Monday 29 June 2015

So, we all rejoiced on Friday night when the United States Supreme Court declared marriage to be a constitutional right, making gay marriage legal in all fifty states, just in time for San Francisco and London Prides. It's a gigantic step forward. But before we all lose our hats, we need to remember how much more work needs to be done to ensure full rights for everyone, gay, straight, or otherwise, regardless of colour or background.

In the USA, it is now legal for same-sex couples to marry, although already county and city authorities in the Stupid States are attempting to flout this.

And let's not forget, many gay couples who got married this weekend could face unemployment, since in most states the shocking lack of employee rights means that their employers can sack them for disagreeing with their sexuality.

And I must point out, in the UK, we only have four "states," and only in three of them is same-sex marriage legal. It remains illegal in Northern Ireland.

And in case you thought that America has a monopoly on Christian Far-Right Fundamentalism, in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is illegal under almost all circumstances, putting thousands of lives at risk and depriving women of their bodily autonomy. link

In the UK, obscene benefit sanctions designed solely to punish the poor for being poor continue to become worse, as the government announces plans to sanction part-time workers for not playing the unemployment game to their satisfaction, by removing their housing benefit, thereby potentially leaving them homeless. link

The horrific massacre in Charleston, SC, has not only led to open-carry gun nuts ranting about how it would never have happened if the congregationers were armed (!), but a wave of racist attacks on churches has begun, with three black churches burned across southern states in the last week. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan has ramped up its recuitment drive, showing that racism is still very healthy in the USA. link

The rape epidemic in American universities continues, although it pales compared to the level of rape against female soldiers in both the US and UK armies. Violent crime against transgender people is at a high, in particular against trans folk of colour, who face a disproportionate amount of hatred. The rate of actual and attempted suicide among trans folk is almost twenty times higher than in the general population. (link) Although transgender people have become much more visible in the media in the last few months, the backlash against them has been horrifying.

In the US, UK and Ireland, being black, female, transgender, gay or poor is reason enough to suffer. We have a long, long way to go.

Sunday 28 June 2015

A week of things

And so this week, I remain unemployed, but still keeping terribly busy.

I have spent most of the week with my sister Rebecca, who's doing tremendously cool stuff at Eton College and is shortly to be promoted to Museums Officer. (It may be clear to you that my siblings are rather more successful than I am.) Bec sorted some voluntary work experience for at the Eton Natural History Museum. We worked on a collection of fossils from the Mazon Creek Shale in Illinois, a fascinating area that has preserved soft-bodied organisms from approximately 300 million years ago in the Pennsylvanian Epoch. We worked on both plant and animal fossils, but it's the fauna that interests me more. We were cataloging and securing the remains of animals, hundreds of millions of years old. We saw Tully Monsters (Tullimonstrum gregarium), an invertebrate something-or-other that doesn't appear to be related to anything alive today, along with "H-animals" (Etacystis communis), which are even more obscure, Essexella medusae, and tiny horseshoe crabs and myriapods. Fascinating little organisms.

Saturday was spent in the less sensible pursuit of crass entertainment, when we teamed up with a bunch of Becca's friends for an eighties sci-fi movie fest. After much discussion (I cannot believe we vetoed Back to the Future) our rather long shortlist was reduced to Robocop, Cyborg, Dune, The Running Man, The Thing and The Terminator. You may notice that these are not all classics. It was a fun day (six films, over nearly twelve hours), with much wonderful food (Bec is a cracking cook). The 80s sci-fi drinking game was less dangerous than we feared. Knock one back every time there's an explosion (double for an exploding head), a classic line, a cracking pun, a flash of boob or bum, a toxic waste event, stop-motion animation, or virtually anything we thought was worthy of a drink. It was a sophisticated weekend.

A nice little week, altogether.

Tuesday 23 June 2015


Sense8 is a tricky beast to review. I've been trying to get my head round it for a week or so now. It's certainly an extremely impressive series, in its writing, acting, direction and editing. It's an eye-opening, thought provoking and brave story, one that asks fascinating questions and plays with ideas that aren't commonly found in genre television. It's also an immensely frustrating series, at points almost descending into self-parody as it hops between characters in increasingly ludicrous situations, and refusing to clearly explain its premise.

This last observation isn't a criticism. The lack of a clear-cut explanation for the central characters' mysterious link adds to its power and mystique. It's an unique set-up: eight individuals, from different backgrounds, separated by thousands of miles and by differing cultures and upbringing, somehow linked, experiencing each others' experiences, memories, feelings and abilities. Eight young, very attractive individuals, because at the end of the day, this is still pop genre TV and plain people aren't allowed to be stars.

The series' genre trappings are quite subtle, only gradually being fed into the narrative. The focus is, at least after the gripping prologue, firmly on the introduction of the characters. We learn about them through their interactions with each other, and those in their everyday lives, and very slowly, the facets cross over. By the twelfth episode, all eight sensates are inextricably involved with one another, moving in and out of each others' lives to help each other survive. The science fiction elements are drip fed, and although by the end, the sensates are using their various skills like a body-swapping superhero team. Not that any of them display any superhuman attributes, beyond the central psychic link, but some of them are so phenomenally prodigious in their field that they might as well be. There's a bit of an X-Men vibe here, particularly with Jonas (Lost's Naveen Andrews), a sensate from the previous generation, who begins with as a Professor X-like guru but whose trustworthiness and philosophy later make him much more of a Magneto figure, preaching his kind's superiority over ordinary humanity.

Despite these sprinklings, Sense8 is not a superhero show. It mixes genres with merry abandon, throwing in elements of police procedurals, gangster flicks, Mexican melodrama, martial arts movies and Bollywood. The blend of characters are chosen well, and reflect the Wachowski's preoccupation with identity, particularly racial, sexual and gender identification. It's a similar sensitivity to that which they displayed in their adaptation of Cloud Atlas, but while that can fairly be described as a noble failure, this is a qualified triumph. I should think that much of this is down to the influence of their new writing partner, J. Michael Straczynski, whose knack for balancing complex ongoing plots is well known. Nonetheless, this is a Wachowski production through and through. Most notably, I feel, in its inclusion of a transgender character. While trans characters are becoming more prevalent on television (at long last), they are still poorly represented, both in quantity and quality of characterisation.

Lana Wachowski is one of the most notable transwomen in popular media today, and I would imagine that her experiences have greatly informed the characterisation of Nomi Marks, a lesbian transwoman played by real life trans actress Jamie Clayton. Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman, well known to genre fans as Martha Jones in Doctor Who and Torchwood) are stand-out characters in this series. Straight people don't often realise the complexity and politicking of life in the LGBTQ community, and trans folk are often marginalised in what should be the most accepting of communities. It helps, of course, that Clayton is one of the most beautiful transwomen performing today, but that accepted, her performance here is absorbing and sympathetic, with Nomi and Neets becoming a joyously real, often OTT and very likeable couple. Fan fiction and art featuring them is already proliferating online.

