"What did you do?" asked Niwek, hearing the low whine of a motor starting up. "What is that thing?"
"Well, it's not so much what it is, but what it does," the Doctor responded casually as he folded his arms across his chest. "It's designed to create a very tiny black hole, just big enough to swallow up this building and everything inside it."
"That is not possible," Niwek huffed.
"Oh, but it is. My people invented black holes. Accidentally, mind you, but still, we found them very useful for taking out the trash. The one I'm creating will open a portal into a dimension known as the Void, which happens to be the empty space between universes where nothing exists. Well, nothing but the other trouble-making beings and unsavory creatures I've already banished there. Anyway, once the portal is open, this building and its contents will be ripped apart and pulled into eternal darkness."
"You lie," Niwek sneered. "Even if that machine does as you say, you would not put your own life or the lives of your new friends in such peril."
"Now there's where you're wrong. If I have to risk a few lives -- including my own -- in order to save a planet, so be it. I do it all the time. Ask Crichton about Pompeii."
"Pompeii?" Niwek raised his palm to Crichton's head but decided to hold off on emitting the heat ray for the moment. The Human, now sitting up and resting on his elbows, looked a bit more alert but probably couldn't handle another session of intense interrogation without losing consciousness. The mere threat of another heat blast was surely enough to keep the truth coming. "What is Pompeii?"
"Used to be... a city on my planet," Crichton tiredly explained. "A while ago, some aliens invaded our world... planned to kill everyone and take over the place. The Doctor figured the only way to stop them was to blow up this really big mountain.... The resulting molten lava and falling burning ash covered the city, killed some 20,000 people. They were either suffocated or burned alive."
"How is it you survived?" Niwek asked the Doctor.
"Didn't think I would. Most times I'm very good at what I do, but more often than not... I'm just very, very lucky. What matters now is that I want to save this planet. I'm willing to die to do it and I'm willing to take you all with me if necessary. Shegwon," the Doctor made his appeal to the guard he knew by name, "I don't know if you and the others are just good soldiers following orders no matter how insane they may be or if you've simply lost all ability to think rationally for yourself. But listen and think carefully about this; if you stick with your commander, you will all die. That's a fact. If you want to survive, you need to vacate this building as quickly as you can. Just put down your weapons, gather the rest of your men, board your spaceship and fly far away. Do it right now or follow your commander into the Void."
Shegwon exchanged a worried look with the other guard. After a brief moment of uncertainty, they soon reached a simultaneous and mutual decision. Niwek noticed their movements from the corner of his eye as his guards laid down their weapons. The commander turned his head and stared at them with disapproval and shock.
"What do you think you are doing?" he demanded to know. He never received an answer as the two guards hurried out of the opened door. "Come back here!" Niwek's command went unheeded and he found himself without any backup. He was not armed himself and had never seen the need for carrying a weapon while in the building, until now. He picked up one of the pulse guns left behind by his not so loyal followers and aimed it at the Doctor. "They may be weak-minded enough to believe your lies, but I am not so easily fooled."
"Well, I don't know about that, but if you're so certain I'm lying then you should have no problem with waiting around a bit until the light starts flashing on my machine here."
Niwek's eyes flittered briefly away from the Doctor towards the somewhat unnerving contraption cobbled together with a mass of cables and a variety of spare parts. Something about the increasing sound and vibration of the machine was unsettling. "Turn it off," the Scarran commanded.
"Sorry. Can't. No 'off' button and no 'pause' button. It's only designed to do one thing."
"You are mad."
"So I've been told."
Niwek finally came to the conclusion that the Doctor was most likely telling the truth, and that indeed something very bad was about to occur. "Go ahead. Stay and destroy yourselves! I will leave and take John Crichton with me." As the commander turned away from the others, he saw the Human crawling along the floor, reaching for the other pulse pistol that had been left behind by the guards. Niwek smirked, thinking that even if the Human did reach the weapon, he would be too weak and shaky to pull the trigger. Besides, the commander knew that his natural armor would offer him superior protection from such an attack. That was merely another of the many mistakes the Scarran had made over the last several hours since meeting the Doctor and John Crichton. He underestimated his enemies and he allowed himself to be too overconfident of his own status and abilities. Knowing that he couldn't simply shoot his prisoner, he began to raise his palm in order to dish out another mind-numbing heat blast. Just before he was able to fulfill his objective, a small white projectile smacked against the side of his head and left some sort of gooey, yellow substance dripping down onto his shoulder. As he took time to inspect the foreign matter and figure out from where it had come, another projectile was launched at him. The Doctor's aim caught him right between the eyes.
