“They say you can never go home again.” Bartholomew Quasar leaned back in his deluxe-model captain’s chair as the star cruiser raced toward Earth. “But I tend to disagree.”

“Humph.” Hank, the very hairy, four-armed helmsman of the Effervescent Magnitude, seldom replied in more than a monosyllable. A cross between a large sloth and an orangutan in appearance, he sat hunched over his console in front of a massive viewscreen mounted on the fore wall. Somehow, despite the captain’s frequent interruptions, Hank managed to remain focused on the task at hand: maintaining the ship’s trajectory while dodging flurries of perilous meteorites and asteroids intent on taking the ship apart.

“How long has it been? Twenty years?” Quasar gazed into the unfathomable depths of star-punctured black. He narrowed his eyes, strumming his clean-shaven chin. “But taking into consideration our near-lightspeed travel, centuries could have passed while we were out gallivanting around the universe.”

“They did,” Hank muttered. “Two hundred thirty-four years, nine months, six weeks—”

“Please round up.” Quasar emerged from his reverie.

“Two hundred thirty-five years have passed since you exited Earth space.”

“Imagine that.” Quasar failed to blink. “Yet I don’t feel a day over thirty!”

Hank’s posterior and superior hands traveled across the display panel as if they had minds of their own, tapping in coordinates and compensating for Saturn’s gravitational pull. “There’s nothing left on that rock. Why return?”

“Home is where the heart is, Hank ol’ buddy.” Quasar rose to approach the screen with long strides, thick muscled arms folded across his taut-uniformed chest. “I’m afraid I left my heart in Earth orbit.”

“Humph,” Hank reiterated.

“Only earthborn natives can appreciate the gorgeous blue of the oceans from space, how the planet gleams like topaz from black velvet, a brilliant oasis in the void.” Quasar found himself waxing poetic, and he rather liked it. “Favored by the gods of old, lone fount of humanity in all its splendor—”

“Laid to waste centuries ago.”

Quasar glared at his hairy helmsman. But Hank was right. Earth had been abandoned in droves after the global fallout and nuclear winters. When Quasar first left the planet, as a fresh-faced space cadet during the Great Expansion, his North American continent had yet to become a smoldering ash heap. Deep space colonization was in its earliest stages back then, as other planets capable of supporting human life were discovered. Little had Earth leaders realized how crucial it would be for off-world options to be made available to the future masses.

But no matter what he found waiting for him, Captain Quasar was brimming to overflowing with nostalgia. Mere thoughts of Earth always had that effect on him. “How much longer?”

“This solar system is crowded with space debris.” As if on cue, a miniscule meteorite bumped into the port side, sheering off a section of the hull despite the electromagnetic shielding. Hank winced at the ship’s violent shudder. “We have to take it slow.”

“I know it’s a little out of our way—” Quasar conceded.

“Just half a light-year.”

“—but we’ll be sure to visit your home planet next. What’s it called again? Carpeteria?”

Hank merely growled, twin throats giving the noise an oddly harmonic quality.

#

It was another hour or so before Earth came into view—unlike anything the captain could have expected. There was so much flotsam and jetsam orbiting the planet that, despite enlarging the image on the viewscreen, Quasar could not see even a centimeter of the giant blue jewel itself amidst all the wreckage.

“Orbital junkyard,” Hank observed.

“How’d it get like this?”

Hank shrugged his superior set of shoulders. “Earth’s always been messy.”

“I beg your pardon!”

The helmsman swiveled to face his commanding officer. “Your people have dumped crap into space as long as they could ignite rockets.”

“Open a channel. I want to speak to whoever’s in charge down there.” No world president could ever have allowed such a disgrace to befall the Earth.

“Captain, there will unlikely be any sort of infrastructure to support inter-space communication.”

Quasar glared at him, and the very hairy helmsman complied.

“People of Earth, this is the Effervescent Magnitude. We will soon be entering your space. Please respond.” Nothing. The captain cleared his throat. “People of Earth, this is Captain Bartholomew Quasar.” He paused, eyes stinging with emotion as the floating debris came into sharper focus, a barrier so dense even sunlight couldn’t penetrate it. “Please answer me.”

