The Lonely Brain

Michael Panush

The Brain had controlled all vice on Luna City for decades. That meant the Brain was the most powerful crime boss in the moon and perhaps in the entire galaxy. He ran dope down to the earth's surface, dealt with Martian syndicates and paid off all the right people in the Terran government – and he did it all without having a body of his own. When the Brain wanted to hire you for a job, it's not an offer you can turn down. When you're a strange mix of human and machine turned cyborg shamus, like I am, you take that job at light speed.

That's why my secretary and I had traveled to the moon and were now riding a bulky rented hovercar down a wide transport tunnel. Glass port holes in the walls peeked out at the silver lunar surface and the gleaming stars beyond. Everything else in the tunnel was faded chrome. Up ahead, reinforced gates automatically opened to let us pass. I drove further into the complex. The Brain lived like a king in his castle, safe and secure behind seven-inch steel walls and under the guns of a small army of guards. I didn't blame him. I knew all about the dangers of the universe.

"Nice place, huh, Gabe?" My secretary asked. Her name was Betty Bright, a good girl from a good Terran family. She'd left earth looking for adventure. Sometimes she got more than she bargained for. "Looks about as friendly as the business end of a mace." Betty was a slim girl, with dark copper hair cut boyishly short. Her dark sweater, tweed jacket and skirt and round spectacles made her seem studious and harmless – but that wasn't quite the case. She packed a snub-nosed ray gun in that purse of hers and knew how to use it.

I drove the hovercar through the gates and into a narrow tunnel. Automated sentry turrets swung down from the ceiling, their beeping barrels following us like the disapproving eyes of society matrons. "Why don't you become the biggest crime boss in the Milky Way and get most of your body blown up in an assassination attempt?" I asked Betty, slowing my hovercar. "Then you can choose where you want to live."

The tunnel ended at a little cement ledge. Two uniformed guards in bulky black zoot suits and fedoras stood at the ledge, armed with pump action plasma cannons. With weighty, red faces and thick limbs, they looked like average lunar lugs. They stepped aside to let me and Betty pass. The Brain was expecting us.

"So he's a cyborg?" Betty hopped out onto the ledge. An automated steel door in the wall slid open silently, showing a shining chrome hallway. "Like you?"

"Kid, if there's anyone in the galaxy like me, I ain't met them yet." It was the truth. My name is Gabriel Starr and I'm pretty far from human. It wasn't always that way. I grew up on Terra, in a Foundry City slum. When I got old enough to leave, I did – by signing up with the Planetary Marines. That was when the Alphan Invaders came pouring into our galaxy and I fought those bulbous-headed bastards from the red sands of Mars to the jungles of Venus, until I was wounded in an ambush. The Terran High Command got a hold of my body and handed it to their scientists, deciding that a cyborg super soldier program would be just what we needed to turn the tide of war.

Now I've got metal lining my bones and an atomic generator where my heart ought to be. I'm a big bulky guy, a silver trench coat, gray suit and vest draped over my broad shoulders, with a face that's seen enough fights to make it ugly. My right eye's gone, replaced with a glowing red optic lined with steel. I keep it shadowed by the brim of my fedora, but the glare is still there. I'm not human. I never will be and the universe doesn't seem to want me to forget it.

Betty and I walked down the metal hall. We eventually came to a pair of golden doors, which opened into some kind of round study. My boots sunk into a shaggy red velvet carpet, thick as mud. Bookshelves lined the walls, all surrounding a gilded slab serving as a desk. A full bank of electronic controls filled the corner, below a full view screen. Two armchairs flanked the desk, one occupied by a guy in a salmon pink suit, the other by a fellow in the white trench coat of the Star Rangers, his peaked cap resting in his lap.

The Brain himself sat on top of the desk. I could see how he got his nickname. That attempted hit hadn't let anything left of him and he was nothing more than a floating pink of mass of cerebellum, floating around in the green depths of a crystal jar. The jar had a copper lid and base, and little metal arms with delicate fingers. It lifted up, flying on a small cushion of glowing air. A speaker box had been built into the bottom.

"Gabriel Starr," the Brain said. His electronic voice was free of expression. "Welcome to the moon." The Brain hovered around the desk and extended a metal arm to one of the drawers. He pulled out a bottle of cognac and a pair of shot glass. "Would you care for a drink? I would join you, but I can't – for obvious reasons."

"Half a glass for me," I said. I leaned closer to the Brain and tapped my metal eye. The clicking rang out hollowly through the Brain's study. "Too much upsets my circuitry."

The man in the Star Ranger's uniform stood up, grinning as the Brain prepared the drinks. "Well, look at the pair of you," he said, an easy twang in his voice. "Two peas in the same metal pod!" He had brown hair cut to military shortness, with a broad chin like the front of a starship and a smile that never seemed to fade. He held out his hand. "Star Ranger Edgar Brown, at your service. I'm a business associate of the Brain." Brown's eyes darted to Betty. His lips curled back slowly. "And who is this charming creature?" he asked.

I shook his hand and, even though my fingers were lined with steel, his grip nearly matched mine. So this was the guy who kept the Brain's smuggling empire functional. The Star Rangers were the Terran High Command's law-keeping agents throughout the galaxy. It didn't surprise me that one of them was rotten. I didn't like his tone when he talked about Betty. It proved that Star Ranger Edgar Brown was dirty – in more ways than one.