Sexuality and self-acceptance is at the centre of another sensate's character arc. Lito Rodriguez (Spanish actor Miguel Angel Silvestre) is a successful Mexican actor, whose career relies on his good looks and appeal to female audiences. It would be catastrophic for his career if the media learned of his relationship with Hernando (the adorable Alfonso Herrera). Lito's journey is one of self-discovery and self-acceptance, and his relationship becomes more complex (incorporating his former beard Daniela [Erendira Ibarra] into a panromatic trio) and stronger as he faces up to what is truly important to him. Of the three romantic relationships that exist prior to the sensates' contact, it is notable that it is the non-traditional, homosexual relationships that are the strongest.

It's Kala Dendakar (Bollywood actress Tina Desai), whose relationship is rocked by her connection to the others, although, to be fair, it was on shaky ground to begin with. A devout Hindu but also a talented and well-educated chemist, her life is defined by a complex relationship between tradition and progress. She is torn between marrying the rich and desirable Rajan (Purab Kohli), and holding out for love, the tragedy being that everyone around her believes she is marrying for love. Kala becomes especially closely linked to Wolfgang Bogdanow, a Berlin safe-cracker played by Max Riemelt. The two of them begin an unlikely transcontinental romance, which works well purely because their pairing is so unexpected. Both actors sell their infatuation, in spite of their polar opposite personalities, and although their relationship is doomed from the start, it's heartwarming. Wolfgang is a wholly sympathetic but utterly nasty piece of work, but only because of his horrifically tough childhood.

Somewhat left out of the group dynamics are Sun Bak (the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas collaborator Bae Doona), and Capheus (British actor Aml Ameen), although they both have gripping stories of their own and provide vital assistance to the group. Sun is a Korean businesswoman, caught in the machinations of her father and brother, but whose extraordinary prowess with martial arts makes her the most remarkably useful of the group, even as her own life enters a terrifying downward spiral. Capheus, contrastingly, is the least privileged of all the sensates, living in the poverty-stricken outskirts of Nairobi. The grim reality of his life, struggling to support his mother, who is suffering from AIDS, contrasts with his infectious optimism and lust for life. His special ability is simply damned fine driving, but he adores Jean-Claude van Damme, a charmingly retro obsession. He drives his little bus, Van Damn(!), eking out a meagre living, and like Sun, he is drawn into a criminal life through no fault of his own. Both of their stories would make exciting series in themselves.

Most central to the narrative are Will and Riley, whose experiences push the story forward throughout. Will is an Chicago cop, played by Stargate Universe's Brian J. Smith, whose investigation of the opening scene's murder involves him at the very core of the narrative. He's very much the “ordinary guy” one of the eight, the straight, white American guy who represents the inevitable bulk of the audience. His investigatory skills, paired with Nomi's hacktivist past, make him a driving force in the plot. Riley Blue, played by the truly beautiful Tuppence Middleton, is an Icelandic DJ living in London, living on the opposite side of the law to Will due to some poor choices, and haunted by a heartbreakingly tragic past. Really, it's astonishingly bleak, and the gradual revelation of what Riley has suffered makes up much of the final act. Riley and Will share their own romance, and become the most inextricably linked of all the sensates, although all eight of them influence each other throughout the series.

The story rolls along, mixing love, lust, fear and excitement. The plot is, to be fair, rather all over the place, but the individual elements and characters are captivating enough to make it thoroughly enjoyable. The action scenes, of which there are many, are exhilarating, and there are elements of genuine horror. The series isn't afraid of showing graphic violence and bloodshed, although it's the more understated moments that are most affecting. I found the scenes where Nomi is drugged, bound, incarcerated due to her supposed psychological illness, and the threat of impending surgery, genuinely difficult to watch (although this is a particular phobia of mine, to be fair). Still, this is adult material. What has attracted the most commentary is the sex, of which there is also plenty, from the outset. Male and female nudity is frequent, and there several sex scenes, culminating in an almost unbearably erotic scene in episode six that can only be described as a psychic orgy. However, the violence and sex both feel honest, never gratuitous, and in fairness, it's less than Game of Thrones has been getting away with for five seasons now.

The final episode, while it does well to bring together all the sensates in a single “mission,” focuses heavily on Riley and Will, to the detriment of the other characters, although Nomi's default position as team leader is a pleasant touch. Even after twelve episodes of slow burn, it's still clear that there is a vast amount about the series' concept that we do not know, which, combined with some inconsistency concerning the presentation of the eight's powers, is frustrating. A second season is clearly required, for although some of the characters' storylines have come to a head, others are ongoing, and the central conspiracy is very much unresolved. However, for all the occasional frustration at the story's opacity, it's refreshing to have a genre series that respects its audience's intelligence rather than simply spelling things out. A fascinating, if imperfect, exploration of humanity, I look forward to seeing how it develops in its next season.

The Sleeping Ones

Everyone, this is my five hundredth post! When I started this blog four years ago, it was little more than a collection of vague musings and unnecessarily convoluted analyses of Doctor Who, Star Trek and Marvel productions. Now it's still just like that, only with a backlog of posts with broken links and missing images! To celebrate, here's a Doctor Who short story that I wrote for DWIN's Mythmakers Presents: Golden Years magazine back in 2013. Given that said publication is now about two years old and the expected downloadable version doesn't seem to have materialised (or is already long gone), it seems as good a time as any to make this available. Of course, the original magazine is still available to buy (all proceeds go to charity, after all).

This story features the seventh Doctor and Ace. Enjoy.

A feeble light in the endless blackness of space, the star drifts on an eternal journey of many thousands of light years. From time to time, once every ten thousand years or so, the star had passed within a few parsecs of another, briefly bathing in its light and warmth.

The star supports s single, lonely planet, a tiny, grey-green rock. The planet is no paradise. Once, it had enjoyed a native ecosystem, but little of that now remains. Yet, still there is life. A smattering of settlements, centred around a single city, huddling on the planet’s equator for the maximum amount of the star’s gentle warmth. The city is populated by small, feeble bipeds, a young species that had migrated out from their own planet and onwards to worlds such as this.

The city is busy. Thousands of these little creatures cling to the surface of this world they have tamed and made their own. They are celebrating. Music, laughter, conversation and song intermingle, creating a hubbub of joyous, raucous sound. If someone were to drop down from the sky, and to walk amongst the simple creatures populating this little world, they would be met by a barrage of noise. If they listened carefully, they might just make out one particular sound. An erratic, metallic, clicking sound. The sound of a pair of spoons…

So, what’s the big deal with this festival?” asked Ace, sipping her boldly blue beverage through a twirling pink straw. It was tasty enough, but she’d have preferred something with a little more kick to it. The Doctor had insisted she stick to the “mocktail” menu, though.

She glanced over to the stage, a flimsy, hastily erected plastic structure, in a garish purple. It was clearly only intended to be there for the duration of the festival, and only for minor events like the talent show. Ace swallowed more of her drink, shaking her head in a mixture of disbelief, amusement and embarrassment. The city square thronged with people; men, women, children and the occasional alien chattered away, played games, and watched the Doctor make a fool of himself.

