Image Credit: Adapted from Rod Allday (CC BY-SA 2.0, Geograph) and Kolmhofer and Raab (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Image Description: Wimbledon… in Space!
BY NATHAN MULLINS AND CAMERON HOLT
Two players, clad in white t-shirts, shorts and shoes, walked out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon. They said nothing as they came out before the thousands of people in the crowd. They were both nervous, but did their best to hide it. The game was about to begin.
‘Ready. Play,’ said the umpire, as the public watched with bated breath as the two players set to work. The crowd cheered, as they often did when the player they were rooting for succeeded. The triumph of winning meant all the days of all the weeks and months spent practising had finally paid off.
Within the arena itself, in the dressing room of one of the players, appeared a battered blue box. Inside, a room larger than the one it occupied was taken up by the central console and two persons. One wore a fedora hat, auburn coloured coat, multi-coloured scarf, corduroy trousers and muddy shoes, whilst the other wore a red dress, pink top, a lilac coloured hat and wellington boots. They looked more appropriate for Glastonbury than the Wimbledon tennis scene, which wasn’t surprising, given the pair had only just left there that day.
Romana stuck her head out of the door. ‘Not much to look at,’ she said. ‘Are you sure this is the place?’
The Doctor checked the instruments on the console. ‘The TARDIS says so,’ he replied. ‘Why? What’s out there?’
It was a question he answered himself. He followed Romana through the doors and stepped out into a small, square room filled with personal belongings, including a sports bag, the sleeve of a tennis racket, and some signed photographs. ‘This looks like the players’ room, which means we can’t be far from the action. Come on!’
They made their way down a narrow lobby following the sounds of cheers, jeers, and cries of ‘You can’t be serious!’ as players battled it out to be considered serious competition. The lobby was adorned with plaques honouring some of the greats who’d achieved victories at the tournament. At the end of the long corridor was a door, but standing beside it was a security guard.
‘Doctor, I don’t think we ought to go any further,’ said Romana.
He didn’t take any notice.
‘Oh nonsense, that chap’s got far more to worry about than us!’ he replied. ‘Besides, we have these.’
He took out two small sheets of paper. At first, Romana couldn’t see their relevance, but when she blinked, they changed. They now resembled real Wimbledon tickets. Romana was gobsmacked.
‘Psychic tickets,’ the Doctor explained. ‘Like paper, except laminated. Poor fellow won’t know the difference.’
Indeed, he didn’t. Instead, the security guard left his post to show them to their seats. Their luxurious royal box seats, which Romana was not expecting. ‘Comes with a free upgrade,’ grinned the Doctor, all teeth and curls. ‘The perks of thinking big!’
The match was already in play. The two players were evenly matched, their scores reflecting this. Jonathan Fizz was playing against Marcus Stone. It was three points all, six games each, tie-breaker. The Doctor was cheering whoever won the point, not concerned with picking one over the other. In his mind, they were both good and both deserved his respect. The cheers from the crowd came when Marcus Stone finally took the first set. Jonathan Fizz threw his racket to the ground, being fined for offensive language and racket abuse.
As the players returned to their seats to recuperate, Romana turned to the Doctor and asked: ‘What are they battling over? A planet?’
The Doctor shook his head.
‘No, no, Romana, it’s a game. A game where there must be one victor and one loser. Whoever wins gets a trophy to end all trophies, not to mention prize money to end all prize money.’
‘So it doesn’t end in death?’
The Doctor smirked.
‘Good heavens, no. Not unless the rules have changed, though I doubt it.’
‘Time!’ announced the umpire. The players hopped up, ready to recommence play when suddenly, there was a great shift; a mighty disturbance that threatened the safety of every man, woman, and child within the arena.
‘Feels like powerful machinery,’ said Romana, struggling to keep balance.
Everything was going up. The stadium was lifting off. It was incredible. Wimbledon was rising.
‘Talk about a pick-me-up!’ the Doctor quipped. ‘Must be a gravity suppressor or a gravity scoop, one of the two. Very rare technology. Not what I’m used to at all.’
‘What could it mean?’
The Doctor shrugged.
‘Too early to say.’
There was a ‘shroom’ noise and everyone around them, save for themselves, had chunky neck-braces appear about their person.
‘What are they?’ asked Romana.
‘Brace-bombs,’ said the Doctor. The devices flashed green, yellow, and then red, indicating they had now been primed and activated. ‘They’ll blow your head off,’ he whispered, so as not to startle their neighbours.
‘Even the players are wearing them,’ she pointed out. ‘So why aren’t we?’
‘Only those who paid to be here, officially, must be made to wear them. We didn’t. We got lucky,’ he told her.
‘Which means what?’
‘That whoever has control of Wimbledon doesn’t know we’re here. Advantage us!’
