Chapter Five – You Didn't Think It Was Going To Be This Easy, Did You?

Charley didn't know what had happened. One minute, she was powering up to hurl a magical attack at Kamelion (again), and the next, she was flying through the air and landing in the middle of a ... barn dance ...with a headache that would drop an elephant.

The crowd of party-goers were the strangest she had seen, but not nearly as strange as the barn itself. First off, it was impossibly huge. Trees just didn't grow big enough to make planks that long or wide. But there was more to the strangeness than that. The planks looked like wood, and were textured like wood – they even smelled like wood. But when she touched them, she could feel the energy pulsing through them...

This "barn" was a machine – and a very powerful one at that.

Just about the time she came to that realization, her magic anime girl sense kicked in: There was evil here. And somehow, the idea lodged in her head that the evil was the cause of her headache. So she hunted for it. With a vengeance.

It didn't take her Too long to find the little blue monkey pointing a ridiculously large gun at even more ridiculously clad partygoers. Understand? No. She didn't have the foggiest idea what was going on. But she knew which side of the standoff represented Evil.

She powered up.

'Magical Repulsion Wave!'

Le singe bleu, Ingo was knocked flat on his face with a force strong enough to cause a black eye – or two, losing his grip on the ridiculously large gun, which skittered across the floor and out of his reach.

Ingo groaned and muttered curses in a pidgin of French and Monkey.

"Damn!" said Charley.

"Wh-what?" inquired Ruthie, which may or may not have been: 'what just happened?' that didn't get to the end.

"My head still hurts."


"I think that would count..." Imran observed.

Charley turned to him.

Her eyes narrowed.

"I know you..."

"...Look, this isn't the time for contract renegotiation, okay?" Imran said. "Right now, we've got some intensely mindless evil waiting for us outside."

"That sounded... oddly singular for a ravening horde of Spamites." Allie observed. "And very loud, to boot."

"Right..." Danel said, picking Ingo up. "You're coming with me."

Together, the little band set off in the direction of the monster's unholy cry.

Which was completely senseless, but that never stopped anyone.

"This way!"

Arthur, Lancelot, Guenevere and Nimue burst into the wardrobe behind Merlin, who shouted, "There it is, the goose-stepping primary-colored primate!" and pointed at – a few puddles of red dye on the floor.

The "Quest" didn't last long. Sweetheart/Baby rose into the air with a single flap of her wings, while the others followed along behind, looking like some Disney World theme parade gone awry. At first, Eloise was worried that they wouldn't be able to keep up. But she needn't have – with each successive flap, the landscape shrunk around them (or did the center of this fictiverse grow larger?). For a moment, Eloise was confused. And then she realized: They were now being led by Sweetheart's own mind. And a TARDIS has a very different perception of the-space-between-things than non-transdimensional beings.

In less than a minute, the travellers found themselves inside the crystal castle, reunited with the nine Doctors and the mysterious and sinister SKoLD (to say that Baby was not happy to be near the thing would be a gross understatement).

"I say!" said the first Doctor, as they all appeared (more or less) in the room, "How did you get here?"

"Um," Eloise said, while trying to calm an increasingly agitated baby dragon, "I think we were here all along."

"Yes. Yes, I suppose you were."

"The important thing," Eloise said, "is: Are you making any progress?"

"Does it seem that way to you?" Sixth snapped.


[Magnus looked at the SKoLD with interest. Fishing his bags he produced a rather peculiar looking object and started to take readings.]

Magnus: "If these readings are accurate, I can suggest a course of action. We get either that or ourselves out of this TARDIS and then put as much space between us and that as possible. It's one of the gadgets the Nine and Ninety built {See Gates of Dawn for who those are} and as such will have much more capability than producing pieces of people's subconscious. The last one of their gadgets I came across was a planet smasher which doubled as a microwave."

Doctor: "We already knew it was transdimensional."

Magnus: "Not that. Trans-realities, including several we do not exist in. At the moment it seems to be absorbing energy from it's surroundings. When it is fully charged we will find out what it is really for."

