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.

He measured the time he had been walking by his personal body clock and knew it was more than two hours. He wondered if it was that long in real time, back in the Panopticon. If so, the High Council must be getting restless by now, watching his unconscious body sitting in the Seat of Rassilon on the Dais in the midst of them.

Serve them right, he thought. They kept him waiting often enough. He remembered kicking his heels for a whole day once, waiting for a secret session to finish so that he could be given orders that nobody beyond five very senior Time Lords knew anything about.

The assignment had taken him less than an hour. They had taken twenty-five hours to decide it should be done. Sometimes he thought that was right. A decision to issue an Executive Order of that kind ought to be carefully considered. Other times, he just thought it typical of the whole bunch of long-winded prevaricators.

Of course, he wasn’t a government assassin now. He was the government. He had the authority to order assassinations if the situation called for it.

Then again, he reminded himself. The Celestial Intervention Agency didn’t, in fact, work for the government. It was above the government. In certain circumstances they had the power to assassinate the president. The last time that had happened was 10,000 years before he was born, and the details of how and why it had happened were hazy even within the Agency. But it could happen.

Ordinarily, though, the Celestial Intervention Agency were at his command. And it was possible that he would discover something today that would lead to him issuing an Executive Order. That was a disconcerting thought. He, who had once carried out those commands, could soon be giving somebody else orders to have a man killed. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. As a CIA man he had salved his conscience by reminding himself he was merely the tool wielded by those who gave him his orders. But now the buck stopped with him as they said on Earth. The consequences of any order given by him returned to him. It was on his soul.

But that was how it had to be. That was the responsibility he accepted when he took his oath of office.

Besides, he didn’t know yet what the consequences were going to be. It might not need an Executive Order. There may not be blood spilled as a consequence of this day’s work.

There might not be anything in it at all. The Celestial Intervention Agency had brought a slender suspicion to the attention of the High Council. Their own investigation had yielded little more than that. The Chancellor and Premier Cardinal both thought it could be dismissed. Any other president than himself would probably have agreed with him.

But he was the first President who had been anything other than a politician. He had instincts and experiences that went beyond the debating chamber. And he knew this could not be dismissed. He also knew there was only one way to be certain of the truth.

Only he, the President, the only man with full and complete access to the Matrix, could do it. That was why he had entered this surreal world. Not to consult his forebears about some constitutional issue or some detail of the latest Gallifreyan trade agreements, both of which were legitimate reasons for consulting the Matrix, and both of which were given as his reasons for doing so today. No, this was a far graver matter, though only four men other than himself knew that.

And one of those might well be the reason he was doing it.

He paused in his trek and looked around at the desert. He knew he had walked many miles, but it was the nature of such things, even in real landscapes, not easily manipulated virtual ones, that the scenery didn’t change at all. It still looked dishearteningly the same as when he started out. He might just as well have stood still and waited for something to happen, except he knew better than that.

His feet burned in the sand, though the skin renewed itself continuously and the discomfort was merely part of the test of his endurance. His body was hot. He had no head covering and the sun was relentless. His Time Lord physiology allowed him to cool his blood and prevent the heat from sapping his strength. The internal cooling meant that he lost far less liquid through perspiration, and he could keep going far longer than most humanoids.

It didn’t stop him longing for cool, delicious drinks. But he considered that a part of his trial, too, and pushed such thoughts away. He wasn’t thirsty. He wasn’t hungry and he could keep going for hours, yet, if he absolutely had to in order to prove his worth to his ancestors.

They were, some of them, literally his ancestors, of course. Six generations before him, right back to the first Chrístõ de Lœngbærrow, had all been Lord High President at some time in their lives. It was an achievement his family could boast of if boasting was something they were prone to doing. Certainly no other House could make such a claim. And now he continued that great tradition. One day, perhaps his son would follow in his same footsteps. That would be a proud day for him.

