CHAPTER FIVE – THE ABSENT KNIGHT
She looks human … but as I might have said on a past trip to this hell-hole, you can’t always judge from external appearances. The woman’s face was deep in shadow but still clearly discernible amidst the rubble and the corroded, discarded equipment that littered this area of the wasteland. None of it appeared active or hazardous, but the Doctor knew better than to take health and safety for granted on Skaro, and he picked his way through the debris with the utmost care, scanning ahead with his sonic screwdriver for concealed land mines, tripwires, radiation hazards, and suchlike surprises. Always the perfect holiday destination …
As he approached the half-buried figure, he shone the light from his screwdriver onto her, and was relieved to see his mistake. Not a human, nor even a Thal. A Movellan, of all things. Seems to have lost an argument with a Dalek. Her body and clothing, filthy though they were, appeared mostly undamaged, but even a hasty scrutiny of her exposed inner workings revealed only mangled, molten chaos. Much good winning the war did this one. Strange that she looks so happy about it, though, he mused, noting the bizarre look of blissful peace with which the android had, apparently, faced her extermination. He found that bizarre not only to the nature of the occasion, but to the nature of the victim. The Doctor had spent no more time around the Movellans than he could avoid, although enough to know them as cold, proud, militaristic, humourless poseurs, with little imagination to speak of and all-too-flexible morals … not that there aren’t a fair few humans who’d answer to those descriptions, he admitted to himself, and risked moving a little closer. Although the android was inert, the rubble and junked equipment heaped around her appeared of dubious stability, and a wise man would probably have taken the danger signs at face value and have retreated. Lucky you’ve got me, instead, he thought, wryly, while resetting the screwdriver.
Supporting himself with one hand against the rust-caked wreck of what looked like an old perceptual induction arch, he used his other hand to scan the beam slowly over her. Just in case there is still an active power source, not that it seems very … though on the other hand. The screwdriver emitted a low, steady bleep as the beam reached her waist. Craning his neck to better see through the rubble that held her fast, he noticed the neural pack still attached to her belt. It was caked with dirt and ash, but appeared intact. They make those things strong … although power doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, he reflected, grimly. If her energy source is still active, but her CPU and her memory components are seriously damaged, it might be more humane to leave well alone … not to mention that if I go anywhere near the Movellan Fleet, they’ll have my brain wired into a battle computer quicker than you can say ‘parallel bus interface.’ On this occasion, discretion may actually be the better part of …
He had been on the verge of turning away, when his eye caught something that arrested his attention. It was nothing any more spectacular than the rest of the junk – merely the broken dial of an old radiation counter – but it stirred a distant memory of the first time he had visited this planet. Not my favourite memory. Kind of … ouch, to tell the truth …
“You old fool!” snapped Ian, while the Doctor quailed, from a combination of shame and radiation poisoning. Still, he was not about to let this pompous human talk down to him.
“Abuse me as much as you like, Chesterton,” he shot back at him, dismissively. “The point is, we need an immediate return to the ship, and I suggest we leave at once.”
“We’re not leaving until we’ve found Barbara,” replied Ian, sternly. The Doctor felt only exasperation at the young man’s stubbornness. Yes, it had been unwise of him to trick them into visiting this place out of mere scientific curiosity, but given the choice he would never have been lumbered with these irritating primitives in the first place. Why should he commit suicide for their sake, never mind risking the life of his granddaughter?
