Apocalypse: The Bird in the Box
They were so certain he was dead that the sentry tried to stake him. Harry caught the young man’s right arm easily and slammed him against the crumbling brickwork. One moment, disgusted at the ease with which he could defend himself, the next pressing the man’s fingers against his own wrist.
“Yes...yes, sir,” stuttered the sentry.
He was so very young, perhaps seventeen. Still scared, even after all these months. But Harry remembered when they found him, starving and stinking of human waste, and living alone in a barn. That had been a good day: they had found a survivor and plenty of heavy machinery.
“Are you going to let me in then?” Harry asked impatiently as the young man continued to stare at him, eyes wide.
“Yes, of course, sir. I’m sorry. Sorry...” He turned away, punching in whatever the day’s code was and received a reply from the second station, a level down. It was still an hour or so till dusk, and until then, the sentry would have to stay up here, concealed and alone. They had to keep someone on the outside. Survivors, one or two, had found them before. Someone had to be locked out, making sure only humans got locked in.
The lift seemed shakier than usual, or maybe that was just Harry’s stomach. Sarah was dead. Dead for months. He’d still killed her though. His best friend? Maybe, at some point, but even those memories couldn’t make him smile. Not now, not when he was thinking of her pointed teeth, sharp and white and cold, cold eyes staring into his. And her voice, so soft, so seductive, and so utterly frozen.
One sharp stab. He closed his eyes, but he still heard the scream. His hand pushed against the side of the lift, and he kept his balance. It wasn’t Sarah, it wasn’t, wasn’t, was not...
The doors opened automatically, and he could see Sergeant Benton on duty, in one hand, a revolver pointed at him, the other was clasped around a stake.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, voice not quite weary enough to disguise the heartfelt sentiment. Harry nodded putting his hands up as he let Benton search him for any concealed weapons. Check pulse. Show cross. Garlic tablet...the last one brought a bitter laugh. Those hadn’t worked, not for...(don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think.) Benton let him pass to the second lift. “The Brigadier will be glad to see you,” he said as a farewell.
Of course he would. They all would. Every time someone came back alive there was a palatable sense of relief in the air. Like they’d achieved some small victory. Held back the inevitable for one more day. That thought startled him. When had he begun to think of the end as inevitable? Surely there was hope, some hope? Something had to keep him going, he had made it back to HQ, after all, but all he could feel was exhaustion and faint nausea when his thoughts strayed from bleary nothingness.
As he descended in the lift, the air began to warm, thawing his frozen limbs, and it should have been a comfort.
The lift jerked to a halt and the doors opened. A murmur of conversation greeted him, halting for a few moments as faces looked up briefly to note his arrival. An occasional smile met his eyes, he nodded in return. He looked around the dozen or so scattered tables. Even now, there was paperwork. Bureaucracy. Oh, they had to keep the stores in order. Limited food, limited weapons, limited energy.
“Sullivan!” That was the Brigadier. Of course, he had appeared from the corridor off to the right. His office, first on the left. Armoury, first on the right. Officer lounge second on the right. Officers only, but they let Harry in, because Harry knew how bad things were. Stupid class distinctions, but those in charge needed somewhere where they could let the professional mask slip and remind each other how they were all going to be dead within a few months. Couldn’t let the troops see. Stiff upper lip and all that. And besides, if they realised the truth, there’d be a revolt. Probably. Mustn’t upset the nice military dictatorship. It’s the only way to keep existing. And that’s why some poor soul had to count the number of cans of baked means they had left every morning. Keep busy. Don’t think. Those were the watchwords of today. And tomorrow and all the days after, thought Harry.
Someone was shaking his hand.
“We assumed the worst,” Lethbridge-Stewart said.
“Well, I’m alright, sir, I...”
“Better get you something to drink. Corporal!” The woman flanking him nodded and disappeared down another corridor. “Come on, Sullivan, better sit down, you look terrible.”
Harry let himself be guided to the officer lounge: a medium-sized room, plenty of chairs, a sofa, two tables. He sat down, and felt himself slump into the chair.
