It didn't take River long to find the TARDIS nestled between the trees on the fog-shrouded hill overlooking the Roman camp. The door was unlocked and pushed open easily, to her relief.
At least she knows what's good for her, she mused, running her hands across the controls. To her consternation, the takeoff was unsettlingly rough, the passage into the vortex accompanied by a heavy, mechanical clunking.
"All right, it's only me," she soothed the capsule as her fingers danced across the keys of an old- fashioned typewriter that had been wired into the console beneath the screen. Still, the TARDIS was frustratingly unresponsive to her touch, the characters on the screen flickering erratically, temporal coordinates seeming almost to refuse to land where she instructed. The whole room was jolting and lurching, almost as though the TARDIS had been picked up and flung into a violent whirlwind of time. "Come on, you know me, don't you? Don't you?"
The bumpy ride couldn't have been over quickly enough for the increasingly anxious River. On the screen, the view had faded out entirely, replaced by white noise and fractal-like static. Gripping the communicator tightly in one hand, she gave it a solid whack before hurrying for the door.
Unseen at her back, the flickering screen was gradually resolving itself into readable characters:
They remained for several seconds while a high-pitched electronic whistling emitted from the tinny speakers; and then the screen flared brightly, as if a power surge had pulsed through the circuits of the TARDIS, cracking the screen clean in two. As the image faded, the speakers once again burst into life, and a low, demonic voice rasped through the console room.
"Silence will fall…"
Outside, a puzzled River was narrowing her eyes at the scene she had stepped out into. She certainly hadn't made it to the Pandorica, that much was immediately obvious – she had emerged into the clear air of a balmy summer night. Beyond the lush hedges that surrounded the TARDIS, she could see a rusting swing set overgrown with dry grass, a trellis arch covered in ivy, leafy trees that whispered as a gust of wind picked up across the garden. Holding her scanner out before her and removing a torch from her pocket, she began to walk down the concrete path beneath her feet towards a silent, stone house that loomed over her, its dark windows like vacant eye sockets surveying her every movement. The device registered something almost immediately, bleeping to alert River, who swung her torch from side to side. A darkened patch on the lawn caught her eye and she bent to examine it. The grass had been flattened, charred to black in a pattern that repeated itself several feet to one side: a spaceship had landed here, and recently – the signs were unmistakeable. Raising her head, her apprehension only grew – the door to the house had been taken clear off its hinges and rested against the wall in the deserted hallway.
In her hand, the scanner was still indecisive – whatever it was picking up traces of was clearly too faint to identify – but moving from side to side, its faint beeping rose and fell in frequency, and she cautiously stepped over the threshold of the house.
Aside from the door, no sign of damage was visible in the deserted hallway. The whole place was lifeless, but despite the unsettling emptiness and the warm stillness of the air, River couldn't shake the nagging sensation that something knew she was there. Lowering her hand briefly to the reassuring weight of her gun at her hip, she began to creep up the steep staircase, still following the trail of residue being detected by her scanner. It led to a closed door; River hesitated only for a moment before pushing it open and raising her torch high, flicking the beam back and forth with the unmistakeable manner of an archaeologist venturing into a sealed tomb.
The room was a bedroom, as empty as the rest of the house, with an iron-wrought double bed in the centre and a dresser against the opposite wall, which the light from her torch fell on. Drawn inexorably towards it, a sinking feeling descended on her as it occurred to her whose room she was now standing in even before she reached it…and there was the proof. Laid out as though the occupant of the room had been examining them only the day before, tiny figurines were scattered across the surface; the same three caricatures over and over, some in clay with brown and white and red wool for hair, some in cardboard with green and gold sequin eyes. Beside the mirror, a box was filled nearly to the brim with crayon and pencil drawings in the carefree hand of a child – again, that tall, solid, paternal figure with the dark hair and wide grin, hand-in-hand with a tiny girl, and on his other side and apart from the two, a slightly smaller, black-clad shape outlined in jagged blue.
"Oh, Amy…" River murmured, tearing her eyes away with a sick knot settling in her stomach. Behind a cardboard box painted in the distinctive semblance of a blue police box, half-protruding from beneath a thick, dog-eared paperback, she found her attention drawn to what appeared to be a children's picture book and held the torch closer, frowning. Above a stylized, red lipstick print, a gold-embossed name on the black cover of the heavy paperback reflected the light, and River swept it roughly aside to pick up the picture book.
