He hit the ground hard. So hard it forced the air out of his lungs, along with a fair amount of phlegm and blood. It wasn't as dark here, in this part of the city anyway. How he had found the way out, he had no idea but he had done it. It all looked the same down there. He had run for what felt like hours, though it was probably only minutes. Then he had seen the light, his way out.

He could've gone to Mars, why'd he have to come back here? Of all the places in the system...but there was not time for that. He picked himself up, coughing and spitting as he did so. He couldn't run, couldn't hide. He had to find someway, somehow...A noise sounded behind him.

"Hello?" but there was no answer. He turned and began running again, passed the burnt out hulk of a car, through an alley, only to find a dead end. He beat the brick walls with his fists in desperation. Giving in, he leaned against a dumpster. It heaved to the side without warning, exposing a hole in the building.

"Oh thank heaven." he muttered and crawled through. From the looks of it, this place had been deserted for a while. Very few windows had ever even existed and those that did let in little light. He spotted a set of metal stairs and ran for them, catching his own feet and falling into the railing. He groaned loudly, spitting blood out onto his chin. He grunted again and forced himself up the steps and to a catwalk that ran along the interior wall. There were several of them and his feeling was that the higher he went, the safer he was.

Upon reaching another flight he paused for breath, checking his pants. He swore in anger. How could he have lost it? That was his proof, his ticket off this rock and on to somewhere important. He had to retrace his steps and try to find it. Maybe when it was daylight, if he survived that long. Again his ears picked up the faint echo of...something. He had no time to ponder. Forcing the last of his strength, he climbed to the third level. Upon reaching it, he rested on the railing, only to have it fall away from him.

He landed on his left leg, which forced a loud and painful yell. His only option now was to pull himself along as best he could. In the darkness he could make out a shape. A chair? Yes, it was...but why here? Again he refused to waste the brainpower wandering. Pulling himself into its twisted form, he laid his head back and felt along his ribs. He was so tired now. It felt like he hadn't slept in days, like he could go to bed and never wake up.

For a second he had the feeling he was safe. But something stirred behind him, coming closer. He reached into his jacket, pulling out a small gun. It only had one bullet, but a person didn't have to be a genius to blow his brains out. He raised it to his temple, closing his eyes tightly. He never got the chance to pull the trigger.

Crooked Space - Episode 3: Come Together

10 months to conjunction

The lift ride to Lesko's office was never one of Michael's favorite things. Even so, it had never made him nervous and this didn't feel like nervousness. Was it anticipation? Maybe. He did want to get this over with as soon as possible. But this felt different, like he was about to have his life changed forever. He remembered only feeling this way on two seperate occasions. The first time was when he joined the ISDA. The second was...hard to remember. It was a chance meeting. While off duty one night, his partner had invited him down to their favorite tavern. He remembered it so clearly, like it was supposed to have happened. Tim had bumped into an old friend by accident and had brought her over to meet Michael. The rest, as they say, is history.

The elevator's abrupt stop jarred him from his memories. The feeling still remained however. He knew it wouldn't shake easily, not until he went through the door and listened to his old friend's reason for this morning's call. Sarah was busy fumbling with memos and other papers as he walked by. Seeing him was too much for her and she couldn't help but make a witty observation, lightly phrased and delivered with impeccable timing. In other words, she had a smart remark ready the minute he stepped out of the lift.

"Well, well. Give a monkey a brain and he'll swear he's the center of the universe. And how's Mr. Arkin this morning?"

Michael, drawing on his fine command of language, said nothing. He still couldn't shake the feeling that all of this was somehow the calm before the storm. He knew something was looming on the horizon, drawing closer. It tugged at him and gnawed at his soul. Still he couldn't place it and that was perhaps why it was so overwhelming.

He resisted the urge to turn around and passed through the door. When he did, he not only saw the calm but the storm as well. His old friend was sitting behind his desk with Lake August visible through the familiar window. In one of the seats directly across from him was a woman, who looked to be about 5'8" or so. Her gold-colored hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail though several strands hung in front of her face. She wore a dark grey sweater and a black knee-length skirt, complimented by black thigh-high socks and a pair of black dress boots.

"Good morning Mike." Lesko said. Michael merely nodded in return. "May I present your new partner, special agent Jessica Houston. Agent Houston, the legendary Michael Arkin." As she rose to meet him, he could tell his guess about her hight was pretty accurate. Her skin was lightly, yet evenly tanned. She was rather attractive in actuality, though that was the last thing on Michael's mind.

"A pleasure." she smiled, extending her hand to him. Common sense told him to shake her hand. His gut told him to run like hell. But he returned the gesture defying his gut for the first time since he could remember, finding that her grip was firm and sincere and that she had fixed her bright green eyes intently into his.

