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The Burr

Jennifer Linnaea's fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. When not writing, she studies Aikido and Japanese and enjoys the beauty of her adopted state of Oregon. For more about her and her work, see her website at jenniferlinnaea.com.
The alien's heartbeat thuds staccato, its breathing ragged as I step to the edge of the Plaza and survey the assembled throng. Before us they whirl and meet; their fighting arms or the intricately waving spikes of their tails entwine, then slide aside, deftly, every interlocking movement in harmony with all the others'. I draw the alien, this human, close against me and it sags there as if it wants to fall, its eyes locked on the spectacle.
"Now we cross," I say, and step into the fray.
Ten thousand dancers, our best, and they fill the Plaza wall to quay. I clutch the human's clothes at the back of its neck and sweep it aside as pincers meet where its head had been. The first disruption. My own breath flutters along my airways. I am frightened, too, though I will not show it. Scared because in this dance I am the Burr; the windblown shard that disrupts the machinery and casts everything into chaos.
There is always a burr in the dance, because there is always a burr in life. Each birth--of ideas, technologies, people--disrupts the intricate cadence of what has evolved before.
A dancer crashes into my carapace and I stagger, dragging the alien, whose name is Danu, with me. Danu uses its two thick, soft legs to regain its balance, but otherwise lets me direct it. It understands our role here today. The two of us are no symbolic disruption; this is the end of its race's first visit to our world, and across the plaza stands the spaceport. When we reach it the alien will depart, and return home with our entourage. As I returned home from its world in my time.
To watch humans dancing is like watching madness given form. We are not like that. We are intricate and delicate and precise. We shock humanity with the complexity of our contingencies.
The chaos we two are wreaking is working its way across the field. Injuries, collisions, confusion spiral outward from our path. I hear chitterings of pain and a truncated cry. I cannot see the human's face but its muscles have become taut, making it harder for me to manipulate it. I shove it forward and sweep two dancers aside with my tails to prevent their ritual movements from impaling us. I push forward in a straight line and try to remain impervious. What does it mean that we have discovered another world with another people? What does it mean that they are this different from us, but not so different that we cannot imagine someday building a ropeway between us? The ugliness here on the plaza, of a pattern disrupted, with dancers harming dancers, with confusion and pain, is the microcosm of what this meeting has done to my people. It hurts to watch, and it hurts even more to be part of the suffering. Yet I have seen many dances and always before, by the end, a new pattern has been found. At first that pattern looks ragged, like something vital had been ripped out of it. But slowly, as the dancers explore their new space, something strange and beautiful is formed. Something that none of us recognize but with which we will become familiar in time.
I come out of something very like a battle trance and realize we have almost arrived. One of my legs won't bear weight, and I am bleeding, but the human appears unharmed. Its thick clothes protect it from minor injury, and I have kept it from being pierced or having parts pincered off.
We pass through a door at the edge of the plaza and as it spirals shut behind us the low roar of my people's movements is silenced. Two attendants meet me and take the human from me. They will help it to the ship, and away.
As they leave it looks back at me.
Its eyes are very wide, and the skin of its forehead creased as if in pain, but it lifts one arm in a gesture of farewell, and I return the motion. Danu has been my companion, and I will miss it. I hope it knows.
As the Burr, I have certain honor. I am led to a high balcony above the plaza. From here I can see the dance, now a diminished field of dancers weaving slowly among the wounded, seeking to establish a new order before all of them fall.
Before all of us fall. We are a careful, meticulous people, and we have always understood that we cannot escape this meeting unscathed. On the human's world I was met not with a dance but a mob that attempted to erase my very idea from existence. I understand that kind of terror. One day a change will come whose disruption we cannot recover from; and so I watch, anxiously, hoping this is not that day.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 6th, 2018


This story was born from pondering how new ideas and technology impact our lives. From the printing press to democracy to birth control to smart phones, the ramifications ripple out and leave us changed. And these changes, while most of us consider them positive, also come with pain and death.

Unlike these aliens, humans can't tell in advance how society will look after a new idea runs its course.

- Jennifer Linnaea
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