Sarah Jane Smith was confused.
That, and her feet were stuck in the mud.
When she, the Doctor and Harry Sullivan had left Earth via the transmat beam, she had expected all three of them to materialise back aboard the NERVA beacon, a space station in orbit around Earth. Instead of being on a spaceship, it looked like she was back on the Earth she'd left.
But a dead Earth: the soil scorched, scarred and eroded. What few plants there were looked twisted too. There was a pallid mist oozing over the low hills.
And it stank: it smelled like a chemical waste dump and a burnt breakfast all mixed together.
"Sarah!" The call made Sarah jump (which at least got her feet loose) and she called back, "Is that you Harry?"
It was indeed Harry Sullivan, who seemed to have materialised somewhere above her on the rocky slope where she stood, he came sliding down beside her, looking dreadfully out of place in his blue blazer and slacks, and said "Where the devil are we?"
"I don't know," replied Sarah. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, "Doctor? Doctor?"
But there seemed to be no sign of their travelling companion, the Time Lord known as the Doctor.
"Come on, let's get down to the bottom of this hill before we roll down it." Harry rather unnecessarily took Sarah's elbow, and they began a slipping, scrambling descent down to the bottom.
At the bottom, it was still deathly silent. The dank mist did a very poor job of hiding how unappealing it all looked. Harry shouted this time, "Doctor, can you hear us?"
"Over here Harry!" And out of the mists came the Doctor, his long scarf looped out of the mud and his hat on askew. He looked rather shell-shocked.
"Doctor, where's the NERVA beacon?" asked Sarah. She was used to getting sidetracked while travelling in the Doctor's usual conveyance, the Time And Relative Dimensions In Space (TARDIS), but being diverted via transmat beam was a new one on her.
"Well, I'm afraid we've had a slight change of plans, Sarah. It seems that the Time Lords have a mission for me, and, I am sorry Sarah, they've sent you along with me to Skaro."
"And just what is Skaro?" asked Harry, who was futilely trying to scrape the mud from one shoe loose on the other.
"Skaro is the home planet of the Daleks."
Daleks. Sarah Jane swallowed at the mention of the name. The Doctor continued, unnecessarily at least for Sarah, "The Daleks are one of the most vicious, most domineering species ever created: a fusion of metal and alien that has succeeded in conquering large sections of their home galaxy. And the Time Lords see a future in which they will have become the dominant life form in the Universe."
"Oh no!" Sarah breathed. Harry noted how distressed she looked. Clearly she'd met these Daleks before.
"But the Time Lords have sent me - and you too I'm afraid - back to a point just before the Daleks' creations, to see if they can be tempered, or destroyed."
Sarah interrupted, "Is that possible? Could the Daleks be destroyed forever if we can stop them now?"
The Doctor shrugged and resettled his hat on his mop of brown curls. "We have to try, at least. This ring," and he showed them a heavy copper bracelet around one wrist, "is our lifeline, it will take us back to the TARDIS when we are done."
Harry chimed in, "If these Daleks as bad as you say Doctor, it'll be a pleasure to take them out."
The Doctor beamed. "Good man, Harry! Now, let's see if we can find someone to talk to. Daleks aren't built on a battlefield, you know."
As the trio started across the uneven terrain, Sarah asked "A battlefield? How do you know it's a..." She stopped at a rising whine that came from overhead.
"Incoming shell! Get DOWN!" shouted the Doctor, and all three of them scrambled into the nearest shell hole. There was a BOOM! and dirt and stones rained down on the three of them. The shells were landing around them like thunder, and Sarah couldn't even hear herself scream as she covered her ears, desperate to blot out the painful level of sound bombarding her.
Then the shelling stopped, and there was deathly silence. Ears still ringing, Sarah sat up - and came face-to-face with a stranger pointing a gun at her!
She froze, and it was Harry who moved past her, touched the immobile man at the other side of the shell hole, and then said as the soldier rolled limply away, "There's nothing I can do for this one."
The man was a soldier apparently, clad in a gas mask and clutching a futuristic-looking rifle. But he also was carrying a wicked-looking knife and a pistol that wouldn't have been out of place in Earth's World War I. While Sarah stood back a step, Harry and the Doctor leaned over the body, examining it.
