The Doctor rushed through the foyer to the base of the stairs and looked up. He could faintly hear the overload mounting even from this far away. "Icha, come quickly!"
There was no response.
He yelled her name again and waited impatiently. Rose looked to him in bewilderment, and he met her wild expression. "Blimey, if I had known she was this dead to the world I wouldn't have bothered tiptoeing around! Icha! Get down here, you mangy stray!" Rose added her voice to his own, and despite their combined shouting, the Doctor still heard nothing but the distant humming.
"Doctor, what if she doesn't hear us? We can't get in that room without her!"
"I know, I know." He grimaced, knowing of one other way, but it wasn't going to be pleasant. "Here goes."
The Doctor bounded up the first few stairs, the furthest he had gone in the past. He went up further, past the point Rose had made it to before he had called her back. His eyes were on the top step, and as he approached, he suddenly lost track of it as his world became pain and screaming.
He was next aware of being lifted away from the edges of the steps by his arm. His collar was buzzing continuously, but it was no longer hurting him.
"Marwari! You know not to come up here!" Icha scolded sympathetically from just above him. "I told you what would happen. Is something wrong?"
The Doctor shook his head, attempting to clear it enough for speech. "Icha," he said, feeling strange saying her name in her presence, "You've got to come."
"What's Lily doing out of her room?" Icha asked as she peered past him down the stairs, her voice turning sour. "How did she get out?"
The Doctor growled, coming around enough to support his own weight and look Icha in the eye. "Nevermind that! Bring the key to the power room now, or we're all going to die when the generator explodes and the house collapses under the impact!"
"Just do it, Icha!" Rose piped in. "Believe it or not, he wants to save your life as well!"
Icha's eyes moved between them, her expression undecided between anger and disbelief. Finally she stood and ran, the tail of her fuzzy white robe swiping the Doctor in the face as she went.
Rose was there just beneath him on the staircase looking up at him uncertainly. He lowered himself down towards her a few steps, and his collar's vibrations ceased. He nodded towards her, and Rose moved up to help steady him. By the time they made it to the bottom, the Doctor had regained his sense of balance. Icha returned and hurried down the stairs, the ever-present remote in her right hand and a big iron loop in her left.
Relieved Icha had cooperated so quickly, the Doctor led the way as fast as he could without falling against a wall through the foyer and lounging room.
"What did you do now, Marwari?" Icha hissed.
"It wasn't me!" the Doctor retorted defensively. He thought of the Zelshae in the trap, how angry it had appeared. "Well, not in the end."
The three of them approached the door housing the unstable power unit. The whine was much louder now, and a strip of brilliant light shone out from underneath the door. In the lead, the Doctor stopped abruptly when the brightly glowing form of a Zelshae tumbled through the upper half of the door onto the floor, righted itself, then rushed back through.
The Doctor turned, and he stopped cold. Icha had almost always kept on a firm mask, and even though he had only seen it broken a handful of times, the flickers of fear he had seen before held nothing to the look of terror on her face now.
The keys clattered together as the black loop of iron hit the floor. "No! No, they can't be!" Icha pleaded, then shouted, "Leave me alone!"
Rose scooped up the keys and made for the door, but the Doctor caught her by the arm. "No, Rose, let me." He took the keys from her, not giving her time to argue. If the creatures were angry and lashed out, he didn't want Rose anywhere near them. "Icha, which key?"
Icha was staring at the door and didn't appear to hear him.
When she didn't respond, the Doctor shook her. He was used to being in control, but over the past few weeks, he had given that up to the small cat woman now in his grasp. He had come to associate Icha as a power over him, and to reverse the conditions now was unnerving as much as it was freeing.
Icha blinked and stared at him in fear. He held up the keys in front of her face. "Which one?"
"Don't open it!" Icha snatched for the keys, but the Doctor was quicker.
"Don't be thick! You saw for yourself, the door's not holding them in. We need to get in and stop them from blowing the place up!"
