(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Isobel Watkins looked up. The Roberts Master, dressed in full if rather idiosyncratic Time Lord regalia, was standing at her table, accompanied by Beatrice Eliott and the obliging saleslady — Julia, that was her name — from A Passion For Fashion.
"Yes?" Isobel found it easy not to sound enthusiastic. Whatever the Master wanted from her, it wasn't likely to be pleasant. The best scenario she could envisage was that he wanted her to take his photograph, and it was a toss-up whether his taste in clothes would break her camera or her sanity first.
"We've come to you because we believe you may be able to help us," the Master said. "Or put us in touch with someone who can be of assistance. Or pass the message on to those in a position to act. But I see from your face that you understand me already."
He smiled, showing his fangs. Isobel looked blankly from him to the other two.
"What's he wittering on about?" she asked.
"You're involved, somehow, with these people who go around blowing up restaurants," Beatrice said.
"You are, aren't you?" Julia added. "I saw you when you were rescuing your sweetheart from that KFC."
"Oh." Illumination, of sorts, dawned. "Has one of your shops turned into a fast food outlet?"
"Not precisely." The Master extracted an envelope from an inner pocket and laid it carefully on the table. "Don't open this until we've gone."
Isobel shrugged. "OK. I won't. Was that it?"
"That is all. We now leave our fate in your hands."
"Fine. By the way, before you go... I always thought Prydonians wore scarlet. Did you wash that outfit on the wrong number?"
"I think M. Bruce needs to keep a watch on his temper," Bea remarked to Julia, as they walked back in the direction of Nameless.
"Oh, don't mind him," Julia reassured her. "He's just refusing to admit the obvious."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"If he's going about in pink robes I think that's a fairly reliable sign of his preferences." Julia nodded sagely. "Anyway, now we've spoken to Isobel, and when she tells her friends I'm sure everything's going to be sorted out in no time."
The Second Doctor looked up at the building.
"An ArnCo department store," he said. "And the fashion retail industry in Nameless feels that this is—" He checked the briefing papers that the Master had given Isobel. "—An abomination to be destroyed at all costs."
"That's right," Isobel said. "They were very insistent."
"Well, of course a department store will be selling clothes, so I suppose it might cut into their market. But is that really so objectionable?"
"If they're like the ones on that poster, yes," Samantha said. Rather than dummies, the front windows of the store merely contained large posters advertising its wares, and the one which had so offended Samantha showed a fashionably scruffy and unshaven gentleman posing in an ill-fitting suit. His expression suggested that he believed himself irresistible to the opposite sex, a belief which Samantha obviously didn't share. "Is that price supposed to be for his suit, or for him?"
"Would you want to buy him?" Isobel asked. "Personally, I'd pay to have the dustmen take him away."
"Anyway," Jamie said. "How're we going tae knock it down? This is a wee bit bigger than those greasy spoon places."
"That's a good point," the Doctor said. "I think we'll have to be a little careful on this one. We don't want to damage any of the surrounding buildings."
"And we'll need to be sure it's evacuated properly," Gia pointed out.
"That's another good point. So, I think you and Zoë should come with me and we'll work out a plan of action."
Zoë looked at her watch. "Sorry, I've got to be going now. I'm on the morning turn in the flower shop, and Mrs. Baynes will never let me hear the end of it if I'm not there to open up on time."
She dashed away.
"But you haven't said when you finish..." Isobel tailed off, as it was obvious she wasn't going to get an answer.
"It looks like it's just us two, then," Gia said.
"What about us?" Samantha asked. "Do we just get told to to run along and play while you decide what to do?"
"I think we should find out more about this place," Isobel said. "Let's go in and take a look around."
"Aye, like scouting before a battle," Jamie added.
The Doctor thought for a moment.
"Why not?" he said eventually. "It's only a department store. You shouldn't come up against anything worse than overpricing."
"Right, then," Gia said. "See you lot back here later."
"Say, at half-past one," the Doctor said. "Zoë should have finished by then. If not— well, she'll just have to miss the fun. Enjoy your morning."
He set off in the direction of the Round, with Gia.
"Right," Isobel said. "Shopping time. Coming, Victoria?"
Victoria nodded. "Don't forget we're supposed to be keeping our eyes open," she said. "And I don't mean for bargains. Not that there'll be anything we want to buy, if everything's as cheap, nasty and immodest as that."
She indicated another poster, the female counterpart of the one Samantha had disparaged earlier.
"Oh, get a move on," Samantha said. Taking Isobel by the hand, she set out for the shop. Jamie and Victoria were close behind.
The reconnaissance party had penetrated no further into the store than halfway across the ground floor before being brought to a standstill. Isobel, who was marginally in the lead, had made a beeline for a display containing various foodstuffs and small cuddly toys.
"I thought the Doctor said we were supposed to be spying around," Samantha said. "Not stuffing our faces with nibbles we haven't paid for."
"It's just a free sample," Isobel said, a biscuit halfway to her mouth.
"Rather you than me. If it's like everything else we've seen so far, it'll taste disgusting."
"Oh, don't be silly." She took a generous bite of the shortbread, and chewed it thoughtfully. With her mouth full, she was unable to talk, but the expression on her face spoke volumes.
"Hey," Jamie said, arriving with Victoria. "Is that shortbread?"
He reached out for a piece, but Victoria grabbed his hand.
"Don't!" she said sharply.
"Why, what's the matter?"
Isobel swallowed, gagged, swallowed again, and managed to speak. "It tastes like rotten floorboards," she said. "But you didn't have any, Victoria. How did you know it wouldn't be any good?"
Victoria blushed, and looked at her feet. "It's silly of me," she said. "But you know those old stories, where the hero has to rescue his true love from the fairies? Well, he's always told never to eat or drink when he's in fairyland, or he won't escape. So I thought..." She tailed off.
"I really hope you're talking nonsense," Samantha said. "Anyway, let's get on with the job. Anything we want to look at?"
"Clothes, I suppose," Isobel said. "Let's head for Ladies' Fashions and find out the worst."
Ladies' Fashions turned out to be a couple of floors up, and every bit as bad as they'd expected. In fact, they decided, an in-depth investigation was needed to establish just how dreadful these clothes were. Every rack brought forth a new selection of horrors.
"Are you three going tae spend all day keeking at this stuff?" Jamie asked, as Samantha proudly held up a haltertop that, as she put it, "looked like it was made of sick."
"No, just a couple more hours," Isobel said. "Hey, who'd wear a jumper like this?"
Victoria giggled. "Put it down. You don't know where it's been."
"Yes I do." Isobel read the label. "Another fine product from the lunar penal colony."
"Oh, look at this!" Samantha had moved onto a display of leggings. "How grotty can you get?"
Victoria and Isobel came to join her.
"I wonder what clan would have a tartan like that?" Isobel mused.
"I don't know. Jamie, what clan—" Samantha looked around. "Where is he?"
The trio looked this way and that. The familiar kilted figure was a little way away, chatting to the elaborately coiffed young lady at the perfume counter.
"Oh, he's found a new friend," Isobel said.
They watched a little longer.
"I hope that's just a subterfuge," she added.
"Looks more like snogging to me," Samantha said.
"Of course, he might just be using his powers of being attractive to women in order to gain her confidence and make her cough up vital secrets. You know, like James Bond."
"Yeah. And perhaps the Daleks are all really nice when you get to know them."
"I'm going to try these on," Victoria said, a catch in her voice. Isobel and Samantha turned, to see her already on her way to the fitting booths with an armful of hideous garments.
"Whoops." Isobel shook her head. "I'll go and make sure she's all right. You try and get Jamie out of that siren's clutches. Throw a bucket of water over them or something."
The trying-on cubicle was made of off-white formica, and contained, in addition to the usual seat and mirror, a vase of hideous plastic flowers. Somehow Isobel thought that made it worse. The flowers proved that the ugliness wasn't just the result of carelessness; it had been done with malice aforethought.
"I'm sorry," Victoria said. "It was stupid of me to get upset. It's not as if Jamie's my official boyfriend or anything. I know he doesn't mean any harm."
"Boys." Isobel shook her head. "More trouble than they're worth, I sometimes think."
Victoria looked up sharply. "There isn't anything wrong between you and Captain Turner?"
"Extended canon is divided on the subject," Isobel said. "Anyway, we're talking about you, not me. You wouldn't normally get upset if Jamie kissed Zoë or Samantha, would you?"
"Or Peri, or Jo, or Tegan..." Victoria imagined each in turn, and shook her head. "No. Only that brazen trollop. I think this shop must be having a bad effect on me. Let's get out of here and come back with explosives."
She rose to her feet, to the ominous sound of rending fabric.
"That was my skirt!" Victoria twisted around, trying to see how bad the damage was. "What happened?"
Isobel knelt down, and cautiously explored the underside of the chair with her fingers.
"It's caught on a nail," she said. "This whole place must be jerrybuilt."
She unhooked the dress, and looked Victoria over.
"I'm sorry," she added. "It's completely ruined."
Victoria, by dint of twisting and looking in the mirror, had reached a similar conclusion. "I can't go out like this. It wouldn't be decent."
"Well then." Isobel sorted through the clothes that Victoria had grabbed as her excuse for coming into the cubicle in the first place. "We'll just have to see what we can manage with these."
In the event, Samantha hadn't needed a bucket of water to separate Jamie from the perfume counter girl, who apparently rejoiced in the name Corannahowmayihelpyou — which, unless she was a Time Lady, seemed most implausible. A piece of Samantha's mind had been quite sufficient to scare the little strumpet away, leaving her to deal with Jamie.
"What were you thinking of?" she asked him.
Jamie gave her his best disarming smile.
