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Go To Chapter One.
The hoodlums whirled around at the sound of Carl’s defiant yell. Cruel sneers spread over their faces as their surprise turned to laughter at the unarmed teenager rushing toward them. Clenched fists were no match for Slicerblades, and they knew it. Waving Slicerblades, two of the gang stepped forward to meet Carl’s impulsive charge while Brenton turned his attention back to his helpless victim. He plunged the knife deep into the man’s chest and pulled it out, preparing for another stab.
All at once, their evil grins vanished like a wisp of a ghost floating by to be replaced by shocked looks. When Carl noticed the change in their expressions, he stopped. The first hoodlum was only a couple of yards away, but now his face was pale, and the Slicerblade hung limply in his hand, seemingly forgotten.
What is going on? Carl wondered, his muscles taunt and his suspicious eyes searching for an answer. Is this some kind of trick? Are they mocking me before the kill?
Then Carl noticed that their alarm-filled eyes were locked on something behind him. Was there a hideous monster creeping down the tunnel? Was it even now preparing an unwarranted brutal attack? He had read about such things in his Strikemaster novels. A shiver ran down his spine as he started to turn around, afraid of what he would see.
His move was arrested by a commanding voice declaring, “Everyone is going to make like a statue, or I’ll drop them like a rock.”
The hoodlums seemed frozen in space, but with a twitch of their thumbs, they switched their Slicerblades off and allowed them to slip from their hands. The dull metallic clang as they hit the cement floor echoed through the tense silence. The only other sound came from the stabbed man, who, clutching the bleeding wound in his chest and coughing a little blood, slid to the floor and lay still.
“You’re doing good,” the voice continued with a mocking air, almost seeming to float down the tunnel enforcing the will of its master. “Now, you five vermin move over to the other side… slowly. That’s right. Keep going.” Once the five hoodlums were backed up against the rocky wall on the far side of the corridor, the voice added, “Carl, go and see how that man is.”
Carl was too surprised at hearing his name called by this unfamiliar voice to react. Only a few people knew he was on Hesnortor; he wasn’t even supposed to be on Hesnortor. He should have been almost to the Reman Academy by now. The voice didn’t even sound entirely human. It was softer and smoother.
“Carl,” repeated the voice with a touch of rebuke in it.
Snapping out of his chaotic thoughts, Carl looked at the man. He hadn’t moved since sliding to the floor. His eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking. Carl inched toward him, dreading what he knew was inevitable. When he reached the body, he knelt and felt for a pulse. First at the wrist, then at the neck. Nothing. A chill raced up Carl’s spine as a few drops of blood trickled onto his fingers.
He’s… he’s dead.”
This was his first encounter with death. Impulsively, Carl wiped the blood off his hand onto the man’s pant leg as if the drops of life were burning acid. Carl straightened and backed away slowly, his gaze still riveted on the lifeless form. What a senseless death!
“Careful,” the silky voice warned.
Glancing behind him, Carl saw he had been retreating toward the killers. If he had gotten between them and his rescuer, they would have undoubtedly used him as a hostage. For the first time, Carl looked at his rescuer.
Standing at the corner Carl had so recently rounded, was a member of the feline race. He stood a little over 5 feet, and his body was covered with short black fur. His paws were hand-like with long fingers and a thumb, and the pads were leather-like skin. A long, thin tail swished behind him as his short, pointed ears stood erect, listening for the slightest sound. His light green eyes, with narrow cat-like pupils, were fixed on the killers. A gun belt hung around his waist, and his right paw easily held the pistol. Although he was on alert, he appeared to be entirely at ease.
“How about 50 dicles apiece to let us go?” suggested the group leader.
“Money can’t buy your freedom,” said the cat in his velvety voice.
“What do you want?”
“Justice.” The cat’s finger tightened on the trigger.
Fear bordering on panic rippled across the young hoodlum’s faces as they realized they were facing death themselves.
“You can’t kill us,” the leader whined. “We’ve thrown down our weapons and surrendered. You’ve got to take us in alive.”
