Short Story: Coward

Grand Administrator Gwal’keb, Seventeenth Appointed Undaunted of the Realm Of The Omnipotent Emperor Kalthosh IV, was having a bad day.

This was his third galactic cycle aboard this cramped space station. Three cycles, five demicycles, and twenty-three centicycles, to be exact. Not that he was counting.

He was assigned to this backwater hub, at the edge of the furthest galactic arm from his home world, because his Emperor has deemed it so. In His infinite wisdom, it was decreed that Gwal’keb meet and observe with the latest of the galactic space faring races, these “Humans”. It was rumored that the Emperor was particularly fond of these small, mostly hairless bipeds. He found them “quite adorable”, and found their tenacity thus far in the space void interesting. Hence, it befell Gwal’keb to be transported via Diplomatic Hypertube (which, even at faster-than-light speeds, took several galactic cycles; he hated the Hypertube system and wished for a better way) to make contact and, crucially, impart on these tiny Humans who is the real power in the galaxy. It wasn’t them.

By the time Gwal’keb had arrived at their main diplomatic station, the Humans had been contacted by at least half a dozen other races, most of them closer to them in galactic geography. Among them, the Slasstern, those nefarious spymasters. Slightly larger than a human (that he could tell anyway), their bodies had been genetically altered some millenia ago to make them nearly impossible to see. It wasn’t that they were invisible, exactly; rather, one’s eyes could not figure out where to focus, or even to determine if there were anything to focus ON. If you strained some effort, their bodies had the appearance of constantly fluttering, transparent fabric, and the exosuit sound modifications to their voice made it impossible to figure out where in the room they were speaking from. It was very disconcerting.

Gwal’keb rounded a corner, his mind preoccupied with making the required ducking motions to not slam his head against the upper bulwarks of the corridors. Tiny Humans, tiny stations, after all. He was not paying attention, therefore, when he bowled over Sssnalnth, the Slasstern ambassador. He stopped only when he heard the dissonant “augh” and the clattering of his exosuit against the ground. From what he could tell, he accidentally shoved the ambassador halfway across the hallway.

“Ssssuns nnnnn sssstaaaars, Gwal’keb,” hissed Sssnalnth, from some indeterminate point in the room. “Hhhaaave you nnnnooo controllll overrr yourssseeeeelllf?” His voice rasped in Common Galactic, sounding as ethereal and strained as the hum of an air purifier on the fritz.

“Ambassador Ssnalnth,” boomed Gwal’keb, looking down at the floor and focusing his three eyes to try to figure out where he had fallen. “My apologies. I did not see you there.”

“Yoouuu nnnneevvverrr doooo,” hissed the Slasstern. Gwal’keb did not appreciate the ominous meaning in that message. He had the impression that the Ambassador had stood up by now, but he wasn’t sure. “I only wwwiiiisshhhh the huuuummmmaannnnns were as imperccceeeeptive assss your sssspeeeecies.”

“What do you mean?” Asked Gwal’keb, shifting his weight from his left legs to his right; part impatience, and part discomfort, as the higher-G the Humans preferred were a strain on his larger body.

“Nnnnoooothhhinnnng,” replied Sssnalnth. “I merely hhhhope that my transsssfer would go through fassssster. Humanssss make me…. uncomforrrrrtable.” Ssnalnth’s transparent body, such that it was, practically shimmered in the harsh tube lighting. Gwal’keb knew enough about the Slassternthat it was a byproduct of an extreme emotional response, but wasn’t sure of which emotion.

Gwal’keb was taken aback. “Something makes the Slasstern uncomfortable? Why, Sssnalnth, you disappoint me. Yes, their bodies are disgusting, inefficient, and weak. They are nothing to be concerned about. Certainly nothing to worry the Slasstern Council. The Emperor scarcely considers them more than a curiosity.”

“Ssssoooo you ssssaaaayyy, Grand Administrator. Excussse me. The Humannnnssss are in the canteen, if you were looking for themmmm.” The Ambasador deftly sidestepped Gwal’keb’s massive girth and shifted away. Gwal’keb could swear he could hear faint echos of a Slasstern snicker, but shook it away. He continued down the corridor, ducking every several meters or so.

