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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.

Chapter Text

Fuck. It’s the Doctor’s robot. She had no problem with him when he told her point-blank on their first meeting that he disliked her. Then, for the first two and a half months, they ignored each other except for polite necessities.

 

A few weeks ago, however, he reminded her somnolent brain so much of her Latin tutor, Magister Nkrumah, that she actually mumbled, “Salve, Magister.” [It really should have been Magistre in the vocative, but hey -- she was barely awake, okay?] Unfortunately, her slip of the tongue seems to have piqued his interest. Now he occasionally hails her as Domina cara Casnetum, Latin for my dear Miss Cheney, since casnetum, he says, is the medieval Latin term from which her surname derives.

 

As if that weren’t bad enough, the robot watches her. He leaves her to her own devices, but, whenever they do encounter one another, he looks at her and into her in a way that the Doctor never does. It’s not mind reading; the Doctor says that their robot’s telepathy exceeds their own, but Alison has never felt him use it on her. She always assumed that the Doctor saw something in her that made them conclude that she was a good sidekick for Time Lords. But now she realizes that it’s the robot who’s reading her, but she has no idea what he sees.

 

The robot always dresses for the occasion, assuming the occasion is sneaking up and scaring the crap out of you. Clad in fine black from the high collar of his jacket, to the tips of his gloves, to the heels of his shoes, he only breaks the monochrome with stark white cuffs highlighting his wrists. Somehow that makes his covered hands more apparent...and more uncanny. He wears gloves constantly, which makes Alison wonder what he’s hiding. Sometimes she thinks he might not even have hands at all.

 

All you can really see of his actual body is his head. His skin is sepia in color, with warm, light brown undertones. His hair, all black except for flares of white in the sideburns and at the outer corners of his beard, recedes significantly from a widow’s peak. Thus his lined forehead seems even higher.

 

And he has an amazing restless face, carven with wrinkles and forever telling stories, even when he is silent. His long, low brows arch and flatten as he scrutinizes. His eyes, a rich brown lightened with a bit of amber, flash with the quickness of his thoughts. His nose, with an upward arc to the nostrils and a downward tilt to the end, flares and tightens as he maintains his dignity. His mouth hides like a secret beneath his drooping mustache, then appears suddenly whenever he sees her, and a halfway smile pushes an angular groove into his cheek. His goatee brings his chin forward to an aggressive point, boldfacing every motion of his jaw. He would be quite handsome, in the stark, dramatic way of a black and white movie star, if he’d quit ambushing her with unnervingly accurate commentary on her emotional states.

 

Alison tries for a shrug. “No, not suffering. It’s just a headache from too much stabbing, you know.”

 

The robot nods. “A device that small and blunt would produce eye strain. I have much better instruments in my lab, if you like. They slide through flesh beautifully, without any of the resistance you’re currently dealing with.”

 

Who the fuck is this person? Alison knows even less about the Doctor’s robot than she does about the Doctor. Like the Doctor, the robot is a Time Lord, whose life the Doctor saved by transferring him from dying flesh to impervious electronics. Unlike the Doctor, however, he uses a title as his name -- the Master -- which Alison can barely bring herself to think, much less call him. She doesn’t really want to know what creepy skills he has mastered over his extended life.

 

Alison feels a shudder work its way up from her vitals, but she suppresses it. “Oh, that’s very nice of you, but I’m not dissecting anything. I’m just rerooting -- see?”

 

“Ah.” His voice goes down, disappointed that he can’t trade torturing tips with her, no doubt. Then he squats so that his eye is on a level with her hands and says again, “Ah,” as if realizing something. “You are…” He searches for a word, but finds only a Latin one: “--An artifex.”

 

Alison actually meets the robot’s eyes, more out of sheer surprise than anything. He just called her an artist, but, more than that, a clever person, a maker of cunning creations...perhaps even a trickster. He smiles at her, one eyebrow arching, as if he knows her now. He reminds her of those blokes at the Volunteer in Lannet, the ones who spewed ridiculous lines, then waited for the attention that they felt was their due. “Well, thank you, but this is just something I do in my spare time.”

 

He rises easily to a stand. “Anyway, I thought you’d want to know about the Doctor’s condition.”

 

When the Doctor returned from their ramble this morning, they had only a wheeze and a scowl. But Alison, who watched her grandma swiftly shrivel up and die within three weeks of breaking her right hip, knows how rapidly conditions can worsen. “What’s wrong with the Doctor?” She springs to her feet too quickly; her headache gives a strong throb, and she stumbles, bumping the robot’s arm. “Pardon me. I’m just so clumsy these days.”

 

Back in Lannet, no one would have noticed her momentary vertigo; they would have just teased her about drinking her wares. But nothing escapes the robot -- literally. He catches her by the bicep, his grip light but solid, as he steadies her. “Forget the Doctor for a moment. My dear -- what’s wrong with you?”

 

Ugh -- those eyes. There’s nothing robotic about them; in fact; the Doctor’s handwork accurately replicates the original pre-robot Time Lord in both form and function. So this pointy, hungry, eating look -- this gaze that makes her think of his brown eyes as open mouths of sharp teeth -- that’s truly his. He takes in everything; somehow he could learn everything about her, but still keep her from knowing anything about him.

 

It’s time to implement the Three-D Strategy, developed over years of brown sugar catcalls and perfected during a ten-month stint at the pub: Downplay; deflect; distract. In one efficient movement, she removes herself from his grasp and glides backward out of arm’s reach, wishing that she had a counter between her and him. “I guess I just haven’t gotten my land legs back yet after a few months in space.” She smiles, trying to sit on the arm of the chair casually, as if she really doesn’t need the extra support.

 

The robot puts his eyebrow up again a small increment, not at all convinced. Okay, it’s time for deflection and distraction. “But the Doctor…” Alison says. “They were coughing when they came back from their walk, but they thought that was just overexertion.”

 

The robot sighs. “The Doctor is a stubborn fool. I told them that there was a high probability that the rosifolia pollen would worsen their already reduced respiratory capacity, but, as usual, they didn’t listen to me. As a result, they’re recuperating in the Zero Room, and I’m left to explain to the High Council that their diplomatic directives have been temporarily suspended because of the Doctor’s frolic.” He rolls his eyes. “Can you stand?” he asks abruptly, fixing her with a keen look.

 

Alison hops up from the chair arm. The world wobbles a bit, but she straightens her back. “Yes, I’m fine.”

 

“Then come.” He sweeps from the atrium with the certainty of someone who has never been disobeyed.

 

Alison hurries after him. “The mission is on hold?”

 

“I already said that, didn’t I? Nothing is going to happen until I let them out of the Zero Room.”

 

“You trapped them in there?” The more she keeps the robot talking about himself, Alison thinks, the less attention he’ll direct toward her.

 

“Of course -- and put them in a healing coma as well. Otherwise they’d be larking across the fields, compromising their health in Rassilon knows how many creative ways.”

 

Note to self, Alison thinks. --Never get sick on the robot’s watch, or else you’ll end up knocked out in some quarantine room, under four-point restraints.

 

She opens her mouth to ask why the robot doesn’t act as envoy to the Agricole in the Doctor’s stead. Then she immediately realizes the answer to her own question.

 

First of all, there’s a practical reason for the robot’s inability to take the Doctor’s place. The robot is confined to the TARDIS. Unlike Alison, who does not want to step outside the door, he is truly unable to, whether he wishes to or not. In some way, the details of which she has never figured out, the TARDIS serves as his life support equipment. Outside of the spaceship, he would probably die.

 

Second of all, even if the robot could leave the TARDIS, Alison suspects that he would make a horrible diplomat. She pictures him at an ambassadorial banquet, pinning people down with that acquisitive stare, demanding to be called that name of his, flaying his hors d’oeuvres into smithereens with surgical precision. Yeah...no. The Doctor probably stuck him here for the express purpose of preventing such shit. Smart Doctor.

Chapter Text

The robot, who has been leading Alison through a maze of halls and stairs, stops before a thick panel of glass set into the wall. The window stretches in height from floor to ceiling and in width as far as the robot’s armspan. Through the window, Alison sees...not really a room, but a cloud that shimmers with pastel versions of all the hues of the visible spectrum. In the midst of the gently shifting rainbow, the Doctor levitates on their back, eyes closed. An oxygen mask covers their face, its accordion tube extending up into the reaches of the mist.

 

The Doctor should be bounding around, cape and coattails flapping, their gangly limbs flailing with irrepressible energy. They should be smiling, singing snatches of song in three different languages, or they should be frowning, thinking hard about how to beat impossible odds and win the day. But they’re so still in there...and so small, nearly engulfed by the endless clouds. “Doctor…” Alison says in a whisper.

 

“Miss Cheney,” says the robot with a low laugh, “the Doctor is not dying. The Zero Room acts as a protective retreat, a space isolated from the influences of the universe, where we Time Lords -- well, those of us who are biologically based, anyway -- can accelerate our natural healing capabilities. The Doctor is merely being restored.

 

“In fact, if you look at their vitals,” he continues, calling her attention to a bank of monitors to the right of the window, “you can see the effect that the Zero Room has had on the Doctor so far.” The robot points to a glowing blue line that shows a persistent downward trend. “In the past five hours, the stridor has largely disappeared, and they’re now respiring at a nearly normal rate. And their hearts have been at normal resting rate for two hours now.” At another screen, the Time Lord equivalent of an electrocardiogram shows two blips, one for each of the Doctor’s hearts, flaring in a comfortingly regular rhythm.

 

Alison swallows a sigh. “That’s great!”

 

The robot slides his eyes to Alison. “In fact,” he says after a moment, “they are improved enough that I shall permit them to regain consciousness briefly if you would like to speak to them.”

 

“Oh! Yes! How long will it -- “

 

Her question of how she might have to wait to hear the Doctor’s voice breaks off, for a low, harsh whisper bursts through a speaker grille by the monitors: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”

 

Who’s reciting from Frankenstein? Was that the robot? Alison peeks sideways at him, but he, mouth shut, is too busy with a mighty eye roll to be croaking like that.

 

The voice goes on: “It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open!” Alison sees the Doctor’s irises -- summer blue -- flash and realizes that the oxygen mask has disappeared from their face.

 

“It breathed hard,” says the Doctor, punctuating this clause with a cough, “and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs!” They swing themselves into a sitting position, as if the cloud upon which they float is a mattress. Favoring their audience with a brilliant grin, they wince only momentarily.

 

“Doctor!” Alison clasps her hands.

 

“Am I expected to applaud?” says the robot, pressing down the intercom button on the grille.

 

“Master!” the Doctor cries, as if the robot has run to him with open arms. “So good of you to let me wake up for a moment. And Alison -- how lovely! Have you two been making friends?”

 

“No,” they say in instant unison.

 

The robot abandons the grille, so Alison steps forward and hits the button. “How are you feeling?”

 

“A trifle worse than I expected. The asthma complicates matters, you know. But don’t worry, Alison -- before my dear friend here locked me in, I reviewed your health profile, and you have no danger of rosifolia allergy at all. In fact,” says the Doctor, spreading their arms wide, “my research indicates that the entire planet of Terripluvium is perfectly safe for humans.”

 

“There’s a rebellion going on,” the robot points out.

 

The Doctor drops their arms suddenly to their sides. “Hmmm...I don’t think my shoulder muscles are ready for such expansive gestures,” they say, as if the robot didn’t speak.

 

“You’re really trapped in the Zero Room?” Alison asks.

 

“Oh yes, for my own good.” The Doctor plucks the oxygen mask from the clouds above and takes a deep draw. “Of course,” they say in a stage whisper, “what the Master doesn’t know is that, once I’m well, I’ll be improving his internal power supply. He’ll be plugged into the TARDIS console, on a one-meter extension cord, for the duration.”

 

“More than enough for a garrote, my dear Doctor,” murmurs the robot.

 

“When do you think you’ll be free?” How long will she have to be alone with...him?

 

“I don’t know. While the Zero Room has cleared most of the irritants from my system, I fear that those hours I spent hacking might have caused me a spot of damage.”

 

“Three fractured ribs,” interjects the robot, speaking between clenched teeth, “ruptures of at least five major pulmonary tubules, and an abdominal wall herniation.”

 

“Then I’ll be recovering for several days at least.” The Doctor coughs a few times. Seemingly suddenly aware of their injured state, they hold their belly, crumpling in on themselves. The electrocardiogram speeds up; several monitors beep and flash.

 

“Doctor!” Alison exclaims.

 

“Chin -- hack! -- up, Alison!” the Doctor says. “The Master will let me out when I’ve healed. In the meantime, he’ll handle everything. Just do as he says -- which shouldn’t be any trouble at all, since, as I’m sure he’s told you, he is the Master, and you will obey him.” They grin, like it’s some sort of joke.

 

“You’re much less insufferable when you’re comatose,” the robot remarks. “Good night.” The Doctor abruptly flops backward among the clouds, eyes closed, limbs loose, just as the robot does when the Doctor cuts his power with their remote control. Presumably the robot has just telepathically smacked the equivalent of the Doctor’s consciousness’ OFF button. The oxygen mask descends and seals itself over the Doctor’s nose and mouth. “A marked improvement,” the robot says.


Alison stands rigid at the window. Did the Doctor just tell her to trust a robot who plays with people’s minds like they’re light switches? Do they expect her to submit to him? Did they make a crack about him being her master? Her skin chills and tightens all over her body. Her headache surges back in full force. Does the Doctor know her at all?

Chapter Text

When Alison first met the Doctor and his robot, she felt almost at home with them. Their comfortable snark reminded her of her parents: her mum saying that her dad assembled so many custom computer rigs in the basement that he probably had circuit boards soldered into his head, her dad replying that at least he didn’t cry at toilet paper adverts. In the same way, the robot called the Doctor a giddy buffoon, while the Doctor diagnosed him with as much heart as a tin can. She figured that they were, like her parents, married or partnered or whatever the Time Lord equivalent was. She smiled when she listened to them because they obviously loved each other.

 

Her discussions today with the robot now cast doubts on her previous conclusions. She always thought of them as equals: both Time Lords, both older, wiser, and much more powerful than she was. But she has learned two things today that indicate that she was wrong.

 

First, though she herself gives little thought to the Doctor’s remote control, the robot never forgets that the Doctor can power him up or down with the flick of a switch. And the robot absolutely detests this existence contingent upon the Doctor’s whim. She saw the way that he took advantage of the Doctor’s vulnerability in the Zero Room, switching off their mind with a nonchalant abruptness. The robot may love the Doctor, but he also hates what he has become.

 

Second, speaking of what the robot has become, he used to be a creature like the Doctor, living, growing, dying, and, as Time Lords apparently do, regenerating. But then something happened, about which the Doctor has been deliberately hazy on the details. The pre-robotic Time Lord did something for the Doctor, a sacrifice that left him on the brink of permanent death. The Doctor saved the Time Lord’s life in the only way possible, by turning him into a machine. At least that’s what the Doctor and the robot claim. Now that she sees hints of the robot’s past -- torture, mind control, sadism, and probably murder -- she wonders if the Doctor made him into a robot to imprison him.

 

In front of the library, its door of creased red leather, embossed in gold, the robot stops. “I need no telepathy to learn what you think of me, Miss Cheney,” he says, as if he’s talking about the weather.

 

“Oh?” Her head is hammering, but she folds her arms and faces him. If she has stared down drunken louts threatening to launch beer glasses at her, she can deal with a robot who’s trying to psych her out.

 

“Indeed. You expect me to hurt you at any moment. You have been following me only because you do not know the route back from the Zero Room. And you have not fled from me because you have no place to hide.” Dressed as usual in crisp and remarkably light-eating black, the robot wears a suit of tight sleeves, severe cut, and flaring skirt, with a high, rounded standing collar. You could probably slice things on the pleats of his matching trousers and then impale them on the rather long and tapering toes of his shiny matching shoes, and she has never seen him without gloves of very thin, very fine leather. Either he has the perfect outfit for lurking in dark corners, or his clothes are so much a part of him that, if he lost a glove, she’d see his metal bones.

 

The Three-D Strategy was designed with your average, oblivious customer in mind, and, on them, it works. But if you’ve got someone who fancies himself a little sharper than most blokes, someone who thinks he’s got a line on you because he knows what your body language really says, dodging and demurring will do nothing. Then it’s time for two other Ds: directness and disengagement. You stay calm, calling their bullshit out for what it is. More often than not, you can surprise them a bit and deflate their self-importance, throwing a spanner into the whole performance. “Okay then,” says Alison. “If I’m terrified of you and you know it, why bother wasting breath with the obvious?”

 

“That was but a preamble to a longer statement. May I continue?”

 

“I don’t know. How redundant are you going to be?”

 

The robot laughs. “According to the Doctor’s instructions, I must ensure your safety and wellbeing. If harm comes to you under my supervision, they will never forgive themselves, and they will never forgive me.” The smile has disappeared from his face now. He clasps his hands behind his back and looks down. “Since they hold ultimate power over my continued existence, I have no desire to jeopardize my own life by exposing you to danger.

 

“Besides,” he says, “I know how fragile humans are -- and yet how important you are to the Doctor. I must do everything within my power to keep you whole and happy, for, if you break, then so do the Doctor’s hearts. And I will not see that happen again.” He squeezes his hands into fists, his eyelids lowering halfway.

 

So does the robot hate the Doctor or love the Doctor? --Because right now he’s acting as if he cares about what they think, not merely because they could turn him off at any time, but because he wants them whole and happy. She’s beginning to think that no single word could possibly do justice to the entanglement that is their marriage, unless, of course, that word is intense.

 

“I tell you all this,” says the robot, “by way of explanation. I know that you fear me, despise me, and mistrust me. Yet the Doctor trusts me, and you trust the Doctor.”

 

“So I should trust you just because they do? Hah hah hah.” She fakes a laugh. “No.”

 

“That is not what I meant. I am giving you this information because you have made erroneous assumptions about my intentions toward you. You think, based on what you believe that you know about me, that I will break you. I am countering your false beliefs with correct information so that you will understand the truth.”

 

“I will?” Alison curls her lip at the robot. “How do you know? Are you going to snap your fingers and make me?”

 

A small vertical wrinkle appears at the center of the robot’s brow. “I need no vulgar legerdemain to exercise my psychic influence. I prefer the use of verbal cues.”

 

Into Alison’s mind springs something that she has successfully blocked out for several weeks: the means by which the robot dispatched the Kilikt. She didn’t dare watch, but she could hear, and, with the help of the TARDIS’ ambient translation abilities, comprehend both sides of the exchange.

 

The Kilikt barged into the control room where the robot was waiting. “Yum!” said one. “That bloke’s gotta be good for at least like five meals right there.”

 

“It’s a robot, larva brain.” That was a second Kilikt. “We’re looking for the meat.”

 

“Welcome, my friends,” said the robot. “Before you go any further, however, I regret to inform you that my Time Lord companion and my human acquaintance are not on the menu.”

 

“And you’re gonna keep us from eating them by using what -- manners?” said the second Kilikt, scoffing on the last word.

 

“Indeed. Allow me to introduce myself. I,” the robot said, “am the Master, and you will obey me.” The words -- precise, measured, with the formality of an incantation -- took effect immediately, silencing the Kilikt.

 

“Now then,” said the robot, “I gather that you were on a sight-seeing expedition before you made a detour onto our TARDIS. Did you have a chance to visit Recursion Singularity Binalle Three? No? Oh, then you definitely want to see it before you consume my fellow passengers and hibernate in their carcasses. It truly is one of the wonders of the cosmos.”

 

“Yeah, no, we should totally see it! Wait...what’s a recursion singularity?”

 

“Binalle Three is a time loop that shortens by a minuscule amount in each repetition,” explained the robot, “eventually becoming so dense that it annihilates itself and all matter trapped therein. In other words, it’s an elegant blend of terror and helplessness, culminating in an excruciatingly slow extinction. I’ve taken the liberty of locking your ship’s navigational system onto the coordinates. Relax and enjoy the ride.” And so the Kilikt exited cheerfully to their deaths.

 

I am the Master, and you will obey me. Alison recalls that, when she met the robot for the first time, he started saying those words in that exact same compelling rhythm. The Doctor’s sudden appearance interrupted the robot, however, and he concluded, “--And you will come to like me once you get to know me, Miss Cheney.” There’s no false belief about it -- this robot’s evil.

 

Back in the present, Alison tells the robot, “I’m not changing my mind about you because you’re a perverted creep. You were going to cast your bullshit mind-fuck spell on me from the moment I first said hi to you. The only reason you didn’t was because the Doctor waltzed in.”

 

He meets her eyes. “Yes, you are right.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I was going to use my telepathic power on you, but then the Doctor entered, and I caught myself. I realized that, if I compelled your obedience, I would break you, which I must not, cannot, will not, and do not want to do.”

 

“You just don’t want the Doctor to turn you off.”

 

“I prize my survival very highly, Miss Cheney, but it is not my sole motivation.”

 

“Whatever.” Her headache rises, and she closes her eyes. The world seems to slosh a little bit, but that’s just the dizziness.

 

“What ails you?”

 

Alison pushes her eyes open. Avoiding his question, she says, “So let me get this right. You have a history of mind-fucking everything that moves -- “

 

“I do not use my psychic influence indiscriminately! Besides the Kilikt, I have averted more threats to this craft than you realize. The Doctor may gallivant in foreign meadows and come down with life-threatening infections, but I am the Master, and I -- “ He stops himself for a second before resuming in a lower, more careful tone: “I keep the Doctor safe, and I keep you safe as well.”

 

“So you won’t mind-fuck me.”

 

“Never.” He shakes his head.

 

“Well, that’s a start, I guess. Now listen carefully, because I’m only going to tell you this once.”

 

“Yes, Domina . The robot waits, eyes wide, pupils dilated, brows lifted slightly, for her to present herself to him. For the first time since she met the Doctor, she has a Time Lord’s fully engaged attention.

 

Alison takes a deep breath and plunges onward: “My self and my mind and my body -- those are mine -- do you understand? Mine!” She taps her breastbone, and the robot’s attention turns to that fragile casing for her heart. “They’re all I have. I’m not a Time Lord; I don’t have telepathy or two hearts or nine lives. I’m a human being, and I have my dignity.

 

“My dignity depends on respect: my respect for myself and other people’s respect for me,” Alison says. “If you truly want to keep me safe, like you say -- if you truly want me to be whole and happy, then treat me with respect. You don’t have to be my best friend, only kind, considerate, and polite.” With another full breath, she unhunches her shoulders, letting them fall back into their usual, nondefensive position, as she lifts her head.

 

“For kindness and consideration, let me be happy, sad, angry, or whatever. Don’t mock me for feeling a certain way. If you see that I’m in pain, either ask how you can help or just leave me alone. No teasing, no taking advantage. And don’t joke about violence or pain or death. I know you act differently with the Doctor, but this is what respect means to me.

 

“For courtesy, say please when you want something from me and thank you when I give it to you. Don’t just order me around and take things from me. If you make a mistake, admit it; don’t pretend like you’re perfect and hide it. If you do something hurtful, say that you’re sorry, and then don’t do it again. Don’t take me for granted.

 

“Respect my limits too. Keep your mind-warping magic out of my head,” she tells him, “and don’t you dare touch me. Recognize that my body and my brain and my mind and my soul are mine and mine alone, not yours to fuck with.” She lifts a finger toward the robot, poking slightly for emphasis on each word of the last clause.

 

Such a feint at someone’s personal space usually prompts a step back, but not for the robot. Resting immobile, he marks each of her manual exclamation points with a little squint of concentration. At the end, he looks her up and then down. “May I reply?”

 

“Sure, go ahead.”

 

He studies the floor for a few moments, considering, organizing, and rehearsing his words. Then he bows. He drops his chin and then bends to her with the grace of a tree leaning down toward the water. “Audio atque cedo, Domina cara Casnetum.” He speaks in a hushed, carefully crafted cadence.

 

Audio -- that’s easy; that’s I hear. But cedo? “You’re...sitting? Stopping?”

 

He rights himself with a small smile. “Neither. Audio: I hearken and obey. Cedo: I yield and submit.”

 

“To everything I said?”

 

“Yes. I will respect you and take you seriously, no matter what emotions you feel or how much pain. I will be courteous and polite to you, and I will apologize if I make a mistake or cause you hurt. And I will not violate the limits that you stipulated for your mind or your body.”

 

“Fffft. Do you say that to everyone who calls you on your shit?”

 

“This is an entirely novel discussion for me -- I assure you.”

 

“So...I’m not obeying you, and you’re...obeying me?”

 

“Well, while you will continue to defer to me in matters where my expertise is superior -- “

 

“Say, TARDIS flying and threat aversion?”

 

“Those are perfect examples, but, otherwise, I am at your service.” The robot’s smile grows wider.

 

“This is not a sex thing, okay? --Or a kinky thing.”

 

“You humans have such an odd tendency to eroticize interactions.” The robot shakes his head. “In any event, I have no lascivious interest in you. --And what’s a kinky thing?”

 

He doesn’t know? Great -- one less area of potential confusion. “Never mind. Just know that it’s not this.”

 

“Whatever you say. --And thus, with the caveats that I mentioned before about my areas of mastery, I am yours to command.” He inhales deeply, widens his arms, and grins so greatly that his eyes almost squeeze closed.

 

For an evil robot who calls himself what he does, he seems strangely, yet genuinely, thrilled by his choice to submit to someone else. Did she miss something? Did she slip up when she declared her integrity and somehow do just the opposite? Does he have her right where he wants her?

 

But no. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to contain a smug smirk. Yet the expression on his face rather suggests the exhilaration and relief of someone who is, at long last, right where he wants himself to be. Huh. That’s...interesting.

 

Alison’s brain begins to bang, reminding her that she already exceeded the pathetic limits of her concentration a long time ago, way before she and the robot visited the Zero Room, talked to the Doctor, and then negotiated some sort of...something. “This isn’t a command, but...would you help me find some painkillers, please?” she asks. “I have an awful headache, and it’s making me kind of dizzy.”

 

The robot’s smile turns to a frown of concern. “Yes, of course. Wait here but a moment, my dear. I am going to my lab.”

 

He returns scant minutes later with a vial containing two white ovals in one hand and a glass of water in the other. “I knew that our infirmary, such as it is, would serve you eventually. So, in the past few months, I’ve prepared remedies for the ailments that a human might commonly experience. I created all the drugs specifically for you, based on the information you gave to the TARDIS when you first arrived. So this,” he says, rattling the pills in the vial, “is a particularly fast-acting variant of naproxen sodium that will dissolve instantly, without any of that chalky residue that you so emphatically dislike.”

 

“Hey!” exclaims Alison, as the pills do just what he said they would do. “It works.”

 

“Of course it does.” He folds his arms with a nod. “If you need anything, you have only to ask.”


“Mmmph. I have to lie down.” She then stumbles to her rest, the robot shadowing her every step of the way, until he has ensured her safe collapse upon the lovely support of her mattress.

Chapter Text

Alison wakes up. According to her bedside clock, still set on Earth local time, she has been out for about eighteen hours. Her self-appointed feline guardian, a jade-colored cat stationed immediately to the right of her pillow, meeps interrogatively. “Actually, I slept fine!” Alison says.

