In our previous episode, Chuck Banner’s plan to steal Carracavo’s ship goes awry, and Banner is taken prisoner along with the genetically modified children Arasa and Patro to be returned to Masterlight — and whatever fate awaits them there . . .
* * *
Chuck Banner lost track of how long he had been shackled in the cargo hold of Carracavo’s ship. Eventually Arasa and Patro fell asleep in their cage on the other side of the hold; at some point Banner, too, probably nodded off, though he couldn’t be sure. But soon the long cycle of boredom and sleep was broken by a change in pitch of the distant engine and a sudden, sharp jarring.
They had landed.
Wordlessly, Carracavo’s scarred lieutenant appeared in the cargo hold with two large guards wearing identical light-blue and white uniforms. The weasely henchman undid Banner’s binds and escorted him out, assuring him with a sneer that the children would be all right. Rubbing his sore wrists, Banner called to them one last time not to worry as the guards shoved him out of the hold and marched him through the docking area and into Masterlight proper. They walked through a maze of brightly-lit corridors of the same light colors as the guards’ jumpsuits until they came to a door at the end of a hallway. One of the guards pushed a button, and a moment later the pocket door slid upwards. Banner was pushed inside and the door slid down noiselessly behind him.
The room was designed to resemble a doctor’s office on old Earth, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with medical texts, walls covered with anatomical charts, and a glass case on the far wall displaying old brass and steel medical instruments. At the center of the room was a large mahogany desk, behind which a balding, white-bearded man sat in a padded leather wing chair. When he looked up and saw Banner he stood and, with an expansive smile, came around the desk.
“Mister Banner, I’m Doctor Lester Cowesly, the director of Masterlight.” Cowesly extended his hand. “How do you do?”
Banner shook Cowesly’s hand warily. “A little the worse for wear,” he responded.
Cowesly let out a bellowing laugh, shaking his short frame, and gestured at another man in the shadows of the far wall, whom Banner had overlooked. “My assistant, Mister Smith.” Banner could see the other man was watching Banner intently, but he did not otherwise acknowledge Banner. Cowesly motioned for Banner to have a seat, which Banner did as Cowesly returned to his own chair, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk as if eager to consult with a patient.
“Something to eat or drink after your trip?” Cowesly said congenially. Banner demurred.
“We don’t get visitors at Masterlight very often,” said Cowesly. “We try to keep a low profile. You probably don’t know much about what we do.”
“Only that you breed child soldiers and then kill them if you don’t like the results,” Banner retorted.
Cowesly laughed again, shaking his head in pity. “That is exactly why we are so careful here, Mister Banner. It’s so easy for laymen to distort and misunderstand what we do here. No offense, of course. It’s not your fault. You see and hear something selective and draw your own conclusions from incomplete information. I can assure you that we do no such things here.”
“I can’t tell you how reassuring that is to hear,” Banner said flatly.
“Masterlight is a quarantine laboratory facility doing cutting-edge research on genetic diseases. Some day our work here will result in cures for countless illnesses throughout the settled galaxy.”
“And the children?”
Cowesly leaned back, his smile still unwavering. “Yes, we do breed testing animals here. But only because there is no computer, no lab experiment, no petri dish that can recreate the complexity of the human body for testing genetic changes and their outcomes. Is it really so different from the old days on Earth, when researchers conducted tests on mice and launched dogs into orbit?”
Banner leaned forward, his voice rising. “Only we’re not talking about cats and dogs here, are we, Doctor? We’re talking about humans. Human children.”
“Strictly speaking, Mister Banner, they are not humans per se. We have sequenced the entire human DNA chain and reshaped it to remove imperfections and add enhancements. The subjects are entirely artificially-created beings that only resemble humans.” Cowesly balanced a pen in his hands. “We do treat our subjects much better than mere lab animals, because they are closely related to us, after all. But progress sometimes comes with a price, Mister Banner. It’s better that we do our work out of sight on this remote asteroid where there are no people like yourself to get worked up by what they think they’re seeing here. Trust me, it’s better for all concerned this way.”
Banner was struck by the coldness, the clinical lack of emotion behind Cowesly’s soothing words. “Can I at least see Arasa and Patro?”
From the back of the room, Smith spoke. “That’s out of the question.”
Cowesly jumped in amicably. “They need to be quarantined, you understand. There’s no telling what diseases they picked up on Canopus Prime. We need to ensure they’re not a danger to the rest of the subjects.”
At that moment, Cowesly’s desk phone beeped and Smith came over to pick up the receiver. He listened for a moment, nodded, and put it back down. “Carracavo’s leaving,” he said to Cowesly.
Cowesly nodded and stood up with apparent reluctance. “Mister Banner, I’m so sorry to have to rush you, but this is probably your only chance to leave Masterlight until our next routine supply ship calls in three weeks. You’ll want to hurry to catch your ride back to Canopus Prime. I’m sorry we won’t have time to give you a tour of our facility.”
