12 October 2018

It was a Mark VI combat mechanical and it had been hunting them since daybreak. The machine had pursued them through the Forest of Desolation, across the Burning Grounds, into the Valley of Agonies, and to this place. Now the chase was all but over.

The Mark VI adjusted its stealth settings and edged closer to the cave. Inside, the four humans had chosen to make their last stand. During the long pursuit, the machine had assessed each of their capabilities, finding none to be a match for its own.

It ran through their profiles now.

First, the younger male human, designation Ryan.  Minimal offensive capabilities.  Unar­moured. Unlike the Mark VI’s active phlebotinum armour, his cellulose­ based clothing provided no effective protection. Similarly, although his rubber­ and ­plastic shoes offered traction, they were no match for its military­ grade tank tracks.

The machine accessed the next profile: the younger female human, designation Yaz. Her actions during the pursuit had demonstrated evidence of military or law­ enforcement training, however, it was clear that she lacked battle experience. The Mark VI, meanwhile, had seen action across the known galaxy in the service of the Fleet before it had been drafted to the Citadel. She posed no threat.

Next, the older male human, designation Graham. Eyesight fading, bone density weak, hairline receding. He would be crushed as easily as a bugbeast of Zeta Draconis. It took a microsecond to dismiss him.

And, finally, the other female human. The Mark VI had obtained little intelligence about her during the pursuit besides the fact that she was clearly the group’s leader.

Before launching the assault that would inevitably lead to their capture, the Mark VI took a moment to scan the humans one final time. Its finely tuned audio­ detection circuits picked up a snatch of conversation.

‘I wouldn’t call it a giant robot,’ said the female leader. ‘Don’t exaggerate, Graham.’

‘Well, excuse me, Doc. I didn’t know there was a minimum height requirement.’

The Mark VI analysed Graham’s voice. The waveform suggested anxiety, along with the characteristic known as sarcasm.

‘All I know,’ he went on, ‘is that we’re being chased by a bloomin’ great metal monster.’

‘Actually, it’s not metal,’ said the woman the Mark VI now knew to be designated Doc. ‘The shell is some kind of composite material. Ray­ shielded, but not invulnerable. Anyway, I’ve seen everything I need to. That’s enough running around for one day.’

‘What are you talking about?’ said Graham. ‘You planned this, didn’t you?’ said Ryan. ‘I knew it!’

‘You mean I didn’t have to knacker myself running all over this planet?’ Graham protested. ‘How else was I supposed to figure out what we were up against?’ said Doc. ‘Had to give our friend a proper run­out.’

The Mark VI paused. Its audio scan had detected something unexpected.

Ba‑doom. Ba‑doom.

Overlapping heartbeats, emanating from Doc. The machine drew the only logical conclusion: she had two hearts. It made the necessary correction to the profiles. Three humans. One unknown.

Identify.

The Mark VI connected to the Fleet network and sent its query winging back to the Citadel’s supercomputers, accessing the knowledge of 10,000 star systems. Four milliseconds later, it had an answer.

Species: Time Lord.

Origin: Gallifrey.

Designation: The Doctor.

A list of the most dangerous species in the universe scrolled across the Mark VI’s display: Sontarans, Cybermen, the Daleks of Skaro. According to the database, they had all fallen to this Doctor’s sword. Not that the machine could actually identify a sword – or indeed any kind of weapon at all – on her person.

The Mark VI hesitated.

Until that moment, every factor had pointed to an overwhelming victory in its favour, but this new information prompted it to inject a note of caution into its plan. Rather than risk close combat with a being so obviously lethal, the machine adjusted its tactics, choosing instead to launch a ranged attack. Selecting its primary armament – a plasma­beam rifle built into its right arm – the Mark VI activated the laser rangefinder and calculated a firing solution.

‘No good,’ said Yaz, returning from the back of the cave. ‘It’s a dead end.’ She pointed to the cave’s mouth. ‘That’s our only way out.’

‘Are you sure that robot thing’s even still out there?’ asked Ryan, squinting into the fast­ fading daylight. ‘Maybe we gave it the slip.’

With a noise like a great gulp, the interior of the cave suddenly bloomed the colour of storm­ light. The air sizzled and a burning smell filled the small space, as Ryan scrambled frantically towards the back of the cave. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the boulder he had been sheltering behind was split cleanly down the middle, as neatly sliced as a loaf of bread.

‘And I suppose that isn’t a death ray,’ grumbled Graham, brushing stone fragments out of his hair.

‘Oh, that’s definitely a death ray.’ The Doctor grinned.

Ryan and Yaz shared a look.

‘I’ve seen that grin before,’ Ryan whispered. ‘On Proxima Ceti, just before she outwitted those carnivorous chessmen.’

Yaz nodded. ‘And on that derelict space station, when she worked out how to defuse the temporal anomaly bomb with three seconds left on the countdown.’

‘Couldn’t have done it without you,’ the Doctor said, striding past them.

