Nate thought Jack was doing surprisingly well communicating with the alien. The strategy of twirling the pig-tail nose for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reminded him of human stories where patients couldn’t move or speak, but could blink their eyes.
Jack had eliminated a lot of possible problems, but couldn’t seem to pin down why the alien couldn’t talk.
“He’s not sick. He said ‘no’ to a broken translator. He’s not paralyzed.”
“This is harder than the month I spent with Koko the gorilla,” said Bradley.
Jack laughed through his teeth. “You know what? I’m choosing to believe that one.”
Bradley’s grin dominated his face with big buck teeth, and magnified eyes peered through his coke-bottle glasses.
They tried a dozen other things and couldn’t get any closer.
“Hey, dudes.” Tim floated in with a handful of powdery black and orange clumps. “You should try these. They taste like skunk and sauerkraut, and I can’t stop eating them. Best thing I’ve had in months.” He dropped a couple in Bradley’s outstretched hand.
When they didn’t react to him, he said, “Hey, why don’t you see if he’s hungry.”
Bradley sniffed one of the clumps and popped it in his mouth. He frowned and his eyes watered, but he kept chewing.
“Are you hungry?” asked Jack.
The alien twirled with vigor and stopped.
“Well, here.” Tim guided himself along the poles one-handed and stopped in front of the thing. “He can have some of these.” He held them out, but the alien didn’t move.
“Wait a minute,” said Nate. “Something’s weird here.”
“Only something?” said Jack.
“No, really. Where’s his mouth?” Nate peeked underneath the head with the pig-tail nose, but there was nothing but shiny, bright pink skin. “Alien, is your mouth on your head?”
Twirl and stop.
“Is it visible?” asked Jack.
The tail twitched, but didn’t twirl.
“Is it close to your spiraled nose?”
It seemed to sag again, like it did when they first started, then twirled one way and the other.
“I don’t see it,” said Jack.
“Dudes.” Tim chewed lightly on one of the clumps, orange goo dripping down his stubble. “What if you’re talking to his ass?”
“Only you would think of something like that,” said Nate.
Tim laughed. “I’m serious. What if this isn’t his head at all?”
The alien shook fiercely as the pig-tail nose twirled and stopped.
“Oh, shit.” Jack’s jaw dropped in a half-mortified smile.
Nate pulled himself around and the others followed. “Then where’s his bloody head?”
On the other side—the one they thought was the back—the pinchers grew out from where the giant, hairy cones separated, and below them was a big, silvery protrusion that Nate thought looked vaguely like a turnip, but with the sheen on it’s surface it was more like a wasp stinger.
“I don’t see it,” said Tim.
Nate shook his head. “Narrow it down, Jack. Yes-no.”
“Bradley,” said Tim. “Watch his ass and tell us how he answers.”
Bradley swung himself around and watched.
“Is your head underneath your body?” asked Jack.
The alien twirled one way then the other.
“Maybe those aren’t pinchers,” said Nate. “Maybe it’s a mouth.”
“Alien,” Jack pulled himself up and peered into the pinchers. “Is this claw-shaped thing on top your head?”
The pig tail spun one way then the other.
“No?” said Jack. “Is it this big blob that comes to a point in the back?”
The pig tail twitched a few times, but didn’t spin.
“He’s not answering,” said Nate.
“Why won’t he answer?” asked Jack. He asked the question again, but the tail just twitched.
“The answer must be neither ‘yes,’ nor ‘no,’” said Bradley.
“Huh.” Nate considered what Bradley said. “If he doesn’t want to say ‘no,’ then it must be his head, but if he doesn’t want to say ‘yes,’ that means it’s his head, but he doesn’t want us to stop with that conclusion.”
“His nose just twirled a ‘yes,’” said Bradley.
“Pretty sure it’s a tail now, pal,” said Tim. He wiped orange and black smear off his mouth with his sleave.
Nate scrunched his face and shook his head. “Is your head covered with something?”
“Yeppers,” said Bradley.
“Holy shit,” said Jack. “Is your head stuck inside of this thing?”
Jack stared with his mouth open. “Well… do you want us to take it off?”
“You’re having a lot of fun over there, Bradley,” said Tim.
The alien trembled and squirmed, and for the first time its pinchers snapped.
Tim and Jack ducked underneath the cone on one side and poked around.
“See, right here,” said Tim.
“Yep,” said Jack.
Nate bent over and observed Tim running his fingers along a rib that could easily pass for an anatomical segmentation border.
“Hey, can you feel that?” asked Tim.
“He says ‘yes.’”
“We’re going to pull this thing off you at this point, is that right?”
“All right,” said Jack.
Jack and Tim pulled and struggled with the edge. The alien trembled more.
“You all right?” asked Tim.
“Aye,” said Bradley.
Nate ran his hand up the top of the thing and had to dig through the hair to find the lip. He braced himself against a cone and started tugging, but it was on tight.
“Are you getting any movement at all?” asked Nate.
“No,” said Jack. “Let’s pull her all at once.”
“Right,” said Nate. “Bradley, get up here and help.”
They took their positions.
“Ready?” asked Jack.
They all pulled, grunting and gasping.
“Don’t stop,” said Tim. “I think it’s moving.”
Nate felt a tiny bit of slippage and repositioned his foot on the cone to pull even harder. The thing released, his leg snapped straight, and he went flying across the bridge, bouncing off a bar and colliding with the wall. The turnip shape—now hollow with an open end—bounced next to him and floated off to the side.
Tim held his belly and laughed, then stopped when he looked at the alien.
The section that had been covered by the silver turnip, had another set of arms flailing about, a horse shaped head with a segmented eye, like a fly’s, at the top and a mouth like the end of a toilet plunger at the bottom. Colors flashed from the eye and coiled filaments snapped outward from the segments like those party horns that curled and uncurled when you blew them. The round part with his curly tail receded into his body until it was no longer visible.
The alien grabbed the tethers with his free arms and oriented his eye toward the translator. He adjusted a lever, then his eye burst with color and the filaments fluttered over one of the translator’s membranes.
“BAWK gratefulness fills BAWK.”
“Yay!” Tim punched his fist in the air.
“Stuck BAWK in artifact for BAWK BAWK.”
“A long time, anyway,” said Jack. “How’d you get stuck in that thing?”
The alien hesitated. “Cleaning BAWK.”
“You gonna be all right now?” asked Tim.
“BAWK ashamed to BAWK from private BAWK.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” said Tim. “He grabbed Nate’s shoulder and held his hand up to present Nate’s face. “I talk to Nate’s ass all the time.”