The clictus was as important to the Zorgons as red dust. Apparently it became even more potent when its juice was mixed with red dust. When the Old One spoke of this concoction Marley’s heart raced. As if the trip on the clictus juice was not enough, imagine it combined with the drug he had given Rothball Hazard. He would have to think of a name for this thing: Space Juice. Perhaps that was what they were putting on the Betelgeuse burgers.
But extracting the juice from a clictus needed expert claws and knowledge of the ancient lore that described the exotic fauna of Zorge.
“This is the final test.” Zorgeous followed the Old One to the edge of a clicti field, aware of the dread task before him. They ventured forward, careful to avoid scraping their skin against any of the plants.
They neared a stone desk set in the middle of the field.
“This could be the Log of Reaping,” Dimble informed Marley.
The Old One was impressed. “Man from the Stars.”
“You must conduct this test in solitude.”
“We will go now.”
Marley and Dimble returned to the camp.
The Old One brushed the desk with his claws. The stain of clictus drops marred the tablet.
Zorgeous felt faintly proud of his history and culture. “I am ready.”
The Old One led the way to a clump of plants just left of the desk. He told Zorgeous to look out for the faint green of a ripened clictus, and to feel the charge of these plants through his antlers. “Sense the plant like this.” He bent over and his antlers came within a whisker of the spiky leaves. “Sense the pure liquid rising. Feel the vibrations. This clictus is ripe.”
Zorgeous sensed a light crackling between his antlers. His heart beat in symphony with the juices of the plant. The Old One reached out and thrust his hoof onto the centre stem. He began to vibrate, but whether this was out of concentration or actual contact with the plant was difficult to determine. It was as if he was absorbing the plant’s life force. Zorgeous was about to imitate the Old One and place his own hoof on the clictus. But his vision betrayed him. The Old One was hazy. He became an indistinct outline and started shrinking.
But this vision was all too real.
The Old One had shrunk to the size of the plant. In twenty seconds his features had blurred.
Then he was gone.
Shrivelled into non-being.
Not a trace of him remained.
Was this part of the test? Was Zorgeous supposed to imitate him? Had he deliberately used red magic to deceive Zorgeous into making a choice?
His years at the Quasar Bar had taught him cause and effect. If you drank three Epicurean cocktails in quick succession after an up-sized meal at Jinko’s you were liable for a refund, from your stomach. Zorgeous did not hesitate to make the decision of his life. He walked over to an adjacent plant and determinedly grasped the stem.
His thoughts came clear. He felt evenly balanced, nourished. This was a ripened clictus. He removed his hoof and the dread returned.
The Old One in his age, in his brusqueness, in profound stupidity, had perished at the spikes of an unripe clictus.
* * *
The atmosphere was thin, the earth ruddy yet the sand dry and loose under foot. Chuck Marley plodded around in circles. Doing something was better than nothing. Zorgeous and the Old One had been gone a long time. So far the only humans he had encountered on Zorge were mad scientists, a semi-cybernetic cab driver, pushy hawkers, corrupt burger salesmen. It made him feel slightly ashamed. He was just out of sight of the camp when he saw a figure trudging down a low incline. Zorgeous hunched his shoulders and stumbled without purpose. His head dropped. Long hairs from the sides of his face fell over his chest.
Marley reached for Zorgeous’s chin and stared into his eyes.
“Mr Marley, we are doomed.”
“Good to see you’re back to normal. I was getting worried you were becoming all mystical and shit.”
“The Old One has expired. I should have known his powers were waning. I should have reasoned with him. But I learn nothing. The only thing I learn from my mistakes is that I never learn from my mistakes.”
“That’s a pretty good thing to learn.”
“The Old One, he shook and is no more. He was showing me the final test.”
“Now you see the futility of mind over matter.” Marley tried to think. It didn’t work. Maybe if he used Gaston’s method. He shut one eye, then the other, then both at the same time. “We could return to Ungarloot.”
The thought of returning to the outpost filled Zorgeous with anxiety. Ungarloot was to Zorge what Zorge was to the galaxy, a freckle on the heel of humanity.
