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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.

 

Chapter Text

“Everything is arranged,” the Magister says, striding into Alison’s favorite atrium with his usual long steps. “The Schuaschen and the Agricole ambassadors arrive first thing tomorrow morning, and they all have the proposed agenda to which we will adhere.”

 

“--Which is basically the lellayschiiya that Uscheschua and I agreed to,” Alison says, nodding, “just with the discussion of a Schuaschen homeland.”

 

“But of course.” He bows. “Furthermore, I have three days set aside for talks, with the option of extending discussion to a full week. This is a conflict that has gone on for a long while before our arrival, and it will continue well after our departure. We could spend weeks, even months, here, mediating a thorough and fair resolution thereunto. But I am mindful of your efforts to avoid colonialist savior status, as well as your own finite resources. Thus I think it best to aid in the establishment of a solid foundation, upon which the Schuaschen and Agricole may build their own agreement.”

 

“Oh. Right. The evils of colonialism.” Alison grimaces. “I suppose we can’t avoid all of them since we’re acting on behalf of something kind of like the East India Company in space. But at least we can try to mitigate the bad and do as much good as possible. --By the way, thanks for taking care of all that. I just wanted to make sure that I got enough rest before tomorrow and that my opening remarks were in decent shape.” She waves at him the paper that she has been reviewing on and off all morning, in between dozes.

 

“I should hope they are; we have certainly edited them enough.” The Magister seeks to sit next to her, but circles of sleeping cat occupy all nearby chair cushions. He opts to prop himself against one of the ends of the arms of an overstuffed chair.

 

Alison nods. “Oh yeah. By now they’re a…” Pause for emphasis. “-- Master piece.” He rolls his eyes at her. “You can laugh at puns -- I promise. It won’t break your face.”

 

“Pfffft.” But he’s smiling. “I also came here to give you intelligence of an addition to the delegates. You already know the Schuaschen delegates: Commander Effschischa and Secondary Grower Ollischill, capably assisted by your Miss Lilleschall. On the Agricole side is Trix Curriendi, with the support of Trixicula Sideris. However, for parity with the Schuaschen, Trix Curriendi has added another ambassador to her party.”

 

The new ambassador, slightly older than Alison at perhaps thirty Earth years of age, is Praedius Hadrianus. He has risen quickly to the post of assistant ambassador in just three years. He has a reputation among the Flumenarxi government as a skilled diplomat. At the very least, in the Magister’s estimation, he must be ambitious, socially gifted, and probably firmly convinced of his own self-importance. Ter, the Magister tells her, is the Agricolinguan masculine honorific, so the ambassador goes by Ter Praedius during these talks .

 

Shifting in her seat, Alison rolls her eyes slightly. Ter Praedius sounds like a younger, more naive version of the Magister. Then they’ll either be best friends or worst enemies -- probably the later, since the Magister is of the opinion that the only one with a completely reasonable sense of self-importance is him. She’ll have to watch the two closely.

 

“Do you think this will even work?” she says. “We’re just two people -- “

 

“But not merely any two, my dear. Being who we are, we cannot fail. You worry then?”

 

“Actually, um, I’m kind of calm. Maybe it’s just because all I’ve been doing for the past few days is napping, petting cats, and, oh yeah, working a bit on my opening remarks. For once in the past four or however many months, I actually feel rested and...prepared. Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m mostly sort of okay with that. So, for once in my life, I’m meeting some aliens with an idea of what to expect. And I’m not being mind-fucked!”

 

“No,” he says, then adds, “I am quite proud of you for -- “ He opens his mouth to enumerate her accomplishments in typical grandiose fashion. Then he concludes only, “--What you have made of yourself.” A warm smile, bringing a glimmering amber to his eyes and an endless series of crescents to the lines upon his face, says the rest.

 

“Yeah,” says Alison with an answering beam, “likewise. You’re good.” It’s not just an ethical assessment, but an acknowledgment of his skill in using his power. “And I think we’re pretty good together too.”

 

They grin at each other in slightly silly silence for a while until Alison speaks up: “So...is anything up with you or the Doctor or whatever they’re plotting?”

 

“Ah yes!” He starts from his seat, taking her hands, pulling her toward the door. “Come with me, and I shall tell you.”

 

Alison laughs. “Where are we going?”

 

“Scintilla, of course.” And he takes her into his ship, who has healed all her blown circuits and now greets both of them with firework-enhanced wall torches. They compliment her use of pastel spark bouquets. She accepts their thanks with such enthusiasm that Alison expects her to start bouncing gleefully.

 

Alison and the Magister head to his wizard’s hideaway. And, since the torches now function throughout Scintilla, Alison doesn’t run into anything in the process. As soon as they take seats, Alison asks, “What are you so thrilled about? Good news?”

 

He turns to her, practically radiating light. “I know now how to leave.”

 

“Here? I mean, the Doctor’s TARDIS? But I always thought it was like a combination of life support and, um, house arrest. Like if you stepped outside, you’d either run out of power and die, or the Doctor would find out and turn you off forever.”

 

“As I thought too. And yet,” he says, raising both index fingers, “our earlier discussion of unspoken expectations caused me to examine more closely the exact conditions under which I am confined.”

 

“And a loophole -- you found a loophole, right?” Alison leans toward him.

 

“Well, you are right -- because of my dependency on the TARDIS as a power source, I cannot go outside of a certain range from her. But, as for the prohibition on leaving -- “

 

“A loophole! Was it fake all along?”

 

“Tace, please! Let me finish! I have examined everything that the Doctor used in my construction, as well as the entirety of my own hardware and software. There is no express prohibition on my exit.”

 

“Wait. What? Whoa! You’ve been free all this time?” Alison drops her jaw.

 

“I have, the minor problem of portable power excepted, of course. I have never left, though, because, just as I assumed so many things about my compelled state, so I also assumed that I had to stay.”

 

Alison shakes her head, looking down. “So then...it wasn’t real; none of it was real. It was all literally just in your head. You could always leave, but you’d just mind-fucked your own self so that you couldn’t. Like me, I suppose -- trapped in here despite myself by the mind-fucking powers of my own bullshit brain.”

 

“No, no, tace, mea carissima, atque audite.” His voice goes low now. “You say that it was in my head as if my fear did not truly exist or, if it did, that it was negligible and easily overcome. But you and I -- we both have intimate experience with fear. We know its power, its almost irresistible authority. Your fears are real, and you must treat them as such. You cannot deny them, for they will only strengthen. You must meet them directly and learn to know them. That is the only means by which you may control them. Do not blame yourself for being afraid. Only accept that you are and determine then how you will act,” he says with a decisive nod.

 

“Well, thank you for that nice motivational lecture, mi Magistre. But who are you trying to convince: me or you?” Alison’s smile is so sour that it’s pretty much a frown.

 

“Both, obviously. And yet I feel an inevitability upon me. I am so sick of my current state that I cannot change it. No matter my fear, I must act. I may be terrified, but I will go -- because I must.”

 

“You mean like now?” She nearly starts up.

 

“No, we are not finished here yet. But when you have gone and I have seen you off safely, then nothing will hold me here. I am already planning a means to transfer my power dependency from the Doctor’s TARDIS to Scintilla. Once that is accomplished, I shall depart.”

 

“When I’m gone?” This time she does start up. “Are you kicking me out?”

 

“No, my dear, I am not.” The smile he gives her is distant. “I only meant that I know you will not stay forever.”

 

“I guess not. I’ve got to...um...go out...back into the world sometime.” Even as she admits that she must, she feels the inevitability settle down around her, just as the Magister said. This is untenable -- the two of them trapped by their own fear on a ship with someone that can’t trust. Just as the Magister will escape when he is ready, so too will she. Neither of them can support much longer confinement by fear. As afraid as she is of mind-fucking outside, she fears that her mind will be further fucked up by fear if she stays. The thought of going makes her fairly tingle with terror, but the thought of staying gives her a lethargy as of death.

 

“And you will do so when you are ready.”

 

“Yeah.” Alison meets his eyes. “And I’m gonna be ready soon. It matters not how strait the gate…” she mutters with a sigh.

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“There was this poem that my dad taught me was I was really young. It was the first that I ever memorized, and it always stuck with me. You could say that it was just some of the stuffy old stiff upper lip bullshit or maybe even the mantra of someone who’d been hearing all her life that she had to be a Strong Black Woman, but...still… It’s like my spell for strength, my ward against danger, especially the last stanza:

 

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll;

I am the, um, mistress of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.”          

Chapter Text

Rising from her chair at the round table in the audience chamber, Alison steadies herself, gripping her note cards tightly. The Magister has already done introductions of her, him, and the two groups of delegates, sparing her the trouble of having to say his name. The floor is now hers.

 

She marks each member of the circle, eye to eye, before speaking. Commander Effschischa roots herself in her wheelchair, her basin of soil raising her to the height of everyone else. Though expressly forbidden to arm herself for these talks, she remains formidable, with her keen narrow face and her seemingly omniscient eyes. She recognizes Alison’s gaze with a nearly imperceptible inclination of her chin, as if she deigns to approve of the surveillance.

 

To the commander’s right sits Loriischi -- ever since she insisted on a first-name basis, Alison can only think of the other Schuaschen ambassador this way. The Agricole delegation seemed okay with the commander and Uscheschua, but, though they remained composed, they obviously had a real problem with Loriischi. Even now Trixicula Sideris’ eyebrows still oscillate between surprise and disgust, as if Loriischi is dying gorily in front of everyone without medical intervention. At first Alison could not figure out why this would be, since Loriischi looks the most familiarly human, offering a genuinely warm and wide smile to everyone, even her enemies. Then Alison realized that the Agricole struggled with the idea that someone bred for sexual servitude could do anything else, much less ambassadoring.

 

And there’s Uscheschua, of course, sitting in a chair away from the table against the wall. She was writing furiously on her tablet when she walked in the door, and she hasn’t quit yet. Her wide tilted green eyes shining, she writes without looking at her tablet, even when there are no official words to record. Alison thinks that she must be adding details, all in her inimitably dramatic voice, to create a history as thrilling as Frankenstein.

 

Across the table from the commander sits Trix Curriendi. She holds herself carefully, as if her monumental updo, woven with something like gilded laurel leaves, remains on her head by balance alone. Alison started marking off every time she sniffed, but only got to the sixth before she was too irritated to continue. Behind her, Trixicula Sideris, who still can’t believe that she’s actually here, fidgets with all the quickness of a plump pigeon.

 

The new bloke, Ter Praedius, sits at Trix Curriendi’s side. He’s tall, roundish, with pinkish peach skin, pretty much bald but for these cool swirling patterns shaved onto his scalp. Alison thought that he was kinda hot when he flashed her a beautiful smile, but changed her assessment when the smile didn’t meet his eyes. She further downgraded her opinion of him when Trixicula Sideris wrinkled her nose every time he spoke -- not that he noticed her contempt. He has eyes only for the Magister. She could tell him that his house was on fire, and he probably wouldn’t credit it unless it came from her esteemed colleague in ambassadorial endeavors.

 

Speaking of the Magister, there he is. Not that she had any true concern that he was mind-fucking Ter Praedius, but his annoyed refusal to make more than minimal eye contact with the man confirms it for her. Instead, he surveys everyone else, and now his eyes settle on her. It a peaceful smile he now turns on her, chin in hand, eyelids slightly hooded. He knows what she will say, so he awaits a bravura performance. Well, too bad she’s not going to give it to him.

 

Putting her hands behind her back, Alison stacks her vertebrae one on top of the other until she is a column, hopefully of strength. She presses her hands against the base of her spine so they don’t shake so much, and she begins to speak: “Hello, everyone, and really -- I want to thank you, truly and sincerely, for coming here today. I know that having an outside party mediate must be a challenge. I mean, this conflict takes huge amounts of your time and energy, and I know you all want to resolve it fairly and expeditiously. But, still, you have no idea what to expect from us, the High Council of Time Lords. So, first of all, I just want to acknowledge your commitment to peace and to thank you for trusting us to provide what little aid we can.”

 

Pausing, she swishes a little spit in her mouth, takes a gulp, then goes off script: “I had a speech rehearsed about the importance of cooperation, compassion, equality, justice, and respect, but I’m not going to use it. You can’t really reach lofty ideals like that unless you acknowledge the reality of your starting point. And I’m an idealist, but I’m also kind of a realist, so I really need to recognize your starting point. The Schuaschen and the Agricole dislike each other, distrust each other, and approach this conflict from pretty much incompatible perspectives.”

 

Everyone stirs, sitting up a bit more in their chairs, when they hear her unexpectedly blunt declaration. Though shaking internally, Alison looks at the Magister. His head pricks up in surprise. Yet his smile now grows sharper, with something of the calculating smirk about it. He doesn’t know what she’s doing, but he has faith in his Domina to produce something good. He drops his chin in the merest of nods -- an approval that gives her the courage to go on.

 

“So,” Alison picks up once again, “I’m not going to flatter you by appealing to common principles that differ so widely for each of your peoples. I’m calling on you to arrange a peace, if not for your own particular benefit, then for the good of something that you do share. And that’s the land. Crescior is your home, your history, your past, your present, and your future. Even if you don’t love each other, remember that you love the land. You harm it with your conflict, but now you have a chance to heal it. If we from the High Council can in any way contribute to the renewal of your lands and your peoples, then it will be an honor. Thank you.” She sits down expeditiously before her legs wobble out from under her.

