Astronoir: Saturn's Ring Showdown

Michael Panush

Ring-a-Ling Junction was a small outpost perched on the edge of Saturn's wide ring, with the expanse of cold golden glass on one end, and dark, empty space on the other. I was there after a voyage through the asteroid fields, with a shipment of high class booze inside the cargo hold of my phaeton-class starship, ready to sell it to the man who ran the town and make a tidy profit for myself.

My name is Gabriel Starr, and I'm a marshine runner. As long as the Terran government doesn't get around to repealing prohibition and the galaxy's distilleries keep making the stuff, there will be smugglers like me to run it. And as long as there are men with greed and sense in equal measure, men like Dino 'The Brain' Branigan, there will be speakeasies to sell it in.

The Brain ran Ring-a-Ling Junction, taking a piece off of every business in the town, and earning more money by purchasing booze shipments and sending them to the colonies on Saturn's surface. I didn't give a damn about his rackets. I was here to empty my cargo hold, get paid, and get out of there.

After setting the starship down in a dockyard on the west end of the Junction, I headed down Main Street and to the tall luxury dome on the city's edge. The entirety of Ring-a-Ling Junction was kept under a bubble of frosted glass, like some preserved specimen in a lab. I looked at the shop fronts, stores, saloons and hotels made of poor fashioned corrugated steel and red brick, all looking like they had fallen out of a Neptunian megavore's behind. The humming machines that kept the place running also kept it warm, and I felt overdressed in my vest, suit and trench coat.

I pulled my fedora low on my forehead and put my hands in the pocket of my silver trench coat as I approached the Brain's joint. I touched the handle of the ray gun in my shoulder-holster. The heater's presence reassured me in the same that an air tank reassures someone taking a space walk. The Brain's smart enough to know a good deal when he sees it, and mean enough to break it off if he think it will give any extra dough.

Two large gorillas, intelligent hairy apes that the Brain had shipped in from Terra to serve as muscle, flanked the gate. Both of them wore rumpled brown suits and short ties, and snorted at me when I came in. I raised my hands.

"Here to see the Brain," I said. "Just sailed in from the asteroid fields. Gotta a cargo of giggle juice he'll have a mind to buy."

The ape on the right snorted. "You got an appointment?"

"Didn't have time to make one. Couple of federals hit the place I was buying from, and the Yeggs running it starting throwing lasers at them." I pointed to the singed hole in the tail of my coat. "Kind of came here in a hurry."

"Let me square it with the Brain." The ape on the left stepped inside.

I waited and stared at the remaining gorilla. "So, what kind of monkey work the boss got you doing?" I asked.

"Drop dead, smart guy," the ape replied shortly.

"Jesus. Don't go bananas." I pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from my coat. "I'm just curious. How much does the Brain pay you, or is keeping you out of the zoo payment enough?"

"I don't deal with the Brain," the gorilla replied, pressing his lips together. I stuck a cigarette between them and lit it. "I just answer to Snoots. Far as I'm concerned, he's the boss of me."

"Who's Snoots?" I asked.

"That's Snoots." The gorilla jabbed a thick thumb behind him as the biggest gorilla I ever saw stepped outside. He wore a dark vest and shirtsleeves, with a curling scar that ran from the top of his domed forehead to the bottom his thick, square chin.

Snoots walked over to me on his knuckles, each hand looking like a wrecking ball in black fur. "The Brain will see you know, Spacehead," he said. "Follow me."

I did. We walked inside the domestic dome, through a few rooms with wide windows and tasteful geometric furniture to a large chamber at the far end, a balcony overlooking the endless expanse of space. The room was an office, with a desk the size of small space skimmer and covered in blinking, clanking machines. In the middle of the desk was glass jar filled with green liquid. Inside the jar was a brain.

"Hello, Gabe." The gruff voice of Dino Branigan came from speakers set at the ends of the desk. "What's the rumpus?"

"Not much," I said. "Just got into town, with a full shipment of booze to sell you." I looked at the jar and blew out a puff of smoke. "Gotta say, Branigan, you were a bit fatter last time I saw you."

