[City corridor. The vague outlines of a high-ceilinged tunnel, pentagonal in cross-section, are just discernable through the dazzling glare which gets brighter and brighter. The crew wince and squint, but after a few moments cannot continue.]
Gamren: I can’t see! So bright!
Avon: Don’t look into it – the light’s ultraviolet! It will blind us if we stay!
Nreeshi: THROUGH HERE...
[The crew are all shoved in one direction. Stumbling around, covering their streaming eyes as best they can, they move through an archway. Segments of crystal close over the door and the brightness dwindles rapidly. They are in a glass-walled chamber with tables, chairs and a buffet table with decanters and glasses arranged. Nreeshi is now an easily-defined glowing humanoid shape.]
Vila: [weeping] Oh, that’s better.
Nreeshi: THE WALLS FILTER OUT THE GLARE. WE APOLOGIZE, BUT LIGHT AND ENERGY MUST BE CONCENTRATED WITHIN THE CITY. ARRIVALS FROM OTHER WORLDS WERE NOT EXPECTED. PLEASE, ONCE YOU ARE RECOVERED, PARTAKE OF A MEAL.
[Nreeshi indicates the table. Zanto puts Orac down on a couch. The others check out the meal.]
Gamren: Just seems to be drinks.
Vila: I’m not complaining.
Nreeshi: THEY ARE CHEMICAL LIQUIDS THAT WILL NOURISH AND REFRESH.
Lora: If you say so.
Avon: I will require more persuasion. Orac?
Orac: The creatures on this planet, visibility notwithstanding, are carbon-based life forms similar enough to human beings for their dietary requirements to be acceptable.
Lora: So it’s not poisonous to us?
Zanto: Not unless they’re deliberately trying to kill us, no.
Nreeshi: WE HAVE NO WISH TO HARM YOU. WE EXTEND TO YOU OUR HOSPITALITY.
Gamren: [suspicious] And you have that authority?
Nreeshi: I DO. IT IS WHY MY VOICE HAS BEEN SPECIALLY MODIFIED FOR YOUR BENEFIT, ALLOWING ME TO COMMUNICATE IN LOWER SONAR VIBRATIONS.
Lora: Very kind of you. And, thanks again. For saving us, I mean.
Nreeshi: YOU ARE INNOCENTS IN THIS CONFLICT.
Orac: Please be more specific. What is this conflict occurring on this planet? The terminal condition of the environment makes any such strife fundamentally meaningless. The victor inherits a world that will be uninhabitable within their own life time.
Nreeshi: YOUR COMPUTER...
Gamren: ...is annoying. We know.
Vila: Oh, do we know.
Nreeshi: THE SITUATION IS MORE COMPLICATED THAN IT MAY APPEAR.
Zanto: Seems pretty black and white to me. In more ways than one.
Vila: Oh, very droll, Zanto.
Zanto: These light creatures are the ones who control the planet. The shadow ones are rebels trying to seize that control from them.
Nreeshi: AS I SAID. THE CONFLICT IS DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE.
Orac: Then please explain in further detail. I for one actually want to hear the answers rather than have my own theories validated by an outside source.
Zanto: Are you saying I’m insecure?
Orac: I find stating the obvious morally offensive. Nreeshi, do continue.
[Gamren laughs. Zanto glares at her.]
Nreeshi: OUR WORLD HAS CHANGED MUCH IN RECENT MILLENNIA. THE STAR THAT GIVES LIFE TO THIS PLANET FINALLY BURNED THROUGH TO ITS CORE AND DETONATED INTO A SUPERNOVA. OUR ANCESTORS WERE ABLE TO SHROUD THE PLANET IN A DEFLECTION BARRIER THAT PROTECTED US FROM THE SOLAR STORM. OTHER PLANETS IN THE SYSTEM WERE INCINERATED IN THE NOVA. WHEN THE STORM ENDED, THE BARRIER COLLAPSED AND ALMOST DESTROYED OUR CIVILIZATION.
Avon: It must have taken all your resources to maintain.
Lora: Why go to all that trouble to build a force field? Why not build some spaceships and escape the planet before the sun exploded?