“Got to?” asked the cat in a dangerously quiet voice tinged with curiosity. “What is that?”
“If you killed us, it would be murder.”
Putting his left paw over his heart, the cat mocked, “Your sudden concern with the law touches me.”
“Murder isn’t a capital offence on Hesnortor…”
“It is now. Those who show no mercy should seek none. Stripe for stripe. Pain for pain. Death for death.” As he said, ‘Death for death.’ He pulled the trigger four times. Each time a human body collapsed lifelessly to the floor.
The cat was about to fire again when Brenton held out his hands in a vain attempt to stop the coming shot as he pleaded, “I’m a minor…”
“I’m too young. I didn’t know what I was doing. I can’t be held responsible.”
“Old enough to do the crime, old enough to suck back the consequences.” The cat fired one last time. Brenton dropped to the floor, dead. “Now, see if the Judge of the Universe cares about your minorship,” he spat contemptuously.
Calmly, the feline holstered his pistol. Twitching his whiskers, he looked at Carl and smiled, at least as close to a smile as his cat mouth could come.
“My name is Purrrrrrr…” he said, rolling his r’s as only a feline can. “But I suppose you’ll have to call me Purr.”
Dazed, Carl didn’t respond. To his right was the dead victim. To his left were five now lifeless hoodlums. Slowly, his eyes focused back on Purr. Everything had happened so fast. Trying to help the man. Being rescued himself. Seeing the killers killed. His mind was reeling. He had wanted adventure, but this was extreme. It felt like he was walking through a dream or nightmare.
“We’re still in great danger, Kitten,” Purr said. “I’ll explain everything when we’re back in Terminal 3.”
Purr raised his paw to silence him. Purr’s ears had perked up, and his black pupils narrowed as he concentrated on a faint sound only he could hear. A few moments later, Purr lowered his paw and relaxed, his pupils widening. Still, he was silent as he processed what he had heard. The words ‘great danger’ echoed ominously in Carl’s mind.
Purr’s ears perked up once again. “Blow my whiskers; he’s down here. This is going to be challenging,” Purr whispered. Carl opened his mouth to ask a question, but Purr cut him off with a paw motion as he said quietly, “Not now. If we wait too long, he may suspect. We can’t afford that. Follow my instructions exactly. Walk about ten feet behind me in the centre of the tunnel. When you see my ears twitch like so,” Purr’s ears bent slightly backward, “drop to the floor as quickly and quietly as you can. Your life depends on it.”
Unholstering his pistol, Purr clutched the Decker - a weapon Carl had already witnessed in lethal action. Pivoting, Purr began gliding down the tunnel toward Terminal 3. Carl was torn. Should he follow or run to Terminal 5 and call Scott? Purr kept close to the wall and peeked around the first corner. He had to make a decision now. Although the feline’s callousness disturbed him, something about Purr inspired confidence, so he followed the instructions.
Purr’s movements were as silent as his shadow. They had gone around several corners when suddenly Purr stopped. A few feet ahead of Purr, the tunnel took a 90-degree turn, and Carl knew the stairs back to Terminal 3 were only about twenty feet away. Purr’s ears signalled Carl. Instantly, Carl dropped to the hard, cold cement. He had barely touched the floor when a man with a facial scar sprang from the corner and fired. The gunshot startled Carl, who had never heard an old-fashioned weapon discharged before. The bullet whistled over his head and would have caught him in the chest had he been standing. One shot was all the man had, though, for Purr fired from point-blank range, and the man hit the floor, dead.
“Isn’t the game of life interesting?” commented Purr, holstering his pistol for the second time. “You can get up, Kitten. The fun’s over, for now.”
Carl gave him a wary glance as he picked himself up. His life had almost been cut short twice in less than half an hour. He wasn’t sure how much more his rattled nerves could endure. Carl was undecided if the cavalier cat was a hero or a villain.
“You call this fun? I could have been killed.” He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “What in the universe is happening?”
“I’ll explain everything over a cup of coffee.” Purr turned and vanished around the corner, clearly expecting Carl to follow.
