Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. ~Shakespeare, Henry V
“A week! I thought you said this was a hospital ship, not some frontier apothecary’s hut!” Turlough’s brows bristled like backfires. His pale eyes were even more startling than usual, picking up the periwinkle blue of his hospital gown.
The Doctor patted the young man’s arm in awkward sympathy. “Bone regrowth in the foot is a delicate process. There’s so many ligaments and small bones that could fuse incorrectly. But don’t worry. You’ll be as good as new with Dr. Kadowaki overseeing the process.” He flashed a wry smile. “I do wish my companions’ ankles were more durable.”
“Durable? I’m lucky the brute didn’t break every bone in my body while it was chasing me. A fine epitaph that would look on my funeral urn: Trampled to death by a pygmy mammoth. Although how anyone could name something that size pygmy I’ll never know. Humans!”
“Well, relatively speaking, it was a very small mammoth,” the Doctor pointed out. “Island populations tend towards dwarfism.”
“And your ‘perfect spots for painting’ tend towards hazard of life and limb. When you said you were taking me to the wellspring of California Impressionism, I was expecting sun, palm trees and beaches, not the Ice Age.”
The Doctor did not trouble to correct him. He had not expected to find a lonely mammoth on Catalina as late as 8000 BC, but then, the Wrangel Island herd had survived off the coast of Siberia right into the Minoan period. Even in the 21st century, there had still been enough frozen carcasses lying about for well-meaning scientists with confused priorities to clone and release them into the wild just after the Arctic Circle thawed.
So much for paradise. They would have to try again after Turlough’s ankle had healed. The Canary Islands, perhaps?
Setting aside the remains of a mediocre tea, the Doctor pushed back his chair. “Well, if you’re settled in, I’d better go check on the time rotor. It was scraping when we landed. Collision with a panicky pachyderm may have jarred it out of alignment.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Would you like me to bring you anything?”
“Some peace and quiet,” Turlough grumbled, “which is not to be found aboard the TARDIS.”
Humming to himself, the Doctor was taking the ship out for a quick spin to see whether he’d eliminated the squeak in the rotor’s downward motion. A light on the communications panel began to flash. Probably just a glitch to add to the ever-growing repairs list. Even so, any signal strong enough to maintain coherence in the temporal vortex was worthy of attention. Especially when it was a choice between scientific investigation, proceeding to the next item on the repairs checklist, or returning to a hospital that served no tea but Tetley. He hurried around to the communications panel and flipped a switch.
A shrill voice made him reel back from the console in shock, not so much from its volume as from its wrenching familiarity. “LEFT POCKET!” came the cryptic cry.
“Nyssa?!” He had never expected to hear her voice again. Although considering the way their timelines kept crossing and tangling with one another like vintage phone flexes, he should hardly have been surprised.
“Get in!” Her rising note of panic was difficult to block out. He felt a mad impulse to throw open the doors in case she was stranded outside.
Instead, he reached for the switch to respond. “Who is this? If this is some kind of joke, it’s in remarkably poor taste.”
The random outburst would have seemed like mere nonsense, did he not know its context. Nightmare memories flicked past: Nyssa’s wrist bleeding from the bite of the manacles where she had wriggled her hand free, the crack! of the straps springing back from his chest, the desperate dash back to the TARDIS, the frantic scramble for a misplaced key, and the howl of Dalek guns erupting on all sides as he threw her bodily through the doors.
He gritted his teeth. The recording was repeating itself. To amplify its obscurity, someone had erased all traces of the Daleks and his replies, transforming a moment of terror into banal absurdity. Whatever it meant, it was intolerable. He stretched out his hand to kill the signal. Just then, the looping audio stopped, to be replaced by the gruff tones of an old man.
“Wait— don’t speak yet.” The voice was a stranger’s. “Hear me out. Our mutual acquaintances may be listening. So first, if you wouldn’t mind, tell me what was in your left pocket.”