She appeared to follow his reasoning, but the wild look in Icha's eyes told him she wasn't thinking rationally. He grasped Icha's shoulders again and searched her eyes, forcing her to look at him. "Icha, even with this collar, I know you've put a certain amount of trust in me all this time. You know I'm capable of more than you've let on. You know I don't want to hurt you." The Doctor shifted his gaze momentarily to meet Rose's. "Not really." He stressed his point with a squeeze. "Trust me now."
Icha judged him. The generator whined louder, higher. The Doctor could feel the very air thrumming with unreleased energy. The Zelshae were sucking energy across realities, about to create enough of a vacuum in this one to make a sizable and very real fireball. Icha's eyes moved from the Doctor's to the keyring, and she pointed.
"This one," she said in a voice barely audible over the terrible noise.
The Doctor separated the key and thrust it into the lock of the power room door. Twisting the key and handle, he flung open the door and stepped back, almost against the opposite wall. Blinding light and the scream of electricity flooded the corridor, and he was forced to halfway shield his eyes.
The power unit was just inside, but he could hardly make it out through the writhing mass of glowing ghostly bodies. The Doctor was shocked to find just how many there were in such a small space. Had they all been in the house, or were they attracted somehow from the street?
He registered Rose's presence next to him and quickly put a protective arm in front of her. He could see the switch, buried beneath the Zelshae. Because they were feeding, their substance in reality was well realised, and he wouldn't be able to reach through them. Even maneuvering between them would involve touching their exoskeletons, and since they were practically plugged into the power unit, it would be like sticking his fingers into a wall socket.
In the corner of the closet next to the door was a rubber-handled broom. The Doctor grinned.
"How we gonna stop them? We can't even get close to it!" Rose yelled into his ear.
"Ye of little faith!" the Doctor shouted back excitedly. He grabbed the broom and turned it upside-down. Reaching around the door, he pulled out the ring of keys and shoved the loop through the bristles of the broom. Gripping the handle in both hands, the Doctor let out an aggressive cry and thrust the end of the broom directly towards the switch.
The broom lodged between two Zelshae. At first, nothing happened. Then the two creatures closest wailed and flinched away, pushing the other Zelshae back. At the end of the broom, the Doctor could now see the keyring, red hot.
"Ha ha!" the Doctor laughed and began circling the broom end around the switch, widening the circle. "Sunlight through a magnifying glass! Bit too much, eh?" More Zelshae screamed and moved out of its way.
"What are you?" came the hissing, scratching words.
"I'm the Doctor," he threatened, elated to have his most potent weapon back. "If you mean these people harm, that makes me your worst nightmare." The Doctor knew he had to hurry, as the keyring would soon melt through the bristles. When the creatures were completely clear of the switch, the Doctor darted in. "Power off!"
The effect was instantaneous. The spinning, whining sound dropped sharply in pitch and volume to be replaced by the angry scratching of the Zelshae. The deep rumbling and pulsations through the air died away, and the now almost transparent creatures began leaping off the power unit and flooding into the corridor.
"You will regret this!" the Zelshae hissed and spit. Icha screamed and fell against the wall, dropping into a defensive ball as the dim orange outlines of the fishy bodies galloped past her and into the lounging room.
"After them!" the Doctor yelled. He and Rose followed the Zelshae into the foyer. They were forced to stop at the front door, the now barely visible Zelshae leaping through it and out of the house.
"What are they gonna do now?" Rose asked.
"I don't know," the Doctor replied, "but apparently I'm going to regret it. Come on, we've gotta get Icha to let us out."
They backtracked into the lounging room. Icha was there, dropping onto the edge of the sofa and staring at nothing. She lowered her head and began to cry. The Doctor approached, stopping in front of her.
"Icha, the Zelshae are about to do something nasty. You've got to let us out so we can stop them."
