The Plague Herds of Excelis
by Stephen Cole
The Plague Herds of Excelis
Written by Stephen Cole
Directed by John Ainsworth
Music, Sound Design and Post Production by David Darlington

Lisa Bowerman (Professor Bernice Summerfield), Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme), Trevor Littledale (Snyper), Kate Brown (Empress Vitutia), Stewart Alexander (Aragon).

The once proud city of Excelis is a crumbling ruin in a state of siege, as barbarians catapult pestilent animal corpses into the city to spread disease among those trapped inside.

Excelis is a city clinging to life by a thread. But ancient prophecies foretell a final retribution for the past arrogance of its rulers. When the sun is eaten away from the sky, when the ancient relic of Excelis is taken from its rightful resting-place, and when strangers are discovered among the people, then shall the whole world be doomed to die.

Today, the sun is a moth-eaten shadow. Plans are afoot to steal the relic. And a very tired and very fraught Professor Bernice Summerfield has just stomped into town in the company of a mysterious traveller in space and time known only as Iris Wildthyme. Pitted against a sinister prophet, the machinations of the Imperial court, and hordes of animal undead, Benny finds herself embroiled in the final stages of an aeons-old plan to commit genocide twice over -- with no way out.

  • Released: July 2002

  • ISBN: 1 903654 70 X
(drn: 71'45")

The city of Excelis is under siege, and the barbarian hordes outside the walls are catapulting dead animal bodies over the walls, spreading plague. Patrols are trying to burn the bodies before they spread the contagion, but the plague continues, and the prophet Snyper -- who had predicted the very moment of the latest attack -- insists that the disease is but an illusion. The real contagion lies within the corrupt souls of the people of Excelis, and they will only survive if they repent their sins. More and more people are starting to listen to him, and thus he makes his greatest prediction of all: tomorrow the sun will be eaten by darkness, a stranger will be found in the streets of Excelis, and the end of days shall come...

Benny leaves the Braxiatel Collection in Irving’s private shuttle to get away from the angry shouting of men who mean well, but as she enters the Artaris system, the shuttle detects an alien fleet approaching. Benny, who just wants peace and quiet, touches down on the nearest inhabited planet to avoid them. The shuttle engages stealth mode and touches down invisibly, but when when Benny emerges she’s confronted by a strange old woman named Iris Wildthyme who claims that she’s trespassing on the trial plateau of Excelis -- as is Iris. The two women hide as a delegation arrives from the city; this is the annual ritual trial at which Empress Vitutia must defend her right to rule. This world was brought to ruin by the ruling classes, and the people have sworn never to obey their rulers blindly again; thus, Vitutia must prove herself, and if she fails she will be put to death. The people’s representative, Aragon, cites her failure to liberate Excelis from siege or to save her people from the plague, but Vitutia defends herself admirably. She has united the people of Excelis under one stable rule, and has overseen research into the lost technology of their ancestors. Snyper is the greatest threat to her rule, but she dismisses his predictions as half-truths and guesses. The people vote to allow Vitutia to rule them for another year.

Benny and Iris watch as the people return to the city, and note that Aragon and Vitutia seem to be closer than their ritual roles suggest. However, neither Benny nor Iris really trust the other; Iris believes Benny has come to Artaris to steal “the Relic”, while Benny suspects that Iris is more than she seems, perhaps an agent for the Fifth Axis. Iris is insulted; she’s not an agent, she’s the star. Nevertheless, they decide to trust each other for the moment, and head into town to fetch an appropriate disguise for Benny -- and a drink.

Vitutia knows that Aragon went easy on her, for he knows, trusts, and quite probably loves her. Indeed, although she is Empress, she does without the trappings of wealth and has devoted her life to restoring technology to her people -- all of her people, not just the elite. However, on this day she admits to Aragon that she fears Snyper is more than just a rabble-rouser. The palace was built on the ruins of an ancient nunnery, some of the sisters’ texts survived the war -- and one holds a prophecy of the sun being eaten by darkness. It may be a coincidence, or perhaps Snyper has somehow read the same texts, although this should be impossible. Either way, tomorrow may indeed herald the end of Excelis...

Iris and Benny, suitably disguised, spend the night drinking at a local pub. Iris tells Benny that she intends to steal the Relic, which looks like a handbag and is the perfect accessory for a soiree she plans to attend. The more drunk Benny gets, the more willing she is to listen to Iris, who sees Benny as a bored, frustrated adventuress who could do with a distraction from her everyday woes. Unfortunately, Benny gets a little too drunk, and when the barman spills an order on her outer clothing she removes it, revealing the otherwordly clothing beneath. The other patrons realise that she’s an outsider and chase her from the pub -- where they see that the rising sun is being eaten away by darkness. The terrified mob turns on Benny, but Iris flees, promising to return and rescue her.

