What, no new Recycle Bin or short story this week? Well, truth be told all my varied multitasking has caught up with me and I haven’t had time to devote to writing up a new post or reformatting old content. So no new creative writing content this week. For lack of anything better to do, you can always check out my appearance on FLOSS Weekly, where you can download the audio podcast or watch the captured live video stream. Lots of fun webcomics-meta stuff, as well as video footage of me making an idiot of myself in front of Leo Laporte.
That said, I’m not sure how motivated I am to continue posting these items. The original idea was to renew interest in this blog by providing regular new content. To that end, the idea has been largely unsuccessful. The blog hasn’t seen any significant new traffic and nobody’s posting any comments, positive or negative. With no apparently feedback, either numerically or verbally, I don’t feel a whole lot of motivation to add anything else new. The only other catalyst for adding this content was to give me an outlet for non-GPF creative works, which is an itch that’s been scratched sufficiently enough that it’s no longer strong motivation.
If you’ve been enjoying the short stories and Recycle Bin entries—or even if you haven’t—please drop me a line, either here in the comments or via the other usual channels (e-mail, Twitter, the GPF Forum, etc.). If I hear enough positive reinforcement, I’ll probably be motivated to continue them. If I get mostly negative feedback (or none at all), I’ll probably end it here and not bother with anything else.
I thought we’d take a little departure this week from the Recycle Bin to dip into one of my old short stories. I’ve written a lot of short stories over the years, some of which were actually intended to be first or second chapters of novels that never materialized. This one, however, was always meant to be short and is mostly self-contained.
I should preface this with a few disclaimers. First, despite the overall tone of this piece, I do not consider myself to be an environmentalist. A conservationist, perhaps, but certainly not an environmentalist. I believe that God put mankind in charge of the Earth just as described in the book of Genesis, and that we are to be good stewards of the world that He placed under our care. He should be frugal and thrifty with these resources and not abuse them; however, that’s not to say we can’t use anything God created for our own means. If we log a forest, we should plant new trees to take their place and allow them to mature. Obviously, renewable energy sources are a requirement for our future as non-renewable sources won’t last forever; that said, it is unrealistic to expect entire nations to convert to wind and solar power overnight.
Secondly, I am not anti-business. I won’t expand upon that here for fear of spoiling the story, but the point will be raised obviously enough once we get to that part. I mention these two facts because several friends who have read this story in the past have made assumptions about my beliefs based on the subject matter and presentation. In response to this, I’ll rely on the same disclaimer I’ve used for years in GPF: just because the characters in one of my stories have one set of beliefs doesn’t mean that I, the author, share or endorse them. I think a good writer can look beyond his or her own beliefs and prejudices to adapt their writing to characters with completely opposing viewpoints, and a good writer is something I’ve always striven to become. I’ll let you decide if I actually succeed on that point.
The source file from which this story was taken is dated December 1992, which would place it in my freshman year of college. I honestly can’t remember if the story predates that or not; the story could have easily been written earlier and this was just a later version of the file. It has been edited only to correct spelling and formatting errors, and to convert it into HTML for the blog. I otherwise present it as close to its original form as possible. There are a few things that, looking back at it over 16 years later, I would probably tweak and refine were I to rewrite it today. (A few futuristic predictions ended up being way off; who really uses faxes these days anyway?) That said, I’m rather proud of this little story as it accomplishes exactly what I wanted, and there’s not a lot I would really change if I set my mind to it. I hope you enjoy it as well.
“At least ninety people are now believed to be dead following an atmosfire breakout in Japan….”
Cramer pulled his oxpump from his pocket and inserted the nozzle into his nose.
“… While government officials continue to investigate as to the origin of the spark that ignited the toxicloud, …”
PSHHT. The oxygen flooded his nostril. The expansion of the compressed gas chilled the inner lining of his nose and lungs.
“… many speculate that it was started by a cigafire; others even suspect a small static-electricity discharge….”
The comment from the newsbox caught Cramer’s attention. Instantly, he caught sight of a smoker outside the cafe. The man puffed hard on the paper tube. The tip glowed dully from the little oxygen available to burn it.
One of these days, he thought, somebody’s gonna blow this whole blasted planet to bits because of one of those things.
He used the oxpump in his other nostril. PSHHT.
“Can ah help ya?”
Cramer looked away from the smoker and turned to the voice. The man behind the counter, older and grayer than most folks, with soft yet empty eyes, repeated his statement, and the words sounded dulled by the Permapump plugged into his nasal cavity. “Can ah help ya?”
“Yes,” Cramer replied. “One caffeine, please.”
The soft, old eyes smiled with the mouth hidden by wrinkles and the bottom of the Permapump. The man turned and began to drawl out the caffeine.
The newsbox-woman, sporting a newer, more compact and “fashionable” model of the Permapump—Permapump 7000, if he was right—herself, had already turned from the Japanese atmosfire and began something new. “All residents of the tri-city area should be advised that an O-hole has been tracked by the National Weather Service to be heading our way….”
National Weather Service! They did little with actual weather anymore. Of course, there wasn’t much weather anyway. All they did was give warnings every other day of an advancing O-hole or a possible toxicloud.
“… are advised to remain indoors for the majority of evening, beginning at 1700 hours, to avoid any possible
U-strike. Cramer saw a man U-struck before. Too much U-waves. Intense enough to blacken the worst areas of exposed skin. He helped take the man to the ‘pital, and heard nothing from him since. If he had known the man’s name, he would have probably taped the obituary off the newsbox.
Funny how the sun can fry a man. If he’s not careful.
The old man tenderly placed the caffeine on the counter as his Permapump hissed. He smiled, and the deep ravines of his face grew deeper and his eyes shone duller. “If ya needs anything….”
“Thank you,” Cramer said. “This will be all.” He handed the old man his credit card and waited for the transaction to go through the modem. He returned his gaze to the newsbox.
“One final note: levels of toxigas have begun to rise in the areas just south of the tri-city area. The National Weather Service does not predict that a toxicloud will form, and if one does, it should not be of sufficient concentration to pose any threat. Still, residents should listen closely to this newsserv for further updates.” The ‘box then broke off into a fifteen-minute commercial cycle.
The hiss of the old man’s Permapump pulled Cramer back. The thin plastic card shivered lightly between the gnawed fingers. “Here ya go.”
Cramer took the card and stuffed it down into his inner jacket pocket.
“Would ya like a cover fer yer caffeine? Keep th’ soot out?”
“No, thank you. I’ll pass.” Cramer lifted the cup and headed for the airlock.
His wristfone chirped.
He turned back to the old man. “Do you have anywhere I can take this in private?”
The old man nodded to the kitchen door. “Jest go on back thar. Th’ droids don’t make no noise.”
Cramer nodded his thanks and pushed through the swinging doors. No one used swinging doors anymore, especially if they led outside; all buildings had to be equipped with airlocks to keep outside air out and inside in.
The kitchen was grimy and cluttered. Three droids buzzed lightly around, occasionally dripping a drop of lube in a supposedly clean salad bowl. One, from obvious age, let out a puff of gray smoke, which was sucked quickly into the filtervent.
Cramer tapped the worn buttons on the wristunit. Time to get a new wristunit, he thought; it took more than five tries to get it into fone mode. The little display cleared briefly, then relit. The apartment computer was
calling via modem.
“ATTEN L CRAMER/MODEM CALL/LINX4000 NOTIFICATION/GOOD MORNING LUKE,” it wrote.
Cramer spoke to the voice-activated unit over the line. “Good morning, LINX. What’s so important that you have
to fone me?”
“LINX/YOU INSTRUCTED ME TO INFORM YOU OF UNUSUAL HAPPENINGS HERE AT APARTMENT”
“Right. What’s up?”
“LINX/THE OPPOSITE OF DOWN”
Smart-aleck computers. The sarcasm seemed only to be programmed in the newer models.
“The news, LINX.”
“LINX/NEWSBOX REPORTS ATMOSFIRE IN JAPAN-90 DEAD”
“I meant, what is it you need to tell me?”
“LINX/OF COURSE-LETTER HAS ARRIVED VIA POSTMAIL”
Cramer froze in silence. The LINX repeated the message when he did not reply immediately.
“As in letter written on paper, processed wood pulp?”
“LINX/THAT IS WHAT PAPER IS USUALLY COMPOSED OF”
“Since when did the mail service start carrying written mail again?”
“LINX/CANNOT CORRECTLY ANSWER QUESTION-PLEASE RESTATE”
“LINX/AFFIRMATIVE-INQUIRY DELETED FROM MEMORY”
“Can you fax it to me?”
