Mind Web

By Paul Scoones

Peri noticed it first.

The TARDIS was an hour out from Sarn when she caught sight of the dusty cobwebs bordering the computer screen on the console. Instinctively, she brushed them away, but even as she did so, her eyes picked out more, scattered in small patches about the controls. She blinked and rubbed her eyes to check that they weren't deceiving her. Surely she'd have noticed them sooner if they'd been there before?

She turned away from the console and caught her breath as she saw the backlit inlaid roundels of the TARDIS walls had become dull, their brightness diffused by cobwebs.

Decisively, she crossed to the door and flung it open. The corridor beyond was clear of the web formations, to her profound relief. Her hand settled back on the door handle, only to snatch it away again - cobwebs - they were spreading every time she looked away.

Perpugilliam Brown came to a decision. She was out of her depth. It was imperative that her new friend be informed.

The Doctor was trying very hard to convince himself that he was happy and content, and somehow falling well short of the mark. Tegan and Turlough - two people he considered to be good friends, had recently left him with little warning. He couldn't help thinking that somehow his lifestyle was to blame.

Superficially, he was as happy as a duck in water, having reconfigured a room in the TARDIS to closely resemble a large section of an English County Cricket playing field, complete with pavilion and hologram players. He liked the feel of the springy grass underfoot (even if it was a highly elaborate illusion conjured up by the TARDIS computer), the smell of a freshly oiled bat, and the thrill of the anticipation of the next ball.

He focused all his attention on the bowler, as he started his run up, and then bowled. An expert drive by the Doctor with the bat sent the ball off across the green, over the heads of the fielders.

The Doctor was about to start his runs when he heard his name.

‘Doctor!’ The call floated across the pitch, and suddenly Peri was running across the field towards him. The Time Lord sensed the urgency and concern in his companion's voice as she called again, and he walked off the pitch to meet her.

‘What's wrong?’ he asked.

Peri stopped, and looked around at the utterly convincing cricket match. ‘Wow,’ she breathed.

‘Is there something wrong?’ he inquired.

Behind him, the bowler bowled again. The ball flew down the pitch and knocked the bails straight of the stumps. At that instance, the hologram shut down, and the Doctor and Peri were left in an empty room. Even the Doctor's bat and pads had vanished.

‘You haven't noticed?’ she asked, as soon as she recovered from this disappearing act. She pointed to the doorway, where a wisp of web hung down.

‘Probably needs dusting,’ joked the Doctor lightly, but Peri's failure to appreciate the Doctor's humour gave the Time Lord cause for concern, and as he stepped out into the corridor, he saw that it was well justified. Thick dusty cobwebs smothered the walls in increasing density as they neared they console room.

‘Stay here,’ he instructed, and moved off towards the console room, his arms brushing at the web that threatened to envelop him as it grew denser, suspended from wall to wall like heavy lace curtains.

It was thickest just outside the console room. Taking an instinctive deep breath, he plunged towards the door and opened it as a smooth extension of that action. It was like opening the door of a refrigerator, only it seemed a hundred times colder. A cloying, misty vapour billowed out into the corridor, accompanied by an icy blast of superchilled freezing air.

The Doctor fought the temptation to gasp in the thin atmosphere, holding his breath from the warm air in the corridor outside in his lungs for as long as possible. Through stinging eyes, he registered the thick blanket of web covering the walls, floor, ceiling and console. Clinging web was almost indiscernible from swirling clouds of vapour.

Forced at last to take a painful breath, the Doctor noticed a sweet, sickly smell in the air. In an instant he had spun round and fought his way back into the corridor, fearful that consciousness might slip from him at any moment.

Staggering a little, he leaned against the wall and struggled to clear his muzzy, spinning head. Struggling onwards, he realised a potentially fatal mistake - he had left the door open, and the noxious freezing vapours were now swirling out into the corridor. Peri was waiting at a junction between two passages for him. The Doctor opened the nearest door, and bundled her inside without a word. Diving in himself, he slammed it shut behind him and then slumped groggily against the wall.

When he had recovered sufficiently to speak, he said ‘The TARDIS is being invaded.’

‘Who...? What...?’ asked Peri. She tried to think of something more intelligent to say, but saw that real fear had gripped the Doctor.

The Time Lord stiffly levered himself away from the wall. ‘I wish I knew,’ he said in reply. ‘Hopefully, the TARDIS has collided with some fixed force in the continuum capable of rendering the defence systems inoperative.’

‘That's good?’