Banner had no illusions about what would Carracavo would do with him. “All the same, I’d rather stay,” he said, trying to sound affable.
Anger flashed in Cowesly’s eyes, breaking his placid demeanor for just a moment. “Out of the question, as Smith said,” Cowesly replied. “Quarantine again, I’m afraid. Your presence might introduce random variables into our carefully-controlled environment. Your presence might trigger undesirable mutations.” He turned to escort Banner to the door.
“I’m looking at a couple undesirable mutations right now,” Banner muttered.
At the door, Cowesly pushed a button on the wall and the door slid silently up. A guard wearing the ubiquitous powder-blue-and-white jumpsuit was waiting, his muscular arms folded menacingly across his broad chest. They made their farewells — Cowesly cheerfully, Banner neutrally, and Smith not at all.
* * *
The guard escorting Banner was much too large for him to overcome in a fight, so Banner walked through the cool blue hallways carefully looking for any opportunity to escape. Gradually, and inconspicuously, Banner fell a half-step and then a full-step behind the guard. Then, as they rounded a corner, Banner took the opportunity during the fraction of a second that he was out of sight to bolt the other direction. He ducked down another corridor and then another.
But only a few precious seconds went by before the sound of an alarm filled the corridor, accompanied by an urgent announcement: “Warning! Rogue agent loose. Quarantine systems in effect.” Suddenly, large airtight doors began clanking down from the ceiling to the floor, breaking up the corridor into sections. Banner wasted no time scooting under as many as he could before they completely cut him off.
Banner was able to duck one last time into a hallway lined on one side with floor-to-ceiling windows. Behind them was a large arena that resembled a gymnasium, with ranks of boys and girls of all ages sparring with each other with padded weapons. The muffled sounds of hits, falls, and shouts carried through the glass. Like coaches, jump-suited staff patrolled the fights, shouting instructions to the children as they fought. Banner could see that his was no mild sport; bruises and blood were abundant.
“Supernova,” muttered Banner, sickened by the sight.
Banner realized that no one could see him. He must be standing behind a one-way mirror, Banner realized, imagining Cowesly and his cronies standing here gloating at their handiwork. A moment later, Banner watched as a door on the far end of the arena opened suddenly and several guards rushed in. They ran up to the “coaches,” whispering urgently. No doubt relaying the news of his escape, Banner surmised. Then the “coaches” left with the guards to aid in the search.
The children were alone and unsupervised. Banner would never have another chance like this. He tapped on the glass urgently. One of the children nearest to him turned to face the glass, his quizzical face bearing a striking resemblance to Arasa and Patro. Banner rapped again, more urgently. The boy, who looked to be about 15, came closer and raised his hand in a circular motion. Suddenly, a circular portion of the glass in front of Banner disappeared. At that, everyone stopped fighting and turned to face Banner. The boy and several others closest to him came over to the window.
“I don’t have time to explain, but my name is Chuck Banner and I’m here to help you escape. Arasa and Patro found me. I need your help. I’m in danger.”
The boy’s face lit up in recognition. “I am Adil. I am the oldest in their pod.” He turned back to the rest of the kids and gestured for them to come, which they did with eagerness and curiosity, rather than the aggressiveness they had been exhibiting just a few moments earlier. The boy introduced Banner to them.
“We know that they were able to escape. Now that we have someone who needs our help, we can finally protect ourselves.” Adil turned to the assembled children and ordered them to grab their weapons. They scrambled to pick up their training gear, removing the padding to reveal clubs, swords, and combat sticks of all kinds.
Adil stepped through the glass, followed by several of the oldest boys and girls. “I know where they will have taken Arasa and Patro. Come.” He moved toward the airtight door that Banner had entered through. “We know the combination code to unlock the doors,” he said.
But suddenly, the door opened on its own accord, and behind it stood a phalanx of guards armed with ray pistols, with Smith at the front. “I’m afraid that’s as far as you go,” Smith said flatly.
“Stand aside,” Adil said with a force and maturity that belied his age. “We are protecting Mister Banner.”
Smith’s face curled in a sinister sneer. “Why, children, Mister Banner isn’t in any danger at all!” He gestured behind him and all the guards sheathed their pistols and assumed non-threatening smiles. “See? There’s no danger, no threat here.” His tone changed to one of scolding. “Mister Banner is the bad man. He threatened to hurt Doctor Cowesly. We can’t allow that, can we?”
The children turned back to Banner. Adil’s expression was one of confusion and inner conflict, but he was programmed to obey Smith and he raised his weapon to Banner’s face.
“This could get ugly,” said Banner.
* * *
How will Chuck Banner escape this tight spot? Will he be able to rescue the genetically-bred child soldiers from their terrible fate on Masterlight? Find out next time in the thrilling conclusion to Space Repairman: Escape from Masterlight!