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Skirmish

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Not for the first time, Sarah Jane Smith cursed the silly season. It was ridiculous enough that she'd been sent here in the first place. If there had been anything remotely important happening in the world, she'd never have been sent here to investigate the so-called Beast of Towlands Forest. Since the only evidence for this beast consisted of a handful of footprints and a few seconds of shaky camcorder footage, the chances of Sarah making the scoop of the year had seemed remote.

Her mood hadn't been improved by the weather, which, typically for August in Britain, had been a succession of rainy squalls. Over the course of the day, these had built to a full-blown thunderstorm, which had been lashing Sarah's car with rain, and trying to blow it off the road with crosswinds. A fallen tree had caused her to make one detour already, and she was now driving along a narrow, winding lane that looked more like a river. The beams of her headlights illuminated nothing but trees, apparently stretching to infinity in every direction.

She rounded the next bend. Immediately beyond it, the road was completely flooded, to what depth she couldn't see. She braked, but the car skidded on the wet road, coming to a halt in the middle of the flood. The engine spluttered and died, and the headlights went out.

"No!" Sarah muttered. She turned the ignition key, to no effect. "This is all I need."

There was a torch in the glove compartment, she remembered. Working by touch, she recovered it, then considered her next move. If she stayed in the car, she'd at least be in the dry, but if the flood got any higher the whole car might get swept away. If she went for help, on the other hand, she'd be risking exposure and who knew what else. She shone the torch down at her feet. Water was already seeping into the car. If she didn't get out soon, she might not be able to get out at all.

Hastily, Sarah retrieved her Wellington boots from the passenger's side of the car, pulled them on, buttoned up her coat, and opened the car door. She climbed out, finding that the flood came nearly to the top of her boots already, then made her way to the back of the car. As she did so, the water became shallower, and a few yards further back, she was standing on reasonably solid ground.

She was safe from being swept away by the water, at least. But standing here and waiting to see what damage the flood would do to her car, with the rain bucketing down on her and the wind whipping at her hair, didn't sound like an attractive proposition. She cast her mind back, trying to remember if she'd passed any houses in the last few miles, and came up blank. Then, for want of anything better to do, she turned the torch off and looked around, hoping to see a light.

There was a distant flash, between the trees.

Sarah stopped, and looked. The flash came again – by the look of it, headlights passing, on another road some way away. Maybe she could get to that road and find help. Aiming herself in the right direction, she switched her torch on, and set out. There was little undergrowth, and under the trees the wind and rain were less of a nuisance. The ground sloped gently upward, and Sarah made good progress, occasionally turning her torch off to make sure she was still heading in the direction of the lights she'd seen.

She was some distance from the car, and seemed to be getting quite close to the lights, when a tree root caught her foot, sending her sprawling among a drift of sodden leaves. As she tried to get up, the wind dropped briefly, and she froze. Just for a second, she'd heard a distant voice, and though she hadn't been able to make out the words, she had recognised the intonation at once.

The Daleks were here.

Sarah lay where she had fallen, the leaves cold against her face, not daring to move. Her heart was racing. Briefly, she tried to convince herself that she had been mistaken, that she'd mistaken something perfectly innocent for an all-too-real nightmare. But deep down, she couldn't deceive herself. Again, in a momentary lull in the wind, she heard that mechanical, hate-filled voice, and saw lights flashing in time with the words. Those were the lights she'd been trying to reach, she realised. If she hadn't fallen, she'd probably have walked straight into the Daleks.

She groped around until she'd recovered her torch, but didn't dare switch it on. Then she began to crawl away from the voice, not daring to rise to her feet. It was slow going, but she couldn't risk being spotted.

"AREA FOUR SEARCH COMPLETE," a Dalek voice said, from somewhere close at hand. "RESULTS NEGATIVE. PROCEED TO AREA FIVE."

