The four dudes gathered around Borgo, a Colvakeetian—Jack called them ‘Kevlar Kittens.’ There were about twenty of them crowded close behind him. The aliens looked like big balls of pulsating muscle, as if one of those rubber band balls came alive and sprouted arms and hands that looked like venus flytraps. A flap of skin about the size of a frisbee and covered with eyes flopped out of a slot-like orifice, occasionally receding and flopping out again.
The Boolites who helped the dudes plan their journey back to earth had warned them about this encounter. In order to use the Kevlar Kittens’ fastest ships for their next leg, they would have to beat their leader in some game that was translated as KerBAWKerBAWK. Otherwise, they’d have to shuttle to the next planet for a much slower and circuitous route.
The game was played by placing clear pentagonal, hexagonal, and heptagonal containers on a table. They were a couple inches tall and open at the top. Inside the containers squirmed some kind of worm—red worms, blue worms, spiked worms, fat worms, ridged worms, and more. The dudes had no clue how each kind functioned. A player could open slots in the sides for the worms to go through, but only if that side was attached to another container, thus letting the worm pass from one container to another. Little by little, both players would build a maze of containers with their worms released in different part of it, wandering around and killing each other. Last worm squirming wins.
The good news was that each of them would get a turn, and only one had to win to get the prize.
“You know what would improve this game?” Tim didn’t wait for an answer. “Firecrackers. Maybe an M-80.”
“I’ll go first.” Jack sat on a microbial self-contoured seat across from Borgo—can’t much improve on that name. “You guys are better gamers, and maybe you’ll learn something from watching me.”
“Good idea.” Nate nodded his head.
“I think I played this at one of John McAfee’s parties,” said Bradley. “Except the worms were in tequila, and the jars were ashtrays.”
Borgo pieced together an empty container with one of his fat, ridged, red worms, and opened the slot between them. The worm squirmed through, then squeezed back again.
“Hnh.” Jack picked up a nasty looking yellow one with spikes that oozed some brownish red goo, and he attached it to Borgo’s red one. The Kevlar Kitties all made a wheezing sound. Jack opened the slot between them.
“BAWK.” The translator missed almost one hundred percent of the words, so they could hardly communicate at all.
The yellow one pushed through the slot and attacked the red one, opening a toothed mouth and clamped into the fat body and wrenching around. The pathetic blob of red opened a tiny mouth and just managed to get it over the point of one of the yellow spikes. The yellow one disappeared in a blink, sucked into the fat one through the tiny mouth.
“Awesome!” said Tim. “That dude rocks!”
“I just lost my meanest looking worm,” said Jack.
“Yeah, but it was awesome,” said Tim.
“Hmm,” said Nate.
“We need to learn how each of these match up,” said Bradley.
“Okay.” After Borgo attached another blank, Jack took another spiky yellow and matched him up with a sharp-nosed blue one. The blue one attacked, spearing the yellow, but the yellow bit the blue nose right off, then chomped him to bits.
“Vicious,” said Tim. “Try the blue against the red blob.”
Borgo added a container with five greens that flung themselves against the glass making sharp pings. He kept them isolated from the rest of the pathways to his red worm.
Jack hooked up a blue pointy head against the red blob. It pierced the red blob, which sank into a lumpy pancake shape. The blue one then hunted through the empties Borgo had attached.
“It’s the rock-paper-scissors of worms,” said Bradley.
Jack kept setting up direct attacks as Borgo continued building his maze and positioning his worms, adding Jack’s containers if they were neglected too long. When none were left to connect, he released several gates at once letting the worms go through and devastate all of Jack’s. Once Jacks were demolished, they worms fought amongst themselves, but the game was already won. Jack got up and stepped back.
“Bradley,” said Nate.
Bradley happily sat in front of the table with a stupid grin on his face. The Kevlar Kittens replenished the pieces and the worms.
Bradley attempted to build before attacking, setting up an interesting combination of spaces, paths, and worms. He surprised Borgo by attaching his structure to the alien’s first. The built it out a little more, then opened the designated slots.
The worms attacked in all directions. Direct assaults, ambushes, and traps, they killed each other off until two were left, a quick and snappy purplish one with clawed antennas for Bradley, and an orange peanut shape for Borgo. The peanut chased the purplish one through every section of the maze and back again. The purple snapper finally petered out, the peanut caught it and split itself in half to then close upon the purple guy.
The others groaned.
Tim patted Bradley on the back. “So close, buddy. So close.”
Nate put himself in the chair and awaited the replacements. Borgo attached his maze to Nate’s before either had made progress, and the final battle was a bloodbath. Nearly all of Borgo’s survived after Nate’s final worm was eaten.
Nate stared at the slaughter, clearly disappointed. Jack shook his head. When you think you’re the smartest man in the room, defeat is all the more bitter.
“It’s up to Tim,” said Jack.
Nate vacated the seat, and Tim took it. Tim laced his fingers together, turned palms outward, and pushed, cracking his knuckles.
After Borgo made his first move, Tim grabbed each container holding one of Borgo’s worms and up-ended it into his mouth in rapid succession until all of the worms were gone. Tim started chewing the battle raging in his cheeks until they were fleshy goo and swallowed.
The aliens stayed quiet as cadavers.
“I win,” said Tim.
The aliens erupted in moans and gibbers. The translator sprung to life. “BAWK BAWK BAWK-BAWK BAWK BAWK.” Zero percent translated.
Jack grimaced. “It sounds like there may be some dispute on that.”
Tim picked a worm chunk from between his teeth with his pinky nail. “Mmm. Tastes like chicken.”
The next day they were on one of the fast ships to cross the galaxy.