"Skaro is a world at war for the last thousand years, according to the Time Lords. They've brought themselves and their civilization to the brink of extinction. A radiation detector and synthetic boots, with a uniform made of animals skins. What a mix!"
"Like a caveman with a transistor radio," said Sarah, as they all climbed out of the shell hole and started picking their way through the mud.
"Playing - UGH!" Harry winced and covered his nose, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane did the same: all three of them had been assaulted by a hideous burning stench, bad enough to make their eyes water.
"Gas!" said Sarah.
"What?" coughed the Doctor.
"Gas, is it poison gas?" she said, wide-eyed and with both hands over her mouth.
The Doctor breathed in deeply through his nose (Sarah Jane winced) and then said, "No it's...it's that."
That was a metal canister, sitting halfway out of the mud a few yards ahead of them. It was splashed with lurid green paint all over it and the ground surrounding it, and the hideous stench did come from there, it seemed.
"A stink bomb?" said Harry incredulously.
"A land mine. Harry, Sarah, watch your step, we're in a mine field. It looks like one side or the other has been marking the mines rather than decommissioning them, but it doesn't mean they got them all. We'd best tread carefully."
As the Doctor and his companions moved away through the fog, they were unaware that they were being observed from the top of the hill by a grey-clad figure.
# # #
They had been travelling for perhaps an hour towards the giant white dome they had spotted in the distance when they came across the smashed remains of some sort of vehicle. Probably a tank of some sort. It was beyond smashed actually: bits of it were strewn over the landscape for yards around, and Harry had a few sharp words about the dangers of tetanus. As they came to the far side of it, though, the Doctor paused and said, "Look - there and there."
Drag marks, or ragged wheel marks, circled around and beside the war machine and then blended together, in one direction: towards the Dome.
The Doctor beamed. "Well now, that looks promising! We-"
He was interrupted by a bullet that went WHAP! against the metal frame beside him. Harry hit the dirt behind the wrecked tank; the Doctor and Sarah quickly joined him.
"Where – " as more bullets sang over their heads, "there!" The Doctor gestured, careful not to get his hand out from the meagre shelter, toward the high ridge overhead.
Harry said, "What are we going to do, Doctor?" Then he raised his head, as if listening. He gestured 'shush' with finger to lips, and they all listened.
More bullets whizzed by, but rising above them was a high, eerie wailing, also seeming to come from the top of the cliff.
At the top of the cliff was a desperate man, shouting, cursing, shooting his precious store of bullets as fast as he could load them at the soldiers around him. Left and right, they came popping and ducking around boulders, and he never could tell if he had hit one or not. Their gas masks, flecked with paint in barbaric patterns, seemed to leer at him in his confusion and exhaustion. He was trapped against the cliff edge, surrounded. The teeth rattling wail they gave out was enough to drive a man to madness.
The sniper turned – and fired directly into the soldier reaching for him from behind! Then a dart plunged into his arm. He pawed at the dart weakly, staggered backwards towards the cliff edge - and was caught by hands that gently laid him down in the mud, unconscious.
The wailing cry crested, and then stopped as though cut off.
The soldiers who had taken down the sniper did not celebrate; instead they immediately hit the dirt and started scanning in all directions. Those who had binoculars or monoculars used them.
"All clear this side," reported one of them, voice muffled by the gas mask.
The rest reported the same. One soldier crawled over to the sniper, carefully pulled the dart free, and rolled his head to one side; his eyelids fluttered and then he lapsed back into unconsciousness. If he had managed to stay awake, he would have been shocked and revolted to see the soldier's gas mask removed to reveal a woman's face, with a wisp of long black hair showing from under a knit cap.
"Take him back for medical attention. If necessary, use the discreet entrance," the woman directed, tucking her hair back into hiding. She elbow-crawled over to her dead fellow soldier, and checked for a heartbeat. "Gone." She looked around, mentally calculated how many people she had and how much they could carry while remaining concealed. "We have limited resources. Infuse and take the head with us, and conceal the body for later retrieval." She touched the body, held one limp hand in her own. Softly, she said, "I am sorry, sister."
