Chrístõ got ready for a barrage of questions, but they didn’t come. Instead, the Gardia Real, alerted by radio messages directly into their earpieces stood to attention. Chrístõ nodded to his students. They had been told what to do, but when the door opened and the King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado stepped into their classroom, followed by more of his guards and the school headmaster, they almost forgot. Then there was a hurried scraping of chairs as they stood and got ready to bow politely.

Penne turned and winked at Chrístõ, then he turned back to the students and smiled widely at them.

“Very nicely done. And I heard that you were a troublesome lot.”

3c looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Should they be proud or sorry that the Emperor of a distant planetary system had heard of their disruptive reputation? But he was still smiling as he told them they could sit down.

“I don’t know,” he continued. “Now I’m standing here, what to make of you all. Chrístõ thinks teaching you kids is more important than being my Crown Prince. It beats me! It really does.”

3c were speechless for more than half a minute. Then, finally, Niall O’Leary put his hand up. Penne turned towards him and nodded.

“Sir… I mean… your Majesty… what happened when your ship got lost?” he asked. “I mean, you must have been ok, because you’re here. But was it dangerous? Was it…”

“We lost three people in the crash,” Penne answered. “Let that be known straight away. This is no fairy story. It started with a tragedy. And… if I’m going to tell that tale, please keep those brave people in mind from the start. As well as the others we lost.”

Penne sat on the edge of the desk where Chrístõ had sat to tell his own story. The effect was a little different. He was wearing a velvet cloak over a robe of embroidered red silk and a gold crown nestled in his hair. He held himself with such poise that he might have been seated on his gold-leaf covered throne instead. He exuded royal presence.

But at the same time he seemed to be able to connect with 3c. They watched and listened to him with rapt attention as he spoke.

“I don’t know what happened. Some kind of mechanical or electrical failure. We lost contact with the Ruby of Adano even before we entered the planetary atmosphere. The engines faltered as we crossed the terminator. We were going too fast. I really thought we were going to die. I was thinking of my wife, wishing I had spent more time with her before I left that morning. I had been too excited about going off for the manoeuvres. I didn’t give her as much attention as she deserves, and it felt like I would never have the chance to make it up.”

He looked around at Chrístõ’s students. He wondered if they were too young to understand those kind of regrets. But their expressions seemed to be sympathetic. He returned to his account of the crash.

“At the last minute, the pilot and co-pilot managed to coax something out of the engines… They managed to initiate the retro-boosters or whatever they call them. Anyway, we slowed enough that we wouldn’t end up as twisted metal and organic matter ploughed straight into the ground.”

The internal inertial dampeners kicked in, too. If they hadn’t, every one of them would have snapped their spines where they sat, strapped into their seats. Even so, the impact had been terrifying and painful. He remembered a sensation of rapid deceleration. He remembered the ship smashing through the forest canopy. Greenery and branches hit against the windows and blocked the light but did absolutely nothing to slow their descent. Then the ship hit the ground. The landing gear was ripped away and it skidded on the underside of the passenger cabin itself for something like fifty yards, ploughing through the topsoil and felling trees that lay in its path until it came to a final stop.

After that was an eerie silence. Nobody screamed. Nobody spoke.

“Your Majesty!” Colonel Ruana Beccan scrambled out of her safety belt and crossed the aisle to his own seat. “Your Majesty… are you… are you injured?”

“Colonel,” he answered more calmly than he felt. “I am of a much sturdier species than anyone else in this ship. I am the least likely to be injured. Your concern for me is appreciated, but we ought to establish that everyone else is safe and well.”

He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up. He couldn’t exactly say he was unscathed. Every muscle ached and his head was spinning. But he was on his own two feet and likely to stay that way.

“Everyone stay where you are,” he called out. “But if you need medical attention shout out. If anyone near you is injured and can’t shout, do it for them.”

There were only a few minor injuries. They had been lucky in that respect. Two young lieutenants, a male and a female, who wore the insignia of the medical corps found their emergency supplies and began treating the cuts and abrasions sustained in the rough landing.

“The pilots,” somebody called out with rather more urgency. Penne moved down the aisle quickly and approached the door to the separate cockpit. At first the door wouldn’t open. When he forced it, he was stunned by what he found in there.

The cockpit had been very badly damaged. It had taken the brunt of the crash. The window, though it was of toughened glass, made to withstand the rigours of space, was completely smashed. The pilot and co-pilot had both been killed by blunt force trauma to their chests when the steel driving columns of both control wheels were pushed backwards and their bodies were pushed forward by the recoil from the collision.

The navigator was dead, too. He looked as if he had been electrocuted by a sudden surge of power that coursed through his body.

Penne stepped back through the door and closed it firmly. He turned to look at the young soldiers, and the cabin crew fastened in their own seats at the front.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do for them. And… there is no question of this shuttle going anywhere. The engines are smashed. The electrics are gone.” He looked up at the roof. It had not registered with him until now that the lights were all out. So was the air conditioning. Those were the immediate effects of the loss of electrical power. “I have no idea if they managed to send any kind of Mayday call. Nor is there any way of knowing if our flight path was monitored by the mothership. I don’t know how long it might be before we’re rescued.

“But… we will be rescued?” It was one of the stewardesses who asked the question. She wasn’t a soldier. She was trained in hospitality and, at best, basic first aid. She looked far more frightened than his young troops in their combat uniforms. They at least knew how to pretend not to look frightened.

