The Dalek Factor   1 comment

THE DALEK FACTOR

by Simon Clark

First published in England in 2004 by Telos Publishing Ltd

FOREWORD

I NEVER UNDERSTOOD STAR TREK.

The cheerful teamwork, the scientific gobbledygook, the lycra outfits,

the alien enemies that were never very alien, or remotely frightening –

and all those life-lessons to be learned each week.

Doctor Who – now that I could get. Science-fiction needs to foster a

sense of otherness in order to work. Star Trek, Time Tunnel, Lost In

Space were fun but always felt cosy and safe. Doctor Who, on the other

hand, refused to be neatly pigeonholed, for the simple reason that you

never knew where each new story would take you.

Three clichés have been endlessly repeated about Doctor Who.

One: everyone of a certain age remembers watching it from behind the

sofa.

Two: the props people would have been lost without perspex and

polystyrene.

Three: you can’t have a universe-conquering enemy that can’t get up

the stairs.

And only one of these three clichés is really true. Let me explain.

1963. England is freeing itself from the debilitating gloom that

followed the war. The nation of smogs and rations and diphtheria jabs is

slowly fading. The English imagination, cowed by the horrors of a

Europe-wide conflict, is starting to return. Pop music is in its grand

ascendancy. The creative arts are starting to flower once more. The ideas

of science-fiction, thanks to TV series like Quatermass…, Pathfinders

and A For Andromeda, are capturing young minds. And into this rebirth,

this fertile innocence, is planted a series of such peculiar originality that

it takes the nation entirely by surprise. It’s a series that somehow

captures the strange dislocation of the time, the fast evolution from Olde

World England to something fresh and fast and cool.

From the outset, it was clear that the old rules governing TV SF had

suddenly changed.

First, there was the title sequence. Electronic music (so cool that it still

turns up sampled on dance tracks) and those pre-music-video graphics.

Then, the strange hero; a crafty and somewhat sinister elderly man. The

setting; anywhere and everywhere, back and forth in time and space.

The cast of characters; ever-changing, fallibly human, confused and

independent-minded.

The villains; non-humanoid, possibly insect-like, amorphous, robotic.

Big ideas on a small budget.

If the brief for the series seems broad now, think of it then, with

primitive monochrome video technology and virtually no available

effects. What Doctor Who had instead, and in abundance, was

imagination.

There was one familiar object in the 1963 Doctor Who (although it’s

not so recognisable now); a blue police box, but bigger inside than out –

that was the first thing you had to grasp. Folding time and space – that

was the second. Time Lords – the third. And as the original series

developed, through some seven doctors and dozens of castaway

passengers, running for almost thirty years, one true enemy ruled them

all

The Daleks were unlike any alien seen before. They possessed no

recognisable human features. They had no redeeming qualities. Their

very alien-ness made them impossible to reason with. Then why were

they so popular?

First of all, you could impersonate them. Any kid with a sack and a

sink plunger could handle a passable imitation (and they were much imitated

– even Spike Milligan conjured up some rather dodgy Pakistani

Daleks at one point).

Second, their inhumanity made them genuinely frightening. They

operated in a collective intelligence decades before Star Trek: The Next

Generation’s Borg. When Daleks appear, there was a sense that the laws

of normal TV might be broken, and something terrible would happen.

Finally, they ingrained themselves deep within the national psyche. It is

often said that the English are historically a cruel race, and perhaps, in

this cruellest of enemies, we found a kindred spirit.

So, two of the three clichés could be demolished: the poverty-row

settings and props became unimportant when all you saw was

encroaching alien terror. Likewise, who worried about stairs when the

Daleks had ways of betraying everyone? Which just leaves the fear, the

need to block out the sound of those rasping voices, those futuristic – but

endearingly sixties – metal bodies that hid the slimy, pulsating

deformities within.

The early shows, especially, were redolent with the grim dampness of

an England now lost from view. The Doctor’s companions were

unwilling participants, frightened and anxious to go home. They were

foolish and foolhardy, with none of the analytic common sense exhibited

by starship crews; they were students and schoolteachers, ordinary

people hurled into dislocative situations, facing an unthinkable evil. Nor

could the wilful, disorganised Doctor be entirely trusted and left at the

mercy of the dread Daleks.

That was a long time ago, of course. Since then, a bountiful supply of

Dalek merchandise has placed them all around us. (There are a couple

on my desk as I write this.) Daleks still seem as familiar as Thunderbird

2 or The Prisoner’s penny farthing.

It seems pleasingly appropriate, then, that Simon Clark should restore a

sense of dread to the world of the Daleks. This is the guy who

rediscovered another great touchstone terror, the giant ambulatory plants

of John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids, when he gave us the terrific

official sequel Night Of The Triffids. And this book gives us the Daleks

as they are meant to be: disturbing, dark, and utterly alien.

What Simon has managed to do is not simply replicate the quirky

writing style of the original, using its characters and situations (although

he has achieved this to an extraordinary level – check out that opening);

rather, he has created a new story that feels like part of the classic canon,

broadening the scale of the originals, and craftily weaving in fresh

situations, so that his tale feels like a grand space opera of wishfulfilment.

This is not the mimicry of a fan, but the work of someone

who understands why the characters have become so loved, and why

they deserve to continue.

As Simon will show you, the possibilities are endless.

The Doctor is ready to see you now.

Christopher Fowler

London

August 2003


ONE

‘SEE?’

‘No.’

‘Advance.’

‘Advancing. Copy.’

‘See?’

‘Nothing. Dark… it’s all dark.’

‘See… See!’

‘Negative.’

‘Caution…’

‘Captain, I see nothing. It’s too dark. No light–’

‘Advance. Advise caution. Target directly ahead of you.’

‘Where’s Kye?’

‘She’s off monitor.’

‘She’s dead?’

‘Keep moving. Observe extreme caution. I repeat: caution. You should

have visual contact now.’

‘But I can’t see… visibility, nil. I repeat, Captain. Visibility nil.’

‘Advance.’

‘Request withdrawal, sir.’

‘Request denied. Advance.’

‘Sir, density of growth increasing; it’s becoming –‘

’Advance.’

‘Captain… Captain?’

You see worlds. You map them. You survey them from core to outer

atmosphere. This one I can taste. Moisture drawn by a searing jungle

heat from marsh-wet earth has long smeared my tongue with the flavour

of stagnant water. Bitter sap from the plants now sprays into my mouth.

‘Captain. Comm link failing. I don’t read you… Damn.’ Comm link

failed. Vocal links with command severed.

I move from the darkness of dense tree canopy into a green world.

Slender grasses reach high above my head, three… no, four times as tall

as a man. Moist stalks, bristling with vicious spines, make the sound of

angry whispering as I push through. They are so close together that I see

no sky above. I don’t see anything in front of me. Nor anything to flanks

or rear. The tall plants swish back behind me with the completeness of

liquid. I could be swimming through a green ocean. One that leaves no

trace of my passing.

And all the time, just ahead of me…

A rush of static sounds in my earpiece… then as quickly passes. I am

alone here now. All communication lost. This green forest is a

soundproof wall. Within moments of entering, I’d lost verbal contact

with Kye and Rain. Sap smears my visor. Drops of water fall to tap my

helmet. The grass spines, slender as hypodermics, find their way through

my suit to prick my skin. My forearms itch. Humidity and heat form a

solid mass in my lungs. Breathing is near impossible.

And yet still ahead… I know I must locate my target. I must advance.

Moving faster, sweeping grass aside. All I see are stalks flashing in

front of my eyes. A tunnel effect of the lushest green. It flows over me. I

don’t see… I don’t see anything but grass. Even if I extend my hands

they vanish into the greenery as if vegetable jaws have greedily

swallowed my limbs. My instincts flare inside my head. This place is

evil; this jungle is a green clot on the face of a planet that oozes danger.

Beneath my feet, the ground moves as if it is nothing but a membrane.

Forbidding thoughts suggest that there is nothing but a dark void beneath

me. If the membrane should split I will tumble through into everlasting

night where nightmare carnivores wait for fresh prey.

When I fall, it’s not down but forward. Brightness flares against the

sap-smeared visor. Suddenly there’s no resistance in front of me. I’m

losing my balance, tumbling down to my knees. Bouncing on the spongy

stuff. Then I’m on my feet again, adrenaline powering me on.

Because the target should be here. I’m almost on top of it.

A shadow flies at me. I raise my weapon.

‘Jomi… Jomi…’

I hear my name being called by the speeding shadow. The voice is

breathless with terror. ‘Kye?’ I call her name. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Jomi, get back.’ She grabs my arm to drag me into the dense clot of

grass.’

‘I thought you were dead.’

‘I’m alive and staying that way.’

‘We’ve been ordered to advance to target.’

‘No way, Jomi. It’s there… It’s in those trees!’

‘Kye. Stop. We’re acting under orders. We can’t just –‘

’You don’t know what it’s like. Not until you see for yourself… It’s…’

She shakes her head, unable to finish the sentence.

I flip the stained visor. At last I can see clearly. Kye stands beside me,

panting with exertion. She wears a black suit and helmet just like mine.

Only she’s far more slender at the waist. We’re standing at the edge of

the grassland. Those spine-covered stalks tower over us, swaying in the

humid air. Above them, black clouds boil in a turbulent sky. Thunder

rolls in the distance. It has the ominous beat of a monster heart. Now, I

look ahead in the direction of the target. A loathsome blanket of moss

that sweats its own toxic moisture runs for around fifty paces before

reaching a clump of trees; they are a mass of contorted limbs that twist

upward before looping down on themselves to bury their scarlet tips into

sick-looking moss.

Kye stares at the trees, her eyes so wide and fixed that I figure her

entire body is gripped by intense muscle spasm. I’ve never seen fear like

that before on a face. Or terror distilled to such a shocking degree in

human eyes. Wisps of blonde hair have slipped down from beneath her

black helmet; they drip with perspiration. Her mouth has frozen, partly

open; her lips are pale, bloodless. Muscles beneath the skin of a face that

is normally so youthful and glowing with health, now twitch. Veins are

broken in her cheeks, either through rocketing blood pressure induced

from stress or from a blow; I can’t tell.

‘Kye?’ Gently, I put my hand on her shoulder. ‘Kye.’

As if breaking free of a trance she finally looks at me. Those eyes are

pools of anxiety.

‘Kye. Show me where it is?’

Her face drains. She finds it hard to breathe, she’s so afraid. ‘Sh-show

you? You really want me to?’

‘You’ve got to.’

‘But… Oh my God, Jomi. I don’t…’ She gulps. ‘I never want to see it

again.’

I squeeze her shoulder, trying to reassure her. ‘That’s our purpose, Kye.

That’s why we’re here.’

‘No. We’re too young. They shouldn’t have sent us alone. Where are

Pelt and Golstar?’

‘This is what we’re trained to do. We swore an oath.’ I speak gently but

firmly. ‘Show me where it is, Kye.’

For a second I picture her tearing from me to plunge back into the wall

of grass. That spine-covered vegetation would be infinitely preferable to

this. But I see her blink. Maybe she is recalling her months of training,

her oath of allegiance; her loyalty to her platoon. And to the ghosts of all

our past heroes that sacrificed their lives for the Thal homeland.

This sends a ripple of energy through her. She looks taller. In control of

herself. ‘OK, I’ll show you.’

‘Where’s your gun?’

She’s ashamed. ‘I ran… I don’t know…’

I take the lead with Kye following. She hisses instructions in a whisper.

‘Straight ahead. Left… left. Through those trees shaped like a pointed

archway. Twenty paces beyond that.’

We reach the archway trees, where she pauses. I glance back. She’s

staring into the gloom of the copse. Thunder morphs from a heartbeat

sound to a menacing growl. Lightning flickers in the clouds.

‘I’m sorry, Jomi. I can’t go back in there… I want to help… But I just

can’t… Oh my God, I know I can’t see it again’

‘Wait here’

Arm the gun, safety off. I raise the muzzle, ready to fire the second the

target is sighted. Then I move forward, swiftly, silently, my senses

soaring into overdrive.

I count every pace I take. Balancing the need for stealth with the

requirement for speed. Kye told me twenty paces to target from the archlike

trees. One pace… two… three… four… five. A vivid splash of

lightning. It reveals twisted tree limbs. They close in, forming something

that could be the bars of a cage, hemming me in at both sides. I notice

the bark. It’s a supple black that resembles the skin of a reptile rather

than the covering of a tree. A scaly appearance where drops of water

stand proud of its surface.

More lightning sends sudden shafts of blue light through the canopy of

branches. Then a crash of thunder.

And all the time I’m counting paces, weapon ready, its ‘armed’ light

flashing red in the scope. Eight… nine… ten.

Ten paces to target.

Eleven…

Twelve…

I engage the trigger to first position. The gunstock throbs through the

material of my gloves. The red light pulses faster.

Count paces. Thirteen… fourteen… fifteen…

Engage trigger in firing position. Energies of huge destructive power

throb in the magazine cyst beneath the gun barrel. The red light screws

itself into a frenzied flickering.

Sixteen… seventeen…

Where’s the target…

Where’s the target? My heart pounds against my ribs. Thunder roars

down at me with all the sound and fury of heaven breaking in two.

Instinct drives me into attack mode. Moving faster, gun raised to my

shoulder I peer down the shadowed tunnel through the tangled limbs of

trees. Roots lie in looping tangles on the ground. It’s like negotiating a

path full of snakes.

Counting paces: eighteen, nineteen.

Uh.

My toe catches in one of the root loops. I plunge forward, arms

outstretched to save myself from serious injury. My gun falls into the

infestation of plant growth. When lightning strikes again I’m on my

hands and knees.

The gloomy void beneath the tree canopy explodes into a flash of blue

light. Thirty paces in front of me a tree blazes as lightning tears down

through the trunk, exploding its core to pulp and sending out cascades of

dazzling sparks.

Only I don’t really see the destruction of the tree. That’s not important.

Because when I look up, I realise I have reached my target. Rearing up

before me, towering there in a cone of metal so dark that it seems to

devour the brilliance of the lightning bolt itself, is a sinister conjunction

of shapes, angles, vertical planes, glittering limbs and an

uncompromising hardness. Its size extends beyond mere physical

dimensions. My response to confronting the evil presence shortcuts any

intellectual understanding of what I see lit by a million volts of storm

power. I respond to it, not with mind, but with instinct, with gut and

heart. This body of metal and lines of symmetry shatters dispassionate

observation. My eyes fix on it as flashes of the most vivid lightning

illuminate its presence. And yet I see it represented by symbols that are

thrust into my brain. I look at hemispheres bulging from smooth metal

flanks. But I see the lens of a dark and terrible god that has the ability to

concentrate evil into a singularity of focus. I see a slender, silvered limb

projecting from the front. But I see acid burning a child’s face. I see the

flattened dome at the apex. And I see a billion graves. I see the witchfire

glint of a lens cover, but it is Death blinking at me. Death knowing

me. Death anticipating me. And the rush of a sudden breeze across that

steel shell is the ghosting cry of all its victims from countless worlds

without end.

For the name of what I see in front of me isn’t dark enough, brutal

enough, nor terrible enough to convey the sheer power and horror of that

configuration of metal.

Dalek.

TWO

THE SEARCH HAD TAKEN OUR VESSEL THROUGH TO THE VERY

tip of the arm of a spiral galaxy. This was literally the dead end. A

scattering of a dozen worlds before star fields petered out to nothing but

the freezing gulf of intergalactic space beyond. Our mission was

officially known as ‘Search and Destroy,’ but we dubbed it a ‘Shampoo’

operation. We were washing what remained of our enemy out of Thal

hair. That enemy? The Daleks of course. Or what remained of them.

This sector of the galaxy hadn’t encountered a viable Dalek force in two

generations. Our assignment committed us to scan every world, every

asteroid, every hunk of space debris to locate possible sleeper pods of

Daleks. Long ago, Daleks had embedded thousands of these pods deep

in worlds and space junk across the galaxy. Programmed to emerge and

attack as soon as we, the Thals, became lazy and took our now-peaceful

lives for granted.

‘Search and Destroy’ had been underway for eight centuries. Now

these Dalek sleeper pods were, as Captain Vay put it, ‘Rarer than gold

nuggets in a laundry basket.’

But we remain vigilant.

So, there I was, probation ranger Jomi, youthful, manly and eager, on

my first semester on the training vessel N’Tal, part warship, part

university, swinging from star to star in search of the Daleks. We never

found any.

Until today.

THREE

TODAY BEGAN WITH PUP HAMMERING ON THE SIDE OF MY BUNK.

‘We gotta trace! We gotta trace!’

‘Go back to sleep, Pup.’

‘Listen. We gotta trace. We’re on secondary alert.’

I groaned. ‘You’ve been dreaming. Anyway, we can’t be on alert:

we’ve got an exam today…’ I groaned louder and covered my head with

the sheet. ‘Uh. Sweet life. Weapon theory… Have I revised? Have I crud.

I shouldn’t have gone to the bar. I should –’

‘Jomi… Jomi.’ He tugged down the sheet, and his broad face loomed up

close until I could feel his breath on my face. ‘Jomi. This time I’m not

joking.’

‘It’s for real?’

‘For real, kid.’

‘Hell.’ Excitement jolted through me with the force of an electric

shock. ‘All this time… nothing! I thought we’d never get a smell of a

Dalek, never mind engage a one-on-one.’

From the bathroom cubicle I heard Rain sing out: ‘Don’t start planning

where to display your Dalek trophies yet, Jomi. Stats are, it’s a false

alarm.’

Captain Vay showed his head through the door. ‘Assemble Gate 7 at

zero six hundred.’ Captain Vay vanished.

Sweet life, it was really happening! I tore aside the bedding and began

to pull on my protective suit. And all this time a buzz – an electric buzz!

– shot through me. I’d never been so excited. It showed on the faces of

my class, too. Their eyes blazed with sheer exhilaration. This was what

we’d trained two years for. Now we’d been chosen out of more than ten

thousand students on board the ship to locate the source of the signature

trace; one that was consistent with a Dalek sleeper pod. Of course, we

weren’t being dumped into a shuttle and sent out alone. By this stage in

our training, we were embedded in the mentor programme. That meant

we worked in squads of ten. This consisted of five probation rangers and

five mentors in the form of experienced rangers with at least five years’

registered service. In charge of the ten-strong platoon was Captain Vay.

He was one of the rare servicemen – he’d actually seen a Dalek. A live

one, that is. As opposed to one in a museum, or those sugar and fondant

Dalek novelties they hand out to children on Freedom Day.

Suited, armed, booted, helmeted – we filed into the shuttle. Captain

Vay was speaking as we belted into the bench seats that ran along the

two walls of the shuttle cabin. Five on each side. ‘This isn’t a stroll in

the park. Take this on the heels of your boots; don’t go rushing into

areas that don’t have clear sightliness.’

All ten of the platoon listened seriously. But I guess it showed that five

of us – the rookies – looked as if we were playing at this. There was me,

of course, Kye, Pup, Rain and Amattan. All new to the excitement. The

five experienced rangers had lived this and touched the face of danger

many times. It was revealed in their body language. Pelt was the eldest,

but Fellebe, Dissari, Golstar and Tar’ant were all old hands, and it

showed. We probationary rangers tried to imitate their attitude and

approach. Oh, how hard we tried…

‘Now; your locale details. This is an unnamed planet in the Quadrille, a

system of four worlds. Your destination has no sentient life forms. It’s a

godawful place in truth. Eighty percent is ocean. The rest is swamp and

jungle. Temperature: a high thirty; humidity: one hundred percent

You’re going to enjoy plenty of rain and thunderstorms, plus a lively

interest from the insect population. Take a few moments to acclimatise;

it’s going to be a sauna down there.’ Airlocks whisper shut. ‘Locate the

target at the co-ordinates you’ve been given. I want visual confirmation,

re-confirmation and six-point identification before anyone fires so much

as a popgun. We don’t want any more incidents of same-side hits. I

don’t need to remind you about the Varian shuttle incident.’

No sir, he didn’t need to remind us. The Varian shuttle incident had

involved a platoon getting all trigger happy and wiping out a party of

children on a field trip. A whole phalanx of generals and senators had

been forced into early retirement over that one.

The Captain spoke above the rush of air as the shuttle atmosphere

replaced that of the ship. We were on our way. ‘You know the routine.

We’re looking for Dalek sleeper pods. Odds are we won’t find one.

We’ll find some electrical anomaly in the planet’s rock formations or

what’s left of someone else’s robot probe with a little juice still left in its

circuits. What we won’t find, ladies and gentlemen, are Daleks.’

FOUR

NO DALEKS. HE SAID: NO DALEKS…

I’m on my hands and knees in front of one right now. Arcing over it are

those noxious trees. Dead men’s arms reaching down to me. And all the

time, lightning blazes flashes of blue on that shape that’s hard-wired into

every Thal brain. This is a Dalek. Statistically it shouldn’t be here. It

should be some electromagnetic anomaly that brought us to this world…

or some junk hardware mimicking a Dalek signature trace by pure

chance.

Now. Here.

Dalek.

I’m on my hands and knees before it like it’s one of the vengeful,

blood-smeared gods of the old world. I’m helpless. My gun is lost to the

vines. Storm winds blast through the copse, shrieking, in the branches.

Thunder erupts with a roar. I’m looking into the barrel of the Dalek’s

weapon. Its single ‘eye’ glitters on me with cold ghost lights.

Then there’s screaming. For a moment I’m convinced it’s me, begging

for my life before this killing machine. Not that pleading will save me.

In seconds I’ll flare out into atoms as it does what its dark nature has

programmed. Kill me. Kill you. Kill Thals. Kill everything that does not

serve the purpose of the Dalek race.

I twist sideward as a figure hurtles through the grove of trees. It’s Kye.

She’s recovered her weapon from wherever she dropped it. Before me,

the Dalek appears to grow in the flicker of lightning. Surely an optical

illusion. But it seems to move from side to side in a series of twitches.

There’s a sense it is increasing in mass, until it exerts a gravity all of its

own. Although I want to run from that engine of death, I sense an

uncanny pull toward it. As if it wants – needs – to draw me into it… to

fuse with that metal carapace. To entwine nerves and blend flesh and

bone and mix blood with the monster. I hadn’t expected this. No-one at

the academy warned me…

Almost dreamily now, I see Kye run straight at the Dalek; she’s

gripping the weapon in both hands, pointing the hour-glass shaped gun

barrel straight at the monster. Only she doesn’t fire. Time swoops down

into something like freeze frame. She stops. Then moves toward the

Dalek. Stops.

Why don’t you fire? The thought wings through my head. Fire, before

it kills you.

Almost gently she leans toward the Dalek, extends the weapon in her

outstretched arms, then lightly jabs the gun muzzle against a metal flank.

By lightning flashes I see the muzzle enter easily. The carapace

crumbles into thumbnail-sized fragments. One of the hemispheres fixed

to the side of the Dalek detaches and drops into the mud.

In something like awe I watch as, gushing from the hole in the Dalek’s

side, come a stream of wet, writhing worms. There are hundreds of

them. Swollen, maggot-like things that had been suspended in some

silvery mucous within the Dalek body.

I climb to my feet and look at Kye. She looks back at me. Her

expression of terror has yielded to one of relief. I know we’re both

striving for something to say. Only the words have jammed up inside. In

fact we’re probably wondering whether to laugh or cry when Dissari

strides through the undergrowth.

‘You’ve found another one?’ He sounds almost matter of fact. ‘There

are five more in a gully back there. Ugly bastards, aren’t they?’ With

that he extends a muscular arm, puts the flat of his palm against the

grille that forms the thorax of the Dalek and pushes. With a sucking

sound, as the base lifts out of the mud, it topples over. Its fall breaks it

open like a rotten egg, spilling decomposed biological matter with

thousands of pale worms.

‘Sweet life, doesn’t it stink?’ He grimaces.

Still in a state of shock, Kye glances from me to the Dalek, to Dissari.

‘And what a planet. It’s just one enormous silage lake. I can even taste

the place. Ugh.’ Then he looks at us as if noticing our emotional state for

the first time. ‘Kye. Jomi. Hey, relax. It’s cool. For centuries that thing’s

been nothing more than a keg full of worms.’ He looks at the squirming

mass in the wreckage of the Dalek. ‘It’s not even that now.’

At last Kye speaks. ‘Those other Daleks? They’re all like this?’

‘This one’s pretty compared with the others.’ Smiling, he raises his

helmet visor. ‘The ones in the gully are corroded lumps of crud.’

‘But the signature trace…’

‘Even the molecules in the Daleks’ body armour dance to the same

rhythm as their electronic systems. Our sensors are so good these days

we can even trace their junkyards.’ He nods at the vines by my feet.

‘You dropped something, ranger.’

I see my gun nestling there in a tangle of greenery. Muttering a lame

excuse about tripping, I retrieve it.

‘Don’t forget to engage safety,’ he warns.

I shut down the weapon, feeling the vibrations fade, until it’s an inert

piece of carbon in my hands once more.

‘OK,’ he tells us. ‘Time we headed back to the shuttle. Captain says…

Damn.’

‘What’s wrong?’ Kye asks.

‘My comm’s packed in. How’s yours?’

I tell him: ‘Mine went down about fifteen minutes ago.’

‘Same with mine,’ Kye adds. ‘I lost the visual and telemetry feed, too.’

‘I’ve still got telemetry.’ The ranger taps a small screen pad on his

forearm. ‘At least, I had it a moment ago.’ Lightning flashes run across

the sky. ‘Hell. It’s the atmospherics on this stinking planet. They’re

saturating all our electronics with static.’

The fallen Dalek doesn’t interest the ranger now; he’s talking about the

shortest way back to the shuttle – one that doesn’t involve us forging

back through spine-bristling grasslands. Kye and I follow him through

the grove of trees.

As we step over loops of root growth, side-step mud pools and bat

away intrusive insects, I whisper so that the mentor doesn’t hear:

‘Thanks for coming back to me.’

She manages a weak smile. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to live with

myself if I hadn’t. In fact, I’d already decided to kill myself. That’s why

I found the gun.’

‘Kill yourself?’ I stare at her.

‘But then I thought I’d let the Dalek kill me, so I’d be added on the

Martyr’s Roll at the academy.’

‘But–‘ I shake my head in disbelief.

‘It’s true what they say, Jomi. I’ve got a terrible sense of humour.’ She

slapped me on the arm. ‘I’m joking, you idiot.’

I laugh. More through relief than appreciating her joke. Because

already I’m repeatedly glancing back through the trees, half expecting

some dark phantom essence of the Dalek to come gliding after us.

Coupled with that is a pressure in the back of my neck. The kind of

sensation you get when someone is staring at you from behind… and

staring so intently it feels like the stare has the power to press against

your skin. The sensation of being watched doesn’t begin to lift until we

finally reach the shuttle, which squats on a swathe of marsh grass that is

such a vivid green it has to be seen to be believed. In honour of the work

we do, the vehicle is known (by us rookies) by the far from glorious

name The Shampoo Bottle. As it lies flat against the ground, an

unimposing black cylinder, the name’s surprisingly apt. Now it’s

unstoppered. Waiting for us to file on board, buckle up for the journey

back to the ship.

