by Casey J
Q: Where is the danger when the lights go out?
A: In the dark.
The cinema was unusually busy for that time of the day. Normally the midday screenings attracted few if any customers, but on this occasion every theatre boasted an audience that took up three-quarters of their seats. There weren’t any new films or blockbusters being shown at the time, and the usherettes quietly noted amongst themselves that it was probably down to the unusual weather of late. For the last few days, the skies above Ameron had been strangely murky and overcast, allowing less and less light and warmth to reach the cities below. It made sense that everyone would be indoors.
In the projection rooms above one of the theatres, a technician checked the power settings and angle of the holographic relays that provided the audiences below with their entertainment in three dimensional high-quality. Men, women and children laughed and chuckled at a reassuringly predictable romantic comedy unfolded before them.
Unimpressed at the facile and shallow humor, the technician finished his tour and went back to reading his book. Strapped around his forehead was a high-powered torch to illuminate everything in his field of vision, since like all protectionists he was forced to work in near-pitch blackness for the contrast of the light beams.
And then everything stopped.
In less than a second, all the holo-projectors shut down. The sounds of the movie in the theatre below spluttered and died, and as the screens blanked out, darkness fell. Suddenly, the technician was standing in absolute blackness, the acid-blue beam from his headlamp slicing pointlessly through the void.
The technician stumbled around, swearing in irritation. He would no doubt be the one to get the blame for this mess, a sacrificial goat for the angry customers unhappy that their afternoon’s viewing had been interrupted.
Yet, strangely, the technician couldn’t hear anything. No groans of annoyance, no cries of fear, no complaints or shouts or demands. The audience in the theatre were silent, even though seconds before they had been howling with laughter. Puzzled, the technician found his way to the observation window and pressed his face up against the glass, his headlamp shining into the darkness beyond, picking out rows of seemingly-empty seats.
Bewildered, the technician stumbled to the exit and out into the concourse to where the ticket booths and refreshment stalls were arranged. He expected crowds of bustling people chatting and either going to or coming from other theatres, perhaps some of the other staff shouting out safety instructions and appealing for cooperation.
More darkness. More silence.
And then the blackness seemed to recede, like the tide going out and leaving a strange dark stain over the air itself. The lights in the ceiling were working, but nowhere near their usual intensity, making the concourse as gloomy and murky as the daylight outside.
In the poor light, the technician was now able to see the clothes scattered across the floor for the first time. Trousers, shirts, blouses, skirts, underwear, all lay on the ground as if arranged in the shapes of fallen bodies. The technician instantly got the impression that everyone out here had simply collapsed to the ground and then vanished, leaving their empty clothes to settle on the carpet amidst the spilt drinks and snack foods.
The technician hurried through the gloom, checking the other theatres and projection rooms. The only things he found were empty clothes and dropped possessions, not a trace of that human beings that would have owned them. He checked his own theatre, seeing the rows of seats containing empty clothing and abandoned food and drinks. The technician wasn’t sure what he was expecting to find – hundreds of naked people hiding in a room as some kind of bizarre practical joke?
The cinemas were at the top of the shopping centre, and the technician fled out to find someone to help. The shops are walkways were in the same half-lit state, the glass-paneled ceiling opening out to a sullen black sky. It might have been the middle of the night. Other body-outlines of clothes and dropped shopping littered the paths and bridges.
The technician ran around, hearing the distant sound of what might have been a baby crying. Instead, he received (yet another) fright of his life as a pram-stroller hurtled down a ramp and crashed into a wall directly ahead of him. It contained a pile of baby clothes, but there was no sign of the baby that should have been wearing them.
A shout overhead grabbed his attention. ‘Hey, you! You down there!’
The technician turned, his head-lamp picking out a dim shape on an upper walkway – the silhouette of a heavy-set man with short hair, clutching his own torch. It was clearly one of the shopping centre’s security staff, and he sounded afraid.
‘Everybody’s gone! They’re all gone! Is there anyone in the cinemas?’
The guard must have recognized his grubby uniform, the technician realized. ‘I haven’t seen a soul,’ he admitted with a helpless shrug. ‘Do you know what happened?’
‘I was down in the food courts,’ the guard called back. ‘The solar stacks shut down, and the backup generators have kicked in. We probably should head down to the maintenance level, check everything’s still working...’
The technician watched the dark figure scramble down a motionless escalator towards him. Strange patterns of light and dark undulated on the upper walls, reflections of the now-inert water fountain on the ground level. ‘This is all some kind of joke, isn’t it?’ the security guard asked the technician in a hopeful voice. ‘One big prank?’
The technician didn’t bother to reply.
The security guard raised his torch to head height and shone it into the nearest store. It was a fashionable clothing store. The torchlight picked out the window dummies in their finest outfits, with their smug plastic faces. It seemed perverse that mannequins would still be around, wearing clothes, when everyone had apparently vanished.
‘What was that?’ asked the guard in a low voice, sweeping the torch beam around.
The technician looked on. The light picked out the mannequins, the clothes ranks and finally the far wall of the store. One of the mannequin heads blazed like gold in the beam, resembling the profile of some ancient sovereign on a coin. Bar the shadows scattered by the torch light, nothing moved. The shop was empty.
‘Wait here,’ the guard instructed, his earlier panic replaced with professionalism.
The technician shrugged as the guard stalked into of the clothing store. Curiously, the shadows seemed to be getting thicker as if the torchlight were getting weaker, lighting up less and less of the store. It was hard to make out the shape of the security guard as he reached the far end of the shop.
‘Who’s there?’ the guard demanded.
By now, the technician couldn’t see a thing. He reached up and banged his headlamp with his fist, checking it was still working. Ahead of him, the entire shop was plunged into blackness for a brief moment. There was an odd noise, almost like a cry of horror cut off in mid-syllable. Then silence.
The technician looked sharply at the shop, his headlamp barely penetrating the gloom. He tilted his head and the weakening beam picked out a huddle shape on the floor – an empty uniform next to an abandoned torch rolling out of the aisle and into the shadows.
The security guard had disappeared, just like all the others.
There was a distant crackle and the lights throughout the rest of the shopping centre spluttered and died. The shadows spread from all sides, and suddenly the technician was suspended in darkness once again. Shaking his head dazedly and unable to fully believe what was happening, he began walking towards the fresh heap of abandoned clothing.
As the technician entered the shop, he swung his head from left to right. The headlamp picked out the unattended shelves and racks of clothes, the motionless dummies standing rigidly to attention beside the aisles...
There was something wrong about them.
The technician realized the nearest dummy, the one that looked like an emperor in profile on a coin, was not blazing gold in the torchlight as it had moments before. Instead, the stubbornly remained in silhouette, a solid black shape despite having a beam of light focused directly upon it...
The technician froze, staring at the impossible shadow ahead of him.
The shadow twisted away from the mannequin it had been clinging to.
The technician didn’t have time to scream.
The human population of Ameron numbered around five billion. In just a few minutes that number was rendered totally inaccurate, and Ameron became a world of less than three hundred individuals. A number that continued to dwindle as the shadows spread across the land like an ever-expanding pool of black ink.
On vision screens throughout the civilized world, countless viewers were appalled as the latest news updates unfolded. As they watched, the anchormen and women were surprised as the displays around their studios turned to static. The lighting flickered on and off, and then the reporters began to scream. All of a sudden, where once had been a respected television celebrity was now an empty suit, deflating and tumbling to the floor.
The vision screens went blank as the darkness struck the viewers themselves. Many perished struggling with their remote controls, not even having enough time to ponder why all the lights in their homes had suddenly and inexplicably stopped working.
Outside a police station, a young officer on the fire escape was lighting a cigarette when all the lights in the buildings around her sparked and died, and a hideous noise filled the air. It seemed at first to be hundreds of different voices crying out in terror and pain, before becoming the squeals of a thousand cars going out of control and crashing.
Lit by the dark red glow of her burning cigarette, the police woman looked around in numb terror as the cacophony died away, leaving her alone in the dark. Patches of shadow were thicker, almost opaque blackness and as she watched they began to billow outwards...
In one of the many hospitals full of empty beds and unoccupied wheelchairs rolling aimlessly down corridors, a patient slowly awoke on the operating table. The surgeons had disappeared in mid-operation, and without an anesthetist on hand the patient was wide awake, in agony and unable to move. She sobbed and moaned for help, sensing the dark finger-like shapes creeping around the doors to the operating theatre towards her.
The operating theatre’s independent power supply had kept the lights on and the life support machinery functioning, but now the shadows were spilling out across the room, slowly but surely enveloping everything. Finally the theatre was swallowed up, and the poor woman’s suffering was at an end.
In a side-street, a homeless tramp ran for his life. He had huddled by a garbage bin of burning rubbish when everything went black and his fellow homeless had been reduced to empty rags. As the fire began to grow colder and dimmer, the tramp fled. Onto the main street that was suddenly so silent and dark, he managed to snatch an abandoned bicycle and with skill born of desperation, pedaled away from the shadows.
