“What off earth are you holding?”
The Hierophant weakly clasped something under his arm.
Chuck Marley lent over and prised away an orange box that was the same colour as the Hierophant’s fur. It had three buttons and a knob that could be pushed in all directions.
“Don’t push the red button,” exclaimed the Hierophant.
There was also a green and a blue button.
“What is the meaning of this device?”
Gaston Dimble pointed his flablet close to the Hierophant’s mouth. So close that his subject’s breath fogged the display screen.
“Have mercy on me,” the Hierophant said pathetically, “your fellow humans gave me an ultimatum: ‘Do as we say or…’”
“That’s quite a threat.” Marley tapped his foot. “I’m not surprised you buckled so easily.”
“I had no choice. Who knows what ‘else’ is? I use this box to control the Guardian. With this knob I directed him, as I pleased. Pushing the green button activates his implanted intelligence chips, causing him to sense, hear and respond to whoever addresses him.”
“What does the blue button do?”
“Activates power saving mode.”
“And the red one?” Marley threatened to press it.
“No! We’ll be blown to pieces. It’s a detonator. The Guardian is equipped with a small nuclear warhead implanted in his abdomen, ready to destroy everything within a mile’s radius. It’ll be the end of us all. The scientists implanted it so that, if need be, they may blow him to a thousand fragments, destroying any evidence of their manipulation.”
“And injuring many in the process.” Marley pressed the green button and twisted the black knob. The Guardian steered himself into the assembly chamber where they were interrogating the Hierophant.
The spiral stairs that flanked the Velvet Throne led to the living quarters of each succeeding Guardian, with the current quarters on the top level. The Tower creaked occasionally as it shifted on its foundations.
Marley steered the Guardian up to Zorgeous. When he saw his old leader he almost burst into flakes, seeing him practically reduced to a mechanical toy.
“Tell me, who is the current Lunar Golf champion?”
The Guardian did a good job of looking puzzled.
“Good,” said Marley to the Hierophant, “he responds when the green button is pressed. If you continue to provide us with useful information you will be spared.”
The Hierophant squirmed on the steps beneath the throne, longing to place his buttocks on it but knowing that this possibility was receding from his grasp. Marley stood over him, each foot on a step. He clenched the control box, fingering its edges. Just for sport he decided to ask the Guardian another question: “Who is the lead actor in the latest James Pond film?”
The Guardian did not hesitate. “Frisky Benjamin.”
“How did you know that?” Marley frowned.
“Sometimes,” said Dimble, “the creators of these devious inventions can’t help but put a little of themselves into them. Evidently Frint Nono is a fan of James Pond.”
Marley wondered how the oversized Nono could possibly identify with the sleek and irrepressible James Pond. But perhaps he was more sympathetic to the villains.
“Tell us more useless information about those who imbued the Guardian with life after death.”
“Please be more specific,” the Guardian said without emotion.
“Have you heard of Frint Nono?”
“What about Rothball Hazard?”
“Eminent Head of Roboto-Genetic Engineering. Smarter than ten Jovian Jellyfish.”
“It is evident,” said Dimble, “ that Hazard has such a large head, that he could not resist implanting praise as to his own magnificence.”
“What more do you have to say about Frint Nono?” Marley put his hands on his hips.
“Commander, controller, conjurer.”
“And what of Thuris Thranganis?”
“A maker of sauces.”
“Hazard is definitely behind this,” said Marley. “He couldn’t resist an opportunity to put down his colleagues. If he had made this imitation any more like himself we could just kill it and be out of here. But unfortunately, we have to work out if there is anyone behind Rothball Hazard.”
Dimble licked his lips: “And then see if there’s anyone behind the person behind Hazard. And behind him there’s probably another person.”
“I believe Hazard also wants to secure endless supplies of red dust as a vital ingredient to interstellar trade. Someone on Earth’s Council of Plutocrats may be sponsoring him. And that’s where the Antlers of Amplitude may end up. In the British Museum.”
Marley addressed Zorgeous: “Where do you keep prisoners?”
* * *
The steps from the Velvet Throne radiated outward. At the bottom of the stairs, Zorgeous led them through a door to more stairs. They passed the imperial kitchens. Bags of dried scrab beetle, flagons for clictus juice and silver cooking pans hung from the ceiling. Further down the corridor they passed the prisoners’ kitchen. It smelled of putrid black lettuce and rotten American tomatoes. Muddy water flooded the floor.
