“Welcome to the Intergalactic Photographers’ Convention,” is what the banner over the hotel’s entrance read. Henrietta, the first human from Earth to ever be invited to attend the convention, stared at it for a full two minutes before dropping to her knees and opening her camera bag.
“Henri, what are you doing?” Came a squeal from her left. The squealer, a spotted brown six foot tall worm-like being, known as an Oblieque who insisted Henrietta call him Ted, was wiggling all around her. He tried to nudge her bag closed with his tail, but she pushed him off.
As she looked into his beady black eyes, her blue rimmed glasses slid down a freckled nose. “I’m gonna take a picture of that banner.”
Ted whined. “You can’t! That picture next to the quote is of Smegmyllion, the most renowned photographer in the known Universe, and he has a policy of never being photographed except for publicity shoots like the one for that banner. He doesn’t even allow pictures taken of his pictures.” Ted pointed with his tail. “You see how green his skin is and those red bumps along the three arms he’s using to motion to the quote? That’s a skin condition called photosynthesis.”
Henrietta nodded. “Yes, we have that on Earth.”
Ted eyed her cocoa colored skin skeptically. Henrietta snorted.
“Not humans, silly!” She hefted a large camera out of her bag with the telephoto lense already attached. “The plants on our planet do it. But that doesn’t explain why I can’t take a picture of his picture on a banner.”
Ted’s head wavered back and forth. “You just can’t! It isn’t done.” His whine turning desperate. “And don’t you remember? You signed a contract!”
“Yes. I signed a contract not to take pictures INSIDE the convention. If you hadn’t noticed, we’re still outside.” She looked up at the purple sky and wondered if she should get her flash out. Probably not for an outside shot.
“Well, yeah, ummm…” Ted stammered, feeling panicked. His skin began to take on the grayish hue of the wavy path they were standing on. “It’s just, you don’t understand. It’s not done!”
She turned to face him. “Look Ted. I’ve been taking pictures the whole way here, through three different galaxies, a wormhole, and a space port. You uttered not a peep. I even have a few pictures of you! What makes taking a picture of a banner so utterly wrong?”
“He’ll sue!” Ted wailed.
Henrietta thought about that for a minute. “Really? Well I’ve never seen the inside of a Space Station Court House so it might be worth it.” She snapped the picture and packed the camera back up. “Shall we go in?”
If Ted had been able to sweat, he would have been a dripping mess. As it was, he felt like he was going to shed his skin and it wasn’t even molting season. Fortunately, no one had been around to see the human’s faux pas, so he thought they might be okay. He nodded, motioning for her to lead the way.
There were booths all around the floor of the convention. Some were still in the process of setting up, but the majority were set and the photographers were lounging, with bored looks on their faces.
“We really are late,” Henrietta mumbled half to herself and half to Ted. Ted was already slithering ahead of her, so she had to scurry to catch up, pulling her cart of supplies behind her. Even though she was hurrying, she noticed all the odd looks she was getting. He led her to a booth all the way in the back of the convention hall. Once she had all her pictures on their stands, Ted started to slither off, but she caught him by his lapel. She quickly found that she couldn’t hold him.
“Do you mind?” He huffed, coming back to slide back into the fabric. “I have other obligations besides babysitting the newbie.”
Henrietta cocked an eyebrow. “Sorry to waste your time. I just have a question. That’s all.”
Ted sighed. Of course she had a question. The new ones always did. He was actually surprised that she hadn’t been pelting him with questions their entire trip “Yes, yes, of course. Go ahead.”
“Two questions, actually. Why is everyone staring at me? I mean, I’m not the oddest looking creature here. And, will I be able to understand anyone other than you?”
Ted grinned. “Oh that. Well, you know how I told you there’d never been a human at the Photographers’ Convention?” Henrietta nodded. “While that’s true, it’s just not the whole truth. The thing is, there has never been a human at any of the Intergalactic Conventions because the Consortium of Planets have never before believed that humans had anything to offer. I disagreed and petitioned for the opportunity to be one of the Earth scouts. Then I found you.” His face was very smug. “As far as understanding goes, you won’t be able to understand any of them unless Peeve is attached to you. Fortunately, Peeve has taken to you and wants nothing more than to stay with you. She especially loves your cashmere sweater.”
Henrietta looked down at what she had thought was a pendant that Ted had pinned onto her sweater and realized it was Peeve. Henrietta grinned and gently stroked her little companion with a finger. Peeve made a trilling, purring sound.
“Aw, see? She really likes you!” Ted wiggled away, humming to himself.
