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Doctor Who Missing Internet Adventure #22 - "Verdant Carnage"


Chapter 7
"Verney"
by Mary Hyde


---


"You will not be going anywhere," Mambi said. "Guards, go and bring them back!"


       Before the guards could move to respond, flashes of green and black flew past, and everyone was suddenly aware of deep growls coming from all around them. Several gnoorr entered the hut, quickly encircling Mambi and his guards. The guards dropped their weapons in fear. Tegan and Turlough looked at one another.


       "Friends of the Doctor?" Tegan asked.


       Turlough shrugged. "Probably. We weren't properly introduced. Come on. We've got to get your grandfather and Will."


       Tegan's face became clouded with concern. "How are they?"


       Turlough headed towards the cells, not answering. His face was clouded as well, but not with concern. Tegan trotted after as he ducked inside one of the huts. She cried out at the sight of her grandfather, unhurt, and rushed to his side.


       "Tegan!" Andrew Verney dragged her down into his embrace and hugged her with a fierce possessiveness.


       She stiffened at the unexpectedly close contact. Her grandfather had always been a deeply caring man, but never was he so expressive of his affection. "What's wrong?"


       Andrew pulled back and glanced toward the collapsed form on the far side of the hut. "I've done everything I can for him but Will's getting worse."


       "Worse?" Tegan frowned. "Why, what's happened to him?"


       "Friar Mambi and his people," Turlough answered, crossing to the injured boy in a few quick strides. His expression had grown even darker. "They have some unusual interrogation techniques." Distaste flickered in his eyes as he tugged aside Will's tattered shirt, his long fingers moving with surprising competence as he felt for the injured man's pulse, lifted an eyelid, and traced over the bruised ribs. "He appears to be in shock," he said after a minute's scrutiny, "and likely concussed. Might be some internal injuries too."


       "Then how are we going to move him?" Tegan wanted to know.


       Turlough turned toward her with that scorn-filled, superior look that she'd come to know — and loathe — so well. "Well, obviously we aren't."


* * *


The organic shuttle slid silently into an orifice in one arm near the base of the spiny-looking Hive. Dim illumination lit the hangar area as Xzai, Ashnai and the Doctor disembarked. Soon they were following the tall red ant through a series of darkened corridors, pausing now and then to avoid the cricket patrols.


       Wait." Xzai held up a foreleg, antennae twitching as he smelled/listened. He turned to the Doctor. "Azhnai hazz been here before, but my fellowz may zzee you azzz a threat. I muzt go ahead, to inzure that you will be zafe."


       "We'll be here." The Doctor took the black-skinned woman's arm and gently guided her back into a shadowed niche.


       Xzai swept his antennae outward in a sort of bow and disappeared into the gloom of the corridor.


       The time passed in complete silence, as neither the Doctor nor Ashnai thought it wise to talk. The woman's huge owl-like eyes were wide, her head turning constantly as she sought out her returning friend. Only when his angular figure emerged from the darkness did she relax.


       "Thizz way." The ant herded them along quickly. They entered a huge space crowded with rounded transparent cases. "Eggz," Xzai said simply. "Ztolen one by one from our Queen and nurtured with Imperial Tonic in thiz unuzed zection of the zzhip. Zoon theze will hatch azz zub-queenz." He brushed his antenna affectionately over a few of the eggs and the insects inside squirmed. "Very zoon. We muzzt hope that the Queen doez not commenze her renewal before they are ready.


       The Doctor watched as a worker tended to one of the eggs, then crouched down to study the glossy creature within. "I understand," he said after a moment's consideration. "You're going to release them during the Time of Pollination."


       "Yezz," Xzai said. "If enough dronez can be diztracted by our zub-queenzz, the Queen will not be renewed and her reign will end. And theze, once pollinated, will continue the Hive."


       "An excellent plan," the Doctor congratulated. "No bloodshed. No conflict. You are simply allowing Nature to follow its intended course. I am impressed."


       "It is Ba-kai," Ashnai said as if stating the obvious.


       "It is indeed!" the Doctor agreed, pointing at her. His blue eyes swept once more around the chamber in admiration, but then he grew somber. "I only wish more people understood and followed it." He rose to his feet. "You and Xzai will need to return to the planet for my companions."


