Night Terrors by Lyricwritesprose [Reviews - 46] |
Note that this fic bears no relationship to the episode of the same name; that's just a coincidence. It's set sometime between "The Doctor's Wife" and "The Rebel Flesh." As such, it has more than a few spoilers for the former episode. As does the author's note . . . I'll leave some space.
It's worth noting that while this story isn't violent, it does reference House's psychological torture. It would rate a mental manipulation warning, if there was one.
As always, please let me know if I've included any jarring Americanisms.
The wedding march sounded mournful and far away, like hunting horns.
I thought we'd decided against the traditional wedding march, but I couldn't remember. The only thing that came to mind was Amy, probably joking, suggesting, "Livin' La Vida Loca." As a last-minute warning, she had said. For you. There's still time to run for the hills, you know.
There wasn't, even if I'd wanted to. All the people turned to watch her come in. It came to me that they were all wearing black. Shades of my great-gran's funeral, the year before we moved to Leadworth. But that had been in a big, old church with stained glass windows, and this wasn't. It wasn't a church at all. It was underground, with torches in the wall sconces.
I noticed that I was wearing a security guard's uniform. The wedding march sounded like a dirge, and they wheeled it in.
It's big, bigger than a person, and dark, and there are circles that look like decoration but actually seem to serve as some sort of alien combination lock, and I know every mark even though I don't know what any of them mean. You can get so used to something that you practically have to stop and think to remember it has a name, and that's what it was like, for me. Gravity. Air. Waiting. The Pandorica.
I opened my mouth to say, but that's all wrong, it shouldn't be here. Nothing came out.
They wheeled it up the aisle and the circles flared green. The entire place was lit green. I looked at the congregation and noticed that they were all aliens. Ood, to be specific, with green eyes and those globes in their hands.
It was opening. It could still be all right. Amy would be in there and she'd be fine and everything would be fine, just fine, all fine, please let me run away now–
It was empty. Chair. Restraints.
I realized that the Doctor was standing beside me, and managed to turn toward him. It was like swimming through syrup. I tried to say, what's going on? or where's Amy but I still couldn't make my mouth move. He gave me a cheery smile and said, "In you get."
My body lurched toward the Pandorica. Just like a puppet.
He'd always meant to do this, I realized, to lock me inside where I couldn't move and couldn't stand and couldn't sleep and couldn't die and don't make me don't make me please don't put me inside–
And I made a "Nrrk!" sound and jerked all over, and I was awake and sweating and breathing like I'd been running for my life.
My name is Rory Williams and I'm quite ordinary, really.
Well, except for being married to the most glorious woman in existence, who actually is slightly mad, but not in the way everyone said. And getting tangled up with her imaginary friend, a superintelligent alien who saves worlds and occasionally the universe when he's not just faffing about. And going time travelling on the night before my wedding, which stretched a really, really unreasonably long time (see above re time travel) and inadvertantly resulted in me becoming a deadly plastic Roman legionary who ended up guarding a box for close to two thousand years, which didn't actually happen in the real universe but which I remember some of the time due to long words which I sometimes suspect the Doctor of inventing on the spot–
Okay. So maybe not exactly ordinary. But it's all just stuff that happened to me. I didn't go looking for it.
I sat up slowly, careful not to disturb Amy. I haven't woken her yet with one of my nightmares, and I don't want to. The lighting–there was just enough to not bang into things–didn't get any brighter as I got dressed and found my slippers, so I touched the wall and whispered, "Gratia tibi ago," as I slipped out the door. Da would tan my hide if he caught me being rude to a household god.
Except, no. He wouldn't. That's one of those Roman thoughts that sneaks in when I'm not looking.
I felt cold and a little shaky and more than a bit disturbed, and the corridor outside my room didn't seem half as neutral as it used to. A bit over a week ago, a sadistic entity managed to possess the TARDIS–
I should maybe explain about the TARDIS.
So, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, that's Clarke's Third Law. Which doesn't tell you how it feels to realize that by some peoples' standards, you're a gaping primitive who's barely discovered the wheel. The TARDIS is a time machine, and a spaceship, and everything about her is a bit impossible. I'm not just talking about the inside being much, much bigger than the outside. I mean little things. The lighting that comes on when you need it, at exactly the strength you want it, and doesn't seem to come from anywhere in particular. Or the way you can hang up dirty, shredded clothes and find them clean and mended the next time you open the wardrobe doors, even if it's only a second later. Or the way the rooms clean themselves but never put away anything you were planning to use, and even if you go out of your way to try to catch it happening, you will never, ever see it.
When I first came on board, it gave me the creeps.
And then something called the House hijacked the TARDIS's computer, or brain, or whatever, displacing her into a humanoid body, and I realized a number of things. First of all, the TARDIS isn't just an impossibly sophisticated machine; she's sapient. Secondly, she's kind of sweet. That's why I've started to thank her for things, and bring in flowers for the kitchen table, and so on. My everyday English self doesn't have the first clue how to treat a being who's also a place, but my Roman memories are a bit more comfortable with it; a lot more things are alive when you're a pagan, and it's just prudent to be polite to them.
