Leap in the Dark

by nonelvis [Reviews - 8]

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  • Teen
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, General, Mystery

Author's Notes:
I have posted the story's timeline of events, but I don't recommend reading it until after you've finished the story, or you'll spoil yourself for how it works.

Special thanks to peebles for assistance with some of the chemistry in this story, and especially to platypus, who caught logic and flow problems in the narrative I could no longer see after four months of working on it.

10:54pm, Red Room, Third Floor

Spring Term was over, and that could only mean one thing: a post-Review party, preferably as loud, drunken, and outrageous as possible. The party currently in swing at Esbie House was a spectacular example of post-Review debauchery, comprising multiple dance floors, coolers of liquor in almost every room, and significantly more guests than allowed by local safety codes, most of them jumping up and down in time to the rhythmic thumping of the music.

"Thumpin' party, Graham," said Mae, a blonde girl wearing a blue and white-striped vinyl minidress. Though the red lights in the room made her face hard to distinguish, Graham would have recognised Mae anywhere: he'd had a crush on her since his first year at university, and had only just worked up the nerve to ask her to the party, albeit via a friend of a friend of a friend.

"What?" Graham cupped a hand to his ear. The other hand was occupied with a drink he was trying very hard not to spill.

"I said, THUMPIN' PARTY, GRAHAM!" Mae had to lean close to Graham to be heard. At least deafening music had its advantages.

"YEAH!" Graham grinned at her. And blinked, and coughed nervously, and realised he had no idea what to say to her next.

"Bar's in the next room, right?" Mae asked. "I'll be right back." She moved nimbly through the crowd, unruffled by the number of people colliding with her as she crossed the dance floor toward the dark, narrow hallway that led to the nearest bar.

Graham watched her disappear and tried to come up with his next line, preferably one with at least two or three more syllables than "what" or "yeah." Why did girls have to be so much trickier than physics? And what if getting a drink was simply an excuse to avoid him? It wouldn't be the first time he'd been ditched at a party, or anywhere else, for that matter.

She'll be back soon, he told himself. And we'll dance and I'll show her the machine and she'll think it's cool and then ...

In the hallway, halfway between jangling keyboards in one room and pounding bass in the next, Mae walked by a shadowed door. She had nearly passed it when a leathery arm and clawed fingers reached out to grab her, dragging her inside as she shrieked in terror.

There was a cracking sound, then a crunching, then a dull thud as the bones in Mae's body were cracked, then crunched, then dropped to the floor by a creature beginning to feed. But all anyone else at the party heard was thumping.




9:53pm, Bubble Room, Second Floor

The dance floor was so full when the TARDIS arrived that she had to materialise around the only bucket of nonalcoholic drinks.

No one outside the ship noticed the bucket had gone missing.




9:54pm, Bubble Room, Second Floor

"Doctor, did you order a bucket of lemon fizz?" Donna poked through the round cooler full of iced bottles that had mysteriously appeared in the console room. "No, hang on, it's not lemon. Label says it's ... zolbert, whatever that is. Yellow, though. Do zolberts taste like lemons?"

The Doctor frowned and joined Donna by the cooler. "No, they taste mostly like raspberries. Well, raspberries and chalk, really, with the tiniest hint of lemon. And spinach. How did this get in here?"

"Don't ask me; ask your sodding ship. Keeps moving the swimming pool around on me, no reason she couldn't make zol-whatever-it-is fizz appear out of thin air, is there?"

"Well, of course she could, but the question is why." The Doctor looked down at the bucket, then over at the time rotor, which had stopped moving a minute ago. "Where'd you drop us, old girl?"

He swivelled the scanner towards himself and watched the output cycle madly, circles upon circles. "That's not right," he said, thwacking it hard with his hand. "Come on, behave. Tell us where we are and why you've suddenly developed a fondness for zolbert fizz."

The screen continued to flash, never stopping long enough for a fix, and the Doctor sighed, wiping his face with his hand. "Oh well, Donna, have to do this the old-fashioned way." He bounded toward the door, retrieved his coat from a coral strut, and put it on.

"All right, all right, I'm coming," Donna said, frowning and smacking her lips. "But only because that zolbert stuff was so foul you owe me a real drink."




9:55pm, Bubble Room, Second Floor

Stepping out of the TARDIS, the Doctor and Donna barely had room to stand in the throng of bouncing, gyrating students, none of whom, incredibly, had noticed the appearance of a large, blue, wooden box in a corner of the dance floor.

"A party!" the Doctor said happily. "Oh, I love a good party. Let's see ... green and white striped flag on the wall ... average age in this room, mmm, twenty years old ... vintage Star Wars poster in the corner ... Donna, my dear, I think we've arrived at Tech, the greatest technical university in the Northeastern Alliance, created when New England seceded from the United States in 2157." He elbowed her and winked. "Not bad for less than thirty seconds out of the TARDIS, eh? I am brilliant sometimes, yes I am."

"Yes, yes, completely brilliant, as always. You couldn't have picked a party with better music? Whatever they're playing, it's rubbish."

