Daniel Boone knelt on one knee to examine the grass. He was about a mile away from the fort, on his way back to his cabin. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so many footprints on top of one another. He recognized at least two kinds of military footwear, three different kinds of boots, one pair of moccasins, two sets of ladies tracks, and one very familiar set of boy’s prints. His son’s right boot turned in a bit at the toe, and the heel had a scuff that made the track look like a block of wood with a chunk bit out. He’d found Israel’s tracks heading both into the fort – in the company of Yad – and out of the fort - alone.
Here, in this place, the boy had met someone else.
Dan scowled as he ran his fingers through the crushed grass. Someone had lain here. A man, most likely, by the length of the impression his body left. He’d been hurt. There was blood, and a good bit of it where his head had rested. The tall frontiersman rose to his feet and walked forward, carefully, lest he destroy any sign of his boy. Yep. There it was. Israel and the man standing, and then walking off together toward the cabin. Dan sighed as he slipped his coonskin cap back on his head. He’d been there with Becky. Instead of staying put like would have been wise, they’d both taken off to look for the boy, running frantic as chickens with their heads cut off. They’d left and the boy’d come.
He’d just have to hope Israel’d had the smarts to stay put.
Hefting Ticklicker, the frontiersman set off at an easy but quick lope, anxious to arrive at his cabin. Stopping by Yad’s had cost him time, but in the end he felt it was worth it. What the blond man had had to say about the British soldiers was troubling. The men who had been in the tavern were looking for someone. Another Englishman. They said he was one of theirs, and that he had been wounded in an accident and didn’t remember who he was. It seemed Mingo had known one of them, the officer in charge by the name of Major Aubrey Blundell. Yad thought Mingo had seemed uneasy around him, like there was something wrong. If he was lucky Mingo would be at the cabin with Becky and Israel, and the stranger. The native’s tracking skills were equal to – Dan grinned – if not a mite better than his. If Mingo’d gone straight to the cabin, then the family was safe. When he got there, together they could sort out the wounded man, and maybe figure out what the British soldiers were doing in their neck of the woods.
Just short of the cabin, Dan halted. In the distance he could see smoke rising from the chimney, which suggested Becky was there. Israel might have kindled a fire, but it was unlikely as he had taught the boy to do just the opposite if he found himself home alone. Slightly winded, the tall frontiersman switched to a quick walking gate and proceeded across the field separating him from his land. Halfway to the cabin he halted; startled by something he had seen lying in the shadows cast by the sun’s first rays.
Dan knelt again, catching up his son’s fur hat. Squinting, he searched the ground for clues as to how it got there. Unfortunately, he found them. It was evident that the boy had been carried out of the cabin, managed to escape, dropped his hat – knowing Israel, most likely on purpose – and then been scooped up again and borne away. Around his son’s small familiar prints were a half dozen made by military boots, the kind the English wore. Dan rose with the cap in his hand. He looked toward the cabin, feeling a powerful calling to go and see his wife, to take a moment by his fire, to make sure Mingo was there and that the stranger was no threat. But he knew he couldn’t. Every second counted. English soldiers were well trained and if they suspected they were being followed, they would move into the hills where the rock made tracking near impossible. Becky was an able woman. She could take care of herself even if Mingo wasn’t there.
Course, if the Cherokee warrior wasn’t there, then that raised other questions.
Dan carefully folded his son’s cap in half and tucked it inside his buckskin jacket. Then, with that will that had brought him and a dozen families through the Cumberland Gap, Daniel Boone turned away from the comfort of his wife and home and set off at a sprint into the rising light.
River Song groaned as she opened her eyes, not quite believing how naïve she had been. It was usually the Doctor who managed to get himself electrocuted. Since she had cared for him afterward on more than one occasion, she recognized the symptoms: her heartbeat was irregular, her skin slightly burnt, and she ached like hell. She couldn’t tell yet if her hearing had been affected as no one seemed to be talking to her. Still, there was a kind of whooshing sound echoing through the chamber she was in – muffled, barely audible – that reminded her of a dying person trying to draw a breath.
Then again, that might just have been her.
She closed her eyes and concentrated, seeking to block out both the rushing noise and the pain that screamed through every limb. She was being held, somehow, a few feet above the cavern floor. Curious bonds of impossibly strong baked clay forged from the Kentucky earth itself circled her neck, waist, wrists and ankles. The air in the chamber was thick with moisture. And cold, so cold. She shivered, and when she opened her eyes again, realized she could see her breath.