 

Much to Alison’s relief, the Magister now assumes control. He reminds everyone that they will, as previously agreed, conduct themselves according to parliamentary procedure. While this structure may seem antiquated, it will, if properly used, ensure fairness in discussion and ensuing decisions. With that in mind, he distributes copies of a proposed agenda, which covers the major points of the Schuaschen lellayschiiya: cessation of all attacks between Schuaschen and Agricole, peace between all Schuaschen and Agricole, release of all Schuaschen now potted or gardened by the Agricole, full social, moral, and legal equality between Schuaschen and Agricole, and land for a Schuaschen homeland.

 

Of course the commander and Loriischi approve. Even Trix Curriendi does as well, though she dithers about the ordering of items. It’s only Ter Praedius who objects to the agenda. Alison, familiar with only the basic rules of order, doesn’t quite follow the details, but his technique is obvious. He gains the floor by tangential means, then tries to argue something off the agenda. Meanwhile Trix Curriendi watches him with arms folded, nodding in approbation. Alison writes SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH! WE’RE NOT EVEN OFF THE AGENDA! on her notepad. With a momentary grin and a glance at the inscription, the Magister politely reminds everyone to save discussion for the actual meeting. Thus, despite Ter Praedius’ valiant efforts, the delegates approve the agenda.

 

Wondering how two peoples who despise each other will compromise, Alison watches the actual discussion with interest. Much to her surprise, it is Trix Curriendi who formally introduces the proposal to stop all hostilities between Schuaschen and Agricole. Loriischi promptly seconds it. Perhaps Trix Curriendi, knowing that the Agricole will inevitably revise their definition of personhood to some degree to include the Schuaschen, wants to appear generous and reasonable. Perhaps she’s weary of war. Perhaps Alison's exhortation that the delegates keep in mind their literal common ground has truly altered Trix Curriendi’s perspective. It sure would be gratifying if it was the last, but Alison expects that only the first and second factors truly matter.

 

The Magister restates the motion and opens debate. Commander Effschischa begins to speak, whereupon Ter Praedius talks over her with a double point of order. First, he says, the maker of a motion is entitled to speak first in debate on the subject. By rights, Trix Curriendi should now have the floor. Additionally, he continues, Commander Effschischa spoke without recognition from the Lord Master of Time. [Unsurprisingly, Ter Praedius, like everyone else, does not know how to deal with the Magister’s name.] Ter Praedius understands that the subject is of vital importance, but they should all follow the rules to -- Thankfully, the Magister cuts Ter Praedius off, curtly pronouncing both points well taken, then turns over the floor to Trix Curriendi.

 

The senior Agricole ambassador states that she of course favors the cessation of attacks, but she has a number of concerns. Given that the Topiarians are savage and evil [she says prone to violence, but a sniff makes the meaning plain], what guarantees of safety can the Agricole expect from them? While perhaps the ambassadors present might be trusted as individuals, do they truly speak for all Schuaschen? For all that the Schuaschen claim pacifism, everyone knows that they hunt down innocent Agricole and take trophies. As she goes on, Alison marvels that Trix Curriendi can completely reverse the truth and thoroughly convince herself of the imaginary danger.

 

Ter Praedius jumps in to support his superior without being recognized, and it does Alison’s heart good to see the Magister swat him down for his own breach of order. Loriischi is recognized; she addresses Trix Curriendi. She understands, she says, that this conflict causes the Agricole to live in fear. The Schuaschen share that fear. All of them wish for lives of safety and certainty, hence this conference, the Schuaschen commitment to which may be seen in the appeal to an outside authority. If the Agricole do not trust the Schuaschen, they can certainly trust the High Council of Time Lords to hold them accountable. Alison’s increasingly tired brain becomes lost in Loriischi’s compound-complex sentences, but her flowing, even tone transmits all necessary reassurance. Is Alison imagining it, or does Trix Curriendi relax when Loriischi finishes?

 

The commander takes the floor -- correctly, much to the chagrin of Ter Praedius, who has been expecting another opportunity to interrupt. Safety, says the commander, is her top priority for all the trees in her care. If, for some reason, there are trees who do not share this priority, she will change their minds. Alison has no doubt that, within her purview, the commander exercises the same stern and ultimate control over her subordinates as might the Magister [albeit with significantly less mind-fucking].

 

Debate continues, but Alison’s attention wanders. She draws trees in her notebook and spends some time trying to catch Uscheschua’s eye without luck. Uscheschua focuses on whoever’s speaking at the time, her stylus moving over her tablet so fast that it nearly blurs. Alison wishes that she could read Uscheschua’s records, as they’d probably be more exciting than the actual events.

 

When she is next able to tune in, discussion has moved to another motion: that of freedom for all Schuaschen being potted and gardened. What became of the first then? She writes a message and slides it over to the Magister: Sorry. Hard to concentrate. Where’s the cessation motion?

 

He replies. It’s the first time that she has seen his handwriting: tight, looping, slashing across the page. He has two words for her: Passed! Rest?

 

Whoa...so the diplomacy actually got somewhere when she wasn’t looking? Maybe this mediation will actually do some good. No, I’m fine, she writes.

 

The next hour proves her wrong. As smoothly as the first motion went, so the second stalls. Loriischi’s sentences become tangles of clauses and commas. Trix Curriendi’s barely veiled prejudice dwindles into the unrelenting whine of assailed privilege. And, as far as Alison is concerned, Ter Praedius is now just making shit up and sticking his oar in based on imaginary rules of order. Headache, she writes to the Magister. Recess, please? He calls one and excuses his colleague, who heads back to her room and falls asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow.

Chapter Text

After such extensive preparations for the peace talks, Alison’s brain needs peace of its own. First she sleeps for about twenty hours. She thinks that she might then be good to return to the audience chamber, but her rotten brain continues to lie prostrate and whine about needing more rest. She then spends the next two days in the library with more cat therapy, as well as a selection of books recommended by the Doctor’s TARDIS for beautiful and mentally unstimulating pictures.

 

The Magister, appearing for the first time since she crashed, thus finds Alison under a flower light. The jade cat’s in her lap, the floral incense in her nose, visions of the fantastical dreamscapes that she has just studied in her head. The Magister comes toward her swiftly, body stiffly bent forward, all the lines upon his forehead flattened instead of curved. As soon as she perks up and catches his eye, though, he straightens, unwinding the tension from his stance and smiling.

 

He sits down in front of her and wants to know how she fares, so she tells him as much detail as she can about a period during which she was either unconscious or daydreaming. Though she wants to drag her brain kicking and screaming back into the peace talks, he appears thoroughly delighted with her hiatus. He calls it excellent and exactly what she’s needed. Well, of course he’s so cool about it. He’s not the one whose brain is fucked up.

 

“So that’s the thrilling news from my sector of the TARDIS,” says Alison, rubbing around the base of the jade cat’s ears. “What’s going on with the diplomacy? From the way you came in here, I figure that it can’t be going well. Tell me?”

 

With a tremendous sigh, he heaves himself up from the chair. “Ah…”

 

Sensing an imminent pacing attack, Alison closes her eyes. “I’m listening,” she assures him. “Your pacing makes me queasy, so I’m not looking. But I know that’s how you think, so go ahead and do it. Just know that I won’t be hanging onto your every move.”

 

“What a pity -- and I did so hope that I could make of you my worshipful follower. --Well, in any event, the whole mission recalls to me the reasons that I have always avoided diplomacy. The time-consuming tangents! The serious consideration of foolish ideas! The endless rules governing the least action! The sheer...democracy of it all!”

 

“Aww, is someone upset that no one’s bowing down to him?”

 

“To be sure, my dear! One may not simply discard a lifetime of habits and desires within mere days. And yet fear not, for, though I may be unfamiliar with the restrictions you have given me, I am obedient to your will in all things.” There’s a silence. “And yet…” he says, an inquiring upturn to his voice. “While I know I chafe against the diplomatic protocols because of my nature, I suspect that the Agricole may be abusing the rules of order. I would like your perspective -- that of someone with more experience in discussion, negotiation, and compromise than I.”

 

Wow, did he just admit that he wasn’t a master of something? Alison pops her eyes open. “Uh, sure, how can I help you? Do you want me to watch TARDIS TV tapes?”

 

He, having stopped walking [thank God], rolls his eyes. “Dear me, not at all! The vicissitudes would try your patience. If I may provide you with certain representative instances, could you then extrapolate and give me an assessment?”

 

“Ah, okay, summaries are much more efficient anyway.” Giving him a sideways glance, she adds, “And you look like you’re just dying to do something in a more efficient way than that perfectly awful democracy bullshit! So please -- summarize away.”

 

He begins moving again, switching back and forth in short laps. Alison shuts her eyes as he struggles to identify just one example where the Agricole raised his ire. She’s pretty sure that he, like her, started off this mission trying to be civil and open-minded to the Agricole. But then she used up all her politeness just trying to get Trix Curriendi on the phone, while he probably expended all of his convincing the Agricole to sit down with the Schuaschen in the first place. By this time, both of them are sick of the Agricoles’ bigoted bullshit, but have little recourse but private fuming. Now that he has time alone with Alison, his long-held annoyance, though, threatens to overwhelm his ability to explain its source.

 

Finally he brings up an anecdote about Trix Curriendi. When the time came to debate the enfranchisement of all the Schuaschen currently in pots and gardens, she brought up the subject of those Schuaschen who could not live without pots or gardens. As moderator, the Magister thought this topic an excuse for the Agricole to justify their supremacy over the Schuaschen by invoking the disability of a few, so he decided to let her speak.

 

He soon regretted this permission, as Trix Curriendi took an excursus into the importance of caring for the crippled, in her words, especially those creatures to which the Agricole had duties as creators. After summarizing the services that the Agricole provide for the cripples, Trix Curriendi asked what provisions the Schuaschen will make for their unpotted and ungardened fellows. The commander gave a curt synopsis of the ways in which Schuaschen institutions  helped and supported trees like her, which appeared to satisfy Trix Curriendi. And yet this item had taken most of the day during which Alison was resting. In so many words, the Magister asks her if she considers this obfuscatory drivel or legitimate, albeit long-winded, diplomacy.

 

Alison replies that one of her first lessons in the democratic process concerned its unavoidable length and tedium. Rules of order allow safeguard fairness by making sure that everyone has a chance to speak their piece. Some people do so succinctly, and some do so verbosely. She considers Trix Curriendi’s concern valid, though long-winded. The Magister’s impatience, then, betokens no bullshit, only a side effect of the rules of order.

 

When the Magister moves to the subject of Ter Praedius, however, Alison quickly detects bullshit in full force. The junior Agricole ambassador merges an encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure with an avidity to demonstrate this knowledge whenever possible. As Alison witnessed during the first day, he loves to call points of order, especially when the Schuaschen ambassadors have the floor. Both the commander and Loriischi, knowing that the Council mediation team ultimately supports them, let him speak up repeatedly, as they know they will win. Meanwhile, the Magister’s infuriation grows.

 

No matter what he has tried thus far, the Magister says, Ter Praedius continues to derail the debate. He slows the talks and distracts the Schuaschen delegates, but Trix Curriendi doesn’t seem to care. The Magister suggested that she restrain her overzealous younger colleague, but she, baffled, said she would do nothing to quash her promising protege’s ambitions.

 

“I said the same thing to the culprit in question,” the Magister goes on. “I have noticed that you frequently seize upon points of order. I would ask you to please refrain from slowing the discussion with such interruptions. They challenge our prompt conclusion of this urgent and important business. Somehow, though, the fool took this as an opening to accept a compliment on his parliamentary prowess, which, I assure you, I did not offer. He also tried to argue with me -- me, of all people! -- that his care and thoroughness, in his words, were vital to the success of the talks. I wonder that human politics ever accomplishes anything when beset with such vacuous personalities!”

 

“I knew there was a reason I wanted to punch him in the face,” Alison mutters. “Sounds like he’s not only an impolite arsehole, but he’s also impervious to common sense. Hmmm, there’s got to be something behind all his bullshit, though: some way to get through to him, something we can use as leverage to make him shut up and behave himself.”

 

“Of course,” says the Magister, nodding, “everyone has such motivations, such desires, upon which others may play for good or for ill. For example, clearly the culprit -- “ That’s how much the junior ambassador angers the Magister: so much that he has been demoted into namelessness. “--Covets my approval, as he’s forever staring at me like some sort of pet. And he -- “

 

“I know just the thing!” Alison sits up straight. The jade cat, having been asleep, chides her for the sudden movement. “You said that he’s been in the Ambitio for like three years. Well, Trixicula Sideris has been there even longer. I don’t know if you noticed, but she was trying really hard not to make faces whenever he yelled out one of his precious points of order. I think,” she concludes, “that she’s got some inside information on him. Let me talk to her. I’m not sure I’m up to Agricole blathering and bullshit, but I can definitely ask her some questions about her coworker.”

 

“Excellent idea, especially since you two already share some report,” says the Magister. “Yes, please gather what intelligence you can about the culprit.”

