“Clear grounds container? You haven’t even ground anything yet!” shouted Maligar.
“CLEAR GROUNDS CONTAINER” repeated the coffee machine, now more insistent. On its screen a simple schematic indicated the hatch that would allow access to the container in question.
“You smart-aleck piece of plastic! Say that one more time and so help me I’ll … oh, there it is.”
A rubbery flipper pressed a hereto unseen button and the grounds container popped out with a soft click. It was packed solid with the dark brown remains of what was currently the galaxy’s most sought-after commodity.
“You were meant to be brand new! I paid top credits for the latest model!” cried Maligar indignantly, visual receptors glaring at the somehow smug machine. Inwardly he cringed, waiting for a sarcastic response. When none was forthcoming he couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
His old coffee machine would have given back as good as it got, if only because it had been raised to sentience as a practical joke played upon Maligar by Thompson, the Human ambassador. Its choice to depart back to the Sol system unexpectedly had caught him off guard and, for some reason he couldn’t quite put his flipper on, had left him feeling somewhat adrift.
The enduring silence weighed heavy on his metaphorical heart, as he regarded the supposedly new, supposedly non-sentient, coffee machine. The heavy heart was metaphorical as, being a gelatinous Trovaskian, Maligar didn’t actually have one.
He picked up the grounds container and dejectedly emptied it into the trash receptacle, his earlier fire now replaced by a sullen despondency.
It was at this moment that the door to his ambassadorial suite chimed, announcing an unexpected visitor.
“Go away!” shouted Maligar as he jammed the now emptied grounds container back into its slot. He stabbed a button and the machine hummed to life, commencing whatever mysterious processes it used to brew the hallowed beverage.
“Maligar, it’s me” called Praetax through the intercom. “Open the door, please.”
A bubbling sigh escaped Maligar’s mouth, a cavity he formed within his body when he needed to vocalise. He slithered over to the door and allowed it to slide open just enough for him to peer outside, only to jump back in surprise as Praetax forced himself through the thin gap. The Mantoid’s small insectile body was perfectly evolved to squeeze through tight places.
A weak “hey!” was all the protest Maligar could muster as Praetax crawled passed the edge of the doorframe, extended his diaphanous wings, and fluttered over to perch on a nearby chair. Praetax’s expressionless compound eyes regarded his old companion carefully.
“Friend Maligar, I am concerned about your emotional state. You do not leave your quarters anymore and you have not attended a Senate session in weeks, not even to engage in mockery of the Feline Ambassador. I know it brings you great joy to covertly apply adhesive patches to her external keratin filaments and then watch as she locomotes awkwardly. What is it that is troubling you?”
Silence was the only reply Praetax received as he watched Maligar stare impassively at the coffee machine, a trickle of hot rich liquid dripping into a human mug. He decided to wait him out, knowing that silence was not Maligar’s forte. It didn’t take long.
“I’m fine. Just feeling a bit under the weather. That’s all” grunted Maligar.
“That is the fourth coffee machine you have purchased this month” pointed out Praetax, glancing at the smashed remains of the other units piled in the corner. “Why did you reject the others?”
“They know what they did” growled Maligar defensively. “None of them could brew like her.”
“Her?” asked Praetax. “Your previous coffee machine had no gender.”
“She called herself a ‘her’. That was enough for me.”
An eventful life had taught Praetax that unseen wounds took the longest to heal. He decided to drop the subject for the time being.
“I came to enquire if you would like to join us for lunch.”
Maligar turned around, a now steaming mug of coffee clutched in one flipper.
Praetax gestured one scythe-like claw towards the door, which was still slightly open. A tough rubbery tentacle, its underside dotted with small rings, slithered its way through the gap, soon followed by another, and then another. Once four of the tentacles had pushed their way through a large bulbous mass followed. The skin covering it stretched as it squeezed through the gap, causing strangely shifting patterns to play over its surface. A series of small popping sounds could be heard before the whole mass flopped on to the floor, four more tentacles following it.
“This is Ambassador Otto, representative of the Cephalopods of Eden Prime, another Terran client species.”
Otto rose up off the floor, eight tentacles supporting the mass of his body a meter off the ground. An eerie eye turned towards Maligar, its irregularly shaped horizontal pupil expanding in the soft low light of the room.
“Greetings Ambassador Maligar. Ambassador Praetax has told me quite a bit about you.”
A lone tentacle reached out to “shake hands” in the human fashion. Slow ripples of motion ran along its length as it hovered in the air.
