[Space. A lonely-looking planet is silhouetted against a dim, red star.]
[A landscape of dust, rocks and weeds under a feebly-lit sky. The wind moans across the surface, providing the only sound. In the middle of the bare plain is an intricate octagonal barricade of crystalline walls that glow from within, casting light and shadows across the wasteland. It is totally deserted. Over the sighing wind comes a faint guttural whisper. A shadow in a cleft of rock grows thicker, darker, then shifts like smoke to another outcrop. Leaf-shaped footprints appear in the dust as it goes. The sky gets a little darker and the crystalline walls correspondingly get brighter.]
[Space. Phoenix is heading through space.]
[Corridor outside flight deck. Lora leans against the wall, arms folded, watching Avon pace back and forth, scowling furiously.]
Lora: It’s been a week, Avon. You’re going to have to get onto the flight deck sooner or later.
Avon: Not necessarily.
Lora: That’s where Orac is and you do want him to check those notes of yours.
Avon: Yet a Beta-grade technician like you is unwilling to simply bring him out for me.
Lora: Because an Alpha-grade genius like you can’t come up with a good reason! Look, just go through the door, pick up Orac and come back out. That computer isn’t going to bite you, is it? [to herself] Doesn’t even have teeth...
Avon: I’m surprised Vila didn’t consider adding them on with his other improvements. [suddenly furious] Why? What possessed that drunken ingrate to do that?
Lora: [shrugs] It’d be boring otherwise.
[Avon stops pacing and glares at her.]
Avon: Oh, yes. A perfect excuse. Let us rewire the navigation systems so they only locate gambling dens, and adjust detectors so we can only see our surroundings when they’re pretty!
Lora: It’s just a personality program, Avon. All sorts of computers have them – I mean, you put up with Orac and he’s much worse than anything Vila’s come up with.
Avon: Orac is useful.
Lora: And a highly-sophisticated flight computer isn’t? When Orac helped build it?
Avon: To specifications made by a fool, full of adrenaline and soma who perceives nothing and understands less. Only Vila would be stupid enough to give a computer a personality of an obsessive crusader with a martyr complex.
Lora: Who he made sure can’t send us tearing around the galaxy on terrorist raids. Plus, it doesn’t do that annoying thing of giving us irrelevant information and Vila even made sure the voice didn’t copy Blake’s too much, so it didn’t get creepy.
Avon: Priorities of a fool.
Lora: Big talk for someone who can’t bring himself to go through a door.
[Avon grins his sharklike grin at her.]
Avon: It’s a great pity Soolin isn’t still aboard, Lora. I dare say I could afford her fee for shooting you.
Lora: Soolin? The same Soolin who told you a week ago to [frowns] “get over your warped and repressed egomania, accept your guilt and move on”? That the Soolin we’re talking about? [irritated] Snap out of it, Avon – Blake’s dead. And as you always tell us, you don’t care. What’s the big problem now a computer does a crude impression of him?
[Avon starts to reply then stops.]
Avon: Blake is dead. Right or wrong, accidentally or deliberately, he’s dead. Gone. For good. Now Vila’s going to great lengths to ensure I’ll never be free of him.
Lora: You could always have gone with Soolin.
Avon: [quiet] No. I couldn’t.
Lora: [deep breath] I never knew Blake. And it seems I’m the only one on this ship who didn’t. I don’t know just how much like Blake the computer is. Seems friendly enough. Can get a bit sarcastic, but everyone’s like that nowadays... The thing is, from what I hear, Blake always knew the right thing to say. Apart from, you know, the last time he met you, of course.
Avon: Is there even a the faintest reason for you to continue speaking?
Lora: Look, Avon, I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know what magic combination of words will stop you acting like a tiger in a cage – a tiger who’s haunted, even – and get onto the flight deck. I don’t know how to make this better. I wish I did.
Avon: You have no idea how much that information matters to me.
Lora: I don’t know what to say. But Blake might have. And given the closest thing we have to Blake is on the flight deck, you can always go and ask him.
[Avon stares at her.]
Avon: Statistically speaking, there is a remote chance you might say something useful. One day. But I am no longer prepared to stand here waiting for that time to come.
[He turns and enters the flight deck. Lora watches him go, then frowns.]
Lora: [confused] Hey, did I just win that argument or not?
[She hurries after him onto the flight deck. Gamren sits in the pilot chair. Vila and Zanto sit on either side of Vila’s desk-console. Orac is buzzing. Vila doesn’t look up.]
Vila: Morning, Avon. Sleep well?
