By Nix Nada
The room was exquisitely appointed, adorned with richly coloured drapery purchased from a score of worlds and decorated throughout with lavish and expensive ornamentation, all hand picked to be the very zenith in taste and sophistication. From discretely hidden speakers, the subtlest of tunes played soothingly, creating an all-permeating aura of calm. Displays of exotic and otherworldly flowers gave off a symphony of sweet scents.
Into this sumptuous display of wealth appeared a noisy blue anachronism, topped with a flashing white light. A door opened on the side and a man and woman spilled out, laughing.
"I'm telling you, Doctor," said the woman, "it must have been you!"
The Doctor stifled his laughter long enough to affect a haughty manner. "My dear Miss Tyler, I am a Timelord," he said in an exaggeratedly upper-class voice, "we simply do not do that sort of thing."
Rose laughed even harder, holding on to the Doctor's arm for support. "Yeah, right," she replied. "Well, it wasn't me and it stinks in there!"
While the Doctor turned, still grinning, to lock the TARDIS door, Rose took stock of her surroundings. All around her lay the finest example of interior decoration in the known universe.
"Blimey, bit posh in here, isn't it?" she said. "What kind of place is this, Doctor?"
The Doctor took a glance around. "It's a waiting room," he said.
It did not look like the type of waiting room that Rose had been forced to endure in the past. "How can you tell?" she asked.
"Lots of seats and no clock," replied the Doctor. "Shall we take a look around?"
Rose smiled and took the Doctor's arm. "What are we waiting for?"
They walked to the exit in the far wall. "You know, there's an old Gallifreyan saying that I feel is particularly apt at this time," observed the Doctor.
"Oh yeah?" said Rose. "And what would that be?"
The Doctor grinned. "Whoever smelt it…" he started, but was quickly cut off by a playful punch on the arm from Rose.
As they closed the waiting room door, the lights behind them flickered and dimmed for a second and the soothing music stuttered into silence.
The Doctor and Rose found themselves in a short corridor, every bit as lavish as the room they had just left. As they made their way to the door at the far end, a young woman appeared before them, wearing a lilac business suit, her blonde hair tied back in a tight bun.
Rose stopped and gripped the Doctor's arm in surprise, but the woman gave them both a warm smile.
"Welcome to the headquarters of the PbAu Corporation," she said, "the ultimate in mind over matter. My name is Selene. How may I best help you today?"
"Ah, hello," said the Doctor, retaining his composure. "My name's the Doctor and this is my friend, Rose Tyler." The Doctor thrust a hand into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a small card-holder. He opened it and showed the blank piece of card within to the woman. "I think you'll find everything in order." He threw a sly wink at Rose.
The woman smiled again, kindly. "Psychic paper will not be necessary, Doctor. Only those with business here may safely pass the planetary defences. That you are here at all is proof enough of the legitimacy of your visit."
The Doctor cleared his throat. "Yes, well… thank you very much," he said, sheepishly.
"Now, if you will just step through this doorway, one of our representatives will meet with you directly." With that, the woman disappeared.
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders. "It's easy to be smug when you're a holographic projection," he muttered.
"I don't like this, Doctor," said Rose. "Don't you think we should go back to the TARDIS?"
"What, and miss out on learning more?" said the Doctor. "Why a corporation with as much money as this one obviously has is paranoid enough to employ lethal planetary defences and train their receptionists against psychic paper? No, there's more to this than tasteful décor, believe me."
"I do believe you," replied Rose. "That's kind of why I wanted to go back to the TARDIS."
"Oh, come on," said the Doctor, pushing open the door before them.
Rose held up a hand, "Doctor, please, don't say it."
The Doctor grinned as he waved her through the door. "What's the worst that can happen?"
Rose rolled her eyes. "I knew you were going to say that."
They emerged into a huge metal-walled room, lined on every wall with computer equipment. The walls sloped inwards and converged about sixty feet up, giving Rose the impression of being inside a massive bell. Suspended from the centre of the room she saw a thick steel shaft, pointed at a four-foot high dish on the floor. There were several doors leading off into other parts of the complex.
