For Space Repairman Chuck Banner, one of the best parts of his job was that he never knew where each day would take him. Perhaps he’d get a call from the Dispatcher sending him to the fountain mines of Calextria, where the mile-high crystalline plumes glittered in the light of two different-colored suns, or to the caramel-colored caves of Antares VI, where adventures lurked in the dark tunnels deep underground. And occasionally, but not frequently enough for Chuck, the dispatcher would send him to repair the gamble-bots of New Vegas, where he could always find something else to fix that would require him to stay an extra day.
Today, however, Chuck found himself on Space Station Gamma, one of the largest and most luxurious colonies in the Outer Sector. Appointed like a cruise liner, Space Station Gamma had some of the best food and drink for light-years around, which made up for the space-rations that were his normal fare on the long haul between assignments. The station’s gyro stabilizer needed calibration, which was a difficult — and fortunately time-consuming — job. Yet today was his last day on the station, having completed the calibration to his usual exacting standards, and he was reluctantly stowing the last of his gear in the cargo bay of his ship, the Ranger, when the intercom on the wall next to him beeped.
Banner put down his tool bag and pushed the button under the microphone. “Hey, buddy. What’s up?” The call was from F.R.E.D.D, Chuck’s service robot and trusted travel companion, upstairs on the control deck.
“i have an incoming communication from the dispatcher,” F.R.E.D.D responded in his metallic monotone.
“Wow, that was quick,” Banner said. “We’re barely finished here. I wasn’t expecting another assignment until tomorrow at the earliest.”
“affirmative,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “this is an unscheduled call the dispatcher says that it is an urgent request“
“Well, then,” said Banner, wiping his hands on a rag. “That sounds interesting. Put it through here, please, buddy.”
There was a moment’s static while F.R.E.D.D patched in the super-spatial channel. “Good afternoon, Clarence,” came the Dispatcher’s silky, warm voice. “Did you enjoy your time on Space Station Gamma?”
“You know it!” said Banner. “They have a new chef here. He does this amazing drink with Centaurian bolt fruit that would make your head spin.”
“That sounds lovely, Clarence,” the Dispatcher replied, an edge of uncertainty creeping into her voice. “I’m afraid I’m calling about something other than your next assignment. I have an urgent mission for you.”
The worried tone of the Dispatcher’s voice caused Banner to dispense with his usual efforts to flirt with the Dispatcher. “What’s wrong, Boss?”
“One of our repairmen is overdue for her check-in,” she responded. “It’s Patrice Mboa. She’s on Gallenesh servicing their asteroid deflector.”
Banner raised an eyebrow. “Patrice? She’s one of the best. She’s been a repairman longer than anyone except me. It’s not like her to miss a check-in call.”
“Precisely,” said the Dispatcher. “She arrived there yesterday and made her first check-in on schedule. But today we’ve not heard from her. She’s almost twelve hours overdue, Clarence.” She emphasized the time as she spoke. “You’re the closest repairman to Gallenesh. It’s only two days away.”
Banner did a quick mental calculation. “Or less, if you approve emergency speed.”
“Approved, Clarence,” the Dispatcher responded, relief and gratitude flooding her voice. “Please get there as soon as you can and find out what, if anything, has happened to Patrice. Hopefully it’s just a case of a broken transmitter. If not, I want our best trouble-shooter there.”
Banner beamed, his chest puffing. “Don’t you worry, Dispatcher,” he said with confidence. “Chuck Banner is on the case.” He switched the intercom. “F.R.E.D.D, this is Chuck. Buddy, I need you to plot the fastest course to the colony on Gallenesh.”
* * *
Chuck Banner leaned forward in his pilot’s chair, his head and eyes in constant motion as he carefully studied the view from the forward windows. He had to concentrate on maneuvering the Ranger carefully into the asteroid belt through which the orbit of Gallenesh periodically crossed. F.R.E.D.D sat next to him, monitoring the long-range scanners. It was frustratingly slow going.
“Hey, F.R.E.D.D, why don’t we break the tedium here. Queue up your memory tapes and give me a crash course on the Gallenesh colony.”
