Kristoph lingered on the step, kissing Marion very intently. He had done so on countless mornings before he went to his work as the Magister of the Southern Continent. He did the same before his official car took him to his work as President of Gallifrey.

This morning, in most respects, was the same as all the other mornings before it. He was kissing his wife goodbye before he went on his way to the Panopticon to preside over a sitting of the High Council.

This was different because, for the first time since he was inaugurated, he was going to perform the most important duty of his Office.

It was not something any Time Lord took lightly. But as well as the ordinary duties of a political leader anywhere in the universe, the President of Gallifrey was required, on certain occasions, when it was necessary, to put his physical and mental health in jeopardy by connecting his consciousness to the Amplified Panatropic Computer Network and entering the Matrix.

It was an exciting prospect. Within the Matrix he would be able to make contact with the collected minds of his forebears. The wisdom of countless generations would be at his command. The sum of the memories of all the greatest Time Lords who had gone before him were collected in the APC Net.

But it was a daunting prospect, too. It was possible to give up so much of his own consciousness that he would not be able to return from it. It was possible to die within the Matrix and the physical body would die, too. Even if the body survived, the mind could be so badly seared by connection with the overwhelming power of that great collective consciousness that it suffered permanent brain damage.

Kristoph didn’t tell Marion any of that. He knew she would worry far too much. She would imagine all kinds of unlikely dangers as well as the very real ones he was facing.

So he kissed his wife this morning for as long as he dared, hoping that he would be able to come home to her at the end of this day and kiss her again.

“Goodbye, my dear,” he said at last. “Have a good day.”

“You, too,” Marion answered him. Then he turned and walked down the steps. The car door was opened by his chauffer and he got into the seat. Presently the car moved off slowly, the wheels crunching over the gravel before the hover gear engaged and it rose smoothly into the air. Kristoph looked back once at his wife, still standing by the door. He watched her until the car turned and a stand of cúl nut trees cut off his view of the house.

He sighed and leaned his head back on the seat. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. He had to be mentally prepared for the ordeal ahead. Meditating in the car on the way to the shuttle was not the ideal way to do it, but it was better than letting his anxieties get the better of him.

Anxiety was a new experience for him. He was no stranger to fear, of course. His years as a soldier, and later as a Celestial Intervention Agency operative, taught him to treat fear as proof that he was still alive and still in possession of his own wits. He knew how to use fear to keep him alert and aware of the dangers ahead of him.

But this was different. The Matrix was an unknown quantity in a way that even the most difficult operation for the CIA never was. When he took an assignment, even an assassination, he was able to plan ahead, anticipate problems. Of course, there was always the unexpected and his plans had to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. But at least he started out with a clear idea of what he ought to be doing and how.

But the Matrix was impossible to anticipate. There was no plan he could make. He couldn’t approach it with any expectations of what he would find in there. Even Lord Gyes, who had gone into the Matrix over fifty times in the course of his Presidency, could tell him nothing except to expect the unexpected. It was different every time he went into it.

Kristoph didn’t like that idea at all. He didn’t like that many uncertainties ahead of him. Yes, he was what on Earth was called a control freak. He had to be. It was how he had stayed alive for centuries. And now he was facing a situation he couldn’t control in any way. He was anxious.

At the space port in Athenica he transferred from his car to the President’s personal air shuttle that would cross the straits from the southern continent to the Capitol on the edge of the northern continent. He preferred to keep the shuttle at the space port rather than have its noise disturbing the peace of his home. He settled down in his seat and again did his best to clear his mind. In the sound-proofed, pressurised cabin as the shuttle travelled at sub-sonic speed it was easier to do that. He managed a few minutes of perfect relaxation and mental calm before the landing on the roof of the Citadel. After that, he had no chance of any such thing. As soon as the shuttle came to a stop a phalanx of Presidential Guards formed and they matched his step as he walked to the turbo lift.

At least he had a little peace in his Presdential Chambers. There he had just one assistant who helped him into his robes of office. He drank a glass of cúl nut milk and ate a protein enriched meal. He wasn’t hungry, but the connection with the APC Net took a physical toll as well as a mental one. He needed the extra nourishment. Then his assistant settled the heavy collar on his shoulders and he was ready.

The honour guard formed up outside again and escorted him to the Panopticon. The High Council were already assembled and they stood respectfully as he entered.

The Seat of Rassilon was set upon a hexagonal dais in the centre of the floor directly above the Matrix itself. He sat upon it and placed his hands on the ancient hard wood arms of the elaborately carved chair. There was a long silence and then Gold Usher stepped forward with the Coronet of Rassilon. Kristoph breathed deeply as he felt the weight of it upon his head. But he felt something more than just physical weight. The energy within the coronet touched his consciousness. He embraced the touch and didn’t try to fight it. To do so would be counter productive and dangerous.

His eyes closed. He felt the blackness behind his eyelids before a greater darkness enveloped him.

Then he opened his eyes. He knew that in the physical reality he was still sitting on the great Seat of Rassilon in the Panopticon. He knew he was surrounded by the High Councillors and any number of Presidential Guards.

But it looked and felt as if he was standing alone in the middle of the great Red Desert. He could feel the burning sand beneath his feet. His feet, incidentally, were bare. But he knew very well he had been wearing shoes when he left the house this morning. He was no longer in his Presidential regalia. Instead he appeared to be dressed in a simple cotton robe with a cord belt from which a small dagger hung.

It wasn’t exactly what he had expected. Then again, he had no particular expectations. He did know that the Matrix could create amazingly realistic virtual reality worlds. And he knew he should expect some sort of challenge. He had to prove he was fit to join with the great past Time Lords whose consciousnesses resided in the APC Net. He would have to complete some kind of trial, and he knew it would be a real challenge, one just as potentially lethal as anything he did on behalf of the Celestial Intervention Agency.

It was fairly obvious that a long walk was part of it. He looked around, wondering which way he should go. There were no obvious landmarks. This was either a part of the desert far from any recognisable features or a fictional part of it created by the Matrix just to confuse him.

In either case, there was no clue which way he should walk. He didn’t waste time wondering about it, though. He turned his back to the sun and started out eastwards at a steady pace.