“I love a party as much as the next girl,” she continued, struggling to take her eyes off the sight of the Doctor. He sported his goofiest grin while rattling away with his spoons, in a duet with a seven-foot-tall grass green caterpillar. The creature blinked its single, huge eye in time with its playing, grasping a triangle with one set of limbs and a pair of maracas with another.

“But is it really all because of some bit of astrology?” Ace tore her gaze away from the bizarre spectacle and back to her companion.

Quin shook his head. “It’s not astrology, not really. Some people believe that the pass is going to herald all sorts of momentous events, but that’s just superstition. It’s an astronomical event, that’s all. It doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s still worth marking.”

“So, explain it to me. The Professor tried, but he went on about astrometrics and radical velocity and stuff. I lost interest.” Plus, I’d much rather listen to your voice, she added to herself.

“I think maybe that’s radial velocity.” He smiled. “I’m no expert, though; I’m an archaeologist, not an astrophysicist. But, as I understand it, this is the closest that Barnard and Sol are ever going to get to each other. The actual closest pass happens in a day or two, but the festival is going to run for a little while. Plus, it sort of marks the history of the colony – nearly two-hundred years since Vanderkamp was founded and seven thousand since the first manned ships landed. There’s a lot of history here.”

“Which is why you became an archaeologist,” said Ace, watching Quin closely as he sipped his beer. They still had beer, thousands of years in the future, she thought. Some things never change.

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “Humans have been travelling to other worlds for a long time now. There’s a lot of history everywhere. But you can’t choose where you’re born. Maybe I’ll go to Earth someday, but for now, there’s enough on Polyxo to keep me occupied.”

“There was one other thing I was wondering,” said Ace, keen to keep the handsome archaeologist in conversation. “Why’s the star here called Bernard?”

Quin laughed. Damn, that’s a sexy laugh, thought Ace.

“It’s Barnard, and it’s thought that it was named after the man who discovered it, back on Earth.”
“Actually, it wasn’t Barnard who discovered it,” said a confident voice with a soft, Scots’ burr. The Doctor strode over to the table, swinging his umbrella. “Although it’s unclear just who did. Old Eddie Barnard did pinpoint its proper motion through space, though. It was his observations that enabled astronomers to calculate its eventual close pass by the Solar System way back in the twentieth century. It was named Barnard’s Star in his honour.”

“You’ve finished your show then?” said Ace, none too pleased to have her conversation gate-crashed.
“Clearly you were not a rapt audience.” He turned to Quin, doffing his straw hat. “How impolite of me. I’m the Doctor, Mister..?”

Professor Quin Medenwald.” Quin held his hand out for the Doctor, who shook it enthusiastically.
“Aah, the xenoarchaeologist. I read your paper on the development of ferrotechnology by the second phase Polyxo aborigines.”

“You have an interest in the Stickmen then?” replied Quin, pulling over an extra seat for the Doctor. Ace sighed and returned her attention to her drink. The Doctor was back – the ultimate gooseberry.
“Well, a passing interest, yes,” said the Doctor, taking the seat. “No doubt you share my view that, while the human history on Polyxo is interesting, it’s the native remains beneath the earliest colonies that are the most fascinating.”

“Oh, absolutely. I’d be happy to discuss—”

“Why are they called Stickmen, then?” interjected Ace. She was not going to let this conversation run away from her.

“Well, it’s the remains, you see,” said Quin. “They’re skeletal, of course, but almost comically so. Tall, thin creatures with oversized heads. Hence Stickmen.”

“Well adapted to Polyxo’s lower gravity,” added the Doctor. “However, they all died out rather a long time ago. The reason why is a bit of a mystery.”

“That’s not the popular view,” added Quin. “Most authorities are happy to accept that the stellar flares did for them.”

“Yet you remain unconvinced?” asked the Doctor.

They were advanced. Too advanced to be simply wiped out by stellar flares. They lived as much under the ground as above it, and would have been well aware of the impending flares. They would have had ample time to move underground, and the rock above would have protected them from the worst of the energies. There’s even evidence that they had developed the basics of antimagnetism. It wouldn’t have been easy on them, but they could have survived. But for some reason they didn’t, and were wiped out practically overnight.”

“Yes, it does pose some questions, doesn’t it?” mused the Doctor. “I understand that you’ve been excavating some of the natives’ ruins recently.”

“That’s right,” replied Quin. “Although it’s been put on hold for the festival. The site isn’t far though. Vanderkamp was built practically on top of what we think was the Stickmen’s original capital. Makes digging for it a bit of a mission, of course.”

“But at least the commute isn’t too bad,” added Ace, before slurping down the last of her drink. “Weren’t you planning on meeting someone, Doctor?”

“No, no, I don’t think so…” he teased through a smirk. “Oh yes! I do recall mentioning a passing interest in the local astronomical institution,” he continued, enunciating the syllables with deliberate care.

Quin stood up. “The ADI? I can take you there if you like. It’s not that far. Nowhere’s really that far – there’s not a whole lot of city here.”

“That’s very kind of you, Professor Medenwald,” said the Doctor. He got to his feet, as Ace fixed him with her most intense glare. “However, I’m sure I’ll find it on my own. Perhaps you’d like to give Ace a quick look at the site? She has something of an interest in ancient history, you know.”

“Really?” asked Quin, finally returning his attention to Ace.

“Oh yeah!” The young woman leapt to her feet, knocking her seat backwards and over into the dust. “I’m practically ancient history myself.” She grabbed Quin’s beer, downing the last of it for effect, before slipping her backpack onto her shoulders. The Doctor frowned at her, stooping to right the toppled chair. “Come on then. I’ll see you back at the TARDIS, Professor.”

“Make sure you’re back in time for the starship manoeuvres. They’re sending a fleet from Earth!”
“Will do! See you later, Professor!”

Beneath the surface of Polyxo, sheltered from the rays of the red dwarf star, something began to stir. Something ancient. It twitched in its sleep, as it slowly returned to consciousness…

Blimey, Quin, it’s not that near, is it?” Ace stomped down the dirt track, kicking up plumes of dust that reached high above her head in the weak gravity. She suppressed a cough.

“We’ve got a carrier out at the site,” said Quin. “We can ride that back if you like. We generally walk to and from the city, though, unless we’re bringing artefacts back with us.”

“Do you feel that?” asked Ace, turning to the archaeologist. “It’s weird. I feel kind of light-headed. And light-stomached.”

Quin laughed. “You really are an Earthgirl, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“There are graviton generators under Vanderkamp. They keep the local gravity close to Earth-normal, but only within the city. You see, Polyxo is a small planet, with a weak gravitational field.”

“Like the Moon?”

“Yeah, I guess the Moon would have been like that.”

Would have been? thought Ace, but kept it to herself. Travel into the future still threw up surprises. “I thought you weren’t an astrophysicist?”