The cat woman ignored him, absorbed in her suffering. Rose put a hand to his arm. The Doctor took a deep breath, calming himself, and crouched down before Icha to look up into her lowered face. His instinct to submit fought against his knowledge of the danger they were in and the ignorance of her species. In the end, anger won out. "Icha, look at me."
"Be quiet, Marwari." Icha sniffed, her voice hardening. "That's enough talk from you."
"What's the harm in listening?" Rose retorted. Icha's eyes flashed, challenging Rose with a glare. She remained quiet, however, and didn't shock either of them.
"She knows exactly what harm listening can be, to her and her society," the Doctor replied softly, and Icha turned her glare on him. "Listening means she has to acknowledge us as sentient beings. Equals." His voice turned bitter. "It's easier to deny the truth than to change."
Icha's glare flickered, and she dropped her eyes. Yes, she knew.
"You've seen the Zelshae before," the Doctor pressed. "When?"
Icha squeezed her eyes shut. She was very still a moment, then took in a shuddering breath and met the Doctor's gaze. Her eyes were clear and drawn, as if accepting defeat.
"Sixteen years ago," Icha said, her voice wavering. "I... lost someone."
The Doctor crouched a little taller. "Ureg. Your husband."
Tears welled in her eyes, and she nodded with a little sob. "Yes! He always worked late. One night, he came home..." Icha shook her head emphatically. "He wasn't himself. We fought. I was young, curious." She paused. "Suspicious."
"You followed him," Rose said.
Icha looked to Rose. "Yes. The next day, I watched him at the office. When the others went home and he stayed..." Fear flickered in her eyes and pulled at her words. "I never knew what they were called. Those monsters!" She stared at the Doctor, horrified. "They did to his mind what you tried to do to mine!"
The Doctor frowned. "What?" He thought back, trying to work out what she was talking about. She couldn't mean his trying to coerce her into anything. She didn't even let him speak! Unless... "Telepathy? They're telepathic?"
"He was in such pain," Icha wailed, the tears falling from her eyes. "He fell dead right in front of me!"
"Doctor..." Rose drew his name out, low in warning. He shot her a defensive look.
"What? I was only trying to disconnect her interface with the PCOS system. I wasn't gonna to kill her!"
Rose stepped up to the sofa and sat next to Icha, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. Icha looked back at her, lost and confused.
"No more games," the Doctor said, drawing Icha's attention. "We can't do this anymore, Icha. The Zelshae are very real, and this entire outpost is in danger. You know they can kill. You also know that I'm capable of stopping them, don't you?"
For a long moment, Icha just stared down at him. Her eyes shone of honesty, as if finally accepting the Doctor for what he was. She nodded.
Brilliant. The Doctor held out his hand, exuding his sympathy for her loss. "You have to give me up, Icha. I can't do this as a slave. You have to let me go."
Her face contorted and tears began to fall again. Icha pulled in a shuddering breath and looked down at the remote in her hand. "I had such plans for you, Marwari."
Icha pulled her wrist free of the strap and placed the remote in the Doctor's hand.
The Doctor's hearts swelled in sudden relief. He pressed the remote to his collar, and the ring of metal clicked and fell open, dropping to the floor. He got to his feet with a deep breath and grasped the hoop around Rose's neck, unlocking it and pulling it free. Rose grinned happily.
Icha looked up at him with a pained expression from the sofa. The Doctor pulled her to her feet and enveloped her in a hug. Icha clung tightly to him and began to sob into his shoulder. Rose looked to Icha in pity and met the Doctor's eyes. She then stood and hugged both of them.
"Shh, shh, shh, it's all right," the Doctor soothed. He waited until she stilled somewhat and drew her away. The fur of her cheeks was matted with her tears. "I need you to be strong, now. We've got to catch up the Zelshae and stop them before they hurt anyone else."
"They're long gone, though," Rose said. "How would we know where to look?"
"Isn't it obvious? Where did they go to escape me the first time?"
