by Goose Gansler
The planet Zarria had seen better days. The scientifically advanced world had developed a wide range of complex technologies over the years. Once, that technology had been mainly used toward the advancement of its citizens; now that technology was used to repress its citizens. The knowledge and power of Zarria was in the hands of the Galaxy Crimeteers. They ruled over all of Zarria. Ruling over the Crimeteers was their chief Zunial. He had well-earned his sobriquet of the Murder Man.
Zarria had long been the home of the Crimeteers. For decades, it had based its space piracy operations here. Though constantly hounded by the law enforcement agencies, most notably the Peace Vigilantes, they had successfully continued to raid neighboring star systems. Now their operations had spread galaxy-wide, with even greater opportunities in sight.
Within the plastometal walls of the chancellor’s palace, the high chancellor of Zarria, the diabolical Zunial, held court. Gathered before him were many of his brethren. To the non-Zarrian, it was difficult to tell them all apart. Male and female Zarrian alike were bald, but Zunial’s sinister features made him stand out in any gathering. His red and purple tunic was sequined with gaudy jewels, displaying his wealth and power. Perhaps some of the treasures displayed before him might become part of some other outfit of his.
“A fine collection for this week,” Zunial noted with approval. “You are to be commended for your efforts.” He tried to effect the cultivated tone that he felt a ruler should have, but his reputation as the Murder Man defeated that effort. “I find it acceptable.” With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the operatives who had brought him his customary twenty-five-percent share. The Crimeteers saluted and departed. Once they were gone, Zunial’s underlings began gathering up the treasure to be placed in Zunial’s personal vaults. “It’s good to be the ruler,” he cackled.
In an underground base far from the palace, another Zarrian was thinking thoughts along the same lines. His name was Thorz, and he had once been the leader of Zarria, rightfully elected and righteously ruling. Now he was simply the headman of what remained of the Peace Vigilantes, the only organized resistance to Zunial’s despotic rule.
Zarria’s brief golden age under Thorz’s leadership had come to an all-too-quick end. When the Superman of Earth had outwitted Zunial, it had given the long-beleaguered Peace Vigilantes the opportunity to finally defeat the Crimeteer organization that had plagued their world for far too long. (*) With Thorz at the helm and Zunial imprisoned, it seemed likely that the Peace Vigilantes would finally wipe out the Crimeteers. However, the tendrils of the Galaxy Crimeteers had reached further into Zarria than the Peace Vigilantes had ever known. Even from his imprisonment, Zunial was able to orchestrate events that led to the collapse of Thorz’s government.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The School for Superman Assassins,” Superman #188 (July, 1966).]
Now the Crimeteers were in control of Zarria, operating openly and brazenly. It served as a base and a haven for their allies across numerous star systems. Despite all this, the Peace Vigilantes had not given up hope. Thorz had not allowed them to give up hope. To give in to despair would be to admit defeat, and Thorz would not admit defeat.
Laid out across a plastometal table were plans for the capital city’s spaceport. Huddled around the table were the sub-headmen of various local Peace Vigilante teams. This meeting had to be in person. They could not risk a hyperwave teleconference for fear of the Crimeteers detecting them.
“Our guerilla tactics are no longer sufficient,” Thorz intoned. It was not a statement of despair, but simply one of fact. “Our progress is too slow towards squashing the Crimeteers. We will need off-world help.”
“If only we could reach the Terran Superman,” one of the sub-headmen sighed. “He could mop them up.”
“Even if we could reach an interstellar communicator system, we would never be able to breach the Phase Zone barrier that the Crimeteers have built around our sector of space,” Thorz countered. In the struggle against the Crimeteers, the Peace Vigilantes had learned that the villains had effectively stolen the entire sector from the rest of the universe. Looking from outside of the sector, it appeared that the sector did not even exist anymore.
“To enlist aid for our world, and all the others that the Crimeteers are looting, we will need to reach that aid physically,” Thorz continued. He drew his hands over the map of the spaceport. “The Crimeteers have become lax in protecting the spaceport. With a quick raid, striking here and here.” He pointed to certain places on the map around the entrance to the spaceport’s landing field. “We should be able to overcome security and reach the one-man flyers. Hopefully, a few of us will be able to get the ships out of the atmosphere and away from Zarria.”
