As befits a story written mainly over the Christmas/New Year season it is heavy with self-indulgence. 'Conduit' self-references my own 'Warp War' and came about mainly as a result of a comment made by a reviewer of that story. Although 'Conduit' can be read as a stand-alone, familiarity with 'Warp War' may help. Oh, and for those of you who read 'Applebury' and thought they were reading the final 12th Doctor/Kim Gideon story (as I did when I was writing it) then all I can say is...she didn't keep her promise!
If you want to get to E-Space you will need to find a CVE. A Charged Vacuum Emboitment. A wormhole into another dimension. Chances are you never will. CVEs are rare, and distributed randomly around our normal universe, N-Space.
There again, being random, you are as likely to find one in your own backyard as you are out in the depths of space, billions of light-years away.
And what if you did? What would you find in E-Space?
Well, a pocket universe clinging onto ours like a limpet. Not only smaller but with slightly different natural laws. A place where water boils at 94-degrees Celsius and freezes at minus 10. A place where the force of gravity fluctuates so that on some worlds athletes can indeed, leap tall buildings with a single bound, and on others inhabitants live flat, two-dimensional lives. A place where metabolic differences provide some races with an accelerated rate of healing and others bleed to death from the scratch of a thorn.
Other than that, not much difference. There are still ugly worlds in E-Space - cesspits of noxious chemicals which would kill you in a single breath. At the other end of the extreme are worlds such as Pharrados, a planet of many wonders ranging from the glorious Waterfall of Frozen Fire to the legendary City of Repeated Thought.
On one of Pharrados' smaller continents we find the Lake of Five Moons. A beautiful pastoral scene, with the famous castle of the de Regis family, their ancestral seat, jutting out over the water's edge.
It is the Festival of Conjunction – a rare alignment of all of the five moons in a perfect circle in the night sky. An excuse for much feasting and celebration among the local population.
But one man is not celebrating. On the balcony of Castle de Regis he paces anxiously.
Baron Manfred, the latest in the line of the hereditary District Tribunes, had come here to flee the wailing-time of his daughter. He felt himself a coward. He should be at her bedside, comforting her in her anguish as he had for the last seven nights. But he was weary and fearful. And he felt all of his years now. So old, so very old.
At last the distant wailing stopped and the new physician, the third he had engaged since his daughter's illness, stepped out to join Manfred on the balcony.
"There is no change?"
"No, sir. She sleeps again."
"And you have done all the tests, tried all the potions?"
The physician nodded. "I can only confirm my predecessors' findings. Your daughter is sound."
"Sound! Then why, pray, is she subject to such convulsions? Why does she sleep so?"
"Sound...physically." He was hesitant.
"You think her afflicted of the mind?"
The physician shrugged. "I believe it is time. We need to send for the Seer."
Manfred sucked in his breath. The whole district was anxious for news of the Lady Battonica de Regis. Calling for the Seer would be a public admission. Of an infestation of the senses. But what else could he do?
Manfred nodded briefly and turned away, feigning interest in the swarms of Flitterfish glittering over the waters of the lake.
"I will put out the word" said the physician.
Manfred heard his footsteps retreat through the double doors.
It was a further three days before the Seer arrived at Castle de Regis, unannounced. The last day of the Festival of Conjunction.
Battonica's condition was unchanged. She was confined to her bed, comatose. As delicate and fragile as a shard of ice. Until the wailing time, when she screamed and convulsed, her eyes distended and unseeing, saliva drooling and sweat gleaming on her body like a maddened horse.
When it was all over, and she had lapsed into coma again, her ladies-in-waiting cleaned her, bathed her and festooned the room with draughts of concentrated floral water. They also chanted the ancient cants to ward off evil spirits – but with ever-diminishing confidence.
Manfred accompanied the Seer to his daughter's bedroom. The Seer was, in some respects, as he had expected. Dressed in a long flowing robe of deep indigo, her head hooded. She had no attendants but behind her she towed a small sealed casket on wheels.
There had been no introduction, no pleasantries. No request for information about Battonica's illness.
"Take me to her," was all she had said.
They stood in her bedroom, looking down at the sleeping girl.
"When does her affliction show itself?" asked the Seer.
