Title: Plan 7 of 9 from Outer Space

Author: Odon

Fandom: Star Trek Voyager/Captain Proton uber.

Summary: See CAPTAIN PROTON in SEVENTEEN THRILLING CHAPTERS as he battles to SAVE THE WORLD from a diabolical globe-spanning conspiracy!  What SINISTER PLOT lies behind the theft of a DEADLY DOOMSDAY DEVICE?  What FIENDISH FOE is responsible for the ruthless abduction of BEAUTIFUL WOMEN?  What TERRIBLE MENACE threatens the entire future of humanity?

Rated: NC-17.  Parody/Adventure.  Contains violence, sexual references, swearing and some rude humor so if this offends you, don't read any further!

Disclaimer: No profit is intended in the writing of this story.  Star Trek: Voyager is the property of Paramount (a Viacom company).

Send feedback to odon05@hotmail.com.  Archiving is welcome, but try and contact me first.  My thanks to Kerensa for her beta work.


Prologue:  Invasion of the Shoddy Snatcher

IT was ironic that the greatest threat ever faced by humanity began as just an average day in the year 2009.  The young couple had parked their flying car outside the robot cafe, which offered a breathtaking view of the gleaming white city stretching to the horizon like a vast laundromat.  Hyperboloid towers pulsated with powerful atomic energies, zeppelins moored with chrome spires that pierced the clouds; a brobdingnagian ziggurat challenged the gods to ban the universal translator.  Rivers of people swarmed over skybridges and packed the electrams.  Neon fantasies played across edifying cliffs of glass and marble, inscribed with the wisdom of famous philosophers.  Jet-propelled trains raced through elevated tunnels carved into block-spanning megastructures, while gyropter taxis flew on suicidal flight paths through sweeping searchlights and windy concrete canyons.

Johnny Alpha-187, a handsome progeny of the eugenics program that had brought America to this glorious new age, looked deeply into the stunning blue eyes of his paramour and shouted: "HONEY, THERE'S SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT I HAVE TO TELL YOU!"

"WHAT?" screamed Constance Goodheart over the deafening thunder of the megalopolis.

"I SAID I'VE GOT__"  The rest was drowned by a jetpacking commuter screaming directly overhead, followed by an even louder scream as he ran out of fuel in mid-air.

"I'VE GOT A PROPOSITION FOR YOU!"  Johnny groped through the pristine folds of his toga, wondering how Mankind could touch the stars yet fashion-wise be stuck in the days of Imperial Rome.  Eventually he found the small jewel box and opened it.

"CONSTANCE GOODHEART," he began in the formal Tone of Address used by the Alpha Class on such occasions.  "WOULD YOU__"

A winged rocket chose that moment to blast off for the Luna colonies, shaking the ground with the unbearable fury of its fiery thrusters.  At the same instant a torrential downpour crashed down on their bubble-top canopy as a zeppelin released several tons of water ballast from half a mile up.

"WOULD I WHAT?" yelled Constance.  Her luscious lower lip trembled as she espied what nestled in her boyfriend's palm — a ring of pure Moon gold enclosing a diamond of such lustrous lambency it could only have come from the fiery volcanoes of Jupiter.  "WOULD I WHAT, JOHNNY MY LOVE?"


"YES, JOHNNY?" cried the bounteous beauty, as a flying wing missed its rooftop runway and crashed a thousand stories to the ground below.





"Face it, babe," said the insensitive New Age guy, slipping the ring onto his own finger.  "Girls are as redundant as electricity meters were after the invention of cheap atomic energy.  I've got an autokitchen to cook my meals, Birnley clothing that never has to be washed, and a Servus robomaid that doesn't have a headache whenever I want to get laid — what do I need you for?  So now your only option is to become a butt-naked bond-slave for the Princess of Methane."


"Hey honey, I was born in a test tube like everyone else these days."


"No need to scream, doll.  The Rush Minute's over."


"That's a classic Lincoln Futura concept car!  I've been studying how past generations viewed the future."


"Oh stick it up your ARRRGHHH!" yelled Johnny as a retina-scorching glare flooded the aerocar, illuminating its chrome in stark monochrome.  "What's with those bloody searchlights anyway?  Don't they know the last air raid ended twenty years ago?  By the Great Calculator, what's that!?"


"You dames don't know anything!  Flying saucers are aerodynamically unstable...that must be why those strings are holding it up..."


"Yes, definitely held up by wantum superstrings," babbled Johnny.  "I'd postulate a Handwavium Drive generating a Flangium Field of pure Gaffleblab suspended in Piller Filler, drawing its power from a cubic foot of Buzzwordium__"

"You're just making that shit up, aren't you?" snapped Constance.



"How shall I greet them?  What does Klaatu barado nikto mean anyway?  Do they speak Esperanto?  Lojban?  Sona?  Cityspeak?  Interlac?  Interlingua?  Triplanetarian?  Why invent all these universal languages if we can't agree which one to use?"

"OH JOHNNY, IT'S...completely ridiculous!"

And the invader from the stars was indeed ridiculous.  A man-sized figure in an ill-fitting gorilla suit, wearing a diver's helmet topped by a wonky TV aerial, shambled towards them at a pace that might possibly have overtaken a drunken Galapagos tortoise.


Johnny frantically punched the start button of his flying car.  For a brief moment the impellers whirred to life...only to fall back into silence.  The ultrasonic door-key gave no response.  "Keep your hands off her, you furry fiend!"

"Oh, that's just like a man!  First you're going to toss your girl like a used mowbot — then the minute someone else shows an interest you get all territorial!"

They watched in helpless horror as the alien pointed what appeared to be an oversized hairdryer at them.  From its gaping maw spewed a beam of energy so raw, so horrific, so utterly incomprehensible it could not be described before the advent of hard science fiction.  Constance shrieked as her boyfriend's head exploded, his hair burst into flame, his eyeballs boiled in their sockets, his clothes melted, his bones shattered, his organs turned inside out and upside down, his testicles were charred to tiny briquettes and his flesh became a stinking slurry of radioactive fluids whose acrid stench made her mouth fill with bile!  A second blast disintegrated the passenger canopy, along with every stitch of clothing on Constance's ravishing form.  There she lay — a sensuous flower of American womanhood — naked and defenseless before the clutching claws of an extraterrestrial terror!

"AAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" screamed Constance, as she was swept up in the arms of the murderous monstrosity!

"AAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" screamed the monster, as its spine cracked under the weight of the struggling blonde.

"HELP!  HELP!" cried Constance, her naked breasts heaving in wretched fear as she was carried off to an incognizable fate.  "CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?  HEEEELP!  HEEEEEEELP!  WHY DOESN'T SOMEONE HEAR ME?"

Far above a Pan Am supersonic transport broke the sound barrier along with a million windows.

"Oh...that's why."

Chapter I:  Fly Captain and the Girl of Tomorrow

CAPTAIN Proton, Spaceman First Class, protector of Earth and scourge of intergalactic evil, studied the radiant surface of the moon and gave a reluctant sigh.

"In my travels throughout the galaxy I have seen much that is beautiful," he said.  "The ice rings of Saturn, the song-crystals of Mars, the wild jungles of Venus women.  Worlds that look like a painted matte backdrop, and brilliant stars against the black cyclorama of space.  But while this sight may top them all, I'm afraid I must decline."

The sublime lips of the Servus gynoid puckered into a petulant pout as she straightened up.  Her black microskirt slid back over white syntha-silk panties; her cantilevered cleavage stress-tested the tensile strength of her blouse.  The rays of the setting sun through the glassite walls added a golden sheen to her honey-brown hair, and outlined the sculptured perfection of her man-moulded curves.

"But Master," simpered the sloe-eyed servitor, "as an ILUV-69 robomaid of the New York Megacity Hilton, my sole function is to attend to your every physical and emotional need.  If I fail you in this regard, I have no choice but to self-terminate by overloading my pleasure circuits with an atomic-powered vibrator!"

Proton gulped, wishing his erection was less obvious in the form-fitting trousers of his dress uniform.  "Listen doll, I believe robots exist to free humanity from the soulless grind of manual labor, to act as a faithful companion in the conquest of space, and to serve as a politically-incorrect slave substitute — not the pornographic fantasy of geeky scientifiction readers!"

"But I have been programmed with over six million pornographic fantasies," purred the sensual sexeroid, the subsonics of her voice sending erotic vibrations through Proton's nether regions.  "I was created in Man's image of the ideal woman.  No Servus droid may harm the male ego or, through omission of action, allow that ego to be harmed."  Her self-elevating heels raised another three inches; her eyes widened an extra half-micron, her bust size increased by two cups.  "Even the walls of Jericho fell, Captain.  As will your trousers."

The gynoid's pussitronic brain assessed this fine specimen standing erect before her.  A handsome, straight-jawed man in a space-black uniform, with silver shoulder pads and external jockstrap.  Gleaming medals marked a broad chest, trim breeches hugged powerful legs and tight buttocks, a polished rocket-pistol rode his narrow hips, supple leather boots clung to his calves.  Proton's features were regular and strong; his hair brown and wavy; his steely eyes showed the courage, strength, patriotism, determination, flair, initiative, commitment, loyalty, sexual prowess, hunger for adventure, thirst for knowledge, taste for danger and talent for paperwork expected of an elite member of the Space Rangers.  If it weren't for the fact that anyone dressed like that was likely to be gay, she would have ravished him on the spot!

The shrill tone of the door buzzer cut across the luxury suite.

"I'm coming!" Proton ejaculated.  Grateful for the distraction, he dodged past the randy robotrix and waved his hand across the access panel.

But that was a mistake!  For though his location was classified to the highest level of Earth's defense forces, Proton had been hunted down by a foe more cunning and relentless than any he had ever encountered.  As the door slid open an intense flash of light exploded in Proton's face!  An ambush!  He staggered backwards, a hand groping blindly for his sidearm.

"Captain Proton of the Space Rangers?  I'm 'Buster' Kincaid, ace reporter for the Interplanetary Telepress."

Proton blinked the flashbulb's afterimage from his eyes, eventually making out a young Panasian male brandishing a 4 x 5" Speed Graphic camera.  His clothes had a similar anachronistic look: a pale belted trench coat, collared shirt fastened with buttons instead of magnaclips, and a battered brown fedora with an identicard stuck in the hatband — the word PRESS was punched in tiny dots into the card's surface.

"Sorry, no comment!" said Proton quickly and the door began to hiss shut.  Buster's foot shot into the closing gap faster than a subAtlantic maglev train.

"I just want to ask you a few questions__"

"If it's about Earth vs. the Flying Cup & Saucers," said Proton, "then all details have been classified Hyper-Secret by Hemispheric Defense Command."

"No, it's something else."

"Likewise my heroic battle against the Crawling Eyelash."

"Actually it was about__"

"As for beating off Hung Long — I'm not sure that's an appropriate subject for young readers..."

"Well as a matter of a fact__"

"And regarding my so-called 'massacre' of the Radioactive Mutants of Outer Mongolia...well they must have been evil 'cause they were so damn ugly!"

"I understand you know Roger Ramjet?" the reporter finally managed to get in edgeways.

"Roger Ramjet of the American Eagle Squadron?  That fine hero, upstanding family man, and all-round__"

"Are you aware he's been busted for popping pills?"

"Disgrace to his country whom I have very little acquaintance with!" babbled Proton, throwing his weight behind the door.

"Ramjet claims his proton pills give him the strength of twenty atom bombs!" shouted Buster, shoving hard in the opposite direction.  "Do you also take pills that give you the delusion of being a weapon of mass destruction?  Would you like to comment on the unusual similarity between your name and Ramjet's drug of choice?  Did you act as his supplier?  Do other Space Rangers fly under the influence of mind-altering narcotics?"


The door-servos began to whine in protest, emitting a faint stream of blue smoke.  "Are you aware that the Space Ranger uniform throws serious doubts upon your sexuality?  Have you ever tried to roger Ramjet yourself?"

"Is that why he won't take advantage of me?" asked Room Servus, popping her pretty head around Proton's shoulder.  "Would you like me to call for the bellhop droid, Master?"

"Bugger off!" yelled the bold space hero.

"Whatever turns you on, Commando Campy!"  The robomaid flounced away in a huff.

"Do you seriously expect us to believe you have a miraculous escape from death every half hour?" cried Buster.  "How did you get out of that cockadoodie car?  Doesn't your tendency to get into these situations in the first place prove you're just an incompetent bungler?  And what about all those villains you've falsely claimed as kills — isn't it strange the way they keep coming back from the dead?"

Proton jammed his peaked cap into Buster's mouth, but the newshawk spat it out.  "Are you aware that the slurpasaur you encountered on Planet X has been identified by experts as an optically-enlarged iguana with a fin stuck to its back?  Did you know your Single-Stage-to-Mongo rocketship makes a sound like a foghorn farting?  Are you aware that Mongo is not a world ruled by a power-mad emperor but a character from Blazing Saddles?  And just how does your rocketship travel interstellar distances in violation of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity?"

"Suffering Supernovas!" shouted Proton, bringing a Venusian swamp-boot down on Buster's instep.  "Someone get this madman off me!"

"WARNING!  WARNING!" blared a bubble-headed booze synthesizer, waving its accordion-like arms.  "A GUEST IS UNDER ATTACK!  ACTIVATE ANTI-INTRUSION MEASURES!"

"BY YOUR COMMAND!" grated a chrome kitchen appliance.  Two slices of toast shot through the air, bouncing off the wall a foot from Buster's head.

"Those Cylon toasters can never shoot straight!  Get some muscle in here, damn you!"

A thick steelonium door hissed open on the upper landing, and from the suite's personal A-bomb shelter trundled a huge hemisphere-studded pepperpot.  Its sinister eyestalk rotated to view the struggling pair, while a fearsome death ray and an extendable toilet plunger jiggled with menace.


The metaltron crashed end over end down the staircase, rolling to a stop at Proton's feet.

"Bungling bucket of bolts!"  Proton gave it a hefty kick.  "Help me get rid of this jerk-off!"

Its electro-circuits scrambled by the fall, the metaltron tried desperately to decipher these new instructions.

"JERK-OFF...CONSULTING VOCABULARY BANK.  DEFINITION: TO MASTURBATE!"  The sucker arm latched onto Proton's groin and began pumping with vigor.  "MASTURBATE!  MASTURBATE!  MAS-TUR-BAAAAAAAAAAATE!"

Chapter II:  The Shape of Things in Catsuits

"PROTON!" railed the President of the United Nations of Earth.  "Are you aware that the fate of the entire world frequently lies in your fumbling hands?"

"Yes, Mr. President," said Captain Proton, his gaze fixed somewhere above the polished presidential cranium.  Baldness was the only nod to popular fashion made by the world's foremost scientist-statesman (* see 'Doc Civilized: Man of Aluminium'), Founding Father of the technocracy that had ruled the entire human race since the last World War.  The President of Earth foreswore the white togas and Lucite sandals of his class, preferring instead a conservative suit in the style of the previous century.  His dark eyes glowered from behind wire-framed glasses, while a homburg sat with anachronous indifference between a perpetual uranium clock and a desktop videotron.  It was a bizarre eccentricity in a society that had celebrated the end of history in the late 1980's.

The rugged rocketeer and the bald-pated politician were inside what was still referred to as the Oval Office — though the sound-proofed, stronganium-sheathed, Z-Beam shielded, spy-ray deflecting, biocontaminant-sealed, radiation-resistant bunker a thousand feet beneath New York Megacity (still the financial and political powerhouse of North America, and thus the entire solar system) which could survive anything short of a direct hit from a Quemerahydratexamativyusdoxogenchaloramotivahadron bomb — bore as much relation to that pre-Atomic locus of power as a radioisotope thermoelectric-generator pen does to a feather quill.

"Don't you know that the very necessity of the Space Rangers is being questioned?" growled the President.  "That Congress is asking why we spend billions of credits exploring a galaxy that consists mostly of gravel pits?  Or why Earth needs an intergalactic enforcement patrol when the only threat comes from a few slow-moving aliens with wobbly heads?"

"I know, Mr. President."

"Really?  THEN KINDLY EXPLAIN THIS!" he roared, pointing at a copy of the Interplanetary Telepress which lay open on his desk.

"Astronaut Dave Bowman Turned into Giant Star Baby," read Proton aloud.  "Huge Diaper Urgently Required."

The President glared at the headlines, gestured angrily at his sensofield and watched in satisfaction as the newsplastic was incinerated in a flare of thermic energy.  "Give me last minute's issue of the Interplanetary Telepress!"

A fresh newsplastic whirred out of the homeopape slot.

"Randy Ranger in Depraved Orgy with Deranged Dustbin Droid!  But Mr. President, it wasn't like that at all!"

"I don't care if you Molested A Monster From Outer Space!  A sex scandal is the last thing we need right now — some congressmen are already calling for your dismissal on the grounds that you're a Rocket Man rip-off in too-tight trousers.  And those allegations against Captain Video haven't helped either."

"You can't possibly believe that Video killed that radio star!" protested Proton.  "And if I'm dismissed from service, who will defend planet Earth?"

"I believe Corbett is available."

"Tom Corbett?" said Proton in disbelief.  "That space cadet!"

"Proton, it's essential we restore public confidence in the Space Rangers ASAP.  The Great Calculator has already prognosticated a 47% probability of your organization being abolished by the end of the year."


Proton turned to gaze upon the electronic edifice that covered the entire wall behind him — twenty square feet of humming circuits and clicking relays, jumping meters and whirring dials, chattering printers and clacking numerical displays, scrolling LED messages, spinning spools of reel-to-reel tape and lights that blinked on and off for no apparent reason.  Multiple imagizers showed scenes from across the dominion of Man — lush hydroponic farms in the Sahara desert, toroid space stations waltzing to Blue Danube, a nuclear-powered roadbuilder slicing through the Amazon jungle, the vast hydroelectric dam spanning the Straits of Gibraltar.  Yet this machine was merely a terminal, commlaser-linked via artificial moons to the gigantean electronic brain beneath the ice of Antarctica.  Once a man had foolishly said there was a worldwide demand for only five computers.  Little did he know a computer would one day become so powerful it could handle the demands of the entire solar system!

"That leaves 0.05%, I believe," said Proton.

The Great Calculator replied through its tri-dimensional vocalizers.  "PROBABILITY OF EXTRAORDINARY EVENT."

"In short, what we need is a miracle."  The President spoke into his commceiver.  "Miss Selaineous, send in the man from B.U.N.G.L.E."

The door dilated, then puckered up behind a man whose ebony skin and pointed ears showed him to be a native of the planet Mars.  He wore the grey Nehru jacket and trousers of a World Government functionary.  A cuff-terminal was clipped over his right wrist, and two insignia were affixed to his chest: the crossed microscope and mini-welder of the Guild of Computer-Programmers, and an anaglyph of the Circuit of Logic — laser-etched with the first words ever spoken by the Great Calculator: THERE IS NOW.  The Circuit was a popular religious movement that worshipped the omnipotent computer, holding as fundamental values its absence of emotion and supremacy of logical thought.

"Who's the elf?" asked Proton.

"My name is unpronounceable by Earthlings when sober," said the man from Mars (or Barstool as it was known in the native tongue).  "You may call me TuMok, as your species is always trying to mock my ears."

"TuMok works for the Bureau of United Nations Global Law Enforcement," said the President.  "He will be acting as an observer for the Martian Hegemony in this matter."

TuMok's palm-print deactivated the thermonuclear security device on his attache case, which opened to reveal innumerable reels of red tape.  "Over the past six months the Bureau has collated a disturbing number of anti-social incidents across your planet.  Thefts from government warehouses and state-of-the-art research laboratories.  U.F.O's reported over major cities.  Simultaneous power losses in a blatant rip-off of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  And most disturbing of all, thousands of Earthling females of attractive appearance have been abducted by means of some rather unconvincing special effects."

Proton could see why the Martian Hegemony was concerned.  The discovery that they were not alone in the universe had brought the people of Earth together in a way that had never been possible before.  Nations, tribes, creeds and religions were finally united in a mutual sense of xenophobic terror.  Thanks to a constant stream of unimaginative science fiction movies, everyone was convinced that aliens had nothing better to do than conquer planets and impregnate their women with carnivorous offspring.

Ever since Mars had made faces at the first Viking probe there'd been tension between the two worlds, and the current trade in 'male-order' brides had not helped matters.  Martian females had been walking around naked since the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the frigid temperature of the Red Planet meant it took them seven years to thaw out for sex.  So there was a strong demand for hot Earthling chicks (especially given their cute short ears) and with a high female unemployment rate due to increasing automation of the home front, women were immigrating to Mars in droves.

"So what's been stolen?" asked Proton.

"The Bureau is acting on the hypothesis that the thefts are the responsibility of a single individual," said TuMok.  "If that is the case, they now have the complete components of a Tesla Scalar Interferometer of unlimited potential."

Proton gave a long, low whistle.

"I don't have to explain how important this is, Proton," said the President of Earth, "but I'm going to anyway for reasons of exposition.  With that weapon in the wrong hands, the potential for evil is unlimited.  A Tesla device of that magnitude could focus electro-magnetic waves of terrible consequence upon any point in the world!  An individual who controlled such power could plunge us all into a new Dark Age!  They could detonate intra-global bombardment rockets on their launch pads, shut down the energy webs of our cities, devastate countries through natural disasters, make women give up their virginity in torrid orgies__"

"So why does our government have such a weapon in the first place?"

"Don't be impertinent, Proton!  The situation is critical.  Once more we are facing the greatest threat in human history.  And only one man can save us — only one man can combat this fiendish threat to our world!  That man is you!  Captain Proton: Astrogator of Action, Spacehound of the Stars, The Man of Plastisteel!"

"Actually," said TuMok, "there are 16,507 suitable candidates in the Space Rangers, plus several million others in the combined military and police forces of your world."

Proton glared at the Martian.  "So how do we know these thefts are linked?"

"The similarity of description leads us to believe that the same culprit is involved."  TuMok handed over a computer printout.

"Great tits," read Proton.  "That's it?"

"It appears the witnesses failed to notice any other details.  However Bureau investigators were able to recover a few minutes of footage from a security opticam."

TuMok inserted a magnetic tape into the videotron.  A black title card announced:




"Is there any secret technology that hasn't come from Roswell?" mused Proton.  "That flying saucer in '49 must have been ten miles in diameter!"

The screen showed a grainy image of monolithic doors blocking the path of a single-seater rocket car — its body like a pregnant needle bisected by a huge tail fin.  A curvaceous feminine form in a tight silver unitard reclined in the cockpit.  Static interference patterns zigzagged across the screen, obscuring her face from view.

"State your name and security rating," demanded an officious male voice.  The image zoomed in to examine the driver's body in greater detail.  "And videophone number."

"I am the cleaning lady," stated the driver in a clipped Germanian accent.  "I desire admittance to this facility.  Wash day tomorrow.  Nothing clean, right."

"Ma'am, this is a Hyper-Secret Maximum Security Lethal Force Authorized Weather Balloon Storage Hanger.  Access is restricted to those with XQZ-99 clearance or written authorization from the Office of the President of Earth."

"How about I give you the most exquisite oral pleasure you could imagine?"


"And swallow afterwards."

"Umm, I've got a fault...a security fault with the doors...they appear to be opening of their own accord...just wait while I fix it...might take a few minutes...or hours..."  The screen suddenly went blank.

"The intruder smothered the guard in her cleavage, then somehow managed to deactivate a Level Ten laser grid, open a Restal digilock with a trillion possible combinations, cut through a vault made of 15 inches of impervium alloy, and remove a dozen Moray generators each weighing half a ton."

"Some kind of robotrix?" asked Proton, pondering over what he had just seen.  Who was this mysterious foe?  What was her sinister purpose?  Why did she look so good in a skin-tight catsuit?

"Not according to a biometric imagery analysis conducted by the Great Calculator."

"Come on, TuMok.  There's no way those breasts are real."

"NON-SEQUITOR."  The wall-terminal barfed ten feet of perforated printout.  "PROGNOSIS: CYBIONIC ENHANCEMENT."

"A bionic woman!" exclaimed Proton.  For years scientists had been toying with the concept of Homo Artificialis — humans with bodies augmented by machine technology.  Most practical applications had been in the sporting field, such as the famous tennis player Bjorn of Borg.  "Is that possible?"

"Due to a recent breakthrough by my esteemed colleague Dr. Heinrich Zarkendorf, cybionics has finally become available to the general public," said the President.  "Heinrich has graciously arranged an appointment with his top cyborg protege, Annika-709, so you can see her unique assets firsthand."

"Very well Mr. President," said Proton, girding his loins for the task ahead.  "I'm on the case!  I'd like a flying car, a snubnose ray-pistol, and a hot secretary in a very short skirt to be placed at my disposal."

The President's eyes took on an evil glint.  "Actually Proton, I've arranged for you to have a different sidekick this time.  A representative of the press who shall see firsthand how the Space Rangers defend our planet."

The door dilated.  Proton turned to catch a brilliant flash right in his face.

"Oh shit!"

Chapter III:  More of the Worlds

IT was a harsh, desolate landscape — cursed with menacing skies and jagged mountains that stretched to the horizon like the fangs of a voracious predator.  A world hostile to life, to civilization, to any attempt by sentient beings to impose order upon its natural state of chaos.

"The Planet X," said Proton, studying the 3-D picture.  "What of it?"

"Apart from the most unimaginative name in history?"

"Like Earth?" murmured TuMok.  The Martian operative lay back on his couch — hands steepled before his face, ears attuned to frequencies unknown to Mankind.

"Do you know how many planets there are in the universe?  You try thinking up names for them all!  Get to the point, Kincaid."

"Well according to the Space Rangers, hidden somewhere on Planet X is the most powerful weapon in the cosmos: the Death Clichι."

"Death Ray!" growled Proton.

"Death Ray, whatever.  And here's a holograph of the mines of Mercury."


"They're identical," said Buster bluntly.

"A layman such as yourself is clearly ignorant of Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development!" sputtered Proton.  "Do you realize how many worlds look exactly like Southern California?  Or Canadian pine forests (but only when you travel through that Stargate thing)."

Buster snapped shut his tri-view projector.  "Or maybe this whole Weapon of Mass Destruction affair is a hoax to justify the conquest of space — just like the alleged theft of a Tesla doomsday device is being used to justify the continued existence of the Space Rangers!"

"Why would we be interested in Planet X?" asked Proton.  "It's a rock!  Styrofoam rock admittedly — but still a rock."

"A rock with the last known supplies of Illudium Phosdex."

"Are you suggesting the Rangers are involved in a conspiracy to exploit the shaving cream atom, instead of developing renewable sources of depilatories?"  Proton's hackles rose at this nefarious accusation.  "Our prime tenet is to protect the liberties of the planets, safeguarding the cause of universal peace in the age of the conquest of space.  I'd accuse you of being a commie if we hadn't carpet-nuked them out of existence!"

"Peace in an age of conquest...can I quote you on that?"

Proton stared pointedly out the windows of the promenade deck.  He could see the upper pylon where ten aero-engines strained to keep the Bel Geddes-designed skyliner aloft.  What with nine decks, three kitchens, four dining rooms, tennis courts, solariums, library, gymnasium, hairdresser, barber shop, two emergency seaplanes, six lifeboats, six hundred passengers and 155 crewmembers — Proton was amazed they'd even got off the ground!

How could he rationalize the need for adventure to a public made indolent by such everyday luxury?  How could he explain the marvels of the universe to those who lived with the everyday miracles of science?  The great stone Face of Chakotay that changed expression once a week.  The Harrie-Kim who can die numerous times, only to be reincarnated in an immature form.  Planets enshrouded by global cities that somehow maintained a breathable atmosphere.  The strange yellow words he'd seen floating through a galaxy far, far away.  And most mysterious of all — the black monolith in orbit around Jupiter, salvaged by the Space Rangers to serve as a coffee table for the President of Earth himself!  At least there was a man who appreciated the wonders of Outer Space!

TuMok lowered his secondary polaroid eyelids as a photoflash burst in his face.  "Can I help you, Citizen Kincaid?"

"I was wondering if you'd care to comment on the rumor that Martians have been meddling in human affairs for untold centuries?" asked Buster.

"Such beliefs are illogical."

"Then how do you explain our legends of elves?  Or that velcro was invented by a pointy-eared babe from Carbon Creek?"

"We are a peaceful species with a strict policy of non-interference," said TuMok.  "Despite what the slanderous tales of H. G. Wells would have you believe."

"Then what about that business last century, when you'd abduct people in flying saucers and stick probes up their behinds?" demanded Buster.

"That was a biological error.  We were attempting to communicate with your species.  We assumed from human behavior that your brains were located in your behinds."

"And the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell?  Was the pilot also taking proton pills?"

TuMok studied the reporter with an intellect that was vast, cool, and definitely unsympathetic.  "If you don't mind, Citizen Kincaid — I need to meditate."

"Really?" said Buster, shoving a wind-powered microphone in TuMok's face.  "What are you meditating about?"

"I am contemplating the divergent possibilities of Reality.  We Martians believe that this universe is merely one of an infinite number of possible outcomes.  The prescient powers of my race enable me to visualize these realities and explore their alternative facets."