       "And you, Doctor?" Ashnai asked, head tilted in puzzlement at this abrupt change of subject. "What will you do?"


       "Me... yes." He stood balanced on his toes as if readying for a fight. "If one of Xzai's co-workers would be so good as to lead me," he requested, "I intend to have a few words with this Queen of yours."


* * *


       Malvux screamed again. "You murdered, enzzlaved, and dezztroyed a planet, all zzo you could leave thizz planet and live forever!"


       "It had to be done!" the Queen said. "I had to zzurvive!"


       "Your zzurvival had a cozzt," Malvux said, and he raised his gun to cover the Queen, "and on behalf of Ba-kai, I am here to enzzure you pay that prizze!"


       It was then that the secondary Queen screamed in agony, and slowly began to change its form. Her iridescent exoskeleton shimmered, taking on a golden hue, the multifaceted blue eyes glinting with shades of amber.


       Malvux instinctively swung the gun toward the thrashing creature. "What izz wrong...?" he began. But as he turned away, the Queen snapped her mandibles shut over his foreleg and twisted, snapping the limb off at the joint. Malvux shrieked in excruciating pain and collapsed to his belly at her feet.


       The Queen retrieved his weapon and pointed it down at the twitching male. Then tenderly, she reached out to stroke the other Queen with her antennae. "Be zztill, my pet," she purre d soothingly. "Zzzhh, my dear zzecond zelf. All izzz azz it zhould be."


       The glint of gold faded from the sub-queen's eyes and shell, and she stared up raptly into the Queen's blue eyes. "Yezz, my mizzztrezz."


       The Queen shoved the barrel of the gun between Malvux' antennae. "Thizz izz Maluzz, the zpiritz of thoze dronez who have given themzelvez in zervizce to uzz. But without the uze of thizz zub-drone'z body, he haz no zubstanzce of hizz own." Her claw tightened on the trigger. "And zo he izz of no conzzeqenzce to uzzz."


* * *


"We've got to help the Doctor!" Face flushed with fear and frustration, Tegan paced back and forth around the small hut. "But we can't just leave Will here!"


       "It really doesn't appear that we have any other choice," Turlough told her in that 'why can't you for once be reasonable' tone of voice.


       Tegan had had enough of his callousness. "Like you even care, Turlough!" she snapped. "No skin off your nose, is it?"


       Turlough merely crossed his arms and squinted at her like she was a bug. Into this cold silence came a quiet voice. "I will stay with the lad," Andrew announced, pushing to his feet.


       "No, you will not!" Tegan grabbed his arm, partially to help him up and partially to force him to listen. "I'm not leaving you here and have something happen to you too!"


       "Tegan, my dear, think about what you're saying," the older man said gently. "Will can't be left alone, not in this condition. And the sooner all of this is resolved, the sooner we can get him some decent medical care. Besides, both you and Turlough are used to all of this business."


       "Oh sure, I'm *used* to it," she muttered sarcastically under her breath. "Like that's even possible."


       "And most likely, I'd only get in the way," Andrew finished, patting her hand. "Really Tegan, it's the best solution."


       "Not coming here would have been the best solution!" she stated emphatically. The two men stared at her, one in thinly veiled condescension, the other with worry and understanding. It was her grandfather's concern that finally did her in. Her face twisted into a grimace, and she turned away from them. "Oh, all right!" she fumed, angry that once more she was caving in.


* * *


"Ah, there you are!"


       A tall fair-haired figure stood at the doorway to the huge chamber, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his tattered, bloodied coat. Both Jane and the Queen looked up at his greeting, the first sighing in relief.


       The Queen, however, buzzed angrily, her faceted cobalt eyes flashing. "Another of the invading alien zzcum!" The gun she held now pointed toward him.


       The Doctor raised an eyebrow at her words. "While I've been called far worse things in my lives, there's still no need for rudeness." He stepped further into the room, his eyes sweeping over the stack of eggs. "About ready to hatch, hmm?" Digging out his spectacles, he bent down to inspect the insects within more closely. "And all drones by the look of it," he noted.


       "Who are you?" the Queen hissed. She shifted the weapon to her topmost limb and gestured menacingly at him.