Manfred shrugged. " It can vary. Most commonly at nightfall. But at least once every solar." He moved over to the bedroom door. "If you will follow me we can provide a waiting area, refreshment. You will be sent for when..."
The Seer sat in the ornamental chair at the girl's bedside. "I will wait here."
It was a long wait. But the wailing came at last, just as the moons of Pharrodos were at their height, casting five shimmering reflections in their titular lake.
Battonica's eye's snapping open and her breathing becoming laboured. Her body twisted in spasm and bucked like an unbroken horse. She screamed, loud and long.
The Seer had risen at the first indication. "Hold her arms!" she ordered and the two ladies-in-waiting obeyed at once.
The Seer reached out her hands, delicate fingers cupping the girl's heart-shaped face.
They both wailed together, an unholy chorus.
"What sorcery is this?" demanded Baron Manfred, hurrying into the room in response to his daughter's cries.
The Seer half turned to him and he saw her face in profile under the concealing hood. A face distended and eyes staring, just like his daughter.
Then the Seer spoke. Unconnected, gasping words, tight with effort.
"The pain...the dead...the convulsion...reality reshaped...the great light...monstrous beauty...war...SCREAMERS..."
At this last word the Seer staggered back, away from the bed. Battonica became still and quiet, only her shallow breathing betraying the fact that she was still alive.
The attendants released her arms. Her father stroked her sweating brow. "Is she lost ?"
The Seer seemed to have difficulty recovering her composure. "T-there is a confluence of realities running through her head."
"I do not understand."
"Her dreams are killing her."
That he understood. "Can you save her?"
"I would like to try. It will be difficult and there is no guarantee of success."
Manfred stood. "What do you need?"
The Seer swept her arm around the room. "Privacy."
Manfred considered for a moment then nodded. He gestured to Battonica's attendants and they followed him out of the room closing the door behind them.
The Seer waited a moment, then crossed over to the door. She slid the large bolt shut and returned to the centre of the room and her wheeled casket.
Throwing back the hood of her robe she bent down and tapped a pattern on the small metal studs on the top of the casket. There was a faint beep, a pneumatic hiss and the casket opened slowly, in two halves.
The contraption inside rolled across the floor and swung around.
"Mistress?" The voice was clipped, electronic.
"K9, I need a full spatio-temporal scan of the girl in that bed. The distortion is incredible."
"Understood, Mistress." A n antennae probe extended in a parabola over the sleeping girl. "Scanning."
Romana sat back thoughtfully in her chair and waited.
When she stepped out of the shower, Kim Gideon was as scrubbed and pink and fresh as it was possible to be. Yet she still could not shake of the lingering feeling of grime that seemed attached to her since her latest journey with the Doctor
The Tardis had shrunk to microscopic size and materialised under the rancid fingernail of a murder victim on a pathologist's table, much to the surprise of the CSI operative when he examined the speck with an electron microscope and found himself looking at a blue London police-telephone box!
Such was the Doctor's resourcefulness that not only did he get them back to the safety of the Tardis after their prolonged nightmare walkabout in the lab, but he managed to provide several clues to the identity of the real murderer, as well!
After she had dressed, Kim wondered into the Tardis control room, having picked up her favourite bacon and egg sandwich from the food machine.
The ship was still clearly in flight, as evidenced by the ever changing geometric patterns on the walls of the room, its own bonkers navigational system; a kind of universal sat-nav on acid!
The Doctor himself was fussing over the floating control torus and looked up as Kim entered. He was tugging at a cat's cradle of fibre-optic wires which he had pulled from an exposed panel on the console.
"Never mind. I've fixed the problem with the dimensional stabiliser which caused us to shrink."
He somehow shovelled the billowing electronic entrails back into the console and replaced the panel cover. He flicked a switch and stared at a read-out, grunting with satisfaction. "Real world Interface reads 100%. We're back to normal size again, Kim."
"I don't feel any different."
"No reason why you should -." he paused, frowning.
Kim was wringing her hands and scratching at them unconsciously. Her sandwich had fallen unnoticed to the floor. For a moment she frowned back at the Doctor's obvious puzzlement, then looked down at her writhing hands as if they were independent of her.
"I seem to be itching." she said. "I must have picked something up in that lab."
"Let me see."
