Category Archives: Ella’s Story

Ella’s Story: Chapter 31

Augh! Still trying to get caught up and stay caught up with Ella’s Story. The editorial bidness is a classic drought and flood affair: months go by with hardly any paying work, and then a tsunami comes pouring in. I just moved the fourth full-length math paper off the desk, when an entire issue of our client journal flew in through the transom. Working seven days a week is barely enough to keep up. And so…here’s a bit of a stopgap in the Ella tale.

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.

Ella’s Story

31

In the morning . . . ah, but she loved a morning on Varnis, a real morning, not artificial lights sliding from dim to bright enough to roust you out of bed. She needed no alarm to get her up to greet the day. Its strangeness never stopped fascinating: that golden sun sharply defined, most days, through the unnaturally clear air that faded from deep violet, sometimes through red or pink, and finally lit the sky to topaz. A few low clouds glowed orange in gold in this dawn’s rising light.

She lingered on the walkway outside the servants’ quarters and gazed out over the waking pastures, the fields and distant forest copses, as she always did for a few minutes before launching into another day.

“Good morning!” A bright greeting interrupted her quiet moment.

“Sigi. Good morning, dear.” The carpenter girl had a towel tossed over her shoulder, on her way to wash up for first meal.

“Wow! It’s really pretty today!”

“Mm hmmm.” Born and raised on Varnis, Sigi surely wouldn’t see the sky here, with its almost coppery blue-green clarity, as quite so exotic as Ella herself did. Pretty might not be the word she’d choose. Beautiful, maybe, though inadequate. Incandescent, if she thought that hard. But strange was the word that would first come to hand. If she were asked.

“You finished up the job in Cinorra,” Ella remarked, redundantly, by way of making conversation.

“Just about. Thank goodness.” The job had dragged on a ten-day and a half too long. “I’ll need to go back this afternoon or tomorrow to check on the clean-up. But otherwise I think we’re done.”

“Good. So, are you ready to start working on the clinic thing?”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s what I wanted to talk with you about.”

Thought so. “All right…”

“May I get a couple of strong backs to help set up the room Dorin wants to build out for this project? There’s stuff stored in there that we’ll need to find new homes for. And I’d like to get it scrubbed down before we start measuring and painting and things.”

“Darl seems to be well enough to start planning what needs to go in there.”

“Give me a day or so to shovel the place out.”

“We should get started thinking about this project, Sigi. Even if you’re not ready to begin drawing plans, you ought to take some time to talk with him.”

“Needs something to take his mind off his troubles, does he?”

“No doubt.” Sigi had a way of seeing through to the point. And Ella thought Darl should be occupied – very soon now – with as many plans, tasks, and physical jobs as he could tolerate, increasing in number and demand as he recovered strength.

As it developed, Ella didn’t have to get her way this time: Dorin was already seeing to it. After the morning wake-up, feed, and rush, he summoned Sigi and Darl to meet with the two overseers in his quarters. So Ella was sipping the obligatory morning tea, served up from Dorin’s desk steeping pot, when first one of them and then the other showed up

Darl was settled, stiffly, into a chair near Dorin’s desk. He would, she thought, not be a bad-looking man, once he recovered his bearings and his chopped-off hair grew back enough to brush smooth. Well fed yet fit, even slender, dark of hair and eye, he carried himself with understated but unmistakable grace: very upper-class. He came from a slice of Samdelan society that Ella had never seen, at least not up close, and never would have seen had she been left in the life.

“I’m not sure I understand…” he began—and then was cut short when Sigi bounded in. Bounding, Ella reflected, was Sigi’s default mode of locomotion. Did she ever slow down?

“Hello,” she said to the new guy, evincing not the slightest bit of deference. And why should she, Ella thought…they were both slaves now, no matter what this Darl had been before he landed here. On his tush. “You must be Darl. The doctor?”

He smiled tentatively. Ella thought he looked nonplussed, but he spoke up with humble enough self-possession: “I am. Yes.”

“I’m Sigi. The carpenter. I’ll be building out the space you need to work in.” She offered her left hand, palm up, and, to Ella’s mild surprise, he laid his own hand, palm down, on hers. She slipped into the chair that Dorin had set out for her.

“So, brother. Are you ready to get started?”

“I…well, don’t know. There are some things I don’t understand altogether.”

“Like what?” Dorin responded. “Ask away.”

“So…you want me to operate a clinic here for…the slaves on this estate, do I have that right?”

“Yeah. For us and the people around here.”

“Even though I’m not allowed to practice medicine now.”

“The kaïna has already canceled that out of your terms. The way it reads now,…” Dorin pressed a few links and brought up the official record that described Darl, his crime or crimes, what he was cleared to do, and what he was prohibited from doing. He ran his eye down a long stream of text written in an avalanche of Varn symbols. “You are allowed to dispense and direct healthcare services to people in service, to the landless in the care of the state, and to local residents, as long as you’re doing it in the employ of your owner. Rysha Delamona, Kaïna leh Varnisiel ch’Molendi Hededalla.”

