The Master Chronicles 2 - Part 6: The Web
Less than two minutes after he’s left HM Broadfell, the Doctor is outside the Noble household, throwing stones up at the front bedroom window where he can see Wilf’s shock of white hair bobbing about, and hoping that none of the neighbours will take him for a vandal and decide to call the police. Such a commotion would surely bring Donna running... But surely at mid-afternoon it’s hardly likely she would be at home; she’d probably at work. Is she fit enough to work? He realises that he doesn’t actually know the exact nature of Wilfred’s fears for Donna, other than that a book is somehow involved...
Wilf waves a hand in acknowledgement and disappears from view. Moments later he emerges. He’s wearing reindeer antlers on his head and carrying a book. He thrusts it into the Doctor’s hands as they walk along the street, away from the house.
The Doctor turns the book over in his hand, frowning at the dustcover. ‘Fighting the Future... by Joshua Naismith.... ‘Who is this Joshua Naismith, Wilf?’
‘No, no – he’s nothing to do with it, just a way of hiding ... open it up, look inside.’
The Doctor does as instructed, and for a moment it’s as if the whole world has stopped. Time seems to freeze in his veins and the blood rushes in his ears as he looks at the cover of the book hidden under the dust jacket... At the colourful illustrations of a gold-coloured fob watch... The title of the book is ‘A Journal of Impossible Things.’
‘No!’ he gasps the word out before he has even fully registered the author’s name; ‘Verity Newman’ – the name means nothing to him, but the design on the lid of the fob watch... he can’t see much of it but there’s enough visible....as soon as he opens the inner cover and sees the first and subsequent pages, which include a photograph of the author, he knows that this book is a time bomb waiting to go off for Donna Noble. How in Rasillon...? And then it comes back to him... he remembers himself as John Smith giving the journal to Joan Redfern and he curses the arrogance that led him to think... no, because that’s not true, is it? He hadn’t even considered the possibility...it’s beyond arrogance, is what it is. He groans.
‘Clearly this Verity Newman is a descendant of Joan’s – the resemblance is striking and he feels a deeply buried feeling of regret for a life never lived, of love never consummated, at least not in that reality. If he had...Verity might have been their Granddaughter, not some unknown human’s... firmly he pushes the thought aside. As a time traveller it doesn’t do to dwell on the maybe’s...
‘Oh yes, Doctor. I saw it when I went to get Naismith’s book... thought it might make a nice gift for Donna ...’cos she’s into all that at the moment, you see. She’s different, Doctor... She buys all these books on alternative living and spiritualism and holistic this and crystal that.....Because even though she’s got this nice lad, Shaun – they’re getting married in the spring - it’s like she’s trying to reinvent herself, find something she doesn’t know she’s missing... And this book, this Journal of Impossible things, it’s to do with you, isn’t it? I recognise some if it – the blue box, the Daleks...and Donnas’ picture is in there, Doctor! If she sees it....’
‘Yes. Yes, it is all to do with me, Wilfred. And I’m so sorry.’ The Doctor is pleased to hear that Donna has someone, though. Although if he can’t neutralise the threat to her that the journal represents... and even though the Master doesn’t know about Donna, if he’s on the loose then he might well sense her buried Time Lord presence. Might even mistake her for the Doctor if his state of mind is as shaky as it was the last time they met...
‘Who is this Verity woman....? How does she know all these things about you?
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you... the Doctor thinks sadly, and can only shrug. He really doesn’t want to go there, not with Wilf. Not with anyone.
‘Did she travel with you, Doctor? Is she another casualty....?’ Wilf’s expression is a study in confliction. It’s obvious that he badly wants to trust and believe in the Doctor, for Donnas’ sake... and yet because of what has happened to her, he doesn’t know if he can.
‘No, no...Nothing like that, Wilf. She’s just... related to someone I met, once. A long, long time ago.....’ He remembers the Ood prophecy; ‘Your song must end soon,’ and Carmen’s warning ‘he will knock four times.’ Is this all coincidence? He suddenly feels old and tired.
‘Doctor...Are you alright?’
The Doctor feels Wilf’s hand on his arm and looks up to see the grizzled face looking into his own with concern. He takes a deep breath and clears his throat, worried but not wanting to show it.
‘Me? Yeah, I’m fine.... brilliant, in fact, Wilf. Just a bit preoccupied, that’s all.... I’ve been looking for a ... friend... who’s in trouble. I went to where I thought he would be, but he’d gone. I lost him. But I can sense him... he’s still on Earth...’ and it’s true, he realises. He can. So the Master still has his recovered memories, then... he hadn’t been sure; seeing the Master in the court room all those months ago had been a shock. He’d looked so defenceless, defeated; as though he couldn’t quite believe what was happening to him. He’d thought he’d seen a glimmer of recognition but he couldn’t be sure. He’d tried to tell him during the one visit that Magambo had managed to arrange, that he wouldn’t desert him; would be back for him... but it had been hard to tell if he’d been understood, since the Master had just stared at him. Either his mental shields had been slammed right up or he really has been suffering full-blown amnesia.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. But this book – what are we gonna do, Doctor? What if Donna sees it and remembers you... you never actually said what would happen to her... in detail, like. I mean... how does it work?’
