Deep Focus

by Pete Galey [Reviews - 3]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Drama, General, Mystery

Author's Notes:
See Prologue.

Noon.

It was unseasonably mild, so Benny, Chris and Roz sat out near the orchard, while the Doctor bashed away at some mechanical gizmo he was making in the old stables.

Chris hadn't stopped babbling about the egg all morning. It was, he said, the most profound thing he'd ever seen, though as he'd once opined that there were no vids ever made that couldn't be improved by ending with dancing Ewoks, whatever they were, Benny didn't rate his critical faculties that highly. As far as she could tell, he'd experienced the... experience as some kind of light show. Or a musical. Or a rock concert. The weird thing was that even though she'd describe it differently — as a tragic narrative with a redemptive conclusion, perhaps, or as a medieval morality play on a galactic scale — they both agreed they'd seen the same thing. When they discussed a specific aspect, it was clear that the art itself was consistent, and yet their interpretations of it differed so wildly. It was a little like an old optical illusion, where they both saw the same shapes but one saw a vase while the other saw two people staring at each other. It was like that, only about ten million times as complex.

Roz was silent when she emerged from the study. She didn't join in their discussion, just lay on a towel on the grass staring up at the sky, a big grin on her face. It was a shock to Benny to see just how white and even Roz's teeth were, as they were hardly ever so uninhibited as to display themselves like this. Roz's expression was one of glee. All the lines on her forehead had melted away, and her eyes were clear and shining. Even the grey bits in her tightly-curled wiry hair seemed to indicate wisdom rather than middle-age and exhaustion. Occasionally Benny would catch Chris smiling indulgently over towards her. Bless them. An adjudicator and her squire, at rest.

The effect was increased by Roz ditching her adjudicator uniform in favour of a thin cotton dark-brown shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, a symbol of relaxation completely outside what Benny associated with the woman. Chris was still wearing both the armour and the robes. They made him look rather distinguished, if a little bulky. Benny didn't really like the quasi-spiritual aspect of 30th century policing: the armour capable of protecting against a vibroknife was expected, she supposed, policing the dark undercities of Earth's future hardly being a job for a Victorian bobby armed only with a whistle, a moustache and a sense of righteous indignation. But the robes, and the rituals, and the maxims that Roz occasionally spouted; the indoctrination into a kind of cult — that made Benny shiver. It wasn't so much the fact that Adjudicators were required to be religious people — Benny with her archaeologist's understanding of culture saw that pattern enough times — it was the equating of policing with some kind of objective morality. We are beyond reproach, said the robes, because we are holier than you. We can do what we like, shoot you down where you stand, maim you for life, but we will be right, because our Goddess says so.

That and all the pureblood African baggage that Roz usually carried around. Benny was usually incapable of avoiding sticking her nose into other people's business, but for the moment she knew better than to probe the older woman's opinions on the matter. Roz seemed to prize her own racial purity in terms that in a different culture would border on the fascist. Which was even more bizarre when you consider how ambivalent she was towards her family. Whenever Roz mentioned her childhood it was with a lingering bitterness and brittleness that seemed to cast a shadow over her entire personality. Now Benny looked over at her, grinning inanely up at the clouds, hands clasped behind her head, not a care in the world. Perhaps now was a good time to try to make a bit more of a connection with this complicated woman. After all, Benny had lingering issues with her childhood too.

"So Roz," she said, "you're keeping your own counsel about that... thing. But answer me one question. Who do you think made it?"

Roz frowned for a moment, then said decisively, "A child."

"A child? Must be a pretty advanced one, I'd have thought."

"A genius," said Chris. "A prodigy."

"Yes," said Roz. "It was the sense of wonder. And the playfulness. Like the entire universe was a great bit box of... what are those blocks the Doctor was messing with yesterday?"

"Lego," said Benny. The Doctor had decided to make a scale model of the house on Allen Road out of small plastic bricks. It seemed to keep him amused so they'd left him to it, though now Benny thought about it, he was probably using it as part of some kind of new defence system — a three-dimensional monitor for the security of the house. He'd had one previously fitted out with tiny light bulbs so that if there was a security breach you could see immediately where. Making it out of toy bricks suggested perhaps that the Doctor anticipated something — like the house itself was going to change shape and he wanted to be prepared. Or perhaps he just liked the idea of the house being all sorts of different colours. He'd started making it with red bricks but halfway through had run out and simply used whatever was to hand, so the trees in the model orchard where mostly blue and yellow and the stables were black. Perhaps there was method in his madness, but it was rarely a good idea to assume so.

"Exactly. Hey, what if the Doctor made it?" said Roz.

"Too perfect," said Chris. "Don't get me wrong, the Doctor's some kind of genius, but have you ever known him do something that isn't a little... messy?"

