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The Pitter-Patter of Tiny Claws

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The triage deck was packed with patients. The cooling systems were barely keeping up, and the noise! The noise was deafening – patients moaning, family crying, medics and nurses shouting instructions across rows of beds – but Nyssa moved through it, calm and alert. Two years after landing at Terminus, Nyssa knew what it meant to run a hospital at the centre of the universe.

By now it was a well-equipped hospital with good isolation protocols. Every ship that had both dangerous fuel and a medical emergency, every transport that had a virulent outbreak, every biohazard that went critical was redirected to Terminus. Nyssa had given up being amazed at how often someone went into labour while ferrying explosive material.

This ship, a mixed cargo and passenger freighter, had docked while leaking photonic plasma from a fractured drive chamber. There were a thousand passengers, four hundred and seven critically injured, and Nyssa negotiated treatment, housing and repair. The cargo, two gigatons of notoriously sensitive seed crystals destined for new star drive engines, was less than a kilometre away. She'd weathered worse, travelling with the Doctor. At least now her crises were well organised.

New data chimed by the comatose patient's bed: the neural scan had been processed and downloaded to the bed's viewscreen. Nyssa currently had personal care of a hundred and twelve patients, but this one continually caught her attention. A red-headed woman with ostensibly human anatomy, she bore no obvious injuries, no burns, no head trauma, and yet she had been carried off the ship unconscious. The puzzle was intriguing. Nyssa had stabilised the woman's neural activity, and now she pored over the scans, trying to understand what she was looking at.

"Someone has made a fine mess in your head," she said to the sleeping woman. "Whatever they did, it's completely rearranged your neurological architecture."

The woman stirred. "Egg-beaters," she muttered. "Totally scrambled."

Nyssa recognised the word – an archaic Earth-term, and a culinary reference – but Earth and scrambled eggs were long gone. Humanity was spread across the galaxy and egg-beaters existed only in museums. She looked down at the woman, brushed a strand of red hair from her forehead, took in the anachronistic clothing. You do not live at the centre of the galaxy and not learn to pick the Doctor's companions from the crowd. There is a certain cast to the face, a world-wise and hungry expression, and inevitably, chaos in their wake. The last one that Nyssa had come across had a rucksack full of grenades. In comparison to Ace McShane, this sleeping woman with a head full of chaos was positively peaceful.

The woman's eyes opened, and she promptly leaned over the bed to throw up on the floor. "Bloody hell, that was a bad one."

Nyssa jumped neatly out of the way and signalled for an orderly with a sterilising unit. "How are you feeling? Is the Doctor here?"

The woman laughed, a much stronger sound now. "Priorities! You've got them all right. No, he's not here." She clenched a fist. "If he is, though, I've got something for him right here. Wipe my mind, Spaceman? I don't think so."

"Oh, psychic trauma!" Nyssa nodded. That made more sense. Psychic phenomena were especially difficult to detect medically. It was frustrating.

"Anyway, thanks for the help – once the coma lets up, I don't usually have any problems. Talk about things you never think you'll be glad to say, hey?" The woman swung her legs around and stood up. "Biological meta-crisis. Flares up worse than eczema, it does." She scratched at the back of her neck. "First thing, you get a kind of itchy feeling all over the scalp. Then, just as you're wondering if you've bloody picked up space-nits, you time jump. Or space jump. Or both."

"Space-nits?" Nyssa scrambled to keep up with the conversation. "Wait, meta-crisis? That's a Gallifreyan condition." She'd read the section on Time Lord physiology in the TARDIS index file.

"It's really complicated," said the woman. "I don't really understand it myself, anymore. I did once. But those brain patterns, they're gone now. I'm Donna. Donna Noble." She held out her hand, and the traditional Earth gesture was so overwhelmingly familiar that Nyssa felt a pang of nostalgia for Tegan. There was a lot of Tegan about Donna: strong grip, kind face, and little regard for propriety.

She took Donna's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Nyssa. Of Traken originally, but now of Terminus. And you're from Earth, I can tell. Late twentieth century? Australian?"

"Australian? I wish! That Hugh Jackman, I tell you. Phwoar. Kylie Minogue's not bad either." Donna rubbed her head. "Did you find the egg?"

"Eggs?" said Nyssa. "We don't eat eggs anymore, but I can organise you a protein supplement, if you're hungry."

Donna clutched Nyssa's hands. "Not for eating! For… I don't know. The meta-crisis thing, it pulls me to areas with chronal instability. Where I landed, there was this egg sitting in a nest. It was like Sainsbury's at Easter: shiny foil and an improbably large multi-coloured egg. Lots of ornaments. All it needed was a couple of rabbits and some plastic grass."

"Rabbits!" said Nyssa, excited.

Donna looked perplexed. "You like rabbits?"

