By Seth Chambers
TIMOTHY FREY SCURRIED through the Entertainment and Beverage complex in search of Master Sergeant Chang. The diplomat’s mind shifted into overdrive as he passed beings from scattered corners of the galaxy. Most were at least vaguely humanoid but others were globular, tree-like, or even gelatinous. It didn’t matter to Frey. As he passed each, he observed their individual customs: greeting the Forsii with a sort of hooting sound, hiding his hands upon seeing a Mok-Mok so as not to threaten, and averting his eyes from the steady gaze of a passing Torg. The only race he could never figure out were the Black Robes. They kept themselves completely covered at all times, made no gestures, and rarely spoke.
After a seemingly endless search, Frey found the master sergeant in the spaceport bar with two of his staff sergeants. Should have known!
“There you are, Sergeant,” the diplomat panted. “Drinking a beer. How very Earth-centric.”
Master Sergeant Chang raised his stein to the diplomat.
“Well, I am an Earthling, you got me there!”
The two staff sergeants laughed with him. Frey cast nervous glances around the bar.
“Here’s to the Ambassador’s health,” said Chang, raising his glass. “And speaking of which, how’s the old boy doing?”
“He’s still in quarantine and so his duties fall upon me.”
“God save us all!” Chang roared.
“I am trying to ingratiate humans into the company of the other beings. Did you know there are nearly a hundred species here at the summit?”
“Ninety-two, actually,” said Chang. “And may God bless every one of them.”
He and the other NCOs laughed heartily, clanked mugs and downed their beers.
“Sergeant! Please! I can’t make peace with all these races with you carrying on like this.” Frey cast birdlike glances around the bar. “For instance, that group of Thrombi over there. You see them?”
“Sure do,” said Chang, raising his beer in their direction. One of the Thrombi raised a vial of pink gas in return. “Nice folks. Look like walking celery sticks, but they’re good people.”
Frey looked over at the Thrombi and made a gesture of supplication customary to their species. The Thrombi made no response. To Chang, he said, “They are a reserved, quiet race. And here you are, practically shouting in their auditory canals.”
“We sat down first,” said the sergeant. “And this is a bar, after all. You know, I’ve noticed that wherever you go in the Universe, they seem to have some sort of cantina, just like in that old space documentary.”
“Will you keep it down!”
“No. I won’t.”
Chang fixed the diplomat in a hard stare. All trace of laughter disappeared from his face.
“Look here, Acting-Diplomat Frey. I understand you got a job to do, and I respect that. But you’re the politician, not me. Don’t get me wrong. We respect all these aliens. Some of them eat worms, others communicate by emitting noxious odors. I find all that revolting, but to each his own. Now understand this: I expect them to respect our ways as well.”
“But you made eye contact with a Torg!”
“Damn straight I did. We are not here to cower or to make friends. My men and I are here to keep our eyes and ears wide open. We’re here to watch out for you and keep your diplomatic ass safe. Security threats abound. Scuttlebutt has it that something nasty is brewing with the Torg, and Earthlings are smack in the middle of it.”
“Yet you sit here guzzling beer!”
“Yes, we’re kicking back with some brews. We’re also on recon. You’d be surprised what you can overhear in a place like this. Now, maybe you’d like to observe some Earth customs for a change and have a drink with us.”
Frey muttered something under his breath and stalked off. He ran back to his quarters, all the while spouting appropriate greetings, averting his eyes and, at one point, lowering his entire body to the ground as a procession of Torg strode by. He couldn’t help but take pride in observing so many alien customs. The Ambassador himself had never managed that!
He came upon a group of Black Robes and tried several greetings, but they simply glided by without so much as slowing.
Once in his quarters, he contacted Earth Base and requested an immediate evacuation of the military attachment.
“I don’t understand,” said the Overseer. “They are merely there for your security. What does the Ambassador have to say about this idea?”
“The Ambassador is still in quarantine and, from what I’m told, not himself right now. But I’m sure he would agree with me. I mean, really, how can we possibly move forward into a more enlightened and culturally sensitive era when we’re dragging along a bunch of old-world soldiers?”