[Rummaging in the bags again he produced another gadget and placed it on the SKoLD, a glimmering field formed round it.]

Magnus: "That might slow things down and keep it quiet. But don't stake your lives on it."

Danik of Ruritania, smiling slightly, strolled into the Writers' Room in his customary manner – namely, as if he owned the place – and took a brief glance round. At first sight, the place wasn't so very different from the castellan's chamber up in the gate-tower at Bad Hortig; barrel-vaulted walls...

(inside a barn which was inside a clapboard cabin, he reminded himself drily, raising the other eyebrow this time just for variety's sake)

..a stack of freshly-cut quills and a couple of scratchy steel nibs beside a inkwell whose muddy depths betokened frequent use, and piles of scribbled and crumpled paper strewn around several well-notched desks.

That, however, was where the resemblance stopped.

The large pink booth nestling in the far corner of the room bore a prominent logo stencilled onto the door panel: "Vocophone Inc. established 2064".

The selection of writing implements laid out beside the touch-sensitive panel in the nest-like form of the ergonomic multidesk immediately to its left included a Metriphal thumb-stylus, an Earth-Reptile globe writer with integral skull harness for direct recording via the third eye, several laser probes with varying dates of manufacture, and what looked like a genuine 31st Century spinal nerve implant.

Danik flicked the latter vindictively with his thumb-nail, remembering the bazaar at Phoebris, and winced.

He found Cameron and his Muse reclining in the midst of a pile of well-plumped cushions in the corner behind the multidesk. That was, Cameron was reclining, curled up with his eyes shut and that studious look on his face rehearsed by all those whose eyes are closed "because I'm concentrating, OK?"

As the unexpected visitor bent over him, the ghost of a snore wafted upwards.

Cassie drifted gently beside her author with a tiny frown of concentration between her brows, her long hair stirring dreamily as if floating in deep water. The filigree net of the Thought Recorder glistened here and there among her tresses, and in Cameron's sleeping hand the lights on the receiver blinked steadily, almost brushed by the arch of one slender foot.

Danik watched the Muse at work for a moment, his mobile features touched briefly with something almost akin to regret. Then he reached over and softly disengaged the Thought Recorder from her face, with a nod to Osman.

"Ow!" Cameron shoots upright in response to the painful tugging on his scalp. The parrot's wings flap frantically as he strives to keep his footing on the young man's head, claws digging in harder, and Cameron yelps again.

"Oi! Get off – someone get this wretched bird off my head – who let it in here – ?"

His voice dies away in total disbelief as he catches sight of Cassie. Who has been swept off her feet, literally (admittedly not terribly hard when dealing with someone whose feet were never touching the ground in the first place...)

His Dreaming Muse is locked in the arms of a total stranger, being thoroughly kissed with considerable aptitude and apparent enjoyment.

After about half a minute Danik finally comes up for breath, smiling down at the sleeping face below him. Cassie's eyelids stir, but don't – quite – open. There is a tiny answering smile on her lips and one arm has crept around his neck.

Apparently satisfied, he then bends down, gathers her into his arms, and carries her off through the door without a backwards glance at her flabbergasted author.

There is a sharp tug on Cameron's hair. "Komm!" the parrot commands hoarsely, seizing a thick strand in its beak and yanking. It launches itself towards the door, forcing an indignant Cameron to stumble in its wake. He catches a brief glimpse of disappearing Muse through the doorway and lurches after her fair-haired abductor, handicapped by the flapping wings.

The door to the lounge room was ajar, but there was no sign of Eloise – or of the Doctor. Danik settled Cassie's slight weight more firmly in his arms, leaned round the edge of the door, and raised an eyebrow at the scene within. Even by TARDIS standards, this was... unexpected.

He frowned slightly. Confronted with this mystery, which way would the avocado troll have gone? When you put it that way, the answer was simple. Glancing back to make sure that his friend had Cameron firmly in tow, he waited until the last possible moment, when the indignant young man was reaching out to grab his shoulder, and stepped neatly through the doorway. Cameron, off-balance, plunged through in turn, stumbled on a tussock, and sprawled backwards.