“Of course we will,” he answered. “Have you forgotten who I am? Even without my crown I am still the absolute ruler of seven planets. I’m quite an important person. If they’re not looking for me already there must have been a revolution in the past hour.”

The stewardess laughed nervously at his humorous response to her question. He wondered if she HAD forgotten that he was the king. After all he was dressed the same as everyone else. That was the point of combat uniforms. It was the point of the manoeuvres they were supposed to be taking part in.

“They will come for us. But it’s a big planet, and most of it is uninhabited jungle. It might take some time. So we have to think about our comfort and safety for the immediate future. Stewardess…” He looked at the woman’s face and then glanced down at the name tag on her uniform. “Su-Lee… can you and your colleague go to the galley and check what food and drink we have?”

“Yes, sir,” she said and the two young women stood up and went to the separate compartment at the back of the cabin. Penne remained standing, looking at the faces that looked back at him.

He was their leader. They were waiting for him to tell them what to do.

What he told them now was going to be more important than any royal edict he had ever issued. His decisions now could be the difference between life and death for them all.

“We came on this trip to find out what sort of soldiers we would be in a crisis. We’ve got a bigger crisis than we expected. But it’s an even better opportunity to find out what sort of soldiers we are… what sort of people we are. Now… the medics have their job. Su-Lee and her friend have theirs. Let’s consider what else we can do to help each other.

For the moment, there wasn’t much. But he was confident each of them would rise to the occasion and use their talents as demanded. Meanwhile, Su-Lee returned from the galley with her report.

“Sire,” she said. “The galley has at best one small meal for everyone aboard. This is a shuttle. We were only meant to be on it for a few hours at the most. Water is even more difficult. There is only a very small reserve tank. Four gallons… Without power we can’t produce more. We have a box of juice packs, but they will soon run out.”

“Distribute the food, now. And a juice pack for everyone. Let’s start with something to eat.”

“We should wait until later, when we’re really hungry,” said a man with second lieutenant pips on his uniform. “If we waste the only food we have…”

“Don’t speak to your commander-in-chief in such a disrespectful tone,” Colonel Ruana Beccan snapped at him. The Lieutenant looked defiant. Penne wondered if he was going to be trouble. His credentials as their military leader were shaky. If he found himself with a mutiny on his hand…

Colonel Beccan stood her ground. The Lieutenant backed down.

“It isn’t the only food we have,” Penne told him, and everyone within hearing. He knew it wasn’t even when he sent the stewardesses to check. His primary purpose had been to give the two civilians aboard something to take their minds off the crisis and stop them panicking. “We were meant to be on these manoeuvres for three days. There are ration packs in the hold along with the bulk of our equipment. And since you’ve raised the subject I’m designating you Quartermaster. While we’re eating you can work out how we get the hatchways open and get to our supplies.”

The newly appointed Quartermaster saluted and turned away. Penne sat with Colonel Beccan by his side as she always was and accepted his share of the food from the galley. It was pre-packaged sandwiches and pastries, snack food for a short journey. There was a bar of chocolate for each of them, too. Penne wondered if they really should save that for later, but it felt warm and soft already. The cool cabinets in the galley were all warming up fast without power. He ate his and washed it down with fruit juice that was also starting to get warm in the stuffy cabin.

In fact, that was going to be their next problem. Lights they could manage without, at least during the day. But this was a pressurised cabin and air was meant to be regularly moved about and replenished by extractor fans and air conditioners set in the roof.

They were all dead.

Inactive. He mentally rephrased himself. The three people in the cockpit were dead. The air conditioners were just machinery. And they were inactive.

Semantics aside, he wondered just how much air they were breathing. It was a long time since a series of tutors attempted to teach things like science to the truculent young Lord of Adano-Menor, but something about carbon monoxide must have sunk in. Sooner or later, the air in this enclosed space would become a problem. When there wasn’t enough oxygen in it to form carbon dioxide molecules, it would form carbon monoxide instead and they would slowly suffocate.

He went to the front of the cabin and examined the emergency door. Of course, it usually worked by electrical power. But it was an emergency door. The locks could be operated manually with a little physical force.

He applied a little physical force. There was a hiss of compressed air and the door pushed out and slid aside. The air that came in through the doorway was warm and it had a heady scent of forest vegetation. But it was fresh.

He looked around. Two men had taken his lead and were already opening the rear emergency door. The forest scents wafted through the cabin. There was nothing to be done about the sticky warmth but at least they could breathe.

Penne turned his attention to the forest he could see from the doorway. Beyond the shredded and broken vegetation that had been wrenched aside by their crashing space shuttle it looked dark and impenetrable. He could hear birds somewhere and a buzz of insects.

What he didn’t hear was any kind of mechanical noise - no sub-sonic engines of rescue craft heading towards them. It was probably too much to hope for this quickly.

He turned back into the cabin.

“Quartermaster, let’s see about getting the main hold open,” he called out. He himself jumped down nimbly and moved along the side of the stricken ship. He noted that the structure was fairly intact. It wouldn’t fly again, but they would, almost certainly, be here for a night. It would probably get cold. The wrecked shuttle was a place of safety and shelter, and that was objective number one of survival.

Objective number two was food. He and the man he had designated quartermaster broke the seals on the hold and manually cranked open the door. They passed out the boxes of hermetically sealed, automatically rehydrating ration packs as well as weapons and ammunition.

