Chrístõ parked the TARDIS in the hangar bay of the space hotel Gandia VII and made his way to the scenic restaurant at the very top level. He was impressed by what he saw on the way. It had been built to accommodate the conference needs of a galactic Federation that included the three governments he owed allegiance to one way or another – Earth Federation, the Empire of Adano Ambrado and Gallifrey. The last time he saw Penne Dúre, he had been talking about how much Adano-Ambrado had contributed to the construction and running costs, but this was the first time he had visited it.

His mission here was personal rather than diplomatic. When he stepped out onto the restaurant deck he spotted his friend and teacher, Lord Azmael, at once. He was dressed in a simple robe of deep red with a dark mustard coloured cloak over it, a more muted variation on the scarlet and gold that alumni of Prydonia proudly wore at formal occasions. Chrístõ himself was in a deep purple robe and black cloak with silver fastenings engraved with the symbol of his Oldblood family. He was an alumni of Prydonia, too, but he was the Heir to one of the Twelve Ancient Houses, first.

Azmael was standing by the exo-glass window, looking out at the view over a bright starfield. When he saw Chrístõ’s reflection in the glass he turned and greeted him formally. Chrístõ reciprocated as befitted two Time Lords meeting in a place where the manners of their race ought to be seen as setting an example to others.

“It is good to see you, Master,” Chrístõ said once the formalities were done. “I perceive that you are not alone.” Not far away three young men hovered nervously. They wore dark cloaks folded over scarlet robes in such a way as to hide the bright colour as far as possible and not draw attention to themselves. “Your students?”

“I was hoping they might be yours,” Azmael answered. “But let us sit comfortably and order dinner and I will explain.”

They sat. Azmael summoned a waiter and ordered for the five of them. Chrístõ looked at the three students and his memory stirred.

“I know you two, don’t I?” he asked of the dark haired boys with penetrating blue eyes who were clearly brothers. “Weren’t you learning to pilot a TARDIS a while ago? There were three of you, though?” He recalled the time. It was several years ago, now, when he had needed help to prevent the Earth’s moon from falling out of orbit. “The Malcanan Brothers.”

“That’s right, sir,” said the eldest of the two. “I’m Diol. This is Axyl. Our other brother, Cal, dropped out of the Academy. He was having too many problems with his studies.”

“I thought you were all doing well. Master Azmael was pleased with your progress.”

There was a long pause, an uncomfortable one. Chrístõ looked at Azmael and he didn’t need to read his mind, even if he could. Azmael was one of the best at mental blocking.

“They’re having financial difficulties?”

He knew that was always the problem for Caretakers when they tried to rise above themselves. The Prydonian Academy was open to all who passed the entrance examination. But there were few scholarships and they were fiercely competed for. Three sons of a Caretaker family ALL trying to graduate was a huge burden on their family. He didn’t embarrass them by asking what had gone wrong.

“Your father found Cal a position in the diplomatic service,” Azmael told him. “These two… their parents hoped it would be possible for them to carry on, but now they can’t afford their tuition fees, let alone keep themselves.”

“I sympathise,” Chrístõ said. “But how can I help?”

“Take them along with you. Give them practical experience and supervise their education as private students. They might still be able to graduate if they can keep up their studies.”

“On top of being an agent for the CIA, and a roving diplomat for the High Council, now I’m an off campus Master of the Prydonian Academy?” Chrístõ laughed. “You do know I have a full time job on Beta Delta?”

“As a teacher. Three more students cannot be too much of a burden, surely?”

“That remains to be seen,” Chrístõ replied. “What of this other one? He’s not a Malcanan? I am sure I know him, too. He’s an Oldblood.”

“This one has the opposite problem. No shortage of money, but his grades are a disgrace to his family name. He’s close to being expelled. A year of private tuition and practical experience would do him a world of good.”

“Dare I ask what family he is about to disgrace?”

“I am Cinnamal Hext,” the young Oldblood answered. “Sir... I talked to you once... at the Winter Solstice when I was dedicated....”

“Yes, of course,” Chrístõ answered. “You’re Paracell’s younger brother.”

The boy winced as if he didn’t like being reminded that he was the younger of anything. Being the brother of Paracell was a lot to live up to. He probably didn’t want anyone to mention that he was also the son of the Lord High President. In some ways those were worse impediments to his progress through the Academy than merely being short of money.

“Everyone expects me to be as good as him. But I’m not an academic. What I want is to travel... to get away from Gallifrey.”

