Chuck Marley couldn’t sleep. He turned to and fro on his sand bed tossing himself about trying to meld his body but couldn’t get comfortable. He longed for a mattress. Even if it was infested with little creatures, like in those motels in the Bad Ends. On second thoughts maybe a sand bed would be better. He remembered the story of a man who had visited the Very Bad Ends to meet his lover. While waiting, he fell asleep and was completely consumed by mutant bed bugs. His lover thought he was a no-show and returned to her husband. Marley shuddered and rose to search for some water. He heard Gaston Dimble snoring blissfully in the other room. He decided to go for a wander in the silence outside.
The nights of Zorge were slightly longer than Cretan nights, lasting up to 15 hours. He gazed up at the heavens and discerned Longinum, the gas giant, the only other planet in this system. It twinkled like a solitary firefly. He imagined it as a fairy hovering about him. He lay on his back, focused on it and went cross-eyed. Somewhere on the fringes of consciousness he sensed that he was being pulled away.
“There is not much time!”
Marley opened his eyes, or thought he did.
“You must solve this crisis. This is a small but vital cog in the galactic wheel.” The hooded figure danced in front him, unable to keep still.
Marley exhaled. Here again. “Who are you and why do you bring me to this plane, whoever you are?”
The hooded figure stopped moving. “You will know everything in time. As your mind adjusts, the more skilled will you become. You are but immature–”
“If you would let me finish,” he spoke as if addressing a child: “you would hear me say, you are but immature in the ways of the Zentrians. As your mind expands, your consciousness rises. You will begin to remember these encounters in the upper planes when you return to the lower. At least you are remembering that you have been here before, although time does not properly exist here. You are present in the future and will come again in the past. This is a start.
The shadow seemed to rummage in his ethereal robe, as if it had an inner pocket. “This time you are here without the aid of stimulants. But you’ve already forgotten who I am. I am your Greater Guide. Come with me.”
Marley followed him, more seriously. “Speaking of stimulants…”
In a far flung corner of his mind he saw Zorgeous, antlers glowing softly as he slept. He saw Gaston’s stomach rise and fall to his peaceful breaths. He saw himself lying on the rough ground, eyes closed, breathing regularly. Despite this tranquil view of reality, he shuddered and withdrew his astral gaze. He followed the Zentrian.
He allowed himself to be led to an orange portal framed by a triangular wooden arch. Around him solid shapes became indistinct; hazy spheres emerged out of nothingness, then shrank and disappeared.
He felt vulnerable as he walked, open on all sides, drifting on mist. Half-formed creatures beckoned out of the corners of his eyes.
The Zentrian turned its hood to Marley. “In time you will make out what cannot be perceived. Your vision is not ready. You refuse to accept the powers within, and those that surround you.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Everywhere and nowhere.“
“Could you be less cryptic?”
The Zentrian glided onward. Marley felt like he was being pulled by an elastic band. Smokey forms drifted by. The expanse around him expanded. They passed through a greenish wall that stretched upwards as far as the eye could see.
“One day, you will glide through here of your own will. But first you must prove yourself to me, and I to them.” The Zentrian nodded around him as if acknowledging a multitude of bodies. Some half-formed shapes semi-resolved. They looked like the Zentrian, but some had embers for eyes; other shadows were definitely female, even though they also wore a cowl.
Marley’s skin tingled; his brain was being searched.
“Do you think he’s reasonable?”
“We have little time to spare.”
“My time is never of the essence. Neither is his.”
Marley’s Zentrian representative spoke faster. “He will be tested on the earthly plane.”
“Then implant him with a seed.”
“With weed?” A high-pitched tone rung in Marley’s ears.
“If he’s ready, may the seed grow a strong trunk and sensitive foliage.”
Marley sensed (but did not see) some energy flowing into him, pushing him away, back through the greenish wall which turned pink after he passed through.
The Zentrian spoke slowly, “You have been given a seed. They have shown you faith.”
“If I reveal more I may jeopardise the situation. Watch and you will know.” The Zentrian said the last sentence a little too fast for it to sound deep, almost as if it was a mere formality. A pulse emanated from the middle of the Zentrian’s cowl.
Marley felt a push between his eyes and he fell backwards. The voice echoed in his head as he traveled through the aether.
He hovered over his body on an elastic whip. He snapped back into it, lying breathless, gazing at Longinum. It did not twinkle, as if time had frozen. A moment later the star blinked at him like a fairy winking. He heaved himself to his feet and made his way back to the cabin.
Dimble still snored.
Maybe it was the muddy water that had made Marley hallucinate. With a pit in his stomach, he remembered that he had a seed. What would it grow into? What was he supposed to watch and know?
* * *
When he opened his eyes again Dimble was already performing his morning ritual: clearing his throat. Marley peered outside through a hole in the wall.
The Zorgons were making placards! One said, in bold red letters, “Respect for Zorgons”. Another: “Idleness is Productive”.
The crowd extended all the way to the Tower of Guardians. The standard-bearer at the front hooted, and they set-off in a trail of dust.
Marley waited for the bulk of the protest to move forward before saying goodbye to Gaston and Zorgeous at the rear.
He’d had enough of walking. He was going by transit cab, and would find a way into the labs while the scientists were preoccupied with the Zorgon rabble.
The stillness after their departure was remarkable. One minute there had been hoots and stomping. The next, wisps and creaking doorways.
Marley dialled the number for Techno Transit Cabs.
Almost immediately, as if he had been waiting for a job, Jed descended.