How deep down was she?
“River?” someone close by asked, startling her as she had thought herself alone. “River, is that you?’
The voice was impossibly familiar. “Amy? Dear Lord, Amy, are you all right?”
She heard a snort. “If you call being wrapped in a silver hospital gown, poked and prodded, and strung up like a side of beef ‘all right’. Yeah. I’m all right.”
River looked. She too was garbed in a thin metallic fabric. “How did you come to be here?”
There was a pause. “I don’t know. River, is the Doctor with you?”
She tried to move her head to see the other woman, but it was impossible. “No. I came here on my own. I thought he was with you.”
“He was. He and I were on a planet. The two of us went off, you know, looking for adventure and I lost him. Or he lost me. It’s kind of fuzzy.” Amy paused and then added, her voice trembling, “I’m worried about him.”
“Don’t be. The Doctor can take care of himself.”
Her voice was quiet as a child’s. “River. They hurt him.”
“I don’t know! I didn’t see. We were on holiday. Just having fun, you know? On some planet, somewhere, in some galaxy I couldn’t pronounce. Then, suddenly, the Doctor, he goes all serious and orders me back to the Tardis.”
“And did you go?”
“Of course not.” Amy drew a breath. “I followed him, down into this space that glowed with a light as green as…. Well, yeah. As green as the one here.”
As Amy spoke, River’s body went rigid with fear. “Go on.”
“The light was pretty, but sort of repulsive, you know? And he was soooo serious. You shoulda heard the lecture I got.” Her Scottish burr melted into a reasonable imitation of the Doctor’s slightly northern drawl. ‘Pond, pay attention! No argument, no discussion. When I tell you to go, you…will…go.’” River imagined the shrug. “So I went.”
“In the opposite direction of the one he wanted you to.”
“Of course.” A little of Amy’s usual bravado crept into her tone, but fled quickly in the face of defeat. “He was right, though. I didn’t make it far. This…thing grabbed me. I screamed, you know? I couldn’t help it. River, it was cold and…so alien-ish. The Doctor, he heard me, and came running. That was when….” Her voice trailed off.
“Amy? What? What did they do to him?”
Amy Pond was a young woman barely over twenty, and yet, in the season she had traveled with the Time Lord, she had seen many things including Daleks, Silurians, universe eating cracks, and nearly the end of everything. Whatever this was it had truly terrified her, which was – well, truly terrifying.
The young Scottish woman was breathing hard. Her breath showed in white puffs that came so quickly the first had no time to dissipate before the second followed. “There was this light. It…surrounded him. Became solid, like a cage. Things…came out of it. Band-y things like cuffs. They caught him and held him fast while this other thing, it began to spin and….” She choked. “River, I think he’s dead this time. Really dead.”
She’d thought that more times than she could count. But she’d always been wrong. River drew a steadying breath before replying. It was Amy who was wrong this time. She had to be! “Describe it, Amy. What did you see?”
For the longest time, there was no sound. When the words came, it was as a sort of strangled cry. “It was like they drilled into his head. God, the blood….”
Forcing the image conjured by the young woman’s words out of her mind for the moment, River concentrated on figuring out what had happened to the Time Lord. It could have been an attempt at some sort of mind control. That might explain the Doctor’s subsequent actions – the ones she had come here to set right. Maybe it wasn’t him at all, but some sort of programming that had driven him to take such a chance. And while that thought was consoling, it was also beyond horrible. The terror that could be unloosed upon an unsuspecting universe by a Time Lord not in his right mind – as extraordinary as that mind might ordinarily be – was too terrifying to contemplate.
She might have to kill him after all.
“Amy? Amy! What happened then? Tell me,” River prompted. “It’s important.”
The girl sniffed. “I don’t know. I passed out. When I woke up, I was here.” After a moment, Amy asked, “River, why is it important?”
“Tell me. I need to know. River….”
She mustn’t. She shouldn’t. But she had to.
This woman loved the Doctor, not in the same way she did, but nearly as much. Amy deserved…something. River licked her lips and began. “I’ll tell you what I can. Sometime in the future, the Doctor will choose a path that brings about the destruction of literally thousands of solar systems, and billions of lives. It will seem like a good thing, like a wonderful thing that he does – something that no one has been able to accomplish in over fifty thousand years. But it all goes wrong. Amy, it goes so wrong.”
“And you’ve been sent here to stop him from doing this…thing? You and you alone?”
