With the arrival of the Bookworm, the scene is set...


'Y'see, we're - well, they're - the Odd Trio.'

'And they've got this whole kind of diversity thing going on.'

'Like... Alryssa's Ryssal and Sailor Gallifrey...'

'...Imran's the Bookworm and a Writer...'

'...Gordon's Captain Dempster, Sailor Marinus, and there's this odd thing that happens whenever he gets splashed with cold water.'

'So... no, not too happy about the choices you've given us.'

'Excuse us?' Alryssa said. 'I thought this was supposed to be our revelatory confrontation.'

'Actually,' the Doctor said. 'It's mine.'

Everyone turned to look at him.

'Did you really think I'd be so easily fooled?' he said. 'That it was Alryssa's choice, and Alryssa's alone?'

'But...'

'It was confirmed when the Bookworm and Gordon came in here. Then Alryssa made her decision. You see... when you merged Gallifrey with Alryssa... you created something beyond them. You created the incarnation of creativity. Something that was no longer a human woman, no longer the spirit of a planet - but both, and infinitely more. And if Alryssa had had time to think... she'd have realised it.

'And creativity is something that belongs to everyone.'

The Doctor wheeled on the Monitors.

'Bring them here.'

'Wh-?'

'Bring everyone here. They must all have a say in this. Oh, it won't stop the story stagnation-'

Yokoi, the Bookworm and Alryssa's muse winced.

'But it will put a stop to your little game.

'Do it. Now.'

The Monitors looked at each other.

Then they nodded.

'Doctor...?'

'It's another layer of the trap,' the Doctor said. 'Forgetting you were creativity incarnate - if you alone had made the choice, you would have decided creativity for the Universe. And... no one person should have that power. Or that responsibility.'

'But... there are only a few of us,' Alryssa protested. 'How can I speak for everyone in the Universe?'

'Listen to me, Alryssa. What we're doing here... it's about you, and us, and about the Hoedown. They're putting you through a trial by fire. But what we almost forgot is the wider picture. The Omniverse is at stake. The Gods of Ragnarok are feeding off all the stories, reducing them to one. We have to escape Titan Three, and confront the Gods on their home ground. But first... we must put a stop to the Monitors' little games. I was sick of games my last incarnation, I'm sick of them now. We will decide this here - and then, we're going to confront the Gods...'

'Not just them...' a voice said.

The Doctor nodded. 'You suspected it, too?'

'Yes,' the Bookworm said. 'I think I know who's been orchestrating this, setting mindtrap in mindtrap. Who's been working with the Monitors and the Gods of Ragnarok-'


"Whoever it was was probably the one who let my Internal Critic loose. Manipulated my bad relationship with my muse to take me out of the action for a while." Gordon looked up.

"Well it's not going to work! You can try and overcome me with despair, but as a good friend of mine once said: for some people, small beautiful events are what life is all about! The look on Wile E. Coyote's face as he falls off a cliff in a Chuck Jones cartoon. The songs of Ian Dury. The adrenaline rush when I play Robotron 2084 and instinct takes over. The cats who come up and talk to me when I'm delivering newspapers. A gig by Elastica. Dozens of people singing along to a mathematical sequence in a club. A game by Shigeru Miyamoto. A comic by Evan Dorkin. Waking up to find Jones snuggled up on top of me. A cuddly Gengar. Gotan!"

He pointed at the second Monitor. "His head and this frying pan!"

"Eh?"

BOING

Yokoi grinned. "Even in the face of losing everything we can still bring a bit of daftness into the universe."

"Those are just some of the things that make life worth living, and I'm not going to let anyone take them away from me. So come on you contemptible bampot, give me your best shot!"

"He's going a bit over the top isn't he?" whispered Alryssa.

Yokoi just grinned even more. "I'm so proud of that boy!"

She was interrupted by a flash of light.


"We're getting out," Kid Curry told the assorted crowd flatly, grabbing Cameron by the shoulder and shoving him in the direction of the exit. They didn't look as if they were going to follow. "Get moving! You want this cave to fall in on you?"

Scowling, he bent down to the the turquoise troll, who was trying to dash after the Master again. "Listen... the horsey's outside. Go and take care of the horsey - right?"

The little troll gave him a reproachful look.

She gave a long sniff. "He is free to run away, now," she said, her voice grave and suddenly very grown up. "My friends -- our friends are not. Our Hostess is back there - the Doctors are back there. I'm not leaving them!"

The others murmured agreement, and went to follow the deputy.

"What are you, crazy?!" Kid asked. "You can't go back there!"

