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: Yet another chapter that took a while to come clear in my mind. I hope you'll think it was worth the wait. The line of poetry the Doctor quotes is from Milton's Paradise Lost. Thanks (as always) to wendymr for beta-reading and Brit-picking.
Chapter 11: Fellow-Passengers
Endeavour to live harmoniously with your fellow-passengers.
Miss Leslie's Behavior Book: A Guide and Manual for Ladies
Eliza Leslie, Philadelphia, 1859
She gives him a wry smile. "Reckoned I'd be last. You know what they say, Doctor -- Age before beauty."
He doesn't need telepathy to detect the fear behind her smile. Although he knows what the answer will be, he has to ask. "D'you want me to take you back? There isn't enough time to get to Earth, but I could manage Paaligiou." If the Hrul escape, they won't return for a century or two. Long enough for her to live out her short human life in safety.
"I told you, Spaceman, you don't get rid of me that easy. Besides, who's gonna tell you when you're being a prat?"
"Donna Noble, you are quite possibly the stubbornest human I've ever met," he informs her, but her smile only widens. He gives her a quick smile in return before focusing most of his attention to the star charts. Humans! Stubborn, idiotic, reckless, magnificent creatures. So quick to give their loyalty, and to risk their absurdly brief lives. Donna is more perceptive than many he's known, but can she really understand what she's facing? The Hrul don't kill. Their victims' autonomic nervous systems continue working even after higher brain functions cease. If it all goes pear-shaped, she'll be trapped in the TARDIS with two breathing corpses until she becomes one herself.
It takes one hour, three minutes and forty-two seconds for him to find a location that fits his requirements. He freezes the screen, and beckons the professor over, mentally instructing the TARDIS to translate the display into Paalgi. "Can you work with that? Good. The components we need are in Storeroom Four." Tragan Vehik falls into step behind him as he heads for the inner door. "Donna, we'll be back in a tick."
Donna decides that her first priority is tea. It's a humdrum, ordinary thing to do, and that's exactly what she needs when she's facing unimaginable horrors halfway across the universe. When she'd packed her bags to be ready for the Doctor, she'd included a six-month supply of tea. Had to visit two different Sainsbury's to get enough of her favourite brand. Turned out that it was his favourite, too, and the TARDIS had enough to stock a dozen Sainsbury's. It made her feel a bit foolish, though there was no way that she could have known that. On that terrifying, depressing, amazing wedding-day-that-wasn't, she hadn't seen him eat or drink anything. For all she knew, tea might be deadly poison to him. Sometimes the weirdest thing about the Doctor is how human he seems.
Because her eyes are tired of staring at stark white and electric blue, she selects a cup that's splashed with cheerful yellow and pink peonies. She hesitates, lets out a long breath, then reaches into the cupboard again. By the time she returns to the console room, the Doctor and the professor are busy tinkering with all kinds of technical bits and bobs. She approaches the Doctor first and holds out the tray. "Don't you start thinking that this is gonna happen every day, because it's not," she says, putting on a scowl. "You got that, Spaceman?"
He takes his mug and murmurs, "'Course I do," in a distracted tone that means he doesn't know if she's inviting him to waltz or accusing him of murder. Normally, she'd badger him out of his fog, but right now she figures he's entitled.
Donna turns to Tragan Vehik. "I made an extra cup. If you want." She isn't sure she made the right decision. She knows that, in the professor's mind, she's barely been upgraded from "pet" to "servant". Carrying a tea tray will not encourage him to think of her as the Doctor's partner. Not that she gives a hoot what the geezer thinks of her. And she wouldn't have lifted a finger for him, but he is helping the Doctor, who trusts him enough to invite him into the TARDIS. And it is just a cup of tea, even if he's a wrinkled blob of an alien who probably won't like it anyway. Not that she cares what he likes.
The Paalgi stares at the mug as if it's a complicated equation that he can't quite solve.
The Doctor says, without looking up from his work, "Tea. It's a beverage from Earth. Brewed from the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis. Lovely stuff, full of tannins and antioxidants."
Tragan Vehik takes the remaining cup -- a souvenir of the 3008 Greenland Summer Olympics -- and sips cautiously. He addresses an empty patch of air midway between Donna and the Doctor. "It is not displeasing. And the stimulant component will be useful."
