The Man with the Atom Bomb Heart

Michael Panush

Aldwin Cork had been my buddy during the War, and we'd stormed the Red Sands of Mars and fought through the blistering jungles of Venus. That's where the Alphan invaders captured me and we parted ways. He made it through the War in one piece. I didn't. But now I was at his apartment in Tomorrow City, and there he was, lying on the hard wood floors with a ray gun blast the size of a quarter in his forehead. Cork would have died for me. He nearly did. And now some bastard had fried his brains.

I looked down at the body, staring at his eyes. They were open, surprised and terrified in the moments before death. The Tomorrow City cops were giving the room a once over, but they had no enthusiasm. I could tell this case was going to get as much interest as another gray pebble on the surface of the Moon. I put my hands in the pockets of my trench coat. I couldn't take my eyes of Cork's face.

"Mr. Starr?" My partner, Philo Temple, stood next to me. His voice was nervous and thin. "It is your friend, then?" Philo was a scrawny teenager, a day or so over fourteen. He had coal black hair, neatly combed, round rimless glasses on a thin nose and wore a white coat, white vest ,a black tie, a belt bristling with tools and strange devices I didn't even pretend to understand.

"That's right, son." I tore my eyes away. "Go on and have a look."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Starr." Philo closed his eyes. "I know what it's like to lose a loved one."

"He was my pal in the Planetary Marines. That's all. Now go and have a look."

I didn't mean to be short with the kid. Philo Temple was the reason I was walking around, instead of being a moldering pile of Vinewolf food in a Venusian clearing. The Alphan aliens had carved me up, taken me to his father's lab, and forced Dr. Temple and his young son to go to work.

They had worked hard. They rebuilt me, gave me iron in my bones, steel in my knuckles, and a glowing red optic instead of my right eye. Now I was a cyborg, a mixture of man and machine, with an atomic engine for a heart. Besides the glowing red eye in my eye-socket, I looked like a normal, broad-shouldered bruiser. I wore a fedora, a vest and suit, and a silver trench coat. The name's Gabriel Starr. Me and Philo are detectives.

Philo knelt down over Cork's body. He examined the wound, his glasses zooming in to give him a detailed view. I saw a shiver run through his small body. Philo was a genius, a child prodigy, and the only human to ever study at the fabled Neptunian Academies. But that didn't mean death meant nothing to him. I felt sorry for him. It wasn't his fault Cork had been iced.

He stood up quickly. "A small wound, Gabe," he explained. "From an energy weapon of diminutive size." He pushes his glasses up his nose. "A snub-nosed ray gun, I believe. A pistol, easily concealable, and then fired. That's all the data I can glean."

"Okay. Go out into the hall, son. Take the air." His face was more pale than usual.

"Thank you, Gabe." He nodded to me and headed away.

He passed the police chief on the way out. I suppose there must have been officers who were more corrupt than Tomorrow City Police Chief Byron Malley. I just hadn't made their acquaintance. He was a portly man, with a shabby little pencil moustache, who rested both hands on the gut poking out of his dark double-breasted uniform. He headed over to me, and we looked down at Cork.

Chief Malley shook his head. "A sorry state of affairs," he said.

"You could say that. Any leads?"

"Not a one, I'm afraid." Malley looked at me. "Look, Mr. Starr, I like you and I like young Philo Temple out there, so I'll level with you – we just got word from city hall. They don't want us pursuing this case. Cork was mixed up in some dirty business. It could mean serious problems for Tomorrow City."

"Sure. Maybe someone guilty will actually get caught."

"I mean it, Mr. Starr. Keep your nose out of the case. Or you might find it cut off."

I snorted. "Didn't you hear the news, chief? I've got solid steel under this nose." But I turned away from the body, and walked through Cork's apartment. It was a small place, cozy and warmly furnished. A wide window gave me a good view of Tomorrow City's teeming skies, with hovercars floating past in messy rows, and rocket ships soaring past the gleaming spires and towers. I paused at the desk by the door. A matchbook caught my robotic eye.

I picked it up. It was for the Vodka Palace, some sleazy gin joint on the lower levels. I hadn't kept in touch with Cork. I had no idea what he was up to. Maybe somebody at this bar would. I pocketed the matchbox and stepped outside, into the hall.

Philo was waiting for me. "Mr. Starr—" he began.

"Call me Gabe, son. I'm your partner. Not your professor."

"Very well. We'll refer to ourselves like come stevedores in a grimy loading bay." Informality annoyed him or made him uncomfortable. I guessed he got over his nervousness of being near Cork's body. "So, Gabe. What is our next course of action?"

I reached for a cigarette. After Philo and his father had repaired my wounds with metal, flavors came and went but I could still taste the harsh Martian tobacco of the coffin nail. After letting a little smoke crawl down my throat, I looked at the matchbox. "We find out who did this," I said. "We get my pal some justice."

"Then I am with you," Philo agreed.

"Good to know. Come on. We're gonna pay this Vodka Palace joint a little visit."

We left the apartment building, taking the sleek chrome elevator all the way down to the street. My brand new dark blue Typhoon Hovercar was waiting for us. Its sleek rounded sides and raised tailfins made it an excellent vehicle. I kept the car low to the ground and started down the street.

Philo stared at the endless forest of skyscrapers of Tomorrow City, the glass dome that covered them, and the vastness of space beyond. Bridges and tubes connected the buildings like silvery spider webs. Hovercars filled the air, moving past gleaming neon signs and large holograms, promising a wonderland's worth of attractions – for the right price.

Tomorrow City was a space station, in orbit around earth. A paradise for smugglers, tourists, criminals, refugees and those looking to make a fast buck, it was the perfect place for a detective agency. Philo had grown up in Planeum Boreum, his parents' laboratory on the Martian pole, and the academies of Neptune. He was still amazed by the streets of Tomorrow City, like a rube just off the spaceways.

