4. Vexes and Vexation
“Never heard of such a thing,” Captain Light replied gruffly. “And besides, the TDI spans universes, there are bound to be plenty of things they’re into that I’ve no business knowing.”
“I would think the ability to create miniature universes from scratch would be difficult to conceal. That’s a lot of energy to hide,” the Doctor pressed, still not convinced.
“Look,” the Captain said with a sigh. “If I knew anything about that, I’d tell you.”
“Fine,” the Doctor relented. “Is it absolutely necessary to bring that weapon?”
Together they stood pressed against the starboard door of what was left of Captain Light’s ship, preparing to exit the vehicle into what would likely be hostile territory.
“We’ve just barely managed to survive a massive cloud of microsatellites that could have vaporized us, surrounding a planet that is supposed to be primitive. I’ll take my chances offending the locals, whoever they may be now.”
Captain Light took a quick breath and then made to burst through the door to the outside. The Doctor stopped him abruptly, grabbing his arm and pulling him back.
“Now wait a minute,” the Doctor said thoughtfully. “Consider what we’re likely getting into. For us to have made it through that microsatellite field, we’ve probably been identified as an empty container. They’ll send someone out to recover it, and they’ll likely be robots of a sort. I recommend we exit the ship, quickly find a place to hide and see what we can learn. Perhaps we can follow the robots back to a base or something.”
Captain Light crossed him arms and looked at the Doctor disdainfully. “How the hell do you survive out here with planning like that? You call yourself a time traveler? You know, I bet you’re the very type of absent-minded and oblivious fool who’d recommend we immediately split up and get ourselves lost, or captured or worse. Thank God you don’t travel with companions.”
“Uh, well, yes. What would you do then?” The Doctor bit his lip nervously, remembering more than a few occasions where just such absent-mindedness and obliviousness had landed both he and his companions in trouble. Repeatedly, in fact.
“They probably tracked us coming into the atmosphere and supposed we were destroyed when you ditched our thrusters. They probably think we’re debris. They’ll send scavengers, most likely with orders to kill anything still alive on the ship,” the Captain said with certainty. “So, we step out prepared for a fire fight.”
“Well, let me go out first,” the Doctor suggested. “If they are just friendly robots, I won’t blow their heads off before they have a chance to say hello.”
“I’m going out first,” Captain Light countered. “So if they are scavengers, they won’t blow our heads off before we have a chance to say hello.”
The tension grew in the tight quarters, and the Doctor visibly gulped and adjusted his bowtie. “How about we open the door and peek out together?”
“Alright then,” the Captain agreed.
Carefully, both men stepped to either side of the door. The Doctor drew his sonic screwdriver, while Captain Light powered up his blaster.
“Ready?” Captain Light hissed. The Doctor nodded.
With a creak, the Captain opened the door and slowly both men peeked outside.
A small girl in animal hides stood looking up at them just outside the ship. Beyond her, thick forest surrounded them. The sky was dark, and only the light of Fallox’s single moon illuminated the scene.
“Oh hello,” the Doctor chimed in a friendly voice.
“Get your hands up!” Captain Light barked at the girl, leveling his blaster at her.
“Will you stop that!” the Doctor exclaimed, grabbing the Captain’s blaster. Fighting back, Captain Light tried to pull away, but the Doctor stubbornly held onto the weapon. “She’s a little girl for goodness sake! A primitive!”
The struggle turned more violent as both men lost their balance and fell in a tangle. For a minute or so, both men struggled to gain control of the weapon and gain the upper hand, but soon the blaster and sonic screwdriver were cast aside as the bout descended into a wrestling match.
Distracted, the two time travelers did not notice the little girl walk over and pick up the blaster. Casually, she aimed the blaster and fired.
A foot from both men’s heads, the ground erupted in a controlled explosion, showering them with dirt and hot rock. The scuffle stopped immediately and both men stared aghast at the girl.
“Are you two finished?” she said to them.
“Yes,” they both replied sheepishly.