And third, just the idea of a malevolent TARDIS is absolutely brown-trousers terrifying. Right now, the corridors were nice and white, the worst thing they'd do to me is get me lost, and for me, at least, being lost inevitably leads to the swimming pool. (Amy always comes out in the wardrobe room.) But part of my mind insisted that any moment, the light would turn greenish, and the air would turn clammy, and I'd find myself running down endless corridors, chased by something I couldn't escape from any more than a rat can get away from the scientist looking down into a maze–only worse, because this scientist could put thoughts into my head–
So, yeah, still a bit spooked from the nightmare.
I set off toward the library. It's my go-to place when I can't sleep, which means I've fetched up there three nights in a row. There's lots and lots of Pratchett in the library, including the more obscure, non-Discworld stuff, and just about every author I liked as a kid, and even pulling books off the shelf at random usually produces something interesting. I've found everything from books of mythology to Sherlock Holmes and alien ethnographies. Every once in a while they have corrections scribbled in the margins, or just notes saying, it didn't happen that way at all.
Yeah, the Sherlock Holmes too.
This time, though, I wasn't just looking for a comfort read. I wanted to find a book on psychic phenomena, a real, solid scientific work, not crackpottery and moonshine. And I had a feeling the TARDIS was going to object, and that put both my English and Roman sides a little on edge. I mean, I don't know that she's under orders to hide things from me, but there are some subjects, like twenty-first century history, that you just can't find–
Like, tonight, the entire library. I came out in the kitchen instead.
There was a pot of tea sitting next to the stove, and a cup of tea sitting next to the pot. It was still steaming hot and looked like it had milk in (which is the way I take it) and there were a couple of biscuits sitting next to it. The post-it note right next to the saucer said Rory.
Whatever else she can do, the TARDIS doesn't make tea, and she certainly doesn't communicate through post-it notes. The tea was from the Doctor.
Which is the sort of thing I found seriously intimidating when I first came on board the TARDIS. I mean, I know he's not spying on me. That means he's smart enough not just to figure out what I'm thinking but to know what I'm going to be dreaming about, realize that it's going to bother me, and make me a nice calming pot of tea–all with such good timing that it's still at the perfect temperature when I get to it.
That's scary. I mean, I respect the Doctor, I like the Doctor, but–that's scary.
It's something I can't talk about to Amy without getting into a row. It doesn't help that I'm utter pants at explaining this kind of thing; it always comes out sounding like I don't trust the Doctor. And it's not that, it's not even about that, it's–
I don't know. But it bothers me. Especially after the last few days, and the nightmares. On the one hand, the tea meant that he knew about the nightmares, and that was reassuring in an odd way. But it also meant he'd noticed them, and given that the kinds of things he usually notices are trouble, one way or another–
I was dithering. I needed to stop dithering.
I picked up the tea and headed for the console room. It was a safe bet that the Doctor would be there. It's sometimes amazing how much I don't know about him despite living in his time machine; not only have I never seen his room, I'm not completely sure he has one. I'm not sure if he needs to sleep regularly, but if he does, it's less than a human, and he spends a lot of his free time tinkering with various bits of the TARDIS–and I'm not sure whether she actually needs it or if it's just his way of spending time with her.
It turned out I'd guessed partly wrong; the Doctor wasn't doing maintenance. I stepped out onto the console room balconey and came face-to-not-face with a something.
I really don't know how to describe it. I mean, tentacles were definitely involved, but they weren't connected to eachother in any sort of reasonable way. They were greyish and shiny, with maybe a slight purple iridescence, and they waved in the air as if they were immune to gravity. The tentacle hanging right in front of my face ended in a sort of circular feather, a little bit like the feeding organs of a barnacle–but it could have been a sensory organ for all I knew. Inside that, there were five little golden spheres that I thought might be eyeballs, and in the middle of those was definitely a mouth.
It wasn't a good mouth. It was absolutely a very bad sort of mouth. I yelped, threw my tea in its general direction, and lunged past it towards the stairs. There would be tools down there, tools I could maybe use as weapons, but most of me wasn't even thinking of that bit. Most of me was trying to figure out how the hell it had gotten in the TARDIS and had it eaten the Doctor and was I about to get ground up by a mouth that looked like a baby sarlaac and I really, really, really didn't want to die and–
Somebody screamed. It was a very high-pitched scream.
"Rory, for heaven's sake stop scaring her," the Doctor said.
He was standing beside the console, and a bit behind it (which is why I hadn't seen him at first) and he didn't look alarmed at all–which, okay, isn't the most reliable indicator of mortal danger, but at least he didn't seem hurt. I said, "Scaring her?!" which thankfully didn't sound quite as terrified as I felt. My heart was hammering.
The Doctor shot me a look that I couldn't interpret, but addressed the tentacles instead of me. "It's all right, Cally. He won't hurt you, it's okay."