It wouldn't kill you to say 'thanks', sweetie. Donna reminds herself for the hundredth time that the Doctor needs Lord Professor Sourpuss to help sort the Hrul. And when that's finished, I am going to give him the earful that he bloody well deserves.
Lord Professor Tragan Vehik looks down at the just-completed circuit. How many has he done? How many more remain? It doesn't really matter, because each one has to be individually programmed and calibrated for a different energy load. His fingers are not as quick and talented as they were ninety years ago -- even sixty years ago. A younger man could probably finish the circuit more quickly, but at the cost of of accuracy. One loose conduit or one misprogrammed digit could cause the entire system to malfunction.
The heroes of legend are always young men, but he doubts they would be suited to this strange quest. Hours of tedious labour? Though the Green-Cloaked Princeling had to pick six thousand threnakh berries in one night, he could let his mind drift as he worked, dreaming of his imprisoned lady. An encounter with a fearsome monster? The Hrul cannot be slain with sword-edge or laser-fire, and to fall to them will mean only a slow and shameful death.
In one regard he has surpassed the Prince in Green. That ancient hero rode upon a talking jrindol, accompanied by a two-headed mutant which gave sage counsel (when it was not arguing with itself). Tragan Vehik is travelling on his quest in a TARDIS, accompanied by a Time Lord and his sarthain. It would be a more pleasing analogy if he could imagine himself as the Prince, but that role clearly belongs to the Doctor. The Lord Professor is a realist. In this version of the old tale, he suspects that he serves as one head of the advice-giving mutant, and the human female is the other.
A human. He would have sooner expected to find himself in the company of a talking jrindol than a human. He realises that he miscalculated in his earlier dealings with the human. If she is not quite a proper sarthain to the Doctor, she is a counsellor of sorts. The impudent way that she speaks to her master misled him. Surely, only an ekhak would be permitted to behave so with a person of status. Then he heard Gher Besif talk about his dealings with the Doctor, who treated the boy as a near-equal. Tragan Vehik concluded that the Time Lord was overly indulgent with all of his inferiors. Persons of the highest rank can afford to do so without losing status. Not until he spoke to the Doctor did he realise the horrifying truth: the Time Lord does not believe in status, at least, not status as it is normally reckoned. How can such a thing be? What society can function unless each person knows his place within it?
He has no society. The thought strikes him like a physical blow. No House, no Guild, no kinsmen or year-mates. Tragan Vehik has known all his life that Gallifrey is gone, but not until this moment has he truly understood what that means for the last Time Lord. He has no place. Little wonder that the Doctor behaves one moment as though he he is higher than the Imperator, and the next as though a human is his kinswoman. He has no place, and it has driven him into a sort of madness. If we survive this, perhaps the Imperator will offer him a title and a home among us. Tragan Vehik pushes pity and speculation from his mind and reaches for the components of the next circuit.
It's not the danger that's driving Donna nuts -- it's the waiting. Give her a monster to run from, a fortress to break into, or a guard to conk on the noggin, and Donna Noble is your woman. She can search for secret documents, calm a hysterical prisoner, and distract a hyperactive Time Lord. What she cannot do is sit and twiddle her thumbs while two alien blokes tinker endlessly with bits of wire and fuses and other rubbish, like some sort of Martian DIY TV show. She slips quietly out of the control room, and goes in search of distraction.
Nothing helps. She cannot find the garden room that usually soothes her. The DVD player will not turn on, the latest P.D. James novel has vanished from her nightstand, and the library no longer contains anything in English except for the 103rd edition of The Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and a back issue of The Journal of Municipal Sewage Management. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the TARDIS wants her in the control room. "Dunno what you expect me to do," she mutters as she makes her way back. "Do I look like a mechanic?" There's no reply, of course. The TARDIS only communicates with the Doctor. Just as well. Even though Donna loves this amazing Police Box and all the wonders it contains, she thinks she would absolutely freak if it ever started talking to her.
She re-enters the control room quietly, though both men are so focused on their work that they might not blink if a bomb exploded. She stands behind the Doctor -- not too close -- watching those long, clever fingers do something she doesn't understand to something she can't describe. After ten or fifteen minutes he sighs, puts his hands in his coat pockets, and turns to face Donna. "It's been a while since I've made a time-lock, but this one is small, as such things go. The fingers have still got it." He pulls his hands out of his pockets long enough to waggle his fingers, as if to demonstrate 'it'. He looks like he's playing an invisible piano.
