New Discoveries > A Trouble Shared Is A Trouble Cubed > Catastrophe

The second K-9—or rather the first, for the one now with Eloise was K-9 Mk II, Romana’s companion—made his way unerringly back through the tunnels to the rest of the party.

“I have mapped a safe path between this point and the cavern containing the hostess Eloise,” he announced.

“Good dog!” said the fourth Doctor. “How is she?”

“The hostess Eloise appeared to be in no immediate danger,” K-9 replied.

“And the other K-9’s keeping an eye on her until we get there?”


“That just leaves the problem of us getting there,” Fitz observed, dubiously eyeing the narrow opening from which K-9 had emerged.

“Yes…” the fourth Doctor agreed.

“Any ideas?” Grace said.

“Hmm…” Eighth said. “I can see a way for one or two of us to follow Eloise… but not all of us.”

“The ‘reduce’ spell,” Izzy said.

“That’s one of our options,” Eighth said. “The trouble is, I doubt we’ve got enough transmutation spells to get us all through… and I don’t want to start knocking the walls down to follow her.” He considered. “Hold on… hold on… Delirium?”

The others looked around.

“…Did someone call? I thought someone called,” Delirium’s voice said from a nearby tunnel.

“I believe it came from behind that wall there,” Barnabas’s voice said.

“That one?”

“No, that one,” Barnabas said patiently. “That’s the ceiling.”

“Oh,” Delirium said.

Death facefaulted. “She went wandering off again…”

“Sister?!” Delirium yelped. “Sister, there you are!”

And she and Barnabas came walking straight through the wall.

Eighth and Fourth slowly broke into very large grins.

“Del?” Death said. “We need to follow Eloise, but the tunnels are too narrow—and short—for most of us to follow her. We need to find a way to get to her.”

Del blinked. “Is that all? We can follow her easy-peasy. Just follow me.”

“Although I should warn you,” Barnabas added, “Del’s route is likely to be a bit… uncomfortable.”

“If it gets us to Eloise safely—” GlitchBob began.

“Safely? Oh, you should have said! I can do safely too!”

The others sweatdropped.

“All right,” Glitch-Bob said finally. “Let’s do it.”

And with that, they set off on Eloise’s trail.

Not surprisingly, the Pensieve showed Q the same laboratory the group had been searching, but at an earlier time: the room was neater, brighter, and filled with, er… lifeforms. So Mr. Carroll was reporting the truth about the inhabitants of this dimension, he thought.

The lab was populated with various furry animals, birds, and a few slightly odd-looking humanoids, one of whom was chatting with the flowers in the windowbox. The one closest to Q, who seemed to be in charge, was a lizard. He took no notice of the visitor.

“Hey,” said the lizard, “has anyone seen Edele lately?”

“No, Professor,” said one of the others.

“Where could she be?” wondered the Professor.

Suddenly, a magpie burst into the room. “Professor!” it exclaimed. “I was just outside and I saw Edele, she must have been coming in late, and—and she just disappeared!”


“Yes! One moment she was there, and the next she wasn’t!”

So? Q thought automatically, then remembered that that was the problem to be solved.

“This isn’t the first time it’s happened,” said the other who had spoken earlier. “People have been seen to vanish with increasing frequency over the past several days. I think we should begin a Scientific Investigation.”

“I concur, Number One.”

Q started at this, as the scene dissolved into another day. Again, the Professor was at the center of the recording.

Q now saw what this Pensieve was for. Captain’s log, he thought wryly, stardate, about 150 years ago.

“How is the study coming, Number One?” asked the Professor.

“Well, we’ve taken readings from 147 people who have disappeared on campus in the past two weeks. We have found a pattern. Just before they disappear, they experience a sudden surge in brainwave strength. It’s like someone or something is amplifying them.”

“I see. That would fit in with the theory that these people are disappearing into their own private perceptual universe. The question now is, can we stop it?”

“There may be a way to stop it, yes. Some of the other students are already working on that. All our research is in the main computer if you’d care to see it.”

“Thank you.”

