Astronoir: Shooting Star

Michael Panush

The creators of Coldburg had a great idea once – they'd take one of them ice comets that flew around the galaxy, hollow it out, slap in some life support systems and let it keep flying around, a constantly moving hideout that went through sector lines and intergalactic borders like they weren't even there. Their very own Shangri-La for everything against the law, which might as well be everything worth doing. Or everything that makes a profit.

Coldburg had be buzzing past the Wide Spiral sector and soon as my Phaeton class starship picked up its hidden readings, I had the computer set a course for the comet. My hold was as empty as a poor man's pockets, and that's death's black kiss for someone in my line of work. Gabriel Starr is the name, and my occupation is running marshine, bootleg liquor and whatever else the authorities don't like but the people will buy.

I leaned back in the seat of my sleek, needle-like starship as the engines and the docking computer did the rest. I reached into the folds of my silver trench coat, past the ray gun in its shoulder-holster and then to a gleaming gold flask filled with some of the best liquid to ever call my starship home. I took a slug, and let that and any feelings of unease I had sort themselves out as I called up the owners of Coldburg.

Jiminy Jeeps's grinning face appeared in the corner of the com screen, wide teeth covered with a reflective metal. "Starr!" he said, a squeak in his voice like he had swallowed a mouse. "Welcome to Coldburg. What can I do you for?"

"Looking for a night in a real bed, instead of my lousy cot," I replied. "And maybe some business with your other patrons."

"We got chippies on hand, you want that bed shared," Jeeps said, with a knowing wink. I half expected his bowtie to twirl around. Jeeps ran Coldburg and knew exactly what his customers wanted.

I shook my head. "And wake up with a case of the Plutunion nits? No thanks. What's your docking fee?"

"Gee, Starr. Times are a bit tough. Forty bucks to dock, and twice that for a room." His mirrored smile never faltered. "What do you say?"

"I say you're a thief and a cheat and you're going to hell," I told him. He grinned at that. We went back at forth, arguing over prices while I sped closer to the rock. The hunk of ice and earth was big and ovoid, and multi-colored gasses seeped out into the blackness of space from several grates. If you knew what you were looking for, you could make it out. Otherwise, it was just another hunk of cold rock in a universe full of them.

By the time we had agreed on a price my ship was already sliding through the dock bay doors. Automated metal hands reached out from the wall and latched to the sides of the Phaeton. I stood up from my seat, put everything on standby, tightened my tie, set my fedora on my scalp, tossed a pack of cigarettes into my vest pocket and slipped on socks and shoes. Three weeks in space and I stank like a waste pit. I was looking for a rest and a profit. Fate had other ideas.

After getting the ship properly docked I walked down to the common chamber in the center of Coldburg, looking for some business with any other liquor importers. The joint was as wide open as they come. A cloud of smoke hovered over the wide marble floor, with bars and store fronts built into alcoves carved out of the living rock. Gaudy golden pillars held up the roof while the occasional curtain hid bare rock.

The guests were also worth looking at. They were the scum of the spaceways, all of them lying low and living large. Feminine cigarette girlbots clanked around, holding out trays of their wares that included everything from Terran tobacco to the worst Martian psyweeds. The guests themselves ranged from slick gang bosses in tuxedoes and top hats, and hired torpedoes and contract killers in rough coats with bulges under their arms, to the dames that courted danger and both types of powerful men and renegade spaceheads in round leather helmets and glowing goggles.

I picked a bar that looked like it would attract the type of mug would have a full hold and a willingness to sell and walked up to it. The barbot was on the fritz, haywire enough to give me Martian tequila when I asked for Jupiter's Vodka, but not broke enough to spill the drink. I sipped the bad booze and let it curl around inside my stomach.

A short, blue-skinned Uranian in a red jacket and a fez pulled himself into the seat next to me. He looked at me, his thick three fingered hand held a large cigar, which he waved at me. "Ain't seen your mug around here, buddy," he said. "Name's Qupell Blip. Exotic smuggler."

"Gabe Starr. Booze runner," I introduced myself. "Exotic smuggling? That's a hell of a line of work." I paused to toss back some tequila. "What exactly do you smuggle?"

"Oh, you know." Qupell came up to my waist. Standing on top of the barstool, he could look me in the eye. "This. That."

"The other thing?" I asked.

