About Space & Time
The Galaxy is a big place. No matter how well you prepare, you aren’t ready for it.
Jregli thought she was tricking someone into buying her; she got more than a new Master. Shdr’edno thought he was buying a machine, and he got a slave who outsmarts him at every turn. Frank Neim thought he was pursuing a military career, and he got an opportunity to fail. Their lives collide as they try to survive Space & Time.
Jregli was very glad that it was Fourth Day. All the sentients made for more activity for her, and more activity helped hide her smug satisfaction. The battle was going quite well, and it would not help her cause to let Shdr’edno know she was so pleased. She’d decided to build on his description of her as clumsy; it had worked before, and she could make it work even better here. Back Home, she only needed to make Wesf’er want to get rid of her. Here, she needed to make sympathies come to her. Most other Races valued children and tended to coddle them, which was something she could use. As far as the other employees knew, Uncle Shdr’edno was bullying his niece.
She’d also kept up the façade of fear, increasing it slightly whenever her erstwhile Uncle was around; the fear was an excellent excuse for the increased clumsiness. She scurried around each day, head down and tail kinked, occasionally bumping into things. Anytime her Uncle appeared, she made sure to drop something, even if it didn’t break. Sometimes she knocked things over. When the others asked her about it, she carefully denied that anything was going on. Having studied up on the mannerisms of the verbally abused in several cultures, she purposefully insisted that nothing was wrong, Uncle was wonderful, and she was just a little off-health, maybe some congestion throwing off her balance. The employees swallowed it without chewing.
In a small way, it made her feel a little badly that she was lying to them. Battles should be fought against those who had the ability to fight back, leaving bystanders to enjoy the spectacle. These sentients didn’t have any idea that there was a contest engaged, and they wouldn’t understand if even if they did. They also wouldn’t understand if it ever came out that she was Shdr’edno’s slave. Some cultural barriers simply couldn’t be overcome. Others, however, could be enjoyed, and she did enjoy the attention she got from the employees.
The Twins had been the first to bring up her change in behavior, and they’d been the hardest to lie to. They’d come up the night Shdr’edno had challenged her and demanded to know what was going on. It was then that she’d had the brilliant idea to turn it all back on her Master. They weren’t immediately convinced, but after two days of watching her grow ever more “fearful”, they believed her. Hunsids had large families (the Twins had over twenty other siblings) and considered family to be sacred. In fact, they had all but officially adopted her as a sister, campaigning for her with the other employees.
Jregli had needed to caution them against making too big a fuss, because Shdr’edno was her legal guardian (of sorts) and could decide to send her back Home. Her fear of being sent back was no act, so she’d worked to keep it level with her pretending. So Hevrit and Harvit made themselves her defenders against her guardian. It was odd, to have protection. And affection.
Jregli just didn’t know what to make of the outpouring of concern she got from the employees. Yerbrans were not an “affectionate” people, so she at least had that to lend excuse to her confusion, and the employees didn’t take offense. Mahl had taken to calling her “urbii,” which was a term Rundion dams used on their young, supposedly a tender appellation. Immud began leaving little treats for her when he came in, which Engrads only did for those they greatly cared for (she tactfully did not mention that she couldn’t eat any of them). Ressnib insisted on doing the heaviest lifting, ‘P would fetch anything for her, and even grouchy old Funswrub was nice to her sometimes. All the servers made sure to bring back compliments from the customers, and she overheard Inop, the concierge, telling more than one party that she made the best drinks they would ever have. All these sentients, from all these disparate Races, liked Jregli.
No one had ever liked Jregli before. Even her dam was too tired at night’s end to do more than look to see if her child was where she was supposed to be. The other slaves were too focused on keeping their own tails safe, and Masters never liked slaves, not even the ones they favored. Yerbrans always looked with the weather eye for the next best chance. These sentients on FSS5 were not looking for anything, and they knew Jregli didn’t have anything to give them. They just … liked her. And Jregli really just didn’t know what to do with that.
She’d have to think more about that later, because the late shift was here. She kept the drinks flowing and the conversation superficial. Maybe a few of the customers realized that something was going on, but she’d decided to leave them out of the battle. For now. So she chatted, mixed, poured, and cleaned as fast as she could.
When the crowd moved to the dance floor at Yurs-ond’s sonic invitation, Jregli noticed that the Station Commander had finally left. He’d been eyeing her the whole time he’d been eating, and she’d been afraid he would try to come and talk to her. Having the Station Commander interested in her was not good. Not good at all. She’d need to come up with something plausible for him, in addition to everything else she was plotting.
Finally getting a large enough pause between custom to update the supply logs in the console and send a bot down the floor behind the bar, she noticed a new customer standing a few Star-Standard Units of Immediate Distance from the bar, looking around with a displeased expression on his face. After a moment, she identified him as an Ounifub, a tri-ped Race from the Regnari Sector. With the dance lights flashing, she couldn’t make out his specific coloring, but it was probably safe to assume he was orange with yellow spots and green stripes like most of them. He was richly, if simply, dressed, and appeared to be sizing the Pub up. This was something Jregli had been waiting for.
“May the evening lights shine only for you, favored lord!” She pitched her voice to cut through the din. “Let the waves roll and the tides rise under your keel.” No harm in flattery. He nonchalantly turned his head towards her, but she could tell she’d surprised him. He must be a minor ranker, if she could startle him. Ounifubs prided themselves on appearing unconcerned with what anyone else did. They also prided themselves on throwing expensive, lavish parties. This one must have been sent by his lord to determine if the Pub measured up. Jregli would make sure it did.