The scene changed again. Now, the Professor was alone in the room, and was talking into the boxy object that held his memories. “I don’t know if anyone will ever get this message,” he was saying, “but in case someone does, let it be known that the project to reverse the disappearance process was almost completed, but not quite. The device and all the information is in the main archive in the basement. Please, if you can solve the puzzle, we would be eternally grateful.”

Evidently, that was the end of the recording, because Q felt dizzy for a moment, then was back in the present-day library. Amy and the Third Doctor both noticed him coming out of it and hurried over.

“Q!” said Amy. “What did you find out?”

Q told them. When he started describing the beings that had occupied the lab, Amy grinned. “Bill the Lizard makes good!” Then she frowned. “But I thought we’d decided this wasn’t Wonderland?”

“You’re right,” Q said. “I’d forgotten. Forgotten!” He glared at the Doctor. “If I hadn’t had to cripple myself to attend this party, we could have cleared this up in no time!”

The Doctor snorted, and opened his mouth to make a retort.

“What does this mean?” Amy said hastily. “I mean, does it mean that what Q saw wasn’t real?”

“Not necessarily,” the Doctor said. “Q, which version of the lab did you see?”

“The modern one,” Q replied. “And the Professor’s recording device was the high-tech version, not the Pensieve.”

“Which suggests that, although the form of the recording device was translated into this expectation-reality’s terms, the records it contained were preserved unchanged,” the Doctor concluded. “I think we can assume that Q’s experience was reliable, unless we encounter solid evidence to the contrary.” He smiled reassuringly at Amy. “The inhabitants of this world could include talking flowers and animals, you know, even if it isn’t Wonderland. Sapient beings resembling Earth creatures are surprisingly common even in our plane of existence.”

I could have told you that,” Q said grumpily. “If you’ve quite finished, can I continue telling you what I saw in the Pensieve?”

“Please do,” Amy said.

Q did. “We need to go to the basement now,” he finished. “Gather up the troops.”

Third turned to inform the others of their new plans. Amy told Schroedy what they had learned first, so the cat could pass the information along, and then helped Third with his task. In a few minutes, they were on their way downstairs.

The rumbling in the power plant got louder and louder. “Here it comes!” said Daibhid cheerfully. Then there was a sound like “CRUMP!” a brief cloud of dust and an oblong hole in what Florestan, at least, was now seeing almost entirely as a fire curtain. In front of it was the Rucksack.

Or, as the others still saw it, the Luggage. “I realised we must have lost it somewhere,” Daibhid explained. “And of course, it’ll go anywhere in pursuit of its owner, just like the original.”

“Unfortunately,” said Florestan, “we cannot fit through that hole.”

“Most of us can’t,” agreed Bob the Muse, “but the halflings can. ALF, can you try and find a control room, and raise this thing?”

“No problemo!”

No sooner was the halfling/Melmacian gone, than Daibhid closed his eyes. “I’ve got another message from Schroedy. The team looking for the solution have found a local research project that almost had the answer. I bet if we could take the cube to them it’d help.”

“Then, when ALF gets us out of here, that’ll be our next stop, right?” said Ace.

“Mental…” Amber murmured. “Mental…”

“Hm…” Liz said. “It sounds as if they didn’t know the way was two-way—that someone could appear in their universe as well as disappear.”

“That the natives could come back,” Jo completed.

“Yes…” Third frowned, rubbing his chin. “However, it does rather raise the question of when whomever took advantage of this made their first incursion, and how and when any of the natives made it back, since that professor chap didn’t seem to know…”

Dominic frowned. “Hmm… Opening gates between this reality and people’s perceptual realities… I wonder.

“Authors can manifest themselves—or their avatars—in Subreality. However, it’s near-impossible for anyone in Subreality to manifest in Reality—near-impossible, but not impossible. Believe me, I know.

“In addition, both Subreality and Imagination are… communal, like the Commonwealth. They’re shaped by all who visit, or who tap into them.

