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The Chronicles of Ratha
Book 1
Children of the Noorthi

Chapter One

Of All the Bars in the Universe

She Had to Step into Mine

 

This had to be one of the seediest spacebars I had ever been in. Located on the outskirts of the spaceport of Aldronicus VII, it was crowded with the worst beings the universe had to offer. I was seated near the rear of the establishment sipping my one very inexpensive, unpronounceable drink. In fact, the fuel running my ship tasted better than this crap.

I had been waiting for a few hours for my next job to turn up, but it looked like this was another wasted trip. I drained the liquid in my glass and winced as the ethyl alcohol burned my esophagus on its way down to melt away my stomach lining.

“Jordana!”

My head rose at the mention of my name, and my hand instinctively reached for the laser pistol strapped to my thigh.

“You still alive, you old bitch?”

Charming. The owner of that voice was someone I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with right now. “And you still have the manners of an Agarian warthog, you old bastard,” I replied.

The behemoth of a man sat down uninvited, spilling his equally large drink over the tabletop and almost into my lap. “Sorry, J. What you doing here?”

“Waiting for a client to turn up, but it looks like a no-show.”

“Too bad. I’m about to head out to the outer rings in a few hours.”

The inebriated mammoth in front of me was happily pouring alcohol down his throat like water. In his state, he would be lucky to find the spaceport, let alone his ship.

“What do you want, Chase?”

“Can’t a guy say hello to the most delicious female in the place?”

“You’ve said hello, now go.”

“Come on, what are you doing the rest of the night? No job, so how about some fun?”

I watched him with amusement. “You couldn’t find your own dick. What makes you think I want to find it? Go away.”

“Aww, you know you’re the only one for me.”

“You’re wasting your time. Go home and get some sleep, because that’s about all you’re going to get tonight.”

“You’ve gotten real boring in your old age.”

“I’m not getting older. Just choosing a better class of men.”

“Hey!”

I glared at him. If he had looked in the mirror, he would have seen what I was talking about. “Get out of here, you crotchety old grunt. You’ve had enough,” I said more forcefully.

He pushed himself to his feet, swayed slightly for a moment, and staggered back to the bar. His forward motion was stopped by the heavy plastic platform that ran the length of the room, and his expansive waist rippled with the force of the impact. His head bobbed on his trunk-like neck as he surveyed the other residents at the bar, and he made a beeline toward a lone female a few seats down.

“Hello there, sweetheart. Lonely, are we?” Chase’s voice boomed over the din.

I imagined his smelly breath as it assaulted her delicate senses. She drew back in reaction, and I couldn’t quite hear her response over the noise in the bar, but I watched in case she needed assistance. Chase was mostly harmless, but when drunk, he became a little too pushy.

“Aww, come on sweetheart, your loser friend ain’t showin’. How about you and I hook up tonight for some fun?”

Sighing, I stood to lend my assistance and strode over to the confrontation. “Hey, Chase, call it a night, okay?”

“Butt out. She ain’t your type. I’m just keeping the lady here company. Ain’t I, doll?”

It was now time to put myself into intimidation mode. I was as tall as he was wide, so I was able to tower over him and give him my best glare. “Go home. Now.”

Indecision showed in his eyes as he sized up his chances of beating me in a fight. He apparently wasn’t too drunk to realize he was outmatched. He backed away with what pride he could muster, but anyone within hearing distance knew it as the back down it was.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the woman he’d been bothering. “He’s harmless most of the time, but when he’s had a few he thinks he’s Koran Andover as far as females are concerned.”

She blinked coyly at me and sibilantly whispered, “Thank you, kind lady. He was a bit of a bother.”

“May I buy you a drink?” Something about her had caught my attention.

“Yes, thank you. A Pluuvian Twist, if you please.”

I waved to the bartender, indicating two drinks. Hell, my stomach lining was nearly gone, anyway. “This is a bit out of the way for you, er...” I hesitated in the hope of a name.

“Andrissa. Andrissa Mandoorva.”

“Jordana. At your service, ma’am.” I gave her my best courtly bow, respectfully showing her the top of my head. “What are you doing here? This isn’t exactly the nicest part of the port.”

“I was here to see someone about a delivery, but I can’t seem to find him,” she whispered.

