Here’s your Free Preview of Rendezvous on Noxus – Chapters 1 through 3!
Paras Briggs liked to believe she’d been raised right. She respected her elders. She tried to treat all people the way she wanted to be treated, no matter how odd they might be. It was basic human—no, common decency. Paras was a damn good person if she said so herself. It was everyone else that was the problem.
Paras shoved her hair away from her forehead as she looked down at the merchant, who refused to meet her gaze. “The contract clearly states,” she began, her annoyance barely held in check, “in English and Urvaki, that the agreed upon amount for each crate was 700 credits per unit, and I’ve got 10 crates cramping up my cargo hold. What you’re offering…” Paras shook her head, as if it would let her shake off her rising anger. This was the second time they were going over this now. “200 credits a crate is unacceptable.” This job was supposed to be low risk, guaranteed payout. The contract was supposed to be formality. Chiz had known Paras’ father from his hauling days and that tie should have earned Paras a base level of respect.
“You bring I damaged goods!” The urvaki spat on the ground, a sure sign of annoyance. Paras was a short step away from doing the same thing right on top of his wide gray head. “I can’t sell all this. I no pay for. You waste I’s time.”
Paras almost had to drop to one knee to bring them eye-to-eye. Chiz stepped back and Paras followed him step for step. Urvaki enjoyed their personal space more than the average human, which meant she was going to rob him of it. “Look here. You called me looking for Robert. Instead, you got me. You said you needed a pick up, and I obliged, even though Daken was out of my way. I even gave you a discount, and you’re still going to try to gouge me? You’ve got some damn nerve.”
“Paras.” Her partner’s hand dropped heavily on her shoulder bringing back some of Paras’ sense. She shut her eyes, silently counting backwards from ten.
Jabir rolled an unlit cig between his fingers idly, expertly appearing unimpressed as if diffusing cross-cultural incidents was an everyday occurrence for him. It only happened once a month at best. “Everything okay over here?”
Paras’ waited until her count reached one and she was as calm as she was going to get before she ventured answering. “Our client here wants to ignore our agreement and invoice and pay whatever the hell he wants.”
Chiz snorted, the nostrils set between his bulbous yellow eyes flaring. “Not I’s problem,” Chiz began, his speech punctuate by pops and clicks. “Lucky I give you anything.”
Paras’ hackles went up again. Did he really think her so green that she’d take any offering and leave? Jabir always said it was better to work with complete strangers than people who knew you by some tie, no matter how thin the thread.
This was why.
“You said the fruit’s damaged?” Jabir was cool as usual, his mind moving three steps ahead of Paras and Chiz both.
Chiz waddled over to the crate they’d unloaded and plucked out a fruit that nearly matched his own ashen gray complexion, mottled with purple spots. He held it high, nearly thrusting it in Jabir’s face.
Jabir tucked the cigarette behind his ear with a nod. “It’s a good thing we always document the state of the cargo when we pick it up. Let’s compare.” Paras was already searching her pockets for her persi. Taking a video statement of the sending as well as the condition of the merch on pickup was a policy she had come up with. Chiz had thrown her off so much that she’d had trouble thinking of anything other than punching him in his slimy face. Jabir was so earning his cut right now.
She started the video and held it down to Chiz’s level so he couldn’t miss a second. It showed an open crate filled to the brim with the same ugly gray spheres the size of her fist, covered in spots just like the one Chiz held. Another urvaki stood nearby looking put out by the whole exercise, his four arms locked over his chest. “Do you confirm that these are the shape you’re shipping them in?” Jabir’s disembodied voice asked. The urvaki sighed and gave a quick nod. “We need an audible confirmation,” Jabir pressed.
“Yes, two arms!” The urvaki picked up a fruit, shook it, and dropped it back in the crate. “Good condition.”
“And that’s Earth date 05-03-2111.” Jabir’s persi appeared in the shot with the date covering the screen.
By the time the video ended, Chiz was livid. He looked more like his fruit, flushed patches of purple breaking out on his face and neck. There was no disputing that. Jabir stuck the red cylinder of his cig between his lips, pleased with himself.
“I know times are rough for everyone,” Paras started, going for one more appeal. “That doesn’t mean you get to welsh on deals because things are a little rocky.” The money wasn’t even that good. Pride kept Paras from letting this go. That, and revenge.
The sheer anger on Chiz’s face eased some of Paras’ own anger. Not getting into this argument in the first place would have been how Paras preferred to handle this. She saw now that had never been an option.
Chiz looked ready to explode for one moment, and then the next, his anger faded. He stood up straighter, staring up into Paras’ face. He sniffed and waved a hand. “Take it or go.”
Ten different versions of go fuck yourself popped in Paras’ head, yet none of them left her mouth. She stepped back, slipping her persi back into her jacket pocket. “Alright, Jay, go turn Bernie back on. Let’s pack it up.” The urvaki watched from the corner of his eye, feigning disinterest.
Jabir slipped the red cig between his lips, raising a brow in Paras’ direction. “You sure about that, Cap’n?”
The urvaki behind her, she winked to Jabir. “I don’t see what choice we’ve got. He’ll only sign for these if we accept his terms, and I’m not doing that.” She scratched at the shaved sides of her head in genuine frustration. In a strange way, it helped her focus. The crinkling of the hairs under her fingers took some of the edge off. She knew it was weird; she never claimed to be anything else.
“What now?” Jabir’s frosty gaze scanned over Chiz before he met Paras’ gaze, mischief shining in his eyes.
“We’ve got to make up the loss somehow.” She shoved her hands into the deep pockets of her jacket and scuffed her boot on the filthy dock floor. “You got any ideas?” She asked, though she knew exactly where she was taking this.