But the dark patches of gloom on the road itself spread out, swallowing up the tramp and his bike from below. The tramp managed a cry of misery before the bike toppled and collapsed in a tangle of empty, soiled clothes.
A young father running on a powerful cocktail of fear and adrenaline raced through the unnatural night towards his home. He raced into his apartment, barely noticing the way his torchlight seemed to take a few seconds to dispel the darkness, and sprinted towards the room where his infant son should have been sleeping soundly.
The cot was empty, bar a neat arrangement of baby clothes and a clean nappy.
He didn’t bother to run as the shadows closed in around him and he saw no point in screaming as the darkness enveloped him from head to toe. He had no interest in what was happening even as he was robbed of existence itself.
A passenger jet – now completely devoid of life and piloted by two empty uniforms in the sealed cockpit – overshot the airport and cruised over the cities for several hours before it plunged down into a main street littered with empty, crashed automobiles. It exploded on contact and the resulting conflagration destroyed most of the buildings around it, since no one was around to put out the fire. Several local inhabitants who had miraculously survived the first wave of darkness were burnt to death. It would be doubtful any of them would have appreciated the irony even if they’d known.
The initial blackout claimed billions. The ones that followed mopped up the survivors. Many a victim would hear a loved one’s voice coming from a figure huddled in or near a convenient light source. They would run over into the light, and have just enough time to realize they had been tricked before the light cut out and they were lost in the darkness, leaving just their empty clothes behind.
Within seventy-two hours, there were only a handful of humans left.
And then something amazing happened.
It was as though the process had been reversed and instead of disappearing into thin air, something appeared out of thin air. This something was a strange blue box, and from it stepped out someone who had never been on the planet Ameron before.
Someone known as “the Doctor”.
The Doctor’s eyes were fixed on the handheld detector he carried, studying the fluctuating displays built into it. He wasn’t entirely sure where he’d got the detector, and if he was very honest with himself, not entire certain how it worked. But he knew what it was telling him.
‘Cellular energy transmissions like you wouldn’t believe!’ he exclaimed aloud, stepping out of the TARDIS. ‘They’d be off the scale if this remarkable little gadget didn’t have an incredibly high scale – but even then it’s incredible! This whole planet is saturated with some kind of bio-energized radiation! Any other wavelength and the world would literally be boiling! What I don’t understand is how the levels got to this extent without any side-effects...’
There was a nasty, brittle crunch under his foot.
The Doctor froze, then carefully took his eyes from the detector for the first time.
Under his battered sandshoe was what had used to be a pair of thick spectacles.
More disconcerting was the fact that the spectacles were lying just next to a curiously-humanoid arrangement of discarded clothes. A neat business suit, with shirt, tie, and even socks stuffed into abandoned shoes just next to the empty trouser legs. The wear had fallen to the ground and then somehow disintegrated, leaving clothes behind.
The Doctor’s rapidly thought through all the possible reasons for the abandoned outfit lying at his feet and quickly narrowed it down to two options: it was either a post-modernist artistic installation about the transience of materialism.
Or else something terrible had happened.
As the Time Lord lifted his head to look at his surroundings, it quickly became obvious that the latter scenario was the more likely. The budget alone required to dress up a street to this extent would balk most galleries across the stellar neighborhood.
There were piles of clothes everywhere, each one parodying a lifeless body that should have been wearing them. A few bags and suitcases were also abandoned. Nearby, a thick brown coat and some cheap shapeless jumper and trousers on a street bench had lost any human shape, mainly because of the taxi that had mounted the pavement and smashed into said bench. It was empty bar some more clothes, of course.
There were more cars, too. Some had skidded to a halt in the middle of the road, while others took the more traditional approach of smashing into each other. Trucks and vans were similarly abandoned, like giant toys left by a distracted child. At the distant end of the main street, a large fire was burning. It nibbled at the buildings on either side, at its heart the wreckage of some kind of airplane which must have simply fallen out of the sky.
There was a discarded newspaper nearby. The Doctor crossed over to it and felt the dry and wrinkled pages. It was clearly several days old and had spent most of those days lying undisturbed in the middle of the street. Although not written in any human language, the Time Lord could read the headline easily.
MYSTERY ECLIPSE CONTINUES!
The Doctor glanced up at the sky. No stars, no moons, nothing but solid darkness. If not for the burning wreckage and the light spilling from the TARDIS’s windows and open doorway, it would be pitch black. Stuffing the detector back into his crushed velvet smoking jacket, the Time Lord scooped out a torch.
‘No biological remains,’ the Time Lord murmured to himself. ‘Nothing alive...’
As he fiddled with its intensity settings, he noticed the light shining from the TARDIS interior had created a blurred triangle of visibility on the road. His own shadow stretched before him, strange and misshapen. But there was another shadow on the pavement before him, reaching out from the edges of the triangle towards the front of the police box. It vaguely resembled a twisted claw, long fingers sprouting towards him.
Curious as to what was causing the shadow, the Doctor trained his torch on the spot.
Rendered transparent by the glare, the elongated hand gently melted away. The Doctor might have dismissed it as a trick of optics, except for the slow, almost resistant way the shadow had retreated. What’s more, the gloom beyond seemed to thicken for a moment, as if something had darted for cover.
‘You know,’ he said to himself, breaking the stillness of the night. ‘It’s a jolly good thing it’s just me here, because it would be about this point that any traveling companion I’d have would be getting very worried. So, that’s a positive. I don’t have to reassure them. Good. After all, who’s scared of the dark, anyway? What’s dark ever done that’s so impressive. It’s not called the Speed of Dark, is it?’
Suddenly he spun on the spot, his torch beam slicing through the night. Tall buildings loomed overhead, their windows dark and balconies silent. The shadows shrank away from the light, but in the normal, ordinary way that shadows did. The Doctor was almost on the point of believing he was letting his imagination run away with himself.
‘A deserted city. A permanent midnight. Sort of thing horror stories are built on,’ the Doctor continued in a loud, clear voice. If there was anything out in the dark, he wanted it to know it had company that was not easily intimidated. ‘Horror stories. Would you like to hear the shortest horror story in the universe?’
The Doctor listened for a reply. There was none, bar the distant crackle of flames and the low moan of the wind gently blowing through the lifeless city. But what was that other noise? A low, almost inaudible sound of meaningless patterns?
Like someone whispering.
‘The shortest horror story in the universe,’ the Doctor repeated. ‘It goes like this. “The last survivor was in a room. There was a knock on the door.”’ He grinned. ‘Very good, eh? Mind you, that unknown other was polite enough to knock. Not so scary, if you think about it. I prefer the sequel, which is one letter shorter.’
The Doctor paused. Nothing.
‘“The last survivor was in a room. There was a lock on the door.”’
‘Well,’ the Time Lord shrugged. ‘I liked it.’
The Time Lord froze. He knew that voice.
It was Jo Grant.
But she couldn’t be here. Billions of years before life had even begun on Earth? He’d certainly never taken her here in their travels together. Yet, while he had to admit that her presence was unlikely, it certainly wasn’t impossible.
‘Doctor...’ came a voice from a side alley at right angles to the street he was in.
Suspiciously, he crept across to the mouth of the alleyway. Despite the dark, the Doctor was able to make out the far end quite clearly. A shadow was being cast against the bricks, the silhouette of a slender feminine form, one delicate arm reaching out, fingers splayed. The Doctor frowned trying to focus on the shape as it seemed to lengthen and thicken. Two other shadows seemed to pass over it, thickening and merging with it.
A roughly humanoid shape was gliding down the alley towards him, getting larger and less-defined. It no longer resemble the Doctor’s old friend in any way as it accelerated over the ground, reaching out. Its fingers seemed to elongate, spreading across the high walls on either side, reaching out to grab the Time Lord.
The Doctor snapped on his torch and aimed it right at the shadow.
It was flung against the side wall, becoming detailed enough that it might have looked like the Doctor’s own shadow had it been at the right angle. The Doctor focused the torch beam on the shape, but it was gone. The torchlight picked out dust floating in the air, but nothing else was visible. In fact, there was no evidence it had ever been any different.
For a split-second, another humanoid shadow seemed to peer around the corner at him, but it was gone before the Doctor could fully focus his attention onto it.
Behind him there was a rattling click and the darkness deepened.
The Doctor turned, torch raised and the light picked out the TARDIS. It doors were now firmly closed, shutting out the outside universe. In itself, this wasn’t worrying. The time machine was programmed to close its own doors after a given period, and that period had clearly just expired. No, the problem was the Doctor no longer had a path of illumination leading back to the safety of his TARDIS.
All he had now was the radius of his torch glare, which for some reason was no longer a neat circle but an uneven patch of light. As the Doctor watched, the edges of the shadows slowly advance like spilled pant dripping down the walls. The liquid darkness spread faster and faster, engulfing whole buildings at a time, until it was impossible to distinguish land, sky or anything in between.