“Whoever did this, though, appears to have found a way to create actual two-way gates between this world and its natives’ own perceptual universes—a way that involved boosting the natives’ own mental energies—but whether that was a part of the process or a side effect…”

“The sabotage!” Jo realised.

“Exactly,” Third said. “I suspect the sabotage’s effects spread through the world, altering its very reality—hence why this world is so malleable to perception.

“Equally, it is not targetable—at least, not by whomever’s in charge now. If it were, we would have started to disappear. Instead, they’ve resorted to such tricks as using this ‘Jason’ fellow.”

“Hold on…” Ben said, his forehead furrowing. “If I get what you’re saying, these guys’ mental energy—it got boosted before they disappeared. That’s the signal, right? The signal someone’s gonna vanish.”


“So… why hasn’t that started happening to us? Are we immune, or what?”

“…It may be that we haven’t been here long enough for it to start affecting us in such a way,” Third hypothesised. “Equally, it may also be that the mechanical nature—that is, the external rules setting—of an RPG serves to inoculate us somewhat against the effects. Or, perhaps, our status as non-natives gives us some form of protection.”

“In other words, you don’t know,” Q summed up.

“I may not know, but I can at least theorise based on the data available to me,” Third sniffed. “So—whoever began all this had gotten hold of something about the nature of reality, of the worlds people create inside their heads, and of the connection between the two—perception and consciousness.

“There is an external reality, and we may be certain that, to some degree or another, we all share it. However, we interpret that external reality through the filter of our perception and our consciousness, use it to build a world in our own minds—and yet, as we are learning, and as some of us already know, that world also has a reality of its own. What is imagined has a certain reality independent of the one who imagined it—but it is not the same reality as the external reality.”

“…Ow,” Amy complained.

“Think about it like this,” Dominic suggested. “It’s something like the connection between Reality and Imagination—once something is imagined in Reality, it takes on form in the reality of Imagination.”

“…Right,” Amy said. “So, um… is that where all the people went? Into Imagination?”

Dominic shook his head. “Imagination—with the capital ‘I’—is a communal realm, as are many of the worlds built between Reality and Imagination—Subreality, the Commonwealth, and so on.

“However… there are also personal worlds in existence between the two—in existence between Reality and Imagination, our own personal worlds.”

“And that’s where they’ve disappeared,” Amy concluded.

Dominic nodded. “However, whatever happened here was limited to this dimension, this slice of reality—so far.”

“And our adversaries?” Third said.

Dominic spread his hands. “I honestly don’t know. What’s happening here, with reality and perception… that’s beyond even the Muses’ power.”

“…But that doesn’t mean whoever’s behind this is more powerful than the Muses,” Second noted perceptively. “They may have discovered something beyond even their power, something they can’t completely control…”

“…That’s not reassuring, Doctors,” Liz said. “Just so you know.”

The Brigadier frowned. “I don’t like this, Doctors. Surely, if the solution to our… ‘situation’ is here, wouldn’t our… ‘adversaries’ want to protect it? Or destroy it?”

“There’s no way to know but to find out,” Second told him. “Besides, we wouldn’t have the map if there wasn’t something left of the solution.”

The Brigadier’s frown grew deeper. “Something doesn’t smell right about this, Doctors. This has all been a bit too easy for my liking…”

“What would you do without me?” Q chortled as he and Amy descended the stairs.

Second, just ahead of them, humphed. “Honestly? Have a good time.”

“Would you care to expand on that?”

“I really don’t know what you’re doing at a Pro-Fun event,” Third chimed in.

Moi? I’m all fun.”

“You’re so arrogant,” said Second.

“Look who’s talking,” Third rebutted.

“Look who’s talking!” Second rebutted back.

“Arrogance is fun,” Q interrupted their snipping. “It’s fun to write dialog for, it’s fun to deflate, and it’s fun to reform. Hence Archie Bunker and Hawkeye Pierce. Hence Spuffyfic. Hence all BKWillis’ author avatars.”

