Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Arvak's Ransom (Doctor Who)

This is a story I wrote for the 2010 Big Finish Short Trips New Writers' Opportunity. As it was rejected, I'm posting it here for lack of anything better to do. :-) The limit was 2500 words (I barely made it!). Features the 7th and 8th Doctors and no companions.



Burning ice, biting flame; that is how life begins, say the storytellers. But this far from the origin, spacetime is a vast frozen darkness that breeds only monsters. It is so cold that even an icy wasteland like the fifth planet of the Arvak system can be considered an oasis of warmth and life.

But Gann, shivering with all his feathers fluffed inside a triply insulated environment suit, can only think how damned cold this planet is. He stands outside the sturdy dome that shelters his laboratory and watches the moon rise, cursing the waste as his body heat radiates into the void.

"That's the last moon," says Gann to his dog. They are the only two lifeforms on Arvak 5, and the dog is questionable. It certainly has no comprehension of Gann's words, being guided by a harness of delicately woven threads of coded light. "The last one, so this must be our final test."

The thing that Gann thinks of as his dog wags the conceptual equivalent of a tail and licks at Gann's gauntleted hand.

"Good dog, Sig, there's a good dog," says Gann. He knows it's a mistake to think of the creature as anything other than "Experimental Subject Sigma", especially given the failures of "Alpha" through "Rho", but he can't help himself. He checks the time, double-checks the coordinates, triple-checks the instructions, then finally allows himself to input the command sequence.

"Experimental Subject Sigma, ready and go dog go!"

The dog is gone from his side. Like a fading thought, like a shadow falling, it is gone without any hint of movement or existence.

Gann stares up through his visor at the moon, tracing his dog's path in his mind. He holds his breath, then lets it out in a laugh. The dog is already back. Has always been there. "You did it? Of course you did! Good dog."

Gann can hardly sleep that night. The next night will give him his proof.

The next night, Gann and his dog are outside again, watching the moon.

Halfway up the sky, the moon loses its lustre and slowly, slowly balloons outwards into a cloud of dust.

Gann is mesmerized. His dog has defied time and space to chase down tomorrow's moon, yesterday. It can fetch him anything from anywhere in this system, destroy anything, at any moment in his week. But Gann needs more. He triple-checks the next program, activates the command. "It's time, Sig. Time to go after the dragon!"

The dog flickers out of existence once more.

Gann gazes up towards the empty sector of space where once the fourth planet of the Arvak system would have spun. Not completely empty: it holds the sludge of dying thoughts from which he fished what would become Experimental Subject Sigma. And it holds his own past.

***

"What can I get you, sir?" The boy Gann couldn't help but stare at the stranger, because he had never seen anyone as strange as this: featherless and pale, covered in heavy white clothes unmarked by clan insignia and wearing a barbarian's hat. A furled umbrella leaned against his chair. The boy wondered why he needed an umbrella when he already had a hat.

"Ah, hello!" The man smiled, doffing the hat. "I'll be having one of your famous hravelberry pastries. The best in the galaxy, so I've heard."

"Right away, sir." It didn't take long to fetch the plate from the kitchen, but the man wasn't at his table anymore.

He was standing at the window, staring up at the sky. He spoke in a low, urgent voice, without turning around. "It's wrong. All wrong. Can't you hear it?"

"Hear what?" asked the boy, unsure what to do with the plate. "Sir, I have your order..."

"They're coming. The TARDIS... must return to the TARDIS." The man turned and glared fiercely at the boy, then hurried out the door. Once outside, he broke into a run, one hand clapped over his hat.

On impulse, the boy ran after him, still holding the plate. "Hey! Wait!"

The man disappeared into a tall, blue shed on the side of the road. The boy was surprised to see it, as it hadn't been there that morning. Even so, he knocked on what he guessed to be the door. "Sir? Your order..."

The door opened. "No. Not order. Chaos! Pure chaos."

The hooked handle of the umbrella caught the boy around the elbow. He cried out in surprise, dropping his plate, but the man dragged him into the shed before he could recover. He didn't even notice the doors shutting behind him. "But...but it's..."

"I know, I know, bigger on the inside," said the stranger. "I'm called the Doctor, by the way. Brace yourself."

"Why?" Even as the word left his beak, the ground shuddered under him, throwing him to the floor, where he slid until his back hit a wall. From this unaccustomed angle, he watched the Doctor race around the central pillar, hands frantically working the controls of this strange machine. It must be a machine. No animal ever made such a hideous, grinding cry.

"No!" The Doctor slammed a fist into the controls. "Too late. They must have scented the TARDIS and jumped the timelines ahead of us. I'm too late. I've failed you, boy. All of you. I'm sorry."

