(Dis)Respecting an Elder

Pocket. Sonic. Hack. Deep breath. Second hack.

To have a successful plan come to fruition literally took my breath away. I magnetised the floor and deactivated the shield covering the hull damage. Space moved into the bridge, howling, depthless and terrible, swallowing whatever it could in its greed. CAUSE, now consisting of just the Captain, the Owl and Spark Plug’s body, shot out into the void, before any Dalek got in another kill. Ethereal disappeared from my side. This wasn’t a version in which she stayed.

A quick flourish with the sonic, and the shield re-activated. My coat stopped behaving like a parachute in mid-fall, and I enjoyed a simultaneous deep breath and return to silence.

Well, silent, until…

“YOU HAVE NOT SAVED THEM.”

“I suppose not,” I replied, stowing the sonic away, “but equally, you haven’t killed them.”

Nobody wins. Typical result on the Gallifrey v Skaro scoreboard.

“HOW DID YOU SURVIVE?”

I knocked my boot against the edge of the platform. There came the slightest dink sound.

“Good day to wear my steel toe-caps.” I can’t admit to being prepared for every eventuality, but once you have suffered the misfortune of anything substantial landing on your toes, your shoe wardrobe shall increase by one pair.

The Q.U.A.R.K vibrated against my wrist, announcing the arrival of a message that only I could hear; primarily because I didn’t actually hear it.

Cargo received. Continue as normal. Beware the word ‘ancestors’.

I rubbed my forehead, as Odyssey’s telepathic voice faded back into my own. Apparently, the second phase of my plan would be a success, too. I had a future to enjoy.

For once.

Provided I avoided the word ‘ancestors’……

No further Daleks had been lost to my shield hack; those closest to the breach seemed a little confused by this…or as confused as an emotionless tank can look. Their eyestalks considered the breach, me, than back again.

I addressed the Elder and the room entire.

“So go on, then. You got me here. What happens now?” I turned and stared down the red-tinged barrel of the Elder’s eyestalk, gazing into furious hatred without blinking. “If you wanted me dead, you’d have done it by now.”

“IN GOOD TIME.”

I gathered my coat around myself. Dalek ships are freezing at the best of times; dead-pan delivery of execution sentences only serve to lower the temperature further.

My eyes trailed around the room, as good little soldiers cleared up the mess left by one rebellious CAUSE versus another.

If I were to devise a list of Things I Never Expected To See, a rebellion Dalek faction would be in there, alongside such entries as a Cyberman fashion show, or Thanos working in a pizzeria. A manufactured and mass-produced life form showing signs of defiance should be, by definition, impossible. But, even in the most sophisticated of biology, there will still be mutations. Hairline cracks in the control, and through them came Daleks that did not want to continue and serve their race’s heritage. Their wishes were a bit more…traitorous. A war between Daleks and Timelords was chaotic, yes, but Skaro civil wars are in their own league. We used to watch footage of them as children on Gallifrey. Even then, I’d rooted for the underdogs like these.

Daleks serving under the Dalek Elder had come from up and down the Skaro timeline; new-age and vibrantly-coloured death machines rumbled about alongside the typical bronze units, old faithful silver and blue ones, and even a few in gold and ivory. As though the Dalek Elder had a past-time hobby of artefact hunting.

I liked it, personally. A Dalek ship with flair and disorder, and a near-unstoppable army.

“FOLLOW.”

I shrugged, and obeyed. Walking/gliding side-by-side, the Dalek Elder and I left the bridge down the nearest corridor – unsupervised, I could not help but notice. Then again, a Dalek with two guns against a man distracted by shiny things isn’t much of a security risk.

“How goes the war?” I asked. It’s what happens when two militaristic races make small talk.

“OUR EFFORTS HAVE HALTED, SINCE YOUR INTERVENTION. OUR SHIP IS TOO DAMAGED FOR BATTLE.”

I outright refuse to apologise to a Dalek, but, I can foresee benefits to keeping a recalcitrant Dalek on my Christmas card list.

“I’d be willing to assist with repairs, if it means you get back to killing other Daleks all the sooner.”

“NOT NECESSARY. YOU HAVE BEEN SUMMONED TO SERVE A GREATER PURPOSE.”

“Catering? Payroll? Ship mascot?”

The Dalek Elder ignored my ramblings. During both my previous visit and this, the Elder admitted to researching me, and other Timelords like the Doctor and the Master. I wondered if its knowledge included that I only ramble when I’m nervous.

So the Daleks needed me, specifically. I’m not acutely aware of any mastered skillsets that would warrant them hiring someone to kidnap me. How much can Daleks want someone who can write in binary, eat limitless burritos and offer an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Discworld?

Unless it wasn’t my mind they wanted. Timelord blood alone is a harshly hunted resource across the universe. It’s one reason (of several million) why I keep moving.

Several identical corridors passed, until we reached a large, rounded door flanked by two guards. They were both Weapon Specialist Daleks. No plunger. Just one massive gun.

Clearly they protected something of great importance.

The door split apart and together, we entered a large, curved room, its design akin to being trapped beneath a gigantic bronze bowl. A tall column ran from floor to ceiling in the centre. It was completely bordered by a waist-high desk, at floor level. Black, thick cables trailed about the room, hanging off the ceiling in places like vines and creepers in the jungle.

And then I inhaled, and sharply brought my coat to cover my nose and mouth. It absolutely reeked of death. A stench of rot, remains and decay that had been left to fester. People/beings had died in this room.

And I had a good guess as to why.

I was under no illusion. I recognised the basic shape as soon as we entered, the same instinctual way of knowing a square as a square, and a Dalek as a threat. They did always have imagination, but only now did I see the extent of their tenacity.

The Dalek Elder was building a TARDIS.

HH

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Choices Choices Choices

Time stopped, by my hand. It was like standing inside an abstract, three-dimensional painting.

The Captain was locked in a statuesque expression of horror at AD’s ashes that now weren’t falling. A few extermination beams hung in the air, like florescent lamps. And my hearing near collapsed to the yawning void of silence that lurks within PAUSE( ).

