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.
“And what is this? My dear little niece is up and about? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” No one was fooled by sweetness of Shdr’edno’s tone.
“Apologies, boss,” Ressnib said. “You were in a meeting, and she was ready to get up. I decided to bring her out and get her fed up and such.”
“I don’t recall having given those instructions.”
“You didn’t. I took initiative of her.” He looked squarely at Shdr’edno, as though there weren’t a difference of more than five Units in their heights. Shdr’edno returned his gaze unflinchingly for several seconds before sighing gustily.
“It isn’t that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, but caring for a Yerbran child must be done in a particular way. Yerbrans are very different from most Races, and our young must be–”
“Begging your pardon, Shradnoh, but we do know that,” Mahl interrupted her employer with brazen calmness. Jregli nearly gasped, certain that Shdr’edno would have cause to do something awful to her. “We’ve studied up on the subject, since we’ve a little one here now. We know she’s different, so we treat like she ought to be treated.”
“And how is that?” So cool, so dangerous! They should leave her be, leave her to her fate! Why did they insist on being so foolish?
“Don’t offer to touch her, give her space. Make her move on her own, expect her to figure things out. Give orders, but speak gently so she learns to do things willingly and develops initiative. Give her both praise and punishment as needed, so she learns from both success and failure. Monitor her closely, but give her leeway enough to grow. Make her prove herself, and let her know when she has…”
Jregli felt her tail drop in astonishment as Mahl continued to recite. Where had she learned all that? Young-raising wasn’t something you talked about, and certainly not something you wrote about, at least not on Yerbra. Many other Races wrote copious volumes on the best ways to rear a youngling, but not Jregli’s. But Mahl did have one detail wrong. All the things she spoke of applied when raising a child. They did not apply to slaves.
Shdr’edno finally cut Mahl off. “You do seem to have learned quite a bit about how we treat our children. You will understand, I trust, my skepticism that ‘feed-learning does not equate to actual experience. I have no reason to believe that you can take care of the child properly, which is why I have not suggested it. And, since I am the child’s only living adult, I take particular care where she is concerned. She is my child, and I view that duty most seriously.”
But for that vicious little twitch in his tail, you might almost think he meant it the way he said it. Mahl kept her eyes on Shdr’edno’s face, but her posture made Jregli think that maybe she’d seen the twitch and, more astonishingly, knew what it meant.
“The proper concern of a worthy guardian,” Mahl replied so smoothly that Jregli tensed with shock. She might be speaking Yerbran and not Mutual with that beautifully concealed scorn!
“We’re yours, too,” Ressnib put in. “You owe us wages, not kin-debt, but we look after your things. Shouldn’t we look after the kiddo, as well? Hear it’s not uncommon for Yerbran employees to teach and ride herd on the boss’s kids. Part of regular duty, sometimes.”
Jregli sagged on the stool. Where had they heard that! How did they know so much? Why did they care?
“Mmm, and I have seen how well my non-Yerbran employees take care of my child!” Shdr’edno snapped. “Running her all over the Station, stuffing her full of alien foods she can’t properly digest, subjecting her to so many bizarre things that she was forced to run away from them and fall at my very feet, too sick to speak or move!”
“We all learn from mistakes, Shradnoh. Sometimes, the only way to learn is to make mistakes.”
“I will not tolerate such ‘mistakes’ where my child is concerned!”
“And we will not make them again,” a familiar voice said from behind Shdr’edno. Jregli jerked upright and leaned backwards to see the Twins and two older Hunsids standing a few Units away. Hevrit continued, carefully not looking at Jregli.
“We did not properly prepare; we acknowledge this. We have learned much in the past few days, and we will continue to learn. Jregli is your kin-child, and she is also our sister. We have begun making reparations, and we will continue until we have discharged the debt our rashness incurred. We owe Jregli kin-debt, as well, and we will make good on it!” Hevrit’s eyes blazed with conviction, and Harvit’s barely controlled emotions made him tremble slightly. The other Hunsids, a male and a female, tempered their passion with age. Were these Uncle Frindes and Aunt Eundos?
“It will be some time before you have paid for your foolishness, and even longer before you convince me that you are safe for my child to be around!” Shdr’edno replied acidly. “Be content that I have not fired you or pressed charges against you for your reckless behavior!”
“We accept our punishment, and we will learn from our mistakes,” Hevrit replied with barely contained … fury? Shame?
“I do hope so,” Shdr’edno replied disdainfully.
“Um, Jregli! Here’s you package!”
“Her what?” Shdr’edno asked at the same time. “What package? Why was I not told of this?”
“Your pardon, sir,” Inop bowed, still holding the messenger box. Jregli thought it was the same one Mahl had had earlier, when she’d come and sat beside Jregli in the back. How long ago was that? “You were away on business when it arrived, and there has not been time to mention it to you since.”
“Who is it from? What is in it?” Shdr’edno gestured impatiently for Inop to give him the box. Inop, however, calmly held the box under his arm.