The Doctor leaned forward, peering into the darkness, only to be knocked back by some of the more enthusiastic dancers. They caromed off him, bumped into Donna, then rebounded into the fray.

"I'll go have a chat with the DJ about putting on some Kylie, that'll fix things. You like Kylie, don't you, Donna?"

Hearing no response, he looked from side to side, searching for his companion and seeing nothing but the ocean of people jumping and laughing among strobing red and blue lights and streams of soap bubbles wafting down from the ceiling.

"Donna?" The Doctor looked around again, more anxious this time.

If there was one rule he set for his fellow travellers, one simple rule, it was no wandering off. And yet none of them seemed to follow it. On the other hand, he mused, half the time a companion wandered off, it meant trouble was involved, and trouble could be fun.

The Doctor grinned madly at no one in particular and began shoving his way through the crowd.




9:56pm, Bubble Room, Second Floor

"Oi! Let go of me! I don't want to be part of some bloody mosh pit!" The crowd was spinning Donna around, sucking her into one whirlpool and shooting her into another, and by the time she found a wall she could rest against while she caught her breath, she could no longer make out the TARDIS through a mass of bubbles and winking lights.

And then the whole room blinked, and disappeared.




10:33pm, Jungle Room, First Floor

The lights glowed green and yellow, illuminating small potted palms, giant ferns whose fronds cast sinuous shadows on the walls, and a ceiling garlanded with fake lianas with stuffed monkeys hanging from the ends. The dance floor here was as full as it had been in the Bubble Room, but the music rumbled with the rhythm of bass drums.

Donna found herself seated in an oversized planter, her new cerise skirt littered with mulch, her back propped against the thickly matted trunk of a palm.

"What the hell just happened?" she yelled.




10:34pm, Jungle Room, First Floor

Extracting herself from the planter was awkward but not impossible, even if Donna was certain she'd be picking mulch out of her knickers later. Judging by the animated way several couples were flailing about — if that's what the kids called dancing these days — at least she knew how she'd ended up in the planter, if not in the room.

A table with multicoloured bottles of liquid was pushed against the far wall. Damn it, if she were going to figure out where she was and how to find the Doctor, who'd obviously ditched her somehow, she was going to need a drink.

Rum, something pink with a torn label, something fizzy ... ah, orange juice, good; vodka, better. A high-pitched, squeaky voice from somewhere nearby said, "Cups are to your right."

"Thanks." Donna mixed herself a screwdriver and looked around for the source of the helpful voice.

"Down here," said the voice. "On the table, next to the Absolut Zolbert."

Donna scanned the bottles, seeking a familiar silhouette. In front of the vodka was a ceramic plant pot filled with what looked like phosphorescent moss, topped with a miniature skull, wires, and circuitry.

"You have got to be joking," Donna said.

"Hello," the skull said cheerfully. "I'm Bernard."

"Of course you are. Who else would you be?"

"Excellent question, ma'am! But I would have to be BERNARD, which stands for Bio-Engineered Roboform Neurologically Active Recreation Device."

A month ago, talking to a tiny robotic skull in a flowerpot would have seemed ludicrous. Now, it was just another day with the Doctor. Donna picked up Bernard to observe him more closely. His brown eyes, uncannily round without flesh or brows to frame them, stared up at her.

"I was made by Lisa Loomis for Advanced Topics in Bioengineering: Thesis Project. I am a cybernetic biodevice. I can answer questions Lisa has trained me to answer and make logical decisions and assertions based on my sensory perceptions." Bernard's jaw clacked as he spoke. "I am also lots of fun at parties."

"I'll bet you are, Baldy."

"'Baldy' is not my name, but you may call me that if you prefer. What is your name?"

Donna took a large swig of the screwdriver, which was becoming increasingly necessary. It figured, she thought, that the first bloke to chat her up at this party didn't even have a body he could follow through with.

"I'm Donna. But just so we're clear, I don't usually date disembodied heads."

Bernard's servos whirred at her. "That is acceptable, Donna. Lisa has programmed me to refuse all requests for sexual intercourse."

Donna spat out a mouthful of vodka and orange juice.

"It has been enjoyable speaking with you, Donna," Bernard continued. "But please put me down now, because it is nearly 10:40pm."

"10:40?" Only a few ounces of Donna's drink were left, but damned if she was going to let any more of it go to waste. She took another swig. "What's so important about 10:40?"

"It will be time for the next jump. Please put me down, because I do not want to fall. I could be damaged."

"What d'ya mean, 'next jump'?" Donna put Bernard back next to the bottle of Absolut, but leaned over the table to continue speaking with him. "Damaged? Who's getting damaged?"

"Please put your drink down, Donna, or hold on to it tightly. It is nearly —"

And again the room blinked, and disappeared.




10:49pm, Hologram Room, Third Floor

Electronic music, all pings, pops and whirrs, jangled throughout the room as students clumped together in little groups: some with bug-eyed VR helmets; some matching dance moves with a flickering, ghostly figure; some wearing antique anaglyph glasses as they laughed and pointed at a wall projection in which an amphibious creature emerged from a swamp, roaring and searching for its prey.

