Out of the High Desert they came; out of the shimmering silvery band of heat-addled air near the horizon. Two tiny figures under the huge azure dome of the sky; they walked the arid, sun-blasted land, slowly travelling the endless road. Where did they come from? Who could say? Where were they going? Did they even know?
“It’s probably a good job poor K-9 decided to stay in the TARDIS,” said the smaller, blonder of the two figures, after some deliberation. She was dressed in the formal male style of the old American West; black frockcoat with matching trousers and Stetson, high boots and a white shirt with black bootlace necktie. “I think he would have overheated out here.”
“When I left him, he was busy solving five-dimensional hyperspace equations,” said her altogether larger, curlier companion. He had eschewed his normal overcoat and scarf for a bit of local colour; a long woollen serape in multicoloured stripes; a broad-brimmed sombrero pulled down low over his eyes. “You know him; as happy as a pig in —”
“Clover?” the girl suggested.
“Yes, that’s probably more appropriate,” the man grinned.
“I can’t see any buffaloes roaming, Doctor,” she observed disappointedly after another half mile. “I’ll bet there aren’t any deer or antelopes playing around here, either.”
“That was only a song, Romana,” the Doctor replied; “not a treatise on natural history.”
“Well, on Gallifrey we combine the two art-forms quite adequately.”
“Yes, we do, don’t we?” he agreed, unenthusiastically. “Humans, unlike Timelords, are not always to be taken literally when it comes to their art; their songs, their poems. There is a difference, you know, between objective reality and what might be called poetic reality.”
“You mean they lie,” observed Romana, tartly.
“They don’t lie!” The Doctor looked at her, as if aghast at the very idea. “They…exaggerate. They, they romanticise — ah, that’s the word, and especially appropriate when it comes to the artistic treatment of the American West! They embellish. It’s one of their more endearing qualities, I find. In fact, I’ve been known to indulge in it myself, from time to time.”
“I had noticed.” Romana gave him a sidelong glance, received a particularly cheeky grin in return. “For example, it isn’t very wild, is it?”
“Whatever can you mean?”
“Well, Doctor, you called it the “Wild West”; I expected something a little more…rustic.”
“Rustic?” He squinted at her from under the brim of his sombrero, swept the serape dramatically back over his shoulder so that he could gesture back along the glistening black ribbon of the highway; “Romana, the last house we passed was about five miles in that direction! Isn’t that rustic enough for you?”
“This road is clearly designed for the use of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines,” she observed, tapping the heel of one of her boots pointedly against the asphalt. “And, unless I am very much mistaken, those are electrical power lines overhead. Hardly what might reasonably be called ‘wild’. And you said there’d be cowboys and Indians,” she reminded him.
“Oh, you don’t want anything to do with cowboys,” the Doctor insisted. “Frightful ruffians; and they get very silly when they see pretty young ladies like you.” She smiled at this, despite herself. “Brawling and shooting often ensues.”
“Then what about the Indians?” Romana asked. “Did I brush up on my Hindi for nothing?” The Doctor chuckled, indulgently:
“I told you before; not that sort of Indian…” She considered this for a second, looking a little concerned, but then brightened up again:
“Oh, that’s all right; I do have a smattering of Punjabi.”
“Our timing is about a century out, I’ll grant you,” the Doctor conceded; he beamed at the expanses of stony, ochre-coloured soil that ran along either side of the road, with their sparse covering of shrivelled, scrubby vegetation. “Nevertheless,” he continued, undeterred, “I think it’s perfectly charming, don’t you?”
“It’s hot,” Romana grumbled, feeling sorry for herself. “And I don’t think this body is designed for exposure to these levels of ultraviolet radiation.”
“We can go back to the TARDIS if you want,” the Doctor said. Romana looked up the road in the direction they had come from, and then back in the direction they were going.
“It’s a long way back,” she decided, eventually. “We should keep going.” She blinked as a fly buzzed across her face. “Where are we going, for that matter?”
