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Part of the Evening Doctor Series

A short story by Casey J




With the tortured wheezing and groaning of ancient machinery, the tall blue police box slowly solidified at the end of the narrow alleyway.

The doors clicked open and a tall man stepped onto the rough cobbles and looked around, shading his clear blue eyes with his hand. His pleasant, slightly cynical features were framed by wavy red hair and he was dressed in a long frock coat made from red velvet, light brown flannel trousers and a black, flowery-patterned waistcoat. Tied elegantly in a bow around the neck of his white wing-collared shirt was a black silk cravat.

A few moments later, he was followed from the police box by a much younger man with untidy dark hair outlining his pale oval face. He was dressed in a brightly-coloured Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and sunglasses with a satchel slung over his shoulder.

He glanced around their surroundings – they were in a warren of streets winding round a glass-and-steel complex that looked palatial and modern compared to its surroundings. The walls of the streets were lined with shops and stalls and booths of every kind, selling food and drink and trinkets like some old-fashioned market place. The bright orange sun burned overhead in a cloudless blue-grey sky, and already he was starting to perspire.

“Bit warmer than I was expecting, Doctor?”

His companion seemed lost in thought. “Hmm? Oh, yes. The height of the Manussan summer, at a guess, Eric.”

Eric took off his hat with his free hand and used it to fan his face. “What’s a Manussan summer, then?” he asked.

“The summer they have on Manussa,” answered the Doctor. “As the name would imply.”

Eric’s face crumpled into a frown. “Manussa? You mean we’re not on Risa?”

The Doctor shook his head. “Afraid not. We’re in exactly the right time zone, though, Eric. The right solar system too – the Tri-Federation of Risa, Sarkon and Manussa. We just got the wrong planet, and one out of three isn’t too bad when you think about it...”

Eric groaned through gritted teeth. “Yeah, yeah, I know, a few trillion miles is nothing considering the universe is constantly expanding and therefore distance is an illusion to start with. We’re still in the wrong place, though, aren’t we?”

The Doctor, infuriating unaffected by the sweltering heat, shrugged. “Manussa has its attractions. Mind you, after last time...”

“Of course!” fumed Eric. “You’ve been here before!”

“Several times,” the Doctor confirmed with a sigh. “Look, if it’s so important, I’m sure the TARDIS can manage a short hop...”

“Oh, no!” retorted Eric, shaking his head. “If we’re that close, we can just catch a shuttle or something, can’t we? Wouldn’t that be so much safer, cheaper and reliable.”

The Doctor looked as though he was going to argue, but didn’t. “All right, all right. We’re not too far from the space port. We’ll just take the transporters like normal, boring, time-locked people who don’t have access to a time machine.”

Eric beamed insincerely up at the Doctor. “Makes a change, doesn’t it?”

The Doctor turned and set off down the alleyway. Eric took a last look back at the TARDIS and then hurried after him.

“You know, Doctor, I’ve been meaning to ask something,” he called. “Risa? Why does that sound so familiar?”

The Doctor glanced over his shoulder back at Eric. “We’ve been there before. Or rather, we will be there later on, many millions of years in the future at a time when there’s a brief Androgum invasion.”

Eric frowned, then smiled. “Oh, yes! Remember how we dyed them all blue?”

“Yes, Eric,” the Doctor retorted. “I’m not the one who needs reminding, am I?”

“I just mean, it was such a long time ago,” Eric protested. “Back before we met Mong, and here we are again, like... like nothing happened.”

The Doctor didn’t reply, and so they traveled in silence for a while. The air, while stiflingly hot, at least smelled nice from all the roast meat cooking, fresh pastries being baked and sweetmeats being spiced. There were people everywhere eating and drinking, turning over goods, buying and selling and haggling, laughing and chattering and arguing and crying their wares. The TARDIS had at least arrived at a place rich with distraction, and just what they needed to help deal with the sudden and unceremonious departure of their friend Mong, Eric thought. Hard to believe he could miss a stinking hairy mole with a hair-trigger temper, a samurai sword and a drinking problem, but miss him he did.

Up ahead could be seen the spaceport – it looked similar to the airports of twenty-first century Earth, except there were spaceships parked on landing pads instead of airplanes on runways. There seemed to be plenty of ships to choose from and lots of people milling around the entrances to the port.

A thought occurred to Eric. “We have enough money for tickets, don’t we?”

“Oh, easily,” the Doctor said with supreme confidence. So saying, he delved into his pockets and pulled out a plastic bag full of currency and handed it to him.

Eric was relieved. He’d had a nightmarish vision of the two of them on the landing pad with a cardboard sign saying “RISA OR BUST” and hopeful expression as they tried to hitch a lift on a cargo freighter. At least they were spared that.

***

“Of course,” the Doctor suggested, “we can always hitchhike...”

Eric massaged his temples and tried not to scream with frustration. They’d both been surprised at the state of the spaceport – it was more like a busy shopping mall during the school holidays than a place of departure and arrival. There were more stores and food outlets than in the marketplaces outside, with mobile hot food stands, people pushing shopping trolleys and adverts everywhere. As they made their way around a family selling hand-painted deathmasks on a rug in the middle of the concourse, the Doctor had spotted the departure boards – there were no flights anywhere to Risa.

The Doctor turned to an airport policeman who, rather worryingly, seemed to be wearing the uniform of a medieval executioner complete with sword. “Excuse me, but why have all these flights been cancelled?” he asked.

“Don’t you watch the news?’ grunted the helmeted guard. “The Fourth Sontaran Battle Fleet is using the Scrampus system as a short-cut to Rutan Space! Anyone who gets in their way will be used as target practice! Until they’re gone, no transport is available to Risa – so either get comfortable or get lost!”

In a huff, the guard turned and storm off through the crowds.

“Sontarans?” Eric asked as they made their way up one of the countless escalators leading up and down to different levels of the spaceport.

“A nasty clone race dedicated to eternal war...”

“Oh them,” Eric said airily. The Doctor spoke about Sontarans as spoke about Daleks; aliens he’d tangled with and had great adventures before he’d settled down into a lifestyle of tourism and indulgence. Eric hadn’t met Sontarans before, nor was he in any hurry to do so from what he’d heard about the war-obsessed toad creatures.

“The long and short of it is that there are no ships going from Manussa to Risa,” the Doctor said. “And quite right too – you can hardly blame them in these circumstances. It looks like we’ll have to travel by TARDIS...”

A figure rushed over to them. She had ash-white skin, a long nose and blood-red lips like some rather frightening clown dressed in drab tunic and leggings. Hung around her neck was a tray of wares that seemed to be mainly dockets and codes. “Are you after space-lane tickets?” she asked in a high-pitched, sing-song voice that seemed to make her appear even more sinister than she already was.

The Doctor looked up, distracted. “I’m sorry?”

“We want to go to Risa,” Eric explained.

“Ah, direct travel is impossible at this time,” crooned the alien.

“So we heard,” said the Doctor flatly.

The salesman started to ruffle through the contents of her tray. “But you can go on a round-trip via Sarkon? I have a one-way ticket on Parallax Travel and a season ticket on Hyper-Bypass Couriers...” She held up two computer chips.

“We’ll take them,” said Eric instantly, then turned to the Doctor. “Pay the man.”

The Time Lord sighed, rolled his eyes, and handed over a handful of coins and jewels that were acceptable currency on Manussa. “You realize,” he said to Eric as they were handed the chips, “we shall have to travel separately! Through a war zone!”

“At least we’ll get there,” Eric pointed out. “Look, we’ll meet up at the Sarkon space port tomorrow afternoon. No problem.”

“And what if we don’t get there tomorrow?” the Doctor challenged.

“Then the afternoon the day after tomorrow!”

The Doctor wasn’t sure if Eric was serious. “Noon every day until we meet up?”

“Why not? Look,” Eric said, checking the overhead display screens. “This Parallax Travel flight doesn’t go for another three hours, but Hyper-Bypass is boarding now. Which one do you want, Doctor?”

The Time Lord snatched the HBC chip. “I don’t intend to hang around space ports any more than I have to. See you tomorrow at noon, Eric!” Without another word, he turned and set off through the crowds towards the entrance docks.

Eric was suddenly left alone. “Fine,” he shrugged. “I’ll have a drink in the bar until my flight arrives. It is a holiday, after all.”

He strode into the nearest drinking den, nestled between a 3D video arcade and a shoe shop for monopeds, which was called The Shattered Serpent and was covered in quasi-Egyptian snake images and stencils. As he entered, Eric noticed only one table was occupied by five short, armored aliens with potato-like bald goblin heads and wicked grinning mouths. They were knocking back shot glasses of something alcoholic and chanting like football fans on a night out. “Son-tar-HA! Son-tar-HA!”

“Hello,” said Eric cheerfully. “What are you drinking?”

“Vrag, puny human!” grumbled one of the aliens. “It is a traditional chemical intake for the bravest and strongest of constitutions. Your feeble digestive tract could not dare to even to hope to process such a brew!”

“Oh, really?” Eric retorted. “Back at uni, I could drink folk under the table.”

“Infantile boasts,” barked another alien, identical to the first. “A warrior does not talk, a warrior acts. Skoth, hand this pink-skinned hominid a goblet and let us see its pathetic esophagus wither away!”

Eric wasn’t scared. None of the staff – which he now noticed seemed to be hiding behind the bar, cowering in terror – objected to this stuff being sold on the premises, so it could hardly be that bad. He remembered that time he’d added tequila to a potted cactus and then tried to drink both. This “vrag” could be nothing compared to that.

One of the aliens held out a small bowl-like cup with steaming dew.

“Very well, human. If this is how you wish to perish, go ahead!”

“Big talk for a little guy,” snorted Eric and downed it in one go. It might as well have been water, as it was tasteless and had no side effects at all.

The aliens stared at him, their piggy little eyes wide and impressive.

“He clearly has the guts of a warrior,” spoke one.

“But does he have the bladder control?” asked another warily.

“It does not matter,” said another. “The human, by not spontaneously combusting due to inferior molecular composition, has earned the respect of the Sontarans.”

“Sontarans, eh?” asked Eric, trying to remember where he’d heard that before.

Everything after that was slightly murky, but Eric was later to discover that this was the point where he started vomiting uncontrollably and passed out, crumpling to the floor in a sticky, messy heap of twitching limbs.

