Strange Times at the Oregon Country Fair
A short story by A.M.Brosius
They dropped in to the Fair site in the wild area near Daredevil Palace. With his Shifter still active, Ambros Rothakis could see hundreds of overlapped Traces, the spoor of Commonwealthers visiting the Fair over the years. He sent a mental command to the Shifter, shutting it down. It bore a distinct resemblance to a hockey puck, though it was fractionally lighter. He stowed it in a patch pocket on the front of his kilt.
He looked his companion over and thought: ‘It’s a Giant Ant, for all practical purposes. Oh, there are a lot of small differences...and big ones, too; like the Squid sticking out of the top of its head.’
He knew as well that the creature had an internal skeleton as well as its chitinous carapace. ‘...and the cyborg aspect, don’t forget that part. Most of its memory is in the mechanical-biological computer set in its thorax.’
Two metallic tentacles dangled from the silvery rectangular panel set into its carapace. Occasionally these waved around, often in sync with the antennae on the “Ant” part’s head.
‘The machine stores memory and works logically. The Squid feels emotion—exactly what sort is hard to say— and provides motivation. The actual Ant part is more or less a biological bicycle. And these three organisms have been a commensal and collective intelligence for at least several million years.’
He spoke aloud: “This is gonna be a riot. I hope not actually...”
“Rrrr-iot.” The Ant part rotated its head back and forth in that odd way they had: “Thisss isss ‘a metaphor’?
“Yes.” It was hard not to think of the thing as the Ant, even though the ant part was by far the least sentient of the three bits.
The Ant hissed again: “Ssss. For research purposes this-unit has submitted to this...” It rattled the chain attached to a collar around its “neck”.
“Yes,” said Ambros: “You want to know more about humans? This is one aspect of human society. A festival, where some societal norms are absent or reversed, as a contrast to ordinary life. The collar and chain will make you look like an ‘ambiance performer’ rather than a dangerous and unpredictable alien life-form.”
“This-unit is intensely curious. Let us proceed.”
Ambros led the way out of the drop-in site, careful to disturb the vegetation as little as possible. The Ant seemed to understand that: it stepped as carefully as he did. As they approached the edge of the path, the Squid part of the organism shrank to an alarmingly small size, all of its tentacles tucked within itself and its cowl drawn down almost within the Ant’s carapace.
They appeared out of the shrubbery without any warning to the crowd. As people became aware of them a hush fell over the area.
‘That’s an almost eerie thing,’ thought Ambros: ‘It’s never really quiet anywhere on the Fair site during the day.’
His companion’s head swiveled back and forth and its antennae waved and twitched as it sampled the air and listened to the sounds of far-off voices and music. It took up almost the whole of the Upper River Loop as it moved across a narrow bridge and up a slope towards the Eight. Ambros stopped their progress as soon as he got to a wide enough spot on the path.
The crowd nearby was focused to a person on the spectacle of a bearded, longhaired, top-knotted man in a psychedelic kilt, white cloth belt, and long open vest crocheted out of fine white yarn, leading an eight-foot-tall Giant Ant on a chain.
The Ant rose onto its rear legs and waved the front ones about: “Hello humans. Z-z-t.”
The crowd exploded in cheers and applause. The Ant slowly settled back onto all sixes and squatted to the ground.
Ambros grinned and led the Ant onward through the tree-shaded paths and into a larger open space along the edge of the Eight.
The crowd followed; they gathered round, inching closer bit by bit.
A woman in a fairy dress with a feathery wand asked: “Is that a puppet? I mean, an...an automaton? Or is there a person inside it?”
“That’s a good question,” Ambros replied, truthfully. He continued in the same vein: “It’s a person, of sorts.”
“What’s its name?” asked a little boy of six or so.
Ambros pursed his lips: ‘It calls itself ‘This-Unit’ most of the time. I usually call it ‘You-Unit’, but I sometimes call it Bruce just for fun.”
“May we call it Bruce?” asked a girl, about the same age as the boy.
The girl reached out tentatively and touched the Ant’s palps: “May we call you Bruce?”
The Ant rose up a little, so that its front legs were free of the ground, and said: “This is satisfactory.” It leaned forward and let its palps range over the girl’s face, which caused her to laugh. After a moment, its mandibles spread wide and clicked, locked in the open position. Ambros sighed, relieved.
The other kids giggled. More children gathered around, since there seemed to be no danger. Parents hung back, allowing the kids room for exploration.
The Ant turned its head towards Ambros: “This is immature human? Of which sort?”
“I’m a girl, obviously!” the child preempted.
