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.
Hevrit and Harvit were ten minutes early for the outing. Jregli didn’t mind because excitement had begun to overtake her weariness. She was going out! Even if all she did were stand in the corridor, she would be outside her Master’s domain, acting like any free sentient. Yes, it was just pretend, just an illusion, but it was something she had never done before. And the Twins treated her like a free woman. This was going to be such a day!
Stepping out of the doorway was an adventure all of its own. Yes, she was on her Master’s orders, but it felt like an act of freedom. Did free sentients ever think about walking through a doorway? Stepping out of the place they had been assigned, leaving the place they knew behind? Her former Master and Mistress had occasionally ordered her outside their luxurious cavern, but it was always on an errand to something nearby. And every person on Yerbra Home had known her for a slave. Every sentient on the station would think her as free as they. What a marvel!
As she stepped outside, placed her foot onto a floor not owned by her Master, the Twins pounced. Their heads barely came up to her shoulders, but they wrapped their thick, short arms as far around her as possible and hugged her, one on each side.
“Fondest little sister of our hearts! We have so anticipated this day!”
If they hadn’t been holding her up, she would have fallen over in shock.
Yerbrans were not a physically affectionate people. Touching another person was strictly reserved for particular relationships and circumstances, and claws made casual contact problematic. Jregli had come to know that other Races, Hunsids, in particular, considered touching each other as normal as breathing, as a daily requirement. They had no claws, which made contact simpler, and they had to at least brush up against each other as often as possible. Jregli had been astounded to learn that the Twins considered working at separate tables in the Arcade a difficulty; they were less than a leap apart! But even that distance was too much when it was forced on them.
Jregli had carefully observed how aliens interacted, trying to familiarize herself with their preferences and habits. But observation and experience were just not the same thing at all. Feeling them against her scales, their warmth, their heartbeats … it was just a shock. She held herself rigid, afraid to move. The only time anyone had ever deliberately touched her before this was to beat her.
The Twins quickly released her, still grinning. “Sweet sister!” Harvit chuckled. “You are too kind to us! You endure even the strangest things from us!”
“Yes,” Hevrit chimed in, “we know how strange it is for you to be touched; you are not Hunsid, after all!”
“And yet, you patiently allow us our ways! Such a gracious, wonderful sentient you are!” Harvit bowed, with Hevrit quickly following suit.
“Mmm … yes, well, I could hardly do less for those who are as near as brothers, now, could I?” It took Jregli an instant to get her mental feet back under her.
“Such a dear! Such a wonder! Let us be off! We have whole day to fill!” The Twins grabbed her hands; she made a small squeak as her palms twinged and they dragged her away.
They started with a tour of the entire Station. Jregli hadn’t seen much of it when she’d come in; she’d been focused on her new Master and making sure he didn’t see past her story. It was a pleasure to be out and actually look at things. The Station was enormous, bigger than the city she’d lived in back Home. The fact that it was entirely enclosed didn’t bother her at all, to the Twins’ surprise. But then, their people favored open plains and sprawling, single-story buildings, whereas Jregli’s lived tightly packed into cave-riddled cliffs.
The largest portion of the Station was the harbor, which ran around the perimeter. The Station was circular, like a great wheel, to allow the greatest number of ships to dock at once. Thousands of vessels passed through the Station every day, transporting goods and sentients to and from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Jregli couldn’t even begin to imagine how much work it took to keep track of them all. She’d seen Grunfe, Master Wesf’er’s first slave, trying to keep all the household in line and order, and he’d always been at wit’s end with the twenty-seven slaves under him. Taking care of the thousands … millions of sentients passing through the Station … it was mind-boggling.
She stared out at the harbor from the observation decks of the Station core. The giant portals held powerful energy fields that kept the Station’s atmosphere from leaking into space; Jregli could see them shimmering softly between her and the blackness. At first, she didn’t know what the glittering colors were, and the Twins didn’t know what she meant when she asked about them. Fortunately, a sprightly young Vun happened to overhear and offered the explanation.
“Ah, honored Yerbran, visitor to this great Station! That which you have so astutely observed is the great energy barrier, our protection against the frigid embrace of the stars! Your esteemed companions cannot see this wondrous feat of technological splendor, for their eyes have not the ability to see beyond the merest of spectrums! Your great Race and mine own humble one have this exalted ability, to see that which is beyond the vision of most.”
Harvit and Hevrit were ecstatic to learn that Jregli had an expanded visual range and immediately began peppering her with questions about what ordinary things looked like to her. It was hard to explain to them, since what seemed strange to them was so ordinary to her. Still, she tried, and they loved it.
