|Doctor Who Internet Adventure #02 - "Six Sides to Every Story"
"A Key for All Reasons"
by Cameron Dixon
The Doctor's feet slipped out from under him. More tentacles slithered through the vortex and slapped themselves about his torso and his face. "I could use a little helmmmfppphhhh..." His feet scored grooves in the sand as he was dragged inexorably towards the swirling hole in the Universe, struggling vainly.
Grace turned to Kao. "You've got to do something!"
"I quite agree." Kao turned firmly to the crowd and raised his hands in the air for silence. "Right, everybody!" he bellowed. "I wager thirty quatloos on the tentacles! Any takers?"
Grace's reply was drowned out by the shouting of the crowd. Fistfuls of money waved about in the spectators' hands and various other appendages.
"Seventeen on the Doctor!"
"Can we try my mother against it next?"
Grace groaned, leapt forward and grabbed one of the tentacles clutching the Doctor's chest. The tentacle slapped back at her, refusing to move; but suddenly Merak was next to her, helping her to pull. "You're..." she gasped with effort, "supposed to be...waiting for us...back at the... TARDIS!"
"Can't...leave...Astra! Keep pulling!"
More tentacles emerged from the vortex and lunged towards the struggling figures. The bidding grew even more frantic. "Twenty-five on the blonde woman!"
"Blonde? She's never a real blonde."
"Oh yeah? I've got fifteen says she is!"
With great difficulty, Grace managed to peel away one of the tentacles from the Doctor's face. Merak leapt on it as it lashed out again, furiously aiming for the Doctor's throat. The tentacle writhed about and slammed Merak into the ground, knocking the breath out of him. The tentacle rose, hesitated, and then lunged--
--at Merak, wrapping itself around his chest and raising him from the ground. The surgeon's eyes bugged out, his breath coming in short, rasping coughs.
Grace peeled another tentacle away from the Doctor, and another, and yet another. The Doctor struggled and finally managed to break free of the remaining tentacles' grasp. The remaining tentacles shuddered and drew back. Grace leaned back with a sigh of relief, and turned to watch the tentacles as they retreated back through the vortex...
Only to realize that they weren't unaccompanied. "Merak!"
The young man's feet had already been pulled through. "Help me!" he coughed. More tentacles lashed out and wrapped themselves around his legs and torso. Grace rushed forward to help, but one of the tentacles swatted her out of the way. She flew several feet through the air and landed with a thud.
Merak's torso was dragged through the vortex. His tortured face stared out at Grace. "Please! Tell Astra I--"
But before he could finish his sentence, he was gone. And with a shimmer, as if a rock had been dropped into a small pond, the vortex disappeared.
Scattered applause came from the crowd, and a few disturbances broke out on its edges as people, demonstrating the co-operative spirit of Planet X and the System from which it had originated, politely disputed the outcome of their individual wagers, occasionally drawing blood.
The Doctor sat up. "Ouch." He winced, rubbing his chest where the tentacles had grabbed him. "I hope he wanted to tell Astra he loved her. If he wanted to say he'd left the taps running in the royal bathroom there's not much he can do about it now."
Grace coughed, her throat raw from exertion. "Will he be all right?"
The Doctor shrugged. "I hope so. Time and space don't mean much on the other end of that vortex - we should be able to pluck him out before too much has happened to him. But even the little time he spends there... well, let's just hope he keeps his eyes closed, and doesn't leave too much skin exposed."
"I take it that's a gateway to unknown dimensions."
"No, I know most of them. Not that I particularly want to. The horrors beyond that gateway are literally unimaginable. He's trapped in an environment where time means nothing, where the mind falls in on itself in screaming madness, where sensory input is synaesthetically scrambled, where the laws of physics as we know them turn inside out and where there isn't a decent fish and chips stand for light years." The Doctor shook his head sadly. "He's already been plucked from his own world by powers beyond space and time, reduced to the status of a toy in a game for the highest stakes in Creation. And now this happens. He can't be having a good day." The Doctor sighed. "Poor Morok. I mean Merak."
Grace struggled to her feet. "We have to help him--"
"Agreed!" the Doctor announced. "But we have to go about it in the right way, and that means finding the Sloathe with the Key segment." He turned to the watching crowd. "Thank you for your assistance," he said. "Now, did any of you happen to notice which way the Sloathe disappeared with my crystal?"
