The Book of Five Rings

Episode 4

"A pint of bitters, please," the Doctor said. He desperately wished his well wishers would go away. Being slammed face first into a concrete pole did things to a person's ability to appreciate company. He took a seat at the bar while the chattering array of gamblers thronged him and compared observations with each other on the Dip Jahp match.

"Here y'are Major," Mags' voice said, and a compress filled with ice was pressed against his face. He gratefully took it, and she melted back into the crowd again, busy with the task he had set her. He realized that she was a good and dutiful servant. With the visor and black jumpsuit, she had masked her child-like appearance and was back in form as the well known Detective to the Stars.

Eventually, the crowd thinned out, especially as the Doctor evidenced no sign of buying drinks to celebrate, nor even of receiving them with very good grace. The bar area was not quite as heavily adorned with the electronic sequins that covered the main hall. And it boasted what seemed to be a genuine mahogany top, or the best counterfeit he had ever seen. A Salafian served drinks with ubiquitous proficiency.

At last Mags reappeared.

Any luck?" he asked her. She handed him a chit of paper. "Names and addresses of permanents who say they may have seen her. Only two. It was a bad time of morning. Nobody about. They just glimpsed her. Didn't see nobody else."

"I believe I promised you a beer earlier," he said. He waved the Salafian over. Mags grinned. "Pale Ale," she said, predictably. It was the favorite beverage of the galaxy's most famous detective. The Salafian returned with the drink.

"I seen her when I was half passed out from the beating," she added. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it. "Pretty bird with big eyes. She seemed scared and maybe disoriented. She come over and tried to help me outta the ditch. I tried to tell her to run off. It's not safe that time of day for strangers to be out alone."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Body pirates, Major." She turned her visored face to him in surprise. "We got no law here. Loads of transients. Body pirates make out like kings."

"No law?" he asked.

"Not on the street. Each casino has its jurisdiction within its walls and in its right of way. They each got their own security people, and we all cooperate with each other most times. But when the casinos are closed, watch out." She took a generous sip of her beer and set it down. "Course, they try to operate in some secrecy. People hire private sector agents to get revenge and such like. And there's governments away from the planet here that say we're under their jurisdiction. About once every other rainy season they send out a squad of police and soldiers to mop up. But the body pirates come right back."

"What would happen if the body pirates got her?" he asked.

She didn't answer for a moment, and then she said. "Anything. Would depend on what they want, wouldn't it? They keep people alive sometimes."

"But what do you think?" he asked.

She took a drag on the cigarette and then stubbed it out on the bottom of her booted foot. "I don't want to make you angry," she said, not looking up. "But I think they would most likely kill her. Take the body organs they want and jettison the rest out yonder where nobody goes."

He would have spoken, but just then the shift manager entered the room, gave a nod to Mags, and looked at the Doctor, who stood up. An Ogron, dressed in a military style uniform, followed him. The Doctor stiffened, but Mags beamed. "Look, Kogrik, I got me a new boss, now."

The Ogron leered. "Mags free?"

"Well, not quite. But he don't beat people."

The Salafian manager raised his hand for quiet. He looked at the Doctor. "I followed up on your inquiries, Doctor," he said. "Do you recognize these, sir?" The Ogron held out two rings to the Doctor. The Doctor didn't need to inspect them. He recognized them instantly, but he picked them up anyway. "These belong to my friend," he said.

"I'm afraid that we have extremely painful news," the manager told him gravely.

"Found your friend," the Ogron exclaimed. "Come! identify the body."

"Dead?" the Doctor exclaimed.

The manager nodded and did his best to imitate a human expression of sympathy. "I'm sorry, Doctor."

"Downstairs!" the Ogron exclaimed.

"That's their security headquarters," Mags said. "It's got a morgue."

"Wait here," the Doctor told Mags.

She shook her head. "You're the boss. I'll see it through with you."

They followed the manager and the Ogron security guard out of the bar, down a hallway, and through a reinforced door. It was a long walk down more hallways and onto an elevator for a drop into the bowels of the casino. Only in the back hallways did anybody get an idea of how vast the casino really was. The manager brought them to another reinforced door and turned to them.

"It isn't pretty sir." He opened the door with an electronic key, and added with a nod to an unadorned table on which sat several items, "There's scraps of effects there." And he pointed to a polyurethane bag on one corner of the table. "It's enough if you'll just identify them."

The Doctor picked up the bag. It contained two more twisted rings, charred scraps of material that he recognized from the clothing Jo had been wearing, and the charred heel of one pink shoe.

"These are hers," he said. "Take me to the body or what's left of it."