“We have no choice but to push on.” Marley grabbed his shoulder. “Come on, either we whip those city boys into submission or apply for a job at Jinko’s Takeaway.”
“But we don’t have Diplomas of Burger Assemblage,” Gaston and Zorgeous replied together.
For five days they followed the setting red sun. Marley’s shirt was no longer a shirt. His beige trousers were of a shade altogether unknown to human eyes. Dimble looked slightly better. He seemed to walk with more buoyancy, relishing being “Man from the Stars”.
Zorgeous stopped and stooped. Dextrously he sketched a picture in the sand with his left antler. It was Ungarloot, shown with all its huts nestled in a canyon. He rendered Goramus as a soaring tower. He piled sand upon sand to further heighten the tower’s realism.
Marley stood, head on fist. “I didn’t ask you to build a sandcastle.”
“I think he has artistic potential,” said Dimble.
Zorgeous grunted, “Must be my burgeoning antler sense. I’ve never drawn before.”
“Where are we?”
“We left Ungarloot at least five days ago, so we should be here.” He sketched eleven figures.
“My nose is too long,” said Marley.
Zorgeous scratched in the sand and shortened Marley’s nose.
“And my ears. I don’t have any.”
“Yes you do,” said Dimble, “They’re on the sides of your head. Thank you Zorgeous. The resemblance is truly remarkable and if I’m not mistaken, this means we are two days from Goramus.” Dimble attempted to verify the location on his flablet. “I’m not getting any signal!”
“Are you really surprised about that?” said Marley.
The journey through the desert and the diet of scrabs made Marley tetchy. He longed for a giblet, thrashed or unthrashed. The fact they had no plan, this troubled him the most. What would they do when they arrived at Goramus? “Zorgeous, gather the party. Gaston, we must have a meeting.”
Since the dawn of time, whenever humans found themselves in tricky situations, they called a meeting. When deciding who would be tribal leader they sat in a civilised circle. When this failed to solve the problem the stronger one picked up a club and clobbered his rival’s brains out. Likewise in the modern office environment, whenever someone’s project passes a milestone a meeting is convened. From this meeting it is sometimes decided to split the attendees into further groups, each with the their own meetings. If they’d organised a meeting instead of accumulating a vast arsenal of weapons and warships, the Second Asteroid Wars might not have happened. The Second Asteroid Wars, between the Nunchians of Foon and the Betelgeusians on one side, and the Earthens on the other, were yet again over resources.
The humans had only just begun to explore the interstellar deeps when they ran into the problem of energy. Jealous of the Nunchians’ carbon-rich asteroids (and startling good looks) the Earthens called a meeting and forged a free-trade agreement called the Civilised Commodities Exchange Program. It was the breaking and bending of this agreement that started the war. The Nunchians called on the Betelgeusians, their human neighbours 450 light years away, linked by a convenient wormhole capable of conference calls. The Betelgeusians decided that their human ancestors posed too much of a threat to freedom of movement in interstellar space. The Earthens only surrendered to their children after they were outgunned by Betelgeusian plasma beams. Although seeded by humanity 100 years prior to the First War, the Betelgeusians had defeated their former masters but showed no interest in exerting their will.
They retired behind the wormhole, setting up strict checkpoints at the gateways to each hyperspace dimension. But Earthen extremists, hellbent on revenge, attached thermonuclear devices to the undercarriage of three Betelgeusian M-Class Carriers. They were unaware these Carriers were ferrying dead and injured back to Betelgeuse.
Mainstream Earthen representatives denied any responsibility or knowledge, blaming the atrocities on the Liberation of Life group. LOL strenuously denied any involvement, counterclaiming that only certain unscrupulous leaders in the Council of Plutocrats could have orchestrated such violence, their motive being to obtain better terms in the treaty negotiations, or to scupper the treaty altogether.
Humanity managed to rein in its aggression after the Second Asteroid Wars, arranging a truce to cover certain defeat. The League of Worlds granted them seven more seats on the Galactic Council.
