A few days later, Rick Starr and Myra Mason were soaring through the skies over New York’s financial district toward a towering skyscraper that combined the best in 22nd century design with the style of an earlier era.
Myra’s blue eyes widened as she recognized the famous building. “My goodness!” she said. “When I was a little girl growing up in an agro-dome within New Chicago, I never imagined I’d find myself working in the Starr Tower. It’s even bigger than it looks on the holo-vids.”
Rick smiled and patted her hand. “As my Girl Friday, you’ll be one of the most important workers in the whole compound. It may not be as exciting as fighting space pirates, but I’ll try to keep you busy.”
Myra crossed her legs and leaned closer to the expert pilot. “Rick, I appreciate your willingness to take a chance on me. I promise you that I did complete a business course of study via holovid study disks. I was only hostessing aboard the Comet to pay my way here.”
Rick nodded as he glanced over at the lovely blonde. She wore the standard attire of the urban female business class. Her bright red mini-dress and heels were stylish and entirely appropriate for the position of executive assistant. Rick himself wore a blue shirt with a black pair of slacks.
He had already developed a real fondness for the young woman, and he had confessed his unhappiness to her during their trip from the North America Space Station back to New York. I’ve never met anyone I felt so comfortable with in such a short amount of time, he mused. Having Myra as my assistant may very well make my corporate life more of a pleasure. He guided his sleek sky skimmer into his private hangar and hit a switch that opened the doors as Myra climbed out.
Myra inhaled sharply as she saw the incredibly busy interior of the building. Workers in jumpsuits rushed from place to place like so many drones. All of them were briskly efficient and seemed dedicated to their individual roles within the huge company. As Rick casually summoned his private elevator via modulated voice recognition, Myra noticed how his employees seemed to look upon him with more than respect. They seemed to genuinely like him as well. He’s so down to terra, she thought.
A thin man with a shock of bright red hair rushed over as the couple exited the elevator. “Rick, I am glad to see you,” he said. “I installed that new vector drive system you designed — it worked like a charm. Your ship is going to be the fastest thing in all the cosmos.” The newcomer stopped abruptly as he noticed the shapely Myra Mason. “Sorry, Miss,” he said. “I’m Joe Jones. Pardon the rough manners of a rocket tech.”
Rick said, “Myra Mason is my new Girl Friday. Joe Jones, here, is my friend and the finest mechanic you’ll find between here and Io. He keeps my toys running at that little hideaway I told you about — the one I built outside MarsCity.”
Myra smiled warmly and said, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jones.”
Joe Jones stammered a reply, nervously scratching his shaggy head. Jupiter and Mars, he thought. Rick told that doll about his hidden lab. I thought he’d never tell anyone else about it. He must really trust her if he is willing to let her know about the place he set up for his private experiments.
As they entered the plush executive suite that housed the private offices of the Starr men, Myra hesitated and said, “Rick, are you sure your father won’t mind that you hired me?”
Rick put his arm on her shoulder and said, “Don’t fret. Dad gives me a free hand when it comes to business, as long as I actually tend to business. He just frowns on my spending time in the lab or with workers like Joe or our chief scientist, Dr. Pedri.”
As Thaddeus Starr emerged from his own office, Rick started to introduce Myra to his father but was interrupted when Thaddeus began to talk in a rapid manner. “Rick, my boy, bad business — past Pluto,” he said. “The Heinlein Asteroid Project.”
Rick guided the blustering old man inside the office and said, “Slow down, Dad. You sound like a rocket with a leaky engine.”
Thaddeus Starr nodded and led his son ease him down into a large desk chair behind a curved and shining desk. “I’m sorry, Rick. I guess I’m a bit concerned about this latest setback. As you know, we were trying to set up an interim workstation on that asteroid. All efforts to do so seem to have failed. The crew has not responded to any messages. It’s like that infernal sea of space rock just swallowed them up like some kind of Bermuda Triangle of outer space!”
