[On the screen, hanging in the multicoloured mist is a huge skull, complete with jaw bone. It is not a human skull, the head being more elongated than normal, with fewer teeth and a large nasal cavity.]
[The Liberator is dwarfed by the skull. It is level with the gaping eye sockets.]
[Liberator flight deck. Everyone is still staring at the skull, stunned.]
TARRANT: Whatever it is, it’s one and a half times the size of the Earth.
SOOLIN: It can’t be... things can’t exist that huge.
KYBEN: But it does.
SOOLIN: Impossible. Creatures that vast... We’d have found evidence of them before! If the skull is that big, we’d have come across the rest of the skeleton by now...
KYBEN: Maybe that life form only consists of its head...
VILA: [Shakes head in disbelief] A race of giant severed heads. Wonderful.
TARRANT: I wonder what killed it?
[Blake steps from his flight console, staggering slightly as he stares at the screen.]
BLAKE: Zen... Zen, what is that?
ZEN: Analysis indicates object on main screen is a planet.
KYBEN: A planet? Carved into the shape of a skull?
ZEN: Confirmed. The surface of the object has been carved smoothly, fashioned by a level of technology more advanced than any used by the human race. The absence of debris in the surrounding orbit strongly suggests the planet has been placed in the middle of the existing Cloud.
SOOLIN: The Cloud isn’t the debris?
ZEN: Negative. Composition of dust particles does not match the material of planetary surface.
KYBEN: Who did this?
VILA: Aliens again. Nasty ones, too, knowing our luck.
KYBEN: But why fashion a planet to look like a skull?
ZEN: Negative information.
ZEN: Eighty per cent of humanoid cultures use the motif of a skull as a warning of fatal danger. It is possible an unknown intelligence relocated the carved planet as a warning to all sentient humanoid life.
VILA: About what?
ZEN: Negative information.
KYBEN: Maybe whatever caused the crew to disappear?
VILA: Stupid place to put a warning sign, though. By the time you’d find it you’d already be in danger.
SOOLIN: Then maybe the Cloud was placed around it, to cover it up.
VILA: That’s hardly fair. Blake, can we go yet?
BLAKE: Zen, is there life on that... that planet?
ZEN: There is no atmosphere on the carved planet, therefore any life would exist beneath the surface. Density of the geological composition and dust particles around the planet prevent further analysis.
TARRANT: Well, we can assume the crews aren’t on the planet.
KYBEN: They might be inside it.
VILA: How did they get inside? Through the nose?
TARRANT: According to these reading, the surface is smooth all the way over the planet. There’s no obvious way to get... well, inside its head.
ORAC: Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. An alien intelligence deliberately carving a universal sign of danger and placing it in the sector of Earth, the heart of the Federation and previous empires. The detail of carving on the surface is so exact one might almost believe it is a genuine skull somehow transmuted into stone. Even with the advanced technology available to the creators of the Liberator, it would have taken over twelve millennia to achieve anything remotely similar on this scale.
TARRANT: But the Magellanic Cloud has always been there!
ORAC: Precisely. Therefore, the relocation of this planet must have occurred many hundreds of thousands of years ago, perhaps before life evolved on Earth.
KYBEN: Could it be some kind of warning about us? That humans are dangerous?
ORAC: As has already been pointed out, the skull planet has deliberately been located inside a dust cloud which totally obscures it from the outside universe. Beings capable of carving a planet would not let such an obstacle arise, which can only suggest the cloud is an intrinsic part of the purpose the planet was placed here for.
SOOLIN: And what would that be?
ORAC: There is no information for which I can extrapolate at present and I refuse to conjecture at such an early stage. However, all information suggests that this planetoid might possibly have originated from the Breelacken solar system, which is on the other side of the galaxy, at the very edge of the Milky Way.
TARRANT: Is there any civilization in Breelacken that could have done this?
ORAC: The Breelacken solar system is uninhabited and has been since records began.