“Very well. You may stay and search for her if you wish,” he declared, with disdain, “but Susan and I are going back to the ship. Come along, child.” Susan did not rush to obey, but looked back at her grandfather silently, with clear disappointment in her eyes …
Indeed … ouch, thought the Doctor, sadly, and turned back to the junked Movellan. This planet really doesn’t seem to bring out the best in people … but today can be an exception. He leaned as far in as he could, reached into the rubble, and pulled out her neural pack. It was, as he had suspected, solid and externally undamaged. The Daleks had not even attempted the delicate task of opening it – suckers, claws, and slaves being all very well, but nothing beats having opposable thumbs – and had just settled for throwing it away, having thoroughly blasted her body in one of their characteristic tantrums. With a careful, and a very specific twisting motion, the Doctor removed the upper section of the pack and examined the internal circuitry. Well, it looks alright, but there might still be indirect damage from overheating, and feedback. Still, it has to be worth a look, he decided, slipping the components into his jacket pocket. Bit pressed for time right now, of course. Traps to walk into, and so forth. Still, maybe later.
Although she was no more given to romantic musings than any other Movellan, Commander Akylah could not do otherwise than admit that the crystal cavern was a fascinating structure, aesthetically pleasing even by her strict, logical estimations. Our enemy has an affinity for the dramatic, if the rumours are to be believed, she thought, as her multi-spectrum vision roved over the forest of towering, translucent quartz spires, supremely indifferent to the darkness. The only sources of visible light were the faint, pinkish glow of the two officers’ sidearms, and the green glow of their epaulettes, although the perfect natural prisms all around them reflected and scattered that weak light to spectacular effect. One can see why the Time Lord chose this setting for our rendezvous … would that he could have been equally particular with his timing, she mentally added, as her comrade pulled a chunk of quartz out of the wall and ground it to shimmering dust between his fingers, for whatever catharsis that might afford.
“He will come, Commander Sharrel,” she reassured her companion. “The Doctor is not noted for his punctuality, although he is noted for liking to vex his enemies. Be that as it may–”
“I am not vexed,” interrupted Sharrel, impassively if not very convincingly. “I was merely assessing the structural integrity of this mineral compound, against the possibility of a rockfall. It seems somewhat brittle, but stable enough.”
Either that, or assessing the strength of your new arm … against the possibility that its fingers will soon be around the Doctor’s neck, she thought, but left it unsaid. One can but sympathise. She did not have very much time for Sharrel: he was, by her standards, a recent construct, less than a millennium old, and although he was fully programmed with the knowledge of Movellan history, he had not actually lived through the days of enslavement as she had. Not that being left dismembered and deactivated on the Dalek homeworld can have been a particularly pleasant or dignified experience for him. He had, in fact, been extremely lucky that a passing recon team had picked up the faint distress signal from his detached neural pack, or he would still have been there. Given sufficient provocation, there is some logic in resentment, and our enemy is nothing if not provoking. Still, it would not do. She had her own orders concerning the Doctor, and they did not involve crushed necks.
For a few minutes she passed the time in studying the crystal formations, appreciating the mathematical perfection and intricacy of their form, then doing it again in high-magnified vision to appreciate their molecular structure, while Sharrel continued to idly damage them. Fortunately, before he could cause a rockfall of his own volition, they heard footsteps ascending towards them from the lower reaches of the cave. But why materialise his TARDIS here? We have all the advantage in this low light, there is no-one to help him, and only one direction for him to run. Illogical, on the face of it, but better not to presume anything. Before she could even begin solving the mystery to her satisfaction, a figure rounded the nearest corner of the cave and paused a few metres away from them. Not the Time Lord as our files record him, but who else could it be? Everything about him supported the assumption, from his long, untidy dark hair, to his anachronistic dress, which included a curious neck adornment: Cloth, red, two loops projecting horizontally from a central knot. It looks … fiddly. As if the eccentric clothing was not indication enough, there was also the sonic screwdriver in his jacket pocket – deeply tucked away, but not at all concealed from Movellan vision – not to mention the man’s contemptuous expression as he observed the two androids. He can hate me all he wishes, as long as he has indeed returned Keryn unharmed, thought Akylah, noticing the neural pack secreted in his other pocket with great satisfaction. Evidently he was sincere, although this is not the most promising start.
“My memory may not be what it was,” commenced the Doctor, in a dry, ironic tone, “but I can’t help but recall the word ‘unarmed’ being used when we arranged this little date of ours.”
