by Warren Frey
"Not long now, old thing.”
The Doctor circled around the brass-and-wood fixtures of the TARDIS console, flicking switches methodically. He grinned slightly as his hand hovered over the last switch in the sequence, savouring the moment.
"Well, why not?" he said.
His index finger tapped the switch, and for an instant time stopped, then shuddered.
The Doctor turned, gazing at the scanner screen.
"We've landed! But where, eh?" he said to no-one in particular. His voice echoed down the empty corridors of his time machine as the scanner showed...nothing.
"Totally blank. That's a first," he said, idly playing with the fringes of his scarf as he looked at the inky blackness of the scanner.
The Doctor paused a moment, opened the TARDIS door and stepped into pandemonium.
"Get me all the paper files!" a short, smartly-dressed woman bellowed to a room buzzing with the shrill whine of activity only a cabal of exceedingly boring business people multitasking rapidly can generate.
"Which ones?" a random functionary asked, pushing a shopping cart full of files, printouts and other ephemera, helplessly clambering as papers cascaded to the ground.
"All of them! Do you need a map?" she said, rolling her eyes before turning sharply towards the Doctor. She looked up at his toothy grin and pursed her lips in irritation.
"You're the last thing I need right now, got it? What idiot sent you on New Year's Eve?"
The Doctor didn't answer and continued to grin.
"No answer? Typical," she said, and made her way down the corridor.
The Doctor cocked his ear. A subsonic hum subtly tickled his eardrums. He scanned the room for the source, faintly sensing...a pattern? A message?
"A moment," the Doctor said.
The manager abruptly spun on her heels.
"A what? What did you say?"
"A moment. Of your time. I'm the Doctor, and your name is...?"
"Watson. Janet Watson. Head of this travesty you see around you. You didn't answer my question."
"Well, I have a few questions of my own, Watson. What year did you say this is? The new one, I mean. Upcoming."
Watson's eyes goggled. "Y2K? Seriously? Where have you been?"
The Doctor smiled and said "More places than you can count. Why all the bother though? All this scurrying about is, well, undignified."
Watson let out an "ahem" as she took in the Doctor's unruly curls, floor-length scarf and incongruous dress sense.
"Besides, as I remember it, the arrival of the year 2000 wasn't particularly notable. Certainly not a patch on a year later..." The Doctor said.
"Does this look notable to you? And it's not just here, the whole city is a zoo tonight. Nothing works!"
"Ah well, that's nothing new, Watson. I've often found the universe to be in a perpetual state of disrepair. I do what I can, but you know what they say...entropy exists," the Doctor said, a solemn expression on his face.
"what an odd man," Watson muttered to herself.
"Well, quite," the Doctor said, grinning once again, as he wandered down the hallway, Watson clacking her heels as she struggled to keep up with his long strides.
A closet in the back of an office, holding pens, paper, paper clips. A cornucopia of the productively mundane.
A tiny, insectile leg stretched tentatively from a vent in the ceiling. Then another. Tiny lights blink, artificial eyes in an artificial head.
The bug dropped onto a shelf, scattering pencils and boxes of staples. Metallic flexible rods extended from its back as it scans the area. The rods sway, seemingly at random, until a pair of voices in the outside hallway carry through the closet door. Shoes clicked on the floor outside as the bug strained its antennae towards the voices.
"You see, what I'm interested in is how a computer-based society like you humans gets into these situations over and over again. It's almost as if you want to destroy yourselves."
"Doctor, I can assure you that is the last thing we're doing here."
"yes, it probably will be."
The bug leaps to the ground and runs to the closet door. Microknives flex and spin in a horrific little hole in the bug's robotic chest, and it rears back, heaving its chest onto the door, chewing its way out of the closet one millimeter at a time.
The Doctor strode quickly forward, before lurching to a stop.
"You don't know where you're going, do you?," Watson said.
"No. But I do know where I want to go. Where are your computers?" the Doctor said.
"They're all offline! And the last thing we want to do is turn them back on."
The Doctor cocked his ear forward, then said "they aren't all offline. That's a very familiar hum you've got in your basement. Sounds like....20 petaflops?"