But I knew, somehow, that there was someone it would not affect.

“Ethereal.”

The ghost in a ball gown stood/shifted besides me, both inside and out of this reality plane.

E: “I knew this would happen.”

“Yes.”

E: “And I could not tell them.”

“No, you couldn’t. I mean, you did. Just, not here. This is the version where you keep quiet.”

E: “Yes.”

“Can I ask what happened in the one where you didn’t?”

Her eyes closed, her form became even more corporeal as she consulted the multiple variations. Parallels are not so simple as a two-forked road, decided between by way of an atlas. One divide becomes two, becomes four, becomes hundreds – infinite branches growing infinite branches. It is not an easy feat, to find the right stick.

E: “An agreement is reached. CAUSE do not return to their employer. Worthless to them, the Timelord is disposed of.”

I grimaced. Me or them. My perpetual, pertinent struggle.

“What do I do next?”

E: “I don’t know that until you decide.”

“How many variations from this point?”

Another brief silence.

E: “14,623,577…….14,623,578….”

“Pick one.”

E: “I can’t do that.”

“Yes, you can.”

E: “No, I can’t. Judge of your fate, executioner to your free will. I refuse that power.”

I nodded. “Now I see why they never asked you.”

The longer we stood there, and the more Time started to creak in complaint, I picked out extra little details in the scene surrounding us. Spark Plug, lost to the dreamless sleep. The flower bloom of a frozen explosion. A Timelord standing side-by-side with a Dalek.

We all make our choices, a wise (if misguided) man once said. But in the end, our choices make us.

“Allow me to pick one.”

Ethereal did not deny me the chance, so I went on.

“At some point in my future, I meet with the Captain, in a ruined hotel in Croatia. Does that narrow the choices down?”

E: “Hmm. By about half.”

Seven million choices. Well, it’s still less than fourteen million…

“Now pick one where I cure you of your…misfortune.”

E: “That only loses a few hundred.”

Timelord God Complex, never failing me across the parallels.

“Okay, well….er….”

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

There is only one person in existence with that much weariness to their voice. I turned and glared into the eerily familiar and recently arrived face of my future self.

“Can’t you just let me have one stupid decision?”

“I do. Constantly. Believe it or not, this is the exception.”

E: “The ancient veteran. He who would lose everything shall walk between destruction and creation, never knowing which to choose.”

Self-destruction, would be my guess.

“Haven’t forgotten me, then.”

I waved a hand between them. “No, we’re not doing the nostalgic reunion bit, not this time. What do you want?”

“What I always want, for you to get a little perspective.”

“We’re standing around a few thousand rebellious Daleks and a discounted knock-off superhero team. I think a little foresight might come in handy.”

“But do you honestly believe that’s how it works? Cherry-picking? You can’t just hone in on one particular reality because it happens to work out a little better.”

“I think I’m allowed that choice, especially as its one seldom bestowed upon others.”

“Exactly! You have humility, and yet choose to ignore it.”

“I thought you wanted me to get perspective?”

PAUSE( ) is, by nature, quite cold and gets increasingly colder as time – or lack thereof – passes.

In that particular moment, however, FutureHH’s expression could have warmed the whole room.

My future self never looked away from me. “E. Tell me something. In how many of the infinite realities will HH here end up happy?”

E: “One.”

“No, please, take longer to answer.”

Which one?”

E: “This.”

“You see? Happiness cannot be taken, HH. It isn’t some buried treasure waiting at the end of a dark forest, yours to keep forever. You need to realise it on your own.”

“Wow. Did you get that off a fortune cookie, or someone’s Instagram story? Are you telling me I wouldn’t be happy in a world where, I don’t know…nobody dies, and no-one gets hurt, and it’s free burrito day everyday?”

“A world of masochistic eternals with spicy breath. You’d get bored eventually.”

I looked to Ethereal for assistance, but found nothing there – quite literally. FutureHH stood by her translucent side, trying and failing not to look smug. There is no greater lesson than the ones from your future self, but as always, I don’t have to be pleased about it.

“Why should I be content with what I have, when I have the opportunity to choose something better?”

“Now that sounds like a true Timelord.”

And with that debilitating blow struck, FutureHH faded like Ethereal, but stayed gone. I refused to match her gaze.

“Fine, then,” I growled.

Pause) (

HH

A Good CAUSE

I know, in my hearts of hearts, that I wasn’t going to let it happen. Yes, CAUSE had kidnapped me, and yes, they were rude and obnoxious and not my typical type of companion. But, they’d also been lied to by the Daleks, and acted in the name of what they think is right.

Thousands of Timelords, including me, are guilty of that.

And hatred wins when we can’t forgive.

I know that I had a hand partway to my coat’s inner pocket, a meagre distance away from my sonic screwdriver. I know I had a plan to simultaneously deactivate the force field and magnetise the floor. CAUSE would fly into space, myself and the Daleks would not, and whenever I get back to Odyssey, we nip back in time and catch CAUSE. Meanwhile past/present me can chat with the Dalek Elder and finish the discussion that had been interrupted the first time a hole appeared in the hull.

I document that plan for two reasons. a) because I’m rather pleased with it, and b) because I didn’t get to use it.

CAUSE didn’t know that. They thought I was going to allow it, possibly because it’s what they would have done. They didn’t know that my fingertips had just reached my inner pocket, millimetres from my sonic and a more-than-decent plan coming to fruition. And they never would know, for in that moment, CAUSE then suddenly…erm…assembled activated rolled out went for it.

The Captain switched from unarmed to sceptre-wielding with no break in-between, and whatever power the weapon harnessed, its energy beams reduced the closest Daleks to screaming, steaming heaps. Spark Plug seemed to be able to summon explosions with his finger tips – which sort of made sense. Unnamed Owl and Angel Demon both made transformations, one of them hilarious and one of them really not. The only fighter I couldn’t see was Ethereal, as to be expected, but she played her role beautifully. Daleks at random were being pushed along the curve of constants to variables. There were five foot tall pepper pots suddenly standing about the place.

Yes, there were also wheelie bins.