A tear ran down her cheek. “Yes.”
“Thank you, Doctor Song. That is what my masters needed to know.”
River started at the new voice and for a very good reason – it was her own. She looked down between her dangling feet to see a copy of herself, wearing her clothes, staring up at her. The duplicate’s form shimmered green and, for just a second, crackled with electricity before settling into the very human pattern of pink flesh and pale blond hair.
“No. Oh, no,” River breathed, suddenly understanding why she was dressed as she was and just what their captors were up to. “You mustn’t do this. If what I am here to stop happens, it will mean the end of your race.”
The duplicate River shrugged. “It will also mean the end of the war.”
“No. No. Not the end. Just the new beginning of a different kind of a war. One that will know no end. You.… Even you cannot want that.”
“It is precisely what we want,” a harsh tinny male voice intruded.
She had not been with him all those years ago when the Doctor first encountered the Rutan scout on the English island of Fang Rock, but he had told her about it. During their travels it was inevitable that they come into contact with some evidence of the 500 century long war between the Rutan Host and the Sontarans. He had only met the Rutans that once, the Doctor told her, on Earth early in the 20th century. He had gone on to explain how their gelatinous bodies conducted electricity, and how they used that electrical power to kill. And how often, after a kill, they used their chameleonic nature to take the forms of those they had murdered. The Doctor had grown very quiet then, grudgingly admitting a slight respect for the Sontarans. While they were militaristic and were bred for nothing but war, there was about them a certain code of honor – admirable, he noted with a grim grin, if one lived long enough to appreciate it. The Rutan Host had no such scruples. They lived to conquer and just killed and killed and killed.
“Why am I…? Why are Amy and I still alive?” she asked. “I thought you always killed before you duplicated.”
“We have learned much from our enemies,” the Rutan replied as its emerald bulk poured through a crevice and oozed into the cavern, crackling and spitting electric fire. “On our scout’s journey to Earth, the human copies were flawed. They did not have the hosts’ personality or memories, and thus were subject to discovery. Now, thanks to the technology our spies have stolen from the Sontaran rabble, as well as other of our enemies, they will. Like those our enemies clone in the sezerfine gas chambers, implanting both memory and personality into the duplicate, you will remain alive so long as your pattern is needed.”
This couldn’t be happening! She needed to be free to act at the crucial time. The records Octavian had given her were spotty at best. The ship carrying them had limped out of the war zone barely intact. It was up to her to decide what precise moment might alter the seemingly inevitable build up toward intergalactic war. River fought off a wave of black despair. She had no idea where the Doctor was, or even if he had arrived. And where was Lord Murray’s son? There had been no mention of him, and he didn’t seem to be trapped here with her and Amy. Perhaps Mingo had escaped. River sagged in her restraints. But was that good or bad? If in his escape he should run into the Doctor…. River shifted, straining to catch a glimpse of Amy. From what the redhead had said, someone might have already done her work for her. A mind probe, dear Lord! Could even a Time Lord survive…?
No. She wouldn’t believe it. Never.
“What about the Doctor?” she demanded, glaring at the Rutan. “Tell me! What did you do to him?”
The emerald mass quivered, as though contacting the others in its corporate mind. “We have done nothing,” it intoned as it turned away.
“Oi! I was there!” Amy protested loudly, proving her continued existence. “I’d know that icky green glow anywhere. Hey, you! Blob boy! Listen to me!”
Beneath her feet, River’s duplicate stirred as the Rutan made its way back to the crevice in the wall. The clone waited until it had disappeared, and then turned back to make eye contact with her.
“We have done nothing,” it repeated as its lips curled in a cruel imitation of her sweetest smile.
Dan crouched in the tall grasses just outside the Redcoat camp. The dawn was breaking and the British soldiers were up and moving about their morning routines. He had seen about a dozen so far, which he guessed was about twice as many as had been at his cabin. They were obviously gathering for something. Now what that was, he couldn’t tell. He didn’t see much in the way of armaments, other than the usual bayoneted muskets and a few Kentucky long rifles that had, most likely, been taken in battle. So, most likely it wasn’t full out war. Dan settled back, content to watch for a bit. If Israel was there, the boy wasn’t in sight. Odds were, he wasn’t in any real danger either. The redcoats had taken him as an invitation, and the tall frontiersman knew to who that invitation had been addressed. There was something they wanted from him – or something they wanted him to do.
