APAGear - Volume 6, Number 1 - January 2004

Star Rangers 1: Exit

Gail Camaya

Note: This storyline borrows many elements from the CORE Command Players' Handbook. Although there are different types of technology and alien races depicted in this storyline, the backdrop is still the same: high adventure in space with big ships. The technology just happens to be more "energy efficient."

***

The planet Shepharim was once center to the Banpin Economic Alliance. The loose collection of eighty-three planets depended on Shepharim's proximity to an asteroid belt containing Ternacore, a once key component to starship fuel. Thus, ships in many varieties stopped there to refuel and pass on news from other planets. For three centuries traders, gamblers, mercenaries, politicians, and pirates traversed this small area of the galaxy in search of fast money and faster lives. People have said that Shepharim was a trader's paradise and a wayward soul's home.

Then the hyperdrive was acquired when the BEA joined the CORE community. The ability to "float" past light speed shortened the travel time between BEA planets from one month to one week. Cryo-sleep chambers and auto-navigation equipment were replaced with more cargo and luxury suites. More tourists and merchants traveled the space lanes, allowing economies on the fringes of the Alliance to thrive and more colonies to sprout where sentient life was non-existent. Cultures that had very little contact with each other are now conversing and clashing, often with spectacular results. The BEA surged forward, strengthening its economic and military might to compete with the Valneer Kingdom and the Sarlou Dynasty. All planets prospered within this new light speed economy.

All except Shepharim. Shepharim heavily depended on Ternacore processing to support its local economy. Hyperdrives are not dependent on Ternacore, so travel to Shepharim fell dramatically. Traders who could not afford to switch to hyperdrives lost business and, in most cases, lost their ships.

Those captains who could retain their ships exchanged legal cargo for black market contraband: some smuggled nuclear tipped torpedoes while others transported raw spices and rare antiques to the highest bidder. Soon the space lanes around Shepharim became known as "Pirates' Alley," a veritable shooting gallery for the unwary and the unarmed.

It was said that Shepharim will never regain its previous glory; any event short of the discontinued use of hyperdrives would not return the planet to its rightful place as the center of the BEA. Whoever "they" are did not count on Silas Wylner.

***

"Silas!" Marty called out in a fit of gasps. "Can't we stop here for a bit?"

"No time," Silas huffed. "The guards in the cells will be waking up any moment. When their friends make the discovery, then they'll raise the "

At that instant the all-points alarm blared with the accompanying flashing red lights. The narrow corridor that Silas and Marty are in was bathed in a cycling crimson hue.

"Great," Silas said while he slumps next to a pile of crates, "now we have no choice but to run."

"What were we doing before?"

"Shut up, Marty. First we have to find our way to the launch bays and get a ship."

Marty stooped over and breathed heavily next to a crate. He ran his hands through his shoulder length brown hair. "That's a great idea. But what do we do about the four dozen guards between here and the nearest bay?"

"I'm working on that." Silas walked to the end of the corridor and looked down both directions of the connecting passageway. "It looks like this area of the station is lightly used. Most of these boxes are spare parts, extended-storage cargo, and other stuff they couldn't store in the main cargo bays."

"What do I care about spare parts? I want to live."

"So do I, but freedom won't come if we only have one rifle between the two of us."

"Why didn't we raid their weapons stash?" Marty asked.

"Did you know the twelve digit number to open that lock?"

"Oh, yeah. That's right."

"Think, Marty. We need to sneak our way through these corridors. There's the one main hallway we can't travel down, but there are the auxiliary hallways that we can use. If we can dodge the patrols then it should be fairly smooth sailing to a scout ship."

"Why don't we take one of the cruisers? At least those have decent weapons."

"Do you know how to warm up a three stage hyper engine?" Silas asked.

"Oh, yeah." Marty turned to lean his shoulder against the crate. "So, do we try and take out another guard so we can have two guns?"

"It'd take too long and it'd be too loud. Stealth is our only option."

A pause. "You know, Silas, they'd probably figure out that we would make for the launch bay. They'll have it guarded. They'd even have a trap set for us."

"I thought about that and a few other things," Silas said as he examines a box filled with straw. "This station is orbiting Yvern, several dozen units [universal standard of measurement] from Shepharim. Even if we got a ship that can carry the both of us, there'd be no guarantee that we would make it to a friendly port."