“Because…?”

“Because she said so. Circular, hm?”

“All right. Then…how many people are we talking about?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Oddly, Dorin seemed not to have considered that question. “We have about sixty adults here at Skyhill, plus another fifteen children. Various contract workers come and go, who I suppose could get hurt or sick while they’re on the grounds.

“She has in mind you’re going to be available for staff on the estates around here – north of E’o Cinnora. There’s over a dozen of those. And Skyhill isn’t the largest. Not by a long shot.”

“The kaïna doesn’t own the largest estate on Varnis?”

“Hardly. The House of Delamona was never given to unnecessary…showiness. Historically, it was not the biggest hereditary property when the first of the line took power. And it still isn’t.”

“So twelve or fifteen times about sixty people?”

“More like about seventy or eighty, on average. Maybe 850 to 950 all told. Give or take. Plus the people who live in the villages.”

“Villages?”

“There are several of them in the north district, mostly attached to the estates. And the only medical carers they have are lay healers. And midwives. The midwives are mostly trained in Cinorra.

“The one that’s closest to us – that’s Skyhill Village – has…uhm…about a six or eight hundred people living there. I guess. Wouldn’t you say?” He cocked an eye in Ella’s direction.

“That’s probably about right.”

“Most of the great ones’ manors have a village associated with them, little places that have grown up around the estates.”

“And they’re all about the same size as this Skyhill town.”

“More or less.”

“Twelve or fifteen times eight hundred people…ninety-six hundred to twelve thousand villagers? Plus another nine hundred retainers in service?”

“I’d guess that’s about right.”

Darl looked at him in disbelief. “That’s ten to thirteen thousand potential patients. I’ve never had a population of more than about two thousand. That’s about as many as any one doctor can handle. And then some.”

“Well. They don’t all get sick at once.”

“Sure. Never rains but it pours, you know.”

Dorin laughed softly. “You won’t be the only one providing care. If that were so, we’d all have been dead before you got here. Besides, there’s not fifteen villages. It’s more like eight or ten.”

A doubtful smile ghosted over Darl’s face, briefly.

“Look. Most people in a place like this are pretty healthy. We get plenty to eat and we get a pan-immunization that keeps us from getting sick. So what we’re talking about here is an occasional accident. And…well, we have a pregnant mother just now – it would be nice not to have to drag her to a midwife or call one in every few weeks.”

“And most people will go to a village healer before they travel to town for a doctor,” Ella added. “Unless they’re really sick, they get over it first. About nine-tenths of the midwives live in the villages, and they take care of the women there. And sometimes our women.”

“So…then what would I be needed for?”

“This is the kaïna’s idea,” Dorin replied. “I don’t second-guess her. I just do what she says.”

“No, c’mon Dor’,” Ella interrupted. “It’s reasonable, brother. We don’t have a real medically trained doctor, one who does science, anywhere on this side of Cinorra. To find someone who isn’t just practicing folk medicine, you have to travel into the city. Like Dorin says, most people don’t get very sick. But when they do – and when they get hurt – it would be a lot better to have someone like you here.”

“Well. I guess we’ll see, then.”

“Let’s go see the space Dorin wants to turn into an office for you,” Sigi proposed.

“It’ll have to be quite a place to accommodate 13,000 patients.”

Ella’s Story: Chapter 30

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.

Ella’s Story

30

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?”

She shrugged.

“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.

“No, sir.”

“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.”

“Always.”

§

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.”

Ella, for the moment

NO WAY am I going to get an Ella’s Story post up today. With summer coming to an end, things are heating up here — a lot of activities have re-started and I’ve been busy every minute of every day, mostly out of the house. And in the middle of a great deal of whirling around, in came 7600 words of math copy from one of the Chinese scientists!

Welp, paying work trumps hobbyist frolics, so today I’m going to have to edit copy like mad, since I put off the job over the weekend (do they have Saturdays and Sundays “off” — har har — in China???), today and for the next several days Ella is going to have to wait.

Always glad to get paying work…but sometimes one does wish EVERYTHING wouldn’t happen at once!

😀

And….a-a-a-a-n-d before I can even hit publish here’s ANOTHER of the mathematicians!

GAAAAAAHHHHH!

 

Ella’s Story: Chapter 29

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.

Ella’s Story

28

There were three kinds of doors inside Ethra Port and Takrai Station: open pass-throughs, sliders that ghosted open or closed at a gesture or at the touch of an approved user, and heavy privacy drapes. Ella’s spaces had two of those: deep gray curtains of the sort that turned her bunk, built into a wall in the slaves’ sleeping quarters, into a relatively quiet nest, and an open arch into the space where she and her two assistants spent their waking hours at work. Vighdi’s office and meeting room, like those of other free employees, could be closed off with a sliding door.

This, Ella noticed when she padded up the hall for their appointment, was standing partly open. Her boss must be expecting her. Too bad: not even a faint hope their meeting might have been forgotten.

