The Book of Five Rings

Episode 15

"Thunderation!" Mags exclaimed as an alarm blasted through the wing of the building. She and the Master were running for the hidden elevator. Though she still had the gun, she had given him his pass card back. "What's goin' on?"

"A ruse by the Doctor unless I am much mistaken," the Master said. "He engineered the time tunnel's alarm system to give these fools a chance to escape when it blows up. He must be shorting it out to create a diversion and get away."

"Fatal virus on this floor and a threat of explosion down below!" Mags exclaimed in admiration. "We have shook this place up proper, Mr. Sinn."

He suddenly stopped at a corner of the corridor, and she pulled up short. With a quick snatch, he took the gun out of her hand. His eyes met hers.

"Thunderation!" she exclaimed again, angry with herself. She looked at him resolutely. "Awright, I guess I deserve it for stupidity. Go ahead."

"Now you are being stupid." He thrust the gun into his belt and took her hand. "Come on." He led her at a run to the elevator.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "The pass card still works. Those frightened fools don't have time to attend to the database just yet."

The Doctor, meanwhile, had figured out the coordinate addressing in the hardware of the tunnel navigation circuitry. He quickly pulled a small wire from one jumper socket and pushed it into place around a small logic chip. Then he pulled himself out from under the console and looked at the screen. It was blank.

"Well, that's done it!" he set his own coordinates, started the timer, and ran to the booth.

Just then the Master and Mags burst in. The Master pulled out the gun and aimed it at the Doctor.

"There's a hardwired setting that I bypassed underneath," the Doctor said, ignoring the gun and nodding to the console. "It's the coordinates for whoever is leading this entire operation. Get to your TARDIS and then come after me if you aren't too afraid."

As the Master hesitated and shot a look at the console, the Doctor smiled and stepped through the booth. He disappeared. In a moment the wall rematerialised.

Gun in hand, the Master poked his head under the console for a long minute. He reached up inside with his free and his gun hand. Then he pulled himself out. "See to the door," he said, passing the gun to Mags.

"Are we goin' after him?" she asked, taking the weapon with a nod and covering the door.

"Yes. But in my TARDIS. I shall re-set the navigation."

"I thought your TARDIS wasn't workin'."

"I can repair it and bring us to the Doctor's destination five minutes before he arrives, if I so choose," the Master told her, scanning the console and then peering beneath it. "But I will choose to let him go first. I think it would be wisest." He thrust his head under the console again. "And I want this to reset to receive the signal from the plant. I'm not leaving this place without making sure that I destroy it!"

* * * *

"Why do you want to destroy the Doctor?" Jo asked. "He's good. He doesn't deserve to be hunted down by you like this."

The tall creature tilted his long, narrow face to look down at her. He seemed to be considering her protest for a moment, and then he said, "It isn't a question of being good or evil, young woman. It's a matter of survival and growth."

"Survival?" she asked.

"Certainly. I need the Doctor to survive. If I needed you to survive, I would consume you as well, but my days of assimilating humans are long finished. Complete."

"You've eaten humans?" she asked.

"I have consumed them. But I do not need to do so any more. You are in no danger from me. I shall leave you to my progeny if it is possible. Or else to find your own way to survival."

"Your progeny? You have children?"

"Not as you think of children. You have met my offspring before now. It was through them that I learned of the Doctor."

"I don't understand."

He seemed in no hurry. Or else he was waiting and was simply passing the time with her, waiting for the Doctor to arrive, amusing himself by speaking with her. Fleetingly, in spite of her fear of him, Jo wondered if he spent most of his time in this place alone.

"Ecthroi is the most adaptable creature in the universe," he told her. "Therefore, unlike your kind, I do not require a complementary gender to produce my offspring. Neither is my survival assured by the increase of progeny. I ensure my survival by becoming more adaptive. I change myself. I have changed and perfected myself since before your kind was able to write its own history."

"How?" she asked. "By this consuming of yours? By dining on your victims?"

"You eat to break down organic substances into fuels that your body uses," he told her. "Once upon a time, I also was dependent on these feast intervals. But since than I have adapted. All the energy that is around me is constantly drawn into me and is converted into what I need: Light, heat, motion, sound. If you must think of food in terms of the conversion of available materials into energy, then all energy is my food, and I do not eat objects as you do at all."

"Then what do you want with the Doctor? Please, let him go!"

"My survival needs are more sophisticated than yours," he told her. "The Doctor possesses one or two items that I do not possess. And so I must take them from him. It is necessary to ensure my own adaptability and survival."