He looked around and saw that the darkness was evening out, the edges become stark and straight. Suddenly he was caught in a large gloomy oval surrounded by total void. And the triangle was shrinking on all three sides as the blackness closed in.
The tide was between him and the TARDIS. He could barely make out his faithful time ship as the landscape around it disappeared into the abyss, inch by inch consumed by the uncorrupted blackness. The darkness was spilling out across the bonnets of cars, down walls and up the pavements like a steady flood that no light could penetrate.
The light from his torch began to die, as if the batteries were suddenly running flat.
The Doctor snatched his sonic screwdriver from his pocket, aimed it at the torch and thumbed the power control. The air throbbed and the torch brightened to a magnesium flare that lit up the entire street.
Was that a scream of frustration he’d just heard? It might have been his imagination. What definitely wasn’t in his head was the way the blackness retreated in all directions, leaving a gloomy but visible city in its wake.
Having dispelled the blackness, the Doctor now saw that not too far down the street was a hotel, neatly placed on the corner. It was a pub on ground level with accommodation in thee upper levels. What was interesting was the neon sign on the upper wall advertising its function – or, more importantly, the fact it was working. Light also glowed healthily behind a row of windows, and the whispering noise the Doctor had heard he could now identify as the muffled sound of music playing within its walls.
Fascinated, the Doctor moved down the street towards the hotel. There were scattered cars and clothes, suggesting not many people had been in this part of town when whatever happened had happened. He noticed a pair of high heels and an empty dress before the main entrance to the hotel. A woman had been leaving when she had been taken...
And suddenly his torch began to fail again.
The Doctor tried to use his sonic screwdriver to recharge the batteries, but the intensity was dropping rapidly and in moments it was back to its former brightness. He looked up as the black tide drooled down a skeletal tree nearby, gushing down the sides of buildings and spilling out across the ground.
The TARDIS was lost in the darkness, and the Doctor was too far away to reach the time machine before the torch failed completely. His only option was to charge into the gloom separating him from the hotel and hope for the best.
As he ran forwards, he sensed squeals of pain from the receding darkness ahead, while there were angry, animalistic growls from the opposite direction. The Time Lord risked a glance over his shoulder and saw a cascade of ebony drown the other end of the street and surge up the road towards him like a living thing. An angry living thing.
The Doctor reached the front doors but they were locked. A blast of ultrasonic energy was enough to deal with that, but by now the torch was barely bright enough to illuminate the doors themselves. Only the lights from within the pub were holding the darkness at bay – and there were more maybe-sounds, animals groaning in pain and contempt.
Deciding for once not to push his luck, the Doctor shoved through the double doors and slammed them shut behind him. The sonic screwdriver quickly relocked them just as the living blackness crashed against the walls of the pub, trying to get him.
Unable to enter the hotel, the dark instead crept up the tiles, seeping into every edge and groove. The light in the windows seemed to blaze all the brighter as everything outside was drowned in the liquid night...
Like so much of this planet’s civilization, the pub reminded the Doctor of Earth. The layout of the ground floor was reassuringly familiar. Booths and tables on one side, a bar on the other with various bottles on offer and cheaper alcohol on tap. A sound system woven through the building ensured the music playing could be heard anywhere. Lights had been arranged to ensure the bar was in a pleasant twilight, not too bright or too dark and casting a warm autumnal hue of browns, oranges and yellows across everything.
It would be very easy to forget the horrors outside – if it weren’t for the clothes heaped up on the chairs, stools and in booths. Worse, a few of them retained enough of the shapes of their wearers to loom over the discarded bottles and glasses as though contemplating their next sip. On bar and tables were unfinished drinks amidst discarded phones, wristwatches, jewelry, wallets and purses.
‘I am Ozymandius, king of kings,’ the Doctor mused. ‘Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair. The material possessions of a whole civilization... I suppose you really can’t take it with you...’ he sighed. ‘This was probably a lovely place. Once.’
And then the lights flickered. The music slurred and jerked.
The Time Lord tensed and looked around the bar. His gaze settled on a door, slightly ajar at the rear of the pub. A sinister sighing noise was emerging from the thin gap between the door and its frame. Carefully, he carefully pushed the door open.
Beyond was a rough staircase leading down into darkness. A misshapen shadow on the steps receded away from him, retreating out of sight. The Time Lord mused it was probably a trick of the light. Probably.
Cautiously, the Doctor made his way down the steps. It wasn’t completely dark in this cellar, and he could see shelves stocked with provisions – tinned meat, water, paper towels, even some oxygen tanks; just the sort of things any decent drinking hole might require in a given emergency. Unfortunately not this particular emergency, though the Doctor was still uncertain as to what that was.
The menacing sigh was coming from an antique mu-field generator tucked in a corner. It had been powering the whole bar for some time, and clearly installed by someone whose technical expertise did not match their enthusiasm. It’s miracle it’s still working, thought the Doctor, and immediately it began to splutter and wind down.
The Time Lord hastily tugged at his jacket, pulling out his sonic screwdriver and aiming it at the generator. A few bursts of ultrasonic energy and the machine’s tone steadied, then grew louder and healthier. The lights brightened as the power flow increased.
Slightly relieved, the Doctor gazed around the cellar again. Now he could see what else was stored down here, he began to wonder if the owner had crossed that thin line between well-prepared and flat-out paranoid. The cellar was stocked with enough supplies to keep a nuclear bunker ticking over for several years, with everything from biohazard suits to rheon carbine weaponry stacked up in the shadows. Whoever ran this place was expecting trouble and, perhaps more to the point, not expecting any outside help when the time came. Not that this attitude had helped them much...
‘Don’t move,’ ordered a voice behind him.
‘If you insist,’ the Doctor said affably. ‘But I’m sure you’ll want me to put my hands up and that is going to require me to move, won’t it?’ He waited for a reply, but received none. ‘May I turn around now?’
‘Slowly,’ the voice growled.
Raising his hands, the Doctor turned counter-clockwise to face the speaker – and found himself facing a rheon carbine aimed at his head. Beyond the weapon was a girl, maybe about thirteen with dark, tanned skin and dreadlocked hair. She was unkempt, grubby, and clearly hadn’t slept or washed in a several days. She was also terrified of him.
‘Who are you?’ the girl demanded.
‘There are only two types nowadays,’ the Doctor replied. ‘Those who stay in the light – and those who dwell in the darkness. It’s the only distinction that matters any more. Now,’ he continued with an encouraging grin, ‘can you guess which particular category we fall into?’
‘Answer the damn question!’ she half-screamed.
The Doctor stayed calm. ‘I’m a friend.’
‘I don’t know you.’
‘Doesn’t matter. I’m everyone’s friend. You can call me the Doctor.’ He exaggeratedly checked that no one else was around. ‘Tell you what, my dear? Let’s go upstairs and I’ll buy you an orange juice. How does that sound?’
The girl stared at him.
‘All right. I’ll have the orange juice, and you can have a soda.’
Outside, the shadows grew deeper and darker. They lapped at the edges of the TARDIS, thick coils of void licking at the chipped paintwork, but unable to settle. The darkness slid off the blue box, as if the light spilling from its eight windows and the four notices above them was repelling them like a magnetic field.
The police box remained untouched as the world around turned jet black.
‘You know,’ said the Doctor conversationally as they returned to the bar, ‘if you put that thing away we could talk to each other properly. It’d be much more civilized, don’t you think?’
The barrel prodded him sharply in the spine.
‘Ah. You disagree on point of principle, I can tell.’
The Doctor looked across into the mirrors behind the bar, addressing the reflection of his captor. ‘You know,’ he pointed out, ‘if you fire that thing you’ll kill me instantly. And I get the feeling you don’t want to be stuck here all on your own. Do you?’
The Time Lord, feeling more confident, turned around.
The girl fired.
The Doctor managed to dive to the left, and the energy bolt scorched through the air where he had been. It splattered into the mirrors behind the bar and reduced them to a mess of powdered glass and stained goo. The Doctor landed hard on the ground and saw the girl swing the carbine to aim at him again.
‘Jumpy, aren’t you?’ he said, sounding rather smooth for someone hiding underneath the bar. ‘You know, you never did tell me your name.’
‘You never told me yours!’ the girl accused, gripping the weapon tightly.
‘All right,’ the Doctor conceded. ‘I suppose I don’t need to know your name. But having something to call you would help, don’t you think? A nickname, perhaps? Should I give you a name? Um, something nice and nonspecific. Ah... Chris? Joe? Ixio?’
‘Mandy,’ the girl said tightly.
‘All right,’ the Doctor said with a smile. ‘Mandy. It’s wonderful to meet you, Mandy. If I’m honest, it’s wonderful to meet anyone... Do you live her, perchance?’
Mandy nodded. ‘My mum owns the place.’
The Doctor noted her use of the present tense and decided not to say anything. The girl was scared, armed and expecting hostile behavior. He’d have to play this one very cagily...
‘She went to check out the lights at the church,’ Mandy continued.
