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: This story takes place sometime between Planet of the Ood and The Sontaran Stratagem. The Doctor is still recovering from The Year That Never Was -- an experience that he has not mentioned to Donna.
Chapter 1: The Customs of the Nation
Accustom yourself, as soon as possible, to the customs of the nation which you are visiting, and, as far as you can without any violation of principle, follow them.
The gentlemen's book of etiquette, and manual of politeness: being a complete guide for a gentleman's conduct in all his relations towards society ... From the best French, English, and American authorities, by Cecil B. Hartley. Boston, 1873.
The lanky young man in the back corner is standing very still, smiling at the shopkeeper in a polite, disinterested way. From a dozen yards away, Donna can’t make out his exact words, but she can hear that his tone of voice is soft, calm, and utterly reasonable.
Donna sighs. Oh, hell! What’s he on about, now? She knows that mild-mannered facade. It means that the Doctor is barely holding on to his temper. It is always a bit alarming when the Doctor gets angry. Stuff tends to get broken: teacups… windows… buildings… lives. The breakage is usually an unintentional side effect of his setting something right, but it is still a case of ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men’. Too often, even superglue and a sonic screwdriver aren’t enough to repair Humpty-Dumpty.
She tries to gauge his level of anger. It is several notches below volcanic – an adjective she no longer uses lightly. That level of anger is usually in response to Really Bad Things, like alien invasions, the death of innocents, or mucking about with the fabric of space-time. This is… annoyed, with a dash of insulted. She looks around the shop, trying to determine what has set him off. The shop itself seems perfectly ordinary. Donna rolls her eyes. It says something about her current lifestyle that she can describe a shop on a planet in another flippin’ galaxy as ‘ordinary’. But really, it’s just a junk shop, like a dozen others that the Doctor has dragged her into today, looking for a replacement thingamabob for the TARDIS.
The shopman is ordinary, too. His mottled orange skin clashes terribly with the magenta and green sarong draped around his knobbly body, but Donna has seen uglier outfits on humans in London. Uglier people, too, if she’s honest.
The shopman seems eager to placate his customer. He says something else that Donna can’t hear, and performs a sort of bow, accompanied by rapid hand gestures. The Doctor’s posture relaxes slightly, and he nods. Then he’s striding across the shop, grasping Donna by the wrist, and hauling her outside to the wide, sunny concourse. “Nothing here! Allons-y, no time to waste!”
“Easy there, Space Boy! What did Mister Marmalade say to get your knickers in a twist?”
He does not meet her eyes. “Nothing important. C’mon, there’s another shop just around the corner—“
Donna can be very stubborn when she chooses, though she prefers to call it ‘tenacious’. It’s clear to her that the Doctor needs to talk and let his feelings out. And indeed, as the afternoon progresses, his temper rises, despite her frequent encouragement to ‘let it all out’. As they exit the seventeenth shop (which does not have the right sort of thingamabobs in stock), he frowns, shoves his hands even deeper in his coat pockets, and mutters, “He wanted to buy you.”
“What did you say?” Donna makes him repeat it twice before she hisses, “That’s not funny!”
“’Course it’s not funny, but it’s true. He wanted to buy you, and asked me how much. And I told him – right away, I told him that I would certainly never consider such an offer—“
The dark scowl on Donna’s face makes the Time Lord wonder if she is confused about which of the two of them is called ‘The Oncoming Storm’.
“Oi! Did it occur to you to tell him that you had no right to even listen to an offer? That I am not your property?” Anger propels her into a stride so brisk that even the Doctor’s long legs have to work to keep up. “And I thought you said this was a civilized planet? ‘It’s a fantastic, ancient culture, you’ll love it there, Donna,’” she mimics. “If they’re so bloody civilized, why do they have slaves?”