“Do we have to be going anywhere?” the Doctor grinned yet again and spread his arms out as if to encompass the entire desolate, beautiful landscape surrounding them: “I thought we were going for a stroll in the countryside. New Mexico in the springtime! Just smell that air!”
“I’d rather not,” Romana admitted as they set off once again along the shimmering strip of tarmac. After a few yards, she turned to him without looking at him and said:
“You can hold my hand. If you like.”
* * *
The screen was a rectangle of white light in the blackness of the room; a window into another world. Dark figures sat around the conference table, entranced, as the projector whirred and the title card flashed up:
THIS FILM IS CLASSIFIED “TOP SECRET/MAJIC/BLACKLIGHT”
VIEWING THIS FILM WITHOUT “TOP SECRET/MAJIC/BLACKLIGHT” CLEARANCE IS ILLEGAL UNDER FEDERAL LAW
The next image was that of a young, mousy-haired woman in a white hospital gown; she knelt at the centre of an elaborate ritual circle marked out in chalk and silver wire and human blood on the floor of a huge, shadowy, concrete-lined chamber. Candles made from the fat of executed murderers burned at the five points of the pentangle within the circle; strange runes and blasphemous names were inscribed at strategic points around the outer circumference. Beyond the circle, not quite off-camera, men in white laboratory coats and military uniforms could just about be seen skulking in the shadows. Arc lights and movie cameras and batteries of scientific instruments surrounded the girl, focused upon her, recording every moment of the working.
On the film’s soundtrack, a man’s voice could be heard, chanting; he was reciting complex Latin poetry with a pronounced German accent. The girl rocked back and forth at the centre of the circle, hugging herself and weeping. The arc lights flickered as the chanting intensified; the shadows in the chamber seemed to deepen and almost to move of their own accord; there was the vague suggestion of…things…moving just outside of the camera’s field of vision. The girl screamed in fear as her hair literally started to stand out from her head; the air around her was thick with static. The chanting grew faster and louder, and there was another sound; almost imaginary, half-heard snatches of noise, like wordless voices answering the chant. One of the lights exploded, showering the circle with orange sparks, as bloody red tears welled in the girl’s eyes and slid down her cheeks. The chanting reached a crescendo, and the girl suddenly went silent, stopped shaking and stood up in the middle of the circle, looking straight at the camera. More of the lights exploded, one after the other. The candles suddenly blew out, all at once.
One of the men watching the film recoiled in his seat, pointing at the screen:
“My God! Look at her eyes!”
The image on the screen flickered chaotically; there was an impression of…something…rushing forward, somehow rushing out of the girl and towards the camera; the chanting stopped and was replaced by the sound of men’s voices, many of them; shouts of panic, screams of terror. The film ended suddenly in an incoherent rush of half-seen images, and the screen returned to being a blank rectangle of glowing white light.
“Lights,” tersely ordered one of those seated at the table. The screen faded as the fluorescent strips in the ceiling flickered into life and the white walls of the conference room came back into view. The four men sat for a moment in silence, listening to the whirring of the ventilation fans; this room was buried storeys underground, hidden from prying eyes by tons of concrete and rock and desert soil; buried deeply enough to survive the end of the world. The air down here was unnaturally dry, cool and odourless; artificial-seeming.
“What was that…thing in the last frame?” one of the four eventually plucked up the courage to ask; it was the same man who had blurted out during the screening. He was thickset and fortyish, with a black business suit and a greying crew-cut. “I mean, did anyone else see that…tentacle, or whatever it was?”
“A physical manifestation, Mr Vance,” answered the cadaverous white-haired man in dark glasses seated at the lower end of the table. “We have made considerable progress in this latest series of experiments. We will very soon be in a position to communicate and interact with these…ultraterrestrial entities.” His voice was ponderous and Germanic; the same voice that had performed the ritual chant in the film.
The man at the head of the table gave a deep, almost unconscious, sigh that spoke volumes of horror and disgust; he was a tall, sturdily-built man wearing the uniform of a colonel in the United States Air Force; a younger man with the insignia of an Air Force major sat at his right hand.
