In our previous episode, Chuck Banner discovers Dr. Cowesly’s hideous plans for the genetically engineered child soldiers of Masterlight. Banner manages to free the children, only to become their prisoner . . .
* * *
Though he remained motionless in response to Mister Smith’s orders, Chuck Banner’s mind spun furiously as he tried to find a way to break the stalemate. He was surrounded by perhaps two dozen genetically engineered child soldiers, ranging in age from perhaps eight or ten to no older than seventeen. Eerily, they all looked like closely related siblings, and their dark, almond-shaped eyes were fixed unblinkingly on him. Behind them, Smith and his cadre of guards waited patiently for the children to carry out their orders.
“I said, take him prisoner!” Smith barked. But no one moved. Only Adil, the oldest and tallest of the children, seemed to move. His eyes betrayed confusion. He was programmed to deal with threats — which is what Smith had clearly stated that Banner was — but something about the situation didn’t seem to compute for him. Finally, he turned to one of the boys.
“Fetch Arasa and Patro. They know this man. They can tell us how we should handle him.”
“No! I . . . ” Smith started to shout, then stopped himself before his hostility could cause the children to turn on him instead of Banner. He stepped back, warily resigned to letting the situation take its course. Smith nodded his assent, and Adil’s deputy scampered down the corridor and around a corner out of sight.
“What happens now?” Banner asked Smith across the heads of the children.
“We wait,” he said warily.
A few tense moments of standoff later, three children rounded the corner and came back up the corridor; Adil’s deputy, plus a most welcome sight: Arasa and Patro, smiling happily when they recognized Banner — and evidently unharmed. Banner let out an audible sigh of relief.
Arasa ran right up to Adil. The resemblance was uncanny, especially up close. “Adil, Mister Banner is a good man. He saved our lives on Canopus Prime. He helped us escape from that bounty hunter.” Her nose wrinkled in disgust at the memory. “You must trust me. Trust your instincts. I can see it in your face. In your mind.”
Adil blinked, as if coming out of a trance. “Yes,” he said. Then he turned to the other children. “We can trust Mister Banner. He’s going to help us escape from Masterlight.” Arasa and Patro each stood on one side of Banner, in a powerful show of solidarity that visibly affected Adil and the others.
Smith draw his ray pistol from his holster as the guards behind him unshouldered their ray rifles. “Oh no, he’s not! Fire!”
But before anyone could pull their triggers, a bright cobweb of energy suddenly blocked the corridor, cutting off Smith and his guards from Banner and the children. One of the younger girls was staring at the web in rapt concentration, her arm extended in front of her.
“Well done, Ganika!” said Adil. “Talen, Radha,” he said, pointing to a boy and girl standing nearby. “Stay with her. Make sure no harm comes to her. We have to get to the control room.”
“We can take Carracavo’s ship and get out of here,” Banner said. “It’s big enough for all of you.”
Adil turned to face Banner. “You can not understand what Cowesly and his people have done to us,” he said. “Many of my brothers and sisters have already been destroyed, Mister Banner. Imagine being powerless to intervene while you watch dozens of your kin — a part of your very self, quite literally — thrown away like so much trash. We mean nothing to Cowesly. He sees us as mere lab animals, but we know pain and grief.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “And loss.”
Angrily, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, embarrassed by his emotional display. “And now we will make Cowesly pay for what he has done to all of us.”
The other children cheered enthusiastically, waving their weapons high above their heads. Arasa and Patro, still standing next to Banner, did not join in the celebration.
“This is not good,” muttered Banner.
“What can we do?” said Patro, looking up at Banner with wide, frightened eyes.
“I’ll think of something,” said Banner, putting his hand on Patro’s shoulder in a futile attempt to reassure them both.
* * *
The children proved to be an unstoppable force. Some cocooned Cowesly’s guards in energy bubbles like the one Arasa had used to ensnare Carracavo in the warehouse back on Canopus Prime. Others used their superhuman strength to hurl open the heavy doors to Masterlight’s most vital areas: the power station, the space dock, and finally — after a fighting retreat by the guards — the laboratory’s master control room.
Banner, Arasa, and Patro followed Adil’s cohort as they fought their way down various long corridors in an effort to bolster the group that had taken the control room. Finally they reached the control room; Adil marched in at the head of the group, and when the occupiers saw him enter they cheered for their conquering leader.
So far, no one had been killed — the guards had been either immobilized behind energy barriers or, in an ironic twist, locked up in the cages that had once housed the children. None of the children had been hurt in counterattacks by the guards, either. But now that the children had gained complete control of the laboratory, Banner was worried that revenge might be the next course of action for the liberated children. Banner walked over to Adil, who was issuing orders through the laboratory’s radio system like the natural leader he had been bred to be.
“Adil, listen to me,” Banner said. “You’ve got control of Masterlight. You’ve won the war. It’s time to make peace with the defeated side. Isn’t that what soldiers are supposed to do?”
Emboldened by his first taste of real combat — and of real victory — Adil seemed to Banner to have grown up and become a man in just a few hours. The young man turned to face Banner and, even though he was a full head shorter than the space repairman, he seemed to be looking down on him. “The defeat is not yet complete,” he said. “Cowesly will be found and brought before me. Before all of us.”
“You can’t seek justice while you’re still hot from battle,” said Banner. “You need to cool down first.”
