Jun 28 2012 10:00am
Please enjoy this excerpt of Doctor Who: Shada, a novel by Gareth Roberts, based on the lost tale by Douglas Adams. It’s out now from Ace Books!:
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing Imagine how dangerous a LOT of knowledge is...
The Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord Professor Chronotis has retired to Cambridge University, where among the other doddering old professors nobody will notice if he lives for centuries. He took with him a few little souvenirs—harmless things really. But among them, carelessly, he took The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey. Even more carelessly, he has loaned this immensely powerful book to clueless graduate student Chris Parsons, who intends to use it to impress girls. The Worshipful and Ancient Law is among the most dangerous artifacts in the universe; it cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
The hands of the sinister Time Lord Skagra are unquestionably the wrongest ones possible. Skagra is a sadist and an egomaniac, bent on universal domination. Having misguessed the state of fashion on Earth, he also wears terrible platform shoes. He is on his way to Cambridge. He wants the book. And he wants the Doctor...
Chris Parsons felt that time was passing him by, and also that time was running out on him. How time could be doing both of these things to him at the same time, he didn’t have time to wonder.
For a start, he was twenty-seven. Twenty-seven!
Over the years he had noticed a disreputable tendency in himself to age at the rate of approximately one day per day, and now, as he cycled the short distance from his flat to St Cedd’s College on this unusually sunny Saturday afternoon in October, he could already feel another day heaving itself up onto the pile.
The old streets and the even older university buildings, tall and stony with their grey-mullioned windows and effortless beauty, seemed to mock him as he cycled by. How many hundreds of young men had passed through these institutions, studying, graduating, researching, publishing? Now all of them were dust.
He’d come up to Cambridge as a fresh-faced grammar-school boy nine years ago, and flown through his physics degree without much conscious thought at all. Physics was the one thing he could do well. Now he was engaged in a long and very occasionally exciting postgraduate struggle with sigma particles. He could predict the exact rate of decay of any sigma particle you cared to mention. But today even Cambridge, which he loved but had come to take as much for granted as the sun rising in the morning, seemed to add to his own inner feeling of decay. He often wondered if there was anything much left to be discovered in his field of research. Or, for that matter, any other. The modern world seemed unrecognisably futuristic to him sometimes. Videotape, digital watches, computers with inbuilt memory, and movie special effects that had made Chris, at least, believe a man could fly. How could things get any more advanced than that?
He passed a gaggle of freshers, who were to a man and woman kitted out in short hair and drainpipe trousers. How had this happened? Chris’s own undergraduate days had been spent in the flared denims and flowing hair that he still favoured. He had been a member of the younger generation, the generation that was going to change everything, for ever and completely. There couldn’t be another one, not yet, not before anything much had changed for ever and completely, it wasn’t fair. For heaven’s sake, in a few months it was going to be the 1980s. The 1980s were clearly far in the future and they had no business turning up until he was ready.
Yes, time was passing him by in general. But it was running out on him in a much more specific way.
Clare Keightley was leaving Cambridge on Monday.
She’d got a job at some research institute in the States and worked out her notice at the university. Three short days added to the pile and then he would never see her again, never get the chance to start another conversation. They talked rather a lot, saw each other rather a lot, and Chris despaired at the end of each encounter. Whenever they met, and much more of late, Chris felt that Clare had the air of waiting for him to say something obvious and important, but for the life of him he couldn’t work out what it was. Why did she have to be so intimidating? And why did he have to be so in love with her?
Still, he had concocted one last shot, one final chance to impress her, one final excuse to talk to her, where she’d be so overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness that she might, finally, at long last, just tell him what she wanted to hear him say. That was why he was now turning through the ancient stone archway and into the impressive forecourt of St Cedd’s College.
Chris parked up his bike among the rows of similar vehicles that acted as the students’ free and endlessly swappable transport system. He took a scrap of paper from his satchel. Prof Chronotis, Room P-14. He looked around for the porter, but he must have been off on his rounds, so Chris collared two of the less outlandish undergraduates in the quad – one of them was wearing a Jethro Tull T-shirt, thank God – and they directed him to a door set in an ivy-covered corner.
Chris was very much wrapped up in his own thoughts and concerns about Clare, the passage of time etc., as he headed down the narrow wood-panelled corridor towards Room P-14, but a small corner of his inquiring mind couldn’t help but wonder at the oddness of the architecture around here. It looked very much as if the corridor should have ended at Room P-13, but there was a buttress, a corner and a small extension down to P-14. That was all very well, because many of the university buildings were a patchwork of renovations and extensions, but the really curious thing about this particular one was that there was no obvious discontinuity. It was as if the extension had been built at exactly the same time as the building it was the extension to. This puzzled Chris on a deep, subconscious level that his conscious mind didn’t even really notice. He did, however, notice a persistent very low electrical hum that seemed to grow louder as he approached the door marked P-14 PROF CHRONOTIS. The wiring in these old buildings was a disaster, probably installed by Edison himself. Chris half braced himself for an electric shock as he reached for the knocker and rapped smartly on the door.
