Authors: Ron Goulart
“You aren’t going to need that,” said Tad.
“It adds to the illusion.” The robot slung the instrument over his broad back. “I will be Mother Zarzarkas, going ashore in the company of two of my ardent local fans. My objective is to pay a brief visit to their clubhouse. Sounds plausible, looks plausible.”
“You make an enormous old lady.”
“I’ll affect a convincing and charming stoop.”
“He looks fine.” Jana placed the modified cloak over her slim shoulders. “We all do. Relax, Tad, and let’s assume we’re going to con whoever your cousin sends to capture us.”
“A little while ago you were gloomy, talking about how we were all of us trapped.”
The girl laughed. “My outlook does tend to fluctuate, doesn’t it? Annoyed the hell out of my husband.” She shrugged. “Right at the moment I’m optimistic. Okay?”
“We’ll venture now into the corridor.” Electro gathered his skirt up, tiptoed to the cabin door and opened it. There was no activity in the passway. “We’ll begin our act. Goodness, I never imagined I had so many admirers in a dinky place such as Siltville.” He stepped out of the cabins.
“We have a hundred plus members, mother,” said Jana, following. “Each and every one crazy over your recordings.”
“Oh, it gladdens my old heart to realize my music is reaching so many fine young people.”
The three of them moved out of the corridor and onto the deck. The audience section was already over half full, with a line of patrons coming single file up the gangplank. The sky was completely dark now, blurred slightly with mist.
“Red lizard men over there,” said Tad close to the robot’s ear, nodding at the seated audience.
“An entire row of them,” amended the robot. “We can’t be sure all red lizards in this forlorn part of the planet are in the pay of your cousin. Nonetheless, the sooner we disembark from the craft the better.”
“Ha, just who I want!” Commodore Snow, dressed now in a style similar to Elector’s and sporting a red bulb nose, came hurrying up to the disguised robot.
“Goodness me, commodore, you seem all in a dither.”
“Washboard Will’s having stomach trouble,” explained the agitated captain. “Which, as you know, means he can’t use his entire rhythm section. You’ll have to do the opening spot tonight, Mother Zarzarkas.”
“Dear me,” said Electro in his exact imitation of the folk singer’s voice. “I’ve promised these two adoring lizard youths to pop over to town for a—”
“You can do that later.” Snow got a grip on Electro’s arm, started urging him along the deck.
Electro dragged his feet, halting their progress. “Commodore, I didn’t become the most beloved balladeer in the universe by stiffing my fans or—”
“What’s bothering the old broad?”
“Don’t she want to entertain us?”
“Maybe a few smacks across the choppers will change her mind.”
Two red lizard men and an albino carman had come tromping up the gangplank. They circled Commodore Snow and Electro, scowling.
“ Tad whispered to the girl. “They were at the inn.”
“We can wait until you sing,” said Jana, loudly. “You have to please all your fanatical admirers, after all.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” agreed a lizard man.
“This liz pussy hit the scroog right square on the bonko,” observed the albino catman. “So let’s hear the old quiff do her stuff. Right now!”
“This is certainly gratifying.” Electro put one arm around Jana and the other around Tad. “You two little fanatics can wait backstage for me. Soon as I strut my stuff, we’ll pop over to your lovely clubhouse. If you gentlemen will step aside, please.”
“Sure thing, granny.”
When they were clear of the goons Electro said, “We should have run for it. I could have stunned the lot of them while—”
“We don’t know how many others there are,” said Jana. “Or how many weapons they have. A sudden exit will probably bring down a whole troop on us. We’re better off letting them think you’re Mother Zarzarkas.”
“They know Mother Zarzarkas is a Rhymer Industries spy,” said Tad. “So they must believe you’re on their side.”
Electro made a throat clearing sound. “Perhaps their violent insistence on my performing is some kind of good-natured lout kidding. Let us hope so.”
As they entered the backstage area Tad asked, “You can play the guitar, can’t you?”
“I’m proficient on all instruments,” Electro assured him. “You ought to hear me on the pipe organ.”
“We want the show!”
“Let’s have the flapping entertainment!”
“Where’s the old broad?”
