Category Archives: Ella’s Story

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.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 23

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

23

He was, she reflected, the studliest man she had ever known. In the solitary comfort of her bed, night flowing over her and through the resting dormitory, her body remembered. He filled her like no man had ever done, before or after. Filled her physically. Filled her emotionally, too, with his humor and his dark ironic eyes and foxy smile, with the endless stream of small kindnesses and gestures, with his company that filled their off hours and many of the hours that were on.

A satisfactory man, she thought. The best she’d known. But then, come to think of it, most of the men she’d been with on Samdela did not aspire to the category of “satisfactory.” And after Lohkeh, she hadn’t come to know so many men. Not so many at all.

Each morning he would meet her in the mess hall, share first-meal with her – or with her and a few friends – and then wish her a fine day before the each went off to their separate jobs. Lohkeh got around in his work. He seemed to be all over the place. Every day, two or three times a day, he would drop by her desk and say hello. Unless he had to go down to Takrai, he would – which he often did. Every eight or ten “day”-cycles, he disappeared into the dark tube to the mining center, never reappearing until after last-meal. Often not before Ella had gone to bed.

Vighdi made good on her promise to find them a private place to spend their off hours together. They made excellent use of it.

None of this went unnoticed. Her friends teased mercilessly, dubbing them Wista and Qarfan, the mythical Kanat lovers whose passion turned them into stars and caused them to drift into that strange, seasonless world’s firmament. Ella quickly grew aware that every unattached female and several who were attached wished they were in her place. So she didn’t mind. Much.

Lohkeh played a pitcher’s position for one of Ethra Compound’s eighteen-man bechabon teams. In bechabon, six pitchers tried to throw six balls each – red, blue, white, green, orange, and purple, in order, into a series of holes set high overhead in the walls of a octagonal playing field, while two team-mates tried to defend each pitcher them against three opposing players. Each team worked across six walls — three on either side of the court — and then if and when an entire set of balls had made its way through the targets, tried to throw all of them into the other team’s goal net.

This, she thought, was an amazing thing to watch from the rows of benches above the walled arena. In Zaitaf’s low gravity, each player could jump a good ten feet into the air, seeming to hover aloft several seconds. Throwing an object at the apogee of such a leap would shift the person’s balance. It took skill and strength to steer oneself so as to avoid coming down wrong and breaking an ankle. Lohkeh had both of those, in abundance.

Spectator sports had never called out to Ella. She could take them or leave them. But somehow watching Lohkeh dance and fly and throw made watching bechabon a lot more fun than it had ever seemed before. Before long she knew all the rules and what was a good move and what not so great, what was a foul and what was a brilliant move. And Lohkeh’s grace and strength put her whole body to singing for him. Watching him in action made her relish the action that would follow all the more.

That action could take place anywhere. Behind the spectator stands. Down a dark hallway. Inside a random vehicle that somehow materialized exactly when and where Lohkeh wanted it. Inside the greenhouse, hidden between of tall plants. Once, after he invited her to help him practice by chasing stray balls and returning them to him, inside a shower room.

Was there any retreat he didn’t know about? If there was, she couldn’t imagine where it might be.

 

New, Handier Way to Read Ella’s Story!

You’ll recall that I had to wrap the ongoing installments of The Complete Writer into PDFs, after the publishing a series of chapters maxed out WordPress. All things considered, I decided that was pretty cool. It allows readers to go straight to the content that interests them without having to unravel a roll of electronic toilet paper to find it. How, one wondered, would that work for Ella’s Story?

One does not read a piece of fiction for the same reason, though, that one reads a nonfiction book. Fiction, outside the sticky confines of a literature course, is read for pleasure, to pass the time of day (or night). There are no subject headings into which to divide a recitation of facts or advice. This is a challenge when the noveloid is really a kind of telenovela, a genre whose authors invent on the fly.

It struck me, though, that I could gather ten chapters of Ella’s Story at a time into a single PDF. Then let the E.S. page run the next ten, one at a time, until enough installments accrue to build the next PDF.

Yesterday I published Chapter 22 in blog format. So that presented enough material to create “Part I” and “Part II”: two PDFs containing the story as published so far, and then some. The PDFs, I put online last night.

Once I get to Chapter 30, I’ll take those new 10 pages off the E.S. page, post them all together in a single PDF (“Part III”!), and…so on to infinity.

As it develops, this will be a huge improvement for the reader. With the contents of each 10-chapter “Part” listed on the E.S. page and no more than 10 new chapters posted there, you’ll be able go straight to where you left off, rather than having to scroll endlessly to pick up the story.

Try it! You’ll like it!

Ella’s Story. Chapter 22 *FREE READS!

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

22

The tick-sized intercom pasted to her left bicep vibrated, a signal to get her attention. From Syo, on the security guard: Rysha had arrived at Skyhill’s front gate.

Having managed to coax about half of Tabit’s soup into Darl, Ella was carrying the dishes back to the manor house’s basement kitchen. Now she hurried along, popped in, and found Lior and Tabit working over the stoves and counters, where they were preparing dinner for four dozen staff – give or take. She dropped the tray on a counter, thanked Tabit for her work, and ran back up the stairs, headed for the main floor.

The intercom buzzed again: Talat.

“We’re still in Cinnora,” he said. “Dorin gave us enough money to cover dinner. All right if we eat here and come in a little later?”

He gives you enough for dinner, so you’re honor-bound to spend it? She flew in the ground-floor service door and raced up the hallway toward the central atrium. “How much later?”

“We’ll be back by curfew.”

“How about before curfew? Make it by first moonrise.” That would bring them in around fifteenth hour. Curfew shut everything down at seventeenth hour – after Wilig’s bed-time. She’d need to remember to tell Wilig’s parents, whenever they came in for dinner.

“All right. We’ll probably get in before then.”

“Let me know.”

She bounded into the entry hall and took her place next to Essio – another of the guard, scheduled to relieve Chadzar, his boss, after the kaïna was safely deposited inside the house. Dita joined them, a small bag of gear in hand, and the three formed a straight, identically uniformed line to one side of the entry. Shaban stood ready to open the heavy double doors when the mistress arrived in front.