While the Doctors were groping fruitlessly for a rebuttal, a minor commotion was making its way forwards through the line of Quadrillers winding down the stairs, towards the Doctors at the front. Finally Nuku-Nuku behind Amy poked her and said something the Doctors couldn’t hear over the massive tromping on the steps. But Q passed it on before Amy had the chance: “Schroedy says David’s group is bringing us the ‘how?’.”

“Aha,” said Second and Third as they reached the bottom of the staircase. “I’ll wager that’s the one piece of the puzzle,” they went on simultaneously, “that Q’s ‘Professor’ and his team,” both Doctors were speaking faster and faster trying to finish before the other, “were unable to locate in time!” they finished in a tie.

Q shook his head at them, grinning. “And you claim arrogance isn’t fun.”

The Doctor(s) glared at him, and led the way through the double-doors. They moved into the great room they’d entered thereby just far enough for everyone else to file in behind them from the stairwell, and stood staring, alternately forward and out their eyes’ corners, while everyone did just that. Viewed straight-on, the contents of the room presented the party with a steaming, bubbling alchemical contraption of tubing and glass bottles that would have given Hawkeye Pierce nightmares. Viewed sideways, the accoutrements of the university lab resembled nothing so much as the monster-making kit that set Boris Karloff on the road to stardom.

But either way you looked at it, both aspects of the device had one feature in common: in its geometric center there was a cube-shaped hole.

“Gee,” said Q, “I wonder what it is the other group has found?”

“Here we are,” said Eighth. As he, Fourth and Nth entered the cavern, he spotted Eloise surrounded by a group of the natives. They startled a little to see a dozen or so strangers intruding on their territory, but Eloise spoke to them soothingly and that seemed to calm them.

“Let’s leave our contacts with the natives to the ambassador,” grinned Eighth, getting grins back from himselves. “Everyone,” he announced in low tones, “see what you can make of this place. Remember we’re guests.”

The King Arthur in Time and Space universe denizens had clumped back together, like children from the same class on a multi-school field trip, once Delirium had assumed guide duties from Pudentiana. Now they moved off to peruse the reliefs together; but not before Nimue muttered, “If there’s one of the natives performing a human sacrifice to an atomic reactor, I’m leaving.”

As reigning Doctor, Eighth ignored his own advice and joined Eloise with her new friends. “How do you do, I’m the Doctor,” he said to the natives, then to Eloise, “What do we know?”

“We—K-9 and I—think this bit’s the beginning, Doctor,” said Eloise, indicating a particular point in the reliefs. “See the cube, falling out of the sky?”

“What do you suppose they’re getting up to?” Lyssie wondered.

“If it’s not their sixth,” said Crichton, snapping his fingers at the barkeep for service, “they’re fallin’ waaay behind.”

[Magnus looked at the tower.]
Well, I am perceiving this as Beckworth Gothik, mixed with William Morris decoration. Slightly over the top I think. Still, the door seems to be there.
[However you perceived it the door looked very solid and very locked. Bank Vaults came to mind.]

“Anyone care to bet they’ll have built very, very secure anti-magic safeguards in there?” Sixth said.

Magnus nodded. “If it serves anything like the same purpose it apparently does out-of-game, I would think that to be virtually a certainty. And judging from its thickness, my laser ring would be drained of power before it cut through.”

“So… why don’t we ask our resident rogue?” Imran suggested, glancing over at Molly.

Molly blinked. “Why’s everyone looking at… oh, thief, right! Okay, let me see…”

She stepped up to the door.

“You might want to search for traps first,” Rhiannon hinted.

“Oh, come on. They wouldn’t be…” Molly trailed off. “I shouldn’t complete that sentence, should I?”

The others shook their heads.

“Okay…” Molly examined the door for a few moments. “Nope, no traps as far as I can see—then again, with a door like this, who needs one?”

“You’d be surprised…” Fifth, Sixth and Magnus muttered as one.

“Now… opening this thing…” Molly straightened up, running her fingers along the edges of the door. “I wonder how they got in in the first place? Must have had an easy way of doing it, something that made it easy for them…”

She touched a few of the stones in the tower wall, all of which looked indistinguishable from the rest of the tower.

