Getting rid of Horten was his most pressing priority. He'd gone into this whole mess with every intention of doing things on his own. No humans getting caught up in the process. No more collateral damage of the Time War.
No one else to watch him break down. No one to inch away.
He didn't need to see Rose looking at him that way again.
Having said that, the Doctor could've done with a little help.
'Help' he would have defined as anything other than what Maxwell Horten had been doing for the past fifteen minutes. The Archivist was so hell-bent on the idea of getting into Ragusa's private files that the Doctor's frequent assurances that yes, he was doing just that, thank you, might as well have been addressed to the walls.
Granted, he wasn't actually hacking the private files, but Horten didn't have to know that. The little man didn't have a clue what the Time Lord was really doing, and the other five or six Archivists in the grid room weren't particularly concerned with their activities either. It was a curious and well-documented observation of the Doctor's that whenever someone does something out of the ordinary, casual observers become prepared to accept that there's a good reason for doing it. He'd blown up more buildings that way . . .
"Please, Doctor. Those files are vital to proving my case. If Ragusa should suspect that anyone was, er, on to her little scheme, I might be --"
The Doctor gritted his teeth and glared down into the wiring console that he was currently stuck in. Glowing cables and transmitters trailed down and sparkled around him in soft blue and green light; clumps of antiquated computer dust sulked atop his head and slid down to his ears. "Look. For the millionth time, if you want to get to those files, we have to -- ow! -- to rip out bits of the main system and patch 'em into the parts of the network we can use, and then -- well, and then fiddle with a few other bits, but let's burn that bridge when we come to it."
"Well . . . how much longer will that take?" Horten was shifting from foot to foot, wringing the cloth he'd been using to polish his glasses.
--See, if Rose had been here, she could've just taken Horten off to a corner and made the Doctor's excuses for him. Hell, even Jumping Jack Flash would've been useful right now --
No. No one else gets sucked into this. This is yours to deal with.
"Listen, Max -- can I call you Max? -- this would go a lot faster if I had some sort of spanner or ratchet or -- well, anything, really." He tugged out another clump of wire and was rewarded by the lighting system dimming momentarily. "Oh, fantastic; just what I -- look. You want to speed this up?"
"Then find me a toolkit. Doesn't have to be fancy; just needs to have some sort of sonic device and a few mallets. Maybe some gaffer tape. Off you go, then."
Horten half-turned. "You're sure you'll be all right?"
"Me? Yeah, I'm peachy."
The little man's brow furrowed. "Er. And you'll, ah, be here when I get back?"
The Doctor spread his arms wide, or as wide as the present circumstances would allow given that he was stuck in a glorified cabinet. "Where would I go?"
He waited until Horten had closed the door behind him before leaping out of the space and tearing off towards the air ducts.
"Okay, I think that does it."
Startled from her own private train of thought, Rose glanced up to see Jack -- dirty, sweaty, covered in dust -- clambering out of the floor. "Took you long enough." It was a shame about the grime, really; rather a nice picture otherwise . . .
Jack gave her a (literally) dirty look. "Didn't exactly have a lot of help on this one, you know."
"Yeah, with holding my coffee. Not with patching a sustained temporal anomaly back into the real-time external interface."
"That's what you were doing?"
Jack exhaled noisily. "God, I hope so." He leaned against the console, looking genuinely tired. "This thing is the textbook definition of 'enigma'. Probably 'pain in the ass' as well."
"Great textbooks you've got in the future, huh?" She took a sip of his coffee.
He arched an eyebrow. "I liked the biology sections better, anyway."
She suppressed a grin; leaned back in the chair. "Right. So what's left to do?"
"Rescue first, then hygiene."
"Look, if we're gonna rescue the Doc from hostile forces, we need every weapon at our disposal, and that includes charm. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm covered in several centuries worth of our alleged Time Lord's snacking habits."
She smiled, though probably not as warmly as Jack would've liked. "Good thing I've got the charm angle covered, then."
He looked mildly indignant. "So what does that make me, the muscle-slash-grease monkey?"
Rose smiled again, sweetly.
Jack sighed, running his hands through his hair in a futile attempt to get the filth out. "Sticking with the preordained 21st century gender roles, then. You are so sexist, Rose Tyler."
"Make it up to you somehow. Now, what do we do?"
"Well, first I'll need your phone." She tossed it to him, watching nervously as he prized the Doctor's superchip out of its circuitry, wedged a clump of electrical leads into the gap and then forced the chip back down.
"Right. Now -- " Jack dashed over to the visiscreen. "Okay -- there. Yes! I did patch that part in right; give the man a medal -- right. Rose, hold down this lever, that lever and -- uh -- whatever this little dongly thing is."
She complied, looking up anxiously while he dashed back to the hole in the floor. "So far so good. Okay. I'm gonna calibrate my personal tracker with the TARDIS, since it doesn't have any of its own tracking system left. Here goes . . ."
