An Excerpt from Avatar:

Donald W. Phipps

The Nemite starport lay in the footings of that part of Enirum known as the Old City, a region inhabited by the Nemites for millennia. Now, in the shadows of the business district's towers, the Old City had become by day a haven for the pilots and crews of the cargo vessels which passed through on their way to the Inner Systems, and by night a dusty, decaying asylum of drifters and derelicts ruled by ruthless street gangs.

Lady Penelope pushed silently into the blackest portion of the city. A breeze of thick, humid air rustled the ghostly branches of a black shrub struggling to squeeze every last erg of energy from the eternal twilight of Nema's bloated crimson sun. The Twinsunnite clutched her brown cloak about her to conceal a brilliant flash of white fur, then slipped past a pair of drunken astropilots as they weaved up the street. Long shadows followed the heavy plasma sidearms holstered at their sides while they laughed, leaning against each other for support on their way back to their ship. As they passed her, one of them cast a long glance in her direction. For a moment she thought the yellow eyes had burned through her disguise, then breathed a sigh as the pair continued onward. The thin mantle of rough-cut cloth proved a worthy armor, making the petite creature appear just another denizen of the streets. Few attackers would risk stopping a dirk's blade or the fireball from a weapon that could be hiding within the folds of her dusty cloak.

Lady Penelope scanned the tacky establishments lining both sides of the street, trying to pick out angular Dalmatian characters in the fading twilight. After a few moments of searching, she found a little shingle with "The Hold" winking back at her in a rude blue gas-discharge light. The sign rocked slowly above a pair of old-fashioned swinging doors set in an ancient tavern.

A terrific roar, the combination of a drawn-out thunderclap mixed with the metallic ringing of a circular saw chewing hard wood, ripped down the street. The glow of the late afternoon sun vanished, momentarily eclipsed by the steel overcast of an astrotractor unwinding its degravs and hurling itself from the face of the planet. Lady Penelope threw herself for the safety of the bar's double doors, bursting through with the fading reverberations of the vessel's shock wave chasing after her.

Cool darkness closed about her as the doors swung back and forth a couple of times, then stopped.

She took a deep breath, embarrassed at herself for being so foolishly startled. After making some adjustments to her disguise and pausing a moment to regain her courage, she pressed into the main lounge.

Twangs from a Dalmatian vibrionic harp sang thinly through an atmosphere rank with sweat and narcotizing smoke. The center of the black room hosted raised circular stage bathed in flashing multicolored lights. A nude Dalmatian female swiveled and pivoted seductively to the music. Penelope noted that what fur these pale humanoids possessed did very little to hide their hide.

In a few moments her eyes grew accustomed to the dim lighting and she became aware of the world outside the hazy glare of the stage lights. Two dozen or so little purple table lamps glowed softly in the darkness, each one gracing a small black circular table. The lamps outlined garish faces, most of them intently watching the show. With a twinge of alarm, Penelope recognized three bright orange Galtrans jump suits; their owners sat close to the stage where they whistled and made lewd gestures at the dancer.

"Hey!" a rough voice called from behind her. "Waddle it be, mate?"

Startled, Lady Penelope spun about. She hadn't noticed the bar behind her, a massive affair of black wood with its surface so polished it reflected light like calm water. The grotesque decanters on the underlit shelves lining the wall behind it glowed in its surface like a city of nightmares. A swarthy Neptune had risen from this black ocean, hair coarse and as raven as night framing a face scarred and furrowed in ancient battles. The old Orcan warrior had just finished drawing a mug of foaming amber liquid for a Saurian seated on the stool to Penelope's left. The tavern lights shimmered against the fine scales enarmoring the little dinosaur's body as though from polished metal while the bipedal lizard swigged down half of its tankard with a single gulp.

"Well?" the bartender gazed at to Penelope, "I don't allow no loiterers in here!" She looked up at the man from beneath her hood. He caught the flash of fur beneath the cloak, and a grin stole across his lips. "Say, I got somethin' fer th' likes o' you." He reached beneath the bar and produced a thin white pipe and a scarlet pouch. "Got cannabin straight from Ovina. Just came in this mornin'." He leaned over the bar top towards her. "It's potent stuff - guaranteed t'put ya right in the stratosphere!"

Penelope pushed back her hood, impaling him with her huge pink eyes.

"I'm looking for a pilot," she said softly in Dalmatian.