"What does he have that you need?" she asked. "If you asked him, I'm sure he would give you whatever you need to survive."

"No, you don't understand. What he has that I need is part of him. What you call genetic coding. Gene types. Are you familiar with the idea of amino acids? The building blocks of organic life?"

"Yes, a little."

"I survive by collecting amino acids and the matrixes of patterns that they can create. I import these into my own matrix and add them to my characteristics. For years now: centuries, I have searched for new creatures to assist me. But though long ago I often found new organisms with the elements I need, I have nearly exhausted the sources. That is why the Doctor so impressed me. He comes from a race that has remained aloof from the cosmos, and so they have escaped my notice."

"But how did you find him?" she asked.

"My offspring. Whatever they see and know, I see and know."

"Who?" she asked. But now he seemed distracted. All this time he had been holding her pinned to himself by the whip-like appendage. But now his billowing became more agitated, and he seemed to be expanding. In fact, he seemed to be growing fan-like fronds from his sides, rather like black, cold wings. As these grew out from him, he wrapped them around her.

"You are a fine specimen of a human," he told her. "A frail race that is, nonetheless, possessed of a certain elegance. You will go to sleep now. It won't cause you pain. I can assure that. He is coming, and I must prepare you in order to prepare him. But you may survive, if he is the bargainer I think he will be."

She wanted to struggle, but even as he spoke to her, she felt a numbness seep through her from her spine outward, and she was sleepy. The black wings expanded further, engulfing her, shutting out the light.

"I will make you beautiful," he whispered. "A new creature, made from Ecthroi. And I can re-make you if I choose. If the Doctor bargains wisely, I will restore you. It's in his hands, now."

She was sleepily aware of something moving from her stomach. For only a brief instant it seemed unnatural, and then it was the most natural thing in the world, and she felt that she had been using her muscles this way all her life. She forgot the Doctor and became, instead, concerned with how cold she was, and how the air tore at her flesh. She concentrated on covering herself, and she quickly made contact with the hard, comforting surface of the tree-lie structure where she had been placed.

* * * *

"Awright, now what?" Mags asked as the Master hurried to the console of his TARDIS.

"I isolated the problem in the drive system before I ever landed on this accursed heap of rock and sand," the Master said. He stripped away one of the panels from the console. "Regrettably, the replacement materials that I was able to purchase here were ruined in my scuffle with the Tark mercenaries. But it is not of importance. I can jury rig a quick fix that will get us where we need to go."

"How was it done?" Mags asked.

"A heat beam, narrow enough to get through my detectors," he told her. "Something outside the TARDIS generated it and sent it through the protective field when the circuits had opened a way into the vortex. Whoever managed such a neat bit of sabotage is obviously sophisticated."

"Yeah, and had you in mind," she added. "Ain't that right?"

The Master gave a brief nod and quickly hid the look of surprised respect at her acumen. "He tuned in to my specific frequencies that I use to operate the TARDIS. So yes, he was stalking me." He squinted at something deep inside the console and gingerly applied two fingers. He appeared to be twisting wires. "He's a patient fellow. He learned to watch for my TARDIS operation right at that point where it removes from the material universe and enters the vortex. One nanosecond of vulnerability, and he had me."

"Both you and the Major," she said. "This chap's after time lords."

He had his hands deep inside the interior of the console. Abruptly, he withdrew them and gave a brief nod. "Right, that's done it, at least temporarily. Now, let us go see who this `chap' of yours is."

* * * *

On the flat, arid plain not far from the circular stone building, the blue police box materialized and the door opened. Cautiously, the Doctor peered out. He sighted the stone structure and made his way towards it, moving with purpose, though he did afford himself a look around. But there was no sign of the Master or Mags. And there was no trace of Jo, either.

He passed under the stone archway and entered the wide, round courtyard. Aside from some crumbling stone structures and what looked like a tall, unearthly tree, the area was deserted. The tree seemed to have a cocoon attached to it, as though some giant moth or butterfly of that planet had found a place to go dormant. Or perhaps, he thought, this was the mysterious head of the Knowledge Foundation, the Body Pirates, and the casinos. Cautiously, he approached the gauzy white bundle. It did not come quite to his shoulder, but it was thick, wider than his own shoulder span, and yet not perfectly opaque. Something shadowy lay inside.

As he neared it, he saw that it gently pulsed, as though carrying out respiration for whatever it housed. He reached out a hand and felt a faint disturbance in the air around it, as well a gentle warmth. Yes, it was a living cocoon, a fragile shield for the unprotected life inside.