“It’s a wasteland down there, Captain.”

Quasar was tempted to agree. But then a ray of hope pierced his heart as a flurry of static whined on the comm.

“Hello?” came an uncertain voice.

Quasar released a whoop. “Hello! You’re there! Well, of course you are. To whom am I speaking?”

More static. “Uh, Bill.”

“Bill? A pleasure to make your acquaintance! What is your designation?”

“Uh. . .”

The fellow seemed to need a little coaxing. “I am Captain Bartholomew Quasar of the Effervescent Magnitude. And you are?”

“The janitor.”

Hank pointed to the display panel where a single life sign blinked on a map of the North American continent. There were no other readings anywhere else on the globe. Quasar suffered a sudden sinking feeling.

“What do your duties entail—as janitor?”

“Waste disposal. I get rid of all the crap.”

Quasar nodded, though he did not fully understand. There was no one left down there to clean after. “And where does it go?”

“Up.”

The captain’s hands tightened into fists, one of which he pounded against the mute button. “That moron is responsible for this mess!” His eyes narrowed to slits. “But we’ve arrived just in time.” He nodded to himself. “Hank, discharge all weapons.”

“Captain?”

“You heard me. We’re going to blow that junk to smithereens. Now fire!”

Hank did as commanded. Every laser beam, plasma torpedo, and depth charge from the ship’s arsenal hurtled toward the debris to explode on impact, spreading like wildfire as incendiary plasma tends to do, dissolving the Earth’s trash shield as if it was a piece of paper set aflame, revealing the reflected glare of the sun in a violent yet glorious outburst.

“Let there be light!” Captain Quasar roared as the brilliant blue orb he remembered returned in full effect.

At the same instant, life signs appeared across Hank’s display panel, thousands upon thousands of them at all points of the globe.

“Captain?” Hank gestured.

“You see? It’s no post-apocalyptic wasteland! It’s a thing of beauty, and life is thriving down there!” Quasar almost jumped for joy. “We have liberated them!”

“Uh, hello?” Bill’s voice returned through static.

“You’re free, my man, free! You and all your friends!”

“You’ve destroyed the sun barrier.”

“Guilty as charged!” Quasar laughed. “If that’s what you called that orbiting sea of space crap!”

“You really shouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh?” Quasar swallowed his chuckles. Bill’s tone sounded just a bit on the grave side. “Why is that?”

“It was shielding us from the sun. The annihilation bots left by Emperor Zhan are solar-powered.”

Quasar frowned. Annihilation bots? Emperor Zhan? Hank pointed to the blinking life signs which weren’t really life signs at all but rather heat signatures: machines powering up.

“They were tasked with destroying the Western Conglomerate, but I come from a long line of Janitors, left behind after the Great Exodus to pack the sun-shield with fresh junk—pretty much anything I can launch into orbit. I’ve done a good job of blocking the sunlight for some time now. Until today, that is.”

“So you’re saying—”

“The whole planet’s gonna blow.”

Hank’s four hands were already flying across the nav console, plotting a new course out of Earth space. Captain Quasar’s sinking feeling began to rebound; he was about to be sick in a major way.

“There must be something we can do.”

Hank nodded. “Run.”

“We can’t let the Earth be destroyed!”

“Too late,” said Bill.

Quasar cursed. “How were we supposed to know about solar-powered annihilation bots? And who the hell is Emperor Zhan?”

“He was head of the whole Eastern Conglomerate. How long have you been away?”

“Two hundred thirty-five years,” Hank replied.

Static. “Oh.”

“We won’t leave you to die, and we won’t let those robots have their way.” Quasar’s eyes darted from the console to the viewscreen. “We’re here for a reason—to save the day!”

“Don’t you worry about me,” said Bill. “I’ve already programmed my jettison pod. But maybe you could hook onto me with a tractor beam once I’m up there?”

Quasar ended the transmission. “Take us in, Hank.” He returned to his chair and buckled up, activating the ship-wide intercom. “Attention all hands. Things are about to get a little dicey.”

