Past Due by Cryptile



Summary: The Doctor gets in over his head searching for a dangerous relic from the Time War, meaning that Jack and Rose will have to bail him out. Too bad he's packed them off on a holiday.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Ninth Doctor
Characters: Jack Harkness, Rose Tyler, The Doctor (9th), The TARDIS
Genres: Action/Adventure
Warnings: Swearing
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2006.02.22
Updated: 2007.02.26


Index

Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Checking In
Chapter 2: Chapter Two: Familiarizing Yourself With Our System
Chapter 3: Chapter Three: The Requested File Is Not In Circulation
Chapter 4: Chapter Four: Defining Your Search Parameters
Chapter 5: Chapter Five: The Library Intranet Is For Patrons Only
Chapter 6: Chapter Six: Please Respect the Library and Other Guests
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven: Food and Drinks Are Not Allowed In the Stacks
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight: Meet Your Friendly Library Staff
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine -- The System Is Down
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten: Unauthorized Usage of Library Materials May Result in Heavy Fines
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven: See Reference Section
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve -- The Book Drop Is for After-Hours Returns
Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen: Help Us To Better Serve Your Needs
Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen: Due Notice
Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen: Adult Section
Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen: Historical Biographies, 920
Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen: Unruly Patrons Will Be Asked To Leave
Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen: No Running In the Library Halls
Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen -- Excuse Our Mess
Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty -- Overdue Fines


Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Checking In

Author's Notes: My first attempt at a mulit-part story, once again posted to time_and_chips -- thanks again to the kind readers there.

The timeframe for this story is between The Doctor Dances and Boom Town.


They were nattering away, again.

And that was fine. Really.

The Doctor pointedly bit the inside of his mouth as Jack recounted a near-death experience from when he was trapped on a volcanic mining asteroid during a solar flare while trapped with a gravid Drashig and seventeen heavily-armed and decidedly sociopathic Crimson Arbiters of the Interminable Will of the Macrocosm.

Again. Honestly, you'd think it was something special. The answer for dealing with the problem was so blindingly obvious --

" -- so I recalibrated the heat shields, configured the environmental controls to the Uranian constant, and--"

Reversed the polarity of the neutron flow.

"--I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow!"

Rose laughed, in spite of the fact that she couldn't have understood a tenth of that and even that tenth was a charitable concession of the Doctor's. Though she didn't have to laugh that hard.

Jack was grinning like he'd just discovered fire as he turned and looked up at the Doctor. Fine. It was an infectious grin. Don't let him know you think he's a card; tries to get away with murder enough, that one. "Eh, Doc?"

The Doctor sighed, tucking the excess wiring (and an orange rind) back into the roundel he had been fiddling with. "Sorry?"

"Pretty slick, huh?" Hands on hips. Grinning. Rose watching.

When in doubt, gesticulate with the sonic screwdriver. Keeps them from looking at your face. "Not that slick, no." Oh, lovely. Come on Rose, go back to staring at the pretty man. Go on!

A crease momentarily appeared on Jack's forehead. "Oh, really?"

The Doctor folded his hands under his armpits. "Yeah, really. I mean, not to rain on your parade, Tom Corbett Space Cadet, but some of us have reversed the polarity more times than you've had hot dinners." -- All that time with UNIT alone; poor Lethbridge-Stewart started twitching every time he heard that phrase . . .

His companions both regarded him with looks similar to those reserved for a dog that is violently sick all over the carpet at an otherwise happening cocktail party. Scowling, he turned back to the roundel and resumed shuffling things around in the vague hope of appearing busy. It might've been a bit late to not sound petty.

It wasn't so much that he objected to Jack personally. He could do light electrical work, charm the pants (literally) off hostile persons, do his share of the heavy lifting and gave Rose an actual human to interact with. The human factor was the deciding one, really; as of late, the Doctor had begun to remember that there was a limit to how often you could deal with only one other person in your time machine before you ended up A) fetishizing them, B) avoiding them, or C) both.

And it wasn't fair to keep Rose from other humans, obnoxious domestics notwithstanding. And at least Jack was a marginal improvement over the last two.

And dating and dancing was important.

Still --

The TARDIS lurched sideways.

Hands flying to the edges of the scaffolding, the Doctor barely managed to stay upright. The toolkit fell from under him, throwing spanners and ratchets violently to the floor. Rose staggered, nearly dashing her head against the console before Jack swept her back.

The time rotor had stopped in mid-pump; the emergency lights were all flashing lurid mauve.

"What's going ON?!" bellowed Jack, struggling to hold onto both the chair and Rose.

The Doctor cast a frantic glance up at the wiring. The problem didn't originate there; something was wrong with the main flight controls. In one deft movement, he slipped under the rail and landed in front of the opposite end of the console. Rose was obviously too busy trying to stand to appreciate how graceful he'd been. Typical. Just like the ship going berserk at the worst possible moments; can't leave us with a modicum of dignity, old girl?

Whatever else was going on, the TARDIS did seem to be trying to tell him something. The nearest visi-screen was flickering violently, numbers and symbols scrolling past too quickly for him to get a bear on --

And then the screen recalibrated itself, displaying only--

A sigil.

One lone sigil, flashing against a black background.

The symbol every Time Lord knew intimately.

Events stopped. The world went quiet. His blood forgot how to move.

and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake; jetsam from the burning, peace never to be found --

Something jostled him from his reverie. The TARDIS seemed to have righted itself; the lighting was no longer fluctuating. Something warm was on his hand. Startled, he turned to see Rose staring up into his face, lips parted, eyes worried.

"Doctor?"

Autopilot.

"Well, that was a bit of unscheduled fun, wasn't it now?" He gifted her with a waxen smile, shutting off the screen when Rose looked over to it. Deep breath. "But all's well that ends well, as I said to Will. --Poor Will; wasn't his first choice for the name, but you know writer's block." Forcing the lips up as high as they'd go. Hopefully they won't notice that it doesn't reach the eyes.

Jack was staring. Rose was staring. Move the hands; do something useful.

"Anyway, sorted that lot out --"

"What was all that?" demanded Jack, folding his arms.

"Oh, crossed wires. There's a little bit of a problem needs looking at -- hah, Rose, didn't you say I was always busy making things worse by fixing them?" He grabbed her by the arm, walking her over to Jack. "But it won't take long for me to deal with."

"Huh. Guess you'll need help?"

A few minutes earlier, this comment would have invited resentment; would've been regarded as some attempt at upstaging him in front of Rose. Now, in the wake of that symbol on the screen, everything else was secondary.

Hell, Jack had just become invaluable. He'd occupy her while --

"How's about a day out? Ever been to Alezhandria?"



==========



They were asking questions that he wasn't in the mood to answer. Given that the two were usually chatting away at each other like a pair of schoolgirls on a field trip, one would think that they'd have dropped the subject of what happened and just gone on without him.

"You'll have fun! They have restaurants! Live entertainment! Bazaars! Street musicians! Knife fights in churches! Go on," he shooed Jack and Rose out of the TARDIS, "it's perfectly safe."

They turned and stared at their surroundings. Rose was the first to speak. "Where are we?"

They had materialized in a deserted but lovely little alley between two white stucco walls twined in pale blue flowers. The ground was laid with vibrant yellow hexagonal tiles that gleamed like September promises, the air was warm and friendly, large but benign cricket-variants trilled from between the leaves and basically no one was aiming weapons at their heads. Looked to be a good day.

The Doctor surged past them, aiming towards the universally-familiar form of a GalactiBanks Credispenser and Light Transactions Unit. The parts of his mind not locked down and cold tried to remember the last time he'd made a deposit -- well, compound interest should still leave him well in the black; even Hole-Head Boy probably hadn't burned through that much -- "I told you. Alezhandria."

Jack slowly pivoted on his heels, taking in the sights. The square that they were standing in was unpeopled save for an elderly grocer stocking some kind of luminous pink fruit. The buildings were thin but graceful, with long vertical slats for windows and bright silver and copper-tiled domes of roofs. Willowy bluish trees rustled contentedly from where they grew in hammered brass urns along the sides of the road. "This doesn't look like Egypt to me."

"Bright lad. It isn't. I swear, anytime the human race needs a new name for something you just dig out an old one and put go-faster stripes on it." He grimaced as the machine informed him that the maximum withdrawal he could make at that time was 5000 GC. "Oh, come on!"

"Didn't think Egypt was done up like Neo Byzantium, anyway," remarked Jack.

"Didn't think Egypt had one of them," murmured Rose, pointing at the large and rather obvious silver-green planet shimmering half-in, half-out of the bright blue sky.

"Ah. Good point."

"Alezhandria's a moon settlement; built and burned long after your time, Captain." The Doctor scowled at the machine's continued insistence that he consider refinancing his home. "That planet up there's Thoth; big hydrogen-and-helium giant that doesn't get used for much. The rest of the system's pretty quiet traffic-wise. The Guild of Logicians settled and terraformed this place a few hundred years back -- oxygen generators, modulated atmosphere envelope, the usual."

Rose let her eyes wander to the distance. "So if this place is so far out and there's no business, why build anything?" She squinted.

The machine was getting stroppy about his withdrawals. "Because it's one of the last great archives of the human empire. At this time in your history--" he fiddled with some switches, trying to coax five or six more bars out of the slot -- "at this point, you lot are finally moving away from conventional digital recordings and towards instantaneously accessible compressed data transfer. You know, Rose; holes in the head."

Jack winced. "Ew. Hard to think of that as high-tech."

"Eh, it goes the way of Betamax. But here and now, it's a big thing. So big, this entire settlement is trying to obtain and categorize all the old info before it gets pitched in favor of the new stuff." He sighed at the automated teller. "No, I will not need a receipt, thanks so very much . . ."

"So, the people here are librarians?" Rose asked, tilting her head.

The Doctor grinned with a surge of fierce pride. Who's clever, why that would be you, Rose Tyler ! . . "In a manner of speaking, yeah, but they sure know how to have a good time. Ever worked in a hotel while an ALA convention's going on? You can't move for gin bottles."

She turned to the him as he unceremoniously dumped the credisticks into her hands. "There. Go and enjoy yourselves, courtesy of the Blue Box Vacation Lines."

She was trying to look in his eyes. Damn. Damn. "Doctor? Something wrong?"

Again, he grinned maniacally. " 'Course not! But why stay in that stuffy old TARDIS when you can see the bright and shining city on the hill?" He pointed in direction of said city; it was indeed bright and shining. It was not technically on a hill, but nothing's perfect.

She glanced over, biting her lip. Jack came up behind her, hands on hips again.

"You're just going to stay here?"

The Doctor spread his arms wide, trying to project an air of olympian preoccupation with immutable constants. "Got to figure out what's wrong with the secondary control relays. And no, thanks, you can't help. Last time someone tried to figure out my labeling system, they had to go sit in a nice quiet room without sharp objects for a month."

Jack arched an eyebrow, the insufferable bastard. "You positive?"

"Would this face lie?" Keep it straight. "Go on, then."

Rose looked over at Jack, Jack looked at Rose, and they both burst into stupid, carnival-day grins. He took her by the arm, she leaning into his side, and they started off towards the city proper as though they'd been planning this all along. Rose raised a hand to wave back at the Doctor, though she didn't turn around.

She might've at least turned around.

He tried to suppress that terrible sense of disablement that welled up inside him as he watched them leave. When they were far enough down the street, he stalked back to the TARDIS, eyes cold, mouth set.

While the mice play, the cat's away.

Back to index


Chapter 2: Chapter Two: Familiarizing Yourself With Our System

Author's Notes: This is the part of the fic where I started to realize why so many other authors like Jack.


"So," Jack said brightly, steering them down a street cluttered with flowering trees and sleek grey kiosks, "lunch?"

Rose glanced around. A large yellow octagon by a wrought-iron lamppost seemed to be trying to catch her eye. The TARDIS sometimes found it tricky to unscramble the symbols on signs into recognizable words, but as near as she could tell they were in some kind of street. A highway. Right, the part above it was becoming clearer, it was Information Highway -- wait, another part was changing. Large highway? Big highway? Great highway?

She blinked, staring at the newly-resolved sign. Information Superhighway. Dear God, sometimes that machine was as bad as the Doctor.

Rose sighed. "Looks like this the place where they sell newspapers."

"Newspapers? C'mon. Those things went out ages ago." He grinned at her. "Funny, I keep forgetting you're a 21rst century kind of girl."

She stuck out her tongue. "And don't you forget it. Anyway, newspapers, late-breaking info, whatever. Same basic idea." Looking around, she saw light-fields projected via some sort of marble-sized black globe. Jack, doing his best Spock routine, concluded that they were miniature relay satellites that would display local and recent information for a limited amount of time, say about a day.

"Why only a day?" Rose asked. "Why not use them multiple times, like a radio or a TV or something?"

He smirked just a little. "Yup. You are so 21rst century." After she punched his arm, he gamely resumed the explanation. "You know, recreational anachronisms. People like to have an excuse to go for a little walk in the mornings, go out and pick up something before breakfast or after dinner or whatever." His stomach growled slightly. "Speaking of which . . ."

Rose picked up a metallic pink module. "How much for this one?"

The lanky, bored-looking humanoid behind the partition glanced away from his own. "Sure you want that one?"

She almost said yes, then paused. "Something wrong with it?"

The clerk yawned. "Not my place to criticize what people do with 'em. Just seemed a little off."

Rose thought for a moment. "We just want a basic informational . . . whatever."

"Oh, well, then you want the green one. Or, if you're feeling ambitious, the blue one; it's got all the InfoNet channels plus limited access to the Archives." He gave her a mildly amused look that clearly said he doubted she'd be interested.

She rose to the bait. "Right. Blue it is, and make it snappy."

"Hold on," interrupted Jack. "What does the pink one get?"

The clerk shrugged. "Porn, mostly."

Jack triumphantly placed it next to Rose's blue module. "Sold and sold!"

=====

The Doctor left the TARDIS at a brisk pace, storming off down a seemingly quiet stretch of road with an expression so madly intense that the elderly greengrocer inadvertently punctured the fruit he'd been testing as he hurtled past. Not that the Doctor noticed, determined as he was to find and deal with the problem -- the real problem, not whatever he'd said to get rid of Jack and Rose -- before the day-trippers returned.

Already he had realized the potential awkwardness of them coming back early to find no incriminating wires or general mess or him in the middle of it, but that was just a risk he'd have to take. Rose had a key, so it wasn't as though there was a curfew.

Something deep in him growled, and it wasn't his stomach. The way they'd been walking off together, them coming back early probably wasn't an issue at all.

Sighing testily, he turned his attention to the graceless box of lashed-together electronics he had pilfered from the TARDIS's main computational grid. He didn't relish the fact that he'd have to patch it all back in once he'd found what he was looking for.

He wasn't even sure how much he wanted to find what he was looking for anyway.

Another corner, another street. Technically, he was headed in the same general direction that Rose and the Captain had gone, but he had an instinct for shortcuts and, again, he really didn't need to be seen. Speed and secrecy; the best two concepts to live by. At least according to the better singing-masters of his soul, not the old, crabbed ones with their interminable monotone voices going on and on about Duty and Privilege and Knowing One's Place --

The Doctor halted momentarily, slumping against the side of a hut until the thing that hurt in him receded to normal levels. Faintly, he registered the sounds of the street and the whirring of the cricketoids, and, though his eyesight was a bit blurry at the moment, he could see a street-vendor hawking news modules.

Pull yourself together, you soppy old delinquent. Work to do.

He straightened with a sigh, consulted his finder again. The signal was far-off but unmistakable; it was somewhere in the southwest quadrant of Alezhandria. Right.

To work.

Passing by the street-vendor, the Doctor's pace was ruthless, eyes set on his device. Had he been looking up, he would have seen the symbols on the globes' informational readouts twisting slowly into recognizable words.

Breaking: Archivist Missing Presumed Dead. Enquiry Underway.


======



Neither the pink or the blue globe saw much use that afternoon.

Jack and Rose wandered up and down the serenely brilliant streets of the Archival City (Jack started calling it the ArchEvil City for kicks), drinking it all in. The bright white buildings, the austere and streamlined statues, the beautiful and geometrically exact tiling -- it all seemed rather Mediterranean to Rose.

Not that she'd ever been there, she reflected, but something about the general weather and architecture and that bright blue sky just jelled with every travel brochure she'd ever hoarded as a kid in the hopes that just once her mum would take her somewhere a bit more exciting than Brighton.

Maybe the Doctor could take them to Greece next.

She didn't think about him that much during their exploration of the city. Jack sparkled and was just generally brilliant, both with her and with anyone in his immediate vicinity. It was decidedly thrilling to be on the arm of someone that all the women were surreptitiously ogling. Quite a few of the men as well, for that matter.

The long-awaited lunch didn't actually come to pass until about two and half hours after their time on the Information Superhighway. Various shopkeeps and clerks gave radically different opinions on the subject of where they should eat, and being in the shops, Jack and Rose had naturally gotten distracted. She'd picked up a few outfits that she'd ordinarily have passed on as too outrageous -- never model for Jack, she reflected -- and he'd selected some new ensembles, trying to phase out his World War II getup in favor of something 'contemporary'.

"Of course, we're time travellers," she said, still getting a delicious thrill out of the words, "so really, what's contemporary anyway?"

Jack arched an eyebrow, wineglass halfway to his lips. "Good taste is always in style."

Rose giggled and flushed at his act, though a small, vaguely Doctor-ish part of her mind muttered that Jack had obviously never been to the 1970's.

They were currently in some sort of vineyard-slash-tapas bar that smelled like a greenhouse and served wonderfully unrecognizable little meat dishes with fruity, spiced wines. Waving the credisticks around might've been a bit gauche, but it got them the best seat in the joint -- next to a waterfall, right under the canopy of leaves, inside an installation sculpture of a blown-glass forest. The waiters were good about refilling their glasses, too.

Jack leaned back in his chair, munching on what looked like a translucent fried dumpling with wings. "Best eats I've had since Pompeii. I gotta hand it to the bastard; when you travel with the Doc, you travel in style."

"It's got its advantages," Rose said coyly, glancing at him from over her glass.

He smirked a bit. "Oh, really?"

"Watch it, I'll smack you."

"Please." The smirk widened. Rose giggled again. The waiter informed them that the dessert cart would be passing, if Madame and Sir were perhaps interested? . . .

"We are not only interested, we are insatiably curious. Wheel 'er over."

Rose grinned at Jack. "Insatiable, huh?"

"Only when it comes to dessert. Honest." It was a smile, now. A nice smile.

"Shame." She bit her lip, nonchalantly glancing at the waterfall. Something about the way it swirled into itself and lapped over the sides of the crystal bowl brought to mind the time the Doctor had taken her to Woman Wept, just after her dad died. Died again, rather.

She was tearing up a bit. "Whew. Wine's a little strong."

"Lightweight." He leaned back in his chair. "Wanna call it a day?"

This surprised her. She turned to see Jack's expression, intense but somehow unreadable. "No, I think I can work it off."

The innuendo was pretty deliberate, even for her, but his expression didn't immediately change. "You think there's something weird about how he got rid of us?"

It took her a moment to get her thoughts back in order. "The Doctor? Maybe. He gets like that, sometimes." Something unpleasant slithered against her spine as she slowly remembered the look on the Doctor's face during the TARDIS's most recent fit.

He'd been staring at the screen in fear. Not the kind he seemed to reserve for the usual Random And Unsettling Malfunction, but genuine stark horror. The last time Rose had seen that expression, she'd been standing beside a Dalek.

Still, he'd acted all right when they'd landed, right? Told them about the place, painted it in glowing colors, insisted that she go off with Jack and have fun --

-- Insisted that she go off with Jack, someone he didn't actually seem to like that much and whose presence on board he seemed to regard largely as a concession to Rose after she had remarked that not everyone is content to go through life resonating concrete --

She blinked. Okay, he'd done some strangely altruistic things before, yeah: taking her back to her mother, letting her see her dad, allowing Adam on board --

Yeah, but Adam was never really competition, was he? Jack, on the other hand, now there's a born dancer -- down, girl; that's the wine thinking for you --

Still. Why would he just pack the two of them off together? Why had he been avoiding her gaze?

Why was he scared?

Her eyes slowly met Jack's. A similar train of thought had pulled into the station. He leaned forward, about to say something, when the dessert tray rattled up, resplendent in the kind of pastries that reduce diabetics to incoherent whimpers.

Rose cleared her throat. "Could we maybe get this to go?"


=======



The day had been long and beautiful. The Doctor had hated it.

After four hours of pacing up and down the city streets, he'd gotten within 300 yards of his target, only to have the pattern fluctuate every time he'd been sure of his readings. He'd rushed back and forth and in and out of sideways and alleys and shops and private residences like a one-Time Lord sendup of a Benny Hill sketch. Even now, the locals were casting disturbed glances his way. He hadn't thought to ask them if they'd seen what he was looking for, and now it was probably a bit late for that.

Not his day for plans.

Naturally, he'd assumed that something was wrong with the tracker and had taken it apart there and then on the steps of the Temple of Odin (one of the very few religious orders the Logicians allowed on Alezhandria; anyone who plucked an eye out for knowledge was fine in their books). Staring parishoners gave him a wide berth, and the high priest and his acolytes were watching him with a sort of despairing awe from behind the statue of Yggdrasil. Wires and dials and circuits lay strewn across the marble steps, the occasional component of the TARDIS beeping indignantly at the horror of it all.

A wasted afternoon.

Now it was almost evening. The planet Thoth loomed magnificently in the darkening sky, seeming almost as though it and not Alezhandria were the moon. He started to explain to Rose that the rotation and relative position of the satellite meant that the day was usually a few hours shorter than on Earth and that the seasons tended to fluctuate owing to Alezhandria periodically passing into the planet's shadow; how for months it would be dark save for the reflected light of Thoth and its other moons, how the generators would kick in overtime to keep the settlement warm, and how the hot twilight days brimmed with shadows and intrigue, the cityscape all luminous white, and how iridescent nightbloomers choked everything with the sweet, heady smell of incense --

Oh. Right.

The Doctor sighed dejectedly, starting to patch together his worthless tracker. By now, Rose and Jack were probably getting a nice supper somewhere. Probably discussing whether or not to go back to the TARDIS. Probably deciding they could wait a while longer.

Something in him growled again. This time, it was his stomach.

Stuffing the tracker into his jacket, he mentally reviewed what he'd seen of the area over the past few hours. Eight blocks down, he remembered seeing an offbeat little noodle shop; maybe some ph? would buck him up. Yes. Hot soup and coffee, and then back to saving the whole damn world.

Five minutes later he was standing over a corpse while the robots attacked him.



======



Rose called the TARDIS. No one picked up.

They hadn't rushed back. Jack had reasoned that if the Doctor had been doing something drastically important, he might still at be a critical stage of fixing it and shouldn't be disturbed.

So they'd taken a cab, but made sure they'd gone the scenic route. The carriage was drawn by an obnoxiously sentient multi-eyed camel-thing who kept asking them where they were from and how long they'd been married, as well as periodically farting in their general direction.

"Like the city? Not too fond of it myself. Academia. Ivory tower sorts. Not many tourists these days. I blame the new tech, myself. Holes in heads. Obscene." His gaze momentarily flickered back to them. "Beg pardon. You got holes in your heads?"

Rose sank her fingers into Jack's arm as they nearly collided with a lamppost. "Eyes on the road!"

They finally managed to get out at the Thoroughfare of Lingering Sighs -- okay, the TARDIS could be poetic when it wanted -- and walked quietly up the hill to the alleyway they'd first arrived in. Nothing had changed, other than the pale blue flowers on the walls appearing much more vibrant, almost like they were glowing . . .

"Honey, I'm hoo-ome!" sang Jack as they shuffled inside. No reply.

Rose found her hands tightening around the take-away box. She forced herself to assess the situation logically; after all, the Doctor was probably just somewhere else in the TARDIS . . .

Despite his declared intention to fix it, the console didn't look much different than when they'd left. Granted, one whole partition had been pulled clear off, with a veritable rat's nest of wires and electrodes and toast rinds spilling out messily onto the floor, but pretty much every other Thursday it looked like that.

Maybe she was just being paranoid. Travel with only one person long enough, it probably makes their being gone seem more important than it really is.

Jack glanced at the open wiring. "Huh. This isn't the secondary control system." He bent down, face creasing. "At least, not as far as I can tell. --Geez, what a mess." He frowned at a something thin and silver woven into a strand of cables. "Hang on, is this a spoon? Doesn't he ever clean this place?"

Rose shrugged. "You think that's bad, you should see his boot closet." Imelda Marcos was probably dead in the back of it. "Anyway, where do you think he is?"

"Well," he drawled, poking at the edges of the exposed panel, "if this stuff is any indication, he's taken out some of the satellite tracking system and . . okay, I don't know what a lot of this other stuff is, but it doesn't seem like it was working badly before." He bit his lip, pensive.

She turned to the door, half-expecting the Doctor to waltz in with some random observation about the weather or agricultural subsidies or bacon sandwiches. The doors, in defiance of expectation, remained closed. "He's probably around, then."

"Hmm." Abruptly, Jack looked up, eyes glinting. "So. Rose. What were you doing in the Doctor's boot closet?"

Rose managed to smile. "Nice girls don't kiss and tell." -- Looking for boot polish.

"So, can you recommend it?" He paused, the grin fading as a thought struck him. "Hey. Does he have a bedroom or anything?"

Rose felt decidedly odd for a few moments. "I'm not actually sure."

Jack looked at her incredulously. "All this time and you don't know?"

Defensive, she set the take-out box down on the chair. "The only time or place I've ever seen him asleep is in here, and that was just the once. The rest of the time, he's always wound up and raring to go. Besides, it's not like the subject comes up much in light conversation, is it?"

His expression said otherwise, but then that was Jack. "Huh. So he isn't catching a few winks in the back of the TARDIS somewhere?"

"Not unless something's conked him on the head," she said lightly, and then wished she hadn't.


=====


Something hit him on the head.

Stumbling, the Doctor brandished his sonic screwdriver, desperate to keep the robots at bay while trying not to tread over the unfortunate man's body. His jarred vision showed him snatches of red, strobing light; showed long telescoping arms, nasty swiveling sharp things and --

Well, that just looked like an armor-plated metal lobster --

Something hit him on the head again. Falling over seemed like a good idea.

As the Doctor sank onto the corpse -- still warm, now that was interesting -- he turned his head up into to meet a robotic gaze, all clacking titanium mandibles and electric fire.

"Listen," he panted, "You're all in very real danger, so how about -- "

The smell of blood and the world stopped again.

Back to index


Chapter 3: Chapter Three: The Requested File Is Not In Circulation


Archivist Ragusa raised a scabrous hand to her spectacles and frowned at the readout.

"Thirty-seven illicit downloads from Archive Six; twelve unauthorized viewings of classified text. Nineteen unspecified usages between the hours of 03:00 and 07:48. Hrrst." She glanced up at the ruddy-faced intern who was shifting from foot to foot. "How did you come across these . . . transgressions?"

The boy -- Vetch -- folded his hands behind his back in a misguided attempt at appearing professional. Not a yet a Logician, he nonetheless wore the double-breasted green suit with the symbol of Universal Logic woven onto the left breast. It might've commanded more respect if there wasn't a curry stain slightly below it.

"I was trying to get Archivist Selos to sign off on my time log. He wasn't there, and I, er, waited a bit, only he didn't come -- "

And it was getting close to dinner, thought Ragusa drily.

"-- so I thought that I'd leave him a message on his webwork, only there was this." He pointed at the readout. "At first I thought it was nothing, but then I realized it dealt with your department. The Special Collection, you know, and since it looked important . . ." His voice trailed off as he lost confidence.

Ragusa clicked her mandibles in irritation. "Hrrst. And it did not occur to you that Archivist Selos had not already sent me this information? You merely assumed I was unaware of the problems within my own department?"

The intern blanched. "Er, that is -- "

Ragusa directed her gaze back down to the tablet. "As it happens, I was not aware of it, but that is hardly an excuse." She sighed, a heavy buzzing sound. "In light of recent events, an explanation from the late Archivist is highly unlikely. Very well. You have already been questioned by the Guard -- " the boy's flinching said as much "-- so presumably they will contact you for further inquiries. It is well that I have this information. You may go." She turned back to her own webwork, scanning its branches with mounting concern as the network blossomed with wild speculation and intrigues. Worse still, this massive and most recent server crash had very likely destroyed countless hours of processing. None of this boded well for her.

A slight cough made her turn. Vetch was still standing there. "Er. Could you sign my time log, ma'am?"


=======


Rose stared at her knees.

When she'd been little, and not especially fond of taking baths, her mum had told her to pretend her legs were the backs of whales surfacing for air. She could only get out of the tub when they'd done this at least twenty times, without cheating and just splashing them up and down in a hurry.

Her mum was a bit weird, sometimes.

Rose sighed, submerging the whales. After a long day of walking and shopping, warm baths were just the ticket. She let her gaze fall idly to the parcels and clothing she'd left on the dressing chair. The little blue orb was peeking out of her jacket pocket.

Reaching over, she tried to activate it but got only static. At first she thought it must be broken but then she recalled the Doctor saying something about the TARDIS jamming low-range transmissions; the satellite feed was probably too weak to pick up in here. Jack was going to be disappointed.

Someone knocked on her door. "Rose?" Speak of the devil.

"I'm in the bath!" The door handle moved slightly. "That means don't come in, Jack. What's going on, you found him?"

A sigh. "No. Checked all over." A pause. "I think he left the TARDIS a while ago."

She pursed her lips. "Why?"

"Well, it just looks like he tore through the workshop and took all the good batteries, for starters--"

"No -- I mean why would he just leave?"

"Hey, you're the one who knows him. Look, I'm gonna run some scans; come find me when you're done."

Rose listened to the sound of his footsteps receding down the hall. Why would the Doctor leave? Did he discover there was something he needed? Maybe he stepped out for a bite. Or a drink; he could knock back a few when the mood hit him.

Maybe something was wrong with the TARDIS. Maybe he was in trouble. Maybe he was racing desperately through the city, trying to find them. -- No, that was silly; he'd have called.

She sighed again, violently breaking the surface of the water as she drew her knees to her chest. So much for relaxing baths. The blue orb caught her eye as she climbed out of the tub and suddenly gave her an idea.

Rose pulled on her clothes from earlier and, still damp, jogged down the familiar twists of the corridors until she reached the still-quiet console room. Stepping out of the TARDIS, she shivered deliciously as the warm night breeze played against her wet skin. The blue flowers on the walls were actually glowing in the moon -- in the planetlight -- and the white buildings loomed pale and serene. The distant city glimmered like a multifaceted jewel.

She sat down by the grocer's stand, nodding at the peaceable lady working it. "Excuse me, I just press this button and it starts working?"

The woman shrugged. "Pretty easy interface. Just don't click on any of those pop-up windows or you'll never be rid of them."

Universal constants. Rose tapped the button and marveled at the slight hum that the orb produced as light folded out of it into a shimmering white rectangle. Slowly, the page folded into a three-dimensional representation of the Archival City, with arrows and flash points and animations crowding around its complex topography. Blinking, Rose tried to figure out the interface, which turned out to be calibrated to her eye movements. Though dizzying, it somehow made sense while it was working.

Forgetting the reason for activating the orb in the first place, Rose skimmed the gossip of the day (boring), read up on the hot spots (they'd hit five), had several publications offered to her at low introductory prices and discovered that apparently the world was not ending, the aliens weren't invading and those worrying explosions to the right quadrant of the screen were from a movie trailer.

She was rather enjoying the experience until a series of urgent words appeared across her field of vision:

Breaking: Missing Archivist Found Dead. Suspect Detained For Questioning

The first image was that of a nervous, bookish middle-aged man which the glowing font below identified as Trevor Selos, 47, deceased.

The second image, identified as a possible murder suspect, was --

Rose jumped up, stumbling back to the TARDIS.

"JACK!!!"


======



Rose was not used to being frantic. Desperate, yes; desperate was normal. Frantic was an entirely different subcategory.

The whole charm of traveling with the Doctor was that you always had a lot to worry about but not a lot to actually do. You acted as a sounding board, posited theories, asked seemingly obvious questions and just generally tried not to sprain your ankle; he did the rest. You were party to everything that was going on -- and invariably incarcerated once those goings-on fell apart -- but you weren't responsible for it. And you weren't expected to be responsible for it. You helped out where you could, but the hugely and devastatingly clever part of the plan (and the head-butting when it failed) was the Doctor's department. You just got to tell him how clever he'd been.

She knew she wasn't stupid, but in the last half-hour it felt as though her brains had dribbled out her ear. She'd burst into Jack's room yelling about launching a rescue mission, grab the sonic blaster and meet me in the spare room in ten minutes! and had realized in short order that what she'd really meant was while he was doing that, she was going to go get the Doctor so they could go . . . rescue the Doctor.

Jack, calmer if slightly terrified of her now, had gently suggested that maybe they just go down to the police department and ask to see him.

That was the other thing about traveling with the Doctor. Everything ended up seeming like a worst-case scenario.

So they'd flagged down a cab -- driven by the same garrulous camel-thing who'd dropped them off earlier -- and were now speeding towards the Hall of Justice.

Actually, speeding was hardly the word. "Don't like to go too fast, this time of night. Bad for the digestion. Family's prone to the digestion troubles. You been eating well, lately?" A noxious cloud of gas wafted past their faces. Rose gritted her teeth and flung herself back in the seat. Perfect.

"You could've at least brought the blaster," she muttered, picking irritably at a hole in her hoodie.

The look Jack gave her was of utter incredulity, with perhaps a little more amusement than strictly necessary. "Rose. Police Station. Walking in with a holster isn't going to win us any friends."

"You could pretend you're a detective! You've got the psychic paper --"

"Come on, that's a glorified party trick! Just because it works on the man in the street and your 20th century rubes doesn't mean that professional law enforcement will fall for it."

"So what do we do?" Rose sighed angrily, then sized Jack up. "And I'm not a rube."

"Didn't call you one."

"I was born in the 20th century."

He folded his arms defensively. "Only the end bit. Anyway, we don't have to worry. The Doctor's obviously innocent, the court system isn't too corrupt and there's no stupid death penalties or anything. We'll go in, demand a lawyer, and knowing the Doc, we'll even end up solving the murder and saving the planet from some big unspecified threat or whatever." Jack snorted, then gave Rose a slightly more sympathetic glance. "C'mon, relax. Haven't you ever bailed anyone out before?"

Rose poked her finger through the hole, twisting the fabric savagely. "Yeah, Mickey. For trying to swim in the lobby fountain after betting Johnny Park he could drink a pint a minute for ten minutes. Murder, now that seems a little different."

"Geez, calm down." Jack paused. "Was Mickey drunk or just paying the forfeit?"

"I honestly don't remember." She sighed again, turning back to the cabbie. "Please? A little faster?" Turning back around, she found Jack's expression unreadable.

"You're really worried about him, huh."

She clenched her jaw. "Not that worried." If anything, angry. Really, really angry. One perfect day of vacation ruined, and she didn't even know why.


======



The station was busy but clean and well-ordered. The people at the desk were of a naturally surly disposition, but still answered the questions Rose and Jack put to them.

The answers weren't what either of them wanted to hear.

Three police droids -- huge, hovering one-eyed things that looked like the bastard offspring of a jellyfish and HAL -- had indeed discovered the deceased Trevor Selos with the suspect in an unoccupied street off Panthea Row. The suspect, a mid-sized humanoid male in his early forties, resisted arrest and was incapacitated --

" 'Incapacitated?' What the hell does that mean?" Rose demanded.

It meant incapacitated, apparently. The droids scanned him for his file, discovered that he was not in the city registry and subsequently prepared to transport him to a holding facility for questioning. Unfortunately --

"Unfortunately what?"

Unfortunately, the continual updating and processing of new information meant that the main computational grid periodically overloaded and shut down. Both of the droids carrying the suspect were running off one of the same servers that crashed, meaning they blacked out for a good 45 seconds before rebooting in autistic mode. The suspect was missing when they came back online.

"Did he run off?" asked Jack, leaning in.

The officer expressed his doubts on that, given that the suspect had been tasered and then struck on the head twice.

Rose slammed the palms of her hands down on the desk. "That's what 'incapacitated' means? Your stupid robots hit him and tasered him!? Ever heard of police brutality?" Jack was trying to tell her to keep her voice down, but the words were clawing their way out of her throat now. "Why not shoot him in the leg a few times just to make sure? You call yourselves professionals!"

The man behind the desk stared up at her, then at Jack's psychic paper, then back to her, then the paper. After a moment, he said, "You aren't really detectives, are you?"

Ten seconds later and they were running out the door.



======


fire laps at the corners of his vision. the storm spares nothing. in the distance, the howling of the monsters; before him, the screaming of the deathless ones. he tries to explain that there was no choice, but the sigil looms--

Something wet on his face.

Eyes opening without enthusiasm, the Doctor groggily attempted to wipe off whatever was on his forehead. It turned out to be blood from a shallow gash on his temple.

Arms cold. He wasn't wearing his jacket. Feeling almost naked and still decidedly feeble, the knowledge that his tracker -- and by association, several vital components of the TARDIS -- was now effectively gone just completed the overall sense of complete and utter failure. Not to mention that he'd stumbled across a dead body in an abandoned alley with no other witnesses; this day had long, obnoxious trial written all over it. He groaned quietly, closing his eyes again.

It was here.

Darting upright, instantly alert, the Doctor cast a wild gaze around the room. As his frenzied mind came to grips with the situation, he quickly realized that he was not in a detention block or holding cell -- he was in someone's office. A small, tasteful desk cluttered with decidedly tasteless paperwork occupied the corner nearest him. Antiquated processors and webwork interfacings competed for shelf space, cables ran throughout the ceiling and floor, and a poster on the far side of the beige walls told him to "Hang In There!" The smell of coffee and ammonia was rather prevalent, as well as sweat.

And the smell of something else. Old time. No human would possibly have sensed that.

