Gynnell Dúccesci woke suddenly, aware of darkness and stillness around him. The air was musty and stale, but contained enough oxygen to breathe. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was. Then he reached out and found the torch he had left beside him. It illuminated the subterranean shelter they had found just after sunrise this morning.

Riven Maxic was sitting upright beside him. The Vansig brothers were awake but still lying on their makeshift bed, close together.

He felt by his internal body clock that he had slept for nine hours.

Nine blissful hours.

“I didn’t dream at all,” he said. “Nothing.”

The others confirmed the same.

“Rho can’t find us here.”

“That outcrop above us,” Riven said. “It’s made of the same stuff that runs right under the Dark Territory. It shielded us, here. That’s why we know we’ll be all right when we get there. We’ll be free.”

It was an odd definition of freedom, but it was the only one they had. They clung to it. The life they were going to was going to be a better one. They had to believe that. Otherwise, the thought of leaving this relative safety and climbing that ladder up to the hostile and unforgiving desert would have been too much.

“It’s still hot outside,” Riven added. “We should stay where we are a little longer. We can eat some food and drink water, and think about what we’re doing.”

“I’m going to look at these shelves, properly,” Gynnell said. “There might be something we can use. After all, this was a survival outpost for the CIA when they trained in this desert. They might have left weapons or something.”

There were no weapons. But he did find a map that Nico confirmed as the same as the one he had memorised. They all looked over it. The found the camp and their present hiding place. They found the boundary of the Dark Territory and the oasis within it that they hoped to reach.

“Nico, your memory WAS faulty,” Riven told him. “Or the stars were. We were off by about a quarter of a mile when we spotted the outcrop. We could have missed it and gone on further into the desert until we dropped.”

“I’m sure I was right,” Nico insisted. But the map was before them and he could see exactly what his friend meant. They HAD been off course.

“We have the map now,” Gynnell said. “And this.” He held up a rounded metal disc with swirling Gallifreyan text on it. The cover flipped open to reveal a compass. “We’ll do better tonight with more than just the stars to guide us. We’ll be in Dark Territory by morning.”

“We should bring as many of these wafers as we can carry,” Riven said. “And the water. Even at the oasis we don’t know what food we’ll find. And none of us have ever hunted before. It might not be easy at first. We have about six week’s emergency rations here. Nutrition wafers are dull stuff. But they could be a lifeline.”

They repacked their backpacks with the new supplies. After that there was no use procrastinating. They climbed up out of their refuge into the desert again. It was only about seven in the evening. It was still hot. But they knew from experience that the heat at this time of day was less dangerous to them. They were used to playing games or going on route marches with their instructors in the early evening when the sun was starting to drop lower in the sky.

Nico used the sun’s position and the time by his wristwatch to work out their direction. Gynnell confirmed it by the map and compass. They set off walking.

“They’ll be looking for us by now,” Riven pointed out.

“They’re looking for us in three thousand square miles of desert,” Gynnell said. “And we’re wearing sand coloured clothing. Even if a shuttle passed overhead they wouldn’t see us easily. And the chances of us being seen by a land patrol are even less. Besides, they’ll expect us to try to reach the Capitol. They’ll look in the other direction.”

There was nothing remotely resembling a search shuttle in the yellow sky above them. They walked on, adjusting their heading according to Nico’s dead reckoning and Gynnell’s confirmation by the map and compass. The sun slowly dropped closer to the eastern horizon and burnt orange and dark brown in turn crept across the sky. The sun set and the darkness and the cooler air that came with it were welcome. So were the stars that provided an even more certain navigation aid than the sun. They felt confident of reaching the Dark Territory by morning.

“When we do get there...” Mica began. They had talked vaguely about it when they formulated the plan of escape. “What then...”

“Then we build shelter. There are trees around the oasis. We can build a hut. We can gather fruit and catch fish... We can hunt wild animals for meat....”

“We’ll be Sheboogans,” Nico said. “Living off the land, without technology.”

“Sheboogans are a myth,” Gynnell insisted.

“Not any more,” Riven pointed out. “Not if we become them.”

“We’ll never become Time Lords,” Mica said after a while. “I always thought that was the greatest thing I could aspire to be. I wanted it. But now....”

“Tau Rho is a Time Lord. And he uses his power for evil. I’m in no hurry to emulate him,” Riven said. “I’m happy to be Sheboogan, free of all of that.”

“You were his closest lieutenant, once,” Mica said. “You believed everything Rho taught us. You even stood up in the Panopticon and denounced the High Council because you believed in him.”

“I was wrong. When they took us to the camp, when he couldn’t get to us, it all melted away from me. I realised I had been used. He didn’t convince us of his political views. He manipulated our minds. He put stuff there that shouldn’t have been. Without that, I knew the truth.”

“Me, too,” Gynnell admitted. “It was worse for me. I had to deal with the fact that I shot the President. I felt so... so guilty. Especially when his wife came to see me. She is such a nice lady, and I almost....”

“It was him,” Mica reminded him. “He made you do it. He made you into an assassin. It’s not really you.”