Shaban gestured over a wall pad so it would read his embedded ID chip. “Lights,” he murmured, and glow panels in the vestibule and an adjacent tall-ceilinged reception room came on. A fountain burbled, calming, into a pond occupying a corner of the entryway. Against another wall, a willowy tree held court over mounds of multicolored, leafy plants. He took up his position next to a panel of windows that looked out across the broad, fern-covered meadow in front.

“And…here they be,” he announced when he saw Rysha’s vehicle float under the portico, settle to the ground, and release its passengers.

As the two walked up the shallow entryway steps, he opened the door. Chadzar, a large, snow-hued Michaian, his hair, eyebrows and even his eyelashes so blond as to appear white, took half a step in ahead of his mistress, glanced around, and nodded a greeting toward his colleagues. Ella never failed to feel a twinge of amazement at the grass-green eyes, though she’d seen them every day for…how many years? Fifteen, yes?

He stood aside. The empress of the known universe glided into the room. Smoke-blue she wore, as always: hereditary badge for the absolute ruler of a dozen civilized worlds, several score developed satellites and asteroids, another several dozen planets whose cultures had not advanced enough to be worth contacting or that had not sprung from the seed of the Mother World, and some uncountable number of outposts where organizd civilization had yet to develop among ancient Varnis’s far-flung offspring.

Yes, fifteen years, just about. Not so long after the Kaïna Djitti slipped away in her sleep and left this Rysha to grow by instinct and by blood into her place. Her little girl, as Ella came to think of her, now a lithe, dark almond-eyed creature, surely too delicate to own such power. Two layers of fine, silken fabric drifted like mist around her, one white bordered all the way around with a violet band, the second the faintest green. Green and violet, the House of Delamona’s colors worn over a blue body suit, very much like the ones all her slaves wore. Rather a nicer fabric, though, Ella knew.

Chadzar lifted a hand in the car’s direction and it rolled away to park itself inside its stable.

The waiting staff bowed their heads briefly when she entered, as custom dictated. First to step forward, Ella unfastened the long jade-colored outer tunic, slid it off her mistress’s shoulders, and folded it over an arm. Rysha smiled and gave her a hug. She looked tired, Ella thought: more than her fill of roundabout palavering, no doubt.

Shaban took the translucent tunic while Ella and Dita accompanied their mistress into the private sitting room off the entry foyer. The two guards stayed behind, so Chad could pass along whatever Essio needed to know before he took over his boss’s shift.

Rysha sighed with evident relief as she collapsed into her favorite overstuffed chair.

“Long day, hm?” More of an observation from Ella than a statement.

“Oh, my! Some people never tire of arguing.”

Ella knelt beside her to replace tight-fitting brocade shoes with a pair of soft leather sandals. Shaban, having put away the shimmering tunic, began to prepare a drink at the serving desk.

“The usual, madame?” he asked.

“Good. Fine.”

Ella felt the tension in Rysha as, briefly, she massaged each foot and ankle. Dita unpacked a collection of containers and combs and brushes. By the time Shaban delivered a ruby-red mug full of icy intoxicant, Dita was pulling out pins and clips, unwinding and unbraiding and untwisting the complicated ceremonial hairdo, and gently combing each newly loosed lock straight and tangle-free.

In private, Rysha’s shiny black hair fell below her shoulders. In public, though, the kaïna wore a distinctive, very elaborate hair structure that marked her as who and what she was, part of the symbolism of her authority. To construct it took special training, such as Dita had been given – it wasn’t something Rysha could put together herself. Today’s diplomatic meetings required the full costume. Sometimes, Ella reflected, it must take as much patience to wear the robes and the crown as it did to weave them.

“How was your day, dear?” Rysha asked Ella.

“Good enough, my lady.” Ella rested on her knees beside the chair. “It’s been quiet.”

“And our new man? How is he making out?”

What to say? “He’s been having a hard time of it, madame.”

“Ah. He doesn’t like it here?”

“Doubtful if he understands where he is. They…the blacksuits seem to have let him go a little too soon. He’s pretty much out of it.”

“I see. Can we handle it? You and Dorin, I mean?”

“Well. Yes, I think so. He ate a little this afternoon. There’s really nothing to do for him, other than let him rest and keep him warm. When you come right down to it. He’ll get better.”

“I expect. But meanwhile…it’s extra work for you two.”

That would be why we’re here, no? Ella nodded. After a pause she spoke again, in Samdi: “Kananei…” – My lady…

 This was a gesture whose meaning Rysha took. She glanced in Shaban’s direction: “Would you leave us for a moment, please?”

A quick bow, then he ushered Essio and Dita out the door.

Hkal?” Rysha spoke Samdi – the elite variety – almost as fluently as she spoke Varn. Yes, what? Part of her upbringing involved learning all the Empire’s major languages. The conversation proceeded in Ella’s native tongue.

“Is something going on somewhere? That we’re not being told about?”

Rysha gave her a sharp look and raised a finger: hush!

They could be heard inside the Kaïna’s private quarters? This was new to Ella.

“Eliyeh’llya, give me your hand.” Ella responded by offering her right hand. “No. The other one.”

Rysha tapped the back of her own left hand and spoke a single code word, one Ella had never heard. She repeated this with the passkey chip in Ella’s hand, then ran the back of her own hand over the back of Ella’s.

“We have five minutes,” she said. “Now: why do you ask, dear?”

“Well…” What to say to avoid getting anyone else in trouble? “I just wondered why…they told Dorin the reason they put him out on the market just about straight from the cooker is that they had a lot of criminal offenders to process. But…what kind of crime wave would max their facility, madame? Unless it was an uprising, no?”

“Mmm… That certainly could be.”

“Michaia again?”

“No. There’s unrest on Idaemas just now. In Odambra Nation.”

“Oh, my.” Odambra was the largest Idaemasan industrial center. “Is it very serious?”

“Any sedition is serious, Eliyeh’llya. So, yes, it’s serious. But we have it under control.”

“I see.” This was not the best of all possible developments. “So…what about Tabit? Will she…no one will bother her, will they?

“She and her husband are being watched. But then…everyone in service is watched, no?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella felt her heart in her throat. And apparently Rysha sensed her distress.

