Last chapter of this story, but I have more GR.
The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers
And the Horse You Rode In On
"Wilburrrr!" Voyager's metallic shout echoed off the canyon walls, but received no reply.
The robot horse bent her head in momentary despair, then raised it to study the mountain of loose rock that separated her from her human partner. Galaxy Ranger Walter "Doc" Hartford was on the other side of that mountain — she hoped.
She didn't want to think that he might have been buried under the avalanche of rock that had followed the explosion of the megabomb.
He couldn't be dead, Voyager told herself, not Doc; but he must be hurt or he would have answered her. Her electronic sensors would have picked up his reply, despite the mountain of rubble between them.
Well, if Doc was hurt, Voyager had to get to him.
The robot steed bent her head to scrutinize the pile of loose rock, then launched herself forward. She galloped up the slope, but the loose rock defeated her, sliding out from under her feet until she lost her balance and tumbled to the foot of the mountain.
Voyager picked herself up, shook the dust from her blue metal hide and backed up for a running start. She got a little higher, but not much. At least this time she kept her footing and slid to the bottom on her four hooves.
She tried twice more, picking different angles of attack; but the results were the same. The last time, she crashed to the ground with a jar that dazed her sensors for a long moment. She got up slowly.
"Wilburrrr!" she screamed with every decibel her vocal circuits could muster.
"Voyager? What's wrong?" Galaxy Ranger Niko demanded, as she and Mel cantered up. They had tracked Voyager's shouts through the maze of canyons.
Voyager was immensely glad to see two familiar faces. Rather, one familiar face, since Mel's faceplate had been destroyed by a pointblank shot from a Crown Agent's blaster. The loss of his face and accompanying visual sensors didn't seem to bother Mel much. He simply compensated with other sensors.
Voyager hardly registered the damage to Mel or Niko's bandaged forearm. She rushed up to her friends, babbling an explanation.
"There was a megabomb. I tried to get it away from Doc, but there wasn't time, so I pushed it into a crack in the cliff, so Doc and I wouldn't be hurt by the blast, and we weren't, but the cliff collapsed and rock filled up the canyon and I don't know what happened to Doc and I can't get back to him," she wailed.
"Take it easy, girl," Niko said. She dismounted from Mel and stroked Voyager's neck in a comforting manner.
Voyager was peculiar, Niko thought. It was funny how she called Doc "Wilbur" to his face; but never referred to him as Wilbur when she talked about him to someone else. She knew his name, all right. Whenever anyone asked, Voyager simply explained that "Wilbur" was the proper way for a talking horse to address her rider. Doc had never been able to figure it out.
Niko was grateful that "Wilbur" only seemed to apply to male riders, since she and Doc traded off on Voyager and Mel. Voyager had a more comfortable stride, but Mel had the more comfortable personality.
"Niko, what are we going to do?" Voyager asked more calmly.
"Let me see if I can find out anything," the ranger replied. She touched the badge on her belt buckle, activating her psychometry; then she touched Voyager's saddle.
Niko's eyes went from green to violet as her talent kicked in. She saw beyond the mountain of rubble. Eyes closed, Doc lay unmoving, buried up to his thighs in loose rock. A trickle of blood dripped down his forehead. The only reassuring part of the picture was that he was still breathing.
"He's hurt, but he's still alive," Niko told the horses, as she came out of her trance. "We've got to find a way to get to him."
"That's what I've been trying to do," Voyager complained.
"We're not going to be able to go over the rubble," Mel said. "We must find a way around."
"Let's start looking," Niko said.
She remounted Mel. Followed by Voyager, they headed toward a side canyon.
"Doc! Doc!" muffled, high-pitched voices called the ranger back to the living world.
"Oh, what hit me?" he moaned.
"Most of the mountainside, I'm afraid," answered Brutus' deep voice.
Doc opened his eyes to find himself lying in a shallow "pool" of loose rock and gravel. Fortunately, he had fallen into the last swell of landslide. He had managed to land feet first, but the flow had knocked him down almost immediately. He had fallen heavily, twisting his knee and cracking his head. He wiped half-dried blood from the cut on his forehead.
"Might have spilled more than blood if I hadn't had my hat on," he murmured, patting the Zangwill hat. "You'll never be a fashion statement, but I like your style," he told the saggy, scorched, brown cowboy hat.
