Donna's feet were aching by the time she walked up the path towards her home in Chiswick.
Oh, she was knackered. The past six months pounding the pavement, looking for a job as an office admin assistant, and not so much as a nibble. She'd blown the interview this afternoon, too, she just knew it. A wave of exhaustion passed over her as she reached the house.
Then she noted Sylvia's blue car parked out front. Great. Just what she didn't want to see right now. Though maybe, with luck, Mum was out with friends tonight? She could hope, anyway? She opened the door--
"Well, it's about time, Lady Muck." Sylvia Noble stood framed in the hallway, hands on her hips.
--but no such luck. "Hello to you too, Mum."
"Just where have you been?"
"Where do you think?" Sullen, Donna kicked off her heels, and, in stockinged feet, she passed by Sylvia. "Looking for work. As I have for the past six months."
Sylvia glanced at her watch. "It's after eight o'clock!"
Donna kicked off her heels, mmm'ing with relief. "Met Nerys and Veena for dinner. I am allowed to eat out once in a while, aren't I?"
"You could've phoned?"
"Forgot." The carpet felt good on her soles as she padded upstairs to change into jeans and a jumper, then back downstairs to the kitchen. She stifled a sigh upon finding her mother still there, leaning against the worktop.
"So?" Sylvia asked, her arms folded.
"So what?" Donna rummaged in the cupboard, carefully avoiding her.
"Did you find anything?"
Donna felt her mother's eyes on her back, and she tried not to wince. "Not yet," she replied testily. "Where are Dad and Gramps?"
"Your dad's down the pub with his mates and your granddad is up the hill, sky-gazing as usual."
"It's nippy out, he'll probably want some hot tea by now," Donna remarked to herself. Actually, tea with Gramps under the moon sounded perfect. She bustled around the kitchen, switching on the kettle, setting out the thermos, and trying to ignore Sylvia's presence in the background.
Sure enough, Sylvia clucked dismissively. "Really, 'sky-gazing'," she continued. "He's out there for hours and hours, with nothing up there but the moon and the clouds. What's the point? It's the influence of those blasted star cults, I bet. Your granddad gets such daft ideas into his head, sometimes."
Donna rolled her eyes and tuned Sylvia out. The water had reached a rolling boil; she concentrated on switching it off, dropping tea bags into a pot, pouring the water over, letting the tea brew. "Aren't you going out with Suzette and that lot tonight?" she asked.
"It's not Wednesday," Sylvia said.
Oh, right. Donna poured the tea from the pot to the flask, added milk and sugar. "Well, I'm off up to the allotment." Donna grabbed the thermos, went to the back door and pulled on her wellies and coat. "Don't wait up," she added.
Donna let the back door slam behind her with a satisfying bang. She opened and closed the back gate with more care, and climbed up the hill towards the silhouetted figure sitting in a camping chair, with the indistinct shadow she knew to be a battered old telescope, resting beside him.
The figure turned at her approach and grinned. "Oh, here comes trouble."
Donna returned the grin and waved the thermos at him. "Permission to come aboard ship, sir."
"Permission granted." Wilf took the thermos from her. "Was she nagging you?"
"Oh, big time."
Donna spread out a tarpaulin and knelt on it while Wilf poured from the thermos into his mug. A slight breeze wafted in from the west, carrying a faint whiff of exhaust fumes from the motorway. Looking upwards, the crescent moon waxed above the landscape, the undersurfaces of a few billowy clouds highlighted by stray light from the city. Otherwise the navy-black sky was empty, as it had been for longer than she could remember.
She withdrew a bar of chocolate from her coat pocket and exchanged it for a cup of tea. Wilf winked at her.
"She didn't see you nick it?"
"Not a clue."
"There's my girl."
The wind changed direction, blowing right towards them; the smell of the fumes dissipated. Donna shivered, wound her red scarf tighter round her neck, pulled her jacket closer in. Wilf frowned at her.
"Are you warm enough, sweetheart? Don't want you coming down with a cold."
"I've got this blanket--"
"I'm fine, Granddad."
"All right, if you say so. Any luck with the job hunting?"
Donna sighed, shook her head. "Had four interviews this past week alone. Must've sent out hundreds of CVs, and it's the same story. No one wants admin assistants."
Wilf sipped from his mug. "It's a tough old market, but you'll find something."
"I don't know. I have one more interview tomorrow, at Kings College with a Professor Smith in the History Department. That's the last of them. Dunno what I'll do after." Donna sighed heavily. "I bet Mum would love that. All that money wasted. I can hear her carping from here."
"You'll do fine, sweetheart."
"There's too many of us out of work. I'm up against graduates out there and all I have is an office admin certificate."
"They don't have your experience, either," Wilf said.
"Doesn't matter." Donna sagged. "Don't know why I'm still trying."
Wilf looked at her sympathetically. "Since when did you give up?"