Ryan hadn’t travelled with the Doctor for long, but even in their short time together he had seen her make impossible escapes more times than Harry Houdini – and one time he’d even seen her escape from Houdini. Well, not the real Houdini, but 200 evil cyborg clones of the great escapologist in the subways of New York City in 1904. But that was another story. What, he wondered as he watched her march towards the cave entrance, could she possibly have planned now?

The Doctor stopped beneath the stone arch at the cave’s mouth. This planet had a short day-night cycle, and the sun was already low on the horizon. The last of its slanting rays cast a golden aura around the Doctor’s silhouette. Standing there, glowing, she looked invincible – perhaps even immortal.

She raised both hands.

‘We surrender!’ she called out.

The Citadel rose twelve kilometres out of the Blasted Plains, a shining tower of iridanium steel. It was protected from every kind of weapon in the known galaxies – atomic, plasma, psionic and more – and from the endless buffeting of the tropospheric winds by force­ field technology developed in its labs.

The builders and occupiers of this tower were the Fleet, a space­faring humanoid race who, having devastated their own world in a series of wars, were hungry to acquire new ones. The first ninety­-seven levels of the Citadel were administrative offices. No one considered paperwork before embarking on a galactic war – no one, that is, except the Fleet. Above Admin lay Research and Development (levels ninety­eight through 112), Communications, Planning, Medical and, finally, at the pinnacle, the Space Lord himself.

From his throne room in the sky, the Space Lord waited for the strangers. News of their capture had come in over the network barely half a cycle earlier, and they would be brought into his presence shortly. Curious to observe their arrival, he watched through the great curved window set high above the Blasted Plains, despite the fact that he knew he was too high up to spot them at the Citadel doors,  even with the famed eyesight of his kind.

From his spot here in the highest room in the tower, he could see more if he looked up than if he gazed down. Raising his head, he saw the flash of laser­ welding equipment from the busy shipyards in low­ orbit. The construction of three new dreadnoughts was nearing completion, and one of them would serve as his personal flagship in the upcoming attack on the dozing inhabitants of the mineral­rich Avolantis System.

Turning away from the window, he returned to his throne and surveyed the room in preparation for his audience. From the polished coal­ black floor covering the area of two carrier decks to the triple­ height doors fashioned from the hull of a captured Frost Pirate warship, it was a room designed to intimidate all who entered. The throne itself was unremarkable enough, crafted from the most precious metals in the galaxy and studded with jewels – what you’d expect.

It was the twin dorsal fins flanking the throne that really made an impression. More than ten metres high, they had been stripped from a pair of now­ extinct megalovore sharks that once swam in the Outland Sea (also gone – boiled away during the Ice Cap Wars).

From the doors to the dais on which the throne sat ran a strip of red carpet lined with three two­-metre­high glass cylinders on either side. It was only as visitors were guided along the path to kneel before the throne that they realised the true nature of the six glass cylinders. The First Space Lord of the Admiralty allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he recalled the many horrified reactions he had witnessed over the years. The cylinders were more than just ornaments; they were bottle prisons, collecting jars in which he kept his vanquished enemies alive for his amusement. Souvenirs of war. The miserable prisoners were crammed in so tightly that they had barely any room to turn their heads – and, in the case of the three-­headed Hydran of Polaris Alpha, no room at all.

Five of the six jars were occupied. By the end of the day the sixth would be too. The Space Lord grimaced. That woman had been a thorn in his side ever since she had shown up with her three companions in that ridiculous (but intriguing) vessel.

Casting a glance over his shoulder into the corner of the room behind him, he saw the ridiculous vessel in question. An insignificant blue box with no obvious propulsion device and no visible weaponry, it was surrounded by a team of his finest technicians. They were all stroking their chins in puzzlement. The hiss of a plasma­ cutter filled the air as they made yet another attempt to penetrate the exterior. The flame of the cutter died, and its operator flipped up her mask and shook her head. Not even a scorch­-mark.

It had no force field, and yet the box had resisted every attempt to gain entry. This only made the Space Lord more eager to understand its construction. The engineering specifications of its impenetrable hull would be invaluable to his navy. He intended to extract its secrets, either from the box or from its captain.

The throne room doors swung open on silent hinges, and he turned to face her. There she stood, at the head of her squad. The Doctor.

They hardly look like special forces sent to disrupt my activities, the Space Lord thought, but that may well be the intention.

His enemies were numerous and clever.

The Mark VI combat mechanical that had captured the group now herded them along the processional path. Once again, the Space Lord was pleased by the reaction to his bottle­ prisons. The young human male seemed particularly shaken. How gratifying. The Space Lord’s pleasure was tempered, however, by the Doctor.

She stopped next to the Hydran’s prison and tapped on the glass. ‘Have you out of there in a mo,’ she said, then – for no reason that the Space Lord could comprehend – she raised both thumbs.

He experienced a sensation he hadn’t felt for a very long time. It was so unusual that it took him by surprise, an uncharacteristic shudder of unease that made him glad of the presence of his elite guard. Ranks of them lined the throne room. Drawn from his most feared marine commando unit, they stood to attention in their massive powered exoskeleton suits, blast­ visors covering their faces, bulky multi­barrelled rifles gripped in enhanced gloved hands.

