Listen. This isn't a story I'm supposed to tell you. This isn't a story that someone of your rank is ever supposed to hear. I'm only doing this because you stood up to the Warlord for the sake of a slave, and I still don't think I'd talk to you if he hadn't broken your cheekbone. This way, at least I know you've got reason to hate the ones in charge, and even so, I'm taking a chance. So pay attention, but don't pass any of this on or tell anyone that I told you, yeah?
They say there's a world.
They say it's an ordinary world. Main-sequence yellow star, nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, green plants, a lot of ocean, middling sort of gravity. They say the inhabitants are industrialized, but in a primitive, haphazard sort of way. No continent-spanning cities, no orbital factories. No orbital anything, not so you'd notice; maybe a comsat here or there. And a long, long way from the heart of the Shadow Proclamation, so they might go for a century without anyone looking in on them. You know the sort of place. Underdeveloped. Defenseless. Fresh meat.
They say it's somewhere on the borders of Sontaran space. So, end of that story. Yeah?
Except–it isn't. They say that on the Sontaran star maps, this world is black-tagged. Waste of resources, that means. The gravity isn't high enough to be one of their cloning-and-training planets, and it isn't strategic enough to waste soldiers on. Too insignificant to bother with.
So what? So, the Sontarans don't do that. Not when there's a resource they could exploit–like an industrial culture–and half a chance of a good fight. They should have at least planted an automated surveillance station on the moon. No, waste of resources is what Sontarans put down when they mean something else. Something they won't say, ever. There never was a Sontaran born who'd admit he was afraid–
And there's more. Lots more. Whole invasions that just didn't happen, whole fleets that never arrived. They say the Nestene went after this world once. Yeah, the Nestene, as in burn all your polymers and bomb the site from orbit. They sent a Consciousness fragment. And–nothing. It just disappeared.
It's a dangerous universe and there are a lot of places you just don't go. That's true enough. There's always something worse out there, sometimes people or ships or whole civilizations disappear, and it isn't smart to go poking into why. So there's probably something big and nasty on this little ordinary world and the smoke-age primitives are food or slaves for the real rulers. Right? It makes sense that way.
Except they say–nothing ever happens to the unarmed ones. The refugees. The riffraff. The runaway slaves. The flotsam and the jetsam and the dregs.
They say if you flee to this planet, this Dark World that eats armies, then nothing will happen to you. You land. You keep away from the natives, or pretend to be one of them. You scratch together a life and get used to the sky and raise children who'll never know what a shockstick sounds like, even if they'll be surrounded by soft-faced aliens their whole lives.
And if there are masters, if there is some fearsome, malign thing hiding underneath the local civilization, you never see it. It never comes for you. None of your family ever disappear in the night. (Unless you take to eating the locals. Then you go gone. Important to remember that bit.)
Eventually, you come to believe that everything really is what it looks like. The primitives aren't slaves or secret warriors or puppets of some transdimensional horror. They're just people. The planet isn't some sort of trap, or hellworld, or property of something unimaginable. It's just–protected.
Ridiculous, of course. Children's stories. Who are "they," anyway, and why should anyone listen to what they say?
But for some of us–the ones with nothing, the ones who don't even have families left to stand as hostages, the ones ready to die–it's worth the risk. To trust ourselves to a children's story and leap into empty space, hoping there's something out there to catch us. To die on the way to somewhere instead of rotting slowly where we stand.
Remember that, your Highness, when you lose your father's protection. When you're thrown down here with us. When you've got nowhere left to go, remember the stories.
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