I went through my office door, down the stairs, and out onto damp pavement. San Francisco breathed fog at me. I lit a cigarette and peered down the block. Someone stepped from a shadowed doorway. She was blonde, tall, and cloaked in a dark overcoat. Her high heels clicked on the slick sidewalk. Tiny drops of fog dew shone like rhinestones in her hair. “I want to hire you.”
“Come during business hours, Angel.”
She reached out but didn’t quite touch me. “Please, I’m frightened. Take me with you, Mr. Spade!”
“You know me?”
“I’ve heard you help people in trouble.”
I shook my head. “Not this time, Angel.”
Her voice scraped like a rusty blade. “They’re after me.”
“Who’s after you?”
“Bad men.” Tears crawled down her cheeks like silver caterpillars. “They’ll hurt me.”
“Pretty good, Angel.”
“I’m a star.”
“Sure, you are.”
She gripped my hand. “I am.”
“Okay, I believe you. Why does anyone want to hurt you?”
She looked down. “It might be because I’m too beautiful.” Her gaze found mine. “Or they want to hurt the people who depend on me.”
“You have a family?”
“Larger than I can explain.”
Movement across the street drew my attention. Three men stepped out of the shadows and pulled guns from beneath their overcoats.
“We got company,” I said. “Come on!”
I guided her around a corner and into an alley. “We’ll have them against the light from the street. Here’s my hideout piece. Take it.”
Angel shook her head. “I can’t shoot. I’ve never even held a weapon before.”
“Point it. Pull the trigger.”
“I don’t know how to harm people! I don’t! I never have!”
I chucked her lightly under the chin. “You’ll do okay, kid.”
She gingerly gripped the .32 caliber revolver. I hefted my .45 caliber as our three pursuers appeared in the alley’s entrance. I gave them no time to adjust to the darkness. “Drop those guns!”
The man on the right yelled, “Give us the star. Now!”
“Not a chance!”
The men fired. Angel fired once and screamed as the revolver flew out of her hand. I pumped bullets at the gunsels until a slug smashed me to the pavement.
Somewhere, a gutter leaked foggy tears onto the tin lid of a garbage can. The far away hoot of a tug’s horn quested through bay mist. Then, silence fell on me like a gravestone. I faded.
I looked into an SFPD cop’s red, Irish face. “Yeah.”
“You stopped one. You might be a little disoriented. Most of us are when we get wounded inside the program, so I’ll skip to the good stuff. We’re officers in the GPS, the Galactic Protective Service. You and I are currently in a virtual reality defense program. I’m Murphy, your partner.”
Two slugs whined past my head. One whanged into a trashcan and the other flattened against a brick wall. Murphy dove on top of me and pushed the back of my head into alley muck. His face was by my left armpit.
“What are we defending?”
“Ourselves, at the moment.”
“Get off, flatfoot! I can’t reach my gun.”
He pulled his piece, rolled to the left, and fired three shots into shadows at the alley’s end.
“Hiding, I hope.”
“We’re defending her, aren’t we?”
Murphy sighed. “We are. But it’s complicated. Angel’s not human. She just looks that way.”
“Yeah. Look, there’s 114 star systems in the Galactic Federation with 617 inhabited planets and moons. More than four trillion intelligent beings make these planets and moons their home.”
“That’s a lot.”
“And…” The cop cleared his throat. “Two-hundred and four sentient stars.”
“Stars are alive?”
“Some. It’s our job to protect them and all of their people. Stars have potent enemies—something like living black holes. They come from the Andromeda Galaxy. ”
“The interface—it came about when they asked for our help. Turns out, stars are miserable fighters.”
“Fine, but why is this defense program necessary?”
“You have a limited brain…”
“Thanks a lot.”
“So do I. The interface accelerates our reactions exponentially and allows us to direct particle beams that are magnitudes greater than we may comprehend.”
I studied my gun. “So this .45 is really a ray gun?”
“Essentially, yes,” Murphy said. “Also, we’ve got to get you out of the interface. Your weapons platform was tagged by a plasma penetrator. Those things rip stars to shreds.”
“She’s okay. Because of you.”
“She really is a star?”
“Main sequence yellow with six planets. You saved six billion people.”
“But she thinks and talks?”
“She’s the mother of six billion.”
Bullets screamed off the pavement between us. Murphy shouted, “They’re coming from both directions!”
Two mugs in overcoats ran from the alley’s mouth, firing.
I lined up my front site on the biggest mug’s chest and squeezed the trigger. He dropped like a sack of mush. The other killer was close, so I squeezed off three shots. When the smoke cleared, he was nothing but a pile of rags on the cobbles.
Murphy had been hit. His gun hand gushed blood. The men who attacked us walked slowly forward. I leveled my pistol and pulled the trigger. The weapon clicked—empty!
A thug grinned and aimed his pistol at my nose.
Six quick pops sounded from behind. Both thugs staggered, and Angel stepped out of a doorway. The .32 smoked in her hand. She took a few shaky steps. “I did it.”
It hurt, but I laughed. “You sure did, Angel.”
“Sam, you’re bleeding!”
“Comes with the territory. Right, Murphy?”
“Yeah. We’re headed for regeneration as soon as we exit the program.”
“So, how good is this simulation of San Francisco?”
“Very detailed—lots of data.”
I turned to Angel. “You deserve a drink.”
She smiled. “What do you mean, Sam?”
“As soon as I’m well, Murphy’s going to put me back in this program.”
“There’s a bar down on Sutter I think you might like.”