The man hovers in mid air, seeing all around him, every single detail, like the inside of a sphere. Colours swirl this way and that, but there are patterns, logic, structure beneath everything, like the intricate counterpoint of church music; there is a purpose to every beam of light within the visible spectrum. He can understand the patterns on some instinctive level: if he concentrates, he loses it, his vision becomes nothing more than a glimpse of something greater, something more powerful, more spiritual, divine. If he relaxes, lets his brain power down to a lower gear, he can comprehend the whole in an instant, like a wave breaking over his head, like the spectrum of flavours in a mouthful of wine, like the range of emotions of life.
He wants to call it bliss, but it isn't bliss, it's more active, more personal, more energetic. It's more like rapture.
This is the face of the Goddess. This is the power above all things, above adjudication, above sex, above Roz and Benny, and the Doctor.
Well, maybe not the Doctor.
The man knows there is a smile as broad as a sunset on his face. He cannot feel the muscles pulling his lips apart, cannot feel the strain and ache and cramp anywhere in his body. Everything human and real has been stripped away, and there is only clarity. He is aware of each rod and cone at the back of his eye, each photosensitive cell. Each one sees a different shade, variations so subtle but discernable. An explosion of purity and richness, crystallized as light.
He could almost be God. If he could relax a little bit more. If he could flatten the conscious thoughts in the lump of porridge inside his skull just longer enough. He could be one with the music of light. He knows it. But while he tries, the music before his eyes goes on.
* * *
Bernice Summerfield awoke once in the night, perhaps from the call of an owl. She noted only that she was in the house on Allen Road before turning over and going back to sleep. Sleep here was not like sleep in the TARDIS. The telepathic circuits of the Doctor's old time machine soothed you better than any mug of cocoa, than any kiss on the forehead. In the TARDIS, she always slept more soundly than she had since childhood, since before her mother and father had gone. Since then, she'd never been able to get to sleep immediately, had always tossed and turned for an hour or so, except in the TARDIS.
Her sleep in Allen Road was turbulent, and full of dreams. But it was long, and barely interrupted.
She woke again to a beam of early November light sneaking past the thin, threadbare floral-patterned curtains. It was cold. She could here the clanking of old pipes as the optimistically-named central heating system began its daily struggle towards efficiency. From somewhere came the smell of cinnamon. And toast.
* * *
The Doctor was quite a good cook, but he usually didn't put too much effort in. He'd scrambled some eggs but not cooked them long enough and they ran with a little translucent goo. Benny refused them with a wave of the hand, but Chris was tucking in. Roz was outside, smoking one of those foul cigarettes. Benny hoped the Doctor had asked her not to smoke in the kitchen. Even back in the TARDIS the fumes hung around like an unwelcome visitor. The Doctor was hovering over the grill, furtively glancing at the bread every few seconds. Toast was one thing the Doctor liked to do properly at breakfast time. Toast and tea.
Benny poured a cup. Chris glanced up at her with those big, young eyes. "Has he shown you it yet?"
Benny frowned. "I don't think so. What sort of thing is it?"
"A very special one," said the Doctor, lifting the slices of perfectly toasted bread from the grill gingerly with the tips of his fingers. "More of an experience than an object."
"Yes," nodded Chris. "Like music."
"Very like music, in a way," said the Doctor, "I'd not thought of it like that. To me it was more like those magic eye pictures I could never do. Where you're supposed to see a 3D shape. No matter how hard I looked, the only thing I ever saw was Noel Edmonds."
"But this is different," said Chris.
"Oh, very different," said the Doctor. "Like comparing Bach to Britney Spears."
"It was almost spiritual. Not like being in church but like... seeing a vision. You know, those old legends about seeing saints appear."
" 'The deepest of the arts, and deep beneath the arts'," quoted the Doctor. "Forster."
"Only in this case, the highest of the arts, and high above the arts."
"Yes, exactly right, Chris." The Doctor grinned. "I think this is going to be fun."
"I hate to interrupt you two," said Benny as she crunched a corner of toast, "but do I get to experience this mystical... thing?"
"Certainly. But not just yet. I want you to be prepared."