"Well, my!" The bartender slid his paraphernalia back beneath the bar. "I'd say you got quite a pick. Got the last ships in from th' Outer Systems this mornin'. Some o' these boys haven't had any for a long time - 'course, most of 'em would prefer somethin' with a bit less fur, but I'cn fix you up with this mech from Moab - "

"No - you don't understand! I'm not a - " She thought a moment, then replied, "I'm looking for a particular pilot. His name is Flint. Correlleus Flint. Would you know him?"

The bartender stopped wiping the bar and narrowed his eyes at her. The little Saurian to her left swigged down the remainder of its ale, then reached into a drawstring pouch it wore and slid a coin across the bar adroitly enough so that it stopped directly before the bartender. He slowly retrieved it, eyes on Penelope.

"You a friend of Flint's?" the bartender inquired with his voice lowered to a whisper.

"In a way," Penelope replied carefully. "We knew each other some time ago. I know he used to come here. I thought I might find him."

"You're a little late, lass," the bartender replied.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean Flint had an 'accident' a few weeks ago," the bartender quietly informed her.

"You mean that he's dead?" Lady Penelope inquired incredulously.

"Blown t'blazes, miss," the bartender replied. "Somebody misplaced a little dinitronium his way."

"But, I don't understand. Are you telling me that Flint was - murdered?"

"If ya wanna know the answer t'that, ask the three jokers sittin' in the front row." The bartender nodded toward the three Galtrans pilots. "Rumor has it that Jaspur, there, had 'im offed."

"And he got away with it?" Penelope inquired.

"It ain't so surprisin'," the bartender replied. "Pretty easy to do that here, lass. Not too many folks want trouble with Boss Jaspur - practically owns th' port, him an' his Galtrans thugs."

"But why would Jaspur want Flint dead?"

"Because he hated Flint's innards, that's why," the bartender explained. "Old Flint was one of th' last real independent pilots in Enirum, an' he didn't take guff from nobody! After Captain Jaspur took over an' made Enirum a Galtrans port, with him as Boss, all the other independent pilots were either forced to sell out to th' bastard or scat - but not Flint! He stayed on - an' he cut Jaspur's throat every chance he got. I'm not sayn' he was a saint, mind ya - but he had th' respect of every independent pilot in this part of th' Quadrant."

"He was a good deep ranger," Penelope said sadly, "and a good friend. I'll miss him very much."

"Yeah, lass - I'll miss him, too." The old Orcan returned a glass to its place behind the bar. "He was a helluva pilot, and a helluva man. When ya stand back here long as I have, ya hear everythin' that goes on in th' Outer Systems from these guys. Flint was a legend! There ain't a pilot alive could out-fly him, or out-shoot him in a fair fight."

A scream drew Penelope's attention. One of the Galtrans pilots had grabbed the Dalmatian dancer and was attempting to drag her off of the stage.

"Hey!" the bartender bellowed, "let her alone!" The girl struggled free. Her assailant stood grinning at the bartender. The stage lights glittered from a beam weapon at his hip. "Get off the stage!" ordered the bartender. "Jaspur, if ya can't control your boys you're not comin'- "

"Cool yer drivers, Smitty." Penelope watched another of the Galtrans pilots kick out his chair and get up. He stood tall and broad at the shoulders. "Korg!" he motioned for the man on the stage to step down, which he reluctantly did. Boss Jaspur strode over to confront the bartender. "Now, what's your problem?"

"You an' those 'gentlemen' with you. Last night they killed two men in here an' busted up the place. I don't need that kinda action again tonight!"

"Well, maybe those two dead men had it comin'," Jaspur sneered.

"Yeah, an maybe they didn't," Smitty retorted, "but either way, I don't want no more trouble outa your crew! There's still some law left in this place."

The two men stood up and walked forward to join the Galtrans boss.

"Smitty, you'd be amazed how little is left - at least that I don't own," Captain Jaspur grinned. The look sent a chill through Penelope. "Now, suppose you tell me what you and this Twinsunnite were jabberin' about."

"Nothin' that concerns you."

"This is my port. Everything concerns me here, especially when Correlleus Flint's involved!" he hissed, then sneered, "I could read your lips, Smitty!" He turned to Penelope and she took a step backwards.

Smitty slowly reached under the bar. Korg swiftly drew his pistol and leveled it at the bartender.