"Ah, well," he said. "Some of us just can't help being devastatingly handsome, ye ken."
"If you don't start talking sense I'll clout you one. There's something going on here. In the normal way of things you wouldn't snog someone you'd only just met, would you?"
"It's funny you should say that." Jamie grinned at her. "I seem to remember that the only adventure we had together, you—"
"All right, forget that. What actually happened between you and her?"
"I canna rightly say. We were just chatting, and suddenly, well, you saw what she did."
"Yeah. And I don't trust her. She's probably trying to lure you into some sort of honey trap."
"Och, there's no harm in her. Look, the Doctor said we'd be quite safe, didn't he?"
"I'm not so sure. There's something funny going on round here."
"Ah." Samantha's caution seemed to strike a chord with Jamie. "Then we'll need to lie low for a bit, to throw the Redcoats off the scent. Come on."
Before she could protest, he was dragging her in the direction of Soft Furnishings.
Victoria, as she hurried down the main stairs, was divided between the emotions of nameless dread and embarrassment. Of the random handful of garments she'd picked, the least unsuitable had been a yellow-and-black striped rugby shirt apparently intended for a giant, which hung down to her knees and completely covered what was left of her skirt. She'd been forced to roll up the sleeves until they resembled flotation devices round her arms. Even Isobel had hardly been able to keep a straight face at the result. To add insult to injury, Victoria had had to pay for the wretched thing.
"Hang on a moment," Isobel said. "I want to grab a tin of that scrummy shortbread before we go."
"What?" Victoria stared at her friend in shock. "Isobel, you said yourself it tasted like floorboards."
"I said it tasted gorgeous. Come on. I'll get some for you as well."
She grabbed Victoria's arm firmly — too firmly — and marched her over to the table with the shortbread.
"Hold this," she said, thrusting tin after tin into Victoria's reluctant arms. "I want to get my money's worth."
"Isobel, this is madness!"
"Oh, rubbish." Isobel stuffed another free sample into her mouth. "It'ff wonderfful."
Victoria considered what to do, and made up her mind. Throwing the tins to the ground, where several burst on impact in a shower of crumbs, she made a run for the main door. But before she was halfway there, she could see the stolid green-clad figures of security guards making their way toward her. She doubled back, dodged behind a table stacked with travel bags, dashed between two of the advancing myrmidons, and ducked into the base of an elaborate display of sports equipment before they could work out where she'd got to.
Trying to muffle the sound of her breathing, she wryly remembered what the Doctor had said earlier. Whatever they were up against, this was a lot more than just overpricing.
"Now, that all looks quite straightforward," the Second Doctor said. "Once the shop's closed, we break in, trigger the fire alarm so anyone who's left leaves, and then set the demolition charges as you've calculated."
Gia nodded. "We should be able to source the explosives easily enough. Isobel's contact at UNIT says they had a new delivery last week, so we won't need to use those exploding cigars Zoë keeps trying to wish on us."
"She's only trying to be helpful."
"She shouldn't have ordered them wholesale in the first place."
The Doctor sighed. "She means well, you know, but I can't help feeling she's not cut out to be a practical joker. Shall we pop round to the flower shop and let her know what we're going to do?"
"Why not?" Gia rose to her feet. "I wonder how she'll feel about missing out on all the fun Samantha and the others are having."
"This is not my idea of fun," Samantha muttered to herself. No sooner had they reached the Soft Furnishings department than Jamie had started to stumble and yawn. Currently he was only upright because she was supporting him. This wasn't his usual habit of catching a nap whenever he could; Samantha strongly suspected that he'd been drugged. Her suspicions of the dollybird on the perfume counter were growing all the time.
"Let's take a wee rest," Jamie suggested, and collapsed into an ugly leather armchair. Samantha shook him, but to no avail; he was already sound asleep.
"Oh, great," she said. "When I find out who's doing all this, you're gonna be in trouble, all right."
The area of the department store devoted to sports occupied a section of the ground floor. Set here and there at key intersections were several displays of merchandise. These looked something like wedding cakes that had been scaled up, covered with astroturf, and then loaded with products that nobody in their right mind would want.
Inside the cylinder that formed the base of the cricketing equipment display, Victoria sat, hugging her knees. Although the structure looked as if it was solid down to ground level, there was a barely-noticeable gap in its circumference by which she'd been able to squeeze in. Once she'd satisfied herself that no-one was going to try and drag her out, she'd had the idea of working out if the security guards were patrolling according to some kind of pattern, and, if so, whether she could contrive to slip between them. But she'd quickly reached the conclusion that unless they were actually robots, they wouldn't be that predictable.
The odd thing was, they didn't seem to be searching for her. Just like the fitting room, the stand she was hiding in suffered from poor workmanship, and she could see out through various cracks. The guards were certainly walking up and down, but there was no sign of them trying to work out where she'd gone or looking in possible hiding places. It looked as if she wasn't in immediate danger, so it might be as well to wait and think before making a move.
"Is there a problem?" Isobel's voice asked.
"Yeah, there is," Samantha replied, not looking round. "Jamie's been drugged or something. We need to get him out of here and find the Doctor."
"There's no need for that. We can take care of him."
Startled by the unemotional tone as much as by the words, Samantha spun round. Isobel was wearing a most unflattering mustard-yellow blouse, a name badge, and an expression that suggested her mind was certainly not her own. Behind her were four security guards, carrying a stretcher.
"Gerroutofit." Samantha glanced around nervously. "You're not taking Jamie anywhere. Who d'you think you are and what have you done with the proper Isobel?"
Isobel seemed momentarily flummoxed by the question; then she shook her head and ignored it.
"This gentleman needs medical attention," she said. "Take him to Health and Fitness. The lady will accompany us."
Three of the guards bent over Jamie, and began to lift him onto the stretcher. The fourth reached for Samantha.
"Don't you dare touch me!" Samantha shouted.
If the guard heard her, he didn't take any notice. His gloved hand closed around her wrist.
Samantha swung her handbag at the man, knocking him off-balance, tore herself out of his grip, and made a run for it, alternatively dodging or jumping over the various pieces of furniture in her path. Somewhere behind her she could hear Isobel's voice shouting, but she couldn't make out the words.
This store didn't make any sense, Victoria decided. She'd been in her hiding place for some time, and apart from aimlessly wandering security guards she hadn't seen anyone, customer or staff. In view of what rubbish seemed to pass as this shop's stock in trade, she could quite understand nobody buying anything, but there should still be people looking at it. She had concerns about the decor, too. It went without saying that it looked cheap and nasty, but that by itself wouldn't have surprised her. The problem was more to do with its condition.
Given that this shop hadn't been here last week, it would have been perfectly reasonable if everything had looked new. Or, if it was trying to present the impression of having been around forever, it could have got away with being worn and shabby. What didn't make sense was the way that patches of fresh paint and gleaming plastic were randomly mixed with more weathered areas. The divisions between them were clear, once you noticed them, but didn't bear any relation to the surface features. In one case, half of a PLEASE PAY HERE sign was faded and yellowed, while the other half looked pristine.
She shook her head. She was just putting off what she had to do: Find a way out and let the Doctor know what was going on.
Samantha rounded a corner and found herself face-to-face with a wardrobe, its door conveniently open. Not giving herself time to think, she concealed herself inside it, holding the door almost closed and peering out through the gap. A number of figures rushed past; then nothing.
"I can't believe that worked," she said to herself.
More time passed. She let the door open wider, and peered out. There was no sign of Isobel or the guards. Presumably they were now taking Jamie away and he'd end up like Isobel.
Samantha, to her annoyance, felt herself tear up at that thought. She tried to get a grip on herself. Crying like a baby wouldn't help Jamie. What she needed was answers. This whole thing had started with the girl who'd kissed Jamie, hadn't it? She'd seemed frightened enough of Samantha to run away.
"When I get my hands on her she'll be scared all right," Samantha said. She checked that there was still no sign of anyone, emerged from the wardrobe, and set out for the perfume counter.
Despite the fact that in her wasp-striped rugby shirt she was ludicrously conspicuous, nobody in the shop paid Victoria the slightest attention when she scrambled out from her hiding place. It was as if, having even briefly lost sight of her, the guards had forgotten all about her.
Plucking up her courage, she slowly walked in the direction of the main door. About halfway there, she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. One of the aimlessly wandering security men had swung round, and was looking at her. Deliberately, she took one more step. The man took two long paces in her direction, and came to a standstill.
Victoria found herself reminded of a computer game Mel had once shown her, in which the player found himself in a screen filled with Daleks. Whenever the player made a move, all the Daleks glided a fixed distance in his direction. She hadn't liked it very much even then, and had been quite pleased when Davros had taken issue with the game's portrayal of Daleks as mindless robots and demanded that it be banned from the Round.
She retreated back into the sports department, relieved to see that the guards, once again, ignored her. Leaving by the main door wasn't an option. She'd have to think of something else.
The perfume counter, when Samantha reached it, was completely unmanned. She spent a little time looking at some of the cosmetics on sale, but since none of them was helpfully marked "paralysing lipstick" or "knockout aerosol" she found herself none the wiser.
She cast her mind back to when she'd been here before. She'd told the girl just what she thought of her behaviour, and the girl had turned and left...
... Through that door marked Employees Only.
Samantha looked around. The only other people she could see were the attendants at the main Ladies' Fashions checkout. They were a long way away and weren't looking in her direction; it was safe.
Trying to feel as confident as she looked, Samantha pushed the door open and slipped through.
Victoria, standing before an identical door, found herself even more uneasy. If the store could afford to employ all these security guards, why was this door left completely unguarded and not even locked? It suggested a trap.