“LINX/NEGATIVE-ENVELOPE IS TOO THICK TO ALLOW FAXTRANSPORT”
“Have you opened it yet?”
“LINX/NEGATIVE-ONE MUST HAVE FINGERS TO OPEN ENVELOPES”
Cramer snorted. “All right. I’ll be by to pick up the letter before I drive down to the center.”
“LINX/DMV REPORTS PRIMARY ROAD US I534 CONGESTED-POSSIBLE ACCIDENT-ADVISE USING SECONDARY ROUTES”
“Thanks, LINX. I’ll be there in a little bit.”
“LINX/GOODBYE LUKE/END OF LINE”
Cramer tapped the button to hang up, then repeated a few more times until successful. He left the kitchen, said farewell to the old man, picked up his cup of caffeine and left.
And scrawled in messy script resembling abstract sculpture was his name and address. Nothing was abbreviated as to avoid confusion (although it probably caused more than avoided, since most postal workers—workers and computers—knew places only by abbreviations) and he was addressed formally as Professor L. K. Cramer.
He had been afraid to pick up the envelope when he first saw it, afraid that it would disintegrate with his touch. But the paper held, and it sat there in the passenger seat of his tri-wheel as he headed for the Second City.
Why would someone send me, of all people, a letter? he thought. Everything was done electronically now; no one sent letters, or carried paper or coin currency, or gave receipts. Everything was measured in units of electrical current and magnetic impulses.
Letters were rare. Why should he get one?
He was a fair number of kilometers from the Third City now, in that strip of dead, barren wasteland between the
metropolises. He passed great farms of dead plants and trees, skeletons of forests, the stalks and husks still standing as tombstones since most of the decomposing bacteria that would have eliminated them were dead themselves. A once-rotten split-rail fence ran part of the way beside the pavement; perhaps this area was a farmland that supplied the agricultural needs of the tri-cities before…
… Before the toxiclouds and atmosfires.
A light on the dash caught his eye. The fuel supply was getting low, almost on empty; the ox-tank was low too, and the exhaust-tank nearly full. He would have to find a service station soon. There should be one just a little
The station sat quietly by the strip of pavement, sleeping intently from lack of customers. Cramer hoped that it was still open.
As he pulled off the road, he then noticed the small, crooked old man sitting outside the office. This was odd; not that the old man himself was odd, but that he sat outside. Few people could tolerate being outside in the unprocessed air for long, and no one would sit out in it for leisure—at least, no one in their right mind.
The old man shuffled toward him as he stopped the tri-wheeler and stepped out. He was bent similarly to the cane he leaned heavily on, his head stooped until the bridge of his nose lay within the same plane as his broad, bony shoulders. A broad-rimmed hat crouched upon his brow, and its shadow obscured all but his twinkling sharp blue eyes and his bulky, older model Permapump.
The sight of the Permapump reminded Cramer of the twinge within his lungs. He drew the oxpump and refilled his lungs. PSHHT.
The old man’s thin, onion-skin voice was backed by a sort of alien liveliness that channeled from some source kilometers away through his weary frame. “Never could adjust ta those things,” he said, motioning to the oxpump. “Th’ cold numbs yer nose ta much. Now these—” he tapped the Permapump obscuring his face “—not much ta look at, not fer vanity, but releases th’ Oh-two steadaly. Don’t hafta replace it every day, eeddur.”
Cramer noted the Oh-two level. His oxpump was almost empty. “That reminds me. Do you have any extras? I’m almost out.”
“Nah. New shipment ain’t in yet.”
“Can I get some gas and ox? Need to dump some exhaust, too.”
“‘Xhaust tank’s almost full, but ah think it’ll hold ya. Help yerself ta th’ rest.”
Cramer inserted the three nozzles into their proper spots. Atmospheric oxygen was getting so rare that automobiles required their own supply to burn fuel. Oh-two suppliers were making it big selling to oxpump companies like Permapumps, Inc., and to the automotive and other industries. Oxygen was just too rare, and too valuable.
Sweat trickled down the old man’s face as the cloudless sky baked the weary air. He wiped at his forehead aimlessly. “So, tell me, yungun, where’s ya headed?”
“Harumph.” He half-heartedly stuffed the handkerchief back into its pocket. “Ahs remember back when dem Second and Third and First Cities all had real names.”
“Been around that long, huh?” Cramer asked, grinning at him. The lack of oxygen was starting to creep up on him.
“Yeah, and you can bet ah’ll be ’round lot longer, too!” The Permapump hissed in agreement. His eyes flashed from brief anger to remembrance. “Back den, we named our cities. Ah remember goin’ ta Chicago once. And Wash’n’ton, D.C.”
“Yeah, dat was da nation’s capitol back den. Back bahfore we hadda ration gas or oxeegen. Back bahfore—”
“I know, the atmosfires and toxiclouds.”
The old man sadly nodded agreement. “What ya do fer a livin’, boy?”
“Top secret. Government work.”
“Ah,” he breathed knowledgeably. “Yer not ‘llowed to tell no one.”
“Bet yer thinkin’ ah’m jest some nosy old man, eh?”
“Ah don’t sees vary many people out har. And doze ah do, ah’s rarely sees ’em again. Sos ahs tries ta learn all ah can ’bout ’em, ’cause—who knows?—dey jest may come back and remember Ole Jake and may pop rite in fer a visit.”
“Anybody done that yet?”
“Nope. Not yet.”
Cramer surveyed the man carefully. “I promise,” he began, then paused. “I promise that I’ll come back as soon as I’m finished in Second City.”
“How long ya gonna be dar?”
“Not sure, really. It depends.”
“By dat time, dat new fangled road—ah-five-dirty-foe—it’ll be clear and it’ll be lot quicker ta go dat way.”
“I promise,” he repeated, “that I’ll come back.”
Old Jake nodded. “Ya do dat.”
The gas finished pumping, but the oh-two had not. It hissed lightly; a leak probably let some escape. Probably shouldn’t hurt his tank, but would lose the old man some money. He removed the gas nozzle and placed it back on the rack before he noticed Old Jake’s silent stare back down the road from where he came. At first, Cramer thought
the old man was taking in the silhouetted view of Third City, but when he turned to see, the subject loomed due south.
“Yep,” Old Jake muttered. “Dey said one wuz comin’.”
Cramer said nothing, but stared, slightly horror-stricken, at the crimson toxicloud creeping over the horizon.
“Be har in ’bout, hmmm, six ‘ours,” Jake commented.
“Less if the winds pick up, like they’re supposed to.”
“Ah hates ’em. Ev’rythin’ shuts down when dey come. People hide in deir houses, bus’nesses close, no won’s ‘llowed on da streets.” He sighed, his entire frame shaking as with a chill. His eyes glared guiltily. “And ta think it’s all our fault.”
Cramer had become rigid upon finding the cloud. “We’ll find a way to get rid of them.”
“Ain’t no way to git rid of ’em, ‘cept lite a match an’ blow da whole blasted planet up.”
Cramer’s eyes grew sharply darker. “We’ll find a way,” he repeated.
BLING! The pump had finished. The sound startled them both.
Cramer dug for his card. “Here,” he said. “Take out sixty.”
Old Jake squinted at the readout dial. “Da tab’s only fifty.”
“I know,” he said, holding out the card. “Keep the other ten.”
The old man took the card and hobbled over to the building. Cramer followed. “Ya keep sayin’ dat we’ll find a way to stop dem dings. What makes ya so sure ya will?”
“That’s my job.”
CAJUNK. The machine ate the card and Old Jake tapped some buttons. “Ah thought yer job wuz top
“It is, but that’s what I do.”
He handed back the card. “Den, fer da sake of da whole human race, ah pray ya find da cure fer dis plauge.”
Cramer took the card. “So do I.”
He walked back to the tri-wheel and opened the door. He read the card. The old man had only removed twenty-five. He looked back at the building to find him, but the metal shades had already been pulled and the contents of the shack hidden from the advancing toxicloud.
Cramer had trouble getting into the lot. The attendant refused to open the armature gate to let him in and threatened to close the pressure door on his car if he didn’t move. Cramer proved his identification and managed to convince him to keep his job by letting him in.
The pressure door from the lot to the main building was already sealed. It took several minutes before someone came to the intercom and several more before the door was opened. The cloud had by then already reached the city; he had only a few minutes.
