Rose shifted under the covers and gradually blinked awake, finding herself alone in her bed in the TARDIS. She had a fuzzy memory of the Doctor kissing her before he slipped away. As she became more aware of her surroundings, she found Ian's furmot figurine staring unblinkingly at her from the bedside table where she had placed it the night before.
She sat up. There was work to do in the two days before the envoy arrived.
For a moment, she let her mind wander and wondered about the envoy. She knew it would be someone from the company that managed Arisbe Project, but she realized she didn't know what an envoy consisted of. Was it one person? A group of people? Her mind flashed to an image of the project's population in a row, spines stiff and elbows bent in a military salute, and a small man with a huge magnifying glass inspecting them one by one. When the man and his magnifier reached the Doctor, at the end of the row, her imagination failed her.
Her mind prickled with sudden, renewed contact with Jonah. He was impatient, drawing her toward him. Yes, I'm awake now, she thought toward him. Where are you? The image of Brandon's classroom, full of primary colours and active children, flashed in her mind.
How long had she been asleep? If Jonah was already at the nursery, then Emelia and Connor — and the rest of the project, no doubt — were likely at work themselves. I'm coming, she told Jonah.
She shoved the covers back and eased out of bed. Her body was stiff from sleeping too long in one position and it was a while before a hot shower helped work the worst of the kinks out.
Her footsteps sounded loud as she walked down the corridor to the console room, and her ears strained to hear any evidence of movement. Wilson Wittener, wherever he was secreted away, was out of earshot as well as out of sight.
With uncharacteristic relief, she exited the TARDIS. Feeling more than a little like a rat in a maze, she traced her way through the sterile corridors back to where Connor had first worked on the power grid. As she approached, the normal sounds of people at work reached her, and she heard the Doctor's voice in full lecture mode.
" … even a small asteroid impact would accelerate full hydrosphere activation by months, if not years," he was saying to Connor as she turned the corner and entered the room. His face was fully alight with excitement. He hopped from one panel to another and squinted through his glasses at the readings. "Coupled with the mirror array already in place, you'd be so far ahead they'd give you a medal."
"That's the problem," Connor pointed out. Sleep had apparently done him as much good as it had Rose; he looked years younger than the last time she had seen him. "We've already done all the planned asteroid impacts — those happened well before there was anyone on the planet."
"We'd bring it into the atmosphere at a very low angle to burn it up before it impacted the surface," argued the Doctor. "There's no risk to the population."
"Then we have to explain how we suddenly ended up with several million tons more ammonia in the atmosphere," Connor said. "If they show up and we're too far ahead, they'll want to know how, and that would be almost as bad as being behind."
One of the other engineers, a slight, nervous-looking woman, raised her hand cautiously and offered a shy smile to the Doctor. "Yes, Meg?" he answered.
"How would we get an asteroid here in less than two days?" she asked.
"Easy peasy. I'd tow it. I've got a ship that can run circles around a black hole. Little bitty asteroid?" He snapped his fingers. "Not a problem."
Meg glowed back at him, clearly a devoted fan already. Rose sighed. He did tend to have that effect on women.
"We can't," Connor reiterated. "Not that I wouldn't be impressed. I am. Really. But we have to find a way to catch us up with where we should be, not to put us so far ahead of schedule that it's suspicious."
The Doctor pushed his glasses back on his nose and shook his head, obviously frustrated. He spotted Rose and his face transformed with joy. "Good morning!" He bounced over and towed her into the room. "Everyone, this is Rose. Rose, this is everyone. Well, you know Connor."
Everyone looked back and smiled in confusion. Rose gave a little wave and tried to pull back. She didn't want to interfere with the progress they were making — although it did seem to be somewhat limited — but she had wanted to set eyes upon the Doctor before she left the labs.
"I'm going to the nursery," she told him. "I just wanted to say good morning."
"Good morning. Oh, I've said that already. Well, it still is." His eyes shifted briefly to the nearest display panel. Regardless of his earlier reluctance to stay, she knew he couldn't resist a challenge. If the atmospheric converters alone had enticed him, there was no question that he relished the opportunity to transform an entire planet with science.
She directed her next question to Connor. "Where is Emelia?"
"All over the place," he said with a shrug. "If you need her, try the comm. It's working again. She'll be at the nursery off and on today so I'm sure you'll see her."
"Okay," she said. "I'm off then." She wanted to tell the Doctor to be careful, but she stifled the urge. He wouldn't be anyway. She felt a trace of the old awkwardness surface; did she kiss him goodbye in front of all these people?
