‘The important thing,’ the Doctor said, ‘is that, though your husband’s made mistakes, he’s not the one who abducted you. He’s as much a victim as you are.’
‘I know,’ Dora said. ‘I’ve been hard on Harry. It’s almost like I’ve been too obsessed with my own problems.’
‘Well, any problems you may have had before will have paled into insignificance by the time we get out of this. Assuming we do get out of it.’
This stranger who called himself the Doctor, and who for some reason Dora had felt it safe to open up to as they’d walked and climbed and struggled through the wreckage and rubble cramming the endless underground caverns of this netherworld, had a disconcertingly frank way of speaking.
‘You think we might not make it?’ she asked.
‘I think the odds are against us.’ He stood up from the overturned bucket on which he’d been resting. ‘But that doesn’t mean we sit down and cry, does it?’
‘No,’ she agreed.
‘Good.’ He lowered his voice. ‘You’ll need to remember that, because we’re being hunted. And I don’t just mean by Lord Krauzzen’s weekend warriors. I mean by something significantly more proficient.’
Dora stiffened where she sat. ‘Another of these creatures they’ve put down here?’
‘Don’t look round! It’s about sixty metres behind us, and it’s been following for the last five minutes.’
‘Oh my God…’
‘Relax, Dora. Remember what we’ve just said.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m not sure yet.’
The Doctor surveyed the tunnel. As far as he could tell, this was one of the connecting lines between the prison complex and the power station. It had a flat, concrete floor and a tiled arched ceiling. Parts of it had caved in and all sorts of other junk had been thrown down here, so they’d already had to negotiate heaps of shifting, razor-edged detritus. He threw another furtive glance behind them. The pursuing figure had dropped to a crouch, and was little more than a shadowy blob. From what he’d glimpsed, it was humanoid and bipedal, but covered with excessive leathery skin, which, when it moved, trailed behind it like a heavy cloak.
‘Come on.’ He took Dora by the arm and hauled her to her feet.
She now walked stiffly, sensing the nameless presence close behind. ‘Why don’t you just shoot it?’ she whispered.
‘I can’t, and it’s as simple as that.’
The Doctor didn’t want to send another alien monster back to the police holding cells on LP9 – it was anyone’s guess how much trouble the last one had caused. More importantly, he was increasingly thinking that the only way out of this mess for Dora might be to use his last transmat charge on her – to save her life if no one else’s.
They passed under a heavy gate, before clambering upward through a mass of fallen, broken machinery festooned with loose cables. At the top of this was an entrance to a vast, complex structure, something like a three-dimensional maze of steel-mesh passages. The Doctor hesitated.
‘What’s the matter?’ Dora asked, sweat dripping from her face.
He didn’t bother explaining that from here on the way forward would be little more than a ‘single file’ crawlspace, and that he didn’t want to be at the rear because he felt she would be too slow at the front, and yet didn’t want to put Dora at the rear because he suspected that whatever was following them would have marked her as the weaker prey and might then attack. A clanking from below, as something climbed in pursuit, decided it for them.
‘Go ahead,’ the Doctor said.
She climbed up the narrow mesh chute first.
‘Hurry!’ he shouted, scrambling after her. Initially it was a vertical shaft, but soon they found themselves on the horizontal. ‘More speed!’ the Doctor urged.
Dora crawled along as best she could, but the grilled floor and riveted joints between its sections were hard on her hands and knees.
‘Which way?’ she panted when they reached a junction.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he replied, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
Dora opted for the right-hand path. At the next junction she took the left one, and at the one after that she went right again. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but she could sense the Doctor’s urgency and her own fear was rising.
‘Go up!’ the Doctor now shouted. ‘Take the next upward shaft. We have to get to the surface.’
She did as he said, and this was slightly easier. Climbing the steel mesh wasn’t as uncomfortable as sliding across it on all fours. But by the time she reached the top, Dora was exhausted. Only adrenalin-charged desperation allowed her to manhandle a circular steel slab out of her way and climb through the hatch above. The Doctor followed, and found himself in a low-roofed cement chamber with a slot aperture, which, though it was at eye-level for them, gave out at ground level on the moon’s surface. It was a blast shelter, the Doctor realised. They were inside the dome containing the power plant. He grabbed Dora’s hand, and they tottered up some steps to the surface.
‘Open ground,’ the Doctor said. ‘Now we really run for it.’
Dora nodded wearily, and they stumbled forward. Ahead of them, across the black plain, there towered another immense, ghostly structure: a row of colossal cones, like industrial cooling towers. Again, it was far from simple reaching them. The ground was burned and barren, and crumbled beneath their feet. The litter of refuse – everything from demolition rubble, to fallen pylons, to the smoke-blackened relics of diggers, lifters and other corroded mechanical leviathans – sent them scurrying in every direction as they tried to make progress.
