Like an old man rising from a chair, and with about as much puffing and complaining, the TARDIS fitfully heaved itself into existence in the centre of a dimly lit alcove. A moment later, the door to the capsule creaked open and Sarah-Jane Smith stepped out, blinking as her eyes began to adjust from the glare of the TARDIS’ stark white interior. The air was cool and dry here, prompting her to shiver as she fastened the buttons on her hip-length leather jacket, so that only a narrow triangle of red gingham showed between the lapels. At least her jeans and leather boots would keep the chill off her legs.
Sarah-Jane peered into the alcove. It seemed to have been carved out of solid rock, like a mine shaft, but far more artfully. The ceiling, floor and walls were all of the same beautifully rippled grey-and-brown stone, polished to a fine lustre, and just barely illuminated by the glow of a great shard of crystal that emerged from the centre of the ceiling like an organic chandelier. Around the sides of the space, and somewhat less splendidly, temporary walls and roller-doors had been erected to form what looked to be four small shop-fronts, all currently closed for business. In between the second and third of these a low-ceilinged tunnel ran deeper into the rock, lighted at intervals by smaller versions of the same sort of crystal that shone in the alcove.
Sarah-Jane turned around, taking in the rest of her surroundings, and gasped.
“Oh, Doctor! It’s beautiful!” She left the alcove and crossed the narrow walkway that ran past it, leaning on the railing with folded arms as she took in the view.
The Doctor emerged from the TARDIS, tugging a wide-brimmed had down over his curls and kicking the trailing end of his absurdly long scarf clear of the door a millisecond before it clicked shut. His wide eyes glanced about cursorily, apparently needing no time to adjust. “Hmm? Yes, I suppose so.”
“What’s wrong?” Sarah-Jane called back. “Not what you’d expected?”
The Doctor swept back his coat and stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets. “On the contrary,” he sighed, “it’s exactly what I expected.” He patted the side of the TARDIS consolingly. “There, there, old girl, don’t feel too bad. Everyone has an off day now and then.”
“Oh come on, Doctor!” said Sarah-Jane. “I know you’ve seen much more of the universe than I have, but even you have to admit this is pretty spectacular.”
The Doctor sauntered over, joining her at the railing. “Well, let’s compromise,” he suggested, “and say it’s moderately magnificent.”
The two travellers stood halfway up the side of a colossal egg-shaped atrium, perhaps a hundred metres across at its widest point and nearly half a kilometre top to bottom. The walkway under their feet formed a continuous flat helix around most of this space, carved from jutting ridges of bedrock like an inside-out phonograph cylinder. Here and there, both above and below them, robed humanoid figures could be seen walking to and fro on the path, entering and exiting passageways and niches according to where their business took them.
But the most striking feature, the thing that had immediately captivated Sarah-Jane, was the crystal spire – a titanic, jagged spike of translucent mineral that erupted from the floor far below and poured itself towards the top of the atrium, growing ever more slender, until it dwindled into nothing just a few metres shy of its goal. From tip to root, the entirety of the formation was ribboned with coloured impurities, mostly ruby and topaz but with the occasional streak of sapphire, emerald, or amethyst; and all of it glowing, faintly and serenely, like the flame of a giant’s torch frozen in time. If the stones of the Earth had come to life and built a shrine to themselves, thought Sarah-Jane, they could scarcely have done better than this.
“Kathedra Prima,” said the Doctor suddenly, making her jump a little. “The largest free-floating monastery in the galaxy. I’ve been meaning to visit for a while, but I kept putting it off. I don’t always get along that well with monks.”
Sarah-Jane felt a moment of vertigo. “Free-floating? You mean we’re… in space?”
“Of course we’re in space!” the Doctor admonished. “We’re almost always in space. Sometimes on Earth, sometimes on another world; this time, inside an asteroid.” He pulled a yo-yo out of his pocket and flicked it over the edge of the railing, watching it whizz on the end of the string for a few seconds before snapping it back into his palm. “Gravity generator’s ticking along quite nicely. Not bad for an antique.”
