lindenharp (lindenharp) wrote,

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Fic: Fear in A Handful of Dust (2/2)

Title: Fear in a Handful of Dust (2/2)

Rating: G

Characters: Fourth Doctor, Romana II

Genre: Gen, drama

Spoilers: none.

Summary: The Earth is in danger, and the cause seems to be hiding in a traveling carnival in 1930s Nebraska.  The Doctor and Romana investigate.

Disclaimer: I don't own Doctor Who, K-9, or the TARDIS.  (I do, however, have a 12-foot scarf, courtesy of my mother-in-law.)

Author's notes:
This is one of my old stories. Written in 1991, posted to Usenet in 1994, and published in the zine Myth Makers in 1999. I wrote it because I was dissatisfied with the way the BBC handled American characters and settings.
The Doctor's quote near the end of this chapter is from Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.

Fear in a Handful of Dust (2/2)

The Doctor slipped into the main tent. Sunlight filtered through the canvas roof, bathing the interior in a muted grey light. The canvas had a filtering effect on noise too, translating the outside din into a formless sound like the rush of wind or water.

The Cage of Death was nowhere in sight. Without hesitation, the Time Lord headed for the stage. When he reached the platform's edge, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled underneath. The space below the stage was cramped and dim, but not dark enough to prevent him from seeing the astounding truth. "This could be serious," he muttered to himself.

The Doctor crawled out again, and scrambled to his feet. Above and behind him a voice growled, "You again!"

The Doctor spun around. The Mysterious Phantasm was striding across the length of the stage. "I told you to get your meddling nose out of here!"

"You did," the Doctor agreed, "but I wanted to take a look at your secret under the stage."

"You're crazy! There ain't nothin' under that stage!"

"Exactly!" The Doctor smiled. "No trap door, no power system, no transmat-- nothing except dust," he added, slapping carelessly at the knees of his baggy trousers. "A trap-door trick without a trap door, and a transmat anomaly without a transmat. The curious incident of the dog in
the night is all the more curious because there is no dog!" The Time Lord climbed onto the stage. "Tell me, when did you discover that you could teleport?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," the young man sputtered, but there was a note of panic in his bluster.

"I think you do," the Doctor said pleasantly. "It must be rather convenient: popping out of existence, then popping back to another place entirely. I imagine it saves on shoe leather, to say nothing of bus fares, eh?"

The Phantasm's shoulders sagged. He trudged to the edge of the stage, sat down, and stared at the dusty tops of his work boots. "How did you know?"

"Oh, I've had some experience with this sort of thing," the Doctor said off-handedly. "Mind you, it's not a common talent, particularly on Earth. I don't suppose either of your parents...?"

The Phantasm laughed. It was a harsh sound with no merriment in it. "My old man knew all about disappearing. He took off when I was five. Then Mama died, so they sent me to St. Ambrose's." He shrugged. "The sisters were okay, but kinda strict. We couldn't go out of the yard
without special permission. Once, I was about thirteen, I saw this dog in the alley across the way. I just thought about how I wanted to be over there -- and bam! I was there. The dog ran away. I was scared too, but I had to get back. Didn't want nobody seeing me, so I thought about the coal cellar, and -- bam, again!"

The Doctor nodded. "Thirteen? That fits. This sort of psychokinetic gift usually appears at puberty."

"Never knew the educated word for it; I just called it `hopping,'" the Phantasm confessed. "First I thought it was some kinda black magic. That Sunday I played sick, so I didn't have to go to Mass. I was scared God would strike me dead the minute I set foot in the chapel. The next week
the sisters made me go, and when I didn't die, I figured it wasn't magic. Didn't know what to think. After a while I stopped wondering." He looked up. "Almost every night after lights out I hopped out. Mostly I just walked. Sometimes I went to this jazz club. The sisters would've been as mad as wet hens if they'd known, but I was too young and dumb to figure out there was a speakeasy in back.

"When I was sixteen, I went on the bum, travelling. Never asked for a meal unless I worked for it, never used hopping for nothing bad. I was arrested once in Winokee, Oklahoma for sleeping in somebody's barn." He scowled, remembering. "A lot of 'accidents' happen in the Winokee County Jail, 'specially if they bust you on a vagrant charge, so I hopped out before one happened to me. Another time I pitched hay all day for a farmer who only paid me half what he promised. Come night, I hopped inside and took the rest, but I swear I never stole." His dark eyes met the
Doctor's. "You a G-man or something?"

"I'm not from the government," the Doctor replied. "I'm a scientist, and I need to talk to you about a little problem."

"I ain't done nothing wrong!"

"It's not what you do that's a problem," the Doctor corrected, "it's what happens when you do it, if you get my meaning."

The Phantasm's blank face said that he had gotten very little meaning out of the Doctor's statement.