Commodore Snow appeared. “Sophisticated audience, is it? A gaggle of low-life rowdies is what sits out there,” he said, growling some. “I’m tempted to go back to my boofer monologue.” He stroked his furry chin meditatively. “Though I might do it in drag, thereby getting the best of both routines.” He gave Electro an encouraging pat on the arm, then winced. “You’ve got an impressively solid upper arm, Mother.”
“Guitar strumming builds me up.”
“Okay, get out there and do a few of your hits. See if you can get them in a receptive mood for a monologue about dorks.” He loped away, picked up a backstage microphone to announce the impending advent of Mother Zarzarkas.
“There’s only one thing which gives me concern over this impersonation,” said Electro, unslinging his guitar.
Tad asked, “What?”
“I don’t know even one of Mother Z’s ditties.”
Shielded by a curtain, Jana scanned the audience. “Twenty-five . . . twenty-six,” she said.
“You’re not certain, though,” said Tad.
“I’m pretty sure I can spot a thug when I see one,” she replied. “The whole front row and the second row up until the crow woman in the maroon shift are composed of hoodlums, along with nearly half the third row. I’m also fairly certain those three in the fourth row over there are, too.”
“The middle one is the drama critic for the
“ said Bob Phantom, who was standing nearby. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Bob Phantom, the obscure magician.”
Tad said, “I’m Tad . . . in disguise.”
Bob Phantom narrowed his left eye. “Why, so you are. You and the young lady going to be part of the show?”
“We hope not,” said Jana.
“What it is,” Tad told the magician, “we’re sort of in trouble. Mr. Phantom. Quite a few people want to do us harm. So it’s important we get off this boat.”
“Loitering backstage isn’t helping any, is it?”
“We have to wait for my robot.”
“Where is he?”
“Out there on stage, trying to impersonate Mother Zarzarkas.”
“I envy you,” said Bob Phantom with a sigh. “Being associated with someone who has such a yearning to perform, who goes on with the show even when there’s danger. Altadena would never do that. I can hardly drag her onstage most evenings. Even when I use my teleportation gift she—”
“Electro’s not going over very well,” said Jana.
“Unconvincing and shallow!”
Electro was nearly through his third ballad. He ceased in midsong. “I can see you clunks don’t appreciate sea chanties.”
“Give us songs of social import!”
“You buffoons don’t know social import from your elbow,” said the robot. “Now hush up while I conclude ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Only Daughter.’ Ahum. Rum tiddy turn, rum tiddy tee, I love Lulu Belle and she loves me. Sing along if you like.”
“We don’t like!”
“Toss a cobblestone at him, mate!”
“Damn,” said Tad, “that brick bit him smack on the head.”
“Making a telltale metallic thud,” said Jana.
“Rum tiddy tiddle, rum tiddy tawdle, I can tell my Lulu by the way she waddles.”
“An odd sound her old skonce made, mate!”
“Aye, so it was. Give her another one, bucko!”
“That ain’t no old skwack! That’s a blinking robot in disguise!”
“Somebody swipe my drag gimmick?” inquired Commodore Snow as he came hurrying through the wings. “That goes against the code of the theater.”
“Back, you dimbulbs!” warned Electro. He tossed aside his guitar, rolled up a sleeve. He aimed a hand, fingers wide, at the restive audience. “I’ll stun the first manjack who tries to assault me.”
“Let’s get this blooming gadget, mates!”
“Let him have it!”
A wave of a dozen burly men came scrambling over the footlights.
Though several fell stunned, more leaped onto the stage.
“Seems the whole damn audience is in your cousin’s pay.” Jana took hold of Tad’s hand.
That distracted him for a few seconds. “There’s too many of them, they’ll overwhelm Electro.”
“Maybe we can get away while—”
“No, I can’t abandon him.” He turned to Bob Phantom. “Can you really do that teleportation stunt or is it a trick?”
“I can really teleport objects and people. It’s a gift,” answered the magician. “I inherited my telekinetic powers from my maternal grandm—”
“Can you use it now?”
“This seems an unlikely time to want to see me teleport Altadena from the dressing room to—”
“I want you to use it on us. Can you teleport our robot and me and Jana off this damn showboat?”