"Betty Bright," Betty explained, giving Brown a polite smile. "I'm Mr. Starr's secretary."

"And a beautiful one you are!" the fellow in pink headed over to us. "Rosie Monroe's the name. I operate a few clubs for the Brain. The biggest is the Pink Playroom, down in the Central Tunnel. The Brain and I have been in business since the beginning – came up together, you understand. I've stuck with him ever since, even after his accident." He had dark hair, slicked back to make him look almost aerodynamic. A Venusian glowflower gleamed bright white in his lapel, light spilling down his chest. He walked around Betty, looking her over like she was a new hovercar fresh from the factory floor. "Yes, sir. You are one darling girl, honey." Rosie's voice squeaked like someone was always stamping on his toe.

"Thanks." Betty gave him a confused smile. "Now what exactly would you like to hire us for?"

"Do you know what it's like, to be in my position?" The Brain flew over to her and handed over the shot glass. His jar seemed to dip down, like he was bowing to her. His liquid sloshed around. "I will tell you – it is one of constant danger and little satisfaction."

Something stirred behind the Brain's desk. I saw a round head poking out, which was mostly a mouth full of long, jagged teeth, looking like something that belonged on a carnivorous plant, though it was covered with white fur streaked red. The rest of the creature emerged, revealing six muscular limbs and a lean, hungry body of scales topped with more of the shaggy fur, around the size of a horse. A long tail pronged with three stingers, each dripping with black venom, waved around behind it like a pendulum. It was a Martian Sandtiger, one of the worst predators on the red planet. We Planetary Marines used to live in fear of them, almost as much as the Alphans and the bands of rebelling Martian tribesmen.

The Sandtiger moved to pounce. I reached into my coat and drew one of my twin ray guns from its shoulder-holster. I aimed the compact, finned weapon at the Sandtiger, just as it lunged for me. But then a glowing electrically charged chain attached to a steel collar around the Sandtiger's neck went tight. The beast fell hard to the ground and then slipped lithely black, hissing like an annoyed serpent.

The Brain's speaker box made a sputtering noise. I thought it might be malfunctioning, but then I realized what it was – the Brain was laughing. "Pardon my pet," the Brain explained. "I receive small amusement from caring for Stripes – and watching him eat my enemies. It is one of the few pleasures that are left to me." He buzzed over to me, letting me stare into his green tank. "You must understand something of what I speak."

He was right. Having a body with more metal than flesh had its benefits. I was tougher, stronger, had a built in communications system and when I hit, I hit hard. But I couldn't eat, unless it was white doughy balls of nutrients and vitamins that tasted like mixed cement and I couldn't drink much either. And though I could still feel and think and do everything else a human could, most people would take one look at my steel eye and scoot away. I was a cyborg. That made alone in a crowd – and the human race.

"Maybe a little," I replied.

"It's intolerable. It irks me more and more each day. Did you know I once found a way to hook wires directly into the part of my brain responsible for pleasure and give myself instant delight? I used to do that for days at a time – and I quickly tired of it." The Brain buzzed back to his desk. "It's not good, Mr. Starr. It's done nothing to improve my disposition. And when a bunch of no-account punks start trying to take over my turf, my disposition gets even worse."

"What no-account punks are these?"

Star Ranger Brown walked over to stand next to me. "A Biker Gang. A bunch of speed-craving wretches in leather jackets and top-of-the-line hoverbikes, calling themselves the Moon Wolves Motorcycle Club. A youthful reprobate by the name of Red Rooney leads them and they've caused us no end of trouble. That's why we've come to you." He clamped a hand on my shoulder. "They're congregating at a joint called the Silver Crater. Go there and disperse them."

So that was it – just a little muscle work. It seemed odd though. Muscle was something the Brain wasn't lacking. He could probably send Star Ranger Brown himself to oust a few bikers. And he had a small army of gunsels guarding his home. Why not send them instead of bringing in an out-of-town shamus?

Betty was thinking similar thoughts. "Why'd you hire us for that job, Mr. Brain?" she asked.

"I don't want to get my hands dirty," the Brain replied, turning to look at her. "Figuratively speaking. And rest assured, you will be paid handsomely for your services." He named a sum that was more than fair for cracking a few heads. "Does that sound agreeable?"

"Sure." I spoke before Betty did. She gave me a glare as I held out my hand. The Brain extended his little metal claw and shook it. His fingers felt small and sharp in my palm.

"I'll meet you at the east edge of Central Tunnel, in the viewing chamber," Brown added. "Once the job's done, of course."

"Of course." I nodded to Betty. "Come on, kid. Let's go to this Silver Crater place and see what we can see." I tipped my hat to Rosie Monroe and Star Ranger Brown. "We'll dangle now, fellows. You don't have to see us out."

Betty and I walked back down to my hovercar. My secretary drew out her datapad, a little computer about the size of a deck of cards, and started tapping in information. She was looking for the Silver Crater's location. She talked to me as she worked, her eyes not leaving the screen. "I think this job's wrong, Gabe. It stinks like a dead body in a Venusian jungle."

