I'm nobody! Who are you? (capriuni) wrote in tardis_hoedown,
I'm nobody! Who are you?
capriuni
tardis_hoedown

Twist em up a tune

Someone shoved a many-times folded piece of paper into Eloise's hand, as she made her way through the crowd. She unfolded it, slowly, and glanced at the message, before reading it aloud. She wrinkled her long nose.

It seemed like gibberish to her, and for a brief moment, she was afraid that Sweetheart had opened a portal to another dimension again. But someone had written Announcement across the top in bold letters, so Eloise shrugged and announced:

Writers who have lost their comments should look in the pro_fun community, and claim them, there. Bookmarking the community is a good idea, too, if you feel you are getting lost, here.


Confused murmurs rippled through the audience.

"I don't understand it, either, folks," Eloise said, with a chuckle. "I just read em! Now, are you ready for another dance?" A few people clapped, and for them, Eloise put her fiddle to her shoulder and began to play a tune that many would have said sounded like "Turkey in the Straw":

Oh there is a story I must tell.
Went vortex surfing and it didn't go well
The time rotor sputtered and the console jumped.
I said "dey-dey!" to my bicycle pump!

Travel through space, travel through time!
Travel through space, travel through time!
Roll em up and twist 'em up a high-stepping rhyme
And twist 'em a tune called "travel through time"!


She was about to start the second verse, when the air was filled with a squeezing, wheezing noise, like an accordian with ashma and only two working keys. Her first thought was: TARDIS. Her second thought was: oh, no! not again!

Estandre must have had a similar thought, for he came dashing into the dance hall from the hallway leading back to the kitchen.

Eloise's third thought was to scan the crowd and count specific heads: Ten, Nine, Eight Four ... Three, Seven, Two, Five, One, Six. Well they were all here... so: who?

Just then, the arriving TARDIS finished its materialization -- and if she hadn't been looking in just the right spot at the right time, sshe would have missed it, too: there was a new crystal bauble hanging from the chandelier above the dessert buffet.

[OOC -- Sorry guys. I felt it was time that someone brought the plot. It's not usually me, but we've got a smaller crew, this time, I think.]
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In quick succession each Doctor noted the direction of Eloise's gaze and identified the new arrival's chamelioned disguise. "Not very practical," sniffed Second.

"Why not?" Daibhid asked.

"Well - look at it!" First harumphed.

"A real-world interface that small - how would anyone get out?" Fifth said. "There must be something wrong."

"Of course there's something wrong," said Fourth. "Would Sweetheart admit another TARDIS to the party in so unmannered a fashion unless there'd been some sort of contact and she knew there was an emergency?"

"Something wrong with the little TARDIS, you clown!" Sixth snapped. "We must figure out how to help whoever's inside -"

"Wait," called Amy, drawing the Doctors' attentions back to the chandelier-docked TARDIS.

A tiny door had opened in the side of the temporarily crystal time capsule. Precariously grasping the inside handle and teetering on the threshhold was a humanoid mouse in eighteenth-century fancy dress, all frills and buckles and a tricorner hat. He dazedly scanned the room, murmurred, "Good. Perhaps it's not too late," and fainted, dropping into one of the punch bowls.

Keria hurried over to the buffet table, grabbed a plastic cup, used it to scoop the mouse out of the punch bowl, and cradled him in her hands. "He's still alive," she said, dabbing at his soaked outfit with a napkin.

Several of the Doctors crowded around to look at him. "My word," said First.

"Where did you come from?" Fourth asked the mouse, rhetorically.

"Maybe that TARDIS adopted him," suggested Amy from directly behind the Doctors. "You know, in the same way that Eloise was adopted."

"Based on what he said," said Keria, "he must be here looking for help."

The group watched, waiting for the newcomer to wake up and tell them what was going on.

"You know," Daibhid observed to no-one in particular, "he looks like he's from out of Dogtanion. Or Willy Fogg."

"Apart from the minor fact he's not a toon," Bob the Muse observed.

Eighth grinned. "You know, there are people who look like every sort of animal you can imagine. And not all of them are toons..."

---

Eloise took a deep breath. The little TARDIS's pilot wasn't going to be able to tell them anything for a while... which meant, if she wanted to find out what was going on, she needed to ask Sweetheart.