Sarah threw herself flat again, then risked a look in the direction the voice had come from. Gliding between the trees were the familiar silhouettes of Daleks, their lower halves dimly outlined by a blue radiance. They weren't heading for her; they must have been within yards of her, but were now moving away. Sarah counted four. It was clear that they were concentrating on whatever they were searching for, and she wondered what that might be. Knowing the Daleks, it wouldn't be anything pleasant.

Once the Daleks were out of sight, Sarah stood once more, and wondered what she ought to do. There was no way she could fight them. If she could get to a telephone and call UNIT, they might stand more of a chance, but if she'd known where to find a telephone she wouldn't be here in the first place. The Doctor, of course, would probably have walked up to the Daleks, persuaded them he was worth more alive than dead, talked them into taking him to their base, and used some clever plan to make them blow themselves up. But Sarah suspected that if she tried that, she'd be shot on sight.

"Well," she said to herself. "Whatever I do, stumbling around in the dark isn't going to help."

She turned the torch on, and tried to get a grasp of her surroundings. It didn't help much; one part of the forest looked, to her, much like another. She couldn't even be sure how to get back to her car, let alone anywhere else. The ground under the trees wasn't soft enough for her to leave footprints, so retracing her steps was out, too. She turned slowly, looking for some hint where to go.

There was a brief high-pitched whistling noise, like a microphone picking up feedback. Sarah jumped, moved her head sharply, and the sound cut off. She turned her head again, and once more heard a brief burst of the noise. After several more attempts, she managed to get her head in the right position to hear it constantly. Experimentally, she covered her ears, but that made no difference: almost certainly, the sound wasn't a sound at all, but her mind was perceiving it that way. It didn't seem to be emanating from where the Daleks had gone, or where they had come from. Perhaps it was what they were looking for.

"Oh, well," she said to herself. "Might as well take a look, now I'm here."

She set out through the trees, facing in the direction from which the noise seemed to be coming. Now she could hear it more clearly, 'whistling' wasn't quite the right word for the sound; it was high-pitched, yes, but sounded almost vocal rather than mechanical. She half fancied that there were words in it, on the edge of hearing.

Ahead, the beam of Sarah's torch illuminated a small clearing, scattered with rocks, as though the forest lay over the summit of a buried mountain that was trying to force its way through here. Sarah, preferring what protection the trees gave her from the rain, walked around the edge rather than crossing the middle, and was twenty or more yards into the forest on the far side when she realised what she'd done. She'd turned away from the sound she'd been following, without even noticing – and now, she couldn't hear it at all.

She turned, and heard another brief burst of noise. It was now coming from the exact opposite direction, as if she'd passed the source back at the clearing and was now walking away from it. Slowly, she retraced her footsteps until she was at the clearing once more. It looked exactly as it had done previously. Was the source of the signal hidden in or among those rocks?

Sarah took a step forward, shook her head, and turned away. This time, she managed to catch herself before she'd gone more than a few paces. There was something in that clearing that didn't want you to notice it. Maybe it was what the Daleks were after, maybe not.

Well, she was going to notice it.

Deliberately, Sarah walked to the edge of the clearing, turned until she could hear that high-pitched, unfathomable sound once more, closed her eyes, and walked forward. She felt a brief, intense suggestion of goose pimples, and heard... nothing. Not only had the noise she'd been following stopped, but so had the rain and the wind. She opened her eyes again. By all appearances, she was still where she had been, in the same rock-strewn clearing. But as she shone the torch down, she saw something that hadn't been there before. Lying prone before one of the rocks was a motionless figure, dressed in a red and white uniform.

Sarah knelt down by the body and felt for a pulse. He was definitely not a human; the skin on his hands and arms was jet-black, leathery, with visible scales. There was a pulse in his wrist: weak, but a double beat, like the Doctor's.

Sarah turned her attention to the man's head. He was wearing some kind of helmet, which she thought it best not to remove, based on vague recollections of newsroom gossip about motorcycle accidents. In contrast with the hands, the man's face, as she turned it towards her, looked entirely human. She placed her hand on his forehead; it felt cold to the touch.

His eyes snapped open.

"Don't try to move," Sarah said. "I–" She'd been going to say she could get help, but she decided that would be a promise she had no hope of keeping. "What happened to you?"