The Doctor slowly backed away from the lumpy gray couch that he had been deposited on. It was here. Somewhere here, in this room. Or --

No, not in the room, but close. So close. His palms started itching; he tried to wipe them against the insides of his jacket sleeves before remembering it was gone. Well, fantastic. The sonic screwdriver was gone as well. Whoever was holding him wasn't taking any chances.

"First order of the day," he muttered to himself. "Find out what it is I didn't do, how I didn't do it, and why. Second, cross own timeline and punch self in face repeatedly."

There was a rustle outside the door, and the Doctor braced himself for another joyless confrontation with The Authorities.

Back to index


Chapter 4: Chapter Four: Defining Your Search Parameters

Author's Notes: And the plot slowly begins to rear its hoary head. Hah.



The stability of the temporal cosmos was at stake. The man was an obstacle. The Doctor was probably going to have to knock him out and tie him up with the electrical wiring.

"Tea?"

Eventually tie him up. Eventually.

The Doctor grinned and folded his hands, leaning expectantly towards the bespectacled, vaguely puffin-shaped little man in the green blazer. "Lovely. Two lumps, and sugar if you've got any."

His companion paused in his work of setting out the chipped china cup. "Sorry?"

"Nothing." Cheerful grin. Keep them guessing.

"I'm dreadfully sorry about the, ah," the man made a vague hand gesture indicating the room, "state of affairs. In flux at the moment. Cataloguing. Databases. You understand."

The Doctor scoffed. "Eh. If libraries were supposed to be clean, they wouldn't have books in 'em."

This elicited a delighted little chuckle. "Quite so, quite so. Your tea, Mr. --"

"Doctor."

"Doctor -- ?"

"Just the Doctor, thanks." He regarded the cup. Tannin and free radicals, good, but if he was going to get his brain back up to speed . . . He reached for the sugar cellar. "And you?"

"Horten. Maxwell Horten." The man eased himself into the swivel chair across from the Doctor. "Subdivision Director for the Archives, with a special emphasis on the history of our humble settlement." He beamed slightly, then frowned as he noted that the Doctor had dumped three teaspoons full of sugar into his drink and showed no sign of forgoing a fourth.

The Doctor's gaze lifted briefly from his cup to Horten's outfit. "You a Logician, then?"

The little man held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Please, do not prejudge me! -- Virtually all of the Archivists and much of the staff here are members of the Guild." He sighed. "It becomes easier to parrot the lines rather than wade through the tedious onslaught of evangelizing, I'm afraid."

Two more teaspoons? --Didn't get dinner. Three more. "Funny. Thought the Guild had slacked off the maniacal bent a while back."

Horten coughed politely. "Things improve with age, I've found." He seemed perplexed by the look that flitted across the Doctor's face. "Er. I'm sorry that I have no bandage for your wound, but it seems to be healing . . "

"Yeah well, 'time heals', et cetera. Does bring up a burning question, though." He stirred his tea, forcing it more than usual thanks to the slurry of sugar at its bottom. "One minute, I'm going to dinner; next minute, I find a body in a sidealley and the local constabulary fancies me as a pinata." Some of the tea was now running over the sides. "And now I'm here, which I'm guessing isn't the local gaol. And unless the city budget's been cut worse than usual, you aren't exactly pulling double-duty as Chief Inspector." He grinned again, careful to insert just the necessary sliver of an edge. "Interesting night out, even by my standards."

Horten adjusted his spectacles, an eager hand raised to flag the Doctor's comment. "Quite. Quite. Yes, I'm sorry to have, ah, waylaid you in such a fashion, Doctor, but it seems as though you stumbled into a rather dire state of affairs." He folded his plump little hands, then seemed to decide against it and clasped them instead around his own mug. "The poor soul you found in the alley was a fellow Archivist, name of Trevor Selos. So sad. So sad. Wonderful fellow."

"I didn't kill him," the Doctor said evenly. Eyes locked with the Logician's, who couldn't quite seem to meet that steady gaze.

"Oh, I know. You have no motive, after all, and certainly don't have the look of a killer." Horten smiled blandly, though his expression seemed a bit glazed. "No. No. I fear," here he leaned forward, "I fear the true killer is someone here in the Library. This is why I, ah, interrupted the police drones in their task. I require your assistance in bringing the real murderer to justice."

The Doctor slowly raised his cup. "So this is the Library. Thought so." He sipped from the cup, noting that the Archivist winced as he did so. "Why me? Why not just let the police work it out for themselves?" Sucrose. Ha. Haahhhh.

Horten's face creased. "Ah. The, ah, person that I suspect of the killing has some influence with the law enforcement. I fear that they would not be much help in solving the murder." He pinched the bridge of his nose, momentarily displacing his spectacles. "In fact, I believe that the police droids were deliberately tipped off by, ahem, someone in a higher position. Apparently they assumed an off-worlder would be a convenient, er, patsy." He took a deep breath. "In the, ah, interest of clearing your name, I feel that we must, er, join forces to build a case." He leaned back, looking slightly anxious.

What had this been, originally? Earl Grey? Djarleeng? "Huh. Guess there's a literary precedent for librarian detectives." -- Ooh, that was a good one; worked on two levels. How many spoonfuls did he put in this thing?

The Archivist was leaning forward again, his face suffused with hope. Something about his expression soured the Doctor's otherwise improved mood. This bright little man might be on to something, but he might also be completely wrong. Or overreacting. Or the murderer himself. And the feel of his quarry was somewhere here, somewhere in this building, pricking like a splinter . . .

He wasn't here to deal with little details. Yes, a man had been killed; that was bad. But if he abandoned his search to get wrapped up in a murder mystery then the artifact might never be reclaimed, meaning the expression 'the charnel-house of history' would shortly become a very literal one.

Big picture thinking. It left a taste in your mouth that no amount of sugar could overcome.

Just as well Rose wasn't here.

He fixed the Archivist with a steady gaze, hating himself for what he was about to do. "Don't suppose you've got my jacket?"



=====



Rose sat dejectedly in the control chair.

He'd be all right. He had to be all right. He was the Doctor. He always got into trouble, but always got out of it in the end.

That was what he did. That was who he was.

All right, she'd saved him that time with the Nestene Consciousness, but he was still the one who did the rescuing all those other times. -- Oh, except Charles Dickens got them out of the cellar. And Mickey was the one on the outside who actually . . . yeah, and Cathica . . . then her dad had to solve that one . . . and Jack had taken care of the bomb problem for them --

She buried her face in her knees. All right. Revised standard: he was good at getting other people to rescue him. Never mind he'd last been knocked about by a bunch of stupid robots and then stolen away to Parts Unknown. Never mind that the people slated to rescue him were going quietly mad.

She felt so useless. The information they'd culled from the infochannels and their inept little charade at the station (fine, Jack was right about the paper) had only told them that the murder victim had been killed by some sort of massive internal displacement and that he'd been dead for about eight hours. No motives, no hints, no Big Flashing Clues -- at least, none she recognized. Where the hell were they supposed to go from there?

Think.

She bit the lower half of her lip. Jack was currently mucking around in the TARDIS's bash-up room, trying to boost the signal on his pink globe to pick up the encrypted police frequencies. If he was doing anything else with it, she wasn't sure she wanted to know. Something about his refusal to act openly upset struck her as . . . rude.

But then, he didn't have as much invested in the Doctor, did he? The alien who suffered him to tag along but watched him like a hawk, all sideways glances and terse sentences. Whereas Rose --

-- well --

-- having known the Doctor longer, was better attuned to him and his quirks and moods, his melancholia and deep still silences, the shining depths of his dark clear eyes; she was the one who strove to understand and to aid and to (yes) love him. The stupid bastard.

The stupid, vague, maddening multi-hearted alien bastard.

Rose Tyler stared at her knees, not seeing them. What she was seeing, however, was the beginning of a plan.



======



"Two hearts."

"'Livin' in just . . one . . mind --'"

"Jack."

He pouted slightly. "Geez, sorry." He pulled himself up off of the workbench, setting the pink globe down. "What's this about two hearts?"

Rose waved her hands around, frantic to explain. "The Doctor. He's got two hearts. That wrist thingy of yours, the one you used to scan for alien tech --"

Jack crossed his arms, looking skeptical. "Wait. You want me to reconfigure it to search out biopatterns? Rose, I don't know if I can do that --"

"But you can try, right?" Her fingers clenched reflexively. This plan was brilliant and she'd come up with it; did he have to shoot it down so quickly? Score one for Rose Tyler? Universe? Hullo?

Jack pursed his lips. "Well . . . the Doctor, or someone, ripped out what looked like all the really important and necessary tracking bits from the TARDIS . . " He glanced around the workshop, rapping his knuckles on the workbench. "Souping up Pinky here didn't work, so I don't know how you expect me to jury-rig a bio-scanner; not really my field of expertise."

Oh, thank you so much, Universe. "Well, what would you need?"

Jack sighed, giving the table a particularly frustrated rap and then smacking his palm down. "A transinductional matter converter, maybe. I dunno, some big freakin' transmitter signal with a wide range -- would need to be keyed to the TARDIS, though, so --"

Rose fumbled in her pocket and thrust her phone at him. "Blimey, isn't this just our lucky day?"



========



For all that it symbolized a desire to keep everything and everyone at arms' length, for all that it was a snarling renunciation of those fatuous affectations of his earlier lives, for all that it was the outward and physical manifestation of the scarred bulwark of his soul -- damn, he looked good in this coat.

Too bad the tracker was so conspicuously absent from its pocket. Not that he needed it to find his quarry; even now, admiring his reflection in the cloakroom mirror he felt it nudging against the periphery of his awareness, a blur in the corner of his mind's eye. The much more pressing problem was the one of what would happen once he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do and then tried to take off in a TARDIS that was mildly lobotomized.

Not like you can get the parts from the dealer, anymore.

A rapping at the door. "Doctor?"

He sighed. Horten. "Found my screwdriver, have you?"

The little man bustled in, quickly shutting the door behind him. "Er. No, I'm sorry, Doctor. When I brought you here --"

"How did you bring me here?"

"Oh. Er. My buggy. I was supposed to meet with Trevor, you see, and was in the vicinity when you were attacked." He readjusted his spectacles, peering up at the Doctor like a myopic gannet. "Stroke of luck, really."

"Hmm. Not really." The Doctor patted down his jacket in one last and ultimately futile attempt to discover some remnant of the electronics. Nothing. "I mean," he added mulishly, "Holmes didn't need a deerstalker and pipe, but good luck getting him to work without 'em."

Horten blinked, then smiled wanly. "But he was fiction, Doctor."

"Whatever you say. 'Course, it was the cocaine he couldn't do without . . . So, then. I get attacked. You rescue me." The Doctor glanced around the small, mildewy room, found a chair, and wheeled it around. He plopped himself down with gusto, crossed a leg, folded his arms and cocked his head while donning the kind of expression that sent people scurrying for the trees. "You rescue me from some big, nasty, not-especially-bright-or-conversationally-stimulating police droids. How, exactly?"

The Archivist spread his hands before him again. "I could hardly take any credit for martial prowess, sir. The, ah, droids' main computational banks are run off the same servers shared with the Library and indeed much of Alezhandria's other law departments. And since we are updating and editing these archives continually, they tend to crash at semi-random intervals when too much, er, strain is placed on the network."

The Doctor frowned. "Hang on. The Archive's farmed out some of its server space to the police department? How strapped for cash are you lot?"

Horten arched an eyebrow. "We're a library. Need I say more?"

"Point."

"At any rate, this shared connection was almost certainly used to hack or disrupt the droids' regular sweep functions and restrain you. That is, assuming that the murderer hadn't merely bought off a police official for the order. One of them left to contact a stretcher detail for the, er, the corpse shortly after you were, ah, incapacitated, and the other two were preparing to move you to a holding cell when the server crashed." Horten reached into his breast pocket, carefully opening a tortoiseshell case and taking a lint-free rag from it. He began to clean his spectacles; the Doctor noted the dark circles under his eyes.

"Stroke of luck, then." He leaned back in the chair, still watching Horten. "Too bad you didn't get my things; suppose it can't be helped. D'you know if the droids confiscated them?"

"No, Doctor."

"Fantastic." He let his head dangle over the back of the chair, one leg jiggling irritably. The little man wanted something from him, he could sense it. Information? Or just a chance to impart some? Honestly, the man was fidgeting like an incontinent terrier; he was obviously worked up about something. The Doctor exhaled noisily. Maxwell Horten seemed like a reasonably decent sort. Little high-strung, a bit pretentious, slightly paranoid, but essentially good-hearted.

Too bad he was going to bolt out of here the minute he knew where the exits were located.

"So," he drawled again, staring up at the water-stained ceiling tiles, "you've obviously got someone in mind as Mr. Big."

"Oh, indeed." The Archivist's tone lowered, and he set his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. The eyes under his beetle brows were set and cold. "Ragusa."

"Who?"

"The Director For the Special Collection. Archivist Ragusa. All of the non-conventional and, ah, more worrying texts are under her care. Few of these are human works, but then, she isn't one herself." He folded his arms. "And she's ruthless about upholding her authority."

The Doctor shrugged. Petty tyrants were everywhere, even in libraries. Especially in libraries. Although . . . "'Special Collection', huh?"

Horten waved a vague hand. "Works the Guild would rather not trouble the rest of the Empire with. Some merely heretical, some truly revolutionary, some notable only for their, ah, remarkable binding and one or two of them . . . well, beyond explanation." He sighed. "Ragusa has spent the past eighty years overseeing the collection and I believe she may regard it as her own, rather than rightful property of the Archives. She has made a point of restricting access to many of these works and even denying their presence in the records when questioned."

Small hairs prickled on the back of the Doctor's neck. "Really."

"Unfortunately, yes. And her temper is considerable. She's ruined the careers of those who cross her, and -- " Horten paused, seeming to regard a nonexistent point in the distance, "when two Archivists who worked under her started to -- well, begin from the beginning -- when one of the books in the, ah, Special Collection went missing seven months ago, two Archivists in her department noticed this and began searching the records for it."

"And they ended up dead."

"What? Oh, no. No. Not dead; merely missing. They disappeared within three months of each other; first Lyn and then Grimwade. The police supposedly conducted a thorough investigation into the matter, but nothing was ever satisfactorily resolved. Then, Trevor Selos resumed the search for the book, confiding only in me. Initially, I thought, ah, that he was merely overworked, delusional." He sighed, a dusty little sound that seemed to echo in his throat. "Poor Trevor . ."

The Doctor kept his gaze fixed on the tiles above him. Small patches of mold ringed the brown edges of the water spot. "So you think Ragusa stole the book and knocked off anyone who stumbled onto her trail."

"I would hesitate to, ah, make an outright accusation, but the evidence does seem to point in that direction." Horten's despondent tone acquired a pleading note. "Please, Doctor. This must certainly seem like a waste of time to you, but I can assure you that --"

The Doctor's head snapped back up. "Waste of time? That depends." He saw Horten flinch at his own tone, sharp and to the point. Fixed him with a look that would derail a locomotive. "This book. This mysterious little novella that the good Director's taken a fancy to -- what's it called?"

Horten blinked, answering automatically. "No one knows. The language -- it doesn't correspond to any known system of writing. The, ah, characters seem to move on the page, and resemble mathematical concepts more than mere -- more than ordinary word groupings." His fingers laced into each other, anxious. "Er. Though that was, ah, Trevor's assessment. I never was allowed to see it, myself, and then it disappeared --"

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm

The Doctor's voice was low and deathless. "And it's a black book? Smells like metal? Got a funny symbol on its cover, looks like an eight but with two little curves arcing out?"

all things, except --

The Archivist's mouth opened, then shut again. "I -- yes. Yes, he did say --"

The Doctor closed his eyes.

Of all the things to endure. Of all of the things to be allowed to survive, it was this.

Oh, well. Work to do.

He leapt out of the chair, startling Horten, who staggered back as though struck, and grabbed the smaller man by his shoulders.

"The game's afoot," he declared. "Come along, Watson!"

Back to index


Chapter 5: Chapter Five: The Library Intranet Is For Patrons Only

Author's Notes: If I ever do write a conventional 'shipper fic, the phrase "limpid brown pools" will occur no less than four times.


Alezhandria at dawn could just break your heart in all the right ways. Overhead loomed the silver globe of Thoth, over the horizon peeked the bright amber sun. The giant dragonflies whirred past on iridescent wings, singing elaborate little hunting ditties in metallic voices. Several unfortunate nightingales attempted to join the chorus and were eaten for their trouble.

The Doctor really, really didn't need to think about what Jack and Rose were doing right now.

They probably hadn't even made it back to the TARDIS anyway. Probably waking up in a ritzy hotel somewhere in the uptown district, in the kind of situation where the phrases "tangled limbs" and "sore but happy" and "limpid brown pools" -- no, no one actually said that, nevermind -- get bandied about by overtly sentimental types. And he'd facilitated it all.

Everyone else dances. I get hit on the head by robots while trying to stave off universal destruction. Discuss.

Of course, he might presume too much. Part of the Doctor was genuinely concerned that they'd be worried about him, that maybe Rose was out searching for him in some dark alley and getting jumped by mysterious strangers. This aspect of his thought was neatly overshadowed by the rest of his mind suspecting grimly that she was in a dimmed corridor getting jumped by Jack.

Well. At least they were out of trouble. Sort of.

His own companion this morning was hardly his first choice for world-saving. Archivist Horten was clearly a man whose only real exposure to intrigue and excitement had been via the literary traditions where the villain, upon being confronted with evidence of their dastardly evil plan, would expound at length upon the nature of their scheme before giving them a vital clue as to how they might be stopped. Hardly a realistic course of action.

Fine, it always worked for him, but that really wasn't the point.

Horten kept insisting that they reach the main computational grid, where he could demonstrate firsthand the extent of the revisions that Ragusa had made to the original records. "Unfortunately, ah, as the Director of the Special Collection, she has an encrypted system; I have tried on numerous occasions to access it and have failed. Er. Though I suspect you have the capacity to --"

They were currently loping down one of the main Library's access corridors, frequented only by harassed-looking interns and the occasional bleary-eyed Archivist. Not many people were up yet, and the few they encountered didn't give them a second glance. The Doctor was easily four steps ahead of Horten, who had to puff and jog to keep up with him.

The Doctor was indeed heading towards the main computational grid, but for reasons other than what Horten thought. Revising history was easy. Hell, not revising history was the hard bit. If this Ragusa character was trying to make all records of the book disappear by tinkering with a database, then she obviously had no idea what she was dealing with.

-- Assuming she was the culprit; that would need to be validated first. But it was a little heartening to know that even if the artifact had been discovered and tampered with that whoever had it couldn't do much with it. After all, the fact that there were murders and disappearances and cover-ups meant that Time itself hadn't been completely and ruthlessly edited out of existence. Yet.

And the book was somewhere on the premises.

And the main grid was just rife with electronic filing and tracking systems.

And he came first in jiggery-pokery.

He grinned savagely to himself, just as Horten managed to catch up with him. "Er. You don't think we should, ah, approach from a less conspicuous route? Ragusa may have --" here he lowered his voice, " -- may have agents in the vicinity."

"Oh, c'mon. Not like they'll have guards on the doors --"

They rounded the corner. There were, in fact, guards at the doors. Two police droids hovered on either side, red eyes blank and baleful. The Doctor's pace slowed only momentarily, but he waved cheerfully at the one to his left as he approached. "Hey there, handsome."

The robot regarded him dispassionately. Now that the Doctor had a chance to look them over without being attacked (so far), he concluded that his initial impression had been about right. Armor-plated lobster with fiddley bits. Long arms, too. He was inclined to think it looked familiar, but then given the circumstances of his first seeing one . . .

Behind him, Horten coughed. "Ahem. Er. We're just checking up on the latest batch of submissions. Interns, you know. Mistakes." He pushed the Doctor through the door. "Thank you!"

Safely inside, the Doctor turned and frowned at the Archivist. "No need for that, you know. Never make excuses; that's how they know you're up to something. Just swan in like you own the place." He tugged the jacket around his shoulders. "Works all the time." He turned back to regard the rest of the grid room. "Ooh. We're going to have fun . . ."

Frowning, Horten wiped off his glasses again. "They were robots, Doctor. They behave according to logical precepts, not by, ah, 'swanning in'. Er." He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I do hope they aren't specifically watching for us . . ."

The Doctor was too busy giving the grid room a once-over to respond.

It was the size of one of your classier cathedrals, and had something of a residually holy air about it. The only light came from the glittering blue of the data feeds and the luminous viewscreens. Ghostly echoes of the scuffling of feet and the muted beeps of keypads were the only sounds.

And of course, there was a huge quartz-and-metal data terminal in the middle of it all, shimmering with bursts of compressed information, thrumming with power and just generally looking like the most beautifully ostentatious New Age electric mixer on acid ever.

The Doctor's palms itched. It wasn't that the grid terminal was sophisticated; it wasn't. Two hundred years before, it would have been obsolete, and one good look showed him that it had been hastily and cheaply retrofitted from whatever existing technologies were still adaptable. The data feeds via cranial holes were much more sophisticated in terms of packaging and relaying information than this old fossil.

But you couldn't take out a person's brain and fiddle with the fun bits. Also, brains didn't glitter in quite the same way.

"Of all the times to be missing your sonic screwdriver," he murmured.


===========



It was just as well the Doctor wasn't there. He'd have flayed Jack with a teaspoon.

The TARDIS console room didn't have a flat surface that wires and extruded bits of electronics hadn't been strewn across or under. The lighting system threw a nauseating orange glow on everything, as though payback for the atrocities that Jack was creating from the ship's higher functions.

It was funny, Rose thought. She'd almost gotten used to the idea of the TARDIS being alive, had sort of reconciled itself to the fact that it slummed in her head, could just about handle those times she felt it nudge past her consciousness like a stranger in a dark hallway -- but the minute something happened to it that it didn't like, it started acting less and less like a mysterious alien artifact and more like an aged sheepdog who's going to haul off and bite one of those damn kids if they keep trying to make it wear sunglasses.

Good thing it didn't know whose idea this really was, she reflected.

It probably didn't help that Jack was treating it -- her -- whatever -- like a recalcitrant computer that should have been pitched years ago. "Seriously, who built this thing? I mean, it's bad enough that half of this wiring's unreadable -- " here he thrust up a bundle of cords with some strange, shimmery mathematical symbol designating their function, whatever that was -- "but it looks like it was all just shoved in here so they could sweep the floors!" He reached in to the panel, then grimaced, pulling out what looked vaguely like a shriveled carrot. "And then they chucked the dustpan in here, too."

Rose shrugged. She'd helped where she could, but this was even less her field of expertise than Jack's. "I think the Doctor said he'd had to do a lot of sudden repairs. Something happened to it a while back, maybe. Though the way he goes on, I don't know what normal is with this old thing." She tapped her nails on the side of the console; small lights flittered under the surface. Irrationally, she hoped the TARDIS didn't understand normal conversation.

"Yeah?" Jack sighed from somewhere under the grillework. "Where'd he get this ship, anyway?"

"Dunno. He acts like he's always had it." She bit her lip and stared at the upward sweep of the ceiling, racking her brain for pertinent information. "I . . . yeah, I think he said once that his people made them. They're all gone, though; guess this makes it the last one in the Universe . . ." A sudden, horrible sense of loneliness made her tapping hand stop, then gently smooth itself over the console. It was probably her imagination, but the lights had stopped pulsing . . .

"Huh. Doesn't really help us that much . . . " Jack's head suddenly popped out of the floor, looking like a meerkat with crumbs in his hair. "What is the Doctor, anyway? Not human, obviously; don't know any species off the top of my head that have two hearts and that much attitude . . ." He paused, blinking momentarily. "Scratch that. Species with two hearts that look even vaguely humanoid."

"Time Lord. That's what he calls himself, anyway; not really a scientific name --" Rose noticed that Jack's face had soured. "What?"

"Time Lord? He told you he was a -- oh, Rose." He threw up his hands, sinking against the side of the grating.

Indignant, she folded her arms. "What?"

Jack gave her a look that was delicately balanced between compassion and utter exasperation. "There's no such thing as the Time Lords. They're an old galactic myth, just a holdover from the idea of gods or whatever."

"No, they aren't. The Doctor's one."

"Rose, the maybe five or six accounts that exist which mention Time Lords are all hugely-incomplete and sketchy stories that no one with a lick of common sense would take seriously. Every career drunk in this end of Muetter's Spiral will tell you a story about some gallivanting alien that turned out to have godlike powers, right before they try to sell you a 'genuine Time Watch' that's obviously higher technology because it's got a digital interface. Geez. I don't know why the Doctor would tell you he's a --"

She couldn't believe this. "What? No, he is a Time Lord. We got locked up in Satellite Five, this creepy zombie guy got into Adam's head --"

"Who?"

"Nobody, but the Doctor hadn't told him he was a Time Lord, and I hadn't either, and the Editor still figured it out." She felt a small sting of triumph at her use of deductive logic. "There you have it. Time Lord."

He was looking so annoyingly skeptical. "So? That just means he came to some weird conclusion on his own; doesn't make it true. Rose, even if they did exist -- and they didn't -- they supposedly disappeared from known time aeons ago." He ducked back down under the grillework. "Look, I'm sorry that you didn't know what he was doing --"

"Yeah, I know they disappeared, Mr. Fifty-First Century. That was on account of the Time War."

"Oh for --" She heard him sigh explosively from underneath the floor -- "Just because there was this huge friggin' multi-temporal distortion a while back -- well, relatively speaking a while back -- it doesn't prove the existence of Time Lords. I mean, come on. That's like saying JFK's dead because Jack the Ripper went after him with the Lance of Longinus."

"They were fighting the Daleks!"

"There haven't been Daleks for years! They're borderline legends themselves, for --"

"I met a Dalek!"

"Yeah? Then why are you still alive?"

"It was a real Dalek, clever dick. The eyestalk, the plunger, no conversation skills; Dalek. It called itself a Dalek, the Doctor called it a Dalek --"

"Yeah, well, the Doctor calls himself a Time Lord, so --"

"Oi!"

"Okay, okay . . ." She heard him sigh again, watched a few more withered carrots get tossed up from under the floor. "Did he tell you he had two hearts?"

Rose folded her arms in irritation. "No, as a matter of fact, I found that out myself." She regretted the words the instant they left her mouth. Meerkat Jack's head was above the floorboards, eyes glinting.

"Reeallly?" His tone was unmistakable. "Fascinating. Comparative anatomy student, Rose Tyler?"

She waved a warning finger at him, simultaneously suppressing an outburst of rage and a giggle. "Not what you think. Cease and desist. You've got work to do, remember?"

Jack waggled his eyebrows but gamely ducked under the floor again. "Oh, you're no fun."

"Yeah, well . . ." She settled against the control chair, moving aside some anaconda-sized cables. "Someone's got to be the Doctor."


======



"Uh . . . Director?"

Vetch stared into the darkened room, trying not to flinch. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to the low light, and then the distinctive looming shape that was Ragusa appeared in segments over by the webwork. Her heavy back was to the door, and thusly to the boy as well. The screen's pale light moved eerily across her chitinous appendages.

"Yes?"

Vetch paused. A long and insectile silence followed before he remembered why he'd come. "Er. Sorry to bother you again, ma'am, but I couldn't reach you on the intercom . . . I just wanted to let you know that Facilities is looking into the source of the power fluctuations here in the northwest quadrant. They say they'll be over later in the day to, er, look into the Special Collection's wiring." He folded his hands behind his back, then seemed to realize that this was a futile gesture without her watching. "Um. They said they could probably hit your office by the end of the week, since you're so busy --"

"No." The words were sharp, rattling and buzzing in a way that made Vetch step backwards. "Tell Facilities that I want them to start the search in my office. I want every possible source of the power surge ferreted out and catalogued. Twice. I will not -- hrsst --be occupying the area this day."

Slowly, straightening and expanding like something Vetch had seen in an old movie serial with lots of screaming and bioslime, the Archivist unfolded herself, moving towards him with terrible slow steps, clacking as she walked.

"I will be using -- hrsst -- the main grid room instead."

Back to index


Chapter 6: Chapter Six: Please Respect the Library and Other Guests

Author's Notes: Having worked in both libraries and in facilities departments, this chapter is particularly close to my heart. No, wait. What's the organ that produces bile?




Getting rid of Horten was his most pressing priority. He'd gone into this whole mess with every intention of doing things on his own. No humans getting caught up in the process. No more collateral damage of the Time War.

No one else to watch him break down. No one to inch away.

He didn't need to see Rose looking at him that way again.

Having said that, the Doctor could've done with a little help.

'Help' he would have defined as anything other than what Maxwell Horten had been doing for the past fifteen minutes. The Archivist was so hell-bent on the idea of getting into Ragusa's private files that the Doctor's frequent assurances that yes, he was doing just that, thank you, might as well have been addressed to the walls.

Granted, he wasn't actually hacking the private files, but Horten didn't have to know that. The little man didn't have a clue what the Time Lord was really doing, and the other five or six Archivists in the grid room weren't particularly concerned with their activities either. It was a curious and well-documented observation of the Doctor's that whenever someone does something out of the ordinary, casual observers become prepared to accept that there's a good reason for doing it. He'd blown up more buildings that way . . .

"Please, Doctor. Those files are vital to proving my case. If Ragusa should suspect that anyone was, er, on to her little scheme, I might be --"

The Doctor gritted his teeth and glared down into the wiring console that he was currently stuck in. Glowing cables and transmitters trailed down and sparkled around him in soft blue and green light; clumps of antiquated computer dust sulked atop his head and slid down to his ears. "Look. For the millionth time, if you want to get to those files, we have to -- ow! -- to rip out bits of the main system and patch 'em into the parts of the network we can use, and then -- well, and then fiddle with a few other bits, but let's burn that bridge when we come to it."

"Well . . . how much longer will that take?" Horten was shifting from foot to foot, wringing the cloth he'd been using to polish his glasses.

--See, if Rose had been here, she could've just taken Horten off to a corner and made the Doctor's excuses for him. Hell, even Jumping Jack Flash would've been useful right now --

No. No one else gets sucked into this. This is yours to deal with.

"Listen, Max -- can I call you Max? -- this would go a lot faster if I had some sort of spanner or ratchet or -- well, anything, really." He tugged out another clump of wire and was rewarded by the lighting system dimming momentarily. "Oh, fantastic; just what I -- look. You want to speed this up?"

"Of course!"

"Then find me a toolkit. Doesn't have to be fancy; just needs to have some sort of sonic device and a few mallets. Maybe some gaffer tape. Off you go, then."

Horten half-turned. "You're sure you'll be all right?"

"Me? Yeah, I'm peachy."

The little man's brow furrowed. "Er. And you'll, ah, be here when I get back?"

The Doctor spread his arms wide, or as wide as the present circumstances would allow given that he was stuck in a glorified cabinet. "Where would I go?"

He waited until Horten had closed the door behind him before leaping out of the space and tearing off towards the air ducts.


======



"Okay, I think that does it."

Startled from her own private train of thought, Rose glanced up to see Jack -- dirty, sweaty, covered in dust -- clambering out of the floor. "Took you long enough." It was a shame about the grime, really; rather a nice picture otherwise . . .

Jack gave her a (literally) dirty look. "Didn't exactly have a lot of help on this one, you know."

"I helped."

"Yeah, with holding my coffee. Not with patching a sustained temporal anomaly back into the real-time external interface."

"That's what you were doing?"

Jack exhaled noisily. "God, I hope so." He leaned against the console, looking genuinely tired. "This thing is the textbook definition of 'enigma'. Probably 'pain in the ass' as well."

"Great textbooks you've got in the future, huh?" She took a sip of his coffee.

He arched an eyebrow. "I liked the biology sections better, anyway."

She suppressed a grin; leaned back in the chair. "Right. So what's left to do?"

"Shower."

"Rescue first, then hygiene."

"Look, if we're gonna rescue the Doc from hostile forces, we need every weapon at our disposal, and that includes charm. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm covered in several centuries worth of our alleged Time Lord's snacking habits."

She smiled, though probably not as warmly as Jack would've liked. "Good thing I've got the charm angle covered, then."

He looked mildly indignant. "So what does that make me, the muscle-slash-grease monkey?"

Rose smiled again, sweetly.

Jack sighed, running his hands through his hair in a futile attempt to get the filth out. "Sticking with the preordained 21st century gender roles, then. You are so sexist, Rose Tyler."

"Make it up to you somehow. Now, what do we do?"

"Well, first I'll need your phone." She tossed it to him, watching nervously as he prized the Doctor's superchip out of its circuitry, wedged a clump of electrical leads into the gap and then forced the chip back down.

"Right. Now -- " Jack dashed over to the visiscreen. "Okay -- there. Yes! I did patch that part in right; give the man a medal -- right. Rose, hold down this lever, that lever and -- uh -- whatever this little dongly thing is."

She complied, looking up anxiously while he dashed back to the hole in the floor. "So far so good. Okay. I'm gonna calibrate my personal tracker with the TARDIS, since it doesn't have any of its own tracking system left. Here goes . . ."

The lights dimmed alarmingly for a second, then returned at full power. Rose could've sworn she heard engines revving up somewhere in the depths of the ship. The feeling that something was moving against her soul intensified for a moment and then was gone again, almost without recollection. Dust shuddered up in clouds from the grillework; the cables quaked like jungle vines in a monsoon.

"Wait," she yelled over the growing din, "Jack, you aren't actually trying to fly the TARDIS, are you?"

Oh, that look was not encouraging -- "Two choices, Rose: hoof it around town on foot or doorstep delivery. You want a rescue? I'll give you a rescue!"

"Um, I don't think that's a good idea --" Something directly under them lurched, and the time rotor started to jiggle.

"YEAH, baby!" Jack whooped. "All right! Hold 'em down, Rose, 'cos here . . . we . . . GO!" He slammed his hand down on the controls.

Nothing happened.


======



Ragusa stared at the exposed circuitry.

The Archive Facilities department had an annoying tendency of solving problems by creating new ones, which was part of the reason that strange people spontaneously taking apart panels and electrical systems so rarely invited comment.

Ragusa made it a point to notice these sort of things.

She also noted the loose duct cover over by the main ventilation shaft.

It was entirely possible, as per her wishes, that Facilities had started the sweep in the wing where her office was located and subsequently were searching the ducts via this route.

That didn't explain why the cover looked as though it had been kicked off, though.



======



Why was it, the Doctor reflected, even after countless instances when the alien presence sets up camp in the ventilation system and starts picking off the staff like they were midway ducks, no one ever thinks to put some sort of barrier in the damn air conditioning?

All right, he conceded, all those incidents took place on spaceships, not in libraries, but there was a principle involved.

He was currently wriggling his way through a dim passageway, angling towards that vague prickly feeling behind his eyes. Despite his current body's narrow build and non-obstructionist dress sense, the walls still seemed to be sloping inwards. The junctions were lit with red LED lights, adding to the general eerie atmosphere and casting strange shadows in the corners. The Doctor gritted his teeth and tried not to remember all those numerous horrible instances from his past where he'd been trapped in ducts. He also tried not to think of Ridley Scott films.

Just as well the others weren't there. Claustrophobic enough already.

He'd planned to tear out useful bits of circuitry from the main grid to build a backup tracker, but the feel of the artifact, so close, had been driving him to distraction (and Horten hadn't helped). It was probably very stupid to be thrashing around without any real sense of direction in a maze of ventilation shafts, but since it had been established that it wasn't his day for plans, why not be stupid?

And it was close. Tantalizing. Tiny flickers of electricity jumping over the sections of his brain that he'd almost gotten used to being silent. Promising him things it didn't know it couldn't deliver.

lurking in the space before the intake of breath, skulking like an accusation aimed at the back of your head

The Doctor shook himself back to the here-and-now. Something seemed subtly different about his surroundings. Not only did there seem to be a gradual lightening in the passageway, but the walls seemed scuffed and some of the rivets looked as though they'd been loosened and then reinstated and oh it was so close

He gritted his teeth, waiting for the blackness at the edge of his sight to recede back into nothingness. Focus. Note the surroundings. Something's wrong.

Wait.

Was that his sonic screwdriver?


======



"Well," said Rose, for lack of anything better to say.

Jack's mouth was still open. His eyes jumped from the console, to the wiring, to the time rotor, back to the console. "Uh . . . okay. That should have worked."

Rose slowly eased her hands off the levers. "Thought you said you'd got it all hooked up?"

"Yeah, well . . . " He bit his lip. "Maybe I missed something." He ducked back down below the main controls, tapping at some exposed relays. "Nope, this looks about right . . . "

Something in Rose that had been quivering in anticipation of a full-blown charge of glory curled up and died an inglorious little death. She sank back into the control chair, idly gripping the edge of the console.

"Okay, let's try this again -- "



======



Vetch rounded the corner and screamed.

Ragusa glared down at the intern, whose preoccupation with walking whilst drinking coffee had propelled him into her. Black, steaming liquid dripped off her carapace and trickled down to the floor in greasy rivulets. Looming over Vetch, mandibles clicking viciously, spidery eyes glinting, the boy very nearly screamed again.

"S -- sorry! I'm sorry, Director! Please -- "

Her voice was clipped, the barest edge of a rasp trailing. "Hrsst. The electricians. Have they started their search yet?"

Vetch's mouth moved up and down but failed to get any words out.

"SPEAK."

Vetch managed to shake his head back and forth violently. Huge sections of his mind tried not to think about what might be behind the mandibles poised less than a foot over his face.

Ragusa stiffened. The spines along her dorsal plates grew rigid, and the nerveless intern was privy to a decidedly unpleasant low-level vibration generated by the alien's resonating chambers. Off on the periphery of his vision, the meathooks flexed and clenched.

"And is no one then in the ductwork?"

" . . . " he managed, again shaking his head.

She snarled and lunged past him, trailing coffee. The hall reverberated with the sound of her clacking.

Vetch, trembling, was glad he hadn't asked her for the weekend off.


=====


It was his sonic screwdriver. What the hell was it doing here?