Doc levered himself out of the gravel, wincing at the pain in his knee. Free of the rock, he probed the damage. It wasn't broken, but it was swollen, seeming twice its normal size. He couldn't put any pressure on it.
Apart from that, he didn't find much damage. His boots and chaps had protected his legs from the battering rocks.
His gun was missing from his holster, lost beneath the rocks. Fortunately, his CDU was still fastened to his belt. The gun might be more use in the rocky remains of a canyon, but the CDU had personality. To be precise, it had five personalities: Pathfinder, Lifeline, Tripwire, Firefly and Brutus.
"Everybody all right in there?" he asked, opening the Computer Diagnostic Unit. The four tweakers zipped out and darted around, glad to be out in the open and glad Doc was OK.
"We're all fine," Lifeline reassured their boss.
"How about you, Brutus?" Doc asked the program inside the CDU.
"A little cramped, but still functioning," the onetime robot horse assured the ranger.
Lifeline, the repair tweaker, zipped around Doc's injured knee. "I wish I could fix humans, boss," he said regretfully.
"I wish you could, too," Doc agreed. "Pathfinder, the first order of business is to try to find me some transportation," the black ranger ordered.
"You know I can't go very far, Doc," the tweaker said dubiously. In a computer, with an energy system to draw from, he could go miles. Out in the open air, he needed to stay close to Doc.
"I know. Do what you can. Maybe you'll get lucky," Doc said wearily. He closed his eyes against the pain.
"Pathfinder, take me with you," Brutus urged. "Transportation is my business."
"Good idea," Doc agreed without opening his eyes. Pathfinder darted back into the CDU, absorbed Brutus' programming, then flew off on his mission. "Keep in touch, guys. Write if you get work," Doc sighed.
He pulled his hat over his eyes to block out the sun. There wasn't anywhere to go or anything else to do and he frankly didn't want to be conscious if the Crown Agents found him before the rangers did. So he went to sleep.
With three half-starved carnivores charging at him, Ranger Shane Gooseman didn't feel a bit sleepy. Triton stood statue-still as the two-legged beasts galloped toward them, the claws extended on their forepaws.
His injuries prevented Goose from getting off an accurate, long range shot. He had to wait until the beasts were too close for comfort before he fired.
Set on maximum stun, Goose's blaster cut down the largest sharget. He couldn't correct his aim fast enough to get a second.
"Go!" he shouted.
Triton's bunched hindquarters uncoiled propelling him forward. One leap carried him out of the carnivore's path, then he froze again.
The remaining two beasts spun more quickly than one would have thought possible. Goose stunned one, but the other was right on top of him. Triton bucked forward, giving a mule kick with his steel-shod hind feet. Both hooves caught the carnivore under the chin. The beast collapsed, unconscious.
Unfortunately, Triton's abrupt plunge threw Goose from the saddle. The already-injured ranger crashed to the ground. He rolled to his back and lay still.
"Goose?" the frightened Triton called. "Goose!"
Niko eyed the narrow cleft in the wall. It appeared to go all the way through the mesa.
"That looks like it goes the right direction," she said.
Mel studied it and calculated. "Yes, it does," he agreed. "It would take you to Doc, if it goes all the way through," he warned.
"I'll have to chance it," she said.
She slipped off Mel. The fissure was too narrow for the horses. Only someone as slender and agile as Niko could get through it.
"You may be able to get to Doc this way, but he won't be able to come out this way," Mel said.
"You'll have to keep looking for another way around," Niko said.
"Orphaned again," Voyager sighed.
The horses watched Niko edge through the crack until she disappeared around a bend. Even then, they didn't make any move to leave. They gazed into the crevice, waiting to see if Niko would be forced to retrace her steps.
"You two looking for mice?"
Voyager shied and whinnied in alarm. Mel looked up calmly.
"Hello, captain," he said, as Ranger Captain Zachary Fox slid down the embankment next to them.
"You two look the worse for wear," Zachary said in concern.
"We're still functioning, but we won't win any beauty prizes, captain," Mel agreed.
"Speak for yourself, Mel," Voyager said, tossing her mane as if in disdain. Her chassis was pitted and scarred, her rider was missing, but her spirit was intact.
"Captain, you seem to be damaged yourself," Mel said, to show his sensors were functioning despite the hole in his faceplate.
Zachary touched his face gingerly. It seemed long ago that it had been burned while he was escaping from Geezy's burning hideout.
