The Doctor watched it fall.
Time slowed. Not for Rose, not for the monster; they were bound to the ebb and flow of causality, chained to linear events.
But he wasn't.
And it wasn't.
The metal struts hung in air, rotating slowly; jagged planets in a universe where dust and grime and glittering droplets of water outnumbered fixed and glittering stars and the only thing moving was the Book.
He braced himself against the monster, throwing himself into the path of the falling artifact, knowing that it didn't really matter, that he shouldn't be bothering only it was falling towards the water --
He leapt and his fingers skimmed over its surface, hooked on its edge and
and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake; jetsam from the burning, peace never to be found --
caught it just as space and time began asserting themselves in the usual fashion, and he could hear the metal hitting the surface of the water and shivering off the floors and the droplets spraying --
And the Doctor realized that he was, yet again, in midair over an open pit of water --
And the Book sparked into life, opening and unfolding and taking him into itself and oh for the love of -- typical, well, what the hell else are you going to --
Anticipating the nadir of his arc through space, the Doctor batted the Book to safety, away from the water below but not before it latched onto his --
the screaming of the deathless ones, and all things fall before the oncoming storm
There might've been the slap of his face on water, but then again, there might not have been --
Something hit his face. Hard.
"Come on! Up and on your feet!"
Someone was hitting him. He was on his back -- no, he wasn't, he was standing --
The Doctor blinked at the little man. Black frock coat, bowl haircut, obnoxious pants --
the screaming of the --
-- generally what he remembered, except for his eyes. He'd always remembered him as having a pair.
The ground lurched, forcing his gaze upwards -- probably upwards -- to the line of the horizon, not that it was there. Gray sky. Pebble beach. Nothing else.
Other than the little man, and the other three.
"Oh, not you lot."
The multicolored nightmare gave him an arch look, or what would have constituted an arch look if he'd possessed eyes. "'You lot?' 'You lot', indeed. Respect for your elders."
The bohemian rocked on his heels. "Respect for your betters, then." Bright smile; black sockets.
The Doctor scowled fiercely, hands clenching.
"Respect for the dead," suggested the fair-haired one, quietly.
He wasn't about to get into all this again. "Reunions are bad enough, but you lot -- " he shot a particularly pointed glare at the patchwork man -- "aren't even real. So, if you'll just excuse me, I'll be off."
"And just where exactly was it were you planning on going?"
The Doctor spread his arms. "Anywhere. Everywhere. Mostly, though, out." He glowered at the little man, who was brushing gray dust off of his suit. "D'you mind?"
"Do you mind, I wonder . . " the scarecrow murmured, almost sadly.
The Doctor started to ask him what the hell that was supposed to mean, then glanced down and got a good look at what he was wearing. It wasn't the jacket and trousers, though it was black.
Black being the colors worn by a Learned Court Prosecutor.
His jaw clenched. Fighting the rising panic and loathing, he concentrated his thoughts until the representation of his normal ensemble had resolved itself. His ghosts watched in sightless silence.
"I don't see how that is any more of an improvement," the loud one scoffed once the jacket had achieved the illusion of solidity.
The Doctor shot him another look. "You should talk."
The tall one shook his head, curls bobbing. "Talking's better left for real people. Or at least, for politer fictions than the likes of you."
He blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Unlikely," replied the cricketer, tucking back his jacket to hook his thumbs into his pockets. "That is, assuming that our Host achieves a greater degree of self-awareness -- "
"Which," the headache interjected, finger pointed at the sky, " -- it is, thanks to your typically inept blundering -- "
"'Blundering'? Like to know how this is 'blundering', seeing as how I've obviously found the Book," snarled the Doctor, trying to stare the eyeless man down without losing sight of his clothes.
"Ah. I'm afraid you've got it a bit wrong," the little man hemmed, steepling his fingers and twisting them anxiously. "You see, you don't have the Book."
The Doctor turned the full force of his glare on him, vaguely aware of the sounds of --
-- voices, dead voices --
-- in the sky. Looking up, he saw jagged seams appearing, white lines of streaming data fissuring through the unreal clouds --
The little man was speaking. "It, on the other hand, seems about to have you."
Panic seized him. "So -- " He turned to look at the other three men, only to realize they were now shimmering stripes of data, black sockets now flowing with light. Whispering tendrils were snaking towards the Doctor and his only remaining ghost.
"Well," the scarecrow sighed, eyeing the light with a resigned unease, "there was a saying you used to be rather fond of."
