Chapter Ten

So far, the Doctor and Seth had not encountered any problems in their attempt to escape from the palace and rally the citizens of Aneth against the Sontarans. The Doctor knew it would not be easy persuading a peace-loving race to take up arms, but there was little alternative. Superior force was the only thing Sontarans respected, the only thing that would persuade them to leave a planet alone. After defeating Styre on an Earth recovering from the effects of solar flares, the Doctor had informed the Sontaran Marshall to whom Styre had been answerable that the Sontarans' invasion plans had been captured and that, as a result, any move across the buffer zone by any Sontaran ship would result in the entire fleet being destroyed. This was only partly true, but it was enough to force the Sontarans to call off that particular invasion attempt.

However, with several Sontarans already on Aneth, the Doctor doubted such a bluff would work this time. No, if he wanted to save this planet from becoming another outpost of the Sontaran Empire, he would need the Anethans to help him. Somehow, he and Seth would have to convince them that the best way to deal with the Sontarans was to take up arms and drive the clone warriors from the planet; the alternative did not bear thinking about. Seth had said war played no part in Anethan tradition, but traditions could change and maybe it was time that tradition did.

Right now, the two of them were swimming underwater in the Lake of Silence, aiming for the surface. Seth was wearing the Hydrian breathing apparatus which the Doctor had given him, while the Doctor had utilised his race's ability to bypass their own respiratory systems, thereby reducing the need for oxygen. But they both needed to break the surface of the water - and soon; Seth's breathing apparatus was only good for half-an-hour and even a Time Lord could not do without oxygen indefinitely. Especially if they were engaged in any activity more strenuous than sitting down . . .

Fortunately, the Lake of Silence was well named, since it contained no monsters of the sort the Doctor had encountered in lakes on other planets. There were fish, but they were the ordinary run-of-the-mill type, not the sort that might make a meal of any humanoids foolish enough to venture into their domain. All in all, it looked as though the Doctor and Seth were going to make it to the surface without incident.

But, just he thought they were home free, the Doctor found his path blocked by some kind of woven mesh, from which no-one could escape without a knife or a sharp set of teeth - a fishing net. Seconds later, a muffled grunt beside him told him that Seth had also swum into the net. There was nothing either of them could do except wait as the ends of the net were brought together and they were lifted upwards.

Satisfied that most of the invasion plans were finally running smoothly, Vaak had returned to his ship to report to Stulve. "All is going according to plan, Sir," he said, standing to attention as he addressed his battalion leader. "The Anethan queen has accepted our sovereignty over this planet and her people have been enslaved. We will soon be able to start shipping the hymetusite out to the fleet."

"And what about the Doctor? Has he been eliminated?" There was an edge of impatience in Stulve's voice, suggesting that he was anxious to complete this mission and get back to the front lines as quickly as possible. No self-respecting Sontaran wanted to waste time with a planet full of pacifists when he could be leading his troops in a glorious battle. But Stulve dared not abandon the mission to Aneth until it was completed, even at the cost of his own life, especially if the Doctor was on the planet; the Time Lord had interfered with too many Sontaran battle plans already.

"Not as yet, Sir," replied Vaak.

"You were given specific orders that the Doctor was to be disposed of! Why have you not carried out those orders?!"

"Sir, an attempt was made on the Doctor's life. However, it proved unsuccessful." Vaak bristled with anger as he recalled how the two Sontarans he had sent to ambush the Doctor had reported the success of their mission, only for him to later find himself confronted by the Doctor, still alive and apparently none the worse for wear. Those two would have to be dealt with; failure was not an option where Sontarans were concerned. And, he told himself, they would be made to feel the full disgrace of what they had done - or, rather, what they had not done; there would be no glorious death in battle for them. Just as soon as the mission to Aneth was successfully concluded . . .

"Then you must make another attempt - and make sure it's successful!" Stulve barked.

"Sir, the Doctor won't just walk within range of our guns."

"He will," Stulve said levelly, "if he thinks his companion is danger." Think like the enemy - that was one of the first lessons Stulve had learned after he was cloned. And, when it came to the Doctor, it was easy to predict what he would do if he believed his travelling companion was threatened. "The Doctor is currently travelling with a companion?" Stulve added after a moment's thought.

"Yes, a male half-form. He is among those we took hostage to ensure the queen's co-operation."

"Then go and fetch him!" And, with that command, Stulve abruptly cut the communications link.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Seth found themselves being unceremoniously dumped on the deck of a fishing boat. Glancing up from where they had landed, they quickly discovered that the crew of this boat consisted of half-a-dozen men, the one who appeared to be the leader standing slightly in front of his crew. He was the first to break the silence which followed. "Looks like we caught some strange fish today."