“Sleeping bags,” Penne noted as he pulled a box towards him. “Yes, get those aboard, too. They’ll be useful later.”

“Let’s do this quickly,” the quartermaster said. “There’s something about this place…” He looked around nervously. Everyone did. There was nothing obviously wrong. Nothing moved. There were no sounds that might indicate a predatory animal. But he was right. There was an oppressive feeling about the forest.

“We’re soldiers, not girls on a picnic outing,” said Colonel Beccan, scathingly. “We’re not going to get jumpy about shadows. Let’s deal with the real dangers, and real problems.”

Even she looked around, all the same.

“If we’re going to have the emergency exits open we ought to mount guards,” she said. “There will be animal life of some sort. If we’re still here at nightfall we should double the guard.”

“Yes, good idea,” Penne added, making her suggestion into an executive order. “All right, if we’ve got everything useful out of the hold, let’s get back on board.”

They did so. Penne and Colonel Beccan spent some time assessing what supplies they now had.

“Four days,” the Colonel said. “Six if we eat less.”

“If we’re just waiting here, not trekking through the jungle on live fire manoeuvres then we can do that, if we have to,” Penne told him. “We can manage with less calories. But I can’t believe we will be stuck here that long. Seriously, people will be looking for us. And not just because I’m here. I was only joking about that. If I was up there on the Ruby, knowing that my people were missing, I wouldn’t leave an inch of this jungle unsearched.”

“I believe you, sire. But it could still take a long time.”

“Yes, it could. That’s why…” Penne walked down the cabin and turned to address his troops. They stopped what they were doing and listened as he asked for volunteers to reconnoitre the area.

“We need to know exactly what sort of territory we’re in. Yes, I know it looks like forest from where we’re sitting. It might even qualify as jungle. I’m not entirely sure what the distinction is. But if there’s a settlement a half mile away with a communication station then we might be back in the comfort of the Ruby much sooner than we hoped.”

Five soldiers volunteered. They were issued with sidearms and machetes for cutting back the undergrowth and forcing a path through. They took a share of the rations and water and a compass, and they went with the good wishes and special blessing of their king.

Their departure was a moment of excitement, and for a while those left behind were buoyed by the possibility that help might be found that much more quickly. But as the day wore on there was nothing much else to think about other than the rising temperature inside and outside the shuttle. It was unbearably hot and humid. Combat tunics were abandoned in favour of the sleeveless cotton vests worn beneath. Penne noted that the females all looked very attractive that way, but he took no special pleasure in watching them. Once, perhaps, he would have done. But he was a far different man, now. All he felt as he sat and watched them was responsibility. They were all there because he had thought this trip was a good idea. He was responsible for their well-being until they were home again.

It was just as well Cirena wasn’t easily jealous, though, he thought as the humidity worsened and combat trousers were also abandoned and he was surrounded by shapely legs in cotton shorts.

“No matter how much hotter it gets, nobody takes anything else off,” he ordered good-humouredly. They laughed in response. “And how about we break the silence with a good, rousing barrack room song? Somebody must know some.”

They did. Most of them were raucous and many of them had lyrics that would raise a blush from a sheltered soul. Penne quickly learnt the words and joined in with them. He thought about the rather serious men and women of his government back on Ambrado Uno and wondered what they would think of this scene. He suspected they would be scandalised, not only by the lyrics to the songs, or the general state of undress, but by the fact that there really was nothing to distinguish him from the troops except for the way they occasionally drew themselves up a little straighter when they were near him. And most of them were forgetting to do that, little by little. At the back of their minds he was still their king, he was still their commander-in-chief. But he was experiencing the same crisis they were and handling it in exactly the same way.

They ate a meal together as the sun began to go down. At first, it was still sweltering even after dark, but soon the temperature dropped and the discarded uniforms were put back on. The bedrolls that were pulled out of the hold earlier in the day began to look welcoming in the dim light of emergency glo-sticks.

“Everyone not picked for sentry duty might as well try to sleep,” Penne suggested. Nobody argued. It was still relatively early. He himself rarely got to his bed before midnight. There was always something going on in the evening in the palace. He and Cirena were almost always entertaining some visiting dignitary or some section of the Ambradon aristocracy.

He took one of the first watches, positioning himself near the rear emergency exit. Ruana Beccan joined him there. It was hard to see anything much outside. There was a silver glint of moonlight through the forest canopy but it just made the shadows deeper.

“It’s strange,” Colonel Beccan said, her voice seeming loud in the night even though she spoke softly. “It’s REALLY quiet out there. I’ve done jungle manoeuvres before. Usually there are all kinds of noises at night. Animals, birds, insects. But even the birds we heard in the daytime are quiet now, and I would swear there are no animals out there at all.”

“That’s unlikely,” Penne answered her. “This much vegetation must support herbivores. And where there are herbivores, there are carnivores. And they usually hunt at night. It would be a very strange forest if there was no animal life in it at all.”

“Perhaps the animals have perfected the art of stealth, then!”

“If they have, I don’t like our chances. Even I can barely see in this dark.”

They lapsed into silence again. Penne’s eyesight was better than any of his troops. His Gallifreyan DNA meant that he had extra sensors in his retinas that allowed him to process even the tiniest amount of light. He watched the dark forest for any sign of movement. All he could see was the branches and tangled mass of greenery swaying in the breeze that came with the lowered temperature.

