|THE LAST RESORT by Gavin Chappell|
‘Quickly!’ Gerald panted.
Percy followed him at a run through windswept darkness and searing clouds of grit, scrambling high up into the sandhills. They reached the top of a sandy defile where Gerald halted, looking back down.
Percy followed his gaze. The people on the beach still danced round the fire while others kept watch on the massive rocket ship that lay stranded in the shallows.
‘They didn’t notice us.’ He squeezed seawater from his blue jumpsuit. ‘Get moving. We’ve got to find out what’s happened to those jettisoned fuel pods.’ Without the pods, they’d never get off this dismal planet.
A few minutes’ march across the sandhills and Percy saw several derelict structures standing proud against the night sky. As the wind howled and the two youths crunched their way through the drifts of sand, he saw that they had come to the rusted old ruins of a fairground. Metal structures in faded primary colours, reds, yellows, blues, towered above them in the starlight as they crept closer. Sand half buried them and lichen bearded them. It was a long time since these fairground rides and attractions had functioned.
‘You remember what the guy on the beach called this planet,’ Percy whispered, awed. ‘The Last Resort.’
‘Never mind that,’ Gerald told him impatiently. ‘We’ve got to find some way to locate the fuel pods.’ They picked their way through the rusting, sand-drowned old structures. ‘What was our flight path? Did we fly over this area?’
‘All I remember is we flew across the sea,’ Percy said as the wind moaned eerily amongst the metal structures. ‘Most of this planet seems to be ocean, with just a few sandy islands like this one. If it wasn’t for the constant wind, I can see why it might have been a popular resort once.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve got no idea why we crashed here.’
Gerald grunted. ‘A fault in our guidance computers, they said. Doesn’t matter. What matters is it also made us jettison our fuel pods, and unless we can get them back—or replacements—we won’t be able to warn the rebel fleet that the Imperials are on their way.’
‘Replacements!’ said Percy sardonically.
They came out into a plaza, whose bright, colourful paves were half covered by drifts of sand. Rundown old shops surrounded it, their windows broken, the over-priced novelty tat they’d doubtless been selling long gone. Looted by the Halcyons, Percy guessed, the locals who had wanted to plunder the Venus when it crashed.
Behind the shops was an administration building, a functional tower block seemingly at odds with the festive architecture they’d encountered so far. They investigated it, but got no further than the lobby, where shattered glass from the glass doors lay in shards mixed with sand and grit, and the ammonia stench of human urine hung heavy in the air. Maybe this was the lair of the natives. Certainly, there was no sign of jettisoned fuel pods.
A broken metal girder, hanging off the side of the administration building, clanged monotonously against the wall as it was blown in the wind. The notes tolled out like the peal of some great bell.
‘Looks like there’s no one here,’ Gerald said.
Beyond it was a walled compound with a large rusty door with a small, discreet sign, barely legible with rust, saying: Private—Funfair Staff Only. A trail of caterpillar tracks, half obscured by the drifts of windblown sand, led straight up to it.
‘I think Halcyons live in that place,’ Percy said, indicating the administration building with his thumb. ‘But what’s this?’ He reached forward and tried the door. It was locked.
‘Seized up,’ Gerald suggested. Percy bent closer.
He looked up significantly after examining the lock. ‘Not seized up,’ he said. ‘This lock is still working. And there are lights on inside this building.’
‘Out of the way then!’ Gerald ordered, pushing Percy to one side and producing his blaster. He fired at the door.
It blew open. Inside was a hallway, lit by flickering oil lamps that hung from the riveted ceiling by chains. Muddy tracks led down the passage towards an intersection. The whole place had the look of some kind of scientific establishment.
‘No, doesn’t look like we’ll find the fuel pods here,’ Percy said. ‘They’re probably floating out to sea.’
‘Maybe we’ll find replacements.’ Gerald stepped in out of the wind. ‘Something’s going on here.’