Avon: The sleep of the just. I require Orac.
Zanto: What for?
Avon: Private research. If the results are relevant, I’ll inform you.
Vila: Orac’s busy. Anyway, Avon, we’ve been thinking...
Avon: What a remarkable departure from the norm.
Vila: ...about what to do next.
Avon: That rather depends on the current state of Federation affairs.
Gamren: Which you’d know if you’d been on the flight deck since we left GP.
Avon: I am glad, Vila, your crew are such masters at stating the patently obvious.
Lora: [sighs] The Federation are recalling all their ships back to Earth sector. Something about refitting all their ships with new battle computers or something.
Orac: A new security system has been developed over the last three years since the restoration of the High Council. This defense grid is being put into effect on the planet Langsuir as a testing ground before they are put into effect on every major Federated world.
Avon: Let me guess. You want to go to Langsuir, destroy the testing ground and hope all goes well.
Zanto: That’s what we’re deciding. We are closer to Langsuir than any of Keer’s fleet, but we’re hardly as powerful. On the other hand, we’d get there before the defense grid activates.
Avon: Which improves our chances of success?
Blake: Our chances certainly won’t be better after it is active.
[Avon stiffens but doesn’t turn round.]
Avon: Your flight computer is making gratuitous comments, Vila. Perhaps you should reprogram it.
Blake: Gratuitous perhaps, but not inaccurate, Avon.
Avon: Accurate but pointless. Of course an attack would be easier before they were ready for it. Not everyone on this ship is as stupid as the man who requested your crude excuse at artificial intelligence.
[Blake speaks with a hint of challenge in its voice.]
Blake: Keeping things simple prevents misunderstandings Avon. You of all of us know how much a misunderstanding is to be avoided.
Avon: [icy] Vila, if you do not have that deluded mockery of Blake moderate itself, then I will carry out my own moderations – with a laser probe.
Vila: [firmly] Tough. It might have escaped your attention, Avon, but you’re not the leader and you’re going to have to learn to cope with working with equals.
Avon: I’ll do that when some equals arrive.
Blake: This internal conflict isn’t helping anyone.
[Avon rounds on the computer.]
Avon: Oh, another example of clichéd banality! How many did Orac have to program in?
Gamren: Spare me! Blake has been more use than you have, Avon.
Gamen: Shut up, Zanto. I’ve put up our arrogant little murderer for the best part of two months.
Avon: And you’ve only needed my assistance to stay alive how many times?
Orac: Three occasions only.
Lora: [sighs] Oh, thanks for that, Orac. That’ll really calm everyone down.
Gamren: [to Avon] You whinge and moan and bitch and whine like you’re the only person in the galaxy who matters. Well, you don’t. You’re annoying, irritating, unpleasant and for the last week all you’ve been good for is getting in our way.
Avon: Whereas all you have been good for is getting in the way of. Now we have a proper flight computer.
Zanto: [snorts] Is this you trying to get us to turn against Blake?
Avon: More like a last attempt to make you realize the danger you’re all in.
Gamren: If the real Blake was here, we’d side with him over you. What have you got to offer us?
Zanto: Not much in the way of pleasant company. But then neither are you, Gamren.
Gamren: [even more annoyed] Why would anyone be pleasant around either of you? You’re both to blame for that massacre and neither of you deserved to survive it...
Blake: [shouts] ENOUGH!
[Glaring at each other, Zanto and Gamren return to their chairs.]
Blake: [calmer] Avon. You can ignore me, fight me, reprogram me or even destroy me – but working with me is the only viable course to achieve anything worthwhile.
[Avon stares at the computer, suddenly looking tired.]
Avon: [resigned] And embrace a disaster like everything else Blake’s name has been attached to?
Blake: You’ve tried everything else.
[Avon sighs and settles in his usual position.]
Avon: Fine. I should have realized logic and reason were wasted on you all.
[Vila absently pats Orac affectionately.]
Vila: [sotto] Well done, Orac. Just like the old Blake.
Orac: [outraged] You continue to doubt the quality of my work even now?
Vila: Nope, just continually impressed by the results.
Orac: [mollified] Ah. That is an understandable intellectual standpoint.
Avon: If we’re supposed to be going to Langsuir, why are we on the other side of the quadrant?
Lora: Lot of patrols around the Darlon system with the resettlement of Gauda. We’re taking a short cut or something as far as I can tell.
Avon: Would it rude of me to ask for more details?
[The screen lights up. A display shows an uneven shape outlined in red dots between schematics of two different solar systems.]
