Abel Brundage, Solar Ranger, shoved the throttle wide open, ignoring the tiny holographic figure of his commanding officer, which stalked back and forth across the control console of his patrol ship. The voice coming from his speakers drowned out the soul-stirring rumble of the anti-matter rockets.

"We can't have another hijacking in the Jovian system. And you're the only Ranger who can reach Iaptus in time to escort the payroll shipment. This is a direct order: you are personally responsible for taking all steps necessary to ensure the safe transit of the Charybdis." The tiny figure gestured emphatically.

Brundage nodded in agreement. "I understand. But I just got a distress call from the team exploring Charon; their ship is damaged, air and fuel almost gone, I'm the only one with a


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  chance to reach them in time. Can the shipment wait one Terran day?"

"Sorry, negative. The consortium insists this shipment has to go through now. They're in no mood to negotiate after last week's hijacking."

Brundage stood from the command chair and stared at the viewscreen, which was centered on a tiny distant point he knew to be Neptune. It glowed like a pink opal, redshifted by his furious acceleration toward it. "Sir, I can't let that research team die. Explorers like that are prying open the mysteries of our system--"

"You can load some emergency supplies on a drone for them, as long as you get to Iaptus in time to escort that shipment. Understood?"

He knew that wouldn't work; they didn't have sufficient fuel to recover even the most precisely-aimed drone. But he also knew his commanding officer didn't want to hear it. "Understood, sir. I'll just have to--"

"What you have to do is make sure nothing happens to that shipment or you will be relieved of duty immediately. Are we clear on that, Ranger?"

"Yes Sir." Brundage's answer was instant and toneless, his mind already furiously probing the edges of his dilemma, trying to find a way for him to be in two places at once. He signed off unceremoniously.

*****

The tiny figure on the console disappeared without a sound.

  A squat, three-armed Venusian named Din-Knoo manned the Comm Station of the liner "Charybdis." He had met Brundage before (when the Ranger had helped break up a ring of smugglers in the Asteroid belt) and greeted him warmly when he heard his voice coming through his headphones.

" Oh, Brundage ranger-friend, so most happy to hearing you be. Our escort you are hopes I?"

" Roger that, uh ... Din-Knoo, if I remember correctly."

" On the name that Roger, Brundage-friend! Docking and coming inside for hot chow will be you?"

" What? Oh, uh, thanks, but not this time, friend."

" Most delicious the algaecakes are, may say I?"

" That's tempting, but I need to stay here in case anything comes up. You're locked on my signal, correct?"

" True that is, Brundage-friend. Your security codes all OK are. Image your on screen oddly looks, though."

" Well, don't worry about that. Just a little cosmetic damage to the patrol ship from a previous mission. I'll get it fixed up after we reach Terra."

" Oakey-doakey, Brundage-friend, ready to leave are we. That Roger?"


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  " "Yes, Roger that, buddy."

*****

The team from the Solar Exploration Agency sat huddled in the cabin of their research ship, running only essential systems to preserve energy. Each of the five had tried various distractions--reading, music, exercise--but one-by-one they had gradually returned to the cabin and focused on the screen which would first detect any relief ship.

Rhonda Craig, captain of the team, forced a smile. "They'll get here. That Ranger confirmed our distress call--those Rangers don't mess around."

Planetologist Jason Labbe, ill-tempered under the best of circumstances, snorted. "Oh, they'll get here, all right, and save our data, no doubt about that. Of course, we'll all be dead by then."

Craig turned to cut him off, but stopped in mid-motion and pointed to the screen. "We've got company, folks. Osphir, try the Rangers' emergency band first."

Osphir, a lanky and dour Martian engineer, waggled her antennae mockingly at Labbe before turning to the radio controls.

*****

The wan light of the distant sun, reflected from the looming mass of Pluto

  which dominated the sky, painted the surface of Charon in shades of blue and silver. Brundage landed his patrol ship next to the research craft, on a stony ledge overlooking a lake of frozen ammonia. He connected the refueling pump to the research vessel quickly, his gauntleted hands making the connections with astonishing dexterity in the frigid darkness. As super-cooled darkmatter began flowing through the Kevlar hoses the Ranger returned to the gaping cargo hold of his patrol ship. Two members of the exploration team trying to connect a grappling ray had misaligned the receptor dish, a situation he quickly diagnosed and corrected.

Later he sat in the control room sipping good Mercurian coffee. He had removed both layers of his exo-armor, steam curled upward from the glistening skin of his shoulders and back.

" You should have everything you need for your trip back to Saturn, Captain."

Captain Craig gestured with her coffee bulb. "You're very thorough Ranger. The coffee is a luxury we never would have asked for. We're in your debt." She sipped from the bulb and smiled coyly.

" No problem, ma'am. Explorers deserve a little luxury, with all you face to expand our understanding of these worlds."

" Would you like to ride with us for the trip back? We could use somebody


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  new to talk to, and we could show off our data. We have radar maps of the Swanwick basin that are breathtaking."

Brundage sat his coffee bulb down carefully. "Thanks, but I'll have to wait for you to publish--I have urgent business elsewhere."

*****

Brundage stood quietly as the Colonel fumed. "Just tell me why, Ranger, why you tricked the crew of the Charybdis."

" I knew she'd be safe, Sir. The hijackers obviously have somebody on the inside. As long as everybody believed they had a Ranger escort, there was no real danger."

" So you outfitted a drone with radio relays and went on about your business, is that it?"

Brundage turned his slate-dark eyes on the Colonel's face. "Actually, I embedded it in a chunk of asteroid, to give it the proper mass. And I went to the people who needed my help the most. I did what needed doing. Sir."

" You disobeyed a direct order!"

" I believe my orders were to ensure the safe transit of the Charybdis. And I believe she did arrive safely."

  " Yes, she arrived safely and we're both getting commendations. But what if you'd been wrong, if the hijackers had taken the Charybdis? What then, Ranger?"

Brundage looked down, trying to hide the hint of a smile he could not surpass. "Maybe I had a few surprises rigged on that hunk of rock. I guess we'll never find out, now."

" Harr-ump. Yes, I suppose. Now get out of my office, Ranger, I have real work to do." Brundage was more than happy to follow that order.

The End

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