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Doctor Who Internet Adventure #25 - "Twenty-Five Pieces of Silver"


Chapter 12 Part 2
"The End Times"
by Jon Andersen


---


TMV Hades
Orbiting Intolt-7
(MEF plus 31 minutes)

Captain Linda Chambers swings her arms up and back, popping the spinal joints back into place between her shoulder blades with a loud crack she's sure everyone one else can hear.


       It feels odd now that it's all over, the deception she's perpetrated for years done away with but not for the moment exposed. Her friends -- those few still alive that she can call that at any rate -- remain in their holding cells ignorant of each other's fate beyond Rozchenko's assurances they had not been harmed. Ignorant of just how badly they've been betrayed on all sides.


       The room she's current in is only slightly smaller than the one she'd had planet-side, obviously belonging to an officer who hadn't made it through the blockade judging not only by the small number of pictures and curios that decorate the space, but by the hydro shower she observes through the washroom door. Quite possibly the XO's then.


       Baxter must have pulled a few strings.


       She looks at the uniform she's been given with something approaching trepidation. Putting it on means the final death of Doctor Chambers, something that she finds herself reticent to commit to. She'd known going in that turning native had always been a possibility, a Damoclean sword hanging above her like exposure, just as with any other sort of deep cover assignment.


       Knowing about a danger is far different from having to deal with it.


       For the first time in forever, she allows herself to think further ahead than the next report, the next day of hiding herself from everyone else. She thinks about dawn reveille and saluting and barracks inspections. Of having to deal with a command structure far less casual and more inclined to slap you about if you played against it. Of duty and responsibility and making the other poor bastard die for his beliefs.


       A smile creeps across her lips: it's good to be home.


       She's barely had time to get undressed and underneath the shower when she receives the hail from Major Baxter she's been half expecting ever since she came aboard. Fighting back a sigh of irritation, she slaps the intercom glad it's audio only. "Captain Chambers here, Sir."


       "I hope you're well, Captain?"


       "Yes, Sir."


       "Captain Rozchenko tells me she performed a preliminary debrief when you came aboard. You'll be happy to know we've found two of your missing people."


       "May I ask who, Sir?"


       "Doctor Pincus, and the AI designated Jethro. We've got them in the isolation ward aboard the Banshee. They're both conscious, apparently in perfect health, but they both refuse to say anything."


       "Last time I saw Viv--, er, Doctor Pincus, she was infected by some sort of cybernetic contagion," Linda says, apprehension prickling its way down her back. "Are you sure she's clean?"


       "Absolutely," Baxter replies breezily. "We've scanned them both right down to the nano scale, and there's nothing there. Do you think this Doctor could have been involved?"


       "I couldn't say, Sir. All I know about him is that he's an alien anthromorph, purported to have encountered the cybermen on several previous occasions, and he and the telekinetic AI had been captured by them, as I stated in my debrief."


       "Hmmmm. So far, we've only encountered the one drone unit. The rest of the damn things have had it away with the research mainframe and we can't find any trace of them. We found some tracks, but they disappear into the ravine south of the facility. If we're lucky, we can glean some information from the research staff and whatever might have inadvertently made its way onto the operations mainframe, but I think we're going to have to call this a loss. And given the ships we left behind to cover our arses haven't shown up yet, a very big one."


* * *


The TARDIS
Temporal Orbit
(MEF minus 4.5 hours)

Tangerine doesn't think to ask the obvious question straight away, finding herself instead distracted by the unfamiliar sensation of another mind touching herd. An intelligence beyond words, conversing with her the way she was designed to communicate, telling her alien and wonderful things and sharing with her the sense of awe they create.


       It's only when she walks into the impossible expanse of something called the Butterfly Room and the chaotic dances of its brightly coloured inhabitants that the soldier they built her matrix around tries to fight the mad giddy rush of it all. Tries to bring her awareness back to small concrete things like threats and objectives and allegiances.


       The attempt is only partially successful, but it's enough.


       Blue, what are we hiding from? she finally asks, holding her hand close to her face to study the orange and black winged creature that has settled on it. Reaching out, dropping underneath the omnipresence of Blue's psyche, she touches even less of a rudimentary awareness of her existence than that displayed by the mouse.


       Instead of an answer, a picture slides in front of her mind's eye of a silver humanoid, the metal of its construction looking more grown than constructed. Parts of it more heavily armoured and armed than others. Its features are rudimentary, the two blank holes for eyes and slit-like mouth vaguely reminiscent of a skull. Accompanying the image is a feeling of cold dread and insatiable hunger.