They were still laughing when a gash appeared in the projection and a reptilian creature tumbled through the wall. It howled in pain, lifting an arm to shield its eyes from the room's strobing lights, then fled into the much dimmer hallway.

"Damn," said one of the students with the anaglyph glasses. "Twentieth century three-D was the shit."




11:12pm, Foam Room, Second Floor

The Foam Room took its name from the misshapen blocks of upholstery foam that lined the walls and littered the floor, creating a flexible, squishy carpet. The Doctor, who appeared out of thin air and immediately slipped on a sofa cushion, dumping him flat on his arse, found himself surprisingly grateful for the university students who had decorated the room.

He hoped they weren't the ones he could see engaged in a rather differently tangled and writhing mass than the group of students he'd been watching a moment ago.

"Um," he said, going very, very red. "I think I'm supposed to be somewhere else." He got up and reached for the doorknob, but stumbled on the foam, giving him another look at the room's occupants.

"Have to mention that one to Jack," he muttered, and closed the door behind him as he left.




11:35pm, Jungle Room, First Floor

When the room reappeared, Donna found herself in the opposite corner from where she'd been a moment previously. The dancers were no longer milling about randomly; now they were yelling, shouting, and milling about in a slightly more organised fashion, snaking around the room in a conga line.

At the head of the line, held aloft by a very drunken young woman in a fuchsia tube top, was Bernard. His tiny head was jiggling back and forth in his pot, wriggling in time to the music, and as they passed Donna, she could hear him chanting "Everybody conga! Everybody conga!"

Miraculously, Donna's screwdriver had survived the jump unharmed. She drank the rest of it in a single gulp and tossed the cup on the floor, where it rattled and spun briefly before the room disappeared again.




11:13pm, Central Hallway, Third Floor

Donna arrived in the upstairs hallway in time to be jostled by a girl walking arm-in-arm with two boys. The impact shoved Donna backwards into a darkened room.

"Right," she said. "I have had just about enough of this."

She stumbled as she regained her balance, feeling one heel caught in something sticky on the floor. Spilled alcohol, no doubt. She steadied herself against the wall while dragging her shoe across the wooden floor to clean it, and tripped a light switch with her hand, filling the room with a soft glow.

Whatever drink had spilled was unusually red. Too red, she noticed quickly, and far too much of it on the floor unless someone had dropped an entire bottle.

Donna turned around slowly and immediately clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. There was a girl's body on the floor, limbs twisted and bloodied, chunks torn from her neck and midriff. Blood pooled around the body and trickled toward the door, a trail ending in smudged footprints from Donna's pumps. There were other footprints visible in the room as well, large and four-toed, tapered at the ends. They reminded her of a silly pair of monster-foot slippers she'd once bought for her nephew's eighth birthday.

"Just about enough," Donna repeated softly, closing her eyes to block out the body and concentrate on not fainting, screaming, or causing a panic. If she could find a phone, she could call the police, or whatever passed for police in the Northeastern Alliance. And the Doctor would certainly know what to do, assuming she could locate the wayward bastard, wherever he'd managed to hide himself.

Donna took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The body was still there, not that she'd expected it to disappear on her, but everything else was tonight, so why not that? No phone in the room, though. Most likely everyone had mobiles, and if she borrowed someone's long enough to call the authorities, people would quickly find out about the murder ... and with this many partygoers, there'd be a stampede.

That left the Doctor as her best hope. He was somewhere in this house, and she was going to find him if it killed her.

Bad turn of phrase there, she thought, wincing, and closed the door to the room behind her. She headed toward the nearby stairwell and began her search.




11:13pm, Foam Room, Second Floor

Directly opposite the Foam Room was a staircase where the Doctor could hear drums and bass throbbing from below. He'd no idea how he'd landed in the room full of foam in the first place, but figured he could wrestle with that problem after finding Donna, who with any luck would be at the nearest bar.

He found the source of the music downstairs in a room decorated to look like a rainforest, and promptly banged his head against a stuffed monkey suspended from a vine. There were still too many people here for him to easily pick out Donna from the crowd, but he had to begin somewhere: he tapped a girl on the shoulder to catch her attention, startling her in the process and causing her to spill part of her umbrella drink.

"Oh, very sorry, here you go." He handed her a handkerchief to blot her shirt, then gestured toward her drink. "That looks festive and tropical."

"William's mixing 'em next door," the girl said. "I'm pretty sure this is my third one. Or my fourth? You really can't taste the alcohol."

"Ah. Well, I was going to ask you if you'd seen a friend of mine, but I suspect after three or four of those, you've no idea where she might be. Or where you might be, as a matter of fact."

"Nope!" she giggled. "But it's an awesome party so far. It's got everything."

The Doctor looked around the room again. "Seems that way. Except how can you have a tropical party without a conga line?"

"Great idea!" the girl said. "Lemme chug the rest of this, I'll get it started."

The Doctor sighed and plunged deeper into the crowd, calling Donna's name, though he doubted anyone could hear him over the music. As he neared the doorway on the far side of the room, he ran headlong into a woman running the other way.

