“My heart, if there ever was a mate for losin’ birds, it’s you, Major,” Mags said.
He had told her his story as she led him, on foot, back to the broad Main Street, up to one of the shining skyscrapers of glittering windows, through a gleaming brass-trimmed door that had opened automatically, and into a cushiony lift that had jetted them in perfect silence up into the brilliant sky.
There followed a short walk down a broad corridor adorned with walls of reflective glass at either end. She held her palm up to a sensor device in the wall, and a door slid open. He followed her into a vast, open suite.
"The office entrance is round the corner," she told him. "I bring me friends through here."
He gazed around at the sumptuous furnishings. About a football field away, a raised platform accommodated a wide, curtained bed and some comfortable furniture. Much nearer, there were sofas and great, deeply cushioned chairs. In the opposite direction, a gleaming kitchenette stood ready, and beyond it, a dining area.
"You're doing well," he told her. "Crime must be up."
"Me and Kogrik, we done what we set out to do," she told him. "Hauled in them fellers you and me and the others went up against. Took us a coupla' years, and times was hard enough and mighty treacherous, I don't mind sayin'. But when all was said and done, we broke the case."
"There was a reward?"
"Not so much that, but the publisher of them books---didn't I tell you they always get the stories wrong? Well, it made headlines when the ring was busted up, and I told this bloke I wouldn't mind sendin' him my memoirs of the case---"
"You wrote a Mags Hardbottle book?"
"Course I did!"
Realization dawned on the Doctor like a great light. He knew of course, that the young female before him was not a human being and not Mags Hardbottle. There was no Mags Hardbottle. She was a fictional character. The person he was addressing was a little Tark who had been sold into slavery to pay off family debt. But she never admitted it. She dressed like the detective heroine, went by the same name, and was a crack detective. Of course she would write very authoritatively on the adventures of the galaxy's premier sleuth.
And, no doubt, the sudden appearance from no where of this small wonder, calling herself Mags Hardbottle and bringing a clutch of body pirates to justice, had been a gold mine to the publisher of the series.
For a moment, his startled happiness at her good fortune drove out his worries for Sarah Jane. "And the book did well?" he asked.
She removed her visor and rolled her brilliant green eyes at him. "CURSE OF THE BODY PIRATES," she said. "Revived the series. I done three more since then, all good sellers. Stuff from my files that I stitched together. Got me a big place here in swanky town and act as a consultant. Pretty boring until you showed up."
"Yes, how did you know I was here?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm tapped into the Street Orders," she said. "Keep that on the QC, okay? Soon as there's any disturbance, I go take a look or send out Kogrik. I shinned down to the latest blip that showed up on the surveillance screen, and when I got there, everything was cleared up; except I found this."
She reached into a sleeve pocket of her jumpsuit and produced the sonic screwdriver. "That said it all." She handed it to him. "I knew you must be in trouble, so I went in easy. Some of the cops are on good terms with me. I tip their hand every now and then if I want a bit of news."
"Thank you Mags," he said. He pocketed the screwdriver.
"Sure Major. We're friends, right?" And she put both hands on his wrists and gripped them, giving her head a little shake at him. She did not know that this was purely a Tark gesture of welcome and friendship, and that she was betraying herself. But he didn't remark on this. Instead he made the customary response of pulling on her curly hair on either side of her head, just enough to bob her head from side to side.
"Yes, we're friends. If anybody can help me, you can."
She released him "Run this by me again," she said. "What's this Insider thing?"
"They're bits of life that have low mass and low voltage energy fields. Normally, if they can get themselves lodged into a dead host that has good energy potential left in its cells, they can reanimate the nervous system."
"How good of an energy potential?" she asked.
"Well, the human potassium-calcium system is not usually available to them. It's too delicate, and it degrades too quickly after death. Pretty rare for an Insider to make a home in a dead human, though it has happened from time to time. If the Insider gets in soon enough after death."
She indicated that he should sit in one of the throne-like, cushioned chairs, and he did. It accommodated to his weight and speed of descent and smoothly stretched back to allow him to recline. He did not object.
She pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and threw herself onto a straight backed sofa. "Sounds like they'd have to strike at the exact right moment on a human, eh?"
