SLOWLY, PAINFULLY, the Doctor opened his eyes. His mind was fogged, as though he was waking from an aeons-long slumber. He was laying prone, and his body ached like it had never ached before. His fingers scratched at the ground, clawing up cracked flakes of dried mud. Gazing directly upwards, the sky above was almost impossibly black, with not a single star in sight.
The night-black sky.
The phrase propelled itself into the Doctor’s head, intruding into his confused thoughts.
The dark of Nineveh.
Nineveh. The name was familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.
THE BOLT arced through the air before finding its mark, burying itself deep into the centre of the crude wicker target.
“Bullseye!” roared Riddell in appreciation.
The flame-haired young girl dropped her crossbow and ran to retrieve the arrow, then skipped back to Riddell and pounced upon him with a warm embrace. The pair laughed. They cut a strange duo in some ways—Riddell outfitted in his full hunting gear, the girl in a simple tunic and leather sandals—but they enjoyed an easy familial chemistry.
A pale figure stepped onto the common from behind the pair, his cream linen suit resplendent and his panama shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun. “I never had you down as the paternal type, John,” teased the Doctor.
RIDDELL STOOD agape at the open doors of the TARDIS, gazing out at the vast, colourful clouds of the nebulae arrayed below the time capsule as it hung suspended in space.
“Behold, John, the Medusa Cascade!” announced the Doctor, gleefully, as he joined his friend to take in the unparalleled view.
“It’s incredible,” gasped Riddell, awestruck.
“It certainly is that, John, it certainly is. Take a moment to appreciate its splendour! There’s so much I still have to show you; it feels like we’re making up for lost time,” the Doctor added, a little ruefully. He snapped himself straight back out of it, though, now taking on a professorial tone. “This place is utterly unique in the entire universe. I’ll have you know that Star Whales come here to raise their young.”
THE TARDIS wheezed and groaned reassuringly before landing with a resonant thud. The Doctor, cradling the console, beamed at his travelling companion.
“Now, wasn’t that something!” he proclaimed. “I’ve missed doing that.”
Riddell was unmoved. “And you’re quite sure we’re where you think we are?”
The Doctor looked hurt. “But of course! I know I’m a little out of practice navigating the old girl for myself, what with how long we were subjected to the randomiser, but”—he jabbed firmly at his forehead—“you don’t forget hundreds of years’ of navigational experience just like that.”
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.
AS SHE felt rivets and bolts and sharp metal edges pass down the length of her body in the suffocating darkness, Selene couldn’t remember when she had ever been more uncomfortable. As an engineer, she was accustomed to wriggling into tight industrial spaces from time to time, when the job demanded it. Negotiating the twisting, mazelike interior of the subterranean base’s ventilation shafts, however, was another chore entirely. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t breathe, and their efforts to keep moving were growing clumsier with each slip of the arm and elbow to the face.
It wasn’t as if the Doctor was enjoying himself either. His lack of enthusiasm for their irksome errand was abundantly clear. As he pushed himself around a bend in the ductwork, he muttered angrily to himself, something about “human beings,” their “preposterous pretensions,” and the “gossamer fragility of time!” Clearly, he was no more impressed with Dr. Klemperer’s hairbrained plans than those in the Galactic Federation were. The sooner they put an end to the mad scientist’s shenanigans, the better.
“YOU CAN’T be serious.”
Ori stared at the Rani, who stared back with blazing, arrogant eyes. Though the ginger hair that framed her narrow face was a tangle and her lips bore a gamesome smile, there could be no doubt that the renegade Time Lady was, indeed, serious. Her fingers played coyly at the edge of the central console. The genie had been released from her bottle, and it wasn’t going to be easy to put her back in.
