The patting of feet did not last long. Rothball Hazard had reached his destination. Chuck Marley and Gaston Dimble advanced down the corridor to Frint Nono’s lab. Hazard waited around a corner, looking left and right. He nodded at their approach and poked an intercom.
After looking up and down, Hazard brushed his eyebrows with a moist fingertip. He nodded with assurance. Steady thuds came closer. A shadow obscured the small acrylic aperture embedded in the entry to Nono’s lab.
The door panel immediately opened to reveal an amorphous bulk in a tightly fitting lab coat. It looked more like a butcher’s apron dripping with stains and splats. Things dangled off the apron near a bulge that was probably a stomach. If this was Frint Nono, Marley was unsure which part of him it was.
Rothball Hazard came up to Marley’s chin, but he was no taller than Nono’s knees.
“Who’s there? Is that you Rothball?” The voice above the doorway was slow and sonorous.
“It is indeed I, Rothball Hazard, Head of Roboto-Genetic Engineering.”
This seemed superfluous to Marley, yet he had to address the lumbering hulk clearly and articulately.
Hazard continued, “I have come to check on the progress of our foremost operation. Two Health Protectors are with me to take notes, because your standards are second to none.”
Dimble removed his pocket flablet.
Marley was suddenly aware of a strange situation. He had manipulated Rothball Hazard into manipulating Frint Nono. Hazard was highly susceptible to suggestion under the influence of the red dust; it made him think and act quicker, but not reflect. He had to be on the lookout for any signs of a return to normality.
Nono moved aside and they entered a small room with two levers in the floor and several more on the wall. Cabinets sprawled open, revealing scalpels of all lengths and widths, syringes, electric drills and saws. The ceiling was 20 feet high to cater for the frame of Nono. Marley looked at his massive feet, firmly planted on the ground, then gradually lifted his gaze from foot, to torso, to chest, to neck, to…
…He quickly looked away. What he saw was so hideous that he wondered whether he needed glasses. He tried again. No. The image planted on his retina would give him nightmares until the end of days. Frint Nono was tall for a reason: to distance the viewer from a head that was bloated, warped, twisted, ugly, monstrous. All negative words in all galactic languages could not do justice to the arrangement of flesh that protruded, dangled, jutted, wobbled on the skull.
The voice was deep, sensuous, and persuasive: “I am Frint Nono. Welcome.”
Marley responded as best he could, watching his right hand disappear into Nono’s palm. This was not a handshake. It was an armshake. He retrieved his limp appendage, now covered in sweat and wrinkled from lack of oxygen.
“I have two laboratories, each for a stage in synthetic testing.” Nono opened a panel. “Rothball Hazard, Head of Roboto-Engineering…”
“Roboto-Genetic-Engineering,” Hazard said firmly.
“Genetic-Engineering… completes his simulations and puts them on a rail where they slide down to my lab.” He pulled a lever and a portion of the wall slid away, revealing a room slightly dimmer.
If real Health Protectors were confronted by the horrors within this chamber, they would have immediately retired.
Marley’s turned his gaze to the metal hooks attached to wall, floor and ceiling. There was no sign of blood (except for splashes of purple on Nono’s apron) yet the walls were parched. What could be rubber, or flesh, flapped on the hooks at gusts from the air-conditioning.
“No detectable odour,” Marley said to Dimble.
“Got it,” Dimble tapped his flablet.
“That’s because what you see before you, or rather what was before you, never was.” Frint Nono never looked his addressee in the eyes; he always angled his glance just to the right or left. But when Marley used his peripheral vision he was sure Nono was staring straight at him, as if gauging whether to use him as a test subject.
Marley took two steps forward and kicked an irregular piece of fleshy tissue. He stooped to retrieve it. Turning it over, he found it covered with brittle fur. Zorgon skin? He remembered Zorgeous offering him a flake off his body, which he threw, but not before he had felt its coarseness. Except this sample seemed crisp and new. On the underside there was no indication of blood. It was slightly sticky and highly flexible. Whichever way you bent it, it returned to its original position.
Nono looked on with subdued pleasure. Everything he did was understated. He took half a minute to rotate his head ninety degrees. “As you have discovered, this test subject was not a failure, but a stepping stone.”
“There’s no blood on these pieces of – skin,” said Marley.
“It’s synthetic tissue. Thuris Thranganis supplies a blood substitute which does not stick but lubricates. The last specimen fell apart, pieces flew everywhere.” Nono turned back to Hazard. “Can I borrow your genetically engineered cleaning bots?” Frint Nono looked sadly at his lab coat.
“Fine job,” said Marley. “Fooled me. Looks like real blood, but I can’t say of what species.”
“Thranganis has his uses, otherwise he would not be here,” Hazard said. “The blood is ready, the stress devices now await the delivery of the final subject, which we have just assembled.”
Nono looked confused. “But we have not fully charged the bio-kinetic tissue in the electric field.”
“We must make a beginning.” Hazard’s eyes were glazed.
Nono looked hard at Marley and at the Professor.
“You needn’t worry about them,” Hazard said dismissively. “Wait.” He marched out of the chamber.
Alone with Frint Nono was not a comfortable experience. No one said a word. A trolley on rails terminated the silence. Nono walked back to the panel and pulled a handle. The hatch contained a large zipped bag with two protruding handholds.
Almost too quickly Hazard came scampering back.
“Our test subject.”