“Get up,” the girl demanded, waving the blaster menacingly. “Hands in the air.”
“Now wait a minute–” the Doctor began. He was cut short as the girl fired the blaster again, this time close enough to singe Captain Light’s duster.
“Hey!” the Captain cried out.
“Shut your mouths, scum!” the girl barked at them. “Empty your pockets!”
“Please listen–” the Doctor began again.
“Do it or I fry you!” the girl yelled.
Quickly, the Doctor began tossing out the contents of his pockets. Likewise, Captain Light was desperately digging out lint and cracker bits from the deepest confines of his clothes.
In a few moments, the pile was quite impressive, containing but not limited to two yo-yos, a shrunken head, several dice, three bags containing what appeared to be jelly babies, a golden Venus idol, half an Oreo, various components to scientific equipment, some jacks, no less than twelve rubber balls of different size, assorted galactic coinage, and a very agitated fire newt in a plastic water bottle.
The girl looked disappointed, but sifted through the debris, keeping the blaster leveled at the two shocked men.
“Robbed by a little girl,” the Doctor muttered. “Didn’t see this one coming.”
“She’s a primitive,” the Captain replied in a whisper. “How does she even know how a blaster works?”
“Shut it!” the girl barked. With an exasperated sigh, the girl took the sonic screwdriver and placed it in a pouch at her hip. To both travelers’ dismay, she also took the small cube containing Penelope.
Admiring it, but still focusing the blaster at them, she commanded, “Lay down, hands on your heads. Try anything funny and I vape the lot of you.”
The men complied quickly. The little girl stepped over to them and crouched down, holding the cube before the Doctor’s face.
The Doctor hesitated.
Pressing the blaster against his head, she asked again. “What is this?”
“Nothing,” the Doctor lied. “Just a bit of junk I carry.”
The girl shrugged and tossed it to the ground. “No use? Then I guess I’ll vaporize it.” She stood and aimed her blaster at it.
“No, please!” the Captain cried out.
The girl smiled and retrieved the cube, before turning to crouch down beside Captain Light. “What is it?”
The Captain sighed. “It’s the AI for my ship. She’s … It’s important to me.”
With lightning quick movements, the girl removed cord from her pouch and began to tie up the Captain.
“Look, miss,” the Doctor pleaded. “We’ve come here for some information. We mean you no harm. This is Captain Light and I’m the Doctor. We’d pay you for your time, we just want to ask a few questions.”
Having finished binding the Captain, the girl walked over to the Doctor.
“You came down in that?” she asked, gesturing to the ship.
The Doctor nodded.
“Through the shield?”
The Doctor nodded again.
The girl laughed at him, and then began to bind him as she had Captain Light.
“What’s so funny?” the Doctor asked. Captain Light was confused as well.
The girl did not answer. Instead, she continued laughing as she finished binding the Doctor.
“Listen, maybe we can work something out,” the Captain offered.
“Tell it to the Vex,” the girl laughed and walked away.
“I say, did you say ‘Vex'”? the Doctor asked nervously.
His answer was an inhuman roar that echoed through the forest that surrounded them.
“Well, that’s very interesting, now isn’t it?” the Doctor mused.
“What? The girl? Being robbed? Being bound and left for some beast to come chew us to bits?” Captain Light queried. “What could possibly be interesting at a time like this?”
“Well, just so you know,” the Doctor replied, “If that is a Thripitifalus Vex headed this way, then it certainly won’t be chewing us to bits.”
“Well, thank goodness,” the Captain sighed. Relieved, he began to struggle against his bindings and managed to get himself on his knees.
“Yes, Vexes don’t have teeth, and they get very cross about that. They happen to love flesh, but only have a proboscis with which to ingest, so they tend to rip their prey apart and stomp on it until its a sort of goo they can suck up,” the Doctor explained quite matter-of-factly.
The Captain was up and running, having loosened his feet.
“Hey!” yelled the Doctor, squirming on his side. “A little help here!”