After a moment's hesitation, the manager led them through another door into a room heavy with the smell of disinfectant. On a wheeled gurney lay a heap of something covered with a sheet. The manager paused and then drew the sheet all the way back. In spite of herself, Mags gasped and then stayed stone silent, her hand over her mouth. The remains on the table were just that--burned and charred human remains. The Doctor could distinguish what had been a head. Some charred skin even clung to the scalp. The few strands of remaining hair were not identifiable by color. Fire and smoke had altered them. In spite of the chemically treated air in the morgue, the horrible smell of charred flesh clung to the corpse.

One side of the body was burned away completely. All that was left was part of the torso, the upper legs, and one arm and hand.

"The standard procedure of body organ pirates is to incinerate or dissolve remains of their victims. These were found behind the wine shops."

The Doctor extended his thumb alongside the skeletal thumb. "Why weren't the rings charred?"

"They were. We cleaned them sir. Wanted the ID to be clear."

The Doctor looked at him. "The rings belong to Miss Jo Grant; the clothing that's left was her clothing, but this is not her body. I'm sorry. It's not she."

With a sigh of pity and exasperation, the manager flipped the sheet back over the charred remains. "Death is a terrible thing, sir," he began.

"Come along, Miss Hardbottle," the Doctor said. "The air in here is too stagnant. Thank you, sir. We'll be in touch. I'd like to take her personal effects with me."

He led Mags out, picked up the small bag of jewelry and clothing remains, and retraced their way back up to the main floor. The hot, glaring night was in full swing when they came back onto the street. Dry and hot as it was, the outside air was like a much needed slap in the face after the fetid confines of the underground morgue.

"That's done me," Mags said. She strode straight over to a curbside drain, used in the dry season to catch the remains of discarded drinks. He followed her. She leaned over and threw up into it.

Impatient and exasperated, he stopped and waited. Passers by on their way to the casinos barely noticed the distraction. She clutched her stomach, went to one knee, and threw up again.

"Sorry Major," she said between heaves. She stopped again but didn't move from the grate. She was white as a sheet. He dropped his hands to her shoulders to steady her.

"You all right?" he asked.

"Dunno. Never saw a sight like that," she gasped. She heaved again, but there was nothing left to come out. A few more dry heaves, and she stopped. He put his hand across her cold forehead. She was trembling.

"If it's any help, Detective," he said to her, "that was not Jo Grant."

"How--how do you know?" she asked, keeping her eyes fixed on the material in the bottom of the grating as though unsure about whether or not she would have another go at adding to it.

"The thumb was as long as mine," he told her. "And the rib cage was too broad for her. I think it was a man's body, burned and then dressed in her clothing and then burned again."

The young female shuddered and did not lift her eyes. "Hand me that bag, will you?" she said after a moment.

He did. In spite of her fingers trembling, she extracted one of the rings, sniffed it, and examined it carefully. She spit several times to get the last taste of vomit out of her mouth, and then put the ring in her mouth and sucked it. She ejected it into her hand and looked up at him. "No solvent on the ring, Major. The manager was lying. They didn't clean the rings. Not this one anyway. It wasn't on the body when the body was burned. They wanted to make sure you got a good look at it so you'd know it was hers, so they kept it separate." She still could not stand up, but she looked away and added, "Body pirates would never have left the rings behind anyway. They're valuable and easy to sell off."

He held out his hand to her and helped her to her feet. "Well, it is quite clear that the manager lied. Is the casino in on the body piracy?"

"I never thought so," she said. She frowned. "She might be dead. Maybe not. Which ever it is, somebody wants you to think she's dead. Surest way to get you to leave off the trail. Is she--is she resistant to any diseases? Body pirates want people who are resistant to diseases. Them's the ones they keep alive for a while."

He shook his head. "I don't know. Can you walk?"

"I think so. We better get off the main street. We gotta go see Kogrik. I got an idea."

* * * *

A rhythmic throbbing gradually intruded upon Jo Grant's consciousness. Its effect was hypnotic, but there was something vaguely familiar about it. She glanced around and saw that she was lying on a cot or table flanked by biomedical machinery.

Gradually as her eyes adjusted, she saw that she was attached to a heart machine, and it was broadcasting the regular, slow sound of her heartbeat.

She rolled her head over to get a better look and wondered why she was in the hospital. Had there been an accident? She tried to lift her head.

A hand suddenly pressed down on her damp forehead, pinning it back to the table with her throat exposed. "She's coming around," a voice said. "It's going to get messy."

She jerked awake at the voice, tried to move, and could not.

"Doctor!" she exclaimed.