Seething, the Doctor hesitated with his thumb over the “End” button. The caller sounded humanoid, but that was hardly a bona fide. How could anyone but a Dalek agent have access to that security footage? How had the stranger managed to reach out to a specific TARDIS in the time vortex and establish two-way communications in relative realtime? Only a limited number of spacefaring races had that capability, and the Daleks were one of them. What would happen if the Doctor confirmed his identity, which was apparently the question’s intent? And how dare someone use Nyssa’s voice for a simple identity check? Too many questions. Yet the veiled warning about “mutual acquaintances” suggested that the Doctor was not the only one worried about a Dalek trap.
He needed answers. “A key.”
“Very good. Now, listen closely. You know who that was, and you know where it happened. That was some years ago. They are gone. With her help, we drove them off. But she was the last casualty. I could do no more than keep her in cryostasis—”
“That’s less than six impossible things, but I’ve already had breakfast,” the Doctor broke in.
“Quiet. I am an old man now, and I fear what will happen to her when I’m gone. I had hoped to rehabilitate her without troubling you, but we lack her expertise. You are her only hope. For her sake, I must ask you to come.”
The indicator light blinked out before he could reply. The Doctor slammed his fist on the console beside it.
Deep breaths. Nyssa— Nyssa, whose distorted parting words had crackled from that same communications panel— was almost certainly dead. Yet death, like time, was relative. Once upon a time, she had said goodbye to her TARDIS traveling companions and stayed behind on Terminus. By chance they had found her again, fifty years later in her own relative timeline, out on the galactic frontier searching for clues to cure another plague. There she had made the fatal mistake of accepting a lift home. Best not to dwell on how she had left them. The point was, before their reunion on Helheim, her career as an epidemiologist could have taken her almost anywhere, including… what was it the Daleks had called their base? Mojox. It was not as if she would recognise the place, since the Daleks had transported their prisoners there while unconscious.
He had not actually seen the moment of Nyssa’s death. So long as he did not know for certain, he refused to rule out her dogged stubbornness. Had she beaten the odds, then found her way back into normal space like Romana? There was always a chance, albeit an astronomically slim one.
Either way, his choice was clear. He must act upon the message just as if it were genuine. For her sake,he must confront the hateful possibility that he had mistaken a Dalek base in deep space for a Dalek outpost on an occupied planet. If that were true, and Nyssa had somehow found her way back there, no army of Daleks would stop her from trying to help the natives throw off their enslavement. That was the devil of it: the story was perfectly crafted to arouse his protectiveness and his guilt.
“Very well,” he said, addressing the mute walls of his ship. “Let’s get to work. We may as well know the worst at once.” He began to key in a Fourier analysis.
Twenty minutes later, he had his answer. As expected, the message had arrived via Dalek carrier wave. The signal’s exact source was impossible to pinpoint, but standard deviation placed it well within the neighborhood of Mojox, whose location he retrieved from the archives of the TARDIS flight log.
Mindful of other duties of care, he opened a channel to the hospital ship.
“Doctor, are you mad? You said it yourself: Mojox is a Dalek installation. Of course it’s a trap!”
The Doctor was pacing beside the console. “Be that as it may, I owe it to Nyssa to—”
“Nyssa’s dead, Doctor!”
“Thank you, Turlough.” He frowned at the speaker grill. “I’ll program the TARDIS to return to you via the Fast Return Switch. If all goes well, I’ll contact you, and you can bring her back to me in the same way. If you don’t hear from me within two weeks, transmit a message to Gallifrey that I may be compromised. They’ll see to it that you’re settled in a time and place of your choosing.”
“Doctor, wait!” Turlough’s voice subsided to a grudging mutter. “You’ll need backup.”
The Doctor hesitated, although there was no question of bringing a companion with him this time. Beneath his cynical, selfish exterior, Turlough was a fundamentally decent person overwhelmed by fears, indicative of some deep trauma that the Doctor had never pressed him about. Despite his handicap, the boy usually managed to master his cowardice when it mattered, which in itself was a special form of courage. The Doctor’s voice softened. “I appreciate the offer, but this is my responsibility. Rest. Heal. Try not to worry. Remember, I’ve been battling Daleks for centuries.”
“But never alone,” Turlough insisted, voice cracking. “You’re leaving me behind because you still don’t trust me like you did Tegan.”
“I wouldn’t take her into a Dalek base either, not after what happened last time.” At least Tegan had survived, but her tearful farewell had forced the Doctor to reexamine how much horror his companions could take. Whence the recent string of resort towns and artistically inspiring landscapes.