"This is the way of the future, Gabe." The disembodied bobbed up and down in the jar. "Don't have to eat, don't have to piss. It's the tops, Gabe." The speakers swiveled a little, facing Snoots. "Why don't you go wait outside, Snoots. You're making Gabe nervous." The big ape nodded and walked out without another word. The Brain turned back to me. "As for your shipment, I know all about it. Got a couple gorillas at the docks, and I already had them unload it."

"Huh." I put my feet on the desk. "Funny thing about that, Branigan – I ain't been paid yet. These holes in my coat ain't for show. It wasn't duck soup to get out that booze and I don't want it sold for cheap."

The Brain's voice came in an electric rush. "Well, Gabe, I hate to be the guy to tell you, but I'm kind of light on funds on the moment. See, a couple of out-of-towners hit the big bank down on main street, and all the green's been lifted. Damn yeggs didn't leave a red cent behind." He sighed, a noise that sounded like a muffled mechanical explosion through the tinny speakers. "I got some cash around here, but I can only pay you half of the original price."

"That so?" I asked. "Well, maybe I ought to tell ever other spacehead marshine runner I know what kind of prices you charge, and tell them to avoid Ring-a-Ling Junction at all costs." I stood up. "That rattle your jar?"

"I'm telling you, it ain't my fault!" the Brain cried. "Look, you're want your money back? There's a bar down on main street, a real run down gin joint called the Crimson Claw. Fellow who runs it, he bought the place just the week before the robbery. I got a feeling he's got his claws mixed up in it. Go and talk to him, drum up some info, and then my gorillas will do the rest."

"Why don't you have your gorillas do the dirty work?" I asked. I paused. "You said 'claws'?"

"Yeah. The mug owns the place is a Bug-Eyed." Soon as the Brain said the words, I narrowed my eyes. I was a veteran of the Bug-Eyed War, and had battled the green-skinned, muscled and monstrous invaders in the jungles of Venus. All those hard years in my finned helmet, all those blasts of ray guns and blood shed by Bug-Eyed claws, came rushing back to me. "You're a veteran, right Gabe?" the Brain asked.

"Right," I said.

"Then I don't got to tell you what a trouble those lousy Bug-Eyeds can be. I don't want to lose a gorilla to him." The green juice in the jar bubbled. "You go investigate, maybe I'll double that fee of yours."

"Sounds jake to me." I was already standing up. I tipped the brim of my hat. "I'll be back, Branigan. Don't go anywhere."

"Hah!" the Brain's tinny laughter sounded after me. "See you around, wise guy!"

I left the Brain's luxury dome and headed back on main street. I walked along the bumpy sidewalk and came to the intersection in the middle of Ring-A-Ling junction. There was the bank, all blown to hell and guarded by a pair of deputies with spreader guns on their shoulder. I decided to get a closer look.

I walked across the main street, stepping out of the way of a passing hovercar, and approached the two coppers. "Hello, gents," I said, tipping my fedora. "Were you boys around when the bank got knocked over?"

"I sure was." The deputy with a haggard face and a white moustache nodded. "Damndest thing I ever saw." He pointed down the street. "Hovercar comes screaming down the street, all guns firing. They blow the front of the bank open with a couple pineapple plasma grenades, then dash inside."

"Get a good look at them?" I asked.

"Sure, bo, but they was wearing red jumpsuits, hoods and goggles. Didn't see a single hair on their faces." He shook his head, like the whole thing was as inevitable as a change in the weather. "They was big guys though. Broad shoulders, and tall as can be."

"Thanks," I said. "For satisfying my curiosity." I turned and headed for the other side of the street.

"Where the going, bo?" the deputy called to me.

I spotted the neon sign for the Crimson Claw saloon, glowing a few blocks down. I smiled to myself. "Going for a drink," I said. I walked down the sidewalk and approached the Crimson Claw. It was a rundown old joint, with a sagging roof, leaning doors on rusty hinges, and was deserted except for the barman.

