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: Thanks to the incomparable wendymr for beta-reading, and to garpu for advice.
Chapter 12: The Sentinel Stars
And the sentinel stars kept their watch in the sky.
Thomas Campbell, "The Soldier's Dream"
Donna isn't sure who looks more gobsmacked: Tragan Vehik or the Doctor.
"Why should it be impossible?" the professor asks. "All I need is a repair pod or powered suit. The sort of equipment that is on board any spaceship for exterior work, even something as rudimentary as an intra-system shuttle."
The Doctor spits his words out one by one. "This is not a spaceship. This is a TARDIS. There aren't any pods. There might be a suit... somewhere." He sweeps his arms in a wide gesture that encompasses all of the console room and beyond. "Donna! I've got to get this finished. I can't take time to rummage through 900 years' worth of odds and ends. Take him to--" His eyes go unfocused for a moment. "The most likely places are Storerooms 2 and 6, and the Blue Room. You remember the Blue Room? It's usually near the Library."
"Right. Come along then, Professor. Let's find you a spacesuit." She leads Tragan Vehik out of the console room.
As soon as they are into the corridor, the Paalgi quickens his step so he is walking beside Donna, not behind her. "What does he mean, 'usually near the Library'?"
"The Time Lords were always secretive about their technology. It was not their custom to permit outsiders into a TARDIS."
"Yeah, the Doctor is very particular about who he invites on board." Tragan Vehik only grunts, but Donna doesn't miss the speculative look he aims at her. She walks faster, glancing from side to side. "We could use a bit of help here, old girl," she murmurs. Turning left at the second cross-corridor, Donna allows herself a slight smile. She broadens it when the professor inhales sharply.
"I came this way earlier with the Doctor," he protests. "That-- that was not here." He jabs an accusing finger at a panelled oak door.
"Told ya. TARDIS likes to switch things around. That's the Library, so I'd guess she wants us to check the Blue Room first." A moment later, she spots a door that is the colour of a summer sky on the Costa Brava. "Really wants us to check it first." This door used to be white on the outside. She pats the wall as they enter. "Ta."
The room looks the same as ever on the inside: a large space with storage units in every shade of blue, from soft periwinkle to deep indigo. Without a word to each other, Donna and the professor move in separate directions, scanning shelves and flinging open cupboard doors. Donna's never seen a spacesuit in the TARDIS, but she reckons she'll know one when she sees it. Don't have to be a rocket scientist or a Time Lord to figure out what it's gotta look like, if it's meant to fit someone human-shaped. It could be a baggy silver boiler-suit with a fishbowl helmet, like the old astronauts wore, or glossy Star Wars armour, or something black and form-fitting, like diving gear. Details don't matter. Two arms, two legs, and something for the head.
Tragan Vehik finds the body of the suit in a tall cobalt locker. It's neon yellow, made of something that feels like parachute silk. Twenty minutes later, Donna comes across the detachable gauntlets and the helmet in a Victorian hope-chest painted with cornflowers, bluebells, and delphiniums. The purple-black sheen of the transparent helmet reminds Donna of tinted sunglasses. It takes another thirty minutes for the professor to locate the power-pack and life-support units.
"Does it work?" Donna asks.
"That is yet to be determined. I will have to test all the systems."
Donna turns in a slow circle. Near the rear wall is an old-fashioned kitchen table draped with blue-gingham oilcloth. She's reasonably sure it wasn't there ten minutes ago. "That'll do for a workbench." Together, they move all of the suit's components to the table. Donna perches on a bar-stool, and watches from a safe distance.
The professor tinkers with various mechanical doodads and electronic whatsits. He works in silence, except for the occasional hiss of annoyance, so it's all the more startling when he suddenly says, "I require assistance."
Donna nearly falls off the stool. "Ummm.. what do you need?"
He positions the helmet so that the open end is facing upwards. "Hold it like this, motionless. I must reconfigure the life-support."
She bends down, grasping the helmet firmly with both hands. A third of the front panel is taken up with data displays, and large controls switches that can be toggled with the wearer's chin. "And the other systems?"
Tragan Vehik doesn't look up from his work. "The propulsion unit is low on power. It should be sufficient for such a short excursion. Instrument navigation and communications are non-functional, but they will not be needed." He inserts a thin glass rod into the helmet. There's a crackle, then a soft hum. Apparently these are good sounds, because the professor nods his head approvingly. Then, as if continuing a conversation, he remarks, "I have never heard of a Time Lord choosing a member of another species as sarthain."
It takes Donna a moment to hear the question beneath the comment. "The Doctor likes to do things his own way. He's had companions from Earth before. Dunno about other planets, but I wouldn't be surprised."
He gazes at her, his pale eyes unblinking. For one alarming moment, she remembers that the Paalgi are telepathic. Nah. He'd have to be touching my head, like the Doctor did that time. 'Sides, I bet he'd worry about being contaminated by primitive human thoughts. She lifts her chin. "Where I come from, a bloke only stares like that at a woman if he's trying to scare her -- or hit on her. I don't scare easy, and I'm bloody well not interested, so back off, sunshine."
He nods as if Donna has just answered a very important question. He returns his attention to the helmet, and pokes at something that sputters softly. "The suit is as functional as I can make it in the allotted time. Thank you for your assistance." He drapes the suit over one arm, picks up the helmet, and heads for the door, leaving a speechless Donna to grab the gauntlets and follow after him.
When he enters the console room, the Doctor is walking in slow circles around the completed time-lock. There is a quiet pleasure in the Time Lord's eyes as he inspects his creation. It is a look that Tragan Vehik has seen on other faces: a young man holding the firstborn of his line; a scholar, weary from a sleepless night in her office, emerging with a long-sought answer; lovers reuniting after long separation. What does he see that I cannot?
