Teaser: “Empire of the Rani”
THE DALEK fired.
Ori heard the shot rather than saw it. Her eyes were locked on the open doors of the Doctor’s escape pod, their one hope of survival. As the seething energy shot through the venting atmosphere of the cargo bay, the vintner threw herself through the battered blue doors—and landed face first with a blow that abruptly knocked the wind from her.
For a moment, as Ori gasped for breath, she could hear only the deafening rush of the venting atmosphere. Then she heard the clack of the doors being shut behind her and all was quiet. In that instant, she somehow knew—she felt, deep in her being—that she was safe. The air was different here. The cargo bay of the Dionysus had been cold and stale. The atmosphere in the escape pod was warm and comforting, like a familiar old pub. For a moment, she even thought she’d caught a whiff of tobacco smoke, though she dismissed this as ridiculous.
A pair of boots stepped over her prostrate form and she lifted her head to see the becaped figure of the Doctor climb atop a wide platform ringed by brass rails. He’d made it! If, like her, he had fallen during their desperate escape from certain death, he wasn’t showing any sign of it. She watched him reach for an ornate control panel, all switches and brass levers and ticking pressure gauges. It looked like something out of an old-fashioned brewery.
There was a shadow beside him, another figure dressed all in black. Ori didn’t have the time to consider him, for it was then that she realized quite how right it would have been to describe the interior of the escape pod as a pub or a brewery.
Above the control panel there was a glowing pipe made of glass, one that stretched up and up into the impossible depths of the cavernous space and disappeared between a pair of wide, winding staircases. In the glass were the reflected flickerings of a fire—a roaring fire that was snapping and popping between smouldering logs in a nearby fireplace. The hearthside bore a pair of leather armchairs and a fully stocked drinks cart crowded with decanters. Ori brushed lilac locks away from the coiled patterns on her face and stared, mouth agape, at the implausible space that surrounded her.
“Oh, dear,” said an unfamiliar voice, velvety yet uninviting. “You’ve picked up another stray.”
“Behave,” the Doctor scolded the man in black beside him, then he looked to Ori. “Are you alright? That first step’s a doozy. Then again, the old girl is typically standing still.”
Slowly, Ori got to her feet and straightened her hair and her blouse. Once he was satisfied that she wasn’t injured, the Doctor returned his full attention to the control panel, tapping the glass face of one of the many gauges.
“This is no escape pod,” Ori said at last.
“Oh, she’s observant,” the other man sniped.
The shadowy figure in black turned away from the console and took three steps toward her, stopping at the edge of the platform, his posture severe, hands held behind his back. He was tall and sharply defined, the solid black of his tunic and trousers contrasting with the snowy white of his close-cropped hair and a perfectly groomed beard. There was a twinkle in his eyes not dissimilar to the one she had seen in the Doctor, but as this black-and-white man examined her she felt the chill of a vulgar superiority. As an expert vintner and an experienced sommelier, it was an attitude she was very much accustomed to deflecting.
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Ori said cordially.
“I am usually referred to as the Master,” he replied. “Welcome to the TARDIS.”
“Orizrekit’Gehm,” the Doctor announced by way of introduction, his eyes on his computer, fingers punching digits into a keypad with a clickety-clack-clickety-clack. “Be nice to her. She’s winemaking royalty.”
“TARDIS?” Ori echoed. “What does that mean?”
“Time and Relative Dimensions in Space,” the Master told her. “Don’t worry your pretty little head over it. It’s more than—”
“A transmat,” she said confidently.
The Master raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“We were in the cargo bay, we leapt into an escape pod, and now we’re here. You’ve retrieved us with a transmat.”
He smiled at this, clearly amused by her attempts to understand the situation. “No, no, no. Nothing so hackneyed. You’ve crossed the dimensional threshold of a real world interface. You were outside, and now you are inside, and the inside—”
“Is bigger than the outside?”
The Master turned his head. “I think she’s catching on.”
“Wow,” Ori breathed, taking in her incredible surroundings with renewed wonder. A log shifted in the fireplace. “Well, thanks for the lift. Another second and we’d have been vaporized by that metal monster.”
“Yes. They do make a habit of that sort of thing.”