I walked in and looked at him. He could have given the gorillas a run for their money. He was a Bug-Eyed, with a round head, slit nose and fanged mouth between wide shoulders bugling with muscle, his green skin looking sickly in the lowlight of the saloon. His hands rested on the bar, each one the size of a frying pan. Bug-Eyeds have retractable claws, and his were sheathed for now. I looked at his eyes, red orbs full of utter malevolence. He stood a head and a half taller than me.

"What get you, earthman?" he asked, his voice sounding like glass bottles being ground up. He wore a white shirt and trousers held up with suspenders, and he tucked his hands under the suspenders as he regarded me.

I took a seat in front of him. "Shot of Jupiterian Vodka. Couple of Venusian redlimes."

He got busy. I looked at him and produced a cigarette. "Got me a taste for the redlimes," I said. "I was stationed on Venus. During the war."

"Hmmm." He growled as he set his massive hands on the bar. "You fight?"

"Sure," I agreed. "Name's Gabriel Starr. Then I fought. Now I run booze."

"I called Kills-With-Claw," the Bug-Eyed said. I raised an eyebrow. Bug-Eyeds were named after what they did, and this name didn't speak well to the fellow's kindness. "I run this place now. All other places run by Brain. But I run this place."

I took a sip of the vodka. It felt like fire going down my throat. "You don't got no pals?" I asked.

"Not in this town."

"Huh." I leaned forward. "You sure you wouldn't happen to have any friends in the bank robbing business?" I asked. "After all, that's your nature, isn't it? Much more suited to feuding and fighting than any other pursuits. Surprised your little saloon is still in business, actually."

Kills-With-Claw snarled. "The Brain send you, earthman?" he asked.

"Nah. I just came to take in the atmosphere of the joint." I stood up and set my empty glass down. My temper had been up since I saw him behind the bar. Now it was flaring down and going cold and cruel."And I think this place needs some work. Maybe some new curtains. Couple new windows too." I tossed the glass behind me. It shattered on the window near the door, splintering the glass.

Kills-With-Claw pulled a stout wooden club from behind the bar. Bug-Eyeds only unsheathed their claws if they meant to draw blood and take lives. I guess he figured he could give me a thrashing and let me live. "You look for trouble?" he asked.

"And I'm gonna find it," I said. I gritted my teeth. "Now let's stop bumping gums and get to it."

He moved first, leaping over the bar and swinging his arm into me. It felt like a plasma bomb went off between my eyes and then I was soaring backwards until the wall stopped me. I sank to the ground, and told my legs to start working and make me stand. They did their thankless job, just as Kills-With-Claw came charging towards me.

The Bug-Eyed raised the club to make my head mush, but I reached into my coat and withdrew my ray gun. It was a finned and frilled pipe with a handle and trigger. I fired a single shot of emerald light, burning the club to cinders in his meaty green hand. "You got a lot of nerve!" I said, rolling out of the way of his speeding foot. "Thinking you can rob our banks just like you tore out so many lives in the war!"

"I did not rob bank!" he shouted, swinging down one of his fists and knocking the pistol from my hand. I let the ray gun fall, then cracked my own fist into the slits that served as his nose. He opened his mouth, revealing fangs like scimitars, and tried to take a bite out of my hand. I pulled back and kneed him in the chest.

"The hell you didn't!" I shouted. "You and a couple of your bug-eyed buddies, dressed up in jumpsuits and hoods, speeding through town in a red hot hovercar and…" I paused. "You ain't got no buddies in town," I said.

"Yes!" he snarled. "Just me! I buy saloon, then the Brain wants me to sell to him! I only one refuse to pay him money! I am no coward! I fight all he send at me! Now, earthman, I gut you!" His claws came out. They cut through the air as they sailed over to cut my head in half. I threw myself backwards, landing on the floor of the saloon near my ray gun. I reached out, grabbed the pistol and pointed it at Kills-With-Claws.

