The Doctor stood, leaning against the corner-joist of his disguised time machine and watched as a soldier from four hundred years hence strode down the pavement of the high street to start a new life in the comparatively barbaric present. Like they said, time conquers all... or was it love heals all wounds?
After a climactic battle with the Daleks, when all of recorded history was at stake, the Doctor’s longtime companion Commander Mark Triyad had decided to make his home in England in the year 1996. It seemed confronting the Daleks seemed to always cost the Doctor his travelling companions – Landon, Sara, Tom, Ace, Tegan... all the way back to Susan. At least Mark had survived his encounter, and his leaving the Doctor’s side was made of his own free will.
The wandering Time Lord, now in his eleventh regenerative form, was a medium-sized man whose smooth, oval face was framed by swept-back auburn hair and dressed in a rather shabby dinner suit with a red velvet cloak flung around his shoulders. He turned to look at his remaining companion – a short nineteen-year-old girl with shoulder-length ginger locks, wearing a somewhat crumpled school uniform. Dara Hamilton, who had been travelling with the Doctor since his latest regeneration and who was thankfully willing to remain travelling aboard the TARDIS.
Dara looked wistfully through the traffic as Mark crossed the road to meet up with Serena, the woman he’d fallen in love with in two different histories. “Well, Doctor,” she asked at length, “what do you think? Will they be all right?”
“Everything will be all right, Dara,” the Doctor assured her. “Mark was right about the 24th century; they’ll experience an uneasy peace. Nothing as nasty as the Zylons for quite some time,” he mused.
“And the Daleks?” asked Dara.
The Doctor’s good humor deflated visibly. Following the destruction of their planet Skaro and the annihilation of their empire, the Doctor had assumed that the Daleks as any kind of universal force were finished – but he had been proved wrong. One faction of the Daleks had survived into the far future and used all their resources to master time travel. These Daleks had created a thick network of time corridors connecting surviving Dalek factions across the entire history of the universe, uniting into a completely new empire – one gifted with the ability to overcome any obstacle as they could simply nip back in time and defeat their enemies retrospectively. With a mixture of blind luck and determination, the Doctor had managed to sever all the time corridors, isolating the Dalek factions once more. The most advanced Daleks were now marooned in the depths of a time loop, unable to escape and repeat their efforts. Thankfully, the Doctor had ended the Empire before it had conquered the universe, but not before the Daleks’ own timelines had been distorted beyond recognition.
He finally answered his companion. “Now they’ve rendered their future a blank slate, anything can happen... but, for now, humanity is safe. Well, Dara, you said something about a holiday?”
“I sure did!” she replied with her usual boundless enthusiasm and slipped her arm under the Doctor’s. “Let’s go!” she grinned, leading him through the narrow doorway of the police box and into the brightly-lit control chamber within.
The Doctor laughed and allowed himself to be dragged aboard his own ship. The door swung shut behind him and, after a moment, the light on the police box roof began to flash on and off as odd sounds throbbed from within the box. The TARDIS began to fade from view and by the third flash was gone, its grinding rumble lost under the noise of passing traffic.
The three members of the survey team stood alone on the barren patch of land, their booted feet already starting to sink into the mud. Their flyer was rested on the most solid part of the ground, on a flat expanse of bone-white rock. One of the survey team, Enros, scratched his stubbly chin and looked across the bleak landscape. “This,” he said with a rising sense of disbelief, “is Serpent Island?”
The team leader, Crall, nodded and checked his handheld computer. “That’s the best translation. According to the files this island is noted for the hundreds of thousands of snakes that infest it. Large and small. Apparently you can’t take more than two steps in any direction without treading on one of them.”
Enros turned in a circle and looked around the muddy wasteland. “Well, I’m fairly certain this is one urban legend disproved. There’s not a single snake on the whole island!”
The third member of the team, Sadia, kicked at the mud. “I thought all the serpents were on the other side of the planet,” she muttered. “I mean, that’s why the ocean west of Davius is called the Serpent Sea, isn’t it? And what about those giant cannibal earthworms who live at the Radiation Range up in Darren?”
“All the data suggests the serpents here are dwarf mutations of the sea serpents,” Crall said.
“All the data suggests there’s no serpents here at all,” Enros pointed out. “Hardly anything is known about the dark side of the planet. They might be talking about a completely different island altogether. Besides, we are in the middle of the Ocean of Death, aren’t we? All it takes is a tidal wave of that acidic water and all life would be destroyed here anyway. What’s next on the list?”
Crall sighed. “The Swamp Lands on the other side of the Icecano.”
“Sounds nasty,” Enros grimly. “What’s that then?”
“A swamp, like it sounds.”
“What? No mutants? No monsters? No nameless horrors hiding in the mist?”
“None,” Crall said, checking his computer. “According to this, the swamp itself is a living organism and it’s growing far larger all the time.”
“Is it hostile?”
“Not sure. Conflicting reports suggest that the Swamp Lands consume every living organism that touches on the surface. But if that was true, no one would come back with information, would they?”
“Point.” Enros sighed. “Still, better than another blank space of the map and promises no one has seen the truth and lived. How many of those are there?”
Taking the request seriously, Crall checked the computer. “The Islands of Mists, the Forbidden Islands, the Desert of Despair, the Land of the Lost and... the Island of Moving Mountains.”
“It’s always islands, isn’t it? The natives never have a nice word to say about them,” Enros mused. He turned to look at Sadia who was staring at a rock in silence. “Well, are you coming then? Or do you want to stay here and see if you can spot a serpent.”
Sadia looked up at him. There was a strange intensity in her gaze. “Come and see,” she said softly.
The other two obligingly crossed the ground to join her. They looked down at what she had found. Half submerged in the mud was a deformed greenish-brown body sprouting vestigial limbs that squirmed and thrashed in the murky patch of ground.
For a long moment there was nothing but the deep hollow howl of the wind.
“How the hell did that thing get here?” gasped Enros, staring at the blob.
“It’s one the serpents,” said Sadia with a strange note of triumph in her voice. “They’ve mutated like all the rest. They’ve reached the final phase of the evolutionary chain!”
