Disclaimer: Don't own Doctor Who - and nor do I own any of the influences on this chapter (well, on this fic as a whole).
Thanks to Brownbug, MayFairy, Son of Whitebeard and Theta'sWorstNightmare for your reviews on the last chapter. Particularly a massive thanks to Brownbug for helping me tidy up the last chapter and make it...er...make some semblance of sense, and for beta-reading this one - you're awesome! :D
O.K., it's been a while (sorry 'bout that!), and this fic does depend at times on little details following through - so I really do strongly recommend that you read the whole thing from the beginning before reading this, the last, chapter. I'd hate for it to be totally incomprehensible just 'cause it's been, like, months since I started. :/
The railway tunnel at the bottom of the stairs stretched on for far longer than it should have. Romana had to dodge bricks and blocks of concrete as she ran – the structure was collapsing around her, crumbling into dust, strangely reminiscent of the insidious creeping of entropy. Even when she reached the end of the tunnel and stumbled out into the light, it continued; grey bricks fell around her from walls that seemed to only exist at the periphery of her vision. Among the rubble littering the ground, she caught sight of scraps of paper fluttering in the dust-clogged air, torn photographs that flashed by as she ran on. There were moments when she almost thought she was racing through the deserted streets of a ghost town carved out of cream-coloured rock, ducking as slabs slipped down from overhead to block regularly-spaced oval doors hewn in the rock face – and then the next moment, it was gone, and she was picking her way through the slate-grey bricks again.
Suddenly, her foot caught on a protruding wedge of concrete and brick and she fell forwards, grazing her palms painfully on the rough shale. On her hands and knees, head bowed, she took several minutes to recover her breath. A numbing exhaustion was beginning to set in, both mentally and physically, and she had yet to see even a hint of an escape from the Matrix.
How could she go on, she wondered despondently. It was hopeless – she couldn't possibly run from the Valeyard, but nor could she fight him forever. Even if she were facing a normal, living Time Lord; even if she herself were operating without the constraints of artron energy, life force and a fixed timeline…even then, there had just been something so gut-wrenching about seeing him kneeling there in the ruins of that room, clutching the skeleton. She still couldn't help but recognize him as the Doctor, and that last glance back had left her feeling as though she had struck down an old friend, even though she reminded herself time and again that the Valeyard was probably nothing more than an aberrant manifestation, a mistake.
She was in the Matrix, a mental labyrinth, a virtual reality that could worm its way into the thoughts of even the most experienced minds and strongest wills. She had to hold on to herself at all costs, and what would she be if she dropped to his level of soulless callousness?
Inwardly, she cursed herself for having gotten herself into this mess in the first place. Foolishly, she had walked straight through the Seventh Door and physically entered the Matrix completely unprepared, running after the Valeyard without thinking. All because she had mistaken him for the Doctor and trusted him like she trusted no-one else, even when he so often led her and any number of his companions into danger. A completely impulsive, emotional response…wasn't she supposed to be past that now? Wasn't she supposed to be High President of the Time Lords, the reasoned, rational leader that Gallifreyan society needed, particularly in such a delicate political climate? It was the Doctor all over, of course – it didn't come as any surprise to her that the Valeyard had run for the security of the Matrix after his cover was blown – but Romana…
Romana had simply been following the instincts she had picked up from her time with the Doctor. If she hadn't, it would have been proof that she had learned nothing from the older Time Lord. And if she couldn't trust the Doctor, who could she trust? No, there was no helping it now – the mistake had been made, and now she had to deal with the situation as it came.
Raising her head, she was only mildly surprised this time to see that the landscape had changed yet again. Rubble and bricks still surrounded her where she knelt, but the ground underneath was tarmac – a deserted road or public driveway of some sort. Along either side, neglected lawns, overgrown and choked with weeds and woody thistles, stretched away from the road before fading into the thick fog that still cloaked the horizons. The road itself was in just as dilapidated a condition, pockmarked with potholes and veined with cracks, tufts of dead grass forcing their way through here and there.