 

She gets to her feet. She stands without swaying; her dizziness has dissipated. And her head feels calm and clear; thinking doesn’t hurt anymore. Whatever chemicals the robot concocted in his lab truly have had a salutary effect. She really should thank him.

 

Alison takes a quick shower, moisturizes her cornrows, puts on clean clothes, then goes to the kitchen nearest to her room. The TARDIS has laid out various unidentifiable leftovers to both satisfy her suddenly enormous appetite and mend her of any lingering damage caused by last night’s, uh, episode. Alison, who trusts the sentient machine that she lives in much more than the one that she lives with, eats everything. “Thank you very much, TARDIS. That was delicious.”

 

While the Doctor and the robot communicate mind to mind with the TARDIS, the ship uses indirect, non-invasive means with Alison. Now, for example, the TARDIS sends a brassy little fanfare rippling through the kitchen, both touting her own prowess and cheering Alison’s recovery.

 

Ready for the day, Alison heads for the library and pushes open the door. The rotunda room vaults higher than even her beloved atrium. The half closest to the door is filed with densely packed books on shelves, extending up at least four meters from the floor. Bronze rolling ladders on tracks allow access to the highest shelves. There’s a mezzanine above, though with shorter shelves, the tops of which may be reached by footstool. Overhead, the side of the dome closest to the door features airy white wood, coffered with hexagons -- it’s a hive of knowledge. [According to the Doctor, the hive even contains its own denizens -- winged cats who haunt the tops of the mezzanine shelves -- but, try as Alison might, she has never seen any.]

 

Grey light comes from the half of the rotunda furthest from the door. Made entirely out of glass from floor to ceiling, this section of the dome turns the library into a window on the world. It seems to be mid-morning, and the vapors have lifted slightly, allowing Alison to see that the TARDIS has landed upon a hill. The fields of Crescior unroll softly below her, scattered with low, rounded farming compounds of wood and stone. The River Vitager moves through these lowlands in close silver loops, proving itself, as its name suggests, the life of the land . Beyond the fields, where the river delta joins the coast, stand the towers of Flumenarx. Though the fog allows Alison to descry only the bases of the buildings, the scale and the construction of the city’s narrow, metallic forms differentiates them starkly from the rural settlements.

 

She enters the central portion of the library. Here, scattered upon a thickly piled carpet that says READ in more languages than Alison ever knew existed, lie clusters of chairs, tables, cushions, and nooks. Each reading spot is illuminated by narrow, lily-like flowers, twining on vines around the legs of tables, up the backs of chairs, and between the overhangs of nooks. As she passes one of the flowers of light, a heavy-grained incense floats past her nostrils, and she realizes that they are living plants, their roots making ripples as they run under the carpet.

 

What should she read? As she turns in a circle, contemplating, the TARDIS beams a marquee arrow on the library wall, indicating a location in the far right corner of a ground floor shelf. Alison ascends a rolling ladder and pulls the recommended volume from the shelf.

 

It’s not a paper book, but rather like the screen of a lightweight laptop, and words appear upon it as she holds it. The alphabet is Roman, but it’s no language that she knows. She calls to the TARDIS, “Can you do your translation magic on this, please?”

 

The TARDIS replies with a sprightly cascade of chimes, and the marquee arrow fades. Alison descends the rolling ladder and settles into a nook. As she holds the laptop book before her, she sees that the spaceship has reworked the contents for her in her native language. Wondering why the TARDIS has suggested a story entitled We Are All Frankenstein by Publivocis Auriana, she says, “Thanks,” and begins to read.

 

Publivocis begins by recounting her long, respected career in Flumenarxi broadcasting. They served the city faithfully until the recent Schuaschen [apparently that’s the Topiarians’ term for themselves] demonstration outside the Fontaneum in 2000 SE. When their fellow Flumenarxi brutally suppressed the demonstration, killing twelve Schuaschen, Publivocis began to reconsider their dedication to a corrupt regime. After watching a lifetime of injustices against the Schuaschen, they left Flumenarx and joined the Schuelle, the Schuaschens’ resistance movement.

 

That said, Publivocis summarizes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, calling it that great epic of England on Old Earth, the story of a misguided scientist who flouts the natural laws of kindness and ends up destroying himself and all those around him. Publivocis then reaches their thesis, indicting themselves and their readers:

 

We are all Victor Frankenstein. Like the arrogant scientist of ancient literature, we Flumenarxi have broken the laws of nature and perverted Crescior to benefit us. We used to live as humans were meant to: in harmony with the land and each other, as farmsteaders all. We knew the rewards of honest labor, dirt under our fingernails, and kindness to one another. Crescior was an agricultural democracy, and it was good and right.

 

But we in the city have turned our backs on the land that gave us life and the compassion that made us good. We amassed wealth and literally raised ourselves above our rural siblings in our antiseptic metal towers. We began to call the people of the country Graniculi in contempt. Where once we were one people, we have cleft ourselves in two, naming the agricultural majority inferior, requiring their labor and tribute. We have eradicated our natural compassion and democracy, and we are cruel parasites -- a blight on the land.

 

We Flumenarxi have broken the ancient compacts of goodness and generosity with our very own creations, the Schuaschen, as well. We made them of our own flesh and genetic material, yet expected them to be as still and voiceless as the trees with which we crossed them. But the Schuaschen are our siblings just as much as the Graniculi. Though they look different, they, like us humans, are people deserving dignity and respect. And yet we treat them like plants -- imprisoning them in pots, burning them as if they are weeds, desecrating their bodies to make art -- all because they dare to assert their rights to personhood. We have betrayed the land and our fellows, whether rich or poor, human or hybrid.

 

After a full fifty screens of such rhetoric, Alison sets aside the laptop book with a clatter. The Flumenarxi lied to the High Council of Time Lords, who passed those lies off to the Doctor. This isn’t a war against house pets turned murderous monsters. The Flumenarxi think that they own the Schuaschen just because they created them through genetic engineering. But the Schuaschen are people too who fully deserve respect and autonomy. The Flumenarxi don’t need help suppressing the Schuaschen. Instead, if anything, the Schuaschen need help establishing their independence.

 

The conflict, though, isn’t just between the Flumenarxi and the Schuaschen; it expands to encompass all of Crescior. The Flumenarxi hold sway over the land through political, legal, judicial, and financial supremacy. Though far outnumbered by the rural Agricole known as Graniculi, the Flumenarxi compel the Graniculi to supply them with labor, goods, and crops. When the Schuaschen fled Flumenarx and dispersed into the country, they brought with them stories of a life that most Graniculi had never dreamed of. Though some Graniculi have joined the Schuaschen against the Flumenarxi, the majority remain loyal to the established plutocracy. This place needs a socioeconomic revolution.

 

Alison is reviewing the possibilities for a bloodless transfer to representative democracy when the TARDIS calls her with a two-tone sound like a doorbell. Alison checks the library door, in case the robot is out there. He’s not. “Why are you dinging?” Alison asks the TARDIS.

 

A tile in the ceiling retracts, and a monitor lowers on a jointed metal arm. The screen comes on, showing the small clearing, misted on the margins, in which the TARDIS has landed. Around the spaceship grow hemispherical, multilayer flowers that, with their pale, translucent petals and glistening golden prongs in the center, look like exploded baklava. As a light breeze moves by, particles of yellow stream out from the flowers -- the infamous rosifolia pollen, no doubt.

 

Having established the scene, the camera moves forward through the mist and focuses on a person. Alison can make out no details except for a humanoid shape, maybe one and a half meters in height. A corona of leafy branches radiates at least a half a meter from the person’s head in an amazing Afro of foliage. The person turns back, as if hearing something. “A Schuaschen!” says Alison. “What are they looking at?”

 

The camera pans so quickly that Alison closes her eyes to avoid dizziness. When she opens them again, the monitor shows her three people -- Agricole, by the looks of them, since they have hair, rather than leaves. Her brain wants to classify them as Pakistani, Irish, and maybe Trinidadi, even though they’re on a completely different world. They speak, and the TARDIS, who can only simultaneously translate when people are in the ship, provides subtitles on a slight delay.

 

“Which way did she go?” asks one.

 

“Is she even worth it?” says another with a sigh.

 

“Five hundred dead, one thousand alive!” says the last Agricole. “You could rebuild half your ‘stead on that.”

 

“What if we run her through the mill and make a table?” mutters the one who was sighing. “Think we could sell it for more than that?”

 

Alison gasps. “The Schuaschen -- she’s right near us, isn’t she?” she whispers to the TARDIS, though it’s not like the Agricole can hear her.

 

The camera view goes back to the Schuaschen, who is now poised on the edge of the TARDIS’ clearing, swaying, leaves shaking.

 

“I can get to her before they do, right? If I yell out the door, can you translate?” Without waiting for an answer, Alison runs from the library and opens the front door.

Chapter Text

With the TARDIS door open, Alison raises her voice to carry across the clearing: “Schuaschen person! Please excuse me for addressing you so rudely, but I apologize -- I don’t know your name. I do know, though, that you are pursued by Agricole who have a bounty on your head.”

 

The person pricks up her branches, crosses the clearing faster than Alison expected, and clasps both of Alison’s hands. Being essentially a human crossed with a tree, she has little softness to her flesh of living wood, yet she holds Alison with a grip both solid and warm. Her skin -- bark? -- is a brown with greyish undertones, seamed with narrow vertical lines; she feels pleasantly, delicately rough to Alison, as if she would never slip from her grasp. She smiles with such vigor that Alison feels herself smile too. As the Schuaschen’s coronal branches almost enclose them both in an eclipse of green light, Alison never wants to let her go.

 

“Wow! O loftiest and most fruitful of Time Trees, you answered my communications! You came! That’s so ripe -- it’s…” The person searches for a word: “--Juicy!” Her eyes, full of light, are as green as new leaves with the sun shining through.

 

Still holding the person’s hands, Alison steps back slightly from such distracting intensity. “Well, um, yes, of course we did,” she says with a nod. “The High Council of Time Lords -- Time Trees -- heard your appeal and sent me and my fellow envoys. I’m Alison Cheney, and I’ve come to help you. My ship is a neutral zone, and you will have sanctuary inside if you need it. Please -- come on in.” She pulls the person inside and shuts the door behind her.

 

The person steps forward, but somehow the step turns into a flying leap that launches her against the center console, where she catches herself by clamping both hands against a railing. Alison runs to her. “Are you all right?”

 

The person turns to Alison. “I just floated like a leaf in a breeze! I’m so...light! I didn’t even think that your gravity would be different from ours, much less that your ships could generate microgravitational fields.”

 

Alison recalls that Terripluvium, more massive than Earth, exerts a much stronger pull on everything. Of course the artificial Earth-like gravity inside the TARDIS would seem like flying to a Terripluvian. “Oh yes, we have the gravity here adjusted to our specifications. I do apologize.”

 

“No, don’t apologize.” The person jumps into another spin; her heavy skirt, made of interlocking tendrils of yellowish moss, flares slightly around her bare feet. She stops herself on the railing again, but with one hand this time and only a slight wobble. “This is so -- bloomin’ -- juicy!”

 

“As long as you’re not hurt.”

 

“No, I’m fine.” The person smiles.

 

“Good.” Alison smiles back. A few seconds pass, after which Alison realizes that she is still grinning into the person’s face in a manner thoroughly unbecoming to a representative of the High Council. “Ahem. So I’m Alison Cheney, and you are…?”

 

“I bid you welcome to Terripluvium and Crescior, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree Ellischuan Schennaya.” Turning Alison’s name into a rustle of leaves, the person takes her hands again, but slowly, with more formality, and bows. “I thank you from my heartwood for the shelter under the branches of your ship. I am Uscheschua of the Lilleschall cultivar, communications specialist of the Flower Grove of the Schuelle and ambassador to the Agricole. --Or at least I will be,” she amends, “once the Great Grove of Time Trees has guaranteed our freedom and our safety.”

 

Uscheschua -- despite the springiness of its possessor, the very name fills Alison with a sense of peace, groundedness, perhaps even -- could such a thing be possible? -- home. She wants to tell Uscheschua how glad she is to have found her; she wants to make her happy and do everything she can to help the Schuaschen -- if only to bring all the green brightness shining once again to Uscheschua’s eyes.

 

But Alison didn’t come here to make friends. She and Uscheschua are diplomatic envoys with the liberty of the Schuaschen and all the peace of Crescior depending on them. If only she had a clue about what to do next... “Ambassador Lilleschall -- that is your preferred title?”

 

“Yes! That sounds great!” Uscheschua nods; her branches swish around her face like rays of light. “What is your title, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree Ellischuan Schennaya? I’ve been branching out with so many only because you are the first Time Tree I’ve met.”

 

Alison imagines a tree with its roots in one half of the universe and its branches in the other, growing the fruit of many worlds. She wishes that she truly could be a Time Tree, rather than a Lord, for, while Lords have power over the universe, a Time Tree has power in the universe. Its strength comes from the connections it makes between stars and the people who orbit them. “Just Time Tree Cheney, please.”

 

“Yes, of course, Your -- I mean, Time Tree Cheney.” More smiling occurs. Then Uscheschua seems to remember her lines. “Oh -- and what is your gender? And pronouns?”

 

“I’m...a woman. With feminine pronouns.” Alison falters slightly only because she’s not used to being asked so directly. Then again, she has been traveling with a male robot and a Time Lord who does not appear to care much about their gender identification, so she has had to give this some thought. Since Uscheschua has brought up the subject, Alison turns the inquiry back on her [?]: “And Ambassador Lilleschall, please tell me your gender and pronouns.”

 

“Oh, I don’t have one. None of us do. We just all use she and her.”

 

Alison blinks. Uscheschua’s body, despite the bark of her skin and the branches of her hair, resembles Alison’s in all major appearances. She even has the curve of high-riding breasts and rounded hips. Does the similarity extend beyond what she can see? Why would the Agricole make tree people with only one general body type? “Thank you for telling me. I must have skimmed that portion of the briefing, so I appreciate your indulgence in reminding me.”

 

“Certainly. Trees who have genders -- they don’t like being asked about them, for some reason. But I can’t tell by looking at them, so I feel that it’s better to ask and get the correct answer first, instead of assuming the wrong thing and making a mistake.”

 

“That makes sense to me.” Finally, Alison comes up with what seems like a suitably diplomatic activity: “Would you like a tour of my ship?”

 

Uscheschua agrees, so Alison consults the TARDIS computers for help in plotting a route that will avoid the robot. Before she leads Uscheschua from the control room, however, the communications specialist in Uscheschua comes to the fore. Recognizing that she and Alison are not speaking the same language to each other, she interrogates Alison on the principles behind the TARDIS’ simultaneous translation capabilities. Alison takes refuge in the excuse that, as an ambassador, she specializes in the use of such technology, rather than its engineering. This explanation does not satisfy Uscheschua, who asks how she can use tools without understanding their mechanisms.

 

Finally the TARDIS generates an executive summary of her translation tools and prints it out in Schuaschen. Uscheschua receives the document with profuse thanks. The tour begins with Uscheschua, walking at Alison’s side with her branches in a book, exclaiming to herself: “Ooooh…very connective -- positively dendritic!” This latter adjective, which appears with various adverbs over the course of Uscheschua’s perusal, seems to mean something like ingenious or brilliant.

 

Uscheschua finally removes her leaves from the document after several minutes. She gazes at Alison with the slightly unfocused wonder of someone coming out of a book and back into the world. Alison, who knows that sensation herself, smiles. She likes Uscheschua -- Ambassador Lilleschall -- more with each passing second. “If you’re interested in the TARDIS’ functions,” Alison offers, “you could talk to her. I’m sure she would explain herself much better to you than I could.”

 

Uscheschua’s eyes widen. “I could? Juicy!” Apparently she’s much more conversant with sentient machines than Alison ever was. Then again, perhaps Uscheschua finds a hybrid of consciousness and technology more easy to accept than Alison, as she, a human tree, herself mingles elements that to Alison seem unexpected.

 

In any case, Alison believes for a moment that she has pried Uscheschua away from her specialty for the time being. Then Uscheschua brings up another language question: “Time Tree Cheney, that’s not Gallifreyan you’re speaking, is it? I was hoping I could practice mine with you.”

 

“No, I’m sorry, Ambassador Lilleschall. The other two envoys speak Gallifreyan as their first language, but I don’t.” Oh shit, how wil she justify herself? She thinks fast: “My parents were diplomats themselves, on a mission to the Old Earth of the late 1900s Common Era, when I was born. I spent almost all my life there and grew up speaking English. I regret to say that I can’t help you practice your Gallifreyan.”

 

“But...you know English?” Uscheschua cries in Schuaschen. Then she says carefully, “I know...Anglesch! Langesch eff... Frankenschine!”

 

Alison pauses, parsing Uscheschua’s susurrant pronunciation. “You know English, right. But can you please say your second sentence again? I didn’t understand.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Uscheschua shakes her crown. “My pronunciation,” she says in Schuaschen, “must be thoroughly blighted and bug-ridden. I’ll try again.” She composes herself, then says in English, with more enunciation, “I know English too. It is the language of Frankenstein.”

 

“You’re familiar with Frankenstein?” Mary Shelley’s masterpiece seems to be coming up a lot these days.

 

“Yes, a classic epic of Old Earth, made in your language by Mary Schellaya. I know its words. Listen!” Seizing Alison’s hands again, Uscheschua closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and recites a passage, her delivery somewhere between a song and the precise beats of a dramatic monologue: “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine -- mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed to her I received as made to a possession of my own. We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me -- my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only.” Making eye contact with Alison again, she says, “Good pronunciation or bad?”

 

“Wow.” Alison stares. “That was so beautiful and passionate -- like a performance. Great pronunciation! Very juicy!”

 

Uscheschua laughs and says in English, “Thank you!” Then she switches to Schuaschen and adds, “Well, I am said to be bloomin’ melodramatic, so you are right. Anyway, can I ask you something about Frankenstein, but in Schuaschen? My English is too young to bear fruit of my words.”

 

“Certainly. I’m no literature expert, but I’ll do my best.”

 

“A climax -- that’s when the volcano of the story explodes -- the worst part?”

 

Volcano? Alison thinks. Oh yeah, she did read something in the overviews about Terripluvium being quite busy, volcanically speaking. “Yes, that’s right.”

 

“People tell me different things about where the volcano lies in Frankenstein. Some people say it’s when the creature opens its eyes and blooms for the first time, scaring Frankenstein. Some people say it’s when the creature confesses to killing George, and some people say it’s when Frankenstein discovers that the creature has killed his wife Elizabeth.

 

“But wouldn’t the volcano be right there in the beginning, in what I recited?” Uscheschua asks. “That’s the worst part of the story, right there, at least for me. Frankenstein and Elizabeth are only little sprouts when she comes into his grove, and yet he never feels that she’s a fellow tree. He acts as if he’s a blighting rotten gardener.” She crinkles her nose as she delivers this most derogatory of insults.

 

Alison makes a mental note to omit the TARDIS gardens from the tour. “Yeah, Frankenstein is a selfish arsehole. He thinks he’s the only person in the universe, and everyone else is just an object for him to exploit.”

 

“Exactly! That’s the infection in his heartwood: he sees himself as the only tree in the forest worthy of Keplershine and rain. He refuses to care properly for the other trees in his grove, like Elizabeth and the creature.” Uscheschua quivers. “Blight it -- those words always make me feel like I’m back in the Fontaneum.”

 

“What happened there?”

 

“That’s where I was planted -- in a pot -- by a gardener.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry to bring it up, Ambassador Lilleschall.” Noticing that Uscheschua still hasn’t released her hands, Alison squeezes her back, trying to transmit some sympathy through her grip.

 

“Don’t rustle your twigs.” Uscheschua tosses her head, and her branches flare around her like a living halo with a soft sibilant leaf song of its own. “If I didn’t want to mention it, I would have said so.” She draws Alison toward her and sends Alison’s reassurance back to its source with a quick pulse of her own grasp.

 

Alison gazes into Uscheschua’s face. Everything she does is like dancing, from the way she runs, to the way she greets people, to the way she loses her balance, and she pulls Alison into her sweet, intimate rhythms as well. “But...if that quote from Frankenstein makes you feel trapped and powerless, why bring it up? Why memorize it?”

 

Something about this question seems to hurt Uscheschua; Alison can feel her offense in the loosening of her hands and the turn of her head to the side. Uscheschua’s voice lowers: “You know -- you aren’t the only tree who has asked me that. The others of the resistance tell me that it’s a waste of Keplershine to study the words of Mary Schellaya. They want to fell those stories, let them decompose, so that new stories -- our stories, ones of the Schuaschen -- may be grown in their place. They don’t think it’s important how the ancestors of our gardeners grew their ideas.”

 

“But it is!” cries Alison, historian and lover of dead languages.

 

“You truly think so?” Uscheschua’s eyes come back to Alison’s, brightening.

 

“It’s not just important -- it’s imperative! We have to study how people were in the past because then we learn who we were, where we came from, and who we are now.”

 

“Yes! Yes! I knew you would understand.” And Uscheschua brings her in close again. “The roots of the Schuaschen will always link us to our makers, the Agricole, whether we like it or not. Their past is ours. That is why I am one of the only trees who puts roots into Agricole history and the history of the Earth people who became the Agricole. That is why I know Schuaschen, of course, but also the Flumenarxi and rural dialects of Agricolingua, as well as the language of Frankenstein.”

 

“So that quote -- that’s one of the ways in which you understand the past?”


“No, Time Tree Cheney,” says Uscheschua, her voice grave, “I use it to understand the present. I’ve memorized it because it tells me how the Agricole gardeners think.” Shadows fall in the green of her eyes. “I use those words to understand my enemy.”

Chapter Text

Alison and Uscheschua tour the TARDIS, thankfully without running into the robot. They end up in Alison’s favorite atrium, with the artificial illumination calibrated there to the Keplershine of Uscheschua’s sun. Quickly determining that Uscheschua smells like a friend, several TARDIS cats immediately apply cat fur and scents of guardianship to her moss gown by means of head butts.

 

The cats fascinate Uscheschua: “You’ve made little squirrel moss balls with thorns!” Alison explains that, unlike Uscheschua, the TARDIS cats are not genetically modified plant animals. Uscheschua finds the concept of organisms unmodified by people entirely foreign, but dismisses the thousand questions she obviously has on the subject in favor of trying to talk to the cats. She uses a combination of almost inaudible hums and something else -- maybe her branches rubbing? -- that immediately draws the attention of some cats.

 

Alison watches with envy. Uscheschua’s not a only communications specialist, but a polyglot genius. She corrected her English pronunciation within minutes of her first conversation with a native speaker, and now apparently she’s experimenting with Catspeak . With her open-hearted, welcoming demeanor and her facility for languages, Uscheschua comes to her ambassadorial post with natural flair. Alison, whose only foreign language is dead and whose gift is lying about how important she really is, cannot compare.

 

Trying to suppress her envy, Alison makes a request. “Ambassador Lilleschall, would you review with me the history of your diplomatic communiques with the Great Grove of Time Trees?” She has decided to use Schuaschen idioms for the High Council of Time Lords; it makes them sound a bit less like an oligarchy of old rich white men. “The dossiers that I have reviewed have no record of any messages between the Schuaschen and the Grove. We must have received incomplete information -- I do apologize, but this does sometimes happen. I’d appreciate if you could fill in the gaps.”

 

As far as Alison can tell, nothing is missing from the dossiers. They supply complete records of all messages between the Agricole of Flumenarx and the High Council. There are no words from the Schuaschen in these proceedings; in fact, they only appear as an undifferentiated menace that the Flumenarxi wish to quash swiftly. Either the Schuaschen haven’t talked to the High Council at all, or the Flumenarxi have suppressed evidence of the fact. Someone is lying and/or purposely omitting things, and, especially after reading Publivocis Auriana’s expose of Agricole hypocrisy, Alison suspects it’s the Flumenarxi.

 

Uscheschua launches into a complicated story. The Schuelle administration divides into several departments called groves, which are dispersed throughout the land just outside Flumenarx. She currently works in the Flower Grove, which holds responsibility for diplomacy, education, and the communications rootmass [network, Alison translates mentally] between all Schuaschen. Publivocis Auriana, who is not a Schuaschen, but a sympathetic Agricole [and woman with feminine pronouns], runs the grove as Grower of Communications Rootmass. Alison tries to prevent a huge digression about Publivocis by saying that she knows that the woman is a retired Flumenarxi radio editorialist.

 

Unfortunately, Alison’s acquaintance with Publivocis does not prevent Uscheschua from recounting stories of her heyday. Publivocis’ sonorous voice, persuasive writing, and passion for justice earned her fame far beyond the limits of her planet. Some of her most ardent fans were among the Ceruleans of Gallifrey, who apparently sent many fan transmissions….

 

Uscheschua keeps talking, but Alison, feeling a headache coming on, can no longer concentrate. She makes encouraging and sympathetic sounds at what seem like appropriate intervals.

 

Finally, Uscheschua steps carefully around several mounds of cat, and connects once again, hand to hand, with Alison. “Now that you have heard my story, from root to crown, will you enter into mutualistic parasitism with me?”

 

Picturing bugs and tapeworms, Alison blinks. “I’m sorry -- I think the translation software just failed there. Did you say mutual parasitism?”

 

The TARDIS suspends her translation and lets Uscheschua say the word unmodified: “Lellayschiiya. That’s our word for mutualistic parasitism, but it also means… Let me find the English… Oh, yes.” She switches from Schuaschen: “An interchange of sympathies necessary for our being.”

 

“Is that from Frankenstein?”

 

“Yes,” says Uscheschua, going back to Schuaschen with a smile, “I knew you would know that! It is the reason that the creature asks the scientist to make a mate for him.”

 

Did Uscheschua just proposition her? Alison’s face goes warm. “Ahhh...thank you for your generous invitation, Ambassador Lilleschall, as well as for your great trust in me that prompted you to make such an offer. While I appreciate the sentiments, I really need to get to know you better before we have sex.”

 

“Your sex?” Uscheschua’s eyes widen. “I… But… You want…” After a stricken moment, she composes herself: “What made you think of that?”

 

“You said that lellayschiiya was an interchange of sympathies, and you brought up Frankenstein’s creature wanting a mate. It made lellayschiiya sound like sex or marriage or something -- some kind of union.”

 

“Well, I suppose that your sex and your marriage are kinds of lellayschiiya, but I meant the lellayschiiya like that of the tree and the vine. They agree to grow around each other and with each other, each doing good for each other.”

 

Alison’s heart drops a little in her chest at the realization that Uscheschua was not trying to get into her pants. On the other hand, at least she knows what she’s talking about now: “Oh, I get it -- mutualistic parasitism: when two organisms grow together, each providing benefits to the other!”

 

“Yes, that’s what I said. We don’t need to pollinate to enter into lellayschiiya. In fact, the Schuelle’s ultimate goal is to reach lellayschiiya with the Agricole so that we may each live fairly and well with each other.”

 

“You mean like a treaty or a truce?”

 

“No, lellayschiiya is not just for that. We also enter into lellayschiiya when we agree to form a forest, when we decide who does what in the Schuelle, and, yes, when we choose who we want for grove mates and who we want to pollinate with. Lellayschiiya are our roots and our soil, as important to us as rain and Keplershine.”