"Trick or treat," said the Doctor. "Quaint little Earth custom."
Niwek wiped the egg from his face and decided he'd had enough of the Time Lord. He pointed his weapon at him, prepared to shoot him on the spot.
"Yoo-hoo," a voice sounded close behind him.
Niwek turned his head and found himself staring point-blank down the barrel of a pulse pistol. It may not have been easy to penetrate a Scarran's tough hide, but where the gun was aimed, there was no armored protection. Crichton fired the pulse pistol directly into Niwek's left eye, followed by two blasts into the mouth that opened in surprised shock. The seven foot tall alien fell to his knees, then toppled forward, dead by the time he hit the floor.
The Doctor was not happy about the death of the Scarran or that Crichton had killed him in a nearly cold-blooded fashion, but if the rest of them were to get out alive, it was the only recourse.
"Doctor," Vanitem pointed to the machine, "the light is flashing."
"Right. All of you need to get out of here now. Quickly as you can."
"But, now that the Scarrans are gone, we don't really need to go through with this, do we?" asked Rivortus.
"Remember how I told you the device was crude? There's no turning it off. The generator is about to go critical. If I don't turn the knob all the way to the right, the whole thing will blow up and the toxins in the basement will be released into the atmosphere. So, there's no debate, and no time to wait. All of you out now!" the Doctor insisted as he herded them towards the door.
"What about you?" asked Crichton.
"I'll be right behind you. I'm just giving you a head-start. Go! Now!"
The urgency of the matter seemed to finally sink in and the Doctor's order was quickly obeyed. Once the others had cleared the room, the Doctor went back over to his black hole machine. He listened intently to the growing whine of the motor, knowing that he had to time it just right to keep the generator from going critical and exploding. But he also needed to give the others time to make it out of the building. Crichton had been a little wobbly on his feet, and the Pathfinders didn't exactly seem much like sprinters, so they would all need every possible second to clear the danger zone. He allowed ten seconds to pass before he turned the knob a quarter of the way to relieve some of the pressure building up. Another eight seconds elapsed before he moved it to the halfway mark, hoping that the others had at least made it down to the first level by then. His fingers hovered over the knob waiting for the seconds to tick off in his brain. As the whine of the generator continued to escalate, he gave the knob one final short twist, then stepped back and watched as a tiny ball of energy began to form in the air directly above the machine.
"Time to run!"
The Doctor was just about to pass the elevator on his way to the staircase when he heard a chime and saw the door light up. He assumed that Crichton had sent it back up for him and skidded to a stop just as the door slid open. "What?" He was stunned to see the elevator still occupied, shocked even more to see Crichton on his knees trying to offer aid to Vanitem who appeared to be semiconscious. The two male scientists had collapsed but were still awake, though coughing heavily and gasping for air. The odor of cooked bacon wafted out from the lift; what would have been considered on Earth to be the anticipation of a hearty breakfast, was now a signal for impending death.
"Couldn't get through, Doc," Crichton explained needlessly. "The fumes were just too strong for them."
The Doctor stepped through the door and pushed the button for the top floor. "We'll try the roof," he said as he knelt down to check Vanitem's condition. "Aeryn said that she was able to scale the building. Perhaps we can climb down the same way she climbed up."
"Don't think anyone's up much for climbing, Doc. Except maybe you."
As he glanced around him, the Doctor realized that Crichton had very likely made an accurate assumption. It was distinctly possible that only the Time Lord, cosmic cockroach that he was, would be the only one to survive the imminent disaster. Still, he wouldn't give up easily on any of the four other lives in his care. When the elevator reached the top floor, the Doctor lifted Vanitem in his arms and looked about helplessly at the others. He realized that Crichton was still recovering from the earlier mind torture, while Lastren and Rivortus could barely breathe or see, their eyes stinging and watering from the fumes.
"Stay close and help each other," was all he could offer them as the door slid open. He led the way down the corridor and towards the staircase leading to the roof.
