The Book of Five Rings

Episode 9

"There you are, my dear. What a perfect little villain you make," the Doctor said to Jo as she emerged from the back rooms of the TARDIS, clad in a black tunic and black trousers. Both were a few sizes too big, hand me downs from previous companions on previous journeys. But between them, she and Mags had managed to pin things up in places to enable her to move.

"Really Doctor, your determination to annoy me could almost be amusing, if your wit were not so tedious," his adversary told him as Jo patiently sat on the floor of the control room and allowed the Doctor to apply generous amounts of medical tape to her cut and bruised feet.

Mags, in a gesture that had now become habit, flipped her cigarettes to the Master. The Doctor had hoped that she would run out by now, but to judge from the richer, more fragrant smoke that was produced by these cigarettes, she had gone rummaging herself in the TARDIS stores while Jo had found clothes and had discovered some long forgotten cache of tobacco. No doubt the Doctor's annoyance with the habit had delighted the Master. He accepted one from her, and they both lit up in unison.

"The way you two scold at each other is enough to make a crow sit up and take notice," the PI remarked as she exhaled. "If you can leave off long enough to get some work done, I'd like to go over this plan of yours and see what the risks are."

The Doctor shot a swift glance at the Master. Jo had become accustomed to her role as the Doctor's assistant, and usually did what she was told--at least when the Doctor was looking on. And in her current state, weakened from her ordeal, she was of a mindset to do only the very next thing, taking the whole adventure one moment at a time. But Mags Hardbottle had no intention of playing the role of compliant assistant, not with her own life now at stake. And she was not passive.

She glanced from one time lord to the other. "Go on, spill it," she said. "And let's get a better look at that map, eh?"

The Master pulled the map out of his tunic and unfolded it for her.

"Let the bird see it," Mags said, gesturing towards Jo. "Let's all take a looksee."

Hesitantly, the Master complied. They gathered around it on the floor of the TARDIS.

"The processing plant is largely underground," the Master told them. "It's designed as three concentric circles, one inside the other, all connected, of course, with hallways. The outer ring is the maintenance areas, supplies, and barracks. The second ring is the actual processing facility, where Miss Grant spent her captivity."

"Odd," the Doctor said. "You would expect them to house their most vital operation in the innermost circle."

"Unless the body parts business ain't their most vital operation," Mags observed.

"I don't think it is," the Master said. "That inner ring is generating a tremendous amount of power, yet their operations power comes from generators immediately offsite."

"You mean their lights and machine power and alarm system and such don't come from the inner ring?" Mags asked.

"No. They are using a typical power distribution architecture to run operations," he said. "Six semi-redundant generators supply power for lights, machines, security, etc."

"No doubt those six generators are not what are keeping us locked in to the planet," the Doctor said. "But as I said before, I don't see how power alone can interfere with the operation of a TARDIS. Whatever they are doing in that inner ring, it must be highly sophisticated." He glanced at the Master. "Any idea what it could be?"

"I knew that---even as Miss Grant and others were being slaughtered for their body parts---I was being set aside, reserved for some other fate. Once I escaped and learned the layout of the plant, I wanted to infiltrate that center ring," the Master said. "I thought that the reason for my being kidnapped could be found there. And yet I could not succeed alone. But I think that a team of us can succeed."

"We know that Jo was taken because she is immune to one of the most deadly diseases in the universe," the Doctor said, "The haemmo-mora virus. Surely you are immune to it as well. Perhaps you were next in line to undergo their procedures."

The Master shook his head. "As you realize, Doctor, I am immune to most diseases, like you are. But the body parts of a time lord are not compatible with human body organs or the body organs of any other temporally fixed race. And these pirates---at least this branch of them---understood that I was of no use to them as a piece of merchandise. They did run tests on me, but to what purpose, I do not know. I was brought here forty-eight hours before Miss Grant came. Surely if they had intended to butcher me, they would have done so before she arrived."

"And what puzzles me," Jo said. "Is that I wasn't immune to that virus at first. I'm sure I wasn't. That awful creature, that billowy, wavering thing with the hair on his lips. He made me immune to it. I'm sure that his injection was what made me immune."

"He was preparing you," the Master said. "Preparing you to be taken here and kept alive. At least for a few days. Why?"

"So that I could find her," the Doctor said. "That's pretty clear from what he said to her. He is prepared to dine on me."