She paused before the enameled metal slab. I don’t want to do this, she thought. The open gap beckoned. Can’t. She was supposed to have arrived by now. Was she late yet? Not exactly. But…leave! Close. Almost late. I’m leaving. I have to leave. While she hesitated in the corridor, a few liveried workers passed, entered other rooms or turned corners leading to collective work areas. She could flee, she should flee…but what would she say to Vighdi? Her mind groped for an excuse and came up blank.

Get away. NOW. She took a step back, glanced left and right, decided to head left toward the toilets, potentially a source for an excuse but now Vighdi’s voice breezed out through the silently widening doorway, “Hey, there!” And Vighdi stood before her, an open smile welcoming her. “Come on in!”

Ella felt sick at her stomach. She managed a “good morning, ma’am” and stood there, fixed in place.

Vighdi stepped aside and beckoned her to come inside. If Vighdi noticed anything amiss, if she knew anything, she didn’t show it. An odd slow-moving shiver crawled up Ella’s back.

“Would you like a cup of kekel?” Vighdi assumed she would, knowing her tastes in tea, and moved to brew some at the counter on the far side of the conference table.

“Uhm, sure.”

“Sit down, dear,” Vighdi motioned her toward a set of comfortable chairs near a small table. Silently, Ella took a place and waited for Vighdi to hand her a hot mugful. Were her hands shaking when she accepted the drink? So it felt. She hoped Vighdi wouldn’t notice.

“So,” Vighdi settled into a chair next to Ella. “What did you want to talk about?”

Nothing? She glanced into Vighdi’s friendly-looking face. In a good mood this morning, she thought. That won’t last long.

“There’s something I need to tell you, boss,” she said after a delaying sip at the tea. “But I’m not sure how to say it.”

“Well. Just say it, then. It can’t be that bad.”

“It’s not good,” Ella replied. She pulled the printed spreadsheets out of her workbelt’s pocket, spread them out, and handed them over to Vighdi.

“See these figures?” She pointed to the third row of data, showing a cargo delivery offloaded at Ethra Port and transferred to Takrai Station.

“What about them?”

“They’re wrong.”

“Wrong? What d’you mean, ‘wrong’?”

“They’re incorrect. That’s not what was offloaded in this shipment. Ten containers more came in.”

“They did? How do we know that?”

“Because I changed the figures myself. Where this says 120 barrels? It was 130.”

“You altered the lading records?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why?”

“Because I was asked to.”

Vighdi fell silent for a moment, thinking about this. “You were asked to,” she resumed.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“To falsify the lading data.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All right… So, who asked you to do that?”

“Lohkeh, ma’am. Lo’hkeh jai-degh Inzed Mafesth.”

Again seeming nonplussed, Vighdi gazed at her for a moment. Finally she said, “Was there some part of ‘no’ that you couldn’t figure out how to say?”

“Well, I…” Vighdi glared. “No, ma’am.”

“Lohkeh. Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Ella had no response to this. She could barely breathe.

“Are you so enamored with him that you’d risk your life to keep him happy? You do understand what this means, don’t you?”

Met with no answer, she continued. “Or was it just that you don’t say no to a capo?”

Startled, Ella shivered and looked up at her wide-eyed. “He…”

Do I look stupid to you? Which is it? Love or your oath?”

“Boss…ma’am. I do have an oath. To my band and to the Syndicate. Yes. But…he’s…I love him. Loved him.”

“Changed your mind, did you?”

“No. Yes…in a way.”

“Ella. Why are you telling me this?”

Why? Haidar had said he was still in the life, like it was a good thing. In the life was where he was, all right. “I don’t want to do that, Boss Vighdi. That’s not…it’s not what I want to be.”

“You don’t want to steal from the Company? Is that what you’re saying? Or you don’t want to be with Lohkeh?”

“I don’t want to be in the life. When they took me and burned me and brought me here, I thought I was going to be free of the life. But…” She felt hot tears slip out and and flood down her face.

Vighdi got up, knelt beside Ella, and took her shoulders in her hands. “Ellie, Eliyeh’llya. You belong to the Company. You don’t belong to the Syndicate. You belong to us. You’re not in the life. You don’t have to be in the life.”

“I swore my band oath to the Syndicate. To the High Council.” She swallowed a sob.

“That was before. This is now. You’re ours now. You don’t have to do anything for them anymore. Unless you choose to… But Ella, that’s choosing to die.”

She clenched her eyes shut and nodded.

“Do you want to die? Do you want to die with Lokeh?”

“No!” Through hands covering her face, she cried, “Are they going to kill him?”

“If this can be proved, yes. Of course: you get one chance in service. And that’s it. You know that, Ella.”

“So they’ll kill me, too.”

“I’m going to try to stop that.” Vighdi held onto her firmly.

“How?”

“Just trust me, will you please? And tell me the truth – don’t make things up or hide things. Otherwise I can’t help you.”