***

The Doctor meanwhile was in the departure lounge, looking out through the tinted parabolic windows as a brick-like tiger-striped shuttle slowly rose up into the cobalt-grey sky of Manussa and out of sight. He’d missed his flight.

He’d got there on time, found the right queue... but for some reason he hadn’t got aboard. It was as if he’d fallen asleep on his feet, unaware of time passing and people moving. It was like some part of the Time Lord hadn’t wanted to leave Manussa behind.

The Doctor focused all his attention onto the current situation, closing his mind to the strange urgent pulse deep inside his head. It was like a voice from far away at the edge of his hearing, calling to him like desert winds blowing over empty landscapes. When had he first heard it? He couldn’t remember. It could have been a few hours ago, or perhaps it had started just after his regeneration when he and Eric had met the Quos...

“Excuse me,” said a voice, jolting him out of his daze once more.

“Sorry?” he apologized automatically.

He was talking to a young woman in an apple-green flight suit with feathery, neck-length blonde hair and wide green eyes. “It’s all right. I was wondering if you would be interested in our group,” she began.

The Doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have time. I need to get the next shuttle to Sarkon right away and...”

“That’s what I mean,” the woman smiled. “Our group runs six planet hoppers between here and Sarkon. But one of the flight crew has been locked up by the Federator’s guards and we need a replacement. Do you have any piloting skills?”

The Doctor beamed at her. “Madam, I am qualified to fly anything, anytime, anywhere!”

The woman was relieved. “Good. Come on, our hopper is ready to launch as soon as we get clearance from ground control!” She took his hand and lead him through the archway out onto the landing bay in the sunshine outside.

***

Eric didn’t feel up to singing, but bopping his head along to the tune wasn’t helping his blinding headache. It occurred to him he wasn’t sure where he was, how long he’d been there or even what was going on. He was squashed in an uncomfortable gap between a console and a wall, trying to sing along with the other people present.

He realized he was hungover, and opened his eyes to see the people he’d gotten drunk with – those dome-headed troll-like aliens who were doing some kind of war-dance as they sat at their control panels studying holo-displays.

“Son-tar! Son-tar!
We fight for Sontar!
The glory of Sontar!
Is why we fight!”

Eric forced himself out from the nook he’d been tucked into and stumbled over to the other side of the cramped, circular cockpit. He grimaced as he noticed another of the aliens lying dead on the floor, covered in green blood and stinking like roast beef. The remainder were singing cheerfully as they wrestled with the controls. Between their broad shoulders, Eric peered out at the screen where sparking beams of light were blasting holes in crystalline-netted snowballs that seemed to be spaceships.

“Oh god,” Eric moaned. “It’s like that bit in Life of Brian!

“Ah, the Randall human is now functioning at battle readiness,” grunted the pilot.

“What am I doing here?” Eric shouted as the ship was rocked by an explosion.

“It was your idea, human,” sneered the co-pilot. “It was you who pointed out the gaping flaw in Field Marshall Stabb’s convoy strategy. After you stopped projectile vomiting undigested nutrients, anyway...”

“I don’t remember any of this,” Eric protested.

“Your points had merit,” the pilot replied. “With the main convoy of Sontaran reinforcements on the path between Manussa and Risa, their flank was exposed to Sarkon and any Rutan forces in this sector would be hiding there in ambush.”

“In return for free passage to Sarkon, you volunteered to help the glorious Sontaran Empire crush the filthy Rutan scum all way across this galaxy,” agreed the co-pilot.

“‘Bring it on, you stupid jellyfish!’ were the words you used.”

“Then you started vomiting again.”

“But your righteous fury still shone through. It was most impressive for a human.”

The Sontarans opened fire again and another few snowball-ships exploded.

“So, er, are we winning?” asked Eric, feeling sick for many different reasons.

“The battle is virtually over,” the co-pilot explained. “We have destroyed all the Rutan scouters in this sector, leaving only their command carrier intact.”

“A command carrier, Randall, we intend to now destroy.” The pilot started punching controls. “As ammunition supplies are low, hull integrity at critical and power cells at danger level, there is only one viable course of attack...”

Eric watched as shapes spun over the forward screens, circles and triangles that were targeting the heart of a vast white-glass shape that resembled a hammerhead shark. The shape began to grow larger and larger as the engines droned loudly. The sick feeling in his stomach got worse and worse.

“You’re going to ram them?” he realized.

“His grasp of military strategy is extensive, if rudimentary,” the co-pilot observed.

“Your trouble is, you always expect too much from inferior races,” the pilot retorted.

Eric saw the Rutan command carrier expand to fill the whole screen. “This is insane! Suicidal!” he shouted desperately.

The co-pilot arched a hairless, heavy eyebrow. “Suicide?” he exclaimed. “This is a zero sum strategy, destroying them as destroying ourselves. There is no misery or despair here – only victory, glorious triumph against all odds!”

Eric felt like tearing his hair out. “Now I know why Mutually-Assured Destruction spells MAD!” he wailed. “Are there any escape pods left?”

The pilot snorted. “Ejection bubbles and life pods are used by weakling non-combatants. Why would such a device be located aboard a Sontaran battle sphere? What vrag-inflicted brain damage could make you even ask such a question?”

“Pah! Death’s too good to you,” snapped the co-pilot.

“Look, there must be some way to abandon ship! What if one of the crew had to survive to, I dunno, pass on a message to the generals or something?”

“Then they would be most unfortunate! They would miss a glorious demise!”

“Yes, but how would they get off the ship?” screamed Eric.

The co-pilot waved a claw at the machinery that Eric had been snuggled up to a few moments earlier. “The sorry podling would use the osmic projector at the rear of the ship and translocate themselves to safety,” he explained impatiently.

“Osmic projector,” said Eric dully. “Right...”

He ran over to the machinery and saw what seemed to be some futuristic movie camera built into the wall, looking right at him, surrounded by controls. Frantically, he started flipping and punching every switch and button he could reach, all the time away of the command carrier rushing towards them with gathering speed.

“Sontar! Sontar!
We die for Sontar!
The glory of Sontar!
Is why we die!”

Thankfully, Eric managed to trigger something. There was a rising metallic howl and the Sontaran battle cruiser and its contents rapidly grew pale, translucent, transparent, then began to recede into darkness. At the last moment, the ghostly outline of the cockpit burst into a writhing fireball and Eric knew nothing more.

***

The Doctor was decidedly nervous. The take-off from the Manussa spaceport was a drunken cart-wheeling trajectory that resembled the path of a drunken bumble bee stuck in a revolving door that was attached to an upside-down centrifuge – and that had been with him trying to fly in a straight line!

The planet hopper he had agreed to pilot had a flight computer programmed to make random course changes, the better to distract and confuse any pursuing ships. However, the only crewmember who knew how to deactivate this function was the one the Doctor had replaced and he’d spent all the time since preventing them from crashing.

Now, at least, they were into free space and heading towards Sarkon – which gave him a chance to check the displays more clearly. Almost every dial and reading hovered just above zero or dusting the edges of danger. The auto-repair systems were at critical, struggling to simply hold the planet hopper together in one piece. The illuminated signs asking the crew to abandon ship in life pods had been flashing since before he arrived and there was no sign of them going out any time soon.

“Perhaps we should go back to Manussa and try and buy something less antique,” the Doctor suggested as he prevented another death-dive towards a passing moon. “Something that can actually travel between planets without falling apart?”

“Nonsense,” said his co-pilot, who still hadn’t told him her name. “This old crate is completely rebuilt with redesigned atmospheric shielding and weft-drives. Now, are the coordinates locked into the flight computer?”

The Doctor glanced at a read-out. “We’re heading for the dark side of the planet, somewhere on the mountain axis between the trifecta continents.”

“Good,” she smiled brightly. “Once we’re in geostationary orbit we can start teleporting the supplies down to the settlement.”

“Settlement?”

“Our group’s settlement,” she explained. “We have to keep ourselves supplied.”

“By airdrop? At night?” asked the Doctor, seriously beginning to think he should have stuck to HBC for his travel needs. “That seems a bit... furtive.”

“There’s much of Sarkon that haven’t been surveyed, let alone mapped. There are no roads or paths to other countries – no one even knows what country they’re actually located in. That’s why we built settlements and fly in everything we need.”

“Don’t worry,” the woman said reassuringly. “Once the drop is done, we’ll head on to the spaceport to drop you off as promised. Now, you take the controls while I and my assistant load up the teleporter...”

“Assistant?” echoed the Doctor, certain they’d been alone on the ship.

“Yes, Kreeffad O’ the Aspudfin Grig. He’s one of the few natives.”

The Doctor swallowed and nervously glanced at the rear of the cockpit where a hulking, wart-covered Androgum sat, brooding over a datapad. It was hard to tell if it was male or female, but certainly one of the more prehistoric and un-evolved of the species.

“Oh. Hello.” The Doctor waved nervously.

“Delighted to make your acquaintance,” replied the Androgum, not looking up.

The Doctor wondered if the Androgum was unusually intellectual or perhaps another augmented gene experiment. Either way, he was most relieved that the unnamed pilot was working with the homicidal omnivore and not him.

The moment he was left alone, the Doctor checked the long-range scanners. The Sontaran convey was still on the move, but there was a pitched battle occurring not too far from Sarkon between the Sontarans and some Rutan taskforce. A string of silent explosions left the scanners clear of everything but burning debris.

On the current course and heading, the planet hopper would soon plunge into the firestorm. The only possible course of action was to land the planet hopper until Sarkon’s rotation had moved the mountain range from under the danger zone.

All too soon, his fellow travelers both returned and the Doctor explained the situation.

“No problem,” she said. “We’ve built a landing pad at this site. Let’s head down.”

Gratefully, the Doctor steered the ramshackle spacecraft down through the folds of the atmosphere to a lumpy, uneven landscape of jungle-coated mountains. Moonlight and the glow of the firestorm overhead turned the clouds a luminous purple against the magenta sky, allowing the outlines of a vegetation-filled volcanic crater to become visible.

“There it is!” said his co-pilot happily, still wearing sunglasses for some reason.

The planet hopper swooped down into the crater, close enough for the Doctor to make out a thin gap in the ferns and trees running the diameter of the hidden settlement. A quick mental calculation, however, told him the hopper would not have decelerated enough for a landing before reaching the other edge of the crater – they’d still be travelling fast enough to smash their way through the side of the mountain.

