Mountains capped with red snow poked through the clouds. Jed was on the watch, maintaining a safe altitude and distance from the mountain peaks. He kept the craft above cloud cover. It would be hard to spot them from the ground. But they could see ground activity with the hovercab’s powerful sonar and multi-spectral camera system.
Chuck Marley and Gaston Dimble watched the graphic display for any signs of movement on the vast plains between the peaks. They also kept their eyes on their fourth passenger. Their precious cargo. The Zorgon’s claws were bound behind his carapace.
“Now that you’re back where you want to be, what do you think we should do with you? Bearing in mind you set off my ship’s launch systems, and gave us no alternative but to leave immediately.”
The meter ticked over and a metallic voice chimed “5 credits, 10 credits, 20 credits, 50 credits”.
“Is that all your computer does?” Marley looked exasperatedly at Jed’s meter. “You must do good business running this cab.”
Jed nodded at Zorgeous. “You must do quite well in the kidnapping industry.”
Marley made to punch him.
Zorgeous spoke, “They did not kidnap me. I kidnapped them. Unintentionally.”
Jed laughed so hard he started coughing. Marley remained silent, his fist still suspended in the air.
After a minute, Zorgeous continued. “There is an assistant to the Guardian. I was one of five acolytes, charged with protecting our relic, the Antlers of Amplitude, ensuring the continuation of courtly protocol. I was sent to Crete 581d by the Guardian favourite. Probably because I had my doubts about humans on Zorge. He told me that Zorgons must become used to human presence and that I should mingle among them. But my orders came less and less. I asked to return. But the chief acolyte said things had changed. The Guardian had named him Hierophant, saying he had become old and weak and needed an assistant to govern.”
Jed stared fixedly at the flight screen. “At the moment we lie south of Goramus, the capital, which we approach in twenty minutes…or, I should say,” and Jed warily took one hand off the flight-stick and patted his chrome plated abdomen, “in 500 credits time.”
“Give me one good reason,” Marley said to Zorgeous, “Why we shouldn’t just hand you over to your fellow acolytes. Jed will be more than willing to open the hatchbay door in 20 minutes.”
“For 500 extra credits,” said Jed. “And there’s no hatchbay. Not even an ejector seat. You’ll have to hold your breath while we throw him out.”
Zorgeous’s face turned purple. “I give you one good reason. For red dust. It is found in abundance on Zorge. That is why you humans are here. You know it’s useful, but you don’t know what for. I will give you the secret Mr Marley.”
Marley rubbed his cheek. The application of red dust had done nothing for him.
Zorgeous guessed his thoughts. “Cosmetics are the least of its properties, although it is known for making the most awkward Zorgon males attractive to any Zorgon female.”
“It hasn’t worked on human females,” Marley said defensively.
“Then it hasn’t been properly prepared.”
The clouds parted and the red sun of Zorge pierced the window of the hovercab. As the rays of Pavlov touched his cheeks, Marley realised of all races, the Nunchians of Foon would pay highly for red dust. If he could obtain a large enough shipment, his financial worries would be over.
The hovercab slowed to a halt. Jed cut all engines except the equaliser, keeping them at a steady altitude. Although filmy clouds had reappeared, the graphic display provided the eavesdroppers with an accurate representation of the surface.
The capital of Zorge, Goramus, was not large by human standards. But the Tower of Guardians was awe inspiring enough to protect the worker Zorgons, which was most of them, from overarching questions of the universe, such as why dark matter was not dark, and why red dust cannot be seen in twilight.
The Tower of Guardians had five levels. A new level was added with each new Zorgon Guardian. The total edifice was over 100 feet high. Zorgeous pointed out that the construction of the tower was not, and could not have been, completed using Zorgon labour alone. “The Antlers of Amplitude are brought forth at the time of a new Guardian. These antlers can move stones the size of this car. But only in the right hands. And only after being dipped in…”
“Red dust,” Marley said quickly.
“How perceptive Chuck,” interrupted Gaston. “And you’ll be interested to know that the Tower resembles ancient temples found in forests of early Earthen civilisation, with multilayering, pyramidal symmetry and–” Gaston stopped. The viewscreen showed a crowd of agitated Zorgons assembling outside the jagged slabs of the entrance.
Zorgeous impassively watched the display attached to the seat in front of him. “They are demanding to see the Antlers of Amplitude. If they don’t see them within one day they will storm the Tower. If the Guardian has truly lost them and did not display them to his people for the Anniversary of Rorns, one of the acolytes will take his place.”
The Zorgons also seemed to be angry at something very out of place. On the pediment of the first tower layer was a VT screen. A sharp whistle emanated from two stone hollows either side. When Jed zoomed in, Marley saw two loudspeakers, large enough for an afternoon performance of the Seven Sisters. Then earsplitting static. The screen flickered.
“This is unheard of,” said Jed. “Human technology within the borders of Goramus?”
“Sacrilege!” Zorgeous could hardy bear to look.
“Perhaps,” said Marley, “The times are catching up with the times.”
An ovoid face crystallised on the giant screen. This Zorgon had a low forehead, jutting chin and smaller antlers than usual. Many Zorgons had never seen a VT and couldn’t believe the size of the head. They leant back. Some scratched their antlers in the ground.
“It’s the Hierophant,” said Zorgeous.
As if hearing Zorgeous in the hovercab, the Hierophant began speaking: “One day remains, my Zorgons. If the Guardian antlers are not returned, we will mourn. Together. For our Guardian, our history. But out of the flames of loss a new beginning is forged. Know that if it comes to this, I will be there to see you through it.”
The message terminated. An advertisement for Jinko’s Takeaway quickly followed: “Now with special red sauce.”
A dizzying shudder rocked the hovercab. A low whine came from the back seat.
Zorgeous sat stiffly upright, his eyes white. His antlers vibrated and sparks streaked around the hovercab.
The cab’s computer whined desperately: “Warning, engines de-powering. Hull integrity under threat.”
Jed fiddled at knobs, rapped on screen readouts. “Peggy, divert system power to the engines.”
“I suppose now is not a good time to be asking who Peggy is,” said Marley.
“The hovercab computer. If you don’t stop the Zorgon I’ll have no choice but to eject him.”
“You don’t have an ejector’s seat.”
Marley reached over to the Zorgon and slapped him on the leg. He whacked him on the head. There was no reaction. Zorgeous’s eyes were completely white.
Some of the discharges from Zorgeous arced down towards the surface. They seemed to seek the Tower of Guardians.
“Get him away from here,” said Gaston. “The tower has him gripped in its power.
“Peggy, reduce the attitude jets to 50%. Divert all engines to the thrusters.” Jed swung the pilot’s wheel and the hovercab banked steeply. They were losing altitude fast but putting distance between themselves and the Tower.
The sparks emanating from Zorgeous gradually dissipated. The pupils returned to his eyes. He breathed heavily.
Jed wrestled the hovercab firmly under control. Then he demanded 5,000 credits for a full diagnostics wash. He cruised into the human settlement west of Goramus and left them in front of a modest hotel.