"Yeah." He grinned. "You're a good egg, Starr. Let me buy you a drink." He held up his hand and the barbot set a glass down for him. "Say, Starr, let me let you in on a little secret."

"What sort of secret?" I asked. "I like keeping my nose clean, even though the line of work I'm in is dirty. You want to stick my face in the garbage pile?"

Qupell shook his head. "Perish the thought, buddy! Was thinking you might make a little extra moolah off of a certain package I got up in my room. It's hot though, like a coal out of the fire, and you'd have to move it tonight." He spun around on the barstool, his bare, three-toed feet waving in the air. "I'll take a cheap price for the package too – one, maybe two hundred. You pick it up, rocket off tonight, sell it tomorrow, and pocket a tidy sum. How's that sound?"

"Like ray gun charging up," I said. "And burning out my skull."

"Geez, Starr! I was just making an offer!" Qupell didn't like that. "Come on, buddy! Tell me why you're dragging me through the sludge?"

"Could be on account of your package, whatever it is, is something you want to get rid of – and fast. And maybe that means you're playing for a sucker, thinking you can unload something that's hot enough to burn." I drained my glass. "So how about you take that raw deal of yours and go jump out of an airlock."

The air between us went sour. "Look here, Mr. Starr, I was just trying to help you make some dough!" Qupell hissed. "Ain't my fault you don't know a good deal when you see it." He chewed on the end of his cigar like he was trying to swallow it. I saw beads of sweat glisten on his blue, wide forehead.

I finished my drink and decided to see if any of the slick bigwigs crossing the floor would have a better deal. I stepped out onto the marble floor when I heard a noise I remembered. I had heard it before in the jungles of Venus, during the war. Whenever the Bug-Eyed invaders came loping down, we marines would dig in and hit them back with every blazing laser and roaring ounce of lead we could find. That noise was gunfire.

A couple dozen scruffy spaceheads walked down to the wide chamber from the main hallway, weapons glowing in their hands. They were a tough bunch, dressed in dingy brown coats, battered flat and newsboy caps, most of them wearing goggles. All were armed, either with ray guns, laser rifles, atommy guns or glowing, hissing beam blades. They looked like people you'd find in a dark alley if you were in a mood to end your own life.

The assembled guests or Coldburg started to get scared. Somebody screamed, and a couple of the bigwigs and button men reached for their guns, until a blast of rapid atommy gun fire into the air made all of them freeze.

"Next one of you mugs reaches for a heater get their goddamn face blown off!" The thug in the front raised his atommy gun, showing that he wasn't in the mood to be friendly. One of the wooden-headed gunsels in the hall decided to test him and drew a ray revolver from his coat. The front of his head was red paint before he could bring up the gun. I made sure my hands were raised.

"Oh snarp." Qupell turned to face me. "You gotta help me, pal! These spacehead psychopaths know about what I pinched! They want me!" His voice was a panicked whisper, and he grabbed the ends of my coat. "They want what I pinched off of Venus!"

I raised an eyebrow. "So why don't you give it to them?"

By now most of the folks in the marble chamber had gotten more friendly. The space pirates, for that's what they had to me, marched into the assemblage, making sure no one got any ideas. The tall fellow with the atommy gun turned his head. "They're all ready for you, captain," he said.

In walked a dame. She was tall and wore a scarlet coat, her brown hair short and her arms folded. One of her eyes was brown and hard. The other was gone, replaced with a glowing red otpic rimmed with steel. She had a beam saber on her belt and a long barreled automatic in the other hand.

"All right," she said. "My name is Captain Cornelia Drake. You blokes must know who I am, I reckon, and you know what I'll do to you if you don't cooperate, and if you're not being polite enough to my liking." She grabbed the handle of the beam saber. "Now me and my mates are looking for any of you that might have just come in from sunny old Venus. Any takers?"

There was only a mumbled response. Qupell was about to dangle, but I grabbed his shoulder.

Captain Drake shook her head. "Come on now," she said. "We already been chatting with Mr. Jeeps and he told us that what we're looking for is here. So somebody spill or I'll let the boys get to work and you'll talk anyway."

I raised a hand. "You'll rot in hell for this!" Quepell hissed. "Snarp! Snarp! Snarp!"

The space pirates made their way towards me. I reached into my coat for a cigarette and their guns seemed to aim themselves at my face. I took out the cigarette slowly and set it in my mouth. "Can't a guy smoke?" I asked.