“Progress is one word for it,” the colonel told the white-haired man. “Costly progress; fifteen personnel killed or incapacitated. Some of them clawed their own eyes out rather than look at, at that…thing. The ones who survived are being held in a Veterans’ Association mental ward in Albuquerque, completely and irreversibly insane.” He tapped his fingers on the tabletop as he spoke; a nervous tic that he was not even aware of. “And yet you survived unscathed, Dr Dietz.”
“Colonel Lydecker,” Dietz replied, unconcernedly, “you know perfectly well that the main caster in the ritual must remain within his own circle at all times. It provides certain…protections from these sorts of manifestations.”
“Well, I’m glad you were okay,” Lydecker retorted, hiding his anger with sarcasm, and not doing a very convincing job of it. “Although that can’t be much comfort for those of my men who are going to be spending the rest of their lives in padded cells.”
“Sir, those men knew the risks,” the major interjected. “They also knew the potential benefits that Project Blacklight could have for the United States.”
“If I want your opinion, Major Beck,” Lydecker replied, “I’ll be sure to ask.”
“Yes sir,” Beck answered, doing an equally bad job as Lydecker had of hiding his anger. Lydecker had turned his attention back to Dietz:
“Frankly, whatever the benefits may be of brokering an alliance with these…entities, I’m not sure they’re worth the obvious risks. There are some things that men simply should not interfere with.”
“Colonel,” said Dietz, adjusting his black-tinted glasses. “Do you think for one second that the Soviet Union is not conducting research into this area even as we speak? They secured the services of some of my former Ahnenerbe colleagues in 1945, just as your government secured mine. And do you think that they have any qualms about the risks? Mr Vance, remind the colonel of the report we received only last month from your Central Intelligence Agency.”
“Er, sir,” Vance cast an apologetic glance in Lydecker’s direction. “We have it on reliable authority that the KGB have been screening teenagers throughout the Eastern Bloc for potential extra-sensory abilities, apparently in the search for suitable…subjects to participate in Blacklight-type experiments.”
“The experiments continue,” Dietz pronounced, with a thin rictus-smile. “I am the scientific director of Project Blacklight; it is my decision.”
“And I am the military commander of this base,” Lydecker reminded him. “And as long as I am —”
“And as long as I have the support of the Majestic Group in Washington,” Dietz interrupted, “your continued military command is more or less at my sufferance.” Lydecker gave no indication that he noticed the significant glance Dietz shared with Beck as he said this. He merely stared at the German, barely suppressing his fury. “Don’t make me go over your head to Majestic, Colonel,” Dietz smiled. “I’m not sure you would enjoy the consequences.” He turned to Vance:
“Mr Vance, we must make ready for the next series of tests. Have your teams ready to secure the new subjects as soon as they have been selected.”
“How soon?” Vance asked, nervously.
“We’ve taken so many lately,” Vance protested. “And we had another rustling expedition last night. The locals are already talking; how long before we draw some serious attention?”
“The authorities are of no concern to us,” Dietz replied, dismissively. “Majestic owns them. Continue with the drug trials, and be ready to move on those who respond positively. We must pick up the pace; we need to make a breakthrough, and soon. Once we do…” the smile broadened into a skeletal grin; “none of this will matter any more.”
* * *
“Well, look at this Romana,” said the Doctor as they ambled along the road, hand in hand. “There appears to be some sort of commotion up ahead.”
“I can see,” she replied. About a hundred yards ahead, in one of the dried-up fields alongside the road, a crowd of people were standing around something; there were a number of cars and pickup trucks parked nearby, including two white and bronze police cars, red and blue lights flashing. “Have you noticed how these sorts of things always seem to happen wherever we go?”
