Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill, game show floor manager, martyr of the battle for Game Station, restoree and castaway, died a second time when she slipped her traces and plummeted through the echoing emptiness of Game Station?s forgotten great shaft.
She was gone before she reached the bottom of that shaft, first savagely incapacitated by a fear-induced stroke, then felled by a heart attack. So hard and fast did they hit that Meg's still-open eyes retained the illusion of calm long after her spirit fled.
Her dead body collapsed and ultimately tumbled in peace past an invisible net of alarms and a motion-triggered set of inertial dampers. The light that registered far up in the misty heights of the shaft was an arc light generated along with the dampers.
It wasn't the light that knifed into Lynda's and Jack's minds, although they could be forgiven for having thought so. After all, the only thing stranger than coincidence is, as the ancient physicist said, the fact that there aren't more of them.
When Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill, ambitious daughter of Evelyn and Ronald MacNeill of Witford Complex, won her way free of the 2,107 other students who had graduated the Northeast Sectional Electronics and Infratech Apprentice College - won a salary ticket to the tech side of Game Station - she'd begun to hyperventilate, right there in the dorm. Well, if she was so afraid of heights, her mates asked, frightened and annoyed, why had she decided to enter the station lottery?
Because, she'd said. Because. As if everyone there should have figured it out, the same way she had. No matter how frightening the height, no matter how it made her breath freeze and settle in the bottom of her lungs, no matter how impossible it would be to live there with no ground beneath her feet, it wouldn't be what she had right then. It would be so much more.
It would be life, Meg had thought to her young self. If you work on the station, then you don't stand a chance of dying on it.
She watched telly with her mates in the hours they had off from classes. She'd watched telly with Evelyn and Ronald when she was tiny, and she'd watched it with her school chums when the holidays came and the waiting lines for the parkettes were too long. She'd watched telly by herself in her room back then, and she did it now in the dorm, when the others had other things to do or other people to be with.
She loved the telly; the endless and byzantine soaps, the talk shows with all their hosts and their happy guests, and the snappy patter and all the effervescent entertainers, all the jokesters, and the canned laughter. She used to listen to the laugh tracks, trying to identify individuals, as if she could somehow get to know them by recognizing their voices.
She never watched the game shows, even though they were by far the prime export from the broadcast satellite (it wasn't called Game Station for nothing, she'd been told ad nauseum, and the other shows were lucky to rate a couple of floors.) She had when she was little, but she didn't anymore.
She'd stopped the day Ronald told her over supper how Margaret next door - Auntie Margaret, just like her, just like Evelyn's and Ronald's Meggie - had been 'matted up to Game Station to take part in Big Brother. That's why Mum was crying in the sitting room, he'd informed Meggie harshly. It was why Mum reeked of schnapps, he didn't say. Margaret, her beloved Auntie Margaret, she'd been voted off Big Brother. She was never coming back, Ronald had explained. And all of a sudden Meggie understood a great deal about death, and what it left behind. And she knew how very important it was to avoid dying.
And the best place to do that was on the killing floor, Margaret Elizabeth decided when she got just a little older.
She told Ronald and Evelyn about the plan, when she first got into Infratech Apprentice College. They didn't actually respond, but she didn't like the way they looked at her for a while after that. She decided that she didn't care what they thought, not really. She was just disappointed that they didn't understand.
Margaret Elizabeth didn't visit them much after that. When her Mum died, she did come back, and awkwardly hugged Ronald. She started to say that Mum was in a better place, but thought better of it. The next day she caught a shuttle back to Station, popping twice as many tranks as she normally did for the return trip.
After several years of electrical tech work, she put in for a floor job. She got it. That stint as a third assistant to the assistant rig manager led to other jobs and other titles. She loved the work, and she hadn't had a single sleepless night since she got into the swing of Station. She was exactly where she wanted to be.
Everything she did was for a purpose. She was part of the machine that created and pumped out - not just to Earth, but to all Humaniform worlds - wonderful entertainment, to make people everywhere happy.
It was important to provide entertainment. This world was miserable, she knew that. Too many people, too little space, too much stink under the lowering brown clouds, too little light from the sun or the moon, queues for food, queues for jobs, queues for medicine, never quite enough of anything; not time, not rest, not friends, not futures.
No one could go through life thinking about the real world all the time. No one should have to. And no one need have to think about unpleasant things like that, not while she and others on Game Station could provide them with hours and hours of laughter and talk and adventure and romance and melodrama and -
- and the games, of course. The horrible, deadly games.
She knew why her mates and her parents looked at her askance. She didn't necessarily blame them either. She might do the same in their shoes. After all, Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill didn't just work on the station. She was a staffer, a floor manager, for The Weakest Link, one of the most proudly murderous shows on Game Station. (We Do You In With a Bitch of Tin was the show's unofficial slogan, at least among Game Station staff.)
But Meggie could sleep with herself. She could look at herself in the mirror and say, "I'm doing my job. And I'm staying alive. And everyone is happy, except the dead ones, and better them than me."
The other shows, the talkies and the sobbies and the laughies, they changed, series after series, season after season. You never knew where you stood with the producers and the personnel office if you were on those shows. You could be riding high one day, and redundant the next. That didn't fit in with Margaret Elizabeth's plan.
The game shows did. They never went out of style. They went on, and on, and on, unchangingly popular, unstoppably bloody. Once you got a post on one of those staff rosters, you were set for life.
