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.
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“Because I was asked to.”
Vighdi fell silent for a moment, thinking about this. “You were asked to,” she resumed.
“To falsify the lading data.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.