As Space Ranger guided the Solar King toward the Heinlein Asteroid, a flying object suddenly rushed upward from below.
“Great Suns! That thing resembles a roc from ancient Earth myths,” said Space Ranger as the huge bird swooped ever closer to the rocket.
“It seemed to just materialize out of thin air!” gasped Myra. “Was it invisible?”
Space Ranger shook his head. “I don’t think so… although sensors indicate something equally strange — it has no respiration or heart beat,” he said as he steered the Solar King away from the weird creature’s flight path.
Myra cried, “Space Ranger — it’s going to catch the rocket in its talons!”
Space Ranger nodded and said, “I tried an evasive move, but it was too fast — almost too fast to be believed, but it is not a mirage.” He turned to her and said, “Stay calm, Myra. It is taking us down. We’ll just go along for the ride and bide our time. I suppose this may lead us to Dr. Pedri. The sensor scans indicate a Martian is directly below us.”
He frowned as the space roc dropped down and lowered the rocket to a barren rocky surface where a few strange beings came into view. “A cage!” he said. “I think I see a crude cage full of people. One seems to be my friend Dr. Pedri, and the others are the members of the Allied Solar party. Three others are wearing uniforms of Space Patrol officers.”
The roc released the Solar King and then faded away from view.
“It became invisible!” said Myra.
Space Ranger said, “I think it merely faded out of existence at the command of its master.”
As he helped Myra descend from the Solar King, he whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Someone clearly captured the others in the same way they caught us. We’ll figure out a solution.”
A dozen humanoids with light blue skin and shaggy white manes approached the newcomers even as the caged Dr. Pedri cried out a warning. “Run!” said the old Martian scientist. “If you remain here, they will imprison you as well!”
Space Ranger replied, “Don’t worry, sir. We’re here to rescue all of you.” He said, “The universal translator in my helmet should enable us to communicate with them.” As he slowly scanned the environment, carefully noting the way the rocky terrain abruptly changed to a more marsh-like surface, he said in a deliberate tone, “I am Space Ranger. I mean you no harm.”
He groaned as his mind was suddenly filled with the thoughts of the humanoids. He realized that he was not under attack, but the effect of receiving mental projections from multiple beings at one time was painful. He struggled to clear his thoughts, and after a few moments his keen brain succeeded. They don’t really communicate except through a crude form of hive mentality, he thought. They don’t possess any real individuality. What one wants, they all want.
Space Ranger said, “They keep thinking about a god that will protect them from us. Clearly, someone else is in charge of these simple beings.”
Myra gasped as bars formed around them. “A cage! It’s like the one that’s holding the others.”
Space Ranger shook the bars, but they were unyielding. “They materialized around us, just as that roc was similarly conjured up out of empty space,” he mused. “Remarkable! These beings — or their unseen god — apparently can alter matter at will.”
Myra said, “Oh, Ranger, what can we do?”
Space Ranger gently took her hand and said, “I have a plan.”
From within the other cage, a burly Space Patrol officer yelled, “We arrived to help the members of an Allied Solar Enterprises party, but our cruiser was snatched out of space — out of orbit — by a monster. We were caged before we could even fire a shot.”
Space Ranger nodded as he reached down and opened his utility belt. He handed Myra two small plugs and said, “Put these in your ears. My helmet will protect me if I make a slight adjustment.”
As Myra complied with her friend’s wishes, Space Ranger activated a tiny sphere that he hurled through the bars of the cage toward the aliens. A high-pitched siren began to wail, and the aliens cried out in pain as they hastily withdrew. A sonic screamer, thought Space Ranger. It has limited duration but may buy us time. Unfortunately, the bars didn’t fade away. I’d hoped if the aliens were unable to concentrate, their mental projections would dissipate. Clearly, once they conjure something up, it remains until they choose to destroy it.
He noticed that the Space Patrol officers still had their blasters, and he quickly deduced that energy blasts would not melt the cage bars. They would have been free by now had conventional weapons been of use against this material, he thought.
Space Ranger reached into his belt and clipped a narrow metallic nozzle to his multi-weapon. I’ve attached a dissolverizer setting to the gun. It should temporarily disrupt the composition of the bars on a molecular level. That will give us time to escape. He aimed the gun at the cage and smiled with satisfaction as it dissolved the bars long enough to enable the couple to step through to freedom.
“The bars re-formed behind us!” said Myra, looking back after their escape.
Space Ranger nodded and said, “The aliens are returning, too, now that the sonic screamer stopped working.”
Myra said, “What should we do? Can we fight them off?”