The man's lips moved. Sarah couldn't make out the words, for the most part, but one seemed to jump out at her.

"Daleks?" she repeated.

The man nodded. "Looking for me." He grabbed her hand, seeming to gain in strength. "Got a time bomb here. Get them close enough and... pfft!"

"A time bomb?" Sarah looked about. "Where?"

"Here." The man pressed his free hand against the rock he had been trying to reach. A hand-sized panel dropped open, revealing archaic-looking circuitry. Sarah was reminded of the innards of the TARDIS; this wasn't anything like as ramshackle or complicated, but it looked as if it might have come from the same assembly line.

"So you were trying to lure them close enough to that? How close is close enough?"

"Didn't work..." Whatever dying strength the man had pulled together seemed to be fading again. "Shot me down before I could.."

For a moment, his face and hands seemed to glow with golden light. But almost at once, it guttered and died. The pulse under Sarah's fingers faded; she tried to find it again, and couldn't.

How long she sat there, in that unnaturally silent clearing, holding a dead man's hand, Sarah wasn't sure. Questions kept occurring to her, but it was too late to ask them. Had she been deliberately lured here by the dying man, to finish what he had started? Could she trust what he had told her? And who, come to that, had he been anyway?

If she was to do the right thing, she needed as much information as she could get her hands on. Though her finer feelings found the idea repulsive, she forced herself to make a search of the body. It didn't take long. The pockets of the man's uniform were empty, save for one item: a metal bracelet, copper-coloured, looking very like the Time Ring by which she, the Doctor and Harry had departed from Skaro all those years ago. Sarah found herself wondering where the Doctor was now, and what he was doing. She forced herself back to the task in hand, but the only other discovery she made was a pistol-like weapon, made mostly from translucent crystal, in a holster on the man's belt.

Sarah considered her options. She could try to make her escape – perhaps by touching the Time Ring, if it was a Time Ring. But that didn't sound like a good plan. Not only would she be leaving four Daleks loose on the Earth to kill whoever they liked, she had no idea where and when it might take her; and the people who had sent the dead man might not be too pleased to have an Earthwoman show up in his place.

The alternative was to finish what the man had been trying to do. Lure the Daleks into the clearing, and set off the bomb. Put like that, it sounded simple, but of course it was nothing of the kind.

Sarah checked over her possessions, put the Time Ring in her coat pocket, and picked up the torch and pistol. Then, she walked slowly out of the clearing. Again, as she passed the invisible perimeter, her skin prickled; she looked back, to see that the clearing was once again empty. Still moving slowly and cautiously, she walked in the direction where she had last seen the Daleks. She held the gun at the ready, feeling faintly ridiculous.

Whether the Daleks' next sweep through the woods happened to coincide with the route Sarah was taking, or whether they detected the alien technology she was carrying, Sarah never knew. But it seemed to her that, slowly as she had walked, she encountered them far too quickly. She had turned her torch off, to look for the flashes of their lights, and had seen the distant blue glow moving through the trees.

Sarah raised the pistol to eye level, sighted along the barrel, and fired. There was a brief, distant flash of light, against which the Daleks were silhouetted; then, as Sarah threw herself to one side, they returned fire, bright bolts of light tearing through the forest. A heavy branch fell from a nearby tree, landing inches from Sarah's head. She fired again, not taking the trouble to aim, and set off for the clearing at a run.

It felt like running in a nightmare. Sarah knew she ought to be reasonably close to the clearing, and the high-pitched sound that had guided her there was still audible when she turned her head in the right direction. But all she could see, whenever she risked using the torch, was one tree after another. She felt as if she was moving at an insect-like crawl. If she ran in the dark, she stumbled on the uneven ground or bumped into trees; but whenever she used the torch, the Daleks would open fire. They were definitely getting closer, their familiar chant of 'EXTERMINATE' now clearly audible through the rain and wind. She risked a glance over her shoulder. Four Daleks were heading for her, two at ground level, the other two in midair, the blue radiance she'd seen before shining from their bases.