"Oi!" Donna said. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Me? You're the one who went wandering off. Haven't I told you never to go wandering off? And there you are, wandering like a ... wandering thing."

Donna glared at him. "I've just come from upstairs, where I found a dead girl, all chewed up in bits, which I'm sorry to say seems like a typical day travelling with you." She poked the Doctor in the chest for emphasis. "It's not like I didn't sign on knowing there'd be trouble, but I at least figured you'd be around to clean up the mess."

"I've been around. Well, here and there; there was that bit in the room full of upholstery and the, um, actually, nevermind that. Anyway, you're the one who disappeared, not me! And hang on, did you say 'dead girl'?"

"Yes! I said —" Donna's sentence was cut off as she was shoved out of the way by a burly blond-haired boy laughing and waving a tiny flowerpot in front of him.

"Put me down! Please, Joe, put me down! It is nearly 11:20pm!" cried Bernard, his pleas fading into the distance as the boy carrying him vanished into the crowd.

"You there, put him down!" yelled Donna. "He could be damaged!" She shook her head. "Wanker."

"Donna," said the Doctor slowly, "was that boy carrying a talking skull?"

"Bernard. The skull's name is Bernard."

"I see ... good to know you're making friends."

Donna flashed him an exasperated look, then furrowed her brow. "Wait, how can it be 11:20? I've only been gone 15 minutes since I met Bernard, and that was 10:40."

"Maybe you lost track of the time without me around."

"Yes, that must be it, because you've been terribly helpful so far. God, you really don't have a clue what's going on, do you?"

"Donna, I may be a genius, but it's still a little hard to add up 'dead girl chewed up in bits' and our mutual disappearances and come up with an answer."

"Marvellous. I could get whooshed out of here any second now, and you've —"

Blink.




11:44pm, Rear Hallway, Second Floor

"— got your head up your oh bollocks."

Donna was now standing in a lengthy queue of young women chatting to each other and craning their necks toward a closed door, which one impatient girl had started pounding on. "Quit fixing your makeup! Some of us have to pee!"

Donna sighed and slumped against the wall. She'd been bounced around again, and still had no idea what to do about the body in the upstairs room, but queues for the ladies' loo were, apparently, a reliable and unchanging fact of life.

If she couldn't count on the Doctor to fix this, she'd have to deal with it herself. Soap bubbles floated past her, tickling her nose, and she brushed them away, trying to determine what she could possibly do to help before things shifted on her again. Perhaps the TARDIS had some kind of monster detector hidden away in the cutlery drawer? After all, that was where the Doctor kept his paperclip chains and ratchet spanners; no reason there couldn't be more tools hidden away among the mismatched knives and forks as well. But where had they left the TARDIS? Maybe Bernard would know, assuming she could find him; he really did seem to be popular.

Soap bubbles.

There had been soap bubbles in the room where the TARDIS landed.

Donna's head snapped up. The bubbles were drifting haphazardly along the corridor, gliding in from the right. She shoved past a knot of chattering girls waiting for the loo and bulled her way into the next room, where the music was still loud, the dancers still clustered too tightly together, and a familiar stubby blue shape lurked in the background shadows.

It took her several minutes to navigate the dance floor and reach the TARDIS, but once inside, she leaned against the interior doors, catching her breath.

"There you are! I've been wondering when you'd find your way back," the Doctor said, and Donna shrieked in surprise.

"There's no need to shout," he continued, and gestured to her with a rubber hose. "Come here and hold this while I attach the ends to the motor."

"How on earth did you get in here?" She stalked over to the console and grabbed the hose he wiggled at her. "You were downstairs a minute ago; I saw you. But the way I've been tossed about this place, I suppose I should be grateful you showed up again at all."

The Doctor carefully threaded one end of the hose to a small motor, and attached a smaller hose between the motor and what appeared to be a petrol can. "Time jumps. Long story. But we're safe here — the TARDIS is in a state of temporal grace." He noticed Donna's face reddening the way it always did when she was about to yell at him, and hastily added, "That means the TARDIS is protecting us as long as we stay inside."

The Doctor retrieved the hose from Donna, dropped his contraption on the captain's chair, and clamped the motor to the petrol can with a large metal band. "There! All ready to go."

"Fine. Good." Donna leaned against the console and glared at the Doctor.

"You're glaring at me. You know I hate it when you glare at me. It makes me think I've done something wrong. And I'm just standing here not doing anything!"

"That's right," Donna said. "You're just standing there not telling me what the bloody hell has been going on around here."

"Oh. Well. That. Have a seat, and I'll explain. But it'll have to be quick; I've got something cooking in the lab." The Doctor scratched the back of his neck. "I worked it out after I was jumped away from you, right after you told me about the body ..."




10:58pm, Red Room, Third Floor

"Donna? Donna?" Blasted woman had whooshed away, as threatened.

Now that the Doctor considered the situation, however, he realised that Donna hadn't disappeared on him so much as he'd disappeared on her. The lighting here was red, not green; there was no nearby bar; and the music was all grinding guitar instead of rumbling drums. The monkeys hanging from ceiling vines were gone as well, which was a pity; they'd brought a certain playful charm to the room.