Then she lay down at the edge of the cliff, scanning the ground below with her binoculars, looking to see what prey had lured the sniper out of hiding. She moved the glasses slowly, pausing frequently, and stopped at the sight of a tall curly-haired man peering out from behind a ruined tank. When the man was joined by two other figures in completely non-military attire, she hissed through her teeth in what might have been satisfaction - or possibly anger.
Beside her, another gas-masked figure said, "The targets?"
"Send a message to the Dome. Tell them - incoming."
# # #
Getting across the battlefield was a nightmare: a very smelly and dangerous nightmare. The only relief the travellers had was in following the narrow rutted path, as it seemed to avoid the mines, trenches filled with fuming liquid, and barbed wire. Here and there they came across the searing green colour and horrible stench of the land mine markings; sometimes there were streaks or X's on the ground in the stuff, like a barrier across one trail or another. They avoided the routes blocked off in this fashion. Far too often, they passed the sadly huddled figures of the dead, abandoned in the growing dark.
The narrow rutted path eventually faded out, but they followed what looked like the most likely direction through a maze of half-collapsed trenches and came at last to the battered remains of a wide trench lined with sandbags, at the end of which was a solid metal door set in concrete.
"That looks more promising," said the Doctor, eyeing it. "With any luck that could lead us straight into the dome."
"It's locked," said Sarah, after tugging futilely at the latch. "Now what?"
"Now we - hush!" The Doctor shushed them and gestured Harry and Sarah Jane to join him in standing beside the slit entrance to the trench. Outside, there was a dragging noise, and the sound of heavy breathing.
A man, his figure and strangely distorted limbs wrapped in layers of shabby cloth, backed into the trench, towing behind him with both hands a crude cart laden with bits of machinery. He was hunched over, digging in with his heels and yanking at the too-heavy load on the cart. With every yank, his breath came in an explosive gasp. It hurt just to watch.
"Would you like a hand?" asked the Doctor, with a cheery smile, once the cart was completely through the entranceway. Whoever this fellow was, he certainly didn't look like a soldier.
The man dropped the handles of the cart, looking up from under his hood at them. His face was humanoid enough, but filthy and tired and desperately afraid. He stepped forward as though to run, and then tried to scramble over the cart that was blocking his escape route.
"Hang on there, we're not going to hurt you!" said Harry, trying to restrain the man as he flailed at him with thick limbs.
"We just want to talk!" Sarah chimed in.
The sound of her voice seemed to catch the man's attention. Balanced precariously atop his cartload, he looked at her, then at the Doctor and Harry, and clumsily backed off the cart. He hunched over the end of it, looking defensive and scared at once.
"Hello, we're travellers." The Doctor paused, to see if the grey figure would answer, but the man only hunched lower. "We were interested in going to the dome, could you tell us the best way to get there?"
The man answered in a rusty-sounding voice, like he didn't talk very often. "You want to get into the Kaled dome?"
The Doctor replied, "The Kaled dome ... K – A – L – E – D .. sounds like just the place we want to go!"
But the shabby man didn't answer; he was staring at Sarah Jane. Sarah, not knowing what else to do, smiled and said. "Hello. What's your name?"
"M – my name? My name's Sevrin. Are…are you all going to the city?"
"Yes, and any help you could give us would be appreciated. Could we give you a hand with anything?" inquired the Doctor.
"What?" said Sevrin, with a lost look on his face. He seemed completely startled by the idea of anyone offering him a hand.
"Would you like us to help you with your, er, stuff?" asked Harry. The cart looked heavy, and though he had no idea how strong Sevrin was, it certainly seemed like the polite thing to do was to offer to help.
But Sevrin hunched over the cart, and raised his arms in defence.
"It's my stuff, mine and my friends! We found it!"
"No, no, you don't understand," said Sarah. "We just wanted to know if you wanted help in moving it."
Sevrin looked down at the cart. "No, this is the place. You see, we take things we find, and we trade them for food. They send up a signal, and we can go to one of the entrances, but never where the soldiers can see!"
"Because they'll shoot us on sight. They hate us, us Mutos, always."
The Doctor tilted his hat back on his head. "Tell me Sevrin, if the soldiers aren't who you trade with, then who are 'they' who send up a signal?"
Sevrin looked at Sarah Jane in confusion. "But aren't you one of them?"
"One of whom?" asked Sarah, but was interrupted by a grating sound. The metal door was opening, and Sevrin turned to face it.