Romana warily climbed to her feet and began to walk. At the edges of the road, two low brick walls loomed out of the mist, and she thought at first that she was heading down another alleyway, but these walls were lower, and as she drew closer, she saw that the road ran between two rows of small, semi-detached garages. Behind one row, the spreading branches of a dry, dead tree stretched into the sky, dark and jagged against the featureless, grey sky. At the corner was a broken streetlamp, its bulb hanging by the wires and swinging slightly in the still air; as she passed, Romana found herself thinking of an eyeball hanging loose from its socket, and shook herself to banish the gruesome image from her mind. She had to get out of this place.
The garages, seemingly like the rest of the place, were in ruins, their once-neat blue and white metal doors dented and eaten away by rust, several hanging by one edge or collapsed entirely where the brick walls had crumbled. At the end, the road narrowed to encircle a much larger building, several storeys high, which became clearer as she approached. It too was derelict, the whitewash patched and peeling, dry twigs of dead ivy clinging to one edge. Windows were boarded up with cracked, split planks; broken glass glittered on the ground around her feet as she turned to the right and skirted the building, coming out into a small carpark surrounded by more rundown lawns and the rotten stumps of dead trees. Although she didn't recognize the place itself, she had visited Earth enough times with the Doctor and taken enough of an interest in the planet's societies to realize that she was facing what was once a block of council flats.
With the thick mist still shrouding everything in sight, there was no longer an obvious path to take – until, as though in invitation, one of the white-barred doors creaked open just a few inches, before its rusting hinges gave way and it collapsed inwards with a resounding crash that shattered both the glass and the heavy silence. The glass wall on this side of the building was mostly intact, but filthy, virtually opaque with grime and lichen; if any light at all was penetrating into the stairwell, it wasn't enough to illuminate whatever lay immediately through the door.
Uninviting as the gloomy entranceway looked, she saw little point in wandering around outside any longer. If the Valeyard was intentionally directing her somewhere, she would most likely end up there no matter where she walked; if not, this was probably where she should go, she thought, remembering the alcove in the railway tunnel. Nonetheless, she paused before stepping up the single stair and cautiously passing through the doorway.
Inside, she had been expecting to find herself in some sort of foyer, or perhaps at the bottom of the stairwell. Instead, plunging straight ahead into the heart of the building was a long, straight corridor with wooden-panelled walls and a low ceiling. Feeling no crunch of broken glass when she set her foot down, she glanced down to see that the broken door had apparently vanished and she stood on dull, unpolished, wooden floorboards. The shadows were almost impenetrable – she could barely see further than a few metres ahead, the blackness was so complete – and the first few hesitant steps she took forwards were like walking into a curtain. Then, some way ahead, a yellow glimmer winked into view – a tiny candle in a brass bracket on the wall, sputtering into life and creating a pool of soft light. Despite the cold in the damp air, Romana felt a touch of warmth in her hearts, and with every sense on edge, she set off down the corridor.
The candlelight seemed to remain the same distance ahead as she walked, a little guiding light glowing like a firefly, leading her further and further into the building. It wasn't long before she could no longer see the door she had entered through when she turned around, although that was probably very little to do with how far she had come. There were doors set into the wooden-panelled walls, but after seeing several slam as she neared them and trying a few handles to find them locked, she got the idea. Focusing on the twinkling amber light ahead, the only hope she had that the Doctor would never shut her out entirely, she forced her heavy feet to continue, trudging wearily through the dreary gloom.
At last, the walls angled outwards to form a square-shaped widening in the corridor, a cul-de-sac of a room with several more nondescript closed doors. In the centre was a varnished, wooden desk and an empty chair, and approaching the desk, she saw that a scruffy, leather-bound book lay open there, with a white quill pen on the left-hand side beside it. The yellowing pages appeared covered in writing; curiosity piqued, she bent over the desk for a closer look. It was the Doctor's handwriting, of that she had no doubt – she would recognize that untidy, looping script anywhere – but there were two shades evident on the pages. The older was navy blue ink, long-dried and beginning to fade – not just writing, but sketches, impressions of vague images and faces, some showing creatures that she recognized – Cybermen and Daleks appeared, along with the TARDIS, all surrounded by brief annotations.
"It's my home, I know it well…"
"I have been different, it's not like remembering one's youth…"
"She keeps walking away…"
But to her dismay, Romana found that the further she turned back through the fragile pages, the more the second shade of ink began to dominate – the same ebony black that stained the end of the quill, still clear and fresh on the paper. Some of the older notes had been scribbled out entirely, a few with such fervour that the point of the quill had pierced the paper and the ink soaked through; others had been scrawled over the top of without care for the delicate illustrations.