Henrietta stood at her booth feeling nervous and out of place. She knew this was a big step for her photography, but was still not quite sure how she was the first human to ever be where she was. After all, she’d only ever won one award. True, it was first place, but it was through her community college. Ted had been her instructor, so when he told her she had been selected for a photographer’s convention near his home and that he wanted to drive her, she thought they were going to be traveling to New York and had been very excited. She made the error of signing the contract without reading it closely and hadn’t even thought twice when Ted insisted she see his doctor for a blood test and retina scan.
“Excuse me.” A pompous sounding voice jolted her out of her revery. She looked up and up and found herself looking at an eight-foot tall creature with golden hair all over it’s face and neck and hands. The rest of the body was covered in what looked like a purple suit, but moved like a robe. “You’re the Earthean, right?”
Henrietta nodded, unable to stop staring. The face pulled into what she could only presume was a smile but two large fangs protruded from the lower jaw that gave the smile a menacing look. The being then bowed and held a hand twice as large as Henrietta’s head. It had three monster fingers that were covered on both sides with golden fur. “My name is Gamoblyxitooniym, but you can call me Ga.”
After a second, Henrietta clasped Ga’s enormous hand between her two hands. “My name is Henrietta, but you can call me Henri.”
If it was at all possible, Ga’s smile widened even further as they shook hands. “Did I do it right?” Ga’s question pulled the I out like taffy.
Lowering her hand, Henrietta was trying not to tremble since Ga’s smile made her think of being eaten. She blinked. “Pardon?”
Ga’s smile slipped a bit. “Did I do it right?”
Henrietta gave Ga a perplexed look. “Do what right?”
“The hand-shake thing.” Ga’s hands fluttered as they talked. “So, I’ve been studying primitive worldlings in my Other World Analysis class at University and we just got to the chapter on Earthenoids. I wanted to try out that weird greeting your kind does so I did that bowing thing then shook your hand.”
Plastering a smile on her face, Henrietta tried not to be offended by the term primitive worldling or the snide sound to Earthenoid. Ted had cautioned her not to take any condescension personally. “You did it perfectly.”
“Oh, that is so delightful!” Ga beamed, stamping and clasping their hands to their chest. The floor of the convention hall shook and several of the other photographers glared over at Henrietta’s booth as they straightened their displays.
“So where’s your booth?” Henrietta asked.
“Oh, I don’t have a booth.” Ga looked down then pulled at a cord from around their neck. Hanging from the lanyard was a long ID badge that looked a lot like almost any convention badge that Henrietta had seen when she was on earth. The big difference was that this one was littered with a bunch of different tiny squiggles and symbols. Ga held it up and pointed to one of the middle squiggles. After staring at it for a moment, Henrietta realized it was a language, a human language to be precise. She took it into her hands and squinted at it. She gave a bark of laughter when it became clear. She was looking at the word “volunteer” in Mandarin.
“Wait, how did I know that this says volunteer and that it’s in Chinese?”
Ga chortled. “Oh silly, all Earthanoids speak Chinese.”
Henrietta was about to contradict them, but then Peeve purred and nudged Henrietta’s chin. She looked down to see that the little one had crawled up onto her collar. She petted her gently. “Well aren’t you the sweetest! I didn’t know you did written words too.” Peeve preened.
“Oh!” Ga gasped. “You aren’t speaking Chinese? What are you speaking?”
Ga nodded, though they had no clue what English was. “You must be from one of the more remote areas on Earth. I do apologize.”
Henrietta was too perplexed to do anything but nod.
Ga bowed. “I must leave, my new friend Henri. I have to help the Martians.” They motioned with their chin to a table just three feet away from Henrietta’s. There were four creatures that were all red, naked, and shaped like rocks. Ga leaned in close. “I don’t like them. I know they come from the same Galaxy as you, but those Martians are a pretty exclusive clique of photographers.” Ga shook their head sadly and walked over to the Martian’s booth.
Henrietta wasn’t certain, but the Martians seemed to be snubbing her on purpose. Their rocky bodies had eyes that protruded from the tops of their heads that looked like smaller rocks on a swivel. But every time their eyes reached her booth, they gazed over her head.
“Ah, pray tell, what is this Human Race?” The creature addressing Henrietta had five eyes, three heads, and a body shaped like a basketball though colored green instead of orange and with six skinny tentacular appendages. They were holding what looked like a clipboard and making marks on it with its yellow tongue that leaked a grayish ink-like substance from the tip. Three of the tiny tentacles were tasked with moving the creature as well as keeping it balanced, something the appendages seemed uneasy with since the creature was constantly swaying, giving it an almost drunk appearance. The motion was making Henrietta dizzy, so she looked away as the octopus like creature was waving a tentacle in the air while pressing the clipboard to their chest.