"What's a time-lock?"
"There are different sorts. This one is like a force field. A bubble of frozen time, you might say."
"And you're sure it'll hold them?"
"Absolutely," the Doctor promises. "Safe as houses. Once the time-lock is activated, nothing can get in or out."
If you get it finished in time. How long have we got, anyway? She nods at him. "Get on with it, Spaceman. Don't think I've forgotten you promised me a spa holiday. And it had better be at least a three-star place -- with a pool. Got that?"
The Doctor gives her that wide-eyed don't-you-trust-me? stare. "'Course it's got a pool, plus the mud baths are famous across five galaxies. And they serve drinks with little paper umbrellas in them. Fizzy. The drinks, that is -- not the umbrellas."
One hour, twelve minutes, thirty-two seconds. Sometimes the clock in his head is a nuisance, but he can't stop it, any more than he can stop his hearts. Funny that it should take so much time to shape a blob of no-time. Tragan Vehik has finished the power controller, with its many circuits, conduits, and regulators, and is now watching him work. Watching what he can see, anyway. The physical components of the time-lock are simple, compared to the power controller. Most of the real work is being done in his mind, using Time Lord senses to make exquisitely precise adjustments in the temporal settings.
He can feel the Lord Professor's gaze on him, as tangible as heat or gravity or the rhythms of the Vortex. He knows what he would see in those pale eyes, if he turned to look. Hunger. Hunger to see, to know, to understand. He understands that craving, has felt it all of his lives. He wishes he could share the elegance and beauty of the temporal structure that is forming beneath his hands. 'That I may see and tell/ Of things invisible to mortal sight'.
He can at least share some of the underlying equations. Paalgi is a sufficiently complex language for that, but it's like showing the written score for a Bach fugue to a member of a deaf species. Tragan Vehik understands some of the theory and will see some of the more obvious patterns, but can never comprehend just how lovely it is. Since he needs a short break anyway, he taps a few keys and lets the TARDIS data banks bring up a few of the simpler equations. First-year Academy stuff. Wordlessly, he invites Tragan Vehik to take a look.
While the Lord Professor squints at the monitor, the Doctor looks at Donna. She's sitting on the jump-seat, head drooping. Dozing or lost in thought? The latter, he decides. Her breathing isn't slow enough for sleep. "Penny for your thoughts?"
She straightens, yawning and blinking. "I don't think they're worth more than a ha'penny. If we still used ha'pennies, I mean."
He digs into his pocket, and hands her a small silver coin.
Donna squints at the tiny lettering. "Henric... Rex. Sounds German."
"Nope. English. Well, the inscription is actually Latin, but the coin is English. Henry I. It's from 1125 or thereabouts. Some ha'pennies, Donna Noble, are rarer and more valuable than others." Her expression -- mingled pleasure and annoyance -- lifts his hearts. "Your turn."
"Just wondering how all this is going to work. When it's finished, I mean. Do you just chuck it out the door? Gotta wear your party hat?"
Even that particular ha'penny was underpayment, he muses, because the ability to make him grin at a time like this is beyond price. He can visualise oh-so-clearly the reaction of the High Council if they heard the Matrix Crown of Rassilon referred to as a 'party hat'. 'Appalled' wouldn't 'alf describe it. "Yep. You are spot on, Donna. Although I am not merely going to 'chuck it'. I'll have you know that I used to be regarded as a crack bowler--" He mimes throwing a cricket ball. "--and I've still got the moves."
Donna rolls her eyes, but whatever sarcastic quip she was about to utter is interrupted by Tragan Vehik's hiss of annoyance. "Even if she does not have the... training to understand the technical details, you should not give your sarthain inaccurate information."
The Doctor is certain that Tragan Vehik was going to say 'does not have the intelligence', but the man deserves credit for editing his words. He gets bonus points for calling Donna a sarthain. And double bonus points, because he's turning to speak directly to the human. The Doctor is so chuffed by this thawing in attitude that he almost doesn't hear what the Paalgi says to her.
"Naturally, I will need to exit the TARDIS in order to correctly orient the power controller."
The wild thumping that he hears cannot be his hearts, because they have turned to ice inside his body. "What?! What?! You can't-- that's impossible!"
Continue to Chapter 12