Still, it wasn't as if she had much choice. It was this or stay in hiding until someone came to rescue her. And while that strategy was tempting, she wasn't sure her nerves could stand that much inaction. She pushed the door open. No alarms sounded and no myrmidons appeared to cart her off, so she crossed her fingers and crept inside.
The stairwell Samantha found herself in didn't do anything to raise her spirits. The floor was bare concrete, covered in a network of hairline cracks, and the peeling gloss paint on the walls had presumably once been white. Daylight filtered down from a skylight far above, and was supplemented by unadorned fluorescent tubes here and there.
Samantha's choices seemed to be up and down. Might as well try down, then.
Victoria, who'd chosen to go up, backed nervously against a nearby door as she heard the footsteps coming to meet her. Then, as the approaching figure waved at her, and she recognised Samantha, she relaxed slightly. But not completely; if Isobel had been behaving so oddly earlier, Samantha might not be trustworthy either.
"Are you all right?" she asked, as Samantha descended toward her.
Samantha nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Not wild about your new look, I've got to say."
"I'm pleased to hear you say that," Victoria said, picking her words carefully. "But, just for safety's sake, and please don't take this personally, I don't think we should place complete trust in each other."
"I know what you're getting at. Anyway, where've you been?"
"Trying to get out of here."
"And you're still around, so... right."
"Have you seen anything of the others?"
"They're in trouble."
"I expected as much. Isobel was behaving very oddly."
"Oddly, yeah. That's one way of putting it. She's working for this shop now — got the namebadge and everything. And they took Jamie away somewhere."
"Where? Don't you know?"
"Look, there were five of them, and one of me. It was all I could do to get away myself."
"And what are you doing now?"
"It's like this. This all started when that judy on the perfume counter snogged him. Then she ran off. So I was trying to find her and see what she thinks she's playing at."
"Well, I haven't seen her. Do you think she came this way?"
"I dunno." Samantha nodded at the door Victoria had been standing against. "Let's take a look."
She pushed at the door, to no avail, and then pressed her face to the frosted glass panel.
"No good," she said. "Can't see a thing."
"I presume it's locked?" Victoria asked.
"Yeah. That's that, then."
"Maybe not." Victoria delved in her handbag and produced a nail file and a paper clip. "You keep watch and I'll see what I can do with these."
"You're kidding me. Aren't you?"
Victoria's only answer was to drop to her knees, straighten the paperclip, and insert it into the lock.
"I don't know if you've noticed," she said. "But there's something very strange about this shop."
"What, you mean like everyone working for it being a zombie? That happens all the time."
"No, not that." Victoria, nail file in one hand and paperclip in the other, was manipulating the lock with delicate, precise motions. "Take these stairs, for example."
"What's funny about them?"
"Look at the cracks. Why have them? All those Burger King and Pizza Shed places—"
"Pizza Hut, then. They all looked new. We know this place wasn't here last week, so why— T'chah!" Victoria's hand slipped, and the paperclip fell to the ground.
"Sorry, I'll shut up."
"Don't apologise, the fault was mine. Anyway, my point remains."
"You say the concrete's cracked. So what?"
"By itself, I admit, that isn't very suggestive. But there's a pattern to it."
Samantha looked up and down the stairs. "Yeah, almost like..."
"Like a lizard's skin? That's what I thought. I saw the same pattern on the walls in the sports department. It's as if the appearance of a shop is nothing more than a facade over... aha."
Victoria twisted her left hand, and pushed with her right. The door swung ajar.
"I do not believe you just did that," Samantha said.
"Oh, come now. It was only a cheap cylinder lock." Despite herself, Victoria found herself smiling. "Actually, I'm just as surprised as you that it worked."
Cautiously, the intrepid pair advanced into the room beyond.
Promptly at half-past one, Gia and the Doctor arrived outside the store. There was, however, no sign of any of the others.
"Oh dear," was the Doctor's only comment.
"I hope they're just late," Gia said. "But I have to admit that the balance of probabilities is that they're in trouble."
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
Gia suspected that the Doctor was waiting for her to ask him what they should do next. She decided not to play along with him.
"You'd better hand the whole thing over to Torchwood," she said. "No offence, but they're the experts at this sort of thing, aren't they?"
The Doctor chuckled. "I can spot reverse psychology a mile off. And if you talk about Torchwood like that, you haven't met them, have you?"
Gia folded her arms. "Might have done. No reason why they shouldn't have spoken to me after— Hello, there's Zoë."
Zoë arrived at a run.
"I came as quickly as I could," she said, as soon as she got her breath back. "You know that plan you had to blow the shop up? It won't work. That isn't an ordinary department store."
"Really?" The Doctor looked at her with concern. "What have you found out?"
Zoë unhooked her shoulder bag and opened it.
"I found this in among the bromeliads," she said. "And it wasn't there this morning, and no-one went near them except me. And you know whose books ArnCo comes from, of course."
She held out the thing she'd found. It was a globe, apparently made of plastic, with a flattened base. At first it seemed to be full of nothing but swirling white flakes, but as the trio watched these gradually settled to the base of the sphere, revealing an exquisitely detailed model of This Time Round.
Gia frowned at the department store as if it had insulted her family, intelligence, people skills and dress sense.
"This," she said, "is boring."
"Didn't you do Boredom Management Techniques at mind-training school?" Zoë asked.
Gia shook her head. "I took Advanced Anger Control instead."
"Pity. I suppose I could try and teach you some of it now."
"I'm not in the mood. And I still don't see why we have to stand around while the Doctor's off having fun."
"He is not having fun, he's working on a biological countermeasure to this shop." Zoë furrowed her brow. "'Shop' isn't a very descriptive word for this phenomenon, is it? And 'presumed hostile pseudo-lifeform' is a bit unwieldy."
"Vampstore," Gia said offhandedly. "Anyway, creating biological weapons certainly counts as fun compared to standing about out here doing nothing."
"We've still got to stay here, so we can warn people not to go in."
Gia scowled. "I suppose so."
"Do you want me to teach you any of those techniques?"
"No, I'll just have to cope."
"We could play Spot the Difference," Zoë said. "That poster's changed since we got here."
"It has?" Gia closed her eyes and thought back. "You're right."
Zoë looked slightly put out. "Of course I'm right."
"That table lamp was lime green, and now, well, it's more bluish. Turquoisey. Aquamarine." Gia shook her head again. "Still hideous. I'm not going to spend all afternoon looking at that. It would drive me mad."
"Do you have any better ideas?"
Gia glanced around. "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with W..."
Victoria and Samantha surveyed the circular chamber, their eyes wide. This place was built with the same components, for want of a better word, as the public areas of the shop; each element was identifiable and familiar, but all were combined in a manner that looked queasily biological. In the centre, for example, was what looked like one of the paying desks, except that it was circular rather than straight. From the top of this, a number of poles appeared to be growing, their height and spacing irritatingly irregular. Each pole was topped by a ring of chrome-plated steel, from which coathangers dangled: the kind of rack on which jackets might normally be displayed. Cash registers protruded from the desk at random angles, like misaligned teeth.
By the same token, the tall cabinets round the walls looked as if they belonged in the food hall, holding nothing more sinister than ready meals. But a quick glance at the nearest one had been enough to show that this was not the case. It was filled with a cloudy purplish liquid, in which floated what appeared to be the body of a young woman wearing the shop's uniform.
"That's what Isobel had on, last time I saw her," Samantha said.
"Do you think she might be in one of these things?"
"I hope not. But now I've said it..."
"We have to look in them all, just in case."
They made the tour of the room, carefully stepping over the transparent plastic tubes and skeins of wire that ran between the central desk and the walls. Most of the cabinets contained people, either checkout assistants or security guards, but a few were empty. Isobel and Jamie were nowhere to be seen.
They'd spotted Corannahowmayihelpyou about a third of the way round — it wasn't easy to recognise her in the purple liquid, but her namebadge was legible. Once they'd made sure the place didn't contain their friends, they returned to the cabinet that contained her.
"D'you think we can get her out?" Samantha wondered.
"I don't know. But why would you want to?"
"Because I want to know what's going on. If they've got all these people in jars, why do they want Isobel working for them? Sounds funny to me. And maybe if we ask her hard enough, she'll tell us how we can get them back."
"I hope you are not going to be nasty to her, Samantha."
"Depends if she talks, doesn't it? Anyway, we need to get her out of there first."
They turned their attention to the cabinet. There was no obvious lock, and the door resisted an experimental tug on the handle.
"Perhaps you have to drain whatever that stuff is first," Victoria suggested. "So it doesn't pour out all over the floor."
"I s'pose so." Samantha glanced at the cabinet. "What about this?"
'This' was a red button, the sort of thing you'd expect to see as the emergency stop control on an escalator. It wasn't so much attached to the cabinet as erupting from it, as a fungus might from a rotten tree.
"I think I've developed a distinct mistrust of large, obvious red buttons," Victoria said. "Who knows what that could do?"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realised that was precisely the wrong thing to say. Samantha would do almost anything if she thought someone else was afraid to.
"Scared?" Samantha asked, with the predictability of night following day. "Well, I'm not."
She pushed the button. The cabinet shuddered, and the level of the liquid began to fall. But as it drained away, it didn't leave the sales attendant behind. Rather, she slowly sank with the liquid, losing her form as she did so, until all that was left was a shapeless bundle of clothes at the bottom of the tank.
Victoria wordlessly pulled on the cabinet door, which swung open easily. Side by side, she and Samantha knelt down and examined its contents. The heap lay on the metal grille that served the cabinet as a floor, and on closer examination it consisted of a polyester dress, leggings, shoes, flesh-coloured gloves, and a beautifully moulded hollow plastic head. Samantha picked this last item up and stared into its perfect, inhuman face.