 

“Okay,” promises Alison, “I’ll go on my fact-finding mission tomorrow. I’m sure I can get some idea of what makes him tick.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

 

Chapter Text

“Aioli,” says Alison, dunking an onion ring into a ramekin, “is just mayonnaise with pretensions to grandeur.” As soon as it hits her tongue, the condiment in question provides a rough flavor of garlic, through which she quickly cuts into the crispy breaded coating. Unlike those at the local chip shops back home, where everything was supersaturated with grease, these onion rings crack satisfyingly across her tongue; even the onion gives a full, juicy snap under the pressure of her teeth. She chews, rolling the food around in her mouth so it can hit as many taste buds as possible, then shifts it to her cheek to say, “I don’t care how pretentious it is, though -- it’s delicious!”

 

“Meals with you are quite droll,” her robot exclaims with a laugh. “I’d much rather have someone who licks the plate instead of someone who forgets I’ve even left them one.” If the Doctor were here and not in the Zero Room, he’d would be giving them a pointy look right about now. “--Or, worse yet, someone like that poor young man who insisted on nothing but tinned tuna sandwiches with yellow mustard on white bread.” A convulsive frisson moves him from end to end.

 

“So you like cooking?”

 

“Not particularly.”

 

“Then why do it?”

 

Even though a smile twists up the corners of his lips, it’s bowed under a longtime burden. “The Doctor never specified their expectations of what I was to do aboard the TARDIS after I was...robotified. Nevertheless, it was immediately apparent that, if I wished to maintain my...position, it was necessary that I perform certain duties. Cooking was among those responsibilities that I assumed to be required of me.”

 

“Compelled obedience,” Alison says with a grim nod. “Goddammit, Doctor! --But...if you assumed it to be required, was it actually? And, if it wasn’t, couldn’t you just...stop?”

 

“I have long since determined that it is not a requirement, but I have continued because...well, they do thank me for it -- when they remember to eat, that is. Since they have been in the Zero Room, though, I have enjoyed freedom from that habit. Given the way I’m feeling, however, I have little inclination to resume once they feel better.”

 

“You’re cooking for me.”

 

“That’s because you not only thank me, but you also take such pleasure in it. It’s almost like a vicarious enjoyment for me.”

 

“Oh...right. You can’t eat. What’s that all about? One of the Doctor’s sadistic punishments?”

 

“No. We were developing my new self under severe time constraints, so the speed of our labor necessitated some compromise. I chose to forgo the complexities of a functioning digestive system in favor of hearts’ beats and respiration, both of which are much more easily simulated. While I have gustatory and olfactory senses, I cannot process food.” He regards his hands for a minute, then interlaces his fingers and focuses on her. “--But, on another subject, you met with Trixicula Sideris earlier. What intelligence did she give you of Ter Praedius?”

 

“He’s a smarmy, sexist sycophant, but we knew that already. He started off in the civil service about five years ago as something like a receptionist. Then he attached himself to the Ambitio departmental assistant, learned everything he could, and eventually got his job. Trixicula Sideris thinks that he might have blackmailed the assistant into leaving, but that’s just a rumor. Anyway, he repeated the process up the line, finding someone -- always a bloke -- to suck dry and take over. Basically he’s a backstabbing leech.

 

“But the really infuriating thing is that no one thinks he’s a backstabbing leech, at least not among the supervisors. The assistants like Trixicula Sideris see it, but the bosses and leaders don’t. They think he’s working the system the way that it should be worked. That’s actually part of the reason he’s gotten so far so fast. He picks out the most powerful man in the room and ingratiates himself with them. Once he’s kind of under their wing, he protects himself from criticism. So he’s not only a leech, but an impervious one. Too bad I’m an ambassador, because I really want to punch him in the face.” Alison smacks her right fist into her left palm instead.

 

Taking her well-licked plate, drained glass, and used silverware from the table, he deposits them in the sink and blasts some steamy water on them. As he starts scrubbing, he switches off the faucet and turns his head toward her. “Have you any thought on what we should do next -- aside from punching him in the face?”

 

“Yeah, actually.” Alison puts her rear against the counter, jumping up and backward to sit next to the sink. “There’s really only one thing for it. You’re going to have to kick his arse!”

 

“Yes, but what exactly does that...phrase of yours entail?”

 

“I mean that you use your powers of persuasion and tell him to quit fucking around with the rules of order so that we can get done what we’re supposed to -- or else you’ll turn him into a cockroach or something.”

 

He continues washing her plate, but cycling over the same spot, as he squints at her. “Then you order me to threaten him into submission?”

 

“Don’t get so excited there. This is what you have your master’s in, right? This is what you do for fun.” If it were anyone else, she’d give him a nudge with her elbow, but he looks rigid enough to fall over if she did so.

 

He rinses the plate, passing it to the drainer at his right. “I do not believe that we have yet exhausted all alternatives.”

 

“I do believe that we have,” Alison counters. “You tried asking Trix Curriendi to shut him up, but that didn’t work. Then you asked him yourself, very bluntly but very politely, to shut up, but I think he somehow took that as encouragement to be even more of a nit-picking little shit. It’s time for some good old-fashioned arse-kicking!”

 

Now polishing her glass tumbler inattentively, he keeps his eyes on the stainless steel sink basin. “Such an admonition would best come from someone who has authority over him. I would again approach Trix -- “

 

“But you tried that already, and it -- doesn’t -- work!” Alison lengthens the pauses between each word, punching her palm every time. “Like I said, she doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. And furthermore, given what Almina told me, he wouldn’t pay her any mind anyway because she’s not a man. Sexist sycophant -- remember? But you’re a man -- “

 

“No. Male, yes, but man is a human concept, not a Gallifreyan one.”

 

“Um, okay, sorry -- whatever. But he thinks you’re a man, and he’s been trying to latch onto you. He’s basically given you power over him already. You know he’ll do what you say, so tell him what to do!”

 

Pivoting away from the sink, he moves to stand opposite her, folding his arms, leveling his chin. In the tense attitude of his body, he appears to have withdrawn from her, though he has actually come closer. His eye sockets seem like especially deep caverns, within which the lighter shades of his eyes have congealed to a dull bronze. “So I am to compel his obedience.”

 

“Why is that such a big problem? You yourself said that we might end up making the pretense of enforcement powers, since the Schuaschen and the Agricole believe that the Council has them.” Arms akimbo, Alison draws herself up and meets him eye to eye. “So why are you glaring at me like I just said to slit his throat in the audience chamber?”

 

“Compelled obedience, my dear,” he says, “reigns by means of terror. It takes what is strong and powerful from a person, replacing it with the will of another. It is a particularly effective method of murdering by inches, especially when perpetrated over an extended time, and I will no longer bear it.”

 

“Oh come on now!” Alison rolls her neck. “Really? Really? This is like the most inconvenient time ever for you to develop a moral compass!”

 

“Tace.” The word might be made of broken ice for its cut and chill. “Answer me one question, mea Domina -- do I mock you for your fear?”

 

Alison blinks a few times before responding. “You’re...afraid?”

 

“Answer me.”

 

“I… I’m sorry; I didn’t know you were -- “

 

“Answer me.” He settles into an easier stillness before her, his shoulders dropping back. He straightens his spine, the triangular shape of his beard pushing his chin forward like an accusation. He hasn’t blinked for the past thirty seconds. Maybe that’s an optional function of his robotification.

 

Alison sighs with an Audio atque cedo look down. “No, you don’t. You haven’t ever. You just...accept that I’m afraid, and it doesn’t even bother you. And obviously you’re the one who’s afraid right now, but here I am, getting all disgusted with you.”

 

“Yes. It’s quite disrespectful.”

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand -- I didn’t realize that you were scared, especially since you were the one who talked about enforcement powers in the first place.” She holds out her hands. “I apologize, robot of mine.”

 

His entire aspect changes. Confusion passes swiftly across his features, followed by alarm. Then something rises tentatively in his face, opening his eyes wider. He takes her hands and pulls her toward him with a jerk, as if he’s worried that she might run away.

 

Alison expects him to draw up right up against him, but he holds her at arm’s length -- and yet it’s a tight, fervent hold. She wonders how long he has felt himself to be dying by inches. And how much of that death is due to compelled obedience? How much to a lack of touch?

 

“Yes,” he says slowly, “I…” It’s like he’s accepting her apology, but still rather distracted by the fact that she reached out for him, even when he was angry.

 

“Um...so...you’re afraid -- obviously. Can I ask why?”

 

Alison wants to look into his face, but, at her question, whatever was rising in his eyes extinguishes; he turns his head to the side. His grip loosens around her hands. He slips from her, and she tries to retain him, but he frees himself with a tug, taking a chair at the kitchen table.

 

“Hey, hey, hey!” Alison runs to the other side of the table and scoots her chair in. She makes half a bridge across the table, her arms out straight. “Why’d you do that? Come back here! I mean -- please. Please come back here.”

 

He sits silently, cheek turned, as if there’s a wall between them. She stands up a bit from the chair and gets a good grip on him again. His hands lie, motionless lumps, inside hers. “Hey, hey, hey…” She pitches her voice down. “I know -- I know this can’t be easy to talk about, but I like holding onto you. And I think you like it too. If you don’t want to talk, can we at least do that? Please?”

 

Bestirring himself, he sits more upright and fastens to her with the strength of someone trying to check a fall. Alison sucks air between her teeth, giving a little gasp of pain, and he immediately loosens. She relaxes, and then he does, moving his hands so that they encase hers, but just immobilizing, rather than squishing, her. “Good!” she says. “Thanks.”

 

He stares at a point on the middle of the table, preparing his words. “Earlier I spoke of duties I was expected to perform in exchange for remaining as I am now. Some of these I assumed without discussion, while some were imposed more -- shall we say -- explicitly.” The deliberate vagueness of imposed makes Alison think that it probably wasn’t just as simple as the Doctor telling him what he expected, especially given the Doctor’s notorious difficulty with revelations about their mental states.

 

He sighs a sigh that has been held for many years. “Chief among the more well-defined duties was the redirection of all my cruel, retaliatory, destructive words and actions. I was told never again to inflict...inflict myself upon anyone except the Doctor. If I did, there were consequences to be suffered.”

 

“Oh! Oh... oh. Now I see.” Alison hangs her head. “And I just told you to do something that’s gotten you mind-fucked or fucked with or whatever in the past, and then I sneered at you for resisting. Shit. Fuck. Well, that… Fuck that shit. Never mind. I’m sorry I said it. You can’t do it; I won’t ask it; I -- “

 

“No! No!” Now he’s the one seeking her acknowledgment; he shakes her hands slightly. “Look at me.” She does, and his whole body is bent forward in a question, eyes intense again, but lightening, shining with a fierce certainty. “When I said that I was yours, I meant that truly, and that has not changed. I said that I would do anything you ask of me, and so I will. I only wish that you might try to understand my reluctance instead of summarily dismissing it.”

 

“But...if you...if you do what I say, then they’re going to do something fucking horrible to you! I won’t put you through that, not even by proxy. No, no, no, no.” Alison shakes her head. “No one fucks with my robot, especially not the Doctor!”

 

“Pffffft! I regret to inform you, my dear, that the Doctor is going to fuck with your robot,” he echoes her, the fricative fairly striking sparks across his tongue, “until your robot extricates himself and leaves. The fucking with may be unavoidable, but I choose not to let it keep me from what I want.”

 

“But what about what I want?” Alison cries. “I don’t want you to be fucked with. I don’t want you to be turned off -- or mind-fucked -- or broken. I want you safe and whole and happy!”

 

“Then command me,” he says, bowing his head, “and I shall do your will.”

 

“You...would?” Alison screws up her face. “Even if I told you to do something you didn’t want to do?”

 

He just looks at her silently, with a long blink that serves as an ocular nod.

 

“Huh. You would,” she repeats. “But...no. I can’t do that. If I told you to hold back, if I told you to keep doing what you did when you were scared of the consequences, then you would, but you’d be miserable. It’s not that you really want to be fucked with -- “

 

“Dear me, no! I really would much rather be, as you said, safe and whole and happy. But, before all else, I would be free first and foremost. To do that, I must break the Doctor’s rules.”

 

“Yeah…” Alison says quietly. “I suppose that’s step number one in the No one fucks with the Domina’s robot plan.”

 

“Aut regnere aut servire,” he says, sitting up, as if he has made his decision. Either rule or serve.

 

“Well, that’s a shitty binary,” says Alison. “Can’t we put aut collaborare in there too?” --Or collaborate.

 

“You and I may do so, of course. For myself and the Doctor, no, there is no third option -- not until I’ve turned the tables.”




Chapter Text

The Magister sits at the round table in the audience chamber, Alison at his right, Ter Praedius at his left. Ter Praedius glances at Alison. “I was hoping that we could speak privately.”

 

Alison gives the Agricole ambassador a winning smile. Originally slated to watch the arse-kicking on TARDIS TV, she successfully lobbied for her inclusion in the audience chamber as a monitor only. She pointed out that she had enough brainpower, being rested and alert. She also reminded him that she had her notebook ready in case the ambassador made any egregious comments. Finally, she added that she kind of liked watching up close when her robot was doing his thing: Makes me proud. The last appeal won him over instantly, and so here she is.