The Doctor eased himself over the grille, becoming aware of the open space below him. Someone's office; smelled vaguely like a fish market. Bizarre. Not quite as bizarre as finding his allegedly lost and/or confiscated tool of choice in an air duct he'd chosen on a hunch, though. Even for an infinite universe, that was pushing things a bit.

"Hullo," he whispered to the screwdriver, tapping it gently to his head. The grille creaked slightly, forcing him to redistribute his weight a little more evenly.

Someone had been in here, all right, and recently. They'd done a crap job of sealing the ducts back up, too. Half the rivets were bolted in wrong; apparently the sonic screwdriver proved too complicated for the mysterious handyman to work and they'd given up on it halfway. The Doctor wasn't looking forward to shimmying across this length of the shaft, though he got the strangest feeling that there was water in the space underneath him --

Light flooded the room as a door swung open. Irises contracting with the suddenness of it, he could hear a strange, rattling sound punctuated by heavy, uneven steps. Pressed against the metal walls, he became aware of a low, deliberate rumbling coming from whoever -- or whatever -- had just entered the office.

Keep still. Keep perfectly still and quiet.

Something hissed.

Perfectly still and quiet and do not think about Ridley Scott films --



======



"Okay. This time I think we've got it --" Jack tapped the panel in satisfaction, then seemed to notice Rose's silence. "Hey. You ready?"

"Maybe . . . " She almost couldn't believe that was her voice, it was so faint, so light. "Maybe . . . maybe you did hook it all up right the first time."

"Nah, probably some little piddling detail I left out. -- I swear, the way this beast is put together, you really would have to be a Time Lord just to live long enough to get all the damn wires back in --"

The sob surprised her as much as it surprised him, and only by pulling her hair out of her face did Rose salvage a degree of self-control. "Maybe -- maybe you did it right, only there wasn't any signal to home in on."

Jack crossed the distance between them in two strides. "Rose. He's still alive. Come on."

She shook her head, trying to get it all together. "Maybe. I don't know. He -- he's always around when things go wrong, it's just --"

His hands were around her face. "Hey. It's gonna be all right. Even if he isn't one of the Immortal Brigade, the Doctor's obviously done a good job of looking after himself this far, right?"

She nodded, grateful for his support, annoyed by his skepticism, and desperate to regain the determination that had been fueling her up to this point. "900 years, he said."

Jack obviously didn't believe that part but graciously didn't voice his doubts. "He'll be fine. Just give me a few more minutes with this thing, and then we'll be pummeling his ass for putting us through all this."

Rose's gaze flitted to the TARDIS's gutted interior. "Hm. He might do some pummeling of his own."

He grinned brilliantly and kissed her on the forehead. "I'm telling him it was your idea."


=====


Perfectly still and quiet. It doesn't know that you're here.

The Doctor's respiration had slowed to a crawl, his hearts barely beating. He fervently hoped that whatever it was that was thumping around beneath him wasn't sensitive to vibrations. He even more fervently hoped that the hastily-repaired rivets would hold; every time the thing took another step, the grille creaked ominously.

Hard enough to be calm and serene when so close it was calling and rubbing up against the abandoned outskirts of his mind, calling him by his secret names and whispering

Perfectly still and quiet. Time was on his side.

Hopefully.


=====


"Oh, for -- !"

Rose looked up, wearily. She'd hauled herself out of the soppy stage after realizing what she must've sounded like a little lost lamb -- screw that, she'd saved the world before she was twenty -- and had marshaled her wits back together to help Jack sort out the problem at hand. After the fifth failed attempt at getting the TARDIS to home in on the Doctor's signal, though, neither high drama or brutal pragmatism was getting them anywhere.

Upset and bored. What a great combination.

Jack, however, was glowing. She followed his finger, which was pointed at the roundel that the Doctor had been working on before this whole stupid episode had begun. It was still open. Orange peel peeked forlornly out of the rim.

"The bastard himself said it. Him and his hot dinners!" Jack ducked under the floor for the millionth time, doing something hideously complicated and violent that made the TARDIS rattle.

Rose winced, though she wasn't sure why. "What?"

"Rose, it's so damn obvious, it's been staring me in the face this whole time!"

She stared, flatly. Jack spread his arms wide, a spanner in either hand. "I did have everything connected; you were right! But in order to get it all to work --"


=====


Still.

Was it listening for him?

Was it listening to something else?

Don't breathe.


======


" -- you gotta reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!!"

Rose blinked.

Jack emitted another war whoop and did something with the spanners that made a lot of noise and smoke.


======


It was beneath the duct.

It was very large. Decidedly inhuman. Decidedly inhuman and not in the same way that he was inhuman. He didn't have enough spines, for a start --

Don't look up don't look up don't look up --


======


"Doctor, consider yourself saved!"

Jack slammed his fist down on the control panel and the TARDIS snarled into action.


======


Light and sound and red and he screamed, arching backwards as something tried to tear its way out of his brain. The grille twisted, the world went dark and he was falling, falling out of the sky and down to the monster.

Back to index


Chapter 7: Chapter Seven: Food and Drinks Are Not Allowed In the Stacks

Cold.

When the fires went out, only cold.

When the sky trembled and the dust rose

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm

and the spindly trees shattered, and the birds broke and burned in flight

and the oceans boiled

and he is the architect of ruin, he the all-consuming fire

But the fires went out when there was nothing left to burn.

And in the space where a planet had been, the void.

And in the place where the voices were, the void.

And the void is hungry.

And the void is staring back.

And the void is cold.


======


He didn't really need the coffee, but Vetch was a creature of habit. Having inadvertently drenched the irate Ragusa with the first cup, he was deliberately and carefully nursing the second at a slow and considered pace down the north annex halls.

He wondered why exactly she'd been in such a state. Had he heard her wrong? She'd wanted Facilities to start in her office; had they been mucking around in the wrong section of the ducts again?

Judging by the sudden bizarre groaning and wheezing from around the corner, they were doing something.

Vetch sighed, making a mental note to sidestep the vent on the far edge of the upcoming turn -- among all the things he didn't really need today, it was getting blasted by rogue currents of air.

He rounded the corner and smashed his nose against a blue box.


======


Rose Tyler regained consciousness with her face in something damp.

She slowly picked the ancient cucumber sandwich off her face, staggering to her feet. The sight that awaited her eyes made her seriously consider donning the sandwich again.

If the TARDIS had been a mess of wires and cables before Jack had hotwired its brains to his tracker, it was now a bona fide disaster area.

She didn't even know all the roundels could simultaneously open like that.

" . . . harrrghhhh . . ."

Alarmed, Rose looked around for the Captain. He had fallen back into the open floor, where he stared up at the ceiling blankly. "Jack? You all right?"

He blinked, slowly. "Y'know, I think there's a bit more to flying this thing than the Doctor lets on."

"Your nose is bleeding."

"Trust me, if that's the only thing bleeding . . . How about you?"

"Could be better." She wiped some crumbs out of her eyes. "Light snacking saved my life."

She offered him an arm, straining to pull him out of the cavity. Upon his viewing of the TARDIS interior, Jack groaned.

"I'm sure the Doctor can fix it," she soothed. Inwardly, she was wincing.

"It was really nice traveling with you, Rose," he responded, dazed.

"Now stop that. Once this rescue gets straightened out, he's not gonna be in a position to kick anyone off the ship."

"He won't have a ship to -- "

Rose shook his shoulder. "C'mon. Time for a reccy."


=======


There was coffee on the TARDIS door.

Rose's eyes flickered around the scene cautiously. Lots of natural light. Big, vaulted windows that ran all the way down to the ground. Brown water stains running down the walls.

Marble floors. Someone lying down, groaning.

She lunged at the figure, grabbing him by the lapels and hauling him up. "Right. Talk. Where's the Doctor?"

The man -- well, boy, more like -- mumbled something incoherent. Blood trickled out his left nostril.

She shook him. "I said, where's the Doctor?"

"Wish I knew -- could you get him?" he mumbled, his watery grey eyes slowly rolling away from the ceiling and down to meet hers. They stared at each other for a long minute.

"You're Facilities, are you?" he said, hesitantly.

Jack chose that moment to stagger out of the TARDIS, face still ashen. "The whole damn thing is just shredded. I don't know how the hell we're going to ever get this monster to work --"

The pasty kid blinked, then seemed to rally. "Oh, no. What've you been up to? The Director's furious --"

Jack blinked. "Who the hell's he?"

"Dunno. He was on the floor --"

A cough. "Could you please let go of me?"

Rose narrowed her eyes. "Don't you try anything. You make a run for it, and I'll --"

Jack stepped between them. "Rose, chill. This guy's in no condition for heroics."

The subject of their attention stared at him. "You should talk. Only reason my nose is bleeding's because I walked into this -- this whatever-this-thing-is you set up out here. What does it do, anyway?" He frowned, looking the TARDIS up and down. "Some sort of vent cleaner, I expect."

Jack and Rose exchanged glances. She let her hands go back to her sides, and the kid started fussing with his lapels.

Jack turned up the charm. "Right on. Nice to know someone in this dump knows what we do."

"Well, I only -- "

"Name's Harkness; this is my assistant, Tyler. They called us in to pump out the system, only we can't figure out where they wanted us to set this 'lil beauty up." He slapped the side of the TARDIS, grinning roguishly. "Can't raise Ed on the intercom, either."

Assistant? The hell.

"Ah. Well, I can't tell you much, Mr. Harkness, but the Director had some specific complaints -- well, I think she did; it was all a bit . . . strange . . ." His voice trailed off. "Er. I don't know exactly where they wanted you to set up, but I can probably find someone -- "

Jack leaned forward, leisurely. "Listen -- what's your name?"

"Er. Vetch. Augustine Vetch. I work in the Special Collection, under -- "

"Vetch. Nice name. Look, Vetch, I'm sick of dealing with those yahoos in Electrical; I want to actually finish the job before lunch this time. Just point me in the direction of the Director, I'll ask a few questions, set up my spiffy blue box, bada bing, we're done." He cranked up the smile. "Whaddya say?"

Vetch seemed as though he was remembering something unpleasant; a small tic twitched at the corner of his eye. "Well . . ."

Jack moved in closer. "Hey. You want the Director happy? C'mon."

That seemed to make up Vetch's mind for him. "I see your point. Well, I can take you to her office; I believe she was headed back there . . ." He shuddered. "This way."

When they'd fallen a few feet behind, Rose turned to Jack, hissing, "What the hell's going on?"

"Relax," he whispered. "I think we're in the Library."

"What?! I thought you said you got the signal right!"

He looked affronted. "I did. The Doctor's here, Rose. We just have to find out where, and my money's on this Director knowing something about that." He slowed his pace slightly. "Or at least where to start looking."

Rose eyed the green-suited form of Vetch, who was bustling hurriedly ahead and periodically dabbing at his nose. "I don't trust that guy."

"Geez, enough with the commando routine. He's a glorified book-shelver, for crying out loud." Jack shook his head. "For someone who wants to stick with the 'charm 'em and smile pretty' role, you sure have a nasty streak --"

"About that -- 'assistant?'"

Jack hemmed. "Well . . . 'companion' isn't strictly true, and I had to say something --"

She snorted. "And who's this 'Ed' character?"

He arched an eyebrow. "Every electrical department anywhere at any time has a guy named Ed working there. Proven fact."

"Sure."

"No, really."

Rose bit her lip. Dear God, sometimes this man was as bad as the Doctor . .




=======




Ragusa stared into the depths of the water.

Her habitation pool was deep and cold. A human could easily drown in those depths.

She was not sure exactly why there was a strange man in the ductwork above her habitation pool, nor was she aware of why he started screaming and fell out.

She was rather inclined to guess that the reason for his not rising to the surface of the pool had something to do with the heavy metal strutwork that fell in with him.




=======




He is standing in the middle of a vast and vengeful nothingness.

He feels cold.

He is alone. The voices are not here. The voices are all dead.

So cold . . .

Except --

He is not alone. He can feel it, so close, trying to find him. Trying to contact him.

Voices. Dead voices.

Getting closer.

-- Not that space meant anything here.

Hard to breathe.

Wait. If it was looking for him, then it hadn't found him, so -- where was he?

-- A cold, dead place covered in ash.

Oh.

He must be unconscious.



=======



The Doctor's eyes opened to the cold and the dark.

It took him several heartsbeats to bring up the memory of what had happened a minute ago, which seemed to involve falling from the sky and hurting. Now, judging from the dull pain in his leg and the muted sounds and the general presence of wetness, he seemed to be underwater.

Whose office is this, anyway?

His respiratory bypass system meant that he'd been able to stay down this long without drowning, but he could feel a tightness in his chest that suggested he didn't have much longer. Jerking and twisting, the Doctor frantically attempted to free his pinned left leg from the metal grille, but it only groaned indistinctly and sent up a few clumped bubbles.

This was a very stupid way to die.

He threw himself upward, trying to upset the angle enough to break loose. Above him, he could just make out a faint circle of light -- but, even given that his depth-juding faculties were a bit taxed at the moment, the surface of the pool looked to be at least fifteen feet above him.

Something twisted in his ankle and he convulsed with pain.

This was a very, very stupid way to die.

Ankle throbbing, hearts stammering, chest constricting, the Doctor dizzily wondered if he'd go through all his regenerations in one fell swoop here in the bottom of the pool. Last of the Time Lords. Hah. Haahhhhh . . . .

I'm sorry, world. Sorry, Rose, my fault --

Shockwaves and a dull concussion of water.

The Doctor looked up to see the monster moving towards him.

Back to index


Chapter 8: Chapter Eight: Meet Your Friendly Library Staff

Author's Notes: Forgive me Father, I have sinned. I have attempted to write fanfic around the phrase "They're coming outta the goddammed walls!"


It was very large, and very long, and not something you wanted staring you in the face.

On the other hand, it was freeing him from his underwater snare, so it could look as unpleasant as it damn well pleased.

The Doctor felt a sudden release from the area around his ankle, felt the heavy metal pushed aside by the creature's grasping foreclaws. Something caught him around the collar and threw him to the surface of the water, where he gasped and sobbed for breath, giddy and too weak to tread in place.

Claws caught him again before he submerged, hauling him over the rim of the raised pool and depositing him beside it. As his pupils contracted in the comparatively bright light -- in sharp contrast to the murkiness of the underwater pit -- he could just make out a crustaceous face glowering down at him. Black spots danced in front of his eyes.

Talking was impossible, so he just smiled madly. And then threw up.



=======



"How much further 'til the Director's?" asked Rose irritably, after they turned yet another corner. The spatial configuration of the Library seemed to be based around the idea that a lot of interlocking dodecahedrons were a good use of floorspace. They'd covered about two football fields worth of twists and turns already. Apparently the future was as devoid of practical architecture as the 21st century.

Vetch waved a vague hand. "Just a few more turns. She's over on the unlit side of the northwest quadrant." He glanced back at her. "What, can't you keep up?"

She clenched her jaw. "It's early." And I was up all night worrying, you pasty git. "So, if she's one of the big dogs, why's she so far out from the main bit of the Library?"

The intern shrugged. "Well . . . not my place to speculate, really, but I think the main turbines -- you know, the generator, the ventilation, those things -- bother her. She's very sensitive to vibration."

"Really," Jack drawled. Rose punched his arm.

"Oh, yes," Vetch continued distantly, rather missing Jack's tone. "Probably because she spends so much time in her tank."

Both the Doctor's companions stopped in mid-stride. "Tank?" asked Rose, brow furrowing. "As in, army tank? Just what is this Special Collection, anyway?"

"No, no; water tank. Honestly, you must've heard something about the Director -- "

Jack airily took over for Rose. "Give her a break; she's new. Never met your Director myself, though." He dodged another blow.

Vetch laughed politely, though Rose noted that he shuddered just a bit. "She's . . . essentially a nice person. Essentially." His eyes seemed a bit glazed. "I mean, she didn't have me fired after that incident with Archivist Lyn, so . ." His voice trailed off, and he quickly composed himself. "Well, we're almost there -- "

Another thing about the layout of this damn building, Rose thought, was that you were always running into people around corners. The fat little man with the toolkit knocked Vetch off his feet as they collided; spanners and pliers scattered across the floor.


=======



Ragusa was quickly losing patience with her mysterious guest's inability to refrain from retching all over her floors.

Though she was willing to allow him a few moments to catch his breath, at this rate he'd undergo a massive coronary or lung collapse or whatever it was that these air-sucking chordates were always succumbing to just when the workload tripled.

He kept trying to inhale badly-needed air while spewing out what looked to be sticky water. His ears were bright red, but the rest of his face had a decidedly bluish tinge.

A dead human in her office was the last thing that she needed.

She inflated her oxygen sacs to full capacity, tucked her mandibles to the sides of her maw, and tried not to think about how utterly revolting this was going to be.


=======


"I -- I -- I -- " Vetch seemed to be staving off a nervous breakdown. "Archivist Horten? Are you all right?"

Jack was bending down, supporting Vetch's shoulders. "Is he all right? Kid, you nearly got coldclocked by this bozo." He glared over at the pudgy little man that Rose was trying to pull to his feet. His hands, Rose noted, were decidedly clammy.

The man -- Horten -- fumbled around on the floor for his glasses. "I. Er. Oh. Excuse me -- Vetch, was it? Excuse me -- "

Rose disengaged herself from the Archivist, turning to go look around the corner. The hallway was wide and deserted, and yet two people had managed to collide at this particular junction. Amazing. Maybe the Doctor had a point when he went off on how the human race was still such a pack of stupid apes . . . She strolled a few feet away from the others, impatient with the general charade.

Behind her, she could hear Jack asking him, "Why the hell do you have all these tools? Can't you guys afford in-house technicians?"

She didn't hear the answer, owing to the sudden, distant but all-too-familiar cry that echoed out of one of the segmented corridors.


=======


Keep perfectly still and calm and do NOT THINK ABOUT RIDLEY SCOTT FILMS JUST BREATHE --

Something wet and fleecy grazed his inner cheek.

The Doctor wasted an otherwise decent lungsworth of air with a scream.


=======


Rose pounded down the hallway, hellbent on tracking the sound. Faintly she heard Jack calling after her, asking what was going on but there wasn't time for all that now; the Doctor was in trouble --

The dying fall of the yell ended at the nondescript door set into the waterstained marble wall. A brass plate denoted it as the office of Ragusaergosicatus, Director to the Special Collection.

She kicked in the door -- unnecessary, as it was unlocked -- and saw it looming over the gasping, thrashing form on the ground, the form of --

"DOCTOR!"

The Time Lord's head jerked upward, staring wide-eyed in her direction. "Rose!?" He tried to speak, but began coughing explosively.

The monster swiveled on its jointed legs, both sets of arms raised. Hatchet claws sharpened into pale approximations of hands clenched and flexed as Rose darted along the side of the wall, keeping well out of striking distance.

It was horrible. Like a giant lobster crossed with a spider, or maybe a scorpion welded into a horseshoe crab. Water dripped menacingly off its mottled brown carapace, running down the sides of perversely lacy flukes and rigid armored seams. Black, beady eyes glared at her from under the heavily-ridged mantle while skittering fangs scissored wickedly back-and-forth.

It was watching her with something like derision.

Rose's hands flew behind her, instinctively locating some heavy, solid objects on the edge of the counter. Whipping one around and brandishing it in front of her, she was hardly in the right state of mind to realize that her weapon was the Annotated and Revised Collected Works of Shakespeare (142nd edition).

She forced herself to lock gazes with the beast. "Get away from him you bitch!"

The creature spoke. "Would you mind very much -- hrrst -- putting that down?"

Rose blinked, then threw the book with all her might. The monster easily dodged it, plucking the volume out of midair with one casual swipe.

"Rose," gasped the Doctor, still foundering under the creature's belly, "don't upset her -- " He started choking again, spitting water.

"You would do well to listen to your friend," the monster hissed.

Adrenaline and panic leant Rose's voice strength, if not her legs. "Back off." She fumbled for something, anything; found another book.

"Whatever you are -- hrrst -- doing, I advise you to stop."

Rose chucked the mildewed copy of Faust at the monster, again watching it caught in yet another fell swoop. "Leave him alone!"

"I am doing nothing, you stupid child -- "

Rose swung The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in front of her -- not easily -- and felt the beginning of an idea forming. "Don't make me blow you out of an airlock, bug." She grinned in desperate bravura, silently begging Jack to get here and soon.

"Do not -- " the creature's voice was like grinding metal " -- throw the book."

She threw the book, this time aiming it at the pool. The beast lurched forward in an attempt to catch it, instead knocking the works of Edward Gibbon down onto the Doctor's ribcage. He convulsed, eyes bulging as he curled up into a foetal position.

Wincing, Rose nonetheless reached for the final two tomes. Running out of options, make this count . . She hoisted Vesalius in one hand and Kant in the other. "So, Bugly -- think you're fast enough to catch 'em both?" Did her voice always sound that shrill when she yelled? . .

"Stop this!" the monster screeched.

" . . . " warned the Doctor.

This was stupid, it wasn't even a plan --

"Catch!" she shouted, throwing De Humana Corpus towards the water, feinting a throw with the other book but keeping a firm hold. The beast lunged again, rearing back on its back two sets of legs in an attempt to grasp the Vesalius.

Several things happened very quickly:

Rose darted forward, ramming into the monster's unbalanced form and knocking it back onto a single pair of legs.

The monster's long grasping arms slammed into the exposed ductwork, sending the rest of the shaky metal down in a resounding crash.

Rose and the beast tumbled back violently against the wall, the kraken's armored body taking the brunt of the blow and shielding the human from the falling metal.

The Doctor rolled to dodge said falling metal, skidding breathlessly under the monster's crablike legs.


And then something fell out of the ducts.

Back to index


Chapter 9: Chapter Nine -- The System Is Down

Author's Notes: Thanks to Wikipedia and A History of the Universe. Dedicated to elbales, wherever this may find her.




The Doctor watched it fall.

Time slowed. Not for Rose, not for the monster; they were bound to the ebb and flow of causality, chained to linear events.

But he wasn't.

And it wasn't.

The metal struts hung in air, rotating slowly; jagged planets in a universe where dust and grime and glittering droplets of water outnumbered fixed and glittering stars and the only thing moving was the Book.

And him.

He braced himself against the monster, throwing himself into the path of the falling artifact, knowing that it didn't really matter, that he shouldn't be bothering only it was falling towards the water --

He leapt and his fingers skimmed over its surface, hooked on its edge and

and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake; jetsam from the burning, peace never to be found --

caught it just as space and time began asserting themselves in the usual fashion, and he could hear the metal hitting the surface of the water and shivering off the floors and the droplets spraying --

And the Doctor realized that he was, yet again, in midair over an open pit of water --

And the Book sparked into life, opening and unfolding and taking him into itself and oh for the love of -- typical, well, what the hell else are you going to --

Anticipating the nadir of his arc through space, the Doctor batted the Book to safety, away from the water below but not before it latched onto his --

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm

There might've been the slap of his face on water, but then again, there might not have been --


=========



Something hit his face. Hard.

"Come on! Up and on your feet!"

Someone was hitting him. He was on his back -- no, he wasn't, he was standing --

"Better?"

The Doctor blinked at the little man. Black frock coat, bowl haircut, obnoxious pants --

the screaming of the --

-- generally what he remembered, except for his eyes. He'd always remembered him as having a pair.

The ground lurched, forcing his gaze upwards -- probably upwards -- to the line of the horizon, not that it was there. Gray sky. Pebble beach. Nothing else.

Other than the little man, and the other three.

"Oh, not you lot."

The multicolored nightmare gave him an arch look, or what would have constituted an arch look if he'd possessed eyes. "'You lot?' 'You lot', indeed. Respect for your elders."

"I'm older."

The bohemian rocked on his heels. "Respect for your betters, then." Bright smile; black sockets.

The Doctor scowled fiercely, hands clenching.

"Respect for the dead," suggested the fair-haired one, quietly.

He wasn't about to get into all this again. "Reunions are bad enough, but you lot -- " he shot a particularly pointed glare at the patchwork man -- "aren't even real. So, if you'll just excuse me, I'll be off."

"And just where exactly was it were you planning on going?"

The Doctor spread his arms. "Anywhere. Everywhere. Mostly, though, out." He glowered at the little man, who was brushing gray dust off of his suit. "D'you mind?"

"Do you mind, I wonder . . " the scarecrow murmured, almost sadly.

The Doctor started to ask him what the hell that was supposed to mean, then glanced down and got a good look at what he was wearing. It wasn't the jacket and trousers, though it was black.

Black being the colors worn by a Learned Court Prosecutor.

His jaw clenched. Fighting the rising panic and loathing, he concentrated his thoughts until the representation of his normal ensemble had resolved itself. His ghosts watched in sightless silence.

"I don't see how that is any more of an improvement," the loud one scoffed once the jacket had achieved the illusion of solidity.

The Doctor shot him another look. "You should talk."

The tall one shook his head, curls bobbing. "Talking's better left for real people. Or at least, for politer fictions than the likes of you."

He blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Unlikely," replied the cricketer, tucking back his jacket to hook his thumbs into his pockets. "That is, assuming that our Host achieves a greater degree of self-awareness -- "

"Which," the headache interjected, finger pointed at the sky, " -- it is, thanks to your typically inept blundering -- "

"'Blundering'? Like to know how this is 'blundering', seeing as how I've obviously found the Book," snarled the Doctor, trying to stare the eyeless man down without losing sight of his clothes.

"Ah. I'm afraid you've got it a bit wrong," the little man hemmed, steepling his fingers and twisting them anxiously. "You see, you don't have the Book."

The Doctor turned the full force of his glare on him, vaguely aware of the sounds of --

-- voices, dead voices --

-- in the sky. Looking up, he saw jagged seams appearing, white lines of streaming data fissuring through the unreal clouds --

The little man was speaking. "It, on the other hand, seems about to have you."

Panic seized him. "So -- " He turned to look at the other three men, only to realize they were now shimmering stripes of data, black sockets now flowing with light. Whispering tendrils were snaking towards the Doctor and his only remaining ghost.

"Well," the scarecrow sighed, eyeing the light with a resigned unease, "there was a saying you used to be rather fond of."

The Doctor backed away from the oncoming glow. "Yeah?"

The little man turned to him, smiling sadly. "When I say 'run' . . . "




There were special partitions. You could always find a way out, if you looked long and hard enough. But on an infinite expanse of gray pebbles with an infinite gray sky, nothing was presenting itself.

The Doctor threw himself forward, ignoring the stitch in his side. Pain wasn't real here. Death was, though there was some wiggle room. But there were doors; he just had to find one.

The Wachowski Brothers never suspected that they'd been privy to the high secrets of the Time Lords. And had they acknowledged him in the end credits? Typical.

Behind him, the sightless white mass generated by a self-contained universe of electrochemical cells, searching blindly for a dead world's only remaining orphan. Where it touched the landscape, only light remained. It was extremely slow, but devastatingly thorough -- though by nature of what it was, it didn't need to be fast.

It had all the time in Existence. More, probably.

His ghosts had been just that -- memories of earlier excursions into this place, when it had been a proper construct and not just this withered excuse for a reality -- and being part and parcel of a thousand other memories, these ones dead, they had rejoined the System without comment.

and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake --

His real selves were still in him, edging him on. Whispering in his ear. Calling him a murderer.

Fine, you bastards. But which of you would've eased off the kill switch?

More gray pebbles; more gray sky. Keep running.





There was, of course, one doorway he knew about. That didn't guarantee that it still existed, or that it was even open.

Or, come to that, whether it was a better option.





After several lifetimes of running, he decided that he should just go with Plan B after all.




Something different in a landscape full of gray.

The luggage tag attached to the smooth black stone said Mr Popplewick. The handwriting was depressingly familiar.

The Doctor was not over-fond of the way his mind worked, sometimes.

He picked up the stone.




The factory was abandoned. Not even the air of menace had elected to stick around.

He waited on the catwalk for the menacing laughter, for the cunning trap, for the grand guignol to start up again.

But no one was there.

Finally, he started moving again. Nothing tried to stop him, and the long halls were quiet as the grave.

It occurred to the Doctor that the person he expected to be here was either long-destroyed, or --

He bit his lip and focused on his jacket until he was sure it wasn't changing back.

Endless corridor gave way to endless corridor, and it occurred to him that this was almost as bad as the everlasting rock quarry he'd just left behind.

After a while, he could hear the voices. Very distantly, but still there. Getting closer.

After a while, he found the plain wood-panelled door with a simple brass 7 on it.




-- and all things fall before the oncoming storm --




===========




Oh, fantastic; he was underwater again.


The Doctor broke the surface of the pool with an explosive gasp, sending plumes of water everywhere. He scrambled over the edge of the tank, darted to the far corner of the room, and whipped off his jacket, frantically hovering over the book-like shapes scattered across the floor.

"Doctor?!"

Oh. Right. Rose.

He half-turned to see her scrabbling away from the prone body of the alien, hair falling slackly past her shoulders. It occurred to him that everything he'd experienced must've taken place in less than thirty seconds.

That would explain why he still felt short of breath, anyway. Although some of that was due to the aforementioned experiences, and perhaps the way that Rose's flushed skin burned under her damp, clinging clothes had something to you don't think these thoughts --

Why was she here, anyway?

"Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?" the Doctor remarked, turning back to search for the Book. He'd knocked it somewhere over --

Rose slugged him. This contributed to his breathlessness in a decidedly new and abrupt fashion.

"What is WRONG with you?!" she shouted, fist clenched, eyes burning as she towered over him. Vision swimming, the Doctor realized in abject terror just how much she resembled her mother like this, aside from the copy of Critique of Pure Reason gripped tightly in her other hand.

She was still shouting. "D'you know how long we were looking for you? How worried we were? You just go swanning off and the next thing we hear you're arrested for murder, and then we can't find you on account of those stupid robots -- "

Behind her, the crab-monster stirred.

The Doctor forced himself to his feet. "Look, Rose, I can explain everything -- "

She hit him in the arm, this time with Kant. "Yeah, you're gonna bloody well explain this, all right -- "

He lurched backwards, catching sight of the Book and scooping it up in his jacket, careful not to touch his skin to its shimmering black surface. The murmur of voices echoed distantly --

There was a change in the sounds from the outside corridor. People were running and shouting.

He knew this drill.

He grabbed Rose's hand -- the one unencumbered by German philosophy -- and leaned in. "When I say 'run' -- "


to be continued

Back to index


Chapter 10: Chapter Ten: Unauthorized Usage of Library Materials May Result in Heavy Fines

Author's Notes: Working out the kinks. This one's got some icky bits. You were warned.


It would have been more than a little redundant at this point to say that Vetch was having a bad day.

Archivist Horten was apologizing -- and sweating -- profusely, frantically trying to round up all of the electrospanners that had rolled across the floor as a result of their collision. The contracted help -- Harkness? -- was eyeing the tools with what Vetch decided was a skeptical sort of interest.

Vetch's head swam. Why hadn't he just requested the day off in the first place? Bad enough he still had a headache from colliding with that big blue vent cleaner, but now he felt as though his chest had been staved in --

The fact that the entire row of hall lights had started flickering didn't help his queasiness.

Harkness was looking around. "Hey. You guys see where Rose ran off to?"

Vetch blinked. "Rose? The girl?"

The other man rolled his eyes. "Yeah. Rose. 'The girl'." He peered around the corner, blinking. "She slipped around there just a few minutes ago . . "

"Well, er, if you'll excuse me --" Horten grabbed the last of the spanners and thrust it into the bag, fumbling with the straps. "I've really got to -- " He blinked, suddenly noticing that the other man was holding his pair of pliers. "Ah. Excuse me?" He politely tried to ease it out of Harkness's hands, an action complicated by the vent cleaner's preoccupied expression.

Vetch's hearing wasn't up to snuff, but he thought he heard distant shouting. Whatever Harkness heard of it seemed to galvanize him, judging by the way he stiffened.

"What the -- Doctor?"

Horten abruptly stiffened as well. "Doctor? You -- you know the --"

Harkness started, turning to stare at the librarian. "Yeah, we're -- wait. What?"

"What?"

It would have been more than a little redundant at this point to say that Vetch was confused.






Ragusa slowly propped herself up on her forelimbs, cursing the mystery guest and the evil girl. The fall itself hadn't done much damage to her; being heavily-armored was not without its advantages. Unfortunately, one of its drawbacks meant being heavy.

If she didn't get up off her back, she'd suffocate.

Concentrating on rolling next to the pool, she managed to hook her left forelimbs over the side and hauled herself up to a painful, half-recumbent position.

Even in the dim and suddenly spastic light, one could see that her office was in ruins. Twisted metal and plaster were strewn across the water-soaked floor. Books lay wounded, pages drenched, covers warping. And slowly she became aware of that annoying wrongness she had sensed all morning, especially just before the man had fallen out of the ductwork.

A smell. A horrible, meaty smell completely at odds with her normal scent.

Someone would suffer for this.

The man and the girl had departed mere seconds ago, but already she heard footsteps in the corridor.






The Archivist and the vent cleaner had made it to the Director's door long before the sore and limping Vetch. Something about the way that they just stood in the entryway should've indicated that the situation was unusual, but he wasn't really thinking about anything other than letting Ragusa know that Facilities was going to deal with things properly and, incidentally, was it all right if he just took the rest of the day --

Her office looked as though a bomb had hit it. The Director herself was sprawled by her habitation pool, twitching slightly. The overhead duct had been ripped out of the ceiling, blanketing the floor in dust and horrible grungy clumps of grey filth.

"Whoa," remarked Harkness. Horten's jaw moved up and down; no noise came out.

Vetch stumbled into the room, torn between helping Ragusa onto her legs and staying well away from the clearly irate alien. His foot grazed Faust and he stared down, bleakly, at the waterlogged 22nd century original binding rapidly being reduced to pulp.

That pretty much made him decide to stay away from the Director for a bit.

Harkness had no such qualms, striding over to the beast. "Hey. You seen a guy in a black jacket come through here?"

Ragusa stared at him.

Harkness sighed irritably. "Okay. How about a blonde girl -- "

The Director snarled an incomprehensibly vicious reply that employed the kind of language Vetch had only ever heard in nautical movies.





Rose collapsed against the side of the spire.

For the past ten minutes, all they'd been doing was running. Granted, traveling with the Doctor meant that you'd never place last in track events and quickly learned the importance of arch support when picking out footwear, so she'd held up reasonably well.

Except he'd gotten it into his head that they should go up to the roof, and they'd taken the fire staircase instead of the elevator.

It seemed odd that the future would have fire staircases. Or fires, for that matter.

Now, with the glorious late morning sun beating down on her damp, chafing body -- already wracked with the previous night's worry and more than a little peckish -- Rose seriously considered pushing the Doctor off the top and just going to sleep in a nice corner somewhere.

The Time Lord was sprawled on his back, jacketless -- he'd taken it off and rolled it up around a book or something -- and was going through some sort of breathing exercise. The concrete slats underneath him were wet with the pool's water.

"What was that thing, anyway?" Rose gasped, once she felt that her lungs were no longer in danger of collapsing. "Looked like -- "

The Doctor held up a warning finger. His eyes were half-slitted against the sun.

"Doctor --"

"Shush."

Instantly, the copy of Critique of Pure Reason was back over her head as blood pounded into her face. "Don't you 'shush' me! I only just rescued you from a giant space lobster -- "

"Cheliloricatus argos."

She paused, swaying slightly. "What?"

His eyes opened, staring fixedly up at the sky. "The giant space lobster. Cheliloricatus argos. Female, by the look of it."

Rose lowered the book, angling it to keep the sun out of her face. "How much of that thing's undercarriage were you looking at, then?" The way it had been hunched over his face suddenly took on an even more alarming interpretation than the one she'd previously assigned it. "Oh my god, were you snogging the -- "

"What I want to know," the Doctor murmured, still staring up at the silvery planet in the sky, "is what the Book was doing -- " He abruptly broke off, as though aware that Rose was listening. His face locked down into the blank mask she'd come to associate with the Subject That Must Never Be Raised.

Rose felt herself sinking backwards against the side of the building, letting Kant drop from her fingers. It was nice up here, really. Five minaret-like structures with glistening golden domes towered majestically over the two of them; probably glorified air handlers or something. With Thoth hanging serenely overhead like a luminous grapefruit, the whole sight was very dreamy, very unreal.

Several hundred feet below them, the courtyards and surrounding dodecahedrons that ringed the Library gave way to the shining streets and gleaming white buildings she had admired all yesterday from street level. Bright shimmering dragonflies darted past, humming furious little ditties in needly bug voices.

Alezhandria was a jewel beyond compare.

"It'll all burn in seventy-eight years," the Doctor said, darkly.

It took Rose a moment to collect her thoughts. "What?"

He'd been watching her face, she realized. The relief she'd felt upon finding him -- and the subsequent rage he'd engendered as a result of being his usual maddening self -- was now rapidly becoming a horrible uneasiness.

Like going out on a beautiful January morning after the snow's fallen, and only just registering the huge icicle poised directly over your head.

"Twenty years from now, the Rutan Host tries to set up a colony on a neighboring moon." The Doctor laid his head back down, eyes shut, expressionless.

"And . . that bug thing was -- "

"No."

"Okay," Rose muttered, trying to get a grip on things. "So, you're trying to stop this Rutan thing, then?"

"No."

She blinked. "Why not?"

"Because the Sontarans stop them."

"Oh. Good?"

He opened his eyes again, staring up at Thoth. "No."

"Right." Rose sank down on her haunches, taking off her shoes. "Suppose it's too much to ask for a rundown of just what's going on right now, am I right?"

"Pretty much."

"Because it's not as though I was worried about you or anything."

Silence.

"Not like me and Jack were spending the entire night trying to figure out where you'd run off to; not us."

"Didn't think so," he muttered. Rose threw her trainers at him.





Vetch's nerves were singing.

Part of that was due to the mess and general disorder, but the vast majority of his overwhelming terror had to be the looks that were flying between Ragusa and Horten.