"That's just so weird," she said. "It doesn't look like her at all, but at the same time it does... I think I'm gonna be sick."
She threw the head to the ground and stumbled away, one hand over her mouth.
"Samantha, be careful!" Victoria called, but too late. Samantha had already caught her foot in one of the cables that stretched across the room, and as she fell headlong it pulled free from the central desk with a revoltingly organic plop.
The reaction was immediate. The room filled with a painful vibration, sensed not so much as sound or movement but as repeated, agonising, headache pangs. Victoria, even as she hurried over to help Samantha, felt her flesh begin to crawl and the hairs on her neck standing on end.
Samantha staggered to her feet, rubbing her elbow.
"That really hurts," she said, and seemed to become aware that there were more things wrong with their situation than a bruised arm. "What's going on?"
"Trouble," Victoria said briefly. "We've got to get out of here."
As fast as they could, they picked their way to the door, and had almost reached it when it flew open with a crash, revealing a familiar figure dressed in the uniform of a store detective. They stopped dead.
"Jamie," they whispered, in unison.
Liz bent over her petri dishes, trying to ignore the sound of improvised recorder music.
"I'm getting good results with the latest samples," she said. "We should be able to synthesize a suitable poison quite quickly. Nyssa, how are you getting on?"
"It's a fascinating study in biology," Nyssa replied. "I wish I could work out this thing's life cycle. These snowglobes don't appear to be eggs so much as some kind of sense organ."
"You base that on your dissections?"
"Partly. And partly on the fact that I forced a little one down Adric's throat two hours ago and a shopping trolley didn't burst out of his stomach."
"So if you're right about them being sense organs, that shop is in some way aware of what's going on in his guts?" Liz pulled a face. "Rather it than me."
The recorder solo broke off with a discordant screech.
"Just a moment." The Doctor jumped to his feet. "Someone's coming."
The door was flung open, and Francois strode into the room.
"Bossman say, when can he have kitchen back?" he demanded.
"Now, please, if you would only listen—"
"Francois doing little else all afternoon. And Francois wish to say that recorder playing not to Ogron taste." He grabbed the Doctor's coat with one massive hand, and lifted him clean off the floor. "Francois give you thirty minutes before Charlotte needing kitchen. If Charlotte not get kitchen by then, Charlotte seriously annoyed. And wise Ogron once say, 'Never to be letting chef get annoyed.' Clear?"
He lowered the Doctor to the ground. The Doctor pulled his coat straight.
"Definitely," he replied.
Jamie advanced on Victoria and Samantha, his face expressionless.
"You two need to come with me," he said. His accent seemed fainter than usual, and his choice of words less idiomatic.
"Fat chance." Samantha backed away slightly. "You're away with the fairies, like Victoria said. What've they done to you?"
"You shouldn't be here," Jamie countered. "Trespassers will be prosecuted."
"Jamie, listen to me!" Samantha tried to slap his face, but he caught her arm before the blow landed.
"Don't worry," he said, almost gently. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Victoria, run!" Samantha shouted. Jamie's head snapped round, but while his attention had been focused on Samantha, Victoria had edged away, and was through the door before he could stop her. While he was off balance, Samantha pulled out of his grasp, threw herself to one side, grabbed as many cables as she could find, and tugged hard on the lot. They pulled loose, with more vile organic noises.
The pulsating headache exploded into blinding pain, and her vision blurred momentarily. She looked up, into Jamie's tortured face.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and ran for it.
"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with U."
"UNIT," Zoë said, not missing a beat.
"And about time too, if I may say so."
Gia and Zoë took a few steps back as the jeep screeched to a halt in front of the shop. From the rear emerged Sergeant Benton and three privates, while Captain Munro climbed down from the front.
"Afternoon, ladies," he said. "Carry on, Sergeant."
"Sir!" Benton saluted, and turned to his men. "Get those barriers out, now."
With practiced efficiency, the UNIT men began to erect a barricade across the entrance to the shop. Warning signs hung from the barriers: a red triangle, containing a stylised figure of a man with tentacles where his head should be, and the caption ELDRITCH ABOMINATION.
"Captain?" Gia asked. "Is there any word from the Doctor?"
Munro shook his head.
"I'm afraid not, miss," he said. "For now, we've just got to keep an eye on this phenomenon."
"And a fat lot of good that'll do," Gia grumbled. "If this thing can deposit snowglobes in shops all over Nameless, do you think a few barriers would dissuade it?"
"They might keep innocent parties out of harm's way, though."
"Yes, I suppose so. Thank you, Captain."
She waited until the Captain's attention was diverted elsewhere, and then drew Zoë to one side.
"You heard what he said. They'll be keeping people out."
Zoë looked slyly up at her. "So we don't have to do that any more."
"You're thinking of doing something rash, aren't you?"
Zoë grinned. "Whatever it is, count me in."
"I thought, if we got hold of some electrified cattle prods—"
The shop door was flung open. For a moment, Samantha could be glimpsed, struggling between two men in green uniforms and peaked caps.
"Help me, someone!" she shouted, and was dragged back in.
Gia and Zoë exchanged glances, vaulted over the barrier, and disappeared into the shop before the UNIT troops could react.
Samantha wasn't giving up without a fight, but in the grasp of two store detectives, both bigger than she was, her options were limited.
"Get off me!" she shouted at them, more for something to shout than because she thought it would do any good.
"Let her go," Gia's voice added. "Or I'll blow your brains, such as they are, across the room."
The grip on Samantha's left arm suddenly relaxed. A few seconds later, so did the one on her right. She pulled free, to see that Gia was holding something to one man's head, while Zoë was efficiently wrestling the other guard to the floor with a succession of judo moves.
"Put your hands on the wall," Gia said. "And no sudden movements."
The guard she was standing behind did so.
"Sam, keep this on him," she said, passing a piece of copper pipe to Samantha with a wink. While Samantha kept the end of the pipe pressed against the man's head, Gia frisked her captive, relieving him of a syringe, a baton and a pair of handcuffs. The latter she promptly snapped round the man's own wrists. With the baton in her hands, she turned to his colleague. By now, Zoë was pinning him to the ground and had her arm locked around his throat, but he showed no signs of giving up the struggle.
"I don't think he's human," Zoë said. "If he was, he'd be dead by now."
"That's a nuisance. It means we don't know how hard to hit him to knock him out."
"You tie him up then, while I keep him pinned."
Gia retrieved the guard's handcuffs, and with Zoë's help secured him. Then she snatched a handful of scarves from a nearby display, tied both guards' feet, and gagged them.
"So much for them," she said. "Now, Sam, what's been going on here?"
"Long story," Samantha said. "But in short, this shop's taken over Jamie and Isobel. And it isn't a shop, it's some sort of creature."
"Thought so," Zoë said. "Have you seen any trolleys moving about by themselves?"
"Oh. I'd have expected that."
"Anyway, Victoria and I got split up. I don't know where she is, but you'll know her if you see her. She's dressed like a bumblebee, black and yellow stripes all over."
"Dunno. Oh, and you were right about those guards. I reckon they're just clothes full of purple gunk. No insides at all."
"Curious. If the shop can construct humanoid drones, why is it recruiting real humans? We'll have to look into that."
"Leave that for later," Gia said. "Let's get you out of here."
"No way. I'm not leaving until I know Jamie and Isobel are all right."
"Do you know how they were placed under control?"
"With Isobel, I think it was the shortbread she ate. And Jamie started acting funny after one of the shopgirls snogged him."
"Some sort of biological or chemical mechanism, then," Zoë said.
Gia held up the syringe she'd found. "And this must have been meant for you. Right, we'll need to get this to the Doctor and see about an antidote."
"I'll do that," Zoë said, took the syringe, and headed for the main door. A few feet away from it, she clapped her free hand to her head and dropped to her knees.
"What's the matter?" Samantha asked, dashing over to her.
"Silenski implant," Zoë replied, forcing the words out.
"My brain's tamperproofed. And something's trying to tamper with it."
Gia nodded at the waist-high loops of wire that stood on either side of the door.
"Not quite the alarm system I was expecting," she said. "All right. I'll do it. Sam, you try and get Zoë away from the door."
She left the shop, syringe in hand, and returned less than a minute later without it. Zoë was back on her feet, keeping a respectful distance away from the alarm loops.
"Right," Gia said. "Sergeant Benton's going to deal with that for us. Now what?"
"Find the others and get them out," Samantha said.
"That might not be too easy if this whole organism is focused on us," Zoë said thoughtfully. "What we need to do is distract it somehow."
She ran her finger down a nearby store guide.
"Here we are," she said. "Restaurant, top floor. We know how to deal with restaurants."
"Right," Samantha said. "I'm coming with you. Gia, get after Victoria and the others."
"Yes, sir," Gia said, and saluted ironically.
When Victoria had escaped from Jamie, she'd run down the stairs in a blind panic, and hadn't realised until too late that she'd gone down a little further than she'd come up. The area around the foot of the stairs was lit by the same fluorescent tubes as elsewhere, but the light they gave out was yellowish and flickery. Somewhere overhead, she could hear running footsteps and shouting, sounding very far away.
The sensible thing to do would be not to attract attention. Wait for the pursuit to die down, and then go back to the public areas of the store and try to blend in. But Victoria had already tried that, and got nowhere. To her own surprise, she felt inclined to take a few risks.
As she pushed the nearest door open, she wondered if this was how the Doctor felt all the time.
"Excuse me," Gia said.
The young woman at the leather sales counter looked up.
"Hello," she said, in a singsong voice. "My name is ViolettehowcanIbeofservicetoyou. How can I be of—"
"I heard the first time."