But now, Philo tore his eyes away from the building and turned back to me. "Did you know him well?" he asked. "Mr. Cork, I mean?"

"Well enough. He drank too much and was a bit of an idiot. On Venus, he nearly got the whole squad killed by Alphan Titanovores. But he was my friend."

"Oh. I'm sorry, Gabe."

"Sure, son." Philo knew enough about loss. When the Alphans were getting pushed back, their invasion finally yielding, the aliens occupying his laboratory had decided that mankind shouldn't see what they were working on. They killed Dr. Temple, as he tried to save his son. They would have killed Philo too, if I hadn't ripped myself out of the operating table and saved his life, beating five Alphan warriors to death with my knew metal-reinforced hands. After that, I took the kid under my wing. We took cases in Tomorrow City, and he sent back most of his share of the payment to the lab, refusing to allow his father's dream to die.

The sidewalks wound between the skyscrapers and the tenements in the lower sections of the space station. They were home to the poor alien immigrants, and the thugs, dope dealers, and murderers who preyed on them. Swabs of Plutonian graffiti marked the walls, shattered bottles and drunks slept in the gutters, and everything stank of poverty and filth. I checked the address on the matchbook. The Vodka Palace was on the corner. I parked the hovercar, letting it float on a cushion of light blue air.

The place was dolled up to look like a Russian castle. Candy-colored domes poked up into the sky and multi-colored pennants hung limply on their poles. I pushed open the door and stepped inside. The joint was packed. Waitresses in tiny fur jackets and big round hats slid around on roller skates, trays held precariously in their hands. A jukebox-bot was hovering around the room, playing something loud and fast. Synthetic icicles glistened on the wall, giving everything a painful sparkle.

Philo's eyes followed one of the waitresses. "It has a unique atmosphere," he said.

"That's one word for it." I looked around the Palace. I needed somewhere to start. I found one at the bar.

She was a Venusian, with electric blue skin and long reddish hair that matched her long dress. She had a cigarette holder in one hand, nestled between thin fingers. She was talking to some Jovian soldier in a crimson and gold uniform, and I couldn't hear a word he was saying. My eyes hung on her full lips, her lean form, and her pale eyes. I started across the bar.

The Jovian was grumbling about something. The Eternal Jovian Empire of Jupiter used to run this galaxy, and they were still bitter about losing it. He had dark purple skin, white tufts for eyebrows, and still wore a ceremonial uniform, overloaded with medals and epaulettes and making him look more like a clown than a soldier.

"By the Endless Storms of the Red Spot, Valazz!" he snarled at the Venusian babe. He had a throaty, rasp of a voice, like he'd been gurgling with acid. "You've caused enough trouble. Why not cease this foolishness before I break your neck?"

I stepped between them. "A fellow oughtn't to talk to a lady like that," I said, glaring at the Jovian. "So how about apologizing? Or are you Jovians to proud to do anything but suck back booze and dream about the good old days?"

That made him mad. "You bring insults to the ears of Sennegar Long, earthman? You will not last if you do such a thing."

"I've tangled with your kind before, buddy," I replied. "I'm still here."

His hand fell to the hilt of his sword. It was an energy blade, that would cut through even my hardened interior. Philo took a step closer to me, his eyes flashing down to the sword. I opened my coat. Twin ray guns rested in crossed shoulder-holsters. "Go ahead and start something, purple boy," I said. "I'll be the one to finish it."

Sennegar Long looked over my cannons. He turned back to Valazz. "Very well. Drink alone, Venusian witch. Savor your last moments." He turned away, pushing past me to get to the door. His actions gave me some important details. Long had a temper – but he wasn't stupid.

Once he was gone, I looked at Valazz. She smiled back at me. "Thanks," she said, and then noticed my glowing red optic. "What's with the blinker?"

"I'm a cyborg. The name's Gabriel Starr and this is my partner, Philo Temple. We're detectives."

Philo made a show of bowing. "P-pleased to make your acquaintance, madam," he said. Pretty dames made him nervous. It wasn't hard to see why.

"I'm Valazz Ta. Pleased to meet you too." She swiveled on her barstool, turning to face me. "So, you're a cyborg, Mr. Starr? Do all your pieces work?"

"When I need them to," I said. Valazz Ta was smooth as the chrome sides of a flying saucer, and she had me in her tractor beam. All I could was smile and let myself be reeled in. My eyes kept on moving up and down her body, tracing out her curves. I struggled to get my mind on the case. "We're here on business, actually. You ever meet a guy named Aldwin Cork? I think he was a regular at this place."

"Aldwin?" She nodded vigorously. "Me and Aldwin were good friends, Mr. Starr. The best of friends, if you get my meaning."

"I think I do. And you know that he's dead?"

Her eyes closed. "Yes." It came out as a whisper. "You see, me and Aldwin, we were also business partners. And we got involved in some dirty business. Sennegar Long and his pack of Jovian mercenaries were involved as well. Now Aldwin's dead. And I think I'm next."

My hands balled into fists. "What's going on?" I asked. "Who's threatening you?"

"Mr. Starr, I—"

"Call me Gabe, sister."

"Gabe." She gave me a smile. It made her whole face light up. "I'd like to talk about it with you. But not now." Valazz opened her purse, pulling out a small pad and pencil. She scrawled down a number. "It's my current address. I've got a room in the Tesseract Hotel in Gold Heights. We'll talk later." Her fear came suddenly and drifted away just as quick, replaced by creamy confidence. She reached out a put a hand on my chest. "Hmmm," she said. "Warm."

"It's got a good engine," I said.

"We'll see each other again." She made it a promise. "I look forward to it." Valazz Ta stood up, tucked her purse under her arm, and walked calmly to the entrance. My eyes followed her the whole way.

