Tuesday, May 13, 2008

At The Beach [formerly published in LifeDeath]

AT THE BEACH


'You've seen the manifest?'
'Yes, and a more surly bunch of thieves, con-men and child molesters the old London has never carried. I tell you we'll have trouble this trip.'
'Control thinks so too. I have sealed orders. We divert. Not Cygnus, it's…too soft. It's run by a cult now. Cults are unreliable. Its days as a prison planet are numbered.'
'So we ditch them then. Into space is cheaper, I always say.'
'Oh no, someone…hates…these prisoners.
The new orders say they get the Block'.

The man on the seashore was building a castle as the turning tide began to sweep back. He knew he had maybe two, three hours at most to form the walls, dig drainage ditches, prepare the barricades. He worked calmly, methodically, whistling to himself, for all the world as if he wasn't going to die.

The mica of the beach wasn't that firm a foundation even mixed with urine, and the acid pools, however diluted, were too damaging to the hands to moisten the available materials.

At his back the sea wall was an unclimbable sheet of fused glass, and at the top of it his captors were setting out their deck chairs. The Block was an inescapable prison, not only because of its size and design but because once outside, once on the beach, there was nowhere to go. He'd escaped, and now no one was going to pull him back up the wall. They were just going to watch – oh, and videotape him, to provide useful re-enforcement for the others still inside.

He wasn't going to look at the wall. If he did, he knew he'd be able to see just how far the bleaching and burning waves of the sea rose; he'd know if his hope were possible or whether a wave tall enough to flick a bracing, sizzling spray an inch or so over the wall's top, would sweep away any possible efforts.

But he did look of course, because otherwise he wouldn't know how high the castle walls needed to be.

***

Inside the prison a man, whose papers identified him as an inspector general, was cooling his heels in the chief warders' office, waiting for someone to get back to him. It hadn't escaped his notice that his tewachi was getting cold, and the sub-warder hadn't come back with any cake as promised, and the gap between the door's edge and wall had formed a single molecule when the warder had gone out. The Inspector had white hair that framed his head like a halo and a face like a dissipated eagle.

He sat on the desk and unfastened the top button of his red-lined judicial cape, letting a faint breeze from the air conditioning ruffle his layered silk shirt. His hands ran a quick arpeggio across the desk's inlaid ivory keyboard.

He got the wall to turn into a flat screen display. He got the Beach.

The man on the screen had a mop of black hair, and he was short, though somehow the prison issue pants' legs and tunic-sleeves still ended a good inch before his feet and hands. Yet despite his build he had to be immensely strong, and he worked swiftly as if his life depended on it.

The Doctor recognised the man on the beach at once. It didn't make it any easier. Along with the time-travel codes the Time Lords had ripped from his memory had gone a swathe of other recollections, that he'd been here before was one of them. He had no memory of it.

All he had was the box. The Time Lord message box that had materialised on his lab bench, identical to the one he had carried to Solos. When he'd seen the destination the Time Lords had set for him and the set of inspector’s credentials lying on top of it – his free-pass to the most dangerous prison planet of the latter fascist days of the Federation – he'd made sure that he hadn't brought anyone with him. He hadn't wanted to bring Jo here, to see the future glory ending in black uniformed horror. He hadn't wanted to risk having hostages to fortune. Now he'd found that the worst one in the world was already here.

What hostage could be closer to his hearts than himself? He found out soon enough when he broke the coding on the prisoner lists. On the death orders. They were due to dump another eight prisoners on the beach at full tide. They'd be pitched out of the black walls, squealing, to skid down into the acid. Not a show, not a failed escape, just a routine house-clearance. Unlike the little man he watched on the screen - for he'd somehow made it through, hadn't he - mustn't he? - to have survived, to have his appearance altered by the Time Lords into his own features, to end up their long-lease skivvy and messenger-boy. Unlike him the prisoners would have no chance no chance at all. Five unknown names and two he recognised. Jamie and Zoe. Maybe his former companions too had survived, if he had, but still he couldn't remember any of this, and he felt deep inside that somehow all bets were off.

