Title:All the King's Horses (10/13)
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: Sorry for the longer-than-usual wait on this chapter. I ran into a big author's block midway through. However, this chapter is longer-than-usual, so I hope that will make up for the delay. Thanks to the ever-fantastic wendymr for beta-reading and Brit-picking.
Chapter 10: The Sins of the Fathers,
In which the Doctor is angry, and Donna talks about Christmas.
"The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children."
Euripides, Phrixus (Fragment 970)
Donna is already in motion. One hand closes on the loose, wrinkled skin at the nape of Tragan Vehik’s neck. The other grabs at the folds of his sarong. Thank God, the fabric is like a heavy, textured silk – strong and not too slippery. The old professor doesn’t fight her. Maybe he’s distracted by the Doctor’s shout, or maybe he’s too shocked at being forcibly handled by a member of a lower species. She swings her body around, pulling the professor with her, so that she winds up between him and the still-open portal. At the same time, Gher – who is still spraying the chemical mist – moves to Donna’s side, forming a wider barrier.
The Doctor is pelting across the vast white room, faster than Donna has ever seen him move. The Crown of Rassilon hangs on the crook of his left arm, swinging back and forth like a lady’s handbag. As he stumbles to a sudden halt, two yards from the portal, he jams the Crown onto his head. It’s crooked, and stray bits of his hair poke from beneath it at odd angles, but the amber jewels light up as brightly as before. He closes his eyes. His forehead creases, as it does when he’s concentrating on a particularly complicated repair to the TARDIS console.
Donna releases her grip on Tragan Vehik. He’s not going to do anything stupid, now that the Doctor’s here. The Respected Lord Professor steps away from her, glaring, and smoothes his sarong and his dignity back into place. Same to you, Sunshine. No need to thank me for saving your life. Donna whirls around to see what’s happening.
The portal is smaller, though not yet closed, but a wall of blue light is rapidly forming just behind it, like a sheet of plywood covering a broken window from the inside. When the barrier is complete, the Doctor opens his eyes. The lights on the Crown wink out. “Oooh, that’s an improvement,” he says, a little too brightly. “Well done, Donna; Gher, you can stop spraying now.” He pointedly ignores the professor.
Gher obeys, and looks from the labyrinth to the Time Lord in confusion. “Doctor, how did you— I thought— the Lord Professor said that the closing couldn’t be accelerated.”
“Quite right. First of all, he didn’t have this—” The Doctor reaches up and taps a finger against the Matrix Crown. “—not that he could have used it; and second, I haven’t closed the portal. I’ve just pulled some of the energy from the far end of the trap. The Hrul could push through the weakened section if they tried, but they won’t, because this is where they detected prey. That’s the good side of dealing with hive creatures – they tend to be predictable and rather stupid.”
“What’s the bad side, then?” Donna blurts out before she can bite back the words.
The Doctor’s face twists into a grimace. “There tends to be rather a lot of them, and they’re generally too stupid to know when they ought to give in.”
After what is either a few minutes or an eternity, the portal shuts. The Crown lights up again as the Doctor redistributes the aetheric energy. “Right. That bit’s done.”
“So you’ve got them all sorted, have you?” Donna asks.
“Almost. This is temporary. The power from the AECs will hold for another twelve hours.”
“But you’ll have them sorted long before that, right?”
The Doctor smiles, but his gaze flickers in a way that makes Donna uneasy. “Of course!” he says cheerily.
“What will you do with the Hrul, Doctor?” Gher asks, his eyes bright with curiosity.
“Oh, just need to wrap them up snugly, and put them someplace out of the way. The hard part’s over. All that remains is a little jiggery-pokery, and voila! But first… Donna? Could you pop into the TARDIS and bring me a transniodic oscillator? There should be one in the second storeroom past the Wardrobe.”
“A what? Why can’t you fetch it yourself? Have I got ‘courier service’ tattooed on my forehead?”
“A transniodic oscillator,” the Doctor repeats, as if it’s something as ordinary and obvious as ‘a ham sandwich and a packet of crisps’. “Gher can go with you – he’ll recognize one. I want to keep an eye on this.” He jerks his chin in the direction of the trap. “Off you go!”
Donna gives him A Look, but decides to save her complaints for later. Besides, it’ll be fun to see Gher’s reaction to the TARDIS. For once, she can be the old hand, showing off their amazing ship to a gawking alien.
In the vast white room, there is a deep silence, except for the faint hum of the AECs. The Doctor can hear it clearly. He knows it’s below the range of human hearing; he’s not sure about the Paalgi. The Respected Lord Professor is old by the standards of his race – probably nearing two hundred – and his senses are not as sharp as they once were. The Doctor’s senses are functioning perfectly. He can hear the pounding of his hearts and smell the faint musk of his own sweat. He can feel the muscle tension in his hands, which would be shaking if he weren’t a Time Lord whose body is perfectly subordinate to his will. If I’d come back even a few seconds later…
The Doctor glares at Tragan Vehik. “I didn’t spend all that time building that—” Once again, he indicates the glowing labyrinth. “—just so an old fool could kill himself in it.”
