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The Kroxetime swept into the system in great, black, knife-shaped ships, shielded from the ravening purple rays of the defending people of Unicorp 7 by their negative-energy buckeyfields. In less than a standard anx, the Unicorp System (named for its primary sponsor) had been reduced to its pre-terraformed state by armies of nanomachinery.
Xan sat in front of the bank of monitors, watching his world being systematically destroyed. His great, hard-knuckled hands wrung each other with barely-repressed violence. Every hair on his head bristled straight up as he watched the images of destruction on the screen.
"Kala!" he bellowed. The door to the meatroom slid up into the ceiling. Kala scuttled into the ready room, cotton-clad rump first, just in time to see Unicorp 8, next planet out, turned into a bilious pink-and-purple striated gas midget.
"Yes, Xan," Kala quavered, shrinking back in fear from the image trapped in the center of each flickering screen. Or perhaps from the watcher of those screens. Xan's eyes flickered in time to the screens. His furry eyebrows went up much further than usual, nearly becoming buried in the deep furrows of his brow.
"Take a memo," growled Xan. From somewhere deep in the recesses of her shapeless, tattered housecoat, Kala produced a pencil bearing the name of a long-defeated political candidate, and a pad of paper blazoned with the smiling likeness of his opponent.
Xan leaned back and swung around in the black leather swivel chair that served him as a command throne.
Kala dropped the pencil, pointing to the screens behind Xan. Almost too dumbfounded by Kala's disobedience to take note of her outstretched finger, Xan failed to turn around in time to see the swelling purple blot leak through the screens around Unicorp 7 and burn out Kala's eyeballs. As it was, Xan's hair was singed even closer to his bullet-shaped head, and both of his rather prominent ears gained a pronounced reddish tinge. Was that a hint of smoke trailing up from beneath Xan's massive studded metal collar?
Xan smashed one gauntleted fist down on a nearby console. A cold cup of once-molten java jittered, but did not fall to the steel-grated floor. A mercy to the poor officials stationed on the floors beneath Xan, who had had to get used to an endless rain of small objects--paperclips, spent cartridges, gobbets of green alien slime--filtering through the mesh.
Xan smashed down again on the same console. Green lights sparked, turned amber, then red. The cup of java fell, shattered, sent fragments hurtling through the floor. The clerk immediately below had other things to worry about. He had been looking at his screens when the first wave had hit. He was doing as badly as Kala, above, still crawling around on the mesh groping for her pad and pencil.
"Kala! Forget about that! Get me another cup of java!" Kala, still bent over feeling for her lost effects, raced out of the room just before the next boldly outlined, brightly-colored panel came swishing through the meatroom and snatched her up into oblivion.
Xan reached for the still-cold java.
Still nothing. Outrage. Never had Xan needed to shout more than twice. Still...
A long-drawn out howl of incomprehension.
Now where was Xan going to get some coffee?
Things had gotten tough. It was getting impossible to find living help. Time to call in the pros.
Xan flipped the communicator out of its cradle and switched it on, pressing a pair of buttons.
"Supertemps," a bright mechanical device voice informed Xan. "All our operators are busy right now. If you'd like service information, press <one>. If you want one of our catalogs, press <two>. If you'd like to talk to one of our recruitment coordinators, please press <three>..."
Eventually the voice came down to "...if your planet is about to be destroyed by a ravening horde of faceless aliens from beyond the limits of inhabited space, please press <ninety-one>."
Xan pressed. The scintillating graphic on Xan's single still-functioning screen was replaced by a low-resolution headshot. Imaged lips began moving abruptly as the Supertemps stellar-area network node searched its database.
"Greetings, Xan Thal of Bube Ibe Ibe Naub Druve, Kis Abgekes, Cakufirbua! How can Supertemps be of Xan Thal's assistance this time period, madam or sir?"
"I need a superhero. My planet's about to be destroyed by the Kroxetime Armada."