"Stay outa this!" He pressed the cocking lever on the microbeamer. "Put both hands on the bar if you wanna see that filthy sun rise tomorrow!" Smitty slowly obeyed, glaring defiantly.

"Now," Jaspur replied as he stepped toward the Twinsunnite, "just what sort of business did you have with old Flint?" Lady Penelope cowered, mentally estimating the distance to the door and her odds of clearing it before somebody could get a shot off.

Something smacked her in the face hard enough to knock her off her feet. She sat hard on the floor with a grunt; the wind temporarily knocked out of her. Dazed, she ducked instinctively behind the bar, shaking her head and flicking her tongue up to her nose to stanch a little trickle of blood from her nostril. When her head cleared sufficiently, she stood up cautiously. The bar door that had slammed into her nose was still rocking, slowly coming to a halt.

Jaspur and his cohorts backed up towards the tables, faces white and eyes staring at the chrome statue that appeared in the doorway; its body encased entirely with brilliantly polished Titanite battle armor. It wore a blast helmet with the deflection shield pulled down to obscure all its humanoid features.

The Galtrans pilots stood with open mouths while the figure strode slowly into the bar's dim illumination.

"Flint! Impossible!" Captain Jaspur gasped, then his jaw snapped shut. He glared accusingly at Korg.

"But Boss! "I did like you told me! I swear! He couldn't have come back from the - "

"Shut up, fool!" Jaspur hissed, then turned to the gleaming specter. "Who the hell are you? You're wearin' Flint's armor, but you can't be Flint!"

The figure stood without reply. Penelope couldn't pick up either thoughts or words, although she tried. She did, however, read extreme agitation in the Galtrans men, and a deep gnawing fear as well.

"Whoever you are, you made a big mistake comin' in here!" Jaspur went on. "You're out-gunned three t'one. If you plan on startin' somethin', you'd best be a damn good shot!"

The figure slowly moved its guantleted hand toward its gun holster. The safety stay hung unfastened and, unlike the Galtrans laser microbeamers, its holster cradled a brutish pistol that looked too large for the hand intending to wield it. Jaspur's two cohorts fanned off to the shadows on his left and right as the remaining patrons quietly slithered out of the place as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible.

Both gunfighters stood like sculptures frozen in time, each concentrating intently on the other's hand hovering a flash from death.

Something glittered in the shadows by the staircase in the back of the room. Before Penelope could register exactly what was happening, a loud report and a brilliant spear of blue light stabbed across the darkness.

The chrome statue moved like quicksilver, sidestepping the laser bolt as though it could sense its approach. The black pistol leaped from its holster in a blur, then Penelope's eyes dazzled and her ears deafened. Two thunderclaps split the air as a pair of fireballs ripped into the staircase, exploding it into flaming shrapnel and wood shards. Jaspur's compatriot fell screaming, hit the floor and fired a wild shot that blasted the lights above the stage into a shower of white slag droplets.

Jaspur dove behind a table and opened fire himself. The figure ducked two laser bolts, then toppled the table and hid behind it for cover. The heavy black pistol sent a thunderbolt into Jaspur's makeshift shield that obliterated a quarter of it.

The Galtrans pilot beneath the stairs recovered and leveled his weapon again. The black pistol spun and fired, the spent cartridge flipping from its ejection port and flashing to the bar floor. A superdense pellet of energy caught the Galtrans ranger full in the chest. To Penelope's horror, the man simply exploded, the heat of the detonating nuclear projectile vaporizing his tissues rapidly enough to rip him apart from the steam pressure. He propelled back against the wall like a macabre rocket motor, then rebounded and crashed forward in a smoking pile of charred flesh.

Boss Jaspur's remaining enforcer dove around the edge of the bar. While the silver gunfighter turned attention to his employer, Korg raised his weapon to fire at the armored figure's back.

Lady Penelope snatched a mug from the bar top and flung it into the Galtrans pilot's shoulder, deflecting his aim. His weapon discharged, the bolt blazing into the top of the bar. The enraged Galtrans enforcer leveled his microbeamer at her.

Smitty swept up an ugly black weapon that looked like a sewer pipe with a gunstock mounted on it from its lair beneath the bar. A rough hand threw Lady Penelope to the floor. Korg's laser bolt tore into the floor ahead of her, then a terrible concussion slammed her body and a blaze of pink and violet light blinded her. For an awful moment she thought she'd been hit, but when she felt a wave of warm air from the street she shook her head and looked to see what had happened.

