“Sir?” The General’s voice was more hesitant than His Excellency had ever heard it. “We have . . . a situation.”
His Excellency, The Most Munificent Emperor, Supreme Ruler of the Thirty-Seven Cantons of Leset, laid down his pen and rubbed the bridge of his narrow nose. This had been a good day, until now. “Would you care to elucidate?” he asked his Chief-Of-Staff.
The general hadn’t taken the time to change his uniform, which was crumpled and slightly stained. But his face was impassive as he relayed his report with his customary rigid formality. “There was a disturbance at the Savith Market, Your Excellency. A minor matter with an off-worlder unfamiliar with our customs. A guard patrol was dispatched to deal with it.”
“And this minor matter becomes a situation precisely how?”
“Sir, have you heard of the entity who calls himself ‘The Doctor’?”
His Excellency went pale. “I am familiar with the name, yes. Are you telling me . . .?”
“That this was the being they encountered? I am afraid so.”
“What . . . , what happened?”
The general continued his report in clipped tones as if reciting it word-for-word. He probably was. “The suspect ran from the patrol, causing further disruption in the market place. A whelk vendor is claiming damages over the loss of his stock. Some livestock were let loose, causing great inconvenience to their purveyor and various persons who assisted in their recovery. Several escaped hens, before they could be apprehended, behaved in a disrespectful manner towards the goods of a silk merchant, a pastry-chef, and an accountant, who are likewise claiming damages.”
His Excellency waved off the tribulations of the whelk-vendor, silk-merchant, pastry-chef and accountant with one manicured hand. “Is that all? He got away, then?” he asked hopefully.
“Unfortunately not, sir.” He stared fixedly at the emperor’s ear as if it might offer him absolution. “The patrol managed to corner him behind a fishmonger’s booth not far from Beckwith. The fishmonger is also claiming damages.”
His Excellency groaned. “I trust that the patrol has been disciplined appropriately? What happened next?”
“It isn’t good, sir.” Sweat was beading on the general’s forehead.
“Out with it!”
“It appears he was alone, sir.” The beads merged, forming a rivulet, which wandered restlessly down one stubbled cheek.
“You’re right. Not good.”
“And unarmed.” A pearl of sweat found the general’s eye, which twitched involuntarily. He looked rather like a constipated ferret and was clearly stalling.
His Excellency said nothing, hoping against all logical expectation for a reprieve. The silence pooled and lengthened uncomfortably. He knew what was coming next.
“He surrendered, sir.” The words were bleak and hopeless, and echoed like a death knell.
His Excellency closed his eyes. “I see,” was all that he said. It had been a good day. It really had. He really should have enjoyed it more while he had the chance. There weren’t many ways left that it could get worse now. Actually, he could think of one: “He didn’t ask to be taken to their leader, did he?”
“I believe he did, sir.”
“He’s not—? You didn’t—?”
“No sir, fortunately they had enough sense not to bring him here. They threw him in a cell.”
The emperor shuddered, but relaxed infinitesimally. “So let me get this straight: one of our guard patrols has apprehended the Doctor — we are talking about the Time Lord, right? The one known as the ‘Lonely God,’ ‘Bringer of Darkness,’ and ‘Oncoming Storm’? The one being that the Daleks were afraid of? - and we currently have him in our prison?”
“Yes, sir, that appears to be the case.”
There was a long and painful silence as the Emperor contemplated the pieces of his shattered life, and the general fixedly contemplated the tasteful arrangement of modern art behind the Emperor’s left shoulder. Eventually, the Supreme Ruler of the Thirty-Seven Cantons of Leset indicated a chair. “Sit down, George,” he said wearily, fishing a couple of glasses and an ornate cut glass decanter from a drawer. “I don’t suppose there is any chance that it is an impostor?” He filled both glasses, pushing one across the desk to the general, who took it morosely.
“I’m afraid not, sir. He apparently chatted to the guard in a friendly fashion the whole way to his cell.”
His Excellency winced. “Yes, that does accord with reports of his modus-operandi.” He eyed his glass then, sighing, swigged from the bottle instead. “It was going so well!” he complained despairingly. “I really thought it was working: fifteen years of peace; the population relatively prosperous and content — oh there are always dissidents, but they weren’t making any trouble, not really; no trouble on our borders. And then this had to happen. We’re screwed, aren’t we?”
The General nodded glumly. “It would seem so, sir.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“Well, based on precedent, there is a good chance that we are about to be engulfed in a bloody revolution to overthrow the current despotic regime . . .”
“That would be me,” the emperor interjected glumly.
“. . . Or we shall presently discover that we have unwittingly been harbouring hostile aliens, bent on universal conquest, in our underwear, and are about to be invaded by rancid blobs of fat from space while our attention is diverted.”
“George,” the emperor asked thoughtfully, “are you harbouring . . .?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir. However, in the circumstances, I believe it would be most unwise to put too much reliance on that.”
“Good point,” the emperor conceded. “And George,” he hesitated, “you might as well drop the ‘sir’. I had no doubt better start preparing my abdication. While I still have the option.”
The General winced, but didn’t argue.
“How long do you think we’ve got?”
“I had twenty-thousand tonnes of cement dumped on the prison facility as soon as I heard. It’s a far from perfect solution, but it may buy us enough time to evacuate the population.”
“Good thinking.” His Excellency hesitated for a moment. “The guards? The other prisoners?”
The general looked away. “Not enough time. I had to seal them in.”
His Excellency nodded. “I understand. You did the right thing. Now, we had probably best pass the whole thing off as a biological contagion. We don’t want to create unnecessary panic.”
“Very good, sir.”
“What did I say about the ‘sir’ business, George? My name’s Michael. We’re all just going to have to get used to it. Now, we’d better get started.”
“Yes, sir— I mean, Michael.” The two men shared a resigned smile, and rose to begin the work.
Within one hour, a state of emergency had been declared and a three-mile exclusion zone around the prison facility had been evacuated and razed to the ground. Riots had broken out in seven different sectors of the city; the emperor had held a very tense meeting with his most trusted advisors and had discretely sent his family off-world.
Within four hours, the rioting had spread across all thirty-seven cantons, thirty-four of which expressed a desire to secede from the empire, martial law had been declared, all roads out of the city were gridlocked and the spaceport swamped. The exclusion zone had been extended to five miles.
Within eight hours, rebel forces had stormed the undefended palace (the imperial guard had been drafted into the army to assist with the evacuation). The emperor was arrested and placed under guard. He didn’t resist. The evacuation continued.
Within ten hours, the rebel forces had declared an interim government for the duration of the emergency, pledging to continue the evacuation. Within fifteen hours, the interim government had succumbed to in-fighting and had broken into three differing factions. Within twenty hours, pro-imperial troops had re-taken the palace, freeing the emperor, and forcibly evacuated the lot of them.
Within thirty hours, the city was abandoned apart from looters, the excessively stubborn, and the army. The general ordered a final sweep to remove any remaining civilians, firing buildings as they went to encourage stragglers. At thirty-eight hours, the general gave the order for the army to withdraw.
Forty hours after the state of emergency had been declared a tactical nuclear weapon was dropped from orbit, obliterating the city. The general hoped that it was enough.
Three days later, a rag-tag band of prisoners and guards, led by a skinny, wild-eyed, off-worlder (who had finally mastered the art of resonating concrete) emerged, blinking, into the deserted, radio-active wasteland that had once been the beautiful city of Leset, Jewel of the Thirty-Seven Cantons, and the best place to get fried whelks in nine galaxies.