Characters: the Ninth Doctor, OC
Summary: A story in which the Doctor learns that scars are ugly, but better than open wounds; and that not all hearts can be broken.
Edited: by the incomparable dr_whuh
Author's note: This is the second of two stories won of me by zenitt during the help_haiti auction. He is the master of challenging prompts, and I have already acknowledged to him that I wandered off the path a bit with this one. I hope he forgives me, and I thank him again for pushing me past my normal comfort levels and into something passing strange and wonderful. And for those who pay attention to these things, this story follows immediately on the heels of my story Ice Like Centuries. It can be read as a stand-alone, but gains some context if the other is read.
Disclaimer: I do not own anything in the Whoniverse. They are owned by the BBC and their various creators. I do, however, love them all, and thank the BBC for letting me play (and create the occasional original character) in their own sandbox.
Addendum: The poem Lumsden Dam is Copyright 1995 Kathryn Routliffe/Who, Me? Music
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The hand stretched out into space
Like a swimmer stretched upon the top of water,
relaxing for a moment,
legs down, feet feeling for bottom
and finding none.
There is a moment of weightless surprise,
of shock in the absence of foundation.
Then the torso slides down,
sliding purely and correctly in that path which physics dictate.
Just a moment,
as body swings like a pendulum towards some
point of reference which has departed.
The hand, meanwhile,
stretches out to cleave to some contact
and hangs in that same weightless surprise
before its trajectory
swings down the parabola
no where at all.
He was drowning. He felt the pressure at the back of his neck as the undertow kept his head under water — so little water, there at the shore's edge — and he could hear the roar in his ears. He couldn't see, beyond a muddy wash of silver bubbles and grit-edged current sluicing across his eyes and into his mouth. He groped for purchase, and fought to win free of the tide only to feel it slam him face down into the sand again. He couldn't get the bypass system to kick in; water and sea-foam knifed into his lungs. Pain and panic surged like the riptide, and his muscles burned from anoxia and fruitless effort —
The Doctor jerked awake, but shut his eyes again against the sand crusted on his lids. It was in his mouth, too. He ignored how his eyes burned as he doggedly, carefully, cleared the stuff away. All the while he breathed in and out steadily and deliberately, which eventually slowed his racketing hearts to a manageable speed and rhythm. Next he sat up, spat and wiped his mouth clean with a corner of the thin blanket under which he'd slept. Finally, he looked across the tiny space. Nahm Dhimana was there, as usual.
"You disturbed my sleep," the Vidvanoman said, in his distressingly calm fashion. "You should solve your terrors out of deference to others." The Pahrevar encouraged that kind of clinical hauteur, especially among the Vidvanoma. He would have been heartily sick of it if he'd given a damn; Nahm Dhimana reminded him of himself in past lives. Possibly his first. Or his seventh self; now that was a Doctor full of quiet arrogance.
"Lots of places you could be," he said, lying. "No need to babysit me." With that, he surged to his feet, automatically balancing himself against the sand that shifted under the carpet.
"Perhaps." Nahm Dhimana matched his movements, although with a studied artistry he was certain he hadn't exhibited. "Will you have breakfast today?"
"No." He pushed past the other, through the flap of the tent. Once outside, he stretched and looked around. Past the rough circle of small scarlet tents he could see nothing that he hadn't seen every morning for the past six days. China blue sky meeting the dull gold and brown of windblown dunes for miles in all direction; the herringbone pattern of scrub plants breaking the dip and roll of each dune and providing dubious shade for any animals foolish enough to exit the subterranean cool of their tunnels before nightfall. The sun was already merciless; there was no such thing as slow dawn on Ahnapheng. He thought with regret of the shady arroyo in which they'd spent the week before breaking camp and coming to this place.
"Remind me again why we're headin' east and south into the Molten Heart, instead of back to the mountains?"
Nahm Dhimana joined him outside, his hood already properly pulled up and around his face to protect it from wind and sand. "We're going to the Heart because something's wrong with it. It's throwing our world out of balance. It's altering time - we can feel it doing so - and we must repair it. Isn't that why you decided to join us?"
In the subsequent prickly silence the two of them looked at each other, Vidvanoman and Time Lord.