As Dan shifted, finding a comfortable position against the tree he had chosen as his chair back, the flap of the main tent was thrust out and up and a trio of short, squat figures emerged. A slight smile curled the frontiersman’s lips. The Shawnee had gotten it wrong when they gave him the name Sheltowee, or Big Turtle. If he’d ever seen a man who looked like he deserved that title it was the short, square British officer in front. The man was built like a brick privy with an upside-down wood bowl placed on the top and sporting a cockaded hat. His skin, what showed of it, was smoked brown as a tanned hide. From this distance Dan couldn’t make out much of the man’s look except, as his boy would have put it, that it was a mean one.
Careful to keep below the man’s line of sight, Dan crawled around the tree and took up a defensive position behind it. Quietly, he opened his leather pouch and began to feel for the paper, powder, and shot he would need to load his gun. As he did, the officer spoke.
“I am aware of your presence, Mr. Boone, as I am sure from a study of your skills, that you are of mine. You will lay down your weapon and approach.” The redcoat raised a hand and waited. A sudden movement drew Dan’s attention to the tent the man had just vacated. In the door was another squat soldier, holding a knife in one gloved hand and his small son in the other. “You have thirty seconds. If you do not abandon your place of concealment by that time, I assure you the boy will die.”
That might be true, and it might not. If they killed Israel, the British would lose their leverage. But Dan had been trained by the frontier to know his enemy, and it only took a second to know that this particular redcoat was not bluffing; he felt like steel – cold, unbending, and deadly. Quickly, Dan laid Ticklicker on the ground and stepped out from behind the tree. As he walked forward, hands raised, he quipped, “Here I been told you English are all about bein’ polite. That ain’t the friendliest ‘How’d ya do’ I’ve ever got.” He halted about ten feet away from the squat Redcoat and called out to his boy, “Is’rul, how they treatin’ you?”
“Pa!” the boy managed to shout before another gesture from the hat wearing privy sent both his son and his captor retreating into the tent.
“The boy has accounted himself admirably,” the redcoat reported. “One of my men had to see the surgeon after the boy bit him. A good clean strike!”
Dan wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. “You ain’t sore Is’rul took a bite out of one of your soldiers?”
“On the contrary. If the man was idiot enough to allow the opening, he got no less than he deserved.” The redcoat’s voice darkened as he drew nearer. “In fact, it was far less than he deserved.”
The British officer stopped about a yard short of Dan. ‘Short’ was the word. Now that they were nearly nose to well, chest, the tall frontiersman realized that the redcoat might have come in a hair over five feet – but if he did, it was a fine hair. Still, the fact that a mountain lion standing on his hind quarters topped out just short of five foot didn’t make it any less deadly. There was something about this little man that fairly shouted ‘beware!’
“Now, Mr. Boone, let us get down to business.”
“I got one question before we do, if you don’t mind my askin’?”
The brown face wrinkled with displeasure. “What?
“Mind if I put my arms down? I’m afraid if I don’t the birds will take to roostin’ in them.”
Dan lowered his arms. He rolled his neck from one side to the other and then added, “Oh, there’s one more thing.”
“You try my patience, Mr. Boone….”
“Well, you see, you have me at a disadvantage.” He smiled his lop-sided smile. “You know me, but I ain’t got a name to pin on you.”
A slow cruel smile split the baked brown skin. “Mark it down, Mr. Boone. You will want to remember. I am General Stone, special services, army of the empire.”
“Well, General Stone, we could stand here all day shootin’ the breeze –”
“It would be pointless to waste ammunition striking at the air….”
“Talkin’.” Dan frowned. “You know, flappin’ our gums?”
“Time is no less a weapon than any other, and the waste of such a valuable resource should be regarded as a criminal act punishable by death.”
The tall frontiersman shook his head. “I’ll make sure to have Becky leave you off the list for the next Sunday social.”
The redcoat was reaching the boiling point. He began to make a reply, but then stopped and fell silent. A moment later Stone did something Daniel Boone hoped he would never do again as the sound of it was something like bear claws striking bone – the general laughed.
“Ah! I see. A clever feint, Mr. Boone, but I am afraid it will not meet with success. Your attempt to arouse blind fury in me by this imbecilic behavior is quite clever, but it will not succeed.”
Dan ran a hand through his unruly hair. “Ain’t nobody ever called me a ‘clever’ imbecile before.”
Stone struck his fist into his gloved hand and grunted – seemingly with pleasure. “Enemies are so stimulating!” A moment later he sobered. “But I digress. You have no doubt worked out that your son was taken to obtain your acquiescence regarding a matter of grave importance to our cause.”
