A DOCTOR WHO STORY
CHAPTER ONE — HELL’S HORIZON
A crazy shattered river of shadow slithered along the TARDIS floor. This shadow was cast by the central column as it shot up and plummeted over and over again, like the spine of a titan as it breathed its last.
Rose stared into the pulsing pillar, her brain spinning, her mouth tilting into a smile. She had never got over the joy she had felt at being returned to the mortal world after her imprisonment in the Void. Setting eyes on anything to do with the TARDIS, or the Doctor or his new companion Jimbob rekindled that joy. Energy pounded through her and she broke her pondering gaze, skipping across to the Doctor.
‘Where are we going now?’
The Doctor’s face did a quicksand shift. Before Rose had arrived he had been frowning, his lips folded like twin paper creases. When she stepped up beside him he turned to fix her with a radiant grin, and now he returned his concentration to the screen. The frown regained its position.
Rose peeked over his shoulder. What she saw on the TARDIS monitor should have made her gasp, but didn’t. She had laid eyes on far stranger things during her travels with the Doctor.
A massive, old-fashioned, wooden ship was swerving through the brazen skies of Earth, its hull pale against the sunset.
‘Where is that?’ asked Rose, pushing the Doctor aside playfully, studying the screen. ‘If it’s anywhere industrial it’ll cause riots.’
‘The northern Andes,’ the Doctor answered. ‘No riots today. Well, strictly speaking, there’ll be a few among the mountain tribes...’
‘And the condors!’ Rose exclaimed. ‘Never forget the condors.’
‘The torrent ducks, perhaps...’ the Doctor rubbed his chin, leaning back. ‘The goats, the otters... maybe a few sentient mountain caps...’
‘Well, we can’t have the mountain caps getting scared, can we?’ Rose grinned. The Doctor smiled back.
‘No, we can’t. So I suggest taking a little look at this ship,’ he replied, firing up the vortex loop. The TARDIS disappeared from space, the never-ending spirals of the Time Vortex replacing the starry plain of Andromeda outside the windows.
‘I don’t get much of a say, do I?’ Rose joked. The Doctor briefly smiled, then returned to his observation of the mysterious ship. Rose noticed that a statue of a cat’s face was attached to the hull. The face had emerald eyes, and its jaw consisted of two stone slabs that could presumably hinge open. The whiskers were laced with gold, and the ears were silver. The metal construction refracted a blinding whirlwind of light.
Rose wolf-whistled. ‘Someone’s rich.’
When the Doctor didn’t respond, she added, ‘Well, who are they then? Cat people from New Earth? New Earthlings?’
The Doctor chuckled. ‘If the Galactic Federation could hear you, you’d be jailed for racism. You can’t just assume one cat species is another, because they’re cats.’
Rose frowned, then laughed. ‘So there’re lots of cat species out there?’
‘Billions.’ The Doctor pressed a button, keeping his eyes on Rose. ‘See if you can guess which one this is.’
‘How do you know it’s a cat species because they’ve got a cat figurehead?’ Rose protested.
‘Because,’ the Doctor played with the word inside his mouth before uttering it, ‘I’ve seen a cat statue exactly like this one on a planet I’ve visited. You’ve visited it too, I hate to reveal. So if you can’t think of it, well, you’re just a teeny bit rubbish.’
The Doctor had given her the answer on a silver platter. Rose picked up her metaphorical fork and skewered it. ‘Lilulans!’
‘Surprisingly, you’re right.’
Rose punched his shoulder. ‘Surprisingly?’
The TARDIS materialised in a dark corner of the Lilulan ship. Unusually, it made no sound while doing so. For some reason, the place seemed to command total silence.
‘Silence, eh?’ the Doctor rapped on the doors fondly. Rose hushed him, pushing a finger over her lips quickly. She then darted her eyes around. When the Doctor laid an odd look upon her, she smiled guiltily. ‘Sorry,’ she whispered. ‘This place is weird.’
‘We should have brought Jimbob with us,’ the Doctor murmured, placing an almost reverent hand on one wooden wall. ‘He’s good at weird.’
‘He’s asleep!’ Rose rolled her eyes and let her voice get slightly louder. ‘That would be a great help in all this secret investigation business. A sleeping man.’ It was the Doctor’s turn to hush her, as a shadow moved further down the twilit corridor. Rose’s eyes widened, and then narrowed as the shadow was proved to be simply an effect of light twinkling through an open window which the Doctor had suddenly spotted.