"Got just the thing. Let Supertemps help you help yourself!" chirped the screen image, after a blank-eyed moment scouring its megillabyte flash memory. The sales rep image bifurcated, spun, reversed colors, diagonal-wiped and finally stabilized, becoming a small box in the upper left-hand corner, the rest of the screen taken up with the broad-biceped massive- shouldered and square-headed upper body of Strongman, defender of the new world order and superhero-for-hire.
"Hi," oozed the speaker in buttery basso profundo. "I'm Strongman, your superhero from Supertemps. Let me tell you a little about myself.
"I was born with the explosions of the dying twin suns Kesterath and Hominni--"
Xan banished the sound with an anguished bawl. "Fine! Send him out! Now!"
"Standard superhero contract, sir or madam?"
"Yes, yes, YES! Give it here. I'll thumb for it." Xan mashed his thumb against the screen, leaving the image of its whorls hanging inside the box Supertemps had painted on the screen for that purpose. The graphic of the smiling receptionist reached up and peeled the print image off the glass, stowing it in a virtual drawer of her expertly-rendered desk.
"Thank you, Mr. Thal. Your superhero from Supertemps! will be there right away, thanks to our unique new and improved superluminal delivery system. Remember, only Supertemps gets superluminal!"
And indeed, there was a thunderous yet somehow still courtly and polite banging on the front hatch of Xan's beleaguered abode.
The Supertemps AI was not equipped to deal with such near-verbal eruptions.
"I beg your pardon, madam or sir?"
"Uhn... nothing. Thanks. Bye."
Xan switched the communicator off and got up to answer the door.
The door <zip>ped up into the wall, revealing the gold-lamé boots and blue-clad shins of Strongman, A huge paw reached down, proffering a blue Supertemps pen and a sheet of plass with a delivery receipt displayed on it.
"I need yer initials, Mr. Thal. Thirty-seven fifty an hour, plus time and a half for every hour over eight. But it won't take that long." Strongman's grin was even and white. His cape billowed in the wind that had just sprung up for that purpose.
Xan reached out and signed without looking. With a hop skip and one-footed leap, Strongman arrowed out towards Unicorp 7's tiny moon, around which the sinister knifeships of the Kroxetime Armada sped like a flock of glistening midnight hawks. Inside each narrow ship hurtling through vacuum lurked the golden-skinned, three-clawed Kisterei. Each Kisterei had one gleaming yellow claw poised above the button which would fire its ship's deadly martharay. Fleet and man drew closer, their vectors intersecting less than twenty commercial breaks in the future.
The Kisterei. Once these dignified, slow-moving creatures with their single great ruby-red eye in the center of their tubular faces had been admired throughout the galaxy for the wisdom and simplicity of their lives. But that was before the planet had been acquired and developed by the Kroxetime Reality Corporation.
Soon, the Kisterei gave up their simple lifestyle, instead seeming to prefer the blinking, flashing trade goods sold inside the glittering Kroxetime Kenters springing up on every heretofore placid Kisterein streetcorner.
Now the Kisterei piloted Kroxetime Krusaders, indentured servants to their offworld masters, just to earn enough credit to purchase yet another Kroxetime Korp. Kidtempo game.
The Unicorp system was just a pawn in the biggest of games, endemic to Kroxetime and its opponents alike: the endless pursuit of unitary market share. The Galaxy was obsessed with this particular game. The Imperium had collapsed over it, and the Second Interregnum had already been three times as long as the First. There were still novae raging in the Galactic center, and black holes littered the starlanes, entrapping unwary passengers and freight crews within their ever-ravenous Schwarzchild radii. Unicorp had just recently, in fact, due to a massive leveraged buyout, become the last of Unco(Inc.)'s subsidiaries to fall under great rival Kroxetime's legal sway. Xan had been a grateful cog and fairly highly-placed in that growling machine, doing his loyal best to expand the company's purview into this system's Oort Cloud and beyond. He had hiring privileges, at least to the extent of contracting with temporary personnel.