But that was all mostly for show. The new Mark VI was the real threat: a robotic soldier, fearless, tireless, faithful and invincible. Just one could defeat an entire army of space marines. The Space Lord had five thousand of them! Soon his enemies would be crushed beneath their treads.

The prisoners were lined up before him and forced to pay their respects on their knees by the butt of a rifle. The Doctor got to her feet and took a step towards the throne. There was the instant click‑clack of many rifles being raised, but a flick of the Space Lord’s finger caused his marines to lower their weapons. He shook off his earlier apprehension. What possible harm could come to him here in the Citadel, the heart of the Fleet empire and the most secure building in the galaxy? The thought that he needed protecting from her was amusing. He was the one who made others cower.

It was time to inform these intruders of their terrible fate. The Space Lord decided to go with his favourite speech – the one he’d given last month to the remnants of the government of Murgon III after he’d crushed their armada. The one he always gave to defeated opponents. It was a speech at once informative and gloating, calculated to torment the vanquished at their lowest ebb. He was just preparing to launch into the rather elegant opening paragraph when the Doctor spoke first.

‘What are you going to do after?’

Once again, the Space Lord felt his usually supreme self­-confidence waiver. ‘After what?’

‘After today. When all of this is finished with.’ She gestured around the throne room. ‘Because you need to start thinking about the future. Maybe you could retrain.’ She looked at Graham. ‘They’re always looking for bus drivers, right?’

Graham made a face. ‘I think the intergalactic genocide might be a bit of a blot on his CV.’

The Space Lord slammed his fist against the arm of the throne. ‘ENOUGH! I am Space Lord Draal, First Admiral of the Fleet, fourth of my line. Who are you to dare address me this way?’

‘I’m the Doctor, first in the Gallifrey Under­ Tens Swimathon, thirteenth of my line.’

She raised her hand. In it was a device the size of a dagger, but it wasn’t sharp like a blade. A crystal was embedded at one end. How had it slipped through the body scan? No matter. It clearly was not a weapon. If it had been, she would already be dead. The Mark VI was programmed to respond immediately and with maximum force to any mortal threat to the Space Lord.

‘We had a nice walk back to the Citadel with your giant robot here.’

‘Hey, you said –’ Graham began.

The Doctor waggled the device. ‘Gave me just enough time to reprogram him with a little update.’ She gestured to the Mark VI. ‘What do you say, Bernard?’

With a whine of actuators, the Mark VI lumbered forward on its tracks, sending up a fine film of dust. The whole room shook as it rolled to the foot of the throne, then extended a massive arm. Each mechanical limb contained enough firepower to vaporise a battleship, but at that moment its metal hand contained something quite different: a small blue flower. The Mark VI offered it up.

‘Have. A. Nice. Day.’

‘See, Bernard here has a new set of orders,’ the Doctor explained. ‘Should you attempt to wage one more ridiculous war, you’ll discover he doesn’t like that – and neither do his five thousand friends.’

The Space Lord’s unease was rapidly turning into panic. ‘Five thou–’ But, before he could finish, the throne ­room doors flew off their hinges and crashed to the floor.

Dozens of Mark VI combat mechanicals poured through the gap.

The space marines were not only the bravest but the smartest troops in the Space Lord’s navy. That’s why, upon seeing the advancing robot horde, they instantly dropped their rifles in surrender.

Outside the throne room’s enormous curved window, hundreds more Mark VIs hovered into view, using their antigrav engines to keep an electronic eye on the proceedings inside.

‘Oh, yeah,’ the Doctor said. ‘When I said “update”, what I meant was “virus”. I replicated the new instructions across every Mark VI in your armoury. And I wouldn’t try reprogramming them once I’ve gone.’ She wagged a warning finger. ‘Seriously, that would get messy. Fast.’

She swung round and pointed her not­-dagger at the containment tubes. There was a hum, the crystal at the end glowed orange, and a moment later the glass prisons shattered. As their cages fell away, the occupants stumbled out of the wreckage and collapsed to the floor, gasping.

‘Take them to the TARDIS,’ instructed the Doctor. ‘And put the kettle on.’

Yaz, Ryan and Graham helped the former prisoners to their feet, hooves or tentacles, and guided them towards the blue box behind the throne.

The Doctor produced a small key from a string round her neck, then strode across to the blue box and inserted the key into the lock below the door handle. The Space Lord and his technicians could only gawp as she swung the door open. In seconds, the group had passed inside, and only the Doctor remained, standing in the doorway of her vessel.

‘I know that right now this feels like a change for the worse,’ she said.  ‘But give it three generations – four, max – and you’ll thank me.’

She stepped inside, and slammed the door shut behind her.

Over the years, the Space Lord had seen the knowledge of defeat in the eyes of a hundred opponents. Now, as his head drooped and he glanced at the polished floor, he saw it in his own reflection.

A strange sound filled the throne room. It was coming from the blue box. At first it reminded him of the howl of the Devil Bird, a creature he had hunted in the forests of his homeworld when he was a youth. Most of all, however, it sounded like the mocking laughter of the universe. The light on top of the blue box flashed, the vessel faded in and out of existence, and then it vanished forever.

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