This page is one of several on this site about my novel Frontier Worlds. They are all linked from this main blog post here.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Frontier Worlds. The Doctor has escaped from a mountain-side laboratory by dropping on to a cable car rof. Inside the cable car, Fitz is waiting to meet him. I like the Kipling misquotation by Fitz; I used to use it as the concluding footnote (the .sig file) on all my e-mail.
Chapter 3: ‘Here goes’
The Doctor felt as though both his shoulders were going to dislocate. Fitz was hauling him up onto the roof of the cable car. But he could see the anxiety in Fitz’s eyes, even through the maelstrom of ice and wind: his face as white as the snow, his cheekbones more prominent and the stubble more extensive than the Doctor remembered from their last meeting. He thought of Dewfurth’s eyes, staring back at him through the storm on the station roof. So hurt. So distrustful.
The pine trees loomed close. The Doctor risked a look down, and realised for the first time that he couldn’t see the ground below. Were there rocks, standing out like teeth, ready to devour them if they fell? Would he and Fitz drop to the distant earth in silence, uncaring?
‘Now!’ he yelled, and leaped for the branches of the nearest tree.
The journey down was agonising. The sharp pine needles cut into their arms as they struggled down, branch by branch. The storm seemed to be subsiding as they got lower, and gradually the punishing sting of ice and snow on their faces and hands receded. Even so, the slippery tangle of branches meant it was more than half an hour before they reached the lowest bough. The Doctor felt weaker than ever, his breath whooping out of him like an exhausted athlete.
Fitz was able to scramble down the lower part of the trunk, cursing loudly as he struggled over the sharp bark. He was ready to help the Doctor down, but the Doctor simply dropped like a stone into a deep pile of snow. He was aware of Fitz scrabbling desperately to dig him free.
Then they heard the engines.
‘They’ll have searched all the cable cars by now,’ said the Doctor. His uneven breaths formed white clouds in the still air. ‘And they’ll work out what we did. They’ll be searching for me.’ The sound of engines grew louder, and the Doctor gestured away from the trees and towards a wide expanse of flat white in the middle distance, a frozen lake which reflected the sun towards them. ‘We have to go that way. We’ll leave no tracks on the ice.’
They scrambled down the shimmering bank, ploughing a meandering, uneven furrow through the undisturbed snow.
‘We won’t make it in time,’ said Fitz, gasping for air. He gazed past the Doctor, staring at the smooth dome of snow which covered the hill behind them. The roar of engines grew louder.
Then the dome seemed to explode into millions of fragments of ice, filling the air with glittering particles in the mid-morning light. The Doctor flung himself backwards into the snow, as though trying to burrow to safety. After a moment, he seized Fitz by the back of his trenchcoat, and dragged him down into cover.
The explosion of snow subsided to reveal an enormous green motorised sled. The wipers scraped away furiously at the windscreen of the square cabin at the front, the driver’s dark face peering out. The sled churned its way across the slope of snow, dragging a trailer containing a heaped pile of something roped in place under a thick black tarpaulin. Pipes to either side of the cabin spewed snow, like factory chimney stacks, up into the air and over the surrounding area.
Moments later, another spray of ice and snow announced the arrival of a second sled, belching smoke and snow like some arctic dragon. And then a third hauled itself over the horizon, shaking the ground as it powered its way after the others.
Above the growl and roar of the sleds, the Doctor could hear the tinny buzz of smaller engines. Through the haze of thrown snow, he could make out half a dozen smaller vehicles, snowbikes humming around the larger vehicles like birds around elephants. The drivers were heavily coated, with thick dark goggles poking out of the front of their hoods. They were scanning the surrounding area, and their machine guns were starkly visible behind them, black and ominous against the lime-green of each driver’s uniform.
The monster sleds passed within two hundred metres of where the Doctor and Fitz lay sprawled and helpless. The vehicles continued their unheeding progress down the mountain’s lower slopes, and slowly the artificial snowstorm faded and settled. The Doctor sat up, noticing that their previous tracks were now covered.
The roar of the sleds and the high-pitched buzz of the smaller vehicles had faded, but the Doctor could still hear the puttering sound of an idling snowbike. The driver was examining the furrow in the snow which led back to the pine trees, his back to them.
‘Time to go,’ said the Doctor to Fitz. They continued their slow progress towards the frozen lake. Well beyond it, looming like a stormcloud, was the grey shape of the geostationary balloon. As the air cleared, the Doctor could see the black oblong of the weather station beneath it, and a dozen curving dark lines leading upwards. He could just make out a smaller dark shape making its way up the steep angle of the nearest of these hawsers.