A balding, middle-aged man in a long white lab-coat turned from his observation of the contents of dish as he heard them come in.
"Doctor, Miss Tyler – welcome!" he exclaimed, his face a picture of courtesy and professionalism. "Selene told me to expect you. I am Professor Albert Tantalum." He walked over and greeted the Doctor, then Rose, with a short, firm handshake. "And you are just in time to see a demonstration of the device."
Rose and the Doctor exchanged a look. "Fantastic," said the Doctor. "That is, after all, why we're here, isn't it, Professor Tantalum?"
Tantalum chuckled. "It is indeed, Doctor," he replied. "And please, call me Al."
"Like the song?" piped up Rose.
"The …song?" Tantalum looked puzzled.
"You know, Paul Simon, 'You Can Call Me Al'?" she broke off, remembering just how far she was from her own time and probably from Earth itself. "Never mind."
"Thanks a lot," muttered the Doctor, nudging her. "I'll be singing that for the rest of the day now."
Tantalum opened a small cupboard and pulled out three pairs of tinted safety goggles. Putting a pair on, he handed the others to the Doctor and Rose. "Just a precaution," he assured them.
He stepped over to a bank of controls set onto a raised plinth, directly in front of the dish. "Please, if you would care to observe the contents of the dish," began Tantalum, putting Rose in mind of a stage illusionist, "you will see a bar of ordinary lead. As you will no doubt be aware, this procedure can be applied to any element, but for demonstration purposes, I like to work with the traditional favourite – the long-held dream of mankind's science."
Rose stood on tiptoes and peered into the dish. Sure enough, in the centre of the dish sat a bar of dull metal, about the size of a loaf of bread.
Tantalum pressed a switch on the podium and the lights overhead dimmed. Small display screens flickered into life on the rim of the dish, showing a complete table of elements. There seemed to be many more elements listed than she remembered from her school science lessons. A fine red laser beam was projected from the metal shaft pointed at the dish and danced across the bar of lead. After a few seconds, the laser snapped off and the symbol for lead glowed briefly on the display. Tantalum gave a series of commands to his control plinth and the symbol for gold flashed on their screens.
"As simple as that!" announced Tantalum. He stabbed a button and a wide beam of pulsing blue light coursed down from the metal shaft, bathing the lead in its sapphire glow.
Squinting through the tinted goggles, Rose saw the bar of lead begin to brighten, its dull surface starting to blossom into shining yellow. She glanced at the Doctor, but his attention was fixed on the bar of metal, his eyes unreadable through the blue glare reflected in his goggles. Rose looked back at the dish. In just a few moments, the slab of solid lead had become a glistening gold bar.
The blue beam shut off and the lights in the room returned to normal.
Tantalum hopped down from the podium, pulling off his goggles and grinning. "Pretty impressive, I think you'll agree."
"Impossible," said the Doctor, still staring at the bar of gold.
"Doctor?" Rose said, dragging her goggles up and off with one hand and smoothing her hair back down with the other.
The Doctor turned. "This – it's not possible," he replied. "I mean, the transmutation of matter is theoretically possible, yes, but the energy required to change one element into another is so massive that it would cost far more to make the change than the value of the end result would be."
Tantalum chuckled. "That was the case," he said, "but scientific progress marches ever onwards, Doctor."
The Doctor seemed to realise then that he was still wearing his goggles, and removed them. "I'd love to know how it's done," he said. "How did you get past the huge power requirements?"
Professor Tantalum waved a finger in mock admonishment. "Now, now, Doctor," he chided, "that's a trade secret, you know."
"Quite an expensive one at that," observed Rose, "judging from the fancy decorations you've got around here."
