Lucky Star

Michael Panush

The Red Rock Casino was built into the interior of a massive, scarlet asteroid that flew through space like a great clot of blood amongst silver stars. The Calico approached the entry tunnel carved into the rugged side of the Red Rock. The Calico was a sleek silver starship, like a small, wide needle with only the occasional seam on the polished metal. The ship was running on autopilot. Violet Starr, Terran Alliance intergalactic superspy, already stood in the unloading bay with the entirety of her crew and waited as the ship docked to deposit her.

She wasn't dressed for action, though she supposed she was still dressed for her job. The long, midnight black gown with stardust sprinkles dropped down to the floor and she was poised on heels sharp enough to impale apples. Her dark hair short hair was pulled back into an artfully designed bun and her cold, dark eyes stared ahead. A cigarette holder rested in one hand, an expensive roll of Venusian dreamweed smoldering at its tip. These weren't Violet's clothes. They belonged to Satin Le Staine, traveling gentlewoman gambler and notorious bon vivant. Le Staine was one of her chief cover identities. Violet wasn't quite Satin Le Staine just yet. The doors of the boarding tunnel had yet to open into the interior of the Red Rock.

The rest of her crew sat with her and shuffled awkwardly in the blaring lights of the steel loading chamber. Korzon Kord stood behind her. He was a Martian, with thick green muscles bulging under the sleeves of his carefully folded tuxedo and batwing ears flanking his round, hairless head. It wasn't the clothes that made him uncomfortable. Kord had selected the outfit himself - along with Violet's. He doubled as the wardrobe master and bodyguard and aboard the Calico. No, it wasn't his clothes that had him upset. It was the job.

Kord sniffed the stale air as the steel door began to slowly creak open. "Command doesn't know what he was thinking with this operation," Kord announced quietly. His voice was a rumbling groan, like machinery roaring to life. "It hasn't been scouted, hasn't be prepped for the drop-off. It's like taking a nosedive into a black hole."

"Incorrect, Mr. Cord." That was from Harvey Zero, the youngest - and perhaps most intelligent - member of the Calico. Harvey looked like a normal twelve-year old boy, albeit one who was particularly sleight and had extremely straight dark hair. His glowing eyes showed that he was something different. "Your statement expresses a complete foreknowledge of our destruction. This mission, however, offers only a partial chance of our total annihilation." Harvey Zero was a Brain Boy, a cyborg creation with a computer pulsing away inside his brain. His eyes glowed green and he wore square glasses with dark lenses to hide them. His tuxedo matched Kord's, apart from size.

"Well, ain't that a load off," Kord muttered. The door has almost completely lifted. Cocktail music drifted in, faint as smoke, from the casino floor. "Miss Starr, I think we ought to be watching our backs very closely on this job. It's unfamiliar territory."

"The casino's hardly some Venusian jungle or hostile desert, Kord," Violet replied.

The final member of the crew curled lithely around her ankles. "True," said Bartholomew, a genetically engineered Chameleon Cat who was currently flashing an imperious purple. "But it can be twice as dangerous as any of those places."

"Don't remind me." Violet picked up Bartholomew. "And remember, Bart, you're nothing more than a prize pet. So keep that mouth of your buttoned up." Bart flashed an angry red in response, but then remained silent. The loading doors had now opened completely. Violet stepped out, moving briskly on her high heels, and walked into the main hall of the Red Rock Casino.

It was a great expanse of red velvet, from the carpets to the walls. Slot machines stood in shimmering phalanxes at one end, with holographic advertisements repeating their animations in endless sequence. The gaming tables, with Martian Hold 'Em Poker, baccarat, Neo Whist and a thousand other games, sat on small, slightly levitating platforms throughout the rooms. The dealer's cage remained in the back between further hallways, surrounded by a hulking iron fence decorated with symbols from the various suits of cards. It was packed with guests - both tourists and high rollers - and robots puttered around to offer drinks or examine card games for cheaters. Violet strolled onto the casino floor as the airlock slid silently shut behind her. There was a small party waiting for her.

It consisted of two bulky bodyguard bots and one portly man. The robots were heavily armored tin cans, rocket pods and machine guns built into their bodies or hanging at their sides. Flashing visors served as optical sensors, like illuminated sets of sunglasses fused into their bellies. The man standing between them was Moe Waxman. He owned the Red Rock. He was a balding fellow with square data glasses, holographic info flickering across their lenses, and pale, puffed up hair. He wore an open collar below his blazer, a fat cold chain resting above his chest hair.