“I’m not, but there are some things you just know. Everyday things, like why the sky is purple.”

The ground had begun to break up, straight lines faintly visible in its surface. The unmistakeable mark of artificiality.

“You can see the edges of the Stickmen’s capital here,” said Quin, gesturing at the lines. “These are the remains of the city walls, which were excavated by earlier generations. We had to uncover most of this again ourselves.

“We’re so close to Sol. People have been coming here since at least the twenty-third century."

“Mmm. The twentieth century’s more my field.”

“I’m a bit rusty on pre-interstellar human history - doesn’t quite spark my interest.”

“Sorry to be boring. Didn’t realise I was a historical footnote.”

Quin gave her a quizzical look, but was quickly distracted. “Here, we’re coming up to the main site. We need to enter through that aperture.” He pointed out a square hole, neatly cut into the stone.
“I need to switch off the forcefield. Keeps out the dust and kids and rockhoppers.” He produced a black disc the size of a keyring and pressed it. It emitted a flash of light and the forcefield deactivated.

The archaeologist stepped up to the hole, kicking the dust away from the edge. It was just big enough for two people to squeeze down together.

“After you,” he said. Shame, thought Ace. Could have done with squeezing down together. Quin retrieved a torch from his pocket, handed it to her and she hopped into the darkness.

“Urgh, well grim!” she said, coughing into her sleeve. “I thought you said that thing kept the dust out? It’s like the cupboard under my nan’s stairs. Even cobwebs!”

Quin dropped down beside her. “Cobwebs?”

Ace flashed the torch into the corners of the passage in which they stood. White webbing, coated in dust, adhered to the walls and ceiling.

“Those things. Does that mean you’ve got spiders on this planet?”

“Probably just something a local life form left. What are spiders?”

“Never mind. What’s so cool about this place then?”

Quin’s face, lit by torchlight, broke into a smile.

“I’ll show you.”

Astronomical Defence Institute,” read the Doctor aloud, effortlessly translating the local script, an eccentric mix of Tellurian alphabets.

The building was vast, significantly bigger than anything in the main square. A bulbous metallic structure, perched on the edge of the city, its surface broken by a grid of windows and radiation collection panels. Powered by the very thing it was set up to investigate.

The Doctor proceeded to the cuboid booth that protruded from the front of the dome. Its single occupant, a middle-aged male of impressive height and girth, was seated within, squeezed into a black uniform and matching hat. Even three light years from Earth, at the tail end of the ninety-eighth century, security guards looked the same.

“Hello, my good man,” said the Doctor, doffing his hat and cracking a broad smile. “I was wondering if you could tell me what the necessary documentation would be if I wished to enter this establishment?”

The guard looked down at the Doctor over his greying moustache. “If you were allowed in, you’d know what was required.”

Very good point, thought the Doctor. He rummaged in his copious pockets.

Ah, here we are. Hopefully this should be more than sufficient.”

He passed the guard a battered pamphlet bound in a leather case. The official frowned as he unfolded the crackling paper.

“Special Delegate of the Galactic Federation, to be accorded all ambassadorial privileges,” he read aloud.

“You’ll see that it’s stamped and signed by the Galactic President’s office and lists the Martian Ambassador as a character reference. I also…” – he rummaged further – “…have…” – frowning, he tried his trouser pockets – “… a membership card for the United Earth Space Probe Agency and documentation authorising my presence from the Foreign Hazard Duty.” He reluctantly gave up, showing empty hands. “Somewhere.”

The security guard sighed, and tapped the intercom unit clipped to his collar.

“Professor Asgar, there’s a Doctor John Smith here requesting entrance. Yes, he’s got documentation, looks official, never seen it before though.” He paused, listening to the response. “I dunno, sir, he looks like one of those loonies here for the festival. You should see his trousers…”

“Oh, tell him that I wrote the Octember 9784 paper on ‘Quasi-magnetism in pin galaxies,’” added the Doctor for good measure.

Another sigh, deeper this time, expressing years of pent-up frustration and barely concealed apathy. 

“Did you hear that, sir? Yes? Are you sure? All right, sir, whatever you say.” He looked down at the Doctor in resignation. “Go on then, but be aware that they are currently engaged in some very important work.” He pressed a button, and a door slid open in the surface of the dome.

The Doctor replaced his hat.

“Thank you. Don’t let me keep you from your busy work any longer.”

Quin brought Ace to a cavernous chamber. The walls were covered in symbols, etched into the rocked and smooth to the touch. In the centre of the room stood an object shaped not unlike a mushroom. It stood at about waist height and shone in the torchlight.

“What is it?” asked Ace.

“We think it’s an antimagnetic device,” said Quin. “I’m not the tech head, but our experts reckon the Stickmen were building something to interact with electromagnetic fields. It might have been designed to help shield them from the effects of the flares.”

He pointed at the symbols that festooned the walls.

“We’ve only recently excavated this part of the city. There’s probably more under Vanderkamp itself, but reaching that is even more difficult. There’s evidence that the city was buried due to seismic activity.”

“You mean an earthquake?”

“That’s right. There’s more of the city further along, but the entrance is well buried. We can’t risk forcing our way through; it could damage what’s on the other side. Once we’ve finished in this section, we’ll look at beginning the process of excavation further in. It’ll be a slow process.”

Ace shone her torch over the etchings.

“Well cryptic,” she whispered. “What does it mean?”

“The Stickmen used ideograms in their written language. This entire display is designed to tell us what happened to them. It’s scrappy though, unfinished. Their inscriptions are usually methodical. This was done in a hurry.”

“What does it say?”

This part we’ve translated. It refers to the ground itself. Something underground. And this means animal, or beast, which when combined with this would be… monster? Killer? I’m not sure.”

“Nothing good then?”

“Well, I can’t read all of it, but it’s definitely telling us what happened. They must have inscribed this as a warning to people who would come later. Something came up from under the ground, a beast, that killed them all.”

“What about the earthquake?”

“That came earlier. Perhaps it was even the cause of it. The beast… no, beasts, plural… the ground shook and they came up from beneath.”

“What’s down there?” asked Ace, flicking her torch in the direction of the tunnel.

Quin straightened up from the inscription. “It’s a dead end. We need to excavate further. It’s blocked, probably due to a collapse during the tremors that heralded the end for the civilisation.”

Ace took a short walk down the passageway. The way was blocked all right, a slab of rock barring entry. The floor of the tunnel sloped downwards – wherever it led, it was deeper underground. 

Whatever had killed the Stickmen, the answer was bound to be down there.

“We haven’t got time for that. You want to see the rest of this place? Leave it to me.”

She slipped off her rucksack and unzipped it, fishing out two metallic cans. They rattled together in her hand as she broke their seals.

“Cover your ears and get your head down!” she cried, lobbing the cans in the direction of the wall of rock.

“Ace! What the hell do you think you’re —”

She grabbed him, pushed him back towards the opening of the tunnel and dragged him down onto the ground. Pressing one side of her head against his broad chest, Ace covered her exposed ear with her free hand. Seeing this, Quin did the same.