‘Come in!’ called a distant, scratchy voice. He recognised it immediately as Chronotis, even though they had met only once before, and very briefly.
So Chris came in, navigated a cluttered little vestibule bulging with hats and coats and boots, and pushed open an oddly sturdy wooden inner door. He found himself in a large, oak-panelled room dotted about with ancient furniture, though for a moment it was hard to make out the panels or the furniture as every available surface, and several that weren’t available at all, was covered with books. Every wall was lined with bookshelves, books jammed in two-deep and other books thrust on top, filling each shelf to bursting. Books covered the sofa, the chairs, the tables. They tottered in ungainly piles on the carpet, some at waist height. Hardbacks, paperbacks, folios, pop-up books, all creased and dog-eared and teacup-stained, some of them with spines folded back at a particular place, many annotated with torn pieces of paper, and none of them seeming to relate to its neighbour in subject, size, age or author. The Very Hungry Caterpillar lay next to a dusty Georgian treatise on phrenology.
Chris boggled. How the heck could anyone get through this amount of books? It would surely take you several lifetimes.
But extreme as this case might be, Chris was used to the eccentricities of the older Cambridge dons. He even tried not to react to the other, really much more peculiar thing that stood on the other side of the room.
It was a police box.
Chris hadn’t seen one in years, and had certainly never expected to see one here. They had been a familiar sight on the street corners of London during his childhood trips to the capital. Like all of its kind this one was tall, blue, battered and wooden, with a light on top and a sign on the door, behind which there was a phone. The really peculiar thing about this one, on top of it just being there at all, was that around its base were the edges of several flattened books, as if it had somehow been dropped into the room from a great height. Chris even looked up at the low rafters of the ceiling to check that this hadn’t in fact happened. And there was no way it could have been squeezed through the front door.
The voice of Professor Chronotis carried through from a door that presumably led to a kitchen.
‘Excuse the muddle. Creative disarray, you know!’
‘Er, right, yes,’ said Chris. He carefully ventured further into the room, skirting the piles of books that looked the most dangerous. How was he going to find what he wanted in this lot?
He waited for the Professor to emerge from his kitchen.
He didn’t. ‘Er, Professor Chronotis?’ he called.
‘Tea?’ came the reply.
‘Oh, yes, thanks,’ said Chris automatically, though in fact he wanted to get away from all this strangeness and back to thinking about his own more important issues as soon as possible.
‘Good, because I’ve just put the kettle on,’ said Chronotis as he emerged from the kitchen and into the room, navigating the dangers unthinkingly.
After their one brief meeting a couple of weeks ago, Chris had mentally filed the Professor away as just another Cambridge eccentric, indulged and isolated by decades of academia. He had forgotten how memorable a person Chronotis was. And that was another irritating strangeness, Chris thought, because you can’t forget memorable people. Chris decided he must have been really, incredibly wrapped up in himself to forget Chronotis.
He was a little man, somewhere in his eighties, in a dishevelled tweed suit and tie, with a heavily lined face, a shock of white hair, scruffy beard and half-moon spectacles over which peered kindly, penetrating black eyes.
Kindly and penetrating, thought Chris. You can’t have eyes that are kindly and penetrating.
‘Er, Professor Chronotis,’ he said, determined to get things back to normal, ‘I don’t know if you remember, we met at a faculty party a couple of weeks ago.’ He extended his hand. ‘Chris Parsons.’
‘Oh yes, yes!’ said the Professor, pumping his hand enthusiastically, though it was abundantly clear that he didn’t remember at all. He squinted up at Chris a little suspiciously. ‘Enjoy these faculty shindigs, do you?’
Chris shrugged. ‘Well, you know. I don’t think you’re actually supposed to enjoy them—’
‘A lot of boring old dons, talking away at each other,’ huffed the Professor.
‘Yes, I suppose you could—’
‘Never listen to a word anybody else says!’
‘Yes, well, that night you said that—’
‘Talk talk talk, never listen!’
‘No, indeed,’ said Chris. ‘Well . . .’
‘Well what?’ said the Professor, staring at him with a look that was more penetrating than kindly.
Chris decided to humour him. ‘I do hope I’m not taking up any of your valuable time.’