The professor shrugs. “They were close to escaping, and you had not yet returned. A distraction was needed to delay them.”
“You should have waited.”
The Lord Professor gives a soft, wheezing laugh. “If I choose to give my life to safeguard my world, what is it to you? When was Gallifrey ever squeamish about its allies’ blood?”
There are a million things that the Doctor wants to say in response to this, beginning with “I am not ‘Gallifrey’”. But of course, he is. As the last Time Lord, he has inherited sole responsibility for the web of Time. He has the obligation to mend leftover damage from the Time War, whenever possible. Obligation or penance? He was a general during the War. He sacrificed more lives than could ever be counted; not just individuals or ships, but worlds. Entire civilizations vanished because of his decisions, obliterated from Time as if they had never existed. And in the end, so did his own.
He knows that Tragan Vehik isn’t talking about the Time War, but about earlier conflicts. There were occasions when the Time Lords preferred to fight their battles indirectly, with allied worlds providing ships and troops in exchange for technology (not temporal technology, of course). When Gallifrey was wiped from the timelines, the Time Lords faded into legend. Only on the surviving allied worlds were they remembered as something other than myth. Remembered with awe, with resentment, with respect or envy, but never, ever with fondness. That is our legacy.
What is that Earth proverb? Something about ‘the sins of the fathers’? Gallifrey’s prodigal son now symbolizes everything he’d hated most about his world. If he’s expecting Gallifrey at its worst, why should I disappoint him? He fixes Tragan Vehik with his coldest stare. “You may give your life for any reason you choose. It would be preferable if your death served some useful purpose, but do as you please,” he says in flawless Paalgi. The TARDIS’s translation circuit can only do so much, and English just doesn’t have the structural subtleties for finely nuanced insult. Gallifreyan does, but he saves that for private moments. He hasn’t conversed in his birth tongue since the Ma— in a long time. “Please accept my apologies on behalf of my sarthain for having inconvenienced you.” His dry as dust tone is a perfect imitation of the stuffiest instructor at the Academy. It would even be funny, if there were anyone left alive who would understand the joke.
Lord Professor Tragan Vehik performs a bow which is so exact that he might have calibrated it with a micrometer. “Accept mine for having interfered with her duties. And now, since I am so inconveniently alive, is there some way in which I may serve the Empire by assisting you?”
The Doctor arches one brow. “I have to create a time-locked stasis field. Are you perhaps experienced in temporal mechanics?”
The Paalgi meets his gaze without blinking. Not intimidated or angry or defiant. Just… waiting.
Right, then. Playtime’s over. The Doctor looks at him appraisingly. “Cybernetics, right? I need a multi-phase power control unit that can handle variables of up to…” He rattles off the rest of the technical specifics.
If Paalgi had eyebrows, the professor’s would be heading for the high, vaulted ceiling. “What power source will you be using?”
“Dunno yet. Rassilon used a captive black hole. Don’t suppose you’ve got of those handy?” He adds lightly, “I’ve got eleven hours, forty-three minutes, and twenty-seven seconds to think of something. Plenty of time.”
“What the hell? Are you kidding me?” Donna strides over, Gher trotting beside her. “You don’t know what you’re gonna do?”
“I know what I’m going to do,” he protests. “I’m going to build a stasis field with a time-lock. Easy peasy. I just don’t know what I’m going to use to power it. Has to be something that will last more than a few million years.” He flicks a finger to indicate what a brief period of time that is.
Donna gawks. “How long do they live?”
“Too long.” He starts ticking off possibilities. “A bog-standard black hole is too unstable. A supernova has got the power, but doesn’t last long enough.”
Gher makes several suggestions, none of which are helpful. The professor says with careful indifference, “Perhaps a quasar?”
“Quasars! Lovely things, quasars! Massive and long-lasting and very, very powerful. Too powerful, really. You get some rather odd temporal effects around quasars. Pity. I’ve always wanted an excuse to muck about with a quasar.”
“Can’t you use something smaller?” Donna asks. “Because I was thinking… my friend Marli was a shop window-dresser. She did some really posh displays – for Easter she had a nestful of fake Faberge eggs, and a plush rabbit with an emerald bracelet around its neck.”
“Donna, I’m sure it looked absolutely splendid, but I don’t think I can power a time-lock with a Faberge egg, even a real one. Though I did once use one to deal with a Cyberman that invaded the Winter Palace. Tzarina Alexandra was very grateful. Charming woman – I wish her grandmother had shown even half—”
“Shut it, you silly git! I’m trying to explain something here.” She gives him another Look, and he mimes zipping his lips shut. “For Christmas, she did one of those village scenes, with the little porcelain houses and shops that light up. The first time around, she used one battery – the big square kind – to power all the lights, and she hid it under the cotton wool he was using for snow. The battery got too hot, and the cotton wool nearly caught on fire. So she used a bagful of little batteries instead, all wired separately.”