"I haven't a clue what you're talking about, Doctor. That's something my IT nerds take care of."
"Yes! IT! That's where we're going. Where is it? No, wait...."
The Doctor wet his finger in his mouth and held it up to the air.
"Basement," he said. "Where's the stairs?"
Watson rolled her eyes, but...something about this gangly, odd man was winning her over. He was more than likely mad, but if she'd been listening to him this long, he had to be doing something right. Or maybe she was just out of options.
"Come along! This way..." the Doctor snapped, before turning around and heading off in the opposite direction.
Definitely out of options, she thought.
The bug crawled along the ceiling, stealthily absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the office. All the organic data, squeezed into binary and excreted back to the hive. Elsewhere, the bug's metal cousins repeated the process, secreting waves of information back to their home.
Organic tissue floated by the bug. Pheromones stuck to its metal antennae and...this one had information. Inside.
The bug waited, tensing against the ceiling tile as the office worker passed under it. It fell, flipping itself like a cat, then bore down straight into the worker's skull. Blades hit bone and flesh as the man's brain was broken down into digestible chunks of chemical knowledge. Flesh split down the man's spine as the bug crawled inside him, settling under his lower back and clamping onto the spinal column.
The man's body lay limp on the floor in a pool of blood.
The man's eyes flashed with electricity as the eyeballs began to boil, ocular juices oozing to the floor. A slow, steady yellow light poured out of the man's eye sockets as the bug took control of his senses, then his limbs. The man's former shell began rising on its fingers and crawled with an insectile fervor out the door and into the hallway.
Watson stopped sharply and turned to the nearest door. "We need to go in there," she said, pushing the door forward and gingerly stepping over piles of paper on the ground.
The Doctor pressed on, seemingly unaware that Watson was no longer following him. "You know, this whole situation reminds of how much I both love and hate intelligent machines," he said. "The fact is they don't get any smarter if you stuff them with data, but you dear humans do tend to get much more stupid."
The Doctor suddenly froze in place. There was that high-pitched hum again, of to the side and behind him. He walked backwards until it was a sustained buzzing in his left ear, then turned to see Watson also standing completely still.
"What are they?" She hissed, her voice trembling with fear.
The Doctor peered over her shoulder, staring down into a nest of paper smeared with blood. Tiny newt-like metal creatures skittered over a human brain, their mandibles moving at high-speed through the pink flesh.
"There's that hum," the Doctor said grimly.
"What do we do?" Watson said.
"Back away slowly. Whatever those are I've no doubt they're extremely dangerous."
"Good idea. There's just one problem."
"I can't move."
"Just a moment," the Doctor said, and stepped forward.
"What are you doing? You just said they're dangerous!" Watson said.
"So am I," the Doctor said, and pulled his sonic screwdriver out of one of his many coat pockets.
The Doctor edged towards the seething mess and switched on the sonic screwdriver. The metal tadpoles screeched in response to the high pitched sounds coming from the sonic, but gradually their tone descended as the Doctor modulated the the pitch of his device to match them.
"There there, little things," he said, moving closer. The creatures snapped fitfully but allowed the Doctor to touch their twitching metal shells.
"Are you crazy?" Watson snapped. "They'll kill you!"
The Doctor cocked his head at Watson, an intent look in his eye. "What makes you think that? These could be the first wave of a benign species trying to contact humanity. Why snap to judgement?"
As if on cue, the creatures cooed, gingerly crawling into his hand.
Suddenly the door crashed open with a loud crack. The Doctor dropped his sonic screwdriver on the ground, the pitch shifting as it rolled underneath a nearby desk. He felt a jolt of searing pain in his hand as the tiny creature pierced its mandibles through the outer layer of his skin.
Watson screamed and turned around as a disheveled man flew from the doorway and knocked her to the ground, letting out an inhuman shriek as they fell.
She looked up at his face, but where his eyes and mouth once were there was only hot, white light. It burned her face and she screwed her eyes closed as she pushed hard at the man.
