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whiir whiir whiir

"All right," the Doctor cried, "here we are, everyone! Now this is a bit of a different sort of place. This planet got cut off from the rest of the galaxy a few centuries ago, and it dropped way back to primitive standards. They're home to some of the best horse riders in the galaxy right now, and they've invented six kinds of horse-drawn carriage that have never been used anywhere else, ever. They're also pretty cool with swords." He flung open the door of the TARDIS. "Everyone who likes horses and swords, this way!"

Amy was right behind him. Rory followed more slowly. Amy had asked for horses, and the Doctor had grinned and started pulling levers, and Rory was bracing himself to smile and look happy about half-ton animals with tiny brains and enormous feet marching all over the place. Amy and the Doctor went out onto the new planet, and Rory followed. Then Rory grabbed Amy and the Doctor and dragged them back inside as a bright red flying machine shrieked bare inches past their noses.

"Funny kind of horses they have here," he observed. It might be a completely different planet centuries in the future, but the red thing screamed 'boy racer' all the same. The Doctor and Amy joined him in staring up at the skyscrapers, with flyers weaving in and out of them as silent cars sped along the road. Then the Doctor dashed back to the controls of the TARDIS, scanned a little screen in a corner and said, "Well, we might be a couple of hundred years off. Hundred years here, hundred years there, it's amazing how it all adds up after a while. This is the start of the reign of Emperor Gregor the Great." He grinned at Rory. "At least, the Barrayarans thought he was Great. Some of the other planets had much ruder names for him. Though not as bad as the previous one. Admiral Lord Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr, everyone called him. Things are getting better around here these days. I think."

"But you said we were going to go to see the future with horses," Amy grumbled.

"I expect there are some around somewhere," the Doctor said, looking at the vehicles dubiously. "Somewhere." He took a breath. "So, anyway, let's go look around, see some history."

"It can't be history if it's in the future," Amy objected.

"It's all history sooner or later." The Doctor twiddled his sonic screwdriver and frowned.

"What?" Rory said.

"Well, you see," the Doctor said, twiddling the screwdriver some more, "in this ... well, it's a bit complicated, but around here and now, there aren't any aliens. Just humans, all over the place. But according to this--" he flourished the screwdriver "--there are some alien lifeforms around here somewhere."

Amy gave him a pointed look. "Perhaps it's you."

"No, it looks like an Ergophage or two. Not a very interesting creature, they're not sentient or visible, and they feed on energy sources. They can be a nuisance depending on what you use for power and how well it's shielded, but they're not dangerous. A bit like cockroaches, really. I wonder how one got here." The sonic screwdriver flashed around a few more times, and he said, "Hmm. Well, you two wander around. There's a gorgeous bridge that way, very honeymooney." He rummaged through the inner pocket of his jacket. "Here's some local cash, get some dinner or something." He hesitated a moment. "You might want to be a bit careful with the locals--they've had loads of civil wars and terrorism and stuff like that around here, and they're a bit... touchy. Just don't go too close to the Imperial Palace or anything like that, and don't bother anyone whose name starts with a Vor, and you should be fine, the ordinary people are perfectly friendly. I'm going see about these Ergophages."

"Huh. We'll just wait for the loud bangs, shall we then?" Amy said, but he was already deep in the workings of the TARDIS, muttering to himself.

Rory looked around. The tall buildings opened out in the direction the Doctor had pointed. It was early evening, chilly and brisk with a note of spring in the air, and it looked more or less like any other city at rush hour, with heavy traffic as everyone headed home for the night. Admittedly most cities Rory was used to didn't have the flying cars, but the basic idea was the same.

"Come on, then," Amy said, heading down the road.

The city was an odd mixture, Rory thought. In between the shiny skyscrapers there were older buildings: crumbling Soviet-style concrete monstrosities, equally faded-looking traditional architecture with lots of hand-carved bits and not-quite-straight walls, and everywhere, construction work going on. The place must be growing fast. They watched a flying crane doing some kind of complicated work on a skyscraper, and passed a gaggle of old women sitting on a low wall by a bus station, selling bits of garden produce and handiwork. Amy bought a bag of a fruit preserved in sugar that looked a bit like small plums, and they sat on a bench by the river to eat them. The bridge the Doctor had mentioned was a bit upstream, and Rory had to agree that it was very fancy and romantic. On the far side of the river the road looked much grander, with trees lining it and the glimpse beyond of a big square with a statue of a man on a horse in the centre. It was the first horse they'd seen.

"Let's go that way," Amy said.

The square had a lot of imposing-looking buildings around it with small plaques indicating that they were looking at the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Finance, the Imperial Treasury Office, the Ministry of Terraforming … all sorts of boring stuff. The tree-lined boulevard continued on the far side of the square, and at the end of that, Rory suspected that they had found the forbidden Imperial Palace. Amy gave a grin.

"There. I thought it had to be this way."

There were a lot of guards around now. Rory had seen some police outside the government buildings and patrolling the square, but the guards outside the palace had a very serious look about them. He hoped the gun emplacements around the place were historical rather than in current use.

