[Space. The Pheonix moves towards a barren-looking yellow world. A fleet of disparate spaceships is in orbit. The Phoenix slows to a halt neatly between two ships, one resembling a tobacco pipe and the other the Jupiter 2.]
[Flight deck. Gamren, Avon and Soolin are present. Avon is disconnecting Orac while Gamren flies.]
Avon: [bored] Oh look. An armada. The Federation is doomed.
Gamren: [rolls eyes] It’s not an armada. Nowhere near.
Soolin: But it will be once Keer’s fleets join it.
Avon: If he chooses to get involved.
Gamren: [to Soolin] He is like this all the time.
Soolin: Yes. The negative pessimism used to be Vila’s job.
Avon: For which you regularly mocked and humiliated him.
Soolin: Not as well as you did, Avon.
Avon: He wasn’t trying to seduce me.
[Soolin looks embarrassed. Gamren looks disgusted.]
Gamren: What a horrible thought. [to Avon] Never say things like that. Gross.
[Vila, Lora and Zanto enter.]
Lora: [arguing] ...what do you mean, I can’t come?
Zanto: This isn’t a holiday excursion, Lora. That isn’t a pleasure planet down there!
Lora: I should still come along!
Vila: Sorry, Lora. Someone has to stay here and help Gamren fly the ship now Orac’s busy.
Zanto: And since Soolin and Vila are representing Blake’s operation on GP, and I’m going to keep an eye on the others...
Lora: And what’s Avon’s excuse? I thought we were supposed to trust him.
Vila: We are! [beat] Sort of. [beat] A bit. [beat] Maybe. The point is, he’s not coming with us because I don’t trust him, it’s because he’ll be useful down here.
Gamren: Oh yes, the great optimist and diplomat, Kerr Avon.
Avon: I negotiated the initial alliance. Warlord Boorva will be expecting my presence, and he’s difficult enough at the best of times. Besides, my brutal honesty has often won great accolades.
Soolin: From those who survived witnessing it.
Avon: I could say the same for you, Soolin.
Vila: Oh, look, look, come on now. There’s going to be enough self-aggrandizing insults and backstabbing going on down there already without us chucking our oar in. We want some unity and cooperation for change, remember? And Avon, stop trying to appeal to people’s self-interest.
Avon: You mean be dishonest?
Vila: [patiently] I mean, don’t inspire people to think they could get a better deal by stabbing us in the back. Like last time.
Avon: I’ll be sure to follow your example, Vila.
[The communicator chimes.]
Controller: [vo] This is Mantobac Command. Confirm identity.
Gamren: Um, Mantobac Command this is the rebel privateer Phoenix from Gauda Prime. Transporting the leaders of the GP operation to attend the conference of non-aligned worlds... and such. Sending identifying call-sign now.
[Gamren presses a button. A chirping noise is heard.]
Controller: [vo] Call-sign recognized and logged. A landing sequence is now being computed...
Gamren: Not necessary, Mantobac. Landing is not required.
Controller: [vo] Fair enough. You have a shuttle transporter?
Gamren: Something like that. Phoenix out.
[Soolin snaps a bracelet around her wrist. Vila hands bracelets to Avon and Zanto.]
Lora: We should really tell them about the teleport.
Soolin: They’ll work it out soon enough.
Avon: And if they don’t, you should consider a better quality of ally.
Vila: Got the coordinates set, Orac?
Orac: Of course. Entering them into the teleport systems. Prepare for immediate transference.
[The foursome enter the teleport bay. Avon, unarmed, carries Orac.]
Avon: Get on with it, Orac.
Orac: Teleporting... now.
[The teleport actives and the Phoenix dissolves into static around the quartet, which clears to reveal them standing in a well-lit reception bay. Several guards are present with guns warily cocked. Archways lead off to various corridors like some cloister, the walls patterned with triangular cells. A few rebels are present in slightly tattered clothes, as is a bearded, long-haired man in dark, gold-trimmed robes. The guards aim their guns at the crew and approach.]
Guard: Clear visiting parties!
Vila: [quickly] It’s all right, it’s all right. Take it easy! We’re invited!
Zanto: We’re Blake’s people.
Vila: Well, we were until recently.
[The robed man advances.]
Boorva: I can confirm their identities. This is Avon and his crew.
Avon: Alas, I am no longer in charge.
Boorva: Are you not?
Vila: [proudly] I am.
[Boorva stares at him.]
Avon: That’s democracy for you.
Zanto: Greetings, Lord Boorva. I am Zanto.
