Characters: Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble
Genre: Gen, drama
Spoilers: Minor spoilers for the first two episodes of Series 4.
Summary: A star empire is menaced by deadly creatures from the time of Rassilon. Will one lone Time Lord and a human companion be enough to defeat them?
Disclaimer: The sandbox belongs to RTD and the BBC. I'm just playing here, in the corner, making little sand-TARDISes.
A/N: This story takes place sometime between Planet of the Ood and The Sontaran Stratagem. The Doctor is still recovering from The Year That Never Was -- an experience that he has not mentioned to Donna.
Thanks to my splendid and speedy beta,wendymr.
Previous Chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7
In which Donna and the Doctor have an argument, with an intermission for soup.
“There are emergencies when it is right to risk health and life to save ourselves and others from greater evils.”
Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper
Catharine Esther Beecher, New York, 1874
Donna turns to Gher Besif. “Sweetheart, I think we’re ready for something to eat. Could you see about organizing some lunch?” She adds casually, “Take your time.”
His head bobs in a gesture that is more than a nod but less than a bow, and he hurries away.
As soon as the young Paalgi is out of sight, she turns back to the Doctor. “I’m not going to ask if you’ve gone bonkers, Doctor, ‘cos I already know the answer to that one. Setting yourself up as bait? Can’t you record your brain, and use that instead?”
He shakes his head. “It would work as well as trying to catch a mouse with a photo of a piece of Stilton.”
“And what do you expect me and Gher to do? Just slam the door shut and let the Hrul enjoy their afternoon tea?” In a shrill voice she mimics a conversation. “’What a lovely bit o’ Time Lord you’ve got, Myrtle. Can’t find those in the shops any more. Where’d you get it?’ ‘Oooh, it just wandered in. Aren’t we the lucky ones? And it’s so nicely aged, too.’”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” he snaps. “I’m going to teleport out as soon as all the Hrul are inside. The teleport will ‘slam the door’ automatically. And you, Donna Noble—” A long finger stabs emphatically at her face. “You and Gher Besif aren’t going to be anywhere nearby when that happens.”
“Ohhh no you don’t. No. No. No. Thought we settled that back in Pompeii, Martian Boy. You and me, best mates. We stick together. Got that?”
“Donna… please.” The unexpected ‘please’ catches her attention even more than the soft, weary tone of his voice. “It’s got to be split-second timing. There’s nothing you can do to help. All you’ll do is distract me.”
She sighs, then sighs again, as Gher Besif arrives with lunch, accompanied by five servants: two to carry the food, one to manage a floating pallet that holds a small table and three chairs, one to set the table, and two others to actually serve the meal.
The servants hover attentively. The Doctor tries to wave them away; they look nervous, but hold their ground. Evidently, in the rigid code of Paalgi etiquette, the only thing worse than disobeying a Time Lord is to allow such an august and mighty being to ladle his own soup.
Donna expects the meal to be full of awkward silences. Ha! If there’s one thing the Doctor can do in any circumstance, it’s talk. He tells stories of planets he’s visited, planets he’s heard of, and planets that almost certainly don’t exist. In between, he asks Gher Besif about his studies; his life at the University; his plans for the future. The young student is shy at first, then becomes bolder, asking the Doctor about some technical gobbledygook.
Donna tunes out, sipping the pale orange broth garnished with bits of purple and blue herbs, which tastes much better than it looks. Her attention snaps back when she hears, “Doctor, how will you know when all of the Hrul have entered the trap?”
“I’ll know,” the Doctor replies in a careless, offhand way that has Gher nodding and does not fool Donna one little bit.
“Exactly how will you know, Doctor? I’m sure Gher will be fascinated by the details.”
The Doctor pulls a small device out of his pocket. “Not to worry! This will show me their location.”
Gher hesitates. “Doctor? Isn’t that a Kreltan-Sennik monitor? I thought those weren’t accurate at distances shorter than fifty metres.”
The Doctor tucks the device back into his coat. “Not fully accurate,” he concedes, “but close enough. Now, tell me more about that project—”
“Stop right there, Doctor,” Donna hisses. “Gher deserves a real answer. How are you going to know they’re all in the maze?”
Once again, the Doctor waves at the servants, dismissing them. Perhaps it’s the stern look that accompany his gesture, but this time they perform deep, graceful bows, then scuttle away. “I’ll just be very careful. There’s no other way.”
“An isomeretic detection field would do it,” Gher suggests. He turns to Donna. “Hrul are not visible to the eye, but they do interact with certain kinds of particles. We could spray a vapour charged with these particles. Any Hrul passing through the vapour would excite the particles, triggering an odiferous chemical reaction. A strong smell,” he amends, seeing Donna’s blank face.
“So, once the smell is gone, that means they’re all inside?” Donna grins. “Move over, Doctor, we’ve got more than one genius here!”
She can see the rejection in the Doctor’s face, even before he speaks. “Absolutely not. It’s very clever, Gher Besif, but much too dangerous. Do you know how close you’d need to be?”
“I am not afraid,” Gher insists, “and my life is mine to risk. I am not bound to any Guild; nor heir to my House.”
“How much risk can it be, anyway?” Donna asks. “Doctor, if you’re a bit of Stilton, Gher and me must be something like slices of cucumber. The Hrul aren’t going to be interested in us if you’re nearby.”
"Too dangerous,” the Doctor repeats.
“Not half dangerous, compared to what you’re planning,” Donna argues. “And what’s going to happen if there are stragglers, and some of the Hrul get left outside? Even if you teleport out safely, it’ll take hours to build another maze. Who will they be snacking on in the meantime?”