The door swung open silently, revealing darkness beyond.

“In, quickly!” Fifth warned. “It’s probably on time delay!”

The others needed no second telling.

[The door closed behind them leaving them in the dark.]
I think some of us will have trouble here. In fact I am. Nothing in infrared and it is dim in ultra violet.
No need to worry, Lord.
[There was a click and brilliant blue flash and then the lights came on.]
Was that a trap?
I don't think so, the insulation on the light switch seems to have died of old age.
Nice to know we still have power.
[In front of the party was a corridor leading to a stair. Magnus took a watch from his chain, it blurred and transformed into his power rod. Glowing spheres issued from it.]
Is that wise?
Possibly not, but the seeker spheres will not go through a closed door and I do want some idea of what we are facing.
[He looked at the diagram forming in front of him.]
It seems that there are no open doors, just the stair.

The stair was deep and broad, of a costly Parian marble, and mounted straight up to a landing, after which it switched back out of sight. Now, as Magnus performed his scry-job, and Carrie stirred restlessly and seemed about to speak, there came a sound from flights above, as of some monstrous moggie whomping downstairs in full trip-you-up mode. Magnus banished the diagram for the nonce as a potential distraction, and there was a general move for weapons, spells, or in certain cases arguments of mog-mollification. Then as the catslide slowed briefly on the next landing up, it gave voice; and in a great jolly soprano whose like was never previously seen outside Attack of the 50-ft Monserrat Caballe, it sang,

Wha daur meddle wi’ me?
And wha daur meddle wi’ me?
My name it is little kit Hatsheput,
And wha daur meddle wi’ me?

The tower’s stones rang with it. And there, bouncing down the stairs, she came. That she was a she, despite her Pharaonic false beard, was in small doubt, for a secondary component of her bounciness was similar in kind to that inherent in many of Mrs Candia Harcourt’s more energetic evolutions. Basically leonine in form, this Hatsheput was apically a high-cheeked, long-nosed, huge-eyed lady, so statuesque and Classically undraped as to have had Praxiteles (should that great sculptor of Antiquity have been been present, which opportunity he had miserably missed through the petty circumstances of death and his unlucky omission from the guest-list) whipping out his chisel1 faster than you could say ‘Aphrodite Helikoblepharos’.

Her teeth, displayed in a dangerous grin as she whomped to a phased standstill before the party, were those of a lioness, save for those matters of scale relating to her being more than twice the size of any likely lioness. She was, in short, a Sphinx and a half and a bit.

Speaking of Mrs Harcourt, that noble chick pinkened. “Oh, wow!” she remarked, in a voice like a kid caught in a potentially lethal avalanche of sweets and toffee-apples. She began humming Tom Jones’s seminal “What’s New, Pussycat?”, sufficiently under her breath for barely legal deniability.

“Security check,” explained Hatsheput briskly, licking her full lips with a dark catlike tongue, to peculiarly disturbing effect. “You know the usual form?”

Magnus nodded. “If we guess your riddle, we pass unharmed.”

“Inwards,” Hatsheput agreed. “Outwards is another matter. One of you only to try the riddle at a time, no conferring. Solver’s a star, loser is lunch. I live on, either way. None to interfere in the doings, from either side.”

“Indeed,” said Magnus, regarding her speculatively. “There are other bargains we could make. I have a fair notion of the relative strengths of a gynosphinx and a party such as ours, and a being as wise as your ladyship must have too. Suppose we were to let you pass us, if you’ll answer our riddle?”

“More than my job’s worth,” she stated. “It does not work that way.”

“You haven’t heard it,” Varne pointed out; and Magnus remedied the lack at once:

Who goes up against an adventurous host,
Knowing that she will be certainly toast?

The sphinx smiled lazily, and with the full enigmacity of her job-description behind it. “Oh,” she said, “as for that, we’ll see, if it should come to it.”