“I killed Sarah,” he said.
“I see.” He probably did, thought Harry. He wasn’t the first person who had had to kill one of their friends, and Lethbridge-Stewart had been involved since the beginning. Lethbridge-Stewart was governor of all the humanity that Harry knew of now. And he was still crisp, professional and tidy. “I should let you sleep, but there have been some...interesting developments.”
Harry looked up. “Sir?”
“Just before you left, we found that chap, Giles. Assumed he was a madman. Seen it before, enough to drive anyone crazy.”
“Yes, sir.” He remembered. Benton had brought him in. Cuts on his face, and smashed glasses. Wearing tweed. Wouldn’t shut up, was scaring some of the younger soldiers with his ranting about demons. Stupid, that. He couldn’t see how it mattered what anyone called them.
“He’s a great deal more coherent now. In fact, we were in conference when you arrived. I need your input, Sullivan. You’re the closest thing we have to a qualified psychiatrist.”
“You want to know if he’s crazy?”
The Brigadier’s lips quirked into a brief smile. “That’s about the size of it, yes. Because if he’s sane...if he’s telling the truth...”
Harry raised his eyebrows, questioning.
“There could be a chance, Harry. A real chance.”
“I won’t listen to any more of this nonsense! And I won’t let you waste any more of my time!”
“Please, sit down, Professor.”
“I will not! You call me out of the lab for these ridiculous children’s tales, whilst I’m trying to investigate the true cause of this...this plague. We need a cure, not a magic spell.”
The Brigadier and Harry exchanged glances, still a few metres from the conference room door, the angry voices from within could be heard quite clearly. Harry took comfort in the taste of whisky that was still burning in his throat, and hoped the Brigadier’s appearance would calm things down.
“Weren’t you agreeing with her, when this chap arrived?” murmured Harry.
The Brigadier nodded. “Close minded of me, really. What he’s suggesting is no more extraordinary than travelling through time and space in a police box.”
Harry felt his teeth grit as he followed the Brigadier into the conference room. He couldn’t help but think that he could have stopped all of this, if he really wanted to. If he’d been paying attention. If he cared about any of them.
“Mr Giles, this is Doctor Harry Sullivan, our chief physician,” said the Brigadier as he took his place at the head of the table.
Harry met the gaze of the man sitting at the bottom of the table. He stood and shook Harry’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Harry just nodded, unable to reciprocate the sentiment. Giles seemed to be about his age, perhaps a few years older. Oxford accent, and, remarkably, he was still wearing tweed.
Harry took his seat on the far side of the table, and glanced round. Professor Shaw had returned to her seat, though she still looked livid. And tired. She was even thinner than he remembered, skin drawn, shadows dark under her eyes. Exhaustion, and she’d know it too, but would be too stubborn to admit it. Or too desperate. A steaming mug sat in front of her. Coffee, he guessed. They had a lot of coffee.
Next to her sat Captain Rachel Stevens, the Brigadier’s second in command. She’d been transferred to UNIT on temporary assignment when they’d needed a languages expert after a remarkably non-hostile alien encounter. Short, dark hair and steady eyes, she had been the one to ask Liz to calm down. She nodded to Harry: an acknowledgment rather than a greeting.
The final person in the room was Alan MacGregor. The number of civilians living here was small compared to military personnel, but the Brigadier had wanted them to feel that they had a proper part to play in the running of things. Alan was their elected representative to the conference, acting as their spokesperson. Formerly a history teacher, they had found him in a broken down jeep on the M6.
“Mr Giles, if you’d like to summarise your...assessment of the situation for the benefit of Dr Sullivan.” Giles cast a wary glance at him, and Harry could see he was no fool, and sensible enough not to protest about his sanity.
“It’s the end of the world.”
“We’d noticed,” muttered Alan.
“And these, these creature you’re fighting, aren’t human.”
“We’d noticed that too,” added Alan, and the Brigadier shot a glance at him.