“And then what?” one of the Peace Vigilantes asked.
“Then we strike off to Earth and the nearest CosPol bases.” Thorz handed out slips of paper with the coordinates of each. “The course to each is quite distinct, so that should keep us separated in case of pursuit.”
“Even with the laxness of the Crimeteers, it won’t be an easy job invading the spaceport. They’ll be heavily armed,” the veteran Yamir argued.
“True,” Thorz nodded. “That’s why I propose we utilize the last remaining energy of the protection lamps and armor up as the Metalman Corps, or at east as many of us that can before the charge runs out.”
“Are we that desperate?” Vodon asked, although he already knew the answer.
“Our numbers grow smaller every day,” Thorz stated sadly. “Our operations are having a diminishing effect on the Crimeteers. The people have begun to acquiesce to Zunial’s rule. We must act while we have a chance, or else our fate is sealed.”
Thorz looked around the table, and he could see the grudging acknowledgement from all those gathered. “We’ll go under lamp, in order of seniority, while the charge holds out.”
The Peace Vigilantes rose from their seats and formed a line as Thorz had instructed. They marched into the next room where the last functional Metalman converter was. Thorz was the first to step under the lamp of the heat-treatment booth. The lamp bathed him with its rays, temporarily imbuing his body with the power to withstand extreme heat. This was necessary for the second step of the process. He moved onto the second chamber, and the polymetallic coating process began. The superheated liquid metal was applied to his body in an exacting fashion. The coating formed a suit of flexible but highly protective armor. Thorz stepped out of the chamber to allow the next Peace Vigilante to undergo the process.
After all too short of a time, the charge of the device ran out. In all, ten of the Peace Vigilantes had undergone the process and were now Metalmen. All of the Peace Vigilantes, Metalman and unarmored, had armed themselves with plasma rifles. The plans was set. It was time to strike at the spaceport.
A few minutes later, the Peace Vigilantes were deployed all around the spaceport. They kept to the shadows under Zarria’s star-filled sky. As had been anticipated in the plan, the guard seemed noticeably weaker at the selected points. A quick status check informed Thorz that everyone was in position. Only one thing needed to be said now, and that word was, “Go.”
The Peace Vigilantes emerged from hiding in the barrage of plasma fire. The armored Metalmen took the point in each of the subgroups. They headed for the guard stations situated at various points around the electro-fence ringing the spaceport. The Crimeteers’ security detail was taken completely by surprise. Plasma blasts from the Vigilantes’ weapons dropped a number of the gray-uniformed guards.
The guards were able to raise the alarm and begin to return fire. However, a number of Metalmen, Thorz among them, had already broken through the perimeter and were dashing toward the spaceflyers parked on the tarmac. There were a group of six ships arrayed together. Vigilantes hurried into these while others provided cover fire, keeping themselves between the ships and the regrouping guards.
Inside one of the spaceflyers, Thorz raced over the controls to warm up the ship for launch. He had to restrain himself from looking out the viewport to watch the battle outside. A few stray blasts struck the hull of the shop, but the plating held. Soon, all indicators on the control board showed green. Thorz placed his armored hands on the navigation pads and launched.
Thorz’s flyer was soon joined by the other five stolen ships. He allowed himself a look below, but from his rapidly increasing altitude, all he could see was the streaks of weapons fire. He focused his attention on the task ahead. There would potentially be some Crimeteer spacecraft in orbit or on approach to Zarria. They would have to be avoided or outmaneuvered. These flyers did not pack much in terms of weaponry — nowhere near enough if a Crimeteer pirateship was encountered.
Soon Thorz was clear of the atmosphere, and the beautiful darkness of outer space appeared. Opening a comm-channel to the other flyers, he barked a quick word. “One.” There was a reply of “One,” two of “Two,” and two of “Three.” The numbers corresponded to the three different destinations the plan had included. For his part, Thorz was headed to Earth.
Fortunately for the spaceborne Vigilantes, there weren’t any Crimeteer ships in orbit about Zarria. They managed to get away from the planet unscathed. However, there were Crimeteer craft in the system, and a hyperwave transmission from Zunial’s palace staff ordered those ships into pursuit. Most of the enemy ships sped to track the four Vigilantes headed for CosPol bases. Only one pirateship was on an intercept course for Thorz and his Earth-bound compatriot.