"Sweetheart?" she said. "Are you there?"

"Yes."

Eloise startled as Maid Sweetheart, Sweetheart's human personification, appeared by her side.

"...What's going on?" Eloise said finally.

"I picked up a distress signal from his TARDIS," Maid Sweetheart answered. "She'd been seriously damaged - so seriously, she couldn't materialise in normal space-time."

The Doctors and Estandre winced, as one.

"So I let her materialise in me." Maid Sweetheart finished.

Eloise digested this. She really didn't want to know what could damage a TARDIS that badly; equally, she had a nasty feeling they were probably going to have to find out.

"What about him?" she asked, indicating the little TARDIS's pilot. "Is he all right?"

Maid Sweetheart scrutinised the little mouse.

"Exhaustion." she said finally. "He's pushed his body as far as it can go - and a bit further. As long as he gets some rest, he'll be fine-"

The mouse's eyes fluttered open.

"...Am I too late?" he whispered.

"You'll be fine." Eloise reassured him.

"Are they here?" the little mouse asked. "Was I too late?"

"...Is who here?" Eloise asked. [1]

The little mouse looked almost relieved. "Then we still have time."

He lifted himself into a sitting position. "They're coming. They came for... for her. For my Ship. They will come here.

"Stop them. Please."

"Stop who?"

The little mouse was pale, trembling, on the verge of collapse, but still he managed to get the words out.

"The Three. Stop the Three."

And he fell back into Keria's hands, out cold.

---

[1] Fortunately, the Doctors managed to resist the temptation.

"Maybe that TARDIS adopted him," suggested Amy from directly behind the Doctors. "You know, in the same way that Eloise was adopted."


Amy's words, again, caused that buzzing feeling in the back of Eloise's brain. "He's not a Time Lord, is he?" she asked Sweetheart. "I mean, he couldn't have regenerated like --"

"No," Maid TARDIS cut her off, "he couldn't. But after the Time War, there must be many TARISes who've ..." she let her voice trail off, her eyes locked with Estandre's. Of all those there, they knew, most keenly, the pain of losing each other.

All the Doctors flinched, too. But Nine and Ten seemed to shrink within themselves. Of all those there, they knew, most keenly, the pain of the Time War. Still, of them all, they were the only ones still watching Estandre, and not their fingertips, or the little mouse creature.

And Eloise knew the pain of having someone come after your TARDIS, your home. She and the Hoedowners had fought that battle. And all too recently. But, back then, they had no outside ally to turn to. This little mouse, whoever he was, would have. Eloise vowed that. Right there, and right then.
"You know," Daibhid observed to no-one in particular, "he looks like he's from out of Dogtanion. Or Willy Fogg."

"Apart from the minor fact he's not a toon," Bob the Muse observed.

Eighth grinned. "You know, there are people who look like every sort of animal you can imagine. And not all of them are toons...",


"Good point," Daibhid nodded. He took another look at the mouse's clothes, "You don't suppose he could be Reepicheep could he? I mean, Narnia's becoming a major fictiverse again..."

"Perhaps," the First Doctor said pointedly, "we should wait until he recovers before speculating, hmm?"

Bob the Muse nodded. "But if it involves the word "mouseketeer", I'm launching an official protest with somebody..."
The little traveler interrupted this conversation with a sneeze -- a tiny sound, but one that startled them all to attention. This turned into a series of coughs and splutters, as he sat up, once again, and shook himself.

There was a collective intake of breath, as everyone in the tight circle around him prepared to question him. But before any of those questions to come out, he said: "The ship. Must protect the ship from Them."

Estandre nodded. "Indeed. Leaving it out in the open, like this, it may as well be a beacon for Them." Being as tall as he was, he reached up easily, and carefully dislodged the tiny ship from the chandelier. "Beloved?" he said, I think you are the best suited to guarding this."

Maid TARDIS nodded. "I can make a pocket space for it, in my Zero Room," she said. "That should buy us a little time, at least."

Estandre nodded, and he carefully put the crystal-like TARDIS into her cupped hands. "Run a thorough diagnostic, too," he murmured in her ear. "Whatever you find could give us some vital clues on the nature of the battle ahead."

"Just what I was thinking," she murmured back. "I have a feeling she could tell us more than her poor pilot could." Maid TARDIS slipped quickly from the room.