"We do make a modest return on our achievements," acknowledged Tantalum. "But we have to keep our prices high, to deter those people who might desire to destabilise a planet's economy by flooding the market with precious materials. But now, to business, yes? What can I create for you - have you some iron you'd like changed into a little weapons-grade plutonium-239? Some dalekanium, perhaps? Or I could make you some nobelium-259, if you're not planning on staying long," he added with a laugh.
"Nobelium-259 has a half-life of a little under an hour," explained the Doctor to Rose.
"I knew that," lied Rose.
"Is that your main produce then, substances for weapons technology?" the Doctor asked Tantalum, darkly.
Tantalum looked shocked. "Not at all, Doctor! We make many beneficial substances as well – like silicon for computer technologies, iron for construction purposes; not every planet has these lying around in the ground, you know! It's just that when a stranger lands here unannounced and shows psychic paper in lieu of credentials, well, the implication is that his mission may not be – how should I put this? – entirely legal."
"So you do deal in weapons technology?" countered the Doctor.
Tantalum sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. "It is regrettable," he said, "but we do at times receive requests from more questionable organisations than we would prefer to do business. We are a scientific corporation however – we cannot afford to take sides or to make enemies."
"And in return, you get a nice planetary defence grid set up for you," concluded the Doctor.
"Indeed," said Tantalum, shortly. He was clearly struggling to maintain his veneer of professional courtesy under the pressure of the Doctor's questioning. "Now, may I take your order, Doctor?"
Rose moved closer to the Doctor's side, worried. This was the moment with which she was quickly becoming familiar and growing to dread: whenever people they met were friendly or welcoming, this moment would come – the moment where a question is asked which, if answered incorrectly, would have their hosts yelling for armed guards before you could say 'jelly baby'. She gripped his sleeve.
"Artron energy," said the Doctor.
"Excuse me?" said Tantalum.
"Artron energy," the Doctor repeated. "I need it – well, my ship needs it – what can you make that will give me it?"
Tantalum thought for a moment, rubbing his chin. "There is an experimental isotope of singularium, one of the heaviest known elements, usually found in the heart of a black hole – it gives off a phenomenal amount of energy."
"That sounds like the stuff," said the Doctor. "Can you do it?"
"It is a very dangerous substance," said Tantalum, slowly. Rose thought she could see dollar-signs – or whatever the symbol for the local currency was – sliding behind his eyes. "Add to that the method of energy extraction..."
"I can pay, don't worry about that," said the Doctor.
"Of course, of course," replied Tantalum, reassuringly. "I'll just make the necessary arrangements. Selene will take care of you in the meantime."
As if on cue, the receptionist appeared by their side, making Rose jump. "If you'll step this way, please," Selene said with a courteous smile.
They were led from the bell-shaped chamber into another corridor in the far side and, through this, into a large hospitality area with even finer decoration than the waiting room in which they had arrived. Looking up Rose could just make out a row of tiny lenses, set high in the ceiling. They swivelled as Selene's image moved, projecting the illusion that her hologram was walking.
"The wait will not be long," Selene assured them. "You should be comfortable here for now. If you require refreshments, the machine recessed in the far wall can provide you with whatever you desire. If you need anything else, simply call me by pressing one of the green wall panels."
The Doctor sank into one of the room's large, comfortable armchairs. "Thank you," he said, with a wide smile.
Selene returned his smile. "Thank you for choosing the PbAu Corporation," she said, and vanished.
As soon as she was gone, the Doctor leapt to his feet.
Rose looked at the space where Selene had disappeared. "Imagine being a hologram," she said. "That must be so weird."
"She's not," said the Doctor, distractedly. "It was just her image, sent from another location. Think of it like a three dimensional video phone."
"Oh," said Rose. "That was quick thinking with the Artron energy. You almost had me convinced."
"We do need it," replied the Doctor, hunting around the room. "It powers the TARDIS. I can't get it from my usual source, and singularium is damned hard to get a hold of. We won't run out for a long time, but I'll happily take some off their hands if I can."
"What are you looking for, Doctor?" asked Rose.
