Of Dimensions and Dilemmas
The Doctor wasted little time in mourning Odaron; there was nothing to be done for him anyway, and there was too much to be accomplished. Still, for however many days the Doctor had left, he would remember Odaron as he would remember Susan, Adric, Sarah-Jane, Jamie, Lethbridge-Stewart, Tegan, and nearly everyone else with whom he had come in contact. Sometimes he felt that such an advanced mind was more of a curse than anything else, especially as it came with such a retentive and detailed memory.
He made his way back to the hangar bay where the TARDIS waited patiently. There were no troopers or officers around; evidently the Imperial troops had—correctly—deduced that the Daleks were an infinitely greater threat than even an unidentified intruder such as he, although the Doctor could be quite a threat, should he so choose. As he stood before the doors of the TARDIS, he paused with the key in the lock, several thoughts running through his brain. With a shake, he cleared his head and entered his ship. It was time now to work. Time enough later to think. It was one thing a Time Lord often had in abundance…
His assisted breathing rasping heavily through his respirator, his armor smoking from several near-misses, Vader stood several meters away from the last surviving Dalek. By Vader's orders, all corridors on their level had been sealed off and power to the doors had been cut. The Dalek was in a cul-de-sac and face to face with a man who had single-handedly slain several of its comrades, but true to its nature, the Dalek showed no fear. Rather, it braced itself for combat.
"Your weapon's energy signature has been identified," it grated as its eyestalk focused on Vader's lightsaber. "I have recalibrated my weapon so that you cannot deflect it as you have done before, and you are too far away to rush me. Surrender your weapon and your ship to me or you will be exterminated."
"It seems the Doctor is not the only one from your universe to suffer from an excess of speech," Vader noted. He deactivated his lightsaber and replaced it at his belt. "However, you will gain control of neither my lightsaber nor my ship. And I do not need my weapons to destroy you."
"That is impossible," the Dalek intoned. "You are powerless now."
Behind his faceplate, Vader's scarred face twisted into a smile. "Please keep thinking so." His right hand reached out toward the Dalek and the creature found itself lifted free of the floor and rotated so that it could not bring its gun arm to bear on Vader.
"Alert! Alert! This unit is being held in a tractor beam! Mobility impaired! Assistance required!"
"Indeed," Vader murmured, drawing on the Force and channeling it through his right hand. He concentrated and clenched his hand into a fist.
The Dalek began shrieking even more than before. "Sensors register extreme compression of exterior casing by unknown forces. Hull in danger of breaching!" The Dalekanium chassis was indeed beginning to creak and warp.
Perhaps the Dalek did, in its last seconds of life, know fear. Its screeching and pleas for assistance indicated pain, certainly, as the machinery was compressed in upon the weak and feeble flesh encased within it. In the end, however, such concerns meant nothing. Even as the Dalek's vital fluids and pulped tissues seeped from the crushed wreck, Vader cast all thought of it aside. Yet one more intruder remained, and it was long past time that he be taken care of. Squelching the pain in what parts of him could still feel it, Vader spun and strode toward the hangar bay.
At the TARDIS' controls, the Doctor feverishly worked to establish a link between its systems and the Executor's computers. At the heart of all computer languages, they were simply binary: current flowed or it did not, on or off, yes or no. But from there the possible evolutions were nearly uncountable. Decimal, hexadecimal, octal, trinary, mo'-Aquibarian—and isn't that just a joy to learn!—and it only went on from there. The trick was trying to figure out what of the myriad possibilities this Empire had chosen to use. From there, it was a simple matter of breaking down firewalls, circumventing anti-intrusion routines, authoring administrative credentials, figuring out which commands would execute the proper programs—which also had to be written on the fly—and not crash the whole system, and then synchronize everything on the Executor with the TARDIS so that everything happened when it was supposed to. All within a timeframe that spanned no more than a few more minutes.
