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Doctor Who Non-fiction

Tabula Rasa

Little Man

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#10, 1992

The Commander gestured for his men to follow, clicked off the safety of his machine pistol and jumped. The battering wind from the rotors pushed him hard against the ground, but he landed on his feet and ran. His men were behind him, he couldn't hear them but he knew they were there. Three at a time they landed on the rippling grass till all fifteen were down and the helicopter jumped sharply upwards and away, clearing the space for the next in line.

They were good soldiers, his men, and he didn't check their formation. On the way past he nodded at the policemen holding back the crowd from the landing site, and marvelled that this precaution had been thought of (if not exactly necessary -- the helicopters themselves could do the job) and did not break stride. They were five blocks from the edge of the smoke cloud they had seen from the air, but the heat and screaming and sharp electrical stench were already strong, and there was a black dust on the gentle wind, sooty and choking. There were people running at him and past him, men, woman, children, running with only one purpose, to place one foot in front of the other, and damn where it landed. On the footpath ahead a woman was on the ground, in the lee of an abandoned truck. Her screams were no louder than the others, and the howls of the dog worrying her face and neck were lost in the background. The dog's lips were curled back past teeth slick with blood and foam, and the Commander saw it was attached by a leash to the woman's wrist. The Commander but a quick bullet into the dog's head and kept on running.

But the flow of humanity was increasing by the second, becoming a mindless torrent that increasingly threatened to push the small group of soldiers backwards or crush them underfoot.

The Commander paused, considering. With a gesture to the troops he left the margin of calm against the shop windows and plunged into the crowd, managing to clamber onto the bonnet and then roof of the nearest parked car. Waiting for his men to join him on the little islands in the human storm he stared at his destination. The source of the explosions and smoke and panic that had burst volcanically from the centre of the New York Business District, he checked his watch, almost twenty minutes ago.

There was only smoke and the glow of hidden fires. And the humanity obscuring it all. Some falling, crushed underfoot or between the mass and the cars skewed in the middle of the road. Some huddled in doorways, looking out second-story windows, crying or screaming or watching it all rather bemused. He saw at least two people with video equipment, one perched cross-legged some fifty yards up the road on the same row of parked cars that they themselves were standing. The Commander made a small mental note to grab the camera for evidence on the way past.

He turned and saw that his men had all reached cars, some up to four behind his own. He waved his gun forward and in a careful lope jumped from roof to boot to bonnet to roof to boot to bonnet to roof and onward.

Two helicopters, smaller than the one they'd landed in, flew over their heads and towards the smoke. But a flash of light (looking suspiciously like something out of Star Wars) jumped at them, one at a time, and the two metal birds suddenly remembered the laws of gravity. The crumpled explosion as they hit the middle of the crowded street seemed lost and irrelevant.

The Commander almost paused in his steady pace, almost considered with lurching sickness the scene he'd have to somehow pass by, further up this street. But he was a soldier, and for the last twenty minutes he'd been at war. He kept on going.

Past the crowds, past the twisted metal and flaming corpses. Past it all.

And sometime later, though time had seemed to disintegrate under a barrage of sight and sound and smell, the soldier thought he heard something, over the sounds of destruction. A high-pitched sound, somehow disturbing, flirting on the edge of perception. He heard more choppers, looked up and saw them, twenty, thirty, who knows, diving towards the cleared and broken area he was entering. And he saw what they were aiming at, a huge sphere simply sitting among the rubble of two skyscrapers like it had every right in the world.

He saw movement at the base of the sphere, people running inwards towards it. He ran harder, and saw with horror that they weren't people, they were... something else. Heavy, slow-moving, silver-armoured, bipedal. But no way were they human.

They were running, clutching their hands to their helmets, and the soldier somehow understood, not what the high-pitched sound was, but what it was doing.

He fired his pistol into the crowd of retreating figures, but none of them fell. Then they were gone inside their sphere, and the door was closing. He heard the helicopters firing their own guns, knew they would be ineffectual against that... thing. His imagination failed to supply a noun equal to the task.

More movement from the sphere, and he almost fired again, but his confused impression of three figures running through the smoke towards a burnt out truck told him they were human.

Then suddenly there was a noise that blotted out sight, sound, smell and everything else.

The commander got up off the pavement. And looked at where the sphere had been. Only wreckage and smoke.

But it couldn't have taken off, there had been helicopters above it, and they were still there, dropping to land. So that meant... The soldier grinned, then raised his gun to click the safety catch on. "Bang", he said to the sphere that didn't exist any more. "You're dead." It was a stupid thing to say, but that was alright.

He walked round the truck, where the figures had ran. If the fifteen men he had started with were still behind him he neither knew or cared. Around him he heard the landing of helicopters, the deployment of troops, the shouting of orders. And wasn't there something else, some vaguely mechanical sound that didn't fit? But no, it was gone.

There was only one person behind the van, perhaps twenty-five, sooty red hair, crumpled business suit. The figure blinked at him, looking dazed. "There was this man..." it said, trailing off as if there wasn't anything else to say.

The Commander shook his head, disbelieving, then they both sat down against the vehicle, and rested for a while.


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