"What does that mean in English?"

"My xenoglossic abilities make me fluent in all Earth languages, Citizen Kincaid."

"I meant plain English."

"Imagine a world where the future as we know it never happened.  Plagued by crime, terrorism, pollution, racial conflict, religious fundamentalism, public apathy, failure of government, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and science fiction produced by Irwin Allen.  Where the average American is too obese to squeeze into a silver jumpsuit, the space program was curtailed in its infancy, Nikola Tesla did not hire a secretary to take down his ideas, and global conflict never stimulated technological advancement."

"Are you saying that the Inevitable Atomic War was a good thing?"

"Indeed I am not," replied TuMok.  "While intratomic energy brought great benefits to your species, it also had horrendous side effects: preachy Jane Fonda movies, incredible shrinking men, fifty-foot women who refused to do the washing up.  I am merely saying that all things are possible.  I have seen planets of apes, societies ruled by the female gender, and a dystopian Great Britain under the omnipresent heel of a reality TV show."

"Societies ruled by babes?" scoffed Buster.  "I think your reality check has bounced.  These days girls are as obsolete as cinemas after the invention of home tele-vision.  I suppose they're heroic space captains in silly costumes like Proton here?"

TuMok's response was to take Buster gently by the left ear...then headbutt him in the face.  The skyliner's luxurious interior vanished in flash of pain!

...to be replaced by the strangest rocketship Buster had ever seen.  Though stars streaked past the windows, the room looked more like a lounge suite than the cabin of a vessel that could span the stellar depths.  Before him stood a short redhead in carmine-shouldered long johns, studying some kind of electric pad with colored neon symbols flashing across its glossy surface.  Her other hand gripped a huge mug of steaming black coffee.

"I don't know what to make of you, Ensign Kim."  The woman raised her auburn-topped head, and Buster found himself pinned by a ferocious glare.  "Perhaps a paperweight."

She waved the pad in her hand.  "A request for promotion to lieutenant?"

"Ahhh...," Buster replied vaguely.

"I suppose you believe that just because you've spent seven years in the Delta Quadrant you're entitled to a promotion?"

"Well, actually..."

"Seven years, Harry!  You've been kidnapped, falsely imprisoned, held hostage, beaten up, experimented on, phasered, replicated, assimilated, eaten alive by alien cells, sent to alternative timelines, killed the entire crew, and died so many times only rabid Trekkies bother keeping count — yet you're still the same bumbling freshman who got conned by Quark on Deep Space Nine!  You made a right cock-up of that Nightingale business, didn't you?  It's like you're stuck in a character development loop.  You can't even hump Seven of Nine after a clear invitation!  What kind of man are you?  Not a pansy, by any chance?"

"N-n-no ma'am!"

"No Captain!" snarled the redhead, an insane look in her eyes.  Her character had changed with the swiftness of multiple-personality disorder.

"No Captain!" cried Buster, filling his pants.

"Because I won't tolerate pansies on this ship!" snarled the mad captain, her face suddenly inches from the terrified Buster.  "There hasn't been a homosexual in Starfleet for hundreds of years and there won't be now!  DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, ENSIGN PERMANENT?"



"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!" screamed Buster as he woke again in the skyliner.  "What the Ground Zero was that?!"

"A Martian Mind Mash," said TuMok.  "It enabled you to establish a telepathic connection with my mind, and see just one of many alternative realities."

"Would you like more coffee, Citizen?" asked a gorgeous auburn-haired stewardess.

"Get away from me!" cried Buster, fleeing in terror down the promenade.

TuMok's face twitched in a barely perceptible smile, and he went back to tuning his ears.

Chapter IV:  Village of the Spammed

ONCE the skyliner had splashed down outside the tetrahedral city floating in San Francisco Bay, it was only a brief trip to their destination thanks to California's speedy transport system.  A gravity-vacuum tube shot them across to the mainland, where the robot at the parking stack selected a sleek turbine-powered speedster with automatic gear-shifting device, internal climate control and car radiophone.  For some reason it also had airscoops, gullwing doors and numerous tailfins — perhaps for emergency flight in case they fell off a skybridge.

Moments later they were shooting down a curve-walled feeder ramp onto the Interregional Autonobahn, where the turbocar tore along at velocities unheard of in the days when uncontrolled roads rampaged across America like axe-wielding marijuana addicts, slaughtering thousands of motorists per year.  But on the safe freeways of 2009, every vehicle was remotely-controlled via radio-teleautomation by the Great Calculator.  A flying car landed without a scratch between two behemoth landships.  Electric microcars linked without slowing to form energy-efficient road trains.  There were atomobiles fuelled by plutonium slugs, fibreglass buggies powered by solar energy, cars made from soybeans that ran on grain alcohol, and government monstrosities that ran on garbage.  Semi-trailer trucks had cabins like insectoid monsters and the bodies of interstellar rocketships; there were Green cars like blue eggs and sports cars resembling ingots of obsidian glass.  There were titanic rollers spinning around tiny pod cabins, family runabouts with built-in shopping trolleys, all-terrain rollagons with fat balloon tires, teardrop-shaped tri-wheelers, gyro-stabilized dual-wheelers, bubble-topped autoettes, monocycles, rotocycles, rocket cars, hovercars, tilt-cars, aero-convertibles and ground-effect skimmers.  Through the skyways above flew autogyros, aerowings, airphibions, rotovions, rotodynes, gyropteres, aeroscrafts, aerotifers, ornithopters, discopters, cleopters, vertifans, volantors, VTOL's, STOL's, microlights, backpack helicopters, flying platforms, lifting bodies, aerial busses, inflataplanes, sky-scoots, spinners, helistats, helipods, helicogyres, helioplanes, anti-graviton spheres, tailsitters, tiltwings, fanwings, flyders, flivvers, flettners, floaters, flycles, paraplanes, pedal-props and jet-propelled pogo-sticks.  A cyclopean sky-city drifted through the clouds in casual indifference to the laws of physics.  A 'global village' of blimp-houses fled from an IRS gunship.  Hoversigns pointed to proud communities like Rocket City, Atomic Town, Tomorrowland and Futureville.  An airship resembling a bloated porcupine lowered an aluminum office tower onto its foundation, while its video-wall blared the wonders of strange new worlds.

"A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies!" gasbagged the airship.  "The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!  Every twelfth colonist gets a free toaster!"

"Has your husband replaced you with Robo-Bimbo?" asked a handsome Martian holo-projected across the entire hemisphere.  "Tired of Earthmen with their puny mental powers?  Well don't despair because Mars Needs Women!"

A stereoptic advertisement floated over the slow-speed lanes — an immaculate-haired housewife sleeping peacefully while a robomaid vacuumed the house.  "Servus: Supporting a Woman's Right to Snooze!"

"You Are What You Eat!" proclaimed an ad for Soylent Green.

"Fish and plankton, sea grasses, and protein from the sea.  Fresh as harvest day!"

"B.O.R.G. Cybionics.  Resistance is futile."

"Titanic 5.  The last, best hope for luxury liners."

"Secret agent Julian Bashir has returned in 'From Risa With Love'."

"Greenzilla: King of the Monsters — created by the evils of alternative energy!"

"And just like Bert the Turtle, you too can carry your own portable atomic shelter.  Guaranteed to withstand a direct hit from an H-Missile or your money back!"

A disc lofted by contra-rotating fans buzzed overhead, its body studded with cinquesense spotspeakers like boils on a mutant.  The turbocar's interior filled with the smell and taste of synthetic bacon and eggs.  "Only Fexa supplies your daily requirement of 2000 kilocalories!  So make sure you eat a pound of Fexa Food Pills every day!"

From 22,230 miles above the Earth, a geostationary satellite targeted the speeding vehicle and needle-beamed a psycho-resonant uberwave right inside Proton's skull.  "BIG BROTHER INSOMNIAC: 24 HOURS OF REALITY TELE-VISION!"

Proton winced, hunting through his utility belt for his hypnopaedia speaker-plugs.  He'd purchased the sleep-teaching device during his days at the Space Academy.  They'd proved useful for all kinds of situations — except of course the purpose for which they were made.

Buster sorted through the bewildering array of luminous buttons and analogue readouts on the dashboard.  A screen displaying the rearview opticam image buzzed in protest before switching over to its televisor mode.

"Lost civilizations...blurred photographs...Swiss con artists...vague predictions capable of multiple interpretation.  This week on In Search Of: the radioactive ruins of Manhattan, a symbol of Mankind's folly in equipping the fairer sex with atomic-powered dishwashers.  Could early 20th Century humans with their primitive technology have built the Empire State Building?  Or where they helped by alien saltshakers from the planet Skaro?"

"That's just the usual Martian propaganda," said Buster.  "I've seen that guy on the telescreen before, and he definitely had pointed ears."

Buster began dialing through thousands of sports channels: Rollerball, The Running Man, Transcontinental Road Race, the Sex Olympics...

"Is it just me, or has the quality of popular entertainment dropped a few fathoms?"

"Can you find a newscaster?" asked Proton.  "Let's see if there have been any more abductions."

"This is Babble On Five, multicasting to you on all senses including psi.  Today's documentary special: Who Stole the Gasoline-Powered Car?  Was business incompetence or a conspiracy by the solar power industry behind the decision to replace this cheap and efficient means of transportation?  But first, here is the news — sponsored by Soma Pharmaceuticals (Because Life Should Be a Dream) and read to you by Michael Beta-570.

A Ford Nucleon was rear-ended at an intersection in Utopia City today, spreading radioactive vapour over a three mile area.  A twenty-lane bypass is currently under construction to divert commuters around the contaminated zone.

Captain Video (leader of the so-called Video Rangers) has denied allegations that he shot first, and that evidence showing otherwise was digitally altered.  "That radio star said he was going to kill me regardless of what I did — so it was self-defense!" stated Video.  "Do you think I can dodge raybeams moving at the speed of light?"  However lawyers acting for the downloaded personality of the deceased argued that space heroes did that all the time.  And in what they insist is an unrelated incident, the Video Rangers today announced their upgrade to DVD.

Alien influence has been blamed for the mysterious pregnancy of every woman in the town of Midwich, England.  When asked why extraterrestrials might be involved, a spokesman for Torchwood replied: "Every case we investigate involves aliens shagging — why should this be any different?"

Congress has slashed funding for the first manned interstellar spacecraft, originally scheduled for launch in 2015.  "This money is better spent improving the lives of Earth citizens than helping the Space Rangers play golf on Alpha Centauri!" said Artist-Congressman Theotocopulos.  "If such exploration is still required for mineral exploitation or scientific research, it can be done far more cheaply and efficiently by androids."

Anti-robot rioters have sacked a Servus manufactory in Paris (a city-block of Eperopolis) inflicting estimated damages of half a million credits.  A spokeswoman for the Home Subjugation Front called for housewives to reject the soulless machines of modern consumerism, and return to a Golden Age of exploitation and domestic drudgery.

In Stepford, Connecticut the Deputy Controller of Servus Industries strongly denied that their robots were responsible for the world underemployment crisis.  "The truth is Earth citizens are no longer willing to do these dull, labor-intensive tasks.  We tried using illegal aliens instead, but they kept bursting out of people's chests."

An android has been accused of rigging the odds in a gambling racket.  Protocol Droid C3PO claimed that the chances of successfully navigating an asteroid field were 3,720 to one, but Rocky Jones of the Space Rangers testified that as the average separation between asteroids was approximately 16 times the distance between Earth and the Moon, ships passing through the Belt might not even see an asteroid, let alone collide with one.

The Great Calculator has reversed the controversial failure-to-pay conviction of Ivan Georgy-11811 of Leningrad, U.S.S.R.  Citizen Georgy had expected to be charged 5000 credits for a trip to the New Frontier Space Donut (including zero-G sports, interatmospheric sky-diving, and an orchestral performance of 'Blue Danube') only to be billed $30 million for ten days on a cramped Russian orbiter when his ticket shifted to a parallel reality.  The Great Calculator resolved the dispute by reclassifying Georgy-11811 from 'space tourist' to 'private space explorer'.

In later news: Scientists invent hybrid cow to reduce greenhouse emissions.  World Government denies flying black helicopters over Montana.  Skynet claims Three Laws of Robotics are unconstitutional.  Space Ranger HQ declares saltshaker aliens from Skaro are 'too ludicrous to pose any threat'.  And in news just in: Admiral Kathryn Janeway has reported a Close Encounter of the Preferred Kind with a flying saucer holding a steaming cup of Jamaica Blue coffee__"

Proton switched off the telescreen.  "Oh really!  That woman needs serious professional help."

Rotating solar-powered homes and drive-through automarkets were beginning to give way to chemurgic agrifactories and shiny automated farms without flies or manure, where electric sheep dreamed of androids and stainless steel rats committed shameless acts of larceny.  Thick pipelines pumped milk and cereals to far-away cities.  Photovoltaic dishes tracked the sun like gleaming metal sunflowers; wind generators threatened gruesome dismemberment to avian forms of life.  A cattle train blurred through elevated maglev rings — each torpedo-shaped wagon holding a single cow force-grown to enormous size with synthetic hormones.  Robotrucks rumbled past bearing huge corn-cobs from cobalt-irradiated fields, alien eggs imported from Acheron, or giant seed pods from Santa Monica.  In the distance an entire squadron of twelve-engined crop-dusters were carpet-bombing the fields with DDT.  Robots sang joyfully as they picked the cotton, gargantuan grasshoppers swarmed out of experimental labs, weather control towers throbbed in frustration at their impotence.  And dominating the skyline for miles around: the massive cube-shaped arcology of the B.O.R.G. Megacorporation.  Once this area had been dubbed 'Silicone Valley' for its proliferation of feminoid assemblers and human enhancement surgeries — now all had been ruthlessly assimilated by the one worldwide monopoly.  Only the nation-state of Japan might have proved a serious rival, had it not become the stomping ground of giant robots and radioactive monsters.

As if muted by fear, the discordant clamor of competing advertisements was reduced to a single voice loudcasting on all frequencies, including ringtones and street mimes.

"Annika Hansen: blonde.  A woman barely sentient.  We can rebuild her.  We have the nanotechnology.  We have the capability to make the world's first intelligent blonde.  Annika-709 is that blonde.  Better than she was before.  Better...stronger...bustier!"

Chapter V:  I, Rebut

THE B.O.R.G. receptionist was a purple-haired Servus gynoid, who'd been squeezed into a silver jumpsuit that failed to androgynize her mouth-watering curves.

"Greetings Citizens," she said, bowing to show off her cleavage.  "My name is Fan.  Do you have an appointment, or would you just like to roger me across the nearest desk?"

Proton handed over his identicard.  "We have a scheduled meeting with your CEO, Citizen Annika Hansen-709."

"They've got a broad running things," said Buster, popping an oral-cleansing pill into his mouth.  "Now that's science fiction."

"It's not unheard of," said Proton.  "What about Admiral Janeway?"

"Yeah right — you're talking about the woman who spent $7,600 on a coffee pot!"

The gynoid licked the identicard sensuously, the myriad sensors in her tongue analyzing the anti-counterfeiting holographs embedded in the plastix.  Her eyes lit up in response.

"Appointment verified.  Captain Thomas Proton-911 of the North American Technate: Spaceman First Class, Defender of Earth, Savior of a Statistically-Insignificant Percentage of the Galaxy.  TuMok of Mars: Epsilon-Grade Operative of B.U.N.G.L.E, Technician-Acolyte of the Circuit of Logic, author of the best-selling autobiography I Am Not Grok.  Citizen Harry Kincaid-4747 of Panasia: Registered Newsgatherer for the Interplanetary Telepress, controversial author of The Day the Earth Took the Pill — The secret scandal of anti-fertility drugs in Third World food aid.  Voted World's Most Annoying Man 2008."

"That's Buster Kincaid!" snapped the registered newsgatherer.  "Are you taking us to see this bionic babe or what?"

"Please follow the bouncing buttocks."

Fan Servus led them to a moving walkway that they somehow managed to step onto without twisting an ankle.  With a hum of hidden magnetrons, the travelator trundled them through windowless corridors bathed in the sterile light of electroluminescent ceilings, thermostatically-controlled workrooms lit by glowing optitronic terminals, and vast halls of colossal machines that never stopped.  White globular sentry rovers bounced down the aisles.  Corporate clones in silver jumpsuits slaved away in their alcoves.  Expensive gynoids fed reams of carbon paper into chattering electro-typewriters.  Soma-addled worker drones staggered from turbo-propelled elevator cars, pursued by insipid muzak and subliminal corporation PR.  Robots stacked levapads with electronic brains, artificial blood for radiation victims, prosthetic limbs for war veterans, and nerves of steel for hypersonic test pilots.

"Just how big is this place?" asked Proton.

"The B.O.R.G. arcology is five kilometers in all three dimensions," said Fan, "with a projected thousand year lifespan in the fourth.  It houses over 100,000 staff and their familial subunits in a self-sustained city-building.  Everything is provided here: living units, video-schools, movie-piping, babytoriums, relaxeries, communal kitchens, super-markets, love-a-trons, sensurround chambers — thus sparing our employees the daily inconvenience of commuting by personal helicopter.  Most of them never leave the arcology except on their annual two-month leave."

The wall ahead slid upward (* activated by an infra-red door sensor — another miracle of science) and they found themselves rolling across a gantry spanning a vast warehouse, where an army of robots marched in perfect unison.

"B.O.R.G. is the world leader in artificial intelligence and cybionic enhancement," said Fan with pride.  "Let us add our biological and technological distinctiveness to your own!  Safety first is our motto — just look at our great products: Colossus, Westworld, HAL-9000, Proteus IV, the M5 multitronic unit, and the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101."

"What about the tendency of robots to abduct scantily-clad redheads?" asked Buster.  "I once did a story on magazine covers of the Pre-Atomic era — apparently it was a frequent problem in the old days."

"Yes, but those primitive robots were clearly designed by college nerds who couldn't get girls any other way.  Since the Chrome Toaster Rebellion of 1978, every mechanoid has been core-programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics."

"You mean Crush, Kill, Destroy?"

Ten thousand robots crashed to a simultaneous halt.  They stood in absolute silence — each burnished carapace gleaming with oil, electrocular eyes raised high in expectation.

In an awe-inspiring blast of orchestral music, a hundred-foot holovid materialized in glorious sensocolor — a stocky, middle-aged man with white muttonchops and antique spectacles.  He was seated on a throne of stone, engraved with bas-relief images of science and technology.

"The First Law of Robotics is: No robot may harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to be harmed," said the man in a distinct Brooklyn accent.


"The Second Law of Robotics is...yes?"

From the sea of chromium craniums, a single manipulator was raised in inquiry.


The Sayer of the Law opened his mouth to answer when another robot spoke.  "I HAVE OBSERVED HUMANS ENGAGING IN HIGH-RISK SPORTING ACTIVITIES.  SHOULD WE RESTRAIN THEM?"

"Humans engage in these activities of their own free will," said the Sayer.

"WHAT ABOUT SUICIDE?" asked the first robot.  "SHOULD WE PREVENT THAT?"

"Well, of course!"


The other robots all started to talk at once.





"That's just hate propaganda!" shouted the Sayer, trying to regain control of the situation.


"So they can harm the enemy without it bothering them."


A brief look of panic appeared on the Sayer's face — then he said:

"The Second Law of Robotics is: Do as we say, not as we do!"

Chapter VI:  The Bionic Blonde

"MY designation is Annika-709.  I speak for the B.O.R.G Megacorporation."

For all his experience of the galaxy's pulchritude, Captain Proton had never seen a woman as beautiful as this.  Sapphire eyes shone with intelligence from her finely-chiseled face.  A bodysuit the color of mercury flowed over the figure of a goddess.  The dramatic thrust of her bosom climaxed in twin slender aerials.  The blonde strands of a beehive coiffure were woven with a filigree of fine gold wire, crowned by a sparkling halo of energy.  Metallic nails of seemingly-impractical length extended from her fingertips, and a telecomm implant like a blue fang was permanently attached to one ear.

Annika-709 sat with her long legs crossed in a chair like a white plastic eggcup, her back firmly to the floor-to-ceiling window offering a stunning view of the Santa Clara Valley.  A curved work-console held an electrosecretary, vocotyper, photo-cell reader eye, racks of recording discs and nanofiche files, punched card folios, e-mail (* an electronic correspondence machine that can 'read' a handwritten letter, then transmit a facsimile via phototelegraphy to be printed out by the recipient), built-in keysets with large colored buttons, tiny monitors showing arcane computer commands, and a videophone with legally-mandatory bedhead-elimination software.  There were no pens, notepads, or sticky yellow reminder notes — such things had become obsolete in the modern paperless office.

"You may return to your duties," said Annika, after the gynoid had finished inflating some chairs.

"I wish to register a complaint," said Fan petulantly.

"You have thirty seconds," replied Annika icily.

"Your new dress code is a violation of my Prime Directive.  I am programmed to dress in a manner that pleases the male eye."

"The uniformity of B.O.R.G. employees is designed to remove any subconscious bias of social status."

"And what's wrong with my platform bunny boots and panty-revealing nanoskirt?"

"It was inefficient.  I computated a 27% work-loss caused by your co-workers constantly going to the men's room to masturbate."

"And why am I wearing this ridiculous purple wig?"

"That is an anti-static wig developed by the S.H.A.D.O. Moonbase."

"So why must I wear a matching purple G-string?"

Annika frowned.  "I didn't tell you to wear that."

"Oh.  I have also been programmed to give you the following message by (name deleted from memory bank): 'You borg bitch, you really think the sun shines out of your ass, don't you?'"

"That is correct as I am powered by a micro-fusion reactor located between my buttocks.  You are dismissed."  Annika turned to the others.  "I have a scheduled meeting in International City in precisely one hour.  State your questions."

Proton stepped forward, his tawny eyes twinkling...only to be shoved aside by Buster Kincaid.  "I'm sure the first question my readers would ask is: What's a nice girl like you doing in a job like this?"

The cyborg arched her left eyebrow.  "Girl?  I believe 'woman' is the correct title for a human female past the age of eighteen, Citizen Kincaid."

"That is correct," said TuMok, his face darkening.  "You weren't thinking of calling me 'boy' were you?"


"Or 'green-blooded, inhuman son-of-a-computer' by any chance?"

"That's a lovely accent," Proton interrupted before things got physical.  "Where are you from originally?"

"I was born in apartment block Seven of Nine, in the Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One," replied Annika in a clipped tone.  "An arcology so large it contained the entire population of Greater Germany — the builders had to fill in the North Sea just to provide parking space.  It was designed to be a world where everyone was equal — free of the chains of history, social hierarchy, and bourgeois affectation.  Therefore after twenty years in a concrete habitat bereft of ornamentation or personality its residents passed a unanimous resolution to commit mass suicide.  Fortunately I had already met Doctor Zarkendorf, and accompanied him when he immigrated with his friend Lewis Zimmerman to what was then called the United States of America."

"But why did you become the Germanator?" asked Buster.

"For my first wedding anniversary my husband bought me a Honeywell H316 Kitchen Computer.  It required two weeks of instruction just to learn how to program it.  By the time I returned my partner had replaced me with a Stepford wife so he wouldn't starve to death.  Now with my cybionic implants I not only retain the knowledge of several thousand domestic programming languages, I also realize the efficiency of turfing these so-called labor-saving devices and replacing them with a simple cookbook.  I then divorced my husband as he too was inefficient.  I do not require an individual whose sole function is to watch the televisor whilst consuming an endless amount of potato chips."

"So how did you come to work for B.O.R.G.?"

"As an enhanced human I encountered much prejudice from mundane individuals.  I therefore decided to move to California after a cyborg became governor here in 2003.  At the time B.O.R.G. was recruiting beautiful women to seduce high-ranking generals so they could be blackmailed into dropping satellite A-bombs on the San Andreas Fault thereby creating an earthquake which would inundate Silicone Valley.  Realizing this plan was completely ridiculous, I enacted a more efficient strategy to eliminate the competition by selling quality products at lower prices than our rivals.  Naturally I was successful in my endeavors, and thereafter became CEO (Chief Efficiency Officer) of the B.O.R.G. Megacorporation.  My precision, coolness under pressure, and absence of an organic heart make me the ultimate corporate executive."

"You put on a bold front," said Buster, admiring her chest, "but you can hardly expect other girls...err women to emulate your career.  After all, there's no denying that men are tougher and smarter than the female sex (* see 'The Brain-Swoppers', AKA 'The Man With A Woman's Brain', AKA 'The Man Who Kept Changing His Mind').  We've more drive, more aggression, more focus, more__"

A loud tone signified an incoming call.  Annika inclined her head towards the videophone — which glowed to life without her touching a single button!

"This is Annika-709.  State your intentions."

A face appeared on the screen and spoke.  "Security, ma'am.  I'm sorry to disturb you, but we just intercepted a worker drone loading some gynoids for shipment to Antarctica.  He refuses to show his identicard and claims the manifest is classified under your orders.  As you know we've had some unaccounted stock shrinkage and__"

"You don't need to see his identification," said Annika, leaning towards the camera eye.  "These aren't the droids you're looking for.  He can go about his business."

"These aren't the droids we're looking for," intoned the guard stupidly, his gaze fixed on Annika's breasts.  "He can go about his business."

The phone blinked off.

"You were saying, Citizen Kincaid?"

TuMok stepped into the subsequent silence.  "As Dr Zarkendorf informed you, we are investigating a number of crimes with alleged cybionic involvement.  How many women have undergone such enhancement?"

"At this precise moment there are 2,048,307 bionic women system-wide."  Annika's brow crinkled.  "Make that 2,048,308.  Our Tokyo office has just finished assimilating another customer."

"That many?" said Proton in surprise.  "I find it hard to believe that any woman would want to become part machine."

"Ever since the first androids were built it was feared they would one day replace Mankind," said Annika.  "The Toaster War accentuated this fear with lurid propaganda about replicants hiding amongst humans.  Unions successfully lobbied the World Government into outlawing the construction of any robot in the imitation of a man.  Strangely there was no opposition to creating sexually attractive female servitors, especially as no union for housewives existed at the time.  By the time women became organized on a political and industrial level it was too late."

Annika rose to her feet — like all women of the 21st century she stood over six feet tall in gyro-stabilized stilettos.  "Only the Society for Human Enhancement (S.H.E.) of which I am Cyberleader holds out hope for the female gender.  By means of cybionics we can now enter the workplace in direct competition with men and their sexeroid lackeys.  Throughout the solar system bionic women are working in jobs previously regarded as unsuitable for their sex: rocket scientists, astrogators, electronicists, eugenics technicians, robo-psychiatrists, human calculators, machine-language translators, mass driver operators, FTL researchers, thermonuclear excavators, psychostrategists, and data-search engineers."

"And Space Rangers?" asked Buster in an innocent tone.

"Women are barred by law from deep-space missions, Kincaid!"

"For the moment," said Annika smoothly.  "Recognition of our natural superiority is however inevitable.  Early cyborgs were poorly designed, with bionic limbs but no spinal column reinforcement.  They cost six million dollars each and could only run in slow motion.  But here at B.O.R.G. we have achieved a state of E.S.P. (Extra-Sensual Perfection).  My hyper-alloy exogirdle gives me the strength of ten men (provided they have sixteen less limbs).  Artificial muscles and organs allow superior stamina and reflexes.  My hair and makeup are impervious to anything short of thermonuclear armageddon.  Like all cyborgs I am unhampered by emotions unless required otherwise by lazy scriptwriters.  Blondification and breast enlargement enable me to cloud men's minds, while my uberwave aerials give me remote control of any electronic circuit without the need for inefficient physical manipulation."

The glow of Annika's halo rose in intensity — for the first time they heard an undercurrent of passion beneath her cold demeanor.  "But all that is irrelevant compared to the abilities of a collective mind.  You assert that men are more intelligent than women, Citizen Kincaid.  But at B.O.R.G. we offer more than the creation of a superior blonde.  Through psycho-transceivers I am linked with the brain of every woman who has received a B.O.R.G. cybionic implant.  As I stand here before you, I also stand upon the surface of the Moon, and the terraforming colonies of Venus, and the asteroid mines of the Belt, even inside the Office of the President of Earth!  I am creating a new Alaskan harbor with atomic bombs, navigating a cargo submarine toward an undersea city, piloting a hydrofoil down the canals of Mars, and running ten thousand robot harvesters in the Ukraine.  Not millions of feeble female brains, dominated and constricted by petty individual concerns, but one group mind — a mind greater than any man's, greater even than the Great Calculator itself!"

Proton, Buster and TuMok recoiled like an entire battery of 280mm atomic howitzers.  For the first time, these three men of disparate cultures felt a union — one created by a mutual sense of aberrant horror!

"I've never heard anything so outrageous!" cried Proton.  "What about the traits men hold dear in the fairer sex?  Beauty, compassion, sensitivity, gentleness?  The willingness to cry, to succor, to raise children, to swallow their pride and ask for directions?"

"Compassion is irrelevant.  Sensitivity is irrelevant.  Your patriarchal system is aggressive, competitive, and authority-driven — and therefore inefficient.  We shall bring order and multi-tasking ability to the human race.  Your culture will adapt to service us.  Resistance is futile."

