Authors: Ron Goulart
“Fishy,” echoed the other guard.
Electro, very gingerly, stroked his beard and gazed at the two burly catmen. “Are you hinting at some lack of truth in my account of Mr. Bunner’s nocturnal activities?”
“Sounds like so much bushwah,” said one guard.
“Lot of horsepuckey,” added the other.
“Unfortunate.” Electro raised the middle finger of his right hand. A line of pale orange light shot out of it, hitting the chest of first one guard and then the other.
While they were dropping to their knees the beam touched the assistant supervisor and he, too, toppled.
“When verbal stratagems fail, my boy, resort to gadgets.” Electro frisked the keys off one of the guards, unlocked the doors. “Assist me in dragging these skeptics inside and out of sight.”
“We can bring this off with a distinct flourish,” announced Electro. He stood in the center of the control room, arms spread wide. “Yes, a flourish is what is called for.”
Two of the large room’s walls were covered with monitor screens which showed sections of the plantation grounds as well as the interiors of the barracks and warehouses.
Tad was at a row of data boxes. “Here’s what we want,” he said, easing a faxprint out of a box slot. “This thing just printed the locations of everyone we want. My father is in Barracks B, Cousin Cosmo is in C, Cousin Alice is in E and, Jana, your dad is in Barracks C, too.”
The girl nodded, watching the robot. “What is it you have in mind, Electro?”
“I’ve concluded Blackwatch has been in business quite long enough.” He crossed to the wall which was devoted to control panels, dials, levers, switches. “The first step in my overall plan calls for. . . .” He reached out, flipped a sequence of six toggles. “That takes care of all the day-shift guards, who are tucked away in the personnel compound.” He cocked a thumb at a row of monitor screens. “We’ve just sealed all the doors on their quarters. No one can get out until these switches are switched. Now then. . . .” He unhooked a microphone. “Public address . . . let’s make sure I’ve got Bunner’s syrupy voice down pat. Sound about right?”
“Perfect,” said the girl, “but—”
“Urgent! Urgent!” Electro said into the mike. “All night shift guards will leave their posts at once and report to the personnel compound auditorium. Urgent! Urgent!”
While the robot repeated the message Tad studied the picture screens. He saw guards, some with puzzled expressions, running out of the barracks buildings and away from the gates, running toward the auditorium.
“The gathering place will be seen on screens twenty-six through thirty,” said Electro. “Let me know, my dear, when they’ve all obligingly trooped in there.”
“Good seats are filling up fast,” Jana said.
Electro folded his massive arms, whistled a fragment of a sea chanty. “About ready?”
“A few stragglers,” said Tad.
The robot resumed his whistling.
“They’re all inside,” said Jana.
“Very well then.” Electro threw five new switches. “They’re locked in the auditorium for the night.” He twisted two dials, flipped a toggle. “And so they won’t be bored I’m screening some films of Supervisor Bunner’s recent vacation to the Murdstone Abysmal Caverns for them.”
“Can we head for the barracks now?” asked Tad.
“I’m not through flourishing, my boy.” Clutching the mike, Electro made a further announcement. “All field-hands will now rise, dress and leave their barracks to rally in front of the Administration Building. At once, on the double.” He replaced the microphone, fiddled with more dials and switches. “That should open all the barracks, ladies and gents.”
Jana asked, “You’re freeing everybody?”
“The only fair-minded way to handle the situation.”
“Guess you’re right.” The girl laughed.
“Come on.” Tad hurried toward the exit. “I want to get down there and meet my dad at Barracks B. Jana.”
“Coming.” She caught up with him.
“Run along, children,” said Electro. “I have a few more touches to apply.”
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Well . . . I came . . . to free you . . . to rescue you.”
“You still haven’t gotten over that stammer. You had it when you were eleven and you still have it at seventeen.”
“I’m . . . I’m nineteen, dad . . . and I don’t . . . stammer.”
“You’re stammering right now, Tad. It’s one of the most annoying things you do, that and arguing with me.”
“I haven’t seen you for . . . for six years. Damn it. I thought . . . thought you were dead.”
“Obviously I’m not.”
The workers were flowing around them. Tad had spotted his father coming out of the barracks building and run up to him.
