The glass broke - shattered, really - and her scream was shocked from her by the frozen out-gassing of her air. Her eyes froze shut, but she could still see the things, the Daleks. Within seconds, both their blasts and the cold had ceased to register on what remained of her oxygen-starved consciousness. She might have had a last thought, and it might have been that life was ending just the way she'd thought it would.
In the drifting dark that thought was gone. So was she, for all practical purposes. The laws of the universe, physics and its dedicated disciples, mandated that she was to go elsewhere, move on, or disappear entirely. But given the slightest opportunity, chance, the universe's bastard child by chaos, tends toward life.
Lynda wasn't there, and whatever wasn't there didn't know what warmth was. Nor life. No sound, no sight, no self. Despite that, something that did not exist brushed up against something - something that was not cold, nor dead. Beyond that negative definition was nothing. Not yet.
Whatever Lynda might have been in some unimportant previous instant yearned toward the thing, which, in another nonexistent moment, coalesced into light. Gold light.
Then whatever Lynda was now - "now" having begun once again to exist - reached for the light. And the light reached for her, most cruelly.
Had it been some other power, perhaps the universe itself, she might have been gently coaxed to awareness, as her atoms were tugged together into the map of herself.
But this small golden god had no finesse, just an overwhelming need to beat against the dark and revive all within its powerful, finite reach.
So Lynda Moss was thrown back to life with a great rolling pressure. It broke and rebuilt her again and again, over and painfully over in a timeless moment. Cells pulsed again, neurons flashed messages again, blood ran again, heart and lungs functioned again, all at once, all unasked. She was a prisoner once more of causality.
She screamed a second time, the squall of a newborn, as the undiscerning brilliance re-knit reality.
Lynda couldn't immediately remember anything after she found herself lying on the floor, gasping for breath. Thin air knifed her lungs, providing just enough oxygen to let her brain know there wasn't enough of it.
She rolled to her knees, but couldn't stand up. The blur in front of her resolved into metal steps leading to heat scarred door panels. She scrabbled her way toward them, hauled herself up to reach the release. She slapped it, and fell forward into the hall. The doors slid shut, the escape of atmosphere largely halted. She could breath normally again.
When she could, she stood up to look around.
The lobby was littered with shell casings, although Lynda didn't immediately recognize them as such. She inadvertently kicked two or three of them into the wall, and flinched at the metallic retort. There appeared to be nothing else; dark floor, dark ceiling and walls, both with bars of erratically flickering light. It seemed quiet, but she felt a deep thrumming vibration in her feet and shoulders. There were no other people around.
She padded down one corridor off to the lobby's right. More empty shell casings. Smoke-dark streaks against the dusty grey of one wall section. She put out a finger to touch one, discovered it was actually melted into the panel. She turned round and headed back to the lobby.
"Is anyone here? Hello?" Her voice was swallowed by the sound baffles behind each wall. She went to check a second corridor, but it was dark; the lighting had completely failed. Lynda backed out after a few steps. She stood motionless for some unmeasured period. Just staring, listening for something she couldn’t remember, trying to decide whether to make any decisions at all.
Her head pounded. She retained enough school science downloads to know it was probably because of the oxygen deprivation -
(- the glass shattered at the Daleks' silent blast, the darkness claimed her at her observation post - )
"Oh, no," she whispered. "No, no, no...." She slapped her hand to her mouth to keep the words in.
Then she shook herself like a cold puppy. "But I'm alive now."
Weight settled back into the pit of her stomach, the same weight she'd known since she'd been old enough to recognize it. If she'd ever thought to take the time to explain it to anyone, if anyone had asked her what it was, she might have said it felt like being smothered, or being pressed to the floor by unforgiving gravity, or being measured and found wanting.
When the lift opened, Lynda shrank back against the nearest wall.
Not a Dalek. A human, a young man; compact build, brush of brown hair, blue eyes sweeping across the lobby, then turning on her.
She didn't move.
"You know me?"