Moe stepped forward and held out his hand. "Miss Le Staine!" he croaked. "A pleasure to have you aboard. You certainly do brighten up the place." He grinned as she took his hand then leaned forward. Instead of kissing her hand, his tongue darted out and slipped over her knuckles. "Your rooms all ready in the west wing. We'll just head over there and I'll see that you get set up - free room service, top shelf booze on the house, the works. Hit the games whenever you'd like it. At the Red Rock, the dice never stop rolling."

Violet tried her best to maintain Satin Le Staine's coldness. "What a charming notion." She matched Moe's pace as he spun around. "And I thank you for your kindness. Though I suppose there has to be a certain measure of such refinement between us professionals."

"You said it," Moe agreed. He looked at Violet's friends. "Who's that your bringing with you? A green skin?" Kord stiffened, but said nothing. He continued striding along and carrying the two suitcases that contained all the gear they'd need for the operation.

"My bodyguard," Violet explained. "My job often requires me to be protected."

"Huh." Moe nodded. "I hear that. I got this place locked down like a military satellite. You don't need to worry." He reached over and slapped his hand on Bart's head, crushing the cat's ears. Bart's face flashed orange, but at least he didn't speak. "And the cat's cute too. A nice little trademark." Then Moe looked down at Harvey. "But what's with the adolescent freak in the glasses?"

The remark obviously stung Harvey. He stumbled on the carpet, his dress shoes sliding over the red velvet. Violent saw his face redden. "You mean the Brain Boy?" she asked. "He does calculations and handles electronics. Another important part of my career."

"A calculator can handle that, honey." They had crossed the casino floor and now entered a long hallway lined with various blonde wooden doors. Moe walked ahead and then reached the door at the far end. He slid in his passcard and the ivory door clicked open. "So why bother with one of them machine-headed freaks? They're unsettling. You want, you can toss him out the airlock and I'll get you a computer replacement free of charge. I get them wholesale."

"No thank you," Violet said. She gave Moe a quick smile. "But I appreciate the thought." She held open the door and Kord and Harvey hurried inside. The boy's face was bright red and his glowing green eyes were wide and panicked. "Now, head on back to your casino floor, if you please. I'll be there momentarily." She slipped behind the door and waved her hand. "Ta-ta." She slammed the door shut, before Moe could say another word.

As soon as they were in, the facade ended. Violet set Bart down and the cat bounced onto the bed and grumbled obscenities as he flashed pink. Kord and Harvey popped open the suitcases. Violet grabbed a fresh set of clothes and went to the bathroom. She was ready to leave Satin Le Stain's gown behind. Her mind flashed quickly back to the mission. Command had briefed her last night. It was simple - head to the floor and meet up with a Neptunian dealer named Zenbo Nipps. Before he got a job at the Red Rock, Nipps had worked as a translator in the heart of the Star Union. He'd acquired quite a bit of high value intelligence before he turned traitor and the Terran Alliance's Intel Division was quite keen to have it. He was to give the data to Violet. It was be in electronic storage, disguised as a poker chip. Intel Division had sent their best and that was Violet Starr.

Violet returned to the suite's living room. Kord was standing above the full length mirror near the twisted, glassy sculpture that served as a coffee table in the center of the room. He had shed his suit coat, revealing twin shoulder-holsters with high-powered automatic pistols resting inside and a deadly, serrated Martian dagger in an embroidered scabbard in his belt. He double-checked the guns. Harvey was sitting in a floating bubble chair, his personal computer buzzing in his hands. His fingers danced over the keys and his green eyes glowed.

She stood next to him. Violet was dressed more sensibly now - in clothes that she much preferred. They were hers and not Satin Le Staine's. She wore a light red, short trench coat over a slim, pale sweater and dark slacks. Violet had let her hair down too. It came just past her ears. She looked down at Harvey's computer, a keyboard and screen no bigger than a deck of cards. The screen was a stream of code, completely unreadable unless someone had a computer in their brain.

"Anything to report?" Violet asked.

"Yes." Harvey looked up. His face was still red. "I believe there is. The security for Mr. Waxman's casino is absurdly simplified. I cracked it completely in 0.5 seconds and had a detailed look at his current guest roster and layout. It really is an awful system." He glanced back at the screen. "It revealed to me that a party of about a dozen Reptilians has taken an entire floor's worth of suites in the eastern wing of the Red Rock Casino."

The Reptilians were the race who had founded the Star Union. They were enemies of humanity and the Alliance. "Just tourists?" Violet asked.