“That is not obvious to...sssBruce-unit.”
Ambros stared at the Ant, astonished: “You never called yourself Bruce.”
“Immature human asked ‘May we’. Immature humans may.”
“Children,” said Ambros: “Or kids, more informally.”
“Data filed. Children. Kids. Girls...”
“And boys. Sometimes, though rarely, both or neither. When in doubt wait for the child to say.”
“Understood. Humans are fascinating.”
“I know,” said Ambros: “After all, that’s why you are here. Look about you...”
The creature swiveled its head: “Thezzse humans in zzshelters...” It waved its front legs
“Booths,” said Ambros, understanding what the Ant found puzzling.
“Booths...these they have in the Commonwealth, yesss? For distribution of goods and foodstuffs, this-unit recalls.”
“Indeed. Like a Thenoma Plataeo in the Commmonwealth, this festival functions as a craft fair, in part. This is a money economy, though. Things work differently as a result. Do you see how?”
“Mmzzss. We do. Our-unit...our collective judgement finds each of thezsse systems unnecessarily complex.”
“Yes, I suppose you would.”
Some people had wandered off by then; apparently comparative economics was not as amusing as their earlier interaction.
“Show this-unit more things...other aspects of this festival.”
Ambros nodded: “Can you hear the music? Let’s go dancing.”
“What is ‘dancing’?”
The remaining kids laughed uproariously at that question, and their parents laughed a bit, too. Then all the children began to dance, hopping and wriggling and saying: “Like this! Listen to the music!”
The pulsing bass of a reggae band carried from Mainstage to where they were hanging out.
The Ant twitched and its limbs moved rhythmically. Then it said: “Is it wise for this unit to...jump...like that?”
Ambros said: “Maybe not. I’ve seen you jump. Can you hop just a little bit? As in a few centimeters off the ground?”
“SssBruce-unit will try...” The creature flexed its legs and seemed to ponder. It jumped about six feet in the air; the kids leapt away, in some dismay. The Ant pulled its legs in tight so as not to land on any children. Then it stood to all sixes and said: “This-unit will practice in less crowded conditions. Immature humans are each separate intelligences...sssyes?”
“Indeed, they are. Best to do them no harm, under any circumstances.” Ambros gazed sternly at the Ant, which got its attention.
Ambros led the Ant along. A man slapped Ambros on the back, saying: “That’s an amazing performance, dude. You gotta leave out the middle part, though...”
The Ant rose partway and Ambros said: “Chill.” They’d arranged code words for certain aspects of human behavior. Ambros had explained: “Humans often engage in ritualized violence. ‘Chill’ means I am not in danger, however it may appear to you-unit.”
Eventually they reached Sally’s Alley and approached the stage.
The stage was built in the same rustic style as the booths, though of much sturdier materials. The foundation of the construction looked to be enormous logs, cut into pillars and set so as to uphold the stage. The band played a slow reggae beat; the musicians and singers all wore dreadlocks, and performed in various states of undress.
“Is this too loud for your sensory apparatus?” Ambros inquired.
“This-unit hasss already adjusted.” It waved its antennae at the stage, and its metal tentacles echoed the movement: “D-dreadlocksss?”
Ambros shook his head vehemently: “Not the same meaning here in this Line. Those people have no connection to Eleni Leontari. Or Arrenji-unit.”
The Ant seemed disappointed, though Ambros wasn’t sure how he could tell.
“Okay,” said Ambros: “So, ‘dancing’ consists of rhythmic movements of nearly any sort, sometimes prearranged between two or more partners, sometimes improvised on the spot.”
“This-unit has accessed ‘Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary’ via your ‘Webz’. This-unit does not know how to begin...dancing.”
Ambros grinned: “I recommend that you begin by bending your limbs and straightening them, in time to the music.” Ambros demonstrated; The Ant made shift to imitate him, though six segmented legs made the movement quite odd by human standards. People nearby stared, and tried not to stare, and by various means displayed their curiosity. The Ant seemed not to notice.
“Now try lifting one or two feet from the ground...remain in time with the music...”
“How isss thisss?”
“You are definitely dancing. Never seen anything like it, but it is dancing.
A cloud passed across the sky, blocking the sun briefly. Ambros looked around the horizon, frowning; a chilly breeze passed through Mainstage Meadow, and then dispersed, leaving the temperature somewhat lower in its wake.
A group of children, of both genders and several ages, came twirling along, dressed in full-circle tie-dye skirts that floated out around them as they spun. They laughed and squealed as they changed course; they circled the Ant and Ambros twice before twirling away again.
Ant asked: “Should This-unit spin also?”
