The sun set. Unfamiliar stars glimmered over the cloudless plains. The Old One ordered a communal meeting and the Ungarlootons formed a circle.
Chuck Marley and Gaston Dimble squatted either side of Old One. They sipped clictus juice out of unwieldy clay vessels that were smoothly ovular, with a nipple-like projection at the bottom for the drinker to grasp. Marley had already asked the Old One for several of these vessels (known as tobulons) on completion of his mission. As well as adding some salacious crockery to his collection, he could sell them on the dark market for no insubstantial sum, as long as he remained undetected by the Intergalactic Prudence Board.
Thinking further on this, perhaps he could moonlight as an antiquities trader. And as a collector, keep all the special things for himself. The clictus juice was obviously making him light headed.
The Professor jabbered away at a Zorgon beside him who understood nothing, but found this human something of a curiosity: “And then there was Don Bero, renowned for his courage under fire when the petty fiefdoms of Earth sought to exploit the mineral-rich asteroid belt. Fighting for everyone and no one, he changed sides to maintain the balance of forces. No superpower could dominate when Bero was fighting against them. The allies he could summon, the sabotage he ordered, these all frustrated the European Empire and American Conglomerates, while preventing the Arab Axis from gaining an upper hand.
“Some say that Don Bero didn’t exist, but was a name used for propaganda purposes to sow fear into anyone who thought they might come up against him. There’s also a rumour that he was not one person but three, all with the same name and similar chins. This might account for simultaneous sightings at opposite ends of the solar system. But no. Bero was a man, a single man with his own will, his own chin, and his own cunning.
“Besides, the real Don Bero had a slight limp. He’d lost the bottom half of his leg to a meteorite while playing lunar golf. Bero could smell glory and betrayal from miles away. No one knew his origins. No one knew his ultimate destination. Where did he come from, where did he go? Don Bero, legend of the First Asteroid Wars.”
The Zorgon wobbled its antlers quizzically, a sign that it had not understood and that Dimble should repeat himself.
“And then there was Don Bero, renowned for his courage under…”
Marley leaned forward and signalled for more clictus juice.
“We have been waiting,” said the Old One, “many generations, to affirm the prophecy.” He unsteadily drank from a massive earthenware bowl until his head lolled, his eyelids snapped, his antlers seemed to pulse with energy. He rolled his head anti-clockwise. The arc it traced got wider and a chant came from his direction, even though his mouth was closed.
Marley felt even more light-headed just looking at him swaying and hearing the chant:
One at a time the other Zorgons joined: “Oomm, oomm, ooot.”
Dimble stopped talking about Don Bero and assumed the pose of an inquisitive anthropologist: he put one foot on the ground, rested his elbow on his knee, and stroked his chin between finger and thumb.
The chanting hypnotised the humans. Marley’s head began swimming, or he began swimming in his head, rolling in sympathy with the rhythm. Not having control of one’s head was disconcerting. But Dimble seemed ok – slightly swaying, and enjoying it.
Marley tried to focus on Gaston. He tried to focus on the Old One. Everything blurred. The antlers of the Old One resolved into an old oak tree. Marley closed his eyes. His mind whooshed from its body and fled light years. He circled the Outer-Rim of the galaxy, coming closer to the galactic second arm, spiralling inward. A blind intensity of light lasted for several seconds. He couldn’t shield his eyes because it was within his head.
Mind-numbing silence and darkness.
Footsteps, resolved into glowing sandals attached to the outline of a hooded figure.
He attempted to speak but had no voice. But his thoughts spoke, and in answer to his plea for clarity, a response in his mind.
“Here again?” The hooded figure didn’t move. He seemed to be in a room with no windows, doors or walls. In front of him the bodiless inquisitor stood inside a wooden doorframe. Nothing could be seen beyond. Just a blackness, the same deep emptiness of the inquisitor’s body.
Marley thought, “Who are you? Why have you brought me here?” He had no time to think. Whatever he felt, he thought.
“You’re late for an appointment. Again. If you’re always this late I don’t know how you’re going to save yourself, let alone anything else. You remember little, Chuck Marley.” He pronounced his name with a tinge of irony.
Friend or foe, Marley was unsure who or what this ethereal presence represented.
“Every one of your actions is watched. I am a Zentrian, your Greater Guide. I tell you this now. You may not remember when you return. It is impossible for non-ethereal beings to exist where we do, at the centre of the galaxy, in a massive black hole. In fact, it’s bloody inconvenient even for us. However, the Milky Way in someway revolves around our collective spirits. But, immersed in the swirling eddies of space-time at the galaxy’s core hinders our direct influence. That’s where you come in.”
“Have you got the right person? I didn’t finish my degree. Apparently, this makes me unclean.”
“You underestimate yourself, Chuck Marley. You give yourself credit for little. And you must understand you’ll receive credit for little.”