Gher rises from his seat, and bows in the Doctor’s direction. “With respect, Most Gracious Lord—” He plunges on, heedless of the Doctor’s wince. “Though I have been honoured to assist you, I am not under your hand. Do not deny me this chance to serve the Empire.”
“He needs to do this,” Donna says softly. “So do I. There are worlds at stake, not just this one, yeah?”
“Right,” the Doctor says gruffly.
“You said it’ll take split-second timing. So, unless you’ve got some Martian way of being in two places at once…”
The Doctor forces a smile. “Yeah, well… my people had laws against that sort of thing. Besides, I’ve got the magnificent Donna Noble and the splendid Gher Besif with me.” He gives Gher brief instructions. “I need you back in ten minutes with those supplies. Off you go!”
The Doctor paces the stark white floor, and the eerie light of the labyrinth casts long blue shadows that pace with him.
Donna watches him, thinking of all the things she’d like to say – and knows that she won’t. “Something I’ve been wondering about, Spaceman…”
He halts in mid-stride. His face flips through expressions like he’s a telly, and an overactive teen is holding the remote. Surprised. Annoyed. Apprehensive. Resigned. Impatient. “Yeah?”
“What does ehkak mean?”
The channel switches abruptly to astonished, pauses, then jumps to suspicious and remains there. “Why?”
“’Cos I have a right to know what the blighters are saying about me. What does it mean?”
A long silence. “It means pet.” He won’t meet her eyes.
“That again?” There’s something in his silence that she doesn’t quite like. “What does it really mean?”
He wrinkles his nose. “I told you.”
“Well, it does mean ‘pet’ in the sense of a domesticated semi-sentient being, but one that’s been acquired in… errr… an irregular fashion. If you see what I mean.”
“Oh, isn’t that wizard! I’m not even a pet poodle, I’m a bloody stray moggie. With fleas.”
This time, the silence tells her more than she wants to know. “Lovely. Absolutely lovely. Blimey, they probably wonder why you don’t have me on a lead.”
He studies her, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You might look very fetching in one of those little pink collars with rhinestones.”
“Oi! Real diamonds, if you please.”
The twitch spreads into a full smile. “Only the very best for Miss Donna Noble.”
“Too right. When we’re finished here, I want to go on a holiday. A proper holiday. A beach, maybe – or a spa. I’ll be ready for some serious pampering.”
The smile is now a grin. “I know just the place. Spa called the Leisure Palace. The planet is made of—”
But Donna doesn’t get a chance to learn what the spa planet is made of, because Gher Besif has returned with a floating cart filled with large sealed cans, labelled in a script she can’t read. There are also two sleek, silvery canisters with attached nozzles. They look like a cross between a fire extinguisher and some sort of Star Wars superweapon. Gher inserts a flexible hose into the top of a can, and connects the other end to the rear of one of the “guns”. He sets it down carefully, and begins to attach the second canister in the same way. “They will fill quickly,” he assures her.
The Doctor pops into the TARDIS. When he returns, he is wearing a curved gold disk on his left forearm, held in place with a wide strap of black leather. The slender fingers of his right hand dance over it, scarcely touching. Rehearsing, Donna guesses. Then, from that same shabby Tesco’s bag as before, he removes the Matrix Crown of Rassilon and places it on his head. It should look weird and out-of-place when worn by a man in a pinstriped suit. It should bring up images of corporate Christmas parties, and drunken executives wearing silly cardboard hats.
It does not. Perched atop the Doctor’s head, it looks to be in the one place in the Universe where it belongs. And he— he looks ancient, and wise, and dangerous. He shuts his eyes for a moment, appearing to concentrate, and the large tawny gems on the gold circlet glow with an inner light. “Okay. The TARDIS is amplifying the signal – ringing the dinner bell, you might say. Gher!” Something small and metallic flies through the air, and the young Paalgi catches it automatically. “The Kreltan-Sennik monitor will give you enough advance warning to get the vapour-jets started.”
“Yes, Doctor. We will be ready.”
“I know you will.” The Doctor pauses in front of the entryway to the labyrinth of blue light. “It has been a pleasure working with you, Gher Besif.” The amber studs on the Crown glow brighter as he inclines his lean body in the Acknowledgement of Equals. “Keep an eye on my sarthain. She gets a bit reckless sometimes.”
Donna calls out, “Oi! You be careful in there, Spaceman!”
The solemn face beneath the Crown softens. “Donna Noble. When you asked for a vocabulary lesson, I thought you were going to ask about the important one – sarthain.”
Doesn’t it just mean ‘assistant’ or something like that? “Yeah, so?”
“No time, now. Ask Gher.” The Doctor vanishes into the labyrinth.
Donna adjusts the shoulder strap of her vapour-jet. “Okay… Gher, what exactly is a sarthain?”
His pale eyes widen. “You don’t know? It means… an apprentice.” He frowns, listening to an inner dialogue. “Yes, apprentice.. One who learns by example to perform the job of another.”
She shakes her head. “That’s rubbish. He’s a Time Lord.”
“And what is his job?”
“I dunno… travelling about, meddling – he saves worlds. That’s what he does, Gher, he saves worlds.”
“Then… saving worlds is the job you are learning to do, Donna Noble. Thank you for helping to save mine,” Gher says, polite as always.
“I can’t— I’m not— I’m just a temp!”
“I’m sorry, Donna Noble. That word is not translating. Perhaps you will explain it to me?” A gentle ping comes from the monitor in his hand. “Ehh… later. The Hrul are here.”