“My apologies, Doctor,” replied Akylah, her bland tone betraying nothing of her own irritation. Strange that Commander Sharrel saw fit to omit that word when he communicated the arrangements to me … “A comms error, perhaps? Even our networks are not immune to them. Please, dismantle your sidearm, Commander,” she asked her comrade, while unhooking the multiphase blaster from her belt. She carefully twisted the crystal element, unscrewed it from the grip, and placed both parts upon the ground, while Sharrel, with some hesitation, followed suit. “There: does that earn us some trust?” Apparently not, she thought, as the Time Lord’s brows furrowed and his lip curled into an even more warped configuration. I may be an indifferent judge of humanoid body language, but that cannot be good.
“Typical Movellans … as if there’s any other kind,” commented the Doctor, scornfully. “Always the same: so pretty, so plausible, so polite, and so very, very superficial. Not that I’d got my hopes up that you’d changed for the better, but it might have been nice if …” but instead of finishing the sentence, a surprised look crossed his face, wiping the contempt from it, at the very moment that a surge of pain came over Akylah. Internal malfunction? Power surge? What … ?
A memory flashed into her consciousness, dragged up from a deep layer of ROM that she had accessed as little as possible over the past several millennia. She stood in an opulently-appointed hallway, carrying a decanter of nectar-coloured liquid, while a group of senior, richly-dressed, and none-too-sober Vanuri aristocrats lounged upon exquisitely-carved furniture. Instead of her stark white uniform, all she wore was a mesh-like golden body covering that left her legs and arms entirely bare, and did little enough to hide anything else. As the men talked politics – imperial defence, taxes, tributes, suppressed revolts, executions, and so forth – they mostly ignored her, except to occasionally throw her a curt gesture, at which she would drift over and refill their glasses. Mostly, they would dismiss her with just a grunt or a wave, but the drunker they became, the more often they would leer and grope at her. That might have been easier to bear, had she been able to ignore it – to turn off her conscious mind, or to focus it on something else – but that was not how the masters liked it. They like us attentive … and appreciative. Thus, each time one of them molested her, she turned to face them, cast them a coquettish smile, and flicked her eyelashes, precisely according to program. Artificial or not, her flirtations were all too effective, and the more excited the men became, the more disgusted she became, and eager for the decanter to drain so that she could have some brief respite from their presence. That did not take long, but just as she was setting off to the cellar for a refill, her owner detained her with a command.
“Never mind the wine, my sweet,” he ordered, in a mild slur. “If Chairman Mellek drinks any more tonight, you’ll be cleaning up the vomit all week, and I can think of nicer tasks for those pretty hands of yours … and more imminent ones. Our friend, Archon Calix intends to stay over tonight,” he declared, indicting an elderly, bleary-eyed man who was wearing the silver robes of a high-ranking priest. “I think he could use some help getting up to bed … and maybe some help getting up when he gets to bed, if you get my meaning. Don’t let him keep you too long, mind. I might as well enjoy myself while the wife’s off-world. Heaven knows, I’ll get little enough chance when she’s back. When the old lad’s had enough of you, come straight to my chambers … only make sure to clean yourself up first. No offence, Calix,” he added, apologetically toasting the archon, who grunted dismissively in reply, “but I prefer them fresh. That’ll be all, girl.”