Though the Doctor was distracted by his work, he was listening to their conversation and, at the mention of the Daleks, decided to join in: “Any sign of temporal turbulence? Artron excitation? Traces of taranium?”
The Master was ready with a reply. “None whatsoever. No sign of time travel, none of the Dalek Time Controller’s usual signatures. Just your bog standard genocidal pepperpot.”
“Albeit one with a rather curious preoccupation with prophecy,” the Doctor said with a shake of his head. “‘The Doctor will reveal the location of the artefact.’ Do you have any idea what it was on about?”
Ori was still staring into the shadowy depths of the chamber’s upper reaches and it took her a moment to realize that he was addressing her. “Hm? No.”
The Doctor seemed satisfied by this and waved a hand in the air dismissively. “There’s no way to know what they’re up to. For all we know, that stray Dalek might have been intended to serve as a distraction. We can’t let it deter us from our mission. Right now, we have more important concerns.”
“Yes,” the Master said gravely, joining the Doctor at the console once more.
Ori crossed her arms. “More important? The Dionysus was being torn apart by that thing. We nearly died back there! What could possibly be more important?”
“The Divinity,” the Doctor said and, though the name meant nothing to her, there was an unexpected edge in his voice that instantly convinced her.
She fell silent and watched the two aliens from a distance.
The Doctor locked eyes with the Master. “You’ve had enough time to complete the modifications?”
The Master nodded. “Navigational controls have been reconfigured to incorporate recursive circuitry. Even the Time Lords won’t be able to override it. Any attempt to move the TARDIS—any at all—will simply redirect us to Earth. It’s the only target we can reach at present, though there’s no telling when we’ll arrive there.”
“What did he say?” Ori interjected.
“Good,” the Doctor carried on determinedly, setting his jaw, then he threw back a brass lever and the room began to shake with vibrations and a low grinding noise. “That’s where we’ll find the Divinity. That’s where they’ll be waiting for me. They’ve been corrupting the course of human history since the dawn of man, and all because of me.”
“You’ve learned from the best,” the Master declared with unabashed glee.
The Doctor glared at him, his pale face garish in the bright yellow light that was now emanating from the glass column between them. “We all make mistakes,” he breathed. “It’s time that I faced mine.”
Again, Ori tried to interject. “The two of you are talking about history as if it’s on the itinerary. Did I miss something?”
The Doctor and the Master sighed and turned to stare at her as if she were some irksome tourist. Then, in unison, the two men all-but shouted, “It also travels in time!”
With a dull but heavy thwump, the chamber fell still and the yellow light began to fade from the column above the console. The Doctor flipped a toggle and a nearby monitor burst to life with a hiss of static. Ori whirled to face it. The picture was grainy and lacked colour but it was a lively one. Before them stretched a row of buildings built of stone and wood, a succession of pillars and parapets and drooped awnings. The street below was crowded with people, some clad in tattered cloaks, others half naked but adorned with jewellery or leather straps. The clouded sky was darkening and the whole scene was lit by the fires that burned in scattered cauldrons and braziers. One thing was clear: they were no longer aboard the luxury starliner Dionysus.
“Ancient Rome,” the Doctor announced, slapping his hand down onto a call bell mounted on the console. “The Esquilana. 20 B.C., according to this.”
“I’ve never been to Earth,” Ori said quietly.
“Consider yourself lucky,” the Master remarked.
“Hang about,” the Doctor muttered.
He turned his face to look up at the glass column and frowned deeply.
And then, as if on cue, everything went wrong.
It began with a sudden burst of light in the central column, as if a bolt of lightning had been channelled from above into the heart of the TARDIS. Blinded, Ori winced and turned away, grasping for the brass rail. With a wheeze and a groan, the whole room began to judder, as if they had taken flight once more. As the sound carried on, however, its resonance became distorted and unnatural. Ori’s stomach spasmed. She snapped open her eyes to find herself looking upon the fireside, but the flames amid the logs were no longer flickering. They were standing stock still, as if they had been pressed upon the canvass of some oil painting. Within the time machine, time itself was yawning wide.
Far above, somewhere in the hidden depths of the TARDIS, a baleful bell began to toll. Ori shut her eyes and tried to count to ten. As seconds stretched into years and the bell’s tolling became a sustained and unwavering shriek, it was clear that she would never make it.