"Oh yes," Captain Drake replied. "And he can burn as well. You just flew in from Venus?"

"Not me," I explained. "My buddy here." I patted Qupell's shoulder. He stuck out his tongue and waved his hands.

Drake nodded. "Uranian, eh?" she asked. She drew out her beam saber, holding the glowing, pale blue blade an inch from Qupell Blip's sweating face. "Where you got the eggs stashed, Uranian?"

"Come on, sister!" Qupell hissed. "Gimme a break!"

"Uranians…" Captain Drake leaned forward. Her remaining eye could have belonged to Medusa. "I always forget what color they bleed. Care to remind me?"

"All right! All right! The egg's in my room, top level, fifth circle." Qupell hopped off of the barstool, his little hands waving in the air. "Follow me, I'll take you right to it! Don't whack me! I'm begging you, sister!"

"We'll see," was all Drake said. She looked at me and nodded. "You come too," she ordered. "You're his buddy, ain't you? Get moving."

She was some twist. I figured I better do like she said. I stood, finished my drink and started following Qupell. Captain Drake and her crew of cutthroats walked around us, their weapons stopping us from doing anything they didn't want us too. My ray-gun was still in my shoulder-holster, but I bet Drake's beam saber would be between my ribs before I cleared holster.

Qupell walked to the elevator at the end of the chamber and punched in the coordinates. His fingers were shaking. I leaned in close to him. "So what sort of egg did you steal?" I asked. "And what kind of chicken is it hatching?"

"Cripes. This is a real mess." The elevator door opened with a mechanical clank. I got inside first, with Qupell dashing after. The space pirates started to pack inside, leaving only a trio of men with sub-guns to keep a watch over the assembled guests of Coldburg. Qupell scratched his bald head. "You get me out of this alive, I'll pay you forty thou. Swear to all the gods of sun and sky."

"Keep talking," I whispered.

"The egg – stole it from some Venusian temple. Those green-skinned, pointy-eared savages we're worshipping the damn thing."

I nodded, leaning in close so that the space pirates couldn't listen in. "And what exactly is inside?"

His purple eyes went wide as dinner plates. "Bloodbeast," he whispered. I started to wish I had slept on my ship, with my bad smell being the biggest of my problems.

For those of you not in the know, the Venusian Bloodbeast is a creature that's hungry enough to eat the universe and still have room for a second helping. And they multiply, using every drop of blood they spill to make them spit out another egg, which then hatches, until there's enough of the monsters to swarm over any foes. When I was stationed on Venus, there was talk of letting a few loose on the Bug-Eyeds, but that plan got shot down pretty quick when we realized they'd turn on us soon as they finished off the Bug-Eyed, and they wouldn't stop until the whole planet was full of them.

The elevator stopped when I was still thinking about Qupell's words. We stepped out in a cleaned tiled hall. Jiminy Jeeps wasn't lying about how nice he kept the upper hotel rooms. Each one was like a clean white palace, with a glass window overlooking the void of space. Qupell led us to his room and fiddled with the keys.

"And no bloody funny business, Uranian," Captain Drake hissed. "Or I'll make you even shorter with this blade. You got that?"

"Right, right," Qupell muttered as the door swung open. I stepped inside with him and we walked across the room. It was small, but cozy, with a bed five times the size of Qupell, a round table where his suitcase rested, a drinks cabinet with a better stock that most saloons, and a box of those big cigars the Uranian liked. Qupell moved to that first. He opened it and swiftly took out two of the largest automatics I had ever seen. They were made of gray steel, with ivory butts.

Qupell spun around, pointing them at Cornelia Drake. "Hah!" he said. "I got you now! You and your whole damn crew, you dumb skirt! Looks like you pirates picked the wrong fellow to screw with!"

I made my hand into a fist and let it fall on the top of his head, hard enough for it to hurt. Qupell hit the ground in a heap. I reached down and grabbed the automatics. "No need to get nasty," I said. "For anyone." I tucked the automatics into my pockets.

Captain Drake smiled at me. "What a gentleman!" she said.

"Like hell," I retorted. "Qupell plugged you, your crew would have blasted the both of us to rags with one of them sub-guns."

"And smart too." Captain Drake turned to Qupell, who was just putting his fez back on. "All right, Uranian. Enough fun and games. Where's the egg?"