Like all Pahrevar, Nahm Dhimana was tall and slim, with long arms well out of the standard humanish arm-to-torso ratio. His charcoal skin and large green eyes, his mane of black hair and his blue-black robes, not to mention his speech and bearing, all rendered him considerably more striking than one ragged, sallow-skinned and hollow-eyed Gallifreyan. Not that he'd seen his face; he had no intention of looking at himself for the foreseeable future. Nahm Dhimana had told him what he looked like, several times, while pointedly failing to offer any suggestions for potential improvement. That, he'd said, was not his responsibility.
"Isn't that none of your business?" He immediately hated himself for saying something so stupid.
Nahm Dhimana raised an eyebrow. "I let you sleep in my home, and you eat my food. Doesn't that merit some consideration of a simple question?"
Three questions in a row weren't merely awkward conversation, they were absurd, not to mention unanswerable. And he was up to his eyeteeth in aphorisms and cryptic references. If he stayed here, he'd be treated to another useless fable disguised as a conversation, or worse, commentary paraded as the wisdom of the bloody ages.
"I'm going for a walk." He was going to spend a little while free of this elegant prat. He'd—
He kept walking, but only because he didn't want the Vidvanoman to spot his abrupt confusion.
He'd what? Leave camp? Head back over the countless dunes they'd crossed yesterday, and the day before that, and the one before that? Walk across sand and more sand, hard-caked sand if he was lucky, soft and shifting sinkholes if he wasn't, an infinity of sand to find its way into every crease of his clothing, to creep into the creases in his skin, and into his mouth, drying him out, mummifying him, choking— He shivered, trying to shake thoughts out of his head.
And if he walked, how far would he go? All the way back to the TARDIS? Not likely. Not here, this close to the Molten Heart. Even he needed water and shelter in a place like this if he didn't want to struggle and fall, and ... and die.
And even if he made it back on his own, what then? She wouldn't have him back. Not yet, he could feel Her anger in his bones.
"I think you need to get to the Heart." Behind him Nahm Dhimana managed to sound mildly concerned.
He didn't answer, just went to the opposite end of the camp and sat in the inadequate shadow of someone else's tent, and was grateful that all the other Pahrevar ignored him, until the sun set and the cold became too much even for him.
Before he wrestled Her down, the fight had been bitter and long. It had ranged an unthinkable distance, once he chose to avoid where She wanted to go. They had spun from that event horizon to this place. He had been pulled past lovely planets, beautiful nebulae, calm systems, past places where he could, finally, have gotten the rest he'd sought fruitlessly in the dark and the cold, until She threw him out of the Vortex and onto the shifting surface of Ahnapheng. Once he walked out the doors in the first minutes on the planet, he couldn't get back in. She told him nothing then, and he'd felt nothing from Her but anger since they had landed.
That night the Doctor lay still and silent, looking into the shadowed recesses of the tent roof, seeing madness and tears, and feeling the betrayals of people he'd betrayed. It was better than sleeping, or drowning.
"You have no stories about time?"
"Lots of 'em."
"Knowledge is meant to be shared."
"Stories, legends, myths, stupidity. Mostly things you folk already know."
Nahm Dhimana handed him a cup that felt like fine bone china, filled with something that almost tasted like tea. "Thanks. The hutapyar?"
His host made that little moue that he'd come to hate, but handed over the bowl filled with the Ahnaphengi sugar analog. He grabbed at it, then thinned his own lips in response, and didn't care if Nahm Dhimana didn't think it was a smile. Dumping far too much of the sweet stuff into his cup, he continued, "Some knowledge can't be shared."
In that part of him that had worked far too well lately, he felt the twisting of the Molten Heart. It was still far away, as far as the Pahrevar were concerned. Their precious scholars undoubtedly felt it a little more keenly; he suspected genetic manipulation of some sort. Before the War, their technology might have been even better than it currently seemed to be.
"Then why are you here?"
"I'll figure that out, eventually." He tried to ignore the Heart's pull.
"You have a great deal more knowledge than we do," the Vidvanoman said. "It's quite obvious that you knew the great upheaval personally. Your transport made us dizzy just to be around. It's logical that you were drawn to the Heart of necessity, if nothing else."