"You could say that," Zachary agreed. "But I'm still hanging in there." He looked up. "Come on, Geezy," he called.
The Pendulant peered over the edge of the low cliff — low for a six-foot human, not so low for a three-and-a-half-foot Pendulant.
"You hummings are crazy!" Geezy shouted.
"This humming has transportation," Zachary answered, patting Mel's flank. "Think of your blisters."
Geezy thought of them. He sighed, closed his eyes and jumped. Zachary caught him and set him directly on Mel's back.
"This is Mel," Zachary said. "He'll take care of you."
"Welcome aboard, Geezy," the pale copper horse said.
Geezy rubbed his swollen, aching feet.
"Glad to be here," he said sincerely.
Zachary deliberately put Geezy on the steady Mel, leaving the flightier Voyager for himself.
"What are you two doing here alone?" he asked. "Where are Doc and Niko?"
Voyager hung her head. "Doc's hurt and Niko went through there to try to get to him," she said, bobbing her head at the fissure. Voyager explained what had happened to her and Doc. Mel told his story and Niko's.
Zachary studied the fissure and knew he wouldn't be able to squeeze through.
"Looks like we need to find another road," he said.
He swung aboard Voyager who staggered sideways.
"Wow! You're heavy!" the horse complained. "Lopsided, too."
"Voyager!" Mel was outraged. That was no way to talk to the captain.
"No, she's right," Zachary said. "My bionics do make me lopsided. Why do you think I ride a 3000 model, Voyager? At least, I used to ride one," he added sadly.
Voyager bent her head around to nuzzle Zachary's knee. "All you need is a new chassis; then Doc can take Brutus out of the CDU," she said.
"You mean his program is all right?" Zachary said with incredulous hope.
"Doc rescued him and put him with the tweakers," Voyager said confidently; then her head drooped again. "But now Doc's in trouble. I don't know if any of them are all right."
"Then we'd better go find out," Zachary said. He pointed the horses toward a promising canyon he had seen from above.
Pathfinder carried Brutus through the canyons, looking for transportation for Doc. He couldn't go very far from Doc, but found several canyons within his range. He checked out two with no luck.
I can't sense any of the other horses," he told the Brutus program.
"I hope that means they are out of your range and not that they ended up like me," Brutus replied with an electronic sigh. "Can you sense Captain Fox?" he asked wistfully.
"No, I can't sense his bionics. The only Beta equipment within my range is the CDU and Doc's blaster. There's something on the far edge of my range — might be Voyager. It's the direction she went, anyway."
"I hope she's all right. I hope all of them are …"
"Hey, what's that?" Pathfinder interrupted. The glowing blue tweaker paused in mid-air.
Pathfinder darted ahead. Straining at the edge of his link with Doc, the tweaker skipped around a corner, to spot a riderless Death Steed.
"Ooh, come to poppa," Pathfinder crooned.
The Death Steed shied away from the hovering blue globe. Pathfinder approached gently, but the steed kept sidling away. With each approach, however, the tweaker got a little bit closer until he was within striking range.
"Gotcha!" Pathfinder crowed as he plunged into the Death Steed's head.
The robot bucked once, then quieted when Pathfinder released Brutus into the Death Steed's circuitry. The Crown programming was no match for a Doc Hartford special Artificial Intelligence program. A Death Steed had little self-motivation and little free will. It was subject to its rider. Brutus simply pushed the Crown programming aside, relegating it to a tiny corner of its circuitry. The Crown programming stayed put docilely. Rebellion was unthinkable to it.
As Pathfinder left, Brutus probed the various systems. He kicked, reared, swiveled his head from side to side.
"Poor sensor systems. Lightweight construction. Not very strong," he said scornfully.
"But it's fast," Pathfinder reminded the ranger steed.
Brutus was horse enough to admit that was true. His investigation uncovered an unfamiliar control system. "I wonder what this does?" he mused.
A laser blast streaked past the hovering Pathfinder.
"Yikes!" the program exclaimed.
"How interesting," Brutus said.
"Come on, let's get back to Doc," Pathfinder urged.
"I'm right behind you," Brutus answered, kicking up his heels for the sheer pleasure of it.
"Goose!" Triton called urgently.
"Give me a minute, Triton," the ranger said breathlessly.
The horse gave an electronic sigh of relief.