“It can’t have,” murmured Crall, scanning the blobby creature with his handheld device. “Its accelerated evolution would mean that it was millions of years more developed than everything else on the planet! There’s no other race in or out of this world so advanced.”
Enros noticed that Sadia was staring at him with a horrible intensity. “Then whatever is happening to life on this planet is occurring on this island faster and more intense than anywhere else,” she said softly. “Whatever’s causing it – radiation, bioenergy, malign psychic influence...”
“What? A curse?” scoffed Enros.
Sadia didn’t seem to hear the interruption. “It’s happening here worse. Intense. Maybe that force, whatever it is, is concentrated here. Because it starts off here and radiated around the planet. The heart of the volcano is where it’s hottest.”
“Ironic, as this world has a heart of super-frozen ice,” joked Enros weakly. He did not like the sudden change of behavior in Sadia, any more than he liked the writhing lump in the mud.
“This is no ordinary world, you stupid idiot,” snapped Sadia, voice thick with hatred. “That’s why we’re here. Life all across the planet is mutating, transforming until they become creatures like this! And the serpents of this island are the first to finally achieve it.”
Enros was taken aback at her manner, and felt annoyance rising in him. “And how do you know that this mutant isn’t just another escaped specimen from the biolabs that’s swum ashore?”
“Because it isn’t,” said Crall softly. He showed the display of his computer to the others. “The DNA chains aren’t a perfect match. This isn’t the final mutation, but still very close. All data indicates this creature was once a six-metre long limb-free reptile.”
Enros spared a horrified glance at the mess of brain matter and tendrils. “How long before the mutation completes itself?” he asked hoarsely.
“Unknown,” Crall noted grimly.
They suddenly noticed Sadia was grinning at them. “It doesn’t matter. It proves what we were sent to confirm. That is the final form of all life. One day, that will be the only creature in the universe. Fish or fowl, flora or fauna, it all ends up looking like that!”
She started to laugh uncontrollably.
Crall studied her face, noticing how pale she had become, and wondered if the implications of the discovery were driving her out of her mind. Sadia stared back with a look of purest contempt, then kicked out with one long leg. The mutant, torn from the warm mud it had been lying in, was flung straight at Crall’s chest with enough force to knock him off his feet. As if enraged, the creature began to let out a strange insectoid chittering, and the slimy, pulsating bundle began to claw at Crall’s shirt with the bird-like claws several of its tentacles ended with. The material shredded, as did the skin beneath. Crall’s screams of sheer agony seemed to infuriate the monster even more.
As Enros tried to kick the creature free from Crall’s body – he was loathe to touch it with his bare hands – the grinning Sadia was strolling off towards the flyer, still laughing to herself. No one could see how bloodshot her eyes had become, or the way the visible blood vessels were a bilious green.
No sooner had the Doctor and Dara left London, 1996, then all hell had broken loose.
Dara gripped the TARDIS console as the room lurched and dipped around her. Bracing herself against the hexagon-lined edge of the control desk, her hands clung to the recesses in the panel directly in front of her, while taking care not to accidentally touch the LEDs or banks of switches within. Things were bad enough; she didn’t need to accidentally set off the self-destruct.
“Doctor, what’s happening?” she cried over the pained whir of machinery inside the console.
“That’s a very generic question, Dara,” came the reply. “Would you care to be more concise?”
The Doctor was in a far less dignified position than his companion – he was actually lying over most of the console, his arms wrapped tightly around the clear glass column that struggled to rise and fall at the heart of the hexagonal console. The cake-stand like crystalline array inside the column was pulsing and flickering as if something was interrupting the power supply.
“Why is the TARDIS out of control?” shouted Dara. “Is that concise enough?”
The Doctor was about to reply when the glass time rotor column reared up with increasing force and cracked him on the chin, causing him to jack-knife backwards off the console, and somehow ended up backwards-somersaulting into the corner of the room. “Tah-dah!” he added grandly, but was undermined by lying upside down with his legs sprawled against the wall.
“Has the TARDIS finally gone haywire?” Dara called, trying to drag the discussion back on course.
“Don’t talk about her like that!” the Doctor reproached Dara, leaping to his feet, only to be thrown back to the floor by another sickening, unpredictable lurch. “We’re flying through turbulence,” he managed to tell Dara’s ankles as he tried to climb up the steep floor. “You remember how the TARDIS missed my laboratory at UNIT headquarters? I thought I miss-dialed but actually we were knocked off course!”
“By what?” asked Dara, suddenly wishing Mark was here to help.
“Whatever it was, it’s gotten distinctly worse while we were saying goodbye,” the Doctor explained, his thoughts following a similar path to Dara’s. He was at the panel opposite Dara and peered at the monitor built into the console there. Spiralling pattern spun and fluxed in a mass of crude pixels. “We’re in the middle of the storm and looks like it’s getting worse!”
“Storm?” Dara echoed. “So you know what it is?”
The Doctor tried to hang onto the console and operate it simultaneously. “Well, call me paranoid, but destroying that network of time corridors turning history inside out might just have had some knock-on effects,” he said lightly. “Imagine all those corridors severed and tumbling into each other, like a spider’s web torn from its moorings...”
“I’m imagining!” Dara promised him as the TARDIS bucked again.
“Of course, spider’s webbing is incredibly strong as to be almost unbreakable, so to be torn free would require a force equivalent to...”
His mind was wandering again, as it was oft to do. Trying to keep calm, Dara called, “Moving rapidly on, can’t you stop this?”
“Stop us bouncing around like dice in a box!”
“Oh. That.” The Doctor frowned in annoyance. “No,” he said, finally answering her question.
“Why not?” Dara demanded.
“I’ve tried everything!” the Doctor shouted back at her with equal passion.
“Well try it again!” Dara shouted in return.
The Doctor blinked, shrugged, nearly lost his grip, slammed down against the desk, then started to manipulate the controls on the panel once more. The moment he’d snapped down the first contact, there was a dull bass thud as if the TARDIS had suddenly slammed into a wall. The room was suddenly level, the floor suddenly solid beneath their feet, and the abrupt change left both the Doctor and Dara swaying dizzily as they tried to regain their balance. The painful mechanical noises were over, leaving just the usual threadbare hum of the temporal drives.