“BOOM!” cried Ace as the explosion ripped through the air. The walls shook, flecks of stone falling from the stone ceiling.

Gingerly, the two of them stood up, brushing off the copious amounts of grey dust.

“Ace... what did you do?”

“Oh, you archaeologists are all the same. Too much patience, not enough action. Come on – let’s see what’s down there!”

The Doctor happily pottered around the entrance hall of the Institute, studying the displays. He stood ensconced in the details when he received a tap on the shoulder. He spun round to find himself face to face with an older man.

“Doctor Smith, I presume?” asked the stranger in a deep baritone.

The Doctor doffed his hat and smiled. “Professor Asgar, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“You too, Doctor, although I must admit I’m unfamiliar with the paper you mentioned.”

“Are you?” the Doctor’s face fell momentarily, before brightening just as quickly. “Perhaps it hasn’t been published yet. It’s so hard to keep track of these things. It is 9799, isn’t it?”

Professor Asgar gave the Doctor a puzzled look, but nodded.

“If you insist on using the Earth calendar, yes. I take it you’re here for the festival?”

“Well, yes, although I’m more interested in the work you’re doing here. It’s all well and good getting excited about star systems passing by one another, but what’s the point if we don’t take the chance to study the effects? How will the proximity of Sol to Barnard’s Star affect the planets of each system, for instance?”

Asgar smiled. “Indeed, Doctor. Exactly our sentiments here at the Institute. However, we are rather preoccupied with a related matter, so I fear that a tour of the facility must wait.”

“Ah, yes, the upcoming stellar flares,” said the Doctor, nodding enthusiastically. “I presume you’ve been working on an electromagnetic defence system, to deflect the worst of the radiation away from the planet?”

“You’re well informed, Doctor Smith.”

“Well, it is rather an obvious direction to be going in,” he said, grinning. “Perhaps I could take a look at your methods? I’d be most interested.”

Asgar shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Doctor. Work is at a delicate stage and must be ready for full activation by tonight. The flare activity is expected to begin tomorrow and we must perform the final tests.”

Putting on his most disappointed face, the Doctor sighed.

“Is there no way you could bend the rules a little? I have reason to believe that there is a very great danger threatening this planet. A danger from the ancient past – something that will make the stellar flares seem no more serious than a mild case of sunburn.”

“Doctor, there is nothing that is more of a threat to this planet than the flares. Whatever you believe you may have discovered, I suggest you approach the institute with it through the proper channels. I have no time for spurious amateur theories.”

“I assure you, Professor, that this planet is facing a deadly threat and must be evacuated!”

“Evacuate?” laughed Asgar. “In the middle of the festival? Come now, Doctor.I assure that this planet is in safe hands. Everything is under control.”

“Very well,” sighed the Doctor. “Might I be allowed to mill around here for a little longer? I was enjoying reading about the work you have displayed.”

“Of course,” replied the Professor, impatiently. “Take your time. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”

The Doctor smiled, doffing his hat once more for good measure, before returning to his perusals. After a moment, he marched briskly after the scientist.

It wasn’t difficult to locate the Professor’s project. While scientists could be peculiar in their organisation, academic architecture was rarely unpredictable. The core project would be in the most prestigious laboratory. Sure enough, the Doctor soon found himself watching Asgar and his assistants through a viewing window in the lab’s main doorway.

The Doctor fished around in his jacket pocket and produced his sonic lance. He ducked around the corner, pointing the device at a tiny red alarm box on the wall. The howling siren blasted his eardrums, forcing him to plaster his hat down on his ears. Sure enough, though, Professor Asgar and his assistants stormed out of the lab, complaining noisily about the disruption, and left the section. The Doctor ducked into the laboratory, smiling to himself.

The system before him was large and overly complex, with all manner of vital functions to perform. It took the Doctor almost three minutes to work out precisely what did what and how he needed to damage it. A simple control system, at the heart of it, he thought, linked to a magnetic array in orbit.
Wielding his sonic lance, he got to work.

Torchbeams scattering in the dust, Ace and Quin pushed on into the buried city of the Stickmen. Compressed remains of buildings lay on either side of the roadway, walls crushed inwards under the weight of rock. Millennia of decline had left the buildings broken, a civilisation crushed under the foot of a devastating catastrophe. A jagged fissure had broken the roadway into two uneven halves. Ace watched her step carefully.

“You see,” said Quin, “this isn’t the result of the stellar flares. They must have hidden underground to survive the radiation, and then the quakes came and they were destroyed. Odd thing is, we don’t get a great deal of seismic activity on Polyxo. It’s an old planet.”

“Then why did the quakes even happen?”

Quin kept silent, unable to answer. He moved on ahead, flashing his torch over the destroyed buildings that surrounded them. Ace recognised the look of his face. It was the same look the Doctor had when he found something that would hold him in rapt fascination for the next hour – be it a weird space insect on some distant planetoid or dusty old jazz records in Camden market.

She pushed on ahead, passing yet more crumbling structures, barely distinguishable in the gloom, until the light from her torch settled on something altogether more interesting.

“Quin! Come here, you’ll want to see this!”

The archaeologist came rushing up to her. He pointed his torch alongside hers, fully illuminating the scene in front of them. Beneath a dense layer of sediment lay the skeletal remains of three Stickmen, and… something else.

“I see what you mean about them being skinny,” said Ace. Each of the three creatures would have been a good eight feet tall. Their bodies, roughly human in shape if not proportion, were bent and broken. Their spindly fingers held the handles of jagged bladed weapons. Ace focussed her torch light on the one nearest to her. The creature’s head, tall and narrow, sloped backwards to a point. A deep crack was visible where his skull had made contact with the ground.

“Poor old boney,” she said. “Picked the wrong fight there.”

Between the three Stickmen, its carapace scratched and ripped open, lay a hideous animal. Insect-like, with ten long, spindly legs, its domed shell was ringed with hemispherical bulbs, underneath which were spindly mouthparts. Quin brushed away some of the dust covering the relic, and gave it a gently tap with his torch. It reverberated with a metallic clang.

“It’s an animal, alright,” he said, “but it’s metallic.”

“The beast?” queried Ace.

“Could be,” said Quin, not taking his eyes off the scene. “These three natives and the creature must have died fighting each other.”

“Better than a few old buildings, eh?” Ace smiled.

Quin looked up at her at last, and smiled.

“I guess it is. There’s enough here to keep my lot busy for years.”

“And you doubted my excavation techniques,” pointed out Ace. “I say, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing—”

A sudden tremor cut her off. The ground shook beneath their feet – gently, but it was enough to bring yet more fragments of grit and dust down on their heads.

“I thought you said you didn’t get quakes here?” said Ace, after coughing up dust.

“We don’t,” said Quin. There was a tremor in his voice that worried Ace far more than the one she had just felt. Even in the bleached torchlight she could see he had turned pale. “We should get out of here. Just in case.”