“You’re right,” the Doctor agreed. “We can’t even go for a walk in the countryside without bumping into some sort of adventure.” He looked at her, grinning, his eyes crinkling in delight. He looked very old and absurdly young at the same time. “Would you have it any other way?” he asked. Romana flashed her own broad white grin in return:
“Of course not, Doctor.” They practically skipped over to the outer edge of the gathering. The assembled onlookers appeared for the most part to be local farming folk; dressed in plain, hard-wearing clothes; lots of denim; some with cowboy boots or hats. Most of them were dark-skinned and -haired; some of the men had hair as long as that of the women, tied back with patterned bandannas.
“Excuse us,” beamed the Doctor, tapping a randomly-selected man on the shoulder. “I couldn’t help noticing that you all appear to standing around looking at something, so my friend and I decided we’d join you.”
“You’re not from around these parts,” the man observed, narrowing his eyes. “I can tell.”
“Really?” asked the Doctor, innocently. “You can tell, even with the clothes and everything? What gave it away?”
“We’re visitors,” announced Romana. “From…er, Belgium.”
“Are you?” asked the Doctor, staring at her. He turned back to the man: “Just here on holiday; we picked New Mexico for the standing around and looking. Do you mind telling me what on Earth the something is that we’re all standing around looking at?”
“It’s another cow,” the man replied, gesturing at a bulky tarpaulin-covered shape at the centre of the group of people. “Cut up and drained of blood; just like all the rest.”
“All the rest?” the Doctor and Romana exchanged interested glances. The man spat on the ground, but didn’t appear to mean anything by it. Still gripping Romana’s hand, the Doctor pushed his way to the front of the crowd as politely as he could manage, dragging her along in his slipstream. There were two uniformed policemen standing next to the unfortunate bovine, with another man who looked like he was giving the orders. He was stocky, not particularly tall, with a hawk-like nose and lined face, deep brown skin and jet-black hair. He wore a tan-coloured Stetson and carried a revolver in an open holster; there was a six-pointed silver star pinned to his plaid shirt.
“Now, just hold on a minute,” said the hawk faced man as he saw them bending over the carcass and pulling back the tarpaulin. “You can’t just walk in here and start poking that thing; it’s evidence. Now get back before I run you both in.”
“Good afternoon,” grinned the Doctor, straightening up from his examination of the dead animal. “I’m the Doctor, and this is Romana. Don’t mind us, we’re experts.”
“Experts in what?” asked the lawman.
“Oh, you know, just…experts.” The Doctor tapped the star on the man’s chest; the man almost went for his gun in response. “I say, are you the sheriff around here?”
“John Chavez, Jicarilla Reservation Police,” the man replied. “Are you two scientists from the base?”
“The base?” asked the Doctor. Chavez pointed to a large red rock outcropping in the distance; maybe a couple of miles across, it was flat on top, with cliffs dropping away on all sides.
“Diablo Mesa,” he said. “There’s some sort of military research laboratory up there; top secret. I thought, with you saying you were a doctor…”
“Oh, no,” the Doctor chuckled. “I gave up working for the military quite some time ago.” Romana stepped up to Chavez and courteously extended a hand:
“Good afternoon, Sheriff. Do you mind me asking, but are you a cowboy, or are you an Indian?”
“Indian,” replied Chavez, shaking her hand and looking somewhat taken aback.
“Oh, well,” said Romana, “in that case may I say: Namaste. Aap kaise ho?” Chavez squinted quizzically at her:
“Excuse me; maybe I should have said: Sat sri akaal. Kiddah haa tusi?”
“Say what, little lady?” Chavez asked, nonplussed. The Doctor sighed, somewhat wearily:
“I told you, Romana; not that kind of Indian…” She looked at him in annoyance:
“Well, I don’t speak any Gujarati,” she said.
“I’m a full-blooded Jicarilla Apache,” said Chavez, “like a lot of folks around here. This is the land the white folks made our grandparents settle on when they decided we couldn’t be free any more. Maybe you think that’s funny, missy, but I don’t.”
