“These guys want to help,” said Nate. He tried to sound confident because Jack was in a panic.
‘These guys’ were aliens that looked like tipped over Erlenmeyer flasks, see-through and all. They had a line of sharp looking teeth, each about a foot long, hanging off the back. They might have had many features, but they were so transparent the dudes could barely see their outline. The aliens had invited them through an entryway that worked more like a sphincter, you had to push your way through, and for some reason, maybe flask etiquette, the aliens wouldn’t go ahead of them.
“How do you know?” Jack eyed the aliens warily. “For all you know, they’re leading us into a gas chamber.”
“I’m picking it up from the translator thingy.”
The translator was a blob that looked like putty with colors shooting over its surface, thin hair shooting out everywhere, puffing bladders, a number of slits that burbled and popped, some bizarre looking circuitry, and a blue sea slug crawling all around it. It ejected and retracted rods to hop and tumble after them. Every time they said something it erupted into action, and it spoke to them for the aliens.
Of course, ‘spoke’ was a stretch. It mostly bawked at them, with a few English words thrown in.
Tim scoffed. “How the hell are you picking up anything from that gobble-dee-gook? We understood more from those egg aliens at the depot.”
“Right,” said Nate. “And every alien race we’ve come across has been nothing but helpful. Why would they help us and then send us into danger?”
“A trader always takes care of his merchandise,” said Jack.
Bradley giggled. “Like the time Mrs. Bush sold me at the Bachelor Auction for Homeless Churros Addicts.”
Tim spat. “Are you sure that wasn’t the Dimwit Auction for Stuttering Husbands?”
“I don’t know, but Carrot Top was the only one to get a higher bid than me.”
“Right,” said Tim.
“He was at the height of his career,” said Bradley.
“Knock it off,” said Jack. “Do you really think a creature with teeth that big isn’t interested in eating us?”
Nate put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m not getting that from their tone.”
Nate gritted his teeth. “You got any better ideas, Tim?”
“Yeah.” He stepped into Nate’s face, but Nate held his ground. “I got about a pound of—”
“Knock it off,” said Jack. He leaned on Bradley, who stared blankly, his perpetual stupid smile reminding Nate how much of a liability he would be for them.
“Let me just peak in,” said Nate. “If it looks hinky, I’ll wave you off.”
“How can anything here not look…” Jack exhaled sharply. “Fine. Go ahead. It was nice knowing you.”
Nate pushed through the membrane, it was mercifully dry. Keeping one foot outside, he pushed forward until his head popped through into a brightly lit chamber that sparkled everywhere. After his eyes adjusted he discerned the outlines of dozens of the flask-aliens hanging around as if a chemist just dumped them there.
In the center of the room was a magnificent machine with colors and electricity zipping all over uncountable gadgets, some looking like circuitry, others like biological organs, all tightly interwoven in a way that fed into a quivering, shimmering cloud that displayed some kind of pattern.
Nate pulled himself out.
A look passed between Jack and Tim.
Tim shook his head. “Too easy.”
“It’s fine,” said Nate. “A bunch of them are in there. And some big machine.”
Jack set his jaw and nodded. “All right. Here we go.”
He pushed through first and Nate followed, Bradley and Tim behind him, then the translator popped through.
“Hello,” said Nate to no alien in particular.
“BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK Greets BAWK BAWK BAWK,” said the translator.
Nate supposed the missed words personalized the greeting with specifics that couldn’t translate.
“For what purpose are we here?” asked Nate.
“BAWK BAWK Navigation BAWK BAWK BAWK.”
“I got that one,” said Tim. “Chickens navigating chickens.”
“Shut up,” said Nate.
Jack grabbed Tim’s shoulder, stopping his lunge. “Not now, Tim.”
“What are you navigating?” asked Nate.
One of the aliens touched something on the machine and all of its gadgets went into action and emitted every kind of burp, squeak, and zap that was possible for the human ear to hear. They watched the machine and engaged in a long, bawk-filled, back-and-forth with the aliens, working out the meaning they were trying to convey one or two words at a time. It took three days before it dawned on Nate what they were doing.
“They’re charting a course home for us! Multiple courses.” Nate jumped up and down and squeezed Jack around the shoulders. “We’re going home! We’re going home!”
Over the course of a few weeks, they learned about stargate alignments, spaceflight, nebula worms, and excretory protocols. Nate studied them very hard because they had nothing human-friendly to record the information and he figured he was the best suited for all the technical aspects of it.
“Wait a minute.” Jack interrupted a session. “Just how far are we from earth?”
The alien running the machine cleared the cloud and a few hundred dots appeared.
“BAWK BAWK this place…” The alien made a dot in the lower right side of the cloud zap and flash. “BAWK home BAWK BAWK.” Another dot in the upper left corner zapped and flashed.
“That doesn’t look so bad.” Tim gazed up at the display, jaw hanging open.
“Which one of these planets has the depot we started from?” asked Jack.
“BAWK not planets.”
“Whattaya mean?” asked Tim. “What are they?”
Nate’s scalp went cold and he grew faint. He knew the answer before the flask said it.
“BAWK galaxies in BAWK.”
Nate gasped and thought he heard a moan. “I’ll never remember all this.”
“I got it.” Bradley pointed to his mouth. “It’s all up here.”
“How long is this trip going to take?” asked Nate.
Nate went back and forth with them to approximate earth time.
“Three years and seventeen days,” said the alien.
Nate heard three moans and realized one was his own.
“Why can’t we go back the way we came?” asked Jack.
“BAWK one-in-million alignment BAWK.”
Bradley chuckled. “This reminds me of the year I raced the Iditarod on my Flexible Flyer sled.”
Nate, Tim, and Jack yelled. “Shut up!”