“A job?” Was this my client? “What sort of job?”

“It’s the delivery of a small item. No questions asked.”

“Who were you supposed to meet?”

“Someone named J. Laren,” Andrissa said.

I smiled. “Well, that’s me. Jordana Laren. Come. Let’s sit in the back there where it’s quiet.” I snatched the two drinks off the bar and motioned for her to lead the way.

As she proceeded ahead of me, I watched the hypnotic sway of her hips. I was mesmerized by this intoxicating creature and was helpless but to follow her toward the table I had just vacated. She was about to sit down in the chair with the puddle when I spoke. “No, take the other seat.” I put the drinks down on the wet table, pushed one tall glass toward her, and sat in the one other dry chair. I positioned myself to have a full view of the room. “Now, what can I do for you?”

“You were recommended by a mutual friend who said you were... discreet.”

“Discreet is my middle name, ma’am,” I said casually, giving her an impression of mild unconcern. I was interested in her, and I wanted to gauge if there was any reciprocation. A smile touched her lips. It gave me some hope. “Just tell me where and when, and I’ll be there.”

“And the price?” She batted her eyelashes at me.

“That depends on what I’m delivering and how much the authorities want it.”

She took a sip from the glass then regarded me. What was she thinking? Was I going to lower my price just because she flirted with me? I knew that look. Other women had tried it on me. For some it worked; others it didn’t. Numbed by her hypnotic eyes staring into mine, my thoughts were slipping away.

“I’m the package.” She waited, apparently for some reaction from me. When she received none, she added, “And I would say that the authorities probably want me pretty badly.”

It took quite a bit of concentration on my part to bring my attention back to the conversation. “In that case, for you, twelve hundred credits,” I said, maintaining a professional demeanor. What did anybody want with her, besides the obvious of course? She was a hell of a looker.

“Twelve hundred?” She frowned. “That’s an awful lot.”

“We are talking about the Consortium here, aren’t we?” When she nodded, I said, “Then it’s twelve hundred.” Hell, if she was interested in this deal, I’d drop my price, but I was going to start high with the haggling.

She sipped her drink while she contemplated my offer, her eyes never wavering from me. “If you can get me to Covaris in three solar days, I will pay you twelve hundred.”

Covaris? It was going to take some serious flying to make that destination in that short a time. It could be done, as long as the Consortium left us alone. “Agreed.” And then I caught myself, but not in time to retract. What had I gotten myself into? I sipped my long, tall drink and tried to concentrate on Andrissa’s soft tones as she explained the politics of Covaris. In reality, I couldn’t have cared less about Covaris, let alone its politics, but this young lady had me believing it was the centre of my universe.

“Let me at least buy you dinner,” I said. “My ship’s being refueled. We can’t leave until that’s finished, and once we take off... well, I’m not going to have time to cook.”

She looked around the room, probably in an attempt to decide if the quality of the cuisine could be gauged by the quality of the room and its inhabitants. Her gaze returned to me, and she raised an eyebrow in question.

“The food’s not too bad. Almost edible. But we don’t have time to make an appointment elsewhere, so we either eat here or we don’t eat at all.”

She picked a dish from the menu illuminated within the table, and I left to place the order with the barkeep and get another round of drinks in the process. While I waited, I watched her. Even her attempt to wear common clothes so as not to draw attention to herself couldn’t hide her high-class demeanor. Her ramrod posture spoke volumes. This was a creature of high-bred status stuck in a dive of a bar having to grovel to a nobody like me. Under any other circumstances, we wouldn’t have even been on the same planet, let alone in the same room. I probably would have been the mud on the bottom of her expensive boots if the Consortium hadn’t intervened somehow and thrown us together.

Despite myself, I responded to the twinkle in her eye when she looked at me. Perhaps it was my loneliness that was calling to me. Who knows? But I felt I had to give myself a chance. After all, everyone deserved some happiness now and then, didn’t they?

I wove my way through the deafening crowd back to her and deposited the damp glasses on the table with a thud. There was a shove in my back, and I swiveled, fists at the ready, as a fight broke out on the floor. “Hey! Watch who you’re shoving!”

“Get out of my way, bitch!”