She was efficient and her staff liked her dry wit, even if they were a little afraid of her. She had a few mates on Station and she kept in touch, irregularly, with some from college. She sent one card a year to Ronald. She liked to swim in the tiny staff pool on station, or watch telly on her time off, although she could also enjoy the occasional night out with her fellow staffers, knocking back a few stiff ones.
Later, though, she found herself occasionally picking up read-cubes. At first, she got soap novelizations, but those soon bored her, so she looked around for other material. She liked nonfiction cubes when she could find them, magazines and news-cubes about all the craziness out in the wide universe. It made her feel even safer on Station when she read about the strange non-humans who didn't appreciate what Earth could offer them.
It never occurred to Meg on the day she watched the odd little blonde run into the Anne-Droid's beam, desperate to save her brute of a boyfriend, that she might be dealing with aliens before the end of shift. But there you go, she thought, strangely dispassionate. Sometimes you can't beat reality for a good script.
The Blonde and the Brute had a body guard, some nice looking bloke who acted like he was in love with both of them. After the girl disappeared, the looker screamed at Meg and ran at her. It was a good thing Security was right behind him and his boyfriend when they barreled into the studio unannounced, or she'd have been dead meat.
Something about them, though ... she'd never seen someone come in and actually try to fight an elimination the way they had. Certainly not on behalf of someone else. It stayed with her, a bit uncomfortably, after the men had been wrestled out.
The peroxide job, too; she'd been crazy-scared for herself, just like any sane person would be in her position - and then she'd gone and got herself killed protecting someone else. That one, the one they called a doctor, promptly became as close to comatose as she'd ever seen someone who stayed upright. And Meg knew better than most just how people looked in the throes of grief, fear, or terror.
Once Good-Looking and his doctor boyfriend were hustled off the set, the game continued. The whinging prat who'd won was doing a victory dance, but Meg almost missed the signoff because the blonde, the brute, and the bodyguard kept slipping back into her thoughts and distracting her.
And then all hell broke out.
The Daleks - some things just shouldn't exist, shouldn't even be in nightmares - were everything Meg hated about the games. She realized that when she heard them over the address system. Their war cry alone made her bristle helplessly in terror-fueled rage.
Somehow, the Doctor bloke showed up again, and the good looking one who she learned to know as Harkness. The Captain, he'd called himself. They talked back to the Daleks, but Meg didn't pay much attention at first. She was mad to get back to Earth, to solid ground where she could find some hole in which to hide from the monsters.
It didn't work out that way. She'd missed the last of the crowded shuttles, and was milling about with the rest of the left-behinds when Harkness and a couple of control room regulars showed up, asking for volunteers.
To fight, they said, To stand against the Daleks, in an improbable - stupid! - resistance. Good-looking Jack had actually been disgusted when no one stepped forward to become cannon-fodder. What crèche had he crawled out of, she'd thought to herself.
She thought she agreed with the crowd. She wasn't going to risk her life in some hopeless battle, she thought.
But somehow, Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill found herself stepping out of the crowd and walking over to stand with Harkness.
There was something about him - all that life, and his stupid bloody belief in his crop-haired boyfriend and his dedication to his peroxide Rose. It beckoned to her, called something from deep inside her, a sense of belief that she'd methodically smothered for years in her insane avoidance of death.
Meg believed, against her every waking instinct, that Harkness was better and truer than anyone she?d known for a very long time. She only realized that after she moved toward him, and she still cursed herself every step of the way, but it didn't stop her from moving.
When she joined him and the few who moved with her, she felt better than she had since she was a little girl. That lasted until the bullets Harkness had promised would work didn't. She cursed him as she died.
And then, improbably and wonderfully, she was back. She was alive. She didn't know how or why, but an unexpectedly kind fate had granted her a measure of grace, it seemed.
The Doctor was gone, his Rose was gone, and more importantly the Daleks were gone.
Jack Harkness remained.
Although she would sooner have swallowed her tongue than admit it to anyone, Meggie made up her mind, the moment she opened her eyes to find him kneeling beside her, that she would work for Captain Jack as long as he needed a good right hand.
She did what she did best for him. She organized and chivvied all the reborn Station residents, she made lists of tasks that Harkness set for her, she ticked each off as she completed it, she did what needed to be done.
She followed him into the control room, into the cafeteria, into the electrical conduits, all the way to the vast and floorless old shaft. When he asked her for the impossible (all that space and all that emptiness, all reaching for her) she cursed him again. But little Lynda, that silly little thing who shuffled and ducked and sounded afraid of her own shadow, came out of nowhere to hold her and assure her she would be safe.
Meggie knew better. But it was for Harkness after all. She dried her tears and stepped onto the flange. She stepped wrong - she had known she would - and fell.
She felt lightning, and a huge white flash, and her fear, and a great tearing pain in her left arm. And she died again.
She died, and went on somewhere else, as the universe directed, perhaps someplace where she no longer needed to fear death.
But her echo remained, and the remaining vibration of neurons not yet informed of their mortality.
The echo called to life.
Margaret Elizabeth MacNeill, daughter of Little London at the cusp of the Fourth Great and Bountiful Empire's Second Rising, never knew Rose Tyler, daughter of unimaginably ancient London and unexpected goddess. Nor did she know the caged bird of Game Station's Control Room.
But they answered.
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