He looked over at her, doing his best to take her for part of the decorations, but he was thrown off by her formal greeting (even if it was in Mutual). Definitely a low-rank, then. But, if he was sent to pick a place for a party, then someone must be giving him a chance to advance … or fail. Jregli had no problem in helping him succeed, especially since it helped her succeed, as well. Wasn’t the win-win scenario touted as the best in Mutuality negotiation manuals?
“This is a noisy place.” He ignored her compliments, as any well-mannered Ounifub would. “Why would any being desire to come, let alone stay, in such?”
“An intuitive question, favored lord.” If he were as low-ranked as she thought, then the more flattery, the better. “This is but one of the many services provided by our great Master, Shdr’edno. Truly, the ways of other Races are most baffling, but we who are but lowly servants do not question. We serve.”
He’d edged closer as she spoke, and now he was nearly at the bar.
“What could you serve that could possibly compensate for this … noise?” Not a polished answer, by any leap. If she could make him succeed, he’d owe her. And she’d owe him, not that he would ever know it.
“Indeed, favored lord, it is a monumental feat to overcome cacophony such as this. We begin by limiting when such pandemonium may occur; indeed, most nights are as quite as a lady’s whisper, when sentients of gentility may gather for enjoyable dialogue and excellent dining.”
He snorted at that. It was an excellent, disdainful snort; he’d been practicing.
“Ah, most favored one, I understand how difficult such a claim is to believe; did I not partake of it myself, I would not believe, either!”
They were interrupted then by another wave of thirsty sentients, and Jregli scrambled to serve them with no appearance of effort. Ounfubs liked that. When the crowd thinned again, she turned back to her mark … customer.
“Allow me, honored guest, to demonstrate this to you.” She should have enough in her tips tonight to cover a few samples. It would pay off handsomely, she was sure.
Shdr’edno stepped far enough out of the Arcade to get a good look at the doings of the Pub, but not so far that he was in danger of touching the gyrating sentients. Maintaining his welcoming demeanor, he firmly squelched his disgust.
This is what passed for dancing in the Mutuality, and it sickened him. Not only did it cause the sentients to smell atrocious, but it was an affront to art. Dancing should be a thing of grace, of beauty, not … that. He himself was no dancer, but he could do so much better than this disgusting mob.
He scanned the rest of the Pub. The brat was talking to a fat blob of some kind. His façade almost cracked. She thought she was so clever, didn’t she? She thought that getting pity from the workers meant something. Stupid brat. He didn’t care what they thought of him, what any hired hand thought of him. He could do whatever he wanted with a minor in his care; the Mutuality didn’t dare interfere with how Races treated their young. That was internal policy, something sacrosanct to each Race. The brat could act as pathetic as she wanted, get everyone as riled up as she chose, but she still belonged to him. He turned and swept back into the Arcade, making certain to greet and soothe as he made his way around the game stations.
The Hunsids alone had already grossed several thousand mutuals with two and a half hours yet to go. Mahl kept the half-bar in decent order, though she could make more effort to be presentable. Shdr’edno tried to ignore the sight of her as he stepped behind the bar’s console to check the automated game tallies. A decent take this evening. Suddenly thinking of something, he ran a historical analysis. He had to forcibly stop himself from grinding his teeth when he read the results. Tonight’s “decent take,” with over two hours left and a full Arcade, was nearly the equal of each of the previous six years’ highest grossing night.
He would kill her. He would destroy her. How dare she make more profit than he could? Than he ever had?
He stepped swiftly from behind the counter, slightly slower than a run, and immediately engaged the group of gamblers nearest him. He charmed, flattered, encouraged, sympathized, and did everything he could to not think about the brat. He would not. Lose. Control. Of himself. He was better than that. Far better than that. See how he proved it here in the Arcade, his Arcade. See how the sentients turned towards him, flocked to him. How they responded to his suggestions, asked for his picks. He had built this place, made this Arcade. This was his Pub, his business. He had crafted it, created it, positioned it himself. He had defeated dozens of the greatest minds to get where he was.
He had begun with his siblings, crowding them out of favor and using their weaknesses to displace them. He’d done his sire proud when he stole the family business from him. His grandsire had favored him for that cunning, promoting him above the others to a minor position on the Merchant’s Forum Cycles younger than anyone else who had gained such a place. The other, older merchants had approved of him as much as they feared him. His data security systems were astro-klicks beyond any other available, so they’d had no choice but to buy from him. They knew they were leaving themselves open, inviting betrayal, but they welcomed the chance. Because of him, Shdr’edno. Because of his skillful speech, his handsome appearance, his charm, his wit.
Once he had taken them for all they were worth (five had never recovered from the disgrace), he’d moved out into the greater Galaxy. Fredan Space Station 5 was an ideal location in so many ways. So much traffic, so many things to curl his claws into. Building the Pub & Arcade had been masterful; no one thought that a Yerbran would stoop to running an eatery. There were so many more lucrative occupations! But a simple eatery was an excellent front. It established him as a legitimate businessman, one above the level of suspicion normally given his people. Those fools never thought beyond the moment, never realized that they clipped their own claws by being so obviously greedy. Everyone knew they were on the prowl, so only the desperate came to them.
A simple, honest pub gave no one second thought. Arcades were harmless enough, weren’t they? So no one, not even Mutuality Security, gave him any trouble. They came, ate, and gambled. And he laughed at them all. There were indeed more lucrative opportunities out there, and the cover he’d created made them that much easier to snatch.
And then the brat had come. She’d made herself out to be a machine, a prototype from a desperate inventor who needed immediate funding more than he needed to hold onto what he’d crafted and its long-term profits. Oh, she’d suckered him, offered him a morsel he’d swallowed without chewing. Perhaps he had become a bit complacent, rested on his past victories. No more.
By the time the night ended, he had several ideas.