"I think we should have surrendered to the interrogator. At least she listened to us."

"The hormones she used are getting to you," Silas quipped.

"I would have been alive."

"Five minutes more and you'd be willing to have her children."

"Sure, in hindsight."

"Can we stop this now?" Silas asked. "I'm trying to find something that can help us to get to the launch bays." He looked around the crates, shifting through the hay within each of them. He reached into one rather large box and felt around.

Marty's breath returned to him as he watched Silas sift around. "What if we fake an assault on the station generator?"

"It's in the middle of station. They closed it off when the alarms were tripped."

"They don't know we're here," Marty said.

Silas straightened up. "You're right. We could..." he said, then shook his head. "Nope, there's no way we'd be able to hack into the network. Even you can't pull off that miracle."

"We could try."

"No, but I think a change of plans is in order," Silas said. "Help me open this crate."

***

The speaker emitted a high pitch, low volume whistle, and then a gruff man's voice said, "This is Quad 4 to Garlon."

"Yes, Captain Ghernis. Have you found the prisoners?" Garlon asked.

"No, sir," the captain answered curtly. "We've been through the quad, room to room. There has been no sign of them."

"Continue with Quad 5. And make sure you check out the unused portions of the quad." Garlon tapped his chin. "I want them alive."

"Yes, sir!" Captain Ghernis curtly answered. The speaker light blinked out.

"Well, this is certainly a nasty turn of events," Garlon's lady companion said, stroking the rim of her near empty wine flute. "It isn't everyday that I see the Great Garlon lose track of a witness to a sale."

"Hush, woman! I will not be mocked over dinner!" Garlon massaged his neck. "This Silas is just a nuisance. As soon as we find him I will interrogate him myself, and then kill him." He chomped into his last steak morsel. "It has been too long since I had any meat, milady."

"It has been too long for me as well, Garlon," she said, fluttering her eyes.

Garlon stood up, walked around the table, and took her lips in fully. When the kiss was finished, he looked into her black pearl eyes and asked, "Pleasure as always?"

"Our pleasure, Garlon. Business can always wait," she replied, staring into his deep black eyes.

***

Captain Ghernis clicked off the wall unit and looked to his men. "You four," he said to the men on his right, "check the outer compartments. The rest of you are with me checking the inner compartments and machinery units."

"Sir, what's that sound?" a guard asked as he looks back through the blast doors to Quad 4.

Ghernis strained to listen. "All of you, shut up!" He strained again and heard the low thumping sound, which seemed to be getting louder. He looked down the corridor where it curved out of sight. "Hit the floor!" he yelled.

Everyone but one guard did so. The vehicle flew around the turn and slammed through the fool left standing, tossing him through the air with his arms out and his body twisting until he thumped against a wall.

Ghernis jumped up and ran back to the comm. "All Quads! Close blast doors from Quad 4 to Quad 6!" He turned back to his men. "Well, don't just lie there like Ruverian Dansies! Run after them!"

***

"'Let's not take the main corridor,' you said. 'We'd only attract trouble,' you said. You didn't say we'd sideswipe a guard in the face with a skim bike!"

"Shut up, Marty! I'm driving!" Silas yelled over the din of sirens, gunfire, and the bike's low-bass pulsating hum. "Guard!"

Marty raised the rifle and fired. The yellow streak of laze zapped straight and true. The guard Marty was aiming for ducked in time and the shot flew to a control panel, melting a hole in the controls.

Consequently, the doors the controls were connected to began to contract.

"Faster!"

"I'm trying!" Silas yelled.

"Faster!"

"Shut up and duck!"

"FASTER!"

"SHUT UP!"

The two escapees tucked themselves as Silas tilted the bike to the left. They rushed the door and floated through the remaining space before emerging on the other side. The doors closed, but not without a few laze beams escaping through.

One of those beams grazed Marty's hair. "AH! I'm on fire!"

"Pat it out!" Silas squinted in the rushing air. "I wished I looked for goggles."

"I wished we had another plan!" Marty answered. After putting out his small hair fire, Marty raised the rifle again and fired into a group of guards that were huddled together. After Silas plows through the mass of guards (again, striking another one), the guards returned fire. Silas dodged most of the laze, but one managed to strike the bike where the grav-pad connected to the rest of the bike.