He'd just started to search for the nearest exit when something large, scaly, and smelling of rotting lettuce shoved past him, knocking him into the wall.

"Oi! Do you mind?" he said, and noticed a thick, spiked tail disappearing around the corner. University students in Earth's mid-22nd century, last time he'd checked, had neither scales nor tails, though hygiene could at least explain the odour. Still, even the laziest student wouldn't have had that peculiar and unique vegetable scent.

The Doctor added up all the visual and olfactory evidence he'd gathered, and arrived at a very unpleasant conclusion. He turned to chase after the creature, and made it two long strides down the hallway before there was a disconcertingly familiar winking down of the lights.




10:28pm, Jungle Room, First Floor

"This ... this is not right," the Doctor said, back in the jungle-themed room again. "This is most definitely not right." He spun in place, searching for the creature he'd  been following. "And this is going to stop right now."

He grabbed the nearest dancer by the shoulder and turned the boy to face him. "You. You're going to tell me who's in charge of this party, because someone is messing around with forces they clearly do not understand, and I am not happy about it. And you really, really don't want me not to be happy. Because when I'm not happy, things can get very ugly, and that's before you've even met the person I'm travelling with."

The boy stared at him blankly. "Buddy, you need a drink." He pointed toward the left. "Graham's mixing these tropical brain freeze things. Takes the edge off the jumps."

"A drink. I'm standing here threatening you, and you're offering me a drink."

"You don't like rum, there's another bar in the corner. Or Graham'll make you something else; it's his party."

The Doctor smiled. "No, I think a tropical brain freeze is a lovely idea. Perfectly lovely. Comes with a cherry and a little umbrella, does it? They're marvellous, those little umbrellas."

The creature he'd spotted, dangerous as it was, would have to wait; Graham was a more urgent quarry. The Doctor headed off in the direction he'd been pointed, where he found a throng of students massing around a sandy-haired, thin-faced boy pouring various liquids into a large blender. The blender whirred, inaudible above the chatter and thumping music from the Jungle Room, and the boy poured its contents into several plastic cups, topping them with cherries and paper umbrellas.

The Doctor pushed his way through to the bar, ignoring complaints about waiting his turn, and asked politely, "Are you Graham?"

"That's me," Graham replied, dropping a straw into a cup before handing it off to a girl in a distractingly short semi-transparent skirt. He watched her disappear into the crowd, then shook his head. "Never going to get any of that, that's for sure."

The Doctor manoeuvred his way behind the bar and slid an arm around Graham's narrow shoulders. "Graham, there's something rather important I'd like to discuss with you. Is there somewhere we can talk that's a little less like a Saturday night in Soho?"

"Hey, are you one of those Defence guys my advisor said might drop by? I told him I was busy tonight, but he said you guys didn't like to wait."

"Yes, yes, that's me," the Doctor replied cheerily. "Department of Defence, here about, you know, the thing."

Graham wiped his hands on a tea-towel and nodded toward a door on the other side of the room. "Back porch is this way. Should be quieter out there." He paused on the way out to nudge a friend. "William, can you take over at the bar for a little while? I need to go talk to the DoD."

The porch was slightly quieter than indoors, if only because it wasn't big enough for more than ten people to share. At the moment, there were only four: the Doctor, Graham, and a couple pawing at each other in the corner.

"Right," said the Doctor, steering himself and Graham away from the couple. "Now tell me all about that thing. And quickly, too. I've a feeling we haven't much time."

Graham checked the communicator on his wrist. "We've got four and a half minutes, to be exact."

"And in four and a half minutes ..."

"We'll all make the next jump. Every twenty minutes. Fujiium-335's really reliable like that."

The Doctor leaned back against the porch rail, trying to look casual. "And fujiium-335 would be ...?"

"You're really from Defence? I mean, that's how I got the fujiium-300 in the first place."

"Of course. Just testing. Have to make sure we're getting our money's worth, after all."

"Okay," Graham said, his voice still sounding a little dubious. "Anyway, it powers the shield generator. I was just trying to create a geon-based portable shield, you know? And I needed to pump up the fujiium, so I ran it through the department's particle accellerator until I hit the right isotope. So the machine works; I've got it running all around the House until one in the morning, but it's the side effect that's the cool part."

Graham slouched against the porch rail, crossing his arms to mimic the Doctor's stance. "Turns out the isotope's an unstable power source. Every twenty minutes, it decays by emitting a tachyon burst, and anything within a sixteen-meter radius gets jumped randomly through time. It's the best. The shield holds you in, so you can't go too far; you can only move along your existing timestream."

The Doctor stared straight ahead, not looking at Graham, breathing quietly and evenly to control his temper. The boy didn't know any better, but that was always the way on Earth: Professor Lazarus, Yvonne Hartman, countless others whose messes he'd had to clean up. This one might as well learn while he was still young, before he grew up to do even more serious damage. "Listen —" he began, but Graham cut him off.

"So Spring Term's over, Commencement's in a couple of weeks, figure we should have one last big party before we all leave, and I thought 'Hey, why not hook up the machine? We can all time-trip through the party.' And it's been a blast so far, everyone loves it."

