Chrístõ woke from a short period of meditation and looked around the cabin of the shuttle craft. Two of his students were in their seats, reading about their destination on hand held holographic computer terminals. The other he didn’t see at first. Then he spotted him coming from the bar with a glass of lemonade. Cinnamal Hext had a rather mutinous look on his face, probably because he had been refused an alcoholic drink. Chrístõ had informed the bar staff at the start of the trip that his companions were all under age.

Cinn said nothing as he sat down beside the Malcannan brothers and drank his lemonade while looking at the data on Axyl’s computer screen.

Chrístõ had been a master to his Prydonian students for a month now, and it had been an illuminating one for them all. The three young Gallifreyans had managed to adapt to life on an Earth colony surprisingly well. For Cinnamal Hext, who was a little too used to believing that his species was superior to others it was sobering to spend his days in a classroom with the Chrysalids. Carlo and Rudie, now the eldest of the group since Glenda Ross went off to university, met him head on with every mental challenge he expected to be superior in. They even beat him at multidimensional chess, a game invented by Time Lords to stretch their own mental powers. He complained bitterly that it was unfair that humans should know how to play a Time Lord game. Nobody took any notice of his complaint.

Diol and Axyl found going to a school where they were not considered upstart peasants who shouldn’t be there refreshing. They enthusiastically embraced the Human education programme as well as their own lessons prepared by Chrístõ and were on their way to knowing as much about Earth and its culture as he did, in theory at least. He promised to take them on a trip to his favourite planet before their apprenticeship with him was done.

But this weekend he had a different field trip planned. He wanted the boys to be tested physically and he knew the perfect place to do it.

“It’s a pity we won’t be seeing many of the indigenous people of Utar Kapesh on this trip,” Axyl commented. A six inch hologram of a Kapeshan hung in the air in front of him. It was a tall, willowy humanoid with very pale skin and watery eyes that made him look as if he was going to cry any moment, but at the same time a wide, serene smile suggesting that they were tears of perpetual joy. “Fascinating race. Empaths... they not only read the emotions of other people, but react appropriately.”

“Yes,” Chrístõ said. “Many of them make a living in the Utarian sector as professional mourners at funerals – or as guests at weddings and parties.”

“They feel all of the emotions around them,” Diol pointed out. “So the mourners must be very sad all the time.”

“I know which I’d prefer,” Cinnamal commented. “Professional party goer, any day.”

“There’s no party this weekend,” Chrístõ told him. “Just hydrated rations and the sweat of your brow. The nearest you might get, if you’re lucky, is a camp fire sing song with your bedtime cocoa.”

The brothers laughed. Cinnamal didn’t look as impressed. What Chrístõ had described as an endurance weekend didn’t appeal to him, at all.

“Come on, Cinn,” Diol said to him. “It’ll be fun.”

“Camping out and hiking all day are hardly the pursuits of a Gallifreyan aristocrat,” he pointed out.

“Actually, I used to go camping with my father all the time when I was your age, Cinn. We even spent a week on Utar Kapesh. That’s why I thought it would be a good place to take you three.”

Cinnamal’s expression flickered. There was a brief thought in his head that he quickly suppressed, though not quite quickly enough, about the position of half-bloods in Gallifreyan society. Chrístõ looked at him sharply, but he didn’t rebuke him. Even a Time Lord could not be condemned for his thoughts, only his deeds.

“Well,” Cinn remarked. “If we’re going to be starving on re-hydrated synthetic food for the next three days, I think I’ll get my share at the buffet over there. It might be my last chance to eat something with flavour.”

He got up and headed to the food counter. The brothers watched him then looked around at Chrístõ.

“You two can help yourselves, as well,” he told them. “He has a point about the re-hydrated food. It’s nutritious, but it lacks any subtlety of flavour.”

Diol and Axyl closed their computer screens and stood.

“Can we bring you some food, sir?” Diol asked.

“I’d like a plate of Gnashian king prawns,” he answered. “With hoi sin sauce and perhaps a bit of mixed salad with it.”

Diol nodded and headed to the buffet. He brought Chrístõ’s food first before filling a plate for himself. Of course, he was Diol’s teacher. As a student he owed him respect. But Chrístõ wondered if his anxiety to serve him was more to do with the social difference between Caretaker class and Oldblood.

He wished he had gone to get the food himself.

The three boys came back to their seats with their food and ate hungrily, but not greedily. They talked among themselves, about the planet they were visiting, but also about their stay on Beta Delta. The brothers were enthusiastic about their experiences, especially meeting so many humans they found common interests with.

Cinnamal was less keen. He admitted that some of the Chrysalids were accomplished, for humans, but expressed the view that most of them had reached the limit of their intellectual potential already, far below that of a fully trained Time Lord.