A little girl's voice said, "But he threw molten ice at me." It sounded small and upset. There were little sparks of bioluminescence along the tentacles, more or less in time with the words I was hearing.
I noticed that most of the tentacles had moved behind the Doctor. Some of them seemed to taper off into thin air, or appear out of thin air, and I wasn't sure if the whole confusing assemblage was one creature or several, but it seemed to be hiding from me.
"We live on molten ice," the Doctor said. "Remember?" He picked up his tea from the chair where he'd set it and took a sip by way of illustration. "Molten ice with complex hydrocarbon flavoring. It's good." He beamed at the eye-cluster that was hanging beside him–and it had to be the TARDIS translation circuits that were giving the eyes a worried expression, because there was nothing for them to have a worried expression with. "He didn't intend to hurt you," the Doctor went on, and gave me that look again.
Ah. The look meant, this is someone under my protection. Back the hell off.
Just–something you should know. A safety tip, sort of. If you ever find yourself menacing someone the Doctor wants to protect, the only response is, I'm really extremely sorry and I'd like to make this right. I backed the hell off. "Um. Sorry, er–"
"Cally," the Doctor said. "Cally, meet Rory. Rory, Cally." This time the smile was directed at both of us, which was good. The Doctor has a daft, fun sort of grin. It's a funny sort of thing to say, but in a good mood he almost reminds me of Amy, charging at life full-tilt, laughing at the naysayers–and also, him smiling now meant he'd never been all that angry.
Which was good, because I can't always tell. I thought I was getting better at relating to him–it helped that he'd warmed up to me–but now and then I'm utterly lost. "Hello," I said, "Cally. Um–welcome to the TARDIS?"
A batch of eyes, with one of those mouth in the middle, just sort of–materialized next to me. What with the tentacles tapering in and out, and the fact that how big she was seemed to change as she moved, I was beginning to suspect that Cally took up more than three dimensions. I mean, you try to picture what a human hand would look like to a two-dimensional creature; it could go from five seperate circles to one large oval to a flat hand-print shape to God-knows-what, all depending on how you stick your hand through the plane where the creature lives.
Lovecraft to the side, I wasn't going insane from looking at it. If it weren't for the multiple mouths, it would have been sort of pretty, in a surreal-CGI kind of way. Mostly, though, it was just confusing. Very, very confusing. I wondered if the Doctor could see into higher dimensions, or otherwise make sense of the whole thing. He was moving around the console, flicking switches and ducking casually under tentacles, but that's just the Doctor. The more bizarre the circumstances, the more at home he feels.
"Wow," Cally said, sounding about five or six. "You're even warmer than the Doctor. Do you get tired, being that hot?"
The sound from behind the console suggested that whatever other bizarre biological tricks Time Lords might have, they can't respirate tea. "Pond, Rory Pond," he said gleefully when he recovered. "Intergalactic heartbreaker."
Amy would have said something like, jealous, bowtie boy? only wittier. I just tried to ignore him with dignity. "Cold isn't all that good for me," I said.
"Remember," the Doctor put in, "we belong in different environments. If Rory went outside," he nodded towards the TARDIS's front doors, "he'd be dead in less than a minute. The TARDIS's envelope is protecting us from you as much as it is you from us."
I wondered if the TARDIS's envelope was also protecting her from gravity. "So you can never go outside?" Cally said. "That's awful!"
"Well–yeah, I can, on planets and space stations and that weird place with the hyperspace trains–"
"The Superstructure," the Doctor put in.
"Right. But, I mean–" Less than a minute. Was that how long a human could last in hard vacuum? "Do you live in space? Like, really live in outer space?"
The transdimensional tentacled Lovecraftian horror–who happened to be a little girl–giggled at me. "No, silly! I live in the Drift."
"Known to local hominid-types as the Black Crown Nebula," the Doctor said. "Don't worry if you've never heard of it; it's a bit outside your neighborhood." He tapped the side of the scanner, then twisted a knob, said, "Hah!" and spun away from the console, towards the doors. He threw them open–dramatically, because he's like that–and said, "See anyone you know?"
The air around the Doctor sprouted half a dozen eye clusters. "Mum!" Cally squealed, and all her disparate bits lunged for the door simultaneously, rippling momentarily into something that almost looked like a single coherent being. A bit torpedo-shaped. Squidlike. The tentacles did join up to something like a body, although it didn't stay the same shape for long–
The Doctor put up a finger. "Cally."
She stopped instantly. "Yes, Doctor?"
"Do you remember what I told you?"
I was reasonably sure she didn't actually take a deep breath, as if to recite some sort of lesson, but that was the general impression I got. "Warm hollow rocks sometimes have people inside them. Check before I take a bite."
"And if there are people, you absolutely won't do what?"
"Poke their insides, no matter how funny they look," Cally recited dutifully.
I blinked. That was the extra dimensions theory–confirmed, then? I couldn't think of another way she could poke at someone's internal organs without just putting holes in people–
I thought of the possible consequences of getting your liver prodded by a curious tentacle from the fourth dimension. And then decided that wasn't a good thing to think about.