"Perhaps - but that they arrived an hour before we did removes that possibility. Too big of a coincidence." Harvey's eyes moved back to the screen. "They had already hacked the system as well and created fake identities shielding their real ones. I researched them and followed an extremely difficult trail. It took me three seconds to uncover the truth."

"Which is?" Kord grumbled.

"They're Death Claws." That made Violet clench her teeth. Death Claws were the elite special forces of the Star Union. They were the opposite number of the Terran Alliance's Intel Division and were known for their lethality and brutality.

Bart lithely slid off the bed. "Ooooh." He walked over to Harvey. "Troublesome."

"Shut up, Bart," Violet ordered. "Any talent we recognize?"

Harvey reached down and stroked Bart's back. The cat slid against his palm, arching his back and glowing a contented blue. "I'm sorry, Miss Starr, but I'm afraid there is. He's an operative who has made appearances on the moon, the Jovian stations and Borax Prime. His real name is forty syllables long, so he's been given the distinction of 'the Cobra.' He's apparently an assassin." The boy stared up at Violet. "And a very good one. Please promise to be careful, Miss Starr."

"Like she always is?" Bart asked.

"Shut up," Violet repeated. She looked down at the boy. Sometimes he demonstrated his humanity, in ways that couldn't be ignored. "Thank you, Harvey. You did a wonderful job, as usual." She thought back to what Moe had said. "Waxman's a slobbering boneheaded jerk. He didn't know what he was talking about."

"Thank you." Harvey bowed his head. "But why didn't you tell him that?"

It was a simple question. For a while, Violet couldn't answer it. "It would have compromised the mission," she finally said. "You know. Broken cover. I needed Waxman to believe I was a heartless gambler, who doesn't give a damn about anything except getting the job done."

"Oh." Harvey nodded quickly. "Okay."

"I'll be headed out, then," Violet said. "Zinbo's waiting. Harvey, Bart - I'll need you here for backup in case something goes wrong. Korzon, head to the floor a minute after I do and take your place in the corner. Come armed." Kord always did. "I'm wearing a Mini Mic in one ear. Speak through the usual channel." She turned around and walked to the door. Bart pawed after her. The cat's mouth opened for another a verbal barb, but she sent a glare his way and he fell silent. Violet walked outside and stepped into the hall. Her hands clenched into fists. She'd do anything to not compromise her cover, to complete the mission. That's what she told Harvey - and she'd allowed a corpulent sleazeball with connections to galactic organized crime insult the boy. What else would she be required to do? And would she have the will to do it?

Back in the casino floor, Violet stared at the various tables until she located Zinbo. He was in the corner, an automated neon roulette wheel spinning slowly in front of him. Zinbo's skin was electric blue and he was thin and hairless, with deep, completely red eyes like pools of rust. He had no nose and a thin neck, his head like a globe sitting on a pencil. He seemed uneasy in his red vest and bowtie. His eyes focused on Violet as she stood across from him. He was supposed to know who she was. She took a seat at the table and nodded. "Deal me in," she said.

Zinbo's thin hands moved to the pile of chips in the corner. His fingers moved down a tower of chips, sliding past each candy-colored disc. "I'd be happy to, ma'am," he said. "I do have one question, though, before we begin." His voice squeaked. "How lucky do you feel tonight?" That was the code. Violet knew the answer.

"Like the planets are spinning my way," Violet replied.

"Hmmm." Zinbo pulled out the right chip and set it on the green felt table. "Now, let me just spin the dial and-"

Someone else sat down next to Violet. "Pardon me, sir," he said. "But has the game started yet?" His voice was soft and breathy, a whisper through sharp teeth. Violet looked up. A Reptilian was sitting next to her. He wore a sleek black suit, a silver tie tucked between the closed buttons. His long narrow snout ended bluntly, opening to reveal sharp teeth. Mottled gray skins and stripes covered his body and his eyes were split down the middle and coldly green. "If it has, I'm afraid I'll have to be dealt in. My nature requires me to join every contest."

It was the Cobra. Violet was sure of it. She looked carefully over her shoulder and scanned the back of the main hall. Kord was there, standing by the multicolored, sparking fronds of a Venusian boomblossom. He had noticed the Cobra as well and stood still, ready to spring into action. Violet hoped it wouldn't come to that.

She turned back to Zinbo. He was sweating, his head rocking back and forth like a metronome. "Well?" she said. "Are you gonna have me the chips or am I gonna wait here all day?" She let her fingers rest on the green felt tabletop, then arched them. They began to walk towards the poker chip. But before they could reach it, the Cobra put his hand down in front of hers.

"Are you sure you want to play?" he asked. "You could lose, after all."

"I'm not used to losing," Violet replied.