Kristoph smiled at the thought. Then he gasped as a strange darkness overwhelmed him. It was incomplete, unformed. It was not even a precognitive vision. At best he could call it an intuitive flash. But for a brief moment it encompassed him fully.

Yes, his son would also wear the Coronet of Rassilon some time in the far future. But he would not be there to see it and it would not be a proud day. It would be a dark day and a dreadful and dangerous time for all Gallifrey.

Krisoph shivered. He actually shivered as he stood in the midst of a burning desert. He felt as if the sun that beat down on him was no longer warming his body and its light dimmed in his eyes.

Then he shook the feeling off decisively. It was a trick. It was part of the trial, a moment of doubt. Not self doubt, since he was too much in control of his own mind for that, but a doubt that cut into his hearts.

Because for a moment, it actually seemed as if his son would one day be at the heart of Gallifrey’s betrayal, responsible for her downfall.

But that wasn’t possible. No son of the House of Lœngbærrow would betray Gallifrey. It was unthinkable.

“That’s a cheap, dirty trick,” he called out. “But it failed. You’ll have to do better than that.”

There was no answer, of course. He hardly expected one. That wasn’t how the Matrix worked. Nobody was actually monitoring what was happening to him. The test of his self-worth was not programmed into the system like the hazards in the total sensory combat simulator he remembered from his military training. It was much more sophisticated than that.

Nor was it designed to be deliberately hurtful to him. There was no malice in what had just happened. It was just the APC Net playing on a possible vulnerability in his psyche. His pride in his ancestors could not be shaken. So it touched upon the unknown – the future of his line.

“It’s still a cheap, dirty trick,” he said again.

“And so is this,” he added as he found himself knee deep in quicksand. “There is no reason why a patch of quicksand should be in the middle of the Red Desert, miles from the slightest suggestion of an oasis. This is another test.”

He knew it had to be. But that didn’t make being dragged down by the sticky, wet sand any less frightening. He didn’t struggle. He let his body sink down. He took a deep breath at the last minute, before his head was covered by the awful stuff. He closed his eyes and recycled his breathing until it was all over.

He felt his body slip through the quicksand and then fall through empty air for a long time – longer than was physically possible. He should have reached terminal velocity long before he actually hit the ground. The impact winded him and he felt his ribs bruise unpleasantly. But he didn’t break every bone in his body and his brain wasn’t pulped.

If you die in the Matrix, you die in reality. But in the Matrix not all the rules of the physical world were obeyed. So he was alive.

He was warm and clean. The cotton robe he was wearing wasn’t full of dried sand from walking in the desert or caked in quicksand, either. It was crisp and fresh as if he had just come from the shower and put it on.

But he was in total darkness. There was air to breath. The place he was in was dry. When he stood up there was headroom. The air felt manufactured rather than fresh and his feet echoed as if he was inside a tunnel or corridor.

He bent and touched the ground. It was a smooth, artificial surface. A building rather than a cave or other underground feature.

He moved forward carefully, feeling his way, placing his feet cautiously. He reached a wall and felt along it until he found an opening and stepped through.

Another pitch black room. He edged around the wall, coming to a corner, then another one, before finding another doorway that had to be directly opposite the one he came through.

The same happened four more times.

Being in total darkness was a strange experience for him. His Time Lord eyes could process even the tiniest amount of light in the very darkest of places.

But here there wasn’t even a tiny fragment of light and he was completely blind.

He briefly wondered if that was literally true. Was he blind? How would he know?

Then he cast that aside as yet another psychological test. It went along with the utter tedium of walking through empty rooms one after the other, hugging the walls and finding nothing but another doorway every time.

Perhaps that was where he was going wrong? He was skirting around the walls cautiously. Perhaps he needed to take something on faith.

He stepped through another doorway and instead of following the wall around he kept on walking across the floor in a straight line towards the place where, if this room was the same as all the others, another doorway should be.

And maybe there was one. But there was a hole in the middle of the floor that he fell through first.