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The Star Hunters: A Star Kings Novel [The Two Thousand Centuries Series]
by Edmond Hamilton

Category: Science Fiction
Description: The Last Never-Reprinted Star Kings Story. Here is the only Star Kings novella not in the giant Stark and the Star Kings omnibus--the story of how the Outer Marches of the galaxy gained its recognition as a legitimate Star Kingdom. Hugh Mason gambles his life when he impersonates a famous galactic outlaw to escape the wrath of the King of Orion. Certain death faces him if his masquerade is discovered as he ventures into the outlaw-infested Outer Marches. Yet if he doesn't go the galaxy itself will die--victim of one man's ambition and the most terrifying weapon ever conceived. The Star Hunters is a real treat for sf and Hamilton fans--part of his epic future history, The Two Thousand Centuries.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: March 2007

eBookeBook

9 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [117 KB]
Words: 23687
Reading time: 67-94 min.


AUTHOR'S CHRONOLOGY OF THE STAR KINGDOMS

THE TWO THOUSAND CENTURIES

The Era of Interplanetary Exploration and Colonization--1971-2011.

The Era of Interplanetary Frontiers--2011-2247.

The Era of Interplanetary Secession--2247-2621.

The Era of Interstellar Exploration--2300-2621.

The Era of Interstellar Colonization--2621-62,339.

The Era of the Federation and United Worlds--62,339-129,999.

The Era of the Star Kings--130,000-202,115.

The history of two hundred thousand years showed how the entire structure of galactic civilization was based upon the epochal discovery of sub-spectrum rays.

The era of space-travel had really dawned in 1945 and '46, with the first release of atomic energy and the discovery that radar could function efficiently in space. By the end of the 20th Century, atomic-powered rockets guided by radar had reached the Moon, Mars and Venus.

Interplanetary exploration and exploitation had increased rapidly. But the vast distances to other stars remained unconquerable until late in the 22nd Century, when three great inventions made interstellar travel possible.

The most important of the three was the discovery of sub-spectrum rays. These were hitherto unsuspected octaves of electromagnetic radiation far below even the gamma and cosmic rays in wavelength, and which had velocities vastly greater than the speed of light.

Of these sub-spectrum rays the most useful were the so-called pressure rays in the Minus-30th octave of the spectrum, which could react against the tenuous cosmic dust of space with a powerful pressure. These pressure rays formed the driving power of star-ships. They were produced in generators powered by atomic turbines, and were jetted from the stern of a ship to drive it thousands of times faster than light.

The second vital invention was that of the mass-control. Einstein's equations had shown that if a ship travelled as fast as light, its mass would expand to infinity. This difficulty was overcome by the mass-control, which "bled" off mass as energy to maintain a constant mass unaltered by velocity. The energy thus obtained was stored in accumulators and fed back automatically whenever speed was reduced.

The final invention concerned the human element, Men's bodies would have been unable ordinarily to withstand those vast accelerations, but this obstacle was conquered by the cradlestasis. This was a stasis of force which gripped every atom in a ship. The energy-drive jets gave their thrust, not to the ship directly, but to its stasis. Thus everyone and everything in the ship remained unaffected by acceleration. Magnetic apparatus furnished artificial gravity on shipboard, similar to that of the tiny gravitation-equalizers worn by all star-travellers.

The fastest of the sub-spectrum rays, those of the Minus-42nd Octave, were so speedy that they made light seem to crawl. These super-speed rays were used in telestereo communication and also in the vital function of radar for the starships.

Using these inventions to build star-ships, mankind took at once to interstellar space. Alpha Centauri, Sirius and Altair were quickly visited.

Colonies were soon established on suitable star-worlds. For some 10,000 years, Sol and Earth remained the center of government of a growing region of colonized stars.

Until then, there had been no serious conflicts. Aboriginal alien races of intelligence had been found at some star-systems and were helped and educated, but there was found no scientific civilization on any star-world. That had been expected, for if such a race existed it would have visited us long before we ourselves had conquered space.