“Magnus,” Fifth intervened hastily, to a chorus of general though notably animous support. “This is not the way.” He looked Hatsheput frankly in the eyes, and it was the sphinx who blinked first. “My lady,” he said, “what’s your riddle?”

Trader Grey coughed. “Before we get into that,” he said, “a clarification, ma’am? If one of us answers the riddle, we all pass? I missed that, in the original conditions.”

“Consider it added,” said Hatsheput genially, her great eyes sparkling.

“Oh, great!” Tegan complained.

“‘Twas a Monty Python set-up, as beat death’s-head wings at our backs,” agreed Fastolf, mopping his brow, “and me loving all rich and noble colours, as sard and smaragdine and lapis and gorgeous slaughtersome incarnadine, as scarce I should have told my very favourite amongst ‘em!”

“Oedipoi to that!” said the security sphinx, sitting up very straight. “This is my riddle:—

My darling is Death, and my harlot is Hope.
I’ve gobbled down gods, and had many a pope.
Your loyallest lover will come when I call,
And leave you for aye, at a run or a crawl.
I may dawdle along, I may freeze, I may fly,
But nobody stands unmoved as I go by.
Who am I?

“Oh, and just for the form of it,” as the party began to stir, “and so I know whose answer to take: I’ll hear that answer only from one standing under my paw. It’ll relieve the rest of you of an unpleasant dilemma, if it comes to that.” She licked her lips again.

“Not so fast—!” Sixth began; and,

Candy!” Carrie protested; for that very lady had bounced with enormous readiness straight into Hatsheput’s Junoesque shadow.

“Mememe!” Mrs Harcourt explained, and a paw duly went up over her.

“Your answer will be heard,” the sphinx announced.

“I told you, already, Pussy Galore!” Candy said impatiently. “The answer’s me. Every delectable inch of me; every specified detail.”

Hatsheput smiled. “Wrong,” she said, and her paw flashed down faster than thought.

To stop a hairsbreadth above the lubricious Muse’s fair head.

“Oi,” said Hatsheput then. “That was not the answer, and cheats never prosper. Drop the enchantment!”

Candy leered up at her beatifically. “What enchantment? That’s Carrie’s department: I just do cheap thrills, me…”

“It’s your own geas, ma’am,” said Carrie. There was a note in her voice of enormous, and enormously reluctant, sisterly pride. “You can’t harm her: she answered your riddle rightly.”

Hatsheput visibly considered this, and its implications. She wasn’t the only one. “Sekhmet on a skateboard!” she concluded. “Erm. This is awkward. I can’t let you pass without the Authorised Answer, and I can’t deny you either…” Her eyes closed, and her severely beautiful face began to darken.

Spike nudged Adric. “Oh-ho, looks like Superbitch has pulled off a ‘Does Not Compute’ job!” He scowled disgustedly. “Of all the bloody hokey dumps—!”

Candy stroked the sphinx’s heavy paw with a leisurely and adoring tenderness. Hatsheput blinked, and found herself looking down into a brilliant chipmunk smile.

“Tell you what, kitty. Let someone else try instead, and you can owe me one…”

“Hey!” Peri protested. She laid a restraining, don’t-you-even-think-about-it, hand on Sixth’s arm.

“Done, then,” Hatsheput said, rather dazedly. She shook her great head as if to clear it. “Who’s next up?”

“He is indeed,” Sixth announced grandiloquently, disengaging himself from Peri. “‘Tis a far far better thing I do, than I have ever done since a previous episode!” The party parted before him.

He stood under the sphinx’s fearsome uplifted paw…

“He’s a Time Lord, right?” a very small voice said somewhere to Molly’s left. “And the answer’s—”

Jonah broke off with an onomatopoeic squeak of dismay. “Oh NO!”

A small brown-and-white flicker had just darted beneath the firmly planted limbs of the sphinx. Biggles paused for a moment, crouched in preparation, and then launched himself with a bound up the first of the steps. Rhiannon, beside her, tensed reflexively.

Molly winced and tried very hard not to look at what was going on behind Hatsheput. The sphinx was still intent on Sixth, and right now the last thing Molly felt like doing was to catch her eye.