Another tremor. Far stronger this time. Ace stumbled, almost losing her footing. Quin grabbed her. They held each other for a moment, as a third tremor rippled through the ground beneath them.

“Let’s go,” she said.

They piled into the two-seater carrier, a tiny cab attached to a padded box for the safe removal of archaeological samples. They rattled towards Vanderkamp, the ground shaking beneath their feet. It wasn’t violent, but it was worsening. How long till a full-fledged quake hit? wondered Ace.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” complained Ace. “We’d make better time in a milk float!”

“It’s not really designed for high speed getaways!” replied Quin, putting his foot down.

The edge of Vanderkamp was visible up ahead. “That bug thing down there wouldn’t have been enough to kill off a whole civilisation,” she yelled behind her. “There must have been more. And that crack in the ground… the creatures had to come from somewhere.”

“You mean, they came up through the ground?” Quin yelled back in panic.

“I’ve seen stranger things,” admitted Ace. “We need to find the Doctor.”

The Doctor slipped silently from the laboratory. As he exited the Institute, he spotted Asgar and several of his colleagues exchanging heated words with the sour-faced security guard. The Doctor quickly made his way to the main square.

The TARDIS stood at the far corner of the square, its blue surface rendered mauve in the ruddy light of the dim sun. Festival goers milled around happily, paying no attention to one more unusual object amid a sea of stalls and floats. Simple, old-fashioned fun, thought the Doctor, as he entered his ship.
At the control console, he activated the subspace communications. After a short interval of static, he isolated the correct Sub-Etha frequency.

“Hello, hello, Earth Central Control?” he ventured. “This is a mayday call from Polyxo in the Barnard system. We require immediate evacuation, repeat, immediate evacuation. The Astronomical Defence Institute has encountered a catastrophic systems failure that will now increase the effects of the stellar flares. Please respond.”

As the Doctor awaited a reply, Ace burst through the doorway, Quin stumbling in behind her.
“What… how…” babbled Quin, taking in the gleaming white control room.

“Never mind that,” said Ace. “Doctor, we’ve got a problem. We know what killed off the Stickmen, and we think it’s coming back!”

The communications system crackled into life.

“Message received, Polyxo. This is Earth Central Control. Fleet is heading your way for manoeuvres. Will be diverted to evacuation in time for stellar flare activity once we have confirmed the situation with the relevant authorities. Please stand by.”

“What’s he talking about?” demanded Quin, snapping out of his bemusement.

There’s not time to explain,” grumbled the Doctor. “I know about the Stickmen, Ace. The stellar flares are coming and there’s no way to stop them now. I’ve rigged the defence system. We need to get off this planet before someone finds out!”

Quin bolted from the TARDIS.

“Leave him, Ace,” the Doctor warned, his voice low. “We have to get out of here.”

Ace stood in the doorway, holding the Doctor’s gaze. Then she turned and ran after Quin.

“Ace!” shouted the Doctor, “Come back! I’ll explain everything, just as soon as we’re on our way.” He stormed out after her.

Quin hadn’t gone far. The main square was busy with people, and law officers were never far.

“Him,” he said, pointing at the Doctor. “He’s done something to the defence array. You’ll need to question him.”

A particularly large, bulky officer in a grey uniform slapped his meaty hand on the Doctor’s shoulder.

“Captain Grant, sir. You are under arrest for sabotage.”

The Doctor sat on an uncomfortable metal stool in a small, poky office that had been left abandoned in the current chaos at the Institute. Captain Grant loomed over him.

“So then, ‘Doctor Smith,’” growled Grant, “we have an accusation of sabotage from Dr Quin Medenwald. We also have a statement from Professor Nurian Asgar, describing how you enquired about the workings of his vital new defence array. Asgar and his colleagues are still trying to work out what you did to the array control system. He will be here shortly, and it would save a lot of time, and a lot of lives, if you would just tell us what you did and how to fix it.”

The door swung open, both Quin and Asgar entering.

“I’ll leave him with you, Professors,” said Grant. “I need to speak with his young friend.”

“Ace was with me the whole time,” said Quin. “She has nothing to do with this.”

“Nonetheless, she’ll need to make a statement. Gentlemen.” He slammed the door behind him.

Asgar and Quin took their seats in front of the Doctor. Asgar leaned forward, so that his face was mere inches from the Doctor’s.

“I’ll say this for you, Doctor,” he hissed, “you’ve done a damned good job on that array. I’ve been working on it with my best people, and none of us can make head nor tail of what you’ve done to it. So, I’m going to ask you to show us what you did and how to reverse it, and maybe I can prevent Grant from handing you over to Earth Central.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Professor.”

“And why is that?”

The Doctor took a deep breath.

“Polyxo is an ancient planet. Once, it was an entirely different biosphere, based on iron, gold and semimetals. Metallic life forms whose bodies were held together by magnetic fields.”

“That hardly seems feasible,” said Asgar.

“There were the equivalents of plants, drawing energy from the light of Barnard’s Star, and herbivores that fed on them. And, of course, there were predators. One species evolved into a particularly effective predator, devouring the life energies of other creatures, draining them of their very life force.”

“Actually,” interjected Quin, “I have just uncovered some… unusual remains at the site which bear the Doctor out on that matter.”

The Doctor continued. “ The biosphere couldn’t withstand such an efficient predator . There was a devastating mass extinction. The creatures went into hibernation beneath the surface, protected from Barnard’s stellar flares. Life arose again on Polyxo, in time.”

“Yes, yes,” snapped Asgar, “organic complexes, probably carried on here on a comet. This, at least, agrees with theory.”

“Eventually, the beings you call the Stickmen arose. They built up an advanced civilisation, and may have become aware of the periodic mass extinctions that occurred when the protean predators awoke. They certainly had legends, of Sleeping Ones that arose from beneath the ground.” The Doctor looked to Quin. “What did you find in the ruins, Professor Mordenvald?”

“There were inscriptions that could describe what you’re saying, yes.”

“Eight-thousand years ago, Barnard’s Star experienced a flurry of activity, the Stickmen retreated underground to sit out the stellar flares. The Sleeping Ones would have been stirring anyway, but that intrusion on their domain would have jolted them into action. The poor Stickmen didn’t stand a chance.”

“I see,” said Asgar. “So, what we have is yet another fairy story about the wondrous Stickmen.” He sneered at Quin. “Honestly, he’s worse than you.”

“I still believe that the stellar flares weren’t what killed off the Stickmen,” said Quin, “but that doesn’t mean I support what the Doctor is saying. Still, if perhaps you’d listen to someone else for once - ”

“Mordanveld, what matters here is not the history of your precious Stickmen.” Asgar returned his attention to the Doctor. “I fail to see how it relates to your little act of sabotage, and your wilful endangerment of the lives of everyone in this settlement.”