Hank swiveled to face his commanding officer. “Captain?”

Quasar pointed at the viewscreen. “Enter the atmosphere. We’ve got some bots to smash.”

“With what?”

The sinking feeling returned as Quasar remembered they had already exhausted their entire weapons complement against the sun barrier. “Is the tractor beam still functional?”

Hank nodded with a puzzled look on his very hairy face.

“Take us in, then!” The Captain raised a fist.

Hank did as commanded, and the Effervescent Magnitude plowed into the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking through massive cloud banks to pass over the gutted moonscape of a continent ravaged by nuclear war. Across the crater-pocked surface, scores of giant robots a hundred meters high lumbered to and fro bearing signs of carbon scoring, evidence that they had seen serious battle. Directing high-powered, shoulder-mounted laser cannons at the ground, they scorched through the Earth’s crust, blasting it to pieces with chunks of the planet flying upward around them in all directions.

But as the star cruiser approached, the annihilation bots lost their focus on the task at hand—destroying the planet one continent at a time, by all appearances—and whirled around to face the Magnitude. A barrage of laser-fire hit the ship head-on, instantly sapping the electromagnetic shield and blasting straight through to the exposed hull.

“Captain!” Hank caterwauled over the shrieking alarms as his console and everything else on the bridge quaked and rattled, and the ship itself moaned like a whale giving birth.

“Hold course!” Quasar’s fingers danced across the console on each armrest of his chair, activating the ship’s tractor beam.

All of a sudden the alarms fell silent as two, then four, then half a dozen of the annihilation bots stopped firing and floated upward from the ground, rotating awkwardly in midair and unable to compensate for the abrupt lack of equilibrium, their central processors perplexed by the unexpected weightlessness. But their confusion didn’t last long. They reactivated the laser cannons in a matter of moments—but only succeeded in blowing each other to pieces with explosions of jittery electric light and plumes of black smoke. Captain Quasar let out a victorious whoop as their dismembered pieces rained down to punch into the earth.

“Six down, sixty thousand to go,” muttered Hank.

Quasar glared at him. He would not be swayed by the helmsman’s negativity.

#

The ship crossed kilometers of ash-covered earth and the charred, mangled skeletons of major city skyscrapers. As each giant robot with evil intent came into view, the captain sucked it up with the tractor beam and whipped it around in mid-air, employing its laser cannons against the other bad bots in brilliant streaks of sizzling white. In no more than an hour’s time, he had destroyed nearly a hundred of the awful automatons, leaving a trail of smoldering ruins in the ship’s wake.

“We can’t take much more of this,” Hank reported as a new batch of bots appeared and opened fire upon the creaking, swaying Magnitude before Quasar had time to activate the tractor beam. “The next barrage will end us.”

Quasar grimaced, clenching the controls with white knuckles as he pulled the robots higher into the air only to thrash them back to the ground in a jumbled heap of broken, sparking metal. “How many enemies lie ahead?”

Hank blinked at the display. “Too many to count.”

Quasar was quicker this time as a dozen more bots lumbered into view, and they too were left behind in crumpled, smoking piles of junk discarded across the cratered earth. “Why didn’t we pack an EMP or something?”

Hank shrugged.

“Get that janitor back on the line.” Quasar grimaced, punching at the consoles in a heroic effort to destroy yet another batch of ill-intending bots.

“I’m still here,” Bill said.

“Can you see what we’re doing?” Quasar shouted.

“Yeah, I figured that was you.”

“Care to lend us a hand?”

“Don’t see how I could help.”

“Have you an EMP or a few?”

“Nope.”

“Then what do you have, man? How’d you send all that junk into space?”

“Uh-rockets.”

Quasar ended the transmission. “Hank, take us to Bill.”

#

Moments later, after scouring the surrounding countryside of every annihilation bot in sight, the Effervescent Magnitude—looking much the worse for wear—arrived at what appeared to be the remains of a military command center, half-buried in the earth under dunes of charcoal-colored ash.

“He’s in there,” Hank gestured, reopening the comm channel.

