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When the Stars are Right

By Nicholas Withers

The House, Allen Road

The Doctor was in a sombre withdrawn mood, and this filled Ace with a sense of dread. In fact even being in this house did it for her. It was from here that they based their nearly unsuccessful offensive against the evil within the Butler Institute. At least she thought they were the bad guys, but Ace was finding it increasingly difficult to tell. None of that really mattered at the moment, it wasn't due to happen for another year or two as the chronometer went, which just confused Ace even more. Tenses were so very confusing for time travellers.

They had arrived last Tuesday and the Doctor had retreated straight to the library room, locking the door behind him. This left Ace with nothing to do but scan the channels of the portable TV observing the increasing rate of decay in the world around her; or play at being a soldier, firing at tin cans in the deserted grounds. She had chosen the later in the end, feeling it might be of more use to whatever the Doctor had lined up for her.

One week later the Doctor finally emerged from the library, like a moth from a cocoon, wearing a darker expression than when he went in.

‘So what books have you been reading Professor?’ Ace inquired as she watched him steering with great intensity with the spoon he was stirring the cup of tea with.

‘Old ones, Ace, some older than your species.’ He did not look up.

‘Were they alien then?’

‘Oh no, they were written by the inhabitants of this world. Humanity is just the latest in a line of intelligent inhabitants of this world. There were the Silurians and the Sea Devils, the Deep Ones, the Old Ones, the Hyperboreans, the Great Race of Yith and still more.’

Ace frowned. ‘What happened to them?’

‘Some simply gave up and died. Others were killed off in great wars. Some still sleep beneath the earth or sea. But their secrets and dreams stretch forth.’ He coughed and placed his cup down without touching a drop.

Time for the big question, Ace thought. ‘What were you looking for in the books? What is wrong this time, Professor?’

‘The stars, Ace, the stars. In three days time they will be in a unique pattern that will not occur for another three hundred years. And unless we careful they may wake a force that should have died many universes ago.’

Ace swallowed nervously.

New Orleans

The TARDIS groaned to a halt.

‘New Orleans,’ exclaimed Ace, recognising the scenery from her last visit here, when the Doctor retrieved a book he had left there a long time ago. Even though that was years ago in normal time Ace had a niggling feeling that the old woman would still be in her bookshop, Lefarge Books. What was it the Doctor had said? She may well outlive us all.

The Doctor's sombre expression had perked up a bit, Ace assumed that it was the jazz music from a nearby cafe. ‘Where to, Professor? The book shop?’

‘Not this time Ace,’ he replied. ‘We need to visit the police, or more specifically a police officer.’

The weaved their way through the streets of New Orleans, passing from the clean prosperous sector to a run-down area usually unseen by tourists. ‘Here we are,’ the Doctor stated at last, pointing towards their destination.

The majority of the houses of Bienville St looked abandoned and this included number 121, except that the garden was carefully manicured and not the wild jungle of its neighbours. The Doctor tapped on the front door with his umbrella. The door opened to reveal a man in his twenties.

‘Can I help you?’

‘Yes, you can. I am the Doctor and this is Ace.’

‘How do you do?’ asked Ace stepping forward and shaking the man's hand vigorously.

‘Hmm, fine. I'm Jacob. Now what is it that I can help you with?’

‘I knew your grandfather, Inspector John R. Legrasse.’ The statement hit the young man visibly, causing him to stagger back slightly.

‘You'd better come in.’

They sat on the back veranda drinking homemade lemonade. Ace listened intently, attempting to piece together a picture from the discussion that the Doctor and Jacob were having.

‘I thought you might come,’ Jacob said. ‘It's happening again isn't it?’

‘Yes,’ the Doctor replied darkly.

‘The last time was around 1925; we were lucky that time. I wasn't alive, but the story has been passed on from generation to generation in my family.’

‘I was hoping that might be the case.’

The conversation continued with short statements and long pauses. Decades ago Inspector John R. Legrasse had disrupted a cult in its rituals in the nearby swamps. The cult that worshiped a god called Kutulu or Cthulhu, Ace was unsure of the exact pronunciation. According to the Doctor, this god was a real entity that slept in a giant tomb beneath the Pacific Ocean, waiting to rise once more rise to the surface when the stars were right.

‘Did your grandfather ever pass on the exact location where the rituals took place?’ the Doctor inquired after a particularly long pause.