“But Doctor, I’m not Tegan. I understand the necessities of war. And I know something about infiltration.” That last was a bleak admission, a clue to whatever past Turlough was fleeing.
“If I didn’t trust you, Turlough, I wouldn’t be sending you my ship.”
It was not quite the truth, or at least not the whole truth. The Doctor could never forget Turlough’s part in trapping Nyssa in yet another time loop, this one walling her off from her own family. It was not Turlough’s fault that an enemy had diverted the TARDIS to a place and time where Nyssa’s son was working twenty-five years after she had set out for Helheim on a routine scouting mission. But Turlough had ensured that mother and son met face to face. After that, history was sealed. Once Nyssa had learned that she never returned home, then she could not return, not without creating a paradox. Possibly the time loop had been irrevocable from the moment the TARDIS touched down. But Nyssa would not have gone on her last journey burdened by fresh heartbreak, if not for Turlough’s indiscretion.
Time loops and crossed timelines: such tragedies were why Time Lords were required to steer clear of them. If the Nyssa in this transmission was Nyssa in the fifty-year gap between Terminus and Helheim, then the Doctor would have to act with the utmost discretion to conceal what he knew of her future. Turlough had already proved untrustworthy with just that kind of secret. Anyway, this was Time Lords’ work. Quite apart from personal considerations, the Doctor was embarking on a de facto CIA mission, protecting the integrity of the timeline by ensuring Nyssa’s survival until her appointment with fate.
While he mulled all this over, Turlough was evidently doing the same. “If you’re that worried about being compromised,” he said, “then how can I know whether it’s safe to fly the TARDIS back to you when you call?”
“We’ll just have to trust your finely-honed skills of self-preservation. Use your judgment.”
“Wonderful.” Turlough sighed. “Good luck, Doctor.”
“Thank you. We’ll talk again soon.” He closed the link and leaned heavily on the edge of the console, staring at his hands.
Ever since he had been the Watcher, Nyssa and he had been meeting one another in the wrong chronological order. It was becoming harder to face her each time. Truth be told, it was not Turlough at the most risk of blurting out something she ought not to hear. When you encounter us on Helheim, don’t let me put off taking you home. Go straight back to your family. Cure the Richter’s plague. Save lives. For you, these things are more important than all of time and space.
He could not change the past, nor could he alter her future. He’d be damned before he let the Daleks destroy the middle of her life, too.
“He’s coming, then?” The woman’s voice boomed hollowly in that vast empty space.
“I think so.” Step by halting step, the old man led the way across the pitted floor. “It was almost too easy, Vanth. Maddening, considering how much we needed the Doctor back then.”
“Hardly easy,” the woman said. “How long have you been trying to reach him? And more to the point, who else heard you?”
“Your mother worried the same thing,” he said, gruff voice softening. “But the Daleks never knew I was using their channels, hacking right into heart of their installation, whispering into just the right ear. So we prevailed. Thanks to our friend here.” He halted before a shadowed column, its dull glassy surface grimed by a dark patina.
“This one isn’t anyone’s friend.” The woman wrinkled her nose in that cold, reverent silence. “I still say burn the lot of them.”
“It has been tried,” he pointed out.
The cavernous warehouse of Containment Store A bore mute testimony to his words. Its plasteel walls were blackened, ceiling beams buckled in several places. Amidst the debris stood the melted husks of four Daleks, stripped of their appendages. Most of the half-dome nodules had popped from their casings and lay scattered across the floor like so many pieces of crockery. Some of the cryo tubes along the back wall were open and empty. The remainder were coated in black layers of carbonised plastic, all that remained of the sheeting that had once concealed them. Even so, peeping through coatings of dust and soot and burnt polymers, blue status lights gleamed dully along the sides of several tubes. A dusty computer terminal, repaired or installed since the conflagration, stood on a podium at one end of the row.
“Not with sufficient explosives,” she said. “Did you tell him how many are left?”
“No.” The old man sighed. “One problem at a time.”
“Because he’d give you the same advice as I?”
“No.” Toru rested a hand against the cold glass of the cryo tube he had addressed first. “Because I’m afraid he won’t.”
