Hour One by James Goss
There are worse places to die than New Venice. She told herself this as she staggered out of the ballroom.
Her name was Doom and she was having a terrible day. She checked herself in a gilded mirror. For a dead woman, she looked amazing. The holographically-generated ballgown shimmered with a thousand rubies, her hair was swept up into a startled wedding cake, and she held a jewelled mask in one hand and a staser rifle in the other. The only thing wrong was her face – it should have looked its normal smart, self-deprecating and quietly amused self. Instead, she looked like a goldfish learning bad news while sunbathing.
She dropped the rifle behind a curtain and clamped her jaw shut.
She needed to think and think fast. They’d be looking for her.
Behind her the party was still going strong. On New Venice the party always carried on. Heartbreak, lethal feuds or the outbreak of a temporal paradox never interfered in the dance. The revellers swirled and laughed, the android string quartet didn’t miss a beat, and the crystal gondolas still slid smoothly by as she fell against the balustrade and sank onto the marble tiles of the terrace.
Not a bad view.
Worse places to die.
Maybe there was a chance – She checked her life signs on her Vortex Manipulator. No. Not good. Really very badly not good. So she did what you were supposed to do when you were dying. She phoned the office.
On a distant planet in a sullen orbit slinking behind a shifty sun was an office. The office was just one grey box in a grey tower in a grey city against a grey sky. What very few people knew was that the office was so important that it predated everything else on the planet. Indeed, the entire nondescript city had been built only to provide cover for the office. Whole generations had been born, had loved and died here, just to provide camouflage for the office.
Because the office was the headquarters of the Lesser Order of Oberon.
Sat in the office was Terri. No longer young, she hadn’t yet summoned up the energy to grow old. Her face shrugged because her shoulders couldn’t be bothered. Her resting expression was someone who’d just swiped the last chocolate and discovered it was the one she didn’t like.
Terri was doing her nails and reading a magazine full of last year’s scandals when the phone rang.
She did not even look at the phone.
She had better things to do. She wasn’t sure what. But she did know they were better.
The phone continued to ring. Terri considered answering it. In her experience if you answered one call, it only encouraged the others, and then there’d be a tidal wave.
And yet, the phone continued to ring.
Terri sighed. Her sighs were the only things she practised.
Every morning while she waited for the kettle to boil.
Going against her better instincts, Terri picked up the cradle, and watched a hologram spring into the air.
The familiar figure, slumped in a holographic ballgown stared desperately out at her.
“Can anyone hear me? Can anyone-”
The other line lit up. Of course it did.
“Got another call, putting you on hold,” said Terri and did so. She enjoyed pressing that button.
The hologram froze, edged out of the way by a Judoon Vice Admiral. Now, he was important. Doom could wait.
Terri put on her sweetest tones and leaned into the hologram, pulling her face into something that had at least met a smile once. “Assassins of the Lesser Order of Oberon, we aim to kill, how can I help?”
Back on New Venice, Doom howled in frustration. Nobody heard her. The only sounds anyone ever heard on New Venice were pleasant laughter and whispered gossip. That’s why it had been such a perfect place to come for the mission.
Doom was a very good Assassin. Which was why she was surprised, ironically surprised, to find that she was dying.
She tapped the frozen hologram desperately.
“Terri… Terri…. Terri….”
The hologram did nothing.
From the distant ballroom came the merry sounds of a conga line.
Am I going to die listening to the conga, she thought?
She poked the hologram again. “Terri! This is an emergency. Terri!”
The hologram sprang back into life. “Doom, I was just finishing an important call,” said Terri. She was sipping what looked like a very fresh cup of tea from a mug which read “You Don’t Have To Kill To Work Here But It Helps”. Only Terri found this funny.
“Terri!” yelled Doom. “The New Venice mission's gone wrong. This is an emergency. Terri?”
Terri regarded her mug and took a long and slurping sip. Doom realised she’d made an error. There was a trick to handling Terri. Never let her see you were getting angry. No matter how mad she made you, just keep your voice calm and reasonable.
“Now, I know you can hear me, Terri,” Doom said, calmly and reasonably.
Terri took another bubbling sip of tea, and spun her chair towards the window.
“Terri!” Doom shouted. “I'm the very best assassin you've got on your books. And I'm dying. You need to fix this. Who sent me here? Because I've been set up.”