‘You’re all wound up,’ Rose noted. The Doctor didn’t reply. He stepped forward, the floorboards creaking, the whole ship tilting and groaning at regular intervals.
The Doctor spoke quietly. ‘It seems like no-one’s home.’
Rose peered into the gloom. ‘Never take that for granted,’ she pondered, walking down the corridor slowly, as if a loud footfall would awaken a slumbering giant.
‘Indeed.’ The Doctor followed her even more cautiously, swinging round occasionally to check they weren’t being followed from the other direction. After a while of careful treading and slow spinning on the spot, the Doctor deduced that no-one was pursuing them. For a start, the sonic screwdriver detected no life signs, and there was also no noise or movement.
‘This is odd,’ the Doctor continued. Rose suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. It was the same thought that must have occurred to both her and the Doctor hundreds of times during their brief stay on the ship. But the Doctor, as usual, found a way to surprise her. ‘And not just because it’s silent, but because these cameras are way beyond Lilulan technological capability.’ He indicated the rows of unsettling security devices lining the walls.
‘Cat’s eyes,’ Rose mused.
The Doctor nodded. As they turned a corner, the Doctor noticed a door. ‘Haha! A door!’ he proclaimed unimaginatively.
‘At last,’ Rose said. ‘I thought this ship would turn out to be just one long corridor.’ This was a lie: the thought had never occurred to her. It was just something to say, something to break the strange dread descending on her.
The door was not locked. The Doctor seemed slightly disappointed that he couldn’t use the sonic screwdriver on it. Rose thought he was going to lock it so he could unlock it at one point, but he didn’t. He simply strode through it, up a series of steps, and onto a deck glimmering with pale scarlet light.
‘Wow!’ the Doctor cried, icy strings of air whipping at his lips, spinning the words away into the sky. Rose cupped her ear. ‘Wow!’ he repeated for her benefit, staring down the steps and through the doorway, wind blasting his face and tossing his hair.
He helped Rose climb onto the deck and wrapped his coat around both of them, staring into a blinding hell. The mountain peaks of the Andes engulfed the ship, rearing up into the violet clouds. Looking at them was like losing your soul. Banks of black rock as high as forever cracked the sky into a wilderness of rifts. Chasms swellled and faltered at the bases of the mountains, so dark that the sunset seemed to be swallowed in their jaws. Slopes of blue-tinged ice creaked desolately, walls of light bouncing off mighty wastes as sheer as cliffs.
Rose buried her face in the Doctor’s warm shoulder. ‘I can’t look at it,’ she hissed. ‘It’s too big. Too beautiful.’
The Doctor’s trance of gazing was broken, and he pulled Rose towards the cabin. ‘You won’t have to,’ he whispered, opening the door with a buzz of the sonic screwdriver.
The cabin was a snow-drenched husk of wood. Ragged flaps of ash lined the grilled surface of a dead stove. Nails lay half-embedded in the sunset-dappled walls, which were horrifically flimsy on all sides except the one opposite the door. This wall housed a second exit. A once luxurious carpet lay scrunched in one corner below a stained, shuttered window. Snow littered the floorboards.
The Doctor sighed and headed for the other door. Rose peeked from under the Doctor’s coat, wondering how he withstood the cold and the immensity of the Andes.
Behind the other door lay a massive room full of decrepit beds. Rose wondered what cats would need beds for, but kept her thoughts to herself, concentrating on warding off the cold that was blasting from a massive keeling gap in the left-hand wall.
‘Can’t we go back to the TARDIS?’ Rose complained, as the Doctor strode up to the next door. ‘There obviously aren’t any cat people here.’
‘Never take that for granted.’ There was a hint of a cheeky smile on the Doctor’s face as he simultaneously echoed Rose’s words and sonicked open the locked door.
A gun swung up to point at the Doctor’s face.
‘What did I say?’ he quipped as the Lilulan emerged from the sealed chamber, cocking the gun.
Jimbob awoke with a slow, silent groan. He stretched his arms and legs, then shot out of bed. He pulled on his clothes and ran to the console room, chiding himself internally for over-sleeping, hoping the Doctor wouldn’t be angry... he shut up his deviant thoughts. This wasn’t a training camp. It was a group of friends travelling across the universe.
Keeping that in mind, he returned to his room and collected his gun. He was well aware that on almost every one of his travels it had come in handy. Plus he never felt quite whole without it strapped to his belt.
Having accomplished this, Jimbob left for the console room for a second time, shaking his head about the fact that he had almost forgotten the gun.