He and Colonel Beccan were relieved of their duty a little after midnight. Their replacements took up position while they went to the back of the cabin first and found two flat discs that, when pressed in the middle, became foil cups of automatically re-hydrated hot chocolate. Then they sought their sleeping bags and settled down to sleep.

Or they tried to. Penne noticed Colonel Beccan’s discomfort after a few minutes. She was shivering so very much he could feel the vibration where he lay alongside her.

“I’m sorry, sire,” she answered when he whispered to her. “I didn’t realise how cold I was. And even now I can’t seem to get warm.”

“I can help,” he told her. He slipped out of his own sleeping bag and carefully felt the edge of hers. He slid into the bag beside her and put his arms around her shoulders. “Shared warmth. I should have made it an executive order before everyone settled down. Much better this way.”

“But… your Majesty…”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard all the stories about me. And most of them are true… at least I think they are. Unless there are some I haven’t heard. But you have been my personal bodyguard for all these years… ever since I became your sovereign. I’ve never… and I am not trying to now. This is a practical necessity.”

“I understand, your Majesty,” she answered.

“Glad to hear it. But… seeing as we are enjoying such intimacy, and seeing as we have known each other for such a long time, maybe it wouldn’t hurt if you called me by my first name.”

“I don’t think so, your Majesty. It would not be appropriate.”

“Ah, well, maybe you’re right. Goodnight, Colonel Beccan. Sleep well.”

Now that she felt warmer, she did sleep well. He lay awake a little longer, holding her close. The beat of her heart next to the two of his was comforting. He thought about his relationship with the Colonel over the years. She had been one of the first recruits to his new army when he became ruler of the Adano-Ambradan system. He had never asked what made her want to do such a dangerous job in the first place, but ever since she had fought alongside him to rescue Cirena from the clutches of General Baqra Geint, she had been his closest aide. He had come to value her advice on military matters, and her faithful devotion to him was beyond price.

It was a sort of love. He had realised that long ago. Ruana Beccan loved him. But not in a romantic way. She had no hopes to be his mistress. And he had no such intentions towards her. But she loved him, all the same. And that love was so absolute she would gladly have died for him. She had come close to doing so several times. And he loved her for it. Not in a romantic way, not in a lustful way. He couldn’t explain it, not even to himself. His definitions of love were too narrow to encompass this. But he knew if the Colonel ever did step in front of a bullet for him he would grieve for her as much as if it were Cirena who had given her life for his.

He cleared his mind and let himself sleep. He knew he needed his mental strength as well as physical for the day that lay before him. So he slept in the arms of his chief protector.

They both woke at once to the urgent voice of the soldier who shook him awake at the break of dawn.

“Sire,” the young man said. “You’d… better come and look at this. It’s… weird.”

Penne crawled out of the sleeping bag and stood up. Colonel Beccan smoothed down her uniform and fixed her cap over her rather tousled hair as she stood at his side. They both went with the sentry to the rear doorway.

“Wow!” Penne expressed his astonishment as he looked out at what he was definitely reclassifying as a jungle. Last night, before the sun went down, there was a deep scar in the forest where the shuttle had knocked down trees, uprooted bushes and even ploughed up the very soil. It had created a clearing in the deep tangle of undergrowth.

But in the night, while they were unable to see anything, the forest had reclaimed its territory. Thick, creeping vines had snaked across the churned up ground and wound around the stricken fuselage. The windows of the cabin were almost covered in greenery.

“Rapid growth… during the night… and as cold as it was. Surely most plant-life is dormant in the dark and cold. This goes against all logic.”

“Logic or not, it’s happened,” Colonel Beccan replied.

“What should we do about it, Sire?” the sentry asked.

“We should cut some of it back, perhaps,” Penne answered. “It’s blocking the light and we don’t want it growing up around the doors. Other than that, it’s just a bit of a nuisance. Never mind it now. Let’s get breakfast.”

Just as they finished their meal, though, Penne learnt that the creeping vegetation was more dangerous than he thought. He was first alerted by the sound of gunfire in the forest. He recognised the sound of the weapons he had issued to the scouting party, but he told the sentries to be ready just in case it was an attack.

There were no hostile gunmen. Just desperate ones. He himself jumped down from the door to reach the two that emerged from the jungle, one shooting and hacking at the vegetation, the other carrying a third, wounded comrade. He was shocked by the state of them all. Their uniforms were rags and there were vicious burns on their faces and limbs. The wounded soldier was a woman, but she was in such a terrible condition it was almost impossible to identify her. Ghastly burns covered her whole head and part of her neck and shoulders as well as her arms and legs. It was a wonder she was alive, and Penne probably wasn’t the only one thinking that wasn’t a mercy.

“The others?” he asked as he took the wounded woman gently in his arms and urged the other two to get inside. “There were five of you…”

“No,” they managed to reply. Penne climbed into the shuttle calling for a medic. The two qualified people came to do the precious little they could. Penne knelt by the woman as they worked, first administering painkillers to relieve the worst of her suffering and then beginning to assess the terrible wounds.

“What’s her name?” Penne asked. “I am… sorry… I ought to know. But…”

“Sergeant Kadie Oban,” Ruana Beccan told him. “Sire… it isn’t your fault… don’t blame yourself.”

“That I don’t know her name? Or that she is so horribly burnt nobody will ever recognise her face again? I sent her on that mission, after all. I bear the ultimate responsibility.”

