With a deep roar from its rocket motors, Fireball XL5 hurled itself off the launch rail and soared towards the velvet blackness of space.
In the cockpit, Colonel Steve Zodiac addressed his artificial navigator, “Okay Robert, maintain course and speed.”
The transparent automaton responded in his usual simulated voice, “Main-tain-course-and-speed.”
Steve flipped the communication switch, “Any update on that signal, Matt?”
Professor Matic’s voice crackled back over the circuit, “The message is repeating, Steve, but there’s no new information as yet. The position seems to be the same, smack bang in the middle of Sector 25.”
“Guess we’ll just have to get there as fast as we can and hope that whoever’s in distress can hold out that long.”
The door of the cockpit slid smoothly open with a barely audible hiss and Venus entered.
“Do you think we’ll be in time, Steve?” she asked, her voice full of concern.
“We’ll do our best. If it’s physically possible, Fireball will get us there. She’s never let us down yet.” Steve stood up and turned to face Venus, trusting Robert’s programming to keep the ship on the correct course, “What about you? Is everything ready?”
Venus gave a small shrug, “It’s difficult to know what to be ready for, we don’t even know exactly what has happened. However, the sickbay is prepared and we’re carrying a full supply of anything we’re likely to need.”
Steve nodded, “Then all that’s left to do is to get there and see what it’s all about.”
As the days passed, the crew of XL5 continued to monitor the mysterious distress call. It was badly garbled, but they could make out the words ‘Please help’ and ‘extreme danger’ along with a set of coordinates that corresponded with the position that Professor Matic had calculated as the source of the distress call.
As Steve was musing about what they might find for the hundredth time, the neutroni receiver crackled into life, “Space City to XL5 – Come in XL5.”
“XL5 to Space City, receiving you Commander Zero.”
Zero’s gruff voice filled the cockpit, “How’s it going, Colonel? Anything further to report on that distress call?”
“Not a thing, Commander. Same story as before, a garbled message asking for help and warning of extreme danger.”
“Hmmm,” Steve could almost see Zero’s face pondering the problem, “Well, the second you know more, send a full report – got it?”
“Yes sir, we’ll do that. XL5 signing off.”
Steve closed the transmitter down and, with Robert back in control, headed to his cabin to get some rest.
By the next morning the World Space Patrol craft was nearing its destination.
“I’ll take over, Robert,” Steve said, sitting down in the port-side control chair, “Matt, we’re approaching those coordinates. Tell me you have something more on that signal?”
“I’m afraid not, Steve, still the same signal repeating – and just as distorted as it was before. Wait!” Matt’s voice was suddenly excited, “I think I’m getting something on the spacemascope! Steer 1-4-2, Zero-Blue.”
Steve complied, turning the craft to the new course.
“What is it, Matt?”
“It’s a space vessel of some kind, looks like an Earth design. I’m running it through the astro-records library.”
Steve heard the whirring of a tape bank on the comm channel from the navigation bay before Matt replied, “It’s an old XK Ship, Steve. Looks like XK7.”
“The XK7?” Steve replied wonderingly, “That was an experimental cryo-ship wasn’t it?”
“Sure was, and it was listed as lost almost 20 years ago.”
“If the crew were in their cryo-bays, that could explain how they survived this long.” Steve mused, “I’ll bring Fireball alongside, then Venus and I will go over there and find out what’s been happening.”
“Roger Steve!” Matt replied.
A few minutes later, Steve met Venus in the navigation bay.
“Right, let’s go!”
With a whoosh of compressed air, they were ejected into space one after the other. They switched on their thruster packs and began the short space-walk towards the rectangular hatch on the side of the cigar-shaped XK7 rocket.
“What do you think their chances are?” Steve asked as they approached the airlock.
“Cryo-science is still a relatively unknown field. But early studies showed that if the process was interrupted and a subject brought out of cryo-sleep too quickly, it could lead to disorientation, confusion and in some cases, irrational behaviour and violence.”
“Then let’s take no chances, have your coma-ray ready,” Steve advised, reaching for the entry mechanism.
The hatch slid open and they floated inside, sinking slowly to the deck as the artificial gravity system took over. Then the inner hatchway opened and they cautiously proceeded into the ship.
The XK7 was smaller than XL5, but it had the familiar central corridor common to most Earth-built spacecraft.
“Let’s check the command module first, then we’ll take a look at the cryo-bay,” Steve suggested.
“Raise your hands, both of you!”
The voice cracked like a whip as Steve and Venus spun to face the person who had spoken. Steve’s coma-ray was already held at firing position, but before he could squeeze the trigger, it was blasted out of his hand by the stranger’s own weapon.
“I said raise your hands!” the stranger barked threateningly, “Otherwise my next shots will be aimed at your hearts!”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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