“Goodbye, old girl.”
The Doctor watched as the lines of his ship faded from view with a boom and scraping wail that faded mournfully to silence. He was reminded of those bold pioneers of planetary exploration, setting down in ships designed for a one-way journey, with no way to escape a planet’s gravity well unless they could utilise its resources for fuel. He might never see her again, not unless he could find a functional Dalek communications relay with no functioning Daleks defending it. But that was a problem for later.
Turning away, he strode off briskly towards a distant dome peeping up over the knees of the mountain where he had landed. There was no point in charging straight into the lion’s den without scouting a bit first. Behind him on the far side of the mountain lay the Dalek base where he and Nyssa had once been imprisoned. Ahead, nestled at the bottom of an alpine valley, lay the largest nearby settlement. Scanner readings had suggested a concentration of people, the kind with two legs and no metal casings. There was no guarantee that his mysterious contact was among them, but it was a place to start.
The frost of his own breath tickled his cheeks as he strode purposefully down the slope. At another time he might have admired the stark beauty of this frigid landscape, dark forests hugging the steep slopes of river-cut front ranges tumbling down towards an unseen ocean. Low clouds and fog draped distances in sombre greys. Trees bristled with evergreen leaves that gleamed wetly above and dripped down below into long, furry icicles coated with hoarfrost. Trunks and branches were stout and arched to bear the weight. Curiously, although permafrost crunched under his shoes, there were soft patches of ground near bushes and roots, making for slippery footing. Despite himself, his curiosity was piqued. He brushed the holly-like leaves of a shrub in passing. It was warm to the touch, or at least lukewarm.
“Endothermic plants,” he said aloud. “Fascinating. Natural antifreeze.” They must be making highly efficient use of photosynthesis, or else supplementing their energy needs with chemosynthesis from the soil. Just the sort of thing Nyssa would have delighted in.
His pace quickened as the bubbles of smaller domes began to rise above the treetops. So far, there had been no sign of enemy occupation, present or past. The folded landscape around him aroused his faint grudging respect for the Daleks: it was not the sort of terrain they could conquer easily.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a whining hum cut through the fog overhead. He ducked down quickly under tree branches. His cream-coloured coat was not doing much for him in the cold, but at least it blended in with the landscape. Peering out between beards of hanging frost, he spotted a small flyer descending towards the settlement beyond the trees. The craft’s configuration was more kite-shaped than saucer, but the whine of its engines prickled the hair on the nape of his neck.
“I know that sound,” he muttered.
But of course, even when natives threw off the yoke of conquerers, they retained some of the byproducts as well as the scars of occupation. He must hope for the best, and tread warily.
Half an hour’s walking brought him to a mountain path leading down into the city outskirts, for relative definitions of “city” and “outskirts.” The anthill settlement was built partly into the slopes of a river valley, whose plunging cliffs reminded him of Norwegian fjords. Natural terraces bore clusters of outbuildings or small agricultural plots, most capped by thermal domes. The steaming river and its falls, what he could see of them, were netted with numerous weirs, catch-basins, and waterworks. There were trees growing right down into the water, tall pillars reaching up that in many cases had been incorporated into human structures.
While he was scanning all this for a plan of attack, the crunch of pelting footsteps drew his attention back upslope. This time, he did not take cover.
Shortly, a boy a little younger than Adric burst out of the trees, ice crystals spraying everywhere as the fishing rod he was carrying clipped the bushes beside the path. The Doctor saw no signs of pursuit, and the lad seemed merely in a hurry, rather than terrified. He skidded on the soft ground and pulled up short, gaping.
“Good afternoon,” said the Doctor, coming forward with a smile. “I’m the Doctor. Can I be of any assistance?”
“’Ere, you, what are you doing out so close to frostfall?” The youngster eyed the visitor’s garb doubtfully. For his own part, he was wearing a quilted tunic and trousers like the padded undershirts of medieval armour. His squared-off backpack emitted a fishy odor. “Come on!”
“Lead the way,” the Doctor said. “I’m a visitor, you see. I didn’t realise how late it was, or how far I’d walked.”