He solved the problem for her by scooping her into a hug. "See you soon," he said.
"Okay," she repeated, and hugged him back.
The project was abuzz like a hive this morning. Everyone seemed to be intent on his or her assigned tasks and Rose shared their urgency as she walked to the nursery. Jonah's steady beckoning had increased in intensity, and while he felt simply impatient, not upset, she wanted to see how he was with her own eyes.
She drew up short in the nursery entryway. Her eyes locked on the door where Jonah had shown her the mobile communications unit that Frances and Wilson had used. She tentatively reached out to open it, but predictably, it was locked. Just to test, she swiped her keycard through the slot on the side, but it only flashed red at her. The Doctor could get in with his sonic screwdriver in a matter of seconds, she thought.
She went into Frances' empty office and studied the comm panel. There were options on the screen for Section, Recent, and All Listings. She chose Recent and saw several listings appear. One, as she had hoped, was for the main comm at the labs. She selected it and waited until one of the engineers answered.
"Labs," said the voice.
"Hello, it's Rose Tyler," she explained, trying not to shout. She had never liked speakerphones. "I need to speak to the Doctor, please."
"One minute," he replied. She could hear conversation and some unidentifiable sounds, like scratching, in the tinny connection.
"Hello." The Doctor's familiar voice came on the line. "Something new to report?"
"I forgot to tell you. Jonah showed me where the mobile communications unit was. It's here, at the nursery, I think, in a locked cupboard up at front."
He made a sound of interest. "I'll come and look at it when we have a few minutes," he said. "We should be able to trace the origin of the other side of the transmissions from there."
That had been her hope. If Frances and Wilson were only lackeys for someone else in the sabotage efforts, they had to find the other conspirators to prevent this from happening on other worlds. "Okay," she said. "I'll see you later."
She pressed another button to end the communication and headed down the hallway to Brandon's classroom. The sounds of children filled the nursery from behind closed doors.
Jonah was in his usual place in the reading area, surrounded by blocks. He gave no physical sign of having noticed her but his mental contact surged up to engulf her. Wait, she told him, trying to maintain some control of her senses. I need to say hello to everyone. He relented and she gave the children and Brandon a bright smile.
"Miss Rose!" cried the children, and they ran to her. She crouched down to be on their level and nearly toppled over from the force of their hugs. It hadn't occurred to her that the last time that most of the children had seen her was when she had collapsed in the schoolyard. She let them exclaim over her, hug her repeatedly, and show her several drawings or other art projects that they had made. Once they started to settle down, Brandon directed them back to their seats.
"Nice to have you back," he said, smiling.
"It's nice to be back," she said, and meant it.
Jonah tugged at her again from where he had been waiting patiently in the corner of her mind and she went to sit next to him in the reading area. He looked up briefly at her from his blocks, a quick but important reaction.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
He answered affirmatively, and she could feel his relief at having everyone safe. She let herself think about Frances for a moment and saw, as much as felt, the shudder go through him. He retreated from her mind. Clearly, he didn't want to think about the other woman at all. She put her arm around him and hugged him close, enjoying the comfort of his small body against hers. He didn't hug back, not precisely, but it wasn't his typical limp resistance, either.
She couldn't restore the power grid or accelerate the atmospheric conversion, and she couldn't run the project, but she could do this. She could help Jonah come out of his shell.
Emelia, having been married to an atmospheric specialist for many years, could follow a great deal of scientific discourse on the topic of planetary modification. However, when she dropped by the labs to see what progress Connor and the Doctor were making, she found herself not really listening to what her husband was telling her. She heard the jargon, and saw optimism on his face, and noted the activity of the other engineers around the room.
Her eyes turned to the Doctor, who wasn't paying attention to their conversation. He was scanning through text being displayed on a panel faster than she could believe — could he really read that fast?
"How far behind schedule are we?" she asked reluctantly.
Connor looked grave, but the Doctor was the one to answer. "Twelve percent."
"Twelve percent of what?"
"Twelve percent of the total conversion that ought to have happened since Arisbe Project opened," he answered.
She gaped. The project had been running for two years. She'd known it was bad, that they were behind schedule, that the sabotage had taken a toll, but not how much. The expression on Connor's face told her that the Doctor was right, and that he wasn't surprised by the figure.
"Can we do it?" she asked, needing to ask the question but terrified to hear the answer.
The Doctor regarded her steadily. "I don't know yet."
"We'll find a way," added Connor.
She looked at her watch. They had forty-six hours until the envoy arrived.