“Oh, Doctor,” Dara breathed with delight. “You did it...”
“Shhh! Shhh! SHH!” the Doctor hissed, jabbing a finger in front of his mouth while he bent over the console, moving from panel to panel as if studying the flashing lights and understanding the information displayed. Sometimes Dara wondered if they made any sense to him, since he would sometimes tell her it was just meaningless flashes. He might have been joking. You could never tell with this Doctor.
The Doctor was circling the console and Dara got out of the way, allowing him to reach his starting point. Reaching into one of the recessed controls, he twisted a dial and they turned to look at the scanner alcove. The shutter rolled upwards smoothly to reveal a flickering, coiling mess of rainbow fire. It seemed to coil back on itself as they watched, burning, and merging and splitting again.
“Ow,” mumbled Dara as her head began to ache at the sight of it.
“It’s a four-dimensional representation of a five-dimensional cross-section of a six-dimensional phenomenon,” said the Doctor said, as if trying to guess the artist of a renaissance masterpiece despite not having a clue what he was talking about.
“Which is?” Dara prompted hopefully.
“It’s a Time Quake, Dara!” the Doctor marveled, as if the simpler explanation made more sense to him as well. “A probability rift, running through the ages, widening and branching into the timelines of a dozen galaxies!”
“And for the mere mortals in the audience?” his companion asked pleasantly.
The Doctor stared at her with his pale eyes. “Time has cracked down the middle. A loose vortex has formed in the gap. All those shattered Dalek time corridors are dragging everything they can down with them. Whole pathways through the infinite nexus could burn out under that pressure...”
“That sounds bad,” said Dara uncomfortably.
“It is, Dara. Just imagine the effect of one timeline being erased,” he mused. “Like Serena. If she was wiped from history, imagine what would have happened.”
“Mark would still be with us?” Dara guessed, suspecting this wasn’t the precise answer her friend wanted.
“More than that. She wouldn’t have been there on the ruined Earth to help us. We would have mostly likely been captured and exterminated by the Daleks,” the Doctor continued, seeming absorbed in new version of events he was describing. “Their empire would never have been defeated. And all from one person.”
Dara spared the thing on the monitor a glance. “Is that going to happen?”
“I’m not sure. But normally the pattern of infinity has enough effect to create a cause,” the Time Lord said reassuringly. “You push time out of shape and time will push back.” He paused remembering events on the last human colony, events he was still not sure if happened inside or outside his head. “If Serena was erased, someone else would survive the holocaust to help out. Mark may not have found true love, but history would be almost back the way it was. The pattern would be filled.”
“So, there’s nothing to worry about?” Dara asked hopefully.
The Doctor didn’t reply, but stared at the scanner.
“Doctor?” Dara pressed.
“Can’t you feel it?” asked the Doctor wonderingly.
“Feel what?” Dara replied, shaking her head in confusion. The atmosphere of the TARDIS suddenly seemed colder, tense and anxious.
“The strands of time, fraying at the edges.” A strange, lost expression crossed his face. “Not a moment’s peace...” he trailed off, his face suddenly paler than ever, until he looked like a fresh corpse. Dara cried out as he swooned, falling forward to the floor.
Dara bent down to roll him over – the Time Lord was semi-conscious, looking around wildly.
“They’re being wiped out, Dara,” he croaked deliriously. “One by one, their timelines are being erased... wiped off the blackboard... something’s hunting down every last one of them... them and only them! Everything they ever did, every action, every effect... surgically removed from time... the Daleks are being written out of history!”
The planet was called Hell, though no one was entirely sure. The Earth Empire of the 26th century was widely spread, but this planet was on the outskirts of the galaxy, way beyond their borders. Were the primitive humanoids who lived there degenerate Earth colonists whose culture had named this world after that unpleasant realm? Or was it a coincidence, a quirk of language?
In any case, the name was accurate. The surface of Hell was a scorched desert where only a few noxious weeds sprouted. There were no oceans, rivers or lakes, and what little, filthy water existed did so miles underground and was hoarded preciously. The sky was a boiling red bloodstain around the unrelenting sun whose heat and radiation caused cancers and diseases to those exposed to it for more than a few days. The native Helkans were used to it, bred from only those strong enough to survive on the surface.
But not even the Helkans could survive the Daleks.
At the order of their Emperor, the Daleks had swarmed over Hell like locusts over ripe fruit. Their numbers were relatively few, and augmented by ranks of Ogrons. However, not even the Ogrons could survive for long on this newly-conquered world, forcing Daleks to take over more and more of the day-to-day operations while the anthropoids either died of sunburn or were exterminated for failure.
The Daleks had not conquered this miserable world on a whim, but had come here for a very specific reason. They wanted Helkogen Gas, the abundant element trapped in numerous, random pockets under the surface – the expansive gas had an incredible-fast acting effect on organic matter. A single lungfull of pure Helkogen could wipe out the entire population of a city in ten seconds. The Daleks however, did not need an atmosphere to survive, and thus Helkogen was the perfect weapon, one that destroyed everything except themselves. The surviving Helkans were turned into slave labor force at the hastily erected mine workings.
The Helkogen gas was mined, purified and pumped into a giant oval capsule which was then loaded onto the outside of a shuttle which would then hurtle into orbit to meet the Death Wheel – a Dalek space station already containing millions of the capsules. Once Hell was drained of its Helkogen supply, the Death Wheel would be used, plunging its long shaft into the atmosphere and converting the mix of gasses to Helkogen before siphoning it back out again – leaving a planet totally bare of life.
Fearing that either Earth or Draconia might stumble across their plan before it was complete, the Daleks had worked their slaves – both Ogron and Helkan – to death. But by now, the starved and sleep-deprived slaves were collapsing, dying faster than the Daleks could exterminate them. There was but one shuttle left to fill before the planet could be abandoned completely.
And then they came.