“Oh, my apologies, dear one! I seemed to have made a cultural faux pas. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lord Raymond Halstead the third.” He did something that looked like it might have been a bow or him trying not to fall over.
Bowing back, Henrietta cleared her throat. “My name is Henrietta Bobinstock the first.” She didn’t know why she added the first to her name, but was satisfied with it once it came out.
“A pleasure. Now to my question, what is the human race?”
“Well, the human race is the dominant species on planet Earth. I have photographed humans from all over the world.” She indicated one picture after another as Sir Raymond took notes.
“I see,” he said finally. “But what are they racing for or against?”
Henrietta blinked. “Oh, it’s not a race like that.” She glanced down at Peeve. “It’s the same word, but it has a different meaning in my language. The way I was using it meant species.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that?” He chuckled. “These are very good. Unusual techniques, but well executed. I’m going to nominate you myself. You might just win.”
“Win?” Henrietta asked. “What do you mean win?”
“Why the contest, dear human of Earth. Gotta go now. Ta-ta!”
Henrietta stared after him. Ga came stumbling back over waving their large hands in excitement. “Oh isn’t that wonderful? Lord Raymond Halsted the third rarely ever goes over to the newest booth unless something spectacular catches at least three of his eyes!”
Henrietta smiled. “Oh! Well, that’s good. Can you tell me about the contest?”
All the excitement and energy seemed to drain out of Ga. “Wh-what? He told you that you were in the contest?”
Henrietta nodded. “He said he’d nominate me. That’s a good thing, right?”
“Weeeeell…” Ga gulped. “So it’s a good thing to be noticed, but the contest isn’t usually open to newbies, but I guess Lord Raymond is making an exception… which is, in fact, bad.”
Henrietta tilted her head. “I don’t get it. I mean, wouldn’t it be good to be in a contest?”
Ga sighed. “The thing is, the winner gets to choose who the loser is and the rumor has been that the Martian Consortium will most likely be winning this year. They really hate that you’re here, that’s all they talked about while I was over there helping them, so they’ll definitely make you the loser.”
“Okay. What happens to the loser?”
“Oh, just a moment.” Ga hurried over to a stack of chairs against the wall and dragged the largest one over to Henrietta’s booth to mirror her sitting position. Once settled, Ga’s long and pointed tongue flicked in and out of their mouth.
“Well, the loser can’t enter, or be entered, into the contest for the next, what is it… Five hundred years, I think? Plus, they’re banned from doing any photography for a year. The last part of the punishment is that all the pictures entered into the contest get burned.”
Henrietta’s eyes were wide as saucers. “No!”
Ga nodded slowly. “I know, it’s kind of… Oh, there’s one more thing… What was it?” Ga tapped a finger against their large lip. “Oh yeah! The losing photographer is forced to space walk, nude.”
“Hello?” A green tentacle was waving in front of her face. She followed the movement with her eyes. There were tracers of slightly lighter green in the air behind the arm. It was very pretty. “Are you alright?”
Henrietta stopped tracking the movement. She saw that she was in a small corner of the larger room. Behind her was an orange wall and a large window that showed a red and stormy sky. She was on something like a couch, but it seemed to move and adjust to her whenever she shifted. She focused on the face in front of her own. It was yellow, with a hint of green. The eyes, there were four of them, were golden and blinked in a slow succession as the large purple mouth frowned. Just below the chin, she thought it must be a chin, was a black and white polkadotted ascot. Below that, was a cluster of tentacles.
Henrietta sat up a little straighter. “Hey, you look like that Smegmyllion on the banner!”
The creature gave a low chuckle. He straightened, all three feet of him, and nodded. “That would be because I am he, or he is me!”
“Oh!” Henrietta gasped. “Ted says you’re famous.” At that moment, Ted slithered into the room, adjusting his tie with his tongue.
Smegmyllion turned to Ted. “Ted, I presume?”
Ted dipped his head in a bow. “It is an honor and a privilege to…”
At this point, Henrietta heard a high pitched squealing instead of words. She covered her ears and glanced down, noticing that Peeve was no longer on her sweater. Looking quickly towards Smegmyllion, she saw that Peeve was mid-launch from her sweater to Smegmyllion’s ascot. Henrietta reached out, cringing at the squealing, and caught her. As soon as her fingers touched Peeve, the squeals stopped.
“…nominated despite being new!” Ted said. Smegmyllion was nodding and looking over at Henrietta’s pictures.
Cupping her palm to hold Peeve, Henrietta looked down at the little one. “Peeve, why did you try to leave me?”
