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Return To Chapter Three.
“What?” responded Purr in astonishment.
Carl grinned to himself. He had the feeling very little surprised Purr. “I want to be a Knight like you,” he repeated.
“Nobody is like me,” muttered Purr as he rolled the idea around. “Why this sudden change of direction? It takes years of training to become a Knight. Chances are I’ll have nailed whoever is behind before you’re even halfway done.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Carl, a new determination in his tone. “I want to be able to protect people, to make things safer for them. I want to stop evil people from hurting others.” Carl paused, then admitted, “And I want adventure.”
“You could do that in Interstellar Patrol.”
“I think the Knights is a better choice, but if they turn me down, I’ll apply to Interstellar Patrol. Construction was never what I wanted; it was what my uncle wanted for me. This is what I want to do, to commit my life to.”
Purr continued to study him in silence for a few minutes. Then he said, “I knew you had the compassionate heart of a warrior when I saw your useless but courageous action in the tunnel.” He paused, then continued, “I’ll give you some time to think about it. Then, if you still want to chase this dog, I’ll call Knight Command for you.” Purr’s eyes went to The Late Flyer resting in the spaceport below them. “Right now, let’s get off this rock heap and somewhere safe. They - whoever they are - might be watching my ship, so we’ll hitch a ride with someone else.”
“We could take The Pure Delight.”
“No. It’s a crime scene, and besides, the Security Elite would track it. I prefer to vanish until we know we have a plan.”
Purr gulped the last of his coffee, his pink tongue reflexively licking his bottom lip as he motioned for the waitress. She brought over the payment pad, and Purr placed his forefinger on it, then changed the tip to an amount, which brought a smile to the waitress’s lips.
“It should be mandatory for everyone to work as a waitress, store clerk or something like that for a year,” commented Purr as they left the cafe. “It would make some people a lot nicer.”
Carl couldn’t help but notice that Purr seemed to glide noiselessly instead of walking. Despite his best efforts, Carl couldn’t hear a single footstep as they walked down the long tunnel to Terminal 2.
As they were about to go up the stairs into the terminal, Purr stopped and faced Carl.
“This is a small terminal, but it’s the kitty litter of the planet, which is why the RTT is permanently under repair. It’s a rough place where people who don’t want to be seen or bothered hang out. Even the Hesnortor police don’t come here unless they have to. Just stay close to me and let me do all the talking.”
Then, they climbed the stairs to the terminal. Carl’s wide eyes scanned the grimy floors with litter sprinkled here and there and the stained walls with an occasional hole punched in them. It looked like the police weren’t the only ones who avoided Terminal Two. The janitorial staff seemed to have thrown up the white flag and retreated long ago. Purr guided him past several nondescript stores until they reached the beat-up, swinging doors of a saloon named “The Dirty Rag.”
As Purr confidently strode into the room with Carl on his heels, heads turned in curiosity. Eyes assessed the newcomers to appraise if they were predators or potential victims. Purrr’s sharp eyes surveyed the room instantly and sent the message that he was no one to be trifled with. Most of the patrons returned to the drinks and conversations. Their curiosity had died the quick death of self-preservation.
Carl glanced around the room. The saloon wasn’t very large and had a simple layout. A long bar counter with cushioned metal stools lined the far wall. Approximately twenty tables with worn-out chairs seemed to be scattered randomly around the main floor area. About half of them were filled with rough-looking armed men and women. Along the dimly lit side walls, two rows of booths effectively hid the identities of their occupants. A few mediocre paintings by artists who should have chosen a more suitable hobby decorated the stained and damaged walls.
“Where’s the captain of The Late Flyer?” demanded Purr with his paws on his hips.
Carl involuntarily shuttered. This was not the type of place you wanted to get into a confrontation…not if you wanted to leave alive. Silence and indifference greeted Purr’s demand, but he caught a reflexive look in the scruffy bartender’s eye at a booth on the left side of the room. Pivoting, Purr’s keen eyes penetrated the dusk into which the booths were set until they settled on a solitary man sitting in the end booth.