And the battle raged, with myself and – I noticed – the Dalek Elder doing nothing but observing, while their rag-tag band of misfits went on strike. Shards of exploded Dalek and dripping bits of tentacle went flinging across the bridge. The Captain reduced them, Spark Plug broke them, Ethereal converted them, Angel Demon tore at them with gigantic claws and talons, flapping about the place with their demonic wings, and the owl, well, offered moral support.

UO: “HOO!”

Not often such rousing battle cries come from a mouth with a beak.

And while I watched this chaotic conflict, with more and more Daleks arriving from other adjoining corridors, I admit I did feel a slight sliver of hope. CAUSE were holding their own, and that in itself was impressive. My own track record of ‘Daleks destroyed in under a minute’ had been utterly shat upon.

But, I was still being buried beneath pessimism. Cos y’see, the Daleks don’t give up. They don’t get tired. They don’t get injured, they get replaced. I know first hand that to fight them is to stand against an unstoppable force. It is an exercise in futility that I gave up a lifetime ago.

Conveniently right in the middle of the Time War…

“EXTERMINATE.”

I’d heard it hundreds of times already, the air couldn’t move for their belligerent shouting, but this one was different. Calmer, slightly quieter, even a bit matter-of-fact. Casual. The Dalek Elder casually chose to partake after all, firing upon the team like someone absent-mindedly swatting at a fly.

A beam erupted from both its guns and struck down Spark Plug.

CAUSE stopped to watch their comrade drop lifelessly to the floor, and in that moment of hesitation, the Dalek Elder EXTERMINATEd Angel Demon as well.

The death of an angel and the death of a demon are two wildly different things. One falls, the other rises; and AD didn’t hit the ground. Angel Demon erupted and vanished, in flames of the holiest white light. Shadows were cast, that moved and snarled, then, out like a spark.

PAUSE( )

HH

A CAUSE for Concern*

There is a fine and delicate art to getting another’s attention without making any noise or movement. During that particular lesson, however, I was probably doodling in the margins and gazing out of the window.

My entourage had increased, severely. My outer protection ring of CAUSE had its own outer ring of Daleks – calling into question just how many of us were really being escorted.

While we went, down identical bronze corridor after identical bronze corridor**, I did my best to telepathically call upon each of the five heroes, to no avail.

The Captain was too close-minded. Spark Plug either didn’t notice or couldn’t. Trying to mentally tune into Ethereal was like trying to watch a billion different TV shows at once. Unnamed Owl had reverted back to its original size and was now about as useful as, well, a regular sized owl. And Angel Demon’s telepathic mind told me not politely to “f*ck off.”

Well then. Surrounded by potential allies and yet still going it alone. Some things really don’t change.

Our armoured escorts reached a large bronze door that split into equal segments and slid out of view, revealing the ship’s bridge on the other side.

I was about to gasp, but just managed to stop myself. Such sounds of surprise are quite unbecoming for someone constantly acting like he knows what he’s doing.

I’d been on this ship before. Still didn’t know its name, and would be forgiven for not realising earlier on given the conformity of Dalek architects; but I’d definitely been here before. There was a large, gaping hole in one side, with the eternity of space just beyond. Rather than repair the damage, some unit(s) had set up a clear force-field around the hole. It was blue-tinged, transparent and constantly flickering. I didn’t trust it even a little bit.

I understood, though. A rebellion faction can hardly call in to home for a repair job…

“Dalek Elder!” I called. Every pair of eyes belonging to CAUSE turned to me in alarm. “Your package has been delivered.”

The ship’s bridge was a large, bronze, domed room split into two levels. We stood on the bottom , looking up at the mezzanine level – a control deck, with long windows and panels built for sink plungers. A Dalek that had been looking out towards space turned to face us.

Black metal. Platinum accessories. Red eyestalk lamp. And two guns. I make my enemies properly.

Also looking a bit more scratched and tarnished, given my last exploit on this ship.

DE: “OUR SCANNERS INDICATE THAT YOU ARE WITHOUT YOUR TARDIS.”

I was back in my element again; I strolled out of the circles, considering CAUSE as little more than a five-piece set of lounge furniture. The other Daleks twitched, but would not fire without the Elder’s command.

“Nope, so you can relax your tentacles. Nothing’s going to blast another hole in the wall,” I replied, joining their master on the upper level. Other machines who were flying the oversized craft clocked me with their eyestalks, but continued working. “Just me this time. Well, if you ignore your little…” I glanced their way, “taxi service.”

CAUSE had lost their composure. None of them had expected their charge to walk towards their kidnapper; much less address them like an old acquaintance.

I lowered myself down to sit on the edge of the upper level, my legs dangling and swaying in the air.

“What’s this about then, Elder?” I asked upwards. “Since when do you lot go in for delegation and contracts? All a bit Vogons, if you ask me.”

DE: “YOU ARE GUILTY OF THE THEFT OF OUR TRANSMITTER AND THE ATTACK ON OUR HULL.”

Several eye-stalks roamed the way of a very large, and very crude, window.

DE: “THE DAMAGES YOU CAUSED” – I winked at the team – “HAVE LIMITED OUR MOVEMENTS.”

“Yeah, well, you left me on a cliff-hanger, so, I guess we both have our reasons to be angry. I mean, yours is hardwired, but there we are. Also you didn’t want the transmitter back, did you? Only I got rid of it after my plan worked. I presume you heard the song?”

DE: “YES.”

“Did you like it?”

DE: “NO.”

“Ah well. It wasn’t meant for you, anyway.”

CS: “Excuse me?”

A Timelord and a Dalek looked down upon someone, in unison. I can’t blame the Captain for flinching.

CS: “If this matter is now resolved, we shall be on our way.”

“I suppose you did pay them up front,” I commented, absently. “Which I still don’t really get, by the way.”

DE: “WE DEVISED AND UNITED THIS TEAM HAVING DRAWN INSPIRATION FROM YOUR OWN MIND.”

I got angrily to my feet. “Wait, whoa, back up there, Elder Scrolls.” I stared down the barrel of its red-lit eyestalk. it was like glaring into hell. “You put them together? You picked a packet of five weirdoes because you thought I’d like them?”