Nreeshi: WHY SHOULD WE LEAVE? THIS IS OUR PLANET. WE BELONG HERE.
Gamren: And the asteroid field is too dense for an evacuation fleet to get through.
Avon: True. But your ancestors must have been aware that your sun was dying. This world is doomed.
Nreeshi: NO. IT WILL CONTINUE.
Avon: All right, but as a frozen block of ice orbiting the beginnings of a black hole.
Nreeshi: EVERY PROBLEM HAS A SOLUTION. WE HAVE DEVISED A SOLUTION.
Avon: For a dying star? How does one solve that?
Nreeshi: A REPLACEMENT.
Avon: A replacement? You’re going to build a new star?
Nreeshi: YES. A SATELLITE HAS BEEN CONSTRUCTED. WE HAVE A ROCKET BEING PREPARED TO TAKE IT INTO ORBIT AROUND THE WORLD. THE SATELLITE WORKS ON THE SAME PRINCIPLE AS THE WALLS OF THIS CITY, MAGNIFYING AND GENERATING LIGHT AND ENERGY. IT WILL RESTORE LIFE TO THIS PLANET PERPETUALLY.
Avon: Nothing lasts forever.
Nreeshi: EXCEPT US.
[The atmosphere becomes less friendly and more menacing.]
Vila: What do you mean by that?
Nreeshi: WHEN CIVILIZATION FELL SO LONG AGO, WE DETERMINED TO ADAPT OURSELVES TO SURVIVE ON THE SURFACE OF THIS WORLD. WE DEVISED OUR NEW FORMS, CREATED HEAT AND LIGHT, AND OUR SCIENCE OF VIBRATION LEAD TO US ESTABLISHING TOTAL CONTROL OF THE WORLDS SURFACE. OUR CITIES MAINTAIN LIFE ON THIS WORLD. ALL OTHER SPECIES HAVE DIED OUT, EVERYTHING HAS WITHERED AWAY TO NOTHING. ONLY WE AND OUR CITIES ENDURE.
Orac: This does not explain the presence of your enemies, the shadow people.
Nreeshi: [warily] NO... YOU ARE CORRECT, COMPUTER.
Orac: I invariably am.
Zanto: Well? Who are they?
Nreeshi: AT THE TIME OF CATASTROPHE, COWARDS AND SAVAGES REFUSED TO ASSIST US IN REBUILDING OUR SOCIETY. THEY BURROWED UNDERGROUND LIKE ANIMALS, SEEKING A NEW LIFE BENEATH THE SURFACE. THE GEOTHERMAL FORCES KEPT THEM WARM AND ALIVE, BUT WHILE WE HAVE EVOLVED THEY HAVE BECOME DEGENERATE!
Avon: Backwards evolution. Devolution. They’ve reverted to savagery?
Nreeshi: YES. THEY SURVIVED, BUT THE ARE LITTLE MORE THAN ANIMALS AND BARBARIANS! AS TWILIGHT DESCENDS UPON OUR WORLD THEY CRAWL FROM THE DARKNESS AND ATTACK US IN FEAR AND HATRED OF LIGHT. THEY WISH TO DESTROY THIS CITY AND THE NEW SUN WE HAVE FORGED – YOU WERE CAUGHT IN THEIR LATEST COWARDLY ATTACK UPON US.
Lora: You know, for a bunch of troglodytes, they seem very advanced.
Nreeshi: THEY ARE NOT. THEY ARE BASE CREATURES.
Zanto: Who developed the most effective nerve gas we’ve ever seen – able to penetrate the hull of our ship.
Gamren: [quickly] Speaking of our ship, I really should make sure it’s still in working order. I take it your forces have got rid of all the Shadow people and black smoke?
Nreeshi: [slightly suspicious] YOUR VESSEL HAS BEEN CLEANSED, YES.
Gamren: Well, then I can go and inspect it, can’t I?
Vila: Not that I want to get in the way of that amazingly good idea, Gamren, but what about all that ultraviolet light out there? How are you going to handle that?
Lora: [triumphant] Ah-hah!
[Lora tugs a pair of goggles from a pouch on her belt.]
Lora: Maintenance goggles. Always carry em.