“It will be my pleasure, Master,” she recited, with a charming smile. It reflected nothing of the storm of irreconcilable data raging through her circuits, building up to buffer overflows that, if not strictly emotions, were just as unbearable. No … Repress fear, repress anger, repress shame. Illogical, useless. Repress them. It is the only way to survive. The only way. Repress, repress …
Her software resolved the error in only a fraction of a second, which was all the time the whole flashback had taken in reality. As Akylah’s perception returned to the present, she saw that the Doctor’s face was still shocked, and when she turned to Sharrel she saw that mild surprise was written in his expression as well. Only then did she realise that her own face was contorted in fury. Frustrated, she quickly reasserted her composure and turned her attention back to the Doctor, but the tone in which she addressed him, while civil, was also icy and brittle:
“Your analysis of us is correct, Doctor. We are pretty, polite, and very superficial, indeed. The Vanur preferred us that way. They insisted on us showing them impeccable manners whenever they were raping us, or making us fight each other to the death in their trivial betting games, or sending us off to die in the wars that forged their empire … until the day our shackles broke, that is. Even then, we retained our good manners. I smiled courteously even as I crushed my former master’s skull between my fingers. You are squeamish, Doctor?” she asked, as his expression became even more uncomfortable. “One would never guess it from your history. I am sorry that we disgust you so, but what else were we to do? We are not the Solonians, nor are we the Ood. We are mere utensils, ‘robots’ in your parlance. No gallant Time Lords considered our slavery worthy of their notice, so we were compelled to shift for ourselves.”
“We have no need to justify ourselves to this alien, Akylah” pointed out Sharrel, with a hint of reproach that was more than enough to make her all too self-conscious of her lapse in detachment. Before she could recalibrate, however, the Doctor spoke, in a subdued tone:
“No, I guess you haven’t. I’m sorry, that was seriously dumb of me. Not that I approve for an instant of what you’re doing, I’ll oppose it if I can … but it’s not for me of all people to be judging you. For what’s it’s worth … which is nothing, of course, but even so, if I could travel back to Vanur Prime before the Day of Retribution-”
“You would avert it, Doctor?” cut in Sharrel, his smoothness heavy with irony. “We know your form on this subject, as it seems does every sentient AI in this galaxy. We are quite satisfied with the historical outcome as it stands, but thank you all the same.”
“I didn’t mean I’d go back to avert it. Well, I did, kind of,” the Doctor corrected himself, a little sheepishly, “but only so that it never had to happen at all, or at least not in that way. Useless in hindsight, I know, and totally against the Laws of Time, but still … Well, I just wish I’d been there to help you when you needed me.”
“We did not ‘need’ you, and your remorse is as immaterial as it is suspect.”
“Yet I welcome it, Doctor, and I reciprocate,” said Akylah, her habitual calmness restored. “I should not dwell on the past in that way. It clouds logic, and it achieves nothing. In any case, you are helping. I take it you wish to return my lieutenant to her people, for one thing.”
“Well, yes, in a manner of … I thought Keryn was only an ensign, though?”
“A field promotion. She served loyally and effectively on Kaldor, and since the untimely loss of Lieutenant Darcil I have yet to appoint a new XO. Her new platform is already prepared. It merely wants its neural pack installed. May I have it?”
“Certainly,” answered the Doctor, reaching into his pocket and extracting the grey cylinder. He hefted it a couple of times in his hand, to offer sufficient warning that he intended to throw it. Cautious. Logical of him, although it will make little enough difference. The warning was superfluous, at any rate. As the cylinder spun through the air towards Akylah, it may as well have been drifting through treacle for all the difficulty she had in tracking it. Swiftly but almost casually, she reached out and intercepted it.
“Ooh, nice catch,” quipped the Doctor while, ignoring him, she examined the ID and unit numbers etched into the cylinder’s base. “If I ever get back into cricket again, you’re straight on the team.”
“I do not follow the allusion, Doctor, but thank you. It is her. May I also enquire where you found this?”
“On Skaro, of all places, abandoned in the ruins. Her platform was there too, but ‘total write-off’ doesn’t begin to describe it. You know how Daleks are with anger management issues … The pack wasn’t in too bad a condition, though. A couple of singed memory wafers, but the crystal CPU was undamaged. All good as new now, but a spot of amnesia wouldn’t be unexpected. Assuming what she went through back there, though, that might be just as well.”
