Authors: Ron Goulart
“We’re quite capable of fending for ourselves from here onward,” said Electro.
“Notice the windows are covered with vegetation and dirt,” said Mort. “Making for gloomy conditions inside, a perfect place for trouble to be lurking.”
The metal and glaz doorway was twenty feet wide and equally high. Its once-handsome metal and glaz doors were sprung from their hinges and hung at broken-wing angles.
“Think there really might be trouble in there?” Tad asked the girl.
“Rodents or snakes maybe.”
“The dispatcher assured me there are no major hazards, though his memory problem may have kept him from telling me all.” The robot strode toward the shadowy threshold.
Mort went sprinting past him. “Me first. Better let a Ty-gor check things out.” He bounded inside and was lost to view.
The robot remained on the edge of entering.
“At last, at last! Our prayers have been answered!, 0, praise St. Reptillicus and the blessed bones—”
“Less religious fervor and more action!”
Several old and quavery voices could be heard inside the old depot dome, along with the sounds of a scuffle.
“Wouldn’t you know it? The first mark in months and he doesn’t even have any pockets.”
Electro had snapped his fingers. “That must be what the dimwitted computer was trying to remember,” he said. “Muggers.”
“You think Mort is being set upon by a gang of muggers?” asked Jerry.
Electro took a step into the interior. “Approximately a dozen of them are—”
The remaining Ty-gors ran inside.
“Should we help?” Tad joined the robot, trying to see what was going on inside the dimly lit URT depot.
Dust was rising in the far right corner of the murky place. Tad could make out, in the thin stripes of tinted sunlight which made it through the dome, a gang of lizard men, catmen and humans swarming over the triplets.
“Observe more carefully,” advised Electro.
Tad did. “Hey, those muggers are all old men.”
“Ancient. They must be the original muggers, here since the depot opened two decades ago.”
“They’re wearing out,” Tad said. “Listen to the way some of them are wheezing. It’s sad.”
“The one with the wheeze is Mort,” said Electro. “No doubt he has a few allergies, and the jungle is a bad place to live when you suffer with—”
“Bangalla! Bangalla!” Dik was placing a foot atop a mound of fallen old muggers, beating his broad chest.
“That was the Ty-gor triumphal shout,” Jerry called to them through cupped hands.
“Very close to the attack yell,” Electro called back.
“The inflections are slightly different.”
“Can I come in now?” Jana was beside Tad, linking her arm in his.
“The Ty-gor brothers have overcome all the muggers.”
“That’s as it should be.” Arm in arm, they crossed the weedy plaz-square floor of the depot to the site of the recent brawl.
“I didn’t get a good look at these fellows while we were subduing them.” Dik was squatting beside a pile of uncounscious muggers, frowning into the sunlit face of the top man. This was a human type with a white beard of admirable length. “What I’m getting at is, this one at least gives every indication of being around eighty years old.”
“There’s no forced retirement in the villainy field,” said Mort, striving to catch his breath.
“Still, I feel somewhat of a ninny and a simp,” said Dik while he got down on. hands and knees to inspect a mugger lower in the stack, “giving off the triumphal cry over a bunch of senior citizens.”
Jerry was circling another pile of knocked out muggers. “The one on the bottom here may well be a little old lady of ninety,” he said. “This is getting embarrassing.”
Electro said, “Why don’t you lads quickly slip away into the jungle. This little incident we’ll keep to ourselves.”
“This catman isn’t even breathing,” said Jerry, ignoring the robot’s suggestion. “I’d best tug him out of the stack and . . . oops! Now I’ve dislodged his hearing aid.”
“Gentlemen, I’m a qualified paramedic.” Electro eased Jerry aside and extracted the catman from the unconscious group. “This old chap isn’t dead, merely in a coma. You three scamper back to the brooks and fens of your beloved jungle. I’ll administer medical care to these poor unfortunates and slip them a little remedial therapy as well. Guide them toward new and more fulfilling careers.”
“Let’s take the robot up on his offer, fellas,” said Mort. “The fetid air in this place is getting to my sinuses. And I think that old lady must have whacked me a good one in the groin with her walking stick.”