Sarah-Jane rubbed the sides of her arms, though this time it wasn’t the cold that was making her shiver. “This is an asteroid? Alright then, an asteroid carved out and sealed up and fitted with artificial gravity and all the other mod cons…” She shook her head. “I believe you, Doctor, but I can’t wrap my brain around it. The whole place just feels so old.”
“Oh, but it is old. Getting on to five hundred years, now, and not much mod about any of its cons. Fixed counter-field gravity, passive refractory lighting, stack-filter air cyclers…” He nodded at a passing monk. “…Sandals. You know what these monastic types are like. Even when they venture out into the stars they’re as backwards about it as possible.”
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” Sarah-Jane insisted, refusing to let the Doctor spoil it for her. “To build something like this in the vacuum of space and keep it working for century after century! It’s a real achievement. I don’t know how you can be so jaded.”
“Jaded? Who’s jaded? I’m simply maintaining a realistic sense of perspective. Look, down there: you see the base of the spire?” He pointed below them to where the thickest part of the giant crystal disappeared into the rock. “The root of it goes all the way through to the outside. That’s where the illumination comes from: The light of the stars, transmitted and transformed by the crystal – the Eye of the Cosmos, as the monks of the Paavian Order call it. And due to the asteroid’s rotation, every four days or so the Eye finds itself pointing directly towards its sun.” He waved his hand, encompassing the entirety of their surroundings. “This, now, is all well and good, but when the sun rises on Kathedra Prima? That’s supposed to be… well, you’re a journalist, Sarah-Jane. You should know it’s best to always leave oneself room to manoeuvre when it comes to superlatives.”
Sarah-Jane nudged the Doctor with her elbow. “I knew you liked it.”
The Doctor began to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of a clearing throat from behind them. “Is this your crate, folks?”
The Doctor and Sarah-Jane turned around. A short, stocky man with a head of tightly curling black hair was looking at them with an expression of good-natured disappointment. He held a clipboard and pen in his short-fingered hands, and wore a blue-trimmed grey uniform that bore the sort of alarmingly sharp creases only seen on very cheap clothes being worn for the first time.
The man jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “The blue one? Middle of the room? Weighs a bleeding ton?”
“Ah, you mean the TARDIS,” said the Doctor, scratching his nose. “Well, by any reasonable interpretation of squatter’s rights, yes, it’s mine. Why?”
“Gonna have to shift it,” the man said, looking back down at his clipboard. “It’s in the way. You’re not the only ones moving in today, you know.”
Sarah-Jane held her breath, expecting the Doctor to explode at the pudgy bureaucrat. But instead he just shrugged, and with an “As you wish,” strode over to the box and disappeared inside it. A moment later the light on top began to flash as the TARDIS wheezed itself away to nothing – only to reappear, almost simultaneously, just a few metres from where it had started, now tucked snugly against the strip of wall between the two shops on the left. The Doctor exited the craft and strolled back over to the uniformed man. “How’s that?”
“That’ll do,” the man replied, glancing up from his clipboard for the first time. Then he added, “You know, I’d have spotted you a trolley if I’d known you were going to scrape it across the floor like that.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Sarah-Jane cut in, rather suspecting the Doctor was trying to provoke the man into snapping his pen in half. She peered at the name badge pinned, slightly askew, to his breast pocket. “Daz, is it?” She stuck out her hand. “Sarah-Jane Smith, reporter for the… Space Times. This is the Doctor.”
The Doctor waggled his fingers. “Hello.”
Daz broke into a slow, wide smile as he shook her hand, apparently noticing her for the first time. “Daz Borognus, station security. The Space Times, you say? Are you going to take my picture?”
“Maybe later. You said something about other people moving in today?”
Daz looked surprised. “But surely that’s the reason you’re here! Haven’t you heard?”
“Not from a reliable source,” she replied. The Doctor sighed.
“It’s the Grand Opening,” said Daz. “The deal the Paavian Order cut with the Corporate Senate officially kicks in today, so all the new tenants can start trading. Kathedra Prima is open for business.”