“It’s all right, Eliyeh’llya. We know Tabit can be trusted – she’s been away from Idaemas for two decades, for heaven’s sake. And she’s never shown any interest in politics. Has she, to your knowledge?”

“No, my lady. Never.”

If she had, Ella wouldn’t dream of saying so.

“Can we let it drop? I’ll tell you or Dorin if there’s anything you need to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ella rose, walked to the door, and called the other three servants back in. While Dita finished unweaving the kaïna’s hair, Shaban set a place at the long table in the dining room. Ella followed him there, pulled back the drapes over the high windows to open the garden view, and went downstairs to let the kitchen staff know what Rysha had said she’d like for her light evening meal.

§

Everyone but Talat and Wilig was in and accounted for. Talat had called to say they were riding a public shuttle into Skyhill Village, whence they would walk out to the estate. Dinner was served and consumed, and this week’s after-hours kitchen team was cleaning up under Lior and Tabit’s direction.

In the cooling late dusk, stars twinkled overhead as black night pushed the last mauve glow of the sun below the distant, silhouetted hills. A few sticks of wood glowed and snapped in the outdoor firepit, a central focus of the patio and mossy fields where people gathered between the workday’s end and curfew. Dorin and Ella, having about finished riding herd for the day, sat near the hearth sipping one of his supposedly calming teas out of the same heavy mugs with which they had started the day.

Syndicato, she thought. If he was – if he was any good at it – he would know the silent sign language used when things were tight or dangerous. Wouldn’t he? She tapped him gently on a knee and, holding her hand between their chairs, let her fingers flicker a quick message.

He looked…what? Surprised? Puzzled, she thought. But he nodded, just so slightly as to be barely noticeable. He drew an appreciative sip of the hot tea and then remarked, “Beautiful night, isn’t it.”

“It is.”

“Why don’t we go for a walk and enjoy the evening air for a few minutes, before we have to herd this bunch off to bed?”

“Now there’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” she said.

They ambled toward the gathering’s periphery and then, coming to a path that led into the exotic flower gardens on the west side of the manor house, angled away from their charges.

“The ileeri fruit are starting to blossom,” she remarked.

“Yes. They smell lovely at this time of night.” By a path’s lamplight, she could see his fingers move. What’s this about?

“Almost as lovely as ileeri tastes.” The mistress told me the reason we got our healer before he was healed.

“Yeah. It’s one of the highlights of the summer.” So?

Uprisings. Ideamas, of all places. “We should have some put in the mistress’s sitting room for her.” She wasn’t inclined to say much. But I gathered it’s pretty serious.

“She’d like that, I expect.” So I’d heard. “Why don’t you suggest it to Shaban?”

 “Look at that sunset!” You know about it?

“It was outright amazing an hour ago.” Not much. How did she come to bring this up with you?

“There’s little Gathra coming up,” she observed. Gathra, the smaller moon, was just rising over the trees in front of the house. I asked her.

“I’ve heard it looks a lot bigger from Ethra Compound.” That’s probably not a great idea.

 “Oh, my yes. Because it’s so much closer to Zaitaf than it is to the planet.” She didn’t seem to mind.

“Didn’t we tell Talat to get back here by first moon?” Best not to bring it up again.

She glanced at him: was this an order? “Yes. Yes, that’s so.”

“We’d probably better get back to the party,” he said.

Ella’s Story, Chapter 21. *FREE READS*

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

21

Much to be hoped it was, she thought, that this one would not remain a pain in the butt as long as she herself had.

The morning after Ella and Lohkeh’s visit to the mine and its hive of offices, Vighdi summoned her. Still feeling a bit dreamy after the satisfying encounter with her handsome co-conspirator, she entered Vighdi’s place in a good mood.

“Sit down.” Vighdi gestured toward a stool near the worktable that ran along one wall. “We need to talk.”

“Yes, ma’am?” No clue: so used to being congratulated on her good work was she.

Vighdi, her elbows on her desk, leaned forward and focused her attention on Ella.

“Where were you and Lohkeh yesterday?”

“Takrai, ma’am?” Puzzled, she realized the answer came out sounding like a guess. “I had a pass. You set it for me. And I’m sure Lohkeh had one, too.”

“Obviously. That’s not what I’m asking. Where did you go while you were there?”

Uh oh. Ella wondered: what did she know? People often said you were watched wherever you went. Maybe even on the toilet. But she’d never seen much proof of it. The car no doubt was connected. But…every wall? Really? “Uhm…we went to the mine offices first, ma’am. He left me with Chief Haidar while he delivered something to some other office. She showed me around the place and introduced me to staff in receiving and accounts.”

“And then where did you go?”

“Well, after Lohkeh came back, we…got some supper.”

“At the mess hall?”

“I guess.”

“You don’t know?”

Ella stayed quiet and aimed a steady gaze at her. In fact, they had paused briefly to pick up a couple of sweets at the company cafeteria as they headed back to Ethra compound.

“All right,” Vighdi said. “Let’s go over this more closely.” She passed her right hand across a hotspot embedded in the desk, and a diagram of the road system between Ethra Port and Takrai flashed up on a blank wall behind the work table.

“You went to the transit depot after first-meal, and you met Lohkeh there, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You got into an aircar and headed toward Takrai, which is the only way you can head. But you didn’t go there directly.” A lighted dot traced the car’s path over the map.

Oh, hell. “No, ma’am.”

“Here, you take the spur tunnel to Lake Jesiah. Correct?

“Yes’m. But…”

Vighdi gave her a look that silenced her.

“You stop there for awhile.”

“Yes.” Did the booze cabinet have eyes?

“And?”

“Well. We were just sight-seeing, ma’am. There was no big hurry to get to Takrai.”

“Uh-huh. Did you get to see the geyser go off?”

Ella couldn’t help smiling. “We did, ma’am!”

Vighdi’s tone softened for an instant. “It’s an amazing thing to watch, isn’t it?”

“It surely is, boss. I never saw anything like that.”

“Well, I’m glad you got the opportunity. So…now you get back in the vehicle and continue on to the mines.”