“Doctor!” Ori protested, a pained expression coming upon her ornately patterned face. “This is the mad woman whose poisoned Earth’s history. Yes? She poisoned history! The Romano-Egyptian Dominion? She enslaved an entire population just to get her hands on a console like that—” She reached over the brass rail and jabbed a finger at the six-sided structure at the centre of the control room. Its screens and dials were pulsing softly with muted colours, unresponsive to the power struggle that was unfolding around it. “Are you going to stand there and tell me that you’re seriously thinking of giving her the keys to your time machine?”
BENEATH THE sign for Baker Street, the street vendor was busy ladling out her modest fare from a battered tin pot perched over a crackling fire. A bevy of weary men, women, and children crowded around her, haggling. Some were handing over coins for portions food, others simply wanted to edge their way nearer the fire. In spite of the lively crowd, Ori never once lost sight of the Doctor.
More than a head taller than everyone else and crisply defined against the flickering light from the fire, the alien traveller had never looked more at home. He was buttoned up in his usual ensemble: heavy greatcoat, quilted cape, and a jaunty ribbon tie. On this occasion he had also donned a most formidable top hat. His face was as ashen as the snow falling all around him and his grey-streaked mane was as dark as the cloud-streaked night sky above. Shivering and pulling her cloak tight, Ori watched him joke and laugh with the people. She was miserably cold, but she couldn’t help but smile at the scene.
IT SEEMED as if they had been walking for ages. From the console room they had climbed one of the two broad staircases that corkscrewed up, toward infinite heights. An open door on the first landing had taken them through a frankly magnificent library, which had taken them into a hopelessly cluttered workshop, which had taken them down a damp and humid corridor that tracked round a swimming pool. One dimly lit, twisting corridor had led to another, and another, and another. The Master never once paused, never hesitated, never wavered. He knew where he was going. Trailing her fingertips along the never-ending brass rail, Ori followed in his footsteps, marvelled at the miracle of the TARDIS, and wished that she’d been given the chance to change her shoes.
Under his arm, the Master was carrying a device that he’d retrieved from an old seaman’s chest in the console room. It was thick and round, like the lid of a barrel. It was made of a semi-translucent material and in the face of it she could see the glittering traces of an ornate internal circuitry. Most interestingly, Ori judged that it was just large enough to fit into one of the seemingly infinite roundels that adorned the walls and doors throughout the interior of the TARDIS.
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.
ORI BREATHED in deeply. On the gentle breeze, she recognized the delicate fragrance of three distinct varieties of grapes. She let out a small sigh, knowing that in this part of the vineyard, she should be able to detect the kasis fruit as well. She closed her eyes and inhaled again, shutting out the bright afternoon. And then it was there—on the edge of her senses—slightly sour and wholly delicious.
Relief washing over her, she opened her eyes again and smiled. Sometimes she worried that this artificial environment would start dulling her senses, but the sunshine and the wind that felt so real to the tourists aboard the Dionysus could never trick her acute perception. Reaching out to the closest vine, she bent down and rubbed the leaves between her fingers and inspected the fruit closely. She glanced down the row of vines to her left and to her right, then buried her face in the bunch of grapes and inhaled.
THE AFRICAN savannah thundered with the combined sound of hooves and military boots. An unlikely foursome kicked up huge swathes of dust in their wake as their sanctuary, a trusty blue box, began to grow from a mere speck on the horizon to resemble the unmistakable form of the TARDIS. Even as it grew closer, however, their pursuers edged ever nearer.
For all her adventures both in and out of the TARDIS, Marilyn was exhilarated at an opportunity to race on her home planet once again, her muscles rippling and her mane flowing resplendently in the warm breeze. The Doctor looked to be enjoying himself, too, grinning from ear to ear as he roared on encouragement to his trusty steed from the saddle. Rather less comfortable was Riddell, an accomplished horse rider himself but here looking and feeling altogether out of sorts, perched behind the Doctor and holding onto his midriff as if for dear life. Keeping pace alongside them, Flo demonstrated how his UNIT training had kept him in the peak of condition, his mighty Judoon legs powering through the wilderness.
