It was the song of freedom, of escape. Donna thought she would remember it for the rest of her life.
“That was brilliant, amazing, wonderful!” The doors of the TARDIS closed behind them and the Oodsphere slipped away into memory. “I could do that all the time — do you get to do that all the time?”
“So you liked it then?”
“Well, it’s a step up from blowing up a town with a volcano, isn’t it? Doctor, they’re free! We turned up there, and now they’re free! It’s like, oh I don’t know–”
“Marxism in action?”
Donna frowned. “Sounds a bit Sixties to me.”
“Hey! Nothing wrong with the Sixties. Could be worse, much worse. Could be–”
“Nothing wrong with the Seventies either–”
“Maybe not where you were, sunshine! From what I remember it was all power-cuts and Carry On Follow That Nurse... Are you listening to me?”
He wasn’t. He was smiling. “We’ve landed, Donna.”
She hurried round the console to see, the comparative merits of some small and distant decades quickly forgotten. There was, after all, the whole of time out there for the taking.
The Doctor slapped his hand against the console in delight. “Oh, we’re on Barrayar! Brilliant! Donna, you’ll love Barrayar!”
“Go on, then, what’s this one all about?”
“Barrayar! You must have heard of — no, probably not. Anyway, Barrayar. Yes! Barrayar! Brilliant place, non-stop party, honestly, it’s a riot. Bit of a rocky start when it was first getting out there into the galaxy, bit of a dodgy time around then, doesn’t last, by the seventy-first century — the place to be. You should see the fireworks on Mardi Gras!”
“I’m sold! Come on, matey, let’s get out there!”
“Sure? Quite sure? You wouldn’t rather be out in a ditch somewhere bringing down a totalitarian state?”
They went out into a city street. It was late and damp. They heard the young man before they saw him; he was running, hard, feet thudding against the pavement. As he shot past, Donna saw blood and terror on his face. Then the troopers arrived, four of them, deadly serious, very armed. When they caught their quarry, they beat him to the ground with sticks. Then they dragged him away. All of it in the glare of the street lights. Donna, both hands up against her mouth, realized she was shaking. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
The Doctor, meanwhile, was blazing like fire against the cold night. “Come on, Donna. Let’s go and visit their boss. I want to make a complaint.”
Later in life, when Cordelia knew a great deal more about time travel, psychic paper, and things being bigger on the inside, she remained sneakily impressed that the Doctor gatecrashed the Emperor’s birthday party and proceeded to harangue the assembled Vor. She suspected that she enjoyed the thrill of watching someone else do what she herself had day-dreamed.
She was also amazed that he didn’t get himself shot. It must have been the total honesty. She’d certainly got away with plenty, simply from being frank. People — and when she said ‘people’, in this instance she meant ‘Vor lords’ — panicked and went stiff and super-polite and stopped listening. The ladies and the armsmen generally laughed. Behind their hands, admittedly.
“The thing about militarism,” the mad-eyed and yet curiously appealing young man was shouting — and he really was very angry about it, “is that it’s not all about shiny boots and big parades. Oh, yes, there’s an awful lot of that, all the time, and very nice too, but — the thing is, it’s actually about boys in badly made uniforms ending up dead in the mud. Boys in uniforms and civilians. Oh yes, there’s all that lip-service paid to protecting the women and the children — and yet, somehow, they’re the ones that end up dead. While a bunch of middle-aged men swan around a palace stuffing their faces–”
Cordelia disputed none of this. Quite the contrary, in fact. She was merely unconvinced that shouting these facts out loud was the best way of going about persuading the Vor lords to institute the progressive governmental reform that Barrayar was crying out for. Look at them. They were going stiff and not listening. Five years — no, six now — spent in the labyrinth of Barrayaran politics and paranoias had taught Cordelia that there were subtler ways through the maze. Subtler than shouting, at any rate. Ways that might take longer, but were less likely to lead to bloodshed. Committing Gregor entirely to Drou’s care, she quietly started moving around the room. After a moment, she caught the eye of the stranger’s companion, and gestured to her to come and join her.