“There you are, Polking,” laughed Purr as he strolled toward him, aware that many eyes were covertly following his every move.
“Get lost, you cursed beast!” snarled Polking as he took another swig of his drink. He wore a wrinkled short-sleeved shirt that looked like it had been repeatedly slept in. The stubble surrounding his chin indicated no razor had touched his face for a few days. His bleary eyes were red-rimmed and glazed. Like most people with business in this terminal, he had a pistol strapped to his thigh in gunslinger fashion.
Ignoring Polking’s warm welcome, Purr motioned Carl to slide into the bench seat across from Polking as he said, “Doesn’t smell like you’ve had your annual bath yet.” Then Purr sat beside Carl, directly across from Polking. “I have a business proposition for you.”
Polking ignored him, taking another gulp of his drink and then pounding the near-empty glass on the table. There was a slight slur to his words as he said, “Buy me another round and have a real man’s drink for yourself.”
“Real men don’t have to drink, and I’m not here for your sparkling company.”
Guffawing, Polking called out to the bartender, “Bring me another one…and a bowl of milk for the cat…on my tabby.”
Rambunctious laughter erupted from various tables around the room. Carl cringed. He knew what Purr was capable of, and he didn’t want to be in the middle of a gunfight. No matter how good he was, Purr wouldn’t be able to fight his way out of this room.
Purr remained calm. When the laughter died down, he said, “All I want to do is hire your ship for a simple trip.”
The bartender placed another glass of alcohol in front of Polking. With a mischievous grin, he slid a bowl of milk in front of Purr. There was mounting tension in the room as the patrons anticipated entertainment at Purr’s expense.
Purr glanced at the milk, then up at the bartender as he said, “What, no cinnamon sprinkles? I thought this was a classy joint.”
Grunting his amusement, the bartender returned to his counter. Disappointed, the patrons returned to their drinks and conversations. Carl slowly released the breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding. But he knew this wasn’t over yet.
Turning back to Polking, Purr said, “Well?”
“Since when is anything simple with you, you cursed cat,” he spat out. “The last time you hired me, we ended up…”. Polking paused and glanced around, aware of listening ears.
“I don’t know what’s rubbing your fur the wrong way. We rescued a kidnapped prince from that heavily guarded fortress island on Vaug II. You came out like a hero. Got a medal and everything.”
“Except for my money,” hissed Polking.
“Why didn’t I pay you?” Purr’s eyes moved slowly back and forth as if contemplating the question and trying to draw up a dim memory. “Maybe it has something to do with those guns you were smuggling while you were supposed to be working for me.”
“I’m a businessman. I have to make a profit. You jettisoned those guns and then refused to pay me.” Polking lowered his voice to a whisper. “But they weren’t mine. They belonged to the Stienbeurk Syndicate. I’ve been on the run from them ever since!”
Shrugging, Purr said, “I offered to take them down if you would testify. You didn’t want to.”
“I wanted to keep breathing.”
“I can see where that’s gotten you.”
“Listen here, you flea-bitten feline…”. Polking paused mid-sentence as an evil glint flashed through his eyes. After a minute of consideration, he said, “No adventure? Not going into hostile or restricted areas?”
Purr shook his head. “No. Just drop us off where we want to go and get 250 Oparins for your trouble.”
Polking hesitated. Although trying to be subtle, he was apparently rolling something around in his devious mind. Finally, he muttered, “We’ll talk about it onboard.”
Purr smiled, showing his pearl-white teeth.
“I’m not promising anything,” growled Polking.
With Polking in the lead, they navigated out of The Dirty Rag, across the terminal, to the Embarking Lounge. At the back of the room were hard surface chairs of various colours linked into several rows. Right now, they were empty. In the front of the room were six tube-like transportation cars in front of six exit tubes. Four attendants were lounging behind a desk, talking and laughing with each other. Polking signalled the nearest attendant, who reluctantly left his companions and sauntered to one of the transportation cars. He flipped the clear bubble top of the passenger compartment up, opened the door, and stood aside so they could enter.
“The Late Flyer,” snapped Polking as he slid into one of the well-worn seats.