The door swung fully open and a rather short soldier came out, wearing a gas mask and heavy gloves. This one's uniform was somewhat different from the ones they had seen on the bodies out on the battlefield. The gas mask had a red hexagon marked on one side, apparently with finger-paint. It gave the soldier the air of a particularly dangerous child.
The soldier removed the mask, and Sarah blinked; it was a woman soldier, with dark hair. If the travellers had been able to see the woman leading the soldiers who had taken down the sniper, they would have realised that this soldier was almost identical to her.
She smiled, and reached out with both hands to clasp Sevrin's arm.
"Hello, Sevrin. A good trip, I hope?"
Sevrin beamed. "Yes, look, I got a corrugator and two runnel cases, and these people, ah…"
"I'm the Doctor, and these are my companions, Harry Sullivan and Sarah Jane Smith."
"Smith? What an odd name," said the woman, her eyes suddenly wide. "I am Third Outer Speaker, called Thoss," she introduced herself, rhyming the name with 'moss.' Then she focussed back on the Muto. "Well Sevrin, are you taking away food for all of you?"
"Actually," said the Doctor with a smile, "I was wondering if we could come in. You see, we're travellers, and we're very curious about the Dome, the Kaleds, the war … everything really."
"Travellers. Curious indeed," said Thoss. She cocked her head to one side, and then stepped back into the doorway; when she emerged again, she had a large box under each arm.
And another soldier stepped silently out of the doorway, behind her. He was not smiling, and his gun moved quickly to cover all of them. The woman noted the travellers' expressions and slowly turned around to face him.
Thoss stood very still, looking at the soldier. Then she asked, "Private Harb. Is there a problem?"
Harb – a young man Sarah could see now, barely grown up – flinched. "Who are you? How did you get out here? How do you know my name?"
Sarah Jane was now really confused. This woman was wearing the same uniform as Harb, but apparently they were strangers to each other.
"I know many things, Private." Thoss turned her back on the gun – quite deliberately – and put down the boxes beside Sevrin's cart with a thud. As Harb stood there, staring with a confused look on his face, she started to take the machinery from the cart with quick movements, still talking all the while.
"I know that you were talking with Private Zo yesterday morning, about the rumours of giving food to the Mutos in exchange for salvage. Well, the Kaleds need these materials, and can no longer manufacture them. And nobody wants to send you out into that poisonous swamp to get them."
The cart was empty; she turned and stared at Harb, who now looked more angry than confused. He stepped jerkily forward, pointing his rifle barrel now at the boxes she had brought out of the tunnel.
"You shouldn't be out here, it's forbidden! And now you steal food out of soldiers' mouths, for these Mutos!" Harb accused.
Thoss bent slowly and reached into one of the boxes, and pulled out a can. She pried open the end of it with a can opener that slid over the tip of her thumb, and then held it out, at arms' length, towards the soldier. He swayed forward, then back, and then lunged and grabbed the can and was back where he had stood before, in a blink. His gun had never wavered from its aim on them. Sarah was reminded of a pigeon, snapping a bit of bread from under the wheels of a moving truck.
Harb looked at the can, sniffed it. Then he slung the gun on its strap and dipped a finger in the syrupy contents.
Harry went to move forward, but the Doctor restrained him without looking. The soldier seemed distracted, but he was still armed – and dangerous.
"What is this?" he said finally, looking up at them, not yet daring to taste the syrup on his finger.
"It's perro fruit," she replied.
"Perro fruit? I've never seen…There haven't been any perro trees in years!"
Thoss kicked the box of food with a contemptuous flick of her heel. "These aren't soldiers' rations, Private. They're a cache of luxury foods that one of the, ah, plumper Councilmen had hidden away. Completely against regulations of course, all foodstuffs held in private are to be added to the communal store. He's going to be very disappointed when he finds them gone." She scowled, then turned and put the two heavy boxes on the cart, and asked Sevrin, "Enough?"
"Oh yes, yes," said Sevrin, clearly wanting to get away before the Private did anything else alarming. The woman patted him on the arm and said, "Take care of yourself."
