(This story was originally published by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society)
The sun was the colour old dead blood. Smears of cloud fuzzed its edges and ragged trails dragged at the horizon like dredgers. Black columns of smoke rose behind us as the city burned. Occasionally flashes of vivid blue-white would burst upwards as jagged detonations split the silence.
We crested the rise as the uncertain dawn was turning to day. Before us, the valley dipped sharply down a wooded slope and I felt an uncomfortable rush of vertigo run with cold liquidity through my guts. Not for the first time I questioned the wisdom of this venture, I felt suddenly very small and exposed before the unwelcome gloom of the trees.
I could see the white tumbling thread of the river far below us as Garsh urged us on with impatient hand movements. The anxiety of our mission overrode the hollow fear of the steep slope and I struck out down between the rough barked trees, focussing on the white wave crests of the fast flowing water.
It was darker amongst the trees and the air was iron cold, our breath seeming almost solid as it left our nostrils. I could taste blood in my mouth from where I’d lost the tooth. The pain was a dull scrape along my jaw line like an itch you could never reach. It had been driving me crazy for an hour now. I rubbed at the side of my face with the dirt-smeared heel of my hand. Instead of soothing the pain, it stabbed into the nerve and I swore loudly. Garsh turned at the head of the group and flashed a look of anger directly at me. I opened my palms outwards in a gesture of apology but she still looked angry as she turned away and gestured us on through the trees.
Footing became more uncertain as the ground dipped down into the valley, Jakka tripped, tumbling forward. To his credit, he made no sound that could alert anyone nearby to our presence. When he finally slithered to a stop Garsh bent to help him up, touching his shoulder to show her approval for his restraint. Jakka made eye contact with me and looked smug. I shrugged. If sliding twenty metres down a hillside on your face was the way to win Garsh’s approval then I was happy to be unpopular. Anyway, if all went according to plan it wouldn’t matter who had whose approval in a few hours.
Thankfully, within a kilometre or so, the slope evened out and Garsh stopped the party as we reached the tree line. There was an area of open ground ahead of us before the river. She signalled us to look around for any hover-monitors. The sky was still smudged from smoke but we could see no monitors. I wanted to tell Garsh that there was no point in looking; if we were seen – who would be sent to track us down? The forces were locked in such a ferocious battle that a ragged band like us would bother no one. However, Garsh was still avoiding eye contact with me, showing her back whenever I approached.
She was in command and like any good soldier; I’d follow her orders – but only because I knew her time in charge was limited. Soon we would all be equal.
Jakka was returning from his jog along the tree line in the upriver direction. He whispered in Garsh’s ear, her face took on a confused then intrigued look. She signalled us to stay here and followed Jakka back in the direction he had come. We huddled together for warmth. Even with Garsh gone no one dared speak. Such was the fear that they held her in.
Garsh the Butcher. Garsh the Cold.
Garsh the Right Place at the Right time woman if you asked me. Which of course no one did. Her rise in the Core had been an object lesson in political correctness and blind luck. We’d been at the academy together and even then, she’d been nothing special, but in these times of quotas and positive discrimination, her fast track to the top had been determined by the presence of fallopian tubes rather than ability. I enjoyed the bitterness for a few moments and it took my mind off the tooth. However, the throb soon returned as did my other ache – Garsh.
She signalled us to follow her and she led us up a short rise and through a dense thicket. We came out into a small clearing about ten metres from the tree line. I could still see the river through the trees.
In the clearing was a large blue box. Garsh approached me, I could there was a grudging look on her face.
She whispered into my ear. As she bent close, I could smell her rank breath. ‘You’re Tactical, Bron, what is it?’
Oh. So now, she needed me.
I approached the box. It was big, appeared to be made from wood. Glass panels set in the top half were too frosted to see through. There were symbols carved…no painted into the some of the panels. I didn’t recognise the language. There was a door set into one side with a quaint retro keyhole set into the wood. I hadn’t seen a keyhole for years, not since a visit to the museum as a child. I took a step back and saw the top of the box was raked up to a small glass cylinder.
Garsh was back, whispering her stale breath over my face. ‘Well, is it one of theirs?’
I shook my head and put my lips close to her ear. Blood was encrusted in the whorls of the skin of the cavity, I thought I could see something insectoid crawling through her matted hair. I wasn’t going to tell her about it. Hopefully it would be a cluster-fly and its off spring would be burrowing down into her brain within a few hours.