He pointed to the nightstand. "I had the dingus right there! Swear to the gods of sun and sk—"

Drake shook her head. "Don't start. It ain't there now. So where'd it get off too?" She walked over to the nightstand and picked up a thin piece of emerald shell between her figures. She looked back at Qupell. "What happened? You got hungry, decided to break the egg and fry it up?"

Qupell shook his head as my guts went cold. I looked at the eggshells and tried to remember anything I had learned about Bloodbeasts on Venus. I had never seen one of the monsters, but besides the always hot weather, subjects to indecent to bring up in polite company and the brutal war, they were one of the few topics of conversation in the trenches.

I knew that Bloodbeast eggs didn't hatch unless they had a couple drops of blood splashed onto the shell, and that they grew up faster than a green recruit after a raging battle. I looked at the bathroom door, and saw that it was swinging open. Drake noticed that too.

She nodded to one of her pirates, a big, broad-shouldered bruiser with a triple barreled spreader. "Go on," Drake ordered. "Check it out."

The pirate nodded and walked over to the bathroom. He pushed open the door with the shotgun and stepped inside. A split-second later, the shotgun went off and smashed the tiled door with a wave of steel-jacketed rounds, and a spray of blood decorated the white walls of Qupell's room. The air pirate stepped backwards, holding what was left of his chest in his hands. He sank down and died.

The door slammed open and the fully mature and already hungry Bloodbeast lunged outside. It was moving too fast, but I got a glimpse of four talon-tipped legs, a narrow head filled with curved, jagged teeth, a lean hound-like body the rusty color of dried blood, and yellow eyes that glinted like dulled firelight.

My ray gun was out and I was firing every blast in the pistol's battery at the beast, along with all of the other Space Pirates, but the damn critter was just too fast. Another pirate went down, a sickle claw dragged across his throat, and then a third was bitten on the arm and screamed as the Bloodbeast's acidic venom melted off the limb.

I grabbed Qupell. "Out!" I shouted. "Move!"

He did and I followed, and Captain Drake did as well. We dashed for the door, diving out into the hall as the Bloodbeast tore up the room. I slammed the door shut behind us, and felt the Bloodbeast pounding its lithe body against the wood, splintering it slowly. Every inch of that monster was coiled muscle, and I knew it would last long. Plus, there was enough blood spilled in that room for it to multiply.

"I didn't let it hatch!" Qupell whined. "You gotta believe me!"

"Who else could've?" Captain Drake demanded. "Those are my men, you little wretch!" She raised her pistol, but I pointed my ray gun at her. Drake narrowed her eyes. "You asking for something, spacehead?"

"Better than being a stinking buccaneer," I replied. "And right now we're all in the same space station that's crashing into the sun, so go ahead and bump me, toots, and then you might as well toss yourself into the Bloodbeast, because that's how long you're gonna last."

Drake lowered the pistol, but didn't holster it. "You got a plan?"

"Yeah. Might just save our lives, and everyone else's on the station. You got a map of et place?"

"Yeah," she said, pressing a button of the comlink on her wrist. A glimmering hologram, orange blue prints, of the interior of Coldburg popped up, spinning around slowly.

I looked at the schematics for our floor and pointed to a panel down the hall and through some maintenance tunnels. "That's where the control panels our. We suck all the air out of this floor, give it some time for us to get clear, and it won't matter how many Bloodbeasts there are."

Drake nodded. "Looks like you're thinking straight, stranger."

"One tiny problem with that, you morons!" Qupell Blip, ever the ray of sunshine, pointed out. "The Bloodbeast, or Bloodbeasts any second now, ain't gonna stay put and go quietly into the night! They'll be crawling out through the air vents, smashing through the walls, burrowing through the goddamn floors! They'll come for us, and munch us down!"

I pulled out both of his automatics. I held one in each hand, leaning the long barrels on my shoulders. "We'll deal with them," I said. "Now let's dangle."

We walked down the hallway, and it wasn't long before the Bloodbeasts made their appearance. The first one came leaping out from a loose panel in the ceiling, landing on the ground and lunging for us. It was fast. I was faster. I raised both of my pistols and opened fire, the heavy automatics blasting the creature to pieces and letting it topple to the ground. It didn't bleed, just rupture and break.

