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. Thanks to the marvelous wendymr for beta-reading.
Previous chapters: Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5
Chapter 6: The Arithmatic of Memory,
In which Donna makes a new friend and the Doctor builds a thingummy.
“To divide him inventorially would
dizzy the arithmetic of memory”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Donna runs after the Doctor, and nearly collides with him when he abruptly stops and turns. He pulls a small notebook and a biro out of his pocket, scribbles furiously for a moment, then hands the sheet of paper to Donna. “I’ll get to the TARDIS faster on my own. I need you to give this note to the High Minister. It’s a list of supplies. Give it to him in person – if you hand it off to a servant, it’ll take too long to reach him.”
She takes the paper. “And how do I find His High and Mightiness?” she grumbles, but the Doctor is already out of earshot, running at full speed. Looking down at the paper, she sees a jumble of alien script. Not Gallifreyan – it looks nothing like the characters that appear on the TARDIS’s console monitors.
Once inside the Palace, she approaches the first guard she sees. “I need to speak to the High Minister right away. I have a message from the Doctor.”
The guard looks at her for a long moment before replying. “Give me the message, ehkak, and I will see that His Magnificence receives it.”
Donna doesn’t know what ehkak means, but she’s willing to bet that it isn’t “Honoured Guest”. I don’t have time for this, you idiot!
In every group of humans there is a pecking order. Doesn’t matter if it’s the House of Commons, the Hounslow Ladies Bridge Club, or the shipping department of P.L. Travers Ltd. As a temp, Donna is used to walking into a new office and having to suss out who’s who. One thing she knows: secretaries and assistants get their status from their bosses. They may both take dictation and do filing, but the secretary to the V.P. of Marketing ranks way above her sister who works for the Loading Dock Foreman. It’s probably been that way for centuries. She remembers watching some costume drama in which the maid to the Countess of Whatsit refused to sit at the same table below-stairs as the maid who worked for Mrs. Thingummy-Smythe.
Donna is willing to bet that the same principle is true for aliens. She draws herself up to her full height and fixes the guard with an icy stare. “Listen, Sunshine. I am sarthain to the Doctor. You know – the Time Lord who’s going to save your empire? He isn’t going to save anything unless I get this note to the High Minister. Now.” She isn’t sure what sarthain means, or why the TARDIS doesn’t translate it, but it has to be something like “assistant”.
The guard looks dubious, but more respectful. He summons a superior. Donna repeats her demand in an even snootier tone. It takes two or three more hops up the food chain before she is standing in front of Jrzek F’lall. She inclines her head, trying for a gracious nod. “High Minister. The Doctor asked me to give you this note. He’s gone to the TARDIS to get some equipment.”
Jrzek F’lall scans the note. A wave of his hand brings servants running. Orders are given, messages sent. He looks at Donna. “What does the Doctor plan to do?”
“Sorry, don’t know. The Doctor likes his little surprises.” Donna studies the High Minister. She still can’t read his expression, but it’s not too difficult to tell what he’s thinking. “He’ll fix it, you know. He’s a bloody genius. Just don’t tell him I said that. He’s already too vain by half.”
The High Minister studies her. “You are not a scientist. What do you do for the Time Lord?”
I help him blow things up. I make him stop. I nag him to eat. Sometimes I think I keep him sane – well, as sane as an alien nutter can be. Donna smiles serenely. “I listen to him, and I tell him when to shut up. It’s a full-time job.”
He does not reply. Another hand-wave, and a guard hurries over. “This one will escort you to the place where the Doctor will be.” He looks away, not waiting for a response.
The room is huge. Donna wonders what it was before it was emptied to provide the Doctor with a laboratory. A ballroom? Gymnasium? Conference centre? The vast expanse of the floor is tiled with three-foot squares of some polished white stone. It might be marble, if any marble is streaked with thread-fine veins of glittering silver. The TARDIS sits in one far corner, its battered wooden exterior looking more out of place than usual in this elegant environment. Servants and technicians bustle in and out, escorting metal pallets that float six inches above the floor, laden with fancy electronic equipment. She has no idea what any of it is, but there’s enough alien stuff for the Doctor to open his own junk shop.