Terrified, bruised, and exhausted, Sarah reached the clearing scarcely ahead of the Daleks. Gathering what remained of her resolve, she forced her way through whatever barrier surrounded the clearing. It seemed to be weakening; this time, she hardly felt it. There was no point in concealment now; she switched her torch on, hurried over to the rock that wasn't a rock, and crouched down by it. The panel was still open; she dropped the pistol, and reached into the narrow space. Her fingers closed around a switch, but before she could push or pull it, the first Dalek had reached the edge of the clearing.

"EXTERMINATE," the Dalek said, aiming directly for her. It fired; the blue-white ray hit something invisible between it and her, and splashed, briefly outlining a hemisphere covering the clearing, centred on Sarah. The hemisphere wavered under that attack, and seemed to shrink.

"MAXIMUM EXTERMINATION," the Dalek shouted, as its three comrades drew up alongside it. All four fired at Sarah again, once more rendering the force field visible. This time, it shuddered, and winked out. The sound of the rain and wind returned at once. The Daleks were pushed slightly back, as if by a shockwave, and leaves and branches rained down all around the clearing.

It was now or never. Sarah pushed the switch down, and scrambled away from the rock.

Time bomb, she thought. But how much time before it goes off?

The Daleks glided closer. She noticed for the first time that as well as the glow around their bases, their eyestalks were also points of blue light. Compared to the Daleks she'd seen before, on Exxilon and Skaro, these looked newer, better-armoured, and even more deadly.

"I surrender–" she began, not expecting it to work for a moment.

Something hit her. It felt like a piece of gravel. Then another, and another. She looked down, to see hailstones. The wind blowing through the clearing now felt as if it was a storm in the Arctic. As Sarah looked back up at the Dalek, the blue light surrounding it flickered and went out. The Dalek itself shuddered and dropped to the ground, landing at a slight angle. The lights on its dome glimmered as it screamed wordlessly.

Sarah climbed to her feet, and backed away hastily. Cold air rushed past her; she could feel ice forming on her face and hair. Under her feet, the grass crunched, suddenly covered with frost. The four Daleks were caught at the centre of the ice storm, seemingly unable to move as pale ice crystals crept over them. The dead man, now lying between two of the Daleks, was already invisible under a coating of ice.

Just for a moment, before the ice closed over the Daleks, Sarah saw orange rust creeping over their domes. Their screams, and the weak glow from their lights, died away.

Time bomb, she thought. That's what he meant. A bomb full of time.

She looked back at the motionless shapes, now blanketed by ice and snow.

Living through an Ice Age in a couple of minutes. What a way to go.

Shivering, she got to her feet, and stumbled away from the clearing. Exhaustion and nervous tension were catching up with her, and she felt every year of her age.

"I'm getting too old for this," she said out loud.

She sat down at the foot of a tree, and closed her eyes.

*

The next thing Sarah knew, she was in an ambulance, wrapped in a blanket. Shortly afterwards, she was in a casualty ward, being treated for hypothermia; once she had eventually been pronounced fit to leave, the problem of getting her car recovered and repaired occupied what remained of that day, and all of the next. Her editor called, with perfunctory wishes for her health, and to tell her that she'd missed out on an investigation in Hong Kong; instead, if she felt up to it, she could look into a rumour that a footballer was having a clandestine affair in a nearby seaside resort.

She didn't get a chance to return to the clearing in the forest until over a week later. By then, there was no sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened – not so much as a speck of rust. If it wasn't for the Time Ring still in her coat pocket, she might have dreamed the whole thing.

"But it did happen," she said. "Who knows. Maybe I saved the world." She imagined herself as she had been that night, bedraggled and exhausted, a torch in one hand and a pistol she didn't know how to use in the other. It would be hard to think of a less inspiring defender for the Earth.

She shrugged, and headed back to where she'd left the car. Even if she had saved the world – and there was no way of knowing if she had or not – there wasn't any point in dwelling on it.

After all, that sort of adventure wasn't likely to happen to her again.