The door slammed. Seamlessly.

Danik, who had released Cassie the moment they entered the fairytale, stared at the thin air behind him where the exit had been, with a stricken expression. "That was not part of the plan..."


But whatever apologies or explanations were on the top of the Ruritanian's tongue have for the moment dried up, as he catches sight of the transformation the storybook world appears to have wreaked upon his companions. Oddly enough, his own appearance is utterly unchanged, save for the sudden appearance of a slender rapier at his side. Osman, much to his displeasure, appears merely to have metamorphosed from an African Grey to an Amazonian Green.

Cameron and Cassie, on the other hand...

The partygoers were milling around in confusion, unsure as to what the loud voice had been.

Allie had taken advantage of their return to the barn to shift her monkey suit back into something more comfortable.

Ruthie, Danel and Imran, lacking Protean abilities, trudged along behind in their monkey suits.

Ingo had woken up and started chittering and spluttering what were obviously meant to be monkey oaths of vengeance. However, a glare from Charley had put paid to that.

"Okay, what's going on – "

Allie gawped.

"In the Names of the Nine! What the Hades is that thing?!"


The thing filled the cul-de-sac.

A hundred drooling mouths protruded from its skin, chanting the litany of Spam. A hundred tentacular arms writhed from its edges, a hundred clawed feet carried it on its unholy mission.

"Heavy Ordinance coming through!"

Allie span around. "Yokoi!"

Yokoi waved. "Hey, Al. Love the monkey theme. Okay, Fastolf – let him have it!"

The great Terileptil pulled a Rapid-Fire Atomic Assault Bazooka seemingly out of nowhere –

"I really have to ask him how he does that," Charley remarked.

– and launched a burst of atomic bazooka missiles at the SpamThing.

The SpamThing swallowed them all.

And burped.

"Uh-oh..." Yokoi said.

"Methinks the Muse doth hath the right of it. Perhaps were better to answer to the better part of valour, and depart in haste."

"Get inside." Allie said quietly. "This is mine."

"What – ?!" Ruthie said.

"Get inside."

"Do it." Imran said. "She knows what she's doing."

The others retreated to the relative safety of the doorway, while Allie walked to the middle of the car park.

"So far tonight," Allie said calmly, her clear voice carrying throughout the cul-de-sac, "I've been knocked unconscious by Some Kind of Large Device, I've been mortified by my college friends, I've had to go along with some of the stupidest plans I've ever heard, I've been critiqued by all and sundry, I've had a Trickster Priest who likes to dress in drag admire my dress, I've had to get dressed up in a green monkey suit, I've been threatened by a neo-Nazi monkey with the biggest gun I've ever seen, and my family's gone missing, presumed in trouble."

Allie smiled ruefully. "Understandably, I'm starting to feel more than a little put-upon."

She started to float into the air.


"And you are the last straw on the back of a camel already loaded with heaping bags of camel dung."

By now, only a silver speck in the sky remained to show where Allie was.

But her voice still carried as clearly as ever.

"Good night, Gracie."

The silver speck exploded.

It barrelled out of the sky, heading for the tiny cul-de-sac, and the even tinier SpamThing within.

Its shadow fell across the land as far as the eye could see, plunging everything into darkness.

Its great wings beat the air, gusts of wind that could fell a grown man.

Even the SpamThing staggered under the impact, but still, almost absurdly, managed to keep its balance.

A single claw reached out of the sky, and picked the SpamThing up as if it were a particularly obscene model toy.

"HAVE YOU SEEN – " it wailed.

Then there was silence.

Then something very, very large burped.

The wind stopped.

The darkness withdrew.

And Allie floated down slowly from the sky.

She landed as the others ran out to meet her, staggering as she touched down.

"ALLIE, WHAT THE BLOODY HELL WAS THAT?!" Yokoi squawked. "Since when did you know any Summoning spells?!"

Imran helped Allie stand. She managed to smile, a little wanly. "Thanks, Imran. ...That wasn't a Summoning spell, Yok— "

She hiccuped. "Oops. Sorry. Touch of indigestion."