No sooner was she gone than the Doctors and other guests around the table erupted with a babble of questions, and the little mouse-man twitched his whiskers, as he tried to answer first one question while being interupted with another.

He looked ready to fall back again, and close his eyes, when Eloise piped up: "I think, sir," she said, "that all our questions boil down to two: who are you and where do you come from?"

"I come from the Hey-Ney clan of traveling singers," he said, in a flat voice, as if he had answered the question a thousand times, "and my name --"

"So you're not a member of the king's elite guard?" Bob the Muse interrupted, the relief clear in his voice.

"No... I wouldn't know a scabbard from a scallop, I'm afraid."

"And your name?" Eloise prompted quietly.

"Arthur. ... Arthur Nonny."

There was silence for a beat and a half, as those gathered absorbed this information.

"Oh, for the love of --!" Bob the Muse said, through gritted teeth.

Eighth nudged him. "Be careful what you wish for," he said, with a wink.
Arthur looked at the crowd surrounding him, and addressed Eloise. "Might I ask the same of you?"

"I'm Eloise." Eloise said. "This is Estandre, and these gentlemen are the Doctors." She cleared her throat. "I'm afraid I can't introduce /everyone/ - we're hosting a Hoedown, and we've got a lot of guests."

Arthur's eyes brightened. "A /Hoedown/? Fantastic!"

Rose coughed pointedly. Ninth /glared/ at her.

"I'm a Pro-Fun Troll." Eloise went on. "Estandre and the Doctors are Time Lords."

Arthur's eyes widened. "But-"

"Last survivors." Ninth said coolly.

"Although Don Davies has suggested..." Second murmured.[1]

"...Time Lords," Arthur whispered. "Is this a Ship?"

"...Yes." Eloise said.

Arthur's eyes went even wider. "You have to stop them. You /have/ to!"

"Don't worry." Eloise told him. "We're not going to let them get you or your TARDIS."

Arthur stared at her. "They're not after /my/ Ship! They're after /all/ of them! /All/ the Ships!"

"_WHAT?!_" Estandre and the Doctors demanded.

"Quiet." Eloise said firmly. "All of you. Arthur doesn't need to have all of you carrying on like this."

Inside, she was petrified. She'd jumped to the wrong conclusion - she'd thought the Three - whoever /they/ were - were only after Arthur and /his/ TARDIS. That they were after /all/ the TARDISes...

A horrible thought occurred to her. How many TARDISes were here, tonight?

She forced it down - though from the looks on Estandre's and the Doctors' faces the same thought had occurred to them - and focused on Arthur. /He/ was the one who needed their help at the moment, and the one who could tell them what they were up against.

To have Sweetheart under attack again...

_No._ Eloise vowed. _I won't let that happen._

"I promise." she told Arthur. "We'll find out who the Three are, why they're hunting TARDISes, and find a way to stop them."

"Thank you." Arthur whispered softly.

Estandre nodded.

"Could you tell us what happened when the Three attacked you?" he said. "Anything we can learn may be of assistance."

Arthur nodded, and took a deep breath.

"The first thing you have to know," he said, "is that my Ship is our clan's ship. I'm her pilot.

"We travel through space and time, putting on performances wherever we go."

"Travelling minstrels..." Eighth murmured. "How very Pro-Fun."

Eloise silently agreed.

"It started..." Arthur swallowed visibly. "It started at our last port of call, back on Odrem..."

---

[1] Hinted at in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual.
"We had just finished up for the night and Susan..."

"Susan?" interrupted the First Doctor.

"My, ah, partner. Her name's Susan Donny."

"Of *course* it is," muttered Bob the Muse.

The mouse continued his story, "Susan was negotiating for a room at the spaceport's inn, when I noticed three figures at the back of the main bar. They seemed humanoid, but I couldn't make out any features. But *something* about them gave me chills.

"The others went up to bed, and I went to check the Ship was okay. Obviously we could sleep in the TARDIS, but we prefer to join the community we're performing for, if possible."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Ninth nodded.

"Well, everything seemed fine; the Ship had taken the form of an old-fashioned radio, which is one of its favourites, and I was just on the point of locking up, when I heard a voice say 'Now!', and one of the three shadowy figures grabbed me. He started looking through my pockets and said to his friends 'If the damn thing wasn't so small, we could have just gone in after him, like we did the others.'