The Doctor's cockeyed smile said it all. This was where he excelled. "All right, old girl," he said softly, caressing the TARDIS' controls. "Let's work some magic."
It had been said before that any science far enough advanced would seem like magic to the uninitiated, but in this case, the TARDIS truly was magic. Bred and built to warp space and time, trained and programmed to take different shapes and provide for their pilots and companions, TARDISes were the pinnacle of Time Lord science. This one, an "obsolete" Type 40, was outmoded and bound for the scrap heap by Time Lord standards, but the Doctor had grown attached to it. Often it seemed as though the TARDIS returned the favor.
After a few agonizing minutes—which still felt like hours, their relativity to dimensions in space notwithstanding—the TARDIS indicated that it had not only matched the Executor's syntax and root structure, but that it had isolated the routines needed to start the transit engines.
"Oh, brilliant!" the Doctor exclaimed. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you!"
Even as his hands began to work the controls and set his plan into motion, the Doctor paused. His initial plan was based on what he had done during the Canary Wharf encounter with the Cybermen and Torchwood: reopen the breach into the Void and suck the Daleks—and himself—back out of this dimension and home again. Unfortunately, he had just realized one gigantic, possibly fatal flaw in his plan.
The Executor was a spaceship, and it was moving through space. The rift through which the Doctor and the Daleks had passed was now hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away. It would be impossible for the Daleks or their remains to be drawn into the Void: they would have to be smashed through the bulkheads of the ship itself.
Worse yet, he had just experienced a dreadful epiphany. His efforts to quash the Daleks in his own universe had met with perpetual failure. Sisyphean, indeed, he mouthed to himself, staring through his monitors at nothing. Nothing I do can stop them. Nothing I can do can even come close. It was as if, unlike the Time Lords and nearly all other races of his home universe, the Daleks were a universal constant, omnipresent and omnivorous, destroying all they touched while being themselves immune to death.
And now the Daleks had invaded this universe. Had the Doctor, however unwittingly, introduced an incurable infection in an otherwise pristine reality? No, I can't have. The freak accident that had thrust the TARDIS into this universe wasn't his fault. It was completely unforeseen. It simply couldn't have been foreseen.
But I'm the one who continually mucks about with the Daleks. If I hadn't been trying to stop them like I always do, they wouldn't have been firing at me, and this whole mess wouldn't have happened.
His rational side immediately knew this to be merely overemotional angst, a near-millennium of guilt having piled up in the corners of his mind until there was no place left to hide it. The Doctor's jaw clenched. But if I didn't—don't—fight the Daleks, who will? No other has done so much or so well as I have, have they? No civilization, none of the so-called "Dalek hunters," not even other Time Lords have made so much as a dent. And the Doctor knew that the evil of the Daleks demanded to be faced down and beaten so the rest of the universe could go on.
But it hadn't been defeated, had it? And there was the crux of the dilemma. Undefeated and quite possibly incapable of defeat, the eternal force that was the Daleks had now spread to a universe innocent of their taint and there would be no Doctor to confront it.
But this Vader…he single-handedly killed most of them, the Doctor argued with himself. Surely they can be fought here, perhaps even better than I could have back home. It was true that Vader had slain Daleks by himself, something the Doctor was ever loath to do. It went so deeply against his grain to kill that often the Doctor would go out of his way to formulate alternate strategies if his first plan involved the death of even a mortal enemy. Yet perhaps that was what was needed, he thought, immediately reviled at himself for even entertaining such a horrific thought. Perhaps the Daleks and their murderous ways can only be defeated by murderous men.
It was not the realization of this fact that had shocked him; he had always secretly and fleetingly harbored such speculations. It was the fact that for the briefest of instants, he had contemplated becoming such a man.
He started. For a heartbeat, he had half-fancied that he had seen a reflection of his recently-discovered (or rediscovered) inner demon in a screen facing him, but it was one of the TARDIS' external monitors showing him the entrance to the hangar bay and what loomed within it.