The attendant gave a bored nod. He closed the top over them when they were seated, sealing the compartment. Then he stepped into the segregated driver’s cockpit. After fiddling with the controls, the engine started, and the transportation car slipped into the exit tube. Seconds later, a green light flashed, and the car shot through the tube into the Landing Zone. Once there, it began weaving around spaceships of various sizes as it made its way to The Late Flyer.
As The Late Flyer came into view, Carl shuddered. It had the old-style circular two-tiered design. The bottom floor, from which the landing gear protruded, was slightly larger than the top floor. Swivel guns had been crudely welded onto the bottom of the ship. As they drew closer, Carl’s eyes ran over the hull. Its deep scars and blaster burns bore silent testimony to many battles and near escapes. The barrel of one of its guns had been torn off, and its body hung limply from the underside of the ship. A surface panel was missing, which exposed the circuit board inside. Carl shook his head in astonishment. Should he trust his life to this battered relic which might disintegrate at any moment?
“Good looking, ain’t she,” commented Polking, misunderstanding Carl’s flabbergasted expression. “Best ship in space!”
“It’s one of the best in this sector for its size,” corrected Purr. “Don’t let looks deceive you, Kitten. It’s in disguise, and Polking has made some modifications to which he doesn’t want to attach attention.”
“It’s a good disguise,” muttered Carl under his breath, unconvinced.
“You had better believe it. And if I know you, we’ll be needing those guns… if I decide to take you.”
Their transportation car came to a stop adjacent to a lowered ramp. A frame with flashing green lights on its posts stood atop the ramp, indicating that a transparent U-Enter door was active. A U-Enter provided an air-tight seal around people and objects, allowing them to move seamlessly between different atmospheres without compromising either.
The driver pushed a button on his console. This was supposed to create a temporary invisible force field with a breathable atmosphere between the car and the U-Enter door. When he pushed the button, a red warning light flashed on the console. With a grunt, he smashed his fist beside the blinking red light. It turned green.
“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Carl, uncertainty clouding his voice.
“Yeah,” explained the driver indifferently. “There is just a short in the lighting system that needs some convincing every once in a while. The force field is fine.”
Drawing his gun, Polking leaned forward and tapped it on the transparent partition separating them. A low growl reverberated in his throat, “I need my share of convincing, too. I don’t want to be halfway to my ship and have your blasted force field collapse on me. I want to know you’re willing to be your life on it. Lift your hatch, or I’ll kill you where you sit!”
Carl’s gaze darted anxiously between Polking, Purr and the driver. Purr remained calm as he relaxed in his seat, observing the unfolding drama as if he witnessed it every day. The driver’s forehead glistened with sweat as he summoned the courage to open his compartment. The force field was operational, and he gave Polking a nervous smile.
“Good,” said Polking. “Now open ours. Be sure to keep your door open until we are onboard The Late Flyer, or you won’t have to worry about any more loose connections!”
Purr led the way up the ramp, with Carl following. Polking brought up the rear, keeping a wary eye on the driver. As soon as they were safely inside the ship, the driver snapped his door shut and shot back to the terminal with unusual speed.
“I’ll bet he’ll be headed to The Dirty Rage to bolster his nerves after this,” commented Purr with humour glinting in his eyes.
Polking merely grunted as he squeezed past them and led the way down the narrow passageway, flanked by bare metallic walls, to the ship’s centre. From this hub, four corridors out at right angles, including the one they had just exited. In the centre of this circular room was an elevator disc. Polking uttered a brief command when they had all stepped onto the 5-foot platform. A protective guard rail surrounded the platform, and it rose to the second floor.
The elevator came up into the second tier of The Late Flyer between a kitchen and lounge area. Against a far wall was a table semi-circled with a bench seat, and behind that were, presumably, a couple of small bedrooms and a bathroom. In the other direction, a transparent wall provided a view of the cockpit. The cockpit consisted of two pilot chairs in front of an elaborate control console and two bench seats against the transparent wall. The roof was a clear dome.