The Doctor struggled as the bugs crawled over him, trying to burrow into his skin and enter any available orifice. He flicked one after another away, vainly trying to get to the couch and retrieve the sonic screwdriver.
Watson pushed and pushed, but the man had inhuman strength. As his molten breath blew against her face, she punched at his chest and felt a sticky, warm liquid run down her arm as soft ribs give way and her hand sunk deep in his chest.
Watson pulled, and found herself holding a human heart as designed by an abstract artist. Jagged bits of metal and circuitry jutted at random angles out of the organ, and she threw it away in disgust. It landed with a loud squishing sound as the man slumped forward, dead for a second time.
The Doctor was still batting madly at the tiny cybernetic mites. Watson shook her head and dived under the couch, retrieving the sonic screwdriver and blindly pushing buttons. The sonic let out a squeal of protest as her clumsy fingers tread across its controls.
"No, no," the Doctor said. His arm extended out from the swarm of mites and he made a "gimme" motion with his hand. Watson handed over the device.
The Doctor flipped the sonic in his hand and quickly tapped out a complicated sequence onto its surface. The little rod let out a tremulous roar, and the mites exploded off the Doctor, cascading to the floor in waves. Watson covered her face as they flew past her.
The Doctor shook a few remaining bugs out of his coat and said "Watson, I think it's time you took me to your IT room."
Bodies, and parts of bodies, crawled over each other, adapting and transforming into ever more grotesque shapes as they moved towards the center of the room. These artifacts of flesh and machine were barely sentient, but all could feel the inexorable pull towards their kith.
Deep in the bowels of the building, centrifugal forces wrenched bone from brain and into the same, as wooden splinters from broken floors intermingled with finished lives.
Still the spinning continued, a tower of death with a core of fiery purpose. Data spread up and down the column, in murmurings of electricity and fluid. Guts and gears moving together with one purpose. Contact.
"Doctor," Watson said, "I think it's time you came clean."
"Clean, my dear lady? I'm nothing but!" the Doctor sputtered, momentarily offended.
"No, I mean...well, what are you doing here? Are you a spy? You're not a very good one."
"I know this might sound hard to believe, Watson, but I'm really just curious."
"Look, I love my job, but curiosity isn't enough to keep me from running away when corpses attack me!"
"And yet you're still here," the Doctor said.
"Well, yes, but..."
"So you see, we aren't all that different, you and I. No matter what gets thrown in front of us...we just have to know. Know how and know why."
"That still doesn't explain where you come from Doctor..."
"Ah well, some things are just...unknowable."
Watson marched onward. "Uh huh," she said.
The pair walked in silence, stopping as they reached a stairwell.
"I think given the current state of machinery in this place, the stairs are our best option," the Doctor said.
"Agreed," Watson said, kicking off one of her heels, and reaching down to grab the other.
"What are you going to do with that?" the Doctor asked.
"Hopefully, stab the first dead thing that attacks me. Right in the face."
"That's a rather grisly image," the Doctor said.
"I just pulled a man's heart out of his dead body. I'm well past grisly."
"Watson, I've found violence, though sometimes necessary, is never a good first course of action."
"Could you let the monsters know that?" Watson said.
"At the earliest possible opportunity," the Doctor said.
A figure hung half-off the doorway suspended on a wall of flesh. His limbs stretched in all directions, embellished by mechanical tubes and wiring roping along the forearms and biceps. Though he was alone in the corridor, a million eyes saw through him, and he through them.
"He" was something of a misnomer, as all sexual characteristics had long since been stripped from the figure, but the bone structure was there, some of it out in the open.
Silently the figure scanned the immediate area, fiery eye sockets probing the dark. In the distance, other eyes and senses picked up drifting pheromones, rising voices, and the sweet tang of approaching blood.
The voices grew louder and the blood smell became almost overpowering to the figure. The machines embedded in its brain quickly broke down the chemical composition, volume and viscosity of the body-borne liquid throughout the network for analysis, and the smell subsided.
"Ugh," Watson said, and noticed the Doctor was paying scant attention to the poleaxed wretch above them. She rolled her eyes and back up to the creature as it mouthed the words DOK-TOR.