The Director was obviously infuriated by the presence of Horten in her innermost sanctum and Horten, though studiously avoiding eye contact, was not helping the matter by rooting around in the piles of metal and sodden books as though he was entitled to them. Ostensibly he was helping Vetch clear the muck away, but that didn't make the atmosphere any less poisonous.

If this devolved into another shouting match -- well, hissing match, if memory served -- Vetch was just going to crawl under the desk and wait it all out.

Harkness seemed completely oblivious to the bad blood between the Archivists -- well, he was an outsider, after all -- and was trying to help Ragusa to her feet, a daunting task given that she had six of them. It was probably nothing more than a momentary lapse in composure that allowed the Director to be touched so familiarly by a human.

"Whoa. Steady there." Harkness grabbed her second left leg and swung it out alongside the others. "Here we go. Better?"

"Hrrst."

He smiled brilliantly. He had very bright teeth. "Name's Harkness, Jack Harkness. And I have the honor of addressing . . ?"

The Director gave him a look that would have withered lesser men. "What are you -- hrrst -- doing in my office?" Her head swung sharply to regard Horten -- still hunched over a pile of metal sheeting -- and then took in Vetch, who blanched.

"He -- he -- he -- "

"I'm here for the vents," the other man responded languidly. "Except these two assistants of mine seem to have gone on break a bit early. They were in here, right?"

Vetch blinked. Two assistants? But surely there had only been the girl . . . oh, this was too much. He started to look about for someplace to sit.

Ragusa drew herself up slowly, spines clattering. "If you mean that -- hrrst -- stupid man who was in the shaft and the ill-mannered child who destroyed a good portion of the Antiquities Collection, then yes, I have met your companions. And I hold them both fully accountable for --"

"Did you see which way they went?" Harkness interjected, hands held up in appeasement. Vetch slipped past him, moving towards a nice dark corner by the webwork where he could call the janitors and sit quietly and maybe gibber for a bit.

Ragusa's voice was like glass dragged over metal. "No. I did not see them leave. It was the girl who knocked me down, making it virtually impossible for me to breathe, much less note what happened. So that we are -- hrrst -- completely clear on matters, I fully intend to press assault charges --"

Vetch tuned out the sound of Harkness making all kinds of soothing excuses, none of which seemed to be working. He remembered there was a comfortably-padded wing chair off to the side of the webwork -- it had been used by Grimwade, prior to his disappearance. Ragusa wasn't exactly the type who'd sit in a chair, much less fit in one.

The lights were still flickering irregularly. It was very dim over here, with only the glow from the visiscreens picking out the odd detail on the floor or the wires. There was a strange, tangy smell emanating from somewhere around here, but it was a small price to pay for a good seat. He lowered himself down onto the chair and wondered why it was so lumpy.

" -- she's basically a good kid, just needs a little guidance. I'll get her to apologize -- "

Kind of squishy, actually.

" -- considerably more than apologize, given that those books are -- "

The smell was worse over here, too.

Vetch absently moved a hand under his posterior to tug the cushion back into place and started as his hand touched something spongy and sticky. He shifted off of his left buttock and heard something beneath him make a pathetic little splurt.

" -- look, I just want to catch up with them -- "

There was a light panel somewhere here. Vetch fumbled, found it, and slowly looked down.

The chair was much as he remembered it -- navy blue syntholeather with little brass rivets, done up in the Post-Neo-Edwardian style that had been all the rage a few decades ago. There was even the same indentation made by the repeated application of a hot coffee mug -- again, the work of Grimwade.

The digestive tract sprawled over and under the chair was new, however.

Vetch decided now was a good time for gibbering.





The Doctor had spent the past 24 hours being shot at, stunned, incapacitated, captured, lost, falling, running, nearly drowning, resuscitated by monsters and getting sucked into dangerous simulacra. Arguably, Rose Tyler yelling at him shouldn't have been that horrible by comparison.

It was probably the way she was standing over him with that shoe.

He had a vague memory of his intentions when he'd set this plan in motion the other morning. Rose and Jack would keep each other occupied, meaning that she'd never have to know his real reason for coming here. The only reason that could make him voluntarily come to Alezhandria anymore, knowing what would happen to it.

She wouldn't have to know what happened to Alezhandria, after all. And as for the Book --

"Right, now you listen to me --"

They'd been essentially good intentions. Even if it had meant packing her off with Jack the Walking Pick-Up Line. Even if it meant that the cozy duo they'd been for -- well, it felt like forever -- was that much more destabilized, his own role whittled down accordingly to accommodate someone else.

Insert standard spiel of "You're not the most important man in my life", repeat as necessary.

" -- tried to go to the police, and then that went pear-shaped --"

Essentially good intentions. She didn't have to know about the Book. It wasn't as though he owed her an explanation. The Doctor had never pretended that he wasn't in her debt, even if he was cagey about stating just what it was she'd done for him, but not even Rose Tyler got a free pass where the Time War was concerned.

Although the shoe looked really unpleasantly hard. Vulcanized rubber. Rough on the face.

" -- looking out for those squid things all the way back to the TARDIS -- "

With everything else he had to sort out now -- why the Book had been in the ducts, why his screwdriver had been in the ducts, why Horten wanted to get into Ragusa's files, why a member of Infraorder Cheliloricadae had saved him from drowning --

-- how to get out of the Library without being seen --

-- how to get the Book off this world as fast as nonhumanly possible --

-- how not to have his brain implode --

-- with all this to deal with, Rose's untimely 'rescue' had just dumped another series of unwelcome complications into his lap.

" -- and of course nothing was where you always say it is, so we had to tear apart -- "

It slowly dawned on the Doctor that despite giving her a all-expenses-paid romantic day out in one of the most peaceful cities in the galaxy with a very good-looking and accessible man for company, she'd gone the Leela route the minute she'd sensed he was in trouble.

There was something . . . gratifying about that. Something that warmed the cockles of his hearts. The smile welled up out of a strange hidden reservoir of peace, drowning if only for a moment the tortuous cares and concerns of the work ahead. She'd been worried about him. Take that, Jack Flash.

It turned out to be a bad idea to smile just when Rose was reaching the loud part of her diatribe; she hit him with the shoe.





Ragusa stared at the entrails strewn over the chair and floor and webwork. Vetch had whimpered out of the way, allowing Horten and the other man -- Harkness -- to get a good look at it.

"It must have come from the ducts," she rasped, lurching slightly. The smell was worse than before.

Horten was expressionless. Harkness bent over the grayish pile of organs, apparently scanning it with some sort of wrist device. "Human. Circulatory and -- oh, ick -- digestive system, and a bunch of other things I don't wanna look at too closely." He turned his face away, exhaling slowly. "Judging by the -- lungish -- deflated -- uh . . ." He stood up, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah. And the sticky bits, probably this was removed -- god, that's foul -- about twelve to seventeen hours ago. Maybe." He shook his wrist device, frowning irritably. "Damn. Should've patched this back together . . "

Vetch made some sort of little mewling cry from behind them.

"You know," Harkness added, glancing at what Ragusa suspected was a sigmoid colon, "general squick factor notwithstanding, this is a pretty slick job. I mean, compared to some of the stuff I've seen on Iskandi and Varos, this is in pretty good condition." He glanced back at Vetch. "Except for the parts that got sat on."

Ragusa clicked her mandibles together. "Just what does a -- hrrst -- vent cleaner know about evisceration, pray tell?"

"You monster," whispered Horten, turning to look up at Ragusa. "You horrible thing."

Her spines rose. "This is not my doing, Archivist. I would caution you against speaking before the case is investigated -- "

"And I suppose Lyn and Grimwade met the same fate?"

Ragusa snarled in fury. "If you have an open accusation to make, Horten -- "

"That's enough." She swung her head around to see Harkness leveling some sort of compact laser at her. His face was set, suddenly businesslike where before it had been fatuous and empty. "Hands where I can see them. All of them, please."

"What are you doing?"

"It was all over the broadcasts last night. That Selos guy that got offed? -- Massive internal displacement. At first I figured they just meant that his insides got scrambled, but apparently there was more to it than that." Harkness raised the laser. "And this is your office. C'mon, lady. Raise 'em."

"I will not -- "

He nodded to Horten, who was still bristling with rage. "Hey. Get on the intercom or whatever and get Security down here." His grip on the laser tightened. "We'll let the authorities figure out what's what; about time they owed us an explanation anyway . . "

Harkness's voice trailed off. "And when I find those two . . ."

Back to index


Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven: See Reference Section

Author's Notes: Eleven chapters. Dear god. How much longer will anyone put UP with this monster?!
Thanks as always to wmr, elbales, and dark_aegis on time_and_chips, and also to the long-suffering types here like Emery Board and drox and ponygirl.



"All right," the Doctor conceded, "so you'd like an explanation --"

"Yeah, please," Rose agreed. His shoulder twinged with fresh pain as she hefted the shoe again.

Irritation and that familiar chafing anxiousness seeped back into his nerves. There was too much to do; too many things that had to be dealt with before he'd be in a position to sort things out in his head in a manner sufficient for retelling.

Never mind he'd sent her off so he wouldn't have to explain anything in the first place.

He didn't belong to her. He didn't belong to any of them. They were the ones who stepped through the door; the fact he even told them where they were was more courtesy than they deserved --

Glaring back up at Rose, matching her sour expression with his own, the Doctor slowly noticed the heavy purple bags under her eyelids, tinged with that slight but tell-tale red puffiness. He more abruptly noticed the set of her mouth and the tread of the shoe and decided, just this once, that something was owed.

"We don't have much time, so this is the Cliff Notes version, all right?"

Rose nodded. Her gaze became more distant, more attentive. Her arm dropped slightly.

"Remember what I said a minute ago? About the Rutans scouting about for a nice little moon they could use as an outpost?"

"Who're the Rutans?"

"Unpleasant violent expansionists with a passing resemblance to mint jelly."

"And they're looking to conquer Alezhandria?"

The Doctor scoffed. "Nope. They aren't interested in a library planet. No natural resources, no weaponry, no real strategic importance. They aren't looking for a settled world. They just want a useful little waystation that no one would take too much interest in; something perfect for the Host ducking in and resting up in between bashing the Sontarans with the mighty coiled tentacle of Rutan Fury."

"Oh, they sound fun."

"Fun like a tumor. The point is that sometime in the course of this current solar year, a Rutan scouting party does a preliminary sweep of this system, trying to figure out where to set up shop. They don't encounter any startling alien tech or fancy glinting objects, so they decide to abide by the non-aggression pact they'd signed with the Earth Empire and just keep their grubby little protrubances to themselves and stay on the dark side of Anubis."

"And that's a moon?"

"Clever girl."

"So what's the problem if they're not gonna invade?"

"Rose."

"What?"

"Could you get your knee off my chest?"

"No, 'cause you'll just dart off and not answer my questions."

"I'm short of breath as is -- " That came out wrong.

She leant down, deliberately, blond hair sweeping down around her face. The Doctor's sternum flattened unpleasantly. Her voice was composed and cool and low and just the proper intonation he'd have coached young Dorothy on a few lifetimes back. Those memories contributed significantly to the sudden unease under his ribs.

"Just hurry up and tell me what the problem is, all right?"

"You don't get to know everything," he snapped.

Something almost hurt flitted across her face for a moment, as though that unspoken-of and widening space between them had just expanded by a few more yards. In spite of his better judgement, the Doctor heard his voice -- in a much more conversational tone than before -- amending, "It's complicated -- "

"Uncomplicate it, then."

"Chest? Please?"

Rose just stared at him. After a moment, she eased off and drew back, sitting down off to his side, dropping the shoe. Her face was set and emotionless. "Fine, then."

She leaned onto the rolled-up form of his jacket --

Instantly the Doctor grabbed her by the shoulders, rolling her away from the offending article. "Don't touch it!"

"What's wrong with you?" she snarled. "And just what's going on? Why can't you just tell me, Doctor?" Something about the way she spat the last line sounded almost plaintive in spite of herself.

He looked her in the eyes -- again confronted with the rawness around the edges -- and realized there was nothing to do but tell the truth. The chill in the air had nothing to do with his damp clothing.

The Doctor exhaled. "The problem," he said, "is this Book."

She stared at him, blankly. After a moment's pause, she slowly glanced over at the copy of Kant she'd dragged up with them.

"No," he anticipated, "not that book. The Book. The one I've got wrapped up in the jacket. The original basework for what would eventually become the Matrix of Knowledge. The Gallifreyan Codex, jokingly referred to as the Black Book of Rassilon -- not that anyone's ever seen fit to joke about it."

Whispers of dead voices tugged at his ears.

Rose was still looking utterly clueless, and it slowly dawned on the Doctor that he'd never even told her his planet's name, much less about Rassilon or the Matrix or the Dark Times. Given the destabilizing residual horror that he was still working through, even the phrase 'Time Lord' felt like an accusation these days.

He wondered vaguely if he'd ever told her about regeneration, then decided there were more pressing matters at hand.

"Look," he said, gripping her shoulders, "my race are -- were -- telepathic, right? Not so much with other species; strongest amongst themselves. And because they were telepathic, and long-lived, and had too much time on their hands, they whipped up this massive neural interface that every living Time Lord -- and even some dead ones -- was connected to. Our minds were linked with this thing, giving it raw sensory input and all kinds of data that others could use and access, given the right permission and clearance. With me so far?"

"So -- like having the whole Internet in your brain?"

He winced at the analogy. "Fewer porn sites and spelling errors, but . . yeah, basically. Except that it was more of a huge archive containing the whole breadth of Time Lord history, both macro and micro, racial and individual. And you interfaced with it as though you were living the experiences yourself. It was basically a massive library inside of a huge simulated reality program."

"Oh, you mean like the Matrix," Rose said, face brightening.

"Yeah. It was called the Matrix of Knowledge."

"No, I mean from those movies -- "

"Stop."

"But it is, isn't it?" She paused. "Hey, wait -- the Architect, the Oracle, the Mero -- Mero-what's-his-face -- "

Those bloody Wachowskis.

"Lots of people have definite articles for names!" snapped the Doctor. "Now, if we can get back to my dead planet's history?"

"Sorry," she mumbled, looking genuinely contrite. She picked at the laces of the shoe. "So this Book is -- "

He hadn't been looking forward to this part of the explanation. Actually, none of the explanation pleased him, but this section felt like he was wading into murky waters and the feel of the dead voices clamoring so close wasn't helping his peace of mind.

He pushed himself up to his feet, staggering slightly, and leaned against the guard rail overlooking the edge of the Library's roof. The silver and gold-tiled roofs of the buildings below sparkled merrily in the sun of high noon, and he tried desperately not to think of it all gutted by flames.

"Doctor?"

He fixed his gaze on a small bronze minaret and resumed the explanation. "Like I said, people with the right access privileges could use the Matrix for specified reasons -- research, emergencies, the usual things. You got into it by way of a Door, and not just anyone got a key. Tampering with it was dangerous, and not just to the user. You get my drift?"

"Okay."

"The thing is, when the Matrix was first being compiled, back in -- "

fire laps at the corners of his vision. the storm spares nothing. in the distance, the howling of the monsters

The Doctor clutched the side of his face but went ruthlessly on. "Back in the Dark Times, when my lot weren't exactly the noblest or most technically-assured multi-temporal folks on the block, a lot of stupid Artifacts got made. I say 'Artifact'; what I really mean is 'inordinately-powerful piece of junk that some high-collared git with no chin thinks is a good idea to kick about in a minefield.' Mostly because no one was really policing them at the time."

"And the Book's an Artifact."

"Yeah." He focused his attention on the minaret some more until the voices subsided. "To be fair, it started off as -- like I said before -- just the basework for the Matrix, but after a while people started noticing 'ooh, that's not going to work' and transferred it all to a massive extradimensional framework of -- well, long story short, they chucked the Codex to the side after transferring its knowledge to the bigger system and that was that."

From behind him, the Doctor heard Rose standing up. "Except I'm guessing it wasn't."

"Obviously not, no."

"It's a Key, isn't it?"

He was a bit impressed, in spite of himself. "Close. It's a Door. And even worse, it's an unlocked Door."

She was by his side, looking up intently into his face. "Doctor . . "

He kept his expression as neutral as possible. A flock of dragonflies alighted on the bronze minaret for a few brief seconds and then tore off again.

He felt a slight pressure on his (unjacketed) shoulder and resisted the urge to forcibly remove her hand -- or to lean into it. "The . . . The Matrix was on your home planet, yeah?"

He knew what she was driving at. "It should've gone up with the rest of everything at the end of the Time War. That's all."

The fingers tightened. "If you don't want to -- "

The nerve.

"Too late now; might as well finish," he said brusquely. "The Codex was supposedly destroyed by responsible custodians years ago, but of course Time Lords never throw anything out -- "

"You can say that again," he heard her mutter.

"D'you mind? -- No one dealt with the Book. Someone probably used it for all sorts of political skullduggery via the Matrix, or maybe some doddering old ex-Council member wanted it to relive his glory days. The point is, everyone assumed it was gone." He sighed. "Bit of a surprise when the TARDIS picked up its signal. Must've gotten timelooped or thrown into the Vortex when -- at the end of the War." He glared at the minaret as though it was trying to break his will; it continued to glimmer inoffensively.

"I knew something was up with you," Rose said, perhaps just a little smugly. "So. You've got the Book; what's the problem? Let's go get Jack, and we pop off in the TARDIS -- it's downstairs, you know -- "

The Doctor sighed. "Rose, it's a little more complicated than -- "

Something about her previous sentence warranted a small red flag. "Wait. What d'you mean, downstairs?"





Vetch stared blankly at the warm mug of tea that the other man was proffering him. "Hey. Gus."

"Augustine," he mumbled, wondering vaguely why the lights were still flickering.

"You should drink something. Here," Harkness appropriated his hand and pushed his fingers around the cup. "That'll hold you. If you need something stronger in it," here he winked and tapped what Vetch had assumed was a tool pouch, "give me a yell."

Vetch blinked a few times. He stared at the mug. His reflection stared back. He tried to remember why his nose was swollen.

The police droids had gotten there in record time -- a lucky thing, given how rarely they seemed to work properly. The Director had icily reiterated that she was innocent, but had suffered herself to be taken into temporary custody until the situation had been investigated and resolved.

Harkness -- apparently he was a captain or something, Vetch wasn't clear on the details and was having a hard enough time just remembering his own profession at the moment -- had tried to explain the situation to the droids, only to have them dully go through their paces without listening to his testimony. They hadn't shown any interest in the three witnesses, which didn't strike him as very good police procedure.

On the other hand, given how terrified Vetch had felt yesterday when answering their questions pertaining to Selos's disappearance, not having to deal with them wasn't an entirely bad thing.

Either way, Harkness was still poking around the scene, and seemed to have press-ganged a rather confused Horten into his service, despite the Archivist's constant and increasingly frantic insistence that he needed to be somewhere else.

"They should've sent a forensics team around," the non-vent-cleaner said, frowning down at the still-damp patch on the chair. "Doesn't seem right, just picking it all up in a tarp. The outline's crap, too." He nudged the glowing blue phosphorescence that imperfectly described where a pile of organs had been moments before.

Vetch looked down into his tea. The haphazardly-strobing light threw eerie shapes over its surface. A random shadow cast across the mug looked kidney-shaped and he had to put the cup down.

"And they even didn't check the vents for DNA traces," Harkness went on, frowning. "Geez. The defense is gonna have one hell of an easy time at this trial. Those robots really dropped the ball."

"But, ah, surely the presence of, er, human entrails in the Director's own office speaks volumes as to -- "

"Yeah, well, I'd rather know why the Doctor and Rose were in here, not to mention where they got to." Harkness pivoted on his heel. "Speaking of which, how do you know the Doctor?"

Horten seemed genuinely flustered. "I'm afraid you've misheard me, sir. I was, er, concerned for the welfare of young Vetch, here -- " he gestured at him in a loose sort of way " -- seeing as I'd collided with him, and was advising that --"

Harkness folded his arms, the skeptical look back on his face. "Yeah, another thing -- where were you headed with all those tools?"

"Er. Someone in the Grid Room wanted them, and probably still does -- I should really get back to them; they'll be . . . yes . ." Wringing his one free hand and making a last visual sweep of the room, Archivist Horten bustled out the door. Harkness slowly followed him, leaning up against the doorframe.

"Funny," he remarked to Vetch, "he's going in the opposite direction than before."

"Might be an alternate route 't the Grid Room," slurred Vetch, trying to remember if this was the case.

"Maybe," Harkness observed. "Doesn't explain why he's just dumped the toolkit, though."





"He moved the TARDIS?!?"

"Well . . . yeah, basically -- "

"He MOVED the TARDIS?!"

"Okay, see, it seemed like a good idea at the time -- "

"'Good idea'? 'Good idea? Does getting smeared across the fabric of existence like a choc ice on a linen tablecloth sound like a 'good idea'?"

"We landed all right," Rose said stiffly. She wasn't sure whose side she was going to take once the oncoming storm hit -- finding the Doctor was her idea, true, but Jack had gotten into his head to actually move the ship. And as grateful as she felt to him for helping to find their errant Time Lord --

"Stupid apes!"

-- mostly grateful, once the Doctor got a look at the interior of his TARDIS, Jack was probably going to wish he'd just blown up in space after all.

"Stupid, blundering apes!"

They were back in the Library corridors. Once again, they'd taken the stairs; the Doctor hadn't told her why. He hadn't explained much of anything, really, since learning about --

" -- kill him. See how much he likes that full head of hair and toothy grin when I shove it back up through his own -- "

"Jack was worried, you know. It wasn't just me."

"Pfft."

"He thought something was up, too -- "

The Doctor snarled, his stalking footsteps echoing viciously in the empty halls. "Figures. Takes a conman to detect a con."

"Oh, just stop that -- "

"Now I'll never get the Codex off Alezhandria. Did you hear that 'whooshing' sound just then, Rose? That was History, flying completely out the window thanks to your friend and mine, the one, the only, Captain Jack Harkness. Can't wait to see what he does for an encore -- "

Rose hadn't wanted to say it. "Yeah, well you didn't kick me out when I did the same, so should I pack up and go too?"

There was only the sound of their footfalls for a while; his sharp and echoing, hers squeaking. Eventually it was too much for her, and the nagging questions began resurfacing.

"You didn't answer my earlier question," she said. "The Matrix. It's destroyed, right?"

He shifted his grip on the rolled-up jacket. "Right."

"And the Rutans or whatever will be sweeping the area looking for goodies in a few months anyway?"

"Yeah."

"So -- " she paused, biting her lip. "There's a good reason why we can't just hand the Book over to whoever shows up, right?"

He goggled at her. "Were you even listening to --"

Rose held up a hand. "Hold on now, you said only Time Lords could access this thing properly. What harm's it going to do if no one can even read it? Besides, if the Matrix's gone, it's not like it leads anywhere anymore, right?"

He stared at her as though she'd grown another nostril and whirled back around, throwing his hands in the air. "Humans!"

"Oh, don't start -- "

He whirled about. For a terrifying moment Rose thought he had rounded on her, then realized that his face was strangely blank.

"You hear something?" he asked after a pause, squinting slightly and cocking his head like a confused retriever.

"No."

"Sort of a long, low, buzzing sound?"

"I told you, no." She glanced up at the ceiling. "What, like fluorescent ballasts? --Because those lights look as though -- "

"No, that's just energy from the Book interfering with the main power grid," the Doctor responded, absently. "No, this is different, rings a bell somehow . . "

They stood, frozen, and then Rose heard it too. It was familiar; reminded her of when she and Jack had been in the police station and they'd walked by the --

Instantly, her gaze locked with the Doctor's. She suspected that her expression was much the same.

The noise was getting closer.


Back to index


Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve -- The Book Drop Is for After-Hours Returns


The halls echoed with the sound of Ragusa's scrabbling footsteps.

The annoying hum-whine of her guards was grating on her auditory vesicles. Given her sensitivity to vibration, they would be flanking her on either side.

Both drones -- and given the constant low-level groan they emitted, drone was the only true name for them -- behaved vacantly, as though they hadn't registered that she had two sets of arms and was considerably taller than an human. In fact, they hadn't seemed to register that she wasn't even humanoid.

In the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire, most people noticed that immediately.

Ragusa's opinion of artificial intelligence, already abysmally low, plummeted. She briefly considered how very simple it would be for her to simply strike a drone on either side with her dominant upper set of claws -- the ones they hadn't bothered to secure -- and simply be done with this farce.

On the other hand, that wouldn't help her case very much.

She grimly stalked forward, tentacled guards bobbing above her like grotesque balloons. As they passed the courtyard alcove -- 36D West, her mind automatically told her -- she caught the barest whiff of damp leather. That man must've passed by here, that stupid interloper who --

Ragusa's chest cavity swelled with the beginnings of a threat display, and the idiot robots didn't even respond. To be forced to walk in step with such pathetic jailers was the final insult; they deserved to be torn apart. Both of them. All of them.

Her snarl subsided and she clicked her mandibles in resignation. They'd be taking her to the lockdown room where she'd been asked about Trevor Selos the previous day. How had events progressed so far in less than twenty-four hours?

Time never had been her friend.






Library alcoves exist thanks to the well-established principle that everyone has a spider plant or a ficus or some sort of garish potted palm that a doddering aunt gifts you in her will. And because libraries need greenery -- they don't, actually, but that isn't the issue -- eventually these unwanted plants will find their home in some sunny corner off to the side of a reading room or hallway, where 'everyone can enjoy them.'

No one ever does, but that again is beside the point.

The Doctor had often speculated that if the human race sat down and thought things through, they'd stop making architectural allowances for orphaned ferns and just do away with the practice of looking after unwanted plants in the first place. Hell, look how much space he'd cleared up when he'd ditched the TARDIS greenhouse.

-- All right, he'd moved quite a bit of it to the Library Cloister, but not everything. The mistake had been not doing away with the spider plants, which had even managed to survive the TARDIS's being gutted as a result of him pushing the button.

Face hidden by a basket of sickly geraniums, the Doctor winced at the memory. To his left, Rose crouched under a bench strewn with fluorescent-highlighter yellow daylilies. In front of them and around them and over them, aspidistra held full court.

The cheliloricatus argos clacked past them, flanked by two thrumming metal drones. It was odd, he reflected, that he'd first thought the robots looked like lobsters. Compared to her, they were . . . well, definitely lacking in that department.

Why were they escorting her? Judging by the suppressed growl she made as she passed, they obviously weren't an honor guard. They shouldn't be so careless about the claws, though. She could've destroyed them in three quick moves. And why hadn't the robots done a scanner sweep of the corridor, as was standard procedure when escorting either a dignitary or a prisoner?

Something about this situation made the skin on the back of his neck crawl. After a moment, he realized why.

Spiders nested in the aspidistra.

He waited until they'd passed out of auditory range before frantically digging beneath his jumper, nearly upsetting the plants overhead. He could feel things skittering down the small of his back and it was only the presence of Rose that would keep him from clawing at his bottom if they dropped any lower.

Judging by her movements, the natives had discovered her as well. "Ow! I don't believe this."

The Doctor sighed in abrupt relief when his guests boarded his hand, which he then withdrew to inspect. Two pale yellow beasties were safely transferred to the geranium. "Yeah, well, we've all got a spider on our backs."

"Spiders? There are spiders? God. There are midges or some little bitey things over here; I'm chewed up something awful . . ." She sighed, swatting in front of her. "Not our day for bugs, I guess . . "

He grimaced. "Wonder where they're taking her."

"Who?"

"The person who just walked by; who else? The one you were chucking the books at. You know. Tall, Dark, and Fangry."

"Seriously, how do you know it's a 'she'?"

He eased himself out from under the low-hanging tendrils. "Easy. That species has recessed chelicerae for the purpose of transferring fertilized ovum to their bubble nests -- the females have this sort of webby mesh thing in the backs of their throats -- "

Rose stopped swatting the midges. "How the hell did you get a chance to see this one's, then?"

"Well, prior to your barging in, she was trying to resuscitate yours truly."

"What?"

The Doctor tugged on his lapels, then realized that he wasn't wearing his jacket. He really didn't like feeling so naked around Rose, though again the spiders were a big part of this. "I was in the ducts -- "

"What? Why?"

He glared. "Looking for the Book."

"In a duct?"

"I was following the signal."

"In a duct?"

"Why is this so hard, Rose Tyler? . . Yes. In a duct. I fell through a weak spot on account of a sudden nasty seizure which I'm guessing might've been triggered by someone mucking with the TARDIS's telepathic flight relays, and she rescues me from the bottom of the pool."

He hated it when she arched her eyebrow like that. "But it looked like it was attacking you."

"Nope. If anything, I owe her one. Makes me wonder why she's in trouble, though . . "

"In trouble?"

"You saw the guards."

"So? Maybe it broke out of its holding pen or whatever."

He stared at her. Granted, he'd had some decidedly nasty experiences at the wrong end of a pair of fangs, but petty xenophobia in regard to arthropods still struck him as a rather arbitrary prejudice to harbor, Ridley Scott films notwithstanding.

It really, really bothered him to know that Rose Tyler thought this way. It bothered him even more to know that Jack Harkness probably didn't.

"Its 'holding pen' was that office, Rose. That open pool of water was some sort of climate-controlled habitat." He flicked a low-hanging tendril off his ear. "Whoever she is, she works here."

Now she was staring at him. "Okay, so? One minute you're all about this big nasty Book that's supposed to be dangerous, never mind you won't say why, next minute you're all about how Jack's gonna wish he'd been left with a gas mask for a face, and now you start worrying about a space lobster you snogged."

"Oi!"

"Fine. A space lobster who snogged you. Whatever. You're all over the place, is what I'm saying." She ran a finger through her hair, inadvertently brushing a particularly long-legged spider onto her hoodie. The panicked arachnid scurried down her arm and under her jacket without her noticing.

They called him unobservant. The silly little apes.

"Anyways," she said, stepping clear of the alcove entirely, "seein' how we have to get the Book out of here before these Rutans come through, we should be looking for Jack so we can just clear off."

The Doctor's jaw felt as though he'd managed to unhook it from the rest of his skull. Interesting muscle arrangements seemed to tug it sideways in two different directions. It was only by reminding himself about spider-related parables pertinent to the situation that he didn't just let loose with a primal scream.

"Rose," he said with wonderful restraint, "when I was jumped in the alley last night, my tracker was lost. This tracker was made out of essential tracking systems of the TARDIS. Parts that I can't get from the dealer, anymore."

"Okay . . ."

"These components of the TARDIS are necessary for it to fly properly, all right?"

"But Jack -- "

"Is an idiot, because if he'd left the TARDIS in its original configuration I would've been able to set up a resonating frequency that could've pinpointed the missing bits for me. But he had to go move it, so that's shot."

"But he moved it, so -- "

Teeth. Hurt. "Yeah. To another part of Alezhandria. In the same linear timeframe. But the TARDIS needs to get away from this moon, and away from this timeframe, and without those missing bits -- "

Her eyes slowly widened. "Oh."

"'Oh.' Yep."

She rallied. "But we could look for 'em manually, scan for alien tech or something."

"Sure. We might even find what's left before the Rutans arrive looking for the Book."

Rose stared down at the marbled floor, her expression slowly going blank. "But . . . but . . ."

The Doctor sighed, stepping into the main hall. He checked the rolled-up jacket for bugs before tucking it back under his arm. The plan had gone so insanely wrong thus far, all it would take now to go wrong would be --

"Doctor."

He wasn't in the mood for apologies right now. "Save it." He started off down the corridor.

"No. Listen." She fell into step behind him, as always. "You were saying that we had to get rid of this Book before these scouts come by, otherwise Alezhandria's gonna be toast."

He grimaced at her choice of words. "Alezhandria's toast one way or the other. But if the Rutans invade, then history gets altered. And if they get their amorphous little mitts on the Book, history gets picked apart so fast that Time don't enter into it."

"Yeah, I figured that bit out . . " The shakiness of her voice called to mind a certain grey Sunday, and in spite of himself he slowed to move closer to the girl, out of instinct more than anything else. She took a deep breath and went on. "But you still haven't told me what's in the Book in the first place that would let them do those things."

He knew the spiders weren't crawling on his neck this time. Why couldn't she just assume the Book was some all-powerful alien artifact without wanting to know how it worked? Why did she have to be perceptive at all the wrong moments?

She was still talking. "If it's a Door to the Matrix, but the Matrix's gone, then what's the problem? And like I was sayin', if you need to be a Time Lord to use it -- "

He didn't have to tell her everything.

On the other hand, what had telling her nothing ever gotten him?

"Oh, there are lots of other things to worry about," he said, wearily. "There's huge freefloating psychic backlash from the destruction of Gallifrey; a nasty gaping reality sink where the Codex was severed from the rest of the Matrix, a disrupted energy output as the result of being disconnected from the Eye of Harmony -- this thing's a right mess, Rose. Even if no one ever found it or tried to use it, the Book would cause no end of problems."

Rose fell silent again. After they'd gone on like that for some time, she said only, "I could've helped."

"No, you couldn't."

"Yeah, and I would've. Only you told me to go. If it was so important, why didn't you get me to help you out?"

Because it can't always be about what I drag around, even if in this case it seems like it's only about what I drag around, he did not say. Because it's not always a bad thing to be a stupid ape, idiot heroics notwithstanding. Because there's a difference between knowing that something is broken and actually seeing the cracks running along the surface for yourself. Because it isn't your job to fix me.

Because you mean too much to me, Rose Tyler, to get to know everything.

Their echoing footsteps were the only thing breaking the silence.







"So," Vetch hazarded, lifting his cup unsteadily,"it's something for cleaning ducts, is it?"

"It's a comlink, but I rigged it to work as a tracker."

"Oh."

"Thing is, " Harkness continued, flipping the wristband over and prying out some little rivets, "I had to take it to pieces in order to splice it into the TARDIS's navigational controls, so I'm guessing it won't work unless I reroute some of the primary configuration diodes into . . . . "

Vetch had no idea what he was talking about. Coming out of shock and drinking a nice cup of tea laced with something very flammable took much of the urgency out of it, though, so he merely watched the man wave around the electrospanner he'd appropriated from Horten while spewing what sounded like utter technobabble.

"Ah. Here we go . . "

The device shrieked with electronic interference. Harkness clutched his ears and frantically attempted to shut it off. "Damn! I could've sworn I got it!" He threw down the electrospanner in disgust. "Great. Something's jamming the signal." He looked upwards, just as the lights flickered again. "Wonder if it's got anything to do with that . . "

Vetch, covered in tea, merely twitched.

Harkness stood up, grabbing the device and refastening it to his wrist. "Well. It's been real, Gus, but I'm gonna have to find --"

The intern's brain managed to prod his linguistic center back into action. "What? No! Let me come with you? Please?"

His companion's mouth opened, then shut. "Um. Look, Gus -- "

"Augustine."

"Augustine, I'm kind of in a rush; got to find these friends of mine before they get into any more trouble, you understand . . "

The part of Vetch that wasn't gibbering with fear pointed out that the best course of action would actually be just to go home and sleep everything off, but that obviously wasn't the part at the wheel. The dominant emotion overriding Vetch's good sense was mindless pants-dampening terror, and only by accompanying Jack Harkness-who-was-apparently-some-sort-of-captain would he avoid sitting on any more kidneys.

"I'll help, I'll help; please don't leave me behind here with . . with . . " His gaze snaked back to the armchair in the corner, remembering --

Harkness sighed. "What the hell. You might have to carry some stuff, though. C'mon." He jogged out the door.

Vetch -- still clutching the now-empty teacup -- trailed after him.






The Doctor seemed as though he was retracing his footsteps, muttering quietly to himself and glaring at the walls with a furrowed brow. Keeping up with him was hard, although given the way he was acting . .

He hadn't once acted happy to see her. Well, except maybe back up on the roof, when he smiled. Of course, she'd hit him with the shoe.

He'd deserved it. He still deserved it.

Why was it, Rose reflected, that every time it seemed as though they'd connected on some level, every time it seemed as though she knew where he was coming from, every time she got comfortable around him, something inevitably went catastrophically wrong?

And why there always so much running involved?

The Doctor half-turned, staring back down the corridor, grey eyes searching. " . . . No. Back here . . . "

They changed directions, moving down a sideways passage. Two or three groups of librarians were clustered off to the sides, gesticulating furiously with readouts under the sputtering lights. As they passed, Rose faintly heard the hissed words "cutbacks" and "database" and "assessment" and "kill them all with their own goddamn access cards."

Say what you will about trying to save the Universe from a library, Rose thought drily to herself, but at least no one will try to get in your way. Everyone's got their own problems.

"Doctor," she sighed, taking advantage of the narrower space to move closer, "where exactly are we going?"

"Grid Room. But first I want to stow this -- " he tapped the rolled-up jacket -- "somewhere safe."

"Why not the TARDIS?"

He grimaced. "Trust me, that isn't safe."

"What? Why not?"

"Not the time. We're going to someone's office."

"What? Whose?"

" Man I met here, supposedly rescued me from the drones."

"What'd he do that for?"

The Doctor sighed. "He wants me to help him solve a mystery. Yes; related to the one I'm in trouble over now. And if you're going to keep nattering on -- "

"Excuse me for caring."

He muttered something indecipherable and pulled ahead by a few steps.

They descended a long flight of stairs, not easy to do when the lights keep cutting on and off. After five terse minutes, they came to a deserted corridor that smelt like burnt fluorescent tubes and reminded Rose of the basement of Henrik's, prior to it getting blown up.

God, that felt like a lifetime ago. "We close?"

The Doctor seemed in a slightly better mood. "Yep. I remember it from this morning, just -- " He stood in front of an off-white door, abruptly frowning.

"What is it?"

He didn't immediately answer, leaning in to peer at the doorplate instead. "That's funny. He said this was his office."

"Who did?"

"Horten. The man who rescued me."

The name seemed as though she'd heard it before. "So, whose office is this?"

"'Relay Room NW 3ZA'. It isn't even an office," the Doctor said, fumbling for his screwdriver. Rose offered to hold the jacket and was, again, rebuffed. "Don't touch it."