"Everything burned. Everything will burn."
"I do not dream."
"That life was wasted."
Turning one page, she was surprised to find a navy blue drawing of what was unmistakeably K-9 untouched by the black ink – in fact, the notes appeared to have been added to, although several blots and smudges had rendered the newer writing illegible. Another page showed a series of faces in the original ink – all men, mostly dark-haired and many sporting beards or neatly-trimmed goatees – now almost obscured by the only drawing in the new black ink: a slight, black figure, white-haired and seen from behind, one arm extended before him, outline blurred, bent over as though on the point of collapse.
Besides these, though, it appeared that someone had spent a long time attempting in vain to rewrite their own past. No wonder the Valeyard was such an adept with the Matrix, Romana mused, with his propensity for denying realities. A sickening thought occurred to her, and she froze, the page in her hand half-turned: would she appear in this harrowing record? Was she among the Doctor's regrets? Before the page between her fingertips could fall open, she quickly slammed the journal shut, wincing at the sudden noise in the dusty silence. Head bowed, she stared for a moment at her palm flat on the worn leather cover. So this was what she was learning from this new, older Doctor – to turn away, to cover her eyes, to hide from truths that could be painful.
Or, she told herself, she was refusing to allow the Valeyard to manipulate her into thinking like him… Yes, that was it – she could have read further back in the journal; she could have seen her portrait defaced with the savage scratching of that quill a hundred times and been strong enough to put it aside as the bitterness of a corrupted regeneration that shouldn't even exist. She told herself this, and removed her hand from the journal, stepping back from the desk and turning aside to see that one of the doors was ajar, a narrow beam of light knifing across the floorboards at her feet.
The door let out a faint creak when she pushed it, but it swung open easily and she stepped through into a large room, almost a hall of sorts, with a raised dais at the far end, a plain wooden desk placed on a diagonal at the front-right corner of the platform. Like the corridor, the floor was unvarnished floorboards; the walls, though, were whitewashed, patches of creeping mildew visible in the dim light where several of the boarded-over shutters across the windows had broken. Small holes, splinters between some of the more rotten planks – it wouldn't take much more gouging with even just bare fingers to make something of those chinks. The planks were nailed across the windows with the carelessness that came from haste and desperation; Romana had already seen the façade of this building from the outside.
At first, she thought that the room was empty. Moments later, she wondered how she could possibly have thought that – the room was filled with people, all turned away from her, many shouting angrily towards the front of the room at a figure that she couldn't quite make out over the heads of the crowd. And then, just as suddenly, it wasn't, and she was alone with just the figure on the platform. The Valeyard stood behind the desk, leaning on its surface with one hand and gesturing with the other – he was speaking to the other side of the hall, Romana's left, and she saw that a number of dark shapes appeared to be propped up against the wall, slumped lifelessly in the shadows. His voice was somehow muted, words indiscernible, as though he were speaking in another room and Romana was hearing his voice through several walls, although she could sense the passion in his speech, which continued without faltering as though he hadn't even noticed her entry.
She took a few steps forward, towards the unmoving shapes that he addressed. Again, that impression of a crowd – faceless, she saw now, except for their eyes which blazed with malice – and again, it was gone, and the Valeyard's voice rose and fell with something more like agitation.
Now, she could see who – or what – he was addressing, and a shudder ran through her. Ragdoll figures – perhaps a dozen of them – lifesized and dressed in an array of bizarre garments; one in striped trousers, a boater hat and a cream-coloured jacket with something green pinned to the lapel; one in a tan trenchcoat over a blue suit; one in checkered trousers and a shaggy brown overcoat; one wrapped roughly in a striped scarf that was painfully familiar to her. Their cloth faces were sloppily drawn on in blotted black ink, but the expressions were unmistakeable – pain, terror, grief…
"…the evidence before the court is incontrovertible…" she heard, and turned back towards the Valeyard, trying not to flinch at the fleeting presence of that phantom crowd and their accusing eyes – eyes fixed not on the grotesque mannequins against the wall, but on the tall, gesticulating figure who stood on the platform.