The Doctor heaves a deep sigh and pulls his rambling thoughts back into some semblance of order.
‘I don’t know, Wilf.’ At the other man’s expression, he hastily attempts to soften the statement.
‘I mean, I know the theory... but not the actual process itself. I think it can vary from person to person. It’s a very rare thing, a Human/Time Lord Metacrisis. Few people have witnessed one, and even fewer have survived it once it takes hold ...none, in fact, as far as I know. But there are ... were... plenty of reference works on the subject.’
‘Well then, surely you can look it up?’ Wilf can’t understand the Doctor’s reticence.
The Doctor feels tears prick the corners of his eyes. Come on, not here, not now. Put it aside...
‘Oh, if only I could, Wilfred... if only I could....’ suddenly he feels tired and drained. He doesn’t want to have to think about this anymore. First the Master, now Donna...
‘So what are we gonna do, then?’ Wilf is worried – the man standing in front of him is not quite the ‘up-and-at-em’ Doctor he knows from previous encounters; and certainly not the adventurer Donna had described to him; that Doctor had been full of energy and vitality, almost as if he had an excess of it to give away. Now he seems tired and wan, distracted - his normal ebullience subdued. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, Wilf thinks.
‘I have to go and see this woman... I’m not sure what I can do to stop publication, well it’s a bit late now, isn’t it. But I need to find out how this got published. It’s just too co-incidental...’
He holds the book out to Wilf, who shakes his head.
‘No – you take it please, Doctor. I daren’t have it in the house. Oh gawd, how’m I gonna stop her seeing it? You’ve got to do something!’
The Master walks slowly along the crowded pavement, hands thrust into the pocket of the black hooded sweatshirt he’s now wearing. The style is, he thinks, not particularly becoming, nor is it much to his liking; a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and workmanlike boots in unrelieved black (save a red t-shirt grabbed from the rail as an afterthought; black and red have always suited him and in some way it harks back to the black coat with the red lining he’d so liked in his Harold Saxon persona); but it’s such a departure from the sophistication of shirt, suit and tie that he’d worn in that role that he almost doesn’t recognise himself. However the hair is still recognizably Saxon’s, even though it’s grown somewhat during his incarceration, and is now laced with strands of silver. A drastic change of hair colour would seem to be in order... He coughs painfully as a bus belches out noxious fumes and crosses the pavement to avoid it. The drenching he’d received during his escape from the hospital has not done him any good at all and he suspects he may have succumbed to some kind of seasonal virus – during his associations with humankind he has noticed how easily they fall prey to them but until his reincarnation he had never been affected; Lucy’s DNA, now laced with his own, is obviously the cause. He badly needs to gain access to a lab and the necessary equipment to find out exactly how much and how permanently this is affecting his own physiology. He stumbles over an uneven paving stone and leans against a storefront for a moment, his head suddenly pounding painfully. At least one good thing about remaining within the confines of a large city is that people are more insular – no one really notices him – they see him but don’t want to get involved; which is exactly how he wants it. But the headaches are now becoming more of a problem; he’s been in this scenario before, he recalls, and shivers. Something will have to be done, but what?
The acquisition of the clothes he’s now wearing, along with the realisation that without Saxon’s connections he is going to be hard-pressed to make any headway in enticing the Doctor (and his Tardis) to him, has taken it out of him, and for one moment he recalls the somewhat more restful tempo of prison life... but even the traffic-congested and fume-filled streets are preferable to a lifetime of incarceration, waiting for the Doctor to decide to show up. Standards in prison accommodation have definitely declined – Broadfell had been a far cry from his previous incarceration at the hands of humankind, back when the Doctor had still been in his third body; then the Master had enjoyed myriad creature comforts and it had all been quite civilised. Infuriating, but civilised. Broadfell, on the other hand, had been... humiliating. Treated like a low-life... and all the time those bloody drums, insistent and distracting. He knows that the Doctor pities him; he’d seen it in his eyes... the thought makes him shudder with sudden fury. How dare the Doctor assume entitlement to forgive...after everything he’s done... if anything, he....
A shop window display catches the Master’s eye and he stops in mid-stride so that a man walking behind him cannons into him with considerable force. He whirls around, face contorted in sudden, irrational rage.
‘Jesus Christ...!’ The middle-aged man behind him exclaims in surprise and practically back pedals air as the force of the Master’s fury is turned on him.
‘Out of my way!’ The Master hisses.
‘Sorry, mate – but it was you who stopped... oi..!’ He grunts in surprise as the Master shoves him rudely out of the way and stalks over to the window display of the book store, the sight of which had stopped him in his tracks. He stares fixedly at the featured book - ‘A Journal of Impossible Things’ by Verity Newman.
What in Omega....?
