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.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss,” Neim opted for the title the Engrad had used, since he could never pronounce Yerbran names right. “I’ve never had better Randaran cold-water, and I’ve had it from the source.”
Jregli crouched backwards slightly at that. Neim remembered that was the Yerbran equivalent to a Human’s head-duck, a modest acceptance of a compliment.
“Thank you kindly, Commander,” she said in the most awful voice he’d ever heard from a Yerbran. “I strive to please our custom, and I am honored to have served you so well.”
It was amazing, really. She sounded like … like … like a Gerbdis. Gravely and hoarse, like she’d been screaming all her life. For some reason, he found it completely charming. A Yerbran with an ugly voice. And the rest of her was ugly, too, now that he was up close. The bar hid most of her, but her head was oversized, her skin shriveled, and her shoulders were bony. For the first time, Neim understood what Marei had meant all those years ago. This girl was so ugly, she was cute.
And she was nothing like her uncle. Maybe that was what made Neim warm up to her. She wasn’t trying to play him; she was honestly pleased to have done her job well. Neim was so used to Yerbrans being as slimy as Uffniorns. Every Yerbran he’d ever met was like that, even those in Mutuality Service. Since he knew just about every angle that could be played, he was nearly certain this girl wasn’t doing it. That was … refreshing, to say the least.
“Well, you have done that, Miss. I’m glad your uncle,” he gestured at Shdr’edno, “was able to bring you here. I’m sorry to hear that you lost your parents. How long ago was that?”
“More than four Cycles, Commander, which is approximately three and a half Star-Standard Measures of Annual Time,” Jregli replied in her raspy little voice.
“Really?” That was surprising. “What did you do before your uncle was able to fetch you? If I recall correctly, it only takes about three Months to get from Yerbra Home to here, and messages don’t usually take more than a week or two.”
Neim was sure she was cringing now. “I would not trouble you, Commander, with my woes.”
“Nonsense. I would be honored to hear your story, Miss.” And now Shdr’edno was tense. Interesting.
After a second, the girl straightened up a bit and angled her head so that her right eye faced him fully.
“You must understand, Commander, that life on Yerbra Home is not easy. Ours is an unforgiving planet, with strong winds and little vegetation. While off-world travel has eased things somewhat, there are far more people than there are resources to support them. I come from a poor family. We had enough to sustain us, and no more. My sire was gone before I hatched, so I never knew him. My dam worked as a servant in a great house to support us, and I too began working there as soon as I was able. When she died, I had nowhere else to go. The family allowed me to stay and work, for there is no such thing as ‘charity’ among Yerbrans. Those who do not work, do not eat.”
Jregli didn’t look like she’d gotten much to eat. Compared to the lean and trim Shdr’edno, she was thin skin and thinner bone. Neim could tell she hadn’t been too lazy to be fed; she’d been busy the whole time he’d been talking to her, making drinks, cleaning, working on the console.
“My dam and I were alone, so I never knew I had any other kin. It was good luck, indeed, that my Uncle found me.” Now Jregli’s voice warmed considerably. “Can you understand, Commander, how wonderful it is to be here? This Station is marvelous! Uncle lets me eat anytime I want, I have my own glass of water,” she pulled a small glass out from under the bar to show him, “and there are so many different sentients here! It’s amazing!”
Neim had to chuckle at her enthusiasm. Oh, she was leaving a lot out. He hadn’t headed negotiations with Qwadesixos for six years running and not learned when someone wasn’t telling everything.
“Commander, I see that your meal is ready for you,” Shdr’edno inserted smoothly. “Please, do not allow us to keep you from when it is at its freshest.”
Oh, Shred really didn’t want him talking with the niece. Neim would have to do just that. Later, though, because he did need to get back to the bridge.
The meal was actually really good, even better than he’d remembered. Shame to hurry through it. Neim ordered another cold water to go and paid for his meal. A bit pricey, but not so bad that he’d complain about it. Especially considering the place was owned and run by a Yerbran.
As he left the Pub, he checked the chronom; only five mins before he was due back. He linked up to the officials-only comm and sent Sar a brief message. Spotting a Station conveyor drone, he used his override to commandeer it. With transportation, he was only ten mins late getting back. Drifn gave him a nasty look but kept his mouth shut.
Putting the matter of the ugly little Yerbran in the back of his mind, Neim focused on the meetings scheduled for the rest of the day. He really did enjoy commanding the Station, but the bickering got to him. Nobody wanted to get along and everyone tried to outdo everyone else. Five meetings/shouting matches later, he wanted a very stiff drink. Maybe another cold water with a splash of Ewonian malt?