“Yes.”

“When you get there, you go straight to the business compound.”

“Yes’m.”

“You go into a storage area, where you spend a short time.”

“Yes. We unloaded the stuff in the car. And helped Haidar and her assistant stack boxes where she wanted them.”

“Now Lokeh goes off in the vehicle, but you stay at the building.”

“Was I supposed to stick with him the whole time?”

Vighdi shot her a sharp look. “Yes or no?”

“Yes. Haidar gave me a tour of the whole business operation. And she introduced me to people I’ve been working with remotely.”

“That’s good. So now you can put faces to sign-offs, no?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Looks like you roam all over the building.”

“Pretty much, we did.”

“Eventually Lohkeh comes back. The two of you get into the car and drive off. And yeah, before you leave the mine, you do stop by the mess hall.”

“Yes’m. We picked up some sweet toasts and kekel tea. Hot.”

“All right. Then you came back here? To Ethra?”

“Well, yes…”

“See, the problem is, between here,” Vighdi stood and placed her finger on the map at the office buildings, “and here…” her hand moved to the site of the chow line, “you drop out of sight. You seem to stop about here,” her finger came to rest at a midway point, “and then you both evaporate. Where were you?”

So they were inaudible and invisible while they were enjoying each others’ company? This was good news, Ella thought. But how in the five goddesses’ creation had he pulled that off?

“We…had dinner, Boss Vighdi. It was delivered to the room.”

“The room?”

“Yes, ma’am. In that building. Right there.” She indicated the structure to which Vighdi had traced their passage.

Vighdi closed her eyes and, with the fingers of one hand, massaged her temple as though her head hurt.

“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured after a moment. “So you go off-grid, off-track, off-everything to go to this…room? Why?”

“To eat dinner, ma’am.”

“Ella…” Vighdi’s voice took on an edge.

“I didn’t…”

“Don’t ever do that again.”

“But…”

“You do understand that I can make life very uncomfortable for you here, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am. But I didn’t know…”

“I don’t give a damn what you knew or didn’t know. It’s your responsibility to be where you’re supposed to be. And to see to it that the company knows where you are. All the time.”

“But…maybe something happened to the equipment. I had no idea – how would I know if it just went off?”

“It didn’t ‘just go off.’ If a contact goes dead an alarm will signal you. So you can call in to your boss or whoever you’re supposed be working for and let them know where you are and what you’re doing.”

“Vighdi, ma’am… Honestly, I didn’t know.”

“All the rooms in that building were and still are off-limits. The place is for the use of free staff and guests.”

“How would I have known that?”

Ask. You let this guy take you into a luxury suite in a building obviously not meant as slave quarters and it never occurred to you to inquire as to whether you were supposed to be there?”

“Well…was there any problem with our going into that salon at Lake Jesiah?”

“Of course not. The indentured property work there all the time. Don’t be disingenuous.”

“What?”

“Don’t act dumb with me.”

“Oh. No, ma’am.”

Vighdi subsided into annoyed silence.

After what felt like endless minutes but probably was just a few seconds, Ella offered: “I’m sorry.”

At this, Vighdi emitted half a chuckle. “I’ll bet you are.” A skeptical smile broke through the shadow of her mood.

Sensing détente in the air, Ella added, “I’ll try to be more careful.”

“Do, please. Use some common sense.”

“I will, ma’am.”

Guessing the conversation had come to its natural end, Ella moved to rise and leave.

“Wait a minute,” Vighdi stopped her. “I have something else to tell you.”

Goddess, no! “Yes, ma’am?” She perched on the edge of the seat, hoping whatever was coming would get over soon.

“Look, sweet.” Vighdi’s voice mellowed. “If you want someplace quiet and private to spend time with your friend, all you have to do is tell me. I can arrange that for you.”

“You can?” Ella felt heat rise into her face. If she was turning red, was it obvious? For that matter, did these dust-gray Varns even know what that meant?

“Of course.”

“Would you?”

“I can find you a place that’s just as nice as Takrai’s guest hostel. Only not clinging to the side of a mine shaft. And I will – but you need to ask, that’s all.”

Ella suppressed a giggle. “Thank you. That’s…” astonishing, she thought, “…awfully nice.”

“Go on back to work now, please.” Vighdi waved her toward the door. “And don’t fail me, dear.”

“No, ma’am.”

Right.

Ella’s Story, Chapter 20 **FREE READS**

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

20

The yellow sun was dropping toward the distant Sky Hills that, blueing in the afternoon shadows, marked the estate’s west and north borders. Workers contracted out to the village or city were beginning to straggle back in. Children, their studies done and the teacher having left the grounds an hour or two before, were playing games under Fihr’s supervision. A couple of the women field workers came in a little early, checked in with Ella, and headed to the showers.

Another while yet, she reckoned, before the Kaïna returned from the Empire’s core, hovering over the government sector in the center of E’o Cinorra. Rysha would be tired, she expected, and probably irritable after a day spent dickering with a dozen self-important diplomats from almost as many far-flung planetary governments. She called Shaben, the front door porter, on her personal intercom and reminded him to be sure her Splendor’s private lounge was adequately stored with calming beverages.

Better look in on the new boy, she thought, before the dust started to rise again. Pretty quick the whole off-campus crew would show up and she’d be busy again, checking them in, listening to their reports and complaints and gossip, and generally riding herd.

The corridor down the men’s quarters was quiet. That was good, she supposed. She announced herself: “Woman in the hall!” And hit a button to turn on a small green light over the two doorways at either end of the hall. Some men from some cultures did not like to be surprised in the altogether.

Seven doors down from Dorin’s space, she came to Darl’s quarters. She knocked lightly on the wall and pushed the drape aside.

He was awake but quiet, seemed even to be resting. Apparently he’d learned to control the pain by staying still. That was something, she supposed. His eyes glanced her way and followed her as she stepped inside and parked her ample frame on the small chair near the bed.

She spoke softly, remembering that a turn through the cooker made every part of your body hurt, including whatever is inside the ears. “Hello, there. How are you doing now?”

Silly question. Good enough to sound like someone cared, though.

“Still alive, I think.” He tried to smile, weakly. “Unless I’ve died and this is Hell.”

