Title:All the King's Horses (13/13)
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: Here it is, after 6 months and nearly 27,000 words -- the last chapter. This was meant to be a relatively short fic, and wound up being the longest one I've written yet. Thanks to the incomparable wendymr for beta-reading, Brit-picking, and general encouragement.
Previous Chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12
Chapter 13: Darkness of Night
We send a hospitable guide to the bewildered traveller, to show him the way through the darkness of night.
The Perfect Gentleman, Or, Etiquette and Eloquence: A Book of Information and Instruction by A Gentleman
New York, 1860
When he was a youngster of forty or fifty, and such a day seemed impossibly distant, Tragan Vehik wondered how he would feel when he faced death. Would he be afraid? Defiant? Content? Regretful? He had never anticipated that he might be... annoyed.
But how can he feel anything else, when this death is so pointless and unnecessary? He would willingly give his life for the Empire, for his House, for his line. If the suit only had power enough for the outward trip, he would still have stepped out of the TARDIS without hesitation.
Dying for a foolish error is another matter. He knew there would be a light flare, knew how long it would last, knew he had no instrument navigation. He knew all of these individual facts, but somehow did not connect them, did not see that they would lead to this moment.
"Carelessness can kill." How often in his career did he recite that truth to first-year engineering students? "Radiation does not care if you are well-intentioned. Vacuum will not wait for you to be ready. Electricity will not grant you a second chance. The Universe has no mercy, and no tolerance for fools."
At least his folly will perish with him. When the Doctor returns to Paaligiou, he will report only that Tragan Vehik died after completing his task. What more can he say? He will not even know the cause, unless his sarthain remembers all that I said about the repairs.
The Doctor's sarthain. Tragan Vehik has the satisfaction of having solved that puzzle. How can a primitive -- a human -- be sarthain to a Time Lord? Answer: if the Time Lord she serves is the Doctor, who is quite mad. A proper sarthain would be respectful and obedient. She would not rebuke her master if his madness led him into folly. She would not provoke him into action with audacious words, or cheer him with improper witticisms. A mad Time Lord requires an equally mad sarthain to serve him. For his sake, and for the sake of the Universe, I am glad that the Doctor has such a one to aid him in his quests.
Tragan Vehik's adventure has diverged from the tale of the Prince in Green. According to legend, the Prince returned safely on his talking jrindol, the two-headed counsellor beside him. The mutant was not cut in twain; one half coming home and the other dying along the wayside. In children's stories, all ends well. Virtue is rewarded, and only the wicked die. Reality is not always so obliging.
He sighs, looking at the chronometer. Only three minutes have elapsed. He wishes that time would flow more swiftly. He is by no means impatient for death, but he longs to see the stars again. They will be better company than his own thoughts.
The thought now echoing in his head is not his own, nor is it like any mindvoice he has ever heard. There are no real words in it, nor clear images, just an understanding that he should turn in this direction. The feel of the mind is very alien -- no surprise, since it must be the Time Lord reaching out to him. But... without touching? And at such a distance?" He tries to call out mentally. Doctor? DOCTOR?
The only reply is a repeat of the same command. **Turn around.**
Either the oxygen readout is faulty and he is hallucinating, or this is an unexpected chance for salvation. Either way, he will not be a fool again. With the barest touch on the controls, he turns until he is facing in the indicated direction.
Again he obeys, moving at a moderate speed, in case he needs to adjust his trajectory. Twice the strange mindvoice instructs him to turn a few degrees. He looks at the readings that indicate time passed and distance travelled. If they are correct, and if his guide is leading him rightly, then he must be nearly to the TARDIS. And surely he is correct, because the mindvoice is growing stronger. It feels like music, echoing in a complex pattern that reminds him of the time-lock equations. Time Lords can see backwards and forwards in time -- is this why his mindvoice seems to overlap itself?
With barely a second's warning, he knows that the TARDIS door is before him. He draws in his arms and legs only a moment before he feels himself passing through the force-field. Then his feet are stumbling on a metal floor, and a strong pair of arms is grabbing his shoulders.
The Time Lord's clever fingers make a quick job of unlatching the helmet. Tragan Vehik stares at him with eyes that must be as wide as moon-cakes. He feels a hoarse laugh escape his throat. "Not... you. The tale is true -- the jrindol speaks..."
Now it is the turn of the the Time Lord and his sarthain to stare -- one in dawning comprehension and the other in confusion -- as Lord Professor Tragan Vehik faces the console of the TARDIS and performs the Obeisance of Respect in the First Degree.
