Invasion Of The Fire Hydrants
“Nathaniel! Stay on the couch-unit!” Daddy’s couch-unit polyp-head bellows to the left.
“I was,” Nathaniel says.
“We’re just reminding you,” Mama’s couch-unit polyp-head says on the right.
Nathaniel and Haticat had not been getting along well with The Mama-And-Daddy lately. Now they were confined to remaining in sight of them at all times. Nathaniel grunts in displeasure. “What was that?” Daddy asks sternly.
“Nothing,” Nathaniel answers.
Up ahead, Haticat sees glittering. He cannot figure out what it is. Continuing closer, he sees many round buildings rising from a dry patch in the middle of the swamp. Several paved roads and countless raised pipelines lead outwards from it in multiple directions. The couch-unit levitates right up the smoothly sloping banks of the swamp and into the town.
The glittering is from shoes. The people here wear shoes that flash with every step. There are hundreds of them: boys, girls, and adults. The creatures have rigid, shiny, oval bodies and a long, thin, blunt, rigid tail. They each have one, large compound eye in front and one, long, thin compound eye running down the back. They have six jointed legs. Complex mouthparts hang from under the frontward eye.
“Wow! I want shoes like that!” Haticat exclaims.
“Me too!” Nathaniel says.
“You’re not getting any. I don’t want to hear it,” Mama says.
“Remember not to jump off the couch-unit, Nathaniel,” Daddy says.
“I remember,” Nathaniel says.
“We’re just reminding you,” Mama says.
The Mama-And-Daddy carefully maneuvers the couch-unit between the crowds of hexapods. “What kind of creatures are these?” Nathaniel asks.
“It’s not polite to talk about people,” Mama says.
“Why?” Nathaniel asks, but is ignored.
“That’s a cute dinosaur,” one of the nearby hexapods says. “What kind is it?”
“Thank you. We made it myself,” Mama says.
“It’s a dromaeosaur. His name is Nathaniel,” Daddy says.
Haticat leans close to Nathaniel’s ear hole and whispers, “Hypocrites! They’re talking about you now.”
“Hi, Nathaniel. Is this your first time on Hoosh?” the hexapod asks.
“Yes,” Nathaniel answers.
“Well, we’re Hooshbugs. We live here,” the hexapod says.
“Oh,” Nathaniel says. “I like your shoes.”
“Thank you,” the Hooshbug replies.
“What do you say, Nathaniel?” Mama asks quickly, without giving Nathaniel any chance to respond.
“You’re welcome,” Nathaniel says.
“Bye,” the Hooshbug says, turning and walking away, shoes flashing.
Soon the couch-unit floats into a post office. Hooshbugs drop packages into some pipes and pick up packages from other pipes. Smaller, transparent pipes run back and forth across the walls in simple designs and transport glowing slush material, keeping the interior as bright as outside. “Good night, I am Mama-And-Daddy and I am expecting a package,” Daddy says to a Hooshbug behind a desk.
“Oh, here is a package for Mama-And-Daddy,” the clerk says before grabbing a small package in his mouthparts and handing it off to Mama’s polyp-head, who grabs it in her tentacles.
“Thank you,” Mama says before leaving.
“Welcome,” the clerk calls after her.
“What is it?” Nathaniel asks Mama once outside.
“It’s life insurance papers. With insurance, if we fall into a black hole and disappear, the insurance company will pay to build a new Mama-And-Daddy,” Mama explains.
“What happens if the papers fall into the black hole, too?” Nathaniel asks, clearly not understanding.
“These are only proof that we have insurance so we can get a loan. We already have the insurance,” Mama says.
“Where is the insurance, then? What if the insurance falls into the black hole with you?” Nathaniel asks, still bewildered. Haticat is confused, too.
“You’re making us tired,” Mama and Daddy say together.
Nathaniel sighs and stops asking questions. The couch-unit continues to glide through the town. Soon, they pass a strange, metal object with a domed top and three short branches. It turns slightly. “Hey, that thing just moved. What is it?” Haticat asks Nathaniel.
“I don’t know,” Nathaniel answers. Turning to Daddy, he asks, “What is that metal thing over there?”
Mama answers instead, “That’s a fire hydrant. The Hooshbugs put it there in case one of their buildings catches on fire. They can attach a hose to one side to get water out to put the fire out with.”
“Why did it just move?” Nathaniel asks.
“Fire hydrants don’t move. They stay stuck to underground water pipes,” Mama says.
“Haticat said he saw it move,” Nathaniel says.
“Nathaniel, don’t play silly games right now,” Mama says.
“I’m not playing. Haticat really saw it move,” Nathaniel says.
“I did,” Haticat insists. Could The Mama-And-Daddy not recognize the difference between play and seriousness? Of course not; it’s an adult.
“Nathaniel! Not now!” Daddy scolds.
“You’re not going to jump off the couch-unit, are you?” Mama asks.
“No,” Nathaniel answers.
“You’d better not,” Mama says.
At that moment, they enter another building. The sign reads: First Last Middle Bank. Transparent pipes of glowing slush form simple designs on the walls, lighting the interior. The walls and floor are carpeted in grey plaid. Employees stand behind several short desks and counters, typing on keyboards with their mouthparts. The couch-unit glides in and parks in front of one of the desks. The clerk introduces himself. “Hello, my name is Xnk. How may I help you?”
“Hello, my name is Mama-And-Daddy,” Mama says.
“We would like a loan for five hundred money-dollars,” Daddy says.
While the adults drone on about things Nathaniel and Haticat know nothing about, the boys whisper among themselves. “Nathaniel, I can’t hear with you whispering. Why don’t you go play in the corner?” Mama says.
