Saturday, 26 October 2013

This Time, This Place (Part 4) - 50th Anniversary fiction

For 'this is not an adventure' disclaimer and notes on the Sororiate, see Part 1

Part 3 here

From the private journal of Quinquaginta-Soror-Hortus, Year of Grace 1337:

I had become used to retreating to the garden, to visit her flower, in order to feel less alone—but also to keep far from the presence of all others. So I was unprepared for the appearance of a visitor this morning.

He stood on the last of the Memoriam Steps, a tall man in a long dark brown coat, with the ends of what I eventually realised was a scarf reaching almost to his feet. His head was covered by a dark wide-brimmed hat, from which I could see brown curls escaping.

He was throwing stones, trying to make them skip along the surface. He obviously had several in his hand, but he soon exhausted his supply. After a few more moments spent contemplating the lake, he turned, perhaps to get more stones, and saw me.

I was next to the Aeturnum bed, so there were two hundred metres between us. The man stood, and looked at me, making no attempt to come back to the shore, so eventually I began to move closer to him. I had no desire to talk to anyone, I had no desire to see anyone—but if he would not come to me, I could not ask him to leave.

Even when I reached the first of the Steps he remained still, watching me. I hesitated, suddenly wondering if he was dangerous. How had he found the place? There had not been anyone here, other than new initiates, since…since the Doctor and Charley, fifteen years before.

He did not appear to be armed, however, and although I could clearly see a formidable intelligence in his eyes there was also a kindly gleam. But his expression was sombre.

‘Hello,’ he said, in deep voice. Even the simple word, a genuine greeting, seemed invested with irony. He went on: ‘You look like you’ve lost your best friend. How odd.’

I was so surprised at his perceptiveness that all I could do was echo. ‘Odd?’

‘I mean, it’s an odd coincidence. Because so have I.’ He came closer. Then he turned to survey the lake. ‘That’s why I came here. To think. Quite lucky to have made it, really, the way—’ He broke off and turned back to me. ‘I’m sorry, perhaps you’d prefer to be alone?’

‘No,’ I said, without thinking. ‘I—’ I cut off the self-contradiction that followed immediately. ‘It is…all right.’

He was looking out over the lake again. ‘Her name was Sarah. Is Sarah.’ He paused. ‘Was Sarah.’ He took off his hat and ruffled his wildly curling hair before turning a rueful half-smile on me. ‘I left her at home, about five hundred thousand years ago and fifty thousand light years from here. I couldn’t take her where I was going.’ He looked down at his hat. ‘But all that time and space is just a short hop for me—I could go back and get her, now I’ve sorted out their mess for them. But should I? Perhaps she deserves a chance to live an ordinary sort of life. What do you think?’ He replaced his hat and lifted his head, looking at me down his strong nose. ‘Do you mind me talking to you like this? I’ve got rather used to having someone to overhear my musings.’

I had no idea what to say; I spread my hands. Then a question came to me. ‘You are The Doctor?’

I had caught him off guard, but his widened eyes and opened mouth were quickly replaced by a brilliant smile. ‘And you’re…Dam, no—Soror Hortus! Looking at you, it must be…twenty years? I was here with—well, you would have known him as Magister. I’m so sorry about that, it wasn’t—’

‘That was another Doctor, and not the last time…’ I stopped speaking, and half-turned back toward the Aeturnums. Then I looked at him again.

He was watching me expectantly, his eyes bright.

I hesitated to voice my thought. It had come to me with increasing insistence over the years, but it still seemed incredible. ‘Y-you are some kind of metamorph?’

‘Well…in an occasional, needs-must, from-the-inside-out sort of way, I suppose I am. But we’ve been through all this—well, we will have.’ Then he looked as if struck by a sudden thought, and his hands reached out to my shoulders, not quite making contact before they drew back. ‘Ohh. Hortus? Quinquaginta Hortus?’

I nodded faintly.