‘Time?’ the Professor laughed. ‘Time! Don’t talk to me about time. No no no. When you get to my age, you’ll find that time doesn’t really matter very much at all.’ He looked Chris up and down and added, a little sadly, ‘Not that I expect you will get to my age.’
Chris wasn’t at all sure how to take that remark. ‘Oh really?’
‘Yes,’ said the Professor, looking into the distance. ‘I remember saying to the last Master of College but one, young Professor Frencham—’ He stopped himself. ‘Though hang on a minute, was it the last Master of College but two? It may even have been three . . .’
Chris frowned. The term of a Master of College seemed to last on average about fifty years. ‘Three?’
‘Yes, nice young chap,’ said the Professor. ‘Died rather tragically at the age of ninety. What a waste.’
‘Ninety?’ queried Chris.
Chronotis nodded. ‘Run over by a coach and pair.’
‘What was it you said to him?’ asked Chris.
Chronotis blinked. ‘How am I supposed to know? It was a very long time ago!’
Chris decided to put this aside. He wanted to get out of this strange humming room, far away from all its peculiarities and the peculiarities of its owner. ‘Right, yeah. Professor, when we met you were kind enough to say that if I dropped round you would lend me some of your books on carbon dating.’
‘Oh yes, happy to,’ nodded the Professor.
Suddenly a high-pitched whistle emanated from the kitchen. The Professor jumped and clutched at his heart, then clutched at the other side of his chest. ‘Ah,’ he said, relaxing, ‘that’ll be the kettle.’ He bustled round the piles of books towards the kitchen, calling back to Chris, ‘You’ll find the books you want at the far right of the big bookcase. Third shelf down.’
Chris sidled past the police box, trying not to think about it too much, and scanned the shelf the Professor had indicated. He pulled out a book, a slim leather-bound volume with an ornate scroll design, sort of Celtic but not really, picked out in gold on the front. He flicked it open and saw row after row of symbols, hieroglyphs or mathematical formulae.
And suddenly, for no reason that he could fathom, Chris was overwhelmed by a sensory rush of memory. He was seven years old, sat on his grandfather’s lap in the back garden at Congresbury, listening to cricket on the radio, the voice of Trevor Bailey, bees buzzing in the garden, the tock of willow on leather, jam sandwiches and orange squash. So long ago . . .
The Professor’s voice, echoing from the kitchen, called him abruptly back to the present. ‘Or is it the second shelf down? Yes, second, I think. Anyhow, take whatever you like.’
Chris examined the second shelf and saw the titles Carbon Dating at the Molecular Level by S.J. Lefee and Disintegrations of Carbon 14 by Libby. Yes, these were the ones. This was the stuff that would impress Clare, give him that excuse for one more conversation.
‘Milk?’ called Chronotis from the kitchen.
‘Er – yes please,’ Chris called back, distractedly hunting the shelf for more Clare-impressing material.
‘One lump or two?’
‘Two please,’ said Chris absently, grabbing another couple of books from the shelf and stuffing them into his satchel.
‘Sugar?’ called Chronotis.
Chris blinked. ‘What?’
The Professor emerged from the kitchen, carrying two cups of tea. ‘Here you are.’
Chris, his mission accomplished, realised he didn’t have to tolerate any of this strangeness any longer. ‘Oh, actually, Professor, I’ve just realised I’m going to be late for a seminar,’ he lied, checking his watch. ‘I’m terribly sorry.’ He indicated his satchel, now bulging with books. ‘I’ll bring these back next week, if that’s all right?’
‘Oh yes, yes, whenever, take as long as you like,’ said the Professor. He took a noisy slurp of tea from each cup. ‘Goodbye, then.’
Chris nodded. ‘Goodbye.’ He made for the door – but found that he couldn’t go without asking one question, to try and clear up the strangeness in at least one of its respects. ‘Er, actually, Professor, can I just ask you, where did you get that?’
He nodded towards the battered old police box.
The Professor peered over his half-moon spectacles at it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I rather think that someone must have left it there when I popped out this morning.’
Chris didn’t know what to say to that. He muttered ‘Right’ and let himself out, glad to be away from the strangeness of that room.
Nothing in his twenty-seven years had prepared him for the last five minutes. If anything, there’d been too much time in that room. It was oozing with time, covered in big dollops of time. And police boxes, and humming, and kindly and penetrating eyes and last Masters of College but three, and there was altogether too much of it all.
He was glad to be back in the real world. Back to the real, important business of Clare and impressing her. He selected a sturdy-looking bike from the available selection, climbed onto it and slung his satchel over his shoulder.
Chris had no idea that inside his satchel was the strangest, most important and most dangerous book in the entire universe.
Doctor Who: Shada © Gareth Roberts (Story: Douglas Adams) 2012