“Unless you want to travel as a rating aboard one of our galactic freighters you will need to improve your grades, Cinn,” Azmael told him. “What do you think, Lœngbærrow? Are you up for a real challenge?”

“Are THEY up for it?” Chrístõ asked. “They needn’t think this is a soft option, any of them.” He looked at Cinnamal Hext when he said that. No Caretaker had to be told about hard work. They knew the concept well enough. But an Oldblood with every advantage afforded him, who still could not get the grades, sounded like a slacker.

“I’m up for it,” Cinn answered.

“We’ll do what you ask, Excellency,” Diol assured him.

“Well, you can start by NOT calling me Excellency,” he answered.

“Lord…” Axyl suggested. But Chrístõ pointed out that his father was the one entitled to be called Lord in his family.

“Master?” Cinn ventured.

“That’s not much better.”

“They will address you as sir,” Azmael said, deciding the matter. “You are their teacher and they are your students. And they must learn to respect their elders before they do anything else.”

Chrístõ looked at the young faces around him and wondered when he, himself, stopped being one of them and became an elder to be respected by them. He felt for a moment unequal to the task.

“Have faith in yourself, Son of Lœngbærrow.” Azmael told him telepathically. “Meanwhile, Let us enjoy our meal. This restaurant is highly recommended.”

And its recommendation seemed well deserved, Chrístõ thought. The service and the food were excellent. He enjoyed the company, too. Next to Maestro, his first true mentor, Lord Azmael was his favourite teacher at the Prydonian Academy. He had always treated him fairly, paying no attention to the opinions of other masters about his half blood. He had taught him some of his most important lessons, those that gave him the freedom he craved – TARDIS piloting. Azmael had recognised in him a natural affinity for it and let him advance beyond the basic skills much faster than his fellow sophomores. And when it came to allocating TARDISes to the senior students for field trips he had made it possible for him to have a solo machine. Only two other students had been allowed to travel alone. Romana was one, and she had returned to Gallifrey after a very brief time. The other was Epsilon.

“The two of you were unique in your own ways,” Azmael said to him. Chrístõ was surprised. He hadn’t expected his own thoughts to be so easily read. His former teacher smiled. “You weren’t thinking so much as day dreaming. I think even these youngsters would have read your mind if they had the temerity to do so. But young Oakdaene....”

The three youngsters were listening, now. The name of Oakdaene was notorious, of course. They all knew of the courage of the Prydonian war heroes, Chrístõ de Lœngbærrow and Paracell Hext. But they also knew of the crimes of Rõgæn Koschei Oakdaene.

Lord Azmael smiled wryly.

“I think we should talk of this later,” he said. “Away from impressionable ears.”

The students were clearly disappointed. They knew, also that Chrístõ de Lœngbærrow was instrumental in bringing Prydonia’s criminal graduate to justice and they would have liked to have heard stories about it. But Lord Azmael brought them sharply back to the reason they were there, to be introduced to their teacher for the next year of their lives.

“We’re going to be living offworld?” Axyl Malcanon asked.

“On Beta Delta IV,” Chrístõ replied. “It’s a Human colony. I’ll enrol you at the school where I teach. You can join the advanced needs class. I’ll give you your own assignments, of course. The Human syllabus would not be much use to you. But I think interacting with the Chrysalids will be a good experience, especially for you, Cinnamal Hext. Your brother used to have some funny ideas about pure blood and the superiority of Gallifreyans over other races. It will do you good to realise that isn’t always true.”

Cinnamal looked startled by that. Chrístõ realised he probably wasn’t being entirely fair to him. The younger Hext had a right to prove himself without being in the shadow of his brother’s actions.

Well, it would be an interesting challenge, coping with all three of them, he decided.

When the meal was over, Cinnamal went off on his own, claiming he was going to look around the leisure facilities before the bedtime Lord Azmael had imposed on them even though they were staying in a hotel in space, not an Academy dormitory. After a while, the Malcanan brothers bid their former master and their new teacher goodnight and left the party, too.

Chrístõ and Lord Azmael retired from the restaurant to a lounge bar with wide exo-glass windows giving an all round view of the space sector they were in. Chrístõ accepted the drink he was offered but was puzzled by the pale green colour and the unusual taste.

“What IS this?” he asked.

“Racsaddian Absinthe,” Lord Azmael replied. “It’s a local speciality. Enjoy.”

“I don’t usually drink liquor,” he said.

“Yes, I’ve heard that about you,” his former teacher responded. “But there’s a first time.”