Jabir played his part perfectly. He inspected everything slowly. Eventually, he shrugged. They both looked toward the ground, as if he was really considering it. Chiz hadn’t left to return to his store, and his ragged breaths filled the silence. He was hooked.
Paras looked up suddenly, a grin on her face as if an idea had suddenly come to her. “Remember the last time we had to blast through a debris field? The guns pulled to the left.”
Jabir’s brow rose again in question but he followed Paras’ lead. “I guess they could use some calibrating. We’re out of test buoys, though.”
Paras tapped the side of the crate beside her, a genuine smile blooming on her face. “I think we’ve got ourselves a set free of charge. You think ten’s enough?”
Jabir eyed the crate critically before he took out one of the smaller melons. “The crates themselves are good for general tweaks. We can use these for fine adjustments.”
Chiz gave a sharp gasp behind her, and Paras bit her lip to stifle a triumphant guffaw. Got you, fucker!
Chiz was at her elbow within seconds, tugging at her sleeve. “4K per box, yes?” His voice was as weak as his offer.
Paras turned to face him, picking a fallen white hair from the breast of her jacket. “I don’t know, Chiz. Even as targets, they’re worth more than that. How much did we pay for that last set, Jay?”
“Oh, 8K easily. And that was for a slightly used set. We’re the one getting the deal here.” Paras hummed an assent as she gave Jabir a warning glare. Whoa there. They had to do this by degrees. No sense in blowing this when they’d only started.
Neither of them had any idea how much a set of calibration buoys cost or if they were even sold in sets. They’d never fired the front mounted guns. Ever. Chiz didn’t know that. If this gamble didn’t pay off, they might really end up using the fruit for target practice.
She grinned down at the merchant. “You heard the man, Chiz.”
Chiz’s face collapsed on itself and darkened, resembling a hunk of black ice in need of blasting. Paras might have to oblige him once this was over. “Five and a half K,” Chiz croaked.
“Six and a half.” Paras was willing to go as low as six, but what was the pint of haggling if she didn’t aim high?
“Robbery!” Chiz barked and bared his teeth. Paras shrugged.
“You know, you’re right? With varying sized targets, an actual set like this would go for more like six and a half.” Paras took out one of the larger melons, hefting the weight. “All those little targets. I’m thinking more like eight K. What do you think, Jay?”
“12.” He barely held a straight face. He only needed to last a few more minutes. Then they’d both have a good laugh. They had this.
“Wow, 12K. Gods, maybe we could even sell off a few crates as ecofriendly sets.” All part of the deception. If Chiz somehow caught on in the next minute or so, it might not be a bad backup plan.
Paras turned towards the open cargo bay doors of her ship and the android waiting on standby. Jabir went on ahead, tapping in the few commands needed to bring Bernie to attention. “I’ll be reporting you to the Trade Bureau.” She gently set the melon back in the crate and wiped chunks of dirt off her hands. “No one will want to come within 20 feet of you once it gets out that you renege on contracts.”
“Seven and a half!” Chiz was practically foaming at the mouth. He’d already agreed to pay this money. It shouldn’t have been so painful. Paras had tried to be accommodating. If he’d mentioned he was in a tight spot, they might have worked out a deal they could both live with. But he’d pushed her too far for that now thinking, for whatever reason, Paras would roll over and take whatever he deigned to give her. He must not know many humans. Seven and a half K was cleanly over their quote. After what he’d put Paras through, she wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt for pushing him harder.
“That’s a good start, Chiz.” Paras leaned down enough to wrap an arm around the urvaki’s frail shoulders. “I think you can do better.”
Chiz eventually coughed up an even thousand per crate plus an extra thousand credits to keep the incident between the three of them. There was fat chance of that happening.
The money wasn’t important. Seven hundred credits, as they’d agreed on, was all Paras wanted. This turned ugly because Chiz had tried to cheat her. Paras had to make him pay in credits and discomfort.
“He didn’t even apologize,” Paras grumbled as she took her place at the helm. Jabir clamored into the copilot’s chair beside her, more out of want for a place to sit than for any of his duties. Paras was the only pilot on this rig. Jabir’s only job in the pit was to sit there and look pretty.
He stretched his long legs up onto the console, as he always did, blocking Paras’ view of the less vital panels. She switched them to onscreen display and started her preflight procedure.
“C’mon. You know he wasn’t going to do that,” Jabir said, that damn cigarette wagging in the corner of his mouth. He would never light it; he didn’t smoke. He kept sucking on those things because they made him look cool. Paras disagreed.
“I know. I just wanted to see him grovel.”
“You gonna burn him?”
“If I remember to.” Once they reached their final destination, and Paras wasn’t too busy, Chiz was getting a full write up, warning any freelancers off doing business with him. The hush money only ensured she’d be anonymous while she did it. There was no way she was the first person Chiz tried to screw out of a deal.
Jabir leaned his chair back, shaking his head. “Cold.”
“It’s the rules of the trade. You ask us to deliver stuff, trust that we’ll get it there in one piece and don’t sell it off. We trust that you’ll pay us what you owe. Personally, that all sounds simple to me. He brought this on himself.”
“That’s what you get for working with nonhumans, what with them lacking in social graces and whatnot. That’s why I’ve never brokered us a contract with one.”
Paras rolled her eyes. “And that doesn’t sound xenophobic as hell.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not true. And you know I’m not xeno…whatever. I’ve dated my share of aliens.”
Paras barked a laugh. “That’s not how that works.”