There was a bitter stinging wind, and a smell that caught at the throat. Death was rolling in. The Doctor ignored it and got on building the inner bailey. He knew he had to break the inrush of the waves by a succession of barriers to weaken and subdue the tide. He was rather pleased with the crenulations nevertheless. Did it make it less real to him? Did it make him frivolous to think that this whole life was the gift of the Time Lord's, a moment in time cut and stretched out, that maybe he could die here, and still elsewhere the other strand of his life, cut and changed and sent to Earth would survive in some unknown and unknowable form? He hoped not, and wished he had some flags.

***

In the grey metal cell, where the air was musty and old and there were no air vents. The saturnine man wasn't pacing and his face was like death. Jamie had seen men like him in the wars with England, people who had seen death and death and death again until it ran in their blood like black fire. He'd been in some massacre, Jamie guessed, seen his kin or his girl gunned down. Round them, the thief was pacing, testing the door, every circuit, until Jamie wanted to scream at him, it's a wall ye bam pot, just a wall, its fixed like magic, y' Sassenach. In the far corner the calm man, the big one, was clenching his hands as if they were going to break, and maybe he'd break first. He had some control Jamie reckoned, but it was like a dog's leash and the dog was scared.

Zoe was talking to the leader, the grizzled man in green, and the fair haired woman was watching her like an enemy.

***

The Doctor heard boot heels click along the corridor and hastily got up fromthe desk and straightened the chair. He left the screen on though as if he didn't dare turn it off. The door opened. It wasn't the underling he'd dealt with before. The chief warder had a familiar beard, and wore his Federation uniform as if it was an insult –whether to the wearer or him, the Doctor wasn't sure. He put his head in his hands. 'Am I never in this life,' he moaned, 'to be sent somewhere where you are not the proverbial bad penny?'

'Now Doctor. Solos of course, and Peladon twice. If that hasn't happened yet don't worry about it, there are reality changes all around that area, and, oh, a dozen others, all entirely free of my presence. Besides this isn't a “the Doctor is sent somewhere to thwart me" matter. This is different.' The Master pointed to the tray. 'Fresh tewachi, and cake.' He took a sip from one of the cups and a tiny bite from a slice of cake.

The Doctor nodded and pointedly took the other cup and a fresh piece of cake. He wasn't worried about poison.

'What did the Time Lords let you remember?' the Master asked, his back to the Doctor now, contemplating the screen and the sandcastle builder.

The Doctor sighed, 'Not much. Sub-time technology's all there. Gossip and snippets of past encounters with famous people - all of a jumble - and bits of cosmic lore that sound as if they were clipped from travelogues. I must sound like a club bore half the time.'

'My dear Doctor, half the time you sound psychotic, but I wasn't referring so much to that, as this.' He pointed at the screen. 'This travesty, this hypocritical breaking of their own laws, this discarded thing.' Turning, he grinned evilly, as the Doctor's face fell. 'You didn't know that they rewrote you, took an incarnation of you who had avoided them his whole life and turned him into a servant? Blocked memories! They must have been shovelling the tapes into a flaming furnace. They made him.'

'Why is he here now?'

'He's on your mission.' The Master sat down behind the Chief Warder's desk, and leaned forward. 'He's failing, and when he fails…they don't save him. Instead they send you, into this narrowest window of opportunity. Into this crowning moment, the moment you should see.'

'Why?'

'Because now the puppet's strings break.' The Master leaned forward, 'Unless of course we can find a form of agreement.'

'You're saying I die here?'

'A part of you certainly. May I?' The Master reached for the Time-box that the Doctor had under his cloak.

Maybe the Doctor should have been surprised when it opened, but he wasn't. He'd learned too much already. The Master lifted his hands in affirmation, and the Doctor could see the glint of DNA pads on the tips of his black gloves. His old friend reached inside the box and pulled out six cards. Black lettering on white paste-board. GET OUT OF JAIL FREE!