Strangely, the console room was deserted. The TARDIS hissed peacefully, the tick of cooling metal resounding under Jimbob’s feet. The ship was resting for some reason. Jimbob frowned. Where was he? It wasn’t possible for the TARDIS to rest while in the vortex: they must have landed.
The Doctor and Rose must be outside. They had left without him. Jimbob felt slightly annoyed. He decided to follow them, perhaps sneak up on them and give them a surprise as a bit of light revenge. He liked the thought, and grinned as he strode over to the console for confirmation.
His fingers hesitantly hovered over the keyboard recently connected to the monitor screen. Jimbob attempted to recall the TARDIS awakening code he Doctor had taught him. The sequence eluded him for a while, slipping through the nets of his bad memory, until a circuit was completed in his brain and he punched in: 617979.
Wobbling jets of steam punctured the grilled floor of the TARDIS from below as the machine rose from its mechanical slumber. Jimbob waved the little steam that drifted his way to one side, coughing dramatically. ‘Could you not do that?’ he demanded the ship. ‘It’s a bit theatrical.’
The screen flashed, as a message popped up. Jimbob read, So is your coughing. And waking me up for no reason.
‘It was for a very good reason, actually,’ Jimbob responded, placing his hands on his hips and staring up into the smoky green depths of the central column, finding the experience of communication with the TARDIS slightly unnerving. ‘I want to ask you a question. Did the Doctor and Rose leave those doors,’ he pointed at the exit, ‘earlier on?’
The ship’s humming increased in intensity and volume as, presumably, the TARDIS searched its in-built organic cameras for footage of its occupants departing. A whole minute passed before the TARDIS could confirm Jimbob’s suspicions. Another message popped up on the monitor screen. Simultaneously, a warm female voice dictated it inside his head. Yes.
Jimbob felt patronised. As if he couldn’t read three letters for himself. He decided to ignore it before the console started spitting sparks. ‘They left without me.’ He still couldn’t quite believe it. Wheverever they were parked at the moment must be incredibly interesting to have been able to lure the Doctor and Rose into leaving without their companion.
This is correct, the TARDIS assured him.
Jimbob rushed over to the coat stand, whipping his jacket over his shoulders. As he did so, he couldn’t help noticing that the doors hadn’t been properly closed.
Instantly, Jimbob’s soldier sense buzzed into life at the back of his neck, and crackled right down his spine like a string of electricity. ‘It shouldn’t be open.’
This is correct.
‘The Doctor and Rose did that as they left in a hurry,’ Jimbob pondered aloud, hesitating slightly before jumping back onto the main ramp and jogging up to the doors. This place had to be off the interesting scale.
‘We’re still there now,’ Jimbob smiled, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of setting foot in an exciting new landscape, and at the possibility of creeping up on the Doctor.
Jimbob’s hand plunged down to grasp the doorknob.
He wrenched it and leapt out of the newly opened doors.
Jimbob didn’t have sufficient time to process this information before a bolt of white light shot out of nowhere and whipped like a rope around his neck. The TARDIS doors slammed.
The rope of energy extended and, faster than lightning, coiled across his whole body. Jimbob reached for his gun and pulled it from its holster, the bones in his hand and arm moving automatically, a response to threat. The energy noose responded as well, tightening its grip. It squeezed his wrist so hard that his fingers slashed out. The gun slid down his slippery palm and plummeted down to a floor Jimbob couldn’t see.
What he could see, however, was the approach of a shape. A seven-foot high cylindrical shape which widened suddenly at the very top and very bottom. Attached to the bottom widening were ten skittering, crab-like mechanical legs. Around the circumference of the cylinder were arranged thirteen watery eyes.
The creature came to a halt near Jimbob, the suction pads at the ends of its crab legs spreading, acquiring a grip on whatever surface there was. Whatever surface... dully, Jimbob pulled his neck down. The energy strands loosened to make way for this action.
Then he realised there was no floor. He was floating on thin air. The only thing that stopped him from falling was the grip of the energy nexus, which suddenly seemed a whole lot more comforting.
At first, the Doctor dismissed the strange look of the Lilulan: after all, having a gun pointed at you and your best friend normally took precedence over appearances, at least, from the Doctor’s point of view. But when the Lilulan simply stood there and made no move to pull the trigger, he couldn’t help noticing that the creature was humanoid.
‘Did you nick this ship?’ the Doctor spoke cheekily. ‘Don’t blame you, I do it all the time. I nicked the one you must have seen me park a few minutes ago. The magic of cameras.’ A jagged frown creased the Lilulan’s feline face.