"Precisely. And this one did. Or he thought he did. But the host came back. I assume that the potassium levels in her heart overly relaxed it to a point where it could not come back---or so a machine must have said. But she revived."
"And this Insider had hold of her nervous system by then? She couldn't give 'im the boot?" Mags exhaled and frowned, her brilliant green eyes thoughtful.
"It was a rare medical event, Mags. I'm sure that she stayed in a passive neurological state for some time. In that time, he was able to combat her ability to expel him. And he didn't let her die. He found that she was much better at operating her cells than he was, and so he could afford to ride along."
"So you boosted 'im outta her, but this bird walked in at the wrong moment---"
"And received a tremendous electrical shock that nearly killed her. But he regulated it perfectly, and he used it to enter her."
"And so you took him next."
"Thinking I could suppress him long enough to create a shock that would destroy him." The Doctor shook his head. "I even thought that I had for a minute or two. I thought everything was all right. And next thing I knew, he seemed to spring into life right inside me."
She stood, walked over to an intercom, and pushed a button. "Kogrik! Bring in drinks, will you? Time for a consultation."
A loud grunt through the intercom indicated affirmation from the loyal Ogron.
She turned to the timelord. "I'll send him out to get the TARDIS shipped here proper. But first, we'll get it all down and then make plans. There's got to be some indication in that TARDIS machine a' where he took her."
"Parts of my own memory have been shut down. I'm sure he realized that he would lose if I took him to anybody who would help me, so he tried to cut off those memories. But once I realized what he was doing, I closed off everything. Shut down all technical information in my mind. But it was too late. He had programmed a destination into the TARDIS, and I don't know what it is. And now I'm not sure I can effectively use the TARDIS to find Sarah Jane. Not immediately."
"We'll just 'ave to see." She sat down again and took a drag on the cigarette. A door beyond the kitchenette opened, and Kogrik, dressed in the best native Ogron clothes that money could by, entered with a tray of decanters and heavy glass tumblers.
"Welcome, Doctor! Friend of Mags! Ha! Ha! Ha!" he bellowed. The Doctor found it difficult to feel any personal affection for Ogrons, but there was no doubt that when Mags had been an indentured slave, Kogrik had been kind to her. And he regarded the Doctor as a friend for having paid off her family's debts and freeing her. The Doctor accepted the teeth-rattling slap on the back that Kogrik gave him, an attempt from the Ogron to greet the Doctor in human fashion. But one did not slap Ogrons, not even the chummiest of Ogrons, on the back or any place else. Instead, the Doctor extracted a bag of jelly babies from his pocket and made a present of them. "Perhaps you would like these, my dear fellow," he said.
The seven foot Kogrik leered happily, showing his strong yellow teeth. He accepted the present with a nod.
"Take 'em outta the bag before you eat 'em Kogrik," Mags warned him. "We don't need you chokin' on no plastic bag like last time." She turned to the Doctor. "There's always some indication or sign somewhere," she said quietly. "If you can't find it just yet, Major, I can. We'll take a look in your TARDIS."
* * * *
As Sarah Jane watched the great creature and waited for its next move, the itching and tickling around her eyes, and the burning dryness when she blinked, reminded her of her other afflictions. Yet in spite of her reasons to be plunged into despair, she still had a sense of wanting to find a way to survive this place. And as more time elapsed, she realized that it was impossible to feel entirely as wretched here as she had in the tunnels. The walls of this part of the cave system were golden like sand, streaked with veins of silvery ore, so that while the sun was at its height, the great natural cathedral actually had a brightly lit appearance, and the walls occasionally twinkled and shone like jewels. It was a vast, open, airy place, and she noticed a faintly flower-like scent. The liquid that the spider-like creature had jetted onto the high wall to clean it had a sweet odor to it. This was a pleasant smell, but it warned Sarah Jane. Plenty of predatory insects on earth used sweet smells to lure in victims.
She had no real sense of time as she watched the cavern, and her wristwatch had been smashed in the struggle. But there were long moments when the silence and the light and the faint sweetness calmed her, even against her better judgement. The stillness seemed profound, but not really empty. There was nothing boring about being there, not even when she forgot to be afraid.