“Because you told me not to leave the couch-unit,” Nathaniel answers truthfully. He had wanted to go and play all along.
Mama glares at him. Daddy angrily says, “Go play in the corner now.”
“Okay,” Nathaniel answers gleefully. He walks off with Haticat in tow. The gravity on Hoosh is too strong for Haticat’s boneless legs to fully support him (even walking on all fours and using his tail for support), forcing him to drag himself across the floor. They decide to play by rolling. Haticat tucks himself into his shell so Nathaniel can roll him back and forth. After a while, Nathaniel starts to tire.
“Look, there’s another fire hydrant outside over there,” Haticat says, noticing it through the large window.
“Let’s go see if it’s the moving kind,” Nathaniel suggests.
Nathaniel throws Haticat over his shoulders, tying his arms into a knot to more easily carry him. He walks outside and stands next to the hydrant. Nothing happens. “It’s not moving right now,” Nathaniel says.
“Push it,” Haticat suggests.
Nathaniel pushes on it hard, but it does not budge.
“Try pulling it,” Haticat suggests.
Nathaniel grabs the side and pulls and pulls. Nothing happens. “This must not be the moving kind.”
“Come on, Nathaniel. We’re leaving,” Mama says, the couch-unit having pulled up behind him.
Nathaniel jumps onto the couch-unit, carrying Haticat. On the way back to the spaceship, they see many more hydrants – at least one to a building. Some buildings have two or three hydrants beside them. Haticat is certain there were not nearly that many before. A few of them sit at the end of what look like scratch marks or drag marks. The Hooshbugs simply walk around them without noticing. “I think those hydrants are moving only when we aren’t watching,” Haticat says.
“Yeah, they’re sneaky hydrants,” Nathaniel says.
Back in the ship, Daddy announces it is time for lunch. Nathaniel pours himself a bowl of protein jelly from the ceiling nozzle using the switch on the table. It tastes just as bland and boring as ever. Almost finished, he asks the Mama-And-Daddy, “Are Hooshbugs nocturnal?”
“Yes, that means they are awake at night and sleep during the day,” Daddy’s kitchen polyp-head answers.
“Why?” Nathaniel asks.
“That’s just the way it is,” Daddy answers.
“Eat your lunch, Nathaniel,” Mama’s kitchen polyp-head says.
Nathaniel finishes up his lunch while Haticat watches. Then he dumps his used bowl and spoon into the recycling chute. “Let’s explore the swamp now,” he says to Haticat.
“Don’t go outside!” Daddy booms.
“How can we explore the swamp if we don’t go outside?” Nathaniel asks.
“Go to your room and read instead. The swamps are dangerous,” Daddy says, not answering the question.
Dangerous? That sounds exciting. Haticat longs to know what makes them dangerous, but being slower to ask, Nathaniel beats him to it. “Why?”
“Don’t ask questions. It’s the rules,” Mama says.
Nathaniel grunts. Haticat sighs. They climb the ramps to their room and read their books. The longing to explore wears at them. Quickly losing interest in reading, they walk to the large observation window and look out across the vast swamp over the tops of the sparse trees. The glittering of thousands of shoes lights up the town and the pools of blue-white slush light the trees from below. The swamp is very still, but Haticat’s good eyes catch sight of some ripples in the pools below. “Let’s sneak out – only for a short time,” Haticat whispers.
“That’s a good idea,” Nathaniel whispers.
Making their way outside, they pass only inactive polyp-heads. Wherever the essences of Mama and Daddy are, they aren’t watching the door. Haticat rides on Nathaniel’s back as he trudges across the soft ground and through the dark-colored weeds. Coming to the raised slush rim of one of the pools, Nathaniel carefully sticks a claw into it. It is warm. Suddenly, a fish jumps right in front of them, falling back into the glowing slush and making large ripples. “Wow!” Haticat says. “Try to catch one so we can study it.”
Nathaniel steps tentatively into the pool. Haticat’s legs and tail dangle into the strange, warm slush. “This slush doesn’t soak into my fibers like water does. I like it better,” he says.
Nathaniel leans over and sweeps his clawed hands slowly through the pool, feeling for movement. Another fish (or the same one?) jumps between his arms and lands just out of reach. Something else brushes his legs. “I need special eyes so I can see through this stuff,” he complains. He continues to unsuccessfully hunt slushfish for the next few minutes until he sees something else interesting. A dark-colored snake slithers across the surface of a pool near him and into the weeds beyond. He promptly chases it, repeatedly losing it in the weeds only to see it crossing pool after pool. Nathaniel and Haticat follow it for quite a ways without being able to catch it. They get farther from The Mama-And-Daddy and closer to the town. Then they hear a noise.
They are near a dark part of the town relatively free of Hooshbugs. There are large, metal pipes here. Two fire hydrants fire lasers at one of the pipes, cutting loose a large section. “What are they doing?” Haticat whispers in Nathaniel’s ear.
“Maybe they’re stealing metal,” Nathaniel whispers.
Two other hydrants maneuver under the pipe, their side spouts telescoping out and bending to form arms. Finally, the pipe is loose. The first two hydrants stretch and change shape, growing arms and legs to help carry it. They are robots! “These are invading robots stealing metal from the Hooshbugs. They’re only disguised as fire hydrants,” Haticat says.
“How can we stop them?” Nathaniel asks.
“I don’t know. They have lasers; lasers hurt,” Haticat says.
“These hydrant bots are mean thieves. Let’s get out of here,” Nathaniel says.
“Agreed,” Haticat whispers. Nathaniel carries him right back to the ship. They shake the slush off and sneak back inside. They then return to reading.