The various life forms shuffled their feet and glanced at each other, embarrassed. The Doctor pointed to a balding Promethean in the front row. "You! Did you see anything?"
"Me? Didn't see a thing," the Promethean pronounced. "Wasn't even here
at the time."
Grace strode over, grabbed the Promethean by the lapels of his coat and shook him furiously. "WHICH! WAY! DID! IT! GO!!!!!!" she screamed in his face.
"Oh," the Promethean said rapidly. "That Sloathe. Right. He went that way."
The Doctor nodded his thanks, turned and strode off in the direction indicated by the Promethean. Grace dropped him on the ground and followed the Doctor. The crowd parted rapidly to let her through.
On the edge of the crowd, the Doctor paused and looked around, and then headed determinedly towards a small lean-to shed nestled between two identical dwellings. He knocked rapidly on the door. "Come on, come out of there! You're not fooling anyone!"
Grace looked at the shed, puzzled. It looked exactly like every one of the other sheds huddled around the central square of the village, and she couldn't work out what had led the Doctor to conclude that this was the one which the Sloathe was hiding in.
At least, not until she noticed the eyes peering carefully at them from the roof.
"Yes, you! I'm talking to you!"
The shed collapsed in upon itself with a squelch. The mulchy form of the Sloathe's default body resolved itself and extruded a number of eyestalks to glare mutinously at the Doctor. "Mine pretty shiny flashing thing," it snapped. "Monkey-hominids not appreciating nice glittering likingness of shiny thing. So bugger off."
The Doctor rubbed his chin. "Perhaps you're right," he agreed, and sat down next to the Sloathe, his arms resting casually on his legs to signal his complete lack of hostile intentions.
The Sloathe eyed him suspiciously. "Hah? What is trick, this? Knowing what you're up to. Not born yesterday, this Sloathe was. Born lots of yesterdays ago. Lots and lots and lots and lots and--"
"Oh, of course, of course." The Doctor leaned forward, a persuasive glint in his eye. "I'm not arguing your right to ownership of the crystal in the immediate sense. I was just wondering if you've fully considered the philosophical viewpoint..."
* * *
As the crowd of spectators broke up and wandered back to their homes, a thin, bespectacled Reklonian bounded up to one of his Anean friends. "Hey, what happened? What did I miss?"
The Anean shrugged and waved vaguely in the direction of the now-departed vortex. "Eh, nothing much. The Doctor showed up again, some big swirly hole opened up, the Doctor and some woman called Grace closed it, but this really evil thing just about killed the Doctor's friend and then fell through the hole."
"Oh. Any good?"
"Good effects," the Anean decided after a moment's thought, "some good dialogue, OK comedy bits. I like this new Doctor. Not much of a story to it all, though. Tell you about it over a beer?"
"Sounds like a plan to me."
The two friends ambled amiably away. And time passed...
* * *
"I understand your argument," the Sloathe said thoughtfully. "But you must concede that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and you've yet to provide any proof that my ownership of the crystal will affect the status quo in any substantial manner..."
Grace huddled in the dust, her legs crossed and her head buried firmly in her hands. I'm not listening, I'm not listening, she chanted silently to herself, as the Doctor replied to the Sloathe's last comment. "Ah, very true! But you're subscribing to the solipsistic viewpoint and ignoring the ramifications of chaos theory. Given the existence of other beings, how can you possibly be certain that the actions you take now will not rebound with deleterious effects upon the others in your Universe?"
"Hm. You're correct, of course... the existential perspective would suggest that I alone am responsible for the consequences of my actions..."
Only the Doctor. Anybody else would have thumped the Sloathe over the head — as soon as they'd figured out where it was - taken back the Key segment and run. Not the Doctor. The Doctor sat down in the dust and started talking philosophy to something that looked like a cross between a large wasp and a regurgitated lobster salad.
That only made him eccentric. What made him special was the fact that, after two hours, it was actually working. The Sloathe had slowly taken on a recognizably humanoid form as the conversation progressed, and the last time she'd looked, its cranial capacity had swelled to nearly twice the size of an ordinary human brain pan.
