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Doctor Who Benny Internet Adventure #01 - "The Slay"


Chapter 1
"Desolation's Waste"
by James Milton


---


The surface of the planet Gash had returned to desert, had been reduced to a vast, desiccated wasteland scoured by brown, dusty winds.


       Cordelia Hull, Protector of Changetown, waited until after midnight, until she was certain Gash's tiny yellow moon had dropped below the horizon. She made her way quietly up to the surface, ignoring the few Changed she encountered abroad in the corridors. She reached gently into the mind of each to ensure that they ignored her, as well. The same mental trick kept the two Peace on duty at the exit, a giant Merge and a Spiny, from noticing her as she slipped out into the night.


       Night on Gash was silent but for the wind and the hiss of dust on ancient stone. Nothing survived the War but the Changed and the inhabitants of the Filter Forest.


       She made it to the Filter Forest unmolested by the few predatory Changed who had escaped her civilizing influence. Her son's hunting parties had slaughtered most of them: it was Cordelia's Changed he loathed, but Orn Hull didn't bother to discriminate. Remembering how she had felt years ago, before her own Change, she supposed she couldn't blame him.


       Serenity nestled at the heart of the Filter Forest, protected from the Change by the magic of its tightly interwoven branches and leaves. Protector Orn Hull's was the largest dwelling, with high stone walls and a roof of tiled slate. Naturally, Peace stood guard at both entrances. Cordelia touched the minds of each in turn and eased them into a light sleep. She let herself in.


       Cordelia had lived in this house for all the years that she was wife to Orn's father, the previous Protector of Serenity. It looked the same and smelled the same. She found herself, despite the danger, standing just inside the doorway drowning in nostalgia. Stop being foolish, she thought. When the Change had taken Cordelia, this place had been no protection. Her own husband had locked her up to await burning in the firepit of the Slay. Only the particular nature of her Change had saved her, allowing her to tweak the minds of those around her and spirit herself away.


       The burst of anger these memories aroused cleared Cordelia's head. She went to the master bedroom and opened the door, unafraid of waking Orn. Even as a child, he'd slept like the dead.


       Orn lay on his side in the double, canopied bed, snoring softly. She couldn't help but smile at the sight of her big, dark haired son, innocent as a baby in sleep. How it contrasted with the image he liked to project: the man, the leader, decisive and tough. He would torch Changetown in the name of that image, and put her people to the spear. Cordelia's smile faded, became a painful sigh.


       "Orn," she said loudly, "wake up, son."


       Serenity's Protector sat up suddenly, a cry for help on his lips. Cordelia touched his mind and the thought eluded him.


       He spat, "You."


       The hatred in his voice hurt her badly, but Cordelia understood how he saw her: a swollen headed monster, a Changed, revolting, evil firepit fodder.


       "Don't worry, Orn, I don't intend to stay long. I just wanted to speak to you, Protector to Protector."


       "Protector!"


       "I am the Protector of Changetown, Orn, whatever you think of it. And I intend to see that Changetown thrives."


       Orn scrambled out of bed. He stood before her, naked and angry, wanting to hurt her but prevented by her presence in his mind from connecting desire and action. "Well I intend to see that Changetown burns. And every one of you monsters dead."


       "I know. I know you do. I watch your dreams at night, Orn, and I know what you're planning. But I won't allow it. That's why I'm here: to beg you to let us be."


       He snarled, "Why don't you just use your devil-gifts to make me."


       "If I could, I would. Sadly, they don't work that way." Cordelia could certainly force Orn to swear he would leave her and her people alone, but it wouldn't last any longer than the memory of a dream. By morning he would be free of her influence and hell bent on vengeance.


       "Then Changetown burns, Mother. And you along with it."


       "Is that your final word?"


