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.
They were in the 34th docking bay when it happened. Statistically speaking, it had to happen; she couldn’t expect to them to never find out. But Jregli really wished the Twins had learned of her injured palms in a less dramatic fashion.
The Twins had been able to tell that the incident in Profindo’s had upset her; she hadn’t been able to hide it. They didn’t know why it had upset her, though. At least she’d been able to keep her wits that much. She’d spun just enough truth into her answer that the drink was so unexpectedly delicious that she’d been completely overwhelmed that they didn’t push for any other reason. For a few moments there, Jregli had been honestly afraid that she would lose all self-control and tell them everything. It was frightening to realize that she could break like that.
Truthfully, it was more than frightening; it was terrifying. Despair-inducing. If she could be brought so low by a simple beverage … although, it wasn’t just the beverage. It was all the implications that went with it. She was smart enough to realize that such a beverage was something a free woman would take for granted. Would take as her due. Slaves had no business drinking anything more than warm, stale water not clean enough to scrub a lavatory with. Slaves who drank, tasted, tried anything a free person could have only set themselves up for disaster. Like the crashing realization of just how stupid they were.
Stupid. Jregli really just couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid. She should have stayed in the Pub, kept her head down, and been a proper little slave. She should have stayed back Home! She should never have tried to beat Master Wesf’er or Shdr’edno! Master Shdr’edno, who had known this would happen if she left his watchful eyes. Who was smarter than she was, so much more experienced. Pretending to be a Lady of status? Laughable! She was a slave, a legal child, and uglier than any Yerbran in history. All of which meant that she was nothing, no one, and worthless. Something no one would ever care about.
Harvit’s exclamation crashed her pity-party. They were now walking slowly down the Station Core, next to the observation areas, commenting inanely on the stars and ships.
“The bays! We have so many dear friends there! And you have not yet seen how great an operation it is to move the cargoes and all the things that must be done to the great ships that travel throughout the depths of space! And I am certain that many will be most pleased to see you, dear little sister of our hearts!”
“Yes!” Hevrit chimed in. “That is an excellent idea! Why, we are but a few steps from the corridor that leads to the bay where the most of them labor! Come, sweet little sister, let us go see them!”
Jregli agreed numbly, trying to not feel both irritation and despair over their continued endearments. Didn’t they realize, have any idea how inappropriate it was to fawn over a slave? Well, of course not, they didn’t know she was a slave. She was just an ugly little child to them, one who had to be coddled and treated like she couldn’t even chew her own food. Well, she could chew her own food! She could even pick her own teeth clean, too! She might be a runt, but she could do more work than any three grown slaves! Than any three adults, even! She might be a slave, but she wasn’t helpless, winds blast them!
The profanity shocked her. Did she really just think that? No slave ever dared to think such things! If her Master ever found out … he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. She would never let him know that she’d dared to use a phrase reserved exclusively for adults. Just like she would never tell the Twins that she had been so upset with them. After all, they were just trying to be nice, to show that they cared–
Jregli stopped in the middle of the corridor, stunned. The Twins actually continued for two and a half paces before they realized that she had. They turned immediately, babbling worriedly at her. She didn’t hear them. Or rather, she heard them, but she didn’t pay attention to them.
They cared about her. They didn’t know she was a slave. They didn’t mind that she was ugly or stunted or deformed. And if they ever found out she was a slave … Hunsids had never been a slave-holding Race. Their focus on family precluded the idea of owning another being. If anything, discovering that she was a slave would make them care more. They would be furious and fight for her freedom. No matter that it was impossible to free a Yerbran slave. Once a slave, always a slave. But they wouldn’t care about that, because they cared about her.
She looked down at the smaller aliens crowded up to her, patting her arms and making worried noises. They cared. They really cared. Nothing mattered to them, not racial differences, not status, not law. Only she mattered to them. And that was something Shdr’edno couldn’t possibly take away.
She crouched swiftly, not allowing herself time to reconsider. Her arms snaked out swiftly and pulled the Twins close. She made sure to hold her stubby, pathetic, but still potentially dangerous claws away from them as she enveloped them in the first hug she had ever given anyone. It was incredibly unnatural, but it was the right gesture to make.
“Thank you, fondest brothers of my hearts,” she whispered to them. “This day has been the best of my life, and I thank you for giving it to me. Thank you for caring about me.”
The Twins were momentarily nonplussed, but that didn’t last long. The scene they made rivaled any Jregli could have imagined, but she refused to let it bother her.
Then they proceeded to the docking bays, which was when they found out about her palms.