Halfway across, the Doctor glanced over his shoulder. Their stalker, which had given up attempting to conceal its presence, was closing the gap between them with a series of prodigious leaps, aided by a black, leathery, parachute-like canopy. Recognising what it was, he now drove Dora mercilessly. Even when they entered the main power plant buildings, and ran down a broad concourse, he urged her on, telling her not to look back.
‘What… what is that thing?’ she stammered.
‘It walks on air. Well, sort of. But never mind that now!’
The next thing, they were descending to the plant’s sublevels, taking a spiral stair which dropped between more layers of corroded apparatus, and running along a catwalk hemmed in by rows of vertical plastic tubes down which a glowing, yellowish glop was streaked.
‘Where are we going?’ Dora wailed.
The Doctor was about to reply, but just ahead one of the tubes had collapsed across the catwalk and broken. Whatever the substance in the tube was, it had melted the metal, leaving a gap of maybe two and a half metres.
‘OK,’ the Doctor said. ‘OK, we have to jump.’
‘Jump?’ Dora looked at him, incredulous.
‘Whatever you do, don’t touch that yellow muck – it’ll turn your flesh to slurry.’
Dora shook her head as she backed away. ‘I can’t jump that far. We’ll go back.’
The Doctor took her wrist with a hand like a talon. ‘Dora, we can’t go back! The Air-Walker is already focused on sucking the marrow from our bones.’
Dora glanced over her shoulder. The catwalk led into pitch darkness. She hated herself for the weakness she was again showing, but she was so tired, and so terrified. Her next words were distraught, thickened by tears. ‘There’s no end to the horror in this place – it’s like Hell, and there are devils round every corner.’
‘What happened to the action girl I was promised?’
‘That’s not me.’
‘Sure it is. Look… let’s hold hands. So if you go, I go too. OK?’
Before she could argue, they ran forward. Dora screeched as they leapt out over what looked like a bottomless chasm. Rather to her surprise, they landed cleanly and continued running. There was an aperture ahead; they had the impression of open space, but when they scrambled through it, they found themselves on the brink of another terrifying drop.
They’d emerged into a huge chamber, which seemed to have collapsed in on itself. It was impossible to see where the roof should be. All manner of crushed, tangled wreckage had deluged down into it from overhead, and had become lodged at various levels, though the chamber’s floor was actually a vast, crater-like hole, maybe eighty metres in diameter, which seemed to plummet into infinite blackness. Further avalanches, mainly consisting of concrete and shattered masonry, had spilled down the sides of it, but looked perilously steep and unstable. Other items – mainly sections from the floors above, wooden beams, warped panelling and so on – lay across one side of the hole, forming a flimsy bridge.
The Doctor started across this before Dora even had a chance to protest.
She followed, arms outstretched for balance, trying not to think how narrow and creaky the makeshift causeway was beneath her feet. Halfway across, there were stinging pains in both earlobes as her studs were snatched out.
She yelped in pain. The Doctor, who had reached a central point, glanced back. He was in the process of adjusting the transmat-rifle at his shoulder, only to see it catapult out of his hands and go twirling downward for several metres, until its strap caught on a twisted fragment of metal jutting from the crater’s side. It hung there, but turned and rotated, as if actively seeking a way to descend.
‘Ahhh,’ he said. ‘I wondered why that thing was tugging my shoulder off.’
Dora had now reached him. She clung to him hard, unwilling to look down.
‘My earrings,’ she sniffled.
‘Yes. We’re under the point where the reactor was once located. Its magnetic core must have come loose from its housing, probably during the seismic disturbances. No wonder they evacuated this place. Anyway, in the time since it’s burrowed its way down towards Gorgoror’s gravitational heart. This crater must be thousands of metres deep by now. You’ve nothing metallic on you of any value?’
She shook her head.
‘Well, I have.’ He could feel his sonic screwdriver trying to dig its way through the material of his jacket pocket, as if this too was suddenly many times heavier than before. ‘Time to go.’
‘What about your rifle?’
The Doctor stared at her. ‘Good point, yes. Valuable prototype. I’ll climb down there and get it back, shall I?’
Dora shook her head again.
They stumbled across the remaining section of bridge, and reached the far side – a jagged concrete podium, jutting out over the gulf. The only way to move beyond this was via a closed steel door.
‘Can’t be too far to go now,’ the Doctor said.
‘Doctor – look!’
Dora was gazing back across the crater. Their pursuer had emerged into full view on the other side, and was regarding them with a smooth, featureless face. It was humanoid in outline, but taller than either of them by at least thirty centimetres, and jet black all over. Its flesh had a shiny, oily texture and was hung with a fin-like canopy.