Aragon is stunned to see the prophecy fulfilled, particularly when Vitutia points out that the darkness is of the same shape as the sun sigil carved into the clasp of the Relic. Snyper has been proven correct, and the people will turn to him for answers, rejecting Vitutia. When word of the outsider’s capture reaches the palace, Vitutia questions her personally, but Benny is recovering from her night of drinking and isn’t inclined to be polite in the face of Vitutia’s hostile inquires. She knows nothing of the barbarians outside the gate, or why they attack the city without making any demands; all she wants to do is return to her ship and leave. However, she probably shouldn’t have discussed the theft of the Relic so openly. Vitutia eventually does accept that Benny is innocent -- but that’s irrelevant, as the frightened people need a scapegoat, and Vitutia doesn’t wish to take that role. Benny will be executed at nightfall.

Snyper continues to foment dissent outside, and predicts that though the Empress will condemn the innocent stranger to death, she will pay for her arrogance. More carcasses are catapulted over the walls as he speaks, and he deliberately steps forward and bathes in a rotting horse’s blood to show that those of pure heart need not fear contagion. Aragon orders the burning parties to burn Snyper as well as the animal, but Snyper faces them without fear -- and the flames do not consume him. The crowd is swayed by the miracle, and Aragon has no response to it. Satisfied, Snyper retreats to a bath house to cleanse himself, but Iris is waiting, and she wasn’t fooled by his performance. He doesn’t really care about the people of Excelis, and he’s just using the plague as a prop to make himself look good and Vitutia look bad. She may not know what his true agenda is, but Snyper knows who she really is and why she really wants the Relic -- although she may not know the truth herself. Unnerved despite herself, she leaves Snyper to his own devices, planning to rescue Benny and steal the Relic. Once she’s gone, Snyper allows himself to relax and temporarily sheds his human guise, gathering strength for the next phase of the plan. Centuries of waiting will soon be at an end...

Aragon confronts Benny, who has been locked in a cage on public display in the city square, and accuses her of assisting Snyper to undermine Vitutia’s authority. She denies the allegation, and is shocked when Aragon admits that Vitutia sent out search parties to find the ship Benny claimed to have arrived in -- and that they found only a smear of ashes. Although it seems impossible, somebody on this primitive world has destroyed Benny’s shuttle. Aragon leaves Benny to await execution, but as soon as the coast is clear Iris contacts her and slips her the keys to her cage. When Vitutia emerges onto the balcony to pass sentence, she will be holding the holy Relic -- and while Snyper creates a distraction, Benny can set herself free while Iris steals the Relic.

Dusk falls -- but when the sun rises again, how much of it will remain? Vitutia allows Aragon to see the Relic for himself; he is honoured, but personally she despairs over how much evil has been done in its name. And tonight another innocent will die because of it. At least, that’s the plan, but as soon as Vitutia steps out onto the balcony Snyper begins haranguing her. Benny takes the cue and frees herself, but is stunned when Iris then drives into the square into an old double-decker bus and rams it straight into the Palace, trying to knock the Relic out of Vitutia’s hands. Though unharmed, Vitutia is amazed by the technology evident in the bus, and rushes out of the palace to see it for herself.

Benny boards the bus, now convinced that Iris is interested in the Relic as far more than just a fashion accoutrement. Before she can question Iris further, however, the bus’s sensors pick up a massive power surge -- and the bus then shuts down, presumably sabotaged. Black lightning flickers outside, and as Vitutia rushes out of the palace the lightning strikes her down, drawn to the Relic and grounded through her body. Snyper proclaims this a judgement on her, and when he seizes the Relic from her grasp and is not struck down, the crowd turns on Aragon. Benny and Iris, who need a guide in any case, usher him into the bus and drive off before the mob can tear him to pieces. Snyper sends the mob after them and takes the Relic into the palace -- along with Vitutia, who will soon witness the fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy.

As Aragon tries to come to terms with the technology evident within Iris’ bus, Iris and Benny conclude that Snyper sabotaged the bus and destroyed Benny’s shuttle. It’s time they got some proper answers. Iris knows that Snyper has been using a secret path out of the city, but she doesn’t know why the barbarians haven’t used it themselves -- until she, Benny and Aragon leave the city to investigate, and find that the barbarian camp is empty. The giant catapults which fling the rotting animal carcasses over the city walls are in fact automated. A single humble shed nearby contains papers, diaries, and scientific equipment which suggests that Snyper has been dosing the dead animals with engineered viral cultures, as well as developing chemicals to grant himself immunity and resistance to flames. This has all been part of a plot for Snyper to gain control of Excelis, and thus the Relic -- and Iris suspects that he’s proven himself capable of predicting the future because he’s already been there.