Things keep getting worse, he thought as he read the handwritten sign on the elevator door, with bold black letters shouting, “OUT OF ORDER”. He prepared himself for the murderous climb up the stairs.
By the time he had reached the seventh floor, he had entirely exhausted his oxpump. The exercise still left him gasping for air. He leaned against the banister railing and hoped he would not pass out and fall back down.
The door opened several flights up. A series of footsteps, then nothing. Silence roared for a moment, while his
breathing echoed everywhere. A voice. “Professor Cramer?”
Cramer looked up. “Stew?”
Doctor Stuart Phillips looked down through the railing. “Prof, am I glad to see you! Better get up here quick.”
Cramer shook his head. “I can’t make it. Not all the way up.”
“You don’t have to. Just up here to the tenth floor. The lift works from here up.”
Cramer grumbled, the trudged upward.
“Oxpump!” Cramer grew lightheaded.
Phillips fumbled through his jacket and removed the pump. Cramer grabbed it desperately. PSHHT.
“You’re out, huh?”
“Yeah.” Cramer breathed heavily. “Used the last down there on the stairs. Place I stopped to get gas didn’t have any.”
“We outta get Permapumps. Easier to deal with.”
His laughter echoed in the closed lift. “You won’t catch me with one on.”
Phillips wasn’t amused. “I thought about it.” He scratched his head and changed the subject. “Her Majesty is up their trying to run the show herself. Chuck and I are glad you finally showed up.”
“Well, Kathy will just have to hold her horses. No one does anything ’til I tell them to.”
The elevator chirped as they reached the top floor. Phillips and Cramer crossed the empty hall into the command center.
The cluttered room, littered with computer equipment and bounded on three walls by floor-to-ceiling windows, was barren of all life except two forms crouched over a keyboard and monitor. Katherine Monarch looked up, her eyes peering over the frames of her glasses and flashing an accusatory look at Cramer. She turned back to the screen. “So, you finally decided to join us, Professor Cramer.”
“I-534 was blocked up, or that’s what LINX told me. Had to come the long way.” He threw his coat on top of an unused computer. “Set up, Chuck?”
Charles Lance nodded absently. “Be ready in a few minutes. Would have been ready sooner if someone hadn’t shut off the generator cable.” He threw an accusatory glance at Monarch.
Phillips grinned, making him look about twelve or thirteen. “Yeah. Good thing they hadn’t shut off our power yet or we’d have lost all of our data.”
Monarch left Lance and the computer and walked past Phillips hastily. “Go shove a Permapump up your rear, Phillips.”
Phillips’ face fell. Cramer walked over to where Monarch rustled data tables. “I see you’re as warm and sociable as ever,” he said.
“Don’t push it, Luke.” She turned and shoved a stack of papers into his chest. “These, I believe, will be of interest to you.”
Cramer examined them. “Just old data files. What’s so impor—”
Monarch snatched them from his hand, slammed them on the table, and stabbed them with her index finger. “These were the ones you faxed me, remember? The ones that you reviewed for anomalies?”
Comprehension dawned on him. “Oh, the ones I laid in bed for two nights and slaved over.”
“That’s about the only thing you slave over in bed,” she whispered at him.
Cramer smiled evilly at her and whispered back. “I happen to do my best when I do things in bed.”
“Yeah, right. Prove it.”
“If you want me to.”
“You want it.”
“You’re still sick. You may be right, buy you’re still sick.” She reached up—being half-a-head shorter than he—and bit at his ear before heading back over to the open terminal.
A quiet alarm sounded. The power company was shutting down to prevent possible electrical discharge which could ignite the toxicloud. Phillips threw a switch to activate the building’s internal generator.
“All right, class,” Cramer began as they all surrounded Lance and the monitor. “We’re here to study whether or not these things are what we thought they were. The roof equipment ready?”
“Set,” affirmed Lance.
“Last us about twelve hours,” Phillips replied.
“Are you ready, Miss Monarch?”
“Ready, willing, and able, Mister Cramer.”
“Sure,” grinned Phillips, “but not with you.”
Monarch retaliated. “Go gag on some toxigas.”
Lance turned to Cramer. “They’re ready, sir.”
By this time, the toxicloud had so completely obscured the sun that it was as if nightfall had swallowed the
city. Buildings stood like mammoth headstones and obelisks, empty of electricity. The windows grew darker; the only light came from the monitor screen. Cramer reached over Lance’s shoulder and tapped a single key.
The rest was waiting.
No use wasting time, Cramer thought. He turned on a small light and pulled the ancient envelope from his coat pocket. The cleartape broke easily. He extracted a wad of hastily folded paper and opened it carefully. The ink was recent but dull, and the words wavered in and out of the weary, crumpled woodpulp.
“What’s this?” Monarch was standing over him as he sat at a desk, craning her neck over his shoulder. “A letter?”
“I think,” he replied. The musty odor wafted from it.
“Just musty. The paper’s old, but the handwriting is fresh.” He flipped it over. “What in the world—”
No wonder the paper was so old! Printed in even text were old calculus integrals, listed down the page in two columns. The number 586 lay alone in the yellowed sea of the bottom right corner, and the left side bore the jagged edge tearing.
“Looks like a page from an old textbook,” Monarch noted.
“Textbooks haven’t been used in schools for years,” he added in confirmation. “But why—”
She pulled it from his hands and flipped it over. “That’s why you’ve got to read it, dummy.”
He nodded his head ashamedly and began to scan the first line.
By the time Cramer had looked up, Lance had already leapt to his feet and his chair was skidding across the floor. His face erupted with anger and frustration, underscored with a deep, elevating fear. Phillips had jumped forward and was staring intently at the screen. Monarch’s hand tightened on Cramer’s shoulder.
Lance’s words struck like lead weights on concrete. “We’re losing power in the main electrodes!”
Power drain! Under any other circumstance, it may have been an inconvenience or nuisance. Here, it was
life-threatening. It might be a broken cable between the lab and the roof, but it might be an open ground, an unshielded line on the roof—exposed to the air and the toxicloud—sparking and spitting discharges.
“Diagnostic!” Cramer accidentally shoved Monarch into the desk behind them; she said nothing, her own fear numbing everything else. Four heads orbited the monitor as Lance’s fingers flew.
“Ground at sector thirty-eight!” That was above the roof.
“No way to be certain.”
All eyes fell on Cramer. The professor perspired.
“Stew, to the roof with me. Chuck, you’re glued to that thing. Kathy, call First City. Inform them of the situation.”
Cramer and Phillips were out of the door. Cramer shot oxygen into his wanting lungs. PSHHT.
“Chuck? You got me?”
TSHHT. “Yeah, got ya.” TSHHT.
“We’re in and secure. Pump and lift.”
TSHHT. “Roger.” TSHHT.
A small pump began to let in the outside air. The lift rose slowly. Phillips pulled at the suit. TSHHT. “Not very sturdy.” TSHHT.
Cramer looked at the shiny metallic fabric. “Not made to be.”
The door opened.
The scarlet nightfall smothered the hibernating city. The shear, mirror-like facades of sleeping towers reflected the desolate skies as the oppressive toxicloud shrouded the tops of some. Two shimmering figures blundered hastily across the top of one, stumbling toward an elevated platform of instruments.
Cramer climbed the ladder first, then reached down and took the toolkit from Phillips. He opened the latch carefully and withdrew an old conventional screwdriver. Portable electric screwdrivers were too risky; even the friction with this one could be dangerous. Cramer began to loosen the screws.
Phillips panted behind him. TSHHT. “Guess its not discharging, since we’re still up here.” TSHHT.
“Don’t get your hopes up. The seal may be keeping out the toxigas for now.”
One screw fell to the platform. CLINK.
TSHHT. “Careful, Luke. It’s a steady drain; must be a loose wire grounded to something.” TSHHT.
“Right, Chuck.” Another screw. CLINK.
TSHHT. “Wind’s starting to gust.” TSHHT. Phillips’ face screwed up behind the mask.
CLINK. “One more.”
Cramer suddenly felt a violent uprooting, then the weightlessness of free-fall. Phillips watched in horror as a blast of wind threw Cramer off the platform.
“Luke!” Phillips screamed. He stumbled to the edge. Nothing in sight.
A voice buzzed in his ear. TSHHT. “I’m all right. Get inside that thing. I’ll be up in a minute.” TSHHT.
Phillips nodded unconsciously and picked up the fallen screwdriver.
Cramer picked himself up. His head throbbed and he felt the bruise growing under the skin along his ribs. Undoubtedly, he had caught a support pole as he passed, instinctively, and this had broken part of the fall. He made his way back to the platform.
