Twenty-first in the dystopian!verse series.
Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam
Here is the woodcutter and the grandmother, here is the Big Bad Wolf and the little girl. This is a story, this is a game. Let's play.
When: Ground Zero (Part II)
His voice is insidious, soft, a serpent-in-the-air. She will not falter. She will not fail. She must not. She doesn’t miss the way he takes perverse delight in her involuntarily clenched fist, nails digging into the flesh of her palm.
“It’s such a delight to see you again!” He leans forward on his long, long glass desk, face thrown in and out of shadow with each tilt and turn of his head. “You really must tell me. How are you?” He cocks his head, and her voice is a dead weight in her throat.
He waits, and she struggles to articulate a response. Fear is a paralysing agent, but she has to fight it, because he will kill her, oh god he’s going to kill her -
“I’m fine, Master. Thank you.”
He twirls a gleaming black fountain pen in his bone-white fingers, like a conductor’s baton; like a candy cane; like a glittering scythe. He laughs, but it isn’t, not really, it is a-thousand-people-dying, a-battalion-of-gunfire.
“That’s good to hear. Wouldn’t want my favourite Watcher to be upset now, would we?”
“Come, then. Tell me what the world is doing now.” He spreads his hands, makes a sweeping gesture. The movement is like a slicing knife on tender, tender skin; a blade’s unbearable caress. She flinches.
“Colonel Lumic sends an all-clear, and calls your attention to the rebel forces on the Southern front. Eurasia has weakened since the demise of Comrade Putin. General Saxon advises an invasion within the next month, before they can consolidate forces. Americania once again calls for a ceasefire, and is pushing for a new round of peace talks. The Paris office has reported the misappropriation of three hundred rationing booklets, and the Munich office reports a dissenter preaching democracy.”
“Ah, very nice. Get Saxon to mount an invasion. Ignore Americania, and threaten unfriendly action if they persist. Execute the Paris officer in charge of the booklets, and send the Munich dissenter to Headquarters for some lessons.”
“Find Lumic. Tell him it’s time. Tell him: 418117711389109463. The Rubicon.” He flicks his hand, a dismissive gesture, like the callous swatting of a fly; like the starting strands of a funeral dirge.
She leaves, stealing out of the room like a convict escaping the gallows, like a wanderer leaving nowhere. The lift doors slide open, the gates-of-damning-paradise, and she walks in. Just before they close, she keeps her eyes on the blinding light of Level Eighty-Nine, on the painful sunlight stabbing the floor.
Dead, she thinks. The sun is dying.
Why is everything dying?
“He told you something. Something important.”
She freezes at the doorway of this hole-in-the-wall, this run-down base of field operations. She is a part of this now, yet another pawn in yet another game. She is so tired of games. Who ever asked her if she wanted to play?
She looks at the Doctor, puzzled. “He told me many things. He spoke of murder and killing, of execution and destruction. He spoke of death.”
He comes up to her, takes her cold hand in his. “I know he did. Death - death is an old friend of his, you see. But it’s more than that this time. He spoke of something else. Something worse. I could taste it. I could feel it. Something was wrong. Something is wrong.”
He rubs warmth and blood and life back into her hand. “You need to tell me. We can stop him. We need to stop him. This - everything - this has to end.”
He has led her to their cramped room in the basement. The walls are suddenly too thin, the room too small, the air too choking.
“Why?” she asks. “Why does it have to change?” She tugs her hands from his, grips the lapels of his coat too tightly in her fists. “How do you know that it should? How can you guarantee that what comes after is better? How can you still believe?”
He draws a hand up, placing his palm against her cheek. His hand is rough and calloused, and the friction it makes with the smooth skin of her cheek is like the jagged edges of crinkled paper; like the flutter of a memory of stubble scraping against her. She turns into it.
“Change is the only constant,” he tells her. “There are those of us who have nothing - nothing to mark time by, nothing to hold onto. Change keeps us believing that there are better days to come, that those that were lost can be found again. That because the world won’t be the same, the way things are won’t be either.”
He buries his face in her hair, inhales the faint scent of flowers and musk and Rose. “For some of us, it is the belief that things will change that keeps us going.”
She presses her face into the curve of his neck as he continues. “And you know what? When you’re at rock bottom, the only other way to go is up.”
“418117711389109463. You’re sure he said that? Those numbers exactly?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure. And The Rubicon. That’s what he said - it was all for Colonel Lumic.”
“Lumic? John Lumic? Minister of Peace and Inter-class Accord?”
“Yes, him. He also said that ‘it’s time’.”
The Doctor runs a frustrated hand down his face, and turns to Operative Harper. “You got anything on this? Any ideas?”
Harper shakes his head, pen tapping the table surface in from of him.
“None. I’ve crunched the numbers - this code isn’t the usual encryption, or any of the known Government ones, for that matter. And I’ve checked all the Government buildings - none of them bears the name of The Rubicon. Neither does anywhere in London, or Greater London.”
“So we’ve got all the details we need to stop him, but we can’t because we aren’t able to decipher it. Fuck. Fuck.” The Doctor is visibly agitated, running his hands through his hair. She sits in a corner of the room, watching. She is, after all, a Watcher first and foremost.
“Look, Smith, you know the bastard best. You spent seven years with him, for God’s sake. Surely you must have something.”