"The generator." Rose's eyes widened. "My God, they're going to Zel Power?"
"It's a long way to run. We've got to get going. Icha, you've got to open the door for us."
"Hold on," Icha said and sniffled, some strength returning to her voice. She hurried into the foyer, but instead of unlocking the door, Icha ran upstairs.
The Doctor stood at the base of the steps, bewildered. After half a minute, he complained, "What's she doing?"
"Dunno," Rose said. "Maybe we should go up and find out."
He looked at Rose in surprise. "Right! I forgot!" He grinned like a loon and ran up the stairs, Rose following closely behind. Sure enough, nothing held them back, and the Doctor felt dual flutters of excitement in his chest.
The ceiling was lower than that of the floor below, but from what he could tell the floor was just as wide. Hallways curved to the side in both directions just off the landing, following the circular wall of the lounging room's upper half just below its dome. He led Rose down the left, passing many closed doors. Before he came halfway around, he stopped short as Icha stepped out from behind a door. She squeaked in surprise.
"You're not allowed up here!" Icha scolded.
"Oh, get over yourself. You wasted time changing?" he said incredulously, looking Icha up and down.
"I'm not about to go out in my robes, am I? Besides, you need this." Icha held up a key. A very modern key.
"Since when do you have a hover car?" he rebuked.
Icha frowned. "Since always!"
"And you never use it? Where is it? What about the party at Zel Power? We walked the whole way!" The Doctor nodded downward. "No trainers, thank you very much!"
"I don't know how to drive! It's Ureg's, been keeping it in the back shed. I'm not in the habit of letting pets drive!"
"Do you mind?" Rose interrupted crossly. "God, it's no wonder she shut you up. Can we get on with saving the world?"
Icha's hover car rocketed down the street. Only a few other cars were out in the predawn light, all heading towards the center of town. The Doctor laid on the horn, swerving around a slow-moving early riser.
"Can you drive anything?" Rose complained.
"Oi, do you know how long it's been since I've driven a hover car?" the Doctor defended. "This one doesn't even have lateral stabilisers!" They sailed down the hill and quickly reached the center of town. The Doctor pulled the car to an abrupt halt outside Zel Power's main entrance and jumped out.
"Marwari! You're going to get my car towed!"
"Now is not the time to bother with the car park!" the Doctor shot over his shoulder. "And I'm not Marwari. From now on, call me 'the Doctor' like everyone else."
"Doctor who?" Icha asked, but he was already passing through the door.
The lighting within the atrium was low. The last time the Doctor had been here, the room had been full of people. He could hear and feel the powerful vibrations of the power system, whether it sounded louder due to its distress or the lack of people, he didn't know. The echoes of Icha's footfalls accompanied the hum as she and Rose followed the Doctor across the cavernous expanse towards an inner door on the opposite side. He noted the pass card entry security system and grumbled softly about needing his psychic paper, or even settling for his sonic screwdriver.
As they approached, the door opened and a black-furred man stepped out. He started when he saw the Doctor bearing down on him. The Doctor recognised him from the night of the party as the speaker. The man's surprise turned to shock when he looked to the Doctor's neck and saw no collar. "Where is your handler?" the man demanded. He peered behind the Doctor and saw Icha. "Ms. Nubien?" he said incredulously.
Icha made to open her mouth, but the Doctor interrupted dismissively. "Yeah, she's with me. I'm the Doctor, by the way. Sorry, didn't catch your name."
The slightly shorter man stared at the Doctor a moment and peered around him again. "Icha, what's the meaning of this? Why isn't he collared?"
"Mr. Drewsen, I--"
"Drewsen, lovely!" the Doctor announced. He got up into the cat's face, watching every whisker for his reaction. "Are you aware a horde of Zelshae are streaming in, intent on overloading Zel Power's generator?"
