The Insanity Doctors
The Polar Cap was a marvel of modern weaponry, a lightweight, hand-held and absolutely merciless killing machine. It collected moisture from the air, flash froze it in small, coin-sized discs, and used a tiny diamond-tipped saw to shave the edges until they were razor-sharp. When the trigger was pulled, the discs were propelled down the barrel by jets of frigid air and shot out of the gun with incredible speed. The discs were as lethal as any bullet, and they melted on contact, giving them the added benefit of being completely untraceable. And with a Polar Cap, one never ran out of ammunition.
Well, almost never.
Garrett Horan pulled the trigger and heard a series of dry clicks. The air here was parched and arid, with no moisture to freeze. He strapped the useless weapon to his belt and stared down at the road below. It was deserted, stretching for mile after unending mile, a gray scar on the face of the desert. Horan tugged his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face. Sweat trickled into his eyes, down his chest and back. His socks were completely soaked. He had never felt heat like this, unholy heat that constricted his throat and made it difficult to breathe.
His heart skipped a beat as he caught a flash of movement below. It was only tumbleweed, scratching its path across the sand.
Horan shifted, trying to make himself more comfortable. He was lying on his stomach at the top of a gentle rise. The wretched, evil glare of the sun beat down upon him, on his unprotected face and arms, and his flesh was red and swollen and stung constantly. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the road. His stomach lurched when he saw it.
He hadn't heard anything. Perhaps he had dozed off. No matter. He was here now, the Doctor was here and Horan had a job to do. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, his heart beat a wild rhythm in his chest. His scalp tingled and his mouth was suddenly filled with the sharp metallic tang of fear.
Down on the road, the TARDIS doors opened and a man's head peered cautiously outside. His blond hair hung in his face, and his forehead was slick with sweat. He stepped out onto the gravel. His long tan coat was torn at one elbow, and a spray of green slime was slashed across his shirt. His striped pants were black with dried mud up to his knees, and there was a stalk of limp celery pinned to his lapel.
"It's all right," he called. "I think we're alone."
A woman joined him on the cracked surface of the road.
"Where are we?" She asked. She wore a green sweater over brown pants, and her long red hair was tied back.
The man was studying the side of the blue box. "Take a look at this. Bullet holes. Someone's been shooting at my TARDIS." He raised his hands to shield his eyes from the sun.
Up on the hill, Garrett Horan began to slither down toward the road, hiding in the tall, dead grass that covered the slope.
"So now what?" he heard the woman ask. "Are we just supposed to wait here for this guy to show up?"
"I think we should set out to look for him."
Horan crouched in a shallow ditch that ran beside the road. The TARDIS was perhaps twenty feet away. Both of its passengers had turned their backs to him.
The man in the tan coat began to pace in front of the TARDIS. "Let's see. Maybe...this way. No, that way. Definitely that way."
Now! Horan thought. He leapt out of the ditch, a long, wicked knife clutched in his right hand. The steel bottoms of his boots sparked against the road as he ran.
"Watch out!" the redhead tried to shove her companion out of the way, but it was too late. Horan leapt into the air and brought the blade down into the man's chest. The man screamed and fell to the pavement as a crimson stain swept across his shirt.
"You've killed him!" the woman screamed. Her eyes were wide, horrified. "You've killed the Doctor!"
First thing's first, thought the Doctor, am I still alive?
It was a difficult question to answer. The pain in his head, his chest, his arms and legs, pain that washed over his entire body, suggested that he was still living. Although, having no clear concept of an afterlife, he supposed it was possible that the pain was the only life after death. Then again—
"Ugh," he said. He tried to open his eyes, but they were gummed shut. He reached up and brushed his hands across his eyelids, and he felt something warm and wet and sticky. Blood.
"Great," he said. A disturbing thought occurred to him. What if he'd regenerated again? He felt a momentary sadness at the loss of his former self, then realized he didn't remember which self it had been, exactly.
"Not this again," he muttered. He ran through each of his previous incarnations in his head: old bloke with the cane, short bloke with the sad blue eyes. The dashing authority figure, the bohemian, the fair-haired cricketer. The arrogant chap with the garish coat, the impish, dark-haired man with the strange infatuation with questions marks. The romantic with the unfortunate habit of losing his memory, the battle-scarred wanderer, the skinny one with the crazy hair and the brainy specs.
Check, check and check. But which one was he?
The Doctor counted them off. There were still three unaccounted for, which meant—
His eyes flew open. He remembered. Suddenly, horribly, he remembered.
"Donna!" he said, scrambling to his feet. He was in a small, dimly-lit room. Stone walls and floor, a dirty nest of straw in the corner, thick wooden door with a barred window.
"Standard-issue holding cell," he said to himself. "You've been locked up in better places than this, Doctor. Brainy-specs Doctor, that's me, and welcome back." He found his glasses and his sonic screwdriver in his pocket and made for the door. He peered out into the corridor, head cocked, listening. He heard nothing, and so he held the screwdriver to the handle and heard a satisfying click.
"Donna?" he hissed. A few feet down the corridor there was another cell, and he glanced inside. It was empty. He passed two more deserted cells before he reached a narrow staircase that spiraled upward into the gloom. The Doctor took the stairs two at a time. He ran through another doorway into an identical corridor. He dashed from cell door to cell door, peering inside, calling his companion's name.
"Donna!" he whispered, shining a small torch into yet another empty cell.
Think. Remember. Why can't I remember?
The Time Scoop.
The Doctor frowned as the last of his memories came flooding back. He had taken Donna to see the Allestrian Supernova, and as they'd sat in the doorway of the TARDIS, feet hanging out into space, he had said...
"We've got to be very careful," said the Doctor. He passed the popcorn to Donna and took a sip of his ginger beer. "The TARDIS will protect us from the effects of the explosion. The real danger is crossing my own time stream. I can't tell you how many times I've been here."
"What's so special about it?" Donna asked. She laughed at his horrified expression. "I mean, yeah, supernova, brilliant. But there must be millions of them throughout history. Why do you keep coming back to this one?"
The Doctor thought for a moment. "If we were to go forward in time a few billion years," he said, "in roughly this exact spot there will live a man called Pell Salar. A musician. He'll spend his whole life perfecting one song. Just one song, the only one he'll ever write, the only one he needs to write. It's one of the most profound and moving pieces of music ever written, perfectly capturing every possible emotional state, from aching sadness to ear-splitting ecstasy to raw, consuming hatred. And all of that comes from this one moment, this little fraction of time."
"All that from one explosion, huh?"
He grinned. "Ssh! It's starting."
But something had risen up then, blocking the view as the luminous gasses and great clouds of dust converged in the swirling, chaotic center of what would become a hundred thousand stars. At first the Doctor thought it was light from the gasses reflecting off something, but as it came closer he saw that, unlike everything else around them, it had a definite shape, a square of shimmering darkness...
"Get inside!" he shouted, jumping to his feet and racing to the console. "Donna, we've got to close the doors!"
But was too late. The Time Scoop rushed past her, trapping her in a horrible frozen after-image as it surged across the room toward the Doctor...
A dozen pairs of hands slapped dusty rhythms on their drums, filling the warm night air with their frantic beat. The sky above was a dark, bruised purple, laced with a streak of luminous pink, the last trace of the sun on the distant horizon.
Peri took a deep breath, smiling at the sweet smell of the cooking fires. She tapped her sandals in the dirt, mimicking the beat of the drums, and waved to the Doctor. He waved back from the middle of a crowd of eager children and made his way slowly toward her. The children clutched at his tan coat, at his fair hair. One of them plucked the celery stalk from his lapel (she still hadn't quite worked up the nerve to ask him about it) but he just grinned and nodded at them until at last he broke free.
He sat next to Peri on the rough stone bench and heaved a great, contented sigh.
"I think they like you," Peri teased.
The Doctor searched his pockets. "I think one of them took the TARDIS key."
"You don't sound too upset about it!" Peri said, alarmed.
"It has a habit of finding its way back to me." He beamed at her. "Isn't this wonderful? Tonight is the night the sky goddess, Iria, mourns the loss of her lover, who was ripped from her embrace and banished to the underworld for stealing diamonds from the goddess of beauty." He bit his lip. "What was her name again?"
"Beats me," said Peri.
"Anyway, that's what the stars are supposed to be. Iria was so devastated that she scattered the diamonds across the sky."
Peri was watching the drummers, marveling at the impossible speed with which they performed. Their hands were nothing more than a blur.
"This tribe will be extinct in a hundred years or so," the Doctor said sadly. "Sold into slavery or killed off by colonists."
"That's terrible!" Peri's eyes welled up with tears, and the Doctor threw his arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
"Life will go on, Peri. It always does. The survivors will migrate, merge with other tribes, but until then," he leapt to his feet and grabbed her hand, "we dance!"
Peri wiped her eyes, laughing as he pulled her toward the bonfire and the long line of musicians. "I don't know how!"
"Neither do I!"
All around them men and women and children in ornate tribal costumes were gyrating wildly, swinging their arms and kicking their feet in rapture. The drummers increased their tempo, and Peri was seized by a large woman in a grass skirt who lifted her off her feet and whirled her around in a dizzying circle.
"Mind the fire!" the Doctor laughed, catching Peri as she was dropped to her feet. She sank, giggling, into his arms as the world spun on a mad rotation.
"I think I might throw up!" she said.
He led her back to the bench. "That's why we dance first and eat later. Shall I get you some water?"
"Thanks," she said.
She gripped the edge of the bench to steady herself. Slowly, slowly, the spinning stopped and she could see clearly once again. The big woman in the grass skirt had hoisted an old man and propped him up on her shoulders, and Peri shook her head. A moment later the Doctor returned with a clay bowl of water.
She sipped it. "It's not all monsters and bad guys, is it, Doctor?"
"Not always. I have to remind myself of that sometimes."
She saw something then, glittering up in the sky.
"Look," she said. "One of Iria's diamonds."
He squinted up at it.
"You have got to be kidding me," he said quietly.
"What's the matter?"
The Doctor scrambled to his feet. "We've got to get back to the TARDIS!"
"What? Why?" She struggled to be heard over the drumbeat. "We don't even have the key, remember?"
The Doctor ran his hands through his hair. "Then we've got to run. We have to lure it away from the tribe!" He grabbed her hand and they bolted away from the bonfire and the tribesmen.
"Doctor, wait!" Peri screamed. She stumbled and fell. She looked up to see a spinning square of darkness rush over her head, honing in on the Doctor.
He threw a glance over his shoulder. "Peri!"
The darkness seized him. Peri screamed as he appeared, horribly distorted, imprisoned in the square, an expression of pain and horror contorting his face.
The darkness, the Doctor still trapped inside, shot back up into the sky and blinked out of existence.
On a cold marble bench in the hall outside the Delta Chamber, Eras Horan shifted in his decadent ceremonial robes and tapped a nervous rhythm on the floor.
"Give it a rest," his father hissed. He was pacing up and down the corridor in an endless march. "You're giving me the jitters."
"When do you think they'll call us?" Eras asked.
"How should I know?" His father tore off his elegant plumed hat and scratched his head.
"You think they'll call House Visan first?"
"No. I don't know." His father shook his head. "Maybe."
Eras leaned against the wall and watched him pace the floor with his hands clasped tightly behind his back.
"I wonder who they'll pick," Eras said idly.
"It doesn't matter," said his father.
Eras thought about it for a moment. "I heard House Salar picked some kind of macrobiotic parasite. It's supposed to be nearly invisible and capable of replicating thousands of times in one hour."
His father looked nervous. "You're eleven; you should know fantasy and gossip when you hear it. Who told you such a ridiculous lie?"
Eras shrugged. "Someone at the academy."
The Chamber door opened and a cleric in white robes stepped into the hall. He bowed his head.
"On your feet, Eras." His father returned the cleric's bow.