"Partner?" he asked Lesko as they both took their seats.

"Oh of course." he smiled. "I told you right after you got back from Europa. Didn't I?"

"I..." he paused, "Yeah you did. I thought you were joking. Special agent Houston?" he turned to her. "I don't remember seeing that name on..."

"How exactly did you make a living the past three years?" Lesko asked.

"Different ways. A bounty hunter, a private eye, a corporate spy." He said the last one quietly.

Lesko nodded. "Right, bad memories. Anyway, good luck Michael. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have on the job. Except for...but she lacks experience."

"What?" he asked, but Lesko pretended not to hear him as the freighter's door closed.

"You mean to tell me that she's..." Michael pulled away from his flashback.

"She's just been promoted." Lesko cut him off proudly. "Scored very high. The highest I've seen since you."

"Higher in fact." she didn't so much as smile. His old partner would've.

"I see." Michael said in a low voice. "Jessica?"

"Agent Houston, if you please." she corrected.

"Right, Agent Houston." he sat back. "The next few words are going to seem a little harsh and might even offend you. I just want you to know that this is not an attack on your character in anyway." She nodded slowly, giving Lesko a sideways glance. His words didn't seem to bother her in the least. If they did, Michael sure couldn't tell.

"Alright." she agreed.

"You mind doing some explaining Jim?" Michael asked.

"Mike it's Agency policy for a special agent to have a partner..." Lesko began.

"I thought we had an agreement." Michael countered. "I'm working for the Agency on my own terms. That means that I answer only to you. No pesky regulations, no unnecessary red tape and no partners."

"Please Mike. I know how you feel about it, but sometimes it's in the best interests of the Agency and the Alliance to..."

"Statistics do show that..." Jessica started in.

"Please." he stopped her. Then to Lesko, "We had a deal."

"We've also had a lot of accidents in the past few months." Lesko said gruffly. "A totaled freighter, a busted up capital city..."

"You know how I operate." Michael defended. "Even when Tim..."

"Tim kept you mostly out of trouble. As well as alive." Lesko pointed out. Michael sighed in defeat, knowing that once his old partner's name was mentioned the battle was already lost. "Listen, I promise it's only temporary, it won't be permanent." Lesko finished.

"Yeah, well I'm still waitin' to cash in on my last promise."

"I told you," Lesko laughed, "Your ship will be done in a few weeks. It might even be ready for your next mission. Come on Mike, you know just as well as I do, the Consortium is planning something big. A few people, myself included, feel that you could be instrumental in stopping it. I know precisely how you 'operate', which is why I can't have you dying on me. What do you say?"

"Alright. I'll do it." he put his hands to his face.

"Good." he sat back in his chair. "Then it's time you two were briefed on your first assignment together. Take a look at this." he passed a folder to Michael, who then distributed it's contents to his new partner. The first picture showed a girl in her late teens to early twenties. Her hair was jet black, complemented by fine features and pale skin.

"Her name was Shauna Pasquin, just some kid from Venus." Lesko explained. "The police found her just three days ago. We have no idea how long she'd been missing before that."

"She's from...good ol' Maxwell City." Michael observed. "Ah Venus, where oxygen's lighter than helium and cities float 50 kilometers off the ground. I have property there."

"You have property on Venus?" Lesko's interest was piqued.

"Yeah, beachfront if you can imagine." this to a smile from his old friend. Michael didn't smile in the least, however, showing he really meant what he'd just said.

"With all due respect Sir," Jessica asked slowly, thumbing through the last of the papers, "shouldn't the ISDA's branch on Earth handle this?"

"They're not qualified to. Just read on." he told her.

"Female, approximately 21 years old. She was found dead in an alley. The autopsy shows a normal woman in good health. No pre-existing mental or physical conditions...this says her body was mummified, within 12 hours." Jessica pointed out. "That's impossible given the circumstances. She was in a moist climate, with temperature and humidity that wouldn't have allowed for this. This couldn't have happened and not so quickly either."

"This is not the only case of an unexplained and inprobable death." Lesko said further. "Within the last two months, four such incidents have been reported and all in the same place, Washington City. You two are to go there and figure out exactly what's behind this."

"Earth...haven't been there in a while." Michael commented. "When do we leave?"

"As soon as possible. Be careful Mike, this is a very unusual and dangerous situation. We have no idea what killed these people. I'd hate for my finest agents to fall victim to it as well."

"Don't worry." Michael quipped. "You gave me a partner to keep me out of trouble. Right?"

"May I ask you a question agent Arkin?" They were in an air car, flying to the spaceport. Michael was at the controls, barely registering the traffic around him.