"This," said the Doctor, pressing a small panel in the wall. A section of the wall lit up to show a computer display of the periodic table. With a melodic chime, first one symbol, then another, lit up.
"Pb – Au," read Rose, from the symbols that flashed.
"Lead to Gold," said the Doctor. "Must be their company logo."
The picture on the screen changed to a welcome page with a short history of the PbAu Corporation, a mission statement and various other items that make up a corporate public image.
"Now, let's find out what's really going on here," said the Doctor, taking his sonic screwdriver from his pocket and running it across the wall beside the screen.
"I've always meant to ask," said Rose, over the Doctor's shoulder. "That's just a screwdriver, right?"
He nodded. "A sonic screwdriver, yeah."
"And yet it gets you into computer systems and things too."
"That's right," replied the Doctor.
"But what's so special about it that it can do all that stuff?" she asked.
"It's sonic – hence the name."
Rose could see she wouldn't get more of an answer than that and gave up.
The screen changed to black, with the words 'password required' and a series of dashes displayed. One by one, the dashes turned to asterisks, until the screen read, 'password accepted'.
"We're in," said the Doctor. He called up a series of pages, moving so quickly through them that Rose wondered how he could take in what was written. She cast a nervous glance at the door.
Eventually, the Doctor found what he had been looking for. He scanned the dense screen of text quickly.
"Let's see… atomic weights…electron replacement…" he muttered as he read. "Elemental phase telemetry… temporal field barrier… time manipulation… time manipulation?" He flicked through a few more pages, looking puzzled.
Suddenly, the screen switched back to the picture of the table of elements.
"That's odd," said the Doctor. The screen chimed and the symbol for fluorine lit up. "Very odd." Another chime and the symbol for rhenium flashed briefly.
"Is that them working on another experiment?" asked Rose. "Turning fluorine into rhenium?"
"Could be," said the Doctor. Two more symbols showed, faster this time. Chime – europium. Chime – sulphur. "Then again, perhaps not."
The four symbols flashed again in quick succession, fluorine, rhenium, europium, sulphur, before the screen went dead and a loud siren wailed.
"Uh-oh," said the Doctor. "Time to act natural."
Selene appeared before them, looking more nervous than angry. She made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "Please excuse this momentary situation," she said, "and please be assured that you are in no danger at this…oh no!"
There was the sound of a distant crash and Selene stared through them, wide-eyed with terror. "No, please, don't!" she cried. She looked off to one side. "Professor – wait!" she shouted.
"Doctor," said Rose, gripping his arm, "can't we do something?"
"We don't even know where she is," replied the Doctor, helplessly, his voice strained. "She could be anywhere in this building."
Rose cried out and buried her face in the Doctor's coat as something unseen blasted a hole through Selene's chest, but he forced himself to watch. Selene slumped to the ground and disappeared, yet a faint shimmer in the air showed that the holographic projector was still operating.
Rose peeked out, in time to see something oily and angular stalk through the space where Selene had stood. It looked mechanical, shaped like a squat metal gorilla, but with long, spindly arms and snapping blades for hands. Its head turned slickly to face the Doctor and Rose and, as if responding to some instinct, it moved towards them, razor-sharp hands outstretched.
Rose jumped back before the projection shut down and the image disappeared.
"What the hell was that?" she gasped.
"A Grinder," said the Doctor, grimly. "The Amalgam are here."
Rose groaned. "Here?" she said. "But I thought you said…"
"I know what I said," replied the Doctor, making his way to the door. "This is different. The Amalgam use Grinders primarily for attack missions. They are capable of taking apart technology – or human beings for that matter – in a matter of seconds, reducing it to its component parts for later use."
"That's horrible," said Rose.
"I agree – let's try to avoid them, shall we?"
They made their way back to the bell-shaped chamber. The wail of the siren shut off as suddenly as it had begun.
Rose looked up at the Doctor, hopefully. He shook his head. "I think the Amalgam just took out Security," he said sadly. In the silence, they could hear distant screams and the sounds of shots being fired.
