Random Chance © 2003-5 Margaret Price
This is a 6th Doctor story that fits inside the timeline created in "The Transmutation of Time" series. Chronologically, it takes place 10 years after "The New Argonauts." For the Doctor, it follows "The Will of Ormril."
I know. I like complex plotlines. This is the longest story that I have written so far, so you can imagine that it will be quite intricate. I hope I don't lose anyone along the way.
BY MARGARET PRICE
RANDOM: adj : aimless
CHANCE: n : the unpredictable element in existence
"The universe, indeed the entire multiverse, is founded upon the most extraordinary coincidences."
—The Doctor, Business Unusual
In the far reaches of the galaxy, an ancient race on an equally ancient planet had gone undetected by the spacecraft moving through the nearby trade lanes. The protective barrier surrounding the planet had kept it hidden from the sensors of all save the most advanced races for untold centuries.
An enormous fortress dominated the center of its sprawling capital city that spread out as far as the eye could see. Once a stronghold against attack, the massive forbidding stone structure had been transformed into a stronghold of justice and the seat of planetary government. Far below the common areas, nestled among storage areas and forgotten archives, was an equally forgotten vault that contained a device that, centuries ago, had made the people of this world the most renowned race of their time. The room was as old as the building itself and patiently waited for someone to rediscover its secrets. Like the people who had created it, the device was all but a distant memory. An echo in the cosmos.
Two brothers silently crept through the massive doors: the oldest just twenty, the other barely sixteen. The latter looked around the darkened room as they entered. Their brightly colored knee length tunics seemed dull in the all-enveloping darkness, their dark olive colored skin making them almost invisible.
In the center of the floor, dominating the room was an enormous block of ornately carved stonework, an opaque half-globe rising out of its center. Affixed to each corner of the block was a podium, and attached to that, about a metre above the floor, was a chair that allowed the occupant an unobstructed view of the globe.
As the pair drew nearer, the globe started to hum faintly, unnerving the younger of the two. "They're going to catch us, l'X'el," he said uneasily, looking nervously around the room.
"No, they're not. I told you, the manipulator creates a time shift when it's activated," l'X'el replied firmly. He touched a switch at the side of the stone block and the globe started to glow in response. "Besides," he went on as he climbed into one of the seats, "nobody ever comes down here anymore." He tried to sound nonchalant, unwilling to admit to his brother K'ell'k that he was even more afraid than he was.
K'ell'k moved closer to the device and was startled to discover that while the globe lit the area around itself in a dull yellow glow, it did not illuminate him. No matter how close he leaned in, he remained in the shadowy blackness of the room. Looking up, he saw his brother's pale eyes glowing in the darkness, reflecting the glow of the globe. "I don't like this," he said nervously, unsuccessfully pushing his long black dreadlocks out of his face. "It's eerie."
"You don't have to like it. Just watch and stop worrying."
"If we get caught…"
"We won't," l'X'el replied firmly. He tied back his own mass of shoulder-length dread-locks before setting to work. "Now be quiet, I need to concentrate. I have a lot of information to load." He looked along the side of the seemingly blank desktop before him, touching the activation switch. The surface changed from a wood-grain finish to a computer entry station. Giving a satisfied grunt, he pulled a sheaf of paper out of his shirt and spread it out on the desktop, smoothing out the wrinkles with his hands. He threw his brother a quick sideways glance he hoped was reassuring before he starting entering the data into the computer.
The Earth Republic light cruiser SILVER TRIUMPH moved swiftly through the emptiness of space, each passing second bringing it nearer to the end of its mission. It was flanked by four heavily armed battle cruisers and was followed, at a discreet distance, by seven smaller and distinctly different spaceships. The five main ships were part of a diplomatic mission delivering the leader of a crucial summit meeting and his entourage to Earth.
"Captain Rayburn, I feel I owe you an apology for taking so long to compliment you and your crew," Prince Jason said as he stepped onto the bridge. "I know the preparations for this summit have been a pain in the neck and I appreciate your putting up with all the diplomatic nonsense. I'm sure you'd rather be doing something more exciting than acting as my mobile base of operations and glorified tour bus."
Rayburn turned to his royal passenger, a startled look coming to his face. In the past three weeks he had had very little contact with the Alterran prince other than to verify their next destination, and even then there had been upwards of six other members from various delegations present, usually going over itineraries, agendas or what-have-you while he was trying to communicate with his royal passenger. Their last stop had seen all the delegates save Prince Jason leave the ship and the Captain was surprised to see him in a plain blue jumpsuit rather than the elaborate royal finery he had worn since his arrival. He wondered if this meant the Prince was not one to place himself above others simply because he'd had a privileged birth. Had he been able to get to know him better, the Captain would have discovered this observation to be completely accurate.
"Thank-you, Ambassador. We aim to please," he replied at last, venturing, "I understand from your pilot that your Emperor wants you to make an impressive entrance. And I dare say, you wouldn't've been able to do that in the shuttle that delivered you."
