It was just past dawn, which in this latitude meant a little after half past three. Kristoph set down his TARDIS at the co-ordinate he planned and stepped out into the Red Desert. It wasn’t baking hot, yet, because the sun was still low in the sky, but it wouldn’t be long before a heat haze blurred the horizon.

He was up early, but the six young men he saw trekking towards him had got up even earlier in order to make this rendezvous. They were dressed in lightweight, sand coloured trousers and jerkins tied at the waist and the essential headscarves around their faces. They were carrying backpacks with the supplies he had told them to bring.

“Well done,” he said when they were close enough to hear him. “You got here without relying on compasses?”

The group stopped a few yards away from him, and he could see the hesitancy in their eyes.

“No, you don’t have to bow,” he told them. “I’m not wearing the Sash of Rassilon.”

They stepped towards him. He shook hands with them and congratulated them on completing the first part of the task, meeting him here in the desert using only natural navigation to find the place.

“Come inside,” he said. The boys stepped across the threshold into the console room and were surprised when they were given packs of ice cold fruit juice. “Drink it slowly, or you’ll get stomach cramps, and remember it’s the last cool drink you’ll have until we reach the oasis.”

“Thank you, My Lord,” said Gynnell Dúccesci, accepting the unexpected treat from him. The others dutifully added their thanks. Riven Maxic and Nico and Mica Alep Vansig were joined by two more of their friends from the camp, Adred Nevvon and Salika Goth to make up this group of endurance hikers.

“You get to relax for a little while,” Kristoph said to them. “We’ll travel to the edge of Dark Territory by TARDIS. Beyond there, of course, nothing mechanical, no matter what level of technology, will work. It’s a strange place, barely mapped or explored, subject of rumour and supposition.”

“You’ve been there, before, sir?” Salika Goth asked.

“I have.”

“When you were training with the Celestial Intervention Agency?”


He didn’t need to add anything more. The boys understood everything they needed to understand from that one word. They were being led on this trip by a man who knew how to survive in the most inhospitable place on their planet, who knew how to fight and kill anyone who threatened him and leave their body as carrion for the desert creatures.

He caught the end of a thought from Gynnell Dúccesci.

“No, I don’t know why Khane thought I could be assassinated so easily. Except, of course, even a CIA man is not infallible, nor indestructible. And we were all caught off guard by treachery. But we are all meant to be putting that behind us. We won’t speak of it again. There are other things to talk about while we pit our wits against the elements.”

He gave his attention to the co-ordinates he was taking them all to. That was something he had to be very careful about. If he got too close to Dark Territory the TARDIS would suffer total power loss and crash land.

“It doesn’t look any different to the ordinary part of the desert,” Mica commented when he and his friends stepped out of the TARDIS again. “If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t think we’d even moved.”

“We’ve travelled seventy miles from the last co-ordinate,” Kristoph told him. “Dark Territory is only a few miles away in that direction.”

The journey had lasted only ten minutes, but the heat haze had already started to blur the horizon in that time. The boys all looked with polarising sun glasses protecting their eyes, but they couldn’t see anything different about the landscape ahead. Kristoph shouldered his own backpack to match the ones the boys were carrying and put a pair of sunglasses over his own eyes. He closed the TARDIS door behind him. That was the end of their reliance on technology for the duration of this adventure.

They walked in a close group, at first not talking very much. Kristoph knew there was a lot they would like to talk to him about, but they were shy of opening a conversation with him. Quite apart from him being Lord High President, he was a President they had conspired to kill. It made quite a barrier between them whenever the boys remembered themselves.

He wanted them to forget themselves during this trip and think only about what he hoped would be an enjoyable challenge for them.

“We’ve crossed the boundary,” Nico said when they had been walking for a half hour. “I felt it in my head. It suppresses telepathy. It’s an odd feeling. Mica and I have almost never been out of touch with each other’s minds, ever since we were children.”

Mica looked oddly distracted by the sensation. Kristoph told them all how to refocus their minds so that the magnetic element that caused the suppression was less distracting.

“It does no harm to get used to living without telepathy,” he added. “There are many occasions when it is not possible. If any of you harbour any ambitions for the High Council you will get used to committee meetings held in lead lined rooms, and learning to live without telepathic powers is one of the reasons the Celestial Intervention Agency train their men in the Dark Territory.”

“So that you are forced to depend on your own wits with no help from comrades?” Gynnell asked.

“Exactly so.”

“You were out here alone?” Riven asked. “When you trained for the Agency?”

“Usually in pairs,” Kristoph said. “But we did exercises where one of us had to play wounded while the other went for help, that sort of thing. Neither role has much to commend it. Trekking across the desert alone is a grim business and being left behind is wretched, too. Playing wounded in Dark Territory is as hard as actually being wounded. The night is a fearful time when even the most innocent of sounds strikes fear into the hearts, and few of the sounds actually ARE innocent. Everything out here is a predator. Every insect crawling on the ground is looking for another to kill. Every snake is venomous, every reptile and mammal is a carnivore.”

“What about the people?” Salika asked. “The Sheboogins?”