She began to pace behind Lance as he threw command upon command upon the keys. The commbox beside the computer was silent.
“Cramer, if you get yourself killed….”
“They’ll be all right,” Lance said, hoping to convince himself. He failed miserably.
The commbox was silent.
“We should be able getting something.”
“They may not be in yet. The scan still shows—”
“No, no! I mean on the ‘box.”
Lance hadn’t thought about it. The commbox was silent; it shouldn’t be. They should be picking up everything, even their breathing. It just squatted by the computer, deathly silent.
He tapped the ‘board and brought up a second window menu. Diagnostic, Commsys, Suitsys. The answer jumped up defiantly.
The chair rolled violently into a desk a couple of meters away as Lance grabbed the flashlight.
“What?!” Monarch’s face turned pale with anticipation and fear.
“Another break. Commsystem. Stay here. I’ll be back in a sec.” Lance vanished into the silent hall.
Her thumb ached slightly; her teeth gnawed at it automatically. The cloud clambered across the sky.
The commbox was silent.
TSHHT. “Wha’?” TSHHT.
“Where are you?”
TSHHT. “Coming. Be there in a minute.” TSHHT.
“You need to see this.”
TSHHT. “Tell me. Got a little ways to go.” TSHHT.
Silence spoke for Cramer.
The wire was there, as were the small score marks from an exploding cap. The mini-blast split the wire, and now it lay in direct contact with the outer shielding. The ground.
Something else caught his eye. A small plastic fragment perched below, just behind the airshield. The liquid-crystal display lay cracked, with two small buttons with words over them, one charred to obscurity, the other bearing the word “SET”.
TSHHT. “What?” TSHHT.
“A timer. The darn thing had a timer.”
TSHHT. “Stew. What did you say?” TSHHT.
“A little bomb. Meant to break the current.” He pursed his lips.
“Hey, Chuck! You catch that?”
“Phillips to Lance. Chuck, hear me?”
TSHHT. “Heard. Don’t do anything ’til I’m there.” TSHHT.
“A bloody cap did it,” he muttered. “Somebody sabotaged it.” He put his hand against the wall of the unit.
The wind gusted. Phillips staggered. He reached for the pole for support.
Somewhere, somehow, a part of the outer shielding, under Phillips’ weight, pressed against the outside panel. The current flowed through the metallic fibers of the suit. The distance between the tips of his fingers and the pole was just close enough to allow the spark.
The gust blew Cramer off of the ladder and into the lift. Liquid fire enveloped the rooftop. Phillips screamed,
although no one heard him.
The heat struck Cramer harder than the metal from his fall. He felt as if his entire body was baking, as if he had just been thrown into a giant’s oven. He kicked the door shut.
The temperature inside the lift rose sharply. Desperately, he reached above him and found the down button. The lift slid downward; the temperature slackened. The pump replaced fresh air for that from outside. Cramer lay pinned to the wall by exhaustion.
The word reverberated through his skull over and over, infinitely echoing, endlessly sounding. Three horrible syllables.
“What are you idiots doing up there?” she screamed.
The room exploded. Every window shattered in unison, bathing the room in glistening shards. She ducked, the desk before her taking the brunt of the blow. The fragments tinkled as they cascaded over the desktop and buried her.
The pain was there, but not nearly as great as she thought it would be. The desk slowed the glass’s velocity, and her blouse and skirt let them bounce off without much chance of laceration. The primary pain lay within her ears.
She brought herself up to her hands and knees, glass crunching with every move. Some bit into her palms while more lodged within her hosiery and began to scrape at her knees. She stood, with difficulty, and quickly removed the hosiery, slicing thin layers of epidermis as it left her legs.
Her ears screamed painfully. Now her lungs twinged as well; toxigas mingled with the inside atmosphere and made its way into her lungs. She fumbled her way to an emergency oxmask panel near the door and rejoiced when the cool fluid poured into her mouth and nose. Skin irritation would follow with extended exposure, but at least now she was safe from poisoning.
She collapsed against the wall, sliding down it wearily, as she watched the dancing fingers of flame diminish. The ignited cloud must have been separated from the primary cloud by the wind gusts; not an uncommon occurrence, but one that rarely mattered in an atmosfire. The ignited cloud must have drifted just far enough below the principle cloud to prevent ignition.
The door swung open beside her and Cramer’s familiar face, blurred by the charred face plate of the suit, surveyed the room in horror. She shifted her weight slightly, crunching glass beneath her, and captured his attention.
“Kathy!” His voice was muffled by the suit, but it could not stifle the combined relief and horror that gripped him. He bent down and pulled Monarch carefully and slowly from the floor, slowly steering her from the room into the less-contaminated hallway. There, they stopped.
“Are you all right?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard through the suit.
Monarch nodded; the oxmask didn’t allow for much communication. Only a limited amount of oh-two was provided, and her near hyperventilation was depleting it quicker than expected.
“How long did you breathe that stuff?”
She shook her head. Not long.
He looked her over, noting the lacerations. “We’re gonna take care of those cuts.” He pulled at her shoulders to help her to the suit locker. There, they would clean the wounds and get her her own suit.
Monarch stood firm, shaking her head.
“Come on! We don’t have a lot of—”
She shook her head frantically. She mouthed a single word, which he read through the clear mouthpiece.
“Where is he?”
She pointed down the hall, where he had to have gone.
“Go to the suit locker. Clean those cuts and get a suit on. Then gather as many extra tanks as you can find. Put them in a carrying pack. I’ll be back to get you.” Then he left her, making his way toward the main computer core.
Someone wanted to blow up the whole freaking tricity!
Dizzying swirls of thought raced through his skull with microsecond residence. He thought of everything and nothing at once, running, panting, thinking. Sabotage! Atomsfire! Murder! Where does it end?
Suddenly, he stumbled, then fell. He had tripped. He turned to see what it was he tripped over, and met the
staring, lifeless eyes peering out of Lance’s bloodied skull.
The next moments were blurs, slurred together without true, significant connections. Jump back in horror. Pool of blood. Hole in his back. Noise in computer room. Flash of movement. Man in pressure suit. Gun in hand. KRAPOW! Faceplate strikes floor, bullet strikes wall. RUN!
Every impulse in his body screamed in horrific, resounding unison. RUN! Lack of ox floated his brain in a choppy sea. RUN! Never had he outright ran before; never had his life depended so heavily. RUN!
Monarch was in the suit and struggling with a satchel of ox tanks when he rounded the corner. No breath for words. He shoved her forward, toward the stairwell.
TSHHT. “What is it? What’s wrong?” TSHHT.
He did not answer. He threw open the sealed doors, threw the tanks down two flights and shoved her down. “GO!” he screamed.
TSHHT. “What about you?” TSHHT.
“I’ll be there in a minute! Just run and don’t turn back!”
She limped down in pursuit of the satchel.
Suddenly, one singular thought struck his mind. He could not leave without it; no, not without it. He became obsessed with the thought of it, as if his continued existence depended upon it. He flew back to the lab room, the crunching of shattered glass yielding to his weight with every step. In a murderous frenzy, he shoved shards in every direction. It had to be on this desk!
Suddenly, a gust of wind surged through the room, and a flicker of movement caught him. A corner of a yellowed page hopped up and down under a pile of glass; through them, he could read the words, “… with swiftest urgency I
write these words to you…”
With great force, he tore the paper from under the debris and bolted for the door. Adrenaline had been surging through his veins; now, its release had subsided, and exhaustion dug deeper within him. He had no time to rest. Must get out.
An explosion shattered the empty silence. He caught the muzzle-flash just as he entered the stairwell. Shattered glass screamed down the hall.
Cramer stumbled, fell. He rolled down the flights of stairs, falling, pounding on step after step, his mind swirling. No time to stop the fall and return to his feet. This was quicker. More painful, but quicker. He struck a landing, shoved with his feet, hands, whatever was nearest to the wall, and threw himself down another
flight. Swirling insanity, spinning madly, raving voices within his head screaming in utter blaring unison:
He struck the landing just as Monarch turned to investigate the noise. He twisted an agonized face, bloodied nose and lip oozing life from a sallow pallet of agony, eyes sharply cutting through a cracked faceplate, voice
screaming in hoarse terror over the communit:
She did not stop. Seconds later she was out of sight, and a few moments after that the door at the bottom could be heard opening and closing.