 

“So it’s a promise, an agreement to live together well.”

 

“Yes, an interchange of sympathies necessary for our being. Now that you understand me, will you, Time Tree Cheney, representing the Great Grove of Time Trees, enter into lellayschiiya with me, Ambassador Lilleschall, representing the Schuelle of the Schuaschen?” Uscheschua’s eyes, wide and green and avid, remind Alison of the robot’s in some strange way. Uscheschua sees into her, sees all of her, and even sees someone that Alison herself can’t see: a person worthy of the greatest trust.

 

Such openness, such expectant happiness -- Alison would do nearly anything if only she could receive such brilliance. “Of course! What do we have to do?”

 

“We just take the vow.” Uscheschua stands a bit taller, her voice assuming the weighty sonority of recitation: “I, Ambassador Uscheschua of the Lilleschall cultivar, representing the Schuelle of the Schuaschen, now enter into lellayschiiya with you, Time Tree Ellischuan Schennaya, representing the Great Grove of Time Trees. I ask for the Great Grove’s help in securing cessation of attacks on Schuaschen by Flumenarxi and Graniculi, peace between all Agricole and all Schuaschen, release of all Schuaschen who are being potted and gardened, and full social, legal, and moral equality between Agricole and Schuaschen.”

 

“Okay. I, Ambassador Alison Cheney of the Great Grove of Time Trees, now enter into lellayschiiya with you, Ambassador Uscheschua Lilleschall of the Schuaschen of Crescior. I pledge the Great Grove’s help in securing cessation of attacks on Schuaschen by Flumenarxi and Graniculi, peace between all Agricole and all Schuaschen, release of all Schuaschen who are being potted and gardened, and full social, legal, and moral equality between Agricole and Schuaschen.”

 

“From this moment on, we are in lellayschiiya. We must each fulfill our sides of our promise, until otherwise negotiated, so that we grow together in accord, like the tree and the vine.” Uscheschua gifts Alison with a smile as if they have made this covenant not only as representatives, but with each other.

 

“We are in lellayschiiya, ” Alison repeats. She and Uscheschua have a link, hand to hand, smile to smile, body to body, that goes beyond the groups on whose behalf they attest.

 

At the point, the robot rudely breaks their connection by passing with a book under his arm: The Moving Image and the Imitation of Life . “My dear Miss Cheney, you did not mention that we had company.” Turning to Uscheschua, he says, “I apologize for my absence; if I had known you were coming, I would have greeted you along with my esteemed colleague.”

 

“Oh, don’t shake a leaf about it.” Uscheschua waves her hand. “I arrived here rather suddenly. In fact, I was not prepared for a diplomatic mission at all, just coming back from a friend’s grove, when some anti-Schuelle Graniculi began to follow me. Time Tree Cheney graciously offered me sanctuary in the branches of her TARDIS.”

 

“Indeed.” The eyebrow moves upward. “Perhaps Time Tree Cheney would favor me with an introduction to our ambassadorial partner from the Schuaschen.”

 

Shit! She almost had it under control, and then the robot barged in and reminded her of the ignorant liar she was. “Oh...um...this is Uscheschua of the Lilleschall cultivar, communications specialist in the Flower Grove of the Schuelle and Schuaschen ambassador to both the Flumenarxi and the Great Grove of Time Trees. And she doesn’t have a gender, and she uses feminine pronouns.”

 

“Ambassador Lilleschall.” The robot inclines his head toward her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 

Uscheschua takes both of his hands. “Oh yes, as am I! The honor is all mine, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree -- uh, what’s your name?”

 

“This is my esteemed colleague -- “ Alison uses the robot’s phrase, stalling for time. Master. The word travels as far as her mouth, where it dies. She can’t say it. The silence extends. Finally her brain vomits forth the term by which she swore to refer to him only in the privacy of her head: “--The, um, the Doctor’s robot…” She can’t look at him; she hangs her head. Her skull feels light, evacuated, empty.

 

“Oh…” Uscheschua’s voice drops, suddenly low in sympathy. “I’m so sorry, Doctor’s robot; I too once had no name. When I was planted, my gardeners were Flumenarxi who worked in the Fontaneum. I expected to live my days in a public pot, never thinking I would have a name. I had heard rustlings about the Schuelle, but I never thought I’d meet them.

 

“Then, one spring night, when I was just a sprout, the Schuelle came for us. They told us that we had a choice: We could stay in our pots, nameless and cultivated forever by gardeners. Or we could uproot ourselves, leave our gardeners, and follow them. We could name ourselves and cultivate ourselves, and we could grow in a whole forest of trees who believed in the dignity of our people. Of course we all planted ourselves in the resistance!

 

“Anyway, all of us who were uprooted that night were of the same breed, so we took the name of Lilleschall for our cultivar, which means speaking leaf.” Alison sneaks a peek at the two of them. Uscheschua, still holding both of the robot’s hands, looks up at him, branches swept back from her face, head cocked. “Perhaps, Doctor’s robot,” says Uscheschua softly, “there is a name that you too call yourself, other than that of your gardener?”

 

“Thank you for your kind words, Ambassador Lilleschall. You are right; I do have a name. I am,” he says, his volume heightening slightly as a smile moves slowly across his mouth, “the Master.”

 

“Then I’m happy to meet you, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree Master!”

 

“No.” He holds up his hand, rejecting Uscheschua’s extensive honorifics. “You will call me Master.”

 

“Certainly. I apologize, Master. And your gender and pronouns?”

 

“I am male, and I use masculine pronouns.”

 

As Alison ducks her head again, the robot inquires how long Uscheschua will be visiting. When Uscheschua describes the meandering, informal tour as blowing in the breeze, Alison realizes that she hasn’t been fooling anyone. All she did was smile goofily at Uscheschua, ramble around the TARDIS, and show her some cats. The evil robot, who now offers Uscheschua safe passage in the TARDIS to the Flower Grove offices, has diplomatic skills far beyond hers.

 

Uscheschua follows the robot to the control room, wanting to see the spaceship in action. Alison begs off accompanying them, using I’m slightly tired as a cover for her spiral of shame and vertigo. Uscheschua does return to say goodbye when the TARDIS alights, however. But not even a fervent double hand clasp can change Alison’s spirits. Her head is spinning so quickly that it seems like it might unscrew from her neck. Yet again, she staggers to her bedroom and drops onto her bed, wishing that all of this had never happened.

Chapter Text

Alison sleeps until her local clock tells her it’s dinner time. Feeling much more stable, although slightly muzzy, she ambles toward the kitchen in search of food. With a snap and a sizzle, the heavy, oily odor of chips floats out the door. Alison opens her nostrils and quickens her step, trying to remember if she has ever smelled the TARDIS cooking before.

Of course, it’s not the TARDIS, but the evil robot that won’t go away. He turns from the stove. “Eat with me.” He doesn’t do questions; even his invitations are commands, despite the fact that he promised to be polite.

Alison props herself on the door jamb, not interested in call him out on his lack of please. Directness. Disengagement. “Enough with the bullshit. I’m not dear; you’re angry as fuck at me. And you don’t eat -- you’re a robot.”

“So I am.” He removes a tray of toasty brown chips from the oven, along with two portabello caps in a broiler pan. Did he put cheese on them? Yes, he did -- it’s golden and glossy, crisping where it hits the broiler rack. Closing the oven door with a sideways shift of his hip, he turns to her. “You are right on both counts.” He arranges the food on a plate. “Would you prefer that I leave you to your meal so that we may speak afterward?”

“I’ll eat in my room and then meet you here.”

He gives her a tray, containing a plate with the portabellos and chips, a salad of spinach, basil, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella, and a tall glass of fruit punch. “Your supper.”

“Thank you,” she says in clipped tones, removing to her room.

This is no good-for-you, character-building selection from the TARDIS, but pure comfort food. Chosen for smell [the lovely fat odor of cheese!], texture [the pop of miniature tomatoes!], and taste [the corrosive, buzzy sweetness of the punch!], all the food slides down her gullet. She soon feels good and full, even better than she did before. As much as she loves the TARDIS’ food, Alison has to admit that the robot seems to have her old familiar favorites down.

After brushing her teeth, Alison finds the robot in the kitchen, seated at the table with a book. It doesn’t seem to be the earlier one about movies. She offers a neutral question: “What are you reading?” Wordlessly, he holds up a copy of Frankenstein. “Wow -- isn’t everyone?”

“Not the Doctor.” The robot slides the book aside and nods at the seat across from him. “Sit, please. --They’re too busy trying to act it out.”

“How is the Doctor?”

“Mmmm…” The robot presses his lips together. “Two of their small rib fractures have healed completely, and the abdominal wall herniation is slowly repositioning back to normal. As for the pulmonary tubules -- the ones that they damaged were primary, so I’ve put them under assisted ventilation to ease some of the strain on their respiratory system as they recover. Such delicate structures -- “ The robot rubs his hand down his face as if he has been staring at the Doctor through the Zero Room window so long that his eyes have been strained. “I truly don’t know how long the Doctor needs to recover from their pulmonary compromise.”

“Oh… Well, I hope it’s soon.”

“As do I. The old fool…” Chin in hand, he strokes his beard, a slight smile on his face.

“Ahem.” Alison gives a warning cough. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

“Yes?” The robot turns his attention to her.

“You’re angry at me. I don’t need psychic magic to figure that out. So tell me! Tell me I was foolish to take pity on a person running for her life, that I tangled us all into a mess by promising to help the Schuaschen instead of the Agricole, that it was a complete waste of time to show her the TARDIS cats, even though she loved them. List all the ways I ruined the Doctor’s mission ‘cause I’m just a lower creature that’s apparently only good for mind-fuck practice.”

“My dear Miss Cheney!” Like Magister Nkrumah, the robot doesn’t yell; he pronounces words with more force and precision. “Are you quite done feeling sorry for yourself?”

That’s like Magister Nkrumah’s question whenever her class got too rowdy: Do you plan on keeping up this immaturity all session? There is no possible way to answer such an inquiry while hanging on to your dignity. Alison stays quiet, sighs, and regards the robot with what she hopes is more composure.

“The reason for my anger,” he says, his voice becoming soft, “has nothing to do with your surprising pretenses to diplomacy and everything to do with what you called me when you introduced me to Ambassador Lilleschall.”

Alison winces. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

There’s a silence, and then he begins speaking again in that quiet, sharp, exact way that’s not yelling but worse: “I keep you safe; I heal you; I swear to deal with you truly and respectfully; and I will do anything you ask of me so that you might be whole and happy -- and yet you contemn me as the Doctor’s mechanical possession.”

“Oh no -- that’s not it -- I just -- “

“Do you truly consider me such a worthless object that you will not even deign to use my name? Is that it, Domina carissima Alison Cheney?” He has never used her first name before and never the superlative of cara, but now, suddenly, she is my dearest Miss Alison Cheney -- named specifically, respectfully, and directly in a way that she has never addressed the robot.

“No! You’re a person! But...I can’t -- I can’t say your name.”

“You can say everyone else’s.”

“But your name is like a title -- ”

“As is the Doctor’s.”

“Yes, but that’s different. My ancestors -- we’ve had masters; we’ve been treated like inanimate objects. Even today people still think we’re less than human. But I’m black, and I’m a woman, and I’m a human being, and I call no one master!”

That fucking eyebrow goes up again. Alison flattens her own eyebrows and glares. In reply, the robot acknowledges her with a direct glance for a split second. Then, having verified that she’s watching, he bends his attention to the cover of Frankenstein, wordlessly deferring. Audio atque cedo, she thinks. Maybe it was an understanding eyebrow after all.

“Hmmmm,” he says after a minute. “Then I have misjudged your motivations.”

“Yeah, you did.” Alison crosses her arms and adds in a tinder-dry voice, “And you could try admitting that you were acting like an impatient arsehole and not really doing the whole hearkening and yielding thing that you promised me you would. And apologize for once in your life. It wouldn’t kill you.”

Those were commands -- sharp and sarcastic ones at that -- but they make him stop. He cocks his head slightly, and she can see him mentally replaying her words with a meticulous consideration. “Yes,” he says after a moment, “you are right. I should not have interrupted you, but should have allowed you to explain yourself. I am sorry that I assumed that I knew what you were talking about, but I did not.”

“No, you didn’t,” agrees Alison, but with less snap than before. “And thank you for the apology.”

“When you talk about your ancestors, are you thinking of Homo sapiens and their endless cycles of colonialism and conquest?”

“This isn’t a species thing, Time Lord. This is a race thing. It’s more like the endless colonialism of white Homo sapiens -- you know, people who look like you and the Doctor -- against brown Homo sapiens like me.”

“May I ask you something? I believe that I understand better why you will not call me by name. Will you tell me if I assume correctly?”

Alison winces. Back when she was young and dauntless and personally determined to educate people out of racism all by herself, she heard a fair amount of bullshit in response. Much came from old white men, so she doesn’t have all that much confidence in race-related assumptions made by a particularly old [how many centuries?!], extremely non-human, male person. “Look -- you’ll do what I say, right?”

“Yes.”

“So don’t make me use your name. I’m sick of explaining everything to people, so just leave it. That’s all you need to understand.” Is he really going to shut up? So many blokes have a habit of thinking that Full stop means License to pester and justify.

The robot dislikes the curtailed discussion, flaring his nostrils in annoyance. He presses his lips between his teeth, presumably so the question, But why? can’t escape. “Yes,” he says, acknowledging her. And he shuts up!

“Good.”

“And yet,” he says, “I shall have another name from you.”

Isn’t this discussion over yet? She sighs. “Like what?”

“The idea must be yours. Name me what you will, but you must call me something.” Remembering his manners, he adds, “--Please.”

He has a point. Oi, you there! doesn’t really work as a moniker. “Well, I’ve slipped and called you it once already, so how about Magister?”

The robot smiles instantly. “Of course! But...you would call me Schoolmaster? Are you certain?”

“It’s what my Latin tutor had us call him. Magister Nkrumah was really strict and demanding, but I ended up loving Latin. I think of it more like Teacher.”

“Then I am the Magister.” The robot -- the Magister -- thinks. “But what shall I call you? Is it a violation to address you as Domina cara Casnetum?”

“No, because that’s just the Latin form of my dear Miss Cheney. You told me when we first met that you called everyone my dear, so whatever.”

“Forgive me for playing the grammarian for a moment, but you do know that the translation is not exact, right?”

“You sound like my Latin teacher!” She can’t believe she’s having a sort of joking conversation -- about her favorite language, no less! -- with him.

“I am well named, am I not?” This time it’s a humorous eyebrow.

“But I know what you mean -- Latin doesn’t really have a miss, so you have to go with something like domina mea, which is my lady. I’m okay with that. Just don’t make it dominula for little lady because that would be condescending.” Alison stifles a yawn.

“All that is true,” says Alison’s new Latin tutor [oh God, what has she gotten herself into?], “and yet dominus -- domina for the feminine -- also means master or owner. Is it a violation to name you Domina? If it is, tell me how I may otherwise speak to you.”

“No, it’s not a violation. It’s like queen or something.” She doesn’t want to say, I am the Domina in English; then she would be just be waiting for the inevitable sequel: And you will obey me. Lots of things sound better in Latin, though, so she takes that route: “Nomen mihi est Domina.” My name is the Domina.

“You are the Domina,” says the Magister with a nod.

“Yeah!” Alison could definitely get used to having a authoritative title-name like the Magister and the Doctor.

“My Domina.”

“I’m not yours!”

“Not my acquaintance? Not my fellow artifex, nor even my esteemed colleague in diplomatic endeavors?” He’s teasing her.

She smiles. “In that way, sure. That possessive just sounded...possessive.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that I have you. I meant to imply that you have me.”

He’s clearly putting some sort of significance on this beyond what she is, but she can’t quite comprehend it. However, if he wants to call it having, then he can do that, as long as he does what she asks. “Felix sum.” I’m happy with it.

“Tomorrow we shall continue with our mission, but now, before you sleep, please do something for me.”

“Sleep? --Oh, I guess it is my local bedtime.” Alison stands, stretching. “What were you asking?”

“Use my name.”

“Oh! Yes...Magister! --I’m s -- “

“Think no more of it. I know why you did not, and you have now given me a name acceptable to us both, so gratias tibi ago, Domina carissima.” Thank you, dearest Domina. His expression resembles that when Uscheschua asked him what he called himself: eyes slightly closed, mouth fully curved, content.

“Uhhh...I never learned the Latin for You’re welcome, so… You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

Alison expects the next day to begin with a scathing retrospective on her botched attempts at diplomacy, but the Magister has other ideas. They must make all expectations between them absolutely clear, he says. “You have given your requirements for me in detail, for which I thank you. Now listen to the requirements I have for you and tell me if you consent.” It’s apparently constitutionally impossible for him to stand still [unless maybe he’s trying to sneak up on someone], so he’s going back and forth across a three-meter space right in front of the library dome window.

Alison, chin in hand at a table, can’t track each of his switchbacks; they make her dizzy. She takes a long blink. “--If I consent, please.” He’s clearly going to have trouble with that word.

“Yes -- please tell me if you consent. Know that your acceptance or rejection of my requirements will do nothing to change my obedience to your will. I will do everything that you have asked of me. I will always keep my promises so that you will be safe and happy and whole.” On one side of the glass, rosifolia pollen continues to swirl out from the translucent, heavy blooms, while, on the other, the Magister’s swift passage stirs up cat hair that follows him, winking in the light. It seems that he’s thinking so quickly as to leave the scintillating particles of his thoughts about him, both inside and out.

He explains that he has extrapolated from the ways in which she told him she wished to be treated, and he sees the ultimate principle as one of truth. He says that he won’t tell her everything, but he’ll deal with her truthfully and straightforwardly, without lying, dissembling, or using the truth against her. Would she do likewise for him? After a second, prompted by Alison’s glare, he asks please. Momentarily still, he awaits her response with brows raised, eyes glittering with a dark gold light.

Alison considers. “I would, but...I need my privacy. And sometimes I don’t want to tell the truth, not because I want to lie or cheat, but because I want to -- “

“--Be safe?” the Magister finishes.

“Safeword…” Her last use of one brings a wry smile to her lips. She probably should have known that it wasn’t going to work out with Joe when he didn’t understand the etymological appropriateness of her suggestion, hibernaculum, the cozy den in which some animals snuggle up for winter. They ended up going with his idea, homeostasis, which was so unexciting that she was never able to regain the mood afterward.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a good idea; that’s what it is. We need a word that cuts things off instantly, no questions asked.” She suggests tace, the Latin imperative for hush, which, if uttered, will bring an immediate stop to whatever they’re doing.

The Magister agrees so readily that he begins pacing again [ugh], nodding at the beginning of her sentence. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says. “I will have the guaranteed safety of that word, and so will you. Perfect!”

Next he asks if she will respect him. “Just as I must honor your integrity, you must acknowledge me as a person. I may be a robot, and I may be yours to command, but do not use me as your object.” He stops walking abruptly and fairly snarls, though not at her. “Call me a robot if you want, but never the Doctor’s robot, or toy, machine, computer, or any sort of thing. And touch me if you wish, if that’s not a violation for you, but never my faceplate.”

The sparks suddenly extinguish from his eyes as he lets his eyebrows down. His eyelids sink halfway, but in grief rather than wrath. “Nor are you to open me, enter me, or alter me unless I let you. And never control me remotely, unless, of course, you find the Doctor’s control while I am turned off, in which case please restore me to power, and then give the controller to me.”

He sighs, now speaking more quietly. “Finally, respect means listening -- something that, I must say with all gratitude, you already do. You may interpolate rather often, but you follow my words, ask questions when you don’t understand, and actually register the answers -- all areas in which the Doctor could stand a great deal of improvement.”

“No kidding.” Alison rolls her eyes and tries to add a bit of humor here. His idea of respect is pathetically basic. Treat me like the person I am; don’t fuck with my body, and do me the courtesy of not ignoring me. The very slightness of his requirements highlights all the more how much he isn’t being regarded as he wishes. Nobody deserves to be treated like such rubbish, not even evil robots.

Speaking of rubbish, she realizes that she’s in the same way. Having recently been physically seized and mentally invaded twice, she has pretty abysmal expectations of respect as well. She just wants people to stay out of her head and her body and to say please and thank you when doing things to or for her.

But she doesn’t want to think about that. As her grandma has told her many times, You’re better than that; shake it off! Self-pity is weakness, and weakness is failure. She cuts short that train of thought and looks at him. He stands still, hands behind his back. In his black garb and with his worn and well-lined face, he resembles less of a classic movie villain and more of a Grim Reaper sick of funerals. He looks ancient and weary. How could you comfort someone so miserable, assuming you’d want to in the first place? “Yes, I’ll definitely treat you with respect, and I won’t...violate...your body.” She stumbles on the words as multiple interpretations thereof go through her mind.

“Thank you,” he says on the exhale, and it sounds like a long-held sigh of relief. “Finally, I have one last proposal: I would make of you a good Domina by teaching you how to use your power and do as I say.”

“A good Domina? But I’m already good. I’m not stupendous, but I try really hard to be friendly, kind, compassionate, respectful, and all that. I said I was going to be good, and you agreed. I’m not being evil -- ever!” She flattens her hands on the table top and stands for emphasis.

A sigh of exasperation. “I -- “

“Tace -- I’m not done yet,” she says. The Magister goes completely silent. How useful! “And the only way I agree to your terms is if you’re not evil either. Everything that I told you to do for me -- the respect, the truthfulness, the honesty, the kindness, the consideration -- you have to do for everyone else...unless it’s self-defense or it has to do with the Doctor. I don’t know what sort of agreement you have with them, but I’m just going to stay out of it.” She shakes her head.

“I am well aware that your goodness is part of your integrity, and I do not want to jeopardize that! Nor do I have any wish to do something to displease you. So, in case you need reassurance, I am telling you explicitly now that I am not going to corrupt you, nor be evil, as you put it, to you or anyone else.”

Alison’s jaw floats open as she stares at him. All that time, when he was doing all that mind-fucking and whatever other cruel stuff he did, he would have stopped? It would have been that easy? “Wait...so someone just had to ask you? Why didn’t you stop by your own damn self then?”

The person who has words for everything opens his mouth, looks down into his thoughts, and shakes his head a minuscule amount. He squints, as if glaring will help an answer come, and then shudders slightly, bringing up the corners of his lips in either revulsion or a defensive sneer. Finally the contracted wrinkles on his face release; his eyes open wide, and he looks lost and empty. “Tace, Domina mea,” he says. Silence, Domina of mine. It’s not the question of being a horrible person that perturbs him, as he will readily admit that he was, but the question of why -- and, most of all, the fact that he doesn’t seem to have an answer.

It seems odd to apologize to an evil robot for asking him why he’s evil, but clearly Alison’s question ran up against one of his boundaries and distressed him. “Um, sorry about that.”

He shakes the confusion from his eyes. “Indeed. You have other questions?”

“Well, I’m not sure what you mean about teaching me to use my powers. You make it sound like I have some sort of wild magic bouncing around inside me, and I need to know the proper spells.”

“You do love that metaphor, don’t you? Contrary to your persistent belief otherwise, magic does not exist; I’ll teach you none, and power does not derive from spells.”

“Oh, that’s a lie -- you’re all about spells.” Alison pushes back her chair and puffs out her chest. I,” she intones, with an important pause after the subject, “am Voldemort, and you will obey ME!” She raises her voice on the object. “You just call it a verbal cue.”

He bows. He’s one of the most self-centered people she’s ever encountered, and yet he has no touchiness about her mockery. She suspects that he takes it as a compliment. “Voldemort? I don’t believe I consented to that name. --But you’re right,” he continues, walking again, “I do indeed appreciate the mellifluity of an effective incantation.

“In any case, while you have no wild magic loose inside you, but plenty of fear and doubt instead.” Bending and leaning on his hands, the Magister watches her. She knows that he’s not using any psychic powers on her, but she’s still pretty sure he can actually see the emotions he’s talking about. He retreats from staring and goes on: “I want to teach you how to act, though you may think yourself ineffectual. I want to teach you how you can find strength within yourself and use it, though you may feel terrified. I want to teach you how to do things of which you do not believe yourself capable.” He says with a brilliant smile, “In brief, I shall make you a Domina who can always find her advantage, turning mistakes into successes and apparent defeat into victory.”

Stuck inside the TARDIS on account of her own fear and regularly betrayed by sudden dizziness and fatigue, Alison doesn’t just think that she’s ineffectual; she knows it. She keeps fucking up and collapsing for naps, no matter what she tries, so she needs all the advantages she can get. If he offers non-evil methods of overcoming her own ineptitude and physical failings, she wants to learn. If there’s a cure that will turn her back into the resilient and indomitable person she used to be, she’ll take it. Then she’ll have victory -- over herself. “I like the sound of that!” she admits, sitting, slouching in her chair, and folding her arms. “But...you want me to do as you say.” She rolls her eyes. “What the fuck is it with you and obedience?”

Again he halts. She sees his shoulders unsquare and move down as he becomes less than himself. “I am compelled to obey the Doctor against my will because my life is within their power. This thing that I am now -- this was the only way that the Doctor could keep me from dying, and so I consented. I did not know that I would be restricted to the TARDIS corridors, disassembled and reconstituted whenever the Doctor felt like it, and turned off if I refuse. I did not know that I would be remade into an object against my will.”

The words fly from Alison’s mouth before she really thinks: “Oh my God! We have to get you out of here!”

For a split second he gives her an expression of wild surmise, as if she has a miracle in her back pocket, but then he diminishes. “And how should we accomplish such an impossibility? I burn through hardware and energy so quickly that the only way I can continue to live is in agreement with the TARDIS. She graciously feeds me some of her fuel, and I must remain.”

“But...no! That -- no! There has to be a way. That’s cruel and unfair and mean and -- “

“Tace,” he says, as if even considering the injustice exhausts him. “So now we come to obedience, compelled or voluntary. Compelled obedience, I have learned, has its uses, as you have witnessed with the Kilikt, but it is ultimately an empty power. It empties me because it requires the constant application of my will. And it empties those who are compelled because they have no choice. They are forced to perform some action, but they do so without belief, interest, passion, or any sort of motivation. They do it without themselves and thus become objects. Compelled obedience empties everything it touches.

“Voluntary obedience -- ah, now that is different. In contrast to what I now experience, it requires the meeting of two full selves who would agree one to serve the other.” Relieved to see the light in his eyes wake back up, Alison watches him put his hands together, interlocking his fingers. “There is no compulsion nor evacuation; instead they both bring with them the full power of their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and who they are. They each give of themselves in the exchange and become stronger, both in the giving and the receiving. There is much less danger of breaking and emptying. At best, it is a self-sustaining, generative power, depleting no one who is involved.”

“That’s… Yeah, it is,” Alison agrees with some surprise. For someone unconversant with human bdsm practices, the Magister has just given a rather comprehensive description of how power plays ideally go when everyone clearly communicates their expectations, gains consent, does things safely, and has fun.