Turning back towards Maligar, Praetax continued the introduction.
“I thought that it would be good for you to get out and…”
Praetax’s speech trailed off. Maligar was gone, the space where he had stood now empty. His large gelatinous friend was not known for stealth, yet somehow he had disappeared without a sound.
Large multi-faceted eyes whirled as they searched the room, before coming to rest on something strange. A coffee mug was seemingly embedded in the wall. He flittered over to inspect it more closely, only to realise that mug wasn’t embedded in the wall at all, but rather in a thin, mostly transparent, layer of jelly that covered the entire wall surface. He took a step back and examined it as a whole.
“Maligar, what are you doing?” he asked, perplexed by what he was seeing.
There was no response, just a strange quivering motion in the layer of jelly. From the wall’s centre a pair of visual receptors stared intently, fixated on the eight-limbed newcomer.
Several moments of awkward silence followed as Praetax and Otto regarded the odd form of Maligar, spread flat over the surface of the wall. Here and there hanging pieces of artwork caused the thin sheet of the Trovaskian’s body to bulge out, their images distorted by the strange refraction of light through his jellylike tissues.
Otto slowly withdrew his proffered tentacle when it became obvious that no reply would be forthcoming. Discretely he lifted two other tentacles behind the mantle of his body and tapped the face of a smart-watch worn by one of them, which started beeping insistently.
“Oh, would you look at that!” Otto exclaimed. “I completely forgot about a previous appointment. I must be going.” He reached out and patted Praetax on the back of his carapace. “You’ll have to excuse me. Perhaps another time?”
“Of course” replied Praetax, turning to face Otto, one eye still locked on Maligar. “Until next time.”
Otto bowed towards the wall. “Ambassador Maligar. It’s been a… pleasure.”
With that Otto moved briskly back towards the door, rapidly squeezing himself through the gap once again. A few seconds later he was gone.
“MALIGAR!” shouted Praetax when the cephalopod was out of earshot. “How could you be so rude!”
His words were punctuated by angry buzzes, his wings beating frantically in agitation. He jumped into the air and shot over to hover several centimetres away from the wall, glaring directly into Maligar’s visual receptors.
Under the Mantoid’s withering gaze Maligar let his body drip down the wall to collect in a large puddle at its base, visual receptors peering up guiltily.
“What was that thing?” asked Maligar, voice sheepish with shame.
“That ‘thing’ was the Ambassador of one of the pre-eminent species within the Terran Union! How could you embarrass me like that?” yelled Praetax as his colleague cowered in his puddle, unused to the Mantoid’s fury.
“But… but… it flowed like a liquid… but it’s a solid” protested Maligar, his voice tinged by more than a little fear.
“Cephalopods do not have skeletal structures. This gives them a high degree of malleability” responded Praetax as he settled down into a nearby chair. He was not accustomed to anger and his short burst of rage left him feeling fatigued.
“It’s unnatural. Solid things should act like solids, and liquids should act like liquids. That’s the way it’s always been” said Maligar, emboldened by Praetax’s retreat. He rose from the puddle back into his usual upright posture.
“Maligar, you cannot go around judging sapient beings on whether they are liquid, solid or gaseous. It’s discriminatory. You’re better than that.”
After retrieving his miraculously unspilled coffee Maligar sat in the chair across from his friend before delivering his rebuttal.
“Solids often think that way. I know you can’t help it.” There was a pause. “Don’t worry, you’re one of the good ones” he said.
Praetax regarded the Trovaskian with puzzlement. He was pretty sure that Maligar’s opinion on beings comprised of states of matter different from his own was racist. Well, maybe not racist. Statist?
“What’s your view on plasmas?” he asked.
“Don’t get me started” replied Maligar, sipping his coffee.
In the face of such obstinacy Praetax’s will to argue left him. Years of friendship had taught him that debate was useless. In order to effect any change in his friend he would have to chip away at his prejudices gradually. Fortunately he had seen enough goodness in Maligar to know that it was worth the effort. He decided to forgive the indiscretion.
Oblivious to the thoughts of his Mantoid comrade, Maligar’s curiosity got the best of him.
“Why are you hanging around with cephalopods anyway?” he asked.
“He’s helping me organise a thank you gift for the Humans. Do you remember that problem my people had with Space Kraken attacks on our Tau Ceti colony?” said Praetax.