"Good girl!" Cally had earned herself a Doctor grin. "Right then. Off you go!"
I flinched inwardly. The cheery tone, the way my dream had said in you get–I wished my subconscious was a little less accurate.
Cally undulated out the door. All her parts went through the doorway; I decided that she might be able to ghost through ordinary walls by using fourth-dimension tricks, but TARDIS walls were probably a whole other order of business. "Bye, Doctor," she called, "bye, Rory, bye . . ." The last word might have been TARDIS, but as soon as her last tentacle-eye-mouth swooped out, her voice faded into nothing.
I looked out the door. It was a dim, foggy sort of space-scape–not glowy, like some nebulas–but I thought I could see bioluminescent tentacles, much larger than Cally's, off in the dust. "The Black Crown Nebula," the Doctor said, lingering on the word nebula. "Lost treasures. Lost worlds. Pirates and adventurers and fortunes to be found–like the Sargasso and the South Seas rolled into one. Or that's what it will be. We're early." He closed the doors. "Fewer lost ships, though, this time around." He went back to the console, grinning like a lunatic and doing a sort of odd pirouette that I would have taken to be sheer euphoria if he didn't do that all the time.
Saving worlds, I thought, and just faffing about. Sometimes it's very hard to tell which is which. "Doctor?" I said, after a moment, "why is an interdimensional space squid named Cally?"
The Doctor gave me one of his you're an idiot looks. "It's a nickname."
"Right." Obviously. Silly me.
There was a light flashing on the console. The Doctor flipped a switch rapidly up and down, then tapped the light. "That," he said, "was brilliant. Really brilliant." He looked up and down the central column, then patted the console. "Plenty of time to spare, even." I decided that he was almost certainly talking to the TARDIS and not just celebrating his own intelligence, which he does sometimes. He glanced over at me and added, for my benefit, "The dual-environment system–"
Something failed in a shower of sparks and little bolts just as the Doctor reached for it. He snatched his hand back and stuck it in his mouth.
"How," I wondered aloud, "did the Time Lords learn to manipulate the laws of reality without ever inventing the surge protector?" I was fairly sure the Glare of Death I got wasn't actual anger. Besides, even the Doctor can't be all that intimidating while sucking on his fingers. I think. "What's a dual-environment system when it's at home?" I didn't think I had any real chance of an explanation that didn't involve the word wibbly at some point, but, you know, hope and all that.
"Fforkig," the Doctor said, and took his fingers out. "Shorted," he repeated, "at the moment." He popped the panel off with his sonic and started pulling out charred bits. He calls them circuits–although circuits on the TARDIS don't necessarily resemble any sort of Earth circuitry, or even necessarily do the same type of thing–but from my caveman perspective, the innards of the TARDIS are full of bits that do stuff. And, for the record, it does not help that most of the explanations I get sound exactly like that. "I'm going to have to replace this lot."
"Yes," I said patiently, "but what is the dual-environment system supposed to do? When it's working?"
"It maintains dual environments." I think Time Lords might be able to hear peoples' eyes roll even when their backs are turned, because the Doctor went on, "Say, if you had one species that belongs in vacuum and another that likes their atmosphere at about a bar. Or one with liquid helium blood and the other one water-based. If the TARDIS hadn't been protecting Cally, your tea would have been like a faceful of white-hot steel. Of course, she'd have already been dead of temperature and pressure–" He pulled something out of his pockets that looked suspiciously like an ordinary, twenty-first century can of compressed air, and sprayed it into the console.
"I actually just meant to distract her," I admitted.
"So you could find a spanner and bash her head in."
I had nothing to say to that. "I'm sorry."
I got a surprised, didn't we cover that five minutes ago? look. "Yes, you said. Anyway, the joke's on you. Subspace hydrae don't have heads." He gave me one of his dippy, the universe is weird and fun! smiles.
Which was as close to it's all right, Rory, as I was going to get. "Should I go fetch–" I wasn't sure what, but if there were TARDIS repairs going on, it was a pretty safe bet that I needed to fetch something.
I'm actually getting good at it. You just have to switch your brain to "completely barking" and know what to listen for. If the Doctor sends you looking for a dimensional band harmonizer but describes it as a transparent wobbly bit with silver ends and a filament down the middle, it's a pretty good bet that you'll find it filed under W. For "wobbly."
This is the man who, on occasion, holds the universe together. Think about that for a moment.
"You could do, yeah . . ." The Doctor leaned closer to inspect something in the console workings, produced a pair of tweezers from his pocket, and used them to remove something that looked like a pixie-sized vacuum tube. The mad Victorian steampunk scientist-adventurer, in his natural element. In a few minutes, the goggles would go on. "Or you could tell me what those dreams of yours have me doing to you."
And then sometimes, he reminds you that he's nothing so harmless and cuddly as a mad scientist. "Are you–" I was going to say eavesdropping on my brain, but I cut it off. First of all, he wouldn't. Second, if he was the sort of person who would, he would never admit it–and I'd already be in an un-get-out-able amount of trouble. "Never mind. Stupid question."
