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Doctor Who Internet Adventure #22 - "Clockwork Orange"


Chapter 13
"Corona of the Lunatic King"
by Gregg Smith


---


Book Three: Wind-Up


Just before the probe pierced the surface, his vision clouded red. Needle- point pressure caused a haemorrhage under the conjunctiva of his left eyeball. Reflexes screamed for him to snap shut his eyes against the snake mouths. Against the twisting metal tongue. His eyelids fought the clamps that held them open, were serrated by the steel teeth. He felt blood pooling.


       The mechanical whine changed pitch slightly. Then the two snakes plunged through the mucous membranes, through cornea and pupil, each into a soft jelly marble and the liquid beyond. Oddly, he didn't scream as they drilled into his head, as his eyeballs were sliced open and metal filaments traced into his brain. But he did scream when he felt the fangs sink into his very soul.


       He sank through water and then liquid glass. His gloopy humours left him, washed away in blood, and his eyes deflated as metal coursed on through his optic nerves, filled the beckoning chiasma, twined around the lateral geniculate bodies of his brain. The Hydra synapsed into his mind, took control of his vital functions, wrapped itself in his thoughts.


       He felt the jaws dig deeper, rooting into bone. He went limp as they lifted him, gently carried him into the pit. Pain throbbed through his body. He felt snakes closing all around him, wrapping him up, tucking him in. And then, one by one, his sense were switched off. The pain died.


       There was no sensation. It wasn't dark. It was simply nothing.


       "Sans eyes. Sans teeth. Sans taste. Sans everything."


       And then shapes swirled into his higher perception, a reticular kaleidoscope of solids melting into each other. He perceived a surrounding, like a soap bubble. Seemed to feel the liquid wall, spectre pressure on hands and feet that weren't there. The translucent prism colours solidified into dark metal snakes, cold to his thought of touch. And then the snakes were real, flesh things, yellow and black scales writhing in blood, staining his ghost flesh.


       He looked at them, at the different things they were. Or, rather, such a concept surrounded him, was made to him, and, though senseless, he perceived it as if it were an image washed by waves of light to explode over his retina and into his brain. A brain he no longer had. His mind was free now.


       Dream-like, the shape fluctuated between several states, impossible and ghostly. There was hissing in his mind.


       And then he conceived screams. And laughter. And a thousand sounds between.


       The snakes began to bite each other, and there were no snakes, and they slept and twisted and devoured. An iris opened and white light flooded through. The bubble popped, the steel serpents shattered back into nothing, the lithe reptiles shed their skin and crumbled to oblivion, and the Doctor fell into a new conception.


* * *


Kirena hadn't been watching the clock - there wasn't a clock to watch. She could have asked Cray - he was anxiously checking his watch often enough. But she figured it had been about twenty minutes, and she wasn't far wrong.


       Horowitz had been standing in the receiver all this time, at first unimpressed. After a while he relaxed, yet was charged and amazed by what he was seeing. He would occasionally gasp or mutter in awe and exaltation. Living the Doctor's life, the Doctor's adventures in time and space. Getting a little bit of the Doctor's place in the universe, and the Doctor's connection to the universe. And Kirena imagined that it was a very impressive connection. A special connection.


       At one point, Horowitz invited the others to join him - said Cray and Kirena shouldn't miss this. They both declined. Kirena didn't want to live the Doctor's life. The piece of the Doctor she already carried around, the Doctor she knew through their adventures together, was enough. That's what she told herself, anyway. But she and Luke had some inclination of the things he'd seen, and done, and been. Good and bad. Big and small. She thought she was probably seeing the best of him, the beauty. She knew there were other things in him, things he didn't show, things he didn't even want. And she didn't want those things.


       She didn't know why Cray had refused. Probably so he could keep an eye on her. He was pacing around, glancing between her, and Horowitz, and the pit. She paced too, mostly watching the pit. Waiting. Eventually, to break the monotony, she tried to strike up a conversation with Cray.


       "How did you get involved in all this? This can't be a normal military operation?"


       "Quiet."


       "I'm not going to tell anyone."


       "You won't get the opportunity."


       "Well, then, no reason for you not to tell me."


       He sighed.


       "OK. If you'll keep quiet after. Delta ops fall under military jurisdiction. Certain offices in the pentagon co-ordinate this department, and troops are assigned for various duties. Similarly, joint operations between Delta and the secret security departments."


       "I see."


       "Good."


       "But how did you personally come to be part of this?"


       "Look, will you just shut up?"


       "Come on. It's not like there's anything else to do. Just small talk."


       "My connection is... personal."


       "With Horowitz? You two aren't...?" She trailed off, raising her eyebrows.


       "Aren't what?"


       "You know." That got his attention.


       "What?" He turned around, looked her in the eyes - they were the same height. "No! I was an officer in his father's battalion during the war. I've known him since before he started college. Before he became a doctor. He brought me onto CLOCKWORK five years ago, when Delta was established as an organization in its own right, separate from military intelligence and weapons research."


       "But now you're having doubts."


       "What?"


       I can tell. You thought you were on to a good thing, a project that was going places. And you were helping out an old friend. But now you know this gravy train's going straight to hell."


       "No. Despite your presence, everything here is under control."


       "Yeah. Sure."


* * *


There was no sensation. It wasn't dark.


       He felt, at once, galactic and microscopic. He was staring down a cone that stretched away to a point of light. And he was walking down a tunnel, a pipeline deep in the earth. And it was huge, dwarfed him, and he filled it, and it was tiny and right in front of his eye, and it was in him, and it was him. And then it started to twist apart, light spiralling outside, and it curved and twisted and it was a whirlpool and then he was floating in nothing. He swam forward. He was in a labyrinth, curvaceous and tight. And he wasn't alone.


       The first soul he encountered, the freshest, still didn't understand what had happened. Oddly, she wasn't screaming, and she wasn't full of questions. But she did ask if there was anything to drink. Something strong, if possible.


       He felt her. He felt all of her. But it didn't overwhelm him.


       She told him all about the little club she ran. She didn't tell him about the profitable sideline, but he picked it up anyway. And then he saw the affair she had, so many years ago, with a young soldier named Jack Cray.


       Big Ben, as she always called him, was an officer in the marine corps. A big guy. One night, he brought a couple of guys from his unit. They kicked back, got drunk, watched the strippers. But they were waiting for her. Ben wanted his boys to find out how good it was with an older woman, like an initiation. They were his special boys, up and coming officers. Some guy named Joe — seemed like a bit of a loser to her. And some guy named Jack.


       And Jack was really special.


       All three had wives, the other two had kids, but they were about to go off to die. This was their last leave, and they were in the city for something special. It didn't count. Doing it with her didn't count. They were sweet, all three of them, and the colonel was a regular. But Jack was special. When he was inside her, it was the same as the other two. But afterwards, when they were smoking in bed, and when he walked out to go and fight, there was still a connection. She felt him after he'd gone.


       He went off to fight the Japs. And he didn't come back. Oh, he survived. Went home. But he didn't come back to her. She never saw him again. But she still felt him. Still thought there was a connection. The Doctor didn't tell her that there was. Didn't tell her about the chain. About Clockwork. About the Hydra. He didn't tell her the truth, though he wanted to, and she wasn't strong enough to pull it out of him.


       The next soul was frightened. It said its name was Krebs, and it understood all too well. It wasn't going any further. He wasn't going any further.


       He wouldn't dare. He knew what was waiting. He knew who was waiting. So many. And he'd put so many of them here. And, now that his soul was free, so much was flooding out of it. So much he never knew was there. So much he didn't want to know. Too much. He wanted to turn, to go back. But he couldn't. And he wouldn't go on. So he sat, eating himself over and over.


       The name of Jack Cray popped up again as the Doctor pushed forward. There were men here, filled with discipline and bollocks, and his name was at the top of their chains, pulling. It didn't take the Doctor too long to figure out who he was, as he swam past the screaming soldiers, waiting greedily for their commanding officer to join them.


       "J'ai une ame solitaire." The words drifted around, spoken without voice by the next soul he met.


       And that soul gave him a little picture of Cray, fuming and red, redder even than in Ramona's picture. They both laughed at it. But Cray's face soon faded, and there was Krebs. The Nazi. Every Nazi. One face, many hands, marching over his homeland.