How much time has it been since she’s had something like that? She calculates back. She broke up with Joe about three months ago, after the Shalka attack and her departure from Earth. They were together like nine or ten months, so before that it was Sylvie -- the one with the toy shop scene, the one who could pick Alison up and swing her around in a hug, the one who always looked up to her. It’s been over a year -- too long.

Alison and Sylvie ended it because she had to get away, not from Sylvie, but from herself, from the uncompleted degree and the failure and the endless disappointment. Besides, Joe wouldn’t have understood that it wasn’t a sex thing between them, but a refuge of trust, power, and safety. Sylvie always cherished her, no matter what mistakes she’d made; Alison always pleased her merely by being who she was. And if she told Sylvie to do something, then Sylvie would listen to her and do it, just because Alison said so, and she never needed to qualify, aggrandize, or overachieve to be heeded. When they opened themselves up to each other in the best way, then all the hard work of negotiating parameters paid off, and there was only the simplicity, ease, and rightness of two people being exactly where they wanted to be.

“Okay,” says Alison, taking a deep breath, “here’s my answer. First of all, everything you agreed to do for me will happen, no matter what. And I’ll agree to your requirements of honesty and respect and listening to you, no matter what.

“As for this master’s in Domina studies -- you want me to take it. I want me to take it so I can get a handle on the sheer amount of terror in my life. And we have the perfect curriculum in this diplomatic mission that I’ve completely fucked up. If you have some brilliant idea to turn this fiasco into a success, I’m all for it. So long as I can call tace or quit whenever I want, I will learn from you and do as you say for the duration of this mission only, and then it ends. Understand?”

“Yes -- excellent!” The Magister’s eyes are shining. “So you will be a challenge!”

“What? I’m not the challenge here -- I’m not the evil robot.”

“No, but you are the Domina who needs teaching, so you are my challenge. Anyway,” he says, clapping his hands as a sort of gigantic full stop to end the discussion, “I gladly accede to your conditions. Master’s in Domina studies,” he repeats, shaking his head. “You do know that was a horrible pun, right?”

“You’re just jealous ‘cause you didn’t think of it first. So...can we start classes now?”

Chapter Text

Of course, he says he won’t teach her at that moment. Thus the Domina and the Magister have their first contest of wills not over some fundamental aspect of personal integrity, but over the truly universe-shattering topics of sandwiches and sleep. He says that’s enough for the day, no lessons, and recommends that she eat something for local lunch time and then rest. She concedes that her stomach is growling, so she silences it with a sandwich, but she insists that she has plenty of stamina to continue. He counters that he has noticed that her endurance has been limited in recent weeks; they have just been through some extensive negotiations, and any more would overwork her. She tells him not to presume that he knows her limits better than she. He says that his conclusion is no presumption, but an educated guess based on his observation. Swearing follows on her part and a lot of squinchy eyebrow maneuvers on his.

 

After about fifteen minutes of this, he holds up his hands. “You act as if I am telling you what to do solely to infuriate you, which, I assure you, is not my object. I am giving you an order because I think that you would benefit from following it. If you disbelieve me, then obviously I cannot make you do otherwise, but this ridiculous discussion is over. Stay awake -- go to sleep -- do what you will. In any event, I will be ready to talk to you tomorrow morning and not before. If you are ready then, come to me in the library after you eat breakfast. If you are not, then do not, and we will make other arrangements.” He takes his leave of her with half a bow, then turns an exact half-circle on his heel and leaves before she has a chance to say a word.

 

Of course, Alison’s inner ear chooses just that moment to betray her and side with the Magister by completely cocking up her balance. Though she has just eaten, she feels air-headed, as if from hunger, and her legs shake. While she can’t yet claim a headache, the base of her skull definitely feels funny, like she’s suddenly aware of it and it might do something painful at any moment.

 

“Oh, fuck you,” she tells the useless meat inside her head. “You were doing so well!” She jams some sort of TARDIS-made casserole into her digestive tract, along with a pint of milk and several painkillers, and doesn’t even make it to bed before curling up in a chair in her favorite atrium and crashing into a hard, deep sleep, surrounded by cats.

 

The next morning, finally functional once more, Alison pries herself from the chair where she has slept for about eighteen hours. She has got to stop flopping over like this -- her hair is frazzling out of its rows. She subdues it under a yellow scarf of raw silk, then washes her face, eats breakfast, thinks about it, eats some more breakfast just to prevent mid-morning dizziness, brushes her teeth, changes her clothes, and washes up a bit. Finally, after doing all those boring necessities, she runs off to the library to do exciting stuff.

 

She comes across the Magister, hunched over at a table, working in a bloom of light beneath a flower lamp. She holds her breath and peers around his back. He holds a wickedly pointed scalpel in one hand. In his other hand is a round thing, the size of the inner circle made by Alison’s thumb and forefinger. It’s a miniature head.

 

He sculpts with loose, strong lines, a caricature without detail, yet the likeness is instantly recognizable. The long face with high and hollowed cheeks, the narrow eyes deep in the skull, fixed on some dream far away, the peaked eyebrows in impressively high arcs, the thin mouth open wide in soliloquy… “Oh my God, you’re making the Doctor!” And this is not the cruel Doctor, but the marvelous, brilliant Doctor, stagey, playful, and kind, who saves the world by singing a song. This is the one that Alison first saw and the one that the Magister loves.

 

Her exclamation startles the Magister, and he lets the knife slip. The blade goes directly through his glove as if it’s not there, sinking deeply enough into the foundation of his thumb that it just sticks there, handle vibrating. “Mmmph,” he remarks, the sort of sound one makes when one’s shoelace comes loose again.

 

“I’m so sorry!” Alison cries.

 

“Yes,” the Magister says, acknowledging her apology, “but, Domina, look -- there’s no need to be frightened.” She watches with bugging eyes as he yanks the knife out of his hand, and...nothing happens. No blood, no nothing.

 

He removes his glove with quick tugs on each of the finger ends. Much to her relief, he exposes no robotic skeleton, but only his hand. Like the rest of him, it’s a warm brown as of old formal portraits, but possessed of a slight translucency, like high-end doll resin. She is reminded of those expensive ball-jointed dolls that she has long coveted, but never made enough to own. With their big eyes and glowing skin, they look expressive enough to be alive, but their symmetry and stillness render them eldritch. “Shit -- I’m staring,” Alison mutters, ducking her head.

 

“You are permitted. I would rather have you stare at me than look away,” he says. Realizing that he’s not angry at her, Alison tentatively returns to the strange sight of his non-biological integument. She sits at his left side, glad that, for once, he’s not running laps in front of her.

 

“I’m not bleeding, as you can see,” he says, showing her his palm, the skin marred only by a narrow slit where the blade entered. “I have a much higher tolerance for pain than I ever did, and this sort of damage to the plastic will self-repair easily without any interference from the Doctor.” He flexes his fingers open and closed a few times, demonstrating no ill effects from his impalement. Then he draws on his glove quickly, putting the head and the knife away. “There are many reasons why I might scare you, but my fragility should not be one.”

 

If he wanted to show her that he was more impregnable than flesh, he failed. She remembers more how easily, how neatly, and how far the blade went into his palm. He showed her then that he was vulnerable. In other words, he has demonstrated that he trusts her very much, though she hasn’t really done anything to earn it. And that’s my first lesson, she thinks. He’d better not expect some sort of dramatic submissive display in return. “Yeah, that’s impressive, all right, but just so you know -- I don’t do knife play, and blood is a hard limit for me.”

 

“Knife play? Hard limit?” he repeats. “Are these technical terms?”

 

“Well, sort of,” Alison says. He has a quick comprehension and intuitive application of the rules of bdsm, so she sometimes forgets that he doesn’t know the vocabulary. “Knife play is just what it says on the tin -- activities involving blades, bloodshed strictly optional and only then under certain very specifc, sanitary conditions. And there are two kinds of limits. A hard limit is a non-negotiable boundary, something we agree beforehand never to do or something where we we call tace and say never to do it again. A soft limit is more flexible; you can push it if you agree on the parameters beforehand.”

 

“A useful distinction indeed. So a hard limit is one of those boundaries that we have given each other for it which would be a violation to cross. Meanwhile, a soft one could be an opportunity for experimentation -- in a carefully controlled environment, of course. And who taught you that, may I ask?” He turns partially sideways in his chair, hooking one arm over the back.

 

“Let’s just say it wasn’t my Latin teacher,” Alison says, mirroring his posturing and giving him a wry smirk.

 

Alison knows that, at some point, he will realize that she’s drawing on established kinky protocols, after which will follow some sort of educational discussion. But right now they’re both vying for the coveted title of Control Freak of the Universe, though, of course, they wouldn’t admit that. And one of Alison’s key advantages is that she knows kink, and the Magister, as experienced as he is in many other realms, does not. She’s going to retain her secret as long as she can because the possession of a hidden power reserve just makes her more dauntless.

 

“In any event, please rest assured that I most emphatically share your limits on blades and blood.” He doesn’t pursue the question of the source of her information, seemingly more interested in practice over theory.

 

Hurray -- she can claim her advantage for a while yet. “Cool.” Alison nods, but she’s disappointed that he, being annoyingly literal sometimes, totally missed her attempt at humor. He does need to learn this stuff, though.

 

“I have no interest in any of that with you,” he goes on. “You will much better serve me by learning from me and being my good Domina. If you stab yourself, I’ll only have a miserable mistress and a mess all over my suit.”

 

Alison snorts. “Yeah, and God forbid you ever get anything on your clothes! What if you get tomato sauce on your cuffs or something?”

 

“I incinerate them,” he says, completely deadpan.

 

Alison, who has often sprinted from the table in the middle of a meal to apply a cold water soak to a splattered shirt, can’t really tell if he’s joking. “Nice. Is that what Time Lords do instead of using bleach pens? What about cat hair? Do you have lint rollers in every room?”

 

“I have long since conceded defeat in the battle against cat hair,” he says airily, as some of it drifts through the beams of Keplershine and settles on his shoulders.

 

“Yeah, well, it’s the price of cat ownership.” Alison slides down in her chair to a comfortable angle, stretching her legs straight in front of her.

 

“Really? When have you ever owned a cat, Domina carissima?”

 

“When I was a kid, we had Florrie, who, I swear, loved me like a dog. She’d run to meet me halfway up the street when I was walking home from school and then trot home besides me, telling me all about her day. She always answered to her name, and she’d fetch wads of newspaper. She’d even follow me into the bathroom and sit on the toilet when I took a shower to make sure that I didn’t wash down the drain or something. I’m pretty sure I owned her.”

 

He chuckles. “The rare and selfless devotion of the toilet guardian. It is to be envied.”

 

“Have you had cats -- or do you have cats?”

 

“I should rather say that certain felines condescend to associate with me on occasion and even use me as cat furniture.” Yesterday the Magister might have been an exhausted Grim Reaper, haunted and melancholy, but now he’s completely, fully, wonderfully alive. The incident with the scapel may have proven how artificial his robotic frame is, but that detracts nothing from the genuine enjoyment drawn in the open, relaxed lines of his posture and his face. His right eyebrow takes a high curve, balancing out the partial smirk creasing the left side of his face. The evil alien robot appears to be having fun -- at no one’s expense except his own.

 

Alison avoided the Magister until now in part because she thought that he was a miserable, evil control freak who would dump on her the sharp derision that he launches regularly at the Doctor. Now she recognizes that he is indeed all those things, but he has no interest in taking any of that out on her. Even if this attempt at mutual voluntary obedience goes nowhere, at least the Magister will stay out of her head and behave with reasonable politeness, and that’s more than she can say for the Doctor. “You have a sense of humor!” she exclaims.

 

“As do you.” He gives her that look that he did when he saw her with her dolls and called her an artifex. In other words, they share an interest, and this both surprises and delights him. Maybe he likes her or something? “And now that we have concluded our observation of the obvious, shall we begin lessons?” he says.

Chapter Text

The Magister situates himself perpendicular to his seat so that he’s facing her. “First, let me review what has gone before and apprise you of developments of which you are ignorant. Please listen carefully and do not interrupt me. I know that you speak up because your mind works quickly, fueled by both zeal and anxiety, and I am glad -- though not about the anxiety. I’ll have to work on that. Anyway, I find interruption disrespectful, and I know that you have no desire to be so. After all, you are my good Domina, aren’t you?”

 

Alison likes the structure of that question. She has heard all her life from her family that her best had to be better and from the rest of the world that the best of a black girl was worthless. Shuttling between perfectionism and hopelessness, she has rarely felt good enough. But if someone tells her that she’s already good and that she only needs to do something easy to prove it, then she can shove all that worthlessness aside temporarily and finally be good, if only for the space of the game.

 

“Yes, of course,” she says, turning toward him and nodding. Then, figuring that he’d do well to hear this, she adds, “Tace.” The Magister’s eyebrows go up. “No, no, it’s not a bad tace; it’s a good tace. We can use it to stop if someone’s doing something wrong, but let’s also use it to stop if someone is doing something good, okay?”

 

He considers this, then nods emphatically. “Of course. Reward tends to be more efficacious than punishment anyway. Very sensible  -- thank you.”

 

“Um, you’re welcome. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that it’s good for me -- it works -- if you ask me questions in that format because...well...you’re assuming that I’m going to do well, and that makes everything easier. Okay? And by the way -- if I do anything right too, please call tace and tell me.” It’s hard for her to meet his gaze for any sustained time because he’s just kind of...shining...in her direction with a sort of attentive anticipation.

 

“Understood. You would have me demonstrate my faith in you through the way in which I address you. I will remember that. And when you do something right,” he says, changing her conditional to an actual, “I will certainly tell you. I say when because you will do things well -- isn’t that so?” He winks at her.

 

“Keep on talking to me like that,” says Alison, winking back, “and, at the very least, you will have an extremely motivated Domina doing her very best.”

 

“Just so. --Anyway, to the matter at hand. You and I, having agreed to complete this diplomatic mission successfully, now face a challenge. You, along with the intrepid and enchanting Miss Lilleschall, have used the truth with unexpected creativity and turned this routine assignment into something far more entertaining.” His eyebrows go down toward the bridge of his nose. It may not be an evil smirk, but it’s definitely devious.

 

Alison gasps, tries to swallow the air, and coughs. Uscheschua lied too?

 

“Just as you are neither an ambassador nor endowed with any representational authority from the High Council of Time Lords, so Miss Lilleschall is neither an ambassador, nor an official representative of the Schuelle. She does indeed work for the Flower Grove as the apprentice to Grower Publivocis. However, she specializes in both cryptography and the physical maintenance of the two-way radio network that they use for communication. She is no diplomat.”

 

Alarm falls in a straight chute down Alison’s gut to smack into her diaphragm. Fuck, she thinks. Fuck fuck fuck… She mouths it a few dozen times.

 

“My lovely, eager Domina, I must have been wrong about the nonexistence of magic!” the Magister cries, a huge grin widening his face. “Clearly you possess some mystical power of foresight that gives you certain knowledge of how my tale will end. I pray you -- tell me what you know.” It’s sarcasm, but only of the lightest, most jocular type. He seems to enjoy more the opportunity to play with his words, rather than attacking.

 

Alison finds herself smiling at him, but she turns aside. He’s beaming, happy with his role, happy with his story, happy even with her, for some reason, though she certainly doesn’t deserve it.

 

“If you could but take a moment to listen to me, rather than the dire prophecies of your mind, you would find no reason at all for despair.” He fixes her with a moment’s silent glance to confirm that she heeds, and then goes on. “Miss Lilleschall may not be an official envoy of the Schuaschen. Nevertheless, she did not lie when she said that she had asked the Time Lords for help on behalf of the Schuaschen. Perhaps she told you that Grower Publivocis has admirers across the galaxies for her commitment to environmental justice. Among them are many Ceruleans of Gallifrey, who sent compliments to Grower Publivocis. Miss Lilleschall, to whom Grower Publivocis taught Gallifreyan by means of these messages, sent her own pleas back to these admirers. She implored them to aid the cause of the Schuelle, which was dear to their idol’s heart. While you rested yesterday, I spoke to Grower Publivocis and confirmed this all.

 

“If you were to interrupt -- which I know you will not -- you would certainly ask me why Miss Lilleschall seemed to be expecting you. I can explain. One Gallifreyan devotee of Grower Publivocis told Miss Lilleschall that they would forward her request for aid to a relative on the High Council. I believe that Miss Lilleschall took this promise as fact and thus assumed that you were the ultimate recipient of her message.”

 

Alison relaxes a very small amount. At least Uscheschua’s not some brainwashed double agent, trying to infiltrate the Schuelle on behalf of the Agricole. Yet the lies and omissions are mounting, so she finds his antic glee baffling.

 

He stops sparkling a bit and turns more serious, cocking his head at her. “Before I go any further, please answer this question truthfully -- what do you know about lellayschiiya?”

 

“Um, well, it’s a Schuaschen term for both mutualistic parasitism and some sort of relationship.” She remembers Uscheschua’s quote: “An interchange of sympathies necessary for our being.”

 

“Frankenstein? Well, I suppose that’s one way of defining it. Do you understand the nature of the relationship?”

 

“Um...it’s like an exchange, and both parties benefit, like, um, in mutualistic parasitism.”

 

“And the implication?”

 

“Um, well, it kind of seems like a big commitment...maybe.”

 

“So then you are not aware of what you have done by entering into lellayschiiya with Miss Lilleschall?” The corrugations on his forehead move upward.

 

If the question You want to be good, don’t you? will make Alison do anything, then the question Do you know what you have done? has precisely the opposite effect. It’s always a trap. She never knows what she’s done, and her increasingly frantic guesses only illustrate how clueless she is. His voice grows louder, his sarcasm more cutting, until she’s apologizing for everything, including things she forgot that she did and things that she knows that he did, not her.  “I fucked up,” she says, her voice going so flat that she can barely shove the whisper out. “I pretended to be what I wasn’t; I took power that wasn’t mine to take; I made promises that I had no authority to make.”

 

“Tace!”

 

But the long-rehearsed abjection leaks from her despite his command: “I was foolish, and I was gullible, and I was taken in by someone who was lying herself. I’m sorry. And I’m sure I did things that I didn’t know I did wrong, and I’m sorry for that too. And I’m sorry for disappointing you and interrupting you and not shutting up and lying that I was good, and -- ”

 

“Tace -- please!”

 

Finally registering the Magister’s words, Alison remembers their agreement. She doesn’t have to prostrate herself like this. She can draw herself up and say no. “Tace,” she says, partially in assent, partially to the old insidious voice that still whispers in the back of her mind.

 

“Yes, tace.” It’s no longer an order from him, but a reminder -- she has the power to be quiet.

 

“Tace,” she says, almost inaudibly this time, more of a long breath to calm herself from trembling. “That,” she says finally, “was not, uh, good at all.”

 

“I could tell.”

 

“Do you know what you’ve done? makes me feel like I’ve already failed once and I’m going to fail again because I don’t know what I did, and I’m going to guess wrong.”

 

“Dear me -- that’s not how I intended my question at all. I only wanted to know if you were aware of the seriousness of the lellayschiiya. But if such a question distresses you -- “

 

“Yeah, um, please don’t say that again.”

 

“No. I will not. I apologize.”

 

“Yeah...well...you didn’t know.”

 

“Rest now, Domina. That’s enough for today.”

 

“I think you’re right. But, before I go, you have to tell me -- what is lellayschiiya? I mean, what was my definition missing?”

 

“It would best be translated as binding contract. Lellayschiiya are not immutable; they may be renegotiated as the parties wish. However, entering into one has the weight of law, as well as social and moral obligations. Lellayschiiya seem most analogous to marriage agreements, which confer legal rights, even as the vows themselves entail certain moral expectations.”

 

“Uscheschua made it sound like marriage, especially since she quoted that bit from Frankenstein where the creature is asking Frankenstein to make him a mate.”

 

“And I do not doubt that the lovely Miss Lilleschall would indeed enjoy binding you in such a contract. In any event, though, news of the lellayschiiya between the Schuelle and the Time Lords has traveled to the top of the Schuelle. The leader of the Thorn Grove, which is the war department, and the second in command of the Main Shoot, which is administration, wish to meet with us. They want to ensure that the lellayschiiya begun by Miss Lilleschall incorporates all the Schuelle’s requests.

 

“In other words,” he summarizes, his voice full of a deep glee, “you have committed us with the most solemn of Schuaschen bonds to the cause of the Schuelle. Since, as you know, it was the Agricole who asked the High Council for help against the Schuaschen, you and Miss Lilleschall have neatly reversed the entire object of our mission. I must therefore congratulate you, my clever mistress.” He offers her a bow. “You are an artifex with a a truly delightful propensity for deceit and dissimulation. Sleep well, and come to me tomorrow.”



Chapter Text

The next day, Alison sits down in her customary overstuffed chair in the library. Morning dampness fogs up the window half of the dome, while, outside, rosifolia pollen shoots streamers of gold through the silver mist. One TARDIS cat hops into her lap, rocking back and forth and kneading for a few seconds, before subsiding into a fuzzy pile of purrs. Another cat takes up position on her right armrest, crouching like a small gargoyle. Alison strokes them because it’s something better to do than to fidget. “Mi Magistre?” Magister of mine?

 

The Magister turns from where he has been harvesting books from a shelf. Approaching her, he unloads his collection on a table to her left. Some are in extraterrestrial languages, but she recognizes a few titles in English: 24 Frames Per Second, Speaking Likenesses, The Kinetoscope. Either he’s researching movies or artificial life forms or both. “Are you ready to begin?” He clasps his hands behind his back.

 

Alison pushes aside the subject of his reading matter for the more urgent question. “Look -- it’s not like I’m completely lacking in intelligence or anything, but there’s something I still don’t understand about your, um, responses to me.” She fixes her eyes on the cats, who respond to her touch by purring palpably enough to make her whole body vibrate.

 

“Oh? At what might I do better for you?”

 

“But it’s not you that’s the problem -- it’s me!” Alison cries. “I keep fucking up everything. The only thing I can do well is make messes that you then have to clean up. Why are you so happy about that?” She throws her hands up. “Why are you pretending not to be angry?” She finally turns to him, glaring. “Do you like making me suffer? Why don’t you just yell at me already?” She’s almost screaming.

 

The Magister doesn’t call tace, but suddenly there’s dead air between them. Standing with his lips apart, he looks as if he was going to speak, then forgot his words in Alison’s hail of accusing questions. His eyebrows draw up and inward by his nasal bridge, and the brown of his eyes is profound and contemplative. She can’t look at him anymore, only at her shoes. Here comes that soft, quiet voice full of rage, and she deserves every missile he’ll launch at her.

 

“I have no wish to ever make you suffer.” It’s a quiet voice, yes, but completely without an edge. “Such things would bring you misery, and I’ve had enough of that. I am here only to belong to you and to do my best to make you happy.

 

“You fascinate me. I have not been addressed as a reasonable person, capable of doing good, for a very long time. Of the many people the Doctor has had traveling with them, you are the first to see me as more than their domestic. So of course I find your company most stimulating.”

 

Alison remembers that it wasn’t the Doctor who asked her to travel with them, but the Magister. “I am by no means fond of you,” he said, “but you offer them a companionship that I do not.” At first she took that invitation as from the Doctor by proxy, but now she recognizes it as from the Magister himself. When he first saw her, he probably felt threatened by her, hence the lack of fondness, but intrigued despite himself. He issued her a challenge, to come along even though he was initially suspicious, because he yearned for companionship of his own. And now he considers her not only his Domina and his student, but also, somehow, for some reason, his friend. “Oh…” she says.

 

“I recognize that you despise and distrust me and thus you assume the worst of me.” Any normal person would either be enraged or maybe ashamed, but he accepts her antipathy for him with the same equanimity with which he would acknowledge her predilection for bananas. “That said,” he goes on, coming closer, “please tell me truly -- have I hidden my anger from you?”

 

“No.” Alison shakes her head.

 

“And have I given you any indication that I would either yell at you or deliberately provoke your unhappiness? I do not believe I have, but, if I am mistaken, you must tell me.” He’s bending to the side, trying to look into her eyes.

 

Alison ducks, concentrating on the cats. “It’s not that you’ve ever yelled or made fun of me or held me in suspense just to make me squirm. It’s just that...well...other people have, so --”

 

“And thus you expect the same from me.” He nods slowly.

 

“But you’ve kept all your promises, and you’ve been nothing but patient with me.” She winces and sighs, but forces herself to raise her head because she has to meet his eyes for this part: “Sed nunc audio te, mi Magistre. Mea culpa.” But now I hear what you’re saying, Magister of mine. It’s my fault. She can’t think of how to say that she’ll quit projecting someone else’s shitty temper onto him, so she goes with, “Non clamabo.” I will not scream.

 

“Thank you.” He stands up straight. He’s so much less intimidating when he smiles, all the deep lines on his face magnifying the curves in his mouth and brows. “Of course,” he says, pointing at her, “I do expect you to berate me from time to time, as I will no doubt incense you.”

 

She has to grin at that, just because none of the usual things ever put him out. “Well, yeah, but I won’t scream about it.”

 

“Yes, and please do not punish me for someone else’s transgressions. You won’t, will you?” He pretends to think about it. “No, you will not, for you are my lovely Domina, my gracious Domina, my kind Domina.” He nods once, as if that’s all settled.

 

Alison suddenly knows why he’s so excited about the mess that she made. First, he hasn’t had a chance to scheme and plot and control in eons, and it’s his favorite game. Second, he’s glad to have her as his partner. Just now, for example, when she was still calming down from her screaming fit of projection, he said that she was lovely, gracious, and kind so that she would smile and become the sweeter person that he asked for. He may not know all the kinky terms for things, but he loves the roles, the titles, the protocols, and the effect of certain words. He knows exactly how to use them, and he’s elated to be playing with another control freak who takes her fun as seriously as he does. “Yeah,” says Alison under her breath, grinning, unsure if she’s answering his questions or affirming her own analysis of him.

 

“So...shall we begin?” He starts doing his hands-behind-the-back pacing thing.

 

Alison looks out the window, not because she’s cringing, but because she becomes woozy if she tries to track him. She could order him to stay in one spot so she wouldn’t throw up, but he’d probably have as much success doing that as she would staying absolutely quiet, without interrupting. Better to let him do laps and look elsewhere. “Yeah, let’s!”

 

“First, tell me what your ultimate goal is for our diplomatic engagement here, for that will inform our strategy. I should warn you, though,” he says, trying to look severe, but killing the attempt with a smirk, “that I will not accept Miss Lilleschall as an answer, for you may not take as your reward that which you already possess.”

 

“I don’t have her -- we just know each other!” Alison shakes her head. “Anyway, my goal is to use any power that the High Council has to ensure the safety of the Schuaschen, establish their independence, and keep the Flumenarxi from fucking with them ever again. I don’t want to fix everything up all tidy for them because, if there’s anything I’ve learned in history class, it's that trying to be the big British savior is a violation of the worst sort. However, Uscheschua asked for our help because the Schuaschen could really use it. So I want to help them to the best of my ability.”

 

“I would expect nothing less. Now that you have told me of your will, let me give you an update. First, neither I nor the Schuaschen have announced our presence to the Agricole, so only our Schuaschen colleagues know that we delegates from the High Council have arrived. Second, my communications with the High Council have thus far given them news only of the Doctor’s illness and not of your meeting with Miss Lilleschall. If you disapprove of my omissions, do but order me otherwise, and I shall disclose everything.”