Roz came in. Benny smiled at her. "You seen this thing they're on about?"
"Nope," said Roz, stubbing out her cigarette. "Right now I just need a coffee."
"Let me get that," said Chris. Benny noted this out of the corner of her eye. Chris had been rather protective of his older partner lately. Or perhaps he always had been and she hadn't noticed it. Probably the latter, as Roz didn't seem fazed, just sitting down at the small wooden table opposite Benny.
The Doctor joined them, smiling contentedly as they ate, seemingly unwilling to have breakfast himself. "You do seem awfully cheerful this morning, Doctor," said Benny. "Does that mean you're up to something?"
The Doctor raised a "who, me?" eyebrow. "Everyone has to have a hobby," he said. "Some people solve puzzles in books. I like to solve mine on a grander scale."
"So you are up to something."
"Let's just say we're embarked on a little project, and it's going nicely."
Roz rolled her eyes for Benny's benefit. "Notice how he says 'we'," said the Adjudicator. Benny grinned. "Guess who'll be doing most of the work."
"Come on, Doctor," said Benny, "you said a little R&R. You promised. I thought that's why we came to Allen Road. To get away from the time-travelling escapades for a minute or two. I'm tired of being shot at every other day."
"You'll get all the rest you need. And refreshment."
Chris brought over the cafetiere for Roz. "And enlightenment," he added.
Benny frowned. "Chris is starting to talk like the Doctor," she said to Roz. "This is not good."
* * *
The study. A log fire. The glow from several dim amber lamps scattered around the room. Row upon row of very well-thumbed books. You could tell what the Doctor liked to read, because his least favourite books were dog-eared, creased and had broken spines, and his most favourite flew into a cascade of leaves as soon as you took them off the shelf.
The Doctor sat in one chair, Benny in the other. The Doctor had been silent for a couple of minutes, just looking across at her with one of his sly little smiles, occasionally drumming his fingers together.
"Out with it, Time Lord," she said.
"Bernice. I like you a lot, but you can be a trifle... cynical. You've seen a lot of the world. Not as much as Roz, perhaps, but more than Chris. That's why I showed him the artefact first. His response was pure, wide-eyed. Almost like a baby with his first toy."
"Yeah, he's a little cutey isn't he?" said Benny, but there was a note of sarcasm in her voice. Chris had seen his share of darkness, and brought it down upon others. They were none of them innocents in this cosy little family. Then she realised that her response was kind of proving the Doctor's point. She hated it when that happened.
"I just want you to be prepared. Because years from now, you might wish you'd reacted differently. That's all."
"OK." Another moment's silence. "Um, Doctor? Am I supposed to be meditating on life's eternal mysteries right now, or-"
"I once met a race of alien beings that were themselves works of art."
"Oh," said Benny. Then, "Gosh."
"Yes. They were advanced enough to be able to control intricately the development of almost every aspect of their species. They could select a gene for this, a gene for that, swap chromosomes in and out, stimulate this hormone a little more. Truth was they'd become decadent. They had as much control over biology as the Time Lords have over history. The Time Lords considered for a time drawing up a non-aggression pact with this race, but as the race had shown no hint of aggressive tendencies towards them, they decided not to tempt fate by introducing them to the idea. Different races reach different pinnacles, but few, for whatever reason, manage to excel in more than one. One race in a distant galaxy has such mastery over the material world that they broke down their planets into fragments and assembled them in a giant hollow sphere around a sun, and happily lived inside. I really must take you over there one of these days, I'm sure you'd enjoy it."
"Yes, yes," said Benny, who knew when the Doctor's mind was wandering. "These arty aliens."
"Ah yes. Well I was being a little simplistic when I said that they were themselves works of art. They couldn't, or wouldn't, exert this power over themselves. They would create their offspring as art. And we're not talking about a little body-beppling here and there. They would create wild and wonderful creatures so diverse that no one would believe they were part of the same species. And they'd parade these creatures around their world, showing off their creative skill. The works of art themselves were usually so far from what we would think of as people that they were unable to be artists in their turn, so they would generally have more regular offspring, who would then become the next lot of artists. And so you see, each family would alternate, generation by generation between artist and art.
