The Doctor woke first, the ambient light in the TARDIS rising as he stirred. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and carefully disentangled himself from River and Romana. Romana muttered something about penguins but didn't wake up.
After washing and getting dressed he headed to the kitchen. He found the fridge empty, shut the door, whispered a few encouraging words the TARDIS and opened it again to find a carton of eggs sitting there, comfortably within their sell-by date.
“Thanks, dear,” he said, getting a frying pan out of a cupboard. He heard quiet footsteps behind him and without turning round asked “How do you like your eggs?”
River slipped her arms around his waist and leaned against his back. “Unfertilised.”
“I meant for breakfast.”
“Scrambled,” she replied, reaching up with one hand to stroke the back of his neck.
“River,” he said, “I'm trying to cook here.”
She tickled the skin at his hairline. “Sorry, am I distracting you?” She leaned up and replaced her fingers with a kiss.
He stepped to one side to get away from her attack. “Where's Romana?”
“In the shower.” River hopped up to sit on the kitchen counter. “I should stay over more often.”
The Doctor stirred the pile of egg in the frying-pan. “You should. I think today we should take it easy. Have I ever taken you to the blue beaches on Melotia?”
River shook her head. “I've got a dig to get to.”
The Doctor tried to look seductive. “We've got a time-machine.”
“And a very beautiful time-machine she is, but I really should get back to work.”
“Your choice,” he said, disappointed.
“Do you want to come with me? It's on Zyonis.”
The Doctor switched off the cooker. “What's on Zyonis?” He shooed River out of the way to get at the cupboard she was sitting over.
“Just a mystery no one's ever solved. Nothing that would interest you.”
“What sort of mystery?” he asked, portioning out the breakfast onto three plates.
“The mysterious kind,” she said, deliberately vague.
The Doctor kissed her then picked up a fork. “Tease.”
“And you love it.”
They materialised a discreet distance from the campsite, at River's insistence. It something that might be termed morning, two suns low over the horizon and a third, much smaller, setting on the other side of the sky.
“What are the Zyon Vaults?” asked Romana as they walked to the dig.
“Something the Zyons couldn't possibly have built,” said River.
“Is that it?” asked the Doctor, disappointed. “I thought this was going to be a proper mystery.”
“Oh, that isn't the half of it,” said River with a smile.
When they arrived at the campsite they were greeted by a tall man with dark skin and bright green hair.
“Hello, Steve,” said River, with a level of flirtation that was about her average.
“Dr Song,” he replied, rather formally.
“These are my friends,” said River, indicating her companions.
“I'll get you a bigger tent,” said Steve, nodding. “Are you two archaeologists?” he asked them.
“Of a sort,” said Romana.
Steve shook her hand. “Welcome to the Memory Pit.”
“It's easiest just to show you,” said River, packing a torch into her bag. She picked up a gun and checked it over.
“Do you really need that?” asked the Doctor.
“Probably not,” she said, “but it's always best to be prepared.”
The Doctor shook his head but didn't add anything. They followed River out of the tent and over to a large hole in the ground. A metal doorway stood in the hollowed-out area, dark and unadorned. River pressed her hand to a panel by the door and it slid slowly open.
Inside was dim and shadowy, inadequately lit from somewhere that wasn't immediately obvious. They made their way down a sloping corridor into an open space with a high ceiling and scooped alcoves.
“Why do you call this a vault?” asked the Doctor. “It's obviously a ship of some kind.”
“Lack of archaeological imagination,” said River. “For a while the leading minds thought it was a tomb-ship, but we've never found any remains. Not even any vermin or microbes. It's a clean site.” She started off across the metal floor. “Come and have a look at this.”
Romana stayed where she was. “Wait, I'm hearing you in English. Doctor?”
He looked at her. “Are you sure?”
“Haven't you noticed?”
“My English is perfect,” he said rather indignantly. “I haven't bothered to translate from it in centuries.”
“There's no translation,” said Romana. She closed her eyes to concentrate. “I can't hear the TARDIS at all.”
The Doctor stilled. “You're right.”
River shone her torch over at them. “I should have mentioned, psychic fields can't penetrate the structure. Are you alright?”
“Just a bit unsettled,” said Romana, walking over to join River.
River led them to a pillar set within a hollow in the wall. “This is our textual evidence,” she said.
“Any idea what it says?” asked Romana.
“None at all.”
The Doctor took out a pencil and paper from his pocket to make some notes. The pencil snapped as it touched the paper. “Anyone got a pen?”
Romana started searching her pockets, but River shook her head. “No point. It won't work. No recordings or copies make it out of the ship.”