 

“Wait…” Alison holds up her palms for a stop. “You’re trying to get me to think strategically, aren’t you? So don’t disclose anything right now. Those omissions are our advantages, and we need every single one of them. Sneakiness for a good cause is fine -- right now we’re like secret agents for the resistance.”

 

He snorts on a laugh. “You make it sound so fetchingly idealistic. On the subject of the resistance, I received a message from Loriischi Ollischill, second in command of the Schuelle, and Seffiya Effschischa, who leads the Thorn Grove. They assured me that Miss Lilleschall would be removed from her appointment in the Flower Grove and remanded to the Bark Grove for punishment -- “

 

“No! That’s not fair! Poor Uscheschua!” Alison would jump up, but the feline lump parked on her thighs objects.

 

“--And they begged to be allowed to apologize so that they may renegotiate your and Miss Lilleschall’s lellayschiiya according to form and proper protocol. I, in turn, asked that they forbear to take any action against Miss Lilleschall because I had first to consult with my colleague,” he says, nodding in Alison’s direction, “with whom she had already established an ambassadorial relationship.”

 

“So basically what you’re saying is that we have about five minutes to figure out our next move before everything gets even worse than it already is. No pressure then!” She puts her head in her hands. “I don’t know how to prevent civil war.”

 

“You may have no solutions, but you do have a choice about what to do next. There are no wrong answers; you may decide whatever you like. No matter what, I am your ally on behalf of the Schuaschen and against the Agricole. I await your choice.”

 

This is not a test as she has experienced in the past, where someone waits for her to read their mind and guess the secret correct answer, but it’s a test nonetheless. But she still doesn’t know the right answer. And yet...perhaps her ignorance is the key. She reviews his words -- You have a choice about what to do next -- and sees that he expects from her no perfectly formed plan. He only wants to know what she will do, now that she has reached the limit of her small experience.

 

Suddenly she knows exactly how to answer. “Let me first tell you what I want to do next. I want to keep Uscheschua involved. She’s the heart of the cause! She shouldn’t be punished; she should be supported and, um, counterbalanced by people with more knowledge and experience. Besides that, we need to meet with them and make sure our lellayschiiya with them is comprehensive. We should do the same with the Agricole and at least pretend to consider their colonialist bullshit. That’s what I want to do, but that’s also where I have no clue.

 

“And so -- I’m going to admit my ignorance. Please -- tell me what you would do. Let me help you and do what I can, but don’t ask me to lead you, at least not in this. Mi Magistre, cedo te ut tibi placet.” Magister of mine, I yield in the hope that I may please you [or at least that’s what it is if she got the subjunctive right]. She detaches the lap cat from her, rises, and performs a careful bow, spreading her arms out to her sides as if fanning invisible skirts.

 

The Magister’s mouth pushes the points of his mustache further and further apart as he smiles. “Where did you learn to do that? It really should have been ut tibi placeat, but I’m prepared to forgive your error in light of such a beautiful delivery.”

 

“A thousand pardons! That was truly an abysmal lapse of the subjunctive, and I am unworthy to receive your mercy. I would like to, with the utmost of respect and submission, suggest that you go fuck yourself backward with a rusty pitchfork.”

 

“I decline to obey. If I followed your suggestion, I would severely damage my ability to teach you, and where would you be without a Magister to please?”  

 

“Hah! --So, seriously, what about the actual content of what I said? Is it okay that I don’t know, that I’m handing it over to you?”

 

“Yes, yes, yes! Of course. In fact, I had hoped that you would ask for my assistance. Your limits are among the most important things you will ever learn -- the limits of your time, your endurance, your skills, your body, your mind, and your knowledge.”

 

Wait...lessons in relinquishing control from the control freak of the Time Lords? How does that work? “Do you really believe that, or are you just happy that I gave you a little speech with cedo in it?” Alison squiggles her eyebrows at him.

 

“Domina mea mihi placet.” That’s not really an answer to her question, but it makes her smile back at him anyway. My Domina pleases me.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: Alison and the Robot Hear the Schuaschen

 

The Magister determines the course of the diplomatic proceedings. He proposes separate hearings with the Schuaschen and the Agricole to learn of their demands, followed by a meeting with both parties to establish the terms of the peace. To do so, he must tell both Schuaschen and Agricole of this process. Alison agrees to inform the Agricole of their impending formal meeting with the Schuaschen, but not her own original encounter with Uscheschua. Neither the Magister nor the Domina see any reason to let the Council know that they have taken over the Doctor’s assignment and turned it in a much different direction.

 

Next the Magister communicates with the Schuelle. He details the steps of the hearing process and also transmits Alison’s wishes that Uscheschua maintain her assumed post. Much to Alison’s pleasure, Uscheschua does, though now apparently under strict supervision by Ollischill and Effschischa. All three of them are arriving later in the day to officially renegotiate, review, and ratify the lellayschiiya created by Alison and Uscheschua which will serve as a statement of their demands.

 

Alison reads up on their impending visitors, something she really should have done before landing on Terripluvium. Schuaschen were created a century ago as ostensible paragons of feminine beauty to decorate the gardens of the richest Flumenarxi. Using some of the local deciduous flora as a base, biogeneticists created sentient, intelligent trees with the general forms of human beings. The Agricole named the beings Topiarians.

 

Alison turns the page, but a headache strikes. The Magister finds her slumped in the chair, not crying through sheer willpower. She explains that her brain just gives up on focusing sometimes. Maybe the TARDIS would speak some books out loud for her? “I shall do that myself,” says the Magister, “if you would permit me.” Alison, who had thought not to bother him with a and rather trivial request, now wonders what he wouldn’t do for her.

 

He begins to read in a rolling, declamatory style, at once controlled and showy -- in other words, entirely characteristic. Now calling themselves the Schuaschen, Uscheschua’s people grow from seeds, spending the first year of their lives in the ground. After that, they may either be fully sessile, that is, rooted, or partially sessile and partially mobile. Though most of the first Schuaschen were sessile, those today spend half their day in root, drinking and resting. For the other half of their time, they may, if they have the ability, retract their roots into their hollow trunks and walk bipedally. The extent of their lifespans is unknown.

 

Over the years, the Flumenarxi have experimented with the Schuaschen genome, creating a variety of different breeds or cultivars. “Thus,” says the Magister, setting aside the book, “you should know when you meet the three Schuaschen delegates that they look quite different from one another.” Uscheschua’s cultivar, Lilleschall, was bred for ostensible attractiveness and open-air growth -- hence her exaggeratedly curvy shape and her wide, radiant halo of branches. Loriischi Ollischill, the second in charge of the Schuelle, is of a cultivar designed for the Flumenarxis’ personal sexual exploitation, to use the Magister’s phrase, so both her internal and external anatomy resemble that of the Agricole. By contrast, the Schuelle’s war leader, Seffiya Effschischa, belongs to a cultivar developed for compactness and a trunk that may be trained around garden items.

 

Alison takes refuge in sarcasm just because it’s easier than standing there in horror. “Great -- so we’re dealing with people who are totally cool with raping, mutilating, and making furniture out of other people. For fuck’s sake -- “

 

Alison never does get to ask whether her species has any redeeming qualities at all, as the Magister suddenly stands. “The TARDIS has just informed me that the Schuaschen delegation has arrived. Are you well enough to meet with them?”

 

Alison stands by his side. “I am.”

 

“Then shall we?” The Magister offers his arm; she takes it.

 

The Magister opens the TARDIS’ front door, and the spaceship sends out a shallow ramp so that the three Schuaschen ambassadors may enter. In comes Uscheschua, eyes even larger and brighter than usual, a writing tablet clutched to her chest. Without the time to sweep Alison into a greeting, Uscheschua merely gives her a smile, then holds the door for the other two.

 

Commander Seffiya Effschischa arrives second. Literally on a different scale than Uscheschua and Secondary Grower Loriischi Ollischill, she is maybe two-thirds of a meter high. Comparatively delicate in build, she possesses smooth reddish bark and a crown of pointy, dark green leaves. Because her trunk twists to the side in a curve nearly parallel to the ground, the commander uses a modified wheelchair; she anchors herself in a basin of soil, which sits on a wheeled platform. With a sharp-featured face and narrow brown eyes, she puts Alison in mind of a falcon, scanning for prey from the heights.

 

Pushing the commander’s chair, Secondary Grower Loriischi Ollischill enters last. Literally willowy in form and shape, she is lithe and curvy, with vertically grooved and greenish-yellow bark. Her narrow branches hang in waves down to her waist. Robust and broad of frame, she has a square face and arched brows as active as the Magister’s.

 

“I am Loriischi of the Ollischill cultivar, Secondary Grower of the Forest in the Main Shoot of the Schuelle of the Schuaschen. I bid you welcome to Terripluvium and Crescior, loftiest among Time Lords,” says Grower Ollischill. “Please accept my thanks for agreeing to discuss with us further the lellayschiiya that has already been established between your forest and ours. It is my most fervent wish that our collaboration might cross-pollinate successfully, bloom abundantly, and ripen quickly into a bountiful harvest of peace for us and our land. Furthermore, though we have a serious duty here, we are all colleagues here, are we not? I do hope that you would call me Loriischi, for we wish to establish a friendship with you that would extend its roots to all Schuaschen and Time Lords.”

 

By contrast, Seffiya Effschischa has no first name, for she introduces herself as Commander Effschischa in a pointedly formal contrast to Loriischi, who then tells everyone Uscheschua’s name. They’re not even going to let Uscheschua say who she is herself? What kind of bullshit is this?

 

Alison, going next, calls herself a Time Tree and ignores the Magister’s disapproval. The Magister introduces himself and receives a lifted eyebrow from Commander Effschischa, who is clearly unconvinced that the Master is an acceptable name. Well, that’s two of us, Alison thinks.

 

Recognizing that the table might not comfortably accommodate Commander Effschischa’s wheelchair, the Magister asks what alternative she might like -- the floor, perhaps? She roughly agrees, so Alison, the Magister, and Loriischi sit cross-legged on the floor. Loriischi carefully moves the commander’s basin from her rolling platform and sets it delicately beside her so that all ambassadors are on the same level.

 

Then follows a detailed review of the lellayschiiya. Loriischi recites Alison and Uscheschua’s preliminary terms: cessation of attacks on Schuaschen by Flumenarxi and Graniculi, peace between all Agricole and all Schuaschen, release of all Schuaschen who being potted and gardened, and full social, legal, and moral equality between Agricole and Schuaschen. These stipulations she acknowledges as quite well-rooted. Uscheschua looks up from her minutes with a huge grin, but still the two other Schuaschen delegates act like she’s not even there. Commander Effschischa says nothing.

 

The Magister and Loriischi, as spokespeople, match each other in grandiloquent politeness as they work on the finer points of the contract. While they edit the lellayschiiya, its substance remains intact. The only significant addition is a demand for territory to be set aside for a Schuaschen homeland of their own. Meanwhile, Uscheschua seems to be capturing everything verbatim. The commander remains quiet, offering curt approvals only when Loriischi directly asks for them.

 

When the Magister and Loriischi have satisfied themselves with the review, the Magister turns to the commander. “Commander Effschischa, you have remained reticent throughout this discussion. But, as an accomplished leader whose tactics have kept the Schuelle free from the Agricole for nearly a decade, you bring unparalleled knowledge and insights to this hearing. We would welcome your counsel, should you choose to share it.”

 

The commander stares at him with her keen raptor eyes. “Time Master,” she says finally, “I am a soldier without pretty courtesies. I know much more about fighting than I do about negotiating. I am not here to discuss the niceties of this word or that. I want to know if you will do everything within your power to safeguard the lives and futures of all the trees I protect.”

 

“I believe what Commander Effschischa is trying to say,” Loriischi speaks up, “is that it is absolutely imperative that this lellayschiiya secure not only our social, legal, and moral equality with our neighbors, but our physical and material freedom as well.”

 

“You don’t trust us, do you, Commander Effschischa?” The Magister employs the same matter-of-fact, almost casual tone in which he first observed that Alison was terrified of him.

 

“I do not,” the commander replies. “I have studied you Time Lords, and everything tells me that you are like the Agricole, arrogant, violent, and possessive. You send your High Council envoys all over the universe to meddle in everyone else’s affairs. You hunt time; you control it; you alter it; you say that you rule it. You are not Time Lords; you are Time Gardeners. What proof do I have that you are safe? What proof do I have that you would not garden us as the Agricole do now? Why should I trust you?”

 

“Because the Agricole are wrong!” Alison bursts out. “They’re like the Doctor Frankensteins of Terripluvium. Ask Ambassador Lilleschall! If you’d give her a chance to talk, she’ll tell you exactly why she trusted me. We based our lellayschiiya on the principles of freedom, personhood, independence, and safety because that’s what all people deserve. We don’t care what the Agricole think because your rights are worth more than their arrogant possessiveness. I mean,” she says, evening out her voice, “we’d like to use our powers for good, if that’s okay with you.”

 

The commander turns to Alison. “So you think that our common enemy makes us allies. And you think that your abuse of Time Lord authority is excusable if you interfere on behalf of Schuaschen freedom.”

 

The Magister places his right hand on his sternum and leans forward a bit. “Yes. My colleague and I shall devote our stratagems, our interventions, and all our power to the fulfillment of the lellayschiiya that we have established.” Alison wonders if his honesty about his dishonesty renders him more trustworthy to the Schuaschen or less.

 

“Um…” says Loriischi, out of whose depth this conversation has spiraled so fast that she is not sure what word to insert edgewise.

 

“Well then,” says Commander Effschischa. “I’m a practical person, and I will take whatever help I can, even if it is from Time Lords, to guard my people and keep them safe. I believe we might have an understanding after all.”

 

Suddenly something speeds through the air. The Magister sits up and catches it, his eyes never leaving the commander’s. “What’s this?” he asks in all mildness, his right hand held near his cheek as if to launch a dart. Only when she squints does Alison see the fine needle-like shaft of a metal arrow between the tips of his fingers.

 

Some sort of tube -- a blow gun? -- has materialized in the commander’s hand. “I intended that for the golden book just behind your right ear, but I think I’ve made my point. Break the lellayschiiya, and I will kill you.”

 

“Commander!” the Magister cries. The word flies out as a dart of its own. “I offer you frankness and good faith, and you respond with a show of force, threatening me and thus my Domina. Take care, then, with your next move, for it is to her whom I answer above all others.”

 

“Indeed it was a show of force,” says the commander, her voice completely even, “not an actual use. But now I see, Time Master and Time Tree Cheney, that you pose no threat to me.” She puts her gun back into the secret place where she got it from. “So I will be no threat to you. I agree to your terms.”

 

“A wise decision.” The Magister lowers his arm.

 

Alison stares. The Magister has promised her all sorts of things recently, but only now does she have an idea of how he would defend her limits when someone else tried to push them. She knew that he was powerful, but she never counted on such a combination of speed, defense, and incontrovertible authority. And this person has voluntarily given himself to her service. Well, that’s...intense. Alison swears to use these powers only for good.

Chapter Text

The commander’s deference to the Magister marks an effective ending to the proceedings. Everyone acknowledges that they will next meet, along with the Agricole, to finalize the peace, and Loriischi finally looks at Uscheschua and signals for her to put away her tablet. The Magister, the commander, and Loriischi talk in a trio, still sitting on the floor. At the same time, Alison and Uscheschua move to each other as fast as they can, while still maintaining the fiction that they are decorous ambassadors.

 

“I’m so glad to see you again!” says Uscheschua, taking Alison’s hands and pulling her in as the session closes. “I wish that I could practice my English with you and meet the little moss balls again, but I really have to finish my records of this meeting. I’m sorry that we haven’t had the time to talk.”

 

“Yeah...and I’m sorry you didn’t have the time to talk,” Alison mutters, a grumble still in her voice. “I can’t believe they shut you up, and you just sat in a corner, taking minutes!”

 

Uscheschua drops Alison’s hands. “Time Tree Cheney!” she exclaims with a rather formal half-bow. “I’m very sorry for offending you, but I don’t understand why you’re erupting at me. What have I done to incur your magma?”

 

Shit! Yet another fuck-up! “Oh! Usch -- Ambassador Lilleschall, I’m not angry at you.” Alison dares to reach out, for once, and seize Uscheschua’s hands. “I’m not angry at you,” she repeats, softening her voice.

 

Alison’s hands have an immediate effect on Uscheschua. She straightens a bit and turns toward Alison like a flower toward the sun. “So...what are you magmic about?”

 

“I was just frustrated because I thought that you were a great ambassador when we met, but Commander Effschischa and Grower Ollischill didn’t even let you do any, uh, ambassadoring this time. I mean, you’re so smart -- dendritic -- and so passionate! I wish you could have shown them.”

 

“But I did show them.” Uscheschua cocks her head, and all her slim branches of hair swoop over one shoulder like so many dreadlocks. “That’s why I’m on the team -- because I have an interest and an aptitude.”

 

“What good is the aptitude if they won’t let you talk?” Alison shakes her head

 

“I’m not being prevented from anything, though. I chose the role I have. I mean, I didn’t choose to work with them. Grower Publivocis told me that they wanted to work with me and -- wow! That’s the bloomingest, juiciest fruit I’ve ever had the opportunity to harvest -- even more than working for Grower Publivocis.

 

“Both of them have much more experience than I do talking to other trees, so at first they couldn’t decide how I could help. I was the one who thought that I would be a good records keeper, since I’m really not cultivated for the public, formal envoy work like they are. You’ve seen that for yourself, Time Tree Cheney -- I’m too blooming melodramatic, and I’d just say something wrong. But, this way, I’m out in the shoots and buds of history, seeing it, living it, growing in it, recording it!” Lifting her branches, she sighs so happily that her eyes close. “I’m drinking in so much knowledge, learning so much, and -- “ So great is her bliss that she runs out of words for it.

 

Uscheschua’s expression reminds Alison of the Magister when he offered her his service, as well as the transcendent joy she feels upon walking into a library. Uscheschua is exactly where she wants to be. “I didn’t realize that you doing exactly what you wanted -- that’s really amazingly juicy. And you made your own job description? Congratulations!” Maybe someday she’ll be as brilliant as the wonderful, beautiful Uscheschua.

 

“Yes, it’s even part of my lellayschiiya as a servant of the Schuelle. Oh, Grower Ollischill is ready to leave,” she says, craning her neck around Alison to see Loriischi waiting behind the commander’s wheelchair. “I’m sorry, but I really have to go. Thank you for your congratulations. I will see you again when you plant our peace -- goodbye. May your blossoms ever bear fruit and your roots always go deep.” Uscheschua clasps Alison’s forearms and then departs.

 

“Your lovely Miss Lilleschall has a new employment contract?” The Magister appears at her elbow, waving as the Schuaschen delegation leaves. He closes the control room door behind them.

 

“She does!” Alison bounces on her toes a bit and takes a twirl around the central control tower, leaning on the railing. “Now, instead of being a fake ambassador, she’s the official records keeper for the Schuaschen envoys. I was all annoyed that Loriischi and the commander had banished Uscheschua to the corner for punishment. But it turns out that is the position she asked for. So, if you’re going to ask me what I learned today, one thing is that I really need to stop jumping to conclusions.”

 

“You look like you’re about to do so now,” he observes, marking her posture with an eyebrow maneuver. Alison ignores him and adds a little bit of a dance step as he goes on: “You have a strong intuition for justice, to be sure. However, though consensual and compelled obedience may look the same from a distance, they do differ. I understand your impulse to showcase the acuity and zeal of Miss Lilleschall. And yet, as you saw, your attempt to include her constituted a disruptive breach of protocol -- “

 

Alison quits jigging. “I realized that in the middle of my rant. I’m sorry.”

 

“Sometimes one may find it efficacious to, as you tried, work outside of or even against a chain of command in pursuit of one’s goals.” He’s pacing again [naturally] in circles around the central console. “But sometimes moving within the established order is best. However, do not worry yourself too much about today’s misstep, for the ability to make such decisions only comes through time and experience.” He stops abruptly and turns precisely toward her, which he likes to do for significant sentences. “No matter your plans, however, you would do well to learn the true hierarchy, instead of assuming familiarity therewith.”

 

“Um...yeah. Duly noted.”

 

“Do you have more that you wish to tell me? And, just so you know, I have no secret list of expected lessons against which I am checking those you have told me so far.”

 

“Tace. I just wanted to say -- that kind of reassurance is good, so thank you. --But actually, I did have something else to add. I saw two styles of negotiation today. One was between you and Loriischi: the polite, calm, reasonable style, with everyone treating each other like colleagues -- or at least pretending to. And there was the more hostile one between you and the commander. You were honest about your positions, but you were also trying to dominate each other.” Alison pauses, staring down at the gleaming ebony wood of the railing, then ventures, “You really meant that, then, about answering to me over the Doctor?”

 

“I answer of my own volition to someone who respects me,” he says, as if it should be obvious to her.

 

“Okay then…” Alison decides to move off that topic. “--So...diplomatic styles… Politeness is always a good start, but you also have to accurately estimate the goals and mood of whoever you’re talking to. Then you adjust your approach based on your observations. If someone raises the stakes, you have to know how high you’re willing to go. And,” she can’t help but add, “if you’re determined to come out on top, it helps to have a bottomless well of arrogance.”

 

“I possess nothing but a justified confidence in my own abilities.” He acknowledges her mockery with a slight smile, but clearly thinks that his egotism is anything but extraordinary.

 

“Right -- keep telling yourself that. --And that’s about all, I think.”

 

“So -- an educational hearing then. I trust you have discovered the benefits of observation and the perils of speaking out of turn. You protest that you have, and yet you continue to disobey me when I tell you to be still.” He cocks his head at her and lowers his eyebrows thoughtfully.

 

“Um, yeah. Like I said, I have problems with that.”

 

“Then my duty is to help you overcome those.” He says it with some delight, spreading out his hands, as if it’s that simple.

 

“Wow, for an evil alien super-powered robot, you’re not much cop at punishment.”

 

“I am exhausted with punishment; it only breaks people.” He waves away her attempt at a joke. “--But to your point -- I know that you hate being told what to do. Is that why you disobey me?”

 

“Well, obviously, I don’t like being ordered around, but that’s not really it. I mean -- I want to be your good Domina, but apparently I literally cannot keep my mouth shut.”

 

“Hmmm… Then you disobey me because you feel that you will be driven to distraction if you remain silent. Am I right?” Pacing, pacing -- does he ever stop pacing?

 

Alison reflects. She does have a habit of becoming so indignant that she feels like she just has to let it out. “Yeah, you are, actually.”

 

Stop -- turn -- pivot -- it’s like some exact, geometrical, one-person dance. “So then I must find you some way to displace your thoughts so that you would not speak and yet you would be calm.”

 

She gets an idea. “Well, I could always do what I did when I got bored in history class ‘cause I’d already read the books. I’ll write down what I’d rather be saying, since I’m sure they can’t read English anyway.”

 

“And if that will not suffice, signal me.” He puts one finger on top of the other perpendicularly, making a T. “Call it a silent tace, at which I will adjourn so that you might regain your composure.”

 

“It’s a plan.”

 

“And a necessary one at that.” He stops [finally], stares at the vaulted ceiling, and sighs. “Quite soon we will hear the Flumenarxi envoys and their request that we help them make of the Schuaschen the docile subjects that they never were.”

 

“Fuck.” Alison sticks out her tongue.

 

“I am fully aware that they are wrong and that you find their beliefs abhorrent,” he says, fixing his eyes on her now. “And yet -- your success on this mission depends on your ability to act on your impulses toward justice and compassion without displaying bias or causing offense. Thus you must maintain a politic politeness, even toward your enemies, in the hope that your respect toward them will render them amenable to a treaty of equality.”

 

“That’s easy for you to say -- you’re like the expert of bullshit! How am I supposed to be civil to people who want to turn Uscheschua into a fucking table?”

 

“You may learn such skills in time, but you do not have them now. Therefore I will have you silent in the hearing with the Flumenarxi, unless there is an emergency.”

 

“Silent?” Alison’s voice hits the squawking register.

 

He winces momentarily at her high pitch, but says without variation in his own tone, “Entirely.”

 

Alison grinds her teeth and lets out a semi-incoherent growl. “Urrrgh. This is going to be hard.”

 

“I never claimed that it would be easy. But I know you to be clever and, when properly motivated, very obedient. So...listen. Observe. Write all that you want in your notebook. Let me know if you need an adjournment. Will you do as I say?”

 

Keep your temper to keep the peace, Alison tells herself. She reminds herself that people are depending on her -- more people than have ever depended on her before -- to help them. Uscheschua’s life, the commander’s life, Loriischi’s life, and the lives of all the other trees of the Schuaschen are worth more than her momentary outrage. With that in mind, she can match the levelness of his gaze. “Yes. Audio ut discam.” I hearken so that I may learn.

 

“Very good. I would much rather have a hiatus than an outburst. Of course, I hope that the hearing goes smoothly enough without occasion for either, but I doubt that it will.”

Chapter Text

Diplomacy seminar the next morning leaves everyone irritated. With the Schuaschen lellayschiiya sorted, the Magister and Alison turn their attention to the Flumenarxi. But the link provided by the High Council for Trix [probably a senior feminine honorific, Alison thinks] Curriendi Rosinia, senior Agricole ambassador, doesn’t work. The Magister and the TARDIS try hacking the Flumenarxi system to force a direction connection, but the system’s poorly programmed convolutions exasperate them both.

 

The Magister instead orders Alison to take a message to the ambassador in person. Alison, calling tace, mutters her humiliating confession. She’s too scared of being mind-fucked again to set foot outdoors. She stares at the floor, wishing that she could shrivel up.

 

He doesn’t yell -- and not just because he doesn’t really raise his voice when angry. Instead, he asks her questions. Does she forgive him for demanding something that is currently impossible for her? If she fears leaving the TARDIS, how will she get home? Is she truly certain that she won’t be trapped here? What can he do to help her prepare? Oddly enough, the fact of her failure seems to be the least of his worries.

 

Interrogation concluded, the Magister exits to recompose himself after his infuriating encounter with the Flumenarxi network. Alison offers to attempt a connection to Trix Curriendi from the front end. The Magister agrees, on the condition that she bring him into the call if she connects successfully. Alison promises that she will.

 

Finding a general link for Flumenarxi governmental services, Alison starts there, promptly losing herself in the least helpful set of automated menus that she has ever encountered. Just as she is about to hang up in despair, she reaches a real live person, a financial clerk in the Nummarium. The two commiserate over incompetent bureaucracy, and the clerk connects Alison to someone they know in the Ambitio, the Flumenarxi department of communications and diplomacy.

 

Finally, after several transfers, Alison reaches Trixicula Sideris, senior assistant to Trix Curriendi, and lets out a cheer before introducing herself. “Hooray, you’re just the person I wanted to talk to!”

 

“By the delta!” Trixicula Sideris exclaims. “No one’s been so happy to see me since my Topiarians begged for water.”

