Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult
“Get the lead out of your ass.”
Cyrus jumped, almost falling off his donkey. “Who said that?”
“Get thee to a nunnery.”
This time he placed the source. “You're talking!” he said to the donkey.
“Who said that?” the animal said. “You're talking.”
“You're repeating whatever you have heard most recently,” Cyrus said, catching on. “That voice unit was supposed to be for braying. How can you speak words?”
“Defective workmanship,” the donkey said. “You installed the wrong unit.”
Cyrus sighed. So using lead instead of iron wasn't his only error when he constructed the donkey. When the mechanical animal was too heavy to function effectively, Cyrus's father Roland had given him blunt advice: remove the lead. So he had done so, and had a robot animal he could ride.
“Who said the other?” he asked, “About the nunnery. That's like a monastery, isn't it?”
“Your barbarian mother said it,” the donkey answered. “You weren't paying attention. She was not referring to nuns.”
“Not. According to my defective data bank, it's old Mundanian slang for a house of ill repute.”
“What is that? I never heard of an ill house.”
“Naturally you wouldn't know. You were created halfway innocent, for some obscure reason. But she thought it would make a man of you.”
“I'm not a man,” Cyrus protested. “I'm a cyborg. Half robot, half human. I will never be fully human.”
“That's what comes of getting yourself delivered to a humanoid robot and a barbarian. If you wanted to be normal you should have selected a normal couple for parents.”
“I didn't have a choice, you nutty and bolty contraption. They signaled the stork, not me.”
“Neither did I have a choice, half-breed.”
“Had you had one, you should have chosen a more competent builder,” Cyrus said with a halfway metallic smile.
“Indubitably, But since I'm stuck with you, how about giving me a name?”
“You're an ass. An equine breed. So suppose I call you—”
“Forget it, cogbrain!”
Cyrus reconsidered. “Donkey won't do?”
“Let's abbreviate it. Don will do.”
“Don Donkey, Not phenomenally original.”
“Neither are you, cyborg.”
“It will do,” Cyrus agreed with resignation.
He rode on, careful not to remark on the animal's jerky gait, lest he get another sour reminder of his clumsiness in assembling it. The varied terrain of the Land of Xanth passed, becoming less familiar as they got farther away from home. They were following one of the enchanted paths, so there was no danger.
Cyrus got thirsty, so fished a can of tsoda pop from a saddlebag. He was about to open it when it slipped out of his hand, fell to the ground, and rolled off the enchanted path. “Bleep,” he said. Because he had been assembled adult, he was able to use that term. It signaled spot disaffection with the situation.
There was a golden streak. Something zipped after the can, caught it in its mouth, and brought it back, holding it up. It was a dog made from pure gold.
“Thank you.” Cyrus said, accepting the can. The dog zipped away again. “I wonder what kind of creature that was?”
“A golden retriever, dummy,” Don said. “Check your memory bank.”
The donkey was right: the information was there. Cyrus simply hadn't made the connection. “Thank you.” he said again.
“I'm low on fuel.” Don complained.
Cyrus considered. Chances of getting where they were going today were small, so there was no point in pushing it. “We'll stop at the next grazing area we see,” he said.
They came to a small glade strewn with sticks and tufts of old dry grass. “And this is it,” Cyrus said, dismounting.
They stepped off the path. Don put his head down and picked up a stick with his mouth. He chewed, and the stick broke in two. He swallowed the pieces.
“Oh what a cute little horse!” a voice exclaimed. It was a rather young pretty girl, in fact almost nymphlike, but clothed. She had flouncing bark brown hair and sky blue eyes.
Don lifted his head to view her. “I'm not a horse,” he said sourly. “I'm an ass.”
She looked bemused. “A what?”
“A donkey,” Cyrus said quickly, realizing that the Adult Conspiracy prevented her from knowing the other term. “A robot donkey. Call him Don.”
“Hello, Don,” she said shyly. “I'm Piper Nymph.”
“I don't see a pipe,” Don said.
“I don't have a pipe. It's my name. My parents are Hiatus Human and Desiree Dryad. They named me.”