Crichton was sandwiched between Lastren and Rivortus, the three holding each other up as they stumbled along. The door to the roof had a keycard lock, a job for the sonic screwdriver which was tucked safely away in his breast pocket out of reach at the moment. He glanced down at Vanitem and saw that not only was she more alert, but she also carried the necessary key to work the lock. Her hand was a bit shaky and her eyes were still tearing from the fumes but she managed to endure whatever discomfort she was experiencing long enough to fit the card into the slot and turn the handle. Stepping out onto the roof provided the Pathfinders with some much needed fresh air and a modicum of relief. The Doctor carried Vanitem over to the rear of the building and laid her gently down a safe distance from the edge. Crichton helped Lastren and Rivortus to settle down next to her.
It was nearly dawn, the sky beginning to lighten with the rising of a pale pink sun, but there was no time to admire the sunrise. The Doctor quickly scanned the roof looking for whatever Aeryn Sun had used to scale the building. He had hoped for a rope or cable but saw nothing obvious among the water reservoir and air control units. The roof was flat but had a four-foot high railing all the way around to prevent accidentally falling off. The Doctor glanced over the closest rail and noted the details of the building's design. It appeared to be made of a marble-like material laid out in a brickwork pattern with deep, evenly spaced horizontal grooves. Only someone with impressive rock-climbing skills or Spiderman powers could have scaled it without any special climbing equipment. Crichton must have realized the same thing as he carefully peered over the ledge.
"Whoa! You think she climbed up barehanded?"
"You know her better than I do. What do you think?"
"I think we're screwed."
"Doctor," Lastren called to him and pointed to a metal cabinet around the corner from the doorway. It turned out to be a storage unit housing emergency evacuation equipment.
"Yes!" The Doctor was pleased to find a roll-out ladder which, with the Human's help, was quickly draped over the ledge and ready for use. "Okay, I think you should go first."
"What about them?" Crichton asked, nodding towards the Pathfinders who were now sitting up, having recovered somewhat from the gas. However, they still didn't appear to be in any shape for climbing.
The Doctor stooped down in front of the three scientists and took turns looking each in the eyes. "I know you're all still feeling a little sick and shaky but I'm afraid there's only one way to get safely off this roof. You'll each have to climb down under your own steam. Vanitem, I'll help you as much as I can, but we don't have much time. We have to move quickly, all right?"
The three nodded and got to their feet, determination showing on their faces as they stood tall and moved towards the ladder. Only after Crichton saw that they would be following him did he begin to make his own descent. He was over the ledge and on the sixth rung down when the building suddenly began to rumble and sway heavily as though hit by an earthquake. The Doctor hastily looked over the side to check on Crichton and breathed a sigh of relief to see him still hanging on tight to the ladder. But relief was short lived as he noted that three floors below Crichton, several windows and the wall that had supported them were suddenly missing. The ladder itself no longer reached to the ground but instead curved into the building, being pulled into a gaping hole in the structure.
"Crichton, climb back up. Now!"
A confused glance downward persuaded Crichton to quickly follow orders, but not before the building shifted again to lean at a five degree angle. Crichton nearly lost his purchase on the ladder, managing to hang on with a one-handed grip. The Doctor reached for and grabbed his wrist. With an added assist from Lastren they helped pull the Human over the ledge and back onto the relative safety of the roof.
"The ladder!" the Doctor exclaimed as he sought to rescue it. "We can try it on the other side. As he pulled on it, he found it much harder to raise than it should have been. Two other pairs of hands grabbed a section and began to tug with him. A few seconds later the ladder finally became slack and yielded to their pulling. Unfortunately, only about 30 feet of the 100-foot ladder returned. The rest had been sheered off by the same force that had obliterated a section of the forth floor.
"Frell!" Crichton cursed. "What now? We climb down as far as it goes and jump the rest of the way?"
The Doctor shook his head regrettably. "Not likely to survive," he sighed. "Besides, I'm afraid it's too late for climbing now. More than likely we'd get sucked into the Void on the way down. I'm sorry. I really thought we had a chance."
"Our families and our planet have been saved," said Lastren. "We are grateful to you both for that. This was not your battle. I regret that this will cost you your lives."
