Warcry of Hallatern
The hatch covering the access shaft was blown open, and a jet of flame sprayed across the engine control room. Two men caught in its path were set alight, incinerated almost immediately.
Mitchum looked around wildly. Men had been thrown to the floor and against the walls. The plume of flame subsided, as the initial explosion died away, but it left devastation in its wake. Control consoles were burnt out, and several fires had broken out in the computer banks and instrument panels.
Crispin and a couple of crewmen managed to regain their balance. They grabbed fire extinguishers and started to attack the blaze. Amidst the noise and confusion, Mitchum thought he could detect a whining sound, like an automatic hazard alarm.
One of the walls suddenly broke inwards, and thick clouds of vapour
started to flood into the room.
The deck seemed to tip wildly. Rhonwen was thrown flat on her face. Behind her, Steward Escott staggered, and fell against the wall. His head smacked against a fire extinguisher mounted there, and he slumped heavily to the floor.
Slowly, Rhonwen managed to haul herself up onto her knees. She looked round at Escott. He'd cut his head open - a vivid gash right across his bald patch was seeping blood into his remaining hair. She felt for his pulse. It seemed quite faint, but it was beating regularly.
She got to her feet. She didn't like to leave him, especially since he
might require medical attention. But she knew she had to send that distress
signal - more so than ever now, since the ship clearly was in real
distress. Turning, she hurried back towards the communications room.
Paluzzi slammed against the metal side of the air shaft. She'd been one deck above the engine room, when the ship had suddenly lurched. She lost her grip on the moulded handholds, and started to fall. Her pistol was dislodged from its holster, and fell clattering to the bottom of the shaft.
At the last moment, she managed to thrust her left hand into one of the grips. The ship seemed to rock back into her original position once more. Paluzzi twisted her wrist, and smashed back into the side of the shaft. The pain jolted through her, particularly at her shoulder, where the warm damp flow of blood from her gunshot wound had seeped through her uniform.
She hung there uncomfortably for a few moments, gasping for breath. A multitude of confused thoughts swirled around her mind. Either something had collided with the Greyshadow, or there had been an explosion. Whatever it was, she had to find out, and fast.
From somewhere below her, clouds of thick vapour started to waft up the
air shaft. It was thick and choking, burning the back of her throat.
Paluzzi sought a grip with her free hand. She found some footholds,
steadying herself, and struggled to extract her left hand from the moulded
grip in which it was caught. She had to get out of this shaft before she
The Doctor found he was starting to lose the feeling in his fingertips. If the rush of decompression didn't stop soon, he wouldn't be able to hold on. He would be sucked out of the gaping hole like Noblecourt and the others.
There was a flurry of movement near him. Alicia was being dragged through the doorway, back into the lounge. She had managed to grab hold of one of the dining tables, but the relentless rush of air had eventually torn her away. She caught again at the edge of the door, and somehow managed to lodge herself halfway through it.
The Doctor couldn't understand where all the air was coming from. When a sudden decompression occurred, the ship's airtight bulkheads were supposed to close automatically. He could only assume that the power systems had been badly damaged.
A flashing red light caught his eye. It was the emergency warning indicator beside the door. The bulkheads might not be operating, but this was. A pressure sensor by every door would shut it automatically in the event of an atmosphere loss. It was an automated system, and quite unstoppable, even if there were people in the room. It was considered better to lose a few passengers than risk a massive decompression of the ship.
The door on the far side of the lounge had already shut. Those second class passengers who had made it out into the corridor were safe, for the moment at least.
The Doctor's immediate problem now was the door to the dining saloon. The red light indicated it was about to slide shut. When it did so, Alicia would be sliced in two, and his own fingers chopped off, leaving him to the mercies of the vacuum.
Looking up, he saw the hydraulic feed line for the door mechanism, actually inside the groove of the frame. If he could sever that, the door would stay open. Desperately, the Doctor let go of the door frame with one hand, and started to rummage in his pocket. He produced a penknife, with a brown wooden handle. Blown and battered about by the wind, he struggled to keep hold with one hand, whilst he gripped the penknife in the other. He raised it to his mouth, and pulled the blade open with his teeth.
The door was starting to shut, pushing Alicia up against the far side of the frame. With a supreme effort, the Doctor stretched out and slashed the blade of his knife through the hydraulic line. There was a hiss of escaping air, barely audible over the wind. The door stopped moving, and merely came to a gentle rest against Alicia's side. As the Doctor watched, she lost her grip and slipped out through the gap and into the lounge, pulled by the roaring wind. He dropped his penknife and managed to catch hold of her wrist.