“Lord Azmael...”

“You don’t have to call me Lord,” he said. “I am not your teacher now, and you, as the heir of Lœngbærrow, are higher placed in our social strata than a mere professor.”

Chrístõ knew that, of course. He would one day have the title ‘Lord’ bestowed on him by right. Azmael, in common with most of the staff at the Academy was called ‘lord’ only as a courtesy.

“Azmael... You were speaking earlier of Epsilon... Rõgæn...”

“I planned to let the two of you go on field study together, you know. I thought you would both gain something from the experience...”

“He would probably have gained my death,” Chrístõ commented.

“That was what I was afraid of,” Azmael admitted. “I do not have especially strong precognitive skills, even for a Time Lord of my age. But shortly before your time of transcension, I had a very strong and disturbing vision.”

“A precognitive vision?” Chrístõ took a long gulp of the burning liquor. He felt as if he needed it.

“Four of you from the Prydonian Academy were transcending together,” Azmael reminded him. “Along with candidates from the other Academies. You and Oakdaene, and two young women - Romana, and your other cousin, Rani de Lessage.”

“Yes,” Chrístõ acknowledged. In all, some seventy senior students had transcended in the same year, but they did so in small groups, going up to the Panopticon to the formal ceremony with their mentors.

“The vision concerned all four of you. Where it touched on young Romana, I felt peace and light, a balm that soothed all wounds. I am not surprised that she committed herself to a House of Contemplation. Her temperament is suited to it. But that light was almost overwhelmed by the turmoil I saw around the rest of you. Darkness, fear, cruelty and deception. It was especially strong when it concerned you and Oakdaene. This vision... it was not a clear precognition of actual events, you understand. Rather, a collection of impressions, snatches of future history, and the emotional impact of those events.”

“Azmael...” Chrístõ was puzzled. It was true that his old teacher was not one who indulged in the more mystical aspects of the Time Lord being. He taught a highly practical subject and had little time for fancy. This was unusual for him.

“Chrístõ,” he continued, and the fact that he called him by his first name was unusual, too. “It was clear to me that you and Oakdaene were destined to be mortal enemies, with ambitions and goals directly opposed to each other. It was clear, too, that you would face each other again and again.”

“And so I did,” Chrístõ pointed out. “Until he was finally brought to justice.”

“But that was not the end. The story of Epsilon and Theta Sigma is far from over. He is still a part of your future. You are a part of his. And the struggle between you is inextricably bound with the fate of our world, indeed, with the galaxy, the universe itself. You will fight greater battles with far more at stake than the jealousies of the classroom or the ambitions of youth.”

“Against Epsilon...” Chrístõ sighed and drank again. The absinthe burned his throat and felt strange in his stomach. But he actually did feel as if it was soothing his brain as he contemplated the dark future being outlined to him.

“Against the forces of darkness Oakdaene has aligned himself with. But Chrístõ... that does not mean that you are aligned with the forces of light in direct opposition to him. There is a darkness that surrounds you, too. Even though you stand at opposite poles, you and Oakdaene have much in common, perhaps more than you have with other Time Lords. If the fates had been kinder, you might have been strong allies, friends. That you are enemies... I think that in itself is the reason for the turmoil. It is a jarring note in the symphony of the universe, it is time and space out of joint. And it cannot be made right. Already the damage is done. The course is set. Your story cannot be unread.”

“Azmael!” Chrístõ exclaimed. “Please... I hate all that destiny stuff. I’ve had enough of it already with the Codex of Rassilon thing. Epsilon is in Shada, and he’s staying there for the immediate future. I’m not planning anything more ambitious in my own future than a spectacularly big wedding to the woman I love and a job in the diplomatic corps. I’m not going to fight anyone.”

“Quite right, too, my friend,” Azmael told him. “But Time Lords live long lives. And such domestic bliss can only be a fraction of your future. The rest...”

“Is in the future. Leave it there,” Chrístõ begged him. “Let’s... drink to it and be done.”

He swallowed a larger gulp of the liquor and let Azmael refill his glass not so much because he wanted to drink more of it, but to distract him from these sinister foretellings.

Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. As the absinthe dulled his immediate thoughts he experienced a vision, a dream, possibly a hallucination, in which he felt he was falling from a great height, while a voice rang with malevolent laughter in his ears. It wasn’t Epsilon’s voice as he knew it, but he didn’t doubt that it WAS him laughing.

