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.
Second day came on time, but Jregli thought it was a bit earlier than usual. Perhaps that was because she still had so much to do. She’d made contact with three possible suppliers of the pieces needed for the Onifub centerpiece and received confirmation of a full refund from the vendor who’d failed to supply it. She hadn’t had to threaten too much to get them to give the whole amount back, which was nice. Either they really felt badly about it, or Shdr’edno’s reputation was working for her. She wasn’t sure, and she had no time to spare thinking about it.
Rushing through her opening chores, Jregli thought carefully about what she needed to do today. Most of it, she could accomplish from the consoles, but there was a real chance she would have to go out into the Station to pick up the items. She wasn’t sure “Uncle” would allow that. Well, leap that crack when it came.
She was busy at the console, trying to wrangle the best possible deal from her potential suppliers when Shdr’edno arrived. He looked happy, which immediately put Jregli on guard.
“Little pet, the Uunfe Dpolqr will be here soon. For your price, you will ask them to teach you to be a Dancer.”
The Station tilted and spun off its axis. At least, Jregli thought it did. What?!?
“And when they are teaching you (and I do hope you learn to be something other than the pathetic klutz you are), you will learn everything you can about them and report back to me. Everything about the family: how its hierarchy functions, where their credits are, how they may be brought to serve me. You will not allow them to suspect this. Understood?”
Now that the Station had abruptly returned to its normal orbit, Jregli felt hollow inside. She would never have expected this. She should have, though. Of course Shdr’edno would want more information on the Dancers and Brothers. Of course he would want to defeat them. And, of course he would use her in any way he thought he could.
“Y–yes, my Lord,” she managed. She must obey her Master. She must. But she did not want to! And yet … for the chance to learn to be a Dancer …
“My Lord, I have found the pieces needed for the party Tonight. I have secured the lowest price possible for them, lower than the original offer. I must go to the vendor to retrieve it.” She held her breath; would he let her go?
“Mmm,” was his reply as he neatly jumped over the bar and took his place at the console. Oh. So he was still doing that I’m-ignoring-you power play. Very well; cringe and slightly whimper.
“The vendor who erred has paid us the full amount in recompense, my Lord, for the entire order. Not only the pieces it failed to deliver, but even that which it did send us.”
“But nothing more than that, mmm? Nothing additional for the hardship this has caused me, nothing to assure my goodwill and continued business? You should have bargained better, pet, to protect my interests.”
“My apologies, my Lord. I will do better in the future.” Grovel, grovel. Was he done yet?
“Go let the employees in,” he snapped idly, still scrolling through console data. Probably noting the time frames listed by her notes on the centerpiece items, trying to determine how little time he could give her to go get them. Likely, he would give her just barely enough; he did need the party to go well, after all.
Jregli hurried over to the service door and keyed it open, revealing Ressnib and Funswrub. They greeted her cheerfully, Ressnib with a friendly word and Funswrub with a grunt, as she let them in. Ressnib shook his head gently after taking a look around.
“Dunno how you do it, kiddo. We clean up ‘fore we leave, and the place still gets better ‘fore we’re back. Funs, she’ll work you outta job soon!” He gave Funswrub a playful punch on the shoulder, which was covered by his uniform and thus not very slimy. Funswrub grunted thoughtfully. The door chimed, and Jregli turned to it as Ressnib and Funswrub moved off.
As anticipated, Shdr’edno kept her busy with make-work until the last possible second, but he did let her go get the pieces. Before she left, however, the Dancers came back.
Shdr’edno offered flowery greetings before getting down to business. “The price I place on the insult done my child and me must be heavy, indeed, for much damage has been done. Due to the distress the incident caused, the child rushed back to me in ill haste, inadvertently causing much damage in her blind panic.”
That was a direct swipe to Jregli, who winced. She knew she’d broken some things in her mad dash, but she’d never heard anything about it. Looked like Shdr’edno was going to make her aware of it now.
“The Station Security Officer contacted me regarding the claims filed for the damages, and they were not insubstantial. All told, for paying the damages, the fines, and the extra care the child required, I require payment of one million seeds.” Shdr’edno stood as the very image of dignified resolution. Jregli felt her mouth trying to gape open in shock. Gp’nifse and Jujk’anrl started visibly, Rnn’fern’s tail tightened dangerously, and Kkle’drqo nodded as though she’d expected it.
“I had heard that the child’s flight was perilous,” the beautiful woman said, motioning sadly at Jregli. “It grieves my hearts that she was driven to such desperate measures by such inconsiderate actions. If I might enquire, what damages were so costly?”
“You might indeed, Lady. There were damages to the furniture of the Glass Room, various minor injuries done to private sentients who either were forced aside by the child’s passing or who were forced to move themselves aside to avoid her, and damage to personal property. The personal property totals were most serious; it appears that the child knocked over and destroyed a priceless antique in her haste. She tried to jump a small cart loaded with artifacts destined for auction but failed to do so.”