Kim took a step towards the Doctor, holding out her hands but pulled up suddenly as a deep, sonorous chime echoed around the room. She knew it meant trouble. The Cloister-Bell alarm, the Doctor had called it. A warning from the bowels of the Tardis, of some impending disaster.
Her companion scanned the console quickly and shook his head. "Nothing obvious here."
Kim's condition seemed to have worsened. She was itching all over now. Her skin seemed to writhe. "Doctor, I don't feel too good -" She took another step towards him and the note from the Cloister-Bell rang out again, deafeningly loud this time.
The Doctor whipped out his sonic probe and scanned her. "Incredible! If I didn't know better-" He broke off.
Kim was phasing. Like a broken fluorescent light. Pulsing and fading.
"WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING TO ME?"
Romana was alarmed.
K9's scan seemed to be taking forever. It didn't usually.
"K9 – status report!"
"Mistress. Unable to correlate data. Still working."
Romana sighed, looking down at the sleeping Battonica. Suddenly the girl's eyes snapped open and she convulsed. Romana, startled, stepped back in alarm.
"Emergency...Emergency..." K9's sensor panel lit up neon red, blinking furiously. "Non-correlation...data outside parameters..." As if to emphasise the point the robot dog began to rotate on the spot, its antenna waving dangerously. This was not a good sign.
Battonica opened her mouth to scream but was doused in an iridescent blue flare before she could do so.
Lowering her protective hand against the flash Romana found everything quiet. K9 had stopped spinning and the figure on the bed was no longer convulsive. She seemed quite alert, sitting up and blinking around the room.
"Don't be alarmed. My name is Romana and I'm here to help."
A pair of bespectacled eyes, somewhat staring, focused on Romana.
"And my name's Kim Gideon. Where the hell am I?"
The girl wavered slightly as she stood blinking around the Tardis control room.
She was lithe, undeniably beautiful with a delicate, heart-shaped face and long dark hair reaching down to the centre of her back. But there were definite signs of ill-health. A pale frailty; a blanched skin stretched rather too tightly over her high cheekbones.
She was dressed in an enveloping night-robe and her feet were bare.
Eventually her gaze fixed on the Doctor,
"So this is death." Her voice was quiet but firm. She didn't seem alarmed in the least.
"Please don't be afraid -"
"What is there to fear? I am dead."
"No you're not."
She looked quizzically at him.
."You have been taken from where you were for some reason. Swapped with a friend of mine." The Doctor sighed. You are inside my...vessel. You are quite safe but I need to get my friend back and return you home. You are definitely, one hundred per cent NOT dead. Do you believe me?"
Her eyes flickered around the control room once more before coming to rest on him. "Yes I do," she said at length. "And now I am truly afraid."
"Please don't be. I'm the Doctor. What's your name?"
"I am the Lady Battonica de Regis."
"Battonica..." the Doctor frowned, then gave a start.
"You know me?" asked the girl, picking up on his reaction.
In his mind he saw a single, drooping, reptilian eye filling his scanner screen.
"In another reality, perhaps. Look, there is something I need to check out."
The Doctor pulled out his sonic probe from the inside pocket of his duffle-coat which lay in a crumpled heap on the console. Battonica shrank back as he pointed the device at her.
"It won't hurt, I promise. I just need to take a reading."
The girl nodded and was doused in shimmering blue light. He was right, it didn't hurt.
"As I thought. Negative co-ordinates." The Doctor pocketed his probe. "You are from E-Space, Lady Battonica."
The girl shook her head, puzzled. "You are mistaken. I live on the de Regis estate, by the Lake of the Five moons."
At that equivalent moment, a universe away, by that very lake, Kim Gideon found herself sitting on a luxurious four-poster double bed, looking around an opulent bedroom of panelled wood and high ceilings. There was a trace of incense in the air, subtle yet fragrant.
She looked up at the woman standing over her. Romana she had called herself. She had high cheekbones and a rather elfin face of indeterminate age; young yet wise at the same time. She was dressed in an indigo robe with a thrown-back hood. Kim's immediate thought was that Romana was something straight out of Lord of the Rings. Kim was mildly surprised that she didn't have pointed Spock-ears to complete the effect.
"Don't be alarmed," said Romana, smiling with her generously-wide mouth."There's been a kind of accident, which has brought you here."
"You don't say," murmured Kim.