“Chrístõ!” He heard Lord Azmael’s voice calling to him as if from afar. He reached for the voice as if for a lifeline. When he opened his eyes it was like surfacing from a dark pool of water.

“Sweet Mother of Chaos,” Azmael said. “What did you see?”

“I saw... darkness... death... terrible things to come... and Epsilon and I... in the middle of it all. And yet... neither of us were the cause. We were both being used... like pawns in a chess game... pitted against each other by a higher power... for their own ends. Except...”

Chrístõ blinked. He stared at his former teacher.

“It’s gone... For a moment, I could see it all so clearly... the future... but now it’s gone... It’s all gone from my mind. I can’t even remember what I just said.”

“Then let it go,” Azmael advised him. “Even Time Lords don’t need to know too much about their future.”

“I need to know that Epsilon will be back. That’s something I have to remember. And I have to defeat him. But the rest... even if I could remember, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to change it. So perhaps it is best left alone, like you said. I’ll face it when I must.”

“Good,” Azmael told him. “Meanwhile, have another drink. The night is young and I have been within the Academy walls too much of late. Let us drink to old friends and new and adventures yet to come.”

Chrístõ smiled and accepted another glass of absinthe. He was aware that the stuff had an unusual effect on him, but the more of it he drank, the less he cared.

“Is it possible that Rasc... Rax... Racc... THIS stuff... actually does get Time Lords drunk?” he asked after a while. “If so... it is a very unusual substance. I should... its chemical comp...osition.”

Then he had another glass and forgot all about it.

Chrístõ woke several hours later with an aching head. He wondered if he had been in a fight. If he had, he couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t remember anything very much.

He certainly didn’t remember being arrested. He looked around at the metal bars of the spartan room he was in. He was lying on a low pallet with a very thin mattress and no pillow or cover. Lord Azmael was lying on a similar one. He was awake, but not moving.

“What happened?” he asked.

“We... slightly overdid it,” Azmael answered.

“Overdid what?” Chrístõ replied. “I’ve never been arrested without knowing why before. What did we do? And why can’t I remember?”

“We sang the Prydonian fighting song, all fifty-three verses, very loudly, on the promenade deck,” Azmael told him. “And I think we refused to be quiet when a security guard requested us to do so. I think you might have knocked his helmet off. You said something about the uniform being even sillier than that worn by the Chancellery Guard.”

“I did not!” Chrístõ protested. “I would never...”

“Racsaddian Absinthe is the only substance in the universe that gets Time Lords drunk. It affects our brains in a way that ordinary alcohol doesn’t.”

“Then I’m never touching the stuff again,” Chrístõ responded. “Let’s find out how we can get out of here before our students find out. This will be embarrassing enough without that. How I’ll ever keep their respect if they think I’m...”

Azmael cleared his throat meaningfully. Chrístõ looked around to see Axyl Malcanan outside the barred door, accompanied by one of the guards whose purple uniforms with gold chain mail and helmets really were as impractical looking as the Chancellery Guard of Gallifrey.

“Sir,” he said anxiously. “My brother and Cinnamal Hext are missing. I think they’ve both been kidnapped.”

“How?” Chrístõ asked. “And when? No... wait.” He looked at the guard and drew himself up as imperiously as he could. “Do you realise who I am? I am the Crown Prince of Adano-Ambrado. Do you really want to keep me and my aide here in this place? If you value your career I suggest you go and check your records and ensure that there are no charges against us of any sort.”

The guard looked puzzled for a few seconds, then worried. He turned and hurried away. Axyl watched him go, wondering if he ought to have been left alone with the prisoners, then he turned back to Chrístõ.

“Cinn took my brother to the casino last night. I know he isn’t old enough to gamble on our world. But here, he’s eighty-five. They couldn’t refuse him. He took Diol because he’s really good at precognition. He could tell him which cards were going to come up and what numbers the dice would land on.”

“You mean he was cheating?” Chrístõ was appalled. “Are you sure he isn’t in another cell here in the security complex?”

“No,” Axyl insisted. “I checked. Besides, Diol and I have always been close, telepathically. I would be able to hear him in my head. That’s what really scares me. I can’t feel him at all.”

“All right, don’t worry,” Chrístõ said to him. “We’ll figure this out. Just as soon as Lord Azmael and I get out of here.”

“What... did you do... to get put in here?” Axyl asked, choosing his words carefully. He was, after all, talking to a senior master of his school and a war hero of Gallifrey.

