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.
As Neim chatted with the smarmy Pub owner, he tried to keep an eye on the girl without being obvious. God knew these Yerbrans were perceptive. Shred was wearing that god-awful vest again, and Neim was pretty sure he’d done it on purpose. Probably’d seen Neim talking to his ward and come out to bust things up. Be his style.
Conversation hadn’t been going too badly before Shred slithered in. Jregli (Neim had practiced saying her name) had been tense as a cat in a flood, but she’d been talking fairly straightforward. He hadn’t gotten the feel that she was lying to him or hiding anything, just nervous about his line of questions. There wasn’t a reason for her to be nervous; he’d just been making conversation. But with Yerbrans, you had to count on them hiding something.
It was absolutely specieist of him to think that; didn’t make it not true. He’d never met a Yerbran who wasn’t up to something, even those with stellar careers in Mutuality Service. Always toeing the line, always looking for a way around the legalities. Although he’d never had a chance to talk with a Yerbran kid before. They tended to be kept close to Home, maybe until they were warped enough to be unleashed on the rest of the Galaxy.
He really needed to stop thinking like that; it was going to get him into trouble before long.
He’d come early tonight expressly hoping to get the girl alone. The fact that he’d get a good meal of it was a bonus. The human waiter had surprised him, though; he hadn’t thought Shred would hire from a minor Domain like Human Home. Also hadn’t thought a Human would be this far out and not either in Service or with a conglomerate of some kind. Good to have another Human to chat with. Also good to have someone willing to chat about the boss and his ward.
He’d begun to think that he’d miss his chance when she came dragging out of the back room. Poor kid looked run over by a grav lorry. He downed the last of his dessert and wandered over to the bar; she didn’t seem to see him coming. Must be in bad shape. He’d got her talking fairly easy, which was a relief. Didn’t have to dance around with her, much.
She was actually easy to talk to, once you got her going. That ugly-puppy thing she had going wasn’t as bad as you’d think. And really well-spoken. Not many grown-ups that articulate. Reminding himself that she wasn’t the same as a Human kid wasn’t easy, but he hadn’t been lying that he’d consider her the same as a nineteen-year-old from now on. The way that she figured out the smuggler’s ploy was brilliant. He’d already made a note to pass it along to Sec Ops.
Her take on how to treat customers was interesting. Most merchies just wanted you to buy and didn’t care what you thought about it. Her quick reference to caring about the quality of service, though … that was rare. Maybe one of the things he liked about her; she actually cared. Hadn’t been warped yet.
Neim had been about to dive into his real purpose for cornering her when Shred showed up (and no, he hadn’t bothered to practice pronouncing that name). The giant alien had the knack for ruining a moment. Still, maybe Neim could still get something out of it all. And maybe he would eventually figure out why Jregli looked so shocked all of a sudden.
“You understand security, I’m sure, sir; I’m afraid I can’t give you much more detail about the investigation. I can tell you that we’re indebted to your niece for calling our attention to them just as they began the hand-off. I’m sure she saved a lot of lives today.” Neim was glad he had his drink; it made a flimsy shield, but it was better than nothing. Booze didn’t hurt, either.
“Oh, but of course, Commander, I do apologize for pressing you. It is, of course, none of my business,” Shred oozed humility. “I cannot say just how proud I am of my little niece today; she has done so unexpectedly well!”
Couldn’t say because he’d rather spit than give anyone else a compliment, Neim was sure. Yerbran spit was acidic, too.
“I’ll agree that she has done very well, sir. A toast to you, Miss Jregli, on a job well done!” Neim lifted his glass to the girl, who took a half-sec to realize he was talking to her and yet another to realize she should respond.
“Oh, thank you, Commander! You honor me!” Sounded pretty weak to Neim, like she’d only half heard him. As Neim smiled and took a swig, he turned back towards Shred. In doing so, he caught the eye of a well-built Niklon, who gave him a gratified smile, and, behind him, the Jeftryo waiter, who also looked pleased. Neim smiled and nodded back. Shred didn’t move, but that was probably because those buggy eyes of his could see every way at once.
“I give credit where it’s due, Miss Jregli.”
“I must say, Commander, that I am impressed with how well you pronounce the Yerbran child’s name,” Shred said. Neim figured he was just changing the subject, but he went with it. Didn’t want to fluster the kid, who’d gotten past whatever was bothering her and had her arm back inside the ‘fabber up to her shoulder.
“Thank you, sir. I know I don’t have the sinuses to do justice to a full Yerbran name, but I thought that your niece’s name was easy enough for a poor, mono-tonal alien to get his mouth around. I apologize if I’ve gotten it incorrect, but there’s only so much you can do without an implant. And they don’t give those out unless you’re DipCore. Pardon, that’s the Diplomacy Corps.”
“Of course, of course. Do not disparage yourself, Commander Neim; you have done quite a remarkable job for a ‘mono-tonal alien’. It lacks the subtleties of our language, but it is quite recognizable.” Trust Shred to put an insult into all his sucking-up.
After a little more polite small talk, Neim concluded that he couldn’t hang around any longer; he didn’t have a real excuse. Shred wasn’t going to leave him alone with the ward, and Neim wanted him gone when he talked to the girl. So he ordered another cold-water, sans pepper but with the booze, and left.
