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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, asi
nine 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. "You’re welcome." 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 rough-hewn 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 properly 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?"
There was something in her tone, but it seemed a fair question. "Yes. Hannah Barbarian."
"Just how old are you, cyborg?"
"As much as two years."
"Two years! You look grown!"
"I am grown. I was delivered as a grown-man kit, in a small cat-shaped box, with some assembly required. I understand that effort drove both my parents to distraction, but in the course of the following year they managed to assemble me, and here I am."
She gazed at him assessingly. "So are you grown, or a baby? Are you familiar with the Adult Conspiracy?"
"Yes, of course. It is in my data bank. It concerns the things that children must be shielded from, such as bad words and stork summoning. Naturally I honor it to the letter; it’s in my programming."
"Have you ever seen a bare woman?"
"Oh, yes, there are pictures in my data bank."
"A real one."
"No. But I’m sure I know the description."
She shook her head as if bemused. "This way." She walked to the pond.
He followed. "Actually my data indicates that strangers do not readily show their bodies in public, so perhaps I should wait in the tent until you are through."
"But then—" He paused, for she had hauled off her shirt. She was somewhat leaner than the picture in his data bank, but it was clear that she was female. "I see."
"I’ll bet. Strip, Cyrus."
"As you wish." Carefully he removed his shoes, shirt, and trousers.
"Well, you look mostly human," she said.
"I am nevertheless a composite, as I said. My bones may be iron, but my flesh is alive. I am remarkably strong, but my vessels do bleed when punctured, and I feel pain."
"Look at me."
He had not looked since she removed her skirt, for some reason. Now he did as directed. Her lower half was also lean but definitely female, according to his stored images. That gave him an odd urge, but he was unable to define it. "I am looking."
"And not reacting. You definitely have had no experience." She waded into the pond.
"This is true." He followed her. Soon they were standing chest deep (or whatever) in the water. Her chest was rather more curvaceous than his. He felt slightly guilty for being intrigued.
She stood beside him, eyeing him sidelong. Her glance angled off his shoulder and chest before striking the water beyond, raising an amused ripple. "You won’t short out in the water or anything?"
"No, I’m proof against short-circuiting. I don’t have wires as such. Thank you for your concern."
"That was irony, pun intended, not concern."
Now he was almost certain she was teasing him, but he didn’t know how to react, so he didn’t. "Thank you."
Tess shook her head. "You are a wonder! Come on, I’ll wash your back." Before he could figure out how to respond, she came up behind him and splashed cool water across his neck and shoulders. Then her hands rubbed against his shoulder blades, and traveled down his back, under the water. "How’s that feel?"
Actually it felt good. The flesh of his back was tight from traveling, and her touch made it relax. "Satisfactory."
"That so? How about this?" Her hands moved down and squeezed his bottom.
"That feels good in a different way," he said, surprised.
"Really?" She seemed to be stifling laughter. "Now it’s your turn. Do me." She turned around.
He turned to face her back. He stroked her shoulders as she had stroked his, then moved down her back, and finally squeezed her bottom. It was considerably plumper than his, despite her general leanness. There was something really evocative about it. "You have a—a nice—posterior," he said haltingly.
Tess shook her head. "You really, truly, don’t know," she said.
A bulb flashed over his head. "Does this relate to what every man wants?"
"Oh, yes, Cyrus."
"Please, won’t you tell me? This is making me feel strange."
She sighed. "I thought you were just another man on the make. I see you are truly innocent. You have the information in your memory, but you don’t know how to apply it to the real world. You haven’t existed long enough. You are adult mainly in body, not experience."
"That seems to be true."
"And I’ve been teasing you, trying to make you reveal your real nature. I shouldn’t have."
"Oh, I am sure you are without fault."
"Thank you." She considered half a moment more, then made a decision. "Since I teased you, I will untease you. I will show you what you need to know."
"I would really appreciate that."
"What men want is to seduce young women."
"Persuade them to assist in signaling the stork."
Cyrus was amazed. "But only married people do that."
Tess stood before him, her hands on his upper arms. "This is one of the differences between what goes into proper data banks and what exists in the real world. People can signal the stork without being married. Elders may frown on it, but it happens."