‘Of course,’ said the Doctor. ‘The line of cable stanchions curves off towards the research station—I didn’t realise we were so close.’
They reached the lake, slipping down the frosted banks. The wind had cleared the all traces of the powdery snow from the ice, and through its translucent surface they could see weeds waving in the underwater currently directly below their feet. Two hundred metres along the bank was a tangled clump of bushes, leading up to an untidy pile of snow-dusted scree which had tumbled against the sheer face of the mountain.
There was a sudden clattering noise above them, and they flattened themselves against the hard mud of the bank. Fitz gave a little squeal of fear as several furry quadrupeds skittered down the bank past them and onto the ice. The Doctor studied his reaction, amused to see him struggling to regain his composure as he got his breath back.
They watched the little creatures tumble onto the ice. There were four of them, each the size of small cats, round and dark brown, with thicker back legs which they thumped like rabbits, as though signalling to each other. They had large pear-shaped floppy ears which tapered to a point, and which sat up to attention and rotated side to side like radar dishes. Their soft fur and large liquid eyes suggested they were young animals.
’I think they’re just playing,’ smiled the Doctor. ‘You’ve seen Bambi, haven’t you?’
‘Yeah,’ muttered Fitz. ‘I remember what happened to his mother, too.’
The animals’ ears perked up again, scanning rapidly until they all comically pointed in the same direction—towards the Doctor and Fitz. The Doctor could just hear what had alarmed them. It was the sound of approaching snowbikes.
Three of the four animals skittered further out across the ice, leaving the fourth as it scavenged scraps of food. The Doctor noticed a flurry of activity below the ice, dark shapes following the animals. Then from over their heads he could hear the snowbikes spluttering to a halt.
Fitz began to stray further on to the lake, trying to make his way along the bank under cover of the overhanging branches. Again, the Doctor noticed a flurry of dark shapes below the ice, and was startled to see a shoal of fish staring up at them, like spectators at an aquarium. ‘Stop, Fitz!’ he hissed, seizing the tail of his trenchcoat. He stooped to look at the creatures below the ice. From what he could make out through the ice, they were each the size of his hand, with broad foreheads which were glowing a soft red.
From above their heads, up on the bank, a muffled voice shouted: ‘Mr Sempiter! The track ends here.’
Another voice, too far off to distinguish, and then growing louder. A nasal tone, imperious, confident. ‘I’d prefer him alive. Do you think you could manage that?’
Out on the ice, the three startled furry quadrupeds set up a rhythm of foot-stamping, warning the fourth one of the danger. There was a sudden flurry of movement beneath the Doctor’s feet, and the strange fish darted away towards the centre of the lake. Dark shapes seemed to be converging on the same spot from other directions too.
Within seconds, the ice was softening, melting. Two of the three quadrupeds fell through the cracking surface with an eerie shriek, and the water threshed and bubbled. The third animal turned to flee. But two of the bizarre, big-headed fish leapt through the fresh hole in the ice, seized it by one of its ears, and dragged it squealing into churning, bloody water.
Fitz stepped back towards the Doctor, and immediately more dark shapes moved back under the ice towards them. The Doctor gave a rapid gesture with his thumb, and he and Fitz hopped swiftly back onto the frozen mud of the bank.
The Doctor stroked his lips thoughtfully. ‘They were attracted by the vibrations, I suppose. They hunt in shoals, and I think they must channel warm blood into their foreheads and melt the ice. I’ve never seen anything quite like—‘
He broke off as the muffled voice sounded above them. ‘Just a clutch of baby leppos, Mr Sempiter. Learning the hard way. Bye-bye, furry friends.’
‘The tracks are too deep for leppos.’ Nasal voice again, Sempiter. ‘Check for him again.’
There was a flurry of fresh movement above them, and the Doctor realised that the guards were moving closer. He put his mouth close to Fitz’s ear. ‘They don’t know you’re here. Get back down the mountain. I’ll draw them away from you, I can hide out here—‘
Fitz hissed back: ‘You’ll freeze to death, especially in your condition.’
‘Nonsense. I have a much stouter constitution than you, a lower body temperature, and I can survive for much longer than you in these conditions. Rejoin Compassion, and I’ll contact you like before.’
‘A postcard pushed under my bedroom door, right?’