‘Did she?’ asked the Doctor, interested. And trying not to think of the empty high-heels sitting abandoned in the middle of the road outside. ‘What did she find?’
‘She told me to stay here.’
‘And you’re going to wait here until she comes back?’ asked the Doctor lightly.
‘Uh-huh,’ Mandy nodded.
‘Yes, perhaps I’m being a touch pessimistic, but I have a strong feeling that this crisis isn’t going to be one of those nice, old-fashioned sort-themselves-out-eventually-Dunkirk-spirit sort of crises. Whatever is happening out there is not going to stop any time soon. I mean, that generator isn’t going to last forever, you know,’ the Doctor told her. ‘In fact, that generator isn’t going to last the week. And I doubt there’s any power from the mains. The whole city looks like it’s in the middle of a black out. In more ways than one.’
‘She told me she’d be back,’ Mandy repeated with an edge to her voice.
‘Is that clock accurate?’ the Doctor asked, changing the subject. He pointed at the time piece on the wall over a free-standing arcade game. It read 11:19 AM.
Mandy glanced at it, then nodded.
‘Have you taken a look outside lately?’ the Doctor asked. ‘It’s pitch black, which is odd when you consider it’s not even midday yet.’
Mandy nodded, grimacing in fear. ‘It’s been like that for a while. Less and less daylight because every day, the sun comes up later and goes down sooner. Till one day it just doesn’t come back up again.’
‘And people are disappearing?’ the Doctor asked.
The Doctor took a deep breath. ‘How long has your mother been gone?’ he asked.
Mandy’s eyes widened. She was looking at something over the Doctor’s shoulder.
Behind him, someone else had entered the bar. It a boy slightly older than Mandy, his tanned skin made darker through dirt and grime he’d clearly not had a chance to wash off. A crude bandolier hung around his shoulders, carrying not ammunition but lights – torches of various sizes, illuminated key-chains, clusters of glowing fibre optics... anything that could keep the darkness at bay. Clutched in one hand was a small pistol, and it was aimed at both the Doctor and Mandy.
‘How do you do?’ the Doctor asked brightly. ‘I’m the Doctor and this is my armed captor, Mandy. I don’t actually know her last name, but it should be easy to remember which one she is because she is still wearing clothes instead of leaving them in a neat forgotten pile...’
‘Why is there power here?’ the newcomer demanded.
‘Back-up generator,’ Mandy explained. ‘Won’t last though,’ she sighed.
‘You both been hiding here since the blackout?’ he asked.
The Doctor shook his head. ‘I just got here a few minutes ago.’
The stranger glared suspiciously, looking him up and down. The Time Lord suspected his frilled shirt and velvet smoking jacket were not cutting the mustard for post-apocalyptic attire. ‘How did you get this far without a light?’ the man asked, eyes narrowed.
‘Short-cut,’ the Doctor said with disinterested shrug.
The answer didn’t impress him.
He was, however, taken aback when the Doctor simply reached out and plucked the pistol from his hand. In one fluid movement, the Time Lord spun it in the air, removed the ammo clip and stuffed it into his jacket pocket while tossing the pistol to Mandy. The girl instinctively went to catch it, lowering her own rifle which was effortlessly snatched by the Doctor. In short order he broke it open, pulled out the cartridges, pocketed them and threw the empty weapon to the new arrival.
In less than three seconds he had disarmed both of his companions and swapped their now-useless firearms. He smiled at them both and went behind the bar to get himself a drink while they both came to terms with this fact.
The boy was the first to speak. ‘You’re the first people I’ve seen in two days. Why?’
‘Why what?’ asked Mandy.
‘Why us? Why are we the ones left behind?’ the man shouted.
The lights flickered once again, but they returned to normal almost instantly.
The Doctor glanced around the pub area for a moment, before turning his attention back to the newcomer. ‘What was your name again?’ he asked politely.
‘Paulo,’ sighed the boy miserably. ‘Why didn’t we get taken?’ he asked them with quiet desperation. ‘Why didn’t we go with everyone else?’
Mandy didn’t meet his gaze. ‘I don’t care,’ she grunted.
‘You should,’ the Doctor told her reproachfully. He had started to squint, as if trying to peer through a non-existent gloom.
Mandy threw up her hands in despair. ‘Fine! There must be some kind of reason! But I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to – all I want is for my mum to come back!’
‘Why should she?’ Paulo grumbled. ‘What’s so special about her?’
‘She’s my mum!’ Mandy snapped. ‘She’s a good person!’
‘You think only bad people vanished?’ he grumbled, slumping at the bar as if waiting for some sympathetic barman to approach and ask him about his day. ‘If only the good were left alone... why us? I know I’ve done things... awful things... I’ve hurt people, I’ve made mistakes, we all have... is this some kind of punishment?’ he asked the Doctor in a small, broken voice. ‘Do we deserve this?’
‘Mmm?’ asked the Doctor, fumbling in his pockets. ‘Oh, no, Paulo, I’m afraid there’s no higher reason to who stayed and who went. It’s all entirely haphazard...’ He took out a tiny aerosol can and sprayed a thick spurt of mist into the air. It hung above the bar for a moment, almost like a dust cloud that took a long time to clear.
‘How is that supposed to help?’ Mandy asked incredulously.
‘Help?’ the Doctor echoed, confused. ‘Whatever made you think it would help? No, this is just clarifying the situation. I’m fairly certain I know what’s causing the darkness and the disappearances, and it’s not some parallel universal overlap, or a gamma ray burst, particle collision, or a neutron bomb, singularity, or wormhole displacement.’
‘What does that leave?’ Paulo scoffed. ‘Flesh-eating bacteria?’
The Doctor stared at him. ‘Funny you should say that. I think you’re right.’
Outside was nothing but darkness and silence. Even the whispers had ceased now there was no one left to scream into the night as they were consumed. There was nothing left alive, not just in the city but across the planet. Cages in zoos were now empty. There were no birds in the trees below or the skies above. Domestic pets had vanished too, leaving empty collars and unfinished meals going stale in food bowls.
The darkness contemplated its next move.
The final move.
The Doctor was emptying his pockets onto the bar, searching for anything in his random assortment of junk that could provide light. Two torches, his sonic screwdriver and a packet of glow-rings he’d got at a 21st Century rave party. They were little more than plastic hoops large enough to wear as necklaces, but twisting them caused a chemical reaction and the plastic glowed like bright neon for several hours at a time.
All the time, he was explaining things to Mandy and Paulo.
‘You see, it’s not actually darkness at all. It’s a swarm of carnivorous microbes, billions and trillions of them, swarms so dense that light cannot get through. They’re called the Vashta Nerada, the Shadows That Melt The Flesh. Normally they’re harmless plant spores, just dust in the sunshine happy to scavenge any meat they can find, like vultures.’
‘Normally,’ repeated Mandy slowly. ‘But this isn’t normal?’
‘No,’ the Doctor agreed, shrugging off his jacket to check any pockets he might have missed. ‘I’ve heard of times, when they’re in sufficient numbers, that they can strip down to the bare bones in a millisecond – but this swarm are eating the bones as well!’
‘Then they’re not evil?’ said Paulo slowly.
‘Good or evil doesn’t come into it. They’re hungry, we’re food.’
Paulo shook his head. ‘I don’t understand. See, I’ve heard people out there, crying... one of them was my mother.’
The Doctor paused in his search. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said softly.
‘You don’t get it,’ Paulo snapped. ‘My mother is dead. Has been for eight whole years. So, how exactly did I come to be able to hear her? And the others? Can these things mimic voices? Can they read our minds?’
The Time Lord narrowed his eyes, troubled. ‘No... no, that doesn’t make any sense, Vashta Nerada are just dust particles; there’s no telepathy or even vocal chords – why bother? They’re air-piranhas, they don’t go in for subtlety or conversation! They just eat!’
‘Then why are they doing it?’ Paulo demanded. ‘How are they doing it?’
‘I don’t know!’ the Doctor admitted impatiently.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mandy cut across them both. ‘These Vasto Nervada things must have some weaknesses!’
The Doctor shrugged. ‘They don’t like the light very much,’ he offered, rather lamely. ‘But that’s just raw instinct for them, to hide in the dark as camouflage. It might make an individual spore a bit dizzy, but they’ve formed into a shell blocking out the sun. They’re so aggressive, so numerous it’s almost like... like...’
The Time Lord dashed to the pile of objects on the bar top and searched frantically for his handheld detector. The others watch on, confused and unimpressed.
‘Like?’ Mandy prompted.
‘Like they’ve evolved,’ the Doctor completed. ‘You see?’ He waved the detector at them, its flashing displays totally meaningless. ‘This world, Ameron, it’s generating a complete spectrum of bio-energy radiation! Wave after wave of cellular stimulation, and any given life form would undergo spontaneous evolution! Centuries of development in days!’
‘What are you talking about?’ Paulo scoffed. ‘Nothing like this happens here?’