The overhead lights went out, and the only illumination came from the console and the view screen. The blue of the console lights set an eerie cast to Jabir’s pale skin. Paras refrained from pointing out all the things about humans the other races found strange; Jabir wouldn’t get the irony just now.
Daken control gave Paras the OK for takeoff, and their conversation was put on hold. Paras pulled back on the yoke and the ship glided up out of its berth. They hovered in place as Paras performed the last of the takeoff checks. The armrest of the copilot’s chair creaked under Jabir’s death grip. Paras sighed.
Jabir closed his eyes and nodded. One sharp movement to the left, then the right and the Gizi tipped its stubby wings knocking off any loose hoses and pushing away over eager tethering arms.
“Do you have to do that?” Jabir said through gritted teeth.
“All this time, all the GATEs we’ve been through, and this is the part that bothers you?” They’d been at this for eight years now. Paras assumed he’d adapt to the takeoff routine at some point, but that had been uncharacteristically optimistic of her. “Wuss.”
They left their berth and moved out of the dock and into the airlock. After a brief wait, it was out into open space and the closest GATE. This was Jabir’s queue to head to his room and pump himself full of anti-nausea meds. His hands relaxed on the armrests and he slumped in the chair. He looked over at Paras.
“You want to know another reason that whole deal went south?”
“Other than the whole nonhuman thing and you being a xenophobic dick?”
“You think I’m joking about that.” He leaned over the arm of the chair. “Think about it: urvaki, hiye, swari. Any of them wouldn’t think twice about killing you. What’s the big deal in shortchanging you? That’s not some BS you can sweep away by calling it cultural differences. They always mess up your change or conveniently forget how much they owe. Math is a universal concept, P.”
“You should start a blog.” He could share his views with other like-minded crazies and spare Paras having to listen to this drivel.
Jabir scratched his chin. “That’s not a bad idea. But beside the point.” He sat his chair up, cleared his throat. “The only sin greater than doing deals with aliens is doing deals with family, friends, or family friends.”
Paras had heard this before. According to Jabir, it was the one piece of advice that spanned across professions, creed, race. And Paras…she had known better. Every dealing with a familial tie that Paras had ever heard of had gone awry. In some cases, like this one, the damage done was irrevocable. She thought this time would be different. “I didn’t think we were close enough for him to try to pull that on us. I’ve never even met him before this.”
“Any connection, even a flimsy one, is all it takes. I’ve had people I’ve sat next to in bars ask me to take on jobs at half the rate, all because we got a little chummy. You’re welcome by the way, for me passing up those offers.”.
“My hero.” Paras took a hand away from the steering yoke and pressed it to her chest. “Be still my heart. It must have been so hard for you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thank me by keeping your hands on the stick and watch the sky? Space? GATE’s coming up.”
The large gray ring caught the rays of the system’s distant sun and glistened in the distance, a marvel that, as far as Paras knew, no one had claimed credit for creating. An integral part of so many people’s lives yet there was no official say on how it worked on where it came from. Someone might know for sure, but Paras had never spent the time to look into it. She’d leave the mysteries to people much more intelligent than she was, people who got paid to figure out such things.
The GATE was still several hundred miles out, but their time was over. Jabir got out of his chair, tucking that cigarette back into the carton of Harbor Lights. “Going so soon?”
“I want to give the Xepridal time to work. Wake me when we arrive. Fly safe.” He patted her shoulder as he moved toward the door.
“I always do.” Paras glared up at him, purposely not looking at the viewport as she swiveled the yoke around. She could fly this rig with her eyes closed if she wanted, especially on this empty stretch. Jabir shook his head and left, footsteps fading off into the ship’s interior.
Paras groaned her boredom as they filed into the queue. A half hour here, another four through the GATE and onto the other side. Paras shouldn’t complain; it was a marvel they could even make this trip in their own lifetime.
This was the last stretch of a marathon run of deliveries. Squeezing in this last job had been a mistake. One there was no chance of repeating for the next two weeks. Other than some overdue maintenance, they were here for some well deserved downtime.
There were, of course, others who were trying to leave Daken’s system. The queue moved slowly, but Paras was was lucky it moved at all. Everyone was doing their parts, keeping things moving as efficiently as they could. Unlike that ass, Chiz, screwing up the order of things. Yeah, she was going to be sore about that for a while. Being on Noxus might actually make her feel better. What a shocking thought.
Noxus and Daken were identical siblings, like everything other station in the GATE network. The differences between these two outside of location was the clientele. When you looked at a map of the network, it formed a spiral that was more tightly coiled at its center and looser at its end. The cluster of stations in the middle prospered by proximity, all of them a hop from each other. The clientele there was the wealthy, tourist. Noxus was at the center of the network while Daken was at the end. On the surface, their differences were night and day. But Paras knew better.
Whether you were on a Core station on one of the Outer Ring, there was always someone waiting to cheat you, lurking around every corner. Noxus was just one of the lucky ones that could afford the measures to keep that quiet. Ignorance was bliss and for this trip, Paras would happily play the part of unwitting tourist without a care in the world or knowledge of the unseemliness of her fellow man. She deserved it.
Paras’ eyes were starting to droop as they punched through the other side of the GATE. They were in the home stretch. Just a couple more hours of staring out the viewport, and she could finally sleep.
Noxus came into view, bright and beautiful in the distance, spokes outstretched as if in welcome. She’d never been so happy to see a station.
Then she noticed the lines.
At the end of each spoke was an entrance that led into the labyrinth of docks. The lines poured out of the entrances and curved, wrapping around the station, making it look like some far off constellation. Paras had never seen such a crowd.