Zanto: I don’t suppose there are enough for all of us?
Lora: Sorry. But there are plenty more back on the ship.
Gamren: [putting them on] I’ll be sure to collect you all a pair on my way back.
Nreeshi: UNNECESSARY. WE SHALL PROVIDE YOU WITH EYE FILTERS.
Vila: Oh. Very kind. I keep saying that, don’t I? But it is!
[The door to the chamber opens and dazzling light blazes in. Everyone shields their eyes. Gamren steps through the doorway and it shuts. There is no sign of Nreeshi.]
Vila: Where’s Nreeshi gone?
Avon: Escorting Gamren back to the ship.
Zanto: Assuming he hasn’t just turned invisible. Which is it, Orac?
Orac: The life form Nreeshi has left this chamber.
Avon: Are we being monitored?
Orac: The interference patterns created by the infrastructure of this city would certainly be enough to disrupt any conventional monitoring equipment – however, much of the technology of this planet is an unknown quality. The question perhaps should be: are these people interested in observing you at all?
Avon: I assume so. We’re strangers, alien beings from another world that resemble their ancient ancestors. As a novelty if nothing else we should command their attention.
Lora: I hadn’t thought of it like that. A bunch of space Neanderthals from beyond the stars.
Vila: You know, we’re not actually descended from Neanderthals...
Avon: Some of us, perhaps.
Lora: Look, if Nreeshi is the only one of these people modified to communicate with us, the others might not even understand us.
Zanto: Except he never said he was the only one.
Vila: He said plenty of other things – and I’m not sure I believe any of them.
Lora: [looks around] So, we’re just going to assume no one’s watching?
Zanto: We’re hardly in a commanding position. This way at least we’ll all be on the right page.
Lora: Fine. Why’s Gamren so desperate to get back to Phoenix?
Avon: Can you blame her? Her stated reasons are good enough, and had our hosts refused it would have made their positions clear. She also wanted to turn the conversation away from the shadow people.
Vila: Well, I haven’t known Nreeshi long but he seems to get a bit angry when they get mentioned.
Lora: Apart from that, he’s very friendly.
Vila: Oh yes. Real charmer as long we don’t discuss ethnic cleansing.
Zanto: This is another species on a different planet. Our moral codes may not apply.
Avon: Perhaps not, but Nreeshi has certainly been disingenuous.
Lora: What do you mean?
Avon: I mean he wasn’t telling us the truth.
Lora: [impatiently] I know what “disingenuous” means, Avon! What makes you think Nreeshi was keeping things from us?
Avon: The Federation Warfare Research Departments spend millions of credits each year, every year for the last few centuries. And they have never once come up with a weapon as effective as the black smoke nerve gas. It seems rather odd that some cave-dwelling primitives have mastered that with a fraction of nature’s resources on a dying planet, don’t you think? Yet Nreeshi was very dismissive of these savages.
Vila: He’s a snob.
Zanto: Maybe on this planet they are savages. I mean, we don’t know just how advanced their technology is, do we? By Nreeshi’s standards maybe they really are primitive...
Avon: Then why are they at war with each other? The shadow people should have been crushed long ago if they were inferior.
Lora: Especially as they’re trying to prevent the new sun being launched. That can’t have endeared them to Nreeshi, let alone the rest of his people...
[Outside city wall. Gamren emerges from the city, followed by a blurred light shape of Nreeshi. Gamren takes off her goggles, shoving them up onto her head as they set out across the plain.]
Gamren: So. Nreeshi. What do your people do for entertainment?
Gamren: I suppose it’s better than being bored to death. [beat] You filter out senses of humor with all the light rays, I see.
[They head off. Gamren’s shadow is cast across a boulder. As she leaves, her shadow disappears. Another one slides across the rock. Then it vanishes like the first. Then two more. Footprints appear in the dust, following Gamren’s tracks.]
[Guest chamber. Lora cautiously sips a glass of chemicals, grimaces, then spits it back into the glass.]
Vila: Before we rescued you, back on the Phoenix, what were they saying to you?
Zanto: They were trying to recruit us.
Lora: [grimaces] They said something about our voices being weapons.