BLAKE: Why not use one of the other planets in their own solar system instead of grabbing one from the far side of the galaxy?
ORAC: It is feasible that the Breelacken planet was close to the instigator of this project, and it was moved across the galaxy to be as far away from that intelligence as possible.
VILA: So it is dangerous?
ORAC: The planet itself is in a regular orbit.
VILA: That’s not what I asked! Look at it! It’s... gruesome.
[The skull grins from the screen at the crew.]
KYBEN: I know what you mean. It looks... wrong. Like it’s forbidden.
VILA: [Rubs eyes] Making me feel thirsty, too.
BLAKE: Any excuse for adrenaline and soma.
SOOLIN: It is eerie, though... like something like a nightmare.
ORAC: No doubt its appearance is designed to have a predetermined psychological affect on the viewers, as Zen speculated earlier.
TARRANT: It’s supposed to scare us off?
ORAC: Indeed. Furthermore, it appears that the molten core of the planet has been removed during the carving process.
TARRANT: Without leaving any kind of hole in the surface? How could they do that?
BLAKE: You can’t just teleport the core of a planet.
VILA: You can’t just carve a planet to look like a skull but these people managed it.
ORAC: There is countless evidence to suggest civilizations more advanced than humanity have risen and fallen over the last one hundred and twenty five thousand years, from the mythic Atlantean civilization on Earth to the Devarni Empire to the Axtran Theocracy...
BLAKE: Orac, wait a moment. You said the core has been removed. What replaced it?
ORAC: That is, at present unknown but it appears to be some kind of power source. What devices it might power I have no information about, however it could be connected to the unexplained glow for which the Magellanic Clouds have been famous for the last hundred thousand years.
BLAKE: Have you found anything new about it on the Federation’s records?
ORAC: No. However, it appears that every President of the Federation until Servalan has sent at least two survey missions into the Cloud to explore the phenomenon. The last President, Sebek, decided to declare the Cloud off limits and keep secret any such disappearances, which were later attributed to disappearance in 61 Cygnii also known as the Darkling Zone. President Anders has followed Servalan’s example that the Cloud unwittingly acts as protection to the Earth sector.
KYBEN: No wonder there’s no pursuit ships.
SOOLIN: Is there no other information?
ORAC: An addendum was made to the data file on the Magellanic Cloud by President Sebek before his death in the coup that elevated Servalan to power, referring to his decision to cancel any further exploration of the Magellanic Cloud.
TARRANT: What was the addendum?
ORAC: It reads “There are places man is not meant to go.”
[A pause as the statement sinks in, as the crew exchange looks.]
ZEN: Information. Sensors detect massive seismic disturbances occurring on the planet below simultaneous with an energy build up at the planet’s core.
ZEN: Energy build up increasing exponentially.
[They all turn to look at the screen.]
[The massive lower jaw of the skull is slowly but surely opening, revealing a bright light inside. As the jaw open wider, the glow spills out, getting brighter and brighter.]
[Liberator flight deck. The crew turn to screen as the glow spills from the screen and illuminates the entire chamber, increasing in intensity every moment.]
VILA: It’s opening it’s mouth...
BLAKE: Soolin! Quick! The force wall!
[As the glare gets brighter, Soolin runs for the pit console.]
[The fog is amplifying the glow, silhouetting the Liberator as it hangs in front of the skull.]
[Liberator flight deck. Vila and Blake are still looking at the screen. Soolin presses a control and the buzz of the force wall is heard as the glare fades.]
SOOLIN: Force wall activated!
BLAKE: I think we now know what causes the lights of the Magellanic Cloud.
VILA: The mouth of hell...
BLAKE: Look. It’s starting to close again.
[On the screen, the skull begins to close its jaw, blotting out the diminishing glow.]
VILA: Well, we’re all still in one piece, so... where’s Kyben?
[They look around the flight deck. Soolin, Blake and Vila are the only ones present.]
BLAKE: Kyben? Zen! Where are they?