Cramer drug himself up upon the railing, staggering, limping, then diving down the flight as another bullet launched, striking the landing directly below him. He stumbled to his feet again, then hobbled down the last flights and entered the lobby as the clomping of boots drew closer and louder from above.
He was across the lobby in seconds, despite injuries and breathlessness. He opened the pressure doors with difficulty—they were already unlocked, so Monarch had gotten through—and staggered into the parking area just as she drove his tri-wheel around. They blasted out of the parking bay and onto the streets, just as their pursuant exited the building.
They continued in silence, driving through the red haze, barely able to see where they were going, until Cramer coughed, “Don’t take I-534.”
“But the entrance is just—”
“Don’t take the interstate! Take the other route.” He cringed. A slight hissing had been in his ears since he left the stairwell; there was a leak in the suit. He wasn’t sure how long he had, no way to tell how fast the oh-two was leaving and the toxigas was coming in.
Monarch gripped the wheel tightly, terror riding her features. “Should we be doing this?” she asked, close to panic. “Driving in a toxicloud, I mean.”
When she saw his eyes, they punctuated his sentence with undisputable finality. “Do we have a choice?”
The tri-wheel’s self-contained combustion unit prohibited the combustion of fuel in the actual air itself; therefore, it should be entirely safe to drive, even during a toxicloud attack. But it was unwise to take such chances. Leaks were common, toxicloud ignition possible. They drove on.
After several kilometers, Monarch broke the silence, nearly on the edge of tears. “Why?”
Cramer was groggy; he must have been bleeding internally. He slipped out of his near-unconsciousness. “What—?”
“Why did they do that?” A tear streamed down one cheek. “Why did they kill them? Stuart and Charles. They didn’t do anything. None of us did. Why did they do it?”
“That little stunt on the top of the building… could have killed everybody, the whole city.”
She dared not take her eyes from the road, but she wanted to look into his eyes desperately. “What do you mean?”
“Cloud… covered whole tri-city… area. Would’ve blown whole bloomin’ area up. Did it on purpose.”
“But why?” Her eyes watered painfully, nearly obscuring her vision. “Why? Why?”
“Maybe… we were gettin’ too close.”
“Too close? Too close to what?”
He squinted, trying to keep his mind from going fuzzy. “Big companies. They’re responsible, I think. They… polluted, gov’nment tried to regulate, couldn’t. Analysis could’ve proved it.”
“Our analysis of the cloud’s content could have proved their guilt?”
“Keep th’… people in th’ dark, best way. Don’t lettem know. Get off… scott free. Meanwhile, they keep… pollutin’, more clouds keep comin’, people keep dyin’.”
She turned quickly to glance at him. “You need medical help.”
“No time. Drive.” He squinted again, trying to pierce the darkness with little success. “Where—”
The tri-wheel came to an abrupt stop. The tiny building buckled, and Cramer hit the dash from the impact. “We hit something,” she said.
“Really?” he said, his sarcasm drawing some life back into him.
“Well, we’re not going anywhere, anyway,” she said, sniffing to clear up earlier tears. “We’re out of oh-two.”
They clambered out, surveying the vehicle and building. “I guess we could hide here for a while,” she said, “at least ’til the cloud dissipates.”
“I’ve been here,” Cramer realized. “It’s the old man’s gas station.”
It took several tries to get the door to open, and when it gave way, they entered cautiously. The toxigas had penetrated the outer seals and contaminated the air within. Littered with odd curious and strange little objects, the small building was everything the old man ever had, for things were arranged as if it were lived in. Set in one corner, beneath a wall plastered with travel brochures of places neither of them had heard of, was a tiny bed, sheetless and covered with a single blanket, which covered the lifeless form Old Jake.
Monarch looked at him momentarily. “He died in his sleep,” she said. “He didn’t feel a thing.”
Cramer stood over the body, swaying slightly. “I told you… I’d come back.”
Monarch set him into a chair. “You shouldn’t be standing. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and I can’t stop it without removing your suit.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he slurred. “Suit’s leakin’. Won’t be long anyway.” He drew the letter from his pocket and picked up a small flashlight from the counter. “I’ve gotta read this. Waited too… long. Burnin’ up ’til I… read.” He flipped on the switch.
Dear Professor Cramer,
It is with swiftest urgency I write these words to you. Your governmental studies, I am sure, are closing vitally near to solving the riddle that has plagued our world since the first declaration that these horrid toxiclouds exist. However, I write to you to an effort to aid your research. I fear that, perhaps, the Businesses will interfere, as they have in every such study for the last fifteen years, and if such interference occurs, you will never come close in achieving the goal you’ve so earnestly sought.
Therefore, I must admit that I have, indeed, solved this ghastly riddle. I know the components of the gas, as well as a potential solution. I have included them within this letter—
At that moment, the flashlight died.
Cramer screamed in horror. “The answer!” He leapt to his feet, throwing the dead light through the one unshielded window, shattering the glass. “The answer! I can’t read the answer!”
Monarch, who had been watching the empty darkness outside, was at first startled, then shocked when the glass
broke. “What do you mean?”
“The answer!” he cried. “It’s here, in our hands, and the dark cloud forbids us to read it!” He threw things wildly about in chaos. “We must find another light! We need another light!”
“We don’t have one!” she screamed back. “Luke, please sit down!”
In sudden mania, obsession gripped him. The answer was within his grasp. He shoved Monarch away from him, her head striking the wall, knocking her unconscious. “The answer! The answer!” He shattered countless ceramic statues, picture frames with ragged, worn photos of long-dead family and friends. He tore a drawer from beneath the counter, spilling its contents upon the floor. He ran his hands through the clutter, panting with course throat, scratched by building toxigas in his suit, “It must be here. It must be here. I must find something. I MUST find—”
He hands found a small, cardboard package. Frantically, he tore it open, ripped out one of its contents, and lifted the letter. “Now, the answer!”
He lit the match.
I’m not sure what brought this idea back to my mind recently, but as soon as it resurfaced, I instantly thought, “Now there’s an idea for the Recycle Bin!” It’s a sequel to a popular 1980s science-fiction film; check. Therefore there’s no way I can legally do anything with it; check. It repeatedly resurfaces in my imagination and effectively cannot be otherwise purged; check. Yep, sounds like Recycle Bin fodder for sure.
The standard Recycle Bin reminder: This is a rough plot only, with minimal characterization and plenty of plot holes. All new character names are placeholders and would likely change. And yes, I’m aware there are rumors of a sequel already in the works, supposedly coming out in 2010; this idea far predates that news, and previous Recycle Bin entries should prove that a little detail like that is insufficient to stop me.
A sequel to 1984’s The Last Starfighter, five Earth children are chosen to defend the galaxy—and Earth—from an advancing alien horde, recruited by a video game that mimics the real-life space ships they are chosen to fly.
Matt and Ben are the best of friends. They do almost everything together, meaning they are constantly at one house or the other, doing just about everything ten-year-old boys tend to do… especially playing video games. Their favorite game is Starfighter Squadron, an update to a classic 20-year-old game they are far too young to remember. What they love most about the game, however, is its cooperative game play. While it has a single player mode, it is best played with minimum of two players, and multi-player matches should have even pairs. One player is the “Gunstar” pilot, flying and navigating the ship, while the other is the “Starfighter”, manning the complex but powerful weapon systems. Matt and Ben log many hours in the game, with Matt playing the Starfighter and Ben the pilot. Together, they have saved the galaxy multiple times and they are well known on all the Starfighter forums for their incredibly high scores. While they have their skeptics, many of their online fans believe they’ll be the first to achieve the rumored ultimate high score.
Enter their relatives: Matt’s older brother, Seth, is concerned about all the usual things high school seniors are worried about: college applications, graduation headaches, and his perpetual inability to find a date for the prom. He reluctantly agrees to be Matt’s pilot in the game when Ben isn’t around and, much to his chagrin, he’s actually gotten fair good at it. On the other side of the fence, Ben is the middle child between two girls: Allison is his older teenage sister, who is far more concerned with her grades than with boys, while little Abby is the sweet little youngest who can do no wrong when any adult is watching, but who is quite the prankster when it’s just the three of them. Abby loves Starfighter just as much as Ben does, even though she’s technically not allowed to play, but she’s pretty good at the single-player modes and constantly begs Ben to fly for her while she plays as a Starfighter. To her dismay, it’s Allison that Ben pesters to play the game since their little sister isn’t supposed to play. Allison despises the game, but when she can no longer ignore his repeated pleading and bribes, she gives in and discovers that she’s pretty good at the Starfighter role herself.
