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.
Jregli was a very happy girl. She had two regular meals every day, all the fresh, clean water she could drink, and a fascinating place to live. Really, what more could a prepubescent slave want?
Jregli clicked her inner teeth together quietly, as much of a song as she dared to make. She knew that she couldn’t produce a tune that wouldn’t offend half the sentients who heard it, so she contented herself with the quiet rhythm as she wiped down the main bar of Shdr’edno’s Pub and Arcade. It was a shame she wasn’t melodic, since there were some absolutely beautiful melodies out there in the great galaxy. But Jregli was deformed. She didn’t mind, much.
Perhaps deformed is not the best term, she mused, switching the floor-cleaning bots on and sending them out into the main pub room. Stunted would be a better, more accurate word. She’d starved all her life until she’d smuggled herself onto Fredan Sector Station 5 and met her new master. Uncle Shdr’edno, as far as any non-Yerbran was concerned; since slavery was forbidden in most of the Galaxy Star Mutuality, she was careful to play the dutiful kin-child. Yerbra was one of a handful of Domains that had kept the right to slavery, but Jregli wasn’t going to complain.
Plenty of free folk were more tied down than slaves. Those who were so poor they might be better off to sell themselves usually never moved more than a few Star-Standard Units of Major Distance from their birthplace. They were too busy trying to survive on whatever pittance they could scavenge to be clever. Slaves, in the other eye, didn’t have to worry about mere survival, which was provided by one’s Master. Slaves could afford to be clever.
Jregli began a faster rhythm with her inner teeth as she emptied the waste receptacles into the main disposal carrier. She was very clever, indeed. She knew there was nothing about her physique to earn her treats from her masters, but she did have smarts. Intelligence. In fact, if the testing she’d done while her masters weren’t looking was even close to accurate (which they should be, since Qwadesixos had developed it, but one could never be entirely certain), she was one of the most keenly intelligent Yerbrans alive, perhaps even as smart as Dyt’oprz or Tuip’vne. Smart enough to compensate for her stunted body.
Yerbrans were taller than most other bi-pedal species, averaging between ten and twelve Star-Standard Units of Height at full growth; most bi-peds, such as Remts, Engrads, Humans, and Frufdsonitrugs, averaged between five and seven SS-UH tall. Jregli might be able to convince some of them that she was only six SS-UH because she was still young, but the truth was that she was a runt. Probably because she hadn’t had more than two re’dhtu worth of nutrition in any given day in her whole life until she’d come to the Station.
Jregli vaulted over the synth-wood bar and began wiping down the tables and setting the chairs down, now that the floor bots had moved back into the Arcade. Must be all this good eating giving me strength, she mused. She looked out of her right eye at her hand as she wiped. Too large for her body, and too bony. Both hands and both feet were like that. Her finger and toe claws were brittle and prone to flaking. Her ribs and tail-bones still stood out clearly under her scale-covered skin, which was dull and looked as though it were covered with ash. Perhaps a few more months of soft living here on the Station would take care of that, and she would know if her scales were actually brown or not. And maybe in a few months she could earn enough to buy some oil to soothe the cracked patches.
Most of the cracks were on her joints: the elbows, knees, and foot-pads. Yerbran knees bent to the back rather than to the front, like about one-third of other bi-peds. They walked on the balls of their feet, which were covered in scaly hide thick enough to not be cut by the razored rocks that covered most of Yerbra Home. Jregli had almost no padding on her feet, so they tended to crack and bleed, to the great annoyance of her former mistress. And that was only the beginning of Mistress Fun’gryu’s annoyances with the little slave.
Mistress Fun’gryu was not a clever woman, and she hadn’t any idea how clever her slave really was. She had known, however, that Jregli was an ugly runt, and she’d never passed a chance to remark on it.
Women should be sleek and long, Mistress had said time and time again. Jregli was scrawny, not sleek. Jregli was undersized, not long. A skinny stub of a tail on a tiny body, Mistress would sneer. The eyes of a Yerbran are the windows to the galaxy and must be clear, bright, and dark. Jregli’s eyes were placed correctly, one on either side of her head and the third on top between them, all in line above her neck, but there their adequacy ended. Jregli’s eyes were not clear, bright, or dark. And her head!
A proper head was three-fourths the length of the torso, long and gently rounded and tapering just so at the back into a pleasingly smooth knob. It should balance powerfully on a long, slender neck, three quarters behind and one quarter fore, and turn swiftly to the wind. The front should be a rounded blunt, the lips covering the outer teeth full and expressive. Jregli’s head was almost as long as her torso, her neck was nearly half again as long as ought to be allowed (Mistress had often said), and her lips so thin they might as well not be there. At least she had all her teeth, inner and outer, and they were in reasonable shape. The skin across the front of her head stretched so tightly that her fore sinus slits were always gaping, incapable of blocking out wind-driven sand.
Worst of all, and the thing Mistress had harped on the most, was Jregli’s voice. Rather, her lack of voice. This, Jregli considered as she finished cleaning tables and headed back to the bar, could be termed a true deformity. Her body was stunted, but her voice was deformed. All the good feed in the Galaxy wouldn’t fix that. Yerbrans didn’t have a larynx or voice box; they used the bone chambers in the backs of their elongated skulls to both produce and receive sound. While Jregli could hear perfectly well (though she had allowed Mistress to believe she couldn’t), she could produce only a grating, buzzing sound when she spoke. Singing was strictly forbidden.
