by Dan Swanson, partially adapted from “The Menace of the Machine Men,” Superman #57, by Edmond Hamilton and Wayne Boring
“Look! Up in the sky!” a fearful shout went out on the streets of Nurchil City, the capital city of Aigan-Nica, the largest country on the planet Uuz. Everyone in earshot looked up and saw a glowing streak of red and yellow fire in the daytime sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke and a sonic boom. “It must be a meteor. I hope it burns out before it lands.”
Those citizens who were superstitious muttered a quick good luck charm. Unlike on Earth, a meteor sighting on Uuz was considered very bad luck, and this one would prove no exception. The thin atmosphere of the very small planet didn’t offer much protection from meteors, and most of them caused great damage. Fortunately, even here in the densest portion of the Oort cloud almost a light year from Sol, the Earth’s sun, meteor encounters were much rarer than they were on Earth. The city’s citizens breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the alarms quieted as the object whizzed over the city and continued to the southwest.
“Loria, take your field crew and the Flying Studio and find out where that thing landed,” ordered Potophink Wilfur, the news director of Orbital Broadcasting Network, one of the largest televisor networks in Aigan-Nica. “I want you on the air with a report before any of the other stations.”
“I’m on it, Chief!” shot back Loria Rode Lamm, his star newscaster, racing from his office. She met the crew in the rooftop hanger of the OBN building, and the Flying Studio was in the air within minutes.
One of the newest crew members, a female intern on a work study program from Nurchil’s biggest J-school, hesitantly approached her. “Mrs. Lamm, do you think we’ll see Regor? If we do, can you introduce me?”
At the mention of the name of the mighty protector of Uuz, Loria smiled. She remembered the awe she’d felt the first time she’d seen the powerfully built blonde hero over twenty-five Earth years ago, so handsome and imposing in his red uniform with green gloves, belt, shorts, chest emblem, and cape. “Please call me Loria, Jevvy. I’m sure Regor will be there as soon as he can. When the danger’s passed, I’ll be glad to introduce you.” She had eventually gotten over her own awestruck star worship; after all, she’d been married to Regor, in his other identity of Winki Lamm, for almost fifteen years now. “But I just saw him on the news stopping an avalanche in Sharnia.” This was a neighboring country. “So we’ll probably get there before he does.”
A few minutes later, Loria began a live broadcast, and the camera zoomed in on her tense face. “This is Loria Lamm of Orbital Telenews live, reporting on the mysterious object that recently passed over Nurchil City.” Her voice was strained, and she sounded panicky. “From our Flying Studio, we were able to locate the site where the unidentified object crashed to the ground in the densely wooded Kevan Forest Preserve, just outside of the small city of Quond.”
Twenty years ago, there had been very little vegetation left on Uuz. The planet was gradually growing colder and colder as its molten core cooled, and soon (in geological terms) Uuz would have been uninhabitable. But Superman of Earth, visiting Uuz on a mission to help Regor reestablish his heroic career, had built an artificial sun for the tiny planet before leaving. Now vegetation was almost overwhelming the planet, and the Uuzians struggled to keep it contained in designated locations such as the Kevan Forest Preserve.
The scene shifted to a shot of a cloud of white steam and smoke rising from a thickly wooded forest taken from overhead. “When we landed, we found–” she began as the scene shifted again, “–a giant rocket.” Loria’s voice dropped to a whisper. “There’s a door in the side — it’s opening now.”
The audience could see a long tube, much taller than the trees around it, pointed at the top and standing on three fins. Steam and smoke rose from the charred ground around the base of the rocket. A panel in the side slid upward, and a ramp extended from the side of the rocket over the charred ground. Just as the camera picked up movement within the vessel, a bright orange ray of some kind flashed out. The scene then tumbled as if the camera had been dropped. When the picture steadied again, the audience could hear Loria cursing.
“Frozen hells of Uuz!” she gasped in terror. “Giant machine men!”
Several vaguely humanoid metallic things climbed from the giant rocket. They were taller than the tallest trees around them, with cylindrical metal bodies, long and spindly metallic arms and legs, and two-pronged claws for hands. Their heads were spherical, the top half some kind of glittering crystal and the bottom half metallic. Eerily, they seemed to make no noise other than the crashing and tearing sounds caused by their tearing up the nearby trees and trampling the thick underbrush.