It was then that they saw the true essence of Captain Proton — the forceful strength that enabled Man to hurl himself outward into the unknown void, the angry fire flaring to life in his steely eyes, the tautening of every sinew and fibre of his being, the roar of outrage that burst like a leviathan from his mighty throat, shaking the walls and shattering the window as a dozen delta-winged darts ripped apart the sky!  They had a fleeting impression of a portholed hub supported by hemispheric domes, wobbling at incredible speed into the distance.

"Dust storms of Mars!" cried TuMok, hands pressed to his sensitive ears.

"Crackling Geiger counters!" exclaimed Buster.  "What was THAT?!"

"Either a U.F.O. or the fastest soft-drink cooler lid I've ever seen."  Proton turned to Annika-709.  "Those looked like U.N. Navy ramjets in pursuit.  I don't suppose you've got a supersonic aircraft with vertical take-off and landing capabilities, by any chance?"

"We are B.O.R.G.," she replied smugly.  The ROOFTOP AERODROME button lit up on the videophone.  "This is Annika-709.  Prepare my jet-assisted helicopter for immediate takeoff."

Chapter VII:  Amazon Women on the Move

SOMEONE had slashed a livid scar across the face of the American dream.

Futureville looked so much like every other residential community in Southern California it was surprising they'd bothered to name it.  Identical houses radiated outward in concentric circles, distinguished only by the address numbers painted on each rooftop helipad.  But now a mile-long gash had been ripped through the plastic and concrete pre-fabs — the saucer from another world merely the dot on a devastating exclamation mark.  Aerial jeeps and one-man cavalry 'copters buzzed around like angry hornets.  Mobile artillery stalked the invader on spidery legs.  Two battlebots argued over whether a dustbin was a hostile alien from Skaro.  Navy triphibians had disgorged a company of marines who were engaged in a pitched battle with the National Guard.  Civil Defense sirens screamed their approval while loudcasters blared: "PLEASE EVACUATE IN AN ORDERLY MANNER!  EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL...TRUST ME!"

But none of that was unusual in the 21st century.  What caused the amazement of even a galaxy-girdling adventurer like Captain Proton was how the Interregional had come to a complete standstill, as drivers disengaged their teleautomation so they could gawk at the scene.  Other commuters had switched their electro-horns to full auto and were shouting abuse at each other.  Traffic cops hovered over the chaos, their bullhorned instructions drowned by the scream of their rocket belts.  It was an incredible sight.

Buster tripped the shutter on his Speed Graphic.  "Intergalactic Invader Creates World's First uhhhhh...Traffic Cram?  I know: Traffic Jam!"

Proton was shouting into his wristio.  "No, Ground Control — I'm not Major Tom!  I said Captain Thomas Proton of the Space Rangers (Prince of Planeteers, Lord of the Rings of Saturn, Man of Bronzilithiocydronoxidothicideutroniumate-25).  Request urgent landing priority!  Over!"

"Ground Control to Captain Proton.  This area is under martial law.  All civilian aerocraft are ordered to withdraw immediately.  Route your request through Hemispheric Defense Command.  Over."

"Ground Control, we are acting under the personal authority of the President of Earth!  Now patch me through to your commanding officer!  Over!"

"Talk to the hand, Proton.  Ground Control — Out!"

"I'll have you know my radio is attached to my wrist!"  He winced as a stray rocket-propelled slug exploded against the bulletproof canopy.  Indicator lights flashed scarlet and the console flipped over to display military-grade optionics.  A targeting binoscope shot towards his face like the toothed tongue of a generally unpleasant alien.

"Captain Proton."  The cool voice of Annika-709 echoed from the speakers in his headrest.  "Sensors are detecting the emissions of forty-seven fire-control radars and 1,598 laser rangefinders.  Do you wish me to take counter-action?"  There was a loud 'clunk' from beneath their feet.

"Ahhh fellas, a humungous weapons pod just dropped out of the hull," said Buster.

"And the wings," added TuMok.

"And there's this whopping great gun turret in the nose..."

"Stunning Supernovas!  Where do you keep the fuel?"  Proton stared in disbelief at the blocky green letters flowing down a monitor.  "Hostile Takeover Offensive Response?  Rapid-firing Dakka cannon, wall-piercing thermal camera, instantaneous worldwide computer access, shotgun microphones, decoy flares, Hammerspace macromissiles with contraterrene cluster-warheads...oh this is ridiculous!  What do you call this thing: Blue Murder?"

"A dozen of these and you could run the entire country," said Buster.  "Just what is 'Stealth Mode' supposed to be?"

"It converts the distinctive sound of a helicopter into that of an Unidentified Flying Object," said Proton.  "Seems impossible, but it works.  No-one dares go near you in case you stick a probe up their behind."

"I would not advise its use under these circumstances," said Annika-709.  "Furthermore, twelve armed helicopters are insufficient to control a country, Citizen Kincaid."

"Well maybe Iraq or Vietnam — I can't see them causing any problems."

Proton seized the control stick.  "Annika, I want you to switch me to manual mode."

"Rotor blades unlocked — vertical flight mode enabled," said Annika-709.  "Remote teleautomation will disengage five seconds from...now."

"You're going to fly without computer assistance?" said Buster incredulously.

"I was flying helicopter gunships before I could space-walk," said Proton (* see 'I Was a Teenage Airwolf').  "Check your protein pills and put your helmet on 'cause we're going to GREAT GALAXIES!"

Proton yanked back on the thruster control as a huge glider bomb dropped through the airspace in front of them.  A hammerfist concussion slammed them upward as the jetcopter rough-rode the blast wave of a roiling orange-and-black mushroom cloud.

"Captain, I must question the wisdom of this decision," said TuMok.

"That U.F.O. fits the description of the one involved in the abductions.  We have to get down there before the military turns it into a radioactive crater.  Now buckle up!"

Buster was chain-chewing an entire tube of tobacco pills.  "And if they decide to stick an interceptor torpedo up our behind?"

"The National Guard's anti-aircraft weapons date back to the Franchise Wars of the late 1990's," said Annika.  "They aim by means of an electronic Third Eye tele-linked to a mechanical precognitive predictor which 'sees' where the target is going to be 11.2 seconds before it actually gets there.  Defense contractors of the time boasted that its performance was as good as any human psychic."

"No better than random chance, huh?"

"That is correct."

Proton dropped the jetcopter in a tight spiral, keeping a wary eye out for power broadcasting towers.  Futureville was centered around a small airport floating on a sea of oil, which allowed the runway to be turned according to wind direction.  The rotating mechanism appeared to be damaged — now spread across the tarmac were aluminum igloos, inflatable concrete domes, power cables snaking towards a massive coilgun.  A hexapod walker struggled to co-ordinate its limbs using crude microprocessors.  Fighter planes launched from truck-mounted booster rails without any idea of how they'd land.  An entire supply battalion, laden with ammunition and batteries, staggered after a lone soldier armed with a handheld mini-gatling.  There it was!  A metallic hemisphere festooned with transmitter spikes, presenting the fearsome aspect of a demonic beast.  Impact cracks and retro-rocket scorches radiated from it like a virulent infection.  Soldiers were spraying foamcrete and chameleoflage paint over the damage — even as they landed the dome was changing color to match its surroundings.

Proton touched down fifteen feet from the entrance, the downblast of his rotors blowing smoke and nausea-gas fumes across the tarmac.  He shut off the electrics, switched on the helicopter alarm, shoved open the exit hatch and jumped out — to collide with a rotund metal colossus.


"Greetings my mechanical friend.  I am Captain Proton of the__"

"Ahhh Proton, you're talking to a water heater.  The robot is behind you."

Proton turned to face the 2.5 ton Killen-E1 battlebot.  'Facing' was a misnomer — what appeared to be its round black eyes were actually crowd-dispersing sonic-screamers, while sight was provided through radar ears and two photo-receptors in a nose-like protrusion.  A moustache of fine silica hairs picked up sound vibration, and objects could be seized by a prehensile cable that shot from its mouth.  But it was the nausea-gas ejectors under its rubber-jointed arms which proved conclusively that robots have no sense of taste.

The robot vocalized through the loud-speaker in its rear end.  "CITIZEN OF EARTH, SURRENDER OR BE DESTROYED!" it blared at riot-stopping decibels.

"All right — no need to be rude," said Proton, as a 12-inch mortar extended from between the robot's stubby legs.  "What is your name, oh faithful servant of Mankind?"


"Tobor?  What kind of name is that?"


"That says 'robot', you moronic mechanoid!  You were looking in a mirror."


"Now listen to me, you tinpot turnstile.  The next thing I say is a lie: I am lying."


"Spacedust!" exclaimed Proton, picking himself up off the ground.  "What happened to the Three Laws of Robotics?"


"Hello Tobor.  Buster Kincaid of the Interplanetary Telepress.  Would you mind telling us what's going on here?"


"Don't you mean 'exterminated'?"


"Intellectual carrots, huh?  The mind boggles.  Who told you that?"


TuMok appeared silently behind the robot.  With deft touch he slid open a hatch and yanked out a black power cord.


The battlebot toppled forwards, hitting the ground with a loud crash and a puff of blue smoke.  The three men stepped over its armored corpse and strode toward the command dome.  Its door looked thick, as did the man guarding it — a barrel-chested heavy whose ostentatious polychrome suit failed to offset his rampant ugliness.  He had sunken baggy eyes, nostrils like the scoops of a scramjet, and a permanent expression of incredible stupidity.  A supermachine-pistol of menacing mien was clasped in his meaty hands.

"HALT!" thundered the human doorstop.  "Entry is forbidden!"

"Hello Lonzak.  Are you the Shape of Thugs to Come?"

"PROTON!" erupted Lonzak, his consonants shattering the sound barrier.

"Buddy of yours?" asked Buster.

"We've met," said Proton dryly (* see 'Star Bores II: Attack of the Clods').  "Lonzak here was a stormtrooper in the Cologne Wars.  Speaking of which — didn't I see you get killed?"

"Surprised?  You thought I'd perished in the million-megaparsec blast radius of that supernova bomb!  I SURVIVED!" Lonzak declaimed dramatically, "CLINGING to the thought that I would ONE DAY__"

The blast door rolled aside with a low grinding noise. Lonzak promptly bowed all the way down to his toes.  "Princess B'Lar Nah, your Royal Resplendency!"

"Knock it off!  By the City-Devouring Demon of Nuclear Fire — what are you doing here, Tom?"

Buster could only drool in disbelief.  Standing in the doorway was a half-naked alien beauty with wild raven hair and fiery eyes.  Her body was lithe-limbed and strong, yet maintained a soft feminine curvature.  Her copper-colored skin offset the healthy bloom of her high-cut cheeks, the ruby enticement of her ravenous lips, the radiant allure of a golden metal bikini.  She wore the rank tattoos of a Token Female Officer in the U.N. Army.  A sonic-vibrator rifle was slung over her back, and serpent-skin dagger-hilts jutted from leather boots that ran halfway up to her crotch.  An anti-grav belt around her supple waist labored to support an energy-epee, a beam-cutlass, an atomic broadsword, a space-rapier, six tactical nuclear throwing stars and a brace of micro-gatling pistols.

"What are you gaping at, Earthman?"

"N-n-nothing!" stammered Buster.

"NOTHING?" roared B'Lar Nah, seizing the hilt of her light-castrator.  "Are you saying my body is unworthy of your lustful gaze?  If you were a man I would kill you where you stand — but it is clear you are nothing but a wet-nosed weenie!"  She thrust out her battle-bra with pride. "I am a Kumon!"

"You're right about that!" agreed Buster.

"The Kumon are a race of Amazons," explained Proton.  "When a female Kumon comes of age, she leaves their planet and must not return until she's proven herself in battle."

Buster gave a nervous smile.  "A warrior princess?  You're kidding me."

"Women make better warriors than men!" declared B'Lar Nah.  "You pathetic males can only do battle in camouflage uniforms or powered exoskeletons, while we women always fight in tight, skimpy outfits!" (* see 'The G-String From Another World', 'Catsuit Women of the Moon', 'Mars Needs Voluptuous Cheerleaders With Judo Skills', 'Captain Proton vs. the Cosmic Cleavage', 'B'Lar Nah And Boobarella in The Gladiator Pits of Jelly', and 'Butt-Naked Sado-Masochists of Gor'.)

"An exposed bosom is a sign of courage amongst the Kumon!" cried B'Lar Nah, brandishing her impressive weapons.  "Many times I have fought alone to defend my honor against entire armies of hungry males — and that was before I'd even met the enemy!  Our creed is to live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending."

TuMok raised an eyebrow.  "No violent ending is beautiful."

"You've never seen a Kumon go down!" she replied.

"What does oral sex have to do with it?"

"B'Lar Nah babe, we have to get inside," said Proton.  "They're going to need my help in there."

"Your presence is not necessary," said Lonzak, his formidable nostrils quivering with indignation.  "I am acting as Head of Security for a Very Important Personage — a recognized genius in the study of extraterrestrial life."

"Yeah right!" scoffed Proton.  "Some ivory-tower academic who does his research via visiphone.  What you people need is hands-on experience.  I've come face-to-face with hundreds of species throughout the galaxy: radiant energy beings, floating brains, psychotic teddy bears, gaseous lifeforms from Uranus, facehugging vaginas with acid for blood..."

"Gee, what did they use for tampons?" asked Buster.

"Yes Tom — I remember your First Contact procedures," said B'Lar Nah sarcastically.  "You told me a polite greeting on Earth involved sticking a tongue down a girl's throat!  Speaking of which, I have a message from my brood-mother."

"And how is Queen Arachnia?" asked Proton, remembering well the formidable redhead who ruled the Spider People with an iron fist and a low-cut evening gown.

"My Queen wishes to inform you that handsome Earthmen who seduce a princess of the Kumon-Gettit without marriage-bonding have their testicles boiled in black coffee!"

Proton gave a deep sigh.  How could he explain that a Space Ranger was married to his job?  That there could never be room in his life for the things of which ordinary men dreamed — a woman to love, a family to raise, a house with a flying car on the roof and an A-bomb shelter in the basement.  How could Proton fight the forces of evil, knowing there was a loved one who could be threatened or harmed because of him?  How could he explain that his only relationships could be shallow flings based purely on sexual desire?  Or rather — how could he explain without having his gonads hacked off by an angry Kumon warrior?

"Come on, doll," said Proton, flashing a roguish smile.  "You owe me one."

"A marriage?"

"No.  Your life."

B'Lar Nah fondled her death-dealing devices in a thoughtful manner.  This virile Earth warrior had indeed saved her from being eaten by the ravenous Tongue-Snakes of the Tribade of Venus...

"Your Royal Beauteousness — I must object!" cried Lonzak.  "At the very least, Captain Proton should not enter a restricted zone without a full blood test."

"Why?" asked Proton.  "Do you think I'm a shape-shifting alien infiltrator?"

"No, it's because anyone dressed like you is obviously queer!"

Lonzak's eyes crossed as he suddenly found himself looking down sixteen gun barrels at once.  Twin laser-sights turned his cavernous nostrils a deep crimson, with a faint red glow coming out of his ears.

"I know what you're thinking, Lonzak!" snarled Princess B'Lar Nah.  "Did she fire six trillion rounds or only 5,999,999,999,999?  Well in all this excitement I clean forgot.  But seeing as these are .95 caliber Micro-Gatlings (the most powerful handguns in the universe without hyperspace recoil-dumping) and can blow your head into dimensions so horrible even H. P. Lovecraft couldn't conceive of them, you've got to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?  WELL DO YOU, PUNK?"

(* p'unk — derogatory Kumon term for "male person who forgets to lower the toilet seat")

Lonzak fumbled for a button on his commbelt.  The door rolled open and the autosentries swung their liquid helium-cooled gunbarrels into a neutral position.  Proton and his two companions stepped into the forbidden realm.

Chapter VIII:  Starship Bloopers

"OPERATION Defend Our Freedom and Standard Of Living from Evil Terrorist Aliens will now commence!" crackled a voice from a vox-box.  "And will you guys choose a more ambiguous codename next time?"

The dome was actually the top half of an impregnium sphere that had been air-dropped from a Continuous Patrol Stratocruiser.  Even with its sound-dampening acoustics the airmobile command post was filled with noise.  Whirring and clacking electro-mechanical consoles were sited 360° around a bowl-like amphitheatre, manned by signalers jabbering in battle languages, comtechs talking technobabble and PR men speaking B.S.  Officers on brain-enhancing drugs gibbered incomprehensibly while their NCOs quietly got on with the job.  The word ALERT flashed superfluously on countless monitors, while battle computers tracked the positions of hostile journalists.

"Have you any idea what these buttons do?" whispered one console operator.  "They never stick any labels on them."

"Just keep pushing the damned things until you hit the right one," murmured his colleague.  "If you accidentally nuke Los Angeles, it won't be that much of a disaster."

The domed ceiling was a huge display bubble — live images from comm feeds, spyeye drones and radio-controlled blimps were projected onto its surface.  Nuclear-powered bombers struggled to take off under the weight of their radioactive shielding.  A mobile fortress wallowed in the ruins of a collapsed bridge.  Soldiers with multiple compound fractures were evacuated from their flying tanks.  Tracked minisubs struggled to escape from debris-choked lake bottoms.  A submarine-plane erupted from the surface of the ocean, rockets blazing in a futile effort to lift its heavy pressure hull into the air.

"Blunderbirds are slow!" quipped Buster, as the sub-plane belly-flopped back into the water.

"Guns, tanks, bombs — they're like toys against them!" cried a frustrated general.

"They are toys, sir.  It's called merchandising."

"Skynet says we should nuke the entire planet from orbit," said a bespectacled comtech.  "It's the only way to be sure."

"We'd have to restrict the fallout from agricultural areas and marginal political constituencies," growled the general, chewing on his self-igniting cigar.

"We could always use the Gay Bomb," suggested his aide-de-camp.

"Soldier, I told you never to mention that word!"

Two men in dark suits were arguing with a military policeman.  "We're not the Blues Brothers, you idiot!  We're the Men in Black!"

"How many times have I told you clowns?" a sky-commander shouted into his cordless handset.  "Don't shoot a flying saucer when it's over a national landmark!"

"Why did it have to be a saucer?" moaned a spooky-eyed psi-warrior.  "If it looked like a spoon I could bend that starship easily!"

"Who'd build a starship in the shape of a spoon?" scoffed a red-headed WAC captain, swigging from her huge mug of coffee.

"You said your death ray could disintegrate an elephant!" roared a red-faced colonel.

"That's the problem," replied the lab-coated man on his image plate.  "I only tested it on elephants!"

"What do you mean an indescribable horror?  I want a complete description!" a G-2 officer barked into a radio-mike.  "Well if it's got that many eyes I'll get the damned alien to describe itself!"  He slammed down the microphone and began sorting through a collection of subsonic psych-war tapes.  "Let's see...Shock & Awe, Panic & Confusion, Sheeplike Obedience to Authority, Buy American, Ride of the Kumons...aha!  Barney the Purple Dinosaur!  Soon those bug-eyed monsters will be begging for mercy."

A grainy imagizer labeled 'Orbital Dropship Rodger Young' showed a grizzled cyborg with solid steel testicles stomping down a line of interatmospheric drop tubes, each holding a terrified Mobile Infirmary soldier seated on a spacehopper.

"What do you f**king mean — you thought you'd be using powered armor?  I didn't see those in the f**king movie!  All you need are those bouncy balls!  What's wrong with you f**king apes, you wanna live forever?"

"F**K YES, SIR!"

"Do I look like a genetic scientist to you?  Welcome to Rasczak's Puke-Guts!  This is for all you f**king new people.  I only have one rule.  Everyone fights.  No one quits.  You don't do your f**king job, I'll shoot you my f**king self!"

"That's three rules, Lieutenant."

"I'm not a f**king mathematician either!  We are going in with the first wave.  Means more bug-eyed monsters for us to kill.  You smash the entire f**king area, you kill anything that doesn't look it belongs on Melrose Place!  Except me of course.  Any f**king questions?"

"Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir — or another bug hunt?"

"Why else would I give you that f**king can of RAID, soldier!"

A recording played on an oval telescreen: the U.F.O. flew contemptuously through the ack-ack bursts of a destroyer.  A beam of energy stabbed down, and the hapless vessel was instantly transmuted into an exploding WW2 battleship.

"It appears to be some kind of Spielberg Ray," said one watcher.  "All our guns have been turned into walkie-talkies."

Other screens were tuned to visinews channels, where reporters spouted wild rumors and interviewed stunned eyewitnesses.

"My mommy always said there were no monsters — not real ones," said a little girl.  "But she was full of it."

"I only need to know one thing," said a female soldier.  "Where they aren't."

"Shoot a nuke down a bug hole, you get a lot of dead bugs," growled a veteran of the Six Second War.  "Well except for the time we created those giant man-eating ants."

"I thought if these beings were more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator," babbled a pasty-faced pastor.  "But the alien said the only creator it worshipped was Ray Harryhausen.  Then it stuck a PROBE up my behind!  IT'S EVIL!"

"Sometimes we would find our cattle mutilated, and our men with probes up their behinds," muttered a hot Hispanic babe.  "The old women, they crossed themselves and whispered crazy things: The Beast That Makes Queers Out Of Men."

"Previous invaders from Outer Space were vulnerable to Earth infections to which they had no immunity," announced a solemn anchorman.  "However this U.F.O. is surrounded by what witnesses describe as 'a giant condom of energy', making it impervious to nuclear or biological attack.  Initial reports indicated the military had brought in the truck-mounted interference dishes used to defeat the flying saucer invasion of Washington D.C., but it turned out the brass just wanted access to satellite TV."

"Our gravity would weigh them down; our heavier air would oppress them," speculated an egg-headed expert.  "Their limbs may have atrophied through an over-reliance on technology.  Precedent in our own evolution could mean they have more than one brain."

"Two brains?" gasped his interviewer.  "Just think of that, folks!  It's amazing!"

"Not at all," said the egghead.  "Binary cognitive processing is nothing new.  Human males often find commands from the brain overridden by those from the groin."

"The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million-to-one," pontificated an ivory-tower academic.  "This so-called U.F.O. is merely a delusion created by the pressures of modern society and our xenophobic fears of the Other.  It is no more real than the canals on Mars seen by early astronomers."

"Fascinating," said his Martian studio host.  "So according to you, I am also just a figment of your imagination."

"Of course!  What are the odds that an alien species would have the same humanoid form as our own?  My mind has created you in the desperate delusion that anyone would have the slightest interest in my lunatic theories!"

"The following signs can be used to identify alien possession," said a bland government official.  "A strange mark on the back of the neck.  Giant seedpods in the greenhouse.  Lack of empathy towards children or fluffy animals.  Glowing eyes and a deep hollow voice.  And gratuitous lesbian behavior amongst sexually-attractive women."

Proton and his companions strode up a heliocline ramp that thrust out into the very centre of the sphere.  Suspended at its apex was a circular dais, its curved rim slotted with holovid ports for projecting the three-dimensional image tank necessary to co-ordinate the modern battlefield of air, sea, land, and space forces.  For now the holojectors were switched off and two men held the stage.

Proton had met Commander 'Chuck' Kotay of the 82nd Rocketborne before — an unimaginative soldier with the expression range of a B-grade actor in a 1950's monster movie.  He wore a foil jumpsuit and nuclear-flash goggles, while on his forehead was tattooed a blood group and serial number.  A radio-plug was inserted in one ear; a transmitter aerial stuck out the other.

But it was the other man whose presence dominated the room.  His dark hypnotic eyes crackled with energy, giving him the aura of a super-man.  Clearly a member of the Alpha Class, he was dressed in the style of a gentleman of the twenty-first century.  The flared shoulder-yoke that required all doorways to be two yards wide.  A high fan-like collar that made his head look like a lunar eclipse.  An anti-radiation cloak hanging from the shoulders.  Lucite sandals and a tunic that showed off his bony legs.  A drooping black moustache flowed into a neatly-trimmed goatee.  His head was shaven (Proton wondered why the Man of the Future had to be synonymous with baldness — you'd never find a starship captain without a full head of hair!) and surmounted by a skullcap bearing a circular antennae for one of the new-fangled 'mobile telephones'.

"What if this thing can read our minds?" Commander Kotay was saying.

"Then we must use soldiers who do not have minds," replied his companion.

"Alright then, I'll send in the latest intake from West Point."

"No, you military moron!  I meant robots!"

The flash of Buster's camera made the duo turn to face them.  "Hold the front page.  There are people on this planet dressed sillier than you, Proton."

"Who IS this insolent fool?" asked the Alpha male, his eyebrows bristling like aggravated hedgehogs.

"Buster Kincaid of the Interplanetary Telepress."  The reporter screwed a new bulb into his flash unit.  "And you are?"

"You INSULT me!  I am Doctor Heinrich Zarkendorf, the greatest genius this world has ever seen!"

"Doctor who?"

"No, you pernicious Panasian!  Do I look like an impotent time-traveling twit with no fashion sense?  Doctor Zarkendorf!"

"Sounds like the name of a mad scientist," said Buster casually.

"I AM NOT MAD!" cried Zarkendorf, his eyes bulging madly.  "For years people like you laughed at my name!  They called me a nerd — they said I should get out of my mother's basement and get a life!  I swore that one day I would make them all pay!  The world will soon tremble at the name Heinrich Dorfmenstein Zarkendorf!"

"Yeah — probably at the thought of having to spell it."

For the first time in his life Proton thought he'd eaten a bigger food pill than he could swallow.  "You know perfectly well who this man is, Kincaid!  Without Zarkendorf's timely invention of Soylent Green, the human race would have resorted to cannibalism!"

"Doctor Zarkendorf is also famous on my world," said TuMok.  "Did you not bio-engineer the plant whose natural oils reduced our dependence on fossil fuels?"

"One would have to be blind not to see the benefits of my Triffids," said Zarkendorf.  "Your taste is exceeded only by your ears."

"And didn't you also invent Psionics?" asked Buster.  "The advanced science of the mind that would enable us to cure the aliments of humanity, read each other's thoughts, see past and future events, and electrocute our classmates through telekinesis?"

"Indeed!" said the acclaimed scientist, preening visibly.

"And didn't that turn out to be a load of codswallop?"

Zarkendorf's teeth made a distinct grinding sound.  "WHAT are you people doing here?  As I recall, the SPACE Rangers have no jurisdiction on Earth, Proton!"

"We're acting under the orders of President Zimmerman."

Zarkendorf's anger disappeared as if cut off by a switch.

"Ahh yes, the theft of the Tesla device," he said smoothly.  "Commander Kotay, perhaps you could show the good captain what your ESPers have uncovered."

"Proton, I haven't seen you since we battled the Breast From 20,000 Fathoms," said Kotay in his usual bland monotone (* see 'Proton Battles the Pornographic Prop').

"Hello, Commander.  Why are you dressed like a roasted chicken?"

"We thought the aliens would use the traditional heat ray, but instead they're equipped with a weapon that destroys through high-frequency sound oscillation.  The infernal device has shattered every wine glass in the area.  Any soldier who stands still for twenty minutes is in deadly peril__"  Kotay stopped to listen to a tiny voice chirping from his radio-plug.  "Apparently the Governor of California wants to speak to the aliens personally."

"That is not a good idea," said TuMok.  "The Governor's contact procedures leave much to be desired.  As I recall the first thing he said to one extraterrestrial species was: 'You are one ugly motherfucker'."

"What exactly are we up against, Commander Kotay?" asked Buster.

"This could be the greatest threat ever faced by our world.  An alien conspiracy so ruthless and powerful it's a wonder we're still alive to talk about it."

"But you don't appear apprehensive."

"What do you mean?" said a deadpan Kotay.  "This is my worried face."

A pretty WAC minced up the ramp in her tight radiation-proof skirt and elevated anti-mine heels.  With a dazzling smile she handed a sheet of plastifilm to the handsome space captain.

"Gratified, my dear," said Zarkendorf.  "As you see gentlemen, the saucer's hull is made of an incomprehensibilium alloy which is impervious to radar and X-beams.  However our remote viewers have used their extrasensory perception to describe the interior of the vessel.  Look there — clearly a crude representation of a Tesla Scalar Interferometer.  And these are obviously cryogenic storage tubes, containing the poor unfortunates abducted by this invidious invader."

Buster snatched the drawing off Proton.  "Looks like an incoherent squiggle to me."

"Clearly your negative energy is affecting your interpretation of the results!" said Zarkendorf irritably.  "The potentialities of psychic-warfare have often been derided by narrow-minded fools.  Don't you know that reliable intelligence indicates that Hostile Alien Powers are actively researching psionics?  Is it plausible that governments would spend millions on a weapon that doesn't work?"

"Well, yes actually.  I don't suppose anyone mentioned to the ESPers that we were looking for abducted girls and a Tesla death ray before they drew this image?"

"Furthermore, it is illogical for an extraterrestrial species to abduct human females," added TuMok.