I’m not that lucky. ‘It’s not theirs or ours. It might just be a box.’
‘Jakka couldn’t open it.’
Jakka couldn’t open a bank account without someone to write his name for him while he blew bubbles in his drool. What I actually said was, ‘It’s locked’.
‘I know it’s locked! He’s a trained Breaching operative. The lock rejected his tools. It’s big technology. If it’s theirs and they detect our presence it might save us a long walk.’
Garsh sighed and motioned Jakka forward, at first, he seemed reluctant. Garsh indicated to the box again. Taking a deep breath, Jakka reached into his side pack and brought out a breaching lance. As he attempted to fit the slim silver tool into the lock, there was a spark of blue light. Jakka dropped the lance and began sucking on his fingers. I could smell ozone and a slight acridity on the air. I realised now why he had been so apprehensive. I approached the box again. Cautiously.
I reached out and ran my fingers over the surface of the wood around the lock. No blue flash, no stinging pain. However, the wood was not inert beneath my fingertips. There was a hum, almost beyond the reaches of perception and my skin tingled as I placed my whole palm against the surface. ‘It’s powered internally I think.’
A chill ran through me. Similar to the vertigo I felt at the top of the valley, a dread feeling of exposure and fear. ‘I think we should get away from here.’
I turned to reiterate my concerns to Garsh.
We were surrounded.
The Cyber-leader raised his great silver arm in a blur of movement and brought it swishing down.
Sleep now. Slee –
When I got over the initial pleasure of waking without the throbbing pain in my tooth. I quickly realised I would have gladly swapped a mouth full of toothache for the nightmare I was now becoming conscious to.
Even though we’d all been prepared for what to expect, the distorted image of my body that I could see reflected on the silver surfaces of the machinery above me crystallised harsh growths of fear in my heart. I could see that I was restrained across the chest, wrists, thighs, and ankles by thick straps. I was naked and with increasing discomfort followed the patterns that had been tattooed onto my skin.
My body was now a map of dark lines and contour grids. Symbols indicating channels to be routed out, for drill holes to be bored and thick incisions to me made. I tried to swallow but found I could not. I studied the reflection above and at first did not want to believe what I saw.
My jaw had been removed.
Where I was expecting to see my lips and beard was a gaping black nonsense of open wound, white bone, and silver plating. It took maybe fifteen to twenty panicky seconds to work out that what I could see was not a distortion in the reflection above but was in fact evidence of the removal of the bottom half of my face. I watched with thudding heart and spinning mind as my white lidless eyes rolled in terror like trapped things.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. No amount of briefing, no amount of promises from Garsh that the end would justify the means.
Try making promises to a man who’s just lost half his face.
I looked away from the reflections and tried to get a bearing on where I had woken up. The space didn’t have the feel of a battlefield lash up this was some kind of permanent facility. Perhaps on board a lander, perhaps in one of their orbiting cruisers. I had no way of telling how long I’d been unconscious so could have travelled any number of kilometres across land or into orbit.
There was row of similar machines arcing off into for several metres on each side. Beneath each silver cluster was a member of our group. To my left was Jakka. I tried to make eye contact with him as he writhed against the restraints, then realised it was pointless.
He didn’t have any eyes.
I flung my head to the right. Garsh was restrained, a gleaming silver chisel biting into the flesh where her chin met her neck. A speckled cloud of blood blooming into a containment field – it coalesced into globules and was funnelled away with an efficient whirr.
Get a grip.
I was shaking against the restraints. Get a grip.
You knew this was going to happen.
But seeing it like this – stop! Control! You’re a soldier!
The shaking subsided. I forced myself to look at Jakka again.
A pall of dispassion settled over me.
The crown of his head had been cut down to the top of his nose – an articulated arm whirred towards the open wound. Jakka’s spine arched as the metal made contact with the flensed expanse above his eyes. A crackle of dissipating energy jerked an extra few centimetres of arc second out of his spine and then he fell flat, limp against the steel, wisps of smoke curling delicately from his nostrils.
There came a deeper rumble of machinery grinding overhead. The pod above me suddenly shifted towards Garsh and the space above me was filled with the pod that had been above Jakka.
