In our previous episode, a vacationing Chuck Banner encounters a mysterious street urchin with amazing powers who is being pursued by Carracavo, a space bounty hunter. Intrigued, Banner decides to follow Carracavo . . .
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Chuck Banner remained a discreet distance behind Carracavo as they made their way through the dusty, twisted back alleys outside Canopus Prime spaceport. But Banner soon discovered that he had little to worry about; the pirate’s attention was focused so intently on the tracking device in his hand that he he never once looked over his shoulder to see whether he was being followed.
Waving the detector in an arc in front of him, and oblivious to the crowds of shouting vendors waving goods in his face as he passed them, or even a herd of tall ostrich-like beasts of burden that noisily crossed his path, Carracavo led Banner deep into the oldest parts of the city, where the original spaceport had been built and then abandoned. Banner noted that the local gentry was much seedier in this part of town, the buildings much more rickety. His right hand tapping his ray pistol’s holster for reassurance, Banner found himself hoping that Carracavo’s detector was accurate.
Several minutes later, Carracavo turned down a short dead-end alleyway and stopped. At the end of the alley loomed a huge warehouse structure with a gaping freight door. Left over from the old spaceport, it was almost overgrown with shanty-like buildings the way an abandoned wall on Earth would be smothered in ivy. Banner paused behind a building on the corner and watched Carracavo place his hands on his ample hips and visibly chuckle, his belly shaking like Santa Claus’ evil twin. Then he strode purposefully to the gaping entry door and stepped into the gloom inside.
Looking around, Banner saw a rickety metal staircase leading to an upper tier of houses next to the warehouse. The top landing of the stairs was about level with an opened observation window high up the warehouse’s weathered flank. Banner headed for the stairs and bounded up two steps at a time, the whole staircase wobbling and threatening to topple with each step. At the landing, Banner peered in the window. He could see a catwalk running beneath the windowsill, so he climbed through and alighted as quietly as he could, his ray pistol already drawn and charged up.
It took Banner’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness, which fortunately was not nearly total. Holes in the roof and a ring of broken windows around the catwalk where Banner stood, plus the freight entrance through which Carracavo had entered, allowed enough light to enter the warehouse so that there were few truly dark corners. Banner quickly spotted Carracavo heading toward one of those corners, at the far end of the warehouse.
“Come out, Arasa,” Carracavo’s basso voice echoed menacingly through the emptiness. “Come out, Patro. I know where you are. There is no escape from here. You cannot protect yourselves, remember?”
Banner carefully worked his way along the catwalk, trying to get closer to Carracavo, stepping over detritus in an effort to avoid making a sound.
“You know that I won’t hurt you. All I want to do is return you to your loving family on Masterlight,” he said, his sing-song voice a frightening mockery of soothing encouragement. “We could never hurt you. Both of you are far too valuable for that, you know that, don’t you?”
As Carracavo spoke, he continued to move closer to a pile of empty freight containers in the darkest corner. The girl and her brother must be hiding in there, Banner surmised. There wasn’t much time. He could imagine the waif curled up and shivering inside one of the containers, listening to Carracavo’s voice growing ever closer, knowing there was no escape.
Finally, just a few feet from the largest container, Carracavo drew a ray pistol from his bejeweled belt. That was all the provocation Banner needed.
“Hey!” Banner shouted as loud as he could, his voice echoing off the walls in every direction. Carracavo spun around, his weapon high, searching for the source of the shout. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size? Like an elephant?” Banner fired a ray blast at the floor near Carracavo’s feet, forcing the bounty hunter back but also revealing Banner’s position. Carracavo fired at the source of the shot, but Banner was already running along the catwalk, each step rattling the metal grating. He continued firing bursts in Carracavo’s direction to keep him from getting a good aim until Banner could get closer.
Undeterred, Carracavo planted his brass-trimmed leather boots firmly where he stood, and took careful aim at the catwalk above. Two quick blasts destroyed the catwalk in front of Banner and, before he could run back, behind him. He was trapped. Banner raised his ray pistol, but a carefully-aimed shot snapped it right out of his hand.
Carracavo peered over his gunsight quizzically, and then bellowed out a laugh. “Why, it’s the fool from the cafe!” he shouted up at Banner. “Did you follow me all the way here?” he said in a mocking tone. “What a hero. What a foolish, soon-to-be-dead hero.” He resumed his aim squarely on Banner.
Desperately, Banner looked around. His only option was to jump the chasm to the catwalk on the other side, back toward the direction he had come. It sure looked like a long way to jump — and an even longer way down. Swallowing hard, Banner crouched, swung his arms, and leaped.
It was too far.
Banner’s hands managed to grab the ragged edge of the catwalk’s metal flooring on his way down. It was enough to keep him from plunging to the warehouse floor. But he could not get enough purchase to pull himself up. Over the rattling noises of the catwalk as it rocked from his struggling, Banner could hear Carracavo’s derisive laughter. Now he was really done for.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Banner spotted the girl and a smaller figure flying toward him. They landed on the catwalk over him, and the smaller one, which must have been the brother she had mentioned, reached down to grab Banner.
