In front of Penny in line was a 7 foot tall humanoid with glowing blue skin. She suppressed the urge to ask what species they were, and let the alien order their vegan breakfast burrito. The barista at United Planets’ first-floor Starbucks looked human except for the extra hands. Polycherian, Penny remembered. When the barista handed Penny her order – an egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel – Penny bowed respectfully and said pflintsu – Polycherian for “thank you” – before getting on the elevator.
Penny loved working at United Planets’ New York Headquarters for the same reason she moved to New York City in the first place: the diversity. No other job, no other workplace, could ever measure up – not on Earth, anyway. As such, she smiled when the elevator door opened and a three-foot tall octopus-looking alien oozed in.
But her smile rapidly faded when she recognized this particular Octopedian. It was the Octopedian Representative himself, Estramsor, Deputy Leader of the Traditionalist Faction in the Interstellar Congress, who had recently argued in front of the Congress to embargo humanity, to quarantine them, to prevent the evils inherent in human nature from spreading throughout the galaxy.
And so it didn’t surprise her that the Octopedian did not return her greeting, but stared straight ahead. Penny shifted her weight back and forth. If the Octopedian had succeeded, it would have ruined Penny’s dream of travelling the universe, visiting other planets and learning everything she could about alien cultures. Besides, it would cruelly bottle humanity in with all of its flaws, never to grow or mature.
The elevator was taking a long time to reach the next floor, though. And ultimately, it lurched to a stop.
“It’s stuck again,” said Estramsor, matter-of-factly, continuing to stare straight ahead. “Typical human technology.”
Penny read the inspection certificate, which stated that this elevator had been manufactured on Alpha Centauri, but didn’t say anything.
Estramsor looked over at Penny and started writhing his front tentacles in a gesture that even Penny, who only knew a few Octopedians, recognized as open disgust. He strutted into a corner and looked away.
Finally Penny felt compelled to speak up. “Even if you don’t like humans, you could still treat us with common courtesy.”
“Courtesy?” asked Estramsor. “Consider it a courtesy that I didn’t cover you in acidic slime for such an impudent statement.”
“Hey!” said Penny. “You’re on our planet! We are the ones who gave you the courtesy of letting you work here and giving you this space.”
“Well,” he said, spitting up some black goo. “What a lot of good that did. But this is my last day, I am dropping your disgusting planet out of my portfolio. So I shan’t mind offending any humans on the way out. I do have diplomatic immunity, so watch your mouth.”
Penny pressed the button for the next floor, then the open button, the close button, and the call button harder and harder. When none of it worked, she sighed and sat on the floor, waiting for something to happen.
After a while, though, she found she couldn’t stay silent anymore. “You know what I don’t get?” She looked over at the Octopedian, who did not react or move in any way. “All those things you mentioned in your speech: War, and the glorification of war. Poverty and starvation. Our inability to deploy medical resources to those who actually need them. It was a pretty damning speech. I remember it. I found it moving. I really felt ashamed to be a human.”
“Thank you for the compliment. I assure you, the speech was meant for Congress, not for you.”
“But I’ve learned a lot since the embargo was voted down. For every single thing you mentioned, every single flaw, humans are not alone. There are a dozen other cultures and worlds, fully represented in the Congress, that do those things.”
“Yes, that is what my opponents successfully argued. Do you have something intelligent to say, human?”
Penny thought for a moment. She knew she’d never have an opportunity to ask this question again, even if she did get acid burns for it. “So you must have known that the embargo wasn’t actually going to pass. What’s the real reason? What do you actually have against humans?”
The Octopedian’s translation device made a sighing sound, uncanny coming from a face with a closed mouth, with no clear mechanism to make such a mammalian noise. “You are, as someone who works in such an august institution as this, surely aware that even non-obligate carnivorism, while frowned upon by enlightened species, is fully allowed under our legal system, certainly not a valid argument for an embargo. I am old enough to remember when that wasn’t established law, and I tried my hardest to make that decision go the other way.”
Penny nodded. Most intelligent omnivorous species were vegetarian; that was Interstellar Multiculturalism 101.
“But then I found out that you ate eggs,” he said, and he lifted up a small device and abruptly projected, onto the elevator wall, a picture of an Earth octopus egg being harvested. Penny jumped. The picture changed to a factory farm full of chickens, eggs collecting beneath them. “That was additionally shocking. Even so, I thought I could tolerate it, until I saw this.”
And there it was, an Octopedian eating an out-of-places, Earth-style egg bagel sandwich.
The Octopedian looked at the picture, and all 8 legs shuddered. “Some of our own religious authorities" – Penny remembered that the Octopedian homeworld was a theocracy – “concluded that eggs of other species were allowable food, even for us. I couldn’t argue this in front of the Congress, but this heresy had to be cut off at the root.”
The elevator lurched and stopped. The door opened and the Octopedian left, as Penny looked at the egg and cheese bagel sandwich still in her hand.
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