'A touch, an undeniable touch,' the Master smiled. 'Someone in the crowd of Machiavelli's Tortoises, has a sense of humour.' The cards warped, changed. Official looking now. Black seals, red print, watermarked and hologram impregnated, anti-forgery locked with a molecular coating. Only one line blank on each a grey shimmer for a person's name. The Doctor knew that the blank lines were thought-receptive; he had only to think the names he wanted to appear.

'Stays of execution,' the Master said, 'all signed and dated and agreed by the Federation Council, left open to you, the replacement inspector, to carry out, to deliver to the…replacement…Chief Warder. Carte blanche. Lifted of course from a more liberal time-line, an attempt to halt a chain of time shaking events originating in a gim-crack time experiment ten years in this galaxy's future. From an age when the legend these prisoners would have made stands on the brink of shattering an empire. I imagine the Time Lords are releasing the relevant data in your mind now.'

Flashes. A tyranny. Freedom fighters. A failure, and yet a clarion call that would in the end be heeded. An image of worth reaching forward in time until thrones toppled. The desire to end opposition in its cradle somehow given a physical opportunity. A gamble he was here to stop.

He was to fill in the forms. He was to name five names. He was to order the death sentences quashed and have them re-shipped to another prison, one they should have been sent to, one they would escape from. He was to specify the exact course their ship should take, at double speed. He was to be a puppet like the one on the screen, building his bloody sand-castles.

He looked at the Master, 'Your alternative is?'

'Write Doctor John Smith, Zoe Herriot, Jamie McCrimmon on the forms. The staff here see me as the Chief Warder. They'll go down on the beach and haul him up. They'll get his humans from the death cell and they will live. No tricks. All you have to do is let three people die instead, three people who'll die anyway within the next three years. I'll make it easier if you want I'll tell you the ones who stand the least chance of changing things by their absence. Some of them were due to die long before the others. Terrorists and criminals always use up lives so quickly—‘

'I don't want you 'making it easier!' the Doctor shouted. 'I will not kill others to save myself. I will not kill others to save my friends.'

'I know you are the kind of fool who'd sacrifice himself. Now I see how quickly you'd kill a stranger. Remember it isn't "you" that will die, but another person, a person with all the claims to life of one of these dead-end revolutionaries who won't last five years against the Federation. But I see that won't move you. I can see you've discarded him, and his friends already. I can see it in your eyes, Doctor. You'd let a temporal-doppelganger die like so much shed skin-tissue. You talk a good 'renegade', Doctor, but cut your hearts open and you'd see 'Gallifrey' written there like a cancer. I'm not killing anyone here, if you'll exempt the Chief Warder, and his death was, I assure you, a miniscule problem in ethics. He was the worst kind of psychopath.'

'A judgement which you no doubt found yourself well qualified to make,' the Doctor spat. 'I'd be interested to know what you regard as the worst form of that condition.'

'Touché, Doctor. I would say an absence of self-knowledge, if I were pressed, and maybe an...obsession with fine clothing if I were being facetious.' The Master let his eyes rove over the Doctor's inspectorial finery. 'I see you dressed for the occasion. Oh I know, I know, it's a disguise. It always starts like that.' He waved a gloved hand dismissively. 'I only wanted to explain that I didn't cause this tangle, I am merely exploiting it. I’m simply ensuring you understand the import of your decision, that's all.'

The Doctor put down his cup, and said five names. Quick, clean, military. The Brigadier’s best parade ground bark.

'You, sanctimonious monster,' the Master snarled. 'And you dare to judge me.' He had a black, short rod in his hand now, the weapon that shrank his victims into molecularly compacted dolls gasping out their lungs inability to absorb oxygen through too fine a membrane. 'Now we'll watch you die.'

He glanced behind him, quickly, daring the Doctor to try and jump him.
The Beach was empty.