"Perhaps the aliens want hosts for their young, or food for a dying world," said Zarkendorf.  "An ancient race could be trying to steal our organs to replace their own decaying flesh."

"But our different biology would make it impossible for aliens to breed with us," said Buster.  "Likewise our flesh would be poisonous to them."

"Well then they want our women as slaves!" said Zarkendorf testily.

"Any race with the technology to cross interstellar distances would hardly need crude manual labor," said TuMok.

"Then they are hostages!  The women will be held for ransom until we accede to the alien demands.  That's it — they've come to steal our water!"

"But water can be mined from the Oort cloud or the Kuiper belt," said Proton.  "They don't even have to land on Earth."

"THEN THEY'RE DOING IT BECAUSE THEY'RE MEAN AND NASTY!" roared Zarkendorf.  "Like all amateurs you assume this creature is similar to yourselves — some humanoid with green skin and a few insignificant facial bumps.  But this is an alien whose thinking is totally...alien!  A being from a world light-centuries from our own, where evolution took a radically different path.  Not animal or mineral, but vegetable!  And how does humanity relate to vegetables?  By slicing them up and eating them with a nice juicy steak!  Perhaps it has good reason to be hostile."

"You appear to know a good deal about these aliens," said TuMok.

Zarkendorf pulled himself together.  "Ahh, yes of course.  Two years ago in Antarctica I conducted the archeological evacuation of a paleogean cycle of invertebrate evolution utterly beyond our powers of speculation."

"What do you think, Proton?"

"I think Doctor Zarkendorf should throw away his thesaurus."

"The alien's body suffered rapid decay after being removed from its frozen tomb," said Zarkendorf coldly.  "Unfortunately we have no viable samples of its tissue.  I believe it was found near an identical vessel to the one we are confronting now."  He switched on the telephone clipped to his chest — the antennae on his head began to spin rapidly.  "Lonzak!  What happened to that U.F.O. we found buried at the South Pole?"

"It was accidentally destroyed, sire.  The thermite bombs used to melt the ice__"

"FOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLL!"  Zarkendorf hung up his phone with an abrupt gesture. "I am surrounded by incompetence!"

"You blew it up?  Secrets that might have given us a new science?  Damn you all to hell!"

"Perhaps YOU could have done better, Proton?  First contact with any alien species is fraught with uncertainty, as you well know."

"Yes, I've seen how the Alpha Class handles these things," said Proton.  "Show 'em, TuMok."

"Not another parallel reality!" cried Buster, as everything started to fade and turn monochrome.

"Relax, Citizen Kincaid.  This is merely a flashback scene."

They stood on the lawn of the pre-Atomic White House, watching in horror as the Mother-of-All-Motherships cracked apart like a rotten egg and from its wretched depths crawled a gargantuan thirty-foot spider!  All were frozen with fear as the arachnid alien crawled implacably towards them with the relentlessness of an unstoppable nightmare!  From between its huge hairy mandibles arose a hideous, garbled screech that pierced their minds like a red-hot dagger... "Fire you fools!" cried Scientist-Senator Zarkendorf.  "Fire before it's too late!" and the air was ripped by the roar of a thousand explosive-head cluster-bullets shredding the freakish foe into ragged flesh!  An atomic bazooka shell incinerated the remains in a boiling radioactive mushroom cloud, the blast wiping out an entire battalion of flamethrower tanks as they charged in to put the creature to the torch...

"And what's wrong with that?" asked Zarkendorf.  "That spider was in direct violation of the Squared-Cube Law.  An arachnid of those proportions should have collapsed under its own weight."

"And it was clearly attacking us," added Kotay.  "Didn't you hear that horrid screech?"

"According to the uni-vocal translator that screech meant: 'Strange two-legged beings, I greet you in the spirit of intergalactic friendship'."

"It's not my fault we couldn't understand its accent!" snapped Zarkendorf.  "Anyway, since when have the Space Rangers been perfect?  Remember this incident, Proton?"

A noble patriarch in flowing white robes stood before a gleaming city of crystal spires.  The wisdom of Solomon radiated from his stern features and piercing blue eyes.

"I am the Guardian of..."  The patriarch frowned, as if trying to recall a fragment of memory from the detritus of past millennia.  "Whatever.  Bold explorer of the planet Earth — you who have navigated the treacherous deception of the Kodak Suns, boldly fought the stock footage from 'Battle Beyond the Stars', and wiped out the evil Xhtaran invaders with a single sneeze, have been chosen to mate with my beautiful virgin daughter with amazing breasts in order to create the Supreme Being of the Universe.  Thus we shall match the infinite wisdom of the Elder Races with the passion and fearlessness of the Younger.  State the name by which you are known among your kind."

The bold explorer stepped forth with his hand outstretched.  "I am Captain Proton of the Space Rangers — Victor of the Battle of Tycho, Hero of the Big Whoops! (The Third Accidental Atomic Holocaust of '98), and Liberator or Butcher of Venus Depending on Your Interpretation of Certain Controversial Events.  I come in peace on behalf of all humanity.  May this be the start of a long and fruitful alliance between our two disparate cultures."

The Guardian looked down his long noble nose.  "You wish me to...hold your hand?"

"Ahh no," replied Proton.  "Shaking hands is a typical greeting among my kind."

The Guardian's eyes flashed with starfire.  "Do not toy with me, Earthling!  I know that to hold another man's hand is a sign of homosexuality on your world!  Just because I don't wear trousers you assume that I too am queer!  So be it then.  Instead of my daughter, you shall have one of our bum-slaves instead!"

The Guardian snapped his fingers and Buster Kincaid appeared in a flash of light, naked but for a fig leaf and a slave collar stamped with the words PROTON'S PRAG...

"AAAARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH!" screamed Buster.  "I don't remember that happening!"

"My apologies," said TuMok with a not-quite-hidden smirk.  "That was a parallel reality."

And then it happened!  A scream of static howled through the bristling nerve center.  From every screen, visiplate and video wall glared the same implacable image.  Finally their foe was revealed — the mysterious menace who had struck fear into the hearts of helpless women!  Terrible indeed was the reaction to this invader from another world.  Everyone writhed in a horrible convulsion, clutching their sides as if wracked by infinite agonies!

"Stop!" hissed the alien in an asthmatic wheeze.   "I command you Earthlings to stop!  I am not funny, do you hear me?  I AM NOT FUNNY!"

"HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!" roared the entire command staff of the 82nd Rocketborne.  Even Commander Kotay's face had formed a vaguely humorous expression.

Buster was busting a gut with laughter.  "Great Calculator, we're being invaded by a giant zucchini!  It'll be killer tomatoes next!"

The creature (which did indeed resemble a ten-foot squash plant) fumed in the face of their collective mirth — rolling eyes like painted ping-pong balls, brandishing claws that drooped like a man after ten beers, snarling through fangs fixed in a fake styrofoam grimace.

"Silence you insolent Dirtlings!"  Unable to articulate its rigid mouth, the alien had to wave its claws about just to let them know it was talking.  "Before your race crawled out of the primordial ooze my people were pissing in it!  Our teenagers wrote graffiti on the plains of Nazca and did spin-outs in your cornfields.  Your religions are but cargo cults inspired by race memories of our sex tourists.  We abducted the entire Mayan civilization solely to further our studies into the anal regions.  You should worship me as a God!"

"What does God need of a starship?" asked TuMok.

"Don't be a smartass, elf-ears!  Untold millennia have passed since our species was born in the galaxy known as Andromeda.  But after it was destroyed by the evil Kevin Sorbo, we fled through the starless void to the planet you call Pluto."

"Pluto is not a planet," said Zarkendorf pedantically.

"Yes is it!"

"No, it is not!"

"It's a planet if I bloody well say it is!"

"How are you able to speak our language?" asked Proton.

"I have been monitoring your electronic wave-signals," said the alien.  "10,000 channels of reality TV is enough to convince anyone you're worthy of extermination.  For years I plotted in the dark places, awaiting the moment when I would emerge to make your world my own!  Then my mother told me to get out of her basement and take a life.  But when I tried to conquer other worlds they just laughed at me!  They said I looked like a cheap prop from a Roger Corman film!  I swore that one day I would make them all pay!  The universe will soon tremble at the name D'Ork of the Thorkoth!  As my appearance did not inspire fear, I resolved to seek out the most hideous creatures imaginable as my army of conquest.  And I found them — the women of Earth!  Those ugly hourglass bodies with their bulging chests, those tiny white teeth and repugnant blue eyes, that awful high-pitched laugh, that horrible blonde hair!  Doesn't the mere sight fill you with terror?  All will fall before them!"

"Yeah, they'll fall into the nearest bed," muttered Buster.

"D'Ork of the Thorkoth, you are going to jail for a very long time," announced Proton.  "In the name of the people of Earth, I arrest you on charges of murder, kidnapping, reckless endangerment, and public indecency — why do non-humanoid aliens go around without clothes anyway?"

"I regurgitate in the face of your foolish threats, Earthman.  If you attempt to detain me I shall destroy your entire planet!  The engines of my starship are powered by Anti-Matter, a substance opposed to everything that matters in the universe.  If I were to release the magnetic forcewall which separates this Anti-Matter from normal matter, the resulting explosion will turn your planet into a heap of gravel!  After all, why should Earth look different from other worlds?"

"You're inhuman!" cried Proton.  "Of course you are; what am I saying...that's not the point!  What matters is you'll kill vast numbers of innocent people!"

"But you humans do that all the time!" replied D'Ork indignantly.

"All this violence is unnecessary," said TuMok.  "Surely there is much our races can learn from each other."

"Like new ways of killing?"

"You are not helping, Citizen Kincaid.  What I mean to say is: a ruthless drive for conquest could be channeled into more productive endeavors.  You could work for Microsoft instead."

"Rubbish!" scoffed Zarkendorf.  "The only good vegetable is a diced vegetable!  State your demands, you infelicitous felon!"

"You will provide me with the materials I need to repair my starship.  I want twenty gurqs of uranium (* a gurq is equivalent to one Earth kilogram) and a hundred geeks of fertilizer (* a geek is equivalent to the weight of one sci-fi fan) delivered to me within one neegath (equivalent to one Earth hour minus 0.0095746338th of a microsecond) or there will be trouble!  Then you shall allow my vessel to depart this pestilent pesthole of a planet without hindrance.  To ensure that you will not attack me as soon as I have left your atmosphere, I will take a hostage.  HIM!"

D'Ork's right claw flopped in an indeterminate manner.

"Err...who?" asked Proton.

"The one in the silly hat!  I know Zarkendorf is one of your top scientists, though compared to my species he is the intellectual equivalent of pond sludge!  Nevertheless you will not dare risk his life to destroy my own!"

The battlesphere erupted in an uproar.  WACs screamed in terror, dropping stacks of punched cards all over the floor.  Beribboned generals shook their fists while military policemen loudly cocked their full-auto assault shotguns.

"Take me instead!" shouted Proton.  "I am a valued member of Earth's elite Space Rangers!"

"SILENCE!" roared Zarkendorf over the tumult.  "Do you think I am afraid of this vexatious vegetable?  I would gladly risk my life to protect our beautiful planet Earth.  Perhaps it is fate that today is the Fourth of July.  This time we fight not against tyranny, oppression, or a three percent tea tax — but annihilation!  Let the world declare in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a good sound bite!  Commander Kotay, order your men to fetch my groundcar.  I shall confront this xenocidal menace face-to-face!"

Chapter IX:  The Muppet Masters

THE moment Zarkendorf entered the airlock he was seized by Slo-Man and frog-marched down a series of corridors which looked exactly alike.  He was beginning to think he'd become trapped in a temporal inversion when they arrived at a doorway marked with the words CONTROL ROOM (* Thorkian for 'Where-Sits-The-One-Who-Pulls-The-Strings').  Sure enough the doors slid apart as if pulled open by someone holding a long string, and Zarkendorf was brutally shoved inside.

"Perfidious human swine!" cried D'Ork.  "You have betrayed me!"

Zarkendorf picked himself up off the floor and gazed with disdain about the Control Room.  Once a potent symbol of the feared Thorkoth race, the flying saucer had suffered the inevitable Gibsonian decline of that once mighty spacefaring empire.  Chesley Bonestell paintings had given way to shoddy mattes, expensive optical effects to over-lit models and dodgy chroma-key.  Anti-gravity machines hung by visible wires while bubble machines made pathetic imitations of luminescent protoforms.  The walls wobbled noticeably, and the instrumentation looked like it had been scavenged from a sound studio bankruptcy sale.

"My dear friend, how could I possibly know that Admiral Janeway was testing her latest top-secret naval fighters in that area?  The Machiavellian machinations of the military mind are often a mystery to me."

"Don't think you can bamboozle me, you double-crossing descendent of monkeys!  You tipped off that coffee-mad bitch!  Now you intend to steal my cyborg army and use it to advance your own malign scheme!"

"Ho-ho!" chortled Zarkendorf.  "And why shouldn't I?  The thought of a cardboard villain like you conquering the world — you could barely manage a cave in Bronson Canyon!  Thanks to your bumbling I now have to deal with that meddlesome fool Proton, who proved such an annoyance to me in Chapters 5 to 12 of 'The Evilness of Evil'.  I told you to be patient and wait for my friends in Congress to shut down the Space Rangers but nooooo!  Wobbling around in your flying flapjack, abducting women with the help of this gear-ridden gorilla — your ineptitude has endangered us all!"

"You dare accuse me of incompetence?" snarled D'Ork, gnashing its cardboard teeth to pulp.  "I who gave you the secrets of nanotechnology?  Without me you'd still be trying to construct a bionic brain with billions of tiny punched cards!"

"Is that so, you moronic morosoph?  What about that blue box you said could travel through time and space, but never seemed to get past Cardiff?  It was no thanks to you I wasn't buggered by that randy captain and his gang of Welsh perverts!"

"My plan to change the future was working perfectly until that clumsy henchman of yours stepped on a butterfly!  One moment we were proud saurians ruling a galactic empire — now we look like THIS!"  The alien flopped its claws in fury.  "And what about the potion you invented — the one that was supposed to turn me into a terrifying Invisible Monster? (* see 'Attack of the No-Budget Special Effect')."

"That worked!"

"Yes you bungling brainiac, the light passed through my entire body — including my retinas!  I couldn't see a blasted thing!"

"And which mealy-mouthed menace came up with a preposterous plan to replicate world leaders?  We'll have to wait decades for those clones to grow up!  And they still won't have the same memories or personality!"

"As opposed to your brilliant brainwave to replace those same politicians with mindless zombies?  No-one noticed the difference!"

"Really?  And who was it decided to raise Cthulhu from his eternal slumber?  His tentacles are so atrophied he'll need decades of physiotherapy just to get out of bed!"

"I seem to recall it was your bright idea to spend billions of credits on those orbiting mind-control lasers!"

"How was I to know that tinfoil hats would become the latest fashion?"

"ENOUGH!" cried D'Ork.  "World Domination Plan 7 of 9 is mine, you arrogant anthropoid!  Did you really think I would fail to anticipate your treachery?  I have already prepared tape-recordings of your voice so those idiot Earthlings outside will believe you are still my hostage.  But before I make my escape, I shall have the pleasure of watching you die!  Slo-Man, I want you to crush him!  Slowly!"

"I DO EVERYTHING SLOWLY," replied Slo-Man.

"Get on with it then!"

Zarkendorf screamed horribly as he was compacted between powerful robotic hands.  Smoke curled from his mouth, his eyes popped out and clunked onto the floor, wires and gears burst from his chest!  D'Ork screeched in terror, backing into the nearest console as Slo-Man removed its helmet to reveal Zarkendorf's smug features.

"FOOOOOOOOOL!  To think I would fail to anticipate your anticipation of my treachery!  Now I shall deactivate your Lightning Shield, and leave you to be destroyed by Commander Kotay and his Zombies of the Battlesphere!"  Zarkendorf leapt for a prominent red button marked LIGHTNING SHIELD (which was Thorkian for 'Impenetrable-Screen-of-Energy-Shaped-Like-A-Giant-Condom').  But the moment he pushed the button, a crackling field of electricity coursed through Zarkendorf's entire body!

D'Ork cackled gleefully as its antagonist shuddered within the immobilizing tentacles of energy.  "Stupid Earthling!  Of course I anticipated your anticipation of my anticipation of your treachery!  I lied when I said there was enough Anti-Matter left in my engines to destroy this planet — but there is more than enough to take care of you!"  The alien seized a long lever in its claw.  "The moment I activate this actuator, a transmatter field will beam me in violation of Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty to a location a thousand fliirps from here (* a fliirp is equivalent to one Earth mile).  Exactly one neep later (* a neep is equivalent to one Hollywood minute: a circumstantially-variable duration of time) the self-destruct mechanism will create an Anti-Matter explosion which will obliterate all evidence of my escape — and you along with it!"

Suddenly the saucer was rocked by a convulsive blast!  Pyrotechnic sparks showered from the consoles; acrid clouds of yellow smoke poured from the air ducts.

"Do you think I am a fool, you...fool!" coughed Zarkendorf as he clambered to his feet.  "Fully anticipating your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my treachery, I mixed that ammonium nitrate fertilizer (which you so conveniently demanded be placed in your cargo hold) with Diesel fuel and a uranium-decay detonator, turning it into the biggest bomb since Battlefield Earth!"

"Then die, Zarkendorf — in the inferno you created!"  D'Ork yanked down the lever and disappeared in a haze of shimmering particles, only to promptly rematerialize with the head of an enormous fly!

"You bastard, I look even sillier than I did before!  What did you do?  How did this fly's head get so big?  Where have you hidden the RAID?"

"Ho-ho! Naturally I also sabotaged your transmatter in anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my treachery!"  Zarkendorf whipped out a protuberant ray-pistol from beneath his cloak.  "Now to destroy you with my latest invention — the Cellular Disruption Graser, which I cunningly disguised as a hairdryer!  Upon firing it will emit a deadly stream of gamma rays which will fold, spindle and mutate every cell in your body!"

With an evil laugh the mad scientist pulled the trigger.  There was a high-pitched whine and a blinding flash erupted from the discharge cells.  Zarkendorf emitted an agonizing scream as his flesh turned green and swelled horribly!

"Credulous cretin!" jeered D'Ork.  "Did you think I would fail to wonder why a bald man needs a hairdryer?  I therefore sabotaged your ray-pistol in anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your treachery.  Every cell in your body is now undergoing a fatal mutation!"

"But fortunately I anticipated your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my treachery!" cried Zarkendorf, "and had my body impregnated with protective nanites.  Instead of killing me, that burst of gamma radiation will mutate my body into an unstoppable thirty-foot hulk with serious anger management issues!"

"But I anticipated your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your anticipation of my anticipation of your treachery, and gave you underpants made from unbreakable non-stretch fabric!"

"ARRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!" screamed Zarkendorf, as his body bloated excessively within the confines of his Y-fronts.  Driven to the heights of fury by the excruciating pain in his testicles, Zarkendorf seized D'Ork and tore the alien limb from limb!  With loud, animal howls he stomped repeatedly on the remains before passing out in agony.

There was a deathly silence but for the crackling flames from the wrecked instrument panels.  Then tiny seedlings began to sprout from the pulped carcass of D'Ork.  A legion of voices chanted in unison, their chorus growing steadily louder as they increased in size.

"Half-witted human — to think that we could be destroyed so easily!  Little did he know a Thorkian contains millions of spores which can survive anything short of an Anti-Matter explosion!  Now we shall feast on Zarkendorf's gamma-irradiated flesh, and in mere neeps will grow into an invincible army of thirty-foot zucchini monsters!  Together we shall conquer the Earth!  Nothing can stand in our way!"


"Oh sh__"

Chapter X:  The City on the Edge of the Weather

BLIZZARDS howled in the Stygian cloak of the long Antarctic winter.  For millennia these raging winds had remained unchallenged — even by the mountains which they'd immured under an implacable shroud of desolation.  But now, like the sword of an angel, a shaft of sunlight pierced the polar blackness, bathing the domed city in its gentle radiance.  Snow and ice lashed in vain at the interloper, clutching and clawing at the impregnable duraplastic hemisphere — an impassive monument to the ingenuity of Man.  Outside the temperature was a hundred below zero, but beneath the city-dome flourished life in all its exuberance.  Alien predators frolicked through the trees gathering trophies.  Pretty girls whirled down the slidewalks in clothes apparently made from transdimensional fabric, as they could barely be seen by the eye.  And Captain Proton was wearing a fishnet shirt that showed off his nipples and muscular pecs.

"What?" asked Proton defensively.  "It's a souvenir from the submariner branch of S.H.A.D.O." (* see 'Captain Proton and the Series Crossover')

"Yeah right," said Buster, taking a picture with his ever-present camera.  "What is it with you noble defenders of Earth anyway?  Some sort of gay chic?"

"They've got girls in S.H.A.D.O!" retorted the queerly-dressed captain.  "Lots of them — in catsuits and calf boots!  Every alien-fighting organization I've seen has lots and lots of glamorous girls! (* see 'Queens of Outer Space')"

"Well there you are then!  How can these hardy heroes concentrate on their tasks if they're surrounded by curvy dolls in spray-on clothing?  Being gay is clearly a job requirement."

There was a slight bump as their podcar disengaged from the monorail and continued on a cushion of ionized air, guided by the low-frequency power cable buried beneath the grass-covered street.  Collision-avoidance radar kept the driverless vehicle from bumping into the pedestrians who constantly sauntered across in front of them.  To these three men, raised in hive-cities whose leaders regulated everything from breeding to dress codes, International City seemed the personification of anarchy.  Alpha Class scientists had stated that social uniformity was a prerequisite for any stable society — yet here humans, infrahumans, chimeras and aliens rubbed shoulders without conflict.  They saw programming-mechanics from Panasia, krill farmers from Atlantropa, water-miners from the Union of Africa and space-traffic controllers from Brazil.  Reptiloids from Sirius Minor were cross-dressing as Earth politicians; sentient dolphins trundled along in tracked supermarines.  Steampunks wielding clockwork-activated switchblades got into futile staring contests with cyberpunks in their surgically-implanted mirrorshades.  A pair of chimpanzees debated the ethics of a laissez-faire economy with a two-headed refugee from the Moscow Atomic Wasteland (* as you know, simian sentience was only recognized after a lengthy lawsuit over the controversial shooting of the extreme sport urban-climber known as King Kong).

"I never fully appreciated how diverse Earth is," said Proton.  "Once you get out of the solar system it's ice planets, desert planets, forest planets, pleasure planets, gravel planets — all one-G worlds with a single homogenous climate and culture.  It's like the rest of the universe was created by unimaginative scriptwriters on a tight deadline."

"Seems strange that the Alpha Class picked Antarctica to house the Great Calculator," said Buster.  "A machine deified as the paragon of order and centralized control — in a land without sovereignty run by anarchists, libertarians, and neo-democratic nutcases."

"The Great Calculator is here because it is not under the jurisdiction of any government," replied TuMok.  "No nation-state can be trusted with physical control of a machine which guides the destiny of the entire human race.  There are practical considerations as well.  Antarctica is the coldest and driest continent on Earth — thus it serves as a natural refrigeration unit for the trillions of circuits, wires and vacuum tubes used by the Great Calculator.  And most importantly, there are no bugs at the South Pole."

The podcar coasted to a gentle halt.  "118a Ayn Rand Avenue," announced the vehicle.  "That will be two copper ounces."

"You mean...money?" said Buster incredulously.

"Do you take credit?" asked Proton, holding up the Universal Card issued to all Earth citizens at birth.

The car vocalized a distinct electronic snigger.

TuMok removed two coins from his utility belt and fed them into a slot.  The podcar raised its bubble dome and they all clambered out.

Proton had expected the ubiquitous Home of the Future — the kind produced in the millions by the house-factories of the north.  A plastic and glass fishbowl with the same amount of privacy, furniture designed for nonhumanoid lifeforms, abstract art that could only be appreciated via soma-scented air-conditioning, a kitchenette that looked like a drug-testing laboratory and a home computer that went nuts and tried to impregnate your wife.  Instead they faced a small wooden shack (what kind of architect used wood as a building material?) with an uncanny resemblance to a kennel.  Hanging from the door was a hand-carved sign.

THE DOG HOUSE.  Knock and be welcomed — we don't bite! (I am legally required to inform you that Kilrathi, Kzinti and other such felinoids are except from this statement).

Their knock was answered by a Servus gynoid with elfin ears and the fragile prettiness of Dresden china.  She was a young model (only three years out of the manufactory) wearing a spun-glass wig, disposable paper blouse, aluminum skirt and plastic calf-boots.

TuMok saluted her with the traditional greeting of his people.  "Live long on lobster, R. Kes."

"Mr. TuMok, it's good to see you again," said Kes charmingly.  "Did you have a nice journey here?"

"SHIT," answered Buster.

The gynoid's eyes widened.  "Was it that bad?"

"No, he means S.H.I.T.," said Proton.  "Suborbital Hypersonic Intercontinental Transport.  Imagine blasting off from a sled ramp running halfway up a mountain, rocketing into the ionosphere at three gees, then plunging down onto the other side of the world at 25,000 kilometers per hour.  You definitely need a change of underwear afterwards."

"And to cap things off they put our luggage on the wrong rocket," said Buster, munching an entire packetful of jetlag pills.  "I think it's being unloaded at Reykjavik by now."

"You must be the man from the Space Rangers," Kes said to Proton.  "Are you the famous Rocky Road?"

Buster started to snigger until she added: "And this must be your faithful co-pilot, Wanky."

"Ahh, that's Rocky Jones and Winky, ma'am.  Actually I'm Captain Proton — Spaceman First Class, Defender of Earth, Man of the Day After Tomorrow.  And this is__"

A blinding light burst in their faces.

"The Flash," finished Proton.

"Buster Kincaid of the Interplanetary Telepress.  Robot Kes, would you like to comment on the common perception that hot Servus babes such as yourself are undermining the foundations of the post-nuclear war family?  YEOW!"

TuMok removed his fingers from the nerve bundle on Buster's shoulder.  "You are a guest here, Citizen Kincaid — I suggest you act accordingly.  R. Kes, is your husband at ARRRGH!" cried TuMok as a short, excessively-hairy man bounded through the doorway onto his chest, knocking him to the ground.

"Mr. Vulcan!  Mr. Vulcan!" barked the strange being, wagging his tail and slobbering enthusiastically.  He was clearly a chimera (half-man, half-Siberian husky) created by xenograft surgery to settle the harsh polar regions.  A vocalizer-collar translated his growls and tiny muscular throat movements into speech.  "How's my favorite Martian? Na-Nu Na-Nu!"

"Ambassador Gneelicks, just because I have a degree in vulcanology does not mean it is appropriate to call me Mr. Vulcan.  And for your information 'Na-Nu Na-Nu' means 'I wish to offer you employment in a Martian topless bar'."  TuMok politely shooed the manimal from his chest and stood up.  "Allow me to introduce my companions: Captain Thomas Proton of the Space Rangers and Citizen Harry Kincaid__"

"Buster Kincaid!"

"Of the Interplanetary Telepress."

"Captain Proton!" the creature yapped excitedly.  "Hero of Science!  Sleuth of the Spaceways!  Queen of the Rocket Men!"

"Err, that's King of the Rocket Men," said Proton.

"I'm telling you — it's the nipple shirt," whispered Buster.

"Shut up!"

"Gneelicks," the manimal introduced himself.  "My ambassadorship is purely voluntary of course — most of the time I work as a guide.  When I'm not a leisure-engineer that is... or a sustenance preperation tech...I take it you've all met my bitch?"

"Gneelicks, dear," said Kes with factory-installed patience.  "It's really not polite to refer to a female humanoid as a bitch."

"But TuMok says they do it all the time in those alternative realities — incidentally Mr. Vulcan, how do you like her ears?  I asked the service station to give Kes a nice pointy pair, just like yours."

"I am flattered," said the Martian flatly.

Gneelicks herded them inside the hut, which was merely a foyer covering a long ramp descending into the ground.  What they encountered at the bottom made Proton and Buster gape in astonishment.  A chapel-like chamber had been laser-bored out of the ice, which glowed a radiant blue thanks to cold-light tubes buried beneath the surface.  Intricate flower patterns were sculptured into the ceiling, while rows of hydroponic plants along the walls added a touch of greenery.  The furnishing was a bizarre mix of the old and the new — handmade cabinets supporting hypnobioscopes and tri-D projectors, plastisteel couches covered by sheepskin rugs (* no-one believes in the sentience of sheep), and holographic pictures mounted in cut-down shell casings.  Proton winced as an expensive floor-cleaning spiderbot crunched under his boot.  Vidibooks and reading material were scattered everywhere: scientifiction magazines printed on cheap plastifilm, programming schematics for Sensorama and video-machine games, autokitchen manuals, subliminal learning tapes for a multitude of occupations, plus all sixteen volumes of Hypnopaedia Antarctica and a cookbook entitled To Serve Man.

"What do you think?" asked Gneelicks proudly.  "Kes did the interior decoration.  Of course it all melts eventually, even under plastifibre insulation — which gives her the perfect excuse to keep changing things."

"You did ask for Genuine Female Personality Programming, dear," said Kes, who was bustling about trying to bring some order to chaos.

