The strangest thing about the Nitriliis, Jack found, was how radically their body changed between life and death. What had looked like splintery branches on the dead form were swirling green tendrils covered with fleshy polyps on the alive one, four appendages maneuvering the fifth with the orange blob, swinging it around in smooth, hypnotic motion. Although the meeting chamber was gaseous, its movements made Jack feel like he was under water, and his mind played tricks on him, sending him into a panic every few minutes.
A disk about a yard in diameter and a foot thick rotated on the ground, a few bladders on it inflating and deflating, circuit boards with blinking lights, orifices squeaking, whistling, and humming. It appeared to be a primitive form of the translators they’d seen before.
A sound like an old rusty door opening came from the alien, and the translator hummed and buzzed.
“BAWK BAWK BAWK greet BAWK BAWK,” it said.
“Great,” said Tim. “One out of six translated. Might as well talk to an ape.”
“BAWK BAWK ape BAWK what?”
“Nevermind,” said Jack. “We’re from earth. We have one of your… um…”
“Brainless slugs,” said Tim.
“BAWK BAWK slug BAWK what?”
“He goes by the name Feepin,” said Nate.
The rusty groaning increased and the tentacles slashed and corkscrewed, almost violently.
“Feepin BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK.” The alien expanded its thickness and made itself taller.
“Exactly,” said Jack. “His host died, but we came to return Feepin to you.”
“BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK.”
Jack looked at Tim and Nate. They both shrugged.
“I got it,” said Bradley. He held his hands in front of his chest.
Tim put his left hand flat upon Bradley’s and clenched his other into a fist. “If you do the Close Encounters hand signals again, so help me, I’ll knock you to the next galaxy.”
Bradley dropped his hands.
Jack stepped toward the Nitrilii, his legs trembling. “Look, Mr. Alien sir. We’re just looking for another host to give him to. You want him?”
As horrible as the translator was, they went back and forth, trying to convey just a little more meaning each time, until finally the alien stopped. It wound its legs up and shrunk itself down into a ball, the orange blob on the one appendage oozing around until it was entirely covered by it.
“Was it something I said?” asked Jack.
“Is it dead?” asked Nate.
“How’d my mom’s quiche get here?” said Bradley.
“Way to go, Jack,” said Tim. “The first alien ever to be talked into suicide by an earthling.”
The alien grew slightly, then a tentacle poked through the orange mass, and the orange ooze withdrew and coalesced back into a blob on an appendage. Underneath it sat a miniature Nitrilii—a baby. The arms of the baby Nitrilii were thicker in proportion, and they looked more like yucca leaves than starfish tentacles, but the orange blob was just the same, except it opened to form a bowl shape and closed back again.
“Here we go,” said Tim. He spit the worm in his hand, and without further instruction, slipped under the huge Nitrillii and dropped it into the infant’s bowl as it opened. The flesh inside absorbed the slug, and the bowl slowly closed into the blob.
“I guess that’s that,” said Tim.
They’d stood and stared for a few minutes when the translator burst into action. After many exchanges, they determined that the grown Nitrilii wanted a few words to describe their time with the symbiont so he could share it with him when he grew up.
“He was very caring,” said Jack.
“He was completely out of his mind,” said Bradley. “Bonkers.”
“I don’t know,” said Nate. “I was too freaked out to get to know him well. He’s tenacious, though. Stuck it out while in a lot of discomfort.”
“He was a real hoot for me,” said Tim. “But he won’t remember anything, will he?”
“BAWK won’t remember. But BAWK BAWK knows in BAWK.”
“Not quite sure what that means,” said Jack. “But it’s sure nice somebody finally made it home.”