Diol and Axyl bristled against that slur on their friends. Chrístõ did, too. It came too close after his thoughts about half-bloods. Cinnamal was acting like an Oldblood snob, putting down humans, Caretakers and anyone else he considered beneath him.

He needed to be beaten at Multidimensional chess a few more times, Chrístõ thought. Preferably by the girls in the Advanced Needs Class.

“Sir!” Diol forgot about his grievance against Cinnamal. His face paled in shock. “I can feel... one of my precognitions... something is wrong.”

Axyl was nearest to the shuttle window and reported that there was a ship coming up alongside them. Diol backed away from the window, convinced that it was the source of the danger he had sensed.

“It’s probably the Utar Kapesh border security, checking visas,” Chrístõ said calmly, noting that both ships were stationary and preparing to link up. “They do take exploitation of their natural resources seriously.” He reached for the papers giving permission for their group to visit the planet for leisure purposes. Diol was not convinced, though, and later, Chrístõ realised he ought to have taken more notice of his precognition.

Because what stormed into the passenger cabin, pushing frightened stewards out of the galley and screaming orders were certainly not customs officers. They were not the peaceful natives of Utar Kapesh at all. These were stoutly built humanoids with leathery skin and high, bony foreheads. They were dressed in tooled leather and shaggy fur with lots of buckles and armoured pieces attached. Their eyes were hard and their mouths looked as if smiling wasn’t actually one of their functions.

“If any of you wish to live a little longer, don’t think about reaching for a weapon,” said the one who might have been identified as a leader by the baldric composed of small bones, possibly knuckles and finger bones, that he wore across his leather jerkin. “You are all hostages of the Ashta’rn now. Do not do anything foolish.”

“There are no weapons here,” said a steward. “Passengers are not permitted to carry...”

“Good, then there will be no opposition,” the leader snarled. “Move, all of you. Put your hands on your heads and walk in a single line. Any attempt at resistance will be dealt with severely.”

Axyl and Diol slowly stood up. They looked scared, but they moved closer to Chrístõ as if being near him would offer them some comfort. Chrístõ wished it would. He wished still more there was somebody he could turn to for comfort.

“No!” Cinnamal yelled. He started to run, though where he thought he was running to, nobody could say. The Ashta’rn guards raised their weapons. Chrístõ wasn’t sure what kind of weapons they were, whether projectile or energy emitting. Either way, he couldn’t let them shoot a boy with his back to them.

“Leave him,” he cried out, putting his body between Cinnamal and the guards. “He’s just a boy. Let him be.”

The beams from three energy weapons crossed as they enveloped him. Chrístõ screamed in agony. He heard everyone else around him screaming in shock before it all went black and he felt and heard nothing more.

When he regained consciousness, Chrístõ was aware of several uncomfortable sensations at once. The air around him was hot and dry and he was thirsty. The surface he was lying on was hard and unyielding, exacerbating the dull ache in every one of his bones. There was a persistent, throbbing vibration of engines that matched the throbbing of his head. When he opened his eyes, the light hurt them and the pain in his head was even more acute. He closed them again.

He felt somebody lift his head and put a bottle of water to his lips. It was warm, stale, and there wasn’t enough to soothe his throat.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Axyl Malcannan said to him. “There isn’t enough to spare. We’ve only got one bottle between us all.”

“Let him have mine,” Diol said. “I can manage.”

“We don’t know when they might let us have any more,” Axyl pointed out. “You can’t manage. We’ve all got to ration what we have.”

He tried again to open his eyes. The light was from a sun, shining directly through a grating in the high ceiling of the stark metal walled room they were in. His three students all looked tired and worried, but they were alive. So were most of the people he remembered seeing in the passenger cabin before the hijack. They were sitting in small groups, their clothes and hair in disarray and frightened but resigned expressions on their faces. They might have been there something like a day and a night if he had been unconscious that long. He noticed two other Humanoid prisoners who had been there much longer. They had at least two or three week’s beard growth and their clothes were crumpled and dirty from wearing them day and night for a long time. They didn’t look as if they had been fed well during that time, either.

“Don’t try to move,” Diol told him. “Your muscles might still be affected by the paralysing ray.”

They were. He just about had enough strength to lift himself into a sitting position and drink a little more of the stale water. Standing up wasn’t an option, yet. Walking would be agony. Every muscle, every bone in his body ached even when he didn’t use them.

Fighting was out of the question, even if there was an enemy to fight. He was more of a prisoner than anyone else.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“You’re in an Ashta’rn camp on Utar Kapell,” said one of the two strangers.

“Utar Kapell?” Chrístõ was puzzled. “The desert planet second from the Utarian star, tidal locked, with permanent day and night.... But nobody lives there. It’s uninhabitable.”

