There was no shortage of fires resulting from the madness the Master wrought from the sky. His exploits were written in flames that leaped a thousand feet high, or wildfires that sped like glowing worms across open plains, or infernos roiling in pits so hot that bedrock cracked and melted and flowed away. But Martha learned the secret of that double-edged sword. For every conflagration the Master ignited, there were a thousand more cook fires and campfires. And words traveled with every fire on Earth.
No matter how hard the Master tried to extinguish them, stories lived, as fickle and fierce as any flame. Martha's tale was not the only one; humanity was hard at work telling the legends of the Master's New Age. On her travels, Martha heard them all.
"The Army has a whole secret unit with headquarters under the Thames," a London urchin told her reverently. A window pane shattered from the battle outside in the street. He tugged her away from the scout fire and continued, "Gonna fight the Master with giant spiders. God's honest truth!"
In Glasgow, she shared a tent with four IT interns in the middle of a scorched server farm and heard the tale of the Dancing Sisters for the first time. "Nine of them! They just waltzed around the knives and laser blasts. Never missed a step, all the way out to sea."
Martha listened to every story. She scarcely believed a handful. The Thames Army was all the talk in Leeds again--that, and the phantom resistance cells pocked across the empty northern moors. It wasn't until she reached Preston that she heard tell of the Mad Motley Angler.
"Him in that coat--looks like the bloody Blackpool Belle, so they say. Surely it's to blend in with his surroundings! All the lights are still on at night. You can still see it from the boats if you go north."
In a gutted riverside warehouse, Martha was looking for passage to Ireland. She'd meant to travel the motorway down to the remaining docks at Southport, to secure a berth on a supply freighter bound for Dublin. But ports were always dangerous, full of spies and desperate souls out of land for running. And the captains of the big freighters were as likely to sell passengers as wares. A tenuous contact from Leeds had sent her to Nathan Hunt instead. He was a large, blunt-faced man who seemed to speak his every thought aloud. He wouldn't have looked out of place on a factory floor, but Martha was surprised to learn he'd been a biology teacher, before.
"Charlene saw him three weeks back when she come through that way," Nathan continued. "Didn't you, Char?"
The skinny woman sharing their fire shook her head. "Not me. My brother Gary, before he--" She stopped and scrubbed a hand at her cheek, deep set eyes hollowed in contrast to her high cheekbones, mussing a shock of dark eyebrows in an otherwise pale, bird-like face. There was no one else with them at the fire. "Gary caught a look at him. Said he were fishing off the Central Pier."
"My mate John Roland said he once saw the man spear twenty in one night!" Nathan boomed. "Twenty! What on Earth do you suppose he does with them?"
"Maybe he eats them," Charlene said flatly, her eyes never leaving the coffee pot percolating in the coals.
Martha turned away from the fire and watched the moonlight reflect off the river's surface. The night was still and calm, without even a summer breeze to ripple the light. Nathan had assured her there were private boatmen willing to take passengers northwest to the Isle of Man, and from there she could secure transport on to Belfast. But they'd been waiting three days, and supplies were dwindling. "Blackpool," she said, tightening her grip on her pack to stave off a shudder. She'd heard those stories too. "Who in their right mind would try to catch a fish anywhere near there?" she asked.
"Is anyone in their right mind these days?" Charlene didn't look up as she spoke.
Nathan Hunt just laughed. "Who said anything about fish?" He tore off a hard heel of bread and waved it generally westward as he spoke. "Whoever he is, the man's in Blackpool! He doesn't catch fish."
It was crazy to come, Martha figured. It was just a fantastic fairy tale. But twenty-four hours later, she found herself skirting the southern boundary of Blackpool.