“I think you should have arranged a longer landing strip,” he pleaded, slamming the emergency air-brakes to no avail.

“Any longer and we’d be spotted.”

“By whom? The Sontarans? The Rutans?”

“Anyone!” she grinned. “Our group must remain uncontaminated by any contact with the forces of authority. No one knows we’re here except the local Androgum Grigs, and we have a special relationship with them...”

The hopper shrieked down through the trees and hurtled towards the rocky lip of the basin. The Doctor checked but there seemed to be no nets, no holograms, no hidden mechanisms or anything that would halt their too-fast decent and fatal death dive.

“Oh well,” he sighed. “At least Eric’s all right...”

***

Eric was asleep again. Or was he awake. People were arguing.

“This is no degenerate space troll!” shouted the woman with the frog in her throat.

“The Sontarans have often used allies,” replied her identical-sounding sister. “The human was clearly considered vital enough to relocate from the battle zone. We were right to intercept the beam before it fully discorporated.”

Eric realized he was actually quite cold and was lying on something very cold and wet. He opened his eyes, closed them again, realized his eyes were probably telling the truth, so he opened them again.

Floating over him were three things that looked like a cross between a giant snowball, a jellyfish and a squid. Tendrils of white seaweed-like flesh dangled like dreadlocks from slimy, yet dry, round bodies. They were like balloons of translucent flesh with round jelly-filled organs within that occasionally seemed to form the patterns of a face, with two orbs for eyes and an orb for the mouth. They were glowing a sick electric green and let out a low bubbling drone as they breathed in and out.

“If I’m sober, I preferred being drunk,” he admitted.

“Silence!” crackled one of the blobs. “We are the Rutan Host and you our the prisoners of the most glorious army in creation. We wish to know your allegiance with the Sontaran rabble. Answer us, or we shall take your flesh apart.”

Eric tried to smile winningly, but was sure he looked like his was going to cry. “Go ahead, ask anything you like. I am really happy to cooperate.”

There was a long pause, the only sound the undulating gurgle of the Rutans.

“We think we shall dissect you anyway.”

***

 And lo, the Lord of Time was sore relieved when instead of dying, the craft spun around at the last moment and came safe at rest deep in the Sanctuary of the true believers. Man and Androgum alike mocked him for his fear and lack of faith, but the Lord of Time had greater concerns to occupy him.

He had been promised a further trip to his destination, but the craft would not travel any further. The true believers covered it with vines and leaves, making it invisible from above. Prying eyes, living and machine, would see only plants. The rest of the world, and the imminent war in the heavens would not contaminate the Sanctuary.

The Lord of Time was taken to a richly-furnished guest room, but such comforts did not please him. Nor the city hidden in the trees or carved out of the ground, the rich variety of birds and flowers and cacti. For though beautiful, the Sanctuary was now his prison.

Acting at ease to confuse the true believers, he went deep into the Sanctuary, to the deepest and oldest places where sunlight had never shone in living memory. He ignored all warnings and barriers, entering the catacombs unafraid.

At last, the Lord of Time came across the dark heart of the under-city. A stone so vast he could not fully perceive lay ahead, like a giant stone eye staring blindly upwards. Tiny images and pictograms traced a spiral outwards across the stone, a calendar of events transcribing every event from the dawn of civilization and ages of ice through the present and into future. The Lord of Time knew not if this was record or prediction, history or hope, but he soon found a section – this section now – describing his actions.

And now the Lord of Time, a quip about comic strips upon his lips, scans ahead through the pictures. He sees the tale of how he came here, the markings now laid out. He does what he does because he reads it and he reads it because he will do what he will do.

The true believers have studied this stone themselves and though much of its true meaning are lost, they believe they know what it says. That the End of All Things rapidly approaches, that the Lord of Time must play his part and the Lord of Time must die. They believe a sacrifice must be made, and a ceremony observed. They went to Manussa to find the Lord of Time and bring him there for a purpose they did not understand.

But the Lord of Time has no intention of dying yet. He reads ahead, sees the approaching guards and, as foretold, will easily avoid them. With speed and alacrity, he will find a sub-passage leading out to the surface at the edge of the ravine. He will not be spotted as he heads down the crater and through the jungle towards the distant villages, unaware of the true believers and their preparation for the End of All Things.

Would that the Lord of Time stay longer, for truth would be uncovered. He would know of the danger his last remaining friend has been placed in, the threat to the world he still thinks of as home, and the source of the distant sounds from the darkness that trouble him so. Like fragments of half-formed thoughts, the sounds of the dead scratching and clawing into his soul.  He feels the odd, fluttering lure below the surface of his mind and was determined to resist. But what if that was what the voices wanted him to do?

The believers understand this and this only, and it is the one thing that is true.

The End of All Things approaches, and the Lord of Time will be the first victim.


***

Eric felt sick. It was hot and clammy outside the snowball-like Rutan spaceship and the sudden change of temperature, combined with teleport stress and a truly respectable hangover, had left him nauseous and feverish.

The threat of instant, horrible death wasn’t doing him much good either.

The Rutans had ushered him out of their vessel with crackling tendrils and he’d found himself in the middle of some kind of primitive village that made him think of South America, all bronzed people in loose clothing and shack-like huts under a blazing sun and a jungle nearby. None of them looked particularly happy at the presence of the Rutans, but Eric could tell at a glance that they weren’t going to annoy them either.

A stunning jolt from one of the floating jellyfish things left Eric on his knees, trying not to wretch and unable to run for his life which he’d been seriously considering.

The bubbling, gurgling green monsters spoke in unison, addressing the villagers.

“We are the Rutan Host. We are infinitely adaptable and can survive anywhere, in any environment, even the airless vacuum of space above. We are the highest evolutionary creation the universe has ever known! LONG LIVE THE RUTAN EMPIRE!!”

Eric wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard the Rutans clear their throats before continuing in a slightly-calmer, less-fanatical manner.

“Under the guidance of our Queen, the glorious Rutan army is purging our galaxy of the degenerate Sontaran rabble until Mutter’s Spiral is once again held by its rightful rulers. Our technology has uplifted countless species towards sentience, even your own, and we have struggled for millennia to keep you protected from Sontaran aggression. Now, the accursed space trolls are moving their evil battle fleet through this sector and we will require the assistance of you all during this difficult period.”

Eric had no idea what these villagers could do to help in a full-blown space battle, and judging from their nonplussed looks, neither did the villagers themselves.

“For those who aid our endless struggle for freedom and liberty,” the Rutans continued, “there will be rewards and recognition in abundance. And for those who oppose our glorious empire, there will be many punishments...”

One of the Rutans, tendrils sparking and crackling, broke formation and floated menacingly towards Eric.

“One such punishment shall be demonstrated here before your ocular senses!”

Eric gulped.

***

The Doctor emerged from the fringes of the jungle, following the course of the stream into the village. Livestock and fisher-folk shot him odd looks as they gathered fish and water from the stream, but no one challenged him. No doubt they’d encountered more than a few oddly-dressed tourists stumbling around, or other deserters from the doomsday cult in the mountain Sanctuary.

Wasting no time, he made his way through the shanty-town. Most of the buildings were made of mud-brick and had curtains rather than doors. Their roofs were either thatched or recycled hull plates from space craft. Probably some kind of refugee centre, the Doctor deduced, evolving over the years into a basic agricultural community. The people here had all they needed to survive, and no means or desire to contact civilization.

Nonetheless, the only real settlement on this side of the ranges would be bound to collect some more technologically-advanced inhabitants and within half an hour the Doctor stumbled across a scrap-yard near the eastern corner of the village. Half the ground space had been converted into a plantation of wheat and corn, while the rest was a junkheap of broken computer terminals, liquid crystal stacks, the skeletal frames of space-tracers and a second-hand survival dome that had been turned into a combined office and garage.

A brown-skinned native in an eye-searing yellow poncho was sitting outside, his sandaled feet up on a table, sipping cold water from a concentrator tank there.

“Excuse me!” called the Doctor, jogging towards the owner of the yard.

“You need something stranger?” asked the owner, sipping his drink.

“Yes, I was wondering if I could borrow that air-car of yours?” the Doctor asked politely, indicating the ugly olive-green vehicle that resembled the hideous offspring betwixt a Delorean and a military hovercraft. It was rusted, dirty and had a cracked windscreen but it looked serviceable enough.

“Borrow?” The owner clicked his tongue disapprovingly and shook his head.

“It’s important,” the Doctor insisted. “I have reason to believe my companion is in great danger. You see, I found an ancient pictographic stone slab that detailed the past and future, and it told me that not only is Eric about to be executed by Rutans but that the only way he can be saved is if I come to the rescue in a hover-car flying machine...”

The owner nodded slowly. “Pity it did not tell you my flyer is not for rent.”

“Can it be bought wholesale, then?”

“Yes, but I think it costs too much for you to afford.”

“Nonsense!” said the Doctor confidently, then rummaged in his pockets for a moment before his face fell. With difficulty, he pretended he hadn’t been surprised to have lost his wallet somewhere over the last day or so. “Although I don’t have any currency on me at the moment, I can still pay any price...”

“This stone with pictures didn’t tell you to pick up money on the way?”

The Doctor fumed. “I left in a hurry.”

The owner shook his head. “I’m sure this friend of yours will understand.”

The Time Lord fumed and paced for a moment. He gazed over the air-car for a moment and then realized its doors were unlocked. He turned back to the owner. “Excuse me, I don’t suppose you could help me with another problem?” he asked.

“Depends what the problem is,” the owner shrugged.

“It’s just... you know when beetles fight their battles in a bottle and the bottle’s on a poodle and that poodle is eating noodles... what do we call it?”

The owner sucked air through his teeth and let his head roll back as he mulled the problem over. It was a strange question, right enough. He ran it through his mind several times, then his enthusiasm waned. “I do not know,” he admitted.

“It’s called ‘a distraction’!” bellowed the Doctor cheerfully over the whine of engines.

The owner sat bolt upright to see the air-car unsteadily hovering off the ground. The Doctor was inside at the controls, steering it up into the sky with practiced ease. The Time Lord waved cheerfully, pulled a ‘what can you do?’ expression, and then swung the air-car through ninety degrees and shot out of view.

