Authors: Ron Goulart
Copyright © 1978, By Ron Goulart.
The false arm was silver plated and highly polished. It flashed and sparkled, creaking very slightly, as the half-man raised the tinted monocle to his real eye. “Ah, you look very much like him,” he said. His thin lips didn’t move, the voice came from elsewhere. “Yes, very much like my poor long-dead cousin. And now your bright lovely mother is dead, too.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tad Rhymer. He was tall, lean, dark-haired. He had turned eighteen the week his mother died. That was a long way from here, on another planet. A long journey through space away.
“Did she suffer much?” asked Joshua Rhymer. When he sighed Tad decided the speaker box was implanted in his cousin’s chest—beneath the fluffy lace of his neosilk tunic, probably.
“I suppose she did, yes.” His cyborg cousin’s appearance was not particularly pleasant to him. Tad turned toward the oval windows of the enormous, chill drawing room. Snow was still falling across the blackness of the night.
Another metallic sigh. “Tragic, very unfortunate,” said Joshua, who was, the human remains of him anyway, fifty-four years old. “It might, you’ll excuse my pointing out, have been avoided. We, my exceptional sister and I, long ago suggested to your mother that she come here to this planet Esmeralda to live. We several times invited the both of you to make the move, to share one of our estates. We have three in this territory alone, you know.”
“I know.” His mother had told him a lot about these cousins of his. Tad knew the reasons why she would never accept any of their offers. “My mother preferred living on Barnum, on her home planet.”
Joshua scratched at the metal portion of his skull with the fingers of his real hand, producing a hollow grating sound. “Rhymer Industries, as you’re surely aware, has branches on all the planets in the Barnum System,” he said through his concealed voicebox. “I know Barnum itself well, having journeyed to each planet before my accident. . . . Ah, but you’d no doubt prefer to hear no more about that.”
“It doesn’t matter.” In that same accident, six years ago here on Esmeralda, Tad’s father had been killed. “It was a long time ago, and life has to go on.”
A chuckling rattled the talkbox. “Exactly, young Tad,” his cousin said approvingly. “No matter what happens, no matter how sad events may seem at the moment, Rhymer Industries goes on. It must.”
“I imagined you’d feel that way, Cousin Joshua.” Tad, very sleepy, moved closer to one of the tinted oval windows. Nothing out there except flat fields and a few of those squat trees which were apparently native to this territory. The snow had long ago covered the blank fields. “I wonder if maybe I can go to bed now.”
After a little more chuckling and then some creaking, Joshua, on his flesh and bone leg and his metal and plastic leg, came tottering toward him. “I’m afraid, Tad, you’ve a bit more traveling to do before you bed down for the night.”
He turned to face his approaching cousin. “I’m not staying here with you?”
“I’m sorry, no. Did my people who met you at the spaceport give you such an impression?”
“No, but I thought . . . the impression our attorney gave me was that I was to come to the Aurora Territory, here on the planet Esmeralda, to live with you and Cousin Cornelia.”
Joshua’s gleaming arm gave off a high-pitched squeak as he put his false hand on Tad’s shoulder. “My sister and I would surely like to have you here with us all the time, Tad,” he said. “However,
ruzzle muzzle bingle burzz muzz
Joshua let go the young man, dealt himself several resounding thumps on the chest. “For a Rhymer Industries product this talker of mine doesn’t always function as it should. There. I think that’s back in first-class shape. How’s it sound to you, lad?”
“About as usual I guess,” answered Tad. “Where am I going to stay, then?”
“Well, quite obviously an heir to the Rhymer Industries holdings, a young fellow who will someday, I sincerely hope, be a full partner in the organization, such a young fellow has to live in style,” explained his cousin. “Therefore we
ruzzle wuzzle rumz bumz.
“ With a shake of his head, Joshua began again to pound at his chest.
“I want Phix and Maresca at our Talker Plant fired no later than Monday next.” A thin, dead-white woman was standing in the far doorway. “This continual muzzling-wuzzling is enough to set my—”
“Phix is a competent man, Cornelia,” said Joshua, his talking mechanism back to functioning properly. “Tad, this is your Cousin Cornelia. Are you feeling better, dear?”