"...and as an agent of change bordering on the archetypal," the Doctor concluded, "you must see that this renders you entirely unsuitable for possession of an artefact such as the one you see before you, which remains solid and immutable in no less than forty-seven and a half dimensions."
"Agreed!" the Sloathe cried. "Goodness me, this has been exhilarating! There have been so few discussions worth my time and effort in the past few decades that I'd given up all hope of an intelligent conversation and had reverted to near-animalistic form. Doctor, I don't
know what I would have done without--"
"Er, the crystal..."
The Sloathe nodded. "Of course. Here you are, Doctor." It extruded a pseudopod and carefully deposited the crystal segment of the Key to Time on the ground next to the Doctor. "I hope you'll forgive my crass materialistic behaviour when we first met."
"As far as I'm concerned," the Doctor said magnanimously, "it never happened."
The Sloathe blinked its several eyes. "What a curious psychological perspective. If a past event is forgotten, it thus bears no effect on the present actions of the participant - in that case, did it ever actually occur, in any real sense? Fascinating..." The Sloathe turned and ambled off, absorbed in this new philosophical dilemma.
Grace stood up and approached the Doctor. "Well done," she said approvingly. "Now shouldn't we get after Merak?"
The Doctor's head wobbled around to look at her, and she saw that his eyes had glazed over. "Merak? How do we know he really exists? Perhaps he's just a figment of our imagination. Perhaps you're just a figment of my imagination! How do I know you're really Grace?"
Grace hauled off and slapped the Doctor across the face. He yelped and rubbed his suddenly tender cheek. "Ouch! Pragmatism? Is that the best you can do?"
"Oh. Yes. Merak." The Doctor's eyes cleared. "Follow me!" He leapt up, clutching the crystal in his hand, and rushed off back towards the TARDIS, rooting through his pockets for the key.
"I don't suppose..." Grace asked as she jogged along beside him, "you're going to explain what that was all about?"
The Doctor shrugged, casually juggling the crystal segment in one hand while searching for the TARDIS key with the other. "The Sloathes are psychologically empathomorphic as well as physiologically capable of taking on nearly an infinite number of forms. Or to put it in other words, what ever they see, they imitate. I just talked philosophy to him until that was all it was capable of comprehending." He hesitated. "I had to get into some
fairly abstract concepts. I hope I haven't permanently damaged it."
Grace glanced over her shoulder as she ran, and saw that the Sloathe had latched a pseudopod onto the shoulder of a passing reptilian life form. "Pardon me, sir," it inquired politely, "but do you have any opinions regarding the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancies of the auxiliary performance codes?"
"Nah," she said, "I think he's going to be just fine."
* * *
Silence reigned in the warehouse. A robed figure stood majestically in an illuminated cone dead centre in the empty space; other figures surrounded him on the edges of darkness. Coruscating golden ghosts flickered about the edges of the room, reflections of light from the Seals of Rassilon embossed on the lone Time Lord's robes. The atmosphere stank of funerals and of endless waiting. A sense of tension filled the air, a sense of crisis — something was going to happen, soon, something disastrous--
"You know," one of the figures on the edge spoke up, "I don't think he's coming back."
There's always one.
* * *
The Doctor strode into the console room, and headed directly for the Key segments which he'd already collected. Grace followed. "Aren't you forgetting someone?" she called.
"No, we need the Key to get to Merak. The more of it we have, the better." The Doctor held up the half-Key he'd already assembled and slotted the fourth piece into place. "Hmph. Hardly complex enough to be called a puzzle."
"I see what you mean," Grace nodded. "So that's why they call it the Key to Time, is it?"
"Exactly!" the Doctor replied approvingly, hurrying towards the console with the Key in his hands. "Normally, the TARDIS is incapable of travelling into the Lovecraftian dimensions to which Merak has been taken — but as long as we have the Key, or a significant portion of it, we can make our own rules. And those include..." he placed the Key carefully inside the circle of intermeshing perspex rods which made up the time rotor "...the ability to unlock the door to those dimensions while maintaining the link to our own."
Sparks of lightning played about the rods of the time rotor. The Doctor tapped instructions into the console. "Ah... there's the trail!"
With her characteristic wheezing and groaning sound, the TARDIS dematerialised, following the path of the vortex puncture. The Doctor stood back and smiled. "There. Soon have this distraction taken care of. Actually, it's all been a bit too easy so far..."