Boorva: Greetings, Zanto. [to others] Avon. Vila. Soolin. It has been some time since we last met. Your fortunes do not appear to have improved in the interim.
Soolin: Things could be worse.
Boorva: Hardly a recommendation. I trust you have not brought your whole crew here.
Vila: [pointedly] No. I haven’t.
Boorva: [amused] Just those who are expendable?
Soolin: Yes. The same way the border systems sent you alone as their representative?
Zanto: Um, we’re running late as it is, Vila.
Vila: Good point. [to guards] Well, which way’s the big powwow?
[Model shot. A complex, domed building sits in the middle of ruined stone buildings under a starry night.]
[Inside the complex, Boorva and the guards lead the crew down a series of identical metallic corridors with blue, oval-shaped doors.]
Vila: I’m still not used to this.
Vila: This. All these people. It always felt like the rebellion was just a handful of people living on a spaceship, but now it’s like a huge organization full of people and equipment and... [grimaces] work!
Soolin: We can’t stay isolated any more, Vila. Fighting the Federation alone got us nowhere.
Avon: Apart from that time the Federation fell to pieces.
Vila: Not that we had much to do with it. And it’s gotten itself back together very quickly. Besides, destroying the Federation is the first step. There needs to be something else to take its place – and, ideally something better.
Avon: With diamond-floored palaces and bodyguards of hand-picked virgins in red fur uniforms?
[Zanto and Soolin stop and looks at Avon, then at Vila. Vila squirms.]
Vila: [clears throat] Look, my own private pleasure planet and a free equal democratic galaxy don’t HAVE to cancel each other out, do they?
[They shake their heads and resume walking. Vila glares at Avon.]
Vila: [sotto] That was private and confidential, Avon!
Avon: [shrugs] Not any more.
Vila: That’s the last time I ever tell you my goals in life.
Avon: Wonderful. Now I only need to find a way to stop you talking about anything else.
Vila: Maybe I should perforate your eardrums, would that help?
Avon: As long as you sever your own vocal chords, just to be on the safe side.
[Space. The Phoenix is almost lost amongst the other ships.]
[Flight deck. Gamren is adjusting controls, impatiently as Lora studies a rangerscope.]
Gamren: Compensating for lateral drift...
Lora: Coordinates four, zero, two, six, seven.
[Gamren adjusts the controls and relaxes.]
Gamren: And stable.
Lora: That’s the sixth adjustment since we got here!
Gamren: When they took Orac, the automatics went with him. We have do everything on manual to make sure we don’t crash into the ships around us.
Lora: Why hasn’t Vila got the flight computer working yet?
Gamren: I don’t know, maybe he’s distracted. Like you are. We’ve got another misalignment.
[Lora checks the scope.]
Lora: Coordinates eight, two, three, one, three.
Gamren: [flips switches] Compensating... and stable. That should hold her for a few minutes. [sighs] I wonder what it’s like.
Lora: What what’s like?
Gamren: Down there. Mantobac Alpha.
Lora: [shrugs] According to the charts, it was a thriving planet in the Old Calendar. Destroyed in atomic wars, turned to a mining base and then abandoned. That’s where everyone is, in the old complex. [frowns] Hang on... Gamren, what was that?
Lora: [points] I thought I saw something move on the screen.
[They look at the screen, which shows stars and a moon.]
Gamren: The detectors are all focused on the ships around us. No telling what it was.
Lora: [doubtful] Probably nothing.
Gamren: Yes. Bound to be. [less unconvinced] Bound to be.
[Space. Beyond the armada is the moon and behind that is a pursuit ship.]
Captain: [vo] Leader to all crew. Full standby. Check all battle systems. Quicksilver is now in final descent. Contact with enemy estimated in thirty minutes. Confirmed.
[Conference room. A rather run-down chamber with graffiti covering the Federation emblems on the walls. There are circular tables arranged around the hall, surrounded by seats. Guards and dignitaries are hovering around. Through an oval porthole comes a bright orange glow, lighting up the crew.]
Zanto: That must be Keer coming into land.
Avon: He’s late. The rendezvous was three standard time units ago.
Soolin: Probably not used to working to other people’s schedules.
Zanto: So he’s either arrogant or trying to make an impression. Show us who’s boss.
Vila: Great. Just the way to start a new alliance of equality and...
Zanto: ...fur-lined uniforms.
Vila: Oi. Bit of respect for the leader.
Avon: Why? You never showed any.
Soolin: Not in public, children.