But in the year 12,455, a group of star-systems near Polaris complained that Earth was too remote to appreciate their problems, and they set up an independent kingdom. By 39,000, the kingdoms of Lyra, Cygnus, and the Baronies of the great Hercules Cluster had declared independence.

Criminals and fugitives from the law seeking refuge in the Cloud eventually founded the League of Dark Worlds. By 120,000, the star-kingdoms were many. But the biggest was still the Mid-Galactic Empire, and hosts of star-worlds remained loyal to it. For convenience its government had been shifted in 62,339 from Earth to a world of the great sun Canopus.

The Empire took the lead of the star-kingdoms in the year 129,411 when the galaxy was suddenly invaded by alien and powerful creatures from the Magellanic Clusters outside. And after that invasion was repelled the Empire had steadily grown by exploring and colonizing the wild, unmapped star-systems in the frontier regions called the Marches of Outer Space.

-Edmond Hamilton, 1949

* * * *
CHAPTER I

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. Red-eyed 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.

It was the SC-1419 that had taken him to a dead, airless globe in the Pleiades, sneaking secretly into Orion space. In his little flitter, Oliphant had gone away from there, heading for the throne-world of the king of Orion. They had waited, and finally the flitter had come back. But it had come back on auto-pilot, with Oliphant inside it mortally wounded and unconscious. And he had remained unconscious ever since, and whatever he had learned was still locked in his brain.

"Oliphant!" said Mason again, close to his ear. "It's Mason. Mason."

The waxen face did not stir. Oliphant was far away in realms of sleep where friends and stars and empires meant nothing.

"I don't think he can last all the way home, sir," said Finetti. And added anxiously, on a questioning note, "If we get home."

Mason slowly straightened up. "Do all you can for him. We'll get home. We--"

The annunciator in the wall said, in Stack's voice, "Mason!"

Mason went back to the control-room on the double. The hysterical whirring of the computer was just ceasing, as he entered.

Stack said stolidly, "Their cruisers ahead have radar-ranged us. We're running right onto them now."

Mason glanced through the scanner-window. Aldebaran was now a great red blaze amid the stars, a little to the right. Its smaller companion-sun was almost hidden in its glare.

"To fool them on our intentions, we shouldn't turn toward it till the last moment," said Stack. "That means, when they start shelling us."

Mason nodded. "It's your ship."

"Is it?" said Stack sourly. "It was until I came under Intelligence orders. Now I don't know."

Mason did not answer that. He watched, and waited. Out there in the star-gleaming void ahead of them, the cruisers of Orion were closing toward them, their target-trackers were at work, and--

A beautiful red-gold flare blossomed to their left, blotting out the whole universe in its blinding radiance. An instant later, another flare burst on their right, this one so close that the scout was tossed around like a photon on the crest of a solar prominence. Guns inconceivably far away were loosing missiles whose self-powered ion drive hurled them at milli-lightspeeds faster than any starship.

Stack said to the pilot, "That's close enough. The pattern's set up. Turn off and go on auto."

The pilot moved switches and then sat back, his hands hanging idly, his shoulders quivering.

The scout swung sharply and plunged toward the red blaze of Aldebaran, like a moth bent on suicide in the mighty star.

"I hope," said Stack, "that nobody gets in our way."

The skin between Mason's shoulders crawled, as he watched the great red star and its small companion leap toward them. Already, at this speed, the thronging specks of its eighteen planets were coming into sight.

To run through a planetary system at milli-light-speeds was flatly forbidden by every law in the galaxy. It was also sheer madness. A computer could allow for the position of every planet and moon and minor body in the system. A computer could not allow for the interplanetary shipping that thronged between those worlds. They were taking a calculated risk, and if they hit anything they would never know it at all.

No human pilot could make the abrupt compensations and changes of course necessary to avoid all those circling worlds and moons. The auto-pilot clicked smugly to itself as it rushed them on.

Mason glimpsed a fleck of light that came up with heart-stopping speed, growing like a blown-up balloon into a vast, ice-clad planet with a host of little moons, reeling past them and dropping behind.