Blake: There is a heavy asteroid belt bordering the Langsuir star system, and this sector is largely unexplored and uncharted. Thanks to Orac’s programming, I have managed to penetrate the outer asteroid belt and cut across the territory in linear progression.
[The screen maps out a new solar system inside the uneven shape.]
Blake: And we have discovered an entire star system nestled inside the asteroid belts.
Lora: Hence us wondering what to do next. This could be a nice little bolt hole – somewhere else for the rebellion to set up shop.
Orac: Any occupancy would be brief.
Vila: What do you mean? Blake, what does he mean?
Blake: The asteroid belt around this system is a band of debris caused by the solar system’s sun going nova. The planets that survived the stellar expansion will have either been sterilized by heat or are starting to freeze as the star starts to burn out.
Avon: Then begin a closer survey on the remaining planets, detectors at maximum range. There’s a chance some of those worlds will be habitable, at least for the next few years. If that, of course, is a reasonable request?
Blake: Quite. Thank you.
[Space. The Phoenix is moving towards the planet from earlier.]
Blake: [vo] Standard orbit locked and confirmed. Full automatics switched in.
[Flight deck. The planet is shown on the screen.]
Lora: [sighs] Doesn’t look like much.
Vila: Anything in any of the star charts, Blake?
Blake: The planet isn’t listed in any official Federation listings or recorded in my data banks, but that’s hardly surprising. The Federation rarely chart the insides of an asteroid field.
Avon: That we know of. Are there any signs of a local transit beacon?
Vila: Why would the Federation put up a beacon for a place they never visit?
Avon: I suggest we check anyway, unless you want your last words to be “So that’s why they’d put a beacon there.”
Blake: There are no readings on all preliminary scans. I’ll keep checking.
Zanto: So what do we actually know about this place?
Blake: The planet is a standard Earth-type world with a breathable oxygen atmosphere and normal gravity and mass. Detectors aren’t registering any communications, or any signs of post-industrial society. Surface scans are registering next-to-no animal life and very little vegetation. All the signs are mass extinctions have taken place as the orbiting star becomes a white dwarf.
Gamren: You mean since the sun’s dying and the planet is as well?
Blake: If you like. Surface temperature is slowly dropping and the sun gradually loses luminosity. All data suggests the planet will become too cold for any terrestrial life to exist within the next two hundred and fifty years. In short...
Avon: In short, nothing valuable enough to draw the Federation into this enclave even in the unlikely event they do know about it.
Vila: So we’re safe?
Blake: For the time being.
Gamren: Plus, we can use this planet to shield us from any detectors while we recharge the solar stacks. Even a dying star puts out a useable amount of energy.
Vila: As long as it doesn’t go nova again while we’re in the neighborhood.
Zanto: What are the odds of that happening?
Gamren: [face-palming] Yes, for you, the whole concept of “tempting fate” is just something that happens to other people, isn’t it, Zanto?
[Zanto stares at her for a moment.]
Zanto: Enough is enough, Gamren. [rises] I’m taking my shore-leave.
Zanto: I want to breathe some air that hasn’t been recycled for or five hundred times. Besides, think of all the pleasant company down there.
Lora: What are you talking about? The planet’s deserted, nothing but a wasteland.
Zanto: Making it more inviting than a room with Gamren in it.
Gamren: [aghast] My heart bleeds.
Zanto: If only.
Lora: [loudly] Anyway! I think a bit of exercise would do us all good. We’ve been cooped up in here for ages, a change of scene could be healthy.
Gamren: [sulky] Just because Zanto can’t take constructive criticism.
Zanto: [sulky] Just because Gamren can’t provide any constructive criticism.
[Vila shakes his head and turns to Avon, who has his arms folded.]
Vila: Why can’t those two act more mature? Like we do?
[Avon turns to look at Vila blankly, then turns and walks off.]
Vila: Charming. All right, let’s see what it’s like down there. A bit of scrubland and a twig probably...
[Vila joins Zanto at the teleport section. Zanto hands Vila and Lora teleport bracelets.]
Blake: Slightly more than that, Vila.
Blake: Yes. For a wasteland there are countless artificial crystalline structures on every continent.
Lora: Structures? You mean buildings?
Zanto: Crystal buildings.
Blake: Crystal settlements, to be exact. All signs they are deserted and their makers long dead.
Vila: [annoyed] Why didn’t you mention it before?
Blake: They looked like natural formations at a distance. Now the detectors are closer, it’s clear that they were man-made – or at least made by some intelligent life form.
Avon: Interesting. The last remains of ancient civilization on a dying planet.
