Chuck Marley plunged down the stairs next to the lift. The thudding door reverberated behind him. He could now barely hear the alarm.
On level 20 he ran headlong into a sudden opening door. If he had had time to reflect, he supposed a door being opened shouldn’t have been the last thing to expect during an evacuation. Sprawled on his back, a familiar face peered from behind the door, flush with shock and surprise.
“Oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there. I mean, the last thing you’d expect when opening the emergency stairwell is, you know, is…I’m really sorry.”
“The last thing you’d expect?”
She got down on her knees and put her hand on Chuck’s cheek.
The woman from the cybernetic legs department was now wearing a light blue robe designed to keep the skin fresh and alive after a shower of herbal essences. Her breath was warm and natural; her hair was in full flight, blow-dried like a field of barley after a sirocco. Marley chose to remain on his back and rest awhile. Essence of rosewater enveloped him in a cloud. With each inhalation, her chest approached tantalising close to his own.
“I’m Rhonda. Rhonda Rogers. I haven’t seen you around here. But I’ve only been here five months. Just graduated.”
This reminded Marley how far he was from completing his studies.
Had he seen her here before? Outside of the stairwell? He couldn’t put his finger on it. “I haven’t been here long either. I’m on secondment. And I don’t see myself here much longer.”
“That’s a pity. We’re short of cybernetic arm specialists.”
He pushed himself off the floor and she helped him to his feet.
As much as Marley wanted to stay in Rhonda’s perfume cloud, he knew every passing second pushed Zorge further towards chaos. The situation was even more unpredictable now that Hazard had taken possession of the Antlers of Amplitude. Who knew what they could do, what other hidden powers they might have?
Rhonda retrieved Jed’s cybernetic arm and handed it to Marley.
“Very advanced model. I could learn a lot from this. Perhaps you could lend it to me…sometime?” The final sentence was deliberately seductive.
“Certainly. If this place still exists. You must get out of here, before we’re overrun by Zorgons.”
“I’m not afraid of them. But I worry what might happen to them, to us, all of us, if–”
“If Hazard thinks all is lost…and activates–”
“Oh no.” Marley spoke slowly. “Activates what?”
“The Photon Annihilator!”
“That doesn’t sound like it involves candy and cream.”
“No, it involves colliding two photons together at such high speeds that space and time are torn apart. Everything – organic and inorganic – dematerialises. It only works within a radius of-.”
“How small a radius?”
“I don’t know, 10 feet, maybe a 20 foot radius, maybe 100 feet.”
“100 feet, horizontally?” Marley was wide-eyed in shock.
“No, 100 feet in radius.”
“Maybe a mile.”
“This is ghastly. Why would Hazard do this?”
“Because he’s mad, crazy. He’s a complete cheesecake.”
Marley was surprised someone would refer to their employer in these terms. And pleased that Rhonda confided this to him.
She continued: “Only Head Scientist Irva Berling can access the chamber which controls the Photon Annihilator.”
“But she’s off on the Chaldean Frigate,” Marley said, sounding knowledgeable.
“She gave Hazard express authorisation to do whatever is necessary to keep the peace here. The peace…of the colony.” Rhonda Rogers became more agitated, if she was agitated to begin with. She shuddered in her robe.
“I last heard he was heading into the underground labs.
“When was this?” She shuddered closer to him.
“10 minutes ago, maybe more.” Two hearts began racing, two Trojan asteroids running after Jupiter, two streaking meteors striking innocent villages, two escapees, stranded in a tunnel…
“Oh no!” She grabbed both of Marley’s arms. She would’ve grabbed the cybernetic arm too if she could. “He’s heading to the command bunker, where the control room is. If he activates the Photon Annihilator, we’ll only have an hour before the whole place disappears into the void. No one has ever returned from the void.”
Marley felt a void in his stomach. Then he brightened. “I can think of worse people to disappear into the void with.”
“Don’t be a sweetie,” she replied neutrally.
“Why have you told me all this?”
He realised where he’d seen her before: in all the advertisements here. He’d spotted her on billboards, beaming with a tube of Nunchian toothpaste. She was the “model” scientist in tight-fitting lab coat extolling the virtues of beakers and bubbling alkalines.
“I’m telling you because…just because!” She looked away.