The woman stared at her blankly. Gia felt as if she'd just given incorrect input to a computer.
"Tell me," she said, in the slow and clear voice of one addressing voice recognition software. "Have you seen a girl round here? Dark hair, short, dressed in black and yellow stripes?"
"I'm afraid not." The woman leaned forward, her eyes fixed on Gia's. "Can I improve your day in any other way?"
Gia narrowed her own eyes. "Does this shop have an electrical goods department?"
"Third floor, near the lifts. Have a nice day."
"Thank you." Gia turned to leave, and then turned back. "Oh, by the—"
She dived to one side. The dart whipped past her and buried its head in a handbag on a stand behind her.
ViolettehowcanIbeofservicetoyou threw her blowpipe aside, produced a syringe, and emerged from behind the counter, still staring fixedly at Gia.
Gia briefly weighed up the options of running or fighting, and decided to stand and fight. Judging by the examples she'd met so far, this shop didn't endow its drones with very much intelligence, and if she couldn't outthink this one she might as well give up now. She snatched a glove from a table behind her.
"How much is this?" she asked, waving it in the assistant's face. With her other hand she grabbed the arm holding the syringe and twisted hard.
She had hoped that she might make the girl drop the syringe. What she hadn't expected was for the arm to come off altogether, and the assistant, spraying purple liquid, to deflate with an inhuman wail. Her face, frozen into immobility, stared up at Gia from a pile of clothes.
Gia realised she was still holding the arm she'd pulled off. Now she looked at it, it was just a sleeve, with liquid dripping from the severed end. She threw it to the ground, and made for the escalator. To her surprise, she realised she was shaking.
I didn't kill her, she told herself. She was never really alive anyway. It's not as if I meant to do that. And she was trying to stick that syringe in me...
She reached the escalator, leaned on the handrail, and tried to stop her teeth chattering.
Victoria tried to make sense of the scene before her. Like the room she and Samantha had explored before, it seemed to be based around a disconcerting combination of organic and inorganic elements. Unlike that room, there was a clear division between the two.
The door through which she'd entered led onto a narrow walkway, made of steel, lined with railings, and with patches of rust in the same scale-like pattern that she'd noticed everywhere else. On either side of the walkway was a series of pits, some of which contained heaps of everyday items — clothes, furniture, shoes, toys. Purplish protrusions, something like tentacles and something like roots, grew from the walls and floors and spread out over the heaps.
Walking slowly along the walkway, Victoria tried to puzzle out what all this stuff had in common. The heaps appeared to be sorted by content; no-one had thrown a saucepan into the clothing pile. And everything here looked more or less like something this shop would sell. Was it being used as some kind of a template? It didn't seem likely: the quality of the goods here was higher than anything she'd seen above.
As she watched, a chair in the pile of furniture, which several of the rootlike things were touching, cracked and fell apart. A few items above it moved slightly, shifting this way and that, and exposed a cash register, of a different design from the ones this store used.
"Now where did that come from?" Victoria wondered out loud.
"It is the store's policy not to reveal trade secrets," Isobel's voice said.
Victoria spun round. Isobel was standing at the door.
"You are in no position to escape," Isobel continued. "This area is closed to the general public for reasons of safety. I must ask you to leave at once. Please walk slowly towards me."
"Come and get me," Victoria said. There was no point in making things easy for Isobel or whoever was controlling her.
Isobel began to advance onto the walkway.
"For your reassurance," she said, "I should let you know that I have been fully trained to work safely in this environment."
There was something vaguely reflective in one of her hands, Victoria noted.
"Please keep away from the digestion chambers," Isobel continued. "Falling into one of the chambers may be detrimental to your health and safety."
Isobel was now within feet of Victoria. The glittering object in her hand was now clearly visible as a syringe, held ready to be plunged into whatever part of Victoria was most convenient.
"Have a nice day," she concluded.
Gia had reached Electrical Goods with the vague intention of cannibalising a few devices and building something that could help in rescuing Victoria and the others — something to detect lifesigns, perhaps, or to paralyse whatever the store used as a nervous system.
A glance at the technology on display told her it wasn't going to be that easy. Not only was it primitive — she'd expected that — but exceedingly cheap and nasty. And as soon as she pulled out an insulated screwdriver and started dismantling a portable radio, the staff were onto her. Another one of the inhuman assistants, this one a violet-eyed beauty by the name of Moniiqueaskmeifyourequireanything, had hurried up at once.
"I must ask you not to tamper with the goods on display," she began. "It is the policy of this store—"
Gia raised her screwdriver.
"Don't make me use this," she said, sounding rather shakier than she'd hoped. "I don't want to hurt you."
The attendant ignored the threat as if it hadn't been uttered.
"For the convenience of customers, all our staff in this area will be happy to answer questions about the products," she said. "We therefore ask customers not to risk causing unintentional damage."
"What about intentional damage?" Gia asked. "Keep back."
The woman pulled a pricing gun from her belt, aimed it at Gia, and pulled the trigger back halfway. Maybe it was the accompanying whine of power, or the little cluster of glowing red LEDs round its muzzle, but Gia suspected that it could do a lot more than mark her down as a never-to-be-repeated bargain.
Somewhere overhead, there was a violent detonation.
Throughout the store, floors shook, objects vibrated off shelves, and employees looked around uneasily. In the Decorative Accessories department, racks of ugly vases were reduced to uglier shards. Here and there, patches of plaster fell from the ceiling or flaked off the walls, and a fine dust filled the air. The electric lights flickered and died.
Isobel clutched at the railings as the building swayed. In the pits below, the tentacles thrashed to and fro.
"I seem to be making a habit of this," Victoria said. "But I fear I must leave at once."
She squeezed past Isobel and made a run for the door. But Isobel hadn't been more than momentarily distracted. Before Victoria was halfway to the exit, she'd been rugby-tackled and dragged to the floor. To her horror, the walkway was flexing slightly under her, and the appearance of scales could no longer be discounted as a trick of the light; the steel had become dark green, leathery, and very obviously the skin of some creature.
Isobel must have lost the syringe, Victoria decided, or by now it would have been driven into her leg. She grasped the railing and pulled, but Isobel's grip didn't slacken. Not only that, but the floor itself felt as if it was pushing against her. Escape was out of the question, and it was surely only a matter of time before reinforcements arrived. She wrapped her arms and legs round the railing and willed herself to be immobile.
"You will not be harmed," Isobel said, trying to pull her free. "Please do not attempt to resist as this may also be detrimental to your health and safety."
The walkway shuddered and twisted. For one heartstopping moment Victoria and Isobel were both hanging over a seething mass of tentacles, with only Victoria's grasp on the railings between them and being digested. Then the walkway righted itself again.
"Is this your choice?" Victoria asked. "Surrender to you or be thrown to the monster?"
"Your continued safety is our highest..." Isobel stopped. Victoria couldn't see her face, and her voice lacked its usual expressiveness, but there was a definite air of confusion. "Our second highest priority."
"Do tell me. Whatever is your highest priority?"
"Damage limitation?" Victoria repeated. It could be her imagination, but Isobel's grip seemed to be weakening. "Please, tell me more."
"In the event of fire, please follow all instructions given by members of staff," Isobel said. "Do not attempt to retrieve personal possessions."
"Fire? You mean the shop's on fire?"
"Please follow all instructions given by members of staff—" Isobel groaned, whispered "burning," in something a lot closer to her normal voice, and let go of Victoria altogether.
Victoria pulled herself upright and looked round. Isobel was on all fours, shaking her head as if dazed.
"For safety reasons we should leave this area at once," Isobel said, her voice wavering. "Come with me, now."
The walkway rocked again.
Victoria sighed. She could probably make her escape now, but that would leave Isobel in danger. It looked as if the only way to get both of them out was to surrender, or at least pretend to.
"Very well," she said, and held out her hand.
It took Isobel several goes to get up, and once she was on her feet she needed to lean on Victoria for support. Her face was flushed, her hands hot.
Victoria let Isobel lead until they were back in the basement area, at the foot of the staircase. Here, too, the appearance of a normal shop was beginning to crumble. Cracks in every surface were oozing the same sort of purple liquid she'd seen before. A rash of fire alarm buttons, instructing users to break the glass in an emergency, had spread across the walls like chickenpox. The lights had gone out, and dark smoke obscured the skylight, but emergency lights exuded a sickly greenish glow.
Climbing the steps to ground level seemed to take an age. Several times Isobel swayed and nearly fell, or leaned against the wall gasping for breath. Once or twice she tried to talk, but didn't manage to come out with anything coherent. Once they reached the door that led back into the shop, Victoria tried to open it, only to find that Isobel hadn't given up.
"Not right," Isobel said, trying to drag her further up the stairs. "Not where we need you."
"Isobel, you're sick. You need help."
"Where we're going. Not that way." Isobel's grip on Victoria's wrist tightened painfully.
"You're hurting me! Let me go!"
Isobel's grip didn't slacken, and she tugged at Victoria with renewed strength. Victoria tried to break away, but once again found herself at a disadvantage. She didn't want to risk hurting Isobel, but it was all too plain that Isobel didn't feel the same inhibition regarding her. Isobel's fingernails dug painfully into her, and she couldn't help screaming.
Two or three steps further up, Victoria realised that someone had heard her. There were footsteps approaching briskly from further up. Isobel came to a halt and seemed to be listening.
"Victoria Waterfield," Gia said, as she came down the stairs towards them. "I'd know that scream anywhere."
Relief surged in Victoria's mind, followed closely by exasperation. As Gia came closer and Victoria got a clearer view of her, this gave way to unease. Gia looked paler than usual, which Victoria hadn't previously thought possible, and her clothes were covered with plaster dust. A pricing gun dangled from her right hand; it looked as if she might drop it at any moment.