The lights dimmed alarmingly for a second, then returned at full power. Rose could've sworn she heard engines revving up somewhere in the depths of the ship. The feeling that something was moving against her soul intensified for a moment and then was gone again, almost without recollection. Dust shuddered up in clouds from the grillework; the cables quaked like jungle vines in a monsoon.
"Wait," she yelled over the growing din, "Jack, you aren't actually trying to fly the TARDIS, are you?"
Oh, that look was not encouraging -- "Two choices, Rose: hoof it around town on foot or doorstep delivery. You want a rescue? I'll give you a rescue!"
"Um, I don't think that's a good idea --" Something directly under them lurched, and the time rotor started to jiggle.
"YEAH, baby!" Jack whooped. "All right! Hold 'em down, Rose, 'cos here . . . we . . . GO!" He slammed his hand down on the controls.
Ragusa stared at the exposed circuitry.
The Archive Facilities department had an annoying tendency of solving problems by creating new ones, which was part of the reason that strange people spontaneously taking apart panels and electrical systems so rarely invited comment.
Ragusa made it a point to notice these sort of things.
She also noted the loose duct cover over by the main ventilation shaft.
It was entirely possible, as per her wishes, that Facilities had started the sweep in the wing where her office was located and subsequently were searching the ducts via this route.
That didn't explain why the cover looked as though it had been kicked off, though.
Why was it, the Doctor reflected, even after countless instances when the alien presence sets up camp in the ventilation system and starts picking off the staff like they were midway ducks, no one ever thinks to put some sort of barrier in the damn air conditioning?
All right, he conceded, all those incidents took place on spaceships, not in libraries, but there was a principle involved.
He was currently wriggling his way through a dim passageway, angling towards that vague prickly feeling behind his eyes. Despite his current body's narrow build and non-obstructionist dress sense, the walls still seemed to be sloping inwards. The junctions were lit with red LED lights, adding to the general eerie atmosphere and casting strange shadows in the corners. The Doctor gritted his teeth and tried not to remember all those numerous horrible instances from his past where he'd been trapped in ducts. He also tried not to think of Ridley Scott films.
Just as well the others weren't there. Claustrophobic enough already.
He'd planned to tear out useful bits of circuitry from the main grid to build a backup tracker, but the feel of the artifact, so close, had been driving him to distraction (and Horten hadn't helped). It was probably very stupid to be thrashing around without any real sense of direction in a maze of ventilation shafts, but since it had been established that it wasn't his day for plans, why not be stupid?
And it was close. Tantalizing. Tiny flickers of electricity jumping over the sections of his brain that he'd almost gotten used to being silent. Promising him things it didn't know it couldn't deliver.
lurking in the space before the intake of breath, skulking like an accusation aimed at the back of your head
The Doctor shook himself back to the here-and-now. Something seemed subtly different about his surroundings. Not only did there seem to be a gradual lightening in the passageway, but the walls seemed scuffed and some of the rivets looked as though they'd been loosened and then reinstated and oh it was so close
He gritted his teeth, waiting for the blackness at the edge of his sight to recede back into nothingness. Focus. Note the surroundings. Something's wrong.
Was that his sonic screwdriver?
"Well," said Rose, for lack of anything better to say.
Jack's mouth was still open. His eyes jumped from the console, to the wiring, to the time rotor, back to the console. "Uh . . . okay. That should have worked."
Rose slowly eased her hands off the levers. "Thought you said you'd got it all hooked up?"
"Yeah, well . . . " He bit his lip. "Maybe I missed something." He ducked back down below the main controls, tapping at some exposed relays. "Nope, this looks about right . . . "
Something in Rose that had been quivering in anticipation of a full-blown charge of glory curled up and died an inglorious little death. She sank back into the control chair, idly gripping the edge of the console.
"Okay, let's try this again -- "
Vetch rounded the corner and screamed.
Ragusa glared down at the intern, whose preoccupation with walking whilst drinking coffee had propelled him into her. Black, steaming liquid dripped off her carapace and trickled down to the floor in greasy rivulets. Looming over Vetch, mandibles clicking viciously, spidery eyes glinting, the boy very nearly screamed again.
"S -- sorry! I'm sorry, Director! Please -- "
Her voice was clipped, the barest edge of a rasp trailing. "Hrsst. The electricians. Have they started their search yet?"
Vetch's mouth moved up and down but failed to get any words out.
Vetch managed to shake his head back and forth violently. Huge sections of his mind tried not to think about what might be behind the mandibles poised less than a foot over his face.
Ragusa stiffened. The spines along her dorsal plates grew rigid, and the nerveless intern was privy to a decidedly unpleasant low-level vibration generated by the alien's resonating chambers. Off on the periphery of his vision, the meathooks flexed and clenched.
"And is no one then in the ductwork?"
" . . . " he managed, again shaking his head.
She snarled and lunged past him, trailing coffee. The hall reverberated with the sound of her clacking.
Vetch, trembling, was glad he hadn't asked her for the weekend off.