The jar of the landing made Goose hurt all over. Holding onto Triton's stirrup, the ranger dragged himself to his knees. He climbed the saddle hand over hand, until he reached his feet. Holding the saddle horn with a death grip, Goose gasped for breath until his insubordinate body ceased trembling.
He tried to raise his foot to the stirrup, but the pain was too great. He was too weak to mount the robot horse.
"Looks like I'll have to walk, pal," Goose told Triton.
"It's not far now," Triton offered in consolation.
"It'll seem a lot farther before we get there," Goose predicted wearily.
Voyager stumbled, then began to limp on her left leg. Zachary reined her to a halt.
"What's wrong, girl?" he asked, as he slid off.
Voyager bent her neck to study her left foreleg.
"I think I'm broken," she said mournfully.
Zachary found the leg's housing was cracked two-thirds of the way around, exposing cables and circuitry. There was a deep dent at the site, caused by Voyager's earlier misadventures with the explosion and landslide. The damaged metal had held up for awhile, but the extra strain of Zachary's unbalanced weight had caused it to rip apart.
"Sorry, Voyager. I think I broke your leg," the captain apologized. He touched his badge. His bionic arm powered up. It was barely half power, but it would do, he decided.
"Are you going to have to shoot me?" Voyager asked tremulously, trying to be brave.
Zachary chuckled and patted her neck. "No, I lost one horse today. I don't intend to lose another. I'm just going to weld your leg casing back together. Now hold still."
Voyager froze obediently while Zachary brought the pieces together. Focusing energy down his forefinger, the captain delicately tacked the pieces back together. Satisfied the broken edges matched, he melted them together.
"Now you stay off that until it cools," Zachary admonished.
"I can easily carry both you and Geezy, captain," Mel offered.
"All right, but tell me if you feel the strain," Zachary said, as he swung aboard the beige metal horse. "We've had enough injuries today," he said, gingerly touching a stinging burn on his face.
The crevice narrowed at the end. Niko decided to risk getting trapped because she could see light at the other end. It was a tight squeeze even for the slender girl. Trying to keep her wounded arm clear, she banged the other one twice and scraped her side on an outcropping of rock; but she emerged triumphant.
She felt even more triumphant when a short walk brought her in view of Doc. She scrambled over loose rock and knelt beside her friend. She called his name softly and lifted up his hat. She saw two brown eyes blink at her.
"Hello, Niko, what are you doing here?" Doc asked casually.
Niko breathed a sigh of relief and replied in the same light vein.
"I just happened to be in the neighborhood. We're having a sale on mattresses today," she said, as she helped Doc sit up. "Perhaps you'd care to buy one. This one looks rather lumpy," she said, gesturing at the rubble.
"A little," Doc admitted. "There's only one thing worse than lying on top of a rock slide."
"What's that?" asked his obedient straight woman.
"Lying under one," Doc said darkly.
"You have a point there," Niko agreed.
She helped Doc off the loose rocks into the shade of his upturned boulder. Doc sat down with a sigh of relief, then realized something was missing from the scene.
"Niko! Where's Mel? Don't tell me you lost your horse, too!" he exclaimed. "First Zach, then me, now you. It must be contagious."
Niko chuckled. "I left Mel with Voyager. They were too big to squeeze through the opening we found."
"Is Voyager all right?"
"She's a little dented and she's worried about you. Otherwise, she's fine."
"Good, she saved my life with her nutty stunt," Doc said. "I'd hate to see her hurt for it."
"I know what you mean," Niko said. "Mel saved me from some Crown Agents and got blasted in the face. He's all right," she said hastily, reassuring Doc. "He's operating on backup sensors, but he seems to do just fine."
Doc nodded. "Mel's backups are more accurate than most primary sensor arrays. One of my better jobs."
"If you do say so yourself," Niko teased, though she privately agreed and Doc knew it. "Let me take care of that ankle before you do any more damage to it," she said.
Niko used her boot knife to slit Doc's pant leg and chaps. He winced.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked anxiously.
"Only my wallet," Doc told her. "Goose is the one with the triple clothing allowance, not me."
"I'll testify you ruined your uniform in the line of duty, if you do the same for me," she said, holding up her torn sleeve.
The blood stained bandage brought sympathy to Doc's eyes. "You know, this has been a rough mission," he said. "Goose and Triton were hurt in the explosion. Brutus' body was trashed, though I managed to save his personality program. He tells me Zachary was singed in the fire. Nobody's coming out of this in one piece."
