Manius Silvius had just shoved down his ration of cooked chickpeas with oil and garlic, and was nursing his cup of watered down wine when a strangely dressed man entered the office. He was pale like a ghost, and was unusually dressed for a Roman, or even for a foreigner from the Northern territories, from which he assumed he came. The man walked straight to him, his face dead serious and his head held high as if he was someone with authority. Manius threw the last gulp of wine down his throat and stood up from his seat. This, he thought, was going to be interesting.
"Are you the man in charge of this prison?" The stranger enquired with an air of superiority that made Manius directly dislike him. He spat on the floor, his gob just before the stranger's feet.
"My name does not concern you, but I am a member of the imperial Praetorian guard, selected by emperor Claudius himself from the Northern Germanic tribes." The stranger answered confidently. "I am here to carry out the emperor's orders."
Manius eyed the stranger from head to toe in disbelief before he burst out in laughter. "You're a jester aren't you? You look more like a Greek bum boy to me! Why, you wouldn't be able to lift an axe, let alone strike out with it to protect the emperor!"
The stranger did not react to his smug response. He toke from somewhere out of his clothing a square path of leather, flipped it open and showed it to him. Manius responded rather surprised.
contains the imperial seal, cast from the ring of emperor Claudius. It
grants me authority to access any civil building in Rome."
Manius leaned forward to take a better look at it, but the Praetorian quickly put the document back into one of those hidden folds in his clothing.
"Now, I'm asking you again, are you the man in charge of this prison?"
Somewhere down his thick muscular neck a trickle of sweat started to glide into his tunic. "I'm so sorry sir. I didn't know! I just assumed that you were mocking me. There are so many nutters these days who just show up and pretend to be someone they are not!" Micranus rambled.
"Look, can you just answer the question?"
"Oh right sir. No sir. I'm not in charge here sir. The man in charge is prefect Calpurnius sir."
"Alright, I would like to speak to him then, where is he?"
"Eh, at home sir, in bed with his wife and fast asleep. It's already past midnight sir. The prefect won't be here till tomorrow morning."
"Right, I can't wait till then. So suppose I have to speak to the man who's in charge at the moment, the soldier with the highest authority present, which is you. Right?"
"Eh, yes I suppose so, sir."
"Well then. I'm looking for a vagrant with the name of Marcellus Quintus. He is a runaway slave from the brothel-holder Simon Asinaria. I need to find him and bring him in for questioning. Have you taken a man with such a name in custody?"
"Sorry sir, my memory is not that good. But I could look it up for you. We register the names of every prisoner for the civil archives." Manius retreated in the backroom, but returned quickly with a thick scroll of paper that he rolled out over the table. It didn't take him long to find it. "Ah, here it is sir, Marcellus Quintus, age 36, a male slave marked with the seal of Simon Asinaria. Found wandering the streets in derelict and confused state after stabbing a shop holder to death with a broken shard of pottery. Is charged with murder of the shop-holder and the theft of one loaf of bread. He's sentenced to death by public execution in the arena. Is this the man you're looking for sir?"
The Doctor had to swallow something hard that was stuck in his throat before he could answer that question.
"That's him alright." He said, quietly. "He's not dead is he?"
"Oh no sir. He's been lucky. The arenas have been fully booked with all kinds of exciting performances the last couple of weeks due to the celebrations of Nero's adoption by the emperor. He wasn't scheduled in anything till next month."
Visible relief washed over the Doctor's face. "Can you take me to see him?"
The Doctor followed the Roman soldier down a narrow staircase that led down into a dungeon. It was a vault, shaped in a long corridor with shallow niches hacked out in the stone bedding. The air was thick with the stench of human excrement and sweat. The darkness was so all-consuming that it was hard to see where they were going, despite of the flickering light that came from the torch that Manius used to lighten their path. Only when the eyes of the Doctor had adjusted to the darkness did he realize what kind of place it was. It was hell on earth, filled with human suffering and despair. Prisoners, naked or dressed in nothing but yellowish decomposing rags, were shackled to chains by their neck and ankles. They were filthy and starving. Some of them wept when they passed by, others watched them bleakly with sunken eyes. Others threw themselves at feet, skeletal hands clawing and pulling at the pipes of his trousers. The soldier grabbed the whip form his belt and hit them till they recoiled to the foul corners of the dungeon like frightened beasts.