Ella chuckled, a little surprised to hear a quip. “Not quite. To the contrary, come to think of it.” She pulled the edge of the blanket around his shoulders and saw that it covered his legs and feet. “Keep yourself warm, brother. You don’t want to get chilled. Because that makes it worse.”

“I know.” He winced when he tried to reach for the covering’s edge. “What did you say your name is?”

“Ella.”

“Ah. Yes: Eliyeh’llya,”

He spoke with a distinct South Hemisphere accent. His enunciation was that of an educated man. That would make him a privileged man. Things were better in the south, at least for those with some tribe or some money. Chances are, she thought, this one had never gone hungry.

“No one here can pronounce it.” She shrugged. “So the Varns say ‘Ella.’ And so does everyone else.”

“Not many Samdi here, then?”

“Oh, there are a few. Dorin and me. Dita is Samdi – though she was born on Varnis. But we’ve got people from all over the Empire. Kanats and Tamehali and Gathrani. A Kraen. And a couple of men from Aravla. Even a Michaian guy. That’s why we speak mostly Varn. In fact, it’s kind of rude to speak your own language in front of someone who doesn’t know it.”

“Well. That makes sense.”

Also means I don’t have to listen to your snooty tone, she thought unkindly. Then corrected herself: Not his fault. Probably. If he could be persuaded to use Varn all the time, he’d be a lot less likely to get on the wrong side of the usual Samdi types who found themselves in service. At least, not the instant he opened his mouth. She made a mental note to encourage this…later.

He fell silent and closed his eyes. She let him rest briefly and then asked, “Would you like something to eat?”

“No.” His eyes stayed shut. “Thank you. I don’t think I can get any food down.”

“I could bring you a fruit or vegetable drink.”

“That’s kind. Thank you. But no, not just now.”

“Well. All right, then. Try to get some sleep.” She moved to get up and leave.

“Wish I could.”

“Did you not sleep during the night?” She settled back onto the seat.

“Not so as I could tell.”

How long had he been on the market floor? At least a day, maybe two. And this was his second day at Skyhill. Not good: he should have recovered enough to sleep at least a few hours. And had he eaten nothing?

She laid the back of her hand against his face. He winced a little, opened his dark brown eyes, but didn’t seem to be fevered. He must have gotten chilled, she speculated, when they put him out on the selling floor almost direct from the cooker. Theoretically that violated the rules – they were supposed to keep you in a heat-regulated berth for several days, until you could stand up, sleep, and eat. But the blacksuits warped the rules to fit their purposes.

Crime wave, indeed. Had there been another revolt? Michaia perennially incubated unrest. And she’d heard that Krae and Ilaema had a few nests of the dissatisfied and the disgruntled. Nice thing about working for a criminal syndicate: it didn’t leave you much time to raise rebellions.

The outcome was about the same, though…on an individual level.

“I’m going to bring you something warm to eat,” she said, not as a suggestion but as a fact. “You need to build your strength back up.”

“But…”

“Hush. I’ll be back shortly.”

She left without giving him a chance to argue.

Down in the kitchen, she found Cook Lior’s wife Tabit supervising a clean-up of the freezers and cold boxes while she also tended a couple of large, steaming kettles.

“Do we have any comfort food?” Ella asked. Probably a pointless question: Tabit seemed to find all food comforting.

Tabit glanced up from her labors. “I expect we can find something. Feeling a little harried, are we?”

“No more than usual.” Ella chuckled. “It’s not for me. It’s for our new boy.”

“Oh.” As though morning’s light dawned. “Heard he was in a bad way.”

“Some. He’ll be all right – it’ll take some time, though.”

“Well. Take the weight off, sister,” she wiped her hands and waved a towel toward an empty stool at the work bench. “And I’ll see what I can hustle up. It’ll take a minute or two.”

Ella sat down, happy enough for an excuse to take a moment’s break, and watched Tabit rummage in a pantry. Quick enough, a pot went over a stove burner, filled with frozen stew, or, Ella thought, maybe a rich soup, and a generous dollop of hlann cream was added.

Tabit and Lior had all sorts of ethnic theories about the feeding and nourishment of slaves. One of them was that Samdi, all Samdi, loved the various flavors of hlann, a manufactured treat the creatures used as a condiment, a thickener, or a flavoring, depending on the context. Accordingly, a pitcher of hlann cream and a pottle of hot-spiced hlann sauce always appeared on the meal table. Ella thought she could take or leave it. But she usually took it.

“Tea?” Tabit lifted a pot to pour a mugful for herself.

“Sure. If you’re having some.”

Tabit set two full mugs and a pitcher of cream on the table, stirred the warming pot, and settled onto the seat opposite Ella.

“How’s your day going?” she asked. Her broad Gathran features made her look cheerful, even when she wasn’t. And like most of her kind, she was stoutly built.

Ella sipped enough of the tea to drop its level below the cup’s rim, then poured in cream to take up the slack.

“No crazier than usual, I suppose.”

“That’s not saying much.” Tabit chuckled empathetically. “That girl of yours was in here earlier today,” she remarked after some small talk.

“Bintje? That would explain where she was when she was supposed to be cleaning.”

“No doubt.”

“What did she want?”

“To get out of cleaning, I expect.”

Ella laughed. “We were never that young, right?”

“Not that I can recall.” Tabit got up to stir the rapidly defrosting soup. “I wonder if she’s all right – with the baby, that is. She was complaining that she didn’t feel good.”

“She has morning, noon, and afternoon sickness.” Ella took an appreciative sip of Tabit’s tea, always a league or two better than Dorin’s. “Besides, she complains all the time. If she didn’t complain, that’s when I’d worry about her.”

“Life’s a stage play, after all.”

“In some corners of the galaxy.”

Tabit set a napkin, spoon, and bowl on a tray she’d pulled down from an overhead cupboard.

“This new brother,” she asked, “what’s his name again?”

“Dorin says he’s called Darl.”

“He’s supposed to be a healer?”

“That’s what we’re told. Not by lore but by training.”

Tabit fell silent while she dished up the hot chowder. She snapped a lid onto the one-serving bowl and placed it on the tray.