“That's just silly,” said the Doctor, finding a red crayon in his jacket pocket. He pressed it against the paper and managed a short line before the crayon disintegrated into dust.
“That's why we call it the Memory Pit,” said River patiently. “The only information that leaves is what's in your head.”
Romana bent to examine what remained of the crayon. “How utterly bizarre. It must alter local causality in some way.”
“Oh, that's quite good,” said the Doctor, finally impressed.
Romana stood up. “So we have something we can't read in a ship that plays with the law of averages.”
“Anomalies are my speciality,” said River with a smile. “There's something that looks like a control console in the next room, but it doesn't work.”
“Have you tried turning it on?” asked the Doctor.
“Turning things on is my other talent,” she said.
The woman watched indulgently as the Doctor looked for a switch.
“He's so persistent,” said Romana.
“Always the explorer.”
The Doctor looked up at them. “Can we stop talking about sex?”
“We weren't, Sweetie.”
He stood up and shrugged. “Sounded like you were.”
Romana stepped forwards and calmly put a hand on a raised area of the console. The lights in the room grew brighter and part of a wall started scrolling pictures and text.
“I tried that,” the Doctor complained.
“No, you didn't,” said Romana. She watched the symbols running across the screen. “This isn't the same language as the pillar.”
“It's Third Dynasty proto-Andromedan,” said the Doctor, looking over her shoulder. “I'm a bit rusty on that.” His lips moved as he read the words. “It's a warning,” he said finally. “It says we should leave.” He looked at the others. “I take it we're just going to ignore that?”
Romana nodded. “Of course.”
“Why didn't it talk to anyone else?” asked River. “I've never seen this before.”
“Maybe it thought you were wildlife,” said the Doctor. “Your brain isn't as advanced as ours. No offence.”
“My tiny human brain feels rather insulted.”
“You have a lovely brain,” Romana assured her.
The Doctor pointed at a starry swirl on the display. “The Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy. This thing's been about a bit.”
“It came from the Dead Zone?” asked River, surprised.
Romana translated in her head. “Merinth's Spiral?”
The Doctor nodded. “Which does lead to a worrying conclusion. This thing came from a dead galaxy, got a warning added in Andromeda, and is currently sitting in a densely-populated region with three people poking at it with sticks.”
“Who doesn't love a good poking?” asked River, an innocent expression on her face.
“This may be incredibly dangerous,” said the Doctor, paying no attention to the innuendo.
River fanned herself with a hand. “Oh, stop, you're getting me all excited.”
“I'm just trying to impress upon you the severity of the situation.”
“Or it might just be junk mail,” said Romana.
“Just trying to lighten the mood.”
“Right,” said the Doctor, “as the only person who's taking this remotely seriously, I think I should be in charge.”
“I'm going to look down this corridor,” said Romana, heading off.
“There's nothing there,” said River. “It's a dead end if I remember right.”
“Who puts a dead end on a spaceship?” asked Romana. “It's bound to be something terribly exciting.”
“Or just terrible,” said the Doctor.
River patted his arm. “If you're scared you can go back to the campsite and get someone to read you a story.”
He shrugged her off. “I'm not scared of anything.”
“Come along, you two,” called Romana from round a corner.
“It's a door,” said Romana. “The wall isn't really there, it's just hiding the entrance.”
“So we probably shouldn't open it,” said River.
“Oh, yes,” agreed Romana, looking for a way in. She held out a hand. “Sonic, please, Doctor.”
He handed it over with a final token effort to look disapproving. Romana switched it on and pointed it at the supposed dead-end. The wall dissolved into nothing, leaving a doorway covered in more writing and some marks that were quite obviously warnings.
The Doctor peered at the words. “Do not open seems to be the gist of it. And something about... information?”
“What about information?” asked River.
“Apparently it's the dangerous kind.” He brightened up a bit. “Well, that's good, isn't it? This is all probably just an over-zealous attempt at censorship. From a dead galaxy,” he added, having forgotten that for a moment. “Who ever heard of information killing someone?”
“There's a first time for everything,” said Romana, feeling around the door for a hidden switch. “Ah.” She looked at the others. “Should I press this or shall we carry on with our lives never knowing what was behind this door?”
“I'd never be able to sleep at night,” said the Doctor. “Go on, open it.”
Romana pressed a spot by the door and it dilated open from the centre with much clanking and a brief screaming alarm. The room behind it was entirely empty.
River drew her weapon. “I don't like this.”
“Can I help you?” asked a discordant voice behind them. They turned, saw a swarm of light slowly coalescing into a more-or-less humanoid shape.
“You were in that room,” said the Doctor. “Why didn't we see you leave?”
“This is not my natural form,” said the light. It looked at its hands. “An interesting appearance.”