[The ground controller enters and walks onto a raised, railed platform at the rear of the chamber. On a podium stands Orac, switched on and buzzing. A series of chimes rings out, getting everyone’s attention. The controller speaks into a microphone on a lectern.]
Controller: Attention. Will all assembled representatives please take your seats? The representative of the Consortium of Trau has arrived. The conference itself will begin shortly.
[Much murmuring as everyone does so. The various groups get a table each. A stern blond action babe in a leather combat suit sits with similar-attired rebels, muttering darkly to her aide, who cradles a glass of green cordial with a dull expression.]
Kella: This is just a waste of time. Grander than most, but still a waste of time. These alliances always end up as squabbles for more protection from the Federation and even more protection from each other.
Aide: You were the one that turned down the Invectas’ help, remember.
Kella: [snorts] That bunch of barbarians? Even the Federation doesn’t endorse the mandatory blood sacrifice of children to maintain social order. Yet.
Aide: That alliance could have won us the entire war.
Kella: Could have! Could! Before the Invectas were destroyed in a single strike by the Federation, showing what a poor choice they were in first place! It proves they weren’t good enough and this [gestures] so-called league doesn’t look much better...
[At the next table are the Phoenix crew.]
Vila: Well, that bodes well. She sounds really enthusiastic. [to Avon] You two should get on well.
Avon: Is that a way of asking for my advice with diplomacy?
Vila: You have any advice on diplomacy?
Avon: Not trying to get all concerned drunk on adrenaline and soma, for a start.
Vila: [defensive] That was a joke!
[Another series of chimes ring out. The door opens and Keer enters along with a squad of armed guards in distinctive black-red uniforms.]
Controller: Welcome, Keer of the Consortium of Trau. The alliance is complete at last.
Boorva: [annoyed] You did not arrive on schedule, Keer.
Keer: I always try to be fashionably late to every party.
[Keer grins at the assembled guests. His gaze reaches Soolin. Her eyes widen and her jaw drops. Keer studies her for a second longer and then continues to address the others.]
Keer: But as I am here now, perhaps we could get on with things...
Soolin: Can’t be...
[She scrabbles at her teleport bracelet, trying to hit the recall button. Zanto lunges out and grabs her arm, stopping her. They struggle, all the while trying to look normal to the rest of the conference. Avon and Vila notice their actions and frown.]
Zanto: [sotto] What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Soolin: [calm] Let me go, I’ve got to get out of here.
Vila: [desperate] Soolin! You’ll ruin everything!
[Avon reaches over and unclips her bracelet.]
Avon: [sotto] We’ll discuss this later, I trust.
[Soolin glares at him. Attention returns to Keer as he addresses the hall.]
Keer: My friends... my dear friends... Thank you for being so patient. You’ve no idea the pleasure it gives me to see, well, most of you here. You’re all, every one of you, experts in your field. There’s not a single man here who hasn’t slaughtered a good few battalions of Federation scum. You probably think you know how to fight the good fight, you may believe that’s what you’ve been doing all these years – but sheer strength is what is required and that I am in a position to provide in so many ways.
[Keer and his entourage sit down at the empty table. Scowling, Boorva takes the podium.]
Keer: Please. Do begin.
Kella: I agree. We should get down to business. The rest of you may have nothing better to do, but some of us have planets to run. What I want to know is: why the summons?
Boorva: You already know why or else you wouldn’t be here.
Kella: [unimpressed] Indulge me.
Boorva: Very well, outlaw.
[A wall screen activates showing a starchart with a grid superimposed. A large section is tinted red.]
Boorva: This is a map of the galaxy, highlighting the territory controlled by the Federation. This is the state of the cosmos ten years ago, when the empire was at its height.
[The red section shrinks and splinters.]
Boorva: The status of the Federation eight years ago, after the Galactic War.
[The red section grows slightly and turns into a single patch.]
Boorva: Six years ago with the restoration of order. And then comes the invention of Pylene-50, the wonder drug that steals from human beings their free will and ability to resist. Thus, the Federation began to re-conquer all the worlds and colonies that had escaped.
[The red section grows until it matches the original. There are a couple of gaps.]
Boorva: It has taken the last five years. A scattering of worlds – Lindor, Helotrix, Destiny, Elyon, Jexeta – are the exceptions. Through either their own space fleets, natural immunity or simple widespread resistance they still retain some control but the rest have been retaken without difficulty. The Federation were preparing a full-scale assault on the remaining empires that border their territory, to expand their frontiers and take over the entire galactic disc.