"Precisely. But I will persuade you." She squeezed his arms. "Put your arms around me and bring me close to you. We will do it now."
"But we’re standing in the water!"
"Another myth. It can be done anywhere, any way up. Embrace me. Do it."
He put his arms around her and drew her in until she was right up against him. She suddenly seemed twice as shapely as before, especially in front. "This is amazing."
"Indeed. Now let’s say that you have captured me, and want to go farther. A kiss would be persuasive."
"Kiss me, idiot."
Oh. He brought his face down to hers, and hesitated. "On the—?"
She jammed her mouth against his, kissing him avidly. He felt as if his head were floating off his neck. This was a level of experience he had never imagined.
She drew back a little. "Now stroke my bottom, as before, but more firmly."
He obeyed. It was as though he were fondling a fine sculpture, evoking a strong yet loving reaction. "Oh, Tess, that makes me want to—" Again he ran out of concept.
"To summon the stork. Exactly as any man in this situation would. The next step is to—"
They both jumped half out of the water, falling away from each other. Don was there by the shore, having awakened from his snooze.
"You silly ass!" Tess exclaimed angrily.
"He’s not silly, he’s a smart ass," Cyrus reminded her. "He told you."
"I just wanted to remind you it’s getting late," the donkey said. "You need to get out of the water while you can still see your way."
The woman shook herself, evidently annoyed about something. Then she made some kind of internal decision. "He’s right. I think you have the idea now. When you get a woman like that, that’s what you do. You understand what to do with her."
"Yes, I do," Cyrus agreed. He was almost disappointed that Don had not waited to interrupt them a few minutes later. "Thank you."
"You’re welcome." She seemed partly frustrated and partly relieved.
They emerged from the pool, dried off, and went to their separate beds. Cyrus’s feelings were in turmoil. Tess was right: he did want what she had shown him. Yet he knew it was not customary on so brief an acquaintance. So surely it was best that the donkey had interrupted them.
"If you wish, I will join you on your bed," Tess said from the nearby darkness. "To keep you warm."
Cyrus knew that he would never be able to control himself if she did that. He did not want to antagonize her. It really wasn’t cool enough to warrant such help. So he demurred. "Thank you, but I am warm enough."
"Okay." She sounded vaguely disappointed. That was surely his imperfect imagination. Why would a woman want to keep a cyborg warm?
"Don’t let the tics bite you."
"Bugs that hide in your bed and bite when you’re asleep. Such as robot tics, that make you get all metal and jerky."
"Oh, that would not affect me. I am already part metal, but not, I hope, a jerk."
She laughed for some reason. "Or synthetics, made of plastic and metal."
"Yes, of course."
"Or roman tics, bred in a love spring, that make you amorous."
Cyrus suspected that one of those had already gotten him, but he didn’t want to admit that. "Thank you. I’ll be careful."
That was all. Yet somehow he felt immensely frustrated. What was the matter with him? He had learned a lot, but realized that though he was indeed interested in summoning the stork, he still wasn’t satisfied about the course of his life.
Well, tomorrow he would reach the Good Magician’s Castle. The Good Magician would surely know. The GM knew everything.
Cyrus did not need a lot of sleep, but it was the human thing to do, so he lay still and turned his animation low.
In the morning they harvested fresh eggs from the eggplants, bread from the breadfruit tree, and grape and strawberry jellyfish from the pond. Tess showed him how to get fresh cups of hot tea from the T-Tree. It was very good.
It was time to resume traveling. "Thank you for your assistance," Cyrus told Tess. "It has been nice being with you."
"It could have been nicer."
"I don’t understand."
She sighed. "Of course you don’t. But next time you get bare with a woman, see that the donkey is nowhere near."
"I will try to do that," he agreed, perplexed.
"Let’s get a move on," Don said impatiently. "We don’t have all day."
"Which way are you going?" Tess asked.
"West, to the Good Magician’s Castle."
"I’m going east."
"So we may not meet again."
"We may not," she agreed.
The exchange was somehow unsatisfactory, but Cyrus couldn’t figure out how to correct it. He mounted Don and rode out of the campsite.
They almost collided with a slight man coming in. "Oops, my fault," the man said. "I wasn’t watching where I was going."
"Neither was I," Cyrus said. Then, for want of anything else to say, he introduced himself. "I am Cyrus Cyborg, and this is Don Donkey, a robot ass."