The Doctor nodded. ‘It means that if I can get to the TARDIS controls, I'll be able to reverse the co-ordinates or materialise. Either action should eject it.’ He looked around. They were in Tegan's old room. Peri's damp towel and plastic bag lay abandoned on the bed. He crossed to the bedside table and picked up a picture of an oldish-looking woman with a friendly face.

‘And if not?’ asked Peri.

The Doctor didn't answer. He put the picture of Aunt Vanessa back in place, and sat on the edge of the bed, running his hands through his fair hair.

He needed to think about the crisis at hand more than anything else, but dark thoughts continued to haunt him. Tegan. Where was Tegan? He was finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that violence and death associated with his most recent encounter with the Daleks was to blame for her departure. He had claimed he needed to mend his ways, but had he? Part of the reason for Tegan's decision to leave had been his killing of the Daleks on Earth with the Movellan virus. What had he done since? Blasted down Kamelion, and then put to death the Master. There was blood on his hands, and it would not wash off.

‘Doctor!’

He was jerked back to the present with a start. He had slipping away, drowsy with the aftereffects of the gas he had inhaled. With a little concentration, he cleared his head, and jumped to his feet. ‘Don't worry,’ he told Peri, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Then he moved over to the door, and after a moment's thought, he selected a roundel that looked like all the rest, and after brushing away a few wisps of cobweb, popped it out. From the storage space behind, he took a couple of face masks, each connected to a small unit designed to hang against the chest on a neck band. He passed one to Peri and donned the other.

‘It extracts oxygen from toxic atmosphere,’ explained the Doctor, responding to her inquiring glance. He dangled his mask around his neck, ready to be used if needed. His hand rested on the door handle.

‘What's wrong with the air?’ asked Peri.

‘The web appears to produce a toxic gas of some sort,’ he replied. ‘It also drastically reduces the air temperature...’ He studied Peri's attire of shirt and shorts for a moment, then crossed to Tegan's wardrobe and brought out the fur coat she'd worn on Gallifrey. ‘Here, put this on - you'll need it,’ he instructed.

‘Couldn't I just stay here? I mean, won't I be in your way?’ Peri asked, struggling into the heavy garment.

Less than an hour ago, the Doctor had been ready to take her home at the conclusion of their adventure on Sam, but now he could not really do without her. He considered this irony as he answered; ‘I'll need you in the console room to help me, and anyway, once this door's open, it's likely to be just as cold and poisonous in here.’ He lifted his mask to his face. ‘Ready?’

Peri lifted her mask as he had done and then nodded.

The Doctor wrenched open the door and disappeared into a cloud of white vapour. Peri steeled herself and then plunged into the billowing mass. Dimly, she could make out the Doctor's form, ahead of her, as they stumbled down the short passage, tendrils of cobweb brushing at her face. Her hands were bitterly cold as she brushed her chilled face. After a while she felt something hard nudge against her midriff. She choked back a scream and felt with her hands. It was the edge of the console.

Piercing shafts of bright light stabbed down through the mist the Doctor had turned up the console room illumination to full intensity. Peri could now make out the thick blanket of web enveloping everything; covering the console, gathering around her feet. A huge grey mass heaved up and down in the centre of the console like some horrific creature's heart beating in its chest - the time rotor still worked beneath a dense blanket of web.

Something touched her on the shoulder and Peri jumped.

‘When I call out, I want you to throw this lever,’ said the Doctor, standing right beside her. His voice was thin and distorted. He guided her hand to the lever poking up out of the web, and she nodded. He disappeared once more into the fog.

Fearing that she might lose it, Peri strained her ears, listening for the Doctor's voice. Eventually, after many long seconds, she heard him shout ‘Now!’ as if from a very long way away. The lever moved smoothly across at her touch, and the time rotor slowed momentarily before picking up momentum. Within seconds, the mist was clearing, and she began to make out the Doctor's form on the other side of the shrouded console.

The web, too, was receding, and patches of wall and console were becoming visible as the thick grey blanket lost its substance and crumbled away to nothing. The once vital strong lights overhead quickly became a blinding irritation, until the Doctor moved to turn them down to their normal level.

The Doctor looked out into the corridor to check that everything was returning to normal there, and then removed his mask. Peri did so too, and was relieved to be able to breathe the clear, warm air. She shrugged off the thick fur coat and hung it on the hat stand.

The Doctor returned to the console, and began checking readings.

‘Thank goodness that's over,’ smiled Peri, wiping a hand across her sweaty brow.

‘It's not,’ replied the Doctor. ‘Can't you feel it? The TARDIS life support systems are being interfered with.’

Now that the Doctor mentioned it, Peri did notice that the air was becoming hot and heavy. She was perspiring freely, and loosened her shirt as it began to stick to her skin.

