“Where are we, Doctor?” asked Ace, sticking her head out of the TARDIS doors. “Looks a bit posh,” she added dubiously.
“Very lah-di-dah,” agreed Hex, leaning out past her and taking in the thick carpets and opulent decoration.
“If the console readings are right,” said the Doctor, swinging up his umbrella to rest on his shoulder as he strolled over to join them, “we’re on board one of the orbital hotels that were rather popular for a while in the late 21st century.” He stepped out through the doors and looked up and down the corridor before pointing with his umbrella. “This way, I think.”
Hex looked at Ace, who shrugged. “Better follow him,” she said. “He’ll only get himself into trouble if we don’t.”
“I heard that.”
“Aha,” said the Doctor, peering through a door, “this looks hopeful.”
Ace and Hex followed him into a large lobby where a crowd of people were already milling about, chattering away to one another. Trying to make it look like they’d been there all along, the three of them joined the crowd just as an official looking woman standing by the main desk clapped her hands, called for quiet and stepped forward to address the assembled guests.
“Welcome to the Hotel Excelsior,” she said. “I trust your rooms were to your liking?” There was a murmur of approval. “My name is Joanna Brettle and I am the Co-ordinator here at the Excelsior. I will be responsible for the wide variety of events we have planned for you this weekend. If you have any questions about any aspect of your stay, please use the green call buttons located both in your personal rooms, in the main function rooms and along the hotel corridors, and either myself or one of my colleagues will be on hand to help you.
“The first event we have planned, as I’m sure you know, is this evening’s formal dinner and dance. If you wish to attend the dinner, please register at the desk,” she indicated the reception desk, “the dance is open to all guests. Until then, please make the most of our facilities. You should all have hotel maps in your rooms, but again, if you need assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask.” She smiled a pleasant, corporate smile. “And above all, enjoy your stay.”
There was a general move towards the desk and a queue began to form. Confidently the Doctor strolled over to join it, Ace and Hex following in his wake.
“What are we doing, Professor?” hissed Ace.
“We’re registering for dinner, of course,” replied the Doctor, shuffling forward as the queue began to move. “The food here is not to be missed, or so I am informed.”
“But we’re not —” Hex began, and then lowered his voice, “we’re not guests!”
The Doctor leant on the handle of his umbrella. “We don’t have to be. They make a lot of money from day travellers as well as from guests.”
“Won’t they ask how we got here?” asked Ace. “And, y’know, who we are?”
The Doctor smiled. “Leave that to me. Here we are! Three dinner registrations, please,” he asked the receptionist.
“Hotel or guest passes, please,” she replied in tones of thinly disguised boredom.
The Doctor began patting his pockets. “Now, I know I have them somewhere.” He started fishing things out of his pockets. Ace rolled her eyes as he pulled out a lump of plasticine, some shells, his spoons (as one, Ace and Hex reached out to confiscate these; Hex got there first and hid them in his pocket, earning him a look of disappointment from the Doctor), eleven assorted library cards, a sandwich that had seen better days and, finally, three guest passes. The receptionist picked them up, rather gingerly, and scanned them.
“Thank you. Dinner is at eight, the dress code is black tie, our food is suitable for all dietary requirements, any questions?” she recited.
“No, no,” replied the Doctor, sweeping his belongings back into his pockets. “Thank you very much.”
“All right, Professor, tell us,” Ace demanded when they got back out into the relative privacy of the corridor. “Why did you just happen to have exactly the right cards in your pocket?”
“It’s always wise to be prepared,” said the Doctor serenely. “Besides, they weren’t exactly right; they aren’t in your names, for a start.”
“Did you steal them?” asked Hex enthusiastically.
“Hex,” said the Doctor reproachfully. “Luckily for us they’ve already started cutting corners on their security systems, or they’d have noticed that we didn’t, in fact, arrive. Their systems rely on the assumption that everyone on the station must have got in through the check in module.”
“That wasn’t a denial,” Hex pointed out.
“What do you mean, ‘already’?” asked Ace.
“Established historical fact,” the Doctor explained. “I said these hotels were popular; what they weren’t was as profitable as their owners hoped they would be. They very quickly started cutting corners wherever they could in a desperate attempt to claw back some of their money.” He shook his head sadly. “Human greed.”
“And let me guess, that’s going to be their downfall, probably at some point over this weekend?” suggested Hex.
“It will be their downfall,” replied the Doctor gravely. “Whether it’s now or later I can’t say for sure.”
Hex shrugged. “Things seem to happen whenever we turn up.”
“That’s as may be. But for the moment, I suggest we relax and enjoy our impromptu holiday. Dinner’s in an hour.”
“I look stupid, don’t I,” said Hex resignedly, fiddling with his bow tie.
“Not at all,” the Doctor replied reassuringly.
Hex was about to express his doubts again when Ace appeared in the console room, self-consciously holding up the skirt of her long green dress.