Polking strolled over to the table and dropped into the bench seat. Carl and Purr slid onto the seat opposite him. Carl watched carefully as Purr and Polking faced each other.
Seemingly oblivious to Carl’s presence, Polking stared at Purr and said, “Now, where do you want me to take your flea-bitten hide?”
The insult didn’t faze Purr as he replied, “To Haramer.”
Polking leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head while his eyes took in the dull gray of the sky with the occasional ship flying across his vision. He mulled over everything he knew about Haramer. If there were any red flags about the planet, he would demand triple payment in advance before plotting his revenge. Yet, as hard as he wracked his brain, Haramer remained disgustingly peaceful. Purr watched him through half-closed eyes in silent amusement. He guessed precisely what was rolling around in Polking’s mind.
“Carl and I want a peaceful holiday,” responded Purr smoothly.
“You’re a liar!” exclaimed Polking, suddenly coming alive as he leaned over the table and slammed his fist into it. Startled, Carl jumped back in his seat. Purr didn’t even blink. “And it’s going to cost you a lot more than 250 Oparins to get off this planet.”
“Two hundred and fifty Oparins is double the normal passenger fare.”
“And you would be taking one of those glorified soup cans if something strange wasn’t going on. We’re not lifting off until I know exactly what’s going on and I have my money in my hands. Now, are you going to talk real business, or do I have Mancroft through you out?”
“Mancroft? You have a new first mate?”
“I didn’t have much choice after Redunya. That’s another one I owe you. You totally ruined him.”
Purr laughed, “You mean he wouldn’t cooperate in any more of your crooked deals. I knew he was too good for you.”
“Now listen here, you flea…”
A piercing beep, which urgently repeated itself every few seconds, shattered Polking’s thought. A glaring red light pulsated with the shrill alert on the control console, instantly sparking visible fear in Polking as the colour drained from his face.
“Mancroft!” Polking’s cry sliced the air as he sprang up from his seat, jolting the table and wincing at the immediate pain in his hip. But urgency propelled him forward, hardly feeling the growing bruise. He slid into the left seat in the cockpit and began studying the controls.
Polking’s first mate shot off the elevator like a lightning streak as he raced for the co-pilot’s seat. Carl instantly recognized him as a Diliphian with his coppery lizard-like scales, cone-shaped face, black beady eyes and a forked tongue that kept flickering out of his mouth. His slender body swiftly slid into the seat beside Polking, his reptilian tail coiled behind him as his agile fingers danced over the control keys.
Purr had drawn his gun, although he kept it pointed at the floor, as he moved into the cockpit to stand, peering over the shoulders of the pilots. Carl stood in the open doorway to the cockpit, silently watching the frantic action.
“What is this? A crowd?” demanded Polking angrily as he warmed up the engines.
“What’s the matter,” asked Purr calmly.
“Maybe one of your enemies has found us,” came the sarcastic answer.
Laughing, Purr replied, “Then why is your emergency light blinking? I’m sure you didn’t program your scanners to alert you to my enemies.”
“There isn’t time to talk!”
Purr rested his left paw on Polking’s shoulder and brought the gun up to point at the back of Polking’s head. “Make the time.”
Purr’s sharp eyes noticed the subtle single twitch of Polking’s left fingers. Swiftly stepping back and pivoting to face Mancroft, Purr aimed his gun at him. But he was not quick enough. The lizard-like creature flung himself on Purr with a loud hiss and an intimidating spiny frill fanning out around his neck, making his small head look like it was poking through curtains. He landed on Purr, knocking him down and pinning him to the floor. Purr’s weapon skidded across the floor, stopping near Carl’s feet. Mancroft’s beady eyes focused on Purr’s neck, looking for a suitable place to sink his razor-sharp teeth into the feline’s flesh.
Meanwhile, Polking was paying no attention to the struggle. He had complete confidence in the deadly skill of his first mate. He would have preferred a more personal death for his enemy, but right now, his mind was absorbed with monitoring the controls.
Carl scooped up the gun and pointed it at Mancroft.
“Get off Purr now, or I’ll shoot!” He tried to sound fierce but knew he failed miserably.
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