This page is one of several on this site about my novel The Ancestor Cell. They are all linked from this main blog post here.
As part of the BBC’s Monthly Telepress (Issue 4, June 2000, which appeared in the month before the book was first published in the UK), I wrote an article called Selling the Ancestor. It was accompanied by Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (“Ultimatum”, below) of The Ancestor Cell as “taster” for the book ahead of publication.
Odd that he hadn’t noticed that before, thought Fitz. The cloth ribbon that edged the console was frayed, and several studs were missing. He reached up from where he lay and ran his middle finger tentatively over the ribbon, and the thin material parted under the slight pressure. A new ship, he thought, and already it was wearing out.
Not like the Doctor’s previous TARDIS, he thought. There, everything had seemed old because everything seemed to be covered with a precisely measured layer of dust, designed with a meticulous eye for intricate detail to look ancient, as though someone had disguised it as a slightly seedy old college library so that you wouldn’t see it for what it was – a fantastically complex space vessel that knocked Emperor Ming’s sparking rocket ships into a cocked hat.
Fitz missed the old TARDIS. He missed the dappled light on its grand wooden staircase, the deep heartbeat rhythm of the Chamberland grandfather clock, the pervasive scent of dust and sandalwood and safety. He missed the marquetry inset on the occasional tables where the Doctor poured rose pouchong into bone china cups. Gold-rimmed cups with rose motifs like the ones at his Auntie Norah’s. Her tea always tasted special because she used only sterilised milk in long, tall, thin bottles with gold metal tops…
Who am I kidding? thought Fitz. The Doctor’s previous TARDIS wasn’t more secure: it was just more familiar than this one. Compassion had never liked mixing with others, even before she’d been magically transmogrified from a stuffy bint into their present time ship. As if to prove her lack of regard, she gave yet another wild lurch and rolled him violently away from the console. His shoulder smacked against a stout oak chair.
He opened his eyes, which he had screwed up as he’d pitched headlong across the floor. Below him Fitz could see blackness – no, he could make out pinprick stars, real images and not just specks dancing in his terrified eyes. Frozen shards of ice scattered in a cold explosion all around him until they melted into the distance.
Behind him, he could feel the reassuring bulk of the oak chair, but when he swivelled round he discovered that it was no longer visible. Instead, far in the distance behind him, he could make out the orange-brown disc of a planet. Three points of yellow light speared through space towards him. It took him a moment to work out that the TARDIS scanner had extended to fill the entire room, enveloping them in a 360-degree view of their immediate surroundings in space.
In space? Hadn’t they just been hiding deep in the labyrinthine depths and convolutions of the time vortex? Yet now they were in plain view in normal space-time.
‘Doctor?’ His voice was a croak, barely audible over the hum that surged all around him. ‘Doctor, I thought we’d escaped them.’
A dozen yards from him now, Fitz saw that the tiny six-sided TARDIS console was drifting in the middle of nowhere, like a tired grey mushroom floating in soup. Unfazed by the fact that he was walking in midair, or maybe just unaware of it, the Doctor scampered and danced in space around the console.
Even before he noticed the unfamiliar scowl on the Doctor’s long face, Fitz knew something had gone badly wrong, inadmissibly wrong. The Doctor’s random movements over the controls betrayed a hopelessness, a fear, and not the capricious indifference that marked his usual confident control of the ship. He was muttering to himself, ‘How can they have traced us? Could they have cracked the Randomiser’s seed? Maybe I should have relied less on vectors derived from strange-attractor charts. Chaos-aware control techniques are childishly simple if you know what you’re doing.’
‘Doctor?’ persisted Fitz. ‘We’re under attack, and you’re babbling about… strangely attractive charts?’
The Doctor stared at him, looking as though he might burst into tears at any moment. ‘They’re beautiful. They’re butterfly-shaped fractal point sets…’
‘Spare me the jargon, Doctor, and get with the beat. I don’t want to hear about pictures of insects. I hate insects, wasps especially. Holiday snaps of red admirals are not going to impress whoever is on our tails, and if they catch us they’ll beat the crap out of us.’
‘Yes yes yes,’ snapped the Doctor testily, his mood swinging suddenly in the opposite direction. He lunged at the next panel along, but he snatched his hand away almost immediately as though the controls might be hot. Fitz saw his expression pucker into doubt as his elegant fingers waggled over a different control. Maybe he was trying to cast a spell over it – things seemed to have reached that level of desperation.
Before the Doctor touched the control, it moved of its own accord. The Doctor slammed his fist against the console, and threw his head back so that he was staring up into the midnight darkness and the stars above them. ‘Compassion!’ he bellowed at the TARDIS. ‘Leave the driving to me, if you’d be so kind.’
Compassion’s voice sounded out all around them. ‘A right mess you’re making of it.’ Fitz noted that she sounded as infuriatingly calm as ever, despite the howl of noise that was building in the background, and despite the Doctor’s evident fury. Or possibly because of that. ‘Hold on tight,’ Compassion added.
Fitz felt the movement in his stomach first, and then he felt like retching. Their surroundings swirled savagely about them, distant stars smearing in stretched arcs as the perspective shifted. It was as though they were in a glass cage that was twisting on two axes, yet the unseen floor remained solid beneath Fitz’s body. He considered standing up, sensed his stomach lurch again, and decided to stay where he was. The wailing sound of Compassion’s TARDIS engines started to reach a crescendo.
The Doctor clutched at the two nearest console panels as the universe spun around them. The incongruous landmark of the console was the centre point of the giddying movement.
Their pursuers loomed larger now behind the Doctor. Spinning balls of fire outlined him against their oncoming glow and turned him into the silhouette of a frantic marionette, a shadow puppet against their jaundiced yellow light. His voice thundered from the centre of his dark shape. ‘Compassion! Return control to the console! Do it now!’
A racing movement from above made Fitz stare upwards. As the TARDIS started to move, the flat line of frozen ice rings slowly stretched until they were concentric circles. Fitz could see where the TARDIS had broken through the nearest ring. There was a vertiginous movement in the perspective, and suddenly it was as though he were staring at the same view the wrong way down a telescope. Then the view rotated swiftly around one axis and, in an unnerving change, became completely steady, so that the circles looked like a distant target in space. At the same moment, the shriek of the engines dissipated into the usual calm hum of the console room.
Fitz took this chance to scramble unsteadily to his feet. He staggered over to join the Doctor at the console, hardly believing he could traverse the invisible floor, half fearing, half hoping he might tumble away into the inky depths of space and away from this nightmare.
The Doctor didn’t acknowledge he was there. He seemed fixated on a spot far off in the distance over Fitz’s left shoulder. Fitz followed his burning gaze. ‘Are they still there?’
In answer, a flaring blue fireball barrelled towards them at a colossal, impossible speed. At the last moment it veered away, scorching off into the vacuum.
Fitz ducked. He peered out from the unlikely shelter of the console. In the distance a tiny point of light suddenly smeared wide across the darkness, growing with incredible speed until it loomed like a huge, planet-sized red shape blocking their escape route.
Fitz re-emerged from his hiding place, ashamed at his instinctive reaction to duck and run.
A woman’s voice filled the space around them, clipped tones that brooked no disagreement. The voice of someone used to being obeyed without question or prevarication. ‘I am commander of Presidential Quadrun 19, and Chancellor of Time Present on the High Council. You cannot outrun this war TARDIS. Further vessels from the fleet are already at intercept positions in real-space and tangential time routes on all statistical possibilities. Your vessel is forfeit, Doctor. Surrender or we’ll fire on you directly.’
© Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole 2000, 2013