The Doctor and Clara looked up as the skies above them filled with Daleks.
The mist churned, repelled by its own startling visions. The roof of the world seemed to collapse in an ashen mouth, the very air sick and swelling, rolling in agony and turmoil. Snow turned to flame. Embers danced in front of them, rising, falling, glittering, biting. Magma outlined the atmosphere, and cut into the rocks, spewing the remnants of a terrible battle across the craggy land.
“Is this going to be a problem?” asked Clara.
The Doctor’s eyebrows arched. “Very probably.”
“Is Beth coming? She’s missing some classic lentil action,” Chris said, fishing a pile of green mush out a metal flask. He was getting fed up of green. Everything was either a sickly or garish variation of it: their food, their goggles, their tents, the intense jealousy they felt of anyone with central heating. Green, green, green, with piques of brown. Chris’ evenings felt like being trapped in a tunnel of grass. It was worth it though, in the end. And at least he had the light-show to enjoy.
Emma was bundled by the tent flap, checking through her backpack for the fourth time that day. “She was with the yaks. They’re heading back in the morning, so this is her last night with them until we get back.”
“We’ll give her five, but if she doesn’t eat soon—”
The zip worked its way around the flap, and Emma, Bire, and Chris braced for the icy wind.
“Ah, speak of the devil.”
But instead, they were faced with a cross Scotsman. What immediately struck them wasn’t his pinched eyebrows, equally curious and furious; nor his skinny frame, probing eyes, and impressively peppered grey hair. It took them a short time to realise they hadn’t met him before too. No, they were most concerned about what he was wearing – true, it was layered (a red-lined black jacket over a hoodie and two t-shirts), but it wasn’t adequate protection for here. Not for Everest.
Filing in behind him were two women: Beth, and someone else they didn’t know, but at least she was better prepared for the mountain, dressed in a thick fur-lined nylon suit, tightly-wrapped extra-long scarf, and cumbersome black gloves.
“Wh—Who are you?!” Emma gasped, zipping up the outer and inner flaps behind them, locking out the hurricane.
“Those clothes will not do at all,” Bire said, shaking his head.
“I just found them out there, like that,” Beth said.
“What?” the older man said. “I put on a jumper” – and pulled his collar out to reveal a beige knitted jumper covered in question marks.
Chris was aghast. And then the unknown woman took off her hood and goggles to reveal a burst of hazel hair, deep brown eyes, and blushing red cheeks, and Chris was considerably less aghast. “I’m, uhm – Hi, I’m Chris.” He went to shake her hand, then inadvertently pulled off her glove. “Ah. Sorry.”
“Clara,” she replied. “And this is the Doctor.”
“Sightseers?” Emma asked.
“Probably. I found them looking at the Phenomenon,” Beth said, pulling off her backpack and deflating into a pop-up camping chair. It was the only one they’d got in the tent and was often a point of contention.
“Is that what you call it? ‘The Phenomenon’?” the Doctor said, pirouetting around Chris to reach for some rice. “You need a better name.”
“We call it the skaɪ faɪɚ,” Bire pitched in.
“Sky fire?” The Doctor knew a little Sherpa. “Oh, that’s much better. More accurate too. Have you got any sweet and sour chicken? You can always judge an establishment by its sweet and sour chicken.”
“Oh yeah, please help yourself!” Chris ejected, unsure whether to be outraged by the strangers or enamoured (by one of them specifically).
“Doctor…” Clara warned.
“It’s okay, Clara. Nomadic tradition says strangers share their supplies, help each other out,” he replied, clawing rice into his mouth with his fingers, “which is a good thing because we’re strangers and we’re here to help. Your sky fire – when did it start?”
Emma suggested it began about six months ago, but Bire corrected her: “154 days. Please,” he invited Clara and the others to crouch on the floor and pointed to the food in front of them, “join us.”