Donna only shrugged. Wilf leaned forward and continued, "I remember you, six years old, your mother said no holiday this year, so off you toddled, all on your own, and got on the bus. To Strathclyde! We had the police out and everything!"
Donna half-smiled, and Wilf laughed for a few seconds at the memory. "Where's she gone then, eh?" he added sadly. "Where's that girl?"
Donna couldn't meet his eyes. "She grew up, Gramps. She stopped believing in her dreams."
"I don't buy that for a second." He squeezed her hand. "That little girl is still in there. And you are going to march into that interview tomorrow, and wow that Professor Smith, and get that job. Just you see."
She felt a lump form in her throat. "Thank you."
They fell silent for a few minutes, Donna watching Wilf as he adjusted the position of the telescope to watch different sections of the sky. "Oh, the Marcopolo satellite's shifted point zero-two-five degrees off its azimuth," he said. He picked up a torch and pen, and scribbled a note in a spiral notebook open on his lap.
Donna shook her head. Her Granddad, tracking objects in the sky with that old contraption of his. Where'd he even find it? No one she knew had ever owned such a thing.
"Why do you come out here, anyway?" she asked.
Wilf looked up from the eyepiece. "Apart from the peace and quiet away from your mum?"
Donna stifled a giggle. Wilf waved at the near-darkness. "There's so much space up there, Donna. There's the moon, the satellites, the aeroplanes, but it's not enough. That sky should be full. I just feel there should be something else up there." He peered into the eyepiece of the telescope, his voice growing wistful. "And wouldn't it be nice to find it?"
"Yeah, it would," Donna said wistfully.
She leaned back on her elbows to watch the empty sky with him. Donna wondered if he actually was a member of some star cult. It would fit--but she decided not to ask. It wouldn't matter anyway. Her granddad was the type who'd search the sky no matter what. It would be nice to have something to believe in like that, she thought, the way he believed in her. Even if she didn't deserve it. Even if it wasn't real.
The next morning, at three minutes to nine, Donna smoothed down her charcoal-grey skirt, straightened the lapels of her jacket and knocked on the door of SJ Smith's office.
"Come in," a female voice called out.
Donna squared her shoulders, took a deep, steadying breath, and turned the knob to let herself in. The door opened into a cramped, den-like space, lined with shelves bulging with books and historical artifacts. Two chairs and a small divan were stacked with journals. Donna noted further stacks of papers on either side of the desk in front of her, before turning her attention to its occupant.
Professor SJ Smith was a pleasant-looking woman in her mid-forties, with reading glasses perched above her fringe. She rose from her chair and rounded the desk. "Hello. You must be Donna Noble."
"Yes. I'm here for the job interview." Donna extended her hand.
"Oh yes! I'm Professor Sarah Jane Smith." She clasped Donna's hand and shook firmly. "I'm pleased to meet you. It wasn't too hard to find my office? It's rather out of the way."
"Not at all."
Professor Smith waved at the chair across from her. "Lovely. Please, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Donna said. She set her bag on the floor and sat on the edge of the wooden chair, her hands resting on the portfolio on her lap. Professor Smith donned her glasses, slid a file in front of her, and opened it. Donna recognized the copy of her CV.
"Well, Miss Noble," began the professor, "I've reviewed your CV. Top of your class, very impressive. As you know, this is a full-time position on a six-month contract, with the possibility of renewal dependent on future funding. It involves the usual sort of office work for the department, plus assistance with my research--retrieving and organizing references, typing up manuscripts for publication, that sort of thing."
"What--what exactly is your field of research in history, Professor?"
"I teach mythology, the study of myths and legends. Legends are stories which were once based in fact, but take on lives of their own. Often they attain more importance than the real life figures who inspired them. I specialize in the myths and legends which surround the Pandorica. Are you familiar with them?"
Donna pursed her lips. "A bit. Learned about the Pandorica at school. It's a box that was discovered at Stonehenge around 100 AD by the Romans. No one knows what's in there, no one's ever been able to open it... oh, and it was guarded by a Lone Centurion."
"Do you remember anything else?"
"No, that was it."
"What do you know about the star cults, then?"
Donna paused, bewildered. How on earth could star cults be connected to the Pandorica? Was this a test she had to pass? Finally she replied, "Just what I've heard on the news, I suppose."
Professor Smith inclined her head; after a short, awkward silence, Donna realized she was waiting for an explanation. Donna continued, "Well, the cults believe these--these star things existed in the sky once upon a time. Richard Dawkins is their best-known leader--he says the stars were like our sun. Had planets like Earth rotating round, planets that supported life, even. But that's rather barmy if you ask me."
Professor Smith peered at her. "Do you believe in stars, Miss Noble?"
Donna tried to stifle a snort. "What?"
But Professor Smith appeared serious. "Do you believe stars exist?" she elaborated.
Donna shrugged. "Don't see why I should. Everyone knows the sky's always been empty."