He sipped the "tea," appreciating the tangy bite of Ahnaphengi water, ignoring the gritty infusion of sand in it. "Nahm Dhimana, we've had some version of this conversation every evening for at least a fortnight. I am not going to tell you why I'm here, because I don't know why."
"That makes you sound like a Vidvanoman." To his surprise, Nahm Dhimana laughed, which hadn't happened before. "You remind me of Vidva Baata Phrya, one of my more unpleasant instructors."
"I may be unpleasant, but I'm not a teacher, or hadn't you noticed?" Despite himself, he grinned back at Nahm Dhimana, probably as much because of the novelty of the other's laughter as anything else.
He had almost lifted his head above the surf when his lungs betrayed him and he tried to breathe, his face still underwater. The water was like acid as it rushed into him, down the trachea to attack the bronchi, invading the alveoli, killing him. He screamed and sucked in yet more water. He couldn't feel his own tears as the current took him.
He woke up. The Heart, barely more than a day away now, was pulsing behind his eyes in the darkness. That must have been why he was crying in his dream, he thought, fingers on one dry cheek.
The first thing he noticed about the Pahrevar troupe that stumbled upon him was that they didn't seem at all surprised to find a semi-conscious alien, supine in the shadow of a tall, unopenable blue box, both almost covered in sand. The second thing was that, beyond carrying him into a tent and providing him with water and food, they didn't ask him any questions. It was a relief, though. He slept most of the first few days after they found him, an astonishment he attributed to his body recovering from heat and exposure.
Once he woke up, he also noticed that this group of desert nomads were by no means primitive. They had light but sturdy desert-ready transport, fueled by natural gas as far as he could tell. They had water purifiers and an electrical generator, a computer, global positioning equipment and probably more that they either forgot to mention, or didn't think necessary to tell him about. Or maybe didn't think necessary, period. They practiced simplicity with a rather self-conscious intensity.
He grew used to sand; had to, since it was everywhere in the camp, except in the carefully tended transports and mechanical equipment. It was in everyone's clothes, in the food, in the water, and tents and beds, in his lengthening hair, on the wind, in his eyes, and — because it was calming to look at dunes and not at memories — almost always on his mind. Except when he dreamed of drowning.
They still didn't ask him any questions, although they were reasonably open when he asked questions of them. They knew he wasn't from this world. They knew there were other worlds. They even knew about the war. They called it the great upheaval, and worked very hard not to capitalize that when they spoke of it.
He couldn't seem to win free of beings who remembered the war, who'd felt it. Of course, if he'd let Her take him to Earth, perhaps the quarrel wouldn't have spiraled them into yet more collateral damage.
The universe was probably decorated with the grotesque cicatrices of barely-healed chronal scars, but he'd hoped to avoid them, and he had, at one point, thought that would be possible. Now he wondered if the universe might not nurture more intelligent time-sensitive species than it once had, simply because it had been battered and bruised by the onslaught of uncontrolled entropy, and had transformed things and worlds and species in reaction to that agony.
He worried at that thought like a dog at a bone, until he decided to ignore it, and focus instead on his diffident hosts.
Ahnapheng was a more or less unified planet, with the exception of one or two autonomous districts. There were cities, they assured him; their group was simply traveling. It was something they did intermittently. They had only one fixed destination in mind, they said, and that was several months away.
He eventually realized that they had no intentions toward him, or expectations of him. He was free to stay, or go, as he chose. Without thinking about it too deeply — he seemed to be doing a lot of shallow reasoning lately, he thought in a briefly sardonic moment — he decided to travel with the Pahrevar troupe for a while. "A while" stretched into weeks, during which he continued to avoid thinking as much as he could. Any time his thoughts started to circle back around to the anger or fear of wondering if She'd ever open Her door to him again, he would redouble his efforts at making himself a blank.
He told himself he was just marking time — good joke, that — until She relented. And for the first month or so, everything had been fine. Beyond a few pleasantries at simple meals or while walking or driving with companions during the day, few of the 30 or so people in the troupe talked to him.
Then his first host took up other duties, and he became the guest of Vidva Nahm Dhimana.
It wasn't easy being the guest of a scholar, particularly one who thought he understood stray Time Lords.
"You dream of water, which interests me."
"Because you live on a desert planet."
