Sometimes, even space repairmen need repairmen of their own. For Chuck Banner of Galactic Repair Services, that means the spaceyards of Canopus Prime, with their well-earned reputation as the best overhaul facilities in the entire Outer Sector. Banner’s trusty spaceship, the Ranger, had been plying the spacelanes for more than a year between major servicings, and it was beginning to show. The main drive had been taking ever longer to wind up to supra-light speed and the environmental system seemed to be springing leaks faster than Banner and his robot sidekick F.R.E.D.D. could keep up with them. So with the permission of the Dispatcher, Banner put into Canopus Prime for a comprehensive, stem-to-stern overhaul.
It was with a sense of relief that Banner watched the skillful repairmen of Canopus station finally wrap the Ranger in a garland of hoses and tubes under F.R.E.D.D.’s watchful optical sensors. With nothing more to do for at least a day, Banner suddenly felt a surge of fatigue. To his surprise, he was as worn-out as his ship.
Banner decided to make it a slow day, and wandered outside the spaceport into the bustling metropolis-sized souk that surrounded it. There was something very therapeutic, he decided, about spending the day wandering aimlessly from cafe to cafe sampling exotic desserts and drinks, haggling with trinket dealers for goods that he could trade later on other worlds, and just being surrounded by bustling throngs of people going about their ordinary, everyday business.
Strolling down one of the side boulevards, Banner noticed a hole-in-the-wall cafe with a couple of rickety tables out front that seemed appropriately local. Inside it was dark and empty, with low, arched ceilings and a well-worn bar. The proprietor was clearly happy to see a customer, and Banner signalled that he would be sitting outside. The proprietor brought out a cup of strong Altairian coffee and a hover-shade that floated above the table to shield Banner from the harsh white light of the supergiant star Canopus beating down from above. He sipped contentedly, watching crowds of sun-darkened locals carrying their characteristically oversized bags, and off-world travelers with their bewildering varieties of spacesuits and uniforms, as they strode and hover-floated by to and from.
Despite the strength of his coffee, Banner found himself gradually dozing off when he suddenly felt something bump him. At first he thought it might have been someone sitting at an adjoining table, but there it was again — someone was definitely fiddling with the holster he wore on his belt, attempting to remove his ray pistol. Banner kept his eyes closed, pretending to be asleep, but keenly attuned to the progress of the hand that was unfastening the holster’s flap.
As soon as he felt the flap come undone and the ray pistol begin to slide out of the holster, Banner’s left arm shot out like a striking cobra to grab the wrist of the person. With the struggling wrist firmly in his grasp, Banner languidly opened his eyes and turned his head. “Pardon me, but would you mind . . .”
Expecting to come face-to-face with a muscular thief or a wizened con-man, Banner was surprised to find himself looking into the wide, terrified eyes of a young girl. She continued to struggle vainly to free herself from Banner’s grip, but Banner instinctively loosened his grip enough not to hurt her.
“Let me go!” she grunted, twisting and pulling against his hold.
With his free hand, Banner reached around and carefully removed his ray pistol from her tiny hand, placing it on the table. “Woah there, young lady,” Banner said. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Please!” she gasped. “I need to kill him. He’s trying to take me and my brother back! But we won’t go! I won’t let him take us!” The fear in her voice was palpable.
Banner released his grip and the girl pulled back, rubbing her wrist. She eyed the pistol warily as it rested on the table. Banner slid it further away. “Why don’t we forget about my ray pistol and you just tell me what’s going on. Would you like something to eat? You look like you could use it.” The girl, who Banner guessed was a human of about 14 years, wore a dirty, tattered utility suit that was several sizes too big, making her look even thinner and hungrier.
“No!” she said. “I have to . . . I can’t let him take us back there. For more experiments. All the doctors.”
“Back where, missy?”
Banner had never heard that word before. “Masterlight? What’s that?”
“Please let me have your gun!”
Banner shrugged. “I can’t, young lady. But maybe I can help. What’s your name?”