Biggles had never asked to become a Thinking rat. In fact, he wasn’t particularly enjoying it—and had been tempted to wonder, once or twice, what would happen if he just tried the ‘looking sideways’ trick. However, since he strongly suspected that he would find himself back in a normal state of blissful non-cogitating innocence and would thus be entirely unable to look after Jonah in any way whatsoever, while he did thoroughly look forward to the end of this adventure and the consequent relinquishment of responsibility, he couldn’t square a wilful abdication of his intellect with the conscience of which he was currently, inconveniently, in possession.

Besides, just thinking about it made his head spin with the number of extra syllables involved.

But the opportunity to get into the tower unseen while its guardian and her putative masters were distracted by the traditional challenge was too good to be missed. He had descended the woolly cross-gartering of Jonah’s Dwarfish legs with the airy ease of a ballroom dancer (whoever had invented that particular fashion in clothing must surely have had the requirements of rats in mind?) and made his leap for the stairs before anyone, including Jonah, could stop him.

It was amazing what people—and sphinxes—didn’t notice when it was right under their noses. Hatsheput’s undercarriage was an awesome sight, but fortunately being a rat he wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. He nipped through and under her tail, which sported a ridiculous tuft of hair on the end quite unlike the elegant taper of his own appendage, and currently, switching gently from side to side, resembled nothing so much as a tasselled bell-pull.

The steps were a little steeper than he would have liked, but after all he was a rat, a member of one of the best mountaineering species in the world. Would he be deterred from a bowl of fruit—a luscious slice of toast—a piece of melted cheese (Biggles’ baser self had inadvertently started to drool at the very concept) by a mere flight of steps? He would not. So why should the promptings of his conscience weigh lower than the demands of his super-sensitive nose…?

Lofty thoughts of this nature carried him most of the way up to the landing before reality caught up with him. It reminded him that his limbs were short, each step was taller than he was, and that there was only so much dauntless upward springing that a rat could manage without getting tired. He clambered onto the landing, panting, and took a short break.

After what he judged to be a suitable dramatic pause, the sixth Doctor drew breath to answer the sphinx’s question—and held it, a frown crossing his face, as something caught his attention. He squinted at the cat-shaped badge adorning his lapel, huffed on it a few times, and polished it with the cuff of his coat. Nodding in satisfaction, he tucked his hands behind his back and began to whistle cheerfully, with a lack of apparent concern for the fearsome paw hanging over his head that was matched only by the complete lack of any recognisable tune.

The whistle fell into a tense hush. All eyes were riveted on the Doctor, save his own, which were apparently intent on the ceiling, and those of the sphinx, which were darting to and fro between him and the stairway.

As the Doctor came to the end of his non-tune and drew breath to begin another, Hatsheput spoke.

“If you don’t answer the riddle right now,” she said, giving a smile that showed all her teeth to best advantage, “I’m going to assume that you don’t know the answer.”

The Doctor responded with a—rather smug—smile of his own. “‘Time’,” he said.

Hatsheput carefully withdrew her paw and, with no further word, turned and raced back up the stairs.

The Doctor watched her go with a worried expression on his face. “Time and to spare, I hope,” he said. “But we’d better get a move on, just the same.”

“What was all that about?” Peri demanded.

“Young Jonah’s rat decided to improvise,” the Doctor explained as he led the way toward the stairs. “I was giving him as much of a head start as I could; Hatsheput couldn’t go after him while the existing challenge was unresolved.”

“But you answered the riddle,” Peri said. “Doesn’t that mean we’re all allowed in?”

“We’re all allowed in now,” the Doctor replied, “but I don’t think it’s retroactive. The rat proceeded without gaining permission, ergo he is a trespasser, ergo things are going to go very badly for him if we don’t find him before Hatsheput does.” He frowned at Jonah.

“How are we going to do that?”

“My dear Peri, I can’t think of everything. Time for someone else to do some work around here, hmm?”

Adric turned to the tall robed figure beside him. “I don’t suppose you could…?”

