Isabel Pratchett re-checked the report she had downloaded onto her terminal. All the news within it was bad, all of it chronicled defeat after defeat at the hands of the enemy, but the last few lines contained the worst news of all. The giant interstellar liner, ‘Star Princess’, the last ship to leave Karbala Minor, had been attacked and destroyed along with her escort of six Interceptors. She had transmitted a message saying it was a refugee ship but the Daleks had attacked anyway. There were no survivors.
She glanced up at the inner door in her office. On the other side of that door was her boss, Prime Minister Quinn. His wife and two daughters were on the ‘Star Princess’; the Prime Minister had practically forced his family to leave. Isabel couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened to them. So many bad things had happened in recent days and this would have only dragged him down further.
Quinn had point-blank refused to leave Millennium City; he maintained that his place was on Karbala Minor as a figurehead to fight the Daleks. As his PA, Isabel saw it is as her duty to stay at his side, where he needed her.
Since the Daleks landed on Karbala Minor, only ten days ago, it seemed as if they had walked right through all their all their defences and all their military resistance as if they weren’t there. Now they had reached Millennium City and had begun to enter it.
From his bunker deep under Government House Quinn and his staff tried to co-ordinate resistance against the Daleks; but as the days passed this task seemed more and more hopeless.
She had always respected Mr Quinn; she’d been his PA since he’d been a junior minister – though his rise had been fast and glorious. She admired his integrity, his belief in doing the right thing, his commitment to the people he served, but most of all his attempts to make Karbala Minor a better place to live. During the last days she had watched him slowly fall to pieces as the Dalek systematically destroyed all the civilisation on Karbala Minor, destroyed the world around them.
Now, he was barely a husk of his former self. Gone was his confidence and drive, now he resembled a man haunted and tired – he’d hardly slept since the Daleks landed. His skin was grey and dry, his eyes dull and lifeless, and his body seemed to have physically shrunk inside his clothes. She felt heartbroken every time she looked at him. She couldn’t tell him about the ‘Star Princess’ because that would be the final tragedy that would break him. Carefully she deleted the last item of the report, before she even considered letting Mr Quinn see it.
As she began to sort through the rest of the reports, before passing them on, her communicator buzzed. She clicked on the external monitor icon on her terminal screen, and it was filled with an image of the corridor outside her office.
Outside stood a man and a woman she didn’t recognise, both were dressed in combat fatigues and had that unmistakable military bearing about them. The man looked middle-aged, was the taller by a handful of centimetres and had a solid muscular body, pushing against his uniform. His grey hair was shorn close to the scalp and the wrinkles of his face were set into an expression that seemed to be etched into his skin. The woman, who was probably ten years younger than the man (nearly the same age as Isabel), stared straight ahead. Her mousy brown hair was held back in a tight bun at the base of her neck, her face was graced with small features, which she held in a neutral expression. Her body, though smaller and leaner then the man’s, was also compact and taught. Both of them had plasma rifles slung, casually over their shoulders.
Isabel touched the microphone at her throat and said:
“I’m the Prime Minister’s PA, can I help you?”
“I’m Captain Timothy and this is Corporal Ross,” the man almost barked at the closed door. “We have a meeting with the Prime Minister.”
“Can you wait a moment?”
She switched off a microphone, before he barked a reply, and then buzzed Mr Quinn’s communicator. The communicator buzzed for an unusually long moment before being answered.
“Hello Isabel,” Mr Quinn’s voice sounded in her ear.
“I’ve got a Captain Timothy and Corporal Ross waiting to see you, but they don’t have an appointment.”
“Ah, I made the appointment. Will you show them into my office.”
Before opening outer door, Isabel tucked her hair behind her ears and slipped her jacket back on – she’d had the same shirt on for the past four days and she hoped her jacket would cover up the fact. Then, simultaneously, she touched both her throat microphone and the door release.
“Captain and Corporal, please come in, the Prime Minister’s waiting for you,” she said.
As the outer door swung open the two people marched into her office, Isabel didn’t bother standing as they entered. She indicated the inner door.
“The Prime Minister is through there and waiting for you,” she said.
“Thank you ma’am,” the Captain said, as the two of them strode through her office and straight into Mr Quinn’s, the door closing firmly behind them.
“Ma’am”, that Captain had called her “ma’am”. Isabel was always surprised at how institutionalised the military was, how it still replied upon those old rituals and long obsolete terms.