"Why?"

"Trust me, you don't want this thing in your head." The sonic screwdriver bypassed the security locks with a cheerful click. "More to the point, you don't want to be in this thing's head."

Something told her he'd never explain what that meant, so she didn't even bother asking. Inside the room, it smelt like water damage and vinyl wrap and, again, dust. A grey couch was off to the side, the only real piece of furniture other than a desk with a rickety collapsing chair -- everything else was either electronics or computer terminals (which, Rose noted, while considerably sleeker and hardly resembling the clunky desktop machines of her unenlightened age still were that awful beige color). Though someone might've been here recently, it didn't seem as though the place saw regular or heavy use.

She flopped down on the couch, dust billowing upwards. "Nice place your friend's got." She saw the lighting flicker dramatically as the Doctor walked past a circuit panel. "If that thing's mucking with the electricity, should we really have it down here with all these computers?"

"No choice," he responded. "Unless you want to leg it back up to the roof, of course."

"Never mind." Rose sighed, falling back on the cushions. Sleep suddenly was a very attractive prospect. "So, where are you gonna hide it?"

"Somewhere out of the way. Don't want some luckless night janitor stumbling across it." He looked around, clearly at a loss.

Rose's head sank back, allowing her to take in the damaged tile ceiling. "Chuck it under the couch."

The Doctor scoffed. "Don't be daft. That's the first place anyone would look."

She sighed. "Well fine, Mr.Thinks-He's-The-Easter-Bunny."

". . . What?"

"Hiding things, you know." Her eyes drifted wearily over to the desk. Too obvious, she supposed.

The Doctor looked momentarily nonplussed. "But the whole point of the Easter Bunny hiding things is so they get found."

"You're thinking about this too hard."

"No, you weren't thinking hard enough when you said it." He went back to pacing. "Anyway, that's Dr. Thinks-He's-The-Easter-Bunny to you."

"Yeah, well, sleep deprivation ain't all it's cracked up to be, so sue me." Rose's gaze drifted to slightly above the desk. "Hey. Why not just stick it in the vent?"

"The what?" He sounded distracted, clutching his head again.

"The vent. There."

His hand dropped from his head. "Wait. Say that one more time."

"Vent. V-E-N-T. You can stand on the desk and reach it, no problem. It's good and big and it's even got this little service ladder along the side of the shaft." She frowned. "Expect that's too easy, though."

The Doctor didn't say anything for a long moment; merely stood completely still. After several long pauses, he walked over to the desk and peered upwards.

"Rose?"

She sighed. "Yes, Doctor?"

"You're brilliant."



Back to index


Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen: Help Us To Better Serve Your Needs

Author's Notes: Week from hell. Editing this one was a monster. And god, even I don't like ventilation shafts this much.




It was getting harder to think.

There were Facts. There were Reasons. There were Indications. And as the better singing-masters of his soul would have stressed -- he tries to explain that there was no choice, but the sigil looms -- the importance of paying attention to the small details --

"This is stupid, Doctor."

Definitely harder to think.

He'd explain it all later, he'd said, not meaning it. The trick was to just keep babbling and moving and hope that somewhere along the line you address enough of the issue that they think they got an answer.

"See," he heard his voice explaining with a brightness he did not feel, blood rushing in his ears all the while, "I thought there was something odd about finding it in the ducts. 'Who'd hide something this important in a duct?' I said to myself. Only if I was trying to hide something, and if I wanted to move it around without anyone knowing where it is, why not a duct?"

"Doctor . . "

He winced as light stabbed at the corner of his mind but continued to crawl onwards through the service hatch. "Easter Bunny. Never hide things where people would expect to find 'em. Only, the Easter Bunny hides things so people can find 'em, so it's not a perfect analogy, but it's the same idea backwards. Less hopping. Aha!"

He gestured triumphantly at a scuff mark on the bottom of the metal floor. "See that? Someone's been through here recently."

Just about then the air conditioning kicked in, so Rose's answer was lost in a continuous torrent of frigid air. The Doctor's damp skin shuddered and he instinctively started to unfold the jacket --

and the void is cold --

-- and folded it back up, gritting his teeth and forcing himself to feel grateful that the noise was covering up any noise made by Rose and him slogging through the shaft.

Facts. There were facts.

The service ladder. Accessible if you stood on the desk. The cover grille had some (recent?) scratch marks around the safety screws. Sonic devices don't leave those kind of marks.

The Book. Stranded in a ventilation shaft which also contained his allegedly-lost sonic screwdriver. Guarded by a very large and reasonably hostile entity. Unless, of course, it was just put there so no one would look for it. Easter Bunny.

He hadn't been willing to get sucked into Horten's vivid little melodrama, but there was something going on here. Wheels in motion. He was confused -- it was getting harder to think, what with the noise and the cold and the voices, dead voices and Rose's forehead smacking up against his backside every few moments, but dammed if it wasn't starting to resolve itself a bit.

Just not fast enough.

The A/C cut off, echoing eerily and leaving only the sounds of their panting and crawling.

"Okay, so stop me if I'm wrong," drawled Rose, "but weren't we supposed to be, I dunno, hiding this book?"

"We will. Eventually."

"If I asked where we were going," Rose muttered, "would I even get an answer?"

"Following a hunch."

"And the hunch is -- "

"Something doesn't add up. I wasn't paying attention at first; just wanted to find the Codex and be done with it. But it doesn't add up; something's calling out . . "

the screaming of the deathless ones --

"Like what?"

The Doctor suppressed the urge to just lie through his teeth. If his own brain wasn't up to the task, why not use Rose as a sounding board? After all, hadn't it always worked before?

"My screwdriver. Got jumped by the drones, lost it, Horten said he couldn't find it, but it turns up in that shaft. Why's that?" He scraped along determinedly, which was difficult enough on only one hand. "The Book's there too; falls out after you knock the space lobster over. Why?"

"Someone hid it?"

"Well, obviously."

A sharp finger prodded the Doctor's thigh, making him yelp and hit his head against the top wall. "Don't you go takin' that voice with me; I'm still new to this mess of yours."

"Look, all you need to know is that the missing circuitry of the TARDIS might not be lost after all. And I'm guessing whoever's responsible for all this hiding and duct-spelunking has something to do with it."

Rose sighed. The sound reverberated through the shaft, calling to mind the whispers of an infinite expanse of grey pebbles. "Okay. So what do they want with it all? The Book, the screwdriver, the TARDIS bits -- where does all that fit in?"

"That's what I aim to find out."

Another sigh. "So what exactly do I do, then?"

"Keep your eyes peeled. Look for anything out of the ordinary in here."

"Oh. Yeah. 'Cos I've been in ducts all my life, so I'll know what's wrong when I see it."

"You know, you could've stayed out on the town with Adam Mk. II and just left me to this."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means --"

and he is the architect of ruin, he the all-consuming fire

The Doctor crashed onto the shaft floor, gasping as the light scrabbled to get into his mind. Cheek against the cool metal, hunched over his jacket, it took all his waning mental strength to elude its grasp and remain here in the vent, with Rose hovering over him and shaking his shoulder. Her hand was warm. Everything else was cold --

"Are you all right?"

"M' fine. Gimme a sec."

"Look," she groaned, slumping against the duct wall with a ker-whumpf, "don't you pass out; I don't know where we're supposed to go."

"It won't come to that," he responded, darkly aware that he would probably be proved a liar at the rate that the Book was unfolding itself around the corners of his vision, brushing up against the outskirts of

"Doctor."

Oh, for the love of -- "What?"

"I didn't need a day out."

Thank you once again, Rose Tyler, for addressing the wrong issue. Your status as a valuable sounding board is under review.

"Can't run down corridors all the time," he wheezed.

"You were tryin' to get rid of me, weren't you?"

"Yep."

He wasn't quite prepared for her to look so shocked. "Why?"

"This thing," he said, tapping the jacket, "is dangerous."

"So? We've done dangerous before. Every other day. That's all we ever do."

The Doctor felt something warm and sudden burning to life in his chest. After a few moments, he determined that it was his muscles cramping from being hunched over and he straightened out. He counted to ten, shook the Codex out of the jacket and kicked it off to the side, jetsam from the burning, peace never to be found -- The babble of voices seemed to intensify and he lurched forward down the shaft. The Book was a darker wedge of shadow than the surrounding gloom, though the flickering LED lights picked out the seal.

"Right, and what was that about?"

"It's safer here," he lied, mentally bookmarking the passage. Junction 6A. Remember it by the that little squiggly red line underneath the faceplate that looks like an arrow.

The little squiggly line that . . .

He paused. "Rose, does that seem out of the ordinary to you?"





"So," Vetch said, peering up unsteadily at the blue box, "this is for cleaning ducts, right?"

Harkness was rattling what looked like a door on its side. "Actually, it's a dimensionally-transcendant spaceship."

"Okay," Vetch said serenely. It wasn't his problem. He was just here to help carry things. It had been very kind of the Captain to take him along. It had been even kinder of him to let Vetch drink directly from his hip flask.

He hiccuped. "Whyzzit blue?"

"I don't know; ask the Doctor -- " Harkness threw his shoulder against the box, face screwing up fearsomely. "Oh, crap -- it's locked! I forgot that Rose has the key . . " He whirled around, leaning up against its side, hand sweeping through his dark hair. "God. I've been on 3 A.M. pub crawls that were more organized than this . . "

"Pub crawls?" slurred Vetch.

Harkness glanced at him. "Maybe you oughta give me that back, Tiger." He gently pried the sleek metal container out of the intern's clammy hands. "Gus?"

"Augustine," Vetch said absently.

"Yeah, whatever. Listen. I need some sort of tracking relay system or grid or something with enough coverage to sweep the Library grounds. Is there some sort of surveillance network I can use?"

Vetch replayed all the words Harkness used with the vague and sinking feeling that there might be a continued resurgence in activities involving being stared at by maleficent robots and sitting on viscera. "Is there . . what?"

Jack sighed, using his hands to slowly and deliberately punctuate his words. "Where. Is. A. Computer?"

"Grid Room."

Harkness frowned. "Wait. Wasn't that one guy supposed to be heading that way?"

Vetch shrugged, nearly falling over.

Jack took a deep breath. "Well. Guess it's popular today. Lead on, MacDuff."

"Augustine."





"So," Rose hazarded after a long silence, "what the hell are we looking at?"

She was inclined to think it resembled the sum total of every New Age boutique shop that Shireen had ever dragged her into just so she could look at the jewelry. There was quartz. There was blue light. There were shimmering optic relays. There were lots and lots of wires that somehow moved through the big quartz crystals and snaked upwards around some sort of huge conduit that went upwards through the ceiling.

If there was a Yanni tape playing somewhere, you wouldn't hear it for all the humming.

They'd followed the general direction of the squiggly red arrow for about ten awful minutes, in which time the Doctor had continued to not answer her questions and the A/C had come back on twice. When they'd finally burst through the side-mounted vent, they'd been blinded by the radiance of the huge . . shiny . . . thing.

"We're under the Grid Room," the Doctor remarked. "That's part of the main processing and computational grid."

She couldn't help but be a bit impressed. "How'd you know that, then?"

He gestured to the big spindle that rose through the ceiling. "I've been up there, on the top floor. Down here's just a secondary level." He smiled disarmingly at several dour-looking Archivists who looked them up and down.

He'd been a basket case back in the vents, she thought, stretching her aching back and wincing at the crack from her protesting spine. But he'd stopped having those fits once they'd ditched that book thing. He wasn't leveling with her.

Surprise, surprise.

"So . . . this thing's a computer?" Well, stranger things . . . she was traveling in a Police Box, these days.

"Yup."

"Good thing we didn't bring the B . . . the thing with us; we'd probably make it crash or something."

He rewarded her with a sudden smile which she returned before remembering that she was annoyed with him.

"So. Our mystery rabbit likes having direct access to the Grid -- after-hours, I'm guessing; can't just barge out of ducts in plain sight -- and he likes to spirit things around. Interesting."

Rose looked up at the glowing crystal monstrosity and steadfastly refused to be impressed by it. "And he knows enough to keep the . . . thing that puts out all that interference well away from it, too."

"Maybe," the Doctor murmured, seemingly struck by a random thought. He darted over to a glowing cluster of maps that were projecting out of a globby little structure that reminded Rose of the little informational spheres that she and Jack had bought yesterday. She fumbled in her pocket and was reassured by its weight and cool, smooth feel.

The Doctor was doing something cryptic to the computerized whatever that involved flashing the sonic screwdriver at it and muttering. Random screenshots of library corridors began scrolling past her. "You looking for something, then?"

"Someone, more like."

"Oh, hey, there's the TARDIS."

"Yes," he agreed. His voice made her find a new topic. Unfortunately, that topic wasn't likely to help his mood.

"You looking for Jack, then?"

"No."

"But he can help --"

"He's done enough helping for one day, thanks."

The annoyance resurfaced. "We were worried about you."

"I didn't ask to be rescued."

"You'd have done the same for him." The silence wasn't encouraging. "Right?"

"That's odd."

"Don't change the subject -- "

He was frowning at the screen slightly to his left. "Horten. Looks like he's in trouble."

Rose glanced at the hologram. The pudgy little man who'd collided with Vetch was gesticulating frantically at two police drones, both of which stared at him dully.

"I know him; me and Jack met him in the halls -- "

Instantly his bright gaze was on her. "Really?"

"Yeah, he was carrying all these tools and he collided with this guy who was showing us around. Seemed like he was in a rush -- "

"Did he say anything?"

"I dunno; I heard you yelling and didn't really hang about after that. The rest you know."

The Doctor turned back to the scene, eyes glinting. "Hmm."

The drones slowly moved away from Horten, who was wiping off his face with a handkerchief. He started back down a different hall, and though the Doctor frantically tried to keep up with his movement he was quickly lost from the viewscreens. The drones, however, were still in view, hovering in front of a door which magnification showed to be WMR 6.

"Wonder what's there," Rose remarked idly.

"Or who's there. C'mon!" He leapt up, grabbing her by the arm. "Work to do."

"Please say we're not goin' back in the ducts."

"Hah! Nope."

She sighed in relief. "Oh, great, because --"

"That's later. We're taking the stairs."

The hell. "Doctor, just where are we going now?"

He looked back over his shoulder at her, grinning just a bit madly. "We're going to see a bug about a man."




Vetch was sitting down. Vetch liked sitting down.

Harkness -- Jack -- was standing up. And yelling.

"For crying out loud!" Several Archivists turned and frowned disapprovingly. "The bastard's been through here!"

"Mmm?"

Harkness gestured angrily at the holoscreen. "Look at this configuration! Somebody bypassed the main display systems."

"Archivist Horten?"

"Not unless he's got a sonic screwdriver."

"Oh." Vetch stared up at the spindle, wondering if there'd always been two of them. "I don't think he does -- "

"That was sarcasm, Augustine."

"Augustine," murmured Vetch automatically.

Jack gave him a long look before turning to an irritable green-suited woman who was coming at them with a clipboard. "Hi. You seen a guy with a black leather jacket wandering around?"

She scowled. "Do you have clearance to be in here?"

Jack leaned in slightly, eyes heavy-lidded. "If I'm here, I must have clearance, right?" He smiled. The Archivist flushed slightly, obviously trying to rally her thoughts.

"S'all right, Sati," Vetch explained. "He's for the ducts. Fixin' them 'n stuff."

She gave him a confused look, then suddenly seemed subject to a revelation. "Oh. So those people were with you?"

Harkness leaned in, face intent. "People? Tall guy, Northern English accent, was probably yelling or being patronizing? Blonde girl, probably yelling at him?"

Sati blinked. "Er . . . I think so. They came through that vent about, oh, ten minutes ago and were making an awful mess down here -- "

Jack sighed. "Yup. That'll be them. Didja see where they went?"

"I'm really not sure," she responded. "There were only the five of us down here, and we all had this hiccup in the power feed happening, so we sort of turned our attention to that -- "

Harkness turned back to the holoscreen. "Dammit! Why is nothing ever easy with those two?" He scanned a few screens. "How many views does this thing get?"

Vetch's mind wasn't up to snuff, but luckily Sati's was. "Two thousand, six hundred and forty-eight."

"Great. Where's this duct?"

Vetch stared peaceably at the glowing screens and their scenes of comparative peace and quiet and general lack of horrific dismemberment while Sati led Jack to the vent. After a few moments, Jack was back by his side and tinkering with a little pink hologlobe and his wrist comlink-duct-cleaning-whatever.

"You got a pink one?" Vetch asked, blinking. "Only they get -- "

"Yeah, I know what they get, Gus."

"August --"

Jack shoved a feed cable into the pink globe and set it down in front of Vetch. "Look. This is what I need you to do. See this little switch here?"

"Yes -- "

"Okay, the globe's keyed to my comlink, so you can get in contact with me if you see Rose or the Doctor, right?"

"Who?"

Jack looked as though he might be ill. Vetch wondered if he'd left anything in the flask.

"The girl we were walking down the halls with, remember? And the other one's the guy in the jacket that I was just talking about. I need you to scroll through all these channels, and if you see them, either of them, lemme know, okay?"

Vetch felt mildly panicked. "Where're you going, then?"

Jack slapped his wristband back on. "If those two are in the ducts, they won't show up on the cameras. They can't have gotten far, and if they're doing something that pointless and stupid they'll probably need my help." He sighed. "Can you do this for me, Gus? -- Augustine. Can you do this for me?"

Vetch blinked. "I just have to sit here?"

"Yep."

"Right."

Jack grinned brilliantly, patting Vetch's cheek. "Attaboy. I'll check in with you every five minutes, all right?"

He felt a little lost as Harkness clambered into the vent -- to the continued irritation of the local Archivists -- and only just remembered as his boots disappeared from view that he'd taken the hip flask with him.





In the largely empty-corridor, the two drones hovered. The temptation to say 'hovered expectantly' was hard to resist, but frankly these were the most bored-looking robots she'd ever seen. Granted, she hadn't seen many robots per se, but these squid things were definitely the type that made the term 'machine intelligence' a bit of an oxymoron.

"Rose."

"Yeah?"

"You got your phone handy?"

She automatically started to say yes, then remembered that she'd left it hooked up to the TARDIS. "Nope."

The Doctor sighed. "Fantastic. There's never a remote satellite relay when you need one."

Rose shrugged, rolling her hand around the cool metal of her globe for comfort.

After a moment, she stopped rolling it around. "Doctor? . ."

He stared at the little blue ball, expression unfathomable. Suddenly he grinned; the old, manic and infectious grin.

"Blimey, isn't it just our lucky day."




Ragusa stared at the blank walls of the West Maintainance Room (6). She had not enjoyed coming here the previous day to answer the police's questions pertaining to Trevor Selos, and whatever else had changed since yesterday, her dislike of the room had not.

Attempts at collecting her thoughts were difficult enough without remembering Horten's fatuous round face peering at her from behind the man with the compact laser. The little man. He'd had something to with all this, or her name was not Ragusaergosicatus.

Which it was. That too was constant.

And when she found that interloper, and once she found that vicious child --

There was a sudden lull in the low-frequency vibrations coming from the drones outside. Blankly the Director looked up, wondering if she was about to be interrogated or transported, or if they'd just powered down.

The door opened.

It was with an emotion situated perfectly between horror and fury that Ragusa saw the interloper and the vandal walk in through the door. The large-eared man had a decidedly unhealthy grin on his face as he walked directly up to her.

"Hullo again. You busy?"


Back to index


Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen: Due Notice

Author's Notes: This is the bit with the talking. Author not responsible for injuries related to huge chunks of exposition flying off and striking reader.




Rose trusted the Doctor. Sometimes she thought she trusted him too much.

She knew he'd do something clever with the blue globe, and of course he did. She wasn't sure if a "multi-phase induced waveform pulse circuit" actually existed, but when it came to technobabble she'd learned just to nod and look hopeful. Maybe cock her head to the side and peer up expectantly.

Even if she had gotten her A-levels, they wouldn't have clarified just how the Doctor had managed to disable the two floating squid things with a cheery grin and a click of a button and a flippant remark about calamari which her brain deliberately forgot as a self-preservation measure.

After all, part of the appeal of traveling with the Doctor was that it was that it was all done for you, wasn't it? You just followed, looked hopeful -- deliberately suppressed the homicidal rage that welled from never ever being told just what was wrong and why, of being treated like a clever but worrisome dog -- and eventually everything would work out fine.

Rose trusted the Doctor. But she really didn't understand how he'd walked directly up to the chittering space lobster and stood right under its clacking jaws.

"Don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm the Doctor; this is Rose Tyler. Didn't get a chance to thank you for your lifeguard duty, earlier -- "

The thing screeched. Rose instantly turned to the door, realizing it had already swung shut behind them. The handle wasn't moving.

"Doctor -- "

He didn't turn around; merely held up a hand. "S' all right. Just take a breather." Fat chance.

The -- the whatever the Doctor had called it -- was even bigger in the closed confines of the little room. Every bad dream about spiders crawling over Rose's face, every dead crab on the beach, every acid-dripping xenomorph that Mickey'd bashed up from a kit -- they had nothing on this.

"You," it hissed at the Doctor. "You. You were in my office."

"Thought it was yours; yeah." He held out a hand. "You'd be Ragusa, maybe?"

The mandibles -- there were four -- all parted in a hideous snarl. Two split on either side; two others arched over the bottom pair. The mouth underneath did not in fact contain a second head, but the fact that it was decked out like an iron maiden wasn't much comfort. How the hell had this thing done CPR on the Doctor without removing his face?

"Director to you, primate."

"Doctor to you, Director." He proffered the hand again, and Rose waited for the monster to rip it off. The monster, however, merely glowered at it as though it contained a cup of drawn butter. "Can we talk?"

"If it is to be about -- hrrst -- compensation for what your -- hrrst -- idiot associate did to those books, then yes, by all means let us -- hrrst -- talk. Be very sure that I have much to say on the matter."

The black eyes glittered as they swung up to regard Rose, and she felt herself sinking back against the door. "Doctor . . "

The Doctor's hand drifted up between the monster's gaze and Rose's. "Hullo. Funny you should mention it; I was wondering about a book. A very specific book."

The thing's head slowly swiveled down to meet his gaze. "Why are you here?"

"Ooh, ontologically speaking, that's tricky -- "

The horrible jaws clattered open again. Spiny growths started to rise all along the creature's back. "HRRST."

"See, this book's not really something that should be floating around. It's dangerous. --Well, all books are dangerous; power of an open mind pen mightier than sword et cetera et cetera nada y pues nada -- " He blinked, then continued. "Anyway. This book. Black. Pages that dance. Fiddley little metal thing on the cover. Probably very hard to catalogue, owing to the lack of printing information or publishing dates or subject matter or author, not to mention it's probably melted any machines you've run it through . . "

As he rattled on, the creature -- Ragusa? -- slowly leant forward, fangs skittering. Rose watched them move, wishing that the Doctor was aware of them, wishing she could get words out of her throat, wishing she'd just stayed in bed this morning --

"So," the Doctor said brightly, turning back around to face the beast, "according to my sources, you were in charge of this thing. And apparently two Archivists under you went missing a while back. And yesterday I stumbled over a corpse in an alley that everyone says was a third Archivist, also under you." He paused. "Why are you under guard here, anyway?"

"As though -- hrrst -- you do not know."

"Wouldn't ask if I did." He smiled. This had roughly the same effect on Ragusa that fabric softener had on granite. "Oh, c'mon, Director. I'm wanted for this murder just because I tripped in a back alley."

The creature regarded him blackly. "By your own admission, you are not affiliated with the police. Hrrst. I see no reason to confide in you." Claws lowered slightly. "I will wait for my lawyer and keep my own counsel until then, rather than speak with," here she looked contemptuously down at him, "a damp stranger with a quick tongue."

"Quick tongue; quicker mind. I may be damp, but I'm not wet. And you can't call a lawyer if you disappear, Director. You might be next on the list."

"That sounds like a threat."

"Not me that's makin' it. Don't you at least want to know if we're on the same side?" He gave her a long, steady look.

After what seemed to Rose like an eternity, Ragusa relented. "I am sitting in this -- hrrst -- room because entrails fell out of my ceiling after you left," she grated, the four spiny arms slowly raising. "I suspect that you were involved somehow. You are not endearing me to your idiocies, 'Doctor.'"

"Give me time, give me time." He looked up into its face. "You've got questions, right?"

Ragusa merely hissed.

"Foremost being: 'who's framed me and how do I put things right?'"

The lobster's mandibles closed, slowly. "And the Book features how?"

"You tell me. It was under your care. Or rather, under the care of those two who were under you. So. Tell me about them."

"Hrrst. I fail to follow your line of reasoning."

The Doctor made small, patient gestures with his hands. "If I remember, Horten said -- "

"Horten?" Ragusa's spines went hedgehog again, sending Rose back up against the door, jiggling the handle for all she was worth. "You've been talking to that miserable waste of -- hrrrrrrrrrrrssssssssscccccckkkk -- "

He merely arched an eyebrow, folding his arms. Rose was beginning to think that she really needed to stop trusting the Doctor this much.

"So," he said calmly, once Ragusa had gotten that out of her system, "maybe you should fill me in on Lyn and the other one."

"Patrick. Patrick Grimwade." The claws flexed. Rose tried the handle some more, prompting the beast to look up at her sharply. "Hrrst. Stop that, child. It is vexing."

Rose swallowed.

The Doctor half-turned to her, then swayed back to face Ragusa. "So. Why would you have killed them?"

"Are you accusing -- "

"Motives. Finding motives. Did they know anything you'd want kept secret? About the Book, maybe?"

"They were dependable. Lyn was naive, but not stupid. She refused -- hrrst -- to let Horten near the Book or any of the translated portions after -- hrrst -- I gave her full custodianship of it. After she disappeared, it went to Grimwade."

The Director's spines lowered along the side of her carapace, rattling slightly; for some reason Rose thought of cattails bending in the breeze. The huge body slowly sank onto the ground, all six legs folding up around the bulbous carapace with little scraping sounds that made Rose wince. Ragusa seemed, if not relaxed, at least more restrained. Her head was still higher than the Doctor's, though his neck was no longer tilted at such a sharp angle.

"I had known Grimwade since -- hrrst -- his very first assignment here, as an intern. He had an exceptional talent for translations and a good head for figures."

The Doctor folded his arms, sizing her up. "Could've made him a liability, him poking around in your private affairs."

Black eyes narrowed. "Hrrst. There were no private affairs to speak of. The Book was of limited interest to me; it is only now that I find myself beset by complications pertaining to it."

"So you didn't off him, either?"

"Patrick Grimwade was my friend," she responded, voice clipped. "I was assured of his trustworthiness after -- hrrst -- no fewer than thirty-eight years working alongside him. The two of us as a team were responsible for cataloging and updating the Special Collection's database; we succeeded where five other taskforces failed. It was he that I asked to handle this infernal book of yours, trusting in his good sense and -- hrrst -- reliability. He was a human of exceptional character and intelligence and the thought --" her spines were bristling now " -- of being accused of murdering him for the sake of a piece of space trash incites me to rage, Doctor."

The Doctor seemed unfazed, staring up into Ragusa's hissing maw. "Really."

"Really."

The Time Lord fixed her with a leaden stare. "So. What would it take for you to kill someone?"

The mandibles contracted and flexed silently. Rose was vaguely aware of her own hands curling protectively around the handle behind her.

Oblivious, the Doctor continued, his voice at odds with the coldness seeping into the room. "After all, you're an Archivist. You like order. You like things being neat and in the right place. You don't like people interfering with the workings of stuff you've spent ages sorting out. You probably hate budget cutbacks and barcoding and people who get filth all over the photocopier. What would make you chuck your ethics out the window?"

The answer, when it came, was low and deliberate and without sibilation. "I don't know. I am not a murderer."

The Doctor looked down briefly, about to follow up when Ragusa interrupted him. "Perhaps I should ask you the same question."

Rose saw his back stiffen, sensed his gaze locking to the floor.

Ragusa's voice continued, still clipped and metallic and horrible. "I have -- hrrrst -- worked in this place for nearly a century, Doctor. Do not presume -- as your young companion already has -- that my -- hrrst -- unconventionally alien appearance renders me incapable of judging emotional response."

Her spines lowered, but her words grated on. "I have met and known more of these people than I care to think on. Petty, obsessive minds, many of them. Enamored of the status quo. Afraid of change. Better suited to lives spent cataloguing human history than lives spent making it. Better suited to preserving wisdom rather than -- hrrst -- applying it." She leaned towards him, the interlocking plates of her chest clacking softly. "And then I meet people like you, Doctor. Playing the hero. Barging in and acting as though -- hrrst -- you can solve the world's problems by asking flippant questions."

His head swung up. He still said nothing. Rose was glad not to see his eyes.

Ragusa angled her thorny head to the side, black eyes glinting. "I may be -- hrrst -- nothing more than a minor component in this overall structure. Perhaps obsessive. Perhaps joyless. Decidedly overworked. But that is all I need to be. Hrrst. I am an Archivist. I put things in order because someone must. You cause disorder. You and your kind."

The Doctor now spoke, his voice seeming strangely controlled, distant. "And whose kind is Horten, then?"

The mandibles clicked shut.

Time Lord and Archivist locked gazes, before Ragusa finally looked off to the side. "His reasons are not known to me."

"Tell me about Horten."

"You have met him --"

"You're such an observer; you must have an observation. Who is Maxwell Horten?"

The alien's spines flattened along her back. The ever-grasping claws stilled momentarily. "A little man with a large name. His kin-group's history extends far back into Alezhandrian memory. They were among the first settlers here."

"That supposed to be relevant?" the Doctor cut in. Ragusa's head swung back around, irritably.

"If you had -- hrrst -- been subject to his long-winded discourses on this subject for as long as we have, you would doubtless count it so. His division of the Archives deals exclusively with Alezhandria's past. He rarely leaves the Library, other than for occasional -- hrrst-- guest lectures at the University. As far as I am aware he has never left this satellite."

"Homebody?"

"Recluse."

The Doctor arched an eyebrow, as if to say that Ragusa wasn't one to talk. "Megalomaniac?"

Ragusa sniffed, or at least Rose assumed that was what she'd done. Impressive, considering she didn't have a nose. "Self-important, yes. Hardly maniacal."

"So what would he want with the Book, then?" the Doctor mused, pivoting on his heel. Rose suppressed the urge to warn him against turning his back on the alien. Ragusa, however, merely glowered.

"Hrrst. I do not presume to know. The little I was told of this book seems to indicate that it has --hrrst-- abilities in regard to showing the past, though I am disinclined to believe this."

"Why?"

A single mandible twitched imperiously. "Such things are not possible, Doctor. Surely you know this?"

He smiled without showing any teeth. Rose knew that smile. That was the one you kept your eyes peeled for.

"You must've thought it did something, to keep it away from Horten."

Ragusa's bottom set of claws started to move in a strange and unsettling manner; it took Rose a moment to realize she was somehow crossing her arms. The top pair of claws still floated tensely by her sides.

"I 'kept it away' from Horten for the simple reason that he was interfering with its being catalogued. And after Lyn and Grimwade voiced their concerns to me in regard to -- hrrst -- the Book's power output, I decided that it was too dangerous to allow unauthorized persons access to it, supposed temporal abilities or not."

"What if it could show you the past?"

"Hrrst. Then Horten would've grafted it onto his skin."

The Doctor smiled that worrying smile, again. Rose felt herself bracing for . . . well, something.

"And what if it could show you the future?"

Ragusa's bottom two arms unfolded. "Impossible. The future is a fluid entity; there are no set events."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," the Doctor drawled. "For the sake of argument, Director, if the world ends tomorrow, what would you do about it?"

The giant blinked slowly. "Hrrst?"

"Let me put it this way: what do you love more than anything else in this world?"

Ragusa seemed momentarily taken aback. One of the mandibles arched slowly over the lower two, as though uncertain.

The Doctor merely stood, calm, unfazed.

"Only one thing?" Ragusa's voice sounded almost confused, then rapidly slid back into its normal irritated rasp. "There is no one thing. My work -- my finished work. Efficiency. Things that function properly."

"What about your family? Friends?"

"Where are you going with this line of questioning, Doctor?"

"The world's burning. You're an Archivist. You can save one thing from the fire, Ragusa. What is it?"

The mandibles clacked in irritation. "This is ridiculous --"

"One thing."

"I don't -- "

"One thing."

"You're asking two different questions --"

"One thing from the fire."

"They are mutually exclusive -- "

His voice was suddenly ruthless, cold. "Fire's here. What do you save?"

"I -- "

"Well?"

Ragusa lurched as though his words had been blows, spines rippling in agitation. "I -- I do not know."

Rose's breath couldn't move past her throat.

"Not good enough," the Doctor said, still terrible, still inexorable. "You're losing everything you've ever had. Everything you could have had. Everything you are. Everything you were. If you don't make a choice and soon, the fire won't leave anything. Time's running out. Everything's going up in flames.

"What do you save?"

"I -- "

"Now."

"Nothing!" the creature hissed, a claw raised in front of her head as though shielding herself from his tone.

The Doctor slowly rocked back on his heels, his look ossifying into something unreadable. Rose's veins had winter in them.

Ragusa slowly lowered her arm, staring at the Time Lord with a mixture of loathing and fear. "Well? Was that the answer you were looking for? Was that what you wanted to hear?"

"Not really," he responded.

Rose slowly let her breath out. Ragusa seemed to be doing the same, though how the alien managed that was beyond her.

"Then what -- "

"See, it's a tricky answer," the Doctor said, swiveling on his heel slightly. "A psychopath might answer like that. Then again, you might just be a nihilist. Of course, your average Buddhist monk on the street would probably answer the same." He looked calm, but Rose could see that the hands in those jacket pockets were balled into fists.

She had to interject. "Well, yeah; but if you give them the Spanish Inquisition like that , anyone'll talk."

He turned to her, tapping the side of his nose. "But what would they say, Rose; what would they say . . "

"Whatever you want, if you pull that head games stuff."

The Doctor shook his head. "Missing the point. Philosophical outlooks on existence. Worldviews influence reactions, and vice versa."

"That is so much crap."

He merely pivoted back to Ragusa. "You don't think you're doing anything useful here at the Library?"

She merely glowered.

His voice dropped, grew quieter. "There aren't many of you left, are there?"

Ragusa's mandibles twitched convulsively. "Hrrst?"

"Your lot. Archivists. Rest of the Empire all gearing up for the new technology; a chicken in every pot and a hole in every head. You're a gatekeeper to a world of information. Like you said, you 'put things in order'. But if everyone and anyone's a gatekeeper, what does that matter? All your systems and structures and procedures, poof, like that. Microfiles and digital archives chucked in a bin where no one's ever going to call them up. Just because some silly monkeys opt for trepanation instead of actually learning the Dewey Decimal System."

She seemed dazed. "The . . . what?"

"Doesn't matter. Point is, Ragusa, you care about your work more than anything else?"

"I . . yes."

"But you wouldn't save it from extinction?"

Her voice had a rattle in it that had nothing to do with her being alien. Rose heard despairing resignation. "From extinction? . . Time is inexorable. There is nothing -- hrrst -- that will not one day be outdated. For . . . for years I have known this. We cannot -- hrrst -- resurrect the dead. We merely clean their graves." She slumped forward, defeated.

The Doctor, still pivoting, half-turned away from both the alien and the human girl, presenting them with the back of his jacket. Neither could see his face. Rose needed to see his face. "And you're hating it."

"Feelings are not important. The work goes on. Better -- hrrst -- better an ordered grave than an open one. I would rather have it said we left the database intact rather than cast it to the winds."

"Posterity and all that."

Ragusa merely shook her head. For all that she still looked like something Gieger had dreamt up after a bad Mardi Gras, Rose suddenly felt horrible for her. "This is no country for old men."

"Maybe. Never saw the appeal of mechanical nightingales, though . ." The Doctor winced again, as though something was giving him a headache. "Brings me back to my original question. Maxwell Horten. One thing from the fire. What does he save?"

"Do you really need me to tell you this?"

Tight-lipped smile. "For the sake of argument, Director, please."

She stared at him, black eyes glinting. "Alezhandria."

He nodded curtly. "Right. Thanks for your time; we'll just be off, then. Rose?" He made a sideways motion of his head. "Up for some more duct spelunking?"

"That a rhetorical question? Only you've been so big on those, lately -- " She tapped the door. "Can't you just unlock it?"

"No point. What we want's up here. And this time, I know where we're going."

Rose found herself wishing for a pitchfork. "Oh. Great. Well, what about -- " she made a vague gesture at the silent alien, then bit the bullet, "What about her?"

The Doctor turned back to the Archivist. "The guards outside are dreaming of electric sheep. If you still want to wait for your lawyer, you can stick about, but I don't think anyone's coming. Figure you could handle a puny door pretty well." He commandeered the battered desk from the northeast corner of the room and dragged it underneath the room's ventilation shaft.

Ragusa watched them clamber over the desk in bemused silence, speaking only when the Doctor reached the vent. "And you, Doctor?"

He ducked his head back down. "Yeah?"

Her voice managed to be blunt and sharp at the same time. "The fire. Hrrst. What do you save?"

Of course, he didn't answer.







Facts.

Entrails, sonic screwdrivers, Gallifreyan artifacts. All in the same place. Convergences. Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, thrice is design. Except when it isn't.

TARDIS bits gone missing. Service ducts. Grid Room. Robots? Think. Think.

"Doctor, what was all that about?"

"I'll explain later." Stabbing light behind the eye just there. Definitely getting closer. He was glad he'd memorized the service duct readout in the Grid Room, though the scuffmarks and occasional red squiggle indicated that the Easter Bunny had been through here at least once before.

Behind him, a long sigh. "Say that a lot, don't you?"

"I mean it," he lied. "Explanations once we're home and dry. But, in case you didn't get a whiff, the ol' jacket's still damp, so just hang on."

A pause, and then, in a lower voice: "I trust you, you know."

