This story first appeared in Issue 15 of the SIG! Fanzine, Spring, 1986, published by David W Nightingale, in UK. Text and pictures taken from the fanzine. Story by Mike Reccia and drawings by Steve Kyte.
This story is posted without the author's or the artist's permission - with due acknowledgment - hoping to attract their attention. If you wish it to be removed, please contact the webmaster without any delay.
Fireball XL5 bucked like an Astrodonkey in a space rodeo. Colonel Steve Zodiac had tangled with some meteor storms in his time, but this one took the Martian Delight.
“Everyone all right back there?" he yelled into the intercom, keeping his eyes on the threshing Ferris wheel of light and sound that enveloped the ship.
"A bit dizzy, Steve." Venus made a conscious effort to steady her breathing and pulled the restraining strap on her couch a little tighter. "But I'm sure I'll live."
"How about you, Matt?"
"W-well, uh, Steve - can't say it's the best ride I've ever had, but I guess I'm O.K."
Steve chuckled to himself. Professor Matic, like certain delicacies from Grannitoga, the food planet, did not travel well.
A whirling dervish of white hot rock lunged towards the patrol ship. Fireball responded with reassuring accuracy to Steve's violent tug at the controls, and the massive meteor screamed harmlessly past, searing the cabin windows with its volcanic breath.
“Phew!" Steve muttered, "that was close!"
"Hey-y-y! W-what goes on??!" the console shrieked.
"Sorry, Matt. Couldn't be helped."
Space was becoming space again. With relief Steve noted that he could once again see stars through the fast disappearing mist that was an epilogue to the storm's fury. "Anyhow," he added, "looks like we're through. Set new course Five-Three Zero Blue, Robert."
Steve waited for the customary confirmation from the robot. None came. "I said set..." Steve shot a glance to his co-pilot and was greeted by an empty chair. That last jolt had been of sufficient violence to catapult the robot out of his seat. Robert lay on his back at the rear of the cabin helplessly clawing empty air like an overturned crab.
Steve sighed, casting one last cautious glance through the nose windows. He unbuckled his seat belt (a luxury the robot didn't have), stood up and crossed to the struggling heap that was Robert.
"Come on, Rob..." Steve crouched to help the unfortunate machine to its feet and was greeted by a swirl of green sparks that danced and crackled within Robert's transparent torso.
"Robert, are you all ri..."
"I can manage perfectly well, intruder!" snapped a voice.
Steve froze. "Robert...?"
"Who’s Robert?" The robot clawed its way up a bulkhead into a swaying, upright position. The voice was high-pitched, perfectly intonated and very angry. "For that matter," it continued, the eye indicators flashing to place synchronised menace on every word, "who are you, intruder, and why have you invaded my ship?"
"YOUR ship?" exploded Steve, momentarily taken aback by the lack of the familiar monotonous drone, "now look here..."
At that moment the cabin doors swung upwards to reveal Venus who, despite recent events, still looked pretty, and Matt who, because of them, still looked pretty green.
"So," Robert hissed, "accomplices! Do come in... Join the party!" He motioned daintily with the pincer claw that was his right hand.
"Rawbert???" Matt’s eyes opened wide, his thick pebble glasses magnifying them to epic proportions.
"Great space!" spat Robert, a faint wisp of smoke wafting upwards from the tip of his antenna, "if someone else calls me Robert I'll scream. I..." he placed Royal emphasis on the word, "am the Captain of this ship and YOU," he sneered, "you – pirate – have some explaining to do!"
"Steve," said Venus softly, "what's happened to him?"
"Him!" squeaked the robot, "HIM!" it coughed, "who's 'him'...the granatoid's father?"
Steve shrugged to his companions, ignoring this last outburst. "He fell out of his chair. Must have damaged his valves or something. Any ideas, Professor?"
"Uh, w-well, could be double capstan rollback affecting the tweezer effect of interfacing personality vectors."
"Quite," said Steve flatly, "but can you DO anything about it?"
"I'd have to take a closer look."
"Will you kindly stop talking about me as though I'm not here?" Another wisp of smoke. "You're in enough trouble as it is; and all this noise isn't helping my headache one bit." There was a dull 'clack' as Robert drew a pincher across his brow.
"Headache you say," said Matt, eagerly. "Just as I thought," he mumbled to himself; then, to Robert, "Maybe I can fix that – er, Captain."
"I can try," Matt replied, advancing on the robot and pulling a customised screwdriver from a trouser pocket as he did so. Robert feigned stillness until the Professor was within striking distance. Suddenly one arm shot out and clamped around Matt's throat as the other simultaneously whipped the Professor's stun gun from its holster and dug the business end into his temple.
"Now," said Robert in his most menacing tones yet, "I want to know who you are, where you come from, and WHY you are aboard my ship. You have twenty seconds to answer."
"Robert," Steve pleaded, "don’t you recognise us? Great space, the Professor here MADE you!"
"Fifteen seconds." Robert's eyes flashed madly.