“They’re heading towards Quond and destroying everything in their path!” she cried. Rays of orange energy blasted from the crystals on the monsters’ heads, disintegrating everything in their paths. “Somebody has to get a signal to Regor!” The scene shifted again, showing Loria and her crew scrambling into the Flying Studio. “We’ll follow them and keep broadcasting,” she said. “By all the gods of Uuz — people of Quond, get to your meteor shelters!”
The scene shifted again, showing the monstrous machine men burning a path through the woodlands as Loria kept up a running commentary.
In the nearby city, the mayor of Quond declared a state of emergency, and throughout the town disaster alarms sounded. The years of scheduled meteor disaster drills paid off as all the citizens rushed to their designated public storm shelters. By the time the edge of town could be seen in Loria’s televisor broadcast, the entire population was safely hidden in the deeply buried meteor shelters.
In a small hyperflier racing toward Aigan-Nica at emergency top speed, the Uuzian super-hero known as Regor smiled grimly as an artificial gem on his signet ring began flashing. He touched the gem, and a three-dimensional representation of Prime Minister Huond of Aigan-Nica — a handsome woman with iron-gray hair — appeared in the air, seemingly standing on his control panel. Lines of worry distorted her strong features. “I’m on my way!” he promised her in a calm, powerful voice.
A televisor on the hyperflier’s control board was tuned to Loria’s broadcast, and it showed the monsters swarming into the now-deserted town of Quond like a swarm of locusts. “The strength of these mechanical giants is awesome! Can even Regor match their power?” Loria was asking fearfully as they tossed vehicles around like toys. “They seem to be hunting for something!”
Indeed, they were tearing open buildings, bending down, and inspecting the ruins closely. Eventually, they all clustered around a single location. Loria recognized the sign. “Why, that’s one of the potassium distribution facilities! They’re looking for potassium! There must be a shortage of potassium on their planet, too, and they’ve come to Uuz to take ours!”
In humans, a lack of potassium led to a breakdown of mental processes. The element was very rare on Uuz, although scientists predicted that potassium would exist in abundance on planets closer to the sun. Long ago, a specialized government-controlled industry had grown up around potassium. All organic waste was gathered by the potassium collection unions and delivered to a central processing location, where the potassium was recovered and purified, then shipped in carefully controlled quantities to the distribution centers in each city and town. Government control of the potassium trade was strict and tightly regulated. If these aliens stole a significant amount of Aigan-Nica’s potassium supply, it wouldn’t be long before most of the people in the nation became ill. Shortly afterward, the nation would fall to some other. It was a classic example of Uuzian military history. Nations that lost control of their potassium supply were always easily conquered by their neighbors.
“Now some of the robots are returning to their spaceship, while the others are continuing to ravage Quond, looking for the other potassium distribution stations,” she continued. “I urge the residents of Quond to remain safely in their shelters until the last invaders have left!” The camera followed a couple of robots back into the forest, and then the picture cut off in a burst of static.
There’s something fishy about this whole thing, Regor thought to himself. Loria’s broadcast is showing these giants wrecking downtown Quond, but the signal is still coming from the Kevan Preserve. Aiming the flier’s long-distance camera at the forest, he quickly located the Flying Studio, which was still grounded in the forest. As he reached the landing site, he quickly set the hyperflier’s autopilot to circle the area and then ejected. Blasting the compressed air jets on his belt at top speed, he raced to the ground and was stunned to see that Loria and her cameraman were taking pictures of a miniature city that was being ransacked by tiny toy robots.
“Cold star swarms above! Are you crazy, Loria?” Regor yelled at his wife. “The whole country is panicking because of this hoax of yours!”
“Perhaps I can explain,” came a suave voice. A tall, solidly built red-haired man stepped out from behind a tree. “I’ve captured Miss Rode’s broadcasting team, and I’ve told her they will die unless she broadcasts exactly as I’ve instructed her.”
“Bantor! I should have known you’d be behind this!” Regor of Uuz exclaimed angrily at his long-time arch nemesis. Bantor had long coveted Loria and refused to acknowledge her marriage to Winki Lamm by calling her by her maiden name.