Silas began to lose control of the bike. "I'm stopping!"

The bike skidded to a stop just past another set of blast doors. Marty jumped off and ran to a control pad. "Well, let's see. I think this red button should close it."

He pressed the button, but nothing happened. The fifteen other buttons are colored green and labeled in Garsian. "Hey, Silas, can you read Garsian?"

"No!" Silas answered as he strained to turn the bike around.

"Well, it worked last time," Marty said. He stepped back, aimed the rifle at the control panel, and fired.

Instead of just melting a hole, the panel blew up in a burst of sparks, flashes, and shrapnel. Unfortunately, the doors remained open.

Silas shot angry looks at Marty. Marty said, "Well, it worked last time."

"Help me get this bike around!" Silas curtly ordered. Marty rushed over and the both of them turned the bike so that it faced the direction they came in. Silas switched the bike power on and activated the booster. The bike rose up and flew forward but began to twirl, much like a drill, towards the guards.

The previously eager guards tried to dodge out of the bike's way. The bike handles managed to tangle two guards in their loose coats and dragged them away. The remaining guards chased after the errant bike and its two unwilling riders.

"Well, that worked better than I thought it would," Silas said.

Silas and Mary continued their trek towards the launch bays.

After twenty minutes of dodging patrols, Silas and Marty finally reached the umbilical corridor to the launch bays. However, they found two dozen guards armed with laze rifles hiding behind crates. They both ducked back into a hidden nook and considered their options.

"Would it be too late to surrender for interrogation?" Marty asked.

"Again with the hormones. When will you stop?" Silas asked.

"I'm looking at two dozen guards, all waiting to pull the trigger and drill whoever doesn't look like them," Marty said while looking at the hostile force between him and his freedom. He waited for the inevitable response. When he did not get one, Marty turned around to face Silas and found him rubbing his chin. "You've got a plan, don't you?"

"Yeah, but we need to find a few guards," Silas said.

***

Vergor Milint is in charge of security for the launch bay. He was bought off, along with Captain Ghernis (who has the only rank in the garrison at this station), to work for Garlon, a relatively small time dealer in exotic goods and slaves. Although the pay is good, Milint wants out because he is tired of the day to day routine of beating merchants, intimidating passengers, and other menial tasks. He welcomed the news of two escapees when he heard of the breakout and looked forward to bragging to Captain Ghernis about the capture.

He stood behind his men, his own rifle at the ready when two guards in crimson coats turned the corner from Quad 5.

"Halt!" Milint ordered. His azure coated guards raised their rifles in a unified response. Unlike Ghernis' men, Milint actually trained his guard detail and rewards them on occasion.

"Sir!" the first crimson guard said while saluting. "The escaped prisoners managed to knock out a communications node. Captain Ghernis has been unable to reach Quad 5, Quad 6, or the launch bay. He sent us to tell you that they may be here now."

Milint considered the guard's message. After a moment, he walked over to the nearest comm panel and called the launch bay control room. "Control, this is Milint. Hail the Captain please."

A moment passed, then the response. "Sir, we cannot contact Captain Ghernis. In fact, we cannot contact any Quad or unit outside the launch bay."

"Squad One, guard the blast doors to Quad 5," Milint said to his men. "Squad Two, same thing with Quad 6. I don't want those prisoners escaping." Sixteen men jumped up from their positions and ran into the main corridor.

As those men disappeared, an alarm sounded in the launch bay. "Now what?" Milint said.

"Milint," the control center answered from the panel, "one of the fighter ships are powering up their engines."

"Well, stop them!"

"We're trying," the controller said, "but a pirate program is in the flight deck controls. It's blocking our commands."

"Sir," one of the crimson-coated guard interrupts, "we were told that one of the prisoners is a hacker. They could have hacked the controls to the ship..."

"But how did they get passed us?" Milint asked no one as he looked back into the launch bay. "Control, tractor them in place so that we can storm the ship. Men, let's welcome them back. You two as well. I want Ghernis' men to know that I captured the prisoners."

Milint, with his remaining compliment of men, jogged back into the launch bay. "Echelon One, Pad Four," the control center said over the bay speakers.