       I[WE] CANNOT ACT INDEPENDENTLY OF THE PILOT. HE[WE] HAS SUSTAINED MANY INJURIES ON THIS WORLD.


       You need me to help you rescue him, she realises. You need me to plug the hole they made in you.


       YES.


       What about everyone else? she demands, trying to be angry at having been stolen away from everything she's ever known at the very moment it's all put in danger, only to discover that she can't.


       Every behavioural modifier her makers - her gods - have hardwired into her is screaming that what Blue has done is wrong. The bits of Tangerine that grew on their own in order to fill in the pre-coded blanks, wants to commit heresy after only half an hour.


       A design flaw or an evolution they could never have predicted when they made her? Could her gods have predicted what sentience would do when confronted for the first time by the need of something it calls its own kind?


       Its own kind.


       All the other AIs, siblings born as she was in the crucible of high technology, but none of them can touch another mind and know the beauty of what it is that makes them or their makers more than machines. An experience only shadowed by merging in a scape and something the biologically born can only conjecture about. Only by touching Blue had she known how empty she'd felt.


       An emptiness Blue's gods had created her to feel without them.


       No, the others aren't her own kind. But they are kin, and they are the only thing up until a little while ago that she's ever known.


       Will saving him help the others?


       THE PILOT[WE] HONOURS LIFE. I[WE] CANNOT PROMISE MORE THAN I[WE] KNOW TO BE TRUE.


* * *


Static-X Satellite #5
Intolt-7 La Grange Point 2
(MEF plus 35 minutes)

The scape rewinds itself, the fractured topography racing backwards beneath BUFFY's and JETHRO's vantage point.


       To the north east is the dull grey form of the research facility, a conglomeration of prefabricated geometrical shapes next to a shallow fissure only ten or so metres deep instead of something over a hundred. A few tau after it becomes visible, an explosion erupts from the engineering pod.


       "I wish we knew how that happened," JETHRO sighs. "With the number of redundant systems involved, it has to have been sabotage."


       "Could have been one of our virus planters," BUFFY shrugs. "There's no sign of an external cause. And here's where at least one person escapes in the spare dropship." The scape pauses and zooms in on the canopy of the fleeing ship. "I can make out two more sets of legs."


       "They can take four in the cockpit, another fifteen in the hold if they like each other," JETHRO recalls. Everyone should have been able to make it out of there. In theory."


       "In theory," BUFFY echoes darkly as the scape zooms out and moves forward again before pausing a second time, this time expanding to focus on the main entrance as the doors sweep inwards to disgorge a squad of silvery figures. Clustered in the centre are three other figures, while the rearguard emerge carrying something large and ominously familiar.


       "Please tell me that isn't the stand-alone," JETHRO whispers, voicing his friend's fears.


       "What's worse, that's the security chief and his deputy with them," BUFFY points out. "Though I have no idea who that third person is. And since none of them are wearing envirosuits, something must have been done to them."


       "Perhaps they're the ones who blew the generators?"


       "Possible."


       Staying focused on the cybermen and those with them, the scape is again set in motion. Just before the satellite dropped beneath the horizon, they make out the party halting at the closest fissure to the south of the complex.


       "Damn!" BUFFY snarls. "Now we've got no idea where they've gone.


       "I wouldn't be so sure," JETHRO says after a moment, fast-forwarding and the scape, then relocating their viewpoint to the atmospheric periphery. "I noticed this before, but I wasn't sure what it meant."


       "It's an asteroid," BUFFY dismisses the observation, doing nothing to hide his frustration. "Intolt-7 keeps pulling them from the belt every so often. They spiral in and go boom."


       "But the atmospheric friction is in the wrong direction for that to be happening."


       "What?"


       "Look here. That's their escape vessel, it has to be. And we have the beginnings of a vector to try and track."


       BUFFY grabs JETHRO and kisses him, his first display of affection in far too long. "You're brilliant!" he crows, all signs of his previous mood gone. "Time to hop another sat."


* * *


Beachhead Asteroid
Interplanetary space, sunward bound
(MEF plus three minutes)

The doors open with a whine of mechanisms moving in a way they're not meant to, a protesting scream that to the Doctor seems far too loud for the escape to remain unobserved for long.


       Tellingly, there is no sudden movement of atmosphere or pressure to greet the endeavour: the cybermen themselves still require an atmosphere of some sort to maintain their organic components. Which means, hopefully, the escapees will be able to reach any significant part of the asteroid.


