A steady breeze buffeted the red sand. A mild sandstorm gripped the continent. Red sand was totally useless, unlike its dusty namesake: red dust. The dust felt fine and powdery, red sand was coarse. The only relation it bore to red dust was colour. The sand existed everywhere, from plains and valleys to the polar caps. It could even be found in the sky.
Red clouds floated, carrying clods of sand rather than globules of water. Red sand “evaporated” under strong surface currents and winds near the coastal areas, formed sand clouds, then floated inland to to rain sand.
Zorgeous stared out the window at the sandfall. He had woken after a full day’s rest in the neon chair, feeling only slightly sad now.
He recalled dreaming he was living in the days before the rule of the Guardians. The world was more evenly populated. No great distance separated the three major towns of Ungarloot, Cratascrit and Goramus. He had dreamt of Cratascrit, although he’d never been there. It no longer exists.
Humans had landed 20 miles east of Cratsascrit. The Zorgons, unable to bear the noise of constant roadworks, dispersed to isolated hovels, or moved to the other major towns.
This dream must have taken place before the Coming.
Now it seemed that the power of each individual was many times greater, at least until he’d left Zorge. Despite this, the Zorgons in his dream still seemed very content. Everyone was at one with their third antler, and given time and energy, could produce their own red dust through their own application. He remembered walking through an arid field, merrily poking his antlers at the pretty sprouts of a clictus plant. He was looking for something, but he wasn’t sure of what.
His dream was wiped from his mind by a soft knock at the door, and any clue as to what he was seeking disappeared.
Chuck Marley closed the door behind himself and Gaston Dimble.
Zorgeous stood tall and proud. “I have freed myself of the bonds. Finally, my humble power exerts itself.”
“Not exactly,” said Marley, “I programmed the chair to release you when its sensors felt you were at equilibrium.”
Zorgeous looked crestfallen. “Then it is not my power.”
Marley suddenly thought that maybe he should have played along with Zorgeous, give him some confidence that he had control of whatever power he had. “Maybe it was a bit of your power. But you are here. Which means you have decided to stay. We have toured the labs and have information that may surprise.”
“And disgust you,” said the Professor looking away.
“Zorgons are never disgusted. We are resigned.”
“Would you like to sit back down in the neon chair?” asked Marley.
“No.” He looked decisively at Dimble, then at Marley.
Zorgeous had never been so brief. “Gaston, show Zorgeous the recording.”
Gaston had been unusually silent since the labs. At least he had lost the wig. He handed Marley the flablet, and moved next to Zorgeous by the window to watch the sandstorm.
“Gaston, we need your attention. I could swear that this place, this world, is a bad influence on you. We need your analytical mindset.”
Marley removed the datacard from the flablet and pushed it into a slot on the wall. Instantly four panels slid away and a screen flickered to life, showing a sparse room with a jellyfish bobbing in a tank of bubbling fluid. The jellyfish seemed to be gurgling something very important, but it was incomprehensible without a translator.
“What’s this?” Marley demanded.
“It’s a lecture on the subatomic evolution of the Globulous Jellies of Procyon, given by a distant species relative, a Jellyfish of Europa. This was the final lecture in my Bachelor of Gr–”
“Did you record the test?”
“I’ll fast-forward it.”
“No,” urged Zorgeous, “the migrating habits of the Globulous Jellies have always fascinated me. Let’s watch it to the end.”
Dimble was impressed. “These jellyfish are famous for their eloquence. You won’t be disappointed.”
Marley threw his hands in the air. “We can’t watch a rubbery amphibian bobble about in a tank while Zorge is at stake. Zorgeous, what has got into you?”
Zorgeous watched the sand fall. “After dreaming in that chair, I realise I no longer belong on Zorge. The pleasure I get viewing the jellyfish reminds me that I’m an outsider. Maybe I could lecture and teach other races what no other Zorgons would reveal.”
Marley paced about the room. “But what about your people? Your sense of spirit? Zorge needs you.” He pointed his finger at Zorgeous’s antlers. “Think of your leader, the Guardian.”
“He is old and has little time left. His heart can not bear this stress.”
“Which is why he needs you behind him.”
The recording reached the end of the jellyfish lecture. The screen went blank.
The blankness turned to blackness.
A shuffle of agitated feet.
Dimble and Marley watched for Zorgeous’s reaction.