"Keep moving!" I shouted. The maintenance tunnel was nearby, and after that, it was just a short jaunt to the control panel. The Bloodbeasts picked that moment to come swarming out of the woodwork, smashing through the metal sides of the door and spilling into the hallway like blood from an open wound. They seemed pretty happy to see us.

I raised both of the automatics and didn't let go of the trigger. The Bloodbeasts exploded as the heavy bullets tore them, reddish chunks of their bodies tumbling against the walls and onto the tiled floor. We ran forward, fighting our way through. Captain Drake had her beam blade in one hand and her long barreled in the other, slashing and shooting wildly. Qupell had his hands over his eyes and was shivering so that the tassel on his fez whipped around rapidly.

Qupell stayed between us, and some miracle kept the Bloodbeasts from snatching him up. A thin, sickle-shaped claw cut into my arm and drew blood, but Drake skewered the beast before it could do any more damage. I looked up and saw the maintenance tunnel. We had one shot.

"Go!" I shouted, and we dashed forward. For a few seconds he moved straight through the main swarm of the Bloodbeasts, and then we had reached the door. I blasted off the lock and kicked it open. Drake darted in front of me, kicking Qupell Blip in front of her. Then I slammed the door. I drew out my ray gun and fused the door shut. It wouldn't last long, but it was all we had.

As the Bloodbeasts pounded on the door, I walked over to the control panel. "Should be jake…" I said, my fingers switching the screen over to the life support section of the menu. "Just cut off the oxygen to every room but the one we're in. The Bloodbeast die, and then we can shoot their corpses out into space and let them fall into the sun. Duck soup."

Except it wasn't. I pressed down on the main key, ordering the oxygen to drain away, and the screen flashed red. My access had been denied, the screen was kind enough to tell me. I bit my lip. Outside, the Bloodbeasts were pounding against the door. They must be numbering in the hundreds now, each one already pregnant and ready to pump out even more of the hungry critters. It was only a matter of time.

"So what's the big idea, huh?" Qupell asked. "You told us you can handle this, and now here we are, trapped in some goddamn broom closet, about to be munched up by them big red devil dogs!"

Drake grabbed Qupell's throat and hauled him into the air. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for you bringing that bloody egg over here, you sod."

"I had a good offer!" Qupell cried. "I was just looking to make some extra bank!"

I turned to Qupell. "What?" I asked. "Someone hired you? Mind telling me who?"

"I would, but I don't know them. Anonymous note popped up in a my bungalow on Venus, along with a couple hundred bucks in advance payment. Said there'd be more waiting on Coldburg, and the comet was just swooping past. So I swiped the egg and here I am."

"So why we're you trying to unload that egg on me?" I asked. I kept trying with the control panel, popping in different parts of the menu to see if I could cause any change. The damn thing was locked off tighter than an airlock. It just wasn't working.

Qupell shrugged. "I been here a goddamn month, and no word from my mysterious employer! Not a one! So I figure he's changed his mind and decided to get rid of the egg. Then these spacehead pirates come in…"

"And what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Drake asked. "We just got a tip that a Bloodbeast egg was sitting unprotected in this heap of ice and rock and took it upon ourselves to nab it. Didn't figure you had already let the beast out."

"It weren't me, I'm telling you!" Qupell cried.

"Clam up, the both of you," I muttered. "It's simple that we got a set-up, and you two are just pawns being used for someone else." The pounding at the door grew in volume. Steel strained. "And now we're all gonna get taken off the board." I turned away from the flashing red screen above the control panel. I looked down at the air vent. "Captain, bring up those schematics again, if you wouldn't mind."

"Right," she said, pressing the button at the control panel on her wrist. I took a look at the ventilation shafts and then kicked out the grate below the control panel.

I ducked down. "The main reactor is a couple of floors below us. We clamber through this, take a lift down, and then we force the reactor to overload and trigger the excess energy to wash up through the top floors. That'll burn out these bastards."

Drake nodded. "And if they end up in the lower floors?"

"You got your crew down there, right? Have them hold them off. They got enough guns to do it, I think."

Captain Drake slapped some more buttons on her communicator and made the order. The reaction was short, angry and profane, but her crewmen would hold off as best they could. They wanted to get up here and try to pull us out, but Drake and I both knew how well that would work – leading to more dead space pirates and giving the Bloodbeasts a way to infest the rest of the comet.

