Company Daughter (The Children of Astraea #1)

Chapter One

THE OGRE looked at his omelette and sniffed it, his nasal slits flaring. With a dubious series of clicks from his throat mike, he tried to hand it back. I don’t speak ogre, but I’d been around them all my life. I knew what he meant. Shoving the plate back at him through the hatch, I told him, “Yes, I cooked it. No, it doesn’t have a rat bar hidden in it.”

More clicks.

“I don’t care what it smells like. You can eat it or go hungry.”

He tried to look woebegone, which is hard to do when you’re an eight-foot, green-skinned, tusked monstrosity.

“Allie.”

That was my boss of only two hours, Jack Choi, manning the deep fryer. His wife, Eveline, was at the narrow shelf we used as a prep table, dicing onions and garlic and jalapenos for salsa. I looked at him questioningly.

“We don’t boss the customers around. If he thinks there’s something wrong with the omurisu, make him a fresh one.”

Jack was one of the few people willing to hire me. I had tried all the restaurants on Two- and Three Below, but each of them pointed to the door, too intimidated by my father to give me a chance. Even Mama DeFino, who had taught me to make panna cotta, told me to come back when I finished school. But Jack was a retired mech who feared nothing in the bridge universe, least of all his former commanding officer. And he thought anyone willing to support themselves had the right to be called an adult.

“He’s just giving me a hard time.”

Jack sighed, turning out a load of fried jalapenos–the nuclear version from Hirconia Five that the ogres loved–into a basket. “Just make it again, okay?”

I gritted my teeth. This was my first job. Likely to be my last if Dad had his way, but I wouldn’t be fired through any fault of mine. I reached through the hatch and tried to take the plate back from the ogre. He clutched it protectively to his chest.

Outsiders found the ogres—our mechanized soldiers–creepy, and the Gaians, those revolting primitives who thought we all should live in dirt huts and run our food down on foot, wanted them all exterminated. But they were men under all the biological and mechanical alterations, men who liked good food, men who …had really long memories. The rat bar incident had been years ago.

This particular ogre had known me since I was a child. In fact, he’d been there for the rat bar incident–which did not give him a right to harass me on my first real job. I glowered at him, and the eight-foot slab of muscle with radiation-proof skin pretended to cower.

“Just give me that–” I said, making a snatch for the plate. “I’ll make you a new omurisu, and you can watch what goes in it.”

He lifted it out of my reach. With his free hand, he gently tweaked my nose with sausage-sized fingers.

I’m usually better at knowing when I’m being teased, but wondering what Dad was up to had left me sensitive. I waved him off with a tense smile. He grabbed the basket of fried jalapenos along with his omurisu and took it over to his squad, who stood at the tall tables Jack kept for ogres. There was a moment of silent communication among them, and they all shook with the signs of ogre laughter. Great. Now they were all going to do it.

Nine more orders for omurisu popped up on the display above the grill, confirming my worst suspicions. With a sigh, I got another crate of eggs from the fridge and started cooking.

 

******

 

Jack’s café was on Four Below, the borderland between the respectable decks above and the dingier ones below, so he got business from both directions. People from Two- and Three Below slummed and people from Five Below saved their money just to eat his chili and fried jalapenos.

It was hot in the narrow kitchen, the pace frenetic, and I don’t think I’d ever worked so hard in my life.

I loved it. I loved it all, even the obnoxious ogre-customers who harassed me. I retaliated by scrawling rude words on their omurisus with spicy ketchup. Jack saw, but didn’t say anything, mainly because he knew all about ogre humor. It didn’t hurt that we sold dozens of them, either. The word had gone out that the Commandant’s daughter was working in Jack’s café and two more ogre squads had turned up just to order fried rice omelettes and complain about them.

A break in the orders allowed me to take a deep breath and wipe the sweat from my face with a clean corner of my apron. How long had I been on the job? I checked the clock. Five hours? That had to be a record. Had Dad finally washed his hands of me? Had the great mercenary commander finally realized he’d met his match?

I gave myself a minute to gloat. A job. I had a job. And an apartment. Yes, it was on Five Below, but in the nicest part, right up against the treepod grove. All it needed was a bit of cleaning, some curtains, and a futon and it would be perfectly respectable. And mine.

The last ogre came up to collect his omurisu. I had written baka on it in ketchup, and he waggled his eyes at me in good humor. Then he stiffened, snapping his eyes back into their chrome sockets and staring over my shoulder.

Jack and Eveline were still at their stations, so someone must have come into the kitchen behind me. Someone who could make an ogre loose his sense of humor.

Despair welled up in me. I had been so close, so close … “It’s Dad, isn’t it?”

The ogre looked down at me and slowly shook his head in great sympathy.

Who could be worse than Dad?

For me, only one person. I squeezed my eyes shut. Dad, how could you do this to me?  With an impending sense of doom, I turned and there he was, the bane of my existence.

The tall, impossibly beautiful, impossibly correct, Lieutenant Joe Park.

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