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.
Her legs trembled at the thought, and she grabbed the shelf in front of her for balance. Friends. It made it easier to think of them in Yerbran terms of followers and supporters, but they were actually friends. Friendship was so rare among Yerbrans, who always looked with the weather eye for the next chance. It was too easy for one to claim to be a friend and then let the other fall. In fact, you didn’t even call someone “friend” in Yerbran unless you were absolutely certain of them. And being absolutely certain of someone was a huge risk.
I think I could take that risk with these aliens. I really do think I can. Certainly Shdr’edno would never take that risk! Here again she would best him! And he would likely never know it because the idea of friendship was so foreign!
Jregli gave a breathy titter as she sank to the floor. She could help herself and her Master at the same time! She could build up her fol– friends, gaining from their care, and use that to improve things for her Master. He probably wouldn’t understand exactly what was going on, though that wouldn’t stop him from trying to strike against her. If she built the protection offered by her friends … although, how much protection would that really be? She did belong to Shdr’edno, and free children belonged to their adults as fully as slaves. Well … mmm, Shdr’edno didn’t care what anyone thought of him unless it affected his business, so the ill will of the employees wasn’t worth anything that way.
But if … if he could be made to realize how much trouble it would cause him to alienate all of them … he’d have to hire all new staff, train them, and put up with their errors while learning. If he sent Jregli away or sold her, then he’d lose all that she was doing and would do for him. Shdr’edno needed to realize just how invaluable Jregli was to him. If nothing else, the need to beat her should be enough for him to keep her close. Some might find revenge in banishing an opponent to oblivion at the bottom of the caves, but Shdr’edno was … too competitive for that. He had to beat her the way she’d beaten him.
Mmm, so she should play on that. Keep him mad enough that he focused on defeating her instead of thinking about why she was doing what she was doing. How would he respond to her little cortege?
A soft foot-fall caught her attention, and she flattened herself to the floor. A long shadow preceded Shdr’edno into the storeroom. He paused slightly when he saw her huddled on the floor, shaking ever so slightly. He took that as proper fear of him and curled his tail happily.
“Little pet, are you not done? The patrons are leaving,” he crooned in Yerbran.
“I have finished, my Lord. The ‘pad is there,” she replied softly and pointed to the shelf where the inventory ‘pad lay. Some of the lift went out of Shdr’edno’s tail, but he turned to the shelf and picked up the ‘pad to inspect it. After several moments, he lowered it and stared at his slave.
Wind-blasted brat should still have half the load to shelve; how had she managed to get done so quickly? Jregli stayed on the floor, unaware of her shivers. Why her muscles twitched, she couldn’t have said. Shdr’edno found her quaking appealing. She must be so afraid to disappoint me now.
“It is good that you have finished, pet,” he half-snapped. “There are other things you need to be doing. Come.”
His slave leapt to her feet and hurried to follow her Master, who suddenly stopped. She managed to come to a halt with enough room to spare that Shdr’edno couldn’t snap she was too close, but only just. His back was to her, but he could see her clearly in his peripheral vision. She still wore that stupid … what was it? Apron. Fah! The brat shouldn’t have such a thing, shouldn’t have anything. He should rip it off of her scrawny carcass, if he could bear to touch her.
Or should he? Many had seen her open the cursed thing and heard the ridiculous message from the sow of an alien. Letting her keep it would add to the fiction that he cared about the brat; she was doubtless trying to figure out some way to position them against him. For all the good it would do her. In the other eye … letting her keep it and wear it might actually play into his incubating plans.
Shdr’edno kept her busy for the rest of the day, running all over the Pub and doing the worst jobs (mostly tedious) he could think of. Jregli didn’t complain, didn’t comment; she just did what she was told. That weird calm kept her detached from everyone she encountered, and she only spoke to them in reply. She was aware that some gave her odd looks, but she didn’t try to capitalize on them. She wasn’t quite sure why.
Jregli was at the main bar’s secondary console, back-checking the past several years’ audits and cross-checking them against inventory records when an alert popped up on the display. Stars! She’d forgotten about the Onifub party on Second Dayday! That was tomorrow! Abandoning her assigned task, she scrambled to check the current supply lists. Good, good, the special ingredients for the festival dishes had arrived with the shipment she’d shelved today but somehow completely missed the importance of, as had the dishes, which Ressnib had received yesterday. But where was the table display?
Jregli searched the logs again, but there was no record of the display arriving. Pulling up the order form, she found the confirmation of the order by the vendor, but nothing more. Hurriedly, she shot a message off to them to get the status of the pieces. She stared at the console for several moments before realizing that any answer would probably take a while. She sighed quietly and pulled the archived data back up.
“Somethin’ up, kiddo?” Ressnib came up behind her.