The timepiece featured in the illustration is fancifully rendered and little of the elaborate carving on the case is visible but there is just enough for the imagery to hit his subconscious with a sledgehammer; It’s a chameleon arch device, just as his own was. It isn’t his; he knows that it can’t be, even though he can’t read the inscription. He’d cannibalized his own when creating the biometric ring. Therefore... he turns away from the window, neither noticing nor caring that the man he’d shoved out of the way has decided retreat would be the sensible thing to do; he walks away, shaking his head in irritation and muttering about ‘rude gits’ as the Master pushes his way past shoppers and into the store. He grabs a book from the display, joining a short queue with a sigh of impatience and flips through the pages as he waits, front to back and back to front, his expression one of mingled consternation and contempt.
Verity Newman signs the next book and pushes it across the table. ‘Thank you.’ She looks up to the next customer, noticing that he seems to be the last in the queue. Thank heavens for that – she desperately needs a loo break.
‘Who should I...?’ she holds out her hand for the book but the man snaps it shut and waves it menacingly in the air between them before dropping it onto the table. Verity flinches but takes the book anyway, sliding it towards herself and flipping it open. She quickly signs it and slides it back across the table towards him, but he makes no move to take it.
‘How did you come by this?’
Her eyes widen in surprise; if the man’s tone had been distinctly unfriendly, his expression is even more so.
Her questioner is a man with untidy and prematurely greying brown hair; in his mid-thirties at a guess, casually dressed in a scruffy hooded sweatshirt and jeans. He looks at her as if she’s a simpleton and taps a forefinger on the book cover.
‘I said, where did you get this?’
‘The journal..? It was left to me by my grandmother...’ Every sense is suddenly telling her that this man is trouble and she glances around for her agent. Typically, he’s nowhere in sight.
‘Not the book – the watch! Where did you get it?’ He places his hands on the desk and leans forward, staring at her.
She blinks and tries to remain calm, hoping to defuse his anger. Because that’s what he is – inexplicably angry. It’s pouring off him in waves, and the hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stand on end.
‘Oh! I see! Well... I don’t have it. Why do you ask?’ Please, just go.
‘What was your...Grandmother’s name?’ His tone is icy.
‘It’s all in the book, sir...’ She flinches as he leans further toward her, now invading her personal body space threateningly. She can see sweat beading on his brow; he looks ill.
‘’Sir’, yes... I like that...’ he smirks. ‘It doesn’t give her name – what was it?’ He stares into her eyes and suddenly she feels compelled to tell him everything without question.
‘Joan Redfern...that was my Grandmother’s maiden name... And it’s actually in the sleeve notes.... She doesn’t have the watch... just a diary, a journal; given to her by a young man she once knew when she was Matron at Farringham High School in 1913. He...’
‘And what was this... young man’s name?’
‘John Smith,’ she hears herself answer, as if from far away. The spell is broken as the man leans back and laughs oddly. There’s a slightly hysterical tone to his mirth that she doesn’t like the sound of at all. She’s about to add that he also went by the title of ‘Doctor’, when he stops laughing and looks down at the book through narrowed eyes.
‘Oh, it would be, wouldn’t it...?’
It’s obvious that he’s not really talking to her but rather having some internal dialogue. He resumes his position and stares into her eyes a second time. A shiver runs down her spine and she has the sudden inexplicable fear that she’s going to lose control of her bladder if he doesn’t step away soon. But for some reason she feels powerless and completely unable to ask him to move back.
‘Tell me.... where is this...John Smith now?’
‘No idea... I imagine that he’s almost certainly passed away by now - he left the school the same year and Grandma never saw him again. It broke her heart...’ She heaves a sigh of relief as the strange man straightens up and releases her gaze and grabs up the book again.
‘Oh, he’s very good at that! So you’ve no other... artefacts... that belonged to this... Mr Smith?’
Verity looks at him in consternation. ‘No, actually – although I don’t quite see what business it is of yours, unless you’re related?’ Angry and still slightly fearful, afterwards she’s never quite sure where she’d found the courage to try and stare him down. He grins suddenly, looking thoughtfully at the book in his hand and back at her. A shiver runs down her spine as his eyes hold hers again, and then he drops his gaze and the spell is broken.
‘Related? You could say that...in a manner of speaking...’ He doesn’t elucidate and Verity sees her chance as he opens the dustcover thoughtfully, effectively dismissing her.
‘Well, if you’ll excuse me...’ She stands abruptly so that her chair topples backwards behind her. ‘I really have to go...’ and she rushes away, leaving the Master standing staring at the book in his hand. He’s leafing through it with a quizzical expression when the store Manager approaches him.
‘Excuse me sir – have you paid for that?’ Store manager Daniel Brooks had only caught the last moment or two of the exchange, but it had been enough to ring warning bells. Authors weren’t in the habit of rushing from the table looking as if they’d just seen a ghost in his store... The culprit, a man dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans, turns to look at him with a sharp, aggressive movement, and Daniel flinches under the cold eyes.
“Fourteen ninety-nine. You’re supposed to pay before you get it signed...oh.’ He looks down at his jacket pocket, where the strange man has just none-too-gently shoved a twenty pound note. He pats it down with a cold hand and smiles humourlessly.
‘Keep the change.’ And the man steps around Daniel and walks out of the store without waiting for a receipt.