Tina had asked her a question.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Nothing, really. I was just wondering how badly all this soot,” she kicked a pile of black residue that someone had created out of the dust that covered every surface, “affects the health of the birds. I assume that they must, at least, have some respiratory issues. And the rest of the toxins? We’re going to need some specimens that we can cut apart to test for cancer and disease.”
“With a population this big, there should be some dead ones. Offer a dollar per corpse, and you should get a few.”
“Offer a dollar per bird,” Gerardo interrupted, “and the entire population of this place will be dead and presented to you before the end of the day. And the locals will smile and say that the birds died accidentally, and that the bullet wounds, arrows and broken necks had been there when they found them. I know that’s what I would have done when I was a kid. A dollar is a lot of money in some places.”
Camille laughed. “Gerardo, your father owned half of Mexico. A hundred dollars wouldn’t have made a dent in your pocket money.”
“But I’m still right.”
She sighed. “Yeah, I guess you are. I’ll talk to Minkah. Maybe he’ll have an idea.”
Unnoticed among the hundreds of similar birds, a pair of Liben Larks watched them intently from atop two separate piles of CPU casings.
“I’ll get you some specimens,” Minkah said. “Part of our agreement with the dump is that we remove any biological waste. That mainly means droppings, but we pick up some dead birds every evening. How many do you need?”
“I think we can make do with five or so. I suppose it would be too much to expect you to have a lab, wouldn’t it.”
“I think you’d be surprised, but I need to swear you to secrecy.” He looked into her eyes, and then sighed. “I’ve never known how to read white people. Simply put, can I trust you?”
“I already told you. If it’s illegal, I’d rather not know about it. I’m already pretty conflicted about our initial agreement. I think the world should know about this dump. But I’ll honor that.”
“It’s not illegal, not even in the US. But perhaps, if it gets leaked the wrong way, it will become illegal.”
“You’re sure it’s not illegal?”
“I could quote the pertinent points in the animal welfare act to you, if you like. It’s the one pertaining to animals bred for research. It covers only certain small lab animals such as mice and rats… and birds.”
Camille felt her stomach turn. She thought she knew what she would be told next. It wouldn’t be a new story. “Go ahead.”
But Minkah surprised her. Instead of telling her a tale of cosmetics firms paying a fortune to test their nail polish on birds in Ghana instead of Europe, to avoid the irritation of protesters, he simply stood and opened the door to the office.
Then, motioning for her to wait one moment, he sat at his desk and pulled out a battered cell phone. He fiddled with it and looked up.
Camille was about to ask him why he was ignoring her when she realized that a small bird was pecking at her sandals. As she looked down, it took off, swooped once around her head and landed on the desk.
She stared at it. It stared back. There was no doubt that it was a Liben Lark, and there was also no doubt that it was acting extremely oddly. The birds they’d observed outside would fly away from humans even if offered food. This one looked completely at ease.
It flew off the desk and landed on her shoulder.
Camille turned to her host, who was smiling, cell phone in hand. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Guess.” His smile was broader than ever, and Camille could tell that he was very proud of whatever it was. But that was the only thing that kept her from becoming angry.
“You’re controlling the bird.”
“Correct. Any idea as to how?”
She tried to look at the lark on her shoulder. It was difficult to tell if there was any difference between it and the other ones she’d seen. She shrugged. “Magnetic fields?”
The Ghanaian laughed. “A good answer, albeit wrong. It’s been tried, and works to a certain extent. But we needed complete control.”
The bird on Camille’s shoulder took off, grabbed a paper clip from a receptacle on the meeting table and brought it back to the desk, where it dropped it into Minkah’s waiting hand.
“We’ve plugged a tiny computer, well, several tiny computers in fact, into the bird’s motor centers, as well as the parts of the brain that control the secretion of various chemicals, including stress hormones and dopamine. We wanted to make sure that we could control not only the way it acted, but the way it felt.”
Camille stood still, shocked at the implications of what she was hearing. Eventually, she managed one word. “Why?”
“We have our reasons. Let’s just say that there are people willing to pay for a creature that looks like a garden-variety bird, but that can also act as a surveillance camera.”
He smiled. “Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it? But aren’t you concerned about the really interesting question – namely how we’re doing it?”
“I imagine that would be an industrial secret.”
“Not anymore. Our patent application was approved by the EU months ago. It’s amazing how Brussels never even asked about the practical applications of the technology. Also, you’d need a pretty specialized combination of neuroscience and electronic engineering to duplicate our process.”
“And you have that?”
Her host smiled again. “Perhaps it’s time for formal introductions. My name, as you know, is Minkah Perkins. But you may have seen me mentioned as M. Perkins.”
Camille mulled the name over in her head, and then started. It was a name she’d seen dozens of times before, but it was usually followed by a string of letters, starting with MD and PhD and going on from there. It was a name she’d most recently seen in Nature a few weeks before.