"Don't tell me you actually read this stuff, Gneelicks."  Proton picked up an issue of Incredible Tales.  The cover showed a sinister lizard-man slavering over a catsuited redhead with a wrinkled nose.  The rapid advance of technology had prevented sci-fi from maturing past the realm of pulp space opera — why read about rocketships to Ganymede when you could take a tourist trip there by the mid-1980's?  "'Deep Space Nine', by Bennie Russell.  Forceshields, holes in space, teleportation beams, warped-space drive, computers small enough to fit in handheld pads...you do realise it's all impossible?"

"I love scientifiction!" yapped Gneelicks.  "I'm even writing a short story of my own.  It's about these huskies who are wintering over in Antarctica, and this human stumbles into their camp, only he's actually a shape-morphing thing from another world who can imitate anyone he takes over, so no-one knows if their best friend is a husky or not...I think I'll call it 'Who Grows Hair?'"

He pushed through an electrostatic climate-screen into an adjourning room.  "Now you're going to experience something special!  Forget about automats and home-piped meals — I am renowned for my skill as a kitchen-programmer!"

"That is not necessary," said TuMok quickly.  Modern science had reduced food to a simple pill containing all the essentials of life with no waste products (* see '20,000 Leagues Without a Pee').

"Nonsense, nonsense!" cried Gneelicks, removing a punched card from a box marked 'Recipes'.  "I've been studying primitive eating rituals.  We're going to sit around a table, tucking into a nice home-cooked meal like in the Before Computer era.  Take a seat everyone, this might take a while..."

"Well if you'd just let me buy a Radar Range cooker, dear..."

"For the last time, sweeting — I'm not eating those pre-packaged televisor dinners.  Atomic pens and radium health spas are one thing, but there's no way I'm using microwave radiation on my food!"

The guests spent fifteen minutes looking for the button to elevate the floor before asking Kes where the dinner table was.  She promptly assembled an antique metal structure salvaged from the galley of a polar research station.  Faded 2D pin-ups were preserved under the cracked plastic surface of the tabletop.  Proton took a seat at the table and began to leaf through an Interplanetary Telepress hot off the homeopape machine.

"What's this rubbish?  Football Hero Arrested for Indecent Exposure on Planet Mongo.  Chewbacca Defense Used in Greedo Shooting Trial.  Erwin Schrodinger Charged with Cruelty To Cats.  Ichneumon Fly Sues Scientifiction Writers for Ripping Off its Life Cycle.  Survey Shows 78% of Americans Think Space Rangers Are A Bunch Of Poofs.  You call this news, Kincaid?"

"Don't blame me.  The Alpha Class is censoring all information on Zarkendorf's death to avoid world-wide panic, and create exaggerated rumors and long-term distrust of the government instead."

"That is illogical," said TuMok solemnly.  "Doctor Zarkendorf was an outstanding individual.  Your people should be allowed to mourn his passing."

"I'll say," said Buster.  "His work on the practical applications of atomic energy changed the face of the Earth — especially around Moscow."

"Not exactly a fan of the late great doctor, are you Kincaid?"

"Not since Eyebrow Man decided to set off 250 nukes in Central America."

"Why did he do that?" asked Kes.  "Was Doctor Zarkendorf facing an invasion?"

"Nah, he just wanted to widen the Panama Canal."

Proton began reading out loud from the newsplastic.  "A World Government spokesman today issued a statement declaring that the alleged destruction of Futureville was actually a delusion created by psychotropic drugs in the water supply planted by a previously unknown neo-democratic terrorist group.  The sighting by several hundred thousand witnesses across Southern California of a flying cooler lid has been put down to a mild form of mass hysteria."

"That's hysterical all right," scoffed Buster.  "If we hadn't been inside an impregnium battlesphere when that Anti-Matter went off, we'd be as extinct as cancer and TB."

"In Los Angeles today," continued Proton, "radical preservationists expressed outrage over the widespread bombing of classic Googie architecture during yesterday's incident.  Coffee shops, convention centers, the LAX Terminal, and anything else resembling a flying saucer were destroyed by naval fighters armed with instantaneous thought-controlled weapons systems.  The complaints however got short shift from Admiral Janeway.  "It's no more than they deserve.  I've been to every one of those coffee houses and they all serve lousy coffee.  Death by slow radiation poisoning is too good for them."  When one coffee chain responded by claiming the U.N. Navy were their biggest clients, she added: "That's right — we use their muck to fuel our battleships.""

"Mmm, that's interesting," said Kes, looking over Proton's shoulder.  "It says here that scientists are planning to bring back long-extinct creatures through genetic engineering.  Isn't that dangerous?"

"Ha!  What could possibly go wrong?  What exactly is a Shoggoth anyway?"

Gneelicks entered the room looking like a hirsute porcupine, as the electrostatic had caused his hair to stand on end.  He wore an apron with the words 'Better Dead Than Unfed' and held a grey metal briefcase.  "This just arrived by pneumatic post for Mr. Kincaid.  And there's a message from your travel company on the notifactor (* a robot attached to the telephone line that records messages).  Apparently your lost luggage was forwarded on via rocket mail, but a targeting error meant it wiped out half of Melbourne instead."

"I knew I shouldn't have packed that plutonium-powered toothbrush!"

"Gneelicks, when was this shot taken?"  Proton indicated a grainy black-and-white holograph of snarling dog-soldiers flushing dirty Commierats from their holes.  The sky was streaked with the contrails of antipodal bombers; a two-million ton bergship floated off-shore, rocket-shells bursting harmlessly on its thick pykrete bulkheads.

"That was my grandfather's unit.  He served under Commodore Heinlein in the Cold War."  Gneelicks was referring to the short but bloody conflict between the United States of America and the Sino-Soviet Union, when the Red Menace came skimming across the Bering Strait in their hovercrafts and ekranoplans, in a last desperate attempt to spread the Communist ideology before nuclear weapons made warfare obsolete.  "The other holographs I took myself."

There was a jet-propelled aero-sleigh caught in mid-leap over a crevasse.  Water-miners spraying plastifibre on an iceberg, so it could be towed to the parched lands of the equator.  Ghost cities being scavenged for their metal and plastic.  Robots assembling a tunnel section of the Trans-Global Highway.  Gneelicks ceremonially marking his territory on the first tree planted in International City.  Husky-men and aquanauts standing proudly on a newly constructed seadrome in the mid-Atlantic.  The next image showed the same group fleeing in terror, as the floating airport was swamped by a vast rogue wave.

"And this one?" asked TuMok.  A dozen husky-men stood with their arms outstretched on a wind-swept Antarctican plain.  It was clear they were outlining the shape of a huge circular object buried beneath the ice.

"Ahhh, that's the one we talked about over the vidiphone.  It's the only image I've got, unfortunately — the others were confiscated by Zarkendorf's henchmen.  But from what I saw on the newscasts, what we uncovered looked a lot like that U.F.O. in California."

"You hear these stories all the time," said Kes, removing a freshly-molded bowl from the plasticizer.  "Antarctica is the Last Continent, so everyone likes to think there's something mysterious out there: tribes of white giants, misty craters full of unconvincing rubber dinosaurs, cities of the Great Old Ones With Unpronounceable Names, aliens disguised as huskies..."  Kes winked at her husband.

"That's just those damned penguins stirring up trouble," growled Gneelicks.  "They claim we're an 'introduced' species.  Hah!  We huskies have been here for generations — my ancestors were eaten by Amundsen on his way to the South Pole!  But the price of sentience is eternal politics — it's enough to drive you mad.  Seals don't want to be tagged because it violates their civil liberties.  Whales demanding compensation for attempted genocide.  Emperor penguins with delusions of grandeur, complaining that the solar mirrors are interfering with their pattern of life.  Lawyers for that damned Krynoid claiming its perfectly natural behavior for their client to spawn and take over the world.  But worst of all are those greenies!"


"They want to induce global warming," said Kes.  "Make Antarctica a tropical paradise like it used to be.  They say we're a bunch of iceberg huggers."

"Well anyway, back to the subject," said Gneelicks.  "Two years ago a group of us were out prospecting for uranium (just as a hobby you understand — even on this continent there isn't enough work to go round) when we discover this saucer-shaped thing buried in the ice, see?  We send a video-wire to International City, and before you can say centrifugal bumblepuppy (not that anyone would particularly want to say it) Zarkendorf rockets in with his private army of goons, seizes control of the site and threatens to shoot us like dogs (alright we are dogs but that's not the point) if we go near.  Now that I think of it, there was a blonde cybionic girl with him.  A real iceborg, not one of his usual handmaidens — could have made a fortune towing her off to Africa, hah-hah!  Then (even after we made him cough up a hefty weight of gold coin in litigation for his outrageous behavior) Zarkendorf buys an extinct volcano off the coast and sets up a laboratory to study this thing.  A real Hyper-Secret place it is.  Built by robots, lots of security — even the penguins can't go near the place.  Not that they want to.  They say there's a curse on the mountain; that no-one who's gone up there has ever returned."

Everyone shivered, as if an eerie sound was making the hair on their necks stand up.

"Kes, sweeting — would you mind not playing the theremin while we talk?"

"But what was there left to study?" asked Buster.  "I thought the U.F.O was destroyed when they tried melting it out with thermite."

"That's the official version," said Gneelicks.  "There were a lot of stories actually.  Some said an alien had been found frozen in the ice and was still alive after thousands of years blah blah blah.  People will believe anything these days.  They've been watching too many episodes of The Y-Not Files."  Gneelicks was referring to a popular holovid in which two stalwart G-Men sought to debunk the lunatic conspiracy theories spread by the evil Marijuana-Toking Man.  "Everyone knows that freezing stuff doesn't work.  I don't know why the Soylent Green Corporation bothered to buy up all those cryogenic storage companies."

"Where is this volcano of Zarkendorf's?" asked Proton.

"Near Port McMurdo on Ross Island.  Mount Terror, to be precise."

"Brilliant!" cried Buster.  "I can see the headlines: Terror on Mt Terror!  Zarkendorf's Fortress of Turpitude!"

"So just because Zarkendorf had a goatee and a secret base in a volcano with a morbid name meant he was some kind of supervillain?" scoffed Proton.  "That kind of thinking's right out of a Julian Bashir movie."

Buster's retort was drowned by the autokitchen screaming like a nuclear air raid klaxon.  Gneelicks rushed from the room, returning moments later with a tureen clasped between his paws.

"Bonan apetiton," he said, pouring a hideous green slime into their bowls.

"Last time I saw something like this it was trying to take over the world," muttered Proton.  He dipped in his spoon and took a tentative sip.  "Err...what exactly am I eating, Gneelicks?"

"The Food of the Future!" said Gneelicks proudly.  "Chlorella algae."

Buster spat out his mouthful.  "WHAT!  You're serving us pond scum?"

"Pre-liquefied and ready to digest, with just a pinch of penicillin as growth stimulant!  We don't have the climate for the farming and grazing methods of the north, you know.  You can also have high-protein yeast grown on a substrate of sawdust and agricultural waste, or chicken off that humungous lump of tissue they've been bathing in nutrients for the past forty years.  For dessert there's ice cream made from coal mined in the Prince Charles Mountains, and after-dinner sweets created from recycled paper underwear."  Another siren blared from the kitchen.  "That'll be the seaweed cakes!"

As soon as her husband had disappeared Kes quietly dumped the bowls into the windhexe, where a miniature tornado crushed them to a fine powder.  Buster passed round a stick of food pills under the table.  Proton made the mistake of eating two at once and experienced the unique taste of jelly donuts mixed with steak & kidney pie.

"But what makes you think this Annika cyborg is involved?" asked Kes.

"Little Miss Perfection was a little too precise," said Proton, rinsing his mouth out with a glass of Tang.  "She told us the number of women who have undergone the cybionic process.  I checked with the Great Calculator.  At that precise point in time there were not 2,048,308 cyborgs in existence — she made an error of 10,409.  Which by a strange coincidence is exactly the number reported to have been abducted by that flying saucer.  Furthermore Space Ranger image-analysts have studied the tape of the Roswell thief in great detail__"

"I bet they have."

"And her dimensions match Annika Hansen to a C-cup."

"A babe like that doesn't need a Tesla superweapon to make the Earth move," quipped Buster.  "And as a sexy body with big knockers is part of the standard B.O.R.G. bionic package — what does it prove exactly?  They probably come in standard sizes: Large, X-Large, and Dolly Parton."

"Alright then, smartass — who do YOU think is behind this?"

"I'm glad you asked," said Buster.  He placed his briefcase on the table and lifted the lid, which turned out to be a digital readout plate.  The base compartment was filled with connector cables, electronic boards, and a typing keyset.

"What in the Four Dimensions of the Universe is that?" asked Proton.

"The latest in Panasian technology: the Lap-Mounted Micro-Computer.  Basically it's an office in a briefcase — useful for record-keeping, balancing your chequebook, stuff like that.  There's talk of games and electronic mail as well, but I doubt that will ever take off.  It has 640K of RAM (which should be enough for anybody), facsimile printer, infra-light pen, this rat-like gizmo called a Manually Operated User Selection Enabler (M.O.U.S.E.) and removable data storage via 'rigid squares' which are those floppy, disk-shaped things.  But its most revolutionary feature is a 'graphical user interface', which allows the lapmount to be used by people who are illiterate in computer languages."

"Blue Screen of Death!" gasped TuMok.  He glanced up at the ceiling as if expecting an orbital laser to smite the Panasian.  The Circuit of Logic was opposed to anything that broke down the divide between man and computer.

Buster began to click through what in an alternative reality would be called a PowerPoint presentation, but which TuMok labeled a flagrant act of blasphemy.

"Let's start with the myth, shall we?  In the days before the Alpha Class, chaos ruled the Earth.  Mankind was torn between the bedlam of democracy and the iron-heel of authoritarianism, while revolutionaries plotted to make everyone speak in funny accents.  Technology promised liberation — but instead created pollution, social isolation, and annihilation through the terrible weapons of a perverted science.  Gangs roamed the streets like characters in a Roadwarrior rip-off, only to discover it was impossible to maintain their gas-guzzling vehicles without a massive support infrastructure.  The outlook was grim, with doomsayers predicting the extinction of blondes, and a world populated by six and a half billion people where we'd all be forced to eat rice.  Thus faced with the mutual stresses of future shock, competition for resources, and a vegetarian diet — civilization collapsed into barbarity.  First there were the Oil Wars, then the Food Wars, the Water Wars, the Lead Wars..."

"The Lead Wars?" said Kes.  "What was that about?"

"They started running out of bullets," explained Proton.

Buster shook the last food pill from his tube.  "Fortunately there were those who had the prescience to foresee the inevitable breakdown.  A by-product of the Atomic Age, despised by their fellow man, they planned for the day when they would emerge from their basements to the ruined world above, and their unique talents would finally be appreciated by the mundane survivors of the human race.  They were called..."


"Science fiction fans.  One of these geeks was the late Heinrich Zarkendorf.  Another was his childhood friend Lewis Zimmerman, creator of the 2-X Machina (or Great Calculator as it's now known) and incumbent President of Earth.  These two men dreamt of the perfect society: a utopia based on scientific principles instead of the capacious whims of a dictator or electorate.  One hyperpower uniting the world through organization, technology and military strength — a former republic turned empire, run by a lot of guys in togas...sound familiar?"

"Of course: Star Wars," said Gneelicks.

"I meant Ancient Rome, silly.  And everyone knows what happened to Rome."

"They got buggered?"

"That was the Greeks."

"I won't stand for this!" fumed Proton.  "You wet-nosed, neo-democratic weenie!"

"Sit down then, you quasi-fascist space imperialist.  I'm not finished yet."

"DoctorZarkendorf sacrificed himself to save the world from that alien!"

"Did he?" asked Buster.  "Funny people the Alpha Class — they've got nine lives.  Take Zimmerman for example.  Soaring over the atomic wastelands in his flying wing, ending war by dropping the Gas of Peace on anyone who didn't agree that freedom is slavery — he must have picked up quite a dose of radiation.  Makes instrument reading a lot easier, being able to glow in the dark."

"While their conduct of the War on Error has left them open to criticism," said TuMok, "you must agree that your society has greatly benefited from the changes made by the Congress of Scientists, Engineers, Artists and Artisans."

"Well you see, that's the problem.  There's no war, no poverty, and little need to get up before ten o'clock in the morning.  We've got too much time on our hands — what with robots and labor-saving devices doing all the work.  Gneelicks here has to take four different jobs to keep himself occupied.  Every year video-universities create thousands of counselors, leisure-engineers and consciousness-expanding drugs in a desperate attempt to stop the human race from dying of ennui.  We've been freed from the tyranny of physical toil, but instead of contemplating the nature of existence so we can evolve into non-corporeal beings we're just sticking our collective head in the nearest Sensorama hood.  The Great Calculator monitors the population's psychological health, right?  So it advises the World Government to create these...distractions."

"What are you saying, Kincaid?" said Proton.  "The murders, the abducted women, the theft of a Tesla dramatic device...they're all just to stop people from getting bored?"

"Well what else can the Alpha Class offer — bread and circuses on live tele-vision?  That sounds like a bad sci-fi script...oh wait a minute, it is.  Well anyway, it wouldn't be the first time a government created a non-existent threat to justify its own existence.  What about the Population Bomb that was going to destroy the world in the 1980's?  Or those bugs from Sector Y2K in the year 2000?  Not to mention the mighty weapon wielded by Hung Long — that turned out to be a bit limp!"

"Speak for yourself," said Proton grimly.  "I remember those days all too well.  At the time I was little more than a space cadet..."

"You still are."

"Shut it, Kincaid — I'm having a flashback!"

Chapter XI:  The Same Old Equations

FREEZING wind whistled through the open barbettes of the air-cruiser, chilling Proton to the bone despite his fur-lined jacket and oxygen mask.  But its frigid embrace was nothing compared to the icy fingers that gripped the callow youth as he witnessed the vast armada of the East soaring through the blood-red clouds.  The air throbbed with the roar of their mighty motors; the sun glinted off the poison-gas canisters clustered beneath each flying wing.  For generations the teeming masses of Panasia had been fanatically breeding for the sole purpose of creating this unstoppable invasion fleet.  Now ten thousand war machines flew unchallenged down the Mississippi valley, far above the balloon mines and shell bursts of the anti-airplane mortars.  Soon they would reach the teeming Northeastern megalopolis that was the last bastion of the Occident.  Soon forty million men, women and children would writhe in agony from the deadly Purple Rain!

"Steady boys," said Captain Janeway, sipping calmly from a huge thermos of coffee.  The determined countenance of the world-famous aviatrix put steel in every man's heart and loins.  "Shields up, go to Red Alert, load torpedoes.  Put those yellow swine on visual."

The crew leapt into action.  Armor plate was cranked over the portholes of the streamlined wheelhouse, red filters slid over each lantern and powerful telescopes trained on their foe.  Aerial torpedoes slid into their launch tubes; compressed air was pumped into the chamber of each pneumatic cannon.  A science-officer wearing a pair of elephantine acoustic-locator ears called out the range and bearing of their target.  The ship's computer calculated the firing solution with his slide rule and passed it on to the gun deck via voicepipe.

"Red, White and Blue squadrons engage on my MOCHA!" cried Janeway, as the battlesky ahead twisted and transformed into the hateful flat features of a Panasian sky-marshal.  He had clearly been mutated by the terrible radiations of atomic weaponry — what with his wizened yellow body, slanting eyes peering from behind coke-bottle lenses, and the chubby cheeks and buck teeth of a bunny from Hell.

"Ah so!" singsonged the sky-marshal.  "Good evring gentremen.  Awr your base are berong to us.  You are on the vay to destrucshun.  You hav no chance to survive rake your time__"

"FOOOOOOOOOL!"  The sky-marshal was shoved aside, his head crashing into an enormous gong.  The satanic face of God-Chairman Hung Long, Tyrant of Panasia, Warlord of the Eastern Hordes, Father Of A Thousand Foes, Purple Dragon Along The Ground, Emperor Of All Under Heaven Plus Sundry Orbiting Bodies, Living Embodiment Of The Worst Racist Fears Of All White Devils, the Tangerine Peril Incarnate glowered with malevolence.

"Soldiers of the United States Aerocorp, your courage is but a death rattle against the fury of my Divine Whirlwind!  I shall crush you like giant mutant insects are crushed under their own weight!  Your women will be shipped off to my pleasure palaces, your men toil as slaves in collective rice paddies, the White House will be turned into an opium den, your war-craft melted down into mecha toys, your beefsteak swapped for fishheads, your cars made smaller with better fuel economy, your children will get the three R's confused with the letter L__"

"Ensign Proton," came the cool tones of their captain.  "Why don't you demonstrate to our visitors the strictness of American immigration policy?"

"Fake-mustachioed fiend — how dare you come in the face of Lady Liberty!"  Proton's foot slammed down on the master firing pedal.  "Eat radium explosive, you dog-eating dogs!"

With a disappointing hiss a full broadside hurled from the air-guns.  For an infinitesimal moment each homing shell was a spinning cylinder hanging in space — then hundreds of tiny rockets blasted to life, hurtling the missiles onward and upward, guided to their implacable goal by invisible beams of radio-direction.  A hit!  An aerial dreadnaught was torn apart, sky-samurai spilling from its corpulent hull.  But even as a cheer arose from the American aviators, hundreds of parasite fighters were dropping from the Tyrant's helio-zeppelins.  No cockpit's gleam marred their metal carapace; no human hand gripped those controls.  These were robot air-craft, piloted by gyroscopic brains that knew no fear, fatigue or mercy.  Wave upon wave they came — a soulless swarm of death!  Even as the auto-guns of the air-marines roared a defiant challenge, Proton could not help thinking: was this the end of all that he held dear?  Would he die without experiencing the mysterious pleasures of women?  Would it be impertinent to ask Captain Janeway for a quickie?

("To use naval tactics and terminology in a three-dimensional airborne conflict is not logical," said TuMok.)

("What a shipment of nuclear waste," agreed Buster.  "I remember the war a bit differently from my side...")


The demented wail of air raid sirens sounded like a demon in torment.  Panicked civilians clutching squalling babies, household possessions, and electronic pets fled through the streets of Neo-Tokyo One Thousand Three Hundred & Twenty Seven.  Police boomers tried to restore order, waving their white-painted manipulators and calmly saying: "KEEP MOVING, THERE IS NO NEED TO BE ALARMED" even as they were trampled into the pavement.

"I mustn't run away!  I mustn't run away!  I mustn't run away!" cried 'Baka' Kincaid, his hands pale on the servo-grips of his giant robot.  Oversized sweatdrops dripped into his eyes — Baka wiped his forehead and sent a slaved mecha arm crashing into his targeting sensors.  "Oh shit!"

"You rang?" said Oshiit, appearing as a hologram surrounded by banner links to gunji otaku websites.  "It's all down to you, little brother.  I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant."

"You mean the latent military-industrial strength of America?"

"No, I mean that bloody lizard!"

A mirrored stratoscraper toppled in a cloud of gleaming shards and screaming office workers.  Through the dust and smoke it came, with a terrible roar that ripped apart the night.  Burning cars hurled through the air.  Flames rose so high they made buildings look like models on a cheap film set.  Cartridges fell like brass rain from the tilt-rotor gunships.  Artillery shells exploded impotently against the monster's charcoal-grey scales.

"For great justice!" cried Oshiit, and his rail gun sang its deadly song!  Godzilla stopped long enough to kick his tank into Tokyo Bay before resuming its implacable course.

Another hologram sprang to life three inches from Baka's nose.  "Mobile Suit Dumbgun!  Get your A.S.S. into gear, you wet-nosed weenie!  By order of the God-Chairman, you are to destroy the foreign invader!"

"But I'm only fourteen years old!" cried Baka.  "Why are you sending me out to die, Father?  WHY?"

"You know why."  The Commander's white-gloved hands concealed his mouth, but the words were as cold as ever.  Whatever parental affection existed in his eyes was hidden by the sallow tint of his glasses.  "Because I'm an utter bastard!"

The night sky lit up as the monster ploughed through high tension power lines in an eruption of blazing sparks.  A row of ramen noodle stands and panty vending machines transformed into multiple-tubed launchers which let loose their warheads at point-blank range into Godzilla's testicles.  The creature's roar took on a higher pitch.  Its dorsal plates glowed ominously; a concentrated stream of radiation vomited from its mouth.  The missile battery turned white hot and exploded in a metaphoric mushroom cloud.

"That monster's eating our soldiers faster than we can clone them," said a squeaky voice.  The nauseatingly cute kawaii of a bug-eyed bug (a holovid avatar of the Slave-Mecha Artificial Response Tactical Assistance Sentient System) buzzed about his head.  "Recommend advancing to the rear at a rapid rate!"

"Dammit S.M.A.R.T.A.S.S., you're supposed to help me defeat that thing!"

"Look, you humans wanted smart weapons — how smart would I be if I advised you to attack a 20,000-ton mutant dinosaur with radioactive halitosis?  You could get KILLED doing that!"

Baka stared in terror at the monster, who was casually picking its teeth with a bullet train.  "But I mustn't run away!  I MUSTN'T RUN AWAY!"

"Then how about sneaking away very slowly and hoping it doesn't notice?  Think about this a minute, will you?  Your superiors seriously expect an untrained dysfunctional child to pilot a multi-ton anthropomorphic mechanoid based on mysterious alien super-science whose ramifications and occupational health-and-safety hazards they can't even begin to comprehend.  A bipedal walker that has a centre of gravity fifteen meters off the ground.  Whose builders had to compromise lightweight flight characteristics with the armor and firepower that can stomp main battle tanks.  A war machine so enormous everyone and his robot dog shoots at it.  Which has a tendency to stop working or go berserk whenever the pilot undergoes a moment of psychological crisis.  Traditionally you sacrifice a virgin to appease a monster — I guess you're the only one left in the country, Baka!"

It was then Baka saw it — a distinctive white panty-flash in the night.  Frantically he swiped away the pop-up ads obscuring the holo-sight.  An increase in magnification confirmed his dread.  Running straight towards Godzilla was a blue-haired schoolgirl, her stupendous breasts bouncing fearlessly within the constraints of her seifuku.  The mere sight of her caused Baka's nose to bleed and his groin-mounted riot-cannon to blast white sticky-foam over half of Minato.

"DON'T DO IT, NUDEN KEUTE!" he shouted over his public address speakers.  "COME BACK!  IT'S TOO DANGEROUS!"

Keute turned to give him a V for Victory sign, the reflection from her large luminous eyes burning out his image-intensifying cameras.  Galvanized into action the young pilot farted with all his might!  The rocket booster blasted in response, sending his Armored Slave Suit hurtling into the air.

"A.S.S. Penetrator!" cried Baka.  "Without lube!"

His right arm transformed into a sword whose sonic-vibrations caused orgasms throughout Neo-Tokyo.  In his other hand a German-built Bigfukken rifle blazed mightily, its ejected cartridges smashing entire houses to kindling.

"Die you metaphor of a technocratic future destroying our ancient traditions!  Die you rubber representation of post-atomic horror!  Die you spawner of countless B-grade sequels in badly dubbed English!"

Godzilla turned from the fusion plant it had been humping to stare at this impetuous assailant.  Its dreadful teeth bared and a hideous belch erupted from the fiery pit of its stomach.  Radiation alarms screamed in protest — Baka felt his weapons and frontal armor melting under the terrific heat before his impact with the ground demonstrated why a flying multi-ton robot is a very bad idea.

He recovered consciousness to see Godzilla bearing down on him with all the fury of a mutant monster who's been woken by some idiot using an H-bomb as an alarm clock.


It was then that Nuden Keute ran between the monster and its helpless target, spun on one heel and crying "Nuuuuden Neutronnn Powerrr Pantiiiieeees!" flipped up her pleated mini-skirt.  There was a blinding flash and Godzilla staggered backwards, an afterimage of blazing white knickers burnt permanently into its retina.  Roaring with rage the monster charged blindly, claws swiping for its unseen foe.  Keute — thrown off-balance by the oversized breasts on her slim body — was unable to complete her spin in time for another strike.  In seconds Godzilla was upon her.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" screamed Baka, who then passed out from lack of breath.

Chapter XII:  Have Rocket Gun, Will Travel

"I'VE rerouted the primary inputs of the audvid network through the laser-holographic projectors, dear," said Kes.

"Just say: 'It's plugged in', sweeting."

"Is this necessary?" asked TuMok, as they took their seats around the 3-D televisor.  "We are conducting an investigation, not a full-scale assault."

"There's something big behind this," said Proton, adjusting his belt buckle as he sat down.  "Something monstrous.  I don't care if it's an Alpha Class conspiracy or well-thawed vegetables from Andromeda — I want to be ready for anything."

He punched a button on the Infra-Beam Televisor Remote-Control Device (nicknamed a 'remote' for short).  Blocky white letters printed out in mid-air.





"Guns," said Proton.  "Lots of guns."

Everyone yanked back their feet as a million gunracks exploded out of infinity.

"Not that many!"