Right now our humble shuttle is the loveliest view I’ve seen today.

Already I’m thinking of hot showers, a change of clothes, a good meal.

Above us, the sky is a drifting ceiling of dense cloud. Thunder still

rumbles. Lightning flashes.

‘Good work, team.’ The Captain tells us as he waves us into the shuttle.

‘That’s one more planet that we can certify Clean.’

I glance at Kye. She’s smiling. Not only relaxing but also pleased

we’ve done the job we were sent here to do. Kye has a lovely smile.

Maybe when we get off this tour, we’ll spend more time together. I

know she’d like to. I’m smiling too. I wave to Pup, Rain and Amattan,

our fellow probationary rangers, who are already waiting for us. They

grin and wave back. Along with Captain Vay I see the other five

mentors. That’s the full platoon. No reason for holdups. Sweet life, it’s

Kye and me who must be the stragglers.

Within minutes we’re back inside the shuttle, sighing with pleasure as

we sink into cushioned seats. Then, as the airlock swings shut, Rain

suddenly leans forward in her seat, peering out through the narrowing

gap to the outside world.

‘Wait,’ she calls. ‘There’s someone out there.’

FIVE

CAPTAIN VAY WAVES THE DOOR OPEN. NOW WE HAVE A CLEAR

view of a small figure watching us from the edge of a line of bushes.

‘Sweet life,’ the Captain utters. ‘It’s a child.’

‘Looks like a Thal child, sir,’ Pelt adds.

One in distress, too. The boy of around eleven is standing there

weeping. His clothes are dirty; threads hang down, so they catch on

thorny plants as he begins to walk toward the shuttle.

‘Could be a wreck survivor, Captain?’ hazards Pelt.

‘But we’ve had no notification of any wreck anywhere in this sector.

Besides, we’re a way off the commercial shipping lanes.’

The child is weeping into the palms of his hands. The image of a tragic

figure. There’s an uneasy stir around the shuttle cabin.

Captain Vay unbuckles his seat restraint. ‘Pelt. Rain. Check out the

child.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Take your weapons; it might be a trap.’

‘It’s just a kid,’ Tar’ant protests.

‘We’re taking no chances. We know Daleks have been here. You’d be

surprised where they’re capable of hiding a booby trap.’ The Captain

steps out through the hatch onto marsh grass. He’s carrying a handgun.

Pelt and Rain follow, weapons at the ready. Not aiming at the child, they

can, however, fire the second danger flares. Of course, the Varian

incident replays in my mind. There, rangers blasted a group of Thal

children. It was accidental, naturally. They were suspected of being

booby-trapped simulacra – replicants intended to fool our security

forces. They weren’t. And the repercussions of the tragedy still plague

security operations today.

We watch through the airlock as Pelt and Rain walk toward the crying

child. Both rangers are relaxed yet cautious. I stare at the child. It has

unkempt hair. Its hands are covered with mud as if it’s been scrambling

around on all fours. I run scenarios through my head. A wreck survivor?

A misfit child deliberately abandoned by parents? (It happens.) Or a

descendent of some long forgotten Thal colony?

Maybe the child’s nerve breaks at the sight of the two helmeted

rangers; I don’t know, but he suddenly throws up his arms – a gesture of

terror? – then runs back into the bushes. Soon he’s lost from sight, but I

see fronds swaying as he forges his way through.

Pelt and Rain follow at a run.

‘Wait!’ shouts the Captain, but at that moment thunder rips through the

sky, drowning his voice. ‘They shouldn’t follow,’ he hisses. Then he hits

the comm pad on his sleeve. ‘Ranger Pelt… Ranger Pelt. Cease pursuit…

I repeat. Cease… Damn!’ He glances at us. ‘Comm link’s out.’ He looks

at my mentor, Fellebe. ‘Go with Jomi to the edge of the bush-line. Wait

for Pelt and Rain there.’

We move fast. Within seconds I’m running across the soft, sucking

earth toward the bushes where the two rangers pursued the weeping

child.

Fellebe glances at me. ‘Lock down visor,’ she orders. ‘Knock off

safety.’

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘Don’t fire unless I fire. Got that?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘Now where have they got to?’ She runs sharp eyes over the mass of

bushes that extend as far as I can see. ‘Let this be a lesson to you, Jomi.

Don’t go chasing after anything that runs from you.’ She gives a grim

nod. ‘This has got the word “trap” written all over it.’

Thunder rumbles; more lightning sends zigzagging lines of electric

blue through the sky. If anything, the cloud has become darker; even

more menacing. A big drop of water bursts in the mud near my feet.

Another strikes the back of my glove. Once more, the heat of this place

drives the smell of rotting vegetation deep into my nose. I gulp at the

intensity of the stench. My life! You could almost cut it with a blade, it

is so thick in the air.

‘Where are they?’ Fellebe hisses.

Her question gets an answer we don’t anticipate. A sudden yell comes

from the bushes. One driven by both shock and pain.

‘Come on!’ Fellebe springs forward into the vegetation. I follow, heart

pounding. Instantly the greenery closes round us, reducing visibility to

no more than three or four paces.

Almost instantly, a figure explodes through the branches to crash into

me.

‘Rain?’ I see her frightened face through the visor. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘It’s Pelt. You’ve got to help him.’

Fellebe surges through the bushes to my right. Shoving branches aside

with a free hand, she shouts: ‘Rain. Show me where he is!’

Rain doesn’t hesitate; she retraces her way through the tunnel of green

that she’s created by pushing through the bushes. When we reach Pelt in

a clearing I think for a second he has been burnt, maybe seared by

lightning. His face is encrusted with black – a glistening black. He lies

beside a pool of noxious water. Bubbles blister its surface; when they

break, a dull yellow vapour escapes into the atmosphere. The smell is so

bad it’s almost overpowering. I flip up the visor to wipe my mouth as the

disgusting odour seems to settle there on my lips.

‘No,’ Rain cries. ‘Keep your visor locked down.’ She looks down at

her fallen mentor. ‘Pelt did the same as you, then–’

‘Help me with him,’ Fellebe orders, dropping to one knee beside her

fallen comrade. ‘He’s still alive.’

‘But what’s that covering his face?’ I ask. Only there’s no time for

reply. Suddenly the water bubbles as if ferociously boiling.

Rain snaps a warning. ‘It’s happening again!’

I don’t need a detailed explanation of what is ‘happening again,’

because small, hard, black objects – something like slugs – burst from

the water with the speed of bullets. I hear them striking my protective

suit, helmet and visor. Soon, small black bodies have battened

themselves onto my helmet. Just a whisper from my eyes, I see the

silvery-grey underside of the black creatures; a muscular orifice

pulsates. I see something resembling a fleshy needle with an opening in

the end attempt to burrow into the transparent material of the visor. I

sweep the nauseating creatures away with my gloved hands, leaving

smeary streaks.

Then I glance down at Pelt. His visor’s locked into the open position.

He’s taken a face full of these parasites. Where he’s removed a glove,

yet more encase his hand – a moist shell of glistening black.

With dozens of the creatures still leaping from the water, we drag the

fallen ranger back through the bushes.

‘Leeches.’ Rain pants the word. ‘At least, some kind of leeches… They

didn’t even wait for us reach the water. They jumped from it… right at us

– ugh… Disgusting things.’

‘They’re feeding on Pelt,’ Fellebe shouts. ‘We’ve got to take him back

to the shuttle.’ Then she turns to Rain. ‘Ranger! Get back there and tell

them we’re bringing in wounded. We have to get these things off of

him!’

Rain speeds away through the bushes. Fellebe and I have an arm each

of the unconscious ranger and we’re dragging him. I hear our panted

breath, the rustle of branches as we battle through, and all the time,

thunder batters our heads. We’re both tired. Our limbs ache. My spine

runs fiery spasms from the exertion. But we can’t stop. There’s no time

to stop. Time, I realise at this moment, is the most precious commodity

of all. And time will decide whether our comrade lives or dies.

SIX

‘THE CHILD’S BACK.’

‘I don’t care.’

In the passenger cabin of the shuttle, Pelt lies flat on his back along the

line of seats; armrests have been raised so that the seat cushions now

form a bed. It’s a sickening sight. I’ve turned away to look at the walls,

the floor, through the airlock at boiling cloud – anything but that. But

every so often my gaze is dragged back. Because we don’t know if Pelt

will survive. Captain Vay and Rain work with tiny, hand-held lasers

from the medi-pack. They’re intended to seal torn arteries and to suture

wounds. Now they’re being employed to burn those loathsome black

slugs from the man’s hand and face. He’s still unconscious. That’s a gift

in itself. So he’s lying perfectly still as the pair work. A little needlepoint

of red light gleams as they train the laser on another of the creatures. The

parasite’s flesh puckers; fluids boil beneath that glossy black skin; then

the entire body bursts with an audible crack. Kye tweezers a dead

parasite from the man’s face before dropping it into a container. There

must be dozen parasites left, part-burrowed into Pelt’s flesh. I see the

white, disc-shaped impressions where the creatures have clung to the

skin. In the centre of each depression is a puncture wound that still oozes

a drop of Thal blood. Rain was right about the creatures being like

leeches; they’re thumb-sized bloodsuckers.

My stomach gives a queasy roll. Think about something else, I tell

myself, take your mind off it. But that’s a mistake in itself. I guess it’s

the events of the morning, of seeing the Dalek and then this happening

to Pelt, but a memory I’ve been evading for years comes ghosting up on

me. No, don’t do this to yourself… Not now…

I was born and raised on a mining planet. A cold, uncompromising

place with flinty soil and houses built from granite boulders that

somehow always reminded me of hard, frowning faces. My parents and

grandfather rode the rock cutting machines. From my bedroom window I

could see the mineral conveyors creep toward the grading plant. They

were huge steel hoppers that glided at walking pace just above the

ground. From an early age, you were told not to run between them but to

use the overways to reach the school and the park safely. My grandfather

appeared as hard as the ground he cut day after day, but as you find so

often in life, appearances can be deceptive. He grew up with a deep love

for animals. He had the usual pets you’d find in a Thal household, but he

was the only one to care for the Grimes that the miners found in the deep

fissures. These were hard-shelled creatures – something like landlocked

shellfish. They had two dull-brown, clam-like shells that nipped together

tight; from the top, two tiny stalk eves would poke warily into the open

air. They were ugly things. Usually they were pretty elusive, too. But

occasionally rotating steel cutters would gouge one from its lair. Most

miners would ignore the damaged Grimp or dump it into the waste

backfill. Not my grandfather: no sir, he brought them home and cared

for them until he could return them to a cave or fissure where they’d

anchor themselves to a rock and continue their quiet, immobile lives.

Only my grandfather discovered something about them. It’s hard to

love what appears to be a small boulder, but eventually he found that

they would open up, given enough care and patience. I can still

remember seeing one of the Grimes when it’d folded back its shell so

that it stood like a rigid brown sail on its back. The creature within was

warm blooded, covered in the softest cream-coloured fur imaginable and

possessed of a child-shaped face set with two large, brown eyes that

seemed to shine with perpetual surprise. My grandfather called that a

‘pleased to see you look.’ And he’d been right. Once you’d gently

coaxed a Grimp to unshell, its expression was always one of surprise and

delight, as if you were an old friend who’d just arrived unexpectedly.

On my twelfth birthday, my grandfather gave me a Grimp that he’d

nursed back to health after finding it abandoned in a spoil heap. By then,

his own health was failing; a lung complaint had plagued him for

months. But he had got so much pleasure from seeing the Grimp recover

from its injuries, that his eyes sparkled with sheer happiness when he

handed it to me. Within days, Granddad was dead.

Of course, life went on. I cared for the Grimp, whom I named Yo, and

soon it would unshell itself for me, rewarding me with that ‘pleased to

see you’ look. And it took to following me around on its scurrying little

paws. Imagine a large ball of soft, creamy fluff, topped with a brown

sail, and you’ve got the image of Yo in your mind. Yo and I were

inseparable. I found myself rushing home from school just so I could

look into her huge brown eyes. My spirits lifted as soon as I saw her.

And I grew impatient to get home, so to save time I started running

between the sluggish train of mineral conveyors. Huge, slow moving,

barge-like things, they were. And with a good thirty paces separating

them, plus a rash of safety sensors spotting their metal flanks, they

shouldn’t have been any real danger. The only possible hazard was when

the one in the lead would break down; then all the hoppers would butt up

to one another to form an unbroken line. It all happened in slow motion.

No damage occurred. Then, once the one in the lead was fixed, off

they’d go again, hauling minerals to the grader.

One frost-bound morning I was late for school. Sometimes Yo would

come with me, then close up and anchor to a convenient wall until the

bell rang for the end of the school day. That morning, I ran out of the

house without telling her to stay or to come with me. I darted between

the slow moving hoppers and joined the path for school. I happened to

look back and saw Yo following. From the way she ran I had the

impression she was perplexed as to why I’d left without her. She

followed the scent my feet left and scurried straight for the mineral

conveyor track. At that moment, I heard the siren sound as one of the

lead cars failed. Slowly the heavy vehicles butted up to one another. I’d

assumed that Yo would stop, but then how could she know what the

warning siren meant? Even as I watched her scurry between the hoppers,

I was telling myself she’d be fine. The sensors would detect her presence

and stop. Only as that thought went through my head, I realised they

were calibrated to recognise human forms only. Yo was like a slow

moving bundle of fur. In horror I watched the hoppers bump into one

another. Then I heard the deep cry, so filled with sadness and yearning,

that has haunted me all these long years. How Yo made that call to me

as she was crushed between the two vehicles I don’t know. But that cry

still resonates in my dreams.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. When I pulled her from between the

vehicles she was still alive but horrifically injured. I knew she was

suffering. I knew I had to put her out of her misery. But my attempt to

kill her quickly and painlessly was bloody and incompetent. Yet she

looked up at me with those brown eyes that were so trusting. Weeping, I

used the rock again and again, but with every inadequate blow, with

every bloody, ineffectual blow, I knew I’d let Yo down. I’d let my

grandfather down.

That memory haunts me so intensely that, when I at last break free of

it, I’m not even sure where I am. I blink, look round, then realise I’m in

the shuttle on this swamp planet. Captain Vay and Rain are still working

on their patient. Pup stands in the shuttle doorway, looking out.

‘He’s still there,’ Pup says. ‘I could go talk to him.’

‘No.’ Captain Vay burns off another parasite.

‘He’s closer. He doesn’t look frightened now.’

‘We wait until we’ve taken care of Pelt, then I’ll consider what to do.

Pelt is priority number one.’

No-one disagrees. The rest watch the operation with more than a

degree of anxiety. Pelt appears dead rather than unconscious. It seems

those loathsome little bugs have anaesthetised their prey to enable them

to suck him dry.

A moment later the Captain asks: ‘What’s he doing now?’

‘The boy?’

‘Uh-huh.’

Crack. Another parasitic body pops. Kye tweezers it away.

‘Still waiting.’

‘OK, so he’s patient. Let him wait.’ The Captain takes a deep breath,

flexing tired arm muscles. ‘Last one.’

‘I’ll get it, Captain.’ Rain burns the final remaining parasite that has

lodged just under Pelt’s ear. It bursts this time with a hiss of steam to fill

the cabin with a mushroom odour.

The Captain shoots a glance of disgust at the container full of dead

creatures. ‘Secure those things in storage, Kye. The path lab will have to

run a check on them, just in case they’re harbouring anything

unpleasant: He gives a grim smile. ‘Just double check it’s sealed down

tight, OK?’ Then he crouches down beside Pelt. The man’s face is a

mess of white discs with those puncture wounds. ‘Didn’t I always tell

you not to feed the wildlife, ranger?’ Then his voice softens. ‘How you

doing, buddy?’

For a second there’s no response. Pelt’s deeply asleep. Then, at last, I

see a flicker on his face; a grimace as if he’s waking but is in pain.

‘Take it easy. No, lie back… stay where you are.’ Captain Vay’s soft

tones soothe Pelt as the man struggles to sit. ‘We’ve got you hooked up

to diagnostics. You’re looking good, but you’re going to have to rest for

a couple of days. OK?’

Pelt nods, then lies back with a sigh.

Captain Vay pats him on the arm. ‘Good work, ranger. What I’m going

to do is get you back to the ship as soon as we can get our hands on that

kid. All right?’

Again, a nod. Pelt doesn’t open his eyes.

‘You rest here. We’ll be right back.’ Captain Vay glances back at me

over his shoulder. ‘That kid doing anything interesting yet, Jomi?’

‘Just standing and watching us, sir.’

‘All right. Bring your weapons, make sure you’re wearing protective

gloves and your visors are locked in the down position. We don’t want

this stink hole to spring any more surprises on us.’

‘Captain?’

‘Report, Rain.’

‘Command are transmitting co-ordinates for a target.’

‘A target? Tell them we’ve located all the targets. They were just a

bunch of Dalek husks that have been rotting away here for a thousand

years or more.’

‘This is a new one, they say. It’s faint. The trace was probably masked

by the electrical storm.’

‘OK, ladies and gentlemen. On top of dealing with the kid, we have a

new target to locate. It’s probably just another Dalek shell, or what’s left

of one. But – and listen to me, Pup – take no chances.’ He leans over

Pelt again. ‘Take it easy and rest. We’ve another chore that requires our

attention; we’ll be back as soon as we can. I’m going to seal the airlock.’

Standing, he pulls on his gauntlets. ‘Everyone ready? Rain?’

Rain’s at the comm panel at the end of the shuttle cabin. She’s still

talking to command.

‘Everything OK, Rain?’

‘I have the target co-ordinates. But…’

‘“But”. There’s a word I’ve come to despise. All right, hit me.’

‘Met warn there’s an electrical storm building on the planet. A bad

one.’

‘No wonder our comm systems are degrading. What’s the prognosis?’

‘We’re likely to lose all channels with command until it passes. And

that will be eight hours.’

‘How long until it hits?’

‘Less than an hour. It’s moving on high altitude jet streams from the

equatorial belt.’

‘Great. That gives us an incentive to move fast – very fast. So – we’re

all ready?’

We all sing: ‘Yes sir.’ Then the platoon moves out through the airlock.

The electrical storm’s building. (You should see those lightning flashes

– optic nerve searing, they are). Captain Vay operates the manual switch

rather than risk the remote on his sleeve to close the airlock. I catch a

final glimpse of Pelt on the seats. He’s sleeping again. What’s more,

he’s safely inside, away from the coming storm.

Gales sweep down at us now, zithering through marsh grass, tugging at

our uniforms and conjuring a mournful cry from the trees as air currents

flush through their gnarled limbs.

Against the roar of thunder and rising winds, Fellebe shouts: ‘Captain?

You want us to split up?’

‘Not this time, ranger. We’re sticking together. This place makes my

flesh crawl. Far too many surprises for my liking.’ He addresses us all,

pitching his voice above the storm’s noise. ‘We’ll see if we can talk to

the boy first of all. Then we’ll follow the trace co-ordinates to target. My

instinct is, all we’ll find is another Dalek carcass. It’s probably rotted

into the dirt, and that’s why the trace is so weak.’

We nod an affirmative rather than speak it. The storm’s getting intense

enough now to drown out our voices.

‘Platoon.’ The Captain checks the comet panel fixed to his sleeve. ‘Is

everyone’s system still down?’

We all nod again.

‘Then we’re reliant on verbal and visual communication. Stick close

together. And nobody goes chasing the kid if he cuts and runs again.

OK. Move out.’

SEVEN

THE BOY DOESN’T RUN. WHEN WE GET WITHIN AROUND TWENTY

paces of him he shuffles backward, that’s all. No faster and no slower

than we ourselves move.

‘Don’t scare him.’ The Captain holds up a hand. ‘Keep moving at the

same pace. Only keep your eyes on what’s going on around you.’

I get a closer look at the boy now. I see he’s dressed in ragged clothes.

Oddly, they look like the remains of a cadet uniform, even though he’s

clearly too young to have been in the cadet corps. His hair is straggly.

Yet there’s no suggestion of him being starved, or sick. He appears

healthy. He makes no gesture with his arms: they hang by his sides.

When he turns to check if we’re following, I see there’s no expression

on his face – only a wide-eyed watchfulness.

The Captain whispers something to Rain. She nods, then begins to

speak in a gentle voice to the boy. ‘Hello. Don’t be afraid. I’m called

Rain. What’s your name? Are you here by yourself? Do you have family

here?’

To each question the boy makes no response. All he does is gaze at her

with those wide eyes, which have an expectancy about them.

The Captain turns back to us and speaks above the blustery squalls now

rushing in. ‘For now, we go where he goes. I can give this an hour.’

So… we follow. Walking at a relaxed pace. The boy remains just ahead

of us, checking every now and again to make sure we’re still following.

Maybe he is taking us to a crash site? The fact that he isn’t speaking

could be attributable to trauma. Whatever… I guess we have to be patient

and wait and see. For the next half-hour we walk beneath lowering skies,

where clouds scud faster and faster. Every other moment, lighting

douses the landscape in brilliant blue light; then, before our eyes

recover, it seems as dark as night. Thunder crashes almost constantly.

Winds drive the vines and trees and bushes and thorny grasses into

ceaseless motion. It’s as if the whole world is coming alive around us. A

dangerous, turbulent world at that. Beneath our feet, the ground varies

between softly yielding to downright swampy. The mud could be some

gluttonous mouth sucking at your boot; something you have to fight to

free yourself from to take the next squelching step.

Pup mutters to me: ‘We should just run and grab the boy. Following

him’s a waste of time.’

I reply that the boy might be taking us to a group of Thal survivors.

Only most of my words are lost in bursts of thunder that are so loud they

hurt my head. Ahead of us the ground slopes upward. At least we should

soon be free of this marshland that sucks at our feet. Raindrops hit our

helmets. I find myself wiping my visor almost constantly with a free

hand, while the other hand holds my gun. Hot, moist air seeps into my

mouth. Sweet life, the humidity’s so high that this is closer to breathing

liquid than the planet’s atmosphere.

‘Wait. He’s gone.’

I stop when I hear the Captain’s words. I’m scanning the sodden

landscape for the boy. He has vanished.

‘OK,’ says the Captain, pointing. ‘He’s slipped in there.’

Now we see where he’s pointing. The entrance to what appears to be a

tunnel leads into the slope.

‘We proceed,’ Captain Vay unholsters his handgun, ‘with extreme

caution. Arm your weapons. Fire only on my orders. Platoon confirm.’

We chorus ‘Yes sir,’ then advance. The tunnel entrance is narrow. It

admits rangers only two abreast. I glance at the rest of my platoon.

There’s tension now. This could be a trap. Then again, we might find a

group of our people in there who have been clinging to life on this

oozing morass of a planet.

Switching on helmet lights, we enter the tunnel. Almost immediately

we see the boy. He’s standing just ten paces away. His eyes are wide as

he gazes at us. He wants us to follow. So we do follow. Ready to fire if

need be.

The walls of the tunnel are rock. Vines cover them in swirls of

greenery. Clumps of plants grow from the floor. Moving deeper into the

tunnel, we’re gripping the weapons more tightly now. The bellow of

thunder recedes. A hundred paces into the tunnel it turns abruptly.

Whatever lies round the corner is hidden from sight. This generates a

ripple of unease through the platoon. We pause. Look at each other. Our

hands tighten around the weapon grips. Without speaking, the Captain

waves us on. As commanding officer, he’ll position himself behind the

turn in the tunnel while one of the experienced rangers moves in a spurt

to the far wall. From there, there’ll be a clear view of what’s around the

corner. What the ranger sees will determine whether we continue. Or

retreat. Or start firing.

Golstar moves forward with a burst of speed, flinging, himself flat

against the far wall, while staring down the hidden section of tunnel. He

pauses, examining something just ahead of him. The angle of his head

tells me he’s mystified by what he’s found. Then he waves us forward.

Picture this. The boy stands in the tunnel ten paces from us. Ten paces

beyond him is a high-backed chair with its back to us in the centre of the

corridor. The boy turns and slowly walks past the chair, then stops. He

gazes at the chair – or something in the chair that we can’t see. Then

looks back at us.

Silently, we move forward, closer to that lone chair in this tomb-like

structure. Closer… closer. The chair is upholstered in a plush red fabric. I

see a pair of casually crossed legs clad in black trousers. Then hands.

They are holding an open book on a lap.

We edge forward, guns at the ready. I now see a man in the chair. He’s

sitting there motionless. Reading so intently he doesn’t look up.

Moments spin out. Tension grows inside me. It’s so intense that I find

myself holding my breath. I’m wanting to breathe but can’t. The man

doesn’t look up. Doesn’t seem aware of our presence. He’s dressed

simply in trousers and a white shirt. He’s clean. His hair is tidy. I glance

at the boy. He’s stares at the man, too, who still continues to read.

Captain Vay lifts his visor. There’s a faint click of the locking

mechanism. At this, the man raises his eyes. He’s not surprised. Instead

he smiles. A bland, almost drowsy smile. It’s only his eyes that contain

real expression, mingling a suggestion of wisdom with sorrow.

‘Hello.’ He speaks in a soft voice. ‘And to think, I wasn’t expecting

anyone new.’

‘I am Captain Vay. This is my platoon.’

‘Really?’

‘If I could ask –‘

But the man interrupts. ‘And the boy? He’s with you?’

‘No. We followed him to you.’

‘Oh, in that case…’ The man places a fabric strip in the book to mark

the page, carefully closes it, rises from the chair before placing the book

on the cushion. Then, without a noise, and without any fuss or change in

expression, he steps toward the boy. Before any of us can react, he grabs

the child by the jaw and pushes his head back against the wall. This is

executed with such force that it shatters the boy’s skull.

EIGHT

CAPTAIN VAY RAISES HIS HANDGUN, AIMING IT STRAIGHT AT THE

stranger. ‘Don’t move,’ he tells the man.

‘But I merely –’

‘Raise your hands. You are under arrest.’

‘For swatting a fly?’

‘Do not move. I will fire if I have to.’

‘Or swatting several flies, to be more precise.’

‘Sir,’ the Captain is insistent. ‘Stand still, sir. Or I will fire.’

‘I’m merely indicating what I am to be arrested for.’

We look down at the body of the boy. His head has been smashed

open, so that the shards of the skull resemble the petals of a huge flower.

The face is still intact… well, was intact. We watch as the body appears

to liquefy in a matter of moments. Only instead of blood or body fluids,

a stream of insects crawls from the body across the floor. They are

flexing gossamer wings. Within seconds they take off, then stream back

silently along the corridor, returning to the open air. Soon the entire

body of the boy – or what we took to be a Thal boy – has evaporated

into a myriad of flying insects.