Oh. She just had to say that. Now it was the Doctor's turn to sigh, a long, gusty sound that momentarily startled him.

Rose thought she trusted him. But what did she know about who he was? All she knew was what he'd told her; what he'd shown her of his life and methods and behavior and frankly, it wasn't the way it had always been.

She only knows what she's told. Poor, brave, lucky Rose.

Oh, hell.

"I'm the last Time Lord."

He didn't owe them anything, least of all the truth. Especially the truth about this.

"The Matrix extrapolates data from the living minds of Time Lords."

But then, she'd learn sooner or later. There would be a day when she wouldn't just follow him into ducts, when she wouldn't storm the gates looking for him, when she wouldn't face off with giant crustaceans to keep him safe.

There'd be a day when the penny dropped and she grasped the full enormity of the Time War, not seeing it as some piddling skirmish with pepperpots but as a jagged wound in reality that could never, ever be repaired or unmade, with him as the architect of ruin, he the all-consuming fire --

Let her hear at least some of the truth from him before the Universe shoved the worst bits in her face.

"And because there's only me now, all it's got left to show is what's in my head."

It took her a moment to grasp the full implication of this. "So . . oh, god. Anyone who gets it, they can see inside your --"

"Just so you know, all those other problems I mentioned before, the energy output and -- "

"But still -- "

He closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very, very old. "Yeah. Still. Lot of history in this old thing." He did not add, and so much of it turned out not to be real, after all. "Lots of technical information. Secrets I was supposed to keep. Stuff no one should ever get their mitts on."

"So . . . " Rose's face was screwed up in concern. "Someone's got all your know-how and is tryin' to use the Book for something?"

"That's my guess, yeah."

She let out a long, low, shuddering breath. "Great. Is it these Rutans?"

He shook his head, trying to clear some of the noises out. "Nope."

"And not whatserface."

Well, at least she'd stopped calling her 'that thing.' "Ragusa? -- No. Whatever else she is, she isn't our murderer. Or our thief. I've got some pretty nasty suspicions, but --"

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm --

Through the blinding burst of white, her voice. "Doctor? What's wrong?"

The Doctor exhaled, letting his head fall back and hit the wall. "The Book's awake."

"You're talking like it's alive."

"Undead, more like. But it's sending out signals. Trying to find me." He sighed again, this time sharply. "And it'll gut my mind and open the core of the TARDIS and probably warp the fabric of reality nine ways from sideways."

Rose's mouth moved up and down, calling to mind a particularly confused goldfish. "What? Why?"

He looked her in the eye, trying to remember how he'd been able to do the one look that made people's insides liquify and their propensity for asking involving questions fade. But the voices, dead voices were too loud, and her face too worried, and the slivers of brown fighting with the grey of her irises reminded him of the way the shattered remains of Earth had drifted across the surface of the Sun --

fire laps at the corners of his vision. the storm spares nothing --

He took a deep breath. "It was the original basis for the Matrix, yeah? Only, no one cut it off from the source like they were supposed to. And now it's reverting to form. Trying to rebuild it. And again, it's only got my memories to go on." Involuntary shuddering of his hand was due only to his leaning on it; he shifted to his elbow. "It'll absorb me. I'm linked to the TARDIS, so she'll get sucked in as well, and -- well. There was a reason the Book wasn't a coffee table edition . . . "

"And you can't stop it?"

"Not indefinitely. If my people were still around -- "

He didn't know he'd choke on the words, but grimly stumbled through the rest of the sentence. "If they were still around, there'd be a counterbalance. We -- they'd have been able to diffuse and disperse the Book properly. But the equation's imbalanced."

Her hand was in his. Odd, that. Normally he noticed that sort of thing straight off the bat. "So how do we get it right, then?"

He shook his head. "Dunno. Was going to figure it out once we'd gotten out of here, but if the TARDIS isn't working by the time the Rutans get here -- "

he tries to explain that there was no choice, but the sigil looms--




"sskkttttttttt -- Vetch? You gettin' -- sskkkkkkkkkkkccchchchhhh"

Vetch started, staring guiltily back up at the holoscreens in front of him. "Mmmph! What? Sorry?"

"ccckkkk -- I said, can you hear me? You're starting to break up; must be some kinda interference --"

The intern considered this. "Oh. Right. But you're moving away from th' Grid Room, so . . ." He let his voice trail off. Harkness had wanted him to look for something, hadn't he? Someone? He was normally so good with directions; but for some reason it felt as though his brain had been removed from the rest of him and wrapped in muslin and placed on a high shelf and allowed to gather dust and then nibbled by mice --

"ggrrrrhhhhhhcccckkkkkkkkkkk --"

"Uh," Vetch faltered, "you're breaking up."

"sskkkktttttttt -- voices? 'Cause it sounds like -- ggrrrrccchhhkkkkktttt"

Vetch blinked, wondering why two of the robots guards were lying down over on Visiscreen 188. "Sorry, what were you saying?"

"rrrccchhhhkkkktttttt -- er mind. There's something here -- ssskkkkkkkkkkccchchchcchchhh"

Terrible visions of distended viscera danced in Vetch's head. "What? Oh no. Is it -- "

"skkkkttttttttttt -- looks like a book? Hang on -- ssssskkkkkccchchchchccchhhhhhhhhhttttttt"

Vetch waited for the better part of ten minutes before it occurred to him that maybe Jack wasn't going to be calling back.




Back to index


Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen: Adult Section

Author's Notes: Thanks to: wmr, dark_aegis, nostalgia, ponygirl, Emery_Board, aervir, and a bunch of others I've momentarily forgotten to name for writing sufficiently kickass fic that I got off my o'erworked duff and wrote again.
And thanks to elbales, because she is nice.




She should've realized that something was wrong when he stopped moving and she ran face-first into him.

There were some words and phrases that the TARDIS's linguistic processing circuits never bothered translating. Presumably that was because she really, really didn't need to know what the Doctor was saying right now.

Jack looked . . .

. . . gone. Off. His eyes were half-open, occasionally fluttering as though he was tracking something. She touched the side of his face and was terrified at how cold the side of his cheek felt against her palm.

The air conditioning kicked back into action right about then, explaining at least part of the reason for the chill, but it wasn't much of a relief.

"Rose." This much she understood.

She swallowed. "Yeah?"

He exhaled slowly, his breath clouding in the air. "You still trust me? Still want to help?"

"Yeah."

The Doctor passed her the bundled jacket. "Here. Take the Book. Whatever else happens, don't touch it. Matter of fact, don't let anyone touch it."

Rose took the bundle reluctantly, noting how stiff and forced the Doctor's motions seemed all of a sudden. "Okay, and I do what with it?"

"Hide it. Keep it well away from the TARDIS and the main grid room."

"What . . " Rose forced her voice to sound level. "What's the matter with Jack?"

The Doctor fixed her with a long, dead stare. "He's been absorbed by the Book."

"I thought you said only Time Lords could access that, though."

He shook his head, the flat look never breaking with her own gaze. "Rose. This thing's been accessed before, probably by our thief. My presence is making it worse, making it unstable. If I get in now, I might be able to scrape Jack loose before it's too late."

Rose's jaw didn't seem attached to the rest of her skull. "But . . . wait. What?"

"No time," he responded, grimly. "Hide the Book. Cover your tracks. Don't talk to anyone. Get to the TARDIS and hole up until we get back."

"I should stay with you -- "

"Would you just once do as I ask?"

His tone hurt. Rose flinched.

"You asked me if I'd do the same for Jack, right? Rescuing him? Now you know."

"But -- "

"Now, Rose. Please."

Her mouth opened and shut a few stupid times before she mumbled, "Be careful."

"Too late," he responded grimly, and the dead look went deader.






the void is cold --

white light seeping into his mind, filling the cracks and crevices with the songs of lost time. he struggles but the horizon opens and folds around him, embracing the last orphan of a dead world

Grey pebble beach, sky overhead guttering with burning afterimages. "Jack!"

it holds him close and whispers promises it doesn't know it can't deliver; it forces him to the ground and rakes its claws across his soul, singing over his screams

"Jack!"

but along the periphery of the sky-that-is-not-sky the math changes, the scissoring mandelbrot fields of white darkening with uncertainty

"JACK!!"

and now it knows.

and now it knows why its promises are impossible; now it knows that it serves a vacant throne --

"Ja -- "

"Doctor?!"

Grey pebble beach. No ocean, but something roared --

"Doctor!"

And then, quiet.

He risked a glance upwards. The sky-that-was-not-sky was silent, now, looping its bright spindles over and over again.

It was thinking. Assessing the new information. When it finally came to a conclusion --

"Where the hell are we?"

He turned. Jack Harkness stood next to him, smug face now refreshingly haggard and drawn. That alone kept the Doctor from throttling him there and then and leaving him on the grey stones.

Well, that and the fact that the sky seemed to be momentarily still.

"No time," he rasped. "Follow my lead. We're getting out of here."






Fumbling with the unwieldy bundle, thumping around in a huge network of metal passages and getting lost every two minutes was making Rose feel like the unluckiest bug to ever get dropped into M.C. Escher's ant farm.

The fact she was now effectively alone was that much worse.

All right. What would the Doctor do?

-- Oh, brilliant. She already knew what he'd done, the stupid -- Fine. What about Jack? Jack would . . . what would he do? Go in with a blaster and demand answers, or just tell the local authorities what nice eyes they had?

She couldn't even go to the authorities, could she? They'd remember her from the other day when she and Jack had tried to fob them off with the psychic paper, prior to running off like a pair of juvenile delinquents who'd been caught nicking from the till. Great plan that had been. Hers.

Rose bit her lip. This did not actually make her feel better.

Assets. The Doctor was always making her list assets. What do we know, what have we got, has anyone seen my sandwich, I just put it down --

All right. Rose Tyler. Age 19. Ex-shopgirl, no A-Levels, knows how to spell "TARDIS" and remembers at least four of the words it describes. Good with climbing ropes. Assistant to the alien who routinely saves the world; nearly destroyed it herself on two occasions --

She was starting to get the decidedly unwelcome suspicion that she was more than a bit useless.

But wasn't that just the charm of traveling with the Doctor? That everything was always done for you? That there'd always be a nice prosaic explanation once all the running and screaming was done with, and when you were all laughing over chips?

Was it too much to ask for a big flashing sign every now and then?

Furiously Rose gripped the coat, remembering that she wasn't supposed to touch the contents directly. For all the Doctor's skittishness about the Book, the little she'd seen of it hadn't been that impressive -- except now her head felt a bit funny, like something was pressing against the side of her skull. Once or twice she thought she heard voices . . .

She wasn't that clever after all, was she? Good for bantering and not much else. Here she was, trying to figure out how to hide a bloody book while Jack was lying back there like a puppet with the strings cut and the Doctor was getting his brain written over by the very same bloody book and she couldn't do anything meaningful to help, and was currently lost --

Rose choked back a sob, gripping the edges of the jacket. I will not be useless. I will not be useless.

At least, not anymore.


Red squiggle on the side of the duct. Grid Room was ten minutes away from here, and the Doctor had said to keep the Book away from there, but on the other hand --

Rose carefully deposited the jacket in the same place where the Doctor had dumped the Codex not half an hour before. The Grid Room had that scanning system that he'd been looking through; if she could use it to find a better hiding place and keep an eye out for anything weird --

'Weird' being a relative turn, what with your two best mates getting lobotomized by a living book.





"Okay," said Jack, "so you're a bit upset -- "

"'A bit', he says. 'A bit'. Yeah, Flyboy; I'm upset. More than 'a bit', too."

"And you're well within your rights -- "

"Damn straight I'm well within my rights. Not that you know what my rights even are. See my hand, down here? -- That's you, on the subject of my rights. See my other hand? the one up here? -- That's the pinnacle of ultimate comprehension on the subject of the Doctor's rights, with special emphasis on the field of entitlement pertaining to anger generated by time-slumming confidence tricksters with more teeth than brain cells movin' my TARDIS around like a drunken car-park attendant who's nicked the keys to -- "

"Like I said, upset."

The Doctor grinned. It was not one of his more pleasant grins. It was actually a holdover from the last body, a mannerism that he'd picked up towards the end of -- the end of the conflict that he was resolutely and steadfastly not thinking about -- when the defeats kept mounting and the casualties increased just as rapidly and as he found himself resorting to actions he'd have decried with all his strength only a few decades back just to keep the players on the field --

"Like you said, upset," he said through his teeth.

"But you won't just tell me where we are?"

The Doctor fixed his gaze on the endless grey horizon. He'd been looking for a black rock for ages now, but for whatever reason it wasn't turning up. Overhead, the sky boiled in its furious attempt to come to terms with the outside universe. As respites go, it wasn't that reassuring . . .

"No."

"Aw, c'mon; don't I deserve a little -- "

"Save it for Rose, Captain. If we get out of here, and yes, that's a big 'if', I may just explain it all to you someday." Right before he stranded him in the Western Spiral Arm's equivalent of the Deep South.

"Look, one minute I'm crawling through the ducts looking for you idiots; next minute I'm stuck on the Planet of Infinite Rock Quarries. Last time something like this happened, they had to swap my liver out with a new tissue graft afterwards." He paused. "And they never did find the goat."

"What part of that was supposed to endear you to me, again?"

"Oh, trust me, I've just about given up on that ever happening."

"Good."

"Fine."

"Fantastic."

"Great."

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm

Buckling as his knees wouldn't support him, hands scraping the unreal stones. The Book had made up its mind.

And its mind was going to be made up of his.

Hands were on his shoulder, trying to shake him upright. "Way to trip."

The Doctor furiously tried to shake him away. "Didn't trip. Codex. Matrix. Voices . . . " His vision swam, blurring the grey landscape even further. White lightning seeped across the dome of the sky. Looking for them. Looking for him.

This time, he knew it wouldn't let him slip away.

"Jack." His voice caught in his throat, sounding like he was speaking around a fist.

The human's face was wary, but strangely vulnerable as he bent down beside him. "Yeah?"

This probably wouldn't work, but . . . "Memory. Your most vivid memory. Somethin' you remember in every detail. Somethin' you could describe backwards and forwards."

"Doc, are you -- "

He gripped him by the collar of his shirt. "D'you want to get out of here?"

Jack's eyes strayed to the seething sky, to the rocky ground. "Hell yes."

"Then concentrate. Every detail. Every possible detail."

voices, dead voices

"Concentrate
-- "



Mars, Bringer of War reclines on a bed of human skin, glancing with contempt at a lithe Apollo and a particularly impish Mercury cavorting with Dionysus and his rather comically exaggerated endowment.

As far as mosaics went, this was definitely not the kind that got center stage at the British Museum.

The Doctor stared at it, acutely aware of how his focus on the tiles shifted periodically, seeming rimmed with haze. Almost as though he was looking through someone else's memories . . .

He was uncomfortably aware of a general freeness around his nether regions, as well as an alarming lack of verticality. There was also an arm around his shoulder.

He turned his head to the side. Jack wasn't wearing much, either, other than a lazy grin.

"So. Galerius. Second thoughts on my offer?"

"I'm definitely reconsiderin' where I stand on the subject of your continued existence."

A crease appeared on Jack's otherwise smooth face. He looked slightly younger, the Doctor noticed, and his hairstyle was more closely-cropped.

"Sorry? I thought you were having a good time. It sure seemed to me like you were having a good time . . " Jack's fingers traced lazy circles on the Doctor's shoulder. A quick once-over indicated that it was not, in fact, the Doctor's shoulder, unless he'd developed two new moles without noticing.

"This is the Doctor speaking, you oversexed git."

Jack's faced creased even more, and then suddenly snapped back into the more familiar expression of alert derision that the Doctor knew and tolerated. "Whoops. Sorry. Thought you were -- "

"Yeah, I noticed," he responded, removing Jack's arm from his (now black-jacketed) shoulder. "Honestly. This is the one thing you remember best of all?"

Jack rubbed his face, seeming confused. " . . wait. What are we doing here? We . . we were in the quarry -- "

The Doctor sighed, getting out of the bed -- or rather, the smashed-together series of couches littered with cushions, half-full goblets and pliant, sleeping girls in various states of extreme undress. "No. We were in, and are in an artificially-maintained reality generated and maintained by my subconscious. That white stuff attacking the edges was the host program attempting to assimilate my brain into the neural architecture for a massive data transfer."

"Okay."

Say what you would about the debauched lout; at least he dealt with explanations better than Rose.

The Doctor sidestepped a puddle of what he hoped was just wine and moved around the room, grateful for the lack of noise in his head. Frescoes, flowers, a balcony -- He frowned, squinted off into the distance. "Hang on. This is Pompeii?"

"Yep. 48 hours before Volcano Day." Jack leant on the balustrade, turning his head towards a particularly mind-bending sunset. "God. This is one hell of a simulation; I can even taste the air . . "

The Doctor glanced down. "How about simulating some clothes?"

"What, you don't like the view?"

"Of Mount Vesuvius? -- Yes. Of Harkness Minor? Not much."

"Prude." Mercifully, the getup from before materialized. "There. Happy?"

"Hardly." The Doctor glanced out at the city, which reminded him uncomfortably of Alezhandria glowing in the late sun. This wasn't his day for doomed cities. "We need to get moving."

"Moving where?"

"Out of this simulation. Out of the Matrix."

"What, like those old Earth mov -- "

"No."



Vetch had heard nothing but static on the commlink for twenty minutes. Now that sobriety was slowly rearing its hoary head, he was starting to suspect that things were probably very, very complicated in the ducts and that Jack was no doubt devoting all his attention to saving the world or finding his coworkers or whatever the hell was going on anyway.

So when the blonde girl lurched out of the duct -- cursing and grunting loudly enough to drive the local Archivists to despair -- Vetch managed a sickly grin before realizing that this was probably going to be a problem.

"You. Show me how to work this thing."

Vetch blinked. "What?"

"These screen thingies. I need you to show me how they work."

"Are you Harkness's assistant?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah."

"He's looking for you, you know. Oh. You met up with him?"

The girl just stared at him for a long moment. "Sort of, yeah. Only I need to scope something out. D'you mind?"

Vetch found himself being forcibly nudged out of the way and desperately tried not to notice the parts of her that brushed against his chest. "I'm not, uh, quite sure you know how to work this properly, Miss . . . "

"Tyler. Rose Tyler. We met before, remember?" Her eyes flew over the screens, brow furrowed. "Easier than it looks. Now where did he . . . "

"Only," Vetch said, averting his eyes as she leaned further, "I'm supposed to be watching these screens for you and that other man; the Captain said it was important . . ."

"That's nice . . " she muttered, attention fixed on the screens.

Vetch swallowed. "He even gave me a commlink and everything."

"Really."

Despair clawed its way into his voice. "To be honest, I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing right now."

Tyler snorted. "You an' me both."

"Can I go now, you think? Or should I wait until he calls back?"

She sighed heavily. "I dunno if he'll be calling anytime soon." Her throat seemed to constrict slightly.

"Oh. Is there something wrong, then? Because," he added hastily, "I'm really not the one to talk to about this sort of problem. I'm really more of an, uh, Archivist-in-training."

"Yeah . . . " Her voice trailed off. Vetch didn't quite catch the irritated edge creeping into it.

"I mean, I drop things all the time. Well, I say all the time; not strictly true but I spill things a lot -- "

"Fine."

"And spilling's kind of like dropping, but more horizontal-ish. Though it does sort of fall down, too, so -- "

"Shut up," Tyler snapped. Her eyes were fixed on a screen in the bottom left-hand corner of the viewgrid. Visiscreen 188; the one with the two robots lying down outside WMR 6. "Waaaaaiiiit . . ." she drawled, tapping her chin, eyes flashing. "Now there's a thought . . . "

"They've been out for a while," he said, anxious to make amends. "I, uh, didn't see it happen, but -- "

"I was there," she responded, eyes narrowed. "Hang on. What's he doing back there?"

Vetch watched in some confusion, only just realizing that Archivist Horten was bent over one of the inert drones, frantically splicing exposed wires back together. "That's really not his department, is it?" he asked unsteadily, hoping to find common conversational ground and not to notice Tyler sinking against him. "I mean, he could get in trouble with that. Tampering with private . . . with police property. Right?"

"Yeah . . " she responded, watching intently. "His name's Horten, right?"

"Er. Yes."

The little man threw up his hands and pounded the side of the drone in frustration. He removed some sort of (oddly familiar?) device from his waistband and began tapping it, furiously.

Instantly, both drones lurched upright, bobbing like drunken balloons. Horten mouthed something terse at them and they followed him back down the corridor.

Before he had time to remark on this turn of events, Tyler was staring him in the face. "You. Track him. Don't let him out of your sight. I'll be back here in a bit; just keep your eye on him whatever happens. Got it?"

This was turning into the strangest maintenance problem Vetch had ever heard of. "All right?"

"Great. Thanks." Rose Tyler and her midriff clambered back into the duct, leaving Vetch alone with his hangover and a heightened sense of importance.

It took him several long moments to remember what he was supposed to be doing.






Rose adjusted the bundle neatly under her arm, gripping it as tightly as she dared, and quietly peered around the corner.

Nothing. Just an ordinary library-of-the-future corridor. Right.

She sank down onto the floor, legs aching. She knew now why the Doctor hadn't wanted to use the elevators; with the Book fluctuating like that, getting stuck in a lift was asking for trouble.

She still hated those stairs with an undying and eternal passion.

Her knees felt ready to fall off, but she slipped noiselessly down the hall and in front of the door that she and the Doctor had breezed through -- well, he had breezed through less than an hour beforehand.

It took all the strength she could muster to turn the handle.


Back to index


Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen: Historical Biographies, 920

Author's Notes: Ow.


Rose steadied herself.

For a moment, she almost thought that the room was empty, until -- in a manner quite unpleasantly reminiscent of a certain film she was not thinking about right now --

Something shifted. This something was shiny and yet somehow organic and much more familiar than Rose would've liked. The rattling of spines and a distinctive clacking punctuated the stillness.

I will not be useless I will not be useless I will not be useless --

Remember what the Doctor said. Remember what she said. Whatever else she is, she isn't a murderer.

No, just a huge, armor-plated librarian. Much better.

"Hi again," whispered Rose.

A low rattle.

"Listen," she said, trying to keep her voice steady, "I know I'm not your favorite person right now -- "

The rattle intensified.

"-- but I need your help. And the Doctor needs your help. And my friend Jack needs your help. And if we muck up, then this whole planet's in serious trouble."

The rattle stopped. "It is a moon."

"Moon, planet; whatever. It's screwed. This Book thing that the Doctor's worried about? . . It's going crazy, and I need to find these bits of our spaceship so's we can get it off Alezhandria before it . . before it . . ."

Explaining temporal anomalies is actually a lot harder than causing them, especially when your target audience is large and inhuman and has crossed the distance between the two of you in a single and disturbingly smooth motion and is looming over you with narrowed, insectile eyes.

"Hrrrst."

not useless not useless I am not Mickey I am not my mum --

"I . . . I know this sounds crazy to you. But you said it yourself; the Book's weird. It does things it shouldn't. The Doctor sorta explained it to me, only I don't know how to explain it to you. And yeah, I might've -- "

"You destroyed my office," the monster -- Ragusa interrupted.

"That was the Doctor --"

"Ah. Yes. Clearly an incentive to save his -- hrrst -- life." The mandibles contracted. "Whereas you merely damaged priceless and irreplaceable artifacts from ancient Earth history. Hrrst. I am in your debt."

Rose felt her terror rapidly dissolving into irritation. "You looked like you were eatin' the Doctor."

The mandibles closed in a gesture of something approaching contempt. "Hrrst. Your species depresses me unutterably."

"Yeah, well how was I s'posed to know you don't do that? I just get jerked around one place to the next, no real explanations while it's all happening, and the aliens I think are all right turn out to be killers and the ones that look like slashers are slashers or body thieves or whatever -- "

"Very much a product of the Fourth Great and -- hrrst -- Bountiful Human Empire, you," Ragusa observed dryly.

"I'm not -- " Rose started, and then remembered their stint on Satellite Five. Passing remarks about xenophobia and closed borders. The human race staying close to home instead of branching out. Even way out here by Thoth, distrust of aliens seemed to be the status quo.

And yes, Ragusa was hideous and creepy and smelled like a fishmonger's, but Rose was supposed to be better than this.

Well, to try, anyway.

"No," she insisted, "I'm not. Which is why I'm here now. You work here, right? You know how this place works. You're not a killer; you said that and I believe you, at least. And you didn't steal the book, and you know who everyone is here. And you're probably the only person I could trust who isn't completely stupid."

"Hrrst. 'Not completely stupid.' Truly, had I a heart, it would be melting." How the metallic voice managed to be sarcastic, Rose didn't know.

"Yeah, well, I need your help. And maybe you don't have to say yes, and you don't have to like me, and yeah, I already owe you a bundle, but what I said before is true." She took a deep breath. "Please? Director?"

Silence. She forced herself to look up into those pitiless black eyes. Forced herself to watch her own reflection in that stare that almost didn't seem alive, seemed like every screen and every mindless bug stare that had made her flinch at the field trips to the science museum and made her turn away from lobster tanks; dear God how can anything that looks like that and looks like that be alive in the same way that everything else is alive --

"Would it be too much to assume you -- hrrst -- actually have a plan?"




"Would it be too much to assume that you actually have a plan?"

The Doctor scowled. "We're mucking about in your subconscious, Space Chief. You want to show me an exit, you go right ahead."

Pompeii glistened in the unreal and shifting light of Jack's remembrance. People with shifting faces and half-heard voices stuttered past them like television ghosts. Jack's memory was actually surprisingly good -- for a human -- for a human with two years of his life missing -- but the Matrix was designed around the infinitely more complex mental processes of Time Lords, capable of providing and processing data on a far more sophisticated level than the Captain's.

They both stopped and stared at a dog loping around with no hindquarters. As it passed Jack, the rear half slowly materialized, albeit with noticeable haze around the offending area.

"Weird simulation you've got going on here."

"It's not geared towards humans. I only ducked us into here as a diversion." The Doctor reflexively glanced at the sky. The mother, father and illegitimate child of all Technicolor sunsets was erupting across it, but there was a slight ripple over the arc of the horizon. It might've just been a glitch in Jack's memory, or an imperfect little subroutine getting out of control . . .

"Yeah well, as diversions go, this one's throwing me off my game," the human muttered. "Not really sure where you want us to go, and I'm assuming -- again -- that you've got someplace in mind -- "

"An exit. A conspicuous and obvious exit."

"Clarification, please?"

The Doctor sighed, scowling at two bickering children without heads who were throwing pebbles at each other for no readily apparent reason. "Liminal spaces. Transitional points. The Matrix derives a big chunk of its interface from a general sort of collective unconscious; chances are it'll have reconfigured itself around what's in your head." He did not add, assuming it bothered to put in an exit at all.

"Okay, and we couldn't do this on your great beachfront property because -- "

"Because there wasn't anything left. The Book's cut me off; it wants to keep me in its system until it can get into my system. I got trapped in it earlier, but managed to get out through an old passage I knew about -- "

" -- which I'm guessing it knows about now and isn't gonna let you just waltz out the same way. Though, I don't really see why . . . " Jack's voice trailed off. The Doctor glanced once more at the sky, thinking he saw a flicker of white ripple across its surface. Ominous.

"God . . . "

The Doctor turned questioningly back to Jack, who had stopped in mid-stride. The look on his face was indescribable.

He was watching a woman with a child in tow walking past. She was obviously a house slave on a shopping errand and the boy her charge, but there was a look of dreamy content and general peace on her otherwise plain face that elevated it to the level of almost statuesque beauty. The child was laughing and tugging at her hand, making up some sort of nonsense song and jumping every third step. Dust curled up around his sandaled feet.

They were the only truly coherent and fully-formed things in this world, and reality seemed to shiver as they passed.

The Doctor glanced at Jack, who looked stricken. "You know them?"

Blinking, Jack shook his head. " . . No. Only ever saw them this once. But," and suddenly he slumped against the half-formed corner of an indistinct building, looking tired, "I remember just wondering why the kid was so happy, and why she looked so . . I don't know, sweet. Like, if it was just a good day for them both, or what."

The Doctor watched the two figures trail off, noticing that they didn't fade or become indistinct like the rest of the shadow-figures. "And did you follow them?"

Jack seemed to take a moment to answer. "Yeah. I wondered if . . yeah, I followed them. They went to this estate with a big iron dog on the fencepost and I almost went in after them -- "

Grinning, the Doctor turned. "Well, then. Sounds liminal to me."






"I tire of these doors," grated Ragusa.

"I know, I know, I'm sorry -- "

"I was not -- hrrst -- built for this."

Rose squeezed in ahead of the giant crustacean, wedging the swinging doors open as best she could. "Oof. Why're all these things still push-and-turn? I thought the future was supposed to be automated?"

Ragusa gave her a long, irritated look. "Hrrst? The future? Idiot child. Automation is expensive. We have no money."

"Yeah, but it's a bit low-tech -- "

"Hrrst. We have almost 10,000 rooms in the Library. Automating even half of these is an exercise in futility."

Like looking after a library no one's ever going to use? Rose did not say.

Ragusa's knowledge of the inner workings of the Archives was proving useful. She knew alternate routes that only briefly cut past the monitoring systems, although being so large and obvious Rose expected that her image would linger all the same. She hoped What's-His-Face was still manning the console.

As far as company went, though, Ragusa was a bit dire. She had no obvious sense of humor, very little patience for Rose's foibles and a general contempt for their mission, which Rose suspected was being undertaken just to spite that Horten character. They were currently moving towards his office.

His real office. As the Doctor had noted, it wasn't where he said it should've been. Rose was beginning to have large glaring suspicions, which knowing her luck meant that she would turn out to be completely wrong and the problem would be infinitely more complex and far worse and only the Doctor could make it right but the Doctor wasn't here he was just gone --

NOT useless.

Eyes open. Observations. Assets. It's all here; you just have to ask questions.

She observed the corridor that they were moving through. Several Archivists were there, nodding respectfully to Ragusa as they passed. Most of them only gave her a cursory glance before going back to their work.

Okay. She'd been arrested, right? Blamed for those guts or whatever falling out of the ducts? So the police should've been called. This should've been all over the airwaves by now. People should be gossiping in the halls, or at least running the hell away from her.

Rose really wished she still had the blue globe. It had been broken when she'd scraped it off the floor; apparently Horten didn't think it was supposed to be by the drones. It would've been nice to check her hunch.

So. No one knows about the guts. Or only a few people know. Horten's one of them. -- Except there were police robots, same as the ones she and Jack had seen at the station.

"Does this Horten guy have ties to the police?" she asked Ragusa.

"Hrrst. Unlikely."

Okay, there went that lead. Probably.

Why had there been guts in the shaft? And why had the Doctor's screwdriver been there, and the Book too? Had someone been using the screwdriver to get at the Book? Or did it have a sonic setting for 'eviscerate'? -- No, not likely. Did someone use the screwdriver to get into the ducts? Was that why it all fell apart like that, because it hadn't been put together properly? Was any of this even important?

Out of your depth. Even the Doctor was -- is -- flummoxed by that one. Back to what you know.

The Book. The Doctor was being cagey about it. He'd said something about it being able to show the future as well as the past to Ragusa when he'd been playing Twenty Questions, and then in the ducts he'd said that thing about it showing the insides of his mind. And apparently someone had been able to use the Book before all this had happened. And maybe that Archivist that got killed and the two that went missing had something to do with it. And the Doctor had been framed for the murder of the one, and arrested by police drones. Police drones who were supposed to report in to the station but crashed so that Horten could rescue him.

Why the hell am I doing this? I always lose at Cluedo.

"Hrrst. We are here."

Rose blinked, jostled out of her thoughts. "Blimey, that was quick -- " She paused, frowning as a thought occurred to her. "Hang on. Aren't we close to the Grid Room?"

"Yes. Horten -- hrrst -- is located three floors above the ground level, but it is in the vicinity."

And our mystery rabbit knows enough to keep that thing away from the main computer system . .

She took a deep breath. The door was neat and exact and trimmed with brass and anything other than the door of the squalid little room in the basement with the dusty sofa.

"Okay. D'you know the password or anything?" She gestured at the keypad. Apparently the future that couldn't afford automated doors could still scrape up enough for computer pads. Stupid future.

"Hrrst. No."

Rose stepped aside. "Okay, then. Break 'er down."

There was a long and pointed silence. "I beg your pardon?"

"The door. Break it down. You're strong, right? Claws like that?" Rose carefully stepped a few inches back from one of the twitching extremities in question.

"And therefore it follows that I know -- hrrst -- all about breaking down doors?"

Rose sighed tersely. "You can't just thump it a few times?"

"What do I know about knocking down doors? You act as though -- hrrst -- this was something I was trained for." Ragusa's mandibles stabbed downwards to punctuate each irritated word. "Hrrst. And if Horten is on the other side, I will hardly be in a position to defend my actions to the authorities."

She bit her lip. "But the authorities aren't coming, Director. And I bet he knows why." She tried a different tack. "Besides, isn't it about time his office had a mess in it?"

Rose wasn't sure exactly why that seemed to galvanize Ragusa, but the alien started laying into the fiberglass with rather alarming gusto.





The Doctor was beginning to feel slightly paranoid.

The problem with tailing people, even if they weren't aware of you or even, strictly speaking, real is that it tends to make one feel as though one is being tailed oneself.

The fact that the streets were slowly solidifying as the result of Jack's memories becoming more focused should've helped to counterbalance this, but for some reason it just made everything worse. Like the world was getting locked down, with no wiggle space to get clear of anything that this reality decided to throw at them.

Jack was eerily silent, his garrulous banter having trickled to nothing after seeing the slave girl and the child. Other pedestrians were whittled away to vague grey shapes passing by -- decidedly jarring given that their surroundings were now so clearly-defined.

He'd go mad if he had to put up with the silence. It was better than the -- the voices, but with all he'd been through just today alone, his surrealism meter was barely holding at a 9. And he had a hell of a tolerance for that sort of thing, too.

"You all right?" Never mind that if he wasn't he probably deserved it.

"Yeah," Jack said, absently.

"How much further?"

"Couple more streets." The child tugged at the girl's hand, demanding to be picked up. She responded in the low and entirely too reasonable voice used for dealing with children who should know better and he dragged his heels in the dirt for a few sulky steps before catching up with her five skips later, reaching for her hand again.

Very simple. Very commonplace. Very domestic. Given the logic of how memories like that worked, there was a slavering monster due any second now. Or maybe that was just his paranoia working overtime.

"Something happen to them, then?"

Jack snorted. "Vesuvius happens to them. Same with everyone back in the party room." His eyes, the Doctor noticed, were not actually on the boy and his keeper, but on the distant horizon. He was steadfastly avoiding looking at anything here.

The Doctor felt the urgent need to change the subject. "How many 'self-cleaners' did you run here?"

"This gonna be the 'don't ever cross your own timeline' lecture? -- 'Cause we got that five times a week back at the Academy. I diverted a lot of my cons this way, but that was quick work. Plunk it down in front of a lava flow, chuck it in the mouth; easy when you have a ship that runs cloaked. Dash in, dash out, keep notes of when you arrived and make sure you don't show up twice. Child's play." His tone was hardly self-congratulatory.

"But you know this place pretty well," the Doctor observed, probing the wound.

Jack shrugged. "Figured I ought to see what the locals were like at least once. I had time to kill before the latest con, owing to my ship needing to power down for a few days, so I brushed up on the local dialect and spent a month here."

"A whole month?"

"A whole month."

"Mistake."

Jack's face was lined and bitter. "No kidding."

The girl paused to adjust the basket she was carrying on her shoulder, the child laughing at something she said to him in that same low undertone.

"Kind of hard for me to come back after that."

The Doctor wasn't enjoying this line of conversation. He owed nothing to Jack; quite the reverse. If the Captain wanted to spill his heart out, he could just wait for Rose to lap it all up --

Jack didn't say anything else. He was just following the pair with a sort of stoic dejectedness that was unpleasantly familiar.

Oh, hell. "Expect it was hard, knowing what would happen."

"Not at first. History's what happens to other people, you know?" He laughed slightly. "And then the names, and the faces, and the voices and eating habits and speech patterns and everything start piling up and you just get stuck in it all anyway." He looked as though he'd meant to shrug, but then gave up on the motion and straightened. "That was what I was trying to do, back there. This man I met, Galerius? -- Nice guy. Not too good in the sack; great conversationalist though. Local artisan, worked on a lot of the mosaics around here . . ."

Were those voices in the air? "You don't say."

"Good stuff. Not much of it survived, though; not his work, anyway . . . yeah. I was trying to get him and the others to leave Pompeii. Said we should all go into the countryside for a few days, get some good clean air or whatever."

"No luck, huh."

"History says he didn't survive," Jack said darkly, "and who am I to argue with history?"

Eloquence escaped him sometimes. "History's a bitch."

The boy stopped to pick up a pebble on the road. The girl waited patiently for him to pry it out of the dust before taking his hand again.

"We're almost there," Jack stated. "I hope you're right about this."

That makes two of us. The sky looked a little too blank at the moment.

They turned an otherwise unremarkable corner to see a cool white house with a clean high wall lined with fir trees. The girl paused to adjust the basket again, drawing the boy closer to her. She half-turned, and everything stopped and it was just the two interlopers and the girl staring at each other across the endless gulf of time.

She had grey eyes, the Doctor noted.

Then she smiled, a strange, old smile for a face that young, and she turned and walked through the gate, vanishing completely behind the heavy oak doors. They shut with a surprisingly quiet creak.

The Doctor and Jack stood quietly, neither wishing to say the obvious and necessary thing. Finally, the Doctor ambled forwards, getting a good look at the gate. There was indeed an wrought-iron dog on the side of the wall, though it was sharply at odds with the quiet grace of the estate and its clean white lines. A closer inspection found two small human figures by its loins -- ah. Not a dog, after all.

He sensed Jack coming to stand next to him. A breeze moved through the trees; a sigh sounded from the other man and was lost as the wind died down. There may or may not have been voices.