That was, perhaps, the only thing about life that made Jregli sad. Yerbrans were the Masters of the Wind, Lords of the Gale, and crafters of music the entire Mutuality hailed as beautiful. Well, most of the Mutuality, Gerbdis notwithstanding. Most of the Yerbran’s skull was hollow, which led to numerous jokes behind closed and sound-buffered doors, but Jregli’s people didn’t take kindly to such levity, and the freemen among them were quick to express that displeasure. The entire back portion of the Yerbran skull and about a third of the front portion was riddled with aural chambers, each delicately spaced and connected to create the widest range of sounds of any of the Races.
Except for Jregli. Her aural bones were warped; stunted by her poor growth to the point that only major surgery might, might, repair them.
Sad as that was, Jregli refused to let it stop her. She hopped back over the bar and picked up her small glass of water for a well-deserved drink. Yes, she was smart, possessed of a keen intelligence and blazing wit. She’d defeated three masters to get where she was, and where she was now was protected. She set her glass back in its nook with a careful thump and fired up the bar’s main processor. For certain, being a slave on Fredan Sector Station 5 was the safest place to be a slave.
Shdr’edno couldn’t treat her like a slave here because he valued his place and his business far too much. He would never have bought her or any slave, but that went to show just how clever she was. Jregli knew that life on Yerbra Home was a dead end. Literally, she would have died before too much longer, either from beatings or starvation. She was only eight Star-Standard Units of age, nineteen Yerbran Cycles, which was far too young for someone as brilliant as she to die. Jregli bared her outer teeth for a brief second in victory before schooling her features back to docility.
Mistress had loved to listen to her eldest son recite his lessons. Not because she wanted to see if he got them right,since she wasn’t intelligent enough to know the difference, but because she thought he sounded smart. Jregli had begun the adventure of learning while listening to Master Drecnal fumble through his lessons. The son was brainier than the mother, but not by much. He didn’t realize that the tiny slave assigned to carrying his mother’s numerous cushions was listening very closely. And he didn’t realize that his lesson materials were accessed when he wasn’t home.
Jregli had stolen as much time to learn as she could. She’d taught herself how to use the mainframe interfaces when she was seven Cycles (just under four Units), a skill she used now as she began running the morning diagnostics for the Pub. She’d even given up opportunities to find food so she could learn. Back then, when she’d been so young, learning was just too much fun to pass by, and really, when you’re starving, staying hungry isn’t any greater hardship. Now that she was older, she congratulated herself on the advantage she’d given herself. Flipping through the inventory logs reminded her of flipping through her Master’s personal files.
Since she knew she would die anyway if she hadn’t tried, the risk of being caught at the mainframe hadn’t fazed her. Much. Not much at all. She’d figured out how to crack encryption fairly quickly, and learned all about her Master’s business. She’d since discovered that Master Wesf’ser’s codes were laughable. Knowing one’s foe is the surest way to defeating him; she knew Wesf’ser better than he knew himself.
Now, the Yerbran concept of defeating an enemy was quite different from the majority of other Races. In fact, most Races had declared Yerbran-style conquest immoral, unethical, and/or illegal. In short, Not Fair. Jregli allowed herself the tiniest of smiles as she placed the day’s supply order. Most Races felt it was unfair to cheat, defraud, and humiliate another sentient being. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you is wrong, according to the legislature of the Mutuality. Like slavery, Yerbrans were allowed to keep their “peculiar” custom, provided they kept it at Home and between themselves. Silly aliens.
Jregli hadn’t “kept it at Home,” but she did limit her victories to other Yerbrans; namely, her masters. She’d discovered that Master Wesf’er had suffered a great defeat from the claws of a then-young Shdr’edno, who had stolen a lucrative business venture as neatly as one could please. Shdr’edno wasn’t the only man to have beaten Wesf’er; Jregli wondered how her former Master had maintained his status, he’d been taken so many times. but Shdr’edno was the only one permanently headquartered on a Mutuality Star Station. A Station was just the place for a young genius.
Getting herself to the Station had not been easy, Jregli reflected, saving the invoice and sending a copy to her “uncle” for approval. That called for defeating Shdr’edno, who was much, much smarter than Wesf’er could ever hope to be. She had used every bit of ingenuity she could dredge up, borrowing liberally from accounts of famous and infamous intergalactic crimes, the ever-popular “whodunnit” opti-tainments, and her own people’s history. The result was an attack plan worthy of Tuip’vne himself.
Jregli resisted the urge to relive her glorious battle. Instead, she began activating the various machinery necessary to create the vast array of beverages and foods the Pub was known across three sectors for. The tail of all her effort was that Shdr’edno thought he was buying a machine that would make him a lot of money and Wesf’er thought he was unloading a pathetic excuse of a slave onto an old enemy who could lose everything if he owned a slave while residing in Mutuality Domain.
That, in truth, was still a danger, both to Shdr’edno and to Jregli. Hence, the story of kinship. Shdr’edno didn’t know that it was actually true; his great-great-grandsire had often amused himself with his own slaves, and Jregli was a long-distant result. Better to save that information for a windstorm than spend it on rain. Or, as natives of more humid planets might say, “save it for a rainy day.” Yerbra’s rainfall was measured in micro-Units, and Jregli had never actually been to a wetter planet, but she had seen plenty of opti-tainments. She felt she had an acceptable understanding of the phrase.