The Phenomenon had started in March, slowly at first. The battles above Everest were first seen by an unfruitful excursion to find the bodies of Sandy Irvine and George Mallory. It was posited that these English mountaineers could be found on the North Ridge of Everest, and there had been so many expeditions to find them since their disappearance some 73 years earlier. Rather, this particular expedition found a shining gold flying saucer suspended in the skies, shimmering under the Milky Way, cast above the raw basin of mist that clung to the rocks.
“They said it was like looking through blinds,” Beth added. “Like this UFO had gaps, through which you could see the universe. They stayed at the Advanced Base Camp for a few nights–”
“That’s here, yeah?” asked Clara.
Beth nodded. “The following night, there were fewer gaps. And more unexplained phenomenon.”
“Some reported seeing aliens. Not like little green men,” Emma went on, “but domed things. All bronze-y.”
“Daleks.” They all looked to the Doctor. “They’re called Daleks. And they’re not here just yet. But they will be if we don’t stop this.”
Before anyone could ask how he knew this, Clara chimed in, “Six months though. Why isn’t this being reported all over the world?”
“Expeditions came,” Emma continued. “But on rumours only. Nothing concrete. By all accounts, it’s been getting worse. The Phenomenon is more concrete now. Every day, we see more. It moves. The whole sky changes. Locals maintained that something was happening, but…” She looked guiltily at Bire. “Not everyone believes Sherpas.”
“Yes, why would they believe those most experienced and qualified at climbing Everest, at scaling the unscalable?” the Doctor mocked, licking his fingers clean.
Pre-empting his calling them pudding brains, Clara jumped in: “Surely camera crews could get a shot, though? There must’ve been surveys.”
The Doctor uncrossed his legs, got up, and reached into his hoodie pocket, revealing a Polaroid camera. “No. Let me show you.”
* * *
Clara later described it as like the Northern Lights.
What should’ve been a gloriously clear night sky was instead covered with Dalek ships and their insane creators. The heavens were truly hellish, churning in war, explosions blossoming and bursting. The Jaws of the Nightmare Child briefly engulfed the atmosphere then fizzled with ecstatic beauty and horror. Daleks hovered over the ground, their domes lighting up as they spoke: flash-flash-flash-flash. A silent movie, playing out in the breeze.
Underneath, a mishmash of people gathered, gazing up, laughing, cheering, and pointing. Entertainment, at 21,000 feet.
Clara caught up with the Doctor as he pointed the Polaroid upwards. “A nice photo of the deadliest killing machine the universe has ever created. How about that?” he said and took a picture. The camera whirred and, moments later, the image slipped out. He handed it to her: a photo of the sky. Beautiful and crisp, the Milky Way stretched out between the rocky horizons.
“They’re not real. None of this is. And yet…” The Doctor held out his hands in front of him, as if presenting a theatrical performance. “Ms. Oswald, welcome to the Time War.”
Clara stared up. It was terrible. The worst thing she’d ever seen. And mountaineers were watching while patting yaks.
* * *
“This happens every night?” the Doctor checked.
“To a rough schedule, yeah,” confirmed Beth. “Starts about 8, local time. Those… Dalek things, they’re the first to appear. 13 of them go from the Northeast Ridge, right from the peak of Everest, over to the North Col over there.” She pointed past the back to the tent. They were all inside again now, despite the Doctor’s protestations. Emma had to explain to him that they didn’t break from the group, and, like it or not, he was part of theirs now.
“Then the explosions start,” Beth carried on. “Jamie used to serve in Afghan, and he says he’s never seen anything like it. None of us have. Oh, Jamie’s in the next tent across,” she added, answering Clara’s question before she’d even asked it. “Next come the saucers and the smoke and then… And then everything else.”
“I want to see it,” chimed in the Doctor.
“We stick together. And right now, it’s safer in here.”
“It just is, okay?” was Emma’s explanation, and that was that.
Until it wasn’t. Until, in the middle of the night (such as it was), another man entered the tent.
“Jamie, what’re you—?” began Chris, but he immediately recognised the panic on his face.
“It’s Steve. He’s gone.”
“He went to see if the Phenomenon was still going on, but he never came back.”
“Idiot!” Chris yelled.
“We have to find him,” demanded the Doctor.
