lindenharp (lindenharp) wrote,

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FIC: Fear in a Handful of Dust (1/2)

Title: Fear in a Handful of Dust (1/2)

Rating: G

Characters: Fourth Doctor, Romana II

Genre: Gen, drama

Spoilers: none.

Summary: The Earth is in danger, and the cause seems to be hiding in a traveling carnival in 1930s Nebraska.  The Doctor and Romana investigate.

Disclaimer: I don't own Doctor Who, K-9, or the TARDIS.  (I do, however, have a 12-foot scarf, courtesy of my mother-in-law.)

Author's notes:
This is one of my old stories. Written in 1991, posted to Usenet in 1994, and published in the zine Myth Makers in 1999. I wrote it because I was dissatisfied with the way the BBC handled American characters and settings.

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust."
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The young woman twisted a strand of tawny hair around her finger and frowned at the instrument panel before her. "That's odd," she murmured.

Among the gleaming white walls and sophisticated devices, her flowery, lace-trimmed dress seemed as incongruous as the oak hat-stand that stood in a lone corner of the room. A casual observer might have guessed her to be a young graduate student, completing an experiment before dashing off to the dean's tea party.

The casual observer would have been almost right. At 125, Lady Romanadvoratrelundar was still quite young by Gallifreyan standards, and had only recently graduated from the Time Lord academy. Moreover, she *was* completing an experiment before attending a tea party; not with a dean, but with a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University.

"Odd? What's odd?" The tall curly-haired man who strode into the room looked ready for a masquerade rather than a tea party, dressed as he was in a greatcoat, floppy hat, and a multicolored scarf of ridiculous length. Without waiting for a reply, he pulled a gold pocket watch from his vest.

"Romana, if you don't stop twiddling with that, we'll be late to tea, and I am very much looking forward to discussing the professor's ideas on symbolic logic."

With commendable patience, Romana refrained from mentioning that one could not be late in the TARDIS. That was, after all, the whole point of time travel.

"Pity K-9's circuits aren't repaired yet; I'm sure he'd enjoy it too," the Doctor added.

Romana took a moment to wonder if a Victorian-era mathematician would enjoy conversing with a metal dog whose understanding of the subject was superior to his own. "I'm nearly done," she said, "but there is something rather odd--"

The Doctor interrupted. "I also wanted to compliment him on his book, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Have you read it?"

Romana tried again. "Doctor, this reading--"

"Of course," the Time Lord mused, "when we see him, he won't actually have written it yet." He peered over her shoulder. "Romana, that's a terribly odd reading there. You're supposed to mention these things to me."

The Time Lady silently recited the first nineteen prime numbers in High Rigellian. "The origin point is on Earth. What do you make of it, Doctor?"

"Well, there seems to be some warping in the space-time metric. That's a bit peculiar."

That, Romana thought, was putting it mildly. The metric was the basic mathematical framework of space-time. Any warping in the metric could lead to disaster. "It's as if someone were trying to poke holes in the universe."

"Like a piece of Swiss cheese," the Doctor observed.

Romana wondered if she would ever get used to the Doctor's unscientific metaphors. "It's barely stable right now, but if the damage continues--"

"There will be more hole than cheese, and the local metric will crumple," the Doctor said cheerfully. "A discontinuity will be created, space-time will curl back on itself until it forms a black hole, and the entire planet will be destroyed."

Romana frowned. In theory, it was possible to mend a discontinuity. Bind just the right amount of matter into it, and it would form a micro-singularity, which would in turn trigger a small explosion, destroying itself. In practice, even Gallifreyan quantum geometry could not handle the calculations necessary to compute the correct mass. It was,
as the Doctor might say, rather like trying to darn a sock while running -- and while wearing the sock. "What's causing it?" she asked.

"At first glance... that sort of distortion sometimes does occur with a maladjusted transmat."

Romana shook her head. "Can't be. It's in the twentieth century."

"A very badly maladjusted transmat?" the Doctor suggested. "No? Well, let's take a closer look at it, shall we?"

"And our tea with the professor?" Romana could not resist inquiring.

The Doctor did not look up from the console. "After we've looked into this anomaly," he replied. "This is a time machine, after all, Romana." He scratched his shaggy head. "I don't know what they're teaching at the Academy, these days."


