The rain stopped. Only a few lumbering clouds remained in the sky. A miniature whirlwind whipped sand into the air and collected some refuse, threw it away, then jerked off to another street corner.
“I will challenge the Hierophant as soon as he enters Goramus.”
Chuck Marley suggested it would be better waiting. “Lets see what everyone else does first.”
“It is a matter of honour. I have issued a challenge, I must follow through.”
Not seeing an alternative, Marley ordered Gaston Dimble to record everything on his flablet.
“I always do.”
“Good. Zorgeous, if you need us give us the signal. But only in an emergency.”
“What’s the signal?”
“Something not obvious.”
“What if he rolls his head on his shoulders three times?” Dimble looked like an idiot.
“That won’t work if we can’t see him.”
“How about I say Assistance,” asked Zorgeous.
The solitary moon of Zorge peered occasionally through the clouds, an orange crescent seen for a few seconds before being engulfed. Zorgeous craned his neck to look at it, trying to forget the challenge.
The sound of flapping feet signalled that a crowd was heading towards the outskirts of the town. Two wavy lines formed before the Tower of Guardians, threading along the path out of Goramus.
The guardians of the Guardian beat heavy clay drums as if activating the city’s heart.
Atop the Tower a bust, carved from red clay, looked out upon the sand below. The stern eyes of the statue pointed towards the real Guardian, who now threaded through the crowd in a purple sedan chair. In a yellow sedan followed the Hierophant. The chairs swung back and forth in motion with their bearers.
The rhythm of the drums increased as the procession approached the Tower. Then it stopped. The silence was complete, contrasting greatly with the preceding clamour. Marley became conscious of his own heartbeat and sought to silence it, lest it give away his hiding place.
“Silence, heart!” he said to himself.
“What was that?” said Dimble.
“I was telling my heart to be quiet. Can’t you hear it?”
Dimble leaned closer to Marley and cocked an ear. “Can’t hear a thing. Here give me your hand. I’ll check your pulse.”
Marley pushed him away. “Here’s what we do. While you’re recording, we approach the Hierophant and pretend to be interviewers for Radio Outer Rim. We get up close and weasel information out of him.” His heart continued pounding in his chest as it considered the audacity of his idea.
The entourage continued to the Tower. The path that flanked the Guardian and the Hierophant caved in and the crowd of onlookers followed behind like grains down a funnel. The Zorgons jostled for a glimpse of their leader. His three carriers, one at the front and two behind, lowered his chair to the ground. They were nervous. The carrying ritual hadn’t been performed in over one glotblot. The Guardian’s chair landed unevenly in the dust. The Hierophant had a rougher landing, his carriage almost rolling over. Yet he remained in it.
“On guard,” the Guardian said to the carriers, and he raised himself out of the chair. He approached the doors of the Tower, turned and saluted the crowd. A space formed in front of him and five priestesses performed a ceremonial dance and threw rocks at the Tower.
Dimble peeped from behind a tall slab, recording the scene on his flablet. He whispered to Marley, replaying what he’d just recorded, “He’s not wearing the Antlers of Amplitude. That can only mean one of three things. One: the humans want a malleable ruler of the natives so they can gain a free trade agreement, likely for better access to red dust.”
“Or so they can open more burger stores.”
“Correct. Two: they want the Antlers of Amplitude. Why do the humans want them? I have an inkling but I’m not so sure.”
“What’s the third thing?”
The Professor scratched his head. “That’s what strange. There isn’t one. There are only two things.”
Marley let this pass without comment. “Could this have anything to do with elections to the Council of Plutocrats?” Marley knew about these elections to Earth’s governing body. They were full of pomp and celebrity, more conducted along the lines of a reality VT show than known for their seriousness. But they were serious indeed. They presented the opportunity for the very rich or very powerful to grab an exclusive slice of Earth.
Dimble nodded. “Elections to the Council of Plutocrats are held every 10 years. Only three months remain until the next election. Political donations are supposed to be capped. However, obtaining invaluable artefacts can get around this, especially if they have been given willingly by the donor race.”
“Ridiculous!” said Marley. “There has to be a more compelling reason to want the Antlers.” But he knew that conquering peoples had been stealing treasures for as long as history. Even on Earth, Greece still clamoured for the return of the Elgin Marbles, even though, strictly speaking, both provinces were rules by the same government, the European Union.
Professor Dimble showed Marley an entry from Dr Boson’s Cosmogony. “His Greatness of Britain and Iceland, The Honourable Falcon, was elected solely because he possessed the Shiny Shoe, a gift from the Nunchians of Foon.”
“Shiny Shoe? You’re having me on.” He nudged Gaston in the ribs.
“That’s what the history books say.”
“But to go to such great lengths. It must be more than that. We have yet to uncover the secret of red dust. I think it has something to do with those Antlers, and that is why it’s so rare.”
“We already know that Zorgeous has something in his antlers that other Zorgons do not. Maybe the Antlers of Amplitude have been kept for their mystical properties, or because they radiate some sort of electromagnetic field. Regardless, they are valuable: to both Zorgon and human.”
“We must find these horns,” said Marley. Whether he was more worried about the welfare of the Zorgons or concerned with financial security – this was a question for himself to sort out over a pint of strangbrew. Or space juice. He could not wait to combine his remaining sachet of red dust with some clictus juice. Add to that some Debussian ginger tea and he would have ultimate high. He hadn’t thought much about drugs before tricking Rothball Hazard.
Dimble tensed. “Whoever wants the Antlers of Amplitude, they thumb their noses at the League of Worlds.” He imitated the action of thumbing a nose by placing his thumb tightly on his nose, palm outwards. “They might get away with theft, but surely the League of Worlds won’t stand by while those self-styled barons of the Earth attempt to enhance their collection of antiquities.”
“The problem is identifying the difference between the real antlers, and fake replacements. Zorgeous, any idea how we can do this?”
Zorgeous bowed. “The genuine Antlers of Amplitude are unbreakable.”