"I wouldn't disturb it if I were you, Doctor," a voice said.

The Doctor turned. The tall creature that stood across the courtyard startled him, for he had never seen the like of it before. It seemed to ripple gently, so that it had an insubstantial look about itself. Yet it was taller than he, and he knew by its attitude of calm authority that it was the ruler of this lonely place.

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure," the Doctor said.

"You know me better than you think. For you have met my offspring."

"Have I?"

"Indeed. That creature that you called the Keller machine. That race, I should say. It came from me."

"You fathered that race?" The Doctor was politely incredulous. "I must say, the likeness does not do you justice."

With a bow of acknowledgment, the creature said, "You err in your assumptions, time lord. Though the race was sprung from me, you may as well say that I am its mother as its father, for I am neither---and both."

"Asexual reproduction then." The Doctor bowed back. "I beg your pardon. And yet the resemblance still remains somewhat underwhelming."

"Perhaps then, you see more of Axos in me. Another of my races. Alas, died out now, thanks to you."

Startled at this declaration, the Doctor simply echoed his strange host. "Axos?"

"Indeed. Have you not guessed it? I had inklings of you through my first heir. You see, though I remain a separate entity from all that is sprung off of me, they remain attached to me, attached to my mind. What they see, I see. Oh sometimes it is shadowy. And sometimes I tune them out to keep myself focused on other things. But eventually all is processed."

"Are you saying that you first perceived me through the creature inside the Keller machine?" the Doctor asked. His battle against the hideous creature had not been so long ago, just over a year.

"That is exactly what I am saying. I was not so very interested in you then. Not until you destroyed it. Then I reviewed its analysis of you. You and your rival. `Superior intellects,' I thought. And so I alerted one of my other heirs."

"Axos," the Doctor said. The creature again bowed.

"It found your rival first, but the plans were quickly laid to trap you. However, I was parsimonious with the details that I sent. I wanted to give you a fair test. To see if you could defeat a creature somewhat more sophisticated than the first. You did very well."

"So you were testing me." The Doctor narrowed his eyes. "But if I had lost, your offspring Axos would have consumed the whole earth."

"If the creatures of earth had proved themselves unable to survive, then Axos would have survived instead. That is the law by which I live."

"I see." He nodded at the cocoon. "And what is this? Another of your so-called heirs?"

"Oh no." The tall creature took a step closer and the Doctor tensed, but the stranger stopped. "It is nothing right now. But when it was a human being, it was the young female you called Jo Grant. But if and when it next emerges from its cocoon, it shall be a fragile creature unable to exist in this environment. It will die within a day or two. You see, I took great care to study her configurations. And then I changed her."

"Changed her?" The Doctor stared at the gently pulsing cocoon. He peered closer, but it was impossible to see through the layers of filament and gauzy fiber.

"I am Ecthroi," the creature told him. "The stuff of life is my food and drink, and it was a small thing for me to change her."

The Doctor turned from the cocoon to Ecthroi. "What will it take to change her back?"

* * * * *

"We have arrived," the Master said, and he squinted up at the viewing panel. "There is another TARDIS here."

"Can you spot Jo and the Major?" Mags asked.

He looked puzzled. "There seems to be no sign of life. Not on the surface."

"Whatever's out there; it killed 'em already?" she asked.

"I have no idea at what point in time the Doctor chose to arrive," he said. "But the girl could not have been here for more than an hour. Just long enough to get into trouble and need rescue. I had not thought that whatever is here would be so eager to kill both of them. After all, it has been remarkably patient in reeling the Doctor in."

"And you," Mags said. "Lookee 'ere. Are you just gonna go out and face it? Ain't you got good weapons?"

"My dear, I have an ample supply of weaponry," he told her. "But I have no idea what could be effective against whatever is out there. Are you worried for me?"

"If you get killed I'm stuck, too," she reminded him.

"Your tenderness is most endearing."

"Look, I di'n't leave you back there!" she snapped. "I'm a good mate in a jam, and the only one you got!" She offered him the gun. "Take it, Sin. That chap's after you more'n me."

He offered a smile, half bitter and half admiring. "No," he said. "Protect yourself if you can. There are more effective weapons, and I shall choose one of them from my private armoury. I have a tissue compressor that should work against any organic tissue. I have yet to find any creature of reasonable size and mass that is impervious to it."

* * * *

"Jo, wake up. Jo!"

The Doctor's voice, Jo thought, in spite of sounding urgent, had that gentle ring to it that warned her that something was dreadfully wrong. She hazily remembered getting the injection, and the memory brought her around as she thought---once again---that she had contracted the deadly haemmo-mora virus.