“Due to circumstances beyond our control, arriving transports may experience a longer than normal wait time. Your current place in the queue is one-thousand-two-hundred-sixty-five with a wait time of one-hundred-twenty-seven minutes. We thank you for your anticipated patience.” Paras cut off the radio before it cycled through all fifteen languages recognized by Noxus control and folded her arms across her chest.
Wasn’t this some shit? One of the few times she actually wanted to come here and this happens. The Gizi needed everything taken care of: the septic tank needed emptying; their water tank needed refilling, both for showering and for fuel. Taking care of all that while they were still on Daken would have been easier, but the state of the station made it hardly worth the convenience. The way the small section of the port they’d visited smelled like a public bathroom was enough for Paras to decide she didn’t want to deal with the rest.
Checking in was usually a painless affair. The Gizi had a season pass that guaranteed them a berth and got them moved up the queue, not that it mattered with a line like this. Paras couldn’t get in touch with Noxus control to check; the only communication was that automated message playing over and over. Things must have been crazy. She tried once, and failed, to tap into their network for a peek at the local news, but they were too far out to maintain a stable connection.
Paras sighed. She couldn’t even head back to the galley to get something to munch on while they waited because the cupboards were bear. They were completely tapped. This shore leave was off to a disappointing start.
As promised, two hours later they settled into docking bay C-745. Paras thanked the deities that moving into the bay wasn’t any more stressful than the wait to get there. Paying that extra ahead of time to reserve a space had paid off. Waiting for the already overworked controllers to find her a spot after all that was unthinkable at this point.
The ship pressurized enough for the door to open and Jabir was already on his way through it. He reminded her of their dinner date at their favorite place and was off to parts unknown. Meanwhile Paras was stuck here, waiting for the maintenance crew to arrive. Fun times. She lit up her persi and started poking around on the Noxus’ public network while she waited.
There was no official statement about the delay in the docking bays. The arrivals and departure delays shrank steadily, but that was one the station sponsored news site, which was far from being unbiased or reliable. They only posted content approved by the local government, though they’d never admit it. Apparently, this was being hushed up.
For those times when the big news sites failed, which was often, there was the community boards.
The truth was there to be found if you didn’t mind digging through the various biases that colored nearly every post. Station media only shared what they wanted you to know; the public boards gave you a variety of perspective, but the facts were always there.
According to one unverified source, peacekeepers were on high alert, concentrating their attention on one of the upper districts where the wealthier of Noxus’ residents lived. Another user claimed that a person or persons of interests were on board, causing both the delay and the heightened security. Everyone sounded paranoid in Paras’ opinion.
The whole situation got murkier the deeper Paras looked, and she didn’t have the motivation or the time to devote to it now. One of the monitors on her console flashed in an attempt to get her attention. Someone was requesting access to come aboard her ship.
Paras leaned forward, squinting at the feed from the portside camera. The visitor was too close to the lens and looking away. The only thing Paras saw clearly was the standard issue uniform cap that nearly every station hand wore. She stared a few seconds more before she recognized the visitor’s traits. Thick black hair tapering off into pink tips. Paras mounted her persi on her wrist and rose to greet the tech.
“Paras,” the tech beamed up at her, hazel eyes shining out of her olive face. The smile was infectious; Paras found herself more than returning it. “My guys are ready to start on septic tanks and all that, but I know you like doing some of the maintenance yourself. Did you need any other equipment?”
Ny Mahsa. Top notch Noxus dock staff and Jabir’s current… Paras didn’t know what to call her. The last time they’d been to Noxus, he’d spent a lot of time in the tech’s company. Paras genuinely liked Ny. What wasn’t to like? Intelligent, friendly, and a great figure that her coveralls couldn’t hide. It was pearls cast before futapigs, as far as Jabir was concerned. He took lover after lover, burning bridges each time and making them move docks more often than Paras liked. She’d asked him more than once not to bring them back to the ship. She’d had to talk someone out of defacing her ship, thinking it was his, too many times. Now, he’d done one better and gotten involved with a technician. Paras’ favorite technician. If he screwed things up with Ny, so help Paras, she’d make him regret it.
Ny cleared her throat softly. She was waiting for an answer.
Paras shoved her irritated ideas about Jabir aside. “We’re doing alright. There’s life left in the old bird.” She gave the door frame a loving pat. Keeping this old thing space worthy was almost more trouble than it was worth. “I guess that’s what happens when your rig’s older than you are.”
“Aw, the old girl’s a classic, that’s all.” Ny mirrored Paras’ touch on the hull, likely for inspection as much as affection. “Better to enjoy it while you can. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to upgrade.”
The dreaded U-word. If the Gizi had ears, Paras would have covered them. Of course she knew their time was running out. The ship was old when her father had gotten it twenty years earlier. It was the ship Paras had learned to fly in, the only ship she’d ever flown. It was family. Plus, upgrading was such a hassle. Paras couldn’t consider trading up as long as there were spare parts to be found for cheaper than a new ship would cost. That didn’t mean she didn’t peek at the latest trends every now and then, though.
“I think we’ve got some time together yet.”
“I hear ya.” Ny brushed her hair back from her forehead, and secured it there with her Noxus crew cap. “Is Jay around by any chance?”
“You just missed him.” Ny visibly wilted at that, making Paras regret being the bearer of rotten news. “He should be back tonight. Try then?”
Ny bounced back effortlessly, the smile returning to her face. “I might. Then again, I might not. I’ll see you.” Ny might not be as serious about all this as Paras originally assumed. That, or she had a killer attitude. Paras liked her more and more and her Jabir a little less.
