THE STAR HUNTER
Certain death faced Mason if he ventured into the untracked Outer Marches of the galaxy; yet if he didn’t go the galaxy itself would die!
Original magazine blurb for Space Travel (formerly Imaginative Tales) September 1958
THE WRATH of the King of Orion flamed across the void.
Out from the Hyades sped his hunters, and from Mintaka, and Saiph and Aldebaran, grim ships of war sped headlong between the stars in vengeful search for the small and secret ship that had dared violate their domain.
The coded messages of anger and alarm flashed far away. And across the galaxy the star-empires heard, and alertly watched their own frontiers. The Kingdom of Cassiopeia, the federated Barons of Hercules who held a thousand suns and worlds, the Kings of Leo and Hydra and Draco, all these and a score of smaller realms clear away to the Marches of Outer Space sent forth their fleets to watch, jealous of the great empire of Orion, and more jealous still of the equally great and far older Terran Empire whose ship it was that the hunters hunted.
The fleeing ship was a Class Five Scout of the Terran Navy, a tiny toy craft compared to the great cruisers and heavies that pursued it. Its guns were popguns, it had hardly any armor, but it could go fast. It was going very fast now, a mote of metal flying toward the Terran frontier. But, Hugh Mason knew with fatal knowledge, it was not fast enough.
“We haven’t got a prayer,” said Stack. Redeyed and unshaven, he did not look like the captain of a Scout as he stood with Mason behind the pilot in the little control-room. He looked like a tramp.
“Those cruisers behind can’t catch us,” said Mason.
“No, they can’t,” said Stack. “But what about the ones ahead? They’ll be fanning out from Aldebaran right now.”
Mason made no answer but his mouth tightened as he looked out the broad control-room window, the window that was really a complicated scanner translating scrambled-up rays into ordinary light.
The light of a million stars beat upon him from the titanic panorama of stellar glare and cosmic gloom. Amid the abyssal lamps of sapphire blue and diamond white and smoky orange there glowed like a friendly beacon the whitish-green magnificence of Sirius, and beyond it the far yellow spark of Sol, old capital of the Terran Empire and the fountainhead from which man had spread through the galaxy. But closer and almost dead ahead was the blood-colored flare of Aldebaran, whose system was near the limits of the Orionid Empire.
Mason had often wondered how this stupefying vista had looked to the first men who had gone out from Sol to colonize the galaxy, thousands of years ago. Their frail star-ships had been borne out into the great deeps by their courage and faith, their dream of a peopled galaxy living in peace under universal law. But the dream had crumbled. One center of government could not hold the whole galaxy. The independent kingdoms had sprung up, rejecting the authority of the Terran Empire, yet taking old Terran titles of royalty for their chosen sovereigns. Oldest, biggest, was the Terran Empire that still would have no sovereign except its elected Council. But others were almost as strong, and their kings yearned for greater glory, like Janissar of Orion.
Thinking of that, Mason’s hands clenched upon a stanchion. Between his teeth, he said,
“We’ve got to get Oliphant back to Terra before he dies. He’s the key to everything.”
Stack shrugged hopelessly. “Aldebaran is one of Orion’s main fleet bases. They’ll know we’re coming. Communic beams are faster than ships.”
Mason said harshly, “I know all that. In case you’ve forgotten, I was a flight officer before I went into Intelligence.”
Stack flushed “No offense Mason turned then. He was thirty-two and he felt like a hundred-and-two, a dark man with stubble on his face and a desperation in his eyes. He said,
“We’re both beat to pieces. Forget my crack. If we start slandering each other, we’re licked. We’ve got to think fast.”
Stack gestured toward the great star ahead that like a bloody eye watched them come.
“Their cruisers will fan out east, west, zenith and nadir from Aldebaran. We have to go around Aldebaran’s planetary system, yet if we swing wide around their cruiser screens we’ll run into ships coming up from Aleph and Charmar.”
Mason looked at the star-blazing firmament and said, “Once past Aldebaran, the Terran frontier isn’t far. But you’re right, we can’t swing wide around their cruiser screens.”
“So we have to hit their net and try to crash through it,” said Stack.
“They’d blow us out of space,” said Mason. His jaw tightened. “There’s only one hole, one way through them.”
“There won’t be any hole,” said Stack. “From Aldebaran system out every direction, they’ll be so tight a fly couldn’t get through—
Of a sudden, looking at Mason’s drawn face, he was silent. Then in an altered voice he said, “Now I get it. One hole. Right through Aldebaran’s planetary system itself.”
“That’s it,” nodded Mason.
Stack mapped his brow, and the pilot turned and flashed a startled glance at them. Stack said,
“You know what our chances will be, at these speeds?”
“I—know we haven’t any chance at all, any other way,” said Mason. “Set it up on the computers. I’m going back to see Oliphant.”
He left the crowded control-room and went back along the narrow companionway that was the axis of the SC-1419. A Scout-class starship had barely room for its machinery and its eight men. Its whole metal fabric seemed to vibrate in every atom from the thrust of its massive drive-units, as it bolted at milli-light-speeds toward the frontier.
Mason squeezed between towering ion-drive assemblies that smelled of hot metal, and into the tiny cubby where Oliphant lay strapped in a bunk. One of the crew, young Finetti, was sitting beside him and looked up at Mason.
“He’s worse,” said Finetti. “Pulse, respiration, everything”
“He hasn’t come to?”
“Not for a minute, ever since we picked him up,” said Finetti. He added, “I wish I could do more for him. I’m not a medic, just a spacer with six-months first-aid training.”
“You’re doing fine,” said Mason. He bent down over the bunk.
“Oliphant,” he said.
The man in the bunk did not answer. His thin face was gray and immobile, the eyes shut. There was only a faint rise and fall of the mass of bandages that swathed his whole torso.
He was a small man. But to Mason, he loomed gigantic. For Oliphant, his friend and superior, had done a thing no man in all the history of Terran Intelligence had done before. He had gone right into the throne-world of the Orionid Empire, deep in the Pleiades, in search of a secret, and he had come away again.
He hadn’t had to do it. He was high enough in the service to give the job to Mason or anyone else. But the peace of the galaxy was an uneasy one, with only the weight and power of the Terran Empire keeping the jealous star-kings from each other’s threats. And when the rumor had come from Orion, Oliphant himself had gone in to learn the truth.
A rumor, a whisper, filtering by devious channels across the void. The whisper had said that Janissar, King-Sovereign of Orion, was a happy man. That he was reaching toward a power, a weapon, a something, that would make Orion supreme. If he got it, if he used it to enlarge his empire; the peace of the galaxy would be torn to shreds. It might be only a baseless rumor. Oliphant had gone in to find out.
The Last of the Star Kings can be purchased from Futures Past Editions; the other two novels in the Star Kings trilogy can be found there as well as many more retro-future classics of science fiction.