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Doctor Who Non-fiction

Tabula Rasa

Dance of the Daleks

by David Carroll

First appeared in Sonic Screwdriver

Ace paused for breath.

The stubby gun swung left, paused, the machine turned, the dull globes on its base gathering information, seeking her out. The gun swung right again and as she dived at the ground beside her she sent the scrambler skittering away from her as loud as gunfire. The Dalek had two targets, paused, made the right choice too late and Ace was behind it now, feeling the dry heat pushed out from the metal beast, smelling the scent of ozone and oil that was allowed through her filters.

HALT! it screamed at her, as grating as the heat. SUR-REND-ER TO THE DA-LEKS!

The base was still turning and now the eye-stalk whipped round in the opposite direction, trying to make contact. Ace ducked under the clumsy blow and the little machine was already in her hand. It had no name, the little machine, only a function and as it was pressed against the strip of bare torso above the Dalek's grill it clung there, and started calculating.

Numbers it generated, throwing them into its host, a stream of data in a world different from sweating bodies, twisting motion. Not a ram, this data stream, but a tickling of circuitry, and the Dalek responded, numbers of its own were generated in response, pathways were kept neutral as best they could be.

But the numbers generated in return were biased, as they must be, and as Ace jumped lightly behind the machine, slapping its rondels now, the servos moving a frequency higher as the entire weight pushed itself round on the increasingly treacherous floor, the little machine detected that bias and, abruptly, ceased all output. The Dalek over-compensated, its circuitry in momentary chaos, and as order was restored the little machine insinuated a smaller set of data into the works.

The top quarter of the Dalek flew backwards on a hinge, the servos died, the questing gunstalk stilled itself. Ace grinned and kicked it, just for good measure.

She peered into the open cavity and it was really only a trick of perception that made it appear that the green blob was scowling at her. Again, the syringe was already in her hand, and she brought it to her mouth and grabbed at the plastic shield, spitting it away from her. She plunged the needle into the green blob, as deep as it would go, the clear liquid inside ejaculating automatically. Only a faint bubble of green blob blood marked the wound and Ace returned the syringe to her belt.

The liquid combined a mild hallucinogen with a short-term memory inhibitor and some nasty long term effects like the cultivation and hopeful spread of a virus carried on bacteria modified from one normally found in the blob's equivalent of a pineal gland. She had also been told the drug played hell with the creature's sex-life, for no apparent reason other than it gave the chemists something to do.

The blob controls the hardware, not the other way round. She had been told that as well, incessantly, and it was a phrase used by certain people she disliked as a cheap insult, a supposed indication of superiority. But it was a useful fact, and even main data storage existed in a kind of symbiosis with the blob's memory. Only a certain module whose use had not been fully analysed seemed to be separate from this scheme of things. It took her thirty seconds to reach, neutralise and replace this with a stub that would apparently serve for some time. Quite how long was being determined experimentally elsewhere, and she didn't have the time to wait and see.

By the time she had finished the servos were powered on again, the base and torso twisting again, slowly, out of sync with each other. Ace flipped the lid back on, heard the soft and final clang as the magnetic locks clamped shut.

The sounds of battle had changed slightly, and she rocked on her heels momentarily, trying to picture the current situation, who was gaining what.

STOP! screamed the Dalek beside her. STOP OR YOU WILL BE EX-TER-MI-NATED!

Ace bent down and whispered something against the Dalek's grill. It swung and fired, and she was on her toes and running, and by the time the Dalek could fire again she had ducked into a side corridor and away.

She would see how the fight was going for herself.

* * *

The corridor was grey, grubby and dimly lit, and Ace strode along with Dreier right behind her. She was frowning, her occasional comment terse and at none of the kinks in the passageway did she so much as pause to see what was round the corner. Dreier's voice was low, only audible, and he had to raise it during the still sporadic gunfire.

The ship (Dreier's ship) was a commercial freighter, the Tf ancer l qofet, Primitive Dawn, used mainly for the conveying of manufactured goods, what Ace called electrical appliances. The current crew numbered fifty-four, a ridiculous number in ordinary circumstances, which this wasn't, and Dreier was running through the positions and status of those fifty-four, as he understood it. There were at least eighteen dead, two incapacitated.

Ace turned another corner and a seeker dived from the shadows at her face. She shot it down and paused, considering the splash of blood from the still twitching missile, feeling Dreier pulling up short as he tried, and succeeded, to avoid crashing into her.

"One day they're going to build one of these things that works properly," she said. "Or maybe not. Trouble with Daleks is they have no imagination."

