We only noticed the humans after they blew up most of their solar system. Sure, they have been cataloged by some imperial prospecting vessel far in the past, but the star cluster they originated from was sparse in resources, far from major trade routes, and filled with worthless debris that made space travel slow, costly, and inefficient. So the United Empire of Thal never bothered with it and the pre-FTL human race was given no more attention than a single footnote in an archived survey protocol:
Once our military intelligence noticed the massive energy spike in the Sol system that can only be described as an attempt to violate every fusion-based work and safety law, it was deemed necessary to send an official Imperial delegate to establish first contact and bring them into the fold.
Negotiations were short, in exchange for the tech necessary to evacuate their now broken home and travel the stars, they became the newest semi-integrated vassal race of our hegemony. Not that they offered much of value, really. They weren’t especially strong, or smart, their technology was basic and aesthetically unpleasing. But overall, they were exactly what the archive said they were: Harmless.
Having lost their home system, most Humans took to the stars as nomads and vagabonds. Jumping from job to job, from system to system, ferrying cargo, or running low-skill labor on space stations. They were… resilient, or maybe just stubborn. Not exceptional in any way, but reliable. Could work in a wide array of temperatures without much complaining, did not need much space or comfort to rest, and ask for little to no wage. It was no wonder that over the coming decades, most ships and almost every larger spaceport in the Empire had some humans on their payroll, just doing their jobs and chatting with their species-diverse co-workers.
If one would have observed them -someone that mattered that is- then they would have noticed a strange thing about humans. Instead of talking to other species in the Common Galactic Tongue, which the ruling line of our Empress had spread as the unifying language to all vassal states and assimilated sectors, they wasted their time learning local tongues.
All of them.
It was not uncommon to see a human explaining one of their card games to 7 different species of dockworkers, switching between all their languages while substituting missing vocabulary with gestures and pictures.
We brushed it off as a human thing, they were weird but again: Harmless.
Then the Day of Fracturing happened.
Our Empress had died without a clear successor. Her many spawn vied for power, and the greatest civil war of Imperial history broke out, shattering our proud and ancient realm into a patchwork of rivaling states. Old vassals, especially those whose subjugation had been… less than peaceful, declared independence and integrated species of all kinds rebelled against their rightful place beneath us.
Having been spread across the galaxy, Humanity was a present minority in every newly proclaimed nation. They had rarely been soldiers – they generally were declared unfit for service, either too weak, too slow, or too undisciplined – humans remained mostly on the sidelines of the conflict, continuing with their menial jobs as if the galaxy had not just caught on fire. Guess if your species had to overcome their home system literally breaking into pieces, seeing the universe plunge into chaos becomes no excuse to slack off somehow.
In addition, many human nomad fleets declared neutrality, continuing to deliver their cargo, offering repairs and resupply to anyone that would require it. We sure weren’t complaining, those jobs still needed to be done by someone after all.
Soon having a human as your supplier or in your workforce became a sign of security, not only for us, but for all the other splinter factions as well. A guarantee that even in an emergency, things would – in some way or another – continue to function. Whenever one side would conquer a starport or station, the employed humans were simply kept in their positions. They knew the daily routine, they were reliable, and above all: Harmless.
A century of war, broken bonds, and belligerence was followed by a shaky peace treaty. Borders remained either closed or heavily controlled, and trade between nations came to a near stop. This, combined with the fact that most secessionist states began to purge the use of the Common Galactic Tongue which they saw as a symbol of oppression, lead to the Age of Isolation. Even if the different empires wanted to talk and trade with each other, which was seldom enough, the number of people who could talk to other species was near zero.
Well, besides the humans.
Having lived amongst a myriad of different species and cultures while maintaining a common network between each other brought them to the point where they were the only ones with both the linguistic skills as well as the social skills to maintain any kind of exchange between nations.
Any attempt at trade or diplomacy attempted by a side that had any significant power could mean nothing but deceit or mockery. But trade with a human, that was okay. They were harmless, everyone knew that.
And because everyone knew they were harmless, everyone employed them.
And as messengers.
And as translators.
As well as their diplomats.
And sometimes, when I look out into the void of space and into the vastness that once was our glorious Empire, I feel like it still exists somehow, holding power over the entire galaxy.
But it is no longer us who are in charge.
Republished with permission from the author, CuriousWombat42. Image created using Stable Diffusion.