The owner of the yard gazed up at the sky for a long moment in the faint hope the air-car would return. Then he closed his eyes and mentally rehearsed how to describe the exact circumstances of the theft and a description of the offender for the authorities

In moments, he was fast asleep.

***

Eric hadn’t given much thought as to how he would die. He’d always assumed it would be peacefully in his sleep or – when he was drunk and hopefully – breathlessly in the arms of a supermodel. Stung to death by an electrified space jellyfish in front of some puzzled villagers on a planet he’d been too hungover to remember landing on was definitely low on the list. Traffic accidents, yeah. Space jellyfish? No.

So here he was, kneeling in the sand, forced to hang his head so as not to be blinded by the glare of the sunshine. The heat was so intense it was like a crushing weight and for a few hopeful moments, the dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. But no, worst luck, something wouldn’t let him pass out.

“This humanoid has been conspiring with the Sontaran rabble of his own free will,” the Rutans were declaring in their tinny, gurgling voices. “This degenerate scum seek to humiliate us and defy our righteous authority. If this human had respected our power, it could have avoided such punishment and lived a peaceful and reward life, working for the good of us all. Instead, it chose to become a treacherous villain.”

Eric felt ill, faint, desperately unhappy and he couldn’t even console himself his friends would rescue him – Mong was on another planet in a different time zone, and the Doctor was probably waiting impatiently at a space port. Neither of them even knew he was in trouble. There was no one to save him.

“And so it will receive a just reward for its crimes!”

The Rutans had formed a triangle around him, their fizzing, crackling tendrils forming a web around him that rapidly tightened and shrank. Once it touched Eric, even for a second, he was dead. He couldn’t think of any witty last words, and even if he had his throat was so dry it hurt to breathe, let alone talk...

This is a nightmare, he thought. This can’t be happening

“Rutan justice is swift. It is righteous. And it is without mercy!”

There was a suddenly, sharp boom of noise like a mechanical thunderclap. An intense burst of hot, dusty air slammed down on top of Eric. His muscles, however, were locked and he remained still – a primal urge not to risk touching the Rutans, who all let out a strangled howl like Tarzan falling into a chasm. They split apart and scattered, slithering into the shade as something swooping overhead reared up into the sky, looped-the-loop and came to a rest on the dusty ground in front of Eric.

Shaking uncontrollably, he looked up and saw a very battered futuristic flying car had parked in front of him. One of the wing doors was raised open, allowing him to see a familiar red-haired figure strapped into the pilot seat.

“Doctor!” he croaked feebly.

“Taxicab for a Mr. Randall?” called the Doctor cheerfully.

With a burst of adrenaline that somehow made him feel even worse than when he’d been facing certain death, Eric threw himself into back seats of the shuttle and strapped himself in. The door swung shut as the engines engaged. The Doctor hauled on the flight yolk and the vehicle lifted off the ground and climbed up into the open sky with a high-pitched hum from the drives.

One of the Rutans swept up towards them, its tendrils lashing but the insulated outer hull protected the occupants from the lethal. The energy expenditure of levitating and generating powerful electrical shocks was too much for the single Rutan to manage and it floated back down to the others with as much dignity as was possible.

“As you can see,” they said to the unimpressed villagers, “we are capable of mercy in allowing immoral Sontaran-loving scum to survive even when it would be very easy to eradicate them all.”

The villagers said nothing.

“We allowed them to escape to send disinformation to their hideous masters.”

Still silence.

“Skepticism is unnecessary.”

More silence.

“That is all for today,” the Rutans decided and returned to their ship. “Carry on with your traditional duties and know that the supreme beings of creation are protecting you. Even if it looks like we are not. Because we are.”

The villagers shook their head and went back to their various tasks.

***

As the Doctor straightened out the steering vane, the small craft cruised steadily away from the village on an admittedly wobbly flight path. “Let’s just hope you can fly this thing better than the TARDIS!” Eric quipped weakly.

The Doctor was focused on the steering controls and didn’t look up or react.

Eric supposed he sounded a bit ungrateful, but he wasn’t at his best. When he was fully recovered from that drinking competition, hypothermia and nearly being publically executed by flying space jellyfish, he’d make amends.

Through the glass canopy, the landscape swept beneath them – muddy ridges, scrubby heaths, flocks of startled-looking goat-like creatures with two heads. In the distance, Eric could just make out the edge of the land and a sea as smooth as a polished mirror. More advanced, technological buildings sprouted from the steep hillside, like a manmade fungus growing in between vast bayou trees.

“Where are we heading, anyway?” asked Eric.

The Doctor nodded ahead of them. “See the ocean ahead? Sarkon still boasts sea travel as one of its major trades. There’s bound to be a seaport and transport to another one of the trifecta continents, ideally one with a spaceport.”

“That’s... logical,” said Eric. “But you’re sure we’re heading in the right direction?”

“Oh yes,” said the Doctor, a faint bitterness to his voice that Eric didn’t understand.

The Doctor had caught a glimpse of a sea-skipper in the distance earlier, but there was another reason he was heading that way.

The gentle implacable call was there, urging him on, faster and faster like a desire he could not quite control.

Not for the first time, the Doctor wondered if he was going mad.

***

By the time they reached the sea-port, Eric was feeling much better. It seemed to be mainly his hangover causing all the symptoms, but the Doctor didn’t comment on the recklessness of taking on aliens in drinking competitions. In fact, he hardly commented on anything. Eric wondered if the Doctor considered him an unwanted responsibility, someone he was duty-bound to look after rather than friendship.

The Doctor landed the air-car at the side of the road. A local, a young woman carrying a wicker basket of fruit and bread on her head, approached them as they emerged. “Ah, good afternoon!” said the Time Lord cheerfully. “I’m Mycroft Holmes and this is my brother Sherlock. Please accept this simple gift of a flyer – keys in the ignition!”

Leaving the bewildered woman to examine her new present, the Doctor hurried off down the road towards the harbor. Eric tried to keep up without looking like he was in a hurry. “Remind me, why are we mingling with crowds again?”

“Rutans are shape-shifters. If they’re infiltrating this planet they could have replaced some of the population. Anyone we meet could be a Rutan in disguise.”

Eric gulped. “And we’ve just managed to seriously offend them?”

The Doctor paused at a balcony, shielded his eyes and looked down at a liner in the bay. It looked like a kind of strange kite, one of those rectangular, hollow tubular ones – it was a framework of squared-off tubes that allowed water to flow through its body. “A luxury liner passing through. They’ll launch within the hour. We can hitch a ride.”

“How?” Eric grumbled. “It must cost a fortune to get on those.”

“Don’t you have any money left?”

Eric smiled awkwardly.

“Fine. We stowaway then.”

“Do we have to?”

The Doctor gave a smile that projected absolutely no warmth or charm whatsoever. “You can stay here and find another way, assuming the Rutans don’t come after you.” With that, he turned and trotted down some steps towards the bay.

“Why is life so difficult?” Eric grumbled.

“Because the universe likes to make selfish misery-guts like yourself suffer!” the Doctor snapped impatiently. “Stop complaining for once in your life and get moving!”

“Sorry,” said Eric, remembering an earlier promise to himself to whine less. Mind you, he hadn’t nearly been killed three times and been on the run when he’d made it.

Even so, he wondered just what was bugging the Doctor so much?

***

By the time the sun was touching the horizon, the luxury liner was skimming its way across the waters and the coastline was out of view. The passengers were either lazing in the shaded plazas or sun-bathing around the indoor pools. Servant droids whizzed back and forth, handing out refreshments and/or topic for conversation.

Eric lay on his front on a couch, trying to top up his tan. He never liked how pale and unhealthy he seemed after a lifetime in the United Kingdom and even that trip to Canada hadn’t improved his complexion. The Doctor was lying on an adjacent couch, hands behind his head, brow furrowed in concentration.

The robot crew had been easy for the Doctor to first bamboozle. All he’d done was claim he was first a member of the crew, then a passenger. The robots, unable to recall either claim, had checked their data files to confirm this. The Doctor had then simply wiped their memories of the data they’d found. The robots, not wanting to risk abandoning possibly a passenger or a needed crewmember, had grudgingly allowed them aboard.

Whereupon the Doctor had wiped their memory of that too.

“So, where is this liner going anyway?” mumbled Eric into his folded arms.

“The next continent of the trifecta,” came the bland reply. “There’s a spaceport there and we should be able to buy tickets to Risa with what money we still have.”

Eric lifted his head and looked across at his friend. “Something bothering you?”

“You tell me.”

“I thought you’d got over that midlife crisis business back on Uxarius.”

The Doctor didn’t look at him. “Yes. You thought,” he repeated.

“What’s the problem then? You worried about the Sontarans and the Rutans?”

“Not unduly. Both sides are too thinly-spread to cause much trouble right now, and the war still has another fifty centuries to run... there’s something else.”

“That carving? The one in the Sanctuary?”

“Perhaps.” The Doctor finally looked at Eric, and his expression was almost haunted. “It’s almost as if I can hear the first pebbles of an avalanche, Eric, but it’s too far away for me to stop it. The real events are taking place out there, deep in the ocean while we are still on the shore...”

“Which is ironic, considering we’re at sea.”

The Doctor looked pained. “You know what I mean, Eric.”

“OK, OK. But we can’t do anything about it at the moment, can we?”

“I suppose not.” The Doctor sighed wearily. “Just enjoy your holiday, Eric.”

“Will do,” he promised. Sitting up on his couch he turned his full attention to the pretty dark-skinned girl with the ash-blonde hair and bikini-flattering physique who was reading a clipboard-like datapad with interest.

“Hi!” said Eric casually. “Haven’t we met somewhere before? Manussa, maybe?”

“Maybe,” said the girl with a vivid white smile. “It’s my twelfth Sarkon tour. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in this system without a suntan...” A clearly flirtatious smirk formed on her face. “Til now, anyway?”

Eric laid back nonchalantly, trying to play it cool. “Well, I don’t often travel by skimmer. I’m just passing through on the way to Risa. Running the blockade, you might say.”

The girl mirrored his pose. Cradling her jaw in one hand, she gazed across at him. “Sounds exciting,” she reflected. “But you’ve seriously never been on a skimmer?”

“I prefer things a little more dangerous,” Eric said lazily. “Take the roads less traveled.”

“So enjoyable to meet someone adventurous in these turbulent times,” she smiled.