“Yes, only I have the scientific genius to launch a fake meteor across the sky, to build such a convincing mockup of a space ship, and such realistic toy robots,” the criminal mastermind laughed.
“I’m sorry, Regor!” Loria sobbed. “Bantor had a trap set for us when we came to look for the meteor. He captured us and made me show this whole thing.” As she spoke, Loria’s crew stepped out of the woods, followed by a half-dozen armed men pointing guns at them.
“But why toys?” Regor was puzzled. “Surely a man of your evil genius could build real robots.”
“Your accursed vigilance continues to interfere with my plans,” Bantor snarled. “Robots require rare and valuable materials. If I gathered everything required to create dozens of giant robots, surely you’d notice. So I’ve developed a foolproof plan that only requires one giant mechanical alien. And your assistance, of course.” He bowed mockingly as he spoke, laughing as a giant robot, identical to the toys except for its size, stepped out of the woods. A door opened on its chest, and a man climbed out. “You’re going to fight my robot and lose, and Miss Rode is going to broadcast the whole thing!” He brayed his amusement by laughing maniacally: “Bwa-ha-ha-haa!”
“You’re out of your mind, Bantor!” Regor barked at his foe.
“You think so, hero? Vanch, blast one of them!” Bantor ordered loudly. Before Regor could move, one of the henchmen fired, and a crew member screamed and collapsed as an ice bullet tore through his leg. Jevvy the intern screamed as well and bent over the man, trying to staunch his wound. “Bwa-ha-ha-haa!” Bantor laughed again at the unfortunate man as he writhed on the ground in pain. “Keep screaming, fool — it will only make the next broadcast more realistic!” He turned back to Regor.
“Don’t mock me again, Regor. The next shot won’t hit a leg,” the criminal mastermind threatened with a sneer, then climbed into the robot suit. “You’d better make it look like a damn good fight, but you’d also better lose, or else the rest of them will lose their lives!”
All across Aigan-Nica, televisors tuned to OBN suddenly came back to life. “We’re back at the monsters’ rocket, and Regor’s just arrived. He’ll show these aliens!” Loria was yelling hopefully as Regor landed near the rocket in front of a single giant robot.
Regor leaped forward and smashed into the robot like a runaway meteor, but it barely moved. He swung a mighty punch at its head, but the monster caught his arm and spun, then threw him away. The hero knocked down several trees, then slowly climbed to his feet and charged again. They traded punches, but the giant mechanical alien was hardly affected, while Regor was continually rocked backward. Finally, staggering around in a daze, he dropped his guard, and the robot slammed home an immensely powerful punch that lifted Regor high into the air. He flopped bonelessly as he helplessly shot backward, then smashed to the ground, motionless. The audience saw the giant robot pick up Regor’s seemingly lifeless body and toss him into the rocket, followed by Loria and the rest of the video crew. The giant then turned to the camera and spoke in stilted Uuzenese that improved the longer it talked.
“We have defeated… your greatest hero. You are… helpless against us. I will send an… emissary to your capital city and you will give us all your… potassium, or we will destroy the rest of your world as we have destroyed this town! You have one hour.” The screen blanked.
The inside of the phony rocket ship was a virtually featureless cylinder, except for a televisor set with a very large screen. A camera inside the robot body showed Bantor’s twisted face as he mocked his captors. “I realize you can break out of this shell, Regor. Please listen to me before you do so. Your companions’ lives depend on it.”
There was a bright flash of light, and suddenly the hull was transparent — to Regor, at least. “I just vaporized a coat of paint over the glass hull so you can see through it, though of course your companions cannot.” The eyes of native Uuzians perceived a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum than human eyes and were unable to see through common glass, which was a very common building material on the small planet. “Unless,” he said, “they have polarized glasses, such as those I provide my men. Unfortunate for them that I didn’t leave any aboard. Please note the very thin wires embedded into the hull. If any of these wires are broken, a powerful bomb on the outside of the hull will explode. You might survive, but Miss Rode and her friends will not be so lucky.”
Regor could see the network of wires criss-crossing the hull like the lines on a sheet of giant graph paper. There was no way he could put even a fist-sized hole through the hull without breaking at least a dozen of the delicate wires.
“Vanch, arm the bomb,” commanded Bantor. His henchman was standing near a complex device about ten feet from the ship. The wires covering the hull twisted together into a pair of cables that connected to the machine. He ceremonially threw a large knife-style switch, and a Regor saw a digital display start counting down.