Romana looked puzzled. "Yes, I do say." She turned sideways, addressing something at her feet. "Deep scan, K9."
Kim nearly burst out laughing. This just had to be something to do with the Doctor! A robot dog, clicking and whirring away with an antenna pointed towards her.
Romana was about to say something when the dog piped up again. "Mistress! Anomaly!"
Romana bent down, looking at a little screen of scrolling symbols on the machine's back. She shot Kim a strange look. "There's a discrepancy in your DNA reading...and Huon Energy!" She straightened up again. "That means you must have been in contact with a Tardis!"
Kim kept her council.
Romana's eyes narrowed. "You don't know...the Doctor do you?"
"You know the Doctor?"
"We travelled together a while, "said Romana. " A long time ago. I am of his race."
"Can you explain why I am here?"
Romana shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure, but it seems you have been affected by some external force. You have the properties of a mini-CVE. A Charged Vacuum Emboitement. You were somehow linked with the person I was attending to here. There was some kind of confluence of events, a critical mass that caused the exchange."
Kim gave Romana a blank look. "Is it common to your race that you can all spout technobabble like that?"
"Mistress!" K9 interrupted. "Alert! The CVE profile of the human is fading!"
"How long?" snapped Romana.
"Eight minutes forty-two seconds."
Kim sensed the tension."What does that mean?"
"The power that drew you here is fading away. We don't have much time."
Romana crossed to the huge leaded windows. She parted the curtains slightly and looked out over the lake at the perfect circle of five moons in the night sky. "If the effect fades completely you will be stuck here for good. K9, how long until the conjunction is over?"
"Eight minutes twelve seconds, mistress."
"And the CVE effect on this woman?"
"Eight minutes twelve seconds, mistress."
Romana hurried over to the bed. "It's something to do with the conjunction. The five moons are in perfect alignment."
"A conjucation this precise only happens here rarely. Once every thousand years. Somehow it is linked to your transfer. You heard K9. In a few minutes the moons slip out of alignment."
"What can we do about it?"
"There must be a corresponding causal effect at the other end." Romana's face was very close to Kim. "I need to mindlink. It's our only chance."
"Seven minutes, thirty-eight seconds," said K9, impassively robotic.
Kim saw the desperate look on Romana's face,
"Whatever it takes," said Kim.
Almost immediately Romana placed her fingers on either side of Kim's head. Suddenly Kim's consciousness shrank and hid in a corner of her mind. She felt a wave of pure thought, rushing though like an express train. Then Romana's voice. Echoing.
"Doctor...can you hear me?"
"Doctor...can you hear me?"
The Doctor started at Battonica's words.
Her eyes had turned glassy and she stood rigidly, like an automaton.
That voice...it couldn't be...
The Doctor leapt forward and placed his hands around the girl's head, closing his eyes as he did so.
"Contact" he said.
"Hello, Romana. It's been a long time."
"You sound different. Which body are you on?"
"You were always very wasteful."
"You are still on your second? You sound the same."
"It suits me."
" I take it you are still stuck in E-Space. There are all kinds of rumours I have heard about you. The most persistent is that you had become Time Lord President."
"You shouldn't believe everything you hear about me, Doctor. Time Lord President Ha! I'm still here, where you left me."
"Are you safe? Are you happy? I've often thought about you."
"I have work to do here. I am a Seer, of sorts. Travelling from place to place. Ministering to the sick of mind."
"You're a doctor?"
"Sort of. There is much work for me here. It has increased recently. People are having the strangest dreams..."
"Hmm. I might be able to shed some light on that. E-Space was subject to a class A temporal event. There was bound to be some residual effects."
"A full Time-Mutation! That would explain it. How do you know?"
"I assisted with the restoration. In part I was helped by my companion Kim and the Lady Battonica."
"Which explains a lot. Doctor, we have very little time. This end of the transfer is linked to an astronomical conjunction. There are only a few minutes or so left, according to K9."
"K9...what a faithful dog!"
"But the conjunction is only part of it. There must be some kind of causal effect at your end that triggered the transfer."
"It's not obvious to me."
"Think, Doctor. What were you doing when Kim and Battonica switched?"
"Well, I had just fixed the dimensional stabiliser..."
"That must be it!"