“No,” Chris replied, firmly.
“He’s your friend.”
“Yes. But we can’t go out,” Chris said. “He’s probably dead by now anyway.”
“You’re all heart. What aren’t you telling me?” the Time Lord demanded.
The two stared at each other in the dark. The black wasn’t black at all. Not here. The sky was filled with smoke from the Time War, but the glacier they camped on still glittered with an iridescence that nonetheless managed to penetrate the canvas. Clara could see the Doctor and Chris glaring at each other, but this was a contest only one person could ever win.
“Four percent of climbers die on Everest. But not all of them stay dead.”
The air was still. Unusually so on the mountain. Finally, it was broken by Emma, directing herself at the Doctor: “If we go out, we get properly kitted up this time. We’ve lost three people this week already, and I’m not taking any more unnecessary risks.”
* * *
Clara could tell which of the heavy figures before her was the Doctor. His gait was long and gangly; his arms danced awkwardly at each side of him as they trudged through the thick snow. The Time War still raged above them, so their way was lit by sparks of violence. It was a medley of burning yellows, oranges, and ambers, tainting the burning-white snow and dark sediment. Nonetheless, they had torches on their wrists and foreheads, in case the battle overhead should die down.
Chris and Beth stayed behind at camp, standing by the radio in case any other teams found Steve first and tracing a planned route on an expansive map. There were around 100 people in the Advanced Base Camp – not particularly significant for Everest, especially so soon after Nepal lifted the limit on mountaineering teams allowed to climb. (“Then people heard about The Phenomenon and Everest got even busier. The ban being lifted came at the right time,” Beth had said. “Or the wrong time entirely,” the Doctor had interjected.)
So Clara, the Doctor, Emma, Jamie, and Bire had set off, having been equipped with plenty of protective clothing, ice axes, rope, and goggles, the latter not strictly needed at night, but Clara welcomed them anyway, to keep the biting wind from cutting at her eyes. Despite these, the weather was still overwhelming, and it was no great surprise when, 20 minutes into their search, Bire announced that they’d have to turn back, for fear a cyclone could bury them in the frost. The wind was picking up and the very ground felt unsteady. Clara struggled to stay upright. That’s when Beth came over the radio.
“Reports coming in of people at the far ridge. Should be about 40 feet from you now.”
“I can see them!” called the Doctor, and yes, in the murk, figures were coming towards them.
“We have to go back,” warned Bire.
“Steve?” Jamie ventured.
Dark shadows – ambling – towards them – roaming forwards – close enough to –
A burst of electricity shot through the air and collided with Emma. Her body lit up, skeleton outlined in the blackness, and she fell to the ground.
The remaining team would have gasped in disbelief, but the air was already too thin. And then the atmosphere was alight with fire. Dalek fire, streaking from the hands of the lumbering figures coming towards them.
Clara instinctively ran, the snow churning underneath her, but progress was slow and she swiftly slipped, falling into the brittle layers of ice. She felt hands around her, lifting her up again. The Doctor, of course.
The radio crackled. “Strange interference. Is everything okay?”
“Emma,” Bire replied into the handset. “Emma is dead. For now.” Then he turned to the rest of them. “We have to get back.”
“No!” the Doctor yelled. “We can’t draw these things back to base camp.” He struggled to open a pocket in his coat then pulled out his sonic screwdriver, holding it aloft. “This should get their attention. Go without me.”
Emma had warned them not to take any unnecessary risks. Fat lot of good that had done her. So Jamie and Bire left the Doctor behind.
With the weight of the world on her, however, Clara knew she’d never leave him.
They were surrounded by dead explorers – the former victims of the mountain. Their husks walked carefully but confidently across the snow, their faces a mix of horrors: some had decayed with cartilage and muscles exposed to the wind; some were bones, empty and rigid; most had been preserved by the cold and shone like marble. But all had a Dalek eyestalk protruding out of their foreheads and a gun ripped through their palms.
Joining them was Emma, dead, eyes white and rolling, nevertheless determined to catch her prey.