The harbor connected to the Station core by twenty corridors, each lined with facilities to serve the ships that docked closest to it. Jregli learned that the harbor was divided into forty sections that each met a specific shipping need, with the corridors placed between every other section. Fifteen were passenger-only docks, divided by the physical needs of the sentients. They snuck into one of the bays set aside for non-pedal travelers to watch the proceedings. There must have been at least forty different Races there!
The corridors held even more fascinations, depending on the needs of the docks beyond. Every corridor held eateries, of course; the lowest-quality ones were closest to the docks. Sentients in a hurry couldn’t afford to be picky, so they had to put up with whatever slop at whatever prices were most easily available. Jregli made a disdainful noise that the Twins found hilarious. They all giggled their way back toward the center of the Station.
As they walked around the Station Core, the Twins pointed out more sights. There was the biggest mechanical shop in the sector, servicing not only individuals and business but the ships that came in needing repairs. The owner was a Jeftryo named ‘S, and rumor had it that he’d fled to the Station because of legal trouble back Home. He’d been exemplary since coming to the Station, as far as anyone knew. That was a famous art studio, displaying the works of a mere dozen artists and commanding more credits for a single look than most sentients spent on their entire passage fares. It was guarded by mercenaries who had a small base the next corridor over and serviced another half-dozen or so businesses on the Station. No one really trusted (or liked) mercenaries, of course, but these were reputed to be good at their jobs, so …
Shdr’edno had placed his Pub and Arcade at the heart of the passenger docks, at the end of the primary corridor from the busiest dock. The other side of the Station from Shdr’edno’s Pub was devoted to businesses, mostly the various shipping firms that made the Station a primary hub. There was even a small exchange, dealing with all manner of goods in enormous quantities. Brokers stood around in tight clusters, yelling over one another, attempting to out-bid each other for the giant blocks of goods. Jregli hid a shudder; it reminder her distantly of some of the slave markets back Home.
They passed by an unobtrusive hallway that the Twins identified as the main entrance to the Mutuality Domain Command Center, where the departments that actually ran the Station were. Hidden in the very center of the Station, it invisibly controlled all life and business in this part of the sector. That area, of course, was off limits to sight seers, and it would not do to be caught sneaking in. Jregli spared a moment to think about the Station Commander before the Twins dragged her onward.
The next section of the Core they came to was the residential area, divided again to meet the physical needs of the various Races. Jregli finally got to look at the Education Center that she was not allowed to attend, and that produced mixed feelings. Sometimes, the simple-mindedness of the sentients who came into the Pub wore on her; some sentients were just so dull! What would it be like to be surrounded by the young of those dull sentients? She had grown up around other children, but her interactions had been limited to either slave-to-Master or slave-to-slave. But the EC was an opportunity to learn, regardless of the other students. As they passed by, she watched several groups of children busy themselves in the adjacent park under the supervision of surprisingly few adults. She was trying to figure out what they were doing when Harvit provided the information.
They were playing. Again, Jregli felt knowledge and experience collide. Playing? What was that? She knew, in theory, that it was a relaxing, enjoyable activity that many sentients pursued, but she just couldn’t understand it. Taking time to educate children made sense. They needed to learn how to do their anticipated work. But what purpose did playing serve?
“Dearest sister of our hearts, you look puzzled,” Hevrit broke into her thoughts. “Please, ask what you wish!”
“Mmm …” how to phrase this? The Twins didn’t seem to think the sight of unproductive children odd. “On Yerbra, children who are not being educated are put to some useful task. This seems … a waste of their time and skills, somehow. Why do these younglings not work?”
“But these are so young, so tender! It is far too soon to expect them to toil and labor!” Hevrit replied. “Why, what sort of things do Yerbran children do, if they do not play?”
“We work,” she replied.
“At what? Some simple task, surely! No child should be put to–”
“A moment!” Harvit interrupted his brother. “‘We’? Do you consider yourself yet a child, precious sister?”
“I am not yet nine Standard Ages old, so of course I am still a child; did you not know that?” That would be harder to answer the older she became.
“What!!” The Twins looked at her in horror and babbled over each other. “Impossible! This cannot be so! But you are so well developed! Your mind is so sharp, and you are so skilled! How can your Uncle let you work so hard as you do!”
Their crowd-drawing cries ended abruptly as Jregli’s empty stomach twinged and gurgled. Her tail curled under in embarrassment as she hunched backwards. She hadn’t had time to eat before the Twins had picked her up. Traitorous body! She’d eaten last night … hadn’t she? She usually ate just before the late crowd came, so she … she hadn’t eaten because the Station Commander had been eyeing her, and that had made her nervous enough to forget her meal.