“I’m the one sent to the camp for punishment, though,” Gynnell responded. “And I don’t resent that. I deserve to be punished. For not being stronger, for not resisting Rho. I knew, deep down, that I shouldn’t be doing it. And I didn’t fight it. That’s why I can’t let him get into my head again. I know I can’t fight him. And I am so scared of what he might make me do if he takes control of me.”

“We’ll be safe at the oasis.”

That thought kept them going as the night darkened and the temperature dropped. They walked as fast as they could, trying to keep warm. They talked to each other out loud, not daring to try any form of telepathy in case they were detected, either by those who would be searching for them by now, or by Tau Rho, which would be even worse.

They were doing well, they thought when they rested at about two o’clock in the morning. They drank some water and ate one of the nutrition wafers each and thought about the hours of darkness left. They should have crossed into Dark Territory by sun up. After that, the oasis was only a few hours walk. They had plenty of water. They could do it.

Then Nico gave a groan of despair. He pointed to the sky eastwards. The stars were being blotted out by clouds.

“It’s a hail storm,” Mica said. They had seen those happen twice since arriving at the camp. The sky quickly covered with angry clouds and hailstones, some as big as a fist, some smaller than a fingernail, all hard as bullets, pounded the desert relentlessly. The first time it happened there had been panic. The boys out on the exercise ground had run in all directions and some had been hurt because they didn’t get inside fast enough. The second time, they had practised a drill and it was better.

“We’re going to be caught out in it,” Mica said. “We’ll be battered.”

“Crouch down on the ground,” Gynnell said as he felt the first cold downdraught that signalled precipitation. “In a huddle, together. We can cover our heads with our cloaks. We’ve just got to wait it out.”

They did as he said just in time. The hail fell hard and fast. As much as they did to protect themselves, it hurt. They could do nothing but hold onto each other and hope that it was over soon.

It lasted at least twenty minutes. When it did, they slowly stood up, shaking the glassy fragments of frozen water from their clothes. Nico cried out in distress.

“I can’t see,” he said. “I’m blind.”

“What?” Mica held his brother closely. He touched his head and felt blood trickling down from his skull. Riven shone the torch at his face and his eyes stared sightlessly.

“Looks like a major concussion,” he said. “The bleeding will stop soon. His sight should come back after a while.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Mica asked. “Nico was our eyes in the dark. He’s the only one who can navigate by the stars.”

“We still have the map,” Gynnell answered. “And the compass. We’ll be all right. Nico, can you walk?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Mica will guide you. Come on. We’ve got to keep going. The storm is passing. The stars will be out again, soon.”

He was wrong about that. The stars didn’t come out again. The clouds had dropped their hail, but they continued to cover the sky. The darkness felt much more oppressive without the huge expanse of space above them, and they had to rely completely on the compass.

Nico’s sight didn’t come back, though the bleeding stopped and the wound to his skull repaired slowly. He complained of a headache. Riven looked at him again and could add nothing to his first diagnosis. He still believed Nico would see again, but it would take time, and rest. And they didn’t have either just now. They still had to reach the oasis before the sun got too hot.

It was hard going, and it was disheartening. Despair gripped all of them as the night wore on.

“Have we reached Dark Territory, yet?” Riven asked as the sun’s rays lightened the desert for the second morning of their desperate trek.

“No,” Gynnell replied with utter certainty. “The compass would be spinning like mad if we were. It’s still giving me sensible directions.”

“We should have been there by now. We’re off course.”

“Yes....” Gynnell’s hearts sank in his chest as his eyes grew accustomed to the morning light. “Yes, we ARE. Look...”

Riven and Mica both looked where he was pointing, and they, too, groaned in despair. To the west of them was a familiar rocky outcrop, the place where they had rested yesterday.

“We’ve gone around in circles,” Mica said. “All those hours, walking without the stars to help us... the compass must be broken. And now...”

“At least we know there’s shelter there,” Gynnell said. He felt terrible. It was his navigation that had brought them on such a wasted journey. He had let his friends down. But there was that one hope to cling to.

“Yes,” Riven agreed. “At least Nico can sleep. Maybe he’ll be able to see when he wakes. Then we can start again tonight.”

None of them could contemplate ‘starting again’. It was too bleak a prospect, yet. But shelter, food, water, sleep were necessary, not just for Nico, but for all of them.

“It IS the same place,” Gynnell confirmed when they reached the outcrop. The scuff marks where they had hauled themselves out of the hole were still relatively undisturbed in the lee side of the rock. He crouched ready to drop down onto the ladder.

Then Riven screamed. Gynnell turned in time to see the cause of it. He grasped a loose piece of rock and smashed it down onto the head of the bright red snake that had bitten his friend. He hit it twice before it stopped writhing, spilling blood, brain matter and venom from its broken fangs onto the sand. Gynnell dropped the rock and turned to grasp his friend in his arms. He was in a near faint.

“It was a red scorpion snake,” Mica said with a fearful tone to his words. “They’re poisonous... deadly poisonous.”

Gynnell knew that. He recognised the species. In their first week at the camp they had been lectured about the dangerous fauna of the Red Desert and warned what to do if bitten by anything bigger than a sand gnat.

But the advice had been to get the injured party to the sick bay where a range of antidotes were available. The sick bay was a long way off.

For the first time since they set out, Gynnell really wished wholeheartedly, that they had not done so.