       When Orn sneered in lieu of answer, Cordelia drew herself up. "Very well. It's war between us, Orn. You won't find the Changed of Changetown as easy to hunt down as the half-mad, half-starved creatures running lose in the desert. We're organized now, and we're dangerous, and if there's no way we can safely coexist with Serenity, then Serenity will just have to die. Do you understand me, Orn? If your people come after mine, there will be no mercy."


       Her son spat at her feet. It made her want to weep with anger and frustration.


       "When all the people of Serenity are dead or Changed," she told him, "I might just let you live so you can spend your whole life hating yourself for what you've brought about."


       Cordelia knocked her son unconscious with a thought. He crumpled sideways onto the bed. For a time she stood over him, regarding him with intense dark eyes very like his own. Would it be better if she killed him now, she wondered? It was his fear and hatred of her that drove his genocidal obsession with the Changed, and as he would die without an heir, Serenity would have no Protector to lead it into war.


       Or would his murder at the hands of a Changed be the spark which set Serenity aflame?


       Doubt stayed Cordelia's hand.


       She let her son live and made her way back out into the night.


* * *


The battered little rental starship ploughed through the blue-marble chaos of hyperspace, at least two days out from Dellah.


       Ship's time was a few hours short of dawn, but Emile couldn't sleep. The problem was his cabin mate, the Utrassi student Rech'y'van. Utrassi were the arachnoid equivalent of centaurs, with erect upper bodies as tall as a very tall human. Each of their four arms came equipped with retractable killing spikes that dripped a particularly nasty venom. And they were spider fast: Rech could move from one place to another so quickly it looked as if he'd used t-mat.


       He was grateful that Benny had chosen him for the Archaeology and Education conference. Eliosa, a vast, low-density world with a horizon that looked infinite, had been an amazing experience for someone raised in the limited confines of a space station, and at the conference itself Benny had taught him more about networking than he was ever likely to need to know. But twice four days locked up in a small starship with a giant spider?


       It was all a bit much for an arachnophobe to deal with.


       At some point in his desperate, paranoid observation of the soundly sleeping Rech'y'van, Emile must have dropped off. He came to with a start, momentarily confusing reality with a rapidly fading dream of being eaten alive. Rech'y'van's bed was empty.


       Emile knew he should just leave the Utrassi to his privacy. The poor guy had probably just taken himself off to the head, or maybe to throw together a post-midnight snack in the rental ship's limited galley. But Emile just hadn't been able to bring himself to trust Rech. Where Emile had been chosen for the conference because of his relationship with Benny, Rech had been selected because of his utter, unspeakable academic brilliance. He was chosen because he would make St. Oscar's look good. How unnatural was that?


       So, he thought, it wouldn't hurt to check. If he bumped into Rech and seemed in serious danger of embarrassing himself, he'd just use the snack excuse himself.


       Emile climbed out of bed, splendid in his Dalek pajamas, and padded out into the main area of the ship. Benny's cabin was opposite the one shared by Emile and Rech and shared a wall with the head. The galley was an island-bar in the middle of the living area. Engineering and the Bridge were enclosed at opposite ends of the ship, to Emile's left and right respectively. Rech'y'van was nowhere to be seen.


       He could be in the head. Sure, the little strip-light showed green — available — but maybe that was broken. Uh-huh.


       Engineering, then, though why Rech would go there Emile couldn't imagine. The door to engineering slid open as Emile approached. Rech was immediately apparent, stooped over the controls at the base of the hyperdrive's thrumming central cylinder.


       "What are you doing?" Emile demanded, only two seconds ahead of realizing it would be unsafe to draw attention to himself.


       Rech spun and skittered away, blindingly fast. Emile had a moment to notice the foreign object — a flat, black disk — attached to the hyperdrive controls before Rech had crossed the distance between them and pinned him to the wall with a killing spike through the shoulder of his Dalek pajamas. A dark brown venom stain began spreading through the fabric.


       "Killing the scum who looted the Temple of Deagh," Rech snarled, all trace of the ultra-efficient, almost machine-like perfect student gone.


       Emile swallowed, hard. "And that would be?" He squeaked.