He couldn't see Drewsen turning pale through all the fur, but the man exhibited every other sign of discomfort. "I can't say I know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, thought as much." The Doctor pointed a line from the outer door to the inner door, across the floor. "They're probably running through right past us, right now if they're not already all in there, and they're not very happy with me."
"This is preposterous!" Drewsen roared.
"Are you the man in charge?" the Doctor challenged, making a show of suspicion. "Because if you're not, I'd really appreciate you taking me to the one in authority."
Drewsen straightened. "This is my plant. My city." His expression hardened. "And I don't tolerate meddlesome slaves, even if it's just one of Ms. Nubien's latest experiments in control!"
"I've released him!" Icha exclaimed, and all eyes turned to her.
"What? You can't just release a slave!"
"Well, I have," Icha insisted, looking a bit uncomfortable as it seemed to sink in for her as well. "I saw the dreaded creatures myself. Ma--" She corrected herself and met the Doctor's eyes. "The Doctor's telling you the truth."
The Doctor turned to Drewsen, who was now silent and more receptive. "There you have it. You can't deny knowledge of the Zelshae. You've been feeding them for years from this place." When the black cat made to argue, the Doctor interrupted crossly. "Oh, come on, Drewsen! You oh so cleverly displayed your deformed excuse for a system on the viewer at the appreciation dinner. It wouldn't be designed in such a way if not to purposefully leak energy! No one objected, which means they're all in on it or they're not scientists, and I'm betting it's the latter. When were you going to tell them what it all meant? How long did you think you could keep it quiet?"
Icha turned a shocked expression on Drewsen, and his face slackened. She pleaded him with her eyes. "What's he talking about, Mr. Drewsen? Are we in danger?"
"It doesn't make sense, Doctor," Drewsen said in a much less aggressive tone. "The Zelshae wouldn't overload the generator! It would be suicide!"
"Nevermind that." The Doctor pointed past Drewsen. "I'm getting through that door, with or without your help. Either you're with me or step aside."
Drewsen bristled, defensive. "I will not allow such talk! Whoever you are, you have no right!"
The Doctor forcibly calmed himself. "Forgive me Mr. Drewsen, but there's no time for proper etiquette. The Zelshae are scared and probably unpredictable. I'd much rather have your support in this." His voice rose in volume until he was almost shouting. "Either way, I have to stop the Zelshae from wiping this settlement off the face of Paurin in the form of a very large blackened crater!"
Drewsen stared at him for a moment, assessing his sincerity. He then huffed and turned. The Doctor followed him, glancing behind himself to share a look with Rose and briefly Icha.
The black-furred man swiped his pass card. The door obliged him and clanked noisily as the heavy hardware pulled open the sealing mechanism. The four of them charged down the corridor beyond, Drewsen in the lead.
"I do what they tell me," he grumbled. "I've done what they've said all my life. Decades! And how do they repay me? More, all they want is more! And now they're going to throw it all away?"
They passed several doors. Large endoglass panels revealed laboratories and offices, sparsely populated at such an early hour. As they neared the end of the long hallway, the ever present humming of the station grew louder--apparently abnormally so, as Drewsen picked up his pace. He quickly swiped his card, and as the heavy door opened, the deep rumble mounted in intensity, vibrating in the Doctor's ears and chest.
The bulk of the four-valve plasma fission's reactor filled the center of the five-story chamber. The floor had been modified and dropped away all around it, converted into a multi-landing setup making way for its growth down into the ground. The Doctor could see another landing across the way and below.
The generator's housing was completely enveloped by the glowing forms of the Zelshae.
"Santori's grace," Drewsen's uttered, barely audible over the drone.
The Doctor stepped forward. "Speak to me, Zelshae!" His voice echoed off the chamber walls.
He flinched. The combined volume of their scratchy, untested voices overpowered even the heavy thrum in the air.
"I know you don't want to do this. I don't want to destroy you, but you've got to stop interfering with these people. It's not the catkind's natural way to enslave other species."
