By Larry Fugate
Part Two of the "Past Lives" story
It was dark. Professor Matthew Mattic blinked several times, but still couldn’t see anything. His head ached like someone had struck him with a large spanner. He could hear something... sounded like a fire crackling in a fireplace, but distant. A powerful stench nearly took his breath away. It smelled like brimstone and burned hair. He attempted to turn his head, but found that impossible. One side of his head was against something metallic and hot. His legs and hands seemed to be pinned, too, as he was unable to move them. Fear shot bright and hot thru his mind. “Where am I?” he shouted. “Hellllp!Steve! Venus! Anybody!!” Nothing. He called again and again, praying that someone would hear him and free him from this prison.
Suddenly, he heard voices... It was Lt. Ninety! He was shouting something, but it was muffled. “I’m HERE! HELLLLLP!!!” Matt shouted back. Now he could hear and feel footsteps on the walls of his prison. “Professor! Where are you!?!?” He heard Ninety shout again, but now much nearer and clearer. “I’m in HERE! Get me OUT! I can’t MOVE!” Matt shouted. More footsteps, almost on top of him now. The clang of metal tools rang in his ears as several people wielded shovels, picks, and crowbars above him. “Hurry, men!” Ninety was shouting. With a great gasp of effort from the workers, Matt was suddenly bathed in bright light and cool air. Lt. Ninety and 10 Space City workers were standing over him, working diligently to shove an enormous piece of metal away from the spot where he lay. It crashed to the ground and they swarmed back to him, working now to free the rest of him. Ninety crouched beside his head and with tears in his eyes, said, “Thank goodness we found you, Professor!You’re the first survivor we’ve been able to find!”
Mattic looked around. There were small fires burning here and there, with workers spraying foam on them. Various metal pieces were strewn about haphazardly all over. A glint of red caught his eye and held it. There, one of the great shield-shaped tail fins of a Fireball spaceship lay. Without his glasses, Matt was unable to make out much more than the proud lettering on it’s side - “XL5”.
“What happened? Where’s Steve and Venus? Where’s Robert? Did the ship crash?” Mattic shouted. A medical corpsman was kneeling beside him now, examining his injuries. “Please, Professor, stay down and quiet. You have some very severe injuries that we must stabilize immediately.”. More corpsmen arrived with a stretcher and began to get Matt secured to it. “NO! WAIT!” Matt shouted. “What about the others? I can’t leave!” The first corpsman pressed an air-powered injector against Matt’s neck and he fell asleep.
Matt’s eyes opened slowly. What a terrible dream he’d had last night! The room was bright and cheery, with a nice tropical breeze coming in thru the open window. Memory caught up with him in a rush. “The crash! Steve! STEVE LOOK OUT!” Matt was shouting now, reliving the horror of the night before. A nurse rushed in to check on him. “Professor Mattic! Are you all right?” She busied herself checking the various dials and indicator screens that surrounded his bed. A deep feeling of despair washed over Matt. “Where...where are Steve and Venus? Are they okay? Please, let them be okay...” Tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks to the pillow. Commander Zero rushed into the room just then.
“Matt! You old toot, I’m so glad to see you alive I could just burst!” he shouted. Then seeing the tears, and the flatness of the bed around Matt’s body, he stopped. “Oh, Matt! I’m so sorry!” Zero said as he approached the bed. Turning to the nurse, he asked, “Has the Doctor been in yet?”. She shook her head yes, but the look on her face held no comfort for him. She took his arm and said, “Doctor Sirius told me to bring you to his office as soon as you arrived, Commander. Please come with me.” Zero looked at Matt and said, “Sorry I have to run off, Mattic, but I’ll be back as soon as I can!”. The nurse closed the room door as they left.
“Oh, why?” Matt wondered. “Why did this happen? Why aren’t they telling me about Steve and Venus?”. Anger began to creep up on him. “I need to know what happened! How can I lie here and not find out?”. Making up his mind to go and get some answers, he reached for the blanket covering him to fling it off and get out of bed...but nothing happened. Looking down, he could see the covered form of his body, but the bed was strangely flat beyond his abdomen. Did they have him in a special bed that kept his legs lower than the rest of him? And why did they have his arms bound?
“NURSE! NURSE COME IN HERE!” he called. The nurse that had led Commander Zero away appeared at the door with a tall dark-skinned fellow in a Doctor’s coat. “Professor Mattic, I am Doctor Sirius. I’ll be responsible for your care while you’re here in Sickbay.” he said as he entered the room. “It’s about time!” Matt fumed. “Why can’t I get out of this bed? Why are my arms and legs tied down? I need to get up and find some answers right away!”. The Nurse glanced at the Doctor, but said nothing. At a nod from the Doctor, she left the room.