The hush within was quite a relief. Going through a doorway they came into a small office. On the far side was a window, covered by grime and cobwebs. Gerald approached it and rubbed away the filth. Percy joined him and together they peered out into a wide shaft. Down below was a wide flat area in the middle of which stood a partly dismantled spacecraft. On the far side was a large globular tank from which hung several hoses. One was attached to the spacecraft’s hull.
‘Now this looks promising,’ Percy said excitedly. ‘Maybe we stand a chance of getting off-planet now.’
A voice wheezed from behind them. ‘Stay where you are!’
Going for his blaster, Percy swung round. He saw a tall, wild-eyed old man with long white hair and a matted beard, with a young girl at his side. Seeing Percy’s hand move, the young girl produced a plasma pistol and shot the blaster out of his fingers. Gerald drew his own blaster. The young girl swung round to cover him.
‘Wreckers!’ she spat. ‘Come to scavenge Uncle’s supplies! Ha! We’ll escape this planet now! We’ll leave you all behind—now we’ve got the catalyst!’
‘Drop the gun,’ Gerald commanded. ‘Percy, pick up your blaster.’
As Percy moved to comply, the girl swung round and fired off a burst. In return, Gerald loosed off a warning shot that scorched the ceiling above her head.
The old man, who had been standing stock still, stirred now.
‘These aren’t wreckers, Andrade,’ he breathed. ‘They’re off-worlders. Look at their clothes, listen to the funny way they talk. At last! Off-worlders, come to help us escape.’
Gerald and Percy exchanged glances. ‘We’re really looking to escape ourselves,’ Gerald said. ‘We’ve got urgent business beyond this star system.’
‘Your ship was wrecked?’ asked Andrade.
Percy nodded. ‘Our guidance computer developed a fault. Well, not a fault. The pilots ran diagnostics and they showed no sign of any fault. But we drifted off course and crashed.’
The old man nodded. ‘That was how we came here, Andrade and I and my sister and her husband. We survived the crash, but Andrade’s parents died defending us from the Reverend and his wreckers. Come with me.’
He turned and led them from the room and into a larger chamber further down the corridor, lit by guttering oil lamps. Here Andrade produced cracked old plastic chairs and some rough spirit from a flask before inviting them to drink and sit down. Percy took a sip from the beaker, then put it down discreetly on a packing crate table.
Rubbing the tears from his eyes he said, ‘Who is the Reverend? And who are the wreckers? And what is the place? They called it the Last Resort.’
Andrade sipped at her drink without showing any ill effects. As she spoke, Percy told himself that she must have a gut made of tin to stomach that stuff.
‘Halcyon, once a beautiful planet of sandy beaches and rolling turquoise seas, was developed as a resort for space travellers. They came from near and far, throughout the worlds of the Circassian Trading Agreement. This system, Baius Minor, was a major centre before the focus of interplanetary trade moved to the Gamma Sarmisegethuza system. Then Planet Kherson went into terminal recession and the traders moved on to Obakin.
‘Without staff to maintain it, weather control broke down on Halcyon and the winds laid it waste. The inhabitants scratched a desperate living among the sandhills. Then one man learnt how to adapt the old space traffic control system to lure passing ships off-course, so they would crash on the planet and could be looted. That man was the Reverend. He had served as a temple priest in the holiday wedding zone and had the technical knowledge to corrupt the systems and use them to the benefit of his flock.’
The old man added, ‘My family were on our way to a new life in another system after the failure of my spacecraft-building line on Kherson. We were driven off course before crash-landing on this planet. For years I have laboured to build a small craft capable of taking myself and my niece off-planet. Now, using the fuel pods Andrade found on the shore, we will be able to escape! I wish there was enough room in the craft for more than two, but we need room for enough fuel to take us to Gamma Sarmisegethuza.’
‘Fuel pods?’ Percy sat up. ‘You found fuel pods on the shore?’
Gerald looked at Andrade, impressed. ‘If you found fuel pods on the shore and carried them back here,’ he said, ‘you’re stronger than you look.’
