Marley berated himself for choosing the cheapest room. For a few more credits he could have got something bigger than this shoebox. It had no windows. No fridge stocked with strangbrew. No complimentary tea. But it had a neon massage chair. At the moment it was occupied. By Zorgeous.
The neon chair enveloped Zorgeous with subluminal bursts of photons. His antlers glowed a steady green, a hue Marley had not seen on them. Zorgeous had his eyes closed and for the first time he seemed peaceful, almost content.
Despite not sitting in it, Marley could feel the glow of the chair like a cushion on his forehead. The glow was specially tuned to desensitise neural activity, inducing a detached, stress-free state.
Marley adjusted the mechanism of the chair until Zorgeous emerged from his trance. Gaston Dimble had gone to Jinko’s Takeaway, keen to try the new red sauce. Marley was free to interrogate Zorgeous, without Gaston’s commentary.
On the side of the neon chair, Marley turned a palm-sized wheel, increasing the concentration of the photon bubble.
Zorgeous’s head swayed from left to right and he returned to a deeper trance. He spoke with a detached drone. “I was a loyal acolyte. Loyal and unquestioning. My stay on Crete 581d taught me one thing. To question. I followed every order of the chief acolyte blindly. If I had not done so, if I had summoned the courage to consult the Guardian, there would not now be a Hierophant and our traditions would not be in jeopardy.”
“Perhaps,” said Marley.
Zorgeous’s left antler glowed faintly. He appeared to have stopped breathing. But he snapped awake. He pointed his antlers directly at Marley, his eyes focused with intent. “I sense another agency behind this. An alien. A human!”
Marley averted his eyes from the Zorgon’s gaze. “Don’t look at me.” But secretly he suspected that the human presence on Zorge was not all benign. He need only look at his own behaviour as an example. Should he just let Zorgeous go? He had caused enough trouble already. Marley didn’t think kidnapping was his thing even if it was somewhat justified.
Adaptation did not happen in a day. If humans could take many years to change how long would it take Zorgons, with their slow-burning, almost disinterested existence? The Sirians had many times warned of the dangers of foisting new tech on races not yet ready for the leap. Jovian Jellyfish went so far as to propose a blanket ban on contacting such races at all. ‘The Prime Directive’ (as it was known in a bygone era).
Marley couldn’t imagine life without tech. His alarm clock was proof of that. Humans had developed in short sporadic bursts. But in between those bursts were long plateaus, as if evolution had stopped off at a roadside diner and married the waitress, with their children carrying on the family business for aeons.
For the first 300 years after the space shuttle, all humans had done was sparsely settle the solar system. Only two forms of life were found on other planetary bodies, and neither of these offered humanity any threat or opportunity for enlightenment. The first were rocks on Mars. For one hundred years humans lived on Mars without realising they cohabited side-by-side with extraterrestrial life. Or, in the Martian case, humans were the extraterrestrials.
Then a Martian colonist specialising in astronomy projected his telescope onto the Martian dunes. By comparing photographic plates he noticed that several of the rocks shifted position at certain times of year. Tiny filaments on the rocks shifted them slowly across the dunes in search of other rocks to nudge.
Zorgons weren’t exactly rocks. Marley loosened the bonds binding Zorgeous to the neon chair. He left the setting on medium, with a gradual release back to low power.
Where was Gaston? He’d been gone longer than a sample of fast food should warrant. He went to find him and assumed that when they returned, Zorgeous would be gone.
Outside the hotel, a persistent merchant urged Chuck Marley to look at a variety of things he never knew he needed. He bought an isomorphic backscratcher to soothe a nagging itch on his lower back.
The backscratcher worked its magic on his itch. But not his curiosity. He strolled down the main boulevard running the entire length of the settlement. It was flanked by microchip repair bays, electric charging pylons, LED signs, pawnbrokers and fashion stores with bald robot mannequins.
Marley wondered why anyone would buy something worn by a bald robot mannequin. But people had been doing it for centuries. His first nightmares were of bald mannequins, and he still found them disturbing.
Zorge was half the size of Earth. The highly technological human settlement was a speck of luminescence in the midst of vast tundra and the occasional savannah. The other half of the planet was desert, with only a quarter of the world covered by ocean. The Zorgons concentrated themselves on the southwest tip of a giant supercontinent that hadn’t shifted in millennia. There were no earthquakes to speak of on Zorge. At least as far as Zorgon history and lore spoke of.
A high intensity energy field protected the human settlement from the unpredictable weather and other undesirables. Although Zorge had a breathable atmosphere, the energy field filtered out the worst of Pavlov’s high-energy ultraviolet rays. It also blocked most sandstorms.
As Marley wandered down the boulevard he passed a boarded shop. Through the cracked window he saw what looked like a beachball model of Zorge. He peered into the gloomy room. A ladder stood next to the wall on the right, which was half painted, half wallpapered. It led to a manhole. An inflatable globe that looked like a model of Earth lay not too far from its smaller companion. On the floor was a newspaper, while a worn curtain blocked his view of the rest of the room.
A pale, bald and startled face shot from around the curtain.
The shock made Marley fall over. The bald head bade him wait. He heard a shuffling of feet from somewhere in the deserted street. Three doors down, a tall thin man in a loose grey shirt and black trousers shimmied up to Marley. Mounted on a thin neck was the bald head that had so recently startled him.
“Is this shop opening soon?” asked Marley
“Come with me.”
Without thinking Marley followed him down a narrow alley and into a back entrance. The dripping of a leaking pipe pierced the silence of a small antechamber.
The pale man whispered into a small vent half way up the corridor. “It’s one of them. I’m sure of it.”
A wooden board in the wall slid back. From the blackness within, two piercing blue eyes scanned Marley from head to foot. A muffled female voice said, “We’ve met. So it’s definitely not one of them.”
Marley swallowed. “I think you’ve got the wrong person. I’m not one of them or one of you.”
The eyes shot to the thin grey man. “Perhaps he might be more useful than a regular… defector. Or more annoying, if past performance pans out.”
“This is all a little difficult to relate to when I don’t know who you are,” said Marley.
“You don’t want, or need to know. It is in your best interests not to know.”
“Good day to you then, and I’ll make sure to keep out of your way.”
“This time you will.”
As Marley hurried from this bizarre encounter two things worried him. The first was how quickly a bad encounter with another human could ruin your day. He was also perplexed by the voice’s emphasis on ‘this time’.