She opened her eyes in a very dim room.

"Jo, please. You must wake up."

She lifted her head. The Doctor's voice was coming from above her, and she realized that he was standing over her. And she, in fact, was lying on a cold stone floor. The room had an echo to it, as though it were made of stone. She sat up.

"You said I had the virus," she said automatically.

"You don't have the virus, my dear. Please, stand up."

Normally, he would give her a hand to her feet, but as he did not, she shakily stood. "Where are we?"

She could see him more plainly as her eyes adjusted to the dimness. He was standing very still, looking down at her.

"You must go to the TARDIS," he told her. "Right away. The steps over there will take you up to the surface."

"What about you?" she asked. "Why don't I have the virus? Filostrato said I did."

"Jo!" His voice was both exasperated and yet sad. This was normally the point where he would put his arm across her shoulders to reassure her and point her in the direction he wanted her to go. But he did not touch her.

He made his voice patient. "Filostrato's scanner said that you had developed very specific antibodies associated with the virus," he told her. "Usually that's an indication of having the virus. And your count was extremely high."

"Why?" she asked him.

He took in his breath, and in the dimness she could see that his eyes became sober. He was in a hurry to get her out of there, and yet he set aside his impatience to speak clearly about this matter. "From the day we got you off that planet, Jo," he said. "I was injecting you with vaccines against haemmo-mora. A vaccine would raise your white blood cell count and increase the production of antibodies. I stressed your system with the presence of as much inert matter from the virus as I dared."

"But when did you do that?" she asked.

"When you were sleeping," he told her. "And I hypnotized you a few times so that I could do it."

"I don't remember," she confessed.

"No," he agreed, looking down at her. "I knew that they could check you for the truth," he added. "I had to make sure that if we needed to fool them about the virus, that you would be absolutely convinced that you had it. It would be the only way to convince them."

"So," she began, and didn't finish.

"I lied to you," he told her. "I'm so sorry. I asked you to someday forgive me. Making you believe that you had a deadly virus seemed like the cruelest thing I've ever done to anybody. I didn't want to do it, especially to you."

"So that part," she faltered. "That part when you were so sad wasn't a lie--or an act to convince me."

"Jo," he said softly, in surprise at the question, and she realized that she had wounded him. But after a moment he said, "I almost couldn't stand to think of what I was putting you through. And then when you put that gun to your throat--I knew I really had killed you by my deception. But if I had said a word, they would have done far worse. If they had realized it was a trick, their cruelty would have been all the worse." He hesitated. Then he asked. "You will forgive me, Jo?"

"Yes, of course." But her voice was shaken. He knew that she was uncertain.

"It was a great weight to put on you," he said, his voice kind. "But now, Jo, you must go. Back to the TARDIS. It sits up on the surface, outside the stone circle. The key is 'round my neck. You'd better take it."

She was startled. "What for? What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to stay here. I have to."

She suddenly reached out and touched his sleeve. But he didn't move. She squinted in the dimness and dropped her hand to his wrist. Though his hands hung naturally at his sides, her fingers encountered a heavy iron cuff. "You're chained to the wall!"

"Yes. This is the fifth ring, Jo. And here I am." She could hardly see in the dimness, but she saw from the faint shine of a bolt in the wall that the short length of chain on each of his wrists would have allowed him to sit down with his arms over his head, but he did not have enough length of chain to reach out more than a few inches.

She suddenly clung to him. "I saw him! Ecthroi! But he looks different here! He can change his shape! What's he done? I've got to get you free!"

"No!" He rapped out the order with a severity that she had seldom heard from him. "You'll do as your told! You can't free me."

She let him go and felt herself shrink under his tone. But she didn't leave.

He made his voice patient again. "Come here," he told her. She stepped closer, and he dropped his face closer to hers so that his cheek touched the top of her head. And then he looked down at her. "Ecthroi is a creature unlike any I have ever seen. He can rearrange his own genetic configuration. That means that he can alter his form and actually alter the way he processes air, light, energy, fluids."

"What does he want with you?" And then she answered herself. "He told me that he's going to dine on you!"

"Not like a human sitting down to eat, Jo," he told her. "But Ecthroi has a tremendous instinct to capture new amino acids and genetic configurations. He adds them to his own matrix and uses them to make himself even more adaptable. I'm a new creature to him. He's been testing me for a long time, now, to determine if he should consume me."

"But when did he test you?"