       "Professor Bernice Summerfield and her husband Jason Kane."


       "Ah."


       The strict truth of that, according to Benny anyway, was that Jason was on Utrass looting for his own reasons. Benny had gone there to stop him and kind of got caught up in events, as per her knack. He doubted there would be any point explaining that to Rech.


       "And that thing on the controls, that would be...?"


       "A bomb. We will never return to Dellah, and when we are declared lost, my people will tell the Galaxy why we died."


       "Oh good. I wouldn't want my family to worry." The desert dryness of his tone was lost on the Utrassi, who'd been entirely humorless even before he'd turned into a crazed religious terrorist. "Listen, Rech–"


       There is, Emile thought, a positive side to paranoia. His terror of Utrassi in general had led him to spend several hours of their journey to Eliosa reading up on the species. Their likes, their dislikes. The fact that the lateral antennae that serve them as ears are surprisingly vulnerable to being torn out by their roots. With his left hand, Emile grabbed at the killing spike pinning him to the wall. Rech blocked him effortlessly, then realized, too late, that Emile's left hand clutched three lateral antennae.


       He wrenched them off Rech's head.


       Wailing in agony, the utrassi staggered backwards, freeing Emile. Frothy pink blood bubbled from the wounds. Waiting to see no more, Emile sprinted for Benny's cabin. She had the door locked. Emile pounded for admission, then fell through as the door slid open. Benny was already out of bed, a tall, thin, dark haired woman wearing not so much as a Dalek pajama bottom. Her eyes bore a slightly bleary, just woken up look, and she clutched a blaster in her right hand.


       "Help," Emile screamed as he fell.


       Something pounded against his back. He heard the krump of blaster fire, and more utrassi screaming, then silence.


       Benny dragged him to his feet. "Emile, what the cruk is going on?"


       He allowed himself a backward glance. Rech must have come after him, must have actually been in the act of putting a killing spike through Emile's back when Benny shot him. The Utrassi lay supine just outside Benny's door. Emile felt sick.


       "Is he... is he... did you -"


       "He'll recover." Benny let him go. She retrieved last nights jeans and blouse from the chair by the desk and started dressing herself. "Now, about what's going on...?"


       "Rech... Rech wants to... to... kill you because of what happened last year on Utrass. I think he's put a bomb on the hyperdrive."


       She buttoned her blouse. "Describe it."


       "A flat, black disk. About so big. I only saw if for a second."


       "Yes, well, it doesn't sound like a frisbee. Come on, let's see about making this ship safe for humanity."


       Benny stepped towards the doorway of her cabin. Emile saw a flash, heard and felt a sound like thunder rolling right over head. A storm of debris blasted the ship's living area, and by ricochet the inside of Benny's cabin. Instinctively Emile shielded his face with his arms. At some point, he fell over again.


       The depressurization klaxon sounded.


       Someone, Benny, grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. "Engineering must be open to space," she shouted, barely audible above the roar of escaping air. "We've got to get to the bridge."


       The living area was a shambles: burned, torn and strewn with debris. One glance towards engineering revealed that the ship had tried to seal off the damaged area, but the bomb had holed the adjoining bulkhead.


       "Grab Rech's legs," Benny shouted. "I'll get his arms. Well, as many of them as I can carry."


       Emile was outraged. "What? Rech set the bomb."


       "Save the debate, Emile. Just do it."


       Grudgingly Emile obeyed. The mass of the Utrassi slowed them down, but they made it to the bridge before the ship depressurized. It was a great relief to seal the bridge door behind them.


       He dropped Rech's legs and painfully straightened his back. "And you call me heavy," he complained.


       Benny wasted no time getting to the pilot's seat. Her hands danced over controls as she consulted the display panel. As Emile joined her at the copilot's position, she spared him a glance and said, "We're in a lot of trouble, 'Mile."


       He felt cold but only a little afraid. He trusted Benny. "What do we do?"


