Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.
Bhotil listened silently while Vighdi described what Ella had told her: cargo records altered, offloaded shipments shorted, missing goods diverted to some unknown destination…possibly with almost every incoming freighter. Ella felt herself shiver as Vighdi spoke.
The news delivered, he remained quiet for a moment, his expression blank. Time passed: an era, an eon. Half of Ella’s lifetime. Vighdi also fell silent and stayed silent, as though afraid to interrupt his thought.
“This has been going on…how long?” After the endless hiatus, the question felt anticlimactic.
“Five and a half circles, sir.” Zaitaf, distant from its mother planet, had gone five times around Varnis and then some, after that first day Lohkeh had asked her to “correct” a figure. Five circles took the better part of a Samdelan year. Samdela’s biggest moon would have waxed and waned eight times by now, the smaller one fourteen times.
Another moment of silence. “Can you tell us,” he resumed, “what exactly was taken?”
“Not specifically, Mr. Bhotil. I have…I just have the categories.”
“You’re stealing cargo but you don’t know what cargo you’re stealing? Doing it just for the fun of it, then?”
She felt her face go red.
“What in the names of all your people’s cock-eyed gods possessed you? You’ve been doing this for…why?”
“I don’t know, sir,” she murmured, barely audible.
“You don’t know what you’re stealing and you don’t know why you’re stealing? Is that it?”
“What put this project into your head?”
“Lohkeh asked me to, sir.”
“Lohkeh.” He glanced at Vighdi, whose expression remained studiedly noncommittal, then turned his gaze back to Ella. “I see. So. Love loses its mind at the garden gate, hm?”
“I…no… Yes. Sir.”
Vighdi’s expression shifted, but Ella couldn’t read it. Anger? Disgust? Pity? Or was she suppressing laughter at his remark?
Bhotil expelled a sigh through his nose, unmistakably disgusted. “I’m disappointed, Ella.” This brought on an instant sting of tears. “Really, I am disappointed. You work hard. You’re smart. You’re polite, you behave yourself. You learn fast… I thought you were going to be fine. But behind the scenes, you’re doing this?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bhotil,” she said into the heavy silence that followed, a silence that seemed to demand a reply or an explanation.
“I’ll bet you are.” He gave her a vexed look. “Damn it. I thought you were going to be all right.”
At this, Vighdi spoke up. “She is going to be all right, Bho. She just needs a chance to come all the way over.”
“She’s had her chance. And she squandered it.”
“No. Not yet.”
“She is done.” The statement was said with finality.
“Boss.” Ella had never heard Vighdi address him that way. She saw it got his attention, but whether this was in a useful way, she couldn’t guess. “She wouldn’t have told us any of this if she hadn’t wanted to break free. Can’t you see she’s trying to come over to us?”
He snorted softly. “Sure! It’s a creative approach.”
“If she’d said nothing, chances that we’d have found out about this, ever, are about nil. Why would she come forward if she weren’t trying to come out of the life?”
“She was already out of the life. That’s what this whole exercise is about.”
“Bho. She’s Syndicato. She was some capo’s lieutenant. You don’t just walk away from that, any more than you walk away from living and breathing.”
“Right. That’s exactly right. And that is why she’s done. As of now.”
The silence that was his response rang in her ears. She drew a breath, but didn’t seem to be able to pull in much air.
Moments seemed to pass before she could speak.
Mr. Bhodil,” she managed. “I did a wrong thing. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway because…I…” Briefly she considered her words. “I was attracted to Lohkeh. When he asked, I did what he asked because I wanted to please him. Because he’s so beautiful.”
Bhodil raised an eyebrow.
“I loved him and I wanted him. And I got him. And so yes, that’s why I did it. I never knew what became of the redirected crates or what was in them. He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.
“I let you down. And I’m sorry.
“But what he said would be a one-time thing got to be a regular thing, all the time. When you brought me here, I thought I would be out of the life. Forever. But it sucks you back. It was sucking me back into the life, and I don’t want to be there.
“So…so I came to Boss Vighdi. To make it stop.”
Bhodil seemed to gaze at a point on the wall for a moment. Vighdi and Ella waited for him to reply.
“Does he know you’re here?” he asked.
“He can’t be doing this alone. Who’s he working with?”
“I don’t know.” Haidar, she figured. But she couldn’t prove it, nor did she know who or what Haidar really was, if she was more than she appeared to be. So she refrained.
He seemed to think for another moment, then addressed Vighdi. “What do you propose we should do about this?”
“Remove Lohkeh. Right away. Say nothing about it. The point will be made, to those who know there’s a point. As for this one? Well…would you please give me another chance with her? Let me have her for awhile.”
“My inclination is to put her in isolation now and send her down to the surface with loverboy on the first planet-bound ship.”
“Please don’t do that. It would be a waste. A total waste.”
“Looks suspiciously like a waste right now.”
“I know. But I think we can turn that around. Bho, she’s worth another try. Let’s not just throw her away.”
He looked at Ella as though he were trying to make an appraisal. “I don’t know,” he said.
“When in doubt, don’t,” Vighdi returned. “Let her try again, will you?”
He sighed, more capitulating than conciliating. “All right. All right: once. But that’s it. One more fiasco and she’s gone.” He looked at Ella. “Do you understand?” She nodded.
“I think she’d better be isolated while we deal with the male,” he added.
Vighdi caught Ella’s wince. “Let me keep her with me.”
“She could be at risk. He is a capo. This won’t be kindly received.”
“I can handle it, you know.”
He looked at Vighdi a little askance. “All right. But…be careful, will you? Stay alert.”
Bhodil left the room, bound to give out a string of orders from the comfort of his own office. Vighdi let a sigh of relief escape her lips. She reached for Ella, who was beginning to weep again.
“That was a close call,” Vighdi said, gathering the other into her arms. “Don’t cry now. You made it.”
“Are they going to kill him?” Felons who escaped execution would not live past a second offense, committed in servitude.
“Ella. On Zaitaf, that’s what it means, to send someone to the surface.”