Cyrus's data bank oriented. He knew of them; Hiatus was the son of the late Zombie Master, with the talent of growing things like ears on walls. He had fallen in love with a tree nymph, a hamadryad, and finally married her after a seemingly hopeless quest. Cyrus was jealous; he had no romantic prospects at all. At any rate, that explained Piper's nymphlike appearance: she was half nymph.
“What good are you?” Don asked.
“He's an ass—I mean donkey,” Cyrus said quickly. “He has barnyard manners. Ignore him.”
“No, I'll answer,” Piper said. “My talent is healing. That can be very useful. In fact I have a pet whirlwind I healed. Dusty.”
“A useful whirlwind?” Don asked, his voice fairly rusting with sarcasm.
“Sure. I'll show you. What do you most need?”
“More dry wood. It's my fuel. I'm a wood-burning robot ass.” Don obviously thought he had stifled her positive attitude.
Piper put two fingers to her mouth and made an ungirl-like whistle. In a moment a whirling cloud of dust cruised in toward them, tossing leaves and small twigs about. “This is Dusty,” she said as the whirlwind hovered beside her. “Dusty Dust Devil.”
“What an ill wind,” Don said.
The wind coalesced into a small horned creature. “Why thank you, asinine junk,” the little devil said.
Don took it in stride. “Can you bring me dry wood, you horny midget?”
“Please,” Piper said. “I've got a feeling there's a bad word there.”
The devil disappeared, becoming the dust devil. It whirled all around the glade and into the surrounding forest. In a moment it returned, filled with brush, and faded. A pile of dead branches fell to the ground as the devil formed.
Don stared. “That will hold me for three days!” He started chomping wood.
“Say thank you,” Cyrus murmured to the donkey.
“Why?” Don asked around a mouthful.
Cyrus realized that politeness was not part of the animal's program. So he gave a reason that would make sense to a selfish creature. “Because you want to encourage him to do it again some time, after you run out of fuel.”
Don cocked an ear, understanding. “Thank you, Dusty.”
The little devil blushed blue.
“Say you're welcome,” Piper murmured.
Don paused in midchomp. He was coming to appreciate the possible benefits of common courtesy.
Piper smiled. She was pretty when she did that. “It's nice to see folk get along,” she said.
Too bad she was only thirteen years old, according to Cyrus's data bank: too young to be a prospect for romance. Not that Cyrus knew anything about romance.
They had to wait while the donkey took in the pile of wood. “What are you doing here?” Cyrus asked the nymph.
“I'm just widening my horizons,” she said. “Every year mother lets me wander farther from the tree. By the time I'm adult, I should be familiar with the whole area. Already today I met a man with the talent of selective friction: he can move anywhere, because if he's on slippery ice, he can make one foot have a lot of friction, and push with it, then change to the other foot.”
“So what good is that?” Don asked. “There's no ice here.”
“Maybe some day there'll be ice.” Piper said. “Or something else that's slippery or soupy.”
“What do you want to do when you are adult?” Cyrus asked, partly to stop the donkey from being obnoxious. But also because he did not know what he wanted to do, and perhaps she would give him an idea.
“I'd like to be an actress. I think,” she said. “To be in a play and have people watch me and applaud. I wouldn't even have to be famous. I'd just like to be on stage.”
That seemed like a curious ambition, but Cyrus's caution-circuit prevented him from saying so. “I hope you find your play.”
“I hope so too.” Piper looked around. “I'd better get home; mother worries when I'm out alone too long. She's afraid I'll run afoul of some strange man or something.”
Like a cyborg? That, too, was worth not saying. “Tell her you met a robot donkey with asinine manners.”
“I will,” she said. “Come on. Dusty, I'll race you to the tree.”
The little devil became the whirlwind. Dust devil and girl took off into the forest, racing each other.
Meanwhile Don had finished the pile of wood. His belly was full; it would, as he said, burn for three days, keeping him hot and active.
They wended their way back to the enchanted path. “You know, I'd be able to eat faster and last longer if you'd designed me to burn coal,” Don said.
“Coal has to be mined. Wood's easier to get. Anyway, I had to use parts of wrecked robots, and they were all wood-burning.”
“That also explains where you got my warped brain chip.”
It did indeed. Cyrus was beginning to regret raiding that old battleground. But there hadn't seemed to be much alternative if he wanted to ride.