“Tell that to the Ashta’rn,” Cinnamal Hext told him. “They brought us here.”

“If we’re on a planet, why can I hear engines?”

“This cell is next to the hydro-extraction plant,” said the other of the strangers. “It’s how we have ANY water at all. The machine extracts hydrogen from beneath the planet’s surface and mixes it with oxygen to produce water. It’s how the Ashta’rn manage to keep their camp here on this planet where nobody would ever think to look.”

“Sir,” Diol began, but Chrístõ stopped him.

“I got you into this mess,” he said. “I hardly deserve to be called ‘sir’. I’m a lousy kind of teacher.”

“Apparently it’s not your fault,” Cinnamal told him. “The Utar Kapesh government didn’t know the Ashta’rn were operating in this system. They come from some place light years away. They’re....”

“They’re nomadic pirates who make money by kidnapping people and holding them until ransoms are paid,” Axyl explained. “Those two are Maldavian geologists. They actually came to this planet to see if there were any minerals worth exploiting. They dropped right into the Ashta’rn camp. The mining company they work for have until the twentieth hour today to pay the ransom.”

“And then what?” Chrístõ asked, though he could easily guess. Piracy of various sorts was one of the risks of space travel. His TARDIS was fairly safe from that kind of thing, but ordinary deep space freighters and passenger liners were sometimes at risk. The last time he was on Adano-Ambrado Penne had been discussing the problem with Drago and deciding on a joint policy to protect Ambradan and Loggian ships. The Earth Federation had also started putting armed guards on their civilian ships. The Gallifreyan deep space fleet had not encountered any problems, yet, but Paracell Hext’s agents in the field were keeping him and the High Council abreast of events.

He wondered if Hext had seen a report about this act of space piracy.

“There were no travel alerts for this quadrant,” Chrístõ noted. “I wouldn’t have risked the trip otherwise. The Ashta’rn mustn’t have been active for long.”

“What I saw of the camp,” Diol said. “It’s all steel prefabs like this. Dropped down from a freighter, easy to abandon if the authorities get too close. They could relocate to another system in a day and start terrorising new people.”

“Yes, that would be about right,” Chrístõ agreed. He looked around

“I only see passengers, here,” he said. “What about the crew? Are they elsewhere?”

“No,” Diol said in a heavy tone. “They... killed them all. They did it yesterday, when we were first brought here. They separated passengers from crew... and then turned their weapons on them. I don’t know why they did that...”

“The crew weren’t worth anything,” said a woman who was wearing a fine silk dress that was already worse for the wear. Chrístõ noticed that her ears had been bleeding and there was a scratch on her neck. Earrings and a necklace had been roughly taken. Her hands had the white marks where rings should be. Chrístõ flexed his fingers and thanked providence he left the rings he always wore in the TARDIS in anticipation of a camping and hiking trip where they would be in the way.

“What do you mean... not worth anything?” he demanded.

“They killed them to let all of us know they’re serious... that they don’t care about killing people. But the crew... they’re just... crew.... They wanted us... people rich enough to travel by inter-planetary space shuttle... people who they can ransom.”

“The transport company would have paid ransoms for their crew,” Chrístõ said. “They didn’t need to kill them.”

The woman shrugged.

“Companies want to negotiate,” said a man with ring marks on his hands who might have been her husband. He nodded towards the two long-term prisoners. “They don’t CARE about hostages. They care about their money. The Ashta’rn want people like us... people whose families will pay to get them back. That’s why you were only paralysed. You’re a passenger. You’re worth keeping alive – at least until you can send a ransom message to your people.”

“You’re rich, are you?” the woman added, appraising Chrístõ’s leather jacket and casual clothes. “Your people can pay?”

“My family has money,” Chrístõ replied.

“Then you’ll be all right. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“There’s everything to worry about,” Axyl said. “For US. Our family has no money.”

“You’ll be all right,” Chrístõ assured him. “I won’t let anyone hurt either of you.”

“You’re injured. How can you help us?” Diol asked. “If they shoot you again with that stuff, it could destroy your central nervous system. You’ll be paralysed for life.”

“I’ll look after you,” Chrístõ insisted. “You’re my responsibility. I brought you here.”

But Diol was right. There was little he could do to help anyone, yet. His body was too weak. Besides, there still wasn’t any enemy to fight. The two men from the mining corporation confirmed that this was normal. They were left for long hours with only a little water. On this tidal-locked planet there was no day or night, and the sun remained at the zenith all the time. What Chrístõ had taken to be midday was, in fact, early morning on the second day of their imprisonment by Diol’s reckoning using his own internal body clock. For another nine hours by that calculation the prisoners remained in their strange cell with the constant noise and vibration of the water plant for ambiance. Some of them tried to sleep on the hard floor. Some moved around, exercising their limbs. They cried, quietly or hysterically, they prayed, cursed, vowed revenge on their captors, contemplated suicide, discussed ways of escaping, fighting back or signalling for help, all of which were abandoned as hopeless.

