This is a story about 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.
She’d been on the sale floor about four days—seemed like four years to her. She never saw the blacksuit woman again. Not that she was surprised at that.
Sleep came only with exhaustion, for all the good it did. The lingering pain from the punishment inflicted in the cooker would wake her as often as it blocked her from dozing off. The only place to pee was a bidet in the floor, fully exposed to the glassy eyes of cameras in the ceilings and walls—and of the miserable souls around her. Food was just barely food, but she had no appetite anyway.
A couple sat on one of the four platforms nearest to hers, on display like herself to any and all prospective buyers, of whom there was an amazing dearth. The woman wept on and off – more on than off, really – for no reason that Ella could see. The man sat in surly silence, never making the smallest effort to quiet her or even to speak to her. Why they were being sold as a pair escaped Ella. Only later did she learn that separating a married couple for the purpose of selling one or both of them violated some Varn law of service.
Others around her tried to sleep or sat staring blankly, bored. Carrying on a conversation would have been next to impossible: the racket of children screaming, carts and robot observers rattling around, ventilator motors grumbling bounced off the windowless cavern’s flat, unadorned glow walls. Nor, for that matter, did Ella care to speak to anyone.
She saw, eventually – what time of the day or night it was, she had no idea — a blacksuit making his way up the aisles ahead of a visitor, obviously a free man. Tall and long in build and in face, he was; once no doubt slender but now, in silver-haired middle age, a little pot-bellied. From a distance, she could see the blacksuit chattering away while the other man said little or nothing.
They were coming in her direction. As they approached, she heard the blacksuit going on, “…no track record…fresh out of the cooker. But other than that she pretty much fits your needs. You’ll need to train her, but she won’t cost you much.”
The man approached, stopped, and looked her over blandly. If he was interested, he wasn’t advertising so.
“Her health is excellent. She’s had all her inoculations, a year’s worth of contraceptive… She’s 26, still plenty young and strong but not a kid, and.…” The blacksuit barreled on in a sales pitch that quickly faded out of Ella’s consciousness. She looked at the gray-haired buyer and he looked at her. His expression, to the extent that he could be said to have an expression, was utterly unreadable.
But Varns. . . who could read anything about a Varn? Still seated, she backed away as far as the leash they’d tied around her ankle would allow.
“Hey, girlie!” The blacksuit reached for her. “Stand up and let us look at you.” She stared at him, unmoving.
“Enough of that,” the other said. “Leave her alone.”
She turned her level gaze on him. He looked into her eyes, and a ghost of a smile crossed his long, sharp-planed face.
“Will you please back off?” he said to the blacksuited salesman. The guy fell resentfully silent.
He put a foot on the platform and hopped up onto it. But he didn’t move any closer. He just held a hand out toward her. “Let me help you up,” he said. His voice was calm and gentle. “C’mon.”
She hauled herself to her feet, declining to take his hand, and stood as far from him as she could get.
“That’s good,” he said. “It’s all right now: I promise not to bite.”
She wasn’t amused. Her expression said so, much as she tried to keep her face blank.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Her name is Ella,” the blacksuit said.
“I thought you were going to shut up?” the man replied. This elicited another surly silence.
“What do you call yourself?” he turned back to her.
“Eliyeh’llya,” she said, pronouncing her name in the Samdelan mode.
“Ah. Well,” he smiled a little ruefully, “do you mind if I call you Ella?”
She shrugged. Did she have a choice? “It’ll work.”
“All right. Ella. My name is Bhotil. I work for DOW Enterprises. We’re looking for someone we can train to help out in our offworld operations. And . . .” he leafed through a binder of papers he had in hand, “it looks like you’ve had some experience in managing some kind of shipping. Is that so?”
“You could put it that way,” she replied, wondering what he was talking about. She’d dealt with Distributed Off-World on Samdela, but not in ways one of its employees would want to know much about.
“What exactly did you do in your work? Can you describe it?”
What did I do . . . that I wouldn’t be arrested for? She grasped for something to say. “Well, I . . . scheduled deliveries and checked with customers to be sure they got made. On time. And just . . . sort of rode herd on things.” And kept the books for three under-the-table businesses, using coded math and my mother’s northern Samdi dialect that not very many cops were likely to understand, and reported any violations to the bosses, and did their bidding and kept their orders private, and forged government and financial documents as needed, and located girls when the bosses wanted a change or had cronies in town and saw to it that their wives didn’t find out and ran money through the “laundry” and . . . What do you want to know?
“Did the bookkeeping and kept the records. And saw to it that anything that wasn’t about to get done did get done. Just…made sure everything got done, and got done right.”
“That can be quite a chore.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“Think you’re up for another job that’ll keep you busy?”
“If it’ll get me out of here. Sure.”
“Oh, it’s a long way from this place.”
The longer, the better, she thought.
“You’ll have to work pretty hard,” he added.
“I earn my way,” she said.
“We’ll see.” He glanced in the direction of the blacksuit, who was watching them in blessed silence. “I’ll take her. Set her loose, if you will, please.” He seemed, she thought, like a man who was accustomed to cooperation from those around him. She knew men like that. From before…
The blacksuit acted like his sun had just come out from behind a cloud as he moved to release her from the bond around her leg.
She could kick him in the face while he was kneeling by her foot…better not, though. Better not.
They followed him up to a set of offices on the building’s second floor, where they were parked in a waiting room.
“This will take awhile,” Bhotil said. “We have to fill out a lot of forms and then listen to enough lectures to fill your ears for the next week.”
“Fine. As long as it gets us to the door sooner or later.”
