The TARDIS arrived on the viewing deck with its familiar fanfare of trumpet calls. And Amy bounced out of it with a fanfare of her own.
‘I did it,’ she shouted excitedly. ‘I did it.’
Rory barely had a chance to compliment her on her ‘retro Eighties’ style, before she grabbed him and kissed him triumphantly.
‘Sorry, no time for that,’ the Doctor shouted, ushering forward a bunch of people she didn’t know. They were bedraggled and sallow-faced. Two of them – a woman and teenage girl – hugged each other, weeping inconsolably. But the Doctor was impervious to such emotion. ‘Into the TARDIS everyone, chop, chop!’
‘But Doctor, I did it—’ Amy began.
‘Yes, well done. We can celebrate later. Who’s this, by the way?’
Xorax had stepped out from the TARDIS and was staring around as if he couldn’t quite believe that he wasn’t still on board the Ellipsis.
‘The prisoner I was telling you about,’ she said.
‘Good, good… Mr Xorax, you’re extremely valuable to us.’
‘I am?’ Xorax replied, dazed.
‘You are, and you’d be equally valuable dead, though I’m sure you wouldn’t see it that way. So just step back inside the TARDIS.’
‘How did… how did we get here?’
‘Just do as I say.’
‘I’ve got an even better idea!’ came an echoing voice. ‘Everyone do as I say, and you might live a few milliseconds longer!’
They whirled around.
About twenty metres from the tower, hovering silently, was a craft the Doctor knew could only be Zagardoz Xaaael’s Raptor-Bird. It was built from gleaming black metal, and shaped like a falcon with its wings spread.
The voice, clearly that of Xaaael himself, spoke again: ‘Nobody move, or I shall reduce this tower and everything on it to burning scrap, and that includes you, Doctor, and your precious machine.’
The Doctor glanced around. Only Xorax was near to the TARDIS, but he’d stepped outside and allowed its door to close, which meant it would need to be unlocked. The Doctor looked back at the Raptor-Bird. The double-barrels of two rapid-fire howitzers had emerged on the ridges of its wings. Even making a dash for it, no one would get into the TARDIS in time.
The other fugitives were frozen in place. Sophie and Dora had stopped sniffling, fear having overcome their sorrow.
A panel now slid open in the craft’s hull, and a figure perambulated onto the starboard wing. It was Xaaael, clad in his exoskeleton of body armour. Two lesser gangsters followed him. All were armed with photon-rifles. An aluminium walkway extruded, pushing across the gulf between the craft and the tower. Xaaael sauntered across it almost casually. At the same time another figure swept up into view. It was no surprise to the Doctor to see Krauzzen himself, balanced expertly on his hover-plate. He too stepped onto the viewing deck, photon-rifle levelled. From the stairway below came grunts and clattering feet as his henchmen ascended by the tougher route.
A few seconds later, the viewing deck was crammed with personnel. The fugitives huddled together in the middle, hemmed in from all sides.
‘Well, Doctor,’ Krauzzen said. ‘Run to ground at last. Though you’ve provided us with better sport than usual.’
‘Don’t kill that turncoat, Krauzzen!’ someone shouted.
Krauzzen’s men shifted aside to reveal Colonel Krelbin, flushed and sweating as he clambered over the safety barrier, his weapon slung on his broad back. He was soaked with sweat and his shoulders heaved, but his ice-blue stare was fixed on the Doctor with malign intensity.
The Doctor pursed his lips. ‘Congratulations on surviving the shologgi, Colonel.’
‘I didn’t just survive it,’ Krelbin snarled. ‘I waited for it and ambushed it. Killed it bare-handed.’
‘You’re quite a man.’
‘You won’t talk your way out of this one.’
‘Nor you, I fear,’ the Doctor said. ‘Wondering where your friends are yet?’
Krelbin looked puzzled, suddenly seeming to realise that no other members of the hunting party were present.
‘Oh… try using your head,’ the Doctor said. ‘Krauzzen’s finished on the Outer Rim. He’s cleaning house before he leaves.’