“Good enough for me.” Marley smiled. There was more to her than met the eye, but now was not the time to probe.
She looked back at him, sighing through her nose.
“And why,” said Marley, “doesn’t Hazard value his own life? If he sends everything here to the nth dimension, he’ll be annihilated too.”
“No he won’t. Whoever activates the Photon Annihilator does so from the security of the bunker. Everything will vanish, except that little room.”
She rushed off down the stairs.
Marley plummeted after her, watching the lithe body gracefully turn about each stairwell, her silver bluish blond hair struggling to keep up.
Ten levels down, she tired, and dropped back.
Marley was almost one flight ahead of her when he heard a door close.
He stopped and waited. No sound, no following footsteps. He tried the door above but it was locked. All stairwell doors would be locked except the bottom one. Emergency procedure. Then how did she get out of here? Rhonda had deserted him. Already!
Marley entered the great hall on the ground floor. Not a Zorgon in sight. Only a few moments ago the place was a hive of chaos. The rubble of Hazard’s fallen statue and his grimacing stone head were all that remained. The mob had trampled on paintings, toppled monuments, smashed display cabinets and looted their contents, if not destroying them.
But Marley understood exactly why the Zorgons had done this.
The alert ceased.
Marley headed down. Down towards the labs.
All were empty. He peered through laboratory windows as he descended. Some of the windows were wide, which could allow crowds to watch before them. Others were mere slits in the wall, and you’d barely know a lab was there unless you looked. But all were now unoccupied. Unattended beakers bubbled. In another lab, chains swung slowly from ceilings, waiting for their test subject. Empty cages. A door opening. Three rats scurried out, scampering their way to freedom! Incipien Rooney hadn’t eaten them.
After one last round of winding corridors Marley reached the door of Thuris Thranganis. Through the window he saw him, in animated conversation with Gaston Dimble.
He banged on the window. Thranganis rushed over and pressed the pad to let him in.
“Good thing you’re here, Mr Marley.”
“All hell is about to break loose.” Dimble didn’t usually say things like that.
“Is going to–”
“One at a time!” Marley almost screamed. “Alright Gaston. You first.”
“Rothball Hazard has gone mad. Seduced by the Antlers. He’s down in his labs trying to make them even more powerful. He longs for their secret, he’s willing to sacrifice everything, even this place.”
“That’s what a young girl, Miss Rogers I believe, told us.” Thranganis pushed his glasses up his nose.
“Zorgeous was delighted to hear this news and escorted all the Zorgons out of the settlement, away from the area before the whole place is vaporised. ‘Just what it deserves’, he said.”
“What about the scientists? They’re civilians, aren’t they? You’re a civilian, eh?” Marley walked up to Thranganis and looked him in the eyes.
The glasses on the scientist’s ski-jump nose surprisingly held firm.
Dimble thrust his head forward. “The scientists: they’re either dead, or holed up in Frint Nono’s lab.”
“The late Frint Nono,” said Marley.
Thranganis stared grimly. “We must neutralise Hazard. Who knows what havoc he will wreak if he makes the Antlers more powerful.” He sighed. “Try to save the settlement. I know we’ve done much wrong here. But we can rebuild, with Hazard gone. Maybe one day scientists and Zorgons will share their knowledge, for the benefit of both species.”
“I doubt this.” Marley banged his fist into his palm.
Thranganis put his hands in his coat. “If worse comes to worst, I will die here. Just see to it that Rothball Hazard does too.” He retrieved a bottle of spray. “I have loaded this with beta-forex. It contains only two squirts. Its range is only 15 feet, if that. The area of effect spreads to 3 feet at maximum range, but dilutes with distance. Used judiciously, it will make the Head of Roboto-Genetic Engineering itch as if all his hairs had turned to bristles.”
“And he has a lot of hair.” Marley secretly scoffed at the harmless looking spray. But he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of Thranganis, so he pretended to gladly accept it. And he needed all the help he could get. “Have you got any alpha-forex?”
Thranganis took off his glasses and rubbed them on his coat. “I’m sorry, but this concoction has not been tested.”
Marley mockingly pointed the bottle at the scientist.
Thranganis ducked and dropped his glasses on the floor. As he stooped to retrieve them he kneeled and looked up. “Good luck, Mr Marley. Remember, there are only two squirts.”