"Amy, the Doctor said..." he tried, but she shut him up with a quick kiss.

"He only said that to make us go here," she argued, putting an arm through his. "You know that. I wonder what they have here that's so interesting, anyway. Emperor Gregor the Great, I suppose. I bet he's about ninety."

They walked along the pavement, up against the high iron fence. There was a wide strip of garden, grass with a few low flowerbeds that nothing could possibly hide in, and beyond that the walls of the palace. It was illuminated with spotlights and looked very grand against the darkening sky. Further ahead was a gate with a checkpoint beside it and several more guards. One was beginning to eye them with professional interest. Rory tried to look like a very harmless sort of tourist. Did they even allow tourists around here?

A flyer screeched overhead and landed near the checkpoint with a scrape of metal on concrete that made Rory and Amy both wince. It was the red flyer that had nearly taken the hair off their heads earlier. A young man jumped out of the driver's seat, and Rory knew his snap judgement had been correct. Boy racers.

"... not going. I am not going to listen to your mother try to give me The Talk again. She's tried four times now, and each one was worse than the one before. She had pictures, Miles. Pictures! Really awful ones with hair and ick."

The passenger door opened and another young man, very short, got out. "You've been to Beta now. That's just how they do things. They like realism."

"Well, I don't."

Amy gave a huff and marched up to them. "Your driving sucks," she said to the tall youth. "You nearly squished me and my friends earlier."

Rory followed, caught between admiration of Amy's front-and-centre approach to life and wishing she wouldn't immediately start by insulting the locals. He stood behind her, trying to project 'don't mess with my wife' vibes and not sure he was succeeding. But the tall youth, after an initial blink of surprise, gave Amy a blinding smile.

"I was dazzled by your beauty, milady. How may I earn your forgiveness?"

"He always drives like that," the short one--Miles--countered. "Sorry."

"Ivan Vorpatril," the driver said with a flourishing bow. "How can I be of service, milady?"

Rory could tell that the bowing and milady-ing was having an effect on Amy. She returned his smile. "We were just looking around. Is that the Imperial Palace?"

"That's right," said Ivan. "Are you off-worlders? Are you staying here long?" He gave Rory an uncertain glance, but when Rory said nothing he turned his attention back to Amy. Rory didn't see any reason to tell him that when you knew your wife liked you better than the Doctor, you didn't have to worry about exotically tall, dark and handsome strangers on holiday.

"No idea," Amy said. "We came to see the horses, but there don't seem to be any around here."

Miles, unexpectedly, brightened. "Not in the city, no, though there are some hacking paths in Vorbarra Park, and of course the Household Guard. You want to go down to Vortala's District, that's where the big shows will be happening, starting next week. My grandfather… used to compete there. I mean, his horses did, he was too old to ride himself." He paused. "I'm Miles Vorkosigan," he added, giving Amy a shyer version of the look Ivan was turning on her.

Rory blinked at the name as he recalled what the Doctor had said earlier. The Butcher ... but surely this guy was too young to be anything like that. "Are you ... related to Admiral Vorkosigan?" he asked.

"My father," said Miles shortly.

"Oh, he's the one--" Amy cut herself off, slightly too late for tact. Miles' eyebrows lowered, making him look suddenly like he could be related to someone called 'the Butcher of Komarr'.

"Well, you're galactics," Ivan said with a slightly over-cheerful smile. "Barrayar is a very nice place to visit these days, you know. And romantic." He looked at Amy, who had turned back to admiring the Imperial Palace, and his expression brightened. "Do you want to see inside?"

"We can't just go in there," Rory objected, still eyeing the guards.

"No," Ivan said somewhat smugly, "but we can. We're on leave from the Academy, and we were just coming to visit Gregor but he said he'd be with our mothers, so we've got some time yet. So how about a tour?"

"Ivan..." Miles began, "the security--"

"I just mean the public rooms," Ivan said defensively. "I'm not completely stupid. They do tours during the day--not for just anyone, you understand, but diplomatic people and so forth--anyway, why can't we do our own tours in the evening?" He grinned. "What's the point of having connections if you don't use them?"

"You have connections?" Amy said with a sardonically raised eyebrow. Rory didn't doubt it himself, and he suspected Amy was just winding the boys up to make sure she got her tour. Both young men had an air of effortless confidence and security that Rory associated with the very rich and privileged. Born with silver spoons in their mouths, his Nan would have said. And Ivan had said they were visiting 'Gregor', and Rory was utterly certain that they meant Emperor Gregor the Great.

"Miles used to live here," Ivan said, obviously bragging now. Rory gave Miles a surprised look. He'd pegged Ivan as the higher-ranking one, somehow.

"When I was a baby," Miles protested. At Ivan's smile, he grimaced. "All right. I'll have a word with security. If you don't mind telling me your full names..."