“But you didn’t do that to her. She is a soldier. We all accept certain risks.”

“Certain risks, yes,” said the man who had carried her. There was still enough of his uniform left to read his name tag on the breast. He was Lieutenant Neal Gethin. “Soldiers accept that they might have to fight other soldiers. They accept the risk of death by enemy fire. They accept the risk of capture, torture. But… no soldier… anywhere in the galaxy… in any army… ever expects to be eaten alive by the jungle itself.”

“These burns weren’t caused by fire,” the chief medic said. “It was acid. Some kind of strong acid.”

“It comes from the plants,” Lieutenant Gethin added. “Those creepers… they’re everywhere in the trees, on the ground…. We knew the sap was caustic when we were hacking through them yesterday. Corporal Folen… he got some on his sleeve and it burnt down to his arm. We had to go carefully after that. But we didn’t know… until we set up camp for the night…”

“The creepers are mobile at night,” Penne noted. “We saw… around the shuttle. But are you telling me… they actually attacked you?”

“Our tent was surrounded. The creepers ripped through the canvas… sprayed the stuff at us. Folen… they wrapped all around him and… he…”

“He dissolved!” The other man, Corporal Dolan Attis managed to say. “Folen was just… it was like stomach bile breaking down food… only we saw it right before our eyes. He was alive and screaming… until…” He looked at Sergeant Oban. “She… she shot him in the head. It was… My Lord, don’t punish her. She did the best thing for him. She relieved his suffering. And… his death… bought us a little time… We were able to fight back, hacking at them… shooting at the base of the creepers makes them retract. We got away, but our path was covered. We had to fight every inch… And we lost Sergeant Bailey… the same way as Folen… only… it was quicker for him. We didn’t hear him scream for as long…”

Attis couldn’t say any more. Penne didn’t press him. Lieutenant Gethin, remembering he was the senior officer on the mission, managed to give a few more details about their desperate fight to get back to the shuttle. He explained how Sergeant Oban had been the next to be caught by the creeping vines but they had pulled her free.

“I… didn’t have the courage to do what she did for Folen,” he added. “She was screaming for a long time. But I couldn’t… I brought her back…”

“You did the right thing,” Penne told him. “You… all did the right thing. She did the best for Sergeant Folen. You did the best for her.” He turned to look at Sergeant Oban. She was regaining consciousness. The painkillers blocked the agony she ought to have been in as she opened her eyes and looked up at him. He reached out and touched the right side of her face where a small amount of unburnt flesh remained.

“You’re going to live, Sergeant,” he told her. “You’re going to live. We’re going to get out of here and you’re going to be just fine.”

She couldn’t speak, but the physical contact with her allowed him to feel her mind. He felt her thank him.

“Sleep now, Sergeant,” he told her. “Sleep well.” He rarely used these tricks he had been taught by Chrístõ and his father, and by his own grandfather, Maestro. He didn’t live as a Time Lord the way they did. He lived, as far as possible, as an Adano-Ambradan. But he knew how to reach into the mind of another being and manipulate it as he chose. He chose to let Sergeant Kadie Oban’s mind sleep soundly and painlessly while the medics continued to dress her wounds and begin the long healing process that lay ahead of her.

He stood up and looked around. There wasn’t a single man or woman who wasn’t looking at the painful terrible scene he was a part of. Most of them had heard what had happened.

Men and women. His armies were made up of both sexes in more or less equal numbers. But it wasn’t wholly because he believed in sexual equality. It was because he liked to see pretty women in uniform around the palace. He liked to see attractive men in uniform, too, for that matter. But women, more.

Which made Sergeant Oban’s wounds all the more terrible. He encouraged a society that valued physical attractiveness and she was burnt and scarred in the worst possible way. He felt doubly guilty for the suffering that would cause her even when the wounds were healed and the immediate physical pain abated.

“Sire…” Ruana Beccan broke into his thoughts. “Sire… I think… you should come and look at…”

She was shaken. That in itself was unusual. Ruana was a veteran, even though she was barely thirty years old. She had seen more dark and terrible things than any of them. He didn’t waste words questioning her. He simply followed her to the other end of the shuttle where she pulled open the door to the cockpit. Penne stared. The broken cockpit was full of the deadly creeping vines. And within the tangle he could see the bodies of the pilot, co-pilot and navigator – what was left of them. A few shreds of clothing hung on bones from which every scrap of flesh and sinew had been stripped.

He pushed the door closed again and engaged the lock. It was broken. The door stayed closed for now, but it wouldn’t take much pressure from the other side to burst it open.

“Find something to wedge against that,” he said. “Nobody opens that door again.”

He stepped away as two men did as he asked. He walked up the length of the cabin looking at the half covered windows. He stood at the rear emergency exit and looked out at the tangled vegetation that had proved to be so very lethal.

“No wonder there are no animals out there,” he said. “When the vegetation is carnivorous.”

“I told you, yesterday,” the Quartermaster murmured loudly. “I told you there was something about this place. But you didn’t believe me.”

“I believed you,” Penne responded. “But yesterday we had no way of knowing what the danger was. Now we do. So let’s do something about it. We may be rescued today. If so, we’ll be fine. But if not, if we’re going to be here another night… let’s prepare for it. Everyone who’s fit and able, get cutting tools, cut away the vines that have come around the shuttle. Clear the ground around us… I want a firebreak of at least five metres … and then… what have we got in our ordnance that will burn living vegetation? I want us to fight back.”