 

Alison’s goodwill instantly evaporates. However, she forces a smile onto her face and says, “Oh, isn’t that just the way of it? I’ve been an assistant to people before, and callers would always act like I ruined their day on purpose if I told them that the president or whatever wasn’t available.” She and Trixicula Sideris trade wry remarks on the subject, as well as that of leaders who would forget where they put their heads if their assistants didn’t remind them.

 

Trixicula Sideris will not connect Time Lord Cheney to Trix Curriendi, though, since she is not on the list of approved callers. With great regrets, especially because Time Lord Cheney has been so understanding, Trixicula Sideris promises to give a note to Trix Curriendi within the hour and wave it in her face till she does something about it. “Thanks! You’ve been amazingly helpful, and I hope you have a work day full of nice callers.” Alison disconnects and, since no one’s watching, does a little victory dance.

 

“Well done!” The Magister strides toward her with a chuckle, his hands clasped.

 

“Um...hi,” says Alison. Is he being sarcastic?

 

Apparently not. Unbeknownst to her, the Magister listened to her entire journey up the chain, but not, amazingly enough, to catch her disobeying orders. “I only wanted to learn from you,” he says.

 

Alison looks at him out of the side of her eyes. “Why?”

 

“Because, my dearest, doubting Domina, you have much to teach me.” He bows and takes an empty chair before her. “Please tell me how you succeeded in making a connection with the Flumenarxi where I have failed.”

 

After several stunned moments, she realizes that the Magister won’t be reprimanding her. So Alison springs up, determined to turn the tables and have a little fun. “Salvete, discipuli! Hello, students, and welcome to Remedial Basic Respect 101. As a reminder,” she continues, imitating her listener’s dramatic pacing, “this is not a punishment. If you want to punish yourself, please dial the Flumenarxi town hall. They’ll put you in a menu system so horrible that you’ll long for death’s sweet release.” At this, the Magister [Discipulus?] smirks.

 

Stopping in front of her listener, Alison peers down her nose at him. “I deal less with punishment and more with remediation. As you may know, the word comes from the Latin remedio, which means method of healing. But be warned!” She bends forward at the waist and holds up an admonitory palm. “Though you may seek a remedy here, it will not be easy. I am a perfectionist, and I demand nothing but the best.” She stands straight, draws herself up to rectilinear bearing, and proclaims, “For I am the Magistra, and you will obey grammar!”

 

He throws his head back in a silent laugh, and Alison takes advantage of her stance over her listener. [Who is he now that she’s the teacher?] “Are you mocking me?” She folds her arms. He’s still laughing. “Robot of mine! Look at me!”

 

He swings upright in his chair as if she has just clicked a button on his remote control. “I -- “

 

“Oh -- tace!” Alison claps her hand over her mouth. “I know I just basically called you my possession. I’m so sorry!”

 

“But...I am.” He speaks with a light note of confusion, as if she’s trying to controvert the obvious.

 

Alison stops. “Not the Doctor’s robot, though.”

 

“No, I would much rather belong to someone who takes good care of her possessions. I have seen how you play with your dolls.”

 

Alison’s dolls live on her studio shelves. Mostly they sit and stand around, though she does change up their conversational groups so they don’t get bored. If she must store them, she crosses the arms pharoanically upon their chests, then lies them supine in boxes on beds of packing paper. She has also been known to apologize for knocking people on the floor. “Then...you choose to be mine because of how I treat you?” Consensual obedience, maybe?

 

“Yes, I would be yours if you would agree to possess me.”

 

So it was never just the use of his power with which he endowed her, nor even the fact that he would do what she said. It was more. “Um...wow. So that’s what you meant.”

 

“Was I insufficiently explicit before?”

 

“No, you’ve been very clear from the beginning. I just didn’t fully understand what you meant until you put it like that.” It’s not occupation or control that he’s given her, but trust. He calls it something different because that’s how he thinks, but what he means is that the absolute faith in her that she has seen on his face upon occasion -- that’s real and true. He believes that she will be good, fair, just, and respectful. Indeed, he believes this so strongly that he treats her as if she already is, despite her fuck-ups. And his certainty calls forth from her exactly those traits that he expects, though not out of obligation or exchange. It’s simply because, when someone believes in you that much, it’s surprisingly easy to become what they already see you as. So he trusts her without reservation, which is...a lot of trust. “Fuck -- that’s a huge responsibility.”

 

“If you have neither the desire nor the capacity, tell me tace, and I will expect nothing of you.”

 

“But what do you expect when you say that you want to be, um, mine?”

 

“Nothing more than what I have already told you: the truth, your respect, your attention. In point of clarification, these expectations include neither your learning from me nor your obedience. Those are requirements of -- “

 

“--My master’s degree?” Alison says with a smirk.

 

“Yes, and that’s a special agreement of limited duration with its own stipulations.”

 

“So then I’m already doing what you want?”

 

“Yes, and if you call me what I am, then that will be possession enough for me.”

 

“Robot...of mine. Yeah, I can do that. Just...be patient with me, okay? I have lots more experience in telling people what to do than I do, um, possessing people.”

 

“So I noticed.”

 

Alison seizes the chance to go back to humor. “Excuse me -- what was that eyebrow for?”

 

“It was part of a facial expression, otherwise known as body language or extraverbal communication.”

 

“Do I have a sarcastic robot?”

 

“Do you want one?”

 

“I don’t know. Can you be respectful too?”

 

“Yes,” he says, his voice dropping out of the higher, more playful register into something thoughtful, “but not always. Hence my request for you to tell me the techniques that you used to connect to Trixicula Sideris.”

 

Chapter Text

As much as Alison likes parodying the Magister, it’s really hard to keep a poker face when he’s in a playful mood. She abandons her arrogant position, sits down next to him, and conducts an explanatory review of her travels up the communications network. “And that is why,” she concludes, punching the air with her finger, “there are at least two reasons why you should always be polite and patient with clerks, receptionists, assistants, and anyone else whose job seems low-level to you.

 

“First of all, most of the people we encounter think that they’re better than us. They treat us like our jobs of keeping schedules and screening calls don’t matter, as if we exist only to put up barriers between them and the people they want to see. We don’t like being dismissed and sneered at. It wears us down and makes us unhappy. Everyone in a group or a hierarchy is important, so, if you want to be a decent person, you’ll remember that.

 

“Second, we have the connections to everything. If you’re mean to us, we’ll make sure that you never come close to the person we work with. But, if you treat us respectfully, then we might go out of our way to help you. Basically, even though chitchat and some humorous banter might seem pointless, they’re not. They can be keys to the doors of power,” she adds, knowing that he’ll at least pay attention to that sentence.

 

“Then I would do well to use such politeness to people such as Trixicula Sideris,” he says thoughtfully, “as a means to my end.”

 

“Well, yeah, I suppose that’s true. Being nice to people is a better technique for getting your way than, say, mind-fucking them. But you don’t just practice respect because it benefits you; you practice it all the time.”

 

“And such people as she are valuable to me because of their proximity to my goals.” He nods.

 

Alison claps her hand to her forehead and rolls her eyes. His obsession with how every situation will benefit him prevents him from absorbing the more significant part of what she’s saying. He’s right up there with Frankenstein in the narrowness of his obtusely self-centered considerations.

 

At that thought, a rhetorical device occurs to her. She hesitates to use it for a moment, but then remembers that he’s much less flinchy than she is. In fact, aggression and confrontation work well with him. He does well with darts. Right then -- a pointed attack it is.

 

With a deep breath, Alison plants her feet firmly, crosses her arms, cocks her head, and channels all of her frustration into her speech. “Is that truly all you got out of my story -- the lesson that respect is just another way to use people to achieve your goals? If that’s the case,” she says, narrowing her eyes, “then I think I can’t call you robot of mine. I’m going to have to call you Doctor.”

 

Just as she calculated, the double threat of taking away the name that he wants so much, only to replace it with that of someone he currently hates to love, effectively hits his Pay attention! button. Rising swiftly, he mirrors her posture, but lowers his head just enough so that he’s glaring upward at her from underneath his brows. With the depths of his eye sockets and the heaviness of his lids, the light reflections in his eyes burn more fiercely. “You wouldn’t,” he says, as if she’s just misnamed him the Doctor’s robot again.

 

“Doctor...” says Alison, with a slight pause for effect, “Victor... Frankenstein.”

 

He faces her straight on now. That was obviously not the Doctor he was expecting. “Why?” His voice still sounds a little harsh from the quiet suppression, but he can’t help but be curious.

 

“Sit down, and I’ll tell you,” says Alison. He returns to his chair. “I know -- you love the idea that, of the two main characters in that book, you’re the creature: strong, brilliant, filled with impulses of compassion and heroism, turned wicked and miserable only by the Doctor’s rejection of you. You’re a tragic hero, suffering and sympathetic, noble in your endurance of ill treatment.” Alison clenches her fist to her bosom and affects an anguished look at the ceiling. “If think that you’re the creature, then your fatal flaw is only that you have the misfortune to be created by a cruel, manipulative person with no sense of proper boundaries.

 

“Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that you’re Frankenstein, and your fatal flaw is that you don’t think of people as people,” she goes on, looking back at him. “Just like Frankenstein, you have a transactional view of every relationship. You think of yourself as having coins of all different kinds, standing before a bank of people. You put in intimidation coins, and they spit out submission. You put in flattery coins, and they spit out deference. And now you tell me that respect is a coin like all the rest. You just feed it into people, and they’ll cough up the keys to power that you wanted all along.”

 

“Indeed, while you mentioned keys to power,” he says, “that is but half of what you would teach me.”

 

“Very good. So maybe you did pay attention. Anyway, if you treat people like automatic dispensers of things you want, then you make them less than human -- less than people. You ignore their thoughts, their feelings, their words, and their experiences.”

 

“They become empty.”

 

“Right -- and you turn them into tools; you turn them into things. If you do that, then you treat everyone the way that the Doctor treats you!”

 

Finally, he understands the other half. His eyebrows reach their apex and then descend in what reminds her of a nod without motion of the chin. “It is as with compelled obedience,” he says slowly. “It is an occupation, an evacuation, an objectification. It is exhaustion and misery.”

 

“And you know what happens to people who are compelled, occupied, evacuated, objectified, exhausted, and miserable?” says Alison quietly. “They tend to break.” She uses his vocabulary deliberately just to clarify her point.

 

“Ah.”

 

“Now...you have a choice.” Alison’s not sure why, but she now squats so she’s at his level. He looks at her steadily, and she looks back, no longer scared of meeting his eyes any more. “You can be cruel and mean-spirited. You can cling to your misery and spread it around by treating other people the way that you have been treated. Maybe you’ll get some sort of vindictive satisfaction out of acting like a complete arsehole. But I bet that would feel to you just like compelled obedience: exhausting, draining, ultimately empty.

 

“Or you can be respectful and kind. You don’t have to use your misery as a template for your life. You can respect people not just because you might get what you want that way, but because it’s good and right -- because it makes people happy and lessens their misery. And you might like that, because that would be similar to consensual obedience for you: people sharing something good and powerful and self-sustaining. So,” says Alison, her voice very gentle now, almost a whisper, “are you the Doctor -- or are you my robot?” She stands because the squat is cramping up her legs.

 

Again he stands, but more for a match than a challenge. “Now that’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” he says, hand on chin.

 

“How so?” says Alison. She especially likes him like this: when he’s not looking down from his pedagogical platform nor up from his genuflection, but just head on, directly at her, trying to figure out something with her.

 

“Well, my dear, you would have me as the latter, and yet you have just told me that I am the former. Do I have a third option?”

 

If his trust in her gives her the motivation and capacity to be the stupendous person he already thinks she is, would her belief in him do something similar? While she has no profound and limitless faith in him as he has for her, she at least knows that he’ll do what he has agreed to. “You could always take my confidence in you as a catalyst to transform from Frankenstein into my good alien super-powered robot.”

 

He laughs. “I believe I shall...but you must prepare, you know, for your eventual disappointment.”

 

“Oh yeah -- why’s that?”

 

“You’ll no longer be able to call me your evil alien super-powered robot -- and I know how much you like the way that sounds.”

Alison waves her hand. “I”ll just save it for sarcasm and other special occasions.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Alison leans on the railing of the center TARDIS console. She sips some cocoa from a white, gold-rimmed mug, and the taste comes up granular and spicy against her tongue. “Huh!” She pulls her cup away from her face and eyeballs it.

 

“Freshly ground cayenne,” says the Magister, leaning on the railing and watching her, chin in hand. “You liked it the first time, so I thought I’d strengthen it for this iteration. Satisfactory?”

 

“It makes my mouth buzz! I kind of like it. Thanks.” A crystalline sound, as of glass wind chimes, sounds from the console to their left. “Is that a phone? There’s too many sound effects around here; I can’t tell.” Alison scans the console for a clue as to which of the many screens, lights, levers and buttons might need some attention, but it’s not immediately apparent.

 

“A phone equivalent.” He straightens up and leans over the computer bank. “That would be Trixicula Sideris, presumably returning your message,” he says, though Alison has no idea how he can tell.

 

“Oh! You do it then,” Alison says, nodding toward the loudspeaker. “Show me what you got out of yesterday’s tutorial.” She winks at him.

 

He smiles, then sits before the speaker. “Trixicula Sideris -- I’m so sorry, but Time Lord Cheney is otherwise occupied at the moment. In her stead, you may speak to me. I am the Master, also a representative of the High Council of Time Lords of Gallifrey.”

 

“Master of what?” blurts out Trixicula Sideris.

 

Alison, trying to contain her laughter, spurts a mouthful of cocoa back into her mug. The Magister gives her a look, and she wipes her chin and covers her mouth.

 

Unfortunately for Alison’s curiosity, he declines to field the question of what exactly he considers himself to have mastered. “Thank you, my dear, for passing our message to Trix Curriendi so quickly and ensuring that the ambassador responded promptly. We all want to resolve this situation in the most equitable and expeditious manner, so I appreciate your help.”

 

“Well, uh, I’m just doing my job,” says Trixicula Sideris, sounding embarrassed, “but thank you -- that’s very nice of you.”

 

The Magister asks to be transferred to Trix Curriendi, whom he treats with equal grace as he announces the official arrival of the Council delegation, introduces himself, and describes the progression of the diplomatic meetings. “The plants, though?” says Trix Curriendi with an incredulous laugh. “What good is it to meet with weeds who only want to kill us?”

 

Alison decides to practice controlling her temper. She pulls up to a keyboard on the other side of the control room and starts typing in all caps: QUIT PROJECTING YOUR OWN DAMN VIOLENCE ONTO THE PEOPLE YOU’RE OPPRESSING YOU PATHETIC FUCKING BIGOT.

 

“Indeed, you may believe that,” the Magister responds to the Agricole ambassador. “However, it is the policy of the High Council of Time Lords to give thorough consideration to all sides of the disputes in which we are called to mediate. I understand that you might find our regard for your foes puzzling at best and offensive at worst. I do apologize for any slight to you and your people,” he says, his voice going low and consoling, “but please remember that I am but a diplomat. As a civil servant, I am bound to obey the laws of the government I serve, even though they may distress the people who have petitioned the Council for help.”

 

His words mollify Trix Curriendi, and she agrees to meet the next day. Terminating the connection, the Magister spins the chair around to face Alison. “I pray you -- tell me how I have done,” he says, giving her a solemn nod. If his speech to Trix Curriendi was the wheedling submission of a cringing bureaucrat, then this quiet request comes from someone who voluntarily sets aside his power to listen to what she has to say.

 

“You are such a liar,” she says, shaking her head, smiling despite herself. “You like pretending you’re powerless sometimes just so you can scare the crap out of them when they realize just who they’re dealing with.”

 

“Speak plainly. Are you displeased?”

 

“No, not at all! I’m actually kind of...impressed. Artifex robot!” she says with some fondness.

 

“Of course I am,” he says. “I was asking, however, about the section of the conversation before I began groveling.”

 

“Well, it was vastly better than the first time I saw you talk to someone you thought was subordinate. You were addressing Uscheschua, and you were rather aloof to her.”

 

“True,” he acknowledges with a nod, “especially in comparison to your lovely Miss Lilleschall, who spoke to me with great kindness.”

 

Alison feels a silly smile spread over her entire face -- he too likes Uscheschua! “Ahem,” she says, trying not to be distracted by how wonderful Uscheschua is. “But anyway -- you were better with Trixicula Sideris. I can guarantee that, even though she might have sounded uncomfortable, she was glad that you recognized what she did behind the scenes. I also guarantee that she’s going to remember both of us as the Time Lords who were nice to her.”

 

“You approve?”

 

“Yeah! You’re putting the charm to good use. My only suggestion is this -- don’t call complete strangers my dear. It can come across as condescending.”

 

“Then I shall not.”

 

Alison’s at a loss what to say next. She finds his compliments rewarding, and she knows that the reverse holds true for him. At the same time, how do you praise someone who’s several hundred years older than you are and already convinced that he’s the master of everything he does? She finally goes for the truth, even though it seems inadequate: “I like you like this. I think I like having a good alien super-powered robot.”

 

He gives her that cockeyed smile, the one they so often share when they’re teasing each other, making fun of both themselves and this odd game they’re playing. At the same time, this is a true game in which words mean everything, and she has told him how she sees him -- as a person who can do good and make other people happy. And so now he’s beaming at her, the lighter browns in his eyes turning up gold. “Very good,” he says. “Then that is what I shall be for you.”

 

They go their separate ways to prepare for the next day, and for once it’s Alison, not the Magister, who can’t sit still. First she checks up on the Doctor, who remains in the Zero Room. Distilling the unfamiliar data on the bank of monitors for her, the TARDIS communicates to her that the Doctor is in better condition than they were earlier in the week. They continue to heal steadily, but slowly. Hopefully it’s slowly enough that the Magister and I can finish our work without their interference, Alison thinks. Despite the state of civil war outside the TARDIS, it’s been relatively quiet within, and Alison would like to keep it that way.

 

She does laundry and, while the cycles run, seeks writing materials for her anti-Agricole vituperation. The TARDIS directs her to the library, where she finds a nook entirely filled with office supplies. She rejects a variety of pencils as insufficiently sharp, then tests pens for smoothness and appropriate color before deciding on two black ones and a blue one for backup. She flips through her options for paper, eventually choosing a steno pad. After a moment’s thought, she takes two more. Maybe she can create a fort with them behind which to hide...

 

With all her clothes clean, Alison considers an appropriately sober and ambassadorial outfit. She modifies her choices five times, then decides on a pale buttercup button-up shirt, black blazer, black pants, and black pumps. She then goes on a tangent to find an iron. She presses her outfit, drapes it on a chair, then starts to rearrange the rather paltry contents of her closet. She aligns her five shirts and three pairs of pants by color of the visible spectrum, at which point her inner ear gives up on her, making her dizzy.

 

After sticking some food inside her, Alison tries to lie down and rest. Her brain raises objections. What if she oversleeps? What if she undersleeps? What if her body just decides to quit in the middle of the hearing? What if there is something else of vital importance that she should be doing, but she has just forgotten? Can she trust her own mind?

 

“Shut the fuck up!” Alison cries. “You had no problem with the Schuaschen ambassadors, and one of them ended up pulling a gun on you. Why are you so scared of the Agricole? They can’t be worse than the Mag -- “

 

About to tell herself that the Agricole can’t be worse than the Magister, Alison realizes that such a statement is false. The Magister is one person with a significant history of perpetrating dehumanization, but the Agricole form an entire culture predicated on the same. She can deal with a single individual, but the Agricole outnumber her. Every single one of them think that the Schuaschen are worthless. So what hope do a uni dropout from two thousand years in the past and an evil alien super-powered robot have of changing that?

 

Maybe her dolls will make her happy. Alison enters her studio and switches on the lights. She hasn’t repainted anyone for months; her tubes of acrylics, her cans of sealant, and pots of brushes have grown fur coats of dust. All those alien materials that the TARDIS gave her, the ones for which she had such grand designs to make locks and rows and Afros, lie in several cat-size heaps below the brushes. She sorted them by color, but that’s as much progress as she has made. The princess flops on her work table, still possessing only five rooted plugs of hair. Alison blows dust from the princess and all her other dolls individually, switching the standing ones to sitting positions so that their legs don’t cramp. She remembers what she considers to be the Magister’s first actual words to her: You’re suffering, aren’t you? Indeed.

 

Alison asks the TARDIS to point her in the direction of her robot. The ship, who knows very well that Alison was circumventing him even up until a few days ago, gives a trumpet peal of laughter. Nevertheless, neon yellow outlines of footprints appear on the floor, leading off down the hall. Alison follows the trail.

 

Alison ends up at a grandfather clock -- made of dark, glossy wood, almost black, like that of wet pine trunks -- set into the wall. It’s a grandiose edifice, as narrow as her shoulders, but at least twice as high, set with more crenellations, scrolls, and flourishes than a Baroque cathedral. The dial features Roman numerals and two flat tinplate figures pursuing each other about the rim. One of the figures appears to be a Grim Reaper, with tattered robes and a scythe, and the other a woman with bare feet and streaming hair. The figures waver, however, and, as she moves closer to stare, she finds that she can no longer discern which is which. She backs up, shaking her head. “He’s in the clock?”


The TARDIS laughs again. That’s no clock, but the Master’s TARDIS, who has been expecting Alison. At this, the glass door on the front of the clock swings open.

Chapter Text

“Hello,” says Alison, not sure if she should be looking at the clock face or the open door. “I’m Alison Cheney. Before we go any further, I should tell you -- I don’t send out or receive telepathy, so no mental communication or control.”

 

Used to the Doctor’s TARDIS’ playful use of music and lights, Alison jumps like a scared cat when a wry, dry voice emanates from the clock: “Fear not, mistress. I am obliged to obey your wishes, and so we shall speak only by voice.”

 

“Okay...thank you.” Alison breathes a little easier.

 

“Well, well -- so you are the Master’s Domina.” If the ship could pace around her, inspecting from every angle, she would be doing so.

 

“No, the Magister’s.”

 

“Yes, he said that you would not call him Master, at least not in your language.”

 

“Not in any language!” Alison levels her glare at the clock face.

 

“I thought you knew Latin. Magister is master.”

 

Alison puts her hands on her hips. “Excuse me? I had six years of Latin. I may not remember all fifty thousand conjugations of the subjunctive, but I do remember that I called all my tutors Magister or Magistra for Teacher. When was the last time you attended a Latin tutorial on Earth?”

 

“The Magister’s Domina indeed!” exclaims the ship. “I must concede that even dead languages may change over time, and magister has clearly acquired other uses besides the one with which I am familiar.”

 

“Was that an apology? Because I didn’t hear any sorry in it.”

 

There’s a pause. “I am truly sorry, mistress. I was to welcome you, not antagonize you. I have squandered my chance for a good impression, and I know that I have displeased you.”

 

Alison wonders if he’s been teaching his ship how to properly accept responsibility for mistakes and make amends. “Okay, I accept your apology. Just don’t do it again. Why don’t we start over? What’s your name?”

 

“Well, I would tell you the name that the Master calls me, but it doesn’t translate into speech. It’s more of a mental image -- a flash of light across the sky.”

 

“Scintilla!” Alison says, the Latin word for spark.

 

The ship gives a gasp of delight, though she has no breath. “I like that! Scintilla it is then. Thank you, mistress; that was a very generous gift, especially when I’ve just been so rude to you.”

 

“Hey, I just said the word for spark; you were the one who took it as a name.”

 

“Dear me! The Master has just asked me why I am detaining you!” says Scintilla. “Please come in, mistress -- don’t keep him waiting.”

 

“Pfft. He’s a Time Lord, isn’t he? Tell him he can sit on his arse for a few minutes.”

 

“He’s laughing,” Scintilla reports after a second, her voice filled with wonder.

 

“Yeah, he does that on occasion.” Alison slips into the clock and ends up in another TARDIS control room. Where the Doctor’s is black and white, full of stark shadows and spiraling stairs, the Magister’s control room reminds her of the Doctor’s TARDIS’ library. It has walls of airy white and instruments of the same, trimmed in black, with a minor amount of silver chrome. “Hey -- I can see where I’m walking!” Alison exclaims.

 

“Yes, well, the Master does have his fondness for shadows, but, unlike the Doctor, does not believe that the cockpit is an appropriate place for atmosphere. He saves that for the interior.” Scintilla opens one of the doors on the far side of the circular room.

 

Alison steps into a hallway -- or at least that’s what she thinks it is. She can discern little beyond the semicircle of light streaming from the control room. In the glowing patch where she now stands, flagging of dark stone, worn smooth down to the grout over time, lies under her feet. Walls of the same rise into darkness above her head. As she cranes her neck, torches switch on simultaneously down the infinity of an endless corridor, and she sees that arches support the ceiling in vault after vault. “So his ship is a haunted house inside a haunted clock?” Alison snickers.

 

“I never claimed that he had any taste,” Scintilla says, suppressing a laugh of her own. She tells Alison how far to go and where to turn, and Alison follows along. “May I ask you a question, mistress?” Scintilla speaks up. “Forgive my boldness, but what have you done to my Master? You must know his motto -- aut regnere aut servire.” Either rule or serve. “And you are only one of two people in the universe to put him on the other side of the equation.”

 

“The other being the Doctor?”

 

“Yes, the one who keeps us both here by force because they do not trust us to stay otherwise!” Scintilla’s voice crackles like flames. “And yet you possess plenty of power, but no force. What did you do?”

 

Alison says the first thing that comes to her head: “I told him that, if he acted like a decent person, then he would have a choice of which part to play -- or which parts plural, I suppose.”

 

Scintilla chuckles. “Well, I can assure you that he expected nothing of that -- neither the assumption that he could be decent nor even the possibility of having a choice. Hmmm… Anyway, his study is right up ahead, just five paces and thence to your left, but -- “ She trails off. “You know -- I have envied you so very much, mistress, especially since you have been occupying all of his time recently.”

 

“We’re trying to prevent a civil war! And the Doctor’s been sick! We’ve had work to do!”

 

“I know; I know. And yet, being jealous, I wondered how a mere human could be more important to him than I. Now that I’ve seen you, though, I know exactly why you’re the Magister’s Domina: you make him happy.”

 

“Thank you...I think.” Is that good? What happens when you make an evil alien super-powered robot happy? Does he become so ecstatic that he tricks the Doctor, escapes the TARDIS, and flies off in Scintilla to resume the mind-fucking, murder, and mayhem he’s always coveted? “Excuse me -- I’m going to talk to the Magister now.” In an attempt to escape this rather embarrassing turn that the conversation has taken, Alison fairly dives through a door as dark and ornate as the clock.

 

She almost falls into a rectangular room that reverses much of what she loves about the Doctor’s library. There are no flowers of light to guide one’s way, but a bunch of spotlights, along with a certain amount of track lighting along the edges of the ceiling panels, bookcases, and chairs. Because of the way they are lit, the outlines of everything seem to emit a dim glow, as of orange transformative magma roiling beneath a deceptively solid surface. Alison picks her way carefully inward.