And there he is in the centre of it all, darting around, coat-tails flapping, directing the placement of equipment. He may talk like a parrot, but he moves like a hummingbird. Even when he pauses in one spot, Donna swears that she can see him vibrating. Since there’s nothing she can do to help right now, she takes a moment to observe him. She loves to watch the Doctor at times like this. Not because she fancies him – scrawny streak of alien nothing that he is – but because he is so overflowing with life and energy.
His energy is serious and focused. Then he sees her, and his face lights up with a smile that is pleased and welcoming and just a bit mischievous. My best mate. I’ll never have a better one. Donna hurries over, dodging servants and pallets and crates. Scooting out of the way of one servant, she nearly trips over a heap of cables. A Paalgi technician in a yellow sarong grabs her arm and steadies her. “Careful, Gracious Lady.”
She gives him a quick smile of thanks, then makes her way to the Doctor’s side. “How’s it going, then?”
“Brilliant. Just need a few more items, and I can start putting it all together.”
“But what is it?”
His arm sweeps in a wide gesture that encompasses the entire room. “This, Donna Noble, is a Hrul trap – or will be.”
“So, how does it work? What was that big revelation you got in the garden? C’mon, Alien Boy, share.”
Now it’s his gaze, dark and guarded, that sweeps the room. “Later.”
Too many people. Donna nods. “Right. What can I do to help?”
He indicates a group of crates. Lifting the cover off one, he pulls out a flat disc, slightly larger than a dinner plate. It’s greyish-blue, and it looks like metal, but when he hands it to her, it feels warm to the touch. “I need all of these laid out in a pattern. Follow this exactly.” He hands her a sheet of graph paper.
“This looks just like that maze in the garden!”
“Similar, yeah. I told you it’s an ancient pattern. This is what you might call a mathematical representation of a sentient mind.”
“Anyone. Doesn’t matter. Whether it’s your lot, or the Paalgi, or my incredibly magnificent self, the base template is the same.”
Donna looks at him in open disbelief. “Are you actually saying that your mind is like mine?”
He moves his outspread hands up and down, like two sides of a balance scale. “Well, the essential structure. Like, oooh… houses. You’ve got your floors and walls, windows, doors, roofs – but one might be an enormous palace, and another one a tiny cottage.” He sees her outraged expression and hastily adds, “A charming cottage. In the Lake District. With a lovely garden. And one of those little gnomes, with a red hat.”
“You are making even less sense than usual. You’re not just mixing your metaphors, you’re putting them in a blender and turning them to mush. What are these things—” She points to the blue discs. “—and what do they do?”
“AECs – ambient etheric capacitors. Think of them as a special sort of battery. They’re gonna power a net that will contain the Hrul.” He starts to spout technical details, and she stems the flood with one look.
“You go and do your bit, Doctor, and I’ll build you a maze. Could do with some help, though.” Donna looks around, and spots the Paalgi in yellow who saved her from falling on her face. “Oi! Gimme a hand here?”
He trots over, and performs one of those elaborate bows. “Gracious Lady. How may I assist you?”
She explains quickly. “I’ll do this side, you do the other, and we’ll meet in the middle, all right?”
“Yes, Gracious Lady.”
“None of that. Call me Donna. And you are?”
“All right, Gher. Let’s get to it.”
They work in silence for an hour, using the floor tiles as their grid. It’s a slow process – they have to stop often to check their work against the diagram. This pattern is larger and more elaborate than the one in the garden, and has thirteen loops instead of seven. When it is finally finished, Donna looks at it with a mixture of satisfaction and amazement. The blooming thing is nearly as wide as a football pitch.
She straightens her aching back, and wipes her damp forehead. The Paalgi like to keep their buildings at the temperature of a warm spring day. She hadn’t noticed that before, when they were just sitting around. “Gher?”
