[Darkness. There is the sound of water dripping. A harsh noise like a rattlesnake. The sound of claws on rock, moving quickly. Beat. The rattling is louder and closer.]
[The Liberator moves through the darkness of space.]
VILA: [VO] Why is it you lot never follow any of my sensible suggestions?
[Liberator flight deck. Everyone is at their stations.]
SOOLIN: It's what we're doing now, Vila.
VILA: It wasn't a sensible suggestion, Soolin, it wasn’t even serious! It was a joke!
BLAKE: What made the joke funny, Vila, was that it was sensible. In order to have maximum surprise on the attack, we need to keep a low profile until the last possible moment. The best way to do that is hide somewhere close in Earth sector and where better than the Magellanic Cloud?
[The Liberator moves towards a huge nebula of coiling silvery-blue-and-red mist.]
[Liberator flight deck. The cloud fills the forward screen.]
BLAKE: Right under the solar system's very nose - literally - a huge dust cloud that blocks all sensors and detectors. We simply hide inside the cloud for the next day or so, and we can sneak into the solar system with impunity.
VILA: You don't think the Federation haven't noticed a weakness like that before? Otherwise, other ships would have tried it, wouldn't they?
KYBEN: Maybe they did. But they didn't have a cloaking device for once they were out of the cloud.
VILA: It's because the Cloud is a death trap, that's why. Everyone knows that.
SOOLIN: We've gone through this, Vila. Orac's checked it out. At least thirteen ships this year alone have gone straight through the crowd with no ill-effects whatsoever. The only reason ships are warned off the cloud is because it blocks communications frequencies, and that is an offence according to the navigational code. Isn't that right, Orac?
ORAC: Why must I waste my time confirming facts that have already been proven? This is a gross misuse of my abilities and one which I must protest at!
TARRANT: Even Orac's getting irritated by you, Vila.
VILA: Oh, Tarrant, you’re as charming as ever...
KYBEN: Hang on a moment, what's that?!
[Kyben points at the screen as an unearthly glow fills the flight deck.]
[A bright white light appears at the heart of the dust cloud and expands outwards, filling the nebula.]
[Liberator flight deck. Blake shields his eyes from the glare as it changes to rainbow light and pulsates.]
BLAKE: Nothing to worry about. Natural phenomenon, it happens every three hours, totally harmless.
VILA: How do you know?
BLAKE: We're still in one piece.
[The glare starts to fade rapidly.]
SOOLIN: What's what?
[On the screen, the white light vanishes.]
SOOLIN: I thought I saw something there... in the light, a sort of shape.
TARRANT: Probably all sorts of space debris drifting around in there, normally hidden by the stellar fog. Nothing to worry about.
VILA: But what exactly is that light?
TARRANT: No one's sure. Some kind of electromagnetic energy, like earthlight or sparks from quartz.
KYBEN: And you're sure it won't harm our computers?
BLAKE: Zen, status?
ZEN: Liberator is on course and speed, all systems at full function.
BLAKE: Right. Shall we do this?
[Tarrant, Soolin and Kyben nod.]
VILA: Does it matter what I think?
BLAKE: Of course it matters, Vila. Just not very much. Zen, take us into the Cloud.
[Vila frowns as the cloud grows larger and larger on the screen.]
VILA: I don't like this. I don't like this at all.
[The Liberator glides into the coiling mist, immediately obscured. Moments later, it is gone. Inside the cloud, the ship is silhouetted against the drifting, glittering smoke.]
[Liberator flight deck. Soolin is holding an earphone to her ear.]
SOOLIN: We're already losing focus on the detectors... I can barely pick up any traffic communication outside the Cloud.
BLAKE: That's to be expected.
SOOLIN: Like the whole solar system is fading away.
BLAKE: Tarrant, how are the detectors on the inside of the Cloud?
TARRANT: The fog's not making it easy, but nothing unexpected. You can relax Vila. We're quite safe.
ZEN: Information. Sensors indicate an incoming transmission on a wide transmission band.