Bewildered, the boy crawled to the doors. He couldn't find a handle, so he pried at the edges. "Please, let me out."

"I can't."

"But Cook will be missing me."

"No."

"Then I have to go home. My parents..."

"They're gone, too. I'm sorry," he repeated.

"Everyone?" The boy wasn't sure what he was asking, but something in the Doctor's voice filled him with horror.

"Everyone."

The boy was stunned. Unable to grasp it.

"Everyone. Your whole planet. Millions of species. Now gone forever." His voice dropped, but the anger remained. "And they'll move on. Find another planet. And do it again. And again..."

"Can't you stop them?"

"Oh yes. I can stop them."

***

The creature that isn't a dog follows the track of the dragon that flies through the Vortex. Its quarry is far out of reach, but it will cross Sigma's path in its passage from tomorrow to yesterday.

When the dragon tumbles into view, the dog leaps out and tears into its belly. It wears the shape of a small blue box, but Sigma can feel the fire barely contained inside it, more powerful than any moon. It is too strong to be wrenched from its trajectory. The dog howls in frustration, refusing to release its grip. It chews its way through the armored hide of the dragon, searching for the heart that defies its will.

"Who are you? What are you?" The blinding light at the heart of the dragon has a voice. It has form and mass. It is a creature like and yet unlike the dog's master. For the first time in its life, Sigma hears the meaning in the vibrations in the air, understands it as a transmission of thought from mind to mind.

"Who are you? What are you?" Sigma recreates the sounds in its own form.

"I'm the Doctor. And I'm beginning to understand what you must be." The Doctor pauses, then says, "You're not at all what I expected to find here."

"Here. Here. Here." Sigma tugs at the dragon's tail.

"I see. You want me to come with you? Very well." The light dims from around the Doctor.

***

Gann watches the TARDIS materialize inside his laboratory. Sigma melts from around its outer shell and comes to his heel. "Oh, well done. I hardly believe it..."

The door clicks open and a man steps out.

"You're not the Doctor!"

"I've changed." The man frowns at the gun pointed at his chest. "And so have you. Gann, isn't it? What are you doing here? I thought I left you on a peaceful world far from here, with people to care for you."

"And they did. They were very kind. Don't think me ungrateful." Gann studies the stranger, finds something familiar in his strangeness. But he doesn't lower his gun. "They gave me a second chance at life. I made a fortune with a chain of patisseries, with my recipe for hravelberry puffs. Lucky for me I had a handful of dried berries in my pockets that day. Cook used to scold me for that. But it turned out to be a genetic treasure."

"But you're not a pastry chef now." The Doctor nods at the equipment stacked around them. "You've taken up engineering, I see. I like your dog."

"Sigma? He's an excellent dog, yes, but his range is limited to this solar system. He's missing quite a bit of his structure, despite my patching him up." Gann smiles and scratches the dog around its ears. Light flickers in contented lines over its body.

"Of course. But why go to all that trouble?"

"What a weapon he makes."

"Yes, I did notice a distinct lack of moons around this planet. I seem to recall there were once seven of them." The Doctor gazes steadily at Gann. "What happened to you, Gann?"

"When I grew up, I wanted to travel. So I did, once I had the money. And do you know what I saw in my travels?"

The Doctor's eyes darken, but he doesn't answer.

"Whole worlds stripped, civilizations destroyed, all to feed the Empire. What happened to my world wasn't an anomaly." Gann struggles to keep his voice even.

"What do you want from me, Gann?"

"The same thing I wanted before!"

***

"It's beautiful." A crystal glowed hypnotically in a nest of wires strung from the central pillar. Without realizing it, the boy leaned closer and closer.

The Doctor pulled him back. "Careful. It's more than just a pretty rock."

"What is it?" The boy couldn't tear his gaze away.

"A phase-modulated crystalline matrix. I've caught the void creatures inside it. They're really little more than a collection of cleverly woven equations. Mathematical lifeforms in the vast reaches of spacetime."

"It glows..." The boy saw patterns. Ghostly images. It should show him nightmares, he thought, but instead it filled him with longing.

"Because it's not entirely stable. It gives off light when the information trapped inside decays. What you see is its slow death."

"Are the monsters dead?" The boy blinked and forced himself to turn away.

"Not yet." The Doctor pointed up at the window set high in the wall. It looked out onto a writhing darkness, against a background of more darkness, with the faintest glimmer of stars around its edges. "I've stripped away their motion, but their shadow lingers. It will be gone after a century or so."

"Good," said the boy. "I'm glad."