He thrust his hands into his coat pockets and stepped closer to me. It was a moment before he said anything, and then his voice came out as a croak. ‘I’m so sorry. Soror Coquus. I remember.’

His words chilled me with the memory of my loss, but part of me was struck with wonder and disbelief. How could he know? How could he ‘remember’?

His eyes were the colour of the lake, and they looked into me with infinite sorrow. ‘You have just lost your best friend.’

I fought to keep the feelings from overwhelming me. I failed, and felt myself swaying. He caught my flailing arm and steadied me, supporting me as I sank down on the seventh stone.

And I had never held her. A year of simmering ill-will, followed by the realisation that she resented me only because of the feelings she could not control – that she did not understand – and then two decades of friendship that could never become anything more…and then to miss her final moments because of some wretched Novina who needed to bond with a bloom…

But no. It was not that girl’s fault. There was nowhere to lay blame, except at the feet of duty, and tradition. And my own fearfulness.

Veritae – and I would always now think of her by her real name – would never have dared transgress. She believed in the rules of the order. I was always the malcontent, the dissident. She had always left it up to me. And I was too afraid. Too afraid, and now it was too late.

I do not know how long I sat huddled, weeping. My tears subsided at length, leaving me only exhaustion.

All this time he had stood on the seventeenth stone, his back turned, honouring my grief without intruding upon it. Now he turned to me and approached. He reached down a hand. ‘Come with me. I want to show you something.’

I allowed him to grasp me by my wrist and pull me to my feet. I expected him to take me out, to the farthest stone, but he led me back to shore and along the waterline to the Aeturnum bed.

We stood for a few moments contemplating the flowers. I sought out my former favourite, in latter years merely my second favourite bloom, and was not surprised to see it reflecting something very like the colour of the lake.

I avoided looking at the flower that had been Veritae’s, but the Doctor now knelt before it. ‘This was Coquus’ bloom?’

I nodded without turning my eyes. I wondered how he knew.

‘Come and look at it.’

I looked at him.

He moved aside, stretching out a hand in invitation. ‘Come and look. Look closely. It won’t hurt.’ He looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Well, only a bit…’ Then he grinned, his mouth seeming huge and his eyes alight. ‘Come on.’

I lowered myself next to him, and forced my gaze onto the Aeturnum. The petals were slightly wilted, as I had expected, but the flower looked as though it would survive.

‘Look closer,’ he insisted. ‘Bend down to it.’

I did not want to, but there was such gentle command in his tone that I obeyed. I brought my face close to the flower.

It responded, lifting slightly. I gasped, drew back—and it drooped. I looked at the Doctor. He nodded slightly, his eyes wide and shining. I looked at the Aeturnum and leaned closer.

It lifted its head again until it was directly facing me. And it began to shift hue; Veritae’s hazel colour withdrew slowly as grey began to spread from the outer edges of the petals. I leaned still closer, hardly aware I was doing so, my breath held.

The colour stopped its slow advance, leaving the inner petals hazel, but with a grey fringing, and tiny streaks of the grey reaching down into the heart of the flower. I exhaled. I looked wonderingly at the Doctor.

‘Now it holds both of you,’ he said. ‘It will do that, if there’s sufficient affinity between the one left behind and the one departed.’

I had to blink now, to clear my vision. It was not enough, and I wiped at my eyes with my sleeve. ‘H-how did you know…?’

He made an expansive gesture. ‘Ah. Well, when you’ve been where I’ve been, seen what I’ve seen…’

‘Thank you.’

His expression became sober again. ‘You can’t change what’s been. You can’t go back. But this is a way to go forward.’

I looked at the Aeturnum. It looked back at me. My vision swam again, and I bowed my head.

I heard the Doctor stand. I blinked hard once again and looked up at him. ‘Will you…go back? To find…Sarah?’

‘I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I’m meant to. I don’t know if I believe in things being meant, or not meant, to be.’ He grinned, but with a trace of rue again. ‘There’s a great comfort in ignorance—it keeps you moving forward, questing, looking.’ He put his hands in his pockets. ‘Goodbye, Quinquaginta-Soror-Hortus. Till we meet again. And we will.’