Ella held her breath to stop her tears and looked at Vighdi, puzzled. What could she do about it? Nothing, from what the blacksuits had told her when they hauled her in. The law was, they’d said, that if you committed another crime after you went into service, you would be executed. There was, they said, no appeal to that.

“Do you understand?” Vighdi asked.

She nodded, yes.

“Good. Now, please stop crying. We need to get Bhotil up here so he can help figure out how to deal with this. I’d like you not to be carrying on. Understand that, too?”

Yes.

“Good. Let’s find something to wash your face.”

She dug a cloth out of a cabinet, doused it with icy water from the drink chiller under the work counter, and handed it to Ella. Then she flicked on the vid and hailed Bhotil. Ella sank her red cheeks and swollen eyes into the cold wetness. The voices speaking in Varn didn’t register with her as having much meaning.

A few minutes later Bhotil stood in front of them as the door slid shut behind him.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 28

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.

Ella’s Story

28

It took her two days to decide to do it.

She knew she was going to do it. Sooner or later. But deciding to do it was different from knowing she would do it.

So beautiful, he was. She thought she loved him. No: she knew she loved him. But…did he love her?

Did he love her? If he loved her, would he put her at the kind of risk they both ran? One slip, just one slip and they both would be walking dead. Or maybe only she would be. If she alone were caught massaging the books, would she give him away?

He was a brother in the bond of the Syndicate. She was bound to him, and he to her, by the oath. But…

Was she?

Where was he going when he journeyed down the tunnel to Takrat every few days? Far as she could see, there wasn’t any business that should call him to the mine offices every time he turned around. Except, perhaps, Haidar? That glance the woman had shot him when he introduced them…the memory didn’t want to leave her mind. It nagged when someone would ask him about Haidar and he would change the subject, direct the conversation elsewhere.

Who else could be helping him to disappear offloaded cargo?

Anyone, she supposed. Any number of people. Was Haidar one of them? The one?

What if Lohkeh was taking advantage of her? What if Lohkeh and Haidar were taking advantage of her?

The thought had crossed her mind more than once.

What if? Would the oath still apply?

Would it apply to her and not to him? Why?

Sequestered inside the den-like cubbyhole of her enclosed bunk, the drapes pulled shut and snapped closed, she studied the printed ndata by the night-lights’ glow. If there was a pattern to it, the pattern was vague, at best. She couldn’t see any predictable variation. Probably, she thought, that was deliberate. Where was the stuff going? She had no idea. To the planet’s surface? If so, why offload it on Zaitaf? They must be transferring it to some outbound freighter. Or freighters. Going where?

What would Bhodil think if he saw this stuff? He had spent month after month teaching her to read and write Varn and helping her convert the kind of math Samdis used for bookkeeping into the variety used in Ethra Port. He lifted her out of the laundry room so she could do…this?

He would, she guessed, be furious. The prospect made her wince.

Maybe she should keep quiet about it. Just let Lohkeh go on exploiting her. Maybe they would never be discovered.

“Never” was forever. How likely was it that they could keep the con going forever?

Not very, she thought.

Could she ask to be transferred? Maybe…the low gravity gave her headaches. Sure.

Not a chance.

She heard the door on the corridor’s south end slide open: Vighdi, making her last round of the day. Quick, she shoved the the papers under a pillow and stretched out on the bed.

Slender gray-brown fingers undid a couple of the curtain snaps, and yes: Vighdi peeked in.

“Lights out, sister,” she said. Her tone was friendly but firm.

“Yes’m.” Ella reached for a switch, then paused.

“Boss?”

Vighdi, already moving on:. “Yes?”

“Could we talk tomorrow? Just us?”

“I expect.” Vighdi lowered her voice. “When?”

“Early?”

“After breakfast?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll see you then.” She smiled. “Sleep tight.”

Sure.

In the dark, Ella slipped the papers from beneath the pillow and shoved them between the mattress and the smooth metal wall, then lay back, pulled the blanket up, and sighed.

Oh, gods!

Ella’s Story: Chapter 27

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.

Ella’s Story

27

It bothered her, what her boss said. Proud of her? Wouldn’t she be thrilled to learn what Ella had gotten up to with Lohkeh.

They had been getting up, all right: to more and more. That very afternoon, not two hours after she’d met with Vighdi, he showed up at her desk with a new set of “corrections” to enter in the lading records of the freighter that had just docked at Ethra Port. Part of the cargo was bound for Takrai – but not that much.

“How did your pow-wow with the boss go?” he asked.

“All right.” She shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Nothing ever is, around here,” he remarked.

“She did say she’s going to send Behji down to the planet to get trained for some new job they want her to do. I’ll have to bring up the new person to take her place.”

“That so?” He paused, appearing to consider. Then he said, “I know a guy who could do that job.”

The thought flickered like distant lightning on the horizon of her conscious. Oh, good! Let’s park someone in here to keep an extra eye on me! She tried to push it out, but it wouldn’t go.

“I expect she has someone in mind,” she offered.