‘An e-mail containing encrypted instructions,’ said the Doctor with exaggerated patience.
‘The e-mail of the species is more deadly than the mail,’ said Fitz.
‘Very droll,’ said the Doctor.
‘I’m misquoting Rudyard Kipling,’ said Fitz, obviously very pleased with himself.
‘Yes, I know,’ said the Doctor, and then added: ‘Good luck, Fitz.’ He stepped out onto the ice, immediately aware that the bizarre fish were moving towards him again. Testing the soles of his shoes for purchase on the slippery surface, the Doctor made off across the looped section of ice that separated him from the next section of bank, and the shelter of overhanging bushes.
He thought he was going to make it, half-running and half-sliding, conscious of the shoals of dark shapes converging on him beneath the ice. Then he heard an angry shout from above and behind him, and the sudden clattering noise of a machine gun. He risked a look back, but Fitz had already gone. Above their former hiding place, two figures in bright green were clearly visible above the bank. One figure stood half-turned towards him, and seemed to shudder as his automatic weapon discharged. Ice spat up around the Doctor a second before he heard the rattle of the gun, and he flung himself onward as the surface of the lake cracked behind him.
He had almost reached the bank when he felt a punching pain in his shoulder which threw him into the overhanging branches. He sprawled on the ice, his cheek pressed to the surface. The sight of the fish gathering beneath him spurred him on, and he dragged himself up into cover, scrambling up the bank, trying to ignore the fresh agony in his shoulder where he had been shot.
At the top of the bank, he flopped down onto the untouched snow. From far away, he could hear more shouting. The guards were coming around the bank. With a weary groan, the Doctor slipped back into the bushes, pondering his options.
The dull ache sounded through his whole body like the slow, bass note of a tolling bell. His inner voice was telling him to sleep, to recover, to protect himself; his rational mind fought to stay in control, until he could convince his instinct that his companions were safe.
Fitz would be able to get back down the mountain, he told himself, to rejoin Compassion. That was the plan all along, after all.
Within a minute, he could hear the two Frontier Worlds men scrunching over the snow, and coming to a halt above him. Through the bushes, he could only see their legs. The guard with the machine gun stood stock still, listening. Sempiter, standing next to him, was tapping the toe of his snow boot repeatedly in the snow, an unconscious gesture of irritation. It was a kind of warning, like the leppos, of present danger.
‘He must be close by,’ said Sempiter. He stooped down, and the Doctor could see his face for the first time. A hawkish nose protruded beneath the snow-visor. He removed the goggles, revealing cold, pale eyes. Sempiter’s mouth was a grim, lipless slash in his faded grey face.
The Doctor could see that Sempiter was pointing at a shape in the snow, and realised with a little thrill of horror that it was where he himself had fallen at the top of the bank. There was a small, stark patch of pink snow where he had bled from his shoulder wound.
‘He’s still very close.’ Sempiter removed his thick gloves, revealing long hands, greyish skin with gnarled knuckles, like a living marble statue.
Suddenly, in the distance, the Doctor heard the sound of a snowbike’s engine over-revving, then wailing off into the distance. The guard standing by Sempiter swore, then apologised.
‘So,’ said Sempiter, scooping up the patch of bloodied snow in his bare hands. ‘Not as close as we thought.’ He breathed a long stream of air through his nose, a sibilant signal of resignation. ‘See if we can cut him off before he gets down the mountain.’
‘And if we can’t? ‘
‘You’re head of security, Kupteyn. I’d have thought he’d try to break in at HQ, wouldn’t you?’ Sempiter’s tone brooked no argument. ‘Meanwhile, you’ll need to start walking… it’s a long way back to the research station.’
Kupteyn stepped away from Sempiter, speaking rapidly into his communicator, issuing fresh instructions to capture a man fitting the Doctor’s description who had stolen a snowbike. His snowbike.
The Doctor felt his hearts-rate slowing. He was rapidly slipping into a protective coma. Through his fading vision, and peering through the dense foliage, he could see Sempiter was still crouched down in the snow. The grey-faced man was putting a sample of the blood-stained snow in a plastic container.
‘You can’t escape forever,’ said Sempiter, his voice a whisper now. He was… sniffing his fingers? ‘I love the smell of DNA in the morning.’
Then he stood up. The last thing the Doctor saw before his breathing slowed to nothing was Sempiter’s foot, tapping its unconscious rhythm in the flattened snow.
© Peter Anghelides 1999, 2016