The idea of fighting back met with general enthusiasm. The arrival of the reconnaissance party had dismayed everyone. But knowing they didn’t have to sit and wait to be eaten alive by the forest itself put fresh heart into them. Penne himself took up a machete and used it to start cutting away the vines from the shuttle, taking care to avoid the sap that spurted out when the green fleshy vegetation was cut. He noted that it held onto the metal outer skin of the shuttle by means of tendrils that left a mark when they were pulled away. Acid ate away at the metal and allowed the creeping vines a ‘handhold’.

How much acid would it take to eat away at the whole shuttle and expose them? He hoped they might be gone from here before they found out. But if not, they really did have to protect themselves.

It took a long time. And it got progressively warmer as they worked. But nobody stripped down to vest and shorts this time. The combat jackets and trousers were some small protection from the acid. Nobody wanted to get that stuff directly on their flesh. There were accidents, of course. But none serious. Slowly they cleared the area around the shuttle. They piled the cut vines and dry grass among the living trees and bushes on the edge of the clearing and then Penne gave the command to four of the troops. They placed white phosphorous grenades within the vegetation and pulled the pins before running back to the safety of the shuttle. Penne, with his Gallifreyan ability to protect his eyes with a nictating membrane was the only one who saw the actinic white explosions of possibly the hottest fire possible to make in such a controlled way. The living vegetation, green and full of sap, took a few seconds before it succumbed, but before long there was a ring of fire around the shuttle. A half a dozen men and women wearing cloths over their faces against the noxious smoke stood by to put out any fires that broke out within the cleared area. The rest stayed inside with the emergency doors closed for the first time, trying to keep the burning smell out.

“I hope we didn’t set the whole forest alight,” Ruana Beccan pointed out as she watched at the window alongside her commander-in-chief and king.

“If the whole forest is like that, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Penne replied. “I wonder if Drago actually KNOWS how dangerous this planet is? These manoeuvres were his idea, after all. I’m going to have strong words with him when we get back.”

“We will… GET back, won’t we, Sire?” Ruana asked him. “The only way we can get away is if a rescue party comes. And… I thought they would be here by now. After all, you ARE the king.”

“This planet is twice the size of Ambrado Uno and seventy percent of it is one landmass entirely covered in dense forest. We’re quite thoroughly lost. It could take days. But I am sure they’ll come.”

“Perhaps they won’t,” said the Quartermaster. “You left your viceroy in charge… maybe he arranged for this to happen so he could usurp you. They might leave us to rot while he takes the crown…”

“I am going to pretend I never heard you say that,” Penne answered, carefully holding in his anger. “If you had any idea what kind of a man Chrístõ is… such a treasonable thought would never enter your mind. My Crown is safe. And WE will be rescued. All of us. So… you just sit down and be quiet and I’ll try to forget just how many stupid things you’ve said in the past twenty-four hours, and when we do get rescued you might still have those Lieutenant’s pips on your tunic.”

He turned back to looking at the fires outside. The smoke was rising a long way into the sky. It must be visible for a long way. It might actually help the rescuers to locate them. A smoke signal.

The whole forest didn’t set alight. The killer vines, and even the ordinary, non-lethal vegetation, was lush and green and full of sap. Some ten metres or more around the firebreak was charred and dead, but beyond that the leaves scorched but didn’t burn. The fires died down. There was still a faint glow by the time the sun began to go down, but it was almost out.

“Light fires,” Penne ordered. “On the edge of the firebreak. Fires all around. Just as if we were camping here and wanted to protect against wild animals. Pile up dead vegetation to replenish them during the night. We’ll have fire wardens as well as sentries. Two hour watches. Everyone will get some sleep.”

He took one of the first watches himself. He walked around outside the shuttle stoking the fires and watching the perimeter. The temperature dropped. Even with the fires burning the air was cold. Even he felt it with his Gallifreyan ability to regulate his own body temperature. He ignored the discomfort and kept his eyes out for any incursion into their circle of safety by the deadly vines. In the firelight he saw what they couldn’t see in the pitch dark the night before. The vines moved silently, hardly rustling the leaves of the non-lethal trees they clung to. They snaked around and down across the forest floor.

But the fires held them at bay. Both the heat and the light seemed to act as a deterrent. He saw the vines actually shying away, retreating back into the darkness beyond.

“Keep the fires going,” he ordered as his watch ended and he stepped aboard the shuttle ready for a well earned rest. Colonel Beccan was waiting for him. She gave him a cup of re-hydrated hot chocolate. He drank it gratefully.

“There’s a smell of burning everywhere,” she commented. “But it’s better than the alternative. Wish it warmed things up a bit more, though.”

“Is that a hint?” he asked with a smile. In fact, most of the troops had taken his lead tonight. They slept two to a sleeping bag, keeping each other warm. There was nothing untoward about it, no matter what combination of gender the pairs made up. They just wanted to keep warm. He took hold of his Colonel’s hand as they found their resting place for the night.

He woke in the daylight to an unusual sound and a different smell in the air coming in from the open doorways.

“It’s raining,” he said as he clambered out of the sleeping bag and went to look closer. “The fires are out.”

“It started a little after dawn, sire,” said the sentry. “The vines had already stopped coming. We’re all right.”

“As long as it stops some time during the day,” Penne noted. “If not, we’re in trouble tonight.”