The Captain stopped and turned around, his face flushed with frustration. Kneeling, he quickly unbound the Doctor as much as he could, freeing his legs but not his hands. Both men jumped up to their feet and began to run.
Behind them, crashing through trees and the remains of Captain Light’s ship, the Thripitifalus Vex broke into the clearing and gave chase. The creature resembled some of the rhino-like brontotheriums from Earth’s Eocene, sporting wicked horny protrusions around a face that terminated in a long snout. Two openings on either side of the creatures neck blew open and the inhuman roar vibrated from them.
“Oh, now that’s very interesting!” the Doctor puffed, now at full sprint.
“What’s so bloody interesting about it?” the Captain screamed at his shoulder as they ran.
The two men hurdled low shrubbery as they entered thick forest that surrounded their crash site. Behind them, the Thripitifalus Vex trundled, roaring through it’s sounding flaps.
“Most of the specimens I’ve seen have just been trophies, cut off well above those flaps,” the Doctor gasped, leaping over underbrush and ducking under vines. “Most scientists believe those flaps are somehow used in underwater breathing.”
“Obviously, that’s how they communicate!” the Doctor said cheerfully. “Interesting, no? I’ll have to mention this to Curator Heems!”
The Vex was closing in on them; massive trees began to fall around the time travelers as the massive beast crashed its way through the forest.
The Doctor, caught up in a sweeping branch, was tossed roughly to the side as the creature barreled past. Captain Light was not so lucky. With the Captain in focus, the Thripitifalus Vex jerked its head upward, its horns catching the Captain’s duster, and threw the man straight up into the air. Completely out of control, Captain Light flailed madly before coming down heavily on the trunk of a fallen tree.
The Vex had not lost its prey, and nimbly spun on its four legs. Focusing on its target again, it charged, head down.
“No!” the Doctor cried out, extricating himself from the tangle of branches. Struggling greatly, the Doctor began to see its futility as the beast closed the distance in only a handful of gallops.
And then, suddenly, the creature reared up, teetered on its back legs, and fell heavily on its back. Confused, the Doctor ran to the Captain, but noticed as he did so that there were other humanoids coming out from the trees. He ignored them, and made straight for his wounded companion who had propped himself against the fallen tree trunk he had landed on.
Captain Light’s face had deep gashes in it, and it appeared his right arm was broken, but he was breathing.
“Are you alright?” the Doctor asked, assessing the damage.
The Captain moved slightly, then winced, before answering, “I’m fine.”
“You need medical attention,” the Doctor concluded after a quick check of vitals. “The title’s merely honorary, but I’ve done some free study in medicine. Your arms broken, you need some stitches, but I bet you’re the type that likes scars.”
The Captain grunted a laugh, but then his face turned to stone as his eyes fell on something behind the Doctor.
“We’ve got company,” he said to the Doctor.
Looking over his shoulder, the Doctor saw several men in hides approaching. Most of them carried what appeared to be spears, but one was carrying a plasma rifle. “Hang tight, let me talk to them,” the Doctor said, patting the Captain’s shoulder. The Captain gasped in pain at the touch.
Standing, the Doctor brushed off his jacket and straightened his tie. With a flourish, he turned and faced the men approaching.
“Hello! I’m the Doctor!” he said to them, his smile beaming.
With a cursory glance behind the men, the Doctor noticed that the Vex was down and being bound by several other men. Hunters? he thought to himself.
“I must say, we certainly are lucky to have run into you,” he continued. “We seem to have run afoul of the local fauna, it seems. Without you we might be a pile of goo by now. Excellent show there.”
The man with the plasma rifle raised a hand to the men flanking him, and they stopped their advance. Continuing forward to stand before the Doctor, the man leveled the rifle at him. “Are you with her?” he barked.
“I’m sorry, I don’t–“
“Do you serve her or not, fiend?! Show me your hands!” the man demanded, raising the rifle level with the Doctor’s head.