The cleric indicated that they should follow him. He led them into the Delta Chamber, a cavernous room surrounded on three sides by stands whose every seat was occupied. Opposite them, across a huge expanse of dark marble floor, was the Great Dias where the sixteen Councilors were seated. Eras had been in the Chamber before, had accompanied his father to dozens of meetings of the Heads of Houses, but those meetings were closed to civilians, and the stands had always towered over them, empty and somehow spooky as they rose into the gloom just below the incredibly high, domed ceiling.
Eras walked beside his father, his heart in his throat. There were thousands of people here, and every eye followed them as the cleric led them to the Dias.
"We're first!" his father mouthed excitedly as the cleric bowed to the Council, then walked swiftly away. A moment later he returned with a tall, gaunt man in gold and silver robes. He had a long face and sad, watery eyes.
"House Trenan," his father said, and he and the man exchanged bows. One by one the cleric led the Heads of Houses into the Delta Chamber. Eras's father smirked as the Head of House Visan was led in last, scowling with barely-suppressed irritation. He greeted the other Heads and then turned to Eras's father.
"House Horan," he said icily.
"House Visan," Eras's father returned, equally as cold.
When all six leaders had been assembled, the President of the Council, recognizable by her elaborate diamond headdress, stood and held her hands out in welcome.
"The Heads of Houses," she announced, and the Delta Chamber erupted. After a moment the President raised a hand to silence the crowd.
"We have gathered today for the opening ceremony to the most exciting and deadly game ever devised. After each House has named their Champion, the Time Scoop will drop the contenders directly into the Death Zone and the Game will begin. The rules are simple: the first Champion to reach the summit of the Dark Tower and defeat the Final Guardian wins. The others, if they still live, will be killed."
There was another loud cheer at this.
"Now," the President announced, "it is time. House Salar, please name your Champion."
A short, plump woman in blue robes addressed the Council. "We name as our Champion our own cybernetically-engineered battle engine, a warrior android code-named Project Aura."
The air before the Great Dias shimmered, and a blonde woman in a sleek white leather cat suit formed beside the Head of House Salar.
The android made her way down the rocky pass, stumbling occasionally on the loose rocks. She had been designed to function on almost any terrain, but the battle with the Daleks has damaged her equilibrium circuits, and her head swam as her body re-routed several hundred thousand nanobots to repair them. She clutched in one hand the eye stalk of one of the deranged beasts, and she cursed under her breath. She knew she should find a safe place to allow her body to fully concentrate on recovering. But she calculated that it could take up to three hours to fully recuperate, and by then the game could be over.
She had to reach the Dark Tower.
She threw the Dalek eye stalk off the side of the mountain pass and watched it fall. It hit the ground far below with a dry clatter. She processed the weight of the stalk and the velocity of its descent to calculate her current altitude, then determined that if she continued at her current pace she would reach the bottom in forty-seven minutes and thirteen seconds.
She gritted her teeth and pressed on.
A young man with red hair stepped forward and bowed to the Council. He wore dark green robes and a flowing cloak trimmed with fine silver thread. A long, angry scar ran the length of his face.
"Madame President, esteemed members of the High Council, I am honored to present as Champion of House Larin General Sontar, Supreme Commander of the Glorious Sontaran Empire."
There was an appreciative murmur from the crowd as the General shimmered into existence beside the Head of House Larin. Eras Horan bit his lip to keep from smiling—the thing's face looked like a baked potato.
Or a turd.
He buried his face in the crook of his arm, and his father kicked him, a ghost of a smile on his own lips.
"An excellent decision," the President said. "We shall have to restructure the Desert Sector to remove the Sontaran contingent, of course. They would no doubt have reservations about attacking their esteemed leader."
"Of course," Larin said, and beside him the Sontaran vanished.
General Sontar woke to find himself lying on his back and staring up at a blue, cloudless sky. All around him tall grass danced and waved in the breeze. The Sontaran squeezed his tiny eyes to slits and waited, holding his breath, listening. He heard nothing but the wind and a flock of geese in the distance.
"To your feet, please," said a voice from somewhere behind him. The voice was male, human, probably not a threat. Sontar struggled to climb to his feet, the weight of his armor making it difficult. Finally he faced the speaker, a tall man with a head of wild gray hair. He wore a bright coat, a frilled white shirt, and a cape. He smiled at the Sontaran, and Sontar fired a bolt of energy from his carbine rod. It struck the man and he hissed and wavered, disappearing in a chaos of static. A moment later he reappeared, still smiling.
"A hologram!" Sontar spat. "A cowardly ploy."
"You fired at an unarmed opponent," the man said pleasantly. "You disappoint me, General."
"Who are you?"
The man shrugged. "Merely a projection of the Delta Matrix, the program that monitors the Great Game. I will explain to you the rules of the competition and then I will disappear." He had a slight speech impediment, a lisp.
"Bah!" The Sontaran waved him away. "I know the rules of your little game. I played the original on Gallifrey, the Game of Rassilon. Tell me, what prize awaits me atop the Dark Tower?"
"A series of stolen and highly confidential Rutan battle plans. They will no doubt serve you in your war against the Rutan host."
The Sontaran pulled at the whiskers on his chin. "I hunger for real combat, for the thrill of the battlefield. For too long now I have been hidden away in bases and on spacecraft, continually plotting against the accursed Rutan, my conscious mind endlessly recycled into new clone bodies. It has been centuries since I have taken a life." He grinned. "Yes. I shall play your game."
"As before, you may choose one weapon to assist you on your journey through the Death Zone. I assume you will keep your carbine?"
"I would fight with my bare hands if I had to," General Sontar said, tucking the weapon into his belt.
"Very well. Good luck, Champion."
He vanished then, leaving the Sontaran alone in the vast and empty field.
The Head of House Entere was a dark-skinned man in red robes. He bowed when his name was called and addressed the Great Dias.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the Council, I name as my Champion the vampire, Count Peradin."
The Delta Chamber exploded into pandemonium as the fiend materialized beside Entere. The other Heads of Houses were screaming up at the President, who was banging her gavel in an attempt to restore order. Eras Horan cowered behind his father's cloak, peeking out at the vampire. It was a nightmarish apparition. It wore plate armor that once might have been beautiful, with its elaborate breastplate decorated with lilies and strange celestial symbols, but it had been blackened in the depths of some unimaginable inferno. Two glowing red orbs shone from within its steel helmet, which was topped with a dark plume the same color as his long, frayed cloak. The vampire carried a huge mirrored shield and a broadsword with a jeweled hilt. Dark blood had stained the blade, and Eras felt his stomach churn.
The President stood on the Dias, banging her gavel until the Chamber fell into an uneasy silence.
"This is an extremely disturbing and unusual decision," she said to House Entere. "I urge you to reconsider. The crimes committed by your Champion are infamous and evil, and he faces immediate execution if he ever returns to Delta Matar."
"I appreciate your concern," Entere said. "I have conferred with the Great Judges. They inform me that the Death Zone is neutral territory, where the laws of Delta Matar do not extend. Peradin may participate in the Game without consequence."
The President sighed. "Very well."
Entere bowed again as the vampire lord vanished from the Delta Chamber, and, although he knew it had just been a projection, Eras breathed a sigh of relief.
The frigid wind whipped his cloak around him, swirling flurries of snow across the vast white wasteland, yet Peradin felt not the slightest chill as he made his way toward the distant forest. It was a dark line on the horizon, still hours away, but he kept his pace slow and deliberate. He was in no real hurry. He would reach the Dark Tower first, he could see it written in the white sky above, could feel it in each blast of freezing wind. His eyes blazed with silent laughter.
He cast his shadow back across the barren field. The centaur was still far behind him, though he had gained a considerable distance since last he checked. The centaur would reach him before the forest, but that too was written on the wind. There was no point in denying these things, and so the vampire continued his journey, smiling as the wind pierced his dead, black heart.
"House Trenan," the President announced rather sharply, still annoyed with the disruption the Head of House Entere had caused with his revelation. The Delta Chamber had still not grown entirely silent, and the President gripped her gavel until her knuckles turned white.
The Head of House Trenan, the tall man with the long, sad face, gave a perfunctory bow and, perhaps sensing the President's impatience, kept the platitudes to himself.
"Madame, our Champion hails from the wild forests of the Planet Pallex: the centaur, Pilus Marin."
Eras gasped as the creature materialized in the Chamber. He had the lean, muscled torso of a man fused at the waist with the body of a magnificent brown stallion. He swept his long dark hair from his face and vanished.
Pilus Marin galloped through the snow, unmindful of the shrill and piercing wind that blasted his bare chest without mercy. He clutched his silver hammer, feeling its reassuring weight in his hand. As he drew closer to the forest, the other champion began to come into focus. A tall humanoid, he wore a long, dark cloak that whipped in the frozen gale. The thin, watery sun appeared for a moment in the canvas sky, and it glinted off the armor the Champion wore, and off his shield.
Pilus made himself stop and rest for a moment. His blood burned and his body trembled with adrenaline, the way it always did before battle. A few minutes of stretching and the centaur resumed his mad gallop. The stranger was closer than ever. Pilus wondered if perhaps he had been hasty in selecting the hammer as his weapon. It would have been so much more convenient, he thought, to have a bow and a quiver so that he might shoot the stranger through the back and into his heart. He had no qualms about such dishonorable tactics. He had no use for empty conceits like honor.
He swung his hammer, testing its weight, feeling the blood flow through his arm. He was now no more than a few yards from the man, and Pilus expected him to turn at any moment, but perhaps the wind and the helmet he wore, with its ridiculous plume, prevented him from hearing the centaur's approach.
And then he was upon the other Champion. He swung his hammer, brought it crashing into the side of the man's head. There was a flash as cold metal struck cold metal, and then the man collapsed in a heap on the ground.
The centaur roared in triumph. He pranced around the fallen warrior, raising his weapon high over his head. He spat onto the body of his enemy, kicked snow onto his corpse, and then turned toward the forest, his next obstacle.
He didn't see the vampire rise up behind him.
Finally it was Eras's father's turn to address the Council.
"Madame President," he said, "may I present to you the Champion of House Horan, the Time Lord known as the Doctor."
Eras watched as their contender formed beside his father. His face fell when he saw the tall, lanky man in the brown coat. His father hadn't told him who he had chosen to name as their Champion, but he had seemed desperately excited about it for weeks. The anticipation had nearly killed Eras, and now he felt crushed. This was their great hope? This...this...nerd?
His father was smirking at the Head of House Visan, who refused to meet his eyes. Instead he stared down at the floor, waiting patiently for his turn.
"A Time Lord," the President said thoughtfully as the Doctor vanished. "It is a fitting choice, considering the origin of the Great Game."
Eras's father bowed and turned to his son, smiling triumphantly.
We've already won, that look said, but Eras felt a cold fear grip his heart. He banished it immediately and glanced again at House Visan.
Only one more Champion to go.
The girl smiled at the Doctor and brushed her long blonde hair back from her face.
"I'm not her you know. Not really."
"I know," said the Doctor.
He had searched the rest of the cells and had found nothing, no trace of Donna. Another staircase had led him here, to a small room with a simple wooden table and chairs and a low bank of windows on one wall. They looked down on an empty courtyard surrounded by a high brick wall topped with barbed wire.
A prison, he had thought, and then he had seen her, sitting on a small stool in a shadowy corner like a child being punished.
They sat across from each other now, at the table. The Doctor leaned back in his chair and studied her. "Tell me about the Time Scoop."
Rose shrugged. "You probably know more about it than I do."
"I know that it shouldn't exist. I thought they were all destroyed along with..." He trailed off.
"They must've missed one," Rose suggested.
"I don't believe that. And why have you taken that form, whoever you are?"
"Should I try another?" And before he could say a word Rose Tyler shimmered and seemed to fade. She was replaced by a man with curly hair who wore a brash, gruesome costume. The Doctor groaned.
The Sixth Doctor furrowed his brows. "As I recall we were once quite enamored of it."
"Who are you really?" the Doctor demanded.
