Three days of trudging through sand might only have been two with just Zorgeous, but a couple of Zorgon children accompanied them. Why the Old One allowed them along was anyone’s guess, but the Very Old Testaphant explicitly stated: “And youth shall guide them, through innocence redeemed no journey underfoot will sand forestall.”
No mention of Zorgon children. But the little Zorgons were eager to come along and the Old One was desperate to fulfil the prophecy. Indeed, Marley’s soles were so worn they could have been the sandals of an ancient prophet, or slave. He trudged at the back with Gaston Dimble.
The journey had begun as a brisk walk. Soon they were plodding. Now it was trudging. Inevitably it would be stumbling, crawling, then slithering.
On the third day the winds picked up, and heaving eddies of red sand swept over them on their way to Mount Homunculus. If Zorge had seven wonders this would surely be one of them. The Seven Natural Wonders of the Solar System included Olympus Mons on Mars, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and, of course, the Rings of Saturn. This was no less remarkable.
The gusting sand powerfully swirled not far above, yet at ground level the wind was no more than an annoying breeze of the type that almost spoils a day at the beach.
When Marley’s legs had turned to liquid he finally collapsed. Fortunately they were near the base of Mount Homunculus. Marley made a pile of sand into a pillow and rested his head.
Zorgeous stepped over him. His next test was to ascend the mountain, into the hazy swirling storm, and spend the night alone. Professor Dimble and the Old One watched as Zorgeous disappeared into the red whirlwind. The ground shook slightly. Then he was gone.
They could only look on as the sun set, and hope that when it rose again the next day, Zorgeous would descend triumphant. The Very Old Testaphant warned that “only The Exile can withstand the Red Spirits, the Sentinels of Homunculus, whose whispers sooth the pure and craze the damned.”
Pavlov passed beneath the horizon with a wink. Zorgeous looked back but of course saw nothing. He antlers tingled. The Old One had advised him to spend the night on one leg, because the Slightly Old Testaphant “adjures the chosen one to stand firm, even as the leg numbs, its blood removed from naked limb, no ground to plant it firm.” No mention of standing on one leg, but the Old One wanted to be absolutely sure the prophecy was fulfilled.
Zorgeous stood stoically, one hoof in the air. His antlers gleamed and made ghostly shapes within the spooky sands. At midnight, a vibration rippled up his left hoof. He was tempted to put it down, but what if the prophecy was right and “one leg be praised, two be a burden, while he who stands on Homunculus be saved.” He wouldn’t last must longer. Perhaps if he changed legs – there was nothing in the prophecy that forbade The Exile to change legs during the second test.
And nothing happened to Zorgeous when he did so. The wind briefly picked up, then calmed to a heavy but tolerable gust. Zorgeous felt sleepy, and it was then that he thought he saw something. The Red Spirits? A push, a shove, an emerging face, an eerie grin, then a slap in the face. The ground tremored.
Zorgeous would surely lose his balance if he lost consciousness. Despite the strength of the sand wind and the taunting red faces he felt incredibly sleepy. When he could keep his eyes open no longer, the red faces fused together and formed a large ghostly head with a single short horn. But it was more a dome. Zorgeous recognised no human or Zorgon features.
It called to him: “Exile, you are here. Ahead lies Goramus. After that, I’m not sure. So I’ll be going now.” The head separated into the mad Red Spirits – seven of them, as Zorgeous counted. He sneezed, and the spirits were gone. Strength left him. He slumped onto his knees. He raised his hand to the sky for help, then slumped asleep.
Three hours later he woke to the dawn. One leg was sunk in sand, the other numb – this was what, in fact, had woken him. He clambered down the mountain, out of the storm into a crisp new day, the purple sky shifting into the pink of victory.
Marley woke to a strange feeling. He scratched his head. It felt strangely clear. He thought again about the clictus juice. He saw the Old One and Zorgeous walking away and heard him congratulate Zorgeous on a successful stay on Mount Homunculus.
As he followed them, his vision began to clear. He tried to clutch his receding dreamscape in a metaphysical hand, but each portion slipped between his fingers into the unconscious. His back itched madly. He tried the isomorphic backscratcher, but it was out of charge. He threw it away. It whirled straight into the air, was caught by a breeze and like a boomerang came straight back, forcing him to duck. So he tucked it back into his belt.
Not far away, a scraggy bush with branches the colour of rusted metal rustled its six leaves. It hummed melodically. The slowly undulating notes seemed to harmonise with his mind. The leaves of the bush vibrated, gently whistling. It only had twelve branches, mostly bare, but its song was like the ghost of an unknown era offering its remaining life force.
The Old One pointed at the bush, beckoning Zorgeous to observe its nature. He aimed his rickety antlers at a leafless branch. His forehead furrowed beneath his bristling head, becoming even more wrinkled than normal. A small flame lit the tip of the branch. The flame wavered hypnotically. As soon as the Old One lifted his head it vanished, leaving no sign of fire, no scorch mark.
A sharp pain shot through Marley’s head as the flame on the whistle bush burned. The Old One advised Zorgeous to bend his head and focus on his third horn – an unseen horn that all Zorgons possess but few discover..
Zorgeous focused on the whistle bush. It glowed rapidly but failed to spark.
