Shafts of orange sunlight from the dying day cut through the chamber to strike the fan vaulting at the top of the pillars. The pillars themselves plunged impossible distances to the assembly chamber beneath, so far below that it was night there already and the traditional candles had been lit.
The young Time Lord Registrar listened with keen interest as The Recorder, one of the most distinguished of all watchers of the time-space visualiser, came to the end of his report of possible futures of the element mercury, so vital a component of the space-time capsules that only the most senior Time Lords were licensed to operate – and then to observe, record, and report on their observations, never – ever – to interfere in the affairs of the worlds that they visited.
The Recorder’s speech had lasted most of the day, but a day was no time at all to Time Lords who lived for ever. Some of the speeches in the Assembly seemed to go on for years. Some of them actually did go on for years.
“And it is no exaggeration to say, My Lords, that, thanks to our wise stewardship of the time lines, and the meticulous monitoring of my esteemed colleagues, the Second Watcher and his assistants, that we Time Lords can and will be assured of bounteous supplies of mercury for all time and all space, safely secured for us by the wisdom and experience of the ages and protected for us, by our great power, from the acquisitiveness of all inferior species. Thank you.”
The Recorder gathered her robes about her and sat down carefully. The chamber of the House echoed to murmurs of approval from the assembled Time Lords and shouts of, “Hear, hear!” Much as the young Time Lord had enjoyed the speech, she was satisfied it was over and ready for the end of the day: a ride home on her speeder, the greetings of her children, and an evening spent with her beloved documents, recently recovered from the ruins of Sol 3 in Mutters’ Spiral. She sighed with pleasure and stretched her limbs. The Speaker of the House stood and addressed the assembled Time Lords.
“Order, order,” he intoned, although the words were redundant. The only sound was that of pattings of backs and whispered congratulations. “Thus concludes the fifty thousandth and thirty third session of the Assembly this millennium. I imagine we are all eager to return to the bosom of our families, but let us not rush to the exits and let us remember the infirm.” As many of the Time Lords present inhabited elderly bodies, bodily regeneration being considered unnecessary, and altogether too much of an effort, when their duties were sedentary, the Speaker’s remarks provoked a ripple of appreciative chuckling. “Now, if there is no other business—”
“My Lords! My Lords! My Lord Speaker!” The cry rang out from the lower benches of the House. Time Lords, paused in the act of gathering their scrolls and papers, turned to each other in puzzlement and irritation. Some craned over the benches to identify the source of the disturbance. A notorious and junior Time Lord was on his feet again, tall and handsome in the red robes of the Prydonian chapter. His clear voice was full of urgency. “I must again call the attention of the House to the matter I raised in the nineteenth meeting of the livestock (overview) committee. Why has my submission still not been answered? Why—” His words were almost overwhelmed by a swelling hubbub of irritation. The young Registrar sighed. No documents for her this evening. Tempted to flounce out of the Chamber in defiance of precedent and good manners, she plumped instead for crashing back onto her seat.
Other Time Lords remained on their feet, shouting at the junior Time Lord and waving their scrolls testily. “Sit down! Sit down! Resume your seat! Some of us have got homes to go to!” The Speaker yelled back at them. “Order! Order! This disruption is most unbecoming! Mr President, sir, resume your seat!”
There was a muting of the hubbub. The Time Lords valued order and precedent above all things and, given clear instructions from the Chair, were minded to back down. Some, including the Registrar, glared murderously at the junior Time Lord, who was still standing insolently, his head held high, his chestnut hair gleaming in the candlelight. The Speaker continued:
“The junior Prydonian member will be heard.” Uproar again from members and sighs of irritation from the High Council. “Yes, I know it’s very irritating, Chancellor, but this is the precedent and these are our traditions. The junior member has a right to present his objection. Sit down, Co-ordinator. The bar will stay open for you for as long as you are thirsty.” Some laughter greeted this reference to the Co-ordinator’s fondness for Capitol port. Assuaged by the references to tradition and precedent, the Time Lords settled down – not happily, but with resignation. The junior Time Lord waited.
“Mr Prydonian Junior,” the Speaker intoned from his chair, “the floor is yours.”