The little troll stopped and looked back at him. Her large, round eyes looked like they belonged in the face of a china babydoll, but her gaze was piercing, nonetheless. Not half as piercing, though, as what she said next. "Haven't you ever had a friend you'd do anything for?"

Kid opened his mouth, but he had no words for her. No one had ever asked him that question.

Before he could decide what his answer was, the ground began to shake, and the air was rent by the sound of metal scraping on stone. Filling the tunnel before them, and coming on fast, was a creature unlike any Kid had seen before. The front half looked a bit like a dead eagle chick he saw once on the floor of a canyon, the back half looked like it belonged on a puma cub... Or that's what the two halves would've looked like, if they weren't so damned big, and if they didn't shine like silver and brass.

There was no way they could get past that creature... and there was no way they could outrun it.

Then, suddenly, it was like the world fell away from him, as if he had stepped off the edge of a cliff -- or as if the trapdoor of a gallows dropped from under his feet. And everything went black.


In the moment of transfer, Time and Space themselves become fluid...

Between times... between places...

...

The slanting embers of the afternoon's sun glimmered under the edges of the drapes; lay heavy from outside on the dust-furred folds. Within the parlor, as always, there was only lamp-lit dusk.

A voice -- male, light-toned, angry. "You sent who?"

The Contessa stared back at the shadowed shape of her accuser. Her reply, when it came, was almost measured enough to give the lie to the high colour that burned across the bones of her face.

"Kid Curry. And I did not 'send' him. He knows nothing."

"You just happened to drop a hint that he might keep his eyes open and do you a favor, I suppose? Something like that?"

The Contessa's gaze returned the scorn with quiet mockery of her own. "Something like that."

"A two-bit outlaw!" A sudden, furious movement in the darkness as her guest leaned forward. "You knew what you were risking -- so why?"

She shrugged, a graceful gesture that meant everything and nothing. "He owes me, as you say -- and who would suspect him?"

"The whole town owes you, the way I hear it..." It was an old grievance between them; even the jibes were tired. "Nice little set-up you've made for yourself here -- just how long do you think you can keep it up? How many years of crystal ball-gazing and playing at gods and demons before they call your bluff?"

At that, she did laugh. "Here? A hundred years, maybe -- and still they would not wonder. How 'real' do you think this city is, my friend? How many legends walk the street? Vortex City draws them from every universe for as long as the stories shall last --"

A breath of a sigh. "Ah. We wondered..."

"Why I help you?" Gold gleamed in the lamplight as her hands sketched passionate scorn. "Yes. And now you know. Because all this --" the gesture took in the room, the house beyond and widened to embrace the whole city -- "all this is my home. My people now. And when the fictiverse dies, the archetype cannot exist..."

"Then why?" This time there was almost an edge of disbelief to it. "In a town where you can pluck a legend off the boardwalk -- with your gunslinger friend in tow --"

"Doc Gallifrey? 'In tow'?" Dark lashes swept downwards, but behind their veil the Contessa's eyes had widened. "You flatter me, I think -- or else you are a fool. He goes his own way, like always."

"And so you chose to use Curry? When it matters this much? A crazy quarterbreed bandit with a list of enemies as long as your arm -- an uncultured brute who can't even thieve enough to live in style when the law's not on his tail?"

"They were all like that... the real outlaws." Her voice might even have held pity. "They were not glamorous, my friend, and they were not skilful, and they were not rich. They were lazy men who had failed..."

Her eyes had risen again to meet those of her guest, their cool gaze searching the shadows of his. "And Kid Curry is -- was -- real," the Contessa said softly. "That is why I sent him. That was all my hope...."


Otherwhere... otherwhen...

A distant image. No sound.

Weary horse; weary rider. The outskirts of a tired-looking town. The man aims to ride on through; the beast balks, head drooping.

Kid Curry swings down, grabs the reins, tugs at its head; mule-like, the brown plants both forefeet in the dirt, and resists. Maybe it has scented its fellows in the shabby livery stable back a ways down the street. Maybe it's just tired enough to be wilful.

At last he gets the horse moving. Leads it on, past the store at the end of the street with the grinning boys looking on, past the first of the outlying cabins; gets ready to mount up.

The horse's ears swivel sharply. After a moment Kid Curry too swings round. Whatever they have heard, it is coming closer...

A man appears around the corner of the cabin.

Relaxation. The outlaw's hand leaves the hidden butt of his gun. Not a threat. Looks like a preacher...

The old negro is talking to him, beckoning him to follow. We can almost hear Kid Curry sizing him up.

