"They would have eaten our whole house and probably the whole cul-de-sac if we didn't find those jelly beans."
"You're not telling it right!"
"I'm holding the golden stick," said Eko. "That means it's my turn."
Arp made a move for the craggly, gold spray-painted branch, but Eko whipped it into her other hand.
"Stupid stick," grumbled Arp.
"Just let her tell it," said Shad.
"Fine," said Arp. "But it's gonna be the dumb version."
Eko grinned as she prodded a smouldering log with the tip of the golden stick to improve airflow. The campfire responded accordingly and she resumed her story.
"The nibbles went crazy for jelly beans. It was like their favorite food or something. They finally stopped eating the counter and the floors and everything else in our house. They only wanted jelly beans. Everytime one of them ate a different flavor, they'd turn into the color for a few minutes, like cherry red or watermelon green stripes or even popcorn butter yellow. It was kinda cute."
"But did it stop them from multiplying?" asked Shad.
"Oh, no. They still popped into two nibbles every time they ate something, even the jellybeans. But at least this way they weren't destroying the house."
"Or the whole world," said Arp.
Eko glared at her brother.
"They're world destroyers, Eko!" shouted Arp. "I don't know why you keep calling them cute. They would have eaten this whole planet and everything in it if I didn't figure out how to fix their spaceship."
"You figured it out?" said Eko.
"Well, no, I mean we, but you know what I mean..."
Shad used the opportunity to snag the golden stick from Eko's hand.
"My turn. Sorry, Eko, but I have to ask... how did you know the nibbles were going to eat the whole world?"
Shad handed the stick back to Eko.
"I didn't know it when I found the first nibble," she said. "It was during the fireworks last week. I thought I saw one of the green sparkles from a big firework land in our backyard. Arp said that was impossible. But we still went back and found this metal silver box jabbed into the ground, like the size of a sandwich, next to the garage. Arp tried to grab it, right away, like a dummy, and it burnt his hand."
Arp grimaced and held up his hand, showing the imprint of the metal box on his finger tips.
"Ouch," said Shad.
Arp nodded. "Yeah..."
"Because I'm not a dummy," said Eko, "I went into the garage and grabbed some of our dad's tools. I tapped open the edge of the box with a flathead and a mallet. And inside was this little blobby... thing. You know, an amoeba. But with these cute black eyes and these cute little stubby arms. Like a round cuttlefish. Like a small ghost. Like a..."
"Okay, enough, we get it," said Arp.
"It waved at me," said Eko. "So I held out my hand and it sorta slid onto my palm. It looked hungry, so snagged a piece of grass in my other hand and held it towards the thing. And it... nibbled it. Then it nibbled it really fast. And then it popped! And, all of a sudden, there were two of them. Two nibbles."
"Which, you have to admit, was cool," said Arp.
"Yeah, we didn't know better. So we gave them more grass. Then we tried a rock. Then we tried a stick. They ate them all. Soon, there were sixteen nibbles hopping around. We couldn't hold them all, and then they started eating stuff on their own. That's when things got a little scary."
Arp grabbed the stick now. "And that's when I saved the day."
Eko waved him on.
"I ran into the garage and got the mason jar where we kept fireflies during the Third of July party, and then I just plucked the nibbles off the ground and dropped them into the jar. Turns out they don't like glass."
"Did you get them all?" asked Shad.
"Yeah, we did."
Eko nodded, too.
"So, then what? You just had this jar of alien creatures?"
"Pretty much," said Eko. "May I?"
Arp handed her the golden stick.
"We took the jar inside, sealed, of course, and went on the computer. We did lots of searches. We would have gone to the library and asked Mrs. Ambler to help, but it was way too late. Then we found someting. Von Neumann probes."
"Von Neumann probes? What's that?" asked Shad.
"World-eaters," said Arp. "Tiny little probes that eat everything in their path and self-replicate forever and ever."
"Why?" asked Shad. "Where did they come from?"
"We don't know..."
"Another country? Another planet? Or galaxy?" Shad kept asking.
"Yeah, or universe," said Eko.
Arp got up to throw another log on the fire. They could all hear their parents snooring in their nearby tents.
"I'm going to melt another action figure over the fire," said Arp. "Anyone want in?"
"No," scoffed Eko. "But I'm having another s'more."
"Me, too," said Shad. "Can you make two marshmallows, Eko?"
She nodded and loaded them into the tip of the golden stick.
"So what did you do with the jar of nibbles?" asked Shad.
"We didn't know what to do. Like, would they just die if we didn't feed them? That felt too cruel, even if they were here to destroy everything. Then, we kinda got in a fight about it, cause Arp is a dummy..."
"Stop calling me a dummy, Eko! It wasn't my fault. You were the one who tripped."
"What happened?" asked Shad.