“Volgercram,” Thorz cursed. He needed to get clear of the star system before he could safely engage the hyperdrive. With the pirateship’s closing speed, they wouldn’t get that chance. The tactical screen showed his vector as well as that of his compatriot and the pirateship. The intersection point was well short of the area in which the hyperdrive could be engaged.
It was time to take evasive action. Thorz calculated that if he could draw off the pirateship, his comrade could clear the system and go to hyperdrive. His hands went to the controls when he checked the tactical screen. Apparently his fellow Peace Vigilantes had thought of the same idea but had implemented first. Already, the other spaceflyer was slowing down slightly and veering off course.
Thorz silently thanked his friend for his courage. He hoped it wouldn’t also mean a sacrifice on his friend’s part. The pirateship continued to close, but decided to engage the other spaceflyer first. Warning shots were fired, and the grappling beams were activated. The other spaceflyer did its best to evade the pirateship in order to provide Thorz every precious second to get out of the system.
Sadly, the spaceflyer could not avoid the pirateship for long. Grappling beams pulled the spaceflyer into the larger craft’s hold. Now the pirateship turned its attention to Thorz.
Thorz checked the hyperdrive control. It would only be a few more seconds before the ship would be clear of the confounding gravitational forces of the system. However, the pirateship was already bearing down on him. Warning shots came perilously close. It had to be done now. Thorz slammed the activator button, and the hyperdrive kicked in.
The entire spaceflyer shuddered and rattled as the ship transitioned to hyperspeed. Systems short-circuited, and control boards arced. Thorz was thrown backward into his chair. The spaceflyer was now clear of the pirateship, but it was still in danger.
Thorz struggled to get his hands back to the controls. He hoped he was on course, but it was difficult to tell right now amidst the chaos. Some of the tracking systems were down because of the premature jump. For the next few minutes, Thorz looked futilely over the control boards, trying to make sense of the readouts. The spaceflyer continued to shake and buckle, but the intensity was beginning to wane.
Suddenly, alarm bells began to ring out, indicating that the ship was dropping out of hyperspeed. It was too early for that, Thorz thought. The journey to Earth should have take much longer. Perhaps because I engaged the drive early, I got an extra jump, he mused.
The ship reentered normal space a few hundred thousand kilometers from a green and blue planet. The long-range scanner showed that the vast majority of the surface was covered by water, and only a small fraction was land. The atmosphere’s composition was predominately nitrogen and oxygen. These seemed to be in line with his expectations. The ship continued to travel toward the planet with the intertial speed that it had before the hyperspeed transition. Thorz’s commands to reduce velocity were going unheeded by the engines. Gritting his teeth beneath his armored shell, Thorz tried the secondary control systems, but the engines would not respond to them, either.
“This will teach me never to engage hyperdrive early,” Thorz muttered sarcastically. He shut off all power to the engines. That didn’t help, since the ship’s momentum in frictionless space remained the same. He diverted all that power to the heat-shields, the force-screens, and the structural stabilizers. Without any way to reduce speed, he would be going in hard. Pushing all those systems to the maximum, he hoped that he would be able to survive impact.
The spaceflyer entered the atmosphere, and the heat-shields began absorbing the hellish intensity of friction. The ship’s velocity began to diminish, but not by much. Thorz made sure all of his personal restraints were in place and hoped for the best.
As the ship neared the surface, automatic features programmed by the Crimeteers came to life. The forward weapons began blasting away at full intensity, intent on wiping out anything in front of it before impact. The beams cut through the ground, creating a tunnel for the ship. Of course, the tunnel began collapsing upon itself immediately, buffeting the ship with debris of dirt and rock.
Thorz was only barely cognizant of what was going on. His only thoughts were of survival, of securing aid for his beleaguered world. For miles and miles, the ship traveled through the interior of this world. While the spaceflyer was losing momentum, its weapons were losing powers. It was uncertain which would run out first.
Fortunately for Thorz, both ran out at virtually the same time. It was just at the moment that the ship broke through the surface on the other side of the world. The spaceflyer had tunneled from one side of the globe to the other. Thorz then slumped into unconsciousness.