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.
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."
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 --
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?"
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'."
"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.
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