Heaven grants even to the guiltiest mind
An amnesty for what is past;
When will my sentence be reversed?
I only pray to know the worst;
And wish as if my heart would burst.
From The Forsaken, by William Wordsworth
The ship was burning.
He awoke to panic. Around him, the Tardis-his beautiful, beautiful ship!-screamed and shuddered in agony, her hull ablaze, the last of her emergency defences failing. Stripped of her shields and rendered powerless, she could not dematerialise. Instead, dimensionally trapped, she was succumbing moment by moment to the zed neutrino heart of the Dalek Crucible. Within minutes the boiling inferno would penetrate the hull and she would be consumed. The last Type 40 Tardis in all the universe, gone. The air was thick with the scent of smouldering electrical circuitry and the glow of huon energy mingling with sweat and fear. Fire raged without and within; his body, a mirror of the ship's distress, was likewise on fire, every nerve and fibre alerting him to impending doom… and Donna, terrified, looking at him, staring at him.
Honestly, what did she expect? He'd just been born! Just been… he opened his eyes to darkness. Cold. Terrible, bone-chilling cold. And darkness.
He was on his feet in a moment, stumbling sideways into crumbling mortared walls. The impact woke him the rest of the way, sharp stone bruising his body. Naked. He was… What?
A shaft of hazy light fell from a narrow window behind him, high above his head, illuminating his bleak surroundings. The room, spartan as any monk's cell he had seen on a hundred worlds, had clearly seen better days. A cell. Or a prison. He reached for the small window set in an imposing wooden door, grasping at iron bars.
"Donna!" he yelled, the word torn from his parched throat. "Donna!" If they'd hurt her, if they'd done anything to her he'd, he'd…
A face appeared at the window. Humanoid, blue-that narrowed it down-with piercing green eyes and a profile as dignified as a hawk. A vindasi! That meant, in all likelihood, that he was on their home world as, to his knowledge, they had abandoned space exploration shortly after colonizing a habitable moon. Those on Vindasi Prime had subsequently eschewed all forms of flight. Unless one counted the Ritual of Flight, when, every 7.3 years, a few brave souls donned ceremonial wings and stepped off the Edge of the World. Last time he had been here measures were being taken to outlaw the practice. None ever returned—and it was such a waste of good feathers.
Wait. When had he been here?
The vindasi-a male if his nose wasn't mistaken-looked him in the eye, then away.
"I told you he weren't dead, didn't I?" the fellow said good-naturally to someone else he could not see. "No, I haven't asked him yet—just woke up, didn't you, love? No one expected that. Thought we'd need a sack to haul you out."
"Where's Donna," he grated, relatively sure he had an acceptable dialect. There were six that he knew of, and one that was only used for intimacy. This was not that sort. "Where is she? I swear if you've harmed her in any way I'll—"
"Yeah, he's asking for Donna again. So, my love, who's Donna, then? Your mistress?"
That brought him up short. He blinked, then furrowed his brow in anger.
"I'm warning you—"
"Oh, go right ahead there. Seein' as you're on that side o' the grate and I'm on this'un. You warn me all you want."
"Tell me where she is!"
"Can't, love. Don't know who Donna is. Wish I did. Life's mighty dull around here. Can she make a good stew? I'd kill for a good stew."
"But she was here; we were together… in the ship… I remember…" he gripped the bars tighter, pressing his face against cold iron. "Where is she?!"
"Here's the thing, love, you're alone in there. Been alone since you was dragged in spittin' fire and cussin' in one of the Old Tongues. What a mouth you have! How many days is it?" the vindasi guard asked the mysterious someone else that could not be seen. "Lost track we have. You been alone but for your Advocate what comes around every few days. Brought in a healer the first night she did, and the holyjo the night when the healer thought you was dyin'. Don't suppose the rites will square you away with the Heavenlies under the circumstances, but it's the thought that counts, don't it? Aside from them it's just been us on guard, and there weren't no Donna. More's the pity—really would like a good stew-, but there you go."
"That's impossible! We were together," he insisted again, sure it was true.
In the ship. In the burning ship. In the… but it was so distant now, the sounds, the scents, the heat of battle, her face looking at him as all around them the ship was exploding, sinking into a core of zed neutrino energy. You're naked. All he could smell now was stale urine and stale food and his own body. And it was all wrong. He did not belong here, and he did not smell like that, and his chest… should not feel like that.
He pushed himself away from the bars, pressing the palm of his right hand against his chest. Beneath his fingers beat a single heart where he was certain there should be two. He flung himself back against the immovable door, clawing at the latch.
"What have you done to me!" he cried.
"We ain't done nothing to you, love. I told you. You been lying half dead in there, barely eating, pissing yourself, moaning on about the Meadow Casket and Darr-leks and Donna. But you weren't found in no meadow-even if you were found in a casket- there ain't no ruddy Darr-leks here and there ain't no blessed Donna."
"Sorry, love. Now, here's what we're needin' to know," the guard said, leaning closer to the grated window.
He leaned closer himself, hoping for a glimpse of someone or something that would tell him where on the vindasi's home world he was and what was going on.
"Who are you?"
"I—" he swallowed the word.
The guard waited, his large grey-green eyes full of a humour that defied interpretation.
"Well, I'm... I'm called... I'm... I don't know," he said at last.
His hands fell away from the bars and he stepped back, his heel pressing into something that had been left for him to eat and now looked like it had been half-eaten by something else. He looked back at the small, round window, and the expectant alien face. How could he not know who he was? He looked around the gloomy cell, cold again, confused, sweeping the room again and again with his gaze, searching for some clue. A small bed carved of pale, worm-eaten wood stood along one wall, tattered drapes and a loom-woven blanket hanging awkwardly around it. To one side rested an empty basin; below that, a pile of dirty clothing he assumed must be his. Maybe something in a pocket? Not that he imagined they would have left a prisoner with anything of value. High above, the window slot let in the last sliver of daylight. He swallowed deeply.
"Just tell me where Donna is."
"No Donna, love. No Donna here."
"Tell me where she is!" he roared, throwing himself against solid wood this time, feeling the jarring ache from hip to shoulder. "Tell me…"
But the blue vindasi had left, the sound of footfalls echoing down an unseen corridor. He seemed to be conferring with someone else. The other one, the one he couldn't see, was still there. Sniggering.
He slid down the rough door, settling against the uneven stone floor and closed his eyes. Two things were abundantly clear. A dozen others were vague notions, but two, two things, two thoughts, two bright, cold facts were crystal clear. He did not know who he was, but if he found Donna… she would.