"Eko dropped the jar in the kitchen."
"And it shattered?"
Eko and Arp nodded.
"That's when the jellybeans come in. I have to admit, that was good thinking by Arp. Sorry about calling you a dummy. You just are sometimes. But sometimes you are brilliant."
Arp considered this potential complement for a moment, then smiled.
"Thank goodness we had that huge jar of jellybeans. But it wasn't going to be enough, because they kept on doubling. So, Arp started trying to gather them into as many glass jars as we could find in the kitchen, and then I ran out to the garage to see if we had any more jelly beans. That's when I saw the ship again. And noticed the four nibble-sized slots. Maybe, I thought, maybe this is how we can get them back in their ship. So I ran back inside with the spaceship. When I came back in, things had escalated."
"Yeah! Cause we ran out of jellybeans!" cried Arp.
"Hundreds of nibbles were surrounding Arp, who was holding the now empty jar of jellybeans."
"They were gonna eat me next!" said Arp.
Eko's marshmallows caught fire and she held them like the Olympic torch.
"Perfect," she nodded and then slid one marshmallow each onto her and Shad's graham crackers. With her mouth full, she continued. "So I put the ship on the ground and grabbed a few nearby nibbles, and tried to force them into the slots. And it worked, sorta."
"What do you mean, sorta?"
"Well, it only worked in this weird pattern. Imagine there are four slots, like this..." Eko drew four squares on the ground next to the campfire with the sticky tip of her stick.
[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
"The only way the ship would accept the nibbles was in this order... which took way too long to figure out."
"What was the trick?"
"Binary numbers," said Eko.
"Like zeros and ones?" asked Shad.
"Yeah, exactly. Nibbles don't have any fingers, like us. That's the only reason we count to ten, and use powers of ten for numbers, by the way. Cause we have ten fingers. If we had 8 fingers, it would be different."
"What do you mean?" asked Shad.
"Count to ten on your fingers," said Eko.
"Now count to eleven."
"Well, I need to start over..." said Shad.
"Exactly, now count to 10 ignoring your thumbs, like you only have eight fingers."
Shad tried, and then stopped. "I need to start over at 9."
"Yep, let me show you..." Eko drew some numbers on the ground.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
"This is how you count to eleven in decimal," she said. "Now here's the same in octal -- meaning eight."
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 10 11 12 13
"Weird," said Shad. "So these are just different ways of counting, but you are still, like, counting the name number of things, just showing it at different way?"
"Yes!" said Eko. "Now, imagine if you had no fingers! Just two stubby arms, like the nibbles. Here's what that would look like..."
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 10 11 12 13 1 10 11 100 101 110 111 1000 1001 1010 1011
"That's so weird, but I guess it makes sense," said Shad.
Arp's action figure had now melted into a horrible pool of colored plastic on the fire.
"Thanks for this horrible smell, Arp."
"Happily," he smiled.
"So, anyway," said Eko. "Through trial and error..."
"Too much error," said Arp.
"I figured out the pattern was just binary numbers. The ship would only accept the nibbles in binary numerical order. And there were only four slots, so I had to put the nibbles in like this..."
She drew more patterns in the dirt:
[ ] [ ] [ ] [x] [ ] [ ] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [x] [x] [ ] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [x] [ ] [x] [ ] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [x] [ ] [ ] [x] [x] [ ] [x] [ ] [x] [ ] [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [x] [x] [ ] [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [x]
"And... so on," she said. "But once you put the nibbles in the right slots, and pressed the button, the ship absorbed them. And a couple minutes later-"
"Hours," said Arp.
"Maybe hours," said Eko. "We had all the nibbles back in their ship."
"So that was it?" said Shad. "What happened to the ship?"
"That's the weirdest thing," said Arp. "The ship just... disappeared."
Eko was silent. Then she nodded.
"I don't know..." said Shad. "How can I believe you guys? You're just making this up."
"Look at my hand!" Arp pointed to his burns. "Would I make that up?"
"That could have been from anything," said Shad. "This is dumb. I'm gonna go read in the tent with my flashlight."
Arp and Shad got up to brush their teeth. Eko stayed behind at the fire. She prodded apart the logs with the golden stick so that they'd smoulder out safely. She stared at the embers for a while and then tossed the golden stick onto the fire.
From her inside coat pocket, Eko removed a small glass gar. She held it up against the firelight.
"Is that a... is that one of them?" asked Shad, who'd returned beside her.
Eko kept her eyes on the small blob inside the glass waving at her.
"They're real..." whispered Shad.
"Eko! You kept one! You idiot"
Arp pushed Shad out of the way and went to grab the jar from Eko's hands, but he tripped on the log pile and felt into Eko. The glass jar flew out of Eko's hands into the darkness beyond the firelight.
All three cousins heard the glass shatter on impact.