Ella’s Story, Chapter 33
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 about one every three weeks, 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.
Vighdi called the kitchen, ordered a couple of meals delivered to her private quarters and then directed Ella toward the single women’s section of the employee apartments. The door to Vighdi’s rooms slid open as it sensed her walking up the hallway. Ella could see the walls’ glow panels fade up from dark to a soothing off-white. By the time the two women reached the doorway, they stepped into a fully lit living space.
“Nice,” Ella murmured, almost unwittingly. Despite all the early maid work at the resort, she’d never been inside any of the free company employees’ quarters. A windowless, oblong room spread out behind the entrance, a broad loosely covered bed tucked behind a couple of low pony walls in the far left corner. Images, some of them abstract and some figurative to the last detail, decorated the walls. A desk and chair stood against the left wall; to the right a pair of soft-looking lounge chairs filled a sitting area in front of a table that looked like it was designed either for eating or for games. On the far wall, another door opened into what looked like a private bathroom and maybe a storage closet.
“Pretty much standard issue,” Vighdi said, ushering her in.
One helluva lot more issue than our “standard,” Ella thought, given her own digs: a bunk inserted inside a cubbyhole in a wall with a curtain for privacy. Such as it was.
“Make yourself comfortable, dear.” Vighdi gestured to one of the large stuffed chairs and started a built-in device near the broad table making hot drinks. Ella watched her brew and pour a couple mugsful of the dense rust-red tisane she favored – Ella was not asked what she would like, if anything. Eventually Vighdi set a steaming cup on the table beside her and alit in the other chair.
Vighdi drew her legs up under herself, took a tentative sip of the hot drink, and sighed. Ella sensed a ripple of tension flowing out of the woman’s body.
“So,” Vighdi said after a moment of quiet. “You do understand, right? How close you came?”
Did you bring me here to lecture me some more? Ella wondered. She saw Vighdi gazing levelly at her and figured she would have to put up with it. Surpressing her own weary sigh – for she was indeed very weary now that the immediate danger of peremptory execution seemed to be over – she nodded. “Yes, boss. I do.”
“He wasn’t kidding about sending you down to the surface with your boyfriend. Bho is not a man who blows smoke.”
“No, ma’am. No. I do know.”
“No,” Vighdi repeated. Was there an edge to her voice? Ella wasn’t sure then; wasn’t sure to this day, many years later.
“I…,” she couldn’t see what direction to take her thought, or what direction to come from. “Thank you, Boss Vighdi. For helping me.”
“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was worth the effort.”
“I appreciate that.”
Vighdi gave her a sharp look, as though she didn’t appreciate the reply. “Are you going to let me down?”
“I hope not.”
“Yes or no?”
Vighdi fell silent, stared at her. After what felt to Ella like minutes, she said “I hope not, too.”
Before Ella could figure out whether a reply was expected, came a buzz from the door. “Dinner, ma’am,” a voice said through the intercom. An image appeared on a vidspot next to the entrance and Ella recognized Taz, one of the chow line workers.
“Come in, dear.” With a gesture, Vighdi persuaded the door to slide open. Taz carried a tray to the table and gave the overseer a deferential nod. “This looks fine,” Vighdi said.
“Do you need anything else, boss?
“This will be fine,” she said.
“It’s almost curfew, ma’am,” he remarked. “If you’ll put your dishes outside when you’ve finished, we’ll pick them up first thing in the morning.”
The graying Kanaian man dismissed, Vighdi motioned to Ella to sit down and eat.
“If it’s curfew time, I should go down to my bunk,” Ella said. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“You need to eat, Ellie. Sit down and fill yourself. I’ll take you down there after we have a meal. But as a matter of fact…better do this…”
She picked up a vidspot controller and turned on the communication service. Yiadwene, one of her assistants, appeared. “Do the bed check for me tonight, will you?” The woman nodded, looking a little surprised. “Ella is here with me. I’ll bring her along a little later.”
“So… All right.” A quizzical tone signaled some curiosity.
“Good,” Vighdi said, cutting off any discussion. “Go on to bed. No need to wait up, dear.”
