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.
She awoke with a start and a small gasp. That was completely normal, but the noise out in the Pub was not. She always woke up quickly, ready to serve, hopefully before anyone decided she needed help getting up. But it was not supposed to be noisy. Completely disoriented, Jregli remained still until her brain caught up with everything.
The first thing her brain noticed was how horrible she felt. Her gut had been turned inside out and scraped raw, her gums and teeth ached with a dull burn, and her whole body could have been one big bruise. Even her scales hurt. Not seeing anyone, she continued to lay still. What had happened?
Mmm … there was the Dance, which had been incredible. And strange; she would have to think about the story later. And the Twins, cleaning the table out of her claws. Oh, and then she’d gone to the lavatory. That would be why she felt wrung out and her mouth hurt. She’d never vomited before, but she’d read about it. ‘I could gladly have gone my whole life without adding experience to that reading,’ Jregli thought with a muffled moan. Yerbran stomach bile was three-point-seven-six times more acidic than the Star Standard Average, and she felt every point of that percentage as she tried to swallow. Her mouth was so dry; was she dehydrated? That couldn’t be, not after drinking so much yesterday … it was yesterday, wasn’t it?
Jregli decided to try sitting up, which turned out to be much harder than she’d expected. After two unsuccessful attempts, she determined that a little more rest would be prudent. So, what had happened after the lavatory? She’d cleaned herself up and gone back out to meet the Twins, who had been very worried … and there was music … no, not music. A musical sound, a very soft musical sound, almost like –
Jregli’s stomach heaved again as the memory returned. The musical sound of Yerbran voices. Two of the beautiful Dancers discussing how hideous a tiny slave was. Her stomach clenched and twisted as pain that wasn’t physical tore through her. She’d always known she was ugly, deformed, stunted, and offensive to look at, but to hear one of them say it, confirm it … And then, the most beautiful, most graceful Dancer had echoed their words. Oh, why had they seen her? Why had she gone out there where they could see her? A soft keen whispered through Jregli’s chambers. She had destroyed something beautiful, just by being there.
Jregli didn’t know how long she lay there, despairing. The noise of the Pub faded into her subconscious as she chastised herself again and again. At some point, though, a sound interrupted her train of thought.
Someone was laughing.
It was a joyful sound, the sound of someone enjoying something. There was nothing harsh about that laugh, nothing mocking. After a few seconds, Jregli identified it as Ressnib’s laugh. Ressnib was a Niklon, a strong, solid Race from a heavy-grav world. They had the reputation of being fierce fighters with short tempers, but Ressnib was one of the most genial sentients Jregli had ever met. To look at him, to take just a quick glance, one might think him as dour as the stereotype. A real look at him, at his face with its constant smile and eyes with a friendly gleam in them, proved otherwise. He’d always been pleasant to Jregli, and since she’d started playing the victim, he’d been even more kind. His warm words were … comforting to hear.
Ressnib finished laughing and said something. There were too many walls in the way for Jregli to make out the words, but she heard Mahl’s voice respond. Mahl, who’d begun treating Jregli like a grand-child, fussing over meals and rest, insisting that Jregli not work so much. Who called Jregli by a name that was affectionate, not a curse, not an insult. She was the first sentient to address Jregli that way; even Hfertte had only ever called her own youngling by name. A name that Master had chosen at random, without thought, the same way he named all the slaves hatched in his household. But Mahl made that slave-name somehow sweet.
Immud was sweet-tempered, Jregli noted as she closed her eyes again. He wasn’t much for conversation, true. He took a long time to learn a new task, or even a different way of doing an old one. And his personal habits were not what a proper Yerbran would consider acceptable. But he was dependable and unfazed by just about everything, even Shdr’edno’s cutting insults. He also left Jregli presents. She’d been staggered when she’d found out how significant a gesture that was for an Engrad to make. She hadn’t been trying to get that from him, hadn’t even thought he might do something like that, until he had and Funswrub commented on it.
Jregli thought about each of the employees who worked in the Pub: Inop, ‘P, Yurs-ond, Trikk-jan, Wilson, Quorb … they all had accepted her, allowed her to join them. Yes, Funswrub was a grouch and hard to warm up to, but he had his good times. Especially when his favorite politicians had done something; his scathing commentary made Jregli laugh so hard her chambers ached. And Trikk-jan could be such a know-it-all that she annoyed everyone around her, but you wouldn’t find anyone quicker to back her friends in any confrontation. Such as when the Twins started one of their pranks–
The Twins. Jregli choked back a cry and tried to sink further into her meager nest. She hadn’t thought she could feel worse than she did from all the bruises and muscle strain and vomiting, but she did. What was she going to do? What could she do? They meant so well, tried so hard, but they just didn’t understand. It was almost as though they were trying to own her. They were such fun to be with, so encouraging and supportive … and completely smothering. Like the high humidity of their Homeworld, they made it so hard to just breathe! It had been better before they took her out, before they announced that they’d adopted her without telling her, without even hinting at it!
And, instead of trying to talk with them about it, like a rational sentient, she’d run away. Her feet felt bruised to the bone and ached in time with the beats of her hearts. She’d run away like a jup’ol scenting the F’wiiooo on the wind. Jup’olu were the most cowardly creatures on Yerbra as well as the dumbest, and she had acted just like one. She’d run away from a problem, from a situation rather than trying to figure out someway to actually handle it. If that was how she was going to handle anything that got to be a challenge, then she deserved to be a slave!