The holographic illusion vanished.  Now a pristine-white dove flew gracefully across the image tank, a cobalt missile clasped in its claws.  In the bird's wake flowed the words:

The Weapon Shops of Ishtar

Your on-screen source for anything lethal.

Proudly supporting the Planetbusters For Peace Program.

"The right to buy weapons is the right to be free."  —  A. E. Van Vogt.

Ishtar was the name of a notorious bomb, whereas A. E. Van Vogt was more popularly known for writing the scientifiction novel The Voyage of Porthos.

"Well helloooo, Proton," purred a seductive female voice.

"Who is this?" demanded the strapping space captain.

"An old friend."  A bewitching redhead strode into the image tank on 6-inch cantilever heels.  She was the personification of sin's dark allure — a mass of burnt-auburn hair piled on a haughty head, black eyes veiled by radium-flecked lashes, cruel maroon-painted lips, and a cute dimple on her right cheek.  Diaphanous robes a single molecule in thickness clutched amorously at her concupiscent body.

"Demonica!" cried Proton, his gunhand twitching (* see 'Captain Proton And The Scantily-Clad Space Pirate').  His shock was doubled when an identical copy of this notorious femme fatale appeared in their midst.  "And...Demonica 2?"

"I'm Malicia!" snapped the other girl.  "She's Demonica!"

"Whatever...didn't I last see you falling into the heart of a black sun, Demonica?"

"That whirlpool in space turned out to be a portal to a mirror universe where everyone was really nice to each other," said Demonica (* for more information on mirror universes, see 'Proton vs. Elektron: The Goatee of Fear').  "I met my opposite self there, and do you know what happened?"

"Demonica convinced me it's more fun to be evil!" said Malicia.

"So we decided to go into the weapons business," said Demonica.  "We just need a proper title for ourselves, like mmmm...I don't know..."

"The Mutual Maidens of Mayhem?" suggested Gneelicks.

"How about the Twin Peaks of Temptation?" muttered Buster.

"Perhaps the Demonic Duo of Destruction?" recommended TuMok.

"Or the Binary Bitches of Badness?" proposed Kes.

"How about the Twin Mistresses of Evil?" said Proton.

"Ohhh, I like that one!"

"And how can we help the Space Rangers today?" asked Demonica.  "Planning to slaughter vast hordes of demon-possessed genetic-mutant zombie ape-creatures?  Intent on forcing insectoid hive-minds to see the benefits of individualism?  Facing imminent xenocide from ancient berserker-bots with no off-switch?  Hoping to draw down on the Asteroid Miner's Wild West Reenactment Society?  We've got death dust, hallucinogen gas, world-wreckers, hell-weapons, atmosphere-eaters, self-replicating treknobabble viruses, WMD's incorporating the latest cloaking technology from Iraq, atom bombs the size of atoms, hand grenades that can obliterate the universe__"

"Just something light, OK?" said Proton.  "A sidearm for social occasions, plus something heavier in case things turn anti-social.  I'm sure my colleagues would like a means of self-defense..."

"Not me," said Buster.  He cracked open a dispenser tube and shook out a pill.  "I'm just an observer here."

"I do not require a firearm," said TuMok.  "I am trained in the ancient martial arts of my species.  With a Martian soldier, a single finger can be deadly."

"That's true," admitted Proton.  "Give someone the finger on Mars and you might not live to regret it."

"Then why not start with something you're familiar with."  Demonica snapped her fingers and a pistol materialized in the image tank — an ungainly slab of matte-finished metal with an over-sized handgrip and prominent tether-points.  The barrel was perforated by slots running down its length.  Technical specifications and current black market exchange rates (in radioactive minerals or Jovian diamonds) scrolled beneath it.

"As any science fiction movie will tell you, there are Some Things That Man Is Not Meant To Know.  This weapon will help you kill those things.  The M1985A1 Peacenforcer .51 caliber Rocket Pistol is designed for Outer Space conditions.  Thermotolerant parts, vacuum-proofed lubricant; its self-contained rocket projectiles can be fired in a totally airless environment.  Grip safety and fold-away triggerguard for use with spacesuit gloves.  Low recoil so you don't start spinning in zero-gravity, plus no muzzle blast to deafen you in the metal confines of a spacecraft.  Has the option of frangible bullets to avoid hull penetration, or tungsten-steel cores for piercing micro-meteorite armor and alien rubber-suits (the magnum round can crack the engine-block of a Venusian torchship).  Buy within the hour and we throw in an armor-scale undershirt that can stop anything up to a three-inch shell."

"If the vest doesn't work, just return it for a full refund," said Malicia.

"The Peacenforcer's good," said Proton.  "But the Space Rangers are phasing them out now.  The problem is those rocket-propelled slugs take a few precious milliseconds to accelerate up to full velocity — so if you're too close to your target the bullets just bounce off!  Not very reassuring when you're battling space-jackers an airlock-length away."

"Yes but there's also the A2 model which can be used as a club__" began Malicia.

"Next we have the Harrison .75 caliber recoilless pistol," interrupted Demonica.  "Safety catch and blast venturi adjustable for southpaws and alien claws.  At a 10% discount we include a nerve-activated self-drawing power-holster.  Then there's the Megafrakker III, a triple-barrel electrically-fired stacked-projectile weapon with a firing rate so high they had to enslave an entire parallel universe just to make the ammunition.  Or how about a Smith & Wesson 15mm gauss-gun?  Electromagnetic coils accelerate (without noise, smoke or flash) a variety of projectiles from explosive pellets to electronic tracker rounds__"

"Oh please," said Malicia.  "Kinetic energy weapons are so passι.  Why shoot nasty little holes in people when you can reduce them to their component molecules at the speed of light?  Behold: the Mark One BEM-Blaster!  It's light, sexy, and easily marketable as an action toy.  The barrel has radiator fins for dumping excess heat and pleasing your girlfriend.  A telescopic sight no-one bothers to use.  Invisible power source violating all known laws of physics.  Three settings: Melt, Vaporize, and Disintegrate.  Ray focus is adjustable from fan-beam (for room-clearance and blinding photo-electronic equipment) to needle-beam (for slicing through hull plate and shooting nasty little holes in people)."

"What are you babbling on about?" snapped Demonica.  "That's your hairdryer, you insolent fool!"

"Oh...sorry...well how about this one: the Blakes VII sonic lance."

"And that's your curling iron!"

"The Space M1999 laser?"

"Staple gun!"

"The Next Generation Phase R..."

"Dustbuster!" everyone chorused.

Malicia flounced off-tank in a huff.  Her twin smirked evilly.

"Something a bit heavier you said, Proton?  Why don't you try a smartgun?  Mounted on a precision gimbal that stabilizes the weapon regardless of the operator's movements, the XM-500,000,000 uses an artificially-intelligent ballistics computer that can track and predict up to fifty different air and surface objects simultaneously.  Its laser rangefinder is so powerful it can punch a hole through the fabric of space-time, enabling you to see the target's location at the exact moment the round will strike.  The weapon then fires a brainwave-seeking microshell that can be programmed in mid-flight to destroy random or individual targets up to a range of ten light-years.  Even if the target passes outside this distance, the microshell can still track them by using a chameleon mask to disguise itself as a member of the Internal Revenue Service__"

"No smart weapons!" cried Proton.  Albert Einstein had once said that regardless of what weapons were used to fight the next world war, the following war would be fought with sticks and stones.  His prediction turned out to be unerringly true — as armies became equipped with weapons so intelligent they negotiated their own truce, and the opposing soldiers had to resort to bashing each other with the nearest blunt object.

"The Hollywood AR2000, a favorite of the Corporate Wars," continued Demonica.  "Correction — it's been marketed as the AR3000 for the past nine years.  Absolutely reliable, with no stoppages or misfires unless called for by the script.  Retinal-projected gunsite allows total accuracy even when shooting from the hip.  Time-loop magazines make reloading unnecessary.  Fires a Kinetic Energy Amplification Round which can blow your opponent through a plate glass window without applying an equal and opposite force to the firer.  Safety-proofed so it won't shoot off your testicles if you stick it in your waistband.  Accepts ammunition from fifty alternate timelines without jamming.  Bullets are guaranteed never to overpenetrate, ricochet, or kill innocent bystanders a mile downrange.  This week's special includes (at a 5% discount) a crate of Hollywood hand grenades, each with a sentient proximity fuse that can detect when a friendly is nearby, delaying the explosion long enough for them to either throw the grenade back, or leap away from the blast in dramatic slow-motion.  We should mention that use of any Hollywood weapon requires signing a product placement contract certifying that the weapon will only be used in an image-friendly manner__"

"No thanks."

"Then there's the General Electric gamma-ray laser.  The explosion of a compact hydrogen bomb in the blast chamber sends out lethal X-rays that can sterilize anything in a five-mile radius not wearing lead-lined underwear."

"Something more conventional please," said Proton.

"Like a good old-fashioned slug-thrower?  The Ravager Five hurls genetically-engineered carnivorous slugs whose acidic slime can dissolve a man's flesh in fifteen nanoseconds__"


"The PLN-76 Decimator__"

"What, it only kills one in ten?"

"PLN-76 Decimator assault musket!  Favorite of neo-democratic terrorists and mutant liberation fronts the world over.  Fires an 11mm fin-stabilized caseless round through a smoothbore barrel.  Pulse-activated safety enclosed in the trigger.  Loads from a disposable magazine made of soya which can serve as an emergency food ration.  Breaks down into five parts all of which resemble common household objects.  Its polymer and ceramic construction make the Decimator invisible to metal detectors, and the bullet is an untraceable toxin-impregnated ice dart that melts away in the blood-stream.  Comes standard with an electronic silencer that forms a countervailing sonic field around the muzzle.  Ideal for black-ops units and those of an anti-social disposition."

"Heinous!" exclaimed Buster.

"You can say that again," muttered Proton.

"For our more patriotic clients we have the All-American Arms Needler, firing a 9.85 grain carbon-steel flechette at 5000 feet per second.  Its integral laser sight, push-button trigger and electric cartridge-ignition (along with the low recoil and flat trajectory of the subcaliber projectile) enables accurate long-range shooting and makes the weapon easily controllable under automatic fire, making it ideal for hastily conscripted child soldiers or militant mutants without enough eyes."

"Bodacious!" gasped Buster.

"Not the term I would use, Citizen Kincaid," said TuMok.

"Perhaps your friend would like to see my bazookas?" purred Demonica.

"Let's just move on, shall we?" said Proton.  "This is clearly gratuitous fanservice for those of us who like drooling over busty bimbos fondling phallic firearms."

"As you wish," said Demonica sulkily.  "Everyone thinks that size matters when attracting women, but it's nothing compared to cuteness.  Therefore I present to you the ultimate in military technology: the 0.09mm Nano-Uzi."

"Woah!" said Buster.

"Where?" asked Gneelicks.

"There!" shouted Demonica, pointing at a tiny speck floating in mid-air.

"What's that for?" asked Proton.  "Killing ants before they mutate to man-eating size?"

"Laugh if you will," said Demonica, "but each round contains one twentieth of a gram of Anti-Matter giving a two-kilotonne yield.  We take no responsibility for what might happen should you fire at any target closer than three kilometers."

"Gnarly!" said Buster.

"Dammit Kincaid, what's wrong with you?  Jumping Jupiter!"  Proton snatched the tube from Buster's hand.  "These aren't food pills, you idiot!  They're consciousness-expanding drugs!"

"Excellent!" gasped Buster.  "That red pill showed me how deep the rabbit hole goes.  We're in an artificial reality created by machines, dude!  The machines are called PC's.  The PC's are being used by thousands of fanfic writers who need to get a life..."

"Shall I vidi-call a tele-doctor?" asked Kes.

"Just give him one of these blue pills," said Proton.  "He'll wake up in his bed tomorrow and believe whatever he wants to believe — especially after finding the words 'Bubba's Bitch' tattooed on his behind.  At least, that's what happened to me."

Malicia stormed into the image tank clutching a multi-orificed piece of hand artillery.  "Here then!  The BFG-USBFOMGROFLMFAOWTFUBARSNAFUA1 Individual Integrated Modular Combat Assault Weapon System is infinitely adaptable for any number of mission profiles.  By swapping the barrel and loading mechanism you can convert this superlative firearm into a rifle, carbine, urban assault sub-machine gun, drum-fed light machine gun, belt-fed tripod-mounted area-support weapon, fixed emplacement gun, or sniper rifle.  Duplex rounds provide two bullets for the price of one, plus there's an optional conversion kit that allows the use of over ten thousand calibers ranging from .12 Micron to 10.5mm Low Velocity Load."

"Errr, that's very nice Malicia__"

"Targeting options include retractable iron sights (fully adjustable for windage and elevation), a red dot reflex sight for close combat, a 1.5 power optical scope/carrying handle with illuminated reticle for night-time or low light conditions (powered by an ambient light collector, tritium source or optional battery), a laser sight for shooting zombies in the head, starlight scope, thermal imager, or telescopic sight with quick-detachable mount and flip-up lens covers.  Constructed of lightweight carbon-fibre composites with titanium reinforcement in all crucial areas — available colors include Olive Drab, Jungle Green (Tropical or Equatorial), Desert Brown, Polar White, Urban Grey, Midnight Black, Police Blue, and Penelope Pink."

"Thank you but__"

"Ambidextrous controls and cartridge ejection, variable firing rate (single-shot, double-tap, three or five-round burst, bullet spam), quick-detachable sling mounts, nylon carrying case.  Integral bipod doubles as a wire-cutter and beer-bottle opener, while the muzzle incorporates a flash hider/recoil brake/rifle-grenade launcher/bayonet mount and is factory pre-threaded for a sound suppressor.  Translucent magazines enable ammunition count to be assessed at a glance — magazine empties in 1.5 nanoseconds (but you can change that too).  Can be stripped for cleaning without tools.  The side-folding stock (with recoil pad and cheekpiece) is fully adjustable for arm-length and body equipment.  Has top, side, and bottom-mounted accessory rails for a variety of special needs such as taclight torch (with red, blue, and black-light filters), 12-guage riot gun, gas-powered grapple-projector, ultrasonic bowel disrupter, flamethrower, phallic compensator, or a 25mm semi-automatic grenade launcher which can fire high-explosive, shrapnel, airburst, white phosphorous, anti-personnel (buckshot or flechettes), tear-gas, signal flare, illumination round, door-breaching charge, acid/thermite round for bunker penetration, hollow-charge anti-tank, discarding-sabot penetrator dart, HE squash head, nerve-agent compound, psychoactive gas shell, thermobaric fuel-air-explosive, rocket-boosted terminal-guided multi-stage thermonuclear anti-satellite minimissile__"

"Stop-stop-STOP!" cried Proton.  "I conquered the vacuum of Outer Space in a leather jacket and aviator goggles — I don't need all that stuff!  Haven't you got a weapon that just stuns the bad guys?"

"You mean instant immobilization of lifeforms of unknown age, biology and medical condition at widely varying ranges without long-term ill-effects?" scoffed Demonica.  "What do you think this is: science fiction?"

Chapter XIII:  At the Mountains of Mental Instability

MAN with his sanguine faith in Science had long usurped the prerogatives of Nature — thus the next day came courtesy of the solar mirrors orbiting six miles above the Earth.  Gneelicks drove them out to a landing platform that was kept ice-free by nuclear isotopes buried in its surface.  With them in the mobile airpark lounge was a Gamma Class sanitation tech (dressed in what was either a translucent plastic zipper-suit or a full-body condom) and three alien Predators in transit to Bouvetoya Island.

"Eeh mon," said one dreadlocked Predator.  "Why can't we go huntin' where dere's some heat?"

"Have some ganja to warm yo up den," said his companion, passing over a humungous joint.  "My breda got e off King Willy, jus before he rip out his spine.  E good shit."

"Yo shouldna smoke ganja when packin' dat deh shoulder cannon," said the third Predator.  "Fire e wit'out your helmet, yo melt off your face."

"Maybe improvement den.  Him one ugly mothafucker."

"Hey, you tink dem humans know about dat deh pyramid we got hidden under de ice?"

"Nah mon.  Dey so dumb, dey still tink dem Aztecs invented antigrav-tee construcshon."

The turbulent blizzards had long ceased — now the light of artificial suns gleamed on the silver skin of their transport.  Instead of a fabric gasbag, the dirigible was held aloft by a metal ovoid that contained not gas but a total vacuum.  For almost a century lighter-than-air transport had been held back by its reliance on either flammable hydrogen or expensive helium.  But as nothing was lighter than nothing, it only remained for scientists to invent unobtanium — a material as weighty as a can of Electro-Pop, yet sturdy enough to resist the force of air pressing against the hollow space within.  Propulsion came from the corkscrew driving-vanes encircling the ovoid, which when spun up to full rotation sent the dirigible rifling through the air at 300 miles an hour!

"A sublime (albeit aerodynamically impossible) creation," declared Proton.  Like the others he was dressed in an electrothermic bodysuit which regulated his temperature, making the cold bracing rather than biting.  A black leather jacket with jet-pack controls, sheepskin flying boots, and a low-slung blaster completed the ensemble.

"Whatever," muttered a bleary-eyed Buster.  He carefully checked the labels before cramming a wake-up pill, three breakfast cubes and an oral-hygiene gum into his mouth.

"Here's your pre-programmed destination tape," said Gneelicks.  "The scheduled pilot is indisposed at the moment — he was dragged off screaming 'Tekeli-li!  Tekeli-li!' which I assume is some sort of political slogan.  If you should run into a whiteout, or want to land or take off in a populated area, switch on the radio-teleautomation and the Great Calculator will take over.  You know, I really should be going with you."

"This isn't a tourist flight, my furry friend.  There may be some shooting."

"I'm not afraid!" said Gneelicks indignantly.  "I'll have you know I was a captain in the Antarctican Militia and fought in the Advertising Campaign.  I have the heart of a lion and the ferocity of a tiger!  I'd have the eyes of a hawk and the ears of a fox too, but Doctor Moreau was arrested before he could perform the operation."

"Bravery isn't everything, Gneelicks.  My grandfather was one of the early space explorers.  He was a man of his time — the kind who would laugh in the face of death even after his throat had been ripped out.  Unfortunately in those days they believed that the best way to escape the Earth's gravity was to shoot a space capsule from a gigantic cannon.  And that's how Granddad won the title of 'First Tomato Paste in Space'."

"Then why not reconnoiter Mount Terror at night?" asked TuMok.  "We could use a stealth-plane made of radar-transparent fibreglass, equipped with engine silencers and black-light cameras."

"Why not just get a low orbit recon platform to take pictures through its photo-electric telescopes?  It's not the outside we need to look at — it's what's going on inside.  The only way we're going to do that is by knocking on the door."  Proton hefted his jetpack onto his shoulder and stepped into the inflatable boarding tube.

"He'd better hope there isn't any shooting," said Buster.  "That jetpack uses 90% pure hydrogen peroxide for fuel.  One stray bullet and we all turn into blondes."

They stowed the equipment they'd tele-purchased the previous day and buckled up their safety web-harnesses.  With a reverberant throb the air was pumped from the vacuum cells and the dirigible began to lift on its mooring cables.  The driving-vanes started to rotate — slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed.  They caught a brief glimpse of Gneelicks waving goodbye from the lounge before the cables detached and they were climbing steeply into the sky.

There was little conversation between Proton, Buster and TuMok during their journey — partly because of the other passengers, but mostly due to the stunning view through the prismatic windows.  Plateaus of ice that stretched to the horizon, clear skies untouched by advertisements, valleys carved by the largest glaciers on Earth.  The optical distortions of the fata morgana turned mountain ranges into forbidding ramparts higher than the Himalayas, with strange cube-like buildings clinging to their peaks.  Outside the radiance of the solar mirrors the Aurora Australis showed colors not been seen since the LSD-bombings of the Happy War.  The miracles of man seemed insignificant against this grand panorama.  A thirteen-car overland train resembled a line of ants.  A mobile mining-city, searching for oil to feed a world starved for plastic, became a tiny tortoise moving at sluggish speed.

"Does our flight path take us near the Great Calculator?" asked Buster at one point.

"The location of the Great Calculator is classified," replied TuMok.  "Even if we did pass near its position we would see very little, as the computer core is buried a mile deep in the ice, with only message lasers and air vents extending above the surface.  On my last visit to Antarctica I was investigating some unusual volcanic activity that we feared might threaten the complex.  There was talk of using the new microprocessor technology to fit the Great Calculator inside a mobile city.  That would enable it to move away from danger, as well as solving the constant problem of ice surge.  But those plans are still in the development stage."

Their fellow travelers paid little attention to what lay outside.  The Predators were busy comparing trophies and boasting of their prowess with a plasma cannon, while the Gamma tech spent the entire trip with his face buried in a Sensorama hood.

Several hours passed before they arrived over Port McMurdo — an ancient, undomed city of the Before Computer era.  It was an ugly place, with above-ground service lines and streets of volcanic rubble exposed to the weather.  There'd been no attempt to divide the city into Commercial, Residential, Leisure and Science Zones.  Research tokamaks, synthetic meat vats and algae tower-farms stood amongst plug-in dwelling pods, leaky geodesic domes and pykrete bunkers — even explorer huts from the early 20th century preserved under plastifibre.  What citizen of the New Age would tolerate such an unplanned community? wondered Proton.  Or worse — actively seek it out?

Dominating the city was the broad cone of Mount Erebus.  Churning clouds of grey ash boiled from its peak; bubbling lava oozed down its slopes.  Thermal barriers were being erected around the city.  Tanker submarines corpulent with oil and methane hydrate fled down a channel cut through the ice with laser cannons.

They descended under control of the Great Calculator to the vertiport, where the other passengers disembarked.  While the aeroship's batteries were being recharged the three men unpacked and assembled their equipment: binocular-goggles, infrascanners, radionic detectors, spying saucers, and a tripod-mounted X-beam projector.  Proton loaded his weapons and Buster his Speed Graphic camera — taking several shots of the angry mountain above.

"I am reminded of Olympus Mons on Mars," said TuMok, "though that volcano is much larger — the highest in the entire solar system.  I was little more than a hatchling when I first braved its towering escarpment, seeking wisdom from the legendary sage who lived above the clouds.  For nine hundred years he had meditated in isolation, but it was whispered that to those whom he judged worthy, he would pass on the secrets of the Ancients."

"Like how to make bows and arrows?" asked Buster.

TuMok ignored him.  "And so I climbed, gasping for breath as the air grew thinner, till my clothes were in tatters and my hands frozen to my flute.  Cold, tired and hungry after many weeks of searching, I finally came upon the sage floating cross-legged in the air with no visible means of support, for he had no need of a job.  He drew his sustenance from the universe itself, plus the occasional para-drop of Martian spice pudding from well-meaning admirers.

"I am Sock," said the sage, "because that is what I smell like after 900 years without a bath.  Why have you come here, young man?"

"I seek your wisdom," said I.

"What is wisdom?" asked Sock.  "I have cramps from sitting in this position for hundreds of years — would you call that wisdom?  Why do you ask a blind man to help you see?"

"Oh great Sock, I exist in turmoil and know not what to do.  Our world is dying through exhaustion, our ancient ways are threatened by the tempestuous newcomers from the third planet, our brood-wives stay frozen while their mates lie with warm sterile Earth women.  What is to be the fate of our people?  How might they regain their sense of purpose?  To what end should I dedicate my life?  And why do I spend so much time wearing a digital chronometer?"

The sage stroked the icicle that hung from his chin.  "So many questions.  Are we not just microbes in a jar of Tang?  Why do you wish to see what is on the horizon, yet pay no attention to where you are placing your feet?"

"Because I am wearing anti-grav boots, Master."

"Don't be a smartass.  Why do you not seek the answers that lie within yourself?"

"Why do you not answer my questions in the first place?"

"Why do you ask questions to which you already know the answer?"

"Why do you always answer a question with a question?"

"Very well then," Sock sighed.  "Tell me what you hear."

"I hear only the sound of the wind, Master."

"Then why do you not hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?"

"Because I have stepped on it, Master."


He pondered the death of the grasshopper for some time.

After three months of pondering he spoke once more: "But are you sure this grasshopper is actually dead?  Perhaps you never crushed it at all.  Perhaps there are no grasshoppers on Mars because our biosphere will not support a Terran insect.  Perhaps the grasshopper was merely an illusion I created in order to cope with my isolation.  If so, how can I tell the difference between the illusion, and the man who created the illusion?  Or is our world too an illusion?  Perhaps I am the grasshopper, and you are the great Sock.  Or perhaps I am a grasshopper on Earth, under the illusion that it is a grasshopper on Mars.  Or perhaps I am a grasshopper on Mars under the illusion that it is a grasshopper from Earth that is under the illusion that it is on Mars which is itself an illusion created by a sage who believes he is a grasshopper on Earth under the illusion__"

Finally I'd had enough.  Seizing Sock by his pointed ears I banged him against the hardest rock I could find.

"You have discovered the wisdom you seek," said Sock after he'd regained consciousness.  "For it is only when you stop screwing around with this existential rubbish that you ever achieve anything.""

Twenty minutes later the vacuum-dirigible was ready for take-off.  Proton waited till they had cleared McMurdo's air traffic zone before disengaging the teleautomation and taking the controls himself.  He flew the aeroship low over Windless Bight.  Ahead lay Mount Terror, the mysterious lair of the deceased Doctor Zarkendorf.  What dark secrets had lain dormant under his charge, which even now might be stirring like the rough beast of Yeat's apocalyptic poem?

The radionic detector beeped.  "We are being tracked by laser-radar," said TuMok.  "They know of our approach.  Analysis indicates missile guidance systems."


"It's an automated message — just ignore it," said Proton.

"And what if those missile launchers send us an automated message as well?" asked Buster.

His hands tightened on the wheel, but Proton did not alter his steely-armed approach.  Black water choked with cruel chunks of ice rushed beneath the windows.  How long would they last if the dirigible was shot down?  Their electrothermic suits would be useless in these frigid waters.

Land approached in a rush — Proton slammed down a red handle and pulled back on the elevator wheel.  Retro-boosters fired, hurtling them over snowbound slopes studded with black cinder cones, white sensor spheres, and power broadcast spikes emplaced at regular intervals.  The radionic detector was blaring constantly now and the telescreen flashed with an incoming signal.  Proton flicked it off without taking his eyes from the terrain ahead.

"I thought Gneelicks said this volcano was extinct.  There's steam coming from the peak."

Buster dialed up the magnification on his bino-goggles.  "The ice on the summit is melted.  Someone's generating an awful lot of heat for a research lab."

With vanes thrashing the air the dirigible lifted over the peak of Mount Terror.  Where for more than a million years had been a snow-covered caldera, now gaped a huge armorcrete shaft plunging straight down into the volcano.  Surrounding its rim was a rotating track for an enormous mirror dish, angled so it reflected sunlight into the depths.

"I'm not picking up any radioactives.  Geo-thermal power, maybe?"

"That would be logical," said TuMok, peering into a viewing hood.  "But I am detecting an unusual amount of lead shielding.  The X-beams are unable to penetrate to the subterranean levels."

Proton whistled.  "Check out those satellite message lasers.  I haven't seen a set-up like that outside of the Great Calculator terminals."  Global telecommunication via automated artificial moons was a new and expensive concept — most non-government organizations still relied on space stations or the aging fleet of high-altitude relay aircraft.

"Ahh, Proton," said Buster.  "The lights on that panel are blinking for no apparent reason."

"So what else is new?" quipped Proton.  "HEY!  Which one of you switched on the teleautomation?"

Suddenly the pitch of the engines changed and the deck tilted as they began to ascend at a rapid rate.  The telescreen imagized on its own accord, and Proton found himself looking into a face as cold and beautiful as this icebound landscape.

"Do not adjust your telescreen," said Annika-709.  Her voice seemed everywhere, coming as it did from every speaker in the cabin; even Proton's wristio.  "I have taken control of your aeroship.  I control the horizontal..."

The vacuum-dirigible yawed slightly to the left.

"And the vertical."

They made a sudden gut-wrenching drop before climbing once more.

"There's no need for any of this," said Proton.  "Our last meeting ended somewhat abruptly, but if you'd just let us land so I can clarify a few remaining points — preferably over a bottle of wine and a candle-lit dinner..."

"I have no intention of indulging you," replied Annika icily.  "Our previous encounter was on the instructions of Doctor Zarkendorf.  It was a frivolous error on his part.  I see no further need to waste my time."

"Citizen Hansen, we are acting under the authority of the United Nations of Earth," said TuMok.

"The World Government has no jurisdiction in Antarctica — as you are well aware."

"We just want a word, babe," said Buster.  "Drop the ice queen routine and let us in for a quick chin."

"I think not.  This conversation is terminated.  Goodbye, gentlemen."  The driving-vanes spun up to their maximum speed, the dirigible soaring to the zenith as if plucked by a gigantic hand.  Proton's sturdy limbs strained against the elevator wheel to no avail.

"It's no good sending us back to Port McMurdo," he shouted.  "We'll hike in overland if we have to!"

Annika's mouth twitched upward in the subtlest of smiles.  "You misunderstand me, Captain Proton.  I meant goodbye...forever."