The lights were visible long before they caught sight of the Central Pier, or even the Blackpool Tower. Since she'd left the Preston docks, Martha had scarcely seen a torch or gas lamp in a window. Batteries were too precious to waste on lights at night, and electricity attracted too much attention. Her guides--two Estonian teens, the survivors of a punk rock foursome whose new sound had been trumped on the Yorkshire music scene by Harry Saxon's apocalypse--took a list of guarded food caches with Martha's password as payment for their knowledge of the safest westward route, and traveled by starlight alone. Stars owned the night again, thousands more in the natural darkness than most anyone had ever seen. But now, still miles away in a maze of southern city blocks, Martha could see it: Blackpool's own light show cast a glow over the western seaside, like a full moon hovering just behind the highest buildings.
The sound crept up on them, subtler and more pervasive than the light. It started off as a tinny echo that caught up to them in odd corners and wide streets. Snatches of distant laughter reached their ears, with a glee almost childlike but for the undertones of malice. The ticking and clacking of a roller coaster winch was carried by the wind and made Martha's stomach churn, but there were no screams to follow, at least not this time. Instead, the chattering voices grew and coalesced like radio static as Martha and her companions approached the water, the sounds of tramcars and coasters subsumed by a malevolent buzz that seemed to spill out and fill every empty space.
Through gaps and alleyways Martha could make out the wreck of the South Pier, its struts jutting up from jagged ruins of buildings against the starlight. It was nothing but char and rust, hulked in the dark against the eerie northern glow. They turned a corner, nearly at the promenade edging the sea, and heard a chorus of shrieks echo above the growing background hum. Martha couldn't tell if they were vocal or metal, or something in between. Her guides had a rapid-fire conversation that she couldn't translate, and one boy slunk back over toward the safety of brick and concrete. She turned toward them. Nestled safely on its chain against her chest, the TARDIS perception filter key was growing warm.
"I can make my way from here," she said. "You've done more than enough getting me this far."
The boy who had initially retreated sagged in relief against a darkened doorway, but his companion stepped forward again.
"I'll go with you," he said. "Tomas is staying here, but we have come this far . . . I want to see."
"Please, Jaan--" the other boy started, but Jaan just shook his head.
"Don't be so scared! It's just--"
A screech whistled above them--the sound of tight maneuvers at high speed--and all three travelers instinctively ducked. When the danger passed, Martha drew a pair of binoculars from her pack. "Just to the promenade," she hissed. It was only a few blocks away. Jaan nodded, and they set out from among the buildings onto the last set of streets between them and the sea. Martha held out her hand as they walked into the open, and for all his bravado, the boy took it without hesitation.
When the Central Pier came into view, so did the swarm.
Above the garishly bright outlines of the tower, ferris wheel and marquees was a glinting silver cloud. Like a school of fish swimming in the air, it writhed above the boards, clacking and shrieking with the combined voice of thousands upon thousands of toclafane.
The grip tightened on Martha's hand. "Mu Jumal," Jaan breathed. "So many."
For all their wanton cruelty, the cybernetic spheres were easy enough to understand. They followed their Master's lead as the ultimate sadistic thrill seekers, so it made a perverse kind of sense that when offered the run of the Earth, they gravitated toward the theme parks and other tourist traps. News spread, and people learned to keep a fair distance. Prisoners and passers-by dwindled, families fled even the outlying areas until entire counties were derelict but for the alien swarms. No one came here if they had any sense of self-preservation.
"There's the promenade." Martha pointed ahead, and they set off again.
They crept up to the edge of the causeway and laid out low on the wide concrete steps separating it from the beach berms. Martha took out her binoculars, leaning up on her elbows. She took a breath, and brought the pier into focus through the lenses. Up close, the swarm was still hard to separate, but she could pick out some individuals as they dipped among the high structures. The bright lights masked the damage at a distance, but through the binoculars, Martha could make out how the buildings were slashed, burned in places, falling inward. The ferris wheel spun erratically, spurred by the attack of hundreds of tiny saws and laser blasts. The toclafane were no less violent among themselves, for lack of human victims, and the swarm screeched with cruel laughter amid the clash of metal on metal in mid-air.
"What can you see?" came the whisper at her side.