"An avatar," the Sixth Doctor announced. "I represent the computer program that operates and maintains the Great Game of Delta Matar."
"Delta Matar," the Doctor said. He shook his head. "I've never heard of it."
The Sixth Doctor snorted. "You wouldn't have. The Delta Project was highly confidential. Not even the High Council of the Time Lords knew of it. When the destruction of Gallifrey seemed imminent it was decided by President Romana that a systematic reproduction of the Matrix should be constructed at a remote location."
The Doctor's jaw dropped. "She did what?" He leaned forward. "She copied the Matrix? The repository of all the combined knowledge of the Time Lords?" He stood up suddenly and began to pace the room. "And it still exists? Here? Do you have any idea what this means?"
"Don't work yourself into a frenzy," the Sixth Doctor snapped. "Only the basic framework of the Matrix was reconstructed. Romana initially sought the approval of the Council for such an audacious project, but when the motion stalled she decided to proceed anyway, in secrecy. By that time, however, it was too late."
The Doctor slumped into his chair, the hope dying in his eyes. "So...nothing?"
"Like I said, the framework, the bones of the Matrix was successfully copied. It, along with several thousand volumes of Gallifreyan texts. When the Time Lords were destroyed the people of Delta Matar were able to utilize what was to them a piece of highly advanced technology. They also rather unfortunately discovered some of the more...unsavory aspects of Time Lord culture, including the Game of Rassilon."
"They've revived it," the Doctor said.
"That's right," said the Sixth Doctor. "Welcome to the Death Zone."
The Doctor drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "So what am I doing here? Where do I fit into all this?"
"How does anyone find themselves in the Death Zone? Someone selected you as their Champion."
"I don't believe this."
"You don't have a choice," said the Sixth Doctor. "The rules are the same as ever, Doctor. Play or die. The first contender to reach the top of the Dark Tower and defeat its final guardian wins." He reached into the pocket of his garish coat and tossed a key onto the table. He stood up. "You'll find the exit upstairs. The door should be unlocked."
The Doctor picked up the key. "So what's this for?"
"Oh, I don't know," the Sixth Doctor said innocently. "It's been so long since I've been up there. There might be another door. A hidden door, a secret door. Think about the rules, Doctor. Each champion is allowed one weapon, remember?" He turned and headed for the door that led back down into the dungeons.
"Wait," the Doctor said. "I have a feeling I already know the answer to this question, but I have to ask it anyway."
The Sixth Doctor crossed his arms impatiently. "Well?"
"What's waiting for me at the top of the Dark Tower?"
"You mean beside the ghastly final guardian?" He turned to leave once again. "I assume it's whoever is unfortunate enough to be travelling with us...you...when the Time Scoop was activated. Goodbye, Doctor, and good luck!"
And then he was gone.
The Doctor looked down at the key, his brow furrowed in thought. After a moment he got up and walked through the door that led upstairs. Why could he never spend a peaceful afternoon watching supernovas with a friend?
At the top of the stairs was an empty room. The Doctor crossed to the far wall, where a small door was set. He gripped the handle and pulled it open. A wave of hot air slammed into him, and he squinted across the desolate landscape. He appeared to be in a quarry. It stretched endlessly into the distance, its harsh, rocky surface broken only by occasional mounds peaked with burning red rims. Ash and molten lava burst into the smoky air.
The Doctor coughed into the crook of his elbow and closed the door. He looked around the room.
"Right," he said. "Secret door."
He walked the perimeter of the room, running his sonic screwdriver along the walls. Nothing.
"Plan B," he said. He held the key out before him like a divining rod, and immediately felt a tug. The key led him back to the exit, and the Doctor noticed a keyhole that he could have sworn had not been there a moment before. Shrugging, he slipped the key into it and opened the door. Instead of the barren, fiery landscape he entered a closet-sized room containing a single hovering holoscreen. The Doctor studied it.
Time Scoop, it said. Touch to activate.
"There is still one Champion to nominate," the President said. "House Visan, please step forward."
Eras's father scowled as Visan bowed before the Council. He waited until the Delta Chamber was completely silent, and when he spoke his voice was soft, barely more than a whisper.
"I nominate the Head of House Horan as our Champion."
"I'm sorry," the President said. "Could you repeat that?"
Visan pointed a finger at Eras's father. "I nominate Garrett Horan as our Champion!"
Horan wiped the Doctor's blood from his blade.
The redhead bent over the Time Lord, her ear to his chest. "Oh, God, you've killed him." She looked up with wet, red-rimmed eyes that burned with fury. "You bastard!"
She threw herself at him, twisting his wrist until he dropped the knife on the hot pavement. She bent and snatched it, and he leveled his Polar Cap at her.
A dry wheeze from the Doctor. Donna, her eyes never leaving Horan, bent and felt for a pulse.
"I'm fine!" He said weakly, clutching his chest and pulling himself into a sitting position. "Just give me a moment to recover."
"He stabbed you in the heart," Donna said.
"Yes, thank you. I was there." He studied the man standing over him. "You must be Horan." He brushed a lock of blond hair from his face. He coughed into his fist and winced. "You're actually who we came here to see."
Horan's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What, so you can pick me off on your way to the Tower? Eliminate the competition?"
"You can talk," Donna muttered. "Give me that." She snatched the Polar Cap from him and tucked it into her belt.
"As a matter of fact, no." The Doctor sighed. "Donna, help me up. That's it. Thank you." He swayed, and Donna caught him. The Doctor leaned against her, and Horan took a step forward. Donna still held the knife, however, and she slashed at him.
"Put that thing down!" The Doctor snapped.
"He tried to kill you," she reminded him. "Chances are he'll do it again."
"Not if he wants to see his son again," the Doctor said, and Garrett Horan sank to his knees and began to sob.
"Absolutely not!" The President whacked her gavel on the Dias despite the deathly silence in the Delta Chamber. "Your petty animosities have no place in the selection of your Champion, House Visan. I demand that you choose another candidate."
Visan smiled. "With all due respect, Madame, the law makes no allowances for immunity in the nomination process. No one in all of time and space is exempt. House Larin has nominated the Supreme Commander of the entire Sontaran army. The centaur is, I believe, a ruler as well. No one is exempt, regardless of his political stature."
"This is different! No Head of House has ever been nominated before."
Eras clutched his father's robes.
"I would like to protest the nomination of House Visan," Horan said.
"Of course," said Visan.
"It is not for my own well-being that I am concerned," Horan said, throwing the other Head of House a murderous glare. "Madame President, as you are no doubt aware it is the duty of each Head of House to select not only a Champion but an appropriate incentive for that Champion to ensure their cooperation and full commitment to the Game. I fear that House Visan may use my son to guarantee my compliance." He indicated Eras, who buried his face in his father's side.
"How am I any different from you?" Visan snapped. "What incentive do you offer the Time Lord?"
"He is my son!"
"Enough!" The President said. "House Visan, it shames me to have to do this, but as President it is my right. I hereby veto your nomination and command you to select another."
"You may only veto one nominee," Visan said. "If you block Head of House Horan, I will name his son as my Champion."
Horan paled. "Madame President, it is obvious that his intent is to introduce chaos and disorder into House Horan by leaving it without a Head and heir."
The President sighed. "I am sorry, Horan, but he is right. I may only veto one nomination, and if I do so it will be young Eras sent into the Death Zone. I must allow it."
The air next to Visan shimmered and a perfect copy of Horan appeared. The other Heads gathered around Eras and his father, offering their support. The projection vanished and the President stood.
"The Champions have been selected," she said to the uneasy crowd. "The android warrior, Project Aura. General Sontar, Supreme Commander of the Sontaran Army. The vampire, Count Peradin. The centaur, Pilus Marin. The Time Lord known as the Doctor. And Garrett, Head of House Horan." She smiled sadly down at Horan and his son. "I have sent the command to the Engineers," the President said. "The Time Scoop has been activated."
The crowd gave a half-hearted cheer that tapered off into silence as the gleaming darkness of the Time Scoop swept into the Delta Chamber.
"Good luck," Visan said sweetly.
"Pray I don't survive," Horan told him, "because if I ever see you again I swear I'll crush your skull beneath my boot heel."
He clutched Eras to him as the Time Scoop fell upon them. The President and the other Heads of Houses turned away as their silent screams were reflected and horribly magnified. A moment later the apparition had gone, and Head of House Visan held his head high as he walked out of the Chamber, aware of every hateful stare and every muttered curse.
A few moments after he had programmed the Time Scoop, the Doctor heard a tremendous crash from the empty room beyond the closet.
"In here," he called. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor. He had emptied out his pockets, spreading the contents before him, and was picking out the things he thought would be most useful. He reached up and pushed the door open, and he felt a sudden and unexpected twinge of nostalgia as he watched his former self pick himself up and dust off his coat.
"You again!" The Fifth Doctor said irritably.
"Hello!" The Doctor grinned. "Look at you, young and fit again—didn't I say that would happen?"
The Fifth Doctor planted his hands on his hips and studied his surroundings. "That Time Scoop was positively primitive. I have a feeling this isn't Gallifrey."
"Not exactly." The Doctor turned his attention back to the piles of junk on the closet floor. "I need your help. What have you got in your pockets?"
"Where are the others?" The Fifth Doctor asked, coming to stand in the doorway. "The last time we were captured by the Time Scoop there were quite a number of us."
"Just us this time, I'm afraid." The Doctor held a small diamond up to the light, then chucked it over his shoulder. "I figured you'd be the most agreeable about the whole thing."
"Lucky me," the Fifth Doctor said dryly. "Do you mind telling me what's going on?"
As he continued to sort through the mess, the Doctor explained about his meeting with the avatar.
"And I suppose I'm your secret weapon," the Fifth Doctor said. "How clever of us. Two heads are better than one, and all that." He joined the Doctor on the floor and began to empty out his own pockets. Together they built a little stockpile of useful-looking objects: torches, matches, rope, a flamethrower, a bag of exploding smoke pellets, and half a pack of chocolate Hob-Nobs.
"What are those for?" the Fifth Doctor asked.
"Well, we might get hungry."
They split their makeshift arsenal between them and left everything else on the floor, then stepped back into the empty room. The Doctor closed the door behind them. He took out the key and put it in his pocket, then opened the door again. They were greeted once again with the stark, burning landscape.
"The Volcano Sector," the Fifth Doctor said. "Just our luck."
He followed his future incarnation through the doorway and down the hissing, steaming slope along a narrow path. It wound between great mounds of earth that spat bubbling magma and great plumes of smoke up into the black sky. They walked in silence until they reached a split in the path.
"Which way?" The Fifth Doctor asked.
The Doctor pointed his sonic screwdriver down one path, then the other. He shook his head. "I'm getting strange readings from both directions."
"Is that a sonic screwdriver?"
The Doctor handed it to him.
"I've never seen this particular model," the Fifth Doctor said. "I don't like it. " He handed it back and then produced a mammoth gold coin. "Heads, we go left. Tails, we go right."
"Are we really going to leave it to chance?"
The Fifth Doctor flicked the coin into the air, caught it, and slapped it onto his head. "Tails."
"I guess one way's as good as the other," the Doctor said, and he followed himself down the path. All around them huge stacks of smoke were being pumped into the air, and they began to cough. As they walked, the Doctors caught momentary flashes of each other's thoughts, like music heard from a passing car. The Doctor was careful to block some of the more painful memories from himself, but found it difficult to concentrate on both that and on navigating the path, which seemed to be rising at a steady rate through the foothills. The air was thick with smoke, and ash fell lazily, like black snow, making it difficult to breathe. They had to stop often to catch their breath.
"It could be worse, I suppose." The Fifth Doctor bent forward, clutching his knees. "We could be in the swamps."
"Your celery's gone all sad and limp," the Doctor teased.
"You know it's for my allergies!" the Fifth Doctor said indignantly. "We've all got our weaknesses. Mine just happens to be an acute sensitivity to—"
"Oh, shut up."