"I am Trojan. S Trojan, a meek man."
Cyrus’s memory bank whirred. That was the name Tess was looking for. "There is a woman you must meet."
"Oh, I would be too shy. I am considered effeminate. Women aren’t much interested in me."
"This may be the exception. Come, I’ll introduce you to her." He jumped off the donkey and led the way back.
Tess was packing her things into her backpack, about to depart. "What the bleep is this?" she demanded irritably. Perhaps she had eaten another dislike-en.
"This is Trojan," Cyrus said. "S Trojan."
She looked stricken. It was almost as if she would have preferred to use less coarse language in this instance.
"I really didn’t mean to bother you," Trojan said apologetically. "I am on an unlikely quest to find my ideal Significant Other, assuming such a person exists."
Tess recovered. "Come here, Trojan."
"I beg your pardon?"
She strode forward, sweeping him up in a hearty embrace. "You are the one I have been looking for!"
"I don’t understand. I’m just a nonentity."
"Shut up or I’ll miss you."
"You will what?"
She kissed him. "Never call my bluff."
"I confess that is heady stuff. But what would a fine woman like you want with a nothing like me?"
"I think he’s grimy from travel," Cyrus said. "He’ll need to wash up in the pond."
She shot him a look of naughty gratitude. "Yes. I’ll join him there." She carried Trojan away.
Cyrus returned to the donkey, feeling elated. He had managed to do a good deed.
"I don’t understand," Don said.
"Naturally not," Cyrus agreed smugly.
They had not gone far before they heard someone crying. It was a girl, staring wildly around. "Don’t stop," Don muttered. "We can’t let silly females slow us down. That pushy Tess was bad enough."
But Cyrus had another idea. "I’m trying to learn about women. I learned a lot last night, but I’m sure there’s still more. Also, I have an empathy circuit that makes me want to help folk in need."
"Suit yourself, sucker. Fortunately I lack that silly-ass circuit. Chances are you won’t be able to help her anyway."
They approached the girl. "May I help you?" Cyrus asked gallantly as he dismounted, still flush from his success with Tess.
"I don’t think so," the girl said. "I’m Xina. I can change my hair at will." As she spoke her hair changed from short brown to flowing blond. "I’m supposed to join a play ensemble as an actress, but I can’t find it."
"A play group?" Cyrus’s data bank whirled. "Those are mainly organized by the Curse Fiends."
"No, this is supposed to be right around here," she insisted. "Only it isn’t. I don’t know what to do."
Cyrus had no idea what to do. "Neither do I. Maybe you should ask the Good Magician."
"I just came from him," she flared, her hair turning fiery red. "I asked him what was my destiny, and he said to act in this ensemble that is forming here. Only there’s nothing. I owe a year’s service for this?" She broke down in tears again.
"I told you," Don said.
"Oh, a talking mule!" Xina exclaimed.
"What?" She looked as if she had heard a bad word.
"Donkey," Cyrus said. "He is a robot."
"I love horses," Xina said, her grief evaporating. "He looks a lot like a
small horse. May I pet him?" Don eyed her assessingly. "Do you like asses?" "Four-footed ones, yes. You’re quite handsome, like your companion." "Then you may pet me." Xina did so. "You have such a nice metal mane." "Yours is pretty nice too." Don was mellowing considerably, coincidentally. "Could I ride you?" "Hop on." Cyrus was unable to help with her problem. There had to be some mistake. Then he thought of something. "Don can stay with you until I return, as the castle is surely close by. I’ll try to ascertain where the ensemble is really supposed to be. It is surely a clerical error."
"Do you really think so?" she asked, brightening.
Cyrus was doubtful, but couldn’t say that. "All I can do is ask."
"Oh, thank you," she said. She leaned down from the donkey and kissed
him on the ear.
Cyrus was too startled to react. He stood there, the lingering impression of the kiss caressing his ear. He had had no idea that a woman could practice such magic.
Then Don moved away, carrying Xina, and Cyrus was alone. Well, it was time to get on to the Good Magician’s Castle.
Excerpted from Two to the Fifth by Piers Anthony.
Copyright © 2008 by Piers Anthony Jacob
Published in October 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.