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The Accidental Ambassador

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Alison hesitates, her hand on the interior knob of the TARDIS door. She has just taken her first trip in time, along with the Doctor and the Doctor’s robot, on diplomatic assignment from the High Council of Time Lords, who are based on the planet Gallifrey. They have gone from 2003 CE, Alison’s present, to 2003 SE -- for Space Era -- a period that, according to the Doctor, began in about 2200 CE. I’m over two thousand years in the future! Alison tells herself, but even this prospect gives her no motivation to step out.


Not only is she outside of her usual time, but she is far, far outside her solar system: over 1,400 light-years, to be exact. The High Council’s assignment brings the Doctor to the constellation Cygnus, where an Earth-like planet orbits a Sun-like star, Kepler 452. The planet, identified by Earth scientists from the United States a decade or so from Alison’s present, was initially tagged Kepler 452b. Now, well into the Space Era, humans have bridged distances of light-years by means of the Alcubierre warp drive and colonized the planet. They have renamed Kepler 452b Terripluvium, which, to Alison the Latin geek, means planet of rains.


The people of Terripluvium, the Agricole, aren’t even really aliens. They, like Alison, are Homo sapiens, though the Agricole have artistic and technological transactions with the Time Lords. Because of their cultural connection to Gallifrey, Alison initially thought that the Agricole, were, like the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial House of Lords. She expected a bunch of old rich white blokes in space, but, according to briefs from the High Council, the Agricole are of all different races. Some pictures even show people with glossy complexions, slightly earthen red undertones, and profuse freckles -- features that remind her, with an ache, of her mum. Even though Alison has been traveling across time and space for the past three months with only a white Time Lord and their robot for company, she doesn’t open the door.


Even the planet itself seems familiar to Alison. Terripluvium is twice Earth’s mass, so Alison would feel incredibly logy outside of the TARDIS, which provides artificial Earth-like gravity. But she would need no special equipment to breathe the Terripluvian atmosphere or stand in its Keplershine.


And the Agricole’s Latinate terms for everything make her feel like she knows exactly what they’re talking about. The large volcanic island on which they’ve landed, Crescior, reminds her of crescere, Latin for to grow or flourish; indeed, the land seems to be experiencing an English spring, with leafing forests, pollinating flowers, and perpetual drizzle. The worst thing she risks, the Doctor assures her, is a much milder version of the allergy to some local wildflower, rosifolia, that currently affects them. Even though she hasn’t left the TARDIS for thirty-four days, Alison doesn’t open the door.


The TARDIS may have landed in a quiet forest just outside Crescior’s largest city, Flumenarx [something having to do with a river, which is flumen] , but the current tranquility means nothing. The Flumenarxi’s pets, the Topiarians [topiary -- pet trees?!], are in revolt. Bred for tractability and docility, the Topiarians have fled their owners and established their own colony. The Topiarians have attacked the city, cut off its food supplies, and assassinated its rulers. Flumenarx has asked for Time Lord assistance in quelling the insurrection. That’s why Alison doesn’t open the door.


It’s not just the war that keeps Alison on this side of the door; it’s what she has learned about aliens. She has met them twice before in her association with the Doctor. The first time was on Earth, when the Shalka, subterranean lava snakes with a scream that could overpower minds, had taken control of the entire town of Lannet, South Yorkshire, Alison included. The second time was on Alison’s first trip to a non-Earth planet, where a psychic vampire tried to feed off Alison’s memories. There were also the centipede-like Kilikt, who invaded the TARDIS to eat everyone, but she did not technically meet them because she was hiding in a closet with several cringeing cats at the time. Alison’s scant experience with aliens suggests that they’re usually out to get her -- even if the aliens are Homo sapiens too . That’s why Alison doesn’t open the door.


In her short sojourn on the TARDIS, Alison has learned the hard way to trust no one. Despite the fact that the Doctor seems trustworthy, gallant, and heroic, they are also capable of cruelty and pain. After all, they were the one who sent her back under Shalka control, letting that alien bug literally drill its way through her skull again, claiming it was the only way to save the world. So, when the Time Lord Council says that the Agricole of Terripluvium are peaceful scientists, Alison still cannot believe that they will respect her. They’re fighting a war -- who knows what nasty maneuvers they’ll pull if they think their world is at stake? And they have some Time Lord technology, so they might invade people’s minds as part of a martial strategy. And so Alison won’t open the door.


She wonders why she agreed to travel with the Doctor and their robot. What did the Doctor make the offer to her, a twenty-five-year-old drop-out, barmaid, Shalka pawn, and all-around failure? If the Doctor truly considered her a worthy companion for them and their robot, why didn’t they go back in time for the best version of her, ten-year-old Ali C., who was going to change the world with brains and enthusiasm alone?


Ali C. knew without a doubt that she was the brightest little girl that the Cheney family had ever seen. She knew so because everyone in her family started telling her that when she taught herself to read classical mythology at the age of three, and they never stopped. Her mum and her dad never lied to her, though; they reminded her that she’d have to work at least twice as hard to be considered half as good as any white boy. So Ali C. studied and wrote as hard as she could, then woke up early and studied and wrote some more. Her report on the hairstyles of royal Ancient Egyptian women won district, regional, and even national awards, but, most importantly of all, it made her mum’s mum smile and call her Sunny Al. Ali C. figured that, if she could win the approval of her scary Grandma, she could prove herself to the world at large by being so brilliant that no one could say she wasn’t.