 

“Do not worry.” The Magister waves his hand. “Miss Cheney is my student -- very discreet and perfectly good -- right?” he says, turning to her. Delivered in all seeming sincerity, it’s both a sarcastically exaggerated in-joke because they both know she’s not and a sort of acceptable code for my good Domina.

 

“Yes.” Alison schools her face into neutral, keeping the grin inside her mouth. She’ll savor its glow inside herself as proof against any shitty remarks from Ter Praedius.

 

“You have nothing to fear from her,” he continues to Ter Praedius. “She has a natural gift for such dealings as these, and I only have her listening so that she might increase her skill.”

 

“Hm. Unusual for a girl.”

 

“Indeed -- she is quite remarkable.”

 

Alison puts up her notepad so that she might break out into a full, silly smile behind its privacy. She has to admire how he suggested some condescension toward her without directly expressing it. He called her Miss Cheney, thus eschewing her ambassadorial title and making her a generic, subordinate woman, rather than a colleague. However, he knows that she finds Miss Cheney an acceptable address, and thus it is no real insult, at least between them. And then he apparently agreed with Ter Praedius on Alison being an unusual girl, but what he really agreed on was her being quite remarkable in a manner unqualified by expectations of gender. That was really sweet of him in a sneaky sort of way, taking her invitation to snotty remarks as an opportunity for secret compliments.

 

After general pleasantries of greeting, Ter Praedius needs little encouragement to talk about himself. He describes Terripluvium as a dull, barely civilized hinterland . Now that he has attained the post of assistant ambassador, he sets his sights beyond the the island, the planet, even the star system itself. Since a representative of the High Council has so graciously deigned to take an interest in such an unimportant governmental functionary as himself, he does hope that it would not be too forward to expect the Magister’s assistance in realizing his modest dreams.

 

The Magister, avoiding the question implicit in this circumlocutionary groveling, offers Ter Praedius a shot of fuorion, which he describes as a mild intoxicant with a piquant taste. He toasts to the success of future endeavors, then convincingly appears to down his shot of in small sips. Alison wonders where he’s putting it, since he can neither eat nor drink. After observing the Magister for a few seconds, Ter Praedius follows his example, swirling the pearlescent liquid in the shot glass, then sucking it bit by bit between his teeth. Initially anxious about performing correctly, he soon reclines more comfortably in his seat at an encouraging smile from Alison’s robot.

 

Moving his glass aside, the Magister leans forward, fingers interlaced in front of him. “Hadrianus…”

 

“Yes, my Lord Master?” says the Agricole ambassador, assuming the same stance.

 

“You remind me of myself early on in my career. You’re intelligent, ambitious, driven. Your adventuresome mind that would only be limited if you remained here at such a wilderness outpost. You’re destined for much greater things, aren’t you?”

 

Hadrianus chuckles as if embarrassed. “You flatter me. I want only what every man wants: a fulfilling career at which I can do good, challenges from which I can learn and grow, and, of course, some slight recognition.”

 

“Don’t we all?” murmurs the Magister. “Besides the will to succeed, though, one must also have a history of high achievement, as well as an unimpeachable reputation. For how else would one establish trust among one’s colleagues if not by the use of one’s good name?”

 

“Of course. I pride myself on my adherence to the standards of conduct for Flumenarxi civil servants. It’s the only way that I will achieve my modest aims.” Hadrianus plays at a coy humbleness, refusing to look into the Magister’s face, as if that would be too presumptuous.

 

The Magister lowers his eyelids, thinking. Then he tips back in his chair and looks directly at the ambassador. The evaluation lasts seconds too long for comfort; Hadrianus shifts his attention into his shot glass. “Will you truly, though?” he inquires, sounding actually perplexed. “You wish to demonstrate your skill before me, I know, in the hope that I would then agree to mentor you.” He comes forward, his heavy eyelids hooding his eyes in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, their steady sharpness.

 

Hadrianus, now squirming a bit, looks away in true disquiet this time, though his tone never loses its even tenor. “I would never presume that you would have the time in your demanding affairs, much less the interest in such a minor functionary as I am, to devote to -- “

 

“I always welcome the chance to take on a promising young student, and I had hoped to offer you a place under my tutelage. However, your performance so far gives me reservation.”

 

The ambassador’s eyes bulge, but, to his credit, he remains otherwise composed. “Oh, I do apologize. I didn’t realize… If you’d be so kind, would you mind taking the time to tell me how I can improve?”

 

The Magister tells Hadrianus what a pain in the arse he is -- though, of course, he’s much too posh to use such a phrase. Frankly, he says, diplomats’ cardinal duty is to facilitate communication, for which parliamentary procedure is but one of the many tools at their disposal. Yet Hadrianus exploits these rules of order to ensure that the negotiations go nowhere. If Hadrianus seeks to prevent the peace, he has already failed, for it shall inevitably be arranged; only the details of the terms remain unsettled. Instead, Hadrianus succeeds only in annoying the Time Lords. “I myself find such interruptions unseemly,” the Magister adds, narrowing his eyes. “I am, after all, a Lord of Time, and I dislike having mine wasted.”

 

“Apologies, my Lord Master -- I hope -- “

 

“Since you have no doubt realized the gravity of your error, might you be interested in learning how to redeem yourself in my eyes?”

 

“Y -- “

 

“Of course you would. It’s really very simple. Observe. Analyze. Reflect. Learn. Which of the other ambassadors’ tactics would you do well to emulate? What would you do well to avoid? In the immediate future, if you would eventually follow in the footsteps of your superior Trix Curriendi, you might find it instructive to ask her how she arrived at her position. Finally, since I know you prefer to work with people of your own gender, seek an advisor amongst your fellow envoys on Terripluvium. There must be myriads of men on this planet who would consider it an honor to work with someone so gifted.”

 

Hadrianus scrutinizes the inside of his shot glass for a few seconds as he regulates his breathing, probably in the hopes of calming down his thumping heart. “Ah. Yes. Well.” He clears his throat again. “I really do thank you for your candor, my Lord Master. Your advice is...unexpected...and, um, challenging, but I am most grateful that you have shared it with me, especially when I have been rather unwittingly offensive to you. Again, I do beg -- “

 

The Magister might be pushing aside rosifolia pollen with the way that he flicks his wrist. “Such knowledge of whether one has caused offensive comes only after a wide-ranging experience.”

 

“But I -- “

 

“--While the knowledge of when it is best to speak and when to be silent may be picked up early enough.”

 

Hadrianus shuts up like a muted telly, his mouth still hanging loose. Alison knows that expression well from her own personal experience. He has an urgent question, but no idea of how long he should wait before trying it.

 

“Yes, what is it?” the Magister asks. Hadrianus worries that information about his obstructionism might reach beyond the walls of the audience chamber and harm his prospects. “Well, that all depends on you, now, doesn’t it?” Tracing the edges of his beard, the Magister is pretending to give this grave consideration. “If you obey me, I will assume that your earlier actions are but youthful indiscretions from which you have learned. If you do not… Well, I have a singular reputation, even among Time Lords, for making people believe what I tell them, so I’m sure that you can imagine of what I might be capable. But why should you waste time dwelling on such unpleasantness? You would much rather do as I say -- isn’t that so?”

 

The Magister’s implication of unpleasantness finally impresses upon Hadrianus that he has angered someone with the ability to kill his dearest ambitions. Alison can see him envisioning, in painful detail, all the more severe measures he might have experienced. Ah, the power of suggestion! “Yes…” says Hadrianus. “I… Thank you…”

 

“No, thank you, Hadrianus.” The Magister rises, ending the conference. “I gave you a harsh lesson just now, I know. While my words were not easy to hear, you listened with aplomb. Such sensibility and grace are the stuff of which great ambassadors are made, and I commend you.” He’s now herding Hadrianus out of the audience chamber. Alison stays behind to avoid any further obsequious blather.

 

As soon as the Magister comes back into the chamber, Alison rises from the tree-slice table. “You’re fucking awesome -- you know that? Well, of course, you know that -- it’s what makes you think your arrogance is perfectly justified. But that was some pretty awesome arse-kicking right there. I mean -- it was even better than I expected!

 

“At first I was so angry at him that I was hoping that you’d just crush him like a bug -- metaphorically, of course. But you did something different!” She bounces on the balls of her feet. “You told him he was stalling everything, but you also told him the truth about how he could improve. And you told him the truth about what he was good at too: being polite, keeping his cool, that sort of thing. Of course, there was definitely some intimidation in there, but some constructive criticism too, surprisingly enough. You kind of like him, don’t you? Or at least you weren’t lying when you told him he was promising and gifted.”

 

“I appreciate a person with acumen, creativity, and an enterprising mind. You know that very well, my dear, as it was those traits of yours, among others, that first caught my attention.” He lifts his chin at her in a confirming nod. “Now, I grant you, young Hadrianus has much less skill in using his power than you did even before I began to teach you. Yet I always have taken a fancy to those people in whom I see something of myself, no matter how much they have to learn.”

 

“Yeah,” mutters Alison, “particularly in the niceness and respect departments.” She rolls her eyes, then realizes that he’s watching her attentively, as if he awaits an answer to a question that she didn’t hear. “Um, sorry -- what did you say?”

 

“Nothing yet. I only wonder…” There’s a silence, and then the question comes out, almost a whisper, as if it’s hard to say: “Are you pleased?” He stands, but crouched forward a little, his eyebrows poised as if about to arch in alarm. One side of his mouth twists upwards, as if he kind of wants to smile, yet he’s pressing his lips together, so his mouth resembles a sideways question mark. Of all the expressions that she has seen move across his storytelling face, this is the first time that she has encountered his version of her own anticipatory flinchiness. Though he may easily compel the belief of others, he cannot convince himself that she will answer yes to his question.

 

“Hey…” Alison says. “Remember -- I’m the Domina, not the Doctor. I’ll be unhappy if you don’t do what I say, but I’ll never, ever turn you off for it.”

 

“Mmm,” he says, then asks with a small sour smile, “Is my fear so transparent?”

 

“You’re scared at the prospect of being turned off; I’m scared at the prospect of being yelled at. It makes sense that we’d worry that the same things would happen to us again. Abusive relationship things will do that to you.” Alison shrugs. “But you know, don’t you, that I’ll only make you apologize and do better the next time?”

 

“Do I know? Yes. Do I believe?” He sighs, pulling out a chair, about to sit.

 

“Aw, don’t deflate.” She catches his his hands when he’s halfway down and kind of hauls him up out of it. “Look -- we said we’d be truthful with each other. If I’m displeased, believe me -- you’ll know! But, like I said, that was pretty fucking awesome. Domina placita est!” She’s pretty sure that’s The Domina is pleased!

 

“Oh yes.” Stepping back from her, he bows deeply, a smirk tucked into the corner of his mouth. “In all things!”

 

“Wait...I missed something.”

 

“The use of the future passive participle along with esse as a copula imparts a deontic modality to the clause.”

 

“Deontic modality! How long have you been waiting to whip that phrase out in conversation? Oh yeah...it’s like Carthago delenda est -- Carthage must be destroyed. I just said The Domina must be pleased, didn’t I?”

 

“You did.”

 

“Well, I meant to say that I am pleased, but must be pleased also works too.”

 

“Hah!”

 

Chapter Text

After the Magister casts a spell of silence on the annoying Ter Praedius, the talks continue at a much more tolerable pace. Alison takes a rest at first, since even being a spectator at such an intense arse-kicking has fatigued her. But the Magister assures her, both in the next day’s recess and at the end of the session, that the culprit is actually shutting up and letting the Schuaschen delegates talk. In fact, the Agricole have agreed to release all those Schuaschen currently imprisoned in pots and gardens -- after, of course, they assure themselves that the Schuaschen facilities for the infirm and crippled [the insulting Agricole phrase] meet their standards. Of course, right after this agreement, Commander Effischischa said, We cultivate ourselves to our own standards, Trix Curriendi, not yours. Thus Alison and the Magister agree that, while the Schuaschen will definitely be freed, those bullshit inspections are going nowhere.

 

Once restored, Alison returns to the audience chamber, wondering if the talk could resolve within a week, the Magister’s original allotment of time. Not a chance. She sits down and immediately discovers that the Schuaschen and the Agricole have ground to a standstill on the agenda’s most controversial items: first, full moral, legal, and social equality between the two peoples and, second, territory on Crescior designated specifically for a Schuaschen homeland. To be precise, it’s Trix Curriendi who’s bogging down on the implications of moral equality. The assumption of such between the two peoples, she argues, posits that the Schuaschen are as good as the Agricole when everyone knows that they aren’t.

 

Alison makes a critical synthesis of Trix Curriendi’s argument on her notepad: Blah blah blah, bullshit, blah blah blah, temper tantrum of denial when called out, blah blah, the oppressor’s delicate feelings are hurt, blah blah, and they’ll keep on going off on tangents forever. If you think this is bad, bring up the Schuaschen territory question. I guarantee they’ll dig in and whinge harder. We’ll be here for six fucking years. The Magister reads her analysis, gives one of his subtle, definite nods, then, at the next natural break in Trix Curriendi’s rant half an hour later, calls a recess.

