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.
Delicately clutching the argentium-plated instrument, Jregli made an experimental stab at the pile. Following Hevrit’s instructions, Jregli managed to lift a reasonable amount off the plate. Now what? Hevrit demonstrated, inserting his fork into his mouth and using his lips to pull the bite from its tines. Not liking the idea of putting metal into her mouth, Jregli hesitantly copied his motion. Fortunately, the delicate plants slid easily off the fork, though the metallic taste gave her an unpleasant shiver down to her toes. Now the problem was that she had a bite of food between her lips and outer teeth with no idea how to get said food behind her teeth.
“Mmm … now what do I do?” she dared to ask.
“Why, you just chew!” Hevrit replied, surprised.
“But it’s not anywhere that I can chew it. It’s outside my outer teeth.”
“Just use your tongue to move it back into your mouth, dearest.” Harvit looked oddly at her.
“My tongue?! You want me to put my tongue over my teeth??”
“Well, of course. How else do–” Harvit broke off as Hevrit smacked his palm to his own forehead.
“Ah! Brother! How could she put her tongue over such sharp teeth as she has? Of course not! Oh, dear sister! Please forgive us for not thinking of this sooner!”
“Ah! You’re right! Oh, Jregli, sweet thing, I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to–!”
They can be sorry all they want, Jregli thought darkly, but that doesn’t help me do anything about this soggy lump of stuff behind my lips. It was kind of tasty, though, from the little that had leaked between her teeth. But swiping her tongue over her less-than-perfect-yet-still-sharp teeth was unthinkable. There wasn’t much on Yerbra that was sharper than the outermost teeth of its sentient species, and Jregli had no desire to find out if her tongue could dart past hers unscathed.
While the Twins tried to figure a solution that didn’t involve having her spit out the bite, Jregli thought about it from her end. Well, she was capable of sucking liquids around her teeth, so perhaps she could suck the greens as well? She worked her thin lips experimentally. The skin covering a Yerbran’s mouth was some of the toughest on her body, to withstand contact with those fiber-shredding teeth, but it wasn’t impervious. She hadn’t scratched herself yet, but she could feel the prick of her biters on her lips. It was very difficult to maneuver the limp greens, but she managed to move them slightly. The Twins were babbling quietly, but she ignored them and continued working on the food that wasn’t quite in her mouth. After a couple of Minutes and two small nicks to her lower lip, Jregli managed to get most of it above her lower teeth and suck it behind them.
“I think I got it,” she informed her “brothers,” who had been arguing about whether a fork or a spoon would be a better choice for scooping out the bits.
“Oh, marvelous! Oh, dear, clever little sister!”
“But I didn’t get all of it; there’s still a little bit here and there. Mmm … let me try some water.” She’d seen Mahl do this several times; Jregli took a large sip from her water glass and swished it around her mouth. As she had hoped, it swirled the last little bits from the crevices they’d hidden in and carried them into her inner mouth.
“Mmm; that got it all.”
“Oh! Precious one! We shall order something better right away, something that won’t be such an impossibil–”
“No.” Jregli cut him off with a brusqueness she would never have attempted even that morning. “I’m going to beat this.”
The Twins stared at her with something like shock. Well, they could just learn to accept it. Maybe they didn’t, couldn’t, realize it, but allowing a little thing like a plate of food to get the better of her was unthinkable. She was Yerbran. The best Yerbran. She would figure this out.
Jregli stabbed the fork into the pile and lifted another wad of salad. She stared at it for a few Seconds, thinking. Well, using her lips to pull it off the fork didn’t work, so maybe she should use her teeth. Her outer teeth. She could place the bit directly on her inner teeth, the way she would if she were eating something normal. That decided, she proceeded.
The metal scraped horribly across her teeth, and she steadfastly ignored the sensation to concentrate on the food. Her motions were still sloppy, dribbling little bits of the salad on the table and managing to get at least one leaf stuck between her lips and outer teeth again. But she got most of it, so she chewed determinedly on the fast-disintegrating bite. Swallowing, she took a sip of the juice this time to clear her mouth and repeated. The Twins stared at her, glanced at each other, and then down at their own plates before returning their gazes to her. The second attack went more smoothly than the first. By the time she started on the third wave, Jregli felt measurably more in control of the situation. Stupid food wasn’t going to defeat her, not by any leap.
“You’re right brothers; this salad is quite tasty. What are these soft bits here?” Jregli speared one of the items in question and held it up for inspection.
“Ah, um, that’s cheese. Ah, goat’s-milk cheese,” Hevrit managed to reply. They continued to stare, not quite certain what to do now.
“Mmm. I see. I don’t think I’ve ever had ‘cheese’ before, or at least not any like this. I think I like it.” Jregli popped the tiny morsel behind her teeth to savor it. “Aren’t you going to eat, brothers? I think your soup is getting cold.”
It took the Twins nearly half an hour to decide that Jregli meant her determination to conquer this alien method of eating. Yes, it was bizarre and unnatural. Yes, the metal utensil tasted foul and scraped awfully against her teeth. Yes, salads were messy, and drinking soup from a tiny spoon was a ridiculous prospect. But she would defeat it. It was ridiculous to allow something so insignificant, so trivial, to get the better of her.