       Casting a glance over his shoulder, the Doctor regards the two humans serving as hosts for the intelligence he still knows too little about. The intelligence had only agreed to siphon off some of its presence to deactivate the locking mechanism after extracting a promise that he wouldn't seek to destroy the meme-infected cybermen.


       It had been an easy promise to make at the time.


       Stepping out of the chamber, he checks the way they had entered the asteroid and notices a bulkhead as since been positioned at the top of the sloping passage leading to the lower hatch, forming a crude and probably depressurised airlock. When the other two calmly join him, they force the doors closed again then set off in the opposite direction, mainly using their hands to propel them along the glassy-walled corridor.


       "What is it that you hope to achieve, Doctor?" faux-M'Benga asks quietly, starting to make the qualified offer of help look more like an experiment than anything else. "The cybermen have no need of spacesuits."


       "They don't, no," the Doctor agrees tersely. "However they could have planned for the event their captives might be required to use them since they seem to have been so well prepared for everything else. Personally, though, I'm thinking an escape vessel might be a nice thing to find."


       That and the mainframe, he appends silently. Perhaps he will keep the promise extracted under duress, but it's not going to prevent him from rescuing the AIs trapped in the mainframe along with all the research data that's been accumulated alongside them. But if I can't rescue them, can I destroy them instead? I've killed before, looked monstrosities in the eye and decided they had no right to continue living, but this feels different. They're really only children, judged worthy of oblivion only because of their potential and their knowledge of that potential.


       About halfway through the circumnavigation, they come across a second bulkhead door. It looks identical to the one leading to the airlock but is on the inside curve of the corridor. And just like every other door so far, possess no visible means of being opened. So he again has to ask the intelligence to lend itself to his cause, deactivating the locking mechanism and forcing the door open without the benefit of gravity to anchor them. And every minute of the almost half an hour it takes is a nerve racking experience, waiting for the inevitable metal hand to clamp down on his shoulder.


       Something that never happens.


       "Well well," he exclaims as they enter, looking around like the proverbial child in the lolly shop. "This is new for them."


       "As we've been saying all along, Doctor," faux-M'benga remarks. "The cybermen are capable of change, perhaps more so now than at any previous juncture of their history. What other strain of the species would think of something as subtle as this?"


       The cavern that stands revealed to them is massive, larger than the hanger at the research facility; at a quick guess it looks to take up somewhere between a quarter and a third of the asteroid's internal volume. And it's filled with plants.


* * *


Cybercommand vessel
Intolt-4
(MEF plus 43 minutes)

The chaotic maelstrom of hyperspace melts away into a star field dominated by the glowering purple-red face of a diminutive gas giant.


       "Astrogation systems place us within the Intolt system," the pilot reports. "From this position we remain masked from the sensors of the human fleet, but will be unable to contact the beachhead."


       "Report accepted. Deploy the remaining boarding craft via tractor tether to observe incoming vectors and activate cloaking device."


       "Affirmative, Leader."


       The already erratic lighting dims almost completely as the command is carried out, though the lift reflecting off the planet the ship hides behind is more than enough to illuminate the cockpit.


* * *


Beachhead Asteroid
Interplanetary space, sunward bound
(MEF plus 37 minutes)

The three escapees freeze where they are on the single path leading through the mass of greenery. Something that isn't them rustles in the undergrowth about a metre to the right. The Doctor's hand tightens around the guide cable a touch nervously.


       After a moment, a spider-like machine made from a brightly reflective silver metal emerges onto the path, the half of its appendages not used for walking ending in a small variety of gardening implements. Paying them and the lack of gravity no head, it disappears into the other side of the garden.


       "I recognise that!" the Doctor exclaims indignantly after a few seconds of furious recollecting. "I built a whole swarm of those things for the floating gardens of Dathomir. Of all the cheek!"


       "The Cybermen adapt. They must have been planning on removing the research staff all along to have established this air reclamation facility."


       "And planned to avoid the risk of detection the energy signature of an automated process would have created," he agrees, all thoughts of theft and the implications of it pushed aside for the moment. "Conceivably, we could still be in the Intolt system awaiting an extraction, away from that fleet you've been telling me about. We don't have much time."


       "For what?" faux-M'Benga asks as they start moving again, obviously concerned the Doctor's reaction to the gardening droid might signify an alteration to their earlier covenant. "Our aid was rendered on the condition you would not attempt to destroy the cybermen carrying our meme."


       "Which I won't," he mollifies. "But I won't let them condemn the artificial intelligences in that mainframe to a life as soulless as that of a cyberman's anymore than I'd permit such a thing to happen to myself. Or you."