"Everyone loves it, do they? Everyone? Because I myself am quite a bit less in love with this than everyone, I should tell you. And here's why —"

Four and a half minutes went by much more quickly when he was angry, the Doctor discovered.




11:45pm, outside the Foam Room, Second Floor

Graham tapped the side of his communicator to check the time: about an hour into his future. Physically, he was farther away from the tropical brain freezes, but closer to somewhere even more enticing: the Foam Room. Maybe his machine was trying to give him a hint about the best way to spend the next fifteen minutes? Graham turned the doorknob, entered the room, and closed the door behind him.

And then he screamed.




11:48pm, Porch, First Floor

The porch was the only place quiet enough for a call, Graham had discovered — after he'd finished throwing up, that is.

"Help!" he yelled into his communicator. "They're dead! They're all dead! You've got to come help!"

"We have a fix on your location, sir," the dispatcher's cool voice replied. "Emergency vehicles are on their way."

Graham tried to stop hyperventilating, but failed. "Thank you," he choked out. "Come quickly." He clicked off the communicator and stared out at campus, watching for the ambulance that would be travelling across the shimmering road.

Aw, crap.

The shimmer along the road meant that the geon shield was still active, along with his machine. All the partygoers had agreed to stay in the House for the duration of the party, but that also meant that the emergency vehicles were locked out.

Graham raced inside, hoping he could get to his room and disable the shield before the cops and paramedics arrived. Because if he couldn't, there would be even more explaining to do.




11:50pm, Rear Hallway, Second Floor

The rear hallway was still crammed with girls waiting for the loo when a six-foot-tall reptilian creature literally appeared out of nowhere. And while at this point in the evening, the girls were accustomed to people appearing out of nowhere, it was another thing entirely when the person in question was covered in scales, reeked of decay, had sharp claws, and in fact, was not a person at all.

The creature roared, lunging at the nearest girl, who shrieked and leaped back into the hallway, a gash on her arm where the creature's claw had scraped her. She stumbled, falling to the floor, while her friends started a multidirectional stampede, heading anywhere but here. Panicking as the creature reached for her again, the girl rolled away from the claws, barely managing to regain her footing and flee toward the Bubble Room before she could be caught.

The creature lumbered along behind her, still hungry.




11:50pm, Graham's Room, Second Floor

Dammit, how was he supposed to remember the right shutdown sequence when there was all that screaming going on outside? And if he was starting to hear sirens over all that noise, that had to mean the emergency vehicles were only a few minutes away.

Graham hated hard shutdowns, but he had no choice: he ripped the power resonator coils out of the device, and all its status lights immediately flicked off. He sighed in relief. No more worries about having to explain the shield and the time-trips, and tracking a murderer and dealing with all that blood in the Foam Room would be Emergency Services' job. Plus now he had just enough time for a quick shot from the bar near the Bubble Room to help soothe his nerves.

He stepped back into the hallway and was nearly flattened by the terrified partygoers running past him. And when he saw why they were running, and couldn't fight the tide to return to his room, he had no choice but to join them.




11:50pm, Bubble Room, Second Floor

"Bloody hell. You would have to drop us at the only place in the universe with an even more rubbish time traveller than you are." Donna pointed the hose nozzle at the Doctor and squeezed the trigger. "And you still haven't told me what this ridiculous little project of yours is."

The Doctor snatched the hose away from his companion. "Oi! Graham is not a time traveller. We're all just ... skipping a bit through time, like a stone across a lake. Well, that is, if the stone weren't making all its hops in sequence, and the lake were really more of a giant snowglobe we're all trapped inside, and I've quite lost track of this metaphor, haven't I?"

"You tell me. I stopped listening as soon as I realised you were about to go off on one of your little tears again."

The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Tell me again why I invited you on board?" He turned toward the console screen, adjusting a large dial below it to filter the output.

"Because I'm gorgeous, clever, and good in a pinch. And because you need someone to give you a swift kick in the arse every so often."

"Right," he muttered, and rotated the dial anti-clockwise. "Donna, it's working."

"What, the kick in the arse? It's been days since I've had to do that. Glad to hear it's finally had an effect."

"No, the screen. The screen wasn't working when we arrived, and now it is. I think Graham's machine was interfering with the TARDIS so she couldn't get a fix on our time and location. But now she can, so the machine must be inactive. We're at Tech in 2162, just as I thought."

"So if the machine's off, we should be able to track down whatever killed that poor girl."

"Oh, I know what killed that girl," the Doctor said. "That's why I've been building a pump. I was hoping we'd be able to tranquillise it — the Phengarian, that is, not the pump — but we used the last of the darts on that Noxdril a week ago, and Phengarians, they need the really, really big darts, the ones you'd use on elephants or small whales or what-have-you, I'd need a whole box of what we used on the Noxdril anyhow —"

Donna snatched the Doctor's tie and pulled his face close to hers. "Stop. Babbling." She held him in place until he nodded his agreement. "Now, there's something out there that's killing people, and I want to know what it is, and what we're going to do about it."