"Look out sir." Manius said, turning around to face the Doctor. "They're like mad beasts down here! One slip and they're at your throat like hungry wolves."
The Doctor didn't say anything, just shook his head in revulsion. The human race. The species that he loved and admired the most from all of creation. He just could not understand how they were capable of this.
They ventured deeper into the dungeon till they reached a small niche in the wall almost at the back. A prisoner, shackled in chains like the rest of them, lay huddled on the filth-covered floor. His naked body had wasted away to nearly nothing, his chest was a barrel of ribs, the legs shrunken so that the knees were thicker than the thighs. He was covered in sores, wounds, and scars from the whip, and looked almost grey, being ingrained in layers of filth with flakes of skin peeling off. His long hair hung in filthy strings in front of his face. His eyes were cast down, oblivious of their presence.
"This should be him sir, the prisoner that you were looking for."
For a moment, the Doctor had to adjust his mind to this information. He did not recognize the Master. The image just did not match with what he had expected. But what had he expected? That the man that he would find in this hellish place would look somehow less broken, less affected by his mistake, and less pitiful, than this?
Hesitantly, he stepped forward. The sound of his footsteps startled the prisoner who shot an anxious glance in their direction. The chains rattled as he tried to crawl away to hide.
"Don't get so near sir! This one will bite. I saw it happen to one of the soldiers who dragged him in." Manius raised his whip to strike at the frightened prisoner. "Back you filth! Back I said!"
The Doctor immediately grabbed him by the wrist and stopped him. "Don't!" He said, his voice turning into ice. "Don't you dare to use this whip on him!"
Manius took one look at the expression on the Doctor's face and complied silently.
"Leave us." The Doctor said.
"But sir, I can't guarantee your safety."
"I'm a member of the imperial Praetorian guard. I can handle myself down here with these shackled prisoners. Now leave!"
Manius cocked an eyebrow while reconsidering the Doctor's skinny frame, but then decided that it wasn't worth it to point out the bloody obvious. Before he left, he lit another torch with his own and handed it to the Doctor.
"Now you wouldn't want to stay behind without a light, would you?"
The Doctor waited till the soldier's footsteps had died away. He laid a hand on the prisoner's shoulder. Marcellus flinched away from his touch as if being beaten or burnt.
"Marcellus? It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to help."
He crouched next to the prisoner, and lifted the torch to eyelevel to see his face. It was indeed the Master, but his features were distorted by the pain and suffering he had endured. His cheeks were sunken, his cheekbones protruding and battered, his mouth had a drawn-in look. Only his eyes were fierce and watchful, but there was something wrong with them. Marcellus did not recoil or shield them when the harsh light shone directly into his face, not even when the Doctor gently nudged his chin up to make him raise his head. His pupils did move constantly, darting from one corner to the other, like that of a frightened animal stumbling in the dark.
The Doctor waived his fingers in front of his eyes. They did not follow them, but stared right through as if they were translucent.
"You're blind." The Doctor whispered. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
The Doctor folded his arms gently around the trembling prisoner, who gave weak resistance at first, frightened of being hurt again, But the Doctor whispered softly in his ear, words of remorse and repent that he did not understand. He stroked his hair, and rocked him in his arms. It felt warm and gentle, and so peaceful. A warm familiar scent surrounded him, the smell of home and a childhood he could no longer remember. The strange but wonderful rhythm of a double heartbeat. And soon, all that mattered to Marcellus was the presence of this gentle merciful stranger. The idea that he would be left alone again in this pitch black darkness made him sick with fear. He licked his cracked lips and began to beg in a broken voice.
"Please, help. My master has abandoned me. I can no longer hear him. I can't see. I can't find him." He pulled himself up, moving closer to the man, seeking for comfort, and buried his tearful face in the folds of his clothing. "Are you my new master?"
"Marcellus, don't say that." The Doctor pleaded, tears welling up in his eyes.
"Please, take me home with you." Marcellus clung onto him desperately. "I will be a good slave. I know that I am ill, but I can still please you." His trembling hands went down the Doctor's chest, in search of a belt to unhook or a gap between the fabric to enter. "I will do everything you ask of me. I will be a good slave." He lowered himself, shivering in effort as he arched his back, till his mouth brushed the bulge in the Doctor's trousers. "Please, I can still please you, master. Please let me show you."
"Stop this! Stop this immediately!" The Doctor yelled, he felt disgusted, sickened to stomach. He pushed Marcellus's hands away, and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Listen to me, you don't need to do this anymore, alright? Stop doing this. It's all right."
