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.
The Hunsid Homeworld was a fascinating place. Jregli felt incredibly exposed on the open plains covered only by the comparatively short grasses. The Hunsid people averaged about five SS-UH tall, so they could drop and hide in the grasses if they needed to. They could also crouch down enough to effectively hide themselves as they moved. Jregli, even so short as she was, could not do either with any skill. Perhaps if she were trained as the Wind Brothers were in stealth and tactics, she might manage it. But she felt exposed and vulnerable.
The Twins laughed gently at her fears; there was so little on their world to be afraid of! They had not the vicious storms nor the number of aggressive animals to worry about. What dangers there were, they assured her, were easily met by an established clan. As they topped a rise in the Plains, the ‘tainment units created just such a clan encampment for them to explore.
Being traditionally nomadic, the Hunsids favored portable buildings that endured for generations. Technological advances and their expansion into the stars had necessitated permanent cities, but tradition still undergirded the society. This enclave was a historical reconstruction from pre-tech days, and the Twins were as delighted to explore their ancestor’s habitat as they were to introduce Jregli to it.
The buildings, they informed her, were called tents (in Mutual speak) and made from the hides of various animals. They lasted much longer than their flimsy appearance suggested and had been standard housing for the Clans for thousands of generations. The Twins showed her the campfires, the drying racks, the corrals for beasts of burden and food. Harvit had the units create a small herd of opir, the primary domestic food beast of his ancient Race, and trot them into the corral.
Jregli had to force herself to stay put by the flimsy fence when the beasts entered. She’d never had anything to do with the domesticated animals back Home, and all wild animals back Home were dangerous. When the Twins told her how common it was for Hunsid children to claim one of the four-legged, shaggy creatures with wicked-looking horns and hooves as special favorites, she thought they had to be lying to her for fun. All the flying fur, the smell, the constant noises they made … not to mention how dangerous they might be … why would any adult allow a child within a hundred leaps of such a creature?
Again, the Twins laughed and assured her that the opir were the most gentle and harmless of animals.
“Why then do they have such sharp horns?” Jregli demanded. “You can’t convince me that they eat with those!”
“Of course not!” Harvit managed around his laughter. “They use those to defend themselves against predators! But these would have been birthed and reared amongst people and know them for no threat!”
It still didn’t make sense to Jregli, but she let the matter drop. The Twins finished with the ancient encampment and then showed her a modern one. The only real difference, Jregli decided, was the materials used. The layout was basically the same, the cooking still done at community centers, and the animals still kept in pens. Jregli was interested in all she saw, despite the … well, the alienness of it.
Then it was a quick tour of one of the major cities and an “overflight” of a small mountain range. They were just “touching down” when their time ended and Jregli abruptly found herself back in her unit. The disorientation lasted long enough that the Twins were knocking on the hatch before she opened it.
“Soooo, what did you think?” Hevrit grinned up at her.
“Mmm … well, I know now what all the fuss about enviro-tainment is!” Jregli gave them a smile. “And your Homeworld is fascinating. Thank you for showing it to me!”
“Wonderful! Now, we all need some refreshment!” Hevrit crowed and steered her towards the entrance.
“Some water would be nice,” Jregli allowed. Surely they didn’t intend to eat again? It had been barely four hours since that enormous meal!
“Water would indeed be nice,” Harvit agreed, “but we mean to give you a thorough education this day! We shall introduce you to the delights of flavored beverages!” Which is what they did, dragging her into a smaller eatery whose placard declared it to be Profindos’ Beverage Emporium, Home of Every Beverage Known in the Mutuality. Jregli highly doubted that; formulators could create vast amounts of items, but even those incredible machines had their limits. It would require hundreds of formulators to produce every beverage known in the Mutuality. It made her wish that she could metabolize an Ihgriso funeral draught, just to see if Profindo could actually create such an obscure drink.
Hevrit ordered something called a “blended” beverage for her, adding in nearly a dozen ingredients, all plants (he assured her) that Jregli had never heard of. What was a carrot or a pursd? Hevrit just smiled and said she’d love it before ordering some milk-based concoction for himself while Harvit ordered something that apparently sparkled.