At last, the shadows lengthened down the walls on one side, and the sparkling of the veins of ore in the rock walls diminished as the light ebbed away. Painfully thirsty, hungry, and aching from her injuries, Sarah Jane at last crawled under the low roof, further into the refuge. She turned to keep her head pointed to the opening and then lay down full length. The itching in her eyes and scalp became worse as soon as she attempted to rest, but she tried not to heed it. She dozed, but the itching made her rub and scratch at her eyes. This caused more pain and soreness. And then, as her weariness turned to frustration, the itching suddenly eased. The instant that it did, she became drowsy. A fragrant moistness soothed and cooled her skin and eased the pain in her eyes. She dreamed---or thought that she dreamed---that she was lying in a bed of flowers: lilacs and honeysuckle bushes bloomed nearby. She could at last sleep for as long as she wanted to. And she did.
* * * *
Inside the TARDIS's control room, Mags nodded to the Doctor, and he switched on the infrared floodlight in his right hand and held it high. Mags operated a control on the console, and the overhead lights went out. She was armed with a round, two-handled lighting plate, and she switched it on. A silvery beam fell along the floor, and she guided it carefully in the infrared path from the Doctor's larger light beam. In the dimness, only her green eyes were plainly visible, like the eyes of some wild creature watching for prey. She was wearing a slick, magnetically neutral coverall, designed for lab work. He had not changed his clothes, but they both were protective film bags over their shoes.
"Some organic matter on the floor," she said. "Scuffs of animal debris."
"Not from me." His voice was certain. "My shoes are made of fine grade synthetic material. Not from earth at all."
"Probably leather from her shoes. And fine dust," she said. "It's spread in a film from the console here to the doors. What's this creature's body like?"
"Not very substantial. The Insider has very low mass, and he emanates an electromagnetic field. The static from it would attract dust. Except the control room of the TARDIS is dust free. Could he have attracted dust from an inner recess---one of the wardrobes?"
"See the green flecks in the light? There's organic material in the dust," she said. "Let's check them doors."
The Doctor aimed the broad infrared floodlight at the open double doors, and Mags shone the narrow beam onto first one, and then the other. She carefully approached them and did a close examination of the outer edge of the right door. Then she got on hands and knees and checked the bottom.
She carefully stepped back and stood up, "Yeah, there's dust there, too. He must have opened the doors when he was controlling you, or maybe rigged them to open when this thing landed. And when he come through this way, with the doors open, his static energy sucked in a fine film of dust." She glanced at him, her eyes thoughtful. "I'll get me kit and vacuum it up."
"You have a lab upstairs?" the Doctor asked.
"A little set up for forensics," she said.
"Well, whatever you lack, I can supply."
They had parked the TARDIS in a storage bin in the lower recesses of the building. Mags stepped out and then re-entered with the tiny vacuum unit. The Doctor, unwilling to disturb the fine film of dust, did not move. He took the silver light from her and shone it from his other hand so that she could work. She crouched down and began the long task of vacuuming up the fine film of dust.
* * * *
What awakened Sarah Jane was the shouting of male voices. She opened her eyes. The eyelids stuck together and were crusted over from the mites, though not as badly this time. She pushed them open and listened, but then she realized that something was thrust down in the niche. The sweetness from her dream was all around her. A single, branch-like limb hung down, protruding into the niche, slowly oozing a liquid over her head that dripped down her hair and onto her shoulders.
It was the monster's great tongue. Sarah Jane screamed and rolled away, and the appendage whipped out of the niche and was gone. She was coated about her hair and shoulders with some sweet smelling liquid: slime, she thought. She desperately rolled around on the dusty floor, trying to dry off. She wondered, if she had not awakened when she did, if the monster would have somehow ingested her, or perhaps buried her alive in a drying mound of its secretions. Perhaps, when it had dried, the excretion would have been sticky enough for the monster to pull her out.
For a moment her horror at being touched by the hideous creature was so profound that she forgot what had awakened her. She heard another shout and froze. The niche was dim, and she carefully crawled to the bottom of the trench on her stomach. The entire cavern was still dim. She had slept the day and night away, and the sun of the new day was not yet high enough to illuminate the cave fully. She raised herself onto her knees and cautiously peered out into the vast cavern. Four shadows seemed to come out of the wall. They traveled in loping strides up the narrow end of the vast room, approaching Sarah Jane's hiding place from her right. They were directly across the longest expanse of the cavern from the narrow fissure where she had first entered.