Daniel Rhymer was a tall man, gaunt now, his skin sundried and brown. His hair was short-cropped, touched with gray. “It never occurred to you I might have an escape plan of my own worked out?” Tad’s father asked him. “We’ve been working on a tunnel out of here for nearly three years. In a matter of weeks we’d have had it finished and then—”
“Listen to me!” Tad stepped forward, gripped his father’s shoulders. They felt lean and bony through the rough-spun field-hand tunic. “Listen to me, dad. I’m not the kid you knew and I won’t let you talk to me this way anymore. We thought you were dead, but then I learned you weren’t. So I came halfway across this goddamn planet to get you free of here. Mom is dead and you’re all I have left. But if you try to act with me the way you used to I’ll leave you here and you can dig your tunnel bare handed until you die, for all I care.”
His father lowered his eyes. “I didn’t know . . . I didn’t know she was dead,” he said. “When?”
“Three months ago.”
His father said, “How’d you manage to bring this off, Tad?”
“With help. A robot named Electro and a girl named Jana Taine. The three of us.”
“Well, we work pretty well together. And Electro’s an exceptional robot, Cousin Cosmo built him originally and I repaired him.”
“Yes, I remember Electro,” said Tad’s father. He moved back from his son. “You’re taller.”
“All right.” He held out his hand. “I’ll try to . . . change. I’ll try to like you, Tad. I can’t promise . . . but I’ll try.”
Seconds passed, a half a minute. Tad held out his hand. “Right now we have to settle with Cousin Joshua.” He shook hands with his father.
Light was flowing out of the open doorways of the Administration Building, freed laborers were roaming the grounds, milling, wandering. Tad, a few paces behind his father, was heading for there.
Electro’s voice came booming out of all the plantation loudspeakers. “We are running shuttles away from Blackwatch, commencing in one half hour. Plantation landvans will be utilized. Report to Cosmo Rhymer in the warehouse area at once to make arrangements.”
Immediately dozens of the liberated prisoners started moving for the warehouses.
“Typical of Cosmo,” Tad’s father said over his shoulder, “taking charge.”
They were approaching the staircase of the Administration Building. “Actually it’s Electro who’s taken charge, he’s got Cousin Cosmo working for him.”
A moderate clanging sounded inside the corridor. “My boy, I have a chore . . . Ah, good to see you again, Mr. Rhymer,” the robot said. “You’re looking fit, all things considered.” Electro trotted up to them.
“Fit? I’ve lost twenty-six—”
“You’ll find a bit of a reunion in progress in Bunner’s late office,” Electro went on. “Alice is there as well as Jana and her father. Cosmo will be there once he gets the evacuation plans solidified.”
“Is Jana okay? And her dad?” asked Tad.
“All in tip-top shape, hugging, sniffing back the tears,” Electro said. “Your typical joyful reuniting.”
“Typical,” said Tad. “Maybe I ought to meet her father and—”
“Plenty of time for that later.” Electro placed a hand on Tad’s shoulder. “At the moment you and I have a task to undertake. Mr. Rhymer, why don’t you pop into the reunion? I’ve mixed up a little punch, making use of the rum tank Cosmo built into me.”
“All right, very well,” said Rhymer. “Tad, don’t get into any trouble. I’ll expect you to be back here as soon as possible.” After a brief nod he went inside.
“I could have prepared you,” said the robot. “Not a warm fellow, your pop.”
“Yeah, I know. I remember him when we were all together on Barnum,” said Tad. “But I was hoping . . . I don’t know, after six years of something like this—”
“Your father is one of those admirable people who never allow their lives to be touched by what happens to them.” Electro took hold of Tad’s arm. “We can discuss the matter en route, come along.”
“En route to where?” asked Tad as the big robot dragged him through the crowd of freed prisoners.
“I assumed you’d prefer to settle this matter yourself. We’ll let your dad and Cosmo take it easy for now.”
They moved into a lane which ran between two barracks, across a flat field and up to an opaque glaz dome. Electro pressed his palm against a glaz panel and it slid open.
Inside the dome three skycars rested on the plaz floor.
“We want the blue and gold one,” said the robot. “It’s Bunner’s and the speediest of the bunch.”
“Are we going to leave Blackwatch before—”
“Only a quick jaunt, my boy. It won’t take anything like the time it took us before. Hop aboard.” He pointed his left forefinger at the ceiling and a large section of the dome opened to the starless night.