Peeve sat cross-legged in the center of her palm. “This is the first time you ever talked to me. Smegmyllion would talk to me all the time after Ted found him. I missed that.”
“Oh Peeve, I’m so sorry! I will talk to you. So you know Smegmyllion?”
“Of course! I was his translator for three decades. But then he went and got famous, requiring a fancier Clusterinian and my cousin Eddie got the job. I hate Eddie so much! He’s the reason why I jumped off of you. I was going to go fight him. I’m glad you caught me! He’s so much bigger than me and would’ve pummeled me. But since I jumped, it’ll look like I was going to smash him, and you stopped me.” Peeve stood up, leaned over and hugged Henrietta’s thumb.
She glanced over at Smegmyllion’s ascot and saw a bigger Clusterinian making faces at Peeve and shaking a tiny fist.
Henrietta looked back down and smiled. “Glad I could help.”
Peeve kissed Henrietta’s thumb then launched herself back onto Henrietta’s sweater.
“And I promise,” Henrietta whispered. “I’ll talk to you more.” Peeve purred.
Looking up, Henrietta noticed that the entire place had gone silent. Smegmyllion was on a platform in the middle of the room that hovered about five feet in the air and was talking.
“My fellow photographers! It is with great honor that I am here today to announce the winner of the Intergalactic Photographers’ Convention 1,056,003 Best Photo Series Contest. After winning it for the last three decades, I am delighted to pass it on to…” At this point he held out a tentacle and a round orb sitting on his utmost suction cup lit up, giving off a purplish glow. Smegmyllion’s four eyes blinked one after the other in rapid succession. He shook the orb, it whistled at him, he shook it again.
“Get on with it!”
Henrietta couldn’t see where the deep voice came from, but it rumbled the very floor.
Smegmyllion nodded. “This is quite a surprise! The winner is Henrietta Bobinstock the first!”
After a second of silence, the word WHO shouted from every corner of the hall. But no one was as surprised as Henrietta. She stood up from the couch and looked around. She saw Ga clapping, the Martians glaring, Ted preening with pride, and Lord Raymond Halstead the third winking at her.
“Peeve,” she whispered, “what’s going on?”
“I think Lord Raymond Halstead the third pulled some strings.”
Peeve made a trilling sound. “I think he likes you, or at least your photography.”
“So he bribed the judges?”
“Not really. He is the judges, or rather, the judge. You really must’ve impressed him.”
Ted had wrapped his tail around Henrietta’s wrist and was pulling her over to where the platform was lowering. She stepped up on it and allowed Smegmyllion to put something like a ribbon around her neck. A heavy plate-sized hunk of metal hung from it. She held it up so she could see it better. It was silverish and ugly.
“Thank you,” she said, shaking Smegmyllion’s extended tentacle. The room filled with clicks and flashes as each photographer snapped a picture. She was just looking around to see if Ted was taking a picture when three mouths with wings flew at each photographer and swallowed their cameras.
Smegmyllion smiled, stepping off the platform. “No pictures, remember, it’s in my contract.”
Lord Raymond Halstead the third, who had climbed up as Smegmyllion stepped down, nodded his furthest head. The one closest to her whispered, “Now comes the best part.”
The middle head smiled out at the crowd then spoke, “As is custom, the winner gets to nominate the loser.”
Henrietta shook her head, thinking that she hadn’t even had a chance to walk around and look at all the pictures. As she was just about to say that she had no desire to nominate anyone, Ga spoke up from the floor. “She nominates the Martian Consortium.”
“No!” Henrietta shouted as she saw all four rock-like creature turn to glare at her. “I nominate no one!”
“Hey!” Came a small voice from the floor. “We’re not all trash! That’s just mean! You didn’t even stop by my booth. I know I’m small but…”
“Peeve!” Henrietta breathed through clenched teeth.
“Oh sorry,” Peeve said and farted out a better translation of what she said.
“You can’t do that,” said Lord Raymond Halstead the third. “You have to nominate someone. It’s tradition.”
All the other creatures murmured in agreement.
“Fine!” She said. “I nominate myself.” She took off the ribbon and handed it to Lord Raymond Halstead the third. “But since I won, I believe my winning cancels out my losing. Now I want to go home.”
She jumped off the platform and pushed through the crowd towards her booth. As the voices around her rose to a fevered pitch of confusion, she saw Ted. He and Ga were hurriedly packing her staff. Ga motioned her over then quickly led them through a curtain to a door leading out the back of the Convention center.
“We’ll take my ship!” Ga called over their shoulder as the wind was whipping red sand all around them. “It’s the closest!”
