With four hours remaining until Scorpio arrived at Xenon Base, Avon reclined in his seat and ruminated. He ought to have known better.
The ambush, inevitably, came the moment he got lost in thought. The clank of a hatch, a maintenance door growling open, and out stumbled a character with a manner reminiscent of Vila, and like Vila, rather too inept to be believable.
A second too late--enough to betray his surprise--Avon bounded from his chair, hand on his still-lowered gun, out of sight (he hoped) behind the console. With luck, he could lull the intruder into giving away any advantage.
The stowaway, a youngish, gangly man in an ill-fitting suit, flailed an arm toward the open hatch. "Do you have any idea what a mess you've got down there? I mean, just look at my shoes."
"My apologies, Master," Slave was saying, "but there appears to be unidentified person in your illustrious presence."
"Shut up, Slave."
"Oh now," said the man over Slave's follow-up apology, "that's hardly a way to talk to a computer."
"I'm not going to ask you how you managed to stow away abroad my ship."
"Well, that's a pity because I could tell--"
"Thanks." He kept his face like stone. "I'm quite content to work it out."
"That's the scientific spirit, Avon!" The man grinned. "Although as a scientist, you really ought to let me get a word in: gathering data and all that."
Avon raised his gun. "I am going to give you ten seconds to tell me who you are and why you're here."
The man sobered. "I'll do it in five. I'm the Doctor, and I'm here to talk you into going to Gauda Prime."
Avon froze, hoping the intruder would mistake his paralysis for icy resolve. Who could know about Gauda Prime? Himself. Orac. Someone overhearing them? He'd have said no one could, but then, he'd also have said that no one could stay hidden onboard Scorpio. Or perhaps this "doctor" had not overheard but had compromised Orac. An eccentric genius? A student of Ensor?
Inadvertently, his eyes must have flicked to Orac, and no slip went unpunished: the Doctor's eyes followed.
"Orac!" The Doctor strolled over, still grinning. "Fancy meeting you here. How've you been keeping?"
"How have I been keeping what? I must ask you to be more specific."
"Same old Orac; he never changes. Except the voice. You ever notice how he redoes that? You still got a thing for my Tardis, Orac? She's here you know." He gestured below deck and made an annoying click with his cheeks.
"I do not have, nor have I ever had, anything to present to your Tardis. It is an inferior machine, and I see no reason why I should invest resources in augmenting its systems in any way."
The Doctor crouched down to eye level with Orac's stand. "You're just saying that because you can't interface with her systems."
"May I remind you that I am capable of accessing the sum total of knowledge of any computing system utilizing tarial cell technology. The accumulated stores of data concerning your Tardis provide ample evidence of its fundamental inferiority. I have no need to interface with it directly to ascertain that."
Avon resolved to interrogate Orac about this "Tardis" later. As for the Doctor, it seemed increasingly likely he had been a student of Ensor.
"Well, she's missed you at any rate," he was saying. "I'll have to bring you round to say hello before I head off."
"You're not taking Orac anywhere."
At Avon's words, the Doctor rose and eyed him up and down. "Mind if I have a seat?"
Avon nodded, adopting an expression of studied boredom. He himself leaned against the console while the Doctor took a chair, all the while keeping his gun trained on him.
"Gauda Prime," the Doctor resumed. "So by this time, Orac's told you that Blake is there, and you've been thinking about joining forces with him, but you've pretty much decided to put Blake on a back burner and focus on building an alliance of your own instead."
It was the very debate Avon had been having with himself the moment the Doctor arrived. "Are you an Auron?" he asked--a bit stupidly because the Auronar, for all intents and purposes, were dead (and they could only read the minds of other Aurons), but it was the only explanation he could fit to the facts.
"No. I'm a Time Lord. There's no sight like hindsight." The Doctor wasn't smiling now.
"You're a time traveller?" He didn't believe it, of course. But the Doctor had been right about the scientific mind: all data, even lies, could be informative. "And you're telling me that if I pursue the idea of an alliance, it will have negative consequences."
The Doctor thought for a moment. "A bit hard to explain really. Negative consequences, yeah. Some of them are easy enough to pin down: the alliance falls apart eventually. That sort of thing. But I'm here more because of negative consequences for the time vortex. Basically, you're at a point in history where things have to go a certain way or else time will crack. And that leads to very bad consequences. Planets imploding, stars-winking-out-of-existence sort of consequences." He contracted his hands into a fist, apparently under the misapprehension that a visual of "implosion" would be useful.
"Really. And how exactly does that work?"
"Well, to really wrap your head around that sort of thing requires a solid background in quantum hypermaths." The Doctor appraised him. "Still, you're a mathematical sort. How about if I give it go?" He cracked his knuckles.
Avon laughed. "Well, nothing ventured...." In fact, he was curious what kind of mathematical stunt a student of Ensor might try to pull on him.
The Doctor did give... something a go. Avon followed it easily for the first thirty seconds, with some difficulty for the next minute or so. Thereafter, the Doctor might as well have been speaking Andromedan. Avon found the experience disconcerting. Either the man was spouting nonsense at him, or he was spouting genuine mathematical principles Avon could no more comprehend than a moondisk could comprehend time distort technology. Either way, it made a fool of him.
"So anyway..." The Doctor paused. "That didn't sink in at all, did it?"
