Deep Focus

by Pete Galey [Reviews - 3]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Drama, General, Mystery

Author's Notes:
See Prologue.

Travelling through the time vortex in the jade pagoda was a weird feeling. To Chris it was like being on a strange fairground ride as a kid, like the ghost train. He felt it in the pit of his stomach; not quite a queasiness, more a weightlessness. They could see the undulating shapes faintly through the translucent walls of the craft. No dimensional transcendence here. They really were shooting down a wormhole in a box. A box that looked very fragile. Roz looked drawn and as if she might throw up, so Chris kept her talking. The Doctor had said the journey might be anything from twenty minutes to half a day, time being annoyingly relative in this universe.

"You trust him, don't you?"

"Of course," said Roz, gripping the console tightly.

"No, I mean, implicitly. You're not wary of him like the rest of us."

"He's a good guy. He does what's right."

"Even if that means hurtling across the cosmos in a little Chinese hut?"

"We're doing this willingly."

"I know, but... with you and him, it's different. He respects you more."

"Does he?" Roz said with a half-smile. "I haven't noticed."

"Yeah," said Chris. "You're special to him. It must be the age thing."

She smiled, broader this time. Chris loved to make Roz smile, even if it meant teasing her.

They hit a rocky bit and Chris gripped the console as tightly as Roz did. Somehow the pagoda knew which way gravity was supposed to go, but that didn't stop the ride from having the occasional dip and spin that only happened in the TARDIS when something was going wrong. Eventually they decided to sit on the floor until they got their sea-legs.

Something about the movement must have lulled them to sleep, as they both awoke with a start an indeterminate amount of time later. The swirls of the vortex were replaced by a constant light and the box felt as if it were stationary. They struggled to their feet.

"Well," said Roz, "I guess we've landed. I don't suppose this thing'll tell us whether it's hospitable out there?"

"The Doctor never worries about that in the real TARDIS," said Chris reasonably. "It'll be the death of him one day. Let's leave the bar thing here for the moment and explore."

But when they looked around they saw the bar had disappeared. They searched for it, but the space was so enclosed that that there was simply nowhere it could be. Had someone stolen it while they slept? If so, how?

Well, nothing they could do about it for the moment. They had no choice but to see where they had landed. Chris pushed the doors open and strode out onto solid ground.

"Terra firma," said Roz. "Well, something firma anyway."

* * *

This could be anywhere.

The planet they were on was recognisable as a terraformed human colony; it had grass, it had trees, it had birds. The only thing that told them it wasn't just Earth was the sun, which appeared to be some kind of elongated shape, like a glowing lozenge in the sky. Chris suggested the world might have a binary star system, and that seemed plausible, the twin stars close enough from their point of view to appear to form a single source of light. Certainly they didn't feel in any danger — the air wasn't poisoning them, at least not instantly, and the gravity felt pretty regular.

Adjudicator training gave them several options as to how to conduct the search for the TARDIS, and they spent a moment discussing which to use. They could split up and cover the distance quicker, which was good if you were sure you could handle any hostility you encountered, but they didn't have that luxury. Nor did they have any hints as to where the TARDIS might be, or a map of the topology of the area. They eventually decided to stay together, reasoning that as the TARDIS travelled in time, it didn't really matter how long it took them to find it as long as they eventually did and could set a course to arrive back at the house shortly after they left. Chris suggested finding the highest point they could — the area seemed quite hilly — and that might give them enough of a vantage point to spot the TARDIS, or at least if not, to sketch a rough map of the area and decide where might be the most fruitful avenue for further exploration. Assuming the TARDIS had been stolen by an antagonistic person or group, they might be best off looking for signs of civilisation.

They spent an hour walking towards the highest hill they could see, taking a variety of badly maintained roads and dirt tracks. Very occasionally they saw signs of life, vehicles travelling this way and that. They tended to be large lorry-like things, a design they'd never seen before but similar enough to trucks to suggest they were transporting a lot of material around here. Perhaps they were near the heart of an industrial complex.

They kept their full Adjudicator gear on, despite the likelihood that in this time and place it wouldn't inspire the instant respect it was supposed to. They both felt more comfortable with their armour and gown on, as if they could tackle anything that came at them. But it began to feel unnecessary, as their trek up the hill resulted in no sudden attacks. Once they saw what looked like a helicopter flying off into the distance, but that was about it.

When they got to the top of the hill, however, they hit paydirt. They found themselves staring down into a valley surrounded on all sides by similar sized hills. And in the valley was the first major sign of humanity: hundreds of imposing concrete buildings fenced by a ring of metal and with various signs dotted around, no doubt warning of the dire consequences of unauthorized entry. Surely if the TARDIS were anywhere, it would be in there.

"So, what do we do?" asked Chris as they scanned the area with their binoculars from the safety of a clump of bushes.

"Undercover infiltration?" Roz said.

"Risky. We know nothing about this society, or even what this place is for. We'd be found out pretty quickly."

"Find a contact and get the information we need?"

"But how?"