But Ali C. grew older, and she changed. When Alison was eleven, the new girl Regina touched her hair, so she smacked Regina -- and yet Alison was the one who got detention. When she was twelve, she pointed out to her summer camp director that it was only her cabin, the quartet of black girls, who were constantly slapped with demerits for excessive noise; the director told her that there would be no problem if they just piped down. When she was fifteen, her history tutor Mr. Sivens omitted telling her about a weekend lecture at Sheffield Hallam on radiographic analysis of mummies, one of her favorite historical topics. He told her that he assumed that she wouldn’t be interested in higher ed, unless it was a secretarial certificate like her mum’s. There was no single traumatic cataclysm, only a steady hail of moments, sending cracks and shocks throughout her self-confidence.


Alison learned the truth: that she wasn’t diligent enough, smart enough, or good enough to change anyone’s mind. She was powerless, sustained only by false illusions of hope. She knew she wouldn’t be able to change the world, but she went to uni anyway [Sheffield Hallam, actually, no thanks to Mr. Sivens]. Her mum’s employment there meant free tuition, and her Grandma’s heart would have broken if she didn’t. Alison pushed herself dutifully through her classes, but her strength, already vulnerable after a decade of doubts, depleted quickly. One-third of the way through a history degree, she met Joe and left school to live in Lannet with someone who never expected more of her than what she was at that moment.


Alison turns away from the TARDIS exit and heads toward her studio. She never had more than a corner back on Earth for all her projects and supplies. But, in a spaceship of uncountable decks, passageways, and corners, she now has the luxury of an entire room devoted to dolls. She has been giving fashion dolls makeovers for years now, ever since she was six and she burned her hand, trying to boil perm a doll’s hair to make it look lofty and halo-like, as her Grandma’s was. She still carries the scar on the inside of her right wrist, but she likes to think that her skills have improved slightly since then. At the very least, the TARDIS has supplied her with a variety of fashion dolls in a full spectrum of brown to black. She also has some homespun Earth wool, dyed a dark red, that she would like to use to simulate naturally formed dreadlocks. She decides to start yet another reroot, one of the few things she knows she can do well.


Collecting a doll head, her rerooting tool, and a hank of fiber from her studio, Alison turns down a dark, little-used passageway and settles into her favorite work spot. Here the shadows dissipate, and the low ceiling soars up into a two-story atrium, painted in the airy light yellow of sunshine itself. The illumination that streams from the domed skylight is, according to the Doctor, artificial, and yet its thick, somnolent warmth seems imported directly from Earth’s sun. A dozen TARDIS cats already nap in the cul-de-sac, shaping themselves into fuzzy loaves on various overstuffed settees and ottomans. Their purring forms a bubbly background noise that reminds Alison of swiftly rushing water.


Alison finds a chair relatively free of loose cat fur and sits down. The cushions, napped in something like deep velvet, shift around, giving her more back support for her project. She sets the fiber on the broad left arm of the chair, then takes up the doll head in her left hand. It’s dark brown, with purple undertones, and strong, upswept features. Alison decides that this doll needs a regal updo, so she holds her rooting tool between her right thumb and forefinger and begins.


Alison gives her princess -- for that’s how she thinks of this doll now -- new hair by installing fibers in the rooting holes from which she previously removed the factory default hair. She uses a needle, the eye of which has been cut in half horizontally to form two prongs. She places a pinch of fiber in between the prongs created by the broken eye, then pushes the needleful into one of the existing holes in the doll’s head. If she estimates the amount of fiber accurately, then a friction fit keeps the hair tightly wedged in the hole. A truly professional job would involve knotting the hair so that it could not be pulled from the scalp. But Alison, having never used this fiber before, is eager to see what it looks like as hair. She works fast.


Alison quickly develops a rhythm of pinching and stabbing -- or, as her fellow doll artist Maisha calls it, plugging and chugging. In the golden dreaminess of the sunlight, her worries evaporate and float away. She breathes as easily and evenly as the cats about her. She might be the disappointment of her grandma’s dreams; she might be unable to leave the TARDIS without something trying to vacuum up her mind, but here, now, in this moment, she can create a little beauty.


After a short time -- perhaps fifteen minutes -- her head begins to hurt. Originating in the back of her skull, the ache pulses in time with her blood. On Earth, she used to work on dolls for hours with no ill effect besides that of a cramp in her needle-holding right hand. In space, though, she can barely make any progress before the headaches come.


Maybe this is the Doctor’s fault. After all, as soon as the TARDIS landed yesterday, they immediately bounced out of the ship, singing at the top of their voice. They returned several hours later in much lower spirits, sucking regularly on their inhaler and complaining about the rosifolia. How dare the wildflowers release pollen upon the Doctor and thus cut short their one-individual performance of The Tragedy of Gouan! Anyway, maybe the Doctor brought some rosifolia pollen into the TARDIS, and that explains Alison’s symptoms.


But no -- she’s had this inability to concentrate for months now, ever since she left Earth. Staring at the paltry five rooting holes she has filled in her princess’ head, Alison experiences the sequel to her headaches. Colorless starbursts flicker in her vision...or maybe they’re tears. Maybe she’s not even good at this anymore.

“You’re suffering, aren’t you, Domina cara Casnetum?” observes a deep voice with a slight upward lilt of curiosity.