When she was gone, I turned back to Philo. He had his hands in his pockets. "They don't make dames like that in a factory," I said. "If they did, they'd make a fortune."

"Gabriel, I believe she is attempted to use you in some way. She knows more about Cork and his murder than she is telling us." He sighed. "My father and I were quite adamant that your emotions would remain when we…when we repaired you. And it appears she is manipulating them, like a master programmer would do with any computer. It is true she is quite beautiful." He swallowed. "But there's something else there as well."

"Maybe. I'll be careful. I've gone dizzy for dames before. And it never turns out right." What I didn't tell him was that I never learned from the experience. It was like trying to pull away from a black hole. She was tugging me in, and I'd follow her down, laughing all the way to rock bottom. "Come on, son. Let's get home."

Philo hopped off of the bar stool. "An excellent suggestion. I think I could some hacking, and maybe uncover more evidence."

"Sounds like a plan." We walked for the exit of the Vodka Palace.

I drove back to our apartment, up on Malachite Avenue. It was a decent middle class neighborhood, a tall square skyscraper, with plenty of loading ports for hovercars and a staff who didn't mind looking the other way now and again. I slid the hovercar into our loading dock on a middle floor, and then we got out and headed to our apartment.

We were flopping in a decent sized apartment. Philo's tools and workbench owned half the room. His bed sat next to them, and my operating table was in the other corner. I didn't really sleep any more. I just depowered and recharged. To tell you the truth, I didn't much miss it. Philo moved to the two large view screens in the corner, already reaching for the miniaturized computer in his belt.

He sat down, cross-legged in the Neptunian style, and got to work. "Right," he said. "Well, Mr. Starr, I can easily hack into the security system of Mr. Cork's apartment. He did have a small camera system installed in his room, and they have some firewalls set up."

"Can you get through them?" I asked. "And call me Gabe."

"Very well, Gabe." He gave me a satisfied smirk. "And I can get through them, quite easily. That question is akin to asking an asteroid of extreme size if it can pierce through a barrier of tissue paper. I have one of the greatest intellects in the galaxy."

I smiled. "And you're modest too."

"Oh. Yes. Sorry." His fingers moved over the little keyboard, becoming a blur as he rattled off keys. Philo didn't consider talking about his intelligence as bragging. For him, it was stating a fact. He had rigged the two large view screens on the wall to show what he was working on. I saw lines of code drifting by. I may have metal in my chest, an atomic heart, and circuits mixed up in my brain, but I still didn't understand a line of it.

But then the second screen flashed open to show Cork's apartment. There he was, wearing a dark green security guard's uniform and peaked cap. He was talking to Valazz Ta. "Hold it," I said. "Philo, any chance of getting to the time he was killed?"

"I'm afraid not, Gabe. The footage has simply been deleted. Back-ups too." He glanced up from his screen. "The murderer clearly knew how to cover his tracks." He pointed to the screen. "This is from two days ago. I'll see if I can bring up the volume…"

I heard Cork and Valazz bumping gums. Cork sounded just like he had on Venus: weary, tired, and determined. "I'm telling you, Valazz, we can pull it off!" he said, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. "The lab boys are too busy looking over their data for Project Snark to watch me. And I work there as a guard. They'll never suspect it."

I held up my hand. "Pause it, son. Zoom in on that badge."

"Easily done." Philo's fingers flew on the keyboard again. The badge got bigger. 'Bellman Labs,' it read. I made a note of it. There were quite a few high-tech laboratories in Tomorrow City. No Terran jurisdiction meant no rules for their experiments. And since the Tomorrow City government and Terran High Command reaped the benefit, they looked the other way.

"Bellman Labs and Project Snark," I said. "Okay, Philo. Let's hear the rest of it."

He pressed play. I saw Cork hand a small data chip to Valazz. "The access codes," he said. "This has to be done, Valazz. I've done a lot since I got of the marines. None of it's good. This is my chance to be a hero again."

"All right, darling. All right." Valazz took the chip from his hands. She leaned over to kiss him.

"That's enough," I said, and Philo cut the feed. I slumped down on the armchair near the windows, and looked out at the city. The window was slightly tinted, so everything looked murky and dark, like perpetual evening had set on the impossibly tall towers. Aldwin Cork had lived in this dark world, and when he tried to break out, and do something good for a change, he got a ray gun blast between the eyes for his trouble.

I considered my next move. "Philo, any hits on Project Snark or Bellman Labs?"

Philo worked quickly. "I'm afraid not, Gabe. There are a few passing references, but everything's encrypted and hidden. I could work on it, but it would take some time."

"I've got a better idea. Call up the station house. Get me Chief Malley." I leaned back in the chair as Philo made the call. It took a while, but soon Malley's red face appeared on the view screen, large as life and just as ugly. He had his collar undone, and looked at me with tired eyes. "Malley," I said. "I need a little scuttlebutt on an outfit called Bellman Labs."

"I told you to stay out of the case, Starr!" he replied. He held up a finger. "Bellman Labs and Project Snark are off limits. Terran High Command doesn't—"

"I don't give a damn about Terran High Command." I stood up. "Look, Malley, I know you want everything in Tomorrow City to run like clockwork. And most of the time it does. This time, something dealing with Project Snark has caused a good man to die, and more might follow. You can't stop it. Your hands are tied. I understand that. But my hands ain't. Tell me the truth and I'll put an end to it."

Malley closed his eyes. "Damn you, Gabe Starr…" he hissed. "You're a difficult man to deal with."

"Cyborg, Malley. Not man. Now what's the score on Bellman Labs?"

"They're a high-tech bioorganic firm, specializing in reverse engineering life forms." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "You'd better make sure there's no recordings of this conversation."

"There won't be, sir. There's not need to be fretful," Philo chimed in.