The Doctor gave it only a sparing glance, before turning back to the steel door – to find that it wouldn’t budge when he pushed against it. Dora joined him, shoving with all her might. There was no response.
‘Buckled in its frame,’ the Doctor said. ‘Probably due to the magnetic forces in the crater.’
‘OK, I’m the action girl,’ Dora said, snatching up a lump of stone. ‘We attack that thing as it tries to cross… oh my word!’
The oil-black monstrosity was now six metres up a sheer concrete pillar, climbing with the flats of its hands and feet as if they bore sucker pads.
‘It’s trying to find a perch,’ the Doctor said. ‘From which it can leap.’
‘Walk on air, remember? It’s not called an Air-Walker for nothing. Two or three big jumps and it’ll be over here with us.’
The creature was soon twelve metres up. Not far over its head, various ganglia of shredded cables and entwined fragments of hanging rubble offered the aforementioned perch.
‘What do we do?’ Dora said, panic rising in her voice.
‘That outfit you’re wearing. Are there any tools in its pockets?’
‘It’s protective gear, Dora, for hazardous work. There may be something.’
She slapped down her sides and thighs, finding a single pouch containing a sausage-shaped packet filled with a squidgy white material.
The Doctor grinned and snatched it from her. ‘Dora Mossop, you’re a genius.’
‘For finding wall filler? We going to be doing some DIY, Doctor? Fix the place up?’
‘No, just the opposite. This is plastic explosive. Used in quarrying.’
On top of everything else, while she’d been running, jumping, climbing and generally bouncing around, Dora now realised that she’d been carrying something with the potential to blow her to smithereens. In normal circumstances she might have been sick, but it was amazing how quickly you got used to intense, high-end terror.
‘Stand back,’ the Doctor said.
‘Stand back where?’
‘Just stand back.’ He’d squeezed out some of the material and was now thumbing it into place around the edges of the buckled door.
‘There’s nowhere we can stand back.’
‘Get as far as you can, and crouch low.’
Dora did as instructed, but glanced up again. The Air-Walker was at least twenty metres up the opposite wall, and crouching on the end of a broken ventilation valve. It had coiled up like a spring.
‘Doctor!’ she cried.
‘Lie flat!’ he shouted, retreating and drawing his sonic screwdriver from his pocket, though it was such an effort to hold it steady that he had to use both hands. It bucked and twisted as if eager to flit out of his grasp.
Dora could sense their dark stalker making its first leap, the membranes of skin extending between its limbs as it launched itself through the air. The Doctor looked up, and saw the creature alight on another piece of dangling wreckage. Immediately, it re-coiled itself. Two more such leaps and it would be upon them. He turned back to the door, wrestling with his screwdriver as he lay down and hit the button.
There was an ear-piercing squeal, and a thunderous BOOM as the blast almost swept them from the podium. When they opened their eyes, there was a dusty, smoke-filled hole where the door had stood. The Doctor jumped up, hauling Dora by her collar. They followed a passage cluttered with smouldering brick rubble. Ahead of them stood another door – but this one was open, and there was a big space beyond it.
‘We’re through,’ the Doctor shouted.
He dragged Dora out into another vast, hangar-type building. Its nearest exit was maybe fifty metres away, but they’d only made twenty when there was an ululating shriek overhead. As they looked up, the Air-Walker exploded out through a high vent. It briefly caught hold of another loose perch – a sagging section of roof, huge concrete cakes strung limply together by rusting wires, which now groaned alarmingly – and then sprang again, this time right at them.
The Doctor looked wildly around – there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Dora didn’t even have time to scream. The horror descended like a dark angel, its membranes spread and billowing, its previously featureless head gaping to reveal row after row of knife-blade teeth.
The Doctor wrapped his arms around Dora, forcing her to the ground to shield her with his own body. But then there was a searing flash, a massive CRACKLE of energy – and when the Air-Walker landed beside them, it was a corpse: smoking and contorted, and giving off a foul stench of burning.
The Doctor and Dora rose back to their feet, bewildered.
‘Air-Walkers live on the planet Cha-Bala,’ the Doctor said sadly. ‘The natives of the neighbouring Ka-Bala worship them as gods of music.’
‘Gods of music?’ Dora replied, barely understanding what he was saying.
He walked slowly around the charred carcass.
‘They would abandon sacrificial victims on the surface of Cha-Bala, where Air-Walkers would eat them. They’d do a really thorough job, leaving nothing but hollow bones, which the Ka-Balans would recover and make into wind instruments. Apparently the sound is quite beautiful.’
Dora stared at him, perplexed.
‘Ironic, eh?’ He looked across the hangar, to where a tall but familiar figure in tiger-striped hunting fatigues was approaching. ‘That one god of music should be brought down by another.’