They crested another hill, and suddenly the Fifth Doctor grabbed his future self by the shoulders and forced him to the ground.
"Quarks!" he hissed.
They peered over a small boulder. At the bottom of the hill were five small robots.
"Oh, right," the Doctor said, smiling in spite of himself. "I remember the Quarks. Silly little things."
"The last time we met them they practically blew poor Nyssa to bits," the Fifth Doctor reminded him.
"I was beginning to worry," the Doctor said. "I knew we'd run into something sooner or later, some fiend. At least it's not the Daleks."
"If I remember correctly the Quarks expend enormous amounts of energy with each blast," the Fifth Doctor said. "They were always having to stop and recharge. We can use that against them." He found the flamethrower and the bag of exploding pellets. "Ready?"
The Doctor nodded, and his past self picked up a rock the size of a football and hurled it down the hill toward the Quarks. Immediately there was a series of blasts as the robots fired. The Fifth Doctor lit the bag of pellets and threw it down as well. The Doctors saw the bag land next to one of the robots as it waved its bulky arms back and forth to generate energy, and then they ducked back behind the boulder as an ear-splitting explosion rocked the ground. A burnt, smoking Quark head landed next to the Doctor.
He stood up. "I don't remember you...me...being so violent."
"Only when absolutely necessary. Come on."
They walked through the small crater where the Quarks had stood. The Doctor picked up a large metal cog. "Quark cog," he said with a grin. "Try saying that three times fast. Quark cog, quar quag, quag quag."
"I see I've matured rather like a fine wine," the Fifth Doctor said dryly.
They crested the hill, and there, in the middle of the path—
The Doctor grabbed the other's arm.
"It's the TARDIS!" he said.
The android leaned against a tree, hands on her knees, her head down and her synthetic blonde hair hanging in her face. The Daleks had evidently damaged more than just her equilibrium circuits. Ever since leaving the mountains she had felt a sharp, burning pain in the pit of her stomach, and her legs were malfunctioning as well, moving with a clumsy slowness she found supremely irritating. She looked up, squinting in the sun until her exhausted, overheated body rerouted a few pulses of precious energy into her ocular panels and a dark film developed over them, blocking the glare. The mountains had gradually given way to the gently-sloping fields of tall grass that stretched before her. So she had entered the Plains Sector. She tried to access the DeltaNet. The signal, a constant link between her central processors and the many communications satellites orbiting the planet, was gone. She had never been cut off from the DeltaNet before, and was surprised at how isolated she felt without the endless stream of data.
Never mind. There was unlikely to be a map of this or any part of the Death Zone, even in the infinite stores of knowledge on the web. That information would be confined to the Matrix, the secure, encrypted network only accessible by the High Council and the President. The Matrix was responsible for the mysterious programs that ran and monitored the Great Game and the entire Death Zone. Aura had attempted many times to hack into it, but not even her highly advanced processors could breach its defenses.
Perhaps though, just perhaps, if she were inside the Death Zone—
Still leaning against the tree, she attempted to access the Matrix. Sure enough, she was able to easily circumvent its internal defenses and was granted immediate access. She stood upright, her heart (the only organic element left in her body, and even that was encased in a titanium shell and connected to her processors by a series of tubes and wires) beating in her chest.
The Matrix was nothing like the DeltaNet, whose vast oceans of equations and scripts had to be manually decoded into words and images. It was different here, like stepping through a hole in the world and into another reality. Aura found herself in a quarry. There was a man standing several yards away, his back to her. He leaned heavily upon a simple wooden cane, and a light breeze tousled his white hair.
"Identify yourself," the android instructed. A quick flick of her wrist dropped a long, gleaming blade into her hand. She took a cautious step toward the stranger.
The man turned slowly to face her. He was a human male, perhaps in his late sixties. He wore a dark coat and checked trousers.
"You must be the android."
"How did you get in here? Are you one of the other Champions?"
The man sniffed. "Oh, certainly not. I am the Matrix, my dear, and the Matrix is me."
Aura studied him. "Why do you appear before me in such a ridiculous guise?"
"Hmm? Oh, this." He looked down at himself. "The form I take is of an old acquaintance of mine. And I'm here to help you, if you'll allow me."
"How?" She was still suspicious.
"From my perspective you have an inherent advantage over the other Champions, or most of them at any rate. They arrived in the Death Zone having no idea of what predicament they had found themselves in, yet you entered the Game fully programmed with your objective and a complete history of the event. Yet unlike the other contenders, you have no incentive, no collateral awaiting you at the top of the Dark Tower."
"It is enough that I have been programmed to reach the top, to get there before anyone else, to kill anything or anyone that stands in my way. I need no incentive."
"Very well, very well. But you will certainly recognize the logic behind accepting my assistance?"
"No. I cannot trust anyone save myself."
"Then why did you attempt to access the Matrix, hmm? What did you hope to gain?"
"Information," Aura said. "Maps. A bestiary, perhaps."
"An excellent idea. You're aware, of course, that the rules permit each contender a weapon."
Aura looked down at the blade, still clutched tightly in her hand. "I am sufficiently equipped for whatever challenge is presented to me."
"Your little skirmish with the Daleks almost killed you," the man said irritably. "It would be illogical to refuse my assistance, but I will not offer again."
He turned away from her and began to walk away.
"Wait," Aura said.
He faced her, smiling slightly.
"I have made my decision," she said. "I have chosen my weapon."
"Anything," the man said. "Ask and you shall have it."
"You, old man. The Matrix itself will be my weapon."
He thought for a moment. "Yes, yes. A fine choice."
"Take me to the Tower," Aura commanded.
"Hmm? Oh no, I can't do that, and I can't kill any of the other Champions. On that, my dear, I am quite adamant."
"Fine," Aura said. "Take me to the nearest Champion and I will kill them myself."
"So be it," the man said. "Open your eyes."
She hadn't realized they were closed. She knew then that she had left the Matrix, had returned to her body. She opened her eyes and saw, in the distance, a Sontaran plunging through a field of tall grass, a few yards away from where she now stood, beside a tall knotty shrub.
She crept through the grass after him, the blade gripped in her hand, and was only a few feet away when she stepped on a twig. It snapped, the sound barely audible against the rush of warm wind that made the grass dance and ripple, yet the Sontaran heard. He whirled, his carbine weapon in his hand, and fired at her. Aura dove into the grass and quickly covered the distance between them. He caught a flash of her white cat suit and fired again, and then she plunged her knife deep into his knee, shattering the kneecap. Thick green ooze burst from the wound and stung her hand. She twisted the blade, driving it deeper into the Sontaran until it tore through the other side of his leg. Aura swept the blade to the right, slicing through bone and tissue.
The Sontaran, grunting in pain, fell over, his severed leg still standing in the grass. Aura leapt onto the warrior, raising her weapon high over head, but he reached up and raked her face with his sharp nails, knocking her onto the ground. He lashed out with his good leg, connecting to her neck, attempting to break her spine, but it was constructed of a series of steel plates connected by a flexible mesh column. It was practically indestructible. Aura brought her elbow back sharply, and it smashed into his face, breaking several teeth. She was on him again, slashing and stabbing. The Sontaran fired another blast from his weapon, hitting her in the stomach, and she shrieked in agony and pitched forward. The Sontaran took advantage of the opportunity to pluck the knife from her hand. He slit her throat in one clean motion, expecting to see a rush of dark blood. Instead, the skin closed almost immediately, and the android scrambled to her feet. She planted her hands on either side of the Sontaran's head and squeezed with all of her strength, ignoring the knife that sliced through her suit and her skin. The Sontaran's eyes bulged, and then his head suddenly exploded in a hot, wet spray of green slime. Aura fell back, gasping, as his body deflated like some hideous balloon.
Aura looked up and saw the man with the cane standing over her. He was smiling.
"I don't understand," the Doctor said. "What's the TARDIS doing here?"
His previous incarnation rapped sharply on the side of the police box. "It certainly feels like her. Didn't you say the Time Scoop captured you and Donna from inside the TARDIS? Perhaps it, too, was taken here."
"It could be a trap."
The Fifth Doctor held a small key on a gold chain. "I suppose there's only one way to find out."
"Hold on a second," the Doctor said. He stood still, his head cocked, listening. "Did you hear that?"
"I don't hear anything."
"There it is again. A sort of...moaning."
The Fifth Doctor turned the key in the lock and opened the TARDIS doors. Something knocked him to the ground, and he heard the Doctor shout a warning. Without thinking, the Fifth Doctor rolled away, just as a rusted metal spike was driven into the dirt where his face had been half a second before.
His eyes followed the spike up toward this new challenger's face. It was another of his own, a deranged, monstrous parody of his Seventh incarnation. This Doctor's skin was a dark, sickly green, his eyes dull and yellow and ringed with bruised purple flesh. His teeth, small and sharp and brown, were bared in a grimace. His clothes were tattered and stained with blood and gore. Behind him, the Doctor was backing away from two more of these monstrous, murderous doppelgangers, their Ninth and Eleventh selves, each wielding his own sinister weapon.
The Fifth Doctor rolled away from the spike once again and scrambled to his feet. He slipped on the rocky path and fell against the TARDIS. The Seventh Doctor lurched forward, stabbing at him with the spike, and he dove out of the way.
The zombies were tireless. They continued their assault even as the Doctors, already exhausted by their trek through the rough terrain of the Volcano Sector and its smoky, poisoned air, stumbled and wheezed, dangerously close to collapse. The Doctor ducked as his Eleventh self, his long dark hair streaked with bits of bone and brain, swung a length of thick chain.
The Fifth Doctor, meanwhile, dodged a blow from the Ninth. "I wish we hadn't used all the exploding pellets on those ridiculous Quarks!"
The Doctor raised his arms to protect himself, and the chain lashed around his wrist. The zombie reeled him in, and he struggled like a fish on a line.
The Fifth Doctor managed to evade the other zombies. He ran over and held his flamethrower to the chain. The Eleventh Doctor roared with fury as the metal burned with a fierce white heat. The Doctor pulled with all his strength and the chain snapped. The Fifth Doctor caught him and they jumped out of the way of the two other zombies, who had lurched into the melee.
The Doctors ran back up the hill.
"What do we do?" the Fifth Doctor gasped.
The Doctor snatched the flamethrower and shook it. "There's hardly any fuel left. We're going to have to make this count." He handed it back to his former self and fumbled in his coat pocket. He found a bottle of hair gel.
The Fifth Doctor raised an eyebrow.
"This hair doesn't just happen, you know." The Doctor twisted the cap and smelled it. "Get of whiff of that. Coconut. Lovely."
The zombies were halfway up the hill.
"Is there a point to this, or do you just want to die with style?"
The Doctor grinned. "Under all that lovely coconuttiness is alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Highly flammable, keep the kiddies away, and now that I think about it it's a wonder I haven't had my head burned off, as close as we always are to things exploding all over the place."
"Yes, well, I'm beginning to see your point, and not a moment too soon." The Fifth Doctor took a step backward as the zombies crested the hill.
"I hope this works!" The Doctor squeezed a handful of gel into his fist and flung it into the Seventh Doctor's black, twisted face. The zombie pressed on, unfazed by the attack, swinging his spike. The Doctor danced around it, throwing more gel onto the other beasts.
The Fifth Doctor held the flamethrower to the side of the Seventh's head and immediately the zombie was engulfed in flames. The other monsters moaned in terror and tried to shuffle away, but the Fifth Doctor was too fast for them. He set them all alight and stood back, watching them beat frantically at their heads. They collapsed, writhing in pain.
"Not very pretty, is it?" The Doctor asked.
They didn't stay to watch the death throes of their doubles. They made their way back to the TARDIS. The Fifth Doctor pushed open the door, expecting to find nothing more than an empty box.
"Incredible," he breathed. "Have a look at this."
The Doctor followed him inside. "It's the console room, my console room! Brilliant!" He surveyed the huge circular chamber. Tall coral-like growths descended from the ceiling, and in the center of the room the time rotor rose like a glowing beacon from the console. "The Time Scoop must have taken her after all."