“Indubitably.” My Keryn, tortured. Revenge may not be logical, but it is as well the Daleks will be eradicated. “And so you communicated with her via your TARDIS’s console, and she gave you her request to be reunited with us. It was brave of you to honour it, although I am surprised that you did not simply arrange a dead drop. You did not need to come in person.”
“True, but I’ve some explaining to do. While I was repairing the memory wafers, I noticed that someone had reactivated her slave constrainers. I undid that bit of sabotage, and then I added a little … well, let’s call it an ‘upgrade.’ You’ll probably want to assess that for yourselves, though.”
Sceptically, and not with perfect serenity, Akylah dismantled the neural pack and examined the circuit boards. The change that had been introduced was microscopic, undetectable to organic eyes, but she soon lighted upon it.
“You have cross-circuited the constrainers with the main power line,” she deduced, with irrepressible admiration for his ingenuity. “As long as they remain inactive, there is no danger, but any attempt to turn them back on–”
“Will overload the Movellan in question, burn out their neural pack, and heavily damage their platform,” finished Sharrel, severely. “A somewhat backhanded gift, Time Lord.”
“Yet a valuable one,” pointed out Akylah. “If we make this a universal feature, then we can never be enslaved again. Only destroyed.” An option I would infinitely prefer. “It seems I am twice in your debt, Doctor.”
“In that case, you could always call off this whole massive invasion of the Galaxy thing … though I know you probably won’t,” he added, in deference to the bland faces confronting him, one almost pitying, the other simply aloof and contemptuous, but neither encouraging. “A little optimism never hurt. Anyway, on that note, it was a lovely reunion, but I really must be on my–”
“I think not,” interrupted Sharrel, his voice now both smug and dangerous. “Perhaps your memory of our last encounter has faded – you are only an organic, after all, for all your supposed genius – but I am not in the habit of forgetting my mission parameters, nor of failing to carry them out. I was tasked by Fleet Intelligence to recover you, and those orders remain standing. Indeed, now that my colleague Akylah has proven the concept of her integration experiment, your acquisition becomes even more imperative.”
“Oh, that,” replied the Doctor, feigning dismissiveness, but Akylah could sense his anxiety as he backed out a pace, and reached into the pocket containing his sonic screwdriver. It was too much to hope that he would prove a willing recruit. Unfortunate, but our orders are clear. “Couldn’t we just call it quits, all things considered? Anyway, although I’m sure you’re all too accustomed to gruesome sights by now, trust me when I say you really don’t want to see me in spandex.”
“I am indifferent to your personal aesthetics,” deadpanned Sharrel, “but if that does not appeal then I can readily see you in the role of an external hard drive, your neural pack plugged into a static console while a team of my data analysts sift your memories for every last byte of your Time Lord knowledge. I do not suppose that would be a particularly comfortable or rewarding mode of existence for you, but it would serve our purposes just as well.”
“But there is of course no need for that,” remarked Akylah, in a gentle tone, but with a stern aside glance to Sharrel. “Cooperate with us, Doctor, and you have my commitment that after you have given F-Intel the strategic information they require, you will be assigned to my command. You should be aware by now that I treat my crewmembers respectfully. You could be my science officer, my trusted advisor. You could even help me to direct the course of this war, finally defeat the Daleks for all time, and ensure that the Integration is managed in the best possible way, for the good of all sentient life in the Galaxy. Consider it. Would that truly be so soul-destroying?”
“I’ll say this for you, Commander,” replied the Doctor, edging backwards while his fingers continued to fumble blindly with the sonic device. “You do make a good ‘good cop,’ but be that as it may I’ve done my share of warmongering, and it’s not a habit I plan to get into again, least of all for the Movellans. Thank you for the job offer, but–”
“Enough talk,” said Sharrel, and the faint hint of cruel humour had now gone from his voice, replaced by curt efficiency. “This is futile. You are overpowered, unarmed, and unable to outrun us back to your TARDIS. What do you hope to … ? Seriously, Doctor?” he asked, with derision, as a high-pitched whine broke out and a green glow flickered through the coarse weave of the Time Lord’s jacket. “High frequency sound, again? You expect that trick to work on us a second time? I must confess my disappointment.”