“It... was a misunderstanding,” Chrístõ replied. “Don’t worry, it will be sorted out soon. I just hope it’s a misunderstanding about Cinn and Diol. I really don’t want to have to tell Paracell Hext that his brother went missing while I was in jail for being drunk and disorderly.”

Axyl looked puzzled again. But he had little time to muse over his teacher’s comments. Two guards returned to the detention area. One of them was carrying a box containing all the possessions confiscated from the two prisoners when they were arrested. The cell door was unlocked and they were told they were free to go. All charges were dismissed. As Chrístõ stepped out of the cell, the two guards bowed low to him. He acknowledged them with a nod of the head.

“Privilege of rank,” Chrístõ said. “I haven’t used it very often. But I really don’t have time to wait around to see the magistrate. And this way I don’t have to explain any of this to my father, either.”

He was feeling rather stupid, in truth, and also rather worried. If Cinn and Diol were in trouble, and it was anything he could have prevented if he had been sober, then he would regret his night of foolishness for much longer than the hangover was likely to last.

And how would he explain it to Paracell? To say nothing of the Lord High President.

“My first day as a Prydonian master is not going well, so far,” he admitted as he stepped out of the guard station and took his bearings before heading towards the casino where his missing students were last seen.

The casino was open all hours. It was, after all, in neutral space. There was no concept of day or night except according to the body clocks of the individual patrons. There were at least a hundred and fifty people enjoying the facilities and almost as many staff attending to them.

It was always possible that Cinn and Diol were still in the casino. They were Gallifreyans, after all. They didn’t tire easily, and if they had been subtle about their cheating they might just have avoided being thrown out by the door staff. Chrístõ noted that these were androids. They would act when the management gave them instructions. They were humanoid, standing six foot tall with square jaws and broad shoulders. They wouldn’t stand for any arguments even if they were programmed to interact verbally.

There was no use asking them if they had thrown out two foolish young Gallifreyans. Chrístõ attracted the attention of the chief croupier and put the question to him. At first the man was uncooperative.

“Your Highness,” Axyl said in a loud whisper. “Would you like me to call the royal guards?”

“No,” Chrístõ replied. “That won’t be necessary.” He turned back to the croupier and found he was prepared to talk, now.

“The two of them were in here most of the night,” he said. “They were both drinking alcohol.”

“Not Racsaddian Absinthe, I hope?” Chrístõ asked.

“No, mostly vodka,” the croupier answered. “The younger one was quiet, but the older one talked a lot. He kept talking about how his father was the President of his planet and his family were rich. They were a bit richer by the time the pair of them left. They had a run of good luck.”

“Good luck?” Chrístõ queried.

“VERY good luck,” the croupier said. “If it was anything else, I don’t know how they did it. They didn’t seem to be cheating.”

“So when did they leave and where did they go?” Chrístõ asked. “Were they alone?”

“They left about three hours ago. I don’t know where they went, and they were alone. The elder one banked his chips before he left and put his winnings into a credit account.”

“So he wasn’t carrying any cash or chips when he left? Nothing that anyone might want to steal from him?”

“Nothing,” the croupier replied. “I am sorry I could not be more help, your Highness. But that is all I know.”

“Thank you, you’ve been helpful,” Chrístõ told him and turned away out of the casino.

“That man was lying,” he said when he was out of earshot.

“I agree,” Lord Azmael said. “At least, he was telling the truth to a point. But then he started lying.”

“What part was a lie?” Axyl asked.

“The part where he said he didn’t know if the boys were cheating, for a start,” Chrístõ replied. “He’s a senior croupier at a high stakes casino. He should know every trick in the book. Cinn and Diol are rank amateurs. And bear in mind, that place has neural jamming to prevent telepathic communication between players. I could feel it when we walked in. So they must have been using some sort of verbal code or sign language between them. Something that could be spotted by those who are paid to spot cheats.”

“He was lying about them leaving alone, too,” Azmael added. “He looked really nervous when you asked that question.”

“Which is why I’m not taking his word on the matter,” Chrístõ continued. Axyl watched in amazement, Azmael with amusement, as he took out his sonic screwdriver and pointed it towards the casino door. A few minutes later one of the android security guards lumbered out. It came up to him and bowed its head. Chrístõ reached inside the back of the metal skull and removed something small. The android stood up straight again and waited for Chrístõ’s command.