Jregli winced again. She had vague recollections of jumping over several things, but she couldn’t trust those memories.
“That single artifact would have had an opening bid of over 300,000 seeds,” Shdr’edno continued, sounding pained at the loss, one might be tempted to think, of priceless antiquity. “The auction house demanded reparations of nearly 500,000 seeds, for which I was required to arranged a payment plan, as such a large amount is beyond my immediate means.”
Oh, Jregli could see where this was leading. So could a blind root-grub.
“As it is currently beyond ours,” Kkle’drqo replied with chagrin. “By your leave, my Lord, we will make a similar arrangement to repay this debt.”
No bargaining? What was wrong with these Dancers?
“But of course, my Lady, but of course. I would not expect even one of the greatest members of the Merchant’s Forum to have such a sum at hand. By your leave, step into my office, and we shall discuss mutually agreeable terms that will place neither of us at a difficult pass.” Shdr’edno gestured grandly towards his office.
This was bad. Very bad. Shdr’edno would talk them into a long, drawn-out repayment program filled with hidden clauses and penalties and a deceptive interest rate that would end up costing them as much in usury as in principle. And there was nothing Jregli could do about it.
Kkle’drqo nodded and made an elegant bow. “So we shall; but first, we would know the child’s will in this matter. Jregli, child, what repayment would you require of us?”
Jregli froze for a moment. She had her orders, but could she obey them?
What was she thinking? Could she obey her orders?! How could she think of not obeying? What was happening to her? Considering, however minutely, disobedience? Defiance? What idiocy had overcome her?
This was the consequence of pretending to be a Lady out with admirers; this was the result of thinking like a free woman! She simply could not afford to disobey, to defy. It was unthinkable!
And she had thought it. She had thought it, and for the merest of Seconds had considered it. For that split instant of infinity, she had actually considered defying her Master. She was doomed.
She’d seen this, heard countless tales of slaves who’d decided that Masters didn’t need to be obeyed. Every one of those tales had ended badly for the slave in question. Yet hadn’t she already defied her Masters? They had wished to keep her where she was, and she had scorned their wishes. She had disobeyed their implied orders and created a plan of her own.
Now, was it her turn to have an unhappy end? Was she the next in a too-long line of slaves to reach for a higher place only to discover why such a thing was impossible?
The confused jumble of despairing thoughts flashed though her mind as everyone stared at her. How could she even consider it?
Some things, she thought, are worth any risk.
“By your leave, great Lady … I want to be a Dancer!”
Jregli’s feet pounded the deck of the Station’s main corridor once more, but this time, she was in control of herself. She had to stay in control of herself if she were going to make this all work. Shdr’edno’s smug expression when she’d made her request of the Children of the Wind had been somewhat satisfying. The expressions of the Dancers had been confused and taken aback, but Jregli knew she could deal with that in time. She would make it all work. Somehow.
But right now, she had a long way to go and very little time, so she applied herself to carefully running down the center of the corridor, where faster traffic was permitted and expected. Her lungs burned, and her chambers felt like they would rip apart from breathing so hard, but those were minor distractions, really. It was all the planning that threatened her focus.
Focus! she ordered herself.
Before using all the time she’d allotted to the first leg of the tip, she arrived at the shop that had given the best bid for the first of the items she needed. Wheezing painfully, she dashed inside and slapped the ‘pad on the counter.
“Whotchew won’?” the obese sentient on the other side of the counter demanded. Sides still heaving, Jregli pointed at the ‘pad. The sentient glared at her before picking up the ‘pad and reading it. He grunted.
“Gotcher righ’ ‘ere,” he said, pulling out a small package from the under the counter. Jregli was relieved to see that it was wrapped the way she’d specified; it was a simple thing to slip it into her carry sack, sling that onto her back, and dash off to the next stop.
At the third stop, the items were not wrapped correctly, so Jregli spent precious minutes re-wrapping them and fitting them carefully into sack. She tried to not grumble; she’d asked for them to be wrapped specially on purpose, after all! Fitting the bits into the sack just so made them that much easier to carry. If she’d tossed them in haphazardly, then she would have had them banging against her the whole way and might have damaged them. Still, she wasn’t behind schedule, so she didn’t waste precious breath berating anyone. She did spare a few choice thoughts, however.
The last stop was a live-grocer to pick up the plants. Fitting them onto the sack, rather than in it, was a tricky operation. Good thing she’d had practice back Home when Mistress had gone through her phase of demanding fresh yio’nnf every day. She spent an extra two Minutes making certain the whole thing was secure before she took off down the corridor to return to the Pub. She was pretty sure she got a lot of odd looks, but dignity was a small price to pay. This party would return such huge profits that she could afford to look silly.