Qupell shook his head. "Gods of the sun and sky, this is bughouse!" he whispered, crouching low and crawling into the vent nonetheless. I followed him, tucking one automatic into my coat and holding up the other. Behind us, the door started to bend inwards. I saw long claws, long tongues and leering yellow eyes looking back at us through crimson skulls.

Then I turned forward and faced the darkness of the gunmetal gray vent. There was nothing for it but to clamber forward.

My mind was racing like a cosmic wind. That this was a set up was obvious. The question was, which one of my pals was behind it? The pirates said they had been lured to Coldburg, but I didn't know why. Drake might could be feeding me a line, and playing some grift on me all the while. As for Qupell? I would say I trusted him about as far as I could throw him, if I couldn't throw the little guy for a good half a mile. No, that slick Uranian could be playing his own game, and me, Drake and all of Coldburg for suckers.

Then again, someone had entered his room and dribbled blood on the Bloodbeast egg, and Qupell said he didn't do it. Someone else had locked off the maintenance menu in the upper floor, forcing us into the vents to stop the Bloodbeasts. The whole thing was mess that was getting worse by the minute.

So I focused on crawling forward and putting as much distance between me and the Bloodbeasts that I could. I'd keep everything else in the back of my mind until this problem was taken care of. I had been scratched up pretty bad, and with all the pain from the wounds, the cramped steel walls bumping against me, and my head still aching, it wasn't hard to keep my brain busy with other things.

A couple of paces down I checked the schematics again and figured we had reached the place. "Go on and get out of here, captain," I said, drawing out the second automatic. Captain Drake stabbed her beam blade into the bottom of the air duct, the gleaming blade of pure white energy cutting effortlessly through the steel.

It fell away and so did we, tumbling down to the wide metal catwalk below. We were in the belly of the comet now, with nothing but bare, frost rock and ice for the walls, and the bare minimum amount of metal around to keep the endless void out and the air in. Behind us was a wide hall, terminating in a sloping metal stairwell.

"Ouch!" Qupell tumbled down onto the floor behind us. "Lousy, stinking comet…" he muttered, picking up his fallen fez. He turned around and looked at the two massive metal doors, round as a giant silver dollar, where the metal catwalk terminated. "This the place?" he asked.

"This is the place," I agreed. I kept the two automatics at my waist and walked forward. Captain Drake followed, warily staring behind her.

"The Bloodbeasts be heading our way?" she asked.

"Might be," I said, listening for any sound of scrabbling claws on the metal floor. "Stay wary."

We approached the two metal doors. The panel on the side wasn't told us it was locked, and when I punched in the orders for the doors to open, it ignored me. "Cripes," I muttered. "Seems like Coldburg itself is blocking us every step of the way."

Drake reached into her great coat. "Well, it'll have to do a bit more than throw up a door to stop me." She withdrew a fat metal disc, with a cherry red button in the center. I recognized it as a plasma charge. "Stand well back," she ordered, slapping it on the door and pressing the button.

We stepped back and waited a few seconds. The bright red explosive cloud blasted straight through the door and we walked inside. In the center of the room stood the generator, a massive steel coil topped with a copper ball, all lit up like a Christmas tree with glowing bolts of raw energy.

Captain Drake and I walked over to the panels and got to work, punching in the proper orders that would send the energy coursing upwards and blasting through the top levels of Coldburg and fry up the Bloodbeasts. We didn't exchange any words, just let out fingers press down on the glowing screens, overriding safeguards and ignoring every warning. The energy coil started to pulse red.

Qupell watched for a while and then turned his head. He gulped and ran over to me. He started tugging on my trench coat. "Hey, Starr, remember when I told you I'd make it worth your while if you didn't let me get killed?"

"Sure," I muttered. "Don't recall that I agreed."

"Yeah, well, I think we got some trouble coming down those stairs." He pointed his three-fingered hand down the hall. "Better get to work."

I looked up and saw the Bloodbeasts clattering down the stairs, howling and hissing for our blood. I gritted my teeth. "I'm gonna need some more time," I told Drake. "Can you ace these critters?"

"Duck soup," Drake agreed. She drew out her beam blade and her long barreled pistol and faced the horde. I tossed Qupell one of the automatics and he caught it with shaking hands. "Stay behind me, little Uranian," Captain Drake hissed. "And we'll see how hard you are."