Isabel shook her head and returned to the reports on her terminal. She tried not to think about how tired, lethargic and how hungry she felt. She had been surviving on coffee and energy pills for the last few days. Each night, before she grabbed two hours sleep, she would rinse out her shirt and underwear – but still they were slowly turning a pale grey. Again Isabel shook her head, trying to change her thoughts, and again returned to the reports on her screen.
She worked on those reports for another few minutes, finally pulling them into the order she wanted. Just before she transferred the reports to Mr Quinn’s terminal her communicator buzzed.
“Yes sir?” Isabel spoke into her throat microphone.
“Please come into my office, there’s something I need to discuss with you,” Mr Quinn’s voice sound sounded in her ear.
Quickly and purposefully she stood up, crossed her own office and walked through the door into Mr Quinn’s. She was greeted by three faces, that all turned to look at her. The Captain and Corporal were standing, casually standing at ease, at the right-hand side of Mr Quinn’s desk. Their faces wore neutral expressions. Behind his desk sat the Prime Minister, his face creased and worn, his hair lank and dishevelled, even his once bright eyes dull and tired, but still they stared straight at her. His stare was fixed and full on, the stare he would give someone when he had to impart bad news (she been expecting this news for the last few days, the Daleks had reached the building and all was lost).
“Isabel, please sit down. We need to talk,” Mr Quinn said, his voice heavy with his most statesman-like tone.
“Certainly sir,” she replied.
She walked up to the chair in front of Mr Quinn’s desk and carefully sat down on it.
“Isabel, we need to talk about something very serious, that’s why I’ve asked Captain Timothy and Corporal Ross here.”
“Yes sir,” she replied to him.
“The Daleks are sweeping through the city now and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. They pierced all our defences.”
“I know sir,” she quietly replied.
“They’ll be here at Government House in an hour or so.”
“I’ve been expecting this sir,” she finally voiced her pessimism to him. “We need to evacuate as soon as possible.”
“No.” his voice, though tired and worn down, was suddenly commanding again. “You’ll be evacuated, you’re the last of my staff left, I’m staying.”
He cut her short with a wave of his hand.
“Isabel, if the Daleks capture me it may satisfy them and they’ll stop this killing. If not, I can delay them by making them think I know more than I do. Only I can do this because I’m the Prime Minister, it won’t work with anyone else. I’ve thought very hard about this.”
“Yes sir,” there was nothing else she could say. She had seen him, many times before, like this and in this mood greater people then her had argued with him and lost.
“I asked Captain Timothy and Corporal Ross here to be your escorts out of the city” he carried on. “I have one last request for you, Isabel.”
“I want you to take a copy of my personal diary with you. I want you to get it out of here, get it off world. I want the rest of the Earth-Aligned Planets to know what happened here. It is my personal diary but it contains a full account of everything has happened, the whole Dalek invasion. I want everyone to know what happened on Karbala Minor.”
“Yes sir,” she said.
“I have a personal favour, a last favour to ask of you.” He paused for a moment, his eyes looking at something over her left shoulder. Then his eyes returned to her face and he said, “I have a personal letter for my wife and I was hoping you could get it to her. You’re very good at finding people.”
“Yes sir, of course I’ll do that,” Isabel felt a stab of guilt for not telling him the truth, but she swallowed it down.
“Here they are,” he said as he pushed two data chips across his desk, towards her. “The green one is the letter to my wife.”
“Thank you,” Isabel replied as she picked up to data chips. “Sir, I just got a few things I need to tidy up.”
“No, Isabel, you need to go now… Please.”
“Yes sir,” she said as she stood up. “Sir… It’s been a pleasure working with you.”
“Thank you Isabel… it’s been a pleasure too.”
Timothy and Ross hurried her out of the office and down the corridor. In the women’s toilets, as Timothy stood dispassionately outside, Ross helped her to change into military combats. Quickly she shed her clothes, suddenly Isabel found she had no attachment to her possessions, without a second thought she threw her clothes into the rubbish bin – throwing away her last possessions – and pulled on the rough military combats. When she was dressed, even her feet encased in military boots, Ross asked her:
“How do you feel?”
“Afraid,” Isabel admitted.
“We all are,” Ross replied. “This all’s a bloody nightmare.”
“Thanks,” Isabel said.
When they rejoined Timothy, out in the corridors, he simply looked her up and down then nodded his approval.