"Indig—" Katherine began. "Indigestion?!"

Horrified fascination dawned in Yokoi's eyes. "Allie, you didn't. You didn't."

Allie nodded. "I did."

"What?!" Danel demanded. "What'd you do?"

"She ate it." Yokoi breathed. "She ate the SpamThing."

"Ate?!" Danel squeaked.

"She's a shapeshifter." Yokoi said, her voice distant. "Protean gift."

Katherine and Danel joined the 'Staring At Allie' Club.

"Oh... My... God..."

"That thing was you?!!?"

"What thing?" asked Arthur as he, Lancelot, Guenevere, Merlin and Nimue ran up.

Allie winced. "Don't ask, and I won't tell."

She hiccuped again.

"...Anyone got any antacid?"

"Here!" Arthur and Merlin both chorused, equally desperate to make any lasting contribution to the proceedings.

Xeffy blinked.

They – all of them – were reflected in the castle's crystal walls, reflected in their surfaces, a cascade of infinite regression.

And in each and every one of them, her reflection was screaming.

Screaming to be heard.

"Err..." Xeffy began, "mind if I sit down for a moment?"

The others nodded, and returned to discussing the SKoLD.

Xeffy slipped into one of the crystal hallways, Ayna following close behind.

#Xeffy?# Ayna queried.

Xeffy nodded. "Something's up. Anya? Anya, what is it?"

From Xeffy's many reflections came a choral voice.

:help... xeffy, help me. shattering... it's all shattering, we're shattering...:

Ayna put her hand to her mouth. #Oh my gods... Oh my gods, Anya...#

:we're shattering together... barriers fallen, walls collapse... the walls between us... look at us, look at us...:

"Oh no... We've gotta get outta here." Xeffy whispered. "And we've gotta get that thing out of – "

#Xeffy?# Ayna hummed meekly. #I think now would be a really, really good time to look down.#

Xeffy looked down.

Her feet were vanishing into the crystal floor – into her reflection.

As she watched, her feet disappeared up to the ankles.

"Ayna," Xeffy said, with unnatural calm, "I think now would be a good time to get some help."

In the time it took her to say that, she'd disappeared up to her knees.

:help...: Anya's choral voice whispered. :absorbing us... it's absorbing us.:

"Can I just say," Xeffy said, in that unnaturally calm voice, "how much I'm enjoying today?"


:walls between us coming down... light and dark will see us joined...:

#Oh my Gods# Ayna breathed.





And then they were gone.

The limbo Xeffy had found herself in wasn't quite a limbo.

;Come on, wake up. Snap out of it and concentrate on me! You can do it.;

^Who's there?^ Xeffy asked.

;It's Morgan le Fey.;

^What? How? What are you doing here?^

;Your transdimensional box ran me over when it got away from you, and ironically put me in just the position where you need me to help you foil its plans. Now listen ...;

^Hold it a minute.^ Xeffy interrupted.

;What?; Morgan said.

^I think... whatever it is you're planning... you'll need to ask Anya too.^

;Hardly.; Morgan said. ;After all, I can only talk to someone already in this limbo.;

^Not Ayna. Anya.^ Xeffy said.

;And who is Anya?;

:i am.:

Morgan's awareness felt the presence manifest. A presence immensely old, immeasurably ancient... and yet reborn. Remade.

:i am anya.: the choral voice said. :xeffy's... guardian daemon? or guardian shadow? no.

:simply her guardian.:

;What are you?; Morgan asked, curiosity for once overriding urgency. ;What are you?;

:i was a part of something... something other, once upon a time. i was left behind, at the centre of all things... left, to see universes rise and fall, alone, abandoned, empty.

:and then xeffy came. she gave me a name, a refuge...:

^And now we're shattering.^ Xeffy said.

:we are becoming one. the domain in which i live, within the walls of xeffy's mind... the walls are crumbling, breaking down. the box... erodes our walls, blurs the line between us, two becoming one... and i do not wish to see what will be born of that union.

:yes, sister of arthur. we need your help. in this, and in the matter of the box. will you help us? can you help us?:

Morgan paused, considering Anya's plea.