       This soul was full of hate. And he knew the Doctor.


       "Caillou!"


       "Excuse me?" thought the Doctor.


       "You! What have you done to me?"


       "I've done nothing."


       "No. Caillou. The Doctor. The alien who keeps us back, hides things, destroys the tools of progress, clouds the light. And now you've got me, eh?


       "You've got the wrong end of the stick. I don't even know you."


       "Yes you do. I know you. We've met before. Oh, you were different then. Don't you remember? In France."


       "I'm sorry, I..."


       "You don't remember?"


       "No. I'm sorry."


       "We fought. More than once. I've worked so hard. My organization, the Directory. And you don't even remember?"


       The Doctor drifted on, leaving the Frenchman in sadness.


       And there were people here who shied away from the Doctor, from each other. Who hid in the emptiness, just wanted to be alone. Wanted to be over. They all wanted to be over.


       He pushed past a few more lost and wandering souls, screaming and clawing. And then he reached the massive. It took him a while to realise what it was, this rolling, amorphous collective. So many souls together, separate but combined, many and yet one. They blocked his path. He swam forward, into them, and they surrounded him. He felt them. Each one, and all as one. He drowned in them, and it was quite joyous. There was sadness here, and loss, but also joy. Shared joy, as they shared themselves with each other. The misery of those who had not joined the gestalt was washed away.


       He saw last sights seen, from a syrupy glass to a cold night-stick to metal teeth and biting blades. He heard last songs sung-along to, from Nature Boy to the Purple People Eater. First sex, last sex, love, honour, pride, dreams, everything, everything good and bad. And, through their careful concentration, the good overwhelmed the bad for this group. Life, so much life.


       An old beggar was telling stories about an old god, bound in a serpent's cave under the Earth, bound by the entrails of his own son. And there, trying to frame concepts impossible and free, was a Portuguese photographer who got caught snooping too near the mine. Life through a lens.


       They missed their old lives. But they'd made the best of this.


       They wanted him to join them. For his sake. And for theirs, as they sensed the life within him, sensed what it would bring to the group.


       He felt them. He felt all of them. But it didn't overwhelm him.


* * *


"None of our subjects have survived this long before. Hooked up for over an hour. It's astounding. And what a life he has had. He really is an alien." Horowitz stepped out of the receiver, leaning on the frame to steady himself. "He really is. He's lived so long. Such a life. So much life. A whole galaxy of experience. It's wondrous. Truly wondrous. And death. Do you know how many times your friend has died, Kirena? I had to stop after the fifth. It was so emotional. Death and rebirth. To experience that. It's more than I've ever experienced in this machine before." He laughed. "I need to sit down." He settled beside the receiver and closed his eyes.


       Cray shook his head and looked away from Horowitz. He paced past Kirena - who was, herself, pacing, anxious — and glanced at the pit outside.


       She looked between Cray - taught shoulders, knotted brow — and Horowitz — relaxed, serene. She sighed, and walked over to Cray. She stood behind him for a few moments, arms folded, eyebrows raised, waiting for some acknowledgement. Then she spoke anyway.


       "So, does Delta have many projects like this?"


       "Many," he said after a few moments. "Not all like this."


       "But what's it all for? What are you hoping to achieve?"


       "New discoveries. New technologies. Imagine what an alien ship like this might have to offer."


       "And torturing people is the best way to get it? Not just taking it apart, analysing it?"


       "It's..."


       "It's what? You've never once stopped to question this, have you? In five years, you've never thought about what it is that goes on here."


       "It's expedient. Time is a factor. We need to show results, and quickly. Especially now. The machine demands it."


       "The ship?"


       "No. The military establishment. It's growing. The arms industry, growing."


       "Mmm. It's called the military-industrial complex. It's nothing new."


       "Soon, they'll over-shadow everything else. They'll need to, if another war comes along. It'll be the only way to fight the Threat."


       "The Threat? The Russians?"


       "Communism."


       "You don't seriously believe that, do you?"


       "No. Oh, it's a threat of some kind. But it's as useful as hell, too. There will be battles that need to be fought. And we can't go back to the way it was before the war. America needs a permanent military foundation. And what would guys like me do without it?"


       They were silent for a time, watched Horowitz, watched the pit, paced a bit more.


       "Is Delta all military, then?" Kirena asked after a while.


       "No. Look at Horowitz. Plenty of civilians, scientists and a few analysts. But usually with some military connection."


       "And how did CLOCKWORK start?"


       "A scientist found this ship." He patted the glass twice. "He was already in military intelligence - weapons development during the war, and afterwards. He found it in '48, up a mountain somewhere."


       "Not Horowitz?"


       "No, he was doing his last year at college."


       "And what happened to this scientist?"


       "Oh... he's still around."


       "Was he military?"


       "No, he failed the entrance. Psychological problems. But his talents, and a couple of papers he'd written about some weird shit, brought him to the attention of the Naval R and D boys. He got bumped up to DoD in '45."


       "What were you doing before you joined the project, then?"


       "I was at the DoD, attached to one of the departments that eventually became Delta. We were trying to develop ways to organise intelligence from all three departments into one system. Create a focus for the collection and dissemination of military intel."


       "And sometimes, you wish you'd stayed, right?"


       "Not really. The promotion was attractive. And when this project pays off, there'll be another one."


       "You don't seriously still think this is going anywhere, do you? A malfunctioning alien ship, buried under the American soil, eating people. It's growing, like some sort of cancer. You can't hope to control it, or to understand it, and what the hell would you use it for? It'll eat /you/, eventually. Unless you get away. This whole thing's gone to hell. Look at what's happening around you," she emphasised the point by swinging her forearms out. "Remember what the Doctor said. CLOCKWORK is over." Her jaw set slightly. "One way or another."


       He looked at her sternly, then turned away.


       "I think I've had enough of your small talk. Jerry," he barked. Horowitz opened his eyes dreamily. "Jerry, I'm going back upstairs. Shift change's due. Keep an eye on her."


       "Course."


       Cray put his goggles on and walked out of the ship. He walked stiffly round the pit and into the access tunnel.


       Horowitz, waited a few moments, then grinned at Kirena. "Promise you won't go anywhere."


       "Don't worry. I'm not leaving the Doctor."


       Horowitz re-entered the receiver once Cray was out of sight. He staggered as the Doctor's life washed over him again. He looked like he was floating, his face a picture of ecstasy. "Oh my God," he whispered. "It's full of stars."


       Kirena raised her eyebrows.


* * *


There was no sensation. It wasn't dark.


       The Doctor floated in the waves of pleasure, but still worked his way forward. He was starting to enjoy this feeling, these people, these lost souls who had found each other and created new life. He felt the door closing somewhere behind him. No: It was already closed, but he felt himself starting to accept that. The door wasn't locked, yet. But, for a while, he thought he might not mind if it was.


       "We're your friends. We're not like the others."


       He knew that was true. A universe of wonder was here. He could be happy. He was sure of it. But, still, he couldn't give himself up. No matter how much he wanted to.


       He pushed on, through the gestalt, and said goodbye. They parted company tearfully.


       He came to a place of watching. A great theatre, and there were a thousand TV sets arranged on the stage. They showed one image - each screen showed the same image, then each showed a little part of the whole, a massive face on the stage made up of screens made up of pixels. The Doctor stared back at himself, and allowed himself a little smile. And then the screens changed, each showing a different image. People, talking, doing things. Lots of people. And lots of places, some empty, some buzzing with activity. He realised that this was what the Hydra saw. That, somehow, each snakehead was able to observe the outside world, relay the information back into here. Or maybe it watched the world some other way. But it was watching.


       The Hydra, splayed out through the complex, secretly watching its keepers. Watching, behind vents and down pipes. Watching soldiers and staff, grim on duty, frantic and searching, some in the shower focused on the white in front of their eyes, so careful not to look at the other bodies through the steam and the swell.


       A group of frightened people, huddled in a little wooden room, some way away. Roni. He saw Roni. She seemed sad. She seemed to be crying, the Doctor couldn't quite tell. And then there were animals, the rats and bats and snakes still brave enough to venture into these caves, little bites that gave little sustenance.