"Dhunlup!" One of them shouted. "Are you ready to roast that bit of meat yet? You must be finished by now!"
"We've brought wood!" another shouted. "Get the carcass up here! Share and share alike!"
They threw down logs of wood. She heard the light bumping of kindling as it fell and the heavier thumping of fire wood as thick logs hit the stone floor. She crouched into a ball in the bottom of the trench, her head in her arms. There was no place to run, not with any sureness. She did not know the route by which they had entered, and she knew of no open passageways.
"Dhunlup!" Another shouted. He turned to his fellows. "Get that wood out of here. This place is unlucky. We'll light the fire out by the pool. He probably took her there. Nobody stays here. There's talk---"
His words were cut off by the sound of a blow that reached Sarah Jane even in her hiding place. The others shouted. She cautiously peeped out at them. Moving unseen from the shadows, a great shadow all its own, the spider-like creature was on them. One was already dead. The others drew their knives. All four were taken up in the giant, clamp-like claws of the creature. It could rest well on only two legs and its long hind section. Three still lived. As quickly as three rifle shots, the deadly tongue struck each, and then the legs flung the four limp bodies in rapid succession against the wall where Dhunlup had been smashed. They did not even have time to scream. The spider quickly shuffled over to their remains, gathering them up.
Sarah Jane's legs gave way under her with trembling. She was very nearly sick. Savage though they were, it had been a terrible death. She closed her eyes as nausea gripped her.
* * * *
Though the Doctor could not remember the navigation systems of the TARDIS, he was not slow in the chemistry lab of his time machine. He easily convinced Mags to use his superior facilities.
In the gleaming white room, he held up a square film that he'd extracted from the photographic electron microscope. He looked at it against the light while she leafed through a catalog on skin DNA analysis.
"Most of this," he said. "Is dust, pure and simple. A composite that's mostly finely pulverized ore, so it's a bit more pure than what you'd find in most environments."
"Pretty rare," she said. "High metal content. Asteroid, maybe?"
"That would narrow down the possibilities, but the conclusion may be premature. We'll have to check more of the sample. If we can find one residue of anything else, that could be a fingerprint of the locale."
"What about the ore itself?" she asked.
"Silver. The rest is granite."
She looked thoughtful. "Silver dust in the wind, eh? Just blowin' around?"
"That could be possible in a natural environment." But his voice was doubtful. In theory it was possible, but his limited memory did not recall any such place where the silver content of the soil was that high.
"It's also possible where the silver minin' is open, fast, and furious. Like a secret place. Where getting’ the ore fast is more important than a clean operation."
"Not a secret mine." He shook his head. "Why would the Insider take her there? It would be a place over run with tough miners who would probably kill outsiders to maintain their secret."
She turned away and started to prepare another film. "I dunno. Not the best place if he wants her to die peaceful. But I got a hunch about a few things. Let's look some more."
She slipped another bit of film into the sophisticated microscope. She looked through the viewer. “’ere’s a residue of something, Major. Biological, but I dunno what it is.”
He waited until the photograph had been taken, and then he extracted the photographic reproduction from the output slot. He held it up. “Certainly small enough. According to the scale on the edge of the frame, it’s roughly the size of Sarcoptes scabiei, and looks just about the same, too. Not an earth species, to judge by the hue of the epidermis. I suppose we could get a DNA profile of it, to determine the exact species.”
“Sarcoptes?” she asked. “A mange mite? A parasite?”
“Yes. In high enough incidence, a plague.”
“A summut slow death, as I recall.” Her words were casual, but the green eyes were intense.
“Yes. But it must occur on dozens, perhaps hundreds of planets. It may be impossible to narrow down. Parasites have been carried all over the universe.”
“Not to planets stuffed full of silver, Major,” she said. “Is there any way you can find the species of that thing?”
“To find its most typical host?”
“That’s what I was thinkin’. Might tip us off on the major population of such a place.”
“I can try. I’m afraid that Sarcoptes scabiei is quite numerous and very adaptable across a wide range of hosts. It will be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“But a smaller haystack than what we started with.” Obviously feeling satisfied about something, she withdrew a cigarette from a pocket in her sleeve, inserted it into her mouth, and lit it. He knew that she had a hunch, but he did not press her for information.