“We need to leave by the West Wing of the building,” Timothy said as he started to march off down the corridor.
“Why’s that?” Isabel asked, as she strode after him.
“Because the bloody Daleks are crawling all over the North and East wings,” he replied.
They walked in silence down the long and darkly light corridors, weaving their way through the rabbit warren that was the defence bunker. She had hardly seen a fraction of this place, just the route from her room to Mr Quinn’s office and back. The corridor’s dark grey walls, the dirt and damp under foot and the poor lighting made for a depressing atmosphere, but Isabel hardly noticed it. She was nervous and tense, the fear of what was waiting for them. Until the moment when Mr Quinn called her to his office there was still some hope that they would be rescued, that the Daleks would be defeated. Now that last spark of hope was gone, she felt all was lost. Now her only chance was to survive.
She didn’t voice any of this as they trudged along, but from Timothy and Ross’s heavy moods, their seriously drawn faces, she guessed they shared some of her thoughts.
After what seemed like a long and twisting trek they finally came to a service lift. Isabel stood back has Timothy called the lift while Ross stood in front of the closed doors, her plasma rifle cocked and pointing at them. They stood like that, in a tense moment of anticipation, until the lift doors noisily swung open to reveal a dull grey metal cage.
They hurried inside.
As the lift slowly ascended Isabel found herself turning over and over the data chips in her pocket, her fingers slipping over their smooth services. Those data chips had become the most valuable possessions in her care, her last task for Mr Quinn. She breathed in deeply.
Casually as she could she glanced at Timothy and Ross. She had been thrown together with them and yet she knew nothing about them. Did either of them have partners or children, what were their lives like? Captain Timothy was properly a career soldier, Isabel reasoned, mainly because he had reached the rank he had, but what about Corporal Ross? People stayed in the Defence Military for such short periods, normally, so someone could rise to the rank of corporal quickly. She wanted to ask them about their lives, it certainly looked like they would spending a lot of time together, but she held back. Both Timothy and Ross had such stern and fixed expressions that Isabel stayed quiet, falling into their uneasy silence.
As the lift passed the last few underground floors and neared the surface, Timothy and Ross sprang into action. Both of them swung their guns off the shoulders and trained them on the lift’s doors, doing so Isabel found herself pushed to the back of the lift behind them. For a long moment, as the lift noisily finished it’s journey, they stood in a very tense silence. Isabel felt certain she could hear the nervous breathing of the other two.
The lift came to a stop with a sudden jerk, Isabel found herself holding her breath, and with a sharp grating sound as the metal doors opened. She saw Timothy and Ross tense, clutching at their guns, as the doors opened. But all that came into the lift was a cloud of dust and a whiff of a bad smell.
“Let us go first Ma’am,” Timothy said, without looking back at her.
“Yes,” Isabel mumbled.
Timothy and Ross, almost being led by their guns, advanced out of the left. Isabel followed closely after them; suddenly the lift no longer felt a safe place.
She stepped out into a pale cloud of dust. As she walked forward, following Timothy and Ross, the dust eased and she walked out into the clear sunlight, the first time she had felt sunlight on her skin in days – but that thought didn’t occur to her. The sight all around almost took her breath away. All around them was destruction.
They had walked out of the lift into a vehicle park at the back of Government House, but there was hardly any of the building left. What was left was burnt and scorched rubble, the rich red bricks of the building reduced to charred blackened piles. The tarmac had large craters blasted in its surface, around the edges were the burnt out wrecks of vehicles.
Behind the vehicle park all she could see was more devastation. Everywhere she looked there were buildings completely destroyed, or left half standing – large sections of them blown away, leaving blackened scars on their structures. Millennium City had been so beautiful, the smooth lines of the buildings and the wide-open avenues, now it was gone, completely gone, and in its place was left a smouldering ruin.
“Oh God, it’s terrible,” she said as she fought back the tears. “All this ruin, it’s terrible.”
“We have to get moving,” Timothy said.
She turned to look at him, Timothy’s voice suddenly reminding her that she wasn’t alone in this sea of destruction, and saw that him and Ross had both lowered their guns and were looking around themselves.
“Give me a moment. I loved living in this city, it was my home, and now it’s gone,” Isabel replied.
“Please Ms Pratchett,” Ross’s voice joined the discussion. “It’s not safe to stay here… I’ve lived here all my life too and it’s killing me to see it like this but we’ve got to get going. It’s too dangerous here.”