       There was Luke, in a dark, silver-blue room. Surgical white light shone from just above, creating a nimbus around his head as he concentrated on his work. He held a bandage and a little bottle of something, tending to another's wound. Couldn't see who. Heard Luke say, "it's sterile, don't worry, it'll be fine".


       "We'll be out of here soon. Just find the Doctor and Kadi, and get out. Then, you and I have things to discuss. Back in LA. Over Singapore slings and some mescaline, I think." He smiled. The snake watching him recoiled, went to look at something else. The Doctor drifted on.


       Next, he became aware that he himself was being watched. There were lights on him, probing his mind. Not the Hydra, but something outside. Two minds, watching his progress, looking into him. It wasn't pleasant.


       The Doctor concentrated. And he saw, Horowitz, watching him. Sharing in him. Living the Doctor's life. And there, in the ship, outside, the Doctor saw through Horowitz's eyes, the Doctor saw Kirena watching Horowitz living him. She was anxious. Was she living his life, too?


       "Kirena?" he called out.


       "She's not hooked-up. She can't hear you. He can't even hear you. He can't see that you can see him. He's being carried through your memories. Your current self is a world away."


       "Who are you?"


       "That's not important."


       "I think it's very important. What's your name? I can't seem to see it. I can't feel you like I felt the others."


       "But I can feel you, Doctor. Suffice to say, I was once a very important person. And then I became even more important. I gave my eyes, that I might see, gave them for the knowledge I am now blessed with."


       "Both of them? Odin only had to sacrifice one."


       "And Merlin, too. But I got much more knowledge than they ever had. Listen. The snakes never lie. But the owls are not what they seem."


       The Doctor snorted. "And there is no spoon."


       "If you say so."


       "I don't think much of this knowledge. Hardly worth a tear, let alone both eyes.


       They danced around each other.


       "You'll make a beautiful corpse, Doctor."


       "Not today."


       "You so sure? I know you. I can see who you are. What you are. What you do. I can see into your soul. You creep from place to place, scrabbling around with stinky little wastrels, carrying your home like a snail. A pacifist activist, is that it? Think you're doing the right thing, fighting the good fight. You're wasting your time. Weak, that's what you are. You stinky pig. You slime. You whore. A whore to dreams and delusions, that's what you are."


       "I really don't have time for these distractions. You're not what I'm looking for."


       "What you're looking for? You've never looked in your life. You're blind. You think you're a champion, don't you? A hero. You're nothing. A doctor, aiding the cancer of creation. All the worlds a plague."


       "And many men play one part." The Doctor sighed, tried to move on, but found himself pulled back. It felt like he had tried to walk off, and been pulled back by the lapels, face to face with this aggressor.


       "You don't fight that plague. You aid it. You make me sick."


       The Doctor recoiled slightly from this, distracted, confused.


       "I mean, you're an interesting guy. It's usually so dull in here. Just sentiment and longing. The despair is quite beautiful, but it gets to be mundane after a while. So little of interest to watch. Nothing changes. But you're different."


       "Yes. You said you knew me." Two minds, watching his progress, looking into him. One was Horowitz, and the other was... who? "You're not quite in here, are you?"


       "Not altogether."


       "Yet you share this space. How is that possible?"


       "You'll see."


       "Is there something you want?"


       "Yes."


       "What?"


       "A touch of evil in the tunnel of love."


       "What?"


       "I want. What the Hydra wants. It is good. What it wants. Good."


       "What does it want?"


       "Fulfilment."


       "The Hydra wants fulfilment?"


       "It wants to fulfil the wants of..." the observer trailed off.


       "Of...? Of who? Datura?"


       "You'll see. You'll see everything."


       "Couldn't you just tell me?"


       "No. But I will tell you this." It paused, then continued in a whisper. "The king must die. Lines will be broken, and pawns will fall. All will be sacrificed. A brave fight, to be sure. But you will lose. The king will die. His head of state will roll. The crown will come crashing down. And then, it will be too late."


       "Have we met before?" asked the Doctor.


       "No. But where I come from, the trees tell stories of your adventures."


       "Do they really?" said the Doctor wearily.


       "Please, go on. Go forward. I am enjoying your journey."


       The Doctor pushed past this observer, wafting mild irritation in its direction.


* * *


Cray marched down the stony corridor, clenching and unclenching his fists. He rounded the corner and was greeted by the sight of two legs sticking out of the lift. It was lying face down, but Cray could tell that it was Krebs' body, bloody and broken.


       The lift was down, the doors stuck open, stranded on the lowest level. And the phone beside the lift was hanging off the hook. He walked over and put the handset back on the hook. It rang immediately, and he snatched it up.


       "Report."


       "General Cray?" asked the voice on the other end. There was a note of anxiety in the well-trained voice.


       Cray recognised the young man's voice. "What's going on, captain?"


       "Sir, we've been trying to call down for an hour, and we can't get the elevator back up."


       "The doors have been blocked. Krebs is dead. What's going on up there?"


       "Sir, the prisoner escaped."


       "What? Who?"


       "Adler, sir. Nathan Adler. He's escaped, and we presume he's come down there."


       Cray pulled his gun out of its holster.


       "Damn. He must have gone down to the pit. He could be hiding anywhere in that cavern. I'm sending the lift back up, get some men down here immediately."


       "Sir."


       "I'm going to get Horowitz and that female. I expect you to be here when I get back. Move it, captain."


       "We're ready, sir."


       Cray replaced the handset and hauled Krebs' body out of the lift. He noticed the damage inside as the doors rattled shut. He turned on his heel and stormed off down the corridor, cocking his pistol, pulling his goggles back on.


       As he passed the corner, a man stepped out of the shadows. Adler. He had his hands over his face, and his wounds were giving him no trouble. He had been standing beyond the lift, hidden in the darkness of that dead end. Cray hadn't seen him, of course. But he had seen Cray. Rather, he had been aware of Cray. Just as he was aware of the Hydra. And the Doctor. And Horowitz and Kirena, and the men waiting above for the elevator to arrive.


       "And thus, toward the classical confrontation. Shame, I was enjoying that." He lowered his hands from his face. "But one mustn't get distracted by pretty pictures and idle banter. I must dive in myself. The king must die. The king must die, for the new king to live." He began to walk down the corridor, purpose showing in his movement.


* * *


There was no sensation. It wasn't dark.


       The Doctor wandered through fields of happiness. Colour and texture, revolving around what he knew must be the core. The heart of the Hydra. These were happy memories, but they had no minds with them. Thoughts separated from their thinkers, memories adrift, growing here. From the dead, and perhaps those who had surrendered completely, not joined the gestalt, no longer wandering alone, fallen apart inside the Hydra. They were being cultivated.


       And then, when he reached the edge of these fields, the Doctor found that they were being eaten. He found himself being sucked down, caught in a whirlpool of forgotten holidays, ever-lasting romance, presents and great food, drink and drugs, sex and friends, graduation, marriage, freedom, fast cars, brilliant flicks, peace and dancing, parties and lazing in the sun.


       He was cushioned by these memories, swallowed with them. And he found himself in a bubble. A sclera. Opaque white, translucent enough to be transparent. He could see outside, the bubble floating in a red vacuum. The heart of the Hydra. The eye of the storm.


       "Hello," said the bubble. "I'm Datura. And you are?"


       "The Doctor."


       "Well, the Doctor. Welcome to my domain."


       "Your domain? This machine is your creation? That's your ship out there?"


       "Yes."


       "Do you have any idea of the trouble you've caused?"


       "Erm, yes. Sorry."


       "Sorry?"


       "Yes, sorry."


       "It kills people, eats their eyeballs."


       "Yes. I am sorry. But that is what it was programmed to do."


       "But why? What is this really about?"


       "You wish to hear my story?"


       "I'd like an answer. Yes."


       "Very well. I'll tell you everything."


       "Everything?"


       "I have nothing to fear from telling you. Knowledge is not power here. It is life. I've picked up some of these Earth aphorisms, I'm afraid. I do apologise. Besides, I can tell you anything I like, and you cannot keep it if I don't want you to. This is my domain, and I hold court. As it were. I am in control. Of what little there is to control, in here.


       "Yes, yes. You were going to explain things."


