The flame beast brought sure death to its enemies-- and little better to its friends!
"Asteroid at three o'clock high!"
The voice of the technician manning the forward radar look-out position came into the control room of the cruiser, arousing there a frenzy of activity. Anywhere in space an asteroid was dangerous business. Here, inside the rings of Saturn, they were fairly common and all the more dangerous because they were frequent. In the big, easy chair from which all activities of the ship were controlled, fat Captain Adams hastily punched the button which would connect the big view screen directly in front of him with the radar scanning station in the nose of the ship.
In his agitation, he hit the wrong button. Instead of the bow radar, he got the set in the stern of the cruiser. There flashed on the screen in front of him, a view of the rings of Saturn--rings composed of millions of tiny particles of rock that were the remnants of a moon which once had circled Saturn until smashed in some cosmic collision in the far distant past.
At the captain's mistake, a little prickle of nervousness passed through the men in the control room. There was not a man in the ship who did not know that Captain Adams was over-due for retirement, that he made mistakes.
Vaston, the ship's executive officer and second in command, glanced at the fat captain. The sudden lines of worry were etched on the executive officer's face.
Realizing he had made a mistake, Captain Adams hastily punched another button. This time he got the right one. There flashed on the view screen in front of him a reproduction of a jagged chunk of rock floating serenely through space--the asteroid.
At the same instant the voice of the forward lookout came again.
"Asteroid not on collision course with us."
The report, plus the vision on the screen, brought instant relief to Captain Adams and to every other man in the control room, except possibly one man at the radio panels. This man was Johnson Crane. Technically, his rating on this cruiser was that of space radioman, first class. If he was anything more than that, no person on the ship had had any intimation of it. A big man, quiet, unobtrusive, there was a hint somewhere about him of hidden strength.
Listening to the report from the forward radar lookout, Crane wondered vaguely if there was anything wrong with it. There was plenty wrong on this ship, he knew. There was also something wrong here in space near the rings of Saturn. He, and some highly place people in Planetary Government, had been aware of this fact for more than two years. The question was--what? There had been wild reports from freighter captains of something seen here, there had been rumors--
Crane felt a tingle of electricity pass along his skin. It was a mild thing, something like the charge of static electricity a person picked up from walking across a rug on a chilly winter's day. Crane hardly noticed it. What he did notice was the sudden fixed stare that appeared in the eyes of a technician at the plotting table near him.
The man was looking at something. His face was frozen with fear.
Other men in the control room were also looking at something. On their faces was the same frantic look of cold fear.
Crane turned so quickly in his chair, he hardly seemed to move at all. Turned, then instantly stopped turning. Paralysis settled over him. During the space of seconds, he could not move a muscle.
He saw what the other men were seeing.
He saw IT.
A huge hour-glass of living flame half as tall as a man hung un-supported in the air of the control room. Alive with glowing colors in the red end of a spectrum, it seemed to have a flaming red core as big as a man's fist, a heart of some kind.