‘Yes, he kept a copy of the map in the police file,’ Jacob responded. He stood, stretched, went back into the house.

Ace and the Doctor found him searching through a drawer. On the bench top he had placed a .38 and holster. This reminded Ace of the weight beneath her own jacket. No doubt the Doctor wouldn't approve, but he hardly voiced that disapproval any more.

‘Here it is,’ Jacob said passing the map to the Doctor. Jacob picked up the gun, checked that it was loaded, and holstered it. ‘I have a feeling that where we are going I might need this.’

Ace was cursing to herself. Somehow the Doctor managed to remain almost immaculately clean as both Jacob's clothes and her own had become increasingly muddy. They had been tramped through the swamp for an hour before finally halting at a clearing.

‘Ace,’ the Doctor called, ‘Observation test. What can you tell me about this area?’

Ace slowly looked around. Then it hit her. ‘It's been used recently.’

The Doctor smiled. ‘How can you tell?’

‘Those ashes are from a recent fire,’ she said pointing to the black ground ahead. ‘And there are some barefoot prints.’

‘Bravo, but you limited your area of observation.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Ace as she watched the Doctor backing up. Then she noticed a group of teenagers and young adults approaching, a street gang no doubt. The group had not yet spotted them, and Ace followed the Doctor and Jacob into the bushes.

From their hidden vantage point they watched the new arrivals prepare the fire. As the sun began to set and the first stars shine through the blanket of growing darkness the chanting began.

‘Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.’

‘In his tomb house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.’ the Doctor translated for the benefit of his companions.

The chanting continued for an hour until the stars were visible. Then Ace saw a young boy, bound and naked, being forced forward and realised which a feeling of dread what this new generation of cultists had planned for their ceremony. ‘Doctor, we have to do something.’

‘I know. Just a few more seconds.’

They watched as a large knife and small statuette were brought forward The chant reached a frenzied pitch.

‘Cthulhu fhtagn, Cthulhu fhtagn.’

‘Doctor, we have to do something.’

The statuette was thrown into the fire and the child was brought forward and forced to kneel before the flames.

‘I need a diversion,’ the Doctor said. ‘No killing though. These people are enthralled, but weak.’

Ace and Jacob drew their guns and hurried off.

The Doctor stood and shouted ‘Now!’

Jacob and Ace stepped into the clearing on opposite sides and fired into the air. All hell broke loose and the worshippers fled in all directions.

It was only a few moments before the only people remaining in the area were the Doctor, Jacob, Ace, and the young boy.

‘We only have a few seconds.’ The Doctor said stepping forth. ‘Ace take the child. Both of you listen to me. What ever happens now do not look through the portal.’

Ace wondered what the Doctor meant, but she nodded as she led the boy over to the edge of the clearing. Placing her jacket around him, she turned back to see the Doctor remove a book from his pocket. She recognised it as the nameless tome they had collected so long ago from that New Orleans bookshop. The book the old woman had called the dreaming book, for want of a better name.

It's not so much a book as a cage... a cage filled with dreams... dreams which humanity could never survive.

It was at that precise moment that the stars came into alignment and the fire leapt upwards forming a great sheet of flame. Ace immediately turned away, shielding the terrified boy with her body.

From the corner of her eye she caught sight of several unearthly and large tentacles reaching out from the portal. The Doctor fumbled with the catch on the book until at last it sprang open. The book seemed to open of its own accord and thousands of dreams streamed forward through the gateway.

‘FREEE!!!’ came the scream; a scream Ace had heard just once before, before in the bookshop.

The noise increased as the stars above them appeared to shift slightly. The portal collapsed. The book closed and she heard the Doctor whisper something.

The screaming did not stop however, but this time it was human. Jacob had dared to look through the portal, and now lay shaking and screaming on the ground, with tears of blood rolling down his cheeks. He had seen the cyclopean tomb, the abomination of the old one Cthulhu, and the vast vistas of infinity beyond. He had seen all this through the portal, disobeying the Doctor's instructions, and it had destroyed his mind.

Arkham Sanatorium

‘There is nothing else we can do for him.’ the Doctor said as they left the sanatorium. ‘They will look after him well here. Maybe...’

‘What about squid face?’

‘Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,’ the Doctor replied. ‘Cthulhu has new dreams, and the stars will not be right for a long time.’

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).

Index nodes: Fiction