       "Impatient, the Doctor. Very well. It started out as a way to see the world through someone else's eyes. A device for better understanding, for communion. But I soon realised it could be so much more. A function of my machine allowed the transference of an individual mind from one body to another. Assuming physical compatibility. But that was more of a by- product. An interesting one, but never the purpose. As my research progressed, I realised it would be possible not just to share another's experiences, to see life through their eyes, but to actually join with them. I discovered a way of going beyond the physical plane, of experiencing reality on a higher level. I hope you can understand that. A way to live beyond the physical plane, to connect with another being on every level.


       "Of course, when I released my findings, asked for more resources to continue my research, develop a machine through which one could become part of a non-corporeal gestalt, or simply pass beyond the physical plane, there was outrage. The politicians were shocked, the people screamed for my blood. I was hounded out of the university, branded a mad scientist. My family were attacked, my friends were forced to denounce me in public. Well, I hope they were forced - as terrible as that sounds. My people, who had so prided themselves on being civilised, evolved, having conquered the hyper-space barrier and colonised our entire solar system, rejected me. And they rejected my work."


       Images were imagined in the background - Datura arguing with his superiors and with politicians and journalists, struggling, speaking out and being jeered and chased, his lab destroyed, his family humiliated in public.


       "I wanted to develop a machine for sharing conscious. Sharing pieces of the mind, of experience and understanding, the same way my people share their DNA, bits of the body. A machine that would allow one to evolve to a higher plane. It wasn't a very popular idea. They wouldn't let me continue my work."


       "They weren't ready," said the Doctor.


       "No. So much of life is a putting-off of unhappiness for another time," said Datura.


       "Graham Greene."


       "One of the humans in here gave me the book. Or her memories of the book. I liked it."


       "I don't quite see the relevance."


       "Oh, things lost. Things forgotten. I spent all that time plotting revenge and reincarnation. I never once thought about what I'd really lost. My friends and family. My home. I forgot my sadness, concentrated on my anger.


       "After my persecution on Sitlan, I ran away into space. They pursued me for a while, hounded me, damaged my ship. But I survived. I got so far away I couldn't get back, and they couldn't find me. I ended up on this planet. Crashed. Stranded on a primitive world. The humans were just animals then. They've evolved - slowly. I've been watching their progress, monitoring, receiving signals. It's not until the past fifty years or so that things have really gotten interesting. They're destroying each other, you know. Polluting their world, killing themselves. But they can be so creative, so expressive. There is much wrong with them, but also so much that I envy. So much that reminds me of the good side of my own people.


       "My body was dying. I put it into stasis, connected to my machine so my mind stayed active. I adapted my invention. I made it possible for me to transfer my existence, my persona, my non-corporeal self, into another being."


       "And over the centuries..."


       "Millennia."


       "Over the millennia, you went mad."


       "That's a rather pejorative term, Doctor. I became a little bitter, but with good justification. My people, and their stupidity and ignorance, was responsible for my predicament. And when, after keeping myself in on-line stasis for all that time, my body died and I became trapped in here, I became rather depressed. I resolved to wait for a suitable vessel, transfer my mind into a new body, so that I might continue my work. I was full of hate at the start. Yes, I went a little mad. I've been back and forth. I waited so long. So long for the fleshlings of this world to become suitable vessels. All that time, sitting, waiting, on the edge of death. Can you imagine?"


       "Yes, I can," said the Doctor sadly.


       "There were so many times I thought about just giving up, ending it all. And then, despite my work, it all went wrong. And my body died whilst I was connected to my machine. And I became trapped. Trapped forever. It just isn't fair!"


       "I don't understand."


       "Adler — have you met Adler? Doesn't matter. He found me. I was ecstatic, at last I thought I would be able to get somewhere. He brought his friend to me, and I connected to him. To Robert. But Robert was dead. I didn't realise. I hadn't made allowances for that. His mind went into my machine, and I went across into his body. Let my body die. But Robert's shell only had a few seconds of life to give me. And so, I was trapped. After millennia of waiting here, trapped in this ship only warmed by my machine, I was trapped again. With no hope of resurrection. Trapped in here. With Robert. And all the other people who have been sent to join us over the years. I think I would have enjoyed living the rest of Robert's life. I've enjoyed what life he had until his best friend killed him."


       "Where is Robert?"


       "Oh, he went silent some time ago. Before they started brining me new minds, I ate bits of his and his alone. A little too much, I think. A shame."


       "You ate Robert's mind?"


       "Bits of it. His was the only one, before others came. I've been... looking for a quantum of solace. The memories, feelings, dreams, they keep me warm. I only picked the bits people wouldn't miss, harvest a little here and there. Cultivate each one, allow it to grow on its own. Then I consume them, take them on board. I know it's wrong, but it's all I can do to keep from going insane. And I don't take much. Just what people have to spare. A little from each goes a long way."


       The Doctor floated in silence for a few moments. Eventually, he asked the main question.


       "But why is Hydra... why is your machine, still attacking people?"


       "Oh, that. Well, I gave it the order to find a new body for my soul to inhabit."


       "And?"


       "And I didn't get the chance to switch it off."


       "And you can't switch it off from in here?"


       "No. And nobody can switch it off from out there. It's the machine. The system. I created it. I was a different... man, then, of course. But I've got no control over it now. It's like an animal, with one instinct. It's out of control. Self-perpetuating. And it cannot be stopped. But it could be influenced."


       "What?"


       "It could be influenced. If someone strong enough became a part of it. Didn't just get swallowed up and trapped, but actually merged with it, they could influence it's appetites. Tame it. Influence who it consumes, what it consumes."


       "Turn it off?"


       No. But change its nature. Make it less of a threat. I'm not strong enough. But maybe you are."


       Me?"


       "Perhaps."


       "How?"


       "Give yourself up to it. Become one with the machine. Become a part of it, and you can change it from inside. It's the only hope."


       "And I can change it. But will it change me?"


       "I... I think it will."


       "These things usually do."


       "But you could stop these deaths. Lessen the flow. Stop what the humans are doing with my machine."


       The Doctor paused. He paused.


       "Is there no other way?"


       "Well, my people might be able to do something. If they haven't rejected technology completely, become artless savages. Take it apart, find a way to stop it. I suppose you could go and find one of them. I did try to send out a distress signal when I died, but my people never came to answer it."


       "That's because they don't exist any more."


       "What?"


       "Not for about three thousand years."


       "They died out? Or were they destroyed by some kind enemy?"


       "Neither. They evolved to a higher plane."


       "What? What?!"


       "They evolved to a higher plane. About ten-thousand years after you left the planet, you'd become something of a cult figure. I didn't actually realise you were real. A number of things have just fallen into place, actually. None of the Sitlani managed to replicate your technology — you really were... are one of the finest minds in the galaxy. But they carried on evolving, at a remarkable rate, through the sharing of DNA. And your philosophy, your hope for shared mental existence, influenced that. Eventually, all the surviving Sitlani evolved onto a higher plane of existence. A non-corporeal one. And, I'm afraid to say, all the while you were down here, trying to find a new body, extend your corporeal existence and go back to gain revenge on the descendants of your enemies, those descendants were making your dreams come true."


       "This... really isn't making me feel better."


       "Sorry."


       "Still, it's nice having you here. I sense there's a lot of you to keep me warm."


       "I'm not staying."


       "Really?"


       "I will go back and stop this machine. Somehow. Destroy it, if I have to."


       "But everyone in here will die."


       "You're already dead. Do you wish to prolong this existence, this imprisonment?


       "No. But I'm not sure I'm ready to end it, either. If it means dying."


       "Even after all this time?"


       "And what about all the others in here? Will you ask each and every one?"


       "What about all the others out there?"


       "Well, you could just isolate the machine. Stop the humans using it."


       "And you would consume all the minds in here, and then rot alone?"


       "Well... I... I don't want to talk about that."


       "I'm sorry. But I have to go. I have to do what I can."


       "I see. And how do intend to leave?"


       "The way I came."


       "But you are connected to my machine. Even if your body still lives — and I sense it doesn't have much longer - you cannot simply sever the connection yourself. You see, Doctor, you're as trapped as I am."


* * *


"This is amazing," said Horowitz. "He's been under for eighty minutes. I've never witnessed anything like this. Such a life. Such a wonderful life. Such a horrible life. Your friend has truly surprised me, Kirena. I wonder how much longer he can survive."


       "He'll survive. He'll come out of that thing."


       "I wouldn't bet on it."