“Professor Mattic, I’m afraid you’re not going to be getting out of that bed for a while. You sustained grave injuries in the crash of Fireball XL5 that we’re going to have to work on carefully. As your Doctor, and a fellow man of Science, I’m going to be frank with you. Your legs were crushed beyond recovery in the crash. We had to amputate them to save your life. Your arms and hands are 50% covered in 3rd-degree burns and lacerations. Some of the lacerations were so deep that the bone beneath was scored deeply. Some of the nerves in your arms and back were damaged as well. We have you paralyzed from the chest down right now to prevent your moving and opening up the stitches we had to use to hold you together. You were amazingly lucky to have survived that crash.”
Staggered, Matt muttered, “What about the others?” The Doctor hung his head and sighed deeply. “I’m afraid they didn’t survive the crash. Doctor Venus and Colonel Zodiac were found in the remains of Fireball Junior, burned beyond recognition. We’ve only just identified them from dental records. Your robot co-pilot, Robert, was also destroyed. Those parts of him that were recovered have been placed in secure storage, pending an investigation into the crash. Tears flowed again from Matt’s eyes. Nearly all the people in the world that he cared about were gone. “Would you like some time to yourself?” the Doctor asked gently. “Ye-yes, please.” Matt sobbed. “D-doctor”, he called as the man moved towards the door, “Did they suffer?”. Once again, Doctor Sirius sighed, then looked up at Matt. “No, Professor, they didn’t. I can promise you that they did not suffer.” and then he turned and left, quietly closing the door behind him. Matt began to so something he hadn’t done in many years. He prayed his thankfulness that his friends had not suffered in their fiery death.
The days came and went. New, experimental treatments were applied that gave Matt
back the full use of his arms and hands quickly. His burns were healed with a
new treatment found while examining Venus’ medical notes left in her quarters.
Matt’s mind was racing. As his body was healed, he found himself trying to
figure out the cause of the crash. Commander Zero was reluctant to allow him to
participate in the investigation, but relented when he found out how fast Matt
was healing. He knew the work would be therapeutic for Matt. Matt even was able
to design robotic legs to replace his missing ones, and was making incredible
progress learning to walk with them. One day, while working in the great control
tower, Zero was surprised to see Lt. Ninety step out of the elevator, with Matt
following on his robotic legs behind him. “Matt! You old toot! Great to see you
out of that Sickbay room!
How’re you feeing?” “Much better, Commander”, Matt smiled. “I’m ready to begin work on the crash investigation. Doctor Sirius says I’m as fit as I’m going to be, so I want to get to work”. Zero looked at Ninety to confirm this, and Ninety nodded. “The Doctor said he was released from Sickbay, Commander, and fit to resume light duties.” Ninety handed a small sheet of paper to Zero, who checked it over carefully, Sure enough, it was as the Lieutenant had said.
“Okay, Professor. Go down to level 10 and join the investigatory commission. I’ll call them now to let them know you’re coming. They’ll be mighty pleased to have you on board!” A big smile from Matt was all the confirmation needed, as he turned back to the elevator and left. Zero picked up the phone and called immediately. “He’s on his way, Jock. We can get this figured out finally!”.
When Matt reached level 10 and opened the elevator, he was greeted warmly by the people gathered there. Jock, the Chief Engineer of Space City, leapt forward and shook Matt’s hand vigorously. “Ah’m ever so pleased ta’ see ye, Professor! Please come in and meet the other folks investigatin’ yur crash.”. Indicating each person in turn, Jock made the introductions. “Aye, here’s Doctor Fesarius, from the World Space Patrol research team. Over there is Mr. Singh, from the American Institute of Engineering. And this young lass is Doctor Chu all the way from the Chinese Institute of Space Flight. They’ll be working wi’us was we try to piece this mystery together.”. Matt nodded to each as they were introduced. He’d worked with Singh and Fesarius before, but had never met Ms. Chu before. “Thanks, Jock, I just want you all to know that I’m ready to do whatever it takes to find the cause of Fireball XL5’s crash and deaths of Colonel Zodiac and Doctor Venus. I vow not to rest until we know those answers.”. The others smiled and applauded. Mr. Singh stepped forward and indicated a chair at the table that was set up in the room. “Please, Matt, come to the table and let’s get started.”. Matt walked to the chair indicated and they all sat down.