"Well." The Cobra shrugged his thin shoulders. "There's a first time for everything."

He was condescending and Violet didn't like that. Also, it was a delaying tactic. She knew he couldn't attack her, not without ruining his cover and getting destroyed by Moe Waxman's security bots. The data chip was hers.

A burst of static crackled in her ears. "Miss Starr!" It was Harvey. "There's an energy spike - coming from the loading bay! I fear there may be-"

There was no time to listen to the Brain Boy. Violet ignored him. She reached out to take the poker chip - when thunder ripped across the Red Rock Casino. It came from the main doors. A burst of smoke followed. Violet spun around on her stool. She saw the doors flying to the side, bouncing and wheeling like toys. Gouts of blue smoke followed.

Bulky shapes emerged onto the casino floor. They were gorillas - augmented apes in dark sweaters and long coats. They were armed too - nuclear-powered atommy guns, pump-action plasma cannons and long barreled revolvers. Their fur was stiff in the smoke and their dark eyes stared out from between goggles. Their weapons flashed to life, unleashing a volley at the humming security bots. A few of the robots were blasted to pieces. Burned fragments scattered, smoldering and releasing sparks as they crashed down. Machines whined or crackled as they died. Violet's heart was pounding. She looked at the lead gorilla and wondered just how screwed up the mission was.

The ape leading the squad removed his sunglasses. He wore a turtleneck sweater under a sleek gray blazer. "Remain where you are, ladies and gentlemen." His accent was dignified and imperious. He seemed to like being in charge. "I am called Mr. Ajax. This casino would rob you of your hard-earned money. I intend to the same to them - only a little more bluntly."

So they were thieves - a band of genetically engineered gorillas turned robbers that were hitting the Red Rock. It was pure bad luck. Violet spun back to the table. The chip lay there, resting right next to her fingers. The mission was that close to being completed. But then Zinbo Nipps lunged for it. His hand lashed out, grabbed the poker chip and then he stood up and ran. He spun away from the poker table, leapt down from the levitating platform and struck down on the red velvet carpeted floor. He ran for the hallway.

Violent shot after him and the Cobra followed. "I'm afraid you won't be leaving this party early, ladies and gentlemen!" Mr. Ajax bellowed. His plasma cannon thundered. Violet ducked, instinct forcing her head low as the barrage of plasma flashed past her. It struck the wall next to her head, casting a fat circle of burned fabric like the print of a giant, inky hand. She felt the sudden heat flash by her cheek. Her sidearm, a silenced pistol, remained in her pocket. There was no time to go for it now. She simply ran after Nipps. He was gaining speed.

They left the main casino hall and darted into the side room. It was the buffet, with rows of tables set out and laden with delicacies from all over the universe. Booths lined the walls, wrapped with red curtains for privacy. It was before dinner and only a few diners would steering their towering plates back towards the tables. Nipps was running ahead, moving through the tables. Violet neared him, her legs pumping and her breath feeling ragged in her throat.

She decided to raise her voice. "Nipps!" she cried. "Damn it, Nipps, you can't-"

The Cobra's hand caught her shoulder and slammed her to the side. Violet crashed into the buffet. A bowl of stuffed slugs from the swamps of Alpha Centauri was upended. Fat green globs stuffed with mozzarella spilled across the floor. Violet crashed down, her vision spinning. She turned around and saw the Cobra, his green eyes glowing as his hands blurred. He struck her again, a hard left that blasted into her cheek. She rocked back as he raised his other hands. His fingers glittered. Electricity danced between his fingers. He was wearing shock claws. Violet had heard that Death Claws used them in close-quarters combats. It seemed that the Cobra was going to use them to kill her.

"You little warm-blooded woman." He grabbed her throat and rammed her against the buffet. "Do not struggle. Do not make this more difficult than it must be." The electric claws came closer. He was going to put them into her eyes. "Do not cry about losing this game that we play."

She looked out for something to help her as he struck. Then she saw it - resting on the table next to a hunk of Jovian glidebull steak. It was a superheated carving knife, the metal glowing orange and the wooden handle facing her. Violet reached out. Her fingers scraped the edge of the knife and then it was in her hand. She stabbed blindly, plunging the burning blade straight into the Cobra's chest. She put her strength behind the blow and he went backwards. Violet kept pushing.

The wall stopped her. She rammed the Cobra into the wall and then pressed the knife down, pinning him like an insect inside a collection. Violet stepped back and watched him hiss and writhe. There wasn't time to put him down for good. Instead, Violet gave him a quick slug to the face and then turned around and left. She could feel his scales against her knuckles. Violet broke into a run.