If Jabir hadn’t told Ny he was coming back, then he was avoiding her. Paras didn’t want to be in the middle of another one of his messes. Her life was blessedly drama free most days, yet despite her best efforts it kept coming to call. She’d just have to figure out how to make herself harder to find.
Paras waited for two whole hours, an hour after her bar stool stopped being comfortable, for Jabir and he never showed.
He didn’t call. He didn’t send a text. She couldn’t say she was surprised. He had the attention span of a dog: too long with one toy, and he got bored and started hunting for more. If someone new came along, he totally lost focus. That… explained a lot about his relationships, actually.
Her empty water glass and the closest bowl of nuts had been unattended for five minutes, the bartender’s not so subtle way of telling Paras she’d worn out her welcome. She ducked his attempts to get her to order all night, saying she was waiting for someone. Now that that was over, Paras tapped on the counterto get his attention. The hiye bartender came over, reluctance written all over his face. He narrowed his eyes, creasing his already wrinkly forehead.
“I’m ready to order.”
“So your friend’s here?” The hiye bartender hammed it up, leaning his bulk over the counter, looking up and down the length of the bar, the spiraling blue tattoos than ran along his umber skin catching the dim light as he inspected the empty seats on either side of her. “Is he Spec Ops? Wearing one of those invisible tactical cloak things?”
“You watch too many movies,” she groused. She gave the menu another look. “Let me get a Ruby Red and a bacon cheeseburger. And before you start,” she held up a hand, “yes, I am aware it doesn’t contain actual beef, pork, or dairy products. You don’t have to say it every time I come here.” She didn’t know what they used as substitutes, and it never occurred to her to ask. As long as she didn’t think about it, it almost tasted as good as the real thing. Almost.
There were better places to eat, ones that spent the time and money to import actual meat from Earth and her colonies. Some places were even in her rotation of Noxus eateries, but were too expensive to waste on a meal as simple as a burger. In a pinch, an amalgam of unknown meats from The Code did just fine, and their beer selection more than made up for anything else this place lacked. And it lacked a lot.
Dark and drab, this place was a few steps above being a dive. The saving grace really was the beer which was always comprehensive and amazing. Being hiye owned, it might have conformed to a different cultural idea of ambiance. Sitting under one of the overhead lights bridged that gap.
The bartender filled a pint glass from one of the taps and set it down in front of her before shuffling down the bar to attend a group of fresh patrons that arrived. Paras watched fat bubbles drifted lazily through the amber liquid up towards the thick head of foam. The redhead on the logo winked from her seat, side saddled on a phallic looking rocket. The sexy logo girl was probably meant to entice Paras into taking that first sip. Like she needed any help.
Paras rarely indulged in vices. As the pilot, she had to be sober to fly. She had to be careful as her augmented eyes had trouble adjusting to how her booze-addled brain saw things, giving her a more serious case of beer goggles. With Jabir as an example of the downside of giving into urges, Paras had remained fairly chaste by comparison. Then there were times, like now, when Paras didn’t care about all that.
She needed a break from that self-control. She didn’t always want to be the responsible one holding things together. She and Jabir split the duties needed to run the company, but it was far from an even divide.
He hunted down clients, arranged contracts, and helped unload shipments (though, without him, Paras would do fine with only Bernie in that respect). Everything else fell under Paras’ jurisdiction: restocking their galley, keeping up with the Gizi’s maintenance, the bookkeeping—as in enforcing those contracts Jabir created—not to mention actually flying the damn ship! It was enough to wear her down to the bone. This shore leave was now officially every man for himself.
She waved the bartender over and added a few shots of tekka to her tab. She’d done her duty by getting in touch with Noxus’ staff and getting the ship set up. She was done. From now on, she was doing this vacation right.
First, she was going to get shitfaced and put Jabir out of her mind. After that, she’d hit up a massage parlor or a brothel, whichever would let her stay long enough to rest without asking her to dig deep into her bank account. A trip to a parlor or the brothel were usually saved for later days. Starting off her shore leave that way left her nothing to work up to. She and Jabir should have been doing a bar crawl as they always did. Instead, he was probably hunting down the new Ny. Paras regretted not inviting the old Ny to come out.
And now she’d worked herself up again. Great.
The ‘tender came by with the bottle and refilled her glass without asking. “Keep ‘em coming.” She didn’t want to leave here until she was damn near legally blind.
It wasn’t until she’d finished the second level of her shot glass pyramid that the bartender started to hover like an over protective mother. He gathered up the glasses and left a bottle of water and half of Paras’ meal boxed and bagged in their place.
“Hey.” Paras tapped two fingers on the bar top. “I’m not done yet.”
“I say you are. You’ve been glubbing my tekka stock all night. Save some for everyone else.” He crossed his arms over his massive chest, drawing himself up to his full height. Paras’ vision had declined to where she could only make out the largest details. His face was a blurry gray area, but beyond that, she imagined he was proud of himself.
“Don’t be stingy. I’m payin’ you for it.” Paras tapped the bar again.
“The law says I can’t serve you.”
“Since when do you care about that?”
“Fine. Then I don’t want to serve you. You’ve had enough, and I don’t want to clean up your puke off my floor.”
Paras didn’t puke! She had an iron gut, a stronger constitution. She’d never drunk puked in her life. She wasn’t about to start now.
“Give me one more.” Drinking was no longer the goal. She had to prove she could handle her liquor.
The bartender chuckled, tapping away at his persi. He flicked his wrist and deactivated the device. “Your tab’s closed. Go.”
Paras slammed a chit down on the counter, but the bartender was already moving away. “Hey! I‘m talking to you!” With some maneuvering, Paras got one leg underneath her on the bar stool. “Take my money!” Her palm and knee firmly on the counter’s edge, she attempted several times to mount the counter and failed, that last push was just out of reach. It didn’t help that everything kept moving.
