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.
Stealing a few minutes between tasks, Jregli picked up ‘pad to find out what had happened with the Deernupian with the weapons; Ssl’pnkir’s comment had made her wildly curious. It wasn’t hard to find; it was the top story on all the ‘feeds on the Station. Her simple observation had turned into a full-fledged confrontation that ended several hours later with the arrests of more than a dozen sentients of five Races on charges of weapons smuggling and suspected affiliation with terrorist activities. That was not what Jregli had expected at all! She fervently hoped that she would not get into trouble for it.
Putting the datapad down, she hurried to finish the inventory. Fortunately, Immud had used her new method of checking the goods and saved her a great deal of time. When she’d realized that Shdr’edno had assigned the Engrad server to reception, her hearts had literally skipped a double-beat; Engrads did not adopt new procedures readily. “Uncle” had chosen him for that reason, of course, thinking that he would foul something up that would give Jregli more work. Jregli owed whomever had trained Immud and made him use the time-saver owned a huge favor.
This was a big delivery, too; the monthly shipment of items either less-used or purchased in greater quantities. Jregli sighed; it was going to take several hours to sort through. She went at it with as much will as she could muster.
She wasn’t as fast as she usually was. The “treatment” Llnnoo’drrp had given her was not the kind of thing you came away from in leaps. She was sore, from head to tail. Especially the tail. And the feet. And her back. And her neck. Sands take it, she hurt everywhere and in everything. The aching dragged at her limbs and numbed her fingers into clumsiness that went beyond the norm. So she had to slow down even more, which put her further behind. At least Shdr’edno would be happy about this. If he had something to deride her about, maybe he would leave off giving her disgusting tasks.
In all, it took her just a bit more than two hours to get everything taken care of in the storeroom. By which time, naturally, she felt even worse. Trudging out to the bar for a drink, she tried to ease the stiffness that was creeping up her spine. Odd how thirsty she was.
No one was behind the bar when she came out, which she noted without surprise. It was Third Dayday and a light crowd. Fuzzy-headed, she grabbed her little glass, filled it from the tap, and slowly drank it down.
“Good Dayday, Miss Jregli.”
She nearly dropped the glass. Commander Neim! What was he doing here? Speaking to her? Did he know? What would he–
Calm down! she mentally scolded.
“Good Dayday, Commander Neim. My sincerest apologies; I didn’t realize you were our guest today.” That was a passable greeting.
“It did look as though you had something on your mind, and I’m not the least offended. Could I trouble you for another cold-water? I really like the way you make it.” Oh, if that wasn’t blatant flattery, Jregli would eat her tail.
“Certainly, Commander! I would be honored! Would you care for a splash of something extra? We just received a fresh batch of Uollian Betahash, which helps to soften the pepper and really brings out the underlying tones of barkwood.”
“That sounds fine, Miss Jregli. I usually don’t care for the pepper, but I’ll give your suggestion a try.” Neim took one of the seats at the bar and settled himself. He looked like he was planning to stay a while. That was not what Jregli wanted to see. Still, a customer was a customer. Even if he was the biggest threat to all her careful plans.
“There you are, Commander. Take a moment to savor the aroma before you drink; give your olfactories a chance to prepare you for the experience. When you take the first taste, it’s recommended that you allow it to remain on your tongue for at least five seconds, to give yourself ample time to explore the flavors. After swallowing, you may find it helpful to take a breath through your mouth; the air often gives new life and depth to the undertones the Betahash adds.” She carefully recited from the Bartender’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Imbibable Experiences, a pretentious yet useful publication. Neim followed her instructions with what Jregli thought was an amused expression that soon turned thoughtful.
“You know,” he murmured after several mins, “I think that’s the first time that the pepper didn’t make me want to gag. It’s still … it’s not pleasant, but it’s … it’s tolerable. And you’re right about the woody bit. Nice and earthy. Do you drink, Miss Jregli?” The abrupt question caused Jregli to fumble the glass she was filling for another order.
“What? No, no, Commander; I’m much too young to be drinking. Besides, Yerbrans don’t really get much from intoxicants. Our metabolism processes it so quickly that it doesn’t have the desired effect.” Jregli wiped up the spilled liquid and tried again.
“That’s a shame, Miss Jregli. One of the best ways to unwind after a long day is to have a small glass of something like this. I don’t go in for drunkenness, of course. Just enough to take the edge of the stress,” he replied, taking another appreciative sip. “What do Yerbrans do to relax, if alcohol isn’t an option? Surely you have something like it.”
“Yes, sir, we do have our means of relaxing. Very cold water is a delicacy, particularly that from deep-cave aquifers. The mineral purity is very refreshing. Most water on Yerbra is tepid and somewhat flat, you see. Recent centuries and the technological advances they brought make having pure, cold water affordable, but ‘fabbed water just isn’t the same as the real thing, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Got me there,” he chuckled. “Have to say, you don’t seem as young as you are. You’re very mature for your age.”
Dangerous territory. “Thank you, Commander. You will recall that the Star-Standard Measurement of Age is only a measure of physical development, not of mental. Physically, yes, I am very young, but I have been alive for nineteen and a half Star-Standard Units of Annual Time. I’ve had time to ‘grow up’ mentally, my body’s growth notwithstanding.”