Nipps had already escaped from the buffet. She saw the door at the kitchen, swinging open where he had hurried past. She followed. Hopefully, the mission wouldn't get any worse. Of course, Violet knew that such thoughts didn't belong in intergalactic espionage. It could always get worse. And given the chance? It probably would.

After running through the kitchens, Violet had another glance of a dealer's rest vest down a maintenance hallway. She followed it through another set of doors and then entered a wide viewing chamber. It was built under a dome of glass, which offered a panoramic view of the depths of space. The stars glittered down, cold and beautiful as ever. Zinbo Nipps was sitting on a padded bench in the center of the empty room, staring at the far off planets. Comet trails and spaceships were visible, moving like darts of colored light between the stars. It was a fantastic sight. Violet hurried to his side. She had drawn her pistol now, a slim, silenced weapon that extended in her hand. She held it loosely as she looked down at Nipps.

He was following comets with his tired red eyes. "I can almost see Neptune," he said. "And imagine the cool waters." Nipps swiveled around and stared at Violet. "Do you know that I did not want to be a traitor?" he asked. "I believed in the Star Union. I believed in equality and liberty and the end of a corrupt and cruel and human rule in the universe."

"Did the Star Union prove you wrong?" Violet asked. She sat down next to him.

"They did..." Nipps said. "By sending men like the Cobra to kill me after they learned of my betrayal. But the Alliance never proved itself right either. They found me and found my family, struggling as immigrants in some Industrial Hub slum on earth. They told me that I could betray my employers and hand over the documents I was examining or my family would be arrested and deported. I listened to those Intel Division bastards, the Death Claws found out about it and here I am now."

Violet fell silent. It wasn't that she was surprised - and that was what saddened her.

Slowly, Nipps took out the poker chip. "There's nowhere I can go that I'll be safe. The Death Claws will torture me to death and my family on earth, my mother and father and brood sister and brothers, will be penniless." He held out the chip. "Take it," he urged. "I won't fight." Violet did. She took the chip and let it rest in her pocket. Nipps shivered again. "I'm going to die," he announced.

"What?" Violet tried to reassure him. "No, we'll find somewhere to hide you and-"

"Fast-acting nanites in a false tooth," Nipps said. "My Intel Div handlers had me outfitted with it last week. I just bit down." He looked back at Violet. "I'm never going to see the blue pools of Neptune again." Then he coughed. A stream of green blood came with it. The blood spilled down over his bowtie and coursed onto his vest. It looked like he had been eating an especially messy meal. His eyes rolled back and he slumped down and died.

He was gone before Violet could do a thing to stop him. Her hands clenched in a fist over the poker chip. She had hardly known Zinbo Nipps, but she knew that he had deserved better. The whole galaxy deserved better. Violet set his body down and closed his eyes. She stood up and then heard the door in the corner opening. Violet spun around and raised her pistol.

The door slid open and revealed Harvey Zero and Bart. The Brain Boy and the Chameleon Cat hurried into the viewing gallery. Harvey seemed excited. "Miss Starr!" he cried. "You're all right. Your life signs are all functioning perfectly - though you appear to have suffered a bruise on your cheek." He hurried across the carpeted floor, nearly tripping in his joy that she was alive. "After the gorilla incursion, we feared the worst. And then we saw that Mr. Zinbo's life signs had stopped and we didn't know what to..." He stopped as he glanced at the corpse. "Oh," he whispered.

Sometimes Harvey seemed far from human. Other times, it was quite clear that he was just a boy. Bart had no such troubles. He lithely bounced over Zinbo's corpse and sidled up towards Violet. "A tragic turn of events, to be sure," he said. "But at least he gave you the chip before he died?"

"He did." Violet reached inside her pocket and withdrew the poker chip. "Harvey, what's the situation in the rest of the Red Rock?"

The boy straightened up, glad for an excuse to be businesslike. "The Reptilians have rescued the Cobra. They're closing in on your position as we speak. Mr. Ajax and his criminals have raided the casino's vault. They've destroyed all of Mr. Waxman's guards and are currently removing all material wealth before beginning their escape."

Violet thought fast. "Okay," she said. She grabbed Bart's collar and yanked him closer, then slipped the poker chip inside. "Here's what's gonna happen: you and Harvey take the chip back to the main casino floor and sneak out. Leave through an airlock. The gorillas will be busy getting their loot and they won't notice - and if they do, they won't care, since they've already got what they came for. Get the Calico revved up to go. I'll stay here, hold off the Death Claws for a bit and then join you."