"Nix on that, kid. It's a lot of dough for laying a few beatings down. It's the perfect kind of job for a metal man like me."

"That's not all you are, Gabe – if only you'd realize it." She gave me a quick smile. "You're a good thinker, a good detective and a good friend. But that ain't the only point I don't like. Why did they hire you instead of getting some local talent for this kind of intimidation?"

I gave her my best grin. "Maybe they liked the looks of me."

"Doubtful, boss." Betty shrugged. "Well, let's go and gets this over with."

"That's the spirit." I let my hands rest in my pockets. I tried to think back to the old days, during the War and before, when living was a matter of being tougher, faster and meaner than the next guy. Things hadn't changed that much since then, even if I had. If I wanted to get this job over with, I'd have to be just as strong as I was then – and even meaner as well.

The Silver Crater wasn't hard to find. Betty founds its address, in one of the furthest sections of the lunar tunnels, near the outskirts of Luna City. We drove over there in my hovercar, zooming through light traffic along the rusted chrome tunnel. The tunnel bulged out at one end to make room for a large cement platform, and that's where the Silver Crater had been built. It was a square establishment of wood and steel, rows of neon signs advertising beer and whiskey. Hovercycles were hooked up to a little dock outside, set in ranks as neat as a Greek phalanx. I settled the hovercar down next to the bikes.

"You got a plan?" Betty wondered.

"Always." I pointed to the Silver Crater. "Can you hack into their environmental controls?"

"That's duck soup, boss." Her fingers danced across her datapad. "All right. I'm in. I could take pop open an airlock, drain the oxygen…" She looked up at me. "But that seems a little rough."

"No need for that. What about artificial gravity? Can you switch that off and on?" I opened the door and stepped out, my boots touching on the cement surface of the platform.

"Like a light switch."

"Aces." I peered through the frosted window at the interior of the bar. The place was packed with bikers. They were wearing dark leather jackets and vest over their white shirts. Some were playing pool while others sat on the bar stools or round, cast-iron tables, drinking and smoking. I guessed these were the Moon Wolves. "Throw that switch on my signal." I walked to the door.

"Which is?"

I looked back at Betty and grinned. "You'll know." I opened the door and stepped inside.

A jukebot was in the corner, a tomb-stone shaped flying hunk of metal and colored fiberglass, playing some screeching Martian bop. The music sounded like a cat being murdered and it washed over me like a wave. My boots tapped in time with the music, as I walked in. I eyeballed all the bikers, letting them get a look at me. I glared right back, showing off my red optic. Then I walked over to the bar.

I raised a finger to the barbot, a cold lump of steel that served as a bartender. The robotic barkeep grabbed a bottle and poured. The music continued, louder than the damned souls screaming in Hell, but all the conversation from the Moon Wolves had died out. I turned around and glared at them, noting the patches on the backs and below the pockets of their jackets, showing a pouncing wolf about to devour the moon. I listened to the robotic bartender pour my drink.

One of the Moon Wolves finally worked up the courage to come and stand next to me. "So, cyborg," he said. "Does it hurt?" He was short, but packed a lot of muscle and anger into a thin frame. His hair had been dyed flame red and done in jagged spikes, like something you'd find in stone poking up from the bottom of a cave. His face seemed fused in a constant smile.

"Does what hurt?" I wondered.

"Having a reading light for a face?" His grin grew. Some of the other Moon Wolves laughed. The music from the jukebot played on.

"You Red Rooney? I smiled back.

"And no other. What it to you, cyborg?" Red Rooney had a good nose – but so did every dog in town. He knew I was there for trouble. No point in pretending I wasn't.

"In that case," I said, downing the drink. "My reading light eye doesn't hurt as much."

Rooney cocked his head. "As much as what?"

"As much as you're gonna." I slugged him. I put all my strength behind the blow, ramming a fist across his chin until his whole form tilted to the bar and he spewed up a few teeth like a baby spews up drool. Rooney swayed on his feet. I steadied him with an arm on the shoulder – then slammed his face into the bar. He struck down to the floor and I drove my boot down into his gut. Rooney hacked and coughed. I stepped on him as I walked past.

The rest of the Moon Wolves stared at me. None of them made a move. They were numb. What happened hadn't quite sunk in yet. I decided to help it along. "The name's Gabriel Starr," I said. "I'm working for the Brain. He says that you fellows are finished on the moon and I agree. Go ride your fancy hoverbikes somewhere else."

One of the Moon Wolves sprang at me. He was a big guy, with a belly like a boulder peeking out from between his shirt and trousers. I saw his hand emerging from his leather jacket, a switchlaser's black handle resting in his hands. He squeezed the black piece of plastic and a thin, blazing blade of pure energy snaked out. He slashed down at me and the blade would have hacked me apart – if Betty hadn't disengaged the Silver Crater's gravity.

Everything in the joint seemed to waft into the air. The biker's blade missed me by inches as he lost his footing. But I was ready. I drove a fist into his gut, then grabbed his arm and slammed it on the side of the bar. He wailed as the switchlaser fell away. I pushed him back and kicked my legs, propelling myself through the air and towards the exit. It was like swimming, with ribbons of floating booze, cups, bottles and garbage in my way. I sailed past them all.