Past the bartender, Lady Penelope witnessed a smoking hole where the bar doors once swung. The air filled with a gagging stench of ozone, nitrogen dioxide and charred flesh as there on the floor lay a pair of arms and a pair of legs still clad in a scorched orange uniform - but there was nothing else. The entire torso had completely vaporized.

Jaspur grabbed another table when the remains of the one in his hand exploded into blazing splinters. He squeezed off two more shots that missed their intended target. The metallic humanoid leveled its pistol, but instead of a burst of energy there came only a faint pop. A clip ejected from the weapon's butt and clattered to the floor. The figure crouched low behind the table it was using for a shield, examined the pistol, then turned to face Jaspur.

"Well, well!" Jaspur covered the silver warrior with his microbeamer while rising out of position. "Looks like your ammo ran out. So did your luck, buster, 'cause I've still got a couple left!"

"You fire on an unarmed man an' its murder!" Smitty growled.

"Shaddup!" Jaspur barked. He sighted on the chrome-clad figure. "Whoever you are don't matter now, cause I'm sendin' you on a fast trip straight to - "

The armored gunfighter swiftly wiped a gauntleted hand behind its neck as though swatting an offending insect. Penelope caught sight of something flash and whistle through the air like the sting of a steel scorpion. Boss Jaspur's smug gloat contorted into a gaze of stupid shock. His weapon tumbled impotently from his fingers while they grasped at the black hilt of the Orcan combat dagger sprouting from the middle of his chest. Jaspur made a choking gasp, then staggered backwards into the tables as he toppled, a rapidly spreading blotch of dark blood wetting his jump suit. Deadly silence hung in the air as thickly as the blue smoke from burnt wood and flesh.

Then the armored figure pushed the tables aside, moving over to where Jaspur lay.

"Who - who are you?" Jaspur gasped.

The figure reached up, taking its helmet with both hands and giving it a twist. When the armored crest came off, a tumble of curly raven hair fell from it.

"I'm Coreandra Flint," the gunfighter reached down and grasped the hilt of her dagger, hissing, "and this is from Papa!" She wrenched her weapon free. Jaspur struggled to speak, eyes bulging with the effort. He died with the fiery eyes of the Orcan warrior burning in his.

Penelope blinked and shook her head to clear the ringing in her ears. She quivered badly, holding onto the bar to support herself while the patrons slowly returned to the room. Two of then helped clean the shards of glass from the stage as the Orcan girl wiped off her dagger with a napkin and slid the weapon back into the shoulder scabbard behind her armor. She stepped over the debris, regarding the steaming remains sprawled in front of the decimated swinging doors.

"Thanks for th' help," she turned to the bartender. "I think he was gonna shoot me in the back."

"Hell's fire, lass! He'd a shot you any place he could've!" Smitty snorted. He studied the girl's face as she wiped perspiration from her forehead. "Damn! You are Flint's kid! Hell, when he said he had a little girl on Sodome, I thought he was talkin' 'bout a whore!"

Corey smiled, accepting the shot of dark liquor Smitty poured for her.

"Papa didn't let on about me much," she explained, "thought I'd be safer if he didn't. Deedy sent me word in Port Royal 'bout what happened, an' I hightailed it out here on th' first fast boat I could jump."

"Then, you better hightail it outa here on th' next one," Smitty suggested, "'cause Jaspur has a lotta friends in high and low places. You best make yourself scarce fast!"

"That'll be tough," Corey replied, the lights glittering intensely in her black eyes, "'cause right now I got no cash an' an empty freighter sittin' in th' port that th' damn berthmaster's impounded for back berthin' fees."

"In that case, you better watch that pretty little ass," Smitty warned. "Sure as hell someone'll try an' blow it off!"

"I can take care of myself," the Orcan replied flatly, downing her drink.

"I got that idea already." Smitty regarded the last of the Galtrans remains being piled into a steaming heap on plastic sheets. "You're good as your papa with that Magnus nine, but these guys don't always come at ya with their guns blazin'. Mark me, the sooner you get clear of Enirum, the better." He regarded Lady Penelope, and suggested, "you might talk to this Twinsunnite. She came in here lookin' for your papa before th' action started - claimed she knew him. She did you a favor once already - just maybe she can do you another."