'I've done it!' the thief danced back, shouting. 'It's like an enzyme you see, a living molecular zip. It can't hold if enough of the teeth come apart, and they can be vibrationally disarrayed. There's a rhyme lock. It might be a failsafe pattern in case a guard gets pushed in a cell in a riot! I'm brilliant! Somebody tell me I'm brilliant!'

The dark man with the face of death was at his shoulder. 'You're brilliant,' he said, sarcastically, 'but you didn't unlock that alone. I watched you apply the pressure, and the fourth site shifted on its own just as you brought down your hand.'
'What are you saying?' The little thief looked hurt, 'are you saying it was unlocked from the other side?’

'Oh yes, that's right,' a soft voice said. A head topped with a mop of thick black hair pushed open the sliding wall and a man fell headlong into the room. 'Don’t mind me, I'm only here to rescue you

'Doctor!' Jamie and Zoe were at his side in an instant, only to recoil from the acrid smell around his clothes.

'Quickly, Jamie, Zoe. My boots, quickly!' He started a frantic jig and the two youngsters knelt hurriedly to unlace his boots as the heels continued to disintegrate. Tto the others: ‘You do know your locksmith here's been opening the wrong wall. This is the disposal chute for this cell, it would bring you out into an ocean of acid. I managed to build a ramp up to the chute level, had to disguise it so they’d leave me in peace to work. Only way to reach here was from the outside. All the security is concentric you see, running out from the ship landing pad at the centre.'

'I'm afraid we don't see.' The curly haired man in green's voice was thoughtful, resonant, and yet hard. Not the black hardness of the thinner man, but still a voice that refused to be relegated to a bit part in someone else’s story. 'You say you're here to rescue us. Why us specifically?'

'Oh, now, that I can't say. You'll do great things. Isn't that enough? Suppose that there was a power…oh, no, no. Oh Jamie, what would you say?'

'I'd say be grateful you've got someone to get you out of this cell, and cut your blather.'

'Well,' the dark man said, 'we are still in the cell, and as the…Doctor…remarks, on one side we have the ocean of acid, and on the other the rings of guards. It's, ah, kill or be killed, isn't it.'

Zoe scowled at him. 'Nothing of the sort, there's always a third way, isn't there Doctor?'

'Yes, yes, Zoe. Please excuse her, she was a Blair's Babe for a week when the Nestene took over the Cabinet fixtures in 2001.' The mop haired man raised a silver whistle to his lips. In response, a trembling, groaning sound filled the room.

'This is it!' the thief shouted, 'they're going to eject us into the acid.'
'No, no, no,' the Doctor chided. 'It's a shortcut to your liberation.'

* * *

'You, know your problem?' The Doctor said, 'you've never learned to trust anyone else, and all the best psychologists will tell you, the key to doing that is knowing when to trust yourself.'

The Master, tied hand and foot to the chair, glared at him. If looks could kill, the Doctor would have had curlier hair and bigger teeth by then. 'Mununt hww r yyuuu hhrr ff hhss nt Dd?' he managed, tryinmg to spit out the gag.

'Why would they send me here if he didn't die?'
The Doctor repeated, smiling, 'I can only assume he never reported back'.

* * *

'Right, Jamie, Zoe!' The Doctor rubbed his hands. 'Who'd have thought a band of ragamuffins like that would have a computer genius and the galaxy's greatest lateral thinking thief in their midst? I think we've done it. We've really done it. That whey-faced tribunal won't be ordering us about any more.'

'Oh aye, with Mr Grumpy and yon drunkard’s help.'
'Now, Jamie, I thought Kerr was very sweet.'
'Aye, it's Kerr now is it!'
'Why, I do believe you were jealous.'

'Hush.' The Doctor grabbed their hands and pulled them ring-a-rosy around the consol. 'Doesn't it sound different? Even the TARDIS knows we're free at last. To have some really new adventures.’

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