;I can but try.; she said.

:then we shall hear you out.:

;Very well. Listen carefully, and hope you remember this...;

"Right." Danel told Ingo. "You are staying with us, where we can keep an eye on you."

"That would be a good idea," Merlin said. "Especially as he's working with Xellos."

Allie, Danel, Imran and Ruthie performed the now-legendary double take.

"Say what?!"

"He's working with Xellos to ensure the blue simian race returns to its rightful place." Merlin explained. "Of course, since that rightful place is within Danel's mind..."

Ingo's jaw fell open as the realisation sank in, and he began to scream and chitter what were doubtless monkey imprecations on 'that purple-haired piece of garbage'.

"It's amazing what you can learn by listening at the right door." Merlin observed. "Oops, shouldn't I have mentioned that?"

"Well, we've got Ingo and Charley back, which is one thing." Ruthie said. "Er... we haven't had any more subconscious creatures pop up, have we?"

"One that I know of." Merlin said. "A young dragon, I believe you'd call it. Miss Allie's sisters – and Lancelot here – were having a food fight with it."

Lancelot sank down in his chair and groaned.

Allie grinned. "That's them, alright."

"That was immediately before Miss Allie's family, our esteemed hostess, Gordon and the young Voord lady, the Gray Steward, and that Magnus fellow decided to enter the fairytale world which appears to have opened up in the lounge to rescue the Doctors and retrieve the box." Merlin mulled this over. "And since the dragon seemed to be a manifestation of this Ship's mind, I rather suspect it's been drawn into that world too."

Allie's eyes bugged.

"We're going after them." Imran said, heading off Allie's imminent detonation.

"Hmm..." Arthur said. "Someone still needs to hold down the fort here, and there's still the matter of Morgan's disappearance..."

"I'll take care of things here." Ruthie volunteered.

"Right." Arthur said. "However... the last we knew, someone out there was still summoning Spamites..."

"Fear not!" Fastolf boomed. "For is not Fastolf, greatest among all thespians, with you? With myself by your side, any of Spam's spawn that dare doth attack this place of revelry shall be banished, yea, unto the very hellpits they came from!"

"He means he'll do it." Yokoi translated without looking up.

"Good fellow." Merlin told the great Terileptil. "Good fellow. I knew we could count on you."

Fastolf managed to puff up even further, if that were possible.

"As for ourselves," Arthur said reflectively. "if any of you need us, call – and we'll be there. But for now, I think it's time we found out what happened to my sister..."

"And I'm going after my family." Allie's voice brooked no objections.

"One warning." Merlin said quietly. "The fairytale world appears to adapt the clothing of those within it to fit its setting – and perhaps other things, too."

Danel looked down at his monkey suit. "Uh-uh. No way am I going in there dressed like a monkey."

Allie turned cold grey eyes on him.

"...Although, y'know, a monkey's nice..." Danel said.

"Allie," Ruthie said gently. "Let them get changed. If nothing else, they'll feel better about venturing inside. It's only going to take a few minutes."

"And I still need to find that protection device." Danel interjected quickly.

Allie's face darkened, but she nodded. "Yokoi? Katherine?"

The two of them looked at each other, and smirked.

"'Course, Al," Yokoi said, grinning. "You think I'm gonna miss seeing how Gordon turned out?"

Allie inclined her head. "Then let's go."

Imran looked down at his monkey suit. "Egh. This's really starting to smell."

Charley twitched. "Somehow, I don't think that's what's causing the headaches..."

"Well, we're just one door away from getting out of these things for good." Danel said. "Here goes!"

He opened the wardrobe door.

"Er..." he said, "does anyone remember those clothes glowing like – MMMPH!!"

Within seconds, only a pile of twitching, glowing clothes remained to show where Allie's group had been.

Meanwhile, a long way away from the hoedown...

"Well..." Paul said. "I'm not sure..."

"Uncertain, eh?" beamed the shopkeeper. "Lovely. It'll go nicely with the coat. Quantum spectral uncertainty, you see. Clever, innit?"