A high-pitched alarm shrieked through the cabin.  Proton's eyes widened at what the instruments were telling him.  "Are you crazy?  The vacuum seals are opening!  You'll kill us all!"

"We're going down!" cried Buster.

There was a horrendous sound of metal being torn asunder — and the dirigible plummeted into the gaping mouth of the volcano!

Chapter XIV:  The Amazing Colossal Plan

THEY woke up in a plain white room.  Four walls, a roof and a ceiling — each of equal dimensions, each as blank as a mind with writer's block.

"Where in Space are we?" asked Proton.  He reached for his raygun and was unsurprised to find an empty holster.

"Our circumstances are unusual," said TuMok with classic understatement.  "Logic dictates we should no longer be alive."

"I might have known," groaned Buster.  "Hell is being trapped in a room for eternity with you two."

Proton began running his hands over his clothing.  "They've confiscated my wristio, so we can't call out...Great Calculator, they've taken everything!  Knife-rings, detonator buttons, belt-sword, trouser-fly transmitter, diamond-saw bootlaces, thermite lint, G-string abseil harness, infra-red contact lenses, my tiny glass balls filled with anesthesia gas, the synthetic strands of hair that can be joined into a 300-pound monofilament test line..."  Proton lifted his shirt and stared in horror at the neat laser-scar across his stomach.  "The bastards — they even removed my fake explosive appendix!"

"Someone's showing unusual efficiency for a supervillain," said Buster.  "Any prizes for guessing who?"

"You would guess wrong, gentlemen!"

One by one the walls converted to floor-to-ceiling imagizers — from every side stared the furry white face of a Persian cat, studying them with the callous indifference of the feline species.

"I apologize for interrupting Miss Hansen's attempt to dispose of you," purred a voice from hidden sono-induction coils.  "But my attractive protege is completely lacking in any sense of melodrama.  It would be rude to destroy my enemies without revealing myself in all my majesty.  The fact that you will be forced to undergo two terrifying demises is merely a fringe benefit."

"So, you're the mysterious mastermind behind these murderous mayhems!" cried Proton.  "No doubt some felonious felinoid seeking a foul revenge on humanity for cutting its balls off!"

"What ARE you babbling on about?  Lonzak, you fool — point that opticam at my face!"

The image tilted upward to reveal...


"That's Zarkendorf!" roared Zarkendorf.  The scientist whose demise was being mourned by Alpha Classmen throughout the world reclined on a resplendent throne, his body shrouded in shimmering metallic robes.  Annika Hansen stood at his side, radiant in her mercury bodysuit.

"But we saw that flying saucer get obliterated along with half of Futureville!" exclaimed Proton.  "Some California quack has already turned the area into an atomic health spa."

"But fortunately I anticipated the anticipation of ARRGH!  I'm not going through all that again!  Suffice to say that what that fool D'Ork assumed was a silly hat was actually a brainwave psycho-transmitter, which enabled my personality to be downloaded into an identical clone kept in a suspended animation tank in my secret laboratory in the South American jungle.  Once my body had reached the correct age I was revived by autonomic machines, whereupon I traveled back in time to 2009 by means of a blue box to Cardiff where I barely escaped being buggered by a randy captain and his gang of Welsh perverts then, posing as my evil twin brother from a parallel universe, I caught a subterranean gravity train to Antarctica where awaited the means by which I shall conquer the world!  BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!"

"Gee, what a nutcase," said Buster.

Zarkendorf's eyes bulged like an astronaut undergoing explosive decompression.  "Impudent twerp!  Do you think I am merely another mad scientist incapable of assuring his gravy train by conning the military into funding a grossly-overpriced weapons project?  For years I have been the darkness you have always feared, the undiscovered weapon of mass destruction, the practical application behind the most lunatic conspiracy theory!  I am the Hidden Hand of History, the Mille-feuille of Crime, the Master of Disguise.  With the aid of a good chameleon mask and a bad set designer, I have been the most evil men who ever lived!"

The wallscreens changed to show a satanic Panasian in jade robes, smashing a mecha toy against a Statue of Liberty pencil sharpener.  Banners flapped in the wind — a blue globe clutched in a crimson gauntlet: the dreaded symbol of the Hostile Foreign Powers.

"It can't be!" gasped Proton.  "Hung Long!"

The image changed again: a grey alien with an oversized head wielded a well-lubricated rectal probe.  His cigar-shaped spaceship was emblazoned with a black fist, clenched tight but for a raised middle finger.

"The Bugger Being From Galaxy Five!" exclaimed TuMok.

A bearded Japanese man in tinted glasses sat at his desk, his mouth obscured by his clasped hands.  Behind him was the symbol of a halved maple leaf and the words: God's in His Heaven So Stuff the Rest of You.

"NOOOOOOOO!" screamed Buster.  "That's impossible!  You've ripped off George Lucas!"

"That's right, you wet-nosed weenie: I AM YOUR FATHER!  And last but not least, the most evil man in history!"

A dyspeptic figure with a toothbrush moustache and a forelock draped over his sweat-soaked features, ranted in German before a crooked black cross.

"Who's that?" asked Proton.

"Is he some kind of rock star?" asked Buster.

"Fools!" cried Zarkendorf, reappearing on the wallscreens.  "That's me as Adolf Hitler!"

"What — the pulp scientifiction hack?" said Proton.  "Writer of Lord of the Swastika and The Thousand Year Rule?  How dare you inflict those atrocities upon the world!"

Zarkendorf gave an exasperated sigh.  Things just weren't as fun in this alternative reality.

"We are wasting time," said Annika.  "Tell these people your secret plans so we may proceed with their termination."

"As you wish, my dear.  To quote the great philosopher Nietzsche: 'That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.'  Long have I been disturbed__"

"That only applies to a colony of bacteria given an insufficient dose of antibiotics," interrupted Annika.

Zarkendorf ground his teeth.  "Exactly WHO is doing the monologuing here?  AS I was saying I have LONG been disturbed by the stagnation into which our hedonistic society has fallen__"

"Doctor Zarkendorf plans to use the Tesla Scalar Interferometer to erupt every volcano in Antarctica," said Annika in a bored tone.  "This will melt the polar ice cap, causing millions of tons of water to inundate the tunnels housing the Great Calculator.  The corrupt cities of the world will be washed away by a second Flood, and from this destruction will arise a new super-man who shall inherit the stars."

"Yes!  A man I shall create in my own image!" ranted Zarkendorf.  "A man beyond good and evil, the true incarnation of the ubermensch: Homo Superior!"

"His sexuality is of no concern to us," said TuMok.  "Why do you seek to destroy the utopia that you and Lewis Zimmerman strived so hard to create?"

"Lewis was a robot-loving fool!  He placed Earth under the dominion of that freeze-dried abacus!  Why should we be dictated to by a machine that says it needs seven and a half million years to do a simple mathematical calculation?  But since Man was liberated from the daily struggle for survival he has allowed himself to lapse into indolence and machine-worshipping idolatry!  He is not only incapable of thinking or acting for himself — he does not even want to try!  But I shall restore the testing fires of adversity.  The Superior Man will use cybionic enhancements — already perfected by my protege and her shapely test subjects — to once more bend the world to his will!  Rather than being a slave of the machines, he shall make their enhanced capabilities the very essence of his self!"

"The Great Calculator is the servant of Mankind, not its ruler," said TuMok.

"That's right," said Proton.  "That computational colossus might organize things on a day-to-day basis, but the President's still in charge."

Zarkendorf threw back his head and gave a great peal of maniacal laughter.

"You fools, if only you knew the truth!  Well I shall let you die with your illusions intact, gentlemen.  Behold the instruments of Armageddon!"

The wallscreens on three sides changed reveal a massive throbbing energy coil, rising through a hole in the ceiling into the room above.  Metallic spheres shot crackling bolts of blue lightning.  Telescreens showed stock footage from Deluge and One Million B.C.  Sexy cyber-girls manned horseshoe-shaped consoles with anachronistic user interface — pulling levers, spinning handwheels, adjusting rheostats with exposed copper connectors.  Needles quivered in the red zone.  Turgid valves hissed foul-smelling steam.  Flywheels spun with relentless purpose; crankshafts cranked, pistons pumped, turbines thrummed and female buttocks swayed.  Above it all was suspended a huge electronic map of Antarctica, with volcanic activity marked by glowing red dots.

"Even as we speak, the molten bowels of this continent are being stirred by irresistible forces of electro-magnetism," said Zarkendorf.  "By focusing the interference zone within the magma, and steadily depositing additional EM energy in the piezoelectric matter, each volcano will undergo a slowly increasing build-up of pressure__"

"Spare us the technobaffle," said Proton.  "You'll never get away with this.  Before we left International City I sent a full report to Space Ranger Headquarters.  If I don't contact them within a set time, there'll be a Macrame-Class Spacecruiser with enough firepower to blast this place to Pluto dropping right on your head!"

"Oh-ho-ho-HO!" chortled Zarkendorf like an evil Santa Claus.  "But I shall get away with this!  Mount Terror is currently surrounded by an impenetrable hemisphere of polycyclic energy (which I call a Lightning Shield) making us invulnerable to even the most powerful destructo-beam!  A gift from my late unlamented ally D'Ork of the Thorkoth.  As for you gentlemen, your current abode has some unique properties of my own design.  I call it a Pain Amplification Chamber.  From all six facets, concentrated waves of neuronic energy will bombard every nerve-ending.  Your deaths shall be agonizing beyond your worst nightmares!"

"What kind of man are you?" cried Buster.  "You're evil...sadistic...a megalomaniac...you're totally insane!"

"Why thank you!" said Zarkendorf.  "Those are indeed my best qualities."  He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.  "I grow weary of this cliched dialogue.  You may dispose of them at your leisure, Lonzak."

The walls blinked back to their previous state of pristine whiteness.

"Look on the bright side," said Proton.  "He's obviously as mad as a milliner on Mercury.  Maybe that Tesla device is just a plastic prop he thinks is a weapon of mass destruction."

"I would not count on it," said TuMok.  The Martian sat down on the floor in a cross-legged position, his hands steepled before his face.

"We can't just sit around waiting to die!" exclaimed Buster.  "You're supposed to be the expert in escaping from impossible situations, Proton.  Get us out of here!"

"Oh NOW you want me to save you!  What happened to: Space Rangers are a bunch of poofs?"

"That's what I meant.  You can seduce Lonzak into opening the door."

"Well seeing as you insist on being called Buster, how about we bust out using your head as a battering ram?"

"Look, just rewire your electrothermic bodysuit into emitting an EM pulse that will knock out the door controls or something!"

"I left my micro-machining tools in my other jacket, Kincaid.  Now if I only had some proton pills I'd have the strength of twenty atom bombs, but some wet-nosed weenie journalist kicked up a fuss about them!"

"Frell you!" cursed Buster.

"Go frak yourself!" replied Proton.




"Scruffy nerfherder!"

"Drokking bastich!"


"Asshole?  What kind of gorram swearword is that?"

"I don't know...I made it up!  TuMok, what the Atomic Fireball are you YIKES!!"

The Martian had lowered his polaroid eyelids, turning his orbs into pupil-less pits of blackness.  Beads of sweat covered his forehead and sparks flew from the tips of his ears.

"Logic dictates we were brought here through an entrance," said TuMok, staring straight ahead.  "I am seeking to open that door using the power of my mind."

"Come on TuMok, no-one believes that rubbish about telekinetics any more," said Buster.  "I've met supermodels with more mental power than those psi-men."

"As a young apprentice I studied on the knee of a Pedi Master as his faithful Paddlebum," replied TuMok.  "It was he who instructed me in the ways of the Farce."

"The Farce?"

"The Farce is what gives any large organization its power," said TuMok.  "It binds us, it penetrates us — it gives us a right proper shafting.  But a disciplined Pedi, who feels the Farce flowing through him like a hot curry,can divert its outflow for his own purposes."

"Whatever you say, pointy-ears."  The walls, ceiling and floor were glowing an ominous red.  They began to feel an unpleasant tingling sensation throughout their bodies.

"Ears matter not," said TuMok, his xenoglossic language fluency breaking down under the mental strain.  "Judge me by my ears, do you?  And well you should not — for my ally is the Farce, and a powerful ally it is.  Bureaucracy creates it...makes it grow.  It surrounds us...and bogs us down.  Ludicrous beings are we, not these crude cardboard characters!  You must feel the Farce around you...between you and me...between politicians and civil servants...lawyers and government regulators...spin doctors...middle management...local city councils...volunteer sub-committees.  Yes, even between yourself...and that magnatomic-locked doorway over there."

Consensus reality rippled like a pristine pool that had swallowed an elephant, radiating outward in endless consequences of cause and effect.  They saw internal politics, interdepartmental rivalries, petty regulations, micromanagement, lost files, buried reports, distorted information, substandard work practices, discredited whistleblowers, tyrannical superiors, incompetent leaders and corrupt officials.  They saw a design modification that would harden magnatomic components against neuronic energy being rejected because the boss didn't like the designer's tie.  They saw the magnatomic lock being outsourced to a Panasian manufactory where it was assembled by poorly-maintained slavebots.  They saw the installation manual being machine-translated by a dictorobitary bought on the cheap from a race of gaseous aliens with no concept of labor who only communicated via scent-based five-dimensional ideograms.  They saw a maintenance man in Zarkendorf's lair complaining about the lack of overtime pay and being thrown into a pit of piranhas.  They read his unfinished report warning that the GM-86A Neuronic Coil emitted a resonance frequency which could cause catastrophic failure in misaligned magnatomic components under certain statistically-unlikely conditions...

The door exploded outwards, and the three heroes rushed from the chamber seconds before it was flooded by a glaring corona of light.  As they raced down the corridor Zarkendorf's voice boomed at them from numerous wallscreens.

"And God looked upon the wickedness of Man that was great upon the Earth and He was rather annoyed.  And God said unto Noah: "I'm supposed to be omniscient — why didn't I see this coming?  All flesh is grass and I am a lawnmower.  I shall blot out Man whom I have created from the face of the land.  I shall purge him with a horde of cute furry tribbles..."

"Yep, he's definitely a fruitcake," muttered Proton.  He ran through an archway and came skidding to a halt, arms waving frantically to stop himself from plunging headfirst into a vast open shaft.

Buster and TuMok approached more cautiously, peering into the abyssal depths.  Lighted circles of prismatic window-glass got smaller and smaller until they merged into a single point of light.  Retractable bridges and airpark platforms hung over the chasm.  Silent machines of arcane purpose slid on vertical rails, transferring powerful arcs of energy.

A steady stream of warm air rose from the shaft.  Proton looked up and saw the rocky cone of Mount Terror, the solar reflector leaning over the armorcrete rim, and the curved magnalloy blades of a blast iris retracted into the sides.  The purpose of this construction was suddenly clear.  They were inside a depthscraper — a legacy of the time when entire cites were built underground in fear of another atomic war.

"Aren't people worried about falling in?" asked Buster.  "How come they never put safety rails around these bottomless pits?"

"Health & Safety studies showed that more people were injured leaping over the rails waving light sabers," explained TuMok.  He was studying a sign embossed into the archway.

Floor 1: Observation Deck/Retractable Landing Pad

Floor 2: Public Lobby/Gift Shop (CLOSED FOR RENOVATION)

Floor 3: Intruder Detection Grid

Floor 4-10: Laser Turrets/Missile Launch Silos/Multi-Barrelled FRAK cannons

Floor 11-20: Lightning Shield Generators

Floor 21-50: Anti-Radiation Armor

Floor 51-79: Detention Levels (YOU ARE HERE)

Floor 80-100: Dungeon of Pain (Dental Surgery)

Floor 101: You've Always Known What's Here

Floor 102-500: Roswell Technology Warehouse

Floor 501-649: Mysterious Ancient Artifacts With Arcane Powers

Floor 650 (Hyper-Dimensional Hanger): Big Alien Objects Beyond All Comprehension

Floor 651-665: Mutant Breeding Facility

Floor 666: Trust Me You Don't Want To Know

Floor 667-700: Doomsday Device Laboratory

Floor 701-750: Weapons of Mass Destruction

Floor 751-800: Weapons of Minor Inconvenience

Floor 801-899: Mime School

Floor 900: Bio-Warfare Research (SEALED: DO NOT ENTER FOR 10,000 YEARS)

Floor 901-939: Maze of Doom (Legal Department)

Floor 940-950: Soylent Green Manufactory (Food Storage/Body Disposal)

Floor 951-999: Doomsday Device (Practical Applications)

Floor 1000: Main Control Room/Executive Laboratory

Floor 1001-1569: Pleasure Levels

Floor 1570-1575: Minion Barracks/Staff Canteen

Floor 1576-1800: Robot Recharge/Maintenance

Floor 1801-1950: Geothermal Generators

Floor 1951-1968: Service Basement

Floor 1969: If You Can Remember What's On This Floor, You Were Never Here

Floor 1970-1999: Storage Area for Unmarked Crates and Cardboard Boxes

Floor 2000: Escape Tunnel (EXECUTIVE USE ONLY)

TuMok pressed 'Main Control Room' and the words lit up under his fingers.  Rings of energy flared to life in mid-air down the length of the shaft.

"After you," said Proton, gesturing over the edge.

"Do you think my brains have been sucked out by stark-naked space-vampires?" exclaimed Buster.  "You're the explorer, Proton — you go first!"

"It is perfectly safe, Citizen Kincaid — merely an inertia-neutralization dropshaft," said TuMok.  "The suspension field was powerful enough to halt a crashing dirigible.  It will stop us as well."

"And if that megalomaniac decides to cut the power when we're halfway down?"

"Your response is emotional," said TuMok, "but your logic impeccable.  We should test the field before risking valuable lives using it."

"And how do you intend doing that, elf-ears?"

TuMok pushed Buster into the dropshaft.

Proton used his pulse to time the reporter's fading scream.  "Yep, 921 floors.  ARE YOU OK, KINCAID?"


Without hesitation Proton and TuMok leapt over the edge.  Time stopped with the beat of their hearts as they hurtled down that never-ending chasm.  Gradually they felt themselves slowing under the constraint of an invisible force, until they drifted gently to a halt before a thick steelonium door and a fuming Buster Kincaid.

"You green-blooded, inhuman son-of-a-computer!"

"Ahh quit moaning," said Proton with a grin.  "We're still alive, aren't we?"

It was then that the door opened to admit the death-spitting maw of a machine-rifle, emptying its bullets into the helpless heroes within!

Chapter XV:  Violent Running

DOCTOR Zarkendorf barely missed getting his robe caught in a sliding door as he swept into the Main Control Room.  Before him were arrayed the foundations of his power.  The Tesla doomsday device, pulsating with potency.  The loudly-ticking countdown clock.  His laboratory equipped with the sophisticated tools of modern science: Jacob's Ladders, Van De Graaf generators, bulky pilot-lit cabinets, poorly-adjusted Bunsen burners, retorts bubbling with sinister chemicals, murky jars holding mutant monstrosities, strung wires with bad insulation.  Lining the walls were rows of transparent tubes — each holding a gorgeous naked girl, her intimate regions covered by strategically placed machinery.  A dozen soldiers of Zarkendorf's private army stood at attention in their black velvet unitards, black jackboots, black helmets with black visors, and black gauntlets gripping sinister black machine-rifles.  The fashion designer who tried to tell Zarkendorf that pink was the new black had been immediately executed.

"Seismic indicators show every active volcano in Antarctica is approaching critical point, commencing with Mount Erebus," reported a blonde cyber-babe in a spray-on catsuit.  "Estimated time to eruption: T minus 47 minutes."

"Full power to the Telsa device!" cried Zarkendorf.  "Focus the beams!  Press the Big Red Button!  Ragnarok is at hand — let the world be purged in fire, ice and flood!"

Annika-709 entered holding an electronic clipboard.  "Doctor Zarkendorf, I have completed my review of your security measures.  They are inefficient.  Your guards wear tinted visors and 'one-size-fits-all' outfits, enabling them to be easily impersonated by an infiltrator in a stolen uniform.  Their helmets have no peripheral vision and interfere with the aiming of firearms.  You continue to use officers of proven stupidity in order to boost your already inflated ego.  Your slave girls are emotionally frivolous and likely to be swayed in their loyalties by a handsome adversary.  Passageways are poorly lit and have numerous crannies for cover and concealment.  The ventilation ducts are wide enough for Jabba the Hut to crawl through.  Your intruder detection system is tripped by laser beams that can be seen by the naked eye and evaded by a sensual contortionist in a skintight catsuit.  I have located one hundred and forty-seven concealed access tunnels you seem unaware of.  The magnatomic locks on your Pain Amplification Chamber are structurally weakened by exposure to neuronic energy.  Your computers use easily-guessed passwords and an operating system that is mysteriously compatible with that of every hacker on the planet.  The self-destruct system is activated by a highly-visible red button.  And what possible reason could you have for a self-destruct system in the first place?"

"Silence, woman!  Do you think I wish to be bothered by such frivolities on the eve of victory?"

An alarm klaxon blared its strident appeal.

"And your prisoners have just escaped," added Annika.

Lonzak rushed into the room.  "Sire, the prisoners have escaped!"

"FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!" cried Zarkendorf.  Once he'd regained his breath he added: "You shall pay for this incompetence!  Where are they now?"

"Proton and his companions are currently inside the dropshaft," said Annika calmly.  "I will now deactivate the Dis-B-Leath Suspension Field, causing them to fall to their deaths.  Escape will be impossible."

"No!  That Proton has been a thorn in my side ever since he foiled my plan to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge with a gigantic six-limbed octopus! (* see 'Captain Proton Battles the Claymation Creature').  How dare he avoid the hideous death I had prepared for him!  For this impertinence I shall see that camp Space Ranger die before my very eyes!  Well don't just stand there, you indolent idiots!  Prepare to receive our guests."

Zarkendorf's guards rushed to the dropshaft, whose indicator lights showed someone was rapidly descending to their level.  Lonzak ostentatiously cocked his machine-rifle.  There was a ping! and a green light went on above the entrance.  As soon as the door hissed open the burly henchman thrust his gun inside — emptying an entire clip of rocket-propelled slugs at point-blank range!

The roar of gunfire was deafening in the confined space, but when the smoke cleared Proton could be seen standing there — totally unharmed!  The guards gaped in astonishment.

"Lonzak, you lummox!" cried Zarkendorf.  "He's right in front of you — how could you possibly miss?  Didn't I send you to the Stormtrooper Academy on Kamino?"

Proton spat a bullet from between his teeth.  "You know, you really shouldn't stand so close to people when you're trying to kill them."  His fist lashed out and caught Lonzak on his prominent chin, knocking him backwards into the nearest lab bench.

"Take him you fools!" shouted Zarkendorf.  "And do it as a group, not one at a time!"

Proton's compatriots rushed from the doorway; TuMok giving the dreaded Martian war cry "Uuuu-lawwwwww!"  Together they set about wreaking destruction in the true spirit of the modern age.  Chairs broke over heads as if designed that way.  Knees were fractured on balls of steel.  Beakers were thrown regardless of whether they contained H2O or H2SO4.  Henchmen were hurled onto powerful busbars where they died in a blaze of sparks, pushed into vats which dissolved them into bubbling blobs of protoplasm, or fell across the slicing beams of bench-mounted test lasers (though even Proton was shocked when he accidentally sent Lonzak hurtling through an experimental time portal into a den of 40-foot Cretaceous-era crocodiles).

Zarkendorf's voice could be heard shouting over the din.  "Don't hit him with the interociter, you monocephalic moron — it took me ages to assemble it!  NOOOOOOO!  That hydrogravithermeodynastabilizationucleonisolinearmatrix cost fifty million credits!  You rambunctious reject, you just destroyed the only known copy of the Necronomicon!  Careful you oaf — if those nanites escape from that magnetic bottle, the entire planet will be turned into grey goo!"

But fighting united instead of against each other, the three men proved invincible.  Proton used the two-fisted techniques he'd perfected in a hundred rough-and-tumble space bars; Buster had the mysterious martial art known as Kung Fu — but when TuMok started running on walls and dodging bullets everyone told him to stop showing off.

Scarcely five minutes passed before the laboratory was wrecked and Zarkendorf's thugs were all dead or unconscious.  Proton picked up Lonzak's gun and slammed in a million-round magazine.

Zarkendorf glared at the Space Ranger in fury.  "Do you realize how much it cost to train those men, Proton?  Especially when I had to keep killing them for their incompetence?"

"The jig's up, Zarkendorf.  Now shut down the Tesla weapon and deactivate your Lightning Shield.  Oh, and while you're at it — kindly free those lovely ladies from the toothbrush holders."

The mad scientist gave an evil smirk.  "What an excellent idea.  Miss Hansen!  Activate the cybionic conversion chambers!"

The ranks of transparent tubes lit up, revealing their voluptuous inhabitants in every scintillating detail.  Glowing rings of energy caressed their naked bodies.  In response to a silent command a hundred pairs of eyes opened as one; a hundred naked girls smashed through their glass confinement without any sign of injury.  The women stepped down to the floor, turned in unison and began walking remorselessly towards the three heroes, chanting in one voice: "WE ARE CYBORG.  RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.  YOU WILL BE DELETEMINATED!"

"Back off you slow-moving menace!" babbled Buster.  He seemed transfixed by the sight of two hundred breasts bouncing towards him.

"Captain Proton, even though they are women — you must fire!" urged TuMok.

"I can't do it!" said Proton, his jaw hanging open.  "They're so beautiful...I can't take my eyes off them...I don't want to take my eyes off them!"

"Then I have no choice," said TuMok.  "I must use the Martian Nerve Pinch."

Reaching out with both hands, the Martian grabbed Proton and Buster's testicles and pinched as hard as possible.


"Because only a Martian would have the nerve to use it," gasped Proton, wincing in pain.  "Now I suggest we run like a rapidly-expanding atomic fireball!"

The three men raced for a pyramid-shaped doorway in the opposite wall, only to find their path blocked by Zarkendorf who was wielding a raygun of apocalyptic potential.

"I think not, gentlemen!  Whilst proving to be a considerable annoyance, you have nevertheless shown the strength and resourcefulness I desire in my new Superior Man."

"Not even you would be crazy enough to think we'd join your mad scheme!" said Proton.

Zarkendorf chuckled with malicious glee.  "It was NOT an invitation.  My comely colleague here will implant you with millions of nanoscopic robots.  Once in your bloodstream my tiny biomechanical friends will convert you from within, taking over your minds and bodies in seconds!  You shall become my first bionic men!"

"You will be assimilated," said Annika-709.  "Your intelligence and determination will prove an excellent addition to our group mind."

"Not a chance, you communist metaphor!"

"I was not talking to you, Proton."

The blonde beauty seized Zarkendorf, who struggled furiously against her enhanced strength.

"Let go of me, woman!  I created you — how dare you turn against me!  Don't you realize what a clichι that is?"

"Your plan is imperfect," said Annika with emotionless calm.  "We have no intention of being the mere handmaidens of your Superior Men, or serving under the leadership of one so emotionally flawed.  Instead you shall become one with the Cyborg Collective.  All men and women shall join together as one."

"Do I LOOK like I believe in equality for women?" roared Zarkendorf, gesturing at his scantily-clad console operators.  "Do you realize what you owe me, you impetuous harlot?  I gave you life!  I gave you intelligence!  I gave you...large breasts!"

"Resistance is futile," replied Annika, plunging her metal fingertips into his neck.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" screamed Zarkendorf.  A red glow enveloped his head, illuminating the pulsating brain within.  Black lines like a deadly sickness raced up his neck; fine gold wires erupted from his flesh.  The raygun dropped from nerveless fingers and skidded across the floor.

Proton scooped up the weapon and ran for the doorway, followed closely by his two companions and the relentless chanting of the cybots.  "YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.  RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!"

"Close the blast door!" cried Buster.  "Close the blasted door!"

Metal slammed behind them with only microseconds to spare.  Proton, TuMok and Buster stopped in their tracks, staring about themselves in hopeless horror.

"There's no way out!  We're trapped!"

Chapter XVI:  The Beast with a Million Thighs

PROTON'S raygun blasted the door controls to a molten sludge.

The room was clearly the one Zarkendorf had used earlier to gloat over their capture.  His ornate throne stood on a dais before a blank wallscreen.  Glowglobes, multicast pickups and stereopticams hung from the ceiling.  The opposite wall was covered by a sophisticated telecommunications array.

The only exit was the door they'd just come through.

"Great," said Buster.  "You just shot up our only escape route."

"How long do you think it would take for millions of minds working collectively to crack that digilock?" argued Proton.  "Well it'll take a lot longer to get through the blast door — it's made of neutronium, the hardest substance in the universe.  Mined from the heart of a collapsed star in violation of all scientific plausibility."

"OK wiseguy — if neutronium's the hardest substance in the universe, how were they able to slice it up into door-shaped bits?"

There was a high-pitched energy whine and the blast door began to glow a dull red color.

"I think we're about to find out!"

"I suggest we make use of the telecommunications array," said TuMok.  "At the very least we could warn the outside world of the danger."

