Slippy the Wibble’s tentacles joined into a squat steeple above his big prune of a middle. “Hey, Victor. Is it sports?”
“Is what sports?” I pieced together a weedwacker motor on my kitchen table.
“You know—the thing.”
I felt like I should know, but I could only gape.
“The human thing. The human factor. Whatever it is that makes you all so unique among all the species in the universe.”
“Oh, you’re on to that, again.” I looked around the floor for a missing screw. “I really doubt we have anything unique to the entire universe.”
“But we know you do.” Slippy’s middle bulged like an inflating hot air balloon suspended off the ground by the midpoints of four tentacles. “It’s the primary reason I’m on earth and studying you.”
“The Huskers have a football game Saturday. Indiana, I think. I can probably get tickets.” I found the screw and set it in the cluster on the table. “You want to go?”
The lower half of his tentacles collapsed slightly and straightened several times. It looked like excitement, but I’d come to understand it to be closer to nervousness.
“Hey, with Georgetta’s connections, I should be able to get us skyboxes.”
“Let’s go,” said Slippy. His tentacles calmed. “What’s a ‘Husker.’”
“It’s short for Cornhusker.”
“Is this a game of harvest?”
Slippy usually had a pretty comprehensive grip on cultural references, so this puddle of ignorance was endearing.
“No. That’s just the name of the team. They correspond to some noble figure of humanity.” I had to admit, the Cornhusker name suddenly seemed to fall short, but I was fiercely loyal to it. “Nebraska’s team was named after the great Cornhuskers who repelled the Visigoths from sacking Lincoln.”
Slippy’s upper tentacles shivered, and one snapped in my direction. “You made that up.”
“Yeah, I did. ‘Cornhusker’ has strong local significance, but most teams have names corresponding to ferocious and courageous people or animals. We’ve got Tigers, Vikings, Redskins, and Penguins.”
“You ever see a mad penguin?” I asked.
“Then don’t judge.”
Slippy twisted a tentacle. “Ferociousness and courage—these are things everyone must have in some circumstances. Odd names for pride of identity.”
“Well.” I shrugged. “Maybe that’s part of the ‘human factor’ you’re looking for.”
“I don’t think so. It’s all just odd.”
The motor’s internals all together, I fit the housing in place and grabbed the first screw. “You think that’s odd. There’s also the Boilermakers, the Purple Aces, and the Blue Hose.”
“Where did the name ‘Cornhusker’ come from?”
With all the screws in place, I tightened them up. “Some guy didn’t like ‘Bugeaters,’ so he changed it, and it took.”
I shrugged. “I know. Pretty bad, huh?”
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Slippy. “I almost feel like I understand.”
I laughed and attached the fixed motor to the weedwacker frame. “It’s settled then. First I test this baby out. Then I get us some tickets.”
I’d never seen Slippy so obsessed with something. He had Husker outfits custom made to fit him, he filled the house with posters and pennants, and he insisted on taking meals out of a Nebraska helmet.
Georgetta arranged a diplomatic courier jet to fly us to Lincoln. We got invited to several post-game shindigs because of Slippy’s celebrity status, and we settled in the skybox with Matt Damon and Larry the Cable Guy.
The game enthralled the alien. It’s hard to gauge emotion through the little translating device on his arm, but I’m pretty sure he was doing the equivalent of a scream every time there was a good play.
Nebraska won a squeaker, 34 to 31, and for some reason Slippy felt compelled to expel some purple gelatinous goo on the skybox window.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I enjoyed it very much,” Slippy said. “We have the same thing at my home.”
“Really?” I couldn’t picture Wibbles passing footballs to each other. “Like football?”
“Yes. Exactly like football, except we smoosh each other into buckets and toss our opponents over trees.”
“Hm. Sounds the same to me.” I grabbed a tentacle to keep him from taking off—only me and Georgetta can do that without getting covered in putrid green paste. “What about your quest for the ‘human factor?’ Any progress?”
“Maybe… No. I’m still working on it. The contrast between victory and defeat seem to have some hidden insight, but not enough to reveal the object of my quest.”
“Anything else ever give you that feeling?”
“The closest I’ve come is collegiate sports, April Fools pranks, and Hannah Montana fan clubs, but none of them quite get me there.”
I could tell he was turning melancholy. I slapped my knees. “Let’s go get some autographs.”
You know what a smiling tentacle looks like?