The Warlock in Spite of Himself

Тема

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PART ONE

VISIT TO A SMALL PLANTAGENET

The asteroid hurtled in from Capricorn, nosed around a G-type sun, swerved off toward the fifth planet. Such a trajectory is somewhat atypical for asteroids.

It slapped into the planet's gravity net, swooped around the globe three times in three separate orbits, then stabbed into atmosphere, a glorious shooting star.

At a hundred feet altitude it paused, then snapped to the surface—but onlytothe surface. No fireworks, no crater—nothing more drastic than crushed grass. Its surface was scarred and pitted, blackened by the friction-heat of its fall; but it was intact.

Deep within its bowels echoed the words that would change the planet's destiny.

"Damn your bolt-brained bearings!"

The voice broke off; its owner frowned, listening.

The cabin was totally silent, without its usual threshold hum.

The young man swore, tearing the shock-webbing from his body. He lurched out of the acceleration chair, balanced dizzily on the balls of his feet, groping till his hand touched the plastic wall.

Steadying himself with one hand, he stumbled to a panel on the other side of the circular cabin. He fumbled the catches loose, cursing in the fine old style of galactic deckhands, opened the panel, pressed a button. Turning, he all but fell back to the chair.

The soft hum awoke in the cabin again. A slurred voice asked, with varying speed and pitch, "Izzz awwl (Hie!) sadizfagtoreee… M'lorrrr' Rodney?"

"All the smooth, glossy robots in the galaxy," muttered Milord, "and I get stuck with an epilepic!"

"Ivv ut bleeezz m'lorr', thuh c'passsider c'nbe—"

"Replaced," finished Rodney, "and your circuits torn out and redesigned. No, thank you, I like your personality the way it is—except when you pull off a landing that jars my clavicles loose!"

"Ivv m'lorrd will vorgive, ad thuh cruzhial momend ovvv blanetfall, I rezeived zome very zingular radio waves thad—"

"You got distracted, is that what you're trying to say?"

"M'lorrrd, id was imerative to analyze—"

"So part of you was studying the radio waves, and part of you was landing the ship, which was just a wee bit too much of a strain, and the weak capacitor gave… Fess! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your mind on the job!"

"M'lorrd egzbressed a wizh to be like thuh—"

"Like the heros of the Exploration Sagas, yes. But that doesn't mean I want their discomforts."

Fess's electronic system had almost recovered from the post-seizure exhaustion. "But, m'lorrd, the chon-cebt of heeroizm imblies—"

"Oh, forget it," Rodney groaned. Fess dutifully blanked a portion of his memory banks.

Fess was very dutiful. He was also an antique, one of the few remaining FCC (Faithful Cybernetic Companion) robots, early models now two thousand years out of date. The FCC robots had been programmed for extreme loyalty and, as a consequence, had perished in droves while defending their masters during the bloody Interregnum between the collapse of the ancient Galactic Union and the rise of the Proletarian Eclectic State of Terra.

Fess (a name derived from trying to pronounce "FCC" as a single word) had survived, thanks to his epilepsy. He had a weak capacitor that, when over-strained, released all its stored energy in a massive surge lasting several milli-seconds. When the preliminary symptoms of this electronic seizure—mainly a fuzziness in Fess's calculations—appeared, a master circuit breaker popped, and the faulty capacitor discharged in isolation from the rest of Fess's circuits; but the robot was out of commission until the circuit breaker was reset.

Since the seizures occurred during moments of great stress—such as trying to land a spaceship-cwm-asteroid while analyzing an aberrant radio wave, or trying to protect a master from three simultaneous murderers— Fess had survived the Interregnum; for, when the Proletarians had attacked his masters, he had fought manfully for about twenty-five seconds, then collapsed. He had thus become a rarity—the courageous servant who had survived. He was one of five FCC robots still functioning.

He was, consequently, a prized treasure of the d'Armand family—prized as an antique, but even more for his loyalty; true loyalty to aristocratic families has always been in short supply.

So, when Rodney d'Armand had left home for a life of adventure and glory—being the second son of a second son, there hadn't been much else he could do—his father had insisted on his taking Fess along.

Rod had often been very glad of Fess's company; but there were times when the robot was just a little short on tact. For instance, after a very rough planetfall, a human stomach tends to be a mite queasy; but Fess had the bad sense to ask, "Would you care to dine, m'lord? Say, scallops with asparagus?"

Rod turned chartreuse and clamped his jaws, fighting back nausea. "No," he grated, "and can the 'm'lord' bit. We're on a mission, remember?"

"I never forget, Rod. Except on command."

"I know," growled his master's voice. "It was a figure of speech."

Rod swung his legs to the floor and painfully stood up. "I could use a breath of fresh air to settle my stomach, Fess. Is there any available?"

The robot clicked for a moment, then reported, "Atmosphere breathable. Better wear a sweater, though."

Rod shrugged into his pilot's jacket with a growl. "Why do old family retainers always develop a mother-hen complex?"

"Rod, if you had lived as long as I have—"

"—I'd want to be deactivated. I know, 'Robot is always right.' Open the lock, Fess."

The double doors of the small air lock swung open, showing a circle of black set with stars. A chill breeze poured into the cabin.

Rod tilted his face back, breathing in. His eyes closed in luxury. "Ah, the blessed breath of land! What lives here, Fess?"

Machinery whirred as the robot played back the electron-telescope tapes they had taken in orbit, integrating the pictorial data into a comprehensive description of the planet.

"Land masses consist of five continents, one island of noteworthy dimensions, and a hpst of lesser islands. The continent and the minor islands exhibit similar flora—equatorial rain forest."

"Even at the poles?"

"Within a hundred miles of each pole; the ice caps are remarkably small. Visible animal life confined to amphibians and a host of insects; we may assume that the seas abound with fish."

Rod rubbed his chin. "Sounds like we came in pretty early in the geologic spectrum."

"Carboniferous Era," replied the robot.

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