"I still don't approve of the new look," the Fifth Doctor said.
The Doctor ran up to the console and gave it a reassuring pat. "Shall we bid adieu to the Volcano Sector?"
The Doctor set the coordinates, and the rotor began to rise. It gasped and wheezed as the TARDIS dematerialized.
"Next stop, the Dark Tower! The exact geographical center of the Death Zone, if I'm right, and I always am." The Doctor beamed. "Hold on, Donna. We're coming for you."
Count Peradin was aware of the android long before her scanners detected him. Even her superior processors were no match for his finely-honed and incredibly perceptive senses, the heightened aural receptors that carried the cold mechanical whirring of her cooling units to his ears, the refined optic nerves that allowed him to see into the growing darkness as if it were noon on a clear and sunny day, the sensitive hairs that rippled as, fifteen miles away, Aura collapsed against a boulder.
Peradin knew that, even in her weakened state, the android posed a very serious threat to him, much more so than the vain and clumsy centaur. As he walked into yet another clearing he surveyed the trees that towered over him, all around him, seeming to creep closer in the corners of his dead eyes. He knew this was an illusion, but a powerful one, if it could give even him the slightest pause. He thought of the madness that this forest could impose upon an ordinary man.
The android would also be immune to its effects, of course. The vampire stood still, allowing his senses to wash over the world around him. Aura had resumed her trek, and her pace had quickened. She was now perhaps only ten or eleven miles from the clearing. He cast his shadow from his body, sent it through the living darkness that slithered through the trees until it found the android, making her way through the forest. It saw what Peradin could not: the gashes across her face, her clothes, stained with mud and a dark green substance that might have been blood.
And the man that walked beside her, a cane in one hand.
"We're not alone," the old man said suddenly. He stopped and peered up into the trees, past Peradin's shadow.
"When is one ever alone in the Death Zone?"
"What I mean, young lady, is that we are being observed by the enemy. One of the enemies." He pointed with his cane. "Up there, in the trees. I can see it."
The shadow vanished, and a moment later it appeared once again at Peradin's feet.
The vampire stood with his head down. Who was this man? How had he seen the shadow, and how was it possible that Peradin should not have heard or felt him in the company of the robot?
They were now only eight miles away. Peradin planted his feet on the forest floor and, clutching his sword and shield, stood to face them.
Garrett Horan wanted to die.
His stomach was filled with bubbling acid. His head was a pit of black poison that throbbed like the beating of some monstrous heart. His blood sliced through his veins like razors, gouging with sharp and rusted hooks.
And somewhere, he knew Eras was feeling the same. A moan escaped his lips and his eyes fluttered open.
There was a man standing over him.
"Help me," Horan pleaded.
The man smiled. "You look all right to me."
"It hurts...so bad..."
The man gripped his hand. "I've always disliked the Time Scoop. It's very rude." He hauled him to his feet, and Horan collapsed against him as his head swam and stars burst across his vision.
"There, there," the man said, patting him on the back. "Steady on. Can you stand?"
Horan swayed for a moment, then steadied himself. The pain was receding. He stood with his hands on his knees and his hair hanging in his face until at last only a dull pounding was left in his temples. He straightened up and studied his surroundings. They were standing in the middle of a road. All around them was vast, barren, unbroken desert. Above them, high in the cloudless sky, the harsh sun hurled its molten rays upon them.
Horan turned his attention to the little man standing beside him. He was a full foot shorter than Horan and wore a shabby black coat one size too large for him, and baggy checkered trousers. His black hair fell over his forehead, and his lined face broke out in a wide smile. His blue eyes twinkled with mirth.
Horan nodded. "Yes, I think so. Who are you?"
"You mean you don't recognize me?" The man pulled a long, thin instrument from his coat pocket and pressed it to his lips. He blew a few notes and then frowned down at it. "That can't be right." He tucked the recorder away and gripped Horan's hand in both of his. He shook it enthusiastically. "I'm the Doctor, since you asked. And you must be Horan."
Horan shook his head. "You can't be him. I picked the Doctor as my Champion, I researched him for months. You don't look a thing like him."
"No, I should expect not. This sort of thing happens all the time. Were you expecting a tall chap with gray hair and a silly shirt?"
"Who are you?" Horan demanded.
"Not him, then. Let's see...there's me, and him, and—oh!" The man's face lit up. "Teeth and curls!"
"Yes, that must be it. I did get around then. Or will do. At any rate, I am the Doctor, or one of me at least."
Horan took a step backward. "Stay away, whoever you are."
The little man sighed. "Eras did say you were a hard man to fool."
Horan narrowed his eyes. "You've seen my son?"
"Oh, yes. He's in the Dark Tower." The man looked around fearfully. "He'll kill him, you know."
"Who? Who will?"
"The Doctor. He forced me to come here, to try to convince you that I was him."
"Why would he do that? Surely he must know that I would recognize him when I see him."
"Oh my word! You haven't done your research very well, I see. The Doctor is a shape shifter." The man smiled sadly. "I'm afraid he's been manipulating you, Horan. Think back. You can't remember why you chose the Doctor, or where you ever even heard of him. He wanted you to choose him so that he could come here, make his way to the top of the Tower, and get his greedy hands on what he believes to be a magnificent treasure that lies hidden inside."
"If he reaches the Tower...I've got to stop him. And the others."
"The others are dead. It's just you and the Doctor. And he's coming for you."
"You've got to help me." He grabbed the man's coat and gave him a rough shake. "You've got to help me get to my son!"
"Yes, I'd better." The man eased out of Horan's grasp. "The first thing, I think, is a weapon. I'm afraid your Polar Cap won't do you much good out here." The little man dug into his pockets. Trinkets and baubles spilled out onto the road and glittered like jewels in the sunlight. "Here we go."
Horan's eyes widened at the huge hunting knife the man produced. "How'd that get in there?"
"Oh, don't worry about me. Here, take it. There's a good chap." The man clapped his hands together. "Now, I suppose I'd better be off before the Doctor gets here. He'll be very cross at me for not getting myself killed."
Horan nodding absently. He stared down at his new weapon.
"Maybe you'd better hide," the man suggested. "The Doctor never fights fair. You'll have to play at his level, I'm afraid."
"I could hide up there," Horan said, pointing to the gentle dunes off to one side of the road. "Then I could sneak up behind him and..."
"That's it!" the man exclaimed. "Oh, what a splendid idea." He shook Horan's hand once again. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Once the Doctor is dead you should find the Dark Tower without much fuss."
"Thank you," Horan said. He jumped across a small ditch that ran along the road and began to scurry up the hill.
The little man watched him for a moment, but when Horan had settled into his hiding place and looked back down onto the road, he had vanished.
"We're materializing," the Doctor announced, studying the console.
His Fifth incarnation was slumped in a chair, rubbing his eyes. "I don't suppose we have time to hobble together another K-9. Useful little thing." He stood up. "Anyway, I suppose we'd better hurry. The other Champions might be very near, and if they reach the top before we do...well, I'd like this Donna to see that I did have a modicum of style at one point in my lives."
The Doctor shook his head and threw the doors open.
The Dark Tower rose like a black, skeletal finger above them. The sky overhead was dark, the clouds the color of soot and heavy with rain. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a chill wind swept across the rocky pit where the blue box had appeared.
"It's bigger than the one of Gallifrey," the Doctor noted. "Bit Goth for my taste."
They closed the TARDIS doors and made their way across the rocks. Fat, cold drops of rain began to fall.
"We'd better hurry," the Fifth Doctor said. "We wouldn't want your hair to get wet."
They reached the base of the Tower and walked along it, partially shielded from the rain, until they reached the huge, ornate front doors.
There was something blocking their path.
"I could be wrong," the Fifth Doctor said, "but that looks like a head on a stick."
The Doctor cleared his throat. "Not...not just any head..."
The Eighth Doctor opened his eyes.
"Hello," he said. He sounded groggy, like he had just woken up.
"One of ours, then." The Fifth Doctor sounded dismayed. "The last time we were in the Death Zone we faced Cybermen and Yetis and Daleks. Now apparently we're reduced to fighting off apparitions with stolen faces. Our faces." He rapped sharply on the top of the Eighth Doctor's head. "Well go on, then. I suppose we have to answer a series of riddles or something before we can progress?"
"Would you mind not doing that? I'm not a door knocker. I have my own quiet dignity."
"Sorry about him," the Doctor said, offering his most charming smile. "You remember him, don't you?"
"Vaguely. A bit rude, wasn't he?"
"Just impatient," said the Fifth Doctor.
"I'm not talking to you," the disembodied head studied the Doctor. "I haven't met you yet."
"I'm sorry, but we've got to get inside the Tower. My friend...our friend Donna is inside. She's in terrible danger."
"This is a waste of time," the Fifth Doctor said. "Look, let's just go around him. He's just a head, after all."
They walked past the spike and pushed open the doors. They stepped into the dark entrance hall.
"Of course, you'll never make it without the password," the head called.
The Doctors exchanged a glance, then sighed and made their way back.
"What password?" The Fifth Doctor asked.
"You can't get to the top floor without the password. Everybody knows that. They've installed a rather nifty security system. You have one attempt to say the secret word, just one attempt. Get it wrong and...well, I dare say you'll end up looking a lot like me." He sighed. "Mind you, it's not so bad being just a head. I never have to eat or use the toilet, and I've got this lovely spike..."
"Please, we need that password," the Doctor pleaded.
"You'll have to pass the test first." The Eighth Doctor pursed his lips and whistled shrilly. "I'd find a rock or something, gentlemen. Something you can use as weapon."
The Doctor groaned. "What now?"
There was a strange whooshing noise from behind them, in the direction of the TARDIS. They turned and saw a tall humanoid figure made entirely of dull gray metal. Its face was blank, featureless, and it stood on top of the police box in a crouch, its head cocked.
"A Raston Warrior Robot," the Fifth Doctor said. "A Death Zone staple. We should have known." He turned and gave the head another sharp knock.
"What was that for?" the Eighth Doctor demanded.
"I just don't like your face."
The Doctors stood completely still, watching the robot. It had turned its back to them to survey the rest of the quarry, but they knew if it turned and caught even the slightest movement it would attack with incredible speed.
"If I can get back into the TARDIS," the Doctor whispered, "I could probably find something to take it out with."
"Easier said than done. It appears to have grown rather fond of the old thing."
"They're quite territorial," the severed head said conversationally. "They're programmed to annihilate any intruders into this sector."
"Yes, thank you, we've encountered them before." The Fifth Doctor turned to his other self. "If I can divert it for a few moments do you think you could reach the TARDIS?"
"I don't see any other way."
The Fifth Doctor nodded. "One..."
The Doctor took a deep breath. "Two..."
"Three!" The Eighth Doctor screamed. "They're over here! Over here, you great stupid lump of metal!"
"Remind me to give you another good thumping!" The Fifth Doctor dove out of the way as one of the robot's razor-sharp spears slashed through the air. It embedded itself with a hollow clang into the dark stone of the Tower. He heard it appear beside him, and he ran around the base of the building as a spray of sparks and smoke burst behind him. The robot materialized again, closer this time, and another hail of energy ricocheted off the Tower. The Fifth Doctor led the fiend around the structure and back to the entrance, ducking and weaving to avoid its furious attacks. His other self had vanished into the TARDIS.
"He's getting winded!" the severed head cried. "Finish him!"
The Fifth Doctor ducked again and ran back the way he'd come, attempting to confuse the robot, but he heard it appear almost on top of him. A spear sliced through his coat just above his elbow, and he cried out and collapsed onto the sharp rocks.
I'm finished, he thought, and then he heard the robot's muffled, mechanical scream. Its knees buckled and the Fifth Doctor rolled out of the way as it crashed to the ground beside him. The Doctor stood over them, a frying pan in his hand. He reached down and flipped the robot onto its side, and they saw that the back of its head had collapsed into a giant smoking crater.