The Prince laughed and nodded in agreement. "That's true. But don't let the ARGO's appearance fool you; she only looks like a shuttle. She's my own personal transport and I've had her engines modified to accommodate the distances I have to travel. She has an impressive turn of speed, if I do say so myself."
"Does she now?"
Rayburn's tone made Jason smile. "I noticed some modification in the plating in the passenger cabin and had a look at the TRIUMPH's specs. She's not just another pretty face either, is she?" he said admiringly.
The Captain's eyebrows went up, his admiration for his passenger moving up a notch or two. "No sir," he replied proudly. "The SILVER TRIUMPHcan hold her own against any of those so called swift cruisers. She's got triple reinforced plating, special external shielding and an engine that can best the speed of your ARGO anytime."
"Really? I'd love to take you up on that when this is over."
"Anytime. My engineer got himself borrowed by another transport. Already on Earth by now, I expect. I'll pass on your request. He's always ready to show off what his little modifications can do."
Jason flashed a smile before becoming serious again. "What's our ETA to Earth?"
"At present course and speed, two hours fourteen minutes, sir," the navigator replied, adding quickly, "Er, I mean, Mr. Ambassador."
The Alterran gave a wry smile. "Sir will do fine, Ensign."
"It isn't a problem, us delivering you a day ahead of schedule, is it?" the Captain asked with a grin.
Jason grinned back. "I'm sure I can find something to do in the interim. How many did we end up with in this mini-armada, anyway?"
"Including us, twelve, sir," the Captain replied, puzzled by the suspicious edge that had suddenly crept into the Alterran's voice. "We picked up another tagalong at the last outpost."
The Prince turned to the sensor array, the tactical officer moving aside slightly to allow him to study the readings. "Are they armed?" he asked, glancing at the officer.
"Only defensive weaponry, sir," the officer replied.
"They appear to be keeping their distance," Jason observed, looking up for verification.
The tactical officer nodded. "We've been keeping an eye on them, sir."
"Our rear escorts have been monitoring their movements and keeping us apprised of any unusual deviations. Nothing so far."
"Which ship is my entourage on?" Jason wanted to know, looking back at the screen.
Before the officer could reply, a light on the console started blinking for attention. It was accompanied by an alarm and he touched a button to silence it. "Sorry, sir. They're in the first ship to the right of the screen," he informed, nodding at the main view screen. "We also seem to have a couple more tagalongs waiting for us up ahead."
Jason followed his gaze, seeing an asteroid field directly in their path. It set off the alarm that had been quietly ticking down in his head. "It's a trap!" The words were out of his mouth before he realized he had spoken them. "Get us out of here! Now!"
Apparently the same alarm was sounding in the Captain Rayburn's head. "Raise shields! Ensign, reverse course!" he ordered at the same time.
Before the Captain finished speaking, more than a dozen smaller ships suddenly appeared from the asteroid field and opened fire. The SILVER TRIUMPH was hit by the initial volley but remained undamaged, the Captain's boast of the extra shielding holding true. The armed escort ships moved into a protective formation, exchanging fire with the unknown attackers and allowing the SILVER TRIUMPH to move out of the formation to make a run for it. They were immediately cut off by more ships that appeared from behind.
"What the hell do they want?" the navigator gasped.
"Isn't it obvious?" Jason called over the growing noise. "To stop us getting to Earth." He had moved up behind the Captain's command chair and was now watching the battle on the main screen.
"I don't think it's that grandiose," the Captain replied. "They're probably Sharks."
The group he referred to were a combination of scrap traders and pirates. With no real conflicts occurring at the time, wreckage had grown scarce and with so few derelicts the Sharks had started to create their own, attacking any unsuspecting craft or small group. The cargo would be taken and sold off, the ships gutted and cut up for scrap, and any survivors sold into slavery.
"I've never heard of them hitting a group larger than four ships," Jason observed. "And nothing with the firepower our escort is packing."
"They must've been after our tagalongs."
"Then why didn't they let us pass first?" Jason demanded as the smaller more maneuverable ships disabled two of his escorts with conspicuous ease. Shaking his head, he concluded, "Those are definitely not Sharks." His eyes fell on a section of space ahead and he had a flash of inspiration, pointing to the area on the screen. "Why don't we see how maneuverable this ship is, huh, Captain? Think you can do a nose dive to that point there?"
Seeing what he had in mind, Rayburn nodded. "Risky, but worth a try." He turned to the navigator, giving the order. "That'll give 'em a run for their money."
Some of the attacking ships were moving in for the kill when the SILVER TRIUMPH suddenly dropped and spun away, plummeting several hundred kilometres before leveling off and streaking into an opening in the asteroid field.
"We did it!" the navigator enthused unbelievingly.
"Don't start celebrating yet," the Captain snapped tersely. "We have to keep from being pulverized first. I want this ship ready to make the jump to light speed the second we clear the asteroid field. After we put a few light years between us and them, then you can start celebrating." He glanced over his shoulder at the Prince, whose fingers were digging into the back of his chair, his knuckles white.
"Personally, Captain," Jason said quietly, the serious look on his face unchanged, "I'm not celebrating until we set down on Earth. I have a very bad feeling about all this."