That Strongman's intent in this system was to deprive Kroxetime of its lawful interest in the erstwhile Unicorp system (hence rechristened Kroxetime Kosmos Number Ninety-Six) was undeniable. But Strongman wasn't being paid to think over the legal ramifications of his acts. In fact, Section Three, Clause Thirty-Eight of the standard contract Xan Thal had thumbed for specifically absolved Strongman, Supertemps or any of its parent (including, if you looked far enough back, Kroxetime) or subsidiary (for instance, if you followed closely enough through interlocking directorates, Unicorp) companies of any responsibility for any actions or consequences of Strongman's presence in the system.
So Strongman's conscience was clear as he climbed through the stratosphere, zooming upwards on his tiny, powerful boot rockets to do battle with the Kroxetime Armada.
The golden Kisterei twittered in consternation as their ranging devices picked up Unicorp 7's lone defender speeding up to meet their main swarm.
Strongman swooped and swerved through the Kroxetime flotilla unopposed, arms folded, golden cape billowing in defiance to the solar wind.
Behind him, the ships closest to Strongman's point of passage began to waver and disappear, soundlessly and without fanfare. The farflung tips of the Armada began curving back around their suddenly-empty center, ranging the Kroxetime Kompany's most powerful armamentarium directly into the center of a contracting sphere, entrapping Strongman within.
Ravening beams of purple force speared out from half a thousand black ships, annihilating the center of the hollow sphere where Strongman had been floating just seconds before. Of course, Strongman wasn't there any more. Unobstructed, each pencil-thin beam traveled on to the other side of the sphere, where as often as not it intersected the gleaming, serrated side of another of the Kroxetimers. Silent explosions of azure and magenta light, sickeningly bright, marked where the Kroxetime Armada had destroyed a third of its own strength.
A subliminal wail of desolation and loss built up on the subspace channel radios narrowcasting through the remnants of the fleet. The Kisterei keened, mourning the loss of their loved ones (for the Kisterei took whole clans on board neighboring Kroxetime ships despite strict rulings against it, fought and played together and, often, died together).
Xan didn't care about that, though. He hooted with unrestrained laughter as the one dimly-streaked screen he had left flickered and strained to match the pyrotechnics Strongman had ignited. Unicorp 7 was unharmed! Kroxetime Korporation's Kosmos Number Ninety-Six would not exist!
But the Armada was still coming. Kala was still nowhere to be found. And his java was still cold.
Xan found the communicator where he had thrown it behind the nonfunctioning main screen when Strongman had knocked on the door. The scene on Xan's monitor, showing Strongman seconds away from transmuting the rest of the Kroxetime Armada into scrap tin. Xan flipped the communicator open, switched it on and bellowed on the all- system channel,
"Strongman! Get in here!"
Strongman looked over his shoulder suddenly, distracted by Xan's peremptory bark.
"Eh?" he grunted, taking a Kroxetime missile in the side and almost losing his balance. His cape glowed redly for a time, absorbing the radioactivity from the missile's warhead and storing it to destroy the next five incoming with precisely-aimed bursts of gamma-ray laser.
By this time Strongman was otherwise occupied, kicked back on a convenient asteroid with a plasticback propped up in front of him.
"It's, like, my break, man. Got ten minutes every two hours on you, says the contract."
Strongman batted away a few more Kroxetime missiles before the Armada, its commanders realizing Strongman's immobility for the crucial next few minutes, renewed its attack on a helpless and prostrate Unicorp 7, destroying it utterly before returning to the Kisterein homeworld for a brief rest and some Koak Klassik.
Xan's last few words, screams, really, aren't reproducible in any known audio format, and so therefore must be left to the imagination.
Strongman got up fifteen minutes later, stretched, and stored the plasticback carefully away in one of the copious fourth-dimensional pockets of his cape. He looked around, bewildered, at the cindered remnants of what had been Unicorp 7. Not a Kroxetimer or a Unicorpse in sight.
Strongman wailed on all frequencies, gamma-high through infrared-low, "Can anybody around here sign my time?"
* * *
DON'T MISS OUR EXCITING NEXT EPISODE:
Strongman Vs. the Intellicrats
Installment 48: Into the Ironosphere
Original content on this page © Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document last updated December 6, 1997.