The Book of Five Rings
"It was entirely my fault. There's not a moment to lose." The Doctor brushed past the Brigadier and scanned the lab. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, caught in the act of blaming the Doctor for Jo Grant's disappearance, checked himself. He rocked back on his heels, his back ramrod straight, and watched. The Doctor rummaged through the cluttered workbench, his long fingers expertly sorting through his many electronic experiments.
"Why is it your fault?" the Brigadier asked.
The Doctor shook his head. He thrust a small assortment of gadgets down into his pockets and stacked two larger pieces on the edge of the bench. "I got used to fooling with the TARDIS when it wasn't operational," he said. "So I was careless in testing it when it was operational."
Sudden alarm crossed the Brigadier's face. "Good grief! You're not saying you launched her out into that vortex thing?"
"No, but just as bad. I was testing the interface between the TARDIS and the vortex. I was essentially opening a channel from the console into the vortex---just like sending a nice big announcement through the vortex and then opening a pathway back to my own TARDIS." He let out a loud sigh of frustration and swept about a third of the workbench's contents onto the floor, then swept another armful of machinery towards himself. "Anything--anything at all could be out there. It picked up my signal and was able to trace it and make a grab."
"Something out there is looking for you?" Lethbridge-Stewart asked.
"Yes, possibly looking for me, and I gave it a chance to find me. Or it was just looking around, and I gave it Jo. Ah! This will work!" He held up a completely unidentifiable bit of circuitry that looked like some type of bandpass filter, and then dropped it into a pocket. He gathered up the larger pieces. "Right! I'm ready. There will be enough time distortion for me to verify the trail."
"Could it have been the Master?"
"Maybe. I can search for his TARDIS with my equipment."
The Brigadier frowned. "I thought you could detect his TARDIS only if it's operating."
"Yes, well, now that I can travel in time again, I can find it the last time it was operating, provided I look in the right place for residual distortion."
"Doctor, I don't think I understand-"
The Doctor let out his breath, frustrated. But the Brigadier coolly cocked an eyebrow and met the time lord's eyes, his own eyes calm and firm. "I want an answer before you leave." There was a rightness in the demand, and the Doctor stopped. Jo Grant was a UNIT operative after all, one of the Brigadier's people, so now that the Doctor had gone and lost her, he ought to explain how to find her again. The time lord capitulated. "A TARDIS can move through the vortex only by means of tremendous energy, Brigadier."
"Well then, where ever it goes, energy, mass, and time are distorted slightly. I can check my coordinates that I ran for my test and see if there's any measurable distortion. If there is, it means that a TARDIS--or something like a TARDIS--followed my signal and used it to home in on us."
"But you can't search all of time and space for her?"
"No, of course not. I can trace the path that I opened. But I won't know what's at the other end until I get there. Now if you don't mind--I am in a bit of a hurry--"
"You want me to come with you, Doctor?" Lethbridge Stewart suddenly asked. "If something is out there waiting for you, you may need a back-up."
The Brigadier had been swept along on the Doctor's last journey---into a black hole and the domain of Omega. As always, he had remained calm, brave, and efficient at the things he understood. But in spite of his excellent qualities of organisation and leadership among humans, they both knew that he might be out of his element in some foreign world.
"No, that's quite all right," the Doctor said quickly. "You handle things from this end. She may just pop up here." He stuffed the larger odds and ends under his left arm and thrust out his right hand.
The Brigadier shook hands with him. "Right then, Doctor, take care of yourself! Good luck!"
The Doctor nodded, strode into the TARDIS, and activated the doors. As they swung closed, he checked the coordinates and then operated the console. The central piston unit came up and descended, rose sharply again, and smoothed out its motion. He should have been pleased to see it working again, but the happy occasion was now a crisis. He knew perfectly well that Jo Grant was not going to pop up again on Earth. Some knowing hand had located his TARDIS and snatched her right out of it.
"It's my fault," he muttered to himself. "It's my fault, Jo." He strode to the back rooms and deposited his machinery in his workroom in the back. Then he strode to the console again and checked the coordinates. "Why did I run that test while she was in here? Don't I know I have enough enemies out there?"
He started the scans for the temporal distortions and kept his eye on the coordinates he had been using to run the test. It was his standard set of testing coordinates, and he could no longer even recall where they led---some dead end in the galaxy that he had selected long ago.
* * * *
Harsh morning sunlight stared an unwinking eye into the drainage ditch in the sand. For a moment after Mags Hardbottle woke up, she did not see the sun or the cloudless, dry sky above, but two eyes staring into hers. She groped for the cracked visor and put it on, masking her own wide, inhumanly green eyes. It could not obliterate the memory of the Master's eyes.
She knew now that he was a killer---a great, powerful figure, like some god of war: predatory and luxurious and intent. She rolled onto her side and tried to get away from the eyes in her mind. The blood squelching inside her jumpsuit made her feel sick. Suddenly she dry heaved into the ditch, not once but several times. At last she crawled towards the gate that they had been so desperate to reach last night. The paddles were shivered apart, the axis broken in half. She squirmed through and inched along the empty drainage ditch, leaving a faint spattering of blood drops behind her that dried quickly in the sand.