"The Story of Roman Britain," the title read. Peering closer, it occurred to River with confusion and then dawning horror that the Roman commander pictured drawing his sword on the cover looked uncannily familiar – in fact, she could almost hear his voice now.
"A place more deadly and more powerful and more impatient than their tiny minds can imagine."
And beside that, the final piece clicked into place as the torchlight illuminated another children's book: "The Legend of Pandora's Box" – and its illustration of a cube engraved with rings of symbols on its sides.
Heart leaping into her mouth, she dropped the book as though it were poison and hurried from the room and its indelible ghosts.
"Twitchy, aren't we?"
A low, groaning rumble had begun to reverberate through the cavern, momentarily startling both Time Lords, although the Doctor was the first to recover his composure. Face like a mask, the Master rose and headed for the door that led into the main hall. He pushed it open and a sickly light spilled through, lending an unnatural tinge to his pale face.
"You're looking a bit green," the Doctor said. "What's the matter – are the Daleks early?"
"Shut up." Leaving the door open, the Master moved back to the stone table that restrained the Doctor.
"Well, what is it? What's that noise?"
"It's ready," the Master replied shortly. His hands were now fumbling at the strap around one of the Doctor's wrists, and the Doctor couldn't help but notice that the normally dextrous fingers were somewhat clumsy.
"Ah yes, the Pandorica… So, what's coming out, then?" The Master made no reply, but as the wrist strap fell away and he moved onto the one around the Doctor's head, he could no longer keep his eyes averted. "Is it something to do with the cracks?" the Doctor persisted.
"The cracks?" the Master echoed, and the Doctor was surprised to read genuine confusion written on his face.
"Yes, the cracks. Cracks in time – you saw them," the Doctor replied. He could feel a crackling of energy where the burning fingertips brushed his forehead as they undid the restraints. "Something in the future – something big – is going to explode, and every moment in history will crack around it. Watch out, you're making my hair stand on end." The Master shot him a glare, but it was half-hearted and with barely a fraction of the usual intensity.
"Believe it or not, I'm not trying to blow up reality this time." His amber-hazel gaze was listless, and the Doctor thought he was beginning to understand: the Master was beyond caring. As he had been when he attempted to harness the power of the Eye of Harmony so long ago, as he had been when he opened the heart of the TARDIS to steal the Doctor's regenerations before the Time War, he was on the brink of death, teetering on a precipice, so desperate that he no longer even thought of the consequences of his actions. And this time, he was possibly even more dangerous than ever – the Doctor could believe all too easily that he honestly had no idea what greater game they had both become pawns in.
"Please, you have to listen," The Doctor reached up with his free hand to seize the Master's bony wrist, but the other Time Lord shook him off, moving to the straps around the Doctor's ankles. "Whatever's coming out of that Pando-"
"Don't try to escape," the Master growled. "The Autons have been activated – they'll be here any second."
"Yes, Autons. I must say, I didn't think they would fool even you that easily." The Doctor's hearts were racing, but he forced his voice to remain steady. Whatever information he could glean from the Master could be vital, now more than ever.
"The Romans," he guessed. "Plastic Romans. Amy's favourite subject at school – did you tell them that?"
"Better. I showed them where she grew up." The Doctor was sickened to hear the trace of pride in the Master's voice. "Structures hold psychic residues, you know that – that's why houses have ghosts. The Nestene took a snapshot of Amy's memories and constructed a whole scenario – just for you, Doctor. Once they knew enough about you and your companion, they could build the perfect trap."
"Right. You've got me, well done." The Doctor drew a deep breath. "Now what happens to Amy? Tell me, what happens to Amy?"
Amy's fingers had been moving rhythmically over the small, firm object in her hand for some time before she realized that she was caressing the velvety surface of the ring box that was still in her pocket. Slowly, she drew it out, cupping her hands around it and holding it close. Again, her eyes swept over the group of Romans; the feeling that she was searching for something was tugging at her, and she found herself scrutinizing their faces closely as if they could remind her…remind her of what?