"I don't know. We'll know better after some reconnaissance. I suggest we leave our Adjudicator gear here except for our blasters and scanning gear. We'll descend into the valley, you circle round clockwise, I'll go counter-clockwise. We should record anything interesting and meet up there." Roz pointed straight ahead of them, across the valley, to a gap between two distant hills. Trees sporadically dotted the bottoms of the hills. "A little way into the wood. Things we're looking for: gaps in security, how regular patrols seem to be, the languages used on signs, any clue as to what the nature of this place is, military, scientific, etc. If anything should happen to one of us and we don't make it round, the other should continue the circle to see what might have happened."

"Good." They stripped down to the non-descript grey tunics under their armour and left their cloaks and armour under the bushes, stuffing tech gear into the pockets of their cargo pants. The noontime heat of the twin suns was making them both sweat anyway; it was nice to feel the cool breeze on their skin. They checked their blasters, estimated a reasonable rendezvous time, and each made their way down into the valley.

* * *

The lettering on the first sign that Chris saw was familiar: the Roman alphabet, albeit with a few extra characters here and there. The wording looked like it had evolved from English, too; he could almost recognise the grammar and spelling of certain familiar words. Perhaps the pagoda was trying its best to translate for him subconsciously as the TARDIS often did, or perhaps not, but either way it should be possible to decipher the wording. He secreted himself behind a tree at some distance and took a photograph. He looked at the image on the screen — it wasn't high quality at this distance, but good enough. He took out his stylus and made a few annotations, identifying words that looked like they had evolved from English participles, articles and pronouns. After a few moments he could begin to guess what might be verbs and nouns, and made a first stab at translation. This was the sort of thing he wouldn't ordinarily have to do as an Adjudicator — simply take the image back to the precinct and feed it into the computer and within seconds it would have completely deciphered the message and had a credible stab at positing other evolutionary features to assist with further translation. But luckily this task didn't seem too hard. When he'd done as much as he could, he read the whole thing.

"Warning! Government something facility. Trespassers will be dealt with using some kind of sharp or pointy thing. Danger of radiation poisoning. ID cards must be carried at all times."

He continued to make his way around the edge of the facility. So far he'd seen no people, or aliens, or robots, or indeed any signs of life. From their vantage point on the hill, however, it had looked like there were two entrances, one at either side; so he should be coming round to one shortly. As he continued his trek he began to hear distant barking. Well, he thought, they have dogs on this world. And before long, he saw them, and they apparently sensed him, as they were straining at the leashes that kept them tied to the side of a building a few metres inside the fence. Chris retreated a little way up the hill before anyone was alerted to his presence by the reaction of the dogs. Taking out his binoculars, he saw the dogs calm a little, but then a door opened in the side of the building and a human, a man in some kind of uniform came out, holding a long stick with a curved blade on the end. "Oh," mumbled Chris to himself, "it's a scythe."

* * *

Roz had barely made it around the first corner when she saw a vehicle driving up to the fence in the distance. She took out her binoculars and looked at it. It was similar to the trucks they'd seen on the way, and had a design on the side, some kind of logo. A skull and crossbones inside concentric red circles, like a target. She shivered. Why did places like this never have nice cute logos?

She saw someone get out of the vehicle and walk up to the fence. The person was humanoid and female, and looked to be in her forties. She was doing something that was obscured from Roz's point of view, so she quietly jogged a little closer, as close as she dared. She soon saw that the truck had pulled up at the main entrance to the facility, and the person was negotiating entry.

This was a golden opportunity to find out more, perhaps by sneaking into the back of the vehicle. But Roz knew that would be reckless. They didn't know the nature of the threat, and she would likely miss her rendezvous with Chris and force him to come looking for her, perhaps exposing himself to danger. So she stayed where she was for a moment. She was rewarded for her prudence with a surprising piece of good luck — when the woman got back into the lorry she dropped what looked like a small piece of paper from her clipboard, silently stolen by a sudden gust of wind. Roz prayed that the woman wouldn't notice, and she didn't, closing the door behind her and slowly driving through the now-open gate. Roz waited until the vehicle had vanished and the gate closed before moving any closer.

It was a risk to go so close to the gate — there might be cameras or other sensors — but that piece of paper could prove invaluable. She inwardly debated whether to go get it, and decided that she had to. It might even be some kind of ID paper that would help with them infiltrating the base. She had to risk it.

Blaster at the ready, all her senses alert, she crept up towards the gate. There was no visible sign of any security, no cameras or guards or anything. That in itself made her more suspicious, not less. Anyway, she was barely a metre away from the dropped paper by now, and it was pointless turning back. She reached out and took it, smoothly beginning to retreat in the same motion, back up towards the safety of the hills. When she was a reasonable distance from the fence, she first took out her camera and photographed the front of the facility. The same logo was prominently displayed, as was a sign that said, in reasonably recognisable letters, "DWP".

The paper looked like a delivery manifest. She couldn't read it very clearly, but the layout seemed to itemize parts down the left side and corresponding numbers, perhaps quantities or prices, down the right side. She could decipher the delivery address at the top, however. "The Demonic Weapons Programme." OK, so the word "The" was spelled "Ta" and "Programme" was spelled with a couple of funny letters she hadn't seen before, but there was no mistaking the central two words. Demonic Weapons. Not a bad description of the things they'd experienced when they'd ventured out of the Allen Road house's front gate.

Roz decided to continue round to meet Chris, now convinced that whoever had done whatever was done to the house and stolen the TARDIS was inside this facility, and perhaps the TARDIS itself was, too.