"Apparently, when Ecthroi's consumed enough genetic materials to have some left over, he's able to split off a lesser version of himself. It's never an equal version: always just some mishmash of his spare materials, so it's usually far less adaptable than he is." The Doctor's voice became rueful. "But his offspring seem to share his feverish desire to stay alive at any cost. He has fathered several races of creatures, most of them quite voracious. He's sent a few of them after me. Look, you must get out of here."

"Where's he gone?" She looked around. "Maybe I could go to the TARDIS and get some cutting tools!"

"Listen to me." His voice was suddenly patient but so full of authority that she stopped and looked up at him. "Ecthroi can make minor changes in his configuration rather quickly. But to completely alter his form and method of living, he secludes himself, and the process takes more time. That's what he's doing now. He has to alter himself to a form that can break down my tissues into usable form."

She made a sound of fear and protectively put an arm across him.

"Jo, the fight is not over!" He touched the side of his face to her head again. "Please, listen! For one thing, once he does his work, he may produce another heir, as he calls them. That heir would consume you. You must get to the TARDIS and stay there! At least until help comes!"

"Just to stay alive?" she asked. "While you're killed?"

"It's more important than that. The Master is coming. You must warn him."

In spite of her shock and fear, this directive startled her. "Warn him?"

"He's got to destroy Ecthroi, and you must help him. If Ecthroi takes my genetic configurations, he'll inherit some of my abilities to withstand time travel, to be linked to a TARDIS, to communicate beyond verbal levels. For the Master's own sake, you must convince him to destroy this creature, and you must assist him." His voice was sad. "It's not such a different end from mine, Jo. But you have to. We cannot allow this creature free reign."

She understood. The Master killed friend and foe alike, and he would destroy her as soon as she ceased to be of use to him. Fleetingly, she wondered about Mags. Where was she?"

"Take the TARDIS key," he told her. "Quickly. Ecthroi will come for me soon. You've got to get out and get to the TARDIS."

Her voice was small. "I don't want to leave you."

"This is the only way that's left to us. You must do as I say, or thousands of other lives may be lost. If not from Ecthroi himself, then from his offspring. He created Axos, Jo, and the race of creatures that the Master used in the Keller machine. But the Master will help you if he realizes that Ecthroi will have the power to control a TARDIS."

He stooped closer so that she could take the key. Jo hesitated for only a moment and then lifted the slender key chain from around his neck.

"Go on," he said gently. "You must hurry."

She made a small sound in her throat, nothing articulate, and kissed his cheek. Her hands took either side of his face and she clung to him. "You have to go," he said. "Quickly. If you're caught in here when he comes, everything is lost."

"All right," she gasped, and she stumbled to the steps.

* * * *

The Master and Mags surveyed the Doctor's TARDIS and then stared at the distant stone buildings.

"They could be inside," Mags ventured.

He shook his head. "The Doctor does not sit inside his TARDIS. He uses it to go places, and then he leaves it."

"Maybe if Jo got hurt," she said.

"Then he would take her back to earth. He's such a soft hearted fellow. He might use his TARDIS to provide her with medical treatment, but he would take her home to comfort her." He shook his head. "Aside from that, if he's in there, he would know that we're out here. He would come out."

"So what do we do, just walk into that place yonder?" she asked.

"Perhaps the buildings shielded them from my devices. Or there could be underground chambers." He suddenly threw his glance over her shoulder. "It looks like a small circle. You go that way. We'll walk the perimeter and meet on the other side. Perhaps one of us shall see something."

She nodded. As they walked away from each other, she glanced down at her gun and quickly opened the chamber. As she had suspected, it was empty. Somehow he had ejected the bullets out of the clip before returning it to her.

"Aw Sin, you are a right devil," she muttered. She shoved the gun into her belt, pulled up her trouser leg, and drew out her knife from its sheath. "Fortunately, nothin' takes Mags Hardbottle by surprise." Knife in hand, she continued her journey.

* * * *

Not long after Jo left, the underground chamber, which was built almost like a stone version of storage tank except for the stone steps on one side and the large inlet hole on the other, became several degrees warmer. The Doctor realized that something was coming through the inlet, something that generated a great deal of heat in the confined space.

He heard a whoosh and a gurgle, and then he saw the sludgy, fluid-like, billowing creature that entered. It resembled a pool of viscous fluid, but there were specks of light in it: perhaps eyes, perhaps nerve endings.

As it contacted the dry stone, a quick vapor rose, and then it rushed in through the inlet in a great wave and swirled towards him.

* * * *

"Mags! Mags!"

