"THE ALCHEMISTS OF FEAR" - AN EXCERPT
By Alan Camlann
If the first of the travellers had stretched his arms wide, his body would have fit roughly five of himself across, between each wall, and eight directly up. There was no ceiling. Only a slope arcing outwards to accommodate the level above. A tang of static electricity salted the air.
Quickly, the Doctor could see why.
His Ship, the TARDIS, had chosen to land among an undergrowth of aerials and antennae that nestled shoulder-to-shoulder. Lifelines of power trailing to nearby electronics stores and maisonettes. He was unconcerned. The tensile strength of the cables looked sturdy enough to withstand a nudging from the old girl. In fact, so confident was he in the theory, he tested it by jumping on the nearest cable. A tightrope walker. His sky-blue umbrella was used as a baton for balancing.
He was soon joined by two others.
The first was a young American botanist called Perpugilliam Brown—Peri to her friends. The second, a whifferdill detective who led his life before the TARDIS as Avan Tarklu. Better known on his travels as Frobisher.
Peri untucked a sock from her denim jeans and rearranged the collar on her black-chequed blouse. Frobisher flipped up the collar on his grey mackintosh, experimenting with the damp concrete beneath his webbed penguin feet.
“Cool, but—eh—not unpleasantly so…” Frobisher approached the calico funambulist. “What’d you say this place was called again, Doc?”
“Mandusus Chi, Frobisher.” He leapt from one foot to the other keeping perfect balance. “Hah! Triumph!” He chuckled to himself. “A satellite in the constellation of Mandusus.”
“Ah, yes, Europe, the capital city of Europe.” Peri hadn’t lost any of her sarcasm in the journey.
“Which came first?” Frobisher wondered.
“No one’s quite sure.” The Doctor tilted the umbrella from side-to-side. “The prevalent theory at the moment is that it has become the latest victim of universalisation, but it’s equally possible that the name was chosen to honour its newly christened flightpath. Only eighty-years-old now… This constellation and I have something of a history, so I thought I’d drop in again and get my bearings.”
“This place have any other names?” Peri inquired. “Y’know, for simplicity’s sake?”
“The--whoo-op…” The rover wobbled on one leg. “Ah. The slowship itself, Peri, was originally commissioned under the name, MRS-7 Ostrea.”
She bit her lip, eyes searching. “Ostrea… Why does that sound familiar?”
“Good hunting of Tellurian sea otters…” the Doctor pursed his lips, “and daring avians wishing to try something beyond their ‘humdrum synthesised treehouse’, as one put it…”
“Still sore about that, is she?” Frobisher glanced at the TARDIS. “I did apologise. More than once. For that and the Mars Bar incident.”
Peri curled an eyebrow at him.
“Incidents…” The final consonant hissed from his beak as an afterthought.
“Let’s just say…” the Doctor clicked his tongue, placing a hand on the whifferdill’s shoulder, still balancing. “We’ll be trying takeaway for a while, just to be safe.”
Peri frowned. “Wait, ostrea… You’re not talking about the caramelised clams are you?”
“‘Fresh from the Renogolian seas’,” the three quoted in unison.
“Hey, they were good!” protested Frobisher. “Rare time you ever let me near a stove.”
“Stomach cramps for days…” Peri stuck her tongue out and mock shivered. “In all seriousness, though, never again. Neither one of you are allowed in the galley again.”
“A small conflagration of little importance,” the Doctor waved a hand.
Frobisher shook his head, a smile to his voice. “So, why name the place after a sand gaper, Doc?”
“Observe…” The Doctor deployed his umbrella on a gentle arc skywards. A lecturer with a pointing stick. Little droplets of rain caused the blue pigment of its canopy to shift and alter to green ultraviolet trails. A pretty enough novelty on its own, but one far eclipsed by the main event.
At that moment, dawn arrived. Self-conscious and shy, at first. Not from east, nor west on any horizon line, but from a horizon point. A torchlight glow, slowly approaching closer behind the Doctor’s umbrella. The geometry, alien to the expectations of planetgoers, left Peri and Frobisher rather giddy.
Peri shook her fringe from her eyes and peered up as hard as she dared.
“Mirrors…” Frobisher heard her mutter, then more confidently, “Hey, they’re mirrors!”
Starlight, not too far from Mandusus Chi’s current position, struck at the centre of what was shaping out to be a massive array of reflective petals held parallel to the dome’s Skyframe. Tessera upon tessera building into a complete mosaic that captured the pure corona of an unfiltered star.
“A complex panoply of photovoltaic reflectors,” the Doctor clarified, “implemented via computer control to detect and, well… You can explain it, can’t you, Peri?”
The glow spread across micrometeorite pocks, solar wind shear and the lasting wounds of other voyaging phenomena to encompass a mudcrack sky. Thin lines of shuttlecraft and freighters trickling like zarbi across a microwave dish. All pretence of unbroken unity shattered by centuries of wear, but still as vibrant and beautiful a spectacle as it had likely been before its metaphorical wrinkles.
Peri looked quizzical. “I can?”
“Artificial chloroplasts.” He spun a hand. “Away you go.”
“Oh,” she smiled. “The chloroplasts absorb sunlight and generate a pigment or whatever its manmade equivalent is here to create its own variant of chlorophyll. Those mirrors, in this case.”
“Or chevalium. A similar mirror-like element,” clarified the Doctor.
“Collecting solar radiation to power the slowship.”
“And the remaindered energy is siphoned for transmission in low-grade sunlight to provide a natural day-night cycle to its inhabitants. Much like what’s done aboard the TARDIS.”
Frobisher was still entranced by its glow. “What’s the name of this local star?”
“It’s 8187, so… The systemless sun of Savapandit. Expected to be a passive source of power for the next half-century, at least, after passing from the solar embrace of Eruditanik as determined by Flight Control.”
“Flight Control?” Peri inquired.
“Mandusus Chi’s local Government,” clarified the Doctor. “Well, I say Government… It’s an age of corporativism now, really.”
“The big open secret.” Frobisher hummed at the dome. “Bright old ball of solar light up there.”
“And will hopefully remain so for quite a time yet. Now…” The traveller rubbed his hands together, hopping down from the aerial cable with wilful abandon. “I’ve always wanted to visit Mandusus Chi, but now that we’ve shored, I find myself at an unusual loss for specifics.”
“You, the walking wordfinder?” japed the penguin.
“It has been known, Frobisher,” he smirked.
The whifferdill’s foot scuffed the remains of a poster left sodden in a puddle of coolant.
“How about, ‘Get fit, get healthy’…?” he read.
“Healthy? Healthy?” The thought gathered momentum in the Doctor’s psyche, as he pulled at the Ship’s door. “Well… I suppose a stroll wouldn’t do us any harm.”
Peri buttoned her jacket. “Is the TARDIS going to be alright here?”
“Circumspect enough for our purposes.” He gave one of the smaller antennae a waggle altering its buzzing frequency into a dragonfly shiver. “I doubt anyone will notice her among the bric-a-brac. Perhaps they’ll start counting electric sheep…?”
His eyes twinkled with wicked mischief before he led his party into the wider streets.
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