       "Nobody." The Doctor stuffed the glasses back into an inside pocket and stood up. "Somebody. All depends on your viewpoint, doesn't it?" Ignoring the Queen, he turned his attention to where Jane sat, her arms wrapped around a barely coherent Ben. "How is he?"


       "Alive." Jane fixed a very determined look on the Time Lord. "I think I've had about as much fun as I can take, Doctor. I'd like you to take us all home now."


       He smiled at the feisty little schoolteacher. "Soon. Just a few things to wrap up first." And that said, the Doctor swung back toward the Queen.


       The injured creature that had been at her feet when he entered had apparently crept away while it had a chance. The furious Queen, eyes and weapon still focused on him, had yet to notice its disappearance.


       The smaller Sweezon sub-queen was staring at him as well. Her exoskeleton shimmered, patches of gold skimming across its surface. She turned blue eyes to him and pleaded, "Help me, Doctor!"


       Startled realization swept across the Time Lord's features at the mention of his name. He strode toward the much larger Queen, paying no attention to the weapon she held as he pointed at the quivering sub-queen. "Where did you find this...this...?"


       "My zzzecond zelf." The Queen stroked an antenna over the bee-like creature. "My zub-queen izz unique. Zpecial. Even her devolution waz realized in a mozzt unuzual manner and plazce."


       "Found inside a tall blue box, I'd wager," the Doctor retorted.


       "All that I am, zo izz zhe," she buzzed. "Zzhe iz perfect!"


       "Oh, I'm sure she is." The Doctor patted the sub-queen's thorax, producing goldish splotches wherever he touch. The huge Queen hissed menacingly and he slowly drew his hand away. "This poor being is exactly what you want it to be. Perfect, as you put it. In fact, that's the only thing he can be. Isn't that correct, Kamelion?"


       "Pleazzze!!" The secondary Queen contorted, its forelegs waving feebly. "Rezcue me!"


* * *


       It was a standoff.


       The great gnoorr were dispersed around the clearing, stretching, yawning and cleaning, their amethyst eyes facing the jungle as they lay sprawled around the hut occupied by the Doctor's companions. Mambi and his armoured warriors ringed them, keeping well out of pouncing distance, with their blossom guns drawn and ready. They waited, the bioluminescent foliage glinting behind them.


       A shadow swept over the land and into the clearing with a whoosh of engines, churning up the dirt. Even before the Sweezon shuttle had landed, Mambi took advantage of the billowing dust and with a terse word of command, sent his warriors to capture the ship.


       The shuttle's occupants didn't have a chance.


       Except for the gnoorr. The creatures' soporific appearance completely belied their active attention. At the first faint footfall of movement, they rose to slink silently through the dust, the first of them arriving at the shuttle just as one of Mambi's people fired at a disembarking shadow. The dark-skinned warrior was instantly pulled down by three of the green/black striped cats with a wet runch.


       The engines cycled down and the dust started to settle. Ashnai emerged from behind the fleshy edge of the shuttle doorway. Xzai had fallen half-on, half-off the exit ramp. Grabbing the injured ant under the forelimbs, she strained to drag him to safety before her people discovered the gnoorr feasting on their fallen warrior.


       At the first sound of an energy weapon discharging, Tegan had cautiously poked her head out of the door. This far from the shuttle, the dust was less disturbed and she could see Ashnai struggling with the body of the much larger Xzai. Glancing around, she chanced a mad dash across the clearing to help the owl-eyed woman get the ant into the hut.


       They had just gotten the door shut when the compound erupted in gunfire and snarls.


* * *


       "ZZet me free!" The sub-queen shuddered, one foreleg jerking violently to knock the gun from the Queen's grasp. It bounced across the organic floor, coming to rest at the base of the squirming egg pile.


       As the Queen automatically moved toward the weapon, the Doctor set his palm between the sub-queen's eyes. "Kamelion," he announced simply. The figure shimmered, burnished yellow on iridescent, the Queen's domineering hold shifting in favor of the Time Lord's stronger influence. When the miasma solidified, a golden android lay beneath his hand.


       An angry buzz warned him that the Queen had seen the transformation. The Doctor rose to his feet, turning to face the enraged Sweezon and the gun she again pointed at him. "What have you done?" she hissed, thrusting the muzzle of the weapon against his already gore-encrusted coat. Behind her, Jane gasped in alarm.