Grace blinked. "Buh-whuh?"
"Oh yes," the Doctor nodded. "If you think we've been facing difficulties this go around, you should have been with me the last time I tried to assemble the Key. This time it's as if we've no sooner landed on a world than we've found a Segment and pow, we're off again. In comparison, it's been a walk in the park."
"Oh, sure! Central Park at night, maybe..."
The Doctor wasn't listening. "And to disguise itself as a child's rattle. What could it have been thinking? The Segment should have sought out a disguise which would ensure its safety — some sort of revered religious artefact, at the very least — and instead it picks the one thing subject to the most abuse in the Universe; a child's toy." The Doctor shook his head, thinking hard. "It's very odd..."
He turned to look at Grace, a puzzled expression crossing his face. "To tell you the truth, Grace, it's almost as if this time the Key wants to be reassembled..."
* * *
"If you want a job done properly, you have to do it yourself!"
The assembled figures shuffled nervously as the patience of the cadaverous figure in their centre finally snapped. The Time Lord flung his hands into the air, dust spreading from his robes like the ashes of a phoenix. He closed his eyes and concentrated...
Across the abyss, like calls to like, attraction where there should be repulsion. Chronons and anti-chronons weave together into an unbreakable tether, a lariat of Time inextricably connecting the six segments of the Key to each other. The Time Lord sought out the connections, seeking the mind of the Doctor's TARDIS. For a moment he frowned; the connection had made an unexpected turn, into a dimension he wasn't familiar with.
Of course! The Time Lord snarled, nearly losing the trail in his sudden self-anger as he finally realized what had happened. He'd converted his servant into the most horrible thing he could imagine, one of the dark creatures from the corners of the Time Lords' collective psyche — and he only now remembered that the dreams of Time Lords existed in physical form on other dimensional planes. No doubt its tussle with the Doctor had weakened the creature — and instead of returning here, it had "returned" to what, by default, was its new home.
And that meant that in order to get back the Key, he was going to have to send his mind into the uncharted territory of Time Lord nightmares. The Time Lord sighed. It was just impossible to find good help these days.
He steeled himself for the mental journey — Remember, he thought, this is your rightful property, you're reclaiming what is /yours/ — grasped the strands of Time with his mind, and pulled...
* * *
An uncomfortable ripple shuddered through the TARDIS. For a moment, the entire room seemed to shimmer and was replaced by something indescribably horrible, and where the Doctor stood — Grace blinked, and it was all back to normal. She shuddered.
"Ah, we're there." The Doctor, apparently oblivious to Grace's discomfort, studied the readouts on the console. "You know, in a way, things couldn't have worked out better."
"Tell that to Merak if we find him..."
"Well, they have," the Doctor said defensively. "It's not just that rescuing Merak should be our top priority -- being here is the best way to ensure that our enemies won't succeed in their plans."
"Er..." Grace hesitated. "I'm all for rescuing Merak, Doctor, but I didn't quite follow the rest of that."
"Six segments of the Key to Time," the Doctor explained. He held up his left hand and ticked off one finger after the other. "Princess Astra, theirs. The golden globe, theirs. The Colossus of Dorito, ours. The segment from the vampire world, ours. The Shoreditch segment, ours. The child's rattle, oh, no!"
"What? What is it?"
"I've run out of fingers!" the Doctor cried frantically. "Oh, wait--" He held up his right hand with a sigh of relief. "There we go. The child's rattle, ours. All of the segments have been accounted for, and that means that our enemies — whoever they are — can do nothing more in our Universe. And as long as we're in this Universe, with our segments of the Key, we're completely out of their reach. They're stuck, and there's not a thing they can do about it."
He waved proudly at the two-thirds of the Key he'd set inside the time rotor. As if arranged by the TARDIS, a sharp breeze blew up from nowhere to ruffle his hair dramatically. And then the breeze grew stronger, into a rushing gust of wind, and the deep, echoing sound of a distant gong shuddered through the TARDIS.
To the tolling accompaniment of the cloister bell, the four segments of the Key vanished from sight.
The Doctor and Grace stared at the time rotor, slack-jawed. The cloister bell continued to toll.
"Of course," the Doctor added after a moment, "I could be wrong."
To be continued...
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