Dreier grabbed her by the shoulder and winced, swinging her around into his cold gaze. "Are you listening to me?" he said, his voice slightly louder than the situation called for. The situation of being in the centre of a war-zone.

"I'm listening. B zero eight, one one on three, E five nine, three down, eight loose, one down, E one two, four D, one limping. Shall I continue?"

He didn't say anything. She shook his hand away and went on. "We're in E three two and, as you understand it, there's one five on four, three down, one IC just round the corner. Let's look, shall we?"

The ship was mostly silent now, the only regular shots were distant, a level down she reckoned. But the air reeked of battle, the sharp excesses of inefficient energy discharge and the fruity undertaste were very clear to her and she did not want to breathe, just for a moment. She put a hand against his chest and pushed slightly, though his back was against the wall. Dreier was a big man, not as strong as some but she knew he could use his bulk effectively. His oily hair hung loose in what was almost a parody of current fashions, his face was damp with sweat, as was her own, but his eyes were nervous, staring at her then glancing away, left and right, perhaps looking for seekers.

She realised she simply didn't know if the gibberish that was in current parlance as a military code (and the non-scrambled one at that) sounded as ridiculous to him as it did to her. Her eyes sought out his gaze, but it was elusive to her.

He eventually shrugged and let her go before him again, and they moved on.

* * *

As most freighters in its class were built these days, the Primitive Dawn's crew and service areas were essentially circular in design, a maze of interior passageways and rooms encircled by a wide corridor, in this case the design taking up three levels, on certain other ships perhaps eight levels and an area in each three times as large as this one could be expected. But the passageways themselves would all be of the same dimensions, regardless of length. Two Daleks could fit comfortable across the breadth of the outer, encircling corridors, the interior passages were too narrow for even a single enemy.

And the interior passages twisted and turned so that no energy weapon could gain a range of five metres from any space where a Dalek may fit.

Some people called the design the ultimate booby-trap, but they weren't the ones who had to fight in it. In reality it was simply a delineator of space, a drawing of the battleground that allowed the good guys high manoeuvrability and allowed the bad guys ground enough and reason enough to attempt a claim of Terran machinery in personal battle.

It sort of appealed to Ace, the arrangement, it felt comfortable against her. There was gas, of course, or sonic weapons and a thousand variations, or the Daleks could literally infest the interior with seekers. But usually, and in this battle, the seekers were a token effort and it was good old-fashioned energy weapon versus energy weapon. Ace also liked that, in theory at least.

But if the interior promised safety, it was a promise that could last only so long and no further. Ace and Dreier approached the final turn to the antechamber off the main corridor that had, by some small and unknown chance, been chosen as the main arena on this level. Ace sensed the man behind her hang back, studying the monitors that were there so you wouldn't walk in blind. She glanced around the final corner. "Wot?" she whispered back, "no time no Cybermen?"

It startled him, and he almost smiled as he never would have during the ads where the saying had originated. But the way he was looking at the monitor meant the distraction was brief, and she didn't wait till it turned to annoyance or worse.

She felt herself, her own presence, strongly for the merest instant. Dressed in black, sleek (almost), tense, hair tied back, her scalp itchy like her fingers, blood flowing and adrenalin measurable. She felt herself to be dangerous and mean and even sexy in a way that had more to do with the way she wanted to move than with any consideration for an external gaze. For the merest instant, then she did move, dodging the very first energy beam at the mouth of the passage, and she was firing.

* * *

Count the seconds zero.

Two Daleks, one fired, one turning too slow. Her first shot had danced over the dome of the first, reflecting in every direction, her second better, absorbed into the shields, doing damage.

The floor was slippery, and she moved as she fired a third time, at the gunstalk this time. Three good hits, she knew, three good hits to destroy the gunstalk but the floor was slippery and she didn't know if the hit was good.

Keep the second Dalek turning, moving behind it, it is starting to scream. Hasn't been hit, not by her. Two shots this time, into the floor now, under the moving one, looking for weaknesses. Fizzing and bubbling, blood on the floor.

The second's gun wobbled towards her and she reversed direction as it found her. A third Dalek now, shadowed in a corridor, the lights have gone.

She could only slip, let her body fall under the blue-white beam that never felt hot to her.

Some people said that. Count the seconds two.

She scrambled, only moving now. Two and three had fired almost simultaneously. That made it easier. Third had scorch marks, third was damaged. A beam flashed through the air, going through anything. Dreier, she thought, count the seconds.