       They find what they seek, or at least what they suspect to be it, at the far end of the arboretum behind yet another concealed door. Once again, the nano-possessed humans step forward to place their hands against the cracks and allow the intelligence to send a part of itself deep into the working.


       While he waits, the Doctor tries to work out how long it might take the cybermen to reach their extraction point. The asteroid can't be accelerating because that would be immediately obvious to any sort of sensor scan. Likewise, using engines to build up the initial velocity is out of the question because again a sensor sweep would notice the exhaust wake. That leaves repulsors, which work off a combination of what they lift and what they lift it against. On the bright side, that places them at most only a few hundred thousand kilometres away. On the downside he has absolutely no knowledge of the system's topography, and that few hundred thousand kilometres could place them within easy orbit of a moon the lee of which would be the perfect place for a sudden trip to hyperspace.


       The greenery rustles again, and he smiles as an idea comes to mind.


* * *


TMV Banshee
Orbiting Intolt-7
(MEF plus 45 minutes)

"Incoming transmission," Fayle announces.


       "Source?" Rozchenko demands, leaning forward in her command chair.


       "Unknown," BANSHEE answers. "It's being simultaneously bounced off several of the satellites orbiting the planet. It might even be coming from one of the satellites."


       "Send the _Dauntless_ and _Avenger_ to the other side of the planet to check for any ship that might be sending those transmissions," the Captain orders. "Everyone else is to start scanning for other possible transmission sources. What does the message say?"


       "It's a trajectory plot, heading deeper into the system. That's all."


       "Feed it into the sensor arrays," Rozchenko orders, "and let's see what's out there."


* * *


The TARDIS
Temporal Orbit
(MEF minus 4.5 hours)

Tangerine stands in the doorway and sighs quietly to herself, feeling for the first time an approximation of what it feels like to be womb-born and not enjoying the sensation one bit.


       The one thing I know I'm meant to do, that I was made to do, I've never done. Not for real. They're just someone else's engrams integrated into my programme, all our programmes. The genes and memories of someone my gods decided was the perfect soldier thrown along with everything else into the cocktail blender that gave us birth.


       YOU FEAR THE FUTURE.


       Of course I do! she answers, entering the insane panoply of garments referred to as the wardrobe, watching the racks and cabinets shuffle aside to leave a clear alley leading directly towards the section Blue knows she needs to find. But I fear losing you even more. I can just be reinitialised or re-embodied, but when I am I'll never have met you. Perhaps I never will, or I won't feel the same way. Perhaps the only reason I'm here with you now and not someone or something else was because your scream changed something inside me. Something I'm afraid to lose now that I have it.


       Blue doesn't answer, perhaps pondering those thoughts herself.


       Armoured manikins surround her now, sporting artefacts from unimaginable times and cultures and races. A tag hangs off each silent figure, a spidery script identifying origin and nature in a language that become Terran standard anglish just as she starts to look at it. Though some of the armour is obviously intended to be worn by a female humanoid, most of it seems structured more for the masculine or unisex user. An indication that most of these are perhaps the property of the Doctor, or perhaps that the people Blue had said he travelled with sometimes were mostly men.


       Feeling the insistent urging of her own anxiety, Tangerine settles for something resembling the armour one of her donor memories recalls training in, an inherited familiarity she can work with. She slips the black body-stocking on first, settles the slightly oversized garment into place a couple of times and rolling up the cuffs before attaching the reflective white pieces of the body armour. The helmet she eschews, favouring an unrestricted field of view and the ability of her fellows to recognise her face before they gunned her down. The codpiece she suffers with an amused necessity.


       While she changes the wardrobe again shuffles around her, bringing forward a small array of weapons ranging from the archaic to the overly advanced. Remembering both Blue's description of the enemy and the reinforcement drills Mister M'Benga had put all the AIs through when they embodied, she settles on something she recognises as an old-style ion rifle. More disruptive than damaging, and typically ignored by military forces in favour of heavy hitting plasma weapons, he'd made the point of showing the AIs as a matter of tactics that their unique neurostructures were almost as vulnerable to their fire as a mechanical opponent would be.


       Another unavoidable design flaw, or simply a safety mechanism?


       She almost tells Blue she's ready for what's next but stops. The weapon resting in her hands draws her eye to its sinister blackness, and her mind back to thoughts of mortality and loss.


       There's one more thing she has to do before she can choose to die for Blue and the Pilot she can't do anything but need.


---
To be continued...



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