The Doctor arched an eyebrow. ‘It doesn’t?’ he asked dryly. ‘Or is it just it doesn’t affect you, your species?’ He nodded. ‘That makes sense. Your entire race has been exposed to this energy every second of every hour of every day – you must have changed so much until, well, you reached this stage!’
‘What stage?’ Mandy demanded, getting upset and confused in equal measure.
‘This stage!’ the Doctor laughed, pointing at them. ‘The ultimate evolutionary stage – you developed a total immunity to your environment. A jellyfish could evolve into a grizzly bear on this world and the strands of your hair would barely change colour... all life on Ameron has reached that balance. But what happens when something new arrives?’
Paulo’s eyes widened. ‘Like the Vashta Nerada?’
The Doctor nodded, some of his enthusiasm visibly fading. ‘The spores entered the atmosphere – they were soaked in the energy, and it accelerated their development out of control. They bred in the billions, so hungry they’d evolved to eat anything, even bone. That eclipse, that darkness were the Vashta Nerada, floating around, probably wondering what was happening to them... and eventually the hunger became too much for them.’
Many looked like she was going to be sick. ‘And the blackout...’
‘One big bite,’ the Doctor concluded. ‘And billions of people eaten inside a second.’
‘And now they’re hunting us? The last survivors?’
‘Yes,’ the Time Lord sighed, and began to return his assortment of possessions to his pockets. ‘The Vashta Nerada are out to make their final meal as entertaining as possible. It seems gaining intelligence means they have also gained sadism to boot.’
‘Why?’ Paulo demanded. ‘If they eat us, they’ll starve!’
‘No, they’ll just hibernate,’ the Doctor corrected. ‘They can lie dormant for centuries, or maybe this lot will revert to cannibalism... not that it does us much good.’
Everything went black.
From outside the hotel there was an inhuman roar of triumph.
The lights flickered on and off, enough to illuminate the bar and its surroundings. But the shadows in the corners were deeper and darker than before, writhing and coiling like black snakes spreading out in all directions, smothering everything in reach.
‘Time to lessen the load, I think!’ the Doctor shouted.
The Doctor rushed over to the bar, searching for a fuse box. ‘The load on the generator! Switch off everything we don’t need: those computer games, the juke box, those neon signs out the front!’ he shouted at the others. Mandy hastened to obey and in moments the lights had stopped flickering and the black tendrils were draining away into nothing.
‘That should keep the generator going a bit longer, right?’ asked Paulo.
‘I doubt it. It won’t be long before just this amount of light will be asking too much,’ the Doctor concluded bleakly. He scanned the cellar for inspiration, and noticed something he had earlier missed: in the far wall was a heavy metal hatch with a padlock holding it shut. It was almost invisible in the gloom. ‘Where does this lead?’ he asked Mandy.
‘I dunno,’ the teenager shrugged wearily. ‘Mum just said we should only use it for when things can’t get any worse...’
The generator began to splutter and the lights flickered. A wave of blackness swept out from the shadows on one wall and slid across the ceiling, hanging over them for a long moment like some giant bird of prey, then it merged with the shadow on the far wall.
‘If we’re not at that point now, we will be very soon...’
The cellar lights steadied out. Suddenly, shadows none of them had even noticed were recoiling with strange, scratching croaks. ‘They’re already inside the hotel,’ the Doctor said bleakly. ‘Once the generator packs up there will be nothing to stop them stripping us to less than dust in the blink of an eye...’
‘Maybe that’s how it should be,’ Paulo said distantly.
The Doctor stared at him. ‘What did you just say?’
Paulo seemed to be steeling himself. ‘If this is the new law of nature,’ he said, slowly and carefully, ‘then we have to adapt.’
‘Adapt?’ the Doctor echoed. ‘You can’t adapt to this! It’s the Vashta Nerada who are the ones evolving and changing, not you. And growing yourselves sets of day-glo armor plating is about the only way you could escape them! They are predators and you are prey! You can’t outrun them, outlast them, or fight them. So how exactly are you going to adapt?’
Paulo stared at him. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked warily.
‘You didn’t know about the blackout,’ Mandy agreed.
‘I’m a traveler,’ the Doctor explained patiently. ‘I’m not a native of this planet, but I do have a ship that brought me to this world, it’s out there and we can use it to escape...’
‘You don’t know about the legend,’ Paulo pointed out.
‘No, as I said, I’m new in town...’
‘Then listen! This could all be a new beginning, not an end!’ Paulo pointed out, with a strange look of excitement on his grubby, unwashed face. ‘A reboot!’
‘Most of your population eaten is a new beginning?’ the Doctor asked slowly.
Mandy shook her head, frowning. ‘It’s a legend, a story from before civilization began,’ she said, stumbling over words in an explanation she’d never needed to give before. ‘Every living person on the planet knows about it. Not that many believe it, but still...’
‘A legend about the Vashta Nerada attacking?’ the Doctor asked, interested. ‘The Ballad of the Hungry Living Darkness, something along those lines?’
Paulo was looking around the cellar, as if realizing for the first time where he was. ‘It says that one day the world of Ameron will face a crisis, a crisis the people cannot triumph over. Maybe a war, maybe a plague, maybe anything. But when the end comes...’
‘...it is a new beginning,’ Mandy completed. ‘That’s how it goes. The world cannot end, because there’s always something left. And that something left behind will grow; growing and growing until every living thing on the world is brought to life anew. A second chance.’
The Doctor looked at them. He tended to try and keep out of religious arguments, since there were an infinite number of theories and belief systems explaining the randomness of the universe and providing comfort and fear in equal measure. He might have been willing to listen to differing theories in the normal course of events, but they didn’t have time.
‘I’d much rather find that out from the safety of my ship,’ he said reasonably.
‘Why can’t we stay here?’ asked Mandy sadly. ‘There’s still light...’
‘Not for long,’ the Doctor reminded her.
As if in agreement, the lights flickered again.
‘And what about the Vashta Nerada? Even if the generator stays working for months, they’re not going to just sit idly by, especially as they’ve gotten intelligent enough to try and lure their prey to them.’
The Doctor trailed off and looked around the empty hotel.
‘This is a trap,’ he whispered ominously.
His two companions stared at him in confusion.
‘Don’t you see? They’ve chosen to leave this place last!’
‘Because of the light,’ Mandy pointed out.
Paulo nodded absently. ‘Light keeps those things at bay.’
‘Tell that to moths around a flame,’ the Doctor snapped. ‘This is a deliberate dead end, a place for the last survivors to aim for so the Vashta Nerada can tuck in to their final dinner without expending any more energy. Why dine out when you can get takeaway delivered?’
The world outside was perfect black. The looming void waited to see what the meat would do next now the truth of their situation had become apparent – but only out of curiosity. There was nothing could stop the darkness now.
Not even the Doctor.
The Doctor had shoved the glowing loops around the necks of his companions while he worked behind the bar. He had found some of the discarded shirts, torn them into rags and then crammed them into a glass pitcher which he was now filling with a cocktail of every spirit he could find on offer. With an old extendable car aerial, he jabbed and twirled the rags, thoroughly soaking them in the flammable liquids.
‘We should wait for daylight,’ Paulo noted flatly.
‘Which isn’t coming. And that generator is minutes from breaking down for good.’
‘Seems we have no option then,’ Paulo shrugged.
‘None,’ the Doctor agreed, and lifted the improvised torch out of the jar and handed it to Mandy, who held it at arm’s length. Alcohol was dripping onto the floor and the whole thing looked ridiculously dangerous.
‘You’re sure this will work?’ she asked.
The Doctor grinned. ‘Never be sure of anything, Mandy. It’s a sign of weakness.’
He aimed his sonic screwdriver at the dripping bundle of rags and pressed the firing stud.
The screwdriver buzzed and the air around the torch suddenly began to heat up, and then sparks danced around the head.
With a burst of orange, the improvised torch burst into flames that lit up the bar brighter than it had ever been before. The glow sent strange, but very definitely normal, shadows dancing on the walls. Mandy swept the torch upwards, away from anything that he didn’t want to catch fire, up to and including herself.
The Doctor pocketed his screwdriver, immensely satisfied, and took the torch from Mandy as the fiery end steadied out. ‘As they tend to say in these situations... eureka!’
The flaming torch flickered dangerously, its brilliance fading.
‘It won’t last,’ Mandy predicted bleakly.
‘Of course it won’t last,’ the Doctor grunted. ‘If the light didn’t die, then there would be nothing for us to rage against, would there?’ He grinned, but no one else did. ‘Oh well, I can’t expect classical allusions to future civilizations to carry much weight...’
‘What future civilizations?’ asked Paulo.
‘Not here, I’m afraid. Another world entirely, one called Earth, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is while the Vashta Nerada can interfere with electrical power, the raw thermal energy is something else. This should last long enough for us to get back to the TARDIS, you mark my words...’
‘Us?’ Paulo snorted. ‘I’m not coming with you!’
The Doctor blinked. ‘You want to stay here?’
‘You’re insane, old chap.’
