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Doctor Who Non-fiction

Tabula Rasa

Riding the Back of Time

A grave story by Kate Orman

First Appeared in Pirate Planet, 1991

This story is followed by Just for Tonight by David Carroll.

"There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet that faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea."
        T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Time lives, it is alive.

At Event One, Time was a single point -- like a human egg, minute, but so, so full of potential.

Billionths of a second later, the Universe was awash with complexity. Energy crystallised into matter, particles leapt and danced, space billowed out and out like a swelling womb.

And now, an unmeasurable number of events later, uncountable particles and planets and souls, time has passed the threshold of complexity required for self-awareness. In some places -- the heart of a star, or a battle, or a lover -- time moves swiftly, like a mayfly skimming the water.

But in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, in the year 1863, time oozes like honey from a knife. Slow, and sweet.

The world outside the little settlement is a whirlwind of strife. The Civil War is working to widen the rips in a torn America. Time is pulsing, thick with the blood of soldiers and slaves. But within Pleasant Hill's Shaker community, life proceeds as normal.

It is only logical that at the border between these two areas of Time -- the frantic rhythm of the war, the soft footsteps of the Shakers -- there should be a little ... friction.

* * *

The first of the time-storms came on a hot spring evening, a little after midnight. Sister Pauline was just about to sweep the dining hall; her plain shoes clacked on the pine floorboards as she went from peg-board to peg-board, hooking the chairs up on the wall.

It had been a busy day. There had been three more wounded soldiers to take care of -- desperate, scared men, separated from their comrades by the sweeping broom of battle. The men's eyes had been huge, as though they couldn't open them wide enough to take in all the killing they'd seen.

Sister Pauline stopped to straighten a chair as it hung on the peg-board. The Shaker's dedication to their work was renowned; even something as everyday as sweeping the floor had to be done to perfection. After all, there wasn't any dirt in heaven.

It was then the time-storm came. At first it was a feeling in the air, making the hairs stand up on the back of Pauline's neck, like the clinging warmth of an impending thunderstorm. A breeze blew though the stillness and into the room, swishing across the floor, making her skirt ripple, touching the loose strands in her bound-up hair.

Pauline went to the window to close it. But she couldn't. She was struck suddenly by a plethora of images, all jumbled together -- climbing a tree outside and tearing her dress, the tree being cut down for wood, worship in the meeting-house, her mother's funeral, signing the Covenant, a criminal being pursued across the cornfield by the police, the fire in the West family's house last summer, a New York street from her childhood--

-- and images of the future, tangled and incomprehensible. Things that flew and rolled over the Earth. Words and images flying with them, cluttering the air with the ululation of a million tongues. Wars, earthquakes, clothes, music she would never live to see or hear. A world with no place for peace, for perfection, no place for the Shakers.

And suddenly the cold wind was whipping the hair up into her face. Automatically she snatched at the grey strands, shivering with cold and confusion.

Already the wind was dying away, taking the images with it. The night sky seemed to tremble for a moment, as though a questioning look had passed across the face of God.

* * *

The next morning, the North house had a visitor; Pauline did not see him. She was busy helping the others of the East family to prepare a soldier's body for burial.

The afternoon's ceremony was simple and functional. The Shakers sang hymns, the soldier's comrades joining in. Their broken voices added to the beauty of the songs.

Afterwards, Pauline strode through the well-kept graveyard with Sister Amy. The two had been friends since they had been "adopted" by the Shakers in the same month, fifty-four years ago. "I fear our graveyard will be far larger by the end of the war," said Amy sadly.

Pauline sighed, remembering her strange visions of the night before. "Sometimes I've wished it were a little larger -- simply because it would mean more Shakers had died as Shakers."

Amy understood. "More and more of us are becoming apostates. Abandoning the Covenant for the World. Pauline, do you think our faith really has a chance to survive?"

Pauline felt herself colour a little. No-one would have dared ask a question like that in front of the elders and eldresses. "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done."

"Amen," said Amy, closing the subject. "Did you hear about the visitor to the North family this morning?"

"Not at all."

"Apparently he is some kind of gentleman -- well-dressed and well-spoken. He has asked to stay with us for a little while."

"That's odd. It's the poor and sick we usually open our doors to, not the prosperous."

"Brother Halliwell is looking after him."

"Ah." Halliwell was a newcomer to Pleasant Hill. Rumour had it that he was having some difficulty adhering to the Covenant's terms ... especially the cardinal one of celibacy. According to what Pauline had heard, he had joined the Shakers after losing a fortune through gambling.