Mags stopped at the familiar voice. She turned and saw Jo Grant.

"Oi!" she exclaimed. She caught Jo. The bird looked a bit worse for wear, but seemed possessed of a great urgency. "Where's the Major?" Mags asked.

"I've got to get to the Master! I've got to warn him!" Jo exclaimed. "The Doctor's given himself to that horrible creature, and he says that the Master's got to destroy it."

"Oh, I can just see Mr. Sin cheerfully carryin' out the Doctor's last wishes. Where was you goin?" Mags asked.

"To the TARDIS," Jo said. "The Doctor said to wait in there until you came."

"Come on, we might do one better. I didn't want to leave Mr. Sin to that Filostrato," Mags told her. "But I'm a long shot from trustin' him! Tell me what this creature is that's here, and maybe we can find a way to destroy it ourselves, or at least come up with a better way to make sure old Mr. Sin does!"

* * * * *

The Master moved slowly and with caution, his eyes and ears alert for any sound. It was his intent to move much more slowly than Mags, so that she would be the first to encounter any danger here. He could watch and learn from anything that she found.

But gradually, as time passed and he did not see or hear anything, and as Mags did not reappear on the perimeter, he realized that she had either deserted him to carry out her own plans, or else she had negotiated something without making a sound. He cursed himself for removing every single bullet from the clip while he'd had his head under the console. If he'd left her just one, he would at least have heard the gun go off. Now he might never know if she had tried to shoot at anything or not.

Though not willing to needlessly risk himself if he could risk his companion, he was not a coward, and he quickly walked the perimeter to satisfy himself that there was no sign of native life here, and no sign of Mags. Grimly, he drew his tissue compressor and advanced to the ring of stone buildings.

He passed under the archway and gazed around at the ruins in the courtyard, uncomprehending. Suddenly, from one of the buildings that formed the ring, he heard a long, drawn out scream. For a moment it sounded like an animal cry, and then he realized that it was the voice of an intelligent creature. And then he wondered if it were not the Doctor's voice.

The scream gave way to a long sobbing breath that was just barely audible, and then instantly was picked up again, loud and anguished and long. It froze his blood. It was the Doctor. For a moment, the Master stood transfixed, appalled in spite of himself that anything could draw a scream like that from a time lord.

Then he got hold of himself and hurried to the building from which the scream came. He entered into a dim and narrow room and saw steps that led underground. There was another sound of a breath being drawn in anguish and torment, and then the shrieking began again. A tremendous, stinking vapor rolled up the steps.

The Master flinched, nearly ran away, and then forced himself to stand still. After a moment when his nerve nearly failed him, he moved forward and edged down the steps, the weapon ready.

The reeking vapor hit him again, and he nearly coughed, but the need to be absolutely silent was so strong that he suppressed it. Eyes streaming, he edged down into the dimness.

The screaming was replaced with a sobbing sound, not the sobbing of a rational creature crying from grief, but an irrational sobbing and chattering, as of a person driven mad from torture.

His practiced eye scanned the room, taking in the smoldering form of the Doctor, slick and shining, with his clothes mostly burned away, and something else in the far corner, something that gurgled and seemed to be nothing but a pool of fluid, except that it held together as a jellyfish would. he saw the glimmer of sensors in it and without thinking, he fired at it.

It writhed and part of it compressed and was sloughed off instantly. Then he realized that it was a living creature indeed, and that it was trying to escape through a hole in the floor. Emboldened by its reaction to the first shot, he came down the steps and fired into it again.

It writhed, and his quick eyes saw that his weapon was not powerful enough to reduce that entire mass to a dead lump, but he could bisect it, and probably mortally wound it that way. He stepped closer and fired again and again.

The creature released an acid that sent up more vapor, trying to conceal itself. He maintained his fire. The acid swam around his shoes, and he realized what had caused the Doctor to scream with such abandon. He danced back, cursing, but fired again.

The tissue compressor turned the back half of the thing into a hard, fixed lump. He had thought that it would detach from itself as it had sloughed off its first wound, but apparently it could not. Its fluid-like front half was caught in the inlet pipe, unable to separate from the hardened mass of compressed tissue. And the mass of dead and compressed tissue could not fit into the inlet. It was effectively stuck, unable to move forward and unable to move back.

The Master turned to the Doctor, who lay on the smoking floor, his arms up, hung by chains around his scalded wrists. The floor around him gave off vapor, and his body, what was visible through the tattered remains of his clothing, glistened white or was blackened in places.