“You took the boy to tie my hands.”
Stone scowled. “You are under no restraint.”
The frontiersman sighed. “General Stone, anybody ever tell you that you’re a mite literal in how you take things? What I mean is I can’t do nothin’ so long as you’re holdin’ my boy. Nothin’, that is ‘cept what you want.” Dan had been minding his manners up to this point. When he spoke again, his dark tone promised stormy skies. “Now, I’d suggest you tell me what that is afore I forget those manners and ring your thick neck.”
The redcoat remained silent for a moment. Then he nodded gravely once, twice. “Excellent. Excellent. You play the fool well, Mr. Boone, but at heart you are as much a warrior as I.”
“I ain’t nothin’ like you. I don’t use children to get what I want.”
Stone shrugged – at least his shoulders did a little jump up toward his brown ears. “Then perhaps I have misjudged you. You are a fool. All means are justified by the end, if that end is victory!”
Dan said nothing.
“Very well. Here is my proposal. One of my men has gone missing. I need you to find him for me.”
He waited. “What? That’s it?”
“You have an excellent reputation as a tracker. This man is a trained agent. His skills for escaping detection are honed to a razor’s edge. If anyone can find him, it will be you.”
“Why do I need to find him? Don’t he want to come home?”
“He was wounded. A head injury. He does not know to whom he belongs. In fact,” Stone’s face split in half again, reminding Dan of a chick cracking out of an egg, “he may well think we are the enemy. Mr. Boone, I am asking you to undertake this mission on a charitable basis.”
Dan squinted. “You sure you know the meanin’ of the word?”
General Stone’s dark beady eyes locked on his. “The information contained in this man’s mind is irreplaceable and invaluable. If he is not found and brought…safely home…I will have no recourse but to order his destruction.”
Taking a hand, Dan pulled at his chin, thinking. “So…you kidnapped my son and are threatenin’ to kill him in order to make me search for a man who needs helpin’?” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you just ask?”
The redcoat’s face was stone. “I would not have thought of it.”
“No. I don’t suppose you would.” There was something about this particular redcoat, and the whole scene, that was just plain wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it at the moment, but before he delivered anybody into Stone’s hands, he sure enough would. “Let the boy go, and I’ll help you. You have my word.”
Stone stared at him long and hard. Then he nodded. “You are a man of honor. I will take that word. One of my men will escort your son home.” The general paused and then added solemnly, “You have my word no harm will come to him.”
Dan thought about protesting, but decided against it. Whatever he was, Stone seemed so bound by military protocol that he doubted he would go back on his word. “I’d like to talk to him before he leaves.”
“Of course. Nelson, bring the boy out!”
Seconds later Israel was clinging to his leg. Dan bent down and took hold of him, clasping the boy to his side for just a moment, but releasing him before it seemed either of them was showing any kind of weakness. “One of the general’s men is gonna see you home, son.” He held a hand up. “I don’t want any grief. I need you to go to the cabin and take care of your ma until I can get back.”
Israel sniffed in his tears as he straightened up. “Where you goin’, Pa?”
“One of General Stone’s men’s been hurt. He’s asked me to find him.” Dan looked over the boy’s white-blond head. “It’s the least I can do to improve English-American relations.”
His son stiffened. “How’s he hurt?”
There was something in the boy’s tone that said he knew more about this than was being said. “He’s hurt his head, son.”
Israel remained still for a moment and then, suddenly, sobbed and threw his arms around his father’s neck. As Stone made a dismissive disappointed noise low in his throat, the boy pressed his lips against Dan’s ear and whispered, “Pa, I left that man at the cabin. He don’t want to go with them. He’s sick and he’s scared.”
Dan ran his hand through his son’s hair and then pushed him back to arm’s length. “Stand at attention, soldier!” As the boy complied, he added, “Now wipe away those tears and fulfill your mission. You go to the cabin and make sure everyone there is safe. You understand me, boy?”
His son’s small form straightened and the boy saluted smartly. “Aye, sir! Sorry ‘bout that, sir.”
A minute later Daniel Boone watched Israel and the soldier disappear into the trees. He drew in a deep breath, trusting to Providence and his own ability to judge a man’s character, to keep him safe. Letting the breath out, the tall frontiersman spun to look over, and then at General Stone.
“Now why don’t you tell me everything there is to know about this fella I’ll be trackin’?”