"Judge not, that ye be not judged," said Amy warningly.

Pauline laughed, realising that her uncharitable thoughts were showing on her face. "I'd best return to East house, or the Eldress will be quoting me St. Matthew's discourse on idleness again."

* * *

Little Lillian was sitting on the front landing, sewing a dress. "Sister Pauline! Sister Pauline!" she cried excitedly, jumping up and spilling her spool of thread to the ground.

Pauline sighed. At the age of six, Lillian had yet to acquire the sedateness needed for a religious life. "The Eldresses and Elders are receiving a visitor!" the girl babbled. "A British gentleman. All the Sisters and Brothers have been talking about it."

Pauline put her finger to her lips, stifling the child's flow of gossip. "Re-thread that spool," she said firmly, "before any more thread is lost into the garden."

"Yes, Sister," said Lillian reluctantly.

Pauline swept past the child, not letting any of her excitement show on her face. A second visitor to the community! She had the strangest feeling that the two visitors had something to do with one another -- more, that they had something to do with her vision of the night before.

But she was still startled when Elder Robert put his head around the door and said, "Sister Pauline, would you come here a moment."

It wasn't a question. Clasping her hands before her, Pauline went into the meeting room.

There wasn't just one visitor, but two -- it was as though the World was trying its very hardest to intrude on them. At a gesture from Elder Robert, Pauline sat, demurely eyeing the newcomers.

The gentleman was a rather odd little man, wearing a dark jacket and a lighter vest, a straw-coloured hat perched on his knee. His feet did not quite reach the floor under the straight-backed chair.

His companion had solved the height problem by sitting half-sideways on her chair. She looked acutely uncomfortable in her black dress. Pauline sympathised, remembering what a burden her own clothes had been in the hot, humid springtimes of her childhood.

"This is sister Pauline Wilcox," said Elder Robert. "Sister, this is the Doctor."

The Doctor nodded at her, smiling, and she smiled back, a little confused by his lack of a last name -- and his companion's lack of any name.

"The Doctor has come here to ask some questions about goings-on in Pleasant Hill," continued Eldress Nancy, as Elder Robert sat down. "We thought that you might be able to help him."

Since I'm one of the settlement's most accomplished gossips, thought Pauline, colouring a little. "How can I help you, sir?"

"I'm interested to know whether anything ... unusual has occurred in Pleasant Hill. Within the last day or so."

Pauline hoped that her surprise did not show too strongly. Her heart beat against her ribs. "Well, sir, we have had more than our usual share of visitors lately."

"More unusual than that."

Pauline looked down at her clenched hands. "I can't think what you mean," she said.

"Then we must detain you no longer," said the Doctor, standing up. He addressed the Elders and Eldresses. "Thank you for all your help."

"You must stay, Doctor," protested Elder Robert. "At least for the evening meal."

"I- that is, we would be delighted."

* * *

It was after supper, when Pauline was sweeping out the meeting-hall, that she spoke to the Doctor again.

"Hello," he said from behind her, startling her so that she nearly lost her grip on the broom.

"Oh. Hello again, Doctor," she said, as calmly as she could. She leant the broom against the table and clasped her hands in front of her. "How may I help you?"

"I wanted to ask you about the strange things that have been happening."

How does he know? thought Pauline, wringing her hands. "Well, sir ... there have been one or two... occurrences..."

The Doctor nodded, satisfied. "I thought so."

"I've had visions, sir."

He did not seem at all surprised. The Doctor came around the table to face her. "What sort of visions, Pauline?"

"The future. The past. All -- all sorts of things, jumbled up together." Pauline threw her hands in the air, feeling foolish. "I don't really know, sir."

But the little man was nodding, as though what she was saying made perfect sense. "I thought so. It's the epicentre of a time ripple."

Pauline looked at him. "What is that, sir?"

"Nothing too serious," he said. "A sort of hiccup in history. Pauline, you're a partial time-sensitive, and your `vision' was the product of friction between two contemporaneous flow fields ... I'm sorry." He smiled at her. "What I mean to say is that it was quite natural and safe. It will probably happen once or twice more before the flow settles down. But you shouldn't be frightened."

"What a shame we all can't say that," said a voice.

Pauline and the Doctor turned.

There was a figure in the doorway. It raised a gun and fired once.

Pauline expected the crack of gunpowder. Instead, the weapon went whhffffft. The Doctor yelped in surprise and plucked a sharp, feathered thing from his arm.