They did, Rory a little dubiously. He didn't suppose they'd actually pass anyone's security check, what with not having arrived officially here or anything. This looked like the sort of place that cared about having the right paperwork, and the Doctor and his psychic paper weren't here. But Miles returned surprisingly quickly. "They're both on the green list," he said. "You didn't mention that your friend was already visiting here."

"Oh," Rory said stupidly.

"Yeah. Having tea with both our mothers as well, if you can believe it."

"So much for 'don't go near the Palace,' the hypocrite," said Amy in tones that promised dark retribution for the Doctor later on. "We're on our honeymoon," she added with a sharp look at Ivan, "so we went off on our own."

Rory hadn't been planning to mention that, not wanting to come across all possessive, but he was pleased that Amy had. He had to reluctantly admire Ivan's manners. The briefest crestfallen expression crossed his face, then he smiled and said, "Then a tour of the Residence on your own will be just right, and no need to bother my mother."

"Right," said Miles. "Come on in, then."

*

Illyan went into the sub-basement, the last stop on his evening walkabout of ImpSec HQ. He did not ask the guard to leave the door open behind him, though he would have liked to. The conversion of the old cells to evidence storage was going well, so well that they'd already moved the first batch of materials into its new home. He exchanged a casual greeting with the sergeant in charge of the building works, who was overseeing the demolition of a set of walls to make the biologicals storage room, and then entered the completed area, where his own cell had been. It gave him a certain feeling of satisfaction to see the shelves of carefully ordered items now in its place.

His commlink chimed.

"Sir. Security violation at Entrance Six. We've just caught an intruder."

Illyan frowned. Entrance Six was one of the top-secret ways into ImpSec HQ, and nobody ought even to know about its existence who wasn't cleared.

"He's requesting to speak to you," the guard continued. "He says he has urgent information for you. He has a Level Two pass, sir."

That made Illyan pay attention. Level Two was the second-highest clearance level for civilians, used by some of his most senior informers and deep cover agents. "Did he give a name?"

"No, sir, but he's, um, very insistent that it's urgent."

Illyan sighed inwardly. Just once, just once, he'd like to have a day where he could work seven to nine, go home and sleep all night and not have random crises breaking out around mealtimes or quitting time. "Well, scan him and bring him straight to me, then. Under guard, please."

The man who was escorted in a few minutes later was eccentrically dressed, tall and lean with a very fidgety, inquisitive air. Illyan was reminded irresistably of Miles. But the man was absolutely not on his list of Level Two pass-holders. In fact, Illyan did not have a single image of him anywhere on his chip, which was quite unusual by itself.

"Hello, hello," he said cheerfully. "You've got a serious problem in here, did you know?"

"Excuse me," Illyan said, speaking carefully in his most bland bureaucratic voice, "I need to see your credentials again. Procedures."

The man brandished a piece of paper, and Illyan read it. It was a perfect Level Two pass with his own signature and thumbprint. He looked away, then called up the image on his chip. His chip showed a blank piece of paper. Illyan glanced at the pass again, then at the chip-memory. Blank. He felt a twinge of anxiety in the pit of his stomach. Either there was something wrong with his chip, or something wrong with his eyes. When in doubt, Illyan tended to trust his chip.

He made a small hand signal to the guards, and a moment later the intruder was jammed up against the wall with two large ImpSec guards between him and Illyan.

"Now," he said, "you're going to answer my questions. How did you forge those credentials and why were you poking around outside?"

The man grinned disarmingly. "How did you figure it out? The psychic paper works really well on most people. You're not psychic, I can tell, so how did you know?"

"The point of an interrogation," Illyan said with a certain amount of asperity, "is that you answer my questions. Who are you and what are you doing here?"

"I'm the Doctor," the man said, uninformatively. "And somewhere around in here is an artefact that really doesn't belong. I'd like to take it off your hands before it attracts trouble. I think it might do that very soon if we're not lucky."

Illyan had met some cocky miscreants in the past, but none who would blithely tell the Chief of ImpSec what to do in his own dungeons. He raised an eyebrow. "Well, Doctor, I'm not in the habit of letting people forge my signature and then steal things from me. Sorry. Request denied." He looked at the guards. "Take him to--"

His wrist comm chimed. "Yes?" he said impatiently.

His secretary was on the other end. "Sorry to intrude, sir, but Lady Vorpatril is being very, um, insistent on your personal line. Shall I ask her to wait?" He sounded as if he'd rather be assigned to Kyril Island.

"No, I'll talk to her. Put her through." He signed the guards to wait and crossed to the nearest comconsole. The Doctor, unexpectedly, looked rather annoyed at the interruption, as if he'd wanted to be marched away.

Lady Alys' face on the vidscreen was as lovely and forceful as ever. "Captain Illyan," she said. "I believe you may have a strange man at ImpSec."

Illyan had long since noticed that Lady Alys knew more about what was happening in Vorbarr Sultana than any other person anywhere, but this was remarkable even for her. "Why do you say so?" he said cautiously. In an aside, he ran a check on what Lady Alys had been doing for the past few hours. Taking tea at the Residence with Countess Cordelia and a visiting academic, apparently a friend of Cordelia's. Nothing unusual there.