"Except Geezy," Niko suggested.
Doc looked outraged at the very thought. Before he could say anything, the rangers heard the crunch of a footstep in the gravel. They turned and saw a Death Steed.
Its laser horns swiveled in their direction. Its rider grinned wickedly.
"This is our lucky day. We've captured two Galaxy Rangers," the Crown Agent gloated in his metallic voice.
Three other Crown Agents rode up and arranged themselves in a semi-circle around the rangers. Niko cursed silently. Her hands were full of bandages. She had no chance to get to her gun. Doc started to edge his hand toward Niko's holster, but was stopped by a harsh word from the Crown Agent.
"Don't try anything," he warned. "Take their weapons," he ordered one of the others.
The second Crown Agent dismounted and took Niko's blaster. The girl tensed herself, but the agent never gave her a chance to attack.
Approaching hoof steps gave her hope of rescue, which was immediately dashed. Looking back, one of the Crown Agents recognized the approaching Death Steed.
"It's one of ours," he said.
The Death Steed didn't act like one of theirs. When it saw the captive rangers, it lowered its laser horns and charged, firing wildly.
"Galaxy Rangers, Ho!" it bellowed in Brutus' deep voice.
The rear attack threw the four Crown Agents into confusion, just the distraction Niko needed.
Her foot swept out and knocked their captor down.
Though unarmed and unable to stand, Doc was far from helpless. He grabbed his CDU and released the tweakers.
"Sic 'em, boys!"
"Let me at 'em!" Firefly exclaimed enthusiastically.
The blazing fireball shot across the intervening space and into a Death Steed. The Crown Agents' circuitry was too well shielded for one of Doc's programs to enter, but the horses were more cheaply made. Firefly sent the robot creature berserk. It bucked off its android rider and trampled him. The other tweakers, including Pathfinder, also attacked the Death Steeds.
"Not me! I'm on your side!" Brutus protested as Lifeline shot toward him.
"Sorry!" the tweaker said, as he veered away. "All Death Steeds look alike to me."
Niko recovered her gun and finished off her victim. She turned to help the others, but the tweakers had done their jobs well. As a final move, each tweaker shorted out the circuitry of the Death Steeds. The tweakers returned to the CDU leaving horsey statues behind them.
"Nice job, guys," Doc complimented as the tweakers dove back into the CDU. "All the Queen's horses and all the Queen's men, couldn't put that mess back together again."
Pathfinder paused in front of the rangers.
"So, what do you think of Brutus' new look?" the tweaker asked.
Brutus obligingly showed off both sides of the Death Steed.
"I don't know," Niko said, shaking her head judiciously. "It's just not you, Brutus."
"I think it's lovely," Doc disagreed. "I never saw a Death Steed look more attractive!"
"Thank you, sir," the horse replied.
Doc began to wrap the rest of the bandage around his knee. Niko bent to help him.
"You know, we've taken out more than half of the Crown Agents. There can't be very many left," Doc said.
He asked the others how many Crown Agents they had accounted for. Niko said she and Mel took out four. Brutus said Zachary's thunderbolt took out three plus the Slaver Lord. He didn't know how many he had destroyed in his battle, but Doc did. He had counted the remains, including the three Zachary had felled with rocks. He also knew how many he and Niko had shot down while they were together.
"By my count, that only leaves five Crown Agents," the computer expert announced, discounting the Death Steeds who were not programmed to initiate action by themselves. "While we have three rangers and three horses, plus Geezy …"
"Don't forget us!" squeaked a voice from the CDU.
"… and four tweakers," Doc added. "That makes eleven. We've got the bad guys outnumbered!"
"So what are we waiting for?" Niko asked.
"Let's kick transistors!" Firefly enthused.
The five remaining Crown Agents, who didn't know they were the only remaining Crown Agents, chose the opposite tactic from the rangers. Searching for the rangers hadn't worked very well (even less well than they knew). They decided to set a trap instead.
Like everyone else within miles, the Crown Lieutenant had detected the explosion of the megabomb. He knew the rangers would investigate, so he and his troop staked out one of the main canyons heading in the direction of the explosion.
They let Zachary, Geezy, Mel and Voyager pass, then charged out from a side canyon.
Mel and Voyager surged into high gear, as laser blasts sang past.
"I have a strange feeling of deja vu, Mel," Voyager said blithely.