He didn't cheer up Malley. "Sure. Anyway, as you could guess, the War gave Bellman Labs tons of things to work on. There's all the Alphan genetic engineering to look at. And their allies. That's what Project Snark is. Take one of the worst foes of humanity and see what makes them tick. Then use them, as our soldiers, or in a thousand other different ways and make a fortune." He saw my distaste. "I don't like it any more than you do. But Bellman Labs was robbed just last week, and the vital ingredient of their experiments was stolen."

"What was it?" Philo asked, his voice a frightened whisper.

"Crawler Eggs."

The answer struck me like a slap across the face. I balled my hands into fists. I felt heat in my brain, rage boiling through my veins and circuitry. The Crawlers were a race of giant insects, a hive-minded species that infested whole planets. Once they dug their hives in, it was murder trying to get them out. The Alphans had some device that controlled them, and they used them to try and bludgeon humanity into submission. The Planetary Marines had battled them in a thousand engagements. I couldn't count the number of buddies I had seen die, torn about by their pincers.

And now a bunch of Terran fat cats and their pals in the High Command were trying to make a fast buck off of them, regardless of the consequences that could doom our species to extinction.

"Crawlers. Those lousy bums." I calmed myself. I closed my human eye and then looked back up at Malley. "And you knew, chief. You knew about them."

"Yes. I knew and there wasn't a damn thing I could do."

"Sure. Not a damn thing. Even if they got out and started munching on Tomorrow City's citizens, there wouldn't be a damn thing. Goodbye, Malley. Good luck sleeping tonight." I nodded to Philo and he cut the feed. He didn't even give his usual polite and formal goodbye to Malley. He was just as upset as I was.

Philo stood up. He looked at his polished shoes. "Gabriel, you know that my father told me often about the power of science."

"Son, you don't have to—"

"He told that it is nothing but potential. If greed and cruelty manipulates it, or simple stupidity without thinking of the consequences, it could be the end of all things. He told me that, you know, just before…just before they shot him." His eyes were determined behind his glasses. "We have to find these eggs, Gabe. We must destroy the foul things."

"Got that right." I pointed back to the screen. "You know, I'll bet that's just what Valazz and Cork were planning to do. It sounds like they got the Crawler eggs out all right. But then things went bad. The Jovian mercs, under Sennegar Long, they're mixed up in this too."

It was a mystery, and I didn't have all the pieces just yet. I slumped down in the armchair, considering my next move, when the screens started blinking. Now someone was calling us. I nodded to Philo, and he patched them through.

A grinning guy in a golden seersucker popped up on the screen. He had his fedora in his hands, and a smile that looked painted on and fraying at the edges. "Mr. Starr?" he asked. He had pale blonde hair and a flickering red Saturnalian fire-flower in his lapel. "Hello there. My name is Cutter Nestle, of Turpin Galactic. We should have a nice little chat."

"About what?" Turpin Galactic was one of the biggest conglomerates in the universe. They bought and sold planets like most businesses dealt in stocks. With contacts in the Terran High Command, and more subsidiaries than I could count, they were major power players. And now they wanted to invite me over and have a nice little chat.

Nestle shrugged. His smile went away, dying by inches. "Well, I'd rather not talk over personal communicator, but let's just say that you were seen in the Vodka Palace talking with Valazz Ta and Sennegar Long, both mutual acquaintances of mine. That's what I'd like to have a chat about." His smile returned. "My star yacht, the Midas, is currently hovering in the artificial sky in the center of town. I'll send you the coordinates. See you soon."

The image blinked off before I could say another word. Philo looked up at me. "He sent over the coordinates, Mr. Starr," he said. "But I doubt Turpin Galactic has acceptable desires for the Crawler Eggs. My father had some dealings with them. He was impressed by their greed and ferocity."

"I trust them like I'd trust a knife in the back. But it might be a chance for more information on the case." I walked to the back of the room, a rectangular silver crate behind my work station. "And don't worry, son – we'll come prepared."

It was something I learned during my time in the Planetary Marines, slogging through some godforsaken Venusian swamp with Alphan lasers burned overhead, or dashing alongside a battle tank on a Martian desert, explosions ripping through the air around me. It always pays to come prepared. I took everything I needed from the crate, and then Philo and I went down to the loading dock.

The Midas was right where Nestle said it was, in the center of Tomorrow City, looking down on everything like a golden God. It was a square star yacht, big as a house, gilded and shining. We set down on a small landing pad on the top deck. A few Turpin guards in gold uniforms and peaked caps stood at the edge of the deck, pulse rifles in their hands. Cutter Nestle himself was there to meet us. He looked just as simpering in real life. I waited until the hovercar settled down, then I opened the door and stepped out. Philo slipped on the sleek surface of the Midas, and I steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

Nestle nodded to us. "Please, come this way," he said. "I've got drinks ready!"

"I don't believe I'm old enough for alcoholic libations," Philo explained.

"What a charming boy." Nestle didn't pay Philo much attention at first. He brought us inside a richly furnished stateroom and sat down on the couch, folding his legs. A bulky robot came out, bearing a tray with drinks in tall silver glasses.

I looked the robot over. It had a cylindrical body, and two bulky arms, hands with fingers like metal bananas. A glass dome topped its head, with a pair of red flickering eyes set within. Nestle noticed my attention. "Meet Brawlbot, Mr. Starr, my company bodyguard. Turpin Galactic's robotics division have created the ultimate fighting machine."

"And you use him to serve drinks."

Brawlbot shifted about, his metal arms clanking. "Wise guy, eh?" he asked me, his voice a deep metallic rumble. "I should wipe that smirk of your face, you slimy, half-metal, cyborg!"

"Now, now, Brawlbot." Nestle seemed more amused at his robot's anger. "There's no need for name calling." He turned back to us, his drink untouched on the glass coffee table. His settled on Philo. They were predator's eyes. "You're Philo Temple, aren't you, sport? You know, Turpin gave your father some very generous proposals."