“Right,” the child said, and started off again. Then he stopped, an idea occurring to him. “Who areyou?” he said, more belligerently. “Where did you come from?”
“A traveler from… beyond the ocean.” He would have said, “Beyond the mountains,” but he did not want to ally himself with what lay on the other side. It was beginning to look as if his mysterious contact’s story might be genuine. “I’m looking for someone. A very old friend, Nyssa. Have you heard of her?”
The boy stared. “You’re having me on,” he said sullenly. “You’d be sixty years old, at least.”
“Well, I am rather older than I look.”
The boy shrugged. “Come on. I was going to the Temple of Worthies, anyway. Dad won’t be so angry if I missed curfew hearing a sermon. Out on the mountain after frostfall is what’s death for fools.” Something about his tone of voice suggested that he suspected the Doctor was such a fool.
There was little breath for talking during their headlong downhill dash. They began to pass outbuildings, then people. Some of those they passed shouted or waved or shook their heads, smiling more with eyes than lips, since most were well-wrapped against the cold. A few stared in astonishment at the Doctor, and one or two looked like they had a mind to stop him.
“Temple,” the boy puffed to one of these. “I’m taking him to the temple.”
The woman nodded and let go of something concealed under her parka— a weapon, probably. “Matre will know what to do with ’un.”
They jogged on. With no immediate sign of his oldest enemies, the Doctor was beginning to enjoy himself. The run was warming his chilled limbs, and the clean alpine air was invigorating. If he was having trouble keeping his footing on the mountain-goat trail, he could just imagine its effect on a Dalek. They must have wasted a lot of energy in hover mode.
The boy was leading him down an ancient staircase made of living roots, over which rubber webbing provided grip for soles. The skilled blending of the landscape with synthetic materials spoke of a high degree of craftsmanship, sophistication, and above all, time. He wondered if he had somehow missed Mojox and come the the wrong planet. Just as the thought went through his mind, they passed a wide avenue extending across the river on a flat, seamless bridge that suggested Dalek manufacture, despite the roots, rime, and dirt that coated its surfaces.
At last they reached an imposing domed structure set into a hill. Its drum shape betrayed its Dalek origin, but the roots and and low trees encasing it had softened its contours. “Come on,” the boy said, leading him around to a side-door that opened with a faint creak. “Quiet, now. We’ll slip into a back pew.”
Inside, the large central chamber was warm and golden-red, redolent with the scent of torches and bodies and odors more usually associated with fishing ports. The Doctor’s guide set down his rod and pack with a number of similar parcels and coiled nets set around the wall. They were piled so as not to block the alcoves that circled most of the chamber. The walls were gleaming plasteel that reflected dancing torchlight. Each alcove contained a tall, polished wooden statue, human forms abstracted like the more organic styles of cubism.
The boy led him swiftly to an empty spot on one of the curved pews that filled most of the room, arranged in ranks like an orchestra pit. In place of the conductor stood a stooped old woman in quilted cloak and spectacles, addressing the half-empty audience from atop a polished, sawn-off trunk.
“…well may ye laugh, but it was no laughing matter then. Freeze-dried we were, far from the jumping rivers and the warm forests, banished to the desert wastes where even our metal overlords shivered in their tanks. No meat, no roots, no clean water, and the only fire was the poison that sits in the bones and kills slowly. Best we could hope for is to be transferred to the mines. Oh, those mines. I was straight-backed before I went in. But when I came out, the sky was ours again.”
“Praise the day,” came a soft chorus. Many of the listeners were engaged in small tasks, mending nets spread across their knees, or performing maintenance on more modern devices. The Doctor recognised the guts of a kinetic battery spread across an empty section of pew. A woman was sewing it into one of their quilted garments, whose inner lining was flecked with thermal filaments. While their elders worked, children played quietly in the aisles. The service felt more like an extended family gathered around a hearth for evening chores than a church sermon.
“So when labours grow tedious or the cold bites, remember ye well: you work for yourselves now, for the community and your children. Never again for soulless ones who steal and kill and give no thought to shaping tomorrow’s roots.” The old woman folded her hands. “That concludes today’s lesson.”