Liz gaze a very unladylike snort.
“From another dimension.”
Stevens was watching Giles steadily, perfectly still.
“But there’s a prophecy, tied in to what’s happening now, ‘into each generation, there is born a chosen one. A Slayer, who will hold back the darkness...’”
“Oh, she’s done a bang-up job then...”
“Mr MacGregor!” snapped the Brigadier. “Please continue,” he nodded at Giles.
“There is someone out there who can fight these things. Who was born to fight them. If we can find her, she could help us, she could...”
“Mr Giles,” interrupted Stevens. “A single soldier? Against all of them? Sheer numbers would overwhelm her, surely.”
“There’s more. Lots more. There are gateways between our dimension and theirs. And there are things she’s prophesised to do. That only she can do. The gateways can be sealed. It’s...everything I’ve read depends on the Slayer. We need her. We need...”
That was Liz. And she was on her feet again. “Utter nonsense. Demons? Prophesies? Ridiculous! This is a disease, Mr Giles, nothing more. A horrific plague that has infected our race and can only be cured by rational scientific means. An antidote or even a cure can and must be found, and you are wasting my time.” She looked round the table. “I don’t care what the rest of you think, I’m going back to work. There’s more at stake here than being polite to some mild-mannered madman.”
The Brigadier let her leave without saying a word. As Liz closed the door behind her, he turned back to Giles.
“And what do you suggest we do?” he asked.
“I need my books. There are ways to find the Slayer. Or call her. Incantations. But I need my research and my library.”
“This library of yours is intact?” asked Stevens.
“It was when I left,” Giles replied. “But even if there are only a handful of the books left, it could be enough.”
“Mr Giles if we are to reach your previous home, it will require us expending a great deal of resources. And putting several of my men in danger.” He glanced at the map on the wall behind him. “It’s over a day’s drive there and back.”
“Yes, I know. But what’s your alternative...this way you’re doing something. And I know it sounds extraordinary, and if I could prove what I’m saying I would. You have to trust me. You have to.”
Corporal Bell escorted Giles to one of the unoccupied sleeping quarters whilst the Brigadier, Harry, Stevens and Alan relocate to the laboratory. Liz raised an eyebrow as they came in, but continued with her experiment. The Brigadier knew perfectly well that any summons he could have sent her would have been ignored, but she was unlikely to storm out of what was effectively her laboratory and leave it to their tender mercies.
“Professor, I would appreciate your input,” he said.
“The man’s a fool,” Liz replied shortly. “You know perfectly well what I think. I very much doubt that anything you will say in the next few hours is going to change my mind.”
“That’s not the only issue,” said the Brigadier patiently. “And whatever you are doing can wait until we have finished this discussion.” For a moment he thought she was going to argue, and insist she was conducting some time dependant experiment. But she wasn’t too tired to miss the tone in his voice and, despite an exasperated sigh, finally joined the others at the lab bench.
“Sullivan?” asked the Brigadier.
Harry shrugged. “He seems quite lucid. He plainly believes what he’s saying. Calm, determined, rational.”
“You’re not saying you believe him?” asked Liz.
“He certainly believes it.”
“Oh, come on. Magic?”
“I seem to recall you thought much the same about little green men,” the Brigadier said.
“I see. So you’re suggesting that he is talking about some sort of advanced science, disguised as magic?”
“Professor Shaw, I am saying that the possibility exists that he is right. And after the past few months I am prepared to believe virtually anything.”
“Exactly. You’re grasping at straws, Brigadier. At some faint hope that there’s a quick and easy solution to all of this. Well, there’s not. It will take time, but eventually the infection will be isolated, studied and cured. You should concentrate your resources on getting more medical equipment, not this nonsense.”
“Thank you, Professor, I think you said it quite nicely.”
“It is indeed a faint hope. But it is quite clearly there. And I intend to pursue it.”
“I don’t believe this...”