Kella: [dismissive] The Federation lost most of its military forces during the wars. What’s left are stretched too thin across their own territory to indulge in conventional conquest.
Keer: [idly] Hence the drug?
Boorva: Precisely. However, Kerr Avon and the others answerable to Blake released the formula for Pylene-50. My world Tarl is part of the alliance that manufactured and produced the antitoxin. Six weeks ago, we immunized five border systems against the drug. The Federation cannot pacify us now.
Aide: Which means they can still use conventional weaponry.
Kella: Which they don’t have to spare. That’s why the entire expansion program is over. Conquest has ended. The Federation has stalled.
Boorva: [sharply] Paused, perhaps. But not stopped.
[A surly rebel stands.]
Rebel: Where can they go? It will be decades before they are powerful enough to tackle anyone else. Teal and Vandor protect each other, the Zerlon Treaty Worlds have already built up their forces...
Kella: [nods] I’ve organized a full-scale revolt across the Lamdermor cluster. I have thirty battalions under my command, consisting of fifty thousand soldiers each. You’re saying my options are to either watch them be smashed apart by a space fleet or surrender to the Federation?
Boorva: Or join the alliance.
Kella: Perhaps. I have yet to see how this could benefit my forces.
Zanto: Yes, the fleet we have patrolling Mantobac Alpha is enough to hold back the Federation.
Orac: It is true that the odds of the current fleet defeating the average flotilla is two to one.
Vila: Sounds good odds to me.
Orac: However, the chances of the current fleet engaging an average flotilla are increasingly low.
Zanto: What do you mean?
Orac: The Federation have within the last few months have succeeded in producing a new weapon which can be fitted to pursuit ships in place traditional plasma-bolt launchers. Their ultimate aim is to achieve total supremacy in all conceivable scenarios of space warfare. The prototype is now fully operational and testing is complete. Due to the current state of interplanetary emergency regarding the activities of the renegade Servalan, the blueprints have not been sent to central command. I have been able to wipe all records and plans from all known development computers but it is still possible to reverse-engineer the existing prototype, a delay that could only take six weeks.
Kella: And then we’re back where we started.
Orac: Precisely. More important, the President has given emergency authorization to use the weapon against the border systems. Even with the limited resources they have in terms of spacecraft, the strategy is still viable.
Keer: [thoughtful] What form does the weapon take?
Orac: The weapon releases a total-spectrum wave of charged energy that paralyzes and dislocates all electrical, flutonic and neutrino reactions in its wake. The practical effects would be a complete and irreversible power loss from all mechanical systems caught in the wave. In the simplest of terms, it is a particle suppressor.
[There is much shock and surprise from the audience, but a healthy mix of scorn as well.]
Vila: Particle suppressor?
Rebel: Don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing!
Kella: Particle suppression has never worked! They’ve been trying to discover it even longer than they have teleportation and they’re still nowhere close!
Orac: The theory of particle suppression is sound and relatively straightforward.
Aide: But it wouldn’t work because as soon as the Federation activated it, it would effect their systems as well – everything would be shut down. All they’d do is get total chaos!
Orac: Which is why the research divisions have worked on a containment field for the suppressor cannon. This will narrow the wave effect to specified targets and terminate all mechanical and electrical function as the firer cares to nominate.
Zanto: Then they don’t need a fleet, just a few pursuit ships. Once they paralyze each of our ships, they can destroy us at their leisure.
Rebel: They wouldn’t even need to do that. With life support suspended, they’d just wait a few hours for us all to perish and seize control of our ships.
Keer: [interested] They’d be unbeatable.
Kella: [annoyed] And that is why you wanted us here? To make sure we know how doomed we all are?
Orac: The defeat of the alliance is by no means inevitable. At present, the particle canon is being transported from its point of origin to a weapons research centre in the heart of Federation territory by the affiliated Pan-Galactic Transport Company. The convoy is passing through this sector in two days time.
Zanto: Which is why the conference was held here.
Orac: Precisely. Our protective fleet can be turned into an attack force against the convoy and stand a reasonable chance of capturing the cannon. As it is the only one in existence, once it falls into our hand, the league of non-aligned planets will become masters of this new technology. We will have the advantage.
[Keer nods approvingly.]
Keer: A pre-emptive strike. Very good.
Orac: The fleet numbers, however, are the minimum required. Both the Consortium of Trau and Kella’s forces must assist this venture for it to stand any chance.
Kella: Or else in six weeks’ time the Federation begin to destroy us all.