“Probably. She’ll change her mind when she talks to this guy, though.” He winked, sexy and wily at once, and sauntered off.

Haidar had said Lohkeh was still in the life. “In”? The man personified the life. She even wondered if some Syndicate general had found a way to get him arrested, run through the cooker, and sent specifically to this place – just so he could do what he did best: steal. Embezzle, filch, swipe, and liberate.

He had drawn her back into the life, too.

Her first couple of years in service at Ethra had felt, ironically, like some kind of escape. She’d been bound into slavery, true; yet in the process she sprang free of the life. And that, she’d found, was like breathing clean air.

Which, she supposed, was what breathing amounted to here on Zaitaf. Filtered, recyled air. But clean. Very clean.

Hiding Lohke’s purloinments made her feel like she was back in the filthy air and daily dirt of the life on Samdela.

What if they got caught?

They weren’t going to get caught. Of course not. But if they did? She and Lohkeh would be summarily executed: deported down to the surface and infused with a fast-acting poison. Few, if any, questions would be asked. There would be no defense. Because there was nothing that could be defended.

But what about Vighdi? What would happen to Vighdi if they got caught?

They were not going to get caught.

But if they did…?

If they did, Vighdi would get some blame for it, so Ella figured. Vighdi’s job was to help oversee the Company’s slaves, to see that they did their jobs, got straight, and stayed straight. She was, after all, about to certify that Ella had spent the past year doing admirable work.

What would happen to Vighdi. If they got caught…

Would the blacksuits, the law, think Vighdi was in on the con? That she was abetting the theft of some tens of thousands of bars worth of rerouted goods?

How could she prove that she wasn’t… It would be her word and maybe Ella’s against Lohkeh’s. And Haidar’s, Ella imagined. There would be no way to prove Vighdi wasn’t complicit. Or at least selectively blind.

Even if she could persuade the authorities that she didn’t know what was going on, that would be held against her, too: ignorance a sign of incompetence.

Vighdi had never shown her anything but kindness. Even when she was being strict with Ella, even when her patience may have worn thin, whatever she asked, demanded, or ordered ultimately seemed to drift more toward the good than…otherwise.

How then, Ella wondered, was she, Ella, not returning the favor?

She turned on a printer and set it to emit several pages of figures. Working quickly – for she was a fast and efficient worker – she selected a page apiece from each of six recent lading books. She got up and ambled over to the refreshment bar. There she refilled her glass mug with hot kekel tea, one of her favorites. She paused to visit with Hanya, asking how the day was going, chatting about the previous evening’s dance competition at the rec hall. Picked up the printed sheets and carried them back to her desk, where she folded them in thirds and stuffed them into the waistbag she wore on her work belt.

She sat down and got back to work.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 26

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.

Ella’s Story

26

Dorin had the new man up and walking around. This took a tennight and then some. But Darl could now make it up to the men’s washrooms, shower, and use a toilet without someone to see that he didn’t hurt himself. He’d been to the chow line for meals, too: twice.

Sigi was eager to talk with him about tricking out the room Dorin had designated as an office and for examinations – mostly, Ella figured, because Sigi was eager to wrap up the job she was doing for a paying customer in E’o Cinnora. Given a choice between working on the estate grounds and traveling to town, Sigi would take the manor any day. This had become so obvious, over time, that it was now a matter of quiet amusement between Ella and Dorin. Tabit and Shaban had also let themselves in on the joke.

Another day had charged into evening. All the off-campus workers were inside the gate, accounted for, and fed. Everyone whose work kept them on the estate had laid down their tools, checked in with Ella or Dorin at the end of their shifts, and partaken of Lior and Tabit’s evening meal. The golden sun of Varnis once again slipped behind the violet Sky Hills. Children played on the field behind the slave quarters, watched intermittently by parents scattered about the grounds.

Across the way, Bintje held court brightly with a group of chattering cronies. She looked not the slightest bit green around the gills. She was, Ella thought, grown in girth, no question of it.

Might she be further along than she thought? Or said she thought? If that were so, then the free man she’d blamed might not be the father after all.

Surely not so. Ella had carted her to Rizana, the village midwife, several times. The woman seemed to agree that the baby would be born about when Bintje said it was due.

Chadzar was off this evening, she observed: no doubt a welcome change for him. He had spread out a budil game mat on the paving stones near the firepit, where he was attracting players to bet on a throw of the dice and the track of a glass marker through the painted maze. Firelight and the glow of a garden lantern beamed off his silver hair.

Tuvine, the long and slender high-cheeked tailor who maintained a shop in the village dressing potentates as well as humbler souls, chose a clear green stone and set it at the maze’s starting point. He squatted nearby to watch the action. Nehdo picked an obsidian marker. Fihr joined them, followed by Shaban the porter. Neelon, the bricklayer whose father had built the slaves’ courtyard these many years before, stood on the sidelines to watch.