       Suddenly the door opened and Cray rushed in. He didn't take his goggles off.


       "You're still alive. We have to get out of here. Adler's escaped. He's down here somewhere."


       "That's impossible." Horowitz came out of the receiver, fear on his face. "Adler was too well secured. I left orders that when he woke up he should... oh no."


       "Krebs is dead. I don't know what kind of havoc he wreaked upstairs. Some of my men are coming down to take care of him, but I need to get you two back upstairs."


       "No, I can't leave. This is too fascinating to miss," said Horowitz.


       "And I'm not leaving the Doctor," said Kirena. She looked back out at the pit, thought about diving in there and pulling him out.


       "There's no fucking time to argue."


       "I won't go," said Horowitz.


       Kirena was looking outside when Adler entered the cavern. She saw him walk out of the corridor, then pause and look around. As if he could see. And then he smiled.


       Kirena stared at him. At the blood caked across his sleeves and around his mouth. The burnt holes in his clothes and face. A spike of white hair above a lined forehead. Rusted scars and two pits where his eyes should have been.


       "Is that your Adler fellow, by any chance?" she said lightly. The other two rushed to her side and looked outside.


       "Yes, that's him," said Horowitz.


       "Fuck," spat Cray, clenching his pistol.


       And then, laughing, Adler walked into the pit. His footing faltered over the snakes, whirring with electric anticipation, and he laughed even more. They washed over his bare feet, kissed the flesh, and he waded on through them, ever deeper. When they were up to his knees, slip-sliding eagerly over each other, they began their ascendance. They curled around his thighs and then his belly, climbed his rib cage, tore through his clothes, reached up and enveloped his shoulders and neck. They nibbled playfully at his flesh with their metal fangs. And then, joyously, he threw his arms up and was sucked under.


       "I imagine that's not a good thing," said Kirena.


       "On the contrary," said Horowitz. "It might just be what I've been waiting for all along. I should have realised before." He smiled. "It's crunch time."


* * *


There was no sensation. It wasn't dark


       "I'll find a way. I have to."


       "Have to?"


       "I have to stop your machine. Switch it off."


       "I told you, you can't. Oh my."


       "What?"


       "He's here."


       "Who's here?"


       "Adler. He's come back. It must be time for something big."


       "Come back?"


       "Yes. He connected to the Hydra some years ago. He's the only person to have survived."


       "Is that who I was speaking to earlier on? The man they had restrained."


       "Yes. They think he's mad. He thinks he's reached true enlightenment."


       "Being connected to the Hydra changed him."


       "A bit. But being connected to him changed my machine, too. They mutated each other. And they've never really been separate since. But never together, either. Waiting to be re-untied, cut off from each other — Horowitz was very careful to keep them separate. But he soon learnt that if Adler was too far away, my machine pined for him. So, they kept him close, but isolated. And now, he's returned. He's been waiting for so long. They've both been waiting. For this moment. My machine will make sure it cannot be separated from him again. And he will use its power and nature to go forward, pursue his goals. Their shared goals."


       "Twisted goals."


       "Subjective. But he has a drive for total annihilation."


       "Thanks to your machine."


       "It merely amplified what was already within him. He's here now."


       "Honey, I'm home." His voice echoed inside the Hydra, and the Doctor sensed it, felt it, thought it. An old-fashioned drawl, exaggerated in this seeming world. The Doctor looked outside the bubble, saw the new arrival floating serenely, naked and clean, eyes closed, his spike of white hair shining. His body looked soft, unblemished. He had no body hair, was bare even under the arms and around the genitals.


       "I was blind," he said, smiling. "And now I see."


       "Oh, please, not more quotes."


       "Seeing is believing, Doctor." He opened his eyes. They shone, golden crystal. "And this is America. Everything is seen here. Governments watch people. The secret service watches the government. And the people watch fictions about the secret service. And TV, of course. There must be over fifty million TV sets in the country today. Do you know how powerful television is?"


       "Of course."


       His voice took on a disapproving tone "Everybody spends too much time watching. The TV and the big screen. It's used to brainwash the masses. By politicians."


       "Nixon used it to save his career in '52. And in two years time, it will cost him the election. Eisenhower will be one of the last presidents who doesn't win thanks to playing well on the TV."


       "Sick," he said with a sneer. "They're brainwashed, consumed by triviality. They spend all their time watching, and not doing. Such a waste. But, then, who am I to complain? Real or projected, it's all just so many sights for me to eat. TV has eaten the world."


       "It's just another way of getting a message across. It's the message itself that matters. And TV is better than the alternative. The other thing that will win elections in the coming decades."


       "Death. Nothing is better than death. It is, quite literally, the be-all and the end-all. Where would we be without death?"


       "Still alive."


       "It drives us forward. More powerful than country. More powerful than God. I serve. In Death we trust."


       "Oh, yes. And taxes." The Doctor shook his head. "Death is merely part of a chain. A way of changing and evolving life. It's nothing special. It's nothing to serve."


       "Evolves life, yes. Ends the weak and the wasteful. The wrong. Those who do not deserve to live must die."


       "I don't..."


       "And now, nothing deserves to live. The end is nigh."


       "That's not for you to decide."


       "Or you. Have you looked at the world? Really seen it? At humanity? TV, and the culture it gives rise, the messed-up immorality, had condemned humanity. Eaten the world, spat out a ruin. Now I must correct that. We live inside a lie. The bigger the lie, the more people believe it. And the biggest lie of all is that human life is worth something.


       "Look at them all!" Pictures flashed outside the bubble, all around, snapshots and newsreels of people from all over the world, happy faces, sad faces, dying faces, starving, partying, fighting, running, winning, losing, marching, sleeping, eating, diseased, powerful, penniless, old, young, proud, afraid.


       "Over two billion slavering wretches, wallowing in their own filth. Over a hundred and fifty million in this country alone. And America, that used to be so great, is one of the worst. The people, spreading out from the cities, sprawling, suburbs merging one world with another. Squeezing filthy offspring out like there was no tomorrow. Undoing all the good work the war had done. All that cleansing and they just mess it up again.


       "And to each a home, a yard, a white picket fence, a car in the garage, a refrigerator, an electric iron, a Bendix washing machine, a toaster, a Hoover vacuum cleaner, a coffee percolator, a lawn mower, an electric mixer, and peelers and carvers and cutters and steamers. Each one the same as the last, row upon row of neat little human scum. Factories and fabrication, everything matching and equal. So fucking anodyne.


       "And then the city was full of black faces from nowhere, and raging liberals and upwardly-mobiles, everyone spreading out and mixing around. Bleeding-hearts and dingbats and... and cock-suckers! Strikes and protests, New Deals and forget the old traditions! I grew up on a farm, you know. Oh, I went to college in the city. Built a career, in a suit or a lab coat, working for the government. But the farm was my home. My heart. The heart of America, once. Not any more. No, after the war they ripped that heart out. And I sat in the city, doing their dirty work, living that suburb life, while my father died.


       "I went walking to escape it all, back into the country. Trying to find places in the country with the facilities for me to conduct my research far away from the grotesque monotony of humans. Went walking in the mountains. Even there, the filth festered. And I learnt the truth about the new dream, about the new world I lived in. About Susie. But we won't talk about her. I found something. Something very special. Something that completely changed my work. That changed me.


       "I waited before I came in here. I was afraid, I'm ashamed to say. But when I did, oh, it was glorious. I knew, then, that I could really make a difference. That I could fight the good fight. I read, not long before I came in here, an article by a great man, named Reinhold Niebur."


       "Never heard of him," muttered the Doctor.


       "He was on the cover of one of Jeremiah's silly magazines. But the article was amazing. He talked about the inherent evil in men. And women, of course. That faith in human nature was false, would be betrayed. Men are selfish, and not to be trusted. To be alive was to be on a planet full of sin and degradation. He was right. And I have the solution. I will free humanity from this sin and degradation. And I will cleanse the planet of it at the same time.


       "I used to think that there were too many people in the world. But now I know, that even one is too many. Humans are sick, now. Beyond salvation. This world must be cleansed, before it can degenerate any more. I will excoriate this world, purify it. And with what you and Datura have shown me, Doctor, I know there are more worlds out there. Each with its own stinky, degenerate, mutant infestation. Like humans. Worse than humans. Shit. I'm going to destroy it all. Purge the disease of life from this universe.