The rush of air was dying away however. The Doctor realized that the door on the far side of the dining saloon had been closed by its own pressure sensor.
He slumped heavily to the floor, no longer tugged by the flow of escaping atmosphere. He grabbed Alicia under the shoulders and started to haul her through into the dining saloon. Red blotchy patches were beginning to form on her face, as the capillaries under her skin burst in the vacuum. She had her mouth clamped shut and her eyes screwed up. She at least had the foresight to remember emergency decompression drill. If she tried to breathe in the vacuum, she'd collapsed her lungs.
Fortunately, the Doctor wasn't affected in the same way. His blood pressure was too low, and he could retain oxygen in his lungs for several minutes. Dropping Alicia to the floor of the dining saloon, he found the emergency panel beside the door, and turned the manual crank handle. The door slowly slid into place. The Doctor hit the emergency repressurization control, and the room filled with air once more.
Alicia opened her mouth and took deep, gulping breaths. The Doctor took her hand, and helped her to stand up. It was only a limited air supply, from an emergency cylinder, enough to keep them alive for a few minutes.
Opening her eyes, Alicia looked into his face and smiled gratefully. "Why Doctor," she whispered, "you've saved my life."
"Only temporarily," the Doctor muttered. He knew the wall behind them would not hold indefinitely. The internal walls of the ship were not strong enough to withstand such a pressure loss. Only the heavy bulkheads could do that. If the power system had broken down, and the bulkheads couldn't be closed, then each section of the ship was relying on the flimsy internal walls only. It was obvious what would happen. One after another, the compartments would burst and give way to the vacuum, forcing the survivors further and further forward towards the bow.
He looked carefully at Alicia's face. The capillary damage was not too
severe. Luckily, she hadn't been exposed to vacuum for very long. He led
her over to the door in the far wall. They had to get it open before the
wall behind them gave way.
Acrid fumes caught in Mitchum's throat, burning him. He screwed up his eyes against the stinging vapour, which billowed thickly into the engine room. He could barely see more than a few feet. From all around, he could hear coughing and retching.
"It's a coolant leak," shouted a voice, one of the technical crew. "We've got to get out of here."
"All right," Mitchum called, almost choking on the burning vapour. "Everyone outside. Quickly."
He stumbled into someone, and grabbed hold of them to steady himself. Through the haze, he discerned the face of the steerage passenger he'd found hiding here earlier. "Come on, sir," Mitchum said. "It'll be all right."
Someone grabbed his arm. He turned his head to find Tyler standing there. Her eyes were half closed against the effects of the gas. She seemed to be stooped, struggling to lift something. Dimly, Mitchum realized that she was dragging an unconscious body. "It's Jasinski," she said. "He's passed out. Bannen's over there as well."
Mitchum hesitated. A few moments ago, Tyler had been his prisoner - she was one of the hijackers after all. But now, they were all in the same predicament. They had to help each other, at least for the time being.
A shape loomed through the dense vapour. It was Crispin, the communications officer. Mitchum shoved Vardek towards him, and shouted, "Take care of him. Get him out of here." Then he plunged deep into the choking fumes, looking for Bannen's body.
Crispin took firm hold of Vardek's arm, and guided him towards the door. They stumbled out into the corridor. Crispin's throat was burning, and he was gasping for breath. He noticed that his charge didn't seem to be affected by the gas. The air was clearer out in the corridor, and it was easier to see. He looked at the man he was helping, and recognition suddenly dawned. The last time he'd seen Vardek's face, he'd been knocked out by some kind of energy weapon.
"It's him!" Crispin shouted. He got no further. Vardek struck him a savage blow under the jaw, which snapped his head back. Crispin fell back against the wall and slumped down to the floor.
The other crewmen were trying to get clean air into their lungs. There was no time for anyone to react. Vardek moved between them, pushing them out of the way with his superior strength, and ran off along the corridor.
Mitchum appeared in the doorway, and gently lowered Bannen's body to the ground. He sealed the door of the engine room, and looked around at the others. A couple of men were throwing up, but the rest seemed to be recovering, breathing the better air out here.
Then he saw Tyler. She'd let go of Jasinski, and was kneeling over the inert form of Crispin.
Mitchum rushed over to her. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded.
"Trying to help," said Tyler. "I thought you'd have realized that by now."
"You're a pirate, Tyler."
"Well, there's no future in that if there isn't a ship left to hijack." She nodded back towards the engine room. "Look, it's obvious the ship's suffered some major damage. We need to work together. At least until we know what's going on."
"You're still my prisoner," Mitchum said emphatically.
Tyler caught her breath. "All right," she replied reasonably. "But I'm also fourth officer, and you'll probably need my help."