“Credits for doing little?”
“You’ll have enough of those to survive, hopefully, otherwise we’ll use our feelers to seek another, and your type is hard to find. Know this: Every action, no matter how small, has its effect, so does every thought. Every problem is part of a larger jigsaw. The game of gods. Every place you visit is a roundabout way of getting there–”
“No sayings! Getting where?”
“If you let me finish, you’ll understand that not even I know where ‘where’ is. I am not high enough in the Zentrian order. I only recently became a Greater Guide.” The Zentrian spoke a little resentfully, “For how many centuries did I toil as a Keyholder, sitting outside the Gate of Diffusion cleansing lost souls. Now I have you in my charge, my first Acolyte.
“Acolyte of what?”
The Zentrian ignored his question. “Other Zentrians have their charges. Some work on your side, others against you. Some will have nothing to do with you. Know this: you are a pawn in the scheme of things. But the pawn can become a queen.”
“I’m not going to have a sex change.”
“I’m making an analogy from an old game, the game of chess, if you’d let me finish.” The Zentrian sighed in Marley’s head. “The pawn can become a queen, and while the queen has more movement, it has more choices, and more responsibility. She needs to protect her king, and attack, and protect herself.”
“I don’t have a king to protect.” Marley briefly wondered what he found meaningful.
His Greater Guide ignored him. “We oversee the ultimate harmony and balance of the universe…”
“Good to know someone’s watching out.”
“Our galaxy is one of many, each a mind to itself. You will find yourself in many places. Each word you speak, each sign, every encounter will have its consequences: for you, your race and for the galaxy. Think, before you run.”
The image of the Zentrian slowly faded. Hums and squeals, laughter and sighs infected his auditory sense. He was being tuned, influenced, conditioned. Three tones of different frequencies resolved into one, then played an arpeggio. He was falling, whirling around an infinite hole, an endless whirlpool in space.
“Oomm, oomm, ooot.”
His head stopped revolving. Marley focused on his tobulon. It was empty. He politely declined the offer of more clictus juice. He didn’t want to destroy the other-worldly experience, the high, the dizziness, the sense of self, or lack of self. To drink more clictus juice now would be to magically wake up without a hangover after a pub-crawl of the Ceti system and have three beers for breakfast.
The chanting continued, some of the Zorgons breaking off while others took their place. The Old One turned to Dimble, who was staring with interest at his glowing antlers. The antlers of none of the other Zorgons were energised.
The Old One explained that few Zorgons mastered the seventh sense, the art of antler control. “Every Zorgon child in Ungarloot has its antlers examined, but it is rare to find latent energy. We need this to refine the sand. I am called the Old One because I am the second oldest being in this sector.”
“How old are you?” Dimble took out his flablet.
“I am 132 and a half.”
“You don’t look it all!”
“My appearance matters not. What matters: no other Zorgons have energised to take my place. But there is a sign, something in the air, not just sand and dust. The sand clouds heading towards us were purple dark. Winds gusty, and with them a figure. It started as a speck and dragged something behind it on a sled. A Zorgon, but he carried a tablet, similar to that–” He pointed at Dimble’s flablet. “But this was not the exile we were looking for. He sought our shelter for one night. Beneath his cloak I sensed something strong, powerful.”
“The Antlers of Amplitude,” whispered Dimble to the Old One, and he glanced knowingly at Marley. “It must have been the Hierophant.”
As if mention of this name carried a special power, out of darkness they heard footfalls. Marley could not see beyond the circle. The distant disturber of the silence had no effect on the Zorgons. They sat muted, almost unconscious, waiting with that childlike mysticism developed by a close and isolated community.
Then out of nowhere strode a Zorgon – tattered, ruffled, sand-covered, breathing heavily. He stumbled and fell. Raising his head, he surveyed the gathering, searching out someone to address. His eyes fell to the Old One. He bowed his head, pointing his antlers directly at him. “Where is he?”
The Old One looked at him squarely. “The Hierophant is gone.”
Marley was about to object to this mumbo-jumbo when beneath the tattered coarse hair, he recognised Zorgeous. Despite the reddish tinge from many nights in the open desert, he was recognisable.
Zorgeous swallowed, uncertain whether to acknowledge recognition or if he recognised them at all, famished and delirious from his desert trip. “He must be here, I can feel his presence.” His antlers gleamed more directly than the light of the fire should have allowed.
With mixed authority and relief the Old One spoke: “What you sense is the Hierophant’s residue. Your immature sense will in time sparkle.” He addressed the congregation of desert dwellers. “The exile! Behold!”
The circle bent their heads in one motion and began to hum. Zorgeous looked rapidly from one to another. His eyes flicked upon Marley. Recognition dawned. A hundred thoughts skimmed his head.
His antlers brightened.
He tried to stand up.