"Here I am," someone said, looking down at her, his hand holding her forehead down. He was covered in a white smock and wore a face mask. He had a syringe in his other hand, and had just removed it from her. It was a blood sample. "You're full of surprises, aren't you?" he asked her. "Thought you'd sleep through that, but the dose is wearing off."

With a jerk against restraints, she tried to get up again, but her efforts were defied. Something, not ropes, was holding her down.

"It's no good," he told her. "You can struggle and scream as much as you like, but it won't help."

"Who are you?" she whispered. "What hospital is this?" Frantically, her mind raced over everything she could recall--one moment in the TARDIS, and the next under that brilliant heat, in the strange city, seeing the wounded girl in the ditch--

"I'm the Doctor," he told her.

"That's enough," a voice behind him said. The man turned and Jo, unable to lift her head under the pressure of his hand, strained to see the second person, but the speaker stood just on the perimeter of Jo's vision. She could not make him out. He moved in a odd way, bits of him wavering into view and then out again like flickering shadow. "She's not what I wanted--not what was planned."

"Well if you haven't a use for her, it's standard harvest." her attendant said.

"No. You'll waste a lot if you treat her like a typical harvest. Test her."

The medical attendant's eyebrows went together in puzzlement. "Now? On your say-so?"

"Yes. I can sense these things by their smell sometimes. Test her. She's not a typical harvest." But the other person did not explain further.

"All right, then. I'll be right back." The man who had called himself a doctor walked out of view. She heard a hatch open and close, and she would have lifted her head, but suddenly something wet and cold lashed around the table and held her down by the forehead.

"No you don't," the second person said. A shadow seemed to suddenly billow over her as he moved into her view. He was a creature shadowy and undulating with some covering. He had no eyes.

She started to scream and then cut herself off as he leaned closer. A stench of sterilization fluid rolled over her, and she saw that he was dripping with it. It had been poured over his bare, purplish skin. His head, featureless except for a set of lips, was framed with a fringe of gently wavering papillae, and though he had two arms, they were also covered with growths that were something like hairs and something like fingers. He was using his tail as a restraint to keep her head on the cot.

His lips were formed in a permanent smile, so there was no way to read his emotions or expression. But he could use them to articulate words.

"I'm about to save your life," he said to her. He drew a capped syringe from under a fold of skin where his chest and stomach met. He had usable digits somewhere on his arms, but she barely glimpsed them.

"Where am I?" she whispered.

"You have come into the Third Ring."

"What are you?"

His mottled skin, she realized, was actually translucent, showing the pulsing and jetting blood under its surface as the blood raced to his delicate tentacles and sensory fronds. Even his lips were fringed with a heavy dark fuzz. Whatever he was, he was the most sense-oriented creature she had ever seen or heard the Doctor describe.

He cocked his head toward the syringe and one of his frond-like facial tendrils flipped the cap off.

"Please, let me go," she whispered.

At her words, the fuzz flattened on his lips, and he licked them with a thick tongue. "Oh, I can taste your fear," he told her. "Now, now, my dear," and she realized that he was imitating a human tone of patronizing reassurance. Even in her fear she wondered if he were imitating the Doctor. "This will stick dreadfully, but they will not harvest you on the spot if they get a reading of this."

His tail suddenly tightened and pulled her head over to the side. She groaned and gasped in fear, but he expertly slid the point of the syringe under the base of her skull behind her ear and injected the contents, pushing hard. She exclaimed in pain.

"Now, now, Jo. It's all right."

"What have you done to the Doctor? Where have you brought us?"

Finished, he unwrapped his tail and straightened up.

"I-I can't see," she sobbed.

"Oh, that's just the pain. You haven't lost your vision." She sensed him run his arm across her as though he were scanning her. "Yes, what a good little body you have."

"Who are you?"

"Ecthroi. If you live through the Third Ring, if the Doctor finds you in time, you may tell him that. Ecthroi has called him to come for supper. If he survives, I shall dine on him."

* * * *

Mags and the Doctor waited in the shadows by the main entrance of the casino for a couple hours until at last the great hulking form of Kogrik, now clad in the red velvet tuxedo, came lumbering through the door. It was his dinner break.

"Oy, Kogrik!" she exclaimed.

The Doctor could not repress a shudder as the young detective scrambled up the Ogron's massive leg and arm. She climbed up his chest and grabbed him by the shoulders. Then she pushed her visor back so that he could see her eyes. Kogrik leered happily and held her as a human man would hold a small child so that he could talk to her.

"Mags free? Rich soon?" he asked.

"Here, you want my smokes?" she asked. She pulled her pack of cigarettes from the pouch in her long black sleeve. "Don't forget they got filters. Throw that part away."