“You look lovely, Ace,” he told her.
“Watch it, you,” she replied, stepping on his toe, but she only trod on him gently and she was grinning as she said it.
“Shall we?” asked the Doctor, offering an arm to each of his companions.
“Now remember, Hex my lad,” said Ace as they left the TARDIS. “The port is passed to the right...”
The food was, as promised, excellent, although Hex couldn’t identify most of it, Ace complained that there wasn’t enough (“these fiddly little portions are a bit pointless, aren’t they, Professor?”) and the Doctor only picked at his (Ace proceeded to eat his leftovers with ostentatious relish). Ace was in a conspiratorial mood and she kept whispering rude comments about the other guests to Hex. As they giggled together over Ace’s impersonation of the snooty woman at the other end of the table, Hex felt a warm glow of happiness that was only partly due to all the wine he’d drunk.
Later, when the food had been cleared away by an army of discreet waiters and the dance floor was beginning to fill with pleasantly intoxicated guests, Ace stood up and offered Hex her hand.
“Might I have the pleasure of this dance?” she asked, making her voice low and gruff.
Hex made a big show of checking his imaginary dance card. “Why,” he replied, taking her hand, “I do believe you might.”
“Something on your mind?” asked Ace, a few dances later.
“I think I’ve been doing this... space adventuring thing for too long,” Hex confided. “I feel like I’m waiting for something unexpected to happen.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a couple of cans of Nitro in my hand-bag in case of emergencies.”
The band struck up again, and Hex looked up. “I know this one!” he said.
“Dancing and tea-making? You’re quite the renaissance man, Mr Hex,” Ace teased, rolling her r’s dramatically in imitation of the Doctor.
“I do me best,” Hex replied modestly, and then “ow!” as Ace’s foot connected with his shin.
“Sorry,” she said unrepentantly. “Looks like I don’t know this one quite so well...”
“Follow my lead... step right... no, your other right...”
“When did you learn how to dance?” asked Ace after a while, when she felt she could risk shifting her attention away from her feet for a moment.
Hex looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, it was when I was at uni: there was this girl I liked, and she wanted a partner for her ballroom dance lessons...”
“I think I’ve seen this film. You won the dancing competition and her heart, right?”
“No, we came ninth out of eleven and she ran off with the rhumba teacher.”
“You were close, though,” said Hex, encouragingly. “Ow! You did that on purpose!”
From the sidelines, the Doctor watched them stumbling around together. Like Hex, he was fairly certain that their evening would be interrupted before too long by adventure and danger. In fact, he’d been keeping his eyes open and already had a rough idea of who, when, what and why, and knew that he and his companions could get a head-start on their investigations right now. But as he watched them laughing and teasing each other, oblivious to the glares from some of the snootier guests, he decided that he could wait a little longer. After all, the night was young.
Several hours later, when the night had left youth behind and was slipping merrily into a sort of disreputable middle age, the Doctor spotted a young woman who’d been acting suspiciously all evening sneaking through a door that he was sure had been labelled ‘no entry’ only a few minutes ago. Time to act, he told himself. He gathered up Ace and Hex, and the three of them followed her.
Ace’s heels were tapping loudly against the floor so she took her shoes off and hid them in a plant. “What do you reckon she’s up to, Professor?” she asked in a low voice.
“I’m not entirely sure yet,” he murmured back. “Let’s find out, shall we?” The three of them peered round a corner and watched as the girl prised open an access panel on the wall. A little bit of rewiring later, the door slid open and the girl slipped through.
“Ace, come with me,” the Doctor said. “Hex, stay outside that room and be ready to summon help as soon as we have a better idea of what’s going on.”
Hex nodded and the three of them tiptoed forward. As they got to the door Hex stationed himself near one of the call buttons, where he could hear what was going on but couldn’t be seen from inside the room.
The Doctor straightened his lapels and, Ace at his side, stepped confidently through the door.
“Hello, I’m the Doctor,” he began.
The girl whirled round, a gun in her hand. “You can’t stop me!” she snarled. With her free hand she quickly pressed a few buttons on the device she’d been setting up. Immediately, red digital figures started counting backwards from 120.
Ace gulped. In her experience, the device wouldn’t be counting down to anything nice.
The Doctor seemed to agree with her. “A bomb of some sort, I take it?” he asked calmly, gesturing towards the detonator and the wires leading from it.
“A series of bombs,” corrected the girl, “planted all around the hotel.” Her voice took on a jeering tone at the last word. “These rich idiots have no idea what’s about to happen to them.”
“That’s what you think,” said Ace, with more confidence than she was really feeling. “The Doctor will disarm it, no problem.”
The girl laughed. “Really? I doubt that. In two minutes my bombs will go off. Nothing you two can do will change that.”
“You’d blow yourself up, just to take these people with you?” asked the Doctor.
