Crimson was the first to recover. “Back away slowly, everyone. No sudden movements,” she said as she slowly began to back away from the mesmerizing glowing firework organisms.
Nobody moved. Crimson Hen bumped into Mr. Rabbit as she was backing up. The collision hardly affected him as he stared uncomprehendingly at the things, whatever they were.
Finally, Nebraska Rooster shook his head a little to clear his vision. “Wooowww,” he crooned.
Mr. Rabbit came to a moment later. “Wha – what are they?”
Deloris Squirrel fell back into a sitting position. “Jeeeeepers,” she moaned without blinking.
The Gray Squirrel looked like he’d been frozen in place. He said nothing.
Crimson looked around. The floating fireworks had stopped advancing and were hovering near the group. One floated a little lower and came to a stop about two feet right in front of Crimson. “Uh, hello?” she said.
The undulating light creature blinked a little in response.
“I’m Crimson Hen,” she tried again.
The organism blinked again, this time, in a rhythmic way.
Crimson turned to Mr. Rabbit, who was still in the thrall of the blinking colors. “Mr. Rabbit, do you see the blinking? I think they’re trying to communicate! Can you record this so we can play it back?”
Mr. Rabbit looked dumbly over at Crimson Hen. She had her wings on her hips and was looking at him expectantly. “Oh, uh . . . “ he seemed to come out of his thrall. “Why yes! Of course.”
He went over to his bag and pulled out a video camera and hit the record button. Crimson Hen turned back to the organism. “I’m Crimson Hen!” she said loudly as though to an older person who was hard of hearing. “We are friendly and mean you no harm!”
The organism blinked its response.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Where are you from?”
“We are friends.” She emphasized the word ‘friends’ and made a circling motion with her wing.
The organism gave a little floating sway in the same direction of her circling motion, and did its blinking on and off again.
Crimson Hen turned to Mr. Rabbit. Nebraska had pulled himself together, and was standing next to him. “What do you think guys? They don’t seem hostile.”
“Yeah,” said Nebraska Rooster. “They don’t.”
The Gray Squirrel and Deloris Squirrel came up to where they were grouped around the video camera. As they did, some of the other organisms floated toward the lead organism.
“Look,” said Crimson Hen. “They’re gathering around, just like we are.”
“Do you think they’re copying us?” asked Deloris Squirrel.
“Maybe,” said Mr. Rabbit. “But if they are, we need more data. Keep talking to them, Crimson.”
Crimson Hen turned back to the organisms. “It’s very nice to meet you,” she said slowly and deliberately. She couldn’t be sure, but the blinking the organism made in response seemed to have the same deliberate slowness. She decided to try something. “It’s . . . very . . . nice . . . weather . . . today,” she said with exaggerated slowness. The blinking response was equally slow and deliberate.
The Gray Squirrel whistled. “Whew, that’s interesting, that is,” he said.
“Do something else, Crimson,” Nebraska said, recovering his scientific tone.
Hmm, she thought, what can I do here? “Oh,” she said aloud. “How about this?” Then she started counting slowly. “One,” and she drew one mark in the dirt. “Two,” two marks. “Three . . . four . . .” She went on like this until she got to ten.
The organism seemed to regard her and her speech and her marks all very carefully. Then, it blinked, and the pattern was very clearly a counting pattern.
“Golly,” said Mr. Rabbit. “It’s counting. Sure it’s counting! We can use this Crimson. Keep going.”
And keep going they did – all afternoon. The organisms never seemed to get tired, though the group did. After a certain point, Nebraska volunteered to fix them all some lunch. They were all sitting in the shade of a tree, and the organisms didn’t seem to have anywhere else to be. Crimson was trying everything she could think of to communicate with the organisms, and Mr. Rabbit was faithfully recording all of it. Finally, as night came down, the little group trailed off to bed. At last, Crimson said, “We’re tired, and need to sleep, but we will see you in the morning.” Then she stood up, stretched a little, and motioned for Mr. Rabbit to stop recording. They waved to the little organisms, and turned to go.
The little floating fireworks organisms blinked as they were wont to do, and then slowly followed Mr. Rabbit and Crimson Hen back toward the camp.
Looking over her shoulder, Crimson Hen said to Mr. Rabbit, “They’re beautiful, but I do hope they don’t try to get into our tents. They’d make it awfully hard to sleep.”
The organisms were respectful, and waited patiently outside the tents through the night. In the morning, Crimson Hen unzipped her tent and was face to face with one of them. “Oh!” she said in surprise. “Hello! How are you this morning?”
