The preparations for the contest were attended to swiftly. The crew of XL5 were unshackled and led at gunpoint through the winding metallic corridors of Planet 90’s subterranean city.
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing.” Matt whispered.
“So do I”, Steve replied, “One wrong move and we’ll all be in bad trouble.”
Venus gave him a reassuring smile, “We believe in you, Steve. Isn’t that right, Zoony?”
The Lazoon gave a somewhat reassuring wave and said, “Welcome home!” in his typical cheerful manor.
Robert the robot remained silent, keeping in step with his companions. It occurred to his mechanical mind that his own super-accurate servos and motors made him the perfect candidate for the challenge ahead and he was at a loss to explain why he had not been chosen in place of Colonel Zodiac. However, he would not for a nanosecond have thought to question the Colonel about his decision. Past experience had taught him that Zodiac was capable of amazing feats, even by Robert’s robotic high standards.
At last they reached the chamber where the contest was to be held.
The walls of the room were lined with high galleries for spectators and these were already packed with Planet 90’s indigenous population, chattering excitedly as they awaited the spectacle about to unfold.
Steve watched as his friends were led to the gallery on his right as Gozahar took his place at the high podium at the far end of the chamber.
“Loyal citizens!” his raspy voice echoed, “The accused Colonel Steve Zodiac stands before you!”
There were jeers and hisses from all sides.
“Now, I summon your Champion! Step forward, Zahule the Undefeated!”
A hatchway opened to Steve’s left and a tall, slender alien marched into the chamber. His entrance was met with applause and cheering from the assembled spectators.
Zahule stood perhaps half a foot taller than Zodiac, but his four powerful arms and armoured battle-dress gave him a far more imposing appearance.
Once more, Gozahar’s voice echoed from the podium, “The competitors will take their positions!”
As he spoke, a pair of illuminated discs appeared on the floor of the chamber. They were placed about ten feet apart at one end of the vast space.
With much showboating, Zahule leapt onto one of the discs. Zodiac did his best to ignore the sensation of utter absurdity rising within him. He reminded himself that it was the lives of his crew and the fate of XL5 at stake as he stepped onto the other glowing disc.
Gozahar spoke again, “One hundred targets will be released when the countdown reaches zero. When all of them have been destroyed, the contest will be at an end. The one who destroys the greatest number of targets will be declared the victor.”
A sequence of ten lights glowed at the end of the chamber above Gozahar’s head. Then they began to extinguish at one-second intervals. Steve’s hand tightened around the grip of his coma-ray.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
A klaxon sounded and a series of hatches opened in the high ceiling of the chamber. Then, like a swarm of angry insects, the disc-shaped targets zoomed downward and began to fly crazily around the arena.
Zahule opened fire with his alien rifle, blasting the first few targets into dust. Steve didn’t waste another second. He picked his targets and let loose with the coma-ray. Three of the targets disintegrated at the deadly caress of the weapon and Steve realised he might have a chance after all.
Soon, the pair were lost in a maelstrom of energy blasts and debris as target after target blew apart from the terrific force of the powerful weapons.
“I wonder who’s in the lead?” Venus asked above the noise.
“I lost track pretty quickly, but it’s gotta be mighty close. That Zahule character means business!” Matt replied, his eyes never leaving the scene playing out in front of them.
The klaxon sounded briefly and Gozahar’s rasping tones filled the chamber again, “Fifty targets have been destroyed. Now let us make the contest more interesting!”
Before Steve could absorb the announcement his stomach lurched as the glowing disc on which he was standing levitated off the ground and began to circle the arena. He saw Zahule’s do likewise.
He tried to shift his weight in order to gain some kind of control over the thing, but found that his feet wouldn’t move an inch. The flying disc was under remote control.
Realising there was nothing he could do, he focused on the swarming targets.
Shot after shot, burst after brilliant burst of light, he whittled down the remaining targets. He wasn’t paying any attention to Zahule, but was certain that the alien was scoring well.
Then, quite suddenly it seemed, the final target was destroyed and the two competitors were returned to the floor of the chamber. The glow faded from the discs and they stepped off them.
Gozahar motioned for quiet and then spoke with authority, “The results of the competition have been determined. A number of the targets were destroyed indirectly by collisions with each other and will not count towards the score of either challenger. Zahule attained a score of forty three targets.”
The crowd cheered. Matt shot Venus an anxious look.
Gozahar continued, “Colonel Steve Zodiac attained a score of….”
Steve clenched his fists. A trickle of perspiration slipped down his brow.
Venus and Matt cheered wildly and Steve let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.
Gozahar spoke again, “We are people of our word, just as you have proven that you are people of yours. You are free to leave this world.”
Steve replied, “Thank you. We give you our word that we will not return. However, I hope that someday you will choose to visit our planet. I promise you will be welcome.” He turned to his friends and added, “Come on folks, let’s go home.”