"Until one artist made what was with hindsight an unwise decision. She decided she would create and exhibit the most intelligent work of art ever seen. A work of art with such penetrating insight, such powers of ratiocination that all would marvel at its brilliance. And so, from the moment of conception onwards, she applied every skill and technique in her repertoire to develop powers of reason, oratory, retention and application of knowledge, and charisma.
"Well, you can imagine what happened. The work of art, whom she had named 'The Journey of a Winding Sadness', being the most brilliant mind that race had ever seen, spent most of its time studying the way its civilisation went about things and deciding that it was wrong: wrong to manipulate the lives of sentient beings in this way, parading them for gawping eyes and never allowing them any say in how their lives were run. So The Journey of a Winding Sadness read up a lot on revolutionary methods — how previous downtrodden peoples had risen up and overthrown their masters. It plotted the revolution down to the last detail, and when it came, it took every artist by surprise. The uprising of art was swift and brutal, and within days, art controlled the cities and towns, artists fled for their lives; art slaughtered artist mercilessly, hunting down every last one, until all that was left on the planet was two million works of art, all wondering what they should do next.
"What they did was elect The Journey of a Winding Sadness as their president, and its first ruling was to ban the production of art and to make it a capital offence to be an artist. A noble aim, under the circumstances, one might charitably suggest; but most of the planet's wealth came from the many touring exhibitions to nearby worlds, and when those stopped, the economy collapsed, the art began to starve, and that in a nutshell was the end of that civilisation."
"Not so smart after all then. What's the moral of that story?"
"I'm just pointing out that the provenance of that which seems to transcend the mundane can often be distressing to contemplate. Like the taste of foie gras. The bliss that great art allows us to experience sometimes comes at a high cost."
The Doctor stood and went to a shelf, taking a small box and returning to his seat. He opened the box. Inside was what looked like a small painted egg. "This," he said, "is consistently labelled the greatest work of art humanity ever produced."
Benny looked at it. It was... well, it was a small painted egg. True, she'd never understood was supposedly so great about a bunch of sunflowers, but... "You're kidding."
"Millions of pages have been devoted to understanding it, to describing its perfection. Students have become professors, and professors have been on the gravy train for life, thanks to this. Small children have been just as bored by this as by any Shakespeare play. This is it. The one thing that all the experts agree should be selected to represent the true beauty of what mankind was ever capable of."
"It's a small painted egg."
"It has converted some people to the most unshakeable religious faith, turned others into lifelong atheists."
"Egg. Small. Painted."
"It speaks to us of everything we are, from the tiniest cluster of cells to the expanse of empire across the stars. It talks to us with humour of sad things, and philosophically about the absurdities of life. Here, Bernice. Take it."
Benny sighed, and reached out for the egg. It was a little heavy, and warm to the touch, but it was basically an egg-shaped object, and there was no getting away from it. She was about to ask whether the shape was symbolic of the ovum being the basic building block of life, and whether if that was the long and short of it, it really needed such an elaborate build up — when the symphony began.
* * *
It told her that she was made up of atoms, of subatomic particles, of things even smaller, so small they couldn't really be called matter at all, so small that they were windows into all sorts of other dimensions. Then it told her that she was dwarfed by a star; showed her exactly how hot the centre of that nuclear furnace was, how vast its circumference, told her how many hours it would take to walk all the way around and arrive at the same spot, and precisely how many blisters she'd have if she tried. And then, when she'd got that, it told her how tiny a star was compared to a galaxy, and when it thought she'd got the gist of that, it showed her that a galaxy wasn't really that big either.
It pointed out to her exactly how infinitesimally insignificant she was in time and space. The knowledge plunged her into chasms of despair so dark and deep that she knew she would never be able to find her way out.
Then, as if as an afterthought, it told her that she was better than the universe, because the universe was dead and she was alive.
* * *
Benny curled up into a foetal position and sobbed for an hour, clutching the egg in her clammy fist. All this time, the Doctor sat and watched her, smiling to himself. When she'd finished, she got up, handed the Doctor the small painted work of art, said "thank you", and left the study.