“So… Why did they put him out for sale when he’s still in such bad shape?”

Love that gossip mill, Ella thought. “Apparently ran out of room.”

“Michaians had another bellyful, did they?”

Ella raised an eyebrow and brushed her left earlobe with a finger. “Sister, I have no idea.” She picked up the loaded tray. “It has nothing to do with us, hm?”

“No, ma’am. I expect not.” Tabit looked chastened enough to give Ella a brief twinge of guilt. Very brief: some things were unsafe to talk about. Especially inside a set of walls.

She took her leave and carried the light meal back toward the men’s quarters, there to try to coax it down Dorin’s new charge.

What a pain in the butt it was, she thought, to have to take on and train up a green new slave. Especially one in no shape to work. One who is, for godsake, still too hurt to drag himself off a cot.

Ella’s Story, Chapter 19 *FREE READS*

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

19

The dinner he had ordered up was pure Samdi: foods she hadn’t tasted since the blacksuits had hauled her off a good two years before, foods she didn’t realize she’d missed so much.

“Where did you find this, brother?” She picked up a crisp-coated leaf of a richly flavored succulent, one of her favorites among the grilled and boiled and deep-fried treats sold in a market thoroughfare.

He lifted a piece out of the serving bowl and examined it skeptically, as though he suspected it was unripe or not cooked properly. Or maybe counterfeit. “You can get pretty much anything you want. If you ask right.”

“I didn’t even know the Varns had this stuff here, on their godforsaken moon.” She’d never seen the leaf, which rotted quickly off the vine, in the resort restaurant where she’d labored away her first months at Ethra.

“Oh, sure. Some of the tourists are Samdi bigshots.”

That was so. Samdi bigshots liked street-market food, too. Of course. Who wouldn’t?

She ate until she couldn’t stuff another bite into her face, so delighted was she with the spread that graced the table. After Lohkeh finished his meal – well before she did – he watched her sate herself, barely hidden amusement showing in his face.

When she succeeded in clearing her plate and every other dish in front of her, she sighed, leaned back in her chair, and looked up into Lohkeh’s deep blue eyes, so dark as to appear black most of the time. The garnet in his ear sparkled like a sly wink. And she realized she was hungry for something more than food from home.

She rose from the seat, stepped over to his side of the table, and stood over him, silent. She knew she wouldn’t have to say a word.

Beautiful. That he was, she reflected now, from the distance of many years.

He smiled, let her pull him to his feet, and then slid his arms around her. She felt his desire harden against her belly, and felt her own heart beat faster as his lips found hers and then followed the line of the jaw to her ear and downward. He drew her to the bed, settled on it, and nuzzled her belly while he tugged smooth fabric seams apart.

She sat beside him on the bed to pull his shirt open, slipped it off his back and arms, then paused to gaze. His muscled chest and arms, highlighted in the golden light from glow panels set to mimic the Varn sun’s colors, stood out as smooth and perfect as a sculptured figure.

This one, she wanted. She moved to kiss him again. His tongue danced in her mouth, and he tugged off first her leggings, then his own.

He lay back against a pile of pillows. “Come here,” he whispered. “Come on up here.”

Ella’s Story, Chapter 18 *FREE READS*

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

18

Lohkeh was waiting when Haidar delivered her to the first-floor entrance to the cave-climbing offices. His face lit up as though he were overjoyed to see her.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, after Haidar transferred her to his custody and left.

“Wouldn’t mind something to eat.”

“That’s good. I’ve arranged for dinner.” He gestured her into the waiting aircar. This would be a mid-“day” meal. They hadn’t been gone anything like a full waking cycle, though Ella was ready for something to eat.

Slaves who did heavy physical work were offered their largest serving of food at the start of a workday, the theory being that they profited by front-loading calories and nutrients. A second decent meal came at midday, and then a selection of snacks or light meals after work was done.

Convenient, she thought: next time she was sent to this place, she would know how to find the mess hall and when it served up real food, as opposed to nibbles usually set out to those allowed to graze during the day.

“Hop in.” Lohkeh aimed a gesture at the vehicle, whose door slid obediently open.

Not so convenient: the place wasn’t part of the office structure. Maybe there was a separate living structure? Or more likely, she figured, more likely they built the food line closer to the mine workers who did the heavy labor.

The vehicle switchbacked its way up several tiers that climbed the sides of the cavern-like walls where the concrete-faced buildings clung.

“Here we are,” Lohkeh said as the car slowed to a stop near a small, nondescript door.

This was puzzling: no sign of a large dining hall. It must, she thought, be dug out of the rock.

But inside, she saw no entrance to any such space: just a corridor leading left and right, parallel to the external wall. Doorways, all closed, all featureless, marched along the interior wall, evidently indicating separate, small rooms.

“This way.” He led her up a set of steps to a floor above. The stairwell was partly lit by dim light seeping through abbreviated exterior windows and mostly lit by glow panels lining the inside wall.

They made their way past a long row of narrow exterior windows and undistinguished interior doors. Once they’d stepped inside the hallway, the noise from the machines and workers was fully blocked. The space was almost eerily silent.

“Here’s the place.” Lohkeh stopped before one of the nondescript gray doors, and held the back of his hand to a lockpad. His coded chip recognized, the flat door slid open.

What? She stared in wonder.

The windowless room behind the door, neither a closet nor a large salon, held a generous complement of comfortable furnishings. In one corner, a pair of lushly padded easy chairs flanked a small black table, a silent vidspot on the opposite wall. Electronic paintings – or images of paintings – adorned the walls, inviting the occupant to contemplate exotic and peaceful places: planetside Varnis, she assumed, without knowing for sure. Their colors broke up the shadowless white of ceiling-to-floor glow panels. Meditative notes from some kind of stringed instrument played softly, and a thick carpet covered the floor from wall to wall – unheard of in Ella’s parts.

A spacious bed stood along the wall at right angles to the loafing chairs, and in the center of the room a table for four held plates of food kept warm under bubble-shaped glass covers. A bottle of the same deep amber whiskey she’d admired at Lake Vesiah stood on the table, too, along with a couple of glasses.