Gamren: [incredulous] Don’t tell me you’re going with them too?
Avon: Why not? Surface conditions are well within our tolerances, are they not?
Blake: As I said, Avon.
Avon: Well then. Many things have been said about the state of my mind but never once that it is closed. I dare say a visit to this planet will be more informative than keeping you company on the flight deck.
Gamren: You got anything to add to this, Orac?
Orac: I agree with Avon. This is a unique opportunity to investigate an indigenous civilization previously unknown to the rest of the galaxy.
Gamren: Oh yes. That’s what we do now. Space archaeology!
Zanto: Makes a change from simply running from the Federation.
[Avon joins the others at the teleport section.]
Orac: I strongly advise, however, that the Phoenix is landed on the planet’s surface.
Zanto: Why can’t we just teleport down?
Orac: There appears to be a high level of static in the atmosphere, the origin of which I have yet to fully analyze however they operate on frequencies that effect the molecular vibration of body cells. It would not be sensible to use a matter transmission beam into such an environment.
Lora: But landing the Phoenix in the middle of it will be just fine?
Avon: It’s logical. In teleport, our physical structure is at its most vulnerable and unstable. Going there in person would prove much less of a hazard.
Vila: [despairing] Less hazardous? This was supposed to be a nice afternoon constitutional for Zanto!
Lora: Fine. Blake, plot a landing course to the biggest settlement you can find. We’ll land next to it.
Blake: Doing it.
[The others resume their seats. Gamren beams at Zanto as he sits beside her.]
Gamren: Just couldn’t stay away, could you?
[Zanto folds his arms and turns away from her, sulking.]
Vila: I’m still not happy about this. It sounds very risky. I don’t like it.
Avon: Orac, would this static interference be able to penetrate the hull of the ship?
Orac: There is no reason to believe that is the case.
Vila: But it still could be? That’s what I’m hearing you say, Orac, that it could still happen...
Blake: Position plotted. Preparing for atmospheric descent.
[Space. The Phoenix swoops down towards the planet. Dissolve to...]
[Plain. The space cruiser slowly sinks onto the bare plain directly outside the crystal city, the roar of its retro engines rising over the constant sigh of the wind.]
[Phoenix corridor. All five crew are heading towards the airlock.]
Zanto: The reason I wanted to come here was to get away from the rest of you.
Avon: We all have to learn to live with disappointment, Zanto.
[Vila hits the door control and the hatches slide back to reveal a ramp leading down into the plain. As they emerge, their footsteps on the metal ramp echo over the moaning wind. They reach the ground and look up at the distant city that gently pulses with light. A long pause.]
Vila: [troubled] Quiet, isn’t it?
Lora: Silent’s the word I’d use. The noise of a dead planet.
Gamren: That place doesn’t look dead. It looks very much alive.
[They regard the pulsing crystalline walls.]
Avon: There’s no evidence of technology. Either that glow is a natural element in the crystals or...
Vila: ...or whatever is on this planet is so advanced it doesn’t read as technology.
Lora: Personally, I’m hoping for the former.
Vila: Aren’t we all?
Zanto: Not necessarily. Pre-industrial cultures tend to be violent and paranoid.
Gamren: So do most industrial societies.
[Avon nods thoughtfully, then follows Zanto across the plain.]
Lora: I suppose this will happen to Earth, one day.
Avon: Not quite. Our sun is much larger – when it goes nova, Earth will be caught in the stellar nebula and anything not instantly incinerated will be totally sterilized. Though there are countless other planets that could end up like this one.
Lora: Always so cheerful.
Avon: Nothing is eternal, Lora. As one star system dies, it sets in motion a chain reaction that ultimately creates a brand new set of stars and planets where life might emerge.
Vila: That’s a nicer way of looking at it, I suppose.
Avon: It’s not nice. It’s merely a statement of fact. Everything else is romanticism.
Gamren: Never took you for a romantic, Avon.
Avon: Yes, well, I’ve been under considerable strain as of late.
Zanto: [irritated] Who hasn’t been?
Vila: [startled] What?
Zanto: I said, “who hasn’t been”?
Vila: No, not that.
[They pause and look around. They are quite alone.]
Avon: You heard something?
Vila: I thought I did. Anyone else?
Gamren: Just the wind.
Vila: I’m sure I heard something.
Avon: Describe it.
Vila: A sort of... whisper. Must be space fatigue. Stuck in that damn ship too long...
Zanto: [unconvinced] No doubt. Come on.
[They move off.]
- to be continued...