A girl in the front row helped her down from her plinth. Most of the people rose and filed out, bidding casual farewells to one another or clutching the old woman’s hands respectfully before departing. Those her age bore grievous but long-healed scars. The boy led the Doctor over to her as the crowd thinned.
“Jano,” she said, “I saw you sneak in, you scamp. Up above the weirs again, hunting for wild-caught? What will your parents say if you don’t come in some night?”
“I’m sorry, Matre,” he said. “But I found a stranger lost on the mountainside. He says he knows Nyssa, and I thought—”
Several heads turned.
“Don’t we all?” She clapped a hand on the Doctor’s shoulder. “Welcome, traveler. My hearth stands open. Jano, get you home. You did right to bring him. Give your parents my greeting.”
“And thank you,” the Doctor called after his guide, who was already retreating at a rapid clip.
Matre waited until most of the room had cleared, apart from a few people finishing small tasks by the light reflecting off the glassy dome. Then she propelled him swiftly towards the nearest alcove.
“Now,” she said in a sharper, less friendly voice. “Your name, stranger?”
“I’m the Doctor,” he said, putting his best smile forward. “How do you do?”
“Thought you might be.” Her eyes narrowed. “But there’s more than one body who calls himself such, if the stories be true. Which one are you?” She thrust a knobby finger upwards, directing his attention to the statue looming over them. “Do you remember her title, when she served our masters?”
Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he gazed obediently up at the imposing figure. All the statues were much the same: colossal pillars with oval heads, schematic features, chins upraised slightly like the moai of Easter Island, and trunk-like bodies. This one’s proportions were less elongated than most, with a wider face but fine chin, arms held straight at the sides instead of folded, and a distinctive rectangular garment carved of pale wood. With a sinking feeling, the Doctor identified it as a representation of a lab coat. A cap of hair, fringed with curls like waving crescents, completed the minimalist portrait.
“It’s Nyssa, isn’t it?” It was too much like a funerary monument for his taste, and too aggrandising for hers. “On Terminus, she was a medical researcher, but I don’t know that she ever told me what her title was. Or if she did, I don’t remember.”
The old woman watched him with lips pressed together, waiting.
“You said… she served the Daleks?” It was a hateful question, inviting a whole string of distressing possibilities, but he had to know. “For how long?”
“Longer than we knew. Or she knew, for that matter. But I’m doing the asking. So, you don’t know what happened on Mojox?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Nyssa and I barely escaped with our lives. She must have come here again later, after she stopped traveling with me. If I had realised—”
“Yes, yes.” She waved a hand impatiently. “Toru said that. Well. You seem like the Doctor we were hoping for, at any rate.”
“I’m very sorry I could not oblige.” Sympathetic as he was, his patience was beginning to fray. “How long?”
“Her captivity, or ours?” the woman said drily.
“Five years and twenty, more or less.” She gave him another measuring look. “Toru told me once— it was almost Nyssa’s last words, he said— that ours, at least, was one planet you wouldn’t have to save.”
The statement was heartbreaking, but he was distracted by how it was framed. “Last words?” He stole a quick glance at the plaque below the statue. Chief Virologist Nyssa read the legend, which did not improve his mood in the slightest. Nor did its subtitle, NO SIN IS BEYOND REDEMPTION.
“So he said.” She clicked her tongue, apparently coming to a decision. “Very well. I’ll send word you’ve come. You can bide here tonight. Someone can run you up to him in the morning.” She waved a hand at the plaque. “Ignore that. It’s the official version. The Temple of Worthies only commemorates the dead.”
“Dead?” he said, voice rising dangerously as he followed the woman towards an inner door. A few heads turned among those still engaged in tasks in the main chamber. “Look, I’ve come a very long way, and if—”
Matre paused and waved off a man who had risen and started towards them at the sound of commotion. “Not here, Doctor,” she hissed.
Leading him into a hallway ribbed with characteristic Dalek arches, she sealed the door behind them before turning back to face him. “Toru’s got the keeping of what’s left of her. But that’s not widely known. As far as they’re concerned, she’s dead and burned. What do you think they’d do if they learned the alien scientist who brewed a pestilence to wipe us out might still be about somewhere? Not everyone believes in redemption!”
“A plague? Then it’s not Nyssa! She’s dedicated her life to curing epidemics, not causing them!”
