Star Rangers

Prologue

There is an old legend concerning a Roman Emperor, who, to show his power, singled out the Tribune of a loyal legion and commanded that he march his men across Asia to the end of the world. And so a thousand men vanished into the hinterland of the largest continent, to be swallowed up forever. On some unknown battlefield the last handful of survivors must have formed a square which was overwhelmed by a barbarian charge. And their eagle may have stood lonely and tarnished in a horsehide tent for a generation thereafter. But it may be guessed, by those who know of the pride of these men in their corps and tradition, that they did march east as long as one still remained on his feet.

In 8054 A.D. history repeated itself — as it always does. The First Galactic Empire was breaking up. Dictators, Emperors, Consolidators wrested the rulership of their own or kindred solar systems from Central Control. Space pirates raised flags and recruited fleets to gorge on spoil plundered from this wreckage. It was a time in which only the ruthless could flourish.

Here and there a man, or a group of men, tried vainly to dam the flood of disaster and disunion. And, notable among these last-ditch fighters who refused to throw aside their belief in the impartial rule of Central Control were the remnants of the Stellar Patrol, a law enforcement body whose authority had existed unchallenged for almost a thousand years. Perhaps it was because there was no longer any security to be found outside their own ranks that these men clung the closer to what seemed in the new age to be an outworn code of ethics and morals. And their stubborn loyalty to a vanished ideal was both exasperating and pitiful to the new rulers.

Jorcam Dester, the last Control Agent of Perun, who was nursing certain ambitions of his own, solved in the Roman manner the problem of ridding his sector of the Patrol. He summoned the half dozen officers still commanding navigable ships and ordered them — under the seal of the Control — out into space, to locate (as he said) and re-map forgotten galactic border systems no one had visited in at least four generations. He offered a vague promise to establish new bases from which the Patrol might rise again, invigorated and revived, to fight for the Control ideals. And, faithful to their very ancient trust, they launched this mission, undermanned, poorly supplied, without real hope, but determined to carry out orders to the last.

One of these ships was the Scout — Starfire.

1. Last Port

The Patrol ship Starfire came into her last port at early morning. She made a bad landing, for two of her eroded tubes blew just as the pilot tried to set her down. She had bounced then, bounced and buckled, and now she lay on her meteor-scarred side.

Ranger Sergeant Kartr nursed his left wrist in his right hand and licked blood from bitten lips. The port wall of the pilot's cubby had become the floor and the latch of its door dug into one of his shaking knees.

Of his companions, Latimir had not survived the landing. One glance at the crazy twisted angle of the astrogator's black head told Kartr that. And Mirion, the pilot, hung limply in the torn shock webs before the control board. Blood rilled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. Did dead men continue to bleed? Kartr didn't think so.

He drew a slow, experimental breath of his own and knew relief when it was not followed by a stab of pain. Ribs were still intact then, in spite of the slam which had smashed him into his present position. He grinned mirthlessly as he stretched arms and legs with the same caution. Sometimes it paid to be a tough, uncivilized frontier barbarian.

The lights flickered and went off. It was then that Kartr almost panicked, in spite of his carefully nurtured veteran's calm. He grabbed at the door latch and pulled. Sharp stabs of agony shot from his injured wrist and jerked him back to sanity. He wasn't sealed in, the door had moved an inch or so. He could get out.

Must get out and find the medico to look at Mirion. The pilot should not be moved until they knew the extent of his injuries —

Then Kartr remembered. The medico wasn't around any more. Hadn't been with them since three — or was it four? — planets back. The ranger shook his aching head and frowned. That loss of memory was almost worse than the pain in his arm. He mustn't lose his grip!

Three planet landings back — that was it! When they had beaten off the Greenies' rush after the ship's nose blaster had gone dead on them, Medico Tork had gone down, a poison dart right through his throat.

Kartr shook his head again and began to work patiently, with one hand, at the door. It seemed a very long time before he was able to force it open far enough for a person to squeeze through. A blue beam suddenly shot up at him through the gap.