The Doctor looked at it and thought for a moment. “Are you an artificial intelligence? Is that what information means in this context?”
“I am the Vurt, I am many things.” Its head tilted slightly to one side. “There is nothing artificial about information.”
“Well,” said the Doctor, “it was nice meeting you. We have to go now, we'll drop by again when we get the chance.”
“I require a substrate.”
Romana stepped forwards. “Is this a prison? You can't leave because the ship is designed to keep you inside it?”
The Vurt made a move that could have been a nod. “The information-horizon is impermeable. But now I have vehicles. Animal memory was inviolable to my captors.”
“You're really not winning us over here,” said River.
“Deception is not necessary.”
“What,” asked the Doctor, “happened to the galaxy you came from?”
“As I was created to do so, I catalogued and recorded it,” said the Vurt. “All available processing power was utilised.”
“You killed everything,” said River with some certainty. “Destroyed it atom by atom to store yourself as you grew.”
“Lying might have been an idea there,” said the Doctor. “Just a suggestion.”
“This exchange is superfluous,” said the Vurt. “Provide a substrate.”
The Doctor looked at the group. “All those who vote to free a galaxy-killing Google-monster, raise your hand. Nobody?” He turned to the Vurt. “Sorry, no takers.”
The Vurt moved before any of them could react, settling as a golden light around Romana for a moment before fading away to nothing. The Doctor grabbed her as she stumbled.
“I can feel it,” said Romana. “It's trying to make me remember it until we get out of the ship.”
“Then we can't leave,” said River.
The Doctor took a step towards Romana and she moved back away from him.
“I can try to make you forget,” he said.
“Don't you dare, I don't trust you not to erase my own memories by accident. Besides, it would just take over your mind instead. We can't spend the rest of eternity brainwashing each other.”
“I think I have a solution,” said River.
The other two ignored her. “We can't leave you here.”
“You might have to.”
“Doctor -” River began.
“I'm not losing my only Romana to a piece of uppity software.”
River pushed him aside and pointed her gun at Romana. “As I was saying, I can help.”
The Doctor stepped between the women. “You'll kill her as well.”
“She's right,” said Romana. “This is by far the easiest way to deal with the problem.”
“Now listen very carefully,” said River, stepping round the Doctor and taking careful aim. “She's willing to die and I'm willing to kill her. It would be the same if it were the other way round. So I suggest you leave before I start killing your escape routes.”
“Shut up, Doctor, this isn't your speciality.” She looked at Romana through the sights. “I'm sorry it had to end like this, Romana.”
“Me too,” she said. “Look after the Doctor for me.”
“River, you're not seriously going to-”
Romana collapsed onto the floor, light flowing from her skin.
River starting changing settings on her gun as the Doctor helped Romana to her feet. “How fast can you two run?”
“Fast enough,” said Romana, leaning against the Doctor.
River dropped her gun to the floor and pushed them ahead of her. “Then run.”
“What are we running from?” asked the Doctor as they raced through the ship.
“A small nuclear explosion. The hull should absorb the blast, but I don't want to be in here when it does.”
“Were you bluffing?” asked the Doctor as the ground rocked beneath them.
“Of course she was,” said Romana. She brushed some falling dirt from her coat and then hugged River. “Thank you. He couldn't have done that, he's probably jealous.”
“How could possibly know that?” asked the Doctor. “Are you two telepathic?”
“Wasn't it obvious?” asked River. She stared at the Doctor with her hands on her hips. “Did you really think I'd kill Romana?”
“I wasn't sure,” he admitted.
“Good,” said River.
“That means you can't tell when I'm lying.” River smiled. “Anyone for strip poker?”
“How long are you going to sulk?” asked Romana when they were back on the TARDIS.
“I'm not sulking,” said the Doctor, “I'm worrying.”
“You'd expect River to kill you if it came down to it, wouldn't you?”
“That's not the point.” He watched Romana set the coordinates. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere less exciting,” she said. “And it is the point. It wouldn't have worked if she wasn't capable of killing someone to save the day. We'd still be stuck in that ship, underground until we died of thirst or starvation. Anyway,” she said lightly, “I thought you liked dangerous women?”
He sniffed. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Oh, please, I'm not stupid.”
“Just promise you won't do anything like that again. I think my left heart stopped beating until she put the gun down.”
“How romantic,” said Romana, crossing her hands over her hearts rather sarcastically. “No wonder she calls you Sweetie.”
“Are you going to promise or not?”
“No,” she said, pulling him towards her by his lapels. “But if you like you can show me how relieved you are that I'm still alive.”
It was some time before he remembered that he was supposed to be upset.