The Doctor bristled at this remark; he had been called many things in each of his lives, but no-one had ever compared him to a fish before. "Do we look like fish to you?" he demanded impatiently. He picked himself up, nodding to Seth to do likewise. "In case you haven't noticed, there's a Sontaran task-force on this planet. I don't know what they're cooking up, but I can guarantee it'll be bad news for you. That's why I . . . we have got to stop them." He gestured round at each of the Anethans, before his gaze settled on Seth, who was just removing his breathing apparatus.

"And what exactly do you want us to do?" asked the leader, looking levelly at the Doctor and Seth. He recognised the latter as King Aigus's son, the one who had turned up around five years ago and was said to be the greatest hero Aneth had ever known, but the Doctor, whose normally curly hair was currently plastered to his head by lake water, was unfamiliar to him. "And just who are you anyway?"

"That's the first sensible question you've asked," said the Doctor. "All right, I'm the Doctor, but I'm guessing you know who Seth is already." The six fishermen nodded, finding themselves somewhat overawed at being in the presence of the great hero of Aneth, the young man who was said to have defeated the Nimon and freed their people from the tyranny of the Skonnons. "Good. As for what I want you to do, I was rather hoping you'd help me send the Sontarans back where they came from. You do know who the Sontarans are?"

"Beings dedicated to perpetual war," replied the leader. "And there's no way to beat them, so, if they're on Aneth . . ."

The Doctor scowled; perhaps years of living in fear of the Skonnons had conditioned the Anethans to accept invasion should it come. He recalled how timid the young Anethans he and Romana had encountered on the transport to Skonnos had seemed, how all of them except Seth and Teka had hung back uncertainly when they first met the two Time Lords. But, this time, the Anethans would not be dealing with Skonnons or Nimons; they would be dealing with Sontarans, a race the Doctor had encountered (and defeated) in the past.

"Rubbish!" the Doctor retorted. "Of course the Sontarans can be beaten! I've beaten them myself. That's the thing about military nuts - it's very easy to predict what they'll do." In Styre's case, for example, the Doctor had challenged him to single combat, knowing that a Sontaran's sense of honour meant he would have to accept. But the Doctor's main reason for taking on Styre had been to wear him out and force him to return to his ship in order to re-energise. With that in mind, the Doctor had had Harry remove a vital component from Styre's ship, causing the Sontaran to be destroyed by his own energy supply.

"And just how do you defeat a Sontaran?"

"Small vent in the back of the neck," the Doctor replied. "That's the one weak spot they have." But it wasn't an easy weakness to exploit, as the Sontarans were careful never to expose it to an enemy; indeed, Linx, a Sontaran the Doctor had met in Medieval England, had boasted that it was a strength, since it meant his people could never turn their backs on their foes. Ironically, it had been an arrow shot by a local archer that finally took Linx out while he was distracted with preparing his ship for take-off and had momentarily exposed this single weak spot.

There was a sudden commotion in the banqueting hall where the hostages were being held, as two Sontarans suddenly marched in. Without saying a word, they strode towards the High Table and halted directly in front of Adric, pointing their blasters at him. "On your feet, half-form!" one of them snarled, squeezing his trigger slightly to show Adric what would happen if he failed to obey.

Adric instinctively looked to the Doctor for help, only to recall moments later that the Doctor wasn't here, having gone with Seth to try and rally the Anethans against the Sontaran invaders. He was just wondering what he was supposed to do in this situation, feeling lost with no Doctor to guide him, when Meridda called his name in a loud whisper. Turning his head, he saw her nod slightly and, guessing she meant he should do as the Sontarans ordered, he slowly got to his feet.

The moment he did so, both Sontarans got behind him and prodded him in the back with their blasters. "Move it!" one of them snarled in the sort of tone only someone with a great deal of reckless courage would dare to disobey or question.

Adric, however, did have a great deal of reckless courage, a trait which would ultimately have fateful consequences, though not before he had seen a lot more of N-Space. "Why?" he asked, turning to look at the Sontarans, trying not to flinch at the sight of their blasters. "Where are you taking me?"

The only answer he received was a sudden shock from the blaster held by one of the Sontarans, who had adjusted its setting to stun rather than maim or kill. "Do not ask questions!" the Sontaran barked, as Adric cried out in pain. Meridda could do nothing but watch helplessly and hold Sopea so that she could not see what was happening; if she tried to interfere, she was sure to get the same - or worse. Besides, what could she do to help when she had a young child to look after? "I got my orders from Vaak and he got his orders from our battalion leader," the Sontaran went on. "So, remember, resistance is futile."