Zorgeous focused on the recording. Flashes revealed the darkened laboratory…and in the centre; a massive man hunched over controls. One of the smaller figures was Chuck Marley; the other was trembling and rubbing his hands together.
“That’s Rothball Hazard,” Marley pointed at the screen, “and that bulge is Frint Nono.”
Zorgeous looked briefly at the giant working the controls. A sheet of flash lightning changed night into day. He didn’t know who or what this flash revealed. But the after-image planted on his retina was eerily familiar.
At this point in the recording, Gaston was shaking the camera up and down and haphazardly panning about the room. The jerkiness of the film did not distract Zorgeous, who was unaware of the intense scrutiny Marley gave him. He stepped closer so that his antlers almost touched the screen. He saw the Zorgon imitation, its chains rattling as electric charges powered through them.
“It can’t be.” Zorgeous shook with rage and helplessness. “What are they doing to him?”
Marley walked over, “This is not the Guardian, or any Zorgon for that matter. It’s a clone. They are giving it life. We are not sure how, or even why.”
“It is him. They want him so that they may control us.”
“They already are to an extent.” Dimble turned from the window. “They are using the Guardian’s crown to focus the generator.”
“The Antlers of Amplitude!” Zorgeous held his breath. “I must leave this room, this city.”
“In the middle of a sandstorm?” Gaston pointed out the window. The sky was crowded with red clouds, blocking the wan sun.
“Our brittle hair protects us from whatever Zorge may throw.” Zorgeous fled the room, leaving the door open.
“I’ll come with you,” Marley said. He was concerned Zorgeous would do something silly, or completely wander off. “Gaston, re-watch that recording. See if there’s anything we missed.”
Dimble sat in the neon chair, one arm flapping over the side, the other holding three remote controls: one for the VT, one for the chair. The third for room service. He asked reception to order a “Betelgeuse Burger meal, extra large, no make that super-large.”
Marley breathed a sigh that became a groan. He stepped outside. Sheets of red sand blew into his eyes. He walked unsteadily, trying not to lose sight of Zorgeous. He retrieved his handkerchief from his pocket and examined it. It was ok – he’d only blown his nose three times today. He covered his mouth and nose and tied it around his neck. The true use of the handkerchief was now apparent. You couldn’t protect your face from a sandstorm with a tissue.
The figure ahead ploughed onwards. It bent forward with extreme purpose.
As they made their way out of the settlement onto the dusty plain, the sandstorm became brisk and harsh. The wind returned a lonesome melody from far-off cliff faces and echoing rock hollows.
Marley would not last much longer. He staggered along, finally catching up with Zorgeous. He planted a firm hand on his shoulder. “We can’t go on, the storm is getting worse.”
Zorgeous did not face Marley, but turned enough to show his profile. “Go back then. I know what I must do. I must redress my failings.”
“Goramus is that way.” Marley pointed.
“I head to Ungarloot.” His antlers glowed. “I sense the Hierophant has passed through there. The residue of corruption.”
He pushed onward through the buffeting sand and was quickly lost to vision.
Marley returned to the hotel. Dimble was asleep surrounded by burger wrappings. The VT replayed the test in loop mode: Rothball Hazard fainted, Nono repowered the motor. Dimble’s head faced the screen as if he was watching, but his eyes were shut.
“He’s out of his mind, out of his mind. Wake up Gaston, wake up!”
“I am awake: I always think with my eyes closed. I was on the brink of–”
“The burgers were better this time.”
“Listen! Zorgeous has headed to Ungarloot. He is after the Hierophant.”
The Professor scratched his head. “The Guardian has been unusually quiet, even for him. He is perhaps the most lenient and non-interventionist ruler of recent years. His measured diplomacy was gaining the respect of the colonists yet maintaining a healthy independence from the promises of human technology. The Hierophant can only mean to reverse this.”
“Misguided intentions,” said Marley. “The Hierophant must be getting something from the humans. Something that he cannot get from the Guardian. Is the Guardian even alive?”
“He’ll be dead. I’ve been studying Zorgon lore. As the Guardian adopts the new antlers his lifeforce begins to depend on them. He cannot hope to survive for longer than five days without drawing from their power.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure as knuckles Chuck.”
Both were silent. The sandstorm subsided. The fuzz on the windowpane cleared and the patter above ceased. For some reason Marley thought about Crete 581d and his IT Support certificate. The thought horrified him.