"Not stupid," the Doctor said, and closed up the console again. "More than a bit insulting, though, so thank you for not asking it." He gave me a brief, not-quite-sincere-looking smile.
I wasn't even sure whether to sort that into angry or not-angry, let alone how to respond to it, so I walked over to sit on the stairs. "Sorry. I don't know–it's just–" I took a breath. "Did Amy tell you much about what House did? Before you and the TARDIS came flying in."
The Doctor petted the console, a sort of nonverbal, yes, remember that? You were lovely. "She told me," he said, "that you convinced him to let you live because you'd be fun to torment. The words just like one of your daft plans might have been deployed."
I looked away. "Yeah, well, he got inside our heads." I didn't think Amy had actually told me all of what she saw. When we got to our new bedroom, she–I mean, normally, Amy-plus-danger is sort of a–kind of–thing with clothing damage–but this time it wasn't. Like that, I mean. And normally Amy doesn't like to be held when she sleeps, because she gets too hot and tosses the blankets about. After House, though, she wrapped my arms around her and held onto them, tightly, even after she drifted off. "It showed me this–illusion, I guess you'd say–sort of like it had brought me forward, to a future where we'd been running around in the corridors without food, for weeks, and future me was–going to eat Amy." And I hadn't really, viscerally known, not until that moment, that I had all the Last Centurion's knowledge about killing people. I'd been inches away from breaking illusion-me's neck before I grew half a brain and realized it wasn't me, and if it wasn't me, it might be her.
Seeing my wife upset makes me feel wobbly and heartbroken and, usually, a little useless. Seeing my wife like that–it doesn't even feel like rage, exactly. It's more elemental and nameless than that. Illusion-me didn't even have the time to twitch before I had him.
"And a little bit after that," I went on, wishing I could tell it without thinking about it, "I got this notion in my head that Amy was waiting just around the next corner, and she had a knife, and she was going to kill me and butcher me just like–anyway. House gave me an axe. Or an illusion of an axe. It disappeared when I got rid of it." And walking around that corner, unarmed and with my throat bare, was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. I feel a bit guilty, honestly. I mean, I trust Amy more than that.
The Doctor sat down next to me. "Amy also told me," he said quietly, "that you saw through the projections and saved her."
"Well–yeah. I did, sort of. I mean, she got the console room door open, so there was a certain amount of mutual saving going on." I took a deep breath. "But the important bit is that he got into my head in the first place. And–you already know I've been having nightmares–"
"You have bags under your eyes," the Doctor said.
"Thanks." Because sarcasm was easier than going to the next sentence. "It's just that I don't know how all this psychic stuff works. I don't even know if House could do that because of what he was–whatever that is–or because he was using the TARDIS translation circuit. And I don't know if it's possible–" My mouth was dry and my throat was tight. If anything, I was more scared than I had been when I first saw Cally. "I don't know if House could have left something–I don't know, a residue, or a seed of some sort. In my head, I mean. And if he did that, then it could be something designed to make me–hostile. To you. And then maybe to Amy. Because if I hurt Amy, if he could make me hurt Amy, I don't think he would have had a hard time breaking me down and making me just like that Ood, Nephew–except I don't know how any of this works, so maybe that's not right at all–"
The Doctor hugged me.
It floored me. The Doctor invades peoples' personal space all the time, without even thinking about it, but this was different. This was more like what he sometimes does with Amy. Not romantic, but with enough feeling in it that it always makes me jealous anyway.
I'm–not very comfortable being hugged by a bloke. Primitive monkey prejudice, I guess, the sort of thing that'll make my great-grandkids cringe a little at the thought of the twenty-first century, the same way my generation winces at Rudyard Kipling and all the race stuff. Hard to shake the things you learn from schoolyard taunts, even when you know you should–
On the other hand, I could pretty well use a hug. So I did my best to be all right with it.
"You lot," the Doctor whispered. As far as I can tell, that's Time Lord for homo sapiens sapiens. "You never notice. You never notice."
"Er. Notice what?"
He let go of me. "When you're being magnificent."
He was giving me that smile. The one that says, I've seen stars born and galaxies die, I can feel the tides of the universe, I've challenged armies and played chess with demons and brought down gods–and that's all just stuff. You, though, you're wonderful. The most marvellous thing in the universe, right in front of me.
He means it. Whenever he smiles at someone like that, he means it.
"Um. Er." Rory Williams the eloquent, that's me. "Okay, compliments–are good, yeah, I like compliments–but I don't–"
The Doctor withdrew to arm's length so he could study me. "You honestly have no idea," he said, a bit wonderingly, "why I play the villain in all those dreams."
"No. No, I don't. I thought I was–" I clamped my mouth shut.
"Finished being afraid of me?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I did." It came out very stiff. Schoolyard lessons again: you aren't supposed to let people call you scared, you're supposed to fight them if they do, otherwise you're not quite a proper boy anymore. "I saw you save the universe; I saw you sacrifice yourself to save the universe. I shouldn't be like this. I don't know why it's back all of a sudden."