“Follow me,” he said to the android. It did so. Axyl and Lord Azmael followed him, too, but of their own volition, not because he had overridden their central commands. “Media room,” he added, heading to one of the comfortable private lounges with wall mounted video screen and wide leather armchairs. He slotted the video chip he had taken from the security android into the reader and sat down with the remote control. Azmael and Diol watched with him as he scrolled back through the footage of everybody who had come and gone into the casino in the course of the past twelve hours. Androids, of course, didn’t have shifts. They didn’t take breaks. They were there all the time, missing nothing that went on in the establishment.

“There they are,” Axyl exclaimed. “They’re all right.”

“They were two hours ago,” Chrístõ noted. “Which is later than our man said they left. And they’re clearly not alone.”

He tracked back to before Cinn and Diol left the casino. The croupier told the truth about Cinn cashing the very large pile of chips and opening an account with the in-house banker. He turned from the counter with a microcard in his hand no bigger than his fingernail.

“Biometric account key,” Azmael said. “Imprinted with his own DNA. Nobody could use the card to take the money from the account. Cinn isn’t a stupid boy. Lazy, perhaps, indifferent to academic work, but not stupid.”

“Stupid enough,” Chrístõ contradicted him. “If he let himself get bamboozled by those two.”

The two men who fell into step with Cinn and Diol as they headed out of the casino were practically caricatures of casino low life. One was tall and thin, wearing an immaculately pressed grey suit and spats. The other was short and fat and wearing a brown pinstripe suit. Both were smoking long thick cigars. They offered the packet to the boys, but they declined. Even so they allowed themselves to be drawn into conversation with the men. They all passed out of the android’s vision together.

“Diol is scared,” Axyl said. “Cinn is a bit worried, but Diol is really scared. He really doesn’t want to go with them.”

“Yes, he is,” Chrístõ agreed. “Very scared. But there’s no need for you to be. We’ll find him.”


“First, I need to know who these two characters are.” He used the remote control to zoom in on the faces of the two casino low life. Then he turned to the android. “You have a member database on your hard drive?”

The android’s robot eyes focussed on the images briefly before its mechanical voice told him that they were Tyree and Quinn, personal aides of Mr Oren Ragus, owner of the casino.

“The hired help of the casino owner left the premises with them? Why?”

The android couldn’t say. Deductive reasoning wasn’t part of its programming.

“Please bring the chief croupier here to me,” he told the android, hoping that he had enough control over it for it to obey. Androids of this sort were given a fairly simple primary function to obey the most senior organic life in their vicinity. Usually that would be the casino manager or even the owner, Mr Oren Ragus. Since he had identified himself as the Crown Prince of Adano Ambrado and his identity had been confirmed by the central processor of the security computer, his mere presence was overriding everyone else’s authority. But he wasn’t sure how far he could push his luck.

His luck was obviously holding. The android went away and returned to the media room shortly with the head croupier held firmly in its grasp. The man was calling out hexadecimal command codes to try to gain control, but it seemed as if a Crown Prince definitely trumped all other authority.

“Time for truth,” he said pointing to the image on the screen. “Where would Mr Ragus’s employees be taking these two young men?”

“They... must have been invited to a private game,” the croupier answered. “Mr Ragus takes an interest in the lucky punters. And as I said before, they were VERY lucky.”

“And this private game would take place where?” Chrístõ asked.

The croupier looked reluctant to tell. Chrístõ nodded to the android very subtly and its pressure on his arm increased.

“The Vault,” he said. “Mr Ragus’s private games take place in the Vault.”

“And where is that?”

The Croupier was vague about it, but the android was taking his role seriously. He went to the control panel next to the viewscreen and extended a standard interface from his finger. The screen filled with a schematic plan of the space hotel, including an advanced lifesigns detector that showed where every single living being aboard was.

“The ‘Vault’ is lead lined,” Chrístõ concluded after looking closely at the one part of the schematic that didn’t seem to be teeming with life. There was a black rectangle a few inches across that would be a room about fifteen feet by eight judging by the scale of the plan. “That’s why you can’t make telepathic contact with your brother, Axyl. He’s in a lead lined room. That’s common enough. Most of the committee rooms in the Citadel are lead lined to prevent eavesdropping on High Council meetings. So are the examination rooms in all the Academies. And Mr Ragus obviously feels the same way about his private card games.”

Axyl looked relieved. That was a plausible explanation for his inability to contact his brother. Chrístõ was not satisfied, though. And neither was Lord Azmael.

“The boys are in trouble,” Azmael said to him behind a carefully constructed mental wall.

“Yes, they are. Come on.”