It didn’t stop. It was a heavy monsoon rain and it kept pouring for hours. It cooled the air, at least. They didn’t swelter in the heat as they had in the past days. And it cleared the smell of acrid burning that stung all their nostrils. But the prospect of a wet night with the forest encroaching upon them was frightening.

“We’re going to die here,” said the quartermaster. “This is the third day and nobody is coming for us. We’re going to die... we’re finished.”

“All right, that is enough,” Penne told him. “I thought you were just a pain in the neck. But now you’re starting to affect the morale of the troops. You’re supposed to be an officer. Pull yourself together and start acting like one. Go and patrol the firebreak. We don’t know how cold it has to get before the vines get active and this rain is bringing the temperature down.”

The lieutenant looked worried. But to refuse the order would not only be an act of insubordination, but outright cowardice, too. He told off two men and a woman to accompany him on the patrol. They began to load rifles but Colonel Beccan told them not to bother.

“Take more of the phoss grenades,” she said. “Even in the rain, white phosphoresce will burn for long enough to save your lives.”

They took her advice and loaded the grenades onto their belts before they stepped out into the monsoon, protected by waterproof cloaks they had not expected to need in the heat of the previous days, but which had been included in their kit packs as standard.

Penne watched them go then went to the section of the cabin that the medics had screened off to give their patient some privacy. Sergeant Oban was awake. She was clearly in some pain, despite the medication. He sat beside her and took her hand in his. He closed his eyes and reached out mentally, feeling her pain and drawing it off into his own body. He gritted his teeth against the brief but agonising sensation. But when it was over he heard her sigh. It was a mixed sigh – of relief and of despair. The physical pain was eased. But her mind was still full of anguish.

“You… should have let me go,” she whispered. “What sort of life will I have?”

“A good life, Kadie,” he replied. “I’ll make sure of it. You’ll get the best surgeons in the galaxy. However much it costs… no matter how far away they are… I’ll bring them to you. You’re going to live a good, long life. That’s my promise… as… as your sovereign emperor… and as your commander in chief.”

“Thank you, sire,” she managed. “I… believe you.”

“Of course, you do. It’s treason not to believe me. And I know full well you’re not a traitor. You’re one of my best soldiers.”

He sat by her side while the dressings on her wounds were changed. There wasn’t a lot of improvement. There wouldn’t be until she could be taken to a proper hospital where plastic surgeons could begin their work. But at least there was no sign of infection or deterioration. She would make it. He was sure of it.

He was still sitting by her side when he noticed that the light was fading. It was a much duller light anyway with the sky leaden with rain clouds. But now it was getting darker.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I think…” Ruana Beccan was looking outside. “Sire… I think… it’s an eclipse. I can’t be sure. I can’t even see the sun behind the clouds. But that’s what it looks like.”

“Sweet mother of chaos!” Penne swore. “Just how many challenges do we need today? First the rain then this.”

If it was an eclipse, it happened faster than any he had ever known before. It was getting dark rapidly. Within minutes a deep twilight lengthened the shadows and soon it was nearly as dark as night.

“Get the patrol inside,” Penne called out his voice carrying a note of panic as he realised what it meant. The living vines moved in the dark. The patrol was vulnerable.

It was too late. He saw them, less than fifteen yards away, turning to run back to the shuttle. But one man was overwhelmed by the vines that curled around his legs and pulled him down.

Penne didn’t even think about his own safety. Ignoring Colonel Beccan’s voice behind him, calling him back he jumped down from the shuttle and ran to help the stricken man. Most of the patrol were running to safety. One man stayed to try to rescue the victim. It was the quartermaster. He was desperately trying to cut the man free of the vines using the utility knife from his belt. Penne grasped the same tool from his own belt and joined in with the effort. They managed to pull the victim free. But as Penne rolled him out of reach and bent to examine his burns, the quartermaster screamed. He had been pulled down. Penne tried to help him, too, but his body was almost instantly wrapped in vines. His uniform was disintegrating as the acid seeped into it.

Then Penne saw his hand reach down to his belt. The flesh on the hand was burnt through to the bone and grasping the pin on the phosphoresce grenade must have been difficult.

“Get out of the way, sire,” he said.

Penne looked at him once. Then he grabbed the other man and ran with him. He reached the shuttle and was being pulled aboard when the grenade went off. He felt the heat at his back, but he didn’t look around. He couldn’t look.

The medics took charge of the wounded man. Penne stood at the door, feeling sick with grief. He had sent that man out there. He had done so because he was irritated by him and wanted him out of the way.

And now he was dead. He had sacrificed himself to allow the other man to be rescued. Far from being the coward Penne had taken him for, he had proved to have the full measure of courage in the end.

“Sire…” Ruana Beccan touched him on the shoulder and he flinched with shock. “Sire… we have to… look…”

He looked. In the glow from the phosphoresce fire he could see vines creeping across the clearing towards the shuttle. It was as if they were an army that had regrouped and come back in force to defeat them. All their efforts to hold them back were for nothing.

“Throw everything we have at them,” he said. “Phoss, incendiaries, standard grenades… whatever we have. And… and then close the doors. If the eclipse ends soon we might have a chance. If not…”

That much was done. But it hardly seemed enough. They kept on coming inexorably towards the shuttle. As the doors were forced shut they could hear them crawling up the outer skin of the ship. The windows darkened even further as the vines covered them.