"Please, I'm not worthless! Don't leave me here. Please don't leave me here, master. Don't leave me." Marcellus's voice trailed off, becoming softer and softer, till he murmured it like a prayer.
The Doctor did not know what he should say to him. He shut his eyes and wished deeply that he could undo all those horrible things that had crushed Marcellus's mind, but he couldn't. What he held in his hands were the shards of a broken existence, and all he could do was to find a way to mend those broken pieces back together again.
He just kept holding him, patting his hair and calming him till the fire of the torch burnt out and they were both left in total darkness.
The Doctor sat in the corner of the waiting room, flicking idly through a copy of National Geographic, while his mind wandered as he stared through the large glass panel that looked out into the hospital corridor. Patients of different species and race came scuffling by, often followed by the ever diligent cat sisters who were watching over them. The year was five billion and twenty three, they were in the galaxy M87 on the planet New Earth, and this was the Pleasure Garden hospital. A place where he had brought Marcellus as soon as he had freed him out of the Roman prison, and where he hoped that the capable hands of the Sisterhood would be able to keep him alive and cure him. It had been three days. Three days of waiting. They had told him to go home. He looked tired, and should rest. They would call him as soon as there was any sign of improvement. He had rejected that idea, and had been literally living in the waiting room ever since. He paced around the tiny room like a caged lion, drinking coffee that made his stomach clench into a tight ball of bitter nerves. The other people who had to wait in the same room avoided him, or left and preferred to wait outside.
Every time the door opened he would raise his head in hope, only to let it drop again in disappointment. But he never lost hope. It was all he had left.
At the end of the third day, close before midnight, sister Hara came in and laid her paw on the tired Timelord's shoulder.
The Doctor looked up hopefully.
"How is he? Is he awake?"
The cat sister smiled politely. "Your friend has been successfully treated with the antiviral elixir, he's cured from the disease.
"And his sight?"
"We are pleased to inform you, that he is responding very well to the neural stem cells that we have injected. They have proliferated and have replaced most of the damaged cells in the optical nerves. He should be able to see again."
The Doctor's lips split into a radiant smile. "So he's going to be all right? He's going to be his normal old self again?"
"Oh thank you so much!" The Doctor bounced up from his seat and smothered the surprised sister with hugs and kisses. "Oh thank you! Thank you! Bless your little paws." He kissed her paw and lifted her from the floor for a happy twirl. "And bless all those sweet little paws from the Sisterhood too!" He blurted, yelling so loud that even the people at the other side of the glass could hear it. It made sister Hara grimace ever so slightly.
"Doctor, could you please put me down!"
"What? Oh, Ehm sorry about that." He gently put sister Hara back to her feet. "I got carried away there. But it is fantastic news!"
"Ehm, yes. Doctor, there is something that you must know. Something important. Your friend is still not well. Physically, he's fine, and he will recover completely. But, his mind however, is yet another thing."
The Doctor's happiness subsided from his face, and he sank back down in his seat. Somehow, he must have expected this.
"The patient is completely traumatized. He suffers from delusions and panic attacks so severe that he might hurt himself and others. It's quite sad really." The sister said with deep sympathy in her voice.
"Is there a way to help him?"
"Doctor." Sister Hara started hesitantly and sighed deeply. "Don't take this wrong. Our Sisterhood is most grateful to you for your contributions. If it wasn't for you the atrocities conducted by matron Casp would have never been brought to light. And we have fully recovered from that black page in our history, and reclaimed our position as the top medical institute in the galaxy. But, the point is, even we cannot really treat psychiatric patients."
"He's not a psychiatric patient." The Doctor answered defensively. "He's been saner than he's ever been."
"Now you know that is not true." Sister Hara shook her head for so much stubbornness. "I'm sorry Doctor, but there isn't and there has never been a proper cure for insanity. All we can do, and what you should do, is to take him somewhere safe. Place him in the hands of professionals who can take care of him. Here." The sister handed the Doctor a small card.
"This is a business card for a psychiatric institution." The Doctor said, appalled.
"It's a private institution for mental health." The sister said. "I can assure you that they take good care of their patients. Well, obviously, the more you pay, the better they treat him."
The Doctor ripped up the business card into tiny little pieces.
"I'm not going to leave him behind in an asylum." He said determinedly.