"Which he didn't accept, because he believed in the principals of morality rather than profit." Philo stood up stiffly, increasing the chill of his icy politeness. "Now, why exactly did you summon us here?"

"Right to business, eh? I like that." He turned to face me. "Okay. Here's the thing. I sponsored the heist on Bellman Labs. Those Jovian mercenaries under Sennegar Long were working for me. Turpin wants those Crawler eggs for our organics division." He was talking about stealing the eggs for the most dangerous organisms this side of the germs behind the Bubonic Plague like he was selling a used hovercar. "Now, I expected a nice return for my investment. But I haven't gotten it. The thieves want more money than I initially offered them. And even worse, they're threatening to sell to some of our competitors."

"Gee whiz." I rolled my eyes. "What a tragedy."

With a clanking rasp, Brawlbot flexed his arms. "Don't sass the boss, cyborg. I'll smash you open and watch all your precious pieces fall out!"

"Keep your mechanical dog on a shorter leash, Nestle." I turned back to the executive. "Now what do you want me to do about it?"

"Simple – you've already got an in with Valazz Ta. One of my agents saw you chatting with her in some sleazy saloon. Go in and talk to her. Get her to show you where the eggs are. Then bring them to me." His smile widened, becoming genuine. "You'll get a handsome reward for it."

Philo started to get angry. "Mr. Nestle, would you suggest that we stoop to—" His voice went shrill, until I put a hand on his shoulder and shut him up.

"I'll consider it, Nestle," I said. "If you make a generous enough offer." My eyes flashed to Brawlbot. "And if we know we can trust you."

"Trust? Really, Mr. Starr, I don't think there's any room for that in our line of work." He drained his drink and set down the empty glass. He folded his arms as Brawlbot trundled over to stand behind him. "Two grand, in Terran dollars. All when you bring the egg. And I'd suggest you make good on the offer. I may extend it to others."

"I'll keep that in mind." I turned to Philo. "Come on, son. Let's take the air."

We walked out of the stateroom, back onto the deck of the Midas. The guards shouldered their rifles. They watched us through their sunglasses as we got into the Typhoon hovercar. I started the engine and the hovercar rocketed into the sky. Only after we had some distance did Philo turn to me.

"You're not seriously considering agreeing to Mr. Nestle's proposition, are you?" Philo asked.

"Nope. But things would get unfriendly if I told him that to his face." I dug into my coat, reaching for the scrap of paper with Valazz Ta's address. I set it on the windshield and spun the wheel, sending us spiraling down amidst the tall skyscrapers. I weaved through them, like a fish in a fantastic coral reef. "We got a little more info. A little more details to piece the case together."I turned the wheel again, heading for Gold Heights and the Tesseract Hotel.

Wind washed over the car. Philo knelt down, holding tightly to his glasses. "So, do you believe you have realized the murderer of poor Mr. Cork?"

"Afraid not, son." I ran through the details and something wasn't right. Valazz Ta and Aldwin Cork wanted to destroy the Crawler eggs, not sell them over to Nestle and Turpin Galactic. Maybe the Jovians had double-crossed them, planting a ray blast in Cork's head and taking the loot. Or maybe Cork and Valazz had been planning to rip off Turpin, steal his cash and then destroy the eggs and leave him hanging. Except Nestle had seen through it and Cork got his brains fried.

"Well, what's our next course of action?"

"I need more pieces for this puzzle. So I'm going over to see Miss Ta." I pointed up to the Tesseract Hotel. It was a great chrome square, sitting amidst the tall buildings like an ice cube amidst straws. The Tesseract was one of the classiest joints in town. Valazz must have some real dough. Or maybe she just liked living large.

"Is it only for the sake of this mystery, Mr. Starr?" Philo wondered.

"Call me Gabe, for the hundredth time." I grinned at him. "And you know it's not." I was looking forward to seeing Valazz Ta. Maybe I should have been more careful. Maybe I should have reigned myself in. But that black hole of hers kept pulling. And let myself be dragged down with a smile.

I leveled the hovercar out and flew for her room at the Tesseract. It would be good to see her again.

She didn't disappoint. Her door opened automatically for us, and we stepped into a cool room done up in creamy white tones. Valazz walked in from the other room, martini glass in one hand. She wore a pale collared shirt and tight black trousers. They didn't leave much to the imagination. They didn't have to. Valazz Ta headed over to us and the door shut with a whisper.

"Gabriel Starr," she said. "I think I have something that you want to see."

"Baby, truer words have never been spoken." I grinned as she set down the martini, then walked to a steel suitcase on the table in the kitchenette.

Philo and I both watched as she undid the clasps. We all had a look inside. There were half a dozen Crawler eggs inside. They were translucent white orbs, each in a glass jar resting on red velvet cushions. It was funny to think how much suffering and sheer terror was wrapped up in those little eggs. But one of them would hatch into a queen, the others would be warriors to guard her, and she'd lay a thousand more, and in a month or so, there wouldn't be much left in Tomorrow City but bones and ruins and more Crawlers than you could count.

"By Phobos and Deimos, we have to destroy them!" Philo cried. I could hear the panic in his voice. "If we had some energy weapon, you ray guns, Gabe, or—"

"They're the only thing keeping me alive," Valazz said. "Sennegar and his Jovian mercenaries will find out I stole them. They'll come here." She closed the lid and faced me. Suddenly, I didn't about Philo, or Cork, or the Crawler eggs sitting like a bomb on the kitchen table. All I cared about was her.

I pulled her close. "Let them come," I said. "I'll tear them apart. For Cork, for Tomorrow City, for you – I'll stop them from ever getting their hands on the Crawler eggs." She leaned in. I kissed her. There was a faint sweetness to her lips. It seemed to curl down my throat, moving through my veins and my circuits like a strange warmth.

