The surface of Zant was without doubt the most boring and uninspiring place that Marion had ever seen. It was nothing for hundreds of miles but grey mudflats with the occasional stream of grey, muddy water running through it. The sky was grey, too. The distorted reflection of the shuttle craft could be seen in the mud directly below and that was the only sign of movement.

Nothing lived on the mudflats except, apparently, billions of grey mudworms and flocks of grey birds that ate the worms. Even they were at risk from the ice-storms that regularly swept across the mud, instantly freezing everything in their path. The birds flew away when the first cold ruffled their feathers. The mudworms buried deep, avoiding the surface that would be hard as rock for days after a storm.

Not that it was ever warm on a good day. The sun was a very small disc in the sky, too far away to cast anything more than a pale, cold light on the planet.

“Why… HOW… did any civilisation ever evolve on a planet like this?” Marion asked in a quiet voice, not wanting to offend their hosts. “There’s nothing at all in between the habitat cities. Even deserts have oases of fertility, but this mud is just horrible.”

“I quite agree,” Kristoph whispered back. “It’s a dreadful place. But it wasn’t always like this. The planet’s orbit was knocked out of line by an asteroid causing catastrophic changes in the climate. The Zantians only survived by using their technology to adapt, building their habitats to protect them from the elements.”

“It would have been easier to put everyone on spaceships and found another planet.”

“Inhabited planets aren’t easy to find,” Kristoph told her. “Most of them already belong to some political hegemony or another. They preferred to live as free Zantians on Zant than as subject to another race. I can understand that. I wouldn’t want to have to live under any government but the High Council of Gallifrey.”

“I… suppose that makes sense,” Marion admitted. “Still, I would hate to have to look at such a miserable place all the time. It’s worse than New Brighton at low tide.”

“That’s why they made their habitats so beautiful, so that they almost never have to look at how terrible it is outside. Many Zantians live perfectly happy lives without ever leaving the dome they were born in.”

That was quite true. The southern habitat where they had spent yesterday was quite lovely. From the outside it looked like a fifty mile wide hexadecagon made of millions of opaque hexagons of glass. Inside it was a multi-level city with towers reaching up towards a great hexadecagonal roof that shone with an internal light of its own by day and dimmed down to black, sprinkled with artificial starlight, by night. Under that roof were parks and gardens and plazas full of fountains and sculpture as well as hydroponic fields where food was grown. The people lived in beautifully appointed apartments and travelled to their workplaces by a monorail system that hummed overhead on a graceful latticework of tracks.

Yes, the habitats were wonderful, and Marion couldn’t wait to reach the northern one where they were going to be received by the Prefect of that region and go to the theatre to see a Zantian Saga.

Rodan had fallen asleep almost as soon as the shuttle set off. Marion turned from the window and settled down to do the same. Kristoph stayed awake. He had work to do. He read the data on the micro-cells that his secretary had prepared for his electronic signature. There were three trade agreements and some interplanetary mineral rights licences that needed his approval. They were all more or less straightforward, but he read them carefully, nevertheless. He made a few minor changes to one of the mineral rights licences and transmitted it back to his secretary to get the agreement of the Venturan Crown Prince to the alterations before the final seal of approval.

He had just sent the documents when the transmitter module fell from his hands. The shuttle had lurched in an alarming way. Marion and Rodan both woke with a start. The automatic gravity cushions had held them in their seats, but they were both worried. The shuttle felt wrong.

“We’re going down,” Kristoph said in a calm but urgent way. Fasten your seatbelts. Gravity cushions won’t work if the engines cut out.”

He fastened Rodan’s belt while Marion secured himself. His aide came running up the gangway between the seats to assist him, but he waved the man away.

“I can fasten my own safety belt,” he said. “See to your own safety.”

The shuttle was in a steep dive, now. Marion held onto Rodan’s hand while Kristoph reached out and grasped hers. They were going to crash, somewhere on those awful mudflats.

“We’re NOT going to die here,” Kristoph whispered, catching Marion’s unspoken fear as a palpable thing. “I have gone through dangers I could never begin to tell you about, survived duels to the death and assassination attempts. I am not going to die in such a dull, boring place as the Zantian mud.”

That cheered Marion. It gave her courage in these terrifying moments. But she couldn’t help the underlying fear that he might be wrong. Perhaps this was where it ended for them all.

“No!” Kristoph insisted. Then he closed his eyes and focussed his mind on the shuttle engines. “Help me,” he urged, reaching out to those of his staff who were on the flight. “You all have some telepathic powers. Focus with me. All our lives depend on it. We have to do something to slow the descent.”

It was hard work. Even with six other Gallifreyans helping him, it was difficult. He was the only Time Lord among them. The others had mostly untrained natural abilities. The best they could do was support his mental effort like men taking the strain in a tug of war.

But he managed to do what he wanted to do. He slowed their descent and levelled out the shuttle so that it was going into a crash landing rather than simply a crash. With luck there would be only minor casualties on impact.

It was terrifying all the same. As the shuttle approached the surface it vibrated so much it was a wonder it didn’t fall apart. The actual contact with the ground was painfully hard and long. The shuttle skipped and skimmed three times before finally coming to a jarring halt.