Chrístõ didn’t sleep. His bones ached too much. He lay on the steel floor and tried to rest his hurt body while he set his mind to the problem. He considered several plans to escape, but they all depended on him being able to stand on his own two feet. They also depended on getting out of the cell, and that wasn’t going to happen.

“Where’s the door,” he asked quite out of the blue. He turned his head as far as he could. The four walls of the rectangular room looked seamless.

“It’s there,” Diol told him. “At the far end. It’s morphic steel. The Ashta’rn use a device to make a door appear when they bring food. When they leave, it closes again as if nothing was there at all.”

“If I had my sonic screwdriver...” But of course, they had all been searched. Anything resembling a tool or weapon was taken. So were their identity cards and visas. That meant that they knew who they all were. They knew what planets they came from.

He, Cinnamal and the Malcannan brothers all had intergalactic visas identifying them as from Gallifrey. Most other species in the galaxy knew very little about Gallifrey, but the one thing that was generally known was that it was a rich planet.

That fact would be of interest to the Ashta’rn.

A different sound, a whining, penetrating one, overrode the sound of the water plant. He turned his head to see the morphic door appear in the wall. It began as a thin red line, rather like a laser cutting tool outlining a rough oblong. Then the oblong dissolved leaving a space big enough for three Ashta’rn to enter at once. Two were guards with their paralysing guns ready to cut down anyone foolish enough to make a run for it. The third carried a large cauldron. A fourth came in and dropped a heap of bread and a box full of rough wooden bowls. It was hard to say which made the heaviest noise hitting the floor. He went back outside and returned with a second cauldron from which water sloshed as he placed it in the middle of the floor. The Ashta’rn withdrew. The morphic metal resolved back into solid wall again.

The passengers crowded around the cauldron, grabbing at the bread rolls and the bowls. Diol and Axyl went to get food for all four of them. Cinnamal took the water bottles and refilled them at the cauldron.

“Earlier, while you were still unconscious, they brought one of those in for... a toilet,” he said to Chrístõ. “Everyone used it, men and women, because they were desperate. I’m not sure if that isn’t the same container with our drinking water in.”

“Let’s... try not to think about that,” Chrístõ told him. “Do you know how to expel harmful substances accidentally ingested into your body?”

“Yes,” Cinnamal replied. “Just as well, really. That food qualifies as a harmful substance on its own.”

The brothers returned to their piece of floor with a bread roll each and a bowl of what seemed to be a kind of bean curd. Chrístõ tasted a little. It tasted ghastly, but it was a vegetable protein and it would sustain them. They ate it with their fingers. Spoons might be used as weapons. Their hands were relatively clean, yet, and it probably did them no harm, but Chrístõ thought about his time as a medical student in the late nineteenth century when the concept of bacteria and cleanliness was first beginning to be understood by humans. He could instantly name at least two dozen unpleasant illnesses that most of the hostages would be susceptible to in these barely adequate conditions.

Cinnamal wiped the remains of the curd from his hands onto the knees of his trousers and complained about feeling dirty, already. He wasn’t being snobbish, at least not wholly. It was part of the discomfort they were all suffering.

“Penne Dúre would be climbing the walls,” Chrístõ said with a soft laugh. “He starts his day with an hour long bath even when he’s on a State visit offworld. The Ruby of Adano, the flagship of his military fleet is fitted with an eighteen metre wide sunken whirlpool bath for when he’s aboard.”

“Yeah, Paracell told me about it,” Cinnamal responded with a smile. “The King-Emperor likes to talk State business while in his bath. He had to strip off and join him once. He found it – disconcerting. There were servants, male and female, in very small ‘uniforms’ attending.”

“Penne is happily married to Cirena,” Chrístõ said. “But he likes to look at attractive people, still. He thought your brother was VERY attractive. But the fact that he’s trained in a dozen silent forms of assassination probably worked in his favour.” He added that last comment telepathically. Paracell’s work was meant to be clandestine, after all.

“I don’t think I’d mind what the King-Emperor wanted to look at right now, if an eighteen metre whirlpool bath was part of the bargain,” Cinnamal admitted, passing over his brother’s qualifications.

“I agree,” Chrístõ sighed. A long bathe with Penne would be wonderful. Still more so if it was his travelling bath on the Ruby of Adano. His thoughts passed from the ablutionary facilities of that ship to its ordnance. The Ruby would be a very welcome sight just now, with or without baths.