Mitchum frowned. He didn't want to admit it, but he knew she was right. He looked down at Crispin. "What's the matter with him?"
"Oh, he's dead," said Tyler, matter of factly. "His neck's broken. Your
steerage passenger did it."
MacBride shouted urgently into his communicator: "Noblecourt, report your situation. Come in, Noblecourt." There was no response. MacBride tried adjusting the frequency to contact the quartermaster he had sent to the first class lounge - but he couldn't raise him either.
Captain Berlitz was looking at the monitor displays in alarm. The messages reaching the bridge from different parts of the ship were garbled and unclear. There had certainly been a decompression in first class. There had also been a shipwide power transfer failure. This was immediately obvious through the vague nature of the readings he was getting. Half the ship's internal scanners were malfunctioning.
He turned to MacBride desperately. "We're in serious trouble. You have to give me back control of the ship."
Shaking his head, MacBride walked forward and glanced at the intermittent displays. "The atmosphere is holding," he said quietly.
"For how long?" the Captain snapped.
MacBride walked to the side of the bridge, and pressed some controls on another console. He turned round with a look of triumph. "There's nothing to worry about. The pressure loss systems have engaged. The doors have been sealed in the affected areas, and all the corridor sections have been closed off."
"That's a temporary measure," said Berlitz, "and you know it. Those doors won't hold indefinitely against pressure loss in an adjacent compartment. The decompression will spread, compartment by compartment." He looked imploringly at the first officer. "We need to get the bulkheads closed. The power transfer systems are down. We'll have to do it manually."
"I'll tell my people to do it," said MacBride. He didn't want to admit
defeat before Berlitz. But he knew events were rapidly spiralling out of
control. He had lost contact with his men in first class. For all he knew,
Noblecourt could be dead and Krau Newstead's data files lost forever. It
didn't bear thinking about. He raised his communicator, and tried to make
contact with any of his people. He had to ascertain the extent of the
damage, and get them to begin an immediate search for Krau Newstead.
Cautiously, Rhonwen put her head around the door of the communications room. She was relieved to find no one inside. She moved quickly to the control panels, and tried to make sense of them.
Why, she thought, can't there just be a switch labelled distress signal? Instead, there were hundreds of controls, none of which meant anything to her. She would just have to experiment a little.
The first control panel she tried was cold to the touch, as if it had been switched off for some time. Then she realized that none of the indicator lights or display screens was working.
Looking around, she took in the fact that other control panels were in a state of disrepair. They had been opened up, and wires were spewing out of them - tools were scattered around, on top of consoles and even on the floor.
Rhonwen sat down exasperatedly in one of the chairs. She reached for various controls at random and pressed them, but nothing happened. The communications systems were clearly out of action. So much for her hope of summoning help. There were a few screens lit up - they looked like radar screens or something similar, presumably for showing the location of other ships nearby. There was nothing to be seen however.
What should she do now? She had to find the Doctor, of course. If he was still a prisoner, then she'd have to find some way of rescuing him. Wasn't that just what he would expect her to do?
Getting to her feet, Rhonwen turned to the door. But her eye was caught
by a green blip that started to flash on one of the radar screens. She
examined it more closely. Yes, something had definitely appeared at the
edge of the display. It had to be another ship. And it seemed to be moving
slowly towards the centre of the screen, towards the Greyshadow
The door of the dining saloon closed behind them. The Doctor did not rest, but walked determinedly towards the bow of the ship. It was imperative that they kept ahead of the vacuum which would certainly claim section after section of the ship.
Alicia hurried after him, each step like a jolt of pain through her body. She called, "Slow down, Doctor."
"We've got to keep moving," the Doctor said, without looking around. "The further forward we are, the safer. Besides, if the crew get one of the bulkheads shut, we want to make sure we're on the right side of it."
"It feels like I'm bruised all over," Alicia complained.
"Well, that's more or less right. The loss of atmospheric pressure caused some capillaries to burst, so you've suffered extensive contusions. Don't worry, you weren't exposed to vacuum for very long. It'll hurt for a while, but it should heal. It's not as bad as it looks."
"Does it look bad?" asked Alicia, in a moment of vanity.
The Doctor smiled reassuringly. "I've seen far worse. It's not permanent."
They came to another door, sealing off this section of the corridor. The Doctor pressed the control, and the door opened. They passed through, and it shut behind them. They were at an intersection. The door was closed on each branching corridor.
Alicia said, "It all looks safe enough."
"The ship's got a couple of hours without the pressure bulkheads closed," the Doctor replied dismissively. "It might be enough time."
"Enough for what?"