The Master glanced at his rival. "So now you have come. If all that you say is correct, you have done exactly what you were expected to do."

"And you still want to walk into that plant?" Mags asked.

Both the Master and the Doctor nodded. Mags was not familiar with them, but Jo knew perfectly well that neither of them was able to resist this temptation. Their insatiable curiosity was fully roused. They had to get into that place to see what was in the inner ring of the plant, and they had to find out why they had been brought here.

"Whoever is doing all this already understands a great deal about you," Jo said without thinking.

The two timelords both glanced at her. Mags looked curious.

"Then let us give him the answers that he wants. And we shall find out a few of our own," the Master said. "We cannot sit here forever in this TARDIS. If we are to escape, we must disable the power source in the center ring of the plant."

"Okay, back to the plan," Mags said, still business like. "We gotta get through the outer rings just to get a peep at what the trouble is--right?"

"We can do more than--uh--`get a peep,' as you so quaintly put it, Eliza," the Master told her. "We do not need to know what they are doing, only how they are powering their secret operation. Large scale power output in such a small area is most likely to be nuclear or planetary solar."

"Solar?" Mags said with a laugh of contempt. "Nobody uses solar. It ain't effective."

"It is if the entire planet is used as a solar energy collector," the Doctor said.

The Master gave a brief nod. "And this planet's crust is ideal for such a power operation. But no matter," he said to Mags. "The Doctor and I are thoroughly acquainted with both methods of power generation. We can dismantle either." He snatched up Mags' wrist and glanced at her wristwatch, startling her and nearly pulling her over on the floor. "I set a few timed failures to help us gain access. When we are ready, I shall set them off, and we should see a domino effect of failing machinery in the second ring of the plant--where they store the body organs for their clients." He stopped as he suddenly found the point of the switch blade at his nose again.

"You take a lot of chances," Mags told him without a trace of a smile. She jerked her captured wrist down into his grip, seizing the back of his hand and then twisting it so that it locked his arm at the elbow. "I ain't nobody's fool," she told him, taking advantage of his momentary helplessness to put the knife to his throat. "And the butt of nobody's joke, old man." He froze at sight of her earnestness and the controlled anger behind her intensely green eyes.

"Mags, we need him alive," the Doctor said.

"He mastered me once; he won't do it again," she said. "We're coming to an understanding, so leave off."

"It was just a joke," the Master told her. As she did not move or speak, he added, "I apologize."

She jerked back the knife and released his arm.

"Well," the Doctor said pleasantly, "Now that's settled, I suppose it's time to activate those failure mechanisms."

* * * *

"Ready?" the Doctor asked as the Master hastily stuffed the map and some small items into his pocket.

"Ready," he said.

"Contemplating treachery?" the Doctor asked him.

For answer, the Master pulled the gadgetry out of his pockets and displayed them for the Doctor. "The timed failure triggers, Doctor," he said with some contempt for the Doctor's mistrust. "I cobbled them up from bits I stole from the plant." Nevertheless, the Doctor reached forward and slapped the back of his hand against the Master's tunic.

"I'm unarmed," the Master assured him. The Doctor operated the controls from the console. They exchanged glances with each other before the doors swung open.

Outside, the opaque sky had taken on a golden hue. The wind, though dying down, still blew over the harsh and barren landscape. The depths of the crags and ravines were lost in shadow.

A fifteen minute walk brought them into the lee of a high wall of rock. The Master raised a hand and the small party halted.

"The plant is on the other side of this ridge," he said. "The rock makes a nice wall between us and them. Let's give them their wake-up call."

An antenna so narrow that it might have been just a twig was lodged near the summit of the ridge. He pulled out the devices one at a time, pointed each in turn at it, and pressed the trigger switch. He had four trigger devices, and he activated each.

"Sommut anti-climactic," Mags said after a moment.

"This is science, Eliza, not show business," the Master retorted, but she broke into a grin and a laugh at him, startling a glance from him as he looked at his wristwatch and waited. After several minutes had passed, they heard the sounds of the plant's alarm system, muffled by the rock wall. On the ridge above, booted feet suddenly raced past, rushing toward the plant. Dust and gravel showered down onto them.

"Spare us!" Mags gasped in surprise as--with the superior reflexes of timelords--the Doctor snatched Jo under the cover of the rock and the Master similarly pulled Mags out of sight. For a moment all four were silent, but there was no indication that the signal antenna had been seen, nor that anybody had guessed at the presence of the four intruders below the ridge.