He did hunger. A protein bar should suffice. Gwal’keb opened the doors to the canteen.

“Oh you son of a bitch! You always have a full house!” The harsh exclamation slapped Gwal’keb in the face. Human speech was harsh, guttural. It was unpleasant to listen to, unfiltered by a universal translation device. He clicked his on as he lumbered past their table. He shuddered as he heard the horrible laughing noises richocheting across the metal table. “Not always, but when I do, you should know better than to try to go all in, Jansen,” said the other Human as he raked in several hundred tiny, multi-colored chits from the middle of the table. “Your deal.”

“Fucking Kai, I swear to God, your lucky streak will run out someday, and when it does, you’re gonna be doing latrine duty for a solid month.”

“Talk is cheap, Jansen. Now deal. I’m hungry, and these wings have been staring me in the face for 5 minutes.” The Human Kai turned to a plate of…. something. Misshapen lumps of protein it looked like, dripping a suspiciously red liquid. Not blood, he didn’t think. The human dowsed more sauce onto the wing from a bottle in the center of the table. He opened his tiny mouth, full of teeth, and chewed around the bone of whatever animal it was, slurping and licking the protein like a savage. “Oh God, these are so good. Just like my girlfriend used to make before I deployed.”

“Yeah? How’s the heat?” asked Jansen, shuffling the game icons in his hand. Gwal’keb remembered they were called “cards”.

“Oh not bad. Spicy, but there’s still flavor. Pretty sure I can taste the garlic. Nothing too out of control, even for you. You want some?” Kai offered a half-eaten morsel to Jansen. Beads of sweat were forming on Kai’s forehead, and he began making impolite sniffling noises as he waved the wing in front of his friend.

“Nah, no thanks. I know better than to accept anything you’ll put in your stomach, you fucking pepperhead. I’ll get heartburn and that’ll make my 12-hour coming up even worse than usual, trying not to shit in my suit.” Jansen began distributing the cards around the table, first to Kai, then to the two other humans that were with them, similarly engorging themselves of plates of these ‘wings’. “Besides, I don’t want to get sauce all over the cards.”

“Gotta get better at being spicy,” replied one of the previously silent humans in between disgusting chews and slurps. The red sauce was pooling on his chin and facial hair. Gwal’keb shuddered and pushed a button on the Autofood dispenser. A perfect beige rectangle materialized in the slot. Gwal’keb reached in and grabbed it, and turned to leave.

“I’m plenty good at being spicy. at least that’s what your Mom said last n- Hey, ‘keb! Come here for a second.” Jansen interrupted his conversation and turned to look up at Gwal’keb as he thundered past. “Ever had Earth wings?”

Gwal’keb bristled at the incorrect form of his given name. If only this were not a designated diplomatic station… “I do not partake in your disgusting food habits, Human. We of the Empire prefer pure, unadulterated food. It makes us better warriors.” He held up his protein bar.

“Yeah, so you say. But you should really try this. The hot sauce, in particular, might be right up your alley.” Jansen looked around the table, grinning. Gwal’keb thought he saw one of his eyes twitch close as he did so. All of the Humans were looking at him now, but they had not stopped eating. One of them reached for a brown bottle and drank from it. Another terribly impure foodstuff, that “beer”.

“I will not.” Gwal’keb turned to the exit. To his left, the large, blue sphere of the Human homeworld filled the window. He imagined an entire world of Humans, billions of them, slurping and chewing protein chunks, covered in sauce….Gwal’keb was losing his appetite.

“What’s the matter, ‘keb… are you a coward?” Kai called after him.

Gwal’keb has been called many things. Defender of Halb Prime. The Terror of the Gonkwinnian Magnate Sphere. He was even granted the title of Bone-Sunderer, after he single handedly wiped out a platoon of heavily armed Kaloshi Dragoons with just his psionic saber on Yalsingonia VII. He has led conquests of planets, sentenced entire empires to extinction in the courts, and in his seven hundred and forty three cycles of existence, has amassed a reputation as one of the strongest of the Empire.

