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.
“Was … is … are you hungry, child?” Harvit demanded.
Shamed, Jregli ducked her head. “Please forgive me, sirs. I neglected to prepare properly for this–”
Back Home, this is where the beating would have started; Jregli’s spine ached dully in memory. A slave not entirely focused on serving, a slave distracted by anything, was not a slave in favor.
“When did you last eat, child?” Hevrit interrupted her.
“Mmm … I ate yesterday …”
“What!!” The Twins seized her hands, prompting another small squeak of pain, and marched her back to the restaurant sector, scolding the whole while.
“You should have told us you hadn’t eaten! Silly little girl, precious little girl! How could you not trust us, to hide your hunger from us? Do you think us monsters?”
No, Jregli did not think Hevrit and Harvit were monsters. She thought they were the two most marvelous sentients she had ever met. But nineteen Cycles of lessons taught with a flail did not sweep away in two and a half months. She couldn’t tell them that! Her feeble attempts to distract them disappeared under their reprimands.
They dragged her into one of the larger eateries just to the other side of the residential area; Jregli didn’t have time to read the name before she found herself inside and standing by a table. “Sit!” Harvit jabbed a long finger at her. She immediately dropped to the floor.
“Fool!” Hevrit snapped at his brother with a glare. “Have care; be gentle with the child! See, you have frightened her!” That fear warred with amazement in Jregli’s mind. She’d never heard either of the Twins speak harshly to each other, or anyone else, for that matter. Hevrit turned a softened gaze back to her.
“Come, dear little sister; no need to lie on the floor. Up, now,” he gently encouraged her. Harvit glowered but made himself calm down. Hevrit turned and located a waiter, summoning him with a three-fingered snap.
“A seat suitable for our sister,” he ordered politely. The waiter, a youngish Randaran who hadn’t fully grown into his secondary tentacles, goggled for a moment before a glare from Harvit sent him scurrying. Harvit turned back to the table; Hevrit was still trying to get Jregli up off the floor.
Hevrit seemed to read something in his brother’s posture that Jregli couldn’t make out. “Well, she can hardly sit on something designed for a sentient without a tail, true?” Harvit blinked and looked slightly abashed. “These seats are also unsuited to legs that bend as hers do. It is hardly unseemly, dear brother, to request such accommodation.”
Jregli allowed herself to be coaxed off the floor, though she did not straighten to her full (if meager) height. This was so far outside anything she had ever known, ever thought possible … yes, the Hunsid brothers had always treated her well, but this … this was inconceivable. Caring if she had eaten that day? Bringing her to a restaurant? Ordering a seat for her, let alone one designed for her anatomy? Who cared if a child had eaten or was comfortable? The attention made her extrememly uncomfortable.
It was dangerous to receive treatment like this. She was still a slave, for all that she had privileges that no other slave dreamt of. What if she began to expect this kind of treatment? What if she became accustomed to it? Started wanting it? That was extremely foolish; she could never forget her place. Hevrit was still smiling at her and saying kind things in a gentle voice. Maybe … just for a little while, just for today … she could enjoy it.
She gave the Twins a timid smile just as the waiter rushed back, struggling with a large, plush-topped stool. He set it down with a thunk (Jregli winced slightly; that sort of carelessness was not proper etiquette) and began rearranging the chairs at the table to make room for it. Finally scraping the seating into some semblance of order, he waved awkwardly to Jregli and indicated that she could sit.
She managed a tiny “Thank you” and looked at the stool. It wasn’t exactly Yerbran design, but it was definitely adequate, with enough surface for her to comfortably balance. Resisting the urge to whimper, she sternly took hold of herself. These fine aliens had paid to have her for the day, so she should give them full value for their credits. Just like Diuw’nfre would have. Calling on the memories of Mistress Fun’gryu, Jregli settled onto the stool, legs folded neatly beneath her and toe claws delicately resting on the rung at the front. Well, griping the rung in terror might have been a more accurate description, but she was pretending. She crossed her wrists carefully on the table and smiled politely at the Twins.
They beamed at her, all good humor restored. Seating themselves, they brought up the menu display on the table’s center opti-projector. The waiter hovered from a safe distance, looking worried. Jregli wondered what could possibly be upsetting him. Perhaps it was the oddity of seeing a pair of Hunsids with an ugly little Yerbran.
“Sweet little sister,” Harvit broke her train of thought, “what would you like? We mean to fill you to the tip-top of your lovely head with food! And mind you well that this is our gift to you; we’ll hear nothing but that you have eaten all that you can!”
“You might consider the braised wuerd roast; it’s very good!” Hevrit put in excitedly (Jregli noticed a covert hand motion to his brother). “And their selection of fowl is quite tasty, though I prefer ours much more.” He winked slyly at Jregli, who had been the one to suggest those additions to the Pub’s menu.