Sirens began wending their way up the narrow streets towards the direction of "The Hold". Corey glanced nervously at the smoking doors.

"You got a room with a back door?"

"Up the stairs - first on the left. Door in the back leads down t'the alley behind the place," Smitty explained.

Corey Flint laid five ten-draggin coins on the bar top.

"Sorry 'bout the damage," she replied.

"It was worth it!" Smitty smiled. "I'dve burned the place down myself t' see those bastards offed like that! Now, get movin' - I'll handle th' law."

Corey climbed the stairs quickly with Lady Penelope behind her. The little room Smitty described held a dresser and a bed as its only furnishings and smelled of a musty staleness that the Twinsunnite found rather disagreeable. Corey proceeded to shade the only window and dim the lights sufficiently to prevent their shadows from being seen in the alley below. Then she sat on the bed, dropped her helmet down and tossed out her hair. The girl's body appeared well muscled, but in spite of her build Penelope thought she looked very out of place dressed in Titanite star armor.

"Thanks for thrown' that guy's aim," Corey regarded the Twinsunnite with jet black eyes. In the room's warm glow Penelope saw that the Orcan girl was very young, her tawny face framed with lustrous curly black hair. "I sorta had my hands full at th' time."

"Yes. You're lucky Jaspur didn't kill you when you ran out of ammunition," Penelope replied in Orcan.

"I didn't run out. I just figured if I'd let him think so he'd try an' murder me. Self-defense always looks better the way the law sees it." She locked her pistol holster and said, "your Orcan's pretty good. You told Smitty you knew my papa?"

"Yes, when he was a Confederate blockade runner," Penelope replied, "he made many of his deliveries to Twinsun - to me, specifically. Did he ever mention Lady Penelope?"

Corey paused in mid-breath.

"Yeah, he did. You knew him pretty good, didn't you?"

"That's true, but it was a long time ago. I needed him - we needed him and his piloting skills badly then," Penelope explained, "and now, we need them once again, only - I'm so sorry to hear of his death."

"You mean his murder," Corey said bitterly. She regarded the sounds coming from the downstairs for a moment, then confident that Smitty was handling the situation she continued, "that son-of-a-Cannite Jaspur didn't even give him an even chance."

"How did Captain Flint - how did your father die?" Penelope gently inquired.

"I guess - I guess nobody knows for sure," Corey explained. "There was an explosion. Locals figure somebody tossed a satchel bomb under a th' hover he was ridin' in." She wore a small chain around her neck that held a bent and blackened alloy coupon. "This was all they found. His I.D. tag - that's all."

"The Port Police have no idea who set the explosives?" Penelope inquired, examining the twisted remains of one of the encoded identification tags that pilots commonly carried with them so that their remains could be identified following a crash.

"Aw, they're not interested in what goes on around here. Did a token 'vestigation, that's all. Lack of evidence, no witnesses - " Corey spat, as though suddenly biting on something vile. "In a Galtrans port, whadda they expect? Word clear back on Sodome had it that Boss Jaspur an' his buddies did th' job. Jaspur might have a lotta friends, but so did my Papa." She paused for a moment, looking into Twinsunnite's eyes with a gaze that seemed to pierce through to her soul. "Do you really remember him well?"

The shock of thoughts transmitted unexpectedly startled the Twinsunnite. Corey had keyed in on Lady Penelope's mind and beamed her query with the skill of one with a lifetime of practice.

"My memories of Captain Flint are quite clear," Lady Penelope beamed back a wordless reply. "He was, as you said, a remarkable man. Perhaps you would like to see some of them." For a few moments she replayed some of her memories for the Orcan girl. At the same time, she did a little gentle probing of her own. When she had finished, Corey blinked her eyes, satisfied that Penelope was telling her the truth. Lady Penelope also knew she had found the ranger she had been seeking. "I was a friend to your father when he needed me. Perhaps now I can help you, if you permit me to."


"I have some friends who are in need of a ship for a prospecting expedition," Penelope explained. "I couldn't help but hear that you have a vessel in need of a charter. Now, this is a rather deep range that only Flint could pilot."

Coreandra Flint's soft lips made a broad smile. Penelope saw her old friend in it.

"I'm master of the Supernova now," Corey replied, "and I'm all of the pilot my papa was, too. Ain't a place in the galaxy I can't reach."

