I sat on the cold emerald-green stone floor waiting for the Magistrate to call out Tony Garibaldi, which would send me into the courtroom. I’d chewed my upper lip almost raw and didn’t need a mirror to know the freckled tan skin of my face looked several shades paler than usual. I needed a good comedy routine, and I needed it soon.
A guard with black and gray fur placed at the end of the hall kept me from running. She was big even for a Cantorian, a species of centaurs the size of large Earth horses, and could have passed for a Clydesdale with arms.
A cutter of the Cantorian Frontier Guard had brought me to their home world, Zondlar, and an officer who looked like a Pinto pony had deposited me in the courthouse. I’d said, “I’ve been telling you I didn’t mean to cross into your territory.”
“So you claim.”
“My ship made a navigational error. I know about your new laws and had no intention to perform archeology, even though it’s true I am an archeologist.”
“Humans are humorous. You will require that skill to regale the Magistrate with funny yarns.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will appear before the Magistrate for trial by comedy.”
He’d walked away hissing, the Cantorian form of laughter.
I’d muttered, “You could have told me sooner, you miserable horse’s ass,” while my heart skipped a few beats.
Cantorians had a capricious sense of justice, but determining my fate by comedy? I was no stand-up comedian. And what kind of comedy would they like? The puns and double entendres I knew were not all that humorous. The knock-knock jokes I could remember were infantile. When I recalled a few ancient shyster jokes, I figured I might have it.
Considering my legal situation, I thought better of actually telling lawyer jokes. However, the Cantorians hated a rival species that resembled lizards called the Brexans. They could serve as the butt of modified jokes. I also needed a scavenging lower animal and remembered a journal article about a fish on Zondlar called a carft that was similar to an Earth catfish. I rehearsed several jokes over and over in my mind while praying they were good enough.
The Magistrate called me into the courtroom, which looked appropriately ominous with its walls of dark wood. He reminded me of an Appaloosa and stood on a dais flanked by a semi-circle of 15 other Cantorians.
The Magistrate said, “You have entered our space with the intent to conduct archeology.” He held up a hand before I could open my mouth. “Do not attempt to deny it. Amuse us to avoid punishment. You have one mzixo-spin.”
One mzixo-spin. About one and a third minutes. Panic from the mother of all cases of stage fright gripped me for a few moments and my stomach seemed to be on a journey to the center of the planet. Then I took a deep breath, exhaled, and mumbled, “Well, here goes nothing.”
I launched into my routine in a firm voice. “How can you tell if it’s a carft or a Brexan squashed on a road?” With so little time allotted to me, I paused only a couple of heartbeats between the joke’s setup and punch lines. “There are tire skid marks in front of a carft.”
A few of the audience began hissing.
“What’s lost if a land bus tumbles over a cliff carrying a full load of Brexans? A bus.”
More began hissing.
“What’s the difference between a carft and a Brexan? One is a scum-sucking bottom feeder. The other is a fish.”
The entire audience was hissing, which put a grin on my face, the first in a while. I had time for one more joke.
“Did you hear about the Brexan monarch having a meal of carft brains last night? She puked them back out a few mzixo-spins later. They were the smartest things to ever come out of her mouth.”
The room contained a herd of hissing cats. Some of the Cantorians were even slapping the thighs of their front legs, a very humanlike gesture. My hope of freedom soared like an eagle. Against all odds, they thought my moldy old jokes were funny.
The Magistrate spoke after the hissing died down. “You are humorous. However, I must now consult with higher authorities.”
My hope plummeted like an eagle that had flown into a wind turbine. I chewed my lower lip, and soon moved on to my fingernails.
Less than an hour later, the Magistrate stood over me. “Sovereign Victorium desires to meet the first human so foolish as to test our new law prohibiting archeology, especially since you are comical.”
The huge guard escorted me to the Sovereign’s palace, a gleaming mansion built of light colored marble. Victorium sat on a plush purple throne before thirty to forty of her court. She looked like a Palomino that had gone gray.
Everyone quieted when she cleared her throat, and she looked at me wearing an expression that struck me as no-nonsense and stern. “If you amuse us, we will consider leniency. You should be warned we are not easily amused. Begin.”
As I told my jokes, many of the court started stifling their laughter, which sounded like heavy breathing. They clearly didn’t want to commit to laughing for some reason, perhaps until they saw what Victorium thought. I completed my routine and held my breath.
Victorium’s stern expression softened a bit. “You would have been far more amusing a short time ago. We will soon announce we are improving relations with the Brexans. At this time, a Brexan envoy is in the palace.” She paused for a few seconds. “For your punishment, you will spend 36 spins undergoing our new Brexan diversity and sensitivity training.”
My stomach churned for a few seconds, as if I’d eaten carft brains. Then my hope soared again. How bad could the training be?
Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.