"I have to find Vardek. Perhaps I can help him with the neuroviral infection - and I've certainly got to stop it spreading."
"How do you even know he's alive?" Alicia asked. "With what's just happened, he could have been burnt, or sucked out, or anything."
"I don't know," said the Doctor. "That's why I've got to look for him."
Alicia still could not suppress a fear of being contaminated by some alien virus - but equally, she was concerned that the virus not be destroyed. She had to ensure there was at least some sample of it left, that could be analysed and perhaps reproduced. There was a huge profit in it. She had been manipulated by Trau Morrissey in order to make him richer. She was damned if she had come through this ordeal just to line his pockets. No, she wanted something out of it for herself. Which meant she had to get to Vardek before the Doctor did.
She had another problem at the moment. Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew the case that contained her data files. She was rather surprised that the hijackers hadn't thought to take them from her - but maybe they hadn't realized she was carrying them personally. She couldn't risk them falling into the wrong hands.
The Doctor went to one of the doors, and opened it. "You'd better go to the forward boat deck," he said. "The chances are the ship will have to be evacuated."
"The forward deck is for steerage passengers," Alicia replied.
"Well," shrugged the Doctor, "I suppose you could try going to your designated boat deck." He gestured aft, back towards the ruptured first class section. "I don't think you'll get very far."
Alicia acknowledged the remark with a wry smile. This was no time for snobbery. Desperate circumstances called for desperate measures - even sharing a lifeboat with a group of uncouth miners.
Glancing down at her case of data blocks, she asked, "Where's the nearest waste incinerator?"
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Trying to destroy the evidence?" he murmured.
"I don't know what you mean," replied Alicia innocently.
"Well, obviously your files will prove the Sirius Conglomerate guilty of illegal practices. Why else would the Canaxxans want to seize them? The Federation can only act against you if there's been a breach of the law."
"You're a very clever man, Doctor."
"I'm too modest to answer that," said the Doctor.
Alicia smiled. "As a matter of fact, the mining operation on Canaxxa has been perfectly legal. We've followed all the Federation guidelines, and we've even contributed to protecting the cultural heritage of the planet."
"That can't be entirely profitable," the Doctor replied shrewdly.
"No, obviously not," said Alicia. "That's why we supplied arms to the Canaxxan rebels." She looked down at her shoes, and wondered what had prompted her to make such an admission - especially after all her efforts to keep the truth concealed. She felt almost compelled to confide in someone. Maybe the shock of nearly dying was pricking her conscience?
"You couldn't possibly get away with it," the Doctor remarked quietly. He didn't seem very surprised by the news. He probably knew already - what else could he be investigating?
Alicia shrugged. There didn't seem any point in denying it now. "Oh, it was done through a long chain of intermediaries - middle men, shell companies, even a few criminal connexions. All the money was laundered through the Usurian Bank, and transferred around half the Galaxy's financial centres. It would be impossible to trace it back to the Conglomerate."
"So you used the Canaxxans?"
"The natives are very slow witted. The ones we encountered on the planet, that is. We gave them a few guns and bombs, and they thought it was the means to free their world."
"And what they really did was jeopardize the mining operation, so that the Federation would be forced to act against them."
"Well, the Federation war machine is preparing for trouble on the Dalek border," Alicia said. "A constant supply of raw materials is needed, and the Canaxxan mines are currently the main source of duralinium in this part of the Galaxy. The Federation will only tolerate so much delay. Krau Needleman conceived the whole plan. You see, the Federation guidelines are a massive hindrance to us - both in terms of efficiency and profit. This way, the Federation would give us official sanction to suppress the natives and speed up our exploitation of the planet. Are you shocked?"
"It's no more than I'd expect from the Sirius Conglomerate," the Doctor replied.
"Business is business," Alicia smiled.
"And I suppose the only evidence of this is in your files?"
"Only the barest details - but enough for a sharp investigator to make a tenuous connexion to the arms dealers. I went to Canaxxa especially to collect the files. They're supposed to be buried in the Conglomerate archives on Androzani - so that one day, after the time limit for prosecution has passed, we can get them out and remember how clever we were. But now they could so easily fall into the wrong hands."
She tensed, expecting the Doctor to try and seize the files. But he did nothing, merely regarding her coolly. "What would happen if the files became public?" he asked.
"The bleeding hearts who devised the mining restrictions in the first
place would take the Conglomerate to task. Krau Needleman would probably be
forced to resign, which wouldn't be good for business. It wouldn't be just
the Canaxxan Mining Corporation that suffered. The share prices of the
entire Conglomerate, and all our subsidiaries, would fall like stones.
That's why I have to destroy the files."