“It’s a burden I have to shoulder. So, you travelling alone or...?”

“I’m meeting up with some friends later,” she replied. “See that flyer over there?”

Eric frowned and looked out to see. A vehicle, similar to the one the Doctor had flown but far larger and more industrial, was droning across the horizon towards them.

“Is that them?”

“Uh-huh. That’s the biggest pirate raiding party in the solar system and they were never going to let a luxury skimmer go unmolested – especially now everyone’s coming through here towards Risa.”

Eric was about to ask her how she knew this when he realized she had a gun.

“Still, an adventure-junkie like you should see this as a good thing,” she grinned.

Eric sighed. He just had no luck with women. No luck at all.

***

 “Know any good jokes?” asked the Doctor idly, several hours later.

Eric sighed. “Only the one I’m living.”

Held at gunpoint by the cute pirate whose name he’d never learned, Eric had been unable to do anything but watch as the pirates swooped over head and stormed the luxury liner. They stole everything not nailed down, beat up anyone who resisted but on the whole were remarkably civilized. They could easily have slaughtered everyone, but if they’d done that, the chances were the luxury liner would never cruise around Sarkon again. It was an investment in their future looting.

Unfortunately, neither the Doctor nor Eric were passengers or crew. They hadn’t fallen for the Doctor’s charm and so they’d been taken aboard the pirate flyer and been given some generic gofer duties to tidy and maintain the ship in return for food and not being brutally murdered and thrown overboard.

“It would be churlish to refuse so gracious an invitation,” the Doctor had said, and he and Eric had set to work, painfully aware the odds of ever reaching Risa were getting smaller and smaller with every passing minute.

Finally, night had fallen and in the small corner of the cargo bay they had been allowed to sleep in, the Doctor had started talking about jokes. Undeterred by Eric’s lack of enthusiasm, the Time Lord said, “How about this one? So, there are these two Sontarans in a battle cruiser, and they get orders from High Command. The orders are: ‘drop a bombshell over Rutan territory’. So, they head towards the Rutans and when they get there, one turns to the other and says, ‘Linx? You’re adopted!’”

The Time Lord laughed; Eric didn’t.

“Drop a bombshell?” the Doctor prompted hopefully. “Adopted?”

Eric shot his friend a pained look but said nothing.

The Doctor blew out his cheeks. “Oh, for a companion with a sense of humor! Mong would have loved that joke! I thought you wanted me to lighten up.”

“That was when we were on a pleasure cruise. Now we are prisoners of sky-pirates.”

“So we are.” The Doctor nodded. “Still, as you were saying to that young lady, you do like adventures and we’ve certain had a few lately...”

“I was using that as a method of seduction,” Eric grumbled.

“Well, you could try being a travel writer instead of an adventurer. You could turn these adventures into a gripping spaceport ebook – Randall the Raconteur.”

Eric smiled. “I could turn it into a cartoon. World’s Dullest Comics!”

The craft around them dipped noticeably and the moonlit oceans outside rose up towards them. For a moment Eric thought their bad luck had ended with the pirate ship breaking down in mid-air, but the Doctor wasn’t worried. “We must have reached our destination,” he deduced. “Whatever destination that is...”

***

The port torn of Dhirifna was a plateau in the middle of an arid, treeless wasteland. Calling a desert would have been an insult to deserts. It was a tiny node of buildings and civilization in the middle, and at a glance Eric could tell the only way in or out was by air-car. There was no water to sail on, roads to traverse, indeed nowhere to except up. He immediately decided that he would make no attempt to escape while there; even jumping into the middle of the ocean there was more chance of survival...

The town was a trapezoid-patterned collection of domes, the solar panels on the outer walls looking like the abandoned carapaces of giant insects. Everyone present seemed to be dressed in form-concealing hooded robes, even the non-humanoids. Eric wasn’t sure if it was cultural, practical or to make sure no one could identity the other from their wanted posters. It was clear this was not a place pirates feared the forces of law.

The flyer put down on one of the pitted, ancient-looking landing pads at the outskirts of the town. The pirates made their way out of the flyer with surprising decorum; this was not a raid, this was shore leave and they all seemed very well-behaved. Eric supposed that being a pirate used up all your excess energy and aggression.

The Doctor and Eric had been all but left behind, forgotten. “Any chance we could steal this thing and get the hell out of here?” asked Eric hopefully.

“I’m fairly certain they would have thought of that,” replied the Doctor. “Even if we did, this town has enough interceptor rockets to blow us out of the sky...”

“Right. Just mingle till the moment arrives?”

“I thought so, yes.”

They made their way down the ramp and set off after the main group of the pirates.

“Hold on there, you two,” called a voice from behind them. The Doctor and Eric, automatically raising their hands, turned to see the attractive young woman who had summoned the pirates in the first place. “Come with me,” she ordered and set off through the buildings, expecting them to follow without hesitation. They did.

“I don’t suppose you know any good local restaurants?” asked the Doctor hopefully. “Our last meal was interrupted and I’m sure we’re all feeling a bit puckish...”

“The food synthesizers on the ship are perfectly acceptable,” she replied.

“Yeah, but we didn’t get to eat any!” Eric grumbled.

“Of course not. You’re not part of the crew.”

Eric looked longingly at an arcade that seemed to be a kind of coffee shop. “Well, maybe we can get a space kebab or something while we’re here?”

“What I have in mind is more entertaining,” said the young woman confidently, approaching a central building with crowds of robed beings loitering around.

“Looks like some kind of market...” the Doctor observed as they approached.

“How right you are,” their guide retorted as they entered the building.

It was grimy and poorly lit by cheap phosphor lamps that cast a sickly green glow over the various cages and minstrel galleries. Huddled in groups, dressed in the bare minimum of rags that sometimes didn’t even provide modesty were countless humans and aliens. They were all malnourished, frightened and manacled. Robed guards stood silent vigil at every doorway, blasters at the ready. A heap of barbecued corpses in one corner showed that they were quite willing and able to use them.

“A slave market,” concluded the Doctor, voice thick with disgust.

“Freshly set up this season with the Sontaran migration – no one’s noticed a high turnover of tourists passing through and not coming out.” The woman smiled at them, and the gun was in her hand again. “Case in point...?”

Eric couldn’t believe it. “You’re selling us into slavery?”

“You’re no other use to me,” she replied. “Especially as this market will be closed down soon, I have to make a profit while I can.”

“And what are you going to spend that profit on?” the Doctor demanded.

She laughed. “Duh! Making sure the same thing doesn’t happen to me! Now,” she added as guards approached, carrying chains and manacles, “the Rutan Host are apparently after medical experiments and dissection material. Let’s hope they don’t take an interest in you, but then again, I doubt you’ll get a better offer. And being sold is the only way you’re going to get out of here alive...” Giggling, she turned to leave.

“And to think,” said Eric bitterly. “I never learned your name.”

The woman nodded thoughtfully. “And it looks like you never will. Ciao!”

With a mocking salute, she turned and left.

The guards stripped the Doctor of his red jacket, waistcoat and the pair of gold rimmed spectacles hanging from the black ribbon around his neck. They were manacled and the manacles connected by a flexible metal cord to restraint bars lining the plaza.

“Oh god,” Eric whimpered. “Things just get worse and worse!”

“Think positive, Eric,” the Doctor insisted. “Remember Robert Bruce.”

“Robert who?” asked Eric with a groan.

The Doctor tutted. “Only the heroic founder of Scotland itself! Now, one time Bruce found himself desperately fleeing his enemies. He hid in a ruin and pondered capitulation and surrender – when his gaze fell upon a spider who was trying to build a web across a large opening. Again and again, the spider tried unsuccessfully to leap with his filament across the gap. Bruce watched, fascinated for a long time, until after many a try, the small spider succeeded in reaching the opposite ledge was able to go on and complete his work! Stirred deeply by the example set by such a simple arachnid, Bruce regained his spirits and went on to utterly defeat the English at Bannockburn in 1314!”

There was a long pause.

“I can’t stand spiders,” said Eric eventually.

The Doctor sighed. “Has anyone ever told you what an incredibly positive and inspiring person you are, Eric?”

“No.”

“You amaze me.”

***

By the time the true believers finish searching the Sanctuary, the Lord of Time will be long gone – his line through the intricate pattern of the infinite converging with his lost companion. But the believers, mistaken though they have been about the truth they had access to, are not fools. They will return to this stone and attempt to decipher the correct interpretation once again and once again, they will fail.

But while they will never grasp the entire design, smaller parts of the convergence can be noted and understood. They will see the Lord of Time and his companion have fallen afoul of scavengers and parasites, and be thrown into dungeons to be sold in kind. The true believers will establish their presence.

The End of All Things will draw closer with each breath and every heartbeat.

And the true believers will take action – assuming they can still forge their own destiny.

An understandable error, but an error nonetheless.


***

The deep pit was filled with flames that burned cold and never went out. Seven figures writhed in agony, shouting and calling up the pit towards him. The old man, the hobo, the dandy, the bohemian, the cricketer, the clown and the little man with the umbrella.

“Join us, Doctor,” they called to him. “Join us... join us, Doctor!”

And there was some kind of stone dais rising up out of the flames. There was a body stretched out on it, the Edwardian frock coat and cravat doused in the unnatural fire. The young, thin man with long curly hair lay there, then his blue eyes snapped open and he screamed at the top of his voice.

“Join the legions of the dead!” he roared.

***

The Doctor jack-knifed backwards with a start.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he blurted out loudly.

“I think we might,” muttered Eric beside him. “That’s the problem.”

“What?” asked the Doctor, bewildered.

Eric nodded across the entrance to the building. The Doctor realized he must have slept for quite a while – it had been the middle of the day when they’d been chained up and now it seemed to be just after dawn and the grey morning light shone through the entrance as an exotic sedan chair was carried through the entrance. It resembled a cross between a VW mini and a telephone box with glass sides, headlights and rearview mirrors, while a strange aerial atop the roof resembling a metal Saturn-like planet bisected by a radio antennae, reminded him of his beloved TARDIS.

Two hulking Androgums were carrying the chair while the occupant was a rotund, almost spherical figure with a tall stovepipe-like turban and a thick shaggy beard. The occupant spoke to one of the slave traders for a short while.