The Doctor, too, appeared to be affected. He pulled off his coat and pullover, and continued his battle to regain control of the TARDIS.

‘I almost wish I was back in the sea,’ Peri commented, recalling the time she had been rescued from drowning off the coast of Lanzarote. ‘At least the water was cool there.’

The Doctor looked up at her, sweat glistening on his forehead. ‘The TARDIS swimming pool,’ he told her. ‘That'll keep you cool until I can sort this out.’

‘You have a pool?’ she asked incredulously.

‘Third corridor on the left, fourth door on the right - can't miss it,’ she said quickly, and turned instantly back to his work.

‘Well, okay, if you re sure you don't need me...

The Doctor didn't answer, so Peri set off for the cool inviting promise of the swimming pool. Outside, the corridor was even hotter, and she stripped off down to her swimsuit before hurrying off to find the pool. Without much difficulty, she located the right door, and eagerly opened it.

Her face fell at what she saw inside.

Once Peri had left the room, the Doctor stepped away from the console and spoke. ‘I can feel your presence. Why don't you show yourself?’ he demanded.

Instantly, a red glow formed on the far side of the room, and a large furry bulk appeared within it. The Doctor recognised it instantly for what it was - a Yeti robot, a servant of a being with no tangible form...

‘The Great Intelligence,’ said the Doctor, without surprise. ‘I realised you were behind this from the web.’

‘Very perceptive, Doctor,’ said a deep, resonant voice, which seemed to come from everywhere. The Doctor realised that it was probably being transmitted through the Yeti robot.

‘What do you want with me?’

‘Only that which belongs to me - that which you took from me.’

‘I don't know what you mean.’

‘Search your mind, Doctor. Recall when you attempted to drain my intelligence.’

The Doctor remembered. The incident in the London Underground. If Jamie hadn't interfered - with all good intention - then he would have succeeded in completely draining the Great Intelligence through a helmet designed to drain the Doctor's own brain, but which he had managed to reverse the polarity of before the process began.

‘I remember,’ confirmed the Doctor.

‘All these years I have been incomplete, missing part of my mind - and all the time it has been lodged inside your own!’ declared the Great Intelligence.

The Doctor was stunned. He had been completely unaware of this fact.

‘Why... why wait until now?’ he asked.

‘You drained much of my power, Doctor. I have waited out here in space for our paths to intersect for immeasurable time.’

‘Why was I not aware of this?’

‘The power is lodged in your subconscious mind, Doctor. Now, touch the sphere, and the transference will be made.’ The Yeti picked up a large sphere which had been resting at its feet, and moved slowly towards the Doctor.

The Time Lord backed away. ‘Suppose I don't agree to this?’

‘Then conditions within your craft will become unbearable. The heat affects you now. It can get much hotter yet. The girl will die first.’

At this, the Doctor seemed to relent. He went up to the sphere and prepared to lay his palms on its shiny surface. ‘One thing - how do I know you won't drain my own mind as well?’

‘You don't,’ replied the Great Intelligence. ‘Now - touch the sphere!’

The Doctor found he was unable to resist. It was as if the part of the Intelligence that had been locked in the dark recesses of his mind was suddenly taking over, controlling him. He touched the sphere, and a fiery pain shot through his entire being. He knew then that the Great Intelligence intended to take his own mind as well.

At that moment, Peri chose to enter the console room. ‘The pool has turned into a sauna with all that heat -’ She stopped when she saw the Yeti, and screamed.

The Doctor dragged his head round to face her, and managed to speak. ‘Peri... that lever... reverse everything...

She dived for the console, and pulled the lever. The time rotor stopped for a moment, and the TARDIS lurched, throwing her across the room. The Yeti crumpled and then disappeared in a red haze.

The time rotor started up again, and the TARDIS rightened itself. The Doctor was still holding the sphere. He looked weak but happy.

‘What happened?’ asked Peri.

The Doctor placed the sphere carefully on the console. ‘Thanks to your timely intervention, I've managed to trap one of my old enemies in here.’ He tapped the sphere. ‘When you reversed the TARDIS systems, the being that was trying to drain my mind, had its own drained into the sphere.’ The Doctor turned to the controls. ‘The TARDIS is now free of its influence. All we need now is a supernova to drop this into, and then, how about a holiday?’

‘At least the temperature's back to normal. How about somewhere with a lot of sand?’ suggested Peri, thinking of a lovely beach she'd once visited.

‘Sand? If it's sand you want, then I know just the place. It's about time I visited Androzani Minor again, anyway...’

This item appeared in Timestreams 2 (April 1991).

Index nodes: Fiction