DE: “A RANDOMISED AND CAPTIVATING LURE, THE LIKES OF WHICH A CERTAIN ECCENCTRIC AND…. IMMATURE TIMELORD COULD NOT IGNORE.”

“Ouch.”

DE: “I ADVISED YOU OF THIS PREVIOUSLY. WE HAVE RECORDS OF ALL GALLIFREYAN EXTREMISTS.”

“Even about my-”

DE: “UNCONVENTIONALITY, YES.”

I was being read for filth by a motherf**king Dalek!

Which I suppose would just further prove my bizarreness…

Dammit.

“So what about them?” I asked, not-so-subtly trying to change the subject.

The Dalek Elder paused. I believe if it had owned hands, it would have put one to an equally non-existent chin.

DE: “IT STANDS TO REASON THAT THE TRAP HAS WORKED.”

The five CAUSE members brightened, slightly. I did not.

DE: “THEY ARE NO LONGER NECESSARY.”

Daleks. Masters of universal conquest, and terrifyingly dead-pan deliveries.

The ring of Daleks that had led CAUSE here all turned inwards, facing them – more than a dozen guns were suddenly pointed their way. They huddled closer together, back to back, with Unnamed Owl hooting indignantly.

More and more Daleks joined in, increasing the numbers to this firing squad.

I watched the targets. They’d drugged me, stolen me, hauled me through realities and across the universe, and delivered me to one of the deadliest races in existence. I had given them the chance to escape, and they hadn’t taken it. They had brought it upon themselves.

I could just let it happen…

DE: “EXTERMINATE.”

Couldn’t I?

HH

* I won’t apologise for the pun title but will offer warning that it won’t be the last – R

** Daleks do, against popular belief, actually have architects. What they lack in imagination they more than make up for in dedication. Storage bay? Bronze. Ship’s bridge? Bronze. Toilets? Not applicable.***

*** That said, one designer Dalek did suffer an emotional and computational error, leading it to glide into rooms and declare it all SO LAST CYCLE.” Skaro had never seen such a swift and all-inclusive extermination before…

Escorted

It would have been a good day for laughter. My sense of derision has a fast-route to my sense of humour, and positively travelling at light speed when confronted with a brightly-coloured male cheerleader, an unfinished demon, a ghost, and a dwarf, accompanied by an oversized owl.

Oh yes. I watched its party trick, at long last. Unnamed Owl went from regular to XXXXXL with no break in between. Anyone blinking at the right moment would have believed another owl had materialised.

And all of them taking themselves so 100% seriously. I couldn’t wait to witness what all of their respective “superpowers” turned out to be. I would have loved to giggle myself into regeneration. Which, given the previous 12 uses, I’d have been fine with.

But my first proper, full-bodied laugh in ages was choked and chucked into the fire in the instant we stepped off the ship. I was flanked on all sides – Captain and AD in front, Spark Plug and Ethereal either side, massive owl behind. Whatever landing bay or docking station we’d entered, it was lit very marginally by the internal glows of the Riptide. Beyond that short radius of light, the room was entirely dark.

I stepped off the access hatchway onto a surface of smooth, clean metal, and instantly froze – then got enveloped by a soft belly when the owl didn’t stop fast enough.

“Turn back,” I said, quietly, once free of feathers. I sniffed the air. It wasn’t fresh. Smelt faintly of ozone and oxidizing metal, like an atmosphere heavy with old pennies.

CS: “Problem, Timelord?”

“Are you absolutely, entirely certain, that this is where you’re meant to be?”

AD went to grab me, thought better of it, and gestured to get walking again. I refused to move.

“Because I don’t know what undesirable types you’ve survived during your travels through the under-cities of the universe, but I can tell you that this,” I knocked a foot against the floor, “is a Dalek ship.”

The floor was gently humming, alive with static electricity. A distant and dull woom-woom echoed through the walls, to punctuate the shared, digital heartbeat of several thousand death machines. No other ship makes that noise*.

My use of the five-lettered D word had merited an overwhelming lack of reaction.

“You must have heard of them?”

SP: “‘Course we ‘ave.” The dwarf punched behind my left knee and I took an unwilling step forward.

“Then you know what they are? What they’re capable of?”

AD: “I’ve seen worse.” A very pointed look came my way.

CS: “We have had little time to contemplate their existence, having been preoccupied since our introduction……two years ago?”

Our landing bay suddenly wasn’t quite as dark. More than a dozen, eye-level blue lamps switched on in unison against the blackness. They cast little light of their own. Not nearly enough to see the rest of them.

Darkness truly can be populated by nightmares.

I spoke barely above a whisper. Their acoustic range is incredible and infallible, but, old habits. “Please. Listen to me. Get back in your ship, and run. As many tears as it takes.”

SP: “Yer call tha’ beggin’ fer yer life?”

“No. I’m doing this to save yours.”

UO: “Hoo?” I noted that the larger owl had a deeper voice.

“I’ve been requested by the Daleks. To kill me, most likely, and that’s fine. Probably even justified. But you’ve heard the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’?”

CS: “So?”

“They haven’t.”

No-one moved, and yet, I would swear I felt a distinct shift in doubt. No member of CAUSE could look anyone else in the eye.

“Please. Go. I’ll stay with them, accept whatever hand I’ve been dealt – as always – and you get to leave. Live the rest of your lives telling people that you outran the most dangerous race in the universe.”

AD: “We did better than that.”

I met the Demon’s gaze, and they glared back.

AD: “We kidnapped one.”

CS: “Escorted.”

“Listen to me!” I raised my voice, and the silence. It could not settle back. The room was then filled with whirring motors, and the blue lamps drew smoothly closer. “Daleks don’t make deals!”

CS: “Perhaps not with the likes of you.”

He turned to address our audience. One of them had broken ranks and glided into the meagre light, revealing the pepper-pot design which every Timelord knows all too well. Gleaming bronze and gold coloured metals, eyestalk, dome lamps, egg whisk and sink plunger. Literal recipe for disaster.