"What happened to you?" Victoria asked. "Are you all right?"
"Physically, yes," Gia said. "Mentally, not so sure."
Isobel chose that moment to try and force Victoria up the stairs once more.
"Can it wait?" Victoria asked. "Isobel's in a bad way. We need to get her out of here."
Isobel, even possessed, couldn't manage to resist both of them, and in very little time all three were back in the sports department. Apart from the green emergency light, it looked more or less undamaged. There was no sign of anyone else. All the checkouts were deserted, the doors unguarded.
"Where is everyone?" Victoria wondered.
"Upstairs, trying to save what they can," Gia said. She had to raise her voice; Isobel was struggling and kicking in their grip. "Like insects."
"You haven't seen Jamie, I suppose? Or Samantha?"
"Samantha and Zoë were going to cause a diversion. That explosion was probably it. You should see upstairs. Ceilings down, water and purple goo everywhere."
"Zoë's here too? I suppose she came in..."
"With me. It seems ages ago." Gia stopped, her expression growing vacant.
"Gia? What's the matter?"
Gia pulled herself together. "Never mind."
They'd nearly reached the main door when Victoria caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned round. Jamie was standing a little way away, a pricing gun in his hand. He, too, looked slightly feverish.
"You two ladies will come with me," he said.
"Victoria, try to get Isobel out of here," Gia whispered. She let go of Isobel's arm, and raised her own pricing gun.
"Put that down," Jamie said. "You aren't authorised to use it."
Luckily, Isobel seemed to have exhausted her strength earlier. Victoria found that despite Isobel's resistance, she could coax her closer to the door.
"Keep back, or I'll shoot," Gia's voice said from behind her, sounding almost scared.
"In the interests of health and safety," Jamie's voice countered, "you should not attempt to use that equipment."
"Don't come any closer..."
There was click, a rush of air, and a gasp. Victoria turned round, to see Gia lying on her back, a dart protruding from her arm. Her pricing gun lay beside her, unfired. Jamie was bending over her.
"I'm sorry," she gasped. "Get her out of here..."
Jamie took hold of her legs, and began to drag her away. Isobel chose that moment to make her own break for freedom, and for the next minute Victoria was occupied in struggling with her. But Isobel's strength seemed to be fading fast; quicker than she'd hoped, Victoria had reached the door, and pushed it open. At first glance, she couldn't pick anyone out of the crowd that met her eyes. Then she saw the Doctor — her Doctor — and pretty much fell into his arms. UNIT men were rushing past her. Others were attending to Isobel.
"Doctor!" she said, as soon as she could speak. "Gia's still in there, and Jamie. He shot her with some sort of dart."
"You mean he's under the store's influence?"
"Yes. Isobel, too. I'm sure it's killing her." She looked round for the first time, to see Isobel on a stretcher. Liz was bending over her, hypospray in hand.
"I've sedated her for now," she said. "We'll keep her under medical supervision."
Four soldiers emerged from the building, with Gia on another stretcher. Nyssa was with them, looking put out.
"He ran off," she complained. "I couldn't get close enough to him." She leaned over, and plucked something from Victoria's sleeve. "You were lucky. He nearly got you, too."
"What?" Victoria asked, baffled.
Nyssa held up a dart. "It was sticking in your sleeve, right here." She tapped one of the thicker parts of Victoria's rolled-up sleeves. "Anywhere else, and you'd be like those two now." She nodded at Gia and Isobel.
The Doctor took Victoria's hands in his.
"Now, Victoria," he said. "You're the only person who can tell us what's going on. So, please, let us know everything that's happened."
"And that's it?" Liz asked.
Victoria nodded. She felt as if she'd been answering questions for hours, at first standing outside the shop, then sitting in the back of a UNIT jeep. The store looked outwardly unchanged, its exterior surface showing no signs of the damage that she'd seen inside. When she'd first escaped, there had been smoke pouring from the upper windows, but by now it had died down to a sullen plume.
"Right, then." The Doctor rubbed his hands. "That all seems quite clear, doesn't it?"
"I think so," Nyssa said. "What we have here is an opportunistic predator. It attempts to copy the stock of shops in the area, tempt the public in, and enslave them."
"But what about that perfume counter girl?" asked Victoria. "Do you mean she was enslaved and the shop... took her insides out somehow?"
"No, I suspect that the store manufactures its own staff, at least at first, until it can kidnap enough real people. The way you describe things, they'd have a limited lifespan, so it wouldn't be very effective with just them, and it would want to hang onto any proper people it could."
"And what was going on in the basement?"
"I can't be sure, but I suspect you saw the remains of some of the shops it had eaten."
"It really does eat other shops?"
Nyssa shrugged. "It makes as much sense as the rest of the theory."
"If you're right, then those other retailers were right to be concerned," Liz said. "The Master being right. Who'd have thought it?"
"It does happen," the Doctor said. "Just much less often than he likes to think. Though he'd probably have been fairly satisfied if he'd sent us into the shop and it had eaten us all. Now, Victoria, I'm sorry to have to ask you this, but do you think you could bear to come back in there with me?"
"Oh, must I?"
"I'm afraid so. You see, we've managed to mix up something which we think will put an end to this shop—"
"With about four seconds to spare," Liz added drily. "Otherwise Francois would probably have made us drink the stuff ourselves."
"But it's not just a matter of throwing it on. We have to find its nerve centre, or the nearest equivalent it has. And that's where you come in. We need to find out where Isobel wanted to take you."
Victoria felt her heart sinking. "You mean you want to let the store capture me again, and see where it takes me?"
"That's right." The Doctor patted her shoulder. "You see, you're the only person who can help. Everyone else who's been in the store is either still in there, or under medical observation."
"Then I don't have much alternative, do I?" Victoria rose to her feet, and began to climb down from the jeep.
"Well done, Victoria," the Doctor said, preparing to follow suit.
Curiously, it felt completely different being in the store when the Doctor was there with her. It wasn't so much that Victoria felt any safer — bearing in mind the Doctor's plan, she was probably in even more danger than before — but she didn't have to worry about what to do. It made her feel quite light-headed.
The immediate problem, though, was finding someone to capture Victoria in the first place. As far as they could see, the ground floor was completely deserted, and in a somewhat more chaotic state than before. From the look of the floor, it had been flooded at some point with dirty water, which had since largely evaporated. Several of the display stands were scorched or overturned. The Doctor glanced at the store guide.
"Customer Services," he said. "Let's try there."
Customer Services, when they got there, consisted of nothing more than another counter, no different from any other in the shop apart from a sign. It also resembled the others in being completely unmanned. The Doctor, who seemed to be throwing himself into the role of an infuriated customer, hammered on the desk.
"Come on, come on!" he shouted. "I can't wait all day for you lazyboneses to get your act together. Look at this hideous thing."
"Doctor, you're pointing at me," Victoria whispered.
"I mean your jumper, Victoria, not you."
"Oh." She raised her voice and joined in the act. "It's your fault my dress was torn. Where's my compensation?"
Jamie emerged from a nearby doorway.
"I'm sorry you were kept waiting," he said. "What seems to be the problem?"
He crossed to the desk. Before he could get behind it, the Doctor intercepted him and put an arm round his shoulders.
"The problem is what your shop has done to Victoria's clothes," he said. "Look at her."
"And I had to pay for this," Victoria added. "You should be paying me."
"She demands to speak to your supervisor."
Jamie nodded. "Is that so? Then you'd better..."
He broke off, looking in bewilderment at his hands.
"Jamie?" Victoria asked. "Is something the matter?"
"No, it's nothing. I just thought I had— Well, never mind."
Behind him, the Doctor triumphantly held up Jamie's pricing gun, and winked at Victoria.
"Anyway," Jamie said. "You'd better come with me."
He took hold of Victoria's wrist, and led her firmly away. The Doctor waited a little to give him a head start, then dropped the pricing gun, crushed it underfoot, and followed.
Their route took them through a network of tunnels and open spaces, starting off with what appeared to be perfectly normal, if empty, stockrooms. But as they penetrated further, the pretence at retail architecture was dropped; corridors gave way to pulsating, irregular ducts, fleshy tubes replaced electrical conduits, and such light as there was came from what looked like patches of luminous mould. There were occasional rumbling or grinding sounds, as if some large creature was gnawing on bones nearby.
As they passed down a long and gently curving tube, Victoria felt her head begin to throb again. She looked over her shoulder, but all she saw was that four of the store detectives were shadowing them, looking spookily identical and inhuman in the half-light. Of the Doctor, there was no sign.
When she looked forward again, the end of the tunnel was now in sight. An orange-red light, brighter if only by comparison, was shining from it, and elaborate organic shapes could be glimpsed. As they came closer, the view became more and more complicated, until finally she and Jamie emerged from the duct and could see it all.
The space they found themselves in was roughly cylindrical, perhaps fifteen feet high. In the centre, a column ran from floor to ceiling, composed of thousands of braided fibres. At the top and the base, these branched out, running like networks of roots overhead and underfoot. Every other surface was dotted with irregular collections of vegetable matter, something like giant broccoli and something like solidified pieces of foam, surrounded by gently waving fronds. For a moment, Victoria felt as if she was standing under a blotchy purple and orange oak tree, surrounded by hundreds of distorted bushes.
Jamie pushed her closer to the central pillar. As he did so, bunches of the fibres on the side closer to her began to disentangle themselves from each other, and reached out eagerly towards her.
"Now just lean against the stem and relax," Jamie said patiently.
Victoria tried to pull free. "Doctor, help me!"