The man begins to speak. There’s a sudden enthusiasm there that

speeds the words from his lips. ‘What you have – no, what you had

there was a hive: a walking hive of insects! They have an inbuilt

telepathic ability. When they target their prey they swarm, clustering

together tighter – ever tighter! – to form the body of an individual that

their prey will find non-threatening: a member of their prey’s own

species, and one that will arouse the instinct to protect, such as a juvenile

or potential mate.’

‘Their prey?’ The Captain looks unsure of the man.

‘Yes, prey! Those are nasty bugs, Captain. Very nasty indeed. Once

they have lulled you into the sweetest form of security – sleep – they

will dissolve the hive, and then those insects will lay the eggs of their

young by injecting them into your skin. You would become their very

own candy man. The larvae would have hollowed you out in days.

Hence the –‘He mimed pushing the boy – pseudo boy – into the wall.

‘Luckily for us, the dear little things weren’t yet ready to lay their eggs.

Hence the –‘ He mimed the shove again. ‘Best not to delay in these

matters. I’ve seen several of those things around here. But what a

remarkable leap in evolution! Brilliant when you think about it, isn’t it?’

He pauses, putting his hand to his mouth in surprise. ‘But don’t ask me

how I know all that. I haven’t a clue. Not the foggiest.’

The Captain opens his mouth to speak again, but the man thrusts out

his hand.

‘Captain Vay, you said? Gratified to meet you, Captain.’

‘While we’re observing the formalities, sir. Might I enquire who you

are?’

NINE

THE MAN INSISTS ON SHOWING US TO HIS QUARTERS, REMARKING:

‘That chair is my outermost outpost. There I can take my ease, catch the

breeze, enjoy my reads… Oh, there I go again, speaking in rhyme…

badly, if I’m to be altogether candid with you… Isn’t it annoying? Don’t

you find it annoying, Captain? Sometimes I sit back there for hours, at

ease with the breeze, a book on my knees, marrying one word to another

that sounds the same. I’ve been very successful at it, too. Some

couplings elude me, though… Take rhyme for instance. The very word

“rhyme”. What will rhyme with “rhyme”?’ He pauses before a door that

leads off from the corridor. He’s considering the problem he’s set

himself. His eyes are fixed and staring, as if he’s digging deep into his

mind to find the solution. A tic jolts his cheek. This is painful for him. I

can even hear him grinding his teeth. The platoon exchange quizzical

glances.

He releases his pent up breath with an explosive sigh. ‘Oh, well… It’ll

come to me at some point, I suppose.’ He takes a deep breath, relieved to

be freed of the peculiar, self-inflicted necessity to find a rhyme for

‘rhyme’. ‘Now: enter. Please enter.’

Our training has imprinted on us the necessity of always being on our

guard when in unfamiliar territory. Amattan and Golstar remain at the

entrance, ensuring that nothing follows us down the passage. The rest of

us enter the room in a standard reconnaissance formation. Experienced

rangers in first. We wait with Captain Vay for the all clear before we

move through the door, guns at the ready. The stranger is bemused by

our wary manner.

‘Do sit down. Do make yourselves at home.’ Smiling, he waves us

through. ‘Not a palace, more of a prison really.’ He falters on the word

prison’; his eyes narrow as if remembering some painful incident. Then

his face breaks into a sudden grin again. ‘Take your ease, as you… No.

I’m not falling into the trap of rhyming again. It’s altogether the

annoying trick of an eccentric… Oh dash, I’ve done it again, haven’t I?

You. You by the door.’

He fixes those bright eyes on me.

‘Yes, you! The moment you catch me slithering into rhyme, nudge me

with your elbow. Right… where were we? Ah, yes. Make yourselves

comfortable. I haven’t had guests in a long, long… Let’s see.’ He holds

up a finger. ‘While. Yes, a long while. Now, Captain Vay. What can I do

for you?’

Captain Vay glances round, taking in the comfortable lounge area with

its upholstered seats. We’re deep underground here in a planet that’s

moist as a soaked sponge, but the structure is dry. The place appears

well ventilated. On walls of a pale polished rock are drawings. Mainly

details of bird feathers and insect heads. The room is illuminated by

glowing strips that criss-cross an otherwise featureless ceiling.

Captain Vay turns his attention back to the stranger. ‘We are a

detachment from the Thal Ranger Division. We’re on a reconnaissance

mission.’

‘Ah, a division with a mission. Splendid. Well…’ He waves a hand,

taking in the room. ‘Reconnoitre at will.’

‘Thank you. But first I need some answers.’

‘Of course. But I have a question for you. Reconnoitre? What rhymes

with reconnoitre… Goitre? Loiter? Oh… good heavens. You, by the door.

Yes, you! You were supposed to guard me from this dratted habit.

Obsession’s a better word for it. Yes, obsession: the prison of free will.’

The Captain glances at us. From his expression, I can tell he’s not

expecting this to be easy. What’s more, he must be reaching the same

opinion as we are about this stranger in his subterranean lair.

The Captain addresses the man. ‘Our robot pathfinders have swept this

star system. We expected to find no settlements here.’

‘Oh? What did you expect to find?’

‘We did detect signals consistent with hostile forces.’

‘Hostile forces?’ The man repeats, while running his fingers back

through his hair. ‘Hostile. You won’t find me hostile in the least. Feel

free to make yourselves at home. Roam hither and thither if you wish…’

‘Thank you. What I need to know, sir, is: what is the purpose of your

stay on this planet?’

‘My stay!’ He thinks for moment. ‘I really can’t say.’

Captain Vay speaks politely, but firmly. ‘I insist, sir. You must tell me

your reason for being here.’

‘Reason? I can only repeat: I can’t really say…’ He clicks his tongue.

‘Or did I say: I really can’t say? Not that it matters. I can’t.’

The Captain shows a first glimmer of impatience. ‘I am empowered to

detain you for interrogation if –‘

’Interrogation? Won’t do you any good.’

‘Why?’

‘Simply put: I don’t know why I am here. I’m just here. Just as that

chair is here – and that vase of flowers is there. I don’t know who put

them there; I don’t know who put me here – or implanted in my mind

that ridiculous habit of rhyming.’

‘I see.’ Captain Vay glances at us. ‘Then may I have your name?’

‘Name? See! I’ve developed another ridiculous habit. I’m repeating the

key word of your sentences. Key.’ He appears shocked that he has used

the word ‘key’ As if a profanity has slipped from his lips and he’s

ashamed. He moves his lips to soundlessly repeat the word. Then: ‘Key

words,’ he muses. ‘Skeleton key. Key Largo. Key note. Key makes

free.’ He glares at me. ‘You have my express authority to shoot me if I

should rhyme again.’ He winces. ‘To rhyme is to crime.’ There’s a

pained look in his eye that mates confusion with fear. ‘Rhyme… Crime…

Lime… Chime… Climb… Grime… Mime… Prime… Slime… Rhyme…

What else rhymes with “rhyme”?’

Captain Vay takes a deep breath. I gather he’s taking another run at the

interrogation. ‘You appreciate, sir, that I must establish your identity and

your purpose in the Quadrille.’

‘Quadrille?’

‘The planetary system of which this world forms a part.’

‘Oh.’

‘I have to satisfy myself that you pose no threat to the Thal people.’

‘I see.

‘Then may I have your name?’

The stranger shakes his head then touches his temple; a gesture of

regret. ‘Really… I just don’t know.’

‘You don’t know your own name?’

‘Is it important?’

‘Yes. We need to establish your identity.’

‘Friend or foe and all that.’

The Captain nods.

The man shrugs. ‘Names differentiate individuals who occupy the same

environment. I’m alone here, so have no use for an ID label. When I

think about myself I refer to myself as “I” I will go to the library. I will

eat. I will bathe. I go. I stop. I sit. I sleep. See! No need to refer to

myself by name at all. What are you doing, Captain?’

‘I’m calling my commanding officer.’ The Captain touches the comm

pad on his sleeve.

‘Oh, you can’t do that.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know.’

Fellebe reminds him. ‘Captain, all comm links went down an hour

ago.’

Captain Vay shifts uneasily. ‘Yes, of course.’

The man smiles. ‘A philosopher once said that forgetfulness is

contagious. Which philosopher? Who knows? I can’t remember her

name.’

Captain Vay motions Kye to him, then he turns to the man. ‘This is

ranger Kye. I should be grateful if you would give her as much detail as

possible about your life here and the layout of the tunnel network and

the kind of equipment you have in your possession.’

‘If it helps.’ The man’s willing to volunteer information and

immediately starts speaking to Kye. ‘This tunnel extends three hundred

and eight paces from the chair at my outermost outpost to here. I should

know because I’ve paced the distance, counting every step – done that

often. Solitude you see. Loneliness. The progenitor of eccentricity.

There is a suite of eleven rooms here. This, the lounge. Next to this, the

morning room. Morning room? It sounds dreadfully formal, but that’s

where I find myself every morning. Through the doorway there in the

corner…’

With the stranger speaking to Kye, the Captain waves us back through

into the corridor, then beckons us closer so he can speak without the

man overhearing. ‘I’ve had easier conversations,’ he admits with a

grimace.

‘The man’s clearly insane,’ Tar’ant states. ‘He doesn’t know his name;

doesn’t know why he’s here; doesn’t know squat.’

‘Or eccentric,’ the Captain counters.

‘Or lying.’ Fellebe is uneasy.

Captain Vay nods. ‘That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to quit on

him yet. According to the robot probes, there should be no sentient life

on this planet. They didn’t even detect this tunnel complex.’

‘Shielding?’ asks Dissari.

‘Perfect shielding at that.’ The Captain is grim. ‘Its builders have

invested time and energy to conceal what appears, so far, to be a retreat

for a lunatic. That’s enough to turn anyone’s head into a breeding

ground for questions.’

Pup shrugs. ‘He could have been forced into making a landing here, or

been deliberately marooned, then he stumbled across the place.’ He

gives another expressive shrug. ‘Bearing in mind most of the world out

there is bug-ridden swamp, this place is dry and bug free.’

I add: ‘And the solitude has sent him…’ I tap the side of my helmet.

‘Crazy,’ Tar’ant agrees with feeling.

‘In the constitution there’s no prohibition against mental aberration. I

can act contrary to our host’s will only if he’s a danger to us, or to the

Thal nation, or to himself.’ The Captain removes his helmet. ‘Once I’ve

established that, he’ll be at liberty to speak in rhyme or whatever he does

until the end of time – if that’s what he wants.’

Fellebe looks back at Kye still trying to talk to the man. ‘So, what can

we do now, sir?’

‘We’ve still to locate the energy signature the sensors picked up. Odds

are, it will be nothing more than one of those hunks of Dalek scrap.

When we’ve done that, we’ll conduct a detailed search of the

gentleman’s…’ – his eyes scan the tunnel walls – ‘…residence. Then we

return to the ship.’ He checks the pad on his sleeve. ‘My comm link and

environmental sensors are still down. Anyone still have a link?’

We check. There’s a chorus from the platoon: ‘No, sir.’ ‘Mine’s dead.’

‘Nothing here.’

‘That has to be a mighty electrical storm building up there.’ Captain

Vay shakes his head. ‘OK. I want that Dalek trace located as quickly as

possible. I know it’ll be a lump of rust, but we have to verify its position

and status, then we can cross it off the commander’s “to do” list.’ He

gives a wry smile. ‘So does anyone still have their tracker in working

order?’

At first everyone choruses their ‘Negative’ again, but I see Rain

recheck her sleeve pad, then catch the Captain’s attention. ‘Wait…

Mine’s rebooting itself, sir. It’ll just be a moment.’

‘That’s something,’ he breathes. ‘We’d be in the crap if we couldn’t get

a lock on the next target.’

‘Sorry, sir. It’s slow. It must be the electrical storm outside.’

‘When you source the trace it will be very weak. We’re probably

talking about a piece of scrap the size of your hand.’

‘It’s coming through, sir. That’s it.’ She touches the tiny screen on the

sleeve pad. Then she stiffens. There’s an expression of shock on her face

as she stares at the screen.

‘What’s the matter, ranger? You’ve got a reading?’

‘Yes sir. But it’s strong – very strong… Wait! Sir, it’s gone right off the

scale!’

‘Ranger. In what direction?’

‘It’s not indicating a direction.’

‘Concentrate, ranger. It must give co-ordinates.’

‘No, sir. I’m registering a powerful Dalek signature.’

‘But where from?’

‘That’s just it, sir.’ She looks at him, her eyes shockingly wide. ‘It’s all

around us.’

TEN

‘DALEK, YOU SAY?’

‘Yes. Dalek!’ Captain Vay repeats the word for the fifth time.

‘Dalek… Dalek? Dalek.’ The man, in turn, repeats the word as he taps

his lips with the fingertips of one hand. He frowns. ‘No. Sorry. Never

heard of the word.’

‘You don’t know your own name? You’ve never heard of Daleks?’

‘No. Should I?’

‘Everyone’s heard the word Dalek.’

The man shrugs. ‘I don’t mean to be obtuse. But the word has no

emotional value for me. I don’t react in any way whatsoever to it.’

‘How about the word “prison”.’ Captain Vay notices the man flinch.

‘And do you know another word that rhymes with “rhyme”?’

The man shakes his head. The smile has vanished from his face.

Captain Vay locks eyes with him. ‘Earlier, you told me some words

that rhyme with rhyme. The one that you omitted to mention was

“time”’

Now the man twitches as if he’s just put his finger on a live terminal.

When he speaks, he sounds winded. ‘Thank you for the solution to my

conundrum, Captain. One less word to marry up.’ He takes a deep

breath. ‘But no. Dalek means nothing to me. See that drawing of a

beetle?’ He indicates a sketch on the wall. ‘I’m especially proud of that.

And I can name its components. See the jaws? Those are the mandibles.

The prothorax is linked to the abdomen by the meothorax, where you

will find its rear legs and the scutellum. I don’t know why, but I have a

precise knowledge of insect life. For some reason, the life cycle of the

butterfly and moth I find especially fascinating. First there is the egg,

followed by the larvae, then the hard, stone-like pupae before the final

stage of the metamorphosis – the imago – the adult butterfly.’ He drops

his gaze sadly. ‘Of course, all the butterflies here are venomous. Still,

creatures of great beauty though. But then the beautiful and the deadly

can often be found in the same skin, isn’t that so, Captain Vay?’

Instead of answering the man’s question, he asks: ‘Sir, how did you

come to be in this place… ?’ Then the Captain grimaces and answers for

him. ‘You don’t know?’

‘That’s right. I don’t.’

‘So – you can’t tell us if there are any Daleks here?’

‘Not if I don’t know what they are.’

Captain Vay turns to address the platoon. ‘Unlock your weapons.

Activate ammunition charging procedure. We’ve a strong trace that

indicates we might have viable Daleks close by.’

We run through the charging procedure. My weapon begins to vibrate

in my hands. After checking his side arm, the Captain replaces his

helmet. The platoon is alert, slipping into a state of battle readiness. This

is what all those months of training were for. We’re listening, watching,

even smelling the air for danger. Rain’s tracker sensor had registered a

big, fat pulse of energy consistent with a Dalek presence. It might just be

an ancient Dalek scrap heap. Or it might be a Dalek sleeper pod. Or it

might mean this whole complex is swarming with Daleks. Those

thoughts are enough to send adrenaline shooting through my veins.

I step out through the door, gun at the ready. Pelt stands there. He’s not

wearing his helmet; his eyes are wide and expectant. The puncture

wounds made by those leech parasites are still visible in his skin as a

myriad of small, black dots.

Fellebe stares at him. ‘Pelt? You were supposed to stay in the shuttle.’

‘Come back to me,’ he breathes. ‘I died ten minutes ago.’

I use my fist to push him hard against the wall. Even as he falls, his

body dissolves, spewing thousands of insects. In seconds, nothing of

Pelt’s body shape remains. The insects are streaming for the outside

world again.

‘What a planet,’ I hiss. ‘Sweet life, what a planet!’

ELEVEN

AS WE MOVE ALONG THE CORRIDOR, THE MAN FOLLOWS US. ‘A

name.’

The Captain pauses. ‘Pardon?’

‘A name. I should have a name.’

‘That s conventional practice.’

‘Then I must have one too,’ the man gushes.

‘We’ll have to debate that later, sir. First, we have work to do.’

‘Oh? Daleks.’

‘Yes. Daleks.’

‘Then let me help you. I know the layout of these tunnels.’

‘You’re volunteering to be our guide?’

‘Of course. And of course I must have a name. We can’t have you

calling me “sir”. Or “that man” or “hey, you!”’

‘You’ve remembered your name?’ The Captain is hopeful.

‘Oh, no.’

‘Sir!’ Sweet life, does he sound irritated. ‘Sir. Return to your quarters

and please wait for us there. This won’t take long.’

‘I can help. But to help, I need a name.’

‘Sir –‘ I figure Captain Vay is close to ordering one of us to haul the

man back to his living quarters. ‘You have to understand that–’

‘Professor! Call me Professor. Yes… Professor has a pleasing ring.

Now let me show you the way.’ He throws out a hand toward a door and

declaims: ‘Bathroom!’

We’re in the search programme. We act automatically. With a crisp

hand signal, Captain Vay orders Golstar and Amattan to check the room.

They return in seconds.

‘All clear, sir.’

Captain Vay nods at the man. ‘OK, Professor. Show us what you’ve

got down here.’

‘My pleasure, Captain. This way.’

I see the screen pulsing red on Rain’s sleeve. A sure sign that the place

is filthy with Daleks. Only there’s no visual confirmation yet. But, then

again, who knows what lies beyond the next door?

The man who now calls himself Professor stands outside another

doorway. ‘Guest bedroom. Rather a mess, really. I’ve been using it to

store –‘

’Stand aside, Professor.’ Tar’ant and Pup enter. I glimpse an untidy

room piled with furniture.

‘Never had guests,’ the Professor explains. ‘Now, the next one is the

library. All clear? Good. And this is the kitchen. Please excuse the dirty

dishes. I simply didn’t anticipate visitors.’ Tense now, Captain Vay

motions us forward. He’s so focused on the search that he doesn’t

respond to the Professor’s rambling explanations of solo domestic life.

‘Rain. Golstar.’ He gives the hand signal to enter. They do so, gunstocks

snug against their shoulders in case they need to fire.

The Professor grimaces. ‘It won’t be pleasant in there, unfortunately.

Grease on the cooker. Half eaten casserole in the pan. And as for the

plate in the sink? Heaven alone knows what I’d left on that, but it’s

returning to primordial slime. Yesterday I was sure I saw something

move in there… something alive. You see, there are never enough hours

in the day to do everything that one would wish to–’

‘Captain… Captain!’ That’s Rain’s voice. There’s an edge to it that sets

my heart pounding. She’s seen something.

Captain Vay slips the handgun from the holster. ‘What shows, ranger?’

‘You’d better take a look at this, Captain.’

TWELVE

A PLANET OF SWAMPS? OF ELECTRICAL STORMS THAT KILL OUR

instruments? Disgusting airborne leeches? A place where a swarm of

insects can form the shape of a human being? I remembered the

unnerving appearance of Pelt. How ‘he’d’ dissolved into a cloud of flies

when I struck ‘him’ I had believed I was becoming accustomed to the

planet’s surprises – only I wasn’t prepared for this.

When Rain called us through into the kitchen we found her and Golstar

standing by the stove. They were staring at the furthermost wall. The

expressions on their faces spoke volumes.

Now as we come through the doorway the Professor follows, then

pauses beside me. ‘Good lord! It was never like this before,’ he

exclaims.

He’s staring across the kitchen with such a look of astonishment that it

compels me to turn and look again, too. Even though I’ve already seen

it.

Captain Vay glances back at the man. ‘Professor. I take it your

kitchen’s altered its appearance?’

‘Indeed it has,’ he breathes. ‘Indeed it has. Remarkable.’

We’re all staring across the kitchen table. Past a cabinet I recognise as

the refrigerator; past the stove, kitchen sink; past food preparation areas.

For there is no wall to be seen at the far side of the kitchen. What’s

more, the room is now open to the outside world. We are looking at a

fabulous rain forest, drenched with blossom in vivid hues – pink,

vermilion, lilac and gold. The land slopes downward away from the

kitchen for some distance, then rises steeply into a cliff face. Perched on

top of the cliff is a huge building bristling with slender towers, while the

structure itself appears to be formed of different sized cubes, one stacked

upon the other or supported on columns. A confabulation of severe

angles and sharp, straight lines that all but bellow power and ferocity. It

is the architecture of tyranny. Even though the appearance is of ruin,

somehow decay has lent it a powerful aura of menace. Holes have

corroded in the structure’s walls. Vines snake up towers and columns

alike. Trees even appear to grow through the rooftops. An unholy mating

of nature at its most malignant with the artificial at its most sinister.

Birds call in the forest. Insects hum. A breath of warm, jungle air oozes

into the kitchen, bringing with it rich, organic smells, all spiced with the

cloying scent of exotic blossom.

‘Quite remarkable,’ the Professor repeats. ‘I never would have dreamed

that… Goodness, my goodness, the size of that building on the rock.

Remarkable.’

Captain Vay turns to him. ‘Professor, you’re telling me you were

unaware of the existence of that structure?’

‘Absolutely, Captain. And you?’

The Captain doesn’t answer. I know, however, that our instruments

have failed to detect it. They should have – its dimensions, its shape, its

construction, its configuration all indicate one word: Dalek.

THIRTEEN

WHAT NOW? NO SOONER DO I THINK THE QUESTION AS I GAZE

at that metallic citadel on the rock than the Captain gives the order.

‘Lock down visors. We’ve no comm link, so stick close. At all times

remain in verbal and visual contact. Check your weapons.’ He scans our

faces. ‘That structure is our primary target. Its screening must still

remain one hundred percent functional; if it had degraded so much as a

degree, the scouts would have locked onto an installation of that size on

their first sweep of the Quadrille.’

I look at the sky. It is a clear blue. That in itself makes me uneasy when

I remember the dark lowering clouds and thunder bursts that

accompanied our walk to the tunnel complex. Danger signals flash

inside my head. I open my mouth to speak to the Captain.

Brusquely, he gives the order to move out; he’s in no mood for debate.

‘Jomi. Kye. Tar’ant. Remain here with the Professor until we give you

the all clear . He’s your responsibility. Protect him.’

Which also means: ‘Guard him’ We still cannot say unequivocally

whether he’s our guide, our ward, or our prisoner. If anything, when I

glance at him, he’s as surprised at the vanishment of his kitchen wall as

we are.

Captain Vay gestures to the rest of the platoon. ‘Dissari. Fellebe.

Golstar. You go first. Rain. Pup. Amattan. You take the rear behind me’

As they move out into the steaming jungle, leaving us behind, the

Professor gazes at the Dalek citadel on the rock with wonder, coupled

with just a suggestion of –

‘Back!’

The Professor moves with a speed that catches Kye and me off-guard.

He’s standing between us when he turns and pushes us back into the

kitchen with so much force that I stumble against the table and Kye loses

her footing; she falls sprawling on her back. Tar’ant and I immediately

aim our weapons at the man before he can attack again.

‘No,’ the Professor shouts, pointing toward the jungle. ‘Look out

there!’

A shadow falls from the sky; one with hard edges and straight lines. An

oblong of darkness. It lands against the opening in the kitchen to lie

flush with the remaining walls, forming a complete seal.

‘What have you done?’ I demand.

The Professor points to himself. ‘Me? Nothing’ He gestures for us to

move back. ‘I suggest you don’t go near it.’

‘What is it?’

‘Good heavens. I don’t know. If I don’t know my own name, or how I

got here, how should I know the nature of that thing?’

Kye climbs to her feet. ‘It’s forming a barrier between us and the

outside… It’s restricting the amount of light entering.’

She’s right. It’s like viewing the terrain through a vast sheet of tinted

glass. I can still see the rain forest, the blossoms, the citadel, the rest of

the platoon. But there is something smoky and muted about the colours

now.

‘Captain!’ I call. ‘Captain Vay!’

They don’t react. The platoon still scan the rain forest for any

suggestion of threat. But strangely they’re unaware that the Professor

and three comrades are sealed back in the kitchen area with this

shadowy barrier between us and the outside world. I join the Professor in

examining the barrier.

‘My guess,’ the Professor murmurs, ‘is that this barrier had the density

of gas until it reached the position where the wall once stood. Then it

condensed…’

‘Captain!’

‘Oh, I don’t think he will hear you.’

I know soon enough that the Captain and the rest of the platoon cannot

hear me. Already they are perhaps thirty paces from us. They’re still

warily looking ahead into the forest, checking for potential threats.

Danger. In my blood stream, every corpuscle is beating with red

danger lights. The sense of impending dread is threatening to overwhelm

my training.

Kye cries urgently: ‘Jomi! They’ve seen something!’

They have. I see them react to a threat that I can’t see from this angle.

The Captain is turning and moving his mouth (only I hear nothing – no

sound reaches me through this wall of shadow); the platoon scatter. As

they do so, I see them shouting. They point into a dense mass of bushes.

Sweet life, they have recognised something there. A ‘something’ that

has shaken them to the bone. The Captain’s hand gesture tells me that

he’s given the order to fire at the target I can’t see. The platoon’s

weaponry blasts tear through vegetation, sending balls of flame into the

air. Whatever’s concealed in the greenery returns fire. The platoon dive

desperately for cover behind creeper-covered rocks and tree stumps. I

sense the panic and shock in my comrades. They are fighting for their

lives out there. Vivid bursts of light. Explosions. Bolts of energy that

turn vegetation to steam. Yet, in all that fury and movement, I don’t hear

so much as whisper. Those are my friends battling for survival, I sense

their terror, but that shadowy slab has separated us from the commotion

just a few metres away. The Professor, Kye, Tar’ant and I have been

reduced to mere spectators.

The unseen attacker blasts a tree stump behind which Pup is sheltering.

Timber is ripped to pulp with such savagery that the concussion knocks

Pup back end over end, as if he’s a doll thrown by a petulant child. I

gasp with relief as I see him scramble to his feet, apparently unhurt, and

dive into a hollow in the ground as yet another dazzling bolt of energy

burns a hole through the very air above his head. The vacuum created by

its passing is enough to suck grass and leaves in its wake, until the entire

scene is misted green with airborne debris. Ducking, weaving, driven by

panic and adrenaline, the platoon return fire into the heart of the bushes.

Captain Vay risks leaping onto a fallen log to give him a clear shot. This

time, we’re rewarded with the sight of a direct hit. Whatever lurked in

those branches has fired its last shot; a colossal blast throws up a column

of greasy orange flame. Even so, the shock wave of its detonation races

outward in an ever-expanding ring of debris that knocks the Captain

reeling from the log.

I see no jubilation at what has been destroyed (and now I’m beginning

to guess the identity of our foe), because still the platoon has to sprint

from tree trunk to boulder as yet more of the enemy hidden in the forest

join the battle. I see a salvo of shots tear furrows into the ground beyond

the screen. Once more, the platoon flee in panic. I see Pup throw himself

behind a mound of rocks. Golstar and Amattan dive into the

undergrowth, but more weapon blasts from the forest set the plants

ablaze, forcing them to run back for the uncertain shelter of the kitchen.