“I suppose that wouldn’t be inconsistent with the code of the Ty-gors.”
“Not at all,” Jana assured them.
“Well, then,” said Dik, “we’ll bid you farewell.”
“So long,” said Tad. “Bangalla to you all.”
“Bangalla!” The triplets, with Mort in the middle, went strolling away.
“Now to business,” said Electro.
“I don’t see the hat as necessary,” remarked Tad.
“A perfectly legitimate piece of headgear, my boy.” Electro gave the striped engineer cap a pat, returned both hands to the controls of the underground tram.
They were shooting along the tunnel trax at the rate of a hundred miles an hour. It had taken Electro only a few minutes to get the three-car tram into working order.
“How are we going to get my father and the rest out of the plantation?” Tad asked.
“We’ll work out the final plan when we’re on the scene. At this very moment I’m in communication with a reliable computer on the plantation grounds, collecting data.”
“According to this,” said Jana, holding up a faded brochure she’d found on one of the wicker seats, “we’ll emerge less than fifty miles from the Blackwatch plantation.”
“Forty-seven miles,” said Electro. “At the rate we’re traveling we ought to reach there by early after—”
Their tram car hopped, shook and groaned. It slowed, hopped, stopped dead.
“It’s the same thing every time I ride this nerfing train!” complained an old voice from the other end of the car.
“You haven’t ridden this in nineteen years, Leslie.”
“True, Royston, but when last I did the nerfing thing stopped right about here. And you may recall what a night that was, the night of the Monumental Blizzard.”
“There’s another thing I object to,” said Tad. “Giving a lift to those three supposedly reformed muggers.”
“It’s the least we could do,” said Electro, “since the Ty-gor family maimed them and rendered them incapable of further criminal activities.”
“Conductor, what’s the matter?” hollered Leslie, an ancient catman.
“Nothing serious.” Electro left the controls, trotted to an emergency door. “I have but to reconnect our roof cable.”
“Ha, that’ll be some fun,” said Leslie. “I remember the night of the Colossal Ceiling Leaks when old Mel the conductor attempted that and the snakes got him.”
“That wasn’t the night of the Colossal Ceiling Leaks,” commented Royston, a bearded human of eighty-six. “It was the afternoon of the Vandalized Windows. Old Mel left the car and six huge vipers jumped him.”
“Quite a sight,” chuckled the third passenger, a dappled old lizard man.
Electro was fiddling with the emergency door. “Interesting how this thing refuses to open.”
“Says you have to open that panel there with a coin,” Tad pointed out.
“Folderol, my boy. Those instructions are for halfwits like our load of muggers. There’s no lock in the universe I can’t pick.”
“Exactly what Mel the conductor said before the snakes got him.”
Jana said, “Why not use a coin, Electro? This tunnel is not a very cheery place to be stuck.”
“We were stuck here once for three days and two nights,” said old Leslie. “That was the week of the Devastating Flood. Trapped down here with the water rising up as high as—”
“There’s no valid reason I can’t persuade this fool door to open.” Electro had been trying various fingers and the gadgets therein on the lock mechanism.
“Why don’t you open this panel with a coin?” asked Tad.
“All right, my boy, we’ll do it the halfwit way.” Electro ran a metal finger along the instructions lettered on the panel next to the emergency door. “How To Open Door In Case Of Emergency. One. Summon conductor. Two. Call on St. Reptillicus for guidance . . . an unnecessary mixing of religion with civic life. Three. Insert a coin in this slot to unlock this panel. Four. Coin must be a ten centime double caribou piece with the royal caribou on the obverse and Bonnie Prince Harlan on the reverse. Indeed? And where, short of a rare coin dealer, does one come upon a—”
“I’ve got a whole pocket full of the nerfing things,” called Leslie, standing up and jiggling. “We rolled a numismatist some months back.” He managed to extract one from his pocket and toss it the length of the car to the robot.
“Anything we can do to help,” said Royston. “After all, you rehabilitated us and are taking us back to civilization where we can trod the straight and narrow once again.”
Stooping slightly, Electro used the coin.
