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.
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?”
“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?”
“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?
Vighdi gave her a look that silenced her.
“You stop there for awhile.”
“Yes.” Did the booze cabinet have eyes?
“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.”
“When you get there, you go straight to the business compound.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“Don’t ever do that again.”
“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.”
“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?
“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.”