He waits to be noticed, not wanting to interrupt any last-moment calculations or adjustments. The Time Lord completes one final revolution around the time-lock structure, then turns to face Tragan Vehik and Donna Noble. "Found what you needed? Good. I'd be happier if I could tether you, but I haven't got a cable that's long enough. The time-lock has to be at least two kilometres from the TARDIS before it starts up. Any closer, and the results would be... unfortunate."
Tragan Vehik opens his mouth, then closes it, deciding that he does not want to know how the Doctor defines 'unfortunate'. Someone who lived through the Time War must measure calamities on a very different scale. The Doctor might classify multiple simultaneous supernovas as merely 'inconvenient'.
"The time-lock will activate approximately eighteen seconds after the power controller comes online. There's no risk for you in being near it. A time-lock is rather like a wall, except for being squishier. And invisible. Just don't crash into it at full speed. Wouldn't hurt the time-lock at all, but I dare say it would give you a very nasty headache." The Doctor winces, as if imagining the headache. "Any questions? Nah? Let's get you suited up."
Spacesuits may not be standard equipment on a TARDIS, but the Doctor runs through an external safety check as swiftly as if he performs one every day. "Yep. Good. Seal is tight. Power level is lower than I like..."
"There is sufficient power for work and transit time, plus a seven percent safety margin," Tragan Vehik says. "We have how long? Forty minutes?"
The Doctor replies without hesitation, "Thirty-eight minutes, twelve seconds."
Adequate. All that really matters is that he has enough time to complete the work, but he has every intention of returning safely to the TARDIS. Whatever the Time Lord may think, Tragan Vehik has no desire for martyrdom.
The Doctor reaches into his coat pocket. The luminous blue sphere containing the Hrul lays in his cupped hand. It looks as harmless as child's toy. He sets it into a hinged wire cradle at the centre of the time-lock device, and swings the top piece shut with a soft click. The power controller fits around the exterior of the device in two concentric, perpendicular circles, held in place by lightweight polymer clips. The clips will only be needed in transit. Once the time-lock is functioning, it will withstand any force -- or so the Doctor said, and Tragan Vehik had been inclined to believe him. Something in the Time Lord's face spoke of hard-won personal knowledge.
The Doctor lays one hand on the console. "When the door opens, the TARDIS will temporarily reduce the surface tension of the force field, then restore it as soon as you've pushed through. Right? Off you go."
His smile looks as false as a five-legged jrindol. Am I a child to need such reassurances?
The Doctor's voice rises louder than necessary to be heard through the helmet. "No dawdling, understand? I don't want to wait while you're sightseeing."
Tragan Vehik inclines his head in acknowledgement of the foolish command. A false smile, yes, but he wears it for himself.
I had forgotten how it feels, he marvels as he moves through the vastness. It's been forty years since he last took a spacewalk, and that was a brief courtesy inspection of an weather-control station. He's never done it under these circumstances -- in interstellar space, untethered, without the comforting bulk of a ship or platform looming over him. All he can see in every direction is a star-field so dense that the points of light overwhelm the darkness. Like a threnakh bush in high summer, so heavy with berries that you can scarcely see the leaves. Has Mavrit's youngest ever gone berrying in the South Mountains? I should take him.
He pushes aside thoughts of summer and childish pursuits. The survival of the Empire is tied to his chest with a half-metre wire cable. The distance gauge inside his helmet reads 2.15 kilometres. Time remaining: twenty-seven minutes, thirteen seconds.
The switches and keys on the power controller are larger than would normally be used on such a device. Now, adjusting the settings with clumsy, gauntleted hands, he is glad he anticipated this moment. The settings themselves are burned into his brain, and require no special effort. Time remaining: eighteen minutes, thirty-two seconds.
The scanner attached to his left forearm shows some remarkable readings. He makes makes a mental note to show them to a friend who is a Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics. I will suggest that he write a paper for the Imperial Academy of Science. Twelve more circuits to be set. Time remaining: eight minutes, four seconds.
The last circuit. Tragan Vehik lets out a breath he had not realised he was holding. Thank you, Gods and Ancestors. He looks over his shoulder where the TARDIS is barely visible as a dark rectangle against the glittering stars. Time remaining: three minutes, fifty-one seconds.
He gently manoeuvres backwards to a position three metres from the time-lock device. and presses the remote trigger. One by one, the stellar interface panels flicker on. When they are all online, the entire array bursts into light so intense and searing that it might be a newborn star.
The polarised light shield in his helmet is activated so quickly that that he suffers no ill effects, save for a few bright spots that dance before his eyes and vanish a moment later. The initial power flare will last no more than an hour. The shield will disengage, and I will be able to see the TARDIS, and-- stupid! Stupid! Gods and Ancestors, what a fool I have been! A second-year student would have known better.
Tragan Vehik forces his breathing to slow. Treat it as any other problem. Step by step. He studies the power gauge. He has enough power for the journey back to the TARDIS, plus a few minutes more. Even if he shuts down every non-essential system and just drifts, the power will be exhausted by the time that visibility is restored. He has no instrument navigation to steer without sight; no comm system to ask for guidance. The Doctor cannot retrieve him without bringing the TARDIS dangerously close to the time-lock.
There is no way back. Life support will last two hours, perhaps more. That realisation brings a small amount of comfort. When vision returns, Tragan Vehik will have a host of gem-bright stars to keep vigil with him as he waits for death.
Continue to Chapter 13
A/N: A photo of a stellar nursery is here.