That almost secured Terri’s attention. She put the mug down, which was something, her hands drifting across the folders and sweet wrappers littering her desk.
She found a datapad, and glanced down at it.
“The New Venice Mission?”
“Just checking,” Terri picked up a pen, and clicked it several times. “Doom, did you kill the target?”
“Terri! That's the problem!” Doom protested.
“Just confirm the kill, Doom,” Terri tapped the pen against the datapad. “Did you go to Duke Derek Gamma’s Masked Ball?”
Terri stabbed the datapad with the pen, ticking a box. “Kill confirmed, money transferred to the Guild Account.”
There was a distant boink as the Lesser Order of Oberon’s banking computers began a lucrative transfer of funds from the escrow account.
“Listen - that's the problem,” Doom protested. “It’s not as simple as that - I've killed the one person I'm not supposed to kill. I was set up. I fired the staser bolt before I realised. The Doctor was there-”
“Wait,” Terri held up her hand, cutting Doom off. Terri’s eyes narrowed dangerously and she scrolled through the options on the datapad. “You killed the Doctor? We didn't charge for that. I mean, the Doctor has a lot of faces, but still-“ Terri tutted, and performed an over-elaborate eyeroll.
The Doctor. A relentlessly do-gooding immortal who rattled around the universe in a shower of bumbling heroics. Every assassin knew about the Doctor. Being sent to kill the Doctor was like being sent out to buy a tin of tartan paint. Someone was having a laugh at your expense.
“You killed the Doctor? And for free? Bad Mistake,” Terri let out her best I-don’t-have-time-for-this sigh, and reached for a fresh datapad. “We might as well get started on the paperwork, see if we can claim some bounty- Name?”
Doom thought she was used to Terri by now. As booker for the Lesser Order of Oberon she knew she was the least important person in the entire guild of assassins. She didn’t do any of the actual killing. She didn’t go out there and win business. She didn’t even get the sandwiches. Terri just sat resentfully at a desk, answered the phones, sent assignments out to the guild’s assassins, then asked for the same information to be read back to her at the end of every mission.
Right now, Doom had never needed her more and Terri was at her most maddening.
Doom let out a howl of raw frustration. “I haven't killed the Doctor and I’ve not got time for paperwork!” She checked the readout on her vortex manipulator. No change. “My vortex manipulator says I've got 24 hours left to live. You see-”
Terri stared out of the hologram. “Name?” she repeated. Had she even been listening?
“You don’t understand,” Doom tried to keep the panic from her voice. “I'm. Dying. Terri.”
Terri considered her options.
“And you’d like me to do something about it?”
Terri let out a huff of air. “Since it’s you, Doom,” She reached down for a third datapad, and clicked her pen a few more times. “I’ll start on a Death-In-Service Report. Name?”
Doom took a moment to smooth out the pleats in her holographic ballgown. She flicked through a few holo-costume options – pirate, astronaut, accountant, then let it drift back to default.
Doom thought back to that meeting on the Grand Balcony. She prided herself that she knew how to slip into a room, execute her mission, then slink out again.
“My superpower is not being noticed when I fancy it.”
And yet the old man had noticed her. As soon as she’d walked onto the balcony he’d been watching her.
She’d looked back at him, and smiled her most reassuring smile. “Hi,” she’d said, managing to inject into the single syllable that she was important and fabulous and on her way to spend time with important and fabulous people.
“I wouldn’t,” was all the man had said.
“Do what you came here to do,” the man tilted his head on one side.
“Just came to get a breath of fresh air,” she smiled back, eyes drifting down onto the dance floor. There was the target, moving into position. Mustn’t let the target get away.
But the man was still there. He laid a hand on her arm.
“I think I can help you,” he said. “My name is the Doctor.”
Well, that had been a laugh.
The Doctor had a reputation across creation. If your planet was in danger, if your leader was cruel, if your gods were unreasonable, then the Doctor would be there, standing by your side. Doom suspected the Doctor’s largesse did not extend to assassins. She doubted he’d hear her out when she made her case. If you thought about it, they were in pretty much the same line of work, she just dealt in more divorces.
Mind you, why was the Doctor speaking to her at a party? Was he going to try and stop her? He’d better not.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I think you’ve confused me with someone else.”