 

Sequestering themselves in a smaller conference room, Alison and the Magister strategize. He asks her what she suggests, since she clearly has more experience with this type of bullshit [although he doesn’t use that word]. Alison doesn’t immediately have an answer. She has spent every moment of her waking life parsing bullshit power plays because that’s what she needs to do to get by. She can call out ploys and tactics on the computer screen and the telly. She can dissect them with her doll club friends when they’re done lamenting that fashion dolls of color come in only two shades: light tan and slightly darker light tan. She’s forever identifying the injustices of the world, but mentally or at least privately, since she’s used to being ignored. Even though she and the Magister are in on this together, she still stops short when someone other than a woman of color takes her insights seriously.

 

“Does it not stand to reason, though,” says the Magister, “that, if there are those who have mastered what you call bullshit, there may also be a mistress of its dismantling and destruction?”

 

“Isn’t that giving me way too much power, though?” says Alison. “I’m just -- “

 

“Pray do not belittle yourself. I know that you have not always had the power in your life that you have either wanted or needed, especially in recent days. Now, though, and here, you are my good Domina, and you are free to use the formidable power that you have indeed developed. Will you not do so?”

 

“Okay,” Alison says decisively, punching her fist into her palm. “Fuck yeah I will!”

 

Alison opines that, as much as she and the Magister are trying to limit their intervention, this is another case where mediation requires action. They obviously can’t intimidate the senior Agricole ambassador into ending the bigotry and behaving reasonably. But they can put some hard limits on the discussion topics: no philosophical debates, no semantic discussions, no debates on the nature of the Schuaschen and/or Agricole. The only permissible topics are concrete ones related to the immediate feasibility of the agenda items.

 

On the subject of the last two and most controversial agenda items, Alison next proposes a change to their treatment. Instead of mediating final discussions on Schuaschen-Agricole equality and a Schuaschen homeland in the next few days, she and the Magister should change tactics. Rather they should help the delegates schedule separate rounds of talks, one for each subject, in the near future. Any progress that the delegates have made so far in discussing equality may be incorporated into a provisional agenda. And, of course, they could always drop some serious hints that the Council expects the delegates to adhere to the timetable or else there will be consequences, the dire nature of which is best left to supposition. The Magister likes this idea, so, thus equipped, they return to mediation.

 

Three days later, at the conclusion of the first ever Schuaschen-Agricole peace talks, Alison is on the verge of yet again abandoning carefully drafted remarks. She’s trying for an improvisational valedictory, though she frankly does not know how much of an impression she has been making with her calculated candor. Indeed, she thinks that any success arising from these talks must be credited to the Magister, who, as a meticulous follower of rules, has been chairing pretty damn well for an evil robot. [Okay, maybe her dirt digging on Ter Praedius, her occasional sarcastic notes about Trix Curriendi’s derailments, and her advice on reformatting the last two agenda topics helped a little bit too.] But she has her assignments, and she’s going to make the most of them.

 

She takes stock of her audience. Once she and the Magister revised the agenda, advising the delegates to use the remaining days to set out a timeline for talks on the last two topics, they did so briskly. Well, Commander Effschischa, Loriischi, and Trix Curriendi did. Ter Praedius provided two pieces of irrelevant input before the Magister stared him into silence every successive time he tried to open his mouth. THANK YOU, Alison wrote to the Magister on her note pad.

 

Alison herself feels a lethargy of relief at the culmination of the talks, and her weariness seems reflected on the faces of most in attendance. Though the commander’s attitude remains sharp and alert, Loriischi’s smile is looking a little forced. Trix Curriendi just appears serious, with dark stains of sleeplessness under her eyes. Almina, having run out of nervous twitches and things to goggle at, sits quietly in her chair, done at least with the Agricole’s record of things, while the indefatigable Uscheschua still writes away. Alison is pleased to note that the culprit [that is, Ter Praedius] sits notably lower in his chair than at the beginning. She hopes that he has an attack of shame and slithers under the table to hide. Only the Magister, arms stretched out in front of him, hands interlaced on the table, retains the air of superiority and equanimity with which he began.

 

“So now,” says Alison, her eyes alighting for a moment on each person as she scans the room, “that we’ve reached the conclusion of the work we gathered here for, I want to thank you, on behalf of the High Council of Time Lords of Gallifrey, for inviting us. You took a chance, both on agreeing to compromise with each other and also on permitting us to help in the brokerage of your peace.

 

“I have absolutely no illusions that your discussions here have truly changed your distrust and dislike for each other into respect, but you can’t eradicate prejudice in less than a week. Besides, as much as it would be great for all people of Crescior to live in peace and equality, that wasn’t really the point of these talks. You came together to agree on concrete, practical actions -- or at least a schedule for their development -- to improve your day-to-day relations. And you did just that. So thank you.

 

“Right...so I said when we started that, even though the Schuaschen and the Agricole couldn’t agree on fundamental bases of philosophy, at least you were united in your love of the land. So these talks were a challenge to prove how much you truly care for the island that you hold in common. And you’ve set aside your differences enough to agree that your land must be healed and that, what’s more, you must be the ones to heal it. Again -- thank you.

 

“Now you start the long labor of repairing what has broken between your two peoples,” Alison says, beginning to wrap up. “Now you start restoring your land, your home, your lives, your future. This isn’t the end at all; this isn’t even the end of the beginning. It’s like...the beginning of the beginning, the planting of a seed that, if you tend it carefully and in collaboration, will bear the fruit that all of you and the land of Crescior need.”

 

She sits down, and the tired delegates perk up, realizing that they have been formally dismissed. They gather their supplies, all except for Uscheschua, who’s still writing down absolutely everything, and go through an elaborate leave-taking. Everyone thanks everyone individually, as in some sort of Moebius strip receiving line, clasping hands, looking into each other’s eyes, and bullshitting about what a pleasure it was to work with each other in the accomplishment of such noble deeds.

 

“Alison,” says Loriischi, “again please know how grateful I am that your High Council agreed to provide us the shelter of your branches so that we could safely deal with our Agricole colleagues. Your gracious extension of your most esteemed canopy over our activities here gives me confidence deep in my heartwood that, as you said, our efforts will plant in most fertile soil, seed, bud, flourish, and become a forest of good for us and for our future. From the way that you spoke about us and our land, I know that you at least comprehend how important, indeed, how vital, this shared ground is, not only to us Schuaschen, but also to the Agricole, and I am greatly pleased that the Council sent representatives whose taproots sink deep into the right soil. I hope that all your future endeavors flower and bear fruit like this one, but I do not need to hope, for I know that, with your eloquence and understanding, they will.”

 

“Um…” says Alison. “I… Thanks, Loriischi.”

 

“Time Lord Cheney,” says Commander Effschischa, “you and the Time Lord Master truly are useful allies. I believe we have done some good here.”

 

Alison returns the nod, saying only, “Indeed.”

 

“Time Lord Cheney,” says Trix Curriendi [with a sniff of course], “on behalf of the city of Flumenarx, I extend my thanks to you and the Lord Master of Time. Your mediation allayed my concerns by demonstrating that both parties to these talks are capable of intelligent discussion and reasonable compromise.” She goes off into a combination of platitudes and backhanded compliments about how the Schuaschen exceeded her expectations by showing themselves capable of rational thought. Alison grits her teeth, nods, smiles, and thinks that the senior Agricole ambassador must be one of the most miserable people on the planet, especially if she thinks everyone else is out to attack her with their ignorance. Finally Trix Curriendi finishes up: “I am also pleased the my apprehension over off-planet mediators proved groundless as well. You seem to have an understanding of our unique culture and values. My thanks again.”

 

“You’re welcome,” says Alison. “I’ve learned so much from working with you.” It’s true, and it’s also all that she can manage to politely say to this woman who she intensely dislikes.

 

And here’s the culprit, trying his hardest not to look like the Magister just handed his arse to him. He launches into a speech more long-winded and much less sincere than Loriischi’s, and Alison takes the opportunity to let precisely none of it into her ears. Eventually he shuts up; she says thank you, and -- finally! -- he fucks off for good.

 

“Time Lord -- Trix -- Al -- “ Almina, who Alison told to call her by her first time, stumbles on titles and eventually settles upon, “Trix Cheney, you’re very gracious and polite, and I’m really glad that I got to work with you and actually meet you and -- ahem. Thank you. I hope, um…” She glances over at the Agricole ambassadors, who now confer with the Magister. “I hope that the information I gave you was helpful,” she finally says in a low voice.

 

“Definitely!” says Alison. “What you told me was instrumental in figuring out how to, um, adjust the proceedings to make them go more efficiently. That was extremely helpful, so thank you.”

 

“Time Tree Cheney!” Suddenly Uscheschua has Alison in her arms.

 

“Please,” says Alison, looking up into her friend’s shining brown face, “you can call me Alison.”

 

“Oh! Good! I kept saying Ellischuan in my head,” says Uscheschua, again turning Alison’s name into a lovely susurrus as of breezy leaves, “but I didn’t want to let it out of my mouth because I didn’t know if using it would make you think that I thought you were just a sprout or something.” She smiles and moves closer to Alison, her branches creating a green bower of secrecy about them both. “Ellischuan, will you call me Uscheschua?”

 

“Yes, yes, yes!” Alison wants to kiss her, but thinks that might breach some sort of protocol. “I’ve been doing that in my head anyway. Uscheschua…” she says, hugging her so tightly that she can lean her head upon Uscheschua’s breast.

 

“Ellischuan…” says Uscheschua. “Please, before you leave,” she whispers in English, “will you come to see me?”


“I...I...can’t -- I mean, for my own safety, the Council prefers that I stay on the ship,” Alison says, “but I would be greatly honored if it would be possible for you to come here again so that we could see each other.” She and Uscheschua hold each other tightly, just as closely as Alison has always wished to be held, and then the delegates are gone, leaving Alison alone with the Magister.

Chapter Text

In the TARDIS’ control room now, Alison props herself against the central console, permitting her eyelids to relax. She feels gravity pulling her head down, and she thinks that she could sleep straight through just as many days as she has spent in talks.

 

“Mea Domina!” says the Magister, his whisper sharp with excitement.

 

She opens her eyes, and they join hands. She smiles a slow, slumbrous smile. “Magister…” she says, though without the energy to add an exclamation point. She wants to say more, but all her Latin is apparently taking a nap [as she herself really should be doing. All she can think to do is to thank him, so she opens her mouth.

 

“Master! Alison!” Before she can speak, someone interrupts her and the Magister with the wrong names. She and he straighten, all but thrusting each other’s hands from them, as the Doctor appears, framed in the doorway.

 

Alison and the Magister stare rather blankly at the Doctor. They’re back to their usual non-allergic self: cadaverously pale and scrawny as usual, but breathing, moving, and speaking without obstruction. Having gained their audience’s attention, they take one step forward into a shaft of light, assuring that they’re properly illuminated.

 

“In my stars I / am above thee,” they declaim, “but be not afraid of greatness.” Spreading out their arms as if dispensing benedictions, they speak in an exaggeratedly lofty tone, their eyes all crinkled up with glee. “Some / are born great, some achieve greatness, and some / have greatness thrust upon ‘em.

 

“Now the Master,” the Doctor continues, crossing the room, “believes that he was born great, only to attain greater, uh, greatness by dint of his own heroic efforts. Meanwhile, Alison believes that she has gained any power that she has only through her own solitary struggle. I really have to commend you both, though.” They clap one hand on the Magister’s shoulder, one on Alison’s. “You performed very well on the stage upon which I thrust you.”

 

Call me a robot if you like, Alison remembers the Magister saying, but never the Doctor’s robot, or toy, machine, computer, or anything of the sort. Yet now the Doctor, in saying that they shoved both Alison and the Magister under the spotlight for a command performance, implies that both of them are their playthings. “We performed?” She pulls from the Doctor’s grip.  “What do you mean?”

 

The Magister likewise draws back with an almost reflexive shudder of his shoulders. “Frankenstein,” he explains to Alison, his voice remote and still, “labors under the misapprehension that we are their creature with which they may toy for their own ends.”

 

“No!” The Doctor laughs. “That’s not what I said.”

 

“It’s what you meant,” Alison points out.

 

They ignore her. “I just meant that you both did exactly what I hoped that you would. I’m so pleased!” They clasp their hands.

 

“You mean how we took over the diplomatic mission?” Alison guesses. “Well, the mission kind of came to us -- I mean, Uscheschua -- the Schuaschen -- did. We couldn’t very well sit there and do nothing -- or, even worse, turn them away. We had to help them!”

 

“Yes! Exactly! With your compassionate hearts, Alison, and the Master’s clever mind, you two have not only completed the mission, but you have also overcome your disagreements. Well,” the Doctor says with a chuckle, “I certainly didn’t plan on becoming deathly ill from rosifolia pollen, but I soon realized that I had the perfect opportunity to help you along.”

 

“Indeed,” says the Magister, his voice as sharp and cold as the highest mountain in the world. “You have rendered me invaluable assistance by absenting yourself, for now I know the insupportability of our current situation.”

 

“You didn’t help us do shit!” Alison tells the Doctor. “You hid out in the Zero Room, pretending to be in a fucking coma -- “

 

“I didn’t pretend!”