       A soft tearing sound came from the midst of the egg pile and the Queen spun around, the Time Lord instantly dismissed as unimportant. "Workerzz!" Her wings twitched with nervous anticipation as the first pale drone emerged from his shell. Soon the pile was covered with insect attendants, feeding, fanning and otherwise assisting the newborn Sweezi males. The drones could not even be seen under the mass of workers.


       "Devolution!" the Queen cried. Her wings hummed noisily as again and again she rose a few feet into the air and then retouched down. "What matter the lozz of my zzecond zelf when zoon *I* will be renewed!"


       "That will never happen!" The sub-drone Malvux unexpectedly appeared before her, beaten and faded, ichor dripping from his broken forelimb.


       "Zhattered drone, you have no body of your own," the Queen taunted. "You cannot ztop me, Maluzz."


       "Perhapz *I* have no form, dying Queen." The sub-drone's eyes shimmered softly and he drew in a fluting breath. "You have done great harm to thiz Hive." The voice was different now, restrained and subservient. "And to thiz planet and all itz inhabitantzz. Thiz izz why I and otherz have worked to end your zycle of renewal. It comez at too high a cozzt, Mother."


       Mother? Then this creature before her was not the Malus, but Malvux himself. She drew on her authority over the Hive and snapped, "I am your Queen, zub-drone! How dare..."


       "I dare, my Queen, only becauze you have dizrupted the natural order." Malvux's truncated arm twitched awkwardly at his side. "Ba-kai demandz payment, demands balance. And at firzt, my Father wazz driven only by thoughtzz of revenge. But by zurrendering myzzelf to him, he now knowz *everything*. And he approvez, Mother! My Father and I will enzhure that *you* will not be renewed."


       And to her startled dismay, the much smaller cricket guard lunged at the Great Queen!


* * *


Pop!


       Within the hidden hatchery, the soft sound - like a fingernail piercing a thin sheet of plastic - heralded the hatching of the first sub-queen.


       The popping and tearing continued, the leathery eggshells bursting under the onslaught of juvenile mandibles. Pale, slime-covered, almost humanoid-looking bodies slithered from each case, the newborn Sweezi panting from their exertions as they lay upon the organic floor. Workers swarmed around them, regurgitating a nutrient-rich pulp into their crops.


       Their strength restored, the sub-queens began to twist and stretch. Gossamer membranes separated from the wet surface of their backs, serum pumping through the delicate veins as they extended to full apian wings. Their soft white skin hazed and thickened as the process of Devolution took over completely. Within minutes, glittering exoskeletons had hardened. The workers backed away as the newborns at last opened their faceted metallic eyes.


       Amidst a glorious roar of buzzing and clicking, the monarchy of sub-queens leapt eagerly into the air, soaring aloft toward their Time of Pollination.


* * *


Tegan knelt down beside Will, adjusting the shallow box that the boy's feet were propped upon. A fever-induced sheen coated his face and she wiped the sweat away with a scrap of bandaging material.


       "How is he?"


       To her surprise, it was Turlough. "Why do *you*...?" Tegan bit back her retort as the sharp-faced young man slid down the wall to sit beside her. "He's about the same. I'm worried about the bruising around his ribs."


       "So am I." Her astonishment must have shown on her face, because his eyes hardened slightly. "Do you really think I want him or Xzai to die?"


       Tegan turned to gaze across the hut to where Ashnai sat, cradling the huge angular head of the still unconscious ant in her lap. "Honestly, Turlough," she admitted, "I didn't think you cared one way or the other."


       "Not like you, Tegan," he said softly, "who cares too much."


       The young woman drew in a rough breath. "And what's wrong with caring about someone?" she wanted to know.


       Turlough studied her for a long moment before answering. "More often than not," he told her with a defeated smirk, "you get hurt."


       Tegan stared, then suddenly turned her face away. "Yeah," she agreed. "You do."


       They sat together for several minutes in subdued silence. Then Tegan sighed and leaned her head against the wall. "We're stuck here, aren't we?"


       Turlough nodded. "Until the fighting dies down and Xzai recovers, at the very least."


       "Can't you fly the shuttle?"


       He glanced at her, then scowled down at the floor. "I'm not that familiar with organic-based technology."


       Tegan followed his gaze. "Oh well, it was worth a shot."