At the time when they would normally have gone home with their parents, the children sat in a cluster around Brandon and listened to him read. Rose tidied up some of the chaos from an earlier art project from the table. When a man waved around the corner at her, she nodded to Brandon and hurried down the hallway.
The nursery would stay open until the early evening for the two days before the envoy's arrival to give everyone as much time as possible to work on their assigned duties. Three volunteers had arrived with dinner for the children and staff. Rose helped transfer pans of loaf, the pseudo-potatoes, and canned vegetables to one of the tables. It smelled wonderful to her; with all the uncertainty and tension of the last day, she hadn't had much of an appetite when lunch had been served.
Once the dinner was laid out, she hurried back down the hallway and began to direct the classrooms of children to the nursery. Brandon's class was last, and she stood in line with Jonah and Ian to wait for her plateful of food.
Even with a strenuous day of outside play, art projects, and no nap, Ian was still bubbling over with energy. She reached out and steadied his plate as he held it at an angle and almost had his dinner slide off onto the floor.
"Ian," she said, unable to resist a smile. "Be careful. Go and sit with Brandon. Jonah and I will be right there."
He bounced, nearly sending his plate into low orbit, and skittered off.
Rose accepted a full plate for herself and gently disentangled her hand from Jonah's on the other side to take one for him. For a moment, she was at a loss for what to do next. Jonah didn't follow without someone to guide him along, and both her hands were now occupied. She glanced over at the table where Brandon, Ian, and two other children set and then back at Jonah, whose eyes were fixed forward.
It couldn't hurt to try, could it?
"Jonah," she said in what she hoped was a normal tone. "I'm going to go and sit down. Will you come with me?"
She took several steps, her head half turned back to watch the little boy. Come with me, she thought.
His attention shifted and their eyes met. He felt … confused.
Come with me.
He took a step, and another, and a third, and she thrilled at the simplicity of the action. One foot before another, his torso swinging over his legs like a reverse pendulum. She kept walking, feeling the mental connection between them like a tether. She could hear the shuffling of his shoes across the tiled floor and his breath came a little quicker.
That's it, Jonah. That's great.
She set the two plates down on the table and stooped to catch him up in a hug. Her face pressed into his dark curls and she squeezed her eyes closed to hold back tears. He squirmed and she released him, not wanting to overdo her contact with him.
"That's great, Jonah," she repeated aloud.
She pulled out his chair and helped him into it. He took his own fork and began to eat his dinner. While she wanted to squeal with delight and run a few laps around the cafeteria, Rose remembered at that moment how very hungry she was.
She hoped that the Doctor and Connor had made as much progress as Jonah had.
Connor kicked the converter and it made an indignant clank back at him.
"Ow, ow, ow," he said, with a few more colourful words thrown in there for good measure.
Arms crossed, the Doctor waited until Connor had finished his tantrum. "Are you quite done?" he asked pleasantly. "I did have this idea about getting something productive accomplished, but if you're testing the durability of the metal housing, I could wait outside." One eyebrow raised in polite query and Connor felt the urge to kick more than the converter.
"Fine," he said.
"Excellent. Now, we were talking about hexafluoroethane. As I see it, we have two options. We can proceed the usual way —" he waved a hand in the direction of several staring engineers — "or we can try it my way."
"No asteroids," Connor stated flatly.
"It would be fun," the Doctor cajoled. "No, all right, no asteroids. What it really boils down to is this: you ought to have hexafluoroethane concentration around 1.14 parts per million and you only have .91 parts per million. We've now wasted nine hours trying to find a way to retrofit these converters to produce enough gas to make up that rather sizable deficit in what's now less than two days." He gave the converter an affectionate pat, like a wayward pet. "Now, I'm a genius, and you've got some lovely equipment, but I've come to an inescapable conclusion."
Connor and the others waited for him to continue, and when he didn't, Connor prompted him. "What conclusion is that?"
"Can't be done."
The statement was so matter-of-fact that Connor was sure he had misheard. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Can't. Be. Done. Impossible. Well," the Doctor drawled carelessly, "maybe not impossible. Certainly improbable. What I mean to say is that it's not worth the bother. Not that I don't love fixing up a primitive machine, but it's just not going to happen."
Connor stared. "Are you saying it's — hopeless?"
"No, no, of course I'm not! Haven't you been listening at all? The converters can't be converted — if you'll pardon the little joke — into superconverters. However, they are not our only option." He pushed away from the converter and turned with a flourish to face Meg Pathkind, who was staring at him with the same open-mouthed confusion as every other person in the room.
"Fancy a trip, Meg?"