A fleet of circular, silver saucers was suddenly surrounded the Death Wheel and the two Dalek cruisers in orbit above Hell. The countless Daleks on trans-solar discs flying around the Death Wheel immediately swept upwards to defend their new weapon and the Emperor Dalek, who was now aboard.
The Daleks opened fire on the fleet. The lightning bolts of radiation dispersed harmlessly over the intruders, with no change in their state. One of the Dalek cruisers detached from the Death Wheel to add its fire power to the one-sided battle. But even as it swept into the battle zone, power suddenly drained from its engines. The Dalek saucer lost momentum, slowing to a total halt. The free-floating Daleks were similarly paralyzed. The effect spread, and the Death Wheel slowed its rotation until it too was frozen in place.
In its throne room, the golden spherical shape of the Emperor Dalek was helpless, barely metres from its emergency escape pod that could have taken the leader of the Dalek race to freedom. Throughout the Death Wheel, in the detention cells, the loading bay, the atmospheric penetration tower, the other Daleks were jammed as well, trapped like flies in amber.
Suddenly a ripple seemed to spread out from the enemy ships, expanding in all directions and engulfing the Daleks, the cruisers, finally even the Death Wheel itself. Slowly but surely colour and substance was scrubbed away, until at last there was nothing left. The orbiting Dalek stronghold had ceased to ever have existed. But the field was not content and continued to expand until it was washing over the barren Helkan surface below. The mining setup blew away like smoke in a breeze. The Ogron corpses disappeared, for there was no reason for them to be dead, let alone on Hell at all. The lifeless bodies of the natives were restored to life as weeks of destroying slave labor was swept away. The ruins that had been their villages and wells shimmered and finally snapped back into normal. The Helkogen gas was once more heavily diluted and spread under the suddenly unbroken ground.
The Helkans were simple, kindly beings – on a planet as harsh as Hell, only cooperation prevented them going extinct. As they stumbled around in relief that their nightmare was over, that very nightmare faded from their uncomplicated minds. In less than a minute, they had completely forgotten the invasion, the horror, the terror. All of it. They returned to their tents to wait for nightfall when the temperature dropped to a mere 50 degrees in the shade as, high above them, the fleet of saucers vanished.
Then, abruptly, a strange wheezing groaning sound shattered the silence of Hell as a tall blue police box materialized in the sand under where, moments earlier, a mighty drill tower would once have been able to cast shade. The door creaked inwards and a head, adorned with a white panama hat, peered out into the scarlet heat and light.
“Oh dear,” the Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, sighed in mild despair. “This doesn’t look like Maruthea, either.” His grey eyes spotted the Helkans trudging back to their village. “Those chaps over there certainly aren’t party-goers either...”
The Seventh Doctor blinked. For a moment, he was sure he’d seen the Helkans in a chain gang marching between a latticed tower and a mineshaft. But the plain was empty. Troubled, the Doctor retreated further into the TARDIS and slammed the door shut, making another attempt to reach his friend Bonjaxx’s birthday party. The police box faded away, and the Doctor never suspected that he’d been denied an adventure with the Daleks and the infamous Dalek-Killer, Abslom Daak. Of course, in this new unfolding reality, Abslom Daak was executed years earlier for his numerous crimes. He had not had the option to become a Dalek-Killer.
There were no Daleks to be killed.
They were still staring at the scanner at the fifth-dimensional apparition. Dara had managed to get the Doctor propped up in his Louis XIV chair. He was still worryingly pale, but seemed to be more distressed emotionally than physically.
“Opposing realities are grinding together like shifting continents,” he said bleakly. “The tapestry of the past is unraveling. Tomorrow’s being turned on its head. A trillion history texts are becoming fiction. The whole destiny of an entire race being deflected and on a million worlds the Daleks are becoming a fading memory... then a myth... then nothing. They simply never were.”
There was an awkward silence.
“At least it’s localized with the Daleks,” Dara said, trying to be positive.
“Localized?” the Doctor scoff. “The chaos ripples out, small things effect bigger things, on and on and on – step a butterfly and hundreds of butterflies are never born, they never exist and the rodents that depend on those insects starve and so on and so on!”
“But the Daleks are evil!” Dara protested. “Wiping them out can only be a good thing?”
“Can it?” the Doctor asked and Dara was stunned as she realized he was – for once – being perfectly serious. He honestly didn’t seem to think the erasure of the Daleks could be something to be happy about. “And when they’re all gone, what takes their place in history? What causes all the wars and the deaths and destruction? What fills the gap the Daleks leave?”
“Who says there has to be a gap!” Dara snorted. “If the Daleks are gone then the wars don’t happen. The people don’t die.”
“And then what, Dara?” the Doctor demanded, leaping from his chair. “All those planets never learn the lessons of cooperation against an enemy. They keep fighting amongst themselves. And what about all the criminals and murderers who were exterminated, they now get to live, to cause chaos, killing people who were supposed to survive, inventions and discoveries never made...”
“You’re being pessimistic,” Dara said, trying to calm him down.
“Am I? You don’t see time like I see it, Dara, like a mountain range, past and future and present all visible at once...” The Doctor ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “If you stop the Second World War from starting, that doesn’t automatically make Europe have a happy ending. There are plenty of fascists in England alone who agreed with the Nazi ideals. To truly stop the war you’d need Britain to be of the same mindset as Germany. There’s no war and the Nazis win hands down. Is that good, Dara? Does that balance the books so that all who died in the conflict now get to live in oppression? I’ve seen societies like that, you know. I know the advances that can be made by un-tempered ruthlessness. In that world, they would have become so advanced they could have fought the Daleks on their own by 1996. A strong, ordered world built on so many corpses... maybe they wouldn’t even have fought the Daleks, just declared a truce...”
The Doctor grabbed the edges of the console to steady himself. The control room seemed to be sliding away from him. He concentrated until it was back in focus. “Dara,” he said hoarsely. “For better or for worse, the proper histories of thousands of worlds across the cosmos are at this very moment being altered, re-written, erased and revised! It doesn’t matter if the new ones are ten times better or ten times worse! If that distortion doesn’t dissipate the entire fabric of time will be ripped apart!”
