“Follow the Bongomaster.” Jack used his dopey voice. He fell in line behind an alien that looked like an upside down oak tree, the leafy part more like fur, an elephant trunk coming out the tree’s bole, and dowel shaped legs coming out of the inverted crown. Fleshy pink blobs grew from the ‘roots’ that pointed straight upward. They went through a round conduit that felt like walking on a mattress.
The guys went along. According to the guide, they had to get permission to travel through their quadrant of the galaxy.
“Look,” said Nate. “If we’re going to see the emperor, we should at least pronounce their species right.”
Jack rolled his eyes. Nate was in one of his self-important, smarty-pants moods, which is to say—he was awake.
“What difference does it make?” said Tim. “It’s just going to get garbled through the translator anyway.”
“The translator says ‘Pangamasht’ so that’s what we should say back to it,” said Nate.
Tim scoffed. “The translator says Panga-bawk-bawk-masht-bawk, which means the full name’s not getting through.”
“We should at least make an effort,” said Nate.
“Perhaps we should repeat it back with the ‘bawks’ included,” said Bradley. “Either that or hand signals.”
Jack held up a hand. “Forget it, Bradley.”
The alien led them through a round portal into a spongy room without any corners or angles and with a number of holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling. Directly opposite the portal were three bongomasters, each settled into one of the holes. Four holes formed a few yards from the three, and a fifth off to the side where the guide settled in.
“Please BAWK slot and BAWK greet emperor,” said the guide. The pulsating translator he used was compact compared to the others they’d seen.
Jack climbed into the first hole, his feet sinking a few inches into the bottom like oatmeal. Bradley took the far one, and Tim hopped into the one next to him. Nate hesitated.
“Get in,” Tim said in a harsh whisper.
“I don’t like—”
“Nate.” Jack, who was already getting cranky about the situation, took on his Mr. Rogers voice. “Don’t you think we should get in the holes according to bongomaster protocol?”
“Definitely advisable,” said Bradley.
Nate let out a heavy breath and gingerly crawled in.
Tim snorted. “Well done, Nancy.”
“BAWK greet emperor,” said the guide.
Jack lifted a hand in greeting. “On behalf of us four, I greet you, emperor of the Bongomasters. We’re here to request—”
“Greet BAWK,” said the guide.
The emperor waved his proboscis and the translator crackled. “To BAWK through BAWK BAWK quadrant, must BAWK worth.”
After some back and forth, they determined he wanted them to prove they’re worthiness or value. Jack wanted to tell him to prove his own worth first, but he buried his tongue under his lower lip and kept quiet.
Nate smacked his lips. “Well, to start—”
“BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK.” The emperor pointed his proboscis toward Bradley.
“Oh,” said Bradley. “I have tons of experience. I was the ambassador to Bolivia, and I’m highly trained in haiku martial arts.”
A slurp sounded, and Bradley disappeared down his hole.
“What the hell!” yelled Tim.
Jack tried to pull himself out of his hole, but his feet firmly stuck in the bottom.
“What’s the meaning of this?” barked Nate.
“BAWK BAWK silent BAWK,” said the guide.
Tim scowled. Nate pouted. Jack fumed.
The emperor pointed his proboscis toward Nate.
Tim spat. “Give him your worst.”
“I look for meaning in everything,” said Nate. “I like to express myself in art or dance or—”
“No shit?” said Tim. “Dance?”
“Shut up,” said Nate. “I’ve tried my hand at acting, but I’m really into philosophy. Let me sing for you. Have you heard the earth song, ‘Top of the World?’” He started to sing and disappeared down the hole.
“Shit,” said Tim. The proboscis now pointed to him. His voice dripping with defiance, he said, “You need anything blown up?” Slurp and gone.
Jack stared down the emperor’s proboscis and yelled. “What the hell is your problem, and what have you done with my friends?” He found himself imitating Clint Eastwood. “You think you can judge us with this one moment observing us? You must be the most uptight alien I’ve met in the entire universe, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it. Why don’t you loosen up, enjoy life, and leave us the hell alone? All we want to do is get home to the people we love and get out of your hair. What the hell do you have against that?”
“BAWK permission granted,” said the emperor.
“Really?” Jack ran his hand through his hair. “For that? Why?”
“BAWK BAWK BAWK many voices,” he said. “Emperor likes BAWK.”
“Huh,” said Jack. “Well, I’ve got a million of them.”
The guide handed him a cube with intricate designs printed on it. “Permit.”
The hole swallowed him, and he slid through a tight fleshy tube for nearly a minute, then came out the other end and bounced on a spongy surface.
“There he is,” said Tim. “What took so long?” The others sat in an alcove the Bongomasters used for transport stations.
Jack held up the cube. “Success, I guess.”