Boorva: As you say, Kella. Without mutual support we cannot hold out against the Federation.
Keer: Quite right. Not only can our united forces capture this particle suppressor, but our combined resources can be used far more effectively. Our planets can supply each other with materials, ships, weaponry systems, shields... we can train troops, protect each other from attack, the secrets of all our technology. [getting a bit excited] This is a great day! Let us rejoice! Rejoice!
Kella: [coolly] I haven’t agreed yet.
[Keer looks at her, completely undisturbed.]
Avon: Do you have a better plan, Kella?
[Kella glares at him, then shakes her head.]
Kella: I like to believe I have a choice. It is, after all, why we’re fighting.
Rebel: You have a choice. You can either fight the Federation or let them destroy you. We’ve all done too much to expect their forgiveness, and none of us are stupid to expect mercy.
Kella: [sits] Then I agree.
Boorva: It is not enough! We must be united against our enemy or we are nothing. This is a crusade we must commit to totally – half measures will not liberate any planet, any system. The slightest hesitation, the first sign of weakness, and the Federation will use it against us. To crush us. I have seen it happen with my own eyes to someone I considered, in their own twisted way, incorruptible. One division can destroy us all.
Keer: Quite so, my friend. Which is why I too have decided to throw my lot in with this shoddy little outlaw rabble. But before we go any further, I should point out that had you all respected the authority of the Federation in the first place, we would not now be facing such severe reprisals. Letting terrorists like Blake lead the agenda was the worst thing anyone who wanted to live a peaceful and rewarding life could do. Are you surprised the empire has turned on such villains and murders who refuse to abide by the laws of basic human civilization? There were always going to be consequences for defiance.
[He looks Soolin right in the eye.]
Keer: Fatal consequences.
Vila: I don’t believe I’m hearing this...
Keer: [suddenly angry] I don’t care what you believe in! You have plans, but you also have dissent! I only came here today because I wanted to see just how coordinated your efforts were before I chose sides. The rebels or the establishment, the old order or the new one...
Boorva: [interrupts] Keer, I must protest!
Keer: Must you?
Aide: You’re not in charge here. Your consortium is...
Keer: [losing it] SHUT UP! [calm again] Kella, Avon, all my new friends... do get up to speed. This alliance is so close to victory. Or, to put it another way, it was so close. I’m afraid, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve gathered here to be annihilated. There is at this very moment a Federation pursuit ship high above our heads, especially equipped for planetary assault and with enough plasma ammunition to reduce this complex to infinitesimal dust. And, tragically, that little personal security fleet of yours is looking entirely the wrong way to spot its approach.
Keer: Channel 647 if you need further proof.
[The screen blinks on to show the pursuit ship. Rebels start to rise but all of Keer’s troops are ready, their blasters aimed at each table.]
Keer: Anyone who moves gets to die! [claps] Oh, it’s so fun being around dispensable people again!
Soolin: [urgently] Vila, we’ve got to get out of here!
Zanto: [sotto] She’s right, we’ve still got teleport bracelets. We can be up in Phoenix before they attack.
Vila: [sotto] The others can’t. Look, we’ll stay as long as we can. Something might turn up.
Avon: [sotto] Slim hope, Vila.
Vila: [sotto] What hope isn’t?
[Keer’s men spread out. Boorva now is forced against a wall, hands raised.]
Keer: I advise you all not to waste what little time remains.
[He holds up a handheld device and activates it with his thumb.]
Keer: The precise coordinates of this complex have been transmitted to the pursuit ship captain.
Aide: But they’ll kill us all!
Keer: Yes, that’s the general idea. But, rest assured, I have their word they won’t start firing until I send a confirmation signal that I myself am out of danger.
Avon: [incredulously] Are you really that naïve, Keer?
Keer: It seems so. Come along. Let us watch and see if the Federation betrays me.
[The screen shows space. A red X appears and rapidly grows into the shape of the pursuit ship.]
Keer: Look! They’re moving without my say so! Who saw that coming, eh?
Kella: We all did! We have to run while we can!
Keer: [hisses] Anyone who moves will be executed – anyone at all!
Boorva: You’ll die with us if we stay here.
Keer: [cheerful] Ah, but only if they open fire!
Zanto: Which they will!
Keer: Let’s see!
Vila: [horrified] He’s insane!
[The pursuit ship grows closer and larger. Keer cheers, almost jumping with excitement.]
Keer: Fantastic! Look!
[The pursuit ship now fills the screen...]
- to be continued...