“Neat trick. Do you do children’s parties,” Marley added blackly.
“No.” Zorgeous tried again. He furrowed his brow: an antler briefly glowed.
“Too fast.” The Old One took a deep breath. “The process of learning is threefold, and threefold are the outcomes. First you must master the simple things, do them without thinking. Gradually familiarise yourself with the complex. This only comes from exertion. Mastery, the ultimate achievement, has two antlers: the complex effortless, and the simple complex. Interlock the two: equals mastery.”
Marley suddenly longed to be at the Quasar Bar, at least far from here. Somewhere familiar. He would drink himself into a stupor, something he hadn’t done in a long time. Any thoughts of “simple complex” or “complex stupid” would evaporate. Or transformed into “simple simple”.
Zorgeous looked at the ground, slumping and heaving for breath. The scales on his back loosened.
“I think,” the Old One said slowly, “that other methods must be tested. There are many paths up a mountain.”
“We need a short-cut,” Marley said firmly. “This is no time for the scenic route. Your enlightenment has blinded you to reality. You stand atop your mystic peek, oblivious to the eroding foundation.” Marley walked briskly to a large angular rock supported by a round stone. With a single bound he leapt upon it, sat with his legs apart, and beckoned the Old One to continue the training.
Zorgeous said, “Maybe I am not The Exile. At least, not The Exile you’re hoping for.”
The Old One was silent. The training should really take years, not days.
A chill wind blew sand into Zorgeous’s face. He made to brush it away but the Old One gestured him be still, steady. The whistle bush stood sturdy in the distance, caring as much for the wind as a slumbering Dogon.
The Old One muttered, waving his arms. Zorgeous struggled to concentrate. He watched his master’s hands sway back and forth like a conductor giving a private lesson to his understudy. Everyone looked at the whistle bush. The crisp breeze ruffled the six leaves. Five. One had just fallen off. A breeze not enough to change the whistle’s tune, but it seemed to get quicker, higher.
Marley’s head oscillated between pain and relief.
Zorgeous directed his whole attention to the bush. He stared until his eyes glazed and the bush began to shimmer like a mirage. With ferocious effort he willed it to burn, to explode. But his antlers, and the bush, did nothing. Marley gasped. The pain subsided. His gasp carried along the wind, hitting Zorgeous full in the face.
“If only I could will as well you sigh, Mr Marley.” Zorgeous tapped his left antler with a claw.
The Old One politely addressed Marley, “Perhaps it is your presence that disturbs The Exile. First he must perform on his own.”
Marley looked resigned. “Alright!” He marched further up the sloping boulder, jumped off the edge and sat on the ground behind. He leaned his back against the supporting rock and closed his eyes. The rock wasn’t comfortable. He propped himself up on one elbow. The unpredictable wind picked up clods of dirt and flung them indiscriminately. Marley thanked the rock shelter. He listened to the Old One’s directions, and could almost sense the strain of Zorgeous concentrating.
The calls of the whistle bush increased in urgency, as if it sensed a threat to its solitary self. A sprightly melody turned in the steady breeze, mocking Zorgeous’s efforts to set the bush on fire.
“Just gently,” the Old One said, “Just gently. You only need a branch, focus your powers. Almost there, the branch glows. I sense it.”
Waves of doubt swept through The Exile. The Old One tried to boost his confidence, making him believe he was close to success.
Marley thought of Thracis Thranganis, father of Thuris. He would have to ask the Old One about Thracis. The scientist of special sauces would love to know his father’s fate.
He bolted from behind the rock. “Old One! How do you know Galactic Standard?”
That was all it took. Zorgeous’s concentration was broken. He turned to Marley. The instant Zorgeous looked away the whistle bush burst into flames. Marley also yelled in pain. He realised that the healing of his head was connected to the song of the bush, now reaching its final gusto. “Put it out!”
Both the Old One and Zorgeous pointed their antlers at the whistle bush. But the flames hopped from branch to branch.
“Throw sand on it!” In desperation Marley stumbled over to the plant, stripped off his shirt and whacked the fire. Each hit was like a boulder in his soul.
The whistle bush stood scorched, barely singing. Marley’s shirt was black and torn.
“Well done. Bravo! Good show.” Gaston Dimble came bumbling up, filming with his flablet.
The Old One smiled. Just as the Plain Old Testaphant proclaimed, “the spark of success shall be gifted by a man of letters, a man from the stars, who will praise the Ungarlootans under the sandy clouds.”
“Man from the Stars,” the Old One said to Dimble, “Your presence uplifts The Exile.”
The Old One ignored him. “You shall not from The Exile part, but be two scrabs on a stone. Man from the Stars. Your wisdom is boundless.”
Dimble raised an eyebrow.
Marley gestured at him to play along.
“It was nothing,” Dimble said.
Let the Old One think Gaston was Man from the Stars, Space Dude, whatever. The Old One had to be a fool’s fool to think anything of Gaston. Perhaps there was another reason why Zorgeous had finally succeeded in lighting the bush. And if he was aware of that reason he might falter.
So Marley pointed at the bush, clapping his hands. “Bravo, bravo!” He imitated Gaston’s huffing and clapping.