With the exception of Matt and Ben, however, there are clashes between the two families. To Abby, Matt is the second older brother she wishes she never had. Together, Matt and Ben are a dynamic duo that she can’t stand, and it takes all her seven-year-old wits to hold her own. As for Seth and Allison, they can’t stand each other. It’s one of those awkward teenage loathings driven by clashing interests, clique disconnects, and a hint of raging hormones. It’s painfully apparent to just about everyone else that there’s an undercurrent of attraction present, but everything else about the two screams about different worlds. This is compounded, of course, by the fact that they are constantly thrust together by Matt & Ben’s friendship, and their respective parents’ subtle nudges don’t help things either.
Then, one fateful evening, Matt and Ben decide that the stars are appropriately aligned to ensure their ultimate prize: to obtain the ultimate high score in Starfighter. But to achieve this, they must form a squadron with a minimum of three ships. Unable to find anyone to play online, they beg Seth and Allison to set aside their differences and man the second ship. Out of desperation, they reluctantly let Abby man the guns of the third, with a computer pilot. To everyone’s surprise, they actually do beat the game and garner the game’s highest rank. As Matt and Ben cheer, they tell their older siblings that their names will be forever remembered in gaming history. “Great,” mutters Allison. “So much for any hope of a social life.”
Their achievement does not go unnoticed of course… but from a difference source than expected. While the exact details of this plot point are still fuzzy, the kids eventually run into a man named Centauri who claims to represent the game’s developer. He’s come to congratulate the team who finally beat the game. He manages to whisk them away in his car, which to their surprise takes off into the sky.
At this point, I must sheepishly admit that the sequel begins to follow the original a bit too closely. The game (this time released to consoles rather than arcades) is a recruiting mechanism used by Centauri to find potential future Starfighters. The kids are taken to New Rylos where they are to enlisted to defend the Frontier from Xur and his new allies, the Klith’zriel. (The Ko-Dan suffered a great deal for their invasion and have since become nearly extinct.) The Klith’zriel are an insectoid race who breed by inserting their larvae into the dead bodies of their enemies, and they are itching to expand their territory. Xur is willing to hand over the Star League to them in revenge for the disgrace handed to him by the failed Ko-Dan invasion and subsequent losses to the Starfighters. The kids are to join a whole new corp of Starfighters to defend the Frontier, which is still being rebuilt, from this oncoming threat.
Matt and Ben think the entire thing is the most exciting thing ever; Seth and Allison deny this is even happening; Abby thinks all the aliens are “funny looking”. The older siblings pull rank, however, and demand that Centauri return them to Earth, to which he reluctantly agrees. As the group prepares to leave, news arrives that the Klith’zriel have launched their attack on the Frontier. The Starfighters are mobilized and the kids watch as the massive Gunstar fleet takes off. At the front of the Gunstar wing is commander Alex Rogan, the original “last Starfighter”, the most celebrated Starfighter to ever live. Centauri explains to the kids that Alex was recruited in exactly the same manner they were, and that Alex was disappointed to hear they weren’t going to take up the offer. Just as they are about to leave, New Rylos enters a lock down and no one is permitted to leave, stranding the kids in space.
Again, the plot gets a bit fuzzy here, but somewhere, somehow, the kids are convinced to eventually don the Starfighter uniforms and take to the stars. It could be a recap about Alex’s heroic battle against the Ko-Dan, or telling them about how Earth is in just as much peril as any other planet, or something else. (I hate admitting this plot holes, but as there’s little motivation to plug them, there’s not much else I can do.) At any rate, the kids eventually take off in their own little Starfighter squadron (Sounds like a good title for the movie, huh?) using the pairings with which they beat the game. Abby is given Grog, an alien of the same race as Grig in the original film, as a pilot and as the group’s guide. Matt and Ben are raring to go, while Allison and Seth loath the prospect of being trapped in a cramped cockpit together. The three ships take off to join the rest of the fleet with plenty of humorous moments at they adjust to the new controls and their alien ally.
As they near the Frontier, they discover that the barrier has already been breached. Nearby is a vast debris field. Upon closer inspection, they discover that the debris are the remains of the Gunstar fleet. Among the debris is a wing bearing the insignia of Gunstar One, Alex Rogan’s ship. A sobering realization begins to set in: the Gunstar fleet has been demolished, and now their three ships are all that remain to stop the Klith’zriel from reaching New Rylos… and Earth.
The kids eventually have a few skirmishes with isolated Klith’zriel fighters, enough to let them test their skills in real combat. One battle has them in over their heads. They are outnumbered and outgunned, with little hope of survival. Suddenly, another ship appears on their radar. It’s another Gunstar, covered in battle scars and missing one wing. It’s Gunstar One! With Alex Rogan’s help, the kids win the battle.
Although I’m not sure hope practical it would be, from both a space combat and a story telling standpoint, I envision the small squadron setting down somewhere to make quick repairs. While Grog and Grig (mentioned but never seen) fix the Gunstars, the kids are given a few moments with Alex. He praises all of them for their efforts. I imagine him having a father-son or mentor-tutor type discussion with Seth about being a leader, a role Seth has been thrust into being the oldest. There’s also bound to be some angst between the two teens; their teamwork in the previous battles has gotten them past their general distaste with each other and the latent attraction has begun to take precedence. Finally, Alex warns them all that they are about to face impossible odds. They have four battered Gunstars against an armada of Klith’zriel fighters and one massive mother ship. He reminds them that one man (or woman) can make a difference, trying to help them draw inspiration from when it was just him against the Ko-Dan. They blast off, uncertain of their destiny.
Well, we can’t just leave it at that, can we? I don’t have any specific plans for the final battle, but it’s bound to have a happy ending. (It’s a movie, after all.) The Klith’zriel are confronted and defeated, Xur escapes once again, and Earth and the Star League are saved. Seth and Allison finally hook up… and Seth finally has a date for the prom. Alex and Centauri offer for them to remain as Starfighters but they decline, stating that maybe they can be “reservists” should the Star League need them to save their behinds again. Matt, Ben, and Abby all enthusiastically agree to sign up, but Seth and Allison insist that they have to go back to Earth and finish school first. Then, once they’re old enough to make their own decision, they can decide whether to become Starfighters full time. The kids are returned to Earth, each given communicators with which they can call or be called upon by the Star League if their services are needed again. Note that this is the perfect opportunity to launch a Starfighter Squadron television series, drawing from the proven kids-as-super-heroes formula as seen in the likes of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with the kids living double lives as ordinary kids by day, space-faring fighter pilots by night. (In today’s Hollywood, where nothing is original and every property must be milked for every possible penny, it’s bound to happen.)
This edition of the Recycle Bin touches one of my all-time favorite science fiction series: Doctor Who. Only Star Wars could compete with the Doctor for my prepubescent affections, and both equally influenced me as an imaginative youngster with the potential to become a future writer. (Notice I never said I was a good writer.) Like most “Yanks” across the Pond, I was forced to acquire my “Whovian” fix piecemeal as my local PBS station lazily acquired several-year-old copies of the show shipped over from the BBC. While Peter Davison would have been most accurately my contemporary Doctor, it was Tom Baker who I saw the most, followed close behind by Davison and Jon Pertwee.
I’ve had tons of Doctor Who ideas over the years, starting with little stick-figure comics similar to the Star Wars ones I mentioned earlier. I will only mention the tentative title “Jeffrey Who: Time Lord” in passing and never bring it up again. Before I learned of Russell T Davies’ revival of the series in 2005, I too was working on my own relaunch; not that the BBC was ever going to hire me to do it, of course, but the other Recycle Bin entries should prove that such a minor detail would never stop me. My revival was to be a complete reboot of the series, starting back with the pilot “An Unearthly Child” and reworking it from there, trying to remain as faithful as possible to the original while updating it for newer audiences. This post, however, is not a chronicle of that idea; once I saw Davies’ revival, I pretty much abandoned that idea completely to build on his work.
No, this post is for an entire season (or “series” in UK-speak) of the new series, written specifically for David Tennant’s Doctor and occurring sometime after the fourth season/series of the show (i.e. the Donna Noble/Catherine Tate ones). Yes, I’m well aware that Matt Smith has already been tapped as the new Doctor, slated to take the reins in 2010. If the BBC isn’t going to hire me to put my version of the show on the air, I can cast whoever I darn well please, can’t I? 😉
As with all Recycle Bin entries, this one is mostly a rough synopsis and covers mainly plot details. It is likely to be full of a plethora of plot holes and glossed-over summaries. However, I tried to remain as faithful as possible to the spirit of Davies & company’s work. Like the seasons/series before it, the entire seasons/series comprises of one big interconnected story, with clues woven into every story leading to a major climax at the end. It also builds heavily on episodes of the “classic” series, specifically certain events taken from Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. (Additional notes will be included as we go.)
