On Our Way Home
After humanoids, the most common form of sentient life in the galaxy is the Zleesnits. Zleesnits’ bodies are built around a central vertical cylinder from which several telescoping, horizontal appendages grow at three or more different levels. These appendages in turn attach to vertical, cylindrical legs capable of sliding up and down. In this way, the Zleesnits walk. Zleesnits are covered with varying numbers of sensory antennae, joystick-style manipulators, and deep sockets. With these sockets, they are able to plug into their computer systems or manipulate joystick-style controls. Using their sockets and joystick-style manipulators, Zleesnits can also lock together, building temporary bridges, ladders, or construction scaffolding out of their bodies. Like humanoids, they come in many races, but may be loosely classified into four broad types: those with scales (like reptiles), those with hair (like mammals), those with segmented and/or grainy skin (like centipedes and/or starfish), and those with smooth, metal skins and scattered LEDs (like many robots).
Zleesnits never go anywhere without Nops and the Zleesnit-Nop ratio of any community never exceeds four-to-three. Nops are teardrop-shaped creatures that fly by means of two-to-four wings/ears attached to their pointed tops. Their mouths wrap all the way around the circumference of the body. A sinewy column connects the upper and lower body in the center of the mouth, while a long, complex tongue manipulates tools. There are several types of Nops. They generally have smooth skin. The Zleesnits and the Nops operate cohesively as one race everywhere they go and are referred to as “Zleesnits and Nops” rather than singly.
The ship settles gently on the paved roof of the global city and the children are beckoned to climb onto the couch-unit, which then takes them outside. Following a line of automobiles, the couch-unit enters one of the parking garage entrances and descends. This is an interesting building with a helical ramp connecting every level. The couch-unit passes hundreds of parked cars. Nathaniel sees people getting out of their cars to travel by foot (mostly Ninos and Humans) or by belly (mostly Heltas). The couch-unit passes all the way to an external entrance and hovers its way to a moving walkway.
Outside the parking garage is an amazing sight. There are buildings everywhere lit up on every surface with powerful lights that keep the city as bright as the daylight outside. The layout of the walls is structured in such a way that inside and outside are blurred, the alleys between buildings often turning into hallways inside them. Moving walkways exist at all levels and cross each other in all directions. Nathaniel can see other moving walkways dozens of meters above and below. Many cut right through several skyscrapers. It is very interesting. Even Allison seems to like it.
They soon pass through a skyscraper, allowing Nathaniel to see one up close. It seems to be made up entirely of metals in every shade and hue. People get on and off the walkway as it glides past. The couch-unit gets off and takes an elevator to a lower level where it gets on another walkway perpendicular to the first.
“Where are we going?” Nathaniel asks.
“You’ll see,” Mama answers.
As it turns out, they find themselves at a massive church with videos running constantly. They don’t have to wait long for one to loop through to the beginning. The couch-unit parks in front of it. “Four thousand, four hundred, thirteen years ago nothing existed,” the narrator’s voice drones, “There was no matter, no energy, no space, and no time. There was only Y, the smartest and most powerful being ever to exist. Using its creation power…”
Unfortunately, Nathaniel is too bored and impatient for church when there is a city to explore and he has too much energy to sit still. He fidgets a lot. Allison also fidgets some and this constant motion puts them in repeated contact with one another. Touching becomes pushing, which becomes shoving, which becomes hitting. “It’s against the rules to fight in church!” Daddy yells.
“Tell her to stay on her side,” Nathaniel says.
“Tell him to stay on his side,” Allison says at the same time.
“Both of you had better stay on your own sides or we’ll never take you to church again!” Mama warns.
“Really?” Nathaniel responds excitedly. Is it that easy? Mama and Daddy shoot him angry looks. Their eyes dimly glow. Why are they angry?
After church, Mama and Daddy start up a conversation with a couple of Human adults. They are accompanied by three Human boys, a Human girl, and several Gruezhlings. “You’re a dromaeosaur!” one of the boys tells Nathaniel.
“I know! You’re a Human, right?” Nathaniel asks.
“Yeah,” the boy answers.
“Bang, bang, bang,” the other boys suddenly speak, running in circles around Nathaniel.
“We’re gonna catch a dromaeosaur,” one says.