Mel didn't answer. His sensors were probing ahead.
"Voyager, will your leg stand up to a jump of 3.2 meters?" he asked abruptly.
"They have set a trap for us ahead," the pale copper horse replied. "Probe the ground with your sonics. They have stretched a cloth over a fissure and covered it with earth."
"That's a dirty trick," Voyager said, with a small whinny at her own pun. "OK, I see it," she added.
"Get ready Geezy, captain. We're jumping … now!"
The Crown Lieutenant gnashed his metal teeth when he saw his prey soar over his carefully laid trap.
"After them!" he shouted.
But the Crown Agents and Death Steeds didn't have the sensor equipment to detect the carefully hidden chasm. Four of the Death Steeds vaulted the unseen gap, but one jumped too soon. It caught the far lip and scrabbled for a hold, finally drawing itself up to the surface. Its rider wasn't so lucky. The Crown Agent vanished into the apparently bottomless pit.
"Ha! Justice triumphs," Geezy crowed. "They fell into their own trap!"
Laser fire scorched by. Geezy yelped and ducked.
"Only one of them fell," Zachary reminded the Pendulant. "We still have four on our tails."
With Voyager's leg damaged and Mel carrying double, the horses were not at their peak speed. They barely held their lead. That ended when a laser blast struck the ground just before Mel set down his foot. The small crater threw off his balance. He felt himself going down and shouted at the captain to jump.
Zachary vaulted from the saddle, taking Geezy with him. Trying to protect the civilian, Zachary landed hard. The wind was knocked out of him and he lay in the path of the oncoming Death Steeds. Geezy tugged at his arm, but Zachary was too heavy to drag.
Desperate, the Pendulant grabbed the ranger's blaster from his holster. Geezy was not a Pendulant of action; but a being's got to do what a being's got to do. Holding the heavy weapon in two small hands, he fired into the onrushing troop.
As tightly packed as they were, it would have been hard for him to miss. He didn't. He caught the Lieutenant's steed in the chest. It collapsed, tangling the legs of the others as it fell. The whole charge came crashing down.
Geezy was amazed.
"That'll teach them," he blustered.
Then the four Crown Agents got up. They raised their blasters.
"Oh oh," the Pendulant gulped.
Mel threw his body between Geezy and the attackers. A shot from the Lieutenant pierced the metal horse's crouching body.
"That hurt," he complained.
"My turn," Zachary wheezed. Crouching behind Mel, he pressed his badge. He felt the power swell, but it was weak. He hoped it would be enough.
He intended a broad sweep, but his blast came out as a faint, narrow beam. It lifted the Lieutenant from his feet and threw him against the wall. The three remaining Crown Agents were untouched, though momentarily confused by the loss of their leader.
"Oh oh," Zachary muttered.
Voyager was on her feet looking the way they had been running. Her auditory sensors picked up someone approaching. The footsteps were ominously familiar.
"Captain, there's a Death Steed approaching from behind!" the blue horse called.
"Double oh oh," Zachary said under his breath. He took his gun back from Geezy, as the Crown Agents decided to take cover and snipe at the ranger. "See what you can do, Voyager. I'm a little busy right now."
"Yes sir," the horse said helplessly.
She charged gallantly around the corner and came face to face with the Death Steed — which had Doc and Niko on its back.
"Hello, Voyager," the Death Steed said in Brutus' voice.
"Is that you making all the noise?" Doc asked.
"Oh! It's not the enemy. It's the cavalry!" Voyager said joyously. "Hurry! Captain Fox needs help!"
"Zachary!" Brutus pelted forward carrying his passengers with him whether they wanted to or not. Fortunately, they wanted to.
With Niko's gun, Brutus's double blasters and Doc's appropriated Crown Agent laser, the cavalry made short work of the severely outnumbered Crown Agents.
Brutus turned away from the decimated enemy and ran to his rider. "Zachary … Captain, are you all right?" he asked, nuzzling Zach so powerfully, he almost knocked the ranger off his feet.
"I'm fine, Brutus. Take it easy!" Zachary said, laughing.
"Sorry, sir," the horse said.
Zachary thumped the "Death Steed" affectionately.
"I understand, you're not yourself today," the captain said, deadpan.
"Pretty bad, captain," Doc said with admiration, as he gingerly slid off Brutus to meet Voyager's exuberant greeting.