Then the windows began to crack. The acid was eating through them. Nobody needed to issue orders to move away from the windows. Everyone was already doing that. They crouched in the aisle between the seats, clinging to each other out of fear.

“No,” Penne murmured. He and Colonel Beccan crouched together, holding each other. In the darkness they listened to the cracking and splintering of the windows, the groaning of metal as the vines pressed around the shuttle, crushing and buckling the outer skin. It felt like the end. He wished he had a religion to believe in. Then he was glad he didn’t. He felt as if the burden of guilt for their plight lay on him and he wondered how he would face any kind of god if he did believe in one.

Then, just when it seemed as if it was the end he heard a noise that lifted his two hearts. He stood up slowly and turned around as a gust of displaced air blew in his face. The door to the galley flickered and shimmered and then solidified again. The door opened and bright electric light spilled out before it was blocked by a figure in a black leather jacket.

“You… came!” Penne exclaimed as Chrístõ stepped out of his TARDIS and shone a strong torch around the cabin. “So… who’s looking after my empire?”

“Your son, the Duke of Adano Menor,” Chrístõ answered. “He’s a very intelligent young man with a passionate love for his people. But never mind that, right now. Let’s get everyone aboard the TARDIS. You don’t look like you’ve got a lot of time left.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. Everyone… go through the door. It’s ok. We’re safe… I told you we would be. Just move quickly, quietly. Chrístõ… we’ve got wounded… will you help me with them?”

The soldiers stood up slowly and stared at the TARDIS door. They could hardly believe it was safety. It looked like the door to the galley. But they were willing to take something on faith after all this time. Those closest stepped over the threshold. Ruana Beccan had been in the TARDIS once before. She directed them to spread out around the walls and sit down quietly. Penne and Chrístõ with the two medics brought Sergeant Oban and the man who was injured in the last fight with the killer vines into the warmth and safety of the console room. Penne went back out with the torch and walked the length of the cabin making sure nobody was left behind. Only when he was absolutely certain did he turn back towards the TARDIS door.

“Look out!” Chrístõ called to him as a vine snaked through the broken window and across the ceiling. It whipped out towards him. He ducked and rolled as Chrístõ aimed his sonic screwdriver in laser mode at the killer vegetation. Penne stood and ran to safety.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner,” Chrístõ said as he went to the console and dematerialised the TARDIS. “This planet is really troublesome. It has an ion layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents any kind of global scanning. I had to bring the TARDIS into low orbit and search section by section. Then the rain started. And that damned eclipse. Talk about needing an extra challenge.”

“Tell me about it. We lost a good man because of it. We lost a lot of good people.”

“I’m sorry about that. I’m bringing you all to the SS Darian… your hospital ship. It’s in orbit alongside the Ruby. You might want to contact Cirena, I think she’s climbing the walls by now, waiting to hear from you. Then we’ll need a list of the dead and wounded so that the relatives can be informed…”

“I’ll do that,” Penne told him. “Right now… I’m just… I really thought we were finished. I thought we were done for.”

“That would be why you were in the arms of a woman in your last moment?”

“I was not in the arms of a woman. I was with my most loyal officer. There was nothing inappropriate about…” Penne stopped. Chrístõ was grinning at him. “Not funny. And don’t you dare say anything about that in front of Cirena.”

Penne looked at the students as he brought his story to an end. They all blinked and shifted in their seats as if they were coming out of hypnosis. Hands were raised as questions filled their minds.

“The man who killed himself with the grenade?” asked Stuart Peyton. “He was brave, after all. He wasn’t a coward?”

“He was very brave. I… told his family that he was. It comforted them to know that he died saving another man’s life. I spoke to all the families of the dead. It’s a terrible job to have to do. But I felt it was my responsibility.”

“And the sergeant…” Judy Knox asked. “Is she all right?”

“She’s going to be in hospital for a long time,” Penne answered. “But she’s mending, slowly. She’s got the best treatment possible.”

“What about that planet?” Scott Miller asked. “Will anyone go back there?”

“No. Drago… that’s the Dragon Loge Marton to you… the ruler of that system… he’s declared it off limits. Nobody knew how dangerous it was. We found out the hard way.”

He answered all their questions one by one. Chrístõ watched him with a faint smile. Penne was a magnificent Emperor, who ruled his people well, even if there were a few dissenters. He was a good military commander. He proved himself in those terrible days on that deadly planet. And here he was, dressed in ermine and wearing a crown, but talking to 3c so naturally. Only that crown and the presence of his Guardia Real around him set him apart and the students had forgotten all about them in their enthusiasm.

“So is Professor De Leon going to be your Viceroy again, any time soon?” asked Billy Sandler.

“No,” Penne answered. “That’s the strange thing. He just doesn’t seem to enjoy being an absolute ruler anywhere other than this classroom. He thinks I ought to let my son represent me next time I go anywhere. And actually, he might be right. But he’s still going to be my Crown Prince. Even if he won’t wear the crown.”

“And I’m still your teacher,” he reminded them. “You had an easy time of it today. But tomorrow we’re getting back to Thomas Hardy.”

The class groaned in unison. Then at a signal from Chrístõ they stood up and bowed politely as the King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado took his leave from them. The soldiers in powder blue left with him. Chrístõ watched them go, then turned and quietly handed out homework assignments. He was happy. Being Penne’s viceroy had been interesting. But he did find being a teacher much more satisfying.