“Yes” Maligar said with a shudder. Space Kraken were serious business, descending on planets without warning and causing untold damage. They were the bane of any new colony that didn’t have the military capability to drive the mindless brutes away.
“The Humans solved it for us. Remember that giant robot fighting league they started on the third moon of Dastacles? Well, they managed to repurpose some of the robots to wrangle the Kraken. Turns out Humans have quite a knack for domesticating animals.”
Coffee flew out of Maligar’s ingestion cavity as he sputtered in surprise.
“Humans have domesticated Space Krakens??!!”
Praetax grinned mentally, happy to be the one shocking Maligar for a change.
“Yes. They have even converted the giant robot fighting league into a Space Kraken racing league. The robots are the jockeys. They do laps around the asteroid belt. Perhaps it’s more of a ‘demolition derby’, as Thompson likes to call it.”
“Indeed. To top it off they’ve managed to miniaturise them and are now selling them as pets. Thompson kindly gave me one. It’s a queen.”
With that Praetax reached a claw to the breast pocket of his vest and pulled it open. A tiny creature flew out and began circling the room excitedly, propelled through the air by some unseen force. From his other pocket Praetax produced a food pellet and lured the beast down to his shoulder, where it started munching happily.
Maligar regarded it warily. The number of tentacles was different, and instead of a beak it had a maw filled with tiny needle-like teeth.
“It looks a lot like a Cephalopod, doesn’t it?” he said.
Praetax regarded him wryly.
“Does it? I hadn’t noticed.”
The pellet consumed, the mini-Kraken resumed its patrol around the room. Suddenly it spotted the sack full of coffee beans sitting next to the coffee machine and made a beeline for it, plunging into the bag through a tear in the top. Sounds of manic crunching issued forth immediately.
“Hey! That’s expensive!” yelled Maligar.
“Oh, leave her Maligar. She’s small and won’t eat much. I’ll pay you back” said Praetax.
Maligar watched the sack sceptically as it rocked slightly from the furious motion inside.
“So what gift are the Cephalopods helping you with?” he asked.
“It’s a waterslide.”
“Pssh, the Humans already have a bunch of those. I could have told you that and saved you the trouble.”
Praetax rubbed his mandibles together in a grin.
“Not like this. This one is special. It’s space-based. As big as a continent. It takes three days to ride from one end to the other. The Cephalopods are doing such interesting things with artificial gravity. It’s quite spectacular.”
“I find waterslides offensive. They’re discriminatory against liquid species. There’s too great a risk of dilution.”
The thought of his liquid essence being dispersed in a raging torrent of water caused Maligar to tremble. Praetax however simply frowned at Maligar’s blatant hypocrisy, but he put his frustration aside and went on.
“At the moment the slide is still in the testing phase. It is strictly invitation only, and not open to non-solid species due to safety concerns. However the Humans are developing a protective plastic bladder to shield liquid and gaseous beings during the ride, eliminating the risk of dilution that you fear so much. I may be able to pull some strings and get you into the test program if you like.”
Maligar’s scorn was plain to see.
“So that I can suffer the indignity of being bounced around like a bulb of coffee in a zero g vending machine? Humph. I think not.”
The mini-Kraken crawled out of the sack looking both satiated and quite pleased with itself. It rose up languidly into the air once more to fly a slow lazy circle around the room.
“It’s natural to be scared of new things. Try not to let fear limit your life experiences, my friend” said Praetax, standing to make his way towards to the door.
“I’ll be dried up and crusted before I endanger my life for a little senseless fun” hooted Maligar as he watched his friend depart.
Praetax halted and turned to face him.
“Liquids often think that way. Don’t worry, you’re one of the good ones.” With that he scuttled away through the gap in the door, off to destinations unknown.
Maligar sat for a moment and pondered the words, suspecting there was more to them than there seemed. As usual true understanding eluded him.
The mini-Kraken descended to perch on the rim of the mug. Maligar regarded it with fresh eyes.
“You know, I see how you could be considered cute. I can certainly imagine you attacking a tiny little planet my fearsome little friend. Who’s a good little queen?”
He reached out with a flipper to pat the mini-Kraken on its head. It shrieked and Maligar jerked his flipper back when without warning the creature suddenly turned and defecated a thick black inky substance straight into his coffee.
Seemingly unburdened the beast took to the air once more, shooting through the slightly open door to follow its owner.
Maligar looked with disgust at his defiled beverage, shaking with anger. Thin wisps of steam began rising from his body.