She spotted the bandage on his knee and lifted her own bad leg in comparison.
"I see they didn't shoot you, either, Wilbur," she said.
Doc sighed, then stroked her nose with affection.
Niko dropped to her knees beside Mel, asking him if he was all right.
"Slight damage to my first aid compartment," he reported as he rose to his feet. "It's a good thing you took the case with you when you went to look for Doc."
Niko hugged her solid, practical horse. He nudged her affectionately.
A ways apart from the reunion, the Crown Lieutenant began to stir. The charge in Zachary's implant had grown too weak. The Lieutenant had been stunned, but not demolished. When his sensors first revived, he considered playing possum and waiting until the rangers left; but he knew what the Queen of the Crown would do, if he returned alone.
It was far better to die at the hands of the enemy, especially if he could take a couple of them with him. The distraction of the reunion provided him with a better chance than he had hoped for.
"Put up your hands!" he ordered.
"I don't have hands," Voyager protested.
The Crown Lieutenant shot her in the neck.
"That wasn't very nice," she said.
She started toward him, but the Crown Lieutenant aimed his weapon at the rangers. Voyager stopped.
"You won't get away with this," Zachary said calmly. (Officers get to use all the cliches.) "Just look behind you."
"Do you think I'll fall for that old trick?" the Lieutenant sneered. (See what I mean?)
"It's your funeral," Niko shrugged, snagging the cliche before anyone else could.
Ranger One vaporized the Crown Lieutenant before he even realized it was there.
"Is that all you saved me, one Crown Agent?" Goose complained over the ship's loudspeaker. From above, the ship's sensors could scan the whole Fractured Land. The sensors showed nothing but a couple of stray Death Steeds.
"I told you, you'd get leftovers if you came late," Doc said severely.
Geezy peeked through his fingers. He saw Ranger One descending vertically into the widest place in the canyon.
"Is it over?" the Pendulant asked.
"It's over," Zachary affirmed.
Geezy's lop-ears rose in pleasure.
"The world will hear of your courage," the Pendulant vowed. "Your triumphant battle against the odds will be sung in every corner of Tortuna. It will make the Queen know fear and give the underground new hope. You will serve as a shining beacon, ranger humming."
"Geezy!" Zachary snapped.
The Pendulant's ears drooped. He knew he was about to be corrected again.
"That's captain ranger humming to you, Pendulant."
Geezy brightened again. He would never forget that Zachary had risked his life and Brutus had sacrificed his body to save his life. He pumped his savior's hand.
"Bless you, Zachary Fox," Geezy said fervently. "Bless you and the horse you rode in on."
Doc reprogrammed Brutus' Death Steed to take Geezy home, then took Brutus' program back into the CDU.
The computer expert waved good-bye to the Pendulant, then returned to Ranger One. Mel had already joined Triton in the rear compartment of the small craft, but a balky Voyager was giving Niko trouble.
"It's no fair! Brutus gets to ride in front! Why can't I?"
"Voyager, there's no room for your bulky body up front. If you want to join Brutus in the CDU, then you can ride with us," Doc said in exasperation.
Voyager considered it for a moment. "That depends. Do they have wide screen TV in there?"
"No," Doc and Pathfinder said truthfully. Neither mentioned the video games.
"I guess not," the horse sighed. She folded her legs on the platform and permitted herself to be stowed away.
The least battered of the four rangers, Zachary took the controls and lifted Ranger One off Tortuna. Goose sat beside him in the co-pilot's seat. The blond ranger was happy that he had gotten a piece of the action, even if it had been a tiny piece.
"Hey, Goose, I thought you weren't a music lover," Doc said slyly, from the seat behind the blond ranger.
Goose flushed when he realized he'd been humming "Oh, Tortuna."
"I don't mind music, Doc. Just not when we're on Tortuna," he protested. "Leaving Tortuna. Now that's a reason to sing."
"I know a cue when I hear one," Niko laughed.
She began to sing. The other rangers joined in, accompanied by five-part harmony from the CDU.
Hearing the echoes of song back in the storage compartment, one damaged, dented horse gave a long-suffering sigh.
"I always miss all the excitement," she complained.
Mel and Triton snorted.
"The Milky Way was curdled
And the Big Dipper got bent.
We traveled through a black hole
And returned before we went.
Oh, don't you cry for us.
We're gonna make our fortunes soon.
Utopia or bust!"