It had started out innocently enough. The docking bay they brought her to was for the largest merchant ships with the biggest cargoes, which was where many of their regular customers worked. Not surprisingly, the large Gurts was there, single-handedly lugging an enormous flat of cargo across the low-grav bay. Each bay was sealed against the vacuum of space, so the workers didn’t wear full suits, which allowed them more mobility. The Twins were explaining how the reduced gravity made it easier to move things but didn’t truly compensate for mass when Gurts spotted them. He yelled cheerfully and waved as he nudged the pallet into place and then pushed off the deck in their direction. He landed easily in front of them, tucking his heavy work gloves into the pockets of his off-blue coveralls.
“Zreggie, love! What’r yeh doin’ out here? Hah; yeh two sliders! Might’a known yeh’d draggin’ th’ pur darlin’ out!” Gurts gave each Twin a jovial slap on the back that caused them to stagger. They took it well and punched him back, though he surely couldn’t have felt it. The big sentient then turned to Jregli and gave a bow that was surprisingly well-formed in the lessened gravity. Gurts obviously had much experience moving in the low-grav, and the Twins looked as though they’d at least experienced it before, but Jregli was completely unfamiliar with it. Her toes barely touched the decking, and the floating sensation was one of the strangest she’d … no, it was the strangest she’d ever experienced. She couldn’t have imagined this near-weightlessness, despite all the ‘tainments she’d reviewed.
“Hah; yeh know ‘em too well, Gurts!” Jregli mimicked his accent while trying to get her stomach to stay put and her head to stop drifting away.
“We saw that she had not had a single day’s rest from her labors on her uncle’s behalf, so we persuaded him to set her free for a while!” Jregli really wished Hevrit hadn’t used that wording, but what could she do but go along with it?
By then, several other dock hands had noticed them and come over. Ungrut, Fardes, Draon, and Pug hurtled themselves over the decking with the ease of those long familiar with low-grav. They were all Fourth Night regulars and just as massive as Gurts. She wasn’t sure what their respective Races were, though Pug and Draon were probably from the same Race as Gurts.
“Look who’s come a-visitin’, lads! Our own lovey likker lady!” Gurts gestured to Jregli oddly. After a beat, Jregli realized what made it look so odd: he was being deferential, or maybe it was gentle. Did he think she was going to break?
“Well, an’ we’re sure th’ luckiest dawgs in th’ yard, t’ have such a purty dame a-come ta visit!” Draon gave another bow like Gurts, with Pug a second behind him.
“Come off it, lads!” Ungrut waved at them disdainfully as Fardes pretended to be sick. “Your fardlin’ Tingort manners haint em-pressin’ no one, so lay it be.” He grinned as he cuffed Pug’s arm. “So, Dreggo, m’gurl, what’s new on th’ tap? What ser-prises ya got fer us next week, eh?”
“Yeh think I’d give it up so quick, do yeh?” Jregli challenged him. “Yeh has ta come if yeh wants ta know! It’s a surprise, yeh great oaf!”
The other workers laughed loudly at her reply, slapping Ungrut on the back and arms. This attracted yet more attention in the form of their manager.
“What’s all this? Who gave you permission to stop? We have three ships to unload and five more waiting in line!” The much shorter sentient wearing the shift-boss’s badge on his left arm scowled at the five workers towering over him.
“We’re on break, Wuns. Take easy,” Pug drawled. “We done th’ first load already an’ half th’ second.” Wuns was a Westro; the shrill voice should have been Jregli’s first clue. He lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. “Yeh ken check; taint ours ta lie ta yeh. ‘Sides, we gots us a guest, and we has ta make polite.”
“A guest?” Wuns turned angrily on Jregli. “What is an unauthorized sentient doing here? This is no place for tourists!”
All the other sentients, Twins and dock workers alike, turned on the diminutive Westro, forming a wall between him and Jregli. “Hah, now, Wuns; she haint crossed inta restricted space, so there’s nothin’ ta fret over,” Gurts said evenly. Jregli could tell from Gurts’ tone that Wuns’ sudden look of fear had a good foundation. “We’re each o’ us on our approved break time, an’ this lady haint doin’ anythin’ wrong. Yeh might wish ta ‘pologize ta th’ lady f’ bein’ so harsh an’ all.”
“You’ve no call to threaten me!” Wuns cried shrilly, slapping a device fixed to the shirt under his coveralls. “I’ll not tolerate insubordination!”
“Nah, we’re not tryin’ ta be any threatenin’, now, Wuns,” Draon put in calmly. “Just pointin’ out that nothin’ wrong’s been done, and that there’s no call ta be insultin’ a lady.” Jregli could see several other large sentients headed towards them across the docking bay. One even jumped down from a walkway so far above the deck that only the low-grav kept him from breaking something. Jregli wasn’t sure a Wind Brother could have made such a leap safely.
“A lady?” Wuns snorted disdainfully. “That’s the ugliest Yerbran I’ve ever seen.”