“Commander, Representative Liteo has requested an emergency meeting with you regarding the Wormhole residents,” Fruns piped up excitedly. “He says it’s most urgent and that the residents are quite agitated by the recent increase in traffic and that he simply must speak with you immediately!”
“A moment, Corporal, while I check my schedule,” Neim cut him off. Qwadesixos could talk for days without breathing. Neim called up his schedule on his console. No room for the rest of the shift, so it looked like he’d be making up those ten mins today. And then some.
“Tell Representative Liteo I’ll meet him at shift change in the small conference room. That’s the earliest I’ve got.” Neim threw that in there to make sure the Vun wouldn’t be offended. Or, at least, so he’d know that Neim wasn’t deliberately putting him off. Vuns were easily offended, as a rule, but they got over it pretty quickly.
Neim knew he couldn’t put off any request to meet about the wormhole or its resident sentients. The short sub-space Corridor was the reason the Mutuality had put a Star Station in this part of the sector. It provided the best link between the Fredan and Unlind Sectors and skirted a really nasty asteroid belt. That alone made it worth regulating, since it shaved over four months of travel time, but the residents were the real reason to put a Mutuality Domain on either end.
Most wormhole Corridors were regulated by corporations, who built their own stations on either end and charged whatever fees and tolls they could get away with. The Fredan-Unlind Corridor, however, had the Mutuality on both ends, which made the fees almost nothing. Lower fees meant higher traffic, and the sentients who lived in the sub-space fabric lining the hole didn’t like that. When they didn’t like something, they made it hard on everyone. The sentients in the Fredan ‘Hole would only talk to the Vun, who considered themselves favored by their god for the contact. Why the beings chose to deal only with the Vun, Neim had no idea, but that’s how it was. Vun Home was the closest system to the ‘hole, which probably had a lot to do with the sentients’ choice of representative. Neim knew of at least eight other wormholes that had sentient residents, but none of the others were as hard to deal with as these were.
The Vun guarded their “divine” charges fiercely; they wouldn’t even tell any other Race the name of the things. The name the Vun gave the sentients was Flioim, which meant something like “angelic beings”. The Flioim rarely showed themselves to anyone other than the Vun and gave their erstwhile protectors exclusive rights to some impressive technology. That technology made for fancy goods the Vun could sell, and precious few Races were willing to hack off the Vun or their “angels” and risk losing access to those goods. Or risk having the sentients close of the Corridor to inter-stellar traffic, which they had done twice before. A blocked trade route was bad for business. So the Mutuality regulated traffic between the sectors. Boiling it all down, when a Vun wanted to talk about the wormhole or its residents, you made time to listen.
Jregli hurried to clean the private room after the Werdsulian party. She was most intrigued as to how they had managed to get so much klem up in the light fixtures, but that investigation would have to wait. They had spent a full Star Standard hour more in the room than they had booked, which Uncle had made them pay extra for, so Jregli had virtually no time to get it clean before the dinner crowd showed up. Mahl and Yurs-ond had picked up the plates, utensils, and remaining consumables, but it fell to Jregli to actually scrub the wreckage from the floor, walls, ceiling, fixtures, furniture, and everything else. The employees didn’t seem to find anything curious about this arrangement, which was just as well. No need to tell them how demeaning Yerbrans considered having to clean up after others.
Jregli was currently halfway up the far wall of the room, clinging to the ventilation shaft with the claws on her right foot as she scraped dried klem out of the sconces. Finally getting the last bits of crud loose, she wiped it down, put the shade back in place, and dropped to the floor.
She’d just rinsed her rag when she heard a soft foot-fall at the doorway. Whipping around, she watched her Master enter the room. He looked carefully around at her work, scrutinizing everything. His green vest shimmered in the work-lighting, flashing an array of sub-coloration that many sentients couldn’t see but would subconsciously appreciate or hate. He made a very impressive figure. And a very frightening one.
“Still cleaning, little pet?” he said softly in their language. He advanced slowly towards her. “It must have been a marvelous occasion for our customers, if it’s taking this long to ready the room for the next guests. Who are currently waiting.”
Jregli couldn’t help it. She shrank back, trembling, her tail pressed against her legs. Shdr’edno had paid her very little attention until now. He’d been so busy being mad at Wesf’er that he’d ignored her as much as possible. She now knew that it had been a good thing, a very good thing. He stopped a pace away, towering over her, hands curled loosely at his sides, tail waving gently, powerfully, behind him. A part of her was amazed at his ability to project so much menace in so few gestures; he’d made no threatening moves, used no threatening tones or words, and yet she was shaking. The part of her that was shaking (which was the larger part) told the analytical part to shut up and help get her out of a beating.