Myra observed that the elder Starr was a portly man with white hair and a mustache. She could see that he was slightly out of breath, and it seemed to her that any exertion seemed to take a real toil on him. Rick doesn’t want to risk causing his Dad any injury by upsetting him, she thought as she glanced back and forth from father to son. That’s why he’s putting aside his own wishes to work for the family business. I admire his selflessness. He’s certainly not spineless — he just cares so much about other people.
“Dad, Dr. Pedri was with the group you sent to set up a base there,” Rick said. “You know he’s my friend. If something is wrong, I want to help him.”
Thaddeus Starr nodded and said, “I understand. I may look on Pedri as someone you should treat more like an employee than a social equal, but I know you like the old Martian. I am sorry, Rick. I should have thought of that before just bellowing out the news. Pedri’s party has not responded to our efforts to reach them. The homing beacon indicates that their ship reached the asteroid past Pluto, but none of the crew is responsive.”
“We have to send a search party out,” said Rick.
“Perhaps the Space Patrol could help,” suggested Myra.
Rick explained, “Myra Mason is my new assistant. I guess her first day is going to be a busy one.”
“Welcome aboard, young lady,” said Thaddeus. “Rick, the girl is bright. I already summoned the Patrol. They are sending officers out there even as we speak.”
Rick said, “I’ll head out there now, too.”
Thaddeus Starr shook his head. “I thought I made myself clear when we talked after you reached the North American Space Station. I’m proud of what you did on the Comet, but you received a lot of press coverage. Your heroics made me proud as a father but gave me an ulcer as a CEO. Son, you know we have billions of employees to think of, and stockholders, too. I can’t have them perceive my heir — the future head of Allied Solar Enterprises — as some thrill-seeking daredevil like that Adam Strange fellow from back in the 20th century. You can’t put all we’ve built here at risk by earning a reputation as a risky adventurer. That’s why I disapproved of your racing around the universe in those fancy rockets of yours. Promise me Rick Starr will settle down and become the type of stolid, stable executive our investors may rely upon.”
Rick hesitated as he heard his father’s rather labored breathing and noticed his red complexion. “You have my word. Rick Starr won’t be a daredevil.”
Thaddeus smiled and said, “Good. Don’t worry. I’ll let you know when the Patrol calls in from the asteroid.”
Myra closed the door behind them as she followed Rick into his private elevator and down to the vehicle bay. Rick spoke into a wristcom and said, “Jones, get the shuttle ready. I’m headed for MarsCity to take the Solar King and its new vector engines for a test.”
As he signed off, he looked over to Myra, who was watching him with a knowing gaze. She said, “You had your fingers crossed behind your back when you made that promise.”
“I can’t put Dad’s heath in jeopardy. Mother made me promise to look out for him when she died. But I can’t turn my back on a friend like Dr. Pedri, either. I’ll make sure Dad and the universe thinks of Rick Starr as a solid citizen and businessman, but I’m going to rescue that missing party on my own terms — just not as the heir to Allied Solar Enterprises. ”
Myra frowned and said, “I don’t understand.”
Rick winked at her and said, “You will.”
Later, Rick Starr sat within the pilot’s chair of a sleek gold and red spacecraft known as the Solar King. He wore a golden and red flight suit with a modified enviro helmet that obscured his features to any observer but remained clear from his perspective. He guided the ship expertly and calmly adjusted the flight path.
“Myra, I built the lab back outside MarsCity during my college days,” he said to his only passenger. “I inherited a large personal fortune when my mother died, and I used it to secretly construct the base we just left. Joe Jones helps me there with various experiments. The Solar King is based on designs of my own, as are the weapons contained in my utility belt. I invented them all with only a vague purpose in mind. I wanted to help people, have adventure, and see the galaxy. I never imagined I’d seriously get the chance, since I always knew how Dad would feel about it. I suppose by using this helmet to conceal my identity, I may at least be able to help poor Dr. Pedri and the others on the Heinlein Asteroid without causing any shock or harm to Dad.”
Myra Mason nodded as she listened intently. “The lab was wonderful,” she said. “I can see why you love it so. Perhaps you could keep using it and doing the things you want after this mission. You don’t have to let people know your real name. Isn’t that the way some of the heroes of the past operated? You could call yourself something like Star Knight or Space Ranger.”