Romana looked up from the console. "We've materialized, Doctor. The coordinates say we're near the center of North America." She flicked on the scanner, and a monotonous expanse of parched grass and dusty soil filled the viewscreen. "Not very scenic," she commented.

The view from the TARDIS doorway was equally uninspiring. Dust-choked grass stretched to the horizon, interrupted only by a dirt road that seemed to go from nowhere to oblivion. "They call it a dust bowl," the Doctor said quietly. "Drought shrivels up the topsoil, and then the wind blows it away." He scooped up a handful of dust and let it trickle slowly through his fingers. "This may be all that's left of someone's farm."

"What happens to the farmers, then?" Romana asked uneasily. On Gallifrey, drought and famine had been abstract concepts out of a history data file. She was not comfortable about seeing the reality first hand; she hoped she would never be.

"Most of the poor devils have gone to look for work in the cities," the older Time Lord replied.

"That's good."

"No, it isn't. A few years back, the national economy here suffered a major depression. There isn't enough work to go around." The Doctor surveyed the devastated landscape. "If the local metric did collapse," he said softly, "I wonder if anyone would notice."

"We'll notice, if we don't locate the source of that anomaly soon," Romana retorted. She shook her head. "There isn't even anything here!"

"A secret government laboratory?" the Doctor suggested, fiddling with the fringes of his scarf. "Experimenting with primitive transmat technology?"

"Doctor, these people are just starting to dabble with atomic energy! They can't have any idea of matter transmission. Besides--" Romana's hand swept outward in a gesture that encompassed the entire prairie. "I don't see any secret laboratories."

"Underground?" the Doctor proposed, but he was clearly baffled. He disappeared behind the TARDIS. "Aha!"

Romana followed him. The Doctor was standing at the edge of another dirt road, peering at a large sign with rapt interest. "Just the thing!"

The Time Lady arched her brows. In her (somewhat limited) experience, secret government laboratories did not announce their whereabouts on large signs with black, gold and scarlet lettering. "Corrigan's Carnival," she read aloud. "A thousand laughs, a thousand thrills. Dodgson, Nebraska -- June 14-21, 1935. See Khalid the Human Colossus perform incredible feats of strength. Marvel at Madame Morgana, Mystic Mistress of Prophecy. See the Mysterious Phantasm escape the Cage of Death. Thrill as the Great Tortelli hurls deadly daggers. See Little Baghdad perform the sensational Oriental Dance of--- Doctor, this is absurd! Some irresponsible idiot of a scientist is endangering the whole planet and you want to go to a carnival?"

The Doctor flashed a grin at her. "Perhaps Madame Morgana will be able to tell us where the transmat is. Have you got the detector?"

Romana pulled a small device from her pocket. "We can monitor the deterioration with this, but it will only act as a tracker when the transmat is in operation," she warned.

"All the more reason to find something to do while we're waiting," the Doctor replied. "Coming?"

Corrigan's Carnival was a large grey canvas tent with a wooden stage protruding from one side, surrounded by a motley collection of smaller tents, souvenir stands, and game booths made from nailed-together milk crates decorated with tattered bunting. On the stage, a gauze-veiled Little Baghdad was listlessly bumping and grinding in time to "Moon Over Miami" played on a scratchy victrola. The crowd of farmers and shopkeepers greeted her efforts with smiles as thin as their carefully mended clothing, while their womenfolk trudged from game booth to game booth, applauding every dart throw or ring toss, and doling out pennies for triumphal feasts of cotton candy and lemonade. The children oohed and aahed and giggled, darting everywhere, gawking at everything with wide eyes that saw none of the greyness beneath the gaudy colors.

The Doctor and Romana joined the audience just as Little Baghdad finished her dance and disappeared through a slit in the tent wall. The carnival barker, a stout bald man with apricot-colored whiskers, exhorted the crowd to buy tickets to the next performance. "This was only a taste, folks. The real excitement is inside."

"Come along now, Romana," the Doctor said briskly. He began digging through his pockets.

"Where are we going?"

"To buy tickets for the show, of course." The Doctor pulled out some coins. "We don't want to miss the real excitement, do we?"