"My friends are seeking passage to the galactic core," Penelope softly clarified.

"To the - whoa! You talkin' 'bout planet Aura?"

"Then you do know of it?" Penelope inquired.

"I know the legends of it," Corey replied, "but t'be honest, I'd just as soon take my chances here with Galtrans. I stand better odds o'survival tryin' t'out-gun those idiots."

"I know that General Gondaga financed your father's voyage to find Aura, and I believe that he did find it."

"He went lookin', but he never found it," Corey corrected her. "He told me he came close - maybe really close - but he never found th' planet. If he did, you think I'd be scrapin' for cash right now?"

"Do you think you could retrace his trajectory?" Lady Penelope asked.

"Look, you don't know what you're askin'!" Corey sat up on the bed. "First, I'd have t'cross through Tannite space to get there. Believe me, considerin' what happened the name Flint ain't 'xactly sittin' pretty with General Gondaga right now. Then I'd havta cross th' NDZ t'enter the galactic core. The Zone ain't exactly a healthy place these days, y'know! And even if I made it past the Rim o'Light and got myself into the Great Void, I'd still be lost. There's no way t'get a lockon for a fix. No stars, no pulsons, no nuthin'! Even if I could use Papa's logs to get in, without a good course I'd be spinnin' in circles at near lightspeed until I got sucked into th' great graviton that holds the galaxy together."

"What if I told you that my friends can find Aura, providing you get them safely into the Void?"

"How? By Twinsunnite magic?"

"You could call it that," Penelope replied. "Your father trusted his life to it more than once, after all. Captain Flint, I realize that what I'm asking you to accept is a risky venture - "

"It's a deadly venture!" Corey snorted.

"You will be well compensated, to be sure," Penelope offered. "My friends will take care of any debts you owe in the starport and grant you a full share in whatever they find on Aura."

"That could amount to a full share in a burial vault."

The Twinsunnite's eyes took on a mixture of sadness and disappointment that tugged at something beneath Corey's armored breast.

"You are the only one who can help us now, Coreandra Flint. The only one," Penelope transmitted, then narrowed her thoughts to a pencil-thin beam and said, "besides, Captain, if the legend is true, anyone who touches down on Aura will find wealth beyond all measure. Wealth enough to buy whatever their heart desires - including a freight line to run against Galtrans. Doesn't that make it worth the risks?"

Corey thought silently to herself, then transmitted to Penelope.

"I'll sleep on it tonight. Look, you bring your party down to the port tomorrow. I'm in bay 666 on the commercial corridor. I'll let you know what I've decided then."

"That's fair enough," Penelope replied. "We'll be there."

"I wanna meet these friends o' yours. They gotta be one damn crazy bunch," Corey surmised, retrieving her helmet and hopping from the bed. "I prefer cargo. It doesn't complain when the goin' gets rough."

"I think you'll find your passengers are quite able to take care of themselves, captain," Lady Penelope replied.

Well, I sure hope they know what they're plannin' on gettin' into." The Orcan pilot moved over towards the back wall of the room.

"More than you realize they do," Penelope sighed.

Coreandra Flint cracked open the back door and peeked out to see if any of the Nemite police patrolled the alley below. Assured they were safe, she motioned for Lady Penelope to follow her. She led the Twinsunnite down a narrow stairway to street level.

Lady Penelope pulled her cloak disguise tightly about her and beamed to the Orcan ranger, "Bay 666 - tomorrow, " then she walked out toward the glow of the street lamps. When she had gone a few meters, she glanced instinctively toward the misty shadows behind her. No sign of her companion remained in the street.

Penelope passed largely unnoticed on her way towards the brighter lights of the New City, her heart hopeful that she had secured competent passage. In that preoccupation, she failed to notice the two dark figures swinging out of a side alley to glide after her.

A careless footfall behind her kicked up a pebble and its clattering on the stone sidewalk finally caught the Twinsunnite's attention. Penelope hurried her steps; her footpads beat a hastier tattoo quickly matched by those following her. She glanced back. The street was quite empty at this point except for her pursuers! Her heart pounding, the little Twinsunnite dashed down the black sidewalk with two shadowy cloaks racing after her.

She ducked behind a building facade in the shadows, hiding and waiting. In moments, the pair dashed past her, their running feet vanishing swiftly into the darkness. Her fingers involuntarily grasped for her medallion, but found only the fur on her chest. She deeply regretted having to leave it behind at Lord Enid's request to maintain the secrecy of her mission.