‘Maybe I just have faith,’ Paulo replied. ‘The world is ending, Doctor. You said yourself we’re the only ones left. All the others are dead. If Ameron is to renew itself, it’ll be now. And I’m not going to endanger that by leaving. All for one and one for all.’
The Doctor turned to Mandy. ‘Talk to him,’ he ordered.
‘How can I?’ she protested. ‘He could be right! Something has to stay behind, that’s what the legend says! And if its true then everyone will come back – even the ones the Vashta Nerada have killed like... like...’
‘Your mother?’ the Doctor suggested softly. ‘Look, Mandy, I can’t promise you your world will get a second chance. I can’t promise that even if everyone is restored they won’t just be all eaten by the shadows the exact same way. But I can promise you if you stay here, you will be dead within an hour.’ He glared at Paulo. ‘Both of you!’
Mandy looked torn.
‘Don’t throw your life away for something you don’t understand,’ the Doctor urged.
Mandy nodded. ‘My mum... she’d want me to go.’
‘Yes, I believe she would,’ the Doctor agreed.
Paulo shook his head.
‘We’re the only ones left,’ Many pleaded. ‘You don’t want to stay here alone, do you?’
‘Whatever happens now,’ Paulo said simply, ‘can only fulfill our destinies.’
The Doctor’s voice was as sharp as a razor blade. ‘As you wish,’ he said darkly.
He handed the flaming torch back to Mandy and lit the other. Raising it, he crossed to the exit door and heaved it open. Beyond was darkness – moving darkness, like swirling black clouds constantly twisting and multiplying...
And then the black suddenly slashed out through the doorway, reaching towards them with huge, distorted arms of grainy shadow. Mandy grabbed the Doctor’s hand, pulling him back into the middle of the bar and the brighter patch of light while she waved her own torch at the intruder.
For a moment, dust crackled in the wavering flames and then the shadows wavered, regrouped and retreated back into the confines of the door frame. A faint female voice began to croak, ‘Doctor... help me, Doctor...’
‘Oh, no. Fool me once? Shame on you,’ the Time Lord shouted, unimpressed. ‘Fool me twice? That means I’m probably luring you into a cunning trap!’
The whispering stopped.
‘Dead as a shark’s eye and twice as unfriendly,’ he mused. ‘Let’s go.’
Mandy hesitated and looked back at Paulo, who was sipping his drink. He was looking directly at her, and hadn’t moved a muscle when the Vashta Nerada had attack them both.
‘That which lives,’ he quoted calmly, ‘must endure change.’ He raised his glass in a toast and turned back to the bar.
Mandy nodded and followed the Doctor out the exit. Paulo didn’t watch them go, his gaze trapped by the bar top, and more specifically by the scratches in the varnished surface.
He’d seen similar scratches in the plaster of the cellar walls and in the felt of the billiards table. The marks had obviously been made by human fingernails, but when? And why? Had one of the bar staff clawed at the surface as the darkness consumed them, a desperate bid to stay here, to literally cling to life?
Or maybe it was just a coincidence. There was no way to find out.
There was a distant crackling noise from the overworked generator.
And the lights dimmed further.
Torches threatening to die any moment, they stepped out into listless desolation of an emptied world. Around them were abandoned clothes and cars, the only remains of all the millions of lives that had been snuffed out as easily as candle flames. And beyond that was surreal blackness, like an unfinished painting.
The flames didn’t penetrate the gloom very far, but the dim outlines of the buildings around them became discernable. The Doctor reflected they rather reminded him of giant teeth against the night sky, but dismissed the thought hastily. Things were bad enough without overwrought imaginings added to the mix...
The shadows moved independently around the light, twisted and wrong and hungry.
‘The Vashta Nerada,’ the Doctor mused bleakly. ‘You know, my dear, some people think that they are the reason people fear the dark – a universal race memory to a time when their swarms made any shadow a killer...’
Mandy looked at him. ‘Do you think that?’
‘No, not really,’ the Doctor replied, grinning. ‘But it’s a good story, isn’t it?’
‘Why aren’t you terrified?’ asked Mandy weakly.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders beneath his cape. ‘Well, it wouldn’t be helpful if I was,’ he pointed out reasonably. ‘Besides, I have some experience when it comes to facing monsters in the dark... a bit more experience than it’s healthy to put on my CV, if I’m honest. Unless I was applying for the role of scientific advisor for a certain paramilitary organization...’
The darkness moaned hungrily.
Paulo was slumped on the bar, uncertain if he was dreaming or not. The exhaustion of the last few days had finally overwhelmed him and he was lost in a strange daze that might have lasted a minute or a second or forever.
Had he been to this pub before? He might have. Or one very much like it, at least, that was more than possible. He could almost hear the music from the jukebox, the hubbub of conversation, the smell of alcohol and tobacco smoke. The bar around him was packed full of people laughing, drinking and arguing and playing games and smiling happily. Lovers dances, drunks sang along to songs of nostalgia, a zone of comfort for so many living, breathing people... a place of the living... safe... loved...
With a jolt, Paulo snapped back into full consciousness. Suddenly, he was the only one left in the bar, a lonely place of darkness and emptiness. Lonely, rasping moans were wafting through the dark air; the sound of lost souls.
Reality was nothing if unsettling.
The lights were strobing again and a strained, groaning non-sound was coming from the stairwell. Paulo turned to see thick stubby fingers of dark reaching up to the doorframe.
The mad flickering became more pronounced as shadows began to spread out, slithering over the walls and floor. The whispering, babbling voices grew louder.
He was going to drown, suffocated in a sea of shadows...
The lights settled. Everything seemed normal now. The shadows were still, the walls and floor clear of the spreading darkness. There were no sighs or whispers in the air. It was if the Vashta Nerada were the ones to vanish themselves, leaving organic life behind.
It was over.
Paulo took a deep breath, listening to the rumble from the cellar. The generator was much louder than it had been, as though no longer hampered by the shadows’ influence. Groggily, he got to his feet and wandered down the steps into the basement, part of him pleased to see the darkness behave as it should, appearing only where light was interrupted and vanishing accordingly.
Paulo wanted to laugh.
He reached the bottom of the steps and looked around. The cellar looked even more forlorn and mournful than it had a few minutes ago. As Paulo brooded over the generator, he noticed something had changed.
The heavy metal door in the wall opposite was now ajar, and a clear electric green glow shone through the gap. Paulo saw a glimpse of a tunnel, with curved walls of corrugated metal and a flat concrete floor. The door creaked on its hinges, opening wider, inviting him in. The padlock itself had vanished.
‘Paulo...’ a distant voice echoed down the tunnel.
Paulo cautiously approached the doorway. The tunnel stretched away for as far as the eye could see, curving to the right and lit by pools of electric green light bright enough to illuminate the shadowy gaps in between.
‘Paulo... don’t keep us waiting, Paulo...’
He stepped through the doorway and began to trudge down the tunnel. It was some kind of old transport tunnel, maybe to some kind of bunker built in the paranoia days of centuries gone by when thermonuclear conflict seemed unavoidable? Maybe even older? Maybe built by people who knew about the Vashta Nerada, that they would return one day?
But how had the others got down here ahead of him?
‘Paulo!’ the Doctor’s voice called, much closer.
Paulo hurried as fast as he could, but the tunnel seemed to go on forever. He lost all track of how far he’d walked or how long it had been since he’d left the hotel. He looked back down the passage, but its slight curve meant it was impossible to tell where he was in relation to the rest of the world. The dim patches seemed to getting dimmer, too...
The Doctor and Mandy were creeping down the street at a slow, steady pace. Every one of Mandy’s instincts was telling her to run, but the Time Lord was adamant – they had to stay in their unstable patch of light at all costs; running could leave them in the dark and the mercy of the things that were hiding within. The flickering light from their torches revealed the edges of abandoned cars and heaps of discarded clothes, occasionally lighting up patches of buildings on either side of the street.
Every so often they would throw up crude, humanoid shadows on the walls despite there not being anyone around to cast them. The shadow-shapes were not visible for long as the duo continued their trek up the road, the dipping and dancing light making it seem as though they were mere optic illusions. But Mandy was not willing to retrace their steps to check if it was a trick of the light or not.
She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw perfect blackness. There was no evidence the hotel still existed, or even if the rest of the street was there. She and the Doctor were creeping through oblivion, impossible silhouettes watching their every step...
‘It’s everywhere,’ Mandy whimpered. ‘There must be billions of them just in this street!’
‘It’s not always numbers that decide the winner, you know,’ the Doctor reminded her, before grimly adding, ‘Not always, but sometimes. And this is one of those times.’
‘No,’ Mandy replied, wondering why she suddenly felt so certain on that point.
‘No?’ the Doctor repeated curiously.
Words came to her lips unbidden. ‘This is the time for the cycle to close.’
The Doctor stopped in his tracks and turned to look at her suspiciously. ‘Mandy,’ he said cautiously, ‘what are you talking about?’
Mandy wasn’t entire certain she’d just spoken, let alone what she meant.