“No worse,” replied Tad’s gaunt fifty-one-year-old cousin while very slowly advancing in his direction. “All the noise of this young man’s tardy arrival, coupled with that squawking and bawling coming out of your talker . . . it adds up to very little peace in my sickbed. I won’t touch you, Thadeus. I’m suffering through a terrible bout of snerg flu.”
“A snerg is a very unpleasant little animal,” amplified Joshua. “Snerg flu is named after it.”
“Seems appropriate.” Tad put a hand over his mouth in time to mask a yawn.
“Can this be a sample of your flippancy, Thadeus?” asked the white-clad Cornelia. “We were considerably upset to come upon a rather thick section in your dossier which detailed your career of sarcasm and wisecracking in school and elsewhere. I trust you’ll outgrow the habit after you’ve spent some time at Foghill.”
“Sounds likely,” said Tad, yawning. “Is Foghill where I’m going to live?”
“Haven’t you ever explained things to the boy, Joshua?”
“I was in the process, Cornelia, I was in the process when my talker began acting up.”
“You really—if you ever paid the least attention to me at all—ought to go into our Skyport factory for a good thorough overhaul. Have a new talker installed, a new arm which won’t make noises like a stuck quilp every time you—”
“A quilp is a chubby little beast huntsmen on Esmeralda are fond of hunting with spears,” Cousin Joshua informed Tad. “Though the last time I stuck one it certainly didn’t—”
“I’d have them do something with your eye, too.”
“It’s been growing increasingly unbelievable, Josh,” his sister told him, with a quick, sad shake of her head. “Now, then, Thadeus, you’d best venture out to the air platform. They’ll be wondering about you at Foghill.”
“Who’ll be wondering?” asked Tad. “Will I be living with servants at Foghill or what?”
“This is truly going to be a wonderful experience for you,” Cousin Joshua promised. “A chance to learn about many of our better-selling Rhymer Industries products.”
“You mean Foghill is staffed entirely with robots, androids and servos?”
“Not entirely, lad. There is the estate manager, Mr. Hohl. He’s human.”
“I wouldn’t exactly classify Hohl as human,” said Cousin Cornelia.
Tad found the robot, the robot which would change everything, late in the afternoon of his thirteenth day at Foghill. He knew for certain it was the thirteenth day because he was counting off each long bleak and lonesome day he spent at the place. He had been promised he’d be allowed to start school again when the next semester started at the area academy. That was still twenty-six days up ahead.
Foghill came by its name because, simply, it sat on a low dismal hill and was almost continually shrouded in thick prickly fog. High black trees filled most of the ten acres inside the high stone walls which closed in the estate grounds. A swampy lake lay at the foot of the hill and beyond that rose more trees, mile after dreary mile, on the rare day when you could see them at all, of stiff dark-limbed dark-leafed trees.
The only visitor to Foghill during Tad’s first thirteen days was Reverend Dimchurch. A very old, very thin lizard man, the reverend was in charge of the Church of Aggressive Beatitude in Fog Hollow, some fifteen miles to the South. He wore a faded purple three-piece priest suit, traveled in a small gunmetal robotcart.
On this thirteenth day the reverend came rolling through the high gates of Foghill in mid-afternoon. He had a purple scarf wrapped around his scaly green neck. “Bit of a chill in the air today, eh?” he remarked when he noticed Tad wandering on a nearby path.
“Same as always.” Tad was moping in the vicinity of one of the long-abandoned experimental greenhouses.
Reverend Dimchurch rolled off the gritty path and then across the overgrown lawn. “I hate to see you mope your youth away, Tad,” he said. “Are we not told, for instance, in St. Reptillicus’ 14th Epistle of the Milmans, ‘Youth is like the bag the ice cubes come in’?”
Tad frowned. “I don’t think I quite understand that one, reverend.”
“Well, it’s possible St. Reptillicus’ well-known fondness for sending out for liquor colored some of his later epistles,” the lizard priest admitted. “The point is, you must cheer up, enjoy yourself.”
“Little tough to do that hereabouts.”