ZEN: Neither Del Tarrant nor Rela Kyben are still aboard the Liberator.
BLAKE: Then where have they gone?
VILA: [Bleakly] The skull. It gobbled them up.
[As one, they turn and look at the screen, which shows the skull.]
[The skull clamps its jaw shut. The glow has fully dispersed from the mists, and everything is as it was.]
[Darkness. There is the sound of water dripping. A harsh noise like a rattlesnake. A groan.]
TARRANT: [VO] My head...
KYBEN: [VO] Hello? Tarrant? Is that you?
TARRANT: [VO] Kyben? What happened? My head feels like there’s a Space Rat living in it. Where are we? Where are the others?
KYBEN: [VO] I don’t know. It's dark. Pitch black.
TARRANT: [VO] Did you hear that?
KYBEN: [VO] Yes.
TARRANT: [VO] I was afraid you’d say that.
[Liberator flight deck. Soolin is interrogating Orac.]
SOOLIN: I want a straight answer for once, Orac! What happened to Tarrant and Kyben?
ORAC: If you would allow me to continue, Soolin, I will explain that it is impossible to confirm their current status. It is clear now that the energy source inside the skull has replaced the core of the planet. When the mouth opens the energy reacts with the dust particles that make up the Cloud and completes a circuit. When that occurs, it creates a teleportation field.
SOOLIN: They’ve been teleported off Liberator?
BLAKE: Tarrant wasn’t wearing a bracelet.
ORAC: Aquitar is not needed by this process. The teleport circuit itself acts as a bracelet and consumes all organic matter in its path. It is logical to assume that the same process removed the crew of the other derelict craft in the same way.
VILA: But we’re still here!
SOOLIN: Because I operated the force wall?
ORAC: Precisely. The interference in the frequency waves meant that the field was no longer complete, and thus automatically left the three of you aboard the Liberator. The process was more advanced with Kyben and Tarrant, hence their disappearance.
BLAKE: But where have they been teleported to? Inside the skull?
VILA: Where else is there?
ORAC: I would conclude that the teleport circuit is designed to collect humanoid life forms and relocate them inside the carved planet. However, on this occasion, the teleport field was interrupted.
VILA: You mean... they might not reappear? Not anywhere?
ORAC: Until I can ascertain the exact nature of this alien teleportation process, if it can continue to operate under certain circumstances and what stage it was at, I can give no real answers.
[Blake crosses to the pit console.]
BLAKE: Kyben’s wearing a bracelet. If she’s alive, she can answer it.
SOOLIN: But if she is, she’d be a long way underground. We might not be able to reach her.
BLAKE: Avon boosted the communication power.
SOOLIN: It would still be a good idea to get closer before we give away we’re still aboard. Remember what Tarrant said – we’re probably being watched.
[Blake takes his hand away from the console and moves to the pilot position.]
BLAKE: All right. We’ll move in closer.
VILA: But that thing might try and bite us!
[Soolin takes her position.]
SOOLIN: Don’t be pathetic, Vila.
VILA: Pathetic? I think a planet quite capable of chewing up the Liberator is something worth getting worried about, thank you very much.
BLAKE: There’s nothing else we can do. Zen, take us closer to the anomaly.
ZEN: Confirmed. Descent beginning... now.
[The Liberator moves closer towards the skull.]
TARRANT: [VO] I think we're underground. You're not claustrophobic, are you?
KYBEN: [VO] No. But I would prefer to be able to see anything.
TARRANT: [VO] Stay calm. We don't want to use up oxygen unduly.
KYBEN: [VO] I won't. And we don't want to get dehydrated either.
[There is a low buzzing.]
KYBEN: [VO] W-what’s that?
TARRANT: [VO] Don’t worry, Kyben. It’s me. Just got to... there.
[There is a crackle and then the darkness is lit up slightly. Tarrant is holding a hand probe, the tip glowing a bright red. He and Kyben are lying in the corner of a cave. Water drips from the ceiling. A jagged hole in the far wall leads to further darkness.]