"Let me put it another way," the Time Lord said pleasantly. "I don't want to sound melodramatic, but if you `hop' one more time, this entire planet is going to be destroyed. Is that clearer?"

"You're crazy," the Phantasm said.

The Doctor sighed. He had heard that particular accusation too often over the past few centuries. Sometimes it seemed that if he heard it once again it would become true. "I don't think you quite appreciate the
immense consequences of a temporo-spacial metric discontinuity." Another blank stare. The Doctor scratched his head. "Have you ever eaten Swiss cheese?"

The Phantasm listened closely to the Time Lord's explanation. "Doctor, how come the folks from other planets who can hop haven't blown up their worlds?"

"I'm not certain," the Doctor admitted, "but I imagine the genetic code that gave you the ability is a bit garbled. Other teleporters simply don't have that defect."

"You're saying I'm a cripple?" the young man blurted out.


"Look, Doctor, I don't care. If my leg was crippled, I wouldn't stop walking 'cause I walked a little crooked. Maybe I don't hop as good as those other folks, but I'm not gonna stop doing that either. You say you're not sure what makes me different. Well, I don't think you really know if I'm hurting that metric thing."

"Why can't you understand that billions of lives are at stake here?" the Doctor implored.

"What about my life?" the Phantasm shouted. "What am I gonna do if I don't hop any more? I can't do the act without it. I ain't no Houdini. There's a Depression on, Doctor. People with fancy college degrees are selling apples for a nickel on the street. There ain't no jobs for guys like me, 'specially if they were born in a place that most people can't

The Doctor was spared the trouble of a reply. A short, wiry man appeared in the entryway of the tent. It was the Great Tortelli. "Hey, Stan! Is this mark bothering you?"

The Phantasm jumped off the stage. "Joe! Yeah, he's some kinda nut. I caught him trying to bust up the Cage. He says it's gonna destroy the world."

The Doctor winced. There was just enough truth in that lie to ruin any explanation he might attempt. He turned to the Phantasm. "Please, consider what you're doing. The fate of the Earth is in your hands."

"You're right, Stan," the Great Tortelli snickered, "the guy is a loony. You want me to run him off?" He strode up the aisle.

"He'd just come back," the Phantasm replied. "How 'bout we put him somewhere until the show's over? The gilly wagon, maybe."

"I don't think you understand--" the Doctor began. His words were interrupted by a pricking sensation in his side. The Great Tortelli was holding the hilt end of the knife whose point rested just beneath the Doctor's ribs.

"Right this way, mister," the knife kinker invited.

The Doctor's two captors escorted him out of the tent to the gilly wagon, which was evidently served as a mobile storage shed. When he was thoroughly bound and gagged, they shoved him on the floor between a large coil of rope and a stack of folded tarpaulins.

The Phantasm paused in the doorway. "Don't worry, Doctor. Somebody'll let you out after the show's over. Don't go anywhere, OK?" He chuckled and slammed the door behind him.

Romana exited the fortuneteller's tent, blinking in the bright sunlight. She hoped that the Doctor had had better luck with his investigation. She headed towards the refreshment stand, where they had agreed to rendezvous. No Doctor. She waited ten minutes, then began a
methodical sweep of the carnival's midway. Game booths, souvenir stands, outdoor stage. No Doctor. She even managed a peek into the main tent before a roustabout shooed her away. No Doctor. She returned to the refreshment stand. Still no Doctor.

The outside stage was deserted. A small crowd drifted into the tent. The four o'clock show was beginning.

Romana frowned. She'd have to check under the stage. The inner and outer stages were obviously a single structure; she should be able to crawl through. She lifted the canvas draped in front of the stage and darted

The understage was cramped and shadowy, and her every movement raised up a choking cloud of dust. Romana kept crawling. She had been in far worse places, and she was not in the least prone to claustrophobia. Above her, the floor boards vibrated and creaked under several sets of footsteps, while a vaguely Asian tune wailed at top volume. Little Baghdad was performing her terpsichorean interpretation of Oriental passion. Romana heard the muffled thunder of applause, followed by a trumpet blaring the clown music. She crawled faster.

Romana entered the inner stage and saw nothing but dust and shadows. "This could be serious," she murmured, unaware that she was quoting the Doctor.

The Time Lady reversed her route, and emerged from her wooden cavern just as the Great Tortelli's first dagger thudded into his target. She ran down the midway, and into the small tent at the far end.

Madame Morgana looked up. "Romana? What'sa matter? You look like something the cat dragged in."

"It's the Doctor -- I can't find him anywhere."

"I'm sure he's OK--" the fortuneteller began.

Romana cut her off. "There isn't much time left. If I can't find him soon, there's going to be a catastrophe."

