One by one, the three hunters emerged through the smog of dust left behind the Outskirter. One by one, they lowered their weapons.
Their names were Zargoz, Krillig and Klyber, and they were respectively a stockbroker, a banker and the managing director of a successful sports and retail giant. All of them were dustier and more bedraggled than they would normally be at this stage on a ‘fun hunt’. One of the lenses in Klyber’s goggles had been knocked out by a catapulted rock, rendering his long-range visualiser defunct. A crossbow bolt was buried between two of Zargoz’s shoulder-plates. Its flint tip had drawn blood from the flesh beneath.
They watched the rapidly dwindling buggy for several seconds. Only then did Krillig notice the figure on the ridge behind them. It was Xorg Krauzzen, elevated to a metre in the air on his hover-plate and carrying a photon-rifle across his shoulder. His attention was also fixed on the escaping vehicle, which was now little more than a dot. More of Krauzzen’s men appeared, slogging on foot, but all carrying photon-weapons. Krauzzen glided slowly down from the ridge.
‘Pity you weren’t here a few minutes ago,’ Klyber said petulantly. ‘We were under attack. In danger.’
Krauzzen gazed towards the horizon, his wax-smooth face unmarked by emotion.
‘They only had primitive weapons,’ Zargoz said. ‘But they were effective at short range. It gave them an opportunity to elude us. I’ve been hurt, by the way. It’s only a nick, but I hope your medical bay has a suitable antibiotic. I don’t want to come down with some ghastly blood infection.’
Krauzzen focused on the skeletal structures of the rocket base, which were just visible in the next dome.
‘None of us called you, Krauzzen,’ Krillig said. ‘I hope you don’t think this means the hunt is over?’
Krauzzen responded by turning his hover-plate around and cruising several metres to one side. He nodded to his men.
Their photon-rifles rose in unison.
‘Wait!’ Zargoz shouted. ‘What is this?’
The gangsters opened fire, blowing the three hunters to the ground, where they blasted them over and over until they were nothing but embers and smoking ash.
About a mile and a half away, the Doctor’s ramshackle transport ground to a halt alongside a crater, where Sophie, Andrei and the other exhausted fugitives had been lying low, gasping for breath. Dora was now too busy hugging the weeping Sophie to notice the distant cacophony of gunfire. Harry was too busy pumping Andrei’s hand and clapping his shoulder in gratitude for keeping their daughter alive. The other fugitives were preoccupied by the mobile heap of junk their rescuers had arrived in; they watched in awe as its one remaining section of bodywork dropped off.
Of them all, only Rory glanced back through the ruins.
‘For some reason, I don’t like the sound of that,’ he said.
‘Me neither,’ the Doctor agreed, though he declined to voice what he suspected it meant. ‘All aboard everyone. You can promise never to hurt each other again later.’
The fugitives crammed into the buggy, which jolted and creaked as it struggled on across the broken ground. The Doctor wasn’t particularly enjoying driving it. The gears jammed constantly, and the sponge that had once upholstered the steering wheel only remained in sticky, charred stubs. However, the Outskirter was still capable of movement, which was more than he’d expected.
The dome containing the rocket base was more severely damaged than the others. A large section of its roof was retractable, to allow for the arrival and departure of spacecraft, but this was now frozen open, so the acid rain poured through in torrents. Where certain of the launch buildings and pads had once been located, there were nothing but blistered ruins, still smoking and hissing as the caustic fluid continued to eat its way through them. Thick billows of corrosive steam blew across the site.
‘Just breathing this air is making my throat sore,’ Dora said, as the Doctor wove the rickety vehicle amid the rotting structures.
‘There’s sufficient wind from the outside to prevent these emissions building to a fatal level,’ the Doctor replied. ‘But the atmosphere’s severely tainted. You’d get better quality of life on a landfill.’
Ahead of them loomed the control tower. It was a monumental edifice, at least sixty metres high, constructed from steel girders and with a discus-shaped superstructure at its apex.
‘You want us to climb that?’ Rory said.
‘We haven’t got any choice,’ the Doctor replied. ‘The most powerful radio transmitter on Gorgoror may still be at the top.’
‘May still be?’
‘Let’s not worry ourselves with semantics.’
A few metres further on, the Outskirter sputtered to an undignified halt, one of its wheels rolling away as it clattered down onto its shocks.
The Doctor climbed out and observed the tower. A stairway spiralled up its central core, but was likely to be rusted to the bone. Briefly, he had second thoughts. It might have been safer to leave everyone else down here, and go up there alone – but in truth there was nowhere here for them to hide.
‘And if we’re all up there, what’s to stop Krauzzen blowing it up?’ Harry asked.
‘Curiosity,’ the Doctor said, hands thrust in his pockets.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, if I were him, I’d want to know who it was who scuppered his plans, who managed to start the engine of a car that’s been dead for thirty years—’
‘You think he might be impressed?’
‘Krauzzen exists outside Torodon law. Just to survive, he needs to make the best of every situation. After this, I doubt he’ll be holding any more fun hunts here, so he has to walk away with some kind of prize.’ The Doctor turned, and saw the rest of the fugitives gathered around him. They were a little fresher, having driven the last few miles, but they still looked strained and haggard. ‘A quick climb and everything will be hunky dory,’ he said cheerfully.
‘I thought you didn’t believe in lying to people?’ Rory mumbled.