“That’s you… I mean… I never…”
“You never imagined that the most important theoretical neurologist on the planet was a black man from Ghana?”
“No, it’s not that… I just never imagined that he’d be a slightly shady dealer in endangered birds operating out of an illegal waste dump.”
Minkah laughed heartily and doffed an imaginary cap. “A point to the lady. But there is a reason. Come.”
She followed, still in a bit of a daze, as he walked out of the office, pressed his thumb against the scanner on the door to the container and opened it.
The four containers had been expertly welded together into a seamless unit, and painted white on the inside. Strong white light illuminated what looked like the electronics lab at her university. Myriad tiny cables and components littered the workspaces, and carts with rubber wheels held testers, welding irons and larger tools.
A man who looked more Indian than Ghanaian sat working at a bench on the far side. There was a bird cage containing a single lark on a trolley beside him.
“This is where we create and install the units. It’s a delicate procedure which takes about three hours per bird. But it’s much less complex than many other brain surgeries… provided you know what you’re doing, and have the correct components.”
And then it made sense. “You get the components from the digital dump outside.”
“Most of them, yes. Some are, naturally, damaged, but you’d be surprised at how much arrives in decent condition. Everything we need can be found inside the next-to latest generation of cell phones. The phones that people no longer want which are being discarded in their millions… and which end up here.”
“But, how can you fit all of that into the bird’s skull?”
“All the component’s we use are about the size of a watch battery. We have to remove some of the bird’s brain to fit it in there – but in our birds, they are parts that were no longer needed anyway.”
Camille’s anger simmered within. In some ways, what was happening here was even worse than if it had simply been a money-grabbing scheme to avoid animal-testing outrage in the first world.
But she kept silent. Arguing would just take her down the same road she’d traveled so many times. She wasn’t going to be able to change Minkah’s mind. She wasn’t going to be able to change the legislation. All she would achieve if she spoke was to antagonize the man who was giving her team access to something wonderful. She clenched her jaw.
Minkah saw through her. “I know what you’re thinking, and all I will say in my defense is that we saved an entire species to do this. I could have used sparrows or pigeons. Either would have worked. Possibly even better, since there are millions of them in every city in the world. Instead, I decided to breed thousands of Liben Larks, which, I can assure you, wasn’t easy until we understood what they needed to reproduce. I saved an endangered African species. I didn’t need to.”
She said nothing.
He sighed. “I understand. Well, nothing has changed. Please don’t tell anyone about what is happening here. We’ll still aid you in anything you need, and if you’d like to use the lab facilities, we’ll make them available.”
“Thank you, but we’ll find something.”
He nodded, led her out of the container complex and let her find her own way back to where the team was working.
This time, she noticed the birds, standing completely still, ignoring the rest of the flock and tracking their movements with their beady black eyes.
Back in the states, in the secure confines of her own lab, a place where she knew that no one was using electronics harvested in unsafe environments by untrained children to create Frankenstein’s birds, Camille broke her promise to remain silent only once.
“That sounds like the way a lot of groundbreaking research happens, sadly.” Dr. Walters didn’t seem particularly shocked at what she told him. “Don’t forget, I was around at the time of the Stanford prison experiment, although I was a freshman at the time. There was a ton of public backlash, but I’ve seen that experiment cited ever since, even though it was forced to end early. Remember that Nazi weapons eventually took us to the moon. At least this guy sounds like he wanted to do some good quite apart from the science he was pushing.”
“But how can anyone do such a thing. He has to know that the only use people will make of this is to spy on others. I bet he’s already sold it to the Chinese, or to the Russians. They probably have modified birds in the White House lawn, learning all our secrets.”
“So why don’t you report it?”
“Because I can’t be sure.” Because, she thought, I gave my word, and because I’m not sure what I hate more – the misguided concept of patriotism, or what Minkah did to those birds.
“I’m not sure either. If I had to bet, I’d say your Dr. Perkins probably sold the technology to market research companies and the big data places. Imagine how awesome it would be to have flexible cameras following consumers. They do that with drones today… but drones call attention to themselves. Birds are just part of the background.”
Camille placed her head in her hands. “That’s even worse.”
“Not really. And there are other uses. Imagine a seeing-eye bird that can be remotely controlled to help the blind. Or refining the tech to do this same thing to a dog. Ultimately, the stuff we learn from this could probably be applied to human brains – maybe to cure blindness, or even depression. You never know where research leads.”
“You make it sound so plausible.”
Walters sighed. “That’s how science works. There was a saying when I was younger that a good war advances civilization a hundred years. Every brain is thinking about science, but not about its civilian uses; they’re looking for new ways to kill each other and to defend themselves. And yet, we end up with air traffic control, microwave ovens and cheap, clean electricity. Not to mention we got to the moon.”