Krelbin glanced distractedly from face to face, but perhaps it was Krauzzen and his men’s chilling silence that made him snatch the weapon from his back and level it on the encircling crowd. ‘Back off!’ he shouted. ‘All of you! You saw what this did to that Earthling on the roof over there!’
The Doctor gazed in fascination at the transmat-rifle that he’d thought lost.
‘That’s right, Doctor,’ Krelbin sneered, retreating to the barrier. ‘It’s your own weapon. I found it while I was tracking you. It was hanging by its strap – too much of a risk for you to retrieve it, clearly, but no trouble for me. Now back off! That goes for you too, my lord! Are you so sure you want to side against me?’
‘Well…’ Krauzzen shrugged. ‘Your tirades when you thought no one could hear were becoming a tad tiresome.’
‘Hah! You want to hear me when I’m really angry. You know I’m not some playboy adventurer, Krauzzen! There isn’t one of you here I’m not a match for…’
Krelbin choked on his final words.
He hadn’t seen the figure glide up behind him on a hover-plate, pull the scalping-knife from its sheath, and jam it into his lower spine. He tottered forward, eyes goggling, blood frothing from his mouth. With his nervous system severed, his legs gave at the knees and he slumped down, falling hard onto his face.
His killer, Zarbotan, stepped awkwardly over the safety barrier.
He was in a gruesome condition. His clothes were charred tatters and much of his ectoderm, both real and synthetic, had melted away, revealing a cybernetic rib-work beneath, and a web of flexible plastic tubing, through which pumped his bodily fluids. Gelatinous organs pulsed inside plastic containers held by tensioned springs. Rotating sprockets and high tensile cord provided musculature.
Krauzzen raised an eyebrow. ‘Better late than never, I suppose.’
‘Forgive me, my lord,’ Zarbotan replied. ‘I got caught in the rain.’
Now that he no longer had a fleshy throat, his vocal cords, no more than a row of taut wires running vertically down into his chest cavity, visibly vibrated, creating an eerie, fluting echo. More than half his face was also missing, and a skullish steel mask was exposed. There was a low hum as his eyes irised to knife-points; he had focused through the crowd on Amy, who shrank back in horror.
‘Well, isn’t the party complete!’ the Doctor said, clapping his hands. ‘The hunters finally hook up with the hunted. Only this time it’s the predators who’ve suffered the greater losses. Whatever happens next, I call that a result.’
Krauzzen pivoted to face him. ‘You fascinate me, Doctor. You’ve deceived me, betrayed me, humiliated me, you’ve cost me a significant income stream. And yet here you are, unafraid of my retaliation.’
The Doctor shrugged. ‘Perhaps because I suspect you’re the sort of materialistic rogue who usually looks to more lucrative solutions than mere vengeance.’
‘You’re right, of course. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take it. One good thing. Seeing as you’re more interested in preserving life than ending it, I’m guessing the black-light explosive you’ve supposedly clamped to my vessel is… shall we say, pure imagination?’
‘Do you want to take that chance?’
‘There’s no chance involved. Kill so many to save so few? That doesn’t compute. Xaaael!’ Krauzzen turned to his surly underling. ‘I commend you for recapturing these creatures.’ He pointed at Amy. ‘Particularly this one.’
‘It was nothing, my lord.’
‘And was it also nothing to lose her in the first place?’
‘My lord, I…’
‘We’ll talk about that later… but be assured, we will talk about it. In the meantime…’ Krauzzen pointed at the TARDIS, ‘how did that get down here when it was locked in my Secure Hold?’
‘Teleportation,’ Xaaael said. ‘We tried to get a homing fix when it left the Ellipsis, but we lost the trace. I only looked down here because it seemed the obvious place.’
‘Teleportation?’ Krauzzen ran a gloved hand across the TARDIS’s smooth panels. ‘This must be a special device indeed?’ He tried the door. ‘Still locked, I see.’
‘The girl has a key,’ Zarbotan said.