"Then another one said 'On the other hand, we don't *need* to get in this time. A TARDIS this small, we can just carry away with us.'

"When I heard that I decided I didn't have any choice but to get the Ship away from them. So I bit the one who was holding me. That got all three of them mad, and they started swatting at me. I made it back to the Ship, but I just had enough energy left to hit the emergency homing button. I guess it took me here because there are so many..." he trailed off, as though realising what the owners of the many TARDISes already had. "Oh, dear," he said, "I hope I haven't led them here."

Bob the Muse looked at the expressions on the faces of his fellow Hoedowners. "If you *haven't*," he said, "then I suspect we'll be going after *them*."
"Excuse us a moment," Estandre told his guests, and took Eloise off into a quiet corridor.

"I think there is more to this than meets the eye," he said, "and I would be very surprised if the Doctors have not realised that too."

Eloise nodded. "Arthur didn't mention his TARDIS being damaged."

"No, and given the state he was in, I doubt he was lying. No, he was telling the truth, at least as he knew it."

Eloise winced. "Please tell me things aren't about to get subjective."

"My apologies, Eloise," Estandre told her. "I am a student of mythology, and part of that involves considering the myth's recounter, as well.

"So, if Arthur wasn't lying, how could he have missed his TARDIS's damage? How could his TARDIS have missed /alerting/ him to that damage?" Estandre scowled. "I rather suspect because his TARDIS has been /mentally/ damaged."

"...That can happen?" Eloise whispered.

"Oh yes." Estandre's scowl was dark. "It can happen. I'm sure the Doctors would tell you the same of /their/ time. It's far rarer than it is among Terrans and Gallifreyans - but it still happens."

His scowl deepened. "Damaged so badly she couldn't even /materialise/ - I think his Ship must care for Arthur and his clan very much."

Eloise blinked - she couldn't see how /that/ followed, but apparently, Estandre's quicksilver mind /had/.

"How do you mean?" she asked.

"I mean she must have put a mental filter on herself. Stopped her thoughts and feelings - as well as whatever was damaging her - from damaging /Arthur/." Estandre nodded at Eloise's horrified expression. "Oh yes. Remember, Ships and their pilots share a mental connection."

Eloise nodded, remembering when she had been Sweetheart's sole pilot.

"Remember how panicked, how stressed, Arthur was when he arrived?" Estandre continued. "I wonder how much of that was /Arthur/... and how much his /Ship/."

Eloise swallowed. "What could... what could /do/ that?"

"I can think of a number of things..." Estandre murmured. "The Time Lords almost certainly devised a number of ways to damage a TARDIS's mind... I'm not quite so sure whether the Daleks would have been capable of the same, though.

"The Nine and Ninety have come up with a number of things, too..."

Eloise nodded. She remembered the last time one of their artifacts had had free reign in Sweetheart.

"Not Those Beyond," Estandre mused. "The last I knew, the gates were still sealed, the cycle had not yet ended. An artifact of theirs, though...

"Perhaps a Power... or Powers..." Estandre caught Eloise's expression. "/We/ may think we have to deal with them far too often - unfortunately, they are under no obligation to feel the same."

Eloise nodded. Even so, she /really/ didn't want to find they were up against /another/ Power. She'd had enough of fighting the Powers to last her a lifetime.

"And finally - an unknown, a hidden player in the game." Estandre concluded. "In that case, we need to find out who they are, and what they might want.

"And put a stop to it."

Eloise shuddered. "Definitely."

"Beloved should be able to tell us more when she finishes her diagnostics," Estandre said. "For now... I think our first order of business is to get the TARDISes /here/ protected. Then, a visit to Odrem."
"That first order of business is easier said than done," she replied. "Arthur's TARDIS can be hidden in Sweetheart's Zero Room. But I seriously doubt they all could."

Estandre nodded, pinching his lower lip in that way he had when he was puzzling out a particularly knotty problem. "Each has her own Zero Room, though," he said at last.

"You mean, have each TARDIS hide in her own Zero Room -- sort of turn inside out?"

Estandre nodded.

"Like one of those cartoon vacuum cleaners, sucking itself up."

