RIDDELL BLINKED repeatedly, in part as his eyes adjusted to the brightness of their surroundings, but also as he struggled to take in the vista that lay before him and the Doctor. It could hardly have contrasted more with the literal Hell the duo had just left.
They were stood on a dusty road that cut through a green and verdant land. To either side were lush, rolling hills, thick with a grass that rippled like the ocean in the breeze. The sky above was a beautiful, gleaming shade of yellow and studded with fluffy clouds. The road snaked away in front of them towards a walled city marked on the horizon by gleaming spires amidst its buildings.
“What is this—some sort of heaven?” Riddell spluttered.
THE TARDIS control room was serene, bathed in a warm, pulsating glow and silent save for the gentle hum of its mysterious, timeless heartbeat.
The mood was shattered in an instant as the doors burst open and the Doctor and Riddell practically fell through them before turning and slamming them shut again. Breathlessly, they exchanged a nervous glance then laughed in relief.
“Y’know, you’d think the stewards would be more grateful that we’d helped them out,” Riddell complained.
“Absolutely,” agreed the Doctor, dusting himself down, regaining his composure, and stepping into the control room. “Having a Krynoid loose in Kew Gardens was a serious matter. It would have eaten the entire collection—not to mention their visitors! And it’s not like they can’t rebuild the Temperate House. I’ll be having a few sharp words with George next time I see him, I can assure you of that.”
THE SETTING sun radiated a deep pink light that set the prairie on fire. The savannah stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond, teeming with a multitude of life. A family of scimitar-horned oryx drank at a glassy watering hole whilst, nearby, a huge herd of quagga grazed the lush grass. Away to the west, a pride of Barbary lions had emerged from beneath the shade of a spiralling, forked Sigillaria tree. John Riddell and the Doctor surveyed this pristine landscape in silence from the edge of an escarpment that offered them this breathtaking view.
“Lost in thought, John?” asked the Doctor gently.
Riddell took a few more moments of silence before he spoke. “Before I met you, this place would have been like something out of a fairy tale. I mean, it still is, but… I think my instincts are changing.”
“YOU HAVE BEEN UPGRADED! THE DOCTOR IS IRRELEVANT AND WILL BE DELETED! THE CYBERIAD WILL RISE!”
The phrases thundered over and over again in Riddell’s head, and all he could do was regard his cold, pale, expressionless visage in the mirror in front of him. Robotic arms bearing gleaming tools leant in and started to peel the skin from his face with medical precision. He couldn’t move a muscle, was powerless to resist. Slowly, his features began to disappear and a gleaming silver skull was revealed as his flesh was torn away—
John Riddell woke with a scream, his head pounding. It took a moment for him to recognise his surroundings, his bedroom aboard the TARDIS, and he let his breathing and heart rate slowly return to normal. Ideally, he needed more rest to recover fully from his injuries, but—setting aside the visceral nightmare—his well-honed instincts told him that something else was wrong. He wrenched himself from his bed, staggered to his feet, and made his way out into the corridor towards the control room. En route, he was met by a discombobulated and similarly upset Flo.
THE DOCTOR was lost in thought, his brow deeply furrowed in a contemplative frown as he walked behind the trio of Viyrans through the corridors of their command ship. Riddell and Flo followed behind him, congratulating one another noisily on how they had saved the mighty Shadow Proclamation from the devastation that the errant Starmind had threatened, replaying their roles with ever more exaggeration and aggrandisement.
Suddenly, the Doctor stopped in his tracks, whirled around and glared at them both. One wordless stare from his piercing eyes was enough to bring a sudden halt to their conversation. Usually the most effervescent person in the room, the Doctor’s moments of seriousness were all the more intense for their comparative rarity. His point made and his travelling companions silenced, he resumed his march in deep thought. Riddell and Flo exchanged glances like a couple of rebuked schoolchildren, shrugged, and then followed behind him in cowed silence. The Viyrans had led them all the way back to the waiting TARDIS before Riddell first summoned the courage to speak again, seeking the break the tension.
THE STARK walls of the console room seemed to radiate a soft white light, creating a feeling of warmth in otherwise sterile surroundings. A hexagonal console stood in the centre of the room, stretching up to a bright ceiling almost entirely covered by a canopy of intertwining leafy branches. The light filtering through the greenery threw patterns of shadows across the white walls. From the distance, the faint wooden sound of wind chimes wound its way into the tranquil room. In a far corner, a man sat in meditation.
With a sound like ice cracking on the surface of a deep, frozen lake, a metallic whirring broke through the calm. The noise grew closer. The man opened one eye, breathed deeply, and closed it.
The clamour did not cease, and soon a series of beeps accompanied the whirring. There was a loud thunk as something rolled across the threshold into room. This time, the man opened both eyes. His metal canine companion trundled toward him.
AS THE dusky twilight loomed over the rural landscape, the Doctor tied Marilyn’s reins carefully to the white picket fence, taking a few moments to calm the skittish mare. He took off his Panama and placed it crookedly on her head. Somehow, this seemed to mollify the horse; she nodded gently as if to register her appreciation. The Doctor smiled sweetly at her, but then his face turned grave as he turned to look upon the ramshackle, abandoned colonial house before them. All the while, Riddell was rifling through his knapsack a few steps away.
“So, then, here we are,” proclaimed the Doctor with a dramatic flourish. “‘The Shunned House.’”
Riddell drew alongside the Doctor, his face grim, and regarded the building before them with deep unease. “Here we are, indeed. Let’s get on with this.” In one hand he now held a silver crucifix, in the other a roughly fashioned wooden stake.