I floated over to the door. Rooney was still retching on the ground. "You'll pay…" he gurgled.

"I'll be waiting outside," I said. "Make me." I slammed open the door my boots landed on the ground. The joint behind me started buzzing like a disturbed hive. I walked over to my hovercar and slid into the passenger seat. "Take the wheel, kid," I told Betty. "And start down the tunnel. Now comes the hard part."

Betty started the engine without a word. The rented hovercar roared away from the platform and shot back into the rusted chrome tunnel. Betty was a smart girl. She put that engine through its paces and we hurtled down the steel tunnel like a bullet from a gun barrel. But it wouldn't be fast enough. I glanced over my shoulder. Sure enough, the Moon Wolves were zooming after us, all flying along on their dark steel hoverbikes. Red Rooney was with them, leading the pack despite the injuries I had dealt him. I couldn't have that.

Then they started shooting. Rooney must have given the order. He couldn't stand for someone to beat the snot out of him and then take a powder. He'd need his revenge. I heard automatic pistols and revolvers clatter away, but it wasn't easy to hit a moving hovercar and it was even harder when riding on a hoverbike. Bullets gouged the sides of the car. One cracked the windshield and I heard the bullet whine past my head. Betty let out a little shudder, but she didn't scream. She was a brave kid.

I reached into my coat and pulled out a plasma bomb. It was a round red grenade, about the size of a billiards ball, with a single red button on the top. I popped it was my thumb and hurled it over my shoulder. The plasma bomb landed right in front of the bikers and ripped to life, a cloud of pure fire blossoming out and engulfing the bikes. Moon Wolves spun out of control. I heard metal screaming like wounded beasts. I motioned for Betty to stop our hovercar.

She killed the engine and brought us lower. I opened the door and stepped out, then walked around to the trunk. I popped it and reached inside, listening to the groans and aches coming from behind me. The trunk was full of firepower. I kept in touch with some of my buddies from the Planetary Marines, who had access to armories. Jarheads never let a fellow go into battle unarmed. I grabbed an atommy gun, a nuclear-powered submachine gun with uranium-tipped rounds, and walked back to the Moon Wolves.

They were sprawled out on the floor of the tunnel, their bikes lying behind them. A few were still speeding around, but they didn't both tossing any lead my way. They were dazed from the explosion. I shouldered the atommy gun and walked over to Red Rooney. He was reaching into his bike, grabbing a sawed-off plasma cannon. I kicked it out of his hands and then pressed the muzzle of my atommy gun against his forehead.

"Where were you going?" I asked, keeping my voice level. He said nothing. "You don't know? I'll tell you. You're going to the spaceport, down in the main tunnel. You're gonna get on the next shuttle to earth. Your little space adventure is over. The moon's off limits now. Stick with the green fields of earth. You'll live longer."

"You cyborg son of a—"

I reached down and cracked my fist against his cheek. "And no more cyborg cracks."

So that was that – or so I thought. The Moon Wolves were finished. Red Rooney, like most punks who find themselves in command, cared almost as much about saving face as staying alive. But I'd frightened the piss out of the little snot and he'd stay scared. I'd done what the Brain had hired me to do. Now it was time to collect the benefits.

I walked back to the hovercar and sat down next to Betty. "Head to the viewing station in the central tunnel," I said. "Let's go and get paid."

"Don't have to tell me twice," Betty said, and roared the hovercar to life.

We made it to the viewing station in record time. It was a big bulbous bubble in the surface of Luna City, all made of extra-thick glass. The place was a tourist trap, where families visiting from earth could look out at the ghostly lunar plains and craters without having to go outside. There was a little parking lot in the corner, along with benches, picnic tables and more hot dog, souvenir and lunar cheese stands than I could count with a computerized brain. Betty and I drove into the parking lot. I saw Star Ranger Edgar Brown and two of the Brain's goons, standing by a parked limousine. They were waiting for us.

Betty stopped the hovercar and we hopped out. Tourist chatter filled up the bubble like water fills a cup. They were playing, snapping pictures or gobbling down junk food all around us. I suppose it was as good a place as any for some bad business. Betty and I crossed the parking lot and approached Star Ranger Brown.

I nodded to him. "It's done," I said. "The Moon Wolves are on their way to the spaceport. They won't be coming back."

"Well, ain't that grand news?" Brown's eyes darted to Betty. I didn't like their look. He took a step closer to her. "I must say, your secretary truly is beautiful, Starr." He cocked his head and I saw Betty shiver. "Her figure, her carriage, even the color of her eyes – it's all marvelous." One of his meaty hands reached into his trench coat.

Maybe my blood was still hot from thrashing the Moon Wolves, but I decided that I had enough of this crooked galactic cop. "She's her own woman, pal," I said, stepping closer to Brown. "And she ain't in the market, so close your head."

"I'm sorry, cyborg." Brown's hand left his coat. It was carrying a black baton half as long as his arm. He pressed a button on it and the top crackled with electricity. "But I'm afraid she is."

Star Ranger Brown slammed the electro-baton against the side of my head. I didn't have time to go for my rod. I didn't have time for anything. My legs didn't crumple. They just ceased to exist. I hit the ground. Brown hit me again. It felt like an asteroid had thundered into my midsection. Somewhere, far away, I heard Betty scream. My head rolled to the side. I saw her opening her purse, drawing out her snub-nosed ray gun.