"Each TARDIS would be completely cut off from the universe," Estandre said, "and thus, invisible to the Three."

"But then, how would the Doctors, and other TARDIS pilots, get back into them later?"

"That's the rub," Estandre agreed.

Eloise shook her head. It was too big a puzzle for her to work out. She sighed. "Okay," she said. "If you think that's the best plan, I'm sure there's a way it can work . . . somehow. In the meantime, this Hoedown has a new guest. He's had a long night of performing, and a longer night of escaping the bandits. If anyone here deserves a hot meal and a mug of good ale, it's Arthur. I'll go introduce him to Walter."

Estandre nodded. "He may be able to remember more of what happened in a quiet conversation, anyway."

So while Estandre called the other TARDIS pilots into a huddle, Eloise went to tend to Arthur, who was sitting, rather befuddled, between the platter of custard tarts and the chocolate cake stand. His tricorner hat was on his lap, and he was scratching absentmindedly at his ruff, now pink and sticky with punch stains.

"Excuse me, Arthur," she said, bending down to look him in the eye, "but when you were locking up your ship for the night --"

Arthur nodded warily.

"--had you eaten, yet?"

He sighed. "No. I was just about to join the others for a late supper."

"That's what I thought," she replied. She put out her palm. "Come on," she said. "I think the first order of business is to get some hot food for your indside, and some dry clothes for your outside."

"But the Three --"

Eloise couldn't help smiling, despite the present danger. "Don't worry," she said. "Of all the hoedowns at which you could have arrived, you've come to the one with the greatest collective experience fighting evil."

"Really?" Arthur sounded doubtful.

"Really. Most of the people here know more about saving the universe than they do about do-si-doing."

Arthur sighed and climbed onto her palm. "All right. So," he asked, after a moment of silence, as Eloise carried him back to the kitchen, "How are you going to fight the Three?"

"I haven't the foggiest," Eloise admitted. "I never do. But we've always managed to figure it out, before."

"Oh."

Another uncomfortable silence followed.

Eloise knew that false despair was worse than false hope, so she changed the subject. "Excuse me," she said, "But your name seems awfully familiar. I can't put my finger on where I've heard it before, though."

"Oh," Arthur said, "the Nonny Mouses go way back. We've a long line of composers, poets, philosophers and songwriters in our family. There's my father, Albert, my great-grandfather Amos, great-great-grandfather Aluicious... all the way back to my great-to-the-two hudred and fiftieth grandfather, Akmon, in Egypt -- he was a court musician to the pharoah, or so goes the family lore."

"You mean," said Eloise slowly, her eyes widening, "that all those songs and poems attributed to 'anonymous,' though the years -- they were all really written by an A. Nonny mouse?"

Arthur nodded. "One scribe misspells your name, and it gets harder and harder to correct the mistake. Our family fortunes have been dwindling, in recent years, though. If you want to get anywhere, these days, it has to be through a legal contract. And most record producers won't do business with anyone small enough to fit in their coffee cups. That's why we've had to start traveling the universe to get a living."

"Well, when this is all over," Eloise said, to brighten his spirit, "at least you'll get a great ballad out of it, I'm sure."

Meanwhile...

Rose raised her eyebrows as the group of TARDIS pilots broke up and headed for the door - all save Estandre, who remained where he was, watching his guests.

"/You're/ looking very pleased with yourself."

"'Course." Ninth said. "'Cause we've - /I've/ - just worked out how to protect our TARDISes."

"Oh yeah?" Rose said. "How?"

"Gimme a few minutes, and I'll tell you." With that, Ninth headed for the door.

Rose and Jack looked at each other, and shrugged.

A few minutes later, there came an almighty trumpteting, as of a panicked herd of elephants over-running a bagpipe convention.

Shortly after /that/, the TARDIS pilots returned to the Hoedown, looking for all the world as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Estandre nodded, and headed off towards Sweetheart's console room.

"So what /did/ you do?" Rose said.

Ninth smiled. "Easy. Materialised each of 'em in another's Zero Room. Sort of creates a loop of TARDISes only /we/ - the pilots - can get into or out of."

Jack raised a finger. "Hold on. How do you get out of /that/?"