There was a pause. Luminescent bodies skittered over the generator. "CAT... KIND... DO NOT SEE."
"Can't see you so well, worked that out, yes. What I don't understand is what influenced you to prey on them. Was it the Time War?"
There was another pause. "CAN NOT SPEAK... YOUR SPEECH. SHOW... YOUR MIND."
The Doctor stared up at the Zelshae, then nodded, steeling himself. "Fine, do it."
The four of them waited, watching. The Doctor was about to speak again when a glowing Zelshae leapt to the deck from floor level and crawled towards them. It looked smaller than the ones at Icha's house, and as it got closer, it began to visibly dull and fade. By the time it had reached the Doctor, it was hardly a dull orange outline.
"Doctor!" Rose called.
The Doctor held out a hand, alarmed, and the little Zelshae raised its two front legs, pointed like a spider's. "Hold on. How can I trust you? Be sure you won't harm me?"
"Show..." The fading Zelshae bobbed its front legs at him. Its voice was disappearing with its visibility. "Mind..."
"Doctor, what if it's a trap?"
The Doctor curled his lip, his mind racing. "I've got to try, Rose." He looked to her. "They fear me. I've got to give them a chance."
Rose gazed back at him, worry clear on her features, but she didn't protest. She knew he was right, knew he couldn't have it any other way.
He turned back to the Zelshae, but it was gone. No, of course it wasn't. It was there, now invisible, waiting for him. "All right," he consented, speaking to the space he had last seen it. He lowered himself to his knees, his jaw clenching nervously and his hearts thundering in his chest.
"It can't see you anymore," Drewsen said. "I have to be touching the generator for it to speak to me."
"DOCTOR," the cumulative voices from above spoke, and he looked up. "ZELSHAE FIND YOU BY YOUR POWER."
Of course. The Doctor looked to Rose, remembering how they had drawn the Zelshae in together. Closing his eyes, the Doctor tapped the flame inside of him. He breathed in deeply, burning just at the fringes for something the Zelshae could feed from.
Something solid and pointy pressed on his chest.
The Doctor opened his eyes. His inner energy arced up the Zelshae's leg and rippled over its form, conducting over its entire exoskeleton in its visible blue heat. Its other foreleg rose and touched his forehead, and he could feel the Zelshae probing into his mind. The Doctor shut his eyes and let it in.
Images began flashing before his mind's eye: Zelshae as far as he could see feeding from a herd of beasts; a temporal event racing across the sky; beasts falling dead, cold, powerless; hunger, no power to feed from anywhere; a long journey, cold and weak, mates fading out of existence in death; a bright world in the distance; heat, ravaging into it in desperation; catkind presenting themselves as suitable to control, manipulate.
The Doctor saw faces, snatches of words: people attempting to call out for help from their planet; the Zelshae hyper-stimulating power sources, even nervous systems in fear; Zelshae touching minds of catkind who begged them for mercy; Zelshae running in packs, herding every other species; Zelshae working with catkind to ensure their survival, persuading them to enslave the lesser races; hiding, being forgotten.
The little Zelshae learned of the Doctor, too. He projected his sincerity to the creature, his desire to save their species despite the harm they had inflicted. Their only fault in damaging the timeline was in an attempt to survive extinction they weren't yet meant for. If anything, due to his hand in the Time War, the fault was his. He assured the Zelshae he was capable of helping them, restoring them, but he could feel the Zelshae's anger.
Their balanced thread of communication began to tip. The Doctor panted with the exertion of maintaining control. "No," he whispered. The Zelshae was fanning the embers he had offered it to stay linked, and the Doctor started to burn uncontrollably from within. "No, don't!"
The more he resisted, the more eagerly the Zelshae seized dominance over him. His significant mental capacities were useless in fending it off as it clung viciously to his lifeline.
The Doctor cried out helplessly. He had trusted himself to a parasite and was powerless to stop the Zelshae from burning through his regenerative energy, straight through every last life he had left.