The black lightning has left Vitutia too week to resist Snyper, and she must watch as he takes the Relic into the ancient relic chamber and places it near a crack in the ground which wasn’t there before. For centuries, every soul on Artaris has passed from life into the afterlife like grains of sand in an hourglass. Once, all of the souls in the Relic were released at once, triggering the war which devastated Artaris. Now, the time has come for the final stage, and Snyper concentrates, using the power of the Relic to reanimate the only beings which remain outside the walls of Excelis...

Though the situation is dire, Benny refuses to do anything without a proper explanation, and Iris is thus forced to admit that she brought the Relic to Excelis in the first place -- and that she was tricked into doing so. The darkness on the sun is a projection created by the alien fleet which Benny first came to Excelis to avoid; it is the entourage of a warrior queen, the ruler of a race with near-infinite life spans who once waged war against the galaxy. She has since repented of her evil ways, and as the person who usually takes care of such things was otherwise occupied, Iris was called in to assist the peace process. But some people were not ready to forgive and forget, and they captured Iris and brainwashed her into bringing the Relic to Excelis. She doesn’t remember why it’s important, but she does know that the world is in terrible danger because of it...

The bodies of the animals then arise, reanimated by the power of the Relic, and Benny, Iris and Aragon rush back into the city just ahead of the rampaging, undead herd. With little time to spare, Iris continues her explanation; fearing reprisals from her many enemies, the Queen is always on the move and always conducts a sensor sweep for advanced technology before entering an unfamiliar sector of space. Snyper must have destroyed Benny’s shuttle and shut down Iris’ bus to prevent them from being detected, and timed it perfectly, ensuring that the energy of the sensor sweep struck down Vitutia at the moment of greatest theatre. The Queen’s fleet will thus have detected no danger, and will fly right into Snyper’s trap, whatever it may be. As the zombie animals descend upon the panic-stricken populace, killing on contact, Aragon tries to help hold off the attack while Iris and Benny seek out Snyper.

Snyper reveals to Vitutia that he has killed every living being outside Excelis -- emptying the hourglass, as it were. Now the people of Excelis are all that remain, and soon the animals will have finished them off. Benny and Iris arrive to see the Relic beginning to glow, and Iris finally remembers the truth; the Relic is an organic bomb, and the people of Excelis are its fuse. Snyper is indeed from the future, and he knew exactly when the Queen would pass by this planet -- and when the last person on Excelis dies, the Relic will explode, destroying the planet and the Queen’s fleet. Snyper sheds his human guise to reveal his true alien insectoid form, and reveals that he has taken other guises throughout the millennia; Iris knew one of them as Sister Jolene. She and the Mother Superior set this all in motion, the last survivors of their race planning revenge on the Queen who all but wiped out their species -- and using Iris, the one person whom the Queen trusted, to prime the bomb which would destroy her.

Vitutia despairs, realising that the entire history of her people is nothing but a backdrop to the machinations of alien powers. Benny tries to remove the Relic from its resting place, but fails, as it’s locked in place. However, as Iris is the one who brought the Relic here, she’s attuned to it -- which is why she returned now, drawn by an attraction she didn’t understand. She thus picks it up without effort. Snyper had overlooked that, and as he tears towards Iris, she tosses the Relic to Benny, who can run much more quickly. Benny emerges from the palace with Snyper in pursuit just as the zombie animals break through the barricades -- and Benny tosses the Relic into their midst. Snyper discovers too late that although he’s immune to the plague in his human guise, a concentrated dose from an entire herd will kill his true form as surely as any human. He dies in agony, knowing that centuries of waiting have come to nothing. With his death the zombie herds collapse as well, and as the Relic is no longer in place in the reliquary, the bomb will not go off. Excelis has survived, as has Vitutia, and the Relic is now no more than a tattered old handbag, no longer a repository of souls.

Iris and Benny leave Aragon and Vitutia to the work of rebuilding a world shattered almost beyond recovery. Benny is still somewhat bitter, and wonders just how evil the Queen was to breed a desire for revenge this strong. But should Iris have helped to destroy her, then, rather than foster a lasting peace and alliances between the different factions? They can’t know whether the Queen truly regrets what she’s done, but how can one ever know such things? All they can do is what they believe is right -- and right now, Iris believes that Benny needs a good party. Benny turns down the invitation at first, until Iris comments that her bus is in need of a good dimensional stabiliser to make it larger inside than out, like all the others. It takes a moment for the penny to drop, but Benny finally realizes just what kind of being Iris Wildthyme is -- and that they do have a friend in common...

Source: Cameron Dixon

Continuity Notes:
  • Although there is little textual evidence to support the theory, it’s interesting to speculate whether the unseen alien queen of this story belongs to the Imperial Family mentioned in Father Time and Hope.
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