The clothes are shabby, hanging loose -- maybe it's a suit of cast-offs from a bigger man, maybe he's lost weight; preaching hasn't been paying too well these last few years. An elderly man -- time-worn face, bald on top, wiry white hair clinging to the sides and back of his skull. A soft touch, perhaps -- but doesn't look like he's got money -- a bite to eat, maybe?

Kid Curry shrugs and nods, shakes the man off as he pulls at his sleeve - but follows. The horse, standing patiently, lowers its muzzle to lip at the grass growing out between the bottom rows of logs. Looks like this cabin's been abandoned a while -- but Kid Curry hasn't noticed, hasn't smelt a rat; he's letting the preacher lead him off round the corner, out of sight --

Now we get another view. The inside of the cabin. The two men are coming in. The shutters are up. It's very dark.

The old man moves confidently in the dark, goes straight to a corner and picks something up. It's not a lamp. It's some kind of flashlight. It doesn't belong here.

We recognise it. Kid Curry doesn't.

A moment later. The preacher is shining the bright beam right into the other man's face. His own eyes seem somehow to have dilated into great mesmerising pools that are sucking in the half-blinded outlaw, catching hold of him, hypnotising him...

...

Later; outside. Time has passed. We don't know how much.

A man, lying on the ground. His hat has fallen off a few feet away. His face is slack; the sallow cheeks are pale. The horse is grazing nearby, glad at first of the rest -- but it is becoming uneasy. Why is its master lying so still?

It ambles over and starts to nose at him. The man begins to stir, thrusting the moist breath away. He sits up and reaches for his hat, face still strangely blank, and we recognise him. It's Kid Curry. After a moment, expression comes back into his face -- he looks haunted, then desperate. He scrambles to his feet and into the saddle, yanks the horse's head up, drives it forward, straight into a gallop. We follow him for a while... until he is well and truly lost.

Back to the cabin.

The preacher is watching, smiling, as the rider crests the horizon. He no longer looks feeble and harmless... nor is his smile benign.

...

One last glimpse of the fugitive, as the image starts to fade back into the present.

Head and shoulders. We close in, focussing tighter and tighter. Throat and jawline now, rigid and desperate -- and there's a thong round his neck, a worn rawhide strip. There's something threaded on it. A glimpse of blue; a bead, maybe. It's a lucky colour -- for some.


When he came to, the first thing he was aware of was the floor under his feet -- hard and smooth, not the uneven rock of the cave tunnel in which he'd just been standing. The second thing he was aware of were the voices, all making sounds like they were surprised and confused... Kid himself had learned that if you're surprised and confused, the best thing to do was keep silent.

And then, over the noise and jumble, one voice boomed: "The gang's all here."


And as Gordon defies the Monitors...

'The gang's all here...' the First Monitor said.

'Good,' the Doctor said.

He looked around.

'Ladies, gentlemen, Trolls, and everybody else... we're here to make a decision. And that decision will decide the fate of creativity across the Omniverse. Choose wisely...'

"I'm sorry," Alryssa whispered.

Everyone stared at her. The silence was deafening. The Doctors blinked.

"Oh no..." murmured Sixth.

"I'm sorry that our party got disrupted again. I'm sorry that things got this far. But most of all... I'm sorry for you."

Eighth looked horrified....

... as she turned to the Monitors.

"You didn't want me to bond with Gallifrey. Some parts of you wanted it even to kill us both. But it hasn't. And what doesn't kill me... " she smiled, "can only make me stronger."

An exhale from the assorted Doctors, and their friends. She turned back to Eighth.

"I'm ready this time, Doctor. I'm ready to merge. Properly. Finally."

The avocado troll looked from Gordon to Alryssa, and back again -- twice -- the one bathed in the silvery glow of the Sword of Authorial Freedom, held high above his head, the other standing proud and defiant, the fire of Old Gallifrey's volcanos glowing behind those seemingly human eyes, the roar of Gallifrey's winds in her voice.

She was proud -- so, so proud. A lump came to her throat, and she wiped away a happy tear. She couldn't help herself -- she hugged the nearest pair of knees.


The Doctor nodded.

'You know what to do.'

Alryssa looked at him, then looked around the cave.

Gordon bathed in the silvery glow of the sword.

The Bookworm watching them, smiling.

The Doctor, eyes as unreadable as ever, watching Alryssa.

The partygoers at the Hoedown, watching in hushed silence.

It's time.

Are you scared?

Yeah. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't.

Me too.

But... I want to know what happens next.

So do I.

Ready?

Ready.

Sailor Gallifrey raises her staff...

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