The first episode of the season/series begins with two young women being chased by a pack of gruesome monsters in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. They reach a dead end and are eventually forced to stand their ground. The one in the lead takes a defensive martial arts stance while the other appears to be casting a spell. The monsters attack, with the first girl fending off the beasts hand-to-hand while the second girl continues to chant. Ultimately, the first girl kicks the head off of one of the creatures and a voice off-screen bellows, “CUT!” A bell rings and all action stops. We discover that this isn’t a warehouse but a studio set, in the middle of filming. The director begins berating the actress with the hyperactive foot that her overzealous action will take hours for wardrobe to fix. Suddenly, there’s a scream from behind them. A stagehand stands beside the headless “monster’s” body only to discover that there’s no actor inside the “suit”. It really is a monster, and now it’s a monster without a head.
Cue the TARDIS, which materializes somewhere within the same studio’s back lot. After several amusing moments of the Doctor exploring his way through the studio (including being told he’s due in make-up for his next scene), he eventually stumbles upon the director, writer, and two actresses from the previous scene. The Doctor immediately recognizes the creature laid out on the table and his insatiable curiosity takes over. After the prerequisite questions about who he really is, the Doctor examines the creature’s decapitated body with the lead actress hovering nearby. They strike up a sideways conversation as they both are fascinated by the body. Eventually introductions take place, and the actress identifies herself as Dylan. She’s actually shocked when the Doctor has no clue who she is, seeing that she’s the star of one of the hottest new shows on television. (“I hear the BBC’s been rerunning the first season already.”) The Doctor identifies the creature as a [insert sci-fi funky alien name here], a sort of worker drone for a hive-like alien species indigenous to a planet far from Earth.
The middle part of the first story is a bit vague but involves more of the drones attacking throughout the studio. There is no clue given as to how the creatures managed to reach Earth, since the Doctor states they have no technology or civilization and are thus incapable of star travel. The climax results in discovering the “queen”, a massive slug-like creature with a giant maul the proceeds to chase the Doctor and Dylan throughout the studio. The Doctor determines that the safest way to save the studio workers is to lure the queen into the TARDIS, travel to the creature’s home planet, and let it loose there. (Killing it is not an option, since a nuclear warhead only has a slight chance of making it “a bit upset”.) There is a thrilling chase throughout the interior of the TARDIS (which has been largely ignored thus far in the series revival) while the TARDIS dematerializes and re-materializes. The TARDIS lands at the edge of massive cliff and the Doctor and Dylan leap out the door, catching the floor and dangling over the cliff as the creature bounds over them and plummets to the rocky ground below. When Dylan asks if the creature is dead, the Doctor replies that such a fall would only give it a mild headache and their rapid departure might be a smart idea.
Thus begins the usual initial companion reaction to the revelation of who the Doctor is. Well, somewhat usual: when the Doctor begins his “yes, I know, it’s bigger on the inside” speech, Dylan interrupts and provides a very plausible explanation full of inter-dimensional jargon. When the Doctor’s jaw drops, she simply replies, “Hello? I work on a sci-fi show. Episode 26, ‘Portal to Nowhere’.” She reasons out that the Doctor is a member of an ancient time-and-space traveling race and that the TARDIS is his ship. When the Doctor attempts to return her to Earth, she announces to her director that it’s time for the “Acreol invasion scenario” and bounds her way into the TARDIS, refusing to leave. When the Doctor asks about the “invasion scenario”, she explains that it’s a story arc written into the show to allow them to film without her in case she gets injured, pregnant, or otherwise needs an extended vacation. And that’s exactly what she plans to do.
Thus, the Doctor and Dylan begin a series of misadventures typical for the show. Unfortunately, most of this middle sequence is largely unscripted. A few critical things become apparent, however. First of all, Dylan reveals that the reason she’s always so gung-ho and devil-may-care is that she’s always wanted to be a hero, and not just play on on TV. She reckons that the Doctor is just the type of tutor she needs, and he more than lives up to her expectations. Of course, she eventually learns enough about his past to hear about him being the last of the Time Lords, of the Great Time War, and how much he’s lost, yet he continues to fight to save people who will never know they were in danger. This drives her to become more like him, and by the end of the season/series she shows many of these traits herself, as well as being a little more cautious.
As they travel, they discover more and more instances of monsters, people, and things being out of place and out of time, seemingly with no natural means of travel there. It’s as if something were scooping random items from one time and place and dropping them somewhere else, like a robotic dragon in feudal Japan. The further they travel, the more bizarre the misplacements become.
At the same time, the TARDIS seems to repeatedly return to one place: the planet of the “queen” creature from the first episode. Several episodes begin with the Doctor promising to land in one location, only for the TARDIS to land just over a hill from the last time it landed on the planet. Even when the Doctor promises to take Dylan to modern Tokyo, they land in the city’s feudal ancestral town Edo in the 1590s. The Doctor realizes that this is the same time in which they landed before on the “queen’s” planet. He eventually pieces things together: the TARDIS is trying to tell him something, that it has discovered something on that planet at that time that it wants him to see.
They eventually return and, after waiting for their other selves to leave (so they won’t cross their own time lines), being to explore the surface. They eventually discover an ornate column, an oddity for a planet with no civilization or technology. Upon closer examination, the Doctor becomes shocked. It’s not what it appears; it’s another TARDIS, its chameleon circuit stuck on its last location. As they enter inside, they discover it is weak and running on its depleted batteries, with all of its remaining power funneling to some unknown subsystem deep within the infrastructure. Before they can leave the control room, however, they hear the familiar cry of the “queen” from the first episode. The door was ajar before they entered, and the Doctor suspects that the “queen” may be loose inside with them.
As they continue, they eventually find the TARDIS’ Zero Room. The Doctor explains that the Zero Room is the point within the TARDIS where the outside influences of the universe are essentially nullified, making it the perfect place for a Time Lord to recuperate after regeneration. To their surprise, they discover a regeneration capsule, a device designed to help a Time Lord recover from a failed regeneration. The device, however, has been heavily altered, feeding back upon itself in an endless loop. This is where all the power of the TARDIS is going and it is impossible to tell exactly how long the device has been in operation. Knowing that the Doctor believes himself to be the last Time Lord, Dylan asks if it’s possible that another Time Lord could be in there. Reeling from the possibilities, the Doctor admits that if someone were in the capsule, they would be in a state of “suspended regeneration” and he would never be able to detect them.
There discussion is cut short of the cry of the “queen” creature. The Doctor tricks Dylan into staying in the Zero Room, then seals her in with his sonic screwdriver while he attempts to lure the creature away. Meanwhile, as Dylan pounds on the door, the regeneration chamber opens. When Dylan backs away from the door and bumps into the device, a hand lands on her shoulder and startles her. A naked woman tumbles out on top of her, looks her in the eye and asks drunkenly, “Do I know you?” She then passes out, landing in Dylan’s lap.
The Doctor eventually returns to find Dylan struggling to lift the woman back onto the chamber platform. After she chastises him for gawking, he helps lift the woman to the platform. When she comes to, there is a moment or two of awkward glances and “Do I know you?”/”I don’t know, do I know you?” before the woman’s face beams with recognition. She states his name, and after a minute his own eyes light up. “Romana!” he shouts. After the two laugh and babble at near light speed, Dylan coughs noisily, resulting in the necessary introductions.
The two Time Lords fill in the missing details of each others’ lives. Romana explains that at the end of the Time War, her TARDIS was damaged and crashed on this world. Near death, she knew she would not fully survive regeneration and so she hacked the regeneration chamber to run in an endless cycle, suspending her regeneration between forms in hopes that another survivor would find her. Without the Eye of Harmony, the Time Lords’ power source supposedly destroyed when Gallifrey was destroyed, her TARDIS slowly began to die, giving almost all of its power to save her. The Doctor explains about how both Gallifrey and the Daleks were destroyed and how he believed himself the only survivor. At one point, Dylan becomes jealous of their self-absorbed reunion and quips that “at least the Time Lords as a race will now survive, since you now have a breeding pair” before storming off. There is an awkward moment where the Doctor and Romana realize the implications of the statement.