When she pulled away, her eyes were wet. "Aldwin, he told me about you," she said. "He said you could be trusted. It's good to know that he's right."

"He's right, sister. And he had good taste."

"Mr. Starr!" Philo tugged at my arm. I pulled back to reality. "Mr. Starr, there's someone at the door! They seem quite insistent!" He pointed to the door, just as it slammed open. I saw the glowing muzzles of the plasma cannons before I saw the Jovian soldiers holding them. I grabbed Philo's arm and Valazz's shoulder, and pulled them under the table, as the cannons opened fire.

Heavy bursts of plasma crashed through the room. They carved fat holes in the walls. They melted the appliances in the kitchen. The windows shattered. We didn't have time to grab the suitcase. It sat there, resting on the table. The Jovians came into get it. They were powerfully built men, soldiers of the same kind who kept the galaxy in the hands of the Eternal Jovian Empire for millennia. The Jovians wore ornate red uniforms, a few with plumed helmets, and their guns were covered with intricate scrollwork.

Valazz and I stood up to stop them. I had both of my ray guns in my hands and I leaned on the trigger. She had a snub-nosed laser pistol, a nasty little number she pulled from her purse. We opened fire together. The first Jovian in the room got two burning holes shot through his chest. He toppled backwards, landing hard on the tiled floor. Blood bubbled in his mouth.

Sennegar Long charged in next, an atommy gun firing in his hands. Valazz and I took cover behind the counter. "Find the eggs!" Sennegar roared. "Kill the Venusian strumpet! Kill the cyborg and his earth-boy assistant! Kill them all!"

"That's not so nice. After all, we only just met." I popped up, slid over the counter and started shooting. No recoil from the ray guns screwed up my aim. It just pointed and squeezed the trigger, and two more Jovians went down, smoke pouring from their wounds as they and their weapons clattered to the ground.

I moved forward, a ray gun blazing in each hand. "Philo, keep your head down!" I called. "Valazz, cover me!" Most of the Jovians had gotten in the room now. They took cover behind the furniture, and started to shoot back. I dropped to a crouch before the table, and prepared to throw down suppressing fire. That's when Sennegar Long struck into me like a meteor.

I went down, as he swung the handle of his sword into my chest. My pistols scattered to the ground, and Sennegar slashed his sword around and let the tip of the blade plunge into my shoulder. Philo's father had given me tougher bones and mechanical organs. They didn't stop me from hurting like Hell. I screamed out loud, feeling the burning ache of cut race through my body as it plunged home. Sennegar twisted the blade.

"See how you pay for your mockery, earthman?" he asked. "See what happens when you mock the sons of Jupiter?"

"I see plenty." With the sword still in me, I reached madly for a fallen ray gun. My fingers scraped the butt, and then I had it in my palm. I brought it up, aiming for Sennegar's head. He saw what was happening and pulled away. I squeezed the trigger. The blazing ray of white light glanced by his head. When he looked back at me, his right eye – along with that half of his face – had been burned away.

Sennegar screamed. "Wretched Earthman!" His arm shot out, grabbed the suitcase. I stood up, feeling the sword's blade scraping against my bone with every movement. I reached up as Sennegar turned around. His gunmen opened fire, covering him as he dashed for the window. Their shots shattered glass.

He had a hovercar floating out there, a dark black Monarch with armored sides. Still holding his smoldering face, Sennegar ran to the car, his surviving goons following him. The suitcase with the Crawler eggs was in his hands. I stood up, firing both ray guns. I caught one Jovian in the back. He toppled out of the window, his arms and legs flailing like he was a broken puppet. He screamed all the way down.

But Sennegar and most of his goons made it aboard. The Monarch roared. The sleek hovercar roared off into the distance – taking the Crawler eggs with it. I watched it go. The fight wasn't over.

Philo ran to me, as soon as the shooting stopped. "Mr. Starr! Good God! You're hurt!"

"It's nothing, son. Thanks to your old man's invention." I gripped the handle of the sword, gritted my teeth, and wrenched it out. The blade was slick with my blood. The pain was intense. White flashed before my eyes, but then the sword was out and I dropped it on the ground. I pulled myself to my feet. "You can make your repairs later. We've got to go."

"Where?" Valazz asked. "Long stole the Crawler eggs! We don't know where he took them!"

"I've got an inkling, sister." I pointed in the distance, through the clear blue skies of Tomorrow City. "Cutter Nestle called us up with an offer. He wanted those Crawler eggs. He must have made the Jovians a better offer. He's a keener judge of character than I thought. I'll bet you dimes to doughnuts that's where Sennegar's heading right now."

"And we'll stop him?" Philo asked hopefully. "And destroy the Crawler eggs before they fall into the wrong hands?"

I slid my ray guns into my holsters. "Sure, son," I agreed. "And kill every fool that gets in our way." I walked out of my apartment. My shoulder felt numb. That blade had severed some vital circuit or something, but it didn't matter. Valazz and Philo needed me. I'd see those eggs destroyed – even if it meant reducing myself to spare parts.

We took my Typhoon. I sped back to the center of the city, keeping the gas pedal fully depressed. Valazz sat next to me, with Philo in the back. The kid was working on his computers, hacking traffic cameras to try and get a line on Sennegar's monarch. The wind roared in my face, striking like a physical blow. I didn't care. I pushed the hovercar to its limits.

"Mr. Starr! It seems as if the Jovians are moving in to the middle of town! They are heading for the Midas!" He had to yell to be heard over the roar of the wind and the hovercar's engines. "If they sell the eggs to Mr. Nestle, he'll leave directly!"

"So we'll have to stop him." I punched it for everything it could, narrowing my eyes. My cybernetic optic let me zoom in, giving me a front row view of the main attraction. There was the Midas, floating there in the distance. And there were the Jovians, pulling alongside in their big hovercar. I reached over, under the seat. This was where I put my tools. "And it's going to get nasty."