 

“You did! I saw you. The Magister kept trying to wake you up, but you kept going back under again on purpose.” Crossing her arms, she glares right into their eyes. “You ran away, Doctor; you hid; you abandoned us. You did the absolute opposite of helping by leaving two horribly unqualified people in a morass way out of our depth.”

 

“Ah yes,” says the Doctor, “but all’s well that ends well. You two are friends now -- as you should have been all along!”

 

Alison and the Magister exchange a glance. While the Magister may be able to control his voice, he cannot do the same with his face. His brows squashed, mouth twisted, he contorts all his features in rage, yet Alison knows that none of his fury is for her. She feels her own face falling open in shock, even as she’s curling her lip and flaring her nose ferociously.

 

“What the fuck, Doctor?” she says, wheeling on them. “There’s no way we should have always been friends. He’s an evil psychic alien super-powered robot with master’s degrees in Bullshit Studies and mind-fucking. I’m a non-evil, non-psychic, non-super-powered, non-robotic person who’s just been mind-fucked twice in exactly the same way that he mind-fucks people. If you had any sense at all, you wouldn’t expect us to become friends, much less trust each other. You wouldn’t even expect us to voluntarily make eye contact!

 

“If you had any sense,” she goes on, “you’d expect him to be plotting how to mind-fuck me and me going out of my head with panic because I’d be trying to maintain my mental integrity. You would have never left the two of us alone together because you would have actually given a flying fuck about my safety and my happiness, but you don’t.

 

“I don’t know what you care about,” she says, throwing up her arms, “but it’s not me; it’s not the Schuaschen; it’s not the Agricole. I don’t even think you care about the Magister, since you yourself did your very own mind-fuck on him. You cut down his world so that it was only the size of you, then told him that he could neither die nor leave. You told him that you wanted him, but not as a person. You just wanted a puppet, and the only way you permitted him to survive was if he let you do to him whatever you wanted. That’s non-consensual objectification, compelled obedience, dehumanization, de-Time-Lord-ification. Whatever you want to call it, it’s wrong, and you,” she says, pointing at the Doctor, “are nothing but a Master of Bullshit!”

 

“Besides,” adds the Magister, “who are you, my dear Doctor Frankenstein, to obligate anything that I possess, my thoughts and sentiments least of all? You are the one whose foolish hearts always go out to your human pets, not I.”

 

“Excuse me?” Alison cries. “You,” she says to the Magister, barely able to get the word out between her grinding teeth. “C’mon.” She tilts her head toward the door and strides out into the hallway.

 

The Magister follows in her footsteps, stopping short, so that he doesn’t run into Alison, who has turned back quickly on him, arms folded. “Domina, what is it?” He falls back a step so that he can search her face. “I have offended you.”

 

“Wow, you’re good. Ya think?”

 

“Tell me how I have wronged you.”

 

“No, you tell me how you have wronged me. Remember when I introduced you to Uscheschua as the Doctor’s robot? This is like that, only now you’re the one who has named me wrong.”

 

She can see him thinking, taking her literally, reviewing his recent utterances for any insult he has directed toward her. “Have I misnamed you?”

 

“That thing -- that thing you called me just now to the Doctor’s face!” Alison waves her hand toward the control room door. “I don’t even want to say it out loud….” Holding her arms against her belly, she begins to shake. Ugh, why does her body choose this particular moment to betray her and go dizzy?

 

“Oh…” Fortunately she doesn’t have to say it because he figures it out. “No, no, no. I did not mean that you were the Doctor’s pet. You belong to no one except yourself. Yet the Doctor, as I’m sure they themselves have told you, forms these foolish attachments, always to humans, to people with such short lives, who break and die, and I cannot stop -- “

 

“Tace.” She can’t even snap at him; she just says it in a squashed, shaky voice.

 

He stops.

 

“Are you done with the self-pity?” She turns his own words back on him.

 

Being smart about it, like she was, he realizes that any answer will incriminate him, so he says nothing.

 

“We had an agreement,” Alison says, staring at the TARDIS floor. “You never promised to love me or even be my friend, but you promised to respect me. You were never going to use your mind-fucking power on me, which you haven’t. But, more than that, you were going to treat me with dignity and kindness and politeness because it was right. You wanted to do right so that I would be whole and happy and unbroken, and you swore that you would.”

 

Fuck. Alison feels tears well in her lower eyelids. They’d better not fall. But her headache now pulses, and she really just wants to collapse and dissolve…. Just for a moment, she closes her eyes before continuing: “Respect doesn’t just happen between you and me, the Domina and the Magister, where we speak and listen and do what the other wants within reason. If you respect me, then you respect me all the time: when we’re meeting with Uscheschua, when we’re presenting to the Flumenarxi, when you and me and the Doctor are talking, and even when I’m not around, in the privacy of your own thoughts! But you forgot that I was there just now, and you misnamed me what you did.

 

“You -- you liar! You traitor!” She still can’t look at him -- her head feels too heavy -- but she forces her voice into steadiness. “You said you’d always tell me the truth -- you required the same of me -- and you broke your own terms. You’ve been hiding from me how little you really think of me. You’ve been lying to me all along. Audio atque cedo -- pffffft! You have never respected me at all.”

 

“May I speak?”

 

“Are you going to say anything good?”

 

“Did I...break you?”

 

“Me? No, because I still have my integrity and self-respect, even if you’ve lost yours by being so mean. What you broke was any trust between us. What you broke was our agreement.”

 

“Domina carissima, dearest mistress of mine, please -- “

 

“No! Please -- don’t call me that. We said -- you agreed -- that the Domina is equal to the Magister in power and responsibility. But you don’t believe that. You can’t give me a name that you don’t believe in.”

 

He gives a long, slow sigh. “Please -- “

 

“Tace! Just -- stop. Don’t try.”

 

“As you wish, D -- Miss Cheney.”

 

“I’m going to my room -- alone.”

 

“I will let the Doctor know not to disturb you. Do you need anything?”


Someone to hold me and love me and tell me the truth, Alison thinks. Hugging herself because there’s no one else to do so, Alison shakes her head no and hurries off to her room.

Chapter Text

Even though Alison desperately wishes to call Uscheschua to her, she is too sick with rage and grief over what the Doctor said -- and then what he said -- to do more than sleep and eat for the next day or so. She keeps herself in her room, which she is able to do because, even though he has been cruelly disrespectful, he at least has enough sense to regularly leave food outside the door. That way she can sustain her privacy without having to deal with either him or the Doctor.

 

Finally Alison feels like she might be able to leave her room and call Uscheschua -- or open a channel with her or whatever. She uses TARDIS TV to make sure that the hallways where she wants to go are free of both him and the Doctor.

 

Shit! There he is in the control room. But wait! Is that… Uscheschua’s here! What’s he saying to her? Alison tunes in.

 

“I have gravely offended your Miss Cheney,” he speaks to Uscheschua, the two of them standing by the center console. “She has told me that she must have time by herself, and yet she feels lonely for a solace that neither I nor the Doctor can provide. I have seen the affection between the two of you -- your presence would comfort her greatly. --Not immediately, of course, since she must be sleeping now, but, perhaps, when she wakes, would you -- “

 

“Uscheschua!” Alison calls.

 

The TARDIS turns the monitor into a two-way radio, and Uscheschua hears her name. She looks around the console room, her branches quivering with anticipation. “Ellischuan! Ellischuan, where are you?” she cries in English. “Come to see me!”

 

“Wait -- wait -- I’m right here -- I’m coming!” Alison bounces up from her bed and races down the hall. She runs through the console room door…

 

--And right into Uscheschua’s arms. “Ellischuan!” Uscheschua pulls Alison to her, and Alison wraps her arms around Uscheschua in return. “I am so very happy to come to see you, Ellischuan,” Uscheschua says in English, “wood of my heart, taproot of my body, mate of my grove.”

 

But Alison does not feel safe yet, not with him watching, not when the Doctor could enter at any second. “C’mon, Uscheschua, please,” Alison whispers to her. “Let’s go to my room.” Taking both of Uscheschua’s hands, she pulls her away from the control room and him so that she doesn’t even have to see him out of her peripheral vision.

 

The two of them go into Alison’s room, along with the only other TARDIS passenger permitted entry into the sanctum at this time: the jade-colored cat. Alison and Uscheschua sit on the bed, leaning against the headboard, pillows at their backs. The jade cat rears up under Alison’s hands so that she might receive her requisite hourly quota of head scritches. Once satisfied, she rubs her face on Uscheschua, marking her as under her protection just as much as is Alison. The cat then rolls and wriggles all over Uscheschua’s legs, not leaving scent this time, but luxuriating in a back massage on the wonderfully rough surface of Uscheschua’s bark.

 

“This moss ball likes me!” exclaims Uscheschua in English. “It is making my trunks pet it.”

 

“Well, yeah.” Alison puts one arm around Uscheschua’s back and presses up against her. Her skin is not splintery or lumpy or anything, more like textured, as if a fine-grained sandpaper. Her wood is sturdy, but her bark feels soft. Alison wishes that she could always hold onto her and feel her strength. “That’s because everyone likes you. You’re amazing and wonderful.”

 

Uscheschua stiffens in Alison’s grasp. “Ellischuan...I wanted to come to see you because...I need to tell you something. I need to tell you the truth… I have hidden something from you, and it has been a blight inside me. You are such a lofty tree, with such a generous canopy that you will offer to anyone and a strong, true heartwood, while I…” Her branches all droop downward.

 

“Awww, Uscheschua, what’s wrong?” Alison cuddles her closer.

 

“Well, I am an ambassador in truth now, but…” Uscheschua sighs, switching to Schuaschen for her story. “When I accepted sanctuary from you, I was not. I have been a part of the Schuelle and the Flower Grove for nearly all of my life. I have only ever been a communications specialist, though, working on the communications rootmass with the guidance of Grower Publivocis. I had never done anything ambassadorial when you saved me, so...our lellayschiiya… It was built upon rotten wood from the beginning.”

 

And Uscheschua tells Alison what he learned much earlier and then told Alison. Uscheschua, without formal diplomatic imprimatur, had been communicating unofficially with Gallifreyan fans of Grower Publivocis. Trading on the popularity of Publivocis’ impassioned broadcasts on behalf of Schuaschen civil rights, Uscheschua’s communiques asked Publivocis’ Time Lord fans to extend their support of Publivocis to include her favorite cause. One fan replied, saying that they would pass Uscheschua’s plea to a relative on the High Council, and so Uscheschua assumed that Alison had come in response. She wanted peace so badly that she misrepresented herself as an official diplomat of the Schuelle and entered into a lellayschiiya with Alison under false pretenses. She begs Alison to understand that she did so without malice, but only with the best of intentions. However, she knows that Alison, being such an upstanding tree, will certainly -- and rightly -- condemn her as --

 

“Uscheschua! Uscheschua, stop!” Alison interrupts before Uscheschua’s dramatic self-abasement descends any further. “Please -- look at me.” As Uscheschua turns to her, branches still hanging low, Alison says, “I know that you’re sad and that you didn’t tell me the truth, but don’t worry. It’s okay. I’m not angry at you at all.”

 

“Really?” Uscheschua perks up. “Oh, Ellischuan…”

 

“You maybe did something under false pretenses, but you acted out of the goodness of your heart -- I mean, because you really are a noble tree with a kind and sheltering canopy. And nobody caught you, and you didn’t make any mistakes, and you became a true ambassador, doing what you’ve always wanted to do.” Alison, beginning to smile, gives Uscheschua an encouraging squeeze.

 

“But...our lellayschiiya… It is a bond that forms the root of our people, and I sank it into soil contaminated with lies.” Looking down again, Uscheschua concentrates on petting the jade cat.

 

“So maybe you lied about your authority, but your lie became the truth, so it wasn’t a lie anymore. And the lie that you told, the power that you pretended that you had -- all of that became real. Your power became true, and you helped to plant the seeds of peace between the Schuaschen and the Agricole. Uscheschua, don’t you see?” Alison grins. “You didn’t break our contract at all; in fact, you did everything you could to fulfill the terms. I mean -- I know your twigs are really rustled by this, but...I guess...don’t think of it as a huge windstorm; it’s more like...a mild breeze.”

 

Uscheschua is silent for a little bit. Then she raises her head and does rustle her twigs, but as if to shake much of the sadness from them. “You are truly a kind tree, Ellischuan -- you see all the light, even in the shadows.”

 

“Yeah...well…” Alison chuckles a bit. “I suppose that it’s all kind of self-justification since I misrepresented myself kind of in the same way you did.”

 

“Oh?” Swiping a handful of green branches from her face, Uscheschua cocks her head at Alison. “You too were not an ambassador, but you have become one anyway?”

 

“Pretty much,” says Alison. And she tells Uscheschua much the same story. Without any diplomatic experience beyond the compassion she felt for Uscheschua, she made promises of ambassadorial resolution to the Schuaschen-Agricole conflict that she had no business to make. But her colleague supported her pretense, and so she rose to the challenge, both because she believed in the rightness of the cause and because he believed in her rightness for the position.

 

“I wish I could have told you the truth earlier,” she mutters, “but I didn’t know if it would jeopardize the mission.” She tries to keep tears back, but they just trickle down into her nose and become snots.

 

“That was the same reason I didn’t tell you,” Uscheschua says softly, putting her arm around Alison. “Don’t you know that, in war, sometimes trees have to tell little lies in service of greater truths?”

