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."
"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."
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 -- "
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 . . "
"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."
"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."
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 --
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."
"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, 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."
" 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."
"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."
"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.
She sighed. "Yes, Doctor?"
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