“Oh don’t mind her,” said the Doctor. “She’s from Belgium. What do you make of that cow, Romana?” he asked her, changing the subject. Romana murmured her conclusions to the Doctor as discreetly as possible:
“This animal has been mutilated with a surgical laser; nothing else could make such clean cuts and cauterise them at the same time. And it has indeed been drained of blood; which is quite a feat considering they didn’t spill any on the ground.”
“A surgical laser?” asked the Doctor in astonishment, a little too loudly for Romana’s liking:
“Not so loud, Doctor!”
“What year is it?” the Doctor asked Chavez.
“1968,” he replied without thinking, before he thought about it: “Now wait up a minute; what do you mean what year is it?”
“That’s far too early for locally-produced surgical lasers,” the Doctor mused. “Which means this animal must have been killed by…”
“Aliens?” asked Chavez. Both the Doctor and Romana stared at him in shock for a moment.
“Ah, well,” said the Doctor, uncomfortably; “you’ve rather taken the words out of my mouth, there, Sheriff; which doesn’t happen to me very often at all. What do you know about aliens?”
“I might’ve known when I saw that poncho,” Chavez groaned. “More goddamn flower children. You two trippin’ on peyote or something?”
“I’m sorry, you’ve lost me there,” the Doctor grinned. “Still, tell me more about these aliens.”
“The Mesa’s always had a spooky reputation,” Chavez replied. “I remember my granddaddy telling me about the spook-lights that used to shine up there at night, about the Skinwalkers, and the ghosts of the Anasazi, and the hole into the other world and all that. Just campfire stories. But then, about a year ago, these cows and steers started showing up, cut and bled dry, and people said they’d seen lights in the sky when it happened. I dunno about lights in the sky, but I know that when those stories spread they attracted every kook and beatnik and hippie weirdo on the West Coast; they all drove out here into the desert to commune with the saucer-people or what have you, stayed for the peyote and their stupid rich-white-kid version of Indian mysticism. My boy’s serving his country, with the Marines at Khe Sanh, so these white kids can lie around getting high. Anyway, you look a bit old to be a flower child, but I figure you and your girlfriend must be here for the same reason as them. Take my advice; go back to Haight-Ashbury or wherever you come from; this place ain’t for you.”
“Girlfriend?” frowned Romana. “I suppose we do have a certain familiarity, but I wouldn’t go that far.” The Doctor winked at her.
“Have you seen these lights in the sky yourself?” he asked Chavez. Chavez looked uncomfortable:
“There are lots of things in the sky that have lights,” he said. “None of them are little green men, though.”
“You’d be surprised,” said the Doctor. “So, the dead cows, and the lights; are there any other phenomena I should know about?” Chavez shrugged:
“A couple of months ago, a few hippie kids supposedly disappeared; their friends reported them missing; we searched for them, didn’t find anything. Probably went back to San Francisco, if they were lucky; or, if they weren’t, wandered off into the desert when they were stoned and just died. It’s easier than you think around here; like I said, this place ain’t for you. Now, go home. I warn you, if I see you two hanging around here again, I’ll bust you both for vagrancy.”
“I think that’s our cue to leave,” the Doctor told Romana. He raised his hat to Chavez: “Good afternoon, Sheriff. Nice chatting to you.” Chavez just glowered at them as they walked away.
“So, what do you think is going on here?” Romana asked as they made their way back through the crowd.
“Something very fishy,” the Doctor replied. “Did you think the sheriff was a bit offhanded about those missing people?”
“Yes, I did. And whatever he may believe, that cow was undoubtedly killed using non-terrestrial technology.”
“Hmm. All of this warrants further investigation, don’t you think?”
“Good; let’s start with the flower children.”
* * *
Dietz strode down one of the endless tiled passageways of the underground base, the fluorescent lights reflecting from the black discs of glass that hid his eyes. Soldiers and technicians whom he passed in the corridor almost instinctively stood aside, as if recoiling from the unsettling aura he seemed to project; the movements of his lanky, emaciated body were somehow jerky and uncoordinated, like a speeded-up film. Major Beck almost had to run to catch him up after exiting the conference room.