“Do you KNOW the King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado?” asked one of the passengers to Chrístõ. “I mean... know him personally?”

“Know him!” Cinnamal responded. “He’s the...” He stopped. He felt a sharp jolt in his head. Chrístõ wasn’t able to move his legs to kick him, but he did it telepathically.

“My father is in the diplomatic corps of our planet,” Chrístõ said quickly. “So is Cinnamal’s brother. We’ve both met lots of kings.”

“Adano-Ambrado is rich,” the passenger said. “If you were friends with the King, he might pay all our ransoms.”

“Adano-Ambrado doesn’t pay ransoms for anyone,” Chrístõ answered. “Neither does our planet. Our government has a very strict rule about that.”

“Neither does the Earth Federation,” another passenger pointed out. “But they won’t go to the government. They’ll make their demands of our families. My money is in eco-oil. My son will have to sell stock to meet the ransom.”

Once started, it went around the cell like an audible Mexican wave. Everyone was talking about where their personal fortunes lay. Stocks in oil, transport, property and commodities would have to be liquidated all over the galaxy to meet the demands of the Ashta’rn.

Chrístõ gave Cinnamal another telepathic jolt and warned him not to say anything on this subject. Diamonds, gold and silver were the source of wealth for Oldblood Gallifreyans. The House of Hext owned as many mines, at home and offworld, as the House of de Lœngbærrow. Their fathers would both count such things worthless compared to their lives.

But Cinnamal’s father wasn’t just a private citizen of Gallifrey. He was Lord High President. If he paid a ransom, he paid it as the leader of the government. It would be a difficult decision for him to make.

For Chrístõ’s father the decision wouldn’t be difficult at all. He would refuse to pay. He was a man of deep rooted principles and he would not give in to blackmail and extortion.

And Chrístõ fully agreed with those principles. He didn’t want his father to pay these murderers for his life.

But it would be better if the Ashta’rn didn’t know that for the moment. They expected frightened civilians who would beg their relatives to pay for their release.

That was what everyone was talking about around him. He lay back and tested his hurting muscles. He still couldn’t move without severe pain. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t fight. He had little choice but to let events unfold around him.

Events moved slowly for several more hours. Then there was the sound of the morphic door being opened again. Ashta’rn guards poured into the cell and ordered the hostages to move. Chrístõ struggled and only managed to stand with both Diol and Axyl holding him up. They supported him as he put one foot in front of the other painfully and moved slowly along, last of all the prisoners, goaded and sworn at by their captors.

“Leave him alone,” Cinnamal told them. “He’s probably the most valuable hostage you have. Hurting him would be a big mistake.”

Chrístõ groaned. That was the last thing he wanted the Ashta’rn to think about him. He swore in Low Gallifreyan and sent another sharp telepathic prod into Cinnamal’s brain.

“I did it for you,” he protested. “If they think you’re important they won’t want anything to happen to you.”

“If they think I’m THAT important they might kill everyone else and save on bean curd and bread,” he responded. “Just... don’t say anything.”

Cinnamal was annoyed. He had tried to protect Chrístõ and had been rebuked for doing so. He walked sullenly to the rough square of hard packed sand that passed for a ‘parade ground’. Ashta’rn flanked the hostages with guns levelled at them. Others pushed them about until they formed three roughly straight lines. Then the leader looked at them all coldly and snarled an order.

The two Maldavian geologists were pulled from the lines, leaving two gaps that nobody wanted to fill. They were dragged front and centre and made to kneel on the ground.

“No ransom has been paid,” said the leader. “Your company does not value your lives. Therefore you are of no value to me.”

The leader nodded to his men. Four of them surrounded the two men and opened fire. The energy weapons were not set to paralyse this time. The hostages cried out in terror as the two men were enveloped in white hot rays that instantly burnt their flesh. Moments later two blackened skeletons collapsed to the ground and partially crumbled.

“If your families are prepared to pay, that need not happen to you,” the leader told the hostages. “When you make your pleas to them, be sure to mention what you’ve seen. It may inspire them to pay much faster.”

Most of the hostages were taken back to the cell. Chrístõ and his students were among those kept back and made to kneel much as the executed men had done. Fear was a palpable thing. Everyone wondered if they were about to be killed, too.

They weren’t. Two humans, a married couple, were taken into a smaller metal prefab. They were there for twenty minutes before the guards pushed them out again and made them kneel on the ground. Another man was taken into the prefab. Nobody was allowed to speak, but the couple didn’t look as if they had been physically harmed. They weren’t being beaten or tortured. There was that to it.

Cinnamal was taken. He came back twenty minutes later. He knelt beside Chrístõ and spoke to him telepathically.