He supposed he should leave all this to the Security and Mutuality Intelligence teams, but where was the fun in that? He’d done a term with Mu-tel back in his Corps days, and it had been interesting. Almost went that route, but then he’d gotten accepted to Officer Training. You didn’t pass that up, not when you were Human. But he still liked to dabble in it.
Jregli got through the rest of the day on proverbial reactor fumes. She was absolutely numb and decided she didn’t care if anyone else knew it or not. At least Shdr’edno would be happy. That made one person.
She kept her wits long enough to begin those closing duties that could be done ahead of time long before the doors shut. Even better, the others saw what she was doing and pitched in wordlessly. Thanks to the combined effort, they were all done less than half an hour after closing.
“Set a new record, kiddo,” Ressnib congratulated with his slow, crooked smile. “Good idea to start picking up early.”
“Yeah, chica! We can all go home and get some sleep!” Wilson enthused.
“We could probably add a few more things to the list, too,” ‘P chirped, “and be done even more quickly!”
“Mmmcareful to not rush cussomers out,” Jregli mumbled. “Don’ want them to feel unwelcome; bad for bus’ness.”
“Of course, kiddo; we’ll be careful. You go get some sleep now; we’ll lock you in.” Ressnib half-bowed her towards the backroom. Jregli mumbled some more as she slouched off.
“Poor thing,” ‘P said with a worried frown. “Does anyone else think she’s getting more and more run down?”
“Oh, si, amigo; she’s definitely been off the last week. She was doing so well, too!” Wilson replied, equally worried.
“Can it, blokes,” Mahl interrupted gruffly, striding past them. “Not our business, so there’s no point to talking about it. Let’s go.”
Wilson and ‘P exchanged a startled look; Ressnib grunted and followed Mahl. After a moment, the other two also left the Pub. As they stepped out the side door, Ressnib keyed the code to lock it.
“Hold, fellows,” Ressnib called softly as ‘P and Wilson began walking away. They turned back, confused. “Mahl wants to talk to us.”
“Come again?” Wilson asked.
Ressnib shook his head to silence them and hurried after Mahl down the nearly deserted corridor. Mystified, ‘P and Wilson followed. When the Pub was out of sight, Mahl paused and waited for them to catch up.
“We daren’t talk about her in there,” she said. “He can hear everything we say inside the Pub, and you know as well as I that he mislikes our care of her. So all we say must be said outside his Domain.”
“An excellent point; I forgot about that!” ‘P exclaimed, hopping up on the lip of a planter so he was nearer to eye-level with the other sentients. “Then let me ask freely now: does anyone else think Jregli is doing more poorly of late?”
“I know she is!” Mahl exclaimed. “She was so excited to be here when first she came, and now, she can hardly get through a day on her own feet! Those Hunsids meant well, to be sure, but they ran her ragged. And those other Yerbrans! I don’t know but that they–”
“They’re alright,” Ressnib interrupted.
“But you saw her today! She came back so stiff and sore, hide it though she tried!”
“Also saw the one who came back with her,” Ressnib returned calmly. “You see him? Protective. He wasn’t so curious about the Pub; he wanted to know it so he’d know where she was, in case he should need to guard her. And the others, they’re not like most Yerbrans. They care. You can tell, if you look and listen.”
“How can you tell? They sounded just as fake as Shdr’edno to me,” Wilson put in.
Ressnib shrugged. “Did some time as a guard back on Niklon. Know what someone’s who’s looking for danger acts like. In his posture, mostly. The Patron and Matron, they had the pose, too. Had to act the part, but underneath …” he shrugged again.
“You’re sure?” ‘P pressed. Ressnib nodded. “Then I will accept your word. Whatever these others are doing to Jregli, they mean her well. But they are hurting her.”
“I’ll ask around,” Wilson said. “I’ve got contacts at the Glass Room; I should be able to find out what’s going on there.”
Mahl wrung her hands. “This is good, but what can we do? Information is not action! And we cannot take any action! I’ve learned all I can about Yerbran child-rearing, and I know that I can do nothing. To see a precious child–”
“Calm, Mother; calm.” Ressnib laid a soothing hand on Mahl’s arm. “We can do more than you think. We can’t change who owns her until she’s grown, but we can help her get grown. We can all take on more tasks at the Pub. Do you realize how much she does? It didn’t take us long to let her do all our work for us. We saw it was done and thought no more of it, true? Is it not still our job to work in the Pub? We are lazy, friends, and this child has taken our work upon herself. If we did our work, she wouldn’t have to.”
‘P looked thoughtful. “And yet, I’m not sure that doing everything for her is right. She’s a proud child and likes to see her completed tasks. We could easily smother her.”
“Good point, amigo. We can’t take away all her fun, eh? But we can be sure she doesn’t have to pick up after us!” Wilson grinned.
“Ah!” ‘P stiffened as a thought struck him. “We can also be certain that no extra tasks are assigned to her! I had not thought of it until now, but I am certain that he makes extra tasks for her. I recall hearing a customer say last week that the Arcade lav had backed up; I was going to fix it, but he called me away to something else. I forgot about it until he told her to go fix it, and then it was closing, so I left. How many mins of sleep did she lose because of that?”