She gave him a withering look. ‘I brought them here with my halftrack,’ she said. ‘I didn’t carry them by hand. They’re in the stores.’
‘Hey, those must be our fuel pods!’ Percy said. ‘We’ve been looking for them. We need them back. We’ve got to get beyond this star system and our ship crashed here. I suppose it was the Reverend who did it. During the crash, our fuel pods were jettisoned. We need them.’
‘But I need them too,’ said Andrade’s uncle, who had introduced himself as Karbuncle. He waved his hands around. ‘This facility includes a disused antimatter generator plant. I’ve been trying to synthesise antimatter for years. The spacecraft I cobbled together is designed to use matter/antimatter fuel. But I needed a catalyst: I needed antimatter to begin the reaction.
‘I hoped to salvage some from one of the wrecked ships, but the Reverend and his wreckers always got there before me. They squandered the fuel to power the beam on the space traffic control tower so they could bring ships from further and further away as the system grew less and less populated and fewer ships passed by.’
‘You want our fuel pods,’ Percy said slowly, ‘so you can get off this planet? Hey, if you help us, we can take you off the planet ourselves. We’ve got a ship.’
‘And you’ll take us to Gamma Sarmisegethuza?’ Andrade asked. ‘I thought you said you’ve got urgent business on the other side of this star system.’
Percy and Gerald looked at each other. ‘We’ve got to warn the rebel space fleet that the Imperials are coming for them,’ Gerald explained. ‘If we don’t do that, they could be taken by surprise. It might mean the end of the rebellion.’
‘What rebellion?’ Andrade asked suspiciously. ‘Against the Circassians?’
‘No,’ said Percy impatiently. ‘Against the Imperials.’
‘You’re rebelling against the entire Galactic Empire?’ Uncle Karbuncle gaped. ‘And you’d take us off planet in your ship—straight into a war?’ He shook his head. ‘You may be out of your minds, but my niece and I are not. We’ll use the antimatter to begin creating fuel for our craft in this old generator plant, and once we have enough, we will depart.’
‘What about us?’ Percy complained.
The old man shook his head. ‘We owe you nothing. All my niece and I want to do is get away from this planet and back into civilised space where we have a chance to prosper. We’re not interested in war, or rebellion. In fact, it would be quite against our interests. How can we profit from war?’
Gerald rose to his feet, angry, but Andrade pointed her plasma pistol at him and he sat down again, muttering.
‘Is that all you’re interested in, profit?’ Percy snapped. ‘This galaxy is ruled by a woman who will happily destroy entire stars to prove a point. What if she turned her attention to the Circassian worlds? How would you profit if she destroyed Gamma Sarmisegethuza?’
He told them how the Empress had crushed the Terran nationalist rebellion against the Septizodians by destroying the Sun, how in turn it had inspired the Septizodians to throw their lot in with the Terrans and begin a war of rebellion against the Empire. How they had come to these worlds to seize control of the antimatter generating plants to fuel their ships in the ongoing voyage to Galactic Centre.
Uncle Karbuncle listened carefully. ‘You have a fleet? You need fuel? And the Circassians—you couldn’t defeat them.’
Gerald said, ‘We need fuel. The Circassians are covertly supporting us but they don’t have the balls to come out and admit it yet. Anyway, we have to warn the fleet that the Pheringian Freebooters are on their way. We must get off this planet and go to the rendezvous point.’
‘So the Circassians are joining the rebellion,’ said the old man thoughtfully. ‘But will they provide you with the fuel you need?’
Percy looked at Gerald. ‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘The only way we can find out is if we get off this planet. There’s plenty of room for you two on the ship. You want to get off the planet...’
‘... but not into the middle of a war,’ Uncle Karbuncle reminded him. ‘Now I wonder if it might not be to our better advantage if we remained here.’
‘Uncle!’ Andrade exclaimed. ‘We’ve been waiting for this moment for years. I can’t even remember a day when I was not living on this planet in the hope of leaving it to return to the universe you described in your stories. Honestly, I don’t understand you. All we need to do is produce enough matter/antimatter fuel. We have the resources. Now we even have antimatter to begin the process...’