It was his sonic screwdriver. What the hell was it doing here?
The Doctor eased himself over the grille, becoming aware of the open space below him. Someone's office; smelled vaguely like a fish market. Bizarre. Not quite as bizarre as finding his allegedly lost and/or confiscated tool of choice in an air duct he'd chosen on a hunch, though. Even for an infinite universe, that was pushing things a bit.
"Hullo," he whispered to the screwdriver, tapping it gently to his head. The grille creaked slightly, forcing him to redistribute his weight a little more evenly.
Someone had been in here, all right, and recently. They'd done a crap job of sealing the ducts back up, too. Half the rivets were bolted in wrong; apparently the sonic screwdriver proved too complicated for the mysterious handyman to work and they'd given up on it halfway. The Doctor wasn't looking forward to shimmying across this length of the shaft, though he got the strangest feeling that there was water in the space underneath him --
Light flooded the room as a door swung open. Irises contracting with the suddenness of it, he could hear a strange, rattling sound punctuated by heavy, uneven steps. Pressed against the metal walls, he became aware of a low, deliberate rumbling coming from whoever -- or whatever -- had just entered the office.
Keep still. Keep perfectly still and quiet.
Perfectly still and quiet and do not think about Ridley Scott films --
"Okay. This time I think we've got it --" Jack tapped the panel in satisfaction, then seemed to notice Rose's silence. "Hey. You ready?"
"Maybe . . . " She almost couldn't believe that was her voice, it was so faint, so light. "Maybe . . . maybe you did hook it all up right the first time."
"Nah, probably some little piddling detail I left out. -- I swear, the way this beast is put together, you really would have to be a Time Lord just to live long enough to get all the damn wires back in --"
The sob surprised her as much as it surprised him, and only by pulling her hair out of her face did Rose salvage a degree of self-control. "Maybe -- maybe you did it right, only there wasn't any signal to home in on."
Jack crossed the distance between them in two strides. "Rose. He's still alive. Come on."
She shook her head, trying to get it all together. "Maybe. I don't know. He -- he's always around when things go wrong, it's just --"
His hands were around her face. "Hey. It's gonna be all right. Even if he isn't one of the Immortal Brigade, the Doctor's obviously done a good job of looking after himself this far, right?"
She nodded, grateful for his support, annoyed by his skepticism, and desperate to regain the determination that had been fueling her up to this point. "900 years, he said."
Jack obviously didn't believe that part but graciously didn't voice his doubts. "He'll be fine. Just give me a few more minutes with this thing, and then we'll be pummeling his ass for putting us through all this."
Rose's gaze flitted to the TARDIS's gutted interior. "Hm. He might do some pummeling of his own."
He grinned brilliantly and kissed her on the forehead. "I'm telling him it was your idea."
Perfectly still and quiet. It doesn't know that you're here.
The Doctor's respiration had slowed to a crawl, his hearts barely beating. He fervently hoped that whatever it was that was thumping around beneath him wasn't sensitive to vibrations. He even more fervently hoped that the hastily-repaired rivets would hold; every time the thing took another step, the grille creaked ominously.
Hard enough to be calm and serene when so close it was calling and rubbing up against the abandoned outskirts of his mind, calling him by his secret names and whispering
Perfectly still and quiet. Time was on his side.
"Oh, for -- !"
Rose looked up, wearily. She'd hauled herself out of the soppy stage after realizing what she must've sounded like a little lost lamb -- screw that, she'd saved the world before she was twenty -- and had marshaled her wits back together to help Jack sort out the problem at hand. After the fifth failed attempt at getting the TARDIS to home in on the Doctor's signal, though, neither high drama or brutal pragmatism was getting them anywhere.
Upset and bored. What a great combination.
Jack, however, was glowing. She followed his finger, which was pointed at the roundel that the Doctor had been working on before this whole stupid episode had begun. It was still open. Orange peel peeked forlornly out of the rim.
"The bastard himself said it. Him and his hot dinners!" Jack ducked under the floor for the millionth time, doing something hideously complicated and violent that made the TARDIS rattle.
Rose winced, though she wasn't sure why. "What?"
"Rose, it's so damn obvious, it's been staring me in the face this whole time!"
She stared, flatly. Jack spread his arms wide, a spanner in either hand. "I did have everything connected; you were right! But in order to get it all to work --"
Was it listening for him?
Was it listening to something else?
" -- you gotta reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!!"
Jack emitted another war whoop and did something with the spanners that made a lot of noise and smoke.
It was beneath the duct.
It was very large. Decidedly inhuman. Decidedly inhuman and not in the same way that he was inhuman. He didn't have enough spines, for a start --
Don't look up don't look up don't look up --
"Doctor, consider yourself saved!"
Jack slammed his fist down on the control panel and the TARDIS snarled into action.
Light and sound and red and he screamed, arching backwards as something tried to tear its way out of his brain. The grille twisted, the world went dark and he was falling, falling out of the sky and down to the monster.
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