“You don’t understand,” implored the Doctor. “It isn’t just this world that’s at risk. The Sleeping Ones were waking anyway. The proximity of the Earth, and its rich bioenergy, would have shook them from their slumber. I needed to deal with them before that happened, but I couldn’t do it while they were buried beneath the surface. They are waking up as we speak. I had to find a way to destroy the creatures once they reached the surface of Polyxo, but before they escaped and travelled to Earth. So I rigged the stellar defence system to reverse its effect .”

“Doctor,” said Quin, “what would happen when the creatures began to wake up? Would there be some kind of seismic activity?”

The Doctor nodded. “Something of the sort, I should think. The Sleeping Ones’ hive is located deep beneath the city.”

“I’ll accept what you’re saying about the creatures, but I still don’t understand what possessed you to damage the array,” added Quin.

“When Barnard’s Star becomes active later tomorrow, the flare will hit the antimagnetic field and become supercharged. Prolonged exposure will destroy the magnetic fields that hold the creatures’ bodies together. They’ll be forced to retreat back into hibernation, and they’ll stay there for thousands more years, until long after your people have abandoned this planet .”

“And this was your best method of dealing with this supposed problem?” said Asgar.

“He’s right,” said Quin. “Why didn’t you just tell someone about the creatures?”

“I did try to raise the subject with you Asgar, but you dismissed me, as I suspected you would. It is quite a tall tale, I’ll accept. There’s a fleet of ships heading from Earth as we speak, ready to evacuate the colony. Once the flares have died down, you can all return to your homes. If you hadn’t made your rather clever advances with magnetic manipulation, you’d all have had to evacuate anyway and you’d never have been any the wiser to the creatures’ existence.”

“Frankly, Doctor,” scoffed Asgar, “I have no idea if you’re messing with us or simply delusional. You have put the lives of thousands at risk and you will tell us how to fix that array.”

The building shook. Both Asgar and Quin jumped to their feet.

“What the hell was that?” said Asgar.

The Doctor frowned.

“Ahead of schedule, that’s what. That’s not good, gentlemen, not good at all.”

A second tremor ripped through the building, throwing the Doctor off his chair. He stumbled to his feet.

“I think we’d better find out what’s happening out there,” he said.

Now then, Miss McShane,” said Captain Grant, “you’re not in any trouble. I just need to talk to you about Doctor Smith.” He settled into a plastic chair that creaked under his weight, at the outer edge of the food court that straddled the gap between the Institute and the main square. He motioned for Ace to join him. She sat heavily into another plastic seat.

A Denebolan waitress shuffled up to them, her fur ruffling as she moved. Grant ordered the sandwich of the day, but Ace merely shook her head sullenly.

“Now miss, I would appreciate it if you could tell me a little about your friend the Doctor and your relationship.”

“He’s a friend. We travel together. He’s a good bloke.”

“Oh yes? This ‘good bloke’ has damaged a cutting-edge system that is essential for the survival of this settlement.”

“I know. But the Doctor wouldn’t do something like that for fun. If he did something to the defences, you can bet he had a damn good reason for it.”

“Maybe. We’ll find out. Professors Asgar and Mordanveld are speaking with the Doctor now.”

“What about the tremors?” asked Ace.

“Your friend Mordanveld mentioned these, but no one here felt them. They clearly weren’t very strong. And I fail to see how they have any bearing on the Doctor’s little act of sabotage.”

The Denebolan trundled back over to their table, and deposited an extremely full sandwich in front of Captain Grant. He slipped her a credit gratefully.

As he lifted the sandwich up to his lips, the ground shook gently.

“What was that?” he whispered.

Ace stood up. “Oh no,” she muttered. “I told you – tremors! They must have got stronger!”

Another sudden vibration, this time strong enough to send plates and cups flying. The various patrons of the food court rose to their feet in alarm. The next tremor sent tables over, and was enough to cause Grant to finally drop his sandwich. He and Ace looked out into the square. People were beginning to panic.

With one final, vast convulsion, the ground ripped open. Vast cracks appeared across the square. The panicked crowd erupted into screams.

Dozens of spindly, metallic legs protruded from a large fissure in the centre of the square, followed by three dome-shaped carapaces. Three creatures clambered out from under the ground. Then six. Then eighteen. And they kept coming…

“What the hell are they?” snarled Grant, slipping his ion pistol from its holster.

Ace pulled some cans of Nitro-9 from her rucksack. Never leave the TARDIS without some, she thought.

Three of the insectoids had a group of young men cornered against a building, their compound eyes coldly scrutinising them.

“Stay away from them!” Ace shouted.

With a sudden lunge, the foremost creature pinned one of the men to the ground with its claws. A long, thin tube protruded from its craw, snaking around its victim’s neck. With a soft, crackling spark, it drew out his life. He convulse as the life ebbed from him. His friends screamed, as his body withered to a lifeless husk.

The creature then turned to Ace.

From the foyer of the station, they could see dozens of creatures swarming over the city, their metallic carapaces glinting in the red light of the setting star.

“They are what I’ve just spent the last half hour telling you about! Now do you see that I am telling the truth?”

Asgar protested. “Very well, Doctor, but you said that these creatures would be at the mercy of the flares tomorrow. What are they doing crawling through our city now?”

“I admit, I may have made a slight miscalculation.”

“The fleet is on its way,” added Quin. “We might be able to hold these things off until it gets here.”

“I fear that won’t be enough, but you’re right, we must get out there, do what we can.” He frowned. “Ace is still out there.”

They surveyed the carnage from the relative safety of the Institute. There were enough people out in the open for the creatures to feast upon, before they had to start breaking their way into the buildings. The Doctor watched, his brow furrowed.

Sure enough, there was Ace, lobbing cans of Nitro-9 at the attacking creatures, while Grant unleashed bolts of energy from his own sidearm.

“I’ve got to get out there. I trust you will allow me to aid my friend? I’ll happily allow Captain Grant to re-arrest me later.”

Asgar scowled at him, but nodded.

“You’d best stay here, Professor. Look after anyone who makes it into the Institute. We’ll do what we can out there.”

The Doctor and Quin fled the building.

“Doctor!” cried Ace, popping another can of Nitro, and lobbing it at a creature. Its carapace cracked open with a flash of energy, and it collapsed. “What took you so long?”

“I was a little tied up,” he quipped. “Figuratively speaking.”

“Doctor, we’ve found the Stickmen’s city. I Nitro’d my way in.” Even in the chaos, Ace flashed a quick grin. “We think these things killed them off. They were underground – they must have tunnelled under Vanderkamp.”

The Doctor was aghast. “You did what?! Ace, I wanted you do investigate the ruins, not blow your way into them. No wonder the Sleeping Ones are awake – you’ve just given this planet’s personal apocalypse an early morning alarm call!”

Ace’s smile fell. “Oh.”

“At least the explosives are doing the trick,” said Quin.

“Sure are,” agreed Grant. “A bit of brute force is all it takes!”

“You think so?” said the Doctor. “Watch.”

The creature that Ace had just felled began to twitch. With a low, electrical hum, the two halves of its fractured body fused together, leaving just a hairline fracture in its shell.

“How are we supposed to fight that?” Ace exclaimed.