       "Death doesn't accept bribes, doesn't fall for stupid, traitorous girls. Death isn't selfish or vain. Death isn't confused or complicated. Death is clean, pure and simple."


       "Death is just something else to be fought."


       "No, death ends the fight. I will be death. Death to everything. The end, the absolute end. Armageddon."


       "You're insane."


       "Life is insane. I only wish to end the madness. Life is a disease. Humanity, a cancer."


       "What about culture? Beauty? Education? Art? Philosophy, literature, poetry. Design, invention, idealism."


       "Symptoms of the disease. And I am its cure. I am the machine. The Hydra. And I will heal the world. And the universe beyond. I will wipe out the pollution, the pox of life. I will eat it all."


       "I won't let you."


       "You can't stop me. I will become the machine, and the machine will fulfil its destiny. Leave this cavern, be free to grow. Consume the parasites of this world."


       "And then?"


       "The machine will grow, will keep growing. I will leave this world, consume all the worlds out there. Nobody will attack me whilst I am in America. And once I have consumed this country, I will be so strong that nothing, no weapon, no country, and eventually no space fleet, no world, will be able to stop me. I will be invincible.


       "And what then?"


       "What?"


       "Once you have consumed the entire galaxy, the entire universe even. What then?"


       "I..."


       "What then?"


       "I will stop. The machine will stop. It will be fulfilled. Then, the machine will eat itself."


       "But..."


       "No, Doctor, there are no buts. It is simple. Life is a waste. Life is degenerate and stinky. And I will eat it. I will eat it until there is no more."


       "No."


       "I will."


       "I will stop you! I..." His voice dropped, he turned around. "I can't let you do that... I will stop you."


       "Do you see now, Doctor? He must be stopped. It's you're last chance, Doctor," emphasised Datura. "You can beat him. You can be stronger. Merge with the machine before he does. Save it. Stop him!"


       "Silence," said Adler.


       "No! I won't let you do this to my machine. I didn't create it to destroy life. I created it to change life, to evolve life. Doctor, you must fight him. It's the only way."


       "There is another way. There must be." The Doctor turned, hit the side of the sphere, started to fight his way out of the eye, pushing, looking for a weak point, looking for something. For some hope. He pushed at the bubble, and Adler pushed back, trying to stop him. Outside, their bodies writhed around in the pit, twisted and wracked, cocooned by the metal snakes.


       "Even if your body survives, the neurological damage is impossible to repair. There's nowhere for you to go, Doctor. Give in. Die, Doctor! Die!"


       "My brain isn't damaged. I'm not human. My body can resist the Hydra. I can resist it!"


       "You cannot leave, Doctor."


       "Yes... I... can..." The Doctor pushed, and the bubble started to stretch and thin.


       "Not without help from outside."


       "It will come. It... I..." And the bubble gave. A small tear. The Doctor made it wider, squeezed through.


       "You cannot stop me, Doctor. In here, or out there. I will see you again. Mine will be the last face you see before you die."


       The Doctor pushed through and out, thrust back the way he had come. He pushed past Adler, pushed and pushed, his mind racing to be free. He flooded past the watchers, back through the labyrinth.


       And Datura's thoughts began to fade from his perception, but Adler's screamed after him.


       "There is no future. I will be everything. Death personified. The angry waters of retribution, the cleansing fire."


       "No." The Doctor pushed on, sped away.


       "I am..." But the Doctor was far off now, Adler's thoughts could not touch him.


       He hefted himself back, past all those other souls, screaming, laughing, shaking their fists, lost in the crowd, trying to live, waiting to die. He pushed back and out, and sat at the edge of the Hydra's little collection. But he could not severe the link from in here. He was still in Hydra, and couldn't get out. It wouldn't let him die, if it could help it. But it wouldn't let him go, either.


       He waited, fighting it inside and out, desperate, horrified, afraid. Waited, listening to the noises of the people in the Hydra. Laughing and screaming, noise enough to wake the dead. And all the laughter the Doctor heard was Adler's. And all the screaming the Doctor heard was his own. He struggled, screamed, waiting for someone outside to open the door. For someone to let him out.


* * *


"Jerry, what are you doing?" Cray was starting to get frantic, standing behind Horowitz, fuming.


       "This is it, Jack. This is what I've been waiting for. My apotheosis."


       "Jerry!"


       Horowitz had pulled Datura's corpse out of the chair, dumped it on the floor. He'd pulled the wires and tubes off, out of the way. He sat in the seat. The silver bracket that had supported Datura's neck curled round the sides of Horowitz's head like a crowning wreath.


       "This is what all of this has been about. Not technology, not the ship. It's about the Hydra. And me. Jack, I'm sorry I lied. But it's a whole new way of life. It's so special. Nathan told me. He told me all about it. He didn't get to go all the way, of course. But I will. I will become one with the universe. I will cross over to the next level, a higher plane."


       "You've gone mad," said Cray, backing away.


       Horowitz reached into the deep right-hand pocket of his lab coat. He brought his hand out, clutching something Kirena didn't recognise. His pistol was dragged out too, fell to the floor. Kirena watched as Horowitz held the new object up. It was the size of his fist, looked like a mechanical pear. He pressed a button on the side and it clicked open, two halves hinging apart into a half-mask. Goggles.


       "When Nathan first found this ship, the alien had these over his eyes. An interface, to the centre of Datura." Horowitz placed the goggle over his eyes, and Kirena heard metal twisting. "It always reminded of a scouting gadget I used to have," he said giddily, letting go of the implement as it took hold of his face. "When I was a kid. Same principle. But much neater."


       A snake twisted out of the left armrest and up to the alien goggles. It opened its mouth and plugged itself into the centre of the goggles, right above Horowitz's nose.


       "Jerry, you can't do this!" But nobody was listening to Cray anymore.


       "Nathan wore these. They drove him mad. He wasn't ready. Wasn't made of the right stuff. But I'm stronger. Now is the time. Now is the moment. Now is the end of this dull reality. I will be a god. I will be the universe itself!"


       Kirena looked away when Horowitz began to writhe orgasmically on the chair.


       "The Mechadhatura," he moaned. "Mechanical. Mechanical fruit. The fruit of life."


       She looked back through the window, saw the Doctor haul himself out of the pit and crawl to the edge. He was frantic, fighting with the snakes clamped on to his face, pulling at them and screaming incoherently. His clothes — the 'borrowed' uniform, dark green over khaki — were tattered, hanging off him, and he was struggling to be free. Kirena glanced around.


       Cray was busy, bent over Horowitz, fighting the urge to rip the surgeon out of the chair. She plucked Horowitz's discarded pistol from the ship's floor, pulled her goggles down, opened the door and ran outside. She took aim at the two snakes on the Doctor's face and fired.


       One crack, and a flare of sparks. Another crack. The two snakes fell away, the heads cut cleanly off the bodies.


       She ran to the Doctor. The link with the Hydra cut, the dead snakeheads came away easily. Kirena looked away from the two ragged holes in his race and felt her throat tighten. She looked away, shut her eyes, snatching deep breaths and trying not to scream. After a few moments, she turned back towards him, squinting at the carnage of his face.


       "Doctor? Are you...?"


       He pushed himself up on his elbows, opened his mouth to speak, struggled over the words. She leant in close, heard his whisper:


       "Who will I be, when I end my song? And who will be me, when I am gone?" He collapsed back. "I'm not going to talk about Suzie," he whispered in an accent not unlike Cray's, some native drawl. "In fact, we're not going to talk about Suzie at all."


       "Doctor?"


       He didn't move. He was breathing, slowly, but he lay still and silent.


       "Doctor! Doctor, come on!"


       Nothing. She headed back towards the ship.


       Cray was standing away from Horowitz now. He had been watching her. He nodded at her as she walked in. She wasn't quite sure why, but it seemed like a good thing. Horowitz was still in the chair, writhing in ecstasy. He was gurgling quite happily, his mouth was hanging open, a thin stream of saliva running down his chin.


       "I think we should end this, now," she said to Cray. The soldier walked over to her, and she nodded at Horowitz.