It was time for the Cybermen to take my eyes.
waking with alien sight. now there was pain. now the numbness was seeping away and the rusty wheels of agony were rolling across my ravaged flesh. waking into purgatory where skin became knives, muscles became bullets; heart became a dull bludgeon- a blunt instrument in my chest battering the jagged clench of ribs.
a phantom scream from the hollows of my throat. I shake with its ferocity but there is no sound.
eyes a horror show of colour and sinister shadows. having to think to focus, a time lag in sharpness, a grainy confusion leaping in as I flinch.
Wires lash and tremble around me, moving under my skin causing white weals to writhe across my chest. Information leaps into my head, information about the constituency of the air, the ambient gravity and the molecular bonding of the surface covering of the snaking wire insinuating itself through the crack in my sternum. a rush of data.
full to bursting.
A dream. Yesterday? The day before?
Jakka and Garsh holding me down. (Before we broke for the hills, before the burning city and the forest.)
Something silver forced into my mouth and a crackle as a tooth exploded between two metal jaws. The scientist with the albino hands and nails too shiny to be real sucking the blood and pulp from the blazing wound.
I tried to tell them I’d changed my mind; that I wanted to de-volunteer. That this was crazy. But Garsh and Jakka held me all the tighter. Garsh was enjoying this.
Now the injection.
Shouldn’t that have been first? That’s the way it goes – the injection to numb the pain and then the dentistry – not the other way around.
I managed to get an arm free of Jakka and waved it feebly in front of the impassive face of the scientist.
‘Will you keep him under control!’
Garsh pressed her thumb against my cheek. Digging into where the tooth had been ripped out with the scientist’s pliers.
The scientist placed the barrel of the syringe back into my mouth, back into the wound.
Thrown on the beds with the others.
Don’t like that bit of the dream. More images. Forest. Later.
Turning from the blue box, hearing the hiss of parted air, as the Cyber-leader’s arm came down.
Hearing Garsh’s fear-twisted voice drilling into my unconsciousness.
‘Please. Don’t kill us. We want to be like you.’
Awake suddenly. There are explosions and sirens. What is happening? Still stuck below the silver machine.
Half-light and smoke; have to concentrate to cope with the rush of data crashing in like a tidal wave. A voice at the back of my mind, cold, metallic. ‘Alert. Alert. All units to Cybercontrol we are under attack. Alert. Alert.’
Quick hands suddenly moving over my body, a flash of green. Skin? No, Fabric.
My eyes start to decode the DNA sequence of the fabric, I force myself to defocus and the data stream halts.
Velvet? Velvet fabric on arms with hands that are untying my bonds.
Is that my voice now? It sounds hollow in my head. A dead voice. Fleeced of all humanity. A voice bathed in a thick scum of electricity. A creaking emptiness in my chest when I try to mourn my loss.
‘There’s still time to save you! The logic pathways have been implanted but haven’t been set. You’re still human. Let me help you!’
I strike out with my new silver arm. ‘No! Leave me!’
He flies backwards, managing to ride the worst of the blow, but is still sent several metres through the air. As he gets to his feet, his eyes are damp with compassion. There is no anger in his pale face. He is seemingly oblivious of the explosions going on around him, the smoke billowing between us. He takes a step forward and my alien eyes start to DNA-sequence his skin.
He is not human.
A red flash and a blue and gold graphic leapt into view. It twists and writhes before me. A thing I would have called beauty, (if I could remember what beauty was), patterned from the heart of his very genetics.
Then, just as suddenly, it is gone, and so is he. The sense of loss is all consuming and enveloping.
He is off, moving through the chaos as if he has planned the sequence of explosions and knows every step of the dance that will carry him safely through.
Then agony is piled on agony and I am forced to my metal knees – holding my silver hands to the steel encasing my brain.
The logic codex is suddenly bursting like hot fire into my head.
It has worked.
They do not know.
I cannot tell which of the squad around me are my compatriots. Any blank lifeless face could be Jakka or Garsh. Any. It is impossible for me to tell and to give myself away before the appointed time would mean discovery and an end to the mission.
I march in line, limbs moving easily, I do not feel the atmosphere around me as I walk into the torrents of fire. I can read about the atmosphere, I can call up its continuants, I can see that we are marching through orange plumes of fire as the forest in razed. But, I feel nothing, not even the thud of my footfall on the black burning earth.
