One person was unaccounted for. Insomniac Fluton. Chuck Marley found him in the sleeping quarters. Amazingly, he was actually lying on one of the two bunks in the narrow quarters, fast asleep, on his back, hands neatly folded on chest.
It would be a crime to wake him. But he had already ordered a hovercab to the planet’s surface.
Marley got the fright of his life when Fluton started speaking . His eyes had stayed closed, his body as still as a serene lake, but the lips said, rather formally, “Don’t worry. I’ll stay here. Somebody has to look over the ship.”
Marley jumped back, a feeling of guilt that he had been watching someone asleep, or so he thought.
“That’s a very good idea Insomniac. I’ll, ah, promise to promote your app, what’s it called again, FaceSwap?”
“FaceMash.” Fluton raised himself and sat on the edge of the bed. “It matches you to famous historical figures. And plays music based on your mood.”
“And soon it’ll be an all-in-one payment system too.”
“I don’t think I’ll go down that path.”
“Well rest assured, FaceMash will go viral on Zorge.”
“There are not many humans here are they?” Fluton scratched his head.
“True. But some of them may be influential scientists.”
“Good point. They’re innovators like me.”
“Here are the keys.” The Anaconda really had no keys. Starting the ship involved a retinal scan and passphrase. So Marley pretended to throw something.
“Thanks.” Fluton caught the imaginary set of keys.
A blue light flashed on the sleeping quarter’s status screen. “Incoming transmission.” The Anaconda’s AI systems had a monotonously slow, drawling, almost drunken, voice.
“We need to change the ship’s voice,” said Marley. “Accept transmission.”
The screen displayed a dinted pink hovercab with attached trailer. It rattled out of the atmosphere of Zorge. The dusty orange planet showed mountains and deserts below the crimson clouds. The hauler sidled up to the Anaconda. The transmitter crackled: “What type of ship is this? Where the hell am I supposed to dock?”
“It’s a Fooolzian Trawler. With Sirian pedigree,” Marley added hastily. “Dock below the bridge on the port side. The struts are ready.”
The pilot was overeager on his approach and thudded into the jutting airlock module. Heavy magnets struggled with the hovercab, but finally captured it. Latex balloons enveloped the hatch.
A bearded man in his 50s squirmed tried to squirm through. Marley gave him some assistance, yanking him by the shirt collar.
“I’m Jed, welcome to Zorge.” Jed pretended to dust his jacket.
“Have a safe trip.” It was Insomniac Fluton on the Anaconda’s intercom.
“We’ll in touch when or if we need anything.” Marley gave the CCTV a mock salute.
The bearded cab driver gestured Marley and Gaston back towards his vehicle. Marley had to push him through the hatch.
As the hovercab plunged towards the surface Marley’s stomach made friends with his neck. After an ungainly landing he was brave enough to open his eyes and look out the window. He saw a giant electronic billboard: “Zorge. Innovation and Creation!” Beneath these words a woman in a tight-fitting lab coat held a bubbling test tube. When she poured the tube’s contents Marley was slightly unsettled to read the words, “Seek, watch, believe” bobbling around the screen. They resonated curiously with the subconscious messages bubbling in his head.
Zorge was strictly divided into human and Zorgon. But the Zorgons had become increasingly restless about the human presence. Humans were now only admitted into their territory after a strict equipment search. This prevented many from entering the capital. For as soon as they could afford it most humans could not resist robotically enhancing themselves, installing intelligence chips, culinary regulators and chrome-plated abdomens.
Jed, Marley and Gaston Dimble nimbly paced across the tarmac. A trolley cruised by, towing their goods for import.
“You’ve made a fair exchange,” Jed said. “My tip? Get your hands on some vials of red dust. It’s going to be the next big substance, the next space juice.”
Marley stroked his cheek, feeling for the smoothness promised by the application of his sample vial.
“Red dust will be useful for more than just skin care,” Jed added.
“Like tulips,” Dimble made an attempt at humour with an obscure historical reference.
Marley ignored him. “Do you have any idea,” he asked, “why a Zorgon would leave Zorge?”
“Impossible! Not a single Zorgon has left since the diplomatic mission to Crete, 70 years ago. We all know how that ended.” The Zorgons had refused all offers of technological assistance and had threatened to walk out of the assembly. The only point on which they relented was permission to film an episode of Universal Idolatry on Zorge. This was enough for humanity to gain a foothold.
The temporary structures erected by the film crew had now expanded into a burgeoning scientific settlement.
“What would you say,” said Marley, “if I told you I spotted a Zorgon on Crete 581d?”
Jed laughed. “I’d say you were delusional.”
They glanced at a scrolling news display. “…Guardian agrees to greater access…First visit to settlements in over a decade welcomed by scientists…Unrest in Ungarloot.”
“Where’s Ungarloot?” asked Gaston.
“A satellite town 30 miles south.” Jed pointed to a rugged mountain ridge that crossed the northwest. “My business is fine, as long as the unrest stays there.”
Marley glanced at Jed without turning his head.
Gaston impatiently punched a few buttons on his flablet. “Jed, you are aware of this…this announcement by the Guardian?” He pressed play. A Zorgon filled the screen, minus its antlers. Without these spindly, grasping tentacles, the Zorgon looked less alien: “I am the Guardian. My will is clear. But the Antlers of Amplitude must be recovered.”
Marley turned directly towards Jed. “The Antlers of Amplitude? What the hell are they?”
“I’ve heard of these.” Gaston fingered his chin. “The Guardian is chosen because of his latent psychic sense. The elders then hack off his antlers and attach the Antlers of Amplitude in their place. They have been passed down through generations. They bestow a persuasive power to anyone who can successfully wear them. There have only been five Guardians in the last 200 years.”
“Ridiculous,” said Marley. But secretly he questioned his narrow-mindedness. “I don’t suppose, Jed, you’ll give us a scenic tour?” Marley looked at the financial readout on his flablet. With the 50,000 credits secured from the pizza and giblet exchange, he could afford some sightseeing.
Jed replied quickly, “Anything for credits. We’re safe up in the skies.” He banged on his chest three times. It sounded like a bell tolling. “I won’t get anywhere near Goramus with my chrome-plated abdomen. Especially with its bonus ripple chip. Let’s look at the little critters from above.”
‘Little critters’ did not spring to mind when Marley thought of Zorgons. They were creepy, rickety, but they weren’t little. At least not the adults. And those long, twisty antlers were anything but critter-like.
“Can you fly us back to my ship first? I have a little extra cargo. Your trailer won’t be required.”