       Cray stood behind the chair, took a firm hold of Horowitz shoulders, held him still in the chair. Kirena bent forward in front, grabbed Horowitz head and pulled the alien goggles off. There was a sucking sound, and they came away. And they pulled his eyeballs with them. Horowitz's jaw dropped and his brow knotted slightly.


       "No," he said quietly.


       Kirena stared into the fresh red holes in his face, and she gagged again. She looked away, but made the mistake of looking down at the apparatus in her hand. Two freshly severed stalks, and the plump white balls they fed off, were sitting in the goggles, criss-crossed by gossamer threads of metal. More threads trailed up into the pits in Horowitz's face, disappeared back through the optic tract. She severed the link, ripping the tracery metal. It danced in the air and gave to her grip like a spider's silk. Horowitz closed his mouth and then frowned. And then he started to scream.


       "No!" Horowitz said more loudly. And then he screamed. "No, no, no!"


       "It's OK," said Kirena.


       She looked up at Cray. The soldier had his hands firmly pressed into Horowitz's shoulders. The closest he was going to get to a hug. He shook his head and glanced outside.


       "We should get moving," he said gruffly. "We can sort this out upstairs."


       "The sun hurts my eyes!" cried Horowitz, shaking violently in the chair, grabbing at Kirena and reaching out randomly, desperate for the alien mask. "Like acid. Sunshine like acid. Burning. My... my head is roaring. Make it stop roaring! Stop roaring!" Kirena pulled his struggling body out of the receiver.


       "Let me go back. Please! Let me go!" Blood tears ran down his cheeks. He was breathing hard, sobbing and choking. He crumpled in her arms, moaning, struggling but too weak to work his way free. He looked up at her, bloody starbursts peppered with jelly around the ragged holes where his pale blue eyes had been. She gagged and looked away.


       There was a screech from outside the ship, a painful yet somehow ecstatic, human-machine noise. Kirena and Cray shouldered Horowitz between them, and stood in the doorway, looking through their goggles at the sea of snakes. They watched as Adler staggered out of the pit, snakes still wrapped around him, his head clamped between his hands. Cray gasped and stepped back.


       Adler was bathed in blood and viscera, like a new-born. He staggered a little, then turned to face Kirena and Horowitz.


       As he twisted around, a column of white metal shined behind him, a great, writhing trunk of the material that covered the ship. Kirena watched it mould and twist with darker metals from the human facility. Adler's back rested against it, smaller tubes feeding around into his collarbone, midriff and groin.


       Kirena looked again. He wasn't resting against it. It was protruding through his tattered clothes, from the flesh beneath. His feet were trailing along the ground, his toes scraping against the floor. His body was supported by the metal trunk, grafted on to the twisted cylinder of white, silver, black and grey scales.


       "He... bonded with it, you see," said Horowitz mournfully. "Or it with him."


       As Adler drew away from the ship and across the rough floor of the mine, Kirena saw that the trunk itself was a mass of inter-twined metal snakes, heads and tails stretching and wriggling. More of the snakes coiled out from the trunk and around Adler's arms and legs, biting at the air, growing as Kirena watched. He reached his right hand towards Kirena, palm out. As she watched, the palm started to stretch and then broke, a metal cone splitting the skin and drifting forward. It wriggled, and opened its mouth like the other snakes.


       Dozens and dozens of the steel reptiles hissed and snapped around Adler's body, six thorny serpents stuck out like halo spokes around his head. Then he opened his mouth. Another of the metal snakes shot out from between his pointed teeth. It snapped violently, reaching out two feet from the man's mouth. Adler gurgled around it, blood foaming over his lips. Kirena had the horrible feeling that he was laughing.


       And then Kirena froze as Adler opened his ragged eyelids. Beneath were blue-black marbled ovals, washed with tears of blood. They were solid, cancerous growths that hinted at the alien nature of what the wretch had long-ago forced into his own eyes, and what was coursing through every part of his body right now. Kirena gazed into them, trying to pick out some semblance of life in the cracks and lumps.


       Cray ran forward past her, wordlessly, his pistol cracking as he fired shot after shot at the bio-mechanic gorgon. It reared up, hissing irritably. Snakes spat forward from all around Adler, grabbing Cray as he shot at Adler from below. The snakes wrapped around his joints and torso, ripped off his goggles, bit through his uniform, metal fangs sinking deep into flesh. Blood spattered across his insignia, across the two silver stars.


       He screamed as his stocky bulk was heaved into the air. He was held there, face to face with Adler a metre or so above the floor of the mine, his head clamped in place by more snakes, snakes from the pit, snakes from Adler's new tail, snakes all over him. One plunged through the insignia and medals on his left breast, tore straight for his heart.


       Kirena shouldered Horowitz down to where the Doctor was. She looked up at Cray, could see where he was heading. She started trying to push the Doctor and Horowitz into wakefulness, away from this horror.


       The snake in Adler's mouth curled horizontally in the air, then it struck, lashing against Cray's face. His scream was constant, choking, driving Kirena crazy. Enough. She grabbed the Doctor and Horowitz by their collars and dragged them towards the corridor and down to the lift. They made some movement to help her, crawling, some little instinctive scramblings to make the journey easier.


       The snake-tongue from Adler's mouth straightened and shot into Cray's left eye. He squirmed as his body was torn apart by the snakes that held him in the air. The snake-tongue withdrew, a pink and dripping eyeball held delicately between its fangs. Its silver body was sucked back down Adler's throat, only to reappear a few seconds later, heading for the right eye, while a snake the colour of a gun's barrel probed the empty left socket.


       As the last eye was removed the pull of the snakes finally snapped Cray's spine and pulled his head away from his neck. His body was split open down the middle. Major-General John "Jack" Cray, USMC, died. The Hydra did not enter his brain, did not save his soul. What it had become would only kill. Adler - what Adler had become, what the Hydra had become - released Cray's butchered remains, and they fell wetly to the floor.


       Adler bobbed in the air for a few moments, the snakes wriggling edgily. And then he was moving towards Kirena, and the prone forms of the Doctor and Horowitz.


       She felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned, found a man in desert camo utilities, ready for battle, staring down at her. One of Cray's men. She thought she recognised him, but it was probably just the uniform.


       There were six of them, five just heading out from the corridor, One standing right above her. He took Horowitz, shouldered his weight and started heading out. Another of the marines helped her with the Doctor, while the others covered them.


       They padded down the corridor, into the lift, as the other four marines began firing at Adler. Kirena wondered just how big his trunk was, how strong he was, what the marines were up against. Experience told her that it would probably keep growing as long as new metal could be found and grafted on, he'd keep getting stronger, more snakes would grow. They'd never be able to stop it.


       Inside the lift, she let the Doctor collapse. He sat in the corner, his head hanging, his body limp. One of the marines punched a button. The doors closed, they started to rise. Kirena noticed the blood stains on the floor, briefly wondered whose they were. Hoped they weren't Luke's. Then she bent down, took the Doctor firmly by the shoulders.


       "Doctor!" She shook the Time Lord, trying to get some sense out of him. "Doctor, what can we do? Please tell me. What should I do?"


* * *


They carried the injured men out the lift and laid them on the floor, holding the doors open and waiting for orders. More marines arrived — these ones in the basic green uniform, not camouflage. One of them, a medic called Jacoby, examined the Doctor's wounds, while another, with an air of command, stood nearby and started to confer with the two men who had come up.


       Kirena knelt down beside the Doctor, breathing steadily to calm her pulse rate. She put her hands on him, on the dark green twill of the uniform jacket, on the khaki shirt beneath, on the blood stains, and on the pale, exposed flesh of his chest. He hadn't spoken yet. He lay still, silently bleeding. A medic wrapped some bandages around his eyes, a surgical white blindfold, and then did the same to Horowitz.


       "I can't treat them here," said Jacoby, looking at the lead marine, the one who appeared to be in charge. "We'll need to get them upstairs."


       "Nobody moves yet," said a man in a grey suit, storming down the corridor. A man in a brown suit followed him.


       "Mr Hopper, Mr Harker," said the lead marine, greeting the new arrivals in turn.


       "What's the situation," Hopper, grey suit, glanced at the two silver bars on the man's uniform, "Captain?"


       "It seems the prisoner, Adler, has accessed the artefact."


       "What?"


       "The ship, sir. Men have gone down to apprehend him, and they retrieved these three. Two of them have been attacked. I've got four more men down there, tackling Adler."