“Keep still,” Kristoph told Marion and Rodan as he unfastened his own seatbelt. “Is anyone hurt? Is everyone conscious?”

One of the stewards who had supplied the VIPs with drinks and food was injured. He had missed a catch on a cupboard in the galley and was concussed by falling objects. Kristoph examined him with the sonic screwdriver and then let his fellow steward attend to the minor wounds while he carried on through to the cockpit.

The damage was worst here where the first impact had been felt. The pilot and co-pilot were both injured. He did what he could for them before examining the controls.

“This shuttle isn’t going to fly again,” he concluded. “Let me get you two into the cabin where it’s more comfortable.”

“Buoyancy control,” the pilot told him. “Make sure… it’s… initiated. Otherwise….”

He passed out from his internal injuries, but Kristoph knew what he meant. He checked what was left of the control panel. If the buoyancy control was engaged, it would keep the shuttle on top of the soft, easily yielding mud. Without it they would start to sink in minutes.

There was no certain way of telling if it was engaged or not. The control panel was too badly damaged.

He helped the co-pilot to walk through to the cabin where others were there to help look after him, then returned for the unconscious pilot. He had to stabilise him before he could be moved, but Kristoph thought he would survive as long as they were rescued before very long.

He knew they WOULD be rescued. The shuttle’s disappearance from radar screens would be noted. There would be help coming.

He assured everyone of that. Marion and Rodan believed him implicitly. So did the shuttle crew and his aides, but there was no disguising their concern.

And it soon became very clear that the buoyancy control was NOT engaged. The shuttle tilted forward very slightly at first, then in a far more pronounced way. There was a sinister creaking noise from the cockpit and Kristoph’s secretary ran to find out what was happening. He confirmed that the damaged nose cone was crushing as it sank into the mud.

This had a disturbing effect on everyone. Marion’s travelling maid gave a soft cry of despair. One of the aides reached around her shoulders to comfort her, but he was scared, too. Everyone was. Marion hugged Rodan tightly and looked at her husband questioningly. What could he do to save them?

“I can do what I did before,” he said. “I can use the power of my mind to support the shuttle. I’ll need all my people to support me.”

“Can you do that?” Marion asked him.

“I can try,” he promised her. He knelt on the carpeted floor at the front of the executive cabin and closed his eyes, putting himself into a low level trance in order to concentrate his mind more fully. He could feel the other Gallifreyans joining their minds with him as he reached out and mentally created a shield between the shuttle and the thick, sticky mud that sucked it down inch by inch.

It hurt as much as if he was holding the shuttle up with his bare hands and the strength in his back. His mind was pushed to its fullest extent as he maintained the shield. He was almost starting to doubt whether he could do it until rescue came.

“You must keep going, sir,” said the telepathic voice of his secretary. “If you fail, we’ll go down at once. Stay strong.”

“Stay strong, papa,” said another voice along with a tender touch that made his hearts quicken even within his trance.

“I will, for you, my dear girl,” he answered Rodan. “Don’t try to help. You’re too young. Look after your mama for me. She needs you.”

Her presence was just what he needed to give him strength, but he didn’t want to put her nascent telepathy under strain. He felt her withdraw and instead leaned on the adults around him who gave him the support he needed to keep on going.

Another ten minutes later, just as the strain was really beginning to tell, he felt a change in the pressure bearing down on him. He knew that they were safe now. He let go and a comforting oblivion overwhelmed him.

The next thing he knew he was in a room with pleasant scented flowers around him. He opened his eyes and saw Marion sitting beside his bed. The flowers were in hydroponic hanging baskets around the stateroom. The Zantians valued living flowers grown with the precious resources of the habitats.

“We made it!” he said.

“Yes, we did,” Marion told him. “You blacked out from mental exhaustion just as the rescue ship got the shuttle in its transporter beam. Everyone is ok, by the way. The pilot needed an operation, and the co-pilot’s leg is broken, but everyone else is doing fine, thanks to you. The shuttle would have gone down before the rescue if you hadn’t done whatever it was that you did.”

“It was worth the blinding headache I still have, then,” Kristoph answered her with a wide smile. The headache was fading rapidly anyway. His brain had automatically shut down to protect itself and the rest had been enough to renew his mental energy. He was fine now.

But Marion made him stay in bed, anyway.

“The reception has been postponed until tomorrow,” she told him. “You just stay right there. I’ll order some food for you. Food for a hero who saved us all.”

“I didn’t do it to be heroic. I did what I needed to do. You know that.”

“Yes, I do,” Marion assured him. “But that doesn’t stop me adoring you to bits. So does Rodan, but she’s resting, too.”

“No she’s not,” Kristoph said with a wide smile. “She’s chattering to me telepathically.”

“Well, tell her to lie down and go to sleep, because you both have to get your rest.”

Marion kissed him fondly and left the room, turning down the light to an ambient level. Kristoph closed his eyes again and let the scent of the flowers soothe him as he rested, glad that a crisis was over and his family were all safe and well.