TARRANT: It’s a Laserson probe from the tool kit. I had it in my pocket. Not much use as anything other than a torch at the moment.
KYBEN: I’m not complaining.
TARRANT: Well, whatever happened to us didn’t happen to the others.
KYBEN: You think we were teleported here?
TARRANT: I can’t think of any other way we arrived here. There's only one way out.
KYBEN: It's a bit small for my liking.
TARRANT: Still, on the bright side, we've only been teleported into a cave. Not so bad. I've been in worse situations. No green sand, for one thing.
[Tarrant rises with difficulty. The tip dims slightly.]
TARRANT: Power’s already starting to run low.
KYBEN: Well, we better conserve it then.
[Tarrant adjusts the probe, which dims until there is just enough light to make out Tarrant and Kyben in the gloom. The water continues to drip. An ethereal noise.]
KYBEN: What’s that?
TARRANT: Not the same noise as before. Like air in a tunnel. It's coming from over...
[Tarrant turns around to face Kyben, then stops.]
KYBEN: What is it? You look like you've seen a...
[Kyben turns round and stops dead. On a small shelf of rock directly behind her, just illuminated by the glow from the probe, is a small, wizened mummified creature. It is skeletal, covered in brown skin with a very wide mouth with fanged teeth. Its long, spindly arms are in its lap, holding a silver conical device aimed at its flattened, slimy head. Just behind it is a gaping hole in the wall.]
TARRANT: Well. Now we know if anyone else has been here before.
KYBEN: It’s an alien... a proper alien.
TARRANT: Haven’t you ever seen one before?
KYBEN: Not really.
TARRANT: Must have been brought here, same as us. Is it dead?
KYBEN: I think so. That stuff on it’s head...
TARRANT: What is it?
KYBEN: It’s brain. This alien’s head’s been smashed in...
[Kyben takes the cone from its tiny hands and looks at it.]
TARRANT: So it was murdered?
KYBEN: No. I think it was suicide. See that hole in the wall? If this is some kind of weapon, the blast went through his head and into rock. [indicates] Poor thing must have thought it was trapped here, with no hope of rescue.
TARRANT: It killed itself here, though. Why here?
KYBEN: Why not?
TARRANT: There’s a tunnel leading off. Why didn’t it investigate it?
KYBEN: Maybe it did. Maybe there’s no way out.
TARRANT: So it came all the way back here and killed itself?
KYBEN: [Quietly] You do odd things when you’re suicidal.
TARRANT: All right, maybe that is what happened. But it’s an odd coincidence that it just happened to kill itself right beside where we materialized.
KYBEN: Maybe this is some kind of teleport bay, like the one on the Liberator.
TARRANT: So where are the rest of the other crews? There’s plenty of air. And no signs of suffocation...
KYBEN: Tarrant, can we just concentrate on getting out of here?
TARRANT: How do we do that, Kyben? We’re in the same trouble as our little friend here, and I don’t like the escape route he managed.
TARRANT: So are we.
KYBEN: Not necessarily.
TARRANT: What do you mean?
KYBEN: I mean... that noise again.
TARRANT: Just the breeze through that hole.
[Tarrant leans so, while not touching the corpse, his ear is next to the hole.]
TARRANT: Yes. Just air circulating.
KYBEN: It sounds like something breathing.
TARRANT: Never mind that. What do you mean ‘we’re not necessarily trapped here’?
KYBEN: You lot. How long have you been using teleport bracelets?
[Kyben reaches down to her ankle and rolls up her trouser leg to reveal a bracelet.]
KYBEN: In case of emergencies. No one ever checks your ankle for bracelets.
TARRANT: Very clever, but why didn’t you say so earlier?
[Tarrant reaches forward and unclips the bracelet. It falls apart.]
KYBEN: I think I landed on it a bit heavily.
TARRANT: So you did.
[He sighs. The gentle howl of the wind seems to echo it.]
- to be continued...