Nicolas opened the door, and peered out into the corridor. There was no one in sight. He breathed a sigh of relief, and glanced back at his wife. Perrenelle hovered uncertainly several feet behind him, reluctant to leave the sparse and functional observation deck.
"Are you sure this is wise?" she asked.
"I'm no starship engineer," Nicolas replied, "but it's clear this ship is in trouble. It's not safe to stay here."
"What do you think has happened?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe something hit us - an asteroid or something - or maybe there's been an explosion." Nicolas paused and thought for a few moments. "You know, when the ship lurched like that, it reminded me so much... What was that ship we were on once, back on Earth? The one that sank?"
"The Lusitania," said Perrenelle. "That was a long time ago." She let the memory come back to her for a moment. It was during one of the territorial wars that used to be fought on Earth centuries ago. The ship had been torpedoed by a submarine. There had been a huge explosion, and she had listed over, so that the deck practically dipped into the sea. Within twenty minutes, the ship was gone beneath the waves, and more than a thousand people with her. They'd been lucky to survive that, pushing through panicking people to get into a lifeboat in time. Was the same thing happening now?
"What about the hijackers?" she asked.
"We'll have to take our chances," Nicolas said. He reached out and took
his wife's hand.
Paluzzi booted a hatch cover open, and scrambled out into the corridor. She lay gasping for breath, as the acrid coolant vapour wreathed around her, billowing from the open hatch. Getting to her feet, she picked up the hatch cover and fixed it back in place. The flow of gas was cut off, and that which had escaped into the corridor would dissipate through the air filters.
She looked around her. The corridor fortunately was deserted. She hadn't had any opportunity to check before leaving the air shaft - getting out of those fumes had been her only priority.
She started to move forward. There was a staircase a couple of compartments ahead, that would take her down to the engine room - although the leak of coolant gas in the air shaft suggested that there had been a lot of damage down there. Using the corridors and stairs exposed her to danger - more so now that she had lost her gun, but it was the only option she had.
Her left wrist was swollen, and a sharp pain cut through it continually - she believed it had been sprained when she'd twisted it back in the air shaft. There was no time to worry about it. The wound in her shoulder had gone quite numb. The bullet had passed clean through her, so she hoped that gangrene wouldn't set in.
A shape on the floor drew her attention. It was the body of a steward. Paluzzi quickly crouched down to examine it, and saw to her surprise that it was Escott, with whom she'd already had dealings today. His balding head was covered in dried blood, which had leaked from a large gash in the crown. Paluzzi felt for vital signs. They were weak, but she didn't think the steward was done for just yet.
Footsteps came along the corridor. Paluzzi looked around for cover, but there was none. She spotted Escott's carbine, lying a short distance from his outstretched hand. Quickly, she snatched it up, relieved to find it was a different weapon from the one he'd had earlier. This one was still functional. Keeping low, she raised the gun into a firing position.
Rhonwen came round the corner. She stopped dead when she saw Paluzzi, and put her hands up. "Don't shoot," she said. She nodded down at Escott's body. "I was coming to help him. It wasn't my fault."
"Did you do this to him?" Paluzzi asked.
"No," Rhonwen insisted. "He fell over when the ship lurched. He hit his head."
"But you were with him?"
"Well, I was his prisoner." Rhonwen looked beseechingly at her. "Look, I didn't want any trouble. I've got nothing to do with Canaxxa or the miners or anything."
"I'm glad to hear it," Paluzzi said. She lowered the carbine. "It's Krau Jones, isn't it?"
"I suggest you make your way to the forward boat deck, Krau Jones. That will be the safest place for you. I think the ship may be badly damaged, in which case I'll have to try and organize an evacuation."
"But what about the hijackers?"
"I'm hoping they'll surrender - if the situation is bad, it'll be in their own interest to work with me." Paluzzi got to her feet, and slid the carbine strap over her good shoulder. "I'll see you on the boat deck," she said optimistically.
"No, wait," began Rhonwen. "I can't. I have to find the Doctor - my guardian."
"Oh yes," replied Paluzzi. "I saw him earlier - before the explosion. He was heading back towards first class."
"I saw him after that. He was captured by the hijackers. That's why I have to try and find him."
"If he's all right, he'll turn up. The best thing is to go to the boat deck and wait."
"But what if he's not all right?" Rhonwen insisted.
Paluzzi fought down a wave of anger. She couldn't afford to stand arguing with this girl, but she felt a sense of responsibility - as an officer, she had a duty to safeguard the lives of the passengers. But the interests of the most passengers would be served if she managed to impose some sort of order on the Greyshadow, assessed the damage, and took appropriate action.