Space Ranger said, “They aren’t the real threat. The only way to resolve this crisis is to settle things with their god. I was able to pick up enough raw data from their minds when they first approached us to realize that they rely entirely on a mysterious god, and that god’s temple is found above us at the top of the ridge.”
He scooped Myra up into his arms and activated a thin jetpack that rested compactly against his back. They soared directly up to the top of the ridge, where a mist obscured their surroundings. “We missed the ridge, or a clear view of it, because of the way that space roc dropped us down so swiftly.”
Myra screamed, “Space Ranger — they’re coming for us! Look!” She pointed downward to where the blue aliens were scurrying up the slope.
“They don’t want us on their sacred ground,” he said. “We have to move quickly.”
Myra shrieked as a large, gold-scaled reptile swooped into view. “A Uranian Claw Dragon!” she said.
The Claw Dragon smiled broadly and said, “Don’t worry, friends! It’s me, Cryll! I can change shape at will. I’ll hold off those aliens while you search for their god. I owe you my life, and I won’t let you down.”
Space Ranger smiled and said, “Amazing! You followed me. I can see you’re a clever fellow.”
Cryll flew down, scattered the blue aliens, and laughed merrily. “This is more fun than a game of Jovian ring toss!” he cried.
Space Ranger scowled as he saw a strange assortment of charred and twisted metals half-buried in the soil. These ruins apparently house their god, he thought. Who or what he is — is a real mystery. I can’t say I recognize the origin of these ruins. The wreckage may have come from a ship, but I can’t make any sense of its original design structure. Perhaps if I took some of it back to the Solar King‘s atom sequencer for partial reassembly…
Myra stepped gingerly over some broken shards of metal and stooped down to get a closer look at a seemingly intact object. “Ranger, is that what it appears to be? A hat?” she asked.
Space Ranger nodded and said, “It is an ancient helmet of some kind. I don’t see any living being around.”
Myra drew back as a serpentine form began to appear. “A snake — did it crawl out of that helmet?” she asked as she jumped backward.
Space Ranger shook his head as he blasted the serpent with his dissolverizer. “Not exactly,” he said. “It was formed out of thin air like the space roc and the cages. It was formed by that helmet. Apparently the helmet can create matter-inanimate constructs — non-living constructs like the roc — from thin air.”
Myra said, “Their god is creating these things to protect them, but where is he?”
Space Ranger grabbed the helmet and held it up as Cryll dived into view and resumed his normal form.
The little alien panted for breath as he said, “They’re coming! Couldn’t keep them back. They’re as frantic as madmen.”
Space Ranger said, “They are afraid that something will happen to their god.”
Myra said, “We’re surrounded. The air is shimmering. What terrible thing is that god conjuring up now?”
Space Ranger said, “Nothing. Not while I’m holding their god.”
The blue aliens waited in fear and confusion as Space Ranger held the helmet in one hand. “There is no god,” he shouted. “I don’t know the origin of this helmet or the wreckage around it, but clearly it landed here after a ship crashed or something hurled the matter through space. The helmet is nothing more than an invention. It responds to thoughts or mental commands and creates whatever the thinker concentrates on. These simple aliens found it — perhaps centuries ago — and they received whatever they thought about.
“Their needs were simple. They were hungry or cold, and their unique hive mentality activated the helmet from afar to create food or shelter or tools. They worship the helmet because in their culture it provides for them and apparently has for generations. They come here to offer their worship, and it responds to their thoughts by creating what they need from thin air. There is nothing magic about it. When the party arrived from Allied Solar, they thought of defensive tactics, and the helmet responded to their mental commands by creating the space roc, and later it created the cages.”
Myra said, “Why aren’t they using it against us now?”
Space Ranger said, “Because I am using my mind to order the helmet to do nothing. My mind is stronger than their minds are. I’m going to use it to free the others, and then we’ll depart. I don’t think we need to disturb them again. There are other asteroids that could be used for the base.”
Cryll smiled and said, “You mean you won’t use the helmet for yourself? You could become rich, or rule them as a king.”
Space Ranger said, “I’m not that kind of man. I want them to be left in peace.” A beam of energy suddenly struck him from out of the mists, and he grunted in pain.
“What a touching sentiment,” cried a newcomer who stepped out of the mist. “Too bad I don’t share it.”
“Norvo the Cunning!” cried Myra as she raced over to the fallen Ranger.
“At your service, my beauty,” said the Jovian pirate as he emerged to face them and scooped up the fallen helmet.