Madame Morgana tossed her spangled veil on the table. "C'mon. I'll ask around. The lot isn't that big -- somebody must have seen him." They trotted up the midway: Romana following on the heels of a slightly breathless Morgana. Twice they stopped to question a roustabout, and twice
received an eloquent shrug in reply.

"I think he was going to look around the tent," Romana said.

Morgana nodded. "This way, then." She led the Time Lady into the backstage area where a small crowd of performers and roustabouts conversed in low murmurs. Little Baghdad arched her heavily-penciled brows. "What's she doin' back here?"

Morgana ignored her. "Listen up, folks." She repeated Romana's description of the Doctor. "Anybody seen him on the lot?"

"Yeah, by the lemonade joint," one of the clowns replied, "but that was an hour ago."

There was a burst of applause, and the Great Tortelli appeared backstage. "Show's going pretty good."

"Hey, Joe -- your ma's here lookin' for some fella," Khalid drawled.

The knife kinker turned. "Mama? Who are you--" His voice and limbs froze simultaneously as he caught sight of Romana.

"Giuseppe!" Madame Morgana snapped. She followed this with a rapid torrent of Italian that the Time Lady carefully pretended not to understand.

The Great Tortelli spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. "He's OK, Mama. We just put him in the gilly wagon."

"Tell me where it is," Romana ordered.


"It's about time you got here," the Doctor grumbled, rubbing at the chafemarks on his wrists. "Romana, we've been rather mistaken about--"

"Yes, I know -- he's a teleporter," Romana interrupted. "Doctor, we haven't any time. The show's almost over."

The Doctor struggled to his feet, then jumped backwards as a lithe black figure flickered into existence immediately in front of him. "The show is over, Romana," the Time Lord said quietly. "Everything's over."

The Phantasm clapped a shaking hand to his head. "Doctor, it's tearing, just like you said! I can feel it ripping open, like a wet paper bag full of marbles. Doctor, you gotta do something!"

The Doctor gestured helplessly. "The only way is to bind the discontinuity with matter, and it would take hours to calculate the necessary mass, even with K-9's help."

"We don't have hours," Romana retorted, "and we don't have K-9."

"You got me," Stan said. The two Time Lords stared at him. "All you need is a little bit of something solid to stitch down the edges, right? I can do that."

"But you haven't any equipment to calibrate the mass," Romana protested.

"Never had any equipment to hop with," Stan countered, "but I can get on a freight train at full speed and not miss a step. I can feel the hole, and I can feel how much stuff I'm gonna need to fix it."

"An intuitive calculation?" the Time Lady said, aghast.

"Right now," the Doctor interjected, "a bit of human intuition is worth all the computers in the cosmos put together. Stan -- the binding will be most effective if you do it at the point of maximum discontinuity."

"He means in the tent," Romana translated. "Come on!"

They ran towards the tent entrance. "We've got to get those people out of there," the Doctor said.

"That's easy," Romana replied. She cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed, "Fire! FIRE!"

A torrent of humanity poured out of the tent, pushing and shouting. The barker, grim-faced, pulled free of the mob. "Stan! What's going on? Where's the fire?"

"There ain't no fire, Mike," the Phantasm replied, "but you gotta get these folks away from here, fast."

The barker did not hesitate. "Step along this way, ladies and gents," he bellowed. "This way! Step along lively, but don't push. Everything's under control. Henry! Help me move 'em along!"

The Phantasm slipped into the nearly-empty tent, followed by the two Time Lords. "OK, Doctor, I'm all set. You and the lady get out."

Romana froze. For the first time she stopped to consider exactly what would happen at the point of maximum discontinuity when the edges were bound together. "Stan, you mustn't do it in here. You don't understand--"

He smiled at her. "You heard the Doctor. Best place to do it is from center stage." A running leap carried him onto the platform. "Get out!"

The Doctor grabbed Romana's wrist and yanked. The two Time Lords ran in the direction of the panicky carnival crowd. A few yards outside the tent, Romana skidded to a halt to avoid trampling on a small figure sprawled on the ground. The Doctor scooped the child up, slung her
across his shoulder and kept running. Romana, trotting behind him, saw a pale face framed by two dangling braids like long red tassels, and a thin hand that clutched at a cardboard headdress as if it were all the treasures of El Dorado.

The mob's panic subsided as they reached the road that marked the edge of the carnival lot. Family members who had been parted in the stampede reclaimed each other. The carnies in the crowd silently drifted out of it, forming their own separate assemblage.

The Doctor and Romana stood between the two groups. The Doctor seemed to have quite forgotten the presence of his young passenger, who amused herself by adorning his hat with her own unorthodox headgear until her mother arrived to claim her. The Time Lord, like most of the people around him, was too busy watching the carnival tent.

