The planet Piplpklplp—the boys called it Paperclip for simplicity—was nothing but frustration. They were stuck trying to operate a machine to do something they didn’t understand with instructions they didn’t know for a purpose they had no clue about because the Paperclipians insisted it was imperative before accessing the planet’s travel authority.
“We’re waiting,” said Bradley.
Tim stood on a barrel shaped plant of some kind, dripping with sap, so he could reach the machine’s controls. “You’ll be waiting for a fat lip in a minute. If you think you can do better, you do it.” He regretted the moment the words came out. Nate scowled at him and Jack scoffed and shook his head.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Jack.
“About time,” said Bradley. He grinned stupidly, his coke-bottle glasses making his eyes look twice as big as they were. “This can’t be any harder than the nuclear bomb I defused in Halifax.” He stepped up to the alien machine, a mass of rods sliding back and forth through an intricate network of rings, a lattice of twisty controls along the top. “What do we know about this thing, so far?”
“About as much as we did when we first saw it,” said Jack. “Jack and squat.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re doing any more than the rest of us,” said Tim. “So just don’t do something stupid and get us locked up or something.”
“C’mon, guys,” said Nate. “Take it seriously. Every time we try to go into the travel authority, they bar us for doing something wrong setting this machine.”
“That’s right,” said Bradley. “We don’t know why this thing is critical because the translators bawk it out. Any speculations?”
“Well, if we can’t get in without it, maybe it’s some kind of credentialing device,” said Nate.
“Good thinking, Nate,” said Bradley. “But I think it is something far more alien than that—maybe it’s a speciation device, and it doesn’t understand our DNA.” He pinched his lower lip. “Maybe it’s a test of higher intelligence.”
“Were doomed,” said Jack.
“Great,” said Tim. “You just made two wild-assed guesses. You’re a genius. But it doesn’t help us work the damn thing at all, does it?”
“Let me on the stump, and I’ll give it a try,” said Bradley.
“To hell with that. You’re just as lost as the rest of us.”
“You told him to try,” said Nate.
“Psh-shit,” said Tim. He stepped off the barrel-like plant. “We’re all going to die.”
Bradley hopped up and started tinkering with the twisties causing the machine to lurch and sway.
“Careful!” said Tim.
“I know exactly what I’m doing,” said Bradley.
“Really?” said Tim. “So you’ve destroyed all hope of getting home before, eh?”
“Give him a chance,” said Nate.
“Whatever,” said Tim.
The machine slowed to a stop and a fleshy fettuccine-shaped thing slurped out from a slot and dropped to the ground. Bradley grabbed it and held it up in triumph. “Hah. This looks promising. Let’s try it out.” He handed it to Tim. “You can do the honors. I’m going to examine and document more details about this contraption.”
Tim sniffed the noodle and wrinkled his nose. “Jack, you wanna come along?”
They approached the reception sentry, or whatever it was, a tall tree-like alien with spongy spikes instead of bark, and offered him the noodle. “Can we go in to arrange travel, please?”
The translator next to it reverberated like a sick earth car trying to start. The alien reached out a branch and gobbled the noodle into a vertical orifice, but still wouldn’t let them through.
“Damn it,” said Tim. “Can’t you just work the stupid machine for us so we can get in?”
The translator warbled and creaked. “I cannot make BAAAWK give you entrance. Method makes inadmissible.”
“Method makes Jack crazy,” said Jack. “We’ve been working on this all day.”
“What about the method causes it to be inadmissable?” asked Tim.
“BAAWK fails access.”
“Shit,” said Tim. “We’re missing details.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned forward. “What exactly causes the failure.”
“Your translator failed,” said Tim. “You have an alternate word?”
The alien burbled and choked, then said, “Schmutz.”
“What?” said Jack. “You mean, like dirt?”
“No. Plant residue.”
“Holy shit,” said Tim. “You mean it’s not the machine keeping us out all this time, it’s that stupid stump we’re standing on?”
“Then why exactly do we need this machine for access?” asked Jack.
“BAAWK unnecessary for access,” said the alien.
“Wait, what?” asked Jack. “If we don’t need it for access, why is it so important?”
“Imperative for Piplpklplp denizens to BAAWK in travel.”
“For you—but not for us?” asked Jim.
“Not for you,” said the alien.
“Unbelievable,” said Tim. “We’ve been spinning our wheels for nothing this whole time.”
On the way back to Bradley and Nate, they procured a cleaning swab, which was basically a sponge on a string. As they approached, Bradley stood on the stump and waved his hands as if conducting an orchestra and Nate was practicing the moon walk and robot dancing.
“Do we really have to bring them along with us?” asked Tim.
“I’m afraid so,” said Jack.
“Come on down,” Tim said to Bradley. Bradley hopped down and Tim had him clean his shoes while Jack rolled the plant away.
“How do we get in, then?” asked Nate.
“Well,” said Tim. “Bradley’s the expert on this thing. I’ll let him sit on my shoulders to make one more adjustment. I have a good feeling about it this time.”