Adric forced himself to suppress a smile. Even now, the Doctor and Seth must be organising resistance among the Anethans.

Adric might have been slightly less optimistic had he known that the only people the Doctor and Seth had encountered so far were six fishermen who had no experience of war and, what was more, seemed willing to let their planet be conquered. "Doctor, we've been talking for the last half-hour," their leader was saying. "And the answer is still the same. We Anethans are not a warlike people. None of us have taken up arms in the past and none of us have any intention of doing so now." Behind him, his five crew-mates murmured in agreement.

The Doctor sighed, realising this was going to be a lot harder than he thought. And every second he wasted here brought the Sontarans one second closer to completing their mission, one second closer to the time when Aneth would be of no further use to them. "Listen . . ." The Doctor paused, realising he did not even know the leader's name.

"Neron," replied the leader, guessing the meaning of the pause.

"Listen, Neron," the Doctor said, "you Anethans are known for being a peace-loving race, correct?" Then, without waiting for a reply, he hurried on, hoping his words would be enough to convince Neron and his men to help him. "Which is perfectly fine as long as everyone else feels that way. But the Sontarans . . . Different kettle of fish altogether. All they're interested in is gaining an advantage in their endless war against the Rutans - and they don't care what they do to get it." He looked at Neron seriously, silently willing the Anethan to make the right decision. "You remember what it was like before? Living in fear of the Skonnons? Being forced to send your young people as tribute?"

Neron nodded slowly. "We had no choice. The Skonnons and the Nimon would have destroyed us had we not obeyed."

"Ha!" the Doctor scoffed, becoming exasperated at Neron's passive acceptance of his people's fate. "The Nimons would have destroyed all life in the Universe if they hadn't been stopped. You don't know them like Seth and I do. They were parasites who swarmed from planet to planet, bleeding each one dry . . ." He paused, recalling what Romana had told him about what she found on Crinoth when she was accidentally transported there, how the Nimons had killed all the Crinothians except a man named Sezom who had sacrificed himself to help her escape. "Believe me, the Universe is a lot better off without them. But," he added grimly, "we're not dealing with Nimons this time, we're dealing with Sontarans. And, with or without your help, I intend to put a stop to them."

"And how exactly do you expect us to help you?" asked Neron, gesturing round at his crew. "We're simple fishermen who know nothing of creatures like the Sontarans."

"Then you'd better learn - and fast. Because, once the Sontarans have what they came here for, this planet will mean nothing to them. So they'll destroy it or turn it into one of their clone worlds - either way, I wouldn't fancy sticking around to see the outcome."

Seth had remained silent throughout, wondering if the Doctor would bring up that stuff about him being the great hero of Aneth, a title he had never asked for but, it seemed, he was stuck with for the rest of his life. But he suddenly felt compelled to speak out, though he was not entirely sure why. "Please," he said, "if you won't fight for yourselves, fight for those you love. I don't care what happens to me, but I have a wife and a small daughter. And, unless we stop the Sontarans . . ." He paused, thinking of how Teka was currently pretending to co-operate with the invaders. There was no way she could keep up the pretence forever; the Sontarans were bound to catch on sooner or later and, when that happened, Teka would be in serious trouble.

"Look," Seth said, trying to sound as patient as he could. "King Aigus is dead. Teka is pretending to work with the Sontarans, but they're bound to find out it's all an act. Would you have them kill two monarchs in a row?" As he spoke, he realised he did not know how he would cope if Teka was killed. Teka, who had always had such faith in him, who had been certain that he would defeat the Nimon. He recalled the overwhelming fear he had felt when he lost her in the complex on Skonnos, the dreadful moment when he found her and the others sent as part of the final tribute in the Nimon's "larder". He thought he had lost her then, but the Doctor had assured him that she and the others were simply paralysed.

"Well done, Seth," said the Doctor. "Spoken like a true hero of Aneth. I just hope it will convince them," he added, knowing from experience that words were not always enough. But, if he and Seth could get Neron and his band of fishermen onside, the eight of them might be able to break back into the palace and free those the Sontarans held hostage. And that would provide him with a ready-made army. The Doctor did not like the idea of using violence if it could be avoided, but, when it came to races like the Sontarans, there was little choice.

The six fishermen gathered in a huddle and began whispering together, before Neron emerged to announce their decision. "Very well, Doctor," he said. "We are all agreed. Our people have lived in fear for long enough and, while we wish we didn't have to . . ."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the Doctor said, waving his hand impatiently. "Be a good chap and come to the point. I haven't got all century, you know."

" . . . we know what must be done," Neron continued, ignoring the interruption. "Therefore, we will help you drive the Sontarans from Aneth."