“My lady,” Lohkeh performed an elegant obeisance by way of inviting her into the room. “Your dinner awaits.”

“This…” she had to restrain herself from gasping, “is for us?”

He smiled.

“But how?”

He set a gentle finger to her lips and winked. “Come on in, sister.” He pulled out two of the chairs and they each took their places at the table.

Surely, he was still in the life, and yes, surely he was a capo.

Moving House…to another website

So long…

So, Facebook having royally screwed up my marketing plan by unfairly banning me from its sacred environs, I’ve had to come up with new avenues to bring the golden words to the public’s attention. The new plan will require me to move the copy I’ve posted here as *FREE READS* to other platforms.

And that will require me to delete said copy from Plain & Simple Press, in order to avoid duplication. The desirable platforms explicitly ask that contributions not appear elsewhere.

Truth to tell, it was highly iffy to publish each chapter as a blog post and then to merge them  into coherent books (Ella’s Story, If You’d Asked Me, and The Complete Writer), each in its own web page. I do not know whether Google has zapped me for doing this, but I expect if it hasn’t, it soon will.

…good-bye…

It takes about two weeks for Google to register published copy as not published (so I’m told, anyway). So what I will do is begin taking copy down, a chapter or two each day, beginning today. Then about two weeks from the take-down date, I will re-post these chapters at Medium or at The Writing Cooperative. Gradually, then, all the content will eventually move to the new platform.

I’ll post announcements of these moves here and on Twitter — that is, I’ll let you know exactly when a given chapter-in-transit reappears at the new platform. If you want to follow me on Twitter, follow me as “Funny about Money,” not as “The Girls”: @FunnyAboutMoney

…au revoir

For the nonce, though, I will remove one or two chapters at a time, starting at the beginning of each book, on the days that I publish a new chapter for that book. For example, on Friday — that’s tomorrow, already! — I will post chapter 15 of The Complete Writer, and I will also remove TCW‘s first two posts from this blog, comprising chapters 1 & 2 and chapter 3. In 14 days, when those chapters begin to appear at the new site, most of the old content will be “disappeared” from this site. Since I’ll then be two weeks ahead of myself, after that I should be able to delete one chapter at a time until I run out of content.

The books will have to come down, too. I will remove them on Saturday, replacing the content on their respective pages with a description and an offer to share the content-in-progress in PDF format. So you have about a day and a half to download that content, if you care to do so.

This is going to create a huge hassle, and to the extent that this site has readers, it will undoubtedly cause a reader hemorrhage. I do know a number of people are following Ella’s Story, and I apologize to you for the inconvenience. I invite you to rejoin the story at its new venue.

And yes, if I could afford a lawyer you may be sure I would hire one. I’ve looked for a class action suit to join, but so far have found none. One report claims that 22,000 people have provably been banned from Facebook unfairly, but apparently that is not a large enough class to support a lawsuit. Too bad.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Medium has far more visibility than either Funny about Money or Plain & Simple Press. Apparently contributions appear on its front page briefly, giving you a shot at catching the attention of a reader or two. Ultimately this may turn out to be a good thing.

Meanwhile, it’s already resulted in some benefit in terms of fleeing the cobra’s stare: this past week instead of plopping down in front of the computer and fooling around with Facebook every damn morning, I’ve turned out with the dogs at dawn for a mile-long run. As of today, that comes to eight (8!!) health-enhancing miles of running.

Clearly, Facebook is not only bad for your nation’s body politick, it’s bad for your health. I can’t avoid Facebook’s unwitting (we hope) deconstruction of America’s democratic republic, but I sure can avoid letting it glue me to a computer screen until I turn into a cardiac invalid.

 

Ella’s Story, Chapter 17 *Free Reads*

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

17

Ella disliked close, dark places. They reminded her of closets that she’d been locked into as a small child. She had learned, though – had been trained – never to reveal any sign that might betray fear or let others know what made her nervous. That moment at the first, with Bohtil – how long, now…two years? – fell beyond the pale. So as they rode up the long, dim passage between Lake Vesiah and Takrai, she spoke quietly of things that didn’t matter much or mean much.

Still, she hoped this mine of Lohkeh’s would have a skydome over it. Or at least some lights, for godsake.

Eventually the car rounded a black bend and, not so far away, a blue-gray glow seeped into the far end of the tunnel. The light emanated from a large cavern into which they soon glided. The road, at last unconfined, dropped down to the cave’s floor past several stages, spiraling along the outer edges of the walls, built and unbuilt On each level, a road circumnavigated the excavated cavern. Below, workers and heavy equipment dug at the floor and lower walls, pulling out rock and dirt, piling it in mounds, loading it into large self-driven carts to be hauled away. These, she observed, made their way to other tunnel openings, of which a number penetrated the outer walls at each level. Overhead, glowpanels lined a solid, rocky roof, illuminating the huge dig. Some of the circumference walls also cast light.

Walls reverberated with the machine growling, the rattle of tumbling rocks, and the workers’ shouts, punctuated by an occasional loud buzz or ring that seemed to warn the men and women below of some happening about to occur. The air smelled of dust and heavy machine lubricants, and a light fog blurred the view through the uniform artificial lighting.

“So…this is the mine?” She could think of nothing less obvious to say.

“One of them.” Having taken control of the vehicle, Lohkeh steered them onto a pathway about three levels above the cavern’s floor. “There are half-a-dozen in this cluster, all told.

“See those holes in the walls up there?” He indicated a number of dark openings spread irregularly along the topmost circumference road. “Those are tunnels that’ll take you to the other digs.” She had surmised they must be tunnel entrances, but going where…she couldn’t imagine.

“Then, those bigger tunnels down near the bottom?” Much wider and taller gaps appeared at iintervals along the second-lowest perimeter road. “Those are for ore freights. Those big trucks carry ore to be processed a ways from the site. Then the stuff is hauled to the cargo piers to be sent to Varnis. Or loaded aboard a deepspace carrier, sometimes – to go to some outfit on an exoplanet. Samdela has a lot of buyers, as a matter of fact.”