“They are! And they don’t!” the Doctor protests. “Paalgiou is one of the Founding Empires of this galaxy – millions of years of art and science – nearly as old as Gallifrey. They abolished slavery back when humans were still trying to figure out fire.” He smiles, reminiscing. “Might have taken you lot even longer to do that, if I hadn’t come along to lend a hand.”
“What!?” Donna squawks. “No, never mind. So, what did he want me for, then? He thought I looked like a raspberry scone, and fancied having me for tea?”
“Nah. Ancient civilization, absolutely brilliant place, but you can’t get a decent cuppa anywhere on the planet, and believe me, I’ve looked. They do have very good chips, though.” One glance at her face, and the stream of nonsense halts. “Errm. Sorry. Humans are rare – very rare -- in this sector and… well…hethoughtyouweremypet.” The Doctor takes a gulp of air that he doesn’t really need.
Donna recites the alphabet in her mind. Backwards. Twice. “Right, so they see someone who doesn’t look like a wrinkled satsuma, and they think ‘poodle’ or ‘budgie’. What about you? You look human – how come ol’ blobby didn’t ask me about your price?”
The Doctor looks so gobsmacked that Donna wants to laugh, despite her bad mood. His expression is what she might see if she walked up to one of the Royals and said, “Need a few quid for the bus ride home, luv?” She holds up a hand before he can speak. “I know, I know. Time Lord, superior species, blah blah blah.”
He tries to look stern and disapproving, but the brown eyes are laughing. “Well, yeah. Besides, I think I’d be rubbish as a pet. Not very good at obedience, y’know.”
“That’s okay. You talk better than a parrot. Just gotta put you in a giant birdcage, and let you chatter away.”
His eyes are no longer merry or warm. They are distant, dark, and cold, as if he is viewing some horror that compels his attention against his will.
My God, what did I say? Cage? Is he remembering the Ood, then? That doesn’t make sense. Yeah, he’d had to listen to their Song of Captivity, the song that had almost shattered her heart with sorrow, but it had all come right in the end. They’d broken the circle, freed the Ood – all the Ood, everywhere – and heard the Song of Rejoicing. No, it‘s something else putting that look on his face, something more personal.
The Doctor is still staring at something that only he can see. He shudders. “No,” he breathes, “Don’t hurt them. Please.”
Donna has no idea what memories might be haunting the Doctor. Leading the life he does, there must be plenty of nightmares to choose from. She also has no idea what to do for a 900-year-old alien with more baggage than Heathrow Airport. Her instincts tell her that the one thing he doesn’t need is someone getting all soppy over him. “Doctor? Oi! Doctor!”
The Time Lord turns and blinks at her. “What?” His voice sems to come from very far away, but he is responding to her. Good, that’s a start.
“They got anything to eat on this planet besides chips? I lost two pounds last week, with all that running from the frog-monsters, and I’m not going to put it back on for a handful of alien chips. I could murder a salad, though.”
This shakes him back to full awareness, and he is soon leading the way to a nice little restaurant on the main square. Donna digs into her salad – tasty, despite being purple and blue – while the Doctor natters on about the various species of sentient plants that have tried to eat him over the centuries. “—and it was at least a year before I could look at a carrot in quite the same way.” He’s back to the normal breakneck pace, the manic grin, and the nonstop blathering about anything and everything. To look at him now, that moment in the street is entirely forgotten. Donna doesn’t believe it for a second.
When the waiter presents the bill, he inclines his upper torso in a formal bow, with accompanying hand gestures. It reminds Donna of the nervous shopkeeper. “What’s that about?”
“What? Oh, that. That’s an Obeisance of Respect in the Fourth – no, the Fifth Degree,” the Doctor says. “Told you, this is an ancient civilization, nearly as old as my lot, and very nearly as stuffy.” He explains that they have all kinds of ritualized gestures and courtesies, depending on the situation, and the respective ranks of the parties involved. To Donna’s amusement, the Doctor procedes to demonstrate some of these: the Obeisance of Respect in the First Degree (used by commoners towards nobles), the Acknowledgement of Equals, the Acknowledgement of Submission (used to servants), and the Obeisance of Submission in the First Degree (used by everyone towards the Imperator). This last is a crouching genuflection that makes the Doctor wince as he rises. “Blimey, I think I twisted my back. You really need an extra leg joint to do that one properly.”