“Careful. You’ll fall over.”
That wasn’t the bartender. Even with her compromised sight, she could see him at the other end of the counter mixing a drink. Whoever this was, they had an unparalleled view of her butt right now.
She climbed back down into her seat, turning dull eyes on this person nosing in her business. He stood one stool width away from where she sat, looking tall, imposing. She snorted. Was she supposed to be impressed by that authoritative air? She felt quite the opposite.
“If you were in a human run establishment, they’d have cut you off several shots ago.”
Paras grunted and turned away, staring out into the sitting area. She didn’t do casual conversation with strangers. Jabir was the chatty barfly between the two of them. The place was far from full. Only a few tables had more than two bodies sitting at them; why couldn’t he go bother them? Or better yet, sit alone quietly and bother no one.
“Getting drunk alone is never a good idea, either.”
Why won’t this guy shut up?
Paras didn’t know what else she needed to say for him to get that she wasn’t interested in talking. She turned her back to him, propping her elbow on the polished plastic. “You aren’t very smart, are you?”
“I was just trying to help.”
The genuine upset in his voice only confirmed Paras’ theory. She was a stranger. What did he care if she heeded his advice or not unless he was one of those guys, thinking he was Nephtor’s gift to the masses, bestowing them with knowledge they didn’t want, but he was certain they needed. Neph had always been Paras’ least favorite deity.
“You can take your help and shove it right up your ass.”
“This your friend?” The bartender piped up, now standing between them to watch their quarrel. When had he gotten there?
“He’s not my friend,” Paras fired back. She didn’t even have a clear idea what he looked like. She assumed he had some skin and hair, a lot or maybe a little of each.
“Get her out of here,” the tender said, wiping down the counter. “Or I’m calling the peacekeepers.”
Being hassled by the authorities would be the topper on this awful night. She stood on her own power, her vision slanted to the left.
“I’m going.” She snatched up the bottle of water and her bag of leftovers. “Anything to get away from him!” She pointed a choice finger where that meddler was supposed to be, putting on her best sneer. That’s what she thought of his help. She didn’t need his help or anyone else’s! She didn’t need anyone. She could handle herself by her damn self.
Paras might have needed a little help
The Code was in the same address block as the port, and it was almost a straight shot from one to the other. She’d made this trip more than a dozen times in the last year. So how the hell had she lost her way?
She regretted not going to a brothel in the first place. Any brothel that took her as drunk as she was now, would pawn any old love dealer off on her. Waking up next to a hiye wasn’t her idea of a good time. No part of this outing was her idea of a good time! Between Jabir ditching her, that guy killing her vibe at the bar, this was all a bust. It was time to go home. Tomorrow was another cycle.
Her groans echoed in the dead hallway in which she found herself. She was utterly lost.
Teetering on shaking legs with no sense of where she was headed was getting her nowhere. She stopped to rest on a wall and pulled out her persi like she should have done from the start. The navigation was simple: A large arrow popped up over her persi and pointed in the direction of the port. All she had to do was follow it. There were supposed to be audio direction, too, but that function hadn’t worked right since she dropped the damn thing in a glass of beer last year.
“Take me home,” was what Paras attempted to say, but the connection between her brain and her mouth was flaky.
“Brkt…Repeat.” They were both having communication issues.
“Home, you piece of shit!” Paras shook the persi so hard her wrist started hurting. Irrational, frustrated tears formed in the corner of her eyes. The screen dimmed, and Paras hoped the damn thing was working on her request. There was a flash, the persi went dark, then it lit up again with a large cerulean arrow floating above Paras’ arm, pointing back the way she’d come.
“Thank Duset, you bitter old fart.”
She pushed herself off the wall, made a quick about face to correct her course and crashed into someone. There were limbs everywhere as Paras and this new asshole tussled for several stomach-churning seconds. Paras wound up topping whoever had been unfortunate enough to crash into her.
There were several seconds of screeching and untranslated words before Paras could push herself up enough for this person to slip away. A skinny human female scrabbled across the floor and into the arms of two waiting hiye. Paras’ translator didn’t catch everything she said, returning only garbled words. Paras wedged the node deeper in her ear. A tactic that shouldn’t have helped the thing work, but often did. “You almost crushed me!” The woman leaned heavily on the taller, green tattooed hiye who had no issue supporting her wiry frame. Paras tried to rise, but her legs were too weak as her stomach lurched. She clamped a hand over her mouth, frowning behind it.
The woman was unbothered by Paras’ glare and bent over state and kept complaining. “Do you have any idea how much this shirt cost? Of course you don’t. Look at you.” She sucked her teeth. “Stand her up.” The hiye, hulking and huge, left the woman’s side and headed straight for Paras.
Burger bits and booze swam in her gut. Paras knew there was no outrunning this crew. There’d be no fighting her way out, even on a good day. She had few options.
A hiye on either side, they hoisted her to her feet. The woman came forward, stretching out the bottom of her short, ratty shirt, displaying a small spot near the hem. “You see this? You did this when you ran into me. It’s ruined.” The woman wiped her palm over the water spot. It didn’t budge. Paras stared flatly at the shirt (calling it a shirt was generous) wondering if there’d been a bottle of water to begin with. She vaguely remembered the bartender trying to force one on her, but where was it now?
Both Paras’ shirt and pants were drenched, but she hadn’t felt anything until she looked down. The booze pumping through her veins made her feel overly warm. She was going to have an even worse night if she didn’t get out of these clothes before that wore off and the chill of the spilled water set in. That was if she made it back to her ship.