"Not so much know. But we've met."
"I do have that pleasure," he answered, his eyes on the move again, away from her. She was used to that. But now that she knew there was someone else here - on Game Station, yes, that was where they were - she couldn't bear the thought of standing alone in the flickering lights of this ruined lobby. She pushed herself away from the wall and approached him.
"Do you, do you know what's going on?"
"Not certain," he said shortly, adding almost as an afterthought, "I was...out of commission for a little while," - and he stumbled almost imperceptibly - "I've been checking levels for survivors. I'm done now I've found you. Let's go."
"Where? I mean, what are we going to do now?"
"In order, we're heading up to Floor 500, and we don't know, yet, not until we get our bearings. Which we're just starting to do. Save the rest of your questions just a little longer, OK?"
"Oh. Yeah, right, right. Sounds good."
Lynda put her hands behind her back, abashed, and ducked her head, shoulders hunching automatically. If Jack had looked closely at her at that second, he might have checked himself, said something heartening to her; his almost instinctive diplomatic skills would have kicked in.
No one had ever hit Lynda; not her parents, not teachers, not class bullies, not lovers. But Jack might well have noticed the bruises that weren"t there. And he would have been kind.
Instead, he asked if she'd seen anyone beside herself on this level.
"No. I, ah, just woke - well, I was in there," and she jerked her head toward the doors. "But there's nothing there. Nothing at all, actually, no air. Well, not much."
Jack snapped his fingers. "That's right! That was the observation post; I brought you here."
"You did?" Lynda stared at him, momentarily confused. "No, wait, I remember. I think."
"Dealing with a little memory loss here?" he asked. "So am I. I hate it."
"It's a bit fuzzy, yeah. Give me a sec." She grimaced, partly in agreement and partly because her head still hurt so much. "I'm a bit...I've only got bits and pieces, quite honestly. I know I was watching for something, now you mention it."
"Take it from me, you were on duty here for us. You were watching, keeping us informed of their movements."
(She saw the brown clouds below flare into muddy spots of light, the infernos blossoming silently one after the other. A swift moving plague beneath her feet, recorded in unmercifully clear graphics on the screen before her. A coastline, a mountain range gone, continents bubbling and melting into steaming seas. No sound, just quiet apocalypse. So quiet after all the screaming down on Floor 0.)
"They sort of came from both sides, I guess," she said. She started to shiver. "They were in the hall. They were trying to burn through the door. The, uh, the flame got through a little, you know, but the door melted right over it again. I suppose that's why the air's not escaping."
He stared at her.
"Well, you see, the ones inside weren't the real problem, actually. It was the ones outside. In space. They came up on the outside, and they, they saw me, and they - " the trembling was uncontrollable now. "I couldn't hear them, but they flashed lights at me, and they shot at, you know, the windows, and then the glass broke - shattered, really."
She didn't realize her voice was rising to a thready shrillness. "My eyes froze shut, I couldn't breathe, I could, couldn't see, couldn't hear, and, oh God, something brought me back, oh no, nonono..."
Jack's eyes went wide in comprehension and he whistled low. "Sweet weeping...you got spaced. What a hell of a way to - "
He turned and wrapped one arm around her shoulders while she sobbed uncontrollably. He didn't say anything for a moment, didn't try to draw her closer, just kept that warm arm around her, absorbing and diffusing her tremors.
Lynda finally looked up, eyes red. She'd remembered something else.
"Where's the Doctor?"
Jack stiffened. "He's gone."
"Gone," he repeated, softly now. Then he shook his head quickly, and squeezed her just as quickly, unexpectedly tapping her nose.
"Come on, sweetheart, I really don't know much more than you do at this point. But let's get back to Control. Most of the others are there. I promise we'll talk, we'll try to figure everything out. Or something, at any rate."
The lift hadn't closed, and its lighting didn't flicker. She moved as if the habit was an ill-fitting set of old clothes, but she kept going.