“You might not recognise your own soul after the Daleks finished with you. So don’t claim to know anyone else’s.” Matre met his glare with her own. “I saw the files. Hundreds of people died in her experiments. Lingering deaths, Doctor, the kind you don’t forget. But in the end, she did save us. Turned the pestilence against her own masters instead of us. Seeded the sky with it. They can’t come here now, we hope.”
The Doctor was staggered. He wanted to shout down every word of it. Yet he knew what the Daleks were capable of, what they might have done to Nyssa. For five years. The woes of this whole planet made the suffering of any one person a single scream among millions, but she was his friend. To be forced into enacting evils on a scale worthy of the Master: it was a fate worse than death for someone with her convictions. And she had already suffered enough losses to break almost anyone.
Chief Virologist Nyssa. It was unthinkable. But could he really be sure she would die rather than submit? If she had had no choice— if she could only save Mojox by winning the Daleks’ trust— or if she had been brainwashed by some kind of mind-altering device, as she had once been on Florana, who knows what she might do? He almost hoped it was brainwashing, although that episode on Florana had horrified her after the fact. But the release of a plague to destroy the Daleks suggested that she had been self-aware, by the end. And that, too, was not like Nyssa. However inhumane the Daleks were, he could not imagine her bringing herself to wipe out an entire population.
Had she hidden all this from him during their last journeys together? If so, it would forever haunt his memories of those times, both happy and tragic, not only because of what she had done (or had done to her), but because she was not quite the person he had believed her to be. Namely, for lack of a better term, a saint.
But there was no evidence. None whatsoever. He refused to alter his opinion of her one jot unless he saw incontrovertible proof. The mysterious Toru owed both him and Nyssa’s memory an explanation.
Matre gripped his arm before opening the door at the far end. “Now, keep you quiet. You’ll have all the answers you can stomach in the morning, but I won’t have you badgering my temple lodgers over dinner. And one more thing.”
“Yes?” He might be forgiven for sounding a trifle sharp.
“Tell Toru he’s a fool. The war will never be over, so long as he’s still clinging to old relics because they remind him of someone who’s gone. You tell him I said that.” She grinned humourlessly. “Again.”
“Well, now, isn’t this cosy?” said the Doctor.
In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The ATV’s cabin was snug but frigid. Heated wires within the window glaze were the only reason its passengers’ breaths were not freezing to the inside. Outside, sparkling in the vehicle’s headlamps, motes of ice crystals sifted down like fine sand. Frostfall was beautiful, but the danger was clear. All the sea-fog and moisture thawed by plants during the daytime was precipitating out of the atmosphere as the sun went down. It stuck to every surface, including the ATV’s exterior where the heat tape ended. Shivering, he wrapped his arms around himself and tucked his hands against his body, missing Matre’s hearth already.
“Thermal blanket under your seat,” Vanth said. “Boggles belief you’d come here wearing a smock.”
“Much obliged,” he said. He grabbed for his armrest as the cabin rocked sharply, banking as the ATV turned onto the bridge. “By the way, how do you keep from treading on pedestrians?”
Vanth ignored him, grinding gears as she thrust a lever forward.
The vehicle was one of those bipedal walkers commonly seen on frontier worlds where level surfaces were scarce. A bubble cabin hung between two stout legs, hoisted five metres aloft as soon as the craft was set in motion. Its splayed toes slapped the bridge’s metal plates as they crossed the river, then dug in with cleats as they pivoted right and stomped up the slope. Apart from one bundled-up figure, they passed nobody, leaving his question up in the air.
“I’m very much in your debt,” he tried again, leaning forward to fumble under the edge of his seat for the blanket. “I understand the Mojoxalli don’t normally travel after dark.”
“Toru expecting you.” Her voice was muffled by the thick shaggy collar covering most of her face.
“Indeed. Do you work for him, or…?”
“No. Construction work.”
He supposed her conversational skills had atrophied on evenings like this, when it ached to take in a lungful of air. “Ah, yes, of course. All-terrain and multi-purpose, depending on attachments.” He nodded to the sealed ports on the front of the vehicle, where mechanical arms or other tools could be attached. “And the Dalek technology explains the lack of creature comforts. So to speak.”