"Also he said it was a product of humankind," said Benny. "Hey, maybe one of us made it! Maybe we're going to."

Roz snorted. "I haven't got an artistic bone in my body. And if Chris made it there'd be more space battles."

"And if I made it, I'd have written on the side, 'This was made by Bernice Summerfield. If you like it, please send beer money'."

"You know," said Chris, "there was something on the side. I thought it was just a pattern, but it could be a signature. Not in any language I've ever seen."

"How long is human history, anyway? This could be from tens of thousands of years in the future. Oh, this is no good." Benny stood to wander off towards the stables. "I'm going to ask the Doctor."

"You think you'll get a straight answer?" Chris called after her.

"This is Kent," replied Benny, "not fantasy island."

* * *

"Hullo, Benny," said the Doctor cheerfully as he continued tinkering away.

"Can I ask you something, Doctor?"

"Certainly!"

"I was wondering about the significance of the anecdote, the one about the race of artists and art? You said that we sometimes ignore the provenance of art to enjoy its beauty, yes?"

"Indeed."

"And yet you didn't tell me about the provenance of the egg."

"Ah. Quite right, I didn't."

Benny sat on a wooden stool at the Doctor's workbench and searched his face for mischief. Was he being evasive for a reason? She could remember — just about, anyway — a time when she didn't second-guess every one of his motives.

"Well?"

"Truth is, I'm not entirely sure," said the Doctor. "That's part of what I'm investigating. We have the egg at the moment, but where it's been and where it will go next... well. For the latter, I'm making plans. For the former..."

He put down the soldering iron he'd been using and turned to face her. "I've heard rumours, but they're confused and contradictory. What we can say with certainty is that it's generally recognised that no one knows exactly who created it or when, and that almost as much academic research has gone into that question as has been expended discussing the art itself. The material has a quality that resists dating — or at least, so humans believe. In fact it seems like little more than a thin chronon field, fairly elementary stuff to a Time Lord." Benny raised her eyebrows. She wasn't quite sure whether to be patronised by the fact that this silly little man knew more than her species would ever know about such matters, especially as he made it out to be nursery level stuff, or whether to be flattered that he was explaining it to her at all. She supposed that this terribly advanced science would be useless in her hands anyway, given that she could barely work the TARDIS food dispenser half the time let alone find her way around elementary temporal physics; but then again, a congenital idiot with his finger on the nuclear button can cause plenty of damage without being able to pronounce "nuclear".

The Doctor seemed to decide to explain further. "Just as particles of matter can hold electrical charges, so particles of time hold temporal potential energy, and the process of interrogating the particles to discover when they actually are introduces a level of uncertainty that would make even Heisenberg blanch. The surface of the artefact is coated by a layer of matter that to all intents and purposes exists in many different times at once.

"In actual fact so does the TARDIS; it's a side-effect of navigating the vortex. Human study into the egg faltered a little here, as it was assumed that the layer was added deliberately to obfuscate the dating, but it's much more likely it found its way down a wormhole and came out somewhere and somewhen at the other side. Problem is, even I can't remove the surface layer without considerable risk of damage to the artefact itself, perhaps even destroying it.

"Anyway, that's a bit of a red herring. I was talking less about who created it, and more about its history as a work of art. It's been badly abused, Benny. It's a wonder it's survived this long. Relatively speaking, of course, given that it's highly likely to have been produced at least fifteen centuries in the future."

"And where did you get hold of it?"

The Doctor picked up his soldering iron again. Oh no, thought Benny. You're not leading me so far and then clamming up. "Hold it, mister. You didn't steal it, did you?"

"Well, possession is nine tenths of the law of thermodynamics," said the Doctor quickly. "The important thing is that I don't intend to keep it. I have to decide what's best for the artefact, and then arrange... a pick-up. There's another issue to take into account."

"What's that?"

"Well, think of art. A painting hangs on a wall, people walk past and see it. Prints can be made. A piece of music can be performed again and again, or recordings can be duplicated. Same for film or television. A great novel can be printed and printed. But every person who experiences what the egg has to offer, has to touch it, hold it for a length of time. That means several things. It means a risk of damage each time. It means potential queues longer than for any ride at Alton Towers. And it means enhanced likelihood of theft. Because while someone might theoretically steal a valuable painting to ransom it, they probably wouldn't keep it; you can hardly advertise that you've got a stolen masterpiece, and collectors are notorious boasters. But there are many people who'd love to get their hands on the egg, even if only once.

"That's part of the reason it's had such a turbulent history. Now it's, ah, fallen into my hands, and I have to decide what's best."

"OK. And this contraption you're working on... has this anything to do with your dilemma?"

"Indirectly," said the Doctor, and went back to soldering. Feeling that she had not done as badly as usual with her question-to-answer ratio, Benny took this as her cue to wander back out towards the orchard.