“If you do, make sure your limbs do not contact any humans...”
“Understood. This-unit’s visual field is...you would say 345 degrees. This-unit could spin safely...zzzz-but perhaps We will not.”
Ambros nodded: “The better part of valor, and all.”
“This-unit does not understand...”
“Hmm. Maybe some other time would be better to explain the concept of ‘Valor’.”
“This-unit concedes. The definition in ‘Webster’s’ is...ssszz-ridiculous?”
“I can’t argue with that statement.”
Ambros danced for a while. The Ant did its best, but soon squatted down in the position that meant: “No aggressive intent”.
“Would you like to do something else?” Ambros asked.
“We could go down East Thirteenth, look at the various crafts on display...we will have to approach the stage closer, then go into the shade on the left.”
“This-unit agrees.” The Ant stood, but stayed on six legs.
The two of them passed along a row of food vendors on their left, weaving between groups of people: some separated by age or gender, some wildly mixed. At least five percent of those they passed wore some sort of outlandish outfit. The Ant stood out even among them.
One man stopped them: dressed as a policeman and walking on short stilts that lifted him head and shoulders above most of the crowd, he spoke mock-officiously: “Do you have a license for that Ant?”
“Chill,” Ambros whispered. Then he replied to the ‘officer’: “For Bruce? He doesn’t need a license, he’s a Free Ant.”
“I see. Well, go about your business then,” the fellow said. As Ambros and Bruce went past, the not-cop said: “That’s the most convincing insect costume I’ve ever seen. Unless it’s a robot...”
Ambros laughed: “Technically a cyborg, actually.” He noticed the guy staring at them as they proceeded. Not-cop frowned, seemingly nonplussed.
They passed a pushcart selling ice cream bars. A girl of about ten years approached, holding a half-eaten chocolate covered treat. She said: “Would you like some ice cream, Bruce?”
Ambros shook his head: ‘Of course, every kid on site knows the Ant’s name by now.’
Bruce hesitated: “Bruce-unit is not scheduled to take nourishment this...zzcycle. But...we will tassste it.”
The girl held the stick high, and the Ant carefully abstracted a dollop of sweet from the end. It touched the stuff with its palps, quivering in reaction.
‘Not sure how I know a shudder of pleasure from any other sort...’ thought Ambros.
The Ant slowly placed the ice cream in its mouth; its mandibles worked, though there was nothing to bite.
It legs straightened, and it shook all over. The girl giggled and other people laughed as well.
Some adults frowned and became more alert.
“You okay, Bruce?” asked Ambros.
“O-o-o-kayyy. That is very high-energy food. Must pauzsse...and control this-unit’s reaction.”
“Got it.” Ambros gently moved the crowd back a bit, saying: “I think Bruce could use a little space, folks.”
Ambros spotted Jake From Security, whom he had met the previous year; Jake watched them intently, occasionally speaking into his radio.
Thunder growled and rumbled. A moment later the sky lit up with lightning off to the west, and very shortly another peal of thunder rolled over them.
People looked to the west in alarm. One woman said: “This wasn’t in the forecast...”
“Precipitation will lassst approximately one of your hours, then dissipate,” Bruce-unit declared: “Many low-lying paths will flood. This Meadow is safe...”
Several people stared openly at the Ant, clearly wondering.
One woman said what many of them were thinking: “How could that thing possibly be a costume or a robot?”
Rain began to fall. Many people scattered in search of shelter; others danced and reveled in the shower, which slowly developed into a downpour.
Ambros said: “Y’know Bruce, I think we better get out of Dodge.”
“Ambros-unit’s reference is obscure. But This-unit comprehends the meaning.”
Ambros led the way back towards the traditional drop-in and jump-out point. He kept his head high, grinning at anyone who stared at them. The rain sluiced from the Ant’s carapace; Ambros soon found himself soaked to the skin.
The Ant suddenly halted, touching Ambros’ shoulder with a foreleg. The machine in the Ant’s chest beeped loudly, forcibly reminding Ambros that the ‘Ant’ was not the sentient part of the organism. The machine said: “Unit-Ambros: this path is flooded ahead.”
“You mean Upper River Loop?”
“This-unit would not risk stepping in the flow...”
“Right. Let’s head back via East Thirteenth, we’ll send you home from the woody end near our booth.”
They sped up their pace; as they passed Jake, Ambros said: “I guess there’s some bad flooding near Daredevil Palace, Jake. Maybe you should call that in, huh?”
Jake paused, indecisive, then began talking into his radio: “...flooding at URL reported to me by passerby...check on it...barricade...”