“perhaps you should not use the word crash chuck” replied F.R.E.D.D, his robotic monotone doubling effectively for deadpan.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be the funny guy around here,” Banner retorted. “And leave out the boring parts.”
The tape reels on F.R.E.D.D’s chest whirred and clicked as he compiled the relevant data. “gallenesh is a young planet recently formed from the agglomeration of asteroidal matter,” F.R.E.D.D intoned, his eyes flashing in time with each syllable. “it is rich in valuable ores but uninhabitable in its original state. miners from earth settled there several centuries ago and began terraforming the planet to make it eventually habitable for human life
“only within the past 50 years has it been possible to live on the surface without life-support equipment,” continued F.R.E.D.D. “as a result although the mineral extraction operation is technologically advanced the civilization itself is rudimentary approximating that of a feudal society in medieval europe“
“How many people live there now?”
F.R.E.D.D calculated for a moment. “the latest census data for gallenesh indicate a total population of approximately five thousand seven hundred fifty. median age is twenty-seven point three years. life expectancy is sixty point five years. population growth rate one point two-two percent. infant mortality rate ten point three percent . . . “
Banner whistled softly. “A rough place to live. They’re barely sustaining themselves.”
“agreed chuck,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “their long-term prospects for survival depend on the success of the terraforming project“
“And their immediate prospects depend on that asteroid deflector,” said Banner. “Of all the places they could have picked to start a mining colony, why did they have to pick a planet that swings through an asteroid belt every two years?” F.R.E.D.D was already calculating an answer when Banner cut him off with a placatory wave. “I know, I know. It’s because that’s where all the minerals are. Funny how that works out sometimes. Okay, what can you tell me about Patrice?”
“patrice mboa age thirty-two professional space repairman for ten years,” F.R.E.D.D began. “this is her first trip to the gallenesh colony“
“She’s one of the best of the new crop,” said Banner with a smile. “Reminds me of myself when I was that age. Tough and fearless. No wonder they assigned her to this route. This sector isn’t for sissies. I did a couple of service routes not too far from here back in the day, and let me tell you, it’s the Wild West out here.”
A moment of silence followed. “I hope nothing’s happened to her.”
“if there had been an accident the colony would have contacted the dispatcher,” F.R.E.D.D said.
“I know,” mused Banner. “That’s what has me worried.”
A chime sounded on F.R.E.D.D’s long-range scanner. “we have acquired the gallenesh colony’s navigational beacon. stand by to switch to autopilot“
Banner nodded and threw several switches on the console in front of him. “Set, buddy. Okay, let’s ride the beam.”
“engaging,” replied F.R.E.D.D. “we are on course for the colony spaceport“
“Do your data banks say anything about the local weather?” Banner asked.
F.R.E.D.D’s tape reels spun for a moment. “umbrellas are highly recommended“
Banner looked at F.R.E.D.D skeptically.
* * *
“Okay, you were right about the umbrella,” said Banner to F.R.E.D.D as they stood on the end of the Ranger‘s loading ramp. The drizzle in the air fell so slowly that it seemed to behave more like fog than rain, a consequence of the small planet’s lower gravity. The sky of Gallenesh was dark — a perpetual twilight that was a consequence of the dim star around which it orbited and the thick manmade cloud cover providing the rain that was slowly hydrating the parched planet. The distant craggy mountains looked razor-sharp, the result of having never been exposed to weather until recently. There was no soil; everything, even the landing platform on which he had parked the Ranger, was built on solid rock. Gallenesh was not a comfortable outpost of humanity.
Before stepping out from underneath the shelter of the Ranger‘s sleek flanks, Banner pulled an umbrella stick from his utility belt and activated it. From the end of the stick, a blue light beam extended three feet and expanded into a softly glowing dome. “You stay here and mind the shop,” Banner said to F.R.E.D.D. “I’ll stay in touch. You know what to do if you don’t hear from me.”
“acknowledged good luck” replied F.R.E.D.D.