She was close to number two, moving around it had done that and now she could use it for shelter. One shot at one as she scrambled upright again, aiming for anywhere, one shot at three, three was down she thought. No. She shook her head. Three was moving in, couldn't see behind it, anything could be there.

Using two, feeling its heat. Two quick shots into the gunstalk and count the seconds four.

She ducked as number one fired again. Round the back this time, screaming EX-TER-MIN-ATE, she put another shot into the gunstalk.

More shots from Dreier, at number three now and as she took careful shots at one she hoped he was counting, hoped he had the rhythm right.

Two was trying to back her into the wall, trying to burn her with its skin, trying to drown her with its invectives. Her aim wasn't good, number one was gathering speed now, towards her, fence her in.

Count six had gone, Dreier down she wanted to scream.

Number three didn't fire.

Number two was trying to hit her with its sucker now, turning still. Time to leave. She put two good shots into the back of number two and sprinted for the nearest corridor. Three was still moving, she couldn't make out anything but movement but if it was still capable of firing she could be in...

Three fired.

Can't slip now, can't go anywhere, no time and number one was...

She stopped. Moving towards you, you could see it, see the light but that was bullshit because she was already hit, must have been and she fired at number one because when eight seconds and a bit came round it would finish recharging and fire and she would be dead.

No quick shots. Fire wait fire wait.

In the calm.

Some people could feel the rhythm of the Dalek's weaponry instinctively, know when each shot would (or could) come. She could not feel that, she had to count the seconds, only knew the rhythm of her own. Some people, she knew, squeezed the trigger of these guns as fast as they could, the weapon double-shooting and pausing too long.

Maybe she would learn the Dalek's rhythm, she thought as she fired and waited. And when number one exploded she let herself buckle backwards under the force of it and knew Dreier had well over a second to finish off number three.

Which he did.

* * *

She felt herself being dragged away.

Oh yeah, she thought. Number two, probably tried to run me over. She heard it explode and opened her eyes.

* * *

Dalek shots screwed up your insides, knitted intestine to lung, wrapped heart around bone, pulled veins free and tied them in knots. Most people died, a limb shot was enough. But sometimes, if you hadn't been shot in the head and the shock didn't get you, you could last for up to thirty seconds. She was pretty sure you couldn't stretch and sit up though, and she did so, to prove a point.

Dreier was checking the corridors for any more trouble. She got up and checked herself. The Dalek shot had been glancing, and her bodysuit had done what it had been designed to do. It couldn't take too direct a shot, nor too many, but it had done her proud so far, and though it had been almost obscenely expensive, she had earned it. Recompense for services rendered.

She looked round and grimaced. Dalek shots did other things as well -- and if two got you at the same time your skin would twist and burst and send flying matter that was, for the most part, no longer technically regarded as meat.

The floor was slippery with it, as was herself, the blood congealing and even fused on her suit like the red 'A' on her back. She counted ten bodies, in this area alone, mostly near the corridors and in the corners -- she had gone by three in her initial entrance without really realising she had done so.

"Christ," she said, because she couldn't begin to vocalise what she felt about this room and its contents, only spoke to express the weariness and aching of her flesh.

Movement. Only Dreier, giving a silent signal for no immediate danger. She nodded, picking her way carefully now, went to join him.

* * *

It didn't take long to work out that the Daleks were heading back to their ship -- the three they had killed had simply been among the stragglers. An ensign spoke up and said he thought he could, maybe, jettison some thousand tons of the Primitive Dawn's cargo in such a way that would cripple the Dalek ship -- if they were lucky. Ace said no. Dreier and the crew just looked at her, all eight of them, eight of the thirteen still living, the ones able to report to the bridge.

"Now," said Dreier loudly and winced. That was the code word, the crew became attentive immediately, and Dreier started giving orders.

In ordinary circumstances (which these weren't) the ship needed a three man crew to run her, but now all eight were gainfully employed, running checks, struggling with systems to by-pass damaged areas, confirming and reconfirming hull integrity, operation of sick-bay, probing and reprobing all shipboard computers for viral infection.

One woman, whom Ace had talked to yesterday evening about Terran mythology, went back into the smaller corridors, looking for seekers.

Arrangements for the dead would be attended to at a less pressing time.

Dreier studied the screen on the remaining free console. The screen showed a large ship approaching, broadcasting Earth registration. The same ship that had deposited Ace and a troop of marines on the Primitive Dawn some three days earlier. It would take perhaps ten minutes to come within docking range unless it moved after the Dalek ship it had scared off. It didn't look like it.