“Major,” Dietz acknowledged quietly as Beck fell into step alongside him.
“He’s a fool,” said Beck. “He has no idea of the importance of the work we’re doing here.”
“You mean Colonel Lydecker?” asked Dietz, mildly. “You know, you really shouldn’t talk like that about your commanding officer.”
“He and Vance are sitting back there now,” Beck went on, as if he hadn’t heard. “Wringing their hands like old women, worrying about the morality of it all.”
“People fear what they don’t understand,” Dietz commented. “We mustn’t allow their fears to hold us back; we must be unafraid to press on, regardless of risk.”
“Of course,” Beck agreed. “You knew that during the war; you knew that it was a race against time; that you couldn’t worry about compassion or mercy; you had an enemy to defeat.”
“That’s right,” said Dietz. “And yet, we still delayed too long, and we lost, which only underlines the importance of us completing Blacklight as soon as we can, before the Ivans do. Otherwise they will destroy your country in the next war, just as they destroyed mine in the last one.”
“We fought the wrong enemy in that war,” Beck whispered, conspiratorially. “The Soviets were always the real threat to America.”
“Indeed.” They reached the door of Dietz’s office, his inner sanctum; one of his special assistants stood guard. The man was over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, with dead white skin. He wore a black suit, black tie, black shoes, white shirt and opaque dark glasses like those Dietz himself sported. The man gave no indication that he had noticed Dietz or Beck as they approached him; he continued to stand there, like a statue. “We will speak later,” Dietz told Beck. “I have work to attend to.”
“Of course, Dr Dietz.” Beck continued down the corridor as Dietz swept his security pass through the scanner on the door and keyed in his identity number; the door buzzed and swung open; Dietz entered and immediately closed it behind him.
The office was dimly-lit and had a strange pungent odour; eldritch diagrams covered the floor and walls; intricate meshes of lines and numbers and weird sigils that seemed to crawl and move even one stared at them. Dietz crossed to the opposite wall, passing the framed portrait of Adolf Hitler and the shelf of books bound in human skin; a selection of forbidden texts; the Book of Eibon, the Kitab al-Azif, Les Cultes des Goules, De Vermis Mysteriis, The King in Yellow and the Pnakotic Manuscripts. Next to them was a photograph of a much younger Dietz, smartly turned out in his black uniform, a silver death’s-head gleaming on his cap.
He opened the doors of the shrine mounted on the far wall, revealing the blasphemous icon with its depiction of endless, writhing tentacles and screaming, feeding mouths; and eyes; a myriad of burning, staring eyes. He lit the black candles and knelt in supplication before his dark gods, removing the dark glasses and looking upon the icon with the eyes that he normally had to hide; tears of blood flowed down his face.
“Hear me, Masters,” he whispered. “Look upon me with your thousand eyes; guide me that I might serve you.” The reply came silently, yet clearly; every hair on his body stood on end and the shadows in the corners of the room seemed to deepen as a chaotic rush of words, or the impressions of words, slid directly into his brain:
we hunger we would feed feed we need sustenance hunger hunger hunger hunger
“There will be more sacrifices, Masters; very soon.”
no no sacrifices we would feed feed on worlds and galaxies hunger hunger hunger
“I am working to open the gate, Masters,” he replied. “Progress is slow. For the time being, you will have to manifest individually, in bodily form.”
hunger hunger bring us into your world that we might feed feed hunger hunger
“The difficulty is in the vessels, Masters. Human bodies are too weak to contain your magnificence. Your manifestations through them can only be temporary. An extraterrestrial corpus might suffice, but the Majestic Group possesses only dead aliens, not live ones.”
hunger hunger your universe was once our feeding place hunger hunger bring us into it hunger hunger hunger hunger
The presence was suddenly gone. Dietz rose unsteadily to his feet, sweating and shivering. He snuffed out the candles and enclosed the icon in its shrine. He crossed to the refrigerator in the far corner; he needed his medication. Carefully he removed the bottle of whole human blood, poured a measure into a wineglass and downed it in one.
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