For a moment the Master thought he was dead, and then the head feebly tried to lift. The Master pointed the gun at him.

"There's a charge left for one more shot, Doctor," he said. "And this time, you may count it as a favor from me." He leveled the gun at his rival.

"Nix!" Mags shouted, and the bolt of a crossbow sank into his shoulder. The Master screamed and fired a wild shot that did nothing. The weapon dropped from his hand.

"The next one goes through your throat, Mr. Sin!" Mags shouted. "Leave off of him!"

She and Jo came down into the chamber. Mags had a crossbow in her hands, a souvenir of the Doctor's from some hunting trip long ago.

"The Doctor is dying," the Master said, gripping his shoulder. "I would have put him out of his misery."

"I ain't go a mind to kill you," Mags said. "On account of what we all been through together. But you oughtta see to that shoulder."

His eyes fell to the tissue compressor that lay on the floor.

"Don't try it, Sin. 'Cause I will shoot you if I have to. I only hit your shoulder cause I missed your throat. I ain't playin' games no more."

"You are an outcast Tark!" he spat. "How dare you speak on such familiar terms with me!"

"See to the Major," Mags said, and Jo hurried past her and took a look at the manacles. The lock assembly was simple, designed for quick locking and unlocking of the room's sole occupant. Jo pulled out her skeleton keys and set to work.

"Well, it looks like you'll be brought to justice this time old sport," Mags said to the Master. She kept him covered with the crossbow. "How's the Major?" she asked Jo.

"Burned terribly," Jo said. She got one of the manacles open, and as the Doctor's arm dropped from her grasp, he let out a sound of pain that was a pitiful wail, a sound almost like a child's outcry. She had never heard such a sound from him. Alarmed, Mags turned at the distraction. The Master took his chance. Clutching his shoulder---which still had the bolt in it---he raced for the steps.

Quickly, Mags turned the cross bow to follow him, and Jo saw that she had him full in her sights to shoot him right between his shoulder blades, but she did not fire. Then as he escaped she shot, and the bolt hit the wall.

"I missed!" she exclaimed. She made as though she would have pursued, and then stopped on the third step. "No, I don't want to leave you here. I better help you with the Major."

* * * *

The Doctor opened his eyes to find himself in his favorite room in the TARDIS, wrapped up snugly in a white cocoon of soft sheets and a blanket. He smelled very strongly of Tark reconstituting elixir. The fragrance was not unlike dog excrement. And it was all over him.

"What incredible quackery is this?" he shouted. He tried to sit up, but the cocoon around him was quite tight, and he fell back.

"Jo!" he bellowed. He struggled in his bonds. "What do you think you're doing!"

Jo rushed in, followed by another person. He realized that it was Mags and instantly became more polite as he realized who had coated him with the vile stuff.

"I told Mags that you sort of repair yourself," Jo said. "But she told me that this is excellent burn medication. She says all the most sophisticated races use it."

She stared at him guiltily.

He swallowed back his complaints. "Why, so it is!" he agreed. "And I do feel much better. Could you ladies please loosen these wraps a bit?"

They immediately obliged him.

"You went ever so cold, Major!" Mags exclaimed as she pulled the swath of sheets loose. "I thought you was a goner!"

"Yes, I had quite a time convincing Mags that it was a bit premature to bury you," Jo said.

They made him more comfortable, and he realized that he had no clothes on under the sheets, and that he had been liberally anointed with the horrible smelling elixir: painted from head to foot with it.

Jo startled him by stroking his cheek, all sympathy. He drew the covers to his chin without thinking.

"You were badly burned," she said. "The pain must have been terrible."

He decided that he wanted both of them to leave. He didn't like having no clothes and being covered with salve that smelled like excrement while two young females hovered over him, even though he had the protection of the bedcovers. There was something ridiculous about it. But they were under the strong impression that they had nursed him back to health. They appeared to have adjusted to the smell during his long period of unconsciousness. He decided that he'd better relax and seem at his ease or else Jo would tease him about it later. She did enjoy the times that he came off as being ridiculous.

"The pain was terrible," he admitted. "I was simply engulfed in flesh destroying acid. But it wouldn't work fast enough to kill me outright."

"Yes, Ecthroi said he wanted to dine on you," Jo told him. "But then he simply scorched you up a bit."

"That was an oversight on his part," the Doctor said. "There's a reason that time lords are such tough and resilient creatures, and there's a reason that he'd never seen the like of us before. We're very good at protecting our genetic secrets."

"What's that mean?" Mags asked.