There was no sign of the Doctor. One of the detectives stepped forward and took her left arm, forcing her closer to the centre of the room. She turned to Jamie, who had a similar grip on her right arm.
"Jamie," she pleaded. "Don't do this. It's me, Victoria. Please let me go. You know you wouldn't do anything to hurt me."
"The process doesn't hurt," was Jamie's only reply.
The reaching tentacles were almost on Victoria now. She closed her eyes, dreading that at any moment razor-sharp fibres would begin to burrow into her flesh.
Instead, there was a revolting-sounding wet thud, and the detective holding her left arm let go with a cry. A moment later, Jamie's grip relaxed, and Victoria, suddenly not pulling against anything, fell backwards onto an empty uniform. She looked up, to see Samantha, a cricket bat in one hand and a spool of steel wire in the other, hurrying over to where Jamie was now trying to fend off Zoë's best judo moves.
Victoria looked down, and realised she was lying on what was left of the detective who'd been holding her. Like the girl in the cabinet, he'd been reduced to a pile of clothes, a mask, and a pool of liquid.
"Victoria," Zoë called to her. "Are there any handcuffs in that lot?"
Victoria searched in the heap. "I can't find any."
"Why is nothing ever simple? Could you— Samantha, run!"
As the three other detectives bore down on them, Samantha and Zoë darted away, Samantha taking the opportunity to bash various parts of the room with her cricket bat. Each blow brought forth an answering twinge in Victoria's headache, but she jumped to her feet and was quick to follow suit.
"Now what?" Samantha asked. "Just keep running round and round the room?"
"If necessary, yes," Zoë said. "But I think we can do better. One of us can distract the guards while the others set a tripw— hey!"
Jamie had crept up behind her and picked her up bodily. As he tried to carry her to where the central stem was still greedily reaching out, Victoria and Samantha threw themselves on him. Another detective tried to grab Samantha; she lashed out wildly with her cricket bat and he disintegrated with a wail.
"Did that one have handcuffs?" Samantha asked, still trying to pull Jamie away from Zoë.
Victoria rummaged through the empty uniform. "Here you are."
"Great. Now help me get them on Jamie."
As Samantha and Zoë handcuffed Jamie and tied his legs tied together using the detective's trousers, Victoria looked around. The remaining two guards were approaching her, batons in their hands and determination on their faces. She looked around for the bat, but it was too far away. She couldn't even run, because that would leave the others at the guards' mercy.
Suddenly, the sonic screwdriver whirred, its mechanical sound totally out of place in this dim, organic world. It was followed by two simultaneous damp detonations, two despairing cries, and two piles of clothes hitting the floor.
"Well, now," the Doctor said, stepping over the remains of the detectives. "What brings you two here?"
"Us?" Samantha asked. "Long story."
"Statistical analysis," Zoë added helpfully. "We started fires in various parts of the shop, and worked out how long it took before it reacted. I reasoned that the shorter the time, the closer we were to the central processing unit. How did you find it?"
The Doctor smiled. "I let Jamie lead me to it. Quite straightforward."
"Oh. Why didn't I think of that?"
"You're not ruthless enough," Victoria said.
"Now, Victoria," the Doctor said. "You didn't come to any harm in the event, did you?"
"Only because we happened to be here," Samantha said. "Anyway, what d'you think we should do about this thing?"
"Presumably you had a plan?"
"I thought we could use this wire to cut through the central core," Zoë said. "You know, like cheesewire. We originally picked it up to set tripwires and tie up guards, but it's proved very versatile."
"That might work." The Doctor favoured her with a triumphant smile. "But I think this poison will be considerably easier to deliver."
From inside his coat, he produced an old-fashioned brass garden syringe, its handle fully extended.
"You'd better wait for me by that tunnel," he said. "And don't forget to bring Jamie. I wouldn't like you to leave him behind by accident."
"Really, Doctor!" Samantha said.
Together, the three of them dragged Jamie, who struggled against them every step of the way, to the duct by which Victoria had been brought in. They looked back, to see the Doctor spraying the contents of his syringe over the central bundle of fibres. The liquid sizzled on contact.
"You know," Victoria said. "I'm surprised every guard in the store hasn't come running here by now."
"Yeah, well, Pyromaniac Girl here probably has something to do with that," Samantha said.
"There are some interesting applications of table lamps and plug-in timers," Zoë added. "I don't think whatever controls this store is very bright. As soon as a fire breaks out somewhere everyone rushes to put it out. And I'm not a pyromaniac."
"I s'pose not. It doesn't have to be fire, does it, as long as you're trashing something?"
The pulsating in Victoria's head suddenly flared, and stopped. Jamie went briefly rigid, and then nearly collapsed. As he regained his balance, he looked at them in bewilderment.
"Hey," he said. "What's going on?"
At the same moment, the Doctor pushed the plunger on his syringe triumphantly home, and raced back to the group.
"Jamie," he said. "How are you?"
"Och, just fine, Doctor. Why have these lassies got me tied up?"
"You've been under the shop's control, Jamie. Can someone untie him, please?"
Victoria knelt down and freed Jamie's feet. But they quickly discovered that no-one had a key to the handcuffs on his wrists.
"I could go back and search the guards' bodies," Zoë suggested. "Well, not bodies, but you know what I mean."
"We haven't got time," the Doctor said. "We need to get out of here at once."
He set out at a brisk pace along the tunnel. Already the light seemed dimmer, and the background noises more ominous.
"Then I suggest we don't take the lift," Zoë said, giving chase.
"Or the escalator," Samantha added, following close behind.
The first part of their escape was relatively easy. Their spirits lifted as the trappings of a normal building began to appear around them, and the level of illumination increased. In the brighter light, Victoria realised that Samantha and Zoë must have had an eventful afternoon; their clothes were wet, ragged and filthy. Though, of course, her hideous rugby shirt made her own sartorial position rather less than impregnable.
In a large, bare corridor where the emergency lights still seemed to be working, the Doctor called a halt.
"I think we'd better get those handcuffs off you, Jamie," he said.
"Do we have to?" Samantha asked. "He looks so sweet like that. Sort of vulnerable."
"Samantha!" Zoë looked shocked for a moment, then giggled. "You're right. He does. What do you think, Victoria?"
Before Victoria could answer, the sonic screwdriver whirred, and Jamie's hands were free.
"That's better," he said.
"Maybe not," Victoria heard herself saying, and blushed. Jamie grinned at her confusion, then turned back to Zoë and Samantha.
"And just what have you two crazy lassies been up to, to end up in that state?" he asked.
"Someone said: 'Let's blow up the restaurant,'" Samantha began. "You know all these places have a restaurant on the top floor? Well, we didn't have any explosives, but Miss Armageddon here decided that didn't matter, she could improvise them with what was in the kitchen. She said it was all just exotic reactions, or something."
"Exothermic reactions," Zoë said. "Anyway, I did help the Doctor to make those phial bombs on Dulkis. It's not as if I claimed I was as experienced as Ace."
"Yeah. And we all know how unreliable Ace is, don't we?"
"You mean it didn't work?" Victoria asked.
"Of course it worked." Zoë sounded offended. "The explosion was just slightly bigger than we'd anticipated."
"I'm amazed we've still got eyebrows," Samantha said. "Anyway, there wasn't much restaurant left when she'd finished. We only just got out in time."
"And that's when Sam insisted on taking the lift."
"I suppose you'd have preferred trying to make it to the stairs, then? With all the sprinklers going off and the floor about to collapse."
"Yes, I know, but you know those safety notices that say not to use the lift if there's a fire? It turns out they're there for a reason."
"Hence your reference to lifts, I presume," the Doctor said. "What about escalators?"
"Let's just say that's why Zoë's not got her boots any more," Samantha said darkly.
"I see. Well, you can tell us the full story later."
Behind them, something collapsed, and a gust of warm, damp air blew over them.
"For now," the Doctor added, "We need to get out of here."
The boost to their spirits from reaching the more conventional parts of the store began to fade as soon as they resumed their flight. The structure of the building seemed to be melting; metal and concrete were peeling away, revealing the biological underpinnings. Now and again, the floor would lurch under their feet, and didn't always end up level afterwards. Tentacles thrashed impotently from where electrical fittings had been.
"This is the emergency staircase you were on before, isn't it?" the Doctor asked.
"I reckon it's got to be," Samantha said. "But it wasn't this wonky last time."
Victoria felt inclined to agree. The whole stairwell appeared to have heeled over, the concrete floor had become greenish and slippery, and the outer edges of the steps were drooping like wilting leaves.
"Everyone hold hands," the Doctor said. "Backs to the wall, and let's take this very carefully."
With the Doctor at the head of the procession and Jamie at the tail, they made it down the first flight reasonably well, since the tilt of the stairwell was in their favour. But as the staircase turned to go back on itself, they were now fighting against gravity as well as the treacherous footing. In theory, if they'd slipped, the railings would have broken their fall, but these now looked withered, sere, and unable to withstand so much as a gust of wind.
A few steps down, Samantha, who was ahead of Victoria, stumbled, slid forward, and apparently sank into the floor.
"My foot's gone right through!" she said, sounding terrified. "Hang on to me. Whatever you do, don't let go!"
Victoria hung on. But that was about all she could do. Whether it was a question of strength, or whether Samantha was caught on something, she wasn't sure, but she didn't seem able to pull Samantha back up. Zoë, on the downstairs side of Samantha, was having no more luck.
"Keep hold of her," Jamie said. "I'll lend a hand."
He let go of Victoria's other hand, dropped to all fours, and crawled in front of her until he was in reach of Samantha. Wrapping his arms round her waist, he began to lift her out. The whole staircase shuddered.
"Zoë!" the Doctor said, from the head of the chain. "Keep an eye on Jamie. If he slips, you'll have to catch him."