“Yes, Gracious La— Donna?”
“How do I get something to drink around here? I’m perishing from thirst.” Normally, she’d just pop into the TARDIS, but the door is ajar, and the Doctor is fiddling with thick cables that run from the console out to a large device with many buttons and blinking lights.
“I will send a servant.”
“Get something for yourself – and for the Doctor, too. Silly git doesn’t think about minor details like that when he’s working.”
“But he is a Time Lord,” Gher protests.
“Yeah, that just means that he’s more stubborn than us mere mortals about taking proper care of himself.” Donna replaces the lid of an empty packing crate, seats herself, and gestures for the Paalgi to do the same. “So… what do you do around here, Gher Besif? I mean, other than carrying equipment and keeping visitors from falling on their faces.”
“I am a senior student at the Imperial University.” He explains about his studies. Donna can’t follow all of it, but he seems to be a graduate student in engineering.
The servant returns with three tall glasses of something fizzy. It’s the deep blue-green colour of a tropical lagoon, and it tastes like raspberries. Donna grabs two glasses and walks briskly in the Doctor’s direction. “C’mon, Gher. Don’t dawdle.” She gets the Time Lord’s attention by standing between him and the equipment he was heading for. “Oi! Spaceman! Take a break for a minute. Wet your whistle.”
The Doctor takes a sip. “Oh, that’s gorgeous. I haven’t had threnakh juice in a couple of centuries. Nothing like it.” He glances at Gher. “Who’s your friend?”
Donna introduces Gher. The young Paalgi begins to bow, but the Doctor raises a hand. “Let’s go by life-pod rules, why don’t we? All equal in the face of imminent disaster.” He gestures at his collection of gadgets. “Tell me, Gher Besif, what do you think of my thingummy?”
The Paalgi speaks hesitantly at first, then louder as he gains confidence. Donna doesn’t understand most of it, but she can tell that the Doctor does, and that he is impressed. He waggles his eyebrows. “Brilliant! Go away, Gher Besif, and come back in twelve hours. When the ambient etheric capacitors are charged, I’ll need some help. Off you go!”
Gher stammers his thanks, and backs away, as if leaving the presence of royalty. All the other Paalgi left when the unloading was done, so Donna is finally alone with the Doctor.
“Time for explanations, Doctor. What was that bit in the garden about ghosts and Aunt Edna?”
The Doctor sets his glass down, then leans against the TARDIS. His face has gone expressionless. “In your time, humans can record sounds and images, store them, play them back. Holiday on Ibiza, football match, birthday party. Years later, pop the storage device into the computer or the telly, and there’s little Jimmy, two years old again, and trying to eat his party hat. More advanced technology can record memories – copy them directly from the mind. And with really amazing technology, you can record someone’s complete life experiences just before the moment of death, and upload them to a interactive cybernetic environment.” He studies his white trainers. “The Time Lords had really amazing technology.”
Donna stares. “They put dead people’s minds into a computer?”
“Nope,” the Doctor says, shaking his head. He still isn’t looking at her. “Not the whole mind. Not the consciousness. Just the memories. The collected memories of thousands of Time Lords, woven together to form an artificial intelligence. These were stored in the Amplified Panatropic Computer Network. The APC Net could be accessed by the President of the High Council through a virtual reality called the Matrix.”
Donna opens her mouth, but before she can speak, the Doctor interjects, “No, not like the movie.” He gulps down the rest of his juice and sets the glass aside. “According to legend, Rassilon created the Matrix. He also created two devices that the President could use to enter it. One was the Matrix Key. The other—”
The Doctor bends down and retrieves something white with blue and red markings. It’s a Tesco plastic carrier bag, looking surreal in these alien surroundings. From the bag he removes a circlet of some dull gold-coloured metal, set with faceted yellow gems. “The other was the Crown of Rassilon.”
Continued in Chapter 7