Banner swung the umbrella up over his head and with a “here goes nothing” look, stepped out into the gloom. He walked to the spaceport’s nearby control shack, a cobbled-together stone building that looked more like a storage shed, and stepped inside. The lighting was only slightly brighter than the outside, and Banner had to give his eyes a moment to adjust as he deactivated his umbrella. There was no one in the main room. He glanced around at the primitive space-control equipment stacked haphazardly around the room. “Hello?” he called out.
A muscular man in worn coveralls and heavy work boots clomped through a side door, wiping his hands on a rag. “You Banner?” he growled.
“That’s right. Chuck Banner, Galactic Repair Services.” Banner paused, expecting a welcome or at least an acknowledgement. The moment passed. “I’m looking for my colleague, Patrice Mboa.”
“Don’t know anything,” the man grumbled. “Ask the constables.” He jutted his chin at the room’s single opaque window. “Landing Pad Three. Need fuel?”
“Sure,” replied Banner, grateful for the tenuous expression of civility. “Talk to my robot.” The man nodded and without another word disappeared back into the side room from which he had emerged.
“Charming fellow,” Banner muttered as he opened the door, activated his umbrella, and stepped back out into the murk.
Banner followed the barely-discernible signs to Landing Pad Three, where he saw Mboa’s silver repair ship parked just as if there were nothing out of the ordinary. Underneath, standing by the lowered cargo ramp, were two stocky men who wore the same rugged outfits as the man in the control shack. They watched with expressions of distrust as Banner approached.
“Hi, Chuck Banner, Galactic Repair Services,” he said, turning his umbrella off and extending his hand. Neither man made a move to shake it. “I’m here to find out where my colleague is,” he said, pointing overhead at Mboa’s ship.
“Arrested,” the shorter of the two men said.
“Arrested?” Banner gasped in surprise. “Why?”
“Because you don’t know, or because you don’t want to tell me?”
The man merely shrugged. To Banner, it didn’t look like he was trying to be evasive; it was more like the answer just didn’t matter to him. Like it would take too much energy to care — the psychic exhaustion of a man fated to live out his whole life amid rocks and rain.
“Well, can you tell me how I can find her?”
“Jail,” the taller man said, sluggishly lifting his arm to point in the direction of the nearest peak. “Middle of town.”
“Real chatty folks, aren’t you?”
The man shrugged with the same existential indifference as had the man in the control shack. “Depends.”
“Depends on what?” Banner asked, trying to keep the growing frustration out of his voice.
“If we know you.”
“Well, once you get to know me, I think you’d find I’m a pretty likable guy,” Banner said. “Like my friend who I’m looking for. There must be some kind of misunderstanding. I know Patrice going on a decade now, and she’s one of the most trustworthy people I know. I’ve never known her to do anything that would get her arrested.”
At this, both men stood a little straighter and seemed to suddenly pay attention to Banner. “You saying you vouch for her?” the shorter man asked.
Banner nodded confidently. “Absolutely. I’d trust her with my life. Already done so once.”
The two men exchanged a glance. “She killed a man,” the taller one said. “A really important man. She’s going to be executed.”
Banner’s brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what he had just been told. “What?”
“Since you vouch for her behavior,” the man continued, “You’re under arrest too.” Slowly, almost lazily, both men pulled ray pistols from their belts and aimed them at Banner.
Banner raised his hands in supplication. “Wait a minute, fellows. I haven’t done anything wrong here. Yet, that is,” he added as an afterthought.
“Stood up for a criminal,” the shorter man said. “Come on.” He gestured with his pistol in the direction of town. Both men moved to either side of him, an unwelcome escort.
“What kind of a law is that?” asked Banner incredulously.
The shorter man shrugged. “How it works here,” he said.
Resignedly, Banner turned to march in the direction the man had indicated. “Well, at least I’ll have the pleasure of your conversation along the way,” Banner said as he flicked on his umbrella and was marched out into the gloom.
What will happen to Chuck Banner? Will he be able to prevent Patrice Mboa’s execution? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Space Repairman: Word of Honor!