Chuck Marley summoned Jed and his cybernetic hovercab. Jed knew little of Ungarloot, except that it was a collection of hovels scattered loosely at the bottom of an arid slope beneath a mountain ridge.
Jed made it clear he was not going to drop them in the town centre. Too isolated. Anything could happen: unknown weather, no electricity. The Ungarlootons might welcome them and worship them like gods. Or run away, bury them, eat them, or make unseemly advances.
Anything could happen. No human had ever been to Ungarloot for more than a day and returned. This included Thuris Thranganis’s father, Thracis.
Jed promised to drop Marley and Dimble five miles outside Ungarloot, just shy of the ridge. They would have to cross the ridge themselves, possibly camping for a night.
Ungarloot was a three-hour flight from the human settlement. By gauging the distance travelled in the hovercab, Marley concluded that Zorgeous (despite his headlong rush into the desert) would probably be a couple of days behind them.
They watched the hovercab depart from the top of ridge. Small clay dwellings shimmered in the distance near the bottom of a treacherous slope. Marley squinted. Perhaps he fooled himself into seeing tiny figures lumbering from hut to hut, but this was just as likely to be a grain of sand in his eye.
Should he wait for Zorgeous, or throw caution to the wind and descend on Ungarloot? Their supplies would last three days. The cliffs protected them from the sandy winds, but the temperature fell from 19˚C in the day to a brisk 3˚C at night.
That night, Marley dreamt of giblet. Giblet on a plate, giblet in a bowl, giblet alive in the flesh. He woke up sweating. He longed for a bottle of Falernian wine.
Dimble decided that the best strategy was to wait behind a rock close to the town, and observe the Zorgons first. Then one of them should enter. The other would stay behind and contact Insomniac Fluton should trouble arise.
Marley briefed Fluton, waiting above them in the Anaconda.
“How’s it going up there?”
Fluton yawned and said he was fine.
“I’ve promoted your app.”
“That must why be there’s been a sudden jump in registered users.”
“Really? But I only told one person.” Marley immediately regretted speaking.
“Maybe,” Fluton yawned again, “he was a person of influence.”
“By they way, we’re about to enter Ungarloot. We need you on alert in case anything happens to us.”
Dimble cleared his throat. “I’m going to wait behind a rock while Marley enters the town.”
Fluton agreed. Better the professor stay out of sight, out of trouble. “Oh, I’ve made an enhancement to FaceMash.”
“I’ll be sure to promote it.”
“You can’t do that without knowing what it is.”
“I’ve offered three more payment methods in addition to elon. FaceMash now also accepts bacoin, shrimp and dogecoin.”
“Got it.” Marley ended the connection. They packed their things and hiked down the steep slope.
Rocks wobbled underfoot as they scurried onward. When they drew near Ungarloot, Dimble found a boulder to crouch behind.
Marley pressed forward. Looking back, he saw Gaston apprehensively peeping out, holding his flablet ready to film.
Pavlov, the lazy sun of Zorge, was descending behind a cliff by the time Marley reached the outermost hut. Everything was still. No sound, no breeze. Had Jed left them in the right place? Was this Ungarloot?
The hovels were shaped like small clay igloos with canvassed porticoes. Coarse tapestries decorated with clictii hung over each entrance. The Ungarlootons extracted a watery syrup from the clictus, making this plant a symbol of nutrition and life.
Marley’s skin crawled at every breath of the wind. A pebble tumbled down and bounced towards his feet. He looked up the hill and saw Gaston peering from behind the boulder. With a wave of his hand he ordered him to conceal himself. He was tempted to approach the first hut and swoosh aside a tapestry.
Despite the eerie stillness, he sensed he was being watched. Every time he turned to one of the huts, it seemed a tapestry moved. He always thought his back was slightly hairy; now the eerie silence made the hairs lift up his shirt.
A faint vibration.
The vibration strengthened.
A faint rumbling became urgent, closer.
Marley turned around.
A boulder plummeted down the hill, straight for him. The Professor ran quickly, trying to keep up with the boulder. Inevitably, he slipped and joined the boulder in a tumble race.
The boulder rolled past Marley and out of the encampment. He shouldn’t have watched it roll by, relieved though he was. He had no time to completely turn around. Gaston thudded into him, and both of them careered across the dry ground.
They came to rest a foot apart, just outside the entrance to a dwelling sturdier, higher and more decorative than the rest.
Marley checked his arms for cuts and bruises.
“Sorry. I lost my footing. The boulder I was leaning on – wasn’t steady.”
“I’ll show you steadiness.” Marley was about to give Dimble an almighty shove when a low hum distracted them.
“Oot oot oom.” It emanated directly from the large hut, a disturbing chant that wandered around the stomach and up to the chest.
Marley had an intolerably dry throat, and not just from the sand that clogged it. Jed was right. These Ungarlootons were an unknown quantity. He wished the chanting would stop. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists.
“You may rise.”
Marley quickly opened his eyes.
“Rise.” The voice spoke perfect Standard Galactic Standard, without a trace of an accent. The words issued from the mouth of a wrinkled but robust Zorgon.
“You speak Standard Galactic Standard.”