All at once he was falling, as though the tiny dart had slain him where he stood. Pauline jumped backwards, her hands raised to her mouth.

The Doctor tried to rise, and collapsed, paralysed, gulping for air.

And suddenly the wind started blowing.

Pauline had a glimpse of the curtains lifting in the breeze. Then she was surrounded by machines, machines that roared and shouted, hurtling past her and through her, crashing soundlessly through the walls of the hall. All around her was a chaotic babble of voices and footsteps, thousands of people, millions of people.

Pauline knew what was happening this time. She could see the outlines of the room through the haze, through the city that had not yet been built, through its inhabitants, grey ghosts from an unforged future.

The wind stopped as suddenly as it had come. The curtains flapped fitfully against the windows, and were silent.

"What a shame we all can't say that," said a voice.

Pauline and the Doctor turned.

There was a figure in the doorway. It raised a gun and fired once.

This time the Doctor knew the shot was coming. He threw himself to one side. Pauline had expected the crack of gunpowder. Instead, the weapon went whhffffft. The dart struck the Doctor in the centre of the chest.

All at once he was falling, as though the tiny dart had slain him where he stood. Pauline jumped backwards, her hands raised to her mouth.

The Doctor tried to rise, and collapsed, paralysed, gulping for air. His fingers clawed at the dart for a moment before they lost the power to move.

The man in the doorway strode into the room. In the half-dark, all that Pauline could make out were his green eyes. Eyes that glittered, like the animal eyes that looked in on the hall at night.

"Halliwell," said the man. His voice was soft as a purr.

Brother Halliwell came into the room, closing the door behind him. He was a balding man with a non-descript face. Eyes that didn't quite focus properly took in Pauline, backed up against the window, too frightened to move. "What're we going to do about her?"

"She's not important," said the man with the green eyes. "You're not going to move or cry out, are you, my dear?"

Pauline shook her head, pinned in place by the green eyes.

The man turned back to the Doctor. "Pick him up, Halliwell."

Halliwell lifted the small man and carried him to the table, dropping him roughly onto the polished wooden surface. Weirdly, Pauline found herself worrying about scratches on the wood.

The man with the green eyes leant over his victim, gently turning his head so that they faced one another. The Doctor's eyes were open; Pauline realised that he was quite conscious.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," said the Master. "The moment I detected the ripples in the time-stream, I knew you'd come looking. You do consider yourself the caretaker of the continuum, after all. There isn't anything in the universe that isn't your business."

"Master," said Halliwell, nervously glancing at the door, "we'd better get on with it."

"Time spent on good conversation is never wasted," chided the Master. "Is it, Doctor? Or don't you feel like chatting?" He grinned toothily, unable to resist the joke. "Cat got your tongue?"

The Doctor just glared; it was all he could do. The Master went on, "This must be a new experience for you. To be so totally vulnerable." He plucked the glove from his right hand, reached out, and touched the Doctor's throat, almost tenderly, feeling the racing of the blood beneath the skin. "Quite helpless."

The Doctor felt five tiny pin-pricks in the flesh over his carotid artery. He closed his eyes.

"Oh, no," whispered the Master, "it isn't that easy."

"Well, Halliwell," he said brightly, turning to his confederate. "You're the expert on mindless violence. What do we do now?"

"Cut his throat?"

"Too messy."

"We could thrown him in the lake and watch him sink."

"No, no. My night vision isn't that good. I have a better idea."

* * *

Halliwell lead the way through the dark to the workshop at the back of East house. No-one saw the strange little procession, the man with the green eyes, Halliwell carrying the Doctor, and Sister Pauline Wilcox stumbling along behind, a marionette, unable to resist.

The door was unlocked, and they slipped inside easily. The Master lit a candle.

Pauline found herself surrounded by coffins. In the candle's flickering light, with their lids removed, they were mouths, gaping wide, filled with shadows.

One coffin was lying open on a table, newly finished, smelling of varnish and sawdust. Halliwell lowered his burden into the wooden box. The Master handed him the candle, and the Shaker stepped back, standing next to Pauline. They both watched, a little frightened.

"Helplessness is something I've become used to," said the Master conversationally. "I can be sure that, should you arrive, you won't stop interfering until you've sent agley my best-laid plans. A dozen times, you've abandoned me, betrayed me, left me to escape the inescapable.

"But you've never been completely successful. Do you remember the carnage in the Capitol? Or on Traken? Poor Tremas would be horrified to learn what has become of his body."