Doctor Fesarius began. “Now then Professor, Please tell us exactly what the events were on the day leading up to the crash. We know from XL5’s logs that you were returning from your latest patrol of Sector 25, and that that patrol had been a very contentious one...” “Yeah,” Matt began, “It sure was a contentious patrol. We had a lot of problems with the Subterrains from Planet 46 that trip. Seems they were everywhere, trying to cause us problems. As you know, Colonel Zodiac was the one who captured and imprisoned their Chief, and they’ve sworn his death in revenge for that. They’ve tried several time to kill us, and especially Steve, but have been thwarted every time.” Matt paused, took a drink from the glass of water before him. All eyes were on him, and a tape recorder was taking down his every word.
“Professor Mattic,” Doctor Chu began, “Not to jump to conclusions, but do you think that the Subterrains had anything to do with the crash?” “Well, that’s very possible, of course, but we need to be able to prove it, and to be able to show exactly how they did it, if they did. I’d suggest we continue with my testimony first. Jock, according to the records that Commander Zero gave me, you’ve interviewed everyone who witnessed the crash, and everyone that record shows had any communication with Fireball on that day. Is this correct?” Jock nodded. “Very well, then, back to my story...”.
“We had stopped and arrested three Subterrains on three different planets as they tried every trick in the book to shoot XL5 down. Missiles were fired at us from planet Arraygus, asteroids were flung at us at planet Astros Prime, and as we were leaving planet Tardim, an energy ray was fired at us that caused the loss of one of our steering rockets on Fireball Junior. We were able to repair the rocket afterwards. We had all three in our Space Jail and were heading for Earth to turn them in when we received a Mayday from a ship stranded in an asteroid field. Steve, Venus and I took Fireball Junior into the field, leaving Robert to man the main section. We had to fly around a lot of asteroids to find the ship, and boy, was it a mess! They had been caught between two large asteroids and part of their ship was stuck there. We evacuated the two crewmen to junior, then used an Interceptor missile to blow the two asteroids apart again. They were able to get their ship going again from an auxilliary control room and make their way back to their base for repairs. It was after that we we headed for home. Once under way, we discovered that the Subterrains had overpowered Robert and escaped the ship. We have no idea where they went, and we searched XL5 without finding them. Venus confirmed that no thruster packs or oxygen pills were missing from our stores. Robert’s damage was limited to a burned out fuse in his central nervous system. I repaired that and left him to recharge as we headed for Earth.”.
Jock spoke up, “So, Professor, what do ye think happened to those Subterrains? Did they commit suicide by ejecting wi’out suits or oxygen pills?” “My only guess, Jock, “ Matt responded, “is just that. They couldn’t face being imprisoned on Earth, having failed in their assignments, so they escaped by somehow blowing open the door of the Space Jail, incapacitating Robert, and ejecting themselves, unprotected, into the vacuum of space while the rest of us were helping the folks in the asteroid field.”. Chu spoke again. “I guess that explains why Doctor Venus was found in Fireball Junior, then. Was she helping Colonel Zodiac with the approach and landing, since your robot was out of commission?”. “Yes, Doctor, that’s why she was up there during the crash. I was in the Navigation Bay, watching our course.”
Fesarius asked, “Please, Matt, tell us about the approach and landing. Did all go as usual, or was there any trouble?” Matt thought and replied, “No, it was an entirely by-the-book approach to landing. Lt. Ninety had cleared us for landing at Space City, and Steve had full control throughout the procedure. It couldn’t have been more commonplace. Steve had just fired the vertical retros when I felt and heard an explosion. The last time I had checked, we were at 300 foot altitude, approaching the landing pad at 20 MPH. Steve had already extended the landing struts. The explosion must have come from the main motor, because the rear bulkhead of the Navigation bay suddenly flew across the room, followed by a burst of fire and superheated air. I passed out then, and all I know about the crash from that point on is what I’ve seen in videos and recorded testimonies.” Matt stopped, took another sip of water. It was hard, dragging these memories out yet again, as he’d done every day since waking up in that Sickbay room. He blinked back tears, and looked at the people in the room. Jock stood, and said, “Let’s have a bit of a recess, then, and then we’ll reconvene to speak of this some more.” Everyone stood and filed out.