"Rory." It came out as a sort of sigh, but not the usual exasperated one. "What was the single worst moment in all your lives?"
A voice in the back of my head whimpered, No, I'm Rory, I'm Rory, don't make me– "You know what it was."
"The Nestene Consciousness controlling you. Making you do something that you'd never, ever do. Making you its puppet."
I closed my eyes for an instant. I didn't want to remember it, ever, and I wanted the Doctor to stop describing it right now.
"It doesn't matter what you were afraid of before," the Doctor went on softly. "Falling or closed spaces or darkness or humiliation–that's all secondary now. From that moment until the end of your life, whether you remember the reason or not, your greatest fear is mind control."
The feeling of the Consciousness pressing down on me, unspeakably alien, terrifyingly vast, and not even devoting its full attention to me. My self, my Rory-ness, felt as delicate as a soap bubble; any moment, I would wake up and realize that I was all a dream, that the only real thing was my function. There was this feeling of being equipment, and there was no way to stop it, no way at all–it was too strong–
"And then," the Doctor went on, "how long was it? Five, six minutes later? You worked out that I'm a telepath."
I'm leaving her a message for when she wakes up, the Doctor had said. It took me a moment, and seeing his fingers on her face, to realize what he meant. I remembered a sort of superstitious shiver, not just from the alienness of him but the realization that he was talking with the dead, or close enough, and that–that's just–I have no idea how powerful you'd have to be, to reach between life and death. (The Roman in me murmured, Mercury–god of trickery and wandering and fast-talk–sometimes fits a bit too closely for coincidence, doesn't it?)
"Yeah, but–I trust you." Which was true. And I hadn't spent that long wondering if I trusted him because he'd made some adjustments to my head. Really.
"What does that have to do with anything? If you're afraid of dogs, you're afraid of dogs, not just unfriendly ones. It's all stuck together in your brain." The Doctor poked me in the middle of my forehead on the word brain. I could feel my body wanting to flinch at it. "Mind control. Aliens. Telepathy. Me. Whenever something happens, something like House or that bit four days ago, your mind goes right back to the question." He made his voice even quieter, with just a touch of that remote alien chill. "What could I really do to you, if I wanted to? If I tried?"
"You," I said, "are complete pants at reassurance. You know that, right?" Which I said partly just to give myself time to think. He was right; there had been an incident four days ago, right before the latest round of nightmares kicked off. It was–you know, it's a sign of the way my life has gotten that I wasn't even thinking about it; it just wasn't a major thing. We were in this restaurant that was also a space elevator (which is just the sort of combination the Doctor inevitably declares cool) and this trio of terrorists took over the car, threatening to blow it up and break the cable (which would be disastrous for anything it landed on) because of some religious thing or other that I didn't even catch, because I was too busy being amazed and annoyed yet again at how the Doctor can apparently attract trouble by existing too loudly–
Yeah. Anyway. He tried to talk them down, of course. He does that. It actually works from time to time. And even if it wasn't working right then, he'd managed to take all attention off me and Amy–which was good, because people used the elevator to travel up to the Orbital for weekends and there was a bit of luggage that we could use–when this toddler started crying.
The most wild-eyed of the lot, a green bloke with a sort of mohawk, stepped up and slugged the kid. Hard.
The mother was apologizing desperately to the thug, hoping that if she groveled enough he'd lay off, I suppose. The kid was screaming bloody murder, the other passengers were in an uproar, and Mohawk was shouting that if the mother couldn't shut "it" up, he would–so I barely heard Amy whisper, "Oh, bad move," in the sort of voice you use when an odious, abusive bit-character in a movie tries his thing on the Terminator.
The Doctor stood up, which shouldn't have gotten any silence at all under the circumstances, but it did. He walked over and touched the kid on the forehead, and she went out like a light. From shrieking to fast asleep, just like that.
And then he started talking.
If you've never seen a full psychological broadside launched at point-blank range by someone who's smarter than you'll ever be, who's seen and possibly done things that would leave you catatonic–well, if you haven't, then I don't really know how to describe it. It took him under two minutes to have them scared out of their skins.
And when the one thug panicked and decided to start shooting, Amy clocked him with what turned out to be an alien tennis racket, and I took the detonator away from the terrorist leader (I broke two of her thumbs in the scuffle, but considering how close they were to the button, yeah, not feeling sorry at all) and the Doctor took care of Mohawk by getting about three inches from his face and whispering, "Don't. You. Dare."
Then Amy and me got mobbed by reporters when the elevator got to the Orbital, since the threat of publicity had the Doctor vanishing like an unusually tweedy ninja, and he materialized later with three ice cream cones and a parrot. (The situation with the parrot actually turned out to be quite complicated.) And if you'd asked me that afternoon, I would have said that the scariest moment of the day was when the Doctor admitted that his ice cream cone was triple espresso. I mean, he says caffeine doesn't affect his species half as strongly, but just the thought of it . . .