The woman and her raggedy shirt weren’t hampering Paras’ flight from this place. It was the two huge aliens in her employ. If Paras had read the situation right, Raggedy Shirt had picked up two bare skinned exiles and fashioned herself a callan.
Hiye were pack creatures and needed the constant presence of their immediate family, friends, and most of all, a wife to guide them so that they might flourish. Even the owner of The Code had all of these things within easy access, with his callan divided among the storefronts surrounding the shop. Lone hiye were rare and often appeared lost, devoid of purpose. Being part of a bigger whole was embedded in their DNA. Once a male married into a family, he tattooed their particular pattern on his skin. These two either wanted more out of life or had done something to be deemed unworthy for the privilege.
Paras had heard of other species exploiting that trait, but had never seen it with her own eyes. It wasn’t a bad idea. Fiercely loyal free muscle devoted to her? She could get behind that. Too bad they were so hard to look at.
Raggedy Shirt stuck out her palm. Paras blinked down at it. She was still pretty plastered. This woman was going to have to forgive her.
“Two-hundred credits for the shirt,” the woman barked.
So this was a shake down, then. Wet or dry, there was no way that shirt was worth that much.
Paras swung her gaze between that outstretched hand and the woman’s unpleasant face, with her unruly brows pinched together. On top of all of that, it was dirty. If she’d tried for a more modest amount like say, 50 credits, Paras might have given it to her out of pity if she’d had a chit she could spare. She was going to get told off instead.
Paras opened her mouth, willing to take the consequences of whatever drunk logic fell out of it, but what came out wasn’t words. Everything that had been stirring in her guts rushed up her throat, out of her mouth and onto that outstretched hand before she could stop the tide.
The woman’s hand and much of her jacket sleeve were soaked and likely smelling more rancid by the second.
She didn’t scream, didn’t move. She only stood there contemplating the crumbs of poorly chewed food stuck to her hand.
Paras wouldn’t apologize. She’d be inconsolable if someone else’s pike was all over her hand.
Raggedy Shirt stood still for so long her hiye started to worry. The smaller hiye covering Paras’ left released her to go to Raggedy Shirt’s side. Paras dragged her sleeve across her mouth to clear any lingering chunks.
“The price has gone up.” Raggedy Shirt’s voice was so quiet and soft, yet the hiye left with Paras tensed behind her. “A thousand credits to leave here with all your teeth.”
Paras was fond of her teeth, but even if she intended to pay her own ransom, she didn’t have any chits that high, and there were too many protocols in place to keep her from sending money to unapproved recipients. Getting approval took days and Paras doubted Raggedy Shirt wanted to wait that long.“I’ve got a 10 credit chit on me. The rest is in my account, but a transfer’s going to take a week.” If this chick waited for it, that would be the longest mugging in history.
Raggedy Shirt’s thick brows fused into one, lips peeling back from her yellowed teeth. She looked like she wanted to fly into an arm swinging rage one second. The next, her anger seemed to abate as she picked up Paras’ water bottle and poured out what was left over her puke-covered hand before wiping it on the closest hiye’s shirt.
“Hold her up.”
Paras groaned like a sick cat as the hiye behind her bent her arms behind her back. Raggedy Shirt stood in front of Paras and yanked her head up by the few strands on her head.
“You aren’t gonna kiss me, are you? I mean, I just threw up. Unless that’s your thing.”
Raggedy Shirt struck Paras across the cheek with an open hand. It woke her up, but she wasn’t in any real pain. If she was going to deliver Paras’ beating, Paras would be okay with that.
Paras shrugged. She’d been called worse by better.
Raggedy Shirt patted her down, dipping her hands into Paras’ jacket pockets before moving on. She flapped the sides of Paras’ jacket angrily when she found nothing but that ten credit chit and Paras’ locked persi wrapped around Paras’ arm, far too old to sell and already linked to Paras’ biosignature. Getting it changed was another lengthy pain in the ass procedure that wasn’t worth the hassle.
Raggedy Shirt backed off, hands enmeshed in her hair. The night wasn’t going how she hoped. That made two of them.
“Anto, Brava. Do what you want, just don’t kill her.”
There were morals between thieves, huh? That gave Paras little comfort when she became the filling in an angry hiye sandwich. Anto—or was it Brava?—stood in front of her, a mass of muscle and body heat that would have been welcomed against the chill seeping into her legs if he wasn’t so upset. The small tusks on his bottom jaw jutted out as he sneered down at her. That fierce loyalty thing was kicking in. You’d think Paras had thrown up on him!
You could never find a PK when you needed one! This wasn’t a major thoroughfare nor was it some dingy back alley. The main corridor was a few steps away and not only had no one else come down this way, there had been no peacekeeper patrol. Constant patrol was what Noxus said in all its ads. Safety was one of the top selling points! What a load of shit!
Brava—or Anto—stood in front of her, confusion muddling his thick features. A conflict of conscience perhaps? At first glance, they appeared to have been a callan for some time. Their hesitation to follow Raggedy Shirt’s orders said something else. Paras let herself believe that they could be swayed away from this filthy woman. Paras could offer them honest work, none of this shaking down people bullshit.
He slapped her so hard her teeth rattled. Paras’ ear rang, and her cheek felt like it as already swelling.
“Phaen Re’s tits that hurt!” She didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of crying out, but conviction was hard kept when a small bomb was going off in your head. This was all amusing to Raggedy Shirt. Her laughter went on and on.
“Why don’t you come back?” Paras shouted. “I like the way you do it.”