"I have reason to think you should pay attention to what he has to say," Alys said.

"We'll be holding him on charges of forgery, for starters," Illyan said, deciding it was pointless to deny the situation to Alys. "And trespass in a restricted area. Why do you believe him to be trustworthy?"

"Well, it's a long story, but so long as you let him explain himself, it should all be fine. He apparently has information about--"

The screen flickered, then went dark. Illyan blinked. The lights overhead began to flicker, his comm link beeped erratically and then fell silent, and then every light in the old cell block went out. In the darkness, Illyan heard the automatic deadlocks slamming shut on the doors.

*

"... and this is the little dining room," Miles said. He seemed to be getting into the role of tour guide. It was the most eccentric tour Rory had ever had. Miles and Ivan had pointed out the curtained alcove where they had seen the Earth ambassador get yelled at by Miles' mother for groping a maid, the window the Emperor had broken by throwing a snowball and the entire story of how everyone had covered up for him when Ivan's mother wanted to know what had happened, the place Miles' father had been standing when he apparently tricked someone called the Cetagandans into putting all their warships into the wrong places, and the way Miles and Ivan had smuggled a technically harmless snake into a formal reception. It was all a lot more interesting than Rory had expected, though the palace itself was pretty standard as such places went: lots of impressive gilt and chandeliers and big echoing rooms designed to impress the yokels. Rory had seen a lot of palaces over the years, at least in part of his memory.

The 'little' dining room had a table as long as Rory's parents' house, all set for a formal dinner. "Must be something tonight," Ivan said. "Think it's anything to do with your friend visiting?"

"No idea," Amy said. "What's that?" she said, pointing to a large silver goblet on a shelf on its own, not far from the head of the table.

"That's for the Emperor's first toast," Miles said. "He thinks it's ugly, but it's traditional. It belonged to Dorca. Emperor Dorca the Just," he added a moment later. "My great-great grandfather."

Amy's eyebrows rose. "So are you in line for the throne?" she asked with a grin. Her words seemed to crystallise like ice in the air.

"No," Miles said flatly. "Not if I can help it."

There was another of those long awkward silences.

"If you look out the window you can see Emperor Ezar's famous garden," Ivan said, a little too loudly. "He designed it himself. It's a really nice place to--"

The lights went out. A siren howled somewhere, then abruptly cut out. Rory banged his shins on something, and then felt a weight force him to the ground. He heard a squeal of protest from Amy. There were shouts and thumps and running footsteps outside the room, then a crash.

"Did you do this?" Ivan growled in his ear, suddenly very menacing in the dark, holding Rory pinned to the carpet.

"Gerroff me!" he heard Amy shriek. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Rory tried to struggle, but Ivan's military training was a lot more recent than his. "We didn't do anything," he protested smearily into the thick pile of the carpet. Though if the Doctor really was having tea somewhere here, Rory wouldn't be in the least surprised to discover that he was responsible for this. Perhaps it was his idea of a joke.

"What's wrong with the emergency backups?" Miles was muttering from where he was evidently restraining Amy. "Or the second backup. Or something. This is all wrong. It shouldn't be possible to cut off the power here."

"Well," Amy said tartly, "it looks like it is. And it is absolutely nothing to do with us."

"You would say that, though, wouldn't you?" Miles retorted. "Ivan, we need to get to Gregor."

"No, we should stay right here," Ivan said. "ImpSec will be shooting at everything that moves, out there."

There were rustling noises from behind them, then a sudden loud crash of glass and a draught of cold air. From his place on the floor, Rory guessed that someone had just smashed a window. A bit of light from the city's many buildings illuminated a figure jumping in the window. He shone a torch straight at Ivan and Rory, and Rory blinked frantically, dazzled. Then the light moved on to Miles, holding Amy.

"Vorkosigan," said the person with the torch, in a very different accent to that of the locals. He did not sound friendly at all. Ivan abruptly released Rory, moving to intercept the man. Rory rolled to his feet, got tangled up in a chair and collided with the table. There was a crash of silverware and class. Ivan began to grapple with the new arrival, and the torch spun away, landing pointing uselessly at a patch of embossed wallpaper. Rory tried to move towards the sounds of the struggle, and then heard a very familiar cry of triumph from Amy.

"Gotcha, you weirdo," she said. A few moments later Ivan reclaimed the torch and shone it around. The intruder was motionless on the floor, and Amy was holding the large ugly--and very heavy--toasting goblet, now rather dented. Rory disentangled himself from the chair, made his way across the broken glass to her and pulled her into a hug. She smirked at him. Miles was picking himself up from the floor.

"Komarrans," he said, his voice sounding rather tense and unhappy. "The force screen must be down."

Ivan, who was using some torn-down curtain cord to tie the man up, gave Miles a look. "What have you broken?"

"I'm fine," Miles said.

"What have you broken?" he repeated.

"Collarbone," Miles admitted. "Never mind that. If these are Komarrans who've sabotaged the circuits somehow, they'll be after Gregor. We need to tell people."