“Outlanders,” Kristoph said in a gently chiding tone. “Sheboogin is a pejorative term for them. They, too, are carnivores, who hunt the wild animals of the desert. But so far as I am aware, they are not cannibals. They won’t be interested in putting any of you in the pot.”

The boys laughed nervously and looked around them, half expecting, half dreading to see some heavily tattooed man wearing nothing but animal skins to be stalking them. Kristoph laughed at their expectation.

“If they DID want you for the pot, you would not spot them before it was too late,” he assured them. “The Outlanders have a fearsome reputation within our society. But that is mostly because they live outside of it. Those who would like to discourage others from going to join them in the desert put out stories about them. But there is nothing to fear. We have nothing that interests them, and we have no cause to interfere with them.”

The boys took his advice to their hearts, but even so, he knew they were intrigued. They wanted to see an Outlander. He remembered feeling the same when he was training here. As serious as the work was, the idea of meeting some of those mysterious people was tempting.

“Did you meet any?” Riven asked.

“Not when I was training,” Kristoph answered. “We were all disappointed in that. But….”

He stopped. He wondered if he ought to be telling stories like this to the boys. They WERE just boys, after all and the missions he carried out for the Agency, and for Gallifrey, were not for their ears.

“Please, sir,” Adred said. “We’d like to hear the story.”

It was the first time the boy had spoken at all apart from ‘thank you’ for the juice back in the TARDIS. It was for that reason he changed his mind. If it encouraged the shyest boy to participate, it was worth it.

“I don’t imagine the name of Colula Rayak means anything to you boys? He came from a Newblood family that died out twenty generations ago, he being the last of his line when he was sent to Shada for crimes that would shock your fathers, let alone boys like you. He was frozen for three thousand years… and I suppose you all understand what is known about the cryogenic process. The prisoners are frozen in their cells, but they are aware of the slow passage of time. Their brains retain just enough activity for that. And most of them are driven mad. Whether Rayak was driven mad or whether he already was mad is a moot point. But when he was released, he hunted down the grandchildren of the magister who had sentenced him and took them hostage. He brought them out into the desert and abandoned them, meaning for them to die of exposure before we could find them. They were two boys and a girl, all about your age, but they had been raised in the Capitol. They knew nothing of life beyond the envirosphere. They would have stood little chance of survival. Every agent who was on Gallifrey or who could be quickly recalled joined the search, but we hardly expected a happy result. I was with a party who came into the Dark Territory on foot, knowing it was a million to one chance that we would even find the bodies of the children and give their parents a chance of a funeral ceremony. We were walking for half a day when we became aware that we were not alone. How long we had been shadowed for, none of us knew, and we were men who thought we were good at observation. Eventually, the Outlanders closed in on us and we decided it would be better to surrender to them. We were brought to a camp that we would never have found if we’d tried. The children were there.”

“Alive?” It was Adred who asked the question, but all of them were interested.

“Frightened beyond words, desperate to see their parents again, but alive,” Kristoph confirmed. “They had Rayak, too. Bear in mind, the Outlanders live here in Dark Territory. They have developed ways around the problems with telepathic communication. Don’t ask me how. Perhaps they grew new sections to their brains. But they could see straight through all subterfuge. They knew him for what he was.”

“They tortured him?”

“They didn’t have to. They are fearsome looking people. Living in the desert darkens their skin. We fair complexioned people of the cities are not used to that. And some of the very oldest have more tattoos than bare flesh. They do, indeed dress in animal skins. What else would they do? And they speak in a very guttural old northern dialect that sounds to the untrained ear as if they are hostile. They actually treated him fairly, all things considered. But he was in such fear of what he THOUGHT they might do to him that he surrendered to us immediately.”

The boys laughed. That seemed like a satisfactory resolution to the story.

“What happened to him? Did he go back to Shada?”

“He killed himself in his cell at the Celestial Intervention Agency headquarters,” Kristoph answered. “It’s possible he was more afraid of us than the Outlanders when he thought about it further. He was no loss to our society, that’s for certain.”

The boys agreed with that assessment.

“So the Sheb… The Outlanders… are all right, really?” Gynnell asked. “They’re good people?”

“They live by a different set of values to us,” Kristoph said. “We agree on the way scoundrels who kidnap children should be dealt with, but that is about all. They don’t recognise any authority, especially not the High Council. Needless to say, they would not be at all interested in my claim to be Lord High President of all Gallifrey. I’m happy to leave them alone and I am full sure they will leave us alone.”

Kristoph told the boys several more stories about his experiences in the Red Desert, including his youthful explorations by hover trikes and sail boards as they kept moving through the relentless heat of morning. By the time all the boys identified the time as near eleven o’clock, two hours to noon, it was impossible to walk any more. Kristoph halted them and opened up his pack. It contained a large but lightweight tent with a light reflective outer skin and an inner lining that absorbed heat by day and gave it back by night. It was simple enough to put up, and inside they were protected from the hottest and most dangerous heat of the day. They broke out rations and ate before spreading the equally lightweight bedrolls they had brought.

“We get at least six hours sleep, now,” Kristoph told them. “And continue on our journey later when the sun is well past its zenith.”

The boys had started their trek before it was light. Kristoph watched them all slip into easy, dreamless sleep before he let himself rest. Thus far the expedition had gone well. He was more than satisfied.