"Toclafane," Martha said, distracted. She scanned the pier, end to end. There was no sign of anything except the metal monsters. "Just them, everywhere--"
"No, there! Look!" Jaan hissed at her ear. Martha dropped the binoculars and sat up on her knees, following his pointing finger. She blinked for a moment, and then saw it--a flickering blue line, like the cables of lights that criss-crossed the streets, but strung up. Right into the middle of the swarm.
"What on Earth?" Martha said. She repositioned the binoculars and found the line again, searching for the end in the silver throng. Several spheres were circling it, pushing and jostling each other, their tools out and testing the line. Bright blue shocks of light traveled down to the ground every time they made contact. As she watched, two of the spheres suddenly shoved a third one right into the line's path. The blue flicker flared white when it hit the toclafane's casing, and held fast to it. Its saw blades died and its lasers retracted. As its traitorous brethren darted away in the air, the snared toclafane jerked and struggled but was drawn inexorably downward toward the pier.
Martha traced the view back toward the ground, but that end was obscured among the buildings. Jaan tapped her shoulder and she wordlessly handed him the binoculars, just as the line disappeared. Another flash, and it unfurled up into the air again, dull blue cast into the swarm.
"Fishing!" Jaan said, staring through the lenses, awestruck. "For those monsters!"
Martha had heard the story, but she realized that up until that very moment, she hadn't really let herself believe it. She was ten paces out onto the promenade before Jaan called out to her. She turned around. He was crouched on the stairs; she could see the glint of the binoculars as he held them at his side.
"You said we would go just to the promenade," he said.
"I said that's as far as you should go," she told him. She turned back toward the pier, the swarm shimmering in the air in front of her.
Three steps later a hand took her by the forearm; Jaan was beside her again. "You can't mean to go closer. It's suicide!"
"I'll be all right." The key hung around her neck was growing still warmer, and Martha clutched it through her worn flannel shirt. "I have some protection. A kind of shield against the toclafane. They never really notice me. And if there's someone out there . . . " She didn't finish the thought aloud. She didn't know what else to say except, I have to find them.
"Martha--" Jaan started, but she stilled him with a look. She wrapped her hand over his, pressing the binoculars further into his grip.
"Keep these if you like. Head back to Tomas when you've seen enough of the fishing."
"But--" Jaan stuttered and stopped himself. His next words were so quiet she almost missed them. "What about your plan? Your story?"
Martha looked him up and down, this boy far from home in tattered jeans and a t-shirt that had long since devolved from 'grunge chic' into the real thing. He had come here following a fairy tale, same as she had. He and Tomas had listened well to her story about the Doctor, and Martha could tell, despite his rebellious and jaded persona, Jaan would be chanting the Doctor's name with them all, if he lived to see the inception of the Archangel project.
"It's not my story," she said. "It's yours. And it's more important than anything else. Keep telling it, to everyone you meet. I have to go."
Jaan clutched the binoculars but obediently hung back, eyeing the safety of the far buildings as the dull buzz of the swarm swelled in their ears.
It was crazy to come, and crazy to keep going, but Martha set off again down the promenade into the centre of Blackpool.
Using the perception filter so blatantly was terrifying. The closer she approached, the hotter the TARDIS key blazed through her thin undershirt. Martha had to fight her instincts to run, forcing herself to walk calmly down the empty street as the metal monsters swooped and screamed all around her. Up close, the gaudy light strings were pocked with holes from broken and missing bulbs. Her boots crunched over broken glass with every step, the sound swallowed by the ever-present shrieking from above. She couldn't look up and instead stared resolutely ahead. In her dark traveling clothes, she felt naked and exposed in the glare. If she were to stop and think about what she was doing for more than two seconds, she was sure she'd be frozen in fear.
Instead, she focused on her destination. Twice more as Martha approached, a line was cast up and a struggling catch was reeled in. The casts stopped coming when Martha was still on the promenade, but she had seen enough to trace the source to a kiosk that sat out in the middle of the pier. She came up to the theater facing the causeway, the swarm howling above her like a roiling ocean. The theater marquee was still lit, proclaiming CENTRAL PIER in swirling orange and purple lettering. The building's edges were pocked with thousands of dents and scars.
