They braced themselves, trying to remember the instructions given to SpaceBus passengers in an emergency. The warning system told them to do it anyway, though it was probably useless:
“Brace position! Photon Annihilation event imminent.”
Gaston Dimble huddled in a corner, hands clasped behind head, head upon knees. If he held himself any tighter he would collapse in on himself and form a singularity. Which was exactly what would happen if Marley didn’t shut down the annihilator.
Thuris Thranganis gripped his head between his shins, his arms wrapped around his ankles. A white tuft of hair sprouted, turning him into a misshapen potato from the Bad Ends.
Having escorted his fellow citizens to safety, Zorgeous had returned. Come hell or high water, he was going to witness the end of human exploitation or the end of the end, whichever came first. His brace position was a little different from Dimble’s or that of the scientist. His hooves and claws pressed together in a yoga-like pose.
Rhonda Rogers stood defiantly, hand on hip, the other holding the Antlers aloft. Zorgeous had pressed her for their immediate return but she had replied, “Not without ceremony.” They tried to question what she meant but she wouldn’t budge.
The tuft of Thranganis wobbled as he spoke. “One more minute.”
A minute later Thranganis raised his tuft and peered around. “Ahem, I must have miscalculated. One more minute.”
Another minute passed.
Thranganis peeped again. He took out his calculator. He punched it four times with his middle finger. “Yup, 30 seconds left.”
Rhonda bucked with impatience. She swayed her hips back and forth as if daring the gods to annihilate her sweet and savoury beauty.
Zorgeous stood completely still, although a faint humming seemed to emanate from his antlers.
“That’s 30 seconds.” Rogers did a mock karate kick.
The worried scientist punched more commands into his calculator. Then, slowly, a smile possessed the corner of his bottom lip. It spread to his upper lip. It captivated his cheeks and widened his eyes until he was beaming like a six-month-old baby enrapt in the pleasure of a good fart.
“I…It’s…it is,” he breathed.
“It’s over.” Zorgeous sat on his haunches. He took a deep breath then rose completely. “It is done.”
“Chuck Marley has saved us!” Dimble unfolded himself and sprung to life.
“But we must find Marley.” Dimble took out his flablet and immediately tried to call him. “He should know we’re ok, and thanks to him…”
Thranganis hardened his features. “I’m not sure you’ll reach him with that. Let us go and see what happened in the annihilation chamber.”
Zorgeous looked at Dimble. In a sonorous voice he declared, “Man from the Stars, your friend has saved us. He is truly, ‘Friend of Man from the Stars’.”
Dimble suppressed a wry smile as the four of them ran to the room of reckoning. They pressed their faces against the visiplate.
The complicated array of switches could not be switched, the superfluous dials could not be turned, no buttons could be pressed no matter how many fingers you had. They were not there.
No blinking lights.
No Chuck Marley.
Rhonda Rogers pressed the green knob that granted them admittance.
“Danger,” a neutral voice intoned, “Danger. Admittance only granted to idiots.”
“This is an outrage,” said Thranganis. “The lengths Rothball Hazard went to personalise even the warning messages.” He tapped an override code. “There! Now we’ll see who is an idiot.”
If it wasn’t for the reflexes of Rhonda Rogers, Thranganis would have stepped onto a floor that wasn’t…and fallen 50 feet onto the rubble below, likely banging his head on a boulder, spraining both ankles, cracking three ribs, biting his tongue, squealing briefly then probably dying. But Rogers reached out, and with surprising dexterity dragged him back from the brink. The scientist took full advantage of the situation and tumbled into her arms. He lay helplessly on her chest until she pushed him away.
“Don’t push it,” she warned.
“I’m sorry,” said Thranganis, “But without my glasses I am an oaf.”
“Where has the chamber gone?” demanded Rhonda.
“Annihilated, I’m afraid.”
“That is obvious. But maybe it reappeared somewhere else?”
Dimble looked crestfallen.
Zorgeous wrapped a furry foreleg around him. “Don’t be sad human.” Zorgeous was sad. “Our friend has accomplished his mission. Our mission. He has helped us free our ignorant people. Now you must record his great deeds in the Sablic Chronicles. Be the first human to set eyes upon them. Be our official translator: our official ‘Ignarus Humanus Scholasticus’. Transmute our lore for the Orion Arm.”
The Professor’s mood changed from forlorn to wide-eyed. Despite his sobbing, he beamed like a small boy given a school merit award. The two walked away, arm in arm.
Rhonda Rogers wiped non-existent sweat from her brow. “As promised, I must return these Antlers of course.” She ran after Zorgeous and Dimble. No one saw her snip a small branch off from the left antler. She slipped the twig down the front of her shirt.
That left Thuris Thranganis. He hesitantly leaned out and looked around the vanished chamber.
It was empty. Of course it was empty. It wasn’t even there! He bowed his head, observing a one-minute silence for Chuck Marley. He felt both ashamed and proud to be human.
On the one hand he vowed to continue his scientific studies despite his colleagues. However, he admired the courage and self-sacrifice of his fellow men. What did Zorgeous call them?
Man from the Stars, and Friend of Man from the Stars.