If Rhonwen wanted to go off and look for her guardian, she couldn't do much to stop her. "Be careful," she warned. "The hijackers will still be hostile until I've talked them round. And I think the explosion was back in first class. There may be extensive damage back there, even depressurized sections - so don't take any chances."
Rhonwen nodded. She glanced down at the unconscious Steward Escott. "What about him?"
"Don't worry," said Paluzzi. "It looks worse than it is. I'll send a stretcher party back for him when I restore some order." She started to move off along the corridor.
Rhonwen suddenly turned and called after her. "Wait!"
Paluzzi spun round. "What is it?" she asked.
"There's a ship. I saw her on the screen in the radio room. She's coming towards us."
"Are you sure?"
"I think so."
"We can't have sent a distress signal," Paluzzi muttered. "Where has she come from?"
"Maybe she saw us here," suggested Rhonwen, "tried to call us and got no reply - so she's coming to investigate."
"Yes," Paluzzi nodded, "maybe." The possibility also occurred to her that it was another group of Canaxxan rebels come to collect the hostages, but she didn't mention that to Rhonwen. She had to get moving. "Good luck," she said. "I'll see you at the lifeboats."
Rhonwen nodded, and started off towards first class.
An electronic warning signal started blaring through the bridge. Mendelssohn looked up in alarm, and glanced between Captain Berlitz and MacBride. The gun he held on the Captain wavered.
Berlitz examined the readings on the duty console. He continued to keep an eye on Mendelssohn - it was clear the young man was becoming more nervous by the minute, and with reason. MacBride's hijack attempt was placing all their lives in danger. The crew needed free reign to deal with the crisis.
Mendelssohn would be the first person on the bridge to crack. As a purser, he was used to locking up guests' valuables and sorting out accounts, not the tense decision making that was needed at command level. Berlitz watched for the first sign of panic - when it came, he would make a grab for Mendelssohn's gun.
He looked up from the console. "Another compartment's just blown out," he announced. He turned angrily to the first officer. "You know what's going to happen, MacBride. The ship and the passengers are at risk."
"There's no immediate danger yet," MacBride said. He glanced at his watch, and felt some vague sense of relief amidst his anxiety. Even if they had failed in their mission, he and his compatriots would at least soon be off the Greyshadow, and Berlitz could have the ship back - to seal the compartments, launch the lifeboats or whatever else he chose to do.
"Don't be ridiculous," the Captain said. "She can't last forever. Your people are just as much at risk as the rest of us - or do you believe your great cause somehow makes you immune to explosive decompressions?"
He glanced at Mendelssohn, and saw the uncertainty in his face. If this
carried on, MacBride would lose the loyalty of his men - and then Berlitz
would be ready to move.
Mitchum led his little band along the corridor. He allowed Tyler to walk beside him - that way, he could keep a cautious eye on her. She and her compatriots hadn't been trusted with guns, but otherwise they were a part of the group, not prisoners. The threat to the ship had united them all.
There was a corridor intersection ahead, with a door closed across it. Mitchum knew there had been an explosion somewhere aft - the closure of the doors indicated that there had been a decompression as well. He was alarmed that the heavy pressure bulkheads remained open.
He pressed the control to open the door, and stepped through. Tyler followed behind him. A sudden movement caught Mitchum's eye to the right. One of the other doors was open, and two quartermasters stood in the opening. They both carried carbines.
It took Mitchum a moment to realize that these two were hijackers. They raised their carbines and opened fire. Mitchum threw himself to the ground.
Tyler quickly spun round, and locked the door behind them, cutting them off from Mitchum's men. She fell upon the purser, who was struggling to free his sidearm from its holster. They wrestled briefly, but Tyler was the victor. She hit Mitchum on the jaw, and his head cracked back against the deck. She took his gun, and ran towards the quartermasters.
One of them raised his carbine to finish Mitchum off, but Tyler shouted, "Leave him! He's not our enemy." She bundled the two quartermasters back through the doorway.
Another of the doors at the intersection opened, and Second Officer Paluzzi catapulted herself through. She kept low, almost on the floor. The sound of gunfire had already alerted her to the danger. She rolled round on the deck, and raised her carbine to fire at Tyler and her colleagues. But she only got off a couple of shots before the door closed behind them.
Paluzzi turned, and looked at Mitchum. She didn't know which side he was on. He was struggling to sit up, and regarded her just as suspiciously. "God, Connie," he muttered. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
Smiling in relief, Paluzzi lowered her gun, and extended her hand to help him up. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"I've got a machonite skull," the purser replied. "Don't worry about me." He looked at her more closely. "My God, Connie, you've been shot."