       He shrugged. Then his head shot up, a puzzled frown creasing his face. "Listen."


       "I don't..." Tegan began.


       "No, he's right," Andrew agreed from his spot near the doorway. "The growls, the shooting - they've stopped."


       And instead, slowly filling the silence, rose a relentless growing thrum.


* * *


       "No-o-o!"


       Above the surface of the planet Salasiad, a swarm of dark figures emerged from the top and bottom of the bristly Sweezon Hive, making their descent toward the luminous rainforest.


       "Stop!" From his position behind the fighting, Friar Mambi dropped to his knees, overcome with fear. "The bugs have emerged!" he shrieked. "The conflagration will come again! We must begin the chants!" At the panicked command, his warriors tentatively pulled away from the conflict.


       But the gnoorr no longer advanced toward them to fight. Solemn purple eyes filled with preternatural knowledge, the tigers dropped onto their haunches and watched as the men retreated.


       First Tegan, then her grandfather and finally Turlough stepped out of the 'prison' hut, staring in shock and disgust at the mayhem the short battle had produced. In the space surrounding them, one of the emerald-colored cubs, several humanoid bodies in various stages of being eaten, and the tiger the Doctor had briefly referenced as Old Chipped-Tooth lay unmoving in the dirt.


       It was plain that only the clearing's large expanse of naked ground had prevented the forest itself from being ignited by the men's energy weapons. Their hut was untouched, but two of the larger huts had caught fire. With the noise from the battle gone, several people peeped out, then emerged from the building to beat frenetically at the blaze with dripping wet mats.


       Unexpectedly, against the fierce humming of the Sweezi and the crackling flames licking at the community, the mighty green-and-black cats gave forth a great collective roar!


* * *


Malvux lay sprawled upon the Chamber floor, serum leaking from his punctured abdomen. In addition to his truncated upper arm, a lower limb had been ripped away completely. And the stump of his right antenna flicked back and forth, still moving as though drawing sensations from the environment.


       But all that was as nothing! The Great Queen, Mother of the Sweezon, now would not - could not - be renewed! He had managed to thoroughly shred one of her wings and had bitten through a thickened support filament in the other. She would never leave the ground again! And without the Time of Pollination and the drones' malappropriated life essences, the Queen would soon die!


       Some base instinct kept urging him to go to his Mother, to do all in his power to ensure her survival. But these reflexes were subdued by the comforting presence of his Father and by the knowledge that the Hive could now rise out of its stagnation. "We have done it," Malvux whispered as he lay collapsed at Kamelion's feet. "All izz... az it waz! Az... it... zhould beee...." The buzz of his voice faded.


       The golden android bent, his expressionless face appearing somehow sad and solemn, and lifted the cricket's limp body easily into his arms. Climbing atop the shattered egg cases, he settled the dead Sweezon onto the throne at its pinnacle. From where she lay collapsed upon the floor, too weak and wounded to move, the Queen hissed at his impudence.


       Her hissing was drowned out by the whirl and wind of chitinous wings, as the Sweezon Court returned. The Doctor had been inspecting Ben's bite, but at the flurry of insect bodies both he and Jane stood up to gaze in awe at the pageantry.


       Three of the sub-queens had managed to mate before exhaustion overtook them and now their exoskeletons' glowed with a queenly gold, while their chosen drones had attained the Consort's metallic blue. Workers rushed forward as they landed, regurgitating nourishment for them. The remainder of sub-queens and drones followed, dropping to any open area of the floor they could find.


       As the workers finished with the Sweezon royalty, they spread out to tend to those who had not mated. Slowly, as the food they received revived them, these creatures began to further devolve into crickets, spiders, mollusks and ants.


       The largest of the three Queens mounted the hill of egg cases and advanced toward the throne. Delicate antennae swept once across Kamelion, who had remained atop the pile. Her attention turned from him abruptly, almost a dismissal. Instead, her long tongue unfurled to taste the still form that lay upon the surface, flicking over the body for several long moments. Then she straightened up with a golden badge in her foreclaw, facing her Court and her subjects. "Thizz one wazz Malvux, our loyal zervant. And he wazz Maluzzz, our Father. But above all, he wazz Ba-kai! Let hizz name be told to each newborn! Let hizz zcent be remembered for azz long az there izz a Hive!"