“Sold to the obese, greasy son of a slime-crawler in the yellow palanquin for seventeen million credits!” announced the trader happily and two robed guards crossed to the Doctor and Eric, removing their manacles and ushering them towards the sedan chair.

“Be courteous to them, Eric,” whispered the Doctor. “They paid for us and I doubt any pro-emancipation stance will prevent them from thinking they own us body and soul.”

The bearded figure drew closer. Close enough, in fact, for them to see it was actually a young woman in a fake beard and heavily-padded costume. “There’s nothing to be alarmed about, Doctor,” said the woman who had lured the Doctor aboard her planet hopper back on Manussa. “We’re not buying you – just your freedom.”

“How did you know we were here?” asked the Time Lord, amazed.

“Remember that huge stone calendar of events yet to occur?”

“Oh. Yes. You just read ahead to find out where we were.”

“And thus we knew we were destined to rescue you.”

“In disguise, to make sure no one finds out who you really are?”

“That’s what has been written.”

“Still,” said Eric, making a valiant attempt to keep up with the conversation, “that must have bankrupted you, spending all that money?”

The disguised woman shrugged. “It’s only money. Very soon, currency will be worthless anyway, won’t it? The end of all things is almost upon us... Anyway,” she went on, clearly trying not to be maudlin, “let us return to the Sanctuary.”

She returned to the sedan chair, which the Androgums lifted and carried out into the street. Eric scrambled after them, but the Doctor shot an unhappy glance at the hundreds of other slaves he was in absolutely no position to help, then hurried outside.

“Is that the woman you met on Manussa?” asked Eric as they headed for the landing pad.

“The very same.”

“What’s her name?”

“No idea.”

Eric shook his head. “Why do the girls on this planet never tell you their names? I swear if we ever actually get to Risa then I’m never going to go anywhere else after this... the whole cosmos is demented...”

***

But even as the Lord of the Time and his sole compatriot return to the Sanctuary, the final threads of will be drawn into place. Rutan spies and Sontaran intelligence shall pieced together the fact that the notorious Doctor is present on Sarkon. They have old scores to settle and the temptation to gain the secrets of the Time Lords will become a temptation impossible for either side to resist.

The Rutan Host will abandon their strongholds across Sarkon and focus their multifaceted eyes onto the scent of a Lord of Time. They will soon in turn narrow their focus to the trifecta continents, then the mountain range containing the Sanctuary.

The last few ships of the Sontaran fleet will do the same, abandoning the convoy and remaining within the star system to prepare for the moment of greatest glory and potential victory. To anyone sane, it would be considered the moment of least advantage, but Sontarans will never take an easy option when given a choice.

So intent will both sides be on their quarry, they will be unaware of each others’ presence as they converge together upon the Sanctuary.

And then All Things will finally be at an End.


***

It had taken the best part of a day for the cultists’ planet hopper to transfer them to a jungle-choked volcanic crater in the middle of a mountain range, and Eric had whimpered at their incredible dangerous landing on the far-too-short landing strip. The Doctor, having already been frightened once, acted like the trick was obvious and chided Eric for his hysteria – a rare chance get even for Eric’s constant one-upmanship.

The woman cultist, who had still somehow avoided telling anyone her name, lead the time travelers towards the under-city with the calendar stone. From what Eric had heard, the cultists were going to carry out a human sacrifice, and was far from pleased at the idea but the Doctor, as ever, was quite calm.

“Those hieroglyphic pictograms are surprisingly complex,” he pointed out to their affable captor as they entered the dank tunnel. “You could very easily have mistranslated them.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But it predicted your coming, your departure, your strife when the pirates captured you and how to rescue you – so it’s not totally unreliable, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” the Doctor conceded grimly. “Not everything is as easy to determine as location of an individual, though. Motivation, direction, past desires, future prospects – the subtleties and textures can determine entire subtexts…”

“Where did you get it from, anyway?” asked Eric as they arrived at the centre chamber.

“It’s always been here,” the woman explained. “At least, it was here as long as the native Androgum tribes have lived here – it was old then, and they didn’t construct it. Nor do they know who did. The stone is clearly millions of years old.”

The Doctor stroked his chin. “I had heard about some Androgums lost in time. I always thought they turned out to be the Sawney Beane clan on Earth, but maybe they ended up on Sarkon and created this calendar?” He frowned. “Then again, it could be a complete coincidence. What do you think it says?”

The woman pointed to the upper levels of the stone eye. “A straightforward historical account of life on Sarkon. The expansion of the Manussan Empire, its fall, the Sumaran Empire, the arrival of the Trifederation, the destruction of the Mara…”

“So you haven’t actually read the early sections?” the Doctor interrupted. “You’ve glanced at them, realized they accurately portray events in the past, but you haven’t actually read them? You just skipped to the end?”

The woman smirked. “Wouldn’t you?”

The Doctor beamed at her, but the smile did not meet his eyes. “No,” he said coldly.

The woman and even Eric were unsettled by that. “We found the notation of our arrival here and read ahead. A Lord of Time, a Doctor from Gallifrey would arrive with a human companion the same time that the Sontaran/Rutan war would touch our planets. The Lord of Time is doomed, a doom that heralds the End of All Things.”

Eric was now distinctly spooked. “Doomed? So, er, you’re not going to sacrifice him?”

“Why bother? He’s doomed. We can no more change that than we can the pair of you arriving on Manussa a month ago.” The woman looked to the Doctor. “We knew where to find you. It is, as they say, written in stone.”

The Doctor crossed to the rock calendar and studied it. “Show me the section.”

The woman sighed and lead him to a point near the base of the stone hemisphere.

The Doctor studied it for a reason. “Like I said, context,” he announced at last. “You understood the words but jumbled them up. The End of All Things... the Lord of Time... this isn’t some prediction of doomsday. This is just the end of the calendar. You’ve reached the thirty-first of December and when you read no further you assumed the world was going to end. As bad as those Mayan clock-watchers!”

“What?” asked the woman with a dulled expression of surprise.

“This stone only records events that happens around this stone. And this stone will be destroyed very soon, at the convergence of myself and two alien armies. You assumed this was a prediction of Armageddon but actually it was a warning to be out of here before this crater becomes ground zero!”

“Ground zero?” asked Eric nervously. “What’s going to happen?”

“Not quite sure yet,” the Doctor admitted. “There are so many different threads... but there will be a battle here. This stone will be broken and then...” He stopped suddenly and took a step backwards. “This is a volcanic crater.”

“Obviously,” huffed the woman.

“A live volcano? A live super-volcano…”

Eric snorted. “A what? No, don’t tell me – a volcano with a cape and underpants that’s faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single bound?”

The Doctor glared at him. “It’s a volcano thousands of times larger than the volcanic eruptions you might be thinking of, Eric Randall. Worse than a string of atomic bombs. Krakatoa, Vesuvius… mere firecrackers in comparison. A volcano might destroy a patch of countryside and alter a landscape. A super-volcano can and does render entire species and civilizations extinct overnight.”

Eric stared up at the Time Lord. “Remember when we used to just have fun without the constant threat of total annihilation?” he asked idly.

“No, you were too busy whining throughout!” the Doctor snapped. “For once accept the severity of a situation without recourse to infantile innuendo and hyperbole!”

“Sheesh. OK. Super-volcano bad. Very bad. I’m on the same page.”

“The last time a super-volcano went off on Earth, some seventy-five millennia ago, it wiped out sixty per cent of the human race and a hundred per cent of the Neanderthal! ‘Very bad’ is damning it with faint praise, wouldn’t you say?”

“So,” said the woman at length. “The End of All Things is more accurate than you believed, Doctor.”

The Doctor didn’t seem to hear her. “This stone is a plug, a counter-balance to massive magma pressure underneath. A small force close, canceling out a large force a long way away. Break it and bye-bye this side of Sarkon.”

“And there’s nothing we can do to stop it?” asked Eric hopefully.

“The calendar clearly states we are all present,” the woman pointed.

“She’s right,” agreed the Doctor bleakly. “We might be able to get to the outer edge of the crater when the stone is shattered, but that won’t help in the long run.”

Eric felt sick. “So we are all, in fact, doomed?”

The Doctor seemed to drag himself away from some invisible abyss. “Not yet. None of this can happen until the Sontarans and the Rutans arrive. Until then, this is perfectly safe to be and there will be plenty of time to…”

Another one of the cultists ran into view. “A fleet of Sontaran battle cruisers are entering the atmosphere,” he shouted in a panic. “And a ground force of Rutans are heading up the mountains from the villagers! They’ll be here in minutes!”

Everyone looked to the Doctor, who’s expression hadn’t changed in the slightest.

Eventually, he spoke: “Ah. Bugger.”

***

The golf-ball-like shapes of the Sontaran battle cruisers swooped like gleaming silver rain across the cloudless skies of Sarkon. They had already located their target and were aligning into a new juggernaut formation that roared with needles volume towards its target. Throughout the ships, every warrior and technician and marshal and commander strained their vocal chords to the limit in the traditional Sontaran war song.

True, it was a slow and unmelodic dirge but it had been a thousand years since any Sontaran had lived long enough to master a decent singing voice and even longer since any Sontaran had felt an actual desire to do so.

Sontar! Sontar! We live for Sontar!
Sontaran troopers are bred for war!


It sounded like the rumbling footsteps of angry giants on the horizon.

Sontar! Sontar! We march for Sontar!
The might of Sontar is why we march!


It was frightening.

Sontar! Sontar! We fight for Sontar!
The glory of Sontar is why we fight!


It was easy to remember.

Sontar! Sontar! We die for Sontar!
The death of our enemies is why we live!


The Sontarans didn’t need anything else.

***

The female cultist, who Eric was determined to learn the name of the first chance he got, was speaking with several other cultists and some Androgums. “The Sanctuary is designed to be impregnable, and if we remain here we can fend them off,” she was saying to the others firmly. “Our only option is to keep them at bay.”

“They have us surrounded,” another cultist insisted. “Night is falling. If they start fighting each other, we might be able to sneak off in the crossfire.”

“Their war has ravaged the cosmos,” grunted an Androgum. “Sarkon will burn slowly.”

“Wait a minute,” the Doctor called, index finger raised dramatically. “Eric, what are those marking? Tear drops for a future that will never be?”

Eric peered at the carvings, and saw that prominently etched at the end of the calendar were lots of pale circles apparently flying up into the air. “Soap bubbles?” he suggested.