Much of the brown haze in Samdela’s air came from ore refining and metal operations, Ella knew – even though most of the planet’s usable deposits of metal and radioactive elements and been exhausted a century or two before. If any remained, they were covered by factories, mills, refineries, and warren-like piles of housing. She didn’t know how much of what was needed to support Samdela’s vast cities came in from off-world, but she had been told it was a lot.

The vehicle pulled up to a small receiving dock outside a structure built flush with the noisy mine floor. Chiseled cavern walls were lined with multi-story gray structures, their faces pocked with windows and doors whose view, Ella thought, would get very dreary, very fast. Most of the buildings stood along the roads and walkways that spiraled up the mine’s sides, beginning four or five levels from the hectic floor.

A couple of women in Distributed Offworld liveries – identical, with their gray fields and coral-orange wristbands to Lohkeh and Ella’s suits – stepped out onto the platform to greet them, even before the vehicle came to a stop. The seemed to know the two were arriving – and, she reflected, they probably did: Lohkeh’s embedded passchip would have signaled their position. No doubt hers did, too: on the ride to the transit station, the trip underground to this place…everywhere.

Including the lounge at the methane lake. He was a bold one, this Lohkeh.

The one in charge greeted him by name. She looked Samdi, to Ella’s eye. The other, the quiet one, clearly was not, Ella surmised, by the broad flat face, the wavy orange hair, and the squat, husky build. How long, she wondered, had it been since this pale creature had seen sunlight?

Lohkeh returned the niceties and introduced Ella to Haidar and Naji, boss and underling.

“Welcome, then, sister,” the Samdi woman said. She spoke Varn like a native, not something you could say of Lohke or of Ella. “What do you do for a job, here in the colony?”

“Freight and transport tracking, mostly. I just got transferred over from bookkeeping a couple months ago.

A flick of an eyebrow and a glance in Lohke’s direction vanished in less than an instant. Ella noticed and wondered – very briefly – what that was about.

“That’s a task to keep you busy,” Haidar remarked, interrupting her unspoken question, which disappeared as quickly as the gesture. “I used to have one of those jobs. Have you been off-world long?”

Almost a couple of years now. I think. It’s a little hard to reckon, you know?”

“I do. Time is weird in this place.”

Weirder, Ella imagined, if you spend all your life underground, without even a glimpse through a transparent dome of the mother star against infinity. Although, on reflection, that was pretty weird, too.

Lohkeh and Ella helped the two women carry the laden boxes into a storage room and stack them as Haidar directed. Behind the high concrete façade, interior space was dug out a couple hundred feet under the lunar surface. Lined from its floor to a ceiling so high it was out of reach for anything but robotic machines, the storage room was an artificially carved cavern lit only by glow panels stuck to the walls or ceilings. Because all its walls were lined with shelving or closed, locked cabinets, the only lighting came from the celing, a harsh, unforgiving glare cast over everything and everyone in the room.

This Haidar, she reminded Ella vaguely of Vighdi. She was like Vighdi and not like her: assertive, confident…yet so not-Varn. By the cavern’s blank light, she looked older than Vighdi, or more worn. Older than Lohkeh, so it seemed. Certainly older than herself. Surely longer in service.

It struck her that the woman’s manner was more like a capo’s – more like Lohkeh’s – than like an overseer’s. Was she Syndicato?

Likely. Most Samdi were associated with the Syndicate in some way. However distant. But that wouldn’t make her a capo, any more than it made Ella herself anything other than a low-ranking lieutenant. But then this one had some years on Ella. So it appeared.

The vehicle’s cargo stowed away, Haidar asked Lohkeh where they were going next.

“I have to take some packages up to the Air and Fuel Department.” He dropped the data tab of receipts she’d given him into his workbelt pouch. “Then I thought Ella might like to see the Deep Mineshaft. If they’ll let us in.”

“Expect they will…we can arrange it. Does that sound like something you’d like to do?” she asked Ella.

“Sure.” That which does not involve work, Ella thought.

“Why don’t you go up to Chem Standards,” Haidar returned to Lohkeh. “While you’re at it, will you take a couple of boxes of junk to their supply sergeant?”

“All right.” The neutrality of his tone suggested a certain dearth of enthusiasm for this chore.

“And while you’re doing that, I’ll give your friend the grand tour.”

“Good idea,” Lohkeh said, not offering Ella a chance to opine. Haidar responded with a small, tight smile and a nod, and Ella understood that a message had passed between them. What it was, she had no idea. but pretty clearly, here as inside the aircar there were listeners.

“Naji,” Haidar addressed her slow-looking assistant, “you can go downstairs and help Waiwya. And Loh’, we’ll see you back here in a little while. Call me when you’re coming into the station.”

He dipped his head subtly, an acquiescent gesture Ella knew from the Life back home. Did they know each other from before? Maybe. Maybe not. But one recognized another’s rank.

Haidar led the way up a set of switchbacking exterior stairs carved into the cavern walls. These took them to the next level pathway up and an entrance to a building face with many more windows and doors. Inside, rows of offices lined the walls of several open storeys, layer after layer like shelves stacked one atop the other.

“This is where most of the shipping, transfer, and acquisition business gets done.” Haidar guided Ella toward a set of moving stairs. “This floor has the supply and requisition intercept crew for the whole colony. We coordinate requisitions for the mine, the shipping and receiving docks, and the resort. Whatever anybody orders comes through here. And so do all the receipts for incoming cargo and distribution.”

Before they reached the ascending risers, Haidar stopped at a desk that, unlike most of the others, was partly sheltered in an open cubby.

“Zeff,” she addressed the occupant, who had watched their approach. “This is Ella. She’s in freighting now at Ethra Station.” The man behind the desk, slender almost to the point of cadaverous, his hair black and his cheeks sunken, stood when he saw them draw near.

“Sister,” he greeted her laconically.

“Zeff overrsees this team’s work and coordinates records,” Haidar added.

“Mr. Zeff,” Ella spoke politely enough. Yet she looked him straight in the eye. He was no free man, so she wasn’t obliged to bow her head or drop her gaze. Nor would she.

He looked at her expressionlessly, his obsidian eyes unfathomable. “Ella. I’ve seen your name on some of the lading receipts. You haven’t been long in the job, then?”