The professor's mouth turned down, and she regarded her over the top of her reading glasses. Donna's stomach sank. Here it was, her last chance, and she blew it. After a long minute Professor Smith asked, "So why do you want this position?"
"I need a job," Donna said meekly.
Professor Smith nodded, her face wry. "Yes, in this economy, everyone does," she said, "but why this one in particular?"
Donna stared at her folded hands, her eyes stinging. Oh, who the bloody hell was she kidding? Land this job? It was reaching for the sky, grasping at nothing. Any employment was just a dream for her now, her future was on the dole. Why did she even bother trying? She should just cut her losses and walk out. She didn't care anymore if she let Mum down, God knew how she was used to that, but letting down Granddad after he believed in her so much--
Her Gramps--staring at the empty sky--it clicked. "The sky is too big," Donna said quietly.
Professor Smith peered over her glasses. "I beg your pardon?"
Well, it didn't matter, Donna thought. She'd blown the interview anyway, so she had nothing to lose by explaining. So she inclined her chin, met the professor's gaze full on. "The sky is too big for it to be empty. That's not right. The sky should be full."
The professor leaned forward. "And why do you think that?" she asked.
Her words were neutral, but her tone held an edge of excitement. Donna took a huge breath and with it, a huge leap . "Something else needs to be up there to fill the void, not just the moon and the satellites--the stars! The stars were up there, once!"
The professor nodded. Donna, suddenly feeling encouraged, continued, "And someone had to have seen them, for people now to believe they existed." She blinked as she realized, "The Lone Centurion. That's who saw them, somehow. Had to have been. He saw them, and passed on the stories of the stars."
Professor Smith's face broke into a wide smile. "Yes! My colleague, Doctor Jo Grant, and I believe the Lone Centurion was directly responsible for the initial appearance of the star cults shortly after the Pandorica was discovered."
Donna stared at her, a spark of hope rekindling. "Really?"
"The star cults have been quiet for a long time, but lately there's been renewed interest. We think the Lone Centurion must somehow be involved again. How, we don't know. We do know that there have been sightings through the ages. The most recent was during the London Blitz in 1941 when the Lone Centurion, or at least someone dressed like the Lone Centurion, pulled the Pandorica out of a burning warehouse."
"But how is that possible?" Donna asked, amazed. "The original Lone Centurion must have died over 1800 years ago."
"That's true, and we're trying to work out the connection. Do you have any theories?"
Donna blinked at the thought that Professor Smith considered her opinion worth listening to. "It's probably wrong, but maybe--" Donna glanced around the room, her gaze drawing to the helmet and plume sitting on a shelf behind the professor's desk. "Maybe the Lone Centurion had kids? The title and role got passed down the line from father to son?"
Excitedly, Professor Smith picked up a pen and scribbled a note onto a blank pad of paper. "That's very good! It's definitely something we should look into."
"But it's probably wrong," Donna protested.
"That doesn't matter. We have to start somewhere. If it were easy we wouldn't call it 'research' now, would we?"
"I suppose we'd call it just 'search'," Donna replied.
Professor Smith chuckled, rose from her chair and held out her hand. "Congratulations, Miss Noble. I expect to see you tomorrow at nine sharp."
Donna stood up too, and took it in a daze. "I--I got the job?"
The other woman gave her a firm handshake. "Yes. And I'm very much looking forward to working with you, Donna. You are just who we need."
Donna struggled to contain her joy. "Really? I won't disappoint you, Professor Smith, I promise. I could even start today, if you like."
"Wonderful! Oh, and please call me Sarah Jane. Now I have an article I need to send out to Historical Archaeology as soon as possible, so let's get you settled in."
"Can I make a phone call first?"
"Thank you." Donna nodded, grinned wildly and ran out of the office.
Sarah Jane shook her head fondly at the unrestrained "YES!" echoing down the corridor, and chuckled again upon hearing Donna's jubilant "Gramps? Gramps, I got it! I got the job!" She pulled the manuscript for Historical Archaeology towards her. Handwritten on foolscap, the title read, "Arguments for the Reality of the Lone Centurion." Tapping a pen against her lips, Sarah Jane reviewed the final paragraph.
Oral tradition holds that after the Teacher filled the Pandorica with hope, the Lone Centurion was tasked to guard that hope through the ages. Confirmed historical sightings of a figure dressed in Roman Centurion garb, who appears whenever the Pandorica faces imminent danger, suggest that the Lone Centurion is indeed real, though his true identity remains unknown.
She added two final sentences:
However, given the association of the Pandorica with the appearance of ancient star worshipping cults, we theorize the Lone Centurion may be a ceremonial office passed down to successive high-ranking members within said cults. Further studies are planned to investigate this possibility.
When she finished, Donna was waiting in the doorway. "I'm ready when you are, Sarah Jane," she said.
Yes, Donna would be a more than valuable addition to her group, Sarah Jane decided. She added Donna's name to the list of contributors, then stood up. "Good! Now let's get started."