Moving towards him again, she could see that something was wrong – his own image was flickering, just at the edge of awareness. For fractions of moments, his thin, robed form was not entirely…solid. Unstable. Not quite all there.
"He's losing control…" she realized aloud, and feeling her resolve return in a rush, she stepped back. "I deny this reality," she called.
Something shimmered – a tremor in the air, almost like a heat haze. The Valeyard continued his biting monologue unabated.
"I deny this reality!"
A crack streaked across the skin of the illusion, and Romana thought for a moment that she could almost hear the crunch of splintering glass as her will found its mark.
"I deny this reality!"
More cracks, spiderwebbing outwards, covering the fragile scene in all dimensions with jagged, zig-zagging forks – to Romana, not so much like standing behind a window as standing in the window itself. Hearts surging, she drew a deep breath, lifted her head and raised her voice to a shout, each punctuated word like a hammer striking blow after blow to the illusion.
"I. DENY. THIS. REALITY!"
And with a smashing that was seen-heard-felt across all imaginable senses, the dreamscape shattered. The room, the row of contorted effigies, the spectral crowd – all crumbled around her, fragments raining down like shards of crystal – twisting, tumbling, glittering with flashes of broken thought. Last of all, the Valeyard himself, dissolving away from the hem of his robes upwards, his voice never missing a beat even as his body melted into nothing. Just for an instant, Romana could have sworn his head had turned, almost thought she had caught the gleam of his pale eyes meeting hers – before the mental universe collapsed…
…and she awoke with a start, drawing in a sharp breath and taking a moment to orientate herself. Head resting on her folded arms, she was slumped over a desk or a table of some sort, cold marble numbing her cheek as her senses slowly returned. She dragged her leaden eyelids open with some effort, and allowed her vision to slowly resolve into angular, obsidian and glass walls and panels of intricate technology, all dimly illuminated in a sickly, greenish light.
When a firm hand closed around her shoulder, her hearts skipped a beat, and she gasped and sat bolt upright.
"We are here, Romana," came a gentle voice, and her head snapped around to meet the concerned eyes of Leela, and then to her other side, where she realized that the strong grip belonged to Braxiatel.
"Wh-what…" She swallowed – her throat felt strangely dry, as though the dust that had seemingly coated everything in the false landscape of the Matrix still clung to her. "The…the Valeyard – what happened to-"
"You're with us now, Romana." Braxiatel raised his head, his coal-black gaze meeting Leela's sparkling blue one over Romana's head and then lowering back to Romana. "Come with us."
A tide of relief washed over Romana at the sight of her two friends, and she allowed herself a great, shuddering sigh. She felt utterly drained, and wanted nothing more than to allow her aching head to drop back to her arms where she could give in to her bone-deep exhaustion and sleep where she sat – but Braxiatel's hands had moved to her upper arm, and Leela had taken her other arm. Reluctantly, she pushed herself to her feet, half-pulled upright by Leela and Braxiatel who immediately moved close to offer much-needed support.
"Yes – come with us, Romana," Leela agreed, and with one on each arm, gripping with both hands, the two began to lead her away from the desk.
It was over. The near-impossible struggle, nothing more than a memory now, was over, and she had survived – she no longer had to fight. Leaning heavily on them, Romana allowed herself to be steered across the Matrix control room towards the bright light she could see growing ahead of her through half-lidded eyes.
As they passed, Braxiatel's booted foot came down hard on a sepia-toned piece of paper that lay on the obsidian floor, and then lifted again to reveal a face. The mouth was open, shouting soundlessly, and the blue eyes were wide with horror, watching helplessly as Romana's back vanished into the white glow and welcoming fingers of time energy mist that spilled through the rectangular fissure in the wall.
And...that's that! First uploaded multi-chapter fic with the Valeyard, and you may have guessed (or I may have told a few of you) that it was a carefully disguised character-study. Anyway, since it's a bit...different...or abstract, or just vague, or whatever you want to call it...I would really, really appreciate a review on this one if you've read this far - I want to know whether it all made sense, what worked and what didn't, what you got out of it. Feedback, that's what I'm after. Although even just little comments to let me know you've read it make me feel loved! ^_^
Thanks so much for reading and sticking with me! May you never end up on the wrong end of a harmonic disseminator! :D