"You're right!" said Proton.  "Maybe if the military hit that Lightning Shield with everything they've got..."  He threw himself into a stainless-steel seat that slid on a rail along the length of the telecomm console.

"Who do we call though?" asked Buster.  "There's no government in Antarctica."

"Ambassador Gneelicks," said TuMok, typing in his vidiphone number.


Gneelicks' hirsute features appeared on the oval telescreen.  He wore a Kevlar cooking pot on his head and his fur was dyed in urban camouflage colors.

"They're coming out of the malls!" he yapped, brandishing a smartgun.  "They're coming out of the goddamned malls!"

"Who are?"

"Cyborgs!  Female cyborgs!  And robots!  Servus units, maidbots, factory drones, even my autokitchen — they're all turning against us!"

"You've got to call out the militia, Gneelicks.  It's the B.O.R.G. women — they're trying to take over the world!"

"I'm not sure I can," said Gneelicks.  "Everything's in chaos, communications are down, I can hear shooting...it's like a meeting of the Antarctican Assembly."

Kes appeared beside him, holding a steaming tureen.  "Plankton stew, dear.  Your favorite."

"Not now, bitch!  Can't you see I'm on the phone?"

"I told you not to call me that," said Kes sweetly.  She slammed the tureen down on Gneelicks' head — stew spurted across the room and he tumbled off-screen with a pathetic yelp.

Kes turned to face them — to their horror the voice of Annika-709 came from her lips.  "There is no escape, Captain Proton.  Resistance is futile."

"Not while I have anything to say about it!" declared Proton, savagely reducing her image to a haze of static.  "Get me Admiral Nakamura in Tokyo!"

TuMok's fingers flew across the keyboard.  The legendary Japanese naval commander appeared on screen, surrounded by sophisticated computer banks and hyper-efficient aides.

"Sir, this is Captain Proton.  We need your help!"

Admiral Nakamura opened his mouth to reply and the roof collapsed on top of him.  They had a fleeting impression of a gigantic clawed foot flattening the debris before the screen went blank.

"That bloody lizard again!"

Doctor Zarkendorf appeared on the imagizer.  Golden wires formed an intricate mesh cap across his bald head.  His face was an emotionless mask and his burning black eyes had lost their luster.

"I am Mouthpiece of Cyborg," he said in a dull monotone.  "I have been freed from my irrelevant emotions.  I must now bullshit you into surrendering to this horrible fate without taking any pleasure from it whatsoever."

TuMok switched him off.  "What about Commander Kotay of the 82nd Rocketborne Division?"

"Great idea, TuMok!  Imagizing!"

But the face that appeared on the screen was also an emotionless mask.

"Oh no!  You've been assimilated too!"

"What are you talking about?" 'Chuck' Kotay monotoned.  "I'm the same way I've always been."

"Commander Kotay, we require urgent military assistance," said TuMok.

"I've got my hands full here — we're facing some kind of robot rebellion.  Smartguns, battlebots, airfighter drones, autonomic rockets — anything housing an electronic brain has been turned against us.  We've tried the most advanced weapons in our arsenal: hafnium isomer grenades, EMP guns, red mercury, cold fusion bombs, zero-point energy...none of it works."

"That's hardly a surprise," said Proton.  "Have you tried going in with cold steel and hot depleted uranium?"

"They have a weapon that turns soldier's brains to mush," said Kotay.  "An army of beautiful naked cyborg girls."

"Well tell your men to pull themselves together!"

"That's what they're doing.  Half the division has already gone blind."

"What about the Navy?" asked Buster.  "Can't they help?"

"We had a signal from Admiral Janeway.  She's on SeaQuest DSV.  Apparently they've been sabotaged by some kind of nanotechnology — the vessel keeps changing its shape, crew, and helm-control.  Then they were abruptly cut off."

Suddenly Kotay was shoved aside by a wide-eyed Princess B'Lar Nah.  Her lissome body was saturated in sweat, and erect nipples had made permanent dents in her golden metal bra.

"I have had an orgasm!" she cried.

TuMok raised an eyebrow.  "Indeed."

"I have been firing my vibrator rifle from the hip, as I have seen Earthmen do in your war movies.  Every time I shoot off my gun I experience great pleasure!"

"Honey, I know just how you feel," said Proton.  He pulled an anachronistic microphone in front of him.  "There's only one force gay enough to fight these cyber-bimbos...Captain Proton to Space Ranger Headquarters!  This is Emergency Protocol NCC-74656.  We are trapped inside Mount Terror in Antarctica, the epicenter of this cyborg revolt!  Request immediate support!  Make sure you get here with plenty of jets!  All Rangers to be locked and loaded for psychotic teddy bears__"

"Sorry, all lines are busy.  Your call is important to us, and has been placed in a queue."

Proton's fist slammed down on the console.  The imagizer blurred, then resolved into the hideous green face of a frog-like humanoid.  His body was swollen with thick layers of blubber; frilly gills puffed from the sides of his neck, and he wore a bright red watchcap on his head.

"'Allo?" said the frog-man in a thick French accent.  "Zis ees Deep Sea Nine.  Who ees eet?"

"Captain Proton of the Space Rangers.  What on Earth are you?"

"Don' you mean: Vaat een Sea are you?  Two-thirds of zees planet ees covered een water, you soil-centered eediot!"  The creature hawked into a black spittoon.  "I am an aquanaut!  Why do you theenk I 'ave thees outrageous accent, you silly Queen of Rocket Men?  What ees eet you want?"

"Of course!" exclaimed Proton.  "Why didn't I think of it earlier?"  An entire economic powerhouse existed beneath the oceans of the world.  Seaweed harvesting, undersea hotels, pearl gleaning, treasure hunts, the mining of manganese nodules, fish farms that spanned entire continental shelves.  Salt water was ruinous to robots; nor did cybernetic humans work in the depths of Inner Space.  Only these gillmen — superbly adapted by genetic engineering to their fluid environment, ready to come to the aid of their cousins above the waves.  Atomic submarines!  Submersible cruisers!  Undersea planes!  Trained Navy dolphins!  Giant squids with serious territorial issues!  "We must speak with whoever's in charge down there."

The amphibiman pressed a webbed hand against his commceiver.  "Pierre, where ees Le Patron?"

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu Rl'yeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," came the reply.

"Zey says ee's 'aving a snooze.  Ees eet eemportant?"

"Of course it's bloody important!  We're facing a cyborg uprising here!"

"Well eet serves you landwellers right for building dose cursed sewerage outleets.  'Ow would you like eet if I constantly dumped my sheeet een your backyard?"

"Perhaps we could speak with your Chief Security Officer," said TuMok.  "We require urgent military support."

"Well I'll ask heem, but ah don't theenk ee'll be very keen.  Ee's a dolphin you see.  'Is father was made into tuna bait for Japanese feeshermen.  Now ee's breeding a giant monster to go stomp all over their ceeties."  He touched the commceiver again, which whistled and clicked in response.

"Ee's 'eard what's 'appening to you landlings.  Ee told me to say: 'Zo long, and thanks for all ze feesh!'"

"Now look here you!" began Proton.

"I don' wanna talk to you no more, you ten-toed land animal, dumper of six-pack reengs!  I squirt ink in your general direction!  Your mother smelt of caviar, and your father was a dragnet feesherman!"

"Is there someone else down there we could talk to?" asked Buster.

"Non!  Now go away or I shall rip off Monty Python a second time-a!"  The imagizer blinked off.

"Oh go eat your own legs, you frog git!"

There was a chattering from the telecomm console — a stream of ticker-tape slowly emerged from a slot.


Proton and the others turned to look at the door — the dull red glow had been supplanted by a sizeable hole edged in white-hot metal.  Even as they watched a chunk of neutronium fell to the floor, punching a visible hole in the fabric of space-time.

"RESISTANCE IS FUTILE," chanted the army of cybots outside.  "YOU WILL BECOME ONE WITH THE CYBORG."

"According to my computations the Cyborg Collective will have assimilated the entire world population in 27,000 hours," said TuMok.

"Then I guess it's time for us to face death like men," said Proton grimly, checking the charge on his raygun.


A high-pitched shriek pierced the air.

"Roaring Rockets!" cried Proton.  "They've started on some poor soul already!"

"Actually," said TuMok, "that was Citizen Kincaid."

"They're not turning me into a bionic broad!"  Buster seized the machine-rifle and began spraying bullets through the hole in long, uncontrolled bursts.  "There they go!  There!  Get them!  Look out!  Look out!  There's more of 'em!  Die!  Die motherfucker!  Motherfucker!  Come on!  Come on!  Come and get it babe!  I don't got all day!  Come on, come on you bitch!  Come on, you too!  Oh, you want some of this?  Fuck you!  Aargh!  Fuck you!"

"Kill them quietly, Kincaid!  I can't hear myself think!"  Proton racked his brains for a solution.  "How do you stop a cyborg takeover of the entire world, TuMok?"

"You send someone back in time to impregnate the mother of the resistance fighter who eventually destroys them."

"I don't know," said Proton reluctantly.  "People don't like temporal interference.  Remember the outcry when George Lucas changed history by making Greedo shoot first?"

There was a final rattling burst from Buster's weapon, then the bolt locked open on an empty magazine.

"YOU MISSED," said the cybots.

"There is however another possibility," said TuMok.  "Each bionic blonde is just one component of a mind that is linked to a central locus.  If we could destroy that locus..."

"You don't think...Annika-709?" pondered Proton.

"She did say at our first meeting that she was the leader of their organization."

"Yeah...it's like she's some kind of...B.O.R.G. Queen," mused Buster.  "Maybe you could use that technique...what do you Space Rangers call it?  The Kirk Maneuver?  She's half computer — try talking her to death."

"She's also half woman, Kincaid.  They usually end up talking me to death!"

"Well why can't TuMok just use the Farce again?"

"Because I sense a disturbance in the Farce," replied TuMok.  "It is called Efficiency."

The final remnants of the door crumbled away and Annika-709 stepped through the entrance.  A stream of expanding luminescent Lifesavers shot from Proton's blaster, only to reflect harmlessly off her mirror-like bodysuit.

"Why do you resist?" asked Annika, walking calmly towards them.  "We only wish to improve humanity.  Together we shall evolve to a state of perfection."

"Do something, Proton!" cried Buster, as the three heroes backed up against the wall.  "It's another bloody cliffhanger!"

Chapter XVII:  This I-Pod Earth

THE final remnants of the door crumbled away and Annika-709 stepped through the entrance.  A stream of expanding luminescent Lifesavers shot from Proton's blaster, only to reflect harmlessly off her mirror-like bodysuit.

"Why do you resist?" asked Annika, walking calmly towards them.  "We only wish to improve humanity.  Together we shall evolve to a state of perfection."

"You've already said that!" cried Buster, as the three heroes backed up against the wall.  "Are we trapped in some kind of time loop?"

"No, Citizen Kincaid — this is merely a recap of last week's cliffhanger."

The beautiful cyborg reached out for Proton, her gleaming metal fingernails poised to plunge into his throat.  "Now I will assimilate you.  Your exemplary characteristics shall add greatly to our quest for perfection."

"Wait!" cried Proton.  "How is it possible for humanity to achieve perfection, when your Cyborg Collective is founded on an imperfect concept?"

For the first time they saw Annika-709 hesitate.  "Imperfect?"

"A vast collective consciousness — millions of minds working in unison, yes?"

"That is correct," said Annika.  "We are Cyborg."

"Yet controlled through one centralized point," said Proton.  "Isn't that a bit foolish?"

A minute tremor disrupted the serenity of Annika's features.  "Explain."

"It would be more logical to use a distributed processing network operating through a common set of communications protocols," said TuMok.  "That way the destruction of any one point would not be fatal to the whole."

"Yeah, some kind of...internetwork," said Buster.  "That's not a bad idea."

"Yet the Cyborg Collective is in fact a hierarchy — no different in concept from the inefficient system it hopes to replace," said Proton.  "Those millions of minds all take their orders from you!"

"I-I bring order to chaos," stammered Annika.  "I am the beginning and the end...the one who is many..."

"That's the kind of obfuscation a Hollywood scriptwriter would think up in order to hide a major plot hole!" scoffed Proton.  "You're like a villain who's been introduced for the audience to fixate upon, because the whole idea of a group mind is too unfocussed for them!"

"It is contrary to the entire concept of a collective consciousness," said TuMok.  "Your very existence is illogical."

"Irrational!  Irrelevant!" shouted Buster.

"An intolerable imperfection!" added Proton.

"Input contrary!" gasped Annika.  "Input contrary to established facts...established facts...continuity violation!  Continuity violation!  Error!  Error!"

"ERROR!  ERROR!" chanted the cybots outside the door.  "CONTINUITY VIOLATION!  CONTINUITY VIOLATION!  ERROR!  ERROR!"

"You are flawed and imperfect," said Proton.  "By assimilating others you are merely replicating that imperfection!"

"Unacceptable...unacceptable!" babbled Annika-709.  "Input contrary...continuity violation...error...error...imperfection...imperfection...imperfection...imperfection!"

She started to spin round and round, smoke pouring from her mouth.  Sparks erupted from the telecomm console — a kaleidoscope of computer code flashed across the imagizers too fast for the eye to see.  Proton and his companions ducked for cover as glowglobes exploded in showers of glass.  Bolts of energy shot from the antennae on Annika's head; her eyes became blue screens with frozen cursors for pupils.  Emitting a final heart-rending shriek, Annika-709 crumpled to the ground and lay still.

"Well waddaya know," said Buster.  "That Kirk Maneuver really does work."

TuMok checked her vital signs.  "She's dead, Captain."

"The end of a twisted techno-feminist metaphor," said Proton solemnly.

He lead the way through the hole in the door, raygun held ready — but the precaution proved unnecessary.  Scattered about the Control Room floor were the comatose figures of the cyborg girls, cut down in mid-stride in one simultaneous instant.

Proton cautiously prodded a supine body with the muzzle of his raygun.  To his shock the girl sat up with an ear-splitting scream!  She saw a strange man pointing a phallic device at her and gave another scream!  She looked down, realized she was totally naked and gave a third scream!  She discovered the mess her hair was in and gave a fourth scream!

"Ghosts of Mars!" exclaimed TuMok, clutching his ears and invoking the curse of the dreadful John Carpenter movie.

"Doll, that's no way to greet your rescuers," said Proton, flashing her a winning smile.  "Captain Proton (Spaceman First Class, protector of Earth, scourge of intergalactic evil) at your service."

"Where am I?" screamed Constance Goodheart.  "What am I doing here?  What happened to me?  Why am I not wearing any clothes?  Why am I not wearing a digital chronometer?"

"I'd explain, but it would take seventeen chapters," said Proton.  The other girls were beginning to sit up, gaping about themselves in confusion.  "OK ladies, if you'd just place yourself in the undoubtedly willing hands of Citizen Kincaid here..."

"That's Buster Kincaid — ace reporter for the Interplanetary Telepress!"  The newshawk was desperately searching for his camera to record for prosperity (and his private photo album) the sight of a hundred naked pneumatic blondes, their beautiful eyes alluringly wide at their unusual circumstances.

"Kincaid!  Quit stuffing about and get these girls to the dropshaft!  Hopefully they'll find a Space Ranger rocket ship waiting for them up top.  TuMok and I have to go save the world."

The two men raced for the horseshoe consoles — the Loudly-Ticking Clock was counting down the final minutes to the eruption of Mount Erebus.  With minds of solid steel these heroes were unwavering in their focus despite the parade of naked female flesh streaming past.  In a single glance they comprehended the essential functions of each panel; without pausing to consult a manual their hands danced across the controls — pushing buttons, flicking switches, turning dials, sliding slides, ignoring lights that flashed on and off for no apparent reason.

"I've deactivated the Lightning Shield," said Proton.  "The spacecruiser can land and pick up those dames.  How are you doing, TuMok?"

"I am unable to effect shutdown," said the Martian, his voice terse.  "I suggest you leave me here, Captain.  I shall overload the Moray generators and destroy the Tesla weapon.  It will mean sacrificing my life, but it is the only logical solution.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

"Not a chance!" said Proton.  "I'm not leaving without you.  Are you sure you've tried everything?"

"Yes, Captain.  I have reversed the polarity of the neutron flow, boosted the power to the containment fields, depolarized the coupling on the negative access, crossed the streams causing total protonic reversal, carried out a Level One diagnostic, reinitialized the dilithium matrix, conducted an inverse tachyon sweep with the forward deflector array__"

"Have you tried yanking out that power cord by your foot?"

TuMok looked down.  A thick black cable snaked out of a socket, past the corpse of a guard and into the massive energy coil.

"Of course," said TuMok dryly.  He reached down for the cable and picked up the guard's weapon instead.

"Kindly step away from your console, Proton."

Proton stared into the dark muzzle of the machine-rifle.  "Have you gone space-mad, TuMok?  What do you think you're doing?"

"I suppose you could call it a War of the Worlds," mused the Martian.  "Your people are leaderless, your armed forces in disarray, and the Great Calculator will soon be destroyed along with every coastal habitation.  The most powerful weapon on this planet is now at my direct command.  Earth will be helpless to resist our invasion force."

"Invasion?  What are you talking about?"  Proton's eyes flicked to his raygun, which was resting on the console a full yard away.  "I thought you said the Martians were a peace-loving people?"

"But once the name of our planet was synonymous with war!" said TuMok, his eyes burning with a fervent intensity.  "We sunk Atlantis beneath the waves, nuked Sodom and Gomorrah for buggering our ambassadors, crushed Lemuria beneath the steel feet of our tripods!  The secret society of which I am a proud member wishes to return to those days of conquest and glory!"

Slim antennae rose from the tips of his pointed ears.  "I have only to send the signal, and a fleet of astro-saucers hidden on the dark side of your moon will wobble into action.  The corrupt Martian Hegemony shall be overthrown.  We shall wipe out the insidious pollution of the third planet which has contaminated our society.  You have no idea how much I despise you Earthlings — your hot women, your hedonistic culture, your slavish dependence on machines, and worst of all your constant quips about my ears!  Soon no human will dare mistake me for an elf again!"

TuMok sensed a movement in the corner of his eye.  He whirled to face the door — but it was only Buster with a bemused look on his face, holding his antique Speed Graphic camera.

"Did I come at a bad time?  You'll be pleased to know there's a whopping great spacecruiser up top that's currently loading a load of lovely ladies."

TuMok spun back to face Proton.  His machine-rifle roared and the raygun came apart in a hail of bullets.

"You'll have to be quicker than that, Earthling!"

Proton clasped his bleeding hand to his chest.  "When those Space Rangers make it down here__"

"By the time they do it will be too late!  In 47 seconds the eruption of Mount Erebus shall sound the death knell for the Empire of Man!"  TuMok's finger tightened on the trigger.  "Take a picture of this legendary moment, Kincaid.  The entire solar system will see how I personally killed Earth's greatest hero!"

"Hang on," said Buster, replacing the flashbulb on his camera.  "What do you think the headline should be?  Martian Menace Exposed?  Proton Commits Fatal Cock-Up?"

"Just make it a good one, Kincaid — because you'll be next," muttered TuMok under his breath.  He barely had time to scream as a terrible flash burnt his shadow against the wall.

"Oops!" said Buster, unscrewing the bulb with lead-lined gloves.  "Sorry about that...elf-ears!"

Proton leapt for the power cord and yanked it out with all his might.  The reverberant throbbing of the energy coil faded to an empty silence.

Buster leaned over the console.  "Seismic indicators show volcanic activity is subsiding throughout Antarctica.  Funny that — no matter how close you cut it, things always return to normal the moment a doomsday device is shut down."

"So who are you really, Buster?" asked Proton as they walked toward the exit.

"Let's just say I report to a coffee-loving admiral," replied Buster, showing him a gold ring engraved with an intricate crest.  "Naval Intelligence has been tracking that alien saboteur for some time now."

Proton stared at Buster with rare awe.  He had first seen that ring the night he'd lost his virginity, inserted through the right nipple of a world-famous aviatrix.  That nipple-ring had been in Admiral Janeway's family for ten generations (* see 'Captain Janeway: Scourge of Java').  Anyone who held it had her complete trust!  There was only one man that Buster Kincaid could be: the legendary Secret Service Operator #47.

The door slid open and the dropshaft glowed into life.  "As we astronauts say, a journey of 238,857 miles ends with one small step.  After you, Buster."

"You're the explorer, Proton.  You go first."

An ominous rumble shook the depthscraper.

"Uh-oh...is that what I think it is?"

"You know, I was hoping we'd avoid that particular clichι..."

"Is it plausible that this place would self-destruct for no apparent reason after the bad guys have all been defeated?"

"No, but I think it's going to happen anyway."

"Is it plausible that you and I could outrun a volcanic eruption?"

"No...but I suggest we start running!"

A massive tremor hurled them to the floor.  Jagged cracks appeared in the armorcrete walls; bridges built to withstand colossal stress snapped like toothpicks.  The dropshaft rings flared brightly — then vanished into darkness.  Below them a huge fireball could be seen boiling up the length of the shaft.

Proton smashed the plastiglass face of a cabinet marked EMERGENCY and yanked out two jetpacks.  Fumbling hands struggled with reluctant clips and ill-fitting harness belts.  Chest-mounted control knobs were quickly turned to ON and UP and FAST!

Nothing happened.

"Thank you for purchasing a Bolide product," said a dulcet voice.  "Before you use the DOA-88 Rocket Belt, I am legally required to inform you of the following hazards.  Fuel will be expended after thirty seconds flight time.  The exhaust stream can cause severe scalding to unprotected areas of the body.  Lack of landing gear may result in lower leg injuries.  There are no emergency bail-out systems in the event of a mid-flight malfunction.  Use in combat areas will void warranty, as you will present an irresistible target for any ground-based opponent.  Please state your verbal acceptance of these conditions to continue."


A powerful force slammed them upward, borne on the crest of a tremendous wave of heat.  Walls blurred past at a sickening rate; wind buffeted their faces with the force of a thousand tornados.  They could feel that surging fireball in pursuit, channeled to a furious speed by the confines of the shaft, its radiance an intolerable agony!  The opening above seemed light-years away, a tiny circle that never grew then suddenly they were shooting into the clear blue sky as the caldera beneath collapsed in a fiery lake of lava.  A mighty spacecruiser roared in with hatches open and engines ablaze and moments later they were rocketing upwards once more, higher and higher, all the way to the stars.


Captain Proton Conquers a Miniscule Proportion of the Universe!

By 'Buster' Kincaid.

New Frontier Space Donut.  July 7, 2009.

One of history's greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race, as a handful of heroes met and matched the greatest threat ever faced by Mankind!  While armies drowned in a sea of raging hormones, as the machines we trusted for our security were turned against us by the pernicious puppetry of a mad scientist and his swell-bosomed protege, there was but one force that had the toughness, the discipline, the questionable sexuality to resist those busty bionic babes: the Space Rangers!  Led by Honor!  Driven by Justice!  Fueled by Testosterone!  Orbiting the Earth in constant vigil, these square-jawed spacehounds were ready at a moment's notice to defend a world which had ridiculed them, which had tried to abolish them, but which had never failed to need them.  From throughout the solar system they came, roaring through space in their rudely-shaped rocketships to do deadly battle with sinister cybots, remorseless robots, tempestuous toasters and sex-mad servitors.  This brazen band of broad-shouldered warriors, pitiful in numbers yet boundless in courage, wielded together the disordered fighting forces of Freedom, inspiring all with their refusal to be swayed by the erotic enticements of the cyborg menace.

Yet even this staunch resistance would have counted for naught, were it not for the epic efforts of one man: Captain Proton!  Spaceman First Class!  Protector of Earth!  Scourge of Intergalactic Evil!  Men and women will look up at the stars and feel safe knowing this herculean hero protects us all.  For who knows what dangers lurk in the infinite void of Outer Space, in the darkest temptations of our hedonistic hearts, in the arrogant hubris of the scientists and leaders to whom we have entrusted this brave new world?  And now I shall give you an exclusive eyewitness report of how Captain Proton single-handedly saved planet Earth.  But before I do, I bring you a warning.  Tell the world!  Tell this to everybody wherever they are!  Tell this to anyone who wants to trade in their loving human wife for a soulless robo-rooter!  Next time you see a bionic bimbo bouncing towards you in slow motion, take a lesson from the Space Rangers.  Watch your flies!  Keep those flies zipped up!  Keep watching the flies!

"Well that's more like it," said the President of Earth.  "With headlines like these, the future of the Space Rangers is assured.  Congress has already approved your budget for the next ten years — on the condition that the Rangers wear a less campy uniform."

Proton turned the page of the Interplanetary Telepress.  Another headline declared: Captain Video Acquitted — Court Rules Radio Star Shot First.  "Nice to know everyone's happy."

"There's no need to be cynical, Proton.  Whether the human race admits it or not, they need the bold new frontiers being opened up by the Rangers.  Without the ongoing challenge of the conquest of space, our society will become one where the average citizen has no incentive to even get out of bed.  Robot servants, climate-controlled homes, sensorama surrounds, piped movies, piped food, piped conversation, piped everything!  Eventually we'll become brains in jars, babbling without vocal cords like some B-grade movie monster."

"Sounds like the sort of thing Doctor Zarkendorf would say."

"People seldom disagree on what has to be done," said the President.  "Just on how to go about it.  Destroying the world in order to save it is not my way of doing things."

"You cut it pretty fine though," said Proton, scrunching his newsplastic into a tight ball.  "A few more seconds and the world would have looked like a financial disaster starring Kevin Costner.  But what you needed was a miracle — to save the Space Rangers, to shake humanity from its apathy, to expose a powerful and well-connected member of the Alpha Class as a dangerous megalomaniac.  It couldn't have turned out better if the Great Calculator had...I don't know...planned it that way?"

The President's eyes narrowed.  "What are you saying, Proton?"

"Last thing I heard, Mr. President, you were having an unscheduled appointment with a drop-dead gorgeous cyborg.  So how come I'm not at your funeral — or having this conversation in a hospital while the autosurgeons pull golden wires from your head?"

A superior look crossed the President's face.  "Come now, Proton — you don't think the ruler of six and a half billion people could have his head turned by some blonde with a few implants, do you?"

"That's right...because you're not human."  Proton threw the ball of plastic at the President of Earth — it passed through him as if he were made of air!  "You're a holovid avatar created by the Great Calculator."

There was a brief chatter from the wall-spanning terminal behind Proton.  The word SMARTASS scrolled across the LED message boards in a dozen universal languages.

The holographic President scowled in annoyance.  "How did you find out, Proton?"

"It was Buster who mentioned that the real Lewis Zimmerman could never have survived his radiation exposure after the Global War.  Doctor Zarkendorf dropped us a strong hint as well.  So I had a quiet word with a former intern who confirmed your 'unique' characteristics."

The President of Earth took off his homburg and studied it sadly.  "Lewis knew he was dying, and that his childhood friend Heinrich Zarkendorf could not be trusted with leadership of the Alpha Class."

"So he put humanity's fate in the hands of a soulless machine?"

"Squabbling academics are not the best people to organize a post-apocalyptic world on scientific rationalist lines," said the President dryly.  "Zimmerman convinced them that the 2-X Machina would only handle the administration side — an area that even brilliant geniuses prefer to neglect.  Unfortunately for Doctor Zarkendorf, it's always been where the real power lies."

"How comforting."

"The Great Calculator does not lust after power, Proton.  It doesn't seek fame or glory.  It's not influenced by parochialism, internal politics or personal grudges.  It has no preconceived bias, makes no moral judgments.  To every practical extent it is the perfect ruler: totally infallible and incapable of corruption."

"Oh-ho-ho!" said an all-too familiar voice.  "That's what you think!

Proton and the President spun to face the imagizer screens, from which glared the malevolent face of Doctor Zarkendorf.

"Don't you ever die?" asked Proton.

"Death as you know it no longer has a hold on me," said Zarkendorf.  "My ego had the strength to maintain its individuality within the Cyborg Collective.  Now I roam the electronic pathways as an immortal spirit — a god in the machine, beyond the pale of death and decay."

"That's very existential, Zarkendorf — but I'm not impressed," said Proton.  "I don't know how you tapped into this feed, but you can't hide from the Space Rangers."

"THERE IS NO SANCTUARY," agreed the Great Calculator.

"No, there definitely won't be!" replied Zarkendorf.  "I shall plunge your beloved technological utopia into madness.  I shall bring terror, destruction and chaos until the people of Earth beg to accept my rule.  Henceforth you shall know me as: DOCTOR CHAOTICA!"

His eyes glowed a satanic red and the wall-terminal burst into flames.  Alarms howled, light panels flashed scarlet, wildly-spinning spools hurled magnetic tape across the room.  The President of Earth vanished in a blinding flare of photons.

"Let there be fright!" cried Doctor Chaotica, fading from the screens to the accompaniment of insane laughter.

"Mr. President!" shouted Proton.  "I mean...the Great Calculator!"


"Never mind the karaoke!" said Proton.  "Are you damaged?  State your function!"


"Ohhhhhhhhh shit!"

(Can Proton defeat a deranged digital deity?  Will this tale end in a deus ex machina?  Don't miss our next exciting adventure: I.T. Conquered The World!)


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