"Jack, Jack, Jack..." Ninth shook his head. "What, you think we're dumb enough to forget the back door?"

"It'd have to be a..." Jack paused, before breaking into a massive grin. "A multi-dimensional back door. Of course." [1]

Ninth returned the grin. "Yeah."

He clapped his hands together. "Right. Now we've got /that/ sorted out, it's off to Odrem."

---

[1] Think Gordon's trick with the book back in 'Goodnight, Sweetheart'.
"It'd have to be a..." Jack paused, before breaking into a massive grin. "A multi-dimensional back door. Of course." [1]

Ninth returned the grin. "Yeah."

He clapped his hands together. "Right. Now we've got /that/ sorted out, it's off to Odrem."


"Now, hang on a minute!" Rose said, slapping Ninth on the back of the arm hard enough to make him wince. "Not so fast! I might have to get in that back door, ya know -- in case one of you lot make a mess of it. So mind explaining to me how this 'back door' is supposed to work?"

"Too complicated!" Ninth said, brightly, as he went to find Estandre in his console room.

"Try me!" Rose demanded.

Ninth sighed. "Okay," he said. "So -- the whole TARDIS -- not just mine, but any one of them -- is just three dimensional matter folded around hyperdimensional space --"

"Right ..." said Rose uncertainly, "If you say so..."

"I say so. So -- any part of the TARDIS that's on the so-called 'inside' (say, that old roadmap you found in the library) is the basically same as any part on the so-called 'outside' (say, the main doors)."

"So if you took any part of the inside out with you, you could get back inside the TARDIS?"

"By George, I think she's got it!"

"I do?"

"Well, close enough."
---
[1] Not everyone here has read "Goodnight, Sweetheart"...
"Oh, right!" said Ace brightly. "Like him and his mobile phone?" She cocked her head to the *other* Ninth Doctor.

"*Kind* of," Tenth admitted. "Which reminds me, you might want to shut that down, mate. We don't want extra back doors cluttering up the plan, do we? Looks like your robot Master will have to sit things out for the moment."

The alternate Doctor scowled, something he was good at. "Already taken care of," he said gesturing to where the unfolded gateway into his TARDIS clearly wasn't. "I trust the rest of you won't mind *too* much if I keep the phone itself?"

"S'pose not," said Ninth. "Might even come in handy. Just as long as..."

"...I lock it in its current form, so that it can't be unfolded again?" asked the alternate, who was already running his sonic screwdriver over it. "Thank you *so* much for pointing that out."
(meanwhile, back in the kitchen)

"Well, when this is all over," Eloise said, to brighten his spirit, "at least you'll get a great ballad out of it, I'm sure."


Walter Duncan's eyes twinkled, when he saw Eloise come in with Arthur sitting in her hand. "Ah," he said, "So you're the reason I had the urge to bake some acorn bread, yesterday morning," he said, grinning toothily at the little mouse man.

"Y-you knew I was coming?" Arthur asked, uncertainly.

"Not exactly," Walter said, setting a special place for Arthur, with a perfectly sized chair, table, and dishes, on Estandre's great butcher block table in the center of the kitchen. "I never know exactly who's coming, but when it comes time to make preparations, my fingers just tingle to make certain dishes, even if they seem a little odd to me. And in never fails that each dish is perfect for someone. ... You'd like current jam with that, too?"

"Oh, yes, please!" said Arthur, his spirit already brightening.

Walter Duncan chuckled softly, and shared a knowing look with his friend Eloise. He so enjoyed it when his magic worked this well. He set a thimble-sized loaf of dark toasted acorn bread, topped with a drop of the jam, on the platter before his newest guest.

"Now, tell me," he said, pulling up a full-sized chair and sitting, himself, "how did you come in possession of a TARDIS?"

Arthur paused in mid-bite, and swallowed hastily, "How did you --?"

"Oh," Walter Duncan said, "there's just a certain air about you . . . not unlike that of a particular young green troll who appeared outside my door, one day," and he patted Eloise's hand. He couldn't help smiling as he noted the blush at the tip of her nose. "She had quite a story to tell," he went on, "and I've no doubt you do, too. And I love a good story."