The vehicle lurched as she turned to level a furious glance at him, then looked back towards the growing darkness beyond the windscreen. He was afraid he had pushed her too far. No one at dinner had risen to his discreet inquiries, displaying the usual disinterest once a war had receded from living memory of the majority of the population. But this woman, whose leathery face looked to have lapped middle age and was now working on the next milestone, might have been born during the occupation.
It was some minutes before she spoke again. “They took everything. We’re entitled to take something back.”
“Of course. Forgive me.” So far, his numb fingers had encountered only a few oily rags and the rusty springs of his seat. “Speaking of comfort, I’m afraid I can’t seem to find that blanket you mentioned.” If he were human, he would already be in trouble.
“Further to your left,” she said, eyes fixed on the way ahead.
As the last lights of the settlement died away, and tree-branches began to crunch against the front and sides of the ATV, the Doctor found his mind circling back to that pointed conversation before the knees of Nyssa’s statue. Matre had avoided him all through dinner, attending to other way-guests. Now he wished he had pressed her harder about what was waiting for him on the mountain. Straining to reach, he nearly bumped his head against the door during the next abrupt jolt. “I’m not finding it,” he said.
“Try behind,” she said. “My mother was one of the last rebels killed, you know. By a Dalek agent. Toru raised me; he felt responsible. But he wasn’t behind that ambush.”
“I’m sorry.” Her offhand manner pricked his suspicions. He began to scan the dashboard for any sign of environmental controls. “How much farther is Toru’s house?”
“Not far.” Her hands gave a sudden jerk to the left on the steering yoke. Something loomed out of the darkness. With a jarring bang, the windscreen directly in front of the Doctor’s face fractured in a spiderweb pattern. Only the heated wires embedded in the glass prevented it from spraying fragments into the cockpit.
Vanth turned to him, looking him over in the dim lighting. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” he lied. Speech through numbed lips was becoming difficult. What little warmth remained in the cab was seeping out rapidly through the cracks. “But we had better make for the closest shelter immediately. What happened?”
“Falling branch,” she said grimly. “Weight of the ice. Toru’s that way, a mile up.” She nodded ahead and slightly to the right, then drew down a pair of goggles that covered her exposed nose and cheeks. “Can you make it?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I?” It was a simple statement of fact. Whatever Toru’s intentions were, Vanth had telegraphed hers with that manoeuvre. The blow had not come from above, but from the left. She had steered into a tree. Wrapped head to toe in a thermally insulated boiler suit, she was not in any immediate danger. Whereas the Doctor was losing body heat rapidly. Having no other recourse left, he began to fall into a light trance to conserve energy.
“Just hold on, Doctor,” she urged. “Not much longer, now.”
As the machine stomped along, the edges of broken windscreen clicked and grated together disagreeably. The wind wafting through the cracks was so cold it burned.
“Funny thing about ice,” she said conversationally. “Snow, frost, sleet, rime, it doesn’t matter. Everyone says no two crystals are identical. But that’s not quite true. Deep down, at the molecular level, they’re all exactly the same. It’s in their DNA, so to speak, to behave in a certain way. Environment shaped them, but they can’t get away from who they really— Dalek’s balls!”
The Doctor opened his eyes a sliver. The windows were frosting over from the inside. Evidently the heat tape had been damaged by the collision. Struggling with the controls, Vanth stretched out a hand, trying to wipe the glass clear in front of her face. Their progress slowed. He began to feel warm and comfortable, which some part of his mind diagnosed as the onset of hypothermia.
She punched rapidly at a button on the dashboard, evidently without effect. “Come on,” she said, unhitching her harness and leaning forward to scrape at the window with the side of her glove. “Don’t do this to me!”
There was another hideous crash, far worse than the first. The ATV came to a violent halt. The driver did not. Vanth flew forward, met the unbroken side of the windscreen with a thump and collapsed, limply, across the controls. Rousing himself, the Doctor tried to push her out of the way and seize the steering yoke. Too late. The vehicle swayed, teetered, and fell. After a few giddy seconds of weightlessness, it crammed into the side of the mountain.
Now I know what the cricket ball feels like was the Doctor’s last coherent thought.