It was shortly after High Ebb, the murkiest time of the dark cycle, when the water levels rose, the temperature dropped, and the fog thickened, reducing what little visibility there was to less than a few feet. It was Nard's first season scouting for the Guard, and despite the less than hospitable environment, he had stuck to his duty without a cycle's break. Loyalty, he believed, would see him rewarded with acceptance into the ranks of the Honour Guard, and an opportunity to join its secret war against the enemy.
Nard was a young man, and like many of his kind his skin was pale and bloated, his pupils wide, and his hair thin. While the fallen usually slept through High Ebb, this was the time when they were most active. The enemy. The filthy, dirty menks.
They were why Nard was here in the hide, huddled away on the outskirts of the forest, knee-deep in a mossy ditch and sheltered only by the flimsiest canopy down which the constant drizzle of humid water flowed. Threatening to pollute the world with their fishy stink and peaceful overtones. It was only a matter of time before they returned to their warlike ways and re-ignited their conflict with the fallen.
Then he heard it. The unmistakable click-clack of armoured peraeopods sidling through the mist-sodden bog. He reached for his spyglass, snapping it open and extending its light-catching parabola before placing it to his eyes.
The parabolic spyglass was a device unique to the fallen. Powered by the very photons that it captured, the spyglass filtered out the mist, which interfered with visibility, and picked out the details of even the darkest recesses. It was an essential tool for the fallen, whose eyesight had barely adjusted to the perpetual night of their adopted home world.
With just a brief scan, Nard caught a glint of light reflected by his quarry, a mounted menk heading from the river towards a nearby mountain path. Easing himself up from his knees, he left the hide, his oversized galoshes squelching in and out of the mud as he waded towards the city. Within a few moments he passed through the gates and into the City Square. He crept through its deserted streets until he reached his destination. Once there, he knocked hard three times on its solid wooden door.
Within a few moments the sound of a latch unbolting gave way to the yawning creak of perhaps the biggest, heaviest door in the city. Behind it stood the biggest, heaviest man in the city. Pulling a cloak over his big frame, a great bear of a man looked down upon Nard. His white hair long and rangy, his silver beard full, and his single piercing eye a distinctive shade of pink, which Nard could make out even through his light-enhancing lens.
"M-menk," Nard stammered, "heading through the forest towards the Monastery. I saw him not three minutes hence."
"Excellent," replied the man, closing the hasp of his lilac-blue cloak, which bore the insignia of Lord Commander of the Honour Guard, "it's been a while since we've had some sport."
Pulling down the cowl of his hood over his face, the Commander drew out a large iridescent horn, fashioned from the hefty shell of a great nautilus. Beside eyeholes, the cowl also had a crude hole for his mouth, through which he placed the horn. Taking a deep breath, he blew long and hard into the mouthpiece, producing a loud continuous note, which summoned his brethren from their boltholes around the village.
Within a few minutes Nard stood watching the hooded riders leave the city, torches lit and arms bared, galloping off in search of their hated prey. From the houses around him Nard saw a few curtains twitch with subdued curiosity, but no sign of anyone standing in their way.
"Soon", he thought. "Soon I'll be riding with them."
The TARDIS lurched sideways.
Things weren't going well for Romana and the Doctor. Unlike with his previous companions, the time she had spent with the Doctor had been based on the need to find the Key to Time. They'd been there and done that, and Romana had been ready to return to Gallifrey. Now she was thrown together as a fellow outcast, at least until they could find a way to end the Black Guardian's pursuit. Without a mission, and with the Doctor's occasionally smug and patronising air grating on her nerves, she was beginning to snap at his every word. Their last argument ended in silence, which continued right up until the TARDIS arrived in what could most politely be described as severe turbulence.
The two Time Lords now occupied opposite sides of the space-time ship's hexagonal command console, their eyes reflecting shared apprehension at their latest predicament.
Responding to the strained rise and fall of the time rotor, Romana buzzed over her control panel. "The outer plasmic shell has started boiling away," she said. "We appear to have materialised in the heart of a star."
"But that's impossible," the Doctor was well aware of what the ship's instrumentation was telling them, but the TARDIS was in the best shape she had been for centuries. Shipshape and… he turned to the stubby black unit he had wired up only hours earlier. "Unless…"
The Doctor nodded. "Just a minor technical hitch."
Biting her tongue, Romana checked the scanner on her console. It was blank. Switching to her data screen, she listed the elemental composition of the field of superheated plasma in which the ship had materialised. "Hydrogen, helium, lithium…"
"It's a very old sun," said the Doctor. "No elemental pollution?"
Romana shook her head. "Worse than that, Doctor, it's an invisible sun. Five hundred solar masses with a radius of one astronomical unit. We'll need an escape velocity faster than the speed of light. And with the outer shell almost gone, I doubt we'll be escaping anywhere."
"A sun that swallows its own light?" The Doctor was clearly more curious than he was concerned. And entirely oblivious to Romana's mood. "That's two impossible things before breakfast."
"Make that three, Doctor. There's a planet in the centre."
"Yes." To illustrate her point, she transferred the data from her control panel to the main view screen. In the absence of an external image, a mathematical simulation of the planet, complete with topographical extrapolations, appeared on the monitor. The surface was as hostile as the atmosphere the TARDIS currently occupied.
The TARDIS lurched again, more severely than before. The reassuringly unchanging hum of its interior changed its pitch.
"Can we land there?" A little urgency crept into the Doctor's voice.
"Perhaps there's somewhere safe underground?"
"Checking…it's hollow. The planet's surface is a dense shell composed of deuterium, galvinium, iridium, neutronium, taranium and… Doctor, make that four impossible things before breakfast."
"The interior is habitable."