"I wasn't trying to reassure you," the Doctor said now. "I was explaining. First, that your dreams aren't from House, and second: you. Rory Pond, Roronicus, the Boy who Waited. About to ask me to go digging about in your mind, on the mere suspicion of psychic contamination, because as much as the mere notion of telepathy gives you chills, you object to hurting your friends even more. If you don't find something just a tiny bit brilliant in that, I don't know what to say to you."
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Then I said, "I wasn't going to ask–I mean, yeah, I was, but first I was going to ask if you would see everything in my mind, or if there's any–privacy." Because there is at least one thing in my mind that I can't ever let the Doctor see. "I don't know how it works."
"Yes, you've said." Apparently that registered as an insufficient answer even in Time Lord, because after a moment he added, "I don't have to look. You close a door in your mind and I stay away from it. I just check to make sure the–shape of things is right." He moved his hands vaguely, trying to illustrate shape, then got up from the stairs so that he could wave his hands about more freely. "You don't have to examine individual thoughts to sense an invasion. You can tell by the way other thoughts bend around them. It's as if your brain is an anthill, and if someone sticks something rigid and unyielding into the anthill, like a steel bar, the ants will re-route around it, or try to get rid of it, or more likely both. Also swarm up the bar to attack whoever goes about poking at anthills, which–actually, is also a distinct possibility with a psychic attack." He looked moderately astonished that the analogy was still working. "Only this is more of an anthill made of water, and finding the problem is a bit like spotting shoals from a riverboat, and it's more art than science. Sam never could explain how he did it. Spot shoals, I mean, not–"
We were heading at full speed towards a shoal I call Lost In Metaphors. "So basically, the answer is yes, I could keep a little privacy, but you don't think that House is behind this."
"Well–basically, yes, if it has to be basically," the Doctor said. He sounded petulant.
I nodded. I felt somewhat stupid; luckily, I was quite used to it. All my worry, all for nothing–and the Doctor knew every bit of it, which was awkward. And embarrassing. And a bit unsettling, but maybe that was just the connections in my brain talking.
I was almost ready to assume the conversation was over and get up when he said, "And you're right."
"What? I'm right about what?"
"If a strong, experienced psychic had a go at you, you would be helpless. And what House put you through is only a fraction of what they could do."
"Right. Yeah. Thanks. I mentioned earlier, about reassurance and you–"
"The thing is," the Doctor went on, ignoring me, "quite a lot of horrible things are done by absolute amateurs."
I blinked. "Are you saying I could defend myself?"
"I'm saying–" Slightly flaily hands. "Yes. No. Sort of. It depends on what you want to defend yourself against. If I teach you memory shock, it won't stop your nightmares." He leaned on the console, not quite looking at me. "Probably make them worse."
I stood up. "What's memory shock?"
"It's a technique. Not a popular technique. It's not a way to win a battle, just to incapacitate an opponent long enough to fiddle the odds. Besides, the more stable and orderly a society, the fewer the people who'll be able to use it. Deliberately preparing a person to be capable of memory shock would be beyond unethical. But fortunately that doesn't apply," he spun and pointed at me sharply, "to you."
"Because it's memories. That's the thing. It isn't about psychic force, it isn't about shoving your way into someone else's mind. It's all about what happens when they're in yours."
"I am still," I told him, "extremely confused."
The Doctor came around the console and stepped way too close to me, inches away, the way he does. "Do you want me to show you?"
I swallowed. I hate fear. I really do. It always throws me when the Doctor or anyone else calls me brave. Courage, if that's what I've got, feels an awful lot like a couple of lumps of dread having a fight in my stomach. And I've always been a bit nervous of the Doctor. And despite what he says, I'm not sure it's all about telepathy. Some of it's just him.
"Okay," I said, failing to sound manly and capable and confident. "Um, do I have to do–anything?"
"Just hold still." The Doctor touched the side of my face, lightly, like someone playing a lullaby on a piano. He had an absent and gentle look on his face, a bit like he sometimes wears around Amy. For a moment I couldn't feel anything, and then I realized that there was something odd about the sensation of him touching me. You know how, when you touch your own face, you feel it both places–face and fingers–it was a bit like that.
It occurred to me that sex must be incredible between telepaths. Then I grabbed that thought and shoved it in a mental box and locked the box and stuck it in a mental closet and sat on it. "Are you–actually reading me yet?"
"No. Mostly not. A bit just to set up the link, but it's not important. No, what I want you to do is to try to read me. Pick a secret, try to come in and get it."
There's a moment in most martial arts movies where the teacher tells the young, brash protagonist to come at him with all his strength. And the protagonist, being a decent sort, says, I don't know, I don't want to hurt you. The response is always, inevitably, a slight smile and, don't worry. You won't.
This was one of those moments. "I don't know how to–"
"Yes, you do."
And I did. It wasn't all that different from searching my own memory, just in a different–direction, or dimension, I guess. I told myself very firmly that I wasn't creeped out by the information slipping into my brain like that, without me even noticing.
And then I tried to remember the moment when Amy kissed the Doctor.