The poor girl didn't get a chance. One of the zoot suit-clad toughs reached over and grabbed her arm, yanking her close and pulling her purse away. Brown slugged her, low in the chest and she folded. "You're a haughty woman!" Brown snarled. "You'll learn to behave soon enough. We'll teach you well." His men bundled her into the limousine, one clamping a hand over her mouth. Her eyes met mine. They were full of panic.

By now, the tourists had started to stare at us. Parents clutched their children. I heard one of them scream. Brown looked up and flashed his badge. "Star Ranger business!" he roared. "It ain't your concern!" He looked back at me, and drew out his long barreled ray gun. "What's that you're doing, Starr?" he asked softly. "Going for a gun? Poor choice, friend."

Somehow, I rolled to the side. It was the look in Betty's eyes, the plea to save her and prove that I was more than an inhuman, useless machine that got me to move. I heard the ray gun's blast, a blazing whine that sounded far too close. It scorched down past my shoulder, roasting a chunk of my flesh. I grabbed the hovercar door with dead arms and pulled myself up. Another shot burned past me, this one nearly frying my head. I forced myself into the driver's seat.

My fingers felt as stiff and cold as icicles. I dragged them over the wheel and got the key in the ignition. I kicked the engine to life and gave the wheel a turn. The rented hovercar slammed to the side, smashing into the auto parked next to us. Steel grated on steel. I ignored it and kept turning the wheel. The hovercar rolled out of the way. Another ray gun blast scorched the air. Brown wouldn't miss again.

I stepped down on the gas. I tried to keep my head upright. The hovercar roared down the parking lot. I smashed the rear of another parked auto, but kept going. I saw the entrance to the tunnel, leading deeper into the moon's interior. I took it, swerving the car again. The tunnel flashed by me, just as blazing white flashed over my eyes. I tried to stay operating. My machinery needed time to work and repair.

I drove the hovercar like it was comet streaking down from heaven. I sped down tunnels and tunnels, turning wildly and doing my best not to leave a trail. Brown wouldn't want to leave me alive. I was certain of that – but not much else.

Why had he taken Betty? What did he mean when he said that she was on the market? It was for the Brain, I knew that, but why had the lunar crime boss even hired us? Was it all to get his non-existent hands on Betty? That seemed pretty damn likely. But that still left me asking why. What the Hell did a disembodied brain want with my secretary? Whatever it was, I had a feeling I wouldn't like it – and that I'd have to put a stop to it. But first I needed information. And to get that, I needed to be strong.

I slowed the hovercar. I pulled off to the side of the tunnel and parked it on a little maintenance tunnel. Then I slipped out of my trench coat and suit jacket and looked at my shoulder. Brown's ray gun blast had seared through skin and muscle, burning them up and letting me see the metal underneath. I'd have to stitch it up.

I popped the glove compartment. Betty had stashed a repair kit there. That kid always thought ahead. I pulled the plastic lid off and looked at the syringes. They'd numb me up more than a gallon of bad whiskey. I couldn't afford that. There just wasn't time. Instead, I grabbed an automated sewing device, about the size of a pack of cigarettes and made of white plastic. I switched it on and ran it over in the cut in my arm. It stitched me up in seconds. The pain burned through me. It felt like flames were licking over my skin, while ants crawled under it. I bit my metal teeth down and waited out the pain.

When it was done, I slapped a bandage over the wound and slipped my suit and coat back on. They were soaked through with blood and singed up, but I didn't pack any spare rags. I leaned back and sighed. I told myself to think straight. Betty needed me.

The Brain wanted her and I didn't know why. Maybe I should have figured it out. After all, the Brain and I were similar, both a pair of robots trying to pretend to be human and not doing a good job. We'd left our humanities behind a long time ago and now we were metal monsters, receiving just the kind of cold treatment that machines deserved. Well, then so be it. To get Betty back, I'd become a killing machine. I'd become an engine of slaughter that would put the Brain to shame.

I drew out my ray guns and checked the power batteries. Both were full. I needed to know what the Brain was thinking. I knew just the bum to ask.

I headed back to the Central Tunnel, found a roadside parking lot and set down the hovercar, then went in to the populated area on foot. I headed to East Central, blending in with the crowd. This was a wide little section of bars and gambling halls, the sinner's quarter of Luna City. The streets were packed with revelers, spacemen on leave and even the odd tourist brave enough to look for a forbidden thrill. I trudged past sleazy bars, gambling halls and dingy flophouses, all lit up by neon under a big translucent ceiling looking out at the stars. It didn't take long to find what I was looking for.

The Pink Playhouse was a big two-story structure of rambling wood, with sloped gambrel roofs, painted the same shade as a flamingo's feathers. I walked around the place, getting a feel for it. I looked up on the top floor and used my cybernetic eye for a closer look. I stared past pink curtains and tinted glass and saw a kind of office, where Rosie Monroe was sitting in his shirtsleeves, a young blonde in a tight lime green dress with red polka dots was keeping him company. He probably had some of the Brain's goons waiting for him on the lower floor. I'd just have to go over the top.