"I'm not sure, Miss Starr," Harvey answered. "This plan seems quite dangerous. A rough calculation posits your chance of survival at zero point zero, zero, zero-"

"I'll be fine." Violet offered a quick smile. "I'm more worried about you guys."

Bart leapt off the bench and nearly pounced on Harvey. The boy managed to catch the cat, who flashed an excited yellow. "Don't worry," Bart explained. "I'll protect him. You just protect yourself, Violet." He turned back to Harvey. "Go on, Brain Boy," he ordered. "Move."

Harvey listened to the cat's orders. He walked out through the another door, leaving Violet where she was. She watched the back of the boy's tuxedo slipping away into the darkened hallway and then he was gone. More footsteps came from the maintenance door. Violet turned. It was probably the Death Claws. She leveled her pistol, holding the silenced gun with both hands. It felt extremely lightweight, more like a toy than a gun. But she'd used it countless times. She knew how it would buck and whisper and the bloody little trails its bullets would leave in their wake. She took aim and waited.

But it wasn't the Cobra's snarling face that appeared in the door. Instead, it was Moe Waxman's smiling visage. He walked out, flanked by his two combat robots. Moe cocked his head at Violet, his smile becoming confused - but still indulgent. "What's with the handgun, doll?" he said. "You expecting someone else?" He grinned as he crossed the room, staring down at Nipps. "And what's with the dead blue skin? You whack him?"

"No," Violet replied. "And what do you want?"

"I want you to go with me, Miss Le Staine." Moe's grin grew. "Or Miss Starr, I should call you."

So he knew who she was. For some reason, Violet wasn't entirely surprised. This mission was already strange enough. For a while, she considered objecting - but a look at the bodyguard bots told her that would be impossible. She lowered her pistol. Moe grinned and turned around. He wiggled his finger down the doorway. Violet trailed after him, the robots clanking along as well.

Moe Waxman led to her an observation room and office, which looked down at the casino floor. The floor was a mess now. The remaining guests and card dealers cowered in the corner. A few gorillas remained as guards, but they didn't seem particularly interested. They smoked fat cigars and hefted their weapons with thick, shaggy arms. Violet could see the bright, brilliantly pink form of Bart darting down below some of the slot machines, with Harvey moving behind him. They were approaching Kord, who still sat in the corner and was waiting for his chance to strike. There was no sign of the Death Claws, but they'd probably be arriving soon - along with Mr. Ajax and the rest of his crew. The office itself was richly adorned and completely red. Moe approached the computer terminal in the corner.

He rested his fat fingers on the screen. "Yeah, yeah," he said, more to himself than Violet. "I know all about you, Miss Starr." His fingers punched out, hitting controls that Violet couldn't see. "I suppose you're wondering how."

"Intel Division told you," Violet suggested.

"Heh. That's right." Moe looked up at her. "They wanted to be make sure everything went off without a hitch. Guess I screwed that up, huh?" He turned back to the screen. It was showing a countdown. "Well, don't you worry, honey - I'll get it fixed."


"It's simple - I just set the controls to open up every airlock in the joint. The air goes out, the vacuum goes in and everyone dies." He patted the controls again. "Those goddamn apes, the lizards - everyone. Don't worry. We'll be safe up here behind that glass, as long as it holds. After everyone's dead, I'll close the airlocks, let more oxygen come in and then you can go down and get that poker chip from the bodies. Simple enough, right?"

"What about the guests?" Violet demanded. And her friends were down there too - Bart and Kord and Harvey Zero. They'd be killed too. "And your employees?"

"We'll blame it on the gorillas," Moe explained. "They're shooting up the place, they hit some special bit of machinery that killed everyone. It'll be some wild goddamn animals, getting what they deserved and taking a bunch of innocent people to the grave alongside them. Then you get that poker chip and complete the mission. No one needs to know what really happened."

"I'll know," Violet replied. She drew out her pistol and leveled it at Moe. The bodyguard bots creaked as they swung their own guns to face Violet. She was compromising the mission - even more than it had already been compromised. Her spy's instincts rebelled against her as she pointed the silenced pistol straight between Moe's eyes. But she found that she didn't care. "Now close the airlocks and stop it."

"I can't, doll," Moe answered. "It's locked in. Gravity will go soon, as a matter of fact."

"There must be an emergency shut down," Violet said. "Use it."

Moe looked back at her pistol. "There is one. You won't get to it."

"Where?" That was all Violet needed to know.