Jake’s voice faded as they proceeded to East Thirteenth.
They moved along as fast as Ambros could walk; he slowed the alien down with murmured code words whenever it went too fast for him: “I don’t want to be running. That would just draw attention. And I desperately want to avoid further attention.”
“This-unit agrees. Too many of the humans now doubt that We are a robot or a costume.”
It did not surprise him at all that Jessica, also from Security Crew, picked them up as they passed Community Village. She began to tail them.
Many places along the hard clay path had pools of water, sometimes reaching from one side of the way to the other. Where the pools did not reach the footing was treacherous, and people slipped and slid as they moved about.
The Ant ignored the pools and ponds that blocked the way, striding straight through them. Ambros followed, still holding the end of the chain: ‘Now my boots are soaked through as well.’ He thought.
Suddenly Jessica passed them, at a trot. Her radio squawked at her and she sped up, running and slipping as she went.
Ambros and the Ant soon caught her up: she stood by the side of the road, yelling into her radio as thunder drowned out all the voices nearby.
The wind kicked up again, and it began to rain harder yet.
Nearly everyone standing about was looking up, shading their eyes from the rain. After a moment, Ambros looked up too. Among the leafy branches tossing in the freshened gale, he could see what had to be a child, clinging to one of the larger boughs.
His immediate instinct was to climb after the kid. He looked at the tree and said: “How the bleep did the kid even get up there? There are no side branches for thirty feet!”
“I don’t know how he got up there!” cried a woman standing right next to Ambros: “He has really strong hands! He’s always climbing things!”
Lightning struck a tree less than a hundred yards deep in the woody area nearby. That tree splintered and briefly caught fire, until the downpour snuffed it out. Thunder rolled over them and they felt the shockwave hit them; the ground shook.
The woman screamed and buried her face in her hands.
“Bruce-unit could rescue this child,” said the Ant. “We can summon aid...”
Ambros put his own hand over his face, as the wind howled louder yet and the tree swayed and creaked in the blast. He nodded:
“Do it. Whatever you have in mind. Do it.”
The Ant didn’t trouble to unfasten the chain from around its neck: it just used its mandibles to snap it off short and tossed the broken end to Ambros: “M-m-move these humans back!”
Ambros complied: “Move back a bit please, come on, folks, give the Ant room for whatever it wants to do...”
Two other Ants appeared. Several people screamed.
“That blows our cover...” Ambros shook his head, but continued with crowd control: “... keep back, please...Bruce has a plan...”
Jessica joined him in calming and moving the growing crowd back.
The other two Ants were smaller than ‘Bruce’, one of them significantly so; that smallest one had a distinctly brownish tone to its carapace, and a smaller abdomen.
The Brown Ant scuttled over to the tree and went up like any ordinary sized ant would. The middle sized Ant followed. Bruce went towards the bole of the tree, picking Ambros up with the pincer on one middle leg: “Unit-Ambrose must stand here!”
“Whatever you say, Bruce.”
The Ant climbed until it was a good four feet above Ambros’ head. Then the child shrieked, and all the adults nearby ran towards the base of the tree, trying to see what was going on.
The kid cried out again, then came into the sight of those on the ground. The Brown Ant, now oriented head down, held the kid’s belt in one pincer and passed him to the middle Ant, which creature passed him from one pincer to another until it could pass the child to Bruce, and hence to Ambros where he stood on the ground nearby.
Ambros held the child firmly by the waist, looked into his eyes, and asked: “You okay, kid?”
The boy burst into fresh tears. Ambros yielded the child to his mother, who began alternately scolding and kissing and hugging and ranting.
Bruce turned itself round on the tree trunk, so that it, too, clung to the tree head down. The fashion in which Bruce did that made it clear to all that Bruce was neither a robot nor a costumed human.
“This-unit should ‘Get out of Dodge’. Yes?”
“You and the horse you rode in on.”
The Ants vanished one by one, with the whooshing sound that their exits from a Timeline always made. Most of the people roundabout were concentrated on the rescued child, and heard nothing over wind, rain, and thunder.
But Jessica From Security happened to be looking right at Bruce as the creature faded from sight, until it was simply gone.
Ambros caught Jessica’s eye: “To report or not to report. That’s the question, right?”
She stared bleakly at him. She shook her head: “No way I can make anyone believe this...” she waved her hands: “...no matter how many witnesses I have.”
Thunder grumbled to the east of them.
“Well then,” he said: “I guess I’ll just go on about my own affairs.” After a moment he said: “Dry clothes. That’ll be first...”
He walked away as the wind died and the rain passed to drizzle.