As the Muto crept away pushing his lightened cart, Harb was still looking at the can. He was sucking on the syrupy finger now, and Sarah was struck again by how young he looked. "Luxury foods," he said, and scraped a last drop from under one fingernail with his teeth. "Those lucky…"
Thoss came up to him and gently pushed another can into one of his pockets. She smiled at his expression; Sarah thought it a rather pretty smile actually. "There's more where that came from. Keep it, Harb. Save it for a hungry day."
Harb, apparently not wanting to push his luck, trotted into the tunnel. From what Harry knew of soldiers, he was probably going to go find a private corner where he could devour his prize at once, before his fellows spotted it.
"Is he going to get in trouble about that?" Harry asked.
"No, and he isn't going to be reporting on us either. I took the liberty of adding something to that can while I opened it. He's about to lose the last two hours of his life." She sighed. "Drug-induced short term amnesia. A nasty trick to play on him really; give him this delicious treat and then delete the memory of eating it! I do hope he doesn't gulp down both cans at once, he might get a stomach ache."
"Rather unethical," observed the Doctor.
Thoss turned to the three travellers and said, "Sorry, but we're in a hurry here. There's a very narrow window of time before the next patrol arrives, and Harb took a chunk of it. Please," she gestured to the metal door, "come in."
As she led them inside, two more people in gasmasks came out past them and started picking up the salvage.
# # #
The travellers next found themselves in a tiny dark tunnel; their guide turned on a torch of some kind, looked at them, and then shook her head.
"I'd like nothing better than to take all three of you straight into the City, but I can't do that from here without taking you through the military sections, and the military can be … touchy."
"Touchy?" asked Harry.
"Territorial. Unless you have a military pass and a good reason to be here, they will shoot you. And me, for that matter. If only you weren't so big," she said, looking with some disapproval at the Doctor's lanky frame.
Thoss continued, "It might almost be safer to take you out and back in through another entrance. But it's getting dark, and not all the Mutos are as Norm-friendly as Sevrin."
The Doctor shrugged, noncommittal.
She bit at her knuckle in thought, and then asked, "Before we go any further – are you a medical Doctor?"
The Doctor replied, "Not really, that's more Harry's line of work."
Thoss turned to Harry and said, "You're hired."
Harry protested, "Oh no really, I wouldn't know what do to. I mean…"
The Doctor interrupted, "When I said we were travellers, I meant, travellers from another planet."
Thoss looked at them, flat-faced. In a voice just as flat, she asked Harry, "Can you sew a straight line?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Then you're hired. I'm going to call someone to get you into the Medical Centre in the Dome; they'll slap surgical gear on you and nobody will question your presence."
"You're going to let a stranger do surgery on your people?" asked Sarah.
There was anger in their guide's voice now. "There are people dying right now, Smith, because we do not have enough doctors to do the simplest triage and repair work. I'll take anyone who can help – if they are willing. Are you willing?"
Harry was visibly struggling between his doctor's training and his desire to stay with his friends. "I'm not sure…"
"I can get you into the Dome one at a time much easier than all three together. I promise you will be reunited as soon as possible."
Harry agreed, and Thoss pulled loose a wire that was strung against the wall. She seemed to mutter into it, or hold it to her ear; then they waited a remarkably short time before another figure appeared in the edge of the light. Without a word, two hands clasped one of Harry's and led him off into the darkness.
Almost at the same instant, there was another light at the end of the tunnel, and male voices. Thoss turned off her light, and quickly whispered. "You two should stay together – you are less likely to be harmed. Tell them whatever they want to know. We will be watching."
The feel of her presence vanished, and Sarah Jane and the Doctor found themselves pinned in a blinding blaze of light from several hand-held torches. There was the clicking of rifle bolts being drawn.
"Hands up! Identify yourselves!" shouted a man's voice from the darkness.
"Hello there," said the Doctor, raising his hands. "I'm the Doctor, and this is Sarah Jane Smith. We're travellers, the Third Outer Speaker let us in."
Sarah, her hands raised as well, smiled desperately into the blinding light. She blinked, but whoever was on the other side of the light might as well be invisible.
There was a mutter of voices; the only words the Doctor could make out were 'spy,' 'shoot' and 'woman.'
"Describe this Third Outer Speaker," came another shout.
Sarah started to answer, "She was – "and was cut off.
Then there was nothing but grasping hands out of the dark.