After another few tense moments, more alarms sounded. Their number and intensity grew steadily.

"Climactic enough?" the Master whispered to Mags, looking down at her.

"What's goin' on?" she asked him.

"Their support systems are failing. They're losing their stock in trade," he said. "Let's go, while they're up to their elbows in the support systems."

The Doctor's voice and face were quiet and hard. The laser gun was in his hand, pointed at the Master. "You're the first one over the ridge," he said.

The Master glanced at the weapon, met his quiet gaze, and nodded in grim submission, but Mags added to him, "I'm with you." The Master glanced back at her. "If you like," she added. "But two are better than one in covert."

"Come on," he said, and she went up the ridge with him. She would have scrambled up in the most direct approach, but his superior experience enabled him to find the easiest and stealthiest way up. He gestured for her to stay by him, and they went up, her closely behind him, their heads down.

As they neared the top, the Doctor nodded to Jo, and the two of them followed.

The plant itself looked as solid as ever, but from the top of the ridge the sounds of the many alarms were deafening. The foursome wasted no time in scrambling down the other side of the ridge to get out of sight. At the bottom, the Doctor quickly called a halt. They crouched down in one of the niches in the rocks and let Jo catch her breath.

"How close are we to getting in?" the Doctor asked. "She can't do another climb like that."

"It's about two minutes ahead. We can follow this erosion channel," the Master said. The unforgiving rocks had reopened the nick in his cheek that he had received in Mags' first encounter with him. He did not seem to notice the trickle of blood. He glanced down at Jo. "That was the worst of it, Miss Grant," he said.

"Is the pain bad?" the Doctor asked her, but she couldn't answer him.

"Take that hand," the Master directed him, seizing Jo's left hand. He pressed very hard with his thumbs on the webbing of flesh between her thumb and hand. Jo nearly jerked her hand back, but the Doctor shook his head, took her right hand, and tried the same technique. After a moment, some of the color came back into her face.

"What in thunder was that all about?" Mags asked as they released Jo's hands and helped her up.

"I can go on," Jo said.

"Liver meridian," the Master told Mags. "It will ease the pain temporarily. Come along with me if you like, Eliza. I believe I'm in front again."

"All right, let's go," Mags agreed "I'm behind you."

He went first; then she followed, and then the Doctor and Jo.

The erosion channel wound around the outer perimeter of the plant, sometimes so close to it that they could have reached out and touched the fencing. The Master stopped before a wide, open pipe, not unlike the slurry pipe that Jo had used to get away. The Doctor looked at it grimly.

"It's for the off-gas exhauster," the Master told him before he could ask. "We're at Quadrant Two area, if you want to check the map."

"Off-gas exhauster?" the Doctor asked. "What about these two? They can't deal with waste gas dispersions."

"It's the last place where we would be suspected of infiltrating," the Master told him. "Look, the systems are down. There's no process going on right now for them to use the off-gas venting system. They can't vent gases if there are no gases being produced."

The Doctor looked grim.

"So, if you're wrong, Jo and me get gassed," Mags said.

"I'm not wrong," he told her. "Listen to those alarms. The processes have been stopped. The waste gasses would have been vented immediately when the process went into failure mode. But with the processes stopped, there's nothing to vent."

"Why would the gasses 'ave vented right away when the processes failed?" Mags asked.

"Safety procedure," the Doctor told her, still grim. "It's standard fail-safe architecture for a ventilation system. Ensures that no dangerous gases are left floating around during a process failure."

"We cannot afford to wait," the Master said. "Every minute that we spend arguing gives them time to repair the processes."

"Let's you and me go in and clear the way," Mags said. "What's at the end of this tunnel? Fan? Screens?"

"Yes, the filter assembly and a fan," he told her. "We can have it removed in under two minutes."

"Mags--" the Doctor began.

"As long as you're here to rescue me, I ain't worried," she said.

"You can trust me further than that, Eliza," the Master told her dryly.

"I do, but he don't. Let's cut the jabber and go."

"Stand watch on this end," the Master said as Mags went in first and he went behind her. "The tunnel is not long. We'll signal you."

The tunnel was just high enough for a person to walk in. Mags could stand straight, but the Master had to keep his head down. They quickly found the fan, with a diameter equal to the diameter of the tunnel, bolted onto brackets at the other end of the tunnel. Using his own sonic screwdriver, he worked the bolts loose. She helped him ease the heavy, awkward machinery onto the tunnel floor. They squeezed around it and examined the filter and screen.