"Kartr! Latimir! Mirion!" The roll call followed the light.

Only one man on board carried a blue torch.

"Rolth!" Kartr identified him. Somehow it was encouraging that it should be one of his own squad of specialist-explorers waiting below. "Latimir got it, but Mirion is still living, I think. Can you come up? My wrist seems to be broken — "

He edged back to let the other squirm through. The thin blue spear of light swept across Latimir's body and centered on the pilot. Then the torch tube was thrust into Kartr's good hand as Rolth crawled over to untangle the webbing which held the unconscious man.

"How bad are we?" Kartr raised his voice to be heard over the moans now coming from the pilot.

"I do not know. Our ranger quarters came through all right, but the hatch to the drive section is jammed and when I beat on it there was no answer — "

Kartr tried to remember who had been on duty with the drive. They were so ruinously shorthanded that everyone was doing another's job. Even the rangers were pressed into the once jealously guarded Patrol duties. It had been that way ever since the Greenie attack.

"Kaatah — " A call more hiss than word came from the passage.

"Okay." The sergeant responded almost automatically. "Got a real light, Zinga? Rolth's up here, but you know how far his two-for-a-credit shiner goes — "

"Fylh is hunting out one of the big spots," the newcomer answered. "You have trouble?"

"Latimir is dead. Mirion's still breathing — but there's no telling how bad he is hurt. Rolth says that the drive room gang didn't answer at all. You all right?"

"Yes. Rylh and I and Smitt of the crew. We were bumped a little but nothing serious. Hah — "

A yellow-red beam of some brilliance silhouetted the speaker.

"Fylh brings a battle torch — "

Zinga climbed up and went to work with Rolth. They had Mirion free and flat on the plating before Kartr asked his next question.

"How about the Captain?"

Zinga turned his head slowly, almost as if he were unwilling to answer that. His agitation, as usual, was betrayed by the quiver in the pointed neck frill of skin, which would not lie flat on his shoulders when he was worried or excited.

"Smitt has gone to seek him. We do not know — "

"One spot of luck in the whole knock out." That was Rolth, his voice as usual unemotional. "This is an Arth type planet. Since we aren't going to lift off it again in a hurry we'd better thank the Spirit of Space for that!"

An Arth type planet — one on which the crew of this particular ship could breathe without helmets, walk without discomfort of alien gravity, probably eat and drink natural products without fear of sudden death. Kartr eased his wrist across his knee. That was pure luck. The Starfire might have blown anywhere within the past three months — she had been held together only with wire and hope. But to blow on an Arth type world was better fortune for her survivors than they would have dared pray for after the black disappointments of the past few years, years of too many missions and no refittings.

"It hasn't been burnt off either," he observed almost absently.

"Why should it have been?" inquired Fylh, his voice tinged with almost cheerful mockery — but mockery which also had a bite in it. "This system is far off our maps — very far removed from all the benefits of our civilization!"

The benefits of Central Control civilization, yes. Kartr blinked as that struck home. His own planet, Ylene, had been burnt off five years ago — during the Two-Sector Rebellion. And yet he sometimes still dreamed of taking the mail packet back, of wearing his ranger uniform, proud with the Five Sector Bars and the Far Roving Star, of going up into the forest country — to a little village by the north sea. Burnt off — ! He had never been able to visualize boiled rock where that village had stood — or the dead cinder which was the present Ylene — a horrible monument to planetary war.

Zinga worked on his wrist and put it in a sling. Kartr was able to help himself as they angled Mirion through the door. By the time they had the pilot resting in the lounge the Patrolman, Smitt, came in, towing a figure so masked in head bandages as to be unrecognizable.

"Commander Vibor?" Kartr hazarded. He was on his feet, his shoulders squared, his heels brought smartly together so that the vlis hide of his boots rasped faintly.

The bandaged head swung toward him.

"Ranger Kartr?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Who else — ?" The voice began with customary briskness but then it trailed off into a di ...

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