Amattan launches himself at the kitchen wall, seems to strike it, then

somehow stops dead. But our attention is drawn from him to Golstar.

He’s almost back at the barrier when he pauses and stares in our

direction in surprise. Worse, I see the expression of fear through the

visor turn his face into a mask. His head turns from left to right,

scanning the kitchen area.

‘Dear heaven,’ the Professor breathes. ‘He cannot see us.’

Kye leans forward until her head almost touches the barrier. ‘What is it

out there?’ She turns to me. ‘Jomi. They’re fighting for their lives!’

What is it out there? she’d asked. Somehow I think she knows.

We see Golstar wade through the vegetation. With the weapon in one

hand, he uses the free hand to reach out to touch the barrier. To him,

there must be no transparency. Perhaps he sees a solid wall. Feverishly,

he runs his fingers over the substance, as if hoping to find an entrance

back into the building and safety. His mouth opens as he shouts to us.

We hear no sound. We don’t even hear the sound of what happens next.

A ball of light – a blue, eye searing ball of light. It engulfs Golstar. He

throws out both arms. Behind the visor, his eyes widen in shock and

agony. Then the bolt of naked energy hurls him forward against the

screen, holding him there, pinning him face forward against the massive

transparent sheet. Uniform and flesh boil away in a gush of vapour.

Soon only charred bones and helmet are held there. A horrific skeleton

pattern blazing against the barrier. Then the fire is gone. And so is

Golstar.

FOURTEEN

I HEAR KYE YELL: ‘JOMI. TAR’ANT! HELP ME WITH AMATTAN!’

He made it through the barrier, I tell myself. He’s safe in here with us.

That’s what I think… That’s what I self-delude.

‘Amattan…’ Don’t worry. We’ll help you. You’ll be all right. Those

were the words I was going to say. Sweet life, I wish I could say them

now…

His screams are shrill. I’ve never heard so much pain distilled into a

single note of agony from a Thal.

This is what I see. It makes my blood run to ice in my heart.

Amattan made it through the membrane of shadow that had infilled the

void where the kitchen wall once stood. But only part way.

For a whole minute we stand there in shock watching Amattan – or

what we see of Amattan. His right foot, plus the entire section of leg

beneath the right knee, has passed through the boundary into the kitchen.

So has his left hand as far as his wrist. The front of his head is in the

kitchen. The rest of his body and head is fixed in the barrier, the

substance of which seems to be solidifying further with each passing

moment. It is as if he is lying in a pool of black liquid that somehow

defies gravity to stand in the vertical. Although most of his body is

immersed, part of his leg, hand and face are raised above the surface.

‘Jomi, help me,’ Kye yells. She grips Amattan’s hand and pulls. Only

this makes the pain worse; screaming, he pleads with her to stop.

I flick open his transparent visor. I flinch back at the sight of his eyes.

They bulge proud of his head. His skin is purple with congested veins.

His lips are swollen and dark. Blood trickles from his nostrils; more

blood slicks his tongue crimson.

‘Professor,’ I scream. ‘It’s crushing him. Help us get him out!’

The Professor’s eyes are huge; he stares at our trapped comrade in

horror. Then he shakes his head. ‘My friends, I’m sorry. I’m truly

sorry…’

Amattan is screaming in agony. The free leg kicks; the ranger’s gloved

hand is bunched into a quivering fist.

‘Can’t we burn him out?’ asks Tar’ant, fingering his weapon.

The Professor shakes his head. ‘The barrier would simply form again –

it’s like trying to blast a hole through smoke.’

‘We have to do something,’ Tar’ant.

‘You cannot save him,’ mutters the Professor in obvious distress.

Savagely I push the Professor away. ‘No!’

The man straightens, but he is winded by the shove. ‘The wall… It’s

crushing him… There’s only one way to help him. You can stop his

suffering.’

‘No… No!’ The words rip through my throat. I raise my weapon. I’m

ready to use it, too. On the wild-eyed stranger calling himself

‘Professor.’ But not on my friend, Amattan. Never Amattan!

‘Jomi!’ This is Kye. ‘The Professor’s right. There’s nothing else we

can do’

Gulping, I turn. Aim the weapon at my friend’s face. I’m sick. Sick

through to every cell of my body.

‘Fire, Jomi,’ she cries. ‘He’s in agony!’

Amattan’s face is distorted by the enormous pressure encircling it. The

constricting force of the barrier around his wrist increases to the point

where it is greater than the structural strength of the wrist bone. With a

snick it pinches through flesh and bone. Amattan’s severed hand falls

twitching to the kitchen floor.

When I thought the man couldn’t scream any louder, he does. ‘Please

end it,’ Kye begs.

‘No. You!’

‘Jomi, I can’t. My gun’s locked’

I look into Amattan’s ruined face, seeing so clearly in my mind’s eye

the large brown eyes in Yo’s face after the mineral conveyor crushed

her. And how I’d hit her with the rock. And how she wouldn’t die as I so

desperately tried to put her out of her misery.

‘Jomi, stand aside!’ Tar’ant pushes me away.

I seem to be struggling from a deep sleep.

A blast of light. I flinch, covering my mouth with the back of my hand.

It is Tar’ant who has committed the merciful act. The searing heat of

the gunshot kills Amattan in an instant. He will feel nothing more.

Only I feel waves of remorse – and a deep burning sense of failure. Just

as I failed Yo, I’ve failed Amattan.

Later. We’re back in the living room. The Professor sits on the arm of a

sofa, staring into space with those unusually intense eyes of his. Kye

flips up her visor.

‘Golstar and Amattan didn’t stand a chance.’

‘I know they didn’t.’ My mind plays a loop of what happened to our

comrades. The way Golstar’s suit, then flesh ablated from his body. The

blood boiling away in jets of steam. Bones sticking to the transparent

wall before sliding down into the dirt. How Amattan had leapt through

the gaseous wall as it rapidly condensed into a solid. He’d been locked

inside that dark matter as it hardened, crushing him to the point where

he…

I shake my head, snapping out of the grip of the horrific mental image.

‘Priority one. We’ve got to rejoin the platoon.’

‘But how?’ Tar’ant paces the room. ‘You saw the opening reseal itself.’

‘There’ll be another way.’ I nod back toward the corridor. ‘We return

the way we came in, then follow the slope up over the hill. The structure

we saw must be on the other side of that.’

Kye checks the ammo cyst on her gun. ‘I’m carrying a full charge. And

you?’

‘I’m on full, too.’

Tar’ant nods, ‘Full to the brim and ready to go.’

‘Good’, Kye’s voice becomes a snarl, ‘because I’m ready to kill

something.’

I catch her eye. ‘You know what we’re dealing with here?’

She nods.

‘Then let’s blast some Daleks.’

Tar’ant slaps the stock of the gun. ‘Count me in.’

The Professor suddenly breaks out of his trance. ‘Daleks? They did that

to your comrade?’

‘Yep. They’ll do the same to us unless we hit them first.’ I nod at Kye

and Tar’ant. ‘Ready?’

‘Ready!’ We’re locked into hunt and destroy mode now. We’ve trained

for this so often it’s as natural as breathing. ‘Tar’ant, you take forward.

I’ll cover left flank. Kye, you take rear and right flank.’

As we move into the corridor, guns at the ready, I hear footsteps behind

me.

‘It’s OK, Professor,’ I tell him. ‘You can stay here now.’

‘Oh, but I’m coming.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’

‘I might find what I’m looking for?’

Sweet life! More nutty talk.

Kye asks, ‘And what might you be looking for, Professor?’

‘I don’t know. But I’m sure I’ll know when I find it.’

‘Stay here, Professor. If you can lock the doors, do so.’

‘Yeah,’ Tar’ant’s expression is grim. ‘If you hadn’t noticed, it’s not

safe round here.’

We move off along the corridor. Ahead is the plush armchair in the

centre where we first saw the man reading his book.

I snap words back over my shoulder. ‘Professor. Your living quarters

are back the other way.’

‘No.’

‘Professor –‘

’No. I’m coming with you. Don’t try and stop me, please! I know it’s

important. I’ve got to go where you go. That’s the key to all this. I’ll

find the key that explains everything. Everything.’

Kye hisses to me. ‘Damn. He’s going off in one of his loops again.’

Then to the Professor. ‘Go back to your room. Now!’

‘Kye. We haven’t time to argue with him. Let him come if he wants.’

‘Why not.’ Then she adds darkly: ‘We’ll probably lose him out there in

the jungle anyway.’

We turn the corner into the section that leads to the tunnel entrance.

What we see is enough to bring us to a dead stop. As Tar’ant moves for

a closer look, Kye turns to me, her eyes wide.

‘Looks like someone closed the door,’ I breathe. ‘OK, Professor. How

do we open it?’

He stares at the entrance that has now been sealed by a black slab.

‘Search me. I’ve never been down this far.’

‘You flinched when Captain Vay used the word “prison”.’

‘Did I?’

‘Is this what we’re in now? A jail? A prison built for one?’

Kye gives the man a searching stare. ‘It appears you’ve just got some

fellow inmates.’

FIFTEEN

OF COURSE, WE CHECK THE DOOR. WELL, MORE SLAB THAN

door. The nature of the thing is pretty obvious, too.

Kye runs her hand over its smooth surface. ‘Same material as the

barrier in the kitchen.’

The man touches it. ‘Only unyielding and it’s lost its transparency. It

must have been here longer.’

‘There are no controls: I turn back to Kye. ‘So what now?’

Tar’ant slips his firearm from his shoulder. ‘I can burn through it.’

‘You could try. But it won’t do any good.’ The Professor lightly traces

a finger across the barrier as if trying to find a secret pulse.

‘Professor. These guns have got a hell of a punch. They can poke a

hole through any known material in the universe.’

‘What about unknown material, hmm?’ He raps a knuckle on the black

surface. ‘You can burn a hole through this, but immediately more of the

substance will flow into the void and repair itself.’ He stands back. ‘You

see, it’s not a solid. It’s a gas. Dense gas – incredibly dense. Under so

much compression it’s hard as rock. But, shoot holes in it? You might as

well shoot holes in fresh air.’

‘Seems you know a lot about it.’

‘Yes, I do, don’t I? How extraordinary.’

Kye lets out a whistle. ‘Perhaps you’ll come in useful after all,

Professor.’

‘I hope so. And I pray you will be useful to me.’

‘OK, Professor.’ Tar’ant shoulders his gun. ‘I’ll trust you on that one –

for now. So let’s put our new partnership to the test. Do you know if

there’s another way out of here?’

He smiles, then gives one of those apologetic shrugs we’ve come to

know pretty well by now.

I hear Kye vent her breath in frustration. ‘Looks like we’re going to

have to search this place from top to bottom.’

As we walk back along the corridor, Kye fires questions at the man.

‘There aren’t any more tunnels running off this one?’

‘Not that I’m aware of.’

‘No locked rooms you don’t have access to?’

‘None.’ Then adds in a puzzled voice. ‘I did have a key once.’

‘A key?’

‘Yes, an important one.’

‘What kind of key?’

‘It was a–’ He grunts, his face twisting with pain, eyes narrowing,

bleeding tears through the slits. ‘Uh.’

‘Professor?’

‘What!’ He thunders. ‘Are you going to fire questions at me for the rest

of eternity! Are there any locked doors? What key? What prison? What

time? Questions – questions! I don’t have to answer any of them. You

don’t own me! You’re nothing to me! You are trespassers! You’ve no

right to be here!’ The words blast from his lips in furious torrents. Now

his eyes blaze at us. ‘If you listen to me, do as I say, then you might –

just might! – get out of here with your lives!’

With that he turns and marches down the corridor. We follow.

Bemused, Tar’ant shrugs. Kye makes a gesture that I interpret: ‘What

the hell brought that on?’ I shake my head. The man’s weird mood

swings are becoming more pronounced. When we first arrived, he was

good-natured, languid, unfazed by our arrival. Now there’s something

manic about him. Prickly. Edgy. Even downright bad tempered.

From a doorway a figure steps out.

Kye reacts with surprise. ‘Pup? Sweet life, are we pleased to see you!

Where’s Captain Vay?’

Pup stares at us, then opens his mouth. ‘We are all lost in the dark,

ranger. Soon you will be lost, too.’

The Professor continues striding along the corridor, yet swings out an

arm, hurling Pup against the wall.

‘Professor, what are you… ?’ Kye’s voice trails off. Pup simply

evaporates into a cloud of flying insects.

‘Don’t you ever learn, children?’ The Professor doesn’t even glance

back as he snarls the words. ‘Those are walking, talking hives. They’ll

lay the eggs of their young in your skin if they get half the chance.

You’ll be hollowed out within the week.’

Kye is rattled by the scolding. ‘I could have sworn it was Pup. It looked

so like–’

‘Yes, yes. Have you seen a stick insect mimic a stick? Or a chameleon

change its colour? Nature is nothing if not resourceful. Look. That

shadow on the wall I’m making. Is it a bird with its beak open, or is it

my hand and fingers mimicking the action? Hmm?’

Now the Hmm sound is aggressive rather than dreamy.

‘The Greek God Proteus could change into any shape; take on any

form; disguise himself perfectly.’

‘Greek God?’ I echo, finding the man more bewildering than ever.

‘Yes. Greece and its Gods – Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Dionysius, the

aforementioned Proteus… ah.’ He stops to wave a finger at us. ‘But

you’re not Homo Sapiens of planet Earth, are you?’

‘We are Thals.’

‘Yes, of course… But Earth? I’d forgotten all about Earth. Yes.’ With

his fingertips he taps his chin in rapid movements, almost like someone

operating a keypad. ‘Earth. A little blue-green world populated by a

quarrelsome race of beings. Infuriating but imaginative. Territorial to the

point of psychosis. Pragmatic yet ineffably spiritual. My, my… I wonder

what happened to them?’

‘Professor.’ I step a little tentatively in the hope of avoiding triggering

his wrath again. ‘Professor, it seems that you are starting to remember

more and more’

‘Ah, a question disguised as a statement. Good, good. That is shrewd;

see disguise, whether it is physical form or words, has its uses.’ He

walks away again, only to stop after three paces and whirl round. ‘Yes…

yes! I am remembering more.’ He strides away. ‘But whether that’s

going to be helpful – or dangerous… only time will tell.’

We make that search of the complex. All we find is what we’ve seen

before. A length of tunnel some three hundred and eight paces from the

armchair to where it terminates (the Professor reminds us often that he’s

paced the distance); eight rooms leading from that tunnel for domestic

use. The kitchen wall is just how the Professor remembered it of old. It

no longer appears as a slab of dark material. Neither is it transparent. No

trace remains of Amattan. From the wall’s vertical plane hang kitchen

utensils. The man taps a copper pan that hangs there. It chimes faintly.

‘Extraordinary. See.’ He motions us closer. ‘Nothing more than gas –

all of it. In our absence, these pans and kitchen instruments have been

extruded from the same material. Like those insects – like the god

Proteus – this material can adopt any form it wishes.’

Tar’ant sniffs the air as if sniffing for danger. ‘Or whatever intelligence

that controls it dictates.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right, Tar’ant.’ He flicks the pan. The sound is

more like a gong now. ‘But of course, this may be automatic. There may

be no intelligent controller as such. But the three of you believe this is

the work of that thingy-ma-bob you call a Dalek, don’t you?’

‘All the clues indicate that is the case.’

‘You really don’t like the Daleks, do you?’

‘No sane Thal would.’ Kye speaks with real heat. ‘You’ve never heard

of them, so you don’t know what they do.’

‘And what do they do?’

‘They’re a billion times worse than those walking hives you have here.

They might not lay their eggs in your skin, but they consume anything

and everything to preserve their existence. They’re like a virus spreading

through the universe. If it suits Dalek purpose they’ll slaughter every

single life form on a planet, then strip-mine it until it’s an empty husk.

They’ve even been known to suck dry entire stars of their energy. They

are without conscience. Probably the only reason why more species

haven’t been wiped out by the Daleks is that the poisonous monsters

want to see if nature produces any more evolutionary developments that

they can exploit to make the Dalek race more powerful.’

‘They do sound formidable, don’t they?’

‘Formidable! They are Death, that’s what they are: Death!’

‘But there is another force more formidable. More ruthless.’

‘Yeah, and what that might be?’ Kye sneers her disbelief.

‘The Thals’

She flinches as if she’s been slapped.

‘After all,’ he speaks softly now, ‘the Thals have driven the Daleks out

of this arm of the galaxy, haven’t they?’

‘How did you know that?’

‘I don’t know how. But it’s true, isn’t it?’

This statement by the peculiar, mood-shifting man makes us all fall

silent for a while. We wait in the kitchen without knowing why. Perhaps

hoping that the fourth wall will simply melt away again to reunite us

with the platoon. From time to time, we check the comm links in the

forlorn hope that we can either speak to Captain Vay or to the ship still

orbiting this stinking swamp of a planet. Tar’ant opens every cupboard,

perhaps in the hope it will reveal an exit, but all he finds are packs of

food and kitchen utensils. Kye mentions the possibility of HQ becoming

so concerned by their loss of contact with Captain Vay’s platoon that

they’ll launch a search and recovery party. We wince at the thought of

this. To have to be rescued by another platoon would be shameful for us.

However, I doubt this will happen. Not yet anyway. The global electrical

storms here are so intense that HQ will simply guess we’re sitting out

hostile weather until it clears. Then we’d be free to make contact before

taking the shuttle back to the ship. The Professor listens to our

conjecture without comment. For a while we settle into silence, simply

staring at the black wall. Maybe it will vanish? Maybe the platoon will

find another entrance to this complex?

The Professor eventually breaks the silence. ‘If you need a meal,

there’s no time like the present?’

Kye looks at me. ‘I guess it couldn’t do any harm. We’re not going

anywhere in a hurry.’ With a sigh of relief, she eases her helmet from

her head and shakes her hair loose.

‘Suits me,’ says Tar’ant. ‘What you got, Professor?’

‘I’ll take tea, but I imagine you’re not familiar with that, hmm?’

‘Tea? ‘No. But I could use a drink of cold water. Kye… Kye?’ I see

she’s staring toward the door. Immediately I spin round to look at what

she’s seen. My finger slips round the gun trigger.

A child stands in the doorway. She’s watching us with calm, grey eyes.

There’s no expression on her face. She does not move. Does not even

blink.

The Professor turns from the sink with two cups of water. He nods at

the child. ‘Shall you, or shall I?’

Kye shakes her head, her eyes fixed on the child’s face. ‘No. That’s my

sister.’

The Professor sets down the cups on the table. ‘You know what she is,

Kye. She’s not your sister. The insects have a telepathic ability. They

can select a memory of someone you love and mould themselves into

that image.’

‘I know. I know. She’s one of those disgusting walking hives.’

‘Then don’t tarry or they’ll be burrowing into your skin. Then where

will you be?’

Kye swallows. ‘My sister’s dead’

‘Oh. I’m sorry, I truly am.’

‘She was killed with her friend when they triggered a mine. It would

have been…’ Kye shakes her head, unable to continue.

‘Those responsible?’ The Professor’s voice is gentle. ‘Daleks?’

‘Daleks,’ I confirm.

Tar’ant adds: ‘When they withdrew from liberated planets they seeded

the soil with millions of tiny mines. They’re powerful enough to maim

and kill if you’re close when they detonate. We run thorough sieving

programs, but still one or two get through.’

‘Believe me, I am sorry.’ The Professor nods toward the child that is

nothing more than a densely packed mass of insects. ‘But we have to be

rid of our uninvited guest’

‘I understand,’ Kye tells him. ‘But I’d rather not watch this time’

‘Of course.’ He looks at me. ‘Jomi, isn’t it?’

I nod.

‘Then Jomi, will you comfort your colleague while I deal with this?’

I put my arm around her shoulders while positioning myself between

her and the copy of her sister.

‘The trick is…’ The Professor moves toward the child shaped figure.

‘The trick is to break up the hive as soon as they form themselves into a

humanoid figure. Prevents them from engaging the breeding cycle. Uh?’

I glance back over my shoulder toward the doorway. The child has

stepped backward into the corridor.

‘That is strange.’ The Professor frowns. ‘The hives tend not to retreat

when approached. But then again, they have being behaving out of norm

recently.’

I remember how the ‘Thal boy-child’ acted earlier. ‘One of those things

seemed to bring the platoon here this morning.’

‘Really? Now that is odd.’ He regards the child as it stands in the

corridor staring back in at him. Then he addresses it: ‘Can you

understand me?’

The child doesn’t reply. Doesn’t even react. Simply stands and stares

with those wide, grey eyes.

‘Do you want us to follow?’

The child doesn’t move until the man takes a step forward, then it

reciprocates with a step backward.

‘You do want me to follow.’

The child shape doesn’t respond verbally, but with every step of the

Professor’s it reciprocates with another step down the corridor.

I whisper to Kye: ‘I think we should follow, too.’

Kye nods as she picks up her firearm.

I glance at Tar’ant. ‘Best stay here and keep an eye on the kitchen wall,

in case it performs the disappearing trick again.’

‘Happy to. Those bug people give me the creeps.’

The three of us take our time following the ‘child.’ It moves one step at

a time. In the distance we see the man’s reading chair in the centre of the

corridor. The ‘child’ appears to wait until it’s sure we are following,

then turns and walks forward into the spare room.

‘Well, it can’t get far that way.’ I slip the gun strap over my shoulder.

‘It’s just your junk room, isn’t it, Professor?’

‘Junk room? That’s my treasured archive.’

Kye steps forward. ‘She wants us to follow her in there.’

‘She’s a “they”, if you remember.’ The Professor holds up a hand to

stop us. ‘The swarm of insects that have taken that shape see you as

baby food.’

There’s been a shift in our relationship, I realise. The Professor has

become our guide and protector. Once more he holds up his hand to stop

us from entering the room, instead electing to go first, even though he is

unarmed. I know this state of affairs can’t continue. There’s a chance he

will be our prisoner in the future, so I know I’m going to have to

re-establish my authority over him. But… Well, there is something

formidable about him. I find myself slipping into the role of respectful

student overawed by the charismatic (if spectacularly eccentric)

schoolmaster.

‘Professor. Next time, let me enter a room before you, just in case –‘

’Quickly, rangers. You should take a look at this.’

I glance at Kye, and her shrug’s eloquent enough. We are losing

control of the man. From the tone of his voice we realise he’s found

something, so we dart through the door.

Two things.

First: the ‘girl’. Something’s happening to her. She’s changing.

Second: the room itself. That’s different, too.

Kye shouts: ‘My sister did want to help us. She’s showed us a way

out!’

This time it’s the Professor who catches my eye. He’s uneasy that Kye

identifies what amounts to a parasitic swarm as her sister. Even so, I

realise that the ‘girl -child’, for whatever motive, has led us into a room

that has undergone a profound change.

‘Zoe?’

Kye has used her sister’s name to address the ‘walking hive,’ as the

man dubs it.

‘Zoe.’

The figure of the child is changing. I watch as its mouth alters shape;

the lips are swelling, seemingly blistering, as their colour darkens from

pink to black. Lumps form on the face. I realise that where there was

once a nose and lips I’m now seeing a mass of insects. The figure is

losing its cohesion. Instead of the insects making up an integrated

human form, they are releasing their grip on each other; what was such a

tightly woven fabric of legs, wings, thoraxes and hard carapaces, is

unravelling. When it happens, I’m not exactly sure. One second I’m

seeing a humanlike figure, albeit blurred as the swarm frees itself, then

the next instant the ‘girl’ dissolves into a cloud of buzzing insects. We

flinch back as they hum through the air. For a moment, I think they’ve

launched themselves at us. However, they sweep round the room in a

black mist, increasing in speed until the buzz becomes a hard whine that

sets our teeth on edge. The next moment, they’re gone.

Not through the doorway this time. But through the far wall of the junk

room.

The Professor looks at us. ‘It seems it’s gone and done it again. My

walls appear to have developed the perplexing ability to disappear. My,

my. A “here today, gone tomorrow” habit. This is very confusing

indeed.’ He makes a move toward the dark void beyond the room.

‘Not this time, Professor.’ I move fast. ‘I’ll go first. Kye, watch our

backs.’

This time, instead of finding an opening to blue skies, a rain forest and

a fortress on a cliff, we find ourselves at the start of a narrow tunnel that

slopes steeply downward.

Drawing a deep breath, I take a few paces back, then call through the

doorway toward the kitchen. ‘Tar’ant… Tar’ant! You better join us in

here. This place has just gone and done it all over again.’

SIXTEEN

I KEEP MY WEAPON READY. THE PASSAGEWAY IS UNLIT; SHADOWS

swarm in its depths; noxious forms, like predatory creatures in deep

water. Slowly… slowly… I step forward until I’m in the tunnel. In the

section where I stand, the walls begin to glow. Probably some backup

lighting system triggered by my presence; sufficient to see by – just.

Walls and floor are not only bare but a featureless grey. Not so much as

a rivet or weld seam. Free from dirt and debris.

‘Looks like the only way, Kye.’ I wait for her to acknowledge my

suggestion.

She nods. ‘We’ve no choice, Jomi.’

‘What say you, Tar’ant?’

‘Lead on, friend.’

‘Wait… Wait!’ The Professor surges through the opening to grab my

arm.

‘What is it?’

‘You can’t go down there.’

‘We’ve got to find our platoon, Professor.’

‘No.’

‘It’s the only way out of here.’

‘You can’t go down there, do you hear me?’

‘Why not?’

‘Danger… Awful, awful danger.’

‘What kind of danger, Professor?’

The man almost howls with frustration. ‘That’s just it. I don’t know. I

mean – I mean I did know. Once! But I can’t remember.’

‘We must go.’

‘If you go down there, ranger, then nothing will ever be the same

again! Nothing… Not for you… not for me… anyone…’ His gaze loses its

directness; he’s peering inward on himself again as his speech

fragments. Trying to locate secret truths hidden in the depths of his

mind.

Kye speaks: ‘You don’t have to come with us, Professor. Not if you

don’t want to.’

‘Want? Want! Nothing to do with want! Don’t you understand? I’m

frightened of what I’ll find!

SEVENTEEN

WE STAND THERE. TENSION TURNS THE MAN’S FACE INTO A RIGID

mask. His eyes stare into the tunnel’s shadowed maw.

I ask: ‘And just what are you afraid of down there?’

‘Terrible things… terrible,’ he breathes.

‘You’re beginning to remember?’

He shakes his head, his voice a whisper. ‘I’m afraid I’ll find my name

down there. Then I’ll remember what I’ve forgotten. And I don’t know

if I do want to recall my past anymore. My amnesia must have some

greater purpose.’ Perspiration forms on his brow. ‘It’s down there… I

can feel it.’

As if in confirmation, a deep soulful cry shimmers from the depths of

the tunnel.

Kye gasps. ‘What was that?’