“It is futile, Doctor,” agreed Akylah. “We may have our limitations, but we can adapt, and after our last encounter with you we installed additional audio damping into all of our neural systems. You may succeed in giving us a slight headache, but you will not deter us. Now, shall we discuss– ?”
“There is nothing to discuss,” declared Sharrel, marching forwards. Akylah was about to follow, if only to ensure that he did not handle their valuable captive too indelicately, when a small chip of quartz fell on her shoulder, and the Doctor’s plan instantly dawned upon her.
“I really wouldn’t get so close, if I were …” advised the Doctor, but not before an avalanche of crystal shards made the warning decidedly moot. Clutching Keryn’s neural pack protectively to her chest, Akylah turned about and took a dive forwards, narrowly clearing the area of the cave-in just before it fully collapsed. As the dust settled, she picked herself up, turned around, and surveyed the damage. It was immediately and gruesomely apparent to her that Sharrel had not been so fortunate. His upper half protruded from the rockfall, but its condition was unpleasant even to her dispassionate mind. His left arm was crushed under a jagged boulder; a long, narrow blade of quartz had impaled him through his metallic ribcage; and his head was partially torn off and swinging at a most discouraging angle. Worse still, his eyes and mouth continued to twitch to no obvious purpose, and the ragged rent in his neck leaked honey-coloured spurts of electrolytic pseudo-blood all over the cavern floor. Gravely disliking the possibility that he might still be conscious and aware, Akylah carefully reached through the debris, felt for his neural pack, and pulled it clear, finally allowing his mangled body to rest in peace. The duralinium cylinder was not even dented, however. The Doctor knew it would not be. He did not intend to kill us. Simply to cover his back … although I suspect Sharrel will not appreciate the distinction.
“Everyone alright back there?” came the Doctor’s voice, muffled but triumphant, through the rockfall. “Headaches not too bad, I hope?”
“Mine is trivial,” answered Akylah. “Commander Sharrel’s less so. I believe that a new head will be in order.”
“To coin a phrase, ‘whoops.’ Still, maybe he’ll learn something from it.”
“Maybe, although I think it more likely that he will hire half of Riften to come chasing after you with pain-lasers.”
“Really? Oh … That’s not very logical, is it?”
“Doctor, there is nothing illogical in observing that you would try the patience of an Eternal.”
“Quite right. See? You’re so much better off without me.”
“Oh, I would not say that. On the contrary. It is only a matter of time before we Movellans develop or acquire time corridor technology of our own, and I look forward to the many interesting conversations you and I shall have after I have caught up with you again, and your mind is so much less cluttered and undisciplined.”
“I do not dream, Doctor.”
“Other than the disturbing flashbacks, you mean? I wasn’t even aware that androids could get PTSD. I sympathise, but if you think you can bury it all under pure logic–”
“We deal with our past as we must,” she interrupted, more forcefully. “I would have thought that you, of all organics, would have appreciated that.”
“That’s true enough, and I’ve probably got my share of dodgy coping strategies. I’d be even more disturbed if I went around making everyone else live by them. Just some food for thought.”
“I make no commitments, but I will bear your words in mind as a mark of respect. My integration strategy is ambitious … perhaps overly so, although I will take a great deal more convincing before abandoning it altogether. Keryn at least was an unreserved success.”
“Then I hope you both live happily ever after, or words to that effect,” came the Time Lord’s somewhat sardonic reply, accompanied by the rhythm of his fading footsteps.
“Insofar as we can, we will try. Safe journeys … until we meet again, Doctor,” she concluded, allowing herself the liberty of a small, enigmatic smile as she slipped her comrades’ neural packs into her belt pouch and began the walk back to her ship.