The Registrar was pleased to see the junior immediately assumed an expression of humility and gratitude, although she guessed it wasn’t genuine. “Thank you, Mr Speaker. I apologise to the House for postponing the longed-for moment when fellow members can stick their heads in the feeding trough.”
Uproar again. Cries of “Withdraw!” and “How dare you!” and “What did he say?” from the assembled members. The Registrar, who thought this was actually quite funny, smirked behind her hand.
“Mr Prydonian Junior! Mr Junior sir!” the Speaker was on his feet. “Young as you are, you surely know the traditions of this House. You will address your fellow members appropriately.”
“I apologise most abjectly and sincerely, Mr Speaker,” the junior Time Lord said smoothly, “although it might be said by some that my mode of addressing the House was entirely appropriate.”
Confusion. An elderly Time Lord turned to his neighbour to ask, “What did he say?”
“Be that as it may,” the junior Time Lord continued, “I must again draw the House’s attention to the appalling scandal of the Miniscopes, which I have raised no fewer than fourteen times —”
Groans and cries of, “Not this again!” from members. The junior Time Lord battled on.
“Yes, fourteen times in committee and twice on the very floor of this august chamber. What has been done? What action has been taken?” His voice shook with indignation. “The answer is, nothing and none!”
The very notion of the Time Lords taking action about anything much brought several members to their feet, and the air rang again with cries of, “Sit down! Who cares? Let the other races sort out their own problems!” The Speaker rose again.
“Order! Order! However irksome it may be to some members, the honourable Junior Prydonian will be heard. Mr President, sir! You are a very excitable fellow. Resume your seat, sir! Mr Prydonian Junior. I beg you to be concise, sir.”
The young Time Lord bowed. “Whatever you request, Mr Speaker. I apologise again for any unintentional offence I may have caused.” He paused and, when he resumed his speech, he spoke quietly and with dignity. “My Lords, we all know of the appalling device called the Miniscope.” He knew that this wasn’t true, as many Time Lords dozed through both Assembly and committee meetings. “These machines, created by a rogue temporal engineer on an unknown planet, were distributed in their thousands across this galaxy and the galaxies beyond. They are to be found in fairs and showgrounds across the cosmos. They are machines of entertainment. The entertainment, my Lords, is based on the shameful kidnapping and miniaturisation of intelligent life forms, lifted from their own time and place and forced to play out the rest of their lives in these machines. They don’t know that they have been kidnapped and they are unaware that they are forced, by the machine’s programming, to repeat the same pattern of events over and over again.”
A Time Lord snarled from the opposite bench, “If they don’t know what’s happening to them, why is there a problem?” There was laughter and some jeers of approval.
His head held high, his back straight, the junior Prydonian waited for the jeering to subside. “The honourable Time Lord asks why there is a problem. The problem, my Lords, is many faceted. The poor creatures in the machine have been deprived of their freedom. Forced to repeat patterns of behaviour over and over again, they are often denied the basic freedoms of sleep and refreshment if the programmed behaviour cycle does not make provision for such freedoms. Owing to the unscrupulousness of the programmers, it frequently makes no such provision. The sentient, civilised beings, stolen from a thousand worlds, grow old and die as they repeat the patterns, bewildered by the decay of their bodies as they stumble through the same events, over and over again.
“What is worse, Mr Speaker, what is unforgiveable, what we, as self-appointed guardians of the time lines must not and cannot tolerate, is that these civilised beings, our brother and sister creatures of the universe, perform these antics for the pleasure of others. Yes, Mr Speaker, for the pleasure of others. For they are observed, peered at, slavered over through viewscreens by the thoughtless, bored visitors to the fairgrounds, who, for the sake of a few minutes’ diversion, part with their money to laugh thoughtlessly at the sufferings of others.”
The House was silent. The Registrar was touched. Somewhere in the archives of her brain, her conscience had been pricked. Was the love for his fellow beings that the young Prydonian spoke of, not similar in some way to her love of her own two, dear children? Inferior, of course, for how could a Time Lord love an inferior being but – nevertheless, of some kin to that love?