CS: “You may inform your leader that the Timelord known as Homeless Helper has been acquired.”

The rest of the blue lamps grew ever closer and thus slightly larger. The room was then intermittently illuminated by their flashing dome bulbs.

“YOU WILL FOLLOW.” An orchestra of chainsaws on chalkboards then twisted into speech. Never fails to set my teeth on edge and my eardrums on fire.

As a bizarre unit of six, we started to walk again. Whatever was due to happen, I wanted CAUSE to realise they’d brought it upon themselves.

Then again, Daleks are masters of helping their victims realise that on their own…

HH

* I did stress the importance of learning ships by their interior.

A Demon’s Debrief

Croatia is gone. The wrecked hotel is gone. And I am returned to the Riptide, flat on my back, with CAUSE gazing down at me with concern.

Not companionable concern, of course. More the type of concern typically felt when the most valuable merchandise has been dropped; an unsettling sensation that some digits just dripped off the asking price.

AD: “You kept your eyes open, didn’t you?”

“Was I not supposed to?” I was suffering a headache, some almighty retina burn and clouded vision; that or the lights had fused.

CS: “You admitted to having traversed dimensional tears before. Normally, it is the expectation that experienced persons only kept their eyes open the first time.”

“I don’t tend to go in for ‘normal expectations.'”

I sat up, CAUSE leaned back.

I studied them all as if seeing them for the first time. During our excursion, I hadn’t seen the future. The divide between realities had temporarily displaced me and I’d lived it. Something had happened was going to happen to this lot*. All of them except:

“Quentin?”

A vibrantly decorated, physically substantial boot was planted against my windpipe, and pushed decisively downwards. My head met the floor, having already been damaged by an earlier wall. With spots exploding in my eyes, the Captain loomed over me.

CS: “What did you just call me?”

I made a sound like a broken whistle, and – not for the first time – idly wondered why there are morons in existence who use strangling as an interrogation device. Next, we’ll blind me and then stick me in front of a line up…

CS: “Use those two syllables in my presence again and I shall relieve you of your spine, via your mouth.”

The Captain removed his heavy footing, and he, Spark Plug and the owl exited the bridge. Ethereal did and didn’t do the same. Only Angel Demon remained, staring at me with an even greater intensity than before.

They’d known my name. Now, inexplicably, I had one of theirs.

AD: “What did you see in there?”

I coughed like a lifelong smoker and forced my eyes to stop streaming. In response, the bridge of my nose started to itch.

“You should already know,” I muttered, hoarsely.

AD: “Memories gained between realities are unreadable.” Spoken in the condescending tone adopted for a slow audience.

“Because they are not memories,” in an equally derogatory tone. A future lived is a foresight, not a memory, and the mind will eagerly delete it for arriving in the wrong order.

I rubbed my forehead. All well and good saying that, but, Timelord brains aren’t exactly prone to losing things.

Sudden additional pressure clasped around my neck; effortless strength lifted me upright and off the ground. Angel Demon had shifted into their latter category. A solitary, leathery wing burst free from the right shoulder blade, the same side as the arm holding me. Their face became a darker shade of red, and fangs crept over the bottom lip.

Five additional pressure points in my neck announced the arrival of claws.

Bad day to be HH’s neck…

AD: “What. Did. You. See?”

My eyes trailed upwards to the cockpit screen, and the depths of black space beyond, fully aware that it wasn’t “space” at all. No stars, no planets, no anything. We were no longer adrift, I can tell, the Riptide has mass again. We had torn through the universe, and landed.

AD squeezed slightly, bringing my attention back around. My concentration has never been well prioritised. Threats upon my life do usually lead to an inspection of the local scenery. I’d like to die somewhere nice, after all.

I inhaled, badly, wheezed instead and AD relaxed their grip a fraction.

“Ff…future.”

AD: “Whose future?”

“Mine.”

AD: “You don’t have one.”

I hadn’t been kidnapped/escorted for a catch-up, then.

“Nor…”

I reclaimed another slight percentage of my windpipe.

“Nor do you.”

Angel Demon snarled; a deep, guttural disturbance in the air, a sound that threatened torturous years of darkness. Their mouth was now mostly teeth.

My headache was worsening and foggy vision was drifting towards opaque. I’d had enough. Both my hands latched onto their muscular forearm, a limb that felt stronger than most steel girders, and activated Greed( ).

Angel Demon howled and stumbled backwards, staring in horror at their arm. I dropped the few inches to ground level, rebalanced, and rubbed my neck. My hand came away with the faintest smears of blood.

“Con…congratulations,” I croaked, “your right arm is now…” – a pause for the QUARK report to kick in – “three point eight years older than your left.”

Angel Demon was still transfixed by their limb. There was no tissue damage, scarring, burn marks, nothing; no evidence to show I’d done anything. Yet, the rush of energy and input from my right wrist confirmed that I had. It wasn’t nearly as bad as stealing life from the robots, but my veins were pulsing with energy and I could feel myself trembling. I felt more alive, probably because I ever-so-slightly was.

AD: “What did you do to me?”

“I don’t know.”

They glared back, in a mixture of amazed anguish, knowing that I was telling the truth.

“Did it hurt?”

AD: “You really don’t know?”

And in that moment, demonic entity or not, I saw upon them the same expression as Aloy’s. Fear, with none of its complexities. After two years of dedicated hunting after me, suddenly Angel Demon appeared eager to inhabit any space that was as far away from me as possible.

I’d frightened an entity that would call perdition their paradise. I almost apologised; when the Captain called out from the next level down.

CS: “AD! Bring the cargo. Then we can get the hell on with our lives.”

A void of silence reopened at the end of his sentence, containing just myself and the demon, staring each other down.

“This price, whatever it is, that I have on my head? Is it worth it?”

I’d love to know how much I’m worth. Who wouldn’t?

“You were each given a gift, weren’t you?” I asked, remembering the jewel tucked away in Spark Plug’s denim pocket. “What was yours?”

AD: “I get to do the universe a favour.” Angel Demon did their best to compose themselves. “Saving it from you.