They have been at this for hours. The hands of the clock creep forward, inching along like their dismal lives. With each new number the clock hands jump to, the sands in the hourglass diminish. Time is the one thing they don’t have.
“I don’t think it’s a place,” she says, her voice wavering and unsure. She knows that Operative Harper disapproves of her presence here, and she is too much of a newcomer to want to step on anyone’s toes. She almost stops, her words faltering and almost petering out, but she catches the Doctor’s reassuring gaze, and it gives her confidence. “It’s likely an allusion to something, or a moniker they’ve given someplace. He’s not stupid.”
“Right, you’re right.” A chair is scraped back, and the Doctor stands. He strides over to the sprawling map of London that is draped across the entire left wall of the room. “That bastard’s too full of himself - it’s just like him to come up with a pretentious codename like The Rubicon. But where? And what does it mean?”
Harper pipes in, deigning to join their conversation. “The Rubicon. That’s a river, isn’t it?”
Rose nods. “An ancient one. Caesar had to cross it, beyond which there was no chance of return.”
The Doctor lets out a laugh, a harsh bark that rings hollow and empty. “Yeah, he would name it after that. He was always fond of poetic justice.”
“The Agency.” Harper and the Doctor startle, and she notes the way they shoot quick glances at each other. “I think it’s at the Agency. That’s -” she clears her throat. “That’s where you’re both from, aren’t you?”
“How do you -”
“I’m a Watcher. I may be a faulty one, but I’m still a Watcher.” There is a long silence, stretching into the minutes that they don’t have.
The Doctor is the first to break it. “There’s no way it’d be at the Agency. That would have to mean that they have a mole in there. A high-ranking one.”
Rose is sure. There is a feeling in her gut, like screaming truths and unravelling myths. “No. No, I’m sure it’s there. Think about it. If you’re going to destroy the Network, where else is better than in the Repository itself? It’s what you said: poetic justice.”
“She has a point, Smith.”
The Doctor’s jaw is clenched, and he has turned away from her.
“No. You’re not going in there. You’re not going back.”
She hears the unspoken words: we’re not going back.
But they are. They have to. She has to find out who she was, what happened, what is happening. What happened to them. The story lies before her, and she can almost reach out to flip the cover, to begin to read their tragic fairytale.
Harper breaks in, slamming a fist onto the table as he leaps up. “I’ve got it. I’ve got the code. It’s the fibonacci sequence and the alphabet. 4181, that’s T. 17711, W. 3, E. 89, L. 10946, V. 3, E. It’s at twelve tomorrow. This is it. We’ve got them now.” He paces, then strides across the room to the doorway. “I’m going to call the others. We’re doing this, Smith, whether you like it or not.”
The Doctor fists his hands, sighs a long, aching breath. She reaches out, strokes his cheek.
“We need to do this,” she says, and wonders when the Doctor and Rose became a we.
He raises his hand, rests it over hers. His eyes are dark, dark and swirling like the waters of the Styx, like the finality of the Rubicon.
“We do, don’t we?”
And so they begin.
(Once upon a time, in a faraway land)
She has walked this route innumerable times before, thought she cannot remember it. She knows the number of steps into the yawning chasm like she knows the back of her hand, and the sour-acrid taste of past lives unlived stain her tongue. Her heart is beating, drumming like the tattoo of machine-gun-fire, like the pitter-patter spray of dirt thrown over a freshly-dug grave.
Her hand is in his. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen. The reinforced steel doors lie ahead of them, Titans rising up from the ocean of metal that surrounds them. She wants to bolt, to run screaming and crying from this maelstrom of silence and madness.
But she doesn’t, because though she is almost mindlessly terrified and too frightened for words, she is Rose Tyler, and she has always faced her demons, even the ones she cannot remember. Ten, nine.
This is like a game, a sick and twisted game of cat-and-mouse, of kings and queens and pawns, of who-killed-who-in-what-room? The doors ahead mock them, like the entrance to an abandoned wonderland, to a rotting gingerbread house.
He tugs his hand gently from hers, and she hears the click, click of his Glock. She keeps her eyes dead ahead, never leaving the steel doors. He nudges her.
“You should check your Beretta, just to be sure.”
She swallows. Nods. He does not comment on the way her hands fumble on her gun, or on the way they tremble and shake ever-so-slightly, and she is grateful for that.
“Stick to the plan. Let me do the talking - it’ll throw him off. He’s not expecting me.”
She nods again. They have gone over this a dozen times; the steps and stages are burnt into the recesses of her mind. This is the culmination of everything they have been working towards, this is the end of the line.
Five, four -
There is a slight pause in her step, and he notices this. They stop. “Are you alright?”
No. No, she isn’t. She cannot help but feel that everything from now is a defining moment, that this will be the distinct point that will change everything forever. This here is the one event from which everything she thinks of will be relegated to before or after. On the spidery timeline of her mind, this is the epicentre, the point that everything stretches out from, like dusty webs that shiver in the wind.
She catches his eye, looks at him fully. She takes in his beautiful, tired, broken-battered face, his sad, sad eyes. She soaks in the image of him in his dusty pinstriped suit, in his long brown overcoat.
“Yes,” she replies. “Yes, I’m fine.”
He takes her hand back in his. “Ready?”
(ready or not, here we come.)
Part Twenty - Hard-boiled Vindication; Part Twenty-Two - Before the Mockingbird Weeps