The first Auddid colony on Treye’s list was huge: a village’s worth of interconnected chambers carved from a bank of ancient, dried mud. From a distance, it swarmed with activity, but as Treye drew closer, the Auddids retreated inside.
Two months working as a census-taker was long enough to learn when a site would be trouble, but not long enough to figure out solutions. Have adventures, meet fascinating people! the ads had promised, but she hadn’t understood the part about courage and unwavering dedication until she started the job.
“Hello?” she called, holding up her tablet like a badge. “I’m from the Galactic Union Census. I have some questions for you.”
A lone Auddid emerged from a round doorway. They — her briefing said Auddids didn’t have genders — folded all four hands behind their back. “We pay our taxes. We want no trouble.”
“You’re not in trouble! The Union needs an accurate count of your region’s population in order to provide services that benefit you, the people. Services like roads, schools—”
“Supremacy never gave us any services.”
How did you correct someone without talking down to them, when their species was so diminutive you were literally craning your neck downward to address them? “The Supremacy has been defeated! And the Union has a vision for a better—”
“Come another time. Today is the holy day of the Swamp Blesser and only the cleansed can converse. Even speaking to you now, I risk upsetting the Swamp Blesser.” They shifted side to side, uneasy.
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” She couldn’t come back, though. With three thousand planets to cover in two years, every census-taker’s itinerary was nightmarish. If only this colony had filled out the electronic form, she wouldn’t have to bother them. “I didn’t mean to disturb your celebration, but I really don’t want your planet to be under-counted. That wouldn’t be fair to you.” What a mess! She chewed her lip, thinking. “Could I… become cleansed? Then could you answer my questions?”
Their whiskers twitched. The Auddid’s deep-creased skin was the same red-brown color as the mud they burrowed in. Their solid black eyes gave no hint of their feelings. “Fine,” they said at last. “But you must do the full dedication.”
Treye had to crouch to enter the burrow, and once inside, she knelt rather than hunching over. A few Auddids rushed up to examine her, wide-eyed, while others hung back. She really needed them to fill out the forms; she was empowered to record her estimates in cases of noncooperation, but here, with the dim light and so many fast-scurrying inhabitants, she couldn’t even make a guess.
“First, you drink the body of the Swamp Blesser,” intoned the head-of-household. They held out a bowl of something green and rank-smelling — yep, that was swamp water, they were making her drink swamp water. Treye’s stomach heaved as she took the bowl. The water had bits in it, and a layer of goo floating on top. So this is what they meant by dedication, she thought as she held her nose and drank it down.
It tasted like someone else’s vomit had grown moldy. She couldn’t help pressing a hand to her mouth, and she hoped it looked like appreciation. The last thing she wanted was to disrespect their sacred ritual. As soon as this was over, she’d run a toxin check on herself. The Auddids made chittering noises, some prayer of devotion to their deity.
“Next, the dance of devotion to the Swamp Blesser,” they said, and all Treye could think was crap before she was swaying and jumping, following the Auddid’s lead. At their urging, she chanted with them, words that came through her translator as: “Oh great swampy one, oh you’re the best, swampiest of swamps, we’ll dance for you all day.”
Bad translation, it had to be. Treye kept her face straight and repeated the chant with all the respect she could muster while trying desperately to keep down her swamp juice.
It was too much swaying. She pressed both hands to her mouth, the swamp juice on the verge of making a very rude reappearance.
“Good, good. We are surprised you are willing to follow our traditions so closely.”
“Is that it? Am I cleansed?” Treye had never felt less cleansed, not even when she took census on the mud-flats of Barjar.
More chittering, all around her. Why did it suddenly feel like they were laughing at her?
The head-of-household hissed them to silence. “There is one more step. Please sit.”
They led her to a chair. Treye slumped onto it with relief — and it emitted the loudest farting noise she’d ever heard. She sat bolt-upright, the redness of mortification battling with nausea green for control of her face. Reaching under her butt, she pulled out… a whoopee cushion. An honest-to-goodness alien whoopee cushion.
Don’t be rude, don’t be rude. “Is this part of your cleansing ceremony?” she asked, her voice as blank as the damned census form she needed them to fill out.
The chittering grew louder than ever, and two of the Auddids fell over, hugging each other. Laughing, yeah, they were definitely laughing.
Treye looked the head-of-household in the eye. She had to ask. “Is this really the Swamp Blesser’s holy day?”
“Tickling fishes, no! There is no Swamp Blesser. We needed to see if this new Union of yours respects us, or if this census is for stealing our information and ignoring our wants.”
“This was… a test?” Treye asked.
“A fun test, for us! And good news: you pass. You showed great respect even for our made-up traditions.” They held out all four hands. “I will complete your forms now.”
Treye left a few minutes later, her smile green-tinged but her satisfaction real as she checked this colony off her list. One more win for the true heroes of the Union. Nine hundred and eighty-three sites to go.