He repeated that command out loud. The android followed him without question. It was still holding onto the head croupier. Chrístõ didn’t give it any instructions to let him go. They made a strange party stalking along the corridors, but nobody they passed seemed to consider themselves qualified to challenge them.

The Vault was exactly what the word suggested. It was a secure room where visitors could deposit valuables. Mr Ragus obviously had unlimited access to it, which made Chrístõ think it was the last place he would choose to leave anything he valued. He hadn’t even met this man and he disliked him.

It was guarded by Tyree and Quinn. Chrístõ gave a quiet command to the android and it restrained both of them at once. They glared at the chief croupier, who had been released from the android’s grasp before it took them in charge.

“Mr Ragus will have your teeth pulled out and make you eat them,” Tyree told him. “He doesn’t like disloyalty.”

“Nice man, this Mr Ragus,” Chrístõ commented. “I think I’d like a few words with him. Is he still playing poker in the Vault?”

“No,” Quinn replied. Obviously Tyree was the brains of the outfit. “He’s having his breakfast.”

“Then what did he leave you two here for?” Lord Azmael asked.

“I have a very bad feeling,” Chrístõ commented. He turned to the android again. “Put those two down now. And please open the vault for me, using the emergency protocol command code.”

“The what?” Axyl asked.

“Emergency protocol command code,” Chrístõ replied. “In a semi-automated facility like this, there will be a way of opening secure doors using an emergency code. The androids will all have it embedded in their subroutines somewhere. And since I HAVE been identified as the most important person here, my order should...”

He smiled as the android obeyed his instruction. Tyree and Quinn watched nervously. They had started to edge away once the android had let go of them, but Lord Azmael blocked their exit. He was, in appearance, elderly and not especially strong. But one look from his steely eyes and they changed their mind about leaving.

“What am I going to find when that door is opened?” Chrístõ asked them. “And who’s going to take the blame?”

“Mr Ragus did it,” Tyree said in a quavering voice. “He locked them in there. He said they’d either give him what he wanted or die.”

“What!” Axyl’s voice raised an octave. You mean... Diol... he’s...”

“It’s a bank vault,” Chrístõ pointed out. “They tend to be airtight. He didn’t bring them here for a game of anything. He brought them to get the money back that they won in the casino. I wonder how often that’s happened, before?” He looked at the chief croupier. “You said Mr Ragus OFTEN takes the high winners for a private game. Have you ever seen any of them afterwards?”

The croupier couldn’t answer that question. He was starting to realise that he might be considered an accessory to murder. But he, too, met Lord Azmael’s stare and knew there was no point in running.

“Mr Tyree, Mr Quinn, you were here, at the scene. We only have your word that Mr Ragus was ever here.”

“He did it,” Mr Quinn insisted. “He made us guard the vault. We didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“You’re recording this, aren’t you, my friend?” Chrístõ said to the android. It nodded. He stepped towards the heavy vault door. It was unlocked, but it took the strength of two Time Lords and a Time Lord candidate to open it.

“Diol!” Axyl cried out when it was fully opened. “Cinn!”

“Stand back,” Chrístõ told him. He walked into the stuffy, airless vault and lifted Diol carefully. He carried him back out and laid him down gently. His lips were blue and his cheeks bloodless. “Do you know how to do CPR?”

“No,” Axyl answered. “I don’t even know what it means.”

“I do,” the chief croupier said. “I’ve got a first aid certificate.” He stepped forward and knelt by Diol’s side.

“He has two hearts,” Lord Azmael said. “You need to alternate compressions.”

Chrístõ brought Cinnamal Hext out and began attending to him. He wasn’t dead, yet. Neither of them were. They both knew how to recycle their oxygen and they had done so for as long as they could. But it had been a near thing.

If he hadn’t been stuck in that detention cell he could have got here sooner. That fact haunted Chrístõ as he bent and gently blew air into Cinnamal Hext’s lungs. If he died, if either of these boys died, it would be his fault.

“Lord Azmael was responsible, too,” he told himself in mitigation. “He kept pouring the drinks. He’s your senior.”

“No,” he argued back. “That’s no excuse. Lord Azmael brought these boys for me to look after. And I failed them from the start. I should have known when to stop drinking that stuff. I should have kept my wits. If they live, now, it’s not my doing. They were saved by an android that thinks I’m the most important person here due to a technicality.”

Cinnamal coughed and groaned. Chrístõ leaned back and put his hand on the boy’s head.