Henrietta could just barely see Ted, but was able to follow him. She pulled her wagon, leaning into the wind. The air crackled, sending little electric shocks along her flesh, causing all her hair to stand on end. She reached the ship just as the first raindrops hit her skin. This water was thicker and stickier than Earth’s water so she was happy to be inside the ship when it started pouring. Ga gave her a towel to dry off with, showed her to a couch identical to the one they had lain her on when she fainted, and strapped her in.
“This was the best convention ever! And now, we go to Earth!”
Peeve trilled, she had loved being a mastiff. Ted groaned. While he had enjoyed being human, he had been looking forward to taking on another form. He was also concerned about bringing Ga to Earth. Since the Tryklorians cannot change shape, some humans were sure to notice the massive, golden haired creature trying to imitate them. But the more he thought about it, the more the thought entertained him.
“I’m so excited!” Ga squealed, starting up their ship. “To Earth!”
“To Earth,” Henrietta echoed. A brief smile touching her lips.
Bio: Jeanine Marie Vaughn lives in a town with more dead people than living just outside of Chicago. She runs the webzine cemeteryguardians.com and a library based open mic called the No Shush Salon. She will soon be going back to school to become a teen librarian and works in two libraries. She also fosters cats, walks dogs for a shelter, and has cats and bunnies. Check her out at j9vaughn.blogspot.com
 Oblieques, from the planet Oblong of the Galaxy Tridon, have no distinguishing sex or gender and indeed, as a whole, eschew such linguistic delineations. But having lived among humans for three years in a human disguise, Ted was used to using the male pronoun and having a name. He had come to prefer that over the common Obliequean method of calling everyone squish as unto, “Have you seen squish?” “Why yes! Squish is with squish’s squishfriend, squish told me.”
 Smegmyllion’s planet of origin and species are unknown.
 Oblieques rarely wear clothes. Their serpentine bodies are not suited for clothing. Yet again, this was an area in which Ted had become more human while he was living on Earth. Once he went back to his natural form, he still wanted to wear clothes. Unfortunately, he was constantly coming out of his coat.
 Peeve is Ted’s pet Clusterina. While living on Earth Peeve looked like a mastiff, similar to how Ted passed for an old Jewish man from the Bronx, and was Ted’s service dog. Peeve was actually no bigger than a butterfly and just as brightly colored when in her natural form. No wings though, just six very sticky arms. Clusterinas have a gliding capability similar to flying squirrels, plus they can launch themselves upwards. They are parasites from the planet Custros. No one really minds their parasitic tendencies as they eat words and fart out translations.
 One of the Tryklors from the planet Tryladok. They love observing and imitating other species, especially if said specie comes from another planet. A popular Tryladokian proverb is: “Find someone to imitate and your life will resonate. Never be yourself.” Unfortunately, they have no chameleon like skills, so they always look like Trykladokians no matter how they act.
 This narrator has opted for the usage of the plural pronoun of they, them, and their when the preference is unknown rather than squish since said narrator thinks squish is silly. (Please, don’t tell the Obliequeans this as it could mean the firing of your humble narrator.)
 A common misconception among the Intergalactic community is that all Earthling Humans speak Chinese. Ga had actually been practicing their Mandarin on their way over to Henrietta’s booth, but grew shy upon seeing the human and, noticing that she had her very own Clusterina, Ga opted to speak in Tryklorian. This was good since Ga only knew how to ask for potatoes and brandy and how to get out the front door as she was being pursued by thugs in Chinese.
 The Martians were, in fact, snubbing her. They were pissed that another lifeform from their galaxy, much less their solar system, was invited to the convention and had argued with the Counsel for Intergalactic Photographers against Henrietta being admitted since all of her photographs were limited to Earth. In the end, it wasn’t a strong enough reason not to admit her since the Garlargians had only ever submitted pictures of one crater from one of their moons. Granted, it was a pretty spectacular crater and every Garlargian Religion was based on the beauty of that crater.
 A Florian from Custros, the same planet Peeve’s species hailed from.
 This was in fact not his name but the language of Florian is so far from human speech that Peeve’s farted translation merely gave him the closest title, Lord, and a name that Peeve was fond of in English. The only part that was a literal translation was him being the third of his name.
 This is untrue, though Henrietta is not to be blamed since that is what humans teach themselves. The dominant species on Earth is Whales.
 This is a nervous tick that Ga had since they were but a pup, not a trait they particularly liked.
 This is not always a death sentence since some of the species at the convention are fine out in space with or without clothing.
 The length of time is not accurate, but it was the closest translation from Clusterian to English.