Looking around them, they quickly realised they were no longer on Earth. Blue skies were replaced by the blackness of space, and twinkling stars as bright as the floodlights in the grounds of the stadium.
Romana tugged at the Doctor’s sleeve. ‘We’ve stopped moving.’
He nodded approvingly. ‘We’ve arrived.’ His whole face lit up, beaming with giddy excitement, but the smile vanished as suddenly. The crowd cheered, and the players ran to each end of the court, taking up their positions.
‘What’s happening?’ wondered Romana. She’d never experienced anything like this before.
‘I think the crowd, the umpire, and the players are now under the control of whoever’s taken over. We must get to the bottom of what’s going on here before the game takes a turn for the worst.’
‘Worse than this?’
‘Oh yes,’ replied the Doctor. ‘Don’t underestimate them.’
The Doctor only put his fingers to his lips, having already said too much.
Romana moved on. ‘So what can we do?’
‘Save them,’ said the Doctor, jumping up and seizing Romana’s hand. The crowd looked on, oblivious, as he led her into the aisle and down into the depths of the arena. There were a number of crazy thoughts running through his mind when they came to a sudden halt.
Removed from the lights and sounds of Centre Court, Romana realised something was wrong. A dull rumbling echoed through the architecture as she and the Doctor stood alone in Wimbledon’s empty halls. ‘Can you hear that?’ she asked. ‘Sounds like the engines of a light speed cruiser.’
‘Which means something’s been sitting on top of Wimbledon,’ the Doctor replied. ‘Sitting and waiting, to get two of its best players together in one place, at one time, in what’s believed to be the hottest ticket in town!’
‘For what purpose?’
‘To entertain our hosts, whoever they may be.’
There was a glint in his eye, and Romana tilted her head quizzically. He just stared back at her, silent and strangely impassive. Romana disliked not knowing, but she knew there must be a reason for the Doctor keeping secrets from her. So just this once, she let it slide. Besides, there was anger fizzing inside her; all those people with deadly brace bombs strapped to them filling up her thoughts.
‘By watching other people suffer?’ she asked.
‘Yes, they’re good at that,’ said the Doctor. ‘They get a real kick out of it. In fact, it sustains them. Gives them a life force they can survive on.’
‘Then we need to disrupt the match, anything that’ll impact the game.’
As she said those words, the lights in and around the arena went off, as if on cue.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Control override – some kind of emergency shutdown procedure.’
‘Why? What for?’
At this point, the Doctor could but guess. He knew as little as Romana did. He couldn’t be sure of anything.
‘I don’t know… yet. Must be serious. They wouldn’t bring the game to a standstill, unless…’
‘Unless it was a matter of life and death.’
As they emerged slowly back into the stadium, the Doctor pulled a torch from his pocket. There wasn’t a sound from the crowd, as if they too had been switched off. But from amongst the quiet and darkness, there was a growl.
‘What was that?’ whispered the Doctor, shining his torch down on Romana.
‘I assumed it was your stomach rumbling,’ she remarked.
‘My stomach never rumbles,’ stated the Doctor.
‘Then it would appear we have company.’
Something fluttered around them, flapping its giant wings, until it came down with a thump. The Doctor turned the torch on the creature that appeared before them. It was huge.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a Time Dragon, Romana!’ boomed the Doctor.
‘But that’s impossible!’ Romana cried. ‘They died out eons ago!’
The creature’s blue veins glowed faintly, and feral, amber eyes targeted them both with an undying hunger. The Doctor held onto his hat, fighting against the blasting wind coming from its wings.
‘Clearly not,’ the Doctor mused. ‘It seems our textbooks were… mistaken.’
He spotted two massive chains attached to its claws and tail. They had obviously broken off.
‘You poor thing,’ he said. ‘A Time Lord’s best friend, reduced to… this. It must have been captured, perhaps used to allow our hosts free reign of the time vortex. And now, with the arena shut down, it’s free once more.’
Romana stood closer to the Doctor.
‘But what caused the arena to shut down?’
‘That is an astute question,’ the Doctor replied, twisting on his heels. ‘Unexpected solar storm? Gravimetric interference from a nearby star? Rather sloppy for our hosts, I must say.’
He noticed that the dragon had failed to attack them. Curious. Before he could voice his observation, the arena lights switched on again, and a booming voice emanated from the speakers.
‘And you pilot your TARDIS with such grace, Time Lord?’ it mocked. ‘Come, pet!’
A screeching sound arose from all around, causing the dragon to roar in pain and fly high above the stadium.
‘This specimen is ours to control,’ the voice continued. ‘We do not know how you came on board, interlopers, but you will not interfere. The game must continue!’