I kept working while the noises of battle echoed outside. Drake's sword was cutting through the air, slashing through the bodies of the Bloodbeasts, and Qupell was firing crazily. The occasional boom of Drake's pistol joined the cacophony, sounding over the snarls and yelps of the Bloodbeasts. I pushed up all of the levers under the control panel, and watched the power levels rise. The Bloodbeast howls started to drain out everything else as I reached the frenzied finish.

I drew out my ray gun and turned around. Sure enough, the Bloodbeasts had surrounded Drake and Qupell, and though the pirate and the Uranian were holding their own, it didn't seem they had long. And neither did I. But I still charged forward, bringing up the ray gun and shooting out long blasts that burned straight through chitin-coated flesh, and tore off segmented, claw-tipped limbers.

Still, the Bloodbeasts kept on charging. "Drake!" I shouted. "We need some more of those bombs of yours!"

"Ain't gonna happen, mate!" the pirate shouted. "No room to toss!" She stabbed her beam blade through the chest of a leaping Bloodbeast, kicking off the blasted husk, and then slashed off the snapping jaws of another. "We're right trapped now!"

"Snarp!" Qupell cried. He hadn't taken his finger of the automatic's trigger yet, and the lead was still flying. "Well, pleasure meeting you all, I guess."

"Amen to that," I agreed.

Suddenly, thunder boomed in the metal hallway. Large, meat-grinding slugs pumped into the bodies of the Bloodbeasts. Uranium-tipped shells, fired by the thousand per second, from an atomic-powered submachine gun. I looked up and saw Jiminy Jeeps, the owner of Coldburg, walking down the stairwell and holding up an atommy gun. His tuxedo was disheveled and his bowtie was undone, but his metallic smile hadn't lost its luster.

"Hello, gents!" he said, finishing off Bloodbeasts with another burst from his atommy gun. "Good to see you!"

"Mr. Jeeps," I said. "You picked a good time to show."

"Sure did. I saw over the cameras you fellows were in trouble and I headed over fast as my getaway sticks could carry me!" Jeeps walked down the stairwell, stepping over the dead Bloodbeasts. He walked behind Drake, Qupell and me, and then peered through the open doors at the generator. "Overloading the generator to shoot energy and clear out the upper levels, eh? Good plan, Starr. Knew you was a smart cookie."

"You don't know the half of it," I said. He was behind me, holding his sub-gun. My ray gun sat lightly at my side. My suspicious boiled over as I turned my head. So did his. He raised the sub-gun.

I spun around and fired, just as a burst of lead tore up the ground in front of me. My shot struck him in the lower chest and he fell down, gripping his fried guts. "Damn…" Jeeps whispered.

"What the hell, Starr?" Qupell asked. "No reason to pop our host!"

"There is when he's trying to kill us," I said. I pointed my finger at Jiminy Jeeps. "He came down here to level out the generator, stop our scheme dead in its tracks, and let the Bloodbeasts overrun Coldburg." I stared at Jeeps as he reached for the atommy gun. I kicked it out of his reach. "He was the one who asked you to bring the egg on board, and he tipped off Drake's crew. Only the owner of Coldburg could have sealed off those control panels upstairs, and gotten into Qupell's room to drip blood on the egg." I looked down at Jiminy Jeeps. "So why'd you do it?"

"Too many long term guests…" Jeeps whispered. "Needed them cleared out. Wanted all of their dough too. Figured I'd unleash Bloodbeasts on them, bring in space pirates --- everyone dies while I hide somewhere safe. I get the profits afterward…." He clutched his burning chest. "Goddamn…Starr. Shouldn't have let you aboard."

"Yeah," I agreed. "What should we do with him, captain?"

"Got me a notion." Drake stepped forward and swung down her beam machete. Jiminy's head flew from his neck and landed on the ground. ""There," she said. She turned back to me. "I'll rejoin my crew and make sure this thing goes off like it's supposed to you. What are your plans?"

"Shoving off," I said. "I'll find a friendlier place to re-stock my hold. What about you, Blip?"

Qupell grinned. "Say, captain," he said, turning to Drake. "You got room on your ship for a fellow like me?"

"If you can pull your own weight," she replied. "Which shouldn't be too hard for you."

"Then sign me up." Qupell smiled at me. "It's a pirate's life for me. Care to join, Starr?"

"Maybe," I answered. "But right now, I got a date with the cot on my starship. Gonna sleep for a century."

-The End-