Thuris Thranganis gazed for a while at the air vent. “I’ll have to put my pet cloud experiments on hold.”
“Pardon? Wet cloud experiments?” Marley was beginning to suspect he had a hearing loss.
“No, you heard me. Pet cloud. I’ve been designing an intelligent cloud that has both practical and emotional uses. For the isolated, this cloud hugs and caresses. It can also form shapes and express feeling. On the practical side, it can water your garden, wash your bathroom and immobilise intruders. I had Rothball quivering in his little boots for a while.” He addressed Gaston: “By the way, thanks Gunder.” He turned to Marley. “And you are?”
“I assure you Lars, there was never any danger from that cloud. When I sensed Rothball coming, I added a drop of chloroform and a hint of mustard gas to test the cloud’s psychosomatic abilities. Who better to test it on than that man who is no longer a man? He’s had so many modifications to his brain that he makes Frint Nono look like a human being. Rothball Hazard might look normal physically, but his legs and head are inextricably linked, and warped beyond recall. It all goes back to childhood. When he was seven he dropped the baton in the 400-metre relay for quick thinkers. All he’s ever wanted to do since is run faster and expand his brain. That’s why he has a big head and a small body.”
“And you can’t see his legs when he runs,” said Marley.
“But his legs were powerless against my cloud. No matter how many modifications Rothball makes to himself, chemistry will prevail. He can inflate his brain to the size of Ganymede. I will find a way to influence it.”
“Does he only experiment on himself?” Marley knew the answer to this.
“Of course not. He experiments on himself so that he may experiment on others.” Thranganis pushed up his glasses. “And not just other humans.”
Marley and Dimble looked around the lab. It resembled a high-tech version of the lair of an alchemical warlock. A maze of connecting glass pipes sat on the table like a puzzle, test tubes stuck out at obtuse angles, beakers bubbled with red, white…and green fluids. The broken air-conditioning unit buzzed static, sending out electric bolts. The smell of recently applied disinfectant mingled with unnameable chemical odours. Two lab assistants stirred beakers with tiny metal spoons checked metre readings and sampled liquids.
“These are my assistants Frilo and Bilo, my Sirian apprentices. They will affirm that all laboratory practices are sound.”
Frilo and Bilo were obviously brother and sister, and maybe twins. Frilo was scruffy. His position as apprentice was not due to personal grooming skills. Bilo was a neat version of Frilo. Both of them ignored Marley.
Marley strode to the centre of the room. “It’s not just your methods we’re concerned about, it’s your ingredients also, right Gunder?”
“Where do you make your special sauce?” Gaston demanded.
“Special sauce? I don’t make any special sauce. What is special sauce?” Thranganis looked taken aback. The frequency with which he adjusted his glasses increased. One of the lab assistants briefly stopped working.
Marley said: “We think you protest your innocence too much! Right Gunder?”
Gaston nodded sternly.
“Innocence of what?” Thranganis wriggled his nose.
A thick red liquid was sucked into a tube and made its way through a maze of pipes. It oozed along, slung around bends and was subjected to different types of pressure. It settled in a cubic container where it commingled with imperceptible vapours, then whooshed down another tube into more intertwining pipes. Bilo intermittently passed a black digital meter in front of the liquid as it made its journey, as if checking for signs of life. After travelling through four miles of tubing, the liquid slithered into a pump chamber and squeezed onto a bread roll, where it swirled into a perfect circle.
“You obviously did not prepare for our visit,” Marley said. “Otherwise you would have made more effort to conceal the special sauce making procedure. I hope you’re more cautious when real Health Protectors turn up.”
“What?” Thranganis was incredulous.
Marley continued: “We’re really special representatives of Jinko’s, here to check on your progress.” This was a bold poke in the dark from Marley, an improvised change of role he thought on the fly.
“But Chuck!” Gaston was disappointed. He wasn’t going to be able to exercise his rights under the Special Sauces Act. But surely if he could gain any insight into the production process he could make his own sauce.
Thranganis peered above his glasses before turning to his assistant. “Frilo, bring the bread roll here.” The assistant removed some tongs from a steel hook and carefully retrieved the roll. He brought it over to Thranganis, who donned surgical gloves and let his glasses slide off his nose.