The Doctor backed away from the oncoming glow. "Yeah?"
The little man turned to him, smiling sadly. "When I say 'run' . . . "
There were special partitions. You could always find a way out, if you looked long and hard enough. But on an infinite expanse of gray pebbles with an infinite gray sky, nothing was presenting itself.
The Doctor threw himself forward, ignoring the stitch in his side. Pain wasn't real here. Death was, though there was some wiggle room. But there were doors; he just had to find one.
The Wachowski Brothers never suspected that they'd been privy to the high secrets of the Time Lords. And had they acknowledged him in the end credits? Typical.
Behind him, the sightless white mass generated by a self-contained universe of electrochemical cells, searching blindly for a dead world's only remaining orphan. Where it touched the landscape, only light remained. It was extremely slow, but devastatingly thorough -- though by nature of what it was, it didn't need to be fast.
It had all the time in Existence. More, probably.
His ghosts had been just that -- memories of earlier excursions into this place, when it had been a proper construct and not just this withered excuse for a reality -- and being part and parcel of a thousand other memories, these ones dead, they had rejoined the System without comment.
and even now it comes, following in the storm's wake --
His real selves were still in him, edging him on. Whispering in his ear. Calling him a murderer.
Fine, you bastards. But which of you would've eased off the kill switch?
More gray pebbles; more gray sky. Keep running.
There was, of course, one doorway he knew about. That didn't guarantee that it still existed, or that it was even open.
Or, come to that, whether it was a better option.
After several lifetimes of running, he decided that he should just go with Plan B after all.
Something different in a landscape full of gray.
The luggage tag attached to the smooth black stone said Mr Popplewick. The handwriting was depressingly familiar.
The Doctor was not over-fond of the way his mind worked, sometimes.
He picked up the stone.
The factory was abandoned. Not even the air of menace had elected to stick around.
He waited on the catwalk for the menacing laughter, for the cunning trap, for the grand guignol to start up again.
But no one was there.
Finally, he started moving again. Nothing tried to stop him, and the long halls were quiet as the grave.
It occurred to the Doctor that the person he expected to be here was either long-destroyed, or --
He bit his lip and focused on his jacket until he was sure it wasn't changing back.
Endless corridor gave way to endless corridor, and it occurred to him that this was almost as bad as the everlasting rock quarry he'd just left behind.
After a while, he could hear the voices. Very distantly, but still there. Getting closer.
After a while, he found the plain wood-panelled door with a simple brass 7 on it.
-- and all things fall before the oncoming storm --
Oh, fantastic; he was underwater again.
The Doctor broke the surface of the pool with an explosive gasp, sending plumes of water everywhere. He scrambled over the edge of the tank, darted to the far corner of the room, and whipped off his jacket, frantically hovering over the book-like shapes scattered across the floor.
Oh. Right. Rose.
He half-turned to see her scrabbling away from the prone body of the alien, hair falling slackly past her shoulders. It occurred to him that everything he'd experienced must've taken place in less than thirty seconds.
That would explain why he still felt short of breath, anyway. Although some of that was due to the aforementioned experiences, and perhaps the way that Rose's flushed skin burned under her damp, clinging clothes had something to you don't think these thoughts --
Why was she here, anyway?
"Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?" the Doctor remarked, turning back to search for the Book. He'd knocked it somewhere over --
Rose slugged him. This contributed to his breathlessness in a decidedly new and abrupt fashion.
"What is WRONG with you?!" she shouted, fist clenched, eyes burning as she towered over him. Vision swimming, the Doctor realized in abject terror just how much she resembled her mother like this, aside from the copy of Critique of Pure Reason gripped tightly in her other hand.
She was still shouting. "D'you know how long we were looking for you? How worried we were? You just go swanning off and the next thing we hear you're arrested for murder, and then we can't find you on account of those stupid robots -- "
Behind her, the crab-monster stirred.
The Doctor forced himself to his feet. "Look, Rose, I can explain everything -- "
She hit him in the arm, this time with Kant. "Yeah, you're gonna bloody well explain this, all right -- "
He lurched backwards, catching sight of the Book and scooping it up in his jacket, careful not to touch his skin to its shimmering black surface. The murmur of voices echoed distantly --
There was a change in the sounds from the outside corridor. People were running and shouting.
He knew this drill.
He grabbed Rose's hand -- the one unencumbered by German philosophy -- and leaned in. "When I say 'run' -- "
to be continued
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