"Ready?"

Jack exhaled through his nose. "Let's do this."

The Doctor slowly pushed on the door, feeling the hinges shuddering as it swung open and Hell unfolded before them.





Horten's office was contradictory at best. On one hand, it reflected the self-important pomposity that Ragusa had always despised in the little man; the penchant for useless relics and heirlooms that reinforced his inane preoccupation with the past. Grimwade had also come from a long and storied lineage of Alezhandrian pioneers, but he'd had the decency to be modest about it.

On the other hand, it was a librarian's office, and finding anything relevant to the idiot child's search was about as likely as unravelling the Gordian Knot after aging it in fine molasses.

There were at least seven safety violations in regard to placement of grid ports alone. She had written a tersely-worded memorandum that had gone around the department not six months before on the importance of keeping the ports spaced so as not to interfere with each others' digital compression processes, yet here were four just lumped together side-by-side.

She'd had to draw up a budget for replacing these things.

The idiot child was rifling through Horten's effects and blathering on about the importance of finding something related to either the Grid Room or the "TARDIS control system", whatever that was. The way the girl seemed to mangle pronunciations, there was no way of knowing what they were looking for. Ragusa was beginning to think that she was merely a petty thief intent on ransacking Horten's personal collection.

If that turned out to be the case, the Director would stop her. Eventually.

"It has to be here," the girl muttered. "Otherwise, what's goin' on?"

"What do these --hrrst-- components look like?"

"I dunno; loose wires. Circuitry or something." The girl bit her lip, a gesture that Ragusa knew indicated frustration and uncertainty.

"So we are effectively searching for objects whose appearance is -- hrrst -- uncertain. Are you at least aware of how many components there are?"

The girl -- Rose -- waved her hands in a gesture that Ragusa knew to indicate emotional turmoil and irritation. "Look, finding some sort of evidence is more important than what we do with it, all right?"

" 'Evidence?'"

Rose sighed, a gesture Ragusa knew had nothing to do with the actual processes of normal respiration. "Yeah. Someone's been runnin' stuff around in the ducts, like I said. Horten saved the Doctor -- least he said he did -- but that was when the missing bits went missing. We figured they were chucked out of his pockets onto the street or something, only -- "

This wasn't making sense. "Then what does Horten have to do with any of this?"

The human drummed her hands on a stack of data transfer cubes, glaring irritably at the ornate genealogical maps mounted behind Horten's desk. "Dunno. Only the more I think about it -- The screwdriver, the Doctor's sonic screwdriver; it's got to be way heavier than anything else he carries. Every time he gets knocked about or falls or somethin' it goes missing from his pocket and he has to tear up the floorboards to get it back, only without the screwdriver he can't get the grille up anyway . . " She seemed to sway at that, the muscles around her eyes tightening and loosening very slightly.

Dreading the prospect of resuming her role in the conversation, Ragusa looked off to the side. An ornate 68th-Century sendri hookah on a pedestal reflected her visage back to her.

There was no conceivable reason for a hookah to be in Horten's office, especially considering that he didn't smoke. Following the tried-and-tested methodology of all amateur detectives everywhere, Ragusa began to disassemble it.

"It's just . . ."

By the Goddess Antoori; was this human ever going to shut up? "What?"

The girl was pacing. "We found the Doctor's screwdriver in the vents above your office. Horten said it was lost; the Doctor told me he said that there wasn't anything in his pockets when he got saved or whatever." She scuffed the rug with her shoe. "So either he's lyin' and running about in the ducts, or someone swiped it off the Doctor without the drones or Horten or the Doctor noticin'."

"Hrrst."

"Was that a 'yes' or a 'no' or what?"

"Merely an observation. Continue."

Rose bit her lip again, crossing back to the desk and thumping the bundled-up leather jacket. Ragusa almost asked why the idiot child was carrying it everywhere instead of wearing it, but then again the human mind was full of mystery and counter-inuitive reason.

Humans had designed hookahs, after all. Judging by the look of things, this one had not been used for storage of any mysterious circuitry. Ragusa fastidiously reassembled the platinum-and-glass artifact with all due reverence for a genuine relic; out of deference for her lack of deference towards Horten, she dragged the ragged edge of a claw against the faceted glass, suppressing a slightly guilty thrill.

"So," the girl continued, "someone definitely wants the Book, someone might want the Doctor, or maybe just the TARDIS. Maybe they wanted to strand him here for somethin'; maybe they want his help or -- oh, this is STUPID!"

She kicked the side of the desk with sudden, vicious fury. "I can't DO this! I don't know what to do or where to look; I'm just guessin' while the Doctor . . while . . ."

Ragusa watched dispassionately as her companion broke down and leaked. After a long series of obnoxious sobs, she hazarded, "And why exactly --hrrst -- is the Grid Room important?"

Rose, bent over, seemed to make a half-hearted attempt at collecting herself. "Um. The Book. It mucks up the electrical system. You couldn't have it near the main grid or the power would go out all the time."

"It frequently does, or did for the longest time."

Rose's face was obscured by her long yellow mane, but Ragusa sensed some sort of change in demeanor nonetheless. "Hang on. Since when?"

"Hrrrst. The Book went missing seven months ago. This coincided with the worst of the outages."

"And you couldn't, like, figure out where the disturbance was coming from?"

"Hrrst. No. We would've needed our computers for that."

Rose seemed to be collecting herself. "And then it just stopped?"

Parts of Ragusa's mind felt themselves unwillingly retreading old steps. "Somewhat. There were residual flare-ups for some time; years of data were lost --"

"But nothin' really big?"

Ragusa felt momentarily uneasy. "Well . . . not as big, no -- "

"But what was it, then?"

"This may be constituted --hrrst -- random conjecture; it may not actually be related -- "

"Out with it."

"Hrrst. Two months following its theft, after -- hrrst -- after Archivist Lyn disclosed her report on the Book's energy signature, she . . . disappeared. This coincided with a massive blackout. When Patrick -- when Grimwade disappeared three months later, after -- hrrst -- confiding in me his suspicions in regard to the nature of the theft, another, smaller drain on the system occurred."

"And this latest one, the one that happened when the latest Archivist got zapped --"

Ragusa's mandibles snapped shut. The nerve. "Respect."

"Sorry. But the drain?"

"Even smaller, but a similar pattern; I assume -- hrrst -- that is your point."

Rose leaned against the side of the desk, fingers tightening reflexively. "So you figure there's a link?"

Ragusa rattled her spines in a single shake. "I merely assumed it was paranoia, seeing patterns in unrelated occurrences. Regardless of what you, your Doctor and Lyn have said, I see -- hrrst -- I see no reason to believe that the Book could generate that much power, much less leech it from other sources." She forced her unease down further. "Hrrst. And it would not explain their disappearance."

The child suddenly jumped onto the desk, disturbing several valuable manuscripts in the process. Ragusa tried valiantly to suppress an outburst. "Caution, girl."

Abruptly, Rose leapt back off the desk. "Vents. There aren't any vents in here."

"No. The insufferable fool has a separate climate control system, for his -- hrrst -- precious valuab --"

Rose waved her hands in a gesture meant to convey either distress or excitement. "No! No, don't you see? Easter Bunny can't get here, so he starts off in the basement. There's a room no one uses; got a nice big duct and a service ladder. You can hide the Book anywhere in the vents and get it well away from the Grid and if anyone comes looking for it in your office they won't get even a whiff of it -- "

Ragusa had no idea what any of this gibberish meant, but the human was starting to unnerve her. "What?"

She was pacing again. "Only, the rabbit's not so clever; keeps it around at first. But then he starts usin' the Book, and that mucks up everything, so -- but no, that bit doesn't -- oh Doctor, why don't you ever just bloody explain things when I ask?!" She kicked the desk in yet another furious gesture, then rounded on Ragusa.

The giant alien flinched at the sight of the flushed, intent face. Did humans have any idea how horrifying they looked? "Hrrst?"

"Don't you get it?" the girl hissed. "It almost makes sense!"

Ragusa was silent. There was no conceivable way in hell that she could be expected to say anything meaningful at a moment like this.

Human and cheliloricatus argos stood frozen for a moment in time, the only sound coming from the grinding of the overworked grid ports, the thrumming of Ragusa's internal processes, and the obnoxious drone of the cycloptic police robot now hovering in the ruined doorway.





Back to index


Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen: Unruly Patrons Will Be Asked To Leave

Author's Notes: Back in the saddle. This chapter dedicated to elbales, wmr, tempest and Emery Board for their helpful reviews, constructive criticism and patience. Also because they're probably the only four people still reading this beast at this point.






And this, then, could only be Hell.

And it is his.

Time screams.

Daleks have no prophets, no holy writs, hold nothing sacred but he can hear them skittering and stewing inside their carapaces, shrieking and wailing their curses on the Ka Faraq Gatri, the Destroyer of Worlds, as they burst like overripe melons in their superheated skins and no gods spare them from this god who unmakes Creation

the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm

the vortisaurs wail as the shadow-beings of the void cheat them of the feast, tearing them asunder in the frenzy over the twitching carcass of Time as her erstwhile Champion burns and burns and burns and

and he is the architect of ruin, he the all-consuming fire

atoms and molecules and quarks and quantum particles and dust and ashes scream and scream and burn

no

Eye of Harmony turned inward, blind, rupturing and unmaking the legacy he'd never claimed, the world abandoned in favor of the far horizon, the people so dead in life now horribly alive in their death screaming twisting screaming ten thousand minds howling into the dark and he can feel them he can feel them all

towers older than the human race crack and shatter orange sky belches fire and the flutterbys wilt on the wing fields and the moors and the cities and the houses and the Houses and

and

he

can't --






Maybe, Rose thought giddily, maybe it doesn't see us.

The monocycloptic red sensor flashed suddenly, the low grinding of its motors gearing into a high whine. Tentacles whipped out of the plated form, each grasping appendage bristling with things that looked like the unholy union of a personal taser and a cheese grater.

Crap.

"You figure it's got lasers or something?" she hissed at Ragusa.

Whatever the giant crustacean was about to respond with was lost in the sudden fffwhoomppp of one of the telescoping arms moving straight for --

Claw met tentacle, slamming it down inches from Rose's face. Ragusa's plated bulk filled her vision, a secondary arm thrusting her solidly behind the Director, and Rose staggered numbly away, the afterimage of the sparking taser still burned onto her retinas.

The drone -- alarmingly active compared to the lobotomized ones that had been swanning around earlier, she noted dazedly -- swiveled to regard Ragusa, who had now drawn herself up to full height, spines bristling, all four arms extended.

The Director's voice could've etched diamond. "Leave. NOW."

The red eye seemed to waver momentarily, as though taking in this new development. Rose wondered if robots could be intimidated.






"Jack!"

Cold.

He can't have been absorbed. Not part of the network, remote or otherwise. Can't be.

"Jack, can you hear me?"

The void is cold.

He was just here; they'd gone through the gate together -- no, it had enveloped them, meaning --

"JACK!"







The answer, apparently, was "no".

Whipquick, the remaining five tentacles shot at Ragusa. Blindingly fast, she shattered two in mid-flight but the remaining three found their marks, flashing white-hot as they touched chitin. She screamed and Rose screamed at the sound, high and inhuman and tortured and as bad as that lobster Mum dropped in the pot --

Ragusa rallied, yanking at the telescoping arms and managing to dislodge one of the sparking arms, only to have it slam back against the side of her head. The voltage intensified; spider arms flailed helplessly, the shrieking worse than ever, worse than the lobster or that rabbit or the Dalek --

Rose frantically tried to come up with a useful idea, and failed.






He is on a mountain that took forever to scale, an ascent made that much harder by having a heart (hearts) full of grievances. He is in a study lined with books and teacups and listening to the rattle of pages. He is in the Academy again and the subject of patient and loving abuse.

-- The hell?

You have to go back, you know.

Low and lecturing tones, all familiar and imperturbable and earnest and dead.

-- I don't. I got away. I have to get out, and I have to find --

This is the only thing it can throw in your path. It thinks that it has you, because it has that your moment of weakness. But you must not allow it to hold you.

-- What?

You cannot hide from ruin forever, Doctor. You must face your fires before they consume you from the inside out.

-- Who are you?

A part of you that didn't burn. A part that can hold back the fire but briefly.

-- four wizened Lords worn down by Time, ashes long before the birds broke and burned in flight --

There was a saying you were always so fond of --

-- the hermit on the high hill, the broken philosopher, the criminal with his tea trolley, the usurper of a nobler name --

Run.

Spurred on by the better singing-masters of his soul, he runs.







The red eye pulsed erratically as the drone's power supply fluctuated in an attempt to bring the Director to her knees. Knee-joints. Down. Bring her down.

Rose, hands shaking, watched Ragusa wrench herself back and forth in an increasingly weakened attempt at freeing herself, the uppermost set of claws twitching convulsively. It was killing her . .

"Oi, you!" she screamed, aware in spite of herself how shrill and trembling her voice sounded. "Stop it!"

The drone didn't seem to notice she'd spoken.

Backup plan. Backup plan. Right. Right. Right. What works? What would the Doctor do?

She bumped against the side of the hookah.







fire laps the corners of his --

-- This is not his vision, is not his fire, and the streets filling with ash and smoke and death are not ones he's burned. The man standing helplessly in the street like a dispossessed puppet stares at the smoldering mountain while the shade-people run and scream and die.

"JACK!"

The human's eyes are dark and wet.

"Jack. We're going."

The sky overhead burns white and the voices, dead voices sing louder --







The hookah clipped the side of the drone's main body, destabilizing it as it hovered. Gears ground and whined, the power surging to the tasers momentarily diverted to keep the 'bot floating. Ragusa sagged in the robotic embrace as the electricity ceased.

Rose gasped in relief, then abruptly realized that she hadn't actually damaged the drone and that any second now the situation would revert to abnormal.

Oh bloody wonderful; ever heard of the Rose Tyler method of throwing museum pieces at things to make them go away? Brilliant one you are, you stupid --

Quickly glancing about the room, her eyes alighted on the coat and she wondered --

Wait.







fire laps at the corners of his vision. the storm spares nothing --

"What the FUCK!?"

The mortal does not, cannot know this the stuff of legends, cannot know the nature of these fires and it suits the Doctor that this is so because it is his and he will give it to no one and betray no more ghosts --

The world he was made on dies in heat and riot while its would-be destroyers fall out of its fractured sky in wailing chunks of superheated metal. The white towers die last.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?!"

"The way out. Run!"

He drags the man behind him, hand clenched tightly. No one else lost to these fires.

"You said there was a door!"

"This is the door."

Something that he will not look at that wears what is not a face that he does not remember does not melt and shrivel by the side of the splintering road.

"What? How do we -- oh, god -- how do we --"

"We go through. Illusionary. Last line of defense!"

"Hell of a defense!"

Hell as a defense, he thinks. But if the real War didn't kill him, this one isn't going to either.

If it's just the one in his head, there's never going to be an escape from it, anyway.

He sees it; the last of the liminal spaces. Hidden in the one place he'd never dare go back to, but there all the same; the place from which he'd unleashed chaos --

and their bodies are there, twisted burnt black but features still there boiled eyes wide and accusing --

no

and if he doesn't move past them he will be trapped staring at them forever while Jack burns with him and Rose dies at the hands of Time and he is running now past his past and dragging Jack and the dead lurch towards them as they pass

and the Sigil, gleaming white against the Panopticon floor, burns ultraviolet --

"You with me?"

"Anything, just make it stop!"


he stops trying to explain, and the sigil looms--






Rose lunged at the jacket just as the drone lurched back upright. Fumbling in its bundled-up mass, her fingers closed on a familiar and comforting shape. Good. Right.

She whipped the sonic screwdriver out, fumbling madly with its settings while the robot resumed its battle with Ragusa, who now was barely standing upright and had only managed to wrest a single claw from its grip. Sparks flew.

What's the one he always uses for this sort of thing -- 5449's hotwires car ignition; 1201 scans for background radiation; 4200's boosts wi-fi signals; 1667 is --

Her thumb slammed down on the activation sequence. The drone reared back as though struck, falling to the ground -- and then slowly bobbed back up, to Rose's consternation.

"What?! Oh, come on -- " She frantically jabbed her fingers against the settings, but was rewarded only with a very weak whirr.

The screwdriver had been in his pocket all the time they'd been carrying the Book, she suddenly realized. Either its power had been drained or its circuitry had been seriously damaged by that close contact. No wonder the Doctor had used the blue globe instead of just shutting them down manually --

"Oh, bloody fantastic."

The drone woozily re-centered itself in the doorway. Rose suddenly realized that she was the focus of an intense, red gaze --

Ragusa's claw slammed down through the robot's carapace with a resounding crash, knocking it out of the air with enough force that it rebounded off the floor like a huge metal basketball. Two more sets of claws ripped into the armor-plated sides and tore the flailing tentacles out of their sockets.

Shuddering and groaning, the drone lapsed into silence.

Ragusa staggered back from her opponent's remains, her exoskeleton marred by burn marks and black streaks. Her bottom mandibles hung somewhat slackly, and Rose couldn't help but notice that her top right arm didn't seem to be moving quite right.

"Thanks," was all she could say.

" . . . rrrsstttt . . "

Rose moved hesitantly to her side. "You all right?"

The mandibles moved slowly. No words came out.

"Director?"

The black and unlovely eyes without irises somehow managed to focus on her. " . . breaking and entering and now . . hrrrst . . and now, destruction of police property. I am becoming a delinquent."

"'Least you aren't barbecue. Can you still move and stuff?"

" . . . Hrrst."

"Only," Rose said hesitantly, slowly becoming aware of a thrumming in the background that wasn't due to their proximity to the Grid Room, "I think we're really in trouble now."





Back to index


Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen: No Running In the Library Halls

Author's Notes: The good news is, big chunks of Past Due got themselves written. This . . . is a short bit.

Dedicated to They Who Endure.








There is music everywhere, if you know where to listen.

Take, for example, the staggered syncopation of six heavy, armor-plated legs unevenly making their way across a marble floor; add in the heavy wheezing of a giant cheliloricatid as a counterpoint. A rising and ominous hum of approaching drones serves nicely as a middle section, and a teenaged human singing "dammit dammit dammit" under her breath completes the ensemble.

All they needed now, Ragusa thought dazedly, were some animated bluebirds to alight on the girl's shoulder and they'd be set.

This did not seem like one of her normal trains of thought, but repeated electrocution allows for some variance in normal cognitive processes.

"Dammit dammit dammit -- "

"Are we -- hrrst -- are we -- what are we doing, exactly?"

The human -- Rose -- was halfway down the hall and obviously wanted to be much further away, though that was no doubt due to the increasing whine of the drones and less because of Ragusa. Unfortunately, the Director was not terribly fast at the best of times, and now with parts of her nervous system feeling as though they'd been batter-fried the situation was not improved.

Rose loped a few paces back towards Ragusa. "We gotta get back to the Grid Room. Don't ask me why, but we gotta get back to the Grid Room -- "

"Why?"

"I told you not to ask why, I'll explain later, but right now we -- "

Rose's expression froze as she stared at something behind Ragusa. "Run!"

The Director didn't have to turn around to see the drone; the heavy vibration was clue enough. "Hrrst. I can't."

"Oh -- " The human shifted her grasp on the bundled-up jacket. "D'you think you can, you know, fight it then?"

"Hrrrstttt?! I could not -- hrrst -- could barely hold my own against the last drone, what makes you think -- "

The girl's eyes, still fixed on whatever was down the hall, widened suddenly.

"S'pose that means fightin' two is out of the question?"

The light hitting the tiles under Ragusa's scrabbling legs were at the angle that indicated it was just after one. Normally, she had a nourishing cup of nutrient mix in a hot Earl Grey infusion around this time of day. She would have very much liked that right now, she reflected.

". . . . hrrst," was as eloquent a reply as she could manage.

Rose glanced around frantically. "Where's the nearest elevator?"





Down.

You can fall backwards through the ruin of nine lifetimes and never reach the end of it all.

You can watch the fires of a thousand worlds gutter and burn until there's nothing but the void left in the place of light and heat.

There is only the void, in the end.

And the void is
cold.

So was his cheek.

Eyelids sticky with frost parted to see nothing but darkness. For a moment his worst fears seemed to have come to pass -- and then he registered the faint line of red LED lights, the dull reflection on scuffed and corroded metal.

A cough rattled off to his left and he slowly, tortuously shifted to see a pale figure trying to lift itself on its elbows.

" . . . harrrrrrggghhh . . . "

". . . ck? . ."

" . . . d'ctrr . . . augghhhh . . ."

" . . all right?"

In the sense that Jack was here and in the present, the answer seemed to be yes.

"Huurrrkk!"

In the sense that he'd just vomited all over the Doctor's hand, well . . .

Shoving himself away from the steaming remnants of what looked like a reasonably nice dinner (which he'd paid for, naturally), the Doctor groggily tried to prod his brain back into action. With their closeness in the narrow duct this proved extremely difficult, especially given that both of them had been unconscious and regularly chilled by the ventilation systems kicking in and the simple act of raising a hand seemed impossibly hard.

How long was I out? -- Expect the real question is, how long was I in . .

The Doctor slumped against the side of Jack's thigh, making a halfhearted attempt at stabilizing the human but really just collecting his thoughts. The Captain didn't seem to be generating much heat; given all they'd been through it was high time to get out of the vents . . .

" . . . wha th' hell wuzzat?"

Rose. Where was Rose? -- The Book. Sent Rose off with the Book. Hopefully she'd hidden it. Hopefully she'd listened and not run back to the TARDIS. Even more hopefully, she hadn't been sucked in herself.

Because . . .

fire laps the corners of his vision

Because having seen it all again, having known with nightmare certainty what would be there and how it would remember him, the Doctor realized he couldn't possibly go back into the Codex. Not only would it know better than to wait for him to make the first move, but it wouldn't make the mistake of dredging up his night terrors to keep him down.

" . . . god in heaven . . ."

Not that he could face those fires a third time. Not even for Rose. Before, he would've said yes, but --

fire

It never got easier. Never.

But then, why should it.

The Daleks could slumber in their metal skeletons content in the knowledge that they were the world-killers and that was how they were meant to be because that was all that they were expected to be. Only amateurs were made sick with guilt and fear; murderers were allowed their quiet dreams.

" . . . cruk cruk cruk --"

Suddenly he needed to see that stupid ape's upturned face again; all those incessant thick-headed questions and bloody-minded cheek and that easy awe and the whole infuriating and maddening bundle of hormones and misconceptions and giggling that somehow kept him from going completely dead on the insides.

Rose.

"Time Lord."

He blinked, jolted out of his thoughts. " . . yeah?"

Jack's face looked as though it had been used to clean a public lavatory. "Yer a Time Lord."

The situation demanded a witty comeback, but talking still seemed like a tall order. The Doctor attempted to arch a superior eyebrow, with limited success.

Jack was flailing with an outstretched hand and an index finger that didn't actually seem to be pointing at anything. Glassy eyes rolled equally as unsteadily. " . . except, except, except everybody knows Time Lords don't exist, just crukking stupid legends -- "

Talking suddenly seemed easier, even with the sandpaper lining his throat. "Yeah, and I spend m' long nights bein' mythopoetic just f'r the hell offit."

"You can't exist."

"Shouldn't exist. Do. Go figure."

"Geez," croaked Jack, slumping back against the side of the duct with a graceless whummppff. "You guys were supposed to be like gods."

Oh, he was too tired for this. "Look, shift. We can't hang about in here much longer, and I need to find Rose -- "

"Seriously, what the hell was all -- "

"Shut it. We've got to get moving." The Doctor tried to scrape together recent memories that hadn't involved fire or the wholesale destruction of Time. Ragusa. Talking. The ducts --

He slapped Jack's thigh in triumph, eliciting a startled yelp. "That's it. Grid Room!"





"Why isn't there a button that says 'Grid Room'?" Rose snarled.

"The lift does not go to the Grid Room."

"Why not?"

"Hrrrst. What is your obsession with mindless technology? Automated doors, sideways elevators? What purpose would that serve, other than wasting valuable funds and breaking down at the worst possible -- "

"All right, all right -- "

"Restructuring a building to accommodate that kind of -- "

"I said, all right." The parts of Rose's brain that were not singing with panic and dread muttered darkly that leaving the Director behind in the corridor might've been a good move.

She glanced down at the wheezing alien's charred exoskeleton and felt more than a little guilty. "Which button gets us to the main floor of the Grid?"

"'Close Door'!"

"No, I mean --"

"Close Door Close Door Close --"

The snaking tentacles left a rather large dent in the stainless steel doors, but happily the lift was well-maintained and sped smoothly upwards.

"Hrrst. We want to go down."

Rose bit her lip in frustration, noting that one of the buttons she'd hit was taking them high up the side of the Archives. "Wasn't thinking."

"Obviously not."

Leaving people behind was wrong, Rose told herself. "What floor, then?"

"Hrrst. 'Central Tier'. But -- "

Rose jabbed the button with a feeling of satisfaction, only to feel the elevator purr to a stop. Frowning, she regarded the light map -- they hadn't reached the 42nd floor yet -- and then it occurred to her that someone else probably had to use the lift; of course, big building --

The doors opened with a cheerful yet soothing tone note that in no way mitigated the fact that there was a drone waiting on the other side.

Rose slammed the Door Close button while Ragusa, in a sudden show of bravura and/or desperation, flung her bulk upwards and knocked the drone out of the threshold. The doors closed with a pleasant neutral sound no doubt meant to relax passengers; the elevator sped smoothly upwards.

Shuddering, Rose slumped against the the side of the wall as Ragusa sagged back down to the floor. "Blimey," she managed.

She got the distinct impression that if Ragusa had eyebrows, she'd be furrowing them at her right now. Rallying, she continued, "Well, at least we're -- "

The elevator slowed again.

The doors opened with another relaxing sound which was lost in the screech of a drone wedging itself violently between the gap. Electric tendrils found the Director's armored bulk once again while Rose's sputtering mind insisted that she hit the Door Close button a few more times. Sparks flew; Ragusa screamed.

The screaming was pretty damn horrible in an inclosed space.

Rose slammed the mono-optic circuit with her bundle, feeling her wrists twinge in pain as the titanium-reinforced hull of the machine refused to budge. She frantically drew back for a heavier blow, mind shrieking that this was the stupidest idea ever --

It took her several seconds to realize that it hadn't been her who'd knocked the robot halfway down the hall; Ragusa had drawn back for a punch at the exact same moment as her.

"DOOR CLOSE!" roared the Director, and Rose tore her eyes away from the form of the drone rolling down the hallway floor like one of Hell's lost volleyballs. The nondescript sound was lost in Ragusa's labored hissing and Rose's shivering gasps. The lift stank of ozone and lobster.

"Doctor," Rose realized she'd whispered, and everything just hurt that much more.

The lift slowed again.

Ragusa rose on all six legs, both sets of claws extended, charred plating hanging off her sides. The rumbling snarl building in her chest cavity was deafening but could not drown out the sound of Rose's racing heart oh god not again --

The doors opened.

Ragusa -- spines erect, mandibles skittering, eyes narrowed to slivers of mindless rage -- lunged screaming into the threshold like something out of a Ridley Scott movie and Rose knew she'd be terrified if she could still feel anything and --

The man with the clipboard screamed and fainted.

The doors attempted to close after a few seconds of them just staring, but with his leg in the treads they kept edging politely back.

"I think he works in Central Processing," Ragusa said distantly.

"Oh," was all Rose could say.




"Oh!"

Vetch reeled back into consciousness after a particularly horrific little reverie induced by the contents of the now sorely-missed hip flask. The thousands of scrolling screens continued to sail relentlessly past his blurred vision, mocking him. Round shapes and red dots bobbed before him.

His. Head. Hurt.

There had been something he was supposed to do. If he'd had a cup of coffee, remembering would have been far less of an issue. Although from the way the inside of his mouth felt, he'd definitely had something --

Oh. That's right. Harkness.

Vetch groaned and sagged in the chair, which had been designed for higher purposes than comfort. Thinking about chairs and comfort reminded him of the last comfortable chair he'd been in, which in turn reminded him of what he'd found in said chair, which tied back in nicely with remembering the Captain.

Harkness had set him down here. Wanted him to look for -- no. No, the girl had told him to keep an eye out for --

. . oh hell.

The foggy haze induced by anxiety, shock and hypervodka burned away as Vetch's eyes focused on the bobbing red dots and silvery spheres. They were not, in fact, products of a hangover, though they were certainly contributing to it now.

Police drones buzzed relentlessly through the marble corridors of the Library, easily numbering in the dozens. A slow, terrible pit opened up in Vetch's gut and gave the queasiness there a whole new edge.

Blinking, he quickly looked around the Grid Room. It was empty -- something that was virtually unheard-of during afternoon hours. Where had Sati and her team gotten to?

"Good Lord; what are you doing here?"

Vetch jumped at the sound, noting only too late a sudden heavy droning sound behind him and a reddish cast to the light --

He turned around and looked into a malefic fiery orb, the crimson light filling his sight and blinding him to the world. Interesting and damp things happened about his nether regions.

"I! Um! Fellasleepsorrysir--" he stammered, trying to jam a brainful of square thoughts into round excuses, "veryverysorrydon'tknowwhat'sgoingonpleasedon't --"

The figure obscured by the light seemed to lean forward slightly.

". . . Vetch?"

Vetch goggled at the voice. After a moment, it occurred to him that he really must be hallucinating after all, which cheered him only slightly.

" . . . I thought you were . . ." he started, and then didn't know how to finish up.

"Just a misunderstanding, my dear old thing. Being sorted out as we speak."

Waves of relief threatened to drown Vetch and his eyes watered slightly (thought the red gaze probably had something to do with that as well). "Oh. Oh thank goodness. Oh. Oh, I've had such a horrible day -- "

"Yes, well, I'm afraid I can't help you much there, Augustine. But maybe you can help me?"

Vetch nodded. "Sir?"

"Where is Archivist Horten?"







Back to index


Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen -- Excuse Our Mess

Author's Notes: Hey, remember this? The long pointless story? It's back!

Apologies to everyone who (inexplicably) reads this thing. It has been a cruel summer. Well, not really. But thanks for sticking with it, and hopefully I'll crank the last four or so out before October or the heat death of the Universe. You guys are wonderful and thanks for your support, comments, criticism and patience.

This particular chapter dedicated to Emery Board and to wmr, who seems disheartened in regard to the absence of the good Captain from S2. I shall endeavor to supply a Jack Attack.






Metal twisted and groaned. The lights flickered ominously as the wicked claws scissored up through the feeble protection granted by the plexiglass diffuser, and a sudden low buzzing of complaint from deep within the ceiling denoted a greater electrical failure.

"Why -- hrrst -- am I doing this?" Ragusa demanded, all four claws wedged deep into the panelling overhead.

Rose peered out of the elevator, checking for drones. Nothing. "Because we're being clever."

"Oh. What a relief." Ragusa viciously tore out the rest of the overhead ceiling. A shower of sparks cascaded over her already-singed exterior and she hissed viciously. "How exceptionally reassuring. Hrrst. I am damaging an expensive and difficult-to-maintain vitally-important piece of equipment in my library because -- hrrst -- some idiot child who enjoys damaging priceless artifacts -- "

"All right, all right --"

She ripped out a metal strut as though it was made of particleboard, mandibles clenching, "-- in between what I can only assume -- hrrst -- is a lifestyle populated with mugging priests and abusing aged spinsters --"

"Oh, you're not that far gone. I'm sure there's an acid-drooling bloke out there who'd just love to show you both his tongues --"

"Ah. Agism and species-prejudice. Truly -- hrrst -- truly the day is complete." Ragusa widened the hole in the elevator roof. "Presumably this is wide enough for your mysterious purposes? Hrrst. Or should I set it on fire, just to be safe?"

Rose gritted her teeth. "Lift me up there, then."

"What? Why?"

"Explain later. Just give me a leg up and get out --" Rose ducked her head back into the hall. No more of the drones had appeared -- yet -- and the coast seemed clear. The unconscious man with the clipboard was still blocking the doorway, but that was easily-remedied. "Hang on."

She left the relative safety of the lift to drag him to one side, leaving the clipboard in the sensor beam to keep the doors open. Luckily, there was yet another alcove full of spider plants -- seriously, what was it with libraries and hideous foliage? was this a rule or something? -- and Rose was able to quickly and safely stow him under a potted fern that had designs on conquering the entire nook, if not the world.

She darted back into the elevator. "Right. Here's the plan --"

"Hrrst. I want an explanation --"

"No no no. Explain later. Give me a leg up and then get to that little space out there; the one with all the plants. Lay low until I get back out."

"What? Are you seriously suggesting --"

Rose felt a burst of rare gymnastic ability return to her and she vaulted up Ragusa's multi-limbed torso -- like climbing a tree, really -- and into the roof before the librarian could finish her complaint. The elevator shaft was echoing and dark, and in the seconds before her eyes adjusted to the almost complete lack of light Rose could've sworn she was back in the ducts with the Doctor again.

The thought of the Doctor lying motionless next to Jack in the cold and lightless shafts wrung a sudden sob from her throat; the sound reverberated menacingly in the infinite space around her. She put out a hand to steady herself, then realized it was now coated in some sort of lubrication that reeked of an unholy combination of ozone and steamed broccoli and the sense of loss gave way to that familiar and dear companion in times of great vexation -- annoyance.

Travel the universe. See vast and exciting new worlds of air-conditioning and service elevators. Better off dead, you big-eared git, if this stuff doesn't wash clean --

"What are you doing up there, child?"

Rose snapped back into action, fumbling with the sonic screwdriver. Though obviously running on low power, she was nonetheless able to coax a weak blue glow from it, and that familiar sight and sound galvanized her. She started looking for the connecting shafts that braced the main one, in accordance with all the times that the Doctor had done the same while working on that one pumpy bit of the TARDIS that was sort of like the main pumpy bit, only more pumpy and less slidey than this, but with a sort of . . . a general kind of . . .

Oh, I am so out of my depth here.

"You're gonna want to get out, Director."

"But -- "

Rose ducked her head back down through the hole. "Look. If I do this wrong, the whole car goes fallin' down forty floors, yeah? So maybe you should just take this --" she tossed the Doctor's rolled-up jacket down "-- and get well clear in case it turns out I'm not so clever after all?"

Ragusa didn't have to get out quite that fast.







"Jack?"

Nothing.

"JACK."

Something behind him to his left groaned and shifted against the side of the wall. " . . . five more minutes . . ."

Not again. Enraged, the Doctor prodded him sharply with his toe. "Wakey-wakey; we gotta go save the Universe again. Up and at 'em."

"Harrrruuugghhhh . . ."

The Doctor threw himself against the side of the wall, realized that he'd put his hand in a pile of something warm and wet and smelling of hydrochloric acid and broccoli. Closer inspection revealed it was hydrochloric acid and broccoli. "Oh, lovely. Get me to pay for dinner but you can't be bothered to keep it down?"

" . . . don't wanna go t' practice."

"Harkness. Kind of a bad moment for you to be sleepin'."

" . . . don't need my help."

The Doctor stifled the urge to yell you're dammed right I don't, look what you've done already. Instead, he peered off into the darkly-glinting maze of ducts that seemed simultaneously alien and familiar. He almost thought he recognized the junction up ahead, but then again . . .

That was the problem with vents. You were always getting the shaft.

" . . s'what's a nice Time Lord like you doin' inna place like this?"

The Doctor's expression froze. Not this again. It was one thing to reveal his peoples' name to Rose, who had no business knowing but at least couldn't use that kind of information. But Jack was a Time Agent, and subsequently in a whole separate category.

The Time Agency had, of course, been supervised and run by the Time Lords; just another dirty little offshoot of the CIA recruiting lesser species -- well, what they regarded as lesser species, anyway -- for the purposes of serving Gallifrey's interests while maintaining plausible deniability. Of course, the only ones who knew that Time Lords were part of the organization were themselves Time Lords. Damn shifty Time Lords who recruited some damn shifty 'lesser species'. His reluctance to have Jack on board had nothing to do with jealousy, after all.

Well. Not that much, anyway.

The human was struggling to form sentences, though this seemed to be a hurdle erected by emotional turmoil and not any real physical distress -- his inability to keep dinner down notwithstanding. The faint LED lights shone on Jack's prone form, highlighting his otherwise handsome features in a lurid sort of red haze. There was something odd in his gaze, though.

"I knew Time Lords never existed. Everyone knew that. So why . . . why's your head full of 'em?"

He was really getting sick of being relegated to the same category as the Loch Ness Monster -- also real, as he nearly pointed out. "Look. We existed. Past tense. Except owning to a massive temporal rupture in the fabric of space/time, we didn't. Exist." The Doctor scowled, pulling himself up on his elbows. "I'd explain it, only I won't. Now, if we could just get a move on?" He started off down the ducts, relieved to hear a thumping behind him.

They hadn't gotten fifteen feet before Jack opened his bloody mouth again. "All those people . . "

The Doctor's jaw clenched. "Change the subject."

"Look -- " there was nothing short of utter desperation in that voice, fear skittering through it -- "that wasn't -- that wasn't the Time War, was it? Because -- because it -- that -- I mean --"

"Change. The. Subject."

There was a very very very long silence, which was more than welcome. Finally, Jack said, his voice low and almost lost in the thumping of their bodies on metal, "Ignorance really is bliss, I guess."

A bitter smile. "Yeah."

He forced himself to remember that terrible commonality forged in the ruin of civilizations, trying a more compassionate tack. "C'mon. We'll get back to the Grid Room. Check the scanners for Rose, have a look about, maybe find a nice place for you to lie down." He did not add, and probably some nice person for you to lie down next to.

An odd thought crossed the Doctor's mind. "What were you doin' here with the Book in the first place?"

"I --" Jack paused. "Hey. Where is it?"

"I sent it off with Rose. Why -- "

"You sent that thing off with Rose?! Knowing what it can do?"