“Heh; point. Easy to forget that with other Races; you get used to using your own Race as the stick for everyone else. Humans age pretty close to the Standard, so it helps me to think of you as nineteen instead of … what was it, again?” He sipped, looking at her with casual politeness. She wasn’t fooled.
“In Star-Standard Measure, I am eight, Commander,” she said, adding some pride to her voice for effect.
“Thanks; eight. You’re twice as old as you look; I’ll have to remember that. Of course, your assistance with that smuggling ring this morning should help me do that.”
Mmm, so that was where this was going.
“Ah, yes, Commander; that turned out to be quite a bit more than I had thought it would be,” Jregli kept her voice even as she placed the drinks on the server’s tablet.
“It was more than any of us thought. What caught your eye, if I might ask?” Neim sipped on his drink.
“Certainly, Commander. I was looking at the vendors and their wares and seeing how the sellers interacted with the buyers. The Deernupian wasn’t acting like a buyer; that’s what I first noticed.” Two more drinks and a platter of broiled ‘fabmeats, order up.
“What do you mean, Miss? I’ve never worked in sales of any kind, so I don’t catch the reference.” His eyes, watching her over the rim of his glass, said that he had a good idea.
“When you’ve been working in service for any length of time, and you care about the quality of service you provide, you learn to look for the subtle cues. You also learn to look for potential thieves. When someone is standing around, not looking at the merchandise, not talking to anyone, not lost in thought, and not obviously waiting for something or someone, you begin to wonder about them. Why are they there? Are they looking for something to steal? Is it possible to interest them in your wares?
“So I noticed her,” Jregli continued, pulling out one of the ‘fabbers to clean the inside. “The next thing to look for was vendor: what is his response to this sentient standing by his cart? If he’d offered and been rebuffed, he would still watch her in case she were a thief. If she’d accepted his offer, he would be attentive to assist her, even from a distance. But this vendor did neither; he was standing on the other side of the cart, not paying attention to her. But it was the wrong kind of ignoring.”
“How’s that?” the Commander might be genuinely interested in this part, Jregli thought. He certainly acted it.
“If you’re lazy, that’s one kind of ignoring. If you’re distracted, that’s another. But if you’re making certain you don’t see someone, that’s its own kind of ignoring.” One Jregli was very familiar with. “He was pointedly ignoring her, which no merchant in his right mind would do. So, of course I wondered why. What about her was worth such disdain? I looked at her again, more carefully. She was quite plainly dressed, except for the decorations on her aural lobes.”
“Her earrings,” Neim murmured. “Makes sense. Otherwise pretty plain, so you’d overlook her. Any guesses why she’d put those out in plain sight like that?” Why was he asking her?
“Because it was plain sight, of course,” Jregli replied, picking at a crusted spot inside the ‘fabber. “If she’d packed them anywhere, scans would have caught them first thing. But who looks at jewelry? She pasted a few plastofab rhinestones on them, and no one in Security gave them a second look; there are definitely some odder-looking bodily decorations out there than throwing stars! Her earrings caught my attention, and I had to get closer to be sure I wasn’t imagining it, and you know the rest.”
“Genius, Miss Jregli,” Neim said warmly, baring his small, blunt teeth in a grin. “I should have you on the Surveillance team!”
“Oh, no, Commander! You do me too great an honor! I’m just a simple barmaid, working the family business; I’m not the type for military service!” Keep the panic out of the voice, the tension out of the tail. Especially since–
“It’s my thought, Miss Jregli, that you are too talented to ever be called ‘simple’.”
“Indeed, Commander Neim, I cannot express my delight in your compliment to my little niece! She is so very clever, isn’t she?” Shdr’edno slid himself into the conversation smoothly, crouching down next to the Commander, who tried to hide a slight recoil. Shdr’edno was wearing his green vest again, and Jregli caught Neim’s tiny shudder when he saw it. It would seem that Humans didn’t like that blend of sub-coloration; possibly it was close enough to their visual range that not being able to fully see it was disorienting.
“Yes, very. I was about to say that we’ve suspected for some time that a smuggling operation has been using the Station as a way point. Glad to check it off the list.” The look Neim gave Shdr’edno as he took another sip of his cold-water was open, even, and measuring.
This was a moment of revelation for Jregli. She’d heard all her life how Yerbrans were superior to other Races, that none were as refined, as sophisticated, as her people. Yet here was Commander Neim, a Human, who was every bit as subtle as a Yerbran man. In fact, in some ways, he was even more subtle, Jregli thought, because he hadn’t really made up his mind that Shdr’edno was also smuggling. Suspected, yes, but not enough to accuse. The fact that he could, at any moment, choose to level a charge startled Jregli so much that she froze in mid-motion, hand stretched through the innards of the ‘fabber to reach a tiny bit of debris in the back of the housing.
And hadn’t Mahl dripped scorn on Shdr’edno like fine oil a few Days ago? Wasn’t Ressnib as blasé and casual as a merchant about to close a deal? Inop, with his haughty servility, and even the Twins, with their joy in flicking the cards and balls too fast for a customer to follow. It wasn’t exactly the same, of course, but the root of it was. There were far more similarities between Races than could be seen with a single eye; you had to look from all angles to see the patterns.
And that meant that Yerbrans had to be more like other Races than Jregli had thought. Were her Keepers, those two Dancers, not making fun of her, after all? Was their secret reason … concern? Jregli felt like someone had dropped a cliff on her.
If that was all true, where did that leave her?