Paul looked at the coat again. It was velvet, and cut in a style that might lead the inattentive to think that it was made from the same pattern as the eighth Doctor's coat. It was green.

No, brown.

No, green.

It was beginning to get on Paul's nerves. He knew that clothes could sometimes look different colours in different lighting, but the lighting in this shop hadn't changed at all since he'd come in.

On the other hand, he was running very late for the hoedown, and he did need a new coat...

"I'll take it," he said.

The shopkeeper beamed.

#Eloise! Eloise!# the voice cut through the arguing of the Doctors like a strobe light through fog. #Help!#

Eloise turned. "Ayna! What's wrong? What's happened?"

The Doctors fell silent as one – their bickering cut short by the gravity of the emergency. No one knew what had happened. But they knew it was bad.

Ayna was trembling, and her voice – her strong, siren's voice – wouldn't come as bid.

#It's Xeffy,# she managed to say, at last. #She's gone.#

"Gone?! Wh-what do you mean, 'gone'?"

#The Crystal castle. It swallowed her.#

Eloise fought to take a slow, steady breath. :::Sweetheart?::: She asked, telepathically, :::Where's Xeffy?:::

No response. Nothing. She might as well be trying to communicate with an ordinary water glass.

The Steward's fists clenched, and a familiar lead-grey flush began to mar his complexion. "Celia in the skies," he hissed, "now Xeffy in the castle. Who's next, then?" He shook his head violently, and muttered some quick lines under his breath. "Ayna? Within the crystal, light and dark. Choose both, choose neither. That has to be about Xeffy. Does that mean anything special to her, that you know of?"

Ayna emitted a short, sharp #skreek# that sent the Steward staggering back. #It – might. But the advice doesn't mean anything at all!# She shook like a resonating glass, clearly on the very edge.

Dominic shot the Steward a warning glance, and led the young Siren aside, speaking to her in a low serious voice. His support seemed to steady her somewhat. The Steward felt a goose walking over his grave. He looked over his shoulder, to be met with Sandra, a dangerous and utterly adamant expression upon her spectral face.

"If this is her doing," said Sandra, and she didn't need to add a threat. "If you even suspect it. Well?"

"NO!" The Steward gritted his teeth – then slowly, slowly unclenched his balled fists. "I thought someone might deduce that. I'd meant it to come out over wine, laughs, stories... I swear by Carrie's kernel, Sandra, Celia wouldn't do something like that, not if she could. She isn't altogether who you're thinking of, anyway... and even that one wouldn't, not without free consent. There's much of Nyssa in her, even yet." His own breathing was as harsh as Sandra's was absent. "We will get them back, Sandra. All of us leave this place, or I for one will not. Truly!"

Sandra nodded, slowly. "You do mean that. Well, then..."

Fighting down panic, Eloise turned to the dragon. Maybe, to protect herself, Sweetheart had withdrawn her mind to a single form. "Baby?" she asked, pleadingly. "Please. Let me know what's wrong."

The dragon turned to her – and snarled. It was an uncertain gesture, one clearly made by a frightened baby. But the tips of her needle sharp teeth still showed. And the red ember glow of fire flashed, briefly, in her nostrils.

[Magnus growled something in badly accented Old Draconic. The baby replied, at length. The conversation went on for some time, until Magnus turned to the others.]

Magnus: "Briefly, she is hungry, scared and cut off from the Tardis mind. It is still there but there is a barrier, presumably generated by that machine."

Eloise: "But why did she growl at me, when I asked that?"

Magnus: "She did not understand you. She is cut off from the Tardis translation facility, fortunately Old Draconic seems to be hard wired into dragon brains, they have to learn other languages."

Eloise: "But does she know where Xeffy has gone?"

Magnus: "I don't know. The subject scares her enough that she refuses to discuss it."

[The red cat shimmered, changing to a small red winged lizard.]

Varne: "I don't like doing mythological beasts much. It always seemed like cheating, but at least fire drakes can talk. Xeffy is somewhere close, but I can not pin point her location. A summoning spell might work, if we had something linked with her."

[Several voices said Ayna.]