We have been dispatched to bring the blue box to Cybercontrol. The constant chatter of the control net keeps us on the right course – relentlessly through the flames.
This is more like a dream than any other I have experienced. I am numb and weightless. There are barriers to the logic pathways; I can sense the presence of the cyber-control codes locked in the implant. I know they have been copied, altered, and released into the logic pathways to complete my disguise. The control codes sit bitterly in the black space, cut off from the rest of my mind – sometimes I think I hear them, trying to break free of the implants – the briefings said this was impossible. However, who knows?
‘You can’t do this!’
A dream. A dream in the flames.
‘We must Doctor. There is no other choice.’
I am in the next room with the others, about to set off for the forest. The rumblings from the bombardment getting closer.
‘I will carry the implant! I can’t let you put give these innocents, to the Cybermen!’
‘You are one man Doctor. I have replicated the implant you made. This way gives us a much greater chance of survival!’
There was a shot and I heard a body fall to the floor.
Dreaming. Dreaming in the steel. Images flashing across, inside my field of vision, transparent against the burning trees. The control net urging us on.
We found the blue box, a hollow in the fire. We approached and began to lift. The wood, which defied the sequencing rake of my gaze, was not even singed. It seemed only to have acquired a ghostly patina of soot. The box tipped forward and suddenly there was an opening, a dark space that seemed larger on the –
Water. A torrent of water gushing impossibly from the dark hole in the box. Circuits confused. Trying to make sense of a surreal scene, my mind blanking with the effort of –
Catapulted upside down against a tree. The water, tsunami, bursting from the box, a never ending gush of torrential force. A cone cut through the fire – pushing us down, down to the river. Then as the flow seemed to ease a flash of green from the innards of the blue box and a motor launch cresting the wave front, it’s bow cutting through the frothing white.
I tumbled down the bank into the waiting waters of the swollen river. Before the next gulp of blackness and a loud and final sounding fzzzt! I saw the motor-launch splash into the water beside me with a huge whoosh of white, the engines gunning, propellers throwing up a great burst of spray – the man in green velvet at the controls, his body as tense as an exclamation mark, wispy curls of hair floating behind and a face that held the gleaming eyes of a maniac.
‘Just a matter of transdimensionally upending the ornamental lake and slotting it into the doorway. Nothing to it really. Much easier to explain than why you wouldn’t let me save you.’
We walked through the blackened forest, across the smoking swathe the water had cut through the fire.
The launch had caught up with me just before the rapids that had broken the other Cybermen like toys. The maniac in green hooking me from the waves with one hand, while steering the launch precariously close to the sickening drop with the other. I couldn’t be sure, but I think he cheered as he dragged me onto the deck. ‘I have a mission to complete, Doctor.’
‘It was never your mission. There were other ways to get the virus into the cyber-control net.’
‘But not with such certainty.’
‘I could have saved you all. The stun gun, I…’
‘You have helped our cause beyond all imagining, Doctor. When the signal is transmitted and the implant’s contents are released into the control net, we will all be saved.’
‘But you and your companions will die, along with all the other Cybermen.’
We stood beside the door of his blue box; I placed a hand on his shoulder, ‘We would not have died in vain.’
He turned away.
Closed the door.
Melted into the air.
The legs carried me quickly to the summit of the mountain. Around me, my cities burned and my people died.
Cybercraft were dropping into the atmosphere like flocks of birds. A constant, chatter from the control net told be that the battles were almost done, that victory was assured; that flesh was weak and that logic was the only way.
The sun was falling to the horizon, its face still scarred by smoke.
I tried to imagine the chill that would have been in the air around me, tried to remember the breeze and the cut of cold air in my throat. I looked down at my silver hands and tried to feel the warmth of blood and the tightening stiffness of skin, as frost would settle on it. But there was nothing. Just the electronic fuzz of my vision, and the overwhelming brutality of the data-rush. The sun gave no warmth, only a stream of luminosity statistics; the rocks gave no shelter, only the crystagraphics of molecular geology.
A world of numbers.
A universe of fact.
I held a flower up to the fading sunlight. No beauty quotient was forthcoming, no analysis of aesthetics.
Chlorophyll and water.
The signal cut through the control net chatter.
I tried to miss things.
Tried to miss even Garsh and Jakka.