“Nevertheless, we will investigate. That is after all, what UNIT does.” He looked round the table, Professor Shaw was incensed, but shrugged. Sick of arguing, perhaps. MacGregor was nodding, a faint smile on his face. He had lapped up Giles’s explanation the Brigadier had noted, and he could see how it would appeal. An explanation, even one of ‘it’s all down to magic’, was something many of them had been searching for. Something many of them needed.
“When do we leave, sir?” asked Stevens. Typical, that: straight to the point. She was a damn good soldier, quick, efficient and if she had any problems with his orders, sensible enough not to bring them up in public. Especially now.
“Tomorrow, if possible. We’ll send out recon early this morning and see how many nests are in the area. Then attempt to isolate one and create a diversion.”
Stevens shifted in her seat. “We haven’t directly attacked them for sometime, sir...they’d be aware we were operating in the area.”
“I think they might work that out anyway when they see a small convoy moving along the M6.”
“Convoy?” asked MacGregor. “How many troops are you planning to send? You’re not going to leave the civilians undefended?”
“Three jeeps will be leaving, Mr MacGregor. If we are going to do this I am going to make sure it will succeed. Captain Stevens, you’ll lead the mission.”
“I want an itinerary drawn up and on my desk within the hour. We won’t be able to stay in contact for the duration.”
“No relay post?”
I don’t want men left in a vulnerable position, Captain. Everyone comes back alive.”
“I’d like to go too, sir,” said Sullivan.
“You need to rest.”
“No, sir, I need to go. Hawkins can handle any medical problems here for a few days. I’d be more use with the convoy, especially if...” He trailed off, there was no need to finish. They all knew the types of injuries that those in the field had sustained.
“All right. Get some sleep just now then. There’ll be a briefing at 0500. Dismissed.”
As Sullivan and MacGregor left the lab, Stevens turned back. “Will Mr Giles be coming with us?” she asked.
“He’s a liability, sir.”
“Only if he’s mad...or a liar.”
Stevens nodded. “I see, sir.”
The Brigadier sighed as she left, hands massaging his temples.
“Pressure getting to you?” asked Professor Shaw, as she moved around the lab, tending to her work.
“It seems to be getting to us all, Professor. If your frequent outbursts are anything to go by.”
She nodded slowly. “We’re reaching breaking point here, Brigadier.”
“Is that why you’re doing this?”
He shook his head. “No. I think he may be telling the truth.”
“I just can’t believe that you’re not joking.”
“Believe it, Professor. And believe that I find your closed mindedness equally astonishing.”
There was a pause, as the Professor turned away, reaching for a spatula.
“It’s this Rupert Giles, isn’t it?” she said. “He reminds you of him.”
“A little,” the Brigadier admitted.
Harry had slept. He woke, muscles aching and mind still numb. Stumbling out of bed, he pulled on his clothes and headed for the conference room.
Captain Stevens briefed the score of men and women who would be going on this trip. (One way trip to...) He wouldn’t listen, not to that voice. Sarah’s voice had been silent in his dreams, though she had been there. Silent and watching and accusing. (Murderer...) He wasn’t listening, not to that voice.
He watched Giles from across the room. Face serious, but he didn’t appear to be listening to Stevens. Still wearing those tweeds, and now fiddling with a pen. The eccentric outsider. The hero who arrived in the nick of time to save the world...could he...?
But no, of course not. Hawkins had treated him. He was human, all right. One heart, recognisable blood type, right body temperature.
But he was hoping, somehow, that it could be him.
There I sit, Harry thought suddenly. Surely he must have seemed that crazy when he had arrived on Nerva Beacon...on Skaro...of course no one had believed a word they had said, not at first.
He could be right, was his next thought. And the Brigadier knows that, of course he does, it’s happened to him so often before.
Harry smiled, and turned his attention to Captain Stevens. There was something in the tone of her voice, the set of her shoulders. Something that had been missing.
Around the room, he could see that everyone really was listening. Paying attention. Intense, curious, perhaps? But anticipation, certainly. Finally it felt like they were fighting back.
It seemed he could hope after all.
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