“We did not open the box, sir, since it was not addressed to any of us. And the origination point is in the Gribban Sector, Dringe System. Any more than that, I cannot tell without opening the message. Which I have no right to do.” Inop carefully did not imply that Shdr’edno had no right to, either. Which he, as Jregli’s adult guardian, actually did. But Inop (and the others) seemed … they seemed to think that only Jregli should open the box?
And that, of course, completely ignored the main question, which was who had sent Jregli a box in the first place? Jregli had no idea.
Shdr’edno seemed to think that his slave did have some idea, judging from the slow tension building in his body.
“I … I have no idea who would send me anything … I don’t know anyone in the … the Gribban Sector.” Jregli tried to project as much truthfulness into her voice and posture as possible. She really didn’t know anyone who might have sent her mail from any sector.
Shdr’edno paused for several beats before speaking. “This is … unusual. Well, little pet, it would seem you have an admirer somewhere in the Galaxy. You should open your package and see what it holds.” He stepped back a pace and motioned for Inop to give Jregli the box.
Jregli tensed as Inop laid the box in front of her. Wilson had moved the platter and glass out of the way already, so she didn’t have those to fiddle with and try to buy more time. She didn’t want to open the box, didn’t want to give Master another reason to be cruel … but there was no way out of it. Everyone was looking at her: Shdr’edno, Mahl, Ressnib, Inop, Wilson, the Twins, Aunt and Uncle. She reached out and pressed the release panel.
The panel beeped quietly and flashed an inquiry; Jregli hesitantly typed in her name. After a moment of processing, the panel glowed white and then blanked as the catches released and the lid loosened. The panel popped upright, indicating a recorded message. Jregli glanced around, but no one seemed inclined to move. She pressed the icon marked “Begin Message”.
The small screen displayed the face of a female humanoid. She smiled and began speaking in a soft, rich voice.
“I’m greetin’ ya, Zreggie of Yerbra. I be Ketis, th’ mother o’ Gurts. He told me that ya been a good friend ta him, e’en though ya been there such a short while. A mother worries ’bout her boy when he’s so far from her, an’ it does me good t’ know he’s a staunch being b’side him. He was doin’ poorly fer a long time there, e’en with all his friends from the dock. Wasn’t ’til ya came to the Station that his messages Home turned bright.” She chuckled gently.
“At firs’, ya’ll unnerstand, I wondered if’n he’d found a lady ta court, but he set me straight on that! He says that Yerbrans an’ us aren’t compat’ble, but he still thinks highly o’ ya an’ appreciates ya takin th’ time ta hear him out when he’s down. An’ fer that, I thanks ya from th’ bottom of m’ heart.
“Now, I never heard o’ Yerbrans afore m’ boy’s message come Home, so I had ta do a bit o’ readin’ to get an idea o’ what ya look like. Gurts tells me that yer folk don’t wear no clothes o’ any kind, which hits me square in th’eye, bein’ a simple wife an’ mother from lil’ ol’ Tingort Home! But I ken that folk aint the same ever’wheres, so I’ve no issue with ya bein’ th’ way ya are. That said, though, I did want ta ‘spress m’ gratitude fer all ya done fer m’ son. Since ya mind th’ bar where m’ son spen’s his pay, I’m thinkin’ this might be a ‘propriate way o’ sayin’ thanks.
“There be no need ta send anythin’ in return, m’dear, so don’ fret yerself. ‘Tis a gift. Though if yer wantin’ ta send me a message now an’ then, ta tell me what m’ boy’s been up ta, I wouldn’t find it amiss. Ya have yerself a good ‘un, Zreggie, dear.” The screen blanked and lowered back into the top of the box.
Jregli stared at the box. So did everyone else.
“Well, well, little one. You seem to have made quite an impression on a customer,” Shdr’edno said quietly, tail flicking ominously.
“Indeed, urbii! I didn’t realize you had spent so much time with Gurts. I thought he was usually on the dance floor,” Mahl added.
“He … he is. Usually. I … well, when I first came, he would sit at the bar, but then he was always out dancing. He only comes back for drinks now.” Jregli was afraid to believe that this wasn’t some kind of prank, of mistake.
“What did you say to him when he sat at the bar?” Wilson asked curiously.
“Mmm, well, I knew he was a Tingort, and I’d just read something about Tingort Home, something about a recent political event and how it had historical precedents and … mmm … so I mentioned that to him, and he was interested. So he started talking about Home and … things, and I just let him talk while I mixed drinks. I was still getting used to all the formulators, so I didn’t say much, and he just talked for a long time. I found out what kinds of drinks he liked and recommended some meals to him, and he liked those … I don’t know! It wasn’t anything special!”
“And that’s what makes you special, dear one.” Mahl smiled gently at her, as did everyone but Shdr’edno and Harvit (who looked like he might have smiled if he weren’t busy glaring at her Master).
“But that’s what I’m supposed to do! I was just doing my work!” Jregli protested. “You don’t thank someone for doing what they’re assigned to do!”
“This Ketis thinks otherwise, and it’s no shame that she did,” Ressnib stated.
“Why don’t you look and see what she sent you?” Mahl suggested as Shdr’edno silently fumed.