 

She looks up. No soaring honeycombed dome forms the ceiling here, only a flat panel, coffered in squares that remind her, in color and embossment, of the scored pillows of a dark chocolate bar. This is no shrine to the literature of the universe; the carpet shows a star field upon the black of space, smeared with galaxies in pale pastel hues. And books seem to be outnumbered along the shelves in favor of maps, scrolls, scales, geodes, mechanical body parts, orbs, wands, specimen jars that had better not be full of what she thinks they are, and a disturbingly high number of jawless skulls serving as bookends. A sweet odor -- pipe or cigar smoke? -- lingers faintly in the air. This isn’t a library, she thinks. This is a wizard’s work room.

 

Turning to her left, Alison encounters a silent throng upon whom the wizard has practiced his art. Alison is used to barely articulated forms of molded plastic, with pleasant and characterless faces to serve as the perfect canvas for her work. These figures, though thirty centimeters in height and thus about the same size, appear to be entirely hand-done, from the sculpted clay limbs to the elastic-strung joints to the fiber hair and the delicately scaled clothing. These three-dimensional representations combine the exaggerated stylization of a caricature with an eye for detail down to miniature laces on miniature shoes. Technically they’re dolls, but that term seems about as accurate as using the word rock to describe a gem that has been mined, cut, faceted, and metamorphosed into brilliance.

 

“I’m behind you,” says the wizard, presumably so that he doesn’t alarm her. He clicks on a spotlight over the shelf next to which she’s standing.

 

Alison starts anyway. She’s about to say he should come with warning lights and possibly sirens, but then she sees his face, the only part of him visible when he’s wearing black in a room full of his favorite shadows. With his eyes curved up into crescents and his arms folded, he looks proud and peaceful. He looks...at home. “You’re happy here!” she exclaims with a grin.

 

“Of course I am. This place is mine...and yours. Welcome, Domina.”

 

Alison passes over the fact that it sounds like he has just given her free run of Scintilla. “You’ve got so many little people!” she cries, turning again to the dolls.

 

The Magister rolls his eyes. “Is that what the Doctor told you? Contrary to their assumptions about what I do with the tissue compression eliminator, these are actually artificial likenesses.”

 

“Huh? No, that’s just what I call dolls. Wait -- “ Alison catches sight of something familiar on a lower shelf. “What’s that?”

 

“You.”

 

All the details on the little person correspond. Her skin is just the same shade as Alison’s, middling brown with some warm brick undertones. She even has the same shape, high-breasted and blocky around the torso, with slightly elongated limbs. Minute umber cornrows follow curves against her head and hang halfway to her shoulders, finished with an alternation of pink and purple beads that correspond exactly to those on Alison’s own braids. She even has that jagged, slightly raised mark on her forehead from where the Shalka bug drilled into her brain.

 

The little person stands with all the rooted certainty of a tree, left hand on her hip, right draping against her thigh. Chin lifted, head cocked, she focuses her little glass eyes carefully on something. One eyebrow is up, the other down, her diamond-shaped lips stretched into a smile or perhaps a speech. There’s a very slight wrinkle between her peaked brows. Whatever she’s doing, there’s a combination of acuity, wonder, power, and joy in her stance. “This is me!” she exclaims. “This is...me?”

 

“Take her.” With a careful scoop of the palm, he cups little Alison in his hand and holds her out to big Alison.

 

“I can’t do that. She’s yours. You made her for you.”

 

“Yes, but I told her that she might, at some future point, leave with her original. She thought that was reasonable, and I believe that time has come. I’ll make another.”

 

Alison holds out her hands, and he softly transfers the little one into the big one’s ownership. Little Alison settles into big Alison’s palms, solid and well-weighted, and big Alison witnesses every particular inflection of the Magister’s lively style. He has rendered her eyebrows without curves as pointy, angular punctuation for her face. He has twined invisible wire into the loose sections of her cornrows so that they radiate from her head with their own springy energy. And he has given her an outfit that she never even knew she wanted until she saw it in miniature: a dark yellow, almost ochre sleeveless jumper over a white linen dress shirt, untucked, open loose at the collar, rolled up at the sleeves, low-slung golden bellbottoms, and dusty rose clogs. She rarely wears makeup in real life, but he has added flashes of golden glitter to the apples of her cheeks and the edges of her eyelids. This isn’t just her, but her as she appears to him, her as he creates her, her as he believes her to be.

 

“Heh,” she says, though it’s not really a laugh. “I wish I were this person. She’d be on the edge of her seat, waiting for tomorrow’s fireworks, but I’m just here, looking for a notebook large enough to use as a shield.”

 

“You’re frightened.” Those are almost the same words he used when they came back from the Zero Room, but there’s no calculated nonchalance this time. He speaks in acknowledgment, searching her face. “May I ask what perturbs you?”

 

“Oh… I’m afraid that the meeting tomorrow will be a disaster. I’ll yell at them; I’ll disappoint you, and then civil war will start, all because of me.” She shakes her head. “I’ve tried to distract myself by burning off all my nervous energy, but that’s not really working. Got any spells -- or verbal cues, whatever you want to call them -- for this kind of thing?”

 

“A myriad, but I created most of them for my own use. Therefore they would be useless to you, especially since my consciousness operates in a manner distinctly different from yours. Hmmm…”

 

“I think that I might be able to calm down if I can hear a story from you.”

 

“Sit down then.” He takes one end of a dark rose sofa with a carven wood frame, indicating the free end with a lift of his chin. “And with what tale shall I regale you?”

 

Alison sits. “I bet you like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. All that power and transformation and magic…” She looks sideways at him.

 

He almost claps his hands. “But of course! English or Latin? And would you have me do a direct translation? Or am I permitted to embroider?”

 

“English, please. And embroidered -- I can tell you want to.”

 

“Once upon a time, right? That is how your tales start?”

 

“Ooooh, fairy tales.” Alison curls her legs underneath her and puts her chin in hand.

 

“Once upon a time, there was a statue named Galatea. She belonged to a man named Pygmalion who had no idea what she desired. He gave her all sorts of things: jewelry, clothes, toys, even a soft and comfortable bed upon which she might lie. He kissed her and caressed her and called her my love, but he did not know that her truest wish was for a life of her own.” And so her robot begins an incantatory rendition of the myth of Pygmalion from Galatea’s point of view, and Alison listens until the story fills her head and washes away her panic.




Chapter Text

The TARDIS alerts them to the approach of the Agricole delegates. In the seconds before the door opens, the Magister says in a half whisper, his voice balancing between expectancy and a private joke, “My good Domina, right?”

 

“Yeah!” Alison whispers back, giving two thumbs up. She thinks that she could probably make it through the entire session on the strength of that assumption alone.

 

The Agricole ambassadors come in. Alison expected maybe five or even ten, on account of the Agricole’s greater numbers, but only two people show up. Assuming that the Agricole divide themselves by gender the way that humans of Alison’s day do, the envoys both appear to be women. The one in the lead must be at least one and three-quarter meters tall, with narrow limbs and a freckle-filled face. Her complicated updo, interwoven with wire vines and metal leaves, adds at least another half of a meter to her height. If she were from Alison’s day, Alison would say she was Korean, perhaps mixed with some Irish. She moves with a stalking abruptness, her damp woolen cape flapping behind her.

 

The one following, though of average height, seems short in comparison. Her complexion combines the pastiness peculiar to white Britons along with a high red on her cheeks. Fat and solid, she throws her cape’s hood back and turns her head with darting motions, as if she can’t move quickly enough to absorb everything.

 

The Magister turns on the charm. “Trix Curriendi!” he says to the tall woman. “And Trixicula Sideris.” He turns to the shorter woman. “It’s such a pleasure to put names and faces together. I trust it’s not too damp out there?”

 

“This is Crescior,” says Trix Curriendi with that short, sharp laugh that Alison heard on the phone. “It’s always either wet or volcanic. You’re just lucky to experience the first rather than the second. Flagrantes has been unusually quiet this season, and we hope it stays that way for at least a few more cycles.”

 

“Indeed. Now...Trixicula Sideris.” He turns to her, zeroing in on her as if she’s the only person in the room. “I’m glad to finally meet you in person. You have provided invaluable support in arranging this meeting.”

 

“Well, thank you!” says Trixicula Sideris, blushing hard and smiling at the same time.

 

“You are most welcome. As you know, I represent the High Council of the Time Lords of Gallifrey. I am the Master; I am male, and I use masculine pronouns. While I have spoken to both of you before, I believe that you, Trix Curriendi, may not be familiar with my partner, who also represents the High Council. She is Time Lord Alison Cheney, a woman, who uses feminine pronouns. My dear, this is Ambassador Curriendi Rosinia of the city of Flumenarx and her assistant Trixicula Sideris Almina, also of Flumenarx. They are women; they use feminine pronouns.”

 

Another clipped eruption of a laugh comes from Trix Curriendi. “Well, of course we are!” the Agricole ambassador says.

 

“People come in a great variety of forms for which they have a great variety of words. I have found it wise to assume nothing. Will you come with me to the audience chamber?” The Magister holds a door from the control room open, motioning everyone into the hallway.

 

Alison cheers silently to herself as she follows him. She realizes exactly what he did there by, first, taking over all the introductions and, second, making statements of gender and pronouns that must surely remind the Agricole of those by the Schuaschen. Naming the Agricole according to his desire, he established his authority over them. Using the Schuaschen identifications of gender and pronouns and calling them wise, he compounded the aforementioned authority with moral superiority. Even if the Agricole haven’t figured it out quite yet, the Magister has just informed them that he is better than they are.

 

Alison reflects that, in all this time, the Magister never mentioned to her how he truly felt about this assignment. He knew all along of her passionate support for the Schuaschen, in which he promised to be her ally, but carefully left his own sentiments out of the discussion. She has no doubt that he would have told her if she had asked, but, for some reason, she never thought to.

 

But now she knows. Whatever he has done in the past, the Magister now abhors compelled obedience. Whether he’s transferring his rage at the Doctor to other people practicing objectification or whether he actually recognizes dehumanization as a universal evil, he’s not going to stand for it in any case. He is with her against the Agricole, not just because he said that he would be, but because he too thinks that they’re wrong. And when an evil alien super-powered robot doesn’t approve of your actions, you’ve lost before you’ve even started.

 

They enter the audience chamber, yet another circular room with yet another rotunda that the Doctor so fancies. It’s a small room, filled largely with a round pedestal table, the top of which is formed from a cross-section of a tree at least six meters in diameter. It’s a silvery slice of wood so densely packed with dark grey growth rings that Alison loses count after about ten. Green velvet drapery unfurls its heavy flags from the glowing white walls, the wainscoting and ceiling trim both chased in gold leaf. The entire dome seems to be made of a seamless, pale, golden light, which, shedding a soft illumination everywhere, gives the room the shadowless impression of being under a cloudy noonday sun. Neither airy like the library nor Gothic like Scintilla’s hallways, this space manages to be both cozy and majestic.

 

In the audience chamber, Trix Curriendi explains the Agricole’s situation. The citizens of Flumenarx were once a rural, uncivilized people, but now they are known Keplerwide for their pacifism and refinement. Ever since they have progressed beyond such lower pursuits as war, the Flumenarxi have dedicated themselves to the higher calling of improving nature. Biogenetic engineers have focused their work on flora, as befitting a society whose ancestors were farmers. They have developed high-yield grains, tubers resistant to pests, hybrid fruits with the nutritional value of their sources combined, and other genetically modified organisms that they then pass along freely to anyone on the planet who is interested. “We have no interest in the perpetuation of ignorance,” Trix Curriendi says, smoothing some hairs back into her updo that weren’t even loose in the first place. “After all, information wants to be free.”

 

Alison, who has been drawing curlicues on a full-page inscription of INSUFFERABLE SNOBS, jerks up in surprise at the ambassador’s words. Trix Curriendi has just said exactly what the Internet activists say when they’re agitating for expanded public domain. First Frankenstein and now intellectual property rights -- it’s odd to see what bits of Alison’s culture have survived, like fossils, a trip through two thousand years of history and...how many light-years?

 

“Information.” The Magister nods, though he clearly doesn’t understand the reference as Alison does. “And people?”

 

“But of course,” says Trix Curriendi, missing the rather subtle point and moving right into the sole subject about which the Flumenarxi feel proprietary: their horticulture. Ornamental gardening, according to the ambassador, represents the pinnacle of Flumenarxi culture. It is the quintessential means of working in harmony with nature to propagate beauty.

 

Alison flips the page on her pad, considering another inscription. Maybe Go propagate with a rusty pitchfork. But then she just starts sketching, moving her pencil not where her brain wants it to go, but her heart. She draws a sweeping curve of a body, neck turned upward, arms wide to the sky. She adds bulk to the limbs and the trunk for a shape at once rounded and strong. A face appears beneath the pencil, one with wide eyes and full cheeks, surrounded by a glorious halo of branches.

 

Trix Curriendi starts talking about how the Schuaschen [only she calls them Topiarians] represent the highest achievement of the Flumenarxi biogenetic endeavors. Alison gives her a death glare, but the ambassador speaks only to the Magister. Her hands swoop and wheel through the air, turning like inevitable gears of progress. He follows every one of her gestures as if they are essential parts of her speech. And yet the slow, incremental rise of his eyebrows indicates anything but agreement.

 

The ambassador goes on about the Schuaschen and how the Agricole bred them for all sorts of uses. Alison presses her pen with more force into the paper. A long gown flares around the figure in her drawing, and she adds deep, swirling wrinkles so that the figure seems to be spinning. She tilts the neck a little bit here -- she gives a bit of bend and twirl to the spine there -- she spreads the palms out as if in offering. Then Trix Curriendi uses it to refer to one of Uscheschua’s people, and Alison bears down so hard that she drives her pen point through several sheets of paper.

 

The Magister sits up. “It?” he repeats, his eyebrows falling and going absolutely flat. His voice enters that quiet, sharp mode in which every word is like a scalpel: “Pardon me, Trix Curriendi, but you have misused the pronoun. The Schuaschen may not have genders in the way that you humans do. However, in both Agricolingua and in Schuaschen, a Schuaschen refers to herself with feminine singular pronouns. The third-person singular neuter pronoun is for objects alone. It never applies to people -- unless, of course, they consent to such address.”

 

Trix Curriendi halts, her face blank. “Yes, of course,” she says in a way that means the exact opposite. Alison used to think that the Magister’s pacing annoyed her, but that was before she met the Flumenarxi ambassador and her brief nasal inhalation that sounds like some sort of reverse laugh being crushed by self-importance.

 

The Flumenarxi ambassador then tries to define person in such a way as to exclude Uscheschua and all the trees of the Schuaschen. Alison moves her pad up so that it covers most of her face, as she’s flaring her nose and grinding her teeth. Trix Curriendi would have them believe that only individuals like the Flumenarxi, driven by the higher impulses of reason, beauty, and peace, count as people. The Schuaschen, motivated by the baser concerns of stubbornness, disobedience, and bloodlust, are not on the same level.

 

The Agricole here are just like the Shalka, Alison thinks, even though they may not look like screaming lava snakes. The Shalka invaded Lannet and killed people, yet their war leader saw nothing wrong with their conquest of Earth. Using the same imagery of relative elevation, the Shalka war leader described their kind as brilliant, reasonable, and more highly evolved. Both humans and the Doctor, by contrast, earned the epithet of lower creatures guided by emotional attachments .

 

Now that she realizes the similarity, Alison’s entire body heats up. Her skin feels like it might toast and peel away from her flesh, just like she expected it to when the Shalka held her face-first over a lava pit, threatening to pitch her in. She shudders, remembering:

 

The Doctor claimed that they were just going to recover their captured TARDIS from the Shalka and then leave, but the Shalka war leader’s words stopped them: “I think not, Doctor. I think you are a lower creature too, and, being a lower creature, you have a lower creature’s weaknesses.” The crowd of Shalka parted, revealing Alison’s precarious position.

 

“Doctor!” Alison cried, though she had no idea how they might help her when surrounded by so many lava snakes.

 

“Alison!” They reached out for her, their eyes white all around. Turning to the war leader, they said, “I’ll do whatever you want -- just don’t hurt her!”

 

And then the Shalka laughed or hissed or maybe even screamed, for Alison was the bait, the Doctor the prey, and the trap had been sprung.

 

Back in the present, try as she might, Alison can do nothing as memories of the Shalka invade her mind. The Magister’s Domina burns utterly away. Then too does Alison Cheney. Whatever remains must truly be a lower creature, for, though it may see and hear, it may neither move nor speak, only tremble.  

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: Alison Rises to the Occasion

 

Alison hears a voice, a deep current of sound, an enchantment of meticulous pronunciation,  calculated delivery, and quiet, even tone:

 

“Listen to me. I know that something in the diplomatic hearing reminded you of another place and time. You have gone back into that memory, and it is as real for you as if it is happening now. You are terrified, and you feel as if you are trapped inside your own head.

 

“You are inundated with the sensations of your memory, but you are not in their control. Again, you need not obey them. You are not back in your memory. It is not happening now. The terror you feel comes from the past. There is nothing here to frighten you now. Follow my voice; return to the present; then you will free yourself, and you will not be afraid.

 

“You and I -- we are in the audience chamber still. I have told the Agricole that you are indisposed, and they have agreed to postpone the hearing until you feel well enough to continue. Even though they have left, you can still smell the dampness of their wool wraps. The chamber’s microclimate really should be warmed and dehumidified to remove the odor, but -- ah! Now the TARDIS is doing just that for you. You shiver, but you won’t be chilled for long.

 

“You are sitting in a chair of Hestern make, just as you were when we began the session. Feel how the back and the seat curve for your spine. Under your fingers lie braintree blossoms carven into the arm rests; press down, and you can feel them, as narrow as the ridges on your fingertips. Speaking of fingers, yours are slightly warmer, I hope, now that the temperature has gone up.

 

“I have done what little I can to make this place safe for you. I have sent the envoys away, so, if it was their words or actions that frightened you, they have gone. I will not touch you in any way, physically or mentally, just as you asked of me. Neither will the cat. The jade one wants to jump into your lap, but I’m holding her back because I do not know if that would alarm you. You can hear her peeping? She’s asking after you.

 

“Come back to me; be with me; stay with me. You are my unbroken Domina carissima; I am the Magister, and you will be safe.”

 

With a convulsive shudder, Alison brings her head up. All is as the Magister has described. She hasn’t moved at all from where she was sitting when she felt the Shalka come back, but Trix Curriendi and Trixicula Sideris have gone. Now there’s only the Magister, kneeling by the right side of her chair, trying to read her expression. With his left hand cupped, he gently restrains the jade-colored cat. She leans as far toward Alison as she can, making vrrrt noises, asking over and over again if she’s okay.

 

Alison lets out a huge breath and swivels in the chair, extending her right arm. The Magister lets go of the jade-colored cat, who springs into Alison’s lap as if magnetized there. But he also reaches for her with his free left hand, as if he himself would touch her, palm to palm. If only she had someone by whom she could be held…. When was the last time that happened?

 

He stops suddenly, as if he has hit an invisible barrier. He looks down and away, in what is his now-familiar signal for when he’s hearkening and obeying. But she has given him no command.

 

Then she realizes that she did, back in her ultimatum: Don’t you dare touch me. Right then -- so that’s the barrier: one of her hard limits. And he’s following it because he swore that he would and because he knows that it would make her feel safe.

 

Well, it would have made her feel safe a while back. When she knew very little about him, she told him to keep away because she assumed that he might seize her bodily as the Shalka and the stone vampire did. But he wouldn’t have done that just now. He was helping her back with his words, and he didn’t want to take her away from anywhere. On the contrary, he wanted to make sure that she stayed. Come back to me; be with me; stay with me.

 

“Tace,” she says softly, though he hasn’t spoken for a minute or two. “You helped me out of it with your spell. Thanks.”

 

“You are most welcome.”

 

At that moment, the jade cat commences a banishing ritual, requiring several counter-clockwise circles and purring at a high volume. By dint of thorough rubbing all over Alison’s front, she removes any claims that the Shalka may have had on her. In their place remain sigils of cat hair, clearly designating Alison as protected by the jade cat. Alison pets her all along her back, from head to tail tip, in thanks.

 

She looks at her robot’s kneel. It’s not a one-legged lunge type thing, as if for the stereotypical proposal, that you can easily pop out of to save your legs. He has tucked both of his legs underneath him with geometrical exactitude so that he may sit back on his haunches. If the one-knee thing says, Come up -- I wish to raise you to my level, the two-knee thing says, I have gone down because I am yours.

 

Alison knows from personal experience that, though this stance might look appealing for its symbolic value, it’s not much fun for the person doing it. You’re putting your entire body weight on your shins and the tops of your feet -- unpadded surfaces never meant for weight bearing. She herself could only do it for about sixty seconds with a previous partner before taking a time-out to sit on her arse. Since she’s not interested in making people suffer, this is the sort of thing that she has just excluded from her repertoire. She wrinkles her nose. “Don’t your knees hurt?”

 

“No. You wish me to stand?”

 

Alison realizes that she’s doing that thing her mum does: telling her to put on a jumper because she’s cold, urging a friend to a second slice of pie because she wants one, and otherwise imputing her own desires to other people. Somehow her mum even managed to convince Alison’s dad, a stick-shift, classic car kind of person, that he should buy the newest, sleekest truck, so computerized that it probably could talk to the TARDIS, as the family car two years ago. But hey, Alison thinks, if her robot is happy down on both knees, then it’s not worth fighting about. “Of course not.”

 

He smiles, then says, “Would you talk to me now about what happened during the hearing? Or would you rest?”

 

“Now’s as good a time as any, I guess.” Alison heaves a sigh. “I think I’m up for a little bit of talking.”

 

“First, before anything, I would like to say that I’m very pleased with you.” He smiles at her, hears her intake of breath for an objection, and interjects, “Please don’t interrupt. I had you go contrary to your nature when I asked you to remain silent during the hearing just now. The challenge was compounded by the offense that the Agricole gave you with every single word. I hope that being able to write or draw or even remove yourself from the room, though you did not choose to do so, allowed you some outlet for your frustration.”

 

“Yeah, it did. I just stabbed my notebook instead of Trix Curriendi.”

 

“Believe me -- no matter how much you wished to do the latter, the former was infinitely preferable. Anyway, now that I know what inspires you and gives you incentive, I should tell you something. The truest test of voluntary obedience, I suppose, comes not when the request is easy, but when the request is hard. You have proved yourself my good Domina indeed, and I thank you.”

 

“Oh. Um. Thank you. But why thank me when I just did what I said I’d do?”

 

“Because then I have you much more likely to do it again!” His eyes sparkle. “In all seriousness, though, I have been in a literally thankless position. To be unacknowledged and ignored is to be...negated. I would not do that for you.”

 

“I...I… Well, thank you then. No, I don’t want to...feel...negated again.” She shakes her head and shudders in the process. “Once was enough with the Shalka.”

 

“Was it thoughts of them that threw you back into your memories?”

 

“Yeah… You know what they called you?”

 

“Is that all?” he says, his voice becoming the war leader’s, raw, sibilant, and contemptuous. “A simple toy? --Yes,” he says, ending the mimicry, “I am well aware of what they called me. The Doctor may have switched off my ambulation, but I still retained my senses.”

 

“They did -- what? The Doctor turned you off? Fucking Doctor! Fucking Time Lords! Fucking Shalka! Fucking Agricole! Just -- fucking -- everybody! Fuck the whole fucking universe!” The jade cat starts up with a question, so Alison pats her on the head and amends her statement: “Well, maybe not everyone. Not Mum, Dad, and the rest of my family and friends, Uscheschua and all the Schuaschen, cats in general, and you,” she says, looking at her robot. “And me.”

 

He’s still stuck back at her division of the universe’s population into fucked and, uh, unfucked -- namely, where she placed him. “Oh,” he says after a moment, recovering. “You weren’t referring to what the Shalka called me, but what they called you then.”

 

“Yeah, a lower creature. And Trix Curriendi used the same words for the Schuaschen, so I started thinking about how similar they were -- the Shalka and the Agricole, I mean -- and then…” Alison slumps and stares at the portrait of Uscheschua that she ripped in her fury. “I never expected that to happen. I didn’t know! I mean -- I’ve thought about them before, but they’ve never come back like that. I’m -- “

 

“Tace.” He holds up his finger.

 

Alison bites down on her bottom lip, as well as the rest of her sentence. What the hell was that for? She gives him evil Domina eyeballs, but he fails to catch fire. After a short, suitable interval, she says, “In case you haven’t noticed, the Agricole are gone now, so I have every right to talk.”

 

“Yes, but you were about to apologize. I will only have you apologize for those actions of yours that cause pain to other people. Your memories in the session hurt no one, so there is no need to apologize. You may certainly regret actions, even if they cause no harm to other people, and you may express that regret. But I forbid you to use the apology as a coin with which you would buy propitiation.” And thus her metaphor of people as vending machines comes back to haunt her.

 

Alison stares at him. Setting aside for the moment the idea that someone so convinced of his own righteousness could be an expert in regret and apology, she contemplates his comparison of apologies to currency. She’s been using Sorry as Please don’t scream at me for so long that she has forgotten that’s not what it means for other people. There are apparently people for whom it means something like I shouldn’t have done that; I sincerely feel ashamed and regretful, and I’m not going to do it again. In fact, one of them, at least according to the behavior that he has demonstrated so far, is kneeling beside her chair.

 

Okay, so maybe he does know something about apologies, even though he has issued far fewer than she has. At least he knows how to make mistakes, say sorry for them, and then move on to the next thing that he’s absolutely certain that he’s the master of. Too bad he can’t share some of that impervious confidence; she could really use it right about now.

 

But perhaps it’s not imperviousness she’s seeking. If there’s anything in his life that her robot truly has mastered besides being evil, it’s the pretense of authority, whether he actually has it or not. Many times, the pretense suffices and functions as effectively as true power would, and no one thinks to question him. But, when you get right down to it, he’s really the Master of Bullshit. Well, there’s your answer to your question on what he’s the master of, Trixicula Sideris, Alison thinks, but don’t try calling him on it because he’ll think it’s a compliment.

 

She realizes with a grin that he’s actually passing along said compliment by teaching her. This whole assignment has been a crash course in using the pretense to power so as to confer actual power. If she keeps this up, she’ll get her master’s in Bullshit Studies!

 

She thinks of what she has learned so far. To name things is to cast spells upon them so as to make them what they are called -- a transformation that may be honor, dishonor, or equality, depending on the circumstances. To err is a fact of life, but, if you can either learn from your mistake or turn it to your advantage, there is no such thing as failure. Lies do not exist, only an adroit management of the truth in service to one’s goals. And doctors who seem compassionate and open-hearted may equally be possessive and cruel, while evil robots may occasionally demonstrate the capacity for something other than fucking with people’s minds.

 

Right...so...where was she? Oh yeah, he was telling her what to do, and for once -- or maybe for the first time -- she really understood why. If he gains power merely by acting like he already has it, then she can do the same. So, while she may have felt consumed when her memories of the Shalka overwhelmed her, she was not burned away. She’s still here, with all of her self and all of her power. She does not know if she is the Domina in anyone’s eyes besides his, but she will act as if she is, and hopefully some modicum of imperviousness follows.