I got a split second impression of incredible space. His mind was like a sky, and there was snow and lightning and mathematics and compassion so strong it was almost as visceral as rage, and there was a split second glimpse of Amy's room, back in Leadworth, at night. And then I realized that he'd allowed me to get that far, as the entire world smiled slightly and said, Predictable. And the lights went out.
It was dark and icy cold and my big toe hurt. And there was something horribly wrong, beyond the hardness of the surface I was lying on and the fabric over me. (Something very very wrong.) The smell of it, powerful, some sort of disinfectant, Earth, circa late twentieth century (how did I know that?) but beneath that something darker, nastier. Dead, something dead with only a hint of decay, a dead human (was I human?), here on the metal slab before I was–
All those thoughts went by in an instant. An eyeblink. And then I knew exactly where I was, and the dread slammed into me so hard I could feel my hearts spasm–
And then I was up against one of the TARDIS's chairs, and the Doctor had me in an armlock.
It wasn't a particularly hard armlock, although he obviously knew what he was doing. He let me go almost instantly. "You–" It took me a moment to get my breath back. "You were in a morgue."
"Yes, I was." He came around me and dropped down to my level so he could study my face.
"In a morgue. On a slab. Under a sheet. In a morgue." I sat down heavily on the glass floor.
"With retrograde amnesia," the Doctor added, seeming appallingly cheerful under the circumstances. He stood up and paced a little ways away from me. "Human anaesthetics plus a good strong shot of pennicillin. Unpredictable effect on me, pennicillin. The first time someone stuck me with it, I thought my hands were lovely pink butterflies. I spent four and a half hours flying them around the room." He made flying-hand motions, then looked downcast. "It was probably mostly the anaesthetic, though."
"They tagged you."
"Yes, they did."
He caught my eyes. "Dead?"
"Well–no. Obviously. But you must have been–"
"Close enough," the Doctor said, "that no human instrument could have possibly told the difference. Close enough that my cells were dying. So, definitely dead-ish. Yes." He paused, then added plaintively, "I got better."
Unexpected Python quotes can be astonishingly funny, if they hit you at the right moment. I laughed, a little hysterically. I had gotten used to the Doctor knowing any literary reference I could make, including science fiction and fantasy, but somehow his balmy old professor mannerisms made it hard for me to imagine him watching telivision.
"That's memory shock," the Doctor said quietly when I'd finished. "You take a traumatic memory and pass it off on whoever is prying into your brain. When it staggers them, you grab the advantage any way you can. Punch them. Sit on them. Do a runner."
I nodded. I had a traumatic memory to use. Several, actually, besides my worst-ever moment. Dying. The possessed TARDIS. There are beautiful and wonderful things about travelling with the Doctor, but it does lead to regular moments of stomach-clenching terror–
Worrying thought: there's no way that was the Doctor's best shot. I mean, this was training; he wouldn't do that to me. For him, the modern equivalent of being buried alive was a mild trauma, and that says unpleasant things about what we might be in for if we stay with him long enough.
"The trouble is, the memory has to be overwhelming. A flashback, only deliberately induced. You're gambling that however bad it is for you, it'll hit them slightly worse because it's unfamiliar. Because you've ridden it out before."
"Weaponized PTSD," I said, a bit wonderingly. Post traumatic stress is nasty stuff. If you'd asked me a few moments ago, I would have said it would never, ever be good for anything.
"Ideally," the Doctor said, "without the D. But you see why it won't give you better dreams."
"I don't care. I'd rather be able to defend myself. Even a little." I was shaking a little from ebbing adrenaline, but other than that, I felt–actually, a bit good. Better than I had, anyway. I knew it wasn't much. I knew it was the equivalent of teaching one sword-thrust to a weedy little kid and hoping he only got attacked by careless idiots. But if nothing else, I had a little bit of knowledge, and that made everything a bit brighter. I've always liked having facts. Eons ago in Leadworth, when I started seeing comatose people wandering about, I went on a month-long data-collecting spree. Not just because it was a mystery, not just because I wanted to check my own sanity, but because they couldn't be there, and the alternative was to get overwhelmed by the creepiness. And I prefer the scientific method any day.
Then, of course, my girlfriend's imaginary friend grabbed me by the neck and everything went completely upside-down and impossible, but all my neatly-saved facts turned out to be quite useful really.
And, I realized suddenly, the Doctor would know all that. If he could analyze perfect strangers at a glance, or deduce my dreams, he would know how I coped with things.
He did keep getting me to help with the TARDIS. From the very beginning, almost. All right, granted, I still didn't know what anything actually did; "help" usually meant "hand me that," and the explanations wandered off into slowly crumbling analogies about folded paper or rubber sheets or banana cream pies. But it still felt like facts, and it made me more comfortable, and despite all appearances, there was every chance he was doing it on purpose.
That's why I trust the Doctor. Saving the universe, yeah, but there are also those little things. Bits of kindness, carelessly strewn about.
"Good," he said, and gave me a faint smile. "Now, about inducing flashbacks–"