"So that's what it was," said Paluzzi pithily.
Mitchum turned to the door behind him, and opened it. Paluzzi looked through and took in the group of about fifteen men who stood there.
"My motley band," said Mitchum, "and three prisoners of war."
"Any casualties?" asked Paluzzi.
"Crispin's dead. We've had some coolant gas poisoning, but not too serious."
"Yes, I got a dose too."
"You've really been in the wars," Mitchum remarked. "You want to get yourself looked at."
"God knows where the CMO is," said Paluzzi. "Held prisoner by MacBride's cronies, no doubt. I'll manage for now," she added determinedly.
"What do you want to do?" asked Mitchum.
"We need to arm ourselves better," Paluzzi replied. She slung the carbine strap over her shoulder. "I borrowed this from one of our piratical shipmates, but it's not enough. We need to take control of the small arms locker, and get the serious firepower in our hands."
"Secure the forward boat deck. Whatever happens, the safety of the
passengers must be our first priority. I don't know how badly the ship is
damaged, but we have to assume that evacuation is on the cards."
The corridors of third class were swarming with passengers, emerging from their cabins in confusion. The fact that the ship was damaged had been apparent since the effects of the explosion were felt. Some of the miners, perhaps with experience of mining domes on airless asteroids, probably realized the risk of imminent depressurization. They milled round, heedless to the warnings issued earlier by MacBride, looking for someone to tell them what to do.
The Doctor pushed his way through the panicking crowd. Some of them grabbed at him, trying to ask him where the crew was, what was going on. But he had nothing to tell them. The crowd drifted slowly forward, towards the boat deck - those with initiative realizing that getting near the lifeboats was a sensible precaution. The Doctor was going that way as well, so he allowed the crowd to pull him along.
They arrived at the door of the next corridor intersection, the miners pushing and tussling to get through. The Doctor was jostled and forced back, as men tried to squeeze through ahead of him. The pressing of the crowd from behind caused a crush - but eventually the Doctor found himself shot through the doorway like a shell from a field gun.
The same thing happened at the next three doorways, until he arrived finally at the boat deck. It was a large open space, spanning the width of the Greyshadow, and airlock hatches on either side gave access to the ship's lifeboats. None of these was open - an evacuation order needed first to be given by one of the senior officers. The miners crowded onto the deck, moving around aimlessly. Now they had got here, they had no idea what to do.
The Doctor continued to squeeze his way through the crowd, looking for the Flamels. He was certain that they would have made their way here. They'd gone to so much trouble to reverse their immortality, to enjoy the onset of old age, there was no way they'd risk dying if the ship was lost. An attempt to board a lifeboat was their obvious course.
He found them at the far end of the deck, marked out from the miners by their much finer clothes. He pushed through the crowd to get to them, managing to reach out and clap Nicolas on the shoulder.
The alchemist spun round suddenly, fearing attack or robbery from one of the desperate steerage passengers. He was relieved to see the Doctor shoving past another couple of miners to join him.
"Doctor," he called, raising his voice to be heard over the thunderous din of the crowd. "Are you all right?"
"I've had better days," the Doctor replied. "I'm glad I've found you."
"Do you know what's going on?" asked Perrenelle. "Is the ship badly damaged?"
The Doctor glanced round uneasily, and lowered his voice as much as possible. He didn't want to risk panicking the miners more than they were already. "There's been an explosion. And a hull rupture. The pressure bulkheads haven't closed either, so we can expect more compartments to blow out."
"Then we have to get out of here," said Nicolas, starting to panic himself. "Where are the crew? Why aren't they doing something?"
"Well, they have got their hands full with a hijacking, remember?" The Doctor smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, the hijackers want to live as much as everybody else. I'm sure they'll surrender, or at least co-operate with the rest of the crew to get an evacuation under way. Just wait here, you'll be safe."
"But what are you going to do?"
"I have some unfinished business," the Doctor said. "That's why I'm here. I need to have the crystal back. Have you got it?"
"Yes," replied Nicolas.
"What about your experiment? Were you successful?"
"I believe so. I produced a compound to reverse the effects of the Elixir. We've swallowed it."
"How do you feel?" asked the Doctor.
"Middle aged," Nicolas joked. "I don't know how, but I know it's working."
"It was the same when we first swallowed the Elixir," added Perrenelle. "We just knew."
The Doctor nodded. "Some of your neural pathways would be repatterned by the energy of the crystal, so I suppose you'd feel the difference." What Nicolas had produced was a different viral strain, that would produce antibodies to attack the immortality virus. Once they got to work, the virus should be cleansed from the Flamels' bodies, enabling their ageing processes to pick up from where they had left off.