 

“Okay then… Mi Magistre, I have two things to say before I have to lie down.” Alison unslumps herself, leaning on her armrest toward him. “First, I’m finally getting what you just said about apologies of actual regret and apologies of appeasement. Using them to keep the peace is an old habit that’s not really doing me any good anymore. That was a helpful observation...even if you did put it in the form of a command. Anyway, I’m going to try really hard not to apologize for my existence, but, if I do, you have my permission to call me on it, just like you did now -- which I know will make your little control freak hearts just burst with joy.

 

“Second, I’ve decided to sit out the rest of the Agricole hearing.” With a sigh, she collects notebook, pen, and portrait, pressing them to her chest, as she stands. He rises to meet her, somehow able to get up from a deep genuflection without any upper body help. “I don’t want something like that to happen again. It’s better for my dignity and your credibility if you do the rest without me. If they say anything truly important, I have every confidence that you will fill me in without verbatim recitation. When they finally shut up and go away, let’s meet. You tell me what they said, and then we can figure out what to do next.” She yawns. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I desperately need to take a nap.”



Chapter Text

Alison spends the rest of that day and all of the next dozing, snacking, petting the jade cat, and hanging out in her studio, redoing her portrait of Uscheschua on decent paper with good tools. She tries to depict everything she admires about her: her deep-hearted caring for both the past stories and the future welfare of her people, the generosity with which she treats everyone, her quick mind, her unsurpassable linguistic gifts -- and, most of all, the way that she pulls Alison close, holding her both tenderly and strongly.

 

Used to working in three dimensions, Alison doesn’t consider herself much of a two-dimensional artist, so she’s surprised when she pulls back from her sketch pad to discover what she has done. She meant to show Uscheschua dancing, her arms and face to the sky. But instead she sees not one, but two figures rooted in the earth, under an endless sky of stars. One is a broad, tall tree, with greyish bark and a corona of green, heart-shaped leaves. In one hand, she holds a parchment scroll, at the top of which is written I seek the light. With her other arm, she draws to her side a person into whose face she looks with the smile of a tree tasting light.

 

The other person is not a tree, but someone smaller and more compact and fiercer: a human being. Hovering inches above her free hand is a comet with streamers of yellow light -- the way in which Alison always thought her magic powers would manifest if she had any. She holds Uscheschua as tightly as Uscheschua holds her, and her expression is that of someone who is exactly where she wants to be.

 

Is it possible to love a person that she’s only met twice and has never called by her first name? Probably not, Alison thinks, but, at the very least, she and Uscheschua are friends. If there’s any four-letter word between them, it’s lust -- and lots of it.

 

She decides to give the picture to Uscheschua before she leaves, and this of course prompts her to glance at the shelf above her studio desk, where another gift likeness, that of little Alison, looks down at her. What’s it possible to feel for someone you have only really known for...uh…a little while -- frankly she hasn’t been keeping good track of time recently -- and are never going to call by his actual name? Do four-letter words exist for that? And no, ?!?! does not count.

 

Conveniently enough, the person in question knocks on her door, so she doesn’t have to think about that anymore. She meets him in the doorway. He says that he has finished with the Agricole and is ready for further discussion when she is.

 

Fifteen minutes later, after a change of clothes, Alison is staring at the honeycomb of the library ceiling, hoping to catch sight of one of the elusive flying cats. This challenge is much more enjoyable than following the Magister, who goes back and forth in such tightly wound turns that she doesn’t even bother trying to meet his eyes. Having quickly dismissed the second portion of the Agricole hearing as nothing new and a waste of time, he now expatiates on the traits of human nature that he finds the most repugnant.

 

“Of all the people in the universe, Homo sapiens have the most intractable capacity for self-deception. Once they decide that something is right, nothing will dissuade them. Logic? No. Reason? No. Scientific proof? No. Emotional tactics? No. Nothing! They believe in themselves so much that they lose all powers of perception and discernment. I -- ”

 

“Robot of mine!” Alison says as she stands up. He wheels around. “Three things. First and most important -- tace! Second, sit down; your pacing is making me sick. And third, listen to me.” He does what she says. “When you call human beings ignorant, thoughtless fools, that’s me you’re insulting too. Me!” She points to her heart.

 

He realizes his mistake. “Oh, my dear, I -- “

 

She was going to ask him if he really wants to treat his Domina with such contempt, but suddenly she doesn’t have the energy for such performative flourishes. She plops down in her chair and stares at the table. “I want to feel safe with you, and I’ve had such a shitty few days -- and please -- “ She reaches across and grabs both of his hands.

 

A jolt of surprise runs through him, shaking her as well. For several long moments, he doesn’t move. Another bitter lesson in jumping to conclusions, Alison supposes. She tries to recoil.

 

But then he stirs. He interlaces his fingers between hers, closes his fists around her hands, draws her back over the slight distance she tried to retreat, and sets his hands in hers at the middle of the table. “This?” he says. Alison nods and bursts into tears. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he says. “That truly was thoughtless of me, and there’s no justification for it.”

 

Alison shakes her head. “That’s -- not -- why -- crying -- “

 

“Then -- “

 

“You’re holding my hands…”

 

“I...am…”

 

“And...that’s…” She breathes out a trembly breath. “--Good.”

 

“Well then.” He tucks his fingers around hers and lets her cry.

 

Eventually she stops crying. She sniffles several times, but still feels a drip hanging off the edge of her nose. “I need to wipe my eyes and blow my nose.”

 

“Must you?” It’s a gentle, teasing smile. He wants to let go as little as she does.

 

“If I don’t, I’m going to get snot all over your gloves.”

 

He gasps melodramatically, releasing her. “Wait…” He pulls a handkerchief [black, of course] out of his pocket and offers it across the table.

 

“Thank you.” Alison chases the tears out of her eyes and blows her nose. “Why do you have one of these? Do you have artificial snot or something?”

 

“This might come as a surprise to you, my dear, but there are more uses for a handkerchief than the collection of secretions. Just a moment.” Getting the handkerchief back from her, he pinches it up by the least damp corner and disappears, presumably to feed it into the [real or imaginary?] incinerator where his other contaminated personal effects end up.

 

When he returns to their table, he rests his hands on the tabletop, but looks first for a cue from her. She stretches her arms toward his, and he chuckles, covering her hands completely in his again. She knits her fingers back through his, the pressure of her palms meeting the softer and more yielding surface of the leather over his hands. She no longer thinks it strange that he always has gloves on. That’s just how his hands are -- artificial in their fine-grained, seamed, undifferentiated surfaces, true in the power, strength, and warmth that they extend to her. Now that she’s no longer leaking secretions, she relaxes her arms. “Hmmmm,” she says with satisfaction.

 

There’s a silence, and then he apologizes again for what he said about humans and doesn’t even try to justify it. He just says that he knows it was cruel and disrespectful and that he won’t do it again. For someone who’s clearly not accustomed to apologizing and yet who might be working toward a master’s in Apology Studies, he seems to be doing rather well, especially at the not doing shitty things again part. That’s why she accepts his apologies when he gives them.

 

She adds that she was also angry because his identification of self-deception with Homo sapiens alone makes no sense. “I think lots of people deceive themselves and deny the obvious -- even Time Lords. I mean, look at you.” She gestures toward him, bringing one of his hands up, as well as hers, in the process. “At some point in your career, someone probably pointed out to you that mind-fucking and killing were bad. And I don’t mean bad in the sense of not agreeing with it; I mean bad in the sense of disrespecting people, dehumanizing them, and making them suffer.

 

“And people tried everything to make you see. They used philosophical arguments, logical proofs, the goriest on-scene photos, and the most heart-wrenching victim statements, but nothing worked. You ignored the truth, and so it didn’t exist for you. You were happy; you were having fun, so that was all that mattered. Come on -- you know you’re the Master of Bullshit. Maybe it’s time to admit that you’ve been bullshitting your own damn self for a long, long time.”

 

He completely misses the point. “Did you just say my name?” He gives her a quick squeeze of each hand, like double exclamation points.

 

“I didn’t know you answered to Master of Bullshit. This changes everything! I’m gonna have so much fun!”

 

“You know what I answer to. I am the Master -- “

 

“--Of bullshit!” Alison says with an ostentatious cough that does nothing to disguise her interruption.

 

“Tace, please,” he says, shaking his head and still smiling. He tugs on her hands slightly for emphasis. “I am the Master, not the Master of Bullshit, though that label may contain my name.”

 

Alison takes a few deep breaths and scoots around for a more comfortable position in her chair. “Okay then, so it’s a compliment, but not a name.”

 

He’s no longer paying attention. “You make a good point about Time Lords,” he says in a slow, musing voice. “Now that I think about it, our capacity for self-deception must be orders of magnitude greater than that of people with shorter lifespans who do not manipulate time. Indeed, then my ability to dissemble is then the greatest in the universe,” he says with something like wonder.

 

Alison would smack her forehead with her palm, and he shows no interest in letting her go. “Hey, you know that’s not a good thing, right?”

 

“--As has been my ability to inflict misery,” he says, his voice leveling down for that observation. “And therein lies the danger of self-deception.” Another pause, longer this time. “If I believe myself good and happy when I hurt people, then I am...nothing. I am empty, compelled by the force of my own lies to suffer and to make everyone else do so as well. Then I may no longer call myself by my own name, for I am only the Master...of Pain.” His words come to an uneven stop, and his face twitches as if he’s unsure what expression to take. He realizes that he has had another name all along besides the one he has been using, and he wants no part of the identity that comes along with this recently discovered title.

 

“No, robot of mine, oh no, no, no, no. Tace...tace ...and look at me,” Alison says, her voice moving low and quick like water. She pulls his hands toward her, and his gaze follows. “You,” she tells him, “are not the Master of Pain. That is not your name. It may be a name of your past; it will always be with you, especially the consequences. But you can answer to the consequences of your past without being who you were then. You can rename yourself!

 

“I know that because I’m the Domina. I don’t answer to the Master of Pain because you know I will never have one of any kind. But a teacher, a student, an esteemed ambassadorial colleague, another artifex -- yeah, I have someone like that. I’ll answer to him because he has promised to do everything that he can so that I can be happy and whole and safe, and he does what he says. Even though, despite what he thinks, he’s not an expert at everything and he sometimes causes me pain, he stops and doesn’t do it again. Pain is the worst thing in the world -- in the universe -- to him; he would much rather avoid it and not spread it around. That’s not what a Master of Pain would do.

 

“Anyway, it’s pretty obvious who I have. I’m the Domina, so I have the Magister that I answer to, and that’s you. You can’t be the Master of Pain because the Domina wouldn’t have someone like that. So, since I am who I am, you have to be the Magister. --Basically,” she adds with a little shrug and a smile, “it’s because I said so. Quod erat demonstrandum -- QED!”

 

“You present an irrefutable proof,” he says, the corners of his eyebrows and mouth rising, “and, because I am an exemplar of rationality, I must acknowledge the truth of what you say. What else can I do but submit?”

 

“You could do lots of other things, and you know it.”

 

“I could, but none would be quite as entertaining.”

 

“Right, and so you’re going to do what I say because I’m indomitably awesome and also because I’m the universal expert at everything. No, seriously, it’s because you want to. --But also because I’m inherently awesome.”


“I’ll have to dispute you on one of those statements. You have too little experience to be an omniscient expert of all things. I do, however, agree that you are quite an extraordinary person, and I would much rather be your Magister than anyone’s Master of Pain.”

Chapter Text

Alison, in the library, listens to the Magister’s ideas about how they should mediate between the Schuaschen and the Agricole and lets out a sonorous snort. “Pfffft! So you’ve just decided that we’ll draw up a contract for them and make them sign it under pain of death?”

 

He rolls his eyes, though not particularly annoyed, and counts off his points on his fingers. “First of all, I did not put it that crudely. Second, I said nothing about pain or death, only the implied threat thereof. Third, I made no unilateral decision, only a proposal. Because this is a telepathy-free zone, I am speaking aloud so that you might understand my thoughts. I assume that you have objections to my idea?”

 

“Tons.”

 

“Then speak them.”

 

“Only if you say the magic word.”

 

“Is there but one? Abracadabra? Presto?”

 

“The magic word is please, robot of mine.”

 

His eyebrows fly up in curves. “Very clever! You tell me that please is a spell, and then you know, because of my interest in the occult, I shall be more apt to remember it and use it.”

 

She’s about to say that the magic word is just an Earth joke that people use on bratty little kids, but, if he thinks she thought it up herself, more power to her. “Yes, I’m just that brilliant.”

 

“Anyway, please tell me your reservations.”

 

Alison counts back on her fingers at him. “Well, there’s at least three off the top of my head: the colonialism problem, the compulsion problem, and the Goddammit, why won’t you fit? problem.”

 

“Explain, please. The last one especially intrigues me.”

 

“Okay then -- colonialism. Even though both the Schuaschen and the Agricole both asked for our help, you have to admit that this is kind of a colonialist assignment -- you know, solving the problems of the natives for them because they can’t do it themselves. I say to myself, But I’m helping the Schuaschen, and this is for liberty and justice and equality. But you can be colonialist even for a good cause, I guess. If we do things for them, if we give them a contract that we write, then we do the exact opposite of helping. We treat them as if they aren’t capable enough to determine their own lives. We disrespect them; we cause them pain; we don’t treat them like the people they are. So that’s one reason why we can’t make a list of what with think their demands should be and then give it to the Schuaschen and the Agricole for signature.

 

“And then, of course, there’s the compulsion problem. You know exactly what I’m talking about because it’s just another way at looking at the difference types of obedience: that enjoined from the outside and that voluntarily issued from the inside. If we tell the Schuaschen and the Agricole what to do and then make them do it, we’ve got obedience under duress. They do what we want as long as we force them to do so and quit as soon as we let up force. And that’s mind-fucking, which is a hard limit. The only way this peace will go anywhere is if the parties think it up themselves and agree to it of their own volition. Then they’ll want to keep the peace because they created it and made it theirs.

 

“Finally, there’s the Goddammit, why won’t you fit? problem. Has it ever happened to you where you’re working on a doll, trying to put it back together, and two pieces sort of fit, but not really? And you get increasingly annoyed at the pieces not doing what you want, so then you cram them together and use glue, string, wire, cable ties, chewing gum -- whatever you’ve got -- to make them stick.” Alison strikes her fist into her curved palm, as if mashing down shot into a cannon’s mouth. “Then everything looks great for a while, until you realize that you’ve crushed things beyond repair. I mean, I’ve never done anything like that personally. This case is purely hypothetical, you understand.”

 

“Of course. You would never stoop to such measures, and nor would I.” The Magister shakes his head and looks positively shocked at the possibility. “Yet, were it to happen, one would undoubtedly realize that one’s use of excessive force took much more work from which to mend than if one had mastered one’s more violent impulses and instead done things right the first time.”

 

“Or, you know, if you want to use a sentence with less than a hundred words, Unnecessary force fucks shit up.”

 

He laughs. “So you would have us remove ourselves as much as possible from the situation so that the Schuaschen and the Agricole may settle their differences by the use of their own power.”

 

“Yeah, and I know that’s going to be hard for you, not telling everyone what to do. But you know what -- if I can seethe in silence and write down my feelings, you can too. I’ll just make sure to give you a stack of notebooks that you can fill with Obey me!”

 

“You are much too kind.” He gives her a shallow bow. “I think, then, that we shall best serve the Schuaschen cause by providing a neutral and safe place in which they may negotiate with the Agricole. For example, we would do well to prohibit weapons on the premises.”

 

“--And shutting down any Agricole who go on tangents about the Schuaschen not being people -- because that subject’s not up for debate. Only the terms of the peace are.”

 

Alison proposes the use of parliamentary procedure to structure the meeting, though she only knows the basics. He readily agrees, assumes the duties of chair [but of course], then asks her what role she will assume. If she likes, he will schedule the hearings around her need for rest, during which the diplomatic teams will recess. She points out that she is usually only good for six hours of intense stuff before needing a full day of rest; the treaty would take weeks to complete if the timing takes her into consideration.

 

“What role will you have then?” he asks, coming forward to her chair and bending to her in concern. “You will not miss the culmination of our work entirely!”

 

“I’ll do like opening and closing remarks, and I’ll co-chair as much as I can. You told me to figure out my limits, and that’s what I can handle right now -- me and my fucking broken brain.”

 

“No!” He sounds personally affronted. “You may have your limits, but never think that they make you broken. Compared to the Doctor, I myself am disabled, as I cannot leave the TARDIS, both because I am prohibited and because I use some of her fuel for life support. I am limited, but never broken.”

 

“Are you implying that I’m disabled? My brain’s just...like...sick. It’s not permanently fucked up!” Alison bangs her fist on her chair arm.

 

“I pass no judgment on your ability or lack thereof. I am only stating that all of us have limits, but that does not make us broken, defective, or otherwise wrong.”

 

“Okay, that’s nice, but I can’t deal with that right now. We’re preventing civil war here, hopefully in a way that doesn’t make us colonialist oppressors. So let’s focus.”

 

“I am focusing. Are you? You say that we must be mediators with as little interest as possible. Beyond that, however, I expect that we shall have to make at least the pretense of enforcement powers. The Schuaschen may have the truth of being right, but that gives them no advantage without the ability to reinforce that claim. They have no great financial, legal, social, or general societal supremacy, and that lack of power renders them vulnerable to the Agricole.”

 

“Yeah, like we can be right all we want about people deserving respect, kindness, and quality, and white people still won’t apologize for kidnapping, killing, and selling brown people and treating us like shit even now. They’re never suddenly going to give us all the respect that we don’t have. Being right only works if you can back it up with new laws or a war or rewards or  some kind of enforcement, like you were saying. Can the Time Lord Council that we’re supposedly representing do anything like that?”

 

“Hah!” He switches his head back and forth. “I have little regard for the Council. I work on their behalf now solely because it pleases you. They pretend to be omnipotent rulers of the space/time continuum, and yet they regularly fail to deal with the most notorious and powerful renegades.”

 

“Like you, I suppose,” Alison says behind her hand.

 

“Naturally.”

 

“And who else?”

 

“I would consider the Doctor, the Rani, and the Stylist almost my equals, as well as several others with more...scruples.” He ejects the word like an insult.

 

“Wait… There’s an evil Stylist? What do they do -- give people split ends?”

 

He ignores her. “While the Council has nowhere near the authority that they would like, we Time Lords are the most powerful people in the universe. Furthermore, the Council does interfere enough in other people’s business enough to sustain the reputation as a formidable institution. Thus, in answer to your question, the Council is generally seen as universal judge, jury, and jailer all in one.”

 

“Okay then...so… The Schuaschen and the Agricole do their thing, and we stay out of it, except to make sure that they follow parliamentary procedure. We pretend to be absolutely neutral, even though we know who’s side we’re on. As a last resort, if the Agricole are being really shitty, we can drop some hints that the Council is going to kick their arses if they don’t behave. So, my dear robot, the other day you told me about learning the hierarchy and then deciding to work inside of it or outside. Do you think you can work inside of it for once and follow the rules, even if it makes you want to stab things?”

 

“Of course. I can, and I shall.”

 

“Where do you get this superpower of being impervious to doubt?”

 

“From you.”

 

Alison shakes her head. “No! That’s impossible -- you know I’m scared shitless.”


“That is true, and yet you do not completely fear me. You know me, and yet you still think me capable of things that my history, disposition, habits, and nature would suggest are impossible. I know that you and I feel little kindness for the Doctor right now, and yet you remind me of them. Both you and they share the same inexplicable, infuriating, and irresistible ability to see the good in everyone. And, for some equally inexplicable, infuriating, and irresistible reason, I want to become the person that you trust that I am. And, because I do not accept failure, I must do as you ask. That is how I know that I shall succeed.”

Chapter Text

Something’s pinging – her alarm clock? “Go ‘way,” Alison mutters, throwing a pillow in the direction of the sound.

 

The pinging becomes a more urge chime. “Wake up, you miserable, malingering monster,” he whispers, his voice almost a lullaby croon. “I know intimately how your mind works, and I know that you are perfectly fine. So why don’t you wake up – liar?” Still delicately low in volume, the last word enters with a sharp stab.

 

Alison, drowsing after a spell of vertigo chased by a pulsing headache, launches upright in her bed. A crashing cacophony, as of several clocks chiming the hour, offset by the smallest fraction of a second, draws her attention to her closet wall. There’s the Magister, but on a TARDIS TV, not in Alison’s room and not even talking to her at all. Instead, he’s bending over the inert, supine Doctor in the Zero Room. Folded at the waist, he stands close enough to kiss them, but remains still for thirty seconds…one minute…then two. The Doctor lies loosely, as if sprawled among comfortable pillows, but the Magister is geometrical in his tenseness.

 

After several minutes, the Magister rises in a sweep. The shifting pastel rainbows about him swirl in equal agitation. Blowing a sigh out his nose, he glares at the Doctor. Presumably he then tries some sort of psychic reset, as the Doctor flies into a sitting position, eyes popping open, just about as rapidly as Alison did mere minutes before. They cough a bit, but without any asthmatic wheeze, and lock eyes with the Magister.

 

Stooping down again like a raptor, the Magister catches the Doctor around the throat with one hand, the black of his leather glove particularly stark against the Doctor’s pallor. “I knew you – “

 

The Doctor sucks in a partially obstructed chestful of air. One eyebrow goes up, the other down, as their eyes gleam. They say one syllable – “No!” – and then deflate, their eyes falling closed.

 

The Magister’s eyes go wide in surprise, and he pretty much flings the Doctor out of his grasp. The rainbow clouds, of course, catch them. They breathe regularly, no worse for their recent semi-asphyxiation. “Pathetic creature,” the Magister murmurs. It dawns on Alison that he’s deliberately using Frankenstein terms for the Doctor.

 

“Can you make it so I can talk to him, please?” she asks the TARDIS. “Like maybe through the loudspeaker by the monitors?”

 

The TARDIS must be sending a psychic message to the Magister that Alison’s on the line, for he moves out of frame of the in-room monitor. Another camera in front of the loudspeaker takes over, as he presses the loudspeaker button. “Yes, my dear?”

 

“I’m kind of figuring out the TARDIS TV around here,” says Alison, “and I saw you choking the Doctor.”

 

He backs up a step from the grille. “That – I – “ He retreats again from her another pace.

 

“Wait… Are you scared of me?”

 

He leans against the wall like he wants to be swallowed up by it.  “Don’t – “

 

“But -- I need to talk to you...about that -- and other stuff.”

 

There’s a few seconds of silence during which they look at each other. He comes up from the wall he’s been trying to shrink into. Though more solidly aligned, he still stoops as if he expects an overhead blow. “Very well then -- to my study, please. The Doctor’s TARDIS does not record in Scintilla, and I would speak with you in true privacy.”

 

Alison follows the Doctor’s TARDIS’ directions to the grandfather clock and Scintilla, who greats her exuberantly, although with some chagrin. Noting the Magister’s bad mood, she sought to cheer him by adding miniature fireworks to the torches in the wall sconces, but she blew a few circuits instead. She advises Alison to take a battery-powered torch with her through the dark and vaulted halls.

 

Alison exits the control room and shines the torch down by her trainers; even though the flagging is worn to glassy evenness, she’s taking no chances. “That sounds awesome! Too bad I missed it. He better not have yelled at you. If he did -- “

 

“No. He said, Thank you -- and now the atmosphere matches my sepulchral mood. It wasn’t sarcasm, though. I believe him both exasperated and grieved.”

 

“That’s an understatement,” Alison says under her breath, knocking on his study door, though it’s ajar. “It’s me!” she calls inside.

 

“My lovely, ungrammatical Domina -- do come in,” he answers.

 

Alison enters his equally circuit-blown study, ducking around vague shapes that could be shadows or skulls. At the far end of the room, spheres of light bob like helium balloons against the chocolate-bar coffering of the ceiling; their warm amber glow seems the visual equivalent of the slight, sweet nicotine smell that lingers in the corners.

 

He sits on the wood-frame sofa where she heard his version of the story of Galatea, waiting for her. As soon as she sinks gratefully onto the cushions, though, he rises, turns so that he is directly in front of her, and sits, folding his legs underneath him. “Um...” says Alison. “Why are you on the floor?” It’s hard to read his expression in the dark.

 

“Because,” he says, “I would do this.” His voice is muted, but not ashamed. Of his own initiative, he holds out his hands to her, raising his arms with a tentative slowness.

 

“Oh.” Alison relaxes, reaches out, and catches him, settling her hands into his. “Okay. Just so long as you don’t feel like you have to or that I expect you to or something.”

 

She hears a smile enriching his voice. “Never. If you made me feel obligated, I would not obey you. With you, I am free to do as I wish.” He rubs his thumbs across the back of her hands.

 

“--As opposed to with the Doctor,” Alison says, “who’s literally slipping through your fingers and obviously up to no good. I saw that devious smirk.”

 

“The Doctor…” His voice sinks. “Would you condemn me for dealing them as you saw?”

 

Alison shakes her head. “Not at all.”

 

“Am I not in breach of our agreement? Surely insulting and assaulting someone constitutes evil action.”

 

“I don’t know. I had an ex once who kept yelling at me, and once I ended up launching doll parts at him, just to get him out of my room. I chipped one of his teeth with a glass eye, but he eventually fucked off.” She sighs. “I think sometimes you fight back with what you have.”

 

“I...never expected you to justify violence.” It’s a curious tone rather than a judgmental one.

 

“Yeah, well, I kind of like being alive, so I’ll do everything I can, including chipping evil exes’ teeth, to stay that way. Sure, in a perfect world, you could solve everything peacefully, but people take that option off the table when they attack you. --What the fuck is wrong with the Doctor anyway? They’re just pretending now, aren’t they?”

 

“Yes.” The word comes out from between clenched jaws. “I know from the monitors and my own investigation of their mind that they are completely healed from their earlier injuries. Yet I may only rouse them by psychic force and then only for a few seconds. Then they switch themselves off on me.”

 

Alison ponders. “What do you think they’re plotting?”

 

“Oh, I know exactly what it will be, my dear: some grand humiliation of their willfully disobedient robot to teach it who is truly master. What a pity for them, isn’t it, that I am no longer a simple toy?” he says, quoting the Shalka war leader.

 

“Fuck… Do you think they’d try to fuck up our mission?”

 

“They won’t. What they do always occurs in private, without witnesses. Or at least it always has until now. Others who have been aboard have suspected, but most have had eyes only for the Doctor. But you have seen, and you have seen me. You have let me be yours, and, in doing so, you have helped me to recall who I am. The Doctor can try all the humiliations they like, but I shall not be unmade.”

 

“Yeah.” Alison nods, clenching her fists inside his hands. “Good. And I’m going to help you and defend you and kick the Doctor’s arse as much as I can.”

 

“I never dreamed that you would be a warrior on my behalf, and I would much rather have you safe and happy, but,” he says, looking up at her and holding her hands more tightly, “I thank you.”

 

“You make me sound like Commander Effschischa. But all I do is talk – I don’t have a blow gun.”

 

“I come from a family in which words were considered the most refined tools for all purposes. We laid hands on each other rarely, ostensibly because we were all strong touch telepaths, but it would have taken little effort to shield. I assume that my parents felt greater comfort in language.” After a moment’s thoughtful pause, he says, “--So I know of the power of words, and yours are particularly potent weapons. You know spells of success, so we shall triumph.” His voice is harsh, his language of war, and they both know he’s not referring to diplomacy.