I came to my feet, aware that there were many questions I had left unasked. He was already walking away. I went to speak but was interrupted by a loud gurgle from my stomach. I realised I had not eaten for almost a day, such had been my distress.

He paused and looked back at me. His hand was delving in his pocket. ‘I don’t like the sound of that. Before I go…’ There was rustling, and he produced a wrinkled paper bag and held it out towards me.

‘…Would you like a jelly baby?’

From the private journal of Quinquaginta-Soror-Hortus, Year of Grace 1338:

Septendecim-Novina-Hortus came scuttling up from the garden today to tell me there was a man down there. Foolish hopes rose in me – another visit, so soon after the last? – but even as I approached the lake I knew something was amiss.

He stood looking out over the water in a dark brown, high-collared coat. He did not move. I watched, hardly daring to move or even to blink. At length he seemed to become aware of me and turned, his gaze focusing directly on my face. There was a kind of emptiness in those brown eyes, like the final surrender to some horror. His face was lined and haggard, his hair brown with streaks of grey, turning to white in the straggling beard and moustache.

He gazed at me, without speaking or showing any expression on those haunted features. Then without warning he turned and strode away, climbing one of the slopes and disappearing. There was that sound again, echoing over the low hills and across the water, then silence.

For a long time I did not move. When I felt sufficiently strong I made my way down to the garden. I did not want to look, but I had to see.

My second favourite flower stood drooping, its petals almost touching the earth. I cried out when I saw it, and fell to my knees. It was not dead, but it would need all my care to live. I sat with it for the remainder of the day. Whenever I thought of the man I had seen, I could not suppress a shudder.

Interlude (Year of Grace 1368):

He stands on the seventeenth stone and looks down at the eighteenth. She stands a few stones behind him, her arms loosely folded, her head cocked to one side. There is no sound except for the gentle lapping of the lake.

He kneels, slowly, and traces the letters chiselled into the final stone. ‘Even we don’t know,’ he says. ‘Where life comes from, where it goes to, what might be on either side…there are some mysteries hidden even from the Time Lords.’ He pauses, fingers resting lightly on the stone. Then he pulls his hand away and looks at it as if it was speaking to him. ‘With all of time and all of space to choose from, it always comes down to one moment, one location. Time is another mystery. There are rules, and lines that can’t be crossed…but no one knows exactly what they all are. Personal time and universal time are two distinct streams. Except when they’re not.’

Clara lifts an eyebrow.

‘Don’t you see?’ He stands up and faces her. ‘If there are further regenerations of me out there, are they out there “now”, for me? How can they be? I haven’t become those Doctors yet. And yet, here we are at the far end of human history, so somewhere in the past there must be, or must be going to be, other, future regenerations…so, personal time and universal time are different things.’

‘Except when they’re not.’

‘Exactly.’ Then his brows draw down. ‘Are you making fun of me?’

‘Would I? I’m just mocking the entire structure of space and time.’

‘Oh. Well. That’s all right.’ He turns back to the stone, pauses, and looks back at her with a frown. Then he crouches again. ‘I ran away from this kind of existence. She ran towards it. I don’t think she felt she was very important, and I’ve…well, I’ve saved a planet or two in my time. But maybe that’s less of a difference than it seems. Maybe what’s important is not always what happens to you and around you, but…’ He falls silent and lays his hand on the stone again.

‘Are you all right?’ asks Clara.

‘I can go back.’ He says. ‘I can always go back. Just like I can go back to the underground, or Global Chemicals or Forgill Castle. But once you see this, once it becomes real…becomes a moment in time that has been lived through... Personal time has its own rules.’ He sighs, and sits back, looking at the name carved there, and the date.

‘Year of Grace,’ she reads. ‘I thought you said we’re far in the future.’

‘The date is from the founding of this Cenobate,’ he says. He sighs again. ‘We should have come earlier.’

Part 5 here

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