“He’s nearby!” she said, looking over Banner’s shoulder. Banner turned to look, but there was no one there. When he turned back, the young girl was running down the alley. Banner watched as she weaved with agility through the crowd. She ran much faster than Banner would have thought possible; then, suddenly, to Banner’s amazement, she crouched and leapt into the sky, where she stretched out her arms on either side and glided away, swooping around a corner and out of sight. No one in the crowd seemed to react to this feat; people from all over the galaxy came to Canopus Prime, and a fair number of them had wings.
But not this human girl. Banner was puzzled, but since she was gone there was really nothing more he could do. So he returned his ray pistol to his holster, and resumed watching the crowd go by while sipping his Altairian coffee. He was just about to write it off as just another encounter with a street-urchin pickpocket when his hover-shade was suddenly brushed aside.
Banner looked up at the portly figure standing over him. “Hey, mac. Do you mind?” He reached up to move the shade back in position, but the man gave it a push and it floated down the street, bumping into walls as it drifted away. “Hey!” Banner hastily put his coffee down and stood up to face the bully. He leaned forward until his face was inches from the intruder’s beefy nose. Without blinking, Banner took in the man’s round face, his brown walrus mustache, and the ridiculous three-cornered cap with a long feather perched on top of his head. “Just who do you think you are, pal?” Banner poked an accusatory finger into the man’s ample gut, over which he wore a coat covered in shiny brass buttons.
“I am Carracavo, the legendary bounty hunter,” the man said loudly, his voice deep.
But if this was supposed to strike fear into Banner’s heart, or even cause a flicker of recognition, it failed. “Oh yeah? Well if you’re so famous, how come I’ve never heard of ya?”
Carracavo tilted his head back and laughed as if to the clouds. “Why would an insect like yourself know of someone so far above your station?” He tilted his head back down and fixed Banner with a glowering stare. “What did you tell her, and where did she go?”
Banner shook his head. Did everyone on Canopus Prime speak in riddles? “Look, pal. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just sitting here trying to enjoy my coffee . . . ”
“The girl!” Carracavo growled. “The human girl who spoke to you. What assistance did you give her? Where did she go?”
Banner realized that this must be the person that the terrified urchin had been running away from. A man who terrified her so much that she would try stealing a gun in broad daylight.
Banner squared his shoulders and leaned in close. “Look, buster. I don’t know what you’re talking about, so you might as well just move on before my trigger finger gets itchy.” Banner wiggled his eyebrows and widened his eyes, doing his best to look like he could come unhinged at the least provocation. “And you wouldn’t like what happens next.”
Carracavo stepped back and laughed again, but this time with menace. “You are a brave one, human. I’ll give you that. Few people stand up to Carracavo and live. We’ll meet again.”
“You’d better hope not,” Banner shot back without missing a beat.
“Enjoy your drink. The next one’s on me.” Carracavo signaled the cafe’s proprietor, who was cowering in the doorway, to bring Banner another round. He flicked a coin onto the table. then turned and headed down the street in the general direction that the girl had flown.
Banner watched Carracavo’s bulky, bejeweled frame disappear into the crowd as he mulled over what had just transpired. He was relaxed no longer, and he doubted that, after all that, he would be able to again until he could figure out what was going on.
He swallowed the rest of his coffee in a gulp, plus the one that Carracavo had paid for and which the proprietor now served him with a shaking hand, then reached for his walkie-talkie. “Banner to F.R.E.D.D. Come in F.R.E.D.D.”
The radio crackled, followed by F.R.E.D.D.’s mechanical voice. “come in chuck i read you.”
“Hey, buddy. Looks like I’m going to be a little bit late getting home. I need to see a man about a horse. But listen, I want you to fire up the ship’s sensors. There’s someone I want to follow . . . ”
* * *
Can Chuck Banner find the street urchin with the strange powers before the bounty hunter Carracavo? Who or what is Masterlight? Find out along with Chuck Banner as the mystery continues to unfold in the next installment of Space Repairman: Escape from Masterlight!