The alien food was the best Tim had tasted since the day they’d gotten lost in the universe. That is to say, not quite suitable for dog food. But their bellies were full, and the juice, though it had a weird taste, was palatable.
“What about you, Bradley? Any theories about what we did wrong?” asked Jack.
Tim groaned. Jack was just screwing with Bradley, much like he did whenever they compared possessions. No matter what they talked about, cars, women, disco moves—Bradley always argued for his superiority. He once claimed his mom’s chihuahua could outfight Jack’s sister’s pit bull.
“I’ve thought this through,” said Bradley. “I think we may have abused their property when Tim and Nate tried to pelt each other with those ground slugs.”
“Those were pests,” said Nate. “I’ve seen them pick the buggers up and throw them in those garbage chutes.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Tim. “What if those were baby Meklnucks, and the chutes go to a nursery?”
“Shit,” said Jack. “I knew it. We’re going to be executed for slug abuse.”
“I don’t think so,” said Nate. “They said something about ‘non-validated orations,’ whatever that means.”
The Meklnucks emerged into their tubs. “Humans evaluation proceeds,” said Berrrorree. “Evaluators will assess responsibility and repercussions.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tim. “If we’re going to be tried, we have to have a jury of our peers.”
“Hey, that’s right,” said Nate. “We demand a jury of our peers.”
“What need is for jury of peers?” asked Berrrorree.
“It’s human custom,” said Nate. “It is guaranteed to us whenever a court evaluates us.”
“It would be better without,” said Berrrorree.
“We demand it,” said Tim.
“Good thinking,” said Bradley. “Now they’ll have to abduct the humans and bring them here. That could take forever.”
“Holy crap, he’s right,” said Jack. “Withdraw the demand.”
“But it could give us more time to formulate a defense,” said Nate.
“No. If we miss the stargate alignments, it could put us back years,” said Jack. “I say take our chances now.”
Three Meklnucks oozed through a spontaneously appearing aperture in the fur and positioned themselves along the side wall. They chattered incessantly, and the translator intensified its activity, then erupted with phrases. “Damn the earthlings. May humans be cursed by the high presbyter. Spawn of earth, may kleepworms infest your viscera.”
“Hey!” said Jack.
Berrrorree returned to his tub.
“What are these screwballs doing?” asked Tim.
“Jurors of your peers,” said Berrrorree.
“These aren’t peers,” said Nate.
“Your a genius,” said Tim. “Why aren’t they human?”
“Jurors of your peers.”
“Great,” said Tim. “They won’t be biased.”
“At least we didn’t have to wait,” said Jack. “Let’s get this over with.”
“I’m for that,” said Nate. “What are we being charged with?”
“Threat with non-validated orations,” said Berrrorree.
The three Meklnucks swearing at them reach a frenzy too difficult to hear over, so they waited for it to calm down. “And your ancestors came from microbes feeding on excrement.”
“Explain what the hell that is,” said Tim. “And would you quiet them down?”
“They are here at your request. Non-validated orations are improper words spoken without validator.”
“Are you telling us we have to validate everything we say?” said Nate.
“Correct,” said the Meklnuck.
“No way,” said Tim. “It’s called freedom of speech, pal.”
“It’s also discrimination,” said Nate. “You have to treat us equally.”
“Hold on,” said Tim. “What about our freedoms?”
“Do not understand. Limitations of movement are universal to all things.”
“That’s it,” said Tim. He raised his voice louder as the insults from the jurors increased. “You have no right to limit our freedoms. Our rights are inalienable.”
“We are not so powerful, and we cannot make you gods.”
“What the f—”
Nate grabbed Tim’s shoulder. “Let me try.”
“Great,” said Jack. “Another country heard from.”
“You want to try?” said Nate.
“No.” Jack threw up his hands. “By all means, you try.”
Nate took a breath.
“May your kind rot in Mleklarial intestines,” said a juror. “Be condemned humanity! Damn their feet to the fires of Ashplongia,” said another.
“Would it be too much to ask that the jurors be quiet?” asked Nate. “It’s hard to focus when they do that.”
“You requested the jurors. We advised against. Do you request their removal?”
“No, no,” said Nate. “Better to have them this way than not at all, I suppose.” He pressed his hands together as in prayer. “Your honor, I would like to appeal to this court to grant us equality under the law. If you want human beings to take you seriously as an enlightened species, we have to be equal to you.”
“You want to be Meklnuck? We reject your request,” said Berrrorree. “An attempt to transform you would be lethal.”
“Equal rights, I mean. Equal rights.”
The Meklnucks creaked and groaned without using the translator.
“All rights are right. All wrongs are wrong. We do not grant rights or wrongs.”
Tim scoffed. “I’m telling you, the freedom argument is better.”
“I’ve got it,” said Nate. “Equal permissions. We should have the same permissions as everyone else. Do you understand?”
The Meklnucks stirred and rasped. “That is not possible,” said Berrrorree. “That is not reasonable. All creatures have their own permissions to care for their natural domains. Why do you request to be lord over ours?”
“That’s not what I mean,” sputtered Nate. “Equal rights isn’t about that. Holy crap, how are these jurors going to decide if we’re guilty if they can’t even understand us?”
“Jurors do not decide.”
“Then what are they doing here?” asked Tim.
“They are doing what jurors do,” said Berrroree.
“And what the hell is that?” asked Tim.
“They swear and curse the relations of the evaluated.”
“Something got lost in the translation,” said Nate.
“Can I ask you something, your esteemed alienship?” said Jack. “What is it you want from us here?”
“Our purpose is to instruct you how to deploy validators to prevent existential damage to Meklnucks.”
“Instruct,” said Jack. “Okay, are there any consequences for our failure to do so previously?”
The Meklnucks chattered. “We have determined humans are below the intelligence threshold necessary for culpability.”
“Take a long step out of a short airlock, mushbag,” said Tim.
Nate and Jack both punched him.
“Shut up, jerk,” said Jack.
“He didn’t mean that, your honor,” said Nate.
Tim feinted a punch at him. “To hell with you.” He turned toward the jurors and yelled. “And to hell with you assholes.”
Tim’s feet slipped off the fur as he was pulled back and slammed onto the floor, his mouth covered as he tried to yell. Nate’s and Jack’s snarling faces crowded him.
“Don’t say another frikking word, or I will kill you,” said Jack. “Capiche?”
Tim wanted to stuff Nate into one of the tubs with a Meklnuck, but he couldn’t shake both of them. Jack’s words began to sink in and he relaxed, nodding his head.
They picked him up and he gave Nate a shove, who shoved him back.
“Don’t,” said Jack. He put himself between them. “Your honor, we are ready to be educated.”
After several confusing exchanges, they learned that a validator was simply a liaison Meklnuck who would follow them around and validate—or, more importantly, invalidate—anything they said wrong that could miseducate their traditions and lead to ruination of the species.
“So a validator is a censor, right?” asked Tim.
“Do censors verify language and intent for healthiness of the common good before allowing acceptance?” asked Berrrorree.
“Yeah, pretty much,” said Tim.
“Then validator is censor.”
“Hah!” said Tim, and once again his back hit the ground.
“I saw that coming,” said Bradley.