“Open for business?” The Doctor’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Oh, well isn’t that typically human! Take one of the wonders of the cosmos and fill it with hamburger shops and souvenir stalls and travel agents and -”
“All right, all right!” said Daz, flapping his clipboard. “Don’t yell! It wasn’t my idea! The Paavians weren’t too keen on it neither, from what I hear, but a set-up like this doesn’t run for free and folks aren’t as generous with the donations as they used to be. It was open shops or, ah… close shop.”
“Maybe these monks aren’t so backwards after all,” said Sarah-Jane, but the Doctor looked so genuinely disgusted that she decided not to press the point further.
“Mr. Borognus!” A piercing voice called out from further down the walkway. Daz went pale.
“Why me?” he whispered, his eyes still pointed at the Doctor but now focused on something more distant. “Why always me? Don’t I try to live a good life?”
But the monk was already stalking up the spiral ramp towards them. With each step the silver-embossed black cassock rippled around her tall, narrow frame like an approaching storm cloud. Though her face was graceful, its expression was set, and whatever it was set upon clearly involved Daz Borognus.
“There you are!” she said as she arrived, looming like a windswept tree over the security guard. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice you were avoiding me? Why haven’t you done anything about Sister Palim?”
“Sister Klia,” Daz began, gesturing at the Doctor and Sarah Jane, “I am in the middle of some very important station business, so if you’d kindly…”
Klia noticed the two newcomers and shot them a brief, insincere smile. “My apologies, but this matter is most urgent. Do you mind?”
“Oh, not at all,” said the Doctor, he and Sarah Jane each comfortably resting an elbow on the railing as Daz glared at them futilely.
Klia turned back to Daz. “Four days she’s been missing!” she resumed. “Four days! In all her life that poor, sweet child has never missed her prayers, never shirked her duties, never known anything but the inside of the Mother Rock, and then she just vanishes right in the middle of all these…” – she flapped her hand disgustedly at the shop fronts – “… arrivals. Abducted, I’m sure of it! Stars know what these immoral creatures have done to her. Half of them wouldn’t think twice about preying upon her innocence, her – her condition. By now she’s probably sold off to a circus, or being experimented on, or – or…”
Klia’s voice caught in her throat. “Sister Klia,” Daz cut in gently, “Stat-Sec has given every moment it can spare to finding your missing acolyte. There have been deep wave-length scans on every item that has left Kathedra, and we have conducted extensive interviews with everyone in the vicinity of the warrens on the day she disappeared. No one remembers seeing her – and if you’ll pardon my bluntness, Palim’s is a face hard to forget. There’s just no positive evidence to suggest foul play.” He took a deep breath. “Sister, consider the possibility that she left of her own free will and just doesn’t want to be found.”
Klia shook her head vigorously. “No! It’s simply not like her. She wouldn’t just up and leave, not without even saying goodbye. If you knew her you wouldn’t even suggest such a thing.”
Daz shrugged. “Perhaps you don’t know her as well as you think you do. It might be one these cults your lot have been playing host to for all these years has finally turned her head. We’d never know,” he added pointedly, “what with them being outside Stat-Sec’s jurisdiction, and all.”
The Doctor and Sarah-Jane turned their backs on the arguing pair, huddling in to confer. “What do you think, Sarah-Jane?” asked the Doctor
“How did it go again?” Sarah-Jane lowered her voice in imitation of the Doctor’s. “’Time Lords are forbidden to interfere in the affairs of other civilisations’.”
The Doctor grinned. “Glad to see we’re on the same page. But how do we interfere?”
Sarah-Jane considered the options. “Well, what about these cults Daz mentioned?”
The Doctor snorted. “Ridiculous. That man has soggy newspaper for brains.”
“Alright, then how about looking into this kidnapping theory of Sister Klia’s?”
“Pfft. Equally moronic.”
“Well feel free to jump in any time with your own genius idea!”
The Doctor gave her his usual whatever-are-you-so-worked-up-about look. “Isn’t it obvious? We do both!”
“Of course both! Why pursue one idiotic idea when we could pursue two?” The Doctor glanced over his shoulder at the monk and the security guard, still quarrelling away. “If we’re going to waste time, we should at least be efficient about it.”