“They also have a selection of uncooked meats, if you prefer,” Harvit began scrolling through the menu.
“Mmm … well, some greens might be good,” Jregli managed to insert, trying to not tremble at how much this meal would cost. Harvit had hinted that they were paying for her meal, but she couldn’t assume that they would be willing to pay that much for her to eat.
“Ah! Of course, dearest little sister, you should have a meal of many good things! I recommend the blanched icegreens salad to begin with; the fried bits of trug loin in the dressing are delicious.”
“All right,” Jregli agreed, “I’ll try that. But … without the meat. Just the vegetables.”
“What is this? No meat? A growing child needs more than merely a salad for dinner!” Harvit exclaimed.
“But I can’t eat meat,” Jregli tried to explain.
“Of course you can! This is an occasion! We can certainly do to have something special to lunch on,” Hevrit frowned, puzzled.
“No, I mean I can’t eat meat. No Yerbran can eat meat; we’re herbivores.” The Twins stared at her in amazement. Had they really not known that?
“How is this possible! You have the teeth of a hunter, such fearsome claws! How can you not eat meat?” Hevrit gestured at her features; Harvit simply looked stunned. Jregli managed a wry smile.
“I take it you’ve never seen a Yerbran eat,” she commented, “or what we eat. We eat mostly roots, such as from the y’rufds trees or the tubers of w’unpz that grow deep in the caverns. They are not the delicate plants that seem to grow on other worlds; they are as hardy and strong as Yerbra itself.” Jregli warmed up to the topic. Recitation was a good way to take her mind off the bizarre situation.
“You have seen what the main bar looks like?” The Twins nodded dumbly. “That’s a synth of a y’rufds root. A root that size would feed a large household for nearly a Star-Standard Month. And all the tables and seating in the front section of the Pub are synths of other kinds of Yerbran vegetation.”
“You eat wood?” Harvit asked, incredulous.
“That is one of many things we eat. And, since most of what we eat is so fibrous, we have to have very sharp teeth to chew it with.” She pulled her lips back to show her dark incisors. “We use the outer teeth to bite off a manageable chunk,” she opened her mouth further to show her not-quite-white inner teeth, “and these to masticate it into a pulp that we can swallow. It’s very nutritious, and one meal lasts most of the day.” That should keep them from making too much of a fuss about not seeing her eat as often as they did. It was true that one meal lasted Jregli most of the day; she just didn’t add that she’d never had any choice about the matter.
“How fascinating!” Hevrit exclaimed, looking very interested, indeed. “Now that we are better educated, let us order a fine meal of roots and tubers for you!” Jregli held back a resigned sigh as Hevrit snapped at the waiter, who practically jumped to comply. They were the only customers in their section, so perhaps he hovered out of boredom. It still struck Jregli as unsophisticated. Perhaps he was in training.
They chatted about inconsequentials while they waited for their meals to come. Watching Jregli eat made for great ‘tainment for the Twins, especially since she could talk clearly with a full mouth. Jregli made what she hoped were appropriate comments about her meal. In truth, this was a day of many firsts for her, and she was nearly worn out from it all! This was the first real meal she’d ever had, and it was so hard to act as though it were normal. Had no one been watching, she would probably have swallowed it without chewing.
So many flavors rolled through her mouth, so many textures! The Twins had ordered a variety for her, and she wished both that she could eat it as fast as possible and that she could linger over every mouthful. She distracted herself by keeping up near-constant chatter.
She couldn’t eat nearly enough to satisfy the Twins, though she felt ready to explode. Three mouthfuls was the most she’d ever had at once before this, so eight plates covered with seven different entrees and six side dishes made her feel slightly dizzy. And the cost! She had to keep reminding herself that a Lady of status would expect to have such lavish treatment, but she felt awkward and stiff the whole time.
The meal finally came to an end, and Jregli’s cobbled-together excuses finally satisfied the Twins. Harvit insisted on bundling up the remainder of her meal and hiring a transport bot to take it back to the Pub for her. They made their way out of the eatery, the Twins bouncing ahead of a stuffed Jregli.
Head up! she told herself sternly. Act the part! She forced herself to pay more attention, to focus more carefully on the cues the Twins gave her and on her own responses. By the time another hour had passed, she felt nearly comfortable in her role. Clamping down on her old habits, she made herself be a Lady of status.
An enterprising Tolp had received Mutuality permission to offer tours of the exterior of the Station, and Hevrit and Harvit insisted on taking one. It was amazing. Jregli’s trip from Home to the Station had been the cheapest possible fare, so she’d had no access to view ports and almost no sense of what space travel was really like. The tour shuttle’s walls were nearly all view ports, offering a panoramic view for the whole trip. Thousands of ships streamed to and from the Station, and the first time Jregli saw one appear from the wormhole, she couldn’t stifle a gasp. The Twins grinned as though they’d invented interstellar travel.