 

“Yeah...but...I still feel horrible about it, especially because...well...I like you so much.” The tears make her eyes feel so heavy. “I wanted more than anything to do right by you and the rest of the Schuaschen; that’s why I held my tongue. I know that it’s no excuse, but I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I’m sorry if I did. All my feelings for you are true, though. And...and now that there’s a break in the power plays, I just want to cut the bullshit and be honest.”

 

“Oh...your sap is running!” cries Uscheschua. “But...but...you are a wonderful tree, and I am not hurt at all. You are the wood of my heart and the mate of my grove, the one with whom I want to interchange sympathies necessary for both of our beings.”

 

“Is that [sniff] love?” says Alison, leaning her head on Uscheschua’s breast. “Because I like you and love you.”

 

“Yes,” whispers Uscheschua, switching to English. “This is love; this is what we say when we love someone. I want to grow next to you always and provide good soil for your taproot. I want to shelter your canopy with mine. I want to do everything I can to make you bloom and flower and bear fruit. I want to be with you because you are a good tree and you make me happy. I love you, Ellischuan.”

 

Alison is sobbing now. “I...I...I love you too. Please, Uscheschua, all I want is...is...for someone to hold me. Please hold me. Hold me fast...please.”

 

“Yes, yes, yes! You gave me sanctuary when I was alone and scared; now I give you shelter.” Uscheschua pulls Alison into her lap and wraps both arms around her. Her grip enfolds Alison tight, providing security against the expectations of the world. Of course, since she is a tree, Alison hears no pulse when she presses her ear up to Uscheschua’s moss-enrobed chest. But she does not need such a human sound to give her comfort.

 

Finally, at long last, Alison has her dream -- someone holds her. Someone lets her set aside her burdens and her power and her strength, even if only for a moment. Someone lets her be quiet, still, tearful. Someone doesn’t expect her to be strong, bearing all the weight of the past, the present, and the future. She doesn’t need to be a fighter here; she doesn’t need to be a Strong Black Woman; she doesn’t need to be tough because Uscheschua loves her all the same. Alison cries because she is relieved; she cries because she is happy; she cries because, for the first time since she has stepped onto the TARDIS, she is safe.

 

Chapter Text

Eventually feeling ready to talk to him, Alison searches all over the ship for him with no luck. The TARDIS herself doesn’t know where he is; neither does Scintilla. The Doctor’s abstracted response to her question -- Oh, the Master is well occupied elsewhere at the moment -- at first irritates her. But then she begins to doubt. She told him to leave her alone; she told him not to even try. Is he avoiding her, hiding from her, punishing her?

 

After nearly a week, she wonders if she’ll never see him again. But then, one evening, she paces down the hall by the Doctor’s lab and she hears a sound somewhere between the wail of a baby, the call of a bird, and the howl of a cat. It comes at intervals, interspersed with rustling, scratching noises.

 

She hastens toward the noise and approaches the oaken, iron-banded door of the Doctor’s lab. One of the fabled winged library cats hovers before the door on bat-like wings, crying. The cat is smaller than the wingless variety, the size of a kitten, but adult in proportions. She switches her tail in distress, clawing at the wood. Alison clicks her tongue at the cat. “Awwww, what’s wrong?”

 

The cat swoops around and looks at her with big yellow eyes in a lean, sphinx-like face. Then she hurries to Alison and orbits her, nudging her waist, bumping her shoulders, tapping her head up under Alison’s hand. Then she flies to the door, then looks backward expectantly for Alison. Her meows become shorter and less mournful. “Now? Now? Now?”

 

“You want me to go in?”

 

“Now! Now!”

 

“Okay, okay! Well, I have to see if it’s unlocked.” She tests the knob, which turns with oiled silence in her hands. It’s chilly beneath her fingers as she enters the Doctor’s workspace.

 

Lights snap on automatically over her head, revealing a room of black tile floors, white counters, mirrored ceilings, and machinery mixed with greenery. Down from the tops of cabinets spill ropey brown lianas, side by side with wires insulated in a rainbow of colors of plastic. Under a bank of full-spectrum lights, miniature citrus trees waft out the punchy scents of lime and orange, while a skinless hand points upward among them, the metal branches of its fingers bearing no fruit of their own. Somehow there’s grass pushing up in between the tiles; when she steps on it, it crunches juicily down, lying flat next to the discarded fiber optic cables that litter the floor like the artificial analogues of the blades. Trunks of both kinds line the walls: rough and living ones of trees, speckled with lichen, as well as the metallic ones of automatons, their casings open and empty. Though she knows a robot who is a person, as well as trees who are people, Alison sees no people here -- except, in some sense, for the Doctor, as this room is the external representation of their clever, chaotic, and endlessly creative mind.

 

She realizes that the cat is calling her now from the far end of the lab. She runs to the counter where the cat paces back and forth behind something, her wings shivering, her voice akin to weeping.

 

Alison glances down at the counter and sees a face, eyeless, toothless, and completely still. It doesn’t make sense to her, just as her grandma’s face didn’t make sense to her when she saw her body at the viewing. All the quickness and character effaced, this is a death mask. The deep arcing wrinkles on the forehead have dwindled to faint lines without the musculature to move them. The shadowed lids fall limp like uninflated balloons without the eyeballs to give them shape. The mouth is a drooping slit without speech or power. The overripe smell issuing from the nearby plants starts to stink of decay.

 

As she stares at the lifeless thing, it moves, forming a word with exaggerated distinction. Hello. Then there’s a pause in which the mouth closes for just a split second. Miss. Pause. Cheney.

Alison clamps both of her hands over her mouth. There’s a scream at her lips, but she won’t let it out.

 

I hear you, says the death mask voicelessly. Talk to me.

 

“Doctor… Is this some sick fucking joke?”

The mouth forms each word slowly, ensuring that she can lip-read. No, I am the Master.

Unable to quit staring at the twitching thing, Alison feels a sound leak out from her. It’s a sort of aching moan, maybe the start of a sob, maybe the start of a scream.

 

Talk to me!

 

That can’t be all that’s left of him. “If you’re really...who you say you are, then tell me...tell me...tell me the word we used to stop things.”

Tace.

“Are you...broken? Please don’t be broken!”

 

I am never broken, only purposely bound.

 

She can’t remove her sight from the thing before her to seek out where the other parts might be. “In...pieces?”

 

Yes.

 

“How do you know it’s me? Can you see me?”

No. I feel your step.

“You can’t speak?”

I cannot move, nor speak, nor see. I have only my auditory functions.

 

“But then how are you making the...uh...the thing move?”

 

Telekinesis.

“I, um, was looking for you. I wanted to talk to you.”

Yes, please talk to me!

“I mean -- I wanted to talk with you.”

I can do that, though I have no voice. Now bring me my face.

“But...one of your hard limits...”

 

Please, my dear Miss Cheney -- please, please, please... And it forms that word over and over again, as if on automatic, with no hope of an answer.

 

Alison shuts her eyes. “Okay! Yes! I will! Just...please -- stop begging!”

 

She opens her eyes. The thing is still. Before she loses her nerve, she takes it up, holding the sides with splayed fingers. On the other side of the flesh is a cold metal plate, and she turns the thing face down so that she doesn’t have to witness its deadness. “Where...are you?” Realizing that she’ll have to look at it again to see the answer, she quickly flips it over.

 

Imp -- the cat -- is flying around my head.

 

Imp calls from a shadowed corner: “Now, now, now!” She’s circling something that is suspended from the ceiling by cables.

 

Carrying the death mask, Alison approaches the other thing, which sways slightly as Imp makes her turns. It’s a bust, everything below the sternum neatly detached as if at an invisible joint line, the arms disassembled smoothly from the shoulders like a mannequin’s. And it has a raw face, with starting, lidless eyes, teeth that look as bare as fangs, and electronic innards open to the air. But Alison forces herself to examine it carefully. “How do I put the...your...back on?”

 

The plate is magnetic. It should snap into place.

 

Hands shaking, shoulders lifted up by her ears, Alison places the death mask upon the raw corpse head. There’s a satisfying snap of magnets locking home, the barely audible whir of machinery, and then he comes back to life. The face turns from a flat, dead hide into his again, even though his eyes are blank and lightless. He raises his eyebrows. His fine, arching nostrils flare in relief, though he has no breath. He swallows, and his mouth curves around his teeth, then opens a minuscule amount in a silent sigh. Thank you.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Yes,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “Why -- Why are you like this?”

Occupati eram.

“Occupation? What?”

Latin. Occupati eram.

Literally, I have been occupied. More generally, I have been invaded, possessed, used. Though this end of the lab is farther away from the riotous foliage, the scent thereof hangs palpably. It smells of rot. “The Doctor?”

A lowering of lids in assent.

“Why?”

Lex talionis.

This air is almost too thick to breathe, and it tastes repulsive with ever indignant breath she sucks in. “ Tit for tat isn’t a law! I’m gonna go kick the Doctor’s arse right -- “

No.

“Why not? Give me one good reason -- and no, And you will obey me doesn’t work.”

I would speak to you. Stay. Please.

“I couldn’t find you all this week. I know that I said, Stop. Don’t even try, but...you hid on me!” She pushes down her sob.

A vehement shake of the head. I would never hide from you. I was hidden. Occupati eram.

“For a week -- in pieces -- hung up -- like this? What the fuck is the Doctor’s problem?”

It is I.

“What’s that supposed to mean? That’s bullshit. The Doctor is just a sadistic control freak!”

As am I.

“So?” Her voice rises, sharpening, as if the very tone might cut through the stench. “I am too, but I still don’t leave people helpless in the dark for a week. And I know other sadistic control freaks, and they don’t do the same to me. You know why? --Because we make up rules beforehand about what we can and can’t do, how to start and how to stop, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and then we fucking stick to them because we fucking respect each other.”

I already know that I have wronged you.

“Oh. I wasn’t yelling at you so much as I was yelling at the Doctor. I’m sorry.”

You have nothing for which to apologize. I have much. I deeply regret that I called you one of the Doctor’s human pets.

“Well, good.”

The Doctor said that they had planned everything, from their allergy attack to their coma, and I just --

“Ah, so I wasn’t the only one who felt the overwhelming need to strangle them on their watch chain.”

A silent laugh. No. So…I lashed out at them, but I hurt you instead.

“Yeah.”

I am so sorry. Mea maxima culpa. The greatest of blame is mine. If he could, he would, for once, kneel before her in supplication, rather than certainty. But the Doctor has reduced him, and so he only bends his neck and closes his eyes.

“No more bullshit sneers like that about humans ever again -- do you understand? You’re usually good at not doing shitty things again after you apologize, but this is twice now. It’s disrespectful. It’s undignified. It’s mean. It’s cruel. Stop.”

A nod.

“And it’s a hard limit. If it happens again, I quit.”

I would expect nothing less.

“And I expect more from you -- so much more than what you showed me last. I don’t just expect it; I require it. You can be good; I know you can. So do it.”

I beg of you -- give me but a chance to prove myself.

 

“First you have to tell me what I just commanded you.”

 

I must guard my temper.

 

“Brilliant idea, genius. You were always harping on me to stop blurting out offensive shit, and I listened to you. I did what you said. So, the next time you feel like saying something horrible about someone, just shut the fuck up, okay?” She and he are not who they were; they don’t have their old names, so she feels perfectly justified in launching the sarcasm, avoiding tace, and snapping at him like he’s anyone else who angers her.

 

He knows what lacks between them, but follows her lead and does not bring it up. Yes. I would do well to follow your example then.

 

“It’s not just would; it’s will... because you’re going to follow my example, right?”

 

Yes.

 

“Why?” The answer had better not be Because you yelled at me.

 

Another breathless, voiceless sigh. His eyes almost close as his face slackens. There is enough useless suffering in the universe already to which I would no longer contribute.

 

She expected something personal, not this almost abstract answer. Where the hell did that come from? It sounded like some sort of principle. Suffering is a fact of life. She read about a religion in one of her subcontinental history classes -- Buddhism? -- that had that as one of its four basic tenets. Did he somehow get religion?

 

But no. All the other Buddhist stuff is about how suffering comes from wanting and how you have to give up wanting things if you seek peace. Maybe he has changed his perspective somewhat on pain and suffering, but she knows without a doubt that he has changed nothing about his desires. His wants motivate him, forming the entire foundation of his personhood. He cannot see lack of self as a way to peace and satisfaction. For him, the only way to satisfaction is through the possession of what he wants.

 

Frankly Alison agrees with that. You can’t get rid of wanting; that’s a basic piece of the nature of people, whether they’re humans, Time Lords, Schuaschen, or cats. She’s always been happiest not when she has quit wanting, but when she has gotten what she’s yearned for. That’s what satisfaction is -- to have and to hold.

 

He’s in the middle of saying something. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t see all of that. Can you start from the beginning again?”

 

I will not reflexively contemn your species. I shall treat you with gentleness and good words.

 

“And good thoughts and good deeds.”

 

Yes -- with kindness too. If not, then I do not deserve your attention, and you will quit.

“Right. And you’ll obey me, won’t you? I know you want to, but will you?”

 

I have both the desire and the will, and I shall obey you.