The Doctor gently pried Donna's fingers from his tie. "It's a Phengarian. It bumped into me earlier tonight, total accident, but I thought, what's a Phengarian doing at a party? They're barely sentient, Phengarians, nothing but giant reptiles, operating on pure animal instinct. And I still haven't worked out how it got here — Phengar doesn't have space travel. They've just got rocks and deserts and lots of things with big, nasty teeth."

Donna shuddered. "That body ... it looked like something had chewed it up and spit it out."

"I'm sorry. I'm sure that was the Phengarian's doing. It was just hungry. Probably scared, too."

"But you've got some way of fixing this, right?"

"Yes, once we figure out where the Phengarian is," he said. "Reptiles are very sensitive to oxalic acid, and Phengarians even more so than most — even a negligible amount is highly toxic to them. I don't always keep it around the lab, but it's not hard to synthesise, given ordinary table sugar and nitric acid and ..."

The Doctor's eyes lost focus, as if he were looking past Donna to something more important. "Oh. Oh dear. I'll be right back," he said, and sprinted out of the console room.

Shortly after he disappeared, faint, agitated noises Donna couldn't quite parse drifted down the corridor. A few moments later, there was a long, loud hissing much like the sound of a fire extinguisher, immediately followed by more agitated noises that grew louder as the Doctor stormed back into the console room, cursing in a language Donna had heard him use before.

"Botched it up, did you?" she said, sighing.

"It boiled over," the Doctor grumbled. "I was paying attention to you and your silly questions, and it boiled over. I don't have enough nitric acid for a second batch."

"My silly questions? 'Doctor, are you being a pompous git?' is a silly question. 'Doctor, would you tell me what the hell is going on?' is not."

"All right, all right." The Doctor ran his fingers through his hair, leaving it prickling in all directions, and started pacing back and forth. "We need something with oxalic acid in it, something like rhubarb leaves, cassava leaves, spinach ..."

The pacing stopped. "Donna," the Doctor said, looking down and to his left. "That bucket."

"The zolbert fizz. Don't tell me you're thirsty now."

"No, no ... ." The Doctor crouched by the bucket and flipped a bottle of fizz toward Donna, who caught it in midair. "Zolberts! Zolberts, Donna! This bottle's got as much oxalic acid in it as three pounds of spinach!" He twisted the top off two bottles and began pouring their contents in the petrol can. "Help me fill this!"

Donna grabbed another bottle and cracked it open. "At least this stuff'll be good for something."

They quickly had the can filled, and the Doctor grabbed it, heading for the exit. Donna trailed a few steps behind him, an empty bottle still in her hand. The Doctor threw open the TARDIS doors.

The sound of terrified yells and screams filled the console room. Outside the ship, the partygoers were huddled against the wall, a few of the ones in front brandishing chairs to fend off what appeared to be a six-foot-tall lizard.

The Doctor closed the doors almost as quickly as he'd opened them. "Donna," he said, "it's our lucky day."

Donna paused on the entrance ramp, her arms crossed. "And exactly how does all that screaming mean we're lucky?"

"It means we don't have far to go to find the Phengarian. I just need a moment to prime this pump ..." He flipped a switch on the motor attached to the petrol can, and the apparatus began to rumble and shake. "Ready?" he asked.

"Ready," Donna replied, and pushed open the TARDIS doors, revealing the same scene that had greeted the Doctor only minutes before. "Oh, my God, it's a giant lizard! You didn't tell me we were fighting Godzilla!"

"Giant reptile, Donna," the Doctor sighed. "I did say 'giant reptile.' And we need it facing in this direction before I can spray it."

"Okay. No problem," Donna said, and took a deep breath, steeling herself. "Oi!" she yelled, waving her arms, but the partygoers' screaming drowned out her shout.

Frustrated, she lobbed the empty bottle at the creature. The bottle arced across the room, spinning end-over-end before connecting solidly with the Phengarian's head. The creature roared, turned to face her, and started loping toward the TARDIS, its jaws snapping.

"Duck, Donna!" yelled the Doctor, and as she dropped her head, he raised the hose nozzle and squeezed the trigger. A fountain of fizzy liquid cascaded into the Phengarian's open mouth and over its face, choking it.

Almost immediately, the creature's breathing became laboured, and it stumbled in its rush toward the ship. Its body began to shake; its forearms dropped limply to its sides. The Phengarian lurched forward three steps, then halted in its tracks while its head bobbed up and down in a futile attempt to swallow.

At last, it crumpled to the floor, wheezing, and then was still.

The room went strangely silent. The students peeled themselves from the wall, cautiously moving closer to the corpse.

Near the back of the pack stood Graham, his face pale and drawn. He slinked between partygoers, making his way to the exit.

"Oh no, you don't," said the Doctor, marching through the crowd and grabbing a fistful of Graham's collar. He tugged the boy back toward the body. "I can hear those sirens right outside, and you aren't going anywhere. Not for a good long while, I should think."




12:05am, Bubble Room, Second Floor

With Donna holding Graham securely by the upper arm, the Doctor concentrated on using the sonic screwdriver to confirm the Phengarian's death from a safe distance. "Come on, let me go," Graham pleaded to Donna. "I don't have anything to do with that thing. That guy's got it in for me."