He nodded, clearly pleased with the present. He took the pack in one massive, paw-like hand and slid it into a pocket of the velvet jacket.

"Will you go with me to the dispatch centre in the morning?" she asked him. "I need your muscle."

The big eyes narrowed as Kogrik tried to think through what she might have in mind, but the depth of planning of Mags Hardbottle was beyond Ogron foresight. At last he let out a laugh and nodded.

"Meet me here after breakfast, when the centre opens," she said.

He nodded and let her scramble down. She rejoined the Doctor. She glanced up at the time lord. "Okay Major. If your bird is off the planet, only the people in the dispatch center can tell us. One of 'em owes me a favor. But they won't open until mid-morning."

The Doctor glanced around, restless. Jo, if still alive, could be suffering, he thought. For once he could not comfort himself with the promise that he could initiate a rescue and find Jo before anybody could harm her. But Mags, he realized, was exhausted from the events of the night, still not fully recovered from her own share of suffering. Yet the visored little face was turned up to him expectantly, game and ready to do as he ordered.

He rested his hand on her head. "I suppose there's nothing else to do but rest," he said. "Are you hungry?"

"No, but I could sleep."

He nodded. They walked back to the TARDIS together. Mags pulled another pack of cigarettes from some hidden pocket and lit one.

* * * *

Mornings on the planet were gray and non-descript. Apparently, the Doctor realized, there was no such thing as fresh air here. The breezes were uniformly warm and smelled of decaying food and rotting flesh from the enormous garbage tips and slums. Mid-morning found him and his PI retracing their steps to the silent casino. Mags had little to say on their walk. She was silent and seemed troubled and smoked constantly.

Kogrik was waiting for them at the front of the casino, nonchalantly eating one of the cigarettes Mags had given him. He flipped away the filter section first and then munched the rest. As Mags did not react to this method of enjoying tobacco, the Doctor also said nothing. Kogrik leered at them in greeting and fell in behind them. Today he was wearing the soft, quilted tunic and tight leggings favored by Ogron males.

This unlikely trio walked up the deserted street together, Mags in her visor and tight black jumpsuit, the Doctor in his velvet smoking jacket, and Kogrik looming over them both, lumbering along behind them and eating cigarettes like candy. The Doctor did note an occasional face looking out at them, and he thought he could define a trio of men keeping watch on a section of the street near the closed wine shops. These might just be body pirates, but with Kogrik as a companion, they were in no danger of being approached or delayed.

There was a small block of prefabricated buildings that had shiny, slick walls and low doorways. This was the administrative core of the settlement. Mags confidently led the Doctor and the Ogron up to one of the buildings.

Just as they got to the double doors, she said, "Mick, he's dispatch clerk. Not a bad feller, but scared to death of the body pirates. He don't want to cross 'em. But I think he'll help us."

She pulled the door open.

"Why would he help us if he's afraid of the body pirates?" the Doctor asked.

"'Cause he's more scared of an Ogron in front of him than body pirates down the street. Come on."

Without another word she led him inside. The interior was simply a massive maze of desks, all of them with that prefabricated look. She knew the building well and quickly threaded her way through aisle after aisle until they were back in an area overcrowded with files, stacks of papers, and desks of varying sizes. Here and there the people called out to her, and she only nodded to them.

A young man in an ill fitting suit looked up at their approach and then jumped backward, upsetting his chair.

"What is this?" he asked. "We have an arrangement, Mags."

"I'm not lookin' for money," she told him. "We got a case that I think you might be able to help. This here's the Major, and he's got a bird that's been snatched."

"I recognize you," the young policeman said. "Played Dip Jahp against a Tark and won."

"I'm looking for a young human woman who disappeared from here two days ago," the Doctor said.

He shook his head. "I can't help you." He turned his eyes to Mags. "You know I can't help you."

"Wrong," Mags said. "What would the tonnage of a medical ship be, Mick? You'd know that--right down to the last kilo."

"Medical ships do not stop here."

"Them body pirates use old medic ships that they fix up with weapons. They got good engines for fast travel and are pretty lightweight," she said. "What's the tonnage?"

"I don't know."

She turned to Kogrik. "Kogrik, this bloke owes the bosses a thousand or more. Get it from him."

Kogrik sent one massive foot into the man's desk, smashing it to flinders. It collapsed into pieces. Everybody else in the office suddenly fled back in a wave, leaving Mick to his consultation.

He backed away to the wall, squealing in protest. "We have an arrangement. A deal!"

"Sure," she said. "You get to pay on a time schedule, and in return you owe us any little service we ask," she said. "So I'm asking. If you don't answer, you're in default." She glanced up at the Ogron. "You don't like defaulters, do you Kogrik?"