Paras didn’t know why she said that. It was as if she was a passenger in her own body, and the booze was driving her straight towards her doom. Once the booze burned off, she’d have to deal with the bruises.
No one was amused by Paras’ outburst, and Anto-Brava didn’t hold back his feelings. He drew back and landed a blow right over Paras’ left eye. She sagged in Brava-Anto’s grip. He stood her up straight soon enough. The ear that had been ringing was silent now as bright spots obscured her vision. She had no clue how she was still conscious.
“Not so mouthy now, huh?” Raggedy Shirt pushed Hiye 1 out of the way. “Not so pretty now.”
You think I’m pretty? Paras tried to get that snappy rejoinder out, but only managed to gape like a landed fish. Communication from brain to mouth was temporarily out of service. It was just as well. Thinking was starting to hurt.
“That’s really cocky for someone who’s got others fighting for her.”
That hadn’t come from Paras. The woman and her spineless hiye hadn’t said it either.
Finally, finally someone else entered the corridor. He wasn’t a peacekeeper from the lack of uniform; he didn’t strike her as intimidating. He wasn’t thin or tall. He barely made it to the hiye’s shoulder. But Paras was thankful for any help she got at this point.
Raggedy Shirt signaled Hiye 1 to follow her as she moved to intercept the newcomer.
“Keep moving. This doesn’t concern you.”
Anyone who valued his safety would have turned around at the sight the woman with the heavies and gone on their way. “What if I made this my business?” This guy wasn’t a mere passerby.
“This bitch owes me money. You can pay her debt, back off, or you can join her.”
“Oh. Well.” The man kept coming closer, ignoring the threat those looming hiye promised. “If she really owes you money, we can get an advocate to sort this out.”
Is this guy simple?
Laughter tinkled in the air like the sound of shattered glass. “Are you simple?” Raggedy Shirt snapped her fingers, and Anto-Brava jumped to attention. “Get rid of him.” Anto-Brava moved to do as he was ordered, reaching for the interloper.
The interloper sidestepped the hiye’s grasp, stepping in close, and once he was beside that meaty arm, he seized the wrist. Paras had trouble following what was happening. The hiye was on the floor in two swift movements, bent around his arm, howling. Hiye 2’s grip on Paras tightened as his companion went down.
Hiye 1 started rolled on the floor, holding his arm that was bent below the elbow. The interloper stood, unruffled, like he hadn’t left someone a foot taller than him on the ground at his feet. “It’s broken,” he said, addressing the hiye holding Paras. “You’ll want to get him to a med center soon.”
Raggedy Shirt, who’d stood by, dumbfounded, as one of her lackeys was injured, roared back to life when the threat of the hiye colluding against her raised its head. “You don’t talk to him, you talk to me.”
“Alright, then.” The interloper stepped over the writhing hiye, steadily pressing in on Raggedy Shirt’s personal space. “Let this woman go.”
“Or what?” Raggedy was still talking trash, even when her manpower was cut in half. Vaguely, Paras wondered where she got her confidence. “You’ll call the peacekeepers? We’ll be long gone by then.”
The interloper shook his head tiredly. “I was going to say, before you cut me off, was ‘or I’ll break your arm, too.’”
Raggedy Shirt shied away until her back met the wall. “You’re bluffing.” She glared at him, eyes flat and narrowed. She wasn’t positive it was a bluff, and neither was Paras. Then again, Paras was having trouble remembering where she was, so her judgment wasn’t anything to go by.
Her whole head ached, and her belly never settled from its earlier upset. She really wanted to take an antacid and lie down. She closed her eyes and tried to go there mentally to escape this misery.
“No!” Paras jumped with alarm as the interloper shouted in her direction. He’d turned that gaze on her now. “You’ve got to stay awake.” And then back to the woman. “You can try me if you want, but I’m running out of patience. I’ll break your arm, then his arm. I really don’t care about the order. The threat of bodily harm usually gets faster results than a threat to your livelihood.” He turned in Paras’ direction again, looking past her. “But if you don’t care either way, I can finish what I started.”
Paras took advantage of the confusion and flung her head back into the remaining hiye’s pug nose. The sound of bone crunching was swallowed up by the brute’s howl of pain. That blow doing as much damage to her as it did him. Her world was spinning, but it was worth it. She needed to pay someone back for all they’d done to her.
Hiye 2 shoved Paras away from him and she fell to her knees. The heels of boots screeching as they shuffled across the floor. She couldn’t tell if they were coming or goingWithout his support, Paras stumbled and started falling towards the floor. Her head was splitting open with each throb of blood going into it. The floor rushed closer, but she never hit it, buoyed up by some warm, firm force. It smelled good, familiar. Much better than the scent of hiye. She wanted to rest here a moment.
“You can’t sleep.” She was shaken awake, her head protesting the whole time. “You might have a concussion. I’m taking you to a med center.”
You were as likely to succumb to your injuries waiting to be seen at a med center than you were to be healed. Paras wouldn’t have trusted them to bandage a plexi cut on her little finger.
“Take me home.”
“You need to have your head looked at.”
“No.” If he wasn’t going to take her, Paras would take herself. She struggled to stand on limbs that refused to obey. The man stood with her, wedging his shoulders under hers, an arm around her waist.
“Fine. I’ll see you home.” He gripped the tender part of her forearm where the hiye held her, and she hissed, the pain cutting through the dull ache in her head. After a rushed apology, the man asked, “What way do we go?”
The dock and the berth flew off Paras’ tongue by rote, and that was the extent of her contribution. This man could have been taking her anywhere, back to his lair to cut her into little pieces. In a few seconds, she was unconscious and beyond caring.