“Listen to me,” the Doctor had said, angrily. “You’re about to make a terrible mistake-“
“Nah,” she’d told him and marched off to make a terrible mistake.
As she’d walked away, she felt his eyes following her. Even when she ducked behind the arras and slipped into an unoccupied private box, she could still feel his cold gaze. She looked around. No sign of him. One thing less to worry about.
Had she even really met the Doctor? Probably not. And even if she had, he wasn’t going to get in her way.
She saw the target again, dancing beautifully across the dancefloor arm-in-arm with one of the Cauldron Princes. They were laughing beneath their masks. Ah well, she had no objection to people dying happy.
She pulled up the staser she’d stolen from the cloakroom, took careful aim and fired.
And that was when everything had all gone wrong.
“Terri,” Doom pleaded. “Just for once forget about the forms. I'm not dead yet! My vortex manipulator says I’ve got 24 hours left. The Doctor's gone and I need to find him again. He warned me. But I didn't listen. He's the only one who can fix this.”
“Soooo,” Terri scrutinised the form in front of her. “You don’t want to pick a tune for your burial?” “No!”
“I see,” Terri said. “I’ll just pop you down for the Macarena. It’s a classic.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Terri said, reassuringly. “I’ll take you off the rota as well.” She reached out for another pad.
That was the last thing Doom wanted. “You can’t do that! Keep me on the rota.”
The way the Lesser Order of Oberon worked was very straightforward. They prided themselves on their lethal efficiency. Operatives were paid by the assignment, and given one hour. At the end of that time the vortex manipulator would reactivate – fee either deducted from the client’s account or from the unsuccessful assassin’s wages. The Lesser Order always won.
There would be a split-second in between missions as the manipulator snatched the assassin away into the vortex. They’d be sent a number of assignments located anywhere in time and space, giving them a moment to choose their next mission.
Doom had the beginnings of an idea.
The Doctor could be anywhere in time and space.
Well then, so could she.
“If I’m still on the rota, then I've got 24 hours left before I'm gone. That's 24 missions. 24 chances to find the Doctor. I'm on the clock here.”
Dying? Meh. She’d dealt with worse. Who’d overthrown the Daedalus Conspiracy? Who’d sealed the Mandeville Dimension? Who’d saved Princess Agatha from her seven deadly husbands?
She’d only had one shot at each. And now she had 24 chances to sort this mess out.
Something moved in the shadows at the end of the terrace. Of course, it was the Doctor. Come to check on her. He’d seen her running pale-faced from the ballroom. Probably wanted to wag his finger and say “I told you so.”
Well, fair dos, magic grandpa. Get it over with and save my life.
Doom squinted at the figure emerging from the shadows.
It was not the Doctor.
The figure was pulling itself out of the shadows, dragging them with it. There was almost a cowl, almost a claw emerging from the almost a cloak. And it was coming towards her.
Well, that wasn’t subtle.
That’s what she’d unleashed.
“Please Terri - It's coming for me. My actual Death is coming for me!”
Terri squinted at the panicked face on the hologram. That was odd, Terri thought. The hologram was getting very dark. She said the most helpful thing she could think of.
“Terri. Get me out of here! Send me a target, quickly.” Doom begged.
“Fiiiine,” said Terri, sending through a list of possible targets. Whatever Doom was babbling about would, she was sure, take care of itself. And Terri had quite enough on her plate. She always did.
“You’re a lifesaver!” said Doom, and the hologram vanished.
“A lifesaver,” Terri muttered as she reached for her mug. “Fancy.”
Her tea had gone cold.
As the shadows swept towards her, Doom took one last look at the beautiful sunset on New Venice. It had been a long day and it was going to get even longer. She sensed the vortex gathering around her, and hastily scrolled through the possibilities on offer:
- The Alderton Array
- Madrigal’s Escalation
…. And there it was. Perfect. Of course, she’d find the Doctor there, and if not, then someone who knew them very well….
- The Stormcage Containment Facility.
Doom selected the option just as the shadows reached her, forming into a giant screaming skull.
“Death, mate, you can wait. I'm going to find the Doctor.”
And the manipulator flung her into the vortex.
Her name was Doom and she was having a terrible day. But she was about to have the best day of her life.
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