"No, my friend, she was from Earth, she used to say that all the time when she was surprised. Or when things were going wrong. So, all the time, really." Nyssa bounced on the tips of her toes. She hadn't felt this kind of mad energy for a long time.

"Rabbits? In the future, 'rabbits' is a swear word?" said Donna. "But no, there were no rabbits. Just this egg, and I mean, whenever I do this stupid time jump, the first thing I see is usually causing the time distortion."

Nyssa remembered the ship's hold full of unstable seed crystals. 'Shiny foil' was a decent description of the storage membrane that kept the crystals separate from each other. If the chronal distortion that had brought Donna here occurred again, well, she e didn't want to think about what a time distortion could do in such an energy rich environment. Not when the whole of Terminus was in range.

"We need to get back on that ship," she said.

---

"Why do we have to go in through the heating ducts? I've been staring at your shoes for the last hour, and they've seriously lost their appeal."

Nyssa pulled herself up through a vertical passage. "The hold is locked, and the security officer is in surgery," she said. "The ship's computer is protecting herself from looters." She held out a hand, and Donna clambered up onto the next level. "How long have you been time-jumping?"

Donna slumped against the silver wall, waiting to catch her breath. "How long is a piece of string? I don't know. A year? A few months? The problem with the meta-crisis is that I've bugger all short term memory. Funny thing is – and by funny thing, I mean ironic in a way that makes me want to cry – one thing I do remember is that I always wanted to travel. But not like this."

Nyssa settled cross legged in front of her. "Why did he do it? The mind-wipe."

"Oh, you know the Doctor. Or maybe you don't know this Doctor? Allons y, and a touch of the sonic?"

Nyssa shook her head. "That doesn't sound like either of my Doctors."

"He's very action-oriented – I learned that, at a motivational course after he dumped me on my mother's doorstep. Action-oriented people don't look before they leap. Sometimes I get it: he had to act fast to save my life. Sometimes I wonder why he always had to act that fast. Sometimes…" She faltered, chewed her lip. This was a treacherous thought she didn't often give voice to.

Nyssa reached forward and took her hand; her skin was cool to the touch. "Sometimes, I wonder if he wanted to erase his mistake. Couldn't change the timeline. Could change me. And if I never remembered, he never had to see me suffering."

"Time Lord mercy is rarely the kindness they perceive it to be." Nyssa felt Donna squeeze her hand, and Nyssa knew she understood. There was no point in assigning morality to a storm: it happened, it passed on, you dealt with it and you got on with life.

Donna reached up and knocked on the metal tube. "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like."

"What is a TV dinner?" Nyssa asked, politely.

Donna laughed. "It's from a movie where the star crawls through the ventilation shafts – did your Australian friend show you any movies?"

"She made the Doctor take us to a, what do you call it, when it's the first night and you dress up in luxurious clothing?"

"A premiere?" Donna whistled. "Very flash. What was the movie?"

"Mad Max." Nyssa frowned. "It was very confusing; I don't think I had experienced enough Earth culture to fully appreciate it, but Tegan was keen on the lead actor." Tegan had always been a little more keen on men than women, thought Nyssa, ruefully.

"Mel Gibson?" Donna snickered to herself. "Believe me, that was definitely the highlight of his career."

---

The hold might be locked, but the seed crystals needed constant ventilation to keep them stable. Nyssa eased the grill to the floor, and slipped down onto something that crackled under her feet. She crouched down to peer at the floor plates. A pile of bones lay by the vent, old and dry.

"I'm coming through! Bunch up!" Donna slid out of the shaft very fast. Her feet crunched bone, and she vanished just as fast back into the tube. "What. The hell. Was that?"

"Bone," said Nyssa. She picked up a large fragment and sighted down the hollow tube. "Tarsometatarsus, to be more precise."

Donna dangled her legs out of the tube, and jumped nimbly over the remains. "What's a tarso meta thingy when it's at home?"

"From an avian species. Or possibly a sauron of some kind." Nyssa rubbed the end of the bone and it crumbled under her fingers.

"Sauron? A dinosaur?" Donna bobbed down beside her. "A dinosaur? On a spaceship? What rubbish." Her face creased in concern. "Wait, did it come out of the egg? Oh, no, did it do that thing where you are born and age and turn into dust in approximately five minutes? Is that what these crystals do? Should we even be standing here?"

"I doubt the crystals caused this," said Nyssa. She put the bone down carefully and looked up at Donna. "Have you seen anything like this before? People aging away to dust before your eyes?" Nyssa had trained her mind to recognise patterns, and there was definitely something aggregating here. Uncontrolled time travel, uncontrolled aging, eggs and skeletons and lost memories.