* * * *
Sarah realized that she must have fallen into a faint. She had a momentary vision of somebody above her, pulling aside a gauzy covering from the trench, trying to find an opening.
"You have to find water," the person said. "There is water down the hall."
She came around, realized that she was in danger of being found by the spider while in the open trench, and crawled further back into the niche. She heard the horrible creature cleaning the walls. The itching and burning were starting in her eyes again, but she did not move. She was trembling so hard that a knot formed in her stomach.
Daylight came, and the cavern became light and warm. The niche also warmed, and the itching became worse. Her vision was growing dimmer, and redder. But she still didn't move. If she only had the strength to go out and be seen by the monster, it would kill her quickly. And it would do such a thorough job of smashing her to bits that the Insider would not be able to use her. Even the miners themselves would not be able to get her remains, once the spider sealed them away.
But Sarah Jane knew that even in her wretched condition, stranded millions of light years from anything or anybody that she knew, ready to be taken over by the Insider even before she was dead, she did not have the power of will to step out and be killed by that savage beast. She would die by degrees, she realized. And the Insider would find her and have his way with her. Or else she would begin to die and somehow the monster would contrive to get to her and kill her as it had killed the others.
Thirst began to torment her, and she became feverish. She had not drunk water for over a day; neither had she eaten. The mite infection was strengthened by her dehydration. Before nightfall, her eyes were nearly crusted shut. In spite of being terribly hot, she developed chills. "If there’s any mercy, have mercy on me," she prayed again when she could. She came in and out of sleep. The shimmering, faintly luminescent form of the Insider came and glowed on the low rock roof, only a foot or two above her, waiting for her to decline closer to death.
* * * *
“This particular species of Sarcoptic scabiei is extremely diverse in its preferences,” the Doctor reported at last. Impatiently smoking and pacing in the doorway of the lab, Mag looked up as he stepped away from the bio-scanner. “If you’re looking for a race of likely hosts, then we’ve narrowed it down to about five hundred possibilities.”
“Sure, that many in theory, but what about the odds?” she asked.
“We’re talking about the universe, Mags!”
“No we ain’t! We’re talkin’ about all the possible places that Insider dust magnet’s been.”
“It’s more like a cloud than a magnet,” he told her. He folded his arms and looked at her. “In this century---it could have been anywhere. They scavenge where they can, and they can travel through space.” He suddenly snapped his fingers. “Radiation!”
“Eh?” she asked.
“It surely had its own radiation signature! If it took Sarah Jane to a place that it knew---“
“A place where it had to ‘ave been before,” she added.
“Then it might have its own radiation signature that would tell us where it’s been!”
“But we don’t ‘ave it here.”
“No, of course not, my dear. But we do have the dust.” His voice became absent, and she knew that he was not listening to her. But she did not interrupt him. He went back to the table of scanning equipment and slid one of the films of dust into the dosimeter scanning array.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A radiation detector. Certain types of radiation become more intense and pervasive as you get closer to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Yes, yes, there it is. A very nice signature on the dust.”
"Major, what are you talkin' about?"
"Well, granite is a nice receptor of radiation. It can be used as a sort of yardstick for the levels of radiation that a planet receives---"
"Yes, my dear. And based on the levels of different types of radiation, we can determine the band of stars that hosts the planet---or asteroid---where this dust sample originated. The levels or radiation in the Milky Way galaxy become more intense as you approach the virtual epicenter center of the galaxy. So if you get a good fix on the levels of radiation from a sample, you can at least determine within a certain span how far its planet of origin is from that epicenter."
"So what's that gadget tell you?"
"Well, from this I can pinpoint the band of stars, but I'm afraid that still gives us nearly a hundred planets from which to choose."
"Look here," she said. "Gimme what info you have on them mites. I want to make a few calls."
He glanced up from the equipment array. "What are you thinking?"
"Seems I recall a story 'bout them Tuskers. But they ain't miners. All the same, they come down with mange pretty bad, and some of 'em died from it. Went down roarin', though, and blind. But then, at the end, into a coma. Among tuskers, there ain't no cure. But I hear they finally found a vaccine that immunizes them. But for them that died. That's what I'm thinkin'. Sounds like the sort a' illness that would help that Insider thing make itself at home."