THEIR FEET thudded onto the frozen tundra as the Doctor and Riddell jumped from the motionless train, breaking the silence of the night. It was pitch black save for the faint glow of lights from within the carriage, moon and starlight gazing down from the clear sky, and the light afforded by a gas lamp that Riddell was carrying in one hand.
The Doctor, casting a striking figure in a light tan trenchcoat as protection from the chill air, stepped out into the darkness beyond the glow from the train, then immediately gazed up to take in the night sky. “Earth, then,” he proclaimed. “Northern hemisphere, Anthropocene Age.” His nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath of the crisp night air, adding, “Post-industrial. Twenty-first century, I’d say.”
THE FAMILIAR wheezing and groaning sound of the TARDIS had inspired many a rush of emotions for John Riddell in his travels with the Doctor: the thrill of danger, the hope of rescue, the promise of a new adventure, and much more besides. This time, though, he felt a novel and incongruous combination of relief and regret.
The door creaked opened and the Doctor greeted his friend with a broad smile and a doff of his Panama, before standing to one side and gesturing for him to enter. Riddell eschewed the welcome, trudging inside in silence, eager to leave behind the Helios starliner and all of which it still reminded him.
“What’s wrong, John? Did someone spike your drink?” the Doctor quipped, punctuating the question with a characteristic short, explosive laugh that irritated Riddell in moments such as this.
THIS WAS a delicate procedure requiring precision and the utmost concentration. His hand almost imperceptibly shaking and his brow furrowed into a intense expression of complete focus, a balding, professorial-looking middle-aged man in a lab coat held a pipette precariously over a bulbous flask. The flask, filled with a bubbling lime-green liquid, was poised above a flaming Bunsen burner and connected via rubber tubing to a maze of similar paraphernalia, a symphony of Erlenmeyer flasks, and test tubes. He was sat alone and by necessity in silence save for the gentle bubbling of the viscous liquid in the flask. The slightest error and the entire endeavour, representing weeks of work, would be ruined.
At this very moment there came an abrupt and urgent knock at the door. The scientist slipped from his stool and dropped the pipette straight into the flask in surprise, cursing loudly and coarsely in a broad American accent. Perhaps taking this outburst as an invitation, the door swung wide open and a distinctive figure stepped into the doorway.
“WHAT IS it, old man?”
The Doctor had been unusually introspective and subdued ever since they had left Kyrstal on Oomahn. It was a marked shift from his usual mood that Riddell couldn’t help but notice. The Time Lord stood at the TARDIS’ bulbous console, mulling the controls—and, specifically, the glaring red button of the randomiser.
After a pregnant pause, the Doctor finally spoke. “You know, I might have been able to get Kyrstal back home. Back to her own place and time. I might yet be able to do the same for you.” He chuckled. “I might even be able to do the same for me.”
“SO, IN summary, yes—she’s bigger on the inside and travels anywhere in time and space,” beamed the Doctor to his latest impromptu travelling companion, unable to conceal a sense of pride in his brand new and ancient TARDIS control room and excitement at having someone new to whom to show it off.
His voice echoed through the cavernous space, its stone-like form resembling the interior of some otherworldly cathedral, with a high, curved ceiling segmented by six translucent panels patterned with Gallifreyan symbols. Through them fell soft blue light in varying, shifting shades that created a mosaic on the control room floor. Suspended from the centre of the ceiling was the time rotor within a marbled blue cylinder and, beneath that, the console, the smooth curves of its bulbous form suggesting a reflection of the ceiling’s hexagonal design.
THE DOCTOR bounded forth through the TARDIS doors. A few seconds later the more cautious figure of John Riddell appeared open-mouthed in the doorway, gesturing behind him.
“But how did the TARDIS just change like that, Doctor?” he asked, dumbfounded. “First you, and now… this. It’s incredible!”
“Yes!” exclaimed the Doctor enthusiastically. “She was so badly damaged that she simply followed my lead and regenerated herself into a brand new architectural configuration. Beautiful, isn’t she! Quite unlike, I must say, wherever her new randomiser circuit has brought us.”