Lord Darth Vader had come calling.
Despite his fondest wishes, the TARDIS was still working on the last snippets of information required. How to stall Vader and keep him from possibly gaining entry into the TARDIS? A man who could kill Daleks was certainly capable of damaging the time capsule if not actually breaching its defenses. Could the Doctor stall him?
Vader's voice came over the external pickups. "Doctor. I have dispatched the Daleks. Unless you wish me to do the same to you, exit your craft and surrender it and yourself to me. Otherwise, I shall come in and get you myself and extract you piece by piece if need be."
Not so devious or tactic-conscious as the Master—and certainly never as eloquent—but he does make his point known. Unfortunate that it's always the tip of his sword. "Don't suppose you'd be willing to discuss this?"
"On my terms, yes. And you are rapidly running out of time to meet them."
Despite that Vader could not see him, the Doctor crossed his arms defiantly. "And if I elect to remain inside my shielded little safe-hole?"
Vader's lightsaber burst into crimson life and slashed a burning gouge in the exterior of the TARDIS. "You would not remain inside for long."
"Don't you dare!" the Doctor exclaimed. Sparks had flown from damaged junction boxes and conduits inside the TARDIS' control room and he fancied he could hear something similar to a scream of pain. Vader had found a most effective way to force the Doctor's hand.
A glance at a monitor showed the TARDIS still diligently at work parsing the last morsels of data before the Doctor could set his plan in motion, taking time in which Vader could easily cripple the TARDIS and strand the Doctor in this bizarre universe. "Let me see if I can't buy us some time," he whispered, gently stroking the TARDIS' central column as it flickered with the firing of billions of mechanical synapses. Shuffling a few items in his pockets with the idle nervous energy of a man about to meet his own doom—again—and the possible deaths of two universes, the unsmiling, somber Doctor left the TARDIS and stood before Darth Vader.
"You rang?" the Time Lord asked.
"Step away from your machine," Vader ordered.
Wordlessly, the Doctor complied, the TARDIS' door closing behind him. "I'm going to assume that this is the part where you demand my surrender. Or did we already do that?"
"Open the door to your ship."
The lightsaber rose, its tip aimed at the Doctor's face as Vader's feet positioned themselves for a strike. "If I can slay Daleks, one overly talkative 'Time Lord' will pose no challenge. Or do you wish a gallant death to protect the secrets you hold?"
"Oh, I love multiple choice exams," the Doctor said flatly. "I'll take 'D', or four. That's the one where I remind you of the 'armored backside' scenario."
Wasting no more words, Vader drew on the Force and delivered a blindingly swift slash with his lightsaber at the point where he thought the Doctor was. Without the Doctor causing any ripples in the Force, Vader could not predict or influence the Time Lord's movements any more than he could the Daleks'. Still, he had been quite unprepared for the speed of the gangly man's movements.
They never learn except through the hard way, the Doctor sighed, his hands still in his pockets. Slowly, he pulled them out.
Vader barely twitched as his attention shifted to the Doctor's hands; he had expected the Doctor to take out that annoying contrivance that he had first used to disable the Dark Lord's lightsaber, but the man's hands were empty. Behind his faceplate, Vader frowned again as the Doctor raised his hands into a defensive posture. "You jest."
"Never," the Doctor said. "Now do as you must. And so will I." To an onlooker, there would seem to be a hint of sorrow in the Doctor's eyes. Yes, Vader was an enemy who had to be defeated, but the Doctor seemed to pity him, almost to mourn him. For a human being, one of the universe's potentially most brilliant beings, to have fallen from being an engine of life and invention and creation to become this… What forces must have warped and twisted the man so cruelly?
"I'm sorry," the Doctor said. "For whatever has happened to you, I am as sorry as for what will befall you. And I find that I can forgive you, as well."