He straightened up, the radiation equipment forgotten. "So you think the Insider found a good supply of dead bodies on some planet where these 'Tuskers' were victimized by Sarcoptic mange? That would narrow down our search. Where did you want to make these calls?"
"Tuskers is strange and unpredictable folk," she told him. "The only place I trust talkin' to them is their public offices on this planet. Anyplace else, they might just stab you, soon as your back is turned."
"Mags!" And his voice was gently disapproving. "Every species has its better members."
"Oh sure. Just like Daleks and Cybermen! Come on, and stay on your toes. High mindedness don't last long among low creatures."
* * * *
The hot darkness became a shade less dark, and the temperature abruptly dropped by a few degrees, just enough to be noticeable. Sarah Jane opened her eyes, and though she still felt the pain, it was removed from her, as though a curtain had been dropped over it in her mind. She seemed to have been pushed into a shell of existence apart from her existence in the cave. She glanced around. She was lying on a bed in a very small room, the heavily plastered walls bowed slightly. The mattress itself was made of a thick, heavy muslin, heavy as wadding. It had been tightly stuffed with straw. Sarah felt the rough thickness of the padding through her back, and she felt the cool, heavy comfort of the sheets and the blanket. But she knew that this place was not entirely real.
The room's single, heavily glazed window emitted just enough faint light from the starry night outside for her to know her surroundings. She sniffed, and she smelled the faint residual mustiness of the straw and the scent of hand made soap in which the bedding had been laundered.
A door by the head of her bed opened, and more light spilled into the room. A woman entered, carrying an oil lamp. Its halo of light showed that she had white hair, held back from her face in a short, thick braid. She wore a heavy, unadorned wool jumper and a delicate white shawl. Instead of being a frightening apparition, the sight of her filled Sarah Jane with a sudden hope. This aged woman somehow fit with the picture of the tidy room, its primitive but careful comfort, its element of being not completely real.
"Am I delirious?" Sarah Jane asked her.
The old woman hesitanty turned to look at her, as though trying to find her, and Sarah Jane saw nearsighted eyes that could barely discern her in the wavering ring of light cast by the lamp. The woman reached forward with some uncertainty, found the headboard, and then glided her wrinkled hand to the top of Sarah Jane’s head. She at last rested her hand on Sarah Jane's forehead. Her touch was gentle and was intended to establish contact between them. "Without water, you will die, lass. Why do you not go for water?" The voice was soft, human, and Scottish.
"There's a thing like a spider---"
"Are you so afraid of a wee spider? It will not hurt you."
“It killed those others.”
“But it will not kill you.”
"You don’t understand. It's watching for me. It’s waiting for me to come out."
Sudden understanding crossed the old woman's face. Even the eyes, which were nearly blind, lit up with sudden enlightenment. She set down the lamp on the tiny bed stand. "In the early morning, walk down the hallway to the wash room. It is the first door on the left. The spider will not be in the hallway. I promise you. You must do this as soon as you awaken. You are close to dying."
"But I can see here," Sarah Jane said.
"But not in the cave. You must have water or you will lose your eyes and the small mites will make you die in a frenzy."
"Can you save me?" Sarah Jane asked. She slipped her hand into the woman's hand. "Or at least let me die here, with you? I'm so tired of being alone. And that horrible Insider wants to take me over."
"I don’t know who that is,” the woman said. But she tightly held to Sarah’s hand, and her other hand again came to rest on Sarah's head and then smoothed itself over Sarah’s burning eyes and face. She covered Sarah's eyes, and the coolness soothed some of the pain. “Don't be afraid to ask for mercy," the woman told her. "Ask for mercy, if you ask for nothing else."
The pain came much nearer as the curtain in her mind was lifted and she returned to reality. Darkness descended on Sarah Jane as she opened her eyes. Her vision had been reduced to a single tunnel of hazy red, her eyes so swollen that she realized that the next time she slept, she would not be able to open them again.
She got to her knees and was suddenly sick with dry heaves, a reaction to the thickness of her tongue gagging her. The shimmering light of the Insider came down on her like a cloud. Sarah Jane struggled to peer over the lip of the trench. The great spider was gone. Morning sunlight poured through the top of the cave's high ceiling. She had no other choice. Almost blind from the mites and her dehydration, she struggled out of the trench and crawled along the wall, searching for the opening that the band of miners had used earlier.