What's happened to ImpSec?" Ivan said. "They should be all over this."

"Well, they're not. They don't actually have a guard on every door in the Imperial Residence, you know. The ones at the sentry boxes will be staying at their posts, and the crash team will be with Gregor--I hope--and everyone else will be looking for intruders. But it's a bit harder in the dark. So we need to go. The Emperor is in danger."

"And your mothers are here too, didn't you say?" Rory said, wanting to be sympathetic. They both gave him identical looks of scorn.

"Aren't you worried about your mothers?" Amy said.

Ivan and Miles spoke in chorus. "No."

"Your collarbone," Rory said, his attention drawn by something he could do. "Let me take a look. I'm a nurse." He assessed the small man professionally. It was a simple fracture, exactly as Miles had said. "All right. I'll put this in a sling for you. Amy, come hold the light, please." He took one of the enormous linen napkins from the table and began to tie it up. Miles was an unexpectedly good patient, holding his arm still and steady and not trying to interfere. Rory could almost have believed that Miles had done this before. He must be in some pain, but he was very stoical about it. "You'll want to get medical attention for that as soon as possible," he said.

"The Emperor first," Miles replied firmly. "Let's go," he said as soon as the final knot was tied.

"Try not to jiggle it about..." Rory began, but Miles was off.

He and Amy followed behind as they left the dining room. Even in the dark, Miles seemed to have no difficulty knowing where he was going. They went through was Rory thought was probably a servants' entrance and along a narrow, deserted corridor. At the end was a door standing ajar, leading out into the garden. Miles, in the lead, stopped and stood in the patch of illumination from the city's lights.

"It's just the Residence, whatever it is," he muttered, "Look, this door has been forced. I think some of them must have come through here. The one who came in our window was probably another prong of the attack..."

Amy, holding the torch, moved a little way along the corridor past the door. Suddenly she stopped dead, shining the torch downwards. Rory went over, with Ivan following, still a little suspicous.

"Stop," Amy said, in a strange unfamiliar voice. "Stop. Don't move."

Rory was surprised at how promptly Ivan obeyed this. He hadn't pegged the Barrayaran as someone who was used to doing what a woman told him. They both stood still.

"What is it?" Rory asked.

"I only just saw it," Amy said, still in that strange distant tone.

"What?" Rory repeated, even as he saw it. Amy was shining her torch at a thin wire stretched at ankle-height across the corridor.

"Crap," Ivan said. "Shine that light a bit more to the left," he said crisply. Amy obeyed, and they all saw the little wired bundle.

"It's a bomb," Amy said, unnecessarily.

Miles left off examining the door and hurried to join them. Ivan put out a hand to stop him.

"They've left it to stop anyone following them," Miles said. "And Gregor's that way. Crap," he echoed.

Rory's first instinct was to grab Amy and head straight out the door. Tripwires, bombs, assassins... and all Amy had wanted in the first place was a romantic spot with horses. But Amy's first shock was wearing off now, and she was looking down intently.

"So we just step over the wire, and it'll be okay?" she asked.

"Can't do that. There could be rescue teams coming along here, and if this section blows up it'll take half the wing with it," Miles said, almost absently. "Ivan, you were in the explosives course too, weren't you... if we just open this up... I think we can disable it."

Rory stepped backwards abruptly. If it did go off, they'd need someone to put the pieces back together.

*

Illyan reacted instantly, one hand reaching for his panic button, the other for his stunner. Nerve disruptors would be a very bad idea in the dark. There were some alarming thumps, a half-strangled yell from one of the guards, and the sounds of the door opening and closing.

"Look out!" shouted the Doctor, and Illyan moved. The blow, therefore, caught him not massively on the back of his head, but glancingly off his shoulder. He still staggered back, then twisted away. His assailant moved in for a grab, and Illyan broke away, letting his chip-memory of the space guide him. His assailant ricocheted off a wall, and Illyan followed up with a fierce kick, but something coiled around his leg and nearly pulled him down. It wasn't a hand.

"Just hold still, I'll sort this out," said the Doctor, advice Illyan had no intention of taking in his own HQ. He'd always had a gift for hand-to-hand combat--he jerked his leg, dragging his attacker off-balance but failing to free it--but this time he wasn't fighting hands. Another coil wrapped around his arm. He fired the stunner, but heard no sound from the beam. Instead it spluttered as if it had run out of charge. Illyan tried to slam his attacker into the wall again, and went for his belt knife with his free hand, but yet another coil caught him around the waist, and he was flat on his back and helpless.

Then there was a strange whine like a machine overloading, and a light came on.

"There, that's better," said the Doctor. He closed the cover on the emergency light he had evidently fixed, and Illyan got his first look at whoever had attacked him.

So, he told himself, deliberately keeping his thoughts calm and controlled, that's how it got the better of me. It had tentacles. Multiple tentacles branching off from its 'arms', like enormous fingers. And three eyes. And dark blue skin. He made a convulsive movement, and the creature hissed at him.