“No. Just Galactic Standard, but thanks for the compliment.”
Marley looked confused.
“Please let me know if there’s anything amiss. You appear human, if the prophecy is true.”
“Prophecy? Human? True? What off Earth is going on?”
“Listen, human.” The Zorgon spoke imperiously, but his eyes and stature showed him as benign. “You are hungry and dirty. I know your species values cleanliness. At least those who finish university.”
The chanting within the hut subsided and several younger Zorgons emerged. They stood very still, eyeing the newcomers. The wrinkled Zorgon addressed them. “Return to your huts. You have seen them. We have nothing to fear.”
The young Ungarlootons went back to their huts quietly, quickly hiding their curiosity.
The chief Zorgon said to Marley: “I am…” He shook his neck and raised one leg.
“Sorry, you are?” Marley strained to hear.
The Zorgon shook his neck and raised one leg.
“What he means,” said Dimble, “Is that he is named–” And the Professor raised his neck and shook one leg.
“Close! I am–” He shook his neck and raised one leg. “Son of,” and he bent low and wiggled his hips.
“Well that’s refreshing – and highly original. But I will get a neck ache and possibly fall over every time I address you,” said Marley.
“Then you may call me, Old One.”
“Old One, I’m Captain Marley, and this is Professor Gaston Dimble. Historian.”
“Associate Professor,” corrected Dimble.
“Associate, Assistant, Acting Professor…They’re all the same to me. A Professor is a Professor, whether he’s a vegetarian or gorges on Betelgeuse Burgers.”
“Actually,” said Marley wryly, “This Dimble here likes Betelgeuse Burgers quite a lot.”
“Enough of me.” Dimble turned to the Old One. “Why are you called the Old One?”
“That is not a long story, but neither is it a short story. It is a medium-sized story. If you would have a bath then something to eat…”
Marley and Dimble brightened like supernovas. A bath! Water! Soap! Soap was probably asking too much, but after days of lying on parched earth at night and exposed to sandy winds at day, water was liquid gold.
“This way come.” the Old One beckoned.
Marley tried to teach him Standard Galactic Standard. “It’s ‘Come this way’”.
The Old One did not turn around. He led them a short way out of the encampment.
Marley gave Dimble a slap on the shoulder. “We’re going to have a bath, a bath!”
Dimble chuckled like a newly born Borsk.
“I go first,” Marley said with a smile.
“The bathing hole is past this obelisk.” The Old One pointed to a red boulder 10 feet high. “I’ll wait here. Don’t take too long, our resources are in short supply.”
“Your hospitality is commendable,” Marley said formally. He clasped his hands together. Rounding the rock, he tossed off his clothes, closed his eyes and held his nose. He stuck one arm out sideways and jumped in.
There was no splash. No feeling of fresh, cool liquid soaking the pores of his skin. No undulating waves or thermal currents, no running taps. And, of course, no fountain of Nunchian nymphs cavorting semi-naked, water spouting from lewd orifices.
There was no water.
Marley had jumped gleefully – or dived blindly – into a hole of coarse red dust and sand. But mostly sand. He lifted his head and stood upright, naked in the hole. The sand came up to his waist. It covered him head to toe – the result of his improvised swan dive.
He summoned the Old One, trembling with anger: “Your short supply is utterly dry. Evaporated. There is no more in the hole.” He coughed and spluttered. He was dirtier now and more uncomfortable than before he had pondered the luxuries of a bath.
He heard a shuffling behind the obelisk. “If me you’ll excuse.” The Old One’s antlers appeared , followed by an eye. The eye whirled about in its socket and surveyed the pit before retreating. “Our supply is short, but present. The dust is impure but enough is there to body and soul cleanse.”
“Cleanse body and soul,” Marley said impatiently. Grains and clumps rubbed against Marley’s flesh. Blackish silt that could have been anything appeared as streaks among the red. The slightest movement made the sand invade his crannies. “I’m going to need a hand out of here.”
“I advise you, stay submerged another five minutes. Rejuvenate in the red dust, no matter how unrefined.”
Marley muttered to himself. “I’ll show you unrefined.”
Dimble twittered, glad that Marley had offered to take the first bath. He started filming with his flablet.
“Get over here Gaston!”
Dimble walked around the obelisk, one hand mock-covering his eyes. He reached down to heave Marley from the sand pit. When Marley reached the top of the pit he used his legs to propel himself upward. Then with one smooth motion he pulled himself out, and Dimble in, clothes and all.
“It’s very rejuvenating Gaston, almost as refreshing as an Epicurean manicure, although it needs a Nunchian sauna to complete it.”
A hand appeared, then a foot, then a head. Marley had thrown the Professor into the pit using the ‘Ooph’ manoeuvre, invented by a Khanaklooosian who had adopted human martial arts. (This involves pretending to accept your opponent’s aid, then cartwheeling them behind you (called the ‘Ooph’ manoeuvre from the sudden exhalation of breath made by your opponent on landing.) not to be tried at home).
Dimble stuck out his tongue and blinked.
“Hand me your clothes Gaston and give yourself a scrub! We can’t have a dirty historian.”