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?”