"I'll try and recreate it. It's good to hear your voice again, Romana."
"Doctor, before you go...I need to warn you. K9 ran a scan on Kim. Her DNA shows an anomaly...Doctor...Doctor? Can you hear me? There's something about Kim..."
The Doctor had abandoned the mindlink and hurried over to the control torus, tearing open an access cover and pulling out a tangle of filament cables.
He scanned his memory urgently, for an eidetic picture of the cables as they were when he operated the dimensional stabiliser.
Frustratingly, the image proved elusive, just out of reach. He tried changing some of the connections but tutted. It wasn't quite there, not exactly.
Stroking his chin anxiously the doctor noticed that the image on his T-shirt began to flow. Kim had often referred to his garment of unstable molecules as 'bonkers' and she was probably right. This time, though, it came through as the image formed of a tangle of Tardis filaments and circuitry in a familiar pattern.
"Eureka!" exclaimed the Doctor. He looked down at his shirt and adjusted a few more connections until the reality of the tangled mass in his hands matched the diagram on his chest.
Satisfied at last the Doctor threw the switch, operating the dimensional stabiliser.
"No problem, plenty of time to spare..." he muttered.
For once the Doctor's instincts had deceived him. He threw the switch with barely ten seconds left...
Romana staggered away from Kim as if he had been punched. The mindlink had gone and her eyes snapped open.
"Conjunction is over, mistress." reported K9.
On her bed the Lady Battonica de Regis stretched and yawned.
Romana's mouth twitched. The Doctor had come through. If only he would sometimes do so before the nick of time!
"Quickly, K9. Into the capsule!"
Obediently the robot dog trundled over to the casket. Romana hurriedly closed it around him and tapped in a sequence on its studded surface to seal the container.
Romana crossed back to the bed, where Battonica stared up blearily at her.
"Who are you, please?"
"Don't be alarmed. You have been...ill for a while. Your father sent for me to help you. How do you feel?"
The girl shook her head, as if trying to dislodge cobwebs. "There was this dream. I...I can't remember it, though."
"That's a good sign," said Romana. "Anything else."
"I'm terribly hungry."
"We can soon fix that." Romana crossed to the big bedroom door and retracted the bolt. Out on the landing the two ladies-in-waiting sprang up from their chairs.
"Your mistress is recovered and requires nourishment. Would you please fetch a little food and water and fetch Baron Manfred."
The ladies in waiting hurried away, chattering excitedly.
Baron Manfred strode into the bedroom some minutes later to find his daughter sitting up in bed, nibbling on some bread and drinking crystal water. He brushed through the fussing attendants around the bed and held his daughter like a drowning man. They remained like this for a very long time before the Baron drew away, marvelling at the miracle on the bed.
He looked around the chamber and frowned. "Where is the Seer?" he demanded.
But she had gone.
Morning was breaking.
Romana paused on her trek up the verdant hill to look down on the Lake of the Five Moons below.
There was a movement from behind a thicket of bushes and the leonine Tharil named Lazlo stepped onto the track.
"A success, milady?"
Romana smiled. "The girl is healed, Lazlo. And there were unexpected...benefits. For me, personally."
Lazlo cocked his head to one side, awaiting further explanation but none was forthcoming.
"What next, my old friend?" asked Romana.
"There is a group of distressed children on the world of Axitorre. They see visions. An exploding light in the sky that changes everything. Monsters...screaming..."
Romana moved to his side, pulling K9's casket behind her.
"Then there's no time to lose."
Lazlo sniffed the air, throwing back his head to catch the time winds.
Moments later, the track was empty.
Kim Gideon looked down at the bacon and egg sandwich on the floor. What a waste!
"Welcome back, Kim." said the Doctor.
"What do you mean? I've just come out of the shower. And it seems I've dropped my sandwich. Can I go and get another? I'm starving!"
The Doctor waved a dismissive hand. His companion scooped up the remains of her sandwich from the floor and hurried off towards the food machine.
The Doctor sighed, thinking about Romana and the mental block she must have put in Kim's mind.
He failed to notice the scanner flicker and an echo of Romana's warning fade briefly into view before disappearing:
'There's something about Kim...'
So there's something about Kim, eh? All will be revealed in my forthcoming 15-part story 'Tontine.' Watch this space!