Orac: That is logical. The inhabitants of this city communicate on high frequencies while the shadow creatures communicate on the lower ones. The range of the average human voice has presumably not been used on this planet in millennia, and the city wall would not have been designed to withstand it.
Vila: So that’s all we’re good for to the shadow people? Making lots of noise?
Avon: With you on their side, they’d have victory truly assured.
Vila: Oh, Avon, how do you always manage to be so helpful?
Zanto: Why are we believing Taihyr but not Nreeshi? The shadow people could be lying to us.
Avon: That’s always a possibility. Any theories, Orac?
Orac: The statements made by the shadow creatures seem to corroborate with known facts. It appears that Nreeshi’s kind developed their camouflage abilities unintentionally after countless adaptations to their biology, whereas Taihyr’s race have deliberately altered themselves specifically to gather the same traits – they lower their voices as to be inaudible, they refract light to achieve their own invisibility, and clearly have spent much of their technological development building weaponry to attack the light people.
Vila: Like a kind of arms race. Only genetic.
Orac: A crude but not inaccurate analogy.
Lora: So that stuff about factions is true?
Orac: Indeed. No doubt these two races, despite a common origin, have had many skirmishes over the centuries as their colonies infringe upon each other – both species are vying for the same territory and resources in their own beliefs and fashions. By now they see each other as a threat to their continued existence.
Vila: Not much of a war though, is it? A few gas attacks? Is that the best they can manage after aeons?
Zanto: Presumably they can’t spare enough time and energy for full-scale conflict. Simple everyday survival on this planet must take up most of their resources, and it’s getting worse and worse.
Lora: So why are they trying to stop the new sun? Surely it’s the only thing that can stop everyone dying?
Avon: A good question.
Lora: Got a good answer?
Avon: No. But the shadow people are intelligent and technologically sophisticated – they won’t be against the sun out of any kind of primitive superstition or prejudice. They must have a solid basis to believe that the sun will destroy them. But how?
[Outside Phoenix. Gamren is approaching the landing ramp.]
Nreeshi: STOP MOVING.
[Gamren stops. Looks around.]
Gamren: [wary] You’ve gone invisible again. Call me paranoid, but...
Nreeshi: THE CLEANSING TEAM HAVE NOT EMERGED TO GREET US.
Gamren: And it’s too much to hope they’re just invisible as well, is it?
Nreeshi: WE SHOULD RETURN TO THE CITY.
Gamren: But what could have happened to them?
[Black smoke suddenly billows out of the airlock down the ramp.]
Nreeshi: RETREAT! DANGER! RETREAT!
[Gamren burst out coughing and makes a few steps before collapsing. Shadows darken in visibility around her. More appear on the ramp. Nreeshi becomes visible first as a glow, then a humanoid shape as it runs for its life across the stone. One shadow points after Nreeshi.]
Taihyr: Pursue! Before it reaches its silent city!
[The shadows around Gamren run after Nreeshi. The black smoke clears. A shadow stands over Gamren, getting darker until it becomes a solid silhouette of darkness. Gamren, paralyzed, stares helplessly upwards, unable even to form an expression. The shadow crouches down over her body.]
Taihyr: We meet again, stranger...
[Plain outside city. The glowing Nreeshi retreats to the main gate, chased by shadows. One of the shadows throws something at Nreeshi and like a gas grenade black smoke begins to billow up from the ground. Nreeshi lets out a shrill noise, then stumbles as the smoke starts to take affect. The gate opens and the light spills out, mingling with the smoke. Nreeshi collapses. Two more light figures become visible, revealing they are holding crystal guns that pulse with light. The shadows throw more grenades. One is shot with light and lets out a scream before falling backwards.]
[Guest chamber. Vila cries out in pain and clutches his temples.]
Vila: What’s that? What’s happening?
Gamren: [draws gun] Orac?
Orac: It appears that general warning alarms are being activated, the resulting cacophony is now working on frequencies Vila can detect.
Vila: My head!
Avon: Then again, they do say empty vessels make the most noise.
Vila: Insult! Later! Stop pain! Now!
[Vila doubles over and Lora grabs him to stop him collapsing.]
Lora: We have to get him out of here.