Rick smiled and replied, “Space Ranger — I like that very much. I also appreciate your support. No one except for Joe and Dr. Pedri ever gave me the kind of encouragement you have. You are a special woman.”
He frowned as he scanned the controls on the ship’s main console. “We’re drawing close to the asteroid belt that contains the Heinlein Asteroid,” he said. “Dad planned to build a basic station for the company on it. It would serve employees in a number of ways. Those travelling to the outer systems could use it for medical needs, stocking up on supplies, repairing their ships, and getting a bit of needed rest. Now I’m afraid it may have cost those poor men and women their lives. The Space Patrol team didn’t report back in, either, so something strange is happening there.”
Myra peered through the view screen and said, “It’s amazing how quickly we reached the destination. Your overdrive system is truly remarkable.”
Rick nodded and said, “Everything I invented has been designed to help me with my dream of being more than a mere businessman. Like I said, I kept all the technology to myself because I don’t care about making more money. I want to do something worthwhile with my life.”
The starship passed through an increasingly congested sea of asteroids that required skillful navigation. The man now calling himself Space Ranger seemed unconcerned as he guided his ship with almost casual ease. “Myra, I have a detector that registers life forms of various origins,” he said. “Dr. Pedri is a Martian, and he — or perhaps I should say — a Martian is ahead.”
Myra frowned as she saw something shiny below. “Space Ranger — better get used to calling you that — there is a tiny ship gleaming from that small asteroid to the right.”
Space Ranger adjusted a dial on the console and said, “Strange — I can tell you that craft is not one of our Allied Solar ships. Of course, that small asteroid is not the Heinlein, anyway. I don’t want to risk leaving someone in need if I can help it. I’m landing the Solar King.”
He piloted the spacecraft to a smooth landing and released the straps that secured him to the captain’s chair. “Stay here. I want to check things out. That ship is a mystery to me — I don’t think it has anything to do with our mission, but I can’t resist looking over the scene a bit more closely.”
Myra hugged him briefly and whispered, “Good luck.”
He exited the vehicle through an airlock and made his way across the rocky landscape until he reached a damaged rocket. No occupant — and yet I detect signs of life nearby, he thought as he read the enviro scan data that flashed across the interior of his specialized helmet.
Space Ranger gasped as he saw a small figure nearly encased within an icy sheath. “Great suns!” he said. “That little fellow must have been the ship’s owner. Whatever happened to his ship came so suddenly, he was frozen solid! Fortunately, he’s still alive.” He approached the odd sight and began using a unique ray gun to melt away the ice. The multi-weapon was one of my best ideas, he thought. It can be adjusted to generate several different energy forms with numerous desired effects. A mild thermo beam should liberate the alien without harming him.
The tiny pink alien was plump, and his innocent childlike features were distinguished by a horn-like nose. “Th-th-th-thank you!” he stammered as Space Ranger revived him and helped him escape from his melting prison.
“Take it easy, friend,” he said. “Being flash-frozen is nothing to laugh off. You’ll be OK soon. Just don’t become alarmed. I’ll refuel your ship, and you can be on your way.”
“You saved my life — I’ll repay you if it takes twenty life cycles!” said the grateful little alien. “My name is Cryll. I ran out of fuel and was stranded here. The ice just overwhelmed me. I didn’t have time to make the proper metabolic change to resist it.”
Not understanding what he meant by metabolic change, Space Ranger smiled and carried the stricken alien to his small craft after placing some fuel pellets within its appropriate slot. “Cryll, my name is Space Ranger. No thanks are necessary. Have a safe flight.” He gave the alien a goodbye salute.
As Space Ranger returned to his own ship, he failed to notice Cryll — who could change his body at will, altering not only his shape but also his mass and chemical makeup — abruptly alter his form until he had become a small insect with purple wings. The altered alien flew after his rescuer and entered the Solar King unseen by either of its occupants.
I’ll pay you back one way or another, thought the appreciative little shape changer.