Dara swallowed as the enormity of it all sank in. “Won’t the Time Lords do something?”
The Doctor let out a bitter laugh. “Of course they will. They’ll batten down their own hatches and make sure they’re perfectly safe. Once that’s done, they’ll start committee meetings to decide what to do next – and that will almost certainly start with blaming me for all this!”
“So what can we do about it?” Dara begged.
The Doctor looked at her and Dara realized how old he looked, his grim white face, shiny with perspiration was showing every last one of the centuries he’d lived. “We need to get past that time corridor debris,” he said firmly. “The corridors are all drawing together into a kind of plug that will jam the vortex.”
“And that’s bad.”
“In the long term yes, in the short term no,” the Doctor replied and, still using all his effort to remain upright, reached out with an uncertain arm and pressed a button. The outer-panel of that particular console section smoothly rose and slid back like a car bonnet to reveal the electronic maze of pulsing circuits. The Doctor stared down into the flashing lights. “That plug will stop the Time Quake getting through, seal off part of the universe and keep it unaffected. We need to get there and find some way of restoring the status quo. And, no,” he added harshly, “I don’t mean the band.”
Dara bit her lip. The only time the Doctor didn’t appreciate her jokes was when things were deadly serious.
“But how do we get past the storm,” she asked carefully, “without getting ripped apart?”
The Doctor was gazing at the optic-fibre cables, arteries of pinprick lights between endlessly opening-and-closing relays, operated by jiggling lasers. The pulsing electronics seemed to calm the Time Lord and restore some of his strength as he stared intently into revealed innards of his beloved TARDIS.
“By being very, very clever,” the Doctor replied finally and, brandishing his sonic screwdriver, set to work.
Sadia paused in the hatchway of the flyer and looked back at Crall and Enros. They’d finally dislodged the mutant and Crall was rolled onto his side, coughing blood. Sadia felt a surge of satisfaction wash over her, turning into a desire to kill the pair of them. It was like she was sinking into an ocean of hatred that was not her own – she felt so much anger, yet she couldn’t for the life of her work out why she felt it. Indeed, she almost felt frightened. There was something inside of her that wanted the pair dead.
She had visions of beating them to a pulp in her bare hands, a deep desire to rip them limb from limb. But no. She didn’t have to do it like that. She could let them die in a more interesting way. Yes. That would bring the satisfaction she wanted, of being the only survivor. She clambered into the flyer and pressed the stud control that lowered the wing-door closed, sealing her safely inside.
Sadia looked through the door window as Enros ran towards her, mouth opening in screams she couldn’t hear. He was angry, confused, but above all afraid – because she knew that he knew what she would do. What was going to happen to him. On some level he knew.
She felt all doubt ebb from her, replaced with a feeling of invincibility as she operated the flyer control. The engines engaged, kicking up a cloud of white dust as the anti-grav drives thrust the flyer straight up into the murky blue sky. For a moment the ship titled backwards, but then leveled out. Sadia spared a glimpse out the window – and far below, the barren wasteland that was the misnamed Island of Serpents. She could see the tiny shape of Enros screaming helplessly and shaking his arms in the air. Crall was lying on the ground, unmoving. He was too far away for Sadia to see if he was still alive.
But they were trapped there. No food. No water. At the mercy of the mutants and whatever it was that had transformed them. They were lost. She was alone now, the invincible survivor. And that was good.
Sadia hit the engines and the flyer sliced off into the sky.
Enros watched the gunmetal grey shape vanish into the blue heavens, and finally stopping shouting for Sadia to stop mucking about. She’d abandoned them there, and this was no idle prank. Outside their customized survival base, every part of this massive stinking planet was a death trap. He looked down at Crall, who had lost consciousness. The injuries to his chest were superficial, but there was no telling what germs or venom might have spread from the monster.
The thought struck him and he whirled around on the spot, scanning the monotonous landscape for sign of the creature the humans had been rather unreasonably kicking all day – but a shapeless mud-covered blob in a field of mud would be hard to spot at any time. He returned to Crall and looked for his computer, but couldn’t find it. Enros had a nasty suspicion it had sunk into the mud as well... always assuming the creature hadn’t snatched it while no one was looking.
Enros struggled to calm his breathing and raised his right wrist to his mouth so he could speak into his communications bracelet. On most worlds it was completely reliable, but technology had a way of being corrupted on this hell-planet. “Control? Amerson control? Come in, please! Emergency! Come in!”
Enros felt a prickling between his shoulders and whirled around again. His heart was hammering at his ribcage. But he could see nothing. “Control, please!” he shouted into his bracelet.
The tiny speaker crackled and the faint voice of the expedition commander, Al Tarrant, struggled to be heard over the howl of the wind. “Enros? Is that you? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Sadia!” Enros gabbled, still scanning the horizon with his eyes. “She’s gone mad, she attacked us, stole the flyer and dumped us here! Crall’s been injured by a mutant, badly. I require immediate extraction – do you hear me, immediate?”
“Understood,” the voice whispered. “Where are you?”
“Island of Serpents,” Enros shouted. “You can’t miss it – a huge mudpile without a single damn serpent!”
Another voice joined Tarrant’s. The strange electronic quality made it appear that the communications net was malfunctioning, but Enros knew the voice was being relayed better than the Commanders. The new voice was quiet, intelligent, thoughtful; raised only to be heard better.
“Mr. Enros,” it said calmly, “did you complete the survey before Sadia turned on you?”
Enros might have laughed in other circumstances. But not when talking to their scientific advisor. It wasn’t that he was devoid of humor... it just seemed wrong to laugh in his presence. Wrong and disturbing. “There was nothing to survey. This place is supposed to be covered in snakes, there wasn’t one. Well...”
The voice was clearly expecting his clarification. “Yes, Mr. Enros?”
“There was one mutant we found. Looked to have completed the cycle entirely, but Crall’s sure it was still on its way. The computer confirmed, it was originally one of the snakes...”
“Fascinating,” the voice murmured. “The morphogenic field must be particularly strong on the dark side of the planet...”