Before the first roll could be thrown, Sigi stepped up to the circle and knelt to join the men. She picked up a sparkling diamond-clear stone and, when handed the pair of dice to throw for the starting place, rolled low. Chadzar smiled – a warm smile for a snow creature, Ella thought – and named Sigi first, then Nehdo, then Shaban, then Fihr, and finally Neelon. He – Chad – would throw last in the rotation.

“That boy has a crush on the carpenter girl,” Ella remarked quietly to Dorin, speaking in Samdi.

“Chad?”

“Mm hmm.”

“She barely knows he’s alive.”

“No. But sooner or later she’ll get over Merren. Don’t you think?”

Dorin watched the play proceed from Shaban to Fihr. “I don’t know,” he replied. He paused. Whether he was thinking or just watching the play, Ella could not tell. “I doubt it. It’s been a long time.” Neelon threw the round’s highest score, advancing his glittery red stone at the front, and now he led off the second round. His next roll went high, too, eliciting a chorus of dismayed groans from the other players.

“Yonder comes Lior with our new brother,” Ella remarked.

The cook proceeded across the lawn, supporting Darl by letting him hold onto an offered arm.

“Oh, Gods around us.” Dorin sighed and rose to his feet, and Ella stood with him. By this time of day, she knew, he was tired and valued a few moments to unwind before he had to shovel his bunch off to bed. So, for that matter, did she.

Curious gazes, not unfriendly, followed them through the dusk. Everyone was interested in meeting this addition to the crew – and in hearing some explanation for why he was joining them. A few rumors had passed around, but a formal announcement was yet to be issued.

Dorin stepped forward and, in welcoming Darl, took him off Lior’s hands. The evening chatter died down, making way for an expectant hush.

“You look like you’re going to live a while longer, after all,” Dorin said softly. “Come on over here and let’s introduce you.”

Ella had to restrain herself from wincing: he was still in pain, and it was pretty obvious. But, she supposed, it was game of him, even admirable, to let himself be led out in spite of it.

Dorin spoke the new man’s name, said they would all be pleased to come to know him, confirmed and clarified the rumor circulating to the effect that he was a healer, one trained at a special school on Samdela, less by lore and tradition than by science. They should introduce themselves, one or two at a time, and make him feel at home. A ragged chorus of greetings arose and then died down.

“Just thank them, in Varn,” Dorin prompted, and Darl did that, sounding very tired. “Good. Have a seat now,” Dorin guided Darl toward the chair he’d just vacated and squatted next to Ella when she sat back down. People went back to what they were doing, and the budil game resumed.

Shortly, though, Sigi disengaged herself and came over to introduce herself.

“Sigi is a builder,” Dorin added, seeing Darl at a loss for conversation. “She makes cabinetry and furniture. You decide what you want and where it should go, and Sigi can make that happen. And she’s very good at it.”

“Well, thank you, boss.” She sounded neither flattered nor surprised.“You do outstanding work, Sig’,” Dorin said. “You’ll be pleased,” he added, for the newcomer’s benefit.

§

Later, after the whole company had gone off to bed, or, in the case of the guard team, to relieve a partner at the gate or a security station, this came back to her.

Was it a good idea, really, to compliment a slave on work that was simply expected? Wasn’t a degree of excellence – or at least competence – also expected? How many times did you have to tell someone they were doing what they were supposed to do?

It was the remark Vighdi had made about how much progress she’d made, even saying she was proud of Ella, that blew things up.

If Vighdi had never said that, would things be different? Where would she be today? Would she even be alive?

 

Ella’s Story: Chapter 25

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.

Ella’s Story

25

Dorin, she thought, must have been a good-looking man when he was younger. Well. Good enough. From across the lawn she watched him help Ronel the head gardener carry heavy bags of fertilizer-laced tcompost into a storage shed. He had a certain grace, given his age and his chunky frame.

Sigi’s crush on him, after Merren died, had quietly come to naught. Dorin had taken Sigi into his arms and comforted her and seen her through the worst of her shock and grief. Of everyone’s shock and grief. But when he sensed her affection was transferring itself to him, he deftly stepped out of the way and guided her in another direction.

Nothing if not deft, Dorin was. Sigi would’ve been a little young for him, to Ella’s mind. Yet why not? She’d have made a good mate.

Why not, Ella reflected, had to do with a wife back on Samdela that he would never see or hear from again. He did not speak of her. Yet Ella knew he thought of himself as a married man, one who had sworn an oath to be with that one woman. Another indicator of Syndicato: an oath was permanent. Forever, never to be denied. Even if it was, for all practical purposes, inoperative.

What was her oath worth, she wondered: the one that swore her to her band and bonded her with the Syndicate?

§ §

Not only did Lohke make love to her that would shake Zaitaf’s moonscape, if anyone had been measuring seismic waves, but he brought her gifts from worlds she’d barely heard of. Little gems. A shiny black stone necklace that she could hide under her livery or not, but wear close to her skin all the time, even in the showers. A box of strange, unbelievably tangy sweets. More sex.

And the next time he asked her to correct a set of lading figures, she refrained from arguing with him.