The man’s eyes are locked on that tunnel of darkness. ‘Friend or foe,’

he whispers. ‘I don’t know… I don’t know… ‘

It sounds again. A deep ululation; far away; but charged, somehow,

with huge sorrow; an eternal yearning. A longing. The sound is so

melancholy that shivers ripple down my spine. For that call triggers a

memory within me. It’s the sound Yo made when she was struck by the

mineral conveyor. The sound I hear now is not only emerging from the

depths of the tunnel, it’s echoing from the depths of my mind. Initially, I

figure that if I advance into this conduit I might encounter whatever

monstrous creature has made these cries… then I fear I might meet

something worse down there. Call it what you want – guilt, remorse. But

I wonder if my failure to put my childhood pet out of its misery is

coming back to haunt me again. What’s more, I wonder if I will have the

courage to face whatever I find down there.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, I check the magazine cyst on the

underside of the gun. ‘Kye. Tar’ant. The charge is beginning to degrade.

I’m down to eighty percent. How’s yours holding out?’

‘Seventy-five.’

Kye clicks her tongue. ‘Mine, too. It’s like this place is sucking the

juice out of the thing.’

The man stares fixedly into the darkness. A statue-like figure.

Fascinated yet appalled by this conduit that runs deep into planet

bedrock.

‘Professor. We’re running out of options now. We’re losing power in

the weapons.’

He breaks out of his near trance. ‘Weapons?’

‘Our weapons.’ I hold the gun so he can see it. ‘In a couple of hours we

won’t be able to fire them.’ I’m not sure if I’m getting through. ‘That

means we’ll be able to use them only as clubs.’ I nod to Kye. ‘Ready

when you are?’

‘I’m ready.’

‘OK. Good-bye, Professor.’ We begin to walk into the tunnel. As we

appear to be on the verge of moving once more into absolute darkness, a

faint glimmer flows into the walls to give us just enough illumination to

see where we step.

Then the silence is broken by a faltering voice from behind. ‘Wait…

wait. I’m coming with you.’

EIGHTEEN

WE’VE BEEN WALKING FOR A WHILE. THE TUNNEL IS FEATURELESS,

dimly lit, apparently a road to nowhere fast. I see nothing ahead of us.

Nothing behind. With the exception of Kye, Tar’ant and the Professor,

of course, who follow. There are no junctions in the tunnel. No branches

off. Grey, grey… Grey walls forever. Once more my mind spins back

those long dead years to when Yo was struck by the vehicle. I hear her

cries. I find myself gazing into those brown, trusting eyes again.

Helpless, but knowing I must act to free her from her pain…

‘Four thousand,’ the man declaims.

‘What’s that, Professor?’

‘Four thousand. I’ve counted every step of the way.’

‘We should be reaching the end of it now,’ says Kye; a statement

rooted more in hope than in fact.

‘As long as we’re not in a storm drain,’ I add. ‘I hate the idea of being

flushed.’

Tar’ant sniffs. ‘You’re not the only one.’

The mournful cry echoes along the tunnel again; a ghostly sound that

chills my blood.

‘A storm drain?’ The Professor’s eyes gleam with uncanny lights in the

shadows. ‘Oh, I think it’s far more than that.’

We move on.

‘Four thousand and one, four thousand and two, four thousand and

three…’

If the Professor’s going to count aloud every step of the way, this will

send me as crazy as he is.

‘Four thousand and four, four thousand and five…’

Kye murmurs so the man doesn’t hear: ‘Are you going to shoot him, or

shall I?’

I open my mouth to reply; only I don’t get chance. The floor is no

longer there – I’m falling. A steamy, warm atmosphere rushes over me. I

see ten different shades of green. Then solid ground hurtles up.

NINETEEN

‘JOMI… JOMI! ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?’

I don’t breathe any more. At least, that’s what it feels like. I’m lying

flat on my back in a mess of broadleaf plants, looking up at two faces

that peer down at me through the hole I fell through.

Now that doesn’t make sense, I tell myself. I’m walking through a

subterranean passageway, then I fall out of it into the open air. What’s

more, I’ve fallen a distance that’s more than twice my height into

vegetation that’s a bilious green.

I don’t breathe any more… only I need to breathe. My back hurts. Pains

shoot through my ribs. Then in a rush I breathe in. I wince, expecting

that inhalation to be agonising. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt as much as I

expected. Exhaling, then taking another breath, I find the pains in my

jolted body are receding. This helps me take more of an interest in my

surroundings.

With a groan, I raise my visor. All around me clumps of billowing

green burst out of the ground. The sky above is blue. (No cloud; no rain;

no thunder. Strange). I see that looping across and through the blue are

long grey tubes. They look the same as the one I fell from. Only,

thankfully, that particular one isn’t so high from the ground. My eyes

take in the grey tubes that make me think of arteries within the body.

They run in seemingly random patterns from one horizon to the other.

The longer I examine them, the more I see that a number appear to snake

out of the blue stuff of the sky to slope downward to the green stuff of

the ground.

Jorm!’ Kye’s shouting again. ‘Are you OK?’

I wave to her, still trying to recover from the winding I got from the

fall. She interprets this as me not being badly hurt.

‘Can you stand?’

I nod; at the third attempt, I make it to my feet. Then I retrieve my gun

from where it splashed down into a cluster of fungi that reach as high as

my knees. The weapon’s smeared with a foul smelling jelly from the

fungus, but appears to be undamaged.

The Professor calls down, his bright eyes fixed on mine: ‘Can you tell

where you are?’

‘Rain forest,’ I manage to say.

‘Can you see Tar’ant?’

‘He’s down here?’

‘He fell through just seconds after you. The floor dissolved right from

under his feet.’

‘No… I don’t see him.’

‘The fall might have stunned him. All we can see is you and the area of

ground immediately around you. Do you see anything else?’ Kye adds:

‘Any sign of the platoon?’

I shake my head. Looking round, I see a mass of verdant green. Heavy

crimson blossom hangs from branches. Green tsunamis of vines sweep

over boulders. There are myriads of insects painted in dazzling colours –

emerald greens, metallic blues and purples. Vast butterflies with papery,

lemon-hued wings flutter above my head.

‘I don’t understand it,’ I begin. ‘Clear skies… but there’s no sun. I can’t

–‘ My voice morphs into a shout. ‘Hey, Kye! Professor! I can see the

building again. The same one we saw from the kitchen. This must be –‘

’Then take great care, Jomi,’ the Professor warns. ‘Remember your

people encountered hostile forces out here.’

He’s right. I drop to a crouch, use leaves to wipe away the slippery

gunk from the gun, then set the trigger to rapid-fire. Now I scan my

location, searching for the Daleks I suspect haunt this jungle.

After a moment, I call up. ‘I see nothing that presents a threat.’

Kye kneels at the lip of the hole. ‘Keep watching, Jomi’

I remember what happened to Golstar, so I keep watching all right. As I

scan the encircling trees I call out: ‘Tar’ant… Tar’ant?’

Why doesn’t he answer?

‘Jomi, I don’t know how we’re going to haul you and Tar’ant back up

here. There’s no way of reaching you.’

‘There’s no need anyway. If anything, you have to find a way to climb

down here’ I glance at the crushed plants that broke my fall. ‘Without

cracking any bones. But I’m starting to get worried about Tar’ant’ I look

round. ‘Tar’ant? Can you hear me, friend?’ Uneasy, I try and make a

joke of it, to drive away the anxiety that’s gathering like a dark cloud

over me. ‘Tar’ant? Are you there? Knock once for yes, twice for no…’

Above me, the pair of them appear to go into conference, no doubt

discussing the best way to climb down from the aerial tube to the

ground. Now, I notice that an oval section of the bottom of the tube is

missing. Strange, because I’m sure it had been intact before I fell

through it.

For a while I crouch there keeping a watchful eye on my surroundings.

Hoping Tar’ant will lumber from the bushes with a big grin on his face.

From time to time, dragonflies with iridescent wings buzz me. The

hostile way they dart toward my face suggest they’re sizing me up as

their next meal. I flip the helmet visor back down. When they hover too

close, I jab them away with the muzzle of my weapon.

The Professor and Kye are taking their time over deciding how to reach

me. I glance up.

Sweet life. What I see leaves me open-mouthed. The tunnel has

resealed itself; a patch of black material has replaced the hole through

which Tar’ant and I fell, and I never noticed a thing. Even with the

predatory dragonflies circling, I risk removing my helmet, just in case I

can hear the pair. Only I hear nothing but the cry of birds and the

unpleasant whine of those damn dragonflies. One buzzes close to my

ear. With the butt of the gun I take a swipe at it.

‘Kye! Professor?’ I listen again for a reply. Nothing. Damn. How can I

have been so unobservant? Now they’re sealed inside that aerial grey

tube again. Beyond reach. I follow the tube with my eyes, trying to

determine if it simply terminates or if it snakes away into the wide blue

yonder like so many of the others. Only, at last, I see that this airborne

artery suddenly dips downward to penetrate the ground. Will the pair

wait? Will they retrace their steps? Will they go forward? Hell, I have no

way of knowing. I check the pad on my sleeve, hoping that the comm

link has been re-established. Not so much as a murmur. The whole

system’s dead, including telemetry and environment sensors. Now I

have to rely on what Thal evolution has given me. Sight, smell, touch,

hearing. I see little apart from profuse plant growth, blue sky, insects and

the metallic fortress on the cliff. The smell is undoubtedly powerful.

Rich, organic smells of rain forest, scented with heavy perfumes from

the blossom. Touch. Here, I feel only the press of the humid atmosphere

against the small areas of skin that aren’t protected by my suit. Again,

sounds are restricted to a cocktail of insect buzz and birdcalls from the

forest deeps.

Moments pass. The dragonflies are enough of a nuisance to persuade

me to flip down my visor. Above me, the black patch that re-sealed the

hole is lightening to the same grey as the rest of the tube. It seeming

increasingly unlikely that Kye and the Professor are going to find a way

out through this section, I decide that what I must do next is find

Tar’ant. I move through the waist-deep plants, softly calling his name.

I’m wary that too loud a shout could attract the wrong kind of attention.

Within fifteen paces I find him. I see him. I know it’s him… only for a

moment I tell myself it’s not real. One of those walking hives playing

another trick on me, or maybe I’m seeing things because I was

concussed by the fall. Reality bites only when I look into his eyes.

‘Tar’ant…’ I groan his name. ‘I’m sorry… You shouldn’t…’ Now I bite

my lip, not trusting my own voice as it breaks. There’s no escaping the

reality of this. Here is my friend Tar’ant. He’s fallen into a cradle of

branches that have closed over him, almost hiding him from view. No

wonder the Professor and Kye couldn’t see him. On each branch are a

dozen or more thorns that resemble the long, slender spines of a poison

fish. Dozens more have penetrated his body. One has even pierced the

back of his neck, the tip emerging from between his lips. I see that the

tip of each spine is hollow. A silvery drop of some liquid that can only

be venom forms there like dew. The branches from which the spines

emanate are a pale brown, but as I watch they turn red… blood red… as

they suck away what once flowed through his veins. For a moment, I

want nothing more than to stamp those killer plants – literally

bloodthirsty plants – into the ground: grind them to pulp. But that won’t

bring Tar’ant back. I turn away.

They say that soldiers who stop to mourn their fallen comrades die

young. I have no choice but to move on.

I suspect that Captain Vay would have headed for the cuboid fortress

up there on the cliff. If I make good progress, I can probably reach it

within two hours. Slipping the strap over my shoulder, I keep the firearm

hanging level at my hip, its muzzle pointing forward, just in case. I see

that I need to make my way down a slight incline first, before reaching

the base of the cliff. There appears to be a ramp that hugs the rock face,

then rises to the fortress itself. If I’m fortunate, I will make contact with

my platoon there.

Moving quickly, yet stealthily, I enter the forest. Immediately, I’m in a

green world of little light. In the gloom, wraiths of mist float amid

branches and rope-like vines criss-cross every available space. Mossclad

tree trunks loom. Fat bodied flies hover all around.

In front of me is what I take to be a stumpy tree as tall as a man. Moss

covers it with a vivid green skin, while more vines climb up its trunk to

curl round its three remaining branches… Green surfaces, soft shapes,

light diffused by a steam-laden jungle atmosphere. But that

configuration of lines; the hint of deadly symmetry beneath moss. I

know what this is.

I leap sideways as what I’d misread as a tree stump twists on its own

axis. The movement tears away softly engulfing moss to reveal hard

hemispheres that project from a metallic structure. The top rotates as

well, shedding fallen leaves, snapping vines. Insects flee from where

they’d settled on its body, perhaps instinctively reacting to this

concentration of pure evil. What I took to be branches break free of

vines. Its eye-stalk swings to focus on me. Then the whole monstrous

configuration lurches forward, leaving a crater where it had embedded

itself for – what? Centuries? Millennia?

‘Do not move.’ The Dalek’s voice is a hoarse rush of sound, like a

breeze blowing through trees in a cemetery. A distillation of cruelty that

contains the promise of death in every syllable. Sheer age has slowed it,

has hoarsened its voice; but every molecule of its body oozes an

emotional and mental toxicity. ‘Do not move.’

I do move, leaping sideward as moss covering the stubby weapon

sizzles into a blackened crust; a bolt of raw energy crackles from the

muzzle. Instantly, a ball of blue light sweeps past me, cutting a swathe

through the forest, searing vines, undergrowth, tree trunks to dust. Felled

trees collapse with a thump that shakes the ground. I glance back and see

that the Dalek’s shot has cut a circular tunnel clean through the forest.

Still it tracks me as I run. I see the weapon’s muzzle lock onto me.

What I choose to do now determines whether I survive, or whether I end

up like Golstar: a skeletonised ruin. So, what’s it to be? Run? Fight? I

reach a snap decision. My gun hums in my hand; the ammo cyst pulses,

ejecting a gush of super-heated molecules at the Dalek. An incandescent

aura forms round the metallic body. Vines and moss covering it flash

away in vapour, exposing the uncompromising shape of the monster;

then the blazing particles enter the fabric of the killing machine to

detonate within.

The explosion throws me backward. I roll onto my front, covering my

head as shards of the hot Dalek casing land in the moist vegetation,

where they hiss, blackening leaves and shrivelling vines all around me.

Quickly – gratefully – I retreat from the heat and the stench belching out

from the remains of the Dalek.

Now I leave the forest, at the same time treating my surroundings with

infinitely more respect. It is only when I’m clear of the jungle canopy

and can see blue sky above that I tug off my helmet. Suddenly that air is

a lovely thing to breathe. Especially as I came within five seconds of

becoming another Dalek statistic.

Once more, I have to re-assess my choice of destination. There may be

more Daleks in the forest. Sleepers that have waited for their Thal

enemy for a thousand years or more. Once more I gaze at those grey

tube structures running like veins through the air above me. Is there a

way to reach one of those? But even if I can find a way up there, how do

I enter one? And which one? Some do snake their way in S-shaped lines

to the cliff-top fortress. But will there be an exit, if I can even reach the

end of one? Sweet life, this isn’t going to be easy.

TWENTY

FOR A WHILE, ALL I CAN DO IS STAND THERE, CONSIDERING WHAT

to do next. My heartbeat has slowed after the adrenaline rush. It beats

with a steady, grave rhythm in my chest. High on its rock, the ugly

carcass of the fortress ruin looms over a jungle that is a violent outburst

of plant growth, one that swarms with venomous insects and choking

vines. The entire place is a stinking stew of rampant, undisciplined

nature – where death and decay relentlessly pursue life. And behind the

poisonous green that swarms over bedrock, and beneath the deeply

forbidding conglomeration of cubes on the hill that could be some grim

structure built from a million coffins, there is some other thing. A

monstrous sense of charge. It’s as if what I see now is a thin mask that

conceals a power that is immense and as implacable as it is faceless. I

feel it. It’s growing in strength; a dark heartbeat building in strength and

purpose.

Now my solitude is like a weight I am forced to carry. I’ve never felt so

alone in my life before. A breeze slides through the bushes, drawing out

a breathy hiss; a sinister sound as if the planet itself exhales. A

suggestion of something long dead returning, not to life – but to some

grotesque state that mimics life. My eyes are drawn up to the fortress

again. Its walls and vine-covered columns no longer appear inert.

Whatever dark energy pulses beneath the sweating forest is seeping into

that cold structure, too. Somehow it seems watchful now. As if a cold,

sinister intelligence high on the mount watches me. Recording my every

move. My deep, slow heartbeat seems to speak to me of impending

events. A profound change will take place soon. I feel its dark promise

in my bones. A transformation. An imminent passing from this universe

I know into some dark abyss of the soul – an alien place that will never

willingly permit my return. At least, not as I am now. It will be a place

that is malignant with pain and despair – a crucible that changes me

forever. Or is that fatal intersection of time and location I foresee, my

moment of dying? When I will be torn from this universe for the rest of

eternity?

My heartbeat slows. My respiration falters. My eyes are closing. An

all-engulfing darkness is blooming behind my eyelids. I know I should

move – but I can’t. A voice whispers deep inside my brain: ‘Give up. If

you try, you fail. Why exert yourself in vain? Lie down here. Lie down.

Sleep.’

‘LOOK OUT!’

I open my eyes to see that butterflies have settled on my arms and legs.

They are the size of a hand and are decorated with purple and gold heart

shapes on their wings. My sudden movement as I dodge sideways

disturbs them, and they flutter away in a rush. From above me a shape

descends. I drop to a crouch and point my gun, trying to find a target.

Only it’s no hostile creature. In astonishment I watch as the Professor

tumbles out of the blue sky to the ground. A second later, he crashes into

a waist-high clump of plants.

Running forward, I look down at the man as he lies there amid crushed

stalks, his arms and legs flung out.

He groans. ‘That was no accident. That was deliberate. They dumped

me here. They did this to me. They have cruel bones, Jomi.’

I look up. Kye is crouching by the lip of a new hole in the grey tube

that runs above my head.

Kye calls out: ‘Jomi, what’s happening?’ She’s seen the smoke rising

through the trees from the still red-hot fragments of Dalek casing.

I answer her question with a different one: ‘Kye! Can you get down

here?’

‘I’m going to jump.’

‘Go for the plants – where they’re thickest; they’ll break your fall.’

‘But not by much,’ the Professor adds bitterly. ‘My aching back… ‘

He still lies there wincing and grimacing. Then his expression alters.

‘Kye!’ He yells. ‘Don’t jump. Get back from the opening!’

I look up in time to see what I take to be a swarm of black insects

approaching the section of tube where part of the floor is missing. Kye

sees too. She springs back in a split-second. Not a moment too soon,

either, because that swarm of misty black abruptly condenses into a hard

slab. Swiftly it flies toward the tube then clamps itself over it, neatly

sealing the rupture.

‘Damn,’ I hiss, ‘she should have jumped.’

‘If she’d jumped into that thing as it condensed…’ The Professor

grimaces.

‘Kye!’

‘Don’t waste your breath, Jomi. She can’t hear you.’ The man wipes

scraps of leaf from his face. ‘If I were you, I’d… What’s that?’ A

cracking sound. ‘No.’

Plants enclose the man in a kind of spiky green halo, but I see that they

appear to be shrinking as a depression forms beneath his weight. The

cracking is replaced by a loud snap. Even as the Professor attempts to

stand, the ground sinks beneath him, then a whole section falls away. He

plunges from sight with a yell. There’s the sound of a heavy object

falling, striking the sides of a pit as it does so, before eventually

slamming into the bottom. Heart thumping, I edge toward the edge of

hole, mindful that there might be only an insubstantial crust of earth and

plants beneath me.

‘Professor!’

I see him clinging to the edge of the hole, hanging there by his hands.

His feet swing beneath him, and below is only a deep, dark void into

which scraps of earth and plant stems whirl away to vanish deep

underground. A section of steel grid peels away from behind the man to

fall into the abyss with a series of thuds followed, some time after, by a

crash. It must have been another one of those falling that had led me to

think that it was the Professor that had hit the bottom of the pit.

‘Give me your hand, Professor.’

‘Stay back! It’s not safe.’

I lay down my gun, then move forward on all fours, spreading my

weight as much as possible. Now I see that a whole series of grids

covers the pit. They are so corroded that one has given way beneath the

man’s weight. I never noticed the hole before because of the profusion

of vegetation that swamps the entire terrain.

‘Easy does it,’ the man says. ‘Move a little to the left – no, your left.

There’s a solid-looking girder beneath you now.’

He throws out his hand as I extend mine across the infestation of plant

growth. I seize his hand, gripping it as tightly as I can.

‘It’s all right,’ I tell him. ‘I’m not letting go.’

‘Thank you. I don’t think many would have risked their own lives for a

madman like me, would they now?’

‘Please… Just try and pull yourself up.’

With a better grip, he manages to haul himself out of the pit.

‘I don’t know how stable this surface is,’ I tell him. ‘Move over to the

incline there behind me. That appears to be solid.’

‘It’s not stable at all,’ he pants. ‘Run!’

He scrambles to his feet. I grab the gun and sprint back for the incline.

Glancing back, I see a whole section of ground where I hauled the man

out is now sagging. With a soft roar it collapses inward into the hole.

Moments later, I hear a massive thud as it crashes down onto the floor of

the pit.

‘Close one.’ He throws himself down onto the ground; there he rests on

his back, catching his breath. During this interval, I take the opportunity

to tell him about the death of Tar’ant (he grimaces in sympathy), then I

describe my clash with the Dalek in the jungle.

He nods at the gun. ‘You fired first, I take it?’

‘Not first, but more accurately.’

‘Good shot.’ Then his eyes stray back to the pit. ‘Thanks again, Jomi.’

Pulling off my helmet, I sit down beside him with a grateful sigh.

‘Don’t mention. It’s all part of my duties.’

‘Above and beyond, I’d say. My goodness. Just look at that.’ He’s

gazing up at the grey tubes that snake across the sky. ‘Like Christmas

bunting’ He shoots me a sudden grin. ‘But you don’t know anything

about Christmas, do you? Christmas trees, streamers, decorations, Yule

logs, mince pies by the truckload – and carol singers; silent night, holy

night.’ He hums the notes of a song.

‘Happy memories?’ I ask.

‘Yes, they must be. I can picture friendly people in paper hats. They’re

all smiling… Makes me want to smile, too.’

‘You’re remembering more?’

He nods.

‘Your name?’

He shakes his head.

‘Do you know why you’re here on this planet?’

‘Brought.’

‘Why?

He shrugs.

‘And you’ve always been here alone? No companions?’

He holds up a finger as if remembering, then begins to speak. ‘There

was… was. No, it’s gone.’ He shakes his head in frustration. ‘That

happens. I see a face in my mind’s eye. I know the face. I know,

moreover, I can put a name to it, then…’ He clicks his fingers. Thinks

again for a moment. Just when I anticipate more memories are revealing

themselves to him, he exclaims: ‘What a remarkable world! Those

buildings. Extraordinarily ancient. The aerial tube network. Clearly

some rapid transit system. Defunct now, of course. Decay…

retrogression… entropy… They’ve made pedestrians of you and me both,

hmm?’ Abruptly he sits up on the grass. ‘Of course, there’s life in this

old dog yet. The fabric of the metropolis has the ability to dissolve

sections of itself then reseal them – an ability that caused our spectacular

fall to earth.’ He jerks his head toward the tubes. ‘But that can’t be a

random effect, can it?’

‘You mean someone intended us to drop from the tube right here?’

‘It seems so, doesn’t it?’ His voice quickens. ‘Look up, Jomi. What do

you see?’

‘Grey tubes. Blue sky.’

‘What don’t you see?’

‘The sun.’

‘Absolutely. That’s no more blue sky than I am. In truth we must be

deep, deep underground.’

‘But the size of the place. And there was a viable Dalek here – I don’t

understand, Professor. Our scouts should have found all this when they

ran a scan on the planetary system.’

‘Then the shielding is effective.’

‘That’s what makes me so unhappy.’

‘Oh?’

‘The Daleks must value this place very, very highly to bury their

fortress here, then shield it so effectively. They’ve channelled a lot of

resources into this.’

‘They have, haven’t they. Then they’ve let it go to ruin. Ah, what do I

spy here?’ The Professor climbs to his feet, dusts away scraps of leaf

from his clothes, then bounds to a clump of plants. Seizing them, he

begins tearing them away, flinging them behind himself in a flurry of

green. ‘Come here and see this, Jomi.’

I see that he is exposing what appears to be an array of vertical control

panels. All are corroded.

‘Sophisticated electronic systems,’ he tells me. ‘All permitted to

become weed infested.’ He uses a thumbnail to scrape lichen from a

dial. ‘What kind of ode to this ruin would Shelley have composed?’ He

stands there, feet apart, both hands on his hips as he surveys the

landscape. ‘If you could sweep all the vegetation away, you would see

machinery of all sorts. Fabulous structures! A city of machines! What

would that be? A technopolis? Electropolis? A citadel of machines to

serve machines.’

‘Daleks?’

‘Why not? These beings you call Dalek might well be responsible. But

why create all this, then surrender it to trees and insects?’

I don my helmet. ‘Those questions aren’t for me to answer, Professor.

No doubt my commanders will carry out a thorough investigation. My

priority now is to find my platoon. And Kye.’

‘But I can’t help wanting to dig a little deeper here. There are so many

fascinating things. Look…’ He taps a toppled block of hardware with his

foot. ‘That detects the fluctuation in the gravitational field of a cosmic

body. So sensitive it can even determine the gravitational pull of a grain

of sand floating out in space.’

I raise an eyebrow, which the man interprets clearly enough.

‘Yes, I recognise the device and know its capabilities, but I still don’t

know my own name. Hmm, I guess I will be calling myself Professor for

a long time, don’t you? Now!’ He hurries to another clump of broadleaf

plants. ‘What do you suppose we have here?’

‘Professor. I need to move on. I can’t delay here any longer.’

He rips handfuls of green stuff from a hitherto concealed structure.

‘Fascinating. Uh, what evil smelling plants.’

‘Professor. I’m going. Professor?’

He doesn’t appear to hear me. Instead he tugs away huge swathes of

greenery. Stalks, leaves, vines and blossom petals fly back over his

shoulder. The man’s energy is phenomenal. And his enthusiasm to

explore is nothing less than incandescent. He mutters to himself as he

searches.

‘Professor?’ Still he doesn’t listen. OK, I tell myself, no more delays.

You’ve got to walk to the fortress. You must find Captain Vay and the

rest. ‘See you around, Professor.’

The man shouts: ‘Jomi! Here!’

I glance back. So what this time? Another gravity sensor? A device to

sequence molecules in a dewdrop? A gauge to define the parameters of

postponing what you must do now until tomorrow?

‘Jomi. Quickly.’

It’s his tone that does it. I run across to him where he stands still,

frozen in the act of tearing away a swathe of vines that masks the

hardware.

Then I see what he’s staring at. ‘Monitors. They’re working?’

‘Yes. But what do they reveal?’

There are perhaps twenty monitors, probably a little larger than my

outstretched hand. Through the mass of vines I see that they are lit and

display moving shapes. Only the leaves of the plants obscure my clear

view. With a single movement, I sweep the plants away.

