It was nighttime. Rain drizzled steadily—the air was thick and humid.
I was in a bad spot—a real bad spot. I’d ridden the lightning in clean, getting deposited between a dumpster and a brick wall. It was a tight fit, and I wasn’t alone—I sensed a presence close by.
A chancy mess was happening scant yards from my hiding place. The shouts and noise of it was sheer confusion. Flashlights were deploying beams of light that crisscrossed to and fro. With their backs to me, a dozen armed guards were methodically searching the area. I kept completely still as I took stock of my options. My breathing was so shallow as to be nearly nonexistent. The muzzle blast of a gunshot flashed in the darkness, followed by a command to assemble barked in an angry tone.
A scurry of footfalls, then the same voice slurred words in a barely contained rage. “Spread out to the next block. Kill whoever helps her, but I want the wench alive! Alive!”
The cops or soldiers skedaddled as per orders. I started to relax a bit, but then abruptly felt eyes boring into me. Tension knotted itself in the pit of my stomach. I tried a swallow, but my throat had clogged up.
Something brushed against my leg. I glanced down, and found myself eyeball to eyeball with an ugly rat the size of a groundhog. My skin crawled—I hate rats. Sitting on its haunches, it twitched its tail and smiled at me.
It nudged me again, in an almost friendly gesture. I got the message. I carefully lifted first one leg, then the other—the bewhiskered rodent squeezed past and made its escape. It scuttled down the alley, apparently satisfied that it was now safe to be out in the open.
I wasn’t yet convinced of that fact.
My head tilted back so I could see the sky. I squinted to study the stars so as to discern time and place realities. The rain was coming in wispy spurts. Clouds scudded overhead, making it vexing to get a read. Determination rose up in me. I kept focused for a long while, getting glimpses that I painstakingly pieced together.
A breeze fluttered—it felt good. My neck was getting a crick in it, but my attention stayed riveted on the stars above. I was finally rewarded with a gaping break in the cloud-cover that allowed me to complete the jigsaw puzzle of constellations.
Pandora? I concluded with a questioning frown. What the frak am I doing on Pandora again? Pandora, a planet in the Upsilon Andromedae System, is populated by freaks, geeks, and assorted humanoid interlopers. The later are descendants of a colony of earthlings—a penal colony.
Native Pandorians generally get along with everyone except agitators. It’s a society that demands order. Peace is kept via the liberal use of on the spot trials, instantaneous convictions, and summary executions. If one had a bit of luck in their corner, a breach of behavior might only result in a few nights in a local lock-up.
Jails on Pandora are stark bare holding cells—boxes with absolutely no amenities or comforts. And I ought to know because I’ve seen the interior of them up close and personal on more than one occasion—not sure if luck would carry me through this time. One more crossing the line encounter with the Pandora Patrollers could mean it’d be a bullet in the back of the head for me—certainly not a delightful prospect.
Suddenly a stir of sound startled me—a tiny scratching. It came from inside the dumpster, and was probably just Mrs. Rat looking for her mate. I pressed my backside up against the brick wall, readying myself for another showdown.
It was no rat. A pair of hands gripped the edge, followed by a head—a female head. Our eyes met, and in that momentary instant, I saw a sense of recognition flicker in her expression.
“Who are you?” she asked in a barely audible whisper.
“Someone on the lam, just like you.”
“Will you help me out?”
I immediately shifted to one side and reached for her. She crawled over the top, and slid down, with my hands on her slime-covered hips. Her feet hit the pavement, and she began wiping off bits of garbage.
She smelled bad, but even decorated in debris, she looked good—a nicely put together package of feminine charms almost as tall as my six-two. She was thirty-something, with a wavy cascade of hair from which she was currently picking out gunk. Her cheeks were streaked with dirt. She moved from behind the dumpster and turned her face upward into the incessant trickle of rain.
I ambled over alongside her, staying alert and wary.