He paused. I cocked the weapon. "We been set up," I said. "The both of us. The Brain knew I was a veteran and would have a grudge against a Bug-Eyed, and he wanted you out of the way. So which ever killed the other, he'd come up on top." I kept my ray gun steady. "You want to go ahead and prove him right, pal?"

Kills-With-Claws hands fell to his side. "You admit you were wrong in attacking me?"

"I ain't stupid, even if I look the type," I said. I stood up and holstered my pistol. "The Brain had me pegged for a sucker and a useful one at that, and I'm a little upset about it." I nodded to his claws. "Sorry about getting your blades out, Kills-With-Claws. No need to go cutting me up."

"I will still use them!" Kills-With-Claws hissed. "On the Brain!"

"You and me both, brother," I said. "But those apes of his will ventilate us before we can put a crack in his jar. We're gonna have to play this one smart." I reached for a cigarette, feeling my head swim. "So, I'm betting it was the Brain himself that pulled the bank job."

"Yes," Kills-With-Claw agreed. Then his red eyes twinkled with confusion. "But why steal his own money?"

"He stole everyone else's cash too, don't forget. And having the dough stolen gave him the perfect excuse for stiffing me, and everyone else he owes." I thought for a few seconds. "Jumpsuits, hoods and goggles on muscled galoots – sounds like the Brain's gorilla gunsels. And a hovercar being the get-away vehicle? This tiny town ain't got the space for a good getaway to be made on only a hovercar. The only place they could ride that was to the docks, which the Brain owns."

Kills-With-Claw nodded. "He is clever one."

"Too clever by half," I said. "So let's you and me get rid of him. You like the sound of that, big fellow?"

"What is your plan, earthman?" he asked.

I thought for a few seconds. I reached into the pocket of my coat. I pulled out a pair of round cylinders the size of a nickel and set them in my palm. "Com discs," I explained. "Useful for keeping in touch with another mug, if the situation calls for it. But I think I might have another plan."

"We go to the Brain's place and slay him?" Kills-With-Claw asked, sounding like he liked that idea.

I shook my head. "Not just yet," I said. "But I got a feeling they'll be killing enough." Then I raised an eyebrow at the Bug-Eyed. "One more thing – got any rope in this joint?"

A couple minutes later we were ready. I walked down the street with the Bug-Eyed in front of me, a length of Martian gut-rope wrapped around his hands and the barrel of my ray gun pressed against his back. We walked down main street, and if anyone noticed, they didn't say anything.

I walked Kills-With-Claw down to the Brain's dome and faced the two apes in front of the door. "Better get Snoots," I said. "I got something for your boss." Kills-With-Claw growled slowly.

One of the gorillas disappeared inside the dome. A while later, Snoots came out. The big ape looked angrier than ever. He had a cigar the size of a nightstick in his mouth. It smelt like a Plutonian waste pit, and he put his face close to mind so I could get a good whiff of the foul stogie.

"What you got here?" he asked.

"Present for the Brain," I said, smiling. "How's he treat you, by the way? I can already see he doesn't pay you well enough." We started to walk inside the dome, heading towards his office.

"How can you tell that?" Snoots growled. The other apes followed us, keeping their distance but still able to listen in.

"If he gave you a living wage, maybe you could afford cigars that don't stink so bad," I said, wrinkling up my nose. "Or maybe that's just the jungle scent clinging to you."

Snoots didn't like that. He dug his knuckles into the ground. "That's enough out of you, smart guy. I was you, I'd clam up before I started losing teeth."

"I was you, I'd think about getting a boss who respects me," I replied. We had reached the door to the Brain's office. "It's Gabe!" I called. "Me and Snoots and a prisoner to see you, Branigan!"

"Gabe, come on in!" the Brain seemed friendly as always. I prodded Kills-With-Claw forward. "Snoots, you and the other gorillas can wait outside." I looked back at Snoots and gave him a quick smile before closing the door behind me. I prodded Kills-With-Claw in the back and he sat down.