Romana sighed and hurried to match the Doctor's pace. The man was exasperating, unscientific, and even childish, but he had the annoying habit of usually being right. There were Time Lords on Gallifrey who were more brilliant, or more scholarly, and many who made more sense, but none had the Doctor's flair for solving insolvable problems. That, no doubt, was why the White Guardian had chosen him to search for the Key to Time. It was also why she wanted to learn all she could from him before the inevitable summons called her back to lifetimes of tedious research on Gallifrey.


Romana stifled a yawn as the next exciting attraction appeared on stage. One by one, the Great Tortelli's daggers formed a crude outline around his assistant, who was none other than Little Baghdad, minus her veils and dressed in a sequin-covered bathing suit. She looked bored. A pair of shabby clowns engaged in a baffling dispute involving squirt guns and a rubber chicken. They were followed by Khalid the Human Colossus, who finished up his act by hoisting a small table on which were seated Little Baghdad and two nervous farmers.

Finally, the barker announced the Mysterious Phantasm. The crowd whispered and pointed as the stagehands brought out the Cage of Death.

The Cage was a six-foot high rectangle, enclosed on all sides by heavy wire mesh. It contained a wooden box of slightly smaller dimensions which bore an uneasy resemblance to a coffin standing on its end. The box's lid was pierced by many thin slits about three inches wide.

The barker extended his hands, palms up, in a gesture of invitation. "This is no sham, ladies and gentlemen! Who'll come up and examine this lethal appa-raytus?" He paused. "Mebbe it'd better be a gentleman. If the Phantasm fails... well, I'd just naturally hate for a lady to see all the blood."

There was a half-muffled shriek in the front row, and a flurry of whispers, then a clear voice called out, "I'd be delighted to take a look at it."

It was the Doctor. With his scarf dragging behind him like a royal train, he made his way to the front of the tent and mounted the three steps to the stage.

The barker held out his hand. "Thanks for your assistance, Mister--?"

"Doctor," the Time Lord corrected.

The barker addressed the audience. "Let's have a big hand for the Doc, folks!" The crowd applauded dutifully.

The Doctor made an elaborate show of examining the Cage. He rattled the outer frame, peered into the wooden box and thumped its sides, and concluded the inspection by using his scarf to measure the depth of the box.

"Thank you, Doc," the barker said. "Just stand right over here. Ladies and gentlemen, Corrigan's Carnival presents the amazing and astounding master of mystification, the Mysterious Phantasm!"

The Phantasm bounded onto the stage. Though he was no rival for Khalid, his lean form was muscular enough to do justice to the black jumpsuit that clung to him like a shadow. He stepped into the inner box and waited impassively as the barker slammed shut the box lid and secured the front of the cage with a stout padlock.

A demurely-clad Little Baghdad handed the Doctor a sword. "Take a good look, Doc," the barker invited. "Make sure it's real."

The Time Lord slashed the blade experimentally through the air, then executed a parry-riposte in prime against an invisible opponent. "Very badly balanced," he muttered, "but as I always said to Cyrano, it's not the sword that matters, it's the hand." He tested the point with a cautious fingertip, and returned the blade to the barker.

The barker grasped the sword, point down, and slowly lowered it over the Cage of Death. He passed the weapon between the wires of the outer cage and into the central hole in the box lid, directly over the Phantasm's heart. The crowd held its collective breath. One by one, swords were
thrust into the box, until it was obvious that even the most limber of contortionists could not avoid being transformed into a human shish kebab. With the same deliberate slowness, the barker withdrew the swords one at a time. He unlocked the cage and flung open the box lid to reveal... nothing.

The box was empty. The gasps and muffled shrieks in the audience were interrupted by a triumphant drum roll. The Mysterious Phantasm appeared in the public entranceway of the tent and sprinted up the aisle to the stage. He turned to face the crowd, spreading his arms wide to receive their loud acclaim.

The Doctor waited for the crowd to disperse before rejoining Romana.


"The detector went wild just before the first sword went in. Doctor, you knew, didn't you?"

The Doctor shrugged. "Let's say I had a very strong suspicion."

Somehow, the Doctor didn't seem his usual confident self, Romana thought. "What is it?" she asked.

"`The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'"

Romana's face lit up with a triumphant smile. This once, he wasn't going to catch her! "Sherlock Holmes! `The dog did nothing in the night-time.'"

