In our previous episode, Chuck Banner interrupted his vacation on Canopus Prime to help two genetically-engineered child soldiers, Arasa and Patro, escape a kidnapping attempt by the flamboyant bounty hunter Carracavo. Banner learns from Arasa and Patro that their gene-mates are scheduled for termination in just a few days, but with Banner’s trusty spaceship Ranger under repair, the only way to get to Masterlight in time is to steal Carracavo’s ship . . .
* * *
“You can’t be serious,” said Arasa, still panting from exhaustion after using all of her concentration to project a force-field around Carracavo. She had kept it up for as long as she could, but finally had to let the field — and Carracavo — go. “You want to steal that pirate’s ship?”
“It’s the only option,” Banner said, guiding Arasa and her younger brother Patro around a corner toward the spaceport. “Trust me.” They ran along a tall metal wall with large numbered doors every dozen feet — the portals that led to the flight bays.
“Can’t the police help us?” Patro asked.
“When it comes to off-worlders and their problems, the local government is strictly hands-off,” Banner said. “That’s why everyone comes here. You can get away with just about anything on Canopus Prime.”
“Just our luck that the ship we hid aboard had to come here,” Arasa said angrily.
“Yeah, but it was better than staying, Arasa,” Banner said. “You did the right thing.” Arasa smiled wanly. “Look,” Banner said, pointing at at a door. “Bay Fourteen-Delta. That’s the one. Come on.”
The exhausted trio ran to the large, corrugated metal freight door. Banner pushed a button below a microphone to the right of the door. “I have a delivery for Carracavo,” he said with authority.
“Whaddya want?” a bored voice growled back at them through the microphone. “Go away.”
Banner thought for a moment, then hit on it. “I got the kids,” he said, conjuring up a gangster accent. “Your boss told me to deliver them here.”
There was a pause. Banner, Arasa, and Patro exchanged nervous glances. Then: “Fine. Come on in.” With a loud clank of retracting security latches, the door creaked and groaned upwards.
“Play along with me,” Banner said, winking. He drew his ray pistol, showing them that he had turned it off. The children nodded in understanding. They lined up in front of Banner and raised their arms in surrender.
The door shuddered to a halt just above head-height and Banner marched his “prisoners” into the bay, putting on his meanest scowl. Carracavo’s henchman, a weasely-looking young man wearing several layers of frayed coats and brandishing an ancient ray rifle, met them.
Banner nodded. “They’s those.” He shoved the kids forward, toward the scarred, pitted hulk of Carracavo’s space freighter. “Move!”
The henchman stepped in front of them. “Where d’you think you’re going?”
“Carracavo said to put them on the ship. He’s taking them back to Masterlight.”
“That’s not the plan,” the henchman said, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Banner stepped slowly between Arasa and Patro and brought himself squarely in front of the henchman. “Oh yeah?”
A snaggle-toothed grin slowly spread across the henchman’s face. “Yeah, pal.”
“Good,” Banner said, placing his right index finger lightly on the mans chest. The henchman’s snarl was replaced by a wide-eyed look of surprise and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Banner turned to the surprised children. “Little trick I picked up on Tau Ceti Four. Now let’s get going.” Banner holstered his gun as the three of them ran to the ship. Banner began punching numbers into the control panel at the base of the entry ramp, which was closed.
“Birthday,” Banner muttered. “The password is always their birthday.” He tried several combinations, but nothing budged the door. Finally, in frustration, Banner turned to the kids. “Any ideas?”
Suddenly, behind them, he saw an all-too-familiar shape: the portly brass-and-jewel-encrusted form of Carracavo — with gun drawn.
Before Banner could react, he felt the stun blast from Carracavo’s pistol envelop his entire body with a hot electric jolt. As he fell, he could hear that bloodcurdling laugh . . .
* * *
Banner awoke with a groan. His head felt like a bowling ball — solid, heavy, and bruised from colliding with too many pins. He could sense that he was standing vertically and that his head was hanging down. He willed his head to rise and his eyes to open, and slowly — and with great reluctance — they complied.