‘What did you mean?’ the Doctor persisted. ‘About times and cycles?’
‘Perhaps she senses the truth?’ suggested a hissing voice from the darkness.
The two survivors froze.
Ahead of them, grotesque shadows of non-existent people loomed out of the black.
‘Am I right in thinking I’m addressing the Vashta Nerada?’ the Doctor asked brightly.
The voice sounded near-contemptuous. ‘The Shadows That Melt The Flesh?’ it mocked. ‘Yes, we are of their descent, but we have evolved far beyond them... Ameron has enriched us, sustained us, energized us.’
‘But do you know why?’ the Doctor challenged.
‘We expected you to have already realized the truth, Time Lord.’
‘“Time Lord”?’ he repeated, a slightly worried look creasing his brow. ‘Whatever gave you the impression I’m a Time Lord?’
The darkness drained away, peeling back to reveal the TARDIS at the end of the street. It was sitting on the pavement, looking warm, bright and inviting compared to the cold dead cityscape around it.
‘I suppose that was a bit of a clue,’ the Doctor conceded. ‘You realize that if you try and kill a Time Lord, there will be far-reaching consequences and repercussions?’
‘We realize everything,’ the blackness replied, unimpressed. ‘You have no place here. Your struggles are futile. We are absolute and this is our kingdom. Meat has held sway for hundreds of millennia. Now it is our turn.’
‘Don’t be too sure,’ the Doctor warned the darkness.
‘You cannot unmake our conquest,’ the whispering voices retorted, almost laughing at the very idea. Then the voices became colder and angrier. ‘Ameron is ours by right of holocaust! And ours alone!’
Mandy shook her head. ‘Never,’ she said with a sudden, unusual intensity.
The Doctor was less certain. ‘There’s no point denying it,’ he told her. ‘The Vashta Nerada have turned this planet into an empty husk for them to devour.’
Mandy took a deep, shaking breath. ‘The moment approaches!’
The Doctor was growing impatient. ‘The moment? What moment?’ he demanded.
‘The moment of truth,’ the Vashta Nerada explained, ‘when the whole history of this world is snuffed out! Ameron will rise again, freed from the shackles of humanoid life, a new and virgin land to be reshaped and remolded and refashioned to our design. We will become its life-blood, its rulers, its very gods...’
‘Absolutely!’ agreed the Doctor. ‘No point doing these things by halves, is there?’
‘You still do not understand, do you?’ Mandy asked dazedly.
‘Less and less,’ the Doctor admitted. ‘What do you two know I don’t?’
The darkness laughed at him, and another patch of pitch black receded to reveal the build stone building opposite, built in a cruder, older style out of concrete. It was a church of some kind, some cynical city planner having ensured it was in walking distance to the nearest drinking hole. Etched above the doors was clearly a symbol of the dominant religion, but it wasn’t based on the usual choice of star, cross, crescent or pentagram. It was a strange, stylized letter in a language the TARDIS did not need to translate.
‘The Mark of the Halldons,’ the Doctor exclaimed, totally taken aback.
‘The peers of the Time Lords,’ the voice rasped. ‘They forged countless worlds such as this to accelerate evolution and forge new life, to see species beyond imagining and the ultimate destiny of organic matter...’
‘The bio-energy waves, the ones soaking the planet’s surface,’ the Doctor realized dully. ‘Part of the basic program design, sent to stimulate the biological and social development test subjects – and anything else that happens to get caught in the mix! This whole world and everything on it, the people, the animals, every facet of civilization, all part of one giant science project to see what happens if you push hard in one direction for long enough...’
‘This world has been stagnant,’ the voice continued, ‘its societies going nowhere. Its people terrified of disturbing the balance they had established.’
‘It’s not a religion,’ the Doctor agreed. ‘It’s race memory, of a time when you were all wild animals in a zoo being experimented upon by outside forces...’
‘But now, after fifty thousand centuries, something new arrived.’
‘The Vashta Nerada,’ Mandy said quietly.
‘And we outpaced the humanoids,’ the darkness cackled. ‘We are the dominant life form now. The balance has shifted in our favor, and the forces of this world can no longer be held in check any more...’
‘What do you mean?’ the Doctor snapped.
‘The legend,’ Mandy whispered. ‘A new beginning. It’s real.’
‘I don’t see any new beginning,’ said the Doctor bluntly. ‘Just swarms and swarms of air-piranhas fighting over the last of their prey now they’ve eaten themselves out of house and home. The Halldons aren’t running things any more, or else they’d have intervened when the Vashta Nerada first attacked the population. So, tell me, how exactly are the people here going to get a second chance?’
‘There are no second chances,’ the voices spat. ‘Not now that you are the last.’
‘What about Paulo?’ Mandy asked weakly.
‘What about Paulo?’ the darkness sneered.
A few more minutes walking and Paulo had finally reached the end of the tunnel. A blank wall with a single hatch, identical to the one he’d used to leave the hotel. Except that here the door was quite firmly shut, with a wheel-lock at its centre. There was no sign that anyone had been there before him.
‘Paulo!’ called the voices from behind the door.
The exhausted survivor jogged up to the door, took hold of the locking wheel and tried to turn it. Rust came off against his sweaty hands, and the wheel refused to turn. Paulo’s muscles screamed as he heaved on the wheel again and again, and finally it gave under the pressure. He turned it until it was spinning easily, and then pulled hard, trying to heave the hatch towards him. Its rusty hinges scraped loudly down the tunnel.
Behind the door was a brick wall. An old brick wall.
Wherever this tunnel had lead, the other end had been blocked off years ago. It was a dead end and had been so for years. There was never a way out. The Doctor’s words suddenly came back to him with sudden clarity.
A deliberate dead end. A place for the last survivors to aim for...
‘No!’ Paulo shouted, charging the brick wall with all his might. ‘No, no, no!’
It was another cruel trick, the Vashta Nerada playing with their final victim.
Fearfully, Paulo forced himself to turn around.
The end of the tunnel was in darkness. No, as Paulo peered at it he could see the outlines of the ribbed walls quite clearly. It was dark, but not pitch black. In fact, he could just about make out something moving down the tunnel – something with arms, legs and a head, but all other details impossible to make out.
And suddenly the lights in the tunnel ceiling were shutting down, one by one. The dark grew solid black, in time with the silent footsteps of the figure approaching him. The trap, Paulo realized numbly, was now being closed. Escape was no longer an option.
The darkness roared, sprouting long fingers like a gigantic black spider surging up the tunnel. Paulo retreated back against the blocked-up exit, falling to his knees. ‘Stay back!’ he shouted at the advancing swarm. ‘Stay out of the light!’
The Vashta Nerada flowed over the walls, the floor, the ceiling, every part of the tunnel.
It pressed down on Paulo, forcing him onto his back and leaving him staring up at the dazzling neon glow of the last remaining light globe in the tunnel. A million overlapping hands of shadow were converging on his helpless body.
Paulo focused all his attention on the shining light as the darkness swallowed his body up to the neck, the shadow fingers pressing into the edges of his face. While the last light glowed, there was a fighting chance. The Vashta Nerada hadn’t total control yet.
The darkness thickened the green light getting dimmer and thinner and fading...
The Vashta Nerada, finally tiring of tormenting their prey, pounced.
And Paulo was gone.
Suddenly, without any kind of warning at all, Mandy felt a strange burning sensation under her tingling skin, like thousands of tiny pinpricks. Before she could even wonder what was happening, the sensation exploded outwards and she tried and failed to bite down a scream of pure, primal agony. She dropped her torch and it was swallowed up instantly.
And then there was light.
And the Vashta Nerada screamed.
The wraiths shattered apart under the glow, splintering into fragments that wriggled away in all directions, snaking across the road and walls. The darkness was recoiling from them, as if thrown into full reverse. In moments the street was completely clear, then the next street, then the next. Mandy screwed up her eyes and looked around for the source of the dazzling electric blue glare.
Then she saw the Doctor’s stunned expression and realized the truth.
The light was coming from her.
The skin on her hands and face had turned a silvery hue, shimmering and shining with light.
It was seeping out of every pore, every hair, through her clothes and ripping through the air. She looked up at the church as the dizzying sense of dislocation inside her head intensified tenfold. Things were beginning to make sense...
‘That which lives,’ she gasped in realization, ‘must endure change!’
The Doctor noticed a frantic chirping from his jacket pocket and he retrieved his handheld detector. The readings were hurtling off the scale. ‘The bio-energy waves,’ he reported, ‘they’re overloading – and all apparently focused on you!’
Eyes wide, Mandy nodded with a dazed expression on her face. Her skin glowed brighter and brighter, as if a floodlight was shining over her exposed flesh. ‘Then it’s true,’ she panted, trying to contain the energies building up within her. ‘It’s all true!’
‘A final failsafe from the Halldons,’ the Doctor agreed grimly. ‘To salvage what was left of their experiment from outside extinction, they transfer everything into the last survivor... One for all and all for one. Your prophecy of a second chance!’
