St Anthony's Fire
by Mark Gatiss
Somewhere, mammals were howling. Their throaty cries carried up the dust-dry summer streets of Jurrula, like banshee wails, echoing of the walls of the great Temple and the surrounding streets. Light glittered off every surface, rippling the air into hot waves.
Portrone Grek lay on his bed, scratching his snout, stubbornly refusing to have anything to do with the rest of the day.
Bored and restless, he had spent the morning polishing the scales of his crest and removing specks of dust from his uniform. Around noon with, yet again, no orders to advance, he had stripped off and lain on his bed in the barracks, his warty green-grey hide bathed in sweat. If only something would happen.
There had been times like this before, of course; times of endless, nervous waiting. In the trenches of the West he had spent his first hours as a Ismetch officer continually vomiting, so profound was his fear of action. Grek smiled now as sunlight poured dustily through the blinds of the barrack room window. He could never have imagined he'd eventually become so blasť about it all.
As Grek turned on his side, the door opened and Maconsa shuffled inside. Older than Grek, there was a suggestion of weariness in his gait and the curve of his shoulders. Few had served so long and so well.
"Anything?" muttered Grek without opening his bulbous blue eyes.
Maconsa pulled off his tunic and sighed. "Not a thing. Intelligence reports the Cutch heading for the jungles, up river. But there hasn't been a single sighting. It's driving me mad."
Grek could feel himself drifting into sleep. He opened his snout. The inside of his mouth felt thick and dry. "Where's Ran?" he croaked.
Maconsa had dug out a basin of water and was splashing his hot hide. "Gone to Temple, would you believe?"
Grek smiled "He always gets religious before a battle."
"Hmm," agreed Maconsa. "Trouble is, this one's been postponed so much he goes to Temple every day. The elders think he wants to sign up," Grek laughed in a high staccato. Maconsa opened the blind and squinted at the blast of light. He ran his long black tongue absently over the wet orbs of his eyes.
With a crack like gunfire, the door burst open and the young officer, Ran, almost fell into the room.
"Sir! Sir" he babbled, looking excitedly from Grek to Maconsa.
"All right, Ran." Keep calm. What is it?"
Ran's face was suffused with excitement. "It's on, sir. The Cutch have been seen!"
Grek sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Where?"
"Delurida Bridge, Portrone," gasped Ran, wiping the glutinous white sweat from his crested head.
"Delurida Bridge?" murmured Maconsa. "That's in the dip of that valley, you know . . . "
"Yes, yes," said Grek excitedly, pulling on his tunic. "If we can trap them in the valley and cut off their retreat, then we've got 'em"
The three Ismetch officers beamed delightedly and hurried from the room.
Grek flung himself to the ground as a Cutch bullet whistled over his head. Maconsa and Ran were crouched low in the hollow roots of one of the great trees which covered the jungle perimeter. Both were breathing heavily; tense with adrenalin rush.
"All right," said Grek quietly. "We know where they are. Tobess has got the other end sealed off. We've got to get them out in the open."
He looked about in the gloomy undergrowth, just able to make out the rest of his concealed squadron, their rifles poking through clusters of heavy, wet vegetation.
Maconsa peered into the jungle towards the old stones of Delurida Bridge, the water over which it had been built long-since vanished. "We need a diversion. Something to bring them out. If they are as jumpy as us . . ."
Grek's scalp contracted in affirmation. "Yes. They'll go for the first thing that moves."
He looked again at the rifle barrels, all pointed towards where the Cutch had holed themselves up. They had almost opened fire on their own relief column, such was the tension. Insects chirruped incessantly in the oppressive silence. Ran glanced over at his senior officers, sat up on his haunches and then pelted across the jungle, waving his arms and screaming at the top of his voice.
Grek lurched forward to stop him. "Ran, you - "
At once, the Cutch rifles exploded into activity. Grek's squadron responded in kind, blasting through the undergrowth with furious precision. Ran threw himself to the ground, rolled over and hid behind a tree.
Maconsa whipped out his own rifle and bellowed "Here they come!" The Cutch suddenly tore from behind the bridge, their reptilian faces obscured by the smoke of their guns.
"Fire! Fire!" screeched Grek. The Ismetch squadron emerged from hiding and ruthlessly mowed the enemy down. Trapped in the narrow basin of the valley, the Cutch force soon succumbed to the superior Ismetch squadron. In only a few moments, the jungle floor was littered with the dead.
Once he was sure the field of battle was clear, Grek sprinted towards Ran and hauled him from hiding by the scruff of his neck. He slapped the young officer about the face.
"You idiot! Did I tell you to do that? Did I?"
Ran made a feeble effort to cover his face. "No sir."
Suddenly Grek burst out laughing. "Good lad. Well done. You've got initiative."
He slapped the bemused Ran on the back and propelled him towards Maconsa.
"What do you say, Maconsa? We'll make a Portrone of this one yet."
The future was to prove Grek right, but he was not then to know how far his own destiny was linked to that of certain visitors. Visitors countless eons away from the humble planet of Bertrushia.
Source: Doctor Who Magazine #217