Donna's grip only tightened. "Are you even dumber than you look? Because you must be if you think I'm going to fall for that. Now stay still and shut it."

From the left side of the semicircle now surrounding the Phengarian, a girl's voice called out in surprise: "It's all squiggly!" A short brunette wearing anaglyph glasses and a shirt reading "CELLULAR AUTOMATA ARE PEOPLE TOO" was pointing at the body.

"Squiggly?" said the Doctor. He looked down in confusion at the sonic, then over at the girl, frowning when he noticed the glasses. "Give me those," he said, snatching them from her.

"Hey!" The girl rubbed her eyes and blinked. "Okay, not so squiggly anymore."

The Doctor put on the glasses but almost immediately whipped them off again. He turned toward Graham, jaw clenched and lips tightly pressed together in fury. "You have no idea what you've done here, do you? No idea at all."

"I ... I don't know what you're talking about. We were just having a little fun, that's all." Graham stepped backward as the Doctor advanced, but soon was trapped against the TARDIS doors.

The Doctor continued, his voice low and controlled. "Your device doesn't just interfere with time. It's sprung a leak. It opened up a hole between universes and let that thing through to hunt and feed. Someone's died because of you."

Graham shifted to his left, but the Doctor slammed a hand against the TARDIS door to block him. "You'll stay right there until I'm finished," he said, louder, and what little crowd noise remained in the room dissipated.

"Let me tell you how that creature got its invitation to your little party. It had to cross an empty space between universes called the Void, and there are far, far worse horrors in there, waiting and hoping for one little crack they can exploit. I know, because I put them there. And the only reason I'm certain they didn't come through along with that Phengarian is that everyone in this room is still alive.

"There's no one else to stop this sort of thing now. There's just me, holding the universe together with Sellotape and glue. And you ignorant apes keep trying to pry it apart!"

"I got full marks," Graham whimpered. "The whole committee loved it."

The Doctor threw his hands up in the air in frustration. "Why isn't this getting through to you?" He looked over at Donna, who was still gripping Graham tightly. "Is the translation circuit broken again? Can you understand me?"

"I can," she said, "but you're doing it all wrong." She let go of Graham's arm, nudged the Doctor aside, and turned to face the boy.

"It's very simple, darling," she said, smiling sweetly as she leaned in close. "Stop mucking about!"

Graham cowered against the TARDIS and nodded.

"In a minute, I'm going back into that blue box for a sledgehammer, and then you're going to smash that machine to pieces so small you'll be picking them out of your fingernails for weeks, is that clear?"

Graham nodded again. "Microscopic pieces. I promise," he whispered.

"Good," Donna said, and smiled sweetly once more. She drew back and gestured at the Doctor to take his turn holding on to Graham. "See? Simple. You know, if you ever shut it long enough to realise how you run on at the mouth, you'd understand why the direct approach works. Now, where's the toolshed?"




12:37am, Bubble Room, Second Floor

"Souvenir?" Donna asked, extending a palmful of shiny rubble.

"Thanks, no."

"There's a couple good bits in here look just like diamonds. Think I'll have 'em made into earrings."

"You do that." The Doctor focussed on the console.

Donna plucked two scraps from her pile and tossed the rest out the door. "When I left Graham's room, the coppers were grilling him about three more bodies they found. They'll probably be by in a minute to look at that dead thing on the floor."

"Then it's time we were off," the Doctor said. "Let Graham clean up his own mess for a change."

Donna jangled the two crystal fragments in her palm. "Doctor, did you mean it, about there being worse things that could have come through?"

The Doctor jabbed several buttons on the console before responding. "Yes. Much worse." He spun the trackball violently, then rested his hands on the railing and sighed. "But I've closed the breach so nothing else can come through, and that's what's important."

Donna curled her fingers around the Doctor's left hand. "You did your best. If it hadn't been for you, there'd have been more dead bodies in that room out there. Lots more."

The Doctor nodded, still staring at the console. Then his mouth curved into a half-smile and he turned to Donna. "Still, we did get rid of that zolbert fizz. Always hated it, myself. Never understood why it was all the rage in the mid-22nd century."

Donna crooked her neck over to the right, where the discarded drink bucket lay on its side. "Sorry to disappoint you, but we've got a couple of bottles left. I'll go put them in the kitchen for the next time we run into Godzilla." She picked up the bucket, dropped in the bottles, and headed toward the kitchen.

"Donna?" the Doctor called.

"What?"

"Those bits of the machine. You said you wanted them made into earrings? There's a jeweller on Marcassio VII who's got a way with precious metals, never seen anything like it. But I suppose that's what comes of having four hands and fingers a foot long. Anyway, fancy a shopping trip?"

"God, yes. Anywhere but here. And promise me we'll stick to one time, will you? I think all those jumps made me a bit queasy."

The Doctor threw a lever. The TARDIS shuddered, then the Time rotor settled into a smooth up-and-down. "One time for now, Donna," the Doctor said, and winked at her. "One time for now."