"Doctor, look," said Rose, pointing under the large dish in the centre of the room. There, huddled beneath, his white lab coat streaked with red, was Professor Tantalum.
"Professor," said the Doctor. "What happened?"
Tantalum glanced down at his chest and winced at the sight of the blood. "I was on my way to speak with Selene about filling your order when these… these creatures shot their way in and attacked us." He bit back a sob. "Oh, god – they got Selene. It was horrible. I only just made it away. I didn't know where else to go."
"It's the Amalgam," explained the Doctor. "Technological vultures. They will try to take the transmutation device. Is there anything at all you can tell me that will help me to stop them?"
"Can't… tell you," said Tantalum, gritting his teeth against the pain.
"This is no time to be protecting your precious trade secrets!" cried the Doctor. "They're about to be taken apart, stripped down and carried away!"
"No," said Tantalum, "can't tell… Timelord." Tantalum looked up and saw the Doctor's surprise. "Artron energy – powers a TARDIS, yes? Knew you would come back."
The Doctor frowned, puzzled. "I don't understand," he said. "I've never been here before."
Just then, the lights overhead flickered and dimmed before coming back on again.
Tantalum looked up and gave a grim chuckle. "Ghosts in the machine," he said. "Computers malfunctioning. Lights going out. Always… flickering. Never dying…"
"Tantalum, I know you change the elements by moving them backwards and forwards through time," said the Doctor. "I saw that in your files. How is it done? If I knew how it worked perhaps I could do something to stop it falling into the hands of the Amalgam."
"Doesn't matter… now," muttered Tantalum. Clutching his side with one hand, he pushed himself up from the dish, until he was standing. "Access the computer in the plinth there. You'll already know… the password."
"I cannot… apologise, Doctor," Tantalum said as he staggered towards the door, "and you'll understand… if I don't stay."
The door closed behind him and the Doctor ran to the plinth.
"What did he mean, you already know the password?" asked Rose.
"I haven't a clue," said the Doctor, turning on the screen. "It must be something we've seen before here – something he would be familiar with too."
"The elements on the computer?" offered Rose. "But we'd never remember the sequence."
"Fluorine, rhenium, europium, sulphur – honestly, you humans and your memories." The Doctor stopped. "That's it."
"What's it?" asked Rose.
"If I'm right, our friend Professor Tantalum has a very sick sense of humour," said the Doctor. "The chemical symbols for those elements – F, RE, EU, and S – they spell out 'free us'."
"But why -?" began Rose. "You mean there's someone inside the computer?"
The Doctor didn't reply. He entered the password then stood staring down at the computer screen, his mouth set in a grim line. The colour drained from his face as he read.
"Rose, get back to the TARDIS."
Outside, Tantalum leant against a wall, coughing and wiping the blood from his mouth. Although his eyes were blurred and his head fuzzy with pain, he made out several shapes approaching him.
He wiped his mouth again with a bloodstained sleeve. "Please," he said feebly. "I know this facility… can help."
The closest shape stepped forward on spindly chicken legs, talons raised like the arms of a praying mantis. "ORGANIC CONSTRUCT: HUMAN," it said, its voice crackling. "PRIMARY BENEFIT: NUTRIENT SOURCE. EVALUATION: HARVEST."
The machine advanced on Tantalum, its claws whirring. At the last moment he grasped its intent, but was only able to scream briefly before the machine got to work.
"What's the matter?" asked Rose.
The Doctor jabbed at the controls on the plinth. Seeming grimly satisfied with what he saw, he accessed another part of the program and the machine in the centre of the room began powering up, giving off a low, gentle hum that was gradually building.
"Please," said the Doctor, his voice firm, "just get back to the TARDIS. We don't have much time."
"Actually, you have no time at all." Two incredibly tall figures stood in the doorway through which Professor Tantalum had exited. They were wearing suits constructed of tight metal bands, yet their bodies were not flesh, but seemed composed of flickering light, like a dimly glowing flame – one green, the other a deep orange. Between them sat the squat sharp shape of the Grinder, its appendages slick with gore.