Now the Sith was cautious. The Doctor was an irritant, no doubt, but he was certainly not insane, his comments aside. He obviously had something planned, but Vader could not guess what it was. He shifted into a more conservative stance and began to circle the Doctor.
The Doctor's large, dark eyes never left Vader's. For all that the Doctor couldn't see Vader's eyes, it seemed to Vader that the alien intruder was staring at—through!—him. It almost made the Sith Lord apprehensive, but what harm could a lone man do to a master of the Dark Side of the Force?
Another lightning-fast slash burned the air as the saber hummed downward. The Doctor stepped inward, recalling lessons learned long ago on Sol II, the world known as Venus. The greatest energy in a swung weapon is in the farthest third from the point around which it revolves. The least power is in the third closest to the point of rotation. He slipped inside almost faster than Vader could follow and gripped the Dark Lord's arm with hands far stronger than any mere human's.
The Doctor twisted his body, wrenched his hands about, and Vader was toppled off-balance. With any other opponent, there would have been a resounding collision with the ground, but Vader's training and inhuman reflexes nearly foiled the Doctor's technique. As it was, he had a few heartbeats wherein his equilibrium was lost, and after those heartbeats, his lightsaber was lost.
Despite having mechanical hands, they were modeled on human hands and were thus susceptible to the same principles of leverage. The Doctor pulled and twisted again, and Vader's lightsaber was yanked free of its owner's hands, deactivated, and stuffed into one of the Doctor's pockets.
"You were told I'd take it away from you again if you misbehaved," the Doctor said softly.
Vader was enraged. With a roar of blind anger, he attacked the Doctor in his own open-handed attacks. The animal fury of the former Anakin Skywalker couldn't be filtered out by his vocal transmitter or hidden by his armor, and indeed, the Doctor felt waves of icy venom washing over him as the punches and kicks rained down upon him.
Most of them he blocked, dodged, or redirected, but a precious few penetrated his defenses and caused a good amount of damage. The Doctor silently reproved himself for assuming Vader to be a base brawler. Obviously an expert swordsman, it stood to reason that he would have empty-hand skills of equal caliber on which to rely. It was a lesson the Doctor learned with not a bit of pain.
One exceptionally savage knee strike smashed the wind out of the Doctor's lungs and sent him to the floor in breathless agony. Only supreme willpower kept him moving and away from a boot that thundered onto the deckplate where his head had been just instants before.
Vader, humiliated by the Doctor and his throws, joint locks, and irritating condescension, was a swirling cauldron of boiling vitriol but a frozen spike of logic managed to lance through his mind. He could not use the Force to manipulate the Doctor, that had been proven already. However…
The Doctor, gasping and groaning in pain, felt his clothing yanked toward his enemy as if they were fine metal filings drawn to a giant electromagnet. Soon enough, he found his jacket being gripped in Vader's fists, the Doctor's feet dangling limply nearly a half meter off the deck.
"This is your final chance," Vader rasped, his mechanical breathing coming fast and hard. From the sounds of his modulated voice, he was speaking through clenched teeth. "Surrender your ship!"
"Not before I knock you flat of your armored backside," the Doctor said weakly. But there was still that sardonic smile on his face. Vader looked down…
…and the Doctor's sonic screwdriver went to work on the breathing apparatus on the Sith Lord's chest. Instantly, his lungs felt starved of air. He was suffocating. The Doctor had shut down his breathing aids. Vader felt his legs giving way and he released the Doctor as he fell.
"No, you're not going to die," the Doctor wheezed, straightening his lapels and pocketing the sonic screwdriver after giving it a quick flip. "But you will slow down quite a bit. I only reconfigured your breathing machine so that you're taking in ten percent of what you need now. I have an affinity for the number 'ten,' for some reason. In time, it will revert to normal. Perhaps one day, you shall, too."
Calmly, yet with one final pitying glance at the feebly struggling Vader, the Doctor entered the TARDIS and sealed the door. This time, he also raised his shields and flipped the switches to engage the programs he and the TARDIS had put together.