"You can call me Michael or even Mike, but not Mikey." he responded. She gave him a level gaze, which drew his attention away from the air lane briefly. "I take it you've already reviewed my profile." it was a statement, not a question.

"Of course."

"Then shoot."

"You seem to have a notorious past." she pointed out. "The many times you've been before a board, your response as to the reason for your actions has been quote: 'I was following my gut...' end quote. Why?" The car turned hard to the side, narrowly avoiding another. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that she hadn't even flinched.

"Because it's the truth." he said.

"No, why follow your gut? Out of a lot of those cases, logical evidence pointed to the contrary. Yet, you acted otherwise."

"In my experience..." he chose his words carefully. "You can't always trust the 'logical evidence' at hand." Their vehicle swerved around another and between two more.

"But how would an agent determine whether or not to trust the logical evidence?"

"On a case by case basis." he smiled.

"You mean your gut feeling? Basically you're saying that an agent should follow his or her instinct."

"Man is the only animal that trains himself not to trust his instinct," he countered, bringing the vehicle around once more.

"Man is also the only animal that blushes, or needs to, rather." she replied.

"Samuel Clemens." he nodded in approval. "Touché." The air car shot speedily through the sky before landing gently on the tarmac outside of the spaceport. Both agents stepped out, Michael taking his time.

"Is that where 'trusting your gut' comes in?" she asked.

"That's where experience comes in." he corrected.

"Agent Arkin and agent Houston?" a port official greeted them. Two men stood at his side, ready to follow any order received.

"Yeah, that's us." Michael replied.

"I've got you on a private cruiser to Earth in under an hour. Have you got everything you need?"

Michael looked around at the air car and then at his partner. Feeling around behind his back, he pulled his .45 and gave it a healthy shake.

"Yeah, I'm packed." he holstered it. Jessica rolled her eyes visibly.

"I have several bags in the trunk." she told the officer. "Make sure they're not damaged. Some of them contain sensitive equipment."

"Yes mam." he promised and ordered one of his men to tend to her luggage. Michael felt his gun again and nodded to himself.

"Where does a gun rank among the things an agent should trust?" Jessica asked as they walked through the port. Several people were backed up at a few of the gates, probably due to some bogus threat or something.

"Never leave home without it." Michael replied. "And you? What's your stance on firearms?"

"I consider such a measure to be a last resort, to be employed when all other avenues have been exhausted."

"No doubt you've trained with one, it's standard for an agent." he pointed out.

"Of course." was her consent.

"So, do you carry one?" he had to pry. But any answer she might have given was cut off by the hiss of the ship's boarding ramp. Both were met with the sounds of pilots and engineers checking this and that as they entered the Agency-owned cruiser. All the preparations for space flight were mechanical now, at least to the senior agent. He had been in space so many times, on his own ship and otherwise, that he could practically do it all in his sleep. Jessica seemed familiar with all the proceedurs too. Michael made a mental note of her behavior, though he was far from deciding on her yet. Instead he found a quiet seat and hunkered down to make himself as comfortable as he could. Jessica was busy inspecting her equipment making sure none of it had been damaged.

Thank Goddess Lesko said all of this was only temporary. He thought to himself. A smile pursed his lips as he settled in for a good nap and as few interruptions as possible. His new partner, however, had quite the opposite in mind. She entered the small cabin, carrying a single black case and took a seat across from Michael.

"So what's your area of expertise?" he asked through half-opened eyes. His chair faced the opposite direction.

"Forensics." she busied herself with the cases contents.

"That would include some sort of medical degree? Possibly also one in criminology?" He swiveled his chair around to face her directly. "I would assume there's a background in psychology somewhere in there as well. So you're Dr. Houston?"

"Technically yes, though I do not use the title." she looked up. "And you were quite correct about my academic background."

"Ah." he stroked his chin. The cruiser lurched forward without warning, causing Jessica to drop some of her equipment.

"Damn." she swore, breaking her calm demeanor. Michael smiled.

"Sorry about that folks." the pilot's voice crackled over the intercom. "We seem to be having some sort of difficulty with our inertial dampeners. Oh and I advise you to buckle in, seeing as we've just launched. Earth isn't to far around the system during this part of the year, so we expect to make good time. That's all from me, expect more when we land."

"Have you ever been to Washington City?" he asked after the ship's rocking had subsided.

"I've done a fair amount of study, seen a few pictures. I was on Earth during the beginning of my career. I served as a medical examiner at the local branch's office in New York. From what I've learned, Washington City is supposed to be one of the last wonders of Earth...What?" she noticed her partner had been staring at her and smiling.

"But you've never been there." his smile grew a little wider.

"No." she shook her head.

He laughed. "Then you're in for quite a surprise."