I did a running jump and grabbed onto the edge of the roof. The pistons inside my muscles went to work and I hauled myself. The wound in my shoulder ached with each bit of pressure I put on it. I idly wondered if my arm would rip out of its sockets. Somehow, I got myself up. I kept quiet and made my way to Rosie's window, taking it slow and easy. I made less noise than a shadow. When you're fighting natives on Venus, you learn stealth or you don't survive.

Slowly, I made my away around the building. I felt the rough wood under my fingers and then the smooth glass of Rosie's room. I crouched low and peered inside. Rosie's had dolled his office up like some tropical hunting lodge. He had big wooden tiki statues in the corners and a leopard print rug. I saw that Rosie and the blonde were standing on that rug, locking lips. The blonde's eyes darted to the window. She saw me – or at least, the red glow of my cybernetic eye. She screamed.

I smashed the glass with the handle of my ray gun and stepped inside. Rosie scrambled to the desk. "Mr. Starr!" he whined. "You know, the main entrance is downstairs! You don't have to come through the window!"

"This seemed easier." I looked up at the blonde. She was still wailing. I gave her a glare. "Shut up and scram." She turned to run, not looking back. I stared back at Rosie. He was opening one of the drawer's of his desk. I grabbed his arm and pulled it back. The drawer came with it. A golden-handled revolver tumbled to the ground. I kicked it away. "Don't be stupid, Rosie. We have to talk."

"Sure!" His pale eyes twinkled. "What about?"

I grabbed the back of his head and slammed it into the desk. I heard him wail and when I pulled his head back, I saw that his nose was flattened. I pushed him back against the wall, keeping my ray gun close to his face. "Why'd the Brain hire me and Betty?" I asked. "Don't feed me no story about the Moon Wolves either. The straight dope, Rosie – or I burn your goddamn head in two."

"It wasn't me, Gabe!" he wailed. "It was the Brain! That Brain's been in charge of things since I can remember!" He could see that I wasn't buying his plea. He nodded. "Okay. Okay. I'll tell you everything. Like I said, it was all the Brain's idea. The Brain was looking at various pictures from old society papers on earth. Your secretary was in there, at some rich family's ball. The Brain wanted her, and the Moon Wolves were causing trouble, so we called you up and asked you over."

I wrapped my fingers around his throat and slammed him against the wall. "Why's he so interested in Betty?" I demanded. "Why'd he have his tame cop grab her?"

Rosie let out a whining little laugh. "He?" he asked. He smiled through bloodied teeth. "The Brain's not a man, Gabe! She never was! The Brain's a dame, and she's a little tired of no one knowing it. She wants your secretary's body. That's why Brown was supposed to kidnap her and kill you – so the Brain could cut out Betty's gray matter and replace it with her own." His little smile faded. "I just wish Brown did his goddamn job and clipped you like he was supposed to."

"Yeah," I said. "I bet you do." I rammed my fist deep into Rosie's gut and let him sink to the ground. He slumped down and I leveled my ray gun at him as I considered what to do. I'd been suckered all right, tricked into handing my only friend to a gangster queen, who wanted nothing more than to rip out Betty's brain and steal her body. But the Brain had left me alive. She'd live to regret that – but not much longer.

But I couldn't take on her compound alone. The Brain had an army at her command, not to mention Star Ranger Edgar Brown, who'd be more than willing for a rematch. Getting in, getting Betty out and smashing the Brain's jar would be impossible for one man – even if he was lined with metal. I needed an army to take down the Brain. Then I realized I knew of one, which had every reason in the universe to hate the Brain.

On the floor, Rosie started to whine. I grabbed his shoulder and hauled him up. I rammed the ray gun into his back. "Come on," I said. "We're going. Call for any guards or make any noise and I'll burn a hole right through you."

"Sure, Gabe." Rosie made his little whimpering laugh. "You don't have to worry about me!"

"I know." I pushed him to the door, leaned over and opened it. We walked down the hall and then a stairwell into the man floor of his club. The place was packed. Rosie wrapped a silken handkerchief set with his initials over his nose to hide the blood. A full band was crooning away on the stage, while couples milled around and boozed up. None of them gave me and Rosie a second glance. Rosie just grinned at everyone and held out his hand like he was waiting for a handshake. They all steered clear. We got to the double doors and then we were outside.

I pushed Rosie out first. He knew what would happen if he tried to run. "Where we going now, Gabe?" he asked, trying to sound as loyal as a beaten dog.

"The spaceport," I explained. "And I hope to Christ we're not too late."

Rosie and I drove to the spaceport in record time. It was the center of Luna City, a big silver dome with a hole in top where the starships flew in and out. The parking lot stretched out for miles. I cruised around, but it wasn't hard to find what I was looking for. The Moon Wolves were standing together in a motley pack, their hoverbikes stacked up next to them. They were smoking, nursing their wounds and waiting for the next flight. Red Rooney looked up when I drove over to him. When I slowed the hovercar and he saw who was behind the wheel, he reached for the automatic in his leather coat pocket.

I got out with my hands raised. "Easy there, fellows," I said. "I'm here to make peace."

"Why should we trust you, cyborg?" Rooney snarled. "You're a steel stooge for the Brain – and you can't even human. You're a metal monster in a man's skin. There's no trusting that." Rooney's bikers bristled as they went for their own weapons. Soon I had a dozen heaters pointed squarely in my face. "You want to give me a reason, cyborg?"