§

“Errors” kept surfacing. Five crates here, ten barrels there, three tons somewhere else.
When Lohke would ask her to fix some anomaly, she would oblige. And then he would oblige her. Within a few months, they were climbing into some hideaway every couple of tennights for some special experience. She found their encounters uniformly satisfying. So, apparently, did he.

It was Syndicate business as usual, she reasoned, when she thought about it at all. Her being, after all, was dedicated to the Syndicate. That she had been caught, tried for a long string of felonies real and invented, tortured almost beyond endurance for the privilege, and then relegated to a lifetime of service on the godforsaken moon of an alien planet did not erase or even slightly change the oath that bound her to her people. To the Syndicate. Did it?

She wondered. Did it? She pushed the question into the back recesses of her mind.

One day Vighdi called her in for one of the company’s periodic reviews. Ella sent her a report reprising the jobs she and her assistants had been doing, identifying her accomplishments, and highlighting room for improvements. At the appointed hour, she trotted up the metal steps to her overseer’s office and presented herself, as directed.

Trying to appear at ease in the chair next to her boss’s desk, she watched Vighdi skim over several months’ worth of data and reports from the other departments her group served.

“How are Behji and Hanya doing?” Vighdi asked. “Are they both handling the work on time? And without making a lot of mistakes?”

“Corrections” were silently installed before the records moved out of Ella’s precinct – after her assistants had done whatever they had to do with the data. “They’re fine, ma’am. They help a lot.”

“Mmm-hm. I’m sure. It’s a big job.” She studied a spreadsheet, pausing over it longer than she had with other parts of Ella’s report and records. “Had any particular problem with one or the other of them?

“Not really.”

Vighdi raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Sometimes Hanya needs to be reminded to finish up things. But once you mention it she always gets it done.”

“Well. That’s why we call it ‘riding herd.’”

Ella smiled politely. She had never seen a “herd”—of anything., And why would ride on one – or how – escaped her.

“What about Behji?”

“She’s very smart, ma’am. And thorough. Never a problem with her. But…are you going to send her down to the surface?”

“What?”

“She wants to go to some business school there. So she can get a better job. Said she’d talked to you about it.”

“Oh…yeah,. We talked about that. Bhotil and I are still looking into it. Are you willing to train up someone to take her place?”

Just what I need, she thought. “Uhm…yeah. If you send her away. That’s what I’ll have to do, no?”

“Yes. But I expect you can manage it.”

“Probably.”

Vighdi leaned back in her chair and gazed at Ella for a couple of seconds.

“I’m proud of you, sister. You’ve come a long way from laundering sheets for the tourists.”

How to answer this? Or was an answer expected? Ella smiled shyly.

“You couldn’t even read Varn when you got here. You’ve always done good work. But now you have a very responsible job. You’re doing it well, and you’re supervising two helpers. Good job, Ella. I hope you keep it up.”

She felt a blush spread over her face. “I hope so.”

Four Steps Back for Every One Step Forward…

Are you old enough to remember the joys of the Smith-Corona portable typewriter? That cunning machine had a strategy to drive its users nuts: it would allow you to type a manuscript page calmly enough, normally enough, without too many hassles…until you got all the way down to the bottom of the page. That would entail, oh, about 300 words, if there were no heads or subheads, no indented block quotes, no lines of poetry, or whatnot. Around 1,794 characters, including the spaces. Not counting the characters that you had to type over twice using correction tape.

Then, on the very last line, some 23 double-spaced lines down the page, the paper would slip out of the platen and SCOOTCH up as you typed, causing the bottom line to bend and slide off the bottom of the effing page.

So you would get to waste some more time typing the entire damn page over.

Computers are like that. Only multiplied by ten to the power of 100. Like the Smith-Corona, computers have a malign intelligence. Only they’re much, much smarter than a portable typewriter. Whatever a computer can screw up, a computer will screw up.

Yesterday I spent FIVE HOURS on the phone with three Apple service reps, trying to figure out what MacMail did with incoming notifications from Facebook. After I’d tried to organize the mailbox so as to get the perpetual blizzard of Facebook blather under control, MacMail started to disappear all notifications from Facebook.

The method I use is the one I use to derail spam and to organize statements from creditors: set up a separate “mailbox” in Mail (this is actually a “folder” or a “subdirectory,” depending on what brand of jargon you favor) and then write a “rule” (we call that “code”) to tell MacMail to send any messages from XXS to that mailbox.

Complicating matters, I belong to two Facebook groups and imagined that I would like incoming from each of those groups sorted into their own, separate “mailboxes.”

This was working well until my fingers slipped on the accursed MacBook touchpad. For those of you who are not Maccie, the Macbook inflicts a keypad that responds to “gestures.” Wiggle your fingers wrong on the thing, and you’ll give it some command that never entered your mind. Apparently that’s what happened…though we never did ascertain whether that really was the issue or what.

All of a sudden, no notifications of any kind came in from Facebook. Ever. Nothing. Nought. Zip. Radio silence.