"You haven't forgotten, Amy…"
"Yes I have," she whispered, her voice choked with stifling tears. The centurion she had spoken to, Rory, was meeting her eyes again – or was it that she was meeting his?
"Amy, how can you not remember me?"
Her ears were ringing; she shook her head hard, but the sound continued – a high-pitched buzzing whine, not unlike that of the sonic screwdriver, filling the air, growing louder and louder. She glanced around at the Romans and her blood ran cold – they didn't appear to have heard anything – but seconds later, her heart skipped a beat when, as one, they slumped over at the waist like a dozen lifeless puppets. The air stood still; the noise had stopped, and she realized that the whole sky was suddenly as silent as the stone of the Henge – the spaceships, too, had ceased their whirling and spinning and hung like a glowing mobile in the black sky. And then, simultaneously, the Romans straightened, staring ahead with blank, glassy eyes.
A cry caught in Amy's throat. Still clutching the ring box in one hand, she lowered her other hand to the ground, and something passed across the expressionless face of the nearest Roman, Rory. The blue-grey eyes locked onto the ring box and swam into focus, and all at once, he was alive, more than ever, anguish twisting his face.
Without warning, a rending explosion shattered the air, and Amy had to fling up her arms to shield her face, back pressed against a stone pillar. When she lowered them, dust was settling on the grass and she saw that the massive stone slab in the centre of the circle had been reduced to rubble. Glittering forms that she recognized as Cybermen were visible descending into the Earth, and the Romans were following, their movements stiff and perfectly unified – except for one. Rory still faced her, feet planted as though resisting a magnetic pull, eyes fixed on her as though his life depended on it.
"No…" he moaned. "No, I'm not going. I'm Rory, I'm Rory…" He took a lurching step towards her, and she cried out before she could help herself.
"No – get away!" He flinched as though he had been struck and his arm jerked upwards, fingers extended towards her. To her horror, his hand seemed to fall open before her eyes, fingers breaking away and swinging downwards unnaturally as if on some sort of hinge, revealing what was unmistakeably the barrel of a pistol.
"I shouldn't think they need her for anything," the Master shrugged.
"So let her go," the Doctor pleaded as the final strap around his other arm fell away. "You've got me – just let her-"
"Get up," the Master ordered, and the Doctor obeyed, sitting up stiffly on the hard concrete slab and swinging his legs over the side. Footsteps could be heard approaching across the hall, and two Roman centurions appeared at the door, the green glow of the Pandorica shimmering in their artificial eyes.
"The Pandorica is ready," they announced in unison, striding forwards and gripping the Doctor's arms, one on either side to pull him to his feet.
"For what?" Shaking his head, the Doctor attempted to struggle free, but the grip of the plastic fingers was unyielding. "What's in there – are you going to give me to it? Is this what it takes to kill me?" Leading the way as the Autons dragged the Doctor towards the door, the Master turned his head to smile coldly.
"You're right on one count, you know – we are giving you to it."
"We are giving you to the Pandorica," came a harsh, metallic voice. As the Doctor emerged into the hall, his knees nearly gave way at the sight that met him. There was the Dalek that had spoken – the white Supreme Dalek that had escaped with its ship in 1941. Behind it stood several rows of Cybermen, their hollow eyes facing him as one spoke.
"Your limits and capacities have been extrapolated."
"There will be no escape." A barking, military voice – a Sontaran commander, stood with his troops opposite the Dalek and Cybermen. At the words, the Master laughed mirthlessly.
"Yes – such a pity you won't be able to tell me how it feels."
River was barely thinking about a destination as she frantically pulled levers all around the TARDIS console – all she knew was that she had to get away from that place as fast as she could, had to get to the Doctor and warn him. As it began to dematerialize, the entire capsule rocked violently, throwing her to the ground. Sparks flew from the control panel, the lights flared, bulbs on the panel blew out in a shower of glass splinters…and over the agonized grinding of the time rotor, an inhuman voice reached her ears.
"Silence will fall. Silence will fall."
She scrambled to her feet and raced for the door; it was locked fast. Wasting no time on futile tugging, she returned to the console and tugged a lead from beneath the control panel to run it to the door. The controls fizzed and blew even as she reached for them. Ignoring the white-hot sparks that stung her skin, she smacked her hands onto every emergency landing control that she could think of, but still the TARDIS continued its erratic shuddering, as though it were being controlled by some outside force that was determined to shake it to pieces.