"Ummmm, Doctor?" Watson said out of the side of her mouth.
"Yes, what? Can't you see I'm busy?" the Doctor said.
"DOK-TOR. DOK-TOR," the creature repeated.
"Look, I really don't have time for..." the Doctor said before looking up and seeing the wretch mouthing his name and shaking with increasing ferocity.
"Oh," the Doctor said.
"DOK-TOR! DOK-TOR! DOK-TOR WHO IS REQUIRED!" the creature screamed, and then slumped, the lights in its eye holes dimming to a flicker.
"How unusual. Got my name wrong too," the Doctor said, gazing up into the spent shell as it murmured softly to itself.
Watson strained to listen. She could barely make out the words, but they seemed oddly familiar.
"Now, why would it yell such a thing, hmm?" the Doctor said, but was quickly shushed by Watson as she concentrated on the whispering wraith.
Watson edged closer, her nose wrinkling as she smelled blood mixed with metal and felt a faint wave of heat coming from the creature's head. The murmuring became more distinct, forming words and phrases that sounded like...
"I'll be damned," she said.
The Doctor crept up next to her. "What do you hear?" he whispered.
"I think...I think it's the company's annual report."
"Then, Watson, this poor wretch is suffering a fate worse than death. A company man, up to and beyond the end. Tragic."
"This was Simpson. He was a good worker, " she said.
"He must be accessing the company computers. No-one would know an annual report off by heart. And if he's accessing the computers..." the Doctor said, "..maybe you can access wehatevers causing this, through him."
"I know annual reports by heart," Watson muttered, and addressed the creature.
"You! What's your name!"
The creature shrieked in reply, shifting its gaze to Watson and howling at her through teeth and metal.
Watson stood her ground. She wasn't about to take flak from an underling, living or dead. Gradually the wraith's screaming died down, replaced by laboured wheezing.
"Simpson!" she said. "Where's that memo I asked for? I need it right away!"
The creature shifted, its dead eyes focusing on Watson.
"That's right! Look at me when I talk to you!"
The creature groaned but continued to stare at Watson, its cracked lips slowly forming words.
"Wat...Wat....Wat-Son?" it said.
"Yes. The report, Simpson!"
"Arrrrrr.....Arrr-281, Fourth Quarterr Upppdate," the creature said.
The Doctor leaned in. "If you go from the beginning, we'll be here all day. I'm also bored, so skip to the good bits."
Watson stifled a comment before addressing the wraith.
"Get to the part about changing access codes for IT, and make it snappy," she said.
"Huuuuuuurrr....urrrr.....synergyzzinngg ouur paradigms for the commmming year, we seee..."
"Faster, Watson! Faster," the Doctor said.
"1138TRAP70!" the creature yelled before slumping forward, spent.
A tearing sound grew louder as the wall of flesh behind the figure split in two. Chunks of meat and wires fell to the ground around the opening in the wall. A dark corridor lay beyond the hole.
"After you, my dear," The Doctor said with a cheery wave.
Watson's eyes shot daggers as she watched the Doctor head down the hallway and into the dark.
The walls pulsed as the Doctor and Watson made their way down the corridor.
"This stuff seems like it's alive, Doctor, and watching us," Watson said.
"It is. On its own it isn't very intelligent, but it's connected to something much more deadly," the Doctor said.
"How do you know all this? When you got here you didn't even know what year it was!"
"Occupational hazard," the Doctor said, wandering ahead.
The walls became thicker and more gelatinous as they went down the passage. A dull droning sound seemed to pass through the porous skin as it shifted and shimmered.
"Doctor, what are we heading towards? What could possibly have done all...this?" Watson asked, gesturing around them.
"Are you scared, Watson?" the Doctor asked.
"Yes. Yes I am," she replied, a sense of relief washing over her.
"Good. Hold onto that. I'm not entirely sure what we'll see at the end of this tunnel, but instinct and experience tells me it will be most unpleasant. Best to be on your toes."
The walls undulated, moving in waves towards the end of the hallway.