"Quick!" shouted the Doctor, pushing Rose towards the door, but they were brought up short when one of the flickering figures shot a bolt of energy out of the glowing orange flame of its hand. The bolt exploded on the floor beside Rose.
"We are the Amalgam," announced the orange figure. "Stay where you are and you will not be harmed. We will take you with us where you will have the singular honour of serving us until the day you die."
"No thanks," said the Doctor. "I don't think so."
The green figure tipped its head quizzically. "Everyone today has said that. You will die as they did."
"Oh," said the Doctor as the two figures raised their arms to fire.
Suddenly, the lights in the room went dead. The two figures were still visible, but their glow was too dim to light the room. The Doctor grabbed Rose's arm and pulled her to the floor, just as two bolts of energy flashed over their heads, bursting against the far wall.
"Come on!" said the Doctor, dragging Rose towards the door that led to the waiting room and the safety of the TARDIS.
As they reached the door, the Doctor turned. "Thank you," he shouted, into the dark.
As soon as the TARDIS doors were shut behind them, the Doctor cried out, a savage howl of agony. He turned and beat the door with his fists, sobbing. Rose took a few steps back, quickly, taken by surprise by the Doctor's sudden outburst.
"It's happening again!" he cried. "It's happening again and I can't save them."
Rose moved towards the Doctor, hesitantly. "What is happening, Doctor?" she asked softly.
The Doctor slumped down the TARDIS door and hung his head. "Tantalum's machine – you were right, there was someone inside it. Two Timelords, kidnapped before the destruction of Gallifrey. They have been held inside that machine ever since."
"But why?" asked Rose, appalled.
The Doctor did not answer straight away, but sat frowning, lost in thought. At last, he said quietly, "Tantalum was mining the cells of their bodies to work his machine, using their Timelord DNA to shift the elements he was changing backwards or forwards through time."
"Alive?" asked the Doctor. "Oh yes – Tantalum needed them to remain alive for the cells to be viable. They were fully conscious as their bodies were stripped away cell by cell."
Rose shuddered. "That's sick."
The Doctor stared down, a far-away look in his eye. "And when they were all but gone, when death might have offered some little release, their bodies would regenerate – another whole life to be whittled away. Centuries of torture."
"Always flickering, never dying," whispered Rose. "So when Professor Tantalum said he knew you'd be back…"
"He didn't mean me personally, but one of my people," the Doctor said. "He thought they'd come looking for the missing Timelords, but it was too late. Gallifrey was gone, no-one was coming, there was just me and I – couldn't – save them!" he shouted, punctuating each word by smacking his fist on the floor. After that, he fell silent again, staring hopelessly at the floor.
After a moment, Rose gripped the Doctor's arm gently. "Doctor," she said firmly, "we're not out of trouble yet and I can't move the TARDIS."
The Doctor frowned a little, as if trying to catch a stray thought.
"Doctor!" shouted Rose, tugging on his arm.
He looked up as if he had forgotten she was there. "We have to move," he said.
"That's what I've been trying to say," said Rose.
The Doctor struggled to his feet. "No – we really need to move," he said, rushing to the console. "I set the machine on a continuous loop, converting hydrogen into singularium."
"Is that bad?"
"It'll turn this planet into a new black hole."
"Doctor!" Rose gasped, shocked.
"It's all right," said the Doctor, setting the TARDIS to dematerialise. "Thanks to the Amalgam's arrival there's nothing left alive in this sector of space. I checked the defence grid. Nothing left, except for a very large Amalgam raiding fleet, who are about to get a very large surprise."
"Doctor," said Rose, "when we got out of there, you shouted 'thank you'. Do you think it was the trapped Timelords who saved us – that they turned off the lights deliberately?"
"I don't know, Rose," replied the Doctor, "but it's what I would have done."