Kogrik pulled back his lips to show strong white canines and blood red gums. "Kogrik hate defaulters!" he roared. He lurched forward two steps. His hairy hands clenched and unclenched.

"All right! All right!" Mick screamed. "Tonnage would be light. She'd be a featherweight ship but armed with forward guns. It would put her at the top of the featherweight class."

"Any such ship blow outta here yesterday or the day before?" she asked. "We don't get many featherweights. Be easy to pick out in your records."

"Look," the young man said. "They keep their medical labs on their ships. No doubt if the young woman was whisked off to their ship, she was killed and dissected. What they didn't want they destroyed."

"They faked her death with another body," Mags said. "We think she may still be alive."

"Is it possible," the Doctor said, "that if they find some type of antibody rare enough, that they keep the person alive for a while?"

"Yes, for study, or to clone off organs," he said.

Mags looked thoughtful. "They'd have to take her to a pretty extensive facility. I'm pretty sure they got one somewhere, but I don't know where." She seemed expressionless behind the mask of the visor, but she fixed her gaze on Mick. "We need to know where any featherweights was goin'. They had to file a flight plan. Their fuel supplies would have been checked."

Just as she was saying this, a squad of busy looking and annoyed humans approached. Four men, and two were armed with the latest versions of automatic rifles. Kogrik let out a very low snarl at sight of them, but the Doctor could not tell if this was part of a pre-fight ritual for the Ogron or if he was genuinely frustrated at seeing a stronger force of weaponry than he could handle.

"Leave it to me, Kogrik," she said. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

"Oy!" she said as the small platoon approached. "Your boy here owes us money."

"You are trespassing," the leader of the squad said. He was unarmed, middle aged, and bald, with a suit so smartly cut that it looked like a uniform. "The administrative offices for galaxy transport are exempt from the rule of the casinos. You are to leave at once. We would have every right to shoot you."

"Aye, me bosses at the casino would be pleased with you for that!" She exclaimed. "They got ways a' getting' even. Why not just answer me questions?"

"They want to see yesterday's flight records," Mick said, staying exactly where he was. His glance automatically fell to a folder of papers that lay among the mass of rubble that had once been his desk.

"We do not hand out flight information. You can file an Information Request Form A and submit it to the Information Specialist B in Aisle C," the bald man said.

"Blimey, I ain't that good at me letters," she mumbled. She removed the cigarette and flipped it into a nearby trash can, "How long to get the information?"

"All requests are reviewed weekly, and if approved, the information will be sent to you on the third payment day of the following month," he told her.

"I need to know now," she told him.

The Doctor cut in. "A young woman's life is at stake sir!" he exclaimed. "We believe that she was kidnapped by body pirates!"

The bald man looked amazed. "Body pirates? I know of no body pirates operating in this sector. I must inform you sir, that body piracy is illegal and is dealt with very severely."

Exasperated, Mags lit another cigarette and walked over tot he trash can. She dropped the match into it. And stepped back to center stage between the Doctor and the bald man.

"Kindly do not smoke in these offices!" the bald man snapped.

"We ain't leavin' without that info!" she snapped back.

Just then, the trash can flared up with a yellow tongue of flame. The tongue caught a hanging sheaf of papers from the desk next to it. It flared up as well. The men shouted and ran to it, tearing off their suit coats or catching up other materials to beat out the blaze. On this arid planet, fire was a deadly destroyer.

The Doctor nimbly scooped up the files.

"Get us out the quick way, Kogrik," Mags said, and the massive Ogron strode past the cowering Mick and crashed right through the prefabricated wall. Mags and the Doctor followed.

"Let's hoof it!" she exclaimed and the three of them ran back toward the heart of the main street.

"I like your style Detective," the Doctor exclaimed.

"Short and to the point, just like me!"

"No fight, though!" Kogrik exclaimed, keeping up well but clearly disappointed.

They ran back to the casino and left Kogrik off. By that time they were sure that they had escaped, and they slowed to a walk as they returned to the TARDIS. The Doctor glanced through the files as they strode past the wine shops.

"O' course," Mags added, "their flight plan is probably faked."

"Only one featherweight class ship left port---two days ago," the Doctor said. "Given the amount of fuel, food, and oxygen she took on, we may be able to figure out where she was going."

"And then what?" Mags asked.

"And then we pursue them and find my companion." He glanced at her. "Hope you don't mind leaving this place."

She had the visor on, masking her eyes, but she grinned broadly. "Ain't got nobody to say good bye to, Major. I'm with you!"

Episode Five now available!
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