He smiled, showing his fangs. "But my favourite reminiscence is of the destruction of Logopolis. How the stain of entropy spread out over the universe, and there was nothing you could do to stop it before it had chewed up a quarter of reality... and the affair cost you a life. That's how I like to think of you, tumbling from the telescope. A taste of your own medicine, Doctor. Helplessness."

"I think we should kill the woman," said Halliwell.

Pauline shook, unable to protest.

"Gnnnngngnnnnnn!" said the Doctor.

The Master laughed lightly. "Halliwell, you're a brainless brute. No, I prefer my innocents to suffer." He faced Pauline, green eyes taking in the tears running down her cheeks. "She'll always remember the events of tonight. Won't you, my dear? The horror of it all. And just think of the Doctor's young friend, innocently asleep in her bed. When she wakes up in the morning, he will have vanished. And she'll never know what has happened to him. Never. No-one will ever know."

The Master plucked a long-stemmed white flower from a vase, turning it around in his hands. In the candlelight, it seemed unnaturally bright. Carefully, he laid it on the Doctor's chest, and picked up the coffin lid.

He took one last look at the Doctor's face, hoping to see terror, or defeat, or a plea for mercy. But the Doctor's expression was very clear. Sometimes, just sometimes, you really wind me up.

He lowered the lid into place. "Pass me the hammer, would you, Halliwell?"

* * *

Darkness. Pure darkness. Not the flickering shadows of night. Like being blind. Your eyes are open, and you still can't see.

A little sensation was coming back to the Doctor's fingers. His throat seemed less tight. Whatever poison the Master had used, it was not a permanent one.

Not that it made a bit of difference.

He could feel the earth pressing down on the top of the coffin. The little air there was in the box was damp and heavy.

He could put himself into a trance, conserve the oxygen he had. Not that that would make a bit of difference, either.

An awful panic was rising in his chest. It was his body responding to the situation, lungs crying that there was no air, hearts pounding, no air, no air, trapped in the dark, trapped forever. The panic crawled through him, cold and living, and he couldn't do so much as tremble.

He remembered the stories Edgar Allen had liked to tell, of people falling comatose and awakening in their coffins, buried alive. How when the corpses were exhumed, the insides of the coffin lids were scratched and battered.

For the love of God, Montresor, he thought.

The wind began to blow.

* * *

Pauline was sobbing freely now. The two men ignored her as they stood at the edge of the fresh grave. Halliwell was stretching his back, tired from the effort of emptying and filling the grave. In the distance, there were the sounds of a search; evidently someone had missed the Doctor after all. But they wouldn't bother to search the graveyard. They were looking for the living.

"It won't be light for hours yet," he said. "No-one's seen us. The task is finished."

"Not quite yet." The Master stood with gloved hands folded. "I've set the Doctor a puzzle without a solution. I want to see if he can solve it."

"And if he does?" asked Halliwell, uncomprehending.

"I am the victor either way," said the Master.

Pauline felt the wind rising, carrying the smell of fresh earth and rain. It rose, higher and higher, starting to whistle. Whistling higher, becoming a keening cry.

Once or twice more, the Doctor had said. Pauline felt the breeze move through her, strong and grand, and she knew this was the crisis, the last ripple, the seventh wave. Time was sorting itself out once and for all.

History rolled on. The Shaker village grew and declined, the Shakers growing older, fewer and fewer joining the sect. There were no children, no-one to carry on their torch.

At last the village was empty. The houses were torn down, the furniture sold. The field was cleared. A great road was built, and cars roared through the space where East house had once been.

There were no Shakers. There were no more Shakers anywhere. Their great experiment had failed, would fail.

And yet -- and yet--

And yet they had existed for a little time. Peace and perfection had existed for a little time. In that sense, they had succeeded. She felt the quiet, holy time of the Shakers blowing through her. It would have to be enough.

And then she saw a figure, borne on the wind, fingers tangled tightly in Time's long hair. The wind howled, hot rain started to pour.

The Doctor pushed himself to his knees, breathing hard. The rain struck his hair and shoulders, and he looked up to the sky, letting the warm water splash into his face. He was free of his coffin.

The wind was dying away to nothing. Time was satisfied. It was resting.

"An excellent solution," said the Master. "And, I think, the only possible one. Now I trust you have some sense of what it's like to escape from the inescapable."

The Doctor was too exhausted to answer. Pauline found herself able to move again, and she went to the Time Lord, helping him to his feet.

Halliwell snatched up his shovel, lip curling, ready for murder. But the Master restrained him with a look.

"Now the task is finished," he said.


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