‘It’s Captain Vay!’ I’m stunned. ‘What’s happening to him?’ I glance

at the monitors. Each reveals a different scene. Now I see that they show

my comrades from the platoon. But what are they doing?

The Professor tugs more of the green stuff away from the bank of

screens. ‘They’re held prisoner,’ he tells me. ‘See? They’re restricted in

their movements. It appears to be a small cell of sorts. Each soldier in

separate confinement.’

Dread rushes through me in waves as I watch. ‘They seem to be under

attack. What’s in there with them?’ I see the way their eyes dart into

every corner of the room. They’re alert to some danger; a number of the

rangers react to something that is off camera.

‘Daleks!’ My hands bunch into fists. ‘Daleks are torturing them!’

‘But are they? Look… Watch this screen – the one with Captain Vay.’

The Captain crouches in a corner, clutching a steel bar – part of a

chair? As I watch, a dark shape with long limbs darts furiously at him.

Captain Vay beats it back with the bar, then retreats to the corner again,

panting. His face is grim. I realise he’s been fighting his attacker off for

some time. The creature must be trying to wear him down. I scan the

other monitors. One shows Pup kicking away insects that crawl across

the floor toward him. On another screen, Rain is shouting at the figure of

a man in uniform. To my astonishment, I see it is me. A second later she

throws herself at it, pushing it back against a wall. It explodes into a

swarm of insects. That ‘me’ was one of the walking hives that have such

a sinister habit of shape-changing. My eyes flick from one screen to

another as my friends fight their solitary battles. Once more, the long limbed

simian beast launches an attack at Captain Vay. Once more, my

commanding officer beats it back. Only this time I see blood running

from a cut in his cheek. How much more of this can he take?

‘There!’ The Professor taps another screen just above eye level. I see

Kye in a cell. And what happens next occurs with staggering speed. One

moment she is standing in the centre of the room, her helmet gone, her

gun in her hands, looking up at the ceiling. Then she tilts her head as if

hearing a strange sound (the Professor and I hear nothing; we have only

visuals, not sound), and all of a sudden she flinches back. We watch, not

even breathing. Suddenly a deluge of liquid floods into the cell. It swirls

around Kye; she struggles to keep to her feet. The liquid surface quickly

rises up the walls of the cell. Then it closes over Kye’s head. With the

liquid reaching the ceiling of the cell, Kye can’t break through the

surface to breathe. I realise I’m going to have to stand there and watch

her drown before my eyes. Now the camera reveals the cell as it is under

water. Kye is suspended in its centre. Bubbles escape from her mouth.

She’s looking round, trying to find some way out.

‘No,’ I breathe. ‘Please, no… ‘

The coldest sensation I’ve ever known creeps into my stomach. I’m

going to stand here and watch my friend die. As I look on, Kye’s

movements slow. She hangs there suspended in the liquid. Then,

suddenly, she grabs hold of the gun, raises the muzzle with one hand and

finds the trigger with the other. She fires from the hip. The shot carves

out a steaming tunnel in the water that instantly collapses into a cloud of

bubbles.

I let out a terrific whoop. Before I know it, I’m slapping the Professor

on the back so hard he nearly loses his balance. ‘See what she’s done!

See it, Professor! She’s only gone and blown a hole right through the

wall!’

He’s seen all right. In the cell wall, on screen, is a hole that you could

thrust your two fists through. Immediately the water rushes through it,

no doubt flooding some other area of the jail. The currents of the outrush

swirl Kye around like she’s a doll there in the water. Her limbs wave,

her hair swirls round her head. For a moment I think the evacuation of

water from the cell will take too long. That Kye will have been

immersed for longer than she can hold her breath. Then I see the level of

the fluid drop beneath the lens of the camera. In seconds, Kye raises her

head above the surface and is breathing huge lungfuls of air. All the

while, the water level drops, until soon she’s standing knee deep with

the gunshot hole now exposed in the wall. But even as we watch, a

shadowy mist forms in the hole, then hardens into a black seal.

My heart plunges, because I know what will happen next. Sure enough,

just minutes later the water gushes in again with a force that knocks Kye

off her feet. She is submerged. She blasts a hole in the wall. Out rushes

the water again. In moments she’s standing panting, knee deep in water.

‘That’s going to repeat itself, isn’t it?’

The man nods. ‘I’m afraid it will. Your friends all have their own

recurring challenges.’

Captain Vay battles with the simian creature. Pup swats away poison

insects. Rain is confronted again and again by the hive of parasites that

can take on human form – my human form. Fellebe is the only one not

under direct attack. But I see she watches a hole that has appeared in the

floor in the corner of her cell. The hole is growing larger. It’s slow yet

relentless. Fellebe goes to peer into it. From her expression, I can tell the

drop is a long one. And not one that can be used as a means of escape. If

anything, it is the weapon of her execution. All she can do is watch the

deadly slow creep of the lip of the pit toward her. At some point, it will

consume the entire floor of the cell. The only ranger I don’t see is

Dissari. I hope he escaped the initial attack.

‘It’s the Daleks,’ I tell the Professor. ‘They’re doing this.’

‘Then we must find your friends.’

I turn, ready to run toward the fortress.

‘One moment,’ he shouts. ‘I think a little more has just come back to

me.’

‘I can’t wait, Professor.’

‘It won’t take long… Now if I do remember correctly, this should…

Ah.’ He grips a corner of one of the screens between finger and thumb,

then pulls. It peels away. Now it’s as flexible – and as thin – as a sheet

of paper; he folds it, then slips it into his pocket. ‘I think it should prove

useful to have one of these, don’t you?’

We hurry down the slope, past the pit that nearly claimed the

Professor’s life. Then we pause. A dense swathe of forest lies between

us and the cliff face ramp that rises up to the fortress. That jungle forms

a forbidding barrier between us and our goal.

‘Now,’ the man murmurs, ‘which is the best way through?’

As I glance at him, I find my attention caught by something beyond

him. I touch his arm and nod at what I’ve seen. There, a hundred paces

away, is a green mound. Standing on it is the figure of a man – an old

man with long, white hair, wearing clothes in a style similar to the

Professor’s. He’s facing us; watching us intently.

The Professor’s eyes fix on him. ‘My word,’ he whispers, awed.

‘It’s nothing. Just one of the walking hives.’

‘Yes, I know that… but even so…’ Tentative, he runs his fingers over

his own face as if trying to map out his features. ‘Only I’m sure I knew

that man once.’

‘Professor, we can’t waste any more time.’

‘Time? No, never waste time. Never…’ He’s distracted by the whitehaired

figure on the mound. ‘An old, old man. I knew him long ago.’

‘Come on, Professor. We’ve got to try and figure a way through that

jungle.’

The old man hasn’t moved at all since I first noticed him. Only now he

does move. With a slow, deliberate action that is strangely graceful, he

raises one arm.. He lifts it until the hand is level with the shoulder; the

arm extended so it’s straight out to the side. Never once does he break

eye contact with us.

I shake my head. ‘Am I seeing things? Or is he – it – really pointing?’

‘He’s pointing all right. He’s showing us the way.’

‘Professor, it’s just a swarm of insects. We can’t trust them.’

‘We can at least take a look for ourselves, Jomi. I mean, looking won’t

bury us, will it? Hmm? Come on.’

We run diagonally down the slope. Within fifty paces, we realise that

man-shaped cluster of insects hasn’t deceived us. There, almost hidden

from view by two large bushes, is a paved way into the jungle. It looks

little more than a tunnel through the greenery, but it’s enough.

‘We should really thank our helpful guide – every last thousand of his

insectile self,’ the Professor says. ‘Uh, where’d he go?’

I look back at the mound. The old man has vanished.

TWENTY-ONE

THE OLD MAN, WALKING HIVE, MOBILE BUG HEAP, INSECTILE

congeries – whatever it was – indicated wisely. The jungle path takes us

swiftly to a ramp that leads up to the ruined fortress.

For a moment we pause at the edge of the forest. Bird calls ghost

through the tangle of branches. Toady reptiles cling to slimy tree trunks;

they regard us with bulbous, alien eyes. Insects buzz all around. We’re

both watchful: those are vicious pests, ready to dart and sting in the

blink of an eye. At that moment, I hear a voice calling from a thicket of

swaying canes.

‘Hey… hey…’

I look through the mass of shifting stalks that are twice as tall as me.

‘Hey… Jomi…’

I glance at the Professor. ‘That sounds like Dissari.’ I move toward the

canes. ‘He must have managed to escape.’

‘Take care, Jomi… It might not be really him.’

‘I’ll take a chance.’

I run toward the thicket. Standing there on a pathway is ranger Dissari.

He’s lost his helmet and his weapon. He looks dishevelled, exhausted.

His face is scratched; nonetheless, he’s smiling broadly.

‘Jomi. Sweet life, am I pleased to see you!’

I begin to walk toward him, but the Professor catches me by the elbow.

‘Caution, remember.’

‘Dissari, where are the others?’ I ask.

‘I don’t know… We had to split when we saw the Daleks. I’ve been

running for hours.’ He begins kicking at the vegetation that swarms over

the forest floor. He’s searching for something. ‘I dropped my weapon,’

he explains. ‘Hell’s door. How unprofessional is that? But I nearly bust a

vein when I saw that.’ He pushes aside a bush that conceals a coneshaped

object.

I start back with a gasp.

‘Don’t worry. It’s dead… I’ve met more dangerous juice cartons.’

The bush he rips down reveals a Dalek. Rust stains smear its flanks.

Vines climb over its shell. The eye-stalk and two frontal limbs hang

limply down.

In a relaxed way, Dissari kicks it. A hollow clang rings from the

metallic body. The sound of an ancient mortuary bell.

Dissari shakes his head. ‘It’s been rotting there for centuries. Gave me

a shock when I walked into it, I can tell you. Ran like crazy and jumped

into that crater over there. Only I went and dropped my gun in the

process. It must be hidden under these vines. Sweet life, look at them;

they crawl like snakes.’

‘I’ll give you a hand,’ I tell him. ‘Professor, you’d best stay back.

These weapons can become unstable if they’re damaged.’

‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll watch from a safe distance. Besides, our whitehaired

friend might make an appearance.’

I return to the search. ‘No wonder you can’t find the gun, Dissari; the

moment you shift the vines they shift themselves right back. It’s like

trying to part water. Any luck?’

‘No. I’m not even sure if I searched this area before.’ Grunting, he

stands up with a handful of vines he’s snapped away from their bulbous

roots. He slings them back over one shoulder, where they rattle against

the corroding Dalek. ‘Man, I’m glad to hook up with you again, Jomi.

This is one dreary place. I didn’t want to wind up spending my days and

nights alone here.’

I crouch on the ground, running my hands through that tangle of vines,

trying to find the ranger’s gun as much by touch as by sight. My weapon

is slung across my back. I feel the heat of the ammo cyst through my

suit. For a while, I suspected that Dissari was one of the walking hives,

but from the way he bled from scratches and rumbled on in that

garrulous way of his, I knew it was the real Dissari, mentor ranger of six

years’ standing.

Dissari tends not to grab more than half a breath between every five

hundred words or so of speech. I guess he’s relieved to find a comrade.

‘… crap. You think that after all this time they’d have developed a gun

that would come running when you whistled for the thing.’ Grinning, he

whistles. ‘Here, boy. Here, boy.’

I’m working my way through the vines and glance up at him as he

stands there, hands on hips, monologueing his way through my search

for his weapon.

‘… Jomi, let me tell you. When you qualify, you want to enrol in

Strategic Ops. They have soft chairs and big, big desks. They don’t

crawl through swamps on their bellies looking for old tin pots that have

been dead for a thousand years.’ He jerks his head back at the Dalek

that’s rotting away into jungle loam. ‘Strategic Ops get extras. They get

superior transport; they get apartments with views of the ocean; they

don’t eat supper out of a plastic bag.’

My eyes stray from his face as his monologue becomes a grouch about

the hardships of a ranger’s way of life. The Dalek sits in the dirt;

butterflies flutter above it; a bird calls in a tree. Then, in one smooth

movement, the old demon draws breath. The eye-stalk smoothly lifts to

the horizontal; fluidly the limb and weapon do the same. And at that

moment, though I don’t see it, instinct alone tells me that a flood of

some power, dormant for centuries, has just surged through the dark

heart of the machine. Suddenly, its flanks acquire an uncanny lustre. The

moss and vines creeping over the carapace wither and shrink as life with

a deadly purpose flows into once-inert components.

‘And, I’ll tell you this, Jomi, as soon as I get back to the ship, I’m filing

my application. Yeah, that’s right, buddy, it’s time Dissari got some soft

bed time, too. Or I’ll –’

‘Dissari! Down flat!’

Still crouching, I swing my weapon up, ready to fire the moment

Dissari throws himself to the ground. But my warning hasn’t registered.

He merely gives me a puzzled look while hunching one shoulder as if to

ask: ‘What the hell are you playing at?’

‘Dissari! Down!’

That’s the second he realises. His horrified eyes meet mine, then he

spins to see the Dalek as it rotates its flattened dome to lock its eye-stalk

on the man, while simultaneously targeting him with its weapon. The

blast wave shakes blossom from the trees. I smell burning meat. The

concussion comes like a boot stamping into the side of my face. I

couldn’t fire before because Dissari was in the way. Now my answering

shot won’t harm him. The blast from the Dalek’s weapon has punched

the ranger’s torso into burning fragments and torn his head free from his

neck. Sickeningly, the flayed skull rolls across the ground to stop right

by me; its eyes still shift from side to side as steam and blood ooze from

its jaws. In the split second that I absorb the ugly scene, I automatically

fire. The explosion tears the top off the Dalek, sending a geyser of

biological matter and debris high in the air.

There’s a sudden silence. Strangely, the very absence of sound hurts

my ears. Then the insects begin to buzz again, and the birds call to one

another.

The Professor runs up to me. ‘Jomi… Jomi. Are you all right?’

I cover the seared skull with a handful of vines; then, without a

backward glance at the smashed Dalek, I walk away.

‘Jomi,’ the Professor tells me. ‘You should rest for a while.’

Grim-faced, I shake my head. ‘We’ve wasted enough time. Come on.’

The Professor is staring at the ruined machine. ‘Jomi? That’s a Dalek?’

‘That was a Dalek.’

We leave the remains of ranger Dissari and the Dalek behind. In

moments we’ve reached the ramp that, hugging the face of the cliff, rises

to the Dalek fortress. Before climbing, we check the screen that the

Professor unfolds from his pocket. It shows the platoon in their cells.

They are enduring torture – nothing less. Every few minutes, Kye’s cell

is engulfed with water. Again and again she fires the gun, punching a

hole through the wall. The water empties, then the rupture reseals. She is

exhausted. I know she can’t last much longer. The same goes for

Captain Vay, whose face is marked with cuts from tireless attacks by the

creature. Pup crushes ant-like insects beneath his boots to prevent them

from swarming up his legs. Rain bursts a walking hive with her fists.

Meanwhile, the mouth of the pit in Fellebe’s cell has devoured half the

floor space.

This renews the urgency in our pace. The Professor insists on leading

the way up the ramp. He estimates it will take a good fifteen minutes to

climb to where the cuboid building rests on the cliff top. Despite my

relentless training at the academy for these kind of operations, I find the

heat and humidity debilitating. My feet feel as if they’ve been encased in

iron as I climb. The Professor’s stamina astounds me. Time and again I

have to grit my teeth and increase my speed to keep up with him.

He estimated fifteen minutes. We make it in twelve. The ramp sweeps

inward through a doorway that’s twice as high as a man – yet built for

no man. Close up now, I see vines clinging to the face of the structure,

veins of festering green from which clusters of poisonous- looking red

berries hang. At one side, the cuboid superstructure runs into the

bedrock, as if the stone has become fluid at some point and part of the

building has simply sunk into it. At the other side, the cubes stand on

slender pylons that are interconnected by more of the aerial tube-ways.

The place breathes a blood-chilling desolation. This could be some

lonesome graveyard. Nothing moves. The spirit of abandonment passes

through these dead buildings like a lost soul.

Suddenly I’m struck by self-doubt. ‘Are we sure they’re here?’

‘Your friends? We can’t be sure. But of all the places we’ve seen, this

seems most likely.’

‘Then we’re being lured here, too. It can’t be a mere random set of

circumstances that dumped us by a bank of monitors that show the

platoon being tortured.’

‘Oh, yes, it’s dangerous. Incredibly so.’ He gazes up at a moss-covered

column. ‘All of what we’ve witnessed suggests that we’ll end our days

in a cell, too.’

‘Tormented by Daleks,’ I add bitterly.

‘You’d go back?’

‘Me? Retreat? Never.’ I check the weapon. The power level has been

falling. ‘I’ve still got thirty shots here. If I take even ten Daleks into

oblivion with me, then that’s fine.’

I move forward, my training taking over. I’m alert to every movement,

whether it’s an insect flying by, or a leaf trembling before a breath of

that hot, moist air.

‘Stay behind me, Professor. I’m the one with the gun, remember.’

‘Agreed.’ He nods. ‘Agreed with passion. Lead on.’

We’re inside the building now. This is a vast entrance hall with high

ceilings. Grey tubes snake through the air above our heads. Clumps of

grass grow from the floor. Maggots swarm in the torn body of a dead

toad. A bush with brilliant blue fruit grows from a fissure in the wall; it

drips a toxic sap that has killed and stunted all the plants nearby. In here

there is nothing that I would recognise as furniture. Merely angular

extrusions from the floor. Most of these are black. A number have

monitors inset into their flanks. They show my friends at torture. Water.

Insects. Pit. Beast. They are weakening. I find myself wondering: who

will be the first to die?

A geometric shape glides from behind one of the monolithic forms.

‘Dalek!’ I shout the warning. A split second later, I aim my weapon at

the metallic cone with its eye-stalk and gun-stick trained on me.

‘Wait!’ The Professor shouts. Faster than I can fire, he scoops a fistsized

hunk of metal from the floor debris and lobs it at the Dalek. The

scrap metal strikes the Dalek dead centre. There’s a thud, rather than the

expected clang. Instantly it dissolves into a cloud of insects that disperse

into the vast hall.

‘Remember, Jomi. Nothing is as it seems.’

I glance at the firearm’s indicator. That’s a precious shot saved. It also

serves as a warning. That I should be on guard at all times.

We move toward the only other exit from the hall. From the shadows,

another figure glides forward. This is different. I react on the level of

creature instinct. To the Professor I hiss: ‘Get down!’ At the academy

we are trained to do the impossible. That is: to evade Dalek weaponry

once it’s locked onto us as a target. Only one in a thousand possesses the

ability to do this. Those who can are offered the opportunity of a career

in the Ranger Division: a posting of unmatched prestige and honour.

You must have a gymnast’s prowess and be able to move with incredible

speed, first in one direction and then in another, fluidly changing course

without pause and maintaining sufficient acceleration to break free of

the Dalek’s targeting system. Simultaneously, the ranger must be able to

fire with total accuracy. I do this now. Move forward and left, then snap

right.

The Dalek fires first. I feel the surge of heat through my suit. A miss.

Behind me, the structure of the building absorbs the explosive energy of

the blast, as it’s surely designed to do.

My turn. The shot hits the Dalek with enough force to shear its limbs.

A spilt-second later, the superheated particle stream incinerates the

organic content of the monster with such a furious rapidity that the metal

carcass explodes, flinging debris the full length of the hall.

Glancing at the ammo meter, I click my tongue. ‘It’s drawing the soup

out of the cyst like I don’t know what. I figure I’m down to ten shots.’

‘We need to move quickly, then.’

I sprint into the passageway (over smouldering Dalek fragments), with

the Professor following. But this place is big… it’s huge… Where am I

going to find those torture cells?

TWENTY-TWO

CORRIDORS RISE, FALL. SOMETIMES I SENSE WE ARE

subterranean. Other times we find ourselves following passageways that

become bridges high above ground, linking one tower with another.

Meanwhile, I try not to guess what we might see if we were to look at

the monitor screen the Professor carries in his pocket.

We reach a point where two tunnels intersect. This is all guesswork.

We turn left, following a corridor that runs downward. Then the

Professor catches my arm.

‘No. Look back the way we came.’

I follow his line of sight. At the centre of the intersection I see a figure.

‘It’s the same one,’ I whisper. ‘The old man.’

‘And if I’m not mistaken, Jomi, he’s showing us the way again.’

The old man points. He’s indicating the passageway that leads straight

on, whereas we turned left.

‘He was right before, Professor?’

‘Indeed he was. But then again, is he merely showing us the quickest

way to our own prison? Hmm?’

The answer that comes before mine is far more eloquent and infinitely

more convincing than the one I was framing ever could be.

A ball of light sears a path through the air. It strikes the white-haired

old man in the chest. Instantly he dissolves into a vapour that ascends

toward the ceiling.

‘Back against the wall, Professor. Here comes another one.’

Even as I finish speaking, I see the Dalek glide to where the old man

was standing. My reflexes are hot. I’ve aimed and fired before I’ve even

framed the aim-shoot thought.

The Dalek bursts into blobs of fire that spatter against the walls.

The Professor takes the lead. ‘We should be close,’ he tells me. ‘These

must be the prison guards.’

‘It looks as if we had an ally. I wish he’d lasted a little longer.’

‘Oh, I don’t know… I get the impression that our guide might be around

somewhere.’

Where the old man had stood at the top of the slope, a wash of black

powder covers the floor. All that remains of him after the Dalek struck.

The Professor scans the burnt dust, then crouches and picks up a small

object between finger and thumb. It’s an insect that has been seared by

the intense heat.

‘Our friend the winged parasite.’

‘So the old man really was one of the walking hives.’

‘It looks that way.’

‘But you said these hives tricked their victims into thinking they were

safe.’

‘Then the little beauties lay eggs under their skin at the first

opportunity. Yes.’ He’s thoughtful. ‘So why are they trying to help us?’

‘Another deception?’

‘Possibly. Or perhaps they hate the Dalek as much you do.’

‘Those bugs? They’re not intelligent, so how can –’

’Ah, I never said they weren’t intelligent. They are telepathy. They

scan our brains for images of people we know and with whom we feel

safe. That governs their choice of disguise. Perhaps they have

collectively –’ he shrugs, ‘a collective consciousness.’

‘You said you thought you recognised the man?’

‘I believe I do. I don’t know where from, or how, or his name. But he

once possessed a key that…’ He strains to remember. ‘He possessed a

little key to a box… a box that, although it is very small, is also very

large… A key that…’ Moisture forms on his face; tension builds, pushing

veins out against his skin, then he shakes his head with a sigh that roars

from his lips. ‘No… no. It’s no good… Gone again. Dash it all.’

‘Well, our friend pointed the way, so we should move.’ I check that the

gun is ready to fire. Two Daleks destroyed, but something tells me there

are plenty more haunting the iron gut of this sinister building.

TWENTY-THREE

THE PASSAGEWAY HAS A CURVING WALL THAT FLOWS UPWARD

into an arching ceiling. No vegetation reaches this deep into the

building. No insects either (other than the walking hive, that is). There is

a sterile aspect. It has something of the mortuary about it. Cooler, too. I

begin to see my breath misting the air.

The Professor notices something. ‘If I’m not mistaken,’ he tells me,

these are doors.’ He indicates what I thought were merely dark oblongs

painted vertically on the walls. ‘Hermetically sealed. Air tight.

Contamination-free zones.’ He looks at me. ‘Some prison, hmm? Not

even the air is allowed to escape.’

‘Professor? We’ve got company again.’

His bright eyes dart in the direction I’m indicating. Some thirty paces

along the corridor stands the white-haired old man.

The Professor nods, as if beginning to understand sonic problem. ‘So,

the Dalek is our joint enemy.’

‘But he – or the hive – took the full blast of a Dalek. Nothing survives

that firepower.’

‘No. All those insects were killed.’ His sharp eyes appraise the figure.

‘This will be another swarm that’s formed itself into… into… someone I

am just about beginning to remember.’ He taps his fingers against his

lips again, thinking hard. ‘And of that insect species there must be

millions of swarms on the planet. It’s unlikely the Daleks will be able to

kill them all. Unless they resort to obliterating the entire globe… and

that’s a little drastic, to say the least.’

The Professor walks forward. He’s studying the old man, looking at his

clothes, hair, his lined face. When he speaks next it’s to the figure, not

me. ‘Who are you? Are you trying to help us?’

The figure doesn’t reply. He – it – merely watches us without moving;

the eyes wide… watchful.

‘Indicate if you understand me?’

No reaction.

‘Are you trying to show us where our friends are?’ The Professor takes

another step forward. The old man suddenly raises his hand.

Stop!

‘Be careful, Professor.’

‘Oh, I don’t think you’re going to hurt us, are you now? You, or rather

the legion of insects that are the building blocks of your body, need us.’

His eyes scan the face. ‘You can read my mind, can’t you? You’ve

found someone significant to me from my past? But what was his name?

Why was he so important? And when I look at you, why do certain

words occur to me? Key… Time… Companion…’ His eyes lock onto the

face. I see veins stand out in the Professor’s temples – he’s clenching his

fists with the effort of remembering. ‘I can almost… almost remember

now. I have seen you before. Or at least an incarnation of you. Where

have I seen you… Where have I seen you?’

‘In a mirror.’ The voice is a whisper of dry wings.

The Professor, a man years younger than the one he now faces, echoes

the words in a murmur: ‘In a mirror.’ His expression is one of someone

close to personal revelation.

I, however, am becoming impatient. ‘Sir, where are my friends? Can

you show me?’

I step forward, hoping to hear that dry whisper of a voice again.

Instead, the old man holds up his hand – halt – and a ripple moves

across his face. And just as before, I cannot say with any degree of

certainty when the transformation happens; one moment I am looking at

a lined face, with wise, benevolent eyes; a face framed by long, white

hair; then it dissolves into a cloud of insects. They stream away down

the passageway.

‘Professor,’ I urge. ‘We must keep looking.’

He’s lost inside his head again. Not moving. Not even blinking.

‘Professor–’

He holds up his hand. ‘When he made that gesture. Was he telling us to

stop moving toward him? Or–’ He scans the walls. ‘Or was he telling us

that the platoon is here – behind one of those?’ With his finger he taps a

dark oblong set in the wall.

‘But how do we get through?’

‘My guess is they are automatic. They probably sense one’s approach

then – hey presto.’ He gestures with his hands to mime twin doors

sliding apart.

‘As simple as that?’

‘Why not? Why should a door be so complex as to require considerable

expenditure of effort to open said door, hmm?’

‘But if they are prison doors, then they’ll be secure’

‘Absolutely. But if the Daleks want to incarcerate us, then how much

easier for them if we simply walk into our cells of our own accord.’ He

steps back, looking the door up and down. ‘Jomi. Walk toward it as if

you intend to walk right through.’ He reacts to the glance I give him

with a grim smile. ‘Trust me.’

‘OK.’ I hold my weapon to my side, so as not to damage it. Just in

case. I move toward the door. Nothing happens. I shrug.