“This is like the Papal Mainframe,” Clara managed to stammer, the lack of air strangling the words from her throat. “Those eyestalks…”
“Yes, Clara,” the Time Lord shouted back to her, still leading the crew of undead with his sonic screwdriver whirring. “It’s a recruitment drive.”
“A recruitment drive! The Daleks are bringing in extra pawns for their games. The Sky Fire: it’s an advert – a giant advert, terrifying a whole planet, making them think the Time War has reached these shores. Its landing on Earth, here at the top of a mountain, was just a mistake. It’s meant to be seen by the masses. Because people panic when they’re unexpectedly overwhelmed by war. They panic and riot and someone inevitably dies. Then the nanogenes bring them back. Like poor Emma here. And one dead person recruits two more, and they continue that way until they’ve got a whole world of new recruits. Death starts with a ripple and becomes a wave, and the Daleks’ deadly ambitions are realised.”
“A whole planet? You said a whole planet, so why is it just here, on Everest?”
“I don’t know.” That was a novelty. “But I intend to find out. C’mon!” And now he was pointing the sonic screwdriver forwards, like – Clara would never tell him this – a weapon.
* * *
Bire pushed Jamie into the tent ahead of him and rushed to the back, ignoring Beth and Chris’ rapid-fire questions, to get to the radio.
“Doctor?” he said into the unit.
The transmission crackled and screamed. Behind him, Bire heard Jamie explain to the others what had happened to Emma.
“Doctor?” he repeated, and this time got a response:
“Bire?” burred the Scottish voice on the other end of the line. “Bire, I’m tracking the source, whatever’s causing the Sky Fire. Can you” – there was a bleeping sound – “track us through this? Warn us of any ridges or cliffaces?”
The equipment lined up around the radio set blared into life. Co-ordinates. Bire checked them. “Yes, yes, we can. But what about the dɛd?”
“I’m drawing them away. You should be fine for now. What’s the forecast like?”
“You’ll have strong winds, Doctor. But the cyclone’s moving to the Lhotse, down to the Khumbu Icefall. You’ll be fine.”
“Thank you, Bire. Keep in touch.”
But Bire handed the radio to Chris. “Let them know of any dangers.”
“Well, what are you doing?” Chris demanded, as Bire shrugged on a backpack, an axe sticking out of its top and rope looping out the bottom, and an oxygen canister.
He disappeared into the blinding whiteness outside before answering.
* * *
Clara helped deepen the arc with her heel. The pair were standing over a gully, forming a circle in the snow with their feet.
“Doctor, are you sure about this?”
“Not entirely, but I’ll be fine. It worked in Frozen anyway.”
That didn’t entirely ease her worries. “But what about the… the things? The dead things?”
“They should be far enough behind by now. I’m sorry, Clara, but I’ve got no choice,” he said, examining his sonic screwdriver once more and pointing it down into the dark chasm. “Whatever’s causing all this; it’s down here. Scarf?”
“Right. Yes.” She cautiously unzipped her coat and unfurled the long scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, again and again and again. It blew in the breeze, pulsating in the air, feeling every twist and turn and coil and quiver of the cold. The Doctor grabbed the other end and looped it around the icy trench they’d carved deep into the ground. The snow would act as an anchor – he hoped. The Doctor tied the other end around his waist.
“You’re sure it’ll be strong enough?” Clara checked, tightening the knot further.
“What’re you saying?”
And off he went, launching himself down into the crevasse. He slowly lowered himself using the long scarf, dropping deeper and deeper into the gloom. “Wind’s not so bad down here, Clara.”
She rolled her eyes under her goggles, zipped her coat up tightly, and checked behind her: still no walking dead anywhere nearby. Not that she could see, at any rate.
Through the darkness, the Doctor could see the yellow-brown band of rock giving way to a chiselled collage of grey, white, and cream sandstone, limestone, and phyllite. There were fossils here too: fish, their pressed scales a Jackson Pollock of browns, siennas, and sepias; clams with shells splintered in circular detonations; and Ammonites, inviting swirls like staring through the looking glass to 40 million years ago.