"Yes, well... no good deed goes unpunished."
"Aeryn!" Crichton suddenly took notice of her absence. "God, I hope she didn't go back inside looking for us."
"I'm sure she's fine," the Doctor lied. Knowing Aeryn Sun, even for such a brief time, he knew that she would have done all that she could to rescue her friend. She was so much like Rose, Martha and Donna when it came to bravery and loyalty. Still, he hoped that she'd had enough common sense to save herself and turn back in the face of insurmountable danger. "I'm sorry. I should never have let you two come along on this. I just thought somehow we'd all make it." The Doctor glanced about to the left and right, still seeking some form of last minute escape. "I mean, things usually have a way of working themselves out around me. Either I come up with a fantastic last minute idea, a bit of luck practically falls into my lap or someone unexpectedly comes forward and does something truly extraordinary."
"You mean like that?"
The Doctor followed Crichton's gaze upwards to the Scarran space ship descending slowly out of the sky directly above them. "Yes! Oh, yes, exactly like that!"
There was no way the ship could land on the tilted roof, and fortunately, it didn't need to. It came to hover about twenty feet above their heads before the access door slid open and a narrow, flexible ladder was uncoiled and dropped down. Vanitem was urged to go first, followed by Rivortus and Lastren. As Crichton and the Doctor anxiously awaited their turns, the building shook violently as a hole opened up in the center of the roof. It was as if a giant toilet had just been flushed and everything was being pulled into it by the suctioning vacuum. The Doctor and Crichton each held on tightly to the bottom of the ladder, looping their arms into the rungs as securely as possible. Rivortus was being pulled through the door and Lastren was only a foot away from reaching it.
"Go! Tell the pilot to go! Now!" The Doctor yelled over the swelling noise. Whether his voice was actually heard over the disturbance or the pilot recognized the immediate danger at hand, the ship began to rise and move away from the building. Lastren made it to the door and was helped inside, but both the Doctor and Crichton were too mesmerized by the sight of the building's destruction to think about climbing. They watched, transfixed, as the roof folded in on itself and sank into the spiraling hole. The sides of the building began to distort, taking on a distinct hourglass figure. Upper floors began to sink downward as the lower floors began to rise upwards. In a matter of seconds, entire floors disappeared as they were suctioned into a black hole no larger than a ping pong ball. Pretty soon, all that remained was a swirling of dust and debris, resembling a miniature upside-down tornado hovering over a barren foundation. The mini-tornado quickly receded into the black hole, and as the last of the building disappeared, the black hole itself -- as though it had run out of fuel -- shrank to an even smaller size, and with the sound of a thunderclap, vanished into thin air.
"Dude! That was frelling awesome!" Crichton exclaimed in wide-eyed astonishment.
The Doctor grinned proudly and said, "Yeah, it was a bit of awesomeness, wasn't it?" The wind whipping through his hair and the dangling of his feet reminded him that they were still hanging from the ladder a few hundred feet in the air. "You think maybe we should um..."
"Oh, yeah, right!"
Crichton began climbing and as he reached the door, he was startled by a large, scaly hand with sharp claws grasping onto his arm. Even though it was a Scarran space ship, he never actually expected a Scarran to be there trying to assist him aboard. Considering his recent experience in their company, he had reason to try to jerk away, but lucky for him the Scarran held tight, preventing him from tumbling backwards. Crichton quickly realized that for the moment, he was being helped and not harmed. Soon, he was standing on the floor of the cargo hold beside the Pathfinders who were nervously huddled together. Apparently, they were not too keen on being passengers of the Scarrans either. Still, it was undoubtedly better than the alternative. The Doctor soon joined them, a big smile on his face, obviously happy to be rescued and not thinking of the possible consequences in store as the cargo door was secured.
"Thank you!" he gave his gratitude to the Scarran that helped him inside, then turned to his fellow refugees. "So how is everyone? Feeling better?"
"We are... better," answered Lastren wearily. The other Pathfinders nodded quietly in agreement, and all of them cast a wary glance towards the three Scarrans in the room.
The Doctor followed their gaze, but did not quite get what was upsetting them. "What?"
"Yo, Slim," Crichton spoke softly, "does the phrase 'Out of the frying pan, into the fire,' mean anything to you?"