The Doctor looked entirely unsurprised by the creature's appearance. "Do let him go," he said. "I can help you, but not if you wander around pissing off the locals."

The creature uncoiled itself from him, and Illyan stood up, shaken and with a hand firmly on his belt knife. The two guards, he saw with a certain frustration, appeared to have been knocked out.

"What the hell did you do?" he demanded of the Doctor.

"Oh no no no. I'm not your man, I was trying to stop this, but you wouldn't listen. Now I just want to make sure she--" and Illyan realised the blue creature was female "--gets off your planet."

"And how am I supposed to do that when you have my ship's inertial compensator here in your--your museum thing?" the creature said in an aggrieved voice. "I don't want to hang around this stuffy place anyway."

"Oh, is that what's keeping you?" the Doctor retorted. "I thought maybe your, er, cargo had something to do with it."

The creature's tentacles coiled. "Well..."

"Like that sensory stimulator on the shelf over there, maybe? Illegal on seventy-three worlds and worth a small fortune?" The Doctor gave Illyan a conspiratorial grin. "They don't do a thing for humans, but they're highly addictive for certain other species. Stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain."

Illyan looked. Shelf B-12-361, unknown artefacts. There were several files' worth of information on the two objects, none of which gave any clue of what they were for. They had been collected from a site of a peculiar explosion about three miles from the shuttleport nine months ago. He filed the Doctor's casual referral to multiple species on his chip for further consideration at a less fraught moment and took a breath.

"If you don't mind," he said, "do feel free, during your explanations, to account for the fact that ImpSec seems to be entirely without power, despite all the failsafes, backups and other security procedures."

"That's got to be the Ergophages," the Doctor said. "You were breeding them, weren't you?" he added to the ... alien. "I only picked up one or two at first, but since you appear to have a basic amount of sense I guess you were keeping them in a secure container. Tricky little parasites," he added with a friendly smile, "they drain all the power from things, if you have enough of them, and they can get through an entire building incredibly quickly. Of course, once you know about them it's pretty trivial to shield stuff from them, but here nothing is shielded. It must be like a banquet for them." He grinned at the blue creature. "Clever idea. What's your name, by the way?"

"Nobody here can pronounce my name. They call me Angelique, that'll do."

"Angelique, nice. Pretty name. And how did you get here, Angelique?"

"Dunno. I was just making the run from Xygolithine Four back home when I ran into a peculiar distortion field, all my readings went screwy and the next thing I knew I was crash-landing here. I only just managed to get the ship hidden before the locals started poking around, but I had to leave a few things behind and they stuck them down here. I've got her back together now, but I need these parts." She reached out a tentacle towards the shelf, and Illyan tensed. "What I don't understand is," she continued, "why you caught me. You were supposed to be too distracted by those locals to pay any attention to little old me."

"What locals?" Illyan demanded instantly.

"Buggered if I know who they were. I traded them the other batch of Ergophages--my ship was infested with the damn things, and they've been breeding ever since we crashed--in return for a plan of this place. They were going to use the Ergophages to create a diversion, and you'd all be so worried about your Emperor or something that you wouldn't notice me."

Illyan moved almost on autopilot, and a moment later Angelique was against the wall and his belt knife was at her throat. At least, he hoped it was her throat. She seemed to be staying quite still.

"Who were they and what were they intending to do to the Emperor?" he whispered. "Tell me. Now!"

"You're insane," she said. Illyan pressed inwards with the knife. "All right, all right! They don't like your Emperor, something about some massacre on their world, they kept droning on about it until I wanted to massacre them. They took the Ergophages to his palace to shut down the security and get to him. I expect it'll work a treat, since there are quite a lot of Ergophages by now."

Illyan's heart was pounding by the time she had finished. He nearly drove the knife in out of pure frustrated fury. Aliens and Komarran terrorists teaming up to attack Gregor, whilst he was locked in his own dungeons with a blue alien smuggler and a lunatic.

"I need to get out of here, now," he muttered.

"Hey, mister, you give me my compensator, and the stim, yeah, and I'll get you out."

"You," Illyan said, "are going to be spending a long, long time in my cells. Both of you." He knew it was important to assert his authority now that he had the upper hand. "This little problem with the power won't keep my men away for long. You're in the middle of my headquarters and you're plotting against the Emperor; that puts you squarely under my jurisdiction. And--"

"Enough," the Doctor said, and suddenly his voice was much less friendly. Illyan would not have thought such a strange-looking man could appear so imposing. "My job is to make sure there is no alien technology--or biology--anywhere in this space-time region. Normally I have to save humans from other species; this time it looks like it's the other way around. Angelique, collect up your Ergophages from here. And your spaceship parts. And the other bits and bobs you've got hanging around here. This place is off-limits for you."

"Believe me," Angelique said, "I want to get out of here. This place is crap."

Illyan considered his options. Alys had vouched for this Doctor, and under normal circumstances that would have outweighed most other considerations in Illyan's mind. But a two-pronged Komarran attack on ImpSec and the Emperor was not 'normal circumstances.' He did not move his knife. "You are both my prisoners," he said, "and I'm not letting you escape or take any classified material with you."