The Brain was still floating in his jar in the middle of the desk, his lights still flickering and his speaker still making his voice sound tinny enough to be ridiculous. "Hello, Gabe," the Brain said. "What's the rumpus?"

"Well, I followed your advice," I said. "Found this Bug-Eyed, beat a couple shades of green out of him, and he fessed right up."

"That so?" The Brain seemed a little curious. The green water bubbled. "What he say?"

"Said he didn't have a blessed thing to do with the bank robbery," I said. "And then I did some thinking and realized he was right." I leaned forward, sneering at the Brain. "The next time you want to rob the town's bank, Branigan, consider getting a getaway vehicle that could leave Ring-a-Ling Junction on its own accord. I figure you got it stashed away at your dockyards."

The Brain's green juice started bubbling like coffee on the stove now. "Now hold on, Gabe, just wait a—"

I took out one of my communicators and showed the Brain the small disc. "I've got this thing connected to the police station and the newspaper in town. I know you got a lot of pull in this rotten burg, but when they search the dockyards and find the hovercar that made off with all their money, well, I don't think you'll last a long time, Branigan."

"You wouldn't dare," the Brain replied. "The coppers would love to snap up a bootlegging sap like you, and you wouldn't go dealing with them, not if your life depended on it!"

"You calling my bluff? Well, I already called the cops and the newshounds." I pressed down on the disc. It started to glow a soft blue. "You better be thinking of an alibi instead."

"All right, all right!" The Brain thought for a few seconds, stewing in his jar. "You'll get your money, Gabe. You'll get it. And I'll let the gorillas take the fall. I'll tell them all that Snoots thought it up and pulled it off without consulting me. The apes can get pinched and I'll survive."

I raised an eyebrow. "You'd just get rid of your own men like that?"

"Why not?" The Brain asked. "Dumb muscle ain't hard to come by."

After he said that, the door was torn off its hinges. I had been lying about sending a message to the police. The Brain was right about that, a bootlegging smuggler like me couldn't rely on the law to solve his problems. But I had switched the disc on and set it to record the conversation in the Brain's office, just after I had tossed the second com disc on the carpet outside, where Snoots and the waiting gorillas heard every word that the Brain had said.

Snoots smashed the door down and looked at the Brain. "Just dumb muscle, eh?" he asked, approaching the desk on his stubby feet. The other two apes stood behind me, both barring their teeth and looking mad. I got out of their way.

"Snoots, Jesus, I didn't—" The Brain started, but Snoots was convinced. He tore the Brain's jar off of the desk, sending up a shower of sparks, and tossed it against the far window. It shattered the glass of the jar, and the mashed brain slid down the wide window like a coat of pink, pulpy paint. But Snoots wasn't done with being angry.

He turned on me, roaring as he drew a sawed-off spreader gun from his belt. "And you!" he shouted. "Wait 'til I'm done with you, smart guy!"

Kills-With-Claw chose that moment to snap his bonds. I hadn't bound him tight enough so that he couldn't get free with just a little effort, and he flexed his arms and faced Snoots. The ape tried to shoot the Bug-Eyed down, but Kills-With-Claw was already pouncing on him. The wounds the claws made were familiar to me – deep, red, and lethal. Kills-With-Claw finished off Snoots in seconds. He looked up at the remaining two apes and sheathed his claws. The gorilla torpedoes didn't move. They raised their furry hands in the air, a smart decision.

"What now, earthman?" Kills-With-Claw asked me.

"Now? Why don't you pick up where the Brain left off?" I asked. I went behind the desk and looked at the floor. Terran dollar bills waited in neat bundles, just as they had been packed when they were stored at the bank. I took what was owed me. "Me? I'm gonna go hit the spaceways."

"Will you return?" the Bug-Eyed asked. "You are good, for an earthman."

"You gonna ask me to marry you?" I asked, cracking a smile as I reached for a cigarette. "Sure, I'll be back. And if you're still running the place, I'll stop in for a chat." I tipped the brim of my hat. "Until then, Kills-With-Claw, adios."

-The End-