“Who are you calling bitch? Dickhead.” The epithets rolled off my tongue with practiced ease.

Despite his obvious confusion over my quaint dialect, this guy didn’t know when to leave well enough alone and took a swipe. The crowded floor cleared, and soon we were facing off against one another.

The barkeeper called out, “J, don’t take too long, okay? Dinner is nearly ready.” A wave of laughter rolled around the edges of the circle.

“J?” His eyes opened in doubt as he said my name.

“Jordana to you, numbskull.”

He glared. “Are you insulting me?”

How could I explain in two words what had happened about ten years ago? I fell in love with colloquial English or, more to the point, twentieth-century colloquial English. It was the most delightfully expressive and, maybe more important, least understood language in the universe. I could literally insult someone’s parentage, and my enemy would be none the wiser.

I answered the man standing in front of me with a nod and a smile, and the color in his face drained away. I nearly laughed as he silently mouthed “oh craz” when he finally realized who I was.

He stepped back, but it was too late. My fist was already in motion, and it connected with his jaw in a sickening thud that sent him to the floor out cold. “Is that quick enough for you, Errol?” I said to the bartender.

Another wave of laughter rolled around the room as people stepped over the prostrate body of my victim.

“Nice one!” The bartender gave me one of his toothless grins, amusing all those around me. I brushed myself off and turned back to my guest. Yes, it was a nice weapon to have a second language to fall back upon to confuse my enemies, and I had ten years’ worth of study to perfect it. Even today I had a few of the old stories and historical recordings stored in my computer’s memory banks for reading on those lonely trips out to the Carbine Trough or the Malleus Nebula to pick up cargo. If I was going to insult anyone, I wanted to make sure I said it right.

“This happens to you often?” Andrissa asked.

“Sometimes. Most of them back down when they find out who I am. Only a couple of them are stupid enough to try anything,” I said, with a little brash confidence.

“You think very highly of yourself, then.”

I heard disdain in her voice. “No, not really. They just know what I’m capable of.” I was glad our dinner had arrived, because I had worked up an appetite with the fight.

“How long have you been in the delivery business, Miss Laren?” Andrissa asked in between bites of her meal.

“Call me Jordana, please, or J if you like.” But I had sensed the change in her. It was the fight. I knew it. Her attitude had changed once I sat down for dinner.

“All right, Jordana. How long have you been flying?”

“Since I was able to walk. My dad used to be one of the best until he got hurt in an accident. Someone needed to take over the family business, and since I was the only kid, it fell to me.”

“Your father?” Andrissa asked politely.

“Gareth Laren,” I replied.

Her eyes widened at his name. “The Gareth Laren?” She looked impressed.

“The very one.”

“Everyone has heard of Gareth Laren. He was the hero of Riker’s Moon.”

“He was certainly my hero when I was growing up.” But eventually, even I came to realize that he was just an old, worn-out fighter pilot lost in his glory days until he died. “Sometimes, it’s a pain in the ass to live up to that rep.”

“You seemed to be coping all right just a while ago.”

“That’s my reputation, not his.” I gave her my best charming smile, looking for an elusive one back, but I didn’t get one. “We’d better get going,” I said as the meal came to a close. “No point hanging around this piece of crap.”

We stood and I threw a few credits on the table for the meal. “See you around, Errol,” I said as I passed the bar. He gave me a wink, silently wishing me good luck. As I followed Andrissa toward the exit, I watched the gentle sway of her hips, knowing the ship was now a hands-free zone. What a waste.

“So, is it just you, or is there someone else we have to pick up?”

“Just me, and I’d like to get started as quickly as possible,” she said. Three days alone with her was going to be torture, because I realized now it was a matter of look-but-don’t-touch with her. I only hoped the journey would be free of Consortium interference.

“When are we leaving?” she asked.

I looked at the chronometer on my wrist. “Refueling should be about done. Would you be ready in, say, twenty minutes?”

“I’m ready now.”

“Well then, let’s go.” I extended my hand in the direction of the doorway. I escorted her from the front of the building toward the bustling spaceport and my ship.

But something wasn’t right. I could feel it. I hadn’t survived as long as I had by ignoring the churning in my stomach. Then again, it could have been the food.

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