About Fall Through Space
The private war between Jregli and Shdr’edno isn’t as secret as they’d like. Others have noticed, and they’re choosing sides. Commander Neim has his hands full running the Station; the last thing he needs is a group of sentients making waves. The mysterious K’Tomals didn’t bring trouble, but trouble happens around them.
Business is not as usual aboard Fredan Sector Station 5, and the internal problems are the least of anyone’s worries. The prized Wormhole now threatens half the galaxy, and Shdr’edno’s patience grows thinner by the hour. Who will survive this Fall Through Space?
Jregli twisted around on her seat to face her Master. She had no idea what he thought he was doing, cowering on the floor. It was quite embarrassing, particularly given his status. The K’Tomals and Vrrna looked down at him with thinly veiled scorn. The extra bits of the K’Tomals swirled gently, making pretty patterns that floated like holo-lights between Jregli’s gaze and the rest of the Pub. Was Shdr’edno somehow upset by that?
Perhaps it was the gentle humming sound that the K’Tomals emitted. It was a soft, soothing drone that made Jregli feel relaxed and welcomed. Could her Master not bear it?
No matter; she needed to finish the introductions. She went around the tables, naming each of the K’Tomals, who nodded stiffly at the huddled Yerbran man. By the time she finished, Shdr’edno began to pull himself back together, enough to rise halfway off the floor.
“W-welcome to my Pub, h-honored sentients,” Shdr’edno stuttered. What was the matter with him?
The Shaari looked down at him. “We thank you. Was there something you desired of us?”
He shook himself. Straightening up, he said, “Yes, ah, yes, honored sentients. My sl―my child is needed to resume her normal duties, so, ah…”
The Shaari spoke over his fumbling words as if she hadn’t noticed them. “Of course. We shall not take up much more of her valuable time. A few moments longer, and we shall return to our own duties. Once we have finished our drinks and settled our bill, we shall depart.”
“Mmm, yes, very good.” Shdr’edno backed away, bobbing an awkward bow. He took himself off to his office with the most unsteady gait Jregli had ever seen from him. Had he been chewing lcco roots?
A low growl caught her attention. Focusing on the group, she realized the sound came from Vrrna.
“Come the day I break his bones,” she snarled softly. “Come the day I tear his throat out with my teeth.”
“Calm, child,” TikiTavi said, reaching a furred hand to lightly touch Jregli’s shoulder. “We will none of us harm him.”
“But some of us truly wish to,” Vrrna muttered and drained her glass. She set in on the table with a heavy thud.
Jregli stared at one, then the other. “Why?“
Teressia exhaled loudly. “A single word encompassing a multitude of queries.”
The Shaari watched the door of Shdr’edno’s office. “That is one with much hatred in him. He is one who preys upon others, not for his own sustenance or to care for those he is responsible for, but for the thrill of domination. He takes in order to deprive others of what they have. This brings him great pleasure, and we do not consider such a thing right.”
The Shaari turned to Jregli. “You have asked why, and I will attempt to answer the questions I sense in that inquiry. I detected what he meant to do to you, and I did not desire that he complete his intentions. We hid ourselves from his sight so that he would not see us until he came close, and then we revealed more of ourselves to him than we have to any other in this Galaxy to distract him from you.
“No one should be made to suffer under such wrath as that one has in him. This is our belief. We know the laws holding you and that we have no authority to break them. Yet I cannot allow injustice when I might do something to prevent it. The K’Tomal Empire does not hold with slavery, and our children are few enough that we value all young. To see anyone treated as you have been distresses us.”
Jregli gawped, her tail twitching for lack of a coherent movement. “Butif you know, then you know! You know I’m not―that I can’t―”
“Yes, child, we do know. We cannot make you what you are not or could not be. But what we can do, we will for however long we can. It is right for us to help you, and so we shall, within the limits of the law. This we promise you.”
Vrrna barked a short laugh at Jregli’s expression. The sharp sound broke through the stupefaction.
Jregli ducked as low as she could on the stool. “You shouldn’t be trying to help me! You’ll get in trouble, and nothing will change. That doesn’t ever happen.”
“False,” the K’Tomals chorused, with varying degrees of distaste. The Shaari continued as the others fell silent.
“It is true that change does not often happen, but happen it does, child. We must, however, tread with extreme caution. Our purpose here is to safely collapse the Wormhole, not to rescue children or slaves. We do not heed the politics we disturb with our work here, for to do so would cause deadly delay. We do not heed the social distress we cause with our presence, for to do so could distract us. One child in so dire a situation, however, I cannot ignore.”