Tragan Vehik looks at her, opens his mouth, then closes it again. He rubs the side of his head, glances at the Doctor, then turns his attention back to Donna. “Small electrical storage units?”
Her expression is cautious, but she answers politely. “Yeah. No! Well, not literally. I just mean that if all these supercharged novas and whatnot are too big, then maybe a bunch of little—”
“Of course!” The words tumble out of the Doctor’s mouth, as non-stop as the thoughts whirling through his mind. “We need a molecular cloud! Stellar nursery, all those little protostars popping into existence – molto bene! Donna, you are magnificent! Professor, can you set the power control unit to interface with protostars? Yes? Good!” He’s scribbling a note as he talks. “Gher! Take this to the High Minister. I don’t want him fretting about where we’ve gone. Off with you!”
“Where are we going?” Donna wants to know.
“Not far. Should be able to find a suitable spot within a radius of eight or nine galaxies away. Just have to evaluate the energy levels and check that there aren’t going to be any inhabited planets a few million years further on. Simple.” He turns his back on them and pulls out the sonic screwdriver. A mental flick, and the Matrix Crown is alive again. It’s easier each time. Like riding a bicycle. He hadn’t even remembered that it was in the TARDIS, not until the High Minister had started his pissing contest. “This old head has worn the Matrix Crown of Rassilon.” And then he’d remembered the last time he’d worn it. No. Don’t think about that. Not now. Not ever.
He aims the screwdriver at the labyrinth. The huge structure begins to condense, shrinking into a smaller and smaller ball. One fraction of his mind is occupied with the Crown, controlling the miniaturisation. Another is explaining to Donna that the formless Hrul cannot be squashed; the maze only needed to be large in order to fit his body; and no, the AECs are no longer necessary, having transferred all of their energy into the trap. The rest of his mind is sifting through possibilities: thousands of scenarios, each with hundreds of variables.
Donna delivers a running commentary of amazement as the trap shrinks down to the size of a cottage, then a van, a garden shed, a rubbish bin, a football, and finally a large apple. She is only silenced when the Doctor strides to the centre of the spiral pattern of AECs, scoops up the glowing sphere, and stuffs it into his coat pocket.
“Right. Time to be going.” He looks at Tragan Vehik. “All the materials you need will be in the TARDIS.” The Lord Professor nods. His eyes answer the unspoken question, then flicker towards Donna. The Doctor’s head dips ever so slightly, and the corner of his mouth twitches. Yes, I’m bringing her along.
When they enter the TARDIS, Donna is disappointed by the professor’s blasé reaction. Even if you know it’s bigger on the inside, how can you walk through that door and not be gobsmacked? Gher had been suitably wide-eyed and amazed when she brought him in earlier. It’s only as the door is closing that she realizes Gher isn’t with them. “We have to wait for him. He’s earned his share of the fun.”
“Nope! No time. Allons-y!” And before she can protest, the TARDIS is dematerialising.
“We have almost twelve hours, and you can’t wait one extra minute for him to get back? And since when do you bother to file a flight plan, Martian Boy?” She jabs an accusing finger at him. “You sent him off on purpose.”
“Yep. We don’t need him for this next bit. You gave him the ha’penny tour of the TARDIS; the price of admission does not include a free ride. Sorry.” He toggles several switches and twists a dial. Star charts appear on the console monitor, one after another, like a Facebook slideshow on speed.
“Oh no, Spaceman -- you don’t wriggle out of it that easy. What’s going on? Why’d you leave him behind?”
He continues to watch the flashing images. “My TARDIS. I choose the passengers.” His voice is cold. It’s the Time Lord speaking; not the Doctor, not her best mate.
Donna is ready to explode when the soft, dry voice of Tragan Vehik interrupts. “If she is truly your sarthain, you should tell her. If she is not, then you should have left her behind with the boy.”
The Doctor slams a palm down on a blue button, and the slideshow pauses. He studies the image on the screen as if the answer to all his questions is written there in ancient glyphs that he can decipher if he just stares hard enough. Finally, he lifts his head, but avoids looking at her. One glance at his expression is enough to make an icy lump form in Donna’s throat.
“We’ve got eleven hours, seventeen minutes, and six seconds to make this work. That’s just enough time if everything goes as it should. If the time-lock isn’t finished when the trap falls apart, the dimensional barriers of the TARDIS will keep the Hrul in. Not forever, but for a good long while. Possibly long enough for them to die off.”
“So… if they get loose, we can’t dematerialise.” It isn’t a question. She can do the maths well enough. The numbers are different to what they were in that cave under Vesuvius – three lives weighed against billions – but the equation is still the same. She smiles at him, showing a confidence she doesn’t entirely feel. “Yeah. We’ll see it through together. I understand.”
“No, you don’t,” he snaps, and his eyes finally meet hers. “If the Hrul get loose in the TARDIS, they’ll go for me first, then the professor. You’re the youngest. It could be days, even weeks before—”
“Before they’re hungry enough to go for me,” she finishes.