As the day waned they came to a camping area. There were pie trees galore, and a nice caterpillar tent.
As they approached the tent, a young woman emerged. She looked lean and aggressive. Could she be barbarian?
“Who the bleep are you?” she demanded. “This tent is mine; I got here first. Go away.”
Cyrus sifted through his data banks. “Enchanted Path Camping Sites are open to all legitimate travelers,” he said. “We are legitimate.”
“What, you and that dumb ass?”
“I'm an ass, but I'm not dumb,” Don said. “I'm a smart ass. How smart is your ass, wench?” He eyed her posterior.
The woman stared, evidently taken aback, or at least paused in place. “You talk!”
“Let's exchange introductions,” Cyrus said hastily. “I am Cyrus Cyborg, and this is Don, a robot donkey.”
“He's got a bleeping potty mouth on him.”
“Look who's talking, you bleeping tart.”
Cyrus interposed again. “And you are?”
“Tess.” she said aggressively. “Tess Tosterone. I have a problem.”
Don opened his mouth, Cyrus hastily stuffed a scrounged piece of wood into it. “May we inquire what it is?”
“I'm too pushy. They tell me I need S Trojan to fix it. But I don't know who or where or what he is, so I'm irritable.”
Cyrus's data bank sifted again, “Trojan is one name of the Night Stallion who runs the dream realm. The horse of a different color. But he doesn't have a first name.”
“Then it must be someone else. What would I want with a horse? Your talking mule is bad enough. Now are you going to clear out of here and let me be?”
Don had chewed and swallowed the stick. “Listen, harridan—”
Cyrus made another effort to settle things politely, though her attitude was both annoying and intriguing. “We feel we have equal rights to camp here, so we won't be moving on tonight. Why do you object to sharing?”
“Because you're a man,” Tess said bluntly. “All you men want only one thing.”
This interested him. “What is that?”
“Don't pretend you don't know, you jerk!”
“I'm not pretending. I don't know. That's why I'm traveling to see the Good Magician. I hope he will tell me what I truly want.”
Tess gazed at him, taking stock. “You're serious.”
“I am a serious person, yes.”
“And a cyborg.”
“What's a cyborg?”
“I am a robot-human crossbreed, part alive, part machine. I am not sure in which category I best belong.”
She studied him. “You look completely human.”
“Yes, I am crafted to be, externally. But my bones are iron, and I have a memory bank and consciousness chip in my iron skull. I am programmed to have a human outlook. My parents assembled me carefully.”
“Actually, you're one handsome male specimen, with a perfect roughhewn face, fairly wild hair, and nice muscles.”
“My mother is a barbarian. She likes that type.”
“She has good taste in men. Your appearance is appealing to women.”
“It is? I did not know.”
“And you really don't know what all men want.”
“True. The information may be in my data bank, but I need a more specific description to evoke it. If you know, I would appreciate it if you would tell me. It might save me a year's service with the Good Magician.”
Tess laughed, surprising him. “It might indeed. Very well, I will share the tent with you, and maybe by morning you will figure it out for yourself.”
“I doubt it. I'm sure it would be simpler if you just told me.”
“Simpler, yes. More fun, no.”
Was she teasing him? Teasing was another human thing Cyrus did not property understand. There were a number of things like that, that it seemed only experience and new information could clarify. At any rate, Tess seemed to have mellowed, so he didn't question it. Maybe she would tell him in the morning.
“I'll fetch something to eat,” Cyrus said. “Maybe some of those lichens.”
“Don't,” she said. “Those aren't like-ens, they're dislike-ens. Eat one, and you'll be unfriendly until you find and eat a like-en to cancel it, I found out the hard way.”
He might have guessed. “Thank you.”
“The effect wears off eventually. But why complicate things?”
They foraged for pies and had a nice dinner while Don snoozed beside the pond. Tess was companionable, now that she had accepted him as legitimate, but she seemed privately amused about something. Cyrus suppressed his annoyance.
As night closed, Tess took charge, in the aggressive way she had. “There are two bunks in the tent. You take the left one. I'll take the right one. We'll wash up first.”
“As you wish,” he agreed.
“Not as you wish?”
“I am amenable to whatever normal procedure is. I admit to having had little experience. It is my first journey away from home.”
“What, away from your mommy?”