“I got the net!” the other exclaims, waving his arms as if throwing something.
Nathaniel ducks and runs to the side. “I escaped! I’m too fast!” he says, playing.
“Get him!” the first Human boy cries. All the Humans and Gruezhlings rush Nathaniel and pin him to the ground. This mass of boys quickly turns into a wrestling match of every boy versus every other. One boy grabs Nathaniel by the belly and wriggles his fingers.
Nathaniel suddenly starts laughing uncontrollably so hard he can’t get enough air. He feels very strange. Breaking away, he gasps, “What just happened?”
“I tickled you,” the boy says.
“Tickled? What’s tickled?” Nathaniel asks. This is not a word he is programmed with.
“If you move your hands like this on somebody else, you tickle them,” the boy explains, flexing his fingers.
“But not everybody is ticklish in the same place,” the other boy adds.
“You never got tickled before?” the first boy asks.
“No,” Nathaniel answers.
“On Cartop, we tickle each other all the time,” the boy says.
After a thorough examination, it is determined that Nathaniel is belly-ticklish, Haticat is armpit-ticklish, Fred is neck-ticklish, and Doctor Bill is foot ticklish. This is a strange phenomenon. It requires further study. How did Nathaniel not notice before? He tries to tickle himself. “It stopped working,” he complains.
“You can’t tickle yourself, silly,” one of the Humans’ Gruezhlings says.
“Why not?” Nathaniel asks.
“I don’t know; we’ve never figured it out,” the boy says.
“It’s for the same reason you can’t play by yourself without getting lonely and bored eventually,” Doctor Bill explains, “Tickling is a form of play.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Haticat says.
“People don’t like being tickled too much so it isn’t played very often,” Doctor Bill explains.
“Is everybody ticklish?” Nathaniel asks.
“Everybody I’ve ever tried to tickle is,” one of the human boys says.
“Oh, yes. It’s a necessary feature of self-aware organisms. Everyone is ticklish, but not all are ticklish in the same spots. Some beings require a special kind of touch. Those without a sense of touch experience the visual or olfactory equivalent of ticklishness,” Doctor Bill states.
“Nathaniel! Pay attention! We’re leaving,” Mama and Daddy bark at him. Nathaniel, Haticat, Fred, and Doctor Bill follow after the couch-unit as it carries the girls. The couch-unit heads straight back to the parking garage and enters.
“Get on; we’re going for a ride,” Mama says.
The boys get on. “Where are we going?” Nathaniel asks.
“On a ride,” Mama says.
“A ride where?” Nathaniel asks.
“We’re on our way home,” Daddy says. Soon, the couch-unit exits the parking garage onto the paved surface of the planet. Instead of heading for the ship, it accelerates to maximum speed and heads for the horizon.
“Hey, we’re not going home,” Allison protests.
“We’re taking a ride. We told you,” Mama says.
“A ride where?” Allison asks.
“We’re just taking a ride,” Mama says. As with most things the Mama-And-Daddy says, this makes absolutely no sense to Nathaniel. A ride is something that one takes to someplace.
The children watch as they pass car after car and garage after garage. The landscape looks the same in all directions. Soon, Nathaniel feels the need to adjust his legs. Bending one, his knee momentarily brushes Allison’s leg. “Stop!” she exclaims.
“I’m not doing anything,” Nathaniel retorts. Continuing to settle into his new position, he places one foot across the central line dividing the two halves of the couch.
“You’re in my area!” Allison screams, shoving Nathaniel’s foot away. It simply half-falls back, half-springs back to where it was. “Stop!” Allison yells.
“Nathaniel, leave your sister alone!” Daddy barks.
“I didn’t do anything,” Nathaniel insists.
“Behave yourself. This is a long ride,” Daddy says.
“Just be quiet and look at the scenery,” Mama says.
“Relax,” Daddy says.
Relax? Be quiet? Those two things don’t go together. Look at scenery? What scenery? There is nothing but flat pavement and empty sky all the way to the horizon. This planet’s surface is even more boring than empty outer space. “When are we going to stop and play?” Nathaniel asks.
“Just enjoy the scenery,” Mama and Daddy say.
“I can’t enjoy without playing and there’s no room on the couch for that,” Nathaniel says.
“You’re complaining again,” Mama warns.
