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.
“There is still work to be done; I’m not paying you to stand around!” Shdr’edno managed to throw off his shock and snapped at his employees. They melted away to their tasks, but far more slowly than they should have. Mahl, the fawning, unattractive one, gathered up the message box and moved towards the bar.
“I’ll take that,” he snapped. “It will be useful for my own messages.”
Mahl nodded, wisely keeping her mouth shut for once. She detached the message screen and handed the box to him.
“All of it,” he said calmly.
“The message is Jregli’s–”
“I will hold it for her.” He was done arguing with these idiotic sentients! Mahl stared at him in challenge for several seconds, but she finally gave it over. Then she went back to her station, even more slowly than the others had. Shdr’edno turned to his slave, who sat like a sack of rocks on the floor.
“What to do with you now,” he murmured in Yerbran. He knew she heard him, but her pathetic little mind seemed to be completely overloaded. Which was, after all, what he wanted.
“Pet!” She flattened herself with appropriate servility. “Go check the lavatories; Funswrub has been lax in cleaning them. Make certain they are spotless, and then go receive the new inventory. It will arrive by Noon; have it entered and shelved before the Lunch crowd leaves.” If she could get that big a delivery checked in that quickly, he’d have to think of something else for her to do. If not, he’d have a pleasant time yelling at her about her failure to obey. And if she got it done, but made mistakes … well, that was even better.
Jregli scuttled away, only half aware of what she was doing. She’d heard the orders and knew what she was supposed to do, but her mind was still spinning. The favor, the gift, the apology … and her stomach still hurt, her gums still ached, her feet still sent slivers of pain up her legs.
The front lavatory was essentially clean, but Jregli needed something to do, so she pulled out the bots and set them to overdrive. She also pulled out the hand-held scrubbers and set herself to the crevices the bots couldn’t reach. Her mind felt like a winter storm raged inside her head, and she let it. That was how you survived a storm; you holed up and waited it out.
The other lavatories were cleaner than the first, but she went over them again anyway. By then, it was Noon, so she scampered up to the front, arriving just as the delivery carts pulled up. Some part of her mind might have commented that delivery personnel were never early and always only just on time, but that went unnoticed as she directed the pallets to the store rooms and reviewed the log ‘pad. As she mechanically checked off the last item, verifying that it was in the crate, the bulky Prinffin delivery sentient offered an opinion as he detached the grav-dolly.
“Mmm–what?” The direct comment broke into her mental disarray.
“Nice apron. Minds me of the kind my Mum would wear back on Home when we had company over.”
“Mmm, th-thank you. It is a gift.”
“It’s nice. We good here?” He shifted the grav-dolly around and reached for the data board.
“Yes. Yes, it looks good. Here.” She handed it back to him. He nodded pleasantly and dragged the dolly behind him as he left. Jregli closed the big doors used for loading supplies in and out and turned back to the stacks of crates.
A nice apron. The kind an adult woman would wear to receive honored guests. A gift of honor from an adult. Adults showing favor. Yerbran adults giving respect due only another adult.
By the sacred waters of the Growing Valley! She was fifty Cycles ahead of schedule!
It was an odd but real fact that one can be both excited and numb at the same time. Jregli could feel the energy building in her chest, but it didn’t go anywhere or make itself known in any outward fashion. Maybe she was still too tired, too drained from the past few Days. Maybe she was getting smarter about not letting her emotions show. Maybe she just didn’t have a leaping clue what she was doing.
Doing with her private war against Shdr’edno, she amended. What she was doing with her hands was checking in the new inventory and lugging it to the proper shelves. Fortunately, she’d upgraded the existing receiving SOP to eliminate an entire step and cut the completion time by a third the week after she’d arrived. Shocking how inefficient her Master was when it came to organizing his shelves. She’d updated the Pub’s database at the same time she’d checked off the items on the delivery ‘pad, having slaved the Pub’s log to it from the start. Now, she scanned the ID codes of the individual items and the shelves they went on as she slowly emptied the crates.
So far ahead of schedule, she mused, wrestling a box of formulator parts onto a shelf just above her head. Most Yerbrans could reasonably expect to have a somewhat loyal following about ten to fifteen Cycles after becoming an adult. Gaining a cortege of supporters, banded together for mutual gain and advancement, was crucial to establishing one’s place in society. A strong, smart adult would be the leader; less strong or smart adults would be the supporters. A very smart adult would have an expendable figurehead to take the unwanted attention.
Jregli had such a group now in the employees of the Pub. Too early to tell who held what position, especially since Jregli was still a child. But still workable. If she were careful, she wouldn’t have to worry about building a network once she became an ad–
If she becam–
Jregli paused mid-motion, hands halfway into a crate of dry goods. She never would become an adult, would she?