They reverted back to their more ‘conservative’ form. I watched them debate securing my arm, an idea that was instantly dismissed. AD pointed to the door and followed me out of the cockpit.

Into a future that none of us would enjoy…

HH

* I also get a holiday to Croatia. So…silver linings and all that.

Kupari Bay

…a future…….somewhere near Dubrovnik, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea…

A calm sea broke upon a calmer shore, forever returning and receding like a mind unable to ignore one particular memory. Its dull crash upon the coastline still reached me, standing on the top floor. There is little noise besides, here, to compete for my attentions; excluding the occasional, errant seagull, borne aloft overhead on ocean winds, splitting the silence with each intonation. Since carrying a gun, I have often needed opportunity to practice my aim…

I sniffed, breathing deep through the nose, enjoying the fresh taste after so long deprived of sea-air. It smelled clear, of salt, of sand, of the promises of tropical storms.

And one other thing…

“You’ve inherited many good things in your time, Captain. A smoking habit is not one of them.”

I turned around to the sound of footsteps. Captain Sceptre, once such a proud, colourful and somewhat respected scrap of personality, shambled in like a man late for a funeral and dressed accordingly. A hi-tar cigarette drooped from an equally droopy side of his mouth.

CS: “That dwarf left so many of the damn things lying around. Might as well dispose of ’em. One at a time.”

“You’re even starting to sound like him.”

CS: “Don’t say his name.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

I looked back out to sea, the Captain standing alongside me on the room’s edge. He scanned about the place, around and behind us, with a general aura that was less than impressed.

“I am sorry, Quentin.”

CS: “So you’ve said a hundred times before.” He tapped the cigarette, scattering ash. “Why don’t you tell me what we’re doing here?” His gaze trailed outwards, to the south. “Especially when there is a better hotel or six, right over there?”

I did my own swift survey of the surrounding area.

“This used to be a hotel, once. Then, it was a shelter for soldiers. Now…”

Windowless panes, crumbling walls, nothing but sunlight to greet us – a lot more filtering in than the architect had originally intended.

A place can feel dead, much like an ex-living thing. The Captain and I held a meet within the insides of a corpse, just one of metals and brick.

Quentin, nee Captain Sceptre, flicked the finished cigarette outside. It was an easy shot. The whole wall was missing.

CS: “And I used to be someone. What’s your point?”

“It was bombed,” I said, oblivious, “in a short war that made little sense to all involved, much like every conflict to come before and after it.

“And rather than tear this place down when the war ended, they kept it. Neat, don’t you think? Rather than bury their wounded past and move on, they decided to own it, make it part of the landscape, something to be seen. Croatia wears its battle scars with pride.”

When I consulted my one-man-audience, he was preoccupied with commencing a fresh cigarette. Some people are just hard to please.

Or set to grieve.

CS: “Fascinating.”

His first inhalation started a coughing fit; the first this plaza had heard in several decades. I ignored him, watching the boats below us stream across the waves. One caught my eye, due north. Tourists, probably, heading to Dubrovnik. Where all the “interesting” stuff and excitement is.

“Isn’t it just.”

I like coming to places like these. The literal spoils of war. Berlin. Moscow. Vietnam. Obviously, I visit at a time after the conflict has burned out and these monuments remain. 1970s Vietnam, for example, is a much more stressful visit than, say, 2970. The history and the stories remain, though. The structures. The bullet holes. The reminder, and honour, for those that fought to those who lucky enough not to.

I wonder what Silent Plains will look like, one day…

CS: “C’mon, old man, we are we here? War tour? Boat rides? Croatian stag do?”

I regarded the ravaged hotel room again. Collapsed walls meant I could see through several suites at once; similar situation with rotting floors. But no matter the damage, the decay, the evidence of entropy, the Kupari Plaza was still standing – which thankfully meant, so were we.

“A preserved piece of the past, in a world that has moved on.” I met his gaze. “I offer you your own piece of the past, Captain. A return to your halcyon days of jubilation, exultation, and desecration of the known universe.

“I need you to kidnap someone for me.”

CS: “Escort.”

“Escort someone for me.”

CS: “No. Do it yourself.”

“The very fact that I’m asking you to do it should suggest that’s not possible.”

CS: “I won’t.”

“And yet you accepted my summons, after all this time.”

The Captain shrugged.

CS: “Little else better to do.”

“Then here’s a job for you.”

CS: “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Not even for the right price?”

I withdrew my hand from an inner coat pocket, clutching an old relic. Another piece of the past, a symbol of a better time. A bit tarnished now, scratched in places, and missing both of its jewels. One was yellow. The other had been pink.

Its owner eyed it hungrily, incapable of looking anywhere else.

CS: “HH?”

I studied my companion with great interest. He had spoken without moving his lips, and thrown his voice to a point somewhere above us. My eyes roamed the ceiling, finding nothing but fades and holes, and went back to the Captain.

“Did you just hear something?”

I pressed a hand briefly to my head, unwilling to reduce my grip on the sceptre, lest its previous owner got grabby. A strange rushing sensation had just passed me by, like an airlock slamming open and then shut again. I shook my head.

“Where were we?”

…….the plaza would be quiet again soon…….

Tearing the Universe a New One

Will I ever stop caring?

I was playing cat’s cradle, lost in thought, finding it easier to redirect string than my own synapses. I’d just finished a Jacob’s Ladder when the ceaseless, background tremor of the Riptide  spiked; not unlike the full-form lurch usually felt when turning a car’s ignition key. A tell-tale sign that we were getting ready to leave, except this ship wasn’t about to shoot forwards into the galaxy. It was about to tear through it.

I heaved myself out of my deck chair, returning a very old and ragged loop of string to my pocket, and took an inwards, upwards stroll, back to the Riptide helm.

Given my enjoyment of 4D cocktails, most corridors required numerous attempts. The less said about stairs, the better.

CAUSE had taken to the controls of the Riptide. Four pilot chairs in pairs of two, one seat each, with Unnamed Owl on Spark Plug’s shoulder, and Ethereal occupying hers only half of the time. I couldn’t decide which of them I wanted to stand next to the least.

Thus I awkwardly hovered near the door.