She crawled through the silent western quarter and came to the outskirts of the city. A tiny outbuilding sat by itself at the end of the street. Unlike the gleaming structures of the casinos down on the main street, this had the baggy, tilted look of a living unit. The fibrous walls bulged slightly outward. She staggered to her feet and tried to step up the bank of the ditch. But the sparkling, mica-dusted landscape rolled all around her, and she fell over into the ditch again. She lifted her head until everything stopped moving, and then she tried to get up a second time.
The night's revelries were over, and most of the customers were still sleeping. The workers were either ending their shifts or just rising. One lone figure--a human figure, a female clad in a style from another world--saw Mags, started, and hurried past on the other side of the street. Then she stopped and looked back, obviously frightened and lost, but compelled by some strange pity for Mags to watch. The human had to be a newcomer, and she did not know the danger of being out alone at this time of day. Mags had enough presence of mind to try to say something, but she couldn't make her voice come out. She was thirsty and weak, and a deep, inside part of her was still fighting against the beating she had received.
She must have fainted, because the next thing she knew, two clearly human eyes--brown with the brown that Tark eyes could never be--were looking down at her, and a voice, frightened and yet trying to sound calming, was speaking to her. It was the human woman, trying to assist her.
"Go to cover," Mags said. "Go to cover. It ain't safe."
The voice continued, pleading or coaxing. "No!" she exclaimed as the human would have lifted off the visor. She pushed hard, and---even beaten and exhausted---Mags was stronger than any human woman. She pushed the stranger away and got to her feet. "Go to cover!" And then she staggered out of the ditch and stumbled to the living unit. She pulled out the key, found a lock in the sagging door, and pushed it open. The blast of cool air that hit her, as cool as the air from the casinos, brought her around. She had a glimpse of a gleaming control room, and then she fell forward on her knees and then her face. The doors behind her closed.
* * * *
What woke Mags, hours later, was a scrabbling at the doors and a trilling alarm going off on the console. For a moment she had no idea where she was, and then she moved. The pain through her body brought everything back to her with a flood of memory. She got to her knees, wondered if she could stand at all, and then decided not to try and scrambled around to the other side of the console.
She had no idea how her body would respond after her beating and a few hours sleep on a hard floor. Cautiously, she peeped out from under the cover of the hexagonal console. The alarm abruptly stopped as the doors swung open. A tall man with white hair and dark clothing stood a moment on the threshold and then entered. His body seemed relaxed, but every inch of his face showed caution and stealth, and she knew he did not belong here.
The spatters of red just over the threshold caught his attention. He knelt down and ran his finger through the blood. Mags watched, nearly breathless. A Salafian would immediately know her gender and species from the scent of the blood, but this creature did not so much as smell it. He only looked at it, his face quiet and thoughtful. He rubbed his chin with his other hand.
The control room was nearly silent. Suddenly, the air exchange system started with a loud thump. The Doctor ignored the noise and stood, his eyes still fixed on his fingertips. The blood was too bright to be human, and instead of having the thready look of strands of human blood, it had an almost grainy texture to it. He glanced warily around the control room. Ogron or Tark. This planet had the climate and stark landscape that only such tough species could endure for very long.
At last he ventured further inside and made up his mind to go through the interior in his search for Jo. There was no telling what horrors lay in the Master's TARDIS, or what half-formed plans for conquest, pillage, and domination would be found back there. But there was nothing to do but look.
Just as he passed the console unit, something launched up and slammed his left hand back into his chest, propelling him around to the right. A light spray of blood went over him. He turned with the charge and propelled his assailant with the turn. To his surprise and admiration, the short, visored guardian of the control room bounced off the wall, yelped in sudden pain, and attacked him again. She caught his right hand and swept it in front of his chest--a classic trapping technique to block his other hand from being useful. He turned again with the direction of her attack.
But suddenly as she passed close in front of him, something strong like a metal vice clamped around his left wrist. It twisted the wrist. He shouted in pain and instantly went to his knees. Without thinking, he converted the motion to a backward roll. His left foot caught her under the midsection; his right caught her inner leg, and he threw her over his head with his legs. At first the grasp did not loosen, and in a flash he thought she would dislocate his arm. Then she hit the floor and wailed in unbearable pain. Her powerful pectoral hand released his wrist. He rolled up to his feet, saw with sudden understanding the strong inner hands, and fell on her quickly, forcing her face down. He wrapped his long legs around her, wrapped her outer left arm in front of her to pin in her pectoral hands, and drew the captured arm all the way around her over her right shoulder. She writhed in the grip of his legs, but she could not escape. Behind her, he drew the arm tighter over her shoulder. He stopped as he heard her gasp of pain.
"Who are you?" he asked. He had her in a submission hold that kept him behind her on the floor, so he could not see her face. But he knew that she was in pain. Her blood was spattered on his face and hands. She didn't answer him, overcome with sudden weakness. She drew in a shuddering breath, and he quietened his voice. "What's happened to you, little Tark?"