"Sure," I replied. "Her name's Betty." I took a step closer, nearing his automatic. "She's a good kid who made the bad decision of linking her life to mine. And because of that, the same rotten twist who sent me to beat up you is gonna rip out of her brain and take her body. I'm gonna stop it. I'm gonna go to the Brain's fortress and show her how much of a killing machine I am. And I'm offering you biker trash an opportunity to come along for the ride."

Rooney lowered his automatic. He nodded slowly. "I'm listening."

"Follow my hovercar. Rosie and I will go to the Brain's compound."

"You got a plan?"

"Always." I motioned for Rooney to follow me. "But we don't have much time. Let's dangle."

We started heading back to my hovercar. The Moon Wolves picked up their bikes and wheeled them after us, letting them float on cushions of air. It was maybe a dozen lousy bikers against the Brain's private army, in a fortress overflowing with security. But I had Rosie Monroe in my pocket – and plenty of other tricks up my sleeve.

Maybe half an hour later, Rosie and I sat in my hovercar, which floated outside the steel gates of the Brain's compound. Rosie had his datapad out and my ray gun in his ear. He did what I told him, punching in the keys and putting in the security code. The doors slid open. Hopefully, Rosie's code would stop the automated sentry guns from blowing me and the Moon Wolves to bloody rags. I kept the ray gun pressing into the side of his head to encourage him.

"So that's it?" I asked. "Security's off?"

"Yeah," Rosie agreed. "Say, you mind me asking a question?"

"Go ahead."

"What's gonna happen to me, when all this is over?" Rosie asked with a whine as I slid my hovercar past the open steel doors. The Moon Wolves were all around me, floating in the air. They were arming up, loading their pistols and revolvers. They were eager for a fight – just like me.

I turned and stared at Rosie. "I don't care. It might end up good for you, Rosie. Someone's gonna have to inherit all the rackets here once the Brain's toast. Might as well be you. You've already got the contacts and something tells me you never had much affection for your boss. Why don't you just take over once she's gone?"

He grinned like a kid who got what he wanted for Christmas. "Gee, that's nice of you. You're an okay guy, Gabe – for a soulless cyborg."

"High praise." Up ahead was the little ledge, leading deeper into the complex. The two lunar lugs were still there, and they raised their plasma cannons when the Moon Wolves and I came down the tunnel. I nodded to Rooney. "Go on, buddy!" I called. "Go and enjoy yourself!"

Rooney threw back his head and howled. The rest of his Moon Wolves joined in. That primal battle cry wafted through the metal tunnel and then they buzzed ahead. They were like a swarm of hornets, sweeping down and absorbing the Brain's guards. The Moon Wolves strafed the two sentries, mowing them down before they could get a shot off. I sped over to the ledge and lowered my car, while the Moon Wolves flew ahead of me. More security would be coming. I'd let the bikers deal with it. I had more important things to do.

I stopped the auto and grabbed my atommy gun from the back. I slipped the strap over my shoulder and planted my boots on the ledge. The chrome door slid open. "I'll just stay here, then!" Pinkie called. "Keep my nose clean, so to speak."

"Good idea." I gripped the trigger of the atommy gun and dashed down the hall.

I reached the doors to the Brain's study. I kicked them open and stepped inside, raising the atommy gun to my shoulder. I thought I was ready for anything. I wasn't ready for what I saw. There was an operating table in the center of the room. Betty was lashed to it. A robot surgeon, a big metal cylinder with metal hands ended in sharp tools, was holding a spinning buzz saw over her forehead. The buzz saw was a blur of motion and sharpness. There were four goons as well, all armed, and Star Ranger Brown standing behind the desk. The Brain floated above it all, lording over everything like god.

There wasn't time to speak. I raised the atommy gun and fired. One of the Brain's thugs dropped without a word as he went for his pistol, my burst taking off the top of his head and spilling what was inside all over the bookcases. I swung the submachine gun around and let out another burst, gunning down the second lug. My shots opened him up and he slipped back on the ground and died in a writhing mass. The other two managed to get off some shots.

I dove for cover behind a couch. Lead and lasers cut through the air above me. "Kill him!" the Brain started to scream. "Kill the cyborg! I will not be denied! I will have my body!" I almost felt sorry for the damn floating jar. It wanted to be human again. That was something I could understand. But people like me and the Brain ain't nothing more than machines, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. The Brain was about to learn that lesson.

I popped up and came out shooting. One of the guards charged me, twin automatics thundering his hands. A shot whizzed past my skull. He didn't get out another. My shots plowed through him. One ripped into his elbow. The lower half of his arm came off in a spurt of blood. He didn't last long after that. His pal did a bit better, getting close enough for me to see the sweat on his unshaven face. He cracked away with his revolver, blasting a chunk of flesh out of my arm. I didn't even feel the bullet rush past. I just turned and gave him the rest of the clip, blasting him to shreds until the atommy gun clicked empty.

I tossed the submachine gun down and reached for the ray guns in my shoulder-holsters. "I'll give you one chance, Brain," I said. "One chance to let Betty go before I open up that jar of yours and let everything spill out. And normally, you wouldn't even get that – but I try not to rough up dames."

