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By Kate Orman

‘We volunteered, we volunteered, we volunteered.’

Slowly Kela lifted her head. Her husband was walking around the fire, talking to himself, scratching fitfully at his matted blonde hair.

‘We volunteered,’ said Shirtep. He laughed, a dry, despairing cackle. ‘We volunteered.’

She was too tired to tell him to stop. Instead, she curled up on the rocks next to the pitifully small campfire.

‘I wonder where the rest of the Thals are now.’ He looked up at the pale stars. They regarded him silently, a million distant eyes.

‘Not the rest of the Thals,’ said Kela. ‘Just the Thals. There are no Thals on Skaro. Our race exists on other worlds now. But not here.’

Lator came out of the darkness, a skinny, sickly figure. The weapon he carried weighed almost as much as he did. ‘They're coming,’ he said, without much interest.

The mutants packed up their camp by route, burying the fire, gathering up their few possessions. They had no food, but that was alright. It meant there was less to carry.

Lator hoisted his gun onto his back, the easier to carry it. ‘Saw the Emperor,’ he said.

Shirtep looked at him, almost interested. ‘Doing anything?’

‘Getting on a ship. Sent out a lot of Dalek patrols to sweep the surrounding area. Must be something pretty big. He doesn't usually travel.’

‘Mmm.’ Kela shook the dust from her withered body. ‘They won't clear too much of the area.’

‘Wouldn't be worth the effort, would it?’ said Lator bitterly.

The three Thals moved at a slow, steady pace through the early morning blackness. They spotted another group in the distance, moving away from the spreading Dalek patrols. It was an unusual sight. Almost all of the Thal population had been moved offworld in the Great Retreat; only a few thousand of the most mutated had had to be left behind, volunteers, abandoned by the rest. Scattered bands roamed the waste- lands, surviving however they could. Rarely bothering to attack the Daleks. Rarely bothering to do anything. Waiting to die.

After a while they stopped amongst some rocks. ‘I'll have a look round,’ said Lator. Kela nodded. He was always having looks round. It kept him busy.

Shirtep was standing looking at the sky. ‘We volunteered,’ he said again. ‘They had to leave us behind, didn't they?’ She made him sit down, and gently cuddled him, rocking back and forth and crooning gently.

His mind had been slowly going, ever since the Retreat. Once he had been strong, a guerilla leader, responsible for a great deal of damage and inconvenience to the enemy. But the Retreat had broken him - the proud, the enduring Thals had admitted, after a millennium of futile struggle, that they couldn't win.

The Daleks were a plague without a cure. Skaro was the great breeding grounds, the wound through which they infected the universe. Here they were an infestation without number; the planet's surface was thick with freshly created monsters. From Skaro, they spread out through the universe. Nowhere would ever be safe from them.

Kela bowed her head. It was not her fight, not anymore. Now she was just tired. When would it end? The work was done, the game was over. When would it end?

Lator returned after a while, and sat down in the clearing, with his back against one of the boulders. ‘I'm bored,’ he said.

There was a whispering sound behind them, coming from somewhere beyond the circle of rocks. They turned.

It was a Dalek.

It was watching them, hovering a few inches off the ground on a silent cushion of air. Lator didn't bother to move for his gun. The Dalek would kill them before he got anywhere near it.

The travelling machine hung in the air for long seconds, its eyestalk swivelling slowly, taking them in. Its gun followed the movement of the eyepiece.

The Thals looked back at it, without hate or fear; only blank acceptance, like a child's vague sense of having been caught doing something wrong.

With a sighing sound, the Dalek moved back into the shadows, and was gone. Kela burst into tears.

‘Why-’ Lator stared after the monster. ‘Why didn't it kill us?’ He got to his feet, fumbling for the rocket-launcher. ‘Why?’

‘Come back, you bastard,’ croaked Shirtep. Kela sobbed into his shoulder, in an agony of realising just how unimportant she was.

She was woken by the first glimmer of light, as the sun began to creep up over the distant, ragged hills. Shirtep was curled into a tight little ball, rejecting the world. Lator was stroking the barrel of his gun.

‘Why don't I just-’ he began, but she shut him up with a look.

‘We were Thals,’ she said. ‘And our race's greatest virtue is patience. We will not kill ourselves.’

‘It will go on and on forever,’ said Shirtep.

Lator tilted his head back and looked at the paling stars. ‘What's that?’ he said.

Kela followed his gaze. Something was falling across the slowly lightening sky. At first, she thought it was a shooting star - but it lasted too long. A meteorite would have flared and perished in the upper atmosphere.

A ship then? The Emperor's ship returning, perhaps. The twinkling object was dwindling, falling towards the sun. Whatever it was, it had no interest in them. She dropped her gaze to the stony ground.

Lator stood. ‘We should go.’

‘What for?’

He frowned. ‘They'll kill us if we don't.’ The words sounded ridiculous, even to him.

‘We have no place here,’ she said simply. ‘Life has no place here.’

‘Mother!’ said Lator in a strangled voice. ‘Look at the sun!’

The mountains were crowned with orange fire as Skaro's sun expanded, flooding the valley with the glorious light of a supernova.

And Kela laughed out loud, thinking of a billion Daleks and their surprise as the sun swelled and burst and filled the sky, and dawn reached out to take their planet in its golden embrace.

This item appeared in TSV 35 (September 1993).

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