I ended up having to reboot my computer from Time Machine to reset MacMail to a point before this little fiasco occurred. Were it not for DropBox, wherein most of my data reside, I would have lost four days worth of work!!!!!!!

Fortunately, everything was saved to DropBox, and fortunately I have an ancient iMac that can access DB…because engaging Time Machine did cause the MacBook to forget four days worth of content and to forget what the directory structure of DropBox looks like.

Needless to say, I got exactly nothing done yesterday. Unless you count wrestling angrily with a computer system as “something.”

I’d intended to finish today’s Ella’s Story episode so I could post it today. But by the time I got done untangling the mess, I was weeping with frustration and rage. Gave up. Went swimming. Fed the dogs. And went to bed.

Because Facebook has grown significantly as a part of my marketing schemes, and because a LOT of my friends surface there and a lot of back and forth goes on, I discarded the initial, commonsensical idea: Just let it go. Really, I didn’t feel I could afford to let it go.

Also, none of us knew exactly what was hanging up MacMail, or whether some other part of it would crash in the near (or distant) future.

This morning, after we deleted all the mailboxes, all the rules, and everything that had been done in any program over the past four days, Facebook messages are coming in, and they are (once again) being routed at random into “Trash” and into the regular “Inbox” (no, thank you, goddamnit!) and into the reconstituted “Facebook” inbox. As it develops Facebook has 87 gerjillion ways of fashioning its “return” address, so that it’s almost impossible to set up your system to bounce the junk out of your work in-box.

Some of us do not WANT to be interrupted every three minutes by yet another silly message about Donald Trump, dancing ducks, or fabulous new recipes. But that is not the point. Facebook makes its own goddamn self the point, whether you like it or not.

At any rate, even though the system is now working the same as it was before yesterday’s antics — i.e., “not well” — I still have not written today’s Ella squib.

I will try to get it up tomorrow. If I live that long. If I don’t have a nervous breakdown by then. If I don’t throw the damn computer across the room.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 24

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.

Ella’s Story

24

The late part of the day-cycle was often slow in Ethra Station’s bookkeeping department. Just now it seemed especially slow to Ella. She had entered all the incoming and outgoing lading statements: Everything offloaded from the gigantic freighters standing off the surface, including a few new convicts headed for the planet just as she had been a couple of years before. Everything (and everyone) onloaded to surface-going carriers, vehicles small enough to maneuver a planet-sized body’s atmosphere, geography, and gravity. And conversely: everything hoisted from the planet’s surface into orbit near Zaitaf, and from there transferred into one or the other of those big freighters, depending on the cargo’s destination.

She now had two assistants working under her supervision. Her eyes were starting to glaze over as she checked their entries when Lohkeh poked his head around the corner nearest to her work station.

“Pretty woman!” As though he’d made a discovery.

Ella felt her body warm in response. “Hello, there,” she greeted him. He slid onto a stool beside the desk. “Who let you loose?” She set her hand on the table top near him.

“Just got in from the loading dock and thought I’d come by and see what you’re up to.” He touched her hand and stroked her fingers. If a Samdelan could purr, she would have.

“Not much,” she said. “Just working on today’s lading sheets.”

“That sounds exciting. Are you almost done?”

“Should be, by knocking-off time.”

“Mmmh, that’s good.”

He lifted her hand to his face and brushed her skin his lips. She felt the prickle of a day’s beard growth. A delicious little shiver coursed down the back of her neck.

“Would you like to do something for me?” he asked, his voice low and sensual.

“Sure,” she replied: Something having to do with a bedroom?

He pulled a sheet of paper out of the bag on his workbelt. “We need to update these figures,” he said, as though this were something they both needed to get right. He unfolded it and spread it on the desk. “See, the received goods numbers are wrong. It says in the accounts that 700 cartons were shipped from Tamehal. But that’s not correct. The actual number shipped was 690.”

Reaching around her to the electronic lading system on her desk calculator, he deftly brought up records from the freighter of the day, which had come in from Tamehal via Krae. “So this” – he seemed to know exactly where to highlight the line indicating the specific shipment – “should be the same as this.” He pointed to a line on the printed sheet, reading 690 containers.

“Uhm…it should?”

“Well, yeah. This is what was unloaded.”

“Why would what was unloaded be less than what was loaded?”

“It wasn’t. This – 690 crates – is what was loaded. Somebody just made a mistake.”

“So, whoever made the mistake needs to fix it.”

He gave her a look: was it the are you stupid look or the don’t get on my nerves look? She wasn’t sure but sensed neither was good.

“No. Then we’d have to jump through a dozen hoops. We need to move this stuff planetside now, not sometime next year. And besides, if we start with that bullshit, whoever made this mistake will get in hot water.”

“Maybe they should.”

“We watch each others’ backs. Don’t we.” It wasn’t a question. This was Syndicate doctrine. Ella grew up with it, no less than Lohkeh did.

She nodded. And, without further comment, changed the entry.

§

The favor did not go unrewarded.