The Doctor sighed. He began to detach the wires from the glowing crystal. "This will last considerably longer."

"Can I have it?"

"No! It's far too dangerous. No. All the power of those creatures, distilled into one handy container. I can't let it fall into the wrong hands."

"But what's wrong with my hands?" protested the boy. "Those monsters ate the world. I'm the only person left. I don't have anything else. Why can't I have /that/?"

"It would destroy you."

"But I want it."

The Doctor shook his head.

***

"You mean this?" The Doctor, this new Doctor, twists his hand around in a magician's flourish. The white crystal glows between his fingers.

Gann's feathers prickle. The shock of seeing the crystal again mutes him for the space of several breaths. He can feel Sigma quiver at his side. "Yes..."

"Pretty little thing, isn't it?" The Doctor gazes into the light. "Tell me, what did you see in it, when you first looked into it, all those years ago?"

"Possibility." The light stirs old memories in Gann's head, revives forgotten dreams.

"Whereas I looked into it and saw danger. But perhaps you were right all along..." The Doctor shades his eyes with his other hand and looks back at Gann. "And now? What do you see in it now?"

"Power!" Gann snaps his beak in emphasis.

"Power? Is that what you want?" The Doctor's voice turns weary, but still he asks, "Why?"

"What happened to my world wasn't an anomaly," Gann says again. "The strong destroy the weak. I learned that, Doctor. You destroyed those monsters, but you leave the bigger ones to thrive on the blood of the innocent. Why? Don't you have the stomach to finish the job? Well, I do."

"Bravo. You do realize I can't allow you to trample over the web of time like that."

"Allow? Doctor, I'm the one holding the gun." Gann steels himself to fire it.

"So you are. So why haven't you shot me yet?"

"I don't want to kill you."

"I don't particularly want to die."

"But I will shoot. So hand it over."

"Mm. I don't think so." The Doctor turns abruptly, and in the same motion raises his arm and hurls the crystal away. "Here, Sigma! Fetch!"

The crystal vanishes before it hits the ground. Gann catches a glimpse of the dog's jaws snapping shut around it, then nothing more. "What have you done?"

"I've given them their heart back. With a few small modifications." The Doctor turns back to Gann. "I imagine Sigma is on his way to deliver it to his kin. Out there."

"You're insane! They'll kill us all...unless...can you control them?"

"No."

"But you said, you said you modified the crystal."

"Yes. I taught them to hear our languages. Now that they understand that sentience can arise even in beings of mass and matter, they can choose not to prey on inhabited planets."

"They're monsters! They won't care," says Gann. "Why? Why did you do it?"

"Because I've destroyed worlds, too. I've wiped out entire races. But I'm tired of death." The Doctor looks upward, where one can see through the top of the dome to an empty patch of sky where a planet might have been, once. "I do what I can to save lives, but I can't do everything. And sometimes I make mistakes."

"You're making a mistake now! How can you take such a risk?"

"How can you? You lived here with one of them by your side as your faithful companion, for what, years now?"

"That's different...I could control him."

"Is that what you think? But you're wrong. And that's why I choose to take the risk." The Doctor steps back into the TARDIS. "Good-bye, Gann."

The TARDIS fades, leaving only echoes behind.

Gann drops his gun at last and sits on the floor, head bowed. Waiting for the monsters to come.

Some time later, a cold semi-material nose nudges at the back of his neck.

"Sigma! You came back."

Space is dark and space is bleak, but on a icy planet far from the Empire, a boy and his dog sit together, seeing possibilities.

6 comments:

  1. This one has a very sci-fi feel to it (rarer than you'd think for Doctor Who, you know?). Sigma is fascinating, and I love how it's really Gann's story, how losing his planet doesn't justify his quest for revenge or destruction. But it also has a very ephemeral feel to it because of the need to tell such a sweeping story in so few words. Great job on both of these. I keep thinking, the stories they did pick had better be top notch!

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  2. Thanks. :-) This one I had to cut severely to fit into the 2500 word limit (and as a result lost a few of the explanations about why this that or the other thing). Oh well. This one was the Norse saga, while the other was an Arabian Nights story.

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  3. hello - here from the livejournal list. really really liked this, which is subtle and clever. it fits perfectly within its word limit, too - this is the right length for this story, which is enormous and about worlds dying, but also about a boy and a dog that isn't a dog. loved the bit where sigma encountered the tardis, as well. beautiful writing.

    glad to have read this :)

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  4. Thanks. Glad you liked it. :-)

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  5. Also here from the LJ list. I really like this - the events and Sigma and so on were fascinating.

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  6. Thanks for the kind words, Neveralarch. :-)

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