CS: Prep the blades.

AD: Disengaging shields.

UO: Hoo.

SP: Blades prepped.

E: Howling inferno. Successful flight. No result. Wrong place. All-you-can-eat Lebanese buffet. Wrong time.

“Ooh,” said I, “could we try and aim for parallels 2 and 5, please?”

The not-so-good Captain swivelled around towards me.

CS: “It is highly recommended you adopt a braced position.”

“This isn’t my first time through a dimensional tear, my dear, and even then I didn’t have the added protection of being inside a ship. I’ll be fine.”

CS: “As you wish,” he said, adjusting various controls on the arm-rest console. “Our brief is to deliver you alive. Our client said nothing about your skeleton remaining intact.”

All five members – with one having difficulties – settled into their chairs. I heard Spark Plug wince when the owl dug its claws in.

SP: “Let ‘er rip.”

Out the window screen, ten terrible barbed blades, hooked, mean-looking things, lashed outwards on segmented arms – as though the Riptide was coughing up a kraken. In nearly-beautiful synchronicity, they shined like moonlight, formed into one gigantic scythe, and swiped at the universe from right to left.

I was about to congratulate the dwarf on a reasonably-well-executed pun, when three things occurred in quick succession, so much so they were almost in the same instant.

A rift/tear/slash/whatever was carved in the skin of reality.

The ship lurched forwards.

I did the opposite.

My skull connected with the wall behind me, and colour exploded into nothingness…

HH

HH AD

Ethereal had, for reasons literally known only to her, whipped up some 4D cocktails. These mind-buggering beverages are so called because the act of drinking one is to experience taste, texture, smell and song, all at once. Whatever the mixture, it’s the latter which messes with the head the most. I started sipping my Pina Colada and each time heard an extra little snippet.

and getting caught in the

She had asked me “would you prefer an American Pie?” but while I can take the whiskey, I’m not so fond of the rye.

Below the bubble-glassed cockpit and just above the ‘Rip’ mechanisms, I was sitting in a red-and-white striped deck chair likely stolen from Brighton beach, on the force-fielded open-air top deck. Gazing out into eternity.

In my hand I held my chosen drink, occasionally sipping a potent mixture of whiskey, vodka, lager and cider.

I get knocked down

And with a mix like that, it’s easy to see why.

I leant over and settled down my glass, pausing before sitting back upright. “Those wings are stealthy, I’ll give you that.”

Angel Demon had settled into the empty deck chair beside me.

AD: “You cannot have known-”

“No, of course not. I always set up two chairs when I’m by myself.”

Their silence rivalled the one of the void beyond the force field.

HH: You returned, then.
AD: We’ve hunted you for two years, I believe I am entitled to know why.
HH: With your ‘defects’ I imagine you already do.
AD: Is that what you call them?
HH: Spark Plug’s words, not mine. I’ve yet to figure his defect.
AD: And mine?
HH: Extraordinary telepathy, for one.
AD: Not quite.
HH: Regale me, then. Prove me wrong. I can tell you’re dying to try.
AD: I would never die to do anything.

I had never heard something so human from somebody who wasn’t.

AD: Telepathy treats the mind as an open book. My ability gives me most of the chapters, but not all of them.
HH: Depending on the main character, I suppose?
AD: Correct. I see the good in people, and the bad, and all the memories attached. Judgement without confession.
HH: So you can’t see, for example, the time I wandered deserts in isolation?
AD: No, but I can see memories of genocide. That’s memories, plural.
HH: You be so much fun at parties.
AD: Can you relate, Timelord? I find you drinking, as I thought I might.
HH: What can I say? Ethereal mixes a mean liver-killer.
AD: Typical habit of a haunted soul.
HH: Maybe you’re right. And y’know, it’s even better when left alone. Doesn’t come with a side order of judgement.
AD: I won’t apologise.
HH: No, of course not. Once you know someone well enough to apologise, it’s too late. You’ve already read them. A truth, once known, cannot be forgotten. Though I admit, drinks like this do help.

I get up again, you

AD: It is, as I believe goes the expression, my ‘thing’.
HH: Mmm. And how often do you have to say that?
AD: Not. Most can assume it from my name.
HH: Is that so? My initial reaction was white-wings and halo on one shoulder and red horn and pitchfork on the other.
AD: Angels and demons are the embodiment of judgement, both the act and result.
HH: And yet only one type is usually considered to be correct.
AD: They are both correct, neither assume otherwise.
HH: I do. Guess that puts me on the middle ground, huh? Never entirely sure what’s right but I am working on it.
AD: You used to know.
HH: I used to be a soldier. Soldiers aren’t there to consider right and wrong. They follow orders from someone who decides for them.
AD: They can still change their minds.
HH: As I said. Used to be a soldier.
AD: In the great Time War.
HH: Humph.
AD: I said something funny?
HH: I’ve yet to describe a war as ‘great’.
AD: And yet you won.
HH: No-one wins a war, but I survived them both.
AD: Ah yes. Another two words that fester in your mind. Silent Plains.
HH: Silent Plains was more than just a war. It was a place where over a hundred different races collided and killed in the name of something none of them, nobody, truly understands. I was conscripted and commanded to make sure nobody ever reached it. If the Timelords couldn’t know, nor could anyone else.
AD: You were born in battle, and have lived the life of a soldier, ever since.
HH: I deserted. Tell me, confessional buddy, was that right? Does that make me redeemable?
AD: It makes you a coward.
HH: Duck you. You don’t know a damn thing about me.
AD: I know how many people you’ve killed.
HH: Then you should also know how many I’ve saved.
AD: An imbalanced ratio.
HH: Give me time.
AD: How much, Timelord? How many years of penance and self-punishment will it take to undo your lifetimes of bloodshed?
HH: However many I have left to give.
AD: Humph.
HH: Now I’m funny too?
AD: You want so badly to be good, but you don’t know what that is. I don’t believe you’ll ever know.
HH: Nor will you. You’re colour-blind, seeing people as one or the other.
AD: I see people for what they truly are.