The Professor’s eyes are bright. ‘No. You’ve got to have the body

language of someone who expects the door to open. Try again.’

I try again. No luck. The door is inert.

‘Try another.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Well, seeing as I don’t have a toothpick, this is all I can suggest.’

Toothpick? I sigh, and walk toward the next door, trying to assume the

demeanour of someone who ambles through doors such as these many

times a day.

This time –

The door silently slides to one side.

I glance back at the man. ‘Hey, Professor. You–’

Then it hits me. A wave of shrieks, roars, yells, screams.

Simultaneously, a blast of movement. I recoil, but it’s too late. Masses

of arms erupt through the doorway. I see wild faces with blazing eyes,

open mouths, champing jaws. A dozen hands grab me to haul me

through. My gun’s knocked from my grasp. The wall of noise winds me

as much as the violence of the attack. A hand grips my helmet, dragging

it off and ripping my ear as it does so.

‘Jomi!’ It’s the Professor; he has his arms around my torso and

struggles to pull me free. The man has incredible strength. He’s

preventing the creatures from dragging me into the room. Only I feel as

if I will break into pieces.

With a tug that causes my joints to crackle from my neck vertebrae to

my hips, he drags me away from the creatures. We both stagger back

from the doorway, then brace ourselves for the attack as the beasts

lunge. A huge, man-shaped creature that seems all pointed teeth and

bristling red hair, leaps at me. The gun has slid further away down the

passageway. There’s no way I’ll reach it in time.

But as I turn to defend myself from the creature that launches itself in a

full-blooded leap at me, I see it suddenly stop in mid-flight. A howl of

rage explodes from its lips – of pain, too. Agony contorts its features as

it falls backward into the doorway that’s packed with more creatures.

The Professor regains his balance. ‘Jomi, no need to run. Look at the

poor wretches.’

Those ‘poor wretches’ struggle in the doorway. They’re trying to reach

us with outstretched hands. They’re still howling, snarling. A powerful

animal smell rolls from the room; that alone is enough to make me flinch

back. Then I see why they don’t attack us. ‘They’re on leashes?’

‘Some leashes, too. Do you see? One end is secured to that pillar in the

middle of the cell while the other has been embedded in their bodies.

The anchor point is probably the spine or pelvis. The poor brutes are in

agony.

‘But then we know who their gaolers are.’

From the maelstrom of gnashing mouths and wildly waving arms, a

long-limbed creature with a froth of pale yellow hair running round its

entire face pushes forward. This one isn’t savage. The eyes are large and

soulful; full of immense sorrow.

‘Please, stranger. Mercy.’ Its voice is hoarse, as if it whispers from a

diseased throat. ‘Kill us.’

The Professor takes a step toward the door. This provokes a mad rush

at him from the others, but the lines embedded in their flesh snap tight

and stop them dead. Once more their faces contort with pain.

The one with the yellow hair implores: ‘Kill us. Give us mercy; kill us.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Take this pain away.’

I glance at the Professor, wondering if he will agree to the request.

Instead, he demands: ‘Tell me why are you here.’

‘The Daleks.’

‘Why have they imprisoned you?’

Now the other beasts fall silent; they sense this is the time when their

grim existence is about to change forever.

‘We are here,’ the creature’s voice rasps from its burned-out throat,

‘because they made our hearts in their own image.’

‘The Daleks made you?’ He scans the beasts’ faces. ‘They made you,

then caged you. Why?’

I answer for them. ‘You were locked in here because they made

mistakes. You are rejects.’

The creature looks deep into me, its eyes huge and unblinking. ‘No. We

are perfect.’

Retrieving the gun, the Professor hands it to me with a curt order: ‘Kill

them!’

The creature exults: ‘Yesss-ssss!’

The rest let out a high, shrieking howl. It goes on and on without pause.

‘What are you waiting for, Jomi?’ the Professor barks. ‘Kill them!’

I raise the gun. Only I don’t fire. I can’t.

The doorway isn’t there anymore. We’re both gazing at a closed door.

When we try to open it, we can’t. The prison is more secure than t could

have imagined. Not even sound escapes. Now there is complete silence

in the passageway.

I’m panting. I realise that my ear is still bleeding. I look at the

Professor as he glowers at the door. A question troubles me. ‘It said,

“We are here because they made our hearts in their own image.” What

did it mean by that?’

He takes a deep breath. ‘Exactly what it said.’

‘Those things in there were Daleks?’

‘Jomi, there isn’t much time–’

‘But, Professor? You know what’s happening here?’

‘I’m beginning to. Come on. Time to knock on some more doors.’

TWENTY-FOUR

WE DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, AND AGAIN. ONLY THIS TIME IT’S THE

Professor who walks at the door each time. I stand ready with my

firearm. Most doors remain locked shut. Then one opens. A quick glance

reveals it is an empty cell. Blank grey walls. No windows. No furniture.

The Professor steps out, then shoots glances along the passageway.

‘There’s another thing bothering me, Jomi.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Daleks.’

‘But I don’t see any.’

‘Exactly.’ He moves to the next door. ‘If we’ve penetrated so deeply

into their jail, you’d suppose they’d come.’

‘This place is ancient. A near ruin. Perhaps there aren’t any more

viable Daleks to defend it?’

‘Possibly. Then there are other scenarios that I don’t wish to even

consider. Ah! Success.’

Well, part success. The door opens to reveal another empty cell. Then

another… and another… all empty. Then –

‘Ah… what a smell.’ As the door opens, the Professor clamps his hand

over his nose. ‘That’s not the aroma of peach blossom’

I recoil. ‘Is that Dalek, too?’

There in the middle of the cell, rising from the floor in a pulsing

mound, is a creature from which masses of tentacles erupt. I see that

each tentacle is tipped with a glistening eye. In a moment it has noticed

us, and all the eye-tentacles snap in our direction to stare at its visitors.

The creature’s flesh is a mottling of purples, pinks and glistening whites,

and the whole thing is covered with a sheen of slime.

‘Yes, they’re all Daleks. Either mutated versions of themselves, or

creatures that, although alien to them, have been reconfigured…

reengineered to incorporate certain Dalek features… Including their very

worst feature.’ He taps the side of his head.

‘Their mind?’

‘Indeed, yes – their mind. Hence our friend’s statement back there that

their hearts – figuratively – have been made in the image of the Dalek.’

Grimacing from the stench coming at us in waves, he stands back. Both

of us are grateful when the door reforms in the opening, sealing sight

and smell of the tentacled monster from us. ‘What we have here is a zoo

full of Dalek-hearted creatures.’

‘But why abandon them here?’

‘A good question. And my prognosis lies toward the definition of the

word: quarantine.’

‘Professor?’ I’m puzzled. ‘You mean–’

‘I don’t know what I mean, Jomi. I don’t know my own name,

remember?’ He pauses, his eyes are suddenly faraway. ‘Only it’s

coming back. I keep glimpsing images in here.’ Once more he touches

his temple. ‘Like a receiver that’s not properly locked onto a transmitter.

Tantalising glimpses of memory. Places. Faces. Traces… Now didn’t I

tell you to shoot me if I started talking in rhyme again?’

He pulls the folded screen from his pocket. I bite my lip. What I don’t

want to see are images of my friends being tortured. ‘Now surely, your

comrades are behind one of these doors. But which one? If only what we

see here would offer a clue.’

He scrolls pictures of my friends enduring their torments. Captain Vay

is exhausted, bleeding from a mass of facial cuts. Still he fights the apelike

creature. Kye continues to struggle to keep afloat in the cell that

repeatedly floods with water. Yet again I see her fire into the wall. Water

flows through the hole blasted by the weapon. The cell empties. For a

few seconds she lays on the sodden floor panting, struggling to recover

her strength. Then the process repeats itself all over again. The hole in

the wall reseals. Water begins its remorseless inflow… The image scrolls

to be replaced by one of Fellebe. Now the maw of the pit has devoured

ninety percent of the floor. A yawning blackness that appears to plunge

deep into bedrock. Fellebe stands with her back to the wall, her feet

planted as firmly as she can on the ever-diminishing ledge. How long

until it shrinks to the point where she loses her footing?

This is too much. Seeing them suffer starts an ache in my chest. I have

to turn my face away.

‘Professor. Look.’

‘Ah, our mysterious friend returns.’

Twenty paces to my right, I watch the white-haired man stroll across

the passageway. He moves toward one of the black doors. It does not

open for him, but he continues walking regardless. For a moment I

believe he is somehow melting through the door. Then I see his body is

dissolving into flying insects once more. A second later, the figure has

vanished. Its component parts go winging by my head and away down

the passageway with a whine of ten thousand beating wings.

‘He got impatient waiting for us to find the right door,’ I say with a

grim smile.

‘Perhaps even a little cantankerous, too.’ He rubs his jaw. ‘A trait that

I’m beginning to remember.’ The man takes a deep breath. ‘OK, Jomi.

He’s shown us the way. Let’s see if that room will yield its secret to us.’

He strides to the door. Immediately, it opens. The moment the

Professor sees what lies in there, his face is transformed. That

expression… I’ve never seen a reaction like that before. It sends a wave

of ice down my spine.

Turning to look me in the eyes, he breathes: ‘I remember.’

TWENTY-FIVE

I FOLLOW AS HE STEPS THROUGH THE DOORWAY INTO THE CELL.

For an instant I hope this is where I will find my fellow rangers. Instead

I find nothing alive. Only bones. In the middle of the floor is the

skeleton of a giant snake; in life it had coiled around an object with

crushing force to form the characteristic cone shape of a constrictor, coil

stacked on coil. Its large skull lies on the floor, empty eye sockets

forming sinister shadowed voids. The Professor is moving quickly

toward the object that thrusts upward from the centre of the serpent’s

bones. It is the remains of a humanoid forearm. There’s a vivid mental

impression of a fight to the death here. Man battles with giant constrictor

serpent. Both die. Both remain here to decompose in this grim cell. The

man fought to protect an artefact from the creature. Here it is, hanging

by a chain from skeletal fingers that are raised up above the ribs of the

reptile. I see its silver glint as it sways slightly in a breath of air.

The Professor’s eyes blaze with uncanny lights. It is as if what he

witnesses has lit in his mind a furnace of memory that rages with searing

power. Muscles quiver beneath the skin of his face. He cannot break his

wide-eyed stare. His attention is locked completely on the silver object

that sways from the finger bones of that upstretched hand.

‘That belongs to me.’ His voice is almost a hiss.

‘A key?’

‘Yes. My key! My key that unlocks a box full of time and space. And

worlds.’ His eyes suddenly blaze. ‘Worlds without end. Forever and

ever…’ Extending a trembling hand, he gently frees the key chain from

long-dead fingers. Just the touch of the key sends a tremor through his

body, as if hidden energies pulse within its metal shaft. ‘Ah… TARDIS.

My dear own TARDIS.’ Then his eyes sweep past me. ‘Behind you!

Dalek!’

Turn. Fire. A blur of movement. My shot rips the Dalek in half, its

metallic base somersaults backward to burst into shards against the

passageway wall. I run for the doorway to see if there are any more.

There are. Two are gliding along the passageway to my right. I blast

them, reducing them to burning ruin. Weirdly, one continues moving

toward me, even though my shot has decapitated it. Some dying

intelligence within it fires off a wild shot. The ball of raw energy

ricochets against the wall like some low-altitude meteor. The heat singes

my hair. My face is scorched, but apart from that I’m unhurt. Raising my

firearm, I’m ready to loose off another round at the amputated base unit

that still creeps toward me, belching smoke from its torn superstructure.

I glance at the magazine beneath the gun. Low power. I’ve got perhaps

half a dozen rounds left in the reservoir. Instead of firing off another

precious shot I peer around the corner of the doorway. What’s left of the

Dalek still trundles forward, leaking body fluids onto the floor in big,

brown splotches. Its organic core is dead. The machine is a mindless

configuration of electronics, hydraulics and motors that still function…

just. It hisses by the doorway, bumps into the left wall at an oblique

angle, then slowly wheezes on to a slow-motion ricochet off the opposite

wall. As the dying hulk creeps into the distance, I swiftly check that no

more of the monsters are coming our way.

‘Anything?’ the man calls from behind me in the cell.

‘Daleks. There were two of them – but they’re not going to worry us

now.’ I remain on the threshold of the cell where I can keep watch on

the passageway. ‘So you remember now. Tell me what happened to you,

Professor?’

‘Professor?’ The man holds up the key by its chain so he can watch it

glint in the light. ‘Professor?’ He shakes his head. ‘No. Call me Doctor.’

TWENTY-SIX

I AM STANDING IN THE DOORWAY, ALERT TO DANGER, MY GUN

ready. My black suit is scorched and torn. A flash burn tingles on my

jaw. Dirt and chlorophyll from my march through the jungle smear my

hands and face in greys and greens. And there’s the otherworldly figure

of the prisoner I encountered here just a few short hours ago – the

Professor. Or, as he would rather be named now, the Doctor. In the

centre of the room is a humanoid skeleton that held the key; it’s

encircled by the bones of a serpent. The journey here has built secret on

secret, question on question, mystery on mystery. Only now, the man

holds the key in his hand. I’m beginning to understand that as well as

unlocking his memory the key will, figuratively, unlock this world’s

enigma, too.

‘Professor –‘ I begin, then quickly self-correct. ‘Doctor. You’ve

encountered Daleks before, haven’t you?’

‘Oh yes, I remember now. Many times. They are the distillation of

cruelty. The epitome of ruthlessness. In a word: evil.’

‘Then how did you come to be here?’

His eyes are distant, looking back deep inside his newly opened cache

of memory. ‘I was wandering… lost. So horribly lost. I arrived with a

companion.’ He fires a glance at the skeleton’s arm thrust above the ribs

of the snake. ‘Have you heard of the coup de grace?’

Before I can answer, he adds: ‘But then, why should you have? In

torture chambers in France, the poor wretches that were broken on the

wheel or the rack were rewarded, when they confessed, with the coup de

grace: a stroke of mercy. That is to say, the torturer cut their throat or

hacked off their head with an axe. Isn’t mercy a beautiful quality, Jomi?’

‘How does that relate to your presence here?’

‘Oh-so much.’

‘Doctor? Where are you going?’

‘Time’s up. We’ve got to save your friends.’

As he pockets the key, he runs back into the corridor to try the next

door. It opens. Only this time, there is another barrier beyond it. A dark

featureless wall… Then I look closer… Featureless, apart from the

faintest of round marks. The man I now know as the Doctor slips the

screen from his pocket.

‘Jomi, look!’

Despite a cold dread spreading through my veins, I watch the screen. I

see Kye floating amid bubbles. The gun has slipped from her hands.

She’s limp now. Her eyes stare into the water as she floats toward the

bottom of the flooded cell. Dead… That dread becomes deep heartache.

My friend… my beautiful friend, Kye… Then I see her blink. Bubbles

escape from her mouth.

I turn to the wall that runs immediately behind the open door and

understand. ‘Stand back!’ The Doctor does so as I fire three shots into

the wall. It disintegrates with a roar. This is a dam burst. Water floods

from the ruptured barrier in a wave higher than my head. Both the

Doctor and I are swept down the corridor with the rush of water.

Fortunately it dissipates almost at once, presumably into hidden drains.

Scrambling back to the cell on my hands and knees, I find Kye lying on

her back in the corridor where the outflow has carried her. Wet hair is

plastered across her face in a dripping veil. Her chest rises and falls as

she struggles to breathe. A cough pushes water from her throat.

Reaching her, I gently turn her over so she can cough the water from her

lungs. The skin of her face is so cold. I pull her close to me, trying to

warm her with my arms. At last her eyelids flicker open.

‘She’s going to be all right, Jomi,’ the man tells me. ‘Now we need to

find the rest of the platoon. It’s vital, believe me. Vital.’

Now we know that they are close by, we open door after door in this

section of the building. Next we free Pup from the cell full of vicious,

ant-like creatures that have been trying to creep onto his feet and up over

his body. After Pup is Rain. She’s constantly attacked by a swarm of

insects that can mould themselves into humanoid form. If anything, it’s

the bugs that escape confinement first. The hive again has assumed my

form. My mirror image instantly melts into thousands of insects that

buzz down the corridor toward freedom. I help Rain from the cell. She’s

panting. She can hardly remain upright. The next door opens. Fellebe

stands with her back to the wall that lies directly opposite the doorway,

her arms flung out at either side of her, as if she’s willing her hands to

stick to the wall to hold her there. Her feet are twisted to enable her to

stand on the narrow lip of floor that remains. Beneath her is the pit that

plunges into darkness. Far below, I hear the mournful cry of some beast

abandoned in the depths of its subterranean labyrinth.

I grasp the edge of the doorway then extend my hand across the void.

‘Fellebe. Grab my hand!’

She shoots me a look, her eyes wild with fear. ‘Jomi… Jomi, I –‘

Then she’s gone.

I watch her tumble forward to disappear into the darkness below. Her

scream tears at my heart. I try to pull back from the pit, stumbling as I

do so. The Doctor catches hold of me to save me from falling after

Fellebe. Immediately, he hauls me back into the corridor. A second later,

the doorway closes.

There’s no time to grieve now. I lunge almost recklessly at the next

door. It opens. There in the cell, a bloody Captain Vay battles with a

muscular ape creature. The moment I get the opportunity, I do it. Firing

from the hip, I blast the monster. By the time the flash has gone, nothing

remains of the creature but a smear of blackened dust on the far wall.

Captain Vay staggers from the room. All he can manage to gasp is:

‘Jomi… Jomi. I couldn’t fight any more…’ Defeat burns in his eyes.

All four are exhausted. Kye sits on the floor still regaining her breath;

water drips from her hair. Pup squats beside her. Captain Vay and Rain

lean back against the wall.

Captain Vay wipes blood from a deep cut above one eye. Repeatedly

he shakes his head. ‘Daleks… We just didn’t know they were here in this

kind of numbers. We weren’t prepared! He checks the pad on his sleeve.

‘Comm link’s still down. We’ve got to get back to the shuttle. Then we

can call down some real fire power… burn this place to ashes.’ Weary to

the bone, he looks at me. ‘Jomi. Good work. We lost Golstar. Did you

find Tar’ant, Fellebe and Dissari?’

‘I’m sorry, sir. They’re dead. Amattan, too.’ The news makes him

flinch. I add: ‘Sir, the man’s here with me. The one we found in the

tunnel.’

Exhausted, the Captain raises his head to see the man standing close

by.

I continue: ‘He’s regained his memory, sir. He says he is called the

Doctor.’

‘Welcome back, Doctor.’ The Captain manages to give the man a

weary salute. ‘It must be something to be reunited with your own past.’

‘And my self, Captain.’

With an effort, Captain Vay stands straight; blood still seeps from his

wounds. This is a man who was brutally close to losing the battle for his

life. ‘Doctor. Have you any explanation for what’s going on here?’

‘What’s taking place is a vast experiment. The entire planet’s a

laboratory.’

‘But why didn’t our probes detect Daleks in such numbers when they

scanned the Quadrille?’

‘Because they have expended tremendous effort and material to screen

their citadel from any search by hostile forces. Now, tell me, Captain.

You were captured by the Daleks?’

‘Yes, too easily, I’m ashamed to admit. They locked me in that cell.

The others too it seems. Then they tormented us for their own

enjoyment.’

‘No, not enjoyment. They were running tests on you. Observing how

you reacted to challenges. If you survived or not.’

‘We did OK, I guess.’ The Captain nods at me. ‘But we weren’t as

successful as Jomi here. He was the only one to evade the monsters.’

‘Yes, he was the most successful, wasn’t he?’ Something about the way

the Doctor speaks the words makes me glance sharply at him. He seems

to be reaching a new understanding.

Captain Vay flexes the strained muscles in his limbs. ‘So, Doctor, what

have the Daleks been working on here?’

‘Tell him, Jomi.’

‘They are modifying a variety of life-forms so that, in the words of one

of the specimens here, they will all possess a Dalek heart.’

‘A Dalek heart?’

Quickly I run through what happened to the Doctor and me on the

journey here from the man’s living quarters, including our fiery

encounters with Daleks and our discovery of the monstrous test

specimens in the neighbouring cells.

Captain Vay shakes his head. ‘I can see why the Daleks would exploit

slave races on worlds they capture. But why embed their own Dalek

thought structure in what, to them, are alien creatures?’

The Doctor eyes are hooded, as if he is withdrawing into himself.

‘Because, Captain, Dalek instinct drives them to invade, conquer and

occupy every galaxy, every planet, every grain of sand. They have an

overwhelming obsession to possess everything that is capable of

possession. Rugged though the Dalek is, it can’t freely inhabit every

environment. So how much better, from their point of view, if they could

graft the mind of a Dalek into a fish, or a bird, or an insect, or even

bacteria? That way, every living organism could become a Dalek–’ he

gives a grim smile – ‘a Dalek at heart.’

‘Then why haven’t they unleashed this programme of modification

throughout the universe?’

‘Ah, because there you have the irresistible force slamming into the

immovable object. Daleks are like a virus. They have no choice but to

infect the entire universe with their species. To achieve that, they must

mutate in order to adapt to different environments, different

atmospheres. Equally, they instinctively despise all life forms that are

different from themselves, even if they vary only infinitesimally at

molecular level. Ergo: they are driven to destroy or dominate any

creature alien to themselves.’

‘But these Dalek-hearted creatures wouldn’t be different. They would

have the same goal. The same loyalties. The same craving for

domination.’

‘Indeed they’d share the same goal. But what makes a Dalek a Dalek?

The mutant’s physical form is different from that of the Dalek, which is

not only distasteful to Dalek sensibilities, but dangerous, too.’

‘How could something with the mind of a Dalek be a threat to the

Dalek race?’

‘Now, there, as the ancient saying goes, is the rub.’ The Doctor rested

his fingertips together as answers evolved within him. ‘What if the

Dalek experiment here is a success? Imagine, if they create a being that

is superior to the Dalek. More cunning, more ruthless. Imagine Dalek

Imperial Command asking themselves: “What if our own creation

decides we are inferior to it; therefore, we are to be despised… and

deposed.” What then, hmm?’

‘So the Daleks know they can’t abandon this program of embedding

what amounts to a Dalek mind in alien life-forms; but at the same time,

they dread the possibility that their own creation will be so successful

that it will eradicate the Dalek species as it exists now?’

‘Precisely.’

I remember a word the Doctor used earlier. ‘You said something that

was significant regarding the nature of this planet: quarantine.’

‘Indeed, Jomi. Quarantine. The Daleks have not only laboured hard to

conceal this global laboratory from the Thals, they have also gone to

extraordinary lengths to quarantine the world, so that their own test

subjects can’t escape and wreak havoc throughout the Dalek dominion.’

‘That’s why Daleks from outside the Quadrille haven’t been back here

for centuries?’

‘Absolutely. They’re too wary of contamination. I daresay you won’t

find a single Dalek ship here, in case any of the test subjects should

escape.’ The Doctor nodded. ‘The Daleks have created their ultimate

weapon. Only – to quote another old phrase – they can’t live with it and

they can’t live without it.’

‘Bravo… Bravo.’

I recognise the whispering voice and whirl round. There, standing

ahead of us in the corridor, is the old man with the white hair. He’s

applauding the Doctor’s words while repeating: ‘Bravo. Bravo.’

‘Well, well, well.’ The Doctor cracks a dry smile. ‘I didn’t think I’d see

you again.’

Puzzled, Captain Vay stares at the old man. ‘You know this person,

Doctor?’

‘This is a non-person. It’s one of the walking hives – parasitic bugs and

nothing more. But I know the appearance it has chosen for its present

incarnation.’ Head tilting, he examines the figure in its peculiar clothes.

‘Yes, my friends, that is me. Or rather, me as I once looked. Those

insects are exceedingly clever, aren’t they? They managed to sift

through my memories even when I myself no longer had access to

them.’ He addresses the figure. ‘l know why you are here, of course.’

‘Yes,’ the man-shaped hive whispered, pleased. ‘I should hope you do,

even though you took your own sweet time reaching your conclusions.’

Captain Vay asks the old man: ‘The Doctor is right? This world is just

one huge laboratory?’

‘Oh yes, he’s right. The Doctor is always right. At least, he was in my

day.’

The Doctor turns to us. ‘You must remember that you’re not

conversing with a true version of my earlier self. Those insects are

clever. Our friend there has his – its, I should clarify – own agenda.’

‘Then we need to be on our guard.’ Captain Vay looks round. ‘Jomi?

We have only one weapon between us?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then our safety lies with you, ranger.’

‘Yes, sir. Only, I’m down to my last two shots.’

‘In that case, all I can ask is that when you need to fire, make sure they

count.’

‘Yes, sir.’

The white-haired man waves us closer. His manner seems impatient,

almost caustic. ‘I’ve got something to show you.’

We move forward, alert to any possible threat.

‘Come along, I shan’t bite.’ But even as the words are formed, I see his

face momentarily dissolve into a mass of swarming insects, before they

re-bind themselves once more into the image of the white-haired man.

‘Wait!’ The Doctor steps forward. ‘Are you going to tell these soldiers,

or shall I?’

‘Tell them what?’

‘You should know. Your telepathic ability is highly developed. You’re

reading what’s uppermost in my mind right at this moment, aren’t you?’

‘I prefer to show as well as tell. And now that time has come to show.’

With a grand, stately gesture, using both arms fully outstretched, he

indicates the wall behind him. ‘Behold!’ Just as we’ve seen sections of

wall do the same before, it melts away. Only this is the full length of the

wall, running perhaps a hundred paces. As it melts into transparency, I

see beyond it. A vast space enclosed by an arching ceiling, as if the hall

sits beneath a colossal dome. Before us the floor rises in a series of

terraces. On each terrace is a line of Daleks. How many? Five hundred?

Six hundred? I can’t tell. All I know is that hundreds of eye-stalks are

focused on us as we stand in what was a corridor. So many… Even so, I

scan the Dalek mass looking for those most senior. I’m determined to

destroy one of their commanders before they kill us.

Only they don’t fire at us. I see the weapons of two of the closest

Daleks target the white-haired man. He chuckles. ‘Listen, my friends.’

He points to the man beside me, who I’d once known as the Professor.

‘Call him Doctor.’ He touches his chest. ‘Call me Dalek!’ As the Daleks

fire at him, he merely laughs, and the insects that made him incarnate

disperse in a blur into the vast hall. The Daleks destroy some of the

individual insects, but I know most of the swarm is safe. It’s eerie, but I

still hear the old man’s triumphant laughter receding slowly into the

distance.

I raise my weapon, aiming at a senior Dalek that displays the imperial

purple blaze across its carapace.

In a calm voice, the Doctor tells me: ‘Jomi. Don’t fire. At least, not for

the present.’

He steps toward where I stand with Kye at my side. ‘Don’t you know

yet?’

The legions of Daleks gaze at us. The sense of pure hatred is like a

physical force, pressing at me in wave after wave of cold loathing. The

power of a Dalek stare. It is debilitating. ‘I know I’ll do my duty,’ I tell

him. ‘I’ll fight those monsters until my dying breath.’