* * *.
Marley and Gaston both needed a shave. Marley’s sideburns were again approaching the unfashionable stage. The party sat in a circle, Zorgeous at one end and Marley at the other. The remaining Zorgons and Professor Dimble sat on the sides.
Marley addressed the gathering. “Right. We need a plan. We can’t just go in there and expect to be crowned King and Queen of Zorge.”
Zorgeous groaned. His psyche was sinking under the pressure. “This will surely be the death of us.”
“We have survived up to now Zorgeous. We need leadership. You’re the one to give it.”
“Yes that’s right,” Dimble said, “Be positive. From what I’ve gleaned from Zorgon prophecy we are destined to succeed. The Very Very Old Testaphant clearly states that ‘He who leads will make the others follow, even if He drags them by the antlers’.”
Zorgeous looked up.
Dimble continued: “Again, the Very Old Testaphant–”
“You mean the Very Very Old,” said Marley.
“No just the Very Old. It states: “An antler for an antler, a claw for a claw.”
At these words Zorgeous’s antlers shimmered red.
“They’re glowing,” said Dimble.
“I can’t see them.”
Marley bristled. “That’s because they’re on your head. I can’t see my forehead, how are you supposed to see yours? Feel it. Feel the energy!”
The antlers glowed purple, perhaps the colour of pride.
“That’s it,” said Dimble.
“Now light a fire,” said Marley. He looked hopefully at Zorgeous.
The furrows underneath his antlers increased.
“It should be effortless,” said Marley. “Believe.”
A young Zorgon, half the size of an adult, tried to get up. It fell over and tried again. For a few moments all attention was on the infant’s attempt to master the skill of walking. Zorgeous broke into a grin. His antlers glowed dark red. He lowered his head and laughed.
Unfortunately, by lowering his head he set ablaze Marley’s trousers. Dimble threw clumps of sand at Marley, who was humping the ground in an effort to extinguish the flames.
After a couple of minutes Marley no longer had trousers. They had actually turned into quite trendy shorts. Marley pulled at the scorched hem. He looked Zorgeous full in the face. He didn’t want to extinguish Zorgeous’s new-found enthusiasm.
“Good, but you must learn to focus. And you owe me some trousers.”
The Zorgon child danced in the circle imitating Zorgeous, poking its antlers at Marley.
Marley ducked and weaved just in case the youth possessed even the slightest bit of antler sense. “Let’s compose ourselves. Remember your trial with the Old One, Zorgeous. You had to tell the difference between a ripe and an unripe clictus. So there must be other uses for your horn besides starting fires.”
“He needs a test subject.” Dimble looked around the circle.
A tiny scrab chose that very moment to scurry towards the centre. It skittered around, unable to find its way out.
“That reminds me,” said Dimble, “In the Old Testaphant–”
“Old Testaphant? That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone speak of an Old Testaphant. Are you sure it wasn’t the Slightly Old Testaphant, or the Very Very Very Very Very Old Testaphant?” He turned to Zorgeous. “Focus on that scrab.”
Zorgeous squinted and eyed the desert beetle. Again his antlers turned purple.
“Try not to set it alight,” said Dimble. “The Old Testaphant forbids animal cruelty.”
Zorgeous rolled his head in rapid circles, following the motions of the skittering scrab. The purple on the tip of his antlers graduated to a soft blue. The scrab slowed, it scratched around.
“That correlates precisely with the end of the passage,” Dimble was frantically scrolling through his flablet. “The Old Testaphant speaks of Director of the blue, conductor of calm, whose antler horns arouse. Take heed not to invoke against a will, for that crosses the Divine Law. A sacrifice for those who cross, a cross for those who-”
“I completely agree,” said Marley, “that we should not manipulate the minds of others.”
“That’s exactly the meaning of the passage!” Dimble, surprised by Marley’s quickness, showed him the flablet.
Marley ignored it. He was also a little surprised. And he was thirsty. Thirsty for more knowledge. More knowledge from the clictus. Was this a craving?