“I see your point,” said the Overseer.
Within a cycle, Frey received word that the soldiers had shipped out. An hour later, the Grand Torg strode unannounced into Frey’s stateroom, with two Lesser Torg trailing behind. Frey immediately threw himself onto the floor and signed a humble greeting.
The Grand Torg rumbled into a communicator: “You have been accepted. You will contact your planet and have another shipment of humans delivered. Humans like yourself. No military.”
Frey’s heart leapt. He immediately contacted base and did as the Grand Torg commanded. He had made a good decision sending the soldiers home. Now, after all these months, Earthlings had been accepted into the Galactic Assembly. Ambassador Horton would surely be impressed.
“Wear this,” ordered the Grand Torg.
One of the Lesser Torg threw a garment on the floor in front of Frey. Frey immediately crawled into it. It kept his arms bound, much like a straightjacket. He had a moment of doubt but quickly chided himself: It is merely a ceremonial robe!
“Follow!” the Grand Torg said.
Frey followed the Torgs from his stateroom to the Conference Hall. The hall teemed with aliens. A few Black Robes even swarmed around him.
The Grand Torg led Frey onto the dais while the two Lesser Torg flanked him. A multitude of aliens gathered around. Three Black Robes moved in close. The Grand Torg set his translator volume on high and his voice boomed in a multitude of languages: “ATTENTION! ATTENTION!”
Frey felt like a celebrity. He would have grinned from ear to ear except that such a gesture would surely offend someone.
The Grand Torg’s voice boomed on: “WE NOW HAVE EARTHLINGS! GET THEM WHILE SUPPLIES LAST! THEY MAKE EXCELLENT SERVANTS, SLAVES, AND PETS! STEP RIGHT UP!”
Frey was sure he had misheard. Many of the aliens seemed as confused as he did, but others held up hands (or other appendages) to place their bids. They were really selling him off! The reality sunk in and Frey tried to bolt but the Lesser Torg grab him and held him firmly in place even as he struggled. Some of the bidders laughed and upped their offers.
The Black Robes made their bids with minute gestures, never raising their hands outside their garments. The auction went on and on. Frey tried not to imagine the life he was in for, let alone the life he might well have subjected the human race to.
Eventually, the Black Robes won the auction and stepped up to claim their prize. Frey flopped around like a fish in the solid grip of the two Lesser Torgs. He screamed and cried.
Suddenly, one of the Black Robes had the Grand Torg down on the floor. It happened so fast Frey could hardly track it. The two Lesser Torg released him to confront the other Black Robes. The Black Robes moved like striking snakes and brought the Lesser Torgs down as well. The Conference Hall erupted with shouting and screaming and high-pitched hooting sounds as the other aliens cleared out.
The Black Robes pulled secure-cuffs from unseen pockets and within moments the Torg were shackled. Frey dropped to the floor with relief. Moments later, Ambassador Horton stepped into the hall.
Frey looked between the Black Robes and the Ambassador. The Ambassador had a knowing grin spread across his face. He looked quite healthy.
Laughter erupted from the usually-silent Black Robes and a moment later they doffed their hoods. It was Master Sergeant Chang and his two staff sergeants.
“What is going on here?” Frey cried out.
The Ambassador laughed. Was he laughing at Frey?
“Relax, Frey. You played your part, even though you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.”
“We suspected the Torg were plotting to traffic in human slavery and we set a trap. And no, I was never actually in quarantine. That was all part of the ruse.”
The soldiers roared with laughter.
“So I was the only one who didn’t know?”
“Don’t look so glum,” said Ambassador Horton. “At least you’re not somebody’s pet. The sting operation was a success.”
“Sting operation?” said Frey.
“It’s an Old Earth term, Frey. There are lots of wonderful Old Earth terms you should know, like lickspittle, toady, brown-noser ...”
Seth Chambers has recently published a novella in “F&SF,” in addition to short stories in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Fantasy Scroll,” and frequently in “Perihelion.” His novel, “Little Bird,” is slated for publication later this year by Double Dragon.