Evidently, some on the chamber didn’t think so. “Sentimental claptrap,” someone snarled. “If they repeat the same behaviour patterns over and over again, it’s no worse than us listening endlessly to that young man’s speeches.” It was the same Time Lord who had jeered before.
Suddenly, the young Prydonian broke into a shout. His refined tones cracked into the accent of, did the others but know it, a Cockney market trader from 20th Century Earth. “Roll up!” he bawled. “Roll up and see the monster show! Roll up and see the monster show! 50 grotzniks a peep! Watch the little earthlings go through their funny little tricks! Watch them fight and mate and fall down and get up again! Poke ‘em with a stick and watch ‘em jump! Only 50 grotzniks! ‘Ere, now, ‘ere, you, you sir” – this to the senior Time Lord who had previously barracked him – “won’t you bung me a tanner for a peep?”
The senior Time Lord snorted and folded his arms. The Registrar sighed. The young Prydonian had lost his audience again.
“Mr Junior,” the Speaker intoned wearily from his bench, “this has been a long millennium and the House is looking forward to its rest. Won’t you come to the point?”
Mr Junior bowed to the chair. “Whatever you request, Mr Speaker. My Lords, these machines are an affront to every civilised being. The Miniscope enslaves and demeans our fellow creatures. I beg to move that the Time Lords ban these machines from all of time and space. We must impound those that are in circulation, return their prisoners to their proper place in their timelines, and prevent the manufacture of further such machines. This is my motion and I commend it to this House.”
He sat down, to silence. Some of the assembly looked baffled. Some examined their fingernails. No one spoke. Then, to her own surprise, the Registrar found herself rising to her feet. She caught the Speaker’s eye and he drawled, “The Registrar.”
Stumbling over her words, the Registrar said, “Mr Speaker, My Lords. There is much truth in what the junior Prydonian member has said. I have myself been moved by his words. There is a kinship between us and the lower races, and I have some sympathy with those who argue that we have a duty of care towards those who are unable to protect themselves. I am not ashamed to say I shuddered to hear the stories of those unfortunates who find themselves trapped in these abominable machines. But, My Lords, the honourable Prydonian member goes too far. It is not, nor has it ever been, in our tradition to interfere in the affairs of other races. We archive, we gather knowledge, we observe. That is the Time Lord way. We cannot and we must not agree to the honourable member’s proposal to behave like indecorous knight errants of the timelines, riding forth from our planet to impound these machines, and thereby trample on the laws of a thousand sovereign worlds. My Lords, I move we note our disapproval of the machines and adjourn for the night.” She sat down, flushed with embarrassment, feeling, for some reason, a little ashamed of herself.
Her fellow Time Lords beamed at her. A sister archivist patted her arm and whispered, “Well said.”
The Speaker roused himself from his torpor. “The motion is to be put that the Miniscopes are impounded and their specimen life forms freed. Those in favour to say ‘aye’.”
A solitary voice in the chamber: the young Prydonian’s. “Aye.”
“Those to the contrary, ‘no’.”
A thunderous “No” from most members present.
The Speaker rattled on. “The second motion, that this House deplores and notes the use of Miniscopes and rises for the evening – yes, what is it now, Mr Junior?” This said with some testiness.
The junior Prydonian was again on his feet. “What if I were to tell you, Mr Speaker, that some of these captured specimens are Time Lords?”
Silence, disbelief, and then uproar in the chamber.
“Outrageous! Intolerable! Not to be endured! A Time Lord – several Time Lords he said – on display in a peepshow, in the gutters of the galaxy? Mr Speaker, we cannot, we will not accept this. What did he say?”
The junior Prydonian beamed, and cried, “Mr Speaker, I move that my original motion be put again to the House.”
The Registrar stood. “I second the motion, Mr Speaker.”
“The motion is that the Miniscopes are to be impounded and their imprisoned life forms freed. All those in favour to say Aye.”
A thunderous, unanimous “Aye!” rose to the vaults of the Assembly.
“All those to the contrary to say, No.”