The panel popped out.
More instructions were printed within the cabinet the panel revealed.
“Nertz,” observed Electro, insterting his little finger into the slot.
The emergency door sizzled for several seconds, then slid open.
“Was that a snake I heard?” asked Leslie.
Electro jumped out of the tram. “Have it fixed in a jiffy.”
“Don’t step on any snakes,” said Jana.
“There are no snakes out here.” Electro moved to the front of the car. “Even if there were, I’m impervious.”
Tad walked to the head of the tram to watch Electro climb up the ladder on the nose of the car. “I hope he can get us rolling again soon.”
Jana said, “Yes, so do I.”
“You sound less than enthusiastic. Getting to Blackwatch, saving everybody . . . that’s what we set out to do. We’re getting fairly close.”
“Once we reach the place and once we succeed,” said the girl, “then everything will change.”
“Sure, but for the better.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“No, that’s not an ominous sound,” decided Electro, a hand cupped to his ear.
“It’s a guitar,” said Tad. “After what happened to you on the showboat we—”
“Someone inside this inn is in a festive mood, playing the guitar and singing agricultural ditties.” The robot gestured at the oaken door of the inn across the dark courtyard.
“This is probably a safe place to stop,” Jana said. “We have been walking all afternoon.”
Tad frowned at the sign over the doorway. “Not a cozy name, the Manacle & Fetter.”
“Name no doubt derives from the inn’s proximity to the Blackwatch Plantation, my boy. It’s a good spot to pick up gossip about conditions inside the plantation.”
“You’re already in contact with a computer at the place.”
“We could use some human information,” Electro told him. “In planning an assault, the more information the better.”
They crossed the night courtyard and, Electro first, entered the main room of the Manacle & Fetter.
It was a dining room, nearly empty. In a corner near the blazing fireplace four people were gathered around a large table. Three of them sat watching the fourth, a frail catman who was strumming on a battered guitar and singing.
“Oh, the weevils ate my cotton And the snergs carried off my maze! Yes, them weevils ate all my cotton And the snergs they . . .”
“Good evening, madam,” said the plump lizard proprietor, hurrying up to Electro. “Would you mind going tiptoe to your table?”
“Is that the custom in these parts?” Electro was disguised as a middle-aged catwoman.
“It’s on account of the recording session.” Proceeding on his toes, he led them to a table on the opposite side of the dining room. “That’s the entire Primitive And Lowdown Music Department from Esmeralda University.”
“Fancy that,” said Electro as the innkeeper pulled out his chair for him.
“Oh, the tharks chased off my grout herd And the chiggers ate my wife. Yes, them tharks they . . .”
Tad, who along with the girl was made up as a catperson, took a seat at the round table. “He’s worse than Mother Zarzarkas.”
“I don’t know,” said the robot, glancing at the rural singer. “There’s a certain—”
“Doggone, there went another dang one.” A string had broken on the catman’s guitar. He shook his furry head in dismay.
“Why did you show up with such a tacky guitar, Goody? I keep telling you—”
“Why should he have a new guitar? He’s a shit kicker, not some slick—”
“You can only carry authenticity so far, Marcia. I am fairly damn tired of his guitar breaking every five—”
“We want a certain sound, Harvey. We want a raw, earthy, gutsy—”
“He can be raw and earthy without breaking a damn string every five—”
“Please, please,” said the large bearded man who was the oldest in the group. “We must have less quibbling and more singing. Restring your instrument, Goody. Shame on you, Marcia. Shame on you, Harvey.”
“I’m not charmed by this whole evening, Dr. Brattle,” said Harvey Conn-Hedison, a blue-feathered birdman. “Things began going wrong when we left Potato Center and I had to ride backwards in the Rolling Folkmobile. Then when Marcia insisted we stop so she could proposition that crossing sweeper in—”
“I sensed that big, exciting, muscle-loaded darling was a folk singer,” said Marcia Fork, an overweight catwoman of forty. “You have to have an instinct for—”
“I admit he was able to warble a work song while keeping time with his push broom, Marcia. You know darn well, however, that—”