The drinks came out in tall, clear glasses coated with frosted condensation and decorated with ridiculous miniature items like sun-shades and plastofab fruit. The real fruit that topped Jregli’s drink was deliciously sweet, and she savored it while watching the Twins enthusiastically taste their orders. Harvit’s drink didn’t literally sparkle, to her disappointment, but it did bubble and fizz quite a bit.
Her own drink awaited her. She’d been sniffing at it hesitantly, trying in vain to determine what was in it. The Twins sat in silent expectation, so she had no choice but to lift the glass to her thin lips and let the foreign mixture spill into her mouth.
Jregli nearly dropped the glass as the chilled liquid invaded her senses. She managed to catch it before it did more than slop the drink a bit and lowered it to the table. She held herself motionless except for the muscles required to slowly swallow. Staring but not seeing, she began to keen softly.
“Oh, child! What is it?” Hevrit’s soft, worried voice sounded from far away. She couldn’t reply. A small, soft hand with too many fingers laid gently on her arm, but she couldn’t do anything about it. She continued the soft, barely audible keening.
“What have we done?!” Harvit’s anguished snarl sounded closer. Jregli tried to reply. It was so hard. The Twins’ distress grew louder, clearer. Finally, she managed a small whisper.
“It’s …” Their talking cut off abruptly. “It’s delicious.” Harvit started to say something but chopped off the sound.
“You like it, little one?” Hevrit asked gently, moving his hand to her elbow. Yes, it was his hand, she could see that now. Could see their faces, twisted with worry. Alien faces were so mobile, so overly expressive, that it was sometimes as hard for her to read theirs as it was for them to read hers. But she knew they were genuinely concerned for her. She tried to pull herself together.
“I like it. Very much.” So much that she couldn’t stop keening, couldn’t stop that tiny sound of sorrow she so rarely allowed out. The drink was more than delicious. More than wonderful. It was, without a doubt, the most incredible thing she’d ever tasted. The vegetables at the restaurant had been delicious, a treat so rare she still couldn’t believe that she’d eaten them. Food on Yerbra took so long to grow, was so hard to grow, that all young, tender, green plants were jealously hoarded. It was the most extravagant of events to have greens at a meal; only the wealthiest could afford them and only then for the greatest of occasions.
Slaves never got green food. Slaves never got anything their Masters might have considered worth keeping. Before coming to the Station, Jregli had never eaten anything that wasn’t so dessicated and withered that it had torn her gums to chew it. She’d made her meals at the Pub out of scraps from the customer’s plates, just as she’d done back Home, taking unnoticeable bits of was leftover and not coated with meat or sauces. She kept a little stash near her water glass and gulped it down at each of her set eating times. No one had ever given her food that hadn’t been someone else’s first, and it had never been fresh.
Green food was so precious that it was always served whole, so that it could be recognized and the host envied. With alien influence, Yerbrans had begun combining and cooking various vegetables, though always keeping each recognizable. Pureeing food was unheard of; even the oldest, most infirm Yerbran still had enough teeth to at least chew her own food. Jregli could only decide that no other Yerbran had ever tried a blended drink. If any had, if any free Yerbran had, she would never have gone a meal without one. Which only made Jregli’s predicament worse.
Of all the dangers available to a slave, knowing, really knowing, what you were missing was the worst. Bad enough that she knew that things were out there that she couldn’t have. A thousand times worse to have tasted them, knowing that she could never have it again. The memory would haunt her for the rest of her miserable life.
She took a deep breath to still the pathetic wailing in her chambers. She made herself look at the Twins and forced her lips into a smile. “Thank you so much, dear brothers of my hearts. I have never tasted anything such as this, and you were well justified in telling me that I would love it. I cannot think that any day would be complete without a drink like this.” Not too bad a speech.
The Twins broke into tentative smiles, both of them with hands covering hers, which were wrapped around the cold glass. They finished their drinks quietly, speaking gently about nothing in particular.