He smiled. “That it will.”
“That guy looked like you’d made his day,” she remarked after a moment of silence.
“Well, yeah. He gets a commission on whatever sales he makes.”
“Oh.” Follows. I’m a “sale” now. Well, she’d been a “sale” before…but that, she hoped, did not appear in her record. She imagined she’d find out soon enough…surely the blacksuits would go over all her sins with the prospective new master. Those they knew about.
The two sat in the silence for a more minutes, he staring into the distance and she covertly studying him. He must have been a handsome man in his younger years…she guessed he was pushing 60. Still good enough looking, his features distinctively masculine and his gray eyes thoughtful-looking, if absent with boredom. She wondered how often he’d been through this slave-purchasing process.
He spoke: “You look a little tired.”
Understatement. “It’s not easy to sleep here.”
“No. I’m sure not.” She having nothing to add to that, he continued, “When we get back to the ship, you can have a warm bath and something to eat, if you’re hungry. Then you can go to bed and sleep as long as you like. You’ll have your own quarters there, while we’re in transit.”
Ship? Transit? What “transit”? “What ‘ship,’ Mr. Bhotil?” she asked.
“They didn’t tell you? I’m sorry, I thought they had. We’re based on Zaitaf. We’ll be going back there tomorrow morning…that would be in about eighteen hours.”
Her breath stopped. Her chest wouldn’t pull in any air. “Zai… You mean the moon?”
“Well, the larger one. There are two.”
“No!” She couldn’t breathe. She jumped to her feet and managed to gasp in enough air to yell another NO! “I’m not going! You can’t take me there! No!” She stumbled away from him.
“Ella! Calm down!”
“No! No, I’m not going! No way!”
He stood and reached for her. She dodged out of his grasp. “No! Leave me alone! You can’t take me there!” She started to sob, still trying to catch enough air.
A blacksuit approached, brandishing a billy club.
Bhotil glared him down. “Back off! She’s mine. I paid for her. I’ll handle this.”
The man paused, uncertain.
Now Ella was weeping uncontrollably. What was that he said? He already owned her? They already owned her? “No!”
In the instant she was distracted, Bhotil reached out and set his hands on her shoulders, exactly as the woman blacksuit had a few days before. He pulled her toward him.
“Ella,” he said. “Ella, will you please stop? Be quiet. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Sobs came in waves. She was beyond stopping them. All the fear and pain and anger and despair poured over her like a river of lava.
He held onto her and spoke something; what, she couldn’t make out over her own weeping, but he kept talking to her, low and gentle. How long this went on, she did not know. She felt the blacksuit nearby. She felt the eyes on her, other people in the waiting room staring. She felt Bhotil speaking. But what all that meant escaped her.
Then she was in his arms, weeping into the jacket covering his chest. He held her, for how long she couldn’t say. Finally, when she couldn’t draw another breath to sob, she stopped. He held her for a few seconds, a few minutes longer, she didn’t know.
“What in the Gods’ heavens is the matter, Ella?” he said. “Why are you carrying on like this?” He held her by the shoulders again, stroking the muscles between her shoulderblades.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life breaking rocks,” she wailed.
“Don’t send me to the mines. I haven’t done anything to deserve that.”
“Oh!” The light dawned across his face. “Is that what you think is happening?”
She tried to seek shelter against his chest again, but he held her in place. “No. Ella, woman. That’s not what’s going to happen at all.”
“What else would people do on some godforsaken moon?”
“Ella. Will you please pay attention to me?”
She nodded, but the tears flowing down her face gainsaid her.
He held her back away from him and then lifted her chin. “Listen to me.” She shook her head. “Yes.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “You’re not going to any mines. Are you an engineer? Is there anything you could do for us there?
“Mining is just a small part of what the colony does. Ethra…it has so many other jobs. Hardly any of us work at the mines.”
“What else is there to do?” If she choked out the words, still she could not help gainsaying him.
“Well… Freighting, for one. None of those big deepspace ships can land on the planet. They dock at Ethra, where they offload their cargo. Because the gravity’s lower. And we ship it all to the surface. Don’t you remember? That’s how you got here.”
“You were offloaded on Zaitaf and loaded onto a local surface lander.”
“I don’t think so. They just dumped us into some sort of…garage. Here. On the planet.”
“Well, you would have been in a pod. You couldn’t see out, could you?” She shook her head, no. “Your pod would have been moved over to a surface-bound ship – like the one that will carry us back to Ethra Port. You probably didn’t even know it. From Ethra Port you would have been carried down to Varnis, and from Cinorra Port they would have brought you here.
“Everything – and everyone, free or slave – that comes into the Varn system by deepspace carrier is laid off on Zaitaf and reloaded onto vessels that carry cargo to the surface. Same is true for whatever and whoever leaves the planet.”
“Oh.” She looked at him, amazed. With his fingers, he wiped the hot tears from her cheeks.
“And we have a research station there. More scientists and mathematicians than you can count. And a communications station. And a power station. And an agriculture pod that raises fresh fruits and vegetables and grain to feed us all. And a survey system studying the planet. And there’s a big, fancy resort. Believe it or not, rich people think it’s a fine place to go for vacations.”
“Yes. You want to see some famous Great One? Sooner or later they all show up on Zaitaf.”
“Seriously? Like the Kaïna?”
“I’ve seen the Kai and the Kaïna myself. In person.”
“She goes there?”
“She does. They all do.”
The Kaïna Djitti. No, Ella never saw her on Zaitaf, not in all the years she spent there. Who would have thought she’d end up in her service?
No one. Least of all Ella.