“They made me record a message to my father, telling him he has to pay for my release.”

“You didn’t say anything stupid about him being Lord High President, did you?”

“No. I just said that he owns diamond mines. Their demand was for diamonds. A lot of diamonds.... but father can afford it.”

“No, he can’t,” Chrístõ told him. “Just... don’t say anything else to them.”

There was an Ashta’rn guard telling him to stand up. He couldn’t. Those muscles that were starting to work had seized up again from kneeling in an awkward way.

“We need to help him,” Diol insisted. “We’re... we’re his brothers. We’ll all go together.”

“Move!” the guard snarled. “Move fast.”

“We CAN’T move fast,” Axyl responded. “Leave us alone. We’re doing our best.”

The guard lashed out at Axyl with the butt of his gun. The boy cried out but he kept his feet and didn’t let Chrístõ fall. They stumbled together towards the prefab.

It was dully lit inside, except for one chair which had a bright spotlight on it. The chair was opposite a camera and a videophone terminal. The brothers helped Chrístõ to sit on the chair, positioning his still paralysed feet so that they looked natural. They were made to kneel either side of him before the camera and the videophone were turned on. With a shock, Chrístõ realised that this wasn’t a recorded message. His father had been directly contacted. He obviously knew already that Chrístõ was a hostage, and he had been told the ransom he had to pay for him.

“Father,” Chrístõ said when he was told to speak. “You mustn’t worry about us... any of us. We’re not hurt. We miss you... all three of us... your sons... we miss you. But we’re all right. As long as you do what they ask... we won’t be harmed, and we’ll be home with you, soon.”

His father didn’t even blink in surprise at his words. He must have guessed Chrístõ’s plan.

“Look after each other,” his father answered. “My boys, I love you all. Don’t worry. All will be done for your safe return.”

“We love you, father,” Chrístõ responded. “We...”

But that was enough. The connection was cut. The camera was turned off. The brothers helped Chrístõ to stand again. They helped him to stumble back to the cell, prodded and pushed by the impatient Ashta’rn guards.

It took four long hours to send out the ransom messages for each of the hostages. Finally, the guards brought more bread, this time without the bean curd, and sealed the morphic door. Though there was no nightfall to mark it, this seemed to be the end of the day. The hostages started to settle down to try to sleep. Chrístõ was already lying down. His legs were hurting, making sleep difficult. He thought that he might have the use of them in a few hours, though, which meant they could think about an escape plan.

“How good are any of you at remote telekinesis?” he asked his students.

“We’re both at level six,” Diol answered.

“Three,” Cinnamal admitted, glaring at the brothers as if daring them to comment.

“Same as me, then,” Chrístõ said. “Telekinesis was always my worst telepathic skill. But if I try very hard I can do it.”

“What do you intend to do?” Axyl asked.

“We can join together telepathically and force the morphic door open,” he explained. “If we can get out into the compound... get hold of some weapons...”

“We’ll be killed,” Cinnamal pointed out. “We don’t even know how many Ashta’rn guards there are out there. Hundreds of them... and four of us.”

“Thirty-five,” Axyl answered. “Morphic steel is as bad as lead for blocking telepathic nerves. But don’t tell me you didn’t use the chance when we were out there to find out what we’re up against?”

“I was distracted by them executing people in front of us,” Cinnamal replied. “Seriously, we’re going to try to escape?”

“It’s risky,” Chrístõ accepted. “But with a bit of luck and the sort of judgment Axyl used when he worked out the enemy strength, we might do it.”

“I don’t like it,” Cinnamal told him.

“Coward,” Diol said.

“I am not,” Cinnamal protested. “I just don’t think...”

“If you don’t think you’re up to it, stay here and wait for your precious father to pay your ransom,” Diol responded. “But I’m not. Even if Chrístõ’s father pays our ransoms... as he asked him to do...”

“Father won’t be paying the ransom,” Chrístõ said. “Nor will yours, Cinnamal. They can’t. No Gallifreyan setting foot outside the Transduction Barrier would be safe if they did. We’d be preyed upon by every pirate in the galaxy. As much as we matter to our fathers, as much as mine would gladly pay to free every hostage here, if he thought that would help, they won’t for that one reason.”

“Then... maybe the King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado will pay for his Crown Prince!” Cinnamal responded, loudly.

Too loudly.

“Crown Prince?” The word was echoed around the cell.

“Idiot!” Chrístõ said out loud and telepathically.

“Who’s a Crown Prince?” somebody asked.

“He is!” Cinnamal replied. He was angry and he wasn’t thinking logically. Chrístõ had endeavoured since the three became his students, to treat them as young adults as much as possible. But he remembered only too well, now, that they were children. They were none of them emotionally equipped to deal with the sort of stress they were under, or how scared they were.