“Very fascinating, I agree,” lied Enros. “I need extraction and a medical team!”
“Kambril and Selman are leaving now,” Tarrant’s voice assured Enros. “They’ll be with you in less than an hour at top speed and they’ve got a dozen medi-packs.”
“Less than an hour?” Enros was almost screaming.
“You are on the dark side of the planet,” the other voice said calmly. “Even on direct line of flight, the distance is vast. I suggest, Mr. Enros, you do what you can for Mr. Crall and stay as calm as possible.”
“Calm?” Enros echoed. “My blood pressure is the least of my worries.”
“Indeed, it is, Mr. Enros,” the voice replied, perhaps making a light joke. It was impossible to tell from the near-inflection-free voice. “All evidence suggests that you have picked a most dangerous part of the world to be stranded in. The morphogenic fields appear to already have corrupted one of you. If you wish to escape that fate, I would suggest using as little adrenaline and anger as possible.”
Enros forced himself to take ten breaths before he spoke. “Is that the best you can do?”
“At this distance? Against an inevitable outcome? With countless factors beyond my control or knowledge?” The voice was sarcastic, but as ever relaxed. “Mr. Enros, you should be grateful that I am able to even advise you.”
“Enros, the others are clear of Dalazar now. They should be in your sector in thirty-two minutes. I need to clear the net to try and contact Sadia. Only talk again if things get critical.”
The communication ended, leaving Ecros alone, the only noise the endless moan of the wind... until a clicking, chittering sound rose over it. The little man struggled to find the source of the noise, then grimly forced himself to sit down next to Crall in the mud. He didn’t want to be noticeable for the next half an hour anyway. Another chirping noise.
“Define ‘critical’,” Enros said miserably.
After about fifteen minutes, the Doctor announced they were ready. Dara suspected that they were nowhere near ready, but the Doctor was unwilling to stay on the sidelines any further. She was certain that more could be done to prepare the TARDIS then removing some of the roundels from the walls (which, amazingly, continue to glow with their treacle colour even when detached) and some circuits rewired by the technical process of biting off the insulation and jamming them together.
The control panel opened on the console was still open and what seemed to be small shelving unit had been built into it, carrying racks of printed circuits connected to each other and the console by coiled telephone cables. The Doctor began to punch buttons furiously and placed his hand on the sliding control that would activate the TARDIS’s main drive. On the scanner was the tangle of severed corridors, a dazzling collection of thin yellow bands spiraling into each other.
“Are you ready?” he asked, studying the monitor displays.
“No,” Dara admitted.
“Nor me,” the Doctor admitted. “Alakazam!” he announced and thrust the slide control upwards. With no preamble the controls responded, the hum of the engines deepening. The time rotor began to move up and down smoothly. For a moment, the Doctor and Dara exchanged a triumphant grin but then the whole TARDIS began to shake and shudder as if pummeled on all sides by meteorites. Once again the duo were left clinging to the console as the vibrations became worse.
“This is supposed to happen right?” Dara called out.
“Well, it could be worse,” the Doctor said philosophically.
“How?” Dara asked, and then immediately regretted it. She could tell by the Doctor’s expression that he wasn’t pleased with her tempting fate either.
The TARDIS seemed buckle and jerk severely around them, and there was the distant and unnerving sound of rending metal. The walls of the control room seemed to distort as if it was a reflection in a carnival mirror, as the time rotor struggling to continue pistoning up and down.
“We’re being shaken to pieces!” Dara wailed in realization.
“You did ask,” the Doctor replied with no trace of sympathy.
“Can’t you do something?”
“Not unless you want us to flip over and break up – we’re committed to this now!”
The room wasn’t just shaking, it was now spinning. Centrifugal force began to tug at the occupants of the TARDIS as it plunged faster and faster, deeper and deeper into the very eye of the tangled web. The motions became more violent, as if deliberately trying to hurl the pair to the rattling floor beneath them. Smoke was pouring from the lash-up circuits wired into the console and the TARDIS seemed to topple. The components within the exposed roundels burst into flames. More explosions ripped through the console and the underside of the desk erupted in sparks.
“This cannot be good!” Dara coughed from the fumes.
“Just another three nexuses and we’re through the plug hole!” the Doctor promised as suddenly the scanner before them turned unbearably white, bleaching the control chamber with the eye-searing glow. It was a window on the Armageddon they were hurtling towards. More explosions tore out chunks of the console, and then suddenly the buffeting steadied to a low ripple of constant movement, and the glare on the scanner slowly cleared and the image of a planet reformed, rushing closer and closer. The sphere was bloodshot, sulphurous, with two pus-coloured moons slowly orbiting it. And the TARDIS was hurtling towards it.
“We’re gonna crash!” Dara spluttered as the clouds of the atmosphere began to clear and beyond was a fast-moving blur of rock and stone, but even that was lost through the smoke that was filling the control room from the overloaded mechanisms. The lashed-together calibration tower was torn apart in acrid blue flames, leaving a smoking ruin of charred circuitry that collapsed as detonation after detonating erupted from the console.
“So we are,” the Doctor said lamely, even as his hands moved swiftly over the crackling, smoking controls.
By now Sadia was half a planet away from her former comrades, the flyer sweeping above the deep blue Sea of Acid. It was differentiated from the similarly-acidic Ocean of Death by its relative shallowness, and the fact the acid of this sea created intensely powerful fumes that could corrode human lung tissue in minutes, and rot human flesh off the bones in hours. She was now somewhere between the major continents of Darren and Dalazar, but wasn’t entirely sure where.
“Sadia?” crackled a voice over the in-flight communications net. “This is Tarrant! Come in!”
Sadia ignored the voice. Her thoughts were more focussed with the new strength in her limbs, and the rush of motion as the planet hurtled past around her. She could smell mud and blood and overheating components and coolant in pipes. She realized her mind was wandering off, thinking of nothing conscious bar the desire to be alone and kill to stay that way. It felt right that she could see, hear and smell with strengthened senses. This, she decided, was what she wanted to be. Alone and alive.