The Doctor rounded on the cultists. “Those markings tell of something present here unleashed at the moment of catastrophe,” he informed them. “What are they?”

The cultists and Androgums exchanged uncomfortable looks.

***

Kill, kill, kill Sontarans! We kill them, feather and tar them!
We will kill those space trolls! We increase their death tolls!


Across the trifecta continents, the Rutan Host were on the move. Deep cover agents gratefully abandoned their flesh disguises, dissolving into their true lurid-green shapes. From villages and towns and farmsteads, the gleaming icy blobs crackled and sparks as they levitated through the air at top speed towards the mountain range.

In harmonic telepathic vibrations, they changed their own well-woven war anthems.

Once we killed some allies but we blamed someone else
Though it was expensive, it was a write-off!


As Rutan agents converged together, they extended tendrils and fused together. The larger, combined Rutans joined with others, and on and on until a vast crackling ball of translucent flesh and organs rumbled towards its target.

We defeat Sontarans and the stupid Vardans
Because we are Rutan, we will always shoot them!


***

Eric was not entirely impressed with the strange artifacts. They were totally empty spherical objects, made out of a kind of plastic with an oval opening in the front, each large enough to fit one or two people inside. There were dozens of them lining the hall gathering dust and looking rather boring.

The Doctor gazed on them in open-mouthed awe. “Thought balloons?”

Eric looked to the woman. “You can field that one.”

She sighed. “What are thought balloons?”

“Tranquelan technology,” the Doctor enthused. “Self-contained, open-ended teleport capsules. Climb inside, think of the destination and there you are!”

“What are they all doing here?” asked Eric.

“The Tranquelans are capable of teleportation as part of their own biology. Thought balloons are like scooters, briefly fashionable. They abandoned them as part of a non-aggression pact with their neighbors, the Amelierons – no one could use them to accidentally teleport across the border. They must have decided to send the unwanted balloons to Sarkon where they wouldn’t be found.”

“Right next to that calendar stone?” mocked Eric. “Isn’t that a bit contrived?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps there’s something special about this volcano, drawing the flotsam and jetsam of the cosmos towards it. A time fissure? Osirian lodestone?”

“Fine,” said Eric. “It’s a riddle for the ages. Can we use them to get out of here?”

The Doctor shook his head. “The mechanisms are easy to control, but no one here is capable of natural matter transmission by will. They’ll need a secondary power source.”

Eric looked to the woman. “Any double-A batteries around here?” he pleaded.

She shook her head. “I’m no expert, but to power just one of these balloons would require a vast energy source. To power all of them so everyone can escape?”

The Doctor sighed and rubbed his eyes, feeling tired. “Yes. A fantastic powerhouse of energy in one massive surge...”

Eric’s eyes lit up. “Like, say, an erupting super-volcano?”

The Doctor lifted his head and stared at him. “Yes,” he said slowly.

The woman frowned. “Yes, it does sound a little contrived, doesn’t it?”

***


***

The closest of the dimpled Sontaran battle cruisers dropped out of the night sky on a purr of gravity thrusters, its outer hull weaponry incinerating huge patches of vegetation to clear the way for the other ships. No sooner had it touched down then the outer hatch swung open and a string of broad, stocky blue-grey troopers stomped out.

As another cruiser came into land, an unnatural green glow began to throb behind the ridge of the crater. It grew brighter and stronger as the now-massive Rutan Conglomerate rose up into the sky like a second sun, sparkling and hissing with electricity.

The still-airborne space craft opened fire, blasting loose dozens of individual Rutans but their combined electrical fields were effectively generating an impenetrable barrier. The Conglomerate oozed forth over the lip of the crater as the dislodged Rutans let out ululating war screams and hurled themselves at the Sontaran ground troops...

***

Eric looked along the circular gallery overlooking the stone-eye calendar. The cultists and Androgums were all climbing into the thought balloons and, as instructed by the Doctor, stretching out their hands and feet to touch the sides of the sphere in a figure-X. Whatever strange quirk of fate had lead the thought balloons to be on hand had also ensured there was just enough for everyone, but the humans had to double up and only one Androgum could fit in each balloon.

There was the sound of blaster-fire and explosions outside, and a deafening inhuman voice was making the air tremble like a plucked string in time with an evil green glow shining down the entrance tunnels to the under-city.

Do you fear the Rutan? The mighty Rutan Host?
You cannot defeat the mighty Rutan fleet!
Even if you could, we would be tricking you!
Our spies are everywhere and secretly in control!


“Doctor!” Eric shouted over the noise.

The Doctor was standing right in the middle of the calendar, having got caught up in a desperate attempt to decipher just how the calendar had got there in the first place.

“Never mind that now, Doctor! Let’s go!” Eric shouted.

The next moment the entire under-city shuddered as a massive weight fell atop it with a howling roar of rage and frustration. The domed ceiling began to crumble and break away, revealing an immense slimy green sac – the heaving mass of a gigantic Rutan monster. The ancient under-city suddenly seemed frail and weak in comparison.

“Doctor!” Eric shouted.

The Doctor was running towards the stairwell as the gallery swayed and shook, powdered stone and dust falling from overhead and smothering everything. The dust seemed to turn to mud, and Eric realized he was literally sweating with fear.

“Some holiday this has turned out to be,” he complained, not knowing what else to do.

More of the ceiling collapsed beneath the colossal sphere of the glowing electrified jellyfish. By accident or design, the Rutans were slowly crushing the city inwards and the very walls of the access tunnels were crumbling away. The aliens’ demented war song grew louder and louder as goopy blobs of flesh began to drip from its underside – detaching Rutan scouts, blazing with lethal charges.

Do fear the Rutan?
That was rhetorical – we know more than any oracle!
We know you fear the Rutan! We can change our freaking shapes!
If you aren’t afraid, you’re lying but that would be fine
Because the Rutan Host is awesome and you’re probably jealous!


Eric was knocked from his feet as the chamber shuddered, the thought balloons rolling out of their moorings like scattering marvels. The uppermost level of the city gave way completely in a turmoil of falling stone fragments. Gusts of dank air blasted them as fresh holes were blasted through the upper levels and Sontaran troopers dug their way into the chamber with their gauntleted claws.

The dusty, swirling air was suddenly full of vivid red energy blasts as the groaning domed ceiling broke down even more. A familiar frock-coated shape stumbled through the crushing murk, shaking his head to dislodge plaster fragments from his wavy red hair. Below was pandemonium as the Sontarans and Rutans exchanged fire and even claw-to-tentacle combat, dodging the chunks of stone slamming down from above.

The Doctor and Eric stumbled towards the last, empty thought balloon as the creaking and rumbling sounds became more and more threatening. The smoke and ash cleared to see cracks were appearing in the surface of the calendar stone, cracks that were growing longer and wider and deeper, fresh fissures splintering off faster and faster.

There was a massive explosion from outside and the giant Rutan began to shuffle backwards as directly below it, the calendar stone split into four triangular segments that were slowly being shaken apart from the pressure below. Thick crimson lava welled up through the cracks and caught alight, flooding the city with asphyxiating gases.

“You’re sure this is going to work?” asked Eric, genuinely worried.

“It has to,” the Doctor replied flatly, his thoughts elsewhere once again.

Yes, it had to – because there was a call he had to obey, because if he did everything would be all right and he could rest at last. How could he fight it when he longed to submit to it? How could he defeat something when he wanted it to win?

He had to discover what it was, understand its blurring and shifting boundaries but how could he do it when there was always wrongs to right and monsters to run away from?

Perhaps it was something he could sense after crossing the time fields so often that he could sense the shadow of events yet to occur? A rumble on the cosmic grapevine he was half-aware of? Or was something else out there, watching him, infiltrating his consciousness trying to take him over?

Despite the unbearable heat, he shivered.

***

The pitched battle throughout the Sanctuary ended with a roar that drowned out all another noise and the Rutan glow turned a sickly brown before ripening into an angry red glare that flooded the sky. Moments later, a dazzling column of white fire shot straight upwards as the mountain range bucked and heaved.

The cascade of seething, bubbling molten lava rose up and up and seemed to slow to a halt. The intense heat was being sucked away and the swirling crimson clouds dimmed as well. The magma was cooling and hardening as ash peppered its surface, freezing the eruption in a single moment and anything that could have survived the explosion now stuck fast in a gigantic mushroom of hot, fresh stone.

The incandescent glow drained away as the eruption was transformed into another all-consuming plug that trapped the power of the super-volcano once more. The surrounding tribes and villages looked on in amazement as the horizons of Sarkon were changed forever more, as this part of the Sontaran-Rutan conflict was ended forever, and the Scrampus System Federation suddenly boasts a brand new tourist resort.

Somewhere, someone updated the Official 700 Wonders of the Universe list.

***

Night had fallen across Manussa when the Doctor and Eric arrived. The thought balloon containing them, automatically absorbing the energy output of the Sarkon super-volcano had activated and working on either or both of their desires had returned them to walking distance of their home.

“Talk about cutting it fine,” gasped Eric, lining his lungs with clear, cool air. “Where are the others then?”

The Doctor was mopping his grimy face with his cravat. “No idea. Wherever they wanted to go. I hope they made a good choice, because even recharged these thought balloons won’t be good for more than a couple of trips.”

“And we never even knew her name,” Eric sighed.

“Like you said, Eric. A riddle for the ages. Let’s go,” he concluded grimly, then set off down the hillside towards the town.

Eric jabbed a thumb in the direction of the empty thought balloon, unsure if they should leave such technology lying around (and also wondering if they could use it a second time as a short-cut back), but the Doctor was already going.

Deciding he didn’t really care what happened to the thought balloon, Eric shook his head and set off after his companion. For once, he was too tired to complain.

***

The streets and alleys around the Manussan palace were empty, and everyone seemed to be cowering indoors listening to the latest broadcasts from the departing Sontaran forces as they left the Scrampus system, which blasted out of every vision-screen, communicator and PA speaker in the city.

There has been no surrender or retreat from the principles of liberty and superior firepower,” a Sontaran spokesman was declaring. “Principles for which all inferior species look to with envy and uncomprehending admiration! Sontaran might is invincible! Sontar-ha! Sontar-ha! Sontar-ha...