“Can you be trusted?” she asked, eyeing me closely.
She smiled. “Fair enough. Let’s go.”
“Follow me or stay here, what do I care?” She hurried along the alley, staying close to the wall. I did not dawdle behind her. We moved rapidly and silently. A hundred yards from the dumpster she stopped and crouched beside a sewer grate.
Off in the distance a gunshot echoed in the night. Likely that Patroller—if that’s what he was—once again calling his squad to a rally point.
She started working at lifting the heavy steel grill. “We’re going rabbit.”
I knelt and lent a hand. It came up without difficulty. She lowered herself into the opening, dangled for a moment before catching hold of the ladder. She gave me a quick glance and shimmied down.
I maneuvered onto a rung, and replaced the grate above me before descending. She hadn’t waited. She was on the move. I settled on the walkway beside a humungous pipe that ran in both directions as far as I could see.
There was a faint yellow hue of light cutting into the darkness. It came from wire encased bulbs situated at regular intervals. The effect was all sorts of weird shadows being cast here, there, and everywhere.
I trotted to catch her. “Where are we going?”
“To a safe-house,” she answered, with a weary sigh. “I was heading there when the thugs started tracking me.”
“Later. After I’ve cleaned up some,” she said, moving like a cat. She’d surely made this trip before. I kept pace.
We went twice, perhaps even three times as far underground as we did in the alley. She stammer-stepped to a stop at a juncture, peered down a long passageway, then ran directly to a stairwell on the far side of the intersection of pipes. Up she went. I dutifully followed.
We holed up in a one-room apartment in the basement of an ancient building. The door was double-locked behind us. I leaned against it as she moved across the room.
One bare bulb dangled from the ceiling, giving the room a pale glow. There was a kitchenette in one corner, and diagonally across from it, a toilet and shower stall. Beside that was an iron-framed single bed. A wobbly looking table with a pair of matching chairs completed the bleak décor.
“Who are you?” I asked quietly.
“Sorry.” She turned back to me. “Beka Steele,” she said, offering a hand.
I gave it a firm shake while closely watching her. “Jodat. Jedediah Jodat.”
“Well, Mr. Jedediah Jodat, you’d better be a gentleman because I’m getting naked and taking a shower,” she replied, releasing her grip as she gave me a frank once-over. “As you can see this place wasn’t designed with privacy in mind.”
“No, no it wasn’t,” I said, enjoying her gaze. She was a redhead, with dark eyes that were veiled and mysterious.
“If you’re not a gentleman, I’ll cheerfully make you walk funny. Don’t you dare doubt that,” she said, with no flinch in the lines of her face.
I held my hands up in surrender. “You’ll get no trouble from me.” I spun a chair away from the table and sat on it facing the door. It creaked beneath my weight.
“So you are a gentleman.” Her footsteps squeaked on the worn linoleum. She had moved next to the shower stall. “I’ve seen you before. You were in all the papers and on all the newsreels—you were mixed up in that mob hit on Delancey Street a couple years ago.”
My jaw flexed involuntarily. “Not really. I was merely working an angle and protecting a woman.” The clank of her belt buckle hitting the floor tugged at my resolve but I stuck to my honorable intentions.
“And here you are again, protecting little ole me,” she said, a toughness in her voice. “By the way, Antonio Rocco, the renegade Patroller chasing me, is blood kin to the mobster whacked on Delancey Street. You stepped in it for sure this time.”
“That crud cleans off my boots mighty easy,” I quipped, chuckling.
The water pipes groaned and coughed before a swoosh of water flowed freely. There was a rattle of hooks as the curtain was drawn shut. She hummed or sang softly as she washed the dumpster’s grunge down the drain. I listened, smiling and resisting temptation to sneak a peek.
I vaguely considered the circumstances. What was I doing here? What was Beka Steele’s story? The currents of the time-space continuum had drawn us together, but why? Obviously there was unfinished business on Delancey Street.