Zanto: Orac, can you alter your speech interface to communicate on frequencies our hosts can hear...
Orac: My abilities in communication should not be questioned.
Avon: Then do it! Quickly! Inform them their alarms are causing physical distress!
Vila: [sobs] Hurts!
Lora: Sit down...
[Lora and Avon help him onto a couch. Zanto frowns.]
Zanto: Odd. Your shadow’s moving very strangely... especially as you’re the only one with a shadow.
[Avon and Lora look. A long shadow stretches out from Vila’s feet. No other shadows are present.]
[The shadow starts to expand and thicken.]
Avon: I think we’ve been infiltrated.
Lora: [swallows] One of the shadows snuck in here after us!
[Outside city wall. A handful of crumpled, visible bodies lie sprawled on the ground, barely visible in smoke. Bright flashes fill the air.]
[Phoenix flight deck. This is shown on the screen. Gamren sits in her chair, still recovering. The shadowy Taihyr stands beside her.]
Gamren: Who’s winning?
Taihyr: It is not a battle, stranger. It is... a diversion. Our kind die for the good of us all.
Gamren: Suicide tactics.
Taihyr: [getting angry] Tactics you made necessary, stranger!
Gamren: Don’t blame me for this!
Taihyr: You are to blame. We needed you alive – our gas had to be thin enough not to harm you, but it was too thin to stop the escort from escaping. We could have killed them as we killed the forces on this ship.
[Gamren looks. Bodies are heaped on the floor. They are hairless, slim and with swirling tiger-stripe-style patterns on their flesh. They wear grey sleeveless tunics.]
Gamren: [cold] Yes. I’m impressed.
Taihyr: They were the ones who attacked us, stranger. You were there.
Gamren: They caught you by surprise. You could have surrendered.
Taihyr: And they would have slaughtered us anyway. We had to allow some of our kind to be killed, to trick the enemy into ending the attack. My... friends have died today.
Gamren: But not family?
Gamren: Good. Nothing’s worse than losing family.
[Guest chamber. The shadow forms a humanoid shape, whispering throatily. Zanto aims his gun, but the shadow darts out and knocks the gun from his hand, sending it skittering across the floor. The shadow continues to whisper as it herds all four of them into a corner.]
Vila: What’s it saying?
Orac: It seems the creature is accusing you all of siding with the city-dwellers and thus are now enemies in the war. It intends to execute you as traitors to its own kind, given Taihyr’s earlier offer to you.
Lora: Can’t you tell it we were just humoring him?
Orac: I have already done so. He refuses to believe anything I tell him as I am an “over-talkative crystal box of no practical value” and has threatened to destroyed me should I say anything further.
Zanto: That gives us common ground, at least.
Lora: [to shadow] We’re on your side!
[The shadow advances on them.]
Avon: Orac. How does this creature intend to destroy us? Does it have any nerve gas?
Orac: No. It appears to favor ritualistically bludgeoning you to death.
Lora: [winces] What’s it waiting for?
Avon: Either it’s trying to decide which one of to go for first, or its nerve is starting to crack.
Orac: Yes, Avon. It seems this soldier has never killed before and is in a highly-distraught state, given it being so isolated and deep in the heart of enemy territory.
Avon: I weep for it.
Zanto: Orac, can you record what we say and play it back on a frequency the shadow can understand?
Orac: [wearily] If I must.
Zanto: Good. We can talk our way out of this. Now, listen. We’re not your enemies. We...
[Suddenly the doors slide back and the glare floods the room. Glowing shapes appear and there are brilliant flashes – the city guards are opening fire with their glass weapons. The shadow creature lets out an agonized croak and collapses to the ground, turning into a solid black silhouette that melts away to reveal a slender pale humanoid creature with tiny, blind eyes, bat-like nose and ears, wearing a sophisticated-looking uniform. Zanto rounds angrily on the newcomers.]
Zanto: That wasn’t necessary!
Nreeshi: IT WAS.
[A glowing shape enters the room and the doors close.]
Vila: Oh, thank heavens someone’s turned down those alarms!
Nreeshi: THE ENEMY HAVE LAUNCHED A FULL SCALE ATTACK ON THE CITY. THE TEAM SENT TO CLEANSE YOUR VESSEL HAVE PERISHED. YOUR COMRADE IS LOST.