"No. Because you think of dying. Your dream means you are thinking of dying."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because you want to leave. You want to go back to your transport, and it's too far for you to go back alone, but you want to try anyhow, and I imagine you are trying to decide whether the attempt would kill you."
"That's quite an analysis, there. No wonder you're a Vidvanoman. Hate to break it to you, though; I'm plannin' on stayin' with you. Want to see the Molten Heart. Want to see what's broken, want to see how you plan on fixin' it."
Nahm Dhimana sat motionless, as he usually did in the evening after supper, but he was no longer calm. Worse than the fear sliding almost unnoticeably across his face and the increasingly haunted look he hid remarkably well from everyone but his guest, was the way reality seemed to flicker about him. He couldn't look in Nahm Dhimana's direction very long without having to avert his eyes, and his other senses were rebelling as well. There were times, he thought, it would be wonderful to be Time blind.
The Vidvanoman probably felt a little bit of it, which meant that he was probably battling some nausea. Being a Time Lord, on the other hand, meant fighting to keep his last meal down, and employing as much discipline as possible under the circumstances to stay in the right place and the right second.
He was handling it rather well, but then breeding would out, he supposed bleakly. He felt sorry for Vidva Nahm Dhimana, and for the five or six Vidvanoma in the troupe. They had the worst of it; they could feel it and probably knew a little of what was happening, but didn't understand it. And they thought they could fix it.
"Will you be—" Nahm Dhimana stopped speaking. He rearranged himself on the small couch, took a breath, started again. "You feel it."
"Of course I do."
"You ... tell me what you know of the upheaval. Of what it was like away from here, out there."
He opened his mouth to refuse yet again, but couldn't do it tonight, not in the face of his host's plastered-over turmoil. The silence continued for another few seconds.
Oh, now he chooses to be polite and vulnerable ... He closed his eyes, opened them again. "It was a war. The last great time war. Most of the universe didn't even know it was goin' on. But people like you, you feel time, so you know when it's wrong."
"But how did it go wrong? Time is immutable, we used to think. We knew it couldn't be changed, we knew it ran one way. Physics taught us that. Now ...." Nahm Dhimana trailed off, then resumed. "We were wrong. Were we foolish, or stupid?"
"Lots of folk think that. That's not because they're stupid, it's just that their senses don't work the right way, so they don't even think to check out the right areas of physics. If they did, they'd find that time moves in more than one direction." That was safe enough. "What you went through because of the war — upheaval's a good way to put it, I'll grant you — what you went through left you with a heightened sensibility to time. You feel its movement even more than you might once have. Even now, if you were in a place that hadn't been—" he searched for the right words. "If you were in a place that wasn't close to the Heart, you'd still be noticing it. Normally, it'd probably feel a bit like a breeze in your head, maybe a rustle or whirl that was pleasant if you consciously noticed it at all."
"What you're feelin' now is more like being tossed on a stormy ocean — you know what oceans are, right?"
"Of course. There are seas on this world." He'd managed to insult Nahm Dhimana back into a semblance of his frosty hauteur, it seemed.
"Good. Tryin' to describe seasickness to someone who's never seen more water than he can carry in a five gallon bucket would be difficult." That actually surprised a half smile from the other man. He picked up his cup and sipped at the tea, infinitesimally more relaxed, then nodded at the Doctor to continue.
"Well, you lot approachin' the Heart is like a ship going from a slow-running river to that ocean, right into an oncoming storm."
Nahm Dhimana swallowed. "But we have to."
"Yeah, you've said that. You're going to fix it. You've said that a bit, too." After a moment, he decided that had been a petty thing to say.
"We're going to try."
"Come on, you don't even know what's wrong, how are you gonna fix it?"
"You call it a storm, do you honestly think we don't know that?" The Vidvanoman erupted, with a sudden fury that was also relief at finally being let out. "You have acted, ever since we found you half-dead and covered with sand — half-dead, like some witless child with not the slightest understanding of what a deep desert is — you have acted as if we were the fools. We know what the Molten Heart is, now. It's a temporal anomaly, that's what it is. It's a disruption that we are doing everything we — my caste, because we are responsible for the safety of our brothers and sisters, my caste, because we understand at least some of the science — can do to hide from the rest of this world.