The Doctor raised his hands above him. The man with the rifle, stomped over and roughly grabbed the Doctor’s arm and looked at the Doctor’s right hand specifically, turning it over to look at both sides. Keeping the gun leveled at the Doctor, the man inspected the Captain’s right hand as well.
“I don’t know who she is, but we serve ourselves. Like I said, I am the Doctor, and my friend over there is Captain Light. We need medical attention, as you can plainly see. So, why don’t you lower that dreadful weapon, and help us. We’re obviously already overpowered by you, and we’ve no intention to run.”
The man, apparently the leader, seemed to think this over. He lowered his gun and made hand motions to the others, who quickly broke line and trotted back to help the others with the Vex. “How did you come to be here?”
“Yes, well, we met a little girl when we landed. She took something of value from us, tied us up, and left us for that Vex,” the Doctor explained.
“Then you’ve lied to me,” the leader said. “Though you probably don’t realize it. You two are lucky. You have met her, but you had something she wanted more than your service. Few men see her and live.”
“That little girl?” the Captain chimed in. “She knew her way around a blaster, but surely she’s no real threat to men like yourselves.”
The leader smirked, but remarked no further on the subject. Looking at each of the two men in turn, he shouldered his rifle and held out his hand to the Doctor. “My name is Jaron, and I am tribe leader of the Kinzix.”
The Doctor happily shook Jaron’s hand as best he could, still being bound.
Seeing the difficulty, Jaron removed a knife from his belt and freed the Doctor before likewise cutting Captain Light’s bindings.
“If you can keep up, you can follow us back to the village. We can treat your friend there, but we must hurry. There are more Vexes about.”
Helping his companion to his feet, the Doctor nodded. “Lead on then, we’ll follow.”
The Captain and the Doctor followed Jaron as he made his way over to the fallen Vex. The great beast’s chest heaved as it slumbered.
“The ropes we use to trap them have barbs that inject a sleep poison. As long as he’s bound, we can handle him easily,” Jaron explained.
“What will you do with it?” the Doctor asked, curious.
“There are more men coming here from the village. They’ll construct a cart to move it, and then they will attempt to transport it close to her kingdom’s borders, where they’ll set it free to wreak havoc on her lands.”
The Doctor had moved around to look at the creature’s head, and more specifically the sounding flaps on its neck.
“Why are you so obsessed with this thing?” the Captain asked, gingerly stepping up beside the Doctor.
The Doctor smiled, and turned to the Captain. In a whisper, he said, “Because I think this is the very same Thripitifalus Vex that was missing from Heem’s collection.”
“How can you tell?”
“This marking between the eyes,” the Doctor explained. “I’ve only seen a few specimens, but only one has had this exact marking. Could just be a coincidence though.”
Turning his attention away from the Vex, the Doctor made his way over to Jaron who was giving instructions to some of his men.
“Just out of curiosity, Jaron, what was all that about my right hand?” the Doctor queried.
Several of the men nearby gasped, all looking at the Doctor’s right hand in terror.
“It’s fine!” the Doctor said, waving it at them. They seemed to relax and went on about their business.
Grimly, Jaron leaned in to speak to the Doctor where his men could not hear him. Captain Light had made his way over and listened in.
“The girl has magic powers,” Jaron explained. “She gives men a sickness. Their right hands turn red, and they go mad, killing innocent people. That is how we know someone has been turned by her. That is why we checked your hands.”
“How do the people with the sickness kill others?” Captain Light asked.
“That’s a bit morbid, isn’t it?” the Doctor replied, turning up his nose.
The Captain shushed him, then pressed for an answer. “Do they use a weapon, or are the victims burned?”
Jaron’s eyes went wide. “You know more than you say.”
The Doctor turned to his companion. “What do you know?”
“I’ve seen this,” Captain Light replied. “Red right hand. And the deaths, they are from the hand. It’s like an energy blast, massive power.” He took a deep breath, before concluding with, “This just keeps getting worse.”
“He speaks truth. I’ve seen the blast,” Jaron confirmed.
The Doctor was smiling. “I think we’re onto something now.”
(to be continued)