Uncle Karbuncle gave her a wintry smile. ‘Let me use my wits, child,’ he said. He turned back to Percy and Gerald. ‘I only need some of your fuel to begin the process, of course. Sadly, it will be more than you will require to get to your rendezvous point.’
He raised his hand as Percy and Gerald both began talking at once. ‘But if you let me begin fuel production, in return I will rebuild the plant entirely. I will even employ the wreckers, if they are willing, give them something better to occupy their time. And I will supply your rebel fleet. In return, you will ensure that this planet is rebuilt, weather control is begun again—and of course, with the wreckers properly employed, they will no longer misuse space traffic control.’
‘Okay,’ said Percy slowly. ‘But we’d better run it past the other guys first.’
A quarter of an hour later, they were standing amid the sandhills, looking down on the beach where the wreckers watched over the crashed Venus that sprawled in the shallows like the toppled tower of some castle of the Titans.
There had been developments since their departure. As they watched, the wreckers waded through the water towards the crashed ship while the Reverend stood atop a dune, his robes fluttering madly in the storm, waving them on with his broad-brimmed hat while he bellowed half-heard encouragement. As the wreckers swarmed up onto the rocket ship’s fuselage, the Terrans under Mad Jackal opened fire on them with pulse rifles.
‘Oh no!’ said Uncle Karbuncle despairingly. ‘What has the Reverend done?’ He turned to Percy. ‘They’re not bad people, you know, just easily led. Without the Reverend, they would be better...’ The wreckers were fighting the Terrans on the rocket ship’s hull now, and already bodies were bobbing in the shallows.
‘We’d better do something,’ Gerald muttered.
Percy pointed at the Reverend. ‘Take him prisoner,’ he said and led them down the sandhill in a sprint.
Gerald ran at his side while Andrade followed, helping her uncle down the flank of the dune. As they crept closer, they heard the Reverend’s words. The man had immense presence, a great booming voice.
‘Kill them all! They’re off-worlders! They’d happily rob us! Plunder them! Take their riches! Steal... Oh.’ He broke off abruptly when Percy rammed his blaster muzzle in the Reverend’s back.
The Reverend turned, looking disconcerted behind black glasses. ‘Who are you, lad?’ he roared. ‘Take that gun away from my ribs... Who’s this? Another?’ Gerald joined Percy, his gun aimed at the Reverend. ‘Who are you, lads?’
As the fight between wreckers and Terrans boiled on in the shallows, Uncle Karbuncle limped panting with Andrade’s aid to join them.
‘They’re with me, Reverend,’ he wheezed.
The Reverend looked scornful. ‘You! Old man, I’ve had words with you before. I tolerate you, because my Halcyons have a soft spot for the mad old man and his little girl. Cross me again and I’ll have you staked out beneath the low water mark and left for the crustaceans.’
‘You’re a sadist and a fool, Reverend,’ Uncle Karbuncle panted as Andrade kept her own gun trained on the sneering holy man. ‘This planet could be rebuilt, if there was enough money.’
‘The money’s gone,’ the Reverend sneered. ‘Our only visitors are barbarians like these.’
‘Bring him,’ Uncle Karbuncle ordered. They took the Reverend by his arms and hustled him complaining down to the shore by the guttering fires. Here Uncle Karbuncle shouted to the wreckers:
‘Leave them be! These off-worlders are not here to harm us but to help. They will return this world to the paradise it lost.’
‘Stop shooting, you guys!’ Percy shouted.
Slowly the fight on the hull subsided. One of the wreckers shouted, ‘How will they do that?’
Uncle Karbuncle began to explain but the Reverend interrupted. ‘They come to plunder! Fight back!’ The wreckers muttered angrily.
‘Shut it,’ Percy told the Reverend, but he paid no attention.
‘Plunder what?’ someone else shouted. ‘We have nothing.’