‘Those monsters, Jomi?’

‘Yes.’

‘But what about the other monster?’

This strange question is enough to make me glance away from the

menacing array of Daleks to lock eyes with the Doctor. ‘What do you

mean? Other monster?’

‘Isn’t there another one?’

‘Where?’ I glance round the massive hall expecting to see some vast

monstrosity lurking in the shadows; one I haven’t noticed but the Doctor

has.

‘You don’t really need me to spell it out, Jomi. You know… it’s the one

inside your head.’

‘Nonsense.’

‘The monster that for years has stood guard and won’t let you do what

deep down you know should be done… must be done.’

‘Liar.’ Confused, angry, I turn back to glare at the assembled Daleks,

readying myself to fire on the most senior.

‘Jomi.’ The Doctor’s whisper is almost hypnotic. ‘Remember.

Amattan. When he was trapped inside the barrier. He was in agony. You

should have ended his suffering, only you hesitated. Why? What demon

inside your head prevented you from granting your friend a merciful

death?’

‘Stop this…’

‘Why Jomi?’

‘Shut up.’

‘Look inside yourself. Find the demon.’

‘Please, Doctor. I can’t.’

‘Find the demon, Jomi. Cast it out. Then do what you know must be

done.’

‘When I was a child…’

‘Yes.’

I grimace with the pain of remembering. ‘No, it’s stupid.’

‘I won’t think it’s stupid. Tell me, Jomi. It’s the only way to exorcise

the monster in your heart.’

Just for a moment it seems the Doctor and I have stepped outside time

and space. Part of me knows that I stand there with the exhausted and

bloodied remnants of my platoon, that we’re facing hundreds of Daleks.

But there’s another part that tells me I’m distant from this reality, that

I’m in a world that consists solely of me and the Doctor. I’m aware of

his eyes that seem vast, luminous and incredibly wise. They have fixed

on me with hypnotic intensity. And I know he cares about that secret

shame I’ve locked away deep inside me. And yet… and yet…

And yet I’m also transported back through long, dead years to where I

stand over Yo, the brown eyed Grimp so horrifically injured that I know

it will die… In the Doctor’s presence, time is fluid in my mind; it runs

backward, it overlaps… present mingles with past…

‘Jomi,’ he prompts gently. ‘Tell me.’

‘When I was a child… my grandfather gave me a pet, he trusted me to

care for her. Only I let him down. I got careless…’

‘She was hurt in an accident… badly hurt. I knew she would die. I tried

to put her out of her misery humanely… only the harder I tried to kill her,

the worse I hurt her. She would not die. Every blow… it was terrible. She

just wouldn’t die… and all the time, she looked up into my eyes,

knowing that I was trying to stop her suffering… but I failed. She was

such a bloody mess, Doctor.’

‘And so you failed Amattan? You couldn’t bring yourself to kill him,

just in case you made him suffer even more?’

I nod… beaten… humiliated… miserable… so miserable that I want to

dissolve into the ground.

‘Jomi. You weren’t to blame. After all, how much harder is it to kill the

things you love than–’ he glances at the Daleks – ‘than the things you

hate?’

My shoulders sag. ‘I failed Amattan. I failed even Yo, the pet that my

grandfather entrusted into my keeping. A little, good-for-nothing rock

rodent that my people never ever care about.’

‘Except you. Listen, my friend. We learn from failure. When you were

a child, you failed because you lacked maturity and physical strength;

you hesitated to end Amattan’s suffering because you thought the same

would happen again, that you’d only intensify his pain. Now…

however… something tells me you won’t make the same mistake a third

time.’

‘Oh no?’ I find it hard to believe him.

Almost in a whisper, he speaks into my ear: ‘Jomi. Now let us speak of

other things. You saw the creatures that have been sealed away in their

cells for centuries. Despite their outward shape, what are they?’

‘Dalek.’

‘Correct. And the insects that formed the figure of my old self?’

‘They were Dalek, too.’

‘Good. Now if they contain the essence of the Dalek, might one not

assume that every living thing on this world – every tree, every insect,

every reptile – is Dalek-hearted, too?’

‘Yes.’

A number of the insects that formed the white-haired man stream by;

there is something jubilant about the hum of their wings.

‘Dalek-hearted insects,’ the Doctor breathes. ‘The reason why they

helped us, and the reason why the Daleks try to destroy them, is that

they outperform their Dalek creators in this environment. Look, they’re

free to leave here. The Daleks can do nothing to stop them. The Daleks

hate that. They fear it.’ His voice drops until it sounds like that of a

ghost in my ear. ‘The creatures that roam freely here are the Daleks’

most successful creations. They, the Daleks, cannot contain them in their

prison. The least successful are the ones that the Daleks have captured.

Now, do you see?’

Kye looks at me, then at Captain Vay and Rain and Pup standing

together ten paces away.

‘Jomi,’ the Doctor whispers. ‘Your firearm has two shots remaining.

You recall the agony of those creatures’ existence in the cells? You

recall Yo? You recall Amattan?’

I nod.

Suddenly he speaks out loud so that the Daleks can hear. ‘And you

recall that French phrase – that ancient French phrase I used?’ I nod

again.

‘Say it, Jomi. The Daleks don’t understand it.’

Adrenaline powers my voice. ‘Coup de grace.’

‘Then, ranger, do your duty.’

I look into my heart and know that the ‘monster’ the Doctor talked

about has gone. I have exorcised it. I also know that I have failed twice –

but, on my life, I will not fail a third time. I know what must be done.

No sooner has the Doctor spoken the word ‘duty’ than I spin round,

raising the gun as I do so, my finger tightening on the trigger. My move

is so fast that they don’t even have chance to flinch. What’s more, they

stand so closely together that my single shot strikes all three. In a single

beat of the heart, Captain Vay, Pup and Rain vanish in a blast of heat

and vapour. Coup de grace. The stroke of mercy. Now my friends – my

Dalek-hearted friends – will not suffer for all eternity like those

tormented beasts in the cells. As the thought races through my head I

remember Yo. A dirty little animal that no-one could love until my own

grandfather showed me the truth. I failed to end her suffering, but I’ve

succeeded now. In another time. Another place. The guilt I’ve felt all

these years is leaving me – a bittersweet release; confirmed by the gentle

fall of dust that is all that remains of my comrades.

The Doctor looks at me. ‘You have one shot left, Jomi. Now the

question is, what beats stronger in your chest? The heart of a Thal? Or

the heart of the Dalek?’

Kye is looking at me; her eyes are large, frightened. Yet I know she

understands what I have done. I have granted our comrades a merciful

escape. The Doctor watches my face. I glance at the legion of waiting

Daleks. They watch me. No doubt calculating how I will act next.

Will I fire at their leader?

Will I, a Dalek-hearted Thal, kill the Doctor?

Will I turn the gun on Kye and myself to escape imprisonment?

Seconds spin out, even the universe beyond this domed building

appears to hold its breath, waiting to see what I will do next. After all,

my course of action might alter the future forever. Not only for us, but

for the entire cosmos.

The Doctor tilts his head as he looks at me. ‘You were right to grant

your comrades a merciful release. I’m confident that whatever you

decide to do now will also be the right choice.’ He turns back to the

Daleks and addresses them in a powerful voice that seems to carry deep

into the heart of the fortress. ‘And you know he will make the right

choice too, don’t you? Only you don’t know what that will be, so your

scientific curiosity – or is that your morbid curiosity – prevents you from

acting now!’

This is it! This is the moment when the vast hall changes its nature. The

ranks of Daleks that are lined up on tiered platforms that reach from the

floor to the domed ceiling part. Smoothly, the terraces split down the

centre, then the two sections glide apart, like the two halves of a curtain

being opened. Sitting there in a shadowed gulf behind the mass of

Daleks is the colossus of its species. An Emperor Dalek. Glittering silver

tubes radiate from it to create a sunburst pattern that pulses with energies

of incredible power. How I understand its nature I don’t know. But I do

know that this colossal Dalek is feeding on the energy that should fuel

the city. It is draining the lifeblood of the buildings through that dazzling

array of metallic arteries into its body. Beside it is a blue box with small

windows set in the upper part. Compared with the Emperor Dalek, it

appears an archaic construction; an ancient artefact from another time…

The Doctor follows my line of sight. ‘The blue box? That is my vessel.

The TARDIS. See the Emperor Dalek. It would dearly love to feed on its

energies, just as it now voraciously bleeds its own city of power.’ He

addresses the Emperor Dalek in a clear, confident voice. ‘You’ve not

been able to crack her open yet, I see. But you’re attempting to harness

the artron energy that the TARDIS exhales from her fabric… Oh, that

numinous effulgence you do not even understand, but crave so much it

must hurt you through and through to your rotting core.’

I see that golden hoops encircle the blue box, not touching but hovering

close enough to be bathed by the pale blue radiance that aureoles it.

‘Don’t get too close to the old girl,’ the Doctor grins, perhaps knowing

something that the Dalek monster doesn’t. ‘You might just get your…

ahem!… fingers burnt.’

‘DOC… TORRR…’ The giant Dalek’s voice isn’t so much heard but a

presence that is felt. A voice cannot have colour, but this great rushing

sound, like the breeze that ghosts through the dead limbs of a forest in

winter, is somehow smeared with the dark thoughts that are shaped

within that ominous metal shell. ‘Doctor, you have failed again. You are

mine to manipulate… or dispose of whenever I choose.’

‘And you are the paragon of success, hmm? No, I think not. See, Jomi.

This isn’t a Dalek that moves and kills; it is an inert mass that sits and

broods for centuries, nurturing its sordid little strategies. Its sole weapon

is thought. Down through all these grim years it has sat in its fortress.

Here its brain has given birth to monstrous concepts that have resulted in

those sorry creatures we encountered in the cells. It squats there like a

big metal toad. Planning. Scheming!

The Dalek Emperor makes a sound that could be dark laughter. ‘Ah…

Doctor. But I have been successful. I have not merely improved this

universe’s tired, old species. I have created a new kind of life… a

superior biological system of unprecedented power and ability.’

‘Oh, immortal, indestructible and wise, no doubt?’

‘Doctor, Doctor, Doctor.’ Now the creature is gloating. ‘Even the stars

will not burn forever. The universe requires intervention if it is to

continue. We, the Dalek race, have the power to refuel a dying star. We

will halt entropy. We will reverse decay. And we will adorn beautiful

worlds with creatures that are the very essence of perfection.’

‘You mean to say that you intend to re-engineer the cosmos and all its

life forms so that everything – both animate and inanimate – fulfils the

Dalek creed.’

‘We are not so much conquerors, Doctor. That is a redundant phrase.

Consider us conservers… protectors… guardians of both life and the very

fabric of the universe.’ As it speaks, the metallic arteries that feed the

giant Dalek pulse so brightly that I find it hard to keep my eyes open.

It’s like gazing into the dazzling glare of a mid-day sun. ‘Doctor. It is

not so much the Daleks needing the universe, as the universe needing

us.’

‘So you’re going to save all of creation? How noble. How altruistic.’

The Doctor’s laugh is bitter. ‘The sad thing is that not only do you

believe that nonsense, you can’t really stop yourself, can you? Your only

goal is re-make the entire universe – everything: planets, comets, stars,

galaxies, and all the life that inhabits them. You find yourself compelled

to transform it all into a Dalek.’

‘Doctor, this is a conversation that we have enjoyed many times

before.’

‘Oh, I daresay, and many times in the future, too. Sad old things, aren’t

we? Locked in our private little argument. You declaiming that the

Daleks are soooo misunderstood – poor darling things. That you are

fundamentally good at heart; that you want only to save us and protect

the worlds we live on. And then there’s me, your highness, the

contemptible wanderer who flits from planet to planet stirring up

trouble. Who questions your plan to turn the universe into what would

be one vast Dalek… because if the whole universe was essentially Dalek,

then there would be nothing for you to hate any more… But wait a

moment… That’s your reason to live, isn’t it? Without anything to hate,

you would have no reason to exist.’

The Dalek Emperor’s voice rises like the scream of hurricane: ‘Doctor,

it is you who is the disease. We create. You destroy. Why?’

‘Because evolution is supposed to be spontaneous. Biological

development is in response to environment; it is not to be dictated by a

single intelligence. That’s why I will fight you, that’s why I will smash

your evil machines. Believe me, I will do so until my dying breath.’

‘Hmm… Do not tempt me, Doctor.’

‘Yes, I’m vulnerable to your weapons. But have you considered this: is

time running out for you, oh self-important one?’

‘There is nothing you can do that will harm me or delay my work.’

‘Hah!’ The Doctor grins. ‘I cannot destroy you?’

‘No. Never.’

‘Never say, never, sir.’ I realise that, incredibly, the Doctor is enjoying

this. He’s grasped some truth that eludes the Dalek Emperor. ‘Now, let

me explain something.’ The Doctor speaks out, addressing both the

Daleks and me. ‘You understand now, Jomi. A Dalek squad abducted

you and your platoon years ago. You never arrived here today by shuttle.

The Daleks implanted that memory in your mind. During all this time,

they’ve been working on you in their laboratory; they’ve re-engineered

your brain, embedding the Dalek psyche beneath your conscious mind.

It’s a sleeper device, like a time bomb, waiting to be activated when the

time is right.

‘Today they released you and your platoon onto the planet’s surface to

assess how well you managed every crisis they threw in your way. Your

friends failed the test, Jomi, because the Daleks captured them. You,

however, were a success.’ Dark laughter escapes his lips. ‘Did you hear

that, Daleks? Your creation here is a success! Now he is superior to you!

He has the capacity to be your nemesis.’ He waves a hand toward me.

Hear me, Daleks! For I give you your destroyer!

A ripple of movement runs through the Daleks. The tubes that feed the

Emperor Dalek flush a ferocious red. The Doctor has hit a nerve. Their

mania for victory has compelled them to create the instrument of their

defeat.

Before they fire on me, I put my arm around Kye. I pitch us both

forward so that we fall toward the floor. Not that there is any protection

there from the dozens of fireballs that will rain down.

But then I have my training, don’t I? I have my Thal instinct for

survival. I possess something more as well. Coiled beneath my

conscious mind, with all the lethal promise of a venomous snake, is the

embedded Dalek mind. Individually, each component of my psyche is

formidable. Collectively, their power cannot be contained. So, here it is:

time for the ultimate test of my prowess.

The Doctor recoils backward to avoid the concentrated fire power of

the Daleks. (They do not target him, so he is safe for now.) I swing my

weapon round as I fall. For a split second, its sight frames the Emperor

Dalek, then the muzzle of the weapon swings down to point at the area

of floor that I plunge toward, with my arm tightly round Kye’s waist.

Cool, focused, calm, I squeeze the trigger.

Torrents of pure energy blast a hole in the floor. In the split-second

before it can reseal itself, Kye and… and whatever I am becoming… fall

through into absolute darkness.

TWENTY-SEVEN

THE JOURNEY HOLDS NO FEAR FOR US. NEW SENSES HAVE BEEN

awakened in Kye, too. The Daleks have been thorough; they have

improved the performance of both our minds and our bodies to

unimagined degree. We weave through this dark, subterranean

hinterland into which we have fallen; one that lies beneath the Dalek

city. Many of the Daleks’ failed experiments have been abandoned down

here. Some alive. Some bone. We fear none of them. Nothing dare

hinder our progress.

Soon we emerge from a cavern at the base of the cliff on which the

cuboid fortress stands. Kye looks at me. For a moment her face is grimly

serious, but then an irrepressible smile lights it up. Whatever lies

hereafter will be our dominion.

She holds up her hand, fingers outstretched. I reach out, press my palm

against hers, and our fingers curl inward until we grasp hands so tightly

that it seems that no other living force can separate them. True, Kye

failed the Daleks’ test. My reasons for saving her are, perhaps, entirely

selfish. If, unwittingly, the Daleks have made me king of this world,

then every king deserves his queen… and mother to his heirs.

Hand in hand, we run into the jungle. No longer is it a threatening

place. Its parasitic insects and venomous reptiles cannot harm us. They

are our friends and allies. Enjoying this headlong dash through barbed

creepers and across mosses that were once toxic to us, we eventually

reach the area of crushed vegetation where I fell from the grey aerial

tube. Quickly, we locate the bank of monitors that the Doctor found

beneath their blanket of vines. Smiling at one another, flushed with

exhilaration, we sweep the vines away from the twenty or so monitors.

They still function. Each one reveals the Doctor. Rather than retreating

in fear from the massed Daleks, he defiantly addresses them. I run my

hand across the surface of the screen, activating an array of touchsensitive

controls… For I know how to operate this system, now that I

have complete access to my memory. My fingertip brushes the sound

bar. Suddenly we hear what the Doctor is telling the Emperor Dalek…

The tubes that feed it appear congested, purple clots moving through

them in sluggish pulses.

‘Ah, your experiment has taken its toll of your home.’ The Doctor

stamps his foot, cracking the floor like thin ice; fracture lines radiate

outwards. ‘Your old warhorse has brittle bones now. This morning she

could repair the walls and floors that you made vanish for your little

game, just like that.’ He clicks his fingers. ‘This evening the fortress is

exhausted; she’s given you everything she had, and still you suck what’s

left of the life-blood out of her. Not that you soulless creatures would

care.’ The Doctor looks round. ‘But I guess there’s some life left in the

old place yet. Although she’ll need plenty of rest and recuperation.

Hmm? This will mean a pause in your machinations for a little while,

anyway. So… What now? You could kill me. Or you could simply let me

go. I have found the key to the TARDIS. You could watch me disappear

back into time and space. Nevertheless, from whatever vantage point I

find myself, I can witness you and you and you…’ – he points to

individual Daleks massed there in the hall, then aims a finger at the

Dalek Emperor – ‘and you – I can witness every single Dalek, being

remorselessly exterminated by the very beings you created.’

There’s a pause. The Dalek Emperor surveys the Doctor standing there.

A lone, small figure against so much evil and hatred. Its eye scans the

man coldly.

The Doctor stands his ground. Defiant. Then the Dalek replies with a

harsh, nitric whisper: ‘That is precisely why, Doctor, you are so valuable

to us…’ It pauses as if the following admission causes it pain. ‘In truth,

Doctor, you are our only hope.’

The screen suddenly goes blank. I look at Kye. Seeing her face as if for

the first time.

We are not Thals. We are not Daleks. We are something quite different.

Now, this is the time to make our way to the outside world where our

future, and our destiny, await us.

CLOSURE

IN THE MIDDLE OF A FEATURELESS CORRIDOR IS AN ARMCHAIR.

In the chair sits a man with a book on his lap. He is dressed simply in

black trousers and a white shirt. He speaks to a soldier in uniform who

stands beside him. The man’s voice is bitter; his eyes flash with anger.

‘Jomi. I’ve told you everything I know. The Daleks captured me and

brought me here. Just like you. Unlike in your case, however, they did

not implant their mind into mine. Dalek high command’s overall plan is

to re-engineer the psyche of captured Thals, then covertly return them to

their home worlds where they will sire young, who in turn will contain

the Dalek mind that sleeps within their own. At a given time, when there

are enough of these… these Dalek-hearted Thals, Dalek high command

will remotely trigger the dormant mind. Thals infected with that mindset

will suddenly start to think and act like Daleks. Their loyalties will

be transfigured, too. Trojan horse, turncoat, Fifth Columnist, there are

many names for similar forms of infiltrator. The aim is to invade and

conquer before the adversaries know they are even being attacked. How

long before this quiet invasion occurs? I don’t know. A century? A

millennia? Once it has, then the Daleks will journey to their newly conquered

worlds and be re-united with their…’ – he searches for a

suitable word – ‘…their children. At least that is… was their plan. Now

they fear you more than anything else in the universe.’

He looks up at the soldier. ‘As for me, Jomi? What do the Daleks plan

for me in my jail here? Are they exploiting me? Am I the serendipitous

element? The catalyst thrown into the melting pot that will, when I

interact with their creations, somehow elicit from them some exotic

ability that cannot be knowingly manufactured? Or create some method

of exercising absolute control over them? Perhaps I’m Ingredient X that

will result in the creation of their perfect being? Or maybe, at the bottom

of it all, the Daleks: aim is merely to torment me for all time… for all the

difficulty and setbacks I have caused them? Who knows, Jomi.’ He

pauses, tilting his head to one side as he hears a sound, and looks toward

the bend in the corridor. ‘What was that, Jomi?’

The seated man turns his head to look back at the one he calls Jomi.

With a gentle hiss, the soldier dissolves into a cloud of insects that fly

toward the complex’s entrance.

For a moment, the man rests his head back against the armchair. ‘No,’

he murmurs, his face grim. ‘You won’t rob me of my past again. I

remember everything. I am the Doctor. I remember how you tortured the

Thal platoon.’ A bitter fury drives his voice. ‘I remember how you

defeated me and made me your prisoner! I am the Doctor! I will

remember…

There is a sudden rhythmic throbbing sound in the air. A monotone

pulsing. Briefly, the Doctor’s eyes close, as if falling asleep; yet a

moment later, they open again. ‘Remember what? Hmm?’ Then he

shrugs, as if what he was trying to bring to mind is unimportant. He

turns a page in his book and continues reading.

Presently, figures appear to stand alongside him as he sits in his

armchair, engrossed in the volume. They are a squad of young Thal

rangers. They are edgy. They hold their weapons at the ready.

A woman gripping a sidearm steps forward to speak to him. ‘Sir.’

He’s not surprised by her appearance. Instead, he smiles. A bland,

almost drowsy smile.

‘Hello.’ He speaks softly. ‘And to think I wasn’t expecting anyone

new.’

‘Sir.’ Her manner is authoritative. ‘I am Commander Yalen. This is my

platoon.’

‘Really?’

‘We need to establish that you do not pose a threat to the Thal nation.

Sir, are you able to verify your identity?’

‘Good question. A very good question.’ He gazes into space as he tries

to remember. ‘Yes… Who am I?’

AFTERWORD

THE DALEK FACTOR IS THE LAST OF TELOS PUBLISHING LTD’S

range of original Doctor Who Novellas. BBC Worldwide Ltd, who

oversee the commercial exploitation of Doctor Who, have declined to

renew our licence to publish these books, and so, after two and a half

years and fifteen titles, we regrettably have no option but to discontinue

the range at this point.

We are grateful to all our readers – and particularly those who have

been with us from the start – for all the support they have shown us.

Trying a new range of books is always a gamble, for the customer as

well as for the publisher, and we hope that we have repaid whatever

faith you have placed in us, whether through advance ordering of the

titles, subscribing, getting your local shop to order them, or just by

picking them up as you saw them on the shelves.

Our aim with the Novellas has always been to present some top-rate

fiction by some of the best genre talents working today. We are pleased

and honoured to have worked with well-established and highly respected

authors of the calibre of Kim Newman, Tom Arden, Louise

Cooper, Mark Chadbourn, Paul McAuley and Simon Clark, none of

whom had any previous direct involvement with the world of Doctor

Who fiction, but all of whom relished the prospect of taking the Doctor

out for some adventures of their own devising. We are also delighted to

have had the opportunity to allow some perhaps more familiar names

from the world of Doctor Who another chance to contribute in their own

unique and distinctive styles. Dave Stone, Keith Topping, Andrew

Cartmel, Daniel O’Mahony, Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman, Tara

Samms and Mike Tucker and Robert Perry have all managed to defy

expectations with their Novellas. Finally, we are pleased to have given

some relatively new, and up and coming, authors a further chance to

show what they can do. Simon A Forward and lain McLaughlin rose to

the challenge admirably.

It has also been a great pleasure for us to have worked with all the

highly-accomplished artists and distinguished foreword writers who

have lent their talents to the Novellas range. Some of the foreword

writers might well have gone on to write Doctor Who Novellas of their

own, had we not been obliged to end the range at this point – an

opportunity now sadly lost – and all have been very generous in the time

they have taken to offer us their thoughts and feelings about the books

on which they have been commenting, and on Doctor Who itself.

We are gratified to note that the Novellas have won a very positive

response from readers and reviewers alike, and a somewhat wider and

more mainstream coverage than has traditionally been the case for

Doctor Who fiction – including in a BBC television news report and in

British national newspapers such as the Sunday Express, The Times and

the Sunday Times. We have even picked up some awards along the way,

winning a Doctor Who Magazine poll for our debut title and a

prestigious publishing industry award for the production quality of the

Novellas (with an equivalent award for one of our printers).

All this has served to help us achieve a secondary objective that we set

ourselves: specifically, to try to get Doctor Who fiction read more

widely than by people who were already fans of Doctor Who to start

with. Judging from our postbag, and from the orders we have received

for the books worldwide, we believe we have succeeded in getting genre

readers to think about Doctor Who books in a different light, and in

introducing some previous sceptics to a range that has, we hope,

constantly challenged, entertained and intrigued its readership.

We have tried through the Novellas to show that Doctor Who fiction

affords enormous potential for diversity in style, tone and content, and

even a degree of literary experimentation – something that is, perhaps,

more difficult to achieve in a full-length novel. We believe that the basic

Doctor Who format remains as strong, vibrant, flexible and fertile today

as it as ever been. And long may it continue to be so.

We will continue to take a close interest in Doctor Who, in all its many

and varied forms. For the moment, though, it is time for us to leave the

Doctor as an amnesiac Dalek captive, and for Telos Publishing Ltd to

move onwards and upwards with other projects. We hope that you, the

readers, will continue to support us in all our future endeavours.

David J Howe

Stephen James Walker

Telos Publishing Ltd

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

BORN ON THE 20TH APRIL, 1958, SIMON CLARK SOLD HIS FIRST

ghost story – ‘A Trip Out for Mr Harrison’– to a radio station while in

his teens, and before becoming a full time writer, he held a variety of

jobs, including strawberry picker, supermarket shelf stacker, office

worker and scriptwriter for promotional videos.

His first novel, Nailed by the Heart was published in 1995, and since

then he has published ten further horror novels: Blood Crazy, Darker,

King Blood, Vampyrrhic, The Fall, Judas Tree, The Night of the Triffids,

Vampyrrhic Rites, Darkness Demands and Stranger. His next novel, In

This Skin, is scheduled for publication in 2004. His short stories have

appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including SFX, The

Year’s Best Horror, Best New Horror and Dark Voices and have been

broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Selected stories have been collected in Salt

Snake & Other Bloody Cuts and Blood and Grit. He has also written

crime shorts, appeared on BBC Television and has written prose

material for the rock band U2.

The Night of the Triffids won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel

of 2001, and in the same year he also won the Best Short Fiction Award

for ‘Goblin City Lights’ which appeared in the Telos collection Urban

Gothic: Lacuna and Other Trips.

He lives with his wife and two children in mystical territory that lies on

the border of Robin Hood country in England.__

Posted June 19, 2010 by Mr Pepperpot

One response to “The Dalek Factor

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  1. Pingback: The Dalek Factor by Simon Clark (Telos Novella) « Dalektricity

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