“Then I shall have hot justice,” shot back Adil, then turned his attention back to the control panel against the wall.
Arasa stepped quietly next to Adil and put her smaller hand on his. The Adil who turned to look at his near-twin looked altogether like a scared boy again.
“Adil,” she said quietly. “We can’t bring them back. But we can prevent more death here on Masterlight. That’s the best victory.”
Suddenly, behind them a door slid open. Four children marched in, and between them were Dr. Cowesly and Carracavo.
The room went silent as every eye — a sea of nearly identical, accusing faces — turned to look at them. Banner could sense their fear at the sight of all those stone-cold stares.
“Justice. Justice. Justice,” someone in the back of the room began to mutter. Others took it up and the volume grew, until it became a deafening roar that reverberated back and forth throughout the room and into the halls beyond. “Justice! Justice! Justice!”
As the children crowded closer to Cowesly and Carracavo, continuing their chant, the two men looked utterly terrified.
* * *
Emboldened by the lusty chanting, Adil once again assumed his leadership mien and quieted everyone down. He ordered a tribunal to be convened in the laboratory’s cargo dock, the one space big enough for everyone — the child soldiers and Cowesly’s staff, now all prisoners — to congregate. Hastily, a table and chairs were assembled at the front of the hall. Adil chose Arasa and three other older children to sit on the tribunal. Before them stood Cowesly, Carracavo, and the other human guards, all manacled. Banner and Patro stood off to the side, uneasy observers of the spectacle.
Adil banged on the table with a makeshift gavel made from a broken control lever. “This extraordinary tribunal is called to order.”
At that moment, Chuck Banner’s wrist radio signaled an incoming message. Quietly, he ducked out of the room. “Banner here.”
“chuck it is F.R.E.D.D.,” came a familiar and most welcome voice. “ are you all right”
“Yes, buddy,” Banner responded with evident relief. “Am I glad to hear you.”
“i surmised your situation and have alerted the authorities a space police cruiser is on its way to masterlight”
“Excellent news, buddy. Thanks! The only thing is, I don’t know yet who’s going to need arresting and who’s gonna need a hearse.”
“that does not sound good”
“You’re right, buddy. I’ll be in touch. Gotta go.”
“roger good luck” Banner closed the connection and stepped back into the room to observe the proceedings, resuming his place in the corner next to Patro.
Adil was standing at the table, addressing Cowesly. “You made us what we are,” he said. “We are programmed to be soldiers. You have deprived us a normal, healthy life. That is against the Galactic Code.”
Arasa touched Adil’s arm gently, and he paused. “But since a normal life is by definition something we would never be able to have by virtue of the way we were created, you cannot restore it to us. Therefore we are owed something different. Something more important than a past restored. You owe us a future.”
Cowesly and the other prisoners looked at each other in confusion.
“You bred us to do one thing. We have shown that we can do more. You bred us to obey you. We’ve demonstrated that we can think for ourselves. We are children. We need parents. And for better or worse,” here he paused and fixed Cowesly with a withering glare, “that is what you are. You are our parents. Until now you have been able to act as zookeepers. But now you must shoulder real responsibility and help us grow into our own destinies. You created us for one purpose, but we have demonstrated the ability to exceed our potential. That is to be cherished.”
Throughout the speech, Cowesly had been staring at the floor in shame — but at that last sentence, he looked up with a new sense of fatherly pride. He stood up and addressed the tribunal.
“My vision was too narrow,” he said. “Too shortsighted. I thought only of what you children could do for science, for my reputation. My scientific and humanistic training compels me to recognize that as living, sentient creatures, you have the innate right to self-determination. It is my responsibility to help you achieve it.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” Arasa said. “Many cruel things have been done. We have to face that.”
Cowesly nodded. “We’ll learn as we go,” he said. “We’ll learn together.”
* * *
When the space police cruiser arrived, Carracavo and his lieutenant were taken into custody on several outstanding warrants. Thanks to Adil’s intervention, though, the police agreed to drop any charges related to his work on behalf of Masterlight.
When F.R.E.D.D. arrived with the freshly tuned-up Ranger the following day, Banner prepared to leave. In the space dock, Arasa, Patro, and Adil came to bid him farewell.
“It looks like you have everything to look forward to,” said Banner as he shook hands with Adil.
“We’ll have to . . . how did you put it? Ah, yes. We’ll have to make this up as we go along.”
Banner smiled warmly. “Hey, it’s worked for me all these years.” He shook Adil’s hand again, firmly. “Good luck with what you’re doing here.”
Arasa and Patro hugged Banner. “Be good, you two,” Banner said. “This was a lot of fun.” Arasa stepped on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on Banner’s cheek.
“Please come back and see us again,” she said.
“Of course!” Banner said, tousling Patro’s hair. “I’m your Uncle Chuck, right? And I never miss birthdays.”
The trio waved as Banner climbed into the Ranger, then stood back as the ship departed.
On the control deck, F.R.E.D.D. turned to Banner, who was seated in the command chair. “perhaps now you will be able to take that vacation you had originally scheduled on canopus prime”
“Are you kidding?” Banner said. “That was the best vacation I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to get back to work!”
Banner set the Ranger’s course back for the Home Systems, and accelerated his trusty ship into the starry night.
* * *
Stay tuned to Channel 37 for Chuck Banner’s next exciting adventure on Space Repairman!