“Sadia, repeat, this is Tarrant – report your location! Priority!”
She stared blankly at the nearest landmass and tried to remember its name. It was a strange dull yellow colour and rose to a point, like some kind of smooth mountain. There were shapes on the shores near the dark blue-green waters, but none of them moved. It struck Sadia that she was no longer entirely certain how to pilot the ship she was in, and did what she could to land it.
In her attempts she finally managed to switch off the communicator and silence the voice.
The flyer jerkily curved back towards the golden island, the auto-pilot thankfully engaging and completing the landing for her. By the time it was resting on the yellow surface of the shore, Sadia was desperate to escape the craft and more by luck than judgement managed to hit the door control before she was frantic enough to start hurling herself against the windscreen.
The wing-door unfolded and the low moan of the wind could be heard. Sadia sniffed the air and stumbled out into the open. She was starting to feel very strange, and everything seemed unreal and dreamlike. She was almost unbearably, feverishly hot. She staggered, stumbled and fell to the hard metallic ground. There was a noise inside her head, like the rising and falling of overworking engines. It seemed to be getting louder and louder.
Sadia looked around wildly for the source of the intolerable noise.
A patch of air further down the shore was a sickly, electric green. The blazing frenzy sent displaced air in a breeze in time with the wheezing and groaning as the colour moved through the spectrum, shrugging off the yellow of the island. The green object was now blue as it phased from phantom to substance as in seconds the noise stopped and a battered blue box with translucent windows was standing askew on the sloping ground, looking for all the world like it had always stood there.
The noise had stopped and Sadia felt a wave of relief as she finally passed out.
Al Tarrant had been in more comfortable bases, but knew the one he was currently residing in was not meant for humanoids like himself. Little of it was above the surface of the ruined planet, and none of it depended on fresh air and daylight. Worse, the original inhabitants did not have the comparatively poor eyesight of humanity, which meant the lighting was almost always painfully dim – but, on the bright side, it meant no one had to admire the harsh, bleak metal architecture. The chamber he stood in was relatively well-lit, with the blow-up charts and maps of the planet providing enough illumination to work the instrument consoles, study their readings and monitor the scientific equipment present.
“Damn,” Tarrant said as he saw a particular blinking light cut out. “Computer,” he called across the room, “what is the status of the flyer?”
The bland, almost insolent synthesized voice replied. “Engine idle, main door now open.”
“You mean it’s landed?” Tarrant growled, annoyed at the machine’s unhelpful insight.
“Confirmed. The flyer now occupies grid reference 302-497-987.”
Tarrant automatically turned to check the nearest map. The modulated voice of his scientific advisor, still at the back of the room, lost in shadow, spoke. Two thin lights flashed with light in the darkness, like flickering eyes burning in the gloom. “Ah. The Island of Gushing Gold,” the voice grated. “A fitting place for her to head, would you not agree Commander?”
“It’s not too far from the Dalazar shore,” Tarrant agreed. “We can collect her pretty easily.”
“That is not what I meant,” the voice replied. “The Island of Gushing Gold is a monument to greed, selfishness without caution. It is logical in a way that Sadia would head there.”
“Sadia isn’t greedy,” Tarrant retorted.
“She is functioning differently now,” the voice pointed out. “She cares about nothing but fulfilling her basest of desires with no thought of others. Is that not greed? Selfish? I would recommend attempts to rescue her be prioritized. It will not be long before the next eruption...”
The voice was interrupted as the map of the island in question spluttered and blurred, the image rolling madly through the thin, free-standing screen it was shown on – and all the other maps fluctuated in sympathy. The spinning lights briefly lit up the rest of the chamber, outlining the bulbous white shape of the owner of the voice. In moments, though, the screen spun and settled to normal.
“What was that?” demanded Tarrant.
His companion spoke firmly. “Computer, scan all sensor inputs on all frequencies for the last twenty rels. Analyze data and readout. Explain the anomaly,” it added for good measure, knowing how literal computers could be. Without very specific instructions, they rarely did as desired.
“Anomaly specified,” the computer announced. There was a whirring click and then a filtered recording of what sounding like an asthmatic tank engine afflicted by grating gears played over the speakers as the computer read out. “Sensors indicate severe electromagnetic disturbance at coordinates 302-497-987,” it announced. “Supercharged ionic flux triggering severe extra-particle activity.”
“An intrusion to the world,” the scientific advisor concluded.
“A foreign object has materialized right next to where Sadia landed,” Tarrant realized.
“The inference is confirmed,” said the computer, as if they cared for its opinion.
“Have you heard a noise like that before?” Tarrant asked his companion.
There was a pause, as if the owner of the voice was thinking. “My memory is not all that it was,” the voice revealed, almost reluctantly. “But I have a strong suspicion as to the cause of it, and the origin of the materialization. I know of but one being whose mere presence causes ripples in the fabric of reality itself. And if I am right...”
Tarrant couldn’t wait for the answer. “Well?”
“If I am right,” the voice continued, “then after so many years, the endless war has recommenced. Soon, the skies above us will boil!” The voice lost any trace of control and rose into a painful electronic shriek. “He has come at last! The Doctor has returned to confront the destiny of us all!!”
Dara tried to remember something beyond the bright flashes and the harsh choking smoke, but she couldn’t. Struggling to regain her senses she realized that everything in the TARDIS was quiet and still for once. Dara managed to sit up and look around, blinking as her eyes adjusted.
“Wakey-wakey,” she heard the Doctor’s voice call, “upsy-daisy. Get up and don’t be lazy!”
Dara looked up at the console, where the Doctor was examining the damage they’d received. Dara could tell at a glance it was pretty bad – the tower he’d built was nothing but charred stalks clogging up the exposed innards of the console, while several read-out displays had popped and shorted out. Burns blackened patches of the control desk, and the glass column was fogged up with smoke.
“I’m not lazy,” Dara groaned as she managed to get to her feet. “How bad is it?”
“I’ve seen worse,” the Doctor said, blowing some black ash from the recesses before him. “Mainly subsystems burnt out under pressure. The automatics should be kicking in soon. Six hours or so and we’ll be able to move.”