"Well," said Arthur, after another bite, "it's my clan's ship, actually, but we didn't know what it was, not then, anyway." He took a third bite, swallowed, and yawned, mightily, his whole body trembling with it. When he'd recovered, he went on: "Autumn was just coming on," he said, "and we'd just lost our lodging at the inn, as we no longer had the funds," he shrugged, "musicians' fortune, you know ... so we headed out into the forest, to find a place to hibernate. Cecil, my brother, spotted it first. A hollow at the base of an old oak tree -- that's what we thought it was --"

"Until you went past the entrance, and found it was bigger on the inside?"

"Well," Arthur said, "we didn't even realize that -- not at first. We thought someone had just hollowed out a space in the earth under the tree, and filled it with strange things: switches and knobs and wires... But we were too tired to investigate much, besides searching out corners to sleep in." Another yawn shook him, brought on by the mention of sleep. "In the spring," he continued, "we woke up, and tried to find our way out, when someone must have accidently flipped a switch or pushed a button or ... something. There was a horrid great noise: creaking and sputtering and wailing, and when it stopped, we found the door, and peeked out, and we were in a whole new..." his voice trailed off, and his head dropped forward.

Walter Duncan moved the platter away just in time for Arthur's head to hit the table. The little mouse man had no more to say, beyond the soft wheezing of a snore.

Estandre stood at his console, his eyes fixed on the glyphs and mathmatical symbols scrolling rapidly across the view screen. Beloved had momemtarily left her Maid TARDIS incarnation, in order to devote as much energy and attention as possible to tending the Nonny Mouses' ship. And when she was in her "pure" machine form, she thought and communicated as a machine. The telepathic link he had with her enabled Estandre to make sense of what she was telling him, but still, it took all his concentration to keep up with her.

And all of the Doctors -- their ten regenerative forms from this universe, plus several from alternate universes, were milling about in his console room. And there was nothing Estandre could do about it -- he certainly couldn't send them back to their own TARDISes. And there was nothing, really, for them to do until they got to Odrem, except mill about, anxiously, each thinking the others were all a bit of a fool (he never had the occasion to meet any of his own prior or future selves, and after meeting the Doctors, he sincerely hoped he never would).

He hit the 'pause' button on the display, asking Beloved to give him a moment to digest all she'd been telling him, and read over the diagnosis again. As he went over it, making sure he wasn't misreading anything, the angrier he got. Most of the Nonny TARDIS's wounds were old: old war wounds, it looked like -- inflicted long before Arthur met up with The Three. A large percentage of the ship's circuitry and power source, according to Beloved's analysis, had signs of partial repair and redamage; she had clearly been hit several times while trying to repair herself. There was one piece of new damage, within the last few days -- fitting into the time frame of Arthur's story. But it was to the thermostat -- something that would be relatively minor, in ordinary circumstances. But in this case, it was the final straw; the balance had been tipped from order to chaos, and the little ship could take no more. That was probably the reason Arthur and the others of his clan never noticed the damage -- they didn't know what a fully working TARDIS could do, and they wouldn't know how to recognize damage when they saw it.

The Second Doctor started, at that moment, to toodle an odd three-note melody on his recorder, over and over.

"Doctor! --" Estandre said, exasperated, through clenched teeth.

"Oh, I'm sorry! It just helps when I am trying to puzzle something through," he said.

Estandre closed his eyes, and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "And what's that?" he asked, wearily.

"It's something Arthur said," the Second Doctor responded, "or rather something he overheard one of The Three say: 'we could have gone in after him, like we did the others.'"

Estandre opened his eyes, and studied the Doctor closely, with a new appreciation. "'The others'" he repeated, softly.

The Second Doctor nodded. "Now, of all the TARDISes who've lost their pilots, how many do you think have been lucky enough to find strangers willing to befriend and adopt them? This TARDIS was lucky to find Eloise -- and that was after millennia of aimless drifting. The Nonnies' TARDIS was lucky to find them. But what are the odds that any other TARDISes would share that luck, and so soon after the conclusion of this damned Time War?"

Estandre nodded sharply. "The odds would be infinitesimal. Which means The Three were likely at work during the Time War, following Time Lords, and stealing their TARDISes."

The Doctor nodded. "Indeed. They may be powerful warlords, or simply petty bandits, making a handy profit off the spoils of war. But in any case, I think they may be sorry the war is over."
"Hm..." Marin murmured.