"I'll not slip." Jamie redoubled his efforts. With a tearing noise, the stairtread in which Samantha was trapped disintegrated, leaving a gaping hole. The Doctor and Zoë took a few steps further down, and Samantha gratefully climbed to her feet and took Zoë's hand once more. She held out her hand to Victoria.
"You should be all right," she said. "You don't have to jump or anything. Just take a big step."
Victoria took Samantha's hand, plucked up her courage, and stepped over the hole. For a moment she was looking down at the stairs one floor below and her head spun; then she was leaning against the wall further down.
A moment later Jamie was beside her, and once more holding her hand.
"Are we all across?" the Doctor asked. "We need to keep going."
The rest of the staircase was merely nervewracking until the last flight, by which time the steps weren't merely slippery, but disintegrating into mush under their feet. No sooner had Victoria set foot on the stairs than she'd skidded helplessly, cannoned into Samantha, and nearly plunged over the edge. She grabbed at the railing, which did indeed crumble in her hands, and felt herself dragged back by everyone else at once.
"Please don't do that again," Zoë said, reeling her in.
"I'm sorry," Victoria began. "But there was nothing—"
"Save that for later," Samantha said. "I don't think this staircase is gonna hang around for us while we chat."
Indeed, chunks of debris, which looked suspiciously like stair treads, were beginning to fall past them, and the building lurched again.
"Oh, my word!" The Doctor glanced around. "We'll have to chance it. Do you see that door down there? Run for it, now!"
He suited his actions to his words, leaping and skidding down the disintegrating structure, and flailing wildly as he caught hold of the doorframe and brought himself to a halt. Zoë and Samantha careered down after him, one at a time; he caught each one in his arms and thrust them through the doorway.
"Now you, Victoria," he called up. "Hurry!"
Victoria tried to balance the demands of speed and safety, and ended up hurtling down, waving her arms to try and keep her balance, and screaming at the top of her voice. The Doctor caught hold of her, and a moment later Jamie collided with both of them.
"Sorry," he said. "I didnae think it was such a good idea to wait."
"No, you're quite right, Jamie. Quickly, through here."
He shepherded the two of them through the doorway. They emerged once more in the sports department. The ceiling was definitely lower and more irregular than Victoria remembered, and it seemed that another one of Zoë's firebombs had recently gone off; their main source of illumination was the display stand Victoria had hidden under, which was now merrily ablaze.
"Now we get out," the Doctor said. "As fast as we can."
Jamie looked down.
"There's glass and metal on the floor here," he said. "Zoë's got no shoes."
Before Zoë could protest, he slung her over his shoulder in a fireman's lift and set off at the best speed he could manage.
"Now there's a knight in shining armour," Samantha said. She picked up another cricket bat from a nearby display. "Come on, let's make sure he's got a clear path."
In comparison to the stairs, it was easy. All they had to do was try not to trip over things on the floor, not to go under any bits of ceiling that were about to collapse, and not to get caught by the fire. Here and there the remains of store employees were scattered about, in pools of purple liquid.
Samantha reached the main door first. The alarm loops probably weren't working by now, but she smashed them with her bat just to make sure. Then she and Victoria held the doors open for Jamie. The Doctor followed almost immediately.
"You can put me down now," Zoë said, as soon as they were all outside.
"Aye, I'll be happy to." Jamie set her down on the pavement. "For such a wee thing, you eat quite a bit, don't you?"
"Really, Jamie! Sometimes you can be—" She broke off at his broad grin. "Oh, no. You were winding me up, and I fell for it again!"
Liz hurried up.
"Isobel and Gia recovered consciousness about half an hour ago," she said. "They seem fine, but I'll recommend they be kept in overnight, just in case."
"Can we see them?" Victoria asked.
"I'd advise against it for now. If you wait I'll see how they are a bit later."
The Doctor took a look over his shoulder. "I suggest that while we're waiting, we shouldn't stay too close to the shop. Just in case."
Liz opened the barrier, and the party filed out, turned, and looked back at the department store for the first time. Its brickwork was now a dark reddish-brown, and the whole thing was no more than two-thirds its original height. As they watched it sank further in on itself, apparently solid brick and stone running like candlewax.
"Was there anyone else in there?" Jamie asked. "Real people, I mean."
"We think not," Liz said.
"But that doesn't make sense," Zoë said. "It was a massive shop. Why would we be the only ones in it?"
"With those posters they had up?" Samantha said. "No-one in their right mind would want to buy stuff in there." She looked at the front of the shop and realised something. "Hang on, they were much worse than that this morning."
"Yes, they were changing all day," Liz said. "Trying to find something that would lure people in. I think, if you'd left it undisturbed, it would have managed it by now."
"So you mean when we went in the whole shop wasn't quite ripe?" Jamie asked.
"I suppose you could put it that way."
"That'd explain a lot," Samantha said. "The food tasting funny, the clothes not looking right..."
"Or fitting properly," Jamie said, glancing at Victoria.
"Anyway, we don't have to worry about it now." She stuck out her tongue at the collapsing shop. "Done and dusted."
"Is she right, Doctor?" Victoria asked. "Have we destroyed it?"
"Oh, yes, I think so." The Doctor smiled beatifically. "Another success for the Society. I'll keep an eye on it for a bit, just in case, but I don't think there's anything else to do. If you want to go and take a rest, you can."
His companions nodded, and ambled in the direction of a nearby bench.
"How much do you remember, Jamie?" Victoria asked.
"That lass kissed me," Jamie said. "Then I fell asleep. Next thing I knew, I was in yon passage and you lot had tied me up." He looked down at the tattered uniform he was still wearing. "Hey, and what happened to my kilt?"
Zoë looked back at the ruined store. "I think you'll have to write it off as a loss. We can't go back for it."
"I'm not sure I ever want to go into a shop again," Victoria said.
"Really? I think we all need to visit a good clothing shop as soon as we can." She gestured at their torn and scorched costumes. "In fact, that's my second highest priority right now."
"I suppose highest is a bath," Samantha said. "It is for me, anyway."
Chapter 9: Epilogue
"Here you go," Samantha said, distributing drinks. "Singapore Sling for Isobel. Are you sure you're well enough for that?"
"Liz says I've made a complete recovery," Isobel said smugly. "So I can get as drunk as I like."
"Water for you, Doctor, and I made sure it wasn't Spring of Drowned anything. Who wanted the fruit juice with the funny name?"
"The isotonic summer fruit beverage?" Zoë asked. "That would be Gia. She's sitting outside."
"I bet it's never been near a real summer fruit in its life. Weird muck. Why would anyone want a drink like that?"
"You're drinking that Babycham stuff," Jamie pointed out. "And that's not a proper drink, either. It's just squashed rotten pears."
"I'll take it out to her," Victoria said.
"Thanks." Samantha handed her the glass, her mind on other things. "And as for you, Jamie McCrimmon, if you think Babycham isn't a proper drink you try it and I'll match you glass for glass and we'll see who ends up under the table first..."
Victoria left the incipient argument and quietly walked out to the front of the Round, where the Proprietor had placed a few picnic tables so that patrons could enjoy the sun (when applicable) and the splendid view of the car park (always). At the moment, the sun was certainly not applicable, and the only person sitting at any of the tables was Gia.
"I've brought you your drink," Victoria said, sitting on the bench beside her.
Victoria waited a decent interval, taking the occasional sip from her own Pepsi.
"Gia," she eventually said. "What's wrong?"
"Don't be silly. It's something to do with that department store. You've been funny ever since."
Gia sighed. "It's that obvious?"
"I can tell. Whatever it is, I think it would do you good to talk about it. I promise I won't laugh at you."
"Well. I thought sorting out that shop would be an adventure, and it would be fun. Respectively, it was; and it wasn't."
"No. Adventures usually aren't. At least, that's my view. Jamie and the others seem to handle them better."
"Then I killed one of those checkout attendants, whoever or whatever they were. I know I didn't mean to, and it was in self-defence, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Victoria nodded understandingly.
"I haven't killed before. At least not face to face. And seeing her face fall down the Uncanny Valley right in front of me... I can still hear her screaming."
"You'll get over it in time," Victoria said gently.
"So all the books say. The thing is, I've always been able to control my emotions. And suddenly I couldn't. It's probably because of that that I made a complete mess of the business with Jamie."
"You mean, when you didn't shoot him? I don't think any of us could have done that, even if we'd known it wouldn't kill him — and you didn't know that."
"I didn't do anything. Victoria, I froze. I could have tried to disarm him, or make a run for it, or throw something at him, and I just stood there. He got me, and nearly got you as well. Up to now, I've always been able to deal with whatever situation I was in. And then I came up against this, and failed utterly."
Victoria put her hand on Gia's arm. "These things happen. We just have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Anyway, it's happened to all of the rest of us at one time or another. If you do decide to tell them how you feel, they'll understand. Don't stay out here by yourself and brood."
"I was wondering whether it's still a good idea for me to hang around with you," Gia said. "I don't want to be the unreliable woman who keeps getting everyone else into trouble."
"Don't be silly." Victoria couldn't resist smiling at the thought. "That's my job and I'm not going to let you take it." She rose to her feet. "Now, come in with everyone. Even if you have to listen yet again to Samantha telling us all about her and Zoë climbing about in the lift shaft."
Gia, too, got to her feet.
"I must admit," she said, "You lot do have one good reason to keep me around."
"I'm the only one who can canonically drive a car." She gave a reluctant half-smile. "Designated driver. That's about all I'm fit for."
"You're still talking nonsense," Victoria said. "But as long as you come in with us now, I shan't complain."
Arm in arm, they walked back into the Round.