       "We try to get out of hyperspace alive."


* * *


The people of Serenity worshipped the God of Order, and they prayed to Him to keep at bay the devilish Chaos of the Change. In this, their mediator was the Guardian, an hereditary position as rooted in ancient history as that of the Protector.


       Kem Allane, Guardian of Serenity, was a kind, gentle man, loved by all. Nothing pained him more than consigning a Changed friend to the firepit of the Slay. That he had been forced to watch his own wife die that way had almost killed him. Only the constant love and attention of his young son, Del, had kept him alive and brought him back to the point where he could perform his duties as Guardian again. No one begrudged him his breakdown.


       Naturally, Cordelia Hull thought, hurrying through the dark streets of Serenity towards the Guardian's home, Kem Allane would be the first casualty of this ridiculous war.


       She hadn't been joking when she'd told Orn she monitored his dreams. She did, every night, and last night she had witnessed in his nightmares the murderous act that had prompted her visit to Serenity. Orn had hunted down a wild Changed in the Filter Forest and tricked Kem into eating its meat, a certain way of infecting Kem with the Change.


       That tomorrow night was Slaynight was no coincidence. Orn intended Kem to fail the Slaynight test and be consigned to the firepit. Serenity, aghast that someone like Kem could be vulnerable to Change, horrified to have watched his painful death, would become as mad for genocide as was Orn himself. Well, Cordelia wouldn't allow it.


       Dealing with the Peace guarding Kem's door was simplicity itself. Dozing, they slid to the ground, and Cordelia let herself in. Only two doors could be the bedrooms. She peeked in one, saw Kem's fifteen year old son Del peacefully asleep, moved to the next.


       Kem Allane was not sleeping peacefully. The Change was upon him, altering his body in ways nobody could predict, wracking him with fever. As she watched, he flung himself from one side of the bed to the other, muttering incoherently. Cordelia went to him, brushed her fingers across his damp, hot forehead, taking away as much as she could of his pain and anxiety. His whole body relaxed a little.


       "Get away from my father."


       Cordelia turned slowly. Del held a Peace spear. Did it belong to one of the two outside? Had he roused them? "Del," she said, "it's all right. I'm here to help your father. He's Changing."


       Horror washed off Del in waves. He almost dropped the spear. Cordelia remembered the Slaynight, seven years ago, when Raysa Allane, Del's mother, had failed the test and been thrown into the firepit. Del had gone mad as soon as he realized what was happening. Kem had been forced to pick him up to keep him from running to his mother and fighting the Peace who had seized her. Even then, he'd bashed at his father's face and arms, bloodying his nose and blacking one of his eyes. When his mother had fallen into the flames and started screaming, Del had gone very quiet. Though he'd quickly forgiven his father and been instrumental in Kem's recovery from the same tragedy, he'd been a quiet and unhappy child ever since.


       Now he had to face that he was going to lose his father the same way.


       Except that he wasn't.


       "Del, you have to listen to me. Your father is Changing because Protector Hull tricked him into eating tainted flesh." Believe me, she sang into his mind, and he had no choice. "He wanted to use your father's death as an excuse for war. But I can save your father. I'll take him back to Changetown with me, and look after him until his Change is stable."


       The spear clattered to the floor. Del came to stand beside Cordelia. "Is it safe to touch him?"


       "Yes," Cordelia told him. Kem could only infect at this stage if he bit his son, but that would not happen while Cordelia was present to radiate her calming influence.


       Del lightly caressed his father's cheek, forehead. He winced at the heat of Kem's flesh. "Do you know what he'll turn into?"


       "He'll become whatever Orn took the flesh from to poison him. But he won't become a monster, I'll see to that. I promise."


       Del sighed. It was a very mature sound for a young man of his age. "I managed to wake one of the Peace," he confessed. "He went for help."


       "That's okay, Del. I would have done the same in your place. But it means I have to hurry."


       He nodded.