Stuck for a reply, Avon glared.
"Oh, it's not your fault, Avon. It's the human brain." He waved a hand around his head to illustrate "brain," then assumed an expression Avon found just a little too sincere. "Look, I'm not asking you to do anything so very extraordinary. After all, you've been on the cusp of doing it yourself anyway. You've been looking for Blake; you found him. You know you want to go see him, so why not just, you know, go?"
"You seem to know a great deal about my psychological profile." As a Federation interrogator might?
"I told you: I'm a Time Lord. There's nothing like a bit of historical perspective."
"And I'm supposed to take your word for that?"
"Well, since you can't follow the maths," said the Doctor irritably. "I know; I could take you for a turn in my ship. You'd get a kick out of it; it's bigger on the inside." He rose and made for the maintenance hatch.
"Stay where you are." As much as the idea of a time ship intrigued him, he would not be lured into a trap in the confines of the maintenance bay.
The Doctor turned back and pointed dramatically at the gun aimed at his chest. "Those things can get you into trouble, you know."
"A fact you'd be wise to remember."
The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Oh for the love of--you know Blake's there. You know he'd be a top contact for forming a new rebellion. What's the problem with just checking it out?"
"As it happens, I have a lot of problems with it. Blake is the last person I would want to launch a 'new rebellion' with. He and I would never be able to form an alliance. When we worked together before, I agreed, for my own purposes, to follow him. But stuck on Gauda Prime? No one could seriously imagine he is still the man he once was. Nor am I the man I was when we were together on the Liberator. I will not follow him again, and it goes without saying he is too mule-headed to follow me. If we were to attempt any sort of... reunion, it would simply degenerate into a fiasco."
The Doctor gave him a long look he might almost have described as pained. "Last time I checked 'alliance' had to do with people working together, not just blindly following each other. You could just--just make the connection." The Doctor took a step toward him, and Avon elevated his gun to match. "Please. The fate of your galaxy, if not more, really does rest on whether or not you go to that planet. You just need to trust me on that."
Avon cracked a smile. "Because one who trusts can never be betrayed?"
The Doctor gazed at him, too intently, as if looking for something behind the mask, as if there were something left to find. Avon met his eyes unflinchingly. At length, the Doctor looked away and rubbed a hand over his face.
"So you're intent on forming this alliance of warlords?"
Avon confirmed it with silence.
"All right, let's think." The Doctor scrubbed at his hair. "At this point in history, you're teamed up with, who, Vila Restal still? Dayna Mellanby, Soolin, and, help me, the guy with the teeth."
"Tarrant." Avon recognized the folly of sharing information--even obvious information--with an adversary, but when it came to exposing Tarrant, he found he rather enjoyed it.
The Doctor snapped his fingers. "Del Tarrant, yeah. Well, that's not a bad bunch to start an alliance with." He scratched his chin; the man was made of nervous gestures. "I tell you what: I can see I'm barking up the wrong tree here. So I'll be on my way and find another solution for realigning the time vortex." He shrugged. "It's not like I haven't flown by the seat of my pants before. And I mean that literally, by the way. You just go have a really good time with your new chums: spiky shoulder accessories, fur jerkins, pink hair. You'll fit right in."
He made again for the maintenance hatch. Avon hesitated. He didn't want to let the man out of sight, didn't want him wandering the ship, didn't want to shoot him without at least some provocation. Warily, he followed him, gun at the ready.
He watched the Doctor climb down the ladder into the maintenance bay. On the floor was a large box. The Doctor opened a door, turned back, waved. "Good luck with the rebellion. For what it's worth, the Federation will fall, but I guess you knew that; empires like that never last, do they?" He waved again and disappeared into the box.
Avon tensed as the box emitted lights and noises. He stepped back, ready to heave the hatch shut. But the box simply disappeared. Teleport?
"Slave, identify the whereabouts of the foreign object that was in the maintenance bay thirty seconds ago."
"I humbly apologize, Master. I can find no such object inside or outside of Scorpio."
"The object is a time vehicle," said Orac, "as the Doctor told you. It should be evident to even the meanest intelligence that it is no longer in our time continuum."
Avon stared at Orac, asking himself if the Doctor's story could be true. Over the next half hour, he determined that Orac's data on the Doctor and his Tardis was suggestive, but since it all came third-hand, or worse, it hardly proved definitive. The idea was outlandish and, even if true, so beyond his field that he couldn't find a basis for a rational judgment. Therefore, the only sensible course was to discount the Doctor and proceed with his plans based on what solid judgments he could make. Let Blake rot where he was. Avon had an alliance to build--he smiled wryly--even if it did involve odd costuming and... pink hair? Now, the idea of a warlord with pink hair was a little implausible even for...
He bolted up. "Orac, get me all the information you can on international conflicts in the past month involving the planet Betafarl. Relay it to my station."
Of course. How could he have omitted to put Zukan on his list of contacts? Indeed, the more data Orac transmitted to him, the more it seemed the man might be his trump card.
After an hour of sifting, he took a moment to lounge on one of the leisure chairs and exhaled with relief. With Zukan, this alliance just might work. Avon had pretended up to now to keep the others with him, but he hadn't really believed they could win, not on their own, not without Blake.
Now, for the first time, he saw a viable path that would take him nowhere near Gauda Prime.