"The dealer's cage. Down below. It can be shut down from there." Moe's bravado had disappeared as soon as the pistol was pointed at his face. Now his voice was soft and it sounded strange coming from the bellicose mogul. "But you'll never make it. For starters, the fall alone will kill you. Secondly, a look on those security cameras will tell you that the Death Claws will be hitting the floor soon. That Cobra fellow's with them. They'll gun you down on sight." He leaned back in his seat. "Just sit here and wait, sister. Let the airlocks do their job."

Violet turned away. She knew that Moe was right - that leaving his office might as well be a death sentence. The mission was almost done and all she had to do was wait and put an end to this whole miserable operation. But her friends were down there. She'd stood back and watched Zinbo Nipps die for the sake of the spy game. Would she do the same to her friends? As soon as she asked the question, and remembered the disappointment in Harvey's young face when she didn't defend him from Moe, she knew that she could not.

She reached into her other pocket and withdrew her second pistol. It extended in her hand. Violet walked to the edge of the room and raised both pistols. She looked down. The Reptilians were coming into the casino hall now. All were armed - with sleek laser rifles and rapid-firing plasma casters. Mr. Ajax's gorillas would not be long in arriving as well. But something else was happening. The poker chips began to lift from the tables. Decks of cards extended like accordions and then became strange towers. The feet of the Death Claws left the ground. The gravity was going.

The pistols flashed in Violet's hands. Bullet punched into the window. It shattered and fell away. "What are you doing?" Moe cried. "Crazy broad! That window's the only thing protecting us from the vacuum! You'll kill us all!"

"Maybe that's the idea," Violet replied. She broke into a run and then leapt into the air. Her pistols flashed again. The glass shattered and then Violet went through. She fell slowly, the glass spinning in the air around her like constellations. Some of the fragments bounced against her as she fell down. Zero gravity had kicked in now. That alone saved her. Violet fell down, straight for the casino floor. She'd battled in Zero G before. She'd never really gotten the hang of it.

The Death Claws noticed her immediately. The Cobra was at their head. Apart from his disheveled suit, he looked no worse for wear after having a carving knife stabbed through him. He raised his plasma caster and hissed something in his own language. The other Death Claws raised their guns and took aim. Violet swiveled to the side and started shooting just as they did.

The air burned around her. Bars of blazing red light cut through the air. They seemed to fuse with the red velvet on the walls and carpet, making Violet think like she was trapped in a prison of crimson. Her pistols bucked in her hands, flashing as the silenced guns shot down their barrage. Some of the Death Claws dropped or fell back, but not nearly enough. The rest kept shooting. Violet fell down slowly, the heat enough to make sweat trickle on her cheeks. One stream of plasma snaked past her leg and scorched her leg. Any closer and it would have taken off her foot. She couldn't last like this for long. The ground seemed very far away.

Then an atommy gun roared to life. A stream of bullets caught the Death Claws. Two of the Reptilian spies went down in the first seconds, their bodies shredded by the heavy, uranium-tipped shells of the atommy gun. Violet twisted around and looked to the side. She saw Korzon Kord, the submachine gun blazing in his hands. He was standing in front of Harvey and Bart, protecting them with his bulk as he kept shooting. A gorilla lay next to him, unconscious from a swift blow to the head. It was the ape's tommy gun that Kord was using.

The shots did their job. They made the Death Claws dive for cover and gave Violet the time she needed to reach the floor. Her feet struck the carpet and then she bounced off again. Time was ticking and the dealer's cage remained in the distance, across the room. She seemed to be swimming through mud. Violet cursed herself as she kept moving. Was the air getting thinner, or was she only imagining it? She struggled on.

"Violet!" Kord rarely used her first name. "Mag's nearly empty! Get moving!"

"Thanks, Korzon!" Violet shouted back. "For everything!" She kicked her feet and tried her best to swim. The Death Claws shot back at her. Shots whistled past and blasted into a row of slot machines. The machines whined and shattered. Neon numbers of fountains of coins burst into the air. They spun past Violet. Coins bounced off her forehead and shoulders as she kept swimming along. It was a blizzard of money, light, heat and neon fragments - a mad kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. The pistols still thundered in Violet's hands, though both clips were nearly empty. She put all the strength she had into her legs and continued soaring through the air.

Then she reached the dealer's cage. Violet grabbed the rim of the booth and hauled herself over. She ducked down and then saw the computer in front of her. "Harvey!" she cried, knowing that he could hear her from the micro mic in her own ear. "You know about the airlocks opening. You've already hacked the place. Where's the emergency shut down?"