After lunch, they finally locate a shop that can get the right thingamabob. It will take several hours to have it transferred from the storage warehouse, so the Doctor offers Donna a whirlwind tour of the city. They visit the Palace of Glorious Endeavour, a sort of science museum where the Doctor oohs and aahs over various incomprehensible contraptions, which he describes as ‘quaint’ or ‘brilliant’ or ‘not too shabby’. One item, which resembles a giant tin-opener, causes him to shake his head. “Bit of a bad idea, that. I told H’zkru, I said ‘You don’t know what you’re messing with.’ But did he listen? No. And then…. MOOB!” He sees Donna’s raised brows. “He imploded.”
Then to the Botanical Olfactorium, a sort of public garden where the plants are arranged in order by their type of odour. Many of the scents are lovely, though strange; a few nearly make her sick. The Doctor inhales them all, and keeps up a constant stream of commentary. He points to one that looks like a bundle of red twigs. “Try that.”
Donna bends over and takes a cautious sniff. “Chicken curry?”
The Doctor grins. “Yes, isn’t it fantastic?” He insists that another one smells just like granite. Pink granite, to be precise. When Donna protests that the plant has no odour, and neither does granite – of any color – the Doctor shakes his head. “Humans! It’s not your fault you’ve only got five senses, but you could at least learn to use those properly.”
Donna suggests that if a certain Martian keeps sticking his nose in the air, he may find it bloodied before too long. This produces a temporary silence, other than a muttered, “How many times do I have to tell you – I’m not from Mars.”
Next stop is the Great Chamber of the Senate of Paalgiou, the seat of government for an empire spanning twenty-seven star systems. The Doctor secures them front-row seats in the visitors’ gallery – without the use of psychic paper. Donna gazes down on the Senate floor, a scene that looks like a cross between Commons Question Time and a Christmas panto. The Senators wear sarongs similar to those she’s seen on other natives, but made of glittering brocades in rich jewel tones. They sit clustered by colour: here a group in garnet red, another in deep amber, and a third in sapphire blue. Donna wonders if the colours represent ranks, political factions, geographic regions, or some other esoteric designation. Maybe those are the colours of their football clubs, she thinks, supressing a laugh, before deciding that this lot is too pompous for something as common as football (or its local equivalent).
The voices of the Senators carry clearly to the ends of the Great Chamber, but Donna can only understand about half of what is being said. She whispers to the Doctor, “Is something wrong with the TARDIS translation circuit?”
He whispers back, “Very old civilization with a very old, complex language. Parts of it are mathematical, with a fifth dimensional grammar structure that doesn’t translate well into English. You’re not missing anything important. The bloke in red is complaining about taxes, and the tall one in blue said that his Honourable Colleague is a whinging fathead – except that he said it a bit more elegantly.”
The tone changes when a Senator in amber rises from his seat. His voice is deeper, more urgent than his fellows. “I urge you, my brethren, to consider the growing threat of [untranslatable]. If the [untranslatable] continues to rise, then the Empire has no more than a year before [untranslatable]. Brethren, I have seen a portent this day – a portent in this very Chamber. On this dark day, a [untranslatable] is among us!” He turns, sweeping both of his gnarled arms upwards to point at the place in the gallery where the Doctor is sitting.
A wave of murmurs and whispers spreads throughout the Great Chamber, and hundreds of staring eyes are fixed on the Doctor. The Time Lord glances over his shoulder, and the expression on his face suggests that he is not pleased by the view. Donna turns in her seat. Twenty of the Senatorial Guards are at the rear of the gallery, marching towards them with weapons drawn.
Continue to Chapter 2