“I mean,” the young man went on, as Cordelia slipped behind him, “you’ve got a child there and you’re calling him ‘Emperor’! Look at him! He’s — what, ten? Eleven? He should be outside, kicking a ball around!”
Cordelia and the red-haired woman had now reached each other. “It is all a bit Wills-and-Harry,” the other whispered to her, inexplicably. She glanced at Gregor and wrinkled her nose. “Bless.”
“Your friend is talking too much,” Cordelia whispered back.
“I know. Sorry. Sometimes he doesn’t know when he’s going too far. But, you see, we arrived here, and then we saw this boy getting arrested, and it was horrible, I mean, it was nasty–”
Cordelia understood. “I know it probably doesn’t look like it based on the evidence,” she said. “But we genuinely are the good guys. Can you get him to stop? We can talk, if you get him to stop.”
Honesty, that was the key, it was always the key. If you were honest, then by some strange alchemy they tended to trust you. Cordelia stared straight into the woman’s eyes. After a moment, she nodded back.
There were few sounds in the universe louder and more persistent than the Doctor in full flight. His friend put two fingers in her mouth and whistled like a klaxon. A roomful of soldiers jumped. Then she filled her lungs, stuck her hands on her hips, and threw back her head. “Oi! Mush! Belt up! The lady here wants a word.”
“I mean,” the Doctor said to Aral, four-and-a-half minutes later, “what about Magna Carta?”
“What about Magna Carta?” Aral said, irritably.
“Did she die in vain?”
Donna flashed him a special look. Aral turned to Cordelia in exasperation. “We don’t have to shoot his wife.”
“They’re not married,” Cordelia replied, absently. “And if possible, I’d prefer not to shoot anyone. We’ve been doing so well in recent months.”
Donna, who was good at walking into other people’s offices and getting their machines to do her bidding, was playing with the comconsole. “Um, Doctor,” she said. “Come and look at the date.”
The Doctor hopped over to her. “Ah,” he said. “There are not enough sevens in that.”
“Do you think this could be the dodgy bit you mentioned? The rocky start?”
“I think it might...” The Doctor turned to their hosts. He stuck his hands in his pockets and beamed. “Would it make life easier all round if we just went?”
Aral looked at him coldly. “I think that that would be for the best.”
“Sorry about breaking up the party.”
“There have been worse interruptions to everyday life.”
“It’s early days yet,” Cordelia added, consolingly. “Give us a few more decades. You won’t recognize the place.”
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor was subdued. “There was a party, though,” he said, at last, in answer to Donna’s silent reproach.
“Not. The right. One.”
The Doctor looked uncomfortable. It didn’t last long. It never did — or, at any rate, not on the surface. Soon enough, he smiled. And when the Doctor smiled, Donna thought, it was as if all the stars lit up together, all at once. Your whole self shivered, and your heart sang — a song of freedom, of escape.
“Think of us as fashionably early,” the Doctor said.
Donna laughed. “Will we go back? See how it turns out?”
“Perhaps. Plenty of time.”
Later in life, but before Cordelia knew a great deal more about time travel, psychic paper, and things being bigger on the inside, she sat and contemplated all her triumphs. Wife, mother, mentor; captain, countess, vicereine. Vorkosigans Victorious. Barrayar Resurgent. And now the children were in charge and Aral was gone and her heart was still and silent.
And then, into that desolation, there came a sound, a song.
“Hello again,” she said, when the blue box had solidified and the young man appeared. She glanced past him. “Where’s your friend?”
“I lost her.”
“That kind of thing happens,” Cordelia agreed. “I’m sorry. She was magnificent.”
“I thought so.”
They looked at each other thoughtfully. “I know you’ve been busy,” the man said, “but if you’ve got some spare time now, I thought you might like to see the universe.”
Cordelia laughed at the very idea. But she ran away from home with him, of course — like a young girl making her escape.