‘Fight back!’ the Reverend insisted. ‘Fight...!’
Abruptly, gunfire rang out. Dragged from Percy and Gerald’s hands by his own weight, the Reverend fell with a thump to the sand, a neat hole drilled in his brow. Uncle Karbuncle turned around in horror.
Andrade holstered her plasma gun.
‘What are you doing?’ Uncle Karbuncle wailed. ‘There’s to be no more killing!’
‘That man was behind all this,’ Andrade said. ‘I’d have killed him before if it wasn’t for you. There’s no reasoning with these Halcyons.’
‘But the Halcyons...!’ Uncle Karbuncle said. ‘You’ve turned them against us.’
The wreckers waded out of the water to inspect the Reverend’s fallen corpse. One of them touched his cooling cheek with a cautious hand, then rose and looked in awe at Andrade.
‘Tell us how you will return this world to paradise,’ the wrecker demanded. He stirred the Reverend’s body with his foot. ‘He always said it was impossible. That we must lead virtuous lives in this vale of tears in hope of a better afterlife. And yet it was he who led us to plunder crashed spacecraft.’
‘Listen to me...’ said Uncle Karbuncle as the rest of the Halcyons gathered round him.
Percy drew away, and Gerald followed him. On the edge of the beach they were greeted by their fellow rebel Mad Jackal, who had waded ashore.
‘What’s going on here?’ he asked. ‘One moment they were trying to kill us, then they withdrew. What did you say?’
‘It wasn’t them,’ said Andrade proudly, who had also followed Percy. ‘It was my uncle. He’s going to build us a new life here.’
‘With our help,’ Percy pointed out. ‘They’ve got an old antimatter generating plant. All Uncle Karbuncle needs is some of our antimatter fuel and he can begin generating more. We’ll have enough for the whole fleet.’
‘You found the fuel pods?’ Mad Jackal asked.
‘I found the fuel pods,’ Andrade confirmed. Mad Jackal bowed to her out of respect.
‘So now we have the Halcyons of this forsaken world on our side,’ said the commander, sprawling in the command chair aboard the Venus. ‘A handful of synthiprotein from our stores and they were eating out of our hands. But you really believe they are capable of generating fuel for our fleet?’
‘Yes,’ said Gerald, ‘and in the meantime, they’re going to prepare our ship for launching. When enough fuel has been created for our needs, we will be able to reach the rendezvous point. Then, with all that fuel, who knows?’
‘We could go to meet the Pheringians, ambush them as they hyperjump here,’ said the co-pilot. ‘You see, the Imperial forces will not be able to make it to this sector of space in one hyperjump, but instead will be making a series of jumps.’
She showed them a star chart that detailed all the sectors of the galaxy between here and the centre. ‘If we can plot out where and when they will be once we have the fleet refuelled,’ she added, ‘we could fly out to meet them.’
It took several days for the antimatter generating plant to produce enough fuel to compensate for that used by Uncle Karbuncle as a catalyst, in which time those Halcyons not labouring in the plant worked together to create a launching gantry as best they could from the rusting remnants of old fairground rides. Once this was done, the Venus was dragged from the shallows and placed end on beside the gantry. Finally, Uncle Karbuncle reappeared from his plant, driving a halftrack that was the best way to get across the sands of the atoll. In the truck compartment, he carried the jettisoned fuel pods.
It had been pleasant to have a relatively stress free few days working with the ex-wreckers. Several of the Halcyons and a few of the Terrans had died during the fight for the rocket ship, and they were all buried in the sands on the first night. Uncle Karbuncle gave an inspiring oration, promising great advances for the planet. Even Andrade seemed moved.
And now they were almost ready to take off. The co-pilot supervised the installation of the fuel pods. Percy watched quietly from the sandhills, Andrade at his side.
‘You’ll be leaving soon,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ Percy grunted awkwardly. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
‘Come back some day,’ she murmured, then turned and quickly walked away.
He stood staring after her in surprise, thinking about his future.