       Cordelia awakened Kem into something very like a trance: allowing him just enough consciousness to operate his body and obey her instructions. "Get out of bed, Kem," she told him.


       Kem Allane rose from his bed, an old middle-aged man with thin legs and arms and greying blonde hair. A grey nightgown flapped about his knees.


       "I want to come," Del said. Cordelia heard the pain in his voice, knew that he was afraid this was just another way to lose his father.


       "I'm sorry, Del. Changetown wouldn't be safe for you. You're much better off here."


       "Please–"


       "I'm very, very sorry. You have to stay here." She wished she could influence him. Ease his pain, make him sleep, but she could only exercise direct control over one person at a time. If she let go of Kem now, in his condition, he would fall and might hurt himself. "Curl up on the floor, pretend to be asleep. My son will think I put you to sleep and stole your father. Then, as soon as he's stable, I'll arrange for you two to meet. I promise, Del."


       He said, grudgingly, "I guess there's no time to argue about it." He kissed his father's cheek and stepped back.


       "Thank you, Del." Cordelia said, "Kem, follow me."


       As they left, Del curled up on the floor. Outside their house, one Peace still slumped against the wall, asleep. The other was well gone, had certainly had enough time to get to either her son's house or the Peace barracks. She determined the shortest route to the inner boundary of the Filter Forest and set out. Chaos, if only she'd brought someone to watch her back.


       Their route brought them by the Slay, the raised platform of black stone upon which sat the ancient testing device that was the basis of monthly Slaynight. Thrust your arm into the hole. Yellow light means healthy. Blue means Changed. No one knew how it worked, but everyone in Serenity thought it was good enough reason to consign someone to the flames.


       As Slaynight was tomorrow night, those flames were already lit, swirling embers into the sky and staining the pale cylinder of the tester ruddy.


       Cordelia spared the Slay a look of utter loathing and hurried by.


       Orn stopped her. The Protector of Serenity and a dozen Peace stepped out from behind the forward corner of the Slay, spears raised.


       Cordelia slumped. Even if she let Kem fall, she could stun no more than four of them before the rest put a spear through her.


       "Mother. I couldn't let you hurry away. I think you ought to stay, at least long enough to help me celebrate Slaynight."


* * *


Hyperspace is a lower dimensional echelon with unusual properties, one of which is a failure of points between departure and destination to correspond with points along the same line drawn in real space. That is, if you journey x light years through hyperspace, it doesn't mean you have, in absolute terms, travelled a corresponding distance towards your destination. The point in hyperspace x light years in, could, in fact, correspond to almost any point in space and time. That's why hyperspace navigation is such a difficult trick to master, and why civilizations lose a great many ships when they first develop the technology.


       It's also why blowing up your hyperdrive halfway through a journey is an extremely dangerous thing to do.


       Benny explained all this to Emile as she wrestled the ASS Athens back into realspace.


       She thought she had stabilized the ship's temporal co-ordinate. Spatially, she'd be lucky to break out of hyperspace as close to Dellah as the Andromeda Galaxy. Assuming the Athens wasn't scattered from one end of the Universe to the other by an ineptly calculated passage through the dimensional interface.


       This, of course, Benny didn't explain to Emile. He received the edited version, "Don't worry, 'Mile. I've done this more times than you've sat through Mass."


       "You know, Benny, this might not be the best time to make fun, even gentle fun, of God."


       "Point taken."


       The Athens bucked under Benny's hands. She needed more crukking stability. But it was too late to do anything about it. Hyperspace burst like a bad dream and they tumbled into realspace.


       Face to face with a very large, very close, brown planet.


       The proximity detector started screaming.


       Benny did her best to reconfigure the Athens for atmospheric flight and dump speed.


       "I don't want to die in Dalek pajamas," Emile shouted.


       "Well anyone who wears Dalek pajamas is practically asking for it," she shouted back.


       "But they're my lucky pair!"


       The ASS Athens struck the surface of the planet Gash very hard indeed.


---
To be continued...



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