“His ‘brother’ the King-Emperor could free us all in an instant!” Cinnamal raged. “But he didn’t even contact him. He won’t...”

“Penne won’t pay a ransom, either,” Chrístõ pointed out calmly. “HIS people wouldn’t be safe if he did. Nor would Drago. He and Penne are united about that.”

Calling the Dragon Loge Marton, despot of the Loggian system, by a diminutive was possibly the worst thing Chrístõ could have done at that moment. It confirmed to the other hostages that he really was royalty. And that didn’t entitle him to any curtseys. Rather, their faces hardened towards him.

“Yes, I AM the Crown Prince of Adano Ambrado,” he admitted. “By the King’s favour, not by birth. I didn’t tell THAT lot out there because it would have been dangerous for all of you. Look what they did to the shuttle crew because they weren’t worth holding for ransom. Look what they did to the geologists. If that lot knew who I was... your ransoms would look like small change. They wouldn’t bother holding you. They would kill all of you and make me their primary hostage.”

“Depends how greedy they are,” somebody pointed out. But the logic of his words sank in little by little and the crowd calmed. “All right, now let’s have a bit of sense around here,” he said when the murmurings ceased. “I have a plan to get us out of this cell, at least. Night or no night, it’s late in the day. We’re locked up in here, going nowhere. There is a chance most of the Ashta’rn are resting. If we can overpower even one of them and get a weapon...”

“You can’t even STAND!” somebody else reminded him. Chrístõ had almost forgotten his disability in the heat of the moment. He stretched his legs. Every muscle and tendon screamed. He gritted his teeth and grasped Diol’s shoulder for support as he pushed himself up.

“I can STAND,” he replied, though it was hard to speak without screaming. He hurt all over. He blinked back tears of pain and took three steps forward unaided. “I can stand, I can walk, and I can bloody well fight. But first we have to get that door opened.”

They were children. He kept reminding himself of that. Even so, their telepathic skills were strong. They stood with him and concentrated their efforts on the morphic door. Chrístõ was aware of the murmuring starting up again. Nobody believed they could do it. But he ignored that. Besides, the sceptics turned to believers as the metal glowed and shimmered before them. Diol groaned with the mental effort. Their faces were wet with perspiration. This much telepathic concentration raised their internal body temperature and in a stuffy room with the sun shining down constantly they could do nothing to control it.

The door opened. They felt a warm desert breeze on their faces. They had done it.

But their triumph was short lived. The Ashta’rn were waiting outside, guns levelled at them. The leader stepped forward, sneering as Chrístõ was pushed towards him.

“That’s a coincidence,” the leader said. “I was just coming to see you – your Royal Highness.”

Nobody had betrayed him, least of all Cinnamal. In his prefab command post, the Ashta’rn leader took a vicarious pleasure in showing Chrístõ the images being broadcast around the galaxy on the network news channel. The fact that the Crown Prince of Adano Ambrado had been kidnapped was known to every sentient humanoid with a vid-receiver. So was the King-Emperor’s statement that Adano-Ambrado did not yield to tyrants and no ransom would be paid.

“He will pay,” the leader insisted. “Or you will die. In token of that, your other ‘brothers’ – these three here – will be executed. It will be filmed, so that every fool who thinks they can play games with us will know we are not to be underestimated.”

“I’m not his brother!” Cinnamal protested. “I’m the son of the Lord High President of Gallifrey. I’m just as important as Chrístõ. I’m...”

A guard smashed the butt of his raygun into Cinnamal’s head. Diol grabbed him by the arm and held him upright as the dizziness passed. Chrístõ reached out and held all three of them in his arms. It was tricky. His arms weren’t quite long enough, but he made his point. They were under his protection.

“If you touch any one of these boys... or any of the other hostages... I’ll... I’ll kill myself. You’ll have no bargaining chip, and Penne Dúre, King-Emperor of Adano-Ambrado will send his battle fleet to wipe you out – even if it takes a hundred years to hunt you all down.”

It could have been an empty threat. The Ashta’rn leader barked a cold laugh as if he thought it was. But as Chrístõ had calculated, he couldn’t take the chance. He needed his prize hostage.

“The sun is hot overhead,” the leader pointed out. “And it is ALWAYS overhead. How long will you last exposed to it constantly? How long will any of the other precious hostages? That is the time limit. If your King-Emperor does not act before then, you will all die.”

They were manhandled back outside to the compound. Four shallow pits had been dug in the sand and thick metal poles erected in them. Chrístõ and his three companions were forced to stand in the pits while they were chained to the poles. Then the pits were partially filled in. The sand came up to their chests. It was packed down solidly and the pressure on their limbs and their organs was painful. Still worse was the unrelenting sun beating down on their exposed heads.