"A frying pan?" The Fifth Doctor asked. "You took out a Raston Warrior Robot with a frying pan?"
The Doctor grinned. "I'm very good at what I do."
"I thought perhaps you were in there looking for more hair gel." They walked back to the entrance, where the Eighth Doctor was scowling.
"You're no fun," he said.
"The password," the Doctor said. "Come on. We passed your little test."
The Eighth Doctor sighed. "Yes, I suppose you did. Well, fair's fair. Goodbye, Doctors."
As they watched, the head darkened, his hair and skin slowly turning the color of wet slate until it was nothing more than a misshapen boulder. It cracked and crumbled and then fell in chunks to the ground, leaving a small slip of paper skewered on the end of the pike.
The Doctor plucked it off. "This must be the password." He tucked it into his pocket and they walked back into the entrance hall.
"I've been in better cells than this!" Donna Noble hollered, gripping the iron bars that separated her from the murky corridor beyond the confines of the tiny chamber. "Can anybody hear me? I've got a complaint!"
She pounded her fist against the bars in frustration and turned her back on the corridor. "It's no use. There's no one out there."
The boy in the corner didn't look up.
Donna turned to their other cellmate, a young woman in clean white robes. She sat on the cell's only chair. "Still not talking?"
The woman gripped the medallion that hung from her neck and offered it at a mute apology.
Donna slumped onto the rough stone floor. "I'm not gonna tell anyone if you break your sacred vow of silence or whatever." She found a small pebble and tossed it at the boy. It bounced off his shoe. "What's your excuse?"
Donna stared up at the ceiling and contemplated her rotten luck. At least when she and the Doctor were imprisoned—and that happened on a fairly regular basis—she had someone to talk to. Now, though, she was stuck with some sort of nun and a frightened little boy who wouldn't even leave his dark corner.
"It's okay to be scared," Donna said, trying again to coax something out of him. "I'm scared, too. I've lived in a state of perpetual terror ever since I met the Doctor, now that I think about it. He's a friend of mine. I'm sure he's involved in all of this somehow. He usually is."
"I know who he is," the boy said quietly.
Donna raised an eyebrow. "So you can talk. All right, now we're getting somewhere. What's your name?"
He shook his head.
"Oh, come on. Please? Pretty please?"
"Eras," the boy said. "My name is Eras, okay?"
"Eras," Donna said. "That's nice. I like it." She crawled across the floor of the small cell and sat next to him. "The Doctor says it's good to talk when you're scared. Tell me what you know about him."
Eras hesitated. "My dad. He's been kind of studying the Doctor for awhile."
"Okay, so your dad's a...what, fan? Scholar?"
The boy shrugged.
Donna said, "So the Doctor is involved. Figures. What's the last thing you remember, Eras? Before you woke up in here? A sort of flying black square of doom?"
"The Time Scoop."
She frowned. "You know what it is, then?"
Before Eras could answer, they heard footsteps out in the hall. Donna climbed to her feet and crossed the room, pressing against the bars and screaming, "Hey, I can hear you out there! How about some water, morons? Come here so I can tell you off to your face!"
A fair-haired young man in a tan coat poked his head through one of the doors in the wall opposite the cell. "That's really no way to make a first impression."
"Finally!" Donna said, crossing her arms. "Are you in charge of this dump?"
He stepped into the corridor and slipped his hand between the bars of the cell. "You must be Donna. I'm the Doctor."
The android brushed aside a low-hanging branch and stepped into the clearing, followed by the old man. They stopped when they saw Count Peradin standing only a few yards away, his sword drawn and the burning red orbs of his eyes bearing down on them.
"I take it that was your shadow I spotted back there, hmm?" the old man demanded. The vampire ignored him. He and the android stared at each other, each waiting for the other to attack.
The old man found a log and settled himself onto it. He planted his hands atop his cane.
"Who are you?" Peradin asked him, his eyes still trained on his opponent.
"It's not important who I am, sir, not while you're both still alive." He looked at Aura. "Well get on with it! The others draw closer to the Tower as we speak."
Aura suddenly darted forward, a white blur as she rocketed across the clearing and crashed into the vampire. Peradin stood at least two feet taller than her and was perhaps twice her girth, and with his ceremonial armor he should have been unmovable, but the sheer momentum of her attack sent them tumbling to the forest floor.
Peradin flicked his shield across the clearing, toward the old man, and then grasped Aura's throat and squeezed. She began ripping and slashing at his armor with her blade, slicing through the metal as it were silk. The android's flesh, so creepily life-like, gave beneath his grip, and yet her wind pipe did not collapse. The vampire hurled her off him and climbed to his feet.
They circled each other warily.
"You cannot hope to win," Aura said.
Peradin opened his mouth as if to respond, then lunged at her. She reacted immediately, but he had caught her off guard for the merest fraction of a second. It was all he needed. He thrust his sword through one of her eye sockets. Sparks burst from the bloodless wound and he twisted the weapon, pushing it through the back of her skull. Aura grabbed the sword and tried to pull it out of her, but he ripped it through the side of her head and she fell back, her head engulfed in blue flame, her limbs thrashing wildly at her sides. She pitched forward, swayed uncertainly on her feet, and then fell.
Peradin stomped out the fire with his heavy boot, the satisfying crunch of her skull beneath him bring an icy smile to his lips. He sheathed his sword and turned to face the old man.
He was gazing impassively at the fallen android. "Hmm. I didn't expect her to win, of course, but I didn't imagine she would fall so quickly." He stood up, wincing as his old bones creaked. "Never mind. What matters now is that we hurry."
"I should slay you," the vampire said.
"If you were going to, you would have done so already." He began hacking his way through the thick underbrush with his cane. The vampire followed behind.
There was something...strange about him. Why hadn't he heard him as he had heard the android? How had he seen the shadow?
Who was he?
"Well it's about time!" Donna said, trying to sound stern and yet unable to stop smiling.
"Donna!" the Doctor said, grinning as he swept her into a tight hug. Behind them, the Fifth Doctor led Eras and the cleric into the room, a small, sparsely-decorated chamber one level above their cell.
Donna pushed away from the Doctor. "Good to see you again."
"It's good to be seen."
The Fifth Doctor stepped forward, but before he could say anything she pointed a finger at him. "So is it true? Is this really you?"
"The Time Lords possessed a unique ability to regenerate dying cells," Eras said. He blushed when everyone turned to look at him. "It means that they could change their physical makeup at the moment of death to prolong their life spans."
"You've done your homework," the Doctor said.
"My dad's been studying you for a long time. He..." Eras hesitated, then shook his head.
"That's Eras," Donna said. She nodded toward the cleric. "Don't know her name." She leaned toward the Doctor. "A bit of an ice queen."
The Doctor turned to his previous self. "Take a look at this." He indicated a large holoscreen. "It's a map."
"The Death Zone," the Fifth Doctor said.
The Doctor pointed to a little red light in the center of the map, in an area marked Tower.
"That's me," he said. "And look over here." In a sector labeled Desert there was another light, and one more in an area marked Forest.
"The other Champions," the Fifth Doctor said. "Only two left."
"My dad!" Eras grabbed the Doctor's arm. "My dad was one of the Champions. He might still be alive!"
"Unfortunately," the Doctor said, "there's no way to tell which light is which contender. We'll have to split up."
"The forest is very near to here," the Fifth Doctor said. "One group can go on foot while the other takes the TARDIS to the desert."
The Doctor squeezed Donna's shoulder. "I think it'd be safer if you stayed here with Eras and—" he smiled at the cleric. "What did you say your name was?"
"Oh no," Donna said. "We've been locked in this bloody place long enough."
The Doctor sighed. "Donna—"
"Listen to him, getting all bossy again." Donna linked her arm around the Fifth Doctor's. "I think I'll go with this one." She winked at the Doctor. "No offense."
"Come on, you two," the Doctor said to Eras and the cleric. "Maybe she's right. We might be safer together. We'll head for the forest."
As they walked back downstairs, Eras informed them about the other Champions. They reached the entrance hall and stepped outside, where cold rain fell in a solid white curtain. They could barely make out the TARDIS only a few yards away.
"The forest should be that way," the Fifth Doctor said, pointing. "Good luck, Doctor."
"Same to you. And don't touch the desktop theme on my TARDIS!" He and Eras and the cleric dashed off, stumbling across the wet rocks toward the jungle and the unknown Champion waiting there for them.
Horan was still trembling from the adrenaline rush of his attack.
"You said you've seen my son," he said.
Donna had led them back into the TARDIS, where the Fifth Doctor had collapsed into the chair. Now he studied Horan, his breath coming in ragged bursts as he clutched his chest.
"We were locked in the Dark Tower," Donna said. "The Doctors rescued us."
"I don't understand," Horan said. "What do you mean Doctors?"
"Watch your step," the Doctor said, pointing out a carpet of sharp, vicious grass. "I've seen plants like that before. Carnivorous. Very nasty."
Eras jumped over the little patch, and the Doctor caught the cleric as she did the same. The hem of her white robe snagged in the grass, and immediately the entire bed of it began ripping and slicing , shredding the cloth into ribbons. The Doctor pulled the shaken cleric away.
"You're okay," he said with a reassuring smile. "Just the robe. It's okay."
The cleric buried her face in his chest and sobbed. He held her until she pulled herself away.
"Ready?" He asked, and she nodded.
They resumed their trek through the dense forest. Around them rain trickled down to the ground, but it was filtered through the tall trees and soon they found themselves nearly dry.
"We're lucky for the storm," the Doctor told them. "The forests of the Death Zone are quite spooky. Hallucinogenic chemicals are pumped out through tiny little jets hidden in the brush, and ambient noises and holograms are used to induce a state of extreme terror."
"But not with the rain?" Eras asked nervously.
The Doctor stopped to get their bearings. "Oh, no. We're quite safe, from that at least."
He smiled at the cleric, and she looked up at him, hope shining in her eyes for the first time, just as the sword burst through the center of her forehead.
Eras screamed and the Doctor pulled him away from her. An impossibly tall, armored monstrosity of a man stepped out of the shadows and pushed the young woman from his blade. She slumped onto the forest floor, a pool of blood trickling from her wound. The man flicked blood off sword and pointed it at them.
"Why did you do that?" the Doctor demanded. "That was pointless!"
"She was my prize," the vampire said. "A virgin cleric, to do with what I will."
"We came to help you. The Game is over."
"We are a threat to each other. Will you not fight me?"
The Doctor shoved Eras back toward the Tower. "Go back. Wait for me."
His eyes never left the burning embers of the vampire's eyes as he heard the boy crashing through the forest.
"That's very noble of you," Peradin said, taking a step toward the Doctor. "An empty gesture, of course. After I slay you I will find him and kill him."
"He's not a contender," the Doctor said. "He's not a part of this."
There was a rustling in the brush, and another man appeared beside the undead warrior. The Doctor's hearts skipped a beat.
"He's unarmed," the First Doctor said to Peradin. "Kill him."
"I never carry a weapon," said the Doctor. "I don't believe in them."
The vampire sheathed his sword. "It is a bestial pleasure to take a man's life in one's hands, and even I must succumb to my baser instincts every so often."
"You're an idiot, sir!" the First Doctor said. Peradin turned on him, grabbed his thin neck, and snapped it. He tossed the broken body to the floor.
"You don't have to do this," the Doctor said, backing up against a tree. "I've got my TARDIS, I can take you back to wherever you were when the Time Scoop came for you."
"It is not finished until I reach the top of the Dark Tower," Peradin said. "And now it is only you standing in my way."
"Not quite." The Doctor's eyes flicked in the direction of the voice. The Fifth Doctor and Donna were stepping out of the brush, followed by a short man with thinning hair.
"Where's my son?" Horan demanded. "Where's Eras?"
"He went back to the Tower," the Doctor said, and the man turned and dashed off.
"Donna, go with him. Make sure he gets there safely."