       The Sweezi began to open and close their mandibles, creating a harsh raspy squeaking that reminded Jane of fingernails on a chalkboard. Wincing, she hunched down as if that would protect her from the sound, and covered both ears with her hands.


       The Doctor gazed on at the spectacle, unaffected by the noise. "They're paying him a great honor for all he's done. The Malus, I'd think, would be pleased."

The movement of their jaws slowed and stopped. But as the noise died away, a furious hissing could be heard.


       "Trea-zzon!" the old Queen accused. "Treach-er-y!"


       The Sweezi buzzed and clicked angrily among themselves at her words. "Great Mother!" a cricket guard called out over the noise. "What zhould we do with thizzz?" Her weapon pointed down at the seething mangled figure.


       The trio of Queens consulted, and then the smallest spoke. "While zhe wazz our mother, zhe wazz alzo cauze for much zzuffering, both here in thizz Hive and on the planet below. We owe her no blezzing but that of a zzwift death. Zzee to it!"


       With a roar, the Sweezi raised the limp body from the floor. The old Queen was passed, mandible-to-foreleg-to-antenna, from one Sweezon to another. Then without ceremony, she was shoved through one of the squishy openings in the Hive's wall. No one even watched as she fell to her death in the 'Protected Lands' of the Salasiad tropical rain forest.


* * *


Into the stunned silence of the Community, the TARDIS rematerialized beside Xzai's small shuttle. After a moment, the Doctor exited and immediately turned to stare up into the sky. The dark green and brown of an immense Sweezon shuttle came toward them, and after a few minutes, landed beside the blue box. Several cricket quards and two of the ant-like Sweezi, one red, one black, descended the ramp.


       Mambi stepped forward to meet them, but to his consternation, the ants marched toward the quiescent gnoorr instead. "I am Znga," the red ant announced to the pride at large. "Our Mother egztendz an invitation for you to vizzit our Hive. She wizhez to honor and thank you herzelf for the great zacrifizez you have made for all of uzzz."


       Amber-Eyes yawned, then dragged himself to his feet. He sniffed first one ant, then the other, and with another huge yawn that showed his sharp canines, the great tiger walked up the ramp into their ship, his green and black striped tail swishing the air. Moments later, Tweedledum, the remaining cub, bounced forward and licked the red ant across the abdomen. The young gnoorr skittered backward, shaking his head repeatedly as though the Sweezon tasted bad, before dashing up into the shuttle as well.


       The entourage then moved to Mambi, who had been joined by Bakeem. The black ant bowed to the Leader and the Friar. "I am Vbram, Ambazzador for the Zweezon Queenz. I am zent to egzprezz our Mother'z dizmay over the harm that hazz been done to thizz community in the name of the Hive. Much of thizz occurred becuaze of our old queen'z hatred of other razzez. But that time izz now thankfully over."


       "Then it wasn't the power of our chanting that kept the fires away?" Bakeem glanced sharply at Mambi. The Friar was suddenly and unaccountably ashamed that he had so vehemently insisted that they all take part in the religious mantras.


       "I know nothing of chanting," Vbram said. "But the way of the Ba-kai izz one of balanze. The Great and Little Mother of the Zweezon would zzee amendz made and our peoplez at peaze. Will you allow uzz to dizduzz theze thingz with you?"


       An angry scowl passed across Bakeem's face and she opened her mouth. "We'd be delighted," Mambi said suddenly. She spun toward him in shock. "We are all tired of the conflict between our peoples," he emphasized, more to the Leader than to the ambassadorial ants. "And there are better things in life than fighting. Like eating."


       "Ah, yezzz, the dezztruction of your cropz." The two ants' antennaes swept over and around one another. "Thizz too iz zomething that will now zeaze."


       "It was you?" Outraged, Bakeem stepped closer to the ambassadors. The cricket guards' weapons immediately slid toward her and the few gnoorr not on the shuttle rumbled ominously. Behind her, her own warriors nervously shifted caught between the tigers and insects. Slowly, they lowered and re-sheathed their own guns.

The ants waved their soldiers back. "The Zweezon will make amendz for our old Queen'z miztakez, if you will allow it."


       Mambi stepped in front of the woman. "We will."


       "Who made you Leader, Friar?" Bakeem snapped.