“The sauce is as addictive as Jinko’s requires and,” he coughed twice, “has a partial life of its own. Once ingested it can be tracked. And in special circumstances, it can control the life of its host. Efficacy: up to four hours.” He dipped his finger into the sauce and swirled it around. It reformed on the roll. “No amount of buffeting and swishing of the sauce can alter its original shape: it doesn’t spill or splatter. Here, try some.” He held his finger near Marley’s mouth.
“No thanks. We’ll take a sample.”
The professor spooned the sauce into an airtight container and handed it over.
The potential of the red sauce intrigued Marley. Now he needed a use for it. If he revealed to the League of Worlds that Jinko’s Takeaway put addictive substances in its burgers they would likely say “thanks for the information” and do nothing. Or do something and pay him nothing. Such was the feebleness of the League of the Worlds, founded after the First Asteroid Wars to ensure the continued peace and happiness of the galaxy, no matter what race, species, religion, sexual orientation or sentience.
Marley wasn’t sure he could rely on Thuris Thranganis. He seemed obsessed with the importance of his work to the exclusion of all else.
Thranganis was about to turn back to his experiments when Marley said, “Professor, why do you work here, on a human outpost and not in one of the great libraries of Crete 581d, or on one of the research stations orbiting Sirius A4, or even on the Chaldean Frigate?” The Chaldean Frigate, a spaceship the size of Earth’s moon, journeyed from planet to planet, collecting data on the relative technological progress of galactic inhabitants. The Chaldeans also introduced, for better or worse, ‘backward races’ to the wonders of human science. The Zorgons had been their last major mission.
Thranganis pushed his glasses up his nose, an indication he was only too pleased to talk. “My father, Thracis Thranganis, was a founder of what you see before you. He came to Zorge to research, unfettered by the bustling politics that burden activities on Crete and Sirius A4. He also wanted to escape the missionary work of the Chaldeans, which he did for fifteen years. A scientist’s scientist, my father was concerned with knowing how things really are. He experimented with mind-altering substances, believing the keys to this world are linked to perception.”
“Drugs,” said Gaston.
“All reality is perceived, and if there is such a thing as ultimate reality, we can never know it. Rothball Hazard thinks he has the keys. Physical enhancement. Exploitation of the real. But does he know what real really is?”
Professor Dimble said: “Facts. Information. Things that tell us things.” He watched Frilo scan a globule of special sauce.
“You’d make a good scientist,” said Thranganis. “Most scientists don’t question. They observe, then question, but that will only get you so far. We can never know what is beneath, but we can get a glimpse. And by perceiving other states we can create matter that can perceive itself, such as my conscious cloud.”
Marley asked about the red dust. “Does it have mind-altering properties? I know that properly distilled, it can be applied as an ineffective face cream.”
“Red dust? You know about the red dust? It is the source of the red sauce. This powerful base caused my father’s downfall. I only work to preserve his memory.”
“It caused your father’s downfall? But it doesn’t even work.”
“That’s what you think. And that may be true for previous versions. But this latest iteration,” he held up a test tube, “has been blessed. Or should I say: ionised, by a Zorgon.”
After what Marley had heard from Jed and Zorgeous, he was surprised any Zorgon would cooperate in a human experiment. He guessed that the ionisation, or blessing, must be something similar to the uncontrolled force emanating from Zorgeous’s antlers. A force he could not control.
Thranganis quickly added, “I have been assured that his cooperation is sanctioned by the highest Zorgon authority.”
Marley wondered whether the Guardian had his race’s best interests in mind. The professor went back to squinting at test-tubes and stirring beakers. Another conscious cloud looked as if it was emerging from a contorted funnel.
“May we obtain samples of this new improved dust? The board at Jinko’s Takeaway is highly interested in your progress.”
Thranganis stepped over to a shelf and quickly filled three satchels with powder. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must finalise the molecular diagram for my latest conception, an artistic ooze. You may look around the laboratory and ask Frilo and Bilo anything you like. If you want to speak to Rothball Hazard, you won’t find him in his lab. He’ll be having dinner under his statue.”
The conscious cloud was expanding and bellowing outward. Wispy tentacles began to explore tables and search shelves. One of the tentacles began coiling around Marley’s neck.
As they exited the laboratory, Thranganis warned them: “Take care with the enhanced red dust. Consumed in too great a quantity, it makes the subject highly intelligent but also highly careless, especially about what they say.”
The closing door sliced an appendage of snaky smoke , which tried to follow them before dissipating.