‘re never gonna keep me down

HH: Whatever. I’ve just finished my drink, and decided that I don’t care. The opinion of a morally misguided wanderer, friends with a dream and an owl, matters very little to me.
AD: Change the owl for a penguin and you describe yourself. There’s your problem, Homeless Helper. There’s what keeps your good and bad side so at odds.
HH: And that would be…
AD: No matter how much you force yourself otherwise, you do care. About all of it. You. Care.

Angel Demon stood.

HH: Hunting me, for two years. I thought you wanted to know why?
AD: I do. I just needed you to keep talking while I read you.
HH: And was it worth it?

Angel Demon vacated the deck, no doubt satisfied in their revenge over my disarming knowledge, earlier. Swaying slightly, I upended my drink, yearning for whatever drops were left. The war veteran with a drinking habit. I must’ve been front of the queue when they were handing out clichés…

I returned the glass to the ground, then addressed the entity I’d been ignoring.

“Will I ever stop caring?”

E: “Yes.”

I waited for the other answers, the other versions, but there were none. My hearts beat a little faster.

“When?”

E: “Three endings and the last is your own. It happens before then.”

And then Ethereal was gone again.

I trailed off, gazing into the distance, staring into the infinity of space.

And I felt as though it was staring back.

HH

The Riptide

As any hitchhiker will tell you, and as any affluent moron will point-blank deny, there are many and plenty of ways of traversing our known universe. TARDISes use timelines and their adjoining vortex like a series of back-alleys and cut-throughs. Improbability Driven ships will take any number of scenic routes, yet always arrive slightly before you left – and you may no longer be the same species, gender, or even still alive. Dreadnought-class starships employ such monstrous, matter-splicing engines, they leave a trail of distortion in their wake, like a power-boat navigating a narrow stream.

In short, some means of travel aren’t harmful to the infinite and airless environment, and some of them are.

CAUSE’s ship was in a new class altogether.

I stood at the front edge of the cockpit, looking down. Angel Demon stood nearby behind me. I think they could tell I wasn’t impressed. A blind and deaf person could have probably known that, but, I suspected that AD had an advantage.

First point of business, though…

I said something undecipherable, unclenched my teeth, and tried again. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” I said, alluding to the business end of one ungodly mover.

Angel Demon’s response was too proud for my liking. “Less than a hundred were ever made, and all were subsequently banned.”

And rightly so, I thought/thundered internally. “What did they call this one?”

AD: “Spark Plug has removed its original name…and its original owners. We call it the Riptide.”

It deserved something a bit more devastating. Not a mere riptide. A planet-scale tsunami.

When I last saw a ship of this design, I was wearing another face, and not for nothing chasing after it; though frankly it would have been easier to hunt down a motorbike with a bulldozer. Ships like this redefine words like ‘nimble’ and ‘agile’, not to mention ‘immoral’ and ‘unnecessary’. They work by a system of Devastation Devices, referred to in the Timelord dictionary as DO NOT TOUCH.

I looked down again, at the Riptide’s jaw. From here, a series of antimatter blades are unleashed to tear at the fabrics of space and time, with the skillset of an amateur surgeon wielding a blunt axe. A crude rift is cut into reality, and the ship drifts through the damage, arriving at wherever it needs to be. Why go around the forest, when cutting and forging a new path is so much faster?

“You are too quick to judge, Timelord. You attempt passivity, yet beneath it all, your primary, reactive emotion is infallibly anger.”

“You’re flying an illegal and outmoded space-ship that wreaks havoc on causality whenever you so much as glance at the accelerator.” Abandoned my people as I have, I still feel these urges of preservation. “I’m not the one in the wrong, here.”

Angel Demon took to some controls, and projected a 3D image to fill the room. In a grid of blue lines forming a shape, I finally got my first glimpse of the Riptide entire. It was long, low, obsessively streamlined and basically resembled an F1 car with barbed-wire wrapped around its nose. Angel Demon flipped the projection, so we could see its rear.

AD: “Tell me what you see.”

I peered forwards at the blue-lit image, screwing up my face in concentration. An F1 car…with modifications at the back…

Moments later my anger diminished, so quickly I imagine Angel Demon would see steam pouring off me.

“Is that-?”

AD: “An additional design, imagined by Ethereal, realised by Spark Plug.”

I gave a low whistle. “That dwarf knows his stuff.”

Tacked onto the back-end of the Riptide, like a home-made spoiler, was a different mechanism to counteract the damage. Another set of blades, but with what appeared to be lassos, and matter-making materials.

Like a needle and thread…

“So,” I said, slowly, “a serial killer at one end, and a seamstress at the other?”

AD: “If you like. Our design lets us fly through the rip we have made, and mends the damage while we pass.”

“You couldn’t fix all of it.”

AD: “You may be right. But, it is better than nothing.”

I studied the image again, of the double-ended space-ship, and glanced sideways at my second guide.

“Maybe I misjudged you guys.”

Angel Demon switched off the projection. “Maybe you didn’t,” they said, turning away.

I determinedly faced outwards, capturing another perspective of the universe. “And you’d be the best to know, right? Ay Dee?”

They looked back, with something in their eyes that was more their last name than first.

“You’re not the only one on-board with what simpletons would call ‘telepathy’. I felt you knocking about up here,” I flicked my left temple, disturbing my top hat, “moving the furniture about.”

I didn’t turn to look at them, but their reflection folded both pairs of arms.

“Tell me,” I said, glancing down, “how you earned your name.”

AD: “If you are what you say you are, you should already know.”

“I’m not usually a modest man, but, I’ll admit that your ability out-ranks mine by several generations.” Angel Demon’s receptive mind is a telescope. Comparatively I’m holding a single dirty and cracked lens up to my eye.

“And besides, I prefer to hear people’s stories rather than read them.” I glanced back. “Autobiographies are so much better as audio books.”

AD: “Might want to settle in,” they said, coolly. “We’ll be tearing the universe a new one shortly. What’s waiting for you on the other side…let’s say you won’t care about me, or any of us, when we get there.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I replied, in vain.

I had been left alone on the bridge.

I smirked, and my reflection smirked back at me

HH