For three weeks, they met every day, even weekends. Testimonies were rehashed over and over, evidence was examined and re-examined. Still, they could find no reason for the crash. One night, Matt was in his workshop, attempting to figure out a way to use Robert’s recovered parts in a new robot, when an inspiration hit him. “Of course! It’s so clear to me now! How did we miss that?” He swept the workbench clear with his arm and unrolled a set of the plans for Fireball spacecraft. Paging thru them to the diagrams of the various rocket motor systems, he saw what he was looking for – a weakness in the design that would allow a saboteur a quick and easy way to blow up a Fireball craft. “Yes! All it would take is for someone to uncouple this exhaust pipe here...and connect it to this intake...here. Since all Fireballs use flexible exhaust ducting the same size as the various input ports on the various motors, it would cause an explosion when the exhaust gases of this motor were injected into this motor. And, I know WHO did it, too!”. He quickly grabbed the telephone and called Commander Zero with the news. Zero was in the workshop looking at the plans exactly fifteen minutes later. “Matt, this is amazing! You mean to say that the three Subterrains you had in XL5’s Space Jail did this sabotage, then ejected themselves to die in space?” “Yep, Commander, I do. I reckon they deliberately caused themselves to be arrested by us, and then other agents provided the distraction in the asteroid field that allowed them to escape and sabotage the ship while we were out. They then committed suicide to avoid being forced to admit what they had done before the trigger event occurred. When Steve fired the vertical retros, instead of the exhaust being vented outside the ship, it was directed into the main motor, causing a neutomic explosion that destroyed the ship, and killed Steve and Venus.” Zero was white with shock. “I guess then, “ he muttered, “they finally got their revenge on Steve. I’m gonna call the President of the United Planets and demand that we take action against Planet 46 and the Subterrains!” “Now, Commander, I want justice for Steve and Venus too! But we don’t have a shred of evidence that the three Subterrains did anything but incapacitate Robert and eject themselves into space. I have a better idea, though, and I’m gonna need your and Jock’s help...”.
Zero, Jock, and Matt worked most of the night assembling a new robot from Robert’s remains. The new robot was identical to Robert, but had extra safeguards against overloads and had a coma ray gun integrated into it’s chest. Before dawn, they had it programmed and running tests successfully. Then they took it into the Time Machine room.
“Jock, please place the robot into the time travel booth. I’ll set the controls. We want to send the robot back to the day that the Subterrains broke out of XL5’s Space Jail, and to XL5’s coordinates so that it can stop them.” Zero looked up at Matt. “Tell me again why we can’t go ourselves to prevent this?” “Like I said, Commander, when my machine transports people to the past, it causes them to lose their memories, which are replaced upon arrival in the new time by those of someone who had passed on. We wouldn’t be very effective if we arrived onboard XL5 and forgot our mission! Robots, not being alive, don’t lose their memories. Also, if we’re successful, this time line will be replaced by the correct one, where XL5 returned safely to Earth. You, Jock, and I and this robot will no longer exist if we’re successful.” “Now wait a minute!” Zero shouted. “I’m not sure I want to not exist anymore!” Matt chuckled, “Commander, you’ll still exist, it just won’t be the you that experienced the crash. We’ll all be okay, even Steve and Venus!” “Well, okay,” Zero muttered, “as long as we’re all okay in the end.”. The robot was in the booth. Matt checked his calculations once more and set the dials. Saying a silent prayer, he threw the transfer switch and the machine lit up, making strange noises as the robot in the booth faded away....
Onboard Fireball XL5, in free-float just outside the asteroid field, Robert was standing guard next to the Space Jail door. “Guaaard the pris-on-ers. Guaaard the pris-on-ers” he repeated over and over. Inside the three Subterrains were plotting their escape. Suddenly, a nearby speaker blared, “Fireball Junior to main ship. Robert, we’re on our way back, so please go to auxiliary control and prepare for linkup.” “Pre-pare for linkup. Pre-pare for linkup.” Robert intoned as he turned from the jail door and proceeded to the auxiliary control room. Astonished at their good fortune, the prisoners used the small explosives they had secreted on their persons to blow the door open and then ran toward the main motor room. “Quickly, my fellow Subterrains! We are close now to avenging our Chief by killing Steve Zodiac!” Opening the hatch to the room, they were stopped by a robot that looked like Robert. Without a word, the robot fired the coma ray gun in it’s chest and all three Subterrains collapsed onto the deck, unconscious. Even before they hit the deck, the robot wavered and disappeared.
Fireball Junior’s return was uneventful, although it was a bit mysterious to find the three Subterrains unconscious on the deck before the open door to the main motor room. Venus gave them each a shot that would keep them out until they could be returned to earth for imprisonment, and Steve made doubly sure they couldn’t escape again by handcuffing and strapping them to the Sickbay beds they were sleeping in. Matt carefully checked all of the instruments in the motor room, and made some notes to himself that WSP design engineers would need to correct as soon as they landed. It would be terrible if someone had managed to link the exhaust from one of the motors to the main motor. Why, the explosion could totally destroy the ship!
Upon their return to Space City, they were greeted by Commander Zero on the
landing pad. “I don’t know why, folks, but I just had to come meet you this time
myself.” he said with a big smile.
This story previously appeared on the UNITY CITY website, hosted by Robin and Pauline Day, webmasters of the Space City website.
READ "PAST LIVES" BY THE SAME AUTHOR