In this valley of death, the Doctor was pleasantly surprised to see the unremitting conation of life.
The screwdriver’s bleeping became more rapid as he approached a ledge, and by its light, he could see… yes! There was something in the ice.
“I found it!” he called up.
“I found it,” he repeated, louder. “I was right – obviously. It is Dalek technology, from the depths of the war. Must’ve fallen through time. Still defrosting; that’s why it’s not fully functional. Except…” He grabbed at the small black cylinder. It was too loose in the snow. He could even pull it away from the glacier it had called home for millennia. “Except it won’t be this dormant for much longer.”
“Doctor, I think I can hear something!”
“I’m coming back.”
But by the time he had climbed up, they were surrounded. The mist wasn’t mist anymore: it was a bank of the deceased. An oncoming wave of people. The four percent, climbing the mountain once more. “I couldn’t leave you,” Clara said, pulling off her goggles so she could see the Doctor properly. “But please tell me you can do something.”
“I can do something.”
“Go on then.”
“I was just saying that.”
“Doctor,” she said, glowering. “Can’t you sonic it?”
“The Daleks learned to overcome sonic tech pretty quickly in the war.”
“There must be something else.”
The Doctor flapped in the cold, windmilling his arms in desperation, as the crowd came ever closer. “If we had a drone, I could programme it to take the device into the upper atmosphere and create a localised polarising burst to send it into the sun’s gravitational pull, eventually to burn up harmlessly in the corona.”
“We don’t have a drone!”
“Ah yes, I thought you might’ve noticed that.”
“What about that?” Clara asked, pointing to the Time War, continuing in the skies above.
“It’s not real. It’s a hard-light hologram. Can’t harm anyone or anything. Certainly wouldn’t touch this. The Daleks were relying on scares; once you lot get scared, you panic, and people die.”
“I can see that!” she said, and, in desperation, pushed the cylinder out of the Doctor’s hand and went to run. But where to?
“Clara!” the Doctor yelled, and she quickly turned on her heel. The world veered upwards as she slipped down into the snow. Looming over her was a shadowed figure, arching an axe over their heads and down…
…into the cylinder.
It split open with a shriek of brilliant energy, black components impacting deep into their surroundings, like meteorites steaming in craters.
The crowd of the dead immediately dropped and the sky blinked. Daleks fizzled out of existence, saucers and rays giving way to a ballet of atmospheric refraction, and explosions caving to the grandiosity of Everest.
Suddenly lit up by a flare of lightning at the roof of the world: Bire, lifting his axe out of the ground and passing an oxygen mask to Clara. “It’s okay; I’m here to help.”
* * *
“The ice must’ve compromised it,” the Doctor said.
“No, I didn’t think to just smash it either,” Clara admitted.
They had accompanied Bire back to the tent and accepted a slew of lentils, the Doctor more begrudgingly than his companion. They’d agreed to stay until morning anyway. Then it’d be safe enough to find the TARDIS; somewhere across the West Shoulder, the Doctor estimated, although by now, it could be under a few feet of snow.
“The problem’s gone now anyway,” the Doctor conceded. “All you silly little humans can run off home, out of harm’s way, now that the light-show has gone.”
They had lost too many friends up here, friends they’d seen crawling across the mountain, even beyond death. They’d have to leave their dead friends up here. They couldn’t take them back to their families. Nonetheless, a ripple of laughter flowed between Beth, Chris, Jamie, and Bire.
“Is that what you think we came here for?” Beth asked. “Really?”
She opened up the tent flap and the Doctor and Clara looked out.
The sky was alive again. Not with the Time War. Not with death and disaster. But with the Milky Way, an endless sea of glittering stars and tumbling nebulas. The universe, saying hello.
Bire stirred behind them, shifting in his seat to get a better view. “Sky fire.”
We hope you’ve enjoyed this piece of Doctor Who fanfiction! ‘Four Percent’ is taken from Lovarzi’s all-new Doctor Who fanfiction anthology Loose Threads, which we’re giving away to subscribers to our newsletter – for free! Subscribe below to download your PDF.
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