“Nor we,” the others added. Jregli flinched.
“There are those among the Empire who feel we have acted unwisely in what we have already done. Some changes are inevitable, and I prefer action over passivity. We here are in agreement, and the Shaara gives us leave to continue.”
Jregli latched onto the most recent piece of confusion. “Shaara? Aren’t you―ah, you are the Shaari, so what is the difference? Is the Shaara your Emperor?”
The Shaari chuckled; humor flashed from the other K’Tomals. “No, child. We are called an ‘empire’ for lack of more defining term. Our Shaara does speak for us to the other Realms and is considered by most to be our totalitarian head of state, so we are called an Empire. Our actual governance is not one that many Realms can understand.”
Vrrna leaned in, her voice dropping low. “It’s some kind of merit system based on seniority that uses past actions, but they don’t judge on behavior unless it’s relevant, and the relevancy has to do with social expectations, which require religious adherence that isn’t based on religion at all, along with more relationships than your Hunsid family can come up with. Don’t forget the legal precedents, because K’Tomals don’t; however, an apology will waive sentence in most cases, though you can’t in every case, and if you do apologize, you’re disqualified from leadership. Unless someone vouches for you. Or you’ve fulfilled other social expectations. Which presumes that you’re not insane.”
Jregli couldn’t find a response to that.
The Shaari waved Vrrna back and continued, “The Shaara is one who sits on the Upper Council; the Shaari is one who sits on the Lower Council. They are titles shared by hundreds of people from hundreds of Realms. The position of Shaara is a life-long one and may not be revoked. A Shaari may be dismissed or forced to step down at any time, should that one prove unequal to the task. When a Shaara leaves the Upper Council, the Shaari then becomes Shaara for that Realm. By rigorous training and the real threat of dismissal, the Councils ensure that those who sit in the seats of greatest responsibility are truly responsible persons.”
Jregli’s hearts thudded. “You’re going to rule―mmm, speak for your whole Domain?”
Krystala smiled, generating fresh swirls in her extremities. “Yes, child, though not for a very long time, and what you call Domains, we call Realms. Now, it is time for us to move on; we have many things yet to do.”
“Oh! Of course!” Jregli leaped up, swallowing the rest of her questions.
The Shaari moved her hand over the table datapad, which glowed. “Our account is settled, including your payment. I encourage you to make certain that you have a separate account for your payments to go to; you need not give all of your income to your kinsman.”
“Cannot, even under Yerbran law, take income earned in your own name. Did you not know that, child?”
“You were not certian you could get away with it, hmm?” TikiTavi smirked without cruelty. “You used tips from the general pool to do small things, but you never claimed those left unmarked yet intended for you.”
Jregli felt her tail curl. “Yes, Counselor. I hoped, but no one―nnn, it’s not common for that law to be brought up, let alone enforced. The Mutuality assumes that tips on a tab prepared by a server go to that server, so no one ever specified anything for me.” She resisted the urge to wriggle her dew claws like a hatchling caught not working.
“A subtle legal distinction. Your first payment awaits you, child,” the Shaari said as she stood. “We shall return as we have time. The food is agreeable, the atmosphere pleasant, and the service without fail. Thank you, child, for your recommendation.”
The K’Tomals all bowed to Jregli and filed out. Vrrna followed after giving Jregli a conspiratorial grin and swift tail-to-tail rub.
Jregli floated back to the bar with her tray of dishes. Ressnib wore an enormous grin that he flashed at her as she set the tray down.
“Well, kiddo, how’d it go?”
“Very well!” Jregli chirped. The sound came out like ungreased gears; Jregli ducked her head in embarrassment.
Ressnib kept grinning and rubbed his ear. “Saw you out there. Did good. Did the Pub proud, kiddo. They thought you did good, too, if the tip is anything to judge by.”
“Really?” Jregli made her way around the bar to read the console screen. Ressnib stepped aside and pointed to the figure. Jregli’s tail hit the shelving under the bar, rattling the items stored there.
“That can’t be right!”
“True as anything, kiddo. Interesting that they noted it as your tip, though.” Ressnib’s beaming could grow crops.
“T-that’s more than enough for me to start an account with. I could even invest that much!”
Ressnib’s smile vanished. “You don’t already have an account? What about all the money you’ve been earning?”
Oops. “Ah, well, they were always marked as general tips, so they went into the shared pool.”
“And what about your share of that?”
Her dew claws began to wriggle despite her best attempts. “Technically, I’m not an employee because I’m underage.”
“Kiddo, you telling me you haven’t been paid at all for any of the work you’ve been doing here?”
Bother. How was she going to explain this?