Krauzzen turned to Amy, but the Doctor stepped between them.
‘Even if Amy gives you her key, Krauzzen, it’ll be no use to you. The secrets of the TARDIS are beyond your understanding. A lot of them are beyond mine, and I’ve flown her for centuries.’
‘Why should we believe anything you say?’ Zarbotan said, but Krauzzen held up a hand for silence.
‘Tell me, Doctor… what exactly is this TARDIS?’
‘A travel machine. The product of technology far, far in advance of your own. What you have here, my lord, is potentially the greatest asset in the galaxy.’
‘Why do I sense you’re about to try and make another deal with me?’
‘Not a deal. A bet. You’re a betting man, aren’t you?’
‘And this TARDIS is the prize?’
‘The TARDIS and everything inside it.’
Krauzzen walked around the tall, blue box. ‘Everything inside it isn’t likely to be very much.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ someone else said. It was Xorax, finally finding the courage to speak up.
‘Kalik Xorax!’ Krauzzen almost laughed. ‘I thought I saw you skulking around.’
‘I’ve been inside this TARDIS, my lord. It isn’t just a spacecraft, it’s a laboratory, an observatory, a repository of alien knowledge—’
‘Shut up, Xorax!’ Zarbotan growled. ‘You have every reason to lie to us.’
‘Would I lie about this, when you can so easily discover the truth?’
‘Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?’ Krauzzen said, turning back to the Doctor. ‘You want me to compete with you for this prize. Is that it?’
‘And for the instruction manual,’ the Doctor said. ‘As I say, you don’t know how to operate the TARDIS.’
Krauzzen pondered. ‘Why don’t I just force you to show me?’
‘Well, I suppose you could. I’d imagine you’re very good at that sort of thing. But how will you ever be sure I’m giving you the full truth? For instance, you won’t know if the first set of directional coordinates I calculate for you will lead to the innermost vault of the Central Bank of Torodon, or to the heart of a supernova.’
Krauzzen looked amused. ‘And let me guess… if you win the bet, you will take the TARDIS, and everyone else is free to go?’
‘It seems a small sacrifice on your part,’ the Doctor said. ‘You could gain an awful lot, and don’t stand to lose much more than you’ve already lost.’
Krauzzen gave a crooked half-smile. ‘You’re obviously a man used to dictating terms, Doctor. Well… no longer. I’m not going to wager for property I already own.’ He turned to his men. ‘Take these prisoners to the Ellipsis. We can still make use of them. And this machine – we’ll open it somehow. Doctor, much as I’ve enjoyed our acquaintanceship, I’m afraid you’re too dangerous to be allowed to live.’
‘Scared?’ the Doctor asked.
‘Kill him,’ Krauzzen said, and half a dozen photon-rifles were raised.
The Doctor backed towards the safety barrier. ‘Kill me if you want, but you men should remember this – Xorg Krauzzen is happy to watch others gamble, and to profit by it, but he doesn’t have the nerve himself. Is a man like that fit to control your syndicate?’
‘What do you think, Lord Xaaael?’ Amy shouted. ‘You’ve gambled countless times, yet the man who gives you orders hasn’t got the guts!’
Xaaael said nothing, but regarded Krauzzen with open disdain. Several other gangsters noticed this, including Krauzzen.
‘You have something to add, Xaaael?’ Krauzzen asked.
‘Not at all, my lord,’ Xaaael replied, but his tone was contemptuous.
There was a long silence as the crime-lord glanced at his other followers’ faces. Those with ambition or those he’d recently chastised returned his gaze boldly. Others found it difficult to look at him. Only Zarbotan made a point of standing by his side.
‘It seems you’re playing for more than just the TARDIS,’ the Doctor said.
It perhaps wasn’t unusual in the world of organised crime for syndicate leaders to be subtly challenged in this way. Doubtless it was common practice for the alpha-males in this society to occasionally need to enforce their leadership by proving themselves individually. But Krauzzen looked more than a little irritated.