He clung to a stanchion as the auto-pilot cracked and the SC-1419 heeled over sharply. They went rushing along the rim of an asteroidal zone that, was like a mighty river of stone in the sky, then heeled again and now Aldebaran and its little companion were glaring again in their faces, bigger than ever. The two suns marched away abruptly to the left as the auto shifted their course, and a huge planet of saffron and black swung past.

Stack made a sound that was not quite a laugh. "I'll bet there are some surprised men back in those cruisers." And then he said, "The hell with them. I'm scared."

He had reason to be, Mason thought, for he too was scared, right down to his backbone. They were rushing in among the inner planets where shipping was heaviest and if they hit or even grazed a ship, if--

He wanted to close his eyes, not to look at the red and orange and dun-colored planets and moons racing past them. He thought that the auto-pilot had gone crazy, he thought that they'd never make it, and then the immense, overwhelming limb of Aldebaran was ahead and the SC-1419 was running down on the gap between it and the smaller companion sun.

They shot through that pass between the glaring suns, and on across the planetary orbits. They had made it halfway, and Mason was sweating, and the pilot sat hunched in his chair and closed his eyes.

The auto-pilot had gone crazy indeed, it wanted to kill them, it was hurling them headlong toward a great orange planet that widened out with frightful rapidity. Then the metal mind cracked, and they heeled over, past a far-swinging moon like a copper shield, and heeled again and rushed on.

And something like an eternity later a voice was saying, "We're through. By Heaven, we made it."

The SC-1419 was in deep space again, bolting for the far lights of Sirius and Sol and the Terran frontier, and Aldebaran and its worlds were falling behind.

Stack, his face red and glistening, shouted, "It'll take those cruisers awhile to swing back around outside their system--they'll never catch us now."

Mason, dazedly, became aware that someone was tugging at his arm. It was Finetti, his face gray with fear and excitement.

"Mr. Mason, he's going. He can't last many minutes!"

Mason crashed back from his pinnacle of new hope. They had dared the citadel of Orion and run the gauntlet of its star-ships, and escaped, and all for nothing if Oliphant died.

He plunged back along the companionway, with Finetti at his heels. One glance at Oliphant was enough. His eyes were still closed, his face still unmoving, but his color had become ghastly and his respiration was imperceptible. He was, obviously, dying.

Mason looked at him. He knew what he must do, what Oliphant himself would want done, so that his life was not sacrificed in vain. But it took him moments before he could speak the words.

"Give him electroshock stimulant," he told Finetti.

Finetti stared, startled. "But in his condition, it'll kill him almost instantly."

"Almost," said Mason. "He may be able to talk. He's going to die anyway in a few minutes, nothing can save him. Give it!"

His voice lashed Finetti into action. Finetti, his hands trembling affixed the electrodes. The whine of the apparatus filled the cubby.

Oliphant twitched. His body shuddered, writhed. Of a sudden, his eyes opened, staring blankly upward.

Mason bent over him. "John, it's me--Hugh Mason. What did you find out?"

Oliphant whispered, a dribble of words. "I made it out. I didn't think--they shot me as I was getting into the flitter--"

"What did you find out? What's the new thing that Orion's got?"

Oliphant's eyes focused on his face. He spoke painfully, slurredly.

"What it is exactly, I couldn't find out. It's something that was discovered by Ryll Emrys, one of their greatest scientists. Something of cosmic power. But Ryll Emrys has fled from Orion, taking his secret with him--"

Mason bent closer, for now Oliphant's voice was failing fast.

"Ryll Emrys fled to the Marches of Outer Space. Orion has sent one of their top agents, V'rann, after him. They'll risk anything to get him back, they--"

The voice stopped suddenly, and an incredulous look came into Oliphant's eyes. "Why, I'm dying, I--" Then understanding came into his eyes, he whispered, "Thanks, Hugh."

Finetti bent over him, and after a moment he straightened up. "He's gone."

Mason was silent, looking down at the still face. Then he said.

"He did his job. And now there's a bigger job for someone else to do. In the Marches of Outer Space."


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