VILA: I thought the Cloud was supposed to stop that!
BLAKE: Obviously we're wrong. Zen, playback transmission.
BLAKE: Is it on audio only?
BLAKE: But there's no sound. Open the channel, Zen. We are receiving your transmission, please identity yourselves. [Silence] Make some kind of signal if you can hear us. [Silence] Hello? Respond, please.
KYBEN: Why send a transmission over audio and not say anything?
TARRANT: I might have an idea. Zen, close the channel.
SOOLIN: What's wrong, Tarrant?
TARRANT: If there is anyone at the other end of that channel, they've heard us speaking and know we're here. As surveillance goes, crude by effective.
VILA: I vote we leave. Now.
BLAKE: Or Tarrant could be wrong. The Magellanic Cloud acts as a wall. No communications can penetrate that wall, but they could function well enough on either side.
KYBEN: So, we can contact anyone... or anything thing INSIDE the Cloud, but not outside.
BLAKE: Yes. Maybe that transmission is intended for someone else, but we're picking it up only because we're inside the Cloud with the source.
SOOLIN: Whatever the explanation, it means we're not alone here.
KYBEN: But we checked - there's no other spacecraft outside the Cloud, so who could these people be trying to contact?
TARRANT: Let's find out. Zen? Scan the immediate area for other spacecraft. Full telemetric band sweep.
ZEN: Confirmed. Scanning under way.
[The Liberator moves on through the fog.]
[Liberator flight deck. Worried, Vila gnaws at his knuckle. Kyben notices and nudges him. Vila stops.]
ZEN: Space craft detected. Origin point at coordinates F1-906 oblique 316.
[The screen expands to show a saucer shape, almost invisible in the mists.]
BLAKE: I can't make it out. Tarrant, aim towards those coordinates. Vila, clear the neutron blasters for firing. Just to be on the safe side.
TARRANT: Zen, plot a stand-by course to leave the cloud.
VILA: I said this was a bad idea.
SOOLIN: We heard!
[The ship grows larger and clearer on the screen. All bar Tarrant move across the flight deck to study the image on the screen.]
BLAKE: It's not a Federation ship.
VILA: It's an Auron ship.
KYBEN: I thought the Auronar were extinct.
VILA: They're not... but they're not spacefarers any more, either. That ship must have been here a while.
BLAKE: Zen, is that the source of the transmission?
BLAKE: Any life signs?
ZEN: No life signs are detected aboard the Auron craft.
VILA: So the crew’s dead?
ZEN: Negative information.
VILA: What do you mean, ‘negative information’?
ZEN: No organic material can be detected aboard the craft.
BLAKE: So the crew must have abandoned it.
SOOLIN: And left the communications channels open. Maybe they were about to use it whenever whatever happened, happened?
KYBEN: But why abandon the ship in the middle of the Cloud? And how did they leave without it?
TARRANT: We’ve got a problem.
SOOLIN: What’s wrong?
TARRANT: That isn’t the only ship in the Cloud.
VILA: Course it isn’t, there’s us.
TARRANT: Not just us. Ten others... no, twenty... all around us. Just floating, derelict.
[Tarrant adjusts a control and the screen zooms out to show other dark shapes hanging in the fog.]
ZEN: Telemetric band sweep is completed. There are thirty nine recognized space craft in the immediate vicinity of the Liberator. Twelve are Federation survey ships from the Zephron region, six standard Federation pursuit ships, one Trantinian explorer craft, three Skellarian star-burners, one Farn planet jumper, an Abigazian colony ship, four Akkasps jumpers, two Auronar survey ships...
SOOLIN: That’s enough, Zen. We get the picture.
VILA: I really, seriously think we should go now.
KYBEN: Vila’s right. Whatever happened to those ships could happen to us any minute.
TARRANT: But there are plenty of ships that have traveled through the Cloud, totally unharmed. Jenna was one of them!
KYBEN: They went straight through the Cloud, though, didn’t they? They didn’t linger here. These ships are either explorer crafts or rescue ships. Whatever happens here takes time.