"Mm, my boy?" First asked.

"As I understand the situation, we're on the trail of a band of TARDIS-thieves, am I right?"

First nodded. "Go on, go on."

"Well, the thing is... if I understood Arthur right when he arrived, he said the thieves wanted /all/ the TARDISes." Marin looked around at the Doctors. "Is that right?"

The Doctors looked at each other.

"...Yet Arthur never mentioned anything like /that/ in his evidence..." Seventh murmured. "/Other/ TARDISes, yes. All of them? No."

"Panic, perhaps." Third offered.

"Hm..." alt-Ninth said sceptically.

"Could I ask a possibly ignorant question?" Marin said.

"'Course," Tenth said.

"Does anything happen when you bring a certain number of TARDISes together?" Marin said. "It's just that it occurs to me that the thieves may be trying for something like /that/..."

"Not that /we/ know," Sixth said. "And the last /I/ knew, you could have as many TARDISes as you pleased in the same general spatial and temporal vicinity without any peculiar effects. If there /were/ any effects, I rather think we would have heard of them."

"Quite apart from the fact that it would make our hostess's parties quite impossible..." Fourth observed.

Third frowned. "Hm. Of course, it doesn't rule out the possibility someone has found a use for a 'critical mass', but it's hard to see how anyone could even work it out. Only the Time Lords would have the theoretical basis to try anything like that. With them gone..." Third's eyes glinted. "It is most certainly /not/ Estandre /or/ ourselves - and our mystery other is for Don Davies to reveal in his own time."

The Doctors nodded grimly.

"So if someone /is/ trying for a critical mass..." Third concluded, "they're doing so /without/ benefit of Time Lord knowledge."

"Oh dear..." Fifth murmured.

"And if they /don't/ want a critical mass..." Seventh said, "what are they doing with all the TARDISes?"

The look the Doctors shared spoke nothing Pro-Fun.
Estandre only half listened to the conversation among the Doctors and other guests about the possible nature and motives of The Three. He was beginning to form his own theories, but was reluctant to say them aloud, just yet, until the situation was clearer.

Tapping a few keys on the console, he asked Beloved: "Do you have the coordinates for Odrem?"

"The ship's memory is badly garbled," the reply came back, as Beloved shifted to a conversational mode. "But I've worked out the time-space signature for her last dematerialization to 79% accuracy."

"I'd prefer it to be closer to 99%," Estandre said.

"Agreed. We don't want to arrive too late, early, or on the other side of the planet," Beloved answered. "I should be able to reconstruct the proper mapping grid in ... half a Terran hour. And after that, based on Odrem's general location, it should take another two Terran hours to arrive, approximately."

"I wonder how the Nonnies managed to travel so far," Estandre mused. They could not have been in possession of the TARDIS for very long, and in order to travel, you have to know there are other destinations out there. A band of wandering minstrels would have a wider view of the world than most forest mice, but the other side of the universe? There was much more to this adventure than met the eye, and Estandre felt a welling of excitement he had not felt since his student days.

"Based on what I could make of her log," Beloved said, "I think this ship has just been drifting on the currents and eddies left behind by the Time War."

"Which would put her in the direct path of whoever's trying to profit in its wake."

"Yes. And it's pretty turbulent out here. You'd have to be a highly skilled pilot to navigate the vortex, these days, which the mice are not. And even if they were, I'm not sure she'd be strong enough to fight the tides, in her state."

"How's she doing?"

"Better. She was lucky to have been found by such a peaceful family -- she needed that, mentally. I've plugged her into my own memory core, to give her a matrix on which to model her own repairs. Given peace and quiet, and time, I think she can be fully recovered in a few days, though she will probably always have scars from the War. ... And when it's over, she and I may share certain traits."

"Such as?"

"... I do not know."

"Okay," Estandre said. "I'll leave you to your work, and be in the library."

"Acknowledged." And the communcations screen on the console went dark.

Estandre folded the screen down with a click, and headed for the history section. The Gallifrey of his own time was not yet the great imperial power it was to become, and the list of peoples who would make the Time Lords their enemies was far shorter than it was, currently. But Estandre had no doubt that the list of people willing to pay an emperor's ransom for a TARDIS, or any of its parts, was at least as long as his arm. He had some quick research to do.