“I’ve got a way out. My pod’s attached to the hull where I cut my way in, and two minutes is more than enough time for me to get to it. And even if I don’t — well. At least I’ll die for something I believe in. Which is more than anyone else on board this monstrosity can say. No-one here believes in anything other than their own greed.”
Ace and the Doctor exchanged glances.
“Even if that’s true-” began Ace, but the girl interrupted her.
“No! You can’t make me change my mind, and you’ve already delayed me for long enough. Now get over there,” she gestured with the gun,” and put your hands on your heads.”
The Doctor and Ace did as they were told, shuffling away from the door to the wall nearest the detonator.
“Good,” said the girl. “Don’t try and come after me. I’ve got this,” brandishing the gun again, “and nothing to lose.” With that, she turned and ran for the door. Instinctively, Ace went to follow her, when:
“I’ve called the - oof!” said Hex, coming round the corner as the girl ran smack into him, dropping the gun in the shock of the collision.
“Grab her, Hex!” yelled Ace.
Hex did so, holding on tightly as the girl struggled to escape. “Oh, no, you don’t!”
“Now,” said Ace, “tell us how to disarm the bomb.”
“I’ll tell you nothing,” spat the girl. “The people here disgust me, all this excess while back on Earth we’re starving in the streets.”
“Yeah,” said Ace, a little more kindly. “But they don’t deserve to die for it. And what about the staff?”
The girl looked guilty for a moment. “I’m sorry about them. But this is war.”
“That’s no excuse,” said the Doctor quietly, looking up from his examination of the detonator.
“Can’t you disable it, Doctor?” asked Hex.
The Doctor shook his head. “It’s keyed to her DNA. If anyone else tries to fiddle with it, it’ll only make things worse. I’ll have to think of something else.”
“I’ve got some nitro in my handbag,” said Ace hopefully.
“Do you really think more explosions are the ans- wait,” the Doctor interrupted himself and stared hard at the junction box connecting the detonator to two wires leading in opposite directions, presumably to the first of the bombs. “Ace, could you blow up that box without disturbing the detonator or any of the explosives?”
Ace looked at it for a second. “Course,” she said cheerfully. “Stand back...” She did a bit of mental arithmetic, then fished a canister out of her bag and attached it to the junction box. Hurriedly she retreated to where the Doctor, Hex and the girl were standing.
“The detonator was very advanced, I’ll give you that,” said the Doctor mildly to the would-be bomber as the nitro exploded, “but the junction box was only a very old model.” He looked at the timer, and everyone in the room held their breath as the last few seconds clicked away. Three... two... one... zero. Nothing.
And that was when Brettle arrived, followed by two security guards. She took in the scene at a glance, then took a deep breath. “What has been going on here?”
The Doctor explained in a few succinct sentences.
“It seems we all owe you our lives. Thank you, Doctor. Jenkins?” One of the security guards snapped to attention. “Take the young woman into custody.”
Jenkins took the girl from the grateful Hex, whose arms were beginning to get tired, and cuffed her hands.
Brettle turned to the other guard. “Assemble the guests, and contact the security module. I think it’s time we checked exactly who should and shouldn’t be here.”
“And I think,” said Ace quietly, “that that’s our cue to leave, don’t you?”
The Doctor nodded and the three of them quietly absented themselves.
“What’ll happen to her?” asked Hex as they made their weary way back to the TARDIS.
“She’ll go to prison, for a while at least,” replied the Doctor. “I wouldn’t worry about her too much. For all Earth’s faults, her justice system is second to none, in this time period, at least.”
“So, what happened next, Professor?” asked Ace. “With the hotels and everything?”
“This is the beginning of the end for them, I’m afraid. A formal investigation by the Earth authorities revealed all the corners they’d been cutting. They had to step up their security dramatically whilst at the same time their customer numbers were dropping off badly. One by one they all went bust, and in a few years, only the original and most popular one, the Hotel Galaxian, will remain.”
“What happened to that one?” asked Hex.
“Oh, this and that,” said the Doctor vaguely, unlocking the TARDIS doors, “this and that.”
“Where to now, Doctor?” asked Hex as the TARDIS dematerialised.
“We’ll find out when we get there,” said the Doctor.
“I’m going to change into some more sensible clothes,” said Ace, looking ruefully at her bare feet and her singed, smoke stained dress, “And have a cup of tea.” She headed for the corridor that led further into the TARDIS.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Hex volunteered, catching up with her.
The Doctor watched them go, absent-mindedly flicking switches on the TARDIS console. He’d park the TARDIS in the vortex, he decided, and then go and join his friends. Hex really did make an excellent cup of tea, and along with a slice of gingerbread from the TARDIS kitchen it was just what they all needed after the evening’s exertions. He could tell them about his visit to the Hotel Galaxian with Ben and Polly all those centuries ago (or a few years in the future, depending on how you looked at it) and then perhaps he would ask them where they’d like to go next. But there was no hurry on that score, he thought. There was everywhere and everywhen to choose from, after all. Best take their time.