"It means that Ecthroi's method involved breaking tissue all the way down to its proteins, and then his own genetic sensors would analyze the new material and feed the information back into his own configuration, telling his metabolizing sequences what needed to be done to bring the new material in and store the new configuration information."

"I think I understand," Mags said hesitantly.

He brightened, in spite of his discomfort. "Do you?"

She shook her head. "No."

He sighed. "Let me put it this way. My genetic coding gave his genetic sensors false information. My coding told his system to take itself apart instead of the best way to take me apart. This caused him great pain and confusion. The acid that he excreted burned me quite severely, but he did not get very far in actually metabolizing my information."

"You were indigestible," Jo said.

"Precisely. Let this be a warning to any who would dine on me. I quite literally do go down fighting." He made his eyes fierce and then smiled at her.

She was curious. "So he never could have dined on you as he said?"

"I wouldn't say that. He'd have figured a way 'round my defenses eventually. It would have been a long and painful end for me if I had not been rescued."

"Yeah, and it was Sin who actually saved you," Mags said, her eyes unreadable. "He come down there and blasted away at that 'orrible thing. It's still down there, trapped half in and half outta that hole."

"We think it's dead," Jo said.

"I'll have to dig it out and see, once I'm on my feet. But probably, in the form of a creature able to break down organic tissue, Ecthroi was not able to withstand a violent assault of tissue compression. What happened to the Master?" He glanced at Mags.

Mags turned her eyes away. "He escaped. I got 'im once with the crossbow, but he fooled me and got away."

Jo was looking at her with a more judicious expression, and the Doctor wondered if the young Tark had allowed their enemy to escape. There would be time to go into that later. The main thing was to get them out of his room so that he could wash and dress. Inspiration hit him, and he gave a low groan. "Oh dear, I am so hungry. Is there any food?"

"We'll bring you some," Jo said instantly.

"English breakfast?" he asked hopefully.

She nodded. "We'll do our best. Come on Mags."

They finally left him. Wrapping the sheet around himself to limit the smell of Mags' elixir, he got up and went hunting for clothes and the nearest cleaning station.

* * * * *

The TARDIS doors opened onto the blazing hot street of the casinos.

"Are you sure this is what you want, Mags?" the Doctor asked.

Her jumpsuit cleaned and her visor repaired and in place, Mags grinned up at him. "Sure!" She patted the wide leather-like satchel that hung from her shoulder. "With all this that we found stored up in Ecthroi's treasure trove, I got enough to buy me friend Kogrik outta service! I got it all planned, Major!"

"You really have an Ogron for a friend?" Jo asked.

"They make right good friends," Mags assured her. "Anyway, Kogrik's always been a friend to me. Every time I had to get a beatin' at the casino, he'd 'ave a little talk with the discipline master afore hand. Sort a' let 'im know it better not be too rough. He coulda' been whipped himself for doin' that. And you should see the whips they use on Ogrons to punish 'em!" She held her arms wide.

"And then where?" the Doctor asked. "You probably have enough to buy a small ship for yourself."

"I dunno. Maybe we'll take to explorin', or maybe, now that we know that the Knowledge Foundation's gone, and the processin' plant is gone, and Ecthroi has been removed from his place at the head of the whole mess, we'll commence to dealin' with the Body Pirates."

She set her thumbs in her belt. "This place needs a little routin' out, and Mags Hardbottle is the one to do it!"

"You will be careful?" Jo asked.

"Sure! Thanks for the ride. And remember, Mags Hardbottle don't never forget a friend."

She strode through the doors and then stopped and turned. She lifted the visor so that they could see her green eyes. She spoke two words that sounded like exclamations and turned away. Then she strode down the street.

The Doctor put his arm around Jo. "Come inside," he said softly. She could see that his hearts were touched.

"What did she say?"

He went to the console and closed the doors. Then he looked down at her. "'Goodbye my beloved womb,'" he told her. "That's the literal translation into English. It's what a Tark says when he or she leaves family and home behind. The word for 'womb' in their language is the same as their word for 'home.' They don't see much difference."

"So she was admitting that she is a Tark," Jo said.

"And that she loves us," he told her. "Which is far more important, especially coming from a Tark. Come on then. I've got to tell the Brigadier that you're safe. And then, if you like, we're ready to go."

He stopped and glanced at her, questioning.

"Yes, all right," she said. "But maybe this time before I venture out to world unknown I can take some luggage with me!"

"Luggage!" he snorted.

And that's the End! Mags Hardbottle is alive and well and solving mysteries! Click here for the sequel that features her.
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