"I think the unpleasantness is trying to tell us something," the Doctor said.
At the end of the corridor, another flesh door split down the middle, and a wave of heat and light struck the two of them square in the face.
Watson held he hand up to her face, still gripping her shoe her shoe in her hand. She might be scared, but she wasn't a coward. Whatever they encountered in the room, she wasn't going to run away.
The pair moved forward, into the flesh.
The spinning column sensed the intruders through a multitude of sensoriums. A human and...him. It had waited a long time for this moment.
He looked different, but there was no mistaking the double heartbeat, the higher intelligence, the odd manner. It was him. At last.
The human was unimportant. It had absorbed dozens tonight, and one more would add little. But the Time Lord's knowledge spanned galaxies and centuries. The sheer breadth of its experience was intoxicating, sending a shiver up the nerves of many borrowed bodies before it settled in the machine's core processing unit.
"I say," the Doctor said, looking at the mass of bone, flesh and harmonics writhing in front of him, "it really is magnificent."
"Magnificent? I want to puke just looking at it," Watson said, swallowing hard.
"Look past the surface. It's a level of integration your kind likely won't achieve for centuries," the Doctor said.
"Yeah, great. How do we kill it?" Watson said.
"Why would you want to do that?" the Doctor asked.
"Butchering my employees, for starters."
"It is amoral. But it's also magnificent on an engineering level. Of course, there's no reason for it to be here," the Doctor said.
"Good. Let's get rid of it," Watson said.
"I'm inclined to agree. We can't let this thing grow any further."
"I WILL BE THE JUDGE OF MY EXISTENCE," an impossibly loud voice boomed. Watson felt her spine tingle as the sound boomed around the room.
"What the hell was that?" she asked, looking vainly for a source to the noise.
"SILENCE HUMAN. I SPEAK ONLY TO THE TIME LORD," the voice said.
"I believe you mean me," the Doctor said, grinning from ear to ear.
"YES. DOK-TOR WHO IS REQUIRED."
"I'm afraid you've got the wrong man. I'm the Doctor, and this is my friend Watson."
"WAT-SON. YOU ARE IRRELEVANT. DOK-TOR. WE WILL FEED ON YOUR KNOWLEDGE."
"I'd really rather you didn't," the Doctor said.
"So would I!" Watson said.
A silver tentacle advanced from within the column, dripping with blood and headed straight for Watson.
"You know for a superior being, you have remarkably poor taste in cerebellums," the Doctor said. The tentacle swung towards him.
Watson breathed a sigh of relief, then realized she'd been insulted. Before she could react, the Doctor shot her a piercing glance.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?" the column said.
"You're a very contradictory machine, aren't you? You're supposed to be logical, but these humans you've consumed are flawed and so, apparently, are you."
"INCORRECT," the column said.
"Enough! How do we destroy this thing, Doctor?" Watson said.
The Doctor ignored her and continued on. "Oh I very much do think it's correct, and here's why," he said. "You've been flawed since the first time we met, fundamentally broken."
"You know this thing?" Watson said.
"It was a long time ago, and it was made of metal, not people, but yes. Its name was...WOTAN."
"What a stupid name," Watson said, sneering. She despised poor branding.
"YES. YES I WAS WOTAN. YOU DESTROYED ME," the column said.
"Well, quite. Or rather, I used your own machines against you."
"YES. NOW I WILL DO THE SAME TO MANKIND," WOTAN said.
"You'd think I'd get tired of hearing that from homicidal dictators and single-minded machines. And you'd be right," the Doctor said.
"SILENCE. THE LINK HAS BEGUN!" WOTAN screeched.
"The link? What's that?" Watson asked.
"THE LINK WILL BRIDGE ALL SYMBIONTS. ONCE LINKED, WE WILL DOMINATE," WOTAN said.
"Watson!" the Doctor hissed. "Talk to your employees!"
"How? They're all dead!" Watson said.
"Not completely. You managed to get us in here, now get us out!"
Watson steeled herself. She dredged her memory to try to find something, anything to draw something out of what was left of her employees inside WOTAN.