Zanto: What do you mean? What’s happened to Gamren!
Nreeshi: THEY HAVE YOUR COLLEAGUE. WE DO NOT KNOW IF SHE STILL LIVES.
Zanto: They’ve taken her prisoner?
Nreeshi: THAT IS POSSIBLE.
Vila: Where are they? Underground?
Nreeshi: THE NEAREST ENEMY SETTLEMENT IS LOCATED BENEATH THE PLAIN.
Lora: Right below you? That’s just asking for trouble.
Nreeshi: THOSE CREATURES HAVE NEVER STRUCK BEFORE NOW. WE MUST ADVANCE OUR OPERATIONS. THE NEW SUN WILL BE LAUNCHED AS SOON AS PRACTICAL.
Avon: How can that stop them?
Nreeshi: IT ONLY THE CONSTANT TWILIGHT OF THE WORLD ALLOWS THEM TO RISE TO THE SURFACE. ONCE LIGHT IS RESTORED, THEY WILL STAY UNDERGROUND – OR THEY WILL NOT LIVE TO REGRET IT.
Vila: Is there any way you could make that sound nastier?
Nreeshi: YOU WILL REMAIN HERE.
Vila: No, one of my friends is out there and she needs our help.
Nreeshi: HAVE NO DOUBT. REPRISALS AGAINST THE ENEMY WILL BE SWIFT.
Lora: We don’t want reprisals, we want Gamren back alive and well!
Nreeshi: WE CANNOT PROVIDE HER. ONLY YOUR OWN SAFETY.
Zanto: She went out with you! You didn’t keep her safe!
Nreeshi: OUTSIDE THE CITY. INSIDE, WE CONTROL EVERYTHING. WHILE YOU REMAIN HERE, YOUR CONTINUED SAFETY IS ASSURED.
Avon: That could easily be interpreted as imprisonment, Nreeshi.
Nreeshi: WE CANNOT TOLERATE THE LOSS OF YOUR LIVES.
Zanto: Why not?
Orac: It is clear the moral code of this society is an absolutely integral part of their conduct.
Avon: Your naivety can be quite frightening sometimes, Orac. Nreeshi, you might fear the dishonor of your guests being killed, but we are not prepared to leave Gamren to die if it can be avoided.
Vila: You’re getting sentimental, Avon.
Avon: No, just sick of being patronized.
Lora: Just direct us to the settlement, Nreeshi. We’ll find our own way there.
Nreeshi: THE PLAIN IS DANGEROUS. I MYSELF WAS LUCKY TO SURVIVE THE ATTACK.
Vila: Once inside the Phoenix, we’ll be safe.
Zanto: No we won’t! The gas, remember?
Lora: We can take off! Use the teleport to get to Gamren...
Orac: Incorrect, Lora. The interference patterns of this planet, while now identified, still pose an unacceptable hazard to teleport transference.
Lora: Then work out how to fix it Orac!
Nreeshi: WE WILL MAKE ARRANGEMENTS TO BRING YOUR VESSEL INTO THE CITY. THERE YOU WILL BE ABLE TO ADJUST YOUR... TELEPORT...
Vila: Very kind, but hardly necessary...
Nreeshi: [firmly] WE INSIST.
Avon: Of course. However, that will still take time. We should at least scout out this underground city.
Nreeshi: NOT ALL OF YOU. SOME MUST REMAIN.
Zanto: As hostages?
Nreeshi: NOT HOSTAGES. WE WISH AS MANY OF YOU AS POSSIBLE TO REMAIN ALIVE.
Vila: Right planet of altruists we’ve got here. All right. Zanto, Lora... you’re the young, fit, combat-trained ones in the room. Avon’s probably more use here with Orac and I’m not sure I could run five yards with the headache I’ve got. Get it?
Lora/Zanto: Got it.
Nreeshi: VERY WELL. I WILL COLLECT THE VISORS YOUR SPECIES REQUIRE.
[Nreeshi turns and leaves through the doors.]
Vila: Should have seen that coming.
Avon: Shut up, Vila.
- to be continued...