       "And they'll end up as dead as the guys up here," said Kirena, glancing up at Hopper and the captain.


       Hopper stepped over and hauled Kirena up by her lapels. Once on her feet she clamped her hands around his wrists. They stood there, firmly holding each other for a moment, staring each other down. After a moment, he smiled, and let her go.


       "What happened to General Cray?" he asked her.


       "He's dead."


       "She's right, sir," said one of the marines who had come up with her, though Kirena couldn't quite tell who he was speaking to — the captain or Hopper.


       "And Adler?"


       "Merged with the ship," said Kirena.


       "He what?"


       "He's covered in those tendrils," said the marine.


       "He's part of it now, part of the Hydra," said Kirena. "He's strong."


       Hopper thought for a moment, then turned to the captain.


       "Secure this lift, it does not go back down."


       "Sir, I have men down there."


       "They're all dead by now."


       "I was about to take reinforcements down."


       "Would be a waste."


       "The General is down there."


       "You heard the lady. Cray is dead. Is there any other way up here?"


       "No, sir."


       "Good. What options are there in this sort of emergency?"


       "The lift shaft is lined with explosives. They will cut off access down, but leave the ship and this facility intact."


       "Where do we blow them from?"


       "Security station, one level up."


       "OK, that's what we'll do."


       "Sir, with due respect, with the General gone Doctor Horowitz is the sole executive."


       "Look at him. He's in no position to give orders. Look, son," he pulled a thin, black wallet from his inside left pocket and opened it at the captain. "I'm pulling rank on you, captain. Both in military and agency terms."


       "Yes sir, major," said the younger officer, standing straight and saluting. "If I may, sir: Procedure is to evacuate the complex before detonation the shaft."


       "Fair enough. We'll evacuate altogether. Get away from here. Lock this place down, leave three squads to guard the entrance, take the rest of your company and the medical staff out. Are there any surviving subjects?"


       "No, we were due another delivery tonight but I cancelled it."


       "Right. Begin the evacuation, and get ready to detonate the shaft."


       The captain picked up the phone and pressed the nought. "Level 5." He replaced the handset. After a moment, the alarms changed pitch and speed. The new sound was faster, higher, more urgent. It issued new instructions. It made it clear that this place was over.


       "I'd better call Virginia," said Hopper. He picked up the handset and punched six digits on the phone. He waited a moment, for an answer. Then: "Black Dog. Intel. Red light on Delta 737. Control established, situation stable." He paused, listening. "Yes, tell him. Phone him at home if you have to. Hell, if you can't him, phone Cabell. This is big. We'll need clean up and curtain pullers. It's a bust." He put the phone down, rested his hand on it, turned to the man in the brown suit, who has been silent till now. "Harker, you want to contact Mead?"


       "No need now." He nodded at the handset in Hopper's hand, then paused and blinked. "I mean, I can do it later. Where do we go?" said Harker.


       "We follow their planned route. Back to LA."


       "City offices?"


       "No, the Church."


       "We're handing this back to Delta?"


       "No, but it's the best place to re-group and de-brief. There isn't going to be a Delta after this fiasco. It illustrates everything I said. This is what happens when you put scientists in charge. And after Maxim's little stunt, Majestic will keep well clear. I shouldn't think the Bureau will be interested. It's between yours and mine, pal. But we can divvy up later. This, and the rest of Delta. Captain, Mr. Harker and I will escort Doctor Horowitz personally. Take him to our vehicle."


       The captain nodded to a pair of marines, and they took hold of Horowitz under the arms and carried him off. He didn't speak, he showed no signs of life save shallow breaths and quiet moans.


       "Sir, what about the prisoner?"


       "Bring her to the Church for interrogation. And the man."


       "He's a marine, sir."


       "With that hair? Use your eyes, captain. They will accompany us to the Church. Come on." Hopper started down the corridor, Harker walking beside him, the captain behind. Two pairs of marines frog marching a struggling Kirena and then a passive Doctor after them.


       A short way along were the double doors into the stairwell. Kirena breathed a sigh. At least they were getting away from here. Leave it to the marines. And, of course, at that precise moment, hell broke loose. Again.


       It started as banging. Everybody turned around to see what the noise was. The soldiers were standing around the open doors of the lift, and Kirena couldn't see what was going on. The banging grew louder, hammering, metal against metal. Lots of little knocks and thuds, strike and strike after strike. The lift itself was shaking, bouncing up and down. And then she heard twisting, wrenching apart. She saw the soldiers step back and aim their rifles and handguns. She saw the floor of the lift as it burst upwards, as snakes poured through, and Adler behind them. They grabbed the nearest two soldiers. One screamed as his arms were torn off, while the other disappeared, covered in snakes and sucked right into the trunk.


       The captain ran back a few feet, opened a door into the nearest office, rounded a desk and grabbed a phone. Kirena and Hopper followed, stood in the doorway, watching him. He punched one button and shouted down the line: "Blow the shaft, now!" He snatched the handset away from his ear suddenly, and Kirena could hear screaming on the line. He swung around, looking at the ceiling. Kirena and Hopper followed his stare upwards. They both gasped as they saw the writhing metal coils behind the air vent.


       "The ducting," said the captain. "It goes down to the cave. The ventilation system. They've spread out through the ventilation system. They could be all over the place."


       "Fuck," said Hopper under his breath. He glanced at Kirena, then shouted orders at the captain. "Get all your men down here to fight that thing." The captain dialled another number in the phone, while Hopper stepped outside and spoke, close to Harker's ear. "We're getting out. Now."


       "Sir, how can we fight that thing?" shouted the captain. Hopper stepped back into the office.


       "Captain, you've got one-hundred and fifty marines in this base. They should be able to stop even something that ugly. Now, move it!" He turned to Kirena and spoke quietly. "You'd better follow me, if you want to live."


       He pushed past her and followed Harker towards the stairs, while the marines ran in the opposite direction, guns drawn. Kirena pulled the Doctor away from the wall and followed Hopper.


       The Doctor stumbled, scraping his shins on the metal step.


       He was heaving. "Help. K-Kirena? Help, help."


       "I'm with you, Doctor." Kirena squeezed his hand. "Come on." Then she felt his Doctor's grip tightened. He pulled her back. She looked up at the disappearing forms of Hopper and Harker, and at the determined faces of the soldiers running past her to fight the monster. Then she turned back to her friend. "Doctor?"


       "I..."


       "Doctor, can you talk?"


       "I... I..."


       She cupped her hands around his cheeks, massaged the skin lightly.


       "Doctor?"


       He frowned. And then he reached up and put his hands over hers. He gripped them tightly. And then he smiled.


       "Kirena."


       Kirena smiled back. Relief.


       "I thought I'd lost you. Thought that that thing had driven you mad."


       "When you've seen time bend backward and infinity eat itself, a simple mindscape isn't all that much. Don't worry. My eyes will grow back."


       The Doctor reached out and touched her face, ran his fingers gently over her cheeks and her mouth, and then over here eyes and the light lines on her forehead. Then he shook his head slightly, still smiling.


       "Kirena, we can't leave yet."


       "You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that." Her smile faded, she looked determinedly back in the direction of battle. "So, what do we do?"


       "We'll detonate the explosives in the lift shaft, but we need to plant more. Destroy this entire facility. We need to bring the entire mountain down on that creature. It must not be allowed to escape."


       "But, Doctor..."


       "No buts. We have to destroy that thing, completely and utterly, and we have to ensure its remains are sealed in here forever. We cannot let it escape. There's too much at stake. You don't understand, you weren't in there. You don't understand what it was. What it's become now that Adler is part of it. It's too much, Kirena. You must understand. It has to be destroyed. No matter how hard we have to fight, we must stop that thing."


       "Ok, I trust you. There must be an armoury around here somewhere."


       "Shh."


       "What?"


       "Shh, shh, shh. Listen."


       She listened. Above the noise of gunfire and tearing flesh, above the screams and the alarms, she could just make out a noise that didn't fit the rest. A staccato clicking on cement floors, echoing through the door just above them. She looked into the Doctor's face. Kirena grinned again, and the Doctor's smile broadened. And then, in unison, they said: "Cuban heels. Luke."


       The Doctor held his hand out, and Kirena led him in the right direction.


---
To be continued...



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