The Doctor gave a frustrated sign, sounding suddenly rather like Cordelia when people weren't being Betanly sensible enough for her taste. "Oh, you humans. So caught up in your rules and duty and honour and all the rest of it. Admittedly you do have a particularly toxic version of it around here. You're not going to win this round, Captain. If you let me go, I can get you to the Imperial Palace almost instantaneously--the TARDIS is just outside. And I'll help with whoever is attacking your Emperor. I don't actually want the reign of Gregor the Great to be cut off quite so soon, you've come a very long way since the last time I was here. Alternatively, you can stay here with the power off and no way to get out of your own dungeons whilst the terrorists do their stuff."

Illyan stood seething for a moment. The he lowered the knife, images of Gregor and unknown terrorists whirling through his head. "All right. Get moving."

*

"Got it," Ivan said breathlessly.

"And the red wire?" Miles demanded. The fact that having his right arm in a sling made him unable to defuse the bomb himself hadn't stopped him standing over Ivan eyeing every move Ivan made.

"Yes, I got the red wire too, honestly, Miles, I was listening in the explosives course."

Rory's arm was aching from the effort of holding the torch perfectly still as they worked. As they backed away from the bomb, he lowered his arm. It was more nerve-wracking than his rotation through surgery had been, and that was saying something.

There was a whirring noise behind him, but Amy said with a note of relief in her voice, "It's the TARDIS," before he could actually panic. A few moments later the TARDIS materialised behind them in the corridor, the door opened and the Doctor sailed out, followed by a rather stunned-looking man with his lips set in a grim line. The Doctor leaned back inside briefly and said, "You just wait there. I don't think anyone's going to be pleased to see you here," to someone Rory couldn't see. "She won't be able to get out, you can stop worrying," he added to the man.

"Captain Illyan, sir!" Miles cried as he saw the grim man. "There was a bomb--Ivan and I defused it--it's Komarrans, sir."

The grim man snatched the torch from Rory and stooped over the bomb. Rory held his breath, but a few moments later Illyan said, "That's fine. Where's Gregor?"

"We think he was with Mama and Aunt Cordelia, sir," Ivan said. "In Mama's private parlour, down here. We were on our way, but they left this bomb behind them and we had to do something..."

"Who's this?" Miles said, turning to the Doctor, who was looking around curiously.

"That's the Doctor," Amy said. "He's our friend we were telling you about earlier."

The Doctor was looking at Miles with a peculiar expression on his face. "Admiral Naismith?"

Miles blinked. "What?" he said, but his attempt at unconcern was slightly hindered by the way Ivan was gaping.

"Must be later on his timeline I meet him," the Doctor observed to Rory. "You're going to have a fun life, you know that?" he added to Miles.

Miles was staring at him, mesmerised. Then he shook himself. "But if you're their friend," he said slowly, "then who is it having tea with our mothers and the Emperor?"

The three Barrayarans all looked at each other, then broke into a run. Rory, Amy and the Doctor followed after. They raced along the corridor, and then Ivan, who was in the lead, flung open a door with a yell, then froze.

Puffing, Rory caught up in time to see the tableau within. The room was lit with any number of candles, tastefully arranged on the tables and shelves. Three women and a young man were seated in armchairs, drinking sherry. And there were four motionless bodies sprawled just inside the doorway. The young man looked a bit bemused, but was smiling anyway. Some kind of small weapon lay on his lap. The red-haired woman and the dark, elegant one both looked completely relaxed, as if this sort of thing happened every day in the palace and they considered it bad form to show surprise. The third woman ... Rory gaped.

"You!" he said, as Amy, the Doctor and Miles all joined them in the doorway.

"Hello, sweetie," River Song said, smiling at the Doctor. "You got here at last, I see. I did send a message via Lady Alys here."

The dark-haired woman gave them a stern look, and settled on Ivan. "Good evening, Ivan. Do present your guests," she said in tones that said 'mother' throughout every galaxy and species. Rory found himself straightening to attention as she looked at him, and noticed the Doctor adjusting his bow-tie.

"I, um, are you all right?" Ivan said.

"Perfectly, thank you, dear." She gave him a look that Rory had no trouble interpreting. Ivan straightened.

"Ah, er, sire, may I present Mr Rory Williams and Mrs Amy Williams, who, um, were having a tour of the State Apartments when, um, all this started happening. And this is, um--"

"The Doctor, at your service," said the Doctor, with a flourishing bow that lost something of its panache by his fez falling off. Amy let out a snort that Rory, who had listened to the fifteen rounds of the debate about whether he should wear it or not, completely understood.

"We captured one of the Komarrans, sire," Miles added, evidently feeling left out. "He's in the little dining room, tied up with curtain cords." He eyed the Imperial bag of four, and Rory would have sworn he was jealous.

"What happened to your guard?" asked Illyan, who had been eyeing the scene with a profoundly suspicious air. "Your Armsmen?" He stooped over the bodies and began to examine them carefully.