“Don’t worry, hero,” continued Bantor. “I don’t want to kill you or your friends — just humiliate you. When the countdown reaches zero, twelve hours from now, power to the bomb will disconnect, and you will be free. By that time, we will have collected all the potassium in Nurchil City and be hidden where you will never find us. Bwa-ha-ha-haa!” An amplifier in the robot suit made his laugh painfully loud, even inside the rocket-shaped shell. “But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have enough potassium — for a price! Bwa-ha-ha-haa!”
In Nurchil City, Prime Minister Huond was banging a gavel on a table in a large meeting room, trying to bring order to a chaotic meeting of representatives of both the national government of Aigan-Nica and the Nurchil City government. People outside were banging on the door, demanding that all available potassium be turned over to the aliens immediately so they would go away and not harm anyone. The mayor of Nurchil City was demanding immediate assistance in evacuating the city, while the military was advocating an instant attack on the advancing alien emissary and an atomic strike on the alien’s grounded rocket. Emissaries of other governments were promising military assistance, but none of them volunteered their own potassium supplies. Huond’s own advisors were trying to drag her out of the room so they could get her to the airport, where the Aigan-Nican version of Air Force One was fueled and waiting. No one paid any attention to her in the din and hubbub.
Until, that was, she pulled her pistol and shot out one of the windows. The room was instantly silent. Before the chatter could begin again, Huond’s commanding voice rang out. “Major Irwyk! You and your team please direct our guests to their seats at the table and ensure that they remain silent until the meeting has been called to order.” A large man in the dark blue uniform of the prime minister’s personal security team gave a series of sharp orders, and in a few minutes, everyone was either quietly seated at the very large table or had been escorted from the room.
Prime Minister Huond spoke forcefully for several minutes. There was very little discussion. She had a plan and had seemingly covered every detail. Quickly and with almost no dissent, the various government representatives dispersed to execute the details. Irwyk and most of his detail headed for the potassium processing facility, the minister of the military started giving orders to set up a line of defense at the city’s edge in case anything went wrong with the exchange, and the mayor of Nurchil City was arranging the evacuation. The offers from the foreign governments had been put on hold.
The OBN feed was once again back on the air. A shaky female voice viewers had never heard before was providing commentary as the camera shot showed the robot approaching the outskirts of Nurchil City. Armored vehicles and armed men lined the road the robot was following but were under strict orders not to fire. There seemed to be little hope that military weapons would succeed when Regor had failed. Civilians streamed out of the city in vehicles and on foot. Sharnia and Morrica, neighboring countries, had put their nuclear defenses on high alert.
“This is Jevvy Valas reporting in place of Loria Lamm,” said the female intern. “After defeating our mighty hero, Regor — beating him viciously and perhaps battering him to death — the alien robots are forcing me to continue this broadcast. A single giant mechanical monster is approaching the outskirts of Nurchil City to collect the entire country’s supply of potassium. If the potassium is not delivered, the aliens will destroy the city. If the potassium is delivered, our country may fall to an enemy invasion. But with our most powerful defender defeated so easily by just a single alien, what other choice do we have?”
Bantor brought his robot to a standstill and stood patiently, seemingly uncaring that hundreds of a nation’s most powerful weapons were pointed at him. Even though he was an enemy, Jevvy had to admire the conviction he had in his plan and his deception. A security squad delivered a sealed container to the giant mechanical man. Bantor caused the robot to pick it up, open it, and look inside. Sensitive instruments measured the exact dimensions of the container, the volume of the precious potassium it contained, and the total weight. Calculations showed that the weight and volume of the precious metal matched to very close tolerances the amount that Bantor had estimated to be on hand. It appeared that he had what he wanted.
“You have done well, humans!” the robot congratulated its foes in a loud, stilted voice. “You shall be spared.” Then it turned and walked away.
Not far away, Bantor’s men prepped a concealed hyperflier for immediate launch. After switching off the external sound system, Bantor roared in laughter. “Bwa-ha-ha-haa! I love it when a plan comes together. Very soon now, I’ll be the most powerful man in Aigan-Nica. After that, the world is mine! Bwa-ha-ha-haa!”