His voice came back, tinny and nervous. "Miss Starr, simply reach the main computer and travel to the bottom of the menu - then hit the manual shut down button. But Miss Starr, you must be careful! The Cobra is-"

A loafer-clad foot cracked into her back before Harvey could finish, slamming Violet against the counter. She sank down, her senses blurring. Violet twisted back and looked up. The Cobra towered above her. The electric claws hummed at the tips of his fingers. "Violet Starr," he said. "That's who you are. The human she-dragon. I have heard of you." Violet raised her pistols and fired, pumping the three last shots into the Cobra. He swayed back, hissing as the bullets burned into him. Patches of blood fell from his suit. But then he righted himself and smiled back, even as blood blossomed from each wound in floating droplets. "I am unimpressed."

He struck her. Violet tried to fight back. She slammed the handle of a pistol against his head and then rammed her other fist into his gut. The Cobra wrenched back but still stabbed his electric claws into her shoulder. Violet gritted her teeth. Energy crackled through the claws as they shredded her skin. She pulled the side before the shock claws fried her completely Violet spun to the side, but the Cobra lunged for her. This time, he got his hand around her throat.

He raised the claws. He was going to skewer her eyeballs. " I unimpressed?" he asked. "Because you leapt back to save your friends. Such weakness. It has no place in our world." His claws lunged out again.

They never reached her. Before they could, the Cobra's scaled head exploded. His brains and scales spun away as his body collapsed. Violet watched him sink back and hover in the air. She looked past his body. Mr. Ajax stood behind him, holding a double-barreled plasma cannon in his hands. He snapped it open and placed in two more power batteries before clicking it shut. The he walked over and pushed aside the Cobra's body with a heavy foot.

He held out his hand. "You know," he said. "Mr. Waxman's security systems are tremendously inadequate."

"I've heard," Violet answered.

"I hacked them completely before launching my attack and received footage from every room in the casino - including his office. I knew about his attempt to drain the oxygen from the Red Rock and your valiant attempts to stop it." He nodded to the computer screen. "I greatly appreciate the attempt. Now, why don't you make it successful?"

Violet stood up and faced the computer screen. She moved down to the bottom of the menu and found the emergency shutdown. She punched it. The gravity began to return to normal. Cards, coins and bodies fell down with a clatter. Violet swayed on her feet, which now solidly rested on the ground. The wounds in her leg and shoulder were getting to her.

"There," Mr. Ajax said. "Well done. You were trying to save me for part of the score, I take it?"

"I was trying to do what's right," Violet answered.

"Indeed. Well, we are currently loading the stolen money onto our ship. If you'd like, I can have a rather large portion set into the yours. Would you care for some of the profits? It's a small fortune, I might add."

"Sure," Violet said. "But not for me."

"I won't ask, my dear." Mr. Ajax grinned and turned away. "Goodbye for now, Miss Starr." He bounded over the counter of the dealer's cage. The rest of his gorillas were running through the casino hall, moving past the bodies of the Death Claws. They'd gunned them down when they'd arrived. Violet turned around slowly and leaned on the counter.

Harvey, Bart and Kord approached her. Harvey reached out and clasped her hand. "Miss Starr!" he cried. "Your hurt!"

"I'll patch myself up aboard the Calico." She looked down at Bart. The chip remained in his collar. "Now let's go." Kord helped her from behind the dealer's cage. She leaned against him and they walked out the casino together.

That evening, Violet Starr sat in the control on the sleek, spotless, circular white bridge of the Calico. Space stared back at her through the windows. The poker chip was in her hands. She was playing with it, making it dance between her fingers. She wore a simple white shirt and shorts, bandages pressed on her various wounds and on the bruises of her face. The doors in the back rushed openly silently. Violet heard Bart's feet padding quietly closer.

The car leapt into her lap. He glowed a friendly light blue - the color of a Neptunian. "You know, Violet," he said. "Some gorillas just dumped a small fortune of Terran dollars and platinum bricks into our hold. Extra payment for us, perhaps? There is a new scratching post that I've been eyeing..."

"It's for Zinbo Nipps' family," Violet explained. "I've set a course for earth. We'll find them and deliver the money." She paused as she looked back at the poker chip. "And deliver this to Command. It cost a lot of blood. I'm considering tossing it out the airlock. Let it fall into the sun."

"But you won't?" Bart asked. "Will you?"

Violet sighed. "No..." She closed her fist around the poker chip. "I have to do my job."

"But you can do some good," Bart suggested as he rubbed his head against her hand. "While you do that job."

"Yeah," Violet agreed. "I suppose I can." She leaned back and closed her eyes. She could feel the stars outside staring back at her, impassive and cold as ever.

-The End-