Martha skirted the edge of the theater out onto the pier itself. The spheres swooped lower and more dangerously close to her out on the boards, and she had to stay close to the walls of what remained. She edged out onto the planks, following the low building that housed the carnival games--ring toss, darts, milk bottles set up in deceptively sturdy pyramids. Her hands trailed the walls and the countertops of each bay. They're all rigged, her father never forgot to tell her. Don't let the stall workers bully you into wasting your money. The roof had caved in, and what was left of the brightly colored game paraphernalia was strewn about in the bays, burned and ruined and frighteningly stained. There were no more stall workers now; the toclafane had made their own games.
At the far end of the building, the kiosk came into view, perhaps fifteen paces out on to the open pier. Martha steeled herself for a look and started off for it. It was round, maybe eight feet in diameter, housing what used to be a service platform for information pamphlets and tickets. No glass remained in its windows. The door had been wrenched off its hinges and was lying on the ground. She stepped over it and looked inside, only to see empty shelves overturned on a pile of debris. There was no sign of anyone, and no movement except for her and the swarm.
"Hello?" Martha called tentatively. She blinked and looked again, but the kiosk was still empty.
She let out a breath and sank against the doorway, eyes closed, head thunking back against the doorframe, before collecting herself and looking across the pier again for places someone could hide out. The theater was her best bet, and she turned around and started heading back in that direction. She would be glad to get off the pier. It was stupid to come out this far anyway--
She had barely reached the nearest of the gaming bays when a horrific noise screamed across the pier, the sound like a bellows straight from the furnace of hell. A swirling wind picked up from nowhere around her, whipping up sand and shards of glass, sending the toclafane scattering above with an inhuman roar. The boards under her feet rattled in loose fittings; the support struts beneath them rumbled and shook. Martha caught herself against the countertop of the nearest open bay and held on, images of the ruined South Pier fresh in her mind--twisted metal and huge splintered planks. She gritted her teeth but couldn't stop the scream that forced its way up out of her chest.
There were two more great wheezing groans before the noise and movement subsided, nearly as quickly as it had started. Panting for breath, Martha found her feet again and stood, legs wobbling, blinking grit out of her streaming eyes. The sounds of the swarm were muted above; whatever had just rattled Martha must have sent them momentarily farther up into the sky.
When the blurred images of the pier finally came into focus again, she found herself staring eye level at a hovering sphere, five feet in front of her.
"Pretty meat doll," it chirped, and Martha froze. One hand clamped around the shelf of the bay behind her, she slowly brought the other to her chest. The TARDIS key, that had been blazing through the layers of her undershirt, flannel and jacket, was now ice cold.
The toclafane spun lazily on an oblique axis, and centered itself again. "Soft human," it said, unseen gears clacking and whirring beneath its shell. "Pretty prize!" Two more tumbled down from above to join it, tittering, repeating the broken phrases of the first.
"What prize inside?"
The crowd swelled, chirping and laughing. The voices blended together with the roar in her ears and the sounds of saws, spinning out from fine slits in the spheres like CDs ejected from laptop computers. Martha shrank away and lost her footing, falling backward against the countertop. Don't let them bully you--her father's words hammered in her thoughts like a bird trapped against glass. They're all rigged. Shells tinked together as the growing mass bumped and jostled. Sparks flew. Petulant screams joined the laughter, the words barely intelligible.
"A new game!"
She should be braver than this, she thought. She was Martha Jones. She was going to save the world. Only she couldn't stop the spinning dizziness in her head, like being flung around in a carnival ride. She couldn't get her feet to move.
"MY prize! MY prize!" shrieked the leader, and surged forward.
Don't let them--
A flash-crack split the air around her, bright on bright. The hair on her arms stood up and before she shut her eyes, Martha saw a blue glow engulf the leader's metal shell, sparking out among the crowd. Then an iron grip took hold of her wrist and yanked her up to her feet.
"For God's sake," a voice urged as she was pulled away from the wall. "Run!"
Terror's paralysis was broken in an instant, and Martha Jones didn't need to be told twice.