She was young, he thought, perhaps not even yet of child bearing age. He used his free hand to stroke her head, seeking the dorsal cerebral pulse of the Tark metabolism. Under the foreign touch, she gasped and struggled, then submitted as he found the pulse and pressed his finger tips against it. He knew that she was frightened, but the pulse was slow and yet hammering. Then he noticed the blood on her neck, and he ran his hand along the inside of her collar. His fingertips came back wet with blood. Frightened by his inspection, she desperately thrashed to get away.
"I don't want to hurt you!" he exclaimed. He tightened the grip of his legs and the grip of his hand pulling on her wrist to make her be still, but he was more careful. Blood was seeping out of all her cuffs--both wrists and ankles. Gasping for breath, she let her head fall forward.
"Gimme--gimme water before you kill me," she said at last in a staged cockney accent that startled him. But she bargained like a Tark in the face of death. "Gimme water and I'll answer three questions for you."
"I'm not going to kill you," he told her. "And there's no point in asking you questions yet." He moved his free hand forward, under her jaw. "I'm not going to hurt you, young woman. Just relax."
She tried to get away again as he found the underside of her jaw and pressed the notch near the hinge of the jaw. Her struggles as he pressed his knuckle up into the nerve were momentary and quickly fluttered into stillness. She became limp after a moment.
* * * *
Mags woke up to find herself face down on a soft, firm surface. At first she thought that she was in her familiar hut, but the walls were too bright, and there were no smells from the slum. A clean sheet and very thin blanket had been draped over her. She pushed down with her pectoral hands and raised herself slightly, but then she closed her eyes and lowered herself again. She felt unusually tired and pleasantly light headed. All her pain was far away. She closed her eyes.
A gentle hand stroked back her curls, and she opened her eyes. The white haired stranger peered down at her.
"You aren't going to try any of that four-handed jiu-jitsu on me, are you?" he asked with a smile.
She recognized him but could not place exactly who he was. But she wasn't afraid. Fear and pain had been dissolved in waves of comfort.
"Here is that water you wanted," he said.
She felt so at peace and drowsy that she did not mind drinking from the cup he held for her. She raised up again, bowed her head over the cup, and drank it all. As he took the cup away, she realized that her jumpsuit had been removed, and she was clad in a loose white shirt, which had been put on her backwards. She started in surprise and fear, but then the waves of drowsiness washed over her. She lowered herself down to the mattress. The stranger came back.
"Where'd you put my clothes?" she asked sleepily.
"Over there," he said with a nod towards a wooden structure against the wall. Her clothes were neatly folded on top of it. He looked down at her gravely. "Now listen, I am a doctor, and I am taking care of you, do you understand? So you don't have to be afraid of me."
"Why, Mister, I ain't afraid of anybody," she said amiably, coming around enough to smile up at him. "I'm Mags Hardbottle, Detective to the Stars."
For a moment he paused, and then his face became gravely polite, and he said, "Well then I'm pleased to meet you at last, Miss Hardbottle. I've heard so much about your exploits."
She nodded, and her green eyes started to close, but he leaned closer. "Mags," he said.
She woke up enough to look at him. He had great, quiet eyes. The odd sense of urgency and worry that she had felt from the Master's startling gaze released her and faded away.
"Can you hear me?" he asked.
"Somebody gave you a terrible beating," he said. "Was that the Master?"
"No. He might've killed me, but he wouldn't beat me, I don't think."
"So you've met the Master?"
The quiet eyes of the Doctor took on a new urgency. "Mags, did he have anybody with him?" She woke up a little more.
"No. I was his last hope, but I couldn't do it." Suddenly, she came around. She leaped up again on her inner hands, starkly awake. "Where am I?" She tried to get up on her knees and very nearly fell off the cot.
He caught her. "You're under my care. I've given you something to take the edge off from that beating you got."
Not heeding him, she struggled again to get up to her knees, to get up and get off the bed. He allowed her to try, steadying her in case she should fall over again. "Who beat you so badly? Was the Master angry with you?" he asked.
Suddenly exhausted by her efforts, she slumped over in his arms as the narcotic took effect again. He set her onto the cot and reached for something as her eyes closed.
"It's all right," he whispered. "I'm going to give you a little more of this to help you sleep. But you're safe here. You have nothing to fear." There was a pause and she felt a push on her shoulder and then a slight sting.
"Can you hear me?" he asked. She nodded, but her eyes were closed. "I've got to go to the casinos and look for somebody. But I'll come back. I'll bring you food, all right?" She nodded again and fell asleep.
He stood in the doorway and looked at her for a moment, concerned. She was safe enough in the TARDIS, and most likley would stay asleep until he returned. He turned to leave, his face set. Some knowing hand had taken Jo, and now there seemed a distinct possibility that the Master himself may have fallen victim to the same agent. Or was he behind it?
Suddenly resolute, he strode from the room and left the TARDIS. Outside, the glare from the casinos washed over him with a blue and sickly light. Whatever power had taken his companion had at least stopped here, on this forsaken bit of rubble. It was here that he must seek the answers, or be found by some new enemy. He hurried toward the tall buildings.
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