“Now isn’t the time to play,” Daddy says.
Not time to play? What does that even mean? “I need to play now,” Nathaniel insists.
“What did I tell you about complaining?” Mama and Daddy ask sharply.
“Can the boys get off? We can’t play with boys this close,” Allison whines.
“You’re too loud!” Matilda accuses the boys.
“You’re louder than we are. We don’t scream,” Fred retorts.
“Shut up!” Allison yells.
“Don’t say ‘shut up!’ I don’t want to hear anymore arguing the rest of the trip!!!” Mama and Daddy yell very loudly.
Slightly frightened, all the children sit in absolute silence for what seems like an eternity. Surprisingly, the couch-unit still continues to speed along Cartop’s surface even five minutes and fifty seconds later! “How long until we get there?” Nathaniel asks.
“I told you before; we’re riding,” Daddy says.
“Riding where?” Nathaniel asks.
“We’re on our way home,” Daddy responds.
“But home is that way,” Nathaniel states, pointing behind him.
The Mama-And-Daddy does not respond. Haticat is the first Gruezhling to collapse from play-starvation. Fred, Sarah, Matilda, and Doctor Bill look sick. Nathaniel is so bored he almost feels like tearing his feathers out. Allison stretches her arms, thus putting her claws three centimeters from Nathaniel’s face. When he turns, this startles him. “Stay over there!” Nathaniel snaps, slapping her hand away. Allison immediately slaps Nathaniel in the face in retaliation without thinking.
Angered, Nathaniel bites Allison’s tail. Allison screams, “Aaaaaaaaaaah!!!!”
“Stop fighting!” Mama says.
“Fighting on the couch is against the rules,” Mama and Daddy say.
“He started it!” Allison claims.
“She started it!” Nathaniel counterclaims.
“I don’t care who’s to blame! I’m going to punish everybody!” Daddy asserts.
Punish the victim, too? Nathaniel feels he has already been through enough, but if fighting bothers The Mama-And-Daddy maybe they will appreciate a solution that will make everyone happy. “She’s too close to me. You should stop and let us off a while,” Nathaniel suggests.
“I’m not too close to you; you’re too close to me!” Allison yells.
“That’s the same thing, stupid,” Nathaniel fires back.
“I’m not stupid! You’re stupid!” Allison yells.
“You’re stupider!” Nathaniel yells.
“No I’m not!” Allison yells.
“Stop fighting! Stop fighting!” Mama yells. A spark of lightning arcs from Daddy’s face to Nathaniel’s face, knocking him back. A second spark of lightning arcs from Mama’s face to Nathaniel’s chest, knocking the breath out of him. Allison giggles. Nathaniel whimpers. Whatever happened to punishing everybody?
Nathaniel sits in silence so long that time loses all meaning. It must be at least an hour. His back is sore. He can’t stand or lie down. He can only sit. He longs to escape Mama, Daddy, and the girls but the couch is moving too fast. He needs to play but all the Gruezhlings are unconscious. The scenery looks exactly the same as when the trip started. He is so bored he is on the verge of tears. Allison looks bored too. Maybe if Allison is bored enough, she might be willing to play with him. No! She will only get him into trouble. Nathaniel buries the thought and resists the urge, but the boredom is too much for him. He starts to feel his sanity slipping away. He needs to do something to break the monotony. He watches as his hand moves almost by itself and gently pokes Allison to get her attention.
Already stressed from the ride and not knowing his intent, Allison screams and whips Nathaniel on the side with her tail. “Ow!” Nathaniel exclaims. The two dromaeosaurs stand up and lunge at each other, scratching.
“Sit down!” Daddy orders.
“It’s against the rules to fight while we’re moving,” Mama states. Nathaniel and Allison sit back down, glaring and growling.
“Why can’t you just enjoy the outside?” Daddy asks.
“Isn’t it nice?” Mama asks. Nathaniel and Allison say nothing.
Two minutes later, Allison says, “I’m tired. Are we close to where we’re going yet?”
“If you’re tired, sit back and rest,” Mama suggests.
“I can’t rest with him here. He bothers me!” Allison claims.
“I’m tired, too. I need to lie down, but I can’t with Allison taking up more than half the couch,” Nathaniel insists.
“You’re taking more of the couch than me,” Allison says.