Steve's mind raced. He glanced at Venus. "O.K.," he said slowly, "I can see we're going to have to tell you the truth." He took a small step forward and the robot's half-pincher closed on the trigger. Steve took an equal step backwards. "You see," he began, "the truth is... we’re slaves! Just carrying out orders. Under, uh, threat of death."
"Then WHO is your master?"
"Oh, he's aboard. In... Central Control."
"Call him," said Robert drily. "Bring him here."
"I was hoping you’d say that," muttered Steve under his breath. "Venus, you’d better get Commander Zoonie up here – fast."
Realisation replaced the puzzled look that flashed across the blonde's features. Venus fingered the intercom.
"Commander – Zoonie – would you come up here, please? Commander Zoonie – up – to – Fireball Junior – please."
There was a distant snuffling noise, the sound of doors swinging open, then silence.
"He's on his way," Venus said to Robert adding, to herself, "I hope..."
Five long minutes passed.
Sweat poured from Matt’s forehead and anger from the robot's whole being in equal quantities. "Where is he?" he bellowed, again increasing the pressure on the pistol trigger.
Pouring as much awe into his voice as he could summon up, Steve made a curious bowing gesture. "The Commander NEVER hurries," he said. At that moment something snuffled and clawed at the cabin doors. "Ah," said Steve cheerily, "this will be him now." He turned and made for the door controls.
"Where are you going?" snapped Robert.
"The Commander NEVER opens doors!" said Steve, repeating the half-bow.
"Very well," snarled Robert, "let this – Commander – of yours in."
Steve pressed the door stud and in lurched Venus' pet Lazoon, all wide-eyed dimness and affectionate gurgles.
"So-o," said Robert in the voice of a maniac, "YOU are the one behind this assault on my ship! Tell me quickly – which planet do you hail from?"
Zoonie blinked. "I said QUICKLY," spat Robert, "or your slave dies!"
Venus held her breath. Steve prayed. Zoonie said, "Welcome home."
"Can't say I've heard of that one," said Robert. "Must be in the Pirate Sector. Sector 27... is that correct?"
"How-dee, folks," snorted Zoonie.
I don’t know that region, either," said Robert. "No matter. Now, quickly, what is your purpose in infiltrating my ship?"
"Full power," said Zoonie.
"So, you realise the potential of this vessel, eh?" shrieked Robert in a voice worthy of the most over-the-top villain ever to grace a Victorian Videodrama.
"Welcome home. Full power. How-dee, folks."
"You're SURE this is your leader?" snapped Robert to Steve.
"Don't you see the wisdom of the Commander's words?" the Colonel said, half-bowing as he said 'The Commander‘.
"How - dee - home. Welcome, folks," shrilled Zoonie.
"Such depth of understanding. Such subtle ambiguities. Such foresight," said Steve.
"And so true," added Venus.
"Arf-arf-arf, how-dee power," said Zoonie.
A wisp of steam curled from Robert. "I – don’t get your drift," he said slowly.
"How-dee, how-dee, how-dee," sing-songed Zoonie.
"That does not make sense." Another wisp. Then a small stream. With uncanny accuracy, Zoonie produced the mating call of the two-toed tap-dancing Talent Bird of planet Grossinda. The small stream became a jet. Robert shuddered.
"Whoosh-h-h!" went Zoonie in appreciation.
"What - in - Space - are - you - talking - about?" The robot collapsed in a useless heap and Matt let out the biggest sigh of relief he had ever awarded himself.
"Well-lll!" he said at length, looking down at the sorry bundle that was his robot. "Guess I'd better deactivate him completely before he causes any more problems."
Venus' coffee cures all ills. Steve Zodiac poured himself another cupful. "So you've found the problem, Matt?"
"Yeah, Steve, double capstan rollback just like I said. A coupla days in the workshop when we get back to Earth and he'll be as good as new."
"Glad to hear it, Professor... and am I glad I gambled on Zoonie. He always could put Robert in a spin," Steve chuckled. "One thing puzzles me, Matt. How come you've never been able to endow Robert with that kind of intelligence yourself?"
"Can you imagine the trouble we'd have got into if I had?"
That sounded like a cop-out to Steve. Truth was the chance fusing of Robert's melted bits and pieces caused by the fall could almost certainly be reproduced under laboratory conditions.
"Space City to XL5..." It was Ninety’s voice. "XL5, come in, please."
"XL5 here," said Venus.
"XL5, what in Space has been going on up there?" This was from Commander Zero.
"Welcome home," said Zoonie, half-rousing himself from his position of blissful slumber on Venus' lap. He LIKED Commander Zero.
"It's a long story, Commander."
"It always is, Zodiac," the intercom sighed, "O.K., let me have it."
"Arf, arf, arf," said Zoonie.
Steve's eyes twinkled. "Sorry, Commander... I don’t have the rank!"
"Don't have the rank?! Great leaping Space Trifles, Zodiac, what on earth are you talking..."
"Calm down, Commander," said Steve as Zoonie waddled over to the 'mike', "I’m putting the person in charge of our last mission on right now."
"What-tt?" spluttered Zero.
"Call me back when you have all the facts," said Steve, lazily eyeing the percolator, "... I'm handing you over to Commander Zoonie!"