Nicolas reached into his pocket, and extracted the argnoite lined case that contained the Philosopher's Stone. He handed it to the Doctor. "You said you would require it back. I did not doubt that you would come to claim it. I kept it safe. It seems incredible, but I believe it is the very same crystal that first gave us the Elixir."
Considering it had been under a Canaxxan swamp for eight thousand years, the Doctor thought that was highly unlikely. "There's just one thing," he said, slipping the case into his pocket. "I'd like to know where you got the crystal from in the first place."
Nicolas looked at him in some surprise. "I don't understand," he stammered. "You gave it to me. How can you not remember?"
Frowning, the Doctor muttered, "Well, I've been through a lot in recent years. Things tend to slip my mind. Remind me - was this the time I met you in Spain? When Canches was trying to get his hands on your manuscript?"
The memory was hazy. The Doctor's previous encounter with Flamel had been over three hundred years ago, just after his third regeneration. His mind had been unstable, wandering. He was supposed to have been helping UNIT investigate a series of thefts by an experimental robot - part of a plan for world domination, the usual sort of thing. But an uncontrollable wanderlust was nagging at him all the time. In his previous body, he'd become quite settled, living on Earth and working for UNIT - his new persona seemed to rebel against such cosiness, preferring the more dangerous existence of roaming amongst the stars. One night, he just pushed UNIT, Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, the robot, everything aside, darted into the TARDIS and took his leave.
For a long time, he flitted from planet to planet, his mind still a confused jumble. It was hard to recall it all now. He remembered stopping on the planet where the Mordee colonization ship had landed, and reprogramming their malfunctioning computer - that had been a bit of a mistake in retrospect, leaving him with a terrible mess to sort out many years later.
And then there was his encounter with the Flamels. Nicolas had met a man called Canches, who explained the ancient alchemical processes that were described in an old text he'd come across. Canches was an alien opportunist, armed with a bit of historical knowledge about the Quinnista, and seeking the kaprihal crystals that he believed had ended up on Earth - to line his own pockets, no doubt. The Doctor had dealt with him, and sent Flamel back to France with his imagination fuelled, but no way of putting such knowledge to use - or so the Doctor had thought.
His memories of that period were too vague to recall everything he'd done - the only thing he remembered well was the guilt he'd felt about leaving the Brigadier in the lurch, so much so that he eventually returned to Earth on the very same night he'd left - no one ever knew he'd been away.
Flamel was shaking his head. "This was several months afterwards," he explained. "You came to us in Paris."
"At first," Perrenelle put in, "we couldn't accept it was you, because your physical appearance had completely changed - you looked like you do now."
Suspicions were starting to form in the Doctor's mind. "And I gave you the crystal?" he asked.
"Yes," said Nicolas. "After some experimentation, I produced the reagent for the transmutation of lead to gold - and after a few more months, the Elixir of Life."
"What did you do with the crystal?" the Doctor enquired. "Eventually?"
"Well, you know that I got involved with Cardinal de Bar and the Priory of Sion. It rather sidetracked me from the alchemical research I wanted to do. But there I was, leading a secret society, dedicated to restoring the Merovingian dynasty to the French throne. I believed I was righting an historical wrong. I should have listened to Perrenelle." He turned and gently took his wife's hand. "She was always the sensible one. And she was right. At the end of the day, whatever they believed, the Priory had no proof of the lineage they claimed for the Merovingians. All they really wanted was political power - to control Europe and control the Church. So I got out. In 1418, I faked my own death. I left the Stone for Cardinal de Bar to find - I thought he would be too suspicious if it vanished."
The Doctor nodded. He knew a lot about the Priory of Sion, and its manipulation of historical events in Europe. One of his friends, Leonardo da Vinci, had been quite heavily involved in it.
He thought about the Flamels' story. Certain details confirmed his suspicions - the fact that he'd been in his current body when he gave them the crystal, and Nicolas's belief that it was the very same Stone. There was one very obvious explanation that fitted the facts - it was something he hadn't actually done yet.
He turned to leave, but was stopped by Perrenelle's voice. "Doctor, will we ever see you again?"
"I don't know," he shrugged. "But I think it quite unlikely."
"Then, farewell," said Nicolas.
The Doctor nodded in acknowledgement, and dived into the dense crowd of passengers. He tried to push his way back towards the door, fighting the flow of miners who were still swarming onto the boat deck. It was like swimming upstream. Now I know how a salmon feels, the Doctor thought. He forced his way back towards the door. He had no other choice. He had to find Vardek. And more importantly, he had to find Rhonwen.