"It just pushes out," he whispered. She nodded and reached into her pocket, pulling out a small coin. With an expert flip of her wrist, she skimmed it down the tunnel towards the entrance, signaling the Doctor and Jo.

"Hmm, very discrete," he murmured. She grinned at him. "What would you give for a cig right now, Mr. Sin?" she asked. "This covert stuff is nerve wrackin'."

He smiled at her. "It's only going to get worse, my dear, but you're doing very well." The light at the end of the tunnel was darkened for a moment as the Doctor and Jo entered and hurried towards them.

"This brings us close to a hallway that leads into the second perimeter," the Doctor said. "Where they process the body organs."

"Exactly," the Master agreed. "But we'll be at some distance from the support systems power and control stations in that area, which is where they will have their manpower concentrated right now. We should be able to cross that hallway unobserved."

"And then?" the Doctor asked.

"Then it gets more risky."

Jo took in her breath but said nothing.

"Cor, it makes a body thankful to be a physical wreck," Mags muttered. "I'll never quit smokin' now." Of the four of them, she was the only one that was nothing of value to the enemy.

* * * *

"Ready, Mags: On three," the Master instructed as he and Mags pressed their hands against the filter assembly. "One, two, three-" They pushed it out with quick, short pushes of their hands and then grasped the frame as the assembly would have fallen forward.

"It's all right," he said, "There's nobody out there." And they let it fall forward onto the floor of the corridor. "I think I would like you to cover me, Doctor," he said, and the Doctor drew the laser pistol.

The Master went out first, and Mags went right after him. They scanned the corridor up and down and then nodded at the other two.

"Down to your right, Eliza," the Master said to Mags. "And then we take the left turn, and that walkway is a short one. It will bring us into the second inside circle of plant operations. It's going to be unpleasant."

"It ain't been no picnic up to now," she reminded him. "Let's go. You got that gun handy, Major?"

"Yes," the Doctor said. "Let's hurry."

They stayed against the left wall and hurried down in single file. After they took the turn into the walkway that led to the inside ring where the processing plant was housed, the alarms sounded much louder. As they neared the end of the short walkway, the Master lifted a gloved hand, and they halted, with the Doctor one step out from the wall to shoot over the shoulders of the people in front if he needed to. On the processing area floor, a small platoon of men armed with portable tanks and jugs of some type of solution rushed past the archway to the walkway. Obviously, invasion was the last thing on anybody's mind inside the processing plant.

As they waited for the Master to signal them forward again, they could discern the shouts of men directing each other on the most critical specimens to save.

"What are you waiting for?" the Doctor hissed. "If it's clear, let's go!"

"They're bringing up their transport equipment for emergency storage of the--uh--units," the Master said. He glanced back at Mags and Jo. "Miss Grant, you have some idea of what this is going to be like. You should both know that it will be very unpleasant. You must brace yourselves."

"It's only the body organs--" Mags began.

"It's everything and anything," he said severely. "From adults and from children. They have intact bodies encased for study and sampling, as well as segments of bodies that are recognizable." "For goodness' sake, don't describe it all to them!" the Doctor snapped.

"I don't want them fainting. We have to turn right as soon as we get into the next corridor, and then turn an immediate left. We will traverse the radius of the second circle on a less used hallway, but it will have to be between the samples that they've got stored. The hallway is lined with them, and it's pretty ghastly. But you have to keep your eyes open and your senses alert," he declared. "If we are seen in that hallway, we can be closed in both in front and from behind. There will be no escape if we are seen and cut off."

Mags took a deep breath. Jo put her hand in the Doctor's free hand. He looked down at her to steady her, and she gave a nod with a look of such mixed emotions--such deep fear and such firm resolve to go forward, that even the Master did not question her further. He glanced at Mags and without a word wrapped her left arm around his arm. "Ready?" he asked her. She wanted to answer him, but all she could do was nod.

He and she checked the hallway and then plunged forward.

There was no cover out in the processing plant itself, nothing but a gridwork of wide rows and narrow rows, all of them lined with the now dying body organs and other specimens. Sure and confident and unmoved, the Master kept his head down, pressing Mags' arm close to himself so that she would keep his pace, and ran forward with a low and even run. He kept his eyes forward, with quick glances over her shoulder. She was trained to do likewise, scanning both the area ahead and behind him, and she did her part.