Looking around at the bodies, Carl hastened to catch up with Purr. “Shouldn’t we call somebody?”
Purr continued on as if he hadn’t heard him.
Carl stopped. “No,” he said to Purr’s retreating back. “I’m going back to the Pure Delight. Scott needs to know what’s happened, and he’ll know what to do.”
Purr pivoted to face Carl. His eyes studied Carl’s defiant face momentarily as if trying to make up his mind on an important point.
“You are free to make your own choices, but we DO have to chat first.” The firmness of Purr’s voice left no room for debate.
Recognizing the futility of resistance, Carl reluctantly nodded and followed Purr up the stairs across the largely deserted terminal. Primarily serving smaller spacecraft and their crews, Terminal 3 was a stark contrast to its cousin terminals. Terminals 1 and 2 were much larger and busier, bustling with people hurrying to make their next interstellar connection or loitering around to kill a couple of hours while they waited. Hesnortor may be a chunk of rock suspended in space, but it was an essential hub for travellers through the Middle Zone. Carl would have felt safer in the larger terminals with more people, but at least this was a public place.
Purr led him to a corner diner named Smoky Joes. Carl had to admit he was curious and wanted answers to what had happened. Purr was the only one able to provide them. Besides, Scott would soon track him down and join them. He wondered what Scott would think of Purr. Probably not much.
They weaved through worn-out tables until they found one by a window with a panoramic view of the landing pads. As he seated himself, Carl’s gaze drifted to where the Pure Delight sat. Carl tapped his communicator. There was no response. Where was Scott? Even if he had lost the communicator signal when Carl descended into the tunnel, he would have picked it up when they reemerged.
Carl looked back at his companion as a waitress approached and took their drink order. A mysterious aura surrounded Purr, yet Carl was drawn to the quick-witted feline. Recent events had simultaneously painted Purr as a rescuer and a ruthless killer. Mixed emotions swirled inside Carl, each fighting for dominance. He instinctively felt he could trust Purr, yet the evidence seemed contrary. Where was Scott? He could throw some much-needed perspective on the situation.
A few minutes later, a steaming mug of coffee sat in front of Purr, and a glass of sweetened iced tea was placed before Carl. Carl sat facing the entrance to the diner. His eyes anxiously darted to it as he expected to see Scott enter. It suddenly occurred to him how strange it was for someone like Purr to sit without a direct view of the doorway. Yet Purr just sat there calmly, savouring his drink.
They sat in silence, each studying the other. Purr had said he wanted to chat, and Carl’s head spun with questions. Carl found the silence unnerving, but Purr showed no signs of starting a conversation. What was he waiting for?
Finally, Carl blurted out, “What happened down there? Was that man with the five attackers or acting on his own? You knew who he was, didn’t you? Are you involved in this?”
“Slow down, Kitten. We have plenty of time.”
“And I don’t appreciate being called ‘Kitten’ either!” Carl was surprised by the force of his emotions, as if a dam had burst, releasing his pent-up fear and frustration.
A low, rumbling purr revealed Purr’s amusement as he took another sip of his coffee. Puzzled and frustrated, Carl took a sip of his drink as well. He waited for Purr’s response, unsure he could trust his voice.
Purr set his coffee down. “There was no connection between those five vermin and the man who tried to shoot you. The hoodlums were just locals out for fun or profit. They are inconsequential. On the other paw, the shooter is an entirely different story. It never ceases to amaze me how deaf you humans are. If not for my excellent hearing, we would both be dead. When I realized he was in the tunnel, I figured he would be setting up an ambush. After all, he is the infamous hitman known as Kilnow. He’s reputed to have never failed an assignment… but then, he had never met me before.”
“Why was he after you?”
“Wrong, Kitten. You’ve got it backwards. I was tracking him. I only got on his trail when I learned who his next target was.”
“Who was that?” asked Carl, only half-interested. His mind was distracted by wondering what was keeping Scott. He picked up his glass to take another sip.
Purr took a leisurely sip from his mug while waiting for Carl to set his glass back down. Then he locked eyes with Carl and said, “You were.”
Go to Chapter Three.
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