Chuck Marley descended further into the dungeon laboratories. In his mind’s eye, Professor Gaston Dimble and scientist Thuris Thranganis followed him as guardians.
Perhaps, after all, they were friends. An image of Gaston bobbled before him, begging him to reclaim the Antlers so he would have a chance to look at the Sablic Chronicles, those epic records of Zorgon underachievement. It would make all his studies worthwhile.
What would it do for Marley? It would get him out of here. Off this planet and back to some semblance of normality.
He descended deeper, stepping onto surprisingly primitive platforms that carried him closer to his goal. Fewer bulbs lined the corridors and Marley’s shadow grew longer and dimmer as he rounded each corner.
He thought of Insomniac Fluton, a drink at the Quasar Bar and a slab of Borsk steak.
A faint thrumming vibrated his eardrums; it was like the steady ignition sequence of a mighty machine. (Or was it just ringing in his ears? His tinnitus had been getting worse lately.)
He remembered failing Xenophobic Etiquette, and how Zeen Crawdex had failed too, poisoned by the vociferous spider. He thought of his PanelMate calling him Master of the Nine Energy Fields and telling him to exercise more. And Zorgeous, down at the Centre for Uninhibited Indolents, waiting in line forever trying to regain his purpose.
These memories ran through his mind for no other reason than because they might be his last memories.
His flablet beeped. Wearily he pulled out the device, fumbled, and dropped it to the floor.
The screen flickered.
There was Rhonda Rogers, in darkness, her intense blue eyes staring up at him. They briefly invited the sharing of an intimate moment.
He couldn’t make out where she was, but intuition told him he had seen the place before, maybe even been there.
“You’re almost there.”
“How did you get this number?”
Her blue eyes burned with intensity. “After Rothball Hazard has finished experimenting on the Antlers of Amplitude, I fear they will work on humans with full force.”
“Are you saying I’ll be seduced by Hazard? That furball?”
“Do not overestimate yourself. That is exactly what he wants. If he’s wearing the Antlers, don’t look at him, or you will fall under his spell.”
“Then how am I supposed to kill that clown?” Marley’s vehemence surprised him. It gave way to dismay when he realised he’d left Jed’s armgun back at the lab of Thuris Thranganis. He blinked, as if a time distortion field had momentarily disoriented him. He came back to his senses.
“I’m bloody unarmed.”
Rhonda Rogers reassured him that whether or not he had a weapon would make no difference. Not an iota, while he was under the spell of the Antlers.
“It does make a difference. If I can find a moment to shoot him in the leg, then I won’t have to get up close.”
“That’s all immaterial now. You’re approaching the Photon Annihilator. I have remotely disabled the door lock. Enter—and end this.”
Marley’s mind went as blank as the flablet. A hole grew in his stomach. He felt cold, though it was warm this far down below the surface.
The door to the Photon Annihilator room slid open. On the edge of hearing – techno music? Yes, the doof-doof-doof of a kick-drum. It grew louder. Rothball Hazard was going to unleash destruction to a retro-electronica soundtrack! He had to put a stop to this.
He found another door with a small window that allowed him to peer into the inner sanctum. It was not small, like he had been told. It was a massive hexagonal chamber. The walls sparkled like diamonds. Pipes snaked around in hypnotic patterns.
Ladders near the far end led to a control platform.
There was Rothball Hazard, working the controls like a church organist allowed to play death metal at Sunday School.
Marley pushed the green knob for the final door and walked in, his heart thudding.
Immediately he put his hands to his ears. A deafening roar of all frequencies weaselled through the gaps in his hands, scratching at his eardrums. He fell to his knees. He ventured a look at Hazard in front of him, dancing on the elevated platform.
The mad scientist frantically eyed the dials, slapped levers, punched buttons. Marley fancied he could hear yelps of delight in between growls of machinery: the yelps of a megalomaniac in ecstasy.
He removed his hands from his ears and stood silently staring at the cloaked scientist. He found himself completely in awe. The diminutive Hazard suddenly seemed large, very large…majestic. Each punch of a button, twist of a dial, slide of a modulator – was an artistic gesture on the canvas of space-time.
Marley entered a trance. Only briefly. But enough for a voice to slap him: “Now is the time!”
The thumping techno-trance music shifted to Charlie Parker’s audacious saxophone, winding around the chamber, coiling like a snake, teasing and mocking.
Rothball Hazard spun around. From the control platform he surveyed Marley with disdain, humour…contempt. No other man of science could match this. No other MAN would match this. Ever.
The dials were all maxed out. Warning lights flared red.
“Ah! Haha! Ha ha. Ha!”
It was a strange but alluring laugh; seductive and evil at the same time.
Marley was under his spell. The Antlers of Amplitude jiggled on Hazard’s head like Xmas decorations, and he laughed with him.
“There is nothing you can do, Health Protector, nothing. The countdown has well and truly begun. In fact it is almost over. Of course, the abort sequence can be activated with this lever here.” Hazard smiled, “But you won’t do that now, will you?”
Marley shook his head.
“You understand, don’t you?”
“Good boy. You are no match for someone as extraordinary as me.”
Marley shook his head.
“I hazard a guess…you even admire me.”
He nodded vigorously.
“You love me.” Hazard looked defiant, daring anyone not to love him.
Something clicked in Marley’s unconscious. Instead of nodding, his head described a circular motion.
“Ha ha ha! Haha. Ah!” The evil laugh was still ridiculous, but slightly less evil than before. The circular motion of Marley’s head described an arc just wide enough to briefly take Hazard out of his sight, lessoning the macabre attraction of the dark influence.
It was enough of a distraction to allow another voice to enter his head:
“Watch, and know.”