Donna stared at her in horror, putting the pieces together as fast as Nyssa had. "Oh. You think it's me. I'm the time distortion. I have bits and pieces of his mind in here, you know. Man has a mind like a jumble sale. I doubt even he knows where everything is. Meanwhile, I can recalibrate a spatial contrafibulator, but I can't tie my shoelaces. And now I'm a danger." She stood up, and Nyssa saw suddenly how stark and drawn her face was when she wasn't making fun of herself and her situation. "I'm wrong, is what I am. I can't be here. I can't be anywhere."

Nyssa gathered Donna into a hug, stroking her back gently. "Whatever is going on, you're not on your own now. We can work on the problem together. Even if we can't find a solution, we might be able to make things easier."

Donna allowed herself to relax for a moment in Nyssa's arms, then she pushed herself upright with a grimace. "No, I'm going to find that nest. I need to know if there's a dinosaur on my conscience."

The nest was made from scraps of silver storage foil and shredded insulation foam. In the centre of the nest were several large fragments of shell, speckled green and pink and blue.

"Well, that hangs it," said Donna, glumly. "I killed the dinosaur."

Nyssa knelt down by the nest; each piece of shell was as big as her palm. "But something had to build the nest to lay the egg in – perhaps the skeleton was the adult parent of this egg? It would never have fit inside this egg, and I don't think the egg has been affected by time distortion." She picked up a curved segment, and gelatinous liquid oozed over the edge.

"That does look disturbingly fresh, now you point it out." Donna backed away, skidded in a puddle of slime, threw her hand between two racks of crystals to catch hold of something. She stopped, eyes wide. "Nyssa!"

Nyssa put the shell down, and scrambled after her. "Did you hurt yourself?"

Donna spoke very softly and calmly. "Please tell me that you use umbrellas in the future."

"I'm afraid there is no precipitation in space," said Nyssa. "Also, we're indoors."

"This isn't an umbrella I'm holding, is it?"

Nyssa shook her head. "I very much doubt it, Donna."

Donna withdrew her arm. Clinging to it with great curved talons, looking very much like a folded grey-green umbrella, was a large winged reptile at least as long as a cricket bat. It opened an eye to peer at Nyssa, then hissed at her violently, flapping its wings.

"No, no, shhh," said Donna. "Shhh, now, you were asleep a minute ago. Shh." She held her arm outstretched, and the creature's flapping subsided. It curled its leathery wings around itself again, and slowly rocked from side to side. Donna made a face at Nyssa. "What the hell is this thing?"

Nyssa stepped back so as not to agitate the creature any further. "The Doctor once told me about giant birds of prey that lived in the Time Vortex."

Donna closed her eyes, and her lips moved as she rummaged in the mess of Time Lord memories rattling around her head. "Vortisaurs? This is a vortisaur? Who's a little vortisaur, then?" she said to the creature.

The baby vortisaur crooned in response to her voice, still suspended from her arm, still swinging back and forth.

"I think it likes you," said Nyssa. "Or perhaps it's imprinted on you – there's a reflex in the avian brain that means the first thing it sees, it recognises as a parent."

"No!" said Donna. "No, I'm not hand-rearing a vortisaur chick. That's not going to happen." Still, she looked at the creature with a fond expression, as it rocked itself to sleep.

"The Doctor said that they fed on chronal energy. It could be that its mother chose this place to lay her egg because of you. You exude chronal energy; it needs chronal energy to survive." Nyssa folded her arms, pleased with the symmetry of it all.

Donna seemed unimpressed. "It's all a bit too convenient, you know? I don't trust things that are this convenient."

Nyssa laughed at her sceptical expression. "Didn't you ever wonder how the Doctor managed to be in exactly the right time at the right place? Coincidence is how the Time Vortex avoids paradox."

"Your Doctor was ever in the right time at the right place? We really did know different people." Donna reached down with one finger to stroke the vortisaur's scaly head. It gave out a few squeaks, then settled into a soft rumbling purr. "I always did want a cat, but I'm allergic to the hair," she said, then sighed. "I suppose it's worth it, if the time jumps stop." Her face brightened. "I think I'll call him Mad Max."

Donna slipped her free hand into Nyssa's and pulled her in close enough to kiss, still holding her other arm straight out to the side. It was an exuberant kiss, filled with the energy that comes from knowing things have worked out well. Nyssa opened her mouth, caught a hand in Donna's red hair, and for a moment, let herself remember how blissful it was to share an adventure with another woman, someone you knew you could trust.

After a while, Nyssa sighed and leaned into Donna's body. She would have to go back to her patients very soon. This had been a fun adventure, but she had important work here at Terminus. She smiled, and stroked Donna's cheek: it was good to remember that this was a kind of healing too. Finally, when she could no longer ignore the soft chime of her pager, she grinned up at Donna. "What will you do now? You can make your own decisions. Travel where you want and when you want."

Donna's grin was even wider, and her eyes crinkled with a kind of wicked delight that made Nyssa's heart beat faster. "That depends. What's the policy on pets here at Terminus?"