“Keep still for another minute or two. Take a couple of deep breaths. Hypoxia isn’t a game even for Time Lords. If you’re lucky you won’t have killed too many of your brain cells.”

“Diol!” Cinn whispered. “Is he... please tell me he’s all right.”

Chrístõ glanced towards the two brothers. They were hugging each other.

“He’s all right. You’re both in big trouble, mind you. But we’ll talk about that later.”

There was a rattle of gold chain mail as a cohort of guards arrived. Chrístõ stood up and faced them. Their captain was the man he had spoken to already this morning. He bowed and called him ‘highness’.

“Put Oren Ragus under arrest at once,” he said. “On a charge of attempted murder of the son of the Lord High President of Gallifrey. I don’t need to tell you how that looks. If you investigate a little closer, you might find he isn’t the first such victim. Those two will be willing to talk in return for a reduced sentence.”

“What about him?” the captain asked. “Isn’t he from the casino?”

“He has nothing to do with the kidnapping,” Chrístõ replied. “He simply gave me directions. But I think he might have some information to corroborate their story. I’m sure he would be happy to help you with your inquiries. The android has some hard evidence in its databanks, so you be careful with him, and make sure he’s re-assigned properly afterwards.”

That done, Chrístõ demanded a guard escort to the hangar bay. He intended to get the two youngsters away from here as soon as possible.

Their route took them through the main observation deck. There were a group of service robots busily trying to repair the damage done to the hardwood floor where somebody with a surprisingly steady hand had used a laser tool to score the first verse of the Prydonian Fighting Song into it in foot long letters.

“Which one of us did that?” Chrístõ asked Lord Azmael telepathically.

“I honestly can’t remember,” he replied. “But... you were holding your sonic screwdriver when the guards arrived. You were using it to conduct us both in the song.”

“I’ll pay for the repair,” Chrístõ said. “Not out of my allowance from my father, though. I own a couple of Adano-Ambradan rubies.... gifts from the King-Emperor. They should cover it.”

He said nothing else until they reached the hangar bay. The three boys fetched their belongings from Lord Azmael’s TARDIS and brought them to Chrístõ’s while he got ready to take them to Beta Delta IV.

“By the way,” Chrístõ said when they were safely on their way. “Did Ragus get the money back from you, Cinn? Your immoral earnings from cheating at the casino?”

“That’s why he tried to kill us,” Diol said. “Cinn swallowed the biometric card. Ragus couldn’t do anything about it. He said he’d cut it out of his dead body after we’d suffocated. It was a lot of money. Nearly half a million universal credits. He was really angry that two kids like us could get that much out of his casino without him knowing how we did it. I think he really would have let us die...”

Chrístõ looked at Cinnamal and then adjusted his sonic screwdriver and pointed it at his stomach. He looked at the reading on the tiny LCD screen on the side panel.

“Yes. It’s still there,” he said. “It should take about three days to pass through an average Gallifreyan digestive system. Or I could put you under local anaesthetic in the medical room and perform a swift bit of keyhole surgery.”

Cinn didn’t look like either suggestion suited him particularly.

“Either way, when we get the card back, you’re giving the money to Diol.”


“It was his precognitive skill that netted such a tidy sum,” Chrístõ pointed out. “He should get the money. Besides, your father is the Lord High President and your brother is the Director of the Celestial Intervention Agency. I don’t think either of them would be pleased to hear you have gained such a large sum of money by deception.”

Cinn opened his mouth to speak, then changed his mind.

“Sir...” Diol Malcanan said in the silence left by Cinnamal’s inability to think of anything to say. “I don’t think I want it, either. It WAS cheating, and my father would not want me to...”

“Half a million universal credits, Diol,” Chrístõ told him. “That’s two million Gallifreyan Cressits.”

“I know that, sir,” Diol said. “But...” He looked at his younger brother, who nodded slightly. “I did a stupid thing. I’m just as much to blame as Cinn. I could have said no. But I went along with him. I shouldn’t gain from that stupidity.”

“All right,” Chrístõ said. “Then the money goes into the Marion de Lœngbærrow Bursary Fund. It helps with the education of deserving Caretakers. If you’re lucky, at the end of your year with me, some of the fund might come your way to cover your fees when you go back to the Prydonian Academy. But that will depend on my recommendation, of course. So I expect all three of you to make a new resolution from this day forward, to live up to the proud name of Gallifrey and strive to do your best in everything I tell you to do.”

“And I will never touch a drop of Racsaddian Absinthe,” he resolved to himself as the boys made their solemn promises to him.