I took them out, one by one, and set them on my lap. An atommy gun, with a full drum magazine. They were nuclear powered, just like me, and fired uranium-tipped slugs that tore men to shreds. A pump-action plasma cannon followed. And a few plasma bombs. Those would be the ace up my sleeve.

I looked back at the Midas. We were drawing closer. An amber sphere winked to life around the star yacht. "Damn," I muttered. "They got a shield up."

"I believe I can handle this." Philo drew out his personal computer from his belt. He snapped the little black square open. His hands worked quickly, fingers dancing over the keys and morphing into a blur. "No more shields. No engine boosters either. It would be disastrous if they tried to leave."

"But Turpin has some of the best computers in the universe," Valazz said. "How can you hack them?"

"Well, I'm possibly the smartest boy in the universe, so it's really quite simple." He pressed a final key. The force field winked away. "I'll have to work to keep them down. I can come aboard and—"

"No, Philo. You stay in the hovercar and work there. And keep your head down." I didn't want coming aboard. There'd be a storm of lead and laser beams, and he could easily catch one. Philo and his father had given me my humanity, when the Alphans wanted to take it away from me. The least I could do was keep him safe. I turned to Valazz. "Come with me. Bring that heater along with you."

I swung the hovercar down. We swooped onto the deck of the Midas. The Jovian soldiers and the Turpin Galactic guards were ready for us. They started shooting. Bullets and ray gun blasts pinged off the sides, scorching my new paint job and denting the metal. I didn't care. I sent the hovercar speeding over the top deck of the yacht, then slammed on the breaks as I brought the atommy gun around.

Dr. Temple had given me topnotch combat programming. I fired in quick bursts, knowing just how many shots to pump into each body before they dropped. I rolled out of the hovercar, my boots slamming on the deck. The gun kept shooting. The atommy gun spat out streams of lead. It ripped off limbs. It tore bodies apart.

The guards ran for cover. Turpin wasn't paying them enough to die. The Jovians kept shooting, but they didn't last too long against the sub-gun. Valazz followed me to the deck, her own snub-nosed ray gun blazing away. One Jovian popped up behind a bulkhead. A plasma shot burned into my leg, but I ignored it, unloading the rest of the atommy gun on the sorry merc. I splattered him over the walls.

"I'm going in! Sennegar, Nestle and the eggs must be inside!" I tossed down the atommy gun and pulled out the plasma cannon, racking it as I moved to the door. "Stay here with the boy, Valazz!"

"But you're just one man!" Valazz cried, as I moved to the door.

"Nix on that, baby." I fired the plasma cannon, melting the lock. "I'm a machine." I kicked the door open and stepped inside. I hurried down the long gilded hall. The state room was past that, and probably whatever quarters Nestle was staying in.

I got to the state room and stepped inside. That's when a metal fist slammed into my chest. I heard some of my internal machinery crack, along with bone. I doubled over, lost the plasma cannon, and thick metal fingers grabbed my shoulder. Brawlbot hurled me across the room, into the glass coffee table. The glass shattered and I hit the ground. I could feel the shattered shards jabbing into me, as I pulled myself up. Blood trickled down my face. It stained my collar.

Brawlbot swiveled around and stamped over. "Lousy cyborg!" it roared. "stinking half-robot! You're a joke, Starr, a fleshy, cybernetic joke!"

"Least I'm not a walking soup can." I dashed forward, as Brawlbot swung again. I ducked the blow and leaned forward, slamming a fist into his midsection. His glowing eyes flashed in pain. My hands dented the steel. That was one new addition to my body that I liked. Dr. Temple and Philo had reinforced my knuckles. I could pick a fight with a brick wall – and win.

But Brawlbot wasn't surprised for long. One of his long arms whisked out, grabbing my leg and pulling me down. His other fist lashed out, striking the side of my cheek. Skin tore. Bone broke. I stepped back and touched the wound. I felt cold steel. Brawlbot had opened me up a little. I couldn't last in this fight for long.

I pulled back, trying to get some distance between us – and give my aching body a rest. But Brawlbot's damn long arms gave him all the reach he needed to pound me into paste. He struck me again, a powerful blow against my midsection that made my atomic heart pause between beats. I had to finish this fast. I drew closer.

My robot foe twisted his body back, his arms trying to lash out and stop me. "Had enough, cyborg slime?" he asked. "You done yet?" His fist shot towards me, but I ducked the blow. I heard it whistle past my ear like a gunshot. "You finally figured out you can't win?"

"It's easy to win against a tin can." A notch on my upper arm popped open. That was another new addition to my body. A plasma bomb, a red sphere with a single detonation button, rolled out of the hole and fell into my hand. I pressed the detonation button with my fingers and slapped it onto Brawlbot's midsection. "You just gotta open it up."

The plasma bomb stuck to Brawlbot's chest. It stayed in place. I love sticky bombs. We used to them to take out Alphan saucers during the war. All you had to do was click, throw, and hope for the best. But then you had to get some space. That was easy in a jungle or desert. Not in a stateroom.

I turned to run, pulling myself over the couch and dashing for the hallway beyond the stateroom. I heard Brawlbot trying to wrench off the plasma bomb. His metal fingers scraped on his chest. The bomb went off as I left the room. The impact knocked me to the ground. Dust fell from the ceiling as fire tore through Brawlbot, ripping him in half and scattering his blackened metal pieces across the room.

I lay on the tiled floor of the hall for a while. Even my metal parts hurt. But the job wasn't done. I picked myself up and limped down the hall.

The walls widened. I reached a round chamber, some kind of conference room with a fountain in the center. It was spitting multi-colored water. Holographic paintings flickered on the wall, making the room go dim one minute and bright then next. I had one of the ray guns in my hand, and scanned the room with my robotic eye.