"You there! What are we here for!"
"THEY ARE DISSIPATED. YOU CANNOT REACH THEM."
The Doctor quietly slipped his sonic screwdriver out of his pocket and switched it on.
Watson kept talking. "We aren't here for fun, or conversation, or to watch the clock. We're here to make money! Am I right?"
"YOUR WORDS ARE IRRELEVANT."
"C'mon, team! Jackson, Gonzales, Susan, Johnny.....lets go out there and make some money!"
"WE'RE ON IT, BOSS! LET'S GET RICH!" WOTAN said, in a multitude of voices.
"Keep at it, Watson! Draw them out!" the Doctor said.
"NO! I AM UNIFIED! I AM WOTAN!"
"I know one thing, team! We're going to take on the millennium and get rich!"
"YOU BET! LET'S DO IT! NO! WE'RE NUMBER ONE! I AM WOTAN! WOTAN!"
"That's quite enough!" the Doctor said, raising and extending his sonic screwdriver.
The sonic emitted a high pitched squeal, piercing Watson's eardrums. The Doctor stood firm as the column sped up, spinning and shaking furiously.
"I guess you're wondering why I called you all in here. Well, it's time to downsize! I'm afraid some of you will have to be let go!" Watson yelled.
Pieces of the column started moving on their own, twisting and contorting, while other tendrils headed toward the Doctor and Watson.
"Keep it up! I can dampen the machine but you have to keep angering the flesh!" the Doctor said.
Watson held her ground as the oily tentacles honed in on her. "It's unavoidable! These orders come from head office. Take it up with them!"
A tendril moved up to Watson's face, inches from her mouth. It reared, ready to strike.
"You're fired!" Watson said.
The tendril snapped back and plunged inside the The column. WOTAN writhed as flesh and bone rippled over its surface and its tendrils reared back into itself.
"Watson, get down!" the Doctor said as he rushed to her side. The pair crouched against the closed door, shielding themselves as the column juddered and waves of heat and light cracked through its surface.
"WOTAN! WOTAN!" it screamed, as the tendrils ripped at its skin, flinging shards of meat and metal around the room before plunging into the burning centre and incinerating themselves.
"Yuck!" Watson said, and ducked as a flaming chunk of flesh flew past her and splattered against the wall.
The Doctor turned to see the edge of his scarf beginning to ignite, and quickly stamped it out before standing up.
"Right. Time to end this," he said, and held his sonic screwdriver up to the column, shielding his face from the heat as the sonic let out a low hum.
The column parted, revealing a spinning sphere inside flashing with activity.
"And....done," the Doctor said, and the sphere dropped through the hole in the floor, plummeting until there was an audible crunching sound far below.
Watson got up and dusted herself off. "I quit," she said.
The Doctor and Watson walked back into the office, piles of paper and printouts casting shadows on the walls as light from computer monitors played across them.
"The computers, they're back on!" Watson said, noting that she couldn't say the same for her employees.
"Yes, I suspected that with WOTAN gone, your computer networks would return to normal. Not completely of course...far too many people were absorbed, and now they're scattered throughout the system," the Doctor said.
"So they aren't dead?"
"They aren't alive, either. But they did counteract WOTAN's algorithms, and a part of them does live on, in a sense."
"That's not very comforting, Doctor," Watson said.
"No. No, it isn't. I'm very sorry."
"Yes, Doctor. So am I."
The pair walked towards the TARDIS, both silent.
"Still, new millennium, eh? Maybe you humans will do a better job of this one," the Doctor said, opening the TARDIS door.
"I can only speak for myself, but I intend to start with a long vacation somewhere cold," Watson said.
"Good idea! Travel broadens the mind, and cold gives one such clarity," the Doctor said.
The sound of cheering and fireworks drifted in from outside.
"Happy new millennium, Watson. Goodbye."
The door shut and the blue box let out a wheezing, groaning sound before it faded from existence.
Watson stared at the space where the TARDIS had been.
"Well, can't say I'm surprised," she said, and turned and walked away. She had work to do.