 

“Okay then -- accepted. And now I really have to go to the loo, so I’ll be right back as quickly as I can, okay?”

Despite what she says, Alison heads right past the nearest bathroom and into the library, where she last saw the Doctor. They’re still there, in a globe of glow from one of the flower lights, poring over some field guide to xenoflora. “Doctor!” For once it’s not a gasp, a question, or a plea, but a summons.

 

“Alison!” They glance up instantly. “Is everyth -- “

 

She stops about three meters from them. “You have my friend in pieces in your lab. Put him back together now.” Her voice falls heavily on the last word. “Do it exactly as he should be, with all of his parts and functions and traits and autonomy, and no sneaky sabotaging on your part. And never, ever, ever treat him with such cruelty again. I thought you were better than that. If you aren’t, then I’m leaving.”

 

The Doctor springs to their feet. “I’m -- “

 

“I’m on my way to do just that -- is that what you mean?”

 

“Yes -- it may take a half an hour or so, though.”

 

“I’ll wait outside your fucking lab door.” She doesn’t want to see that excruciating process of reassembly, reconstitution, de-objectification.

She escorts the Doctor to their lab, where they shut the door behind them. She paces endless lengths, her heart pounding rapidly, until finally they exit, leaving the door ajar. With a rejoicing trill, Imp flies out the door and down the hall, presumably back to her book-lined aerie.

 

And then he comes out -- all back together, all himself, all whole. His eyes are extinct -- no warmth in the brown, no fire in the amber tints. The black severity of his clothes and the grey softness of the hallway shadows enrobe him in gloom. He clasps his hands behind his back. “The Doctor said that you wanted to see me immediately,” he says, his voice low.

“I did.” Alison stares at his shoes, even though all she can really see of them in the dimness is the gleam of torch light off their highly polished surfaces.

“Apparently you made them realize that, because I was in pieces for the past week, I was incapable of doing my job.”

 

“Your job?”

 

“The safekeeping of this ship and its occupants.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Therefore they promised that I would never more be... occupatus... in such a manner. What did you tell them so that they would unbind me?” He meets her eyes but briefly.

“I said, Put my friend back together, and don’t ever fuck with him like that again, or I’m leaving.”

“You are ever a marvel.” Ah good -- there’s the gold light in his eyes for a moment. No -- it disappears. “But...your friend?”

“It was easier than saying something like the other Time Lord.”

“The other Time Lord...” His voice goes soft, too evacuated for anger. She thought that she was back to himself again, but he suddenly dwindles.

“Uh...well…”

“Have I been stripped of my name then?” It might as well be a statement for all its flatness.

“No! It’s not that!” she cries, making fists. She wants to tell him who he is; she wants so badly to make him what he should be, but she can’t quite yet. “I said my friend because...because...I didn’t know what to call you. It’s not like I could say the name you gave yourself.”

“Oh… No, you couldn’t.” Still quiet, his voice is now more understanding.

“And you misnamed me when you were talking about humans, so I told you not to call me the true name you gave me, and so I lost it! I didn’t feel like...that anymore.” She’s going to cry again, and this time unfortunately he’ll see.

“Yes...of course. I am so sorry.”

“And it just felt too strange,” she says with a gulp, “to call you something when I wouldn’t let you call me anything.” All the dignity and power of her anger is shriveling up.

 

“Oh. My dear -- “

 

“That’s not my name.” She shakes her head. Somehow a sob escapes despite her best efforts.

 

“Then what is?”

 

“The name we agreed on. Use my name.” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve end.

“Ah, Domina… Nomen tibi est Domina: Domina carissima, Domina artifex…mea Domina.” And he gives her back her name: You are the Domina, dearest Domina, clever Domina…my Domina.

Alison flops sideways against the wall, tears running down her face. “My… My…” The words are drowned. She extends her hands.

 

“May I touch you?” her robot asks, even though she can’t identify him by name.

 

Alison nods, and he links with her, hand to hand. Though there are arm spans of space between them, they are close, and they are together, as they should be. They fit together, encompassing each other, warmth to warmth, strength to strength, power to power. Alison sniffles enough to unclog her nose. “Robot of mine,” she says.

 

“Always,” he says.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m going home,” Alison says to her robot the next day.

 

“My Domina must needs leave, yes.”

 

“Subjunctive! Did you just command me?”

 

“No! I simply know that you have such a driving need to leave that it has become an imperative. Besides, I find the subjunctive most useful in cases such as these. I have always known that you would leave. Volo ut eas domum. Spero ut eas domum. Timeo ut eas domum. Oro, peto, mando eas domum. Mea Domina, i domum.” I wish, hope, fear you might go home. I implore, urge, tell you to go home. Domina of mine, go home.

 

“You...want me to?”

 

“You want to. You need to. You have been miserable ever since you came here -- so desperately afraid and unhappy that you would compromise with a Master of Pain so that you might find some safety.”

 

“Is that what you think -- that I did this all because I was scared?”

 

“Yes. But our initial motivations do not diminish what we have made of each other.”

 

Our motivations. “You were scared too then.”

 

“Of the Doctor, yes. Of myself, no. Of you, never.”

 

“Yeah, the Doctor… The Doctor’s one of the main reasons I’m leaving. They stuck a bug in my brain and used me as a Shalka loudspeaker. They dropped me on my head when the stone vampire had me. They joked about you mind-fucking me. They deliberately stayed in the Zero Room to leave us alone together -- a human and an evil alien super-powered robot. They treat people the way that you used to treat people. And you love them, but they only try to break you. They’re mean and selfish and abusive, and I...just -- I’m done here.”

 

“I know. You cannot stay with someone around whom you do not feel safe.”

 

“Even if I feel safe with you.”

 

“Do you, though? You have hated me and contemned me for much longer than you have trusted me -- and rightly so. Though now you may think that you love me, I do not doubt that you must still fear me -- much more now than you did before.”

 

“I’m pretty sure that you were scarier to me before you promised not to mind-fuck me.”

 

“Your fear would be different now -- not a defensive dread of the unknown, but a deeper, more fundamental unease of what you know all too intimately now. That’s not the fear of violation so much as the fear of knowing that you have voluntarily opened your hearts -- heart -- to me.”

 

“It’s...It’s me that I’m afraid of. I’m afraid because I was never properly scared of you. I should have gone straight back home when I realized you were a mind-fucking robot, but I didn’t. I’m afraid because I stood up to you, told you exactly how to treat me, gave you a name, and expected you to live up to that name and to become someone you had never been before. I’m afraid because, when you do what I say, I feel strong and powerful and glad and right. I’m afraid because I like having a super-powered alien robot, whether you’re evil or good or something in between.

 

“I’m afraid because I listen to you, respect you, feel sorry for you, and think of you as mine. I’m afraid because you gave me a name and said that you would teach me how to live up to it. I’m afraid because I want to be your good Domina and to make you smile proudly. I’m afraid because you’re the one I want to guard me when I feel unsafe and you’re the one I want to hold me tightly when I feel empty and unmoored. I’m afraid because, despite who you are and what you’ve done, I trust you and want you in my life because you make me happy. I’m just...afraid of who I am when I’m with you.”

 

“Then we understand each other, for we are both arriving at the same conclusion by different routes.”

 

“Yeah...I guess.”

 

“What then shall be the terms of our parting, Domina carissima? How do you end these things on your planet? Does one give back one’s name? Does one agree never to see the other again?”

 

“Hah hah, not usually. The kink community is way too small for people to pretend that their past partners don’t exist. But...I guess it’s just a negotiation like all the rest. We discuss what to do, then agree on it, then follow one another’s wishes.”

 

“Then I pray you -- command me.”

 

“A command isn’t a discussion, though.”

 

“I know. You will leave, and that is your decision. I shall not ask you to take my feelings into account because you must needs depart for your own good. I trust that you have some strong intuition of what I might desire, but I would not have that influence you. Therefore I will give you no terms of my own. I will only obey yours.”

 

“Well… Um… I don’t think we have to formally give back our names. If we did, that would mean an end to my good alien super-powered robot and an end to your Domina with a master’s in Bullshit Studies. I don’t know about you, but I’m keeping my master’s, even if you’re not around. I won’t quit being confident and using what I’ve learned just because there’s no one there to call me their Domina.”

 

“I am glad of that. And I too would keep being what you have made me, even if I no longer belong to you.”

 

“Oh good! As for the terms of our parting, as you put it, I guess… I think… No. No. I know it has to be final.”

 

“Needs must, my dear.”

 

“Yeah. I mean -- I don’t want to, but I have to. And...well...so I will. Will you -- cut off all contact once I’m gone?”

 

“Yes. Yes, of course. If you are to be whole and happy and unafraid, then you must find a place where you can be so, among people you trust. This is not that place, and neither the Doctor nor I are those people. With me, you are neither happy nor whole nor unafraid, and so, once you go, I will not speak to or see you again.”


She can’t say anything, so she just holds his hands.

Chapter Text

“So…” says the Doctor. “This is goodbye.”

 

“Yeah,” says Alison. The three of them are in the TARDIS’ control room, and freedom is but a short distance away beyond the main door. She cradles her box of dolls at her chest, an innocent, yet still powerful, army between her and the person that she once thought was her friend.  “Goodbye, Doctor.”

 

The Doctor takes one step toward Alison and sings. In a voice somewhat up from tenor, but somewhat down from alto, they release a stream of soaring, bright, and longing notes:

 

“Stay with us -- stay! Seek not a land of strangers!

The pain of parting makes you doubly dear;

Fly not away to brave, undream’d-of dangers;

Let our true love prevail to keep you here.”

 

But, before Alison has a chance to object, the Doctor answers their own words. They take that step back. Their voice, though no less clear, moves down in pitch and hushes slightly:

 

“Dear friend of mine, though pain it is to sever

The bonds of friendship and love the ties,

You must pursue the path of high endeavor,

And in the land beyond your duty lies.”

 

Alison smiles a small, rueful smile. The Doctor, she realizes, loves her in some strange way. They have always considered her a friend. But none of that is enough without the Doctor’s respect and her own reciprocation. Even if the Doctor don’t understand quite why she’s leaving, they know that she has to, and they’re resigning themselves to that. Maybe eventually they’ll learn; maybe they’ll be one of those few people who can truly change from cruelty to kindness, but Alison has much better things to do than to wait.

 

“That was beautiful,” she says -- because it was, and now there’s a lump in her throat. “What’s it from?”

 

“Oh, The Arcadians,” says the Doctor, color appearing on their cheeks, “end of act one. Arguably the apogee of Edwardian comic opera, not to mention a heartfelt story and witty lyrics.”

 

Alison looks at the Doctor and wishes for a moment that she trusted them. But she doesn’t, so she turns to the person that she does trust -- her robot. Setting her box of dolls on the console railing, she walks forward and takes both his hands as Uscheschua would. “And now you,” she says, “my dear robot…”

 

“Don’t ask me to sing -- I pray you,” he says. “I may be built to detect the Doctor’s perfect pitch -- or lack thereof -- but I have little capacity of my own to carry a tune.”

 

“That’s okay.” Alison swallows hard, trying to get that lump out of her throat. It doesn’t move. “You...be good, okay? That’s not an order, just a reminder. And you have to keep taking care of yourself too. Promise me.” The words are mostly smothered by her tears.

 

“Yes,” he says.

 

“Good,” mutters Alison, taking a big snort of mucus back up her nose.

 

“Please -- look at me,” he says. She turns her face up toward his, and he meets her eyes as if he wants to receive her light. “Domina bona, Domina artifex, Domina carissima, Domina mea…” Good Domina, clever Domina, dearest Domina, my Domina… “Be whole. Be happy.” He sighs, and then says the last like a blessing, “Be safe.”

 

“Audio atque cedo.” She can’t remember to say I’ll miss you in Latin, and it probably wouldn’t even be appropriate.

 

“That wasn’t an imperative. Think of it, rather, as my fondest wish for you.”

 

“Gratias tibi, robot...of...mine.”  Her irregular breath intercuts the sentence.

 

He pulls back just enough to signal an end. Alison doesn’t want to do the same, but she does anyway. “You have everything, I presume?” he says.

 

Imp flies up under Alison’s hand and butts her palm, trying to have herself be petted. “Now!” she says in her high, scratchy meow. “Now, now, now!”

 

“Well, I clearly have Imp...or, more precisely, Imp has me.” Alison scritches Imp’s head. Imp’s purr cycles through her body with tangible vibrations; it’s like petting a very large, friendly bumblebee.

 

Her robot glances down to see the jade-colored cat twining herself between his legs, leaving bright green hair all over his trousers. “And the jade-colored cat has me, so each of us shall be well guarded in all future exploits.”

 

“And you have the collapsible portal between you and Uscheschua?” the Doctor speaks up.

 

“In my pack.” Alison wipes her eyes with her shirt cuff.

 

“Then here you are.” The Doctor opens the door. “We’re about a block from your parents’ home, and it’s just about four months after the Shalka have been defeated.”

 

“Okay.” Alison stands still for a few seconds. “Goodbye.”

 

“Goodbye,” says the Doctor.

 

“Goodbye,” says her robot.

 

There’s either nothing else to say, or else there’s way too much, so Alison leaves to find out who she is when she’s not afraid.