As soon as Tragan Vehik heads off to the Blue Room to shed the spacesuit, Donna looks at the Doctor. "Was that what I think it was? The TARDIS guided him back?"
"Yeah. I hadn't a clue until he came back in," the Time Lord says. "I didn't even know he was in trouble. She didn't tell me a thing." He looks at the console with what Donna can only describe as an affectionate scowl. "I suppose too much of her attention was focused out there." He waves vaguely in the direction of the door. "Not an easy thing for her to communicate with someone that far away -- other than me. It helped that Paalgi are telepaths. Course, it would've been easier if-- well, no matter. He's back, and the Hrul are sorted. Next stop, Paaligiou!"
When the TARDIS materialises in the great white hall, pieces of equipment are scattered randomly about, and the AECs, though dull and lifeless, are still arranged on the marble squares like giant draught pieces. Two guards stand beside the door. Nearby is the small table where they ate lunch -- was it only yesterday? -- and jumping up from one of the chairs is Gher Besif, a smile chasing weariness and worry from his face.
The Doctor slaps a control, and the TARDIS door swings open. "Professor? Your stop." Tragan Vehik nods and strides down the ramp.
Donna glares at him. "What do you think you're doing, Spaceboy? Just gonna drop him off and... go?"
"Yep. The Hrul are wrapped up nice and tight, the Professor's safe home, and you, Donna Noble, are owed a spa holiday. Haven't gone and changed your mind about that, have you?"
"Course not, but it can wait ten minutes. I want to say a proper goodbye to Gher, at least."
The Doctor waggles his eyebrows. "Go on, then."
"You're not coming?"
"You are coming," she says in her best no-nonsense voice, and grabs him by the arm. The Doctor sighs loudly, but doesn't resist her pull.
Lord Professor Tragan Vehik is trying to answer his student's questions. 'Trying' because Gher Besif is pouring out an endless stream of questions with barely a pause between them. What did it feel like, travelling in the Vortex? Did the Respected Lord Professor see how big the TARDIS really is? What did the time-lock look like? Will it really hold the Hrul forever? Tragan Vehik wonders if a size 5 magnetic clamp would hold the boy's tongue still long enough for him to answer some of those questions.
He gets a reprieve when the Doctor and Donna Noble walk out of the TARDIS. Gher Besif bounds towards them. "Doctor! Donna!" The boy salutes the Doctor with a quick bow -- Much too familiar, Tragan Vehik thinks -- then lets himself be drawn into an unseemly hug with the human.
"The guards have gone to alert the High Minister. All of Paaligiou is waiting to thank you. There's to be a poetic encomium in the Imperial Gardens in your honour, speeches in the Senate, a Solemn Procession of the Houses, and a feast every night--"
The human holds up her hand as if trying to hold off a herd of jrindols. "Whoa-- slow down, Gher. What d'you mean 'every night'?"
"Every night of the Moon of Celebration, of course -- that's forty altogether. And they say--" His voice drops to a dramatic whisper. "--that the Imperator himself is thinking of adopting the Doctor into his own House, as a Cousin of the Second Circle. And honours for you too, Donna, I'm sure."
Tragan Vehik does not miss the looks that dart between the Time Lord and the human. It is not telepathy, but it is a silent conversation. The Doctor looks as skittish as a wild beast that hears the hounds baying.
The human puts a hand to her forehead. "Gher, I'm so sorry, but I can't talk right now. I've got a really awful headache."
The Doctor opens his eyes wide, then nods energetically. "I've got something in the medbay that will fix it. She'll be right as rain in an hour or two, so long as she has a bit of a lie-down."
The Doctor gives a different sort of nod to Tragan Vehik. He returns it, and an understanding passes between them. "Go in safety," Tragan Vehik says, quoting the first part of the ancient Paalgi benediction for travellers. He omits the second half, return in health. He looks then at the human, inclining his head ever so slightly. She says nothing. For no reason that he can comprehend, the human closes one eye for half a second before she turns, allowing the Doctor to guide her into the TARDIS.
Twenty seconds later, the TARDIS door slams shut, and the grating sound of the Time Rotor echoes through the great chamber. Gher Besif looks up, confused. "They are leaving? Will Donna be all right? Surely the Doctor will take care of her."
Lord Professor Tragan Vehik shakes his head. "In this instance, youngling, I believe that she will be taking care of him." He looks over his shoulder to the place where the TARDIS is beginning to dematerialize. "Donna Noble is a sarthain of great skill, and she knows her Time Lord. They will both be well."