Reverend Dimchurch, drumming his green fingertips on the edge of his cart, glanced around. He saw mostly fog. “A dismal setting, agreed. Once, though, good times were often had here. For as St. Reptillicus tells us, ‘The swizzle stick oft . . .’ Well, we’ll skip that. The point is, Foghill was once a much happier place.”
“Did you know the people who used to live here—my other cousins, I mean?” Tad had been able to learn this much, that two other members of the Rhymer family had resided at the place as recently as six years ago. Then they’d died, in some sort of accident. Another accident, and two more deaths, at the same time his father had died.
“Yes, I knew Cosmo and Alice quite well,” replied Reverend Dimchurch. “Hadn’t I mentioned that before? I suppose not, since my business calls on your Mr. Hohl tend to distract me considerably.”
Tad stepped nearer the robotcart. “What exactly is you business with Hohl?”
The purple muffler was lifted up to wipe at the green lips. “Ah, my boy, you have youth’s knack for asking direct questions,” he mumbled. “Well, may St. Serpentine bless and forgive me, but I must defer the explanation to a later date.”
“Okay, but tell me about Mr. and Mrs. Rhymer, Cosmo and Alice.”
“Very likeable people, very cordial.” The lizard man’s tongue unrolled out between his teeth as he smiled. “And that all-purpose robot servant of theirs . . . a delightful fellow, albeit somewhat arrogant and prideful. He wasn’t on the market, not a real Rhymer Industries product, but rather a one-of-a-kind mechanism which your Cousin Cosmo built himself right here at Foghill.”
“What do you mean here? There’s not a lab or a workshop here,” said Tad, glancing around at the shrouding fog. “I know because I’d love to have someplace to tinker and fool around in. I asked Hohl and he told me there weren’t any.”
Dimchurch said, “There most certainly was a very well-equipped workshop. Many’s the afternoon I spent there watching your late cousin at work and debating with him the dubious details of some of St. Reptillicus’ more suspect miracles.”
Tad jumped forward, caught the lizard priest’s arm. “Where was the workshop?”
“Well, my boy, as I recollect, Cosmo had his facility underground, beneath one of the warehouses yonder,” said the reverend, eyes narrowed in remembering. “Beneath Warehouse 6, I do believe, though it might have—”
“Hey, Dimchurch, you doddering old pile of creepy green garbage! Where the gung are you?”
Someone was bellowing in the fog, stomping his way. They both knew who it was.
“I’d better roll along to my meeting with your Mr. Hohl,” said the lizard priest.
“Are you flapping your ugly green jaw with that skinny, lop-eared guest of mine? If you are, I’ll rend both of you simps into bits and pieces.”
“Has he ever struck you?” the reverend inquired quietly.
“Nope, he only yells.”
From out of the fog bounded a large human-type. He was wide in the shoulders, huge in the chest, hairy. “So! A couple of wall-eyed ninnies I find here wasting and frittering precious time. Thadeus, go to your room! As for you, Dimchurch, I’ve half a mind to crumble that silly cart of yours into a ball and stuff it up your nork.” Hohl took three more steps, halted, swaying slightly. “Say, whatever made me have an outburst like this? Forgive me, won’t you?” From a flap-pocket in his one-piece orange worksuit the big man extracted a blue capsule. After swallowing it, he smiled mildly at both of them. “Must be my allergies making me cranky once again. Well, let’s trot along to my office, shall we, dear reverend? I’ve got my butler ‘bot brewing a pot of peppermint tea. Your very favorite, is it not?”
“Why, yes, Mr. Hohl.”
Hohl beamed a benevolent smile at Tad before he and the lizard priest went away into the fog.
Tad waited three long anxious minutes before running across the fogbound estate to Warehouse 6.
He hadn’t expected a robot.
Tad didn’t even notice him at first. Most of the light strips crisscrossing the high ceiling of the large underground lab-workshop didn’t work anymore. There were splotches of light amid great patches of darkness. “They could be fixed without much trouble,” he said to himself, squinting up at the dusty lengths of neoplaz. He could do it with a little time and a few tools. Tad was fond of tinkering, he liked to fix things, to attempt to construct gadgets and mechanisms of his own.