Penelope spotted a narrow alley across the street and quickly sprinted across the sidewalk and into its enfolding shadows. Breathlessly she searched for the exit - and found it blocked by a pair of dark, hooded shapes. She turned for the street again, but the baleful glow of the street lamp cast a pair of long shadows from two more figures approaching her from behind to cut off her escape!

She backed against the wall of a building as the four thugs closed her in. The streetlight flashed from a thin, long knife blade weaving in the hand of the gang's leader. She fought her numbing fear as best she could, measuring the distance to where an effective kick might save her. Her heart pounded as though it would burst while she watched the glittering edge of death slowly nearing her throat.

A soft, high twanging broke the silence. Something hissed through the air toward her, followed by a solid chunk! The knife blade quavered, then dropped to the ground, followed by its owner. Another soft twanging, and a second member of the Nemite street gang shrieked as a spray of black blood spouted from its throat suddenly pierced by a slender metal shaft. The cry shattered the others' courage and they fled swiftly into the darkness, leaving the shivering Twinsunnite alone with two bleeding corpses at her feet.

A shadow moved up the alley as someone approached from the street. Lady Penelope shrank against the wall and pulled her cloak tightly about her in an attempt to blend into the darkness. The shadow moved silently towards her, until she could see the cold light from the street lamp shimmer from its scaly green skin.

She quickly recognized the little Saurian from the Dalmatian bar. It walked over to where she stood; a curious crossbow-pistol armed with a wicked-looking serrated-tipped bolt strapped to one arm. The small dinosaur pointed its weapon at each of the bodies in turn and prodded them with a three-toed foot to be sure they were very dead. Then, it reached down wordlessly and ripped the spent arrows from the carcasses, replacing the bolts in its quiver. This gory deed completed, the creature regarded Lady Penelope with great emotionless jade eyes. Although she tried to probe the mind beyond them, she might as well have tried to read a machine. The eyes could have been contemplating murder or salvation, she couldn't tell which.

The Saurian disarmed and removed its weapon, then made a series of deft gestures with its hands. Penelope recognized the Intergalactic Sign Language characters - it was asking if she was unharmed.

"I - I'm not hurt," she beamed back, signing her response simultaneously. The creature put two fingers in its mouth, and emitted a short, high whistle. Then, from the darkness of the alley, she heard footsteps approaching. Her heart quickened, but the Saurian regarded the sound with indifference.

"Hey - you okay?" a female voice whispered in Orcan. Lady Penelope issued a great sigh of relief when Coreandra Flint's deflection armor gleamed in the dim street lights.

"Yes, they didn't harm me," Penelope replied, "but that was certainly close! I feel such a fool for letting myself get cornered like that. If this Saurian and yourself hadn't happened along, I would have been in dire peril indeed."

"Indeed," Corey nodded. "Well, truth is we didn't 'xactly happen along. I had you followed when you left 'The Hold' - for your own protection."

"Then, you two are together?"

"You bet we are!" Corey stood by the Saurian and rubbed its shoulder. "This is Deeadori, First Mate of the Supernova. Best damn copilot and astronavigator in the galaxy!"

"He's also quite handy with that crossbow," Penelope pointed out. "I owe him my life."

"Dee's an expert with just 'bout every weapon known," Corey explained. "He'll be safe company out of the port district." The Orcan whispered something in one of the little dinosaur's ears. It nodded its head once as if in agreement, then tossed a black cloak about his shoulders. "He'll go with you back to your hotel."

"Thank you for the escort," Penelope replied courteously, adding, "remember, tomorrow morning."

"Don't worry. I won't forget," Corey replied. "Just you be sure what you're walkin' into, honey. Deedy and I might not be there the next time t' bail you out!"

"I'll keep that in mind, Captain Flint," Penelope replied.

On the way back, Lady Penelope attempted to strike up conversation with the Saurian in dozens of languages, but either she couldn't come up with the right one or else he didn't care to speak to her. He followed her back to the brilliant lights of the business district, then up the busy street to her hotel.

"This is where I'm staying." She indicated the sweeping vista of golden glass. "You're quite welcome to come up to my room and refresh yourself - " She turned - and found herself quite alone. The creature had evaporated swifter than the oppressive darkness of the Old City.