Eloise didn't look at the Doctors when she spoke, and fear and frustration gave her voice the tone of anger. "I love you all," she said, flatly. "But for this once, could you please put aside your damned egos. And. Shut. That. Thing. Down."

[Magnus started drawing a design on the floor with one end of his staff. Glowing lines formed.]

Magnus: "A better idea would be to get it out of here. It probably has more anti-tampering devices than a nuclear bomb. Oh, and you could try draining energy from it by using its secondary function, just don't disturb the screen projector."

[Magnus turned back to his design. Meanwhile, Varne was talking to the dragon.]

"I don't think that moving it would be a very good idea," the Seventh Doctor mused darkly, stroking his chin. "It's already having quite sufficient an effect on local reality; the last thing we need is to carry it around, and doubtless find ourselves taking it exactly where it wants to be for whatever we don't want it to do!" He huffed, and leaned in an inelegantly storky posture upon his deplorable umbrella. "But drain it. H'mmm, yes. I wonder..."

"I could take it into a closet whilst chatting about magic and looking sinister," said the Eighth eagerly, "and emerge several minutes later having solved the problem by some tour-de-force that the author feels would be too tedious to actually illustrate. Yes yes yes – !"

"You're not in Casualties of War now," the Fifth reminded him pointedly. "There ought to be another way..."

"Ahem," interrupted the Steward. "I'm aware that this is a Dr Who story, and that under all ordinary principles you[se/all] should be the one to find the answer. But don't you think it's significant that you've had the whole mob of you working on this for so long, and still not got to stage one?" Gimlet Time Lordly glares attempted to stare him down, but the Grey One's rhinocerine hide was a match even for that alarming concert. "And the best I can do at reading Celia's oracle doesn't much suggest your involvement, either. I'm sure there's some way to square that circle, but there it is."

"Well, young man?" challenged the First. "Out with it, then, out with it!"

"Within the present, a rose, a flame, a key," the Steward quoted. "Choose one, choose well. If the Xeffy choose-one-choose-neither clause is the kind of Orientalising monist double-talk I'm afraid it is, these may be all different aspects of the same thing too." He grimaced sadly. "And we're in Eloise's TARDIS, which just happens to be named Sweetheart. Doesn't it seem to anyone else but me that a rose, a flame, and (with a little bit of stretching) a key, could all very easily be interpreted as symbols for different facets of love?"

If the Doctors did not at once break out into a welter of different and demonstrably superior interpretations of the same symbols, with a side-order of sniping at all this buncoid sibyl-bothering in the first place, it was surely only out of respect for their hostess. "They might very well," said Second shiftily, "but – oh my, I don't quite see where you're expecting us to go from that!"

"Eloise's love for Sweetheart." The Steward bobbed stiffly. "I think that's got to be the channel. Which would explain why your purely mechanical means bounced. Doubtless you're instrumental in some way, but you'd know how better than I would..."

"Or the lost," Dominic suggested softly. "Mine and Ayna's for Xeffy. Yours, perhaps, for Celia..."

Gordon and Silence shared a quick, expressive look. "Hey, what about the ones we left behind?" the birthday hero suggested. "Some of us have Muses back there... and Dom and Ayna and Xeffy have Allie and Imran... and, y'know..."

~And the Doctors~, Silence signed, ~have left behind their own TARDISes...~

There was a long pause while everyone thought about that. Not for the first time in a moment of true crisis, it was the First Doctor who took charge.

"We'll need to investigate each of those lines," the old man declared, his eyes shining, "if only to eliminate the false ones. And we must by all means keep working on the technical side!" He harrumphed, and called the roll of his other selves briskly. "Vagabond, Bunter: assist Miss Eloise, Varne, and Sweetheart's scion, please! Fop, Magicaster: with Dominic, Ayna, and Magnus. Flannels, Spoons: see whether we can bring our Ship link into this constructively, h'mmm? Nth, Teeth and I will continue to work on the mechanics of this... anomaly." He gave the SKoLD a deeply affronted look, and clapped his hands. "Well? For us more even than for anyone, gentlemen, Time is precious!"