New dark rings formed under Bob Phantom’s eyes as he considered. “Yes, I believe so. I’ve never done three at once before, nor anyone as bulky as your robot companion. Still, it’s a challenge and I see no reason why I can’t succeed. You want to go right now, I suppose?”
Out on the stage nine men were piled atop the toppled Electro.
“Yes, that would be helpful.”
“You may feel a little initial unease in your stomachs,” said Bob Phantom. “At least Altadena always complains of that, but then she’s a born complainer. Tall, lovely in a cool and distant sort of way and always bitching.” His eyes closed, one hand made lazy circles.
“Can he really . . .” began Jana.
Dark trees rose up all around them. High, straight trees stretching up into the black night sky.
“Hey, this is terrific.” Laughing, Jana hugged him. “We got away.”
Tad reluctantly eased away from her. “But,” he said, “where’s Electro?”
“That sounds familiar.” Tad spun toward the distant noise. “It’s him.”
“How many times have you heard Electro fall over in a wilderness?” inquired Jana.
“I know the sound a robot makes landing hard.” He was heading into the dark rows of trees, aimed at the spot the metallic thumps had come from.
“But this could be something else.” The slim girl caught up with him, taking hold of his hand. “We better proceed carefully.”
“Suppose you’re right.”
After a moment Jana said, “Any idea what part of the country we’re in?”
“The outskirts of Siltville, probably.”
She said, “I visited Siltville several times with my husband. This doesn’t look like the outskirts.”
“I should have asked Bob Phantom where he was planning to send us,” said Tad. “At the time, though, I was more concerned—”
“Stop a minute,” cautioned Jana.
The drumming of hoofbeats was growing nearby.
“We must be close to a roadway,” whispered Jana.
Eyes narrowed, Tad glanced all around. He saw nothing but the high dark trees.
The sounds of riders increased.
“Death to smut!”
“Repress bawdy stuff!”
“Burn all filth vendors!”
Angry sounds came rolling across the night forest from somewhere on their left. Soon the cries died, the hoofbeats faded.
“Odd hour for a parade,” remarked the girl.
“Well, we’re not smut vendors so it hasn’t anything to do with us. Let’s find Electro.”
As they resumed hiking Jana said, “Wonder who those fellows were.”
“Long as they’re not from RI, I don’t care.”
“I only hope we didn’t land in the middle of a skirmish or a—”
“Slow and then halt, folks.” A lightrod had all at once blossomed directly in their path. The beam sought and locked in on Tad and the girl. “We usually don’t find lizes with them, especially two so young.”
“Actually we’re not lizards at all.” Tad brought up his scaly green hand to wipe away some of the makeup from his face. “It’s only—”
“No swift moves, lad,” warned the unseen man beyond the glaring light. “Let the hand return to your side. Very good.”
Jana asked, “Who are you?”
“You ought to know that, lass. Seeing as how you’ve come here to hunt us down and set us afire.”
“We have no intention of setting anyone on fire,” said Tad. “We’re hunting for my robot who— “
“Ha, so now you’re using mechanized attackers on us, eh? Not bad enough you come galloping through fields and forest on great ugly grouts and powerful horse. No, now you must send mechanisms—”
“Listen, we’re more or less lost in this woodland,” Tad tried to explain. “Whoever you may be, we don’t contemplate doing you any harm. As soon as we locate Electro and get our bearings we— “
“Are you claiming,” asked the unseen man, “you never head of
Tad shook his head. “Some sort of animal food?”
“Come, come, lad, you’re feigning too much stupidity. Since near everyone knows about
Swill, the Magazine of Disgusting Sex
. Sure, I saw copies in our dorm back on Barnum but—”
“Your hidden printing plant,” said Jana. “It’s around here somewhere, isn’t it?”
“As you already well know, lass.”
Tad turned to the girl. “
has some sort of hidden presses?”
“Since the whole
chain of magazines is outlawed on most of the planets in the Barnum System,” she answered, “they have to use a secret setup. Apparently we’ve wandered into its vicinity.”
“They’ve mistaken us for some of those guys who went by yelling slogans.”
“Not convincing,” said the man with the lightrod, “Ugo, herd them onto the path.”