“Urbii? Are you awake?”
Jregli’s eyes snapped open. How had she not heard Mahl coming? It must be worse than she’d thought! She struggled to get her feet under her.
“Ah, child, be still! Do not stir yourself; you’re still quite weak! Oh, you poor thing, lay back down a bit. I’ll just bide here next to you, won’t I?” Mahl gently pressed Jregli back down into the blankets and sat on the floor, placing a message box she’d been carrying on the floor next to her.
“I’m glad there were some blankets back here for you to lie upon. I’ve often wondered why Shradnoh kept them here, but they came out so useful, did they now? And you, clever child, you remembered to find them and put them out before you fell asleep. How you managed it, I know not; you were so tired, were you now? You’ve had a bit of rest now, have you not? Perhaps in a bit, you’ll feel up to a bite of something to eat, hmm? Maybe a drink of water?”
Jregli watched Mahl as the older sentient continued chatting in a low, calming voice. Mahl didn’t offer to touch her, which Jregli thought was a considerate gesture. From her observations, Jregli knew that most sentients considered a light touch soothing and appropriate for a distressed being. That Mahl knew Yerbrans didn’t endorse that action said a lot for her. It also said a lot about what Mahl thought of Jregli.
What did Mahl think of Jregli? Of what had happened last night, or whenever it was? And what did the others think? If this was any indication, they didn’t look down on Jregli for her behavior. They didn’t hold anything against her. If they had been Yerbrans, the whole thing would have been Jregli’s fault. Losing self-control like that in public … it was shameful. But these sentients proved their alienness again by their casual acceptance and forbearance. It was as uncomfortable as it was comforting.
Jregli wanted to press that comfort to her chest, try to absorb it into her hearts. It would be so wonderful to not be judged, to be allowed to make mistakes and forgiven for trying and failing. But she couldn’t. Jregli was Yerbran, and Yerbrans just didn’t act that way. Not unless someone’s current or potential value was so great that it outweighed the error.
“Now, I know how much you care about the Pub and keeping it clean and well-run; don’t fret yourself one bit on that, urbii. We’re all pulling together and making certain everything gets done. Funswrub came in early to prep for open, and Rassnib checked all the supply logs. ‘P maintenanced all the bots. Wils’n and Quorb checked the Arcade … we never really realized just how much you do, urbii! You are so industrious! Such a short time you’ve been with us, and already you are so important to the running of the Pub.”
Mahl’s praise could be argued as the reason the employees were willing to overlook Jregli’s behavior. They valued her work and the fact that it made less work for them. But Jregli didn’t think that was how Mahl meant it. Or how any of them would mean it, if they thought about it. They had enjoyed how she had lightened their workloads, but they hadn’t realized what she was doing, Jregli was certain. Which was as it should be; the primary function of a slave was to perform essential tasks invisibly.
There was a kind of pride there, perhaps the only kind slaves might be permitted to own, in performing flawlessly. Jregli had been performing well, and Yerbran slaves might be willing to allow her to mess up now and again in order to keep the second-hand benefit of her labor around. But you can’t keep thinking about them like they were Yerbrans!
Jregli made herself look carefully at Mahl. Dressed in her uniform, Mahl looked like nearly any employee of any mid-quality eatery. A bit older, yes; her gray hair had faded in patches on the sides of her head above her ears. Age had creased the skin around her eyes and mouth slightly, though her complexion was as ruddy as any Rundion in her prime. She had pulled her hair back into a small bundle at the base of her skull, a utilitarian if undecorative fashion. Mahl had the small, thin not-claws on the tips of her fingers as so many Races did, and she’d colored them with a shiny lacquer that gleamed in the dim lighting of the back storage room. Shoes covered her feet, which she had tucked under her folded legs.
Mahl’s gaze roamed around the back room as she talked, resting mostly on Jregli but often darting to look at other things. When her eyes did point at Jregli, that tender expression filled them and her voice had a warmer tone. She kept her pitch low and her pace easy, just the way you should to calm an upset Yerbran. Perhaps she couldn’t keep her eyes still, but Mahl made every other effort to treat Jregli the way a Yerbran needed to be treated. And Jregli wasn’t convinced that her reasons were the same as a Yerbran’s would be.
And that left Jregli with a difficult problem. She hadn’t considered this at all when she’d hatched her great plan to come to the Space Station. Yes, she’d known there would be aliens and that she would interact with them, but she hadn’t considered just how weird they all would be. And how weirdly they would act, or how they would expect her to act. She’d come with the assumption that she would continue on the Station as she had on Home. These sentients weren’t acting the way Jregli had expected them to, and she couldn’t figure out what they expected of her. Well, she could know what they expected, but that didn’t mean she understood it. They wanted her to act like they did, to be like them. It was as though they wanted her to stop being Yerbran, to stop being who and what she was.
And Jregli did not want to do that.
She remembered what she had told the Twins back in the Hall, when they had talked of taking her away from Uncle. Could she not be both? Would it be possible to keep the Yerbran in herself while also being like the others? But there were so many others! And she was too tired to think about it any longer. She’d slept longer already than she ever did, but she was still so weary … and Mahl’s voice was so soothing …