“No!” Banner shouted up. “You’re not strong enough! I’ll pull you down with me! Get away while you can, both of you!”
The young boy, thin and undernourished-looking, grabbed Banner’s left wrist and lifted with all his might. Banner was amazed to find that the boy was pulling him up as easily as if he were a feather pillow. The boy was just tall enough to pull Banner up to where he could get his knees on the catwalk, allowing him to scramble up to safely.
“Thanks, kid,” Banner said, sticking out his hand. “Chuck Banner, Space Repairman.”
The boy, beaming, shook it. “I’m Patro. This is my sister Arasa.” He gestured to the girl behind him.
“Nice to meet you,” said Banner, brushing the dust off his space suit. “But I think we’d better get out of here before . . . ”
“Stop right where you are!” shouted Carracavo.
“It’s okay,” said Arasa. “He won’t dare shoot us. We’re too valuable to risk injuring. Or he won’t get his reward,” she added with sarcasm.
“Great, then let’s go!” said Banner, ushering the kids along toward the window through which he had entered. Carracavo continued bellowing threats, but he did not fire at them.
They scrambled through the window, back out into the harsh sunlight, and down the ladder. “What other tricks can you do?” Banner asked as they descended hurriedly.
“I could generate an energy cocoon and trap him inside,” said Arasa, “But . . ”
“I’m genetically programmed so that I can’t use my powers to protect myself or my brother. I can only help others,” she said plaintively.
Safely on the ground, Banner looked toward the warehouse’s yawning entrance, toward which he could see Carracavo running like a charging, jewel-encrusted rhino.
“Well, at this point I think he wants to kill me,” said Banner. “So you would be protecting your new friend Chuck Banner.”
Arasa thought about Banner’s clever logic for the briefest of moments, smiled broadly, and pointed at Carracavo just as he was emerging. Suddenly, he was ensconced in a glowing egg-shaped orb of energy, unable to move.
Banner whistled. “That’s incredible. Where’d you learn to do that?”
She shrugged. “I’m programmed to.”
Banner ushered the two kids down the alley and they took off running. “How long will he stay like that?” But Arasa didn’t answer. Her face was scrunched up in concentration.
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes if she uses all her energy,” answered Patro breathlessly as they ran in the direction of the spaceport. “But she has to keep the image in her mind and concentrate completely or else the cocoon will weaken.”
“That’s more than enough time,” said Banner. “We’ll get to my spaceship and I can take you anywhere you want to go.”
“Thank you, Mister Banner.”
“Chuck. Please,” Banner said. “So what was that all about back there?” Banner jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“My sister and I escaped from Masterlight Laboratories on Cepheus Five,” Patro said. “She and I were bred from the same gene pod. So we’re brother and sister, but we’re also a little like clones. There are fourteen in our pod altogether. We were bred as part of an experiment to create soldiers with superpowers. They ran tests on us, hooked us up to computers, made us fight simulated battles.”
Banner was aghast. “But you’re just kids,” he said. “You’re what, thirteen, maybe fourteen?”
Patro nodded. “One night, Arasa overheard two of the doctors talking in the hallway as they made their rounds. They didn’t know she was awake. She heard them say that our batch was proving to be a failure, that they were going to destroy the whole pod in seven days. So the next morning, Arasa told us what she heard and we all tried to escape. Arasa and I managed to get away. The others got caught.”
“But why not use your powers like Arasa just did back there?”
“It’s like Arasa said. Our genetic programming prevents us from using our powers to protect ourselves or anyone in our pod,” he said with a resigned shrug. “They said it was a failsafe mechanism, whatever that means.”
Banner cursed under his breath. “Failsafe. Yeah, right.”
“We hid inside a cargo freighter that came here. But then he showed up and started chasing us.” Patro pointed back the way they had come. “We’re trying to find someone who can help us save the rest of our pod, because we can’t.”
“Well, you found the right person,” said Banner. “I’ll help you.” He reached into his pocket for his walkie-talkie. “Banner to F.R.E.D.D. Are you there, buddy?”
“go ahead chuck i read you,” came the reply a moment later.
“Listen buddy, I’m heading back to you in a hurry. We need the old girl gassed up and ready to go in a hurry. Time to kick the tires and light the fires, buddy.”
“i’m sorry chuck the main drive has been removed for repairs the ranger cannot fly.”
Banner thought for a moment. “Well, do me a favor and scan the flight logs for the whole spaceport. Tell me where I can find the ship that belongs to Carracavo the bounty hunter.”
Through her concentration, Arasa stared disbelievingly at Banner, her expression matched by Patro’s stare.
“Trust me,” Banner said with a reassuring grin and a wink.
* * *
What does Space Repairman Chuck Banner have in mind? Can he stay one step ahead of Carracavo in time to help the endangered children trapped in Masterlight? You’ll find out in the next thrilling chapter of Space Repairman: Escape from Masterlight!