She had thought it would be a quick run, but the end of the hallway did not seem to be getting any nearer, and the grisly contents of the storage shelves were becoming easier to see and identify as they ran.

"You must not mind it," he hissed, getting a look at her face.

"Where's the blasted end?" she hissed back.

"We're halfway across."

"Is that all! Spare me!"

She had not wanted to pant, and she had thought that the distance would be short enough not to wind her, but she began to pant, partly from the exertion, partly from the fear, but partly from the increasing revelation of the storage units. The merchandising of the body pirates had been vast and far flung and without pity.

A creeping red and black haze began to steal into her vision. "Help me!" she gasped desperately as she realized that she was about to faint. "Or leave me."

"Done!" he exclaimed, and she felt herself whirled around quickly and pulled into some type of alcove. "I've got you. We're in an emergency station. We made it."

Her vision cleared. She saw the Doctor and Jo, still several yards down the horrible hallway, legging it towards them.

The emergency chemical wash station was a recess set into the wall, equipped with a faucet at waist level and a shower head above. She had seen similar constructions elsewhere, used for operations that involved dangerous chemicals. Her senses began to return to her. Only then did she feel the perspiration on her face, a heavy sheet of sweat that she did not have the strength to wipe away. She was trembling from head to foot. To her surprise, he said, "Allow me, Eliza." He carefully lifted her visor and set it up on her head. And she felt his handkerchief press against her forehead. She willingly buried her face into it, her heart beating hard, and then she realized that he was holding her, and that--in fact--he had nearly carried her the last several paces of their run.

"Where, where are they?" she gasped, opening her eyes.

He did not answer her right away but finished patting her face dry with the handkerchief. Then he smiled at her, half in affection and half in good natured contempt. "Around the corner from us," he said softly. "Catching their breath, same as you are. Miss Grant will need a few moments more."

"'ow could a sight like that not shake you?" she gasped, gladly holding onto him for a moment.

He did not answer her. His eyes, deepset and brown, looked at hers, and they took on an expression that she did not quite understand. He brought his face closer, and she realized that he had not let her go. "So you have befriended me," he said quietly, his eyes holding hers. The quietness of his voice went through her like arrows. "Do you know what it is to befriend the Master?" he asked. His hand, still holding the handkerchief, gently lifted her chin so that she had to look up at him. "It is a dangerous undertaking. And yet you have done so, what few other creatures dare to do." His eyes surveyed her face. "And I am pleased," he added.

"I don't want you to do to me what you did before," she said in a shaky voice. "That thing with your eyes. It hurt me. Hurt my mind, like."

"I'm sorry. I did not know you then. I will not hurt you." His gaze, though still arresting, was now quite mild. She felt suddenly vulnerable and yet protected in his arms. "I am pleased with you," he said. "How shall I thank you for your friendship?"

She had no idea of what he meant to do. But she was not able to resist. He leaned closer. Just then the Doctor's hand slapped against the frame of the alcove. "Mags all right?" his voice hissed. "Let's go."

The Master turned and said, "coming," and released her. He tucked the handkerchief into his pocket and checked the hallway. "We'll slip right around the corner and rejoin them. Ready, Eliza?" Without looking at her, he took her hand and led her around the corner to another, much wider and deeper alcove.

"This is the doorway to the inner circle," he said, nodding at the sealed double doors in the back of the alcove.

"How do we get in?" the Doctor asked doubtfully.

"Only with patience. If you will guard me from attack that way, I shall try to bypass their security lock outs," the Master said. He knelt down by the hermetically sealed double doors and patiently worked on prying off a panel in the wall.

"Right. Jo, Mags, get back against that wall," the Doctor said. "Try to stay out of sight." He took up a position where he could keep one eye on the hallway that led straight to the doorway and one eye on the perimeter corridor that ran along the wall on either side of them.

"You all right?" Jo whispered to Mags.

"'ow 'bout you?" Mags asked her.

"Pretty bad, but it's over," she said. "You seem shaken."

"No, no, I'll be fine."

Just then the Master choked off a cry of surprise and tried to leap up. The doors slid open by themselves as somebody on the other side opened them. The Doctor swung the laser gun up to fire, but his shot was blocked by the Master himself, in the act of rising to his feet.

An armed guard took one look at all of them, grabbed for his gun, and opened his mouth to yell.

Episode Ten is now online!
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