" 'That was the curious incident.' " the Doctor completed the quote with a note of surprise in his voice.

It was mid-afternoon and there were no dogs in sight. Romana failed to see any connection.

"It's odd," the Doctor commented. "Most transmats do make a bit of noise, but when our friend the Phantasm popped out of his cage, I didn't hear a thing."

"Maybe the crowd drowned it out," Romana suggested, knowing as she said it that there had not been enough noise to interfere with a Gallifreyan's acute hearing. "Or maybe it's a particularly silent transmat."

"A primitive model? With the sort of maladjustment that this one must have? I think not."

"Doctor, one thing has been puzzling me," Romana confessed. "Assuming that some brilliant Earth scientist has invented a transmat before its time, why is he performing in a third-rate carnival in Dodgson, Nebraska?"

"Perhaps it's just a useful hiding-place, while he works on perfecting his invention," the Time Lord replied, but he did not sound convinced.

"It's far from perfect now. Look at these readings, Doctor. The local space-time metric is terribly unstable. I don't think it will survive another transmat jump, and the next show is less than two hours away."

"Then we ought to get to work. I'd like to take a closer look at that `lethal apparatus.' " The Doctor strode into the now-empty tent. Romana hurried after him.

They climbed onto the stage. Romana peered at the Cage of Death. "There's certainly no room to hide the equipment in here."

"Even if you hollowed out the sides of the box, it wouldn't hold all the circuitry," the Doctor agreed.

Romana hesitated. "Doctor... is it possible that the transmat is operating somewhere else in the carnival? That it just happened to coincide with the Phantasm's act? The detector isn't that precise at short range, you know."

The Time Lord frowned. "It's possible, but if it's true, we have another mystery to explain." He gestured at the Cage of Death. "This sort of trick usually relies on a trap door, but I looked very carefully, and there isn't one."

"Then there must be a transmat very near by. Under the stage, perhaps?"

"Shall we take a look?" the Doctor invited.

"Hey! Whadda you doing in here?" A dark-haired young man appeared from the back-stage area. It took the two Time Lords several moments to recognize him. This nondescript figure in grimy work clothes looked nothing like the flamboyant performer they'd seen or the brilliant scientist they'd been expecting.

The Doctor held out his hand. "Hello, I'm the Doctor, this is Romana, and you of course are the Phantasm. How d'you do?"

The young man scowled. "What the hell are you doing, poking your nose where it don't belong?"

The Time Lord grinned as if in response to a cordial greeting. "I was terribly curious to look at this Cage of yours. I'm in rather the same line of work, you see--"

"You? You ain't a carny," the Phantasm sneered.

Actually, the Doctor had belonged to a carnival once, but that had been several centuries earlier, on another planet. "I had more in mind appearances and disappearances," he corrected. "It's rather a speciality of mine."

"All right, lemme see you disappear, Doctor. Now!" The young man's voice was harsh with anger.

"We're going," Romana said hastily.

"I'll decide when we're going," the Doctor chided. He turned on his heel. "Come along, Romana. We're going."

Once outside the tent, the two Time Lords paused to confer. "Not exactly a warm reception," the Doctor said.

"He wasn't just angry," Romana observed. "He was frightened -- no, he was terrified!"

"You noticed that too? I wonder what he's so frightened of."

"Of what we might discover?" the Time Lady suggested.

"We won't discover anything just standing around here." The Doctor began to drift away from the main tent. "Come along, Romana. How about a lemonade, eh?" He headed for the refreshment stand, and got in line behind a small girl in a pink gingham dress. Atop her neat red braids she wore a cardboard headdress with two floppy rabbit ears.

As the girl reached up for her cotton candy, her headdress toppled to the ground. The Doctor stooped down to retrieve it. "Excuse me," he said, "but you seem to have lost your ears."

The child giggled. "Thanks, mister." She replaced her ornament and skipped away, her face hidden behind a mass of pink fluff.

"What now?" Romana asked.

The Doctor pulled out his pocket watch. "I'll wait until our excitable friend is busy elsewhere, and then I'll take a look at the underside of that stage."

"Right. While you're doing that, I'll have a little chat with the Mystic Mistress of Prophecy."