Dreier looked round. The crew were busy, knew what it was doing. Ace was standing in the middle of the room with a cold drink in hand, her eyes moving over one console and another, always curious.

"You," he said, pointing at the woman, and when she looked he jerked his head towards one of the archways to a quieter area. She smiled, briefly and without warmth, and headed in that direction.

Dreier ran his hands through his hair, soaking in sweat now, like his face and the light uniform he wore. He looked at his crew, (what was left of) his crew. Ensigns struggled with unfamiliar commands, one man, part of the ship's regular complement, swore over and over again, but didn't take her eyes off her screen.

Dreier wanted to say something to them, couldn't, couldn't distract them. They knew what to do.

He followed Ace.

* * *

She threw him a bottle and he looked at it strangely, putting it down impatiently. "Well?" he said.

They looked at each other. Unspoken between them were all the things that fighting together meant. That was fine, that happened, like something he could never believe before he had seen battle. There was that, but this was something else. "Well?" he said again.

Ace sighed. "We breached a Dalek," she said.

He waited.

"You know how it goes, breach a Dalek and it will self-destruct at the first appropriate moment. It goes back to base, its friends and comrades blow it up. You take a Dalek far enough away to rejig it and it ain't never going to be trusted back in the ranks.

"Still, it's a nice idea, so we figured what the hell. So there's a Dalek on that ship with a little surprise in him, and no memory of the incident. No sweat." Her voice was level, her gaze steady on him.

Dreier frowned but matched her tone. "But you said..."

"Oh, they're going to be suspicious all right, but not of that. I gave him something else to remember us by." She paused, considering, then sighed again. "Just a name, really, of a... someone I use to know." She smiled again, no warmth. "He'd probably be really pissed off about it, but it might make a difference. I don't think they can ignore it, and it'll get the unit further into their system. We're hoping it's far enough."

An announcement was made over the intercom warning of imminent docking. The two ignored it, and nobody ran in, wondering what to do.

They had gone into the uppermost rec room, complete with dry aquarium, comfortable chairs and about as much electronics as there was on the bridge. They ignored all that too, Ace was leaning against a bench, forgotten drink in hand, Dreier was further in the centre, next to a table.

"We're hoping... We think..." he said. "I don't know exactly who this we is but I hope you're quite clear that there are forty-one dead bodies lining my..."

"Oh, save us the histrionics, Captain," she interrupted. "You..."

"Oh no, I'm going to..."

Ace moved. "You listen to me," she hissed, but he wasn't listening because she had grabbed the front of his shirt and was seemingly effortlessly swinging him to one side. A chair toppled, his arms flailed, he was losing balance. Somehow Ace kept him upright, somehow keeping him poised so if he struggled then over he'd go. Dreier was a big man but Ace held him like that easily.

"You listen..." she said again, only she was shouting now. Shouting and angry. "You're not in the army, are you? Oh no, just a cushy little job on this limping pit flying fucking blenders, but you don't mind taking the money, do you? You don't mind the training or the odd passenger, do you? Maybe you think you can sit on your arse throughout the whole fucking war and hope somebody you like wins it? Is that what you think?"

She shook him, literately, savagely. He only stared up into her furious gaze.

"You get what everybody else gets," she said, her voice lower now, more dangerous. "Only you get maybe a couple of years between battles and all the comforts of home. So, are there any complaints, soldier? Are there..."

And she gave up, because she pushed him away from her with a snort of contempt, and he flailed again, falling over a chair, scrambling but unable to find purchase.

He lay on the ground now, not trying to move. They heard docking procedure starting. He was needed somewhere, he remembered, he had things to do, but they were only distant thoughts, unimportant.

Ace stared down at him.

She sniffed, and her expression changed, looked puzzled. And for an instant he saw her anger displaced, falling back a little. But not diminished, no, still there, still furious and, he saw, not at him, maybe not at anything, just angry.

The moment passed. Ace reached down, worried, pulled up the front of Dreier's uniform and stared at his naked belly.

With sudden and cold prescience, Dreier followed her gaze.

A gash had been torn across his stomach, twenty centimetres long and healed badly. His fall had broken the wound in a couple of places, though there was no pain.

He couldn't feel anything there.

"Where were you?" Ace whispered. "What have they done to you? Oh Dreier..."

He closed his eyes, clutching at himself. Something is happening, he thought, still distant. Ship docking. There is something I must do. Something bad.

He didn't see Ace move.


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