No fool would be ignorant enough to call Gwal’keb a coward. And yet here were these four, tiny backwater aliens, slurping their lunch and wasting time with frivolities, staring at him with half-drunken smiles. They have issued a challenge to the Bone-Sunderer, but he was sworn by death-oath to not break the diplomatic primacy of the station.

Rather than reaching down and cracking each of the humans in half like one of their pencils, he turned and looked down. He pointed at the red and yellow bottle in the middle of the table. “That…. is the ‘hot sauce’ of which you speak?”

“Ah, this? Yep!” Replied Kai. “Gonna put it on your beige brick there? it might actually give it some flavor, for once.” He sniffled again, loudly this time, tears in his eyes. Gwal’keb had thought that was a sign of weakness, the Human expression of terror, or of grief. He looked around and saw that everyone, save for Jensen, was similarly expressing. He was not sure why they were doing that. Was it a sign of terrorized respect of his titles? Was he being mocked? Humans were confusing.

“Give me the bottle, Human,” thundered Gwal’keb, holding out one of his large paws. Jansen reached over and grabbed it, and placed the bottle in the center of his hand. The Human’s hand was dwarfed by the size of Gwal’keb’s.

Gwal’keb inspected the tiny bottle. A Human in a very large hat, wearing a yellow suit and red tie. Large red lettering of what, he assumed, was a Human language emblazoned on top of the bottle. Inside, the red liquid swirled and bobbed.

Gwal’keb put two of his fingers on the lid and twisted it open. A pungent aroma hit his nostrils. He bristled. “This reeks of impurities, Human. How do you even digest this? No matter,” he growled, as he dumped the entire bottle onto his tongue and swallowed. He tossed the bottle to the floor; it clattered across the polished metal like a discarded toy. Human food might be full of impurities, but they required remarkably similar nutrition as the rest of the galaxy. If a Human could eat it, so could he.

The Humans watched, expressionless but for the occasional sniffle. Jensen casually drank his beer.

Gwal’keb stared back. What were they doing? Waiting? Was he supposed to say something? Ah, he remembered that in human society, it is considered polite to remark on how delicious their food is, even if it was impure, adulterated swill.

“Mmm, yes, it certainly is tast….. ta….. aghkhhhttt”, spat Gwal’keb. His tongue began feeling as if it were beginning to burn. He coughed and sputtered as his insides began doing the same. Flames licked his stomach as it churned. It felt as if he was being incinerated from the inside out. The mucus membranes of his eyes began to swell shut, and his nose began reacting to the putrid pungency. He fell to one knee, hacking and coughing, as the Humans watched, smiles festooned across their idiotic faces.

“Well, usually folks aren’t dumb enough to drink the whole damn bottle,” remarked Jensen as Gwal’keb coughed, spat, and gargled curse words. “That Slasstern guy only had a drop or two, and he lit up like a Christmas tree. He was pretty pissed that we could see him clear as day. Damn wet blanket.”

“This…. this is poison!” Hacked Gwal’keb, clutching his throat and head as the room spun. His insides felt like it was being incinerated by plasma cutters.

“No, this is hot sauce. Us humans have been using it for thousands of years. What can we say, we like spicy food. Well, some of us anyway.” Kai looked at Jensen, who extended his middle finger at Kai in response.

“This will not stand! You will be punished for this attempt at murder!” Growled Gwal’keb, stumbling to his feet. He towered over the Human table, still coughing and drooling from his eyes and nose.

Jensen rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure buddy. Go ahead and tell your Emperor that Gwal’keb, Grand Administrator and 700-some year old, bone-smashing warrior, was felled by a food that us Humans eat for breakfast. I’m sure that’ll go over well.”

Kai laughed. “I guess the nickname we gave you guys when we first ran into you at Tau Ceti was pretty accurate. How ya feeling, Teddy Bear?”

Gwal’keb could only cough in response as he stumbled out of the canteen, waving his arms about desperately seeking relief. He wasn’t paying attention when he slammed his large head on top of the bulwark just outside the canteen, making a loud clang noise. He could hear the humans bursting into their laughter before the door shut.

Not a good day at all.