THE DALEK FACTOR
by Simon Clark
First published in England in 2004 by Telos Publishing Ltd
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
Two: the props people would have been lost without perspex and
Three: you can’t have a universe-conquering enemy that can’t get up
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
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
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
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
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
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.
‘Nothing. Dark… it’s all dark.’
‘Captain, I see nothing. It’s too dark. No light–’
‘Advance. Advise caution. Target directly ahead of you.’
‘She’s off monitor.’
‘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.’
‘Request withdrawal, sir.’
‘Request denied. Advance.’
‘Sir, density of growth increasing; it’s becoming –‘
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.
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
‘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
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
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’
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
‘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
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.’
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
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
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…
‘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.’
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
‘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
Fellebe glances at me. ‘Lock down visor,’ she orders. ‘Knock off
‘Don’t fire unless I fire. Got that?’
‘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
‘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
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
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.
‘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
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?’
Crack. Another parasitic body pops. Kye tweezers it away.
‘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
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.’
‘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
‘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
‘Great. That gives us an incentive to move fast – very fast. So – we’re
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.’
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
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
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
‘I am Captain Vay. This is my platoon.’
‘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.
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
‘Captain Vay, you said? Gratified to meet you, Captain.’
‘While we’re observing the formalities, sir. Might I enquire who you
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
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
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
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘The planetary system of which this world forms a part.’
‘I have to satisfy myself that you pose no threat to the Thal people.’
‘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.’
‘I don’t know.’
Fellebe reminds him. ‘Captain, all comm links went down an hour
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
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
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
‘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.’
‘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
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
‘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
‘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
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
‘What a planet,’ I hiss. ‘Sweet life, what a planet!’
AS WE MOVE ALONG THE CORRIDOR, THE MAN FOLLOWS US. ‘A
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.’
‘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.
‘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
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
’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.’
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 –
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
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
‘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
‘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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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.
‘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
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
‘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
I catch her eye. ‘You know what we’re dealing with here?’
‘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
‘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. 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”.’
‘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
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,
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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
‘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.
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
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
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
‘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?’
‘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
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
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
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)
‘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.
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
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.
Kye has used her sister’s name to address the ‘walking hive,’ as the
man dubs it.
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
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
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.’
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
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
‘What is it?’
‘You can’t go down there.’
‘We’ve got to find our platoon, Professor.’
‘It’s the only way out of here.’
‘You can’t go down there, do you hear me?’
‘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
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!’
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
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?’
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
‘Professor. We’re running out of options now. We’re losing power in
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?’
‘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.’
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
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
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
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.
‘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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
‘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
‘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.
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
‘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 shakes his head.
‘Do you know why you’re here on this planet?’
‘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
‘Grey tubes. Blue sky.’
‘What don’t you see?’
‘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.’
‘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
‘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
‘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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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.
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
I look through the mass of shifting stalks that are twice as tall as me.
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.
‘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
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
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
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?’
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
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
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
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?
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
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
‘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?’
‘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.
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
‘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?’
‘Are you trying to show us where our friends are?’ The Professor takes
another step forward. The old man suddenly raises his hand.
‘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
‘Professor,’ I urge. ‘We must keep looking.’
He’s lost inside his head again. Not moving. Not even blinking.
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
‘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.
‘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
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
‘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.’
‘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
Retrieving the gun, the Professor hands it to me with a curt order: ‘Kill
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.’
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.’
‘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.
‘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
‘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.
‘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
‘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.’
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.
‘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!
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?’ 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.’
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
‘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?’
‘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.
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
Exhausted, the Captain raises his head to see the man standing close
I continue: ‘He’s regained his memory, sir. He says he is called the
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘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?’
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
‘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.’
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
Puzzled, Captain Vay stares at the old man. ‘You know this person,
‘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
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?’
‘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
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
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
He steps toward where I stand with Kye at my side. ‘Don’t you know
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?’
‘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
‘You don’t really need me to spell it out, Jomi. You know… it’s the one
inside your head.’
‘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
‘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
‘When I was a child…’
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
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
‘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?’
‘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?’
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?’
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
‘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
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
‘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
‘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
‘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?’
‘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
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.
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
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.
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
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
‘Sir.’ Her manner is authoritative. ‘I am Commander Yalen. This is my
‘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?’
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.__