"Silence will fall…"
Finally, the door sprung open, only to reveal an impenetrable wall of grey stone, and River slammed her hands on it in despair.
"Amy…Amy, you have to run." Rory sounded as if he barely had control over his own tongue, forcing the words out as he advanced on Amy. "I'll kill you – I can't stop it – please, run, Amy!" With her back pressed against the cold stone, Amy could only shake her head, mouth dry with fear as the centurion and the barrel of his pistol grew closer.
"You…you can't," she croaked.
"I can't help it – please, Amy…" he gritted out through clenched teeth. "No, no, no…no, I don't want to…I'm Rory, I'm Rory, I'm Rory…" He was clinging to the words as though they were a lifeline, and the only thread holding him back was about to snap – she could see it failing, see the dazed film creeping back over his imploring eyes – the pistol was inches from her side now, Rory's face so close to hers…and then, like a dying man clutching at a straw, his other hand reached for hers and closed around the ring box, and all of a sudden, they were both hanging precariously from the same lifeline.
"Rory…" she breathed. "My Ror-" Her words were cut off in a cry as an icy sting stabbed her in the side, sending raw pain flooding through her bones like liquid nitrogen. The last thing she was aware of was the arms of the centurion closing around her, catching her as she slumped down and the world spun away to nothing.
The interior of the Pandorica was all too clear now as the Doctor was pulled towards it by the two Autons. A sterile, white light shone off cold steel in the form of a chair – an inescapable throne of bonds and restraints that opened as he drew closer, steel bands parting like welcoming arms, ready to close around him and never release him.
More and more witnesses were arriving now, stepping out of the shadows as though they had been standing there all along or beaming out of thin air with teleport technology of a hundred civilizations. Silurians, Roboforms, Sycorax, forming an aisle down the centre of the hall, a troop of Judoon materializing behind the watching Master.
"But…why?" the Doctor gasped as the Autons forced him down into the chair and the steel bands began to close around him.
"It is confirmed – the cracks in the universe are the work of the Doctor," the Dalek grated out.
"And we will save the universe from you," the Sontaran commander crowed.
"What?" The Doctor tried to shake his head, but a steel vice had lowered and he could barely move enough to turn a pleading glance on the Master. "No, not me – the TARDIS. The TARDIS is exploding at every moment in history." Try as he might, he couldn't catch the Master's eye, but the other Time Lord was beginning to look uneasy.
"The Doctor is the only one who can pilot the TARDIS," said a Cyberman. "You will be prevented."
"No – no, he's not…" The Master's eyes had widened at the words, darting between the aliens who watched the Pandorica gleefully as its impenetrable walls began to slide shut.
"Seal the Pandorica," the Dalek instructed.
"Please – it's happening right now, and I'm the only one who can stop it. The whole universe will never have existed…" The Doctor's words fell on deaf ears as the beam of light from the inside of the Pandorica grew narrower, but realization was descending like Arctic water on one member of the unholy, impossible alliance.
"Stop – you've got it wrong!" The Master took a step towards the Pandorica, his voice rising to a hoarse shout.
"Silence!" the Dalek screeched.
"But you're all wrong – don't you see, you can't- ah!" Overtaking him in one easy step and throwing out a single meaty arm, one of the Judoon struck him across the chest, flinging him back against a rocky outcrop.
The last glimmer of light from the Pandorica vanished behind the sealing edges of the grey cube.
A lone centurion screamed into the sky, cradling the limp body of a young woman.
Somewhere and everywhere, the golden heart of the TARDIS became a blazing cataclysm of energy and fire and time.
And silence fell.
And there it is - another installment in this AU ticked off. Not many plot deviations in this one, but lots of little hints right through it and "The Lodger" to say what the big twist is going to be in "The Big Bang" - 'cause YES, I am doing that one too! :D (No promises when, I'm afraid, but I will do it - watch this space!)
Love reviews, of course.
Remember, if you want to follow this AU and its subsequent installments, add me to your Alerts, not this fic - each episode is a separate fic, and this one's done and dusted.
Anyone want an ambiguous teaser line for "The Big Bang"? ;)