“Mmm, no, Ressnib. Not really. I was just wondering where the table display for the party for tomorrow is. I saw that you checked in the serving dishes; did you happen to see it then?”
“Nope. Just dishes. Who’s got a party that needs platters like that?” he asked with mild curiosity.
“A group of Onifubs,” she replied. “It’s an anniversary feast for their clan, and their clan leader will be here for it. It’s quite the occasion for them; usually, they have to travel Home to attend, but this time, their leader decided to bring the clan here, to meet with those who live on the Station.”
“Not familiar with ‘em. Big group?” Ressnib moved to the other console and began tapping it.
“Fairly large, though we’ve had larger. They’ll take up most of the balcony,” Jregli replied as she logged an inventory discrepancy from five years ago.
“Why not the big room?” Ressnib glanced over his shoulder at her as he mixed a drink.
“Onifubs need to be able to see and be seen for major occasions. It’s integral to their social structure. Like tattoos for your people.”
“How do you know about that?” Ressnib whirled around to stare at her, incredulous.
“Why, they’re common knowledge, aren’t they? You don’t show them — oh! I’ve never seen yours, Ressnib! I wouldn’t dream of prying into something so personal as your loyalty marks! I just know that all of your people have them, in some form or fashion.”
“All good, kiddo. Scared me there. You know so much, seems like. Thought you might have seen through me.” He gave her a lopsided grin.
“Oh, no! No, I just know that you have them, and that they’re none of my business. Forgive me for–”
“Nah. All good, kiddo,” he repeated soothingly. “So. Big group. Wilson, Chinu, and Dillone serving?”
“At least, yes. We may need to ask ‘P and Eddes to help, as well. Onifubs are particular about their servers and the service given them. In fact,” Jregli brought up another system on her console, “let me make copies of this etiquette manual for all of them; if we do this well, the whole Onifub clan will favor us. That means big tips now and repeat custom later.” She gave Ressnib a weak smile.
“That’s what we like about you, kiddo. Good thinking.” He gave her another lopsided grin and took the tray of drinks he’d just prepared to a large table in the back.
Jregli pretended to work for a few moments while her mind whirled. Ressnib had just given her a clue, an insight, into the minds of her little cortege. Now if she could only understand it! She was thinking about the profit to be made from the Onifub party; Ressnib seemed to think she was … what? Being considerate? That’s what his tone had implied. So, what Jregli thought was thorough and sensibly prepared was considerate to others? Mmm … Yes, she could see how it might appear that way to others.
She could build up her friends far more easily than she’d thought! And if they thought she had always been considerate of them, that explained some of their devotion. Who would have thought being nice could have such a yield?
Jregli felt the excitement that had hidden inside her chest all day begin to seep into her limbs as she forwarded the Onifub etiquette to the servers. She saw a slight tremor in her hands and tried to quell it. Wouldn’t do to be clumsy because she was pleased. That was one of the main causes of falls. Holding herself stiffly, she wondered if she looked pleased or terrified.
“Mmm, Wilson!” she squeaked as the Human server came back to the bar for an order. “I’ve sent you an etiquette manual to review for the party you’ll be serving tomorrow. Onifubs are quite particular, but they’re generous when they’re pleased. You, Dillone, Chinu, ‘P, and Ennes should be sure to look it over and plan your service so you can get it just so. It’s not too hard, not nearly as hard as serving Uffniorns, but if you do it well, I mean, as well as I know you can do it, I mean–” Wilson laughed and cut off her babbling.
“Not to worry, Jregli! I know what you mean, and I’m glad you brought it up. I saw that on the schedule and meant to ask about it, but I clean forgot. I’ll round up the others and we’ll all have a look at it. Thanks, chica!” He lifted his plate-covered tray to his shoulder, tossed her a wink and a grin, and headed back to his customers.
Jregli sighed in relief. One good thing about having a cortege was that they were more willing to overlook less-than-perfect communication. But what did chica mean? She spent a moment looking it up before going back to the inventory log review.
As the evening carried on, Shdr’edno came up with more tasks for Jregli to do. One of them was minding the main bar for several hours under his watchful eyes. Jregli found it somewhat unnerving to have her Master standing at the other end of the bar, scrutinizing her every move, but her excitement countered that nicely. She still had to control her shiverings, which made her ache from forcing herself to hold still. She finally got a reply from the vendor about the centerpiece, and that took a lot of the lift out of her tail.
“My Lord?” She approached Shdr’edno carefully. He didn’t bother to turn towards her, merely flicking his tail at her to speak up. “The centerpiece for the large party we have scheduled for tomorrow will not be delivered in time. The vendor made an error in ordering, and they gave our pieces to another customer. The centerpiece is very important to–” He cut her off with another tail-flick.
“Had you kept better track of the vendor and made certain it would fulfill the contract, this would not have happened. So, pet, how will you correct this mistake? This was your idea, after all.”