With relatively little mumbling, the brainstorming groups began to form into earnest knots. The Steward, however, stepped forward to intercept the Fifth before he could disappear into a morass of jargon with the Seventh. "If I could have a moment of your time, comrade, I came here with a rather urgent message from your past – and I'm starting to lean towards the suspicion that it isn't entirely unconnected with all this!"

The Seventh flashed a quick, ferret-sharp grin, and slapped his younger self on the back. "Certainly. I'll hold the fort; take as much of myself's time as you need." He turned away in dismissal, sat down on the nearest convenient perch, and went into a vaguely sinister study.

"Yes?" The Fifth Doctor smiled, with excruciating forbearance, sensing another plot twist about to descend, like some great metaphysical dollop of roc guano, upon his hapless head.

"Carrie and I," the Steward said impressively, "are on the very verge of solving the sheerly appalling, the mind-blastingly indigestible Riddle of the Spam! Already the forces of memomic blasphemy quite literally incarnate have begun to stir against us, both in the virtual 1940s and out here; but that we can deal with, given a little help from our friends. What we need to know from you right now is this. What did you do in the War, Doctor?"

"I willan have been about to be him," the Doctor streetmentioned carefully, indicating the Seventh with a piqued gesture. "And the fancy sequel in the spectrally uncertain velvet..."

"But not in your own guise, in any matter of note?" The Doctor shook his head in bewilderment. "Nor for any extended time?"


"The mention of Spam suggests nothing to you in this context?"

The Doctor regarded the Grey Steward as if the latter had just made a distinctly off-colour proposition. "No," he said, in a voice a bit higher than normal but with all-too-patent honesty. "With the obvious exception of dyspepsia... If you'll excuse me, now? Good!"

"Carrie anticipated something of this nature," the Steward intoned, flexing his lungs for some awful declamation. "I'm afraid, Doctor, that you leave me no alternative. 'BEGONE!' SHE STORMED, 'ACROSS THE RAGING TIDE!!'"

A tree-thick arc of blue lightning lashed out from the SKoLD, earthing itself through the Fifth Doctor. He gave a terrible silent cry, let his face fall into an expression of spectacular vacancy, and then gazed foolishly down at the ground.

A very small, very pretty woman lay at his feet. She looked about seventeen, had hair fiery-red enough to make Rudolph the R.N.R. hand in his notice, and was dressed in oily blue mechanic's overalls.

Everyone, with these two exceptions, looked at the Steward.

"Carrie thought that line might jog his memory," that one defended himself, backing away nervously. "Don't ask me why. And I'm buggered if I know why all that came with the package!"

The woman blinked, and spoke.

"Hello, Orph.!" she said, making no attempt to rise from her back, and addressing the Fifth Doctor's inane face dreamily. "Lieut. reporting for duty, apparently. I say, though, could you be a terribly good daydream and come back later, when I'm off-shift? Only nodding off on the job isn't quite the article, what with Jerry so much on the froth, and all. And did you know you've got a small turquoise troll standing a few yards behind you?"

"Amanda," the Fifth Doctor croaked, in a voice that was little like his own. "Oh, for the love of God. Amanda!"

Then he collapsed to the ground.


Amanda's Sunday morning languor evaporated like spirits off a hotplate. She bolted to her feet, took two steps towards him, smiled with gruesome apology to the world, and fainted across him. It was a floppy, full-on blackout: not a maidenly swoon, but the thing that comes when you're tired and desiccated and the blood's fled too swiftly from your head, and which cracks your skull for you if it can find anything handy against which to dash it. Sixth moved swiftly to catch her, and laid her down carefully beside his younger self.

First bent briefly to examine them both, then waved tetchily at the bulk of the company. "Yes, yes, there's nothing wrong with them as far as I can tell. Undoubtably it's just the strain of translation. Did you not all have pressing matters to attend to, h'mmm?"

Since most of them did, and were glad of the chance, he could possibly have achieved his goal with a little less asperity. But he didn't leave the sleepers' side himself, only stood watching over them, speculatively.

Chapter Six – Darkness Falling

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