“No I’m not,” Nathaniel responds.
“Yes you are!” Allison yells.
“Everyone shut up and be quiet!” Mama and Daddy command together.
Nobody speaks for a minute. Finally, Allison announces, “I have to use a toilet.”
“You can wait,” Daddy says.
“Are we near where we’re going yet?” Allison whines.
“We’re not going anywhere! We’re taking a ride. We’re on our way home,” Daddy says.
“We were at home. Why did we leave if that’s the only place we were going?” Nathaniel demands, indignant. Is the Mama-And-Daddy lost?
Mama and Daddy ignore him. Finally, they slow down and enter a parking garage. Inside, it looks just like the first one. They exit onto a moving walkway and enter the first building they come to. “Here: You can find a toilet, here,” they say.
Allison runs into one of the toilet rooms. Nathaniel starts to follow her. “Nathaniel, that’s the girls’ room. You use the boys’ room,” Daddy says, pointing a tentacle.
“Boys and girls get different rooms on Cartop?” Nathaniel queries.
“They get different rooms everywhere,” Daddy responds.
“Why is there only one toilet room inside the spaceship, then?” Nathaniel asks.
“Rules are rules. Don’t question the rules,” Mama and Daddy state together.
After using the toilet and stretching their legs, Allison and Nathaniel are ordered back onto the couch-unit. “Let’s switch sides,” Nathaniel proposes to Allison.
“No!” Allison exclaims.
“Come on, my arm hurts from leaning the same way all the time. Yours probably will too and it’s too hot to lean on each other,” Nathaniel pleads, moving closer to her. Allison whines and clings tightly to her side. Nathaniel gives up.
They ride and ride and ride. Nathaniel has too much energy. He has to use it somehow. His leg starts shaking. This vibrates Allison’s seat. “Stoooooppp!!!” Allison screams. Daddy looks angry. His eyes glow yellow. He fires a lightning bolt and misses. It lands right between the dromaeosaurs.
Nathaniel looks down at the grains in the pavement as it speeds past. Every grain looks just like every other grain. He sighs. Minutes pass. Hours pass. Allison drifts off to sleep. Her head slips down and gently rests on Nathaniel’s shoulder. “Grrr!” Nathaniel growls, pushing her back.
Allison wakes up screaming. “What’s going on?” Daddy demands.
“She was drooling on me and making me hot!” Nathaniel says.
“No!” Allison denies.
“When we get back to the ship you’re both going to be punished!!” Daddy proclaims.
“A lot!!!” Mama adds.
“Be quiet until we get home!” Daddy dictates.
The dromaeosaurs settle back into their seats. Minutes pass. Hours pass. The sun moves closer to the horizon. They must have left the church seven hours ago. Where are they going, really? Getting punished starts to appeal to Nathaniel. It has to be better than the constant punishment of riding a couch with Allison. All incentive to behave melts away. He no longer has anything to lose. Suddenly, he gets an irresistible idea!
Nathaniel reaches onto Allison’s side and rigorously tickles her everywhere. She seems to be belly-ticklish as well. At first, all Allison can do is laugh. Finally, she wriggles free, screams, and bites Nathaniel’s hand. Reacting in pain, Nathaniel scratches the side of her face with his claws. Both dromaeosaurs bleed red onto their feathers.
“That’s enough!” Daddy yells. Suddenly, Nathaniel and Allison are teleported into the entrance room of The Mama-And-Daddy. Inexplicable! If Daddy could have teleported them, why were they riding on the couch-unit somewhere for so long? The Gruezhlings are left behind. Mama’s heads are not active; she must be driving the couch-unit. “You’re a very bad dinosaur! You’re being punished!” Daddy yells before striking Allison with a lightning bolt. “Go to your room!” Allison vanishes.
Turning to Nathaniel, Daddy says, “You’re supposed to set a good example.” Nathaniel runs out of the room, but Daddy’s essence follows him, activating polyp-heads as it goes. The first few bolts miss, but finally Nathaniel is hit with bolt after bolt so many times he loses count. His whole body stings inside and out. He doesn’t quite remember how long he lies on the floor or how he gets to his room. The rest of the night is a bit fuzzy in his memory, but he does remember that Allison was punished too, and this makes him happy.