“Bill, we’re going to need your rockets.” Quasar licked his lips, glancing at the display where thousands of heat signatures remained, heralding the Earth’s imminent demise. “How many do you have?”

No response.

“Captain,” Hank pointed at the viewscreen, their window to the world, as a projectile launched itself from the command center to pierce the sky and beyond, leaving a thick tail of smoke.

“The escape pod,” Quasar muttered. “He’s left us to fend for ourselves.”

Then something very unexpected happened: missile silos creaked open in the scarred earth, iron hatches yawning as rockets poked their noses upward like weasels sniffing the air after a long internment.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Quasar grinned.

“Humph,” replied Hank.

#

In a matter of minutes, the captain had utilized the tractor beam to haul each of the missiles into the cargo bays of the Effervescent Magnitude where his engineers and best weapons tech officers immediately went to work modifying, transporting, and loading the rockets into the ship’s empty torpedo tubes.

“Captain,” said Hank. “Before Bill left, he triggered silos across the continent—”

“How many rockets are we looking at?” Captain Quasar glanced up from his console.

“Hundreds—and all viable, as long as the bots don’t get to them first.”

Quasar grinned. “Let’s not keep them waiting. We’ve got a planet to rescue.”

Hank couldn’t help asking: “For who?”

Captain Quasar glared at his very hairy helmsman for the fourth time in half as many hours. “It’s the principle of the thing!”

It took some doing, but the crew of the Magnitude were up to the challenge, and between the captain’s hand at the tractor beam and the retrofitting of the rockets as makeshift torpedoes, they managed to get the job done, wiping the Earth clean of every annihilation bot they encountered. Granted, hundreds of the robots succeeded in breaking apart a continent or two and sinking the pieces into the sea, but the oceans of the world ultimately aided in the machines’ demise, drowning them with elaborate sparks and fizzles as they drifted out of sight.

Thanks to the undying devotion of Captain Quasar and company, the dastardly plans of one Emperor Zhan—whoever he was—were thwarted with extreme prejudice, and the Earth was ultimately saved.

#

Limping back into orbit with major blast damage and exhaust venting from every pore like a death shroud, the Effervescent Magnitude encountered the escape pod of Bill the Janitor, which Quasar promptly tractor-beamed into a cargo hold.

“We did it,” the captain said with pride, escorting a disheveled, grizzled, and stinky fellow from his cramped quarters to gaze out a wide portside window at the earth’s glory. “We saved the planet!”

Bill nodded, twitching as he dragged his feet in a stiff, awkward gait. “Looks that way.”

Quasar couldn’t understand the man’s less-than-enthusiastic demeanor. “We’ve done it! The bots are destroyed!”

“Yeah.” Bill sniffed and ran a stained sleeve across his bulbous nose, glancing out through transparent plasticon at the Earth. “Guess I’m out of a job.”

“You’re failing to see the big picture here —”

“No, I get it. You’re the hero. You saved the day.” Bill shrugged. “So now what? You got some plan to keep the Sea Nukembers at bay?”

“Sea – what?”

“It’ll take a while for the sunlight to reach them in the ocean, but Emperor Zhan dumped a bunch down there. They make those annihilation bots look like kids’ stuff. Instead of lasers, they’re each armed with multiple megaton warheads. And they’re solar-powered, too—but, ironically, not very Earth-friendly.”

“Gah!” Quasar threw up his hands. “What did this Zhan fellow have against our planet?”

Bill offered another shrug. “He always said if he couldn’t have it, then nobody would.”

Captain Quasar clenched his jaw until the muscle twitched. “The ultimate villain.”

“Uh-he’s been dead for a while now —”

“Nevertheless,” the captain retorted, “there appears to be only one way to foil him.”

The remains of those sixty thousand annihilation bots would make a good start. As well as anything else the crew of the Effervescent Magnitude could locate down on the surface, suck up with the tractor beam, and drag out into space before the sun’s light was able to pierce the ocean depths.

Quasar jabbed the wall-mounted intercom. “Hank.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Looks like we’ve got a new sun barrier to build.”

#

(Originally published by Ray Gun Revival Magazine)