Not a voice was raised. With some relief, the Speaker intoned, “Motion carried. The High Council to enforce the motion as passed. This House is to rise. Good evening, My Lords. A safe materialisation home.”
In general conversation, the Time Lords filed out of the chamber. The junior Prydonian sat in his place, deep in thought. He looked up as the Registrar stood nervously before him.
“Well said, Mr Junior. An impressive result.”
The Prydonian gave her a charming smile. “Thank you,” he said absently. The Registrar looked as though she was about to say something more, then nodded and left. The Prydonian brooded, his long legs stretched in front of him. A voice said,
“Nice girl, that. Well, don’t block the aisle.”
It was the Speaker. The Prydonian muttered an apology and sat up properly. The Speaker grinned. “Good win tonight, dear boy.”
“Yes, but only because I appealed to their self-interest.”
“But you did it so well! And only with a tiny lie. Come on, admit it. There never was a Time Lord imprisoned in a Miniscope, was there?”
The Prydonian squirmed. “There might have been. One day.”
The Speaker sat beside him and patted his knee, “You know, dear brother, you are getting a reputation as a bit of troublemaker. One of these days you will rock the boat once too often and come a cropper.”
The Prydonian smiled. “Isn’t that a mixed metaphor?” he said and the Speaker laughed.
“It probably is. Come on, you young crusader. The bars are still open. Let me buy you a drink.”
The two Time Lords rose and walked through the now empty chamber. The Speaker was still chatting. “You can’t bring about change overnight, you know. Much better to let policies evolve over millennia. You can’t beat them over the head with your revolutionary idealism.”
“If you can’t beat them, leave them,” the Prydonian murmured, as he and the Speaker headed towards the exit.
Sweltering beneath the twin suns of Aldebaran IV, and sweating all the more from the engine heat of the grounded cargo thrusters, Shirna adjusted her plastic dress and swore. She felt grubby, hungry, irritable, and exhausted. In her previous life as a chorus girl, she had always had a few credits to her name, her own dressing room, the companionship of her fellows and had certainly never travelled by cargo thruster. Not for the first time, she wondered what had possessed her to shack up with Vorg and to swap her life of relative comfort and security for – this. A dirty spaceport at the back end of the galaxy. She sighed and checked her wrist chronometer. Where had the old idiot got to now?
And there the old idiot was, chuckling fit to bust and pushing a cylinder half his height over the scarred concrete. He nearly ran over an Aldebaran sand lizard, which swore at him as it got out of the way. Panting, Vorg came up to her.
“There you are, Shirna, our troubles are over at last! Just as I always promised!”
Shirna was not impressed. “That’s what you said when we landed on the planet of the Ogrons. A haven of culture and refinement, you said. We had to run for our lives.”
Vorg waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, don’t go bringing all that up again. Now this little beauty,” and he tapped the cylinder so hard that its glo-screen wobbled, “will make our fortune.”
“Oh yes?” said Shirna, unimpressed. “And what is it, then?”
“This, my dear, is the miracle of miracles. A technological wonder to gain us fame from Aldebaran IV to Telos 6. And I won it in a bet! Oh, the naivety of the natives! Ha ha. They’d never seen the magnum seed and the yarrow pod trick. Remember that one? Three yarrow pods, you put the seed under the yarrow pod, move it around and—”
“Yes, Vorg, I know all about the magnum seed and the yarrow pod, I wasn’t born yesterday. Come on, tell me what this is.” She kicked the cylinder lightly with the toe of a green plastic boot.
“This, my dear, is a Miniscope. The last surviving specimen –”
Eyes wide with dismay, Shirna interrupted him. “A Miniscope, Vorg? Are you mad? These things are illegal on every Alliance world! We get caught with this, we end up doing 40 years in detention without the option!”
“Good thing we aren’t on an Alliance world then, isn’t it?” Vorg chuckled. “We keep away from the main space lanes and we’re laughing.” He turned to see a handful of mechanics and aliens gathering curiously around them. “Hello, hello, some punters. Better start the pitch…
“Roll up and see the monster show! Roll up and see the monster show! Five credits a peep! See the little aliens in their natural habitat! Play them a little tune and watch them dance…”