The Doctor grinned. As soon as Rose saw that grin she knew they were in trouble: even more trouble. ‘I’m rambling. Sorry.’ He ran a hand through his hair. The Lilulan’s gun arm shot up to cover even this tiny movement.
‘For heaven’s sake!’ the Doctor rolled his eyes. ‘It’s only hair, kitty-cat. I must remark, you’ve got more of it than me. Or is that fur? I never could tell the difference. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a furry or hairy monster pointing a gun at me, does it?’ His voice turned steely near the end. ‘Maybe you could put it down...’
Rose was silent and unmoving for two reasons. The first was that she knew the Doctor was an expert on distracting speeches and peace negotiations, and that if she intervened it would most likely mean their doom. The second was: if she moved, she would probably get even colder than she was now.
The Lilulan was bewildered. For what was intended to be a mere instant, its gun arm went slack and fell down to rest along the side of its black suit of battle armour. Its long neck tilted to one side, expressing its confusion. The disarming green eyes within the mass of long hair covering a slender face stared unblinkingly at the Doctor.
‘Very cute,’ the Doctor responded, flashing a smile at the creature. ‘Now, please let us in. It’s not especially warm here in the wrecked bedroom.’ He matched the Lilulan’s beguiling gaze.
‘Who are you?’ the Lilulan managed to form its first words to the pair, swinging its head back into the normal position. Its voice was soft and hard at the same time, like rippling fur. There was a distinct purring quality to it.
From behind the Doctor, Rose gave the Lilulan a sympathetic smile, as if saying she knew how the Doctor could be at times. ‘I’m Rose, and he’s the Doctor.’ She nudged him. ‘Why do I always have to do that bit?’
‘I thought this ship had a forcefield!’ the Lilulan’s tone changed to pure panic. It — not it, Rose realised, he, — disappeared into the room from which he had emerged. The Doctor followed him, and Rose, as usual, had to close the door behind them all.
‘Phew!’ the Doctor sighed appreciatively. ‘It’s hot in here!’ He threw off his tie, disregarding the fact that the outside world was at subzero temperatures. ‘Lots of engines cooking, I presume.’
Rose disliked appearing to copy the Doctor, but had to because, as usual, he was right. The room was boiling. She peeled away the Doctor’s coat and folded it carefully, before placing it on the floor.
The Lilulan ignored both of them, and studied a screen embedded in the centre of a control bank bristling with buttons and aerials. Another frown. ‘The forcefield’s holding.’
‘I expect it is.’
The Lilulan studied him with complete incomprehension. He spoke slowly, in a measured voice, all panic suppressed, his face moving from side to side as if he could prise answers from the Doctor that way. ‘But... how...’
The Doctor leaned back against a warm wall. ‘I’ve got this ship. Like I said, I nicked it... but that’s a long story. Anyway... it can... appear. Doesn’t move, just appears.’
‘You’re not a Timekeeper, are you?’ the Lilulan asked fearfully.
‘He’s a Time Lord,’ Rose informed the cat person, a hint of pride in her voice, which the Doctor did not miss. He suppressed a grin and checked his watch.
‘I do keep the time, but I’m not a Timekeeper, as in, capital T.’ He shook his head. ‘What, do I look like a cylinder?’
The Lilulan observed him with an odd expression for a moment, then shook his head. ‘Oh great.’ He fiddled sadly with the controls. ‘I got it wrong. Again. Always misjudging things. This planet’s obviously not a Level Five.’
It was the Doctor’s turn to frown. ‘No, it is a Level Five. Honest.’ Then he understood the Lilulan’s assumption. ‘I don’t live here! I’m just pass...’ he was interrupted by the gun swinging up once more to press against his cheek. Rose was shocked. She leapt up with a cry, but a second gun pushed her back. The weight of its nozzle on her unprotected neck filling her with terrible, sudden dread.
‘I’m going to have to kill you,’ the Lilulan said, real sorrow nestling at the back of his voice. ‘Even if you’re not Timekeepers, you’re in league with them. How else would Earthlings get aboard?’
‘No!’ the Doctor cried. Rose’s chin wobbled, her eyes darting. ‘I can explain! Everything!’
Except he couldn’t. Because he was no longer inside his own body.
A second, that was all it took. A second for his consciousness to slip down the barrel of the gun and into the advancing feline’s head. It was the Lilulan’s step forward that triggered it. That step brought the creature’s mind into contact with the Doctor’s own. A vast telepathic connection swelled between them.
And that was when the Doctor saw it.
TO BE CONTINUED...