Clapping his hands together, the Doctor's frown broadened into a brief grin. The first sign that he had shown any concern over their imminent vapourisation. "An inside-out world inside a phantom sun? What are we waiting for?"
Flexing his fingers, the Doctor reached out to adjust the navigational controls in an effort to find a healthy set of co-ordinates with which he could set the TARDIS down and give her a chance to recuperate.
Ploot. The ship almost vocalised its negative response.
"Ah," the Doctor was frowning again, "now that would be five impossible things if it didn't happen to me on a regular basis."
"I can't lock onto any co-ordinates. It could be interference from the star, or it could be that outer shell. Either way there's no way of knowing where... or when... we are."
"Well, for a star that massive to exist we must be..."
"At the dawn of history? Yes, that's what I was thinking."
"No point in sending out a distress call then," said Romana, "there won't be any Time Lords to pick it up. We're not supposed to travel this far back in time." Her irritation with the Doctor clearly hadn't gone away, and a third sideways lurch emphasised that fact. "In fact, if you hadn't replaced the isochronic regulator with a randomiser it wouldn't have been possible!"
"If we've travelled back in time. I'm sure we'll find our answers on that planet."
" We have to get there first, and according to these indicators there's only about forty per cent of the TARDIS exterior left."
"Forty per cent? She made a trip with less than twenty per cent of her external mass when we first left Gallifrey, didn't you old girl?" The Doctor patted the console, as much to reassure himself as his companion. "We made it then, we can make it now."
"Twenty per cent?" Romana was clearly sceptical. "That must have taken a while to fix."
"Oh, about four hundred years."
"You've only had it for five hundred and twenty four."
"Yes, well... I just need to override the randomiser and…" a fourth lurch from the TARDIS caused something to slide into the Doctor's leg. Glancing down, he found inspiration. "K9, how are you at guesswork?"
"I need you to calculate a landing point based on the relative distance between the TARDIS and the interior surface."
"Affirmative. Working..." K9 dipped his head, his ears rotating as he processed the request. "Seven hundred and seventy six thousand, four hundred and eighty kilometres, three hundred and..."
"Yes, yes…" interrupted the Doctor, "but don't tell me. Tell the TARDIS."
Within moments, their salvation had been assured, as the TARDIS locked on to its new destination and dematerialised.
"There, that wasn't so bad." The Doctor patted K9 as the TARDIS settled back down into a steady hum.
"Bad?" Romana wasn't so impressed. Her dark mood hadn't settled, and the damage to the TARDIS had been extensive. "Doctor, you ignored every safety protocol in the book. I should be grateful you asked K9 to find a landing site, I half expected you to suck your finger and stick it in the air."
"I'm hurt," said the Doctor, who clearly wasn't.
"And that randomiser of yours is evidently a flawed prototype. It's more dangerous than the Black Guardian."
"Well it was a test run. I'm sure with a few tweaks…"
That was it. "A few tweaks? Sometimes, Doctor, I wonder how you graduated from the Time Academy in the first place."
The Time Lord beamed ingratiatingly. "Perseverance."
"Well, I wouldn't have let you loose with a TARDIS," she retorted.
"Neither would the Time Lords," said the Doctor. "I had to earn her all on my own."
"As if. You probably won it in a competition run by House and TARDIS."
"Well, I've got one and you haven't, so yah-boo and sucks to you!" The Doctor cocked a snook at Romana in an attempt to reduce the tension building between them.
"Hmm." She got the hint. "There's probably a nice new Type 76 waiting for me when we get home."
"Home? Have you forgotten the Black Guardian? You're stuck with me and mine for the duration, remember?"
"How could I forget? I can hardly hitch-hike my way across the galaxy."
This time, the Doctor genuinely was hurt. "Am I that bad?"
"Insufferable. Especially when you nearly get us killed."
"But the randomiser…"
"A poor workman always blames his tools, Doctor. And your tools have left us stuck in a TARDIS with a ruptured outer shell in the middle of a star that won't let us out!"
"There's always a bright side. At least we have somewhere to explore."
Romana sighed. Right now she needed a little respite from the Doctor and his humours. "I'm not in the mood, Doctor. Sometimes I wish I'd chosen Mutter as the subject of my dissertation."
"Mutter, Mutter, mutter," muttered the Doctor. "When did he ever get to change the Laws of Time?"
That particular revelation stopped Romana dead. Even now she couldn't be sure if the Doctor was telling her the truth or embellishing his past. And she was supposed to be an expert where the Doctor's life was concerned. "That's not possible. I think Rassilon might have noticed."
The Doctor shrugged. "It was only a few words. Besides, Rassilon was a plagiarist. It only took four hours and three bottles of vodka to persuade Blinovitch to redraft his Second Law of Causal Determination."
Romana raised an eyebrow. It would be irony indeed if the Doctor were responsible for the very law of time which he had most difficulty obeying. She decided to end their banter rather than pursue the matter further.
"You have a TARDIS that needs fixing, Doctor, and I'm suddenly developing a strong urge to get back to Gallifrey."
"Here," the Doctor scowled as he reached into his coat pockets, "you'll be needing my sonic screwdriver then. You stay and check your t-mails while I get some air."
Opening the doors the Doctor swept around and stepped outside in a grand display of pique. A moment later the Doctor's knotted scarf flew back into the console room, lassoed K9, and drew the robot dog towards the door.
"Come on K9, I'm not staying here to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Time Ladies. Let's find our bearings."
As K9 trundled outside and the door closed, Romana's body slumped with relief as she activated the external monitors.
"Try finding your marbles while you're at it, Doctor." She said to no one in particular, satisfying herself that she had had the last word. "It's a hollow planet, so you won't see any stars."
"Ah." The Doctor's voice echoed over the internal speakers. "There are other ways to find your place in the universe, Romana," he said as he wandered into the mists beyond.