Death shook his head, an apologetic look on his face (which is a pretty neat trick, since his face was that of a grinning skull).


“And the Death of Rats isn’t with you,” Adric said, not even bothering to phrase it as a question. Death compounded an improbability by looking even more apologetic.


When he discovered that the walls of the next flight appeared to be of lath and plasterboard, richly covered with wallpaper, instead of marble, it did occur to the newly-intellectualised part of Biggles’ mind to wonder if it was a case of seeing what he wanted to see, namely of disappearing into his own private reality. But the other part of his mind had instinctively said “Aha! Rat ladder!” and all but completed a neatly-gnawed hole into the lathwork before the doubts in question had even been fully formed; and it seemed a pity to waste all that effort. So—the option to glance into the other world and check the corresponding reality not being open—Biggles neatly finished his hole, slipped his body through the implausibly small aperture, and continued his journey scrabbling up the inside of the wall at a rather faster pace than he had begun.

The tower seemed to be quite densely occupied. Either that, or there were a large number of radio sets kept constantly turned on. As he climbed he was surrounded by a hum of hushed voices, engaged either in debate or argument or merely in solitary speculation out loud, although none of the discussion—what little of it he could make out—seemed to have any bearing on the questors’ own concerns. Could they really be talking about flooding from the overflow of the disused adit of the treacle mine, for example? Or was the tasty prospect merely a chimera of his own over-stressed imagination?

“Archives,” Biggles told himself firmly, eavesdropping his way steadily upwards with muscular sweeps of his tail. “I’m looking for archives…”

With a final heave, he reached a handy crack at what seemed to be floor-level five or six storeys up, and let his sensitive nose and whiskers do the exploring. Hmmm. Parchment—tasty. Paper—quite tasty. Ink—no, all dried up. A smell of wood-shavings, but very old ones. Promising.

Biggles nibbled swiftly at the crack, rasping away the aging wood with teeth that could bite through cable (and had—on one never-to-be-forgotten youthful occasion, when ‘thatbloodyrat’ had been responsible for fusing the entire downstairs maisonette—done so. Even Jonah had been shaken by that one.) The gap was almost big enough. He flattened himself to the boards, squeezing his belly over the chewed wood, and emerged in an airy room, full of pigeon-holed scrolls. Definitely hopeful.

The floor was clear of dust, but many of the scrolls were furred thick with it. Biggles sat up on his hind legs and surveyed the room. What would Jonah do? Knock all the scrolls down and burn them, probably. He flicked his whiskers in annoyance. Well, then, what would the Doctor do?

[Magnus had been looking at the diagram which had reformed.]
Not an open door in the place. Let me see, seven floors counting this one. No lift, now if it is a typical office building we would have reception on the ground floor.
We just dealt with reception.
True. The next floors would be filled with offices with the higher they are the more junior the position, be the other way round in a building with a lift. The archives will be either on the top floor or in a basement.
No basement Lord, I have already checked.
Where’s Biggles?
Not in my range for someone that small. At least four floors up.
I suggest we go up to the top and work our way down.

To understand the nature of the ensuing catastrophe, it is necessary for the discerning student diligently to examine each of the many factors—each necessary, but none individually sufficient—that led up to that most infamous event. It is rather ironical that each of these factors was, in itself, of a perfectly innocent nature, except (as should go without saying) for the ones involving Candy—well, and Fastolf—and naturally Magnus and Varne—and obviously—er, pretty much every bugger there, really; so, um, okay, perhaps it isn’t really as ironical as all that, except in a sort of higher Alanis-Morisette-treading-in- cat’s-mess sense, which by the by reminds us that we were about to—


—indeed, to do just that thing.

Trust us on this.

It’s really all very simple, once one lays it out logically.

We’ll get right back to you. No, missus, really!

1 Insert Official Candy Moment here.

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Story copyright © 2003 the original authors; this compilation copyright © 2003–2005 Igenlode Wordsmith and Paul Andinach; HTML modified by Imran Inayat.