* * * *
The Doctor got the idea that the word "Tusker" was not actually considered polite by the species itself. But with bits of his memory still hazy, he could not recall the correct and courteous name to use.
Mags led him down to the street, and they traveled on foot to another soaring white and glass skyscraper. Up another silent and cushioned lift, and they came onto a hall where the original entrance door had been removed and replaced with an enormous brass slab that had numerous bits of semi-precious stones embedded in it.
On either side of it, two tall, broad shouldered, round stomached, thick legged male creatures stood with their heavy arms folded. Each of them sported four knives of varying lengths and widths in his wide belt. Their clothes were leather and sparse. Coarse, reddish hair sprouted from their chests and blossomed out around their leather garments. Their arms and hands were covered with thick red hair, and their hands were heavy fingers, with enormous fingernails that were almost like dull claws. These had been cut back and filed down. Most strikingly, their muzzles were long and revealed many sharp teeth as they stood with their mouths half open, in the attitude of dogs at rest. And they also had long tusks on either side of their snouts. These tusks were drilled through with jewels, or hung with fine golden strands.
"Oy! Piggy!" Mags exclaimed. The Doctor just barely refrained from slapping himself on the forehead. The door watchers straightened up and glared at her, their fangs slightly more pronounced.
"Go away, you human runt!" one of them shouted. "You haven't been called here!"
"I got an appointment with your head man. So lemme in!"
"Wait here and keep quiet!" he ordered. He opened the huge door, and he and his companion stalked inside.
"Mags, we don't have an appointment," the Doctor whispered. "But you could have made one."
She had her visor on, and so she could not shoot him a look of exasperation. "They don't keep an appointment book like you or me would, Major. If you really make an appointment, and they have a record of it, they'll lie like blazes and say it got lost. If we say we have one and act sure about it, they'll think they pretended that they made one and will play along with us to save face."
He didn't argue with this convoluted bit of logic. In affirmation of her words, both the door guards returned and the leader of the two barked, "Enter then, at your own peril. For the High Representative to the Federation obeys no laws but his own, and he suffers the restraints imposed----"
"Yeah, yeah." Mags waved away his words as she led the Doctor through the great door way and into a dark room.
The room was a vast, dark, office, complete with a majestic desk that dominated one half of it. Candles that flickered and cast a faintly red glow dotted the room. It was simply an office, the Doctor noted, but dimmed and then relighted to give off the impression of mystery and grandeur.
Mags, at least, became a tad more respectful. To judge from the silhouetted figure that sat behind the massive desk, they were facing an older, larger, slightly more venerable person than the door wardens had been.
His voice, in fact, was more cultured than what the Doctor had expected. "So you have an appointment. I shall set aside that claim for now, though I warn you, my people do not approve of arrogance in our inferiors."
"I'll bear that in mind in case I meet any," Mags said.
"What do you want?" he asked.
The Doctor spoke. "We're looking for answers about an illness that your people may have combated recently. We think that it may form a link in our search for a very dangerous creature."
"We do not answer questions from outsiders. Good day."
"Blimey! Where's the light switch?" Mags asked.
The figure at the desk touched a button on his desk, and the door opened. The wardens strode in.
"Please wait!" the Doctor exclaimed. He turned to the figure at the desk. "Will you let us buy the information from you?"
"Doctor!" Mags hissed.
But this had the desired effect. The Representative lifted a heavy hand to stop the door wardens. The Doctor and Mags turned to him. Light from the hallway did not reach their host quite enough to illuminate his face, but the Doctor could see that the reddish hair was slightly gray, and the tusks were quite heavily adorned.
"To make any transaction with us, you must first be willing to prove that you have the heart, the courage, and the appetite for your own life to reach understanding with us. We distrust outsiders for very good reason."
"Yes, I will prove my worth to you," the Doctor said. "It is vital that I get the information that I seek."
"This is a mistake," Mags muttered.
"Then press your hand onto the signature pad on the desk," he said.
The Doctor stepped forward, and as he neared the desk, he saw a small square tile, faintly lit. He pressed his hand onto it.
"Step back," his host said.
The Doctor did, and as he did, a heavy weight came down on his head, and a booted foot kicked his feet out from under him. The last thing he heard was Mags' yell of surprise as she was also quickly overpowered.