VILA: All the more reason to go now!
BLAKE: Orac, what do you make of this?
ORAC: A paradox.
VILA: Very helpful.
ORAC: While the majority of the craft here are survey ships, there are several contraband space craft clearly trying to enter the Solar System by stealth. However, there is no apparent reason for any of the crews of the various craft to have abandoned their ships since all appear to be in full working order. There are no escape capsules missing from the craft, no damage and from what can be ascertained from the flight computers of the Federation ships, no fault in the life support systems or anything in the respective atmospheres that would be harmful to the crew.
TARRANT: Not pirates, either. They would have taken the ships or destroyed them.
SOOLIN: Any more information on the Magellanic Cloud, Orac?
ORAC: I am reviewing all data sources. The majority of the space craft in the Cloud are not of human design, and thus I have little data on any of their missions.
SOOLIN: What about Federation missions?
ORAC: All the craft match the reconnaissance missions sent into the Cloud since the beginning of the New Calendar.
KYBEN: You knew these ships had gone missing and you didn’t tell us?
ORAC: I was requested to confirm the state of the ships that had emerged unharmed from the Cloud, not to list the details of those that did not.
SOOLIN: [Sighs] Computer logic.
VILA: So? Orac’s thick, we all knew that! Can we just get moving now?
KYBEN: There has to be some reason the other ships passed through intact!
BLAKE: Keep working on it, Orac.
ZEN: Information. Computers have compiled results of the telemetric band sweep. The Magellanic Cloud is now charted.
TARRANT: Put it on the main screen, Zen.
[The screen shows a grid map dotted with a dull blue dots. At the centre of the grid is a bright red circle and on the outer edge is a white rectangle. Tarrant indicates the rectangle.]
TARRANT: That is the Liberator, and the rest are the derelicts...
VILA: What are we worrying about star charts, let’s just get out of here!
BLAKE: Vila! We are on the most powerful space craft known to humanity, with missiles, teleports and neutron blasters! If there is some hostile monster hiding in here, it is at a disadvantage.
VILA: Do you really believe that, or are you trying to just shut me up?
BLAKE: Can’t I do both?
TARRANT: You better look at this.
[Tarrant indicates the blue dots on the chart.]
TARRANT: 645 space craft. Trapped like flies in a spider web.
VILA: It couldn’t be like that web, could it?
SOOLIN: What web?
VILA: [Sighs] Before your time. It was nasty, though. And this could be worse!
KYBEN: What’s that thing in the centre? Is it another space craft?
TARRANT: It’s the nexus point of the cloud, the eye of the storm.
BLAKE: The point where that glow comes from. I think we should check it out.
VILA: You don’t think that maybe, just maybe, all of those other explorers had the exact same idea?
SOOLIN: Hardly any of the ships are near the nexus, Vila.
VILA: That means they didn’t even get that far! Blake, please, let’s just get out of here!
BLAKE: Zen, plot a course for the nexus, speed standard by eight.
[The others return to their positions. Vila stays where he is, miserable.]
VILA: Am I invisible? Why do you only ever listen to me when I don’t want you to?
SOOLIN: Come on, Vila. You better man the neutron blasters.
[Vila sighs and moves to his flight console.]
BLAKE: We better stay on full alert. If there is something hostile in this Cloud...
VILA: We’ll run away?
BLAKE: We’ll have to wait and see.
ZEN: Course computed. Liberator on new heading now.
[The Liberator moves into the depths of the fog, passing shapes of abandoned space craft hanging silently in the mists. A dark shape can be made out ahead of the Liberator, getting darker and larger as the space craft approaches it.]
[Liberator flight deck. Everyone is at their stations, concentrating on their displays.]
ZEN: Information. The Liberator is now in geo stationary orbit at ten hundred spacials from the nexus of the Magellanic Cloud.
[The crew look up at the screen, and their eyes widen in shock.]
VILA: Oh... my god...
KYBEN: What is that?
VILA: What does it look like? It’s a skull... it’s a gigantic skull...
- to be continued...