Norvo the Cunning grinned wickedly as he brandished the helmet. “You shamed me before the galaxy,” he said. “Your heroics on that liner threatened to ruin my reputation. I escaped from the prison infirmary on Asteroid Z and managed to track you down. The press coverage you received made it easy to locate your corporate headquarters and then follow you here, although I must say your rocket is remarkably swift.”
Space Ranger groaned as he struggled to regain his footing. Myra had rushed to his side and began to help him to his feet. He knows who I am, he mused. I can always transfer my MarsCity equipment to another location. I know of a larger space on an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, but for now I’d better clear my thoughts and stop this pirate once and for all.
Norvo said, “Your fancy costume won’t save you. I overheard what you said about this helmet. It will be a wonderful weapon and an ironic means of ending your life.”
As the air in front of the helmet crackled, Myra gasped. But, to her relief, nothing else happened.
“You may be called the Cunning,” said Space Ranger, “but your mind is weak compared to my own. I can control the helmet from a distance. It won’t work for you as long I am able to stop you.”
Norvo cursed and hurled the helmet at the hero, then raised his own blaster. He wore heavy protective goggles over his bulbous eyes, which had been injured in the battle on the liner. The air suddenly solidified around the gun, and it exploded into the alien’s hand.
“You made a protective shield with the helmet!” cried Cryll.
Space Ranger nodded as he moved closer to the injured pirate. “Exactly. I think we can end this now. The helmet is staying here with the natives. I’m going to adjust it so it will only work for their minds. They can use it for their traditional means, and all of us will leave them in peace.”
Norvo scowled and began to race down the far side of the slope. Space Ranger cried out a warning seconds before the alien suddenly disappeared within a marsh. “Wait!” he shouted. “That bog won’t support your great mass!”
Myra said, “He’ll die in that marsh!”
Space Ranger shook his head and vowed, “Not if I can save him.” He dived into the swampy marsh, and as seconds passed, Myra and Cryll watched with concern.
“I’m going in!” cried Cryll, but before the small alien could make a move, Space Ranger erupted from the marsh with the stunned Norvo over one shoulder.
“Good thing my jetpack was still working after the laser blast I received from Norvo, or we would both have been out of luck,” he said as he dropped the pirate on solid ground.
“You saved his life!” cried an excited Cryll. “Way to go, Ranger!”
Myra sighed with relief as Space Ranger walked up the slope toward his friends. “I was worried for a minute, there. What now? Are you going to free the others and turn Norvo over to the Space Patrol?”
Space Ranger said, “Yes, but only after I remove his memories of following me from Earth. I want to keep this identity secure for future use.”
Cryll frowned and said, “How can you make him forget your real name?”
Space Ranger winked at the small alien and said, “On board my ship is an invention of mine which was designed to exert an effect on the mind. It was designed merely to tap into one’s memories and withdraw information that might be used in an investigation. It can only tap into recent memories, but I can modify it and erase the specific memories of Norvo’s knowledge that Rick Starr is Space Ranger or that he ever saw me here in costume.”
Cryll said, “Do you want to do that to me? I heard your name, too.”
Space Ranger shook his head. “No. I want to ask you to join us as our partner. I’ll need a good friend to help run my new base. Even though I can make Norvo forget about the one he tracked us to, I’m going to relocate to a larger one, and you’d be perfect to help me run the place.”
Cryll jumped up and down with excitement. “You got a deal!” he squealed.
Later, after Space Ranger had liberated the others, eliminated the memories from Norvo’s mind, and turned him in to the Space Patrol officers, he smiled at Myra and said, “I left the helmet in its old location. I altered it so it can’t be used by anyone other than one of the natives. They deserve the right to live in peace. I’ll convince Dad to set up base on another nearby asteroid.”
“This was all very exciting,” said Myra. “Did you ever figure out the origin of that helmet or the wreckage that surrounded it?”
“I think so,” said Rick Starr, removing the clear helmet he used as Space Ranger. “My analysis indicated that a mixture of Thanagarian, old Martian, and Kryptonian designs were used in the construction of the wreckage. It came from an old satellite or spacecraft. I can only conjecture that it may have been a base used by the legendary Justice League of the twentieth century. I know of no other possible combination of natives of those worlds. They may have stored that helmet in their trophy room, only to have it cast through space after some disaster that damaged or destroyed their headquarters.”
Myra said, “Amazing! With you around, our own era will have its own champion.”
Space Ranger took her hand and said, “I hope so. Being Space Ranger will give me the purpose my life lacked before, and it will also enable me to safeguard Dad’s health by keeping my exploits separate from my Rick Starr identity.”
Cryll clapped his hands eagerly and said, “This is going to be great!”