What was the point of thinking about her options, of planning for her future? Slaves never earned adult status. Slaves never had any status. Slaves might enhance their Master’s status, but would never have any of their own. Did Jregli want to use all of her talents, all of her brilliance, for a Master?
A few Monthsmonths ago, it wouldn’t have been a question. Of course she would; helping her Master was the best way to help herself. Now … it wasn’t so clear. It’s wasn’t as easy to answer. She drew on that curious calm, that oddly controlled passion, and thought about it as she lifted the packets of powdered innfp grain from the crate and placed them on their shelf.
Helping her Master was the only choice, really. If she withheld any of her ability, any of her accomplishments, from her Master, it would ultimately circle back to bury her. He would find out and punish her, or he would fall and she would fall with him. Even if she managed to avoid to consequences of his fall, she would just be sold to someone else and it would begin again. Even if she managed to choose her new Master (or Mistress), it would be the same cycle, over and over and over.
She had to make Shdr’edno so happy, so safe, that no harm could come to her. But that was a hard run, indeed, she thought, flattening the empty crates and stacking them for pickup. There would always be stray currents, unexpected storms, blowing up from nowhere and catching even the most wary off guard. Yet a prepared person had a better chance of surviving that squall.
But could she do it? Could she stand to so abase herself to a Master she had defeated and determined to continue defeating? A Master determined to grind her into the dust? No matter how she groveled, how she served, Shdr’edno would never forgive her and never forget what she had done.
She knew the logical arguments. She wasn’t so sure about the illogical ones. Like the pleasure she had from working unfettered in the Pub. The thrill of winning a word-riddle against Ooan or Eaor or any of the other Quadesixos. The challenge of pleasing every customer of every Race who came into the Pub. The joy of learning freely, without having to hide that she did so. The fierce pride at having accomplished what no other slave had.
Being ruled by emotions and emotional gratification was foolish. So was trying to block emotions out completely. But where was the line? Where was the balance? Jregli didn’t know. Dozens of philosophers from dozens of Races had written dozens of books on the topic, and what Jregli had read didn’t really clarify anything. Those writings were either so esoteric that no one could apply them or they tried to affix a universal standard to every sentient that was just impractical. Jregli just couldn’t relate to a concept of social obligation based on the Drignalian caste system, for example.
Logically, Jregli needed to support Shdr’edno. Illogically, she wanted to support herself. Logically, supporting her Master would support herself. Illogically, she didn’t want to share her successes with him. Logically, she could not help herself unless she helped her Master. Illogically, she wanted to stand on her own.
There. She’d put it into words. She had the impossible desire to be an adult. To own herself. A desire that could not be satisfied, could not happen. There simply wasn’t a way for a Yerbran slave to become a free adult. It just didn’t happen. Logically, continuing to harbor such a desire would only bring ruin upon herself. Illogically … it was a hard dream to forget.
The lunch crowd wouldn’t officially leave for another half hour, so Jregli decided to use the time to think and double-check the stock. She had the foundation of a cortege, of a following. How could she use that to do what she wanted as well as what she needed? She wanted to support her own interests, to be free. Yes, she had the run of the Pub and lived far more freely than any child could reasonably expect, but she was still, always, a slave.
Jregli shook herself angrily. Keening for water spilled won’t put it back in your cup, she firmly scolded herself. She could spend all her days longing for what she couldn’t have, or she could do something with what she did have. Freedom was out of the question, but there were many other possibilities. Her hands flew over the shelves, straightening and counting items, as her thoughts raced ahead.
For instance, had she not done what no other slave in recorded history had done? What thousands of slaves even now dreamed of doing? She had bested her Master! She had bested three of them, in fact, counting Fun’gryu, and all at the same time, with the same jump! She had supporters and physical evidence of favor from someone other than her Master. And, she thought with excitement, hands beginning to tremble, Shdr’edno did not have those things. He might be a free man, but he had no followers, no gifts of favor. Sentients feared him, and so far from Home, he had no way to gather a group to himself.
Or rather, he wouldn’t have the insight to realize that a following of non-Yerbrans could give him as much status as a traditional group. Jregli had the feeling that her little rag-tag band would be more loyal than an entire organization, for their loyalty was hatched of personal concern. They cared about Jregli, not about what she could give them or do for them. In a way, that made her stronger than Shdr’edno. Any followers he gained would last only as long as he did; as soon as his purchase on the cliffs of status slipped, they would abandon him. Jregli’s friends would never abandon her.