“Enough energy can disrupt their electromagnetic fields and cause them to collapse permanently,” said the Doctor. “But without the flare we have no way of providing that energy. Perhaps, with enough time, I could use the antimagnetic properties of the array against them directly, but to rework it so completely would take far too long…”

“What can I do here?” growled Grant, finally accepting that his gun wasn’t going to get hit very far.
“Get as many people as you can away from here and into the Institute. At least they’ll be relatively safe there.” He turned to Ace and Quin. “We need to get back to the site.”

There we go,” said the Doctor, “one short hop. Not bad, if I do say so myself.”

Ace, Quin and the Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS and into the gloom of the Stickman site.

“The device is over there, Doctor. We found some Stickmen, dead with one of these creatures.”

“Perhaps they got lucky,” said the Doctor. “Or perhaps this thing was close enough to finished for a low level test. Just enough to kill off a few of the Sleeping Ones in the immediate vicinity. Though I can’t imagine it was very healthy for the Stickmen either.”

The Doctor examined the mushroom-shaped object, wiping the latest deposit of dust from its scarred surface. He reached into his pocket, removing his sonic lance.

“Hmm… a little judicious tweaking, and it might just be possible… there!”

The device slowly hummed into life, a soft, blue glow emanating from its rotund crown.

“That’s what I call a long-life battery,” said Ace.

“It won’t be enough,” said the Doctor, frowning. “They never developed a powerful enough system.”

He turned to Ace and Quin.

“There is a possibility.The Sleeping Ones are ruled by a queen. She’s the centre of their hive mind, linked to all of them through electromagnetic pulses. If we can knock her out, the others will have no direction. They’ll become helpless.”

Quin smiled. “Then the flare will come along and finish them off for good.”

The Doctor’s frown grew deeper. “No, Professor. Then I’ll do what I can with the Queen. If I can convince her to fully return to her hibernation, the Sleeping Ones can stay sleeping until this planet has been abandoned by humanity.” He paused. “We need to get into the core of the hive. There should be a central cavern.”

“Which will be full of creatures?” asked Ace.

“I’m afraid so. How much Nitro-9 do you have left?”

“Two cans.”

“Well, we’d best get moving,” said the Doctor.

Between them, Quin and Ace had little trouble carrying the antimagnetic device, its construction proving surprisingly lightweight. The Doctor carried nothing more than his umbrella. The three of them pushed further on into the gloom, the broken ground of the Stickmen’s city tilting downwards into the depths of the planet’s crust.

“Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?” Ace asked the Doctor, pausing in the descent as she and Quin maneoveured the device down a jagged incline.

“Yes, they’re down there. I can feel them. One vast mind, spreading outwards in all directions. It’s still waking up, but we need to hurry.”

The twisting passageway opened into a shallow cavern. The Doctor held out his arms, his umbrella blocking the way forward.

“Wait,” he ordered. “We’re here.”

The cavern ahead was crawling with Sleeping Ones. Hundreds of the creatures piled over one another. The sound of scraping metal reverberated through the enclosed space.

“Oh cripes,” Ace breathed.

In their centre sat a vast, swollen mass, featureless but for a huge, gaping maw. It pulsed with energy, glowing faintly in the darkness. Ace watched in revulsion as the worker creatures attended the queen. Sparks of energy shot from their mouthparts as they gorged their queen on bioelectric power.

“How do we activate this thing?” said Quin.

“And how near do we have to get?” added Ace.

“I can activate it,” said the Doctor, “but due to its low-level pulse, we’ll have to get very close.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

“What about the rest of them?” said Quin. “They’re not going to let us get very close.”

Ace handed him a can of Nitro-9.

“One can each. We can distract them, give the Doctor a chance to get to the queen.”

Ace nodded. “Go!”

She and Quin ran into the swarm of creatures, Ace ducking left, Quin dashing right. The insectoids shifted their attentions from the service of their queen, swivelling to face the two humans running at them. Claws raised, feeding tubes ready, they lunged towards the attackers. Ace popped her can of Nitro-9 and lobbed it into the oncoming mob. The explosion through them backwards, the foremost few creatures ripped apart by the force, others thrown against the wall. Ace herself was thrown backwards by the force, landing painfully on her backside.

“Quin, now!” she cried.

The archaeologist struggled with the can, finally succeeding in ripping it open as the creatures advanced. They were almost on top of him.

The Doctor took his chance. He threw his umbrella to the ground. Heaving the antimagnetic device forward, he charged towards the queen’s gaping mouth. He dropped the device into her maw, then leapt back, landing on his backside. He grabbed his sonic lance from his pocket, and triggered the device.

A blast of white-blue light burst from the device. The queen’s bulk absorbed much of it, yet she shuddered as the pulse passed through her. With a final, violent convulsion, she collapsed, her mandibles drooping slackly.

The creatures paused, quivering over Ace and Quin.

“Doctor!” cried Ace.

“Shhh!” he hissed. “Quiet. They’re stunned, but we don’t want to wake them, do we.” Gingerly, he edged right up to the queen’s body, until he was able to press his fingers right up against the gleaming metallic exoskeleton.

“That’s it,” he whispered. “Sleep. Call back your children. There’ll be time to feed again in the future. A long time from now.”

The twitching creatures surrounding them began to shift, sluggishly, back towards their queen.
The Doctor stooped to pick up his umbrella.

“I think,” he said quietly, “that we’d best not outstay out welcome. Besides, I’ve got an array to fix.”

The dust was, at last, settling. Medical crews were attending the many injured. Quin had found Captain Grant, and was assisting him in dressing a vicious-looking wound on his right arm, no doubt caused by one of the creature’s razor claws. In the distance, the last of the Sleeping Ones was shambling back in the direction of its home.

The Doctor swung his sonic lance in his hand, before dropping it into his pocket. Asgar had agreed to overlook events as long as he put the array back as he’d found it.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting to say goodbye to the young Professor Medenwald?” he asked Ace.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” she replied. “We’d be better off slipping away. That’s more your style, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes,” nodded the Doctor, solemnly.

“He’ll have plenty of new research to do,” said Ace. “The thought of asking him to come with us did cross my mind.”

“Come with us?” scoffed the Doctor. “An archaeologist in the TARDIS? Whatever next?”

“What did you do in there? With the queen?”

“She’s a telepathic creature, Ace. It’s all a matter of making the right sort of contact.”

Ace turned and fixed him with a hard stare.

“Of course, if you’d let me know about the Sleeping Ones in the first place, and your plan to use the flares to fry them, then this whole thing would have gone a lot more smoothly.”

The Doctor bowed his head.

“You’re right, Ace. I try to keep you out of trouble, you know, but somehow I always manage to get you into more danger than I’d bargained for.”

“No more complicated, classified missions, eh, Doctor? No more secrets?”

“Don’t worry, Ace. No more secrets.”

The Doctor and Ace turned and entered the TARDIS, their feet leaving the surface of Polyxo for the last time. She didn’t notice the fingers crossed behind his back.