Blink, blink, blink was the only response.
“Well, let me get my breakfast and coffee real quick-like, and I’ll be with you in a minute.” She stepped out of her tent and around the little floating organism. It followed her lazily through the camp to where their cooking site was. Mr. Rabbit was up already getting a tea kettle to boil. “Ah, you’re a good rabbit, Mr. Rabbit.” Crimson Hen clapped him on the back and after a few minutes of fussing with coffee grounds and mugs, they were sitting in comfort, sipping their coffee.
“I’m getting kind of used to them hovering around us all the time,” Crimson Hen said.
“Yes, they’re very constant, and not at all pesky,” Mr. Rabbit mused. “They’re kind of like little floating pets.”
“Hmm . . .,” said Crimson Hen. “I don’t think we should start to think of them that way. These are clearly ancient or alien creatures.”
“We don’t even know if they’re alive,” said Mr. Rabbit.
“What makes you think they’re not alive?” asked Crimson Hen.
“Well,” Mr. Rabbit replied. “For one thing, they seem to be mechanically repeating back to us whatever we give them.”
Crimson Hen gave him a blank look.
“In their . . . uh, you know, their blinky kind of way,” Mr. Rabbit hastily added.
“Right . . . I guess I could see that.” Crimson Hen sounded skeptical.
“Well, I guess I could review the video and do an analysis.” Mr. Rabbit began to unpack his video gear.
“Yeah, maybe that would be best today. We’ve got hours of video from yesterday. What can you get done before lunchtime?”
“I’m not sure, but I can have an early report back by lunch.” Mr. Rabbit straightened. Now, with a mission, he was ready to go.
“Make it so, Mr. Rabbit.” Crimson got up. “I’m going to take a walk and see if I can learn anything about this organism or mechanism or whatever it is. Tell the others that we’ll reconvene at lunchtime.”
At lunch all the gang gathered around the camp. The organisms hovered harmlessly nearby.
Crimson Hen spoke: “Friends, Mr. Rabbit has an early report on an analysis of the video we took yesterday. He had a hunch this morning that the organisms might not be alive after all, but might be sophisticated mechanisms. He felt they just repeated back to us whatever input we gave them.”
“Repeated back?” Deloris Squirrel said.
“Right,” said Mr. Rabbit. “In a blinky kind of way.”
“So . . .” Crimson Hen cleared her throat. “What have you found, Mr. Rabbit?”
“I’ve spent a few hours doing an algorithmic analysis of the blinking patterns the mechanisms display upon being spoken to, and I’ve discovered that the blinking patterns are, indeed, simple repetition of the speech patterns we make.”
“Really?!” said Nebraska Rooster with fascination in his voice. “They don’t display any signs of conscious communication?”
“Well . . . “ Mr. Rabbit continued. “It is fascinating that these sophisticated devices can take in our audio input, and repeat back a visual version.”
“Yeah,” said Deloris Squirrel. “And they float.”
“Right!” said Mr. Rabbit. “And they float.”
“Hmm . . .” said Crimson Hen thoughtfully. “I wonder – if they’re not alive, then what are they for?”
“They could be for anything,” said Nebraska Rooster. “Maybe they’re bombs, and they’ll go off if they’re given the right input.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” reprimanded Crimson Hen. “They’re clearly not bombs.”
“Whatever they are, they’re friendly,” said Deloris Squirrel. One of the mechanisms was floating lazily by her head, just out of reach.
“Hey, I’m noticing something,” said Nebraska Rooster. “They seem to keep out of our reach.” He reached out carefully with his wing, and the little mechanism floated gently, but swiftly away.
“Hey, that’s something we haven’t tried.” Crimson got to her feet and walked toward what she thought of as the leader of the group. “We haven’t tried to touch one of them.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Nebraska Rooster was up and walking toward where Crimson Hen was standing. He was, as usual, too late.
“Come here little thingy-wingy. Come to mamma Crimson.” Crimson Hen was reaching out toward the lead mechanism. It was backing away, but Crimson Hen had it locked in a very loose approximation of a stare-down.
“No! Crimson, don’t! We don’t know what -” Nebraska Rooster’s warning came too late, as she reached up with her wing and ever so gently touched the outside edge of the mechanism. When her wing crossed some kind of threshold into the interior of the mechanism, she froze. The mechanism seemed happy to comply.
A warmth coursed through her wing, and then she saw black.
In the clearing at the camp lay the forms of the friends strewn in a circle around what was clearly a detonation site.