The central column in the control console began to rise and fall and in the depths of the Executor's engine room, the transit equipment thrummed to life. The stream of energy that kept the TARDIS' navigation computers locked onto the breach between universes was badly attenuated but still sufficient to give the TARDIS a point on which to focus. Lacking the Daleks' energy beams, the Doctor had to supply a greater proportion of the TARDIS' power to fuel his return, but the massive engines of the Executor provided the lion's share.
The grinding wheeze of the TARDIS' machinery was drowned out in the whine and roar of tortured energies being twisted in ways they were never meant to be. Circuits blew and pipes ruptured all over the TARDIS, but the instruments indicated that the TARDIS and its quirky pilot were transiting the Void…and were through it.
Another series of controls were manipulated and soon enough, it seemed that the breach was sealing itself. By now, the engines of the Executor and its transit equipment—and controls and a good deal of other systems—were burning themselves into harmless slag. It had been all the Doctor could do to stop the Empire's experiments, but he had done it. Whether it would be enough, only Time itself would reveal. Finally, though, safe and secure in his own universe, the Doctor collapsed into a chair and allowed the pain and exhaustion of the last several hours to overwhelm him.
The Sith Lord was standing in silent fury as he contemplated the spot where the TARDIS had simply vanished. He cursed himself, the Doctor, the Daleks, and the universe itself for failing to capture this miraculous alien technology.
Far too late, a squad of stormtroopers came dashing into the bay to aid their commander. Vader strode out of the bay, directly through the squad, which scattered like mice before the lion.
Vader cornered a senior officer. "Collect the remains of those Daleks and take the carcasses to the bio-labs and the mechanical parts to engineering or the science labs. Have them analyzed and reverse-engineer what we can. This incident will not be a total loss." I will not allow it.
And there is much I can glean from the Daleks and their machines. Perhaps enough to aid me in the search for my son. In fact, a certain droid design he had sent to Mechis III would likely benefit from such technology…
The Doctor jolted awake when an alarm shrieked through the TARDIS and a blast of something shook it. The Doctor leaped to his feet, still sore, and checked his instruments. The TARDIS had materialized in deep space rather than on some planetary body. It was unusual but not unheard of. Oddly, it seemed that the TARDIS was still not quite in its own universe, even though familiar constellations were visible or could be identified through the star charts onboard. What? Home, yet not home? How is…?
Another blast shuddered through the TARDIS. The Doctor saw that the shields, though not at full strength, were sufficient to protect him against even a prolonged bombardment of what the instruments said were simple disruptor charges. A flashing light signaled an incoming communication, likely a challenge.
Instantly, the Doctor responded, activating a monitor for face-to-face dialogue. And what a face it was.
Shaggy, unkempt black hair framed a heavy-browed, wide-nosed visage. Craggy teeth flashed from between a ragged beard and mustache as bushy eyebrows frowned beneath a heavily-ridged forehead. The TARDIS struggled to translate the hostile sounds of the alien's language for a moment before managing to convert it to what the Doctor could understand.
"…yourself! The shape of your vessel identifies you as one of them, or as one of their lackeys, their drones! Who or what are you? Speak, before we destroy you!"
An exterior visual on another monitor showed a flight of several starships with designs the Doctor had never seen before: a wedge-shaped primary hull from which depended thin engine pods with a bulbous forward module connected to the main hull by a graceful, long neck. "What?"
Before the Doctor could offer much more than that, the alien pulled back from the screen to reveal what was possibly the bridge of his ship as someone off-screen shouted over blaring alarms. "They're here! Single ship bearing zero-three-two mark four, dropping to sublight!"
The Doctor was flabbergasted but tried to reply to the ridge-headed alien anyway. A new, far more powerful communication blasted through space, overwhelming everything on its channel.
"We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."
The Doctor was speechless. Nearly.