       "Would you go against the will of the Community?" Mambi asked. He could only watch as Bakeem turned on her heel and stomped away toward the warrior's hut. Sighing, the Friar turned back, to continue talking with Vbram and Znga of their combined futures.


       The Doctor, finally certain that discussions would work out, grinned with delight at the sight of Tegan, Turlough and Andrew. He bounded across the clearing. "Ben and Jane are still in the TARDIS, um, recuperating," he told them, shaking each person's hand. Then he looked around. "Where's Will?" His face fell at the scowls and grimaces on their faces.


       "In there." Tegan gestured over her shoulder. "With Xzai and Ashnai."


       Pushing through the doorway, the Doctor took in two crumpled shapes on either side of the hut.


       The larger mass shifted, and Ashani raised her head in alarm. Seeing whom it was, she sighed with relief and relaxed. "The flight?"


       "Successful," the Doctor said. "Everything's back to the way it should be." He bent over the fallen Sweezon she held, but the woman shook her head.


       "He woke a few minutes ago. Xzai is only sleeping now." Ashnai inclined her head toward the other figure. "That one, however, I think is badly hurt."


       By now, all of his companions had crowded into the room and the Doctor had to slide around and between them to get to Will. He quickly assessed the boy's injuries. "Turlough! Help me carry him into the TARDIS. And as for the rest of you? I think it's time we said our goodbyes to Salasiad."


* * *


Blue-clad dervish swathed in multi-hued eddies, the TARDIS spun within the energetic embrace of the Vortex. Inside, the Doctor had halfhearted stepped once more into the role of physician. He'd given Will Chandler an injection 'to speed things along', then counseled the young man about the need to rest in order to recover from the severe beating he'd received. The Time Lord had also checked over Ben, deciding the man's body was doing an admirable job on its own of clearing his system of the spider's neurotoxin. Several days passed, the usual hum of the time ship nearly lost amid the buzz of human activity and conversation.


       Jane had spent much of that time fussing over Ben and finally in exasperation, the big farmer had requested that she "leave me in peace, woman!" He'd immediately apologized, but his words still stung. Worse still, she knew the man was right; she was being irrationally overprotective. The little schoolteacher tromped over to the console in a huff. "About the Malus, Doctor," she said without preamble. "You told us that he was evil."


       "Ye-es," he allowed, punching in coordinates for seventeenth-century Earth. "Well, I did sense a great evil about him. I just didn't realize that it was an evil that had been done *to* him, not so much by him. He was simply desperate to get home and make things right." At their continued measured stares, he added, "Oh come now, all of you! Surely a man can be wrong once or twice in his lives!"


       "Once or twice!" Tegan scoffed under her breath. "Right, Doc!" She raised her head to find the Time Lord regarding her, a poorly hidden expression of hurt on his face. Caught outright, she flashed him an abashed look, but didn't go so far as to apologize.


       After a round of goodbyes, handshakes and hugs, a still-bruised-looking Will departed, darting toward the dubious safety of the church as musket fire sounded from the fields around him.


       "Does Will even stand a chance out there?" Tegan wondered, watching the carnage via the monitor.


       Turlough snorted. "I doubt it. He'd have been better off to just die on Salasiad instead of this." He gestured toward the screen.


       "Now, Turlough," the Doctor chastened, reaching to the controls and shutting down the image. "With the Malus gone, Will has a fighting chance." He cleared his throat at his unfortunate choice of words. "Ah, I expect all of you understand what I meant. But that is really beside the point. The truth is that if a man is destined to die, it's best that it occur in his own place and time."


       "I'll have to keep that in mind, Doctor," Turlough said with mock sincerity, leaning back against the roundeled walls, arms crossed over his thin chest. He gazed at the time rotor, rising and falling as the TARDIS returned them to late twentieth-century Earth.


       The faint image of a beautiful, as-yet-unknown woman suddenly rose before his inner eyes - the same woman he'd seen during Mambi's torture session. He knew she would one day be his wife, the mother of his children, and the memory of watching her die tugged painfully at his heart. But the intense love and fierce courage in her eyes as she'd looked at him for the last time was suddenly, unexpectedly, something that he longed for. "As hard as it may be," he promised himself, "I'll make certain that I get home."


---
Fin.



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