Cutter Nestle stood before the fountain. The suitcase was at his feet. So was Sennegar Long. The Jovian mercenary was dead, three bullet holes in his chest. Nestle was holding a long barreled revolver. He raised it, pointing it at me.

"You killed Sennegar?" I asked. "Any reason?"

"I don't have to pay him a thing now." Nestle shrugged. "When you reach my position, you learn to save money however you can. Drop that ray gun now, or I'll drop you."

I smiled. He could see the metal poking from my skin. He could see my cybernetic optic glowing ruby red. "Go on and try."

Nestle fired once, and I dashed to the side, the bullet speeding past me. He fired again, and that blasted into my stomach. I heard the shot ping off of some metal implant. It still felt like hell, like a broadsword had been jabbed into my gut. But it didn't bring me down. I fired, a single shot that burned his hand into a blackened claw, and made him drop his revolver. I walked over to him and grabbed his throat.

"How…are you…still functioning?" Nestle coughed as I started to squeeze.

"I got more than atomic power making me work," I replied. I pressed the muzzle of the ray gun to his forehead. "Me and Valazz are gonna—"

"You and Valazz?" he laughed, baring his teeth. "Valazz Ta? You're an idiot, Gabriel Starr! You're the biggest chump in the universe. Let me tell you something about Valazz…" He leaned forward. He whispered something into my ear.

"You're lying," I said. But even as I said those words, I was thinking over the particulars of the case, of Cork's murder, and the way Valazz acted. And Cutter Nestle's smile only grew. I wiped it off his face by squeezing the trigger. I burned a hole through his skull. He let go of his neck and he fell into the fountain. Multi-colored water splashed on the tiled floor.

I knelt down to the suitcase containing the Crawler eggs and undid the clasps. My hands were shaking. Nestle's words were still bouncing around in my mind, an echo that wouldn't fade. I swung my ray gun down to face the eggs. All I had to do was squeeze the trigger and those monsters would be fried before they could even hatch.

That's when I heard light footsteps, clicking on the tile behind me. I turned around. Valazz was there. "Gabe," she said. "You've done it. You've stopped them all. You've got the eggs." She walked forward. One hand was behind her back. I had some idea what it held. I should have fired into the eggs. I should have turned to run. I should have done a lot of things.

But then she was in my arms. She kissed me, and all I wanted to do was let myself sink into that black hole of hers, all the way down into that endless abyss. She felt warm in my arms, and her lips were cool. "Gabe," she whispered. "You're hurt. Oh, some of your gears are hanging out."

"It'll heal," I replied. I looked into her eyes. "Not like Cork, though."


"Not after you shot him, put a ray gun blast right through his eyes like that." I closed my eyes as I spoke. "You never wanted to destroy the Crawler eggs. You wanted to sell them. You put the whole thing together, even hired Sennegar and his mercs. But you needed a way into Bellman Labs. So you found a poor sap who worked there as a security guard. And when he stopped being useful, you blew his brains out."

"Gabe, stop it! Nestle lied to you! He's poisoned your mind!"

"Sure, baby. And I suppose it's just a coincidence that Cork was killed with a low-powered energy weapon – just like that cute little number your packing. You killed him, and when you wanted to squeeze Sennegar out of the money, when you needed some big, dumb mug to protect you, you found me."

I felt something jabbing into my ribs. It was her snub-nosed ray gun. My own pistol was still in my hand. "Gabe," she whispered. "You can't do this. You can't hurt me. You've got a heart, Gabe. You've got a heart."

I grabbed her hand. I pulled it to the side. Those delicate bones of hers broke. I brought up my own ray pistol, and slammed it into her chest. "Baby, I've got an atom bomb for a heart." I pulled the trigger. My shot burned straight through her body. Her blue skin went cold. She went limp in my hands.

I dropped her on the tiled floor and looked down at the Crawler eggs. I raised my ray gun. That's when my systems chose to crash on me. The strength left my legs. I sank down to my knees.

"Gabe!" It was Philo. He ran down the hall, his tiled shoes clicking on the floor. He hurried to my side, and looked over my wounds. "Gabe! Oh, you're injured! Your circuits are damaged!" He fiddled with his belt, struggling for bandages and extra batteries. "It's all right, I can repair you. Just stay still."

I looked into his pale face. He had a nasty purple bruise on his forehead. "How'd you get that, son?"

"Oh. Miss Ta struck me from behind. I was thrown into unconsciousness for precious seconds." He tore his eyes away from her body. "She betrayed us. Gabe, let your arms lie still! Don't try and move!"

"Give me a second." I aimed the ray gun at the eggs and fired. I burned every one of those goddamn eggs to a crisp. I didn't stop until the suitcase was full of ashes. Then I slid the gun into my shoulder-holster. "Okay, Philo," I said. "It's done."

"Excellent." He made a few more repairs, his hands shaking as he slid in extra batteries and pressed a bandage over my shoulder. "Your systems should repair lost organic material. It might take a while. Can you walk? I think the police will arrive shortly. I think we should leave immediately."

"Good idea." He helped me up. I leaned on his thin frame as we walked down the hall. "And thanks. You called me 'Gabe.' Like I asked you to."

"Yes." Philo gave me a quick smile. "Well, we're friends, I think. As well as being partners, we are friends. Now let's get you to safety, Gabe. I can make more repairs back at our apartment." He paused. "I'm sorry about Miss Ta."

"It's okay, son. I should have known better." We were friends. I couldn't count on the cops, on the Terran High Command and their idiot scientists, on corporate scumbags like Nestle, or on twists with their own angles like Valazz Ta. But I could count on scrawny Philo Temple. We were pals. And there was nothing in the universe that could change that.

He helped me limp down the hall, and back to the deck. We got into our hovercar, and I drove away, as sirens started whining in the distance.

-The End-