"I have no idea," the Emperor said with a faint smile. "I presume they got caught up in the general confusion. Fortunately Lady Alys thought to light all the candles, and Lady Cordelia and Professor Song took care of the Komarrans. I was quite safe, I assure you." He turned his smile on Amy and Rory, and Rory had to admit that he was a very charming emperor. "I'm so sorry your tour was disrupted. I hope you will join me for some sherry?"

Rory and Amy went into the room, but Illyan, who was standing rather pointedly between the Doctor and his Emperor, said, "You'll have to excuse this ... gentleman, sire. He is going to ensure that power is restored to the Residence." There was a certain edge in his tone that suggested to Rory that he and the Doctor had not gotten along very well.

Ivan's mother frowned slightly, but said, "There is a diplomatic reception starting in an hour and a half, and it certainly would be convenient to have the power restored by then. Professor Song had a most fascinating theory about what was causing it."

The red-haired woman, who by process of elimination Rory identified as Miles' mother, gave a laugh. "Fascinating indeed. If it was anyone other than you, Captain Song, I would never believe it."

"Well, you can fix the power from here," River said. "You have the sonic screwdriver, don't you?" She gestured to it as the Doctor pulled it out. "This will transmit a certain kind of sonic pulse. Kills the Ergophages instantly. You might have to manually restart a few things, but it should all get back to normal very quickly."

"Thank you," the Doctor said. "I can explain the science too, you know."

"Yes, but you like putting in lots of long words to show off for the natives. Not that Cordelia here would fall for that." She and Cordelia grinned at one another. "So, go on then."

Illyan tensed, and the Emperor made a small gesture. "I trust," he said quietly, "that this will not damage anything further?"

"No, no, it's quite safe," the Doctor said. He raised the sonic screwdriver, gave it a rather theatric twiddle, and waved it around the room.

"Was that it?" Miles, who had been watching avidly, demanded. "But nothing--"

The lights went on. Illyan's wrist comm began to beep frantically at him. Rory could hear cries of surprise from all over the palace.

"Very well," Illyan said to the Doctor. "You've kept your word. Now leave."

"Simon," the Emperor said, his voice a little defiant, "these are my guests."

"That's all right," the Doctor said. "I did promise we'd get out of your hair once the power was sorted out. Come on, Amy, Rory." He paused, looking at River, his brain evidently catching up with his ears. "Captain Song? How did you get here, anyway?"

"River was the captain of the Herschel, my first posting in the Betan Astronomical Survey," Miles' mother said. "She taught me a lot. When she showed up here, I thought I'd show her the sights, and then Alys asked us in for tea, and then Gregor came along for a chat. I would say it was a fortunate coincidence, except that I know River doesn't really go in for coincidence."

The Doctor gave a short laugh, quickly cut off.

"I still think you should have stayed in the Survey," River said to Cordelia. "I can't believe you aren't at least doing some research here."

Miles' mother gave a crooked smile. "You'll meet Aral at dinner," she said. "You can see what we are doing here. Politics, mostly."

"I'll look forward to it." River turned back to the Doctor. "Be seeing you, sweetie."

The Emperor rose, and everyone else in the room quickly followed suit. "I still don't entirely understand what's happened here this evening," he said, "but for your help, I give you my thanks."

"Oh, any time," the Doctor said airily. "Nice to meet you all--and keep an eye out for me, Miles. It'll be fun."

Illyan cleared his throat, and the Doctor turned to him. "All right, we're coming."

Rory felt a bit like he was under arrest himself as Illyan escorted them back along the corridor to the TARDIS. "You're sure there are no more of those ... parasites ... in my electrics?" Illyan demanded.

"They're all gone. We'll go collect Angelique's ship and I'll give her a tow back to where she belongs, and you can go back to normal here."

"Who's Angelique?" Amy asked at once.

"A smuggler who got stranded here. Not human. She's quite fun, though."

Illyan made a slightly strangled noise. They reached the TARDIS. "There you are," he said. "If you're planning to stay on Barrayar any longer, please, do avoid restricted areas in future." He paused, looking at the Doctor. "Thank you for your help," he said at last, as if the words had been forced from him.

The Doctor beamed. "No problem. We'll clear out now. Cheerio!"

They got into the TARDIS and the Doctor dashed around the controls in his usual frenzy. The TARDIS launched, and Rory sat down next to Amy on a step.

"Well," said Amy after a while, "that was fun. And they were a bit touchy, like you said."

"Yeah, a bit," the Doctor agreed. Rory wondered exactly what had happened with him before he arrived at the palace.

"But they were nice enough when you got to know them," Amy continued. Then she turned back to the Doctor. "Hey! I never got to see any horses!"

The Doctor smiled. "I think we'll try somewhere different. Hmm. Actually, they have some very interesting animals on Angelique's home planet, not horses exactly, but the local equivalent. Let's see..."

Rory watched him pulling levers and studying the dials, and put his arm around Amy. Perhaps the next planet they visited would be quieter. He could always hope.