‘No one’s asking the impossible, my lord,’ the Doctor said. ‘Just that you take my bet. And show your men your personal steel, no pun intended.’
Krauzzen rounded sharply on him. ‘An astute move, Doctor. But understand – for this inconvenience, things may go all the harder for your friends.’
‘I’m prepared to take that chance.’
‘You didn’t say what the bet was?’
The Doctor straightened the lapels of his jacket. ‘I bet… I bet, Lord Krauzzen, that with a head start of just five minutes, I can make it all the way from this control tower, back across the industrial wastes of Gorgoror, to your Observation Booth. And that two of you – you yourself, and one other you nominate – will fail to prevent me.’
There was a brief silence, and then snickers from the watching gangsters.
‘You realise those odds are ridiculously in my favour?’ Krauzzen said.
‘All the more reason for you to accept.’
‘Doctor, this is suicide!’ Rory shouted, but the Doctor put a finger to his lips.
Rory tried to shout again, but Amy clamped a hand to his mouth. She wore a grim smile, and kissed her husband on the cheek as if to reassure him that this was exactly the sort of ploy she’d expected the Doctor to try.
‘You’re quite serious about this?’ Krauzzen said.
The Doctor offered his hand.
Krauzzen held back from shaking it. He knew it would make him appear nervous and unsporting, but all of a sudden there was something about this thin, oddly dressed individual, with his unruly hair and his pale, boyish face, that Krauzzen found menacing. The Doctor was articulate and intelligent; he had charm and wit – yet the very lack of threat he seemed to pose was in itself threatening. He hadn’t just made it to the far end of the Gorgoror industrial complex, something never before achieved in the history of the fun hunts, but he’d also managed to bring most of the others with him. And he was unfazed by that achievement. He’d still had the energy and confidence to barter his way out of being executed.
The Doctor’s bright eyes bored into Krauzzen as if he’d expected nothing less than to create this doubt in his enemy. Still he offered his hand, but Krauzzen ignored it, pushing the Doctor aside and summoning Zarbotan to be his right-hand man.
‘Weapons?’ Zarbotan asked, slotting his hover-plate into the harness on his back.
‘Only what we’re carrying,’ the Doctor said.
‘You’re carrying nothing.’
‘And you’re carrying a photonic arsenal. Even less reason for you to back out.’
‘You can stop playing mind games,’ Krauzzen retorted. ‘There’ll be no backing out. In fact, I’ll even the odds. I’ll give you more than five minutes. I’ll give you ten.’
‘You’re too kind.’
‘But know this.’ Krauzzen now spoke in a low, intense monotone. ‘When I’ve won, I’ll be holding your friends as surety against you attempting to deceive me again. Even at the best of times it will be a living death for them, but it gets worse. You will give me full command of your TARDIS. You will tell me everything I need to know. Everything! You understand? If you fail to do that – on purpose, by accident, for any reason at all – these people will suffer unimaginable consequences! Am I clear?’
‘Quite. Crystal. As mud.’
‘Then we have our bet. The clock is ticking.’
The Doctor sprinted across the viewing deck, stripping his jacket en route. On reaching the barrier, he looped the garment over the zip-line, and leapt from the platform. ‘Geronimo!’ he shouted, rocketing over the chasm.
They flooded to the barrier to watch. When the Doctor was above the mountain of cinders, he dropped like a stone. Amy’s heart was briefly in her mouth, as he plummeted a dozen metres – but landed relatively softly in the mass of yielding rubble, and rolled down its slope amid clouds of dust. Reaching the ground, he jumped to his feet, pulled his jacket back on, threw a salute towards the tower, and dashed off.
‘Bet you didn’t expect that?’ Amy said to Krauzzen. ‘That extra five minutes seems like a mistake now, eh?’
‘Still smiling, I see,’ Krauzzen replied. ‘It suits you. I’ll see to it that your mouth is surgically fixed that way.’ He stalked off. ‘Xaaael, take the TARDIS and these prisoners to the Ellipsis. And prep the ship to break orbit.’