Banner was chained to a bulkhead, his arms stretched fully out and raised. His feet were free, but he was, for all intents and purposes, pinned to the wall. He was in what appeared to be a dimly-lit freight bay; there were boxes of all sizes stacked haphazardly around the space.
“Arasa?” he whispered hoarsely, his voice echoing off the metal walls. “Patro?”
Banner heard scurrying feet and a clanging, as of hands shaking a barred door.
“Mister Banner!” they cried. “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“From the sound of it, I’m on the other side of this stack of boxes from you. I’m chained to the wall.”
“We’re in a cell,” Arasa said. “We woke up just a few minutes ago. He zapped us too.”
“Can you unlock my chains?” Banner asked, rattling them. “I know you can’t help yourselves or each other, but I could sure use some help here.” He tugged the chains taut. “Again.”
“Sorry, Mister Banner,” said Arasa. “I have to see the chains so I can form a mental picture of them. That’s why he put you over there, so that we wouldn’t be able to see you.”
Banner’s lips pressed together and clenched his jaw. This Carracavo was too clever by half.
“He’s taking us back to Masterlight!” Patro wailed. “They’re going to kill us! And there’s nothing we can do!” Patro flung his arms around his older sister and cried into her shirt as she hugged him back, stroking his hair and bending her head to whisper comforting words in his ear.
“What are we going to do, Mister Banner?” Arasa called over her brother’s head.
Banner tugged on his chains and looked around in desperation. He had no idea. So he mustered every ounce of jocular confidence he could muster. “Don’t worry, kids,” Banner said with a cheerful voice. “This is all going according to my plan. I had to find a way to get us to Masterlight to save your friends, right?”
Arasa nodded dubiously. “Right, I guess.”
“Right, then,” Banner said cheerfully. “Just relax and enjoy the trip.” Banner glanced at the ceiling, bobbing his head in a small shrug. “And let’s hope I figure something out before it’s too late,” he muttered.
* * *
Back on Canopus Prime, in the control cabin of the stranded Ranger, F.R.E.D.D. the robot monitored the departure of Carracavo’s ship with the electronic equivalent of anxiety.
“that was not the plan,” F.R.E.D.D. said to himself, his eyes flashing with each syllable. “chuck was supposed to call me before leaving something must have gone wrong.”
F.R.E.D.D. extended a spindly silver arm to operate the communicator, then paused. The tape reels on his chest whirred in thought. He calculated that calling Banner might be dangerous; he could be hiding, or he could have concealed his walkie-talkie. An incoming call would trigger a beep that could give the game away. F.R.E.D.D. analyzed Banner’s advice from past adventures and came to the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to trust Banner to sort things out on his end — and prepare to come to his rescue. But with the Ranger out of service for the next few days, the only help F.R.E.D.D. would be able to offer would be from a remote distance.
Which was better than nothing, and which was worth planning for.
F.R.E.D.D. moved his arm away from the communications panel and toward the computer memory bank controls. He called up the files on Masterlight, which he had already ascertained was Carracavo’s previous port of call and apparently its next destination, if its departure course was any indication.
F.R.E.D.D.’s head turned slowly side-to-side as the available data on the Masterlight laboratory flashed on the screen faster than a human could read. Pictures, text, diagrams, and blueprints all flickered by at a blinding pace as F.R.E.D.D. absorbed it all.
“fascinating,” F.R.E.D.D. muttered as the display washed over the screen. “this will be very helpful for chuck to know.” He paused as his tape reels stuttered. “assuming i ever hear from him again that is.”
* * *
What secrets has F.R.E.D.D. uncovered about Masterlight and the sinister genetic experiments being conducted there? Will Chuck Banner be able to free Arasa and Patro and save their friends before they are destroyed? What awaits them on Masterlight? Find out in the next exciting episode of Space Repairman: Escape from Masterlight!