"And we are hiding this thing, Vidvanomen are hiding something, when we have lived all our lives obeying the commandment to teach and reveal, because it's growing. It's uncontrolled, and it's eating its way out of the desert and into our cities. It was born of the upheaval, born in your monstrous war. It's — "
The man trembled with anger, and fear. "We don't know what we can do, and I'm afraid we'll die when we go in. I left my wife and my husbands, all our children, and told them to burn my belongings if we didn't come home by spring. That's how we say goodbye here, Doctor, we burn the belongings of those who are gone."
As Nahm Dhimana said that, the Doctor had to look away; it seemed to him that he saw two or three men sitting in front of him, all of them with polished ebony skin and green eyes. One smiled, one was bleeding and one ... his luminous green eyes were lost, terrified.
He could think of nothing more to say, but cursed himself silently. Another madman? He was no good, not for anything left in this universe that could glimpse what he knew. His gorge rose again, and he wondered how people who believed in gods could survive when they thought they had sinned.
They would go to the Molten Heart when the sun rose.
It might have been a regular volcano, once.
Undoubtedly it was, once upon a time, he thought in very slow waves, as he tried to turn away from it. Once upon a time, and a time when once it had been just a mountain on the horizon, with a heart of magma, a pitiless but innocent danger. Perhaps it had been part of the Pahrevari religious landscape ....
They had sent the non-Vidvanoma among their troupe away, with tears and embraces, after they had helped unload and prepare everything; all the protective gear brought out to replace their robes; all the data-measuring equipment unpacked and set up in special vehicles, now revealed as so much more than transport; all the fragile computers bearing the particulars of a plan hatched in terror and hope; all the sophisticated explosives, unimaginably more advanced than he had ever suspected; everything with which they hoped to implode the twisted heart of burning, flowing time. They cried and shook as they prepared, but they persisted. They were battered by time, and fought for every second, every moment. They did not give up.
Vidva Nahm Dhimana never spoke to him again, just waved him away, in the direction of the Pahrevar now leaving. He had tears running down his cheeks, as he finished one last instrument check, as he climbed into the first of the stupidly inadequate vehicles, as he signaled the advance toward his mission's end.
The Doctor did not offer to come with them.
The Molten Heart would spread, he knew. It would strip each man and woman coming to it into their component atoms and strip those atoms of all meaning, all past or future. And then it would spread and transform everything of Ahnapheng into something wondrous strange, with nothing of life until the open wound that it was finally stiffened, scabbed over, and became another scar on the skin of the universe.
But it was sheeting flames now. He saw everything as it exploded in the mindless heat and power of a firestorm that shriveled flesh and melted the heart of a world.
But it was a wall of rain now. He saw everything as it dissolved and ran down the sides of a barren mountain reshaped in a flood of water, and sluicing mud and rock.
But it was ice now. He saw everything frozen into dead beauty beneath a granite sky half-obscured by a never-ending blizzard that blew across a frigid and scoured waste.
But it was an ocean now. He saw everything as it lay at the bottom of a crystal clear ocean, full fathom five and lost to him.
But it was nothing now. He saw everything as it retreated from him into darkness.
The remaining Pahrevar didn't abandon him as he lay overcome by the Molten Heart. They carried him with them, kept him from the sun that now pulsed erratically above them, tried to give him water, and deposited him back in front of Her, before fleeing to their cities to find their loved ones. He awoke with sand in his eyes, and found Her door open.
He crawled in, pulled himself upright on a strut, and shut the door. He had no interest in asking Her why they had come here. She might not have done anything but respond to the pull of the Heart. But he felt something inside himself, something healing that had been broken. Scars are ugly, but they are not open wounds, he thought breathlessly.
And then he thought of Nahm Dhimana doing the useless, hopeless thing because it was the right thing to do, and he cried, and it was the only thing to do, the only right thing for him to do.
He fell asleep once they were in the Vortex, real sleep, not unconsciousness, and opened his eyes underwater. This time, he kept them open. He still lay face down on the bottom, but there were rocks down there, not sand, and the water was clear. He put out his hands — they moved so slowly in the rushing current — and placed them on the two largest rocks he could find. He pushed down, and felt his shoulders break the waves. Using all the energy of that downward push, he flung his head back out of the water. He was free.