“Thank you, ma’am”: as close, in tone, to a shrug as one could come without lifting one’s shoulders.
The chow, Ella thought vaguely, was also standard issue. She didn’t taste it especially, though: just ate. She was hungry and not hungry: a state of mind she had rarely experienced before.
Vighdi, across the table from her, also dined without much obvious enthusiasm. Few words were spoken. When they both had eaten as much as they were going to, Vighdi told Ella to pick up the dishes, which she did, obediently enough, and without being asked to do more, piled them on the tray and set the mess outside the door.
Expecting to be escorted down to the single slave women’s quarters, she paused by the open door.
“Would you like something to help you unwind a little, Ella?” Vighdi slid open a door in the cabinet behind the table, displaying a variety of relaxants.
“Uhm…” Surprised, Ella wasn’t sure what to say. But…yes, she surely would. “I wouldn’t mind something to drink,” she said tentatively. Her preference was for soft candies spiked with white powder, a specialty of Samdela’s southern mountainsides. But…while those in service were allowed some alcohol ration, in moderate amounts, most other entertainments were off limits.
“All right. Do you like…how about this brandy?” She lifted a bottle out of the cabinet and displayed it. Ella recognized a Varn variety much favored among a certain type of Syndicate boss back on Samdela: sweet, rich, and expensive.
Vighdi filled two small ceramic cups with the elixir in question, handed one to Ella, and slid back into one of the lounge chairs. Ella reclaimed her place in the one next to it.
“Mmmm,” she sighed after a first sip. “So nice. Thank you!”
“Enjoy, dear. You need a few minutes of peace.”
“I’m afraid I stole quite a few minutes of your peace today. I’m sorry.”
Vighdi glanced up at her, the ghost of a smile on her lips. “Well. There’s never a dull moment around this place. But…yeah, I will admit: this was pretty good drama.”
“Please don’t fret. Let’s just move our minds off it now.”
In silence they took in the golden liquor. Ella wondered how Vighdi afforded it, but then realized there wasn’t anything else to spend one’s pay on, unless you chose to frequent the expensive restaurants and bars at the rich people’s resort. Did paid staff get discounts there? Maybe they even got comped.
Probably not. In the months she worked there, she never saw Company employees hanging out like guests. Well. Almost never. Those she did see were decidedly higher-ups. Not the kind of people who lived in the colony full-time.
Eventually Vighdi spoke: “Do you like to play tabs? I have a short-game here.”
“Yeah…if it doesn’t take all night.” Tabs was a board game that involved moving silver or glass stones around according to an involved strategy. Some variants could occupy hours. Some could run through in a few minutes. A short-game used a six- by six-square playing board – a printed roll-up mat, actually. Vighdi pulled a mat and a box of stones from a drawer in the table between the two chairs, laid it out, and let Ella choose her color.
Just as they were spinning a die to decide who would get the first play, the intercom buzzed: an urgent call. Ordinary conversation was signaled by a quiet chime, just audible to the room’s occupants.
“Now what?” Vighdi aimed a gesture at the device and it came on, bringing Yiadwene’s face into view. She was pale and wide-eyed.
“Miss Vighdi! Somebody just tried to kill Ella!”
Ella sat up stock-straight. An adrenaline rush set her blood to roaring in her ears. Vighdi, very still, gazed expressionlessly at Yiadwene.
“Oh, yes? Well, they seem to have failed. She’s sitting right here with me.”
“He came in the east door and went to her bunk and stabbed all around in there with a knife. The mattress is shredded and the bedding is all cut up and…”
Ella could hear the other women chattering in the background, some of them hysterically.
“He came in the door? Didn’t you lock it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Of course I did! He must have had a pass. Look, here’s a vid of him.” Yiadwene’s image blacked out and was instantly replaced by a blurry image of a figure moving quickly up the half-lit corridor. He – if he it was – went straight to Ella’s bunk, pushed a drape aside, and had at the contents of the bunk. Quick enough, he apparently realized no one was there, turned, and left the way he came in, but not before one of the women noticed him and screamed.
“Well. Isn’t that…just fine.”
“The Blacksuits are out there,” Yiadwene said.
“Then let them in.”
“They’re already coming in.”