Almost to backup Ross’s words there came the sound of a large explosion on the far side of Government House. Almost on impulse, Isabel ducked down but all that came in their direction was sound and dust.
As she straightened up, noticing Timothy and Ross had ducked down too, she said:
“You’re right, we’d better get out of here.”
“I’ll lead” Timothy said, “Ms Pratchett you follow me and Ross you guard the rear.”
“Yes sir,” Ross snapped.
The three of them set off walking through the ruins of the city, heading west. They picked their way over the rubble, for a long time in silence. They simply kept walking, not seeing another person as they went.
They had been walking for what seemed like hours, Isabel had lost track of time, when they came upon other survivors, what was left them.
On its side, lying across the avenue was a silver and green transport bus. Its body was blackened and where the droid driver had been was a burnt out hole. Ross and Timothy slung their guns off their shoulders and held them pointed at the transport bus.
“We have to check it for survivors,” Isabel said.
“Our orders are to get you safely out of here,” Timothy replied.
“I don’t care, there could be survivors,” she said as she pushed past him and marched towards the bus. But she only managed a few steps before she felt a hand grab at her arm and stop her. She wheeled around, expecting it to be Timothy and was ready with her argument, only to find Ross standing next to her.
“Let us do it Ms Pratchett, we’re the experts at this,” Ross said.
“Ok,” Isabel replied.
She waited for what seemed an age outside the transport bus while Timothy and Ross searched through it. When they finally emerged, both of their uniforms with smudges of black on them their faces were down cast.
“No survivors,” Ross said flatly to her, “they’re all dead. Even the children.”
“Those bloody Daleks did a thorough job,” Timothy said to no one in particular.
“Where do we go now?” Isabel asked.
“We get out of here,” Timothy answered her.
“But where to?” Isabel carried on asking.
He looked at her for a moment and then said:
“There may be some spacecraft left at the Space Port, out on Western Island. Though it’s a good five kilometre walk.”
“If there’s nothing there?” She asked.
“There’s a military base in Wexford Mountains, we’ll head for that,” Timothy said.
“We’ll have to find some transport to get that far,” she said.
“Not safe,” Ross added to their discussion. “Look what the Daleks did to this transport bus.”
“We’re safest on foot,” Timothy said.
“Well, I always said I needed to take more exercise,” Isabel said. She was rewarded by a wry smile from Ross.
They carried on walking, leaving the transport bus behind them, but in a more relaxed manner now. They walked in a small group, no longer in single file, Timothy and Ross with their guns slung casually over their shoulders. Though they were quiet they didn’t exactly walk in silence now. Timothy or Ross would speak directions as they went, occasionally they would discuss which was the better route to take. Isabel took no part in these discussions; the destruction the Daleks had wrought on the city had made it unrecognisable to her. She was lost and therefore trusted to the soldiers’ judgment.
As they walked Timothy and Ross kept referring to her as “Ms Pratchett”, she wished they would call her Isabel, in her turn she would learn their first names. She guessed that that would come with time, because it seemed as if they would be spending a long time together, days and weeks together.
They were finally emerged from what was left of business district, less then halfway to the Space Port, Ross estimated, when it happened.
They had to keep to the main avenues, because of the risk of falling buildings. Climbing over the ruins of another collapsed building, which almost blocked the whole avenue; they found themselves in an open plaza. Only a few meters away from them, as they stumbled down the rubble, was a patrol of Daleks. The Daleks stood unmoving, close to the centre of the square.
Involuntarily, without any thought of her actions, Isabel let out a cry of fear. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Timothy and Ross reaching for their guns, but it was too late.
Instantly all the Daleks swung towards them, one of them screeching:
“NO!!” She heard Ross shout out.
Then the air around her crackled with energy as the Daleks opened fire on them. She tried to turn and run, but in only the few seconds she took to begin to move it was too late. She heard Ross cry out, saw Timothy’s body falling down into the rubble, his whole body glowing bright with energy, then she felt a searing pain strike her in her side and a terrible force propelled her body forward.
“I’m wearing dirty underwear” – the thought rushed through her mind as her body was thrown into the air.
Isabel Pratchett’s lifeless body crashed down into the ruins of Millennium City.
Story © 2005 Drew Payne.
Layout © 2005 Visagraph Films International.
Thanks to Andrew Panero for the editing on the story.