The tennis players and crowd members reawakened, continuing as if nothing had changed. The players swung their rackets as hard as they could, keeping up a volley that seemed to go on forever. And then one of them scored a point. The crowd erupted, cheering for their chosen hero.
‘Why are you doing this?’ Romana cried.
‘I told you,’ said the Doctor. ‘They’ve turned it into a life or death sport so they can feed on the rich psychic energy. The excitement, if you will.’
‘The loser will die,’ said the voice, ‘and all of their pathetic supporters will follow. It will be glorious.’
‘Not on my watch!’ the Doctor thundered. ‘I will stop you.’
‘You couldn’t stop us.’
‘Oh, really? Then why don’t you come down here and prove it? Show your superiority, instead of cowering behind the scenes.’
‘You are attempting to goad us.’
‘Then coward it is!’
The Doctor smiled knowingly at Romana, who had a permanent frown plastered across her face. There was silence from the voice as the game progressed, with cheers booming after each point. Then, in a sudden flash of light, four hooded humanoids appeared on the ground in front of them; their robes black and lined with silver.
‘You know much about us,’ one of them stated slowly.
‘We would like to understand how,’ said another.
The Doctor laughed.
‘Well, yes, I can see why you might be confused. I seem to have that effect on people. Of course, it hasn’t happened for you yet.’
The first robed humanoid looked at his companions.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ the Doctor said quickly. ‘Don’t you worry. You do have quite the obvious trademark, though. I love the literal captive audience. Yes, very good. Almost impressive!’
The first robed humanoid held up his hand, and the people in the arena shut down. The game stopped.
‘This is ridiculous!’ he screamed. ‘We shall not allow our plans to be hindered any further! Pet, come!’
The Time Dragon dived down and landed on the arena, sending a mild shockwave across the surface. The robed figures turned towards it and held out their hands, chanting something unintelligible. The dragon roared, as if in protest, but eventually gave in. It focused its hungry eyes on the Doctor and Romana.
‘Go!’ said the lead humanoid. ‘Feast on their flesh!’
The dragon shot towards the two Time Lords. The Doctor dived out of the way, holding onto his hat, but Romana stood firm.
‘Romana!’ the Doctor shouted. ‘What are you doing?’
She ignored him and held out her hand, just as the dragon opened its jaws. But then it stopped. It looked at her inquisitively, then lowered its head in submission. Romana’s hand drew closer and closer until it touched the creature’s scales, and finally the Doctor understood what she had done.
‘Of course,’ he muttered to himself.
Romana lowered her hand and smiled.
‘You are such a beautiful creature,’ she said. ‘Once, our two species were as one. But it is time for you to be free. Send these vile hosts back to their own time and fly far, far away!’
The dragon turned around and roared. This time, a vortex wormhole opened up beneath its captors, sucking them into the abyss. The Doctor collected himself and watched the wormhole close, patting Romana’s shoulder.
‘Good work,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ she smiled. ‘I am quite good, aren’t I? So… you’ve met them before?’
‘Yes, a long time ago. In their future.’
‘You knew all this was going to happen, didn’t you?’
‘Of course not. What do you take me for, Romana?’
He smiled at her, then turned towards the dragon that seemed to be recovering from its ordeal.
‘And aren’t you magnificent!’ he boomed. ‘Once thought extinct, and the last of your kind… I wonder what that feels like?’
The dragon stared at them both, remaining for a moment, before turning and flapping its wings, flying off into the vastness of space. The Doctor wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck.
‘Well, that’s that,’ he said.
‘Not quite, Doctor,’ Romana reminded him. ‘We still have to take off the brace-bombs, remember? And then lower the stadium back to Earth?’
The Doctor laughed her off.
‘Details, Romana, details! The main threat is vanquished, and the brace-bombs should prove no problem at all. As for the arena itself, it’s not really Wimbledon, but a mark two light-speed cruiser disguised as Centre Court, which means that so long as we evacuate the players and the public via the TARDIS, I can set the arena to self-destruct.’
‘So long as you’re certain it’s not the real Wimbledon?’
‘I am. The real Wimbledon is where we left it. This is a hoax, I assure you. We, along with the audience, were tricked by a holographic exterior projection, which went some way to convince us this was Wimbledon. If it wasn’t for the engines, I’d have probably been fooled for life! That was down to you, Romana.’
He whipped out the sonic screwdriver from his pocket and walked towards one of the tennis athletes. Romana sighed, then looked up at the Time Dragon’s quickly shrinking silhouette. She wondered if it would be all right. The last of its kind with nowhere to go… she couldn’t even imagine what it must be feeling.
She lowered her gaze to the Doctor, who had managed to free one of the players. Perhaps one day they would be able to enjoy some time to themselves without ending up in someone else’s crosshairs.
The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link