Eric grumbled about the tedious propaganda giving him a headache, but the Doctor ignored it – there were other voices that concerned him, that wanted him with a need that burned into him like a brand. Now he was closer to his ship, it was on the tip of his mind. He was on the edge of the abyss, his toes already over the side...

“At last,” grunted Eric, snapping the Time Lord out of his daze.

The TARDIS was just where they’d left it, slightly dirtier and dustier but otherwise none the worse for wear. The Doctor grinned broadly and skipped the last few steps up to the door. “Oh, old girl, how I have missed you,” he sighed, unlocking the door.

“I don’t know about you, Eric,” he said as they entered familiar white control room and closed the doors, “but I feel like I could use a holiday...”

Eric smiled wryly, enjoying the cool interior of the TARDIS after the heat outside. “Why not? This one didn’t kill us. Maybe the next one will manage it!”

The Doctor waggled his fingers like a concert pianist warming up before a concerto, and began to set coordinates. “How about Risa?” he suggested. “As I seem to remember saying, it’s just a short hop away...”

“Fine,” Eric insisted. “Anywhere! As long as it isn’t bloody Sarkon again!”

“You should have more faith in the TARDIS, Eric,” said the Doctor.

“Yeah, yeah. A few billion miles mere bagatelle. Whatever bagatelle is...”

“Actually, bagatelle is an indoor table game, a bit like billiards, quite popular in the nineteenth century – a sort of direct ancestor of miniature golf.”

Eric covered his eyes with his palm. “It was a joke!”

“I know!” said the Doctor defensively, and threw the dematerialization switch.

***

 “Now this,” said Eric with world-weary certainty, “is what I call a pleasure planet!”

Risa was everything the Doctor had promised and almost appallingly wonderful enough to take his mind on the nightmare he’d suffered through trying to get there.

The planet seemed to be one big sub-tropical coastline, full of white boulevards and villa-sized beach bars, fringed by palm trees and beautiful blends of architecture and nature. It was as sunny as Manussa, but not as chokingly hot in the shade thanks to the glittering swimming pools everywhere, surrounded by native Risans who, according to the Doctor, were trying to achieve spiritual enlightenment by frolicking and having pool parties. Others wandered along the golden beaches or surfed the effervescent waves, or bobbed their craniums along to the enjoyable muzak piped across the landscape.

Both in fresh clothes identical to the ones they’d started the holiday in, Eric and the Doctor were sitting in a pavement café in the cool. The sun was setting over the shopping district and holidaymakers started to relax after a hard afternoon’s relaxing on the beaches. On the horizon, sky-surfers were chasing the candyfloss clouds and waiters were providing drinks to humanoids and aliens that even Eric thought looked exciting.

“I’m never going to hear the end of this, am I?” he asked good naturedly. “The TARDIS worked perfectly. Within walking distance of the hotel, right time, right place. No intergalactic wars, no Velgorn warships, peace at last!” He lowered his sunglasses and gave a look of mock anguish to the Doctor. “And to think I doubted the old girl!”

The Doctor didn’t seem to be listening – or rather, he seemed to be listening intently to something else, something that Eric couldn’t hear. “Something on your mind?” he asked, sipping a fruit cocktail.

The Doctor nodded. “Fetch.”

“Fetch what?”

“No, fetch. An apparition seen by someone whose death is imminent.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, nothing... Never mind. Time we were off.” The Doctor rose from his table, threw some coins by his uneaten kronkburger and set off across the plaza.

“Off?” repeated Eric, staying where he was. “You’re kidding! We only just got here!”

“It wasn’t worth the trip,” the Doctor retorted, already making for the back street where they had parked the TARDIS earlier that morning. “We’ve got to go.”

Fuming, Eric abandoned his cocktail and ran down the boulevard after the Doctor. “Where? Where do we have to be so urgently, huh? Tell me that!”

“Somewhere else,” replied the Doctor as if that was an acceptable answer.

Eric couldn’t believe it. “We’ve booked for two weeks!”

“Oh, who cares about that?” snapped the Doctor irritably.

“I care!” Eric retorted. “Look, if you want to race off in the TARDIS, then fine – but I’m going to stay here. End of story!”

The Doctor whirled around to face his companion, a look of betrayal etched on his face. With Eric at his side, he had someone to help fight the teasing call inside his own head. But the young man didn’t know about that of course, he just wanted a holiday. He didn’t realize what was happening... lucky him...

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the Doctor spoke. “You have to do what you have to do, Eric. You’ll be all right on your own?”

Looking into the Doctor’s eyes, it seemed to Eric like the Time Lord was asking another, very different question – but he couldn’t be sure what that question was.

“Sure,” he replied cautiously.

“All right... I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“No need to hurry on my account. Just hang out for two weeks, loosen up, put things in perspective. By the time you’re back to pick me up, I’ll feel like a new man.”

The Doctor nodded, as if trying to focus his thoughts. “Have you got enough money?” he asked, idly wishing for something more emotional and poignant to say.

“Hell yeah. Hotel’s on credit, and I’ve got plenty of petty cash.”

“I’ll miss you,” said the Doctor quietly.

“You’ll muddle by,” Eric predicted, unsettled by the finality in his friend’s tone.

The Doctor shot an anguished look at the TARDIS then turned back at his friend. “You won’t change your mind?”

Eric gave the Time Lord a knowing look. “Will you?”

The Doctor chuckled, then reached out and shook Eric by the hand, and tried to make it last as long as possible. Then without another word, he turned and went over to the TARDIS. He unlocked the doors and stepped inside without a single look back.

Eric was acutely aware of the squeak of the hinges as the police box doors rattled shut. He was already beginning to wonder if he should run to the TARDIS, join the Doctor inside and continue their adventures. He suddenly wanted to tell the Doctor how good a friend he’d been and, even though it may sound trite, the time they’d had together was the best time in his whole misbegotten life. He wanted to tell the Doctor that he trusted him and despite all the running and chaos and fear, he was already missing him...

But he was so tired and sore and lonely, he needed a break to pull himself back together. He had to sort out his head and work out what he was going to do with his life and what he had to show for his twenty-something years of existence. Sheri and Mong had their new lives to lead, but what did he have? What would he ever have?

So, Eric Randall decided he was not going to hang around in the street waiting to watch the TARDIS dematerialize and instead set off back to the café right away.

“See you again soon, Doctor,” he called softly, and left.

No point getting upset, he told himself. It’ll only be for a couple of weeks.

As a matter of fact, he wouldn’t see the TARDIS or her owner for the next twelve years.

***

The TARDIS control room had never seemed emptier and more abandoned than it did now. The Doctor hadn’t traveled alone for a long time, not since the beginning of his last incarnation. He wasn’t used to solitude or loneliness, not in this enfleshment.

The TARDIS was so quiet now that he couldn’t block out the sound in his head. It mingled with the hum of the engines until he could hear words in it. Soundless, inaudible, shapeless, unclear words inside of his head. The strange, forlorn sound had become something like a voice – a voice which disturbingly resembled his own.

Well, there goes your last companion.

“Just a break,” he found himself saying out aloud. “Just temporary...”

It all went wrong again. Everything goes wrong now.

The Doctor wrenched himself and started to set the coordinates, to move the TARDIS forward in time but not space, to skip two weeks and meet up with Eric again.

Are you going to come to me?

“Why do you want me to come to you?” he wondered.

Why do you want to come to me?

“I don’t!” he shouted at the ceiling. “And that’s why I’m going elsewhere!”

Are you?

The Doctor ignored his teasing and went back to the coordinates, only to realize he’d canceled the course he’d programmed. By accident? Had the voice taken him over enough to stop his escape? Or was it distorting his perceptions so it looked like it had taken him over? He couldn’t be sure, and suddenly it all seemed hopeless.

He remembered his nightmares of late, the sense his time was at an end. The dream of the Watcher and the Daleks, the walking momento mori of the Cybermen and now this presence inside his mind. Was it all connected?

“Are you me?” he asked eventually. “The next me? The Doctor but one?”

Perceptions are shaped by longing.

“So you’re not what I’m fated to become?” he asked warily.

There is fate, and there is your fate. The one you've been making all your life, the one you are going towards. It isn’t here on Risa.

The Doctor looked at the console. It was so easy to give in, to be carried away like debris and dead leaves flowing downstream on a river emptying out into the endless ocean. Free from decisions and responsibility and fear, not having to worry he’d get things wrong ever again... would that be so hard? Freedom from freedom...

The Time Lord cried out and slammed his palms against his temples, snapping him out of the delusion. “I’m not coming to you, whatever you are!” he screamed, punching in a string of deliberately-random coordinates and set the TARDIS in motion.

“Not while there’s anywhere else to go!” he roared triumphantly.

The voice was silenced – for the moment, at least.

Meditation! That was what was required, and now he had no distractions he could fend off the voice and reinforce the walls of his mind against the universe in the peaceful shelter of his beloved TARDIS. His mental shields would keep out any thoughts that were not his own and woe betide this irritating wraith if it tried otherwise...

Assuming a lotus position on the couch, the Doctor breathed deeply and began his work.

***

A long way away and an even further distance in time, Skern the Short awoke.

And he screamed in wordless, incoherent anger for a long time.

Finally, he regained control of himself and got to his feet. His short, stunted limbs were stiff and sore. He’d been sitting in these catacombs for days, all his efforts focused on invading the thoughts of the Doctor, guiding him to his doom. The drugs he had taken had boosted his natural telepathic gifts, but Skern had never been a seer. He’d been able to generate a daze of exhaustion and existential angst to weaken the Doctor’s resolve, but the moment his target had fought back, the battle had been joined.

Skern considered taken a fresh dose of drugs, but the Doctor would be on his guard now. The renegade would not succumb easily, and perhaps even become suspicious enough to investigate Gallifrey, possibly becoming aware of the schemes of Lord Margas – an outcome that was totally unacceptable.

It had not been a complete success... but neither had it been a complete failure. The Doctor had lost his last pet and was alone and exhausted. If anything, it improved the odds of success in the long run. Without any companions or assistance, his final demise on the planet Djeridan would be nothing but a formality.

The only problem was finding a new way to trick the Doctor into heading straight for his own death. Skern had sought to force the renegade into setting the coordinates himself and following a siren song, but that was no longer possible.

There was a way, of course, but it would take some time.

The Doctor had unwittingly bought himself a reprieve – for now.



[i]Next Story - Decline & Fall[i]