"Sorry, Mr. Starr." The Brain swung down to her desk. One of her metal arms reached out. "But I want to be human again. You can sympathize, I'm sure. And to feel the breeze on my skin, to know the love of another, to be accepted by my own race – I'd murder a thousand." She slammed down a brass button. I heard the sound of a sturdy chain clanking to the ground. Then the Martian Sandtiger leapt up from behind the desk and came for me.

My ray gun flashed at the Sandtiger. I managed to sear its side before it tackled me. Four heavy claws pounded into my chest. The tail's stinger lashed out. I rolled to the side, and the stinger stabbed into the ground next to me, just next to my head. The paws struck like two pairs of bulldozers and were sharp as butcher knives. I felt wetness seeping into the front of my suit. I tried to keep hold of my ray gun.

The Sandtiger lunged closer, its mouth opening up to tear my face off. I wrapped my free hand around its throat and squeezed. I pushed it back, feeling the heat from its mouth and little strings of drool slipped out from between its teeth and splashing onto my face. I closed my eyes. I doubled my grip on the ray gun, jabbed it into the Sandtiger's chest and held the trigger down.

I burned right through the belly of the beast. The Sandtiger made a noise like a wailing police siren mixed with a lion's roar. I gave the monster a shove. The Sandtiger hit the carpet. I had burned a hole through its chest big enough to fit my arm through.

My heart was pounding. Everything seemed blurred and my ears rang with static. I came to my feet and stumbled to the operating table. "Hey there, kid," I said, pushing back the surgeon bot. I grabbed one of the leather straps holding Betty down and wrenched it away, freeing her hands.

"Hello, boss," Betty said, giving me a quick smile. She pulled away the other set of straps binding her legs. "Thanks for showing up. I suppose I should be flattered that the Brain likes my body, but I don't think I'm done using it just yet."

"You're happy to see me?" I asked. "Even after I led you here and let these bastards steal you away? Even if I screwed things up like the rotten machine I am?"

She shrugged. "It's not your fault. And you're a good person, Gabe – no matter what's under your skin."

I couldn't help myself. Despite all the pain coursing through me like water courses through a river, I smiled. Then I saw Betty's eyes go wide. I looked up and saw Star Ranger Brown coming towards me, swinging down his electric baton. He bashed it into the side of my head and I spun back, the static in my ears drowning out everything else. I raised my ray gun and fired, burning a shot past Brown's side. I heard him curse and groan and then a metal hand jabbed into my arm.

The Brain had swooped down to stop me. The ray gun fell to the ground and skittered out of reach. I had come in with two guns and lost both of them. I swung my fist into the ray gun's jar. I didn't even shatter the glass. My hand came away feeling like I'd punched the hull of a starship.

"Super hard crystal," the Brain explained. "I'm not stupid." Her metal arms reached out and grabbed my throat. "I don't want to do this," she said. "I like you, Gabe. I like what you represent – a cyborg that doesn't let the world get him down. But I'm not nearly as strong. I want to be flesh again. I want to live."

"You understand, Gabe." Brown swung his baton into my legs, knocking me to the ground. "Hell, I got a feeling you'd do the same, given the opportunity." I couldn't feel much. I stared up into the impassive, glassy surface of the Brain's jar. I could see my own reflection. I could see the scars and the splotches of steel below the flesh and the glowing red eye. I saw that I wasn't human.

"No. He wouldn't." We all looked up. Betty was there, standing next to her purse. She had opened it up and pulled out her snub-nosed ray gun. "Because he's better then you." She fired twice. One shot blasted in Star Ranger Brown's chest and sent him reeling. Her second shot blasted into the Brain's jar.

Hardened crystal or not, her shot still blazed through. The Brain's jar spun to the side, its contents a smoking wreck. The Brain was finished. She crashed down into the control panel in the corner, spilling green juice everywhere. Smoke and steam spat out from the controls, filling the room. Sparks and a blazing fire followed.

Betty ran to me and helped me up. Together, we made our way out of the room. Betty paused to grab her purse as we walked down the hall. Smoke and fire blazed behind us. I saw the ledge and the hovercar up ahead, with Rosie waiting for us in the back seat. We'd get out before the cops came. We'd leave this damn hunk of spinning rock behind.

"Nuts," Betty said, as we reached the car.

"Why you saying that?" I asked. She opened the door and I slumped in the passenger seat.

"We won't get a dime for this job, boss. We didn't even ask the Brain for an advance."

"The Hell with that." I grinned at her. "I'm just glad you're okay."

Betty returned my smile. "That's why you're better than them. That's why you're better than a machine and I'm glad to work with you." She settled in the driver's seat and looked back at Rosie. "My boss didn't kill you, so I guess he wants you alive. I'll drop you off somewhere on the way to the spaceport."

"Sounds like a plan," Rosie agreed. "And Gabe? It was a pleasure working with you."

I didn't say anything. I just lay back in the chair and listened to the ticking of my atomic heart. Betty was right. I was like the Brain – but I didn't have to be just a mindless machine. As long as I had people I cared about, I'd always be something more.

We sped down the open transport tunnel, leaving the lonely Brain's resting place far behind.

-The End-