The air in front of the tent shimmered and seemed somehow to... twist. The tent writhed insanely, like a distorted image in a funhouse mirror. "It's the smoke that makes it look like that," someone muttered, but there
was no smoke. As two of the spectators knew, space itself was contorting.

Romana watched, entranced. A set of convoluted equations flickered through her mind. This would make a wonderful paper for the Gallifreyan Institute of Physics, she thought. Too bad she wouldn't survive to write it.

She fumbled in her pocket for the detector. It slipped from her hand and fell. And fell. And fell. Like a pea dropped in a jar of honey, it floated downwards with lazy grace. No one seemed to notice. "Doctorrr, whaaatsss haaappennninnnng?"

"Ti-i-i-mmme dissstorrrrtionn!" he shouted back. "The
disssconnntinnuity issss do-oo-inggg ittt! It's a bit irregular, of course," he observed, grabbing the detector as it drifted upwards past his hand.

"Doctor, the discontinuity's growing. The black hole will be developing soon."

CRACKKKK! In the days when men believed in such things, they would have described the sound that echoed across the prairie as the shattering of the crystal spheres of heaven. The noise was accompanied by a flare of white light. In the distance, the carnival tent billowed out like a
parachute, then burst into flame. A small child wailed. A woman fainted. Someone whistled in awe. Time resumed its normal course, though only two of the spectators noticed.

Mike Corrigan was the first of the carnies to recover from his amazement. "Stan! Did he get out OK? Has anybody seen Stan?"

Mutterings and shaking heads. Joe Tortelli called out, "I think he stayed behind to try and take care of... of whatever the hell it was."

"Merciful God," Corrigan whispered. His remark was echoed by the gathered carnies in six different languages.

"Mike, what do we do about the tent?" Khalid asked.

Corrigan shrugged. "Unless you got a fire hose under your hat, we watch it burn."

The ashes were still warm when the Doctor and Romana entered the fire-ravaged area. Except for the tent and one game stall, the carnival was undamaged.

Romana kicked at a charred piece of planking. "He might have teleported out at the last moment."

"He might have," the Doctor agreed. He did not quote the odds. Romana knew them as well as he did. "With those energy fluctuations, it would have been an uncontrolled jump. He could be anywhere on the planet."

The Time Lady nodded. It was much more likely that Stan had waited at center stage for his last and most spectacular finale. "Doctor, what do you suppose he used for the matter? It couldn't have been air; a moving gas would have been too unstable to calculate, even for him."

The Doctor stooped down. When he straightened, he held out his cupped hand for Romana's inspection. It was full of dust. "You know, Romana, humans are remarkable creatures," he mused. "Just when you're ready to write them all off as a primitive, quarrelsome, selfish lot--" He gazed over his shoulder in the direction of the carnival. "`What a piece of work is a man!'" he quoted, "`how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty... the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?'" He gestured grandly, and the dust
in his hand was flung free. It hung in the air for a moment like a puff of smoke, and then dissipated.

The two Time Lords took one last silent look at the blast site, then headed back towards the TARDIS, leaving the carnies to mourn their own. "Romana, you've got the coordinates wrong again," the Doctor chided. "I told you distinctly that I wanted to materialize at teatime on July 4,
1861, but you've landed us on July 4, 1862."

"You said 1862, Doctor."

"Did I? Well, I meant 1861. We're a year late, and the tea is probably cold by now." The Time Lord snatched his hat from the rack and put it on.

Romana looked at him and blinked. "Doctor--"

"Not now, Romana, I'm late."

"But, Doctor--"

"Not now, Romana."

The Time Lady shrugged and followed him out of the TARDIS, removing her own flower-wreathed straw hat from the rack as she passed by.


It had been a delightful tea. The three little girls, thoroughly stuffed with cold chicken, jam tarts, cream buns, and other delicacies, sat contentedly beside their host on the bank of the Cherwell.

"Could we have a story, please?" asked Edith.

"Oh, yes, a story!" Lorina chimed. The third girl, smiling shyly, added her plea to her sisters'.

"A story..." their host mused, "let me think..."

Three pairs of young eyes opened wide with astonishment as a curious individual appeared over the crest of the riverbank: a tall figure, oddly dressed, with an unmistakable pair of rabbit ears protruding from his hat. The apparition pulled a pocket watch from his vest. "Romana, we'll have to come back another day. It's already past teatime. We're too late!" The figure disappeared in the direction from which he had come.

The middle sister giggled. "I've never seen a rabbit with a waistcoat pocket before," Alice gasped, "or a watch to take out of it."

"Haven't you, my dear?" the Reverend Charles Dodgson inquired with a sparkle in his eye. "Then pray allow me to tell you about one..."

-- THE END --
Tags: drama, fourth doctor, romana ii
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