“But what about the universe?” Dara asked. “Isn’t that still exploding?”
“You noticed that, huh?” the Doctor grinned, mopping the soot from his face with a red cloth. “Luckily, we’re out of the firing line. Emergency materialization right at the heart of the safety zone.” He waved the cloth in the direction of the scanner. “Wherever this is, it’s the last place that history will be rewritten. Perhaps not the last place where history is made, though...”
Dara followed his gaze to look at their surroundings through the scanner window. Beyond was dull yellow beach sloping upwards to some kind of mountain or volcano. The TARDIS had landed near the shore where crashing surf was a dazzling green, reflecting the sun in the clear blue sky above. Dara noticed that there were strange statues dotted around the coastline.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” she said brightly. “Any idea where we are?”
The Doctor stared her, then indicated the explosion ravaged console. “The external sensors show we’re on a planet more than twice the size of Earth,” he said at last. “40 per cent greater radius, 16 per cent more surface area and 6.4 per cent deeper volume. The surface area is three billion square kilometres and this is one of the few landmasses that doesn’t have more area than all the continents of your planet put together. A tiny tropical island.”
“A planet that big...” Dara marveled at the sheer scale. “The gravity would crush us flat, wouldn’t it?”
“Normally,” the Doctor shrugged. “But it’s close enough to Earth normal as makes no odds.”
“How does that work?”
“Presumably the internal structure of the planet makes it feasible,” the Time Lord pondered. “I’ve seen similar things before. Deep canyons, honeycombed strata layers, pockets of gas... of course, on this scale they’d have to be a hundred and fifty seven million times stronger than a hurricane on Earth...”
“They don’t do things by half on this planet,” Dara marveled. “Shall we have a look?”
“If I can get the doors open,” the Doctor said hopefully, and pulled on the red door handle. There was a pained whirring of the mechanism. Only one of the double doors moved, jerkily opening just enough to allow narrow access to the outside universe.
“Will the automatics fix that too?” Dara asked.
“We can but hope,” the Doctor said, pausing only to collect his top hat before squeezing through the gap in the doorway and out of sight.
It took Dara longer to get out of the TARDIS. She wasn’t half as slender as the rake-like Doctor, and had to struggle to fit her torso through the thin portal that allowed her into the tattered wooden interior of the police box shell of the TARDIS. It was with much relief she tugged on the brass handle and exited through the wide open door. She stepped out, blinking in the brilliant sunshine, the light reflecting off the yellow ground and the green silk of the ocean. Apart from the Doctor, the island seemed deserted. There was no birds in the sky, no plants, shrubs or trees. The only noise was the waves and the strange empty moan of the wind – disconcerting as there was barely any breeze.
“Well, I’ve seen worse places for a holiday,” Dara decided as she pulled the TARDIS door shut behind her.
“I’m not sure you’re looking hard enough,” the Doctor replied. “I wouldn’t advise swimming in that green goo – it’s not water at all.”
“What is it then?” Dara frowned. “Apple juice?”
“It’s a highly-corrosive compound that destroys metallic compounds. A sea that can rust an ocean liner to the frame in seconds,” the Doctor brooded.
“How do you know this?” Dara asked, suddenly suspicious.
With a flourish, the Doctor indicated a small tidal pool he’d been standing next to. Fumbling into his pocket, he found a pen he’d stolen from Colonel Crichton and threw it into the green puddle. The pen sank to the bottom of the pool, then began to float up to the surface. By the time it was there, it was pitted and scarred almost beyond recognition, breaking down into brown crumbs that slowly dissolved.
“Ouch,” Dara winced. “What kind of planet has oceans of super rust?”
“Ones I would normally want to avoid. On the bright side, we can be sure no Cybermen are going to interrupt us,” the Doctor added brightly.
Dara wracked her brains to remember which aliens he was talking about – she often got Zygons and Zylons mixed up with Mandrels and Bandrils. “Why is that?” she asked in the meantime.
“Cybermen can’t cope with gold, and that’s what this island is made of.” He reached down to a dry patch of yellow ground and rapped it with his knuckles. It made a mild clang. “See? Metal. And the only metal that could possibly survive corrosion from any sea, let alone that one, would be gold. Or at least something very similar to it. QED and ipso facto.”
“An island made out of gold...” Dara boggled, staring at the yellow landscape in renewed interest.
“That’s nothing Dara. I’ve known whole planets made out of the stuff...”
“You think gold’s common on this planet?” Dara wondered. “We could get rich here!”
“Dara, even if the universe wasn’t on the brink of total chronological collapse, I have much better things to do than use the TARDIS to make claims for mineral rights,” the Doctor scolded her. “And what if that ocean is typical of this world? Gold might be the only metal anyone can use here, and you’d deny them their rightful supply? What next? Snatching candy from babies, the pennies from dead men’s eyes?”
“I haven’t seen anyone, have you?” asked Dara, arms folded as she always stood when she was mustering the ultimate argument.
“Quite a few,” the Doctor muttered, turning around. “And further more... who’s that?”
He pointed past Dara, past the TARDIS, further down the shore. Sprawled on the golden ground was a body in a simple black outdoor uniform complete with boots and gloves. Her long dark hair covered her face, and at first glance it looked as though she had been washed ashore. But the strange Delorean-style hover transport further up the beach was a more obvious source of the woman.
The duo immediately made their way over to the body. “Hey,” Dara called as they drew closer, “are you all right?”
With visible effort, the woman lifted her head to look at them, revealing her features. The Doctor and Dara could see at once that there was something wrong with her face. Something terribly, sickeningly wrong.
Tufts of the woman’s hair were starting to fall out and her skin was a hideous ghastly white, glistening with rivulets of something too thick and viscous to be sweat. A tumor-like bump had formed in one temple and was splitting open, while one ear seemed to have sealed up, the lobe fused to the side of the head. One eye was scrunched closed while the other was mad and staring. The woman let out a strange noise, like she was groaning in pain yet simultaneously letting out a strange animal roar.
And then she attacked...
TO BE CONTINUED... NEVER...