"Ummn, Romana," the Doctor began, "What I said before -- that is, I didn't actually mean to suggest--"

"Probably not," his companion retorted, "but Madame Morgana works in the same carnival as the Mysterious Phantasm. Maybe she can unravel some of his mysteries for us."


Madame Morgana's tent was lit by candle stubs stuck in Coke bottles and draped with black hangings bearing astrological symbols. The Mystic Mistress of Prophecy was also draped in black. Except for the sequined veil covering her graying hair, she looked rather like a stout widow in her Sunday dress. She smelt faintly of jasmine and lemon drops.

"Be seated," she commanded. "How can Madame Morgana help you? A palm-reading, perhaps? Or is it a glimpse of the future in the crystal that you want, eh?"

She'll probably tell me that I'm going on a long journey with a tall, dark man, Romana thought. "Actually, I want to ask some questions," she said.

"Of course you do." Madame Morgana smiled, revealing a large gold tooth. She waited.

"Oh, sorry." Romana fished in her pocket. She placed a ten-cent piece in the center of the table. "Tell me about the Phantasm."

Madame Morgana pushed the dime back to Romana. "I don't answer those kind of questions. Maybe this is just a two-bit dog-and-pony show, but carnies don't squeal on carnies."

"Not even if the other person is in trouble?"

"What kind of trouble?"

Romana hesitated. How did she explain matter transmission and temporo-spacial anomalies to someone who made her living with a crystal ball?

"Your friend is using some terribly dangerous equipment in his act. People could be hurt. I'm sorry, I can't explain any better than that -- you'll have to trust me."

Madame Morgana's dark eyes were expressionless. "Trust." She let the word linger as if she were tasting it. "That's a tall order." She grinned suddenly in a way that reminded Romana of the Doctor. "I haven't been running a mitt joint for thirty years without learning what makes folks tick." She reached for the dime. "Okay, so what do you want to know about Stan?"

"Stan?" Romana echoed.

"Stanislaus Markiewicz. You think it says `Mysterious Phantasm' on his birth certificate?" The fortuneteller chuckled.

"Where is he from? Has be been with the carnival long?"

Madame Morgana fixed her gaze on the crystal without really seeing it. "Lessee... he joined up in Tulsa -- I guess that was three years ago. Before that, I don't know. Lotta carnies don't like talking about their past. He says he came over from Poland when he was four, and he grew up in Chicago. I think his folks are dead."

"Does he have any special friends in the carnival? People he's close to?"

Morgana shook her head. "Stan isn't the kinda guy that gets close to anybody. You can count on him in a pinch, but... special friends? Sometimes he plays gin with my Joe."

"Your Joe?"

"The Great Tortelli, he's my boy Joe," the fortuneteller said proudly. "His papa was a knife kinker too, God rest him. I was his assistant. You can laugh if you want to, but I was a real eyeful in the old days, and I filled a pair of spangled tights better than that sfacciata Emmy Ryan. Thinks she's queen of the world -- and her just a cootch dancer! -- but when she loses her looks and her figure, she won't have the brains to find something new like I did." Morgana shrugged. "Old ladies talk too much, huh? I just wanted you to know that I was young and pretty like you once."

Romana calculated idly that she was probably twice Morgana's age. "Does Stan like to tinker with machines?"

"Stan? You gotta be kidding! When the truck breaks down, he don't know the carburetor from the clutch."

Romana frowned. This didn't fit at all! "Then is there someone else in the carnival who's very interested in science?"

"Well, there's Jerry..." Morgana said dubiously.


"Mike Corrigan's nephew, Jerry. He's eleven. He reads these weird stories about robots and time machines and people from other planets. Crazy, huh? He's a nice kid, but he'll talk your ear off about that stuff."

The Time Lady repressed a smile. "Has Stan always done the same act?"

"Ever since he's been on this show, yeah. It's funny, though. Most kinkers, they talk a lot about their act. Stan doesn't. Last month my Joe said that Stan had a great act, and why didn't he go to one of the big shows, maybe even Ringling, but Stan just shrugged and said he likes it here. It's funny," Morgana mused aloud, "My Joe said, `Mamma, for a moment I'd swear he was gonna hit me.' I asked, was he so mad? and Joe answers, `It's crazy, but I think he was scared.'"
Tags: drama, fic, fourth doctor, gen, romana ii
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