"As if," she said, crossing her arms and glaring at the vampire. "What's his deal?"
"Nothing, nothing will prevent me from reaching the Tower." Peradin leapt forward and closed his fist around the Fifth Doctor's throat.
Donna pointed Horan's Polar Cap at the vampire's head and fired. A bolt of white energy slashed across the clearing and sliced through Peradin's helm. He dropped the Fifth Doctor, who crawled away, his face a bruised purple, gasping for air.
Peradin faced Donna, unmindful of the Doctor, who had snuck up beside him. He pressed his sonic screwdriver to the vampire's breastplate. There was a flash, and Peradin shrieked in pain and fury as his armor fell from his frame, crashing in huge gleaming pieces to the forest floor, metal chest and arms and even his helm until at last he stood naked in the failing light, a skeletal figure, brown bones held together by taunt gristle and ragged strips of black, burned flesh. His face was a twisted, unformed mask of oozing blisters and open, pus-filled craters rimmed with dried blood.
The Doctor ducked as the monster swung at him, then ran around behind him. He snatched a piece of armor from the ground, a huge rounded plate that had covered Peradin's shoulder, and leapt at the creature, brining the plate down on his skull.
The vampire threw him off. The Doctor crashed into a tree and fell to the ground, his breath knocked out of him. Donna fired another round of tiny, frozen discs. They struck Peradin's black skull, already cracked from the Doctor's attack, and he hurled himself at her. He ripped the weapon from her hand and crushed it in his skeletal grip. Peradin snaked his hand into Donna's mouth, gripping her jaw and pulling with all his strength. She didn't resist his pull, and instead of breaking her jaw he managed to bring her to her knees, where she slammed Horan's knife into a long, sickly tendon that ran down his leg, breaking it with a wet snap. He fell back and she scrambled away from him.
Behind them, the Fifth Doctor struggled to his feet. He staggered across the clearing and grabbed the plate his other self had used, and he threw it at the vampire with all the grace and skill his enthusiasm for cricket had prepared him for. It struck the rib cage and the vampire's entire body shuddered, then collapsed. Before they could breathe a sigh of relief, however, the monster's spinal column began to writhe and slither across the ground like a serpent. It raced up Donna's leg as the Fifth Doctor dove to stop a disembodied hand from scuttling over to where the Doctor was still bent over and trying to catch his breath.
One by one the vampire's other parts began to move with their own eerie life. Hands and feet crawled like spiders, broken ribs flew through the air like spears, and Peradin's skull, the eye sockets still glowing with sinister red light, opened its mouth in a scream of laughter.
The Fifth Doctor helped his future incarnation to his feet. "We've got to destroy the skull!"
The Doctor nodded. His gaze fell upon the vampire's discarded sword, still in its elaborate sheath. He gripped the Fifth Doctor's arm. "I need you to distract it."
"Is that all I'm good for?" He shook his head and ran over to Donna, ducking to avoid the ribs. One nicked his ear, and another cut across his chest, ripping his shirt and coat. The Doctor watched him reach out and slap the skull out of the air as he ran by. Peradin turned toward the Fifth Doctor and Donna, and the Doctor hurried to the sword. It was partially buried under the vampire's fallen armor. He pulled it from its sheath and stalked over to the skull, unmindful of the ribs cutting his arms and legs. A battalion of other bones had formed into a haphazard homunculus and it stood in the Doctor's way. He kicked it and the bones scattered. The Doctor reached the screaming skull and plunged the sword into it. It gave one final shriek and then was a clatter as the rest of the bones crashed to the ground.
The Doctor threw the sword to the ground and collapsed into Donna's arms.
The Fifth Doctor bent over him. "He's unconscious. Come on, let's get him to the Tower." He eyed Donna grimly. "This isn't over quite yet."
"Sure it is," she grunted as they hauled the Doctor between them. "We've got the TARDIS. We don't have to play this stupid game any more."
"We've got to shut it down," the Fifth Doctor said. "It's barbaric, inhuman. The only way to do that is to get to the top of the Tower."
"We've got to wait for the Doctors," Eras said.
"They're as good as dead," said his father. He gripped the boy tightly, afraid even now to let him go. "There's only one way to finish this, and that's to get to the top of the Tower and face whatever's waiting for us up there."
"You don't know what it is?"
Horan shook his head. "Let's go. And stick close to me, I don't want—"
"Wait!" Eras said. "Listen—it's the TARDIS!"
He ran out from beneath the sheltered entrance of the Tower, and Horan reluctantly followed. The rain slashed his face and hair as he stumbled after his son, the slick rocks crumbling beneath them.
"Doctor!" Eras screamed. He cupped his hands to his mouth to be heard over the storm. "Doctor, where are you?" Horan came to stand beside him. "Dad, I heard it!"
A chilling thought occurred to Eras. He grabbed his father's hand. "What if it's Peradin? What if he's got the TARDIS?"
Horan pulled his son back toward the Tower.
"Hurry!" Horan hissed.
Eras screamed as the police box materialized right next to him. Before his father could reach him the door opened and a hand reached out and pulled Eras inside.
Donna hugged him to her. Horan stumbled in after him, and he nearly collapsed with relief to see that it was her.
The Fifth Doctor watched from the console.
"We've still got to get to the top of the tower," he said.
"You're crazy!" said Donna. She looked at the Doctor, who was slumped against one of the tall coral structures that grew up through the floor of the ship. "It's over! We've got the TARDIS, let's just get out of here."
"We can't," he said groggily. "It's not over until all the contenders die or one of them gets to the top. Isn't that right, Horan?"
Horan averted his eyes. His face burned with shame.
"I doubt we could leave even if we wanted to," the Fifth Doctor said. "They've still got the Time Scoop, and I don't think they'd hesitate to drag us right back into the lion's den."
"Or execute us for cheating," the Doctor said.
Donna turned to Horan. "But you could stop them, could tell everyone about what this place is really like."
"They know what happens here," he said. "The Game is an important tradition. So much of our culture and economy is based upon it that I doubt it'll ever stop. Political power almost always shifts to whichever House wins, former Champions become cultural icons, and the broadcast rights are worth billions of credits."
"Broadcast!" the Doctors shouted in unison.
"Of course," said Horan. "There are thousands, millions, of cameras outfitted in strategic positions in each sector, streaming live to subscribers all over the galaxy. The highlights are edited and released commercially as neural downloads. It's extremely profitable."
"Not any more," the Doctor said. "We're shutting it down, all of it."
"You'll destroy our economy!" Horan exclaimed. "Doctor—Doctors—I understand your anger. I'm angry, too, but—"
"But nothing," the Fifth Doctor snapped. "An economy based on kidnapping and murder should be destroyed."
"How?" Donna asked.
"They're using Gallifreyan technology," the Fifth Doctor said. "Technology they doubtless know next to nothing about, at least compared to me. Us."
"And it all starts in that Tower," the Doctor said. "We've got to reach the top. Whatever's waiting for us up there has to be defeated. It's the only way we'll be able to get into the program and shut it down."
"I'm going with you," Donna said.
"Not this time," the Doctor told her. He held up his hand to silence her protest. "I mean it. I need you here with the TARDIS in case...well, in case. Beside," he grinned at the Fifth Doctor, "I've got all the help I need."
"I don't like this," the Doctor said. "It's too...quiet."
They stood before a tall set of plain wooden doors, beyond which, presumably, was a staircase that would take them all the way to the top of the Dark Tower. Their journey had been eerily uneventful. The Doctors had peered around every corner with caution, had crept through darkened rooms, expecting to be confronted with every blind step by any manner of unimaginable horror. When their only obstacles turned out to be dusty furniture and a few barked shins, they had begun to worry.
Now they surveyed the doors that led to the top floor. They were both uneasy.
"It's playing with us," the Fifth Doctor decided. "It knows that the anticipation of an attack is much worse than anything it could have thrown at us." He smiled at his other self. "After you. Age before beauty and all that."
They pushed open the doors and the Doctor started up the staircase. The Fifth Doctor gave the dim corridor one last glance and then started to follow when the doors suddenly slammed shut.
He tried to push them open, but they were firmly locked. He banged his palm against the wood.
"Hang on," he heard the Doctor say, his voice muffled. "I'm looking for the knob."
"Take your time," the Fifth Doctor said dryly.
"There's nothing here," the Doctor said. "No knob, handle, anything. I can't even use the sonic screwdriver."
"Stand back," the Fifth Doctor called. He waited a moment, then took a step back and hurled himself at the doors. They didn't even shudder. He winced and rubbed his shoulder. "It's no use. They're stuck."
"That's why we eventually broke down and picked up another one of these," the Doctor said, and the Fifth Doctor heard the sonic screwdriver's familiar high-pitched shriek. "Now what?"
The Fifth Doctor sighed. "I suppose you'll have to go on without me. I'll look for another way up, although I doubt I'll find one."
"All right," the Doctor said. "Wish me luck."
"Good luck, Doctor."
The staircase grew steadily narrower as the Doctor climbed, and as it did its gentle curvature became more pronounced and he began to feel slightly dizzy. Finally he came to a small landing. A door stood slightly ajar. Thin, watery light from the room beyond spilled out into the stairwell. There was a word slashed into the grain of the wood, just over the doorknob.
It was his name.
Fear constricted his throat. Hearts beating wildly, he gripped the cold metal knob and stepped into the room at the top of the Tower.
"You," he said.
The man was tall and thin, his head crowned with a nest of dark, curly hair. He wore a velvet coat the rich crimson color of blood and a long striped scarf was looped casually around his neck. It pooled around his mud-stained boots. He turned to face the Doctor, his lopsided grin telling a different story than the weary lines under his eyes.
"'You'?" the Fourth Doctor asked, pointing to himself. "I'm afraid you must be mistaken."
The Doctor glanced around the small circular room. It was made of the same dull stone as the rest of the Dark Tower, and was empty save for a simple wooden chair that sat beneath the room's only window. The Fourth Doctor collapsed into the chair and stared out the window at the dark clouds. He leapt up almost immediately. "How terribly inconsiderate of me. Would you like to have a seat?"
"Why did you help me?" the Doctor demanded.
The Fourth Doctor lowered himself back into the chair. "Help you?" he asked with quiet menace. "Why would I help you?"
"You told me about the Time Scoop."
There was no humor in the Fourth Doctor's laughter. "I was a fool."
"You didn't think I'd bring another of my incarnations?"
"I thought you'd bring them all! I should have known you wouldn't think to do so. You used to be clever, Doctor."
"You influenced the nominations. You planted my name in Horan's head, never letting him imagine for a moment that he might choose someone else. He'd probably never even heard of me before."
"All true," the Fourth Doctor said. "Although I can quite honestly say I had nothing to do with Horan himself being nominated. The political machinations of Delta Matar are of little consequence to me. I must admit that it was an admirably devious tactic."
"What's the point of all this? Why am I here?"
"So that you can die, of course." The Fourth Doctor plucked at the end of his scarf. "More than that, so that I can kill you."
"You're a physical manifestation of the Gallifreyan Matrix—or at least a much less complex version of it. Why would you want to kill me, the last of your creators, the last of the Time..."the Doctor trailed off. His eyes widened with sudden understanding. "Oh."
The Fourth Doctor grinned. "The last of the Time Lords? You don't expect me to feel sorry for you, when it was your own merciless slaughter of your race that made it so."
"Of course!" the Doctor said to himself. He began to pace the room. "Romana knew that the war was almost lost, knew it was inevitable, and she tried to save the combined knowledge of the Time Lords, of all the Time Lords, but she didn't quite finish. Only the most basic framework was constructed, and that includes the Matrix's defense systems. You see me as a threat. That's why I'm here, that's why you want me dead."
The Fourth Doctor's grin vanished. "You destroyed the original Matrix, along with any technician or engineer who could ever hope to reproduce or repair it. It's only logical to assume that you would do the same to me had you ever become aware of my existence."