“But that’s awful…”
“Perhaps. But a lot of people whose methods would be considered an outrage today have their names on buildings. It’s a fine line.”
“And you don’t think Perkins crossed it?”
“I have no opinion. But he might be remembered for the good and not the bad. Whatever else he may have done, he did save an entire species. Your career is getting to the point where a lot of the blacks and whites become greys. Don’t let the stuff around you poison the wonder of advancing science.”
Camille didn’t respond. She simply excused herself by claiming she needed to get back to work. Her mentor said nothing, simply left with a sad smile.
He didn’t realize that the bird that had been staring intently at them the last time he’d been there was lying on a dissection table in various small bits. Such things were pretty commonplace in a biology lab.
Roosevelt Island was not a glamorous place, but it was a stone’s throw from Manhattan. The settlement from the University had allowed her to rent a two-room apartment, small but comfortable. Camille received her disability checks, but she didn’t need much to get by, just a few groceries and a few supplies.
Every once in a while she’d take the cable car to 2nd Avenue and walk the streets of the big city to gather what she needed. There was no way she was going to take the subway. The MTA said that the system wouldn’t flood again… but they’d also said that the system wouldn’t flood in the first place. Their excuse, as always, was that they hadn’t expected the water to rise as much as it did. The only thing that had saved the city from even worse was that the dykes had mainly held.
Today, however, she wasn’t planning on leaving the island. She only went as far as the southern tip of the Island. She looked around, satisfied that she was alone and sat on a bench.
The wall, built to keep the rising east river out of the island, was chest high, which prevented her from being able to see the East River from where she was seated, but it didn’t really matter. She saw it every day, and was sick of the barges and the boats. Only the tips of the skyline gave any indication that there was something in the world other than the dyke itself.
For the first time in years, Camille allowed herself a sigh of satisfaction. She had to be safe, didn’t she? Everyone thought she was insane, had been driven nuts by the stress of her old position at the University. She’d gone to great lengths to see that it was so.
She’d cancelled all her credit cards and even her cell phone was an old model without a touch screen, thirty years old, but adapted to run the latest protocols – but not to share information.
They could try to spy on her, but they wouldn’t be able to.
In a way, she was thankful to Minkah and Dr. Walters for opening her eyes to what was happening all around her. Studies on surveillance methods had led her to become an expert on everything from online advertising data gathering to identity theft. The fact that everyone was a potential victim gave her the determination to never leave any doors open for it to happen to her.
In that, she was secure. Nothing in her house was connected to the internet. In fact, she’d had to mutilate her TV to keep it from trying to connect to open Wi-fi sources coming from other apartments. Just the thought of open Wi-fi made her shudder.
If she needed a connection, there was a cybercafé in Korea Town that she liked. The owner was both friendly and good-looking. Most of all, he never asked her any questions.
But that wasn’t enough. She wanted to do more.
The Roosevelt Island squirrels, she’d found, were the tamest rodents she’d ever encountered. If you pretended to have something in your hands and held it out to one of them, it would come right up and sniff your fingers. If you actually had food…
The squirrels must have seen her bag from a mile off. There were six of them surrounding her almost as soon as she sat down. They studied each other for some moments before Camille nodded at one that, to her experienced eye, looked young, lithe and healthy. “You’ll do,” she told it, and held out an unpeeled peanut.
The squirrel moved right up to her hand. It was so intent on the treasure that it never saw the net.
Camille had bagged it before anyone could see. It was done so quickly, in fact, that the other squirrels didn’t even scatter: they just moved back a few yards and surveyed the situation. When she upended the bag on the floor, they darted in and took peanuts until, emboldened by the fact that nothing untoward happened to them, they relaxed and went about their business as if she wasn’t there.
On that October morning, Roosevelt Island looked deserted, as if the post-modernist socialist architecture had been abandoned when that movement had collapsed into bickering factions. Camille walked up the loop, towards the bridge.
“Oh, stop squirming,” she told the bag. “You’ll be fine. I’ve got the right anesthetic, and your nervous system is fast enough to catch the birds. After that, it’s just a question of changing those tiny little claws of yours for something a little deadlier.”
She walked on a couple of steps, pensively. “It’s too bad that I’ll have to buy a modern cellpad to control you, but I guess that can’t be helped. You’ll be a hero.”
“When the war against the invasion of privacy finally gets won, they’ll make a statue of you. You’re going to be the first warrior.”
Camille walked on a few steps. “In fact, you should be proud. Just imagine… Wait a second.” she stopped, bent to pick up a small piece of concrete and hurled it at a pigeon standing on the dyke. The bird barely avoided it and flew off with an offended flutter.
“Yes, my dear. You’ll be a hero.”
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges' Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
Fiction by Gustavo Bondoni:
"One Man's Trash" February 2020