“What’s he doing here?” Tad asked, looking down at the fog below them.
“I summoned him,” said Electro. “Seemed appropriate, and it’s closer than his own estate.”
“Why not just get him to come to the plantation?”
“Too much unusual activity thereabouts. He’d have suspected something before he even landed.” Electro set the controls for a landing on the grounds of Foghill, then put his hands behind his head. “Impersonating friend Hohl I contacted your Cousin Joshua and informed him he had to meet me at Foghill immediately. Urgent business, involving you and the fate of the entire Rhymer Industries complex. All true, by the way. Except the part about my being Hohl.”
“Can we really do anything to Joshua? Prove that he—”
“My boy, I am nothing if not thorough.” Electro thumped his side, causing a small panel to swing open. He drew out a thick folder of papers and faxcopies. “While you and Jana were gathering your long lost parents to your respective bosoms I was making use of all the Blackwatch computers and gadgets.” He plopped the fat folder into Tad’s lap. “We have enough documentary evidence to send Joshua up the proverbial river for the rest of his life.”
Tad didn’t investigate the contents of the folder. “You told me he’s been able to buy off most of the local law.”
“Which is exactly why I also used my time to contact the Interplan Law Service,” said Electro. “These lads are above bribes and will be meeting us here momentarily.”
“What part do I play?”
“It occurred to me you’d get a kick out of being the one to confront Joshua with the evidence of his evil deeds. Am I right?”
Tad tucked the folder up under his arm. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Biernat, the tank-shaped robot butler, dropped his tray. “One is astounded,” he said when Tad came striding into the vast living room of Foghill mansion alone. “One assumed you had—”
“That’s enough blathering,” said Cousin Joshua. “Clean up that spilled neococoa and get out.” When the robot had complied, Joshua fixed the tinted monocle to his real eye and stared at Tad. “You’ve been living up to your reputation as a trouble maker, Thadeus.”
“That I have.” Tad crossed to the giant fireplace where his half-machine cousin was stationed.
Joshua’s head squeaked as he glanced around. “And where is Hohl?”
“Flat on his ass at the Blackwatch Plantation.”
“What’s that? What sort of audacity prompts you to
ruzzle wurfle muzz dingle.
Tad reached out and whacked his cousin a few times across the chest. “Still haven’t had your talkbox fixed, huh?”
“Thank you, young man,” said Joshua. “I’ve been much too busy. Been fretting over your rude disappearance for one thing and—”
“And trying to have me hunted down.”
“I might add my dear devoted sister Cornelia has taken to her bed, prostrate with anxiety over your conduct.”
“Well, if that knocked her over what’s going to happen next will probably finish the old girl off for good.”
Joshua’s monocle flipped out of his eye. “See here, Thadeus, you can’t go around
muzzle duzzle furp dank dank
. . . No, I’ll do it myself, you’re much too rough with
.” He pounded his chest. “A Rhymer Industries product usually only needs a few gentle pats to start performing smoothly again.” His metal arm creaked when he put his hand on his hip. “I’d very much like to know why you’re addressing me in this rude and disrespectful—”
“Several reasons.” Tad tapped the folder. “One is . . . I’ve somewhat grown up over the past few weeks. A little late I’ve been, but I’m finally about as mature as I should be at this point. More important, from your point of view, Josh, is we have a great wad of evidence against you. All the shady and illegal stuff you’ve been pulling off we can now prove.”
“I’ve never done one dishonest thing in my life. If your poor departed father were still alive he could—”
“He is alive,” said Tad. “We busted him free of Blackwatch. Along with Cosmo, Alice, Jana Taine’s father and . . . quite a few more.”
The real parts of Joshua’s face grew a dappled red and then faded to a pasty white. “What you’re trying to tell me is . . . the jig is up?”
“It is definitely up.”
Joshua, after several tries with his real hand, located his monocle dangling from its string. He put it up to his fake eye and scowled at Tad. “You’re not as mature as you think, you mooncalf,” he said. “I can control almost any law officer on this—”
“Electro sent for the Interplan Law Service. They’ve sent a skyvan down from their orbiting satellite. Should be here at—”
“One begs everybody’s pardon, sirs.” Biernat came tottering back into the room. “Two gentlemen claiming to be ILS agents have arrived and wish to see you.”