The incredible influx of sensations within Mandy became unreal. She closed her eyes, shuddering, and tried to focus thoughts that were no longer entirely hers. ‘Ten million years,’ she moaned. ‘That’s how long we’ve waited for the world to shed itself of life, leaving just a shell of remains! Raw clay, ready to be remodeled...’
She was boiling, churning with light now as Ameron poured its energy straight into her.
Mandy was becoming the common ancestor of her entire species, every last strand of DNA being uploaded into her physical form. Every thought, every life, every death...
‘The power of Ameron flows through its last child, as foretold eons ago!’ she grunted.
‘Mandy! Please!’ the Doctor shouted. ‘This won’t work! You’re downloading the entire genome of this world, but then what? Put all your eggs in one basket and leave it out for the foxes? The Vashta Nerada will still consume you – if anything, you’ve made it easier!’
‘The universe is self-replenishing,’ Mandy replied dreamily, ‘a vast structure that lives and breathes to its own rhythm! And when a world dies of natural causes, when such massive and complete destruction takes place, it can compensate!’
‘Not here! This world is living on borrowed time that’s rapidly running out!’
‘Then we shall find a new world!’ Mandy retorted, clenching her teeth.
The Doctor paled. ‘You can’t be serious!’ he said weakly.
‘There are others worlds out there,’ Mandy laughed, sounding hysterical. ‘Worlds where life has fled, where life still thrives. Some are cold, sad and barren. Others are young and savage and eager to survive. All it needs is for the seed of life to take root – a single seed! And that seed is me!’
‘You can’t do this, Mandy! It’s not right!’ the Time Lord protested.
Her eyes glowed as she stared down at him. ‘Right?’ she echoed. ‘Wrong? Just words!’
‘Mandy, listen to me!’ he pleaded. ‘Each planet, its biosphere, they’re all unique and individual. They all have their own paths to follow, their own destinies to reach. If your “seed” ends up there, you’ll destroy them and replace them with your own and that is not your right! You don’t get to wipe out an entire future, not under any circumstances!’
‘Life must be perpetuated!’ shouted the glowing figure.
‘And life will be!’ the Doctor promised. ‘But if you do this, you’ll be snuffing out life and trying to replace it with a version that’s already had it’s throw of the dice! You’ve had millennia, and that’s better than some species ever manage. You’re talking about killing unborn children to buy yourself a few more years – is it really worth it?’
But by now, the convulsing girl looked as though she were on fire, burning with flames of energy as her individual cells stretched to bursting point. The process was building relentlessly to a climax.
‘We shall descend, fat and vital with existence!’ the thing that had been Mandy boomed with countless different voices. ‘Our essences will mingle with the elements, and expand outwards and begin again. If it takes a billion years, we will forge Ameron anew, its culture and people and dreams...’
‘And what if it goes wrong?’ the Doctor shouted at it/her. ‘Hmm? You want to corrupt a new biosphere, but what happens if the biosphere fights back? Immune systems destroying your infection? Do you really want to risk that?’
‘YES!’ howled the voices of the blazing, burning silhouette. ‘AMERON GRANTS ITS PEOPLE ANOTHER CHANCE!’ Mandy’s voice became distinguishable once again. ‘And that world you spoke of, Doctor?’
The Doctor swallowed. ‘Earth?’
‘Yes, Earth! A newly-born world of continents and vast oceans and an envelope of air! Fire and volcanoes and ash! The elements of life – just waiting to be reshaped!’
‘It’s far too late for that!’ he snapped. ‘Life on Earth’s been perverted by the best of them! Be the one thing that hasn’t twisted their growth and development, just for a change! Your species had your chance, don’t take it away from someone else...’
‘This is how it must be! You can’t stop us, Time Lord!’
‘Kindly don’t presume to tell me what I can and can’t stop!’
The very atoms that made up Mandy were shifting and wheeling, a gossamer-thin web weaving itself around her body. The transparent folds thickened like a cocoon, becoming opaque as the process accelerated. It was impossible to determine anything happening beneath the web-like film. ‘This... this is the moment... of destiny, shaped over the ages... I am the last step... the new seed...’ her voice rambled, increasingly muffled and distant. ‘The road ends... here and now... this very spot...’
The outline of a teenage girl’s body warped and change, and then the shroud dissolved like a fading dream. And then the transformation was complete. Mandy was gone. She had ceased to exist, replaced by... something else.
We begin again! A second chance... because life must go on!
Something golden and star-like, shimmering and flashing against the darkness. It was like a firefly, glittering and hard to define, but possessed of large, knowing eyes that gazed down at the Time Lord with intense scrutiny. For a second it seemed to adjust to its environment and then with one last enigmatic look, it stirred and hurtled upwards into the sky suddenly becoming just a streak of light spiraling and corkscrewing off into infinity.
A final message echoed inside the Doctor’s head.
The chain of destiny closes its last link!
The unnatural darkness was gone. The sky overhead blazed the fresh, nostalgic orange of a Kasterboran afternoon, illuminating the entire city, gleaming off the skyscrapers and towers, making them dazzle. Thick gnat-like shapes spun and wheeled uselessly in the air – the Vashta Nerada, stupefied by what had just happened. The Doctor stood outside the TARDIS, blinking as his eyes adjusted themselves to daylight.
Around him, Ameron was silent.
No people. No animals. No machinery.
Just the dust in the sunshine.
The Doctor looked around, taking in the sight of the lifeless civilization. Already he could hear the faint whispers from the shadows as the Vashta Nerada began to regain their senses. The light dimmed slightly, as though a cloud had drifted across the sun, and the shadows began to elongate and darken. The orange sky turned first vermillion then purple, dimming through the spectrum towards black.
‘Yes, yes! I can take a hint!’ the Doctor told the recovering swarms, angrily hurling his now-useless torch to the ground. He unlocked the TARDIS, stepped inside, then slammed the door shut behind him. Patches of blackness began to creep across the ground towards the police box, and then retreated as the light began to flash. A strange electro-mechanical howling filled the still air, before silence descended once and for all.
Everything went dark.
Ameron had fallen to the night.
The TARDIS took the Doctor to other worlds, other places, other points in history. He saw amazing sights, fought horrible monsters, politely declined any offers to accompany him for further journeys, and occasionally mastered the odd coin trick. But the memory of Ameron, of its shadows and legacy, gnawed at him.
The Time Lord spent more and more time in the wardrobe section, trying to find clothes that were brighter and more cheerful in colour and tone. He found capes of dazzling silver, velvet trousersuits of electric blue, and waistcoats of sentient silk so they constantly changed pattern and tone to reflect his mood. Ultimately, the Doctor decided he looked silly and settled on a midnight black suit and a dim burgundy cape – the darkest combination he could find. At least if he couldn’t find something bright and cheerful, he had found an outfit that couldn’t disappear into the shadows any more than it already was.
Time passed. From the Doctor’s perspective, days stretched into weeks, then months, then years, then decades. He began to run out of other people’s problems to sort out, disasters to be avoided, horrible evils to fight. The TARDIS stopped providing him with “adventures” and just “places of interest”. Not that the Doctor complained.
One day, his battered blue time machine fetched up in Oxford in the year 2107. The city was, as ever, full of students on bicycles and haphazard mock-art-deco architectural styles. The Doctor decided to linger there for a few days, maybe attend the upcoming conference on faster-than-light propulsion systems that would allow mankind to expand into other solar systems. A world full of people and life and most importantly light.
He ducked into a restaurant, mingling with the lunchtime rush. No one commented on his unusual attire. He liked the anonymity. And as he sat by a window, he finally chose to think about the implications of what had happened on Ameron.
The Doctor had lost count of how many ancient god-like alien forces had influenced or tinkered with the development of Earth. Indeed, by all rights this should have been a world where the reptiles ruled. Only a fluke had given the mammals the chance to dominate Earth, and they’d been bullied, manipulated and experimented on ever since, forcing humanity to the shape it was in now.
A shape disturbingly similar to how Ameron had once been.
There were only two possible explanations. Either the Ameron Legacy had burrowed into primeval Earth, simply to be thrown into harsh relief by twelve million years of other people’s dirty work – or else the entire exercise had failed. This was all just a coincidence, a freak of chance that only a time traveler might even have noticed.
And then the Doctor saw her.
She was across the street, standing by a bus stop, dressed in the fashions of the time. A thick overcoat and well-worn scarf kept her safe from the inclement weather, and she was laughing as she chattered with someone else waiting for the bus.
The Doctor shook his head. It couldn’t be her. It just looked like her. And it wouldn’t be the first time he’d bumped into people that uncannily resembled someone else on the other side of the universe in a different time zone.
Yes, this was just another random genetic duplicate, another quirk of existence.
Until he saw who she was talking to.
Leaning against the bus stop, wearing a truly tragic cardigan and beanie-hat was none other than Paulo. He was fiddling with a palm-sized computer, joking with Mandy. They both obviously students, and clearly good friends – if not more.
The Doctor leant back in his seat, thinking about shadows and second chances.