‘Did I say that? Maybe I was fibbing. Don’t worry. We’re not finished yet,’ the Doctor replied.
Climbing the control tower was every bit as nerve-wracking as they’d expected. The buildings around its base were hollowed shells, but the stair, which they accessed single file from a central courtyard, was intact – at least at its lower section. However, the higher they rose the more the structure felt as if it was swaying. There were endless groans and creaks. They encountered segments of stair where the hand-rail had broken or corroded, and where even the risers were loose. Rory glanced down across the rocket base, but the billows of steam only afforded him brief glimpses of the arched entrance from the neighbouring dome, and as yet there was no sign of anyone coming through it.
About thirty metres up, there was a viewing deck: a narrow, railed catwalk which circled the tower’s exterior. Sixty metres away on a level with this was the roof of the next nearest building. They’d noticed this before – from ground level it was nothing more than an immense, square concrete box, with almost no windows or other distinguishing features. But from this vantage point, they saw that its upper surface was bristling with antennae and parabolic reflector dishes. The Doctor moved to the edge of the viewing deck, to stare more closely at it.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Big windowless thingy with everything happening on top. Couldn’t be a Solar Transduction Centre by any chance? Yes, of course it could.’
‘What’s a Solar Transduction Centre?’ Rory asked.
‘Hopefully something we won’t need. In a nutshell, that’s a giant transducer. Would’ve been used as back-up in the event of Gorgoror’s nuclear reactor being deactivated. It would literally have run this entire complex on stored solar energy.’ The Doctor rubbed his chin. ‘There could be decades’ worth of power still latent in there. The trouble is we’re over here.’
‘You mean we’ve got to go back down?’
‘Nope. No time for that.’
‘I’ve just looked and I didn’t see anyone following us.’
‘You won’t see them until it’s too late.’
‘But if there’s no power…?’
The Doctor glanced back down the stairway. The others were clattering wearily up, but trailing below to a distance of twelve metres. It would be impossible to pass them all until they’d reached this viewing deck, and that would take even more minutes that couldn’t be spared.
‘Never mind.’ He started up the next flight. ‘The control deck may have a battery reserve in case of power failure.’
‘That’s a heck of a gamble,’ Rory said, following.
‘They’ve all paid off so far.’
The control deck – the discus-shaped capsule they’d seen from below – was about twenty metres in diameter and, in appearance, resembled a flying saucer, with viewing ports around its outer bulkhead. It was perched on the very top of the tower, with another viewing deck directly below it from which a single set of step-ladders led up through a hatch into its interior – which had quite literally been trashed.
Rory viewed the mess with dismay.
There were control boards everywhere, bashed in or torn loose. Cables, circuitry and other computer innards strewed the floor in a spaghetti-like muddle. What looked like a radio console, though it was more complex than any Rory had ever seen, had been beaten as though with blunt instruments. Again, its delicate contents had disgorged in a chaotic deluge.
‘Well,’ Rory said. ‘That’s that.’
The Doctor shook his head. ‘Not quite. I’d say there were enough spare parts lying around in here for us to lash something together.’
The rest of the fugitives filed up one by one. They weren’t sure what they’d been expecting to find in here. Something in the Doctor’s air of authority had encouraged them that, once they’d made it to this eagle’s nest, all their problems would be solved. They stood, breathing heavily, mopping sweat, watching the Doctor scamper about, grabbing up odds and ends.
‘What’s happening now?’ Harry whispered to Rory.
‘He’s lashing something together.’
‘Like what – a magic wand?’
Dora elbowed her husband in the side. ‘He got that car going, didn’t he?’
The Doctor suddenly noticed that he had an audience. He smiled. ‘I don’t always operate well under scrutiny. Why don’t you all go below and keep a lookout?’
Obediently, they descended to the viewing deck. Soon only Rory was left, gazing bemused as the Doctor quickly and systematically cannibalised the wreckage in the room, assembling entirely new mechanisms from the broken fragments littering the floor, weaving the ends of shredded cables together, stripping insulation material away with his teeth, and looping the metal threads around his fingers and thumbs to create entirely new lines of circuits and contacts.
When Rory finally went below, the rest of them were spread around the viewing deck, peering into the encircling gulf.
‘What’s the next step?’ Harry asked.
Rory shrugged. ‘We wait.’
‘If it comes to a fight, you can rely on me,’ someone said.
Andrei had stepped forward, Sophie still clinging to his arm.
‘That’s good to know,’ Rory said, trying his best to look upbeat.
This guy Andrei would be a useful bloke to have around in most situations, but he probably had no idea what they were up against here. They’d so far survived by the skin of their teeth, and even the Doctor seemed to be making things up as he went along. Whatever he was trying to do at present seemed utterly futile.
‘This is an urgent message from Gorgoror Moon,’ came the Doctor’s voice from overhead. ‘We are in grave peril, and require immediate assistance. Over.’
Rory rushed back upstairs, to find the Doctor sitting in the midst of reconstructed clutter, attempting to speak into a microphone, which looked as if he’d patched it together with sticky tape.
‘I repeat, we require urgent assistance…’
There was no response. Not even the hiss of dead air.
By the look on the Doctor’s face, Rory felt his newly rekindled hopes diminish.
‘No power,’ the Doctor finally said. ‘None left in any of these circuits, and no reserve supply… at least not up here.’ He glanced at Rory. ‘I’m afraid this gamble has failed.’