"No." the Doctor said. "I thought it was all gone forever, and yet more than the outline for the program survived, but thousands of volumes of Gallifreyan texts, you said it yourself. That's how Delta Matar knows so much about the history of the Game, why you couldn't just use the Time Scoop yourself, couldn't just bring me here in all of my incarnations like you so desperately wanted me to do, because they would know you were operating independently."
"As always, Doctor, you demonstrate a remarkable hindsight. None of that information can help you. When you die, your knowledge, your history, will be deposited in my memory banks, and you will no longer be a threat to me."
"Even at this most basic level, look what you were able to do." The Doctor came to stand at the window and surveyed the land below. "A meticulous reconstruction of the Death Zone, accurate to the last detail, a functioning albeit slightly primitive Time Scoop...if this kind of technology ever fell into the wrong hands it could mean disaster." He shook his head. "I don't want to destroy you, but I can't allow you to remain here. I can link you to the TARDIS, make you a part of her. We can protect you."
"Why would I trust you?" The air in front of the Fourth Doctor shimmered, and a holoscreen appeared. An image of a corridor appeared. It was the corridor outside the final staircase, and as the Doctor watched a Sea Devil appeared beside two Daleks, a Zygon and a small platoon of Sontarans.
"Find the Doctor," the Fourth Doctor commanded. "Find him and break him."
"You have to stop this!" the Doctor pleaded. "You must believe that I mean you no harm."
The Fourth Doctor waved his hand and the image shifted. Now they saw the TARDIS, a little more than a blue blur in the mist that had formed over the rocky ground. Light spilled out from the open doors, and the Doctor could just make out Donna, standing in the doorway and staring up at the Tower.
"Close the doors!" the Doctor shouted as his ship was suddenly surrounded by Cybermen, Silurians and one huge, hulking Racnoss.
"I'm warning you," the Doctor said. "If you don't put an end to this I will."
The Doctor felt something snake around his neck, and then the cold, hard, unmistakable pressure of a knife at his throat.
"Should I kill him now, Doctor?" The voice was strangely familiar and very close to his ear.
The Fourth Doctor shook his head. "Not yet, Leela. We need to make sure all possible threats to us are eliminated. The Doctor is our greatest enemy. He should die last."
"I really didn't want to have to do this," the Doctor said, and then, to their surprise, he vanished.
The Doctor fell with a crash. He rolled onto his side, the breath knocked out of him for the second time in an hour, his ears still ringing and his eyes burning. He could practically hear his Fifth incarnation's disapproval; he never had much use for Emergency Temporal Shifts, after all.
"Oh, but they're so convenient," the Doctor wheezed. He sat up and surveyed his surroundings. He was lying on a heap of splintered wood. He had landed on the table, the same table where he had sat facing Rose and his Sixth self.
He was back in the Volcano Sector. He could hear, could feel, the deep rumble of the volatile land. The long, low bank of windows that looked down onto the empty courtyard was a dark slash across the wall. Rain splattered the glass. The Doctor squinted, trying to see past the rolling clouds of steam that had formed across the yard. The floor beneath him trembled as a distant volcano erupted, and he turned from the view and bolted up the narrow stairs into the deceptively empty room above. He patted his coat pockets and felt a moment's panic as he searched for the key.
"Come on," he muttered, feeling blindly. "Beanie Baby, a tangerine...what's that?" He studied it in the dim light. "Some sort of dried flower...a few coins, a soap carving...aha!" His fingers closed over the key and he held it out before him. He slipped the key into the locked door at the far end of the room and entered the tiny space beyond. The holoscreen still hung in mid-air, waiting.
The Doctor took out his sonic screwdriver and pointed it at the screen.
"A bit of tinkering..."
The screen flickered and then began to hiss and crackle with static. The Doctor gritted his teeth as a high-pitched scream filled the room. Finally the static choked out and the noise died and he found himself staring at a black screen. A single blinking cursor throbbed in the top corner. He tucked the screwdriver away, cracked his knuckles, and began to work, frantically, sketching commands across the surface of the holoscreen. A few moments later he stood back and wiped his brow.
If he'd gotten as much as one figure wrong...
He shook his head. It was too late to second guess himself now. He took a deep breath and activated the temporal shift, vanishing once again into thin air.
The Fifth Doctor threw himself to the ground as the Dalek fired. The beam struck the Zygon in the chest, and it screamed and collapsed in a smoking heap.
"That's you taken care of," the Fifth Doctor said. He rolled out of the way as two Sontarans rushed at the Sea Devil, who wasted them with a blast from its round side-arm.
Chaos ensued. One of the Daleks exploded, and the Sea Devil's arm was torn off by the remaining Sontaran. They seemed to be ignoring the Fifth Doctor. He crawled over to the wall and stood up, ducking as a stray laser struck the wall above him. He slipped down the corridor and around a corner, his knees trembling and his breath coming in great heaving gulps. He heard another explosion and he risked a peek around the corner. The other Dalek had been taken out, and now the Sontaran had the Sea Devil in a chokehold. The wounded reptile was thrashing and twitching, trying to kick the Sontaran away. The Fifth Doctor was about to turn away when the ground gave a sudden, violent lurch. He fell to his knees as, around him, the walls began to tremble. Another shock sent him sprawling to the floor, and then he was thrown into the air. He felt like he was tumbling through space. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the sick lurching of his stomach, but a distant voice in his mind wondered if he would be ill. He couldn't even remember the last thing he'd eaten.
There was a loud crack as the stone beneath him splintered. He forced himself to get up. The Dark Tower was collapsing. The Fifth Doctor ran back to the door where his future incarnation had ascended. There was green goo and broken metallic parts scattered across the crumbling stone. He hopped over the dead Zygon and saw that the wooden door had splintered. Grimacing, he snapped the arm off a Dalek and hacked at the wood until he was able to climb trough. He took the stairs two at a time, his torn and filthy coat trailing behind him as he ran. He didn't stop when he reached the landing at the top of the staircase. He burst into the circular chamber.
"Leela!" he gasped, and she seized him, pinning his arms behind his back and forcing him to his knees. It was only then that he noticed the man in the scarf, his brow furrowed in concentration as he stood before a holoscreen. His hands raced across it as he entered his commands.
"Kill him," the Fourth Doctor said without looking at them. "I was a fool. I should have slaughtered the lot of you long ago."
The Fifth Doctor felt the cold blade pressed into his Adam's apple. Leela applied a playful pressure, drawing a thin line of blood.
"You're such a tease," the Fifth Doctor said, and then he was pushed forward as something slammed into Leela, knocking the weapon from her hand. The Fifth Doctor lunged for it, but it was plucked away just as his fingers brushed the handle.
He looked up and saw the Doctor grinning down at him.
"So you've returned," the Fourth Doctor said, finally stepping away from the screen. "We were sorry to see you go."
"You can drop the ridiculous charade," the Fifth Doctor said, climbing to his feet as his future self kept Leela at bay with the knife. "We know what you are."
"And I know you, Doctor. You are a liar and a murderer." He pulled a small gun from his coat. "It is because of you that Gallifrey is lost. You have damned the universe, left it defenseless and cowering in the face of the evil that spreads like cancer from the Gate, and so let you be damned!"
He pulled the trigger, and the Fifth Doctor squeezed his eyes shut and waited for death to take him.
"I can't see anything," Donna said, shaking her head. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called for the Doctor again, shouting into the heavy mist that surrounded the TARDIS. Beside her, Eras and Horan stood sipping mugs of steaming tea.
"They've only been gone a little more than an hour," Horan told her.
Donna sighed. "I suppose, but—" She stopped.
"What's the matter?" Eras asked, suddenly alarmed.
"I don't know," Donna said slowly. "I thought I saw—look, there it is again!"
"I see it!" Eras said, peering outside. "There's someone out there. Maybe it's the Doctors!" A face emerged from the fog, an empty metal face with two small black eyes, and he screamed.
"Get inside!" Donna grabbed the boy and shoved him back toward the console. "Both of you, now!"
"What is it?" Horan asked as she slammed the doors shut. She hurried over to the console and pointed to a small screen.
"Some sort of robot," she said, studying the scanner. Outside, a dozen of the tall metal men had surrounded them. More creatures were creeping out of the white void, giant reptilian men with flashing red lights atop their slimy heads.
Eras dropped his mug and threw himself into his father's embrace.
"Look," Horan said. "There's something else."
A giant shape came lurching out of the cloud. It looked like a man cruelly fused with some great behemoth of a spider. It scuttled up to the TARDIS and leapt on top of it, settling down and hissing at the other monsters. The room shook, and, to their horror, the door swung inward.
"Close them!" Eras shrieked.
"I'm trying!" Donna said. She banged her fist on the console, then turned and ran to the doors. She didn't want to see what new evil the Matrix had in store for them. She clutched the doors and tried to slam them shut, but they caught on something.
"Hurry!" Horan roared.
"Let us in!"
Donna was flooded with relief as the Doctors stumbled into the console room. Donna slammed the doors shut and leaned against them, panting.
"What happened?" the Fifth Doctor asked, looking around the room as if he'd never seen it before.
"Emergency temporal shift," the Doctor said, patting him on the back. He winked at Donna and dashed up to the console. "Who's been spilling tea in my TARDIS?"
"Emergency temporal shift?" The Fifth Doctor shook his head. "Never mind."
Donna joined the Doctor at the console. "Did you happen to see the giant man-spider on the roof, by the way?"
"Give us a minute," he said distractedly. He ran his hands through his hair, then grinned at her as the time rotor began to rise. Its slow, steady wheeze filled the room. "There we go. Have a look." He pointed to the scanner, and everyone gathered around to see.
"You're kidding me," Donna gasped.
Outside, the Dark Tower, ripped from the very earth, spun lazily through the inky darkness of space.
"I programmed the Time Scoop to haul it out here," the Doctor explained.
"But what about the Matrix?" Donna asked. "How is getting rid of the Dark Tower supposed to stop it?"
"Think about it," the Fifth Doctor said, catching on. "The Matrix's physical components, its databanks and processors and circuitry...they've got to be housed somewhere. Somewhere safe and hidden. And where else but in the Death Zone, in the Dark Tower?"
"I could have told you that," Garrett Horan said. "Do you just think flinging it out into space will stop it? The Time Scoop can be accessed from the Tower. What's to stop the Matrix from whisking itself right back?"
"Wait," the Doctor said. "Ah, here it comes."
On the screen, the Dark Tower exploded in a sudden brilliant flash. Huge slabs of stone and a swarm of broken bricks burst outward like a cloud.
"That," the Doctor said, pointing to a tiny speck at the corner of the screen, "is a little planet called Sontar. They're not a very hospitable lot. You've just seen the Sontaran idea of a warm welcome."
The Doctors shook Garrett Horan's hand. Donna gave Eras a final hug, and then they watched father and son walk up the steps of the Capitol building.
"I feel sorry for whoever it was that sent them into the Death Zone in the first place," Donna said. "He's in for a world of hurt."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," the Fifth Doctor said. He smiled at Donna. "So. You're the new assistant?"
The Doctor winced.
Donna crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.
"No," the Fifth Doctor stammered, "no, of course not, I didn't mean—"
Donna laughed and walked back into the TARDIS. "Assistant!"
"She's...something," the Fifth Doctor said.
"Oh, yes," said the Doctor. He smiled. "I suppose this is goodbye. For now." He held out his hand.
"Yes, I suppose it is." The Fifth Doctor reached to take his hand, then pulled back at the last second. "I have to ask this. I'm sorry, but...what did it mean that Gallifrey was lost?"
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Normally I would agree. But if something really has happened to Gallifrey, and if we can stop it—"
The Doctor shook his head. "No."
"There's nothing we can do."
"All right." He grasped the Doctor's hand and shook it. Then he looked around. "Actually..."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow.
The Fifth Doctor cleared his throat. "Could you give me a lift? I seem to have misplaced my TARDIS."
The Doctor laughed, and they stepped into the police box and closed the doors behind them.