Nate hopped onto the end of the spaceship’s ramp to get his feet out of the weird, green-gray sand that felt like pudding. By the heaviness of his footfall, he figured the gravity to be about twenty percent greater than earth’s. “What now?”
“We need fuel,” said Jack.
“And possibly repairs,” said Bradley. “I need to look over the ship for damage.”
“What do we know about Coo-coo Porcupine?” asked Tim. Coocoo Porcupine was the nickname they’d settled on for the planet because it was easier to remember than the translator’s approximation of Kukka Mitta Porprinkay.
“Nothing,” said Bradley.
They walked around the ship and saw a cluster of structures in the distance that looked like a pile of pink soap bubbles with windows connected together with bridges and slides. After some discussion, they decided someone should stay with Bradley while the other two went for help at the community.
“I’ll go,” said Tim. “Better than sitting around here.”
“I’ll stay with Bradley,” said Jack.
Tim and Nate looked at each other.
“Please,” said Tim. “Make me clean out the ship’s septic system, waterboard me, put me on a deserted island with the Jonas Brothers. But please, please don’t make me walk a mile with this self-absorbed pansy-ass.” He started walking.
“He doesn’t mean it,” said Jack. “He’s just a little cranky because we’re stranded on a planet with a damaged space ship and no fuel many galaxies away from earth with no idea what aliens we’ll be dealing with or if we can get help at all.” He shrugged. “It’s enough to damper anyone’s day. Plus, he misses his cat.”
“I’m pretty sure he meant it,” said Nate. And started to leave.
“Wait,” said Jack. “You better take the universal translator.”
The ship came with one, a small box with the usual bladders, filaments, orifices, and lights characteristic of multi-species technology, and Nate didn’t really want it. Instead of the usual ‘BAWK’ when something didn’t translate, it made an extremely annoying ‘MWAAP’ sound that buzzed like a blown speaker. He took it from Jack and strapped it to his arm.
Nate trotted to catch up with Tim and fell in beside him, grimacing as his feet sank into the ground.
“This isn’t exactly fun at the carnival for me, either, you know.”
They walked in silence for a while, and Nate wasn’t anxious to invite Tim’s attitude, but he eventually couldn’t help himself.
“You ever think about how everything we perceive might be completely different from reality?” asked Nate.
Tim stopped and turned toward him, grabbing his arm to turn him face-to-face.
“Look, oh pretentious one. As much as I know you’d like to puff up that ego of yours with self-important philosophical pontifications the likes that are legendary in your own mind, I’d rather eat fifty pounds of this sludgy sandy crap we’re walking through than to hear it. In fact, I’d rather stick pins far up my fingernails and knock my teeth out with a pall peen hammer than listen to one grandiloquent word. So please keep your mouth shut, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get back to the ship without suffering a brain seizure that leaves me in a coma before I get a chance to see home again. Whattaya say, huh?” He let go of Nate’s arm and continued walking.
“Come on. I’m dying for some intelligent conversation. I miss reading stuff from home,” said Nate.
“Kill me now,” said Tim.
“I’m serious. I used to read a lot at home. Just before we left I read—did you know that some evolutionary theorists believe we don’t know what reality is at all? We just sense what we need to survive, but nothing is real.” They started to sweat, and the settlement was a long way off. When Tim didn’t respond Nate said, “You notice how we’ve never had a philosophical discussion with aliens? Do they even have the capacity to think with that kind of depth?”
Nate rattled on happily about evolution and fitness and perception, restating the case against reality from a number of angles. Tim punched Nate in the face, and with Nate’s feet stuck in the pudding sand, Nate twisted and fell to the ground.
“What the hell?” yelled Nate.
Tim leaned over him. “What is it, Mr. Pretentious? You can’t get mad—it wasn’t real.”
Nate scrambled up, brushing off the sand. “Oh, yeah? Well, neither is this.” Nate tackled him, bringing them both to the ground. He punched at Tim’s middle while Tim punched at his head. They pushed off and took to their feet, closing again to grapple and punch. Tim almost got him in a headlock, but Nate squirmed free. They scrapped for about ten minutes until they both separated and lay on the gritty mush exhausted.
“You know what pisses me off the most, you pretentious turd?”
With full-throated sarcasm, Nate said, “No, Tim. I don’t. Please tell me. I really want to know.”
“You and these so-called scientists have the audacity to believe these ideas are new and groundbreaking. And you think the new thinkers are sooo much smarter than the old, as if in ten thousand years of human civilization, not a man has considered the nature of perception versus the nature of reality, and they just weren’t edumucated enough to examine the implications. And then, like an idiot, you deny reality, as if you’d come to some profound conclusion, and the next thing we know, you’re going to force us to live with the consequences of your bullshit.”
Tim picked himself off the ground and pulled Nate to his feet. Eyeball to eyeball, he said, “And you know what else? You don’t have a damn clue what the aliens think.”
Tim turned and started walking. Nate followed behind and eventually caught up to walk next to him.
“Your secret’s safe with me,” said Nate.
“You like philosophy. You don’t argue with that kind of passion if you don’t.”
“Oh, boy.” Tim spat. “You got me. Do you see me making a pretentious ass out of myself with it?”
They were almost to the bubble city. Some squat portals faded and darkened as some flat, low-to-the-ground creatures came out. They had centipede-like legs around their bases and radial ridges on top. As they turned, varied orifices and protrusions lined their sides. The aliens assembled into a line as they approached.
“What’s gotten into you now, Nancy?”
“My dad has a saying. ‘If you want to call someone pretentious, you should choose a less pretentious word than pretentious.’”