The cells below the Tower of Guardians were dark, dry and dusty. Unseen drafts snuck around corners and nosied down holes into unknown chambers. They took the Hierophant to a cell for political prisoners, which had a king-sized mattress for a bed. Paintings of former Guardians adorned the wall. A small window let in the pink light.
They locked in the Hierophant and gave him a bowl of black lettuce. Two baby scrab beetles scurried about the cell.
“Are you sure you have the Antlers of Amplitude? Do you know where they are?” Marley really wanted to punch him.
Zorgeous approached the Hierophant and pointed his glowing antlers. A globule of ball lightning fizzled above.
“Alright! I’ll tell you. In five days you’ll see a small ship: A Jovian MX5 Sports Coupé. They are coming to collect the Antlers of Amplitude.”
“Where are they taking them, and why?”
“There are secrets to the Antlers. I don’t know all of them. They have been jealously guarded for glotblots. I was curious. I want to know their power. Without them, no Guardian can rule. The scientists promised to return the Antlers and I would rule, advised by them.” He said the last sentence with added emphasis. “But they betrayed me because I revealed its hidden powers. Shame on me. I want those powers! And your race can uncover them, with or without a Guardian.”
“These Antlers are more significant than just another Shiny Shoe,” Marley said to Dimble.
They left the Hierophant to his black lettuce and returned to the Assembly Chamber. Zorgons prodded at the lifeless Guardian. They could not understand why he was standing upright and saying nothing. He wouldn’t even fall over when pushed.
Marley waved his hands about. “Close the doors. The hall is full. It’s time for business.”
“What are we to do, fellow Zorgons?” Zorgeous extended his arms, embracing the crowd. “Are we to stand by and let humanity overcome us with their technology, and dominate us with their culture?”
The crowd shifted uneasily. The sun cast its feeble rays through four diamond apertures, lighting the backs of their heads. A dishevelled one with a tattered vest spoke up. He looked like an elder: “We should wait for the humans to make their next move. We’ve done enough. We’ve ended the deceit.”
“Now is not the time to be waiting,” a husky female voice intoned.
“Waiting has served us well,” said the elder.
“You would wait until the sun fell out of the sky.”
“It falls out of the sky every day.”
“We must act while we have the advantage.”
“Maybe we can pretend to wait.”
“If we start pretending we’ll end up believing. And then we’ll do what we always do. Nothing.”
“I say we dance.” It was the musical Zorgon who looked like he wanted to embrace Rastafarianism. “Let us dance as one to da human tunes. Let them come with dem CV players and da latest grooves.” Two Zorgons opened the doors and kicked him out. He fell on the sand outside and resumed dancing.
“This is what will happen if we don’t take action,” said the female Zorgon. “We’ll embrace human music and host more reality VT. Zorge will become a zoo. We’ll eventually be kicked off our own planet.”
Marley and Dimble looked at each other uneasily. The audience turned their way.
“We’re not all like that,” said Marley “And dancing isn’t such a bad thing.”
“Maybe they’re not ready for dancing,” said Dimble. He faced the crowd. “From what we know, we have little time to recover the Antlers. An interstellar vessel could arrive within a week to seize them.”
The crowd babbled and murmured.
Marley nudged the Professor. He did not want the Zorgons to panic. They needed to be organised, not ragged. He needed an organised rabble to march on the labs . That would be a good diversion while he attempted to get in by other means. “You must rouse yourselves, stand up for your rights, march on the labs!”
“The musical Zorgon who you just kicked out,” said Dimble, “can lead the foot stomping.”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
“What’s that going to achieve?”
“History has indicated–” but Dimble was drowned out.
“Gaston, we’ll be history if you keep saying that.”
“We can have stomping and howling,” said Zorgeous. “Ready? Everyone: howl!”
Dimble and Marley pressed their hands to their ears. The sound was fascinating and repelling, as if ancient Sirens were singing through snorkels, or the Seven Sisters’ number one hit, Lovable Laser, was played backwards through distortion amplifiers.
After fifteen dizzying seconds the howling ceased. The reverberations continued around the chamber, bouncing off walls, winding down staircases, killing scrabs.