Eventually, the Twins accepted it. Once they did, of course, that meant they just had to throw more weird methods of eating at her to see how quickly she could figure them out. They obviously didn’t realize that not being defeated was not the same thing as searching out an unpleasant task.
Jregli ate whatever was in front of her. She was so far beyond caring by now; she just wanted to see the Dance and go to sleep. She was distantly aware of the bloated pain in her belly, but it was far easier to humor the Twins at this point than protest.
Finally, just after the server set their desserts out, the Dance started.
There was no warning. Just like the real winds, the Dance began suddenly, abruptly. The lights flickered, and again, and then nearly blacked out. Sound roared into the dining room, filling the quiet, elegant space the same way a drystorm would fill an exposed cavern on the eastern edge of the Desolate Hills. The music roared into their ears, and Jregli heard many patrons cry out in startlement or fear. How would they respond to a real storm, I wonder?
Lights flared up around the three stages as the Dancers leaped out into view. Like the edge of a grit-squall, bathed in pale brown lights that turned their Refin’sifr the color of death, the color most terrifying to the natives of Yerbra, the Dancers burst out into the audience, singing in five-part disharmony, creating the scream of the winds with eerie accuracy.
Jregli had to think for a moment to pick out the carefully choreographed pattern to their flight; they looked exactly like a squall line spilling over and into a vale! The violent, seemingly aimless way they leaped over tables, dashed in groups past panicked waiters laden with trays, over the walkways between the stages, and finally up onto the platforms themselves … It was as though someone had recorded a horror and substituted people for winds.
As the Dancers regrouped after their spectacular overture, the lighting changed again, bathing the Fire Dancers in withering “heat” and the Frozen Dancers in burning “ice.” Jregli had never seen the dresses before, but she thought the lighting was a wonderful addition to the colors already in the threads of the fabrics. The dagged, raw edges of the fabric not only threw extra flashes of color across the room, they also created their own music. The crystaline fibers made a shivering sound all their own, which the composers had obviously taken into account. The throbbing orchestration and the “instrumentation” the Dancers provided melded into a roaring whole.
Every twist, every turn of the graceful Dancers threw waves of music across Jregli’s chambers. And the singing! Non-Yerbrans might find it overwhelming, but it saturated Jregli’s aural bones blissfully. Mistress had forced Jregli to sleep outdoors far too many times, and Jregli had been caught out in those terrifying storms. This “storm” turned that terror into something beautiful.
The Dancers paused so slightly that most of the audience probably didn’t see it and then launched into the first movement. Staying on their respective platforms, just as Jregli had told the Twins to expect, the Dancers began demonstrating the Power of the Winds. The Fire Dancers moved with angry, ferocious steps, claws flexed and swiping very close the patrons seated next to their platform.
They moved first as a unit, ten Dancers mimicking the hatred the blistering gusts had for any living thing they could touch. Swirling around the large platform, they lashed their tails, pounded their feet in deceptively simple-looking patterns, and Sang the fury of the Dry Hot. Teeth bared and snapping, four of them stopped within the circle the others made and rose up high. The long, scale-shattering cry of the F’wiiooo ripped from their aural chambers, causing some of the audience with sensitive ears to cry out and clap hands to their heads.
The Frozen Dancers moved on their platform at the same time, creating a starkly different pattern. They were not as fierce, not as many, but their movements carried a more subtle danger. The Fw’innii nn Ttrens brought a deliberate malice to the performance and gave Jregli a literal chill as she watched them. Their swipes into the audience were slower and more measured than their Sister Winds’, but the audience drew back in just as much fear. Even those from the gentlest, most welcoming of planets knew to fear winds that needed no violence to wreak havoc and kill.
The Frozen Dancers moved without the frenzy of their counterparts. Their song was lower, more mournful, and set Jregli’s teeth on edge. That was the sound made by frigid air blowing across hot rocks, cooling them far too rapidly, breaking them, carving hollows out of them, shattering the bones of anything caught in their path. There had been one time Jregli had flatly disobeyed her Mistress, that Winter’s night seven Cycles ago. Jregli found herself back in that dark memory.
Mistress had ordered Jregli to sleep outside on the first night of the cold season, when these freezing winds would come and kill, but Jregli hadn’t. She’d spent the night shivering in the storage cracks just inside the cavern entrance amongst the crates sealed against sudden temperature changes. She’d listened to that deep, relentless howl, knowing she would die. And then she’d discovered that one of the crates had not been sealed properly. Crawling into that crate and leaving it barely open so she could breathe had allowed her to live through the night. She was more afraid of the cold than the heat, now.
Shaking herself, Jregli paid attention to the Dance.
The two groups flowed opposite one another, separate and united in their purpose as the winds that dictated the terms of life for all of Yerbra. They sang, twirled, pounded, enticed, destroyed. In a microcosm, this was Yerbra. Jregli felt a sense of pride swell between her hearts for the savage beauty of her Home.
And then the Brothers charged onto the stage.