Without water, they would be dead in a matter of hours.

The other hostages were herded from the cell. They were made to kneel facing the four ‘prize’ hostages. They were given no water, either. After the first hour two of the women and one of the men had fainted. They were left lying there under the baking sun. The Ashta’rn didn’t even let anyone turn them to prevent their faces being sunburnt.

“I’m sorry,” Chrístõ told his students telepathically. “This isn’t the best field trip I ever led.”

“It’s been educational, all the same,” Diol responded. “Chrístõ... sir... I’d rather die alongside you... than... than live while you....”

“The King-Emperor has to come through with the ransom,” Cinnamal insisted. “And soon. He can’t let us die.”

“Penne will come through,” Chrístõ replied. “But not with any ransom.” He looked up, squinting against the bright sunlight. Against all expectations he laughed. His companions were as puzzled as the guards around him.

Then a thunderclap shook the oppressively hot air. It was the sonic boom caused by a very large ship entering the planet’s atmosphere. If there had been any structure made of glass nearby it would have shattered spectacularly.

The guards looked up at the huge bulkhead that blotted out the sun. That was their mistake. They shouldn’t have been so distracted. They might have paid attention to the half-organic, half mechanical sound of a TARDIS materialising and then dematerialising leaving Paracell Hext’s best agents in flanking formation around the prisoners. At the same time the air shimmered all around the compound perimeter as three dozen men and women of the Adano-Ambradan Operaciones Especiales transmatted down from the Ruby of Adano. A section of them protected the hostages while the rest took down the Ashta’rn. They weren’t interested in taking prisoners. They used deadly force. They chose their targets carefully. They didn’t consider the life of one of the hostages as an acceptable loss.

Chrístõ and his students saw all of that very briefly before a transmat beam enveloped them. They all screamed, because transmats were unpleasant at the best of times. They were still screaming when they materialised in a room where their voices echoed strangely. As Chrístõ struggled to his feet, he noticed, first of all, an eighteen metre wide whirlpool bath filled with fragrant water.

Then he noticed Penne Dúre dressed in a silk bathing robe tied at the waist with a rope of spun gold. He was still wearing a gold circlet on his head, but a scantily clad female servant took it from him on his instruction.

“It’s been a while since we bathed together,” he said to Chrístõ. “I am sure your friends would be glad to join us. I’m having food and drink brought up.”

Diol and Axyl Malcannan looked startled. Cinnamal Hext looked hopeful. Chrístõ just thought a bath was what he wanted more than anything right now. There was sand in parts of his body he never thought sand could go. Everything else could wait.

They were still soaking away the sand of Utar Kapell, as well as eating delicately flavoured food and drinking cool fruit juices when they were joined by a sixth bather. Cinnamal Hext looked a little worried at first when his brother stripped off and got into the bath with them.

“I’m glad to see you, little brother,” Paracell said, hugging him. “I’ve told father that you’re all right. Your father has been kept abreast of the situation too, Chrístõ. He has Malcanan senior with him, too. There is relief all round.”

“You came for me,” Cinnamal managed to say.

“I came for my best field agent,” Paracell answered. “But you were in my thoughts, too, kiddo. The Ruby of Adano was already on its way, of course. But it would have taken another seventy-two hours if we hadn’t used some Time Lord technology to pull it through the vortex and shorten the journey time.”

“We’d have been dead long before then,” Chrístõ noted. “But I knew you wouldn’t let us down. Either of you.”

Penne’s right hand ‘man’ General Ruana Beccan came into the bathroom. She didn’t seem to mind that her King and five of his companions were naked apart from some judiciously placed soap bubbles as she handed a report to Penne. He read it quickly and passed it to Paracell Hext.

“The Ashta’rn pirates on Utar Kapell are all dead. Their ship is impounded. And the Loggian fleet led by the Dragon Royal IV are closing in on Ashta’, the capital city of Ashta’ri. If you can call a sprawling camp full of degenerates like that a ‘city’. Their reign of terror is over. And we’ve sent a message to would be pirates across the galaxy. The Pax Dúre is absolute. Ambradan, Loggian, Gallfreyan and Human citizens are not to be waylaid, robbed or held for ransom or the reckoning will be swift and absolute.”

Even naked and half covered in soap bubbles, Penne looked and sounded every inch a king as he spoke. Paracell Hext nodded. As the director of Gallifrey’s only external security force he gave his approval to the idea of Adano-Ambrado as the chief protector of his world under its enigmatic King-Emperor.

“Pax Dúre!” he said raising his glass of fruit juice in formal toast to the idea. The formality was only slightly marred by a large soap sud falling from his arm and his words were echoed by those it protected first and foremost.