She was still leaking tears, she was still shaking. She clung to his kindness, desperately trying to determine what to remember and what to forget, which memory could save and which could drown her.
And she couldn't fathom the idea that the strange man in the leather jacket had gone. (Come with me, he'd said, his eyes wide in that funny face of his, his hand held out to her, so large in her field of vision.) What did "gone" mean, really, now that everything had changed?
She wiped at her eyes, and breathed out, very carefully.
"Sorry, don't mean to be so wet. It's just weird, you know?"
"Oh, don't I know it," Jack said. He made one last inspection of the floor before keying the lift shut. It hummed and lurched up. Lynda wondered if it had been damaged, or if it had always been like that.
The humming stopped, and the door slid open. "Here we go, top floor, penthouse suite," Jack said, beaming a professional grin at her. Lynda smiled wanly back, which seemed to satisfy him.
Control was hard to navigate. Not so much because cords and broken cables snaked over darkened consoles and pooled in untidy nests all over the floor panels, but because so many people were crowded between the console banks and the center dais.
Lynda had no way of knowing that the space normally provided comfortable room for an operations shift of 20 people, maybe 35 during Eurasian Prime. It had been nearly empty the last time she'd been there. The panic-stricken staff had fled, leaving her with the grim man shepherding her now, and the black-visaged terror who had commanded him.
And that girl. That Rose.
(Something in her yearned toward the light, and she became something again - )
"Lynda? Come on, hon, over here. Some people you might remember," Jack soothed, when she stopped, hands flying to her face as an impossible memory exploded and faded behind her eyes.
He shouldered his way through knots of people until they recognized him and drew back, tapping each other's shoulders and making way.
Lynda spotted two faces she knew - well, more or less recognized, she amended silently - as Jack guided her toward them. The two programmers who'd fallen in most quickly with Jack and the Doctor, who'd been the least afraid to stand with them. The nice boy, Davitch Pavel; she remembered that he'd introduced himself. The woman, with her dark hair, buttered rum skin, her deep eyes ... she'd never said what her name was, but Lynda remembered the sardonic crook of her smile.
They were standing as close to each other as possible, his hand hovering at her back. She wasn't looking at him, but when someone jostled the two momentarily away from each other, she grabbed for him.
"... wish I had a bloody fag, is what I said."
"Come on, Govinda, don't grouse," Davitch said. "We've got better things - "
" - to worry about, I know," the woman interrupted. "You've mentioned it, you know. But until we know what the hell to do about them, I'd like something to take my mind off everything. Harkness, there you are," she said, without missing a beat. "You found her."
"Knew I would," Jack said. "She was the last on my rounds, too, unless there's someone in the duct system. Is Meg back?"
"Not yet," Govinda said. "She called for some backup on Floor 450. Apparently someone came...back, and promptly tripped over an upended chair." She rolled her eyes. "He landed hard and managed to break a leg. And one of the contestants burned herself on wiring that got sheared by a blast; she was in one of the studios where the lights had all failed. Meg didn't tell me how bad it was, but if she needs help, I've got to assume neither of them can walk well."
It was obvious the programmer was lieutenant to Jack's captain. Lynda felt absurdly grateful. They'd barely spoken, but she remembered Govinda hadn't been cowed by the Doctor's anger; she probably could hold her own now.
"Thanks for the update. We'll wait a couple more minutes, then we'd better start this dog and pony show," Jack said. "The buzz level's getting a little hysterical again, and I don't want to risk any more fights. If folks on 80 have decided to hole up there, that's fine for now. We'll deal with them later. But first...Govinda, you remember Lynda? Lynda, Govinda Pol."
"Hello again," the female programmer said, extending her hand. "We never did get introduced."
"Yeah, well, things were a bit crazy."
"Still are. Welcome to Insanity Central," Govinda said. She leveled an appraising look at Lynda. "You OK?"
"You mean...you're talking about what...happened to me?"
"I guess so," Lynda said, trying to think about the question as little as possible.