The Doctor turned to glower at Jack, who looked genuinely horrified. An ugly sneaking little piece of him took offense at the man's concern for his companion -- his proper companion -- and he replied, "She's movin' it out of range. Can't have my brainwaves getting hijacked every five minutes if we're gonna make any progress in -- "

"But if that thing sucks her in --"

"Yeah, had occurred to me; thanks so much for bringin' it up," the Doctor snarled. "But our options aren't great any way you slice 'em now, are they?"

Jack exhaled slowly. "No." He shuffled forwards on his elbows for a bit before adding, "You've got a lot of faith in that girl."

The Doctor glanced at the intersection they'd reached. A sinking feeling in the pits of his hearts told him that he hadn't been this way those other times and he sighed. "She's earning it." The walls gleamed an unpleasantly vivid red thanks to the LEDs and he closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts. "Not just anyone gets to stay in my TARDIS." -- There had been a turn, then a long straight shaft and then they'd gone left for about fifty meters; then the floor had sloped --

"It's this way," Jack said.

His eyes snapped open. "What? No it isn't."

"Well, I came this way."

"Yeah, well, you didn't know where you were going, did you?"

Harkness glared back at him. "Hey, Doc -- where's Naples, again?"

"Oi!"

"Anyway, I was following the little blue numbers."

The Doctor sighed theatrically. "You mean, the little blue numbers that look like little red arrows? 'Cos -- " Part of his brain that had gone off to sulk suddenly came storming back as though it had remembered some more grievances it needed to vent. "Wait. Blue numbers?"

"That's what I said."

"Jack. When you entered these ducts, did you go through the Grid Room?"

The human blinked. "Yeah. Saw the work of the sonic screwdriver, figured you guys couldn't have gotten far and went in after you."

"And you turned right at the first junction?"

"No, I went straight." Jack propped himself up on one elbow. "Then I got turned around pretty bad, but I noticed these little blue numbers -- " here he pointed up to the seam joining one corner to the next -- "and thought, 'hey, these intersections are all numbered; the Doc and Rose must be following those'. And there were all these scuff marks -- " he pointed at a noticeable black streak against the side of one of the sides of the junction -- "so that backed up my theory."

"Good thinking."

"Thanks."

"Except it's completely wrong. We were following red arrows. And those corridors were pretty scuffed-up, too."

Jack took a very deep breath. "So. Were either of us actually going anywhere?"

"I was. Consulted the map -- well, blueprints. But this . . ." The parts of the Doctor's mind that had come back to speak their piece decided to go fume in the basement some more and he was left in a state of frustrated confusion once more. Someone's been using the ducts to get about. Only, who? And why two different systems? Is one of them just the Facilities crew mucking out the air system, because if --

-- fire laps the corners of his vision --

He'd had the Book out of his head for long enough now that its sudden, vicious resurgence hit him doubly hard. Even if Rose had gotten it far away, it was going to keep pounding him from a distance until it caught him off-guard.

"Doc?"

"Doctor," he gasped, clutching the side of his head. "Not 'Doc'. Call me 'Professor' and I'll bash your head in with spoons."

"Geez, you must be all right if you're making threats again." Jack pulled up next to him. "Look. If this thing's affecting you, we need to get outta here, pronto."

"Yeah, I was sayin' that while you were snorin' back there --"

"So let's just follow this slope, all right? It looks familiar to me. At the very least we'll figure out the general direction of the Grid Room, right?"

The Doctor started to protest, then swallowed his pride. Jack had trusted him enough to be led out of the hellhole that the Book had become; the least he could do was show a minimum of grace to the man. And he had been genuinely worried about Rose dealing with it . . "Right. Lead on, Space Captain."

"Okay, but you don't get to call me that if I can't call you 'Doc'. Not happening." Jack pulled ahead on his elbows, pausing momentarily to glance back at him. "Why spoons? Why not the screwdriver?"

In spite of himself, the Doctor grinned more than a little wickedly.







The drones were stupid but efficient. The thing to remember about things that are stupid but efficient, however, is that they are essentially very efficient about being stupid.

Subsequently, they were able to hone in on the stopped elevator car. The elevator was obviously very important because it was stopped and the doors had been torn apart. The roof was also torn apart, and since the drones had been programmed by people who had lived on Alezhandria -- a peaceable and reasonably quiet settlement, the antics of this day notwithstanding -- they were well-familiarized with their programmers' fervent belief that you really could escape through the roof of an elevator shaft and climb your way to the higher levels.

It happened in movies, after all.

So they swarmed -- eight of them, tentacles snaking viciously, red eyes dully glowing and refracting evilly against each other's chrome surfaces -- and hovered up through the hole and began a thorough and deadly search of the higher reaches of the shaft.

Curiously enough, the programmers of the drones also seemed to believe in the time-tested inability of the pursuing villains to look off to the side and see the concealed heroes, which offended the sensibilities of the two persons hiding in the foliage somewhat but beggars can't be choosers.

Rose quickly slipped out from behind a rubber plant (covered in spider mites, of course) and removed the clipboard from the threshold. After the doors closed with a soothing tone, she used the last of the sonic screwdriver's power to blow out the lift control, a la a certain man who'd dragged her out of the basement of Henrik's.

She turned to Ragusa, wondering if her smile was as wide as it felt. "Run!"

"To where, exactly?"

The smile froze for a moment. "Um. The . . . " Oh, hell. It's going to be the stairs again, isn't it?

"The stairs!" she exclaimed, flashing another desperate grin. "C'mon!"

"Hrrst. And why are we --"

"Explain later. Move!"

"No."

Rose wheeled around, nearly concussing herself on one of the lower-hanging plants. "What? Why not?"

Ragusa -- covered in ivy and wheezing like the bellows of a decrepit pipe organ -- leveled a glare at Rose that could have easily been directed at Sigourney Weaver with a flamethrower. "I. Have. Had. Hrrst. Enough. Of. This." She wobbled uncertainly for a moment, then lurched towards her companion; Rose watched a host of spider mites jump ship. "Since I opted to accompany you, I have been attacked by unspecified forces for highly dubious reasons -- hrrst! -- implicated in numerous instances of vandalism, insulted, confused, patronized and -- hrrst -- forced to run about idiotically while you are obnoxiously flippant and maddening and vague and have done nothing but play with that -- hrrst -- magic wand of yours without ever once explaining what the benighted planet of hell is going on. Hrrst." Her voice reached a desperate crescendo. "And for the record, running is NOT an answer to all of Life's problems, and 'I'll explain later' is NOT an answer to ANYTHING."

"Look -- " Rose started, and then stopped. And froze.

"Look," she said again, and realized she couldn't complete her thoughts. "Oh. Oh, god."

Ragusa cocked her head inquisitively. "Hrrst?"

Rose half-sobbed, half-sighed in explosive disgust. "I'm turnin' into the Doctor."






"I thought you said this looked familiar!"

"It did. Past tense. Now it doesn't."

"Yeah, well, as much as -- Jack."

"Yeah?"

"Hands off."

"Sorry. Thought that was the lever."

"No comment."

There was a long silence wherein the Doctor attempted to discern the relative position of Jack and himself in the now-dark and cramped shaft devoid of lights. They'd have to turn around; a prospect which the Doctor's rapidly-developing sense of claustrophobia made out to be much more complicated than it should. He sighed, gathering his strength and bracing himself for the inevitable game of Twister. After a few seconds, something occurred to him.

"Jack?"

"Yeah?"

"What did you mean, 'lever'?"

"Oh. There's this lever that sticks out of the side of the wall, just here -- "

"What, here?"

"Yeah. I knocked into it while I was waiting for you to catch up. Bruised my ribs --"

The Doctor fumbled in the dark, letting his hands alight on the strange protrusion. "That's odd."

"Hey, don't lean on it. I think I felt the floor --"






Fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump BOOM.

"Hrrst!"

"Shh! C'mon!"

Fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump BOOM.

"Damnation."

Rose glanced back at Ragusa anxiously. They'd made it down the last four flights of stairs -- bloody stairs, why did it have to be stairs -- reasonably well, but the giant arthropod wasn't really cut out for this sort of movement. She'd had to hook her forearms around the railings and skid down unevenly on her bottom six legs -- not easy under the best circumstances, Rose guessed, and certainly not now that they were in a hurry and that Ragusa was weakened.

Fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump fwhump WHAM.

"Hey, careful," Rose yelped as the the Archivist impacted the side of the wall. "You really gonna be able to get down another thirty stories?"

"Hrrst." The black eyes opened and closed balefully. "My faith is in gravity, through which all things are possible." Her good three arms scrabbled weakly against the side of the wall -- now with crumbling plaster flaking down to the floor. The fourth twisted sickeningly against her carapace, showing where the worst of the drone's electrical attack had gouged furious black fissures in her exoskeleton.

Rose glanced at the injured arm, wishing it wasn't hanging quite that loose in its socket. "D'you want me to . . . you know -- "

"Hrrst?"

She made a vague hand gesture, then realized it probably didn't help much. "Your . . . arm. Thing. Maybe I can bandage it or something?"

The giant alien slowly turned her head to regard the limb in question, mandibles twitching. Nothing else happened for the better part of ten seconds, other than Ragusa glaring at her swaying arm as though she could repair it with her mind. Rose nearly unwrapped the Doctor's jacket to make a sling, but thought better of it, instead opting for her own hoodie.

"What -- hrrst -- are you doing?"

Rose eased the pink fabric over the bumpy ridges of Ragusa's (still-charred) exoskeleton. "If I can just get this 'round you, maybe we can keep your arm from dangling too much. Until we can get a doctor to look at you, anyway."

"Not yours, I hope."

In spite of herself, Rose grinned. "'Least he's cheap."

"I doubt it." Ragusa allowed Rose to wind the hoodie up into a primitive sling, but when it became evident that it wouldn't hold she firmly pressed her aside. "Hrrst. This will not succeed."

"No, just --"

"Rose. Hrrst. You cannot fix my arm. I do not have bones."

Rose bit her lip, glancing down the echoing stairwell. Every landing was going to play hell with the Director, and they weren't going to make good time anyway, but --

"You must go on without me."

Rose blinked; it was as though Ragusa had read her mind. "What? But I don't know the -- "

The giant lobster lurched to pull herself upright along the wall. "Hrrst. The Central Grid is an open circular shaft space. The entire Library -- hrrst -- is configured architecturally around that main tier. Get to the first floor and -- hrrst -- ask if you can't see it."

"Yeah, but what about those drones -- "

"I don't pretend to know what you hope to succeed at -- hrrst -- or why, but I am in no state to help you further."

Rose glared. "I was gonna say, what if they find you?"

"Hrrst. Either way, you could hardly stop them." Ragusa straightened painfully. "You must tear down your own -- hrrst -- your own doors, now."

Rose bit her lip that much harder. "Look. I'll find the Doctor and Jack, and then I'm coming back to find you. Just sit tight and don't die or anything, all right?"

She got the distinct impression that Ragusa had rolled her eyes, despite the lack of irises, sockets, or eyebrows that would've indicated the same. "Hrrst. But of course."

Rose was halfway down that flight of stairs when Ragusa called out, "Wait!" She turned around to hear a sickening crunching sound --

-- and caught Ragusa's charred limb in her hands.

"That might help against the drones," the librarian rasped, neatly staunching a greenish seeping liquid with Rose's hoodie.




The Doctor felt sick.

Granted, this was the day for feeling sick, but for the first time it was generated from something other than the contents of his head. He hadn't expected the fall to be such a short distance -- less than ten feet down, and cushioned with old upholstery, imagine that -- and he'd just about gotten his head around the idea that this was a deliberate entrance they'd stumbled across.

Then he'd seen the woman who was only half there.

She wasn't much by the standards of the world. A short woman, slightly overweight, mid-thirties with a face that looked older than the rest of her. Grey eyes, the Doctor couldn't help but notice. He tried not to think of that other doomed face that slept in Jack's mind.

This face was locked in a confused half-smile, half-grimace; one hand was raised in a gesture that could've been supplication or accusation but either way had no real urgency behind it and the fingers dangled easily past her smooth plump palms. The feeble overhead light -- not LED but a proper lighting column -- shone in her and through her, ghostly and translucent but with a horrible solidity that showed her to be more than a mere projection or a hologram.

Behind him, Jack boggled quietly. ". . . Is she alive?"

He tried not to think of what it must be like for her. Bad enough knowing that hideous yank five times over, but then to have been trapped in that no-state, to be suspended indefinitely between the rise and fall of a heartbeat and forced to endure the unmitigated horror of a single millisecond that refused to end -- but then again, humans weren't particularly temporally-sensitive. Maybe she wasn't suffering. Probably didn't even know what had happened. What was happening.

Lucky her.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm so sorry . . " Jack reached to touch her arm, but the Doctor slapped his hand down. "Don't."

"What's wrong with her? Can we get her loose?"

The Doctor could barely suppress the bile welling in him. "No. No one can."

"She's in some sort of temporal suspension, right?"

"Time-scooped," he responded, forcing himself to look into the living corpse's eyes. "Removed from linear events with a faulty piece of technology, then abandoned here when whoever was muckin' with it realized they couldn't reverse the effects." The Doctor couldn't keep the rage out of his voice now and didn't even want to try at this point. "Bad enough when it's proper equipment doing this sort of thing, but some bloody-minded amateur cobbling a time-scoop together from the Book -- " Teeth ground into his cheek; nails dug into palms. "She's stuck."

Jack looked her up and down, horror and pity slowly dawning on his face. "And we can't reverse it?"

The Doctor could only stare at the frozen woman. There but for the grace of God, he thought with nothing like gratitude. Aloud he responded, "To survive that you'd have to be a Time-sensitive at the very least, and preferably one with a good chunk of your selves out of the loop."

"How would you . . ." Jack's voice trailed off. He stared at the Doctor for a long nervous moment, and the Doctor dully remembered that humans liked other people to blink occasionally when they were being engaged in conversation. He closed his eyes, and Jack rushed to fill the silence with, "So this big fancy Book of yours that sucked us in can do this, too?"

"Oh, yeah," he replied wearily. "Semi-senient interactive archive with an unstable mental interface and enough residual chronoscopic fluctuation to seriously destabilize the nature of causality. Makes julienne fries; microwave safe." He rubbed his face, silently dreading the prospect of opening his eyes again. "One regular Swiss Army Knife of Bad, the Codex."

"But -- but -- " Jack's voice was trying to remain professional, clinical, and in spite of himself the Doctor loved him just a bit for it. "This must've happened for a reason, right? I mean, we studied temporal oubliettes at the Academy -- " the Doctor snorted derisively " -- and no one does this sort of thing accidentally; someone had to set out to trap her on purpose."

The Doctor still didn't want to open his eyes just yet. "Agree with you partially on that. She didn't get herself stuck by messin' about with the Book; someone did that for her. Question is, why?"

"Who is she, anyway?"

Reluctantly, he left the dark behind his eyes for the unwelcome sight of the living dead girl. "Dunno. Not a Logician; she isn't wearing the greens." He forced himself to look at her clothing: a one-piece mauve worksuit favored by the kind of people who stopped dressing to impress a long time ago. Gaudy pink piping around the breast pockets had been added in an eleventh-hour attempt at punky flair that failed. Small neat rectangular badges were clipped to the side of her lapel; they were similar to those worn by the rest of the Archivists.

"She works here, I think," Jack said, echoing his thoughts. "Probably a specialist in a field; only rockstars get to dress like slobs." He sounded somewhat contrite a moment later, as though ashamed he'd said that aloud. "Single, I think."

The Doctor snorted. "Why am I not surprised that you picked that up . . ."

Jack arched an eyebrow, coolly. "No wedding ring or partnership bands. Jumpsuit's got cat hair on it. Sensible shoes. And that one little badge on the side of her arm -- the swan, see? -- means she belongs to this one romance book club. This girl doesn't -- I mean, didn't get out much."

The Doctor -- who wore no signifiers of marital status, liked cats, routinely composed scathing diatribes against impractical footwear and had financed most of his personal experiments and jiggery-pokery during the long dark UNIT years by writing bodice-rippers notable for their lack of bodices and ripping (but rife with technical terms and ruthless historical accuracies) -- resented the implication but opted to say nothing.

"Moving on," Jack continued, "she doesn't look like she's being attacked. She's not afraid. Annoyed, maybe, but she obviously didn't know what was happening. I bet whoever did this to her is someone she knows, maybe even someone she trusts."

A universe of nasty dark suspicions came to light. "Lyn."

"Who?"

The Doctor looked at the figure, marshaling every ounce of determination still left in him into this long last supposition. "Two Archivists went missing, couple months ago. Specialists in their fields. One of them was named Lyn." He glanced at the badges, wondering if she'd sewn them all on herself, wondering who was taking care of the cats. "Think we found her."

"Something's rotten in the state of Denmark," muttered Jack.

"Not just the tinned ham, either."

"But why here? Why would a . . a 'time scoop' or whatever be kept here?" Jack abruptly blinked, looking around. "Hey. Where is here?"

The Doctor took in their surroundings. This definitely wasn't a duct; he'd become something of an authority on the subject of ducts in the last twelve hours. They appeared to be in some sort of disused filing room, with the air thick and clotted with dust. Aside from the lightstrip running along the walls it was completely dark. Ominous boxy shadows leaned worryingly towards them.

He shuffled over to the door -- stubbing his toes on discarded terminals, old cabinets and three or four broken coffeemakers, as befits any library storage room -- and noted that the only door had been sealed from the inside with what looked to be a high-end electronic lock. There was also a plank nailed across the top and bottom, just in case.

"Of all the days to need a sonic screwdriver," the Doctor muttered.

"What?"

He grimaced, more at the situation than at Jack. "We're locked in. Looks like whoever's been using this room for their own dirty storage doesn't want anyone nosing about in it." Not unlike the Mystery Rabbit's appropriation of that room with the sofa. "Some bunny's been busy," he mused.

Jack glanced at the door. "Ooh. That's a Gordian Mk. 4 Zuper-Lok. I hate those things."

In spite of himself, the Doctor blinked appreciatively. "What, that bad?"

"Yeah." The Captain glowered at the neat matte grey bar, hitting it once sharply in the middle with the heel of his palm. It beeped despondently and promptly fell off the doorframe with a sad little electronic gurgle. "Pieces of crap, all of 'em. I shelled out 500 Galactibucks on a pair of those things to keep this shipment of rare Urbankan lawn shrines safe until I could unload them on my dealer; next thing I know, my warehouse is full of pigeons and empty of statuary and these two neat little pieces of plastic are lying unscathed on the floor."

"Don't suppose you can break boards, too?" the Doctor asked hopefully.

"Easily. Provided I've got a sledgehammer."

"Never mind, then." The Doctor sighed, trying to remember if this sort of thing had been covered in Venusian Aikido. He vaguely recalled telling his instructor that he had a screwdriver and subsequently would never have to know that particular skill. If he got out of this alive -- and sane -- he was really going to go and thump himself, although seeing as that particular incarnation was otherwise well-versed in Aikido that might turn out to be a bad idea.

He summoned his qi, became one with the Universe, abandoned his consciousness to the Time Winds --

and he is the architect of ruin, he the --

-- nearly got sucked back into the Book and decided to go with Option B. "Jack?"

"Yeah?"

"What d'you fancy as a battering ram?"





Rose skidded down the last corridor. Nothing.

She hefted the rolled-up form of the black leather jacket under one arm, nearly dropping Ragusa's charred claw as she did so. There weren't many people around, but the looks one or two had given her upon seeing the limb had been priceless in a sick sort of way. Rose was vaguely aware that she was probably incriminating herself but it seemed rude just to put it down and walk away.

Also -- god, this is wrong -- it did look sort of intimidating, and given that her heart was merrily pounding away in her throat and her vision was blurring and that she was on the verge of laughing hysterically or bawling her head off, Rose wanted a damn bargaining piece when the rest of the world came calling.

The main stretch to the Grid Room was much as she remembered it. Hopefully . . .

She peered around the corner, staring at the doors. Begging the Doctor to open them, peer at her imperiously and wave her in, yelling something about helping Jack.

Right.

She steadied herself. The last thing she wanted to see upon walking in was whathisname, Vetch still sitting at the console and blathering away. On the other hand -- if he had spotted the Doctor and Jack up and about --

Rose took a deep breath, straightened, and walked slowly and deliberately towards the Grid Room.

The door opened for her, and there was an army of red glares --




Back to index


Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty -- Overdue Fines

Author's Notes: . . . this is the part where I hang my head and mumble profuse apologies.


They called him the Oncoming Storm. Destroyer of Worlds.

On a thousand lonely planets nestled in the dark folds of space, his name was whispered as both invocation and curse, blessing and ward. The One Who Moves Between. The Lord of Time. Death-Who-Walks.

You'd think a bloody door would break for that, but no. After fifteen minutes of grunting and straining and cursing, the topmost section was barely loose. Jack's attempts at beating it with the electronic lock had only resulted in said lock becoming even more broken, and the Doctor -- who was having a very hard time with keeping the Book out of his consciousness while simultaneously maintaining an air of patrician restraint on an empty stomach without his nice warm coat or his lovely sonic screwdriver to comfort him -- was beginning to think seriously about curling up and dying in one of the corners of the room that didn't have too many bleached and crispy moths in it.

"Jack, don't do that."

"Trust me. I know what I'm doing."

"Famous last words. I should know."

"C'mon. This has worked at least twice for me."

"Yeah? You sober when you tried it?"

"I -- " Jack paused, face becoming interestingly blank. "That's . . . not strictly relevant, but -- "

"Jack."

"Yeah, okay." The human backed away. "But it might have worked."

He merely sighed. "Stand back." Eyes closed, mind attempting focus. Lose yourself in nothingness; mind the void, though --

The Doctor gritted his teeth. White flashes of static sparked on the edge of his vision whenever his mind wandered from the here and now. Everything hurt. More than usual, anyway.

a part of you that did not burn . . .

"What exactly are you doing that's so much better than my solution?"

"Venusian Akido."

"No, seriously."

He opened an eye indignantly. "What?" he demanded, feeling vaguely hurt.

Jack sighed gustily, regarding the ceiling. "Nothing. Go right ahead."

"I will."

"Good."

"Fantastic."



"Okay, so Time Lords are fast healers, right? Do you want to sit down for a second?"

The Doctor -- his hand now bandaged in Jack's vest -- bit back several centuries' worth of bilious responses and merely hissed, "M'fine."

"Because you can sit down, all I'm saying -- "

The Doctor started to say, 'Granted, but given all the time we've spent getting out of that stuffy little hellhole I'm not about to waste any more of it in the general vicinity of said hellhole, and gah damn hand hurt --', but instead opted for "Mmgrh."

"So, if we can't do anything about her . . ." Jack glanced back into the depths of their erstwhile confinement, biting his lower lip. "Guessing we're still heading to the Grid Room?"

The Doctor started to say, 'Of course; it's as good a place as any to look for Rose and hopefully bash the main system up in a manner conducive to finding the missing bits of the TARDIS, not that this would be an issue if certain parties had not moved it (though of course I wouldn't mention that cattily despite the hideous new time constraints that puts on us all what with this whole imminent threat of impending temporal restructuring) and wait, what's that?'.

The sound of distant footfalls stalled his tongue and he turned. Someone was hurrying down the other end of the corridor, hand-wringing evident even at this distance.

"Doctor, what are you looking . . . "

Whatever Jack was saying melted into a sort of undistinguishable slurry of words (voices) as the rush of blood to the Doctor's head drowned everything else out, attention suddenly, horribly focused on the approaching figure.

About halfway down the corridor, Horten finally looked up, their gazes locking. He blinked, mouth opening slightly.

There was a singular and brief silence.

Ten seconds later, the Doctor was pounding down the hallway in full pursuit.





"Aren't you going to call Jimmy back?"

". . . wha?"

Her mother smiled, passing her a plate full of glittering Slitheen eyes. "Jimmy Stone called. Aren't you going to call Jimmy back?" The eyes all blinked reproachfully up at her from the plate, and Rose found herself looking for their eyelids. Shouldn't be able to do that --

Also, she seemed to be wearing a sweater made from bin liners. "Mum? . . . you hate him --"

"Better than the last one -- " Jackie's face abruptly frowned. "Er, sir? I think she's coming 'round."

"Last . . . what?" Rose was suddenly aware of a loud thrumming from outside the flat, and she stood up to try to look out the window. This proved to be impossible --


"Oh, she's opening her eyes! Oh, good -- "

The glowering blue miasma was blocked somewhat by the worried visage of . . . of . . . what's-his-face, the bloke with no chin. Smelled like the dumpster behind the off-licence. Vetch?

There was another voice saying something but with the loud (why so loud?) background hum and the feeling as though her entire nervous system had been ripped out, trembling and shaking and moving through her --

"Oh no, I think she's passed out aga --"


Rose stared muzzily at her plate of eyes. "Mum, we got any salt?"




"I! Oh! Ah!"

"Keep going; you'll get all the vowel sounds sooner or later."

"Agh! Why --"

"Only partial credit for that one, sorry."

"Uh, Doc?" muttered Jack.

"Doctor."

"I think you're hurting him."

The Doctor grinned savagely in response, focusing glassily on the door of the room which he and Jack had escaped from not minutes ago. His left hand was twitching furiously in Jack's makeshift bandage and his right was dragging Horten along in a manner that would've elicited comment from the better class of prisoners' rights campaigns.

He stormed into the disused storage room, slamming the smaller man down onto what was left of a swivel chair. "Jack. Door." Harkness glanced at what was left of it, sighed and gamely swiveled the remnants on their hinges. The end result was something less than stellar.

Close enough. The Doctor whipped back around to glower at Horten, who was rubbing his arm and trying to surreptitiously edge the chair away from where his captor stood fuming. "Well, well. How's the investigation going, Max?"

Horten licked his lips furtively. "Er. Doctor, I -- "

"He was there in the Director's study," Jack mentioned casually. "When the guts fell out of the ceiling."

"That had nothing to do with -- "

"Yeah? What about all that stuff you were carting off to the Grid Room? Funny, I didn't see you there." Harkness's voice took on a slightly menacing tone in spite of his calm appearance. "Or your kit."

Horten glowered. "Sir, as I said before -- "

"And surprise, surprise; you do know the Doctor. Fancy that."

"Now see here --"

-- the screaming of the deathless ones --

The Doctor closed his eyes, trying to drown out both of the quarreling humans and more insidious sounds. The swirling, insistent weight of the Book was still somewhere by the edges of his mind, lurking in a pregnant and predatory silence broken by the occasional vicious susurrus of things better left uncontemplated. Parts of his brain that had shut down in shock at the end of the War were sluggishly lurching back to life, detached numbness being overtaken by shattered dislocation as his telepathic sensors strained feebly to hear those echoes of voices, dead a lost world.

The Book was only too happy to send these echoes back. It was getting too dammed late in the day to be fighting his own brain, and he never had gotten that soup.

Deep breath. Time for some answers. The Doctor opened his eyes and smiled, horribly.

"So!" he sang, bright and brittle. "We've found our thief. But where's our murderer?"

Horten blinked in rapid succession. If he'd been a telegraph machine, he'd have just sent a rather garbled message about tax forms and spray fixative. "Er?"

"Oh, don't play coy. This," he held up the sonic screwdriver, "this look familiar to you?"

Horten blinked again, adding a series of pointless mathematical equations to the stuff with the fixative. "What?"

"Now, here's an interesting conundrum," the Doctor said, brightly. "Early this morning, you told me that the Book went missing about, ooh, seven months back. Bit of time elapsed before the two Archivists who'd been working on it disappeared, didn't it?"

Horten's expression was suddenly cagey. "Er. Doctor, I think -- "

"You think? You think? Oh, Horten. I know you were saying that membership with the Logicians' Guild was mostly ceremonial, but you didn't have to prove it by mucking up like this."

"Er -- "

"I'm just gonna stand here," Jack announced from the door, "and be on the general, you know, lookout for things. That okay with you?"

"Fine. So, let me see if I have this straight --"

"That's not to say that I wouldn't mind getting an explanation myself," Jack added. "I mean, murder mysteries are one thing; getting randomly dumped into VR programs is kind of, oh, another -- "

Horten started to get out of the chair. "Well, ah, as it happens, there is an exp --"

"Lemme guess," the Doctor interrupted. "You're a man who likes his antiquities. Historian. Old book like this turns up, naturally you're bird-dogging anyone studying it for information." He pushed Horten back down into the chair. "I'm guessing you get poor Archivist Lyn to let you look it over. Or you see something in her notes that she doesn't. One way or the other, you find out that this Book is more than it looks to be."

He ambled around the quaking man. "And you saw things, didn't you."

The Archivist licked his lips. "I . . . I didn't --"

"Yes, you did, didn't you? Looked into my memories, played them back to amuse yourself. But then you knew what I know. Knew what happened -- will happen -- is already happening to Alezhandria."

"I don't know wh -- "

"Yes, you do." He wasn't subtle with his mindflaying these days, but then again he wasn't subtle, these days. "I can see it just behind your eyes, you know. See what you've seen with my eyes. You know what's going on, don't you?"

Horten gave a strangled cry. A kinder man would have pitied him, but that kindly man had died in his own fires and this Doctor pressed on, ruthlessly.

"So I expect you'd really want the Book, then. You're racking its contents -- and that's the whole history of my species as told through mine, thank you so bloody much -- for information, but with my memories hitting you upside the face like Palin with a pilchard you can't get a handle on things. Not to mention that Lyn's starting to think the Book's not part of a lending library, and Ragusa agrees. So you steal it."

The Archivist blanched. "There's no evidence -- "

The Doctor grinned. "Of course there is." You're giving it to me, aren't you. "So now you've got it -- but you still don't know how to use it. Bit tricky, stealing a motorcycle and then remembering the last time you rode a bike was with training wheels. Can't exactly ask Mummy for help, can you?"

He glanced over pointedly at Rose to add emphasis, only to remember that Rose wasn't there. Jack was giving him a look perfectly balanced between amused contempt and confused respect, though, which meant he was probably on the right track. "So. Now you need Lyn's notes. Only she's really not inclined to trust you, now. So you find a way of dealing with her."

He kicked aside one of the rusting metal shelf sections, the half-real woman still staring expectantly in her frozen moment, silent. "Your doing. You really can't ride this bike, can you?"

The little man flailed in his seat, choking. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone!"

The Doctor smiled coldly, wishing those words didn't have such a terrible echo. "Oh, Max, Maxie. Yanking things out of causality is dangerous enough when you're a Time Lord with a functional Time Scoop; what made you think you'd succeed with a manual you barely understand and less comprehension of quasi-reciprocal trans-temporal feedback loops than plankton's got of the Gobi Desert?"

His words reached a vicious crescendo and he rounded savagely on his heel, catching the briefest of confused stares from Jack as he started to wheel back around. "So now you've blipped poor ol' Lyn into temporal stasis and can't get her out of it. Worse still, you're already suspect, so you have to let all her notes and data pass to Grimwade. But you don't stop there, oh no. Because the alarm's ticking to Volcano Day, to quote the good Captain, and even if you're long gone you don't want all your hard work going up in flames. So you off him, too."

"I didn't!"

Spinning wheels and widening gyres. Two lives back and he'd have done things to this man's mind that would've made Lecter blink, but this was here and now and this life and he had to trust to the brief and brutal side of things. The ring of truth was in Horten's voice and it demanded that he act instantly.

"So you tried to win him over, then," the Doctor barked.

"Yes!"

"And he listened?"

"Yes!"

"Then what?"

"He disappeared!"

-- he tries to explain that there was no choice, but the sigil looms --

The Doctor drowned out the chorus by focusing on Horten's sweating, pasty face. "I don't have time for this -- "

"He did! I had nothing to do with it -- " Odd. Horten didn't have the capacity for duplicity -- well, not that much. Was he telling the truth?

"Fine. He 'disappeared'. But in the meantime, all Lyn's notes, all Grimwade's notes pass to Trevor Selos. Selos works on the history of the Book and doesn't see any reason to give you any more access to their diaries. Meanwhile, Ragusa's giving you the hard stare. You try to wear Selos down, but he won't talk to you.

And then what happens, Mr. Horten?"

Horten slumped back into the chair. "I -- I tried to hack his files."

"No luck, then."

Horten rubbed his face, wearily. "He kept them on a unit that was not connected to the main interface. A data dump, with no interface for the main grid. I spent weeks trying to find those files before I realized . . "

"So you had to get the hard copy."

"Yes."

"But Selos passed it on to Ragusa. And Ragusa, being the Director of the Special Collection, had the best possible encryption system that a library budget could afford." He snorted reflectively, in spite of himself. "'Course, you being a crap hacker probably didn't help the cause, did it . . "

Horten sagged in his seat, tears pooling in the rims of his lenses. The Doctor tried to find that cold edge that had served him so well in the past, but here was just a small, broken man with no hope. What was the point of rallying for such a grim future?

-- dead --

"So you deputized me to help you hack those files for you, and let me just say that's an inspired bit of gall right there; keeping me in the dark about the thing I was looking for while using me to get at it. Botched, but gutsy. Not that you could come right out and ask me for help, could you?"

The Logician was bent low over himself, shoulders heaving. "Horten."

"So, call me, uh, crazy, but being a latecomer to all this, well . . . " Jack sighed, leaning against the doorframe. "I'm not really seeing how everything's adding up. Not yet."

Neither did he, but he was dammed if he was going to say it out loud. "Explain later. So. Mr. Horten. You want to explain why my screwdriver, you know, the one you said was missing? why it was in the ducts above your esteemed Director's office? Not to mention why the Book and what I'm guessing was Trevor Selos's insides were keeping it company?"

"I . . ." Horten took a long, shuddery breath. "I don't know."

"Oh, come on, Max. No secrets now."

"No, I don't . . . I don't know. I assumed that Ragusa --"

"Again with trying to implicate the Director? Please. I eat toast, beans and red herrings for breakfast. You've got nothing left to lose; why were they --"

"I don't know." The little man flinched horribly as the Doctor stared him down, quailing in the Time Lord's basilisk gaze. "I . . . I honestly don-- "

"Uh, Doc?"

Not. Again. "And just what were you trying to do with the Book, anyway? Because as far as changing the future goes, you haven't. Yet. Though if I don't get this -- "

"Doc."

"Shut up. Talking. C'mon, Mr. Horten. I'm not finished with you; not by a long shot."

"Doctor." Jack's voice had a warning note, and he had withdrawn further into the room. "Remember this whole 'lookout' thing I was on about?"

The Doctor opened his mouth to say something sarcastic, then registered a low, background hum. Getting louder.

"Right. Split up; meet back at the TARDIS." He grabbed Horten by the shoulder, hauling the little man to his feet. "Don't suppose I can prevail upon your superior Agent training to lead them off for a bit?"

Jack sighed heavily, but waggled his eyebrows. "Anything to be of service. Need the key, though." He leaned in, muttering in the Doctor's not-inconsiderable ear, "So how'd you figure out it was him?"

"I didn't. All a freeform bluff based on some conflicting accounts. Doesn't explain nearly enough, though." The Doctor dug in his trouser pocket for the key, handing it over and morbidly wondering if he'd ever get it back. "Here. Don't you get caught."

"What, and miss your big explanation as to just what the hell's going on? I'll come back from the crukking grave if I have to." Jack saluted jauntily, then dashed out of the room. Thirteen seconds later, a police drone whirred past, tentacles flailing. Neither of the two remaining men breathed until the groaning had receded in the outside halls.

The Doctor felt Horten flinch under his grip, and a few more errant questions reared their heads. "Just out of curiosity, you wouldn't be controlling that lot too?"

"N-no. No. I don't -- I thought they were loaned out to us, I -- I tried to reprogram one or two but -- well -- "

and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake

The Doctor shook his head, waiting for the world to stop flaring white. "Sorry. Wait. So -- the squiddies aren't yours, then?"

"I told you, the Director has influence -- "

He cut Horten off with a snort. "No one's got this kind of sway." Adjusting his grip on Horten's collar, he glanced out into the halls. Though already jittery, his nerves could still pinpoint that malevolent whirr somewhere on this level. Assuming that Jack was leading the drones on a merry chase, that meant he and Horten could take the direct route to the TARDIS.

This brought up an interesting point. "Uh. Horten?"

The puffin-faced little man glanced up at him, defeated, shivering. "Yes?"

"You didn't see a police box anywhere, did you?"





The drones seemed to be moving around more erratically than usual, although Ragusa suspected the same could be said of her. More alarming was the fact that she hadn't encountered anyone in the halls since parting with the human girl on the staircase. Budget cuts and shortened hours notwithstanding, there should be some staff still around.

Although it would not have surprised her if they really had been skipping out early, these days. Nothing was sacred.

A low series of vibrations pulsed from a nearby corridor. Close. Hopefully there was somewhere to hide, but so far . . .

-- Come to that, why had she broken into Horten's office? There had seemed to be good reason for it at the time, but that was largely the fault of that infuriating girl, who had seemed so very sure of the reasoning and then failed spectacularly to clarify anything. Some vague and badly-explained concept of danger made in a tremulous voice, then some inexplicable robot attacks for good measure . . .

They did reality vid shows about this sort of thing, she remembered hazily. Disorientation drills. Pick a victim, instigate a rapid series of jarring events and see just how madly they'll behave before catching on.

Her arm was missing; she'd been electrocuted by police drones after being arrested for having an unexplained digestive tract in her ceiling; she was exhausted, patronized, insulted and on the verge of collapse; her library was no doubt horrifying to behold in certain areas. Oh, there would be lawsuits.

The warning buzzing started to chafe under her chitin. Very close.

There didn't seem to be many more options for hiding, although given how tired Ragusa was feeling, falling over into torpor didn't seem like such a terrible option. Out of deference to her habitual if pointless defiance of the inevitable, she turned one last corner.

She blinked mulishly at the blue cabinet some idiot had dumped in the middle of the hallway, where anyone could walk into it. Lawsuit.

There was an inexplicable creak and a panel -- door? -- opened in its surface.


Back to index



Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

This story archived at http://www.whofic.com/viewstory.php?sid=5847