Milint and his men rode a lift to Echelon One as they look up at the ships lined up in staggered rows. The echelons are staggered in a stack, so that the noses of each row of ships can be seen from the higher echelons. Everyone on the moving platform could see the ship noses as each bay came into view. When they reached Echelon One, the group jogged another short distance to Pad Four that contained a four man transport armed with twin laze cannons. They surrounded the open entry ramp and aimed their weapons at the cabin opening.

"This is Vergor Milint! I order you to power down the engines and exit the ship with all your hands and appendages up!"

Nothing happened.

"This is your last warning! Either surrender or we're coming in, guns blazing!"

Again, nothing happened.

"You four, storm the bay doors!" Milint orders.

The four closest men rushed up the ramp, weapons drawn, and entered the ship. A few rifle blasts echoed from within the metal belly. Everyone remained tense to see rushing prisoners brandishing a fully loaded rifle. However, only the investigating guards came out, shrugging their shoulders.

"If they're not in this ship, then where are they now?" Milint asked himself.

The bay speakers crackled to life. "Milint! Bay Fifteen on Echelon Three is powering its weapons!"

Milint ran to the edge of the loading platform just in time to watch a volley of laze fire strike the control center. Although there was no explosion or station moving concussion, the act still took Milint and his crew by surprise.

"Get down there! Now!" Milint ordered his men.

All nine of them ran to the ladders welded at each pad and scrambled down to the next level. Milint was still climbing down when he heard the hum of a fighter engine warming up. He continued down until he landed on Echelon Three. There he ran along the echelon's promenade with his security detail. They only reached Pad Eight when the stolen ship pulled out of its own pad.

"Never mind getting to Pad Fifteen! Everyone into..."

He did not finish his orders. The stolen ship fired its weapons at the nearest docked ship, tearing through the rear and destabilizing the fuel cells. The resulting explosion shook the station and destabilized the echelon. Milint and his men are tossed to the edge while the echelon's wailing supports bend under the stress.

Milint managed to hang on, all the while watching both the stolen ship fly out of the bay and a few of his men fall to their deaths. Although the station has external weapons, Milint was not surprised to see the ship fly away unscathed.

"There goes my bragging rights," Milint said to himself as he pulled himself over the rail. He scanned around at the ensuing mayhem around him, cursing under his breath.

***

"That Milint guy is the most idiotic lieutenant I have ever met!" Marty yelled after his fit of laughter. "Did you see him not even question our orders?"

"Yeah. I bet you he's kicking himself now for not double checking with his boss," Silas said while he removed a crimson coat and loosened his shirt. "Sometimes I wished he looked back at his guards and noticed that two red coated men were not with him."

"I don't know how the control center lost track of us, even visually. It was pretty empty in that bay."

"Well, I'm glad you thought of disabling the station weapons while you were hacking the ship and control center," Silas said. "We would not have survived, even with the shield on."

"I didn't hack the station weapons," Marty said plainly.

"Yeah, you still have a fine head on those shoulders of yours."

"No, really, Silas," Marty said, "I didn't hack the station weapons."

Silas stared. "You didn't shut down their torpedo launchers and their laze cannons and their tractor beam?"

"Nope."

"If you didn't," Silas said, "then who did?"

Just as Silas finished his question, a red light began blinking on the control panel. "Great, one of the idiot lights is on," Marty said.

"Which one is it?"

Marty tapped the panel, slapped the console the panel was on, and checked other instruments. "Uh, Silas, I think we have a problem."

"Scoot out, Marty. I'm the pilot, remember? I can handle this." Marty jumped out of the pilot's seat and Silas slipped in. Marty noticed that Silas fitted perfectly in the seat with all the controls at his fingertips. "This isn't good."

"What is it?"

"The ship was having its air scrubbers fixed at the time. Unfortunately, the repair wasn't finished," Silas answered.

"Tell me if I'm wrong, but aren't air scrubbers essential for breathing?"

"You're not wrong," Silas gravely answered. "We only have the air in the cockpit and the small compartment in the back to use."

"That's enough to get us to Shepharim, right?" Marty nervously asked.

"No. It's not even enough to get us half-way there." Silas turned his seat to face Marty. "We're dead."

To be continued...