"She had a pretty tough time of it," Jack said. "Tougher than most. A little vacuum, courtesy of our pepper pot friends."
"Christ." Govinda looked ill. "Being shot's bad enough." Her voice wavered just the slightest. Davitch touched the small of her back lightly, and she shot him a grateful look. The look he gave her in return was almost painful to watch.
Lynda had seen her parents look at each other that way. Even when she'd been too little to really understand it, she'd been jealous. And bewildered by that reaction.
Jack spared Govinda a sympathetic glance before giving the room another of his panoramic inspections. "Here, let's find a little space."
He gestured to the side of the dais. Where, Lynda saw, a halo of blue light illuminated the empty space in which the Controller had stood. Her web of electronic restraints and life-support tubing hung useless and abandoned.
(Where is the Doctor, the tiny woman had asked, where is he? Her opaque eyes had swept the room as Jack's did now.)
"OK. Here's what I figure we're up against, at least for starters." Jack said briskly, as the three gathered around him. "We have about 100 people here. There's another 50 or so down on Floor 80, and we can't talk them out of the Ground Force studio, at least not until they're convinced we're human."
"Idiots," Govinda snorted before Jack continued.
"Yeah, idiots, but I'm not necessarily blaming them," he said. "Anyhow, there's 133 down on 450. Davitch, did you say a couple of them are injured, too?"
"Yes. And one of them's pregnant, apparently. She went into labor as soon as she came back," and Lynda was amazed at how calmly the tall programmer said that, "so we found someone from Health Services to see to her."
Jack swore. "Pregnant...oh, hell. That's all we need...So, we may already have 284."
"Hang on," Lynda said, shaking her head slightly. "There weren't that many left on the station, were there? I, I remember you saying there were maybe 100 left."
"That's what we thought," Davitch said, dropping his voice to a whisper and looking to see if they were being listened to. They were, Lynda saw. People were turning by twos and threes, to look their way.
"We did as fast a scan as possible under the circumstances," he continued. "But systems were already malfunctioning by the time the fleet moved in, and Govinda and I...we didn't have much experience in station diagnostics, just basic band-aid response you could say.
"The end result is that when...when things got started again, one of the people from down on 0 turned out to be Station crew. She got life signs from places we'd missed. Turns out the system problems meant the evacuation order wasn't broadcast on a couple of floors. Plus, some people didn't believe what they heard when they heard it."
"That's why I was out doing a check," Jack took up the now-hurried explanation. "Meg - a studio floor chief, she should be back soon - headed further down to see if she could talk some of the stragglers into coming up here. As far as we can tell, we've finally got a real head count. We're lucky, really...Davitch, how many did you say could have been here?"
"About 3,000, maybe 3,500. There's usually about 2,000 contestants at any given time and the rest are staff of one type or another," Davitch told him.
"So most of them made it out," Jack said.
"To Earth," Lynda said, her voice flat.
"Oh. Oh shit."
The weight in her stomach grew as she watched him connect those particular dots, stricken. She couldn't bear that. He had to be strong.
"Look, we - we're back, right?" she said, brightly. "Really, we don't know what's going on down there. Everything changed here. It could be the same down there." She stared at the other three, and tugged at her hoodie, squaring her shoulders and looking, had she only known it, quite fierce. "Maybe we weren't the only ones who got called. Called back."
"By whatever it was that did it?" Govinda looked thoughtful.
"Whatever. We're just lucky there aren't more of us here," Jack said. And even if there was perhaps a glimmer of hope in those wounded eyes of his at Lynda's words, his news was bleak.
"I have no idea how much air we've got left. There are enough breaches all over the station that it may all vent within a few hours. And there are no shuttles left in the bays."
"Oh." Davitch pressed his lips together tightly.
"Yeah. Oh. So the question, ladies and gentleman, is," and Jack's smile was grim, "are we all going to be dead again very soon, or are we going to find some way out of hell?"
tbc, one hopes
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