However, two problems still face our heroes. First of all, the “queen” still roams Romana’s TARDIS, hunting the trio. Secondly, the Doctor realizes that Romana’s brilliant self-rescue has come with a price: while the “suspended regeneration” was able to keep her in stasis all this time, now her body can no longer stop, burning through her regenerations at an alarming rate. He projects that she will die shortly, perhaps within hours or minutes, if she doesn’t re-enter the machine. The climax ultimately results in both a show-down with the “queen” creature and a race to return Romana to the stasis chamber, where the Doctor fears she’ll be trapped for eternity… or at least until her TARDIS’ batteries die.
Suddenly, the Doctor leaps to his feet. “Of course!” he shouts. “Why didn’t I think of it before!” He and Dylan race back to his TARDIS, which he dematerializes and re-materializes around Romana’s. After snaking a few power cords between the two ships to let Romana’s draw power from his, the Doctor announces that he knows of one last chance. He sets course for Karn, a planet Dylan has never heard of.
Upon reaching Karn, Dylan follows the Doctor as he races across the barren rocky ground. She notices a beautiful nebula lighting up the entire sky. When she mentions it, she notes that the Doctor refuses to look at it. He explains that the nebula is all that’s left of Gallifrey, his home planet, as Gallifrey and Karn share the same star system. At the heart of the nebula is a temporal storm that will rage for eternity, a hole in the fabric of space and time that can never be healed. Dylan can see that coming here has inflicted great pain on the Doctor and she remains quiet as they resume their search. As they continue their race across the planet’s surface, Dylan stumbles upon the derelict casing of a dead Dalek. The Doctor announces that there are potentially thousands, if not millions, of such metallic corpses littered across the planet, relics of the War. He assures her that they would have been dead before landing, and while Dalekanium lasts virtually forever, the Kaled mutant inside has long since rotted away.
Ultimately, they arrive at their supposed destination: a ruined temple. The Doctor looks crestfallen as he opens a door in the wall to reveal an empty recess. He explains that the temple once belonged to the Sisterhood of the Flame, a society of Karnanite native women who attended to the Sacred Eternal Flame and its byproduct, the Elixir of Life. The Sisters once shared the Elixir with the Time Lords; the Sisters used it to achieve virtual immortality, while the Time Lords used it as an emergency medicine. The Doctor believes that the Elixir may have been able to restore Romana, but as the Eternal Flame has burned out, the complex chemical reactions it induced to produce the Elixir would not be easy to reproduce, and with a sample the Doctor would be unable to synthesize it artificially.
Suddenly, they are surrounded by… Daleks! The Doctor utters a few curses under his breath (something about being “harder to kill than cockroaches”) before they are ordered to be taken away. But the Doctor can tell something isn’t right. These Daleks are even more mechanical than usual, with absolutely no inflection in their digitized voices. He whispers an explanation to Dylan: these aren’t real Daleks. Someone has turned them into robots, replacing the deceased Kaled mutants with computers which are likely centrally controlled. The Doctor attempts to probe the “Daleks” as they walk, asking them questions. The “Daleks” only reply that they must answer to “the Master”; Dylan notes that the Doctor bristles at the mention of the name and he states “That’s impossible.”
Eventually they reach a control room. From the shadows, a voice questions their appearance. The “Daleks” respond that their scans identify them as “Female, human. Origin of species: Earth. Male, Time Lord. Origin of species: Gallifrey.” At this, the man from the shadows stops what he’s doing and takes notice. He demands that the Doctor identify himself. Seeing little point in hiding things now, the Doctor does so. The man from the shadows at first does not recognize the name, but eventually takes devilish delight upon recognition. When he finally steps into the light, he marches right up to the Doctor and looks him eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose. There is a feverish, mad glint in his eyes and his wild, untamed hair frames his chiseled, gaunt face like a electrified mane. “What’s the matter, Doctor?” he growls. “Don’t you recognize me? Last time we met, I was trying to get a head of you. Or can’t your feeble mind conceive of my resurrection? Can’t wrap your brain around this little mystery?” He begins to dance around madly, cackling and laughing, while sober recognition finally dawns on the Doctor’s face. He says one quiet word: “Morbius.”
Morbius explains himself: After the Sisterhood forced him to fall from the cliff, his manufactured miss-matched body lay broken at its base. However, despite the fall and all the damage inflicted by his conflict with the Doctor, his brain somehow survived long enough to be discovered a short while later by one of the Sisters exploring the hills. He retained just enough power and cognitive thought to overpower her and force her to bring him to their temple, where he stole the Elixir of Life and poured it onto his dying brain. The regeneration was painful and laborious, but ultimately he was completely physically restored. Now returned to his full Time Lord faculties, he outwitted and defeated the Sisterhood, killing them all but their leader, Ohica, whom he enslaved and forced to create large quantities of the Elixir for his on purposes.
Somehow (remember, this is a rough outline), the Doctor manages to acquire a bottle of the Elixir and engineers Dylan’s escape, while he stays behind the confront Morbius. He instructs her to give Romana the Elixir and then for the two of them to escape as far away as possible. Morbius can’t be allowed to get his hands on a TARDIS at all costs. Dylan does the first part with ease and fills Romana in on the situation. As a well-read student, Romana is well acquainted with Morbius’ past and likely heard all about the Doctor’s encounter with him during their travels together. The two women settle enough of their differences (Did I fail to mention they didn’t like each other?) to agree that they must work together to save the Doctor.
Somewhere in here, we learn about the mysterious misplaced creatures and items we’ve seen throughout the season/series. Morbius has managed to acquire/build a time scoop (see “The Five Doctors”) and is using it to build himself a new army of followers. Combined with the repaired, converted Dalek drones left over from the War, he will use this army to conquer and subjugate the known universe. And now that the Time Lords and Daleks are out of the way, only one force stands in his way: the Doctor. (The Doctor lies to Morbius and tells him they are the last two Time Lords in existence, “neglecting” to mention Romana.) In part as a bid to claim additional resources for his war and in part as a form of retribution against the Doctor, Morbius targets Earth as his first victim, unleashing his motley army upon the planet.
Somewhere in here (man, I hate rough outlines), the Doctor, Romana, and Dylan are reunited. Something occurs to incapacitate the Doctor; my original idea was an injury not severe enough to trigger regeneration but serious enough to stop him from saving the day himself, such as a broken leg. I have since waffled back and forth on this, at times favoring having the Doctor otherwise restricted temporarily but not injured, such as being retrained, trapped, or confined in some way that’s not impossible to escape but which would be difficult and time consuming. At any rate, the Doctor is somehow prevented from directly confronting Morbius. Dylan takes this as her opportunity to repay the Doctor for all he has done for her. “You’ve shown me what it means to be a true hero,” she tells him. “Now it’s time for me to return the favor.” Knowing full well that she will likely die, she rushes off to confront Morbius, leaving the Doctor incapacitated with Romana at his side. As the Doctor shouts after Dylan, Romana stands up and begins to walk away herself. She tells the Doctor that there’s no way Dylan can stop Morbius on her own and, besides, someone has to dismantle the time scoop and reverse the invasion. This is an equally suicidal task, seeing as the scoop is guarded by legions of zombie Daleks. The Doctor has the means of reversing his incapacitation (i.e. using his sonic screwdriver to free himself or having the ability to heal his wounds more quickly), but he won’t be able to become mobile in time to stop both her and Dylan. He’ll have to make a choice: save Dylan, a mere human in his care (and whom he thus feels responsible for) who has raced off to face a mad Time Lord, or save Romana, his old friend and maybe the Time Lords’ only chance for rebirth. She smiles at him and says, “I know who you’ll choose. I know you’ll do the right thing,” before racing off to sabotage the time scoop.
And… that’s all you get for now. I will tell you this: The Doctor gets free. Morbius is defeated and killed (properly this time, to ensure no further resurrections). Earth is saved. One woman dies, the other survives. But beyond that, I won’t say any more. I’ve mentally explored both possibilities rather thoroughly, so I know what I would do in writing either scenario. I also believe I’ve settled on my favorite, and I know which way I would pick for the story to end. But I think it would be much more interesting to end this entry here and let you decide for yourself. Who do you think the Doctor would help? Would he rush to save Dylan, a young woman in way over her head, from her own suicidal bid to save Earth? Or would he chase after Romana, his last chance at true companionship with one of his kind? It’s kind of a “The Lady, or the Tiger?” situation, if you will. Maybe, if the BBC actually decided to pick up my idea, we could put it to a fan vote.