The Tower of Guardians loomed in the distance. With its ruddy stone terraces it resembled a wedding cake. On each level, inward leaning stone buttresses supported the next terrace. But room was running out at the top and the Zorgons would have to refine their engineering if they were to extend it further.
Zorgeous walked proudly now. If he could influence a scrab beetle he could move mountains, provided he had the time. A little clictus juice helped too, as well as encouragement.
The Professor was eager to be underway, convinced that the ancient Zorgon writings guaranteed their success. The rest would be history.
“Let’s hope we don’t become history.” Chuck Marley looked straight at Gaston Dimble, who was pointing his flablet.
“I assure you Chuck, I am faithfully recording everything. You will be remembered.”
The Professor couldn’t answer this question. However, he typed the preceding dialogue into his word processor. Marley posed with a fake smile as Dimble pointed the camera.
He narrated: “Watch as the enigmatic adventurer, Chuck Marley, strides into the Zorgon capital. Behold his confident gait.” He pointed the flablet at himself. “I, Associate Professor Gaston Dimble of Cretan Normal University, am proud to be a part of this moment.”
He filmed double brick dwellings along a boulevard that led straight to the Tower, while a few early risers eyed him with suspicion. He could easily tell the difference between an Ungarlooton and a native Goramer. His chin touched the flablet as he spoke directly into its microphone: “Although the Goramers are yet to accept the promises of human technology, they are gradually adopting some of our traits. See the Epicurean jewellery, and over there, a Zorgon mother in Cretan clothes. Compared with us, they are just as civilised.”
One Goramer emerged from a laneway with dreadlocks and hairy arms. Marley scampered from the end of the procession to the middle where he felt more protected. The dreadlocked Goramer beckoned him.
Marley waved his arms in a gesture of peace.
This particular Zorgon wanted no such thing. He was actually one of the trailblazing Zorgons who wanted a CV player. He approached Marley and shaped his claws into a square.
“What does he want Gaston?”
The Zorgon pointed to his ears as if they were headphones and began gyrating.
“Looks like a tribal dance.” Dimble addressed the camera. “See the effortless sway as the Zorgon weaves a sophisticated rhythm.”
“Make him go away!”
“I think he wants something from you.”
“I haven’t got anything.” He shook his head as he addressed the Zorgon: “Me have no things.”
More Zorgons followed them. Some seemed to recognise Zorgeous and ran ahead to spread news of The Exile’s return.
The structures around the Tower of Guardians were large and misshapen. It was as if the architect had followed plans on a crinkled sheet of paper, or had lost a lens from his glasses. Maybe the buildings had melted under the steady sun before the clay had set.
Angling away from them, the giant flatscreen hung from the fourth terrace of the Tower. As it reflected the rays of the rising sun, it became an imposing abstract painting of glossy black and white streaks.
Zorgeous stopped before the VT and looked up at it quizzically. With one arm outstretched he spun to the crowd. (He spun a little too far and had to correct himself.)
“Take me to your leader,” he said in native Zorgon – a complicated series of leg wobbles and posturing. As if to be sure, he repeated the order in Standard Galactic Standard.
The Zorgons pointed towards the VT. “This is our leader.”
“You bow down to a screen? Where is your pride? The Guardian is no more. He was disappeared by the very species who gave you this.” He pointed to the VT without looking at it. “The Hierophant is fooling you.”
With the VT switched off, the Zorgons had no one else to listen to.
The wooden doors beneath the arched entrance to the Tower were closed, and the Guardian no longer gave the daily idleness lecture. The Hierophant now gave the orders of the day precisely at noon via VT. He had promised that the Guardian would return soon.
Life under the Guardian was inefficient and purposeless, just the way the Zorgons liked it. But some of them welcomed the increased efficiency under the Hierophant’s regime, especially those that liked the weekly supply of fast food from Jinko’s Takeaway. But more were growing restless. They did not like doing more work. Especially more work that was pointless and didn’t benefit them above their daily needs.
The crowd had trebled in size. They were getting ready to receive the message of the day. Some of them were bowing before the screen as if willing it to turn on.
Marley noticed three cameras below the VT directed towards the crowd. These could be used in simulcast to beam images of the throng back to whoever was filming. Perhaps the pictures were sent to Frint Nono’s lab. Maybe Rothball Hazard gorged on black lettuce and sipped Falernian wine while watching on his personal flablet.
It would be better to stay away from the cameras, yet within hearing range so they could assess the unfolding events. For better, or likely for worse, Marley was now caught up in the mess. Staying low was the best option, and hopefully it would lead to copious amounts of red dust which would more than fund this spurious adventure. And flagons of clictus juice. No, tobulons of juice. Mixed with red dust. The craving for the juice returned.
A buzz of uncomfortable static preceded the screen flickering on. The logo of Jinko’s Takeaway flashed above the words: “Please be seated.” A hundred Zorgons sat down, except for one who began dancing to the elevator music coming through hidden speakers, probably behind the VT.
Fluffy red clouds gathered. Maybe they were sentient, thought Marley. A light drizzle of red sand flecked his hair. Some Zorgons looked to the heavens. Some held out their claws to catch the fine grains and rub them on their body.
A white square filled the entire screen, and at its centre, the Hierophant glared with beady eyes. His twisted antlers did not fit the frame, but he looked imperiously downwards. Some Zorgons thought he was five times as big, others that he had become a machine.
“My fellow fellows, join me in fellowship. You will be pleased to hear that the Guardian is to return and lead you, lead us all. Zorge remains united!”
The audience muttered. A few of them looked towards Zorgeous, challenging his contention that the Guardian was dead. The red sand rained harder.
The Hierophant leaned closer to the camera. “Soon we will need ten brave and loyal Zorgons. The toll on your bodies will be great. Courage and endurance are needed. You will have to be clean and well groomed. Zorgons: coming soon … Jinko’s Takeaway. You will staff and keep it clean and respectable for all visitors: human, Sirian, snail and otherwise.”
The Professor almost squealed: “This is a foil Chuck, to divert the Zorgons’ attention away from the stealing of their resources. Their customs will be eroded; their way of life handed down orally through the centuries is under threat!”
“Keep your sympathy in check Gaston,” Marley said, looking around uneasily, although no one was looking at them.
“I have nothing against Jinko’s, but in the heart of Zorge? I must object – as a historian, and a human being.”
“A human being who likes fast food. Aren’t you being a hypocrite?”
“The Zorgons are not yet ready for unrestricted access to burger chains.”
“Your objections carry the weight of a thousand Betelgeuse Burger buns without a patty between them.”
“That’s still pretty heavy.”
“We have to warn them. Why are they being so deferential to the Hierophant?”
“When no true leadership is forthcoming the pack will always follow whoever is the most confident.”
“That VT is certainly helping the Hierophant.”
The screen switched to an image of the Guardian blinking on a large white chair. “My beloved Zorgons. This is me, your Guardian. Heed the words of the Hierophant and choose the best among you among you…among you.” The Guardian twitched. A claw, that of the Hierophant, appeared off screen and sharply tapped the Guardian’s left shoulder. “As you can see, I am fit and well and well and well.” Again the claw appeared. It tapped the shoulder more forcefully. “I expect a warm welcome when I return with the Hiero- Hiero- Hierophant.”
Dimble whispered to Marley and Zorgeous, “He’s a fake. He’s not the Guardian the Zorgons once knew.”
“This is surely Rothball Hazard’s creation,” said Marley. “Either it’s the original Guardian, dead and resurrected as a zombie, or a robot clone.”
Zorgeous chimed in. “Yes, he is fishier than a fish.”
Marley and Gaston looked at Zorgeous in amazement. Marley said, “Your attempt at simile making is admirable, but you should concentrate on your strengths, such as your burgeoning horn sense.”
The Professor was kinder. “Well done Zorgeous. This is the first simile I’ve heard from a Zorgon. That Guardian is indeed fishier than a fish. He’s fishier than a fishy fish.”
“Stop it. All fish are fishy. So what exactly is our next step?”
“We must convince the Zorgons of the Guardian’s fishiness before he returns. If we fail to do this, it may be too late.”
“I must make my move,” said Zorgeous.
“What?” said Gaston and Marley.
The Hierophant was back on the VT. “I expect a guard of honour for the Guardian when he returns. Have two sedan chairs ready!”
Zorgeous chose this moment to dash around to the front of the screen. “Enough, Hierophant! No more games. That is not the Guardian or what he used to be. I issue you a challenge.” He bent low and prodded the air with his antlers, a sign that he wished to duel.
Unfortunately for Zorgeous, the VT had already switched to an advertisement extolling the beauties of Epicurus as a retirement and holiday resort.
